Hilda Lessways, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 1

Evening at Bleakridge

i

When Hilda’s cab turned, perilously swaying, through the gate into the dark garden of the Orgreaves, Hilda saw another cab already at the open house door, and in the lighted porch stood figures distinguishable as Janet and Alicia, all enwrapped for a journey, and Martha holding more wraps. The long façade of the house was black, save for one window on the first floor, which threw a faint radiance on the leafless branches of elms, and thus intensified the upper mysteries of the nocturnal garden. The arrival of the second cab caused excitement in the porch; and Hilda, leaning out of the window into the November mist, shook with apprehension, as her vehicle came to a halt behind the other one. She was now to meet friends for the first time after her secret and unhappy adventure. She feared that Janet, by some magic insight of affection, would read at once in her face the whole history of the past year.

Janet had written to her, giving and asking for news, and urging a visit, on the very day after the scene in which George Cannon admitted his turpitude. Had the letter been sent a day or two sooner, reaching Hilda on her honeymoon, she would certainly have replied to it with the tremendous news of her marriage, and, her marriage, having been made public in the Five Towns, her shame also would necessarily be public. But chance had saved her from this humiliation. Nobody in the district was aware of the marriage. By a characteristic instinct, she had been determined not to announce it in any way until the honeymoon was over. In answer to Janet, she had written very briefly, as was usual with her, and said that she would come to Lane End House as soon as she could. “Shall I tell her, or shan’t I?” she had cogitated, and the decision had been for postponement. But she strongly desired, nevertheless, to pay the visit. She had had more than enough of Preston Street and of Brighton, and longed to leave at any price.

And, at length, one dull morning, after George Cannon had sailed for America, and all affairs were somehow arranged or had arranged themselves, and Sarah Gailey was better and the autumn season smoothly running with new servants, she had suddenly said to Sarah: “I have to go to Bursley today, for a few days.” And she had gone, upon the impulse, without having previously warned Janet. Changing at Knype, she had got into the wrong train, and had found herself at Shawport, at the far, lower end of Bursley, instead of up at Bleakridge, close by the Orgreaves! And there was, of course, no cab for her. But a cabman who had brought a fare to the station, and was driving his young woman back, had offered in a friendly way to take Hilda too. And she had sat in the cab with the young woman, who was a paintress at Peel’s great manufactory at Shawport, and suffered from a weak chest; and they had talked about the potters’ strike which was then upheaving the district, and the cab had overtaken a procession of thinly clad potters, wending in the bitter mist to a mass meeting at Hanbridge; and Hilda had been thereby much impressed and angered against all employers. And the young woman had left the cab, half-way up Trafalgar Road, with a delicious pink-and-white smile of adieu. And Hilda had thought how different all this was from Brighton, and how much better and more homely and understandable. And now she was in the garden of the Orgreaves.

Martha came peeping, to discover the explanation of this singular concourse of cabs in the garden, and she cried joyously:

“Oh, Miss Janet, it’s Miss Hilda — Miss Lessways, I mean!”

Alicia shrieked. The first cab drew forward to make room for Hilda’s, and Hilda stepped down into the glare of the porch, and was plainly beheld by all three girls.

“Will they notice anything?” she asked herself, self-conscious, almost trembling, as she thought of the terrific changes that had passed in her since her previous visit.

But nobody noticed anything. Nobody observed that this was not the same Hilda. Even in the intimacy of the affectionate kiss, for which she lifted her veil, Janet seemed to have no suspicion whatever.

“We were just off to Hillport,” said Janet. “How splendid of you to come like this!”

“Don’t let’s go to Hillport!” said Alicia.

Janet hesitated, pulling down her veil.

“Of course you must go!” Hilda said positively.

“I’m afraid we shall have to go,” said Janet, with reluctance. “You see, it’s the Marrions — Edie’s cousins — and Edie will be there!”

“Who’s Edie?”

“Why! Tom’s fiancée! Surely I told you!”

“Yes,” said Hilda; “only I didn’t just remember the name. How nice!”

(She thought: “No sooner do I get here than I talk like they do! Fancy me saying, ‘How nice’!”)

“Oh, it’s all Edie nowadays!” said Alicia lightly. “We have to be frightfully particular, or else Tom would cut our heads off. That’s why we’re going in a cab! We should have walked — shouldn’t we, Janet? — only it would never do for us to walk to the Marrions’ at night! ‘The Misses Lessways’ carriage!’” she mimicked, and finicked about on her toes.

Janet was precisely the same as ever, but the pig-tailed Alicia had developed. Her childishness was now shot through with gestures and tones of the young girl. She flushed and paled continuously, and was acutely self-conscious and somewhat vain, but not offensively vain.

“I say, Jan,” she exclaimed, “why shouldn’t Hilda come with us?”

“To the Marrions’? Oh no, thanks!” said Hilda.

“But do, Hilda! I’m sure they’d be delighted!” Janet urged. “I never thought of it.”

Though she was flattered and, indeed, a little startled by the extraordinary seriousness of Janet’s insistence, Hilda shook her head.

“Where’s Tom?” she inquired, to change the subject.

“Oh!” Alicia burst out again. “He’s gone off hours ago to escort his ladylove from Hanbridge to Hillport.”

“You wait till you’re engaged, Alicia!” Janet suggested. But Janet’s eyes, too, twinkled the admission that Tom was just then providing much innocent amusement to the family.

“You’ll sleep in my room to-night, anyhow, dear,” said Janet, when Martha and Hilda’s cabman had brought a trunk into the hall, and Hilda had paid the cabman far more than his fare because he was such a friendly young cabman and because he possessed a pulmonary sweetheart. “Come along, dear! . . . Alicia, ask Swindells to wait a minute or two.”

“Swindells,” Alicia shouted to the original cabman, “just wait a jiff!”

“Yes, miss.” The original cabman, being old and accustomed to evening-party work in the Five Towns, knew the length of a jiff, and got down from his seat to exercise both arms and legs. With sardonic pleasure he watched the young cabman cut a black streak in the sodden lawn with his near front-wheel as he clumsily turned to leave. Then Martha banged the front door, and another servant appeared in the hall to help the trunk on its way upstairs.

“No! I shall never be able to tell them!” thought Hilda, following the trunk.

Alicia had scampered on in front of the trunk, to inform her parents of the arrival. Mrs. Orgreave, Hilda learnt, was laid up with an attack of asthma, and Osmond Orgreave was working in their bedroom.

ii

Hilda stood in front of the fire in Janet’s bedroom, and Janet was unlocking her trunk.

“Why! What a pretty bodice!” said Janet, opening the trunk. She stood up, and held forth the bodice to inspect it; and beneath Janet’s cloak Hilda could see the splendour of her evening dress. “Where did you get it?”

“In London,” Hilda was about to answer, but she took thought. “Oh! Brighton.” It was a lie.

She had a longing to say:

“No, not Brighton! What am I thinking of? I got it in London on my honeymoon!”

What a unique sensation that one word would have caused! But she could not find courage to utter it.

Alicia came importantly in.

“Mother’s love, and you are to go into her room as soon as you’re ready. Martha will bring up a tray for you, and you’ll eat there by the fire. It’s all arranged.”

“And what about father’s love?” Hilda demanded, with a sprightliness that astonished herself. And she thought: “Why are these people so fond of me? They don’t even ask how it was I didn’t write to tell them I was coming. They just accept me and welcome me without questions. . . . No! I can never tell them! It simply couldn’t be told, here! If they find out, so much the worse!”

“You must ask him!” Alicia answered, blushing.

“All right, Alicia. We’ll be ready in a minute or two,” said Janet in a peculiar voice.

It was a gentle command to Alicia to leave her elders alone to their adult confidences. And unwilling Alicia had to obey.

But there were no confidences. The talk, as it were, shivered on the brink of a confidence, but never plunged.

“Does she guess?” Hilda reflected.

The conversation so halted that at length Janet was driven to the banality of saying:

“I’m so sorry we have to go out!”

And Hilda protested with equal banality, and added: “I suppose you’re going out a lot just now?”

“Oh no!” said Janet. “We go out less and less, and we get quieter and quieter. I mean us. The boys are always out, you know.” She seemed saddened. “I did think Edwin Clayhanger would come in sometimes, now they’re living next door —”

“They’re in their new house, then!” said Hilda, with casualness.

“Oh, long ago! And I’m sure it’s ages since he was here. I like Maggie — his sister.”

Hilda knelt to her trunk.

“Did he ever inquire after me?” she demanded, with an air of archness, but hiding her face.

“As a matter of fact he did— once,” said Janet, imitating Hilda’s manner.

“Well, that’s something,” said Hilda.

There was a sharp knock at the door.

“Hot water, miss!” cried the voice of Martha.

The next instant Martha was arranging the ewer and the can and some clean towels on the washstand. Her face was full of joy in the unexpected arrival. She was as excited as if Hilda had been her own friend instead of Janet’s.

“Well, dear, shall you be all right now?” said Janet. “Perhaps I ought to be going. You may depend on it I shall get back as early as ever I can.”

The two girls kissed, with even more freedom than in the hall. It seemed astonishing to Hilda, as her face was close to Janet’s, that Janet did not exclaim: “Something has happened to you. What is it? You are not as you used to be! You are not like me!” She felt herself an imposter.

“Why should I tell?” Hilda reflected. “What end will it serve? It’s nobody’s business but mine. He is gone. He’ll never come back. Everything’s over. . . . And if it does get about, well, they’ll only praise me for my discretion. They can’t do anything else.”

Still, she longed timorously to confide in Janet. And when Janet had departed she breathed relief because the danger of confiding in Janet was withdrawn for the moment.

iii

Later, as the invalid had ordained, Hilda, having eaten, sat by the fire in the large, quiet bedroom of Mr. and Mrs. Orgreave. The latter was enjoying a period of ease, and lay, with head raised very high on pillows, in her own half of the broad bed. The quilt extended over her without a crease in its expanse; the sheet was turned down with precision, making a level white border to the quilt; and Mrs. Orgreave did not stir; not one of her grey locks stirred; she spoke occasionally in a low voice. On the night-table stood a Godfrey’s Chloride of Ammonia Inhaler, with its glass cylinder and triple arrangement of tubes. There was only this, and the dark lips and pale cheeks of the patient, to remind the beholder that not long since the bed had been a scene of agony. Mr. Orgreave, in bright carpet slippers, and elegant wristbands blossoming out of the sleeves of his black house-jacket, stood bending above a huge board that was laid horizontally on trestles to the left of the fireplace. This board was covered by a wide length of bluish transparent paper which at intervals he pulled towards him, making billows of paper at his feet and gradually lessening a roll of it that lay on the floor beyond the table. A specially arranged gas-bracket with a green shade which threw a powerful light on the paper showed that Osmond Orgreave’s habit was to work in that spot of an evening.

“Astonishing I have to do this myself, isn’t it?” he observed, stooping to roll up the accumulated length of paper about his feet.

“What is it?” Hilda asked.

“It’s a full-sized detail drawing. Simple! . . . But do you suppose I could trust either of my ingenious sons to get the curves of the mouldings right?”

“You’ll never be able to trust them unless you begin to trust them,” said Mrs. Orgreave sagely from the bed.

“Ha!” ejaculated Osmond Orgreave satirically. This remark was one of his most effective counters to argument.

“The fact is he thoroughly enjoys it, doesn’t he, Mrs. Orgreave?” said Hilda.

“You’re quite right, my dear,” said Mrs. Orgreave.

“Ah!” from Mr. Orgreave.

He sketched with a pencil and rubbed out, vigorously. Then his eye caught Hilda’s, and they both smiled, very content. “They’d look nice if I took to drink instead of to work, for a change!” he murmured, pausing to caress his handsome hair.

There was a sharp knock at the door, and into this room also the watchful Martha entered.

“Here’s the Signal, sir. The boy’s only just brought it.”

“Give it to Miss Hilda,” said Mr. Orgreave, without glancing up.

“Shall I take the tray away, ‘m?” Martha inquired, looking towards the bed, the supreme centre of domestic order and authority.

“Perhaps Miss Hilda hasn’t finished?”

“Oh yes, I have, thanks.”

Martha rearranged the vessels and cutlery upon the tray, with quick, expert movements of the wrists. Her gaze was carefully fixed on the tray. Endowed though she was with rare privileges, as a faithful retainer, she would have been shocked and shamed had her gaze, improperly wandering, encountered the gaze of the master or the guest. Then she picked up the tray, and, pushing the small table into its accustomed place with a deft twist of the foot, she sailed erect and prim out of the room, and the door primly clicked on her neat-girded waist and flying white ribbons.

“And what am I to do with this Signal” Hilda asked, fingering the white, damp paper.

“I should like you to read us about the strike,” said Mrs. Orgreave. “It’s a dreadful thing.”

“I should thing it was!” Hilda agreed fervently. “Oh! Do you know, on the way from Shawport, I saw a procession of the men, and anything more terrible —”

“It’s the children I think of!” said Mrs. Orgreave softly.

“Pity the men don’t!” Mr. Orgreave murmured, without raising his head.

“Don’t what?” Hilda asked defiantly.

“Think of the children.”

Bridling, but silent, Hilda opened the sheet, and searched round and about its columns with the embarrassed bewilderment of one unaccustomed to the perusal of newspapers.

“Look on page three — first column,” said Mr. Orgreave.

“That’s all about racing,” said Hilda.

“Oh dear, dear!” from the bed.

“Well, second column.”

“The Potters’ Strike. The men’s leaders,” she read the headlines. “There isn’t much of it.”

“How beautifully clearly you read!” said Mrs. Orgreave, with mild enthusiasm, when Hilda had read the meagre half-column.

“Do I?” Hilda flushed.

“Is that all there is about it?”

“Yes. They don’t seem to think it’s very important that half the people are starving!” Hilda sneered.

“Whose fault is it if they do starve?” Osmond Orgreave glanced at her with lowered head.

“I think it’s a shame!” she exclaimed.

“Do you know that the men broke the last award, not so very long since?” said Osmond Orgreave. “What can you do with such people?”

“Broke the last award?” She was checked.

“Broke the last award! Wouldn’t stick by their own agreement, their own words. I’ll just tell you. A wise young woman like you oughtn’t to be carried away by the sight of a procession on a cold night.”

He smiled; and she smiled, but awkwardly.

And then he told her something of the case for the employers.

“How hard you are on the men!” she protested, when he had done.

“Not at all! Not at all!” He stretched himself, and came round his trestles to poke the fire. “You should hear Mr. Clayhanger on the men, if you want to know what hard is.”

“Mr. Clayhanger? You mean old Mr. Clayhanger?”

“Yes.”

“But he isn’t a manufacturer.”

“No. But he’s an employer of labour.”

Hilda rose uneasily from her chair, and walked towards the distant, shadowed dressing-table.

“I should like to go over a printing-works,” she said abruptly.

“Very easy,” said Mr. Orgreave, resuming his work with a great expulsion of breath.

Hilda thought: “Why did I say that?” And, to cover her constraint, she cried out: “Oh, what a lovely book!”

A small book, bound in full purple calf, lay half hidden in a nest of fine tissue paper on the dressing-table.

“Yes, isn’t it?” said Mrs. Orgreave. “Tom brought it in to show me, before he went this afternoon. It’s a birthday present for Edie. He’s had it specially bound. I must write myself, and ask Edie to come over and meet you. I’m sure you’d like her. She’s a dear girl. I think Tom’s very fortunate.”

“No, you don’t,” Osmond Orgreave contradicted her, with a great rustling of paper. “You think Edie’s very fortunate.”

Hilda looked round, and caught the architect’s smile.

“I think they’re both fortunate,” said Mrs. Orgreave simply. She had almost no sense of humour. “I’m sure she’s a real good girl, and clever too.”

“Clever enough to get on the right side of her future mother-in-law, anyway!” growled Mr. Orgreave.

“Anyone might think Osmond didn’t like the girl,” said Mrs. Orgreave, “from the way he talks. And yet he adores her! And it’s no use him pretending he doesn’t!”

“I only adore you!” said Osmond.

“You needn’t try to turn it off!” his wife murmured, beaming on Hilda.

Tears came strangely into Hilda’s eyes, and she turned again to the dressing-table. And through a blur, she saw all the objects ranged in a long row on the white cloth that covered the rosewood; and she thought: “All this is beautiful.” And she saw the pale blinds drawn down behind the dressing-table, and the valance at the top, and the draped curtains; and herself darkly in the glass. And she could feel the vista of the large, calm, comfortable room behind her, and could hear the coals falling together in the grate, and the rustling of the architect’s paper, and Mrs. Orgreave’s slight cough. And, in her mind, she could see all the other rooms in the spacious house, and the dim, misted garden beyond. She thought: “All this house is beautiful. It is the most beautiful thing I have ever known, or ever shall know. I’m happy here!” And then her imagination followed each of the children. She imagined Marian, the eldest, and her babies, in London; and Charlie, also in London, practising medicine; and Tom and Janet and Alicia at the party at Hillport; and Jimmie and Johnnie seeing life at Hanbridge; while the parents remained in tranquillity in their bedroom. All these visions were beautiful; even the vision of Jimmie and Johnnie flourishing billiard-cues and glasses and pipes in the smoky atmosphere of a club — even this was beautiful; it was as simply touching as the other visions. . . . And she was at home with the parents, and so extremely intimate with them that she could nearly conceive herself a genuine member of the house. She was in bliss. Her immediate past dropped away from her like an illusion, and she became almost the old Hilda: she was almost born again into innocence. Only the tragic figure of George Cannon hung vague in the far distance of memory, and the sight thereof constricted her heart. Utterly her passion for him had expired: she was exquisitely sad for him; she felt towards him kindly and guiltily, as one feels towards an old error. . . . And, withal, the spell of the home of the Orgreaves took away his reality.

She was fingering the book. Its title-page ran: The English Poems of Richard Crashaw. Now she had never even heard of Richard Crashaw, and she wondered who he might be. Turning the pages, she read:

All thy old woes shall now smile on thee,

And thy pains sit bright upon thee,

All thy sorrows here shall shine,

All thy sufferings be divine:

Tears shall take comfort, and turn gems,

And wrongs repent to diadems.

And she read again, as though the words had been too lovely to be real, and she must assure herself of them:

Tears shall take comfort, and turn gems,

And wrongs repent to diadems.

She turned back to the beginning of the poem, and read the title of it: “A Hymn, to the name and honour of the admirable Saint Teresa — Foundress of the Reformation of the discalced Carmelites, both men and women: a woman for angelical height of speculation, for masculine courage of performance more than a woman: who yet a child outran maturity, and durst plot a martyrdom.”

The prose thrilled her even more intimately than the verse. She cried within herself: “Why have I never heard of Richard Crashaw? Why did Tom never tell me?” She became upon the instant a devotee of this Saint Teresa. She thought inconsequently, with a pang that was also a reassurance: “George Cannon would never have understood this. But everyone here understands it.” And with hands enfevered, she turned the pages again, and, after several disappointments, read:

Oh, thou undaunted daughter of desires!

By all thy dower of lights and fires;

By all the eagle in thee, all the dove:

By all thy lives and deaths of love:

By thy large draughts of intellectual day;

And by thy thirsts of love more large than they:

By all thy brim-filled bowls of fierce desire,

By this last morning’s draught of liquid fire:

By the full kingdom of that final kiss ——

She ceased to read. It was as if her soul was crying out: “I also am Teresa. This is I! This is I!”

And then the door opened, and Martha appeared once more:

“If you please, sir, Mr. Edwin Clayhanger’s called.”

“Oh . . . well, I’m nearly finished. Where is he?”

“In the breakfast-room, sir.”

“Well, tell him I’ll be down in a minute.”

“Hilda,” said Mrs. Orgreave, “will you mind going and telling him?”

Hilda had replaced the book in its nest, and gone quickly back to her chair. The entrance of the servant at that moment, to announce Edwin Clayhanger, seemed to her startlingly dramatic. “What,” she thought, “I am just reading that and he comes! . . . He hasn’t been here for ages, and, on the very night that I come, he comes!”

“Certainly,” she replied to Mrs. Orgreave. And she thought: “This is the second time she has sent me with a message to Edwin Clayhanger.”

Suddenly, she blushed in confusion before the mistress of the home. “Is it possible,” she asked herself — “is it possible that Mrs. Orgreave doesn’t guess what has happened to me? Is it possible she can’t see that I’m different from what I used to be? If she knew . . . if they knew . . . here!”

She left the room like a criminal. When she was going down the stairs, she discovered that she held the Signal in her hand. She had no recollection of picking it up, and there was no object in taking it to the breakfast-room! She thought: “What a state I must be in!”

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