Hilda Lessways, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 2

The Unknown Adventure

i

When they were fairly out in the street Hilda felt like a mariner who has escaped from a lee shore, but who is beset by the vaguer and even more formidable perils of the open sea. She was in a state of extreme agitation, and much too self-conscious to be properly cognisant of her surroundings; she did not feel the pavement with her feet; she had no recollection of having passed out of the house. There she was walking along on nothing, by the side of a man who might or might not be George Cannon, amid tall objects that resembled houses! Her situation was in a high degree painful, but she could not have avoided it. She could not, in Sarah’s bedroom, have fallen into sobs, or into a rage, or into the sulks, and told George Cannon that she would not go with him; she could not have dashed hysterically away and hidden herself on an upper floor, in the manner of a startled fawn. Her spirit was too high for such tricks. On the other hand, she was by no means sufficiently mistress of herself to be able to hide from him her shame. Hence she faced him and followed him, and let him see it. Their long familiarity had made this surrender somewhat easier for her. After all, in the countless daily contacts, they had grown accustomed to minor self-exposures — and Hilda more so than George Cannon; Hilda was too impatient and impulsive not to tear, at increasingly frequent intervals, the veil of conventional formality.

Her mood now, as she accompanied George Cannon on the unknown adventure, was one of abashed but still fierce resentment. She of course believed Sarah Gailey’s statement that there had been “talk” about herself and the landlord, and yet it was so utterly monstrous as to be almost incredible. She was absolutely sure that she had never by her behaviour furnished the slightest excuse for such “talk.” No eavesdropper could ever have caught the least word or gesture to justify it. Could a malicious eavesdropper have assisted at the secret operations of her inmost mind, even then he could scarcely have seen aught to justify it. Existence at Brighton had been too strenuous and strange — and, with Sarah Gailey in the house, too full of responsibilities — to favour dalliance. Hilda, examining herself, could not say that she had not once thought of George Cannon as a husband; because just as a young solitary man will imagine himself the spouse of a dozen different girls in a week, so will an unmated girl picture herself united to every eligible and passably sympathetic male that crosses her path. It is the everyday diversion of the fancy. But she could say that she had not once thought seriously of George Cannon as a husband. Why, he was not of her generation! Although she did not know his age, she guessed that he must be nearer forty than thirty. He was of the generation of Sarah Gailey, and Sarah Gailey was the contemporary of her dead mother! And he had never shown for her any sentiment but that of a benevolently teasing kindliness. Moreover, she was afraid of him, beyond question. And withal, he patently lacked certain qualities which were to be found in her image of a perfect man. No! She had more often thought of Edwin Clayhanger as a husband. Indeed she had married Edwin Clayhanger several times. The haunting youth would not leave her alone. And she said to herself, hot and indignant: “I shall have to leave Brighton! I can see that! Sarah Gailey’s brought it on herself!” Yes, she was actually angry with Sarah Gailey, who however had only informed her of a fact which she would have been sorry not to know! And in leaving Brighton, that fancy of hers took her straight to Bursley, to stay with Janet Orgreave in the house next to the new house of the Clayhangers!

Whither was George Cannon leading her? He had not yet said a word in explanation of the errand, nor shown in any way that he had observed her extraordinary condition. He was silent, swinging his stick. She also was silent. She could not have spoken, not even to murmur: “Where are you taking me to?” They went forward as in an enchantment.

ii

They were on the King’s Road; and to the left were the high hotels and houses, stretching east and west under the glare of the sun into invisibility, and to the right was the shore, and the sea so bright that the eye could scarcely rest on it. Both the upper and the lower promenades were crowded with gay people surging in different directions. The dusty roadway was full of carriages, and of the glint of the sun on wheelspokes and horses’ flanks, and of rolling, clear-cut shadows. The shore was bordered with flags and masts and white and brown sails; and in the white-and-green of billows harmlessly breaking could be seen the yellow bodies of the bathers. A dozen bare-legged men got hold of a yacht under sail with as many passengers on board, and pushed it forcibly right down into the sea, and then up sprang its nose and it heeled over and shot suddenly off, careering on the waves into the offing where other yachts were sliding to and fro between the piers, dominating errant fleets of rowboats. And the piers also were loaded with excited humanity and radiant colour. And all the windows of all the houses and hotels were open, and blowing with curtains and flowers and hats. The whole town was enfevered.

Hilda thought, her heart still beating, but less noisily, “I scarcely ever come here. I don’t come here often enough.” And she saw Sarah Gailey rocking and sighing and rocking and shaking her head in the mournful twilight of the basement in Preston Street. The contrasts of existence struck her as magnificent, as superb. The very misery and hopelessness of Sarah’s isolation seemed romantic, splendid, touchingly beautiful. And she thought, inexplicably: “Why am I here? Why am I not at home in Turnhill? Why am I so different from what mother was? What am I going to be and to do? This that I now am can’t continue for ever.” She saw thousands of women with thousands of men. And, quite forgetting that to the view of the multitude she was just as much as any of them with a man (and a rather fine man, too!), she began to pity herself because she was not with a man! She dreamed, in her extreme excitation, of belonging absolutely to some man. And despite all her pride and independence, she dwelt with pleasure and longing on the vision of being his, of being at his disposal, of being under his might, of being helpless before him. She thought, desolated: “I am nobody’s. And so there is ‘talk’!” She scorned herself for being nobody’s. To belong utterly to some male seemed to be the one tolerable fate for her in the world. And it was a glorious fate, whether it brought good or evil. Any other was ignobly futile, was despicable. And then she thought, savagely: “And just see my clothes! Why don’t I take the trouble to look nice?”

Suddenly George Cannon stopped on the edge of the pavement, and turned towards the houses across the street.

“You see that?” he said, pointing with his stick.

“What?”

“The Chichester.”

She saw, in gold letters over the front of a tall corner house: “The Chichester Private Hotel.”

“Well?”

“I’ve taken it — from Christmas. I signed about an hour ago. I just had to tell someone.”

“Well I never!” Hilda exclaimed.

He was beyond question an extraordinary and an impressive man. He had said that, after experimenting in Preston Street, he should take a larger place, and lo! in less than a year, he had fulfilled his word. He had experimented in Preston Street, with immense success and now he was coming out into the King’s Road! (Only those who have lived in a side street can pronounce the fine words ‘King’s Road’ with the proper accent of deference.) And every house in the King’s Road, Hilda now newly perceived, was a house of price and distinction. Nothing could be common in the King’s Road: the address and the view were incomparably precious. Being established there, George Cannon might, and no doubt would, ultimately acquire one of the largest public hotels; indeed, dominate the promenade! It would be just like him to do so! A year ago he was a solicitor in Turnhill. To-day he was so perfectly and entirely a landlord that no one could ever guess his first career. He was not merely extraordinary: he was astounding. There could not be many of his calibre in the whole world.

“How does it strike you?” he asked, with an eagerness that touched her.

“Oh! It’s splendid!” she answered, trying to put more natural enthusiasm into her voice. But the fact was that the Chichester had not yet struck her at all. It was only the idea of being in the King’s Road that had struck her — and with such an effect that her attention was happily diverted from her trouble, and her vexatious self-consciousness disappeared. She had from time to time remarked the Chichester, but never with any particularity; it had been for her just an establishment among innumerable others, and not one of the best — the reverse of imposing. It stood at the angle of King’s Road and Ship Street, and a chemist’s shop occupied the whole of the frontage, the hotel-entrance being in Ship Street; its architecture was fiat and plain, and the place seemed neglected, perhaps unprosperous.

“Twenty bow-windows!” murmured George Cannon, and then smiled at himself, as if ashamed of his own naïveté.

And Hilda counted the windows. Yes, there were eight on King’s Road and twelve at the side. The building was high, and it was deep, stretching far down Ship Street. In a moment it began to put on, for Hilda, quite special qualities. How high it was! How deep it was! And in what a situation! It possessed mysterious and fine characteristics which set it apart. Strange that hitherto she had been so blind to it! She and George Cannon were divided from the house by the confused and noisy traffic of the roadway, and by the streaming throngs on the opposite pavement. And none of these people riding or driving or walking, and none of the people pushing past them on the pavement behind, guessed that here on the kerb was the future master of the Chichester, an amazing man, and that she, Hilda Lessways, by his side, was the woman to whom he had chosen first to relate his triumph! This unrecognised secrecy in the great animated street was piquant and agreeable to Hilda, a source of pride.

“I suppose you’ve bought it?” she ventured. She had no notion of his financial resources, but her instinct was to consider them infinite.

“No! I’ve not exactly bought it,” he laughed. “Not quite! I’ve got the lease, from Christmas. How much d’ye think the rent is?” He seemed to challenge her.

“Oh! Don’t ask me!”

“Five hundred a year,” he said, and raised his chin. “Five hundred a year! Ten pounds a week! Nearly thirty shillings a day! You’ve got to pay that before you can even begin to think of your own profits.”

“But it’s enormous!” Hilda was staggered. All her mother’s houses put together had brought in scarcely a third of the rental of that single house, which was nevertheless only a modest unit in several miles of houses. “But can you make it pay?”

“I fancy so! Else I shouldn’t have taken it. The present man can’t. But then he’s paying £550 for one thing, and he’s old. And he doesn’t know his business. . . . Oh yes! I think I can see my money back. . . . Wait till Christmas is turned and I make a start!”

She knew that the future would justify his self-confidence. How he succeeded she could not define. Why should he succeed where another was failing? He could not go out and drag boarders by physical force into his private hotel! Yet he would succeed. In every gesture he was the successful man. She looked timidly up at his eyes under the strong black eyelashes. His glance caught hers. He smiled conqueringly.

“Haven’t said a word to Sarah yet!” he almost whispered, so low was his voice; and he put on a mock-rueful smile. Hilda smiled in response.

“Shall you keep Preston Street?” she asked.

“Of course!” he said with pride —“I shall run the two, naturally.” He put his shoulders back. “One will help the other, don’t you see?”

She thought she saw, and nodded appreciatively. He meant to run two establishments! At the same moment a young and stylish man drove rather slowly by in a high dog-cart. He nodded carelessly to George Cannon, and then, perceiving that George Cannon was with a lady, raised his hat in haste. George Cannon responded. The young man gazed for an instant hard at Hilda, with a peculiar expression, and passed on. She did not know who he was. Of George Cannon’s relationships in the town she was entirely ignorant, but that he had relationships was always obvious.

She blushed, thinking of what Sarah Gailey had said about ‘talk’ concerning herself and George Cannon. In the young man’s glance there had been something to annoy and shame her.

“Come across and have a look at the place,” said George Cannon, suddenly stepping down into the gutter, with a look first in one direction and then in the other for threatening traffic.

“I don’t think I’ll come now,” she replied.

“But why not? Are you in a hurry? You’ve plenty of time before five o’clock — heaps!”

“I’d prefer not to come,” she insisted, in an abashed and diffident voice.

“But what’s up?” he demanded, stepping back to the pavement, and glancing directly into her eyes.

She blushed more and more, dropping her eyelids.

“I don’t want to be talked about too much!” she muttered, mortified. Her inference was unmistakable. The whole of her mind seemed now to be occupied with an enormous grievance which she somehow had against the world in general. Her very soul, too, was bursting with this grievance.

“Talked about? But who —”

“Never mind! I know! I’ve been told!” she interrupted him.

“Oh! I see!” He was now understanding the cause of her trouble in Sarah Gailey’s bedroom.

“Now look here!” He went on. “I’ve just got to have a few words with you. You come across the road, please.” He was imperious.

She raised her glance for a timid moment to his face, and saw to her intense astonishment that he also was blushing. Never before had she seen him blush.

“Come along!” he urged.

She followed him obediently across the dangerous road. He waited for her at the opposite kerb, and then they went up Ship Street. He turned into the entrance of the Chichester, which was grandiose, with a flight of shallow steps, and then a porch with two basket chairs, and then another flight of shallow steps ending in double doors which were noticeably higher than the street level. She still followed.

“Nobody in here, I expect,” said George Cannon, indicating a door on the right, to an old waiter who stood in the dark hall.

“No, sir.”

George Cannon opened the door as a master, ushered Hilda into a tiny room furnished with a desk and two chairs, and shut the door.

iii

The small window was of ground glass and gave no prospect of the outer world, from which it seemed to Hilda that she was as completely cut off as in a prison. She was alone with George Cannon, and beyond the narrow walls which caged them together, and close together, there was nothing! All Brighton, save this room, had ceased to exist. Hilda was now more than ever affrighted, shamed, perturbed, agonised. Yet at the same time she had the desperate calm of the captain of a ship about to founder with all hands. And she saw glimpses, beautiful and compensatory, of the romantic quality of common life. She was in a little office of a perfectly ordinary boarding-house —(she could even detect the stale odours of cooking)— with a realistic man of business, and they were about to discuss a perfectly ordinary piece of scandal; and surely they might be called two common-sense people! And withal, the ordinariness and the midland gumption of the scene were shot through with the bright exotic rays of romance! She thought: “It is painful and humiliating to be caught and fixed as I am. But it is wonderful too!”

“The fact is,” said George Cannon, in an easy reassuring tone, “we never get the chance of a bit of quiet chat. Upon my soul we don’t! Now I suppose it’s Sarah who’s been worrying you?”

“Yes.”

“What did she say? . . . You’d better sit down, don’t you think?” He swung round the pivoted arm-chair in front of the closed desk and pointed her to it.

“Oh!” Hilda hesitated, and then sank on to the chair without looking at it. “She simply said there was a lot of talk about you and me. Has she been saying anything to you?”

He shook his head, staring down at her. Hilda put her arms on the arms of the chair, and, shirking the man’s gaze, stared down at the worn carpet and at his boots thereon. One instinct in her desired that he should move away or that the room should be larger, but another instinct wanted him to remain close, lest the savour of life should lose its sharpness.

“It passes me how people can say such things!” she went on, in a low, thrilled, meditative voice. “I can’t understand it!” She was quite sincere in her astonished indignation. Nevertheless, she experienced a positive pride at being brought into a scandal with George Cannon; she derived from it a certain feeling of importance; it proved that she was no longer a mere girlish miss.

George Cannon kept silence.

“I shall leave Brighton,” Hilda continued. “That I’ve quite decided! I don’t like leaving your sister, as ill as she is! But really —” And she thought how prudent she was, and how capable of taking care of herself — she all alone in the world!

“Where should you go to? Bursley? The Orgreaves?” George Cannon asked absently and carelessly.

“I don’t know,” said Hilda, with curtness.

He stepped aside, in the direction of the window, and examined curiously the surface of the glass, as though in search of a concealed message which it might contain. In a new and much more animated voice he said to the window:

“Of course I know it’s all my fault!”

Hilda glanced up at his back; he was still not more than three feet away from her.

“How is it your fault?” she asked, after a pause.

He made another pause.

“The way I look at you,” he said.

These apparently simple words made Hilda tremble, and deprived her of speech. They shifted the conversation to another plane. ‘The way I look at you! The way I look at you!’ What did he mean? How did he look at her? She could not imagine what he was driving at! Yes, she could! She knew quite well. All the time, while pretending to herself not to understand, she understood. It was staggering, but she perfectly understood. He had looked at her ‘like that’ on the very first day of their acquaintance, in his office at Turnhill, and again at the house in Lessways Street, and again in the newspaper office, and on other occasions, and again on the night of their arrival at Brighton. But surely not lately! Or did he look at her ‘like that’ behind her back? Was it possible that people noticed it? . . . Absurd! His explanation of the origin of the gossip did not convince her. She had, however, suddenly lost interest in the origin of the gossip. She was entirely occupied with George Cannon’s tone, and his calm, audacious reference to a phenomenon which had hitherto seemed to her to be far beyond the region of words.

She was frightened. She was like some one walking secure in the night, who is stopped by the sound of rushing water and stands with all his senses astrain, afraid to move a step farther, too absorbed and intimidated to be aware of astonishment. The point was not whether or not she had known or guessed the existence of this unseen and formidable river; the point was that she was thrillingly on its brink, in the dark. Every instant she heard its swelling current plainer and plainer. She thought: “Am I lost? How strange that this awful and exquisite thing should happen to just me!” She was quite fatalistic.

He turned his head suddenly and caught her guilty eyes for an instant before she could lower them.

“You don’t mean to say you don’t know what I mean?” he said.

She still could not speak. Her trouble was acute, her self-consciousness far keener than it had ever been before. She thought: “But it’s impossible that this awful and exquisite thing should happen in this fashion!” George Cannon moved a step towards her. She could not see his face, but she knew that he was looking at her with his expression at once tyrannic and benevolent. She could feel, beating upon her, the emanating waves of his personality. And she was as confused as though she had been sitting naked in front of him. . . . And he had brought all this about by simply putting something into words — by saying: “It’s the way I look at you!”

He went on:

“I can’t help it, you know. . . . The very first minute I ever set eyes on you. . . . Of course I’m thirty-six. But there it is! . . . I’ve never seen any one like you; and I’ve seen a few! The fact is, Hilda, I do believe you don’t know how fine you are.” He spoke more quickly and with boyish enthusiasm; his voice became wonderfully persuasive. “You are fine, you know! And you’re beautiful! I didn’t think so at first, but you are! You’re being wasted. Why, a woman like you . . .! You’ve no idea. You’re so proud and stiff, when you want to be . . . I’d trust you with anything. You’re absolutely the only woman I ever met that I’d trust like a man! And that’s a fact. . . . Now, nobody could ever think as much of you as I do. I’m quite certain of it. It couldn’t be done. I know you, you see! I understand everything you do, and whatever you do, it’s just fine for me. You couldn’t be as happy with any one else! You couldn’t! I feel that in my bones. . . . Now — now, I must tell you something —”

The praise, the sympathy, the passion were astounding, marvellous, and delicious to her. Was it conceivable that this experienced and worldly man had been captivated by such a mere girl as herself? She had never guessed it! Or had she always guessed it? An intense pride warmed her blood like a powerful cordial. Life was even grander than she had thought! . . . She drooped into an intoxication. Among all that he had said, he had not said that he was not stronger than she. He had not relinquished his authority. She felt it, sitting almost beneath him in the slippery chair. She knew that she would yield to him. She desired to yield to him. Her mind was full of sensuous images based on the abdication of her will in favour of his.

“Now, look here, Hilda. I want to tell you —”

He perhaps did not intend that she should look up; but she looked up. And she was surprised to see that his face was full of troubled hesitations, showing almost dismay. He made the motion of swallowing. She smiled; and set her shoulders back — the very gesture that she had learned from him.

“What?” she questioned, in a whisper.

Her brief mood of courage was over. She sank before him again, and waited with bowed head.

Profoundly disturbed, he stood quite still for a few seconds, with shut lips, and then he made another step to approach.

“Your name’s got to be Cannon,” she heard him say.

She thought, still waiting: “If this goes on a moment longer I shall die of anticipation, in bliss.” And when she felt his hand on her shoulder, and the great shadow of him on part of her face, her body seemed to sigh, acquiescent and for the moment assuaged: “This is a miracle, and life is miraculous!” She acknowledged that she had lacked faith in life.

She was now on the river, whirling. But at the same time she was in the small, hot room, and both George Cannon’s hands were on her unresisting shoulders; and then they were round her, and she felt his physical nearness, the texture of his coat and of his skin; she could see in a mist the separate hairs of his tremendous moustache and the colours swimming in his eyes; her nostrils expanded in transient alarm to a faint, exciting masculine odour. She was disconcerted, if not panic-struck, by the violence of his first kiss; but her consternation was delectable to her.

And amid her fright and her joy, and the wonder of her extreme surprise, and the preoccupation of being whirled down the river, she calmly reflected, somewhere in her brain: “The door is not locked. Supposing some one were to come in and see us!” And she reflected also, in an ecstasy of relief: “My life will be quite simple, now. I shall have nothing to worry about. And I can help him.” For during a year past she had never ceased to ask herself what she must do to arrange her life; her conscience had never ceased to tell her that she ought not to be content to remain in the narrow ideas of her mother, and that though she preferred marriage she ought to act independently of the hope of it. Throughout her long stay in Preston Street she had continually said: “After this — what? This cannot last for ever. When it comes to an end what am I to do to satisfy my conscience?” And she had thought vaguely of magnificent activities and purposes — she knew not what. . . . The problem existed no more. Her life was arranged. And now, far more sincerely than in the King’s Road twenty minutes earlier, she regarded the career of a spinster with horror and with scorn. At best, she suddenly perceived with blinding clearness, it would have been pitiful — pitiful! Twenty minutes earlier, in the King’s Road, she had dreamt of belonging absolutely to some man, of being at his disposal, of being under his might, of being helpless before him. And now! . . . Miracle thrice miraculous! Miracle unconceived, inconceivable! . . . No more ‘talk’ now! . . .

She told herself how admirable was the man. She assured herself that he was entirely admirable. She reminded herself that she had always deemed him admirable, that only twenty minutes earlier, in the King’s Road, when there was in her mind no dimmest, wildest notion of the real future, she had genuinely admired him. How clever, how tactful, how indomitable, how conquering, how generous, how kind he was! How kind to his half-sister! How forbearing with her! Indeed, she could not recall his faults. And he was inevitably destined to brilliant success. She would be the wife of a great and a wealthy man. And in her own secret ways she could influence him, and thus be greater than the great.

Love? It is an absolute fact that the name of ‘love’ did not in the first eternal moments even occur to her. And when it did she gave it but little importance. She had to admit that she had not consciously thought of George Cannon with love — at any rate with love as she had imagined love to be. Indeed, her immediate experience would not fit any theory that she could formulate. But with the inexorable realism of her sex she easily dismissed inconvenient names and theories, and accommodated herself to the fact. And the fact was that she overwhelmingly wanted George Cannon, and, as she now recognized, had wanted him ever since she first saw him. The recognition afforded her intense pleasure. She abandoned herself candidly to this luxury of an unknown desire. It was incomparably the most splendid and dangerous experience that she had ever had. She did not reason and she had no wish to reason. She was set above reason. Happy to the point of delicious pain, she yet yearned forward to a happiness far more excruciating. She was perfectly aware that her bliss would be torment until George Cannon had married her, until she had wholly surrendered to him.

Yet at intervals a voice said very clearly within her: “All this is wrong. This is base and shameful. This is something to blush for, really!” She did blush. But her blushes were a part of the delight. And the voice was not persistent. She could silence it with scarcely an effort, despite its clarity.

“Kiss me!” George Cannon demanded of her, with eager masterfulness.

The request shocked her for an instant, and the young girl in her was about to revolt. But she kissed him — an act which combined the sweetness of submission with the glory of triumph! She looked at him steadily, confident in herself and in him. She felt that he knew how to love. His emotion filled her with superb pride. She seemed to be saying to him in a doomed rapture: “Do you think I don’t know what I am doing? I know! I know!”

The current of the river was tremendous. She foresaw the probability of disaster. She was aware that she had definitely challenged the hazard of fate. But she was not terrified in the dark, swirling night of her destiny. She straightened her shoulders. With all her innocence and ignorance and impulsiveness and weakness, she had behind her the unique and priceless force of her youth. She was young, and she put her trust in life.

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