Hilda Lessways, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 3

Florrie Again

i

As they were walking home along the King’s Road, Hilda suddenly stopped in front of a chemist’s shop. “I’ve got something to buy here,” she said diffidently, and then added: “I’ll follow you.”

“And what have you got to buy?” he asked, facing her, with his benevolent, ironical expression.

“Never mind!” she gently laughed. “I shan’t be many minutes after you.” She pretended to make a mystery. But her sole purpose was to avoid reentering the house in his company; and she knew that he had divined this. Nevertheless, she found pleasure in the perfectly futile pretence of a mysterious purchase.

She was very self-conscious as they stood there on the dusty footpath amid the promenaders gay and gloomy, chattering and silent, who were taking the sun and the salt breeze. Despite her reason, she had a fear that numbers of people would perceive her to be newly affianced and remark upon the contrast between her girlishness and his maturity. But George Cannon was not in the slightest degree self-conscious. He played the lover with ease and said quite simply and convincingly just the things which she would have expected a lover to say. Indeed, the conversation, as carried on by him, between the moment of betrothal and the arrival at the chemist’s shop, was the one phenomenon of the engagement which corresponded with her preconceived ideas concerning such an affair. It convinced her that she really was affianced.

“Well?” he murmured fondly and yet quizzically, as they remained wordless, deliciously hesitating to part. “What are you thinking about?”

She replied with brave candour, appealing to him by a soft glance:

“I was only thinking how queer it is I should be engaged in a room I’d never seen before in my life — going into it like that!”

He looked at her uncomprehending; for an instant his features were blank; then he smiled kindly.

“It’s so strange!” she encouraged him.

“Yes. Isn’t it?” he agreed, with charming, tranquil politeness.

“He doesn’t see it!” she thought, as she watched the play of his face. “He doesn’t see how wonderful it is that I should go into a room that was absolutely unknown to me and then this should happen at once. Why! I never knew there was such a room!” She could not define how she was affected by this fact, but she regarded the fact as tremendously romantic, and its effect on her was profound. And George saw in it no significance! She was disconcerted. She felt a tremor; it was as though the entire King’s Road had quivered for a fraction of a second and then, feigning nonchalance, resumed its moveless solidity.

Inside the chemist’s she demanded the first thing she set eyes on — a tooth-brush. All the while she was examining various shapes of toothbrushes, she had a vision of George raising his hat to take leave of her, and she could see not only the curve of his hand and the whiteness of his cuff, but also the millions of tiny marks and creases on the coarse skin of his face, extraordinarily different from her own smooth, pure, delicate, silky complexion. And she remembered that less than three years ago she had regarded him as of another generation, as indefinitely older and infinitely more experienced than her childish and simple self. This reflection produced in her a consternation which was curiously blissful.

“No, madam,” the white-aproned chemist was saying. “It’s this size that we usually sell to ladies.”

She put on the serious judicial air of an authentic adult woman, and frowned at the chemist.

ii

When, in Preston Street, she was reluctantly approaching the house, she saw a cab, coming downwards in the opposite direction, stop at No. 59.

“That must be Florrie!” she said, half-aloud.

The boarding-house being in need of another servant, young, strong, and reliable, Hilda had suggested that Miss Florence Bagster might be invited to accept the situation. Sarah Gailey had agreed that it would be wise to have a servant from Turnhill; she mistrusted southern servants, and appeared to believe that there was no real honesty south of the Trent. Florence Bagster had accepted the situation with enthusiasm, writing that she longed to be again with her former mistress; she did not write that the mysterious and magnetic name of Brighton called her more loudly than the name of her former mistress. And now Florence was due.

But it was not Florence who emerged from the cab. It was a tall and full-bosomed young lady in a gay multi-coloured costume, and gloves and a sunshade and a striking hat. This young lady stood by the cab expectant and smiling while the cabman pulled a tin trunk off the roof of the vehicle, and then, when the cabman had climbed down and was dragging the trunk after him, she put out an arm and seized one handle of the trunk to help him, which act, so strange on the part of a young lady, made Hilda, coming nearer and nearer, look more carefully. She was astounded as she realized that the unknown young lady was not a young lady after all, but the familiar Florrie at the advanced age of sixteen.

The aged cabman had made no mistake. He left the tin trunk on the pavement and took timid Florrie’s money without touching his hat for it. Florrie was laying her sunshade rather forlornly on the top of the tin trunk and preparing to lift the trunk unaided, when Mr. Boutwood, stout and all in black, came gallantly forth from the house to assist her. Sarah Gailey’s opposition had not been persistent enough to keep the jovial Mr. Boutwood out of No. 59. Shortly after Christmas his wife had died suddenly, and Mr. Boutwood, with plenty of time and plenty of money on his hands, had found himself desolated. In his desolation he had sought his old acquaintance George Cannon, and the result had somehow been that bygones had become bygones and a new boarder had increased the prosperity of No. 59. Sarah Gailey could not object. Indeed, she had actually wept for the death of one enemy and the affliction of another. Moreover, she seldom had contact with the boarders now.

The rather peculiar circumstances of Florrie’s arrival almost cured Hilda’s self-consciousness, and she entered the house, in the wake of the trunk, with a certain forgetful ease. There was Mr. Boutwood, still dallying with Florrie and the trunk, in the narrow hall! The shocking phenomenon of a boarder helping a domestic servant with her luggage had been rendered possible only by a series of accidents. The front door being left open on account of the weather, Mr. Boutwood had had a direct view of the maiden, and the maiden had not been obliged to announce her arrival officially by ringing a bell. Hence the other servants had not had notice. And of the overseers of the house one was imprisoned in the basement and the other two had been out betrothing themselves! In the ordinary way the slightest unusualness in the hall would instantly attract the attention of somebody in authority.

Mr. Boutwood was not immediately aware of Hilda. His attitude towards Florrie was shocking to Hilda in a double sense; it shocked her as an overseer, but it shocked her quite as much as a young woman newly jealous for the pride of all her sex. Florrie was beyond question exceedingly pretty; in particular the chin pouted more deliriously than ever. Her complexion was even finer than Hilda’s own. She had a simple, good-natured glance, a quick and extraordinarily seductive smile, and the unique bodily grace of her years. Her costume, though vulgar and very ill-made, was effective at a little distance; her form and movements gave it a fictitious worth. Indeed, she was an amazing blossom to have come off the dunghill of Calder Street. Domestic drudgery had not yet dehumanized nor disfigured her — it is true that her hands were concealed in gloves, and her feet beneath a flowing skirt. Now, Mr. Boutwood’s attitude showed very plainly that the girlish charms of Florrie had produced in him a definite and familiar effect. He would have been ready to commit follies for the young woman, and to deny that she was a drudge or anything but a beautiful creature.

Hilda objected. She objected because Mr. Boutwood was a widower, holding that he had no right to joy, and that he ought to mourn practically for ever in solitude. She would make no allowance for his human instincts, his needs of intimate companionship, his enormous unoccupied leisure. She would have condemned him utterly on the score of his widowhood alone. But she objected far more strongly to his attitude because he was fat and looked somewhat coarse. She counted his obesity to him for a sin. And it was naught to her that he had been a martyr to idleness and wealth, which combination had prematurely aged him. Mr. Boutwood was really younger than George Cannon, and Florence Bagster certainly seemed as old as Hilda. Yet the juxtaposition of the young, slim, and virginal Florrie and the large, earth-worn Mr. Boutwood profoundly offended her.

It was Mr. Boutwood who first discovered that Hilda was in the doorway. He was immediately abashed, and presented the most foolish appearance. Whereupon Hilda added scorn to her disgust. Florrie, however, easily kept her countenance, and with a pert smile took the hand which her former mistress graciously extended. By universal custom a servant retains some of the privileges of humanity for several minutes after entering upon a new servitude. Mr. Boutwood vanished.

“Louisa will help you upstairs with the trunk,” said Hilda, when she had made inquiries about the wonderful journey which Florrie had accomplished alone, and about the health of Florrie’s aunt and of her family. “Louisa!” she called loudly up the stairs and down into the basement.

iii

She followed the procession of the trunk upstairs, and, Louisa having descended again, showed Florrie into the kennel. This tiny apartment had in it two truckle-beds, and a wash-bowl on a chair, and little else. A very small square trap-window in the low ceiling procured a dusky light in the middle hours of the day. Florence seemed delighted with the room; she might have had to sleep under the stairs.

“Put on your afternoon apron, and then you can go down and see Miss Gailey,” said Hilda, and shut the door upon Florrie in her new home.

When she turned, there was George Cannon on the half-landing beneath the skylight! She knew not how he had come there, nor whether he had entered the house before or after herself.

“I’m glad he isn’t fat!” she thought. And it was as though she had thought: “If he were fat everything would be different.” Her features did not relax as she went down the five steps to the half-landing where he waited, smiling faintly. She thought: “We must be very serious and circumspect in the house. There must never be the slightest —” But while she was yet on the last step, he firmly put his hands on her ears and, drawing her head towards him, kissed her full on the mouth, and she saw again, through her eyelashes, all the details of his face. She yielded. All her ideas of circumspection melted magically away in an abandoned tenderness of which she was ashamed, but for which she would have unreflectingly made any sacrifice. The embrace was over in an instant. Besides being guiltless of obesity, George Cannon was free from the unpardonable fault of clumsiness. He was audacious, but he was not foolhardy, and he would never be abashed. True, she had seen dismay on his face at the moment of his declaration, but that moment was unique, and his dismay had ineffably flattered her. Now, on the half-landing, she was drenched in bliss. And she felt dissolute; she felt even base. But she did not care. She thought, as it were, startled: “This is love. This must be what love is. I must have been in love without knowing it. And as for a girl always knowing when a man’s in love with her, and foreseeing the proposal, and all that sort of thing. . . . ” Her practical contempt for all that sort of thing could not be stated in words.

“Florrie’s just come,” she whispered, and by a movement of the head indicated that Florrie was in the kennel.

They went together to the drawing-room on the first floor. It was, empty, the entire population of the boarding-houses being still on the seashore. Hilda stood near the door, which she left open, and gave detailed news of Florrie in a tone very matter-of-fact. There was no reference to love, or to the new situation created, or to the vast enterprise of the Chichester. The topic was Florrie, and somehow it held the field despite efforts to dislodge it.

Then the stairs creaked. Already Florrie was coming down. In a trice she had made herself ready for work. She came down timidly, not daring to look to right nor left, but concentrating her attention on the stairs. She passed along the landing outside the drawing-room door, and Hilda, opening the door a little wider, had a full surreptitious view of her back; and George Cannon, farther within the room, also saw her. They watched her disappear on her way to find the basement and the formidable Sarah Gailey. Hilda was touched by the spectacle of this child disguised as a strapping woman, far removed from her family and her companions and her familiar haunts, and driven or drawn into exile at Brighton, where she would only see the sea once a week, except through windows, and where she would have to work from fourteen to sixteen hours a day for a living, and sleep in a kennel. The prettiness, the pertness, and the naïve contentedness of the child thus realizing an ambition touched her deeply.

“It does seem a shame, doesn’t it?” she said.

“What?”

“Bringing her all the way up here, like this! She doesn’t know a soul in Brighton. She’s bound to be frightfully home-sick —”

“What about you?” George Cannon interrupted politely. “Doesn’t she know you?” He smiled with all his kindness.

“Yes — but —”

Hilda did not finish. It was not worth while. George Cannon had not understood. He did not feel as she felt, and her emotion was incommunicable to him. A tremendous misgiving seized her, and she had a physical feeling of emptiness in the stomach. It passed, swiftly as a hallucination. Just such a misgiving as visits nearly every normal person immediately before or immediately after marriage! She ignored it. She was engaged — that was the paramount fact! She was engaged, and joyously determined to prosecute the grand adventure to the end. The immensity of the risks forced her to accept them.

iv

That evening Sarah Gailey was in torment from the pain in her wrists. There was nothing to be done. She had had the doctor, and no article of the prescribed treatment had been neglected. With unaccustomed aid from Hilda she had accomplished the business of undressing and getting into bed, and now she sat up in bed, supported by her own pillows and one from Hilda’s bed, and nursed her wrists, while Hilda poured drops of a narcotic for her into a glass of water. Apart from the serious local symptoms, her health was fairly good. She could eat, she could talk, she could walk, and her brain was clear. Hilda held the glass for her to drink, for it was prudent to keep her hands as much as possible in repose.

“There!” said Hilda, as if to a young child who had been querulous. “I’m sure you’ll sleep now!”

“I don’t think I shall,” the sufferer whined.

“Oh yes, you will!” Hilda insisted firmly, although she was by no means sure. “Let me take this extra pillow away, and then you can lie down properly.” She was thinking reproachfully: “What a pity it is for all of us that the poor thing can’t bear her pain with a little less fuss!” It was not Sarah alone who was embittered and fatigued by Sarah’s pain.

“Where’s George?” asked the invalid, when she was laid down.

“In the parlour. Why?”

“Oh, nothing!”

“By the way,” said Hilda, seized by a sudden impulse, which had its origin in Sarah’s tone at once martyrized and accusing — “by the way, who is it that’s been talking scandal about me and George?”

“Scandal?” Sarah Gailey seemed weakly to protest against the word.

“Because, if you want to know,” Hilda continued, “we’re engaged to be married!” She reflected, contrite: “This won’t help her to sleep!” And then added, in a new, endearing accent, awaiting an outburst of some kind from Sarah: “Of course it’s a secret, dear. I’m telling no one but you.”

After a moment’s silence, Sarah remarked casually, with shut eyes: “It’ll be much the best not to tell anyone. And the shorter the engagement the better! Don’t let anybody in the house know till you’re married.” She sighed, put her cheek into the pillow, and moved her bound wrists for a few seconds, restlessly. “If you turn the gas down,” she finished very wearily, “I dare say I may get off. If only they’d stop that piano upstairs!”

She had displayed no surprise at the tremendous event, no sentimental interest in it. The fact was that Sarah Gailey’s wrists were infinitely more interesting to her than any conceivable project of marriage. Continuous and acute pain had withdrawn her from worldly affairs, making her more than ever like a god.

Hilda was startled. But she was relieved. Now for the first time she had the authentic sensation of being engaged. And it appeared to her that she had been engaged for a very long period, and that the engagement was a quite ordinary affair. She was relieved; yet she was also grievously saddened. She lowered the gas, and in the gloom gazed for a few seconds at the vague, huddled, sheeted, faintly moaning figure on the bed; the untidy grey hair against the pillow struck her as intolerably pathetic.

“Good night,” she said softly.

And the feeble, plaintive voice responded: “Good night.”

She went out, leaving the door slightly ajar.

v

In the parlour adjoining George Cannon was seated at the table. When Hilda saw him and their eyes met, she was comforted; a wave of tenderness seemed to agitate her. She realized that this man was hers, and the realization was marvellously reassuring. The sound of the piano descended delicately from the drawing-room as from a great distance. From the kitchen came the muffled clatter of earthenware and occasionally a harsh, loud voice; it was the hour of relaxed discipline in the kitchen, where amid the final washing-up and much free discussion and banter, Florrie was recommencing her career on a grander basis. Hilda closed the door very quietly. When she had closed it and was shut in with George Cannon her emotion grew intenser.

“I think she’ll get off now,” she whispered, standing near the door.

“Have you told her?”

Hilda nodded.

“What does she say?”

Hilda raised her eyebrows: “Oh! . . . Well, she says we’d better keep it quiet, and make the engagement as short as possible.” She blushed.

“Look here,” said George. “Let’s go out, eh?”

“But — what will people say?”

“What the devil does it matter what they say? I want you to come out with me.”

The whispered oath, and his defiant smile, enchanted her.

“We can go out by the area steps,” he continued. “There’s two of ’em sitting in the hall, but the front door’s shut. Do go and get your hat.”

She left the room with an obedient smile. Pushing open Sarah’s door very gently, she groped on the hooks behind it for her hat. “It won’t matter about gloves — in the dark,” she thought. “Besides, I mustn’t disturb her.” Before drawing-to the door she looked again at the bed. There was neither sound nor movement. Probably Sarah Gailey slept. The dim vision of the form on the bed and the blue spark of gas in the corner produced in Hilda a mood of poignant and yet delicious sorrow.

“Why, what’s the matter?” George Cannon asked when she had returned to the parlour.

She knew that her eyes were humid with tears. Both her arms were raised above her head as she fixed the hat. This act of fixing the hat in George’s presence gave her a new pleasure. She smiled at him.

“Nothing!” she said, whispering mysteriously. “I think she’s gone off. I’m so glad. You know she really does suffer dreadfully.”

His look was uncomprehending; but she did not care. The anticipation of going out with him was now utterly absorbing her.

He waited with his hand on the gas-tap till she was ready, and then he lowered the gas.

“Wait a moment,” she whispered at the door, and with a gesture called him back into the room from the flagged passage leading to the area steps.

On the desk was his evening glass of milk, which he drank cold in summer. She offered it to him in the twilit room like an enraptured handmaid. He had forgotten it. The fact that he had forgotten it and she had remembered it yet further increased her strange, mournful, ecstatic bliss.

“Have some,” he whispered, when he had drunk.

She finished the glass, trembling. They went forth, climbing the area steps with proper precautions and escaping as thieves escape, down the street. For an instant she glimpsed the wide-open windows of the drawing-room, and the dining-room, from behind whose illuminated blinds came floating, as it were wistfully, the sound of song and chatter. She thought of Sarah Gailey prone and unconscious in the basement. And she felt the moisture of the milk on her lips. “Am I happy or unhappy?” she questioned herself, and could not reply. She knew only that she was thrillingly, smartingly alive.

At the corner of Preston Street and King’s Road a landau waited.

“This is ours,” said George casually.

“Ours?”

What a splendid masculine idea! How it proved that he too had been absorbed in the adventure! She admired him humbly, like a girl, like a little girl. With the most formal deference he helped her into the carriage.

“Drive towards Shoreham,” he commandingly directed the driver, and took his place by her side.

Yes! He was mature. He was a man of the world. He had had every experience. He knew how to love. That such a being was hers, that she without any effort had captured such a being, flattered her to an extreme degree. She was glorious with pride. She leaned back in the carriage negligently, affecting an absolute calm. She armed herself in her virginity. Not George Cannon himself could have guessed that only by a miracle of self-control did she prevent her hand from seeking his beneath the light rug that covered their knees! She intimidated George Cannon in that hour, and the while her heart burned with shame at the secret violence of her feelings. She thought: “This must be love. This is love!” And yet her conscience inarticulately accused her of obliquity. But she did not care, and she would not reflect. She thought that she wilfully, perversely, refused to reflect; but in reality she was quite helpless.

Under the still and feverish night the landau rolled slowly along between the invisible murmuring sea and the lighted facades of Hove. Occasionally other carriages, containing other couples, approached, were plain for a moment, and dissolved away.

“So she thinks the engagement ought to be short?” said George Cannon.

“Yes.”

“So do I!” he pronounced with emphasis.

Hilda desired to ask him: “How short?” But she could not. She could not bring herself to put the question. She was too proud. By a short engagement, did he mean six months, three months, a month? Dared she hope that he meant . . . a month? This was a thought buried in the deepest fastness of her soul, a thought that she would have perished in order not to expose; but it existed.

“I think I should like to go back now,” she breathed timidly, before they were beyond Hove. It was not a request to be ignored. The carriage turned. She felt relief. The sensation of being alive had been too acute to be borne, and it was now a little eased. She knew that her destiny was irrevocable, that nothing could prevent her from being George Cannon’s. Whether the destiny was evil or good did not paramountly interest her. But she wanted to rush forward into the arms of fate and know her fate. She dreamed only of the union.

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