Hilda Lessways, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 6

Mischance

i

Twelve days later, in the evening, Hilda stood by the bedside of Sarah Gailey in the basement room of No. 59 Preston Street. There was a bright fire in the grate, and in front of the fire a middle-aged doctor was cleansing the instrument which he had just employed to inject morphia into Sarah’s exhausted body. Hilda’s assumption that the ageing woman had telegraphed for her on inadequate grounds had proved to be quite wrong.

Upon entering the house on that Thursday night, Hilda, despite the anxious pale face of the new servant who had waited up for her and who entreated her to see Sarah Gailey instantly, had gone first to her own room and scrawled passionately a note to Edwin, which ran: “DEAREST — This is my address. I love you. Every bit of me is absolutely yours. Write me. — H. L.” She gave the letter to the servant to post at once. And as she gave it she had a vision of it travelling in post office, railway vans, and being sorted, and sealed up in a bag, and recovered from the bag, and scanned by the postman at Bursley, and borne up Trafalgar Road by the postman, and dropped into the letter-box at Edwin’s house, and finally seized by Edwin; and of it pleasing him intensely — for it was a good letter, and she was proud of it because she knew that it was characteristic.

And then, with her mind freed, she had opened the door of Sarah’s bedroom. Sarah was unquestionably very ill. Sarah had been quite right in telegraphing so peremptorily to Hilda; and if she had not so telegraphed she would have been quite wrong. On the previous day she had been sitting on the cold new oilcloth of the topmost stairs, minutely instructing a maid in the craft of polishing banisters. And the next morning an attack of acute sciatica had supervened. For a trifling indiscretion Sarah was thus condemned to extreme physical torture. Hilda had found her rigid on the bed. She suffered the severest pain in the small of the back and all down the left leg. Her left knee was supported on pillows, and the bed-clothes were raised away from it, for it could tolerate no weight whatever. The doctor, who had been and gone, had arranged a system of fomentation and hot-water bottles surpassing anything in even Sarah’s experience. And there Sarah lay, not feverish but sweating with agony, terrified to move, terrified to take a deep breath, lest the disturbance of the muscles might produce consequences beyond her strength to endure. She was in no danger of death. She could talk. She could eat and drink. Her pulse was scarcely quickened. But she was degraded and humiliated by mere physical anguish to the condition of a brute. This was her lot in life. All through that first night Hilda stayed with her, trying to pretend that Sarah was a woman, and in the morning she had assumed control of the house.

She had her secret to console her. It remained a secret because there was no one to whom she could relate it. Sarah had no ear for news unconnected with her malady. And indeed to tell Sarah, as Sarah was, would have been to carry callousness to the point of insult. And so Hilda, amid her enormous labours and fatigue, had lived with her secret, which, from being a perfumed delight, turned in two days to something subtly horrible, to something that by its horror prevented her from writing to Edwin aught but the briefest missives. She had existed from hour to hour, from one minute apprehensively to the next, day and night, hardly sleeping, devoured inwardly by a fear at once monstrous and simple, at once convincing and incredible. As for the letter which mentally she had composed a hundred times to Edwin, and which she owed to him, it had become fantastic and then inconceivable to her.

ii

One of the new servants entered the room and handed a letter to Hilda, and left the room and shut the door. The envelope was addressed “Miss Lessways, 59 Preston Street, Brighton,” in Edwin Clayhanger’s beautiful handwriting. Every evening came thus a letter, which he had posted in Bursley on the previous day. Hilda thought: “Will this contain another reproach at my irregularity? I can’t bear it, if it does.” And she gazed at the handwriting, and in particular at her own name, and her own name seemed to be the name of somebody else, of some strange young woman. She felt dizzy. . . . The door of Sarah’s wardrobe was ajar, and, in the mirror of it, Hilda could see herself obscurely, a black-robed strange young woman, with untidy hair and white cheeks and huge, dark, staring heavy eyes, with pouches beneath them. The image wavered in the mirror. She thought: “Here it is again, this awful feeling! Surely I am not going to faint!” She could hear Sarah’s sighing breath: she could hear the singing of the shaded gas-flame. She turned her gaze away from the mirror, and saw Sarah’s grey head inadvertently nodding, as it always nodded. Then the letter slipped out of her hand. She glanced down at the floor, in pursuit of it: the floor was darkly revolving. She thought: “Am I really fainting this time? I mustn’t faint. I’ve got to arrange about that bacon to-night and — oh, lots of things! Sarah is not a bit better. And I must sit with her until she gets off to sleep.” Her legs trembled, and she was terrorized by extraordinary novel sensations of insecurity. “Oh!” she murmured weakly.

iii

“You’ve only fainted,” said the doctor in a low voice.

She perceived, little by little, that she was lying flat on the floor at the foot of Sarah’s bed, and that he was kneeling beside her. The bed threw a shadow on them both, but she could see his benevolent face, anxious and yet reassuring, rather clearly.

“What?” she whispered, in feeble despair. She felt that her resistance was definitely broken.

From higher up, at the level of the hidden bed, came the regular plaintive respiration of Sarah Gailey.

“You must take care of yourself better than this,” said the doctor. “Perhaps this is a day when you ought to be resting.”

She answered, resigned.

“No, it’s not that. I believe I’m going to have a child. You must . . . ” She stopped.

“Oh,” said the doctor, with discretion. “Is that it?”

Strange, how the direct words would create a new situation! She had not told the doctor that she had been through the ceremony of marriage, and had been victimized. She had told him nothing but the central and final thought in her mind. And lo! the new situation was brought into being, and the doctor was accepting it! He was not emitting astounded ‘buts —!’ Her directness had made all possible ‘buts’ seem ridiculous and futile, and had made the expression of curiosity seem offensive.

She lay on the floor impassive. She was no longer horrified by expectancy.

“Well,” said the doctor, “we must see. I think you can sit up now, can’t you?”

Three-quarters of an hour afterwards, she went into Sarah’s room alone. She was aware of no emotion whatever. She merely desired, as a professional nurse might have desired, to see if Sarah slept. Sarah was not sleeping. She moaned, as she moaned continually when awake. Hilda bent over her trembling head whose right side pressed upon the pillow.

“How queer,” thought Hilda, “how awful, that she didn’t even hear what I said to him! It will almost kill her when she does know.”

Sarah’s eyes blinked. Without stirring, without shifting her horizontal, preoccupied gaze from the wall, she muttered peevishly:

“What’s that you were saying about going to have a child?”

Startled, Hilda moved back a little from the bed.

“The doctor says there’s no doubt I am,” Hilda answered coldly.

“How queer!” Sarah said. “I quite thought — but of course a girl like you are couldn’t be sure. I should like another biscuit. But I don’t want the Osbornes — the others.” She resumed her moaning.

iv

On the following Saturday morning — rather more than a fortnight after her engagement to Edwin Clayhanger — Hilda came out of the kitchen of No. 59 Preston Street, and shut the door on a nauseating, malodorous mess of broken food and greasy plates, in the midst of which two servants were noisily gobbling down their late breakfast, and disputing. With a frown of disgust on her face, she looked into Sarah Gailey’s bedroom. Sarah, though vaguely better, was still in constant acute pain, and her knee still reposed on a pillow, and was protected from the upper bed-clothes, and she still could not move. Hilda put on a smile for Sarah Gailey, who nodded morosely, and then, extinguishing the smile, as if it had been expensive gas burning to no purpose, she passed into the basement sitting-room, and slaked the fire there. With a gesture of irresolution, she lifted the lid of the desk in the corner, and gazed first at a little pile of four unopened letters addressed to her in Edwin’s handwriting, and then at a volume of Crashaw, which the enthusiastic Tom Orgreave had sent to her as a reward for her appreciation of Crashaw’s poems. She released the lid suddenly, and went upstairs to her bedroom, chatting sugarily for an instant on the way with the second Miss Watchett. In the bedroom, she donned her street things, and then she descended. She had to go to the Registry Office in North Street about a new cook. She stopped at the front door, and then surprisingly went down once more into the basement sitting-room. Standing up at the desk, she wrote this letter: “DARLING JANET — I am now married to George Cannon. The marriage is not quite public, but I tell you before anybody, and you might tell Edwin Clayhanger. — Your loving H. L.” Least said soonest mended! And the conciseness would discourage questioning. She inserted the letter into an envelope, which she addressed and stamped, and then she fled with it from the house, and in two minutes it was in a letter-box, and she was walking slowly along the King’s Road past the shops.

The letter was the swift and desperate sequel to several days’ absolutely sterile reflection. It said enough for the moment. Later, she could explain that her husband had left her. She could not write to Edwin. She could not bring herself to write anything to him. She could not confess, nor beg for forgiveness nor even for sympathetic understanding. She could not admit the uninstructed rashness which had led her to assume positively, on inadequate grounds, that her union with George Cannon had been fruitless. She must suffer, and he also must suffer. Rather than let him know, in any conceivable manner, that, all unwitting, she was bearing the child of another at the moment of her betrothal to himself, she preferred to be regarded as a jilt of the very worst kind. Strange that she should choose the rôle of deceiver instead of the rôle of victim! Strange that she would sooner be hated and scorned than pitied! Strange that she would not even give Edwin the opportunity of treating her as a widow! But so it was! For her, the one possible attitude towards Edwin was the attitude of silence. In the silence of the grave her love for him existed.

As she walked along the chill promenade she looked with discreet curiosity at every woman she met, to see her condition. This matter, which before she had never thought of, now obsessed her; and all women were divided for her into two classes, the expectant and the others. Also her self-consciousness was extreme, more so even than it had been after her mother’s death. She was not frightened — yet. She was assuredly not panic-struck. Rather her mood was grim, harsh, and calmly bitter. She thought: “I suppose George must be informed.” It affected her queerly that if she took it into her head she need never go back to Preston Street. She was free. She owed nothing to anybody. And yet she would go back. She would require a home, soon. And she would require a livelihood, for the shares of the Brighton Hotel Continental Limited promised to be sterile and were already unsaleable. But apart from these considerations, she would have gone back for Sarah Gailey — because Sarah Gailey was entirely dependent on her. She detested Sarah, despite Sarah’s sufferings, and yet by her conscience she was for ever bound to her.

The future loomed appalling. Sarah’s career was finished. She could not be anything but a burden and a torment; her last years would probably be dreadful, both for herself and for others. The prospects of the boarding-house were not radiant. Hilda could direct the enterprise, but not well. She could work, but she had not the art of making others work. Already the place was slightly at sixes and sevens. And she loathed it. She loathed the whole business of catering. Along the entire length of the King’s Road, the smells of basement kitchens ascended to the pavement and offended the nose. And Hilda saw all Brighton as a colossal and disgusting enlargement of the kitchen at No. 59. She saw the background and the pits of Brighton — that which underlies and hides behind, and is not seen. The grandeur of the King’s Road was naught to her. Her glance pierced it and it faded to a hallucination. Beyond it she envisaged the years to come, the messy and endless struggle, the necessary avarice and trickeries incidental to it — and perhaps the ultimate failure. She would never make money — she felt that! She was not born to make money — especially by dodges and false politeness, out of idle, empty-noddled boarders. She would lose it and lose it. And she pictured what she would be in ten years: the hard-driven landlady, up to every subterfuge — with a child to feed and educate, and perhaps a bedridden, querulous invalid to support. And there was no alternative to the tableau.

She went by the Chichester, which towered with all its stories above her head. Who would take it now? George Cannon would have made it pay. He would have made anything pay. How? . . . She was definitely cut off from the magnificence of the King’s Road. The side street was her destiny; the side street and shabbiness. And it was all George’s fault — and hers! The poverty, if it came, would be George’s fault alone. For he had squandered her money in a speculation. It astounded her that George, so shrewd and well balanced, should have made an investment so foolish. She did not realize that a passion for a business enterprise, as for a woman, is capable of destroying the balance of any man. And George Cannon had had both passions.

And then she saw Florrie Bagster, on the other side of the street, walking leisurely by the sea-wall, alone. If Mr. Boutwood had had a more generous and wild disposition he might have allowed Florrie to ruin him in six months of furs and carriages and champagne. But Mr. Boutwood, though a dog, was a careful dog, especially at those moments when the conventional dog can refuse nothing. Florrie was well and warmly dressed — no more; and she was on foot. Hilda’s gaze fastened on her, and immediately divined from the cut and fall of the coat that Florrie had something to conceal from every one but her Mr. Boutwood. And whereas Florrie trod the pavement with a charming little air that wavered between impudence and modesty, between timid meekness and conceit, Hilda blushed with shame and pity. She on one footpath and Florrie on the other!

“Soon,” she thought, “I shall not be able to walk along this road!”

She had sinned. She admitted that she had sinned against some quality in herself. But how innocently and how ignorantly! And what a tremendous punishment for so transient a weakness! And new consequences, still more disastrous than any she had foreseen, presented themselves one after another. George had escaped, but a word of open scandal, a single whisper in the ear of the old creature down at Torquay, might actuate machinery that would reach out after him and drag him back, and plant him in jail. George, the father of her child, in jail! It was all a matter of chance; sheer chance! She began to perceive what life really was, and the immense importance of hazard therein. Nevertheless, without frailty, without defection, what could chance have done? She began to perceive that this that she was living through was life. She bit her lips. Grief! Shame! Disillusion! Hardship! Peril! Catastrophe! Exile! Above all, exile! These had to be faced, and they would be faced. She recalled the firiest verse of Crashaw and she set her shoulders back. There was the stuff of a woman in her. . . . Only a little while, and she had seen before her a beloved boy entranced by her charm. She had now no charm. Where now was the soft virgin? . . . And yet, somehow, magically, miraculously, the soft virgin was still there! And the invincible vague hope of youth, and the irrepressible consciousness of power, were almost ready to flame up afresh, contrary to all reason, and irradiate her starless soul.

NOTE:—The later history of Hilda Lessways and Edwin Clayhanger will form the theme of another novel.

This web edition published by:

eBooks@Adelaide
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/bennett/arnold/hilda-lessways/book6.6.html

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