Hilda Lessways, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 5

Thursday Afternoon

i

She was walking with Edwin Clayhanger up Duck Bank on the way to Bursley railway station. A simple errand and promenade — and yet she felt herself to be steeped in the romance of an adventure! The adventure had surprisingly followed upon the discovery that Alicia had been quite wrong. “Clayhangers are bound to have a Bradshaw,” the confident Alicia had said. But Clayhangers happened not to have a Bradshaw. Edwin was alone in the stationery shop, save for the assistant. He said that his father was indisposed. And whereas the news that Clayhangers had no Bradshaw left Hilda perfectly indifferent, the news that old Darius Clayhanger was indisposed and absent produced in her a definite feeling of gladness. Edwin had decided that the most likely place to search for a Bradshaw was the station, and he had offered to escort her to the station. Nothing could have been more natural, and at the same time more miraculous.

The sun was palely shining upon dry, clean pavements and upon roads juicy with black mud. And in the sunshine Hilda was very happy. It was nothing to her that she was in quest of a Bradshaw because she had just received an ominous telegram urgently summoning her to Brighton. She was obliviously happy. Every phenomenon that attracted her notice contributed to her felicity. Thus she took an eager joy in the sun. And a marked improvement in Edwin’s cold really delighted her. She was dominated by the intimate conviction: “He loves me!” Which conviction excited her dormant pride, and made her straighten her shoulders. She benevolently condescended towards Janet. After all Janet, with every circumstance in her favour, had not known how to conquer Edwin Clayhanger. After all she, Hilda, possessed some mysterious characteristic more potent than the elegance and the goodness of Janet Orgreave. She scorned her former self-deprecations, and reproached her own lack of faith: “I am I!” That was the summary of her mood. As for her attitude to Edwin Clayhanger, she could not explain it. Why did she like him and like being with him? He was not brilliant, nor masterful, nor handsome, nor well dressed, nor in any manner imposing. On the contrary, he was awkward and apologetic, and not a bit spectacular. Only the wistful gaze of his eyes, and his honest smile, and the appeal of his gestures . . .! A puzzling affair, an affair perfectly incomprehensible and enchanting.

They walked side by side in silence.

When they had turned into Moorthorne Road, half-way up whose slope lies the station, she asked a question about a large wooden building from whose interior came wild sounds of shouting and cheering, and learnt that the potters on strike were holding a meeting in the town theatre. At the open outer doors was a crowd of starving, shivering, dirty, ragged children, who romped and cursed, or stood unnaturally meditative in the rich mud, like fakirs fulfilling a vow. Hilda’s throat was constricted by the sight. Pain and joy ran together in her, burning exquisitely; and she had a glimpse, obscure, of the mystical beauty of the children’s suffering.

“I’d no idea there was a theatre in Bursley,” she remarked idly, driven into a banality by the press of her sensations.

“They used to call it the Blood Tub,” he replied. “Melodrama and murder and gore — you know.”

She exclaimed in horror. “Why are people like that in the Five Towns?”

“It’s our form of poetry, I suppose,” said he.

She started, sensitively. It seemed to her that she had never understood the secret inner spirit of the Five Towns, and that by a single phrase he had made her understand it. . . . ‘Our form of poetry’! Who but he could have said a thing at once so illuminating and so simple?

Apparently perplexed by the obvious effect on her of his remark, he said:

“But you belong to the Five Towns, don’t you?”

She answered quietly that she did. But her heart was saying: “I do now. You have initiated me. I never felt the Five Towns before. You have made me feel them.”

ii

At the station the head porter received their inquiry for a Bradshaw with a dull stare and a shake of the head. No such thing had ever been asked for at Bursley Station before, and the man’s imagination could not go beyond the soiled time-tables loosely pinned and pasted up on the walls of the booking-office. Hilda suggested that the ticket-clerk should be interrogated, but the aperture of communication with him was shut. She saw Edwin Clayhanger brace himself and rap on the wood; and instead of deploring his diffidence she liked it and found it full of charm. The partition clicked aside, and the ticket-clerk’s peering, suspicious head showed in its place, mutely demanding a reason for this extraordinary disturbance of the dream in which the station slumbered between two half-hourly trains. With a characteristic peculiar slanting motion Edwin nodded.

“Oh, how-d’ye-do, Mr. Brooks?” said Edwin hastily, as if startled by the sudden inexplicable apparition of the head.

But the ticket-clerk had no Bradshaw either. He considered it probable, however, that the stationmaster would have a Bradshaw. Edwin had to brace himself again, for an assault upon the fastness of the stationmaster.

And in the incredibly small and incredibly dirty fastness of the stationmaster, they indeed found a Bradshaw. Hilda precipitately took it and opened it on the stationmaster’s table. She looked for Brighton in it as she might have looked for a particular individual in a city. Then Edwin was bending over it, with his ear close to her ear, and the sleeve of his overcoat touching her sleeve. She was physically aware of him, for the first time. She thought, disconcerted: “But he is an utter stranger to me! What do I know of him?” And then she thought: “For more than a year he must have carried my image in his heart!”

“Here,” said Edwin brusquely, and with a certain superiority, “you might just let me have a look at it myself.”

She yielded, tacitly admitting that a woman was no match for Bradshaw.

After a few moments’ frowning Edwin said:

“Yes, there’s a train to Brighton at eleven-thirty to-night!”

“May I look?”

“Certainly,” said he, subtly condescending.

She examined the page, with a serious deliberation.

“But what does this ‘f’ mean?” she asked. “Did you notice this ‘f’?”

“Yes. It means Thursdays and Saturdays only,” said Edwin, his eyes twinkling. It was as if he had said: “You think yourself very clever, but do you suppose that I can’t read the notes in a time-table?”

“Well —” She hesitated.

“To-day’s Thursday, you see,” he remarked curtly.

She was ravished by his tone and his manner. And she became humble before him, for in the space of a few seconds he had grown mysteriously and powerfully masculine to her. But with all his masculinity there remained the same wistful, honest, boyish look in his eyes. And she thought: “If I marry him it will be for the look in his eyes.”

“I’m all right, then,” she said aloud, and smiled.

With hands nervously working within her muff, she suddenly missed the handkerchief which she had placed there.

“I believe I must have dropped my handkerchief in your shop!” she was about to say. The phrase was actually on her tongue; but by a strange instinctive, defensive discretion she shut her mouth on it and kept silence. She thought: “Perhaps I had better not go into his shop again today.”

iii

They descended the hill from the station. Hilda was very ill at ease. She kept saying to herself: “This adventure is over now. I cannot prolong it. There is nothing to do but to go back to the Orgreaves, and pack my things and depart to Brighton, and face whatever annoyance is awaiting me at Brighton.” The prospect desolated her. She could not bear to leave Edwin Clayhanger without some definition of their relations, and yet she knew that it was hopeless and absurd to expect to arrive immediately at any such definition: she knew that the impetuosity of her temperament could not be justified. Also, she feared horribly the risk of being caught again in the net of Brighton. As they got lower and lower down the hill, her wretchedness and disquiet became acute, to the point of a wild despair. Merely to temporize, she said, as they drew opposite the wooden theatre:

“Couldn’t we just go and look in? I’ve got plenty of time.”

A strange request — to penetrate into a meeting of artisans on strike! She felt its strangeness: she felt that Edwin Clayhanger objected, but she was driven to an extremity. She had to do something, and she did what she could.

They crossed the road, and entered the huge shanty, and stood apologetically near the door. The contrast between the open street and the enclosed stuffiness of the dim and crowded interior was overwhelming. Hundreds of ragged and shabby men sat in serried rows, leaning forward with elbows out and heads protruding as they listened to a speech from the gimcrack stage. They seemed to be waiting to spring, like famished and ferocious tigers. Interrupting, they growled, snarled, yapped, and swore with appalling sincerity. Imprecations burst forth in volleys and in running fires. The arousing of the fundamental instincts of these human beings had, indeed, enormously emphasized the animal in them. They had swung back a hundred centuries towards original crude life. The sophistication which embroiders the will-to-live had been stripped clean off. These men helped you to understand the state of mind which puts a city to the sack, and makes victims especially of the innocent and the defenceless. Hilda was strangely excited. She was afraid, and enjoyed being afraid. And it was as if she, too, had been returned to savagery and to the primeval. In the midst of peril, she was a female under the protection of a male, and nothing but that. And she was far closer, emotionally, to her male than she had ever been before.

Suddenly, the meeting came to an end. In an instant, the mass of humanity was afoot and rounding upon them, an active menace. Hilda and Edwin rushed fleeing into the street, violently urged by a common impulse. The stream of embittered men pursued them like an inundation. When they were safe, and breathing the free air, Hilda was drenched with a sense of pity. The tragedy of existence presented itself in its true aspect, as noble and majestic and intimidating.

“It’s terrible!” she breathed.

She thought: “No! In this mood, it is impossible for me to leave him! I cannot do it! I cannot!” The danger of reentering the shop, which would be closed now, utterly fascinated her. Supposing that she reentered the shop with him, would she have the courage to tell him that she was in his society under false pretences? Could she bring herself to relate her misfortune? She recoiled before the mere idea of telling him. And yet the danger of the shop glittered in front of her like a lure.

The future might be depending solely on her own act. If she told him of the lost handkerchief, the future might be one thing: if she did not tell him, it might be another.

The dread of choosing seized her, and put her into a tremble of apprehension. And then, as it were mechanically, she murmured (but very clearly), tacking the words without a pause on to a sentence about the strikes: “Oh, I’ve lost my handkerchief, unless I’ve left it in your shop! It must have dropped out of my muff.”

She sighed in relief, because she had chosen. But her agitation was intensified.

iv

In search of a lost handkerchief, they regained the Clayhanger premises by an unfamiliar side door. She preceded him along a passage and then, taking a door on the left, found herself surprisingly in the shop, behind a counter. The shop was lighted only by a few diamond-shaped holes in the central shutters, and it had a troubling aspect of portent, with its merchandise mysteriously enveloped in pale sheets, and its chairs wrong side up, and its deep-shadowed corners. Destiny might have been lurking in one of those baffling corners. From above, through the ceiling, came the vibration of some machine at work, and the machine might have been the loom of time. Hilda was exquisitely apprehensive. She thought: “I am here. The moment of my departure will come. When it comes, shall I have told him my misfortune? What will have happened?” She waited, nervous, restless, shaking like a victim who can do naught but wait.

“Here’s my handkerchief!” she cried, in a tone of unnatural childish glee, that was one of the effects of her secret panic.

The handkerchief glimmered on the counter, more white than anything else in that grey dusk. She guessed that the shop-assistant must have found it, and placed it conspicuously on the counter.

They were alone: they were their own prisoners, secure from the street and from all interruption. Hilda, once more and in a higher degree, realized the miraculous human power to make experience out of nothing. They had nothing but themselves, and they could, if they chose, create all their future by a single gesture.

Suddenly, there came a tremendous shouting from Duck Square, in front of the shop. The strikers had poured down from Moorthorne Road into Duck Bank and Duck Square.

Edwin, who was in the middle of the shop, went to the glazed inner doors, and, passing through into the porch, lifted the letter-flap in a shutter, and, stooping, looked forth. He called to her, without moving his face from the aperture, that a fight was in progress. Hilda gazed at his back, through the glass, and then, coming round the end of the counter, approached quietly, and stood immediately behind him, between the glazed doors and the shutters. The two were in a space so small that they could scarcely have moved without touching.

“Let me look,” she stammered, unable any longer to tolerate the inaction.

Edwin Clayhanger stepped aside, and held up the letter-flap for her with his finger. She bent her head to the oblong glimpse of the street, and saw the strikers engaged in the final internecine folly of strikers: they had turned their exasperated wrath upon each other. Within a public-house at the top of the little Square, other strikers were drinking. One policeman regarded them.

“What a shame!” she cried angrily, dropping the flap, and then withdrew quickly into the shop, whither Edwin had gone. As she came near him, her mood changed. She smiled gently. She summoned all her charm; and she knew that she charmed him.

“Do you know,” she said, “you’ve quite altered my notion of poetry — what you said as we were going up to the station!”

“Really?” He flushed.

Yes, she had enchanted and entranced him. She had only to smile and to use a particular tone, soft and breaking. . . . She knew that.

“But you do alter my notions,” she continued, and her clear voice was poured out like a liquid. “I don’t know how it is . . . ” She stopped. And then, in half-playful accents: “So this is your little office!”

Her hand was on the knob of the open door of the cubicle, a black erection within the shop, where Edwin and his father kept the accounts and wrote letters.

“Yes. Go in and have a look at it.”

She murmured kindly: “Shall I?” and went in. He followed.

For a moment, she was extremely afraid, and she whispered, scared: “I must hurry off now.”

He ignored this remark.

“Shall you be at Brighton long?” he demanded. And he was so friendly and simple and timorous and honest-eyed, and his features had such an extraordinary anxious expression that her own fear seemed to leave her. She thought, as if surprised by the discovery: “He is a good friend.”

“Oh, I can’t tell,” she answered him. “It depends.”

“How soon shall you be down our way again?” His voice was thickening. She shook her head, speechless. She was afraid again now. His face altered. He was standing almost over her. She thought: “I am lost! I have let it come to this!” He was no longer a good friend.

He began to speak, in detached bits of phrases:

“I say — you know —”

“Good-bye, good-bye,” she murmured anxiously. “I must go. Thanks very much.”

And foolishly, she held out her hand, which he seized. He bent passionately, and kissed her like a fresh boy, like a schoolboy. And she gave back the kiss strongly, with all the profound sincerity of her nature. His agitation appeared to be extreme; but she was calm; she was divinely calm. She savoured the moment as though she had been a watcher, and not an actor in the scene. She thought, with a secret sigh of bliss: “Yes, it is real, this moment! And I have had it. Am I astonished that it has come so soon, or did I know it was coming?” Her eyes drank up the face and the hands and the gestures of her lover. She felt tired, and sat down in the office chair, and he leaned on the desk, and the walls of the cubicle folded them in, even from the inanimate scrutiny of the shop.

v

They were talking together, half-fearfully, and yet with the confidence of deep mutual trust, in the quick-gathering darkness of the cubicle. And while they were talking, Hilda, in her head, was writing a fervent letter to him: “ . . . You see it was so sudden. I had had no chance to tell you. I did so want to tell you, but how could I? And I hadn’t told anybody! I’m sure you will agree with me that it is best to tell some things as little as possible. And when you had kissed me, how could I tell you then — at once? I could not. It would have spoilt everything. Surely you understand. I know you do, because you understand everything. If I was wrong, tell me where. You don’t guess how humble I am! When I think of you, I am the humblest girl you can imagine. Forgive me, if there is anything to forgive. I don’t need to tell you that I have suffered.”

And she kept writing the letter again and again, slightly altering the phrases so as to improve them, so as to express herself better and more honestly and more appealingly.

“I shall send you the address tomorrow,” she was saying to him. “I shall write you before I go to bed, whether it’s to-night or tomorrow morning.” She put the fire of her love into the assurance. She smiled to entrance him, and saw on his face that he was beside himself with joy in her. She was a queen, surpassing in her prerogative a thousand elegant Janets. She smiled; she proudly straightened her shoulders (she the humblest!), and her boy was enslaved.

“I wonder what people will say,” he murmured.

She said, with a pang of misgiving about his reception of her letter:

“Please tell no one!” She pleaded that for the present he should tell no one. “Later on, it won’t seem so sudden,” she added plausibly. “People are so silly.”

The sound of another battle in Duck Square awoke them. The shop was very chilly, and quite dark. Their faces were only pale ovals in the blackness. She shivered.

“I must go! I have to pack.”

He clasped her: and she was innocently content: she was a young girl again.

“I’ll walk up with you,” he said protectively.

But she would not allow him to walk up with her, and he yielded. He struck a match. They stumbled out, and, in the midnight of the passage, he took leave of her.

Walking up Trafalgar Road, alone, she was so happy, so amazed, so relieved, so sure of him and of his fineness and of the future, that she could scarcely bear her felicity. It was too intense. . . . At last her life was settled and mapped out. Destiny had been kind, and she meant to be worthy of her fate. She could have swooned, so intoxicant was her wonder and her solemn joy and her yearning after righteousness in love.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/bennett/arnold/hilda-lessways/book6.5.html

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