Hilda Lessways, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 1

Hilda Indispensable

i

Hilda made no response of any kind to George Cannon’s request for an immediate interview, allowing day after day to pass in inactivity, and wondering the while how she might excuse or explain her singular conduct when circumstances should bring the situation to a head. She knew that she ought either to go over to Turnhill, or write him with an appointment to see her at Lane End House; but she did nothing; nor did she say a word of the matter to Janet in the bedroom at nights. All that she could tell herself was that she did not want to see George Cannon; she was not honestly persuaded that she feared to see him. In the meantime, Edwin Clayhanger was invisible, though the removal of the Clayhanger household to the new residence at Bleakridge had made a considerable stir of straw and litter in Trafalgar Road.

On Tuesday in the following week she received a letter from Sarah Gailey. It was brought up to her room early in the morning by a half-dressed Alicia Orgreave, and she read it as she lay in bed. Sarah Gailey, struggling with the complexities of the Cedars, away in Hornsey, was unwell and gloomily desolate. She wrote that she suffered from terrible headaches on waking, and that she was often feverish, and that she had no energy whatever. “I am at a very trying age for a woman,” she said. “I don’t know whether you understand, but I’ve come to a time of life that really upsets one above a bit, and I’m fit for nothing.” Hilda understood; she was flattered, even touched, by this confidence; it made her feel older, and more important in the world, and a whole generation away from Alicia, who was drawing up the blind with the cries and awkward gestures of a prattling infant. To the letter there was a postscript: “Has George been to see you yet about me? He wrote me he should, but I haven’t heard since. In fact, I’ve been waiting to hear. I’ll say nothing about that yet. I’m ashamed you should be bothered. It’s so important for you to have a good holiday. Again, much love, S.G.” The prim handwriting got smaller and smaller towards the end of the postscript and the end of the page, and the last lines were perfectly parallel with the lower edge of the paper; all the others sloped feebly downwards from left to right.

“Oh!” piped Alicia from the window. “Maggie Clayhanger has got her curtains up in the drawing-room! Oh! Aren’t they proud things! Oh! — I do believe she’s caught me staring at her!” And Alicia withdrew abruptly into the room, blushing for her detected sin of ungenteel curiosity. She bumped down on the bed. “Three days more,” she said. “Not counting today. Four, counting today.”

“School?”

Alicia nodded, her finger in her mouth. “Isn’t it horrid, going to school on a day like this? I hear you and Janet are off up to Hillport this afternoon again, to play tennis. You do have times!”

“No,” said Hilda. “I’ve got to go to Turnhill this afternoon.”

“But Janet told me you were —” Her glance fell on the letter. “Is it business?”

“Yes.”

The child was impressed, and her change of tone, her frank awe, gave pleasure to Hilda’s vanity. “Shall I go and tell Jane? She isn’t near dressed.”

“Yes, do.”

Off scampered Alicia, leaving the door unlatched behind her.

Hilda gazed at the letter, holding it limply in her left hand amid the soft disorder of the counterpane. It had come to her, an intolerably pathetic messenger and accuser, out of the exacerbating frowsiness of the Cedars. Yesterday afternoon care-ridden Sarah Gailey was writing it, with sighs, at the desk in her stuffy, uncomfortable bedroom. As Hilda gazed at the formation of the words, she could see the unhappy Sarah Gailey writing them, and the letter was like a bit of Sarah Gailey’s self, magically and disconcertingly projected into the spacious, laughing home of the Orgreaves, and into the mysterious new happiness that was forming around Hilda. The Orgreaves, so far as Hilda could discover, had no real anxieties. They were a joyous lot, favoured alike by temperament and by fortune. And she, Hilda — what real anxieties had she? None! She was sure of a small but adequate income. Her grief for her mother was assuaged. The problem of her soul no longer troubled: in part it had been solved, and in part it had faded imperceptibly away. Nor was she exercised about the future, about the ‘new life.’ Instead of rushing ardently to meet the future, she felt content to wait for its coming. Why disturb oneself? She was free. She was enjoying existence with the Orgreaves. Yes, she was happy in this roseate passivity.

The letter shook her, arousing as it did the sharp sense of her indebtedness to Sarah Gailey, who alone had succoured her in her long period of despairing infelicity. Had she guessed that it was Sarah Gailey’s affair upon which George Cannon had desired to see her, she would not have delayed an hour; no reluctance to meet George Cannon would have caused her to tarry. But she had not guessed; the idea had never occurred to her.

She rose, picked up the envelope from the carpet, carefully replaced the letter in it, and laid it with love on the glittering dressing-table. Through the unlatched door she heard a tramping of unshod masculine feet in the passage, and the delightful curt greeting of Osmond Orgreave and his sleepy son Jimmie — splendid powerful males. She glanced at the garden, and at the garden of the Clayhangers, swimming in fresh sunshine. She glanced in the mirror, and saw the deshabille of her black hair and of her insecure nightgown, and thought: “Truly, I am not so bad-looking! And how well I feel! How fond they all are of me! I’m just at the right age. I’m young, but I’m mature. I’ve had a lot of experience, and I’m not a fool. I’m strong — I could stand anything!” She put her shoulders back, with a challenging gesture. The pride of life was hers.

And then, this disturbing vision of Sarah Gailey, alone, unhappy, unattractive, enfeebled, ageing — ageing! It seemed to her inexpressibly cruel that people must grow old and weak and desolate; it seemed monstrous. A pang, momentary but excruciating, smote her. She said to herself: “Sarah Gailey has nothing to look forward to, except worry. Sarah Gailey is at the end, instead of at the beginning!”

ii

When she got off the train at Turnhill station, early that afternoon, she had no qualm at the thought of meeting George Cannon; she was not even concerned to invent a decent excuse for her silence in relation to his urgent letter. She went to see him for the sake of Sarah Gailey, and because she apparently might be of use in some affair of Sarah’s — she knew not what. She was proud that either Sarah or he thought that she could be of use, or that it was worth while consulting her. She had a grave air, as of one to whom esteem has brought responsibilities.

In Child Street, leading to High Street, she passed the office of Godlimans, the auctioneers. And there, among a group of white posters covering the large window, was a poster of the sale of “valuable household furniture and effects removed from No. 15 Lessways Street.” And on the poster, in a very black line by itself, stood out saliently the phrase: “Massive Bedroom Suite.” Her mother’s! Hers! She had to stop and read the poster through, though she was curiously afraid of being caught in the act. All the principal items were mentioned by the faithful auctioneers; and the furniture, thus described, had a strange aspect of special importance, as if it had been subtly better, more solid, more desirable, than any other houseful of furniture in the town — Lessways’ furniture! She sought for the date. The sale had taken place on the previous night, at the very hour when she was lolling and laughing in the drawing-room of Lane End House with the Orgreaves! The furniture was sold, dispersed, gone! The house was empty! The past was irremediably closed! The realization of this naturally affected her, raising phantoms of her mother, and of the face of the cab-driver as he remarked on the drawn blinds at the Cedars. But she was still more affected by the thought that the poster was on the window, and the furniture scattered, solely because she had willed it. She had said: “Please sell all the furniture, and you needn’t consult me about the sale. I don’t want to know. I prefer not to know. Just get it done.” And it had been done! How mysteriously romantic! Some girls would not have sold the furniture, would not have dared to sell it, would have accepted the furniture and the house as a solemn charge, and gone on living among those relics, obedient to a tradition. But she had dared! She had willed — and the solid furniture had vanished away! And she was adventurously free!

She went forward. At the corner of Child Street and High Street the new Town Hall was rising to the skies. Already its walls were higher than the highest house in the vicinity. And workmen were crawling over it, amid dust, and a load of crimson bricks was trembling and revolving upwards on a thin rope that hung down from the blue. Glimpses of London had modified old estimates of her native town. Nevertheless, the new Town Hall still appeared extraordinarily large and important to her.

She saw the detested Arthur Dayson in the distance of the street, and crossed hurriedly to the Square, looking fixedly at the storeys above the ironmonger’s so that Arthur Dayson could not possibly catch her eye. There was no sign of the Five Towns Chronicle in the bare windows of the second storey. This did not surprise her; but she was startled by the absence of the Karkeek wire-blinds from the first-floor windows, equally bare with those of the second. When she got to the entrance she was still more startled to observe that the Karkeek brass-plate had been removed. She climbed the long stairs apprehensively.

iii

“Anybody here?” she called out timidly. She was in the clerk’s office, which was empty; but she could hear movements in another room. The place seemed in process of being dismantled.

Suddenly George Cannon appeared in a doorway, frowning.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Cannon!”

“Good afternoon, Miss Lessways.” He spoke with stiff politeness. His face looked weary.

After a slight hesitation he advanced, and they shook hands. Hilda was nervous. Her neglect of his letter now presented itself to her as inexcusable. She thought: “If he is vexed about it I shall have to humour him. I really can’t blame him. He must think me very queer.”

“I was wondering what had become of you,” he said, amply polite, but not cordial.

“Well,” she said, “every day I was expecting you to call again, or to send me a note or something. . . . And what with one thing and another —”

“I dare say your time’s been fully occupied,” he filled up her pause. And she fancied that he spoke in a peculiar tone. She absurdly fancied that he was referring to the time which she had publicly spent with Edwin Clayhanger at the Centenary. She conceived that he might have seen her and Edwin Clayhanger together.

“I had a letter from Miss Gailey this morning,” she said. “And it seems that it’s about her that you wanted —”

“Yes.”

“I do wish I’d known. If I’d had the slightest idea I should have come over instantly.” She spoke with eager seriousness, and then added, smiling as if in appeal to be favourably understood: “I thought it was only about my affairs — sale or what not. And as I’d asked you to manage all these things exactly as you thought best, I didn’t trouble —”

He laughed, and either forgave or forgot.

“Will you come this way?” he invited, in a new tone of friendliness. “We’re rather in a mess here.”

“You’re all alone, too,” she said, following him into his room.

“Sowter’s out,” he answered laconically, waiting for her to precede him. He said nothing as to the office-boy, nor as to Mr. Karkeek. Hilda was now sure that something strange had happened.

“So you’ve heard from Sarah, have you?” he began, when they were both seated in his own room. There were still a lot of papers, though fewer than of old, on the broad desk; but the bookcase was quite empty, and several of the shelves in it had supped from the horizontal; the front part of the shelves was a pale yellow, and behind that, an irregular dark band of dust indicated the varying depths of the vanished tomes. The forlornness of the bookcase gave a stricken air to the whole room.

“She’s not well.”

“Or she imagines she’s not well.”

“Oh no!” said Hilda warmly. “It isn’t imagination. She really isn’t well.”

“You think so?”

“I don’t think — I know!” Hilda spoke proudly, but with the restraint which absolute certainty permits. She crushed, rather than resented, George Cannon’s easy insinuation, full of the unjustified superiority of the male. How could he judge — how could any man judge? She had never before felt so sure of herself, so adult and experienced, as she felt then.

“But it’s nothing serious?” he suggested with deference.

“N— no — not what you’d call serious,” said Hilda judicially, mysteriously.

“Because she wants to give up the boarding-house business altogether — that’s all!”

Having delivered this dramatic blow, George Cannon smiled, as it were, quizzically. And Hilda was reassured about him. She had been thinking: “Is he ruined? If he is not ruined, what is the meaning of these puzzling changes here?” And she had remembered her shrewd mother’s hints, and her own later fears, concerning the insecurity of his position: and had studied his tired and worn face for an equivocal sign. But this smile, self-confident and firm, was not the smile of a ruined man; and his flashing glance seemed to be an omen of definite success.

“Wants to give it up?” exclaimed Hilda.

He nodded.

“But why? I thought she was doing rather well.”

“So she is.”

“Then why?”

“Ah!” George Cannon lifted his head with a gesture signifying enigma. “That’s just what I wanted to ask you. Hasn’t she said anything to you?”

“As to giving it up? No! . . . So it was this that you wanted to see me about?”

He nodded. “She wrote me a few days after you came away, and suggested I should see you and ask you what you thought.”

“But why me?”

“Well, she thinks the world of you, Sarah does.”

Hilda thought: “How strange! She did nothing but look after me, and wait on me hand and foot, and I never helped her in any way; and yet she turns to me!” And she was extremely flattered and gratified, and was aware of a delicious increase of self-respect.

“But supposing she does give it up?” Hilda said aloud. “What will she do?”

“Exactly!” said George Cannon, and then, in a very confidential, ingratiating manner: “I wish you’d write to her and put some reason into her. She mustn’t give it up. With her help — and you know in the management she’s simply wonderful — with her help, I think I shall be able to bring something about that’ll startle folks. Only, she mustn’t throw me over. And she mustn’t get too crotchety with the boarders. I’ve had some difficulty in that line, as it is. In fact, I’ve had to be rather cross. You know about the Boutwoods, for instance! Well, I’ve smoothed that over. . . . It’s nothing, nothing — if she’ll keep her head. If she’ll keep her head it’s a gold mine — you’ll see! Only — she wants a bit of managing. If you’d write —”

“I shan’t write,” said Hilda. “I shall go and see her — at once. I should have gone in any case, after her letter this morning saying how unwell she is. She wants company. She was so kind to me I couldn’t possibly leave her in the lurch. I can’t very well get away today, but I shall go tomorrow, and I shall drop her a line to-night.”

“It’s very good of you, I’m sure,” said George Cannon. Obviously he was much relieved.

“Not at all!” Hilda protested. She felt very content and happy.

“The fact is,” he went on, “there’s nobody but you can do it. Your mother was the only real friend she ever had. And this is the first time she’s been left alone up there, you see. I’m quite sure you can save the situation.”

He was frankly depending on her for something which he admitted he could not accomplish himself. Those two people, George Cannon and Sarah Gailey, had both instinctively turned to her in a crisis. None could do what she could do. She, by the force of her individuality, could save the situation. She was no longer a girl, but a mature and influential being. Her ancient diffidence before George Cannon had completely gone; she had no qualms, no foreboding, no dubious sensation of weakness. Indeed, she felt herself in one respect his superior, for his confidence in Sarah Gailey’s housewifely skill, his conviction that it was unique and would be irreplaceable, struck her as somewhat naif, as being yet another example of the absurd family pride which she and her mother had often noticed in the Five Towns. She was not happy at the prospect of so abruptly quitting the delights of Lane End House and the vicinity of Edwin Clayhanger; she was not happy at the prospect of postponing the consideration of plans for her own existence; she was not happy at the prospect of Sarah Gailey’s pessimistic complainings. She was above happiness. She was above even that thrill of sharp and intense vitality which in times past had ennobled trouble and misery. She had the most exquisite feeling of triumphant self-justification. She was splendidly conscious of power. She was indispensable.

And the dismantled desolation of the echoing office, and the mystery of George Cannon’s personal position, somehow gave a strange poignancy to her mood.

They talked of indifferent matters: her property, the Orgreaves, even the defunct newspaper, as to which George Cannon shrugged his shoulders. Then the conversation drooped.

“I shall go up by the four train tomorrow,” she said, clinching the interview, and rising.

“I may go up by that train myself,” said George Cannon.

She started. “Oh! are you going to Hornsey, too?”

“No! Not Hornsey. I’ve other business.”

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