Hilda Lessways, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 6

In the Garden

i

That evening Janet did not stay long in Hilda’s bedroom, having perceived that Hilda was in one of her dark, dreamy moods.

As soon as she was gone, Hilda lowered the gas a little, and then went to the window, and opened it wider, and, drawing aside the blind, looked forth. The night was obscure and warm; and a wet wind moved furtively about in the elm-trees of the garden. The window was at the side of the house; it gave on the west, and commanded the new house just finished by Mr. Orgreave for the Clayhanger family. The block of this generously planned dwelling rose massively at a distance of perhaps forty feet, dwarfing a whole row of cottages in the small street behind Lane End House; its various chimneypots stood out a deeper black against the enigmatic sky. Beyond the Clayhanger garden-plot, as yet uncultivated, and its high boundary wall, ran the great silent thoroughfare, Trafalgar Road, whose gas-lamps reigned in the nocturnal silence that the last steam-car had left in its wake.

Hilda gazed at the house; and it seemed strange to her that the house, which but a short time ago had no existence whatever, and was yet cold and soulless, was destined to be the living home of a family, with history in its walls and memories clinging about it. The formidable magic of life was always thus discovering itself to her, so that she could not look upon even an untenanted, terra-cotta-faced villa without a secret thrill; and the impenetrable sky above was not more charmed and enchanted than those brick walls. When she reflected that one day the wistful, boyish Edwin Clayhanger would be the master of that house, that in that house his will would be stronger than any other will, the mystery that hides beneath the surface of all things surged up and overwhelmed thought. And although scarcely a couple of hours had elapsed since the key of the new life had been put into her hands, she could not make an answer when she asked herself: “Am I happy or unhappy?”

ii

The sound of young men’s voices came round the corner of the house from the lawn. Some of the brothers Orgreave were saying good-night to Edwin Clayhanger in the porch. She knew that they had been chatting a long time in the hall, after Clayhanger had bidden adieu to the rest of the family. She wondered what they had been talking about, and what young men did in general talk about when they were by themselves and confidential. In her fancy she endowed their conversations with the inexplicable attractiveness of masculinity, as masculinity is understood by women alone. She had an intense desire to overhear such a conversation, and she felt that she would affront the unguessed perils of it with delight, drinking it up eagerly, every drop, even were the draught deadly. Meanwhile, the mere inarticulate sound of those distant voices pleased her, and she was glad that she was listening and that the boys knew it not.

Silence succeeded the banging of the front door. And then, after a pause, she was startled to hear the crunching of gravel almost under her window. In alarm she dropped the blind, but continued to peer between the edge of the blind and the window-frame. At one point the contiguous demesnes of the Orgreaves and the Clayhangers were separated only by a poor, sparse hedge, a few yards in length. Somebody was pushing his way through this hedge. It was Edwin Clayhanger. Despite the darkness of the night she could be sure that the dim figure was Edwin Clayhanger’s by the peculiar, exaggerated swing of the loose arms. He passed the hedge, carelessly brushed his clothes with his hands, and walked slowly up the Clayhanger garden towards the new house, and in the deep shadow of the house was lost. Still, she could catch vague noises of movement. In a state of extreme excitation she wondered what he could be doing. It seemed to her that he and she were sharing the night together.

iii

She thought:

“I would give anything to be able to speak to him privately and ask him a little more about what he said to-night. I ought to. I may never see him again. At any rate, I may never have another chance. He may have meant something else. He may not have been serious. . . . ” The skin of her face prickled, and a physical wave of emotion seemed to sweep downwards through her whole body. The thrill was exquisite, but it was intimidating.

She whispered to herself:

“I could go downstairs and outside, and find him, and just ask him.”

The next instant she was opening the door of her bedroom. . . . No, all the household had not yet retired, for a light was still burning in the corridor. Nevertheless she might go. She descended the stairs, asking herself aghast: “Why am I doing this?” Another light was burning in the hall, and through the slit of the half-shut door of the breakfast-room she could see light. She stood hesitant. Then she heard the striking of a match in the breakfast-room, and she boldly pushed the door open. Tom, with a book before him, was lighting his pipe.

“Hello!” he said. “What’s the matter?”

“Oh, nothing!” she replied. “Only, I’m just going to walk about in the garden a minute. I shan’t go to sleep unless I do.” She spoke quite easily.

“All serene!” he agreed. “So long as you keep off the grass! It’s bound to be damp. I’ll unchain the door for you, shall I?”

She said that she could unfasten the door for herself, and he did not insist. The hospitality of the Orgreaves was never irksome. Tom had scarcely half-risen from his chair.

“I shan’t be long,” she added casually.

“That’s all right, Hilda,” he said. “I’m not going to bed just yet.”

“All the others gone?”

He nodded. She pulled the door to, tripped delicately through the hall, and unchained the heavy front door as quietly as she could.

iv

She was outside, amid all the influences of the night. Gradually her eyes accustomed themselves again to the gloom. She passed along the facade of the house until she came to the corner, where the breeze surprised her, and whence she could discern the other house and, across the indistinct hedge, the other garden. Where was Edwin Clayhanger? Was he wandering in the other garden, or had he entered the house? Then a brief flare lit up a lower window of the dark mass for a few instants. He was within. She hesitated. Should she go forward, or should she go back? At length she went forward, and, finding in the hedge the gap which Clayhanger had made, forced her way through it. Her skirt was torn by an obstinate twig. Quite calmly she bent down and with her fingers examined the rent; it was not important. She was now in the garden of the Clayhangers, and he whom she sought was moving somewhere in the house. “Supposing I do meet him,” she thought, “what shall I say to him?” She did not know what she should say to him, nor why she had entered upon this singular adventure. But the consciousness of self, the fine, disturbing sense of being alive in every vein and nerve, was a rich reward for her audacity. She wished that that tense moment of expectation might endure for ever.

She approached the house, trembling. It was not by volition that she walked over the uneven clayey ground, but by instinct. She was in front of the garden-porch, and here she hesitated again, apparently waiting for a sign from the house. She glanced timidly about her, as though in fear of marauders that might spring out upon her from the shadow. Just over the boundary wall the placid flame of a gas-lamp peeped. Then, feeling with her feet for the steps, she ascended into the shelter of the porch. Almost at the same moment there was another flare behind the glass of the door; she heard the sound of unlatching; the flare expired. She was absolutely terror-struck now.

The door opened, grating on some dirt or gravel.

“Who’s there?” demanded a queer, shaking voice.

She could see his form.

“Me!” she answered, in a harsh tone which was the expression of her dismay.

The deed was done, irretrievably. In her bedroom she had said that she would try to speak with him, and lo! they were face to face, in the dark, in secret! Her terror was now, at any rate, desperately calm. She had plunged; she was falling into the deep sea; she was hopelessly cut off from the past.

“Oh!” came the uncertain voice weakly. “Did you want me? Did anyone want me?”

She heard the door being closed behind him.

She told him, with peculiar curtness, how she had seen him from her window, and how she wished to ask him an important question.

“I dare say you think it’s very queer of me,” she added.

“Not at all,” he said, with an insincerity that annoyed her.

“Yes, you do!” she sharply insisted. “But I want to know”— what did she want to know? —“I want to know — did you mean it when you said — you know, at supper — that there’s no virtue in believing?”

He stammered: “Did I say there was no virtue in believing?”

She cried out, irritated: “Of course you did! Do you mean to say you can say a thing like that and then forget about it? If it’s true, it’s one of the most wonderful things that were ever said. And that’s why I wanted to know if you meant it, of whether you were only saying it because it sounded clever.”

She stopped momentarily, wondering why she was thus implying an untruth; for the fact was that she had never doubted that he had been in earnest.

“That’s what they’re always doing in that house, you know — being clever!” she went on, in a tone apparently inimical to ‘that house.’

“Yes,” came the voice. “I meant it. Why?”

And the voice was so simple and so sincere that it pierced straight to her heart and changed her secret mood swiftly to the religious, so that she really was occupied by the thoughts with which, a moment previously, she had only pretended to be occupied; and the splendour of the revelation was renewed. Nevertheless, some impulse, perverse or defensive, compelled her to assume a doubt of his assurance. She suspected that, had she not adopted this tactic, she might have melted before him in gratitude.

“You did?” she murmured.

She thanked him, after that, rather coldly; and they talked a little about the mere worry of these religious questions. He protested that they never worried him, and reaffirmed his original proposition.

“I hope you are right,” she said softly, in a thrilled voice. She was thinking that this was the most wonderful, miraculous experience that she had ever had.

v

Silence.

“Now,” she thought, “I must go back.” Inwardly she gave a delicious sigh.

But just as she was about to take her prim leave, the scarce-discerned figure of her companion stepped out into the garden.

“By Jove!” said Edwin Clayhanger. “It’s beginning to rain, I do believe.”

The wind blew, and she felt rain on her cheek. Clayhanger advised her to stand against the other wall of the porch for better protection. She obeyed. He reentered the porch, but was still exposed to the rain. She called him to her side. Already he was so close that she could have touched his shoulder by outstretching her arm.

“Oh! I’m all right!” he said lightly, and did not move.

“You needn’t be afraid of me!” She was hurt that he had refused her invitation to approach her. The next instant she would have given her tongue not to have uttered those words. But she was in such a tingling state of extreme sensitiveness as rendered it impossible for her to exercise a normal self-control.

Scarcely conscious of what she did, she asked him the time. He struck a match to look at his watch. The wind blew the match out, but she saw his wistful face, with his disordered hair under the hat. It had the quality of a vision.

He offered to get a light in the house, but abruptly she said good night.

Then they were shaking hands — she knew not how or why. She could not loose his hand. She thought: “Never have I held a hand so honest as this hand.” At last she dropped it. They stood silent while a trap rattled up Trafalgar Road. It was as if she was bound to remain moveless until the sounds of the trap had died away.

She walked proudly out into the rain. He called to her: “I say, Miss Lessways!” But she did not stop.

In a minute she was back again in Lane End House.

“That you?” Tom’s voice from the breakfast-room!

“Yes,” she answered clearly. “I’ve put the chain on. Good night.”

“Good night. Thanks.”

She ascended the stairs, smiling to herself, with the raindrops fresh on her cheek. In her mind were no distinct thoughts, either concerning the non-virtue of belief, or the new epoch, or Edwin Clayhanger, or even the strangeness of her behaviour. But all her being vibrated to the mysterious and beautiful romance of existence.

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