Hilda Lessways, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 2

Some Secret History

i

Without a word, Sarah had left the bedroom. Hilda waited, sitting on the bed, for George to come back from his haunts in the town. She both intensely desired and intensely feared his return. A phrase or two of an angry and vicious servant had almost destroyed her faith in her husband. It seemed very strange, even to her, that this should be so; and she wondered whether she had ever had a real faith in him, whether — passion apart — her feeling for him had ever been aught but admiration of his impressive adroitness. Was it possible that he had another wife alive? No, it was not possible! That is to say, it was not possible that such a catastrophe should have happened to just her, to Hilda Lessways, sitting there on the bed with her hands pressing on the rough surface of the damask counterpane. And yet — how could Louisa or Florrie have invented the story? . . . Wicked, shocking, incredible, that Florrie, with her soft voice and timid, affectionate manner, should have been chattering in secret so scandalously during all these weeks! She remembered the look on Florrie’s blushing face when the child had received the letter on the morning of their departure from the house in Lessways Street. Even then the attractively innocent and capable Florrie must have had her naughty secrets! . . . An odious world. And Hilda, married, had seriously thought that she knew all about the world! She had to admit, bewildered: “I’m only a girl after all, and a very simple one.” She compared her own heart in its simplicity with that of Louisa. Louisa horrified and frightened her. . . . Louisa and Florrie were mischievous liars. Florrie had seized some fragment of silly gossip — Turnhill was notorious for its silly gossip — and the two of them had embroidered it in the nastiness of their souls. She laughed shortly, disdainfully, to wither up silly gossip. . . . Preposterous!

And yet — when George had shown her the licence, in the name of Cannon, and she had ventured to say apologetically and caressingly: “I always understood your real name was Canonges,”— how queerly he had looked as he answered: “I changed it long ago — legally!” Yes, and she had persuaded herself that the queerness of his look was only in her fancy! But it was not only in her fancy. Suspicions, sinister trifling souvenirs, crowded into her mind. Had she not always doubted him? Had she not always said to herself that she was doing wrong in her marriage and that she would thereby suffer? Had she not abandoned the pursuit of religious truth in favour of light enjoyments? . . . Foolish of course, old-fashioned of course, to put two and two together in this way! But she could not refrain.

“I am ruined!” she decided, in awe.

And the next instant she was saying: “How absurd of me to be like this, merely because Louisa . . . ”

She thought she heard a noise below. Her heart leapt again into violent activity. Trembling, she crept to the door, and gently unlatched it. No slightest sound in the whole house! Dusk was coming on swiftly. Then she could hear all the noises, accentuated beyond custom, of Louisa setting tea in the dining-room for the Watchetts, and then the tea-bell rang. Despite her fury, apparent in the noises, Louisa had not found courage to neglect the sacred boarders. She made a defiant fuss, but she had to yield, intimidated, to the force of habit and tradition. The Watchetts descended the staircase from the drawing-room, practising as usual elaborate small-talk among themselves. They had heard every infamous word of Louisa’s tirade; which had engendered in them a truly dreadful and still delicious emotion; but they descended the staircase in good order, discussing the project for a new pier. . . . They reached the dining-room and shut the door on themselves.

Silence again! Louisa ought now to have set the tea in the basement parlour. But Louisa did not. Louisa was hidden in the kitchen, doubtless talking fourteen to the dozen with the cook. She had done all she meant to do. She knew that she would be compelled to leave at once, and not another stroke would she do of any kind! The master and the mistresses must manage as best they could. Louisa was already wondering where she would sleep that night, for she was alone on earth and owned one small trunk and a Post Office Savings Bank book. . . . All this trouble on account of Florrie’s sheets!

Sarah Gailey was in her bedroom, and did not dare to came out of it even to accuse Louisa of neglecting the basement tea. And Hilda continued to stand for ages at the bedroom door, while the dusk grew deeper and deeper. At last the front door opened, and George’s step was in the hall. Hilda recognized it with a thrill of terror, turning pale. George ran down into the basement and stumbled. “Hello!” she heard him call out, “what about tea? Where are you all? Sarah!” No answer, no sound in response! He ran up the basement steps. Would he call in at the dining-room, or would he come to the bedroom in search of her? He did not stop at the dining-room. Hilda wanted to shut the bedroom door, but dared not because she could not do it noiselessly. Now he was on the first floor! She rushed to the bed, and sat on it, as she had been sitting previously, and waited in the most painful and irrational agony. She was astonished at the darkness of the room. Turning her head, she saw only a whitish blur instead of a face in the dressing-table mirror.

ii

“What’s up?” he demanded, bursting somewhat urgently into the bedroom with his hat on. “What price the husband coming home to his tea? No tea! No light! I nearly broke my neck down the basement stairs.”

He put his hands against her elbows and kissed her, rather clumsily, owing to the gloom, between her nose and her mouth. She did not shrink back, but accepted the embrace quite insensibly. The contact of his moustache and of his lips, and his slight, pleasant masculine odour, produced no effect on her whatever.

“Why are you sitting here? Look here, I’ve signed the transfer of those Continental shares, and paid the cheque! So it’s domino, now!”

Between the engagement and the marriage there had been an opportunity of purchasing three thousand pounds’ worth of preference shares in the Brighton Hotel Continental Limited, which hotel was the latest and largest in the King’s Road, a vast affair of eight storeys and bathrooms on every floor. The chance of such an investment had fascinated George. It helped his dreams and pointed to the time when he would be manager and part proprietor of a palace like the Continental. Hilda being very willing, he had sold her railways shares and purchased the hotel shares, and he knew that he had done a good thing. Now he possessed an interest in three different establishments, he who had scarcely been in Brighton a year. The rapid progress, he felt, was characteristic of him.

Hilda kept silence, for the sole reason that she could think of no words to say. As for the matter of the investment, it appeared to her to be inexpressibly uninteresting. From under the lashes of lowered eyes she saw his form shadowily in front of her.

“You don’t mean to say Sarah’s been making herself disagreeable already!” he said. And his tone was affectionate and diplomatic, yet faintly ironical. He had perceived that something unusual had occurred, perhaps something serious, and he was anxious to soothe and to justify his wife. Hilda perfectly understood his mood and intention, and she was reassured.

“Hasn’t Sarah told you?” she asked in a harsh, uncontrolled voice, though she knew that he had not seen Sarah.

“No; where is she?” he inquired patiently.

“It’s Louisa,” Hilda went on, with the sick fright of a child compelled by intimidation to affront a danger. Her mouth was very dry.

“Oh!”

“She lost her temper and made a fearful scene with Sarah, on the stairs; she said the most awful things.”

George laughed low, and lightly. He guessed Louisa’s gift for foul insolence and invective.

“For instance?” George encouraged. He was divining from Hilda’s singular tone that tact would be needed.

“Well, she said you’d got a wife living in Devonshire.”

There was a pause.

“And who’d told her that?”

“Florrie.”

Indeed!” muttered George. Hilda could not decide whether his voice was natural or forced.

Then he stepped across to the door, and opened it.

“What are you going to do to her?” Hilda questioned, as it were despairingly.

He left the room and banged the door.

“It’s not true,” Hilda was beginning to say to herself, but she seemed to derive no pleasure from the dawning hope of George’s innocence.

Then George came into the room again, hesitated, and shut the door carefully.

“I suppose it’s no good shilly-shallying about,” he said, in such a tone as he might have used had he been vexed and disgusted with Hilda. “I have got a wife living, and she’s in Devonshire! I expect she’s been inquiring in Turnhill if I’m still in the land of the living. Probably wants to get married again herself.”

Hilda glanced at his form, and suddenly it was the form of a stranger, but a stranger who had loved her. And she thought: “Why did I let this stranger love me?” It was scarce believable that she had ever seriously regarded him as a husband. And she found that tears were running down her cheeks; and she felt all her girlishness and fragility. “Didn’t I always know,” she asked herself with weak resignation, “that it was unreal? What am I to do now?” The catastrophe had indeed happened to her, and she could not deal with it! She did not even feel tragic. She did not feel particularly resentful against George. She had read of such catastrophes in the newspapers, but the reality of experience nonplussed her. “I ought to do something,” she reflected. “But what?”

“What’s the use of me saying I’m sorry?” he asked savagely. “I acted for the best. The chances were ten thousand to one against me being spotted. But there you are! You never know your luck.” He spoke meditatively, in a rather hoarse, indistinct voice. “All owing to Florrie, of course! When it was suggested we should have that girl, I knew there was a danger. But I pooh-poohed it! I said nothing could possibly happen. . . . And just look at it now! . . . I wanted to cut myself clear of the Five Towns, absolutely — absolutely! And then like a damnation fool I let Florrie come here! If she hadn’t come, that woman might have inquired about me in Turnhill till all was blue, without you hearing about her! But there it is!” He snapped his fingers. “It’s my fault for being found out! That’s the only thing I’m guilty of. . . . And look at it! Look at it!”

Hilda could tell from the movements of the vague form in the corner by the door, and by the quality of his voice, that George Cannon was in a state of extreme emotion. She had never known him half so moved. His emotion excited her and flattered her. She thought how wonderful it was that she, the shaking little girl who yesterday had run off with fourpence to buy a meal at a tripe-shop, should be the cause of this emotion in such a man. She thought: “My life is marvellous.” She was dizzied by the conception of the capacity of her own body and soul for experience. No factors save her own body and soul and his had been necessary to the bringing about of the situation. It was essential only that the man and the woman should be together, and their companionship would produce miracles of experience! She ceased crying. Astounding that she had never, in George’s eyes, suspected his past! It was as if he had swiftly opened a concealed door in the house of their passion and disclosed a vista of which she had not dreamed.

“But surely that must have been a long time ago!” she said in an ordinary tone.

“Considering that I was twenty-two — yes!”

“Why did you leave her?”

“Why did I leave her? Because I had to! I’d gone as a clerk in a solicitor’s office in Torquay, and she was a client. She went mad about me. I’m only telling you. She was a spinster. Had one of those big houses high up on the hill behind the town!” He stopped; and then his voice began to come again out of the deep shadow in the corner. “She wanted me, and she got me. And she didn’t care who knew! The wedding was in the Torquay Directory. I told her I’d got no relations, and she was jolly glad.”

“But how old was she? Young?”

George sneered. “She’d never see thirty-six again, the day she was married. Good-looking. Well-dressed. Very stylish and all that! Carried me off my feet. Of course there was the money. . . . I may as well out with it all while I’m about it! She made me an absolute present of four thousand pounds. Insisted on doing it. I never asked. Of course I know I married for money. It happens to youths sometimes just as it does to girls. It may be disgusting, but not more disgusting for one than for the other. Besides, I didn’t realize it was a sale and purchase, at the time! . . . Oh! And it lasted about ten days. I couldn’t stand it, so I told her so and chucked it. She began an action for restitution of conjugal rights, but she soon tired of that. She wouldn’t have her four thousand back. Simply wouldn’t! She was a terror, but I’ll say that for her. Well, I kept it. Four thousand pounds is a lot of brass. That’s how I started business in Turnhill, if you want to know!” He spoke defiantly. “You may depend I never let on in the Five Towns about my beautiful marriage. . . . That’s the tale. You’ve got to remember I was twenty-two!”

She thought of Edwin Clayhanger and Charlie Orgreave as being about twenty-two, and tried in her imagination to endow the mature George Cannon with their youth and their simplicity and their freshness. She was saddened and overawed; not wrathful, not obsessed by a sense of injury.

Then she heard a sob in the corner, and then another. The moment was terrible for her. She could only distinguish in the room the blur of a man’s shape against the light-coloured wall-paper, and the whiteness of the counterpane, and the dark square of the window broken by the black silhouette of the mirror. She slipped off the bed, and going in the direction of the dressing-table groped for a match-box and lit the gas. Dazzled by the glare of the gas, she turned to look at the corner where stood George Cannon.

iii

The whole aspect of the room was now altered. The window was blacker than anything else; light shone on the carved frame of the mirror and on the vessels of the washstand; the trunks each threw a sharply defined shadow; the bed was half in the shadow of its mahogany foot, and half a glittering white; all the array of requisites on the dressing-table lay stark under the close scrutiny of the gas; and high above the bed, partly on the wall and partly on the ceiling, was a bright oblong reflection from the upturned mirror.

Hilda turned to George with a straightening of the shoulders, as if to say: “It is I who have the courage to light the gas and face the situation!” But when she saw him her challenging pride seemed to die slowly away. Though there was no sign of a tear on his features, and though it was difficult to believe that it was he who had just sobbed, nevertheless, his figure was dismayingly tragic. Every feature was distorted by agitation. He was absorbed in himself, shameless and careless of appearances. He was no more concerned about appearances and manly shame than a sufferer dying in torment. He was beyond all that — in truth a new George Cannon! He left the corner, and sat down on the bed in the hollow made by Hilda, and stared at the wall, his hands in the pockets of his gay suit. His gestures as he moved, and his posture as he sat, made their unconscious appeal to her in their abandonment. He was caught; he was vanquished; he was despairing; but he instinctively, and without any wish to do so, kept his dignity. He was still, in his complete overthrow, the mature man of the world, the man to whom it was impossible to be ridiculous.

Hilda in a curious way grew proud of him. With an extraordinary inconsequence she dwelt upon the fact that, always grand — even as a caterer, he had caused to be printed at the foot of the menu forms which he had instituted, the words: “A second helping of all or any of the above dishes will willingly be served if so desired.” And in the general havoc of the shock she began to be proud also of herself, because it was the mysterious power of her individuality that had originated the disaster. The sense of their intimate withdrawn seclusion in the room, disordered and littered by arrival, utterly alone save for the living flame of the gas, the sense of the tragedy, and of the responsibility for it, and especially her responsibility, the sense of an imposed burden to be grimly borne and of an unknown destiny to be worked out, the sense of pity, the sense of youth and force — these things gradually exalted her and ennobled her desolation.

“Why did you keep it from me?” she asked in a very clear and precise tone, not aggrieved, but fatalistic and melancholy.

“Keep what from you?” At length he met her eyes, darkly.

“All this about your being married.”

“Why did I keep it from you?” he repeated harshly, and then his tone changed from defiance to a softened regret: “I’ll tell you why I kept it from you! Because I knew if I told you I should have no chance with a girl like you. I knew it’d be all up — if I so much as breathed a hint of it! I don’t suppose you’ve the slightest idea how stand-offish you are!”

“Me stand-offish!” she protested.

“Look here!” he said persuasively. “Supposing I’d told you I wanted you, and then that I’d got a wife living — what would you have said?”

“I don’t know.”

“No! But I know! And suppose I’d told you I’d got a wife living and then told you I wanted you — what then? No, Hilda! Nobody could fool about with you!”

She was flattered, but she thought secretly: “He could have won me on any terms he liked! . . . I wonder whether he could have won me on any terms! . . . That first night in this house, when we were in the front attic — suppose he’d told me then — I wonder! What should I have said?” But the severity of her countenance was a perfect mask for such weak and uncertain ideas, and confirmed him deeply in his estimate of her.

He continued:

“Now that first night in this house, upstairs!” He jerked his head towards the ceiling. She blushed, not from any shame, but because his thought had surprised hers. “I was as near as dammit to letting out the whole thing and chancing it with you. But I didn’t — I saw it’d be no use. And that’s not the only time either!”

She stood silent by the dressing-table, calmly looking at him, and she asked herself, eagerly curious: “When were the other times?”

“Of course it’s all my fault!” he said.

“What is?”

“This! . . . All my fault! I don’t want to excuse myself. I’ve nothing to say for myself.”

In her mind she secretly interrupted him: “Yes, you have. You couldn’t do without me — isn’t that enough?”

“I’m ashamed!” he said, without reserve, abasing himself. “I’m utterly ashamed. I’d give anything to be able to undo it.”

She was startled and offended. She had not expected that he would kiss the dust. She hated to see him thus. She thought: “It isn’t all your fault. It’s just as much mine as yours. But even if I was ashamed I’d never confess it. Never would I grovel! And never would I want to undo anything! After all you took the chances. You did what you thought best. Why be ashamed when things go wrong? You wouldn’t have been ashamed if things had gone right.”

“Of course,” he said, after a pause, “I’m completely done for!”

He spoke so solemnly, and with such intense conviction, that she was awed and appalled. She felt as one who, having alone escaped destruction in an earthquake, stands afar off and contemplates the silent, corpse-strewn ruin of a vast city.

And the thought ran through her mind like a squirrel through a tree: “How could he refuse her four thousand pounds? And if she wouldn’t have it back — well, what was he to do? She must be a horrible woman!”

iv

Both of them heard a heavy step pass up the staircase. It was Louisa’s; she paused to strike a match and light the gas on the landing; and went on. But Sarah Gailey had given no sign, and the Watchetts were still shut in the dining-room. All these middle-aged women were preoccupied by the affair of George Cannon. All of them guessed now that Louisa’s charge was not unfounded — otherwise, why the mysterious and interminable interview between George Cannon and Hilda in the bedroom? Hilda pictured them all. And she thought: “But it is I who am in the bedroom with him! It is I who am living through it and facing it out! They are all far older than me, but they are outsiders. They don’t know what life is!”

George rose, picked up a portmanteau, and threw it open on the bed.

“And what is to be done?” Hilda asked, trembling.

He turned and looked at her.

“I suppose I mustn’t stay here?”

She shook her head, with lips pressed tight.

His voice was thick and obscure when he asked: “You won’t come with me?”

She shook her head again. She could not have spoken. She was in acute torture.

“Well,” he said, “I suppose I can count on you not to give me up to the police?”

“The police?” she exclaimed. “Why?”

“Well, you know — it’s a three years’ job — at least. Ever heard the word ‘bigamy’?” His voice was slightly ironical.

“Oh dear!” she breathed, already disconcerted. It had positively not occurred to her to consider the legal aspect of George’s conduct.

“But what can you do?” she asked, with the innocent, ignorant helplessness of a girl.

“I can disappear,” he replied. “That’s all I can do! I don’t see myself in prison. I went over Stafford Prison once. The Governor showed several of us over. And I don’t see myself in prison.”

He began to cast things into the portmanteau, and as he did so he proceeded, without a single glance at Hilda:

“You’ll be all right for money and so on. But I should advise you to leave here and not to come back any sooner than you can help. That’s the best thing you can do. And be Hilda Lessways again! . . . Sarah will have to manage this place as best she can. Fortunately, her health’s improved. She can make it pay very well if she likes. It’s a handsome living for her. My deposit on the Chichester and so on will have to be forfeited.”

“And you?” she murmured.

His back was towards her. He turned his head, looked at her enigmatically for an instant, and resumed his packing.

She desired to help him with the packing, she desired to show him some tenderness; her heart was cleft in two with pity; but she could not move; some harshness of pride or vanity prevented her from moving.

When he had carelessly finished the portmanteau, he strode to the door, opened it wide, and called out in a loud, firm voice:

“Louisa!”

A reply came weakly from the top floor:

“Yes, sir.”

“I want you.” He had a short way with Louisa.

After a brief delay, she came to the bedroom door.

“Run down to the King’s Road and get me a cab,” he said to her at the door, as it were confidentially.

“Yes, sir.” The woman was like a Christian slave.

“Here! Take the portmanteau down with you to the front door.” He gave her the portmanteau.

“Yes, sir.”

She disappeared; and then there was the noise of the front door opening.

George picked up his hat and abruptly left the room. Hilda moved to and fro nervously, stiff with having stood still so long. She wondered how he, and how she, would comport themselves in the ordeal of adieu. In a few moments a cab drove up — Louisa had probably encountered it on the way. Hilda waited, tense. Then she heard the cab driving off again. She rushed aghast to the window. She saw the roof of the disappearing cab, and the unwieldy portmanteau on it. . . . He had gone! He had gone without saying good-bye! That was his device for simplifying the situation. It was drastic, but it was magnificent. He had gone out of the house and out of her life. As she gazed at the dim swaying roof of the cab, magically the roof was taken off, and she could see the ravaged and stricken figure within, sitting grimly in the dark between the wheels that rolled him away from her. The vision was intolerable. She moved aside and wept passionately. How could he help doing all he had done? She had possessed him — the memories of his embrace told her how utterly! All that he had said was true; and this being so, who could blame his conduct? He had only risked and lost.

Sarah Gailey suddenly appeared in the room, and shut the door like a conspirator.

“Then —” she began, terror-struck.

And Hilda nodded, ceasing to cry.

“Oh! My poor dear!” Sarah Gailey moaned feebly, her head bobbing with its unconscious nervous movements. The sight of her worn, saddened features sharpened Hilda’s appreciation of her own girlishness and inexperience.

But despite the shock, despite her extreme misery, despite the anguish and fear in her heart and the immense difficulty of the new situation into which she was thus violently thrust, Hilda was not without consolation. She felt none of the shame conventionally proper to a girl deceived. On the contrary, deep within herself, she knew that the catastrophe was a deliverance. She knew that fate had favoured her by absolving her from the consequences of a tragic weakness and error. These thoughts inflamed and rendered more beautiful the apprehensive pity for the real victim — now affronted by a new danger, the menace of the law.

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