These Twain, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter vi

Husband and Wife

i

“I’m upstairs,” Hilda called in a powerful whisper from the head of the stairs as soon as Edwin had closed and bolted the front-door.

He responded humorously. He felt very happy, lusty, and wideawake. The evening had had its contretemps, its varying curve of success, but as a whole it was a triumph. And, above all, it was over — a thing that had had to be accomplished and that had been accomplished, with dignity and effectiveness. He walked in ease from room to lighted empty room, and the splendid waste of gas pleased him, arousing something royal that is at the bottom of generous natures. In the breakfast-room especially the gas had been flaring to no purpose for hours. “Her room, her very own room!” He wondered indulgently when, if ever, she would really make it her own room by impressing her individuality upon it. He knew she was always meaning to do something drastic to the room, but so far she had got no further than his portrait. Child! Infant! Wayward girl! . . . Still the fact of the portrait on the mantelpiece touched him.

He dwelt tenderly on the invisible image of the woman upstairs. It was marvellous how she was not the Hilda he had married. The new Hilda had so overlaid and hidden the old, that he had positively to make an effort to recall what the old one was, with her sternness and her anxious air of responsibility. But at the same time she was the old Hilda too. He desired to be splendidly generous, to environ her with all luxuries, to lift her clear above other women; he desired the means to be senselessly extravagant for her. To clasp on her arm a bracelet whose cost would keep a workingman’s family for three years would have delighted him. And though he was interested in social schemes, and had a social conscience, he would sooner have bought that bracelet, and so purchased the momentary thrill of putting it on her capricious arm, than have helped to ameliorate the lot of thousands of victimised human beings. He had Hilda in his bones and he knew it, and he knew that it was a grand and a painful thing.

Nevertheless he was not without a considerable self-satisfaction, for he had done very well by Hilda. He had found her at the mercy of the world, and now she was safe and sheltered and beloved, and made mistress of a house and home that would stand comparison with most houses and homes. He was proud of his house; he always watched over it; he was always improving it; and he would improve it more and more; and it should never be quite finished.

The disorder in it, now, irked him. He walked to and fro, and restored every piece of furniture to its proper place, heaped the contents of the ash-trays into one large ash-tray, covered some of the food, and locked up the alcohol. He did this leisurely, while thinking of the woman upstairs, and while eating two chocolates — not more, because he had notions about his stomach. Then he shut and bolted the drawing-room window, and opened the door leading to the cellar steps and sniffed, so as to be quite certain that the radiator furnace was not setting the house on fire. And then he extinguished the lights, and the hall-light last of all, and his sole illumination was the gas on the first-floor landing inviting him upstairs.

Standing on the dark stairs, on his way to bed, eager and yet reluctant to mount, he realised the entity of the house. He thought of the astounding and mysterious George, and of those uncomprehended beings, Ada and the cook in their attic, sleeping by the side of the portrait of a fireman in uniform. He felt sure that one or both of them had been privy to George’s unlawful adventures, and he heartily liked them for shielding the boy. And he thought of his wife, moving about in the bedroom upon which she had impressed her individuality. He went upstairs. . . . Yes, he should proceed with the enterprise of the new works. He had the courage for it now. He was rich, according to Bursley ideas — he would be far richer. . . . He gave a faint laugh at the memory of George’s objection to Bert’s choice of a bicycle as a gift from heaven.

ii

Hilda was brushing her hair. The bedroom seemed to be full of her and the disorder of her multitudinous things. Whenever he asked why a particular item of her goods was in a particular spot — the spot appearing to him to have been bizarrely chosen — she always proved to her own satisfaction, by a quite improvised argument, that that particular spot was the sole possible spot for that particular item. The bedroom was no longer theirs — it was hers. He picnicked in it. He didn’t mind. In fact he rather liked the picnic. It pleased him to exercise his talent for order and organisation, so as to maintain his own comfort in the small spaces which she left to him. To-night the room was in a divine confusion. He accepted it with pleasure. The beds had not been turned down, because it was improper to turn them down when they were to be used for the deposit of strangers’ finery. On Edwin’s bed now lay the dress which Hilda had taken off. It was a most agreeable object on the bed, and seemed even richer and more complex there than on Hilda. He removed it carefully to a chair. An antique diaphanous shawl remained, which was unfamiliar to him.

“What’s this shawl?” he asked. “I’ve never seen this shawl before. What is it?”

Hilda was busy, her bent head buried in hair.

“Oh, Edwin, what an old fusser you are!” she mumbled. “What shawl?”

He held it up.

“Someone must have left it.”

He proceeded with the turning down of his bed. Then he sat on a chair to regard Hilda.

When she had done her hair she padded across the room and examined the shawl.

“What a precious thing!” she exclaimed. “It’s Mrs. Fearns’s. She must have taken it off to put her jacket on, and then forgotten it. But I’d no idea how good it was. It’s genuine old. I wonder how it would suit me?”

She put it round her shoulders, and then stood smiling, posing, bold, provocative, for his verdict. The whiteness of her deshabille showed through the delicate pattern and tints of the shawl, with a strange effect. For him she was more than a woman; she was the incarnation of a sex. It was marvellous how all she did, all her ideas and her gestures, were so intensely feminine, so sure to perturb or enchant him. Nervously he began to wind his watch. He wanted to spring up and kiss her because she was herself. But he could not. So he said:

“Come here, chit. Let me look at that shawl.”

She obeyed. She knelt acquiescent. He put his watch back into his pocket, and fingered the shawl.

Then she said:

“I suppose one’ll be allowed to grumble at Georgie for locking his bedroom door.” And she said it with a touch of mockery in her clear, precise voice, as though twitting him, and Ingpen too, about their absurd theoretical sense of honour towards children. And there was a touch of fine bitterness in her voice also — a reminiscence of the old Hilda. Incalculable creature! Who could have guessed that she would make such a remark at such a moment? In his mind he dashed George to pieces. But as a wise male he ignored all her implications and answered casually, mildly, with an affirmative.

She went on:

“What were you talking such a long time to Johnnie Orgreave about?”

“Talking a long time to Johnnie Orgreave? Oh! D’you mean at the front-door? Why, it wasn’t half a minute! He happened to mention a piece of land down at Shawport that I had a sort of a notion of buying.”

“Buying? What for?” Her tone hardened.

“Well, supposing I had to build a new works?”

“You never told me anything about it.”

“I’ve only just begun to think of it myself. You see, if I’m to go in for lithography as it ought to be gone in for, I can’t possibly stay at the shop. I must have more room, and a lot more. And it would be cheaper to build than to rent.”

She stood up.

“Why go in more for lithography?”

“You can’t stand still in business. Must either go forward or go back.”

“It seems to me it’s very risky. I wondered what you were hiding from me.”

“My dear girl, I was not hiding anything from you,” he protested.

“Whose land is it?”

“It belongs to Tobias Hall’s estate.”

“Yes, and I’ve no doubt the Halls would be very glad to get rid of it. Who told you about it?”

“Johnnie.”

“Of course it would be a fine thing for him too.”

“But I’d asked him if he knew of any land going cheap.”

She shrugged her shoulders, and shrugged away the disinterestedness of all Orgreaves.

“Anyone could get the better of you,” she said.

He resented this estimate of himself as a good-natured simpleton. He assuredly did not want to quarrel, but he was obliged to say:

“Oh! Could they?”

An acerbity scarcely intentional somehow entered into his tone. As soon as he heard it he recognised the tone as the forerunner of altercations.

“Of course!” she insisted, superiorly, and then went on: “We’re all right as we are. We spend too much money, but I daresay we’re all right. If you go in for a lot of new things you may lose all we’ve got, and then where shall we be?”

In his heart he said to her:

“What’s it got to do with you? You manage your home, and I’ll manage my business! You know nothing at all about business. You’re the very antithesis of business. Whatever business you’ve ever had to do with you’ve ruined. You’ve no right to judge and no grounds for judgment. It’s odious of you to asperse any of the Orgreaves. They were always your best friends. I should never have met you if it hadn’t been for them. And where would you be now without me? Trying to run some wretched boarding-house and probably starving. Why do you assume that I’m a d —— d fool? You always do. Let me tell you that I’m one of the most common-sense men in this town, and everybody knows it except you. Anyhow I was clever enough to get you out of a mess. . . . You knew I was hiding something from you, did you? I wish you wouldn’t talk such infernal rot. And moreover I won’t have you interfering in my business. Other wives don’t, and you shan’t. So let that be clearly understood.” In his heart he was very ill-used and very savage.

But he only said:

“Well, we shall see.”

She retorted:

“Naturally if you’ve made up your mind, there’s no more to be said.”

He broke out viciously:

“I’ve not made up my mind. Don’t I tell you I’ve only just begun to think about it?”

He was angry. And now that he actually was angry, he took an almost sensual pleasure in being angry. He had been angry before, though on a smaller scale, with less provocation, and he had sworn that he would never be angry again. But now that he was angry again, he gloomily and fiercely revelled in it.

Hilda silently folded up the shawl, and, putting it into a drawer of the wardrobe, shut the drawer with an irritatingly gentle click. . . . Click! He could have killed her for that click. . . . She seized a dressing-gown.

“I must just go and look at George,” she murmured, with cool, clear calmness — the virtuous, anxious mother; not a trace of coquetry anywhere in her.

“What bosh!” he thought. “She knows perfectly well George’s door is bolted.”

Marriage was a startling affair. Who could have foretold this finish to the evening? Nothing had occurred . . . nothing . . . and yet everything. His plans were all awry. He could see naught but trouble.

She was away some time. When she returned, he was in bed, with his face averted. He heard her moving about.

“Will she, or won’t she, come and kiss me?” he thought.

She came and kissed him, but it was a meaningless kiss.

“Good-night,” she said, aloofly.

“‘Night.”

She slept. But he could not sleep. He kept thinking the same thought: “She’s no right whatever. . . . I must say I never bargained for this. . . . ” etc.

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