Hilda Lessways, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 1

Louisa Uncontrolled

i

Hilda, after a long railway journey, was bathing her face, arms, and neck at the large double washstand in the large double bedroom on the second floor of No. 59 Preston Street. At the back of the washstand was an unused door which gave into a small bedroom occupied by the youngest Miss Watchett. George Cannon came up quietly behind her. She pretended not to hear him. He put his hands lightly on her wet arms. Smiling with condescending indulgence, half to herself, she still pretended to ignore him, and continued her toilet.

The return from the honeymoon, which she had feared, had accomplished itself quite simply and easily. She had feared the return, because only upon the return was the marriage to be formally acknowledged and published. It had been obviously impossible to announce, during the strenuous summer season, the engagement of the landlord to a young woman who lived under the same roof with him. The consequences of such an indiscretion would have been in various ways embarrassing. Hence not a word was said. Nor were definite plans for the wedding made until George remarked one evening that he would like to be married at Chichester, Chichester being the name of his new private hotel. Which exhibition of sentimentality had both startled and touched Hilda. Chichester, however, had to be renounced, owing to the difficulty of residence. The subject having been thus fairly broached, George had pursued it, and one day somewhat casually stated that he had taken a room in Lewes and meant to sleep there every night for the term imposed by the law. Less than three weeks later, Hilda had inobtrusively departed from No. 59, the official account being that she was to take a holiday with friends after the fatigues of August and early September. She left the train at Lewes, and there, in the presence of strangers, was married to George Cannon, who had quitted Brighton two days earlier and was supposed to be in London on business. Even Sarah Gailey, though her health had improved, did not assist at the wedding. Sarah, sole depositary of the secret, had to remain in charge of No. 59.

A strange wedding! Not a single wedding present, except those interchanged by the principals! Nor had any of the problems raised by the marriage been solved, or attacked. The future of Sarah Gailey, for example! Was Sarah to go on living with them? It was inconceivable, and yet the converse was also inconceivable. Sarah had said nothing, and nothing had been said to Sarah. Matters were to settle themselves. It had not even been decided which room Mr. and Mrs. Cannon should inhabit as man and wife. It was almost certain that, in the dead period between the popular summer season and the fashionable autumn season, there would be several bedrooms empty. Hilda, like George, did not want to bother with a lot of tedious details, important or unimportant. The attitude of each was: “Let me get married first, and then I’ll see to all that.”

Thus had the return been formidable to Hilda. All the way from Ireland she had been saying to herself: “I shall have to go up the steps, and into the house, and be spoken to as Mrs. Cannon! And then there’ll be Sarah . . .!” But the entry into the house had produced no terror. Everywhere George’s adroitness had been wonderful, extraordinarily comforting and reassuring, and nowhere more so than in the vestibule of No. 59. The tone in which he had said to Louisa, “Take Mrs. Cannon’s handbag, Louisa,” had been a marvel of ease. Louisa had incontestably blenched, for the bizarre Sarah, who conserved in Brighton the inmost spirit of the Five Towns, had thought fit to tell the servants nothing whatever. But the trained veteran in Louisa had instantly recovered, and she had replied “Yes, sir,” with a simplicity which proved her to be the equal of George Cannon. . . . The worst was over for Hilda. And the next moments were made smooth by reason of a great piece of news which, forcing Sarah Gailey to communicate it at once, monopolized attention, and so entirely relieved the bride’s self-consciousness.

Florence Bagster, having insolently quarrelled with her mistress, had left her service without notice. Mr. Boutwood had also gone, and the connection between the two departures was only too apparent, not merely to Sarah, but also to the three Miss Watchetts, who had recently arrived. Florence, who could but whisper, had shouted at her mistress. Little, flushing, modest Florrie, who yesterday in the Five Towns was an infant, had compromised herself with a fat widower certainly old enough to be her father. And the widower, the friend of the house, had had so little regard for the feelings of the house that he had not hesitated to flaunt with Florrie in the town. It was known that they were more or less together, and that he stood between Florrie and the world.

ii

“I suppose I’d better write at once to her mother — or perhaps her aunt; her aunt’s got more sense,” said Hilda, as she dropped the sponge and groped for a towel, her eyes half blinded.

In moving she had escaped from his hands.

“What do you say?” she asked, having heard a vague murmur through the towel.

“I say you can write if you like.” George spoke with a careless smile.

Now, facing her, he put his hands on her damp shoulders. She looked up at him over the towel, leaning her head forward, and suspending action. Her nose was about a foot from his. She saw, as she had seen a hundred times, every detail of his large, handsome and yet time-worn face, every hair of his impressive moustache, all the melting shades of colour in his dark eyes. His charm was coarse and crude, but he was very skilful, and there was something about his experienced, weather-beaten, slightly depraved air, which excited her. She liked to feel young and girlish before him; she liked to feel that with him, alone of all men, her modesty availed nothing. She was beginning to realize her power over him, and the extent of it. It was a power miraculous and mysterious, never claimed by her, and never admitted by him save in glance and gesture. This power lay in the fact that she was indispensable to him. He was not her slave — she might indeed have been considered the human chattel — but he was the slave of his need of her. He loved her. In him she saw what love was; she had seen it more and more clearly ever since the day of their engagement. She was both proud and ashamed of her power. He did not possess a similar power over herself. She was fond of him, perhaps getting fonder; but his domination of her senses was already nearly at an end. She had passed through painful, shattering ecstasies of bliss, hours unforgettable, hours which she knew could never recur. And she was left sated and unsatisfied. So that by virtue of this not yet quite bitter disillusion, she was coming to regard herself as his superior, as being less naïve than he, as being even essentially older than he. And in speaking to him sometimes she would put on a grave and precociously sapient mien, as if to indicate that she had access to sources of wisdom for ever closed to him.

“But don’t you think we ought to write?” she frowned.

“Certainly if you like! It won’t do any good. You don’t suppose her aunt will come down here, do you? And even if she did. . . . There it is, and there you are!”

“Just let me wipe my shoulders, will you?” she said.

He lifted his hands obediently, and as they were damp he rubbed them on the loose corner of the towel.

“Well,” he said, “I must be off, I reckon.”

“Shall you see Mr. Boutwood?”

“I might. . . . I know where to catch him, I fancy.”

She seemed to have a glimpse of her husband’s separate life in the town — masculine haunts and habits of which she knew nothing and would always know nothing. And the large existence of the male made her envious.

“Going to see him now?”

“Well, yes.” George smiled roguishly.

“What shall you say to him?”

“What can I say to him? No business of mine, you know, except that we’ve lost a decent servant. But I expect that’s Sarah’s fault. She’s no use whatever with servants, now, Sarah isn’t.”

I shall never speak to Mr. Boutwood again!” Hilda exclaimed almost passionately.

“Oh, but —”

“His behaviour is simply scandalous. It’s really wicked. A man like him!”

George put his lips out deprecatingly. “You may depend she asked for it,” he said.

“What?”

“She asked for it,” he repeated with convinced firmness, and looked at her steadily.

A flush slowly spread over her face and neck, and she lowered her gaze. In her breast pride and shame were again mingled.

“You keep your hair on, littl’un,” said George soothingly, and kissed her. Then he took his hat and stick, which were with a lot of other things on the broad white counterpane, and went off stylishly.

“You don’t understand,” she threw at him with a delicious side-glance of reproof as he opened the door. She reproached herself for the deceiving coquetry of the glance.

“Don’t I?” he returned airily.

He was quite sure that nothing escaped his intelligence. To Hilda, shocked by the coarseness and the obtuseness which evidently characterized his attitude, now as on other occasions, this self-confidence was desolating; it was ominously sinister.

iii

She was alone with her image in the mirror, and the image was precisely the same that she had always seen; she could detect no change in it whatever. She liked the sensation of being alone and at home in this room which before she had only entered as an overseer and which she had never expected to occupy. She savoured the intimacy of the room — the necessaries on the washstand, the superb tortoiseshell brushes, bought by George in Dublin, on the dressing-table, the open trunks, George’s clothes on a chair, and her own flimsy trifles on the bed. Through the glass she saw, behind her image, the image of the closed door; and then she turned round to look at the real door and to assure herself that it was closed. Childish! And yet . . .! George had shut the door. She remembered the noise of its shutting. And that noise, in her memory, seemed to have transformed itself into the sound of fate’s deep bell. She could hear the clang, sharp, definite. She realized suddenly and with awe that her destiny was fixed hereafter. She had come to the end of her adventures and her vague dreams. For she had always dreamt vaguely of an enlarged liberty, of wide interests, and of original activities — such as no woman to her knowledge had ever had. She had always compared the life of men with the life of women, and admitted and resented the inferiority of the latter. She had had glimpses, once, of the male world; she had made herself the only woman shorthand-writer in the Five Towns, and one of the earliest in England — dizzy thought! But the glimpses had been vain and tantalizing. She had been in the male world, but not of it, as though encircled in a glass ball which neither she nor the males could shatter. She had had money, freedom, and ambition, and somehow, through ignorance or through lack of imagination or opportunity, had been unable to employ them. She had never known what she wanted. The vision had never been clear. And she reflected: “I wonder if my daughter, supposing I had one, would be as different from me as I am from my mother!”

She could recall with intense vividness the moment when she had first really contemplated marriage. It was in the steam-tram after having seen Edwin Clayhanger at the door of Clayhanger’s shop. And she could recall the sense of relief with which she had envisaged a union with some man stronger and more experienced than herself. In the relief was a certain secret shame, as though it implied cowardice, a shrinking away from the challenge of life and from the call of a proud instinct. In the steam-tram she had foreseen the time when she would belong utterly to some man, surrendering to him without reserve, the time when she would be a woman. And the thing had come about! Only yesterday she had been a little girl entering George Cannon’s office with timid audacity to consult him. Only yesterday George Cannon had been a strange, formidable man, indefinitely older and infinitely cleverer than she. And now they were man and wife! Now she was his! Now she profoundly knew him, and he was no longer formidable, in spite of his force. She had a recondite dominion over him. She guessed herself to be his superior in certain qualities. He was revealed to her; she felt that she was not revealed to him, and that in spite of her wholehearted surrender she had not given all because of his blindness to what she offered. She could not completely respect him. But she was his. She was naught apart from him. She was the wife. His existence went on mainly as before; hers was diverted, narrowed — fundamentally altered. Never now could she be enfranchised into the male world!

iv

She slipped her arms into a new bodice purchased in London on the second day of the marriage. Blushing, she had tried on that bodice in a great shop in Oxford Street; then it was that she had first said ‘my husband’ in public. All that day she had felt so weak and shy and light and helpless and guilty that she had positively not known what she was doing; she had moved in a phantom world. Only, she had perceived quite steadily and practically that she must give more attention to her clothes. Her old contempt for finery expired in the glory of her new condition. And now, as she settled the elegant bodice on her shoulders, and fastened it, and patted her hair, and picked up the skirt and poised it over her head, she had a stern, preoccupied look, as of one who said: “This that I am doing is important. I must not be hurried in doing it. It is vital that I should look well and that no detail of my appearance should jar.” Already she could see herself standing before George when he returned for the meal — the first meal which they would take together in the home. She could feel his eyes on her: she could anticipate her own mood — in which would be mingled pride, misgiving, pleasure, helplessness, abandonment — and the secret condescension towards him of her inmost soul.

All alone in the room she could feel his hands again on her shoulders: a mysterious excitation. . . . She was a married woman. She had the right to discuss Florrie’s case with aloof disdain, if she chose. Her respectability was unassailable. None might penetrate beyond the fact of her marriage. And yet, far within her, she was ashamed. She dimly admitted once more, as on several occasions previous to her marriage, that she had dishonoured an ideal. Her conscience would not chime with the conscience of society. She thought, as she prepared with pleasurable expectancy for her husband: “This is not right. This cannot lead to good. It must lead to evil. I am bound to suffer for it. The whole thing is wrong. I know it and I have always known it.”

Already she was disappointed with her marriage. Amid the fevers of bodily appetite she could clearly distinguish the beginning of lassitude; she no longer saw her husband as a romantic and baffling figure; she had explored and chartered his soul, and not all his excellences could atone for his earthliness. She wondered grimly where and under what circumstances he had acquired the adroitness which had charmed and still did charm her. She saw in front of her a vista of days and years in which ennui would probably increase and joy diminish. And she put her shoulders back defiantly, and thought: “Well, here I am anyhow! I wanted him and I’ve got him. What I have to go through I shall go through!”

And all the time, floating like vapour over these depths was a sheeny mood of bright expectation and immediate naïve content. And she said gaily that she must write at once to Janet Orgreave to announce the marriage, and that her mother’s uncle up in the north must also be informed.

v

Unusual phenomena made themselves apparent on the top staircase: raised voices which Hilda could hear more and more plainly, even through the shut door. At No. 59, in the off-seasons, nobody ever spoke in a loud tone, particularly on the staircase, except perhaps Florrie when, in conversation with Louisa, she thought she was out of all other hearing. Hilda’s voice was very clear and penetrating, but not loud. George Cannon’s voice in public places such as the staircase had an almost caressing softness. The Watchetts cooed like faint doves, thereby expressing the delicate refinement of their virginal natures. The cook’s voice was unknown beyond the kitchen. And nobody was more grimly self-controlled in speech than Sarah Gailey and Louisa. These two — and especially Louisa — seemed generally to be restraining with ease tremendous secret forces of bitterness and contempt. And now it was just these two who were noisy, and becoming noisier, to the dismay of a scandalized house. Owing to some accident or negligence the secret forces had got loose.

Hilda shook her head. It was clear that the problem of Sarah Gailey would have to be tackled and settled very soon. The poor woman’s physical sufferings had without doubt reacted detrimentally on her temperament and temper. She used to be quite extraordinarily adroit in the directing of servants, though her manner to them never approached geniality. But she had quarrelled with Florrie, and now she was breaking the peace with Louisa! It was preposterous and annoying, and it could not be allowed to continue. Hilda was not seriously alarmed, because she had the most perfect confidence in George’s skill to restore order and calm, and to conquer every difficulty of management; and she also put a certain trust in herself; but the menacing and vicious accents of Louisa startled her, and she sympathized with Sarah Gailey, for whom humiliation was assuredly in store — if not immediately at the tongue of Louisa, then later when George would have to hint the truth to her about her decadence.

The dispute on the attic landing appeared to be concerning linen which Louisa had omitted to remove from Florrie’s abandoned couch in her kennel.

“I ain’t going to touch her sheets, not for nobody!” Louisa proclaimed savagely. And by that single phrase, with its implications, she laid unconsciously bare the sordid baseness of her ageing heart; she exposed by her mere intonation of the word ‘sheets’ all the foulness of jealousy and thwarted salacity that was usually concealed beneath her tight dress and neat apron, and beneath her prim gestures and deferential tones. Her undisciplined voice rang spinsterishly down the staircase, outraging it, defiling the whole interior.

Hilda as silently as possible unlatched the door of the bedroom, and stood with ear cocked. Should she issue forth and interfere, or should she remain discreetly where she was? Almost in the same instant she heard the cautious unlatching of the drawing-room door; two of the Watchetts were there listening also. And there came up from the ground floor a faint giggle. The cook, at the kitchen door, was enjoying herself and giggling moral support to her colleague. The giggle proved that the master was out, that the young mistress had not yet established a definite position, and that during recent weeks the old mistress must have been steadily dissipating her own authority. Hilda peered along the landing from her lair, and upstairs and downstairs; she could see nothing but senseless carpets and brass rods and steps and banisters; but she knew that the entire household — she had the sensation that the very house itself — was alert and eavesdropping.

There was a hesitating movement on the unseen stairs above, and then Hilda could see Sarah Gailey’s felt slippers and the valance of her skirt. And she could hear Sarah’s emotional breathing.

“Very well, Louisa, I’ve done!” Sarah’s voice was quieter now. She was trying to control it, and to a limited extent was controlling its volume. It shook in spite of her. She spoke true. She had indeed done. She was at the end of her resources.

“I’ve been in houses,” Louisa conqueringly sneered, “that I have! But I never been in a house afore where one as ought to have been scullery-girl went off with a boarder, and nothing said, and him the friend of the master! And it isn’t as if that was all! . . . Sheets, indeed!”

“I’ve nothing further to say,” Sarah returned unnecessarily, and descended the stair. “I shall simply report to Mr. Cannon. We shall see.”

“And what’s this about Mrs. Cannon?” Louisa shouted, beside herself.

The peculiarity of her tone arrested Sarah Gailey. Hilda flushed. The Watchetts were listening. The Watchetts had not yet been told of the marriage. The announcement was to be made to them formally, a little later. And now it was Louisa who was making the announcement, brutally, coarsely. The outrage of the episode was a hundredfold intensified; it grew into an inconceivable ghastly horror. Hilda’s self-respect seemed to have a physical body and Louisa to be hacking at it with a jagged knife.

“Mr. Cannon has brought his wife home,” said Sarah Gailey shortly, with a dignity and courage that increased as her distance from the appalling, the incredible Louisa. Hilda could see her pale face now. The eyebrows and chin were lifted in scorn of the vile menial, but the poor head was trembling.

“And what about his other wife?”

“Louisa!”— Sarah Gailey looked again up the stairs —“I know you’re in a temper and not responsible for what you say. But you’d better be careful.” She spoke with elaborate haughty negligence.

“Had I?” Louisa shrilled. “What I say is, what about his other wife? What about the old woman he married in Devonshire? Why, God bless me, Florrie was full of it — couldn’t talk about anything else in bed of a night! Didn’t you know the old woman’d been inquiring for her beautiful ‘usband down your way?” She laughed loudly. “Turnhill — what’s-its-name? . . . And all of you lying low, and then making out all of a sudden as he’s brought his wife home! A nice house! And I’ve been in a few, too!”

Hilda could feel her heart beating with terrific force against her bodice, but she was conscious of no other sensation. She heard a loud snort of shattering contempt from Louisa; and then a strange and terrific silence fell on the stairs. There was no sound even of a movement. The Watchetts did not stir; the cook did not stir; Sarah Gailey did not stir; Louisa’s fury was sated. The empty landing lay, as it were, expectant at Hilda’s door.

Then Sarah Gailey perceived Hilda half hidden in the doorway, and staggeringly rushed towards her. In an instant they were both in the bedroom and the door shut.

“When will George be back so that he can put her out of the house?” Sarah whispered frantically.

“Soon, I expect,” said Hilda, and felt intensely self-conscious.

They said no more. And it was as though the house were besieged and invested, and only in that room were they safe, and even in that room only for a few moments.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/bennett/arnold/hilda-lessways/book5.1.html

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