Hilda Lessways, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 2

Sarah’s Benefactor

i

On the following afternoon Hilda travelled alone by the local train from Bleakridge to Knype, the central station where all voyagers for London, Birmingham, and Manchester had to foregather in order to take the fast expresses that unwillingly halted there, and there only, in their skimming flights across the district. It was a custom of Five Towns hospitality that a departing guest should be accompanied as far as Knype and stowed with personal attentions into the big train. But on this occasion Hilda had wished otherwise. “I should prefer nobody to go with me to Knype,” she had said, in a characteristic tone, to Janet. It was enough. The family had wondered; but it was enough. The family knew its singular, its mysterious Hilda. And instead of at Knype, the leave-takings had occurred at the little wayside station of Bleakridge, with wavy moorland behind, factory chimneys in front, and cinder and shawd heaps all around. Hilda had told Janet: “Mr. Cannon may be meeting me at Knype. He’s probably going to London too.” And the discreet Janet, comprehending Hilda, had not even mentioned this fact to the rest of the family.

George Cannon, in a light summer suit and straw hat, was already on the platform at Knype. Hilda had feared that at Bleakridge he might be looking out of the window of the local train, which started from Turnhill; she had desired not to meet him in the presence of any of the Orgreaves. But either he had caught the previous train to Knype, or he had driven down. Holding a Gladstone bag and a stick in one hand, he stood talking to another man of about his own age and height. The conversation was vivacious, at any rate on George Cannon’s part. Hilda passed close by him amid the populous stir of the expectant platform. He saw her, turned, and raised his hat, but in a perfunctory, preoccupied manner; and instantly resumed the speech to his companion. Hilda recognized the latter. It was ‘young Lawton,’ son and successor to ‘old Lawton,’ the most famous lawyer in the Five Towns. Young Lawton had a branch office at Turnhill, and lived in an important house half-way between Turnhill and Bursley, where, behind the Town Hall, was the historic principal office of the firm.

The express came loudly in, and Hilda, having climbed into a second-class compartment, leaned out from it, to descry her porter and bestow on him a threepenny bit. George Cannon and young Lawton were still in argument, and apparently quite indifferent to the train. Young Lawton’s thin face had its usual faint, harsh smile; his limbs were moveless in an exasperating and obstinate calm; Hilda detested the man from his mere looks. But George Cannon was very obviously under excitement. His face was flushed; he moved his free arm violently — even the Gladstone bag swung to and fro; he punctuated his sentences with sharp, angry nods of the head, insisting and protesting and insisting, while the other, saying much less, maintained his damnable stupid disdainful grin.

Would he let the train go, in his feverish preoccupation? Hilda was seriously afraid that he would. The last trunks were flung into the front van, the stationmaster in his tall hat waved curtly to the glittering guard; the guard waved his flag, and whistled; a porter banged the door of Hilda’s compartment, ignoring her gestures; the engine whistled. And at that moment George Cannon, throwing apparently a last malediction at young Lawton, sprang towards the train, and, seeing Hilda’s face, rushed to the door which she strained to open again.

“I was afraid you’d be left behind,” she said, as he dropped his bag on the seat and the affronted stationmaster himself shut the door.

“Not quite!” ejaculated Cannon grimly.

The smooth, irresistible gliding of the train became apparent, establishing a sudden aloof calm. Hilda perceived that all her muscles were tense.

In the compartment was a middle-aged couple.

“What’s this place?” asked the woman.

“Looks like Tamworth,” said the man sleepily.

“Knype, sir!” George Cannon corrected him very sharply. He was so wrought up that he had omitted even to shake hands with Hilda. Making no effort to talk, and showing no curiosity about Hilda’s welfare or doings, he moved uneasily on his seat, and from time to time opened and shut the Gladstone bag. Gradually the flush paled from his face.

At Lichfield the middle-aged couple took advice from a porter and stumbled out of the train.

ii

“We’re fairly out of the smoke now,” said Hilda, when the train began to move again. As a fact, they had been fairly out of the smoke of the Five Towns for more than half an hour; but Hilda spoke at random, timidly, nervously, for the sake of speaking. And she was as apologetic as though it was she herself who by some untimely discretion had annoyed George Cannon.

“Yes, thank God!” he replied fiercely, blowing with pleasure upon the embers of his resentment. “And I’ll take good care I never go into it again — to live, that is!”

“Really?” she murmured, struck into an extreme astonishment.

He produced a cigar and a match-box.

“May I?” he demanded carelessly, and accepted her affirmative as of course.

“You’ve heard about my little affair?” he asked, after lighting the cigar. And he gazed at her curiously.

“No.”

“Do you mean to say that none of the Orgreaves have said anything this last day or two?” He leaned forward. They were in opposite corners.

“No,” she repeated stiffly. Nevertheless, she remembered a peculiar glance of Tom’s to his father on the previous day, when George Cannon’s name had been mentioned.

“Well,” said he. “You surprise me! That’s all!”

“But —” She stopped, full of misgivings.

“Never heard any gossip about me — never?” he persisted, as it were, menacing her.

She shook her head.

“Never heard that I’m not really a solicitor?”

“Oh! well — I think mother once did say something —”

“I thought so.”

“But I don’t understand those things,” she said simply. “Is anything the matter? Is —”

“Nothing!” he replied, calm and convincing. “Only I’ve been done! Done! You’ll hear about it some day, I dare say. . . . Shall I tell you? Would you like me to tell you?” He smiled rather boyishly and leaned back.

“Yes,” she nodded.

His attitude was very familiar, recalling their former relation of employer and employed. It seemed as natural to her as to him that he should not too ceremoniously conceal his feelings or disguise his mood.

“Well, you see, I expect I know as much about law as any of ’em, but I’ve never been admitted, and so —” He stopped, perceiving that she did not comprehend the significance of such a word as ‘admitted.’ “If you want to practise as a solicitor you have to pass examinations, and I never have passed examinations. Very expensive, all that! And I couldn’t afford when I was young. It isn’t the exams that are difficult — you may tell that from the fellows that pass them. Lawton, for instance. But after a certain age exams become a nuisance. However, I could do everything else. I might have had half a dozen situations as managing clerk in the Five Towns if I’d wanted. Only I didn’t want! I wanted to be on my own. I could get clients as quick as any of them. And quicker! So I found Karkeek — the excellent Mr. Karkeek! Another of the bright ones that could pass the exams! Oh! He’d passed the exams all right! He’d spent five years and I don’t know how many hundred pounds in passing the exams, and with it all he couldn’t get above a couple of pounds a week. There are hundreds of real solicitors up and down the country who aren’t earning more. And they aren’t worth more. But I gave him more, and a lot more. Just to use his name on my door and my blinds. See? In theory I was his clerk, but in reality he was mine. It was all quite clear. He understood — I should think he did, by Jove!” George Cannon laughed shortly. “Every one understood. I got a practice together in no time. He didn’t do it. He wouldn’t have got a practice together in a thousand years. I had the second-best practice in Turnhill, and I should soon have had the best — if I hadn’t been done.”

“Yes?” said Hilda. The confidence flattered her.

“Well, Karkeek came into some money — and he simply walked out of the office! Simply walked out! Didn’t give me time to turn round. I’d always treated him properly. But he was jealous.”

“What a shame!” Hilda’s scorn shrivelled up Mr. Karkeek. There was nothing that she detested so much as a disloyalty.

“Yes. I couldn’t stop him, of course. No formal agreement between us. Couldn’t be, in a case like ours! So he had me. He’d taken my wages quick enough as long as it suited him. Then he comes into money, and behaves like that. Jealousy! They were all jealous — always had been. I was doing too well. So I had the whole gang down on me instantly like a thousand of bricks. They knew I was helpless, and so they came on. Special meeting of the committee of the North Staffordshire Law Society, if you please! Rumours of prosecution — oh yes! I don’t know what! . . . All because I wouldn’t take the trouble to pass their wretched exams. . . . Why, I could pass their exams on my head, if I hadn’t anything better to do. But I have. At first I thought I’d retire for five years and pass their exams, and then come back and make ’em sit up. And wouldn’t I have made ’em sit up! But then I said to myself, ‘No. It isn’t good enough.’”

Hilda frowned. “What isn’t?”

“What? The Five Towns isn’t good enough! I can find something better than the law, and I can find something better than the Five Towns! . . . And here young Lawton has the impudence to begin to preach to me on Knype platform, and to tell me I’m wise in going! He’s the President of the local Law Society, you know! No end of a President! And hasn’t even got gumption enough to keep his father’s practice together! Stupid ass! Well, I let him have it, and straight! He’s no worse than the rest. They’ve got no brains in this district. And they’re so narrow — narrow isn’t the word! Thick-headed’s the word. Stupid! Mean! . . . Mean! . . . What did it matter to them? I kept to all their rules. There was a real solicitor on the premises, and there’d soon have been another, if I’d had time. No concern of theirs how the money was divided between me and the real solicitor. But they were jealous — there you are! They don’t understand enterprise. They hate it. Nothing ever moves in the Five Towns. And they’ve got no manners — I do believe that’s the worst. Look at Lawton’s manners! Nothing but a boor! They aren’t civilized yet — that’s what’s the matter with them! That’s what my father used to say. Barbarians, he used to say. ‘Ce sont des barbares!’ . . . Kids used to throw stones at him because of his neck-tie. The grown-ups chuck a brick at anything they don’t quite fancy. That’s their idea of wit.”

Hilda was afraid of his tempestuous mood. But she enjoyed her fear, as she might have enjoyed exposure to a dangerous storm. She enjoyed the sensation of her fragility and helplessness there, cooped up with him in the close intimacy of the compartment. She was glad that he did not apologize to her for his lack of restraint, nor foolishly pretend that he was boring her.

“It does seem a shame!” she murmured, her eyes candidly admitting that she felt enormously flattered.

He sighed and laughed. “How often have I heard my father say that —‘Ce sont des barbares!’ Peels only brought him over because they could find nobody in the Five Towns civilized enough to do the work that he did. . . . I can imagine how he must have felt when he first came here! . . . My God! . . . Environment! . . . I tell you what — it’s only lately I’ve realized how I loathe the provinces!”

The little interior in which they were, swept steadily and smoothly across the central sunlit plain of England, passing canals and brooks and cottages and churches — silent and stolid in that English stupidity that he was criticizing. And Hilda saw of George Cannon all that was French in him. She saw him quite anew, as something rather exotic and entirely marvellous. She thought: “When I first met him, I said to myself he was a most extraordinary man. And I was right. I was more right than I ever imagined. No one down there has any idea of what he really is. They’re too stupid, as he says.”

He imposed on her his scorn of the provincial. She had to share it. She had a vision of the Five Towns as a smoky blotch on the remote horizon — negligible, crass, ridiculous in its heavy self-complacency. The very Orgreaves themselves were tinged with this odious English provincialism.

He smiled to himself, and then said, very quietly: “It isn’t of the least importance, you know. In fact I’m rather glad. I’ve never had any difficulty in making money, and when I’ve settled up everything down there I shan’t be precisely without. And I shall have no excuse for not branching out in a new line.”

She meekly encouraged him to continue.

“Oh yes!” he went on. “The law isn’t the only thing — not by a long way. And besides, I’m sick of it. Do you know what the great thing of the future is, I mean the really great thing — the smashing big thing?” He smiled, kindly and confidential.

She too smiled, shaking her head.

“Well, I’ll tell you. Hotels!”

“Hotels?” She was perfectly nonplussed.

“Hotels! There’ll be more money and more fun to be got out of hotels, soon, than out of any other kind of enterprise in the world. You should see those hotels that are going up in London! They’d give you a start, and no mistake! Yes, hotels! There aren’t twenty people in England who know what a hotel is! But I know!” He paused, and added reflectively, in a comically naïve tone: “Curious how these things come to you, bit by bit! Now, if it hadn’t been for Sarah — and that boarding-house —”

He was using his straw hat as a fan. With an unexpected and almost childlike gesture he suddenly threw the hat up on to the rack above his head, “How’s that?”

“What a boy he is, after all!” thought Hilda sympathetically, wondering why in the midst of all her manifold astonishment she felt so light-hearted and gay.

“Funny parcel you’ve got up there!” he idly observed, glancing from one rack to the other.

The parcel contained Mrs. Orgreave’s generous conception of a repast proper to be eaten in a train in place of high tea. He helped her to eat it.

As the train approached London he resumed his manhood. And he was impeccably adult as he conducted her from Euston to King’s Cross, and put her into a train in a corner of the station that the summer twilight had already taken possession of.

iii

Late at night Hilda sat with Sarah Gailey in the landlady’s small bedroom at the Cedars. It was lighted by a lamp, because the builder of the house, hating excess, had thought fit not to carry gas-pipes higher than the first floor. A large but old bedstead filled half the floor space. On the shabby dressing-table a pile of bills and various papers lay near the lamp. Clothes were hung behind the door, and a vague wisp of muslin moved slightly in the warm draught from the tiny open window. There were two small cane-chairs, enamelled, on which the women sat, close to each other, both incommoded by the unwholesome sultriness of the only chamber that could be spared for the private use of the house-mistress. This small bedroom was Sarah Gailey’s home; its amenities were the ultimate nightly reward of her labours. If George Cannon had obtained possession of the Cedars as an occupation for Sarah, this room and Sarah’s pleasure therein were the sole justification of the entire mansion.

As Hilda looked at Sarah Gailey’s bowed head, but little greyed, beneath the ray of the lamp, and at her shrivelled, neurotic, plaintive face in shadow, and at her knotty hands loosely clasped, she contrasted her companion and the scene with the youthfulness and the spaciousness and the sturdy gay vigour of existence in the household of the Orgreaves. She thought, with a renewed sense of the mysterious strangeness of life: “Last night I was there, far away — all those scores of miles of fields and towns are between! — and to-night I am here. Down there I was nothing but an idler. Here I am the strongest. I am indispensable. I am the one person on whom she depends. Without me everything will go to pieces.” And she thought of George Cannon’s vast enigmatic projects concerning grand hotels. In passing the immense pile of St. Pancras on the way from Euston to King’s Cross, George Cannon had waved his hand and said: “Look at that! Look at that! It’s something after that style that I want for a toy! And I’ll have it!” Yes, the lofty turrets of St. Pancras had not intimidated him. He, fresh from little Turnhill and from defeats, could rise at once to the height of them, and by the force of imagination make them his own! He could turn abruptly from the law — to hotels! A disconcerting man! And the mere tone in which he mentioned his enterprise seemed, in a most surprising way, to dignify hotels, and even boarding-houses; to give romance to the perfectly unromantic business of lodging and catering! . . . And the seed from which he was to grow the magic plant sat in the room there with Hilda: that bowed head! The ambition and the dream resembled St. Pancras: the present reality was the Cedars, and Sarah’s poor, stuffy little bedroom in the Cedars.

Sarah began to cry, weakly.

“But what’s the matter?” asked Hilda, the strong succourer.

“Nothing. Only it’s such a relief to me you’ve come.”

Hilda deprecated lightly. “I should have come sooner if I’d known. You ought to have sent word before.”

“No, I couldn’t. After all, what is it? I’m only silly. There’s nothing really the matter. The minute you come I can see that. I can even stand those Boutwoods if you’re here. You know George made it up with them; and I won’t say he wasn’t right. But I had to put my pride in my pocket. And yesterday it nearly made me scream out to see Mrs. Boutwood stir her tea.”

“But why?”

“I don’t know. It’s nerves, that’s what it is. . . . Well, I’ve got to go through these.” She fingered the papers on the dressing-table with her left hand while drying her tears with the right. “He’s very wishful for proper accounts, George is. That’s right enough. But — well — I think I can make a shilling go as far as anyone, and choose flesh-meat with anyone, too — that I will say — but these accounts . . .! George is always wanting to know how much it costs a head a week for this that and the other. . . . It’s all very well for him, but if he had the servants to look after and —”

“I’m going to keep your accounts for you,” Hilda soothed her.

“But —”

“I’m going to keep your accounts for you,” And she thought: “How exactly like mother I was just then!”

It appeared to Hilda that she was making a promise, and shouldering a responsibility, against her will, and perhaps against her common sense. She might keep accounts at the Cedars for a week, a fortnight, a month. But she could not keep accounts there indefinitely. She was sowing complications for herself. Freedom and change and luxury were what she deemed she desired; not a desk in a boarding-house. And yet something within her compelled her to say in a firm, sure, kindly voice:

“Now give me all those papers, Miss Gailey.”

And amid indefinite regret and foreboding, she was proud and happy in her rôle of benefactor.

When Hilda at length rose to go to her own room, Sarah Gailey had to move her chair so that she might pass. At the door both hesitated for an instant, and then Hilda with a sudden gesture advanced her lips. It was the first time she and Sarah had ever kissed. The contact with that desiccated skin intensified to an extraordinary degree Hilda’s emotional sympathy for the ageing woman. She thought, poignantly: “Poor old thing!”

And when she was on the dark little square landing under the roof, Sarah, holding the lamp, called out in a whisper.

“Hilda!”

“Well?”

“Did he say anything to you about Brighton?”

“Brighton?” She perceived with certainty from Sarah’s eager and yet apologetic tone, that the question had been waiting for utterance throughout the evening, and that Sarah had lacked courage for it until the kiss had enheartened her. And also she perceived that Sarah was suspecting her of being somehow in conspiracy with George Cannon.

“Yes,” said Sarah. “He’s got into his head that Brighton’s the only place for this boarding-house business if it’s to be properly done.”

“He never said a word to me about Brighton,” Hilda whispered positively.

“Oh!”

Hilda descended the stairs, groping. Brighton? What next?

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