Hilda Lessways, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 4

The Call from Brighton

i

On the next afternoon, at a quarter-past two, Hilda and Janet were sitting together in the breakfast-room. The house was still. The men were either theoretically or practically at business. Alicia was at school. Mrs. Orgreave lay upstairs. The servants had cleared away and washed up the dinner-things, and had dined themselves. The kitchen had been cleansed and put in order, and every fire replenished. Two of the servants were in their own chambers, enfranchised for an hour: one only remained on duty. All six women had the feeling, which comes to most women at a certain moment in each day, that life had, for a time, deteriorated into the purposeless and the futile; and that it waited, as in a trance, until some external masculine event, expected or unforeseen, should renew its virtue and its energy.

Hilda was in half a mind to tell Janet the history of the past year. She had wakened up in the night, and perceived with dreadful clearness that trouble lay in front of her. The relations between herself and Edwin Clayhanger were developing with the most dizzy rapidity, and in a direction which she desired, but it would be impossible for her, if she fostered the relations, to continue to keep Edwin in ignorance of the fact that, having been known for about a fortnight as Mrs. George Cannon, she was not what he supposed her to be. With imagination on fire, she was anticipating the rendezvous at three o’clock. She reached forward to it in ecstasy; but she might not enjoy it, save at the price which her conscience exacted. She had to say to Edwin Clayhanger that she had been the victim of a bigamist. Could she say it to him? She had not been able to say it even to Janet Orgreave. . . . She would say it first to Janet. There, in the breakfast-room, she would say it. If it killed her to say it, she would say it. She must at any cost be able to respect herself, and, as matters stood, she could not respect herself.

Janet, on her knees, was idly arranging books on one of the lower bookshelves. In sheer nervousness, Hilda also dropped to her knees on the hearthrug, and began to worry the fire with the poker.

“I say, Janet,” she began.

“Yes?” Janet did not look up.

Hilda, her heart beating, thought, with affrighted swiftness: “Why should I tell her? It is no business of anybody’s except his. I will tell him, and him alone, and then act according to his wishes. After all, I am not to blame. I am quite innocent. But I won’t tell him today. Not today! I must be more sure. It would be ridiculous to tell him today. If I told him it would be almost like inviting a proposal! But when the proper time comes — then I will tell him, and he will understand! He is bound to understand perfectly. He’s in love with me.”

She dared not tell Janet. In that abode of joyful and successful propriety the words would not form themselves. And the argument that she was not to blame carried no weight whatever. She — she, Hilda — lacked courage to be candid. . . . This was extremely disconcerting to her self-esteem. . . . And even with Edwin Clayhanger she wished to temporize. She longed for nothing so much as to see him; and yet she feared to meet him.

“Yes?” Janet repeated.

A bell rang faintly in the distance of the house.

Hilda, suddenly choosing a course, said: “I forgot to tell you. I’m supposed to be going down to Clayhanger’s at three to see a machine at work — it was too late last night. Do come with me. I hate going by myself.” It was true: in that instant she did hate going by herself. She thought, knowing Janet to be at liberty and never dreaming that she would refuse: “I am saved — for the present.”

But Janet answered self-consciously:

“I don’t think I must leave mother. You’ll be perfectly all right by yourself.”

Hilda impetuously turned her head; their glances met for an instant, in suspicion, challenge, animosity. They had an immense mutual admiration the one for the other, these two; and yet now they were estranged. Esteem was nullified by instinct. Hilda thought with positive savagery: “It’s all fiddlesticks about not leaving her mother! She’s simply on her high horse!” The whole colour of existence was changed.

ii

Martha entered the room. Neither of the girls moved. Beneath the deferential servant in Martha was a human girl, making a third in the room, who familiarly divined the moods of the other two and judged them as an equal; and the other two knew it, and therefore did not trouble to be spectacular in front of her.

“A letter, miss,” said Martha, approaching Hilda. “The old postman says it was insufficiently addressed, or it ‘ud ha’ been here by first post.”

“Was that the postman who rang just now?” asked Janet.

“Yes, miss.”

Hilda took the letter with apprehension, as she recognized the down-slanting calligraphy of Sarah Gailey. Yes, the address was imperfect —“Miss Lessways, c/o Osmond Orgreave, Esq., Lane End House, Knype-on-Trent,” instead of “Bursley, Knype-on-Trent.” On the back of the envelope had been written in pencil by an official, “Try Bursley.” Sarah Gailey could not now be trusted to address an envelope correctly. The mere handwriting seemed to announce misfortune.

“From poor Sarah,” Hilda murmured, with false, good-tempered tranquillity. “I wonder what sort of trouble she thinks she’s got into!”

She thought: “If only I was married, I should be free of responsibility about Sarah. I should have to think of my husband first. But nothing else can free me. Unless I marry, I’m tied to Sarah Gailey as long as she lives. . . . And why? . . . I should like to know!” The answer was simple: habit had shackled her to Sarah Gailey.

She opened the letter by the flickering firelight, which was stronger on the hearthrug than the light of the dim November day. It began: “Dearest Hilda, I write at once to tell you that a lawyer called here this afternoon to inquire about your Hotel Continental shares. He told me there was going to be some difficulty with the Company, and, unless the independent shareholders formed a strong local committee to look after things, the trouble might be serious. He wanted to know if you would support a committee at the meeting. I gave him your address, and he’s going to write to you. But I thought I would write to you as well. His name is Eustace Broughton, 124 East Street, in case. I do hope nothing will go wrong. It is like what must be, I am sure! It has been impossible for me to keep the charwoman. So I sent her off this morning. Can you remember the address of that Mrs. Catkin? . . . ” Sarah Gailey continued to discuss boarding-house affairs, until she arrived at the end of the fourth page, and then, in a few cramped words, she finished with expressions of love.

“Oh dear!” Hilda exclaimed, rising, “I must write some letters at once.” She sighed, as if in tedium. The fact that her fortune was vaguely threatened did not cause her anxiety: she scarcely realized it. What she saw was an opportunity to evade the immediate meeting with Edwin — the meeting which, a few minutes earlier, she had desired beyond everything.

“When? Now?”

Hilda nodded.

“But what about Master Edwin?” Janet asked, trying to be gay.

“I shan’t be able to go,” said Hilda carelessly, at the door. “It’s of no consequence.”

“Martha has to go down town. If you like, she could call in there, and just tell him.”

It was a reproof, from the young woman who always so thoughtfully studied the feelings of everybody.

“I’ll just write a little note, then, thanks!” Hilda returned calmly, triumphing after all over Janet’s superiority, and thinking, “Janet can be very peculiar, Janet can!”

iii

For more than twenty hours, Hilda was profoundly miserable. Towards the evening of the same day, she had made herself quite sure that Edwin Clayhanger would call that night. Her hope persisted until half-past nine: it then began to fade, and, at ten o’clock, was extinct. His name had been mentioned by nobody. She went to bed. Having now a room of her own, which overlooked the Clayhanger garden and house, she gazed forth, and, in the dark, beheld, with the most anxious sensations, the building in which Edwin existed and was concealed. “He is there,” she said. “He is active about something at this very instant — perhaps he is reading. He is close by. If I shouted, he might hear. . . . ” And yet she was utterly cut off from him. Again, in the late dawn, she saw the same building, pale and clear, but just as secretive and enigmatic as in the night. “He is asleep yet,” she thought. “Why did he not call? Is he hurt? Is he proud?”

She despaired, because she could devise no means of resuming communication with him.

Immediately after dinner on the next day, she went with Janet to Janet’s room, to examine a new winter cloak which had been delivered. And, while Janet was trying it on, and posing coquettishly and yet without affectation in front of the glass, and while Hilda was reflecting jealously, “Why am I not like her? I know infinitely more than she knows. I am a woman, and she is a girl, and yet she seems far more a woman than I—” Alicia, contrary to all rules, took the room by storm. Alicia’s excuse and salvation lay in a telegram, which she held in her hand.

“For you, Hilda!” cried the child, excited. “I’m just off to school.”

Hilda reached to take the offered telegram, but her hand wavered around it instead of seizing it. Her eye fastened on a circular portion of the wall-paper pattern, and she felt that the whole room was revolving about her. Then she saw Janet’s face transformed by an expression of alarm.

“Are you ill, Hilda?” Janet demanded. “Sit down.”

“You’re frightfully pale,” said Alicia eagerly.

Hilda sat down.

“No, no,” she said. “It was the pattern of the wall-paper that made me feel dizzy.” And, for the moment, she did honestly believe that the pattern of the wall-paper had, in some inexplicable manner, upset her. “I’m all right now.”

The dizziness passed as suddenly as it had supervened. Janet held some ineffectual salts to her nose.

“I’m perfectly well,” insisted Hilda.

“How funny!” Alicia grinned.

Calmly Hilda opened the telegram, which read: “Please come at once. — GAILEY.”

She gave the telegram to Janet in silence.

“What can be the matter?” Janet asked, with unreserved, loving solicitude. The cloud which had hung between the two enthusiastic friends was dissipated in a flash.

“I haven’t an idea,” said Hilda, touched. “Unless it’s those shares!” She had briefly told Janet about the Hotel Continental Limited.

“Shall you go?”

Hilda nodded. Never again would she ignore an urgent telegram, though she did not believe that this telegram had any real importance. She attributed it to Sarah’s increasing incompetence and hysterical foolishness.

“I wonder whether I can get on to Brighton to-night if I take the six train?” Hilda asked, and to herself: “Can it have anything to do with George?”

Alicia, endowed with authority, went in search of a Bradshaw. But the quest was fruitless. In the Five Towns the local time-table, showing the connections with London, suffices for the citizen, and the breast-pocket of no citizen is complete without it.

“Clayhangers are bound to have a Bradshaw,” cried Alicia, breathless with running about the house.

“Of course they are,” Janet agreed.

“I’ll walk down there now,” said Hilda, with extraordinary promptitude. “It won’t take five minutes.”

“I’d go,” said Alicia, “only I should be late for school.”

“Shall I send some one down?” Janet suggested. “You might be taken dizzy again.”

“No, thanks,” Hilda replied deliberately. “I’ll go — myself. There’s nothing wrong with me at all.”

“You’ll have to be sharp over it,” said Alicia pertly. “Don’t forget it’s Thursday. They shut up at two, and it’s not far off two now.”

“I’m going this very minute,” said Hilda.

“And I’m going this very second!” Alicia retorted.

They all three left Janet’s bedroom; the new cloak cast over a chair-back, was degraded into a tedious banality — and ignored.

In less than a minute Hilda, hatted and jacketed and partially gloved, was crossing the garden. She felt most miraculously happy and hopeful, and she was full of irrational gratitude to Alicia, as though Alicia were a benefactor! The change in her mood seemed magic in its swiftness. If Janet, with calm, cryptic face, had not been watching her from the doorway, she might have danced on the gravel.

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