Hilda Lessways, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 2

A Rendezvous

i

“I suppose you’ve never thought about me once since I’ve left!”

She was sitting on the sofa in the small, shelved breakfast-room, and she shot these words at Edwin Clayhanger, who was standing near her. The singular words were certainly uttered out of bravado: they were a challenge to adventure. She thought: “It is madness for me to say such a thing.” But such a thing had, nevertheless, come quite glibly out of her mouth, and she knew not why. If Edwin Clayhanger was startled, so was she startled.

“Oh yes, I have!” he stammered — of course, she had put him out of countenance.

She smiled, and said persuasively: “But you’ve never inquired after me.”

“Yes, I have,” he answered, with a hint of defiance, after a pause.

“Only once.” She continued to smile.

“How do you know?” he demanded.

Then she told him very calmly, extinguishing the smile, that her source of information was Janet.

“That’s nothing to go by!” he exclaimed, with sudden roughness. “That’s nothing to go by — the number of times I’ve inquired!”

ii

She was silenced. She thought: “If I am thus intimate with him, it must be because of the talk we had in the garden that night.” And it seemed to her that the scene in the garden had somehow bound them together for ever in intimacy, that, even if they pretended to be only acquaintances, they would constantly be breaking through the thin shell of formality into some unguessed deep of intimacy. She regarded — surreptitiously — his face, with a keen sense of pleasure. It was romantic, melancholy, wistful, enigmatic — and, above all, honest. She knew that he had desired to be an architect, and that his father had thwarted his desire, and this fact endowed him for her with the charm of a victim. The idea that all his life had been embittered and shadowed by the caprice of an old man was beautiful to her in its sadness: she contemplated it with vague bliss. At their last meeting, during the Sunday School Centenary, he had annoyed her; he had even drawn her disdain, by his lack of initiative and male force in the incident of the senile Sunday School teacher. He had profoundly disappointed her. Now, she simply forgot this; the sinister impression vanished from her mind. She recalled her first vision of him in the lighted doorway of his father’s shop. Her present vision confirmed that sympathetic vision. She liked the feel of his faithful hand, and the glance of his timid and yet bellicose eye. And she reposed on his very apparent honesty as on a bed. She knew, with the assurance of perfect faith, that he had nothing dubious to conceal, and that no test could strain his magnanimity. And, while she so reflected, she was thinking, too, of Janet’s fine dress, and her elegance and jewels, and wishing that she had changed the old black frock in which she travelled. The perception that she could never be like Janet cast her down. But, the next moment, she was saying to herself proudly: “What does it matter? Why should I be like Janet?” And, the next moment after that, she was saying, in another phase of her pride: “I will be like Janet!”

They began to discuss the strike. It was a topic which, during those weeks, could not be avoided, either by the rich or by the poor.

“I suppose you’re like all the rest — against the men?” she challenged him again, inviting battle.

He replied bluntly: “What earthly right have you to suppose that I’m like all the rest?”

She bent her head lower, so that she could only see him through the veil of her eyelashes.

“I’m very sorry,” she said, in a low, smiling, meditative voice. “I knew all the time you weren’t.”

The thought shot through her mind like a lance: “It is incredible, and horribly dangerous, that I should be sitting here with him, after all that has happened to me, and him without the slightest suspicion! . . . And yet what can stop it from coming out, sooner or later? Nothing can stop it.”

Edwin Clayhanger continued to talk of the strike, and she heard him saying: “If you ask me, I’ll tell you what I think — workmen on strike are always in the right . . . you’ve only got to look at them in a crowd together. They don’t starve themselves for fun.”

What he said thrilled her. There was nothing in it, but there was everything in it. His generosity towards the oppressed was everything to her. His whole attitude was utterly and mysteriously different from that of any other man whom she had known. . . . And with that simple, wistful expression of his!

They went on talking, and then, following in secret the train of her own thoughts, she suddenly burst out:

“I never met anybody like you before.” A pause ensued. “No, never!” she added, with intense conviction.

“I might say the same of you,” he replied, moved.

“Oh no! I’m nothing!” she breathed.

She glanced up, exquisitely flattered. His face was crimson. Exquisite moment, in the familiarity of the breakfast-room, by the fire, she on the sofa, with him standing over her, a delicious peril. The crimson slowly paled.

iii

Osmond Orgreave entered the room, quizzical, and at once began to tease Clayhanger about the infrequency of his visits.

Turning to Hilda, he said: “He scarcely ever comes to see us, except when you’re here.” It was just as if he had said: “I heard every word you spoke before I came in, and I have read your hearts.” Both Hilda and Clayhanger were disconcerted — Clayhanger extremely so.

“Steady on!” he protested uncouthly. And then, with the most naïve ingenuousness: “Mrs. Orgreave better?”

But Osmond Orgreave was not in a merciful mood. A moment later he was saying:

“Has she told you she wants to go over a printing-works?”

“No,” Clayhanger answered, with interest. “But I shall be very pleased to show her over ours, any time.”

Hilda struck into silence, made no response, and instantly Clayhanger finished, in another tone: “Look here, I must be off. I only slipped in for a minute — really.”

And he went, declining Mr. Orgreave’s request to give a date for his next call. The bang of the front door resounded through the house.

Mr. Orgreave, having taken Clayhanger to the front door, did not return immediately into the breakfast-room. Hilda jumped up from the sofa, hesitant. She was disappointed; she was even resentful; assuredly she was humiliated. “Oh no!” she thought. “He’s weak and afraid. . . . I dare say he went off because Janet wasn’t here.” She heard through the half-open door Mr. Orgreave’s slippers on the tiles of the passage leading to the stairs.

Martha came into the room with a delighted, curious smile.

“If you please, miss, could you come into the hall a minute? . . . Some one to speak to you.”

Hilda blushed silently, and obeyed. Clayhanger was standing in the chill hall, hat in hand. Her heart jumped.

“When will you come to look over our works?” he muttered rapidly and very nervously, and yet with a dictatorial gruffness. “To-morrow? I should like you to come.”

He had put an enchantment upon her by this marvellous return. And to conceal from him what he had done, she frowned and kept silent.

“What time?” she asked suddenly.

“Any time.” His eagerness was thrilling.

“Oh no! You must fix the time.”

“Say between half-past six and a quarter to seven. That do?”

She nodded. Their hands met. He said adieu. He pulled open the heavy door. She saw his back for an instant against the pale gloom of the garden, in which vapour was curling. And then she had shut the door, and was standing alone in the confined hall. A miracle had occurred, and it intimidated her. And, amid her wondrous fears, she was steeped in the unique sense of adventure. “This morning I was in Brighton,” she thought. “Half an hour ago I had no notion of seeing him. And now! . . . And tomorrow?” The tragic sequel to one adventure had not impaired her instinct for experience. On the contrary, it had strengthened it. The very failure of the one excited her towards another. The zest of living was reborn in her. The morrow beckoned her, golden and miraculous. The faculty of men and women to create their own lives seemed divine, and the conception of it enfevered her.

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