Hilda Lessways, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 3

At Brighton

i

She thought vividly, one afternoon about three months later, of that final scrap of conversation. Just as she had sat opposite George Cannon in a second-class compartment, so now she was sitting opposite Sarah Gailey in a second-class compartment. The train, having passed Lewes, was within a few minutes of Brighton. And following behind them, somewhere at the tail of the train, were certain trunks containing all that she possessed and all that Sarah Gailey possessed of personal property — their sole chattels and paraphernalia on earth. George Cannon had willed it and brought it about. He was to receive them on the platform of Brighton Station. She had not seen very much of him in the interval, for he had been continually on the move between Brighton and Turnhill. “In a moment we shall all be together again,” she reflected. “This meeting also will happen, as everything else has happened, and a new period will definitely have begun.” And she sat and stared at the closed eyes of the desiccated Sarah Gailey, and waited for the instant of arrival apprehensively and as it were incredulously — not with fear, not with pleasure, but with the foreboding of adventure and a curious idea that the instant of arrival never would come.

For thirteen weeks, which had gone very quickly, she had devoted herself to Sarah Gailey, acting as George Cannon’s precursor, prophet, and expounder. While the summer cooled into autumn, and the boarding-house season slackened and once more feebly brightened, she had daily conversed with Sarah about George’s plans, making them palatable to her, softening the shocks of them, and voluntarily promising not to quit her until the crisis was past. She had had to discourse on the unique advantages of Brighton as a field for George’s enterprise, and on George’s common sense and on Sarah’s common sense, and the interdependence of the two. When the news came that George had acquired down there a house in going order, she had had to prove that it was not the end of the world that was announced. When the news came that George had resold the Cedars to its original occupier, she had had to prove that the transaction did not signify a mysterious but mortal insult to Sarah. When the news came that the Cedars must be vacated before noon on a given Saturday, she had had to begin all her demonstrations afresh, and in addition attempt to persuade Sarah that George was not utterly mad — buying and selling boarding-house tenancies all over the South of England! — and that the exit from the Cedars would not be the ruin of dignity and peace, and the commencement of fatal disasters. In the hour when Sarah Gailey learnt the immutable Saturday of departure, the Cedars, which had been her hell, promised to become, on that very Saturday, a paradise.

On the whole, the three months had constituted a quarter of exceeding difficulty and delicacy. The first month had been rendered memorable by Sarah’s astonishing behaviour when Hilda had desired to pay, as before, for her board and lodging. The mere offer of the money had made plain to Sarah — what she then said she had always suspected — that Hilda was her enemy in disguise and (like the rest) bent on humiliating her, and outraging her most sacred feelings. In that encounter, but in no other, Sarah had won. The opportune withdrawal of the Boutwoods from the boarding-house had assisted the establishment of peace. When the Boutwoods left, Miss Gailey seemed to breathe the drawing-room air as though it were ozone of the mountains. But her joy had been quickly dissipated, for to dissipate joy was her chief recreation. A fortnight before the migration to Brighton Hilda, contemplating all that had to be done, had thought, aghast: “I shall never he able to humour her into doing it all!” Closing of accounts, dismissals, inventories, bills, receipts, packing, decision concerning trains, reception of the former proprietor (especially that!), good-byes, superintending the stowage of luggage on the cab . . .! George Cannon had not once appeared in the last sensitive weeks, and he had therein been wise. And all that had to be done had been done — not by Hilda, but by Sarah Gailey the touchy and the competent. Hilda had done little but the humouring.

ii

And there sat Sarah Gailey, deracinated and captive, to prove how influential a person Hilda was! With the eyes shut, Sarah’s worn face under her black bonnet had precisely the aspect of a corpse — and the corpse of somebody who had expired under the weight of all the world’s woe! Hilda thought: “When she is dead she will look just like that! . . . And one day, sooner or later, she will be dead.” Strange that Sarah Gailey, with no malady except her chronic rheumatism, and no material anxiety, and every prospect of security in old age, could not be content, could not at any rate refrain from being miserable! But she could not. She was an exhaustless fount of worry and misery. “I suppose I like her,” thought Hilda. “But why do I like her? She isn’t agreeable. She isn’t amusing. She isn’t pretty. She isn’t even kind, now. She’s only depressing and tedious. As soon as she’s fixed up here, I shall go. I shall leave her. I’ve done enough, and I’ve had enough. I must attend to my own affairs a bit. After all —” And then Hilda’s conscience interrupted: “But can you leave her altogether? Without you, what will happen to her? She’s getting older and worse every day. Perhaps in a few years she won’t even be competent. Already she isn’t perhaps quite, quite as competent as she was.” And Hilda said: “Well, of course, I shall have to keep an eye on her; come and see her sometimes — often.” And she knew that as long as they both lived she could never be free from a sense of responsibility towards Sarah Gailey. Useless to argue: “It’s George Cannon’s affair, not mine!” Useless to ask: “Why should I feel responsible?” Only after she had laid Sarah Gailey in the tomb would she be free. “And that day too will come!” she thought again. “I shall have to go through it, and I shall go through it!”

The poignant romance of existence enveloped her in its beautiful veils. And through these veils she saw, vague and diminished, the far vista of the hours which she had spent with the Orgreaves. She saw the night of Edwin Clayhanger’s visit, and herself and him together in the porch, and she remembered the shock of his words, “There’s no virtue in believing.” The vision was like that of another and quite separate life. Would she ever go back to it? Janet was her friend, in theory her one intimate friend: she had seen her once in London — beautiful, agreeable, affectionate, intelligent; all the Orgreaves were lovable. The glance of Edwin Clayhanger, and the sincerity of his smile, had affected her in a manner absolutely unique. . . . But would she ever go back? It seemed to her fantastic, impossible, that she should ever go back. It seemed to her that she was netted by destiny. In any case she knew that she could not, meanwhile, give to that group in Bursley even a part of herself. Hilda could never give a part of herself. Moreover, she was a bad letter-writer. And so, if among themselves the group at Bursley charged her with inconstancy, she must accept the accusation, to which she was inevitably exposed by the very ardour of her temperament.

The putting-on of brakes took her unawares. The train was in Brighton, sliding over the outskirts of the town. Miss Gailey opened her apprehensive eyes. Hilda saw steep streets of houses that sprawled on the hilly mounds of the great town like ladders: reminiscent of certain streets of her native district, yet quite different, a physiognomy utterly foreign to her. This then, was Brighton. That which had been a postmark became suddenly a reality, shattering her preconceptions of it, and disappointing her she knew not why. She glanced forward, through the window, and saw the cavern of the station. In a few seconds they would have arrived, and her formal mission would be over. She was very agitated and very nervous. George Cannon had promised to meet them. Would he meet them?

The next instant she saw the platform. She saw George Cannon, conspicuous and debonair in a new suit, swinging his ebony stick. The train stopped. He descried them.

“There he is!” she said, bravely pretending to be gay. And she thought: “I could not believe that this moment would come, but it has come.”

She had anticipated relief from this moment, but she was aware of no relief. On the contrary, she felt most uncomfortably apologetic to Sarah Gailey for George Cannon, and to George Cannon for Sarah Gailey. She had the constraint of a sinner. And, by the side of George Cannon on the platform, she was aware of her shabbiness and of her girlish fragility. Nevertheless, she put her shoulders back with a gesture like his own, thinking proudly, and trying to make her eyes speak: “Well, here is Sarah Gailey — thanks to me!”

As Sarah greeted him, Hilda observed, with some dismay, a curious, very slight stiffening of her demeanour — familiar phenomenon, which denoted that Sarah was in the grip of a secret grievance. “Poor old thing!” she thought ruefully. “I’d imagined she’d forgiven him for bringing her here; but she hasn’t.”

iii

They drove down from the station in an open carriage, unencumbered by the trunks, which George Cannon had separately disposed of. He sat with his back to the horse, opposite the two women, and talked at intervals about the weather, the prospects of the season, and the town. His familiarity with the town was apparently such that he seemed to be a native of it, and even in some mysterious way to have assisted in its creation and development; so that he took pride in its qualities and accepted responsibility for its defects. When he ceremoniously saluted two women who went by in another carriage, Hilda felt sharply the inferiority of an ignorant stranger in presence of one for whom the place had no secrets.

Her first disappointment changed slowly into expectant and hopeful curiosity. The quaint irregularities of the architecture, and the vastness of the thronged perspectives, made promises to her romantic sense. The town seemed to be endless as London. There were hotels, churches, chapels, libraries, and music-shops on every hand. The more ordinary features of main streets — the marts of jewellery, drapery, and tobacco — had an air of grandiose respectability; while the narrow alleys that curved enigmatically away between the lofty buildings of these fine thoroughfares beckoned darkly to the fancy. The multiplicity of beggars, louts, and organ-grinders was alone a proof of Brighton’s success in the world; the organ-grinders, often a man and a woman yoked together, were extraordinarily English, genteel, and prosperous as they trudged in their neat, middle-class raiment through the gritty mud of the macadam, stolidly ignoring the menace of high-stepping horses and disdainful glittering wheels. Brighton was evidently a city apart. Nevertheless, Hilda did not as yet understand why George Cannon should have considered it to be the sole field worthy of his enterprise.

Then the carriage rounded into King’s Road, and suddenly she saw the incredible frontage of hotels, and pensions and apartments, and she saw the broad and boundless promenade alive with all its processions of pleasure, and she saw the ocean. And everything that she had seen up to that moment fell to the insignificance of a background. She understood.

After a blusterous but mild autumn day the scarlet sun was setting calmly between a saffron sky and saffron water; it flashed upon waves and sails and flags, and upon the puddles in the road, and upon bow-windows and flowered balconies, giving glory to human pride. The carriage, merged in a phalanx of carriages, rolled past innumerable splendid houses, and every house without exception was a hostel and an invitation. Some were higher than any she had ever seen; and one terrific building, in course of construction, had already far overtopped the highest of its neighbours. She glanced at George Cannon, who, by a carefully casual demeanour, was trying not to take the credit of the entire spectacle; and she admitted that he was indeed wonderful.

“Of course, Sarah,” he said, as the carriage shortly afterwards turned up Preston Street, where the dying wind roughly caught them, “we aren’t beginning with anything as big as all that, so you needn’t shiver in your shoes. You know what my notion is”— he included Hilda in his address —“my notion is to get some experience first in a smaller house. We must pay for our experience, and my notion is to pay as little as possible. I can tell you there’s quite a lot of things that have to be picked up before you’ve got the hang of a town like this — quite a lot.”

Sarah grimly nodded. She had scarcely spoken.

“We’re beginning rather well. I’ve told you all about the Watchett sisters, haven’t I? They’re an income, a positive income! And then Boutwood and his wife have decided to come — did I tell you?”

“Bou —”

The syllable escaped explosively from Sarah Gailey’s mouth, overcoming her stern guard. Instantly, by a tremendous effort, she checked the flow. But the violent shock of the news had convulsed her whole being. The look on her face was changed to desperation. Hilda trembled, and even the splendid and ever-resurgent George Cannon was discountenanced. Not till then had Hilda realized with what intense bitterness the souvenir of the Boutwoods festered in Sarah Gailey’s unreasoning heart.

iv

“Here we are!” said George Cannon jauntily, as the carriage stopped in front of No. 59 Preston Street. But his jauntiness seemed factitious. The demeanour of all three was diffident and unnatural, for now had arrived the moment when George Cannon had to submit his going concern to the ordeal of inspection by the women, and especially by Sarah Gailey. There the house stood, a physical fact, forcing George to justify it, and beseeching clemency from the two women. The occasion was critical; therefore everybody had to pretend that it was a perfectly ordinary occasion, well knowing the futility of the pretence. And the inevitable constraint was acutely aggravated by Sarah’s silent and terrible reception of the news concerning the Boutwoods.

While George Cannon was paying the driver, Sarah and Hilda hesitated awkwardly on the pavement, their hands occupied with small belongings. They had the sensation of being foreigners to the house; they could not even mount the steps without his protection; scarcely might they in decency examine the frontage of the house. They could not, however, avoid seeing that a workman was fixing a new and splendid brass-plate at the entrance, and that this plate bore the words, “Cannon’s Boarding-house.” Hilda thought, startled: “At last he is using his own name!”

He turned to them.

“You have a view of the sea from the bow-window of the drawing-room — on the first floor,” he remarked.

Neither Hilda nor Sarah responded.

“And of course from the other bow-window higher up,” he added, almost pitifully, in his careful casualness.

Hilda felt sorry for him, and she could not understand why she felt sorry, why it seemed a shame that he should be mysteriously compelled thus to defend the house before it had been attacked.

“Oh yes!” she murmured foolishly, almost fatuously.

The street and the house were disappointing. After the grandeur of the promenade, the street appeared shabby and third-rate; it had the characteristics of a side street; it was the retreat of those who could not afford anything better, and its base inhabitants walked out on to the promenade and swaggeringly feigned to be the equals of their superiors. The house also was shabby and third-rate — with its poor little glimpse of the sea. Although larger than the Cedars, it was noticeably smaller and meaner than any house on the promenade, and whereas the Cedars was detached, No. 59 was not even semi-detached, but one of a gaunt, tall row of stuccoed and single-fronted dwellings. It looked like a boarding-house (which the Cedars did not), and not all the style of George Cannon’s suit and cane and manner, as he mounted the steps, nor the polish of his new brass-plate, could redeem it from the disgrace of being a very ordinary boarding-house.

George Cannon had made a serious mistake in bringing the carriage round by the promenade. True, he had exhibited the glory of Brighton, but he had done so to the detriment of his new enterprise. That No. 59 ought to be regarded as merely an inexpensive field for the acquiring of preliminary experience did not influence the judgment of the women in the slightest degree. For them it was a house that rightly apologized for itself, and whose apologetic air deserved only a condescending tolerance.

The front door stood open for the convenience of the artisan who was screwing at the brass-plate. He moved aside, with the servility that always characterizes the worker in a city of idlers, and the party passed into a long narrow hall, whose walls were papered to imitate impossible blocks of mustard-coloured marble. The party was now at home.

“Here we are!” said Hilda, with a gaiety that absolutely desolated herself, and in the same instant she remembered that George Cannon had preceded her in saying ‘Here we are!’ She looked from the awful glumness of Sarah Gailey to the equally awful alacrity of George Cannon, and felt as though she had committed some crime whose nature she could not guess.

A middle-aged maid appeared, like a suspicious scout, at the far end of the hall, beyond the stairs, having opened a door which showed a glimpse of a kitchen.

“That tea ready?” asked George Cannon.

“No, sir,” said the maid plumply.

“Well, let it be got ready.”

“Yes, sir.” The maid vanished, flouncing.

Sarah Gailey, with a heavy sigh, dropped her small belongings on to a narrow bare table that stood against the wall near the foot of the stairs. Daylight was fading.

“Well,” said George Cannon, balancing his hat on his cane, “your luggage will be here directly. This is the dining-room.” He pushed at a yellow-grained door.

The women followed him into the dining-room, and stared at the dining-room in silence.

“There’s a bedroom behind,” he said, as they came out, and he displayed the bedroom behind. “That’s the kitchen.” He pointed to the adjoining door.

“The drawing-room’s larger,” he said. “It includes the width of the hall.”

They climbed the narrow stairs after him wearily. The door of the drawing-room was ajar, and the chatter of thin feminine voices could be heard within. George Cannon gave a soundless warning whisper: “The Watchetts.” And Sarah Gailey frowned back the information that she did not wish to meet the Watchetts just then. With every precaution against noise, George Cannon opened two other doors, showing bedrooms. And then, as it were, hypnotized by him, the women climbed another flight of narrow stairs, darkening, and saw more rooms, and then still another flight, and still more rooms, and finally the boasted view of the sea! After all, Hilda was obliged to admit to herself that the house was more impressive than she had at first supposed. Although single-fronted, it was deep, and there were two bedrooms on the first floor, and four each — two large and two small — on the second and third. Eleven in all, they had seen, of which three were occupied by the Watchetts, and one, temporarily, by George Cannon. The rest were empty; but the season had scarcely begun, and the Boutwoods were coming. George Cannon had said grandly that Hilda must choose her room; she chose the smallest on the top floor. The furniture, if shabby and old-fashioned, was everywhere ample.

They descended, and not a word had been said about Sarah’s room.

On the first-floor landing, where indeed the danger was acutest, they were trapped by two of the Watchetts. These elderly ladies shot almost roguishly out of the drawing-room, and by their smiles struck the descending party into immobility.

“Oh! We saw you arrive, Mr. Cannon!” said the elder, shaking her head. “So this is Miss Gailey! Good afternoon, Miss Gailey! So pleased to make your acquaintance!”

There was handshaking. Then it was Hilda’s turn.

“We’re so sorry our eldest sister isn’t here to welcome you to No. 59,” said the younger. “She’s had to go to London for the day. We’re very fond of No. 59. There’s no place quite like it, to our minds. And we’re quite sure we shall be quite as comfortable with dear Miss Gailey as we were with dear Mrs. Granville, poor thing. It was quite a wrench when we had to say good-bye to her last night. Do come into the drawing-room, please! There’s a beautiful view of the sea!”

Sarah Gailey hesitated. A noise of bumping came from the hall below.

“I think that’s the luggage,” she said. The smile with which she forced herself to respond to the fixed simper of the Watchetts seemed to cause her horrible torment. She motioned nervously to George Cannon, who was nearest the stairs.

“A little later, then! A little later, then!” said both the Watchetts, bowing the party away with the most singular grimaces.

In the hall, a lad, perspiring and breathing quickly, stood behind the trunks.

“Wait a moment,” George Cannon said to him, and murmured to Sarah: “This is the basement, here.”

The middle-aged maid appeared at the kitchen door with a large loaded tray. “Come along with that tea, Louisa,” he added pleasantly.

He went first, Sarah next, and Hilda last, cautiously down a short, dark flight of stone steps beneath the stairs; the servant followed. At the foot a gas-jet burned.

“Those Watchetts might be the landladies!” muttered Sarah, strangely ignoring the propinquity of the maid; and sniffed.

Hilda gave a short, uneasy laugh. She had a desire to laugh loudly and wildly, and by so doing to snap the nervous tension, which seemed to grow tighter and tighter every minute. Her wretchedness had become so exquisite that she could begin to enjoy it, to savour it like a pleasure.

And she thought, with conscious and satisfied grimness:

“So this is Brighton!”

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