Hilda Lessways, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 5

Edwin Clayhanger

i

The next evening, Mr. and Mrs. Orgreave, Hilda, Janet, and Alicia were in the dining-room of the Orgreaves awaiting the advent at the supper-table of sundry young men whose voices could be heard through open doors in the distance of the drawing-room.

Charlie Orgreave had won his bet: and Edwin Clayhanger was among those young men who had remained behind in the drawing-room to exchange, according to the practice of young men, ideas upon life and the world. Hilda had been introduced to him, but owing to the performance of another Beethoven symphony there had been almost no conversation before supper, and she had not heard him talk. She had stationed herself behind the grand piano, on the plea of turning over the pages for the musicians (though it was only with great uncertainty, and in peril of missing the exact instant for turning, that she followed the music on the page), and from this security she had furtively glanced at Edwin when her task allowed. “Perhaps I was quite mistaken last night,” she said to herself. “Perhaps he is perfectly ordinary.” The strange thing was that she could not decide whether he was ordinary or not. At one moment his face presented no interest, at another she saw it just as she had seen it, framed in the illuminated aperture of the shop-shutters, on the previous night. Or she fancied that she saw it thus. The more she tried to distinguish between Edwin’s reality and her fancies concerning Edwin, the less she succeeded. She would pronounce positively that her fancies were absurd and even despicable. But this abrupt positiveness did not convince. Supposing that he was after all marvellous among men! During the day she had taken advantage of the mention of his name to ascertain discreetly some details of the legendary feat by which as a boy he had saved his father’s printing-shop from destruction. The details were vague, and not very comprehensible, but they seemed to indicate on his part an astounding presence of mind, a heroic promptitude in action. Assuredly, the Orgreaves regarded him as a creature out of the common run. And at the same time they all had the air of feeling rather sorry for him.

Standing near the supper-table, Hilda listened intently for the sound of his voice among the other voices in the drawing-room. But she could not separate it from the rest. Perhaps he was keeping silence. She said to herself: “Yet what do I care whether he is keeping silence or not?”

Mr. Orgreave remarked, in the suspense, glancing ironically at his wife:

“I think I’ll go upstairs and do an hour’s planning. They aren’t likely to be more than an hour, I expect?”

“Hilda,” said Mrs. Orgreave, quite calm, but taking her husband quite seriously, “will you please go and tell those young men from me that supper is waiting?”

ii

Of course Hilda obeyed, though it appeared strange to her that Mrs. Orgreave had not sent Alicia on such an errand. Passing out of the bright dining-room where the gas was lit, she hesitated a moment in the dark broad corridor that led to the drawing-room. The mission, she felt, would make her rather prominent in front of Edwin Clayhanger, the stranger, and she had an objection to being prominent in front of him; she had, indeed, taken every possible precaution against such a danger. “How silly I am to loiter here!” she thought. “I might be Alicia!”

The boys, she could now hear, were discussing French literature, and in particular Victor Hugo. When she caught the name of Victor Hugo she lifted her chin, and moved forward a little. She worshipped Victor Hugo with a passion unreflecting and intense, simply because certain detached lines from his poems were the most splendid occupants of her memory, dignifying every painful or sordid souvenir. At last Charlie’s clear, gay voice said:

“It’s all very well, and Victor Hugo is Victor Hugo; but you can say what you like — there’s a lot of this that’ll bear skipping, your worships.”

Already she was at the doorway. In the dusk of the unlighted chamber the faces of the four Orgreaves and Clayhanger showed like pale patches on the gloom.

“Not a line!” she said fiercely, with her extremely clear articulation. She had no right to make such a statement, for she had not read the twentieth part of Victor Hugo’s work; she did not even know what book they were discussing — Charlie held the volume lightly in his hand — but she was incensed against the mere levity of Charlie’s tone.

She saw Edwin Clayhanger jump at the startling interruption. And all five looked round. She could feel her face burning.

Charlie quizzed her with a word, and then turned to Edwin Clayhanger for support. “Don’t you think that some of it’s dullish, Teddy?”

Edwin Clayhanger, shamefaced, looked at Hilda wistfully, as if in apology, as if appealing to her clemency against her fierceness; and said slowly:

“Well — yes.”

He had agreed with Charlie; but while disagreeing with Hilda he had mysteriously proved to her that she had been right in saying to herself on the previous evening: “I like him.”

The incident appeared to her to be enormous and dramatic. She moved away, as it were breathless under emotion, and then, remembering her errand, threw over her shoulder:

“Mrs. Orgreave wants to know when you’re coming to supper.”

iii

The supper-table was noisy and joyous — more than usually so on account of the presence of Charlie, the gayest member of the family. At either end of the long, white-spread board sat Mr. and Mrs. Orgreave; Alicia stood by Mr. Orgreave, who accepted her caresses with the negligence of a handsome father. Along one side sat Hilda, next to Janet, and these two were flanked by Jimmie and Johnnie, tall, unbending, apparently determined to prove by a politely supercilious demeanor that to pass a whole evening thus in the home circle was considered by them to be a concession on their part rather than a privilege. Edwin Clayhanger sat exactly opposite to Hilda, with Charlie for sponsor; and Tom’s spectacles gleamed close by.

Hilda, while still constrained, was conscious of pleasure in the scene, and of a certain pride in forming part of it. These prodigal and splendid persons respected and liked her, even loved her. Her recitation on the previous evening had been a triumph. She was glad that she had shown them that she could at any rate do one thing rather well; but she was equally glad that she had obtained Janet’s promise to avoid any discussion of her qualities or her situation. After all, with her self-conscious restraint and her pitiful assured income of three pounds a week, she was a poor little creature compared with the easy, luxurious beings of this household, whose upkeep could not cost less than three pounds a day. Janet, in rich and complicated white, and glistening with jewels at hand and neck, was a princess beside her. She hated her spare black frock, and for the second time in her life desired expensive clothes markedly feminine. She felt that she was at a grave disadvantage, and that to remedy this disadvantage would be necessary, not only dresses and precious stones, but an instinctive faculty of soft allurement which she had not. Each gesture of Janet’s showed seductive grace, while her own rare gestures were stiffened by a kind of masculine harshness. Every time that the sad-eyed and modest Edwin Clayhanger glanced at Janet, and included herself in the glance, she fancied that he was unjustly but inevitably misprising herself. And at length she thought: “Why did I make Janet promise that I shouldn’t be talked about? Why shouldn’t he know all about my mourning, and that I’m the only girl in the Five Towns that can write shorthand. Why should I be afraid to recite again? However much I might have suffered through nervousness if I’d recited, I should have shown I’m not such a poor little thing as all that! Why am I such a baby?” She wilted under her own disdain.

It was strange to think that Edwin Clayhanger, scarcely older than the irresponsible Charlie, was the heir to an important business, was potentially a rich and influential man. Had not Mr. Orgreave said that old Mr. Clayhanger could buy up all the Orgreaves if he chose? It was strange to think that this wistful and apparently timid young man, this nice boy, would one day be the head of a household, and of a table such as this! Yes, it would assuredly arrive! Everything happened. And the mother of that household? Would it be she? Her imagination leaped far into the future, as she exchanged a quiet, furtive smile with Mrs. Orgreave, and she tried to see herself as another Mrs. Orgreave, a strenuous and passionate past behind her, honoured, beloved, teased, adored. But she could not quite see herself thus. Impossible that she, with her temperament so feverish, restive, and peculiar, should ever reach such a haven! It was fantastically too much to expect! And yet, if not with Edwin Clayhanger, then with another, with some mysterious being whom she had never seen! . . . Did not everything happen? . . . But then, equally, strange and terrible misfortunes might be lying in wait for her! . . . The indescribable sharp savour of life was in her nostrils.

iv

The conversation had turned upon Bradlaugh, the shameless free-thinker, the man who had known how to make himself the centre of discussion in every house in England. This was the Bradlaugh year, the apogee of his notoriety. Dozens of times at the Cedar’s meal-table had she heard the shocking name of Bradlaugh on outraged tongues, but never once had a word been uttered in his favour. The public opinion of the boarding-house was absolutely unanimous in reckoning him a scoundrel. In the dining-room of the Orgreaves the attitude towards him was different. His free-thought was not precisely defended, but champions of his right to sit in the House of Commons were numerous. Hilda grew excited, and even more self-conscious. It was as if she were in momentary expectation of being challenged by these hardy debaters: “Are not you a free-thinker?” Her interest was personal; the interest of one in peril. Compared to the discussions at the Cedars, this discussion was as the open, tossing, windy sea to a weed-choked canal. The talk veered into mere profane politics, and Mr. Orgreave, entrenching himself behind an assumption of careless disdain, was severely attacked by all his sons except Jimmie, who, above Hilda’s left shoulder, pretended to share the paternal scorn. The indifference of Hilda to politics was complete. She began to feel less disturbed; she began to dream. Then she suddenly heard, through her dream, the name of Bradlaugh again; and Edwin Clayhanger, in response to a direct question from Mr. Orgreave, was saying:

“You can’t help what you believe. You can’t make yourself believe anything. And I don’t see why you should, either. There’s no virtue in believing.”

And Tom was crying “Hooray!”

Hilda was thunderstruck. She was blinded as though by a mystic revelation. She wanted to exult, and to exult with all the ardour of her soul. This truth which Edwin Clayhanger had enunciated she had indeed always been vaguely aware of; but now in a flash she felt it, she faced it, she throbbed to its authenticity, and was free. It solved every difficulty, and loosed the load that for months past had wearied her back. “There’s no virtue in believing.” It was fundamental. It was the gift of life and of peace. Her soul shouted, as she realized that just there, in that instant, at that table, a new epoch had dawned for her. Never would she forget the instant and the scene — scene of her rebirth!

Mrs. Orgreave remonstrated with mild sadness:

“No virtue in believing! Eh, Mr. Edwin!” And Hilda, under the ageing lady’s grieved glance, tried to quench the exultation on her face, somewhat like a child trapped. But she could not. Tom again cried “Hooray!” His tone, however, grated on her sensibility. It lacked emotion. It was the tone of a pugilist’s backer. And Janet permitted herself some pleasantry. And Charlie became frankly facetious. Was it conceivable that Charlie could be interested in religion? She liked him very much, partly because he and she had learnt to understand each other at the dancing-classes, and partly because his curly hair and his candid smile compelled sympathy. But her esteem for him had limits. It was astonishing that a family otherwise simply perfect should be content with jocosity when jocosity was so obviously out of place. Were they, then, afraid of being serious? . . . Edwin Clayhanger was not laughing; he had blushed. Her eyes were fixed on him with the extremest intensity, studying him, careless of the danger that his gaze might catch hers. She was lost in him. And then, he caught her; and, burning with honest shame, she looked downwards.

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