Hilda Lessways, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 1

The Going Concern

i

On a Saturday afternoon of the following August, Hilda was sitting at a book in the basement parlour of “Cannon’s Boarding-house” in Preston Street. She heard, through the open window, several pairs of feet mounting wearily to the front door, and then the long remote tinkling of the bell. Within the house there was no responsive sound; but from the porch came a clearing of throats, a muttering, impatient and yet resigned, and a vague shuffling. After a long pause the bell rang again; and then the gas globe over Hilda’s head vibrated for a moment to footsteps in the hall, and the front door was unlatched. She could not catch the precise question; but the reply of Louisa, the chambermaid — haughty, scornful, and negligently pitying — was quite clear:

“Sorry, sir. We’re full up. We’ve had to refuse several this very day. . . . No! I couldn’t rightly tell you where. . . . You might try No. 51, ‘Homeleigh’ as they call it; but we’re full up. Good afternoon, sir, ‘d afternoon ‘m.”

The door banged arrogantly. The feet redescended to the pavement, and Hilda, throwing a careless glance at the window, saw two men and a woman pass melancholy down the hot street with their hand-luggage.

And although she condemned and despised the flunkey-souled Louisa, who would have abased herself with sickly smiles and sweet phrases before the applicants, if the house had needed custom; although in her mind she was saying curtly to the mature Louisa: “It’s a good thing Mr. Cannon didn’t hear you using that tone to customers, my girl;” nevertheless, she could not help feeling somewhat as Louisa felt. It was indubitably agreeable to hear a prosperous door closed on dusty and disappointed holiday-makers, and to realize, in her tranquil retreat, that she was part of a very thriving and successful concern.

ii

George Cannon, in a light and elegant summer suit, passed slowly in front of the window, and, looking for Hilda in her accustomed place, saw her and nodded. Surprised by the unusual gesture, she moved uneasily and blushed; and as she did so, she asked herself resentfully: “Why do I behave like this? I’m only his clerk, and I shall never be anything else but his clerk; and yet I do believe I’m getting worse instead of better.” George Cannon skipped easily up to the porch; he had a latchkey, but before he could put it into the keyhole Louisa had flown down the stairs and opened the door to him; she must have been on the watch from an upper floor. George Cannon would have been well served, whatever his situation in the house, for he was one of those genial bullies who are adored by the menials whom they alternately cajole and terrorize. But his situation in the house was that of a god, and like a god he was attended. He was the very creator of the house; all its life flowed from him. Without him the organism would have ceased to exist, and everybody in it was quite aware of this. He had fully learnt his business. He had learnt it in the fishmarket on the beach at seven o’clock in the morning, and in the vegetable market at eight, and in the shops; he had learnt it in the kitchen and on the stairs while the servants were cleaning; and he had learnt it at the dinner-table surrounded by his customers. There was nothing that he did not know and, except actual cooking and mending, little that he could not do. He always impressed his customers by the statement that he had slept in every room in the house in order to understand personally its qualities and defects; and he could and did in fact talk to each boarder about his room with the intimate geographical knowledge of a native. The boarders were further flattered by the mien and appearance of this practical housekeeper, who did not in the least resemble his kind, but had rather the style of a slightly doggish stockbroker. To be strolling on the King’s Road in converse with George Cannon was a matter, of pride to boarders male and female. And there was none with whom he could not talk fluently, on any subject from cigars to ozone, according to the needs of the particular case. Nor did he ever seem to be bored by conversations. But sometimes, after benignantly speeding, for instance, one of the Watchetts on her morning constitutional, he would slip down into the basement and ejaculate, ‘Cursed hag!’ with a calm and natural earnestness, which frightened Hilda, indicating as it did that he must be capable of astounding duplicities.

He came, now, directly to the underground parlour, hat on head and ebony stick in hand. Hilda did not even look up, but self-consciously bent a little lower over her volume. Her relation to George Cannon in the successful enterprise was anomalous, and yet the habit of ten months had in practice defined it. Neither paying board nor receiving wages, she had remained in the house apparently as Sarah Gailey’s companion and moral support; she had remained because Sarah Gailey had never been in a condition to be left — and the months had passed very quickly. But her lack of occupation and her knowledge of shorthand, and George Cannon’s obvious need of clerical aid, had made it inevitable that they should resume their former rôles of principal and clerk. Hilda worked daily at letters, circularizing, advertisements, and — to a less extent — accounts and bills; the second finger of her right hand had nearly always an agreeable stain of ink at the base of the nail; and she often dreamed about letter-filing. In this prosperous month of August she had, on the whole, less work than usual, for both circulating and advertisements were stopped.

George Cannon went to the desk in the dark corner between the window and the door, where all business papers were kept, but where neither he nor she actually wrote. When his back was turned she surreptitiously glanced at him without moving her head, and perceived that his hand was only moving idly about among the papers while he stared at the wall. She thought, half in alarm: “What is the matter now?” Then he came over to the table and hesitated by her shoulder. Still, she would not look up. She could no longer decipher a single word on the page. Her being was somehow monopolized by the consciousness of his nearness.

“Interesting?” he inquired.

She turned her head at last and glanced at him with a friendly smile of affirmation, fingering the leaves of the book nervously. It was Cranswick’s History of Printing. One day, a fortnight earlier, while George Cannon, in company with her, was bargaining for an old London Directory outside a bookseller’s shop in East Street, she had seen Cranswick’s History of Printing (labelled “published at £1 1s., our price 6s. 6d.”) and had opened it curiously. George Cannon, who always kept an eye on her, had said teasingly: “I suppose it’s your journalistic past that makes you interested in that?” “I suppose it is,” she answered. Which statement was an untruth, for the sole thought in her mind had been that Edwin Clayhanger was a printer. A strange, idle thought! She had laid the book down. The next day, however, George Cannon had brought it home, saying carelessly: “I bought that book — five and six; the man seemed anxious to do business, and it’s a book to have.” He had not touched it since.

“Page 473!” he murmured, looking at the number of the page. “If you keep on at this rate, you’ll soon know more about printing than young Clayhanger himself!”

She was thunderstruck. Never before had the name of Clayhanger been mentioned between them! Could he, then, penetrate her thoughts? Could he guess that in truth she was reading Cranswick solely because Edwin Clayhanger happened to be a printer? No! It was impossible! The reason of her interest in Cranswick, inexplicable even to herself, was too fantastic to be divined. And yet was not his tone peculiar? Or was it only in her fancy that his tone was peculiar? She blushed scarlet, and her muscles grew rigid.

“I say,” George Cannon continued, in a tone that now was unmistakably peculiar, “I want you to come out with me. I want to show you something on the front. Can you come?”

“At once?” she muttered glumly and painfully. What could be the mystery beneath this most singular behaviour?

“Yes.”

“Florrie will be arriving at five,” said Hilda, after artificially coughing. “I ought to be here then, oughtn’t I?”

“Oh!” he cried. “We shall be back long before five.”

“Very well,” she agreed.

“I’ll be ready in three minutes,” he said, going gaily towards the door. From the door he gave her a glance. She met it, courageously exposing her troubled features and nodded.

iii

Hilda went into the bedroom behind the parlour, to get her hat and gloves. A consequence of the success of the boarding-house was that she was temporarily sharing this chamber with Sarah Gailey. She had insisted on making the sacrifice, and she enjoyed the personal discomfort which it involved. When she cautiously lay down on the narrow and lumpy truckle-bed that had been insinuated against an unoccupied wall, and when she turned over restlessly in the night and the rickety ironwork creaked and Sarah Gailey moaned, and when she searched vainly for a particular garment lost among garments that were hung pell-mell on insecure hooks and jutting corners of furniture — she was proud and glad because her own comfortable room was steadily adding thirty shillings or more per week to the gross receipts of the enterprise. The benefit was in no way hers, and yet she gloated on it, thinking pleasurably of George Cannon’s great japanned cash-box, which seemed to be an exhaustless store of gold sovereigns and large silver, and of his mysterious — almost furtive — visits to the Bank. Her own capital, invested by George Cannon in railway stock, was bringing in four times as much as she disbursed; and she gloated also on her savings. The more money she amassed, the less willing was she to spend. This nascent avarice amused her, as a new trait in his character always amuses the individual. She said to herself: “I am getting quite a miser,” with the assured reservation: “Of course I can stop being a miser whenever I feel like stopping.”

Sarah Gailey was lulling herself in a rocking-chair when Hilda entered, and she neither regarded Hilda nor intermitted her see-saw. Her features were drawn into a preoccupied expression of martyrdom, and in fact she constantly suffered physical torture. She had three genuine complaints — rheumatism, sciatica, and neuritis; they were all painful. The latest and worst was the neuritis, which had attacked her in the wrist, producing swollen joints that had to be fomented with hot water. Sarah Gailey’s life had indeed latterly developed into a continual fomentation and a continual rocking. She was so taken up with the elemental business of fomenting and of keeping warm, that she had no energy left for other remedial treatments, such as distraction in the open air. She sat for ever shawled, generally with heavy mittens on her arms and wrists, and either fomenting or rocking, in the eternal twilight of the basement bedroom. She eschewed aid — she could manage for herself — and she did not encourage company, apparently preferring to be alone with fate. In her easier hours, one hand resting on another and both hugged close to her breast, rocking to and fro with an astounding monotonous perseverance, she was like a mysterious Indian god in a subterranean temple. Above her, unseen by her, floor beyond floor, the life of the boarding-house functioned in the great holiday month of August.

“I quite forgot about the make-up bed for Florrie,” said Sarah Gailey plaintively as she rocked. “Would you have time to see to it? Of course she will have to be with Louisa.”

“Very well,” said Hilda curtly, and not quite hiding exasperation.

There were three reasons for her exasperation. In the first place, the constant spectacle of Sarah Gailey’s pain, and the effect of the pain on Sarah’s character, was exasperating — to Hilda as well as to George Cannon. Both well knew that the watery-eyed, fretful spinster was a victim, utterly innocent and utterly helpless, of destiny, and that she merited nothing but patient sympathy; yet often the strain of relationship with Sarah produced in them such a profound feeling of annoyance that they positively resented Sarah’s sufferings, and with a sad absence of logic blamed her in her misfortune, just as though she had wilfully brought the maladies upon herself in order to vex them. Then, further, it was necessary always to minister to Sarah’s illusion that Sarah was the mainstay of the house, that she attended to everything and was responsible for everything, and that without her governance the machine would come to a disastrous standstill: the fact being that she had grown feeble and superfluous. Sarah had taught all she knew to two highly intelligent pupils, and had survived her usefulness. She had no right place on earth. But in her morose inefficiency she had developed into an unconscious tyrant — a tyrant whose power lay in the loyalty of her subjects and not at all in her own soul. She was indeed like a deity, immanent, brooding, and unaware of itself! . . . Thus, the question of Florrie’s bed had been discussed and settled long before Sarah Gailey had even thought of it; but Hilda might not tell her so. Lastly, this very question of Florrie’s bed was exasperating to Hilda. Already Louisa’s kennel was inadequate for Louisa, and now another couch had been crowded into it. Hilda was ashamed of the shift; but there was no alternative. Here, for Hilda, was the secret canker of George Cannon’s brilliant success. The servants were kindly ill-treated. In the commercial triumph she lost the sense of the tragic forlornness of boarding-house existence, as it had struck her on the day of her arrival. But the image of the Indian god in the basement and of the prone forms of the servants in stifling black cupboards under the roof and under the stairs — these images embittered at intervals the instinctive and reflecting exultation of her moods.

She adjusted her small, close-fitting flowered hat, dropped her parasol across the bed, and began to draw on her cotton gloves.

“Where are you going, dear?” asked Sarah Gailey.

“Out with Mr. Cannon.”

“But where?”

“I don’t know.” In spite of herself there was a certain unnecessary defiance in Hilda’s voice.

“You don’t know, dear?” Sarah Gailey suddenly ceased rocking, and glanced at Hilda with the mournful expression of acute worry that was so terribly familiar on her features. Although it was notorious that baseless apprehensions were a part of Sarah’s disease, nevertheless Hilda could never succeed in treating any given apprehension as quite baseless. And now Sarah’s mere tone begot in Hilda’s self-consciousness a vague alarm.

She continued busy with her gloves, silent.

“And on Saturday afternoon too, when everybody’s abroad!” Sarah Gailey added gloomily, with her involuntary small movements of the head.

“He asked me if I could go out with him for a minute or two at once,” said Hilda, and picked up the parasol with a decisive gesture.

“There’s a great deal too much talk about you and George as it is,” said Sarah with an acrid firmness.

“Talk about me and —!” Hilda cried, absolutely astounded.

She had no feeling of guilt, but she knew that she was looking guilty, and this knowledge induced in her the actual sensations of a criminal.

“I’m sure I don’t want —” Sarah Gailey began, and was interrupted by a quiet tap at the door.

George Cannon entered.

“Ready, miss?” he demanded, smiling, before he had caught sight of her face.

For the second time that afternoon he saw her scarlet, and now there were tears in her eyes, too.

She hesitated an instant.

“Yes,” she answered with a painful gulp, and moved towards the door.

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