These Twain, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter xiii

The Departure

i

It was a wet morning. Hilda, already in full street attire, save for her gloves, and with a half empty cup of tea by her side, sat at the desk in the boudoir. She unlocked the large central drawer immediately below the flap of the desk, with a peculiar, quick, ruthless gesture, which gesture produced a very short snappy click that summed up all the tension spreading from Hilda’s mind throughout the house and even into the town. It had been decided that in order to call for Janet at the Nursing Home and catch the Crewe train at Knype for the Bristol and Southwest of England connexion, Hilda must leave the house at five minutes to nine.

This great fact was paramount in the minds of various people besides Hilda. Ada upstairs stood bent and flushed over a huge portmanteau into which she was putting the last things, while George hindered her by simultaneously tying to the leather handle a wet label finely directed by himself in architectural characters. The cook in the kitchen was preparing the master’s nine o’clock breakfast with new solicitudes caused by a serious sense of responsibility; for Hilda, having informed her in moving tones that the master’s welfare in the mistress’s absence would depend finally on herself, had solemnly entrusted that welfare to her — had almost passed it to her from hand to hand, with precautions, like a jewel in a casket. Ada, it may be said, had immediately felt the weight of the cook’s increased importance. Edwin and the clerks at the works knew that Edwin had to be home for breakfast at a quarter to nine instead of nine, and that he must not be late, as Mrs. Clayhanger had a train to catch, and accordingly the morning’s routine of the office was modified. And, finally, a short old man in a rainy stable-yard in Acre Parade, between Acre Lane and Oldcastle Street, struggling to force a collar over the head of a cab-horse that towered above his own head, was already blasphemously excited by those pessimistic apprehensions about the flight of time which forty years of train-catching had never sufficed to allay in him. As for Janet, she alone in her weakness and her submissiveness was calm; the nurse and Hilda understood one another, and she was “leaving it all” to them.

Hilda opened the drawer, half lifting the flap of the desk to disclose its contents. It was full of odd papers, letters, bills, blotting-paper, door-knobs, finger-plates, envelopes, and a small book or two. A prejudiced observer, such as Edwin, might have said that the drawer was extremely untidy. But to Hilda, who had herself put in each item separately, and each for a separate reason, the drawer was not untidy, for her intelligence knew the plan of it, and every item as it caught her eye suggested a justifying reason, and a good one. Nevertheless, she formed an intention to “tidy out” the drawer (the only drawer in the desk with a safe lock), upon her return home. She felt at the back of the drawer, drew forth the drawer a little further, and felt again, vainly. A doubt of her own essential orderliness crossed her mind. “Surely I can’t have put those letters anywhere else? Surely I’ve not mislaid them?” Then she closed the flap of the desk, and pulled the drawer right out, letting it rest on her knees. Yes, the packet was there, hidden, and so was another packet of letters — in the handwriting of Edwin. She was reassured. She knew she was tidy, had always been tidy. And Edwin’s innuendos to the contrary were inexcusable. Jerking the drawer irregularly back by force into its place, she locked it, reopened the desk, laid the packet on the writing-pad, and took a telegram from her purse to add to the letters in the packet.

The letters were all in the same loose, sloping hand, and on the same tinted notepaper. The signature was plain on one of them, “Charlotte M. Cannon,” and then after it, in brackets “(Canonges),”— the latter being the real name of George Cannon’s French father, and George Cannon’s only legal name. The topmost letter began: “Dear Madam, I think it is my duty to inform you that my husband still declares his innocence of the crime for which he is now in prison. He requests that you shall be informed of this. I ought perhaps to tell you that, since the change in my religious convictions, my feelings —” The first page ended there. Hilda turned the letters over, preoccupied, gazing at them and deciphering chance phrases here and there. The first letter was dated about a year earlier; it constituted the beginning of the resuscitation of just that part of her life which she had thought to be definitely interred in memory.

Hilda had only once — and on a legal occasion — met Mrs. Canonges (as with strict correctness she called herself in brackets)— a surprisingly old lady, with quite white hair, and she had thought: “What a shame for that erotic old woman to have bought and married a man so much younger than herself! No wonder he ran away from her!” She had been positively shocked by the spectacle of the well-dressed, well-behaved, quiet-voiced, prim, decrepit creature with her aristocratic voice. And her knowledge of the possibilities of human nature was thenceforth enlarged. And when George Cannon (known to the law only as Canonges) had received two years’ hard labour for going through a ceremony of marriage with herself, she had esteemed, despite all her resentment against him, that his chief sin lay in his real first marriage, not in his false second one, and that for that sin the old woman was the more deserving of punishment. And when the old woman had with strange naïvete written to say that she had become a convert to Roman Catholicism and that her marriage and her imprisoned bigamous husband were henceforth to her sacred, Hilda had reflected sardonically: “Of course it is always that sort of woman that turns to religion, when she’s too old for anything else!” And when the news came that her deceiver had got ten years’ penal servitude (and might have got penal servitude for life) for uttering a forged Bank-of-England note, Hilda had reflected in the same strain: “Of course, a man who would behave as George behaved to me would be just the man to go about forging bank notes! I am not in the least astonished. What an inconceivable simpleton I was!”

A very long time had elapsed before the letter arrived bearing the rumour of Cannon’s innocence. It had not immediately produced much effect on her mind. She had said not a word to Edwin. The idea of reviving the shames of that early episode in conversation with Edwin was extremely repugnant to her. She would not do it. She had not the right to do it. All her proud independence forbade her to do it. The episode did not concern Edwin. The effect on her of the rumour came gradually. It was increased when Mrs. Cannon wrote of evidence, a petition to the Home Secretary, and employing a lawyer. Mrs. Cannon’s attitude seemed to say to Hilda: “You and I have shared this man, we alone in all the world.” Mrs. Cannon seemed to imagine that Hilda would be interested. She was right. Hilda was interested. Her implacability relented. Her vindictiveness forgave. She pondered with almost intolerable compassion upon the vision of George Cannon suffering unjustly month after long month interminably the horrors of a convict’s existence. She read with morbidity reports of Assizes, and picked up from papers and books and from Mrs. Cannon pieces of information about prisons. When he was transferred to Parkhurst in the Isle of Wight on account of ill-health, she was glad, because she knew that Parkhurst was less awful than Portland, and when from Parkhurst he was sent to Dartmoor she tried to hope that the bracing air would do him good. She no longer thought of him as a criminal at all, but simply as one victim of his passion for herself; she, Hilda, had been the other victim. She raged in secret against the British Judicature, its delays, its stoniness, its stupidity. And when the principal witness in support of Cannon’s petition died, she raged against fate. The movement for Cannon’s release slackened for months. Of late it had been resumed, and with hopefulness. One of Cannon’s companions had emerged from confinement (due to an unconnected crime), and was ready to swear affidavits. Lastly, Mrs. Cannon had written stating that she was almost beggared, and suggesting that Hilda should lend her ten pounds towards the expenses of the affair. Hilda had not ten pounds. That very day Hilda, seeing Janet in the Nursing Home, had demanded: “I say Jan, I suppose you haven’t got ten pounds you can let me have for about a day or so?” And had laughed self-consciously. Janet, flushing with eager pleasure, had replied: “Of course! I’ve still got that ten-pound note the poor old dad gave me. I’ve always kept it in case the worst should happen.” Janet was far too affectionate to display curiosity. Hilda had posted the bank-note late at night. The next day had come a telegram from Mrs. Cannon: “Telegraph if you are sending money.” Not for a great deal would Hilda have despatched through the hands of the old postmaster at Bursley — who had once been postmaster at Turnhill and known her parents — a telegram such as hers addressed to anybody named “Cannon.” The fear of chatter and scandal was irrational, but it was a very genuine fear. She had sent her faithful George with the telegram to Hanbridge — it was just as easy.

Hilda now, after hesitation, put the packet of letters in her handbag, to take with her. It was a precaution of secrecy which she admitted to be unnecessary, for she was quite certain that Edwin never looked into her drawers; much less would he try to open a locked drawer; his incurious confidence in her was in some respects almost touching. Certainly nobody else would invade the drawer. Still, she hid the letters in her handbag. Then, in her fashion, she scribbled a bold-charactered note to Mrs. Cannon, giving a temporary address, and this also she put in the handbag.

Her attitude to Mrs. Cannon, like her attitude to the bigamist, had slowly changed, and she thought of the old woman now with respect and sympathetic sorrow. Mrs. Cannon, before she knew that Hilda was married to Edwin, had addressed her first letter to Hilda, “Mrs. Cannon,” when she would have been justified in addressing it, “Miss Lessways.” In the days of her boarding-house it had been impossible, owing to business reasons, for Hilda to drop the name to which she was not entitled and to revert to her own. The authentic Mrs. Cannon, despite the violence of her grievances, had respected Hilda’s difficulty; the act showed kindly forbearance and it had aroused Hilda’s imaginative gratitude. Further, Mrs. Cannon’s pertinacity in the liberation proceedings, and her calm, logical acceptance of all the frightful consequences of being the legal wife of a convict, had little by little impressed Hilda, who had said to herself: “There is something in this old woman.” And Hilda nowadays never thought of her as an old woman who had been perverse and shameless in desire, but as a victim of passion like George Cannon. She said to herself: “This old woman still loves George Cannon; her love was the secret of her rancour against him, and it is also the secret of her compassion.” These constant reflections, by their magnanimity, and their insistence upon the tremendous reality of love, did something to ennoble the clandestine and demoralising life of the soul which for a year Hilda had hidden from her husband and from everybody.

ii

It still wanted twenty minutes to nine o’clock. She was too soon. The night before, Edwin had abraded her sore nerves by warning her not to be late — in a tone that implied habitual lateness on her part. Hilda was convinced that she was an exact woman. She might be late — a little late — six times together, but as there was a sound explanation of and excuse for each shortcoming, her essential exactitude remained always unimpaired in her own mind. But Edwin would not see this. He told her now and then that she belonged to that large class of people who have the illusion that a clock stands still at the last moment while last things are being done. She resented the observation, as she resented many of Edwin’s assumptions concerning her. Edwin seemed to forget that she had been one of the first women-stenographers in England, that she had been a journalist-secretary and accustomed to correct the negligences of men of business, and finally that she had been in business by herself for a number of years. Edwin would sweep all that away, and treat her like one of your mere brainless butterflies. At any rate, on the present occasion she was not late. And she took pride, instead of shame, in her exaggerated earliness. She had the air of having performed a remarkable feat.

She left the boudoir to go upstairs and superintend Ada, though she had told the impressed Ada that she should put full trust in her, and should not superintend her. However, as she opened the door she heard the sounds of Ada and George directing each other in the joint enterprise of bringing a very large and unwieldy portmanteau out of the bedroom. The hour for superintendence was therefore past. Hilda went into the drawing-room, idly, nervously, to wait till the portmanteau should have reached the hall. The French window was ajar, and a wet wind entered from the garden. The garden was full of rain. Two workmen were in it, employed by the new inhabitants of the home of the Orgreaves. Those upstarts had decided that certain branches of the famous Orgreave elms were dangerous and must be cut, and the workmen, shirt sleeved in the rain, were staying one of the elms with a rope made fast to the swing in the Clayhanger garden. Hilda was unreasonably but sincerely antipathetic to her new neighbours. The white-ended stumps of great elm-branches made her feel sick. Useless to insist to her on the notorious treachery of elms! She had an affection for those elms, and, to her, amputation was an outrage. The upstarts had committed other sacrilege upon the house and grounds, not heeding that the abode had been rendered holy by the sacraments of fate. Hilda stared and stared at the rain. And the prospect of the long, jolting, acutely depressing drive through the mud and the rain to Knype Vale, and of the interminable train journey with a tragic convalescent, braced her.

“Mother!”

George stood behind her.

“Well, have you got the luggage down?” She frowned, but George knew her nervous frown and could rightly interpret it.

He nodded.

“Ought I to put ‘Dartmoor’ on the luggage-label?”

She gave a negative sign.

Why should he ask such a question? She had never breathed the name of Dartmoor. Why should he mention it? Edwin also had mentioned Dartmoor. “What, on Dartmoor?” Edwin had said. Did Edwin suspect her correspondence? No. Had he suspected he would have spoken. She knew him. And even if Edwin had suspected, George could not conceivably have had suspicions, of any sort. . . . There he stood, the son of a convict, with no name of his own. He existed — because she and the convict had been unable to keep apart; his ignorance of the past was appalling to think of, the dangers incident to it dreadful; his easy confidence before the world affected her almost intolerably. She felt that she could never atone to him for having borne him.

A faint noise at the front-door reached the drawing-room.

“Here’s Nunks,” exclaimed George, and ran off eagerly.

This was his new name for his stepfather.

Hilda returned quickly to the boudoir. As she disappeared therein, she heard George descanting to Edwin on the beauties of his luggage-label, and Edwin rubbing his feet on the mat and removing his mackintosh.

She came back to the door of the boudoir.

“Edwin.”

“Hello!”

“One moment.”

He came into the boudoir, wiping the rain off his face.

“Shut the door, will you?”

Her earnest, self-conscious tone stirred into activity the dormant secret antagonisms that seemed ever to lie between them. She saw them animating his eyes, stiffening his pose.

Pointing to the cup and saucer on the desk, Edwin said, critically:

“That all you’ve had?”

“Can you let me have ten pounds?” she asked bluntly, ignoring his implication that in the matter of nourishment she had not behaved sensibly.

“Ten pounds? More?” He was on the defensive, as it were crouching warily behind a screen of his suspicions.

She nodded, awkwardly. She wanted to be graceful, persuasive, enveloping, but she could not. It was to repay Janet that she had need of the money. She ought to have obtained it before, but she had postponed the demand, and she had been wrong. Janet would not require the money, she would have no immediate use for it, but Hilda could not bear to be in debt to her; to leave the sum outstanding would seem so strange, so sinister, so equivocal; it would mar all their intercourse.

“But look here, child,” said Edwin, protesting, “I’ve given you about forty times as much as you can possibly want already.”

He had never squarely refused any demand of hers for money; he had almost always acceded instantly and without enquiry to her demands. Obviously he felt sympathy with the woman who by eternal custom is forced to ask, and had a horror of behaving as the majority of husbands notoriously behaved in such circumstances; obviously he was anxious not to avail himself of the husband’s overwhelming economic advantage. Nevertheless the fact that he earned and she didn’t was ever mysteriously present in his relatively admirable attitude. And sometimes — perhaps not without grounds, she admitted — he would hesitate before a request, and in him a hesitation was as humiliating as a refusal would have been from another man. And Hilda resented, not so much his attitude, as the whole social convention upon which it was unassailably based. He earned — she knew. She would not deny that he was the unique source and that without him there would be naught. But still she did not think that she ought to have to ask. On the other hand she had no alternative plan to offer. Her criticism of the convention was destructive, not constructive. And all Edwin’s careful regard for a woman’s susceptibilities seemed only to intensify her deep-hidden revolt. It was a mere chance that he was thus chivalrous. And whether he was chivalrous or not, she was in his power; and she chafed.

“I should be glad if you could let me have it,” she said, grimly.

The appeal, besides being unpersuasive in manner, was too general; it did not particularize. There was no frankness between them. She saw his suspicions multiplying. What did he suspect? What could he suspect? . . . Ah! And why was she herself so timorous, so strangely excited, about going even to the edge of Dartmoor? And why did she feel guilty, why was her glance so constrained?

“Well, I can’t,” he answered. “Not now; but if anything unexpected turns up, I can send you a cheque.”

She was beaten.

The cab stopped at the front-door, well in advance of time.

“It’s for Janet,” she muttered to him, desperately.

Edwin’s face changed.

“Why in thunder didn’t you say so to start with?” he exclaimed. “I’ll see what I can do. Of course I’ve got a fiver in my pocket-book.”

There were a number of men in the town who made a point of always having a reserve five-pound note and a telegraph-form upon their persons. It was the dandyism of well-off prudence.

He sprang out of the room. The door swung to behind him.

In a very few moments he returned.

“Here you are!” he said, taking the note from his pocket-book and adding it to a collection of gold and silver.

Hilda was looking out of the window at the tail of the cab. She did not move.

“I don’t want it, thanks,” she replied coldly. And she thought: “What a fool I am!”

“Oh!” he murmured, with constraint.

“You’d do it for her!” said Hilda, chill and clear, “But you wouldn’t do it for me.” And she thought: “Why do I say such a thing?”

He slapped all the money crossly down on the desk and left the room. She could hear him instructing Ada and the cabman in the manipulation of the great portmanteau.

“Now, mother!” cried George.

She gazed at the money, and, picking it up, shovelled it into her purse. It was irresistible.

In the hall she kissed George, and nodded with a plaintive smile at Ada. Edwin was in the porch. He held back; she held back. She knew from his face that he would not offer to kiss her. The strange power that had compelled her to alienate him refused to allow her to relent. She passed down the steps out into the rain. They nodded, the theory for George and Ada being that they had made their farewells in the boudoir. But George and Ada none the less had their notions. It appeared to Hilda that instead of going for a holiday with her closest friend, she was going to some recondite disaster that involved the end of marriage. And the fact that she and Edwin had not kissed outweighed all other facts in the universe. Yet what was a kiss? Until the cab laboriously started she hoped for a miracle. It did not happen. If only on the previous night she had not absolutely insisted that nobody from the house should accompany her to Knype! . . . The porch slipped from her vision.

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