These Twain, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter ii

Hilda on the Stairs

i

Ada descended the stairs, young, slim, very neat. Ada was one of Hilda’s two new servants. Before taking charge of the house Hilda had ordained the operation called “a clean sweep,” and Edwin had approved. The elder of Maggie’s two servants had been a good one, but Hilda had shown no interest in the catalogue of her excellences. She wanted fresh servants. Maggie, like Edwin, approved, but only as a general principle. In the particular case she had hinted that her prospective sister-in-law was perhaps unwise to let slip a tested servant. Hilda wanted not merely fresh servants, but young servants agreeable to behold. “I will not have a lot of middle-aged scowling women about my house,” Hilda had said. Maggie was reserved, but her glance was meant to remind Hilda that in those end-of-the-century days mistresses had to be content with what they could get. Young and comely servants were all very well — if you could drop on them, but supposing you couldn’t? The fact was that Maggie could not understand Hilda’s insistence on youth and comeliness in a servant, and she foresaw trouble for Hilda. Hilda, however, obtained her desire. She was outspoken with her servants. If Edwin after his manner implied that she was dangerously ignoring the touchiness of the modern servant, she would say indifferently: “It’s always open to them to go if they don’t like it.” They did not go. It is notorious that foolhardy mistresses are often very lucky.

As soon as Ada caught sight of her master in the hall she became self-conscious; all the joints of her body seemed to be hung on very resilient springs, and — reddening slightly — she lowered her gaze and looked at her tripping toes. Edwin seldom spoke to her more than once a day, and not always that. He had one day visited the large attic into which, with her colleague, she disappeared late at night and from which she emerged early in the morning, and he had seen two small tin trunks and some clothes behind the door, and an alarm-clock and a portrait of a fireman on the mantelpiece. (The fireman, he seemed to recollect, was her brother.) But she was a stranger in his house, and he had no sustained curiosity about her. The days were gone when he used to be the intimate of servants — of Mrs. Nixon, for example, sole prop of the Clayhanger family for many years, and an entirely human being to Edwin. Mrs. Nixon had never been either young, slim, or neat. She was dead. The last servant whom he could be said to have known was a pert niece of Mrs. Nixon’s — now somebody’s prolific wife and much changed. And he was now somebody’s husband, and bearded, and perhaps occasionally pompous, and much changed in other ways. So that enigmatic Adas bridled at sight of him and became intensely aware of themselves. Still, this Ada in her smartness was a pretty sight for his eyes as like an aspen she trembled down the stairs, though the coarseness of her big red hands, and the vulgarity of her accent were a surprising contrast to her waist and her fine carriage.

He knew she had been hooking her mistress’s dress, and that therefore the hooking must be finished. He liked to think of Hilda being attired thus in the bedroom by a natty deferential wench. The process gave to Hilda a luxurious, even an oriental quality, which charmed him. He liked the suddenly impressive tone in which the haughty Hilda would say to Ada, “Your master,” as if mentioning a sultan. He was more and more anxious lest Hilda should be late, and he wanted to ask Ada: “Is Mrs. Clayhanger coming down?”

But he discreetly forbore. He might have run up to the bedroom and burst in on the toilette — Hilda would have welcomed him. But he preferred to remain with his anxiety where he was, and meditate upon Hilda bedecking herself up there in the bedroom — to please him; to please not the guests, but him.

Ada disappeared down the narrow passage leading to the kitchen, and a moment later he heard a crude giggle, almost a scream, and some echo of the rough tones in which the servants spoke to each other when they were alone in the kitchen. There were in fact two Adas; one was as timid as a fawn with a voice like a delicate invalid’s; the other a loud-mouthed hoity-toity girl such as rushed out of potbanks in flannel apron at one o’clock. The Clayhanger servants were satisfactory, more than satisfactory, the subject of favourable comment for their neatness among the mistresses of other servants. He liked them to be about; their presence and their official demeanour flattered him; they perfected the complex superiority of his house — that island. But when he overheard them alone together, or when he set himself to imagine what their soul’s life was, he was more than ever amazed at the unnoticed profound differences between modes of thought that in apparently the most natural manner could exist so close together without producing a cataclysm. Auntie Hamps’s theory was that they were all — he, she, the servants — equal in the sight of God!

ii

Hilda’s son, George Edwin, sidled surprisingly into the hall. He was wearing a sailor suit, very new, and he had probably been invisible somewhere against the blue curtains of the drawing-room window — an example of nature’s protective mimicry. George was rather small for his ten years. Dark, like his mother, he had her eyes and her thick eyebrows that almost met in the middle, and her pale skin. As for his mind, he seemed to be sometimes alarmingly precocious and sometimes a case of arrested development. In this and many other respects he greatly resembled other boys. The son of a bigamist can have no name, unless it be his mother’s maiden name, but George knew nothing of that. He had borne his father’s name, and when at the exciting and puzzling period of his mother’s marriage he had learnt that his surname would in future be Clayhanger he had a little resented the affront to his egoism. Edwin’s explanation, however, that the change was for the convenience of people in general had caused him to shrug his shoulders in concession and to murmur casually: “Oh, well then —!” He seemed to be assenting with loftiness: “If it’s any particular use to the whole world, I don’t really mind.”

“I say, uncle,” he began.

Edwin had chosen this form of address. “Stepfather” was preposterous, and “father” somehow offended him; so he constituted himself an uncle.

“Hello, kid!” said he. “Can you find room to keep anything else in your pockets besides your hands?”

George snatched his hands out of his pockets. Then he smiled confidently up. These two were friends. Edwin was as proud as the boy of the friendship, and perhaps more flattered. At first he had not cared for George, being repelled by George’s loud, positive tones, his brusque and often violent gestures, and his intense absorption in himself. But gradually he had been won by the boy’s boyishness, his smile, his little, soft body, his unspoken invocations, his resentment of injustice (except when strict justice appeared to clash with his own interests), his absolute impotence against adult decrees, his touching fatalism, his recondite personal distinction that flashed and was gone, and his occasional cleverness and wit. He admitted that George charmed him. But he well knew that he also charmed George. He had a way of treating George as an equal that few children (save possibly Clara’s) could have resisted. True, he would quiz the child, but he did not forbid the child to quiz. The mother was profoundly relieved and rejoiced by this friendship. She luxuriated in it. Edwin might well have been inimical to the child; he might through the child have shown a jealousy of the child’s father. But, somewhat to the astonishment of even Edwin himself, he never saw the father in the child, nor thought of the father, nor resented the parenthood that was not his. For him the child was an individual. And in spite of his stern determination not to fall into the delusions of conceited parents, he could not help thinking that George was a remarkable child.

“Have you seen my horse?” asked George.

“Have I seen your horse? . . . Oh! . . . I’ve seen that you’ve left it lying about on the hall-table.”

“I put it there so that you’d see it,” George persuasively excused himself for the untidiness.

“Well, let’s inspect it,” Edwin forgave him, and picked up from the table a piece of cartridge-paper on which was a drawing of a great cart-horse with shaggy feet. It was a vivacious sketch.

“You’re improving,” said Edwin, judicially, but in fact much impressed. Surely few boys of ten could draw as well as that! The design was strangely more mature than certain quite infantile watercolours that Edwin had seen scarcely a year earlier.

“It’s rather good, isn’t it?” George suggested, lifting up his head so that he could just see over the edge of the paper which Edwin held at the level of his watch-chain.

“I’ve met worse. Where did you see this particular animal?”

“I saw him down near the Brewery this morning. But when I’m doing a horse, I see him on the paper before I begin to draw, and I just draw round him.”

Edwin thought:

“This kid is no ordinary kid.”

He said:

“Well, we’ll pin it up here. We’ll have a Royal Academy and hear what the public has to say.” He took a pin from under his waistcoat.

“That’s not level,” said George.

And when Edwin had readjusted the pin, George persisted boldly:

“That’s not level either.”

“It’s as level as it’s going to be. I expect you’ve been drawing horses instead of practising your piano.”

He looked down at the mysterious little boy, who lived always so much nearer to the earth’s surface than himself.

George nodded simply, and then scratched his head.

“I suppose if I don’t practise while I’m young I shall regret it in after life, shan’t I?”

“Who told you that?”

“It’s what Auntie Hamps said to me, I think . . . I say, uncle.”

“What’s up?”

“Is Mr. John coming to-night?”

“I suppose so. Why?”

“Oh, nothing. . . . I say, uncle.”

“That’s twice you’ve said it.”

The boy smiled.

“You know that piece in the Bible about if two of you shall agree on earth —?”

“What of it?” Edwin asked rather curtly, anticipating difficulties.

“I don’t think two boys would be enough, would they? Two grown-ups might. But I’m not so sure about two boys. You see in the very next verse it says two or three, gathered together.”

“Three might be more effective. It’s always as well to be on the safe side.”

“Could you pray for anything? A penknife, for instance?”

“Why not?”

“But could you?” George was a little impatient.

“Better ask your mother,” said Edwin, who was becoming self-conscious under the strain.

George exploded coarsely:

“Poh! It’s no good asking mother.”

Said Edwin:

“The great thing in these affairs is to know what you want, and to want it. Concentrate as hard as you can, a long time in advance. No use half wanting!”

“Well, there’s one thing that’s poz [positive]. I couldn’t begin to concentrate to-night.”

“Why not?”

“Who could?” George protested. “We’re all so nervous to-night, aren’t we, with this At Home business. And I know I never could concentrate in my best clothes.”

For Edwin the boy with his shocking candour had suddenly precipitated out of the atmosphere, as it were, the collective nervousness of the household, made it into a phenomenon visible, tangible, oppressive. And the household was no longer a collection of units, but an entity. A bell rang faintly in the kitchen, and the sound abraded his nerves. The first guests were on the threshold, and Hilda was late. He looked at the clock. Yes, she was late. The hour named in the invitations was already past. All day he had feared lest she should be late, and she was late. He looked at the glass of the front-door; but night had come, and it was opaque. Ada tripped into view and ran upstairs.

“Don’t you hear the front-door?” he stopped her flight.

“It was missis’s bell, sir.”

“Ah!” Respite!

Ada disappeared.

Then another ring! And no parlour-maid to answer the bell! Naturally! Naturally Hilda, forgetting something at the last moment, had taken the parlour-maid away precisely when the girl was needed! Oh! He had foreseen it! He could hear shuffling outside and could even distinguish forms through the glass — many forms. All the people converging from various streets upon the waiting nervousness of the household seemed to have arrived at once.

George moved impulsively towards the front-door.

“Where are you going?” Edwin asked roughly. “Come here. It’s not your place to open the door. Come with me in the drawing-room.”

It was no affair of Edwin’s, thought Edwin crossly and uncompromisingly, if guests were kept waiting at the front-door. It was Hilda’s affair; she was the mistress of the house, and the blame was hers.

At high speed Ada swept with streamers down the stairs, like a squirrel down the branch of a tree. And then came Hilda.

iii

She stood at the turn of the stairs, waiting while the front-door was opened. He and George could see her over and through the banisters. And at sight of her triumphant and happy air, all Edwin’s annoyance melted. He did not desire that it should melt, but it melted. She was late. He could not rely on her not to be late. In summoning the parlourmaid to her bedroom when the parlourmaid ought to have been on duty downstairs she had acted indefensibly and without thought. No harm, as it happened, was done. Sheer chance often thus saved her, but logically her double fault was not thereby mitigated. He felt that if he forgave her, if he dismissed the charge and wiped the slate, he was being false to the great male principles of logic and justice. The godlike judge in him resented the miscarriage of justice. Nevertheless justice miscarried. And the weak husband said like a woman: “What does it matter?” Such was her shameful power over him, of which the unscrupulous creature was quite aware.

As he looked at her he asked himself: “Is she magnificent? Or is she just ordinary and am I deluded? Does she seem her age? Is she a mature woman getting past the prime, or has she miraculously kept herself a young girl for me?”

In years she was thirty-five. She had large bones, and her robust body, neither plump nor slim, showed the firm, assured carriage of its age. It said: “I have stood before the world, and I cannot be intimidated.” Still, marriage had rejuvenated her. She was marvellously young at times, and experience would drop from her and leave the girl that he had first known and kissed ten years earlier; but a less harsh, less uncompromising girl. At their first acquaintance she had repelled him with her truculent seriousness. Nowadays she would laugh for no apparent reason, and even pirouette. Her complexion was good; he could nearly persuade himself that that olive skin had not suffered in a decade of distress and disasters.

Previous to her marriage she had shown little interest in dress. But now she would spasmodically worry about her clothes, and she would make Edwin worry. He had to decide, though he had no qualifications as an arbiter. She would scowl at a dressmaker as if to say: “For God’s sake do realise that upon you is laid the sacred responsibility of helping me to please my husband!” To-night she was wearing a striped blue dress, imperceptibly décolletée, with the leg-of-mutton sleeves of the period. The colours, two shades of blue, did not suit her. But she imagined that they suited her, and so did he; and the frock was elaborate, was the result of terrific labour and produced a rich effect, meet for a hostess of position.

The mere fact that this woman with no talent for coquetry should after years of narrow insufficiency scowl at dressmakers and pout at senseless refractory silks in the yearning for elegance was utterly delicious to Edwin. Her presence there on the landing of the stairs was in the nature of a miracle. He had wanted her, and he had got her. In the end he had got her, and nothing had been able to stop him — not even the obstacle of her tragic adventure with a rascal and a bigamist. The strong magic of his passion had forced destiny to render her up to him mysteriously intact, after all. The impossible had occurred, and society had accepted it, beaten. There she was, dramatically, with her thick eyebrows, and the fine wide nostrils and the delicate lobe of the ear, and that mouth that would startlingly fasten on him and kiss the life out of him.

“There is dear Hilda!” said someone at the door amid the arriving group.

None but Auntie Hamps would have said ‘dear’ Hilda. Maggie, Clara, and even Janet Orgreave never used sentimental adjectives on occasions of ceremony.

And in her clear, precise, dominating voice Hilda with gay ease greeted the company from above:

“Good evening, all!”

“What the deuce was I so upset about just now?” thought Edwin, in sudden, instinctive, exulting felicity: “Everything is absolutely all right.”

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