Hilda Lessways, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 4

The Sea

i

In the evening Hilda, returning from a short solitary walk as far as the West Pier, found Sarah Gailey stooping over her open trunks in the bedroom which had been assigned to her. There were two quite excellent though low-ceiled rooms, of which this was one, in the basement; the other was to be used as a private parlour by the managers of the house. At night, with the gas lighted and the yellow blind drawn and the loose bundle of strips paper gleaming in the grate, the bedroom seemed very cozy and habitable in its shabbiness; like the rest of the house it had an ample supply of furniture, and especially of those trifling articles, useful or useless, which collect only by slow degrees, and which are a proof of long humanizing habitation. In that room Sarah Gailey was indeed merely the successor of the regretted Mrs. Granville, the landlady who had mysteriously receded into the unknown before the advent of Sarah and Hilda, but with whom George Cannon must have had many interviews. No doubt the room was an epitome of the character of Mrs. Granville, presumably a fussy and precise celibate, with a place for everything and everything in its place, and an indiscriminating tendency to hoard.

Sarah Gailey was at that stage of unpacking when, trunks being nearly empty and drawers having scarcely begun to fill, bed, table, and chairs are encumbered with confused masses of goods apparently far exceeding the cubical contents of the trunks.

“Can I do anything for you?” asked Hilda.

The new landlady raised her watery and dejected eyes. “If you wouldn’t mind taking every single one of those knick-knacks off the mantelpiece and putting them away on the top shelf of the cupboard —”

Hilda smiled. “It’s a bit crowded, isn’t it?”

“Crowded!” By her intonation of this one word Sarah Gailey condemned Mrs. Granville’s whole life.

“Can I empty this chair? I shall want something to stand on,” said Hilda.

“Better see if the shelf’s dusty,” Sarah gloomily warned her.

“Well,” murmured Hilda, on the chair. “If my feather doesn’t actually touch the ceiling!” Sarah Gailey made no response to this light-heartedness, and Hilda, with her hands full of vain gewgaws, tried again: “I wonder what Mrs. Granville would say if she saw me! . . . My word, it’s quite hot up here!”

A resonant, very amiable voice came from beyond the door: “Is she there?”

“Who?” demanded Sarah, grievous.

“Miss Lessways.” It was George Cannon.

“Yes.”

“I just want to speak to her if she’s at liberty,” said George Cannon.

Hilda cried from the ceiling: “I’ll come as soon as I’ve —”

“Please go now,” Sarah interrupted in tense accents. Hilda glanced down at her, astonished, and saw in her eyes an almost childish appeal, weak and passionate, which gripped the heart painfully.

She jumped from the chair. Sarah Gailey was now sitting on the bed. Yes, in her worn face of a woman who has definitely passed the climacteric, and in the abandoned pose of those thin arms, there was the look and gesture of a young girl desperately beseeching. Hilda was puzzled and intimidated. She had meant to be jocular, and to insist on staying till the task was finished. But she kept silence and obeyed the supplication, from a motive of prudence.

“I wouldn’t keep you from him for anything,” murmured Sarah Gailey tragically, as Hilda opened the door and left her sitting forlorn among all her skirts and linen.

ii

“I’m here,” George Cannon called out from the parlour when he heard the sound of the door. He was looking from the window up at the street; the blind had not been drawn. He turned as Hilda entered.

“You’ve been out!” he said, observing that she was in street attire.

“What is it?” she asked nervously, fearing that some altercation had already occurred between brother and sister.

“It’s about your private affairs — that’s all,” he said easily, and half-humourously. “If you’ll just come in.”

“Oh!” she smiled her relief; but nevertheless she was still preoccupied by the image of the woman in the next room.

“They’ve been dragging on quite long enough,” said George Cannon, as he stooped to poke the morsel of fire in the old-fashioned grate, which had a hob on either side. On one of these hobs was a glass of milk. Hilda had learnt that day for the first time that at a certain hour every evening George Cannon drank a glass of warm milk, and that this glass of warm milk was an important factor in his daily comfort. He now took the glass and drank it off. And Hilda had a peculiar sensation of being more intimate with him than she had ever been before.

They sat down to the square table in the middle of the room crowded with oddments of furniture, including a desk which George Cannon had appropriated to his own exclusive use. This desk was open and a portion of its contents were spread abroad on the crimson cloth of the table. Among them Hilda noticed, with her accustomed clerkly eye, two numbers of The Hotel–Keeper and Boarding–House Review, several sheets of advertisement-scales, and a many-paged document with the heading, “Inventory of Furniture at No. 59 Preston Street”; also a large legal envelope inscribed, “Lessways Estate.”

From the latter George Cannon drew forth an engraved and flourished paper, which he silently placed in front of her. It was a receipt signed by the manager of the Brighton branch of the Southern Counties Bank for the sum of three thousand four hundred and forty-five pounds deposited at call by Miss Hilda Lessways.

“Everything is now settled up,” he said. “Here are all the figures,” and he handed her another paper showing the whole of the figures for the realization of her real property and of her furniture. “It’s in your name, and nobody can touch it but you.”

She glanced at the figures vaguely, not attempting to comprehend them. As for the receipt, it fascinated her. The fragile scrap represented her livelihood, her future, her salvation. It alone stood between her and unimagined terrors. And she was surprised to see it, surprised by its assurance that no accident had happened to her possessions during the process of transformation carried out by George Cannon. For, though he had throughout been almost worryingly meticulous in his business formalities and his promptitudes — never had any interest or rent been a day late! — she admitted to herself now that she had been afraid . . . that, in fact, she had not utterly trusted him.

“And what’s got to be done with this?” she asked simply, fingering the receipt.

He smiled at her, with a touch of protective and yet sardonic condescension, without saying a word.

And suddenly it struck her that ages had elapsed since her first interview with him in the office over the ironmonger’s at Turnhill, and that both of them were extraordinarily changed. (She was reminded of that interview not by his face and look, nor by their relative positions at the table, but by a very faint odour of gas-fumes, for at Turnhill also a gas-jet had been between them.) After an interval of anxiety and depression he had regained exactly the triumphant self-sure air which was her earliest recollection of him. He was not appreciably older. But for her he was no longer the same man, because she saw him differently; knowing much more of him, she read in his features a thousand minor significances to which before she had been blind. The dominating impression was not now the impression of his masculinity; there was no clearly dominating impression. He had lost, for her, the romantic allurement of the strange and the unknown.

Still, she liked and admired him. And she felt an awe, which was agreeable to her, of his tremendous enterprise and his obstinate volition. That faculty which he possessed, of uprooting himself and uprooting others, put her in fear of him. He had willed to be established as a caterer in Brighton — he who but yesterday (as it seemed) was a lawyer in Turnhill — and, on this very night, he was established in Brighton, and his sister with him, and she with his sister! The enormous affair had been accomplished. This thought had been obsessing Hilda all the afternoon and evening.

When she reflected upon the change in herself, the untravelled Hilda of Turnhill appeared a stranger to her, and a simpleton!; no more!

As George Cannon offered no answer to her question, she said:

“I suppose it will have to be invested, all this?”

He nodded.

“Well, considering it’s only been bringing in one per cent. per annum for the last week . . . Of course I needn’t have put it on deposit, but I always prefer that way. It’s more satisfactory.”

Hilda could hear faintly, through the thin wooden partition, the movements of Sarah Gailey in the next room. And the image of the mournful woman returned to disquiet her. What could be the meaning of that hysteric appeal and glance? Then she heard the door of the bedroom open violently, and the figure of Sarah Gailey passed like a flash across the doorway of the parlour. And the footsteps of Sarah Gailey pattered up the stone stairs; and the front door banged; and the skirts and feet of Sarah Gailey intercepted for an instant the light of the street-lamp that shone on the basement-window of the parlour.

“Excuse me a minute,” muttered Hilda, frowning. By one of her swift and unreflecting impulses she abandoned George Cannon and her private affairs, and scurried by the area steps into the street.

iii

Bareheaded, and with no jacket or mantle, Sarah Gailey was walking quickly down Preston Street towards the promenade, and Hilda, afraid but courageous, followed her at a distance of thirty or forty yards. Hilda could not decide why she was afraid, nor why it should be necessary, in so simple an undertaking as a walk down Preston Street, to call upon her courage. Assuming even that Sarah Gailey turned round and caught her — what then? The consequences could not be very terrible. But Sarah Gailey did not turn round. She went straight forward, as though on a definite errand in a town with which she was perfectly familiar, and, having arrived at the corner of Preston Street and the promenade, unhesitatingly crossed the muddy roadway of the promenade, and, after a moment’s halt, vanished down the steps in the sea-wall to the left-hand of the pier. The pier, a double rope of twinkling lamps, hung magically over the invisible sea, and at the end of it, constant and grave, a red globe burned menacingly in the wind-haunted waste of the night. And Hilda thought, as she hastened with gathering terror across the promenade: “Out there, at the end of the pier, the water is splashing and beating against the piles!”

She stopped at the parapet of the sea-wall, and looked behind her, like a thief. The wrought-iron entrance to the pier was highly illuminated, but except for a man’s head and shoulders caged in the ticket-box of the turnstile, there was no life there; the man seemed to be waiting solitary with everlasting patience in the web of wavering flame beneath the huge dark sky. Scores of posters, large and small, showed that Robertson’s “School” was being performed in the theatre away over the sea at the extremity of the pier. The promenade, save for one gigantic policeman, and a few distant carriages, was apparently deserted, and the line of dimly lighted hotels, stretching vaguely east and west, had an air grim and forlorn at that hour.

Hilda ran down the steps; at the bottom another row of lamps defined the shore, and now she could hear the tide lapping ceaselessly amid the supporting ironwork of the pier. She at once descried the figure of Sarah Gailey in the gloom. The woman was moving towards the faintly white edge of the sea. Hilda started to run after her, first across smooth asphalt, and then over some sails stretched out to dry; and then her feet sank at each step into descending ridges of loose shingle, and she nearly fell. At length she came to firm sand, and stood still.

Sarah Gailey was now silhouetted against the pale shallows of foam that in ever-renewed curves divided the shore from the sea. After a time, she bent down, rose again, moved towards the water, and drew back. Hilda did not stir. She could not bring herself to approach the lonely figure. She felt that to go and accost Sarah Gailey would be indelicate and inexcusable. She felt as if she were basely spying. She was completely at a loss, and knew not how to act. But presently she discerned that the white foam was circling round Sarah’s feet, and that Sarah was standing careless in the midst of it. And at last, timid and shaking with agitation, she ventured nearer and nearer. And Sarah heard her on the sand, and looked behind.

“Miss Gailey!” she appealed in a trembling voice.

Sarah made no response of any kind, and Hilda reached the edge of the foam.

“Please, please don’t stand there! You’ll catch a dreadful cold, and you’ve got nothing on your shoulders, either!”

“I want to make a hole in the water,” said Sarah miserably. “I wanted to make a hole in the water!”

“Please do come back with me!” Hilda implored; but she spoke mechanically, as though saying something which she was bound to say, but which she did not feel.

The foam capriciously receded, and Hilda, still without any effort of her own will, stepped across the glistening, yielding sand and took Sarah Gailey’s arm. There was no resistance.

“I wanted to make a hole in the water,” Sarah repeated. “But I made a mistake. I ought to have gone to that groin over there. I knew there was a groin near here, only it’s so long since I was here. I’d forgotten just the place.”

“But what’s the matter?” Hilda asked, leading her away from the sea.

She was not extremely surprised. But she was shocked into a most solemn awe as she pressed the arm of the poor tragic woman who, but for an accident, might have plunged off the end of the groin into water deep enough for drowning. She did really feel humble before this creature who had deliberately invited death; she in no way criticized her; she did not even presume to condescend towards the hasty clumsiness of Sarah Gailey’s scheme to die. She was overwhelmed by the woman’s utterly unconscious impressiveness, which exceeded that of a criminal reprieved on the scaffold, for the woman had dared an experience that only the fierce and sublime courage of desperation can affront. She had a feeling that she ought to apologize profoundly to Sarah Gailey for all that Sarah must have suffered. And as she heard the ceaseless, cruel play of the water amid the dark jungle of ironwork under the pier, and the soft creeping of the foam-curves behind, and the vague stirrings of the night-wind round about — these phenomena combined mysteriously with the immensity of the dome above and with the baffling strangeness of the town, and with the grandeur of the beaten woman by her side; and communicated to Hilda a thrill that was divine in its unexampled poignancy.

The great figure of the policeman, suspicious, was descending from the promenade discreetly towards them. To avoid any encounter with him Hilda guided her companion towards the pier, and they sheltered there under the resounding floor of the pier. By the light of one of the lower lamps Hilda could now clearly see Sarah Gailey’s face. It showed no sign of terror. It was calm enough in its worn, resigned woe. It had the girlish look again, beneath the marks of age. Hilda could distinguish the young girl that Sarah had once been.

“Come home, will you?” she entreated.

Sarah Gailey sighed terribly. “I give it up,” she said, with weariness. “I could never do it! I could never do it — now!”

Hilda pulled gently at her unwilling arm. She could not speak. She could not ask her again: “What’s the matter?”

“It isn’t that the house is too large,” Sarah Gailey went on half meditatively; “though just think of all those stairs, and not a tap on any of the upper floors! No! And it isn’t that I’m not ready enough to oblige him. No! I know as well as anybody there’s only him between me and starvation. No! It isn’t that he doesn’t consider me! No! But when he goes and settles behind my back with those Boutwoods —” She began to weep. “And when I can hear you and him discussing me in the next room, and plotting against me — it’s — it’s more —” The tears gradually drowned her voice, and she ceased.

“I assure you, you’re quite mistaken,” Hilda burst out, with passionate and indignant persuasiveness. “We never mentioned you. He wanted to talk to me about my money. And if you feel like that over the Boutwoods, I’m certain he’ll tell them they mustn’t come.”

Sarah Gailey shook her head blankly.

“I’m certain he will!” Hilda persisted. “Please —”

The other began to walk away, dragging Hilda with her. The policeman, inspecting them from a distance, coughed and withdrew. They climbed a flight of steps on the far side of the pier, crossed the promenade, and went up Preston Street in silence.

“I should prefer not to be seen going in with you,” said Sarah Gailey suddenly. “It might —” she freed her arm.

“Go down the area steps,” said Hilda, “and I’ll wait a moment and then go in at the front door.”

Sarah Gailey hurried forward alone.

Hilda, watching her, and observing the wet footmarks which she left on the pavement, was appalled by the sense of her own responsibility as to the future of Sarah Gailey. Till this hour, even at her most conscientious, she had under-estimated the seriousness of Sarah Gailey’s case. Everybody had under-estimated the seriousness of Sarah Gailey’s case.

She became aware of some one hurrying cautiously up the street on the other side. It was George Cannon. As soon as Sarah had disappeared within the house he crossed over.

“What’s the matter?” he inquired anxiously.

“Well —”

“She hasn’t been trying to drown herself, has she?”

Hilda nodded, and, speechless, moved towards the house. He turned abruptly away.

The front door of No. 59 was still open. Hilda passed through the silent hall, and went timorously down the steps to the basement. The gas was still burning, and the clothes were still strewn about in Sarah Gailey’s bedroom, just as though naught had happened. Sarah stood between her two trunks in the middle of the floor.

“Where’s George?” she asked, in a harsh, perfectly ordinary voice.

“I don’t think he’s in the parlour,” Hilda prevaricated.

“Promise me you won’t tell him!”

“Of course I won’t!” said Hilda kindly. “Do get into bed, and let me make you some tea.”

Sarah Gailey rushed at her and embraced her.

“I know I’m all wrong! I know it’s all my own fault!” she murmured, with plaintive, feeble contrition, crying again. “But you’ve no idea how I try! If it wasn’t for you —”

iv

That night Hilda, in her small bedroom at the top of the house, was listlessly arranging, at the back of the dressing-table, the few volumes which had clung to her, or to which she had clung, throughout the convulsive disturbances following her mother’s death. Among them was one which she did not wish to keep, The Girls’ Week-day Book, and also the whole set of Victor Hugo, which did not belong to her. George Cannon had lent her the latter in instalments, and she had omitted to return it. She was saying to herself that the opportunity to return it had at length arrived, when she heard a low, conspiratorial tapping at the door. All her skin crept as, after a second’s startled hesitation, she moved to open the door.

George Cannon, holding a candle, stood on the landing. She had not seen him since the brief colloquy between them outside the house. Having satisfied herself that Sarah Gailey was safe, and to a certain extent tranquillized, for the night, she had awaited George Cannon’s reappearance a long time in vain, and had then retired upstairs.

“You aren’t gone to bed!” he whispered very cautiously. Within a few feet of them was an airless kennel where Louisa, the chambermaid, slept.

“No! I’m just — I stayed up for you I don’t know how long.”

“Is she all right?”

“Well — she’s in bed.”

“I wish you’d come to one of these other rooms,” he continued to whisper. All the sibilants in his words seemed to detach themselves, hissing, from the rest of the sounds.

She gave a gesture of assent. He tiptoed over the traitorous boards of the landing, and slowly turned the knob of a door in the end wall. The door exploded like the firing of a pistol; frowning, he grimly pushed it open. Hilda followed him, noiselessly creeping. He held the door for her. She entered, and he shut the door on the inside. They were in a small bedroom similar to Hilda’s own; but the bed was stripped, the square of carpet rolled, the blind undrawn, and the curtains looped up from the floor. He put the candle on the tiny iron mantelpiece, and sat on the bed, his hands in his pockets.

“You don’t mean to say she was wanting to commit suicide?” he said, after a short reflective silence, with his head bent but his eyes raised peeringly to Hilda’s.

The crudity of the word, ‘suicide,’ affected Hilda painfully.

“If you ask me,” said she, standing with her back rubbing against the small wardrobe, “she didn’t know quite what she was doing; but there’s no doubt that was what she went out for.”

“You overtook her? I saw you coming up from the beach.”

Hilda related what had happened.

“But had you any notion — before —”

“Me? No! Why?”

“Nothing! Only the way you rushed out like that!”

“Well — it struck me all of a sudden! . . . You’ve not seen her since you came in?”

He shook his head. “I thought I’d better keep out of the way. I thought I’d better leave it all to you. It’s appalling, simply appalling! . . . Just when everything was shaping so well!”

Hilda thought, bewildered: ‘Shaping so well?’ With her glance she took in the little cheerless bedroom, and herself and George Cannon within it, overwhelmed. In imagination she saw all the other bedrooms, dark, forlorn, and inanimate, waiting through long nights and empty days until some human creature as pathetic as themselves should come and feebly vitalize them into a spurious transient homeliness; and she saw George Cannon’s bedroom — the harsh bedroom of the bachelor who had never had a home; and the bedrooms of those fearsome mummies, the Watchetts, each bed with its grisly face on the pillow in the dark; and the kennels of the unclean servants; and so, descending through the floors, to Sarah Gailey’s bedroom in the very earth, and the sleepless form on that bed, beneath the whole! And the organism of the boarding-house seemed absolutely tragic to her, compact of the stuff of sorrow itself! And yet George Cannon had said, ‘Shaping so well!’

“What’s to be done?” he inquired plaintively.

“Nothing that I can see!” she said. She had a tremendous desire to escape from the responsibility thrust on her by the situation; but she knew that she could never escape from it; that she was immovably pinned down by it.

“I can’t see anything either,” said he, quietly responsive, and speaking now in a gentle voice. “Supposing I tell her that she can go, and that I’ll make her an allowance? What could she do, then? It would be madness for her to live alone any more. She’s the very last person who ought to live alone. Moreover, she wouldn’t accept the allowance. Well, then, she must stay with me — here. And if she stays here she must work, otherwise she’d never stay — not she! And she must be the mistress. She wouldn’t stand having anyone above her, or even equal with her, that’s a certainty! Besides, she’s so good at her job. She hasn’t got a great deal of system, so far as I can see, but she can get the work out of the servants without too much fuss, and she’s so mighty economical in her catering! Of course she can’t get on the right side of a boarder — but then I can! And that’s the whole point! With me on the spot to run the place, she’d be perfect — perfect! Couldn’t wish for anything better! And now she — I assure you I’m doing the best I can do for her. I do honestly assure you! If anybody can suggest to me anything else that I can do — I’ll do it like a shot.” He threw up his arms.

Hilda was touched by the benevolence of his tone. Nevertheless, it only intensified her helpless perplexity. Sarah Gailey was inexpressibly to be pitied, but George Cannon was not to be blamed. She had a feeling that for any piteous disaster some one ought to be definitely blamable.

“Do you think she’ll settle down?” George Cannon asked, in a new voice.

“Oh yes!” said Hilda. “I think she will. It was just a sort of — attack she had, I think.”

“She’s not vexed with me?”

Hilda could not find courage to say: “She thinks you and I are plotting against her.” And yet she wondered why she should hesitate to say it. After a pause she murmured, as casually as possible: “She doesn’t like the Boutwoods coming back.”

“I knew you were going to say that!” he frowned.

“If you could manage to stop them —”

“No, no!” He interrupted — nervous, impatient. “It wouldn’t do, that wouldn’t! It’d never do! A boarding-house can’t be run on those lines. It isn’t that I care so much as all that about losing a couple of boarders, and I’m not specially keen on the Boutwoods. But it wouldn’t do! It’s the wrong principle. You haven’t got to let customers get on your nerves, so long as they pay and behave respectably. If I gave way, the very first thing Sarah would do would be to find a grievance against some other boarder, and there’d be no end to it. The fact is she wants a grievance, she must have a grievance — whether it’s the Boutwoods or somebody else makes no matter! . . . Oh no!” He repeated softly, gently, “Oh no!”

She knew that his argument was unanswerable. She was perfectly aware that she ought to yield to it. Nevertheless, the one impulse of her being in that moment was to fight blindly and irrationally against it. Her instinct said: “I don’t care for arguments. The Boutwoods must be stopped from coming. If they aren’t stopped, I don’t know what I shall do! I can’t bear to think of that poor woman meeting them again! I can’t bear it.” She drew breath sharply. Startling hot tears came into her eyes; and she stepped forward on her left foot.

“Please!” she entreated, “please don’t let them come!”

There was a silence. In the agonizing silence she felt acutely her girlishness, her helplessness, her unreason, confronted by his strong and shrewd masculinity. At the bottom of her soul she knew how wrong she was. But she was ready to do anything to save Sarah Gailey from the distress of one particular humiliation. With the whole of her volition she wanted to win.

“Oh well!” he said. “Of course, if you take it so much to heart —”

A peculiar bright glance shot from his eyes — the old glance that at once negligently asserted his power over her, and reassured her against his power. Her being was suffused with gladness and pride. She had won. She had won in defiance of reason. She had appealed and she had conquered. And she enjoyed his glance. She gloried in it. She blushed. A spasm of exquisite fear shot through her, and she savoured it deliciously. The deep organic sadness of the house presented itself to her in a new light. It was still sadness, but it was beautiful in the background. Her sympathy for Sarah Gailey was as keen as ever, but it had a different quality — an anguish less desolating. And the fact that a joint responsibility for Sarah Gailey’s welfare bound herself and George Cannon together in spite of themselves — this fact seemed to her grandiose and romantic, no longer oppressive. To be alone with him in the secrecy of the small upper room seemed to endow her with a splendid worldly importance. And yet all the time a scarce-heard voice was saying clearly within her: “This appeal and this abandonment are unworthy. No matter if this man is kind and sincere and admirable! This appeal and this abandonment are unworthy!” But she did not care. She ignored the voice.

“I’ll tell Sarah in the morning,” he said.

“Please don’t!” she begged. “You might pretend later on that you’ve had a letter from the Boutwoods and they can’t come. If you tell her tomorrow, she’ll guess at once I’ve been talking to you; and you’re not supposed to know anything at all about what happened to-night. She made me promise. But of course she didn’t know that you’d found out for yourself, you see!”

George Cannon walked away to the window, and then to the mantelpiece, from which he took up the candle.

“I’m very much obliged to you,” he said simply, putting a faint emphasis on the last word. She knew that he meant it, without any reserves. But in his urbane tone there was a chill tranquillity that astonished and vaguely disappointed her.

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