Hilda Lessways, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 3

At the Works

i

That night, late, Hilda and Janet shut themselves up in the bedroom together. The door clicked softly under Janet’s gentle push, and they were as safe from invasion as if the door had been of iron, and locked and double-locked and barred with bars of iron. Alicia alone might have disturbed them, but Alicia was asleep. Hilda had a sense of entire security in this room such as she had never had since she drove away from Lessways Street, Turnhill, early one morning, with Florrie Bagster in a cab. It was not that there had been the least real fear of any room of hers being attacked: it was that this room seemed to have been rendered mystically inviolate by long years of Janet’s occupation. “Janet’s bedroom!”— the phrase had a sanction which could not possibly have attached itself to, for instance, “Hilda’s bedroom!” Nor even to “mother’s bedroom”— mother’s bedroom being indeed at the mercy of any profane and marauding member of the family, a sort of market-place for the transaction of affairs.

And, further, Janet’s bedroom was distinguished and made delicious for Hilda by its fire. It happened to be one of the very few bedrooms in the Five Towns at that date with a fire, as a regular feature of it. Mrs. Orgreave had a fire in the parental bedroom, when she could not reasonably do without it, but Osmond Orgreave suffered the fire rather than enjoyed it. As for Tom, though of a shivery disposition, he would have dithered to death before admitting that a bedroom fire might increase his comfort. Johnnie and Jimmie genuinely liked to be cold in their bedroom. Alicia pined for a fire, but Mrs. Orgreave, imitating the contrariety of fate, forbade a fire to Alicia, and one consequence of this was that Alicia sometimes undressed in Janet’s bedroom, making afterwards a dash for the Pole. The idea of a bedroom was always, during nearly half the year, associated with the idea of discomfort in Hilda’s mind. And now, in Janet’s bedroom, impressed as she was by the strangeness of the fact that the prime reason for hurrying at top-speed into bed had been abolished, she yet positively could not linger, the force of habit being too strong for her. And she was in bed, despite efforts to dawdle, while Janet was still brushing her hair.

As she lay and watched Janet’s complex unrobing, she acquired knowledge. And once more, she found herself desiring to be like Janet — not only in appearance, but in soft manner and tone. She thought: “How shall I dress tomorrow afternoon?” All the operations of her brain related themselves somehow to tomorrow afternoon. The anticipation of the visit to the printing-works burned in her heart like a steady lamp that shone through the brief, cloudy interests of the moment. And Edwin Clayhanger was precisely the topic which Janet seemed, as it were, expressly to avoid. Janet inquired concerning life at Brighton and the health of Sarah Gailey; Janet even mentioned George Cannon; Hilda steadied her voice in replying, though she was not really apprehensive, for Janet’s questions, like the questions of the whole family, were invariably discreet and respectful of the individual’s privacy. But of Edwin Clayhanger, whose visit nevertheless had been recounted to her in the drawing-room on her return, Janet said not a word.

And then, when she had extinguished the gas, and the oriental sleeve of her silk nightgown delicately brushed Hilda’s face, as she got into bed, she remarked:

“Strange that Edwin Clayhanger should call just to-night!”

Hilda’s cheek warmed.

“He asked me to go and look over their printing-works tomorrow,” said she quickly.

Janet was taken aback.

“Really!” she exclaimed, unmistakably startled. She spoke a second too soon. If she had delayed only one second, she might have concealed from Hilda that which Hilda had most plainly perceived, to wit, anxiety and jealousy. Yes, jealousy, in this adorably benevolent creature’s tone. Hilda’s interest in tomorrow afternoon was intensified.

“Shall you be able to come?” she asked.

“What time?”

“He said about half-past six, or a quarter to seven.”

“I can’t,” said Janet dreamily, “because of that Musical Society meeting — you know — I told you, didn’t I?”

In the faint light of the dying fire, Hilda made out little by little the mysterious, pale heaps of clothes, and all the details of the room strewn and disordered by reason of an additional occupant. The adventure was now of infinite complexity, and its complexity seemed to be symbolized by the suggestive feminine mysteriousness of what she saw and what she divined in the darkness of the chamber. She thought: “I am here on false pretences. I ought to tell my secret. That would be fair — I have no right to intrude between her and him.” But she instinctively and powerfully resisted such ideas; with firmness she put them away, and yielded herself with a more exquisite apprehension to the anticipation of tomorrow.

ii

The order of meals at Lane End was somewhat peculiar even then, and would now be almost unique. It was partly the natural expression of an instinctive and justified feeling of superiority, and partly due to a discretion which forbade the family to scandalize the professional classes of the district by dining at night. Dinner occurred in the middle of the day, and about nine in the evening was an informal but copious supper. Between those two meals, there came a tea which was neither high or low, and whose hour, six o’clock in theory, depended to a certain extent, in practice, on Mr. Orgreave’s arrival from the office. Not seldom Mr. Orgreave was late; occasionally he was very late. The kitchen waited to infuse the tea until a command came from some woman, old or young, who attentively watched a window for a particular swinging of the long gate at the end of the garden, or listened, when it was dark, for the bang of the gate and a particular crunching of gravel.

On this Tuesday evening, Osmond Orgreave was very late, and the movement of the household was less smooth than usual, owing to Mrs. Orgreave’s illness and to the absence of Janet at Hillport in connection with the projected Hillport Choral Society. (Had Janet been warned of Hilda’s visit, she would not have accepted an invitation to a tea at Hillport as a preliminary to the meeting of the provisional committee.) Hilda was in a state of acute distress. The appointment with Edwin Clayhanger seemed to be absolutely sacred to her; to be late for it would amount to a crime: to miss it altogether would be a calamity inconceivable. The fingers of all the clocks in the house were revolving with the most extraordinary rapidity — she was helpless.

She was helpless, because she had said nothing all day of her appointment, and because Janet had not mentioned it either. Janet might have said before leaving: “Tea had better not wait too long — Hilda has to be down at Clayhanger’s at half-past six.” Janet’s silence impressed Hilda: it was not merely strange — it was formidable: it affected the whole day. Hilda thought: “Is she determined not to speak of it unless I do?” Immediately Janet was gone, Hilda had run up to the bedroom. She was minded to change the black frock which she had been wearing, and which she hated, and to put on another skirt and bodice that Janet had praised. She longed to beautify herself, and yet she was still hesitating about it at half-past five in the evening as she had hesitated at eight in the morning. In the end she had decided not to change, an account of the rain. But the rain had naught to do with her decision. She would not change, because she was too proud to change. She would go just as she was! She could not accept the assistance of an attractive bodice! . . . Unfeminine, perhaps, but womanly.

At twenty-five minutes to seven, she went into Mrs. Orgreave’s bedroom, rather like a child, and also rather like an adult creature in a distracting crisis. Tom Orgreave and Alicia were filling the entire house with the stormy noise of a piano duet based upon Rossini’s William Tell.

“I think I’ll miss tea, Mrs. Orgreave,” she said. “Edwin Clayhanger invited me to go over the printing-works at half-past six, and it’s twenty-five minutes to seven now.”

“Oh, but, my dear,” cried Mrs. Orgreave, “why ever didn’t you tell them downstairs, or let me know earlier?”

And she pulled at the bell-rope that overhung the head of the bed. Not a trace of teasing archness in her manner! Hilda’s appointment might have been of the most serious business interest, for anything Mrs. Orgreave’s demeanor indicated to the contrary. Hilda stood mute and constrained.

“You run down and tell them to make tea at once, dear. I can’t let you go without anything at all. I wonder what can have kept Osmond.”

Almost at the same moment, Osmond Orgreave entered the bedroom. His arrival had been unnoticed amid the tremendous resounding of the duet.

“Oh, Osmond,” said his wife. “Wherever have you been so late? Hilda wants to go — Edwin Clayhanger has invited her to go over the works.”

Hilda, trembling at the door, more than half expected Mr. Orgreave to say: “You mean, she’s invited herself.” But Osmond received the information with exactly the same polite, apologetic seriousness as his wife, and, reassured, Hilda departed from the room.

Ten minutes later, veiled and cloaked, she stepped out alone into the garden. And instantly her torment was assuaged, and she was happy. She waited at the corner of the street for the steam-car. But, when the car came thundering down, it was crammed to the step; with a melancholy gesture, the driver declined her signal. She set off down Trafalgar Road in the mist and the rain, glad that she had been compelled to walk. It seemed to her that she was on a secret and mystic errand. This was not surprising. The remarkable thing was that all the hurrying people she met seemed also each of them to be on a secret and mystic errand. The shining wet pavement was dotted with dark figures, suggestive and enigmatic, who glided over a floor that was pierced by perpendicular reflections.

iii

In the Clayhanger shop, agitated and scarcely aware of what she did, she could, nevertheless, hear her voice greeting Edwin Clayhanger in firm, calm tones; and she soon perceived very clearly that he was even more acutely nervous than herself: which perception helped to restore her confidence, while, at the same time, it filled her with bliss. The young, fair man, with his awkward and constrained movements, took possession of her umbrella, and then suggested that she should remove her mackintosh. She obeyed, timid and glad. She stripped off her mackintosh, as though she were stripping off her modesty, and stood before him revealed. To complete the sacrifice, she raised her veil, and smiled up at him, as it were, asking: “What next?” Then a fat, untidy old man appeared in the doorway of a cubicle within the shop, and Edwin Clayhanger blushed.

“Father, this is Miss Lessways. Miss Lessways, my father. . . . She’s — she’s come to look over the place.”

“How-d’ye-do, miss?”

She shook hands with the tyrannic father, who was, however, despite his reputation, apparently just as nervous as the son. There followed a most sinister moment of silence. And, at last, the shop door opened, and the father turned to greet a customer. Hilda thought: “Suppose this fat old man is one day my father-in-law? Is it possible to imagine him as a father-in-law?” And she had a transient gleam of curiosity concerning the characters of the two Clayhanger sisters, and recalled with satisfaction that Janet liked the elder one.

Edwin Clayhanger, muttering, pointed to an aperture in the counter, and immediately she was going through it with him, and through a door at the back of the shop. They were alone, facing a rain-soaked yard. Edwin Clayhanger sneezed violently.

“It keeps on raining,” Edwin murmured. “Better to have kept umbrella! However —”

He glanced at her inquiringly and invitingly. They ran side by side across the yard to a roofed flight of steps that led to the printing-office. For a couple of seconds, the rain wet them, and then they were under cover again. It seemed to Hilda that they had escaped from the shop like fox-terriers — like two friendly dogs from the surveillance of an incalculable and dangerous old man. She felt a comfortable, friendly confidence in Edwin Clayhanger — a tranquil sentiment such as she had never experienced for George Cannon. After more than a year — and what a period of unforeseen happenings! — she thought again: “I like him.” Not love, she thought, but liking! She liked being with him. She liked the sensation of putting confidence in him. She liked his youth, and her own. She was sorry because he had a cold and was not taking care of it. . . . Now they were climbing a sombre creaking staircase towards a new and remote world that was separated from the common world just quitted by the adventurous passage of the rainy yard. . . . And now they were amid oily odours in a large raftered workshop, full of machines. . . . The printing-works! . . . An enormous but very deferential man saluted them with majestic solemnity. He was the foreman, and labelled by his white apron as an artisan, but his gigantic bulk — he would have outweighed the pair of them — and his age set him somehow over them, so that they were a couple of striplings in his vasty presence. When Edwin Clayhanger employed, as it were, daringly, the accents of a master to this intimidating fellow, Hilda thrilled with pleasure at the piquancy of the spectacle, and she was admiringly proud of Edwin. The foreman’s immense voice, explaining machines and tools, caused physical vibrations in her. But she understood nothing of what he said — nothing whatever. She was in a dream of oily odours and monstrous iron constructions, dominated by the grand foreman: and Edwin was in the dream. She began talking quite wildly of the four-hundredth anniversary of the inventor of printing, of which she had read in Cranswick’s History . . . at Brighton! Brighton had sunk away over the verge of memory. Even Lane End House was lost somewhere in the vague past. All her previous life had faded. She reflected guiltily: “He’s bound to think I’ve been reading about printing because I was interested in him I don’t care! I hope he does think it!” She heard a suggestion that, as it was too late that night to see the largest machine in motion, she might call the next afternoon. She at once promised to come. . . . She impatiently desired now to leave the room where they were, and to see something else. And then she feared lest this might be all there was to see. . . . Edwin Clayhanger was edging towards the door. . . . They were alone on the stairway again. . . . The foreman had bowed at the top like a chamberlain. . . . She gathered, with delicious anticipation, that other and still more recondite interiors awaited their visit.

iv

They were in an attic which was used for the storage of reams upon reams of paper. By the light of a candle in a tin candlestick, they had passed alone together through corridors and up flights of stairs at the back of the shop. She had seen everything that was connected with the enterprise of steam-printing, and now they were at the top of the old house and at the end of the excursion.

“I used to work here,” said Edwin Clayhanger.

She inquired about the work.

“Well,” he drawled, “reading and writing, you know — at that very table.”

In the aperture of the window, amid piles of paper, stood a rickety old table, covered with dust.

“But there’s no fireplace,” she said, glancing round the room, and then directly at him.

“I know.”

“But how did you do in winter?” she eagerly appealed.

And he replied shortly, and with a slight charming affectation of pride: “I did without.”

Her throat tightened, and she could feel the tears suddenly swim in her eyes. She was not touched by the vision of his hardships. It was the thought of all his youth that exquisitely saddened her — or all the years which were and would be for ever hidden from her. She knew that she alone of all human beings was gifted with the power to understand and fully sympathize with him. And so she grieved over the long wilderness of time during which he had been uncomprehended. She wanted, by some immense effort of tenderness, to recompense him for all that he had suffered. And she had a divine curiosity concerning the whole of his past life. She had never had this curiosity in relation to George Cannon — she had only wondered about his affairs with other women. Nor had George Cannon ever evoked the tenderness which sprang up in her from some secret and inexhaustible source at the mere sight of Edwin Clayhanger’s wistful smile. Still, in that moment, standing close to Edwin in the high solitude of the shadowed attic, the souvenir of George Cannon gripped her painfully. She thought: “He loves me, and he is ruined, and he will never see me again! And I am here, bursting with hope renewed, and dizzy with joy!” And she pictured Janet, too, wearying herself at a committee meeting. And she thought, “And here am I . . .!” Her bliss was tragic.

“I think I ought to be going,” she said softly.

They rethreaded the corridors, and in each lower room, as they passed, Edwin Clayhanger extinguished the gas which he had lit there on the way up, and Hilda waited for him. And then they were back in the crude glare of the shop. The fat, untidy old man was not visible. Edwin helped her with the mackintosh, and she liked him for the awkwardness of his efforts in doing so.

At the door, she urged him not to come out, and referred to his cold.

“This isn’t the end of winter, it’s the beginning,” she warned him. Nobody else, she knew, would watch over him.

But he insisted on coming out.

They arranged a rendezvous for three o’clock on the morrow, and then they shook hands.

“Now, do go in,” she entreated, as she hurried away. The rain had ceased. She fled triumphantly up Trafalgar Road, with her secret, guarding it. “He’s in love with me!” If a scientific truth is a statement of which the contrary is inconceivable, then it was a scientific truth for her that she and Edwin must come together. She simply would not and could not conceive the future without him. . . . And this so soon, so precipitately soon, after her misfortune! But it was her very misfortune which pushed her violently forward. Her life had been convulsed and overthrown by the hazard of destiny, and she could have no peace now until she had repaired and reestablished it. At no matter what risk, the thing must be accomplished quickly . . . quickly.

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