It was six-thirty. The autumn dusk had already begun to fade; and in the damp air, cold, grimy, and vaporous, men with scarves round their necks and girls with shawls over their heads, or hatted and even gloved, were going home from work past the petty shops where sweets, tobacco, fried fish, chitterlings, groceries, and novelettes were sold among enamelled advertisements of magic soaps. In the feeble and patchy illumination of the footpaths, which left the middle of the streets and the upper air all obscure, the chilled, preoccupied people passed each other rapidly like phantoms, emerging out of one mystery and disappearing into another. Everywhere, behind the fanlights and shaded windows of cottages, domesticity was preparing the warm relaxations of the night. Amid the streets of little buildings the lithographic establishment, with a yellow oblong here and there illuminated in its dark façades, stood up high, larger than reality, more important and tyrannic, one of the barracks, one of the prisons, one of the money-works where a single man or a small group of men by brains and vigour and rigour exploited the populace.
Edwin, sitting late in his private office behind those façades, was not unaware of the sensation of being an exploiter. By his side on the large flat desk lay a copy of the afternoon’s Signal containing an account of the breaking up by police of an open-air meeting of confessed anarchists on the previous day at Manchester. Manchester was, and is still, physically and morally, very close to the Five Towns, which respect it more than they respect London. An anarchist meeting at Manchester was indeed an uncomfortable portent for the Five Towns. Enormous strikes, like civil wars at stalemate, characterised the autumn as they had characterised the spring, affecting directly or indirectly every industry, and weakening the prestige of government, conventions, wealth, and success. Edwin was successful. It was because he was successful that he was staying late and that a clerk in the outer office was staying late and that windows were illuminated here and there in the façades. Holding in his hand the wage-book, he glanced down the long column of names and amounts. Some names conveyed nothing to him; but most of them raised definite images in his mind — of big men, roughs, decent clerks with wristbands, undersized pale machinists, intensely respectable skilled artisans and daughtsmen, thin ragged lads, greasy, slatternly, pale girls, and one or two fat women — all dirty, and working with indifference in dirt. Most of them kowtowed to him; some did not; some scowled askance. But they were all dependent on him. Not one of them but would be prodigiously alarmed and inconvenienced — to say nothing of going hungry — if it he did not pay wages the next morning. The fact was he could distribute ruin with a gesture and nobody could bring him to book. . . .
Something wrong! Under the influence of strikes and anarchist meetings he felt with foreboding and even with a little personal alarm that something was wrong. Those greasy, slatternly girls, for instance, with their coarse charm and their sexuality — they were underpaid. They received as much as other girls, on pot-banks, perhaps more, but they were underpaid. What chance had they? He was getting richer every day, and safer (except for the vague menace); yet he could not appreciably improve their lot, partly for business reasons, partly because any attempt to do so would bring the community about his ears and he would be labelled as a doctrinaire and a fool, and partly because his own commonsense was against such a move. Not those girls, not his works, not this industry and that, was wrong. All was wrong. And it was impossible to imagine any future period when all would not be wrong. Perfection was a desolating thought. Nevertheless the struggle towards it was instinctive and had to go on. The danger was (in Edwin’s eyes) of letting that particular struggle monopolise one’s energy. Well, he would not let it. He did a little here and a little there, and he voted democratically and in his heart was most destructively sarcastic about toryism; and for the rest he relished the adventure of existence, and took the best he conscientiously could, and thought pretty well of himself as a lover of his fellowmen. If he was born to be a master, he would be one, and not spend his days in trying to overthrow mastery. He was tired that evening, he had a slight headache, he certainly had worries; but he was not unhappy on the throbbing, tossing steamer of humanity. Nobody could seem less adventurous than he seemed, with his timidities and his love of moderation, comfort, regularity and security. Yet his nostrils would sniff to the supreme and all-embracing adventure.
He heard Hilda’s clear voice in the outer office: “Mr. Clayhanger in there?” and the clerk’s somewhat nervously agitated reply, repeating several times in eager affirmative. And he himself, the master, though still all alone in the sanctum, at once pretended to be very busy.
Her presence would thus often produce an excitation in the organism of the business. She was so foreign to it, so unsoiled by it, so aloof from it, so much more gracious, civilised, enigmatic than anything that the business could show! And, fundamentally, she was the cause of the business; it was all for her; it existed with its dirt, noise, crudity, strain, and eternal effort so that she might exist in her elegance, her disturbing femininity, her restricted and deep affections, her irrational capriciousness, and her strange, brusque commonsense. The clerks and some of the women felt this; Big James certainly felt it; and Edwin felt it, and denied it to himself, more than anybody. There was no economic justice in the arrangement. She would come in veiled, her face mysterious behind the veil, and after a few minutes she would delicately lift her gloved fingers to the veil, and raise it, and her dark, pale, vivacious face would be disclosed. “Here I am!” And the balance was even, her debt paid! That was how it was.
In the month that had passed since the visit to Dartmoor, Edwin, despite his resolve to live heroically and philosophically, had sometimes been forced into the secret attitude: “This woman will kill me, but without her I shouldn’t be interested enough to live.” He was sometimes morally above her to the point of priggishness, and sometimes incredibly below her; but for the most part living in a different dimension. She had heard nothing further from Mrs. Cannon; she knew nothing of the bigamist’s fate, though more than once she had written for news. Her moods were unpredictable and disconcerting, and as her moods constituted the chief object of Edwin’s study the effect on him was not tranquillising. At the start he had risen to the difficulty of the situation; but he could not permanently remain at that height, and the situation had apparently become stationary. His exasperations, both concealed and open, were not merely unworthy of a philosopher, they were unworthy of a common man. “Why be annoyed?” he would say to himself. But he was annoyed. “The tone — the right tone!” he would remind himself. Surely he could remember to command his voice to the right tone? But no! He could not. He could infallibly remember to wind up his watch, but he could not remember that. Moreover, he felt, as he had felt before, on occasions, that no amount of right tone would keep their relations smooth, for the reason that principles were opposed. Could she not see? . . . Well, she could not. There she was, entire, unalterable — impossible to chip inconvenient pieces off her — you must take her or leave her; and she could not see, or she would not — which in practice was the same thing.
And yet some of the most exquisite moments of their union had occurred during that feverish and unquiet month — moments of absolute surrender and devotion on her part, of protective love on his; and also long moments of peace. With the early commencement of autumn, all the family had resumed the pursuit of letters with a certain ardour. A startling feminist writer, and the writer whose parentage and whose very name lay in the Five Towns, who had recreated the East and whose vogue was a passion among the lettered — both these had published books whose success was extreme and genuine. And in the curtained gas-lit drawing-room of a night Hilda would sit rejoicing over the triumphant satire of the woman-novelist, and Edwin and George would lounge in impossible postures, each mesmerised by a story of the Anglo–Indian; and between chapters Edwin might rouse himself from the enchantment sufficiently to reflect: “How indescribably agreeable these evenings are!” And ten to one he would say aloud, with false severity: “George! Bed!” And George, a fine judge of genuineness in severity, would murmur carelessly: “All right! I’m going!” And not go.
And now Edwin in the office thought:
“She’s come to fetch me away.”
He was gratified. But he must not seem to be gratified. The sanctity of business from invasion had to be upheld. He frowned, feigning more diligently than ever to be occupied. She came in, with that air at once apologetic and defiant that wives have in affronting the sacred fastness. Nobody could have guessed that she had ever been a business woman, arriving regularly at just such an office every morning, shorthand-writing, twisting a copying-press, filing, making appointments. Nobody could have guessed that she had ever been in business for herself, and had known how sixpence was added to sixpence and a week’s profit lost in an hour. All such knowledge had apparently dropped from her like an excrescence, had vanished like a temporary disfigurement, and she looked upon commerce with the uncomprehending, careless, and yet impressed eyes of a young girl.
“Hello, missis!” he exclaimed casually.
Then George came in. Since the visit to Dartmoor Hilda had much increased her intimacy with George, spending a lot of time with him, walking with him, and exploring in a sisterly and reassuring manner his most private life. George liked it, but it occasionally irked him and he would give a hint to Edwin that mother needed to be handled at times.
“You needn’t come in here, George,” said Hilda.
“Well, can I go into the engine-house?” George suggested. Edwin had always expected that he would prefer the machine-room. But the engine-house was his haunt, probably because it was dirty, fiery, and stuffy.
“No, you can’t,” said Edwin. “Pratt’s gone by this, and it’s shut up.”
“No, it isn’t. Pratt’s there.”
“Shut the door, dear,” said Hilda.
“Hooray!” George ran off and banged the glass door.
Hilda, glancing by habit at the unsightly details of the deteriorating room, walked round the desk. With apprehension Edwin saw resolve and perturbation in her face. He was about to say: “Look here, infant, I’m supposed to be busy.” But he refrained.
Holding out a letter which she nervously snatched from her bag, Hilda said:
“I’ve just had this — by the afternoon post. Read it.”
He recognised at once the sloping handwriting; but the paper was different; it was a mere torn half-sheet of very cheap notepaper. He read: “Dear Mrs. Clayhanger. Just a line to say that my husband is at last discharged. It has been weary waiting. We are together, and I am looking after him. With renewed thanks for your sympathy and help. Believe me, Sincerely yours, Charlotte M. Cannon.” The signature was scarcely legible. There was no address, no date.
Edwin’s first flitting despicable masculine thought was: “She doesn’t say anything about that ten pounds!” It fled. He was happy in an intense relief that affected all his being. He said to himself: “Now that’s over, we can begin again.”
“Well,” he murmured. “That’s all right. Didn’t I always tell you it would take some time? . . . That’s all right.”
He gazed at the paper, waving it in his hand as he held it by one corner. He perceived that it was the letter of a jealous woman, who had got what she wanted and meant to hold it, and entirely to herself; and his mood became somewhat sardonic.
“Very curt, isn’t it?” said Hilda strangely. “And after all this time, too!”
He looked up at her, turning his head sideways to catch her eyes.
“That letter,” he said in a voice as strange as Hilda’s, “that letter is exactly what it ought to be. It could not possibly have been better turned. . . . You don’t want to keep it, I suppose, do you?”
“No,” she muttered.
He tore it into very small pieces, and dropped them into the waste-paper-basket beneath the desk.
“And burn all the others,” he said, in a low tone.
“Edwin,” after a pause.
“Don’t you think George ought to know? Don’t you think one of us ought to tell him — either you or me? You might tell him?”
“Tell him what?” Edwin demanded sharply, pushing back his chair.
He glowered. He could feel himself glowering. He could feel the justifiable anger animating him.
“Certainly not!” he enunciated resentfully, masterfully, overpoweringly. “Certainly not!”
“But supposing he hears from outsiders?”
“You needn’t begin supposing.”
“But he’s bound to have to know sometime.”
“Possibly. But he isn’t going to know now, any road! Not with my consent. The thing’s absolute madness.”
Hilda almost whispered:
“Very well, dear. If you think so.”
“I do think so.”
He suddenly felt very sorry for her. He was ready to excuse her astounding morbidity as a consequence of extreme spiritual tribulation. He added with brusque good-nature:
“And so will you, in the morning, my child.”
“Shall you be long?”
“No. I told you I should be late. If you’ll run off, my chuck, I’ll undertake to be after you in half an hour.”
“Is your headache better?”
“No. On the other hand, it isn’t worse.”
He gazed fiercely at the wages-book.
She bent down.
“Kiss me,” she murmured tearfully.
As he kissed her, and as she pressed against him, he absorbed and understood all the emotions through which she had passed and was passing, and from him to her was transmitted an unimaginable tenderness that shamed and atoned for the inclemency of his refusals. He was very happy. He knew that he would not do another stroke of work that night, but still he must pretend to do some. Playfully, without rising, he drew down her veil, smacked her gently on the back, and indicated the door.
“I have to call at Clara’s about that wool for Maggie,” she said, with courage. His fingering of her veil had given her extreme pleasure.
“I’ll bring the kid up,” he said.
She departed, leaving the door unlatched.
A draught from the outer door swung wide-open the unlatched door of Edwin’s room.
“What are doors for?” he muttered, pleasantly impatient; then he called aloud:
“Simpson. Shut the outer door — and this one, too.”
There was no answer. He arose and went to the outer office. Hilda had passed through it like an arrow. Simpson was not there. But a man stood leaning against the mantelpiece; he held at full spread a copy of the Signal, which concealed all the upper part of him except his fingers and the crown of his head. Though the gas had been lighted in the middle of the room, it must have been impossible for him to read by it, since it shone through the paper. He lowered the newspaper with a rustle and looked at Edwin. He was a big, well-dressed man, wearing a dark grey suit, a blue Melton overcoat, and a quite new glossy “boiler-end” felt hat. He had a straight, prominent nose, and dark, restless eyes, set back; his short hair was getting grey, but not his short black moustache.
“Were you waiting to see me?” Edwin said, in a defensive, half-hostile tone. The man might be a belated commercial traveller of a big house — some of those fellows considered themselves above all laws; on the other hand he might be a new; customer in a hurry.
“Yes,” was the reply, in a deep, full and yet uncertain voice. “The clerk said you couldn’t be disturbed, and asked me to wait. Then he went out.”
“What can I do for you? It’s really after hours, but some of us are working a bit late.”
The man glanced at the outer door, which Edwin was shutting, and then at the inner door, which exposed Edwin’s room.
“I’m George Cannon,” he said, advancing a step, as it were defiantly.
For an instant Edwin was frightened by the sudden melodrama of the situation. Then he thought:
“I am up against this man. This is a crisis.”
And he became almost agreeably aware of his own being. The man stood close to him, under the gas, with all the enigmatic quality of another being. He could perceive now — at any rate he could believe — that it was George Cannon. Forgetful of what the man had suffered, Edwin felt for him nothing but the instinctive inimical distrust of the individual who has never got at loggerheads with society for the individual who once and for always has. To this feeling was added a powerful resentment of the man’s act in coming — especially unannounced — to just him, the husband of the woman he had dishonoured. It was a monstrous act — and doubtless an act characteristic of the man. It was what might have been expected. The man might have been innocent of a particular crime, might have been falsely imprisoned; but what had he originally been doing, with what rascals had he been consorting, that he should be even suspected of crime? George Cannon’s astonishing presence, so suddenly after his release, at the works of Edwin Clayhanger, was unforgiveable. Edwin felt an impulse to say savagely:
“Look here. You clear out. You understand English, don’t you? Hook it.”
But he had not the brutality to say it. Moreover, the clerk returned, carrying, full to the brim, the tin water-receptacle used for wetting the damping-brush of the copying-press.
“Will you come in, please?” said Edwin curtly. “Simpson, I’m engaged.”
The two men went into the inner room.
“Sit down,” said Edwin grimly.
George Cannon, with a firm gesture, planted his hat on the flat desk between them. He looked round behind him at the shut glazed door.
“You needn’t be afraid,” said Edwin. “Nobody can hear — unless you shout.”
He gazed curiously but somewhat surreptitiously at George Cannon, trying to decide whether it was possible to see in him a released convict. He decided that it was not possible. George Cannon had a shifty, but not a beaten, look; many men had a shifty look. His hair was somewhat short, but so was the hair of many men, if not of most. He was apparently in fair health; assuredly his constitution had not been ruined. And if his large, coarse features were worn, marked with tiny black spots, and seamed and generally ravaged, they were not more ravaged than the features of numerous citizens of Bursley aged about fifty who saved money, earned honours, and incurred the envy of presumably intelligent persons. And as he realised all this, Edwin’s retrospective painful alarm as to what might have happened if Hilda had noticed George Cannon in the outer office lessened until he could dismiss it entirely. By chance she had ignored Cannon, perhaps scarcely seeing him in her preoccupied passage, perhaps taking him vaguely for a customer; but supposing she had recognised him, what then? There would have been an awkward scene — nothing more. Awkward scenes do not kill; their effect is transient. Hilda would have had to behave, and would have behaved, with severe commonsense. He, Edwin himself, would have handled the affair. A demeanour matter-of-fact and impassible was what was needed. After all, a man recently out of prison was not a wild beast, nor yet a freak. Hundreds of men were coming out of prisons every day. . . . He should know how to deal with this man — not pharisaically, not cruelly, not unkindly, but still with a clear indication to the man of his reprehensible indiscretion in being where he then was.
“Did she recognise me — down there — Dartmoor?” asked George Cannon, without any preparing of the ground, in a deep, trembling voice; and as he spoke a flush spread slowly over his dark features.
“Er — yes!” answered Edwin, and his voice also trembled.
“I wasn’t sure,” said George Cannon. “We were halted before I could see. And I daren’t look round — I should ha’ been punished. I’ve been punished before now for looking up at the sky at exercise.” He spoke more quickly and then brought himself up with a snort. “However, I’ve not come all the way here to talk prison, so you needn’t be afraid. I’m not one of your reformers.”
In his weak but ungoverned nervous excitement, from which a faint trace of hysteria was not absent, he now seemed rather more like an exconvict, despite his good clothes. He had become, to Edwin’s superior self-control, suddenly wistful. And at the same time, the strange opening question, and its accent, had stirred Edwin, and he saw with remorse how much finer had been Hilda’s morbid and violent pity than his own harsh commonsense and anxiety to avoid emotion. The man in good clothes moved him more than the convict had moved him. He seemed to have received vision, and he saw not merely the unbearable pathos of George Cannon, but the high and heavenly charitableness of Hilda, which he had constantly douched, and his own common earthliness. He was exceedingly humbled. And he also thought, sadly: “This chap’s still attached to her. Poor devil!”
“What have you come for?” he enquired.
George Cannon cleared his throat. Edwin waited, in fear, for the avowal. He could make nothing out of the visitor’s face; its expression was anxious and drew sympathy, but there was something in it which chilled the sympathy it invoked and which seemed to say: “I shall look after myself.” It yielded naught. You could be sorry for the heart within, and yet could neither like nor esteem it. “Punished for looking up at the sky.” . . . Glimpses of prison life presented themselves to Edwin’s imagination. He saw George Cannon again halted and turning like a serf to the wall of the corridor. And this man opposite to him, close to him in the familiar room, was the same man as the serf! Was he the same man? . . . Inscrutable, the enigma of that existence whose breathing was faintly audible across the desk.
“You know all about it — about my affair, of course?”
“Well,” said Edwin. “I expect you know how much I know.”
“I’m an honest man — you know that. I needn’t begin by explaining that to you.”
Edwin nerved himself:
“You weren’t honest towards Hilda, if it comes to that.”
He used his wife’s Christian name, to this man with whom he had never before spoken, naturally, inevitably. He would not say “my wife.” To have said “my wife” would somehow have brought some muddiness upon that wife, and by contact upon her husband.
“When I say ‘honest’ I mean — you know what I mean. About Hilda — I don’t defend that. Only I couldn’t help myself. . . . I daresay I should do it again.” Edwin could feel his eyes smarting and he blinked, and yet he was angry with the man, who went on: “It’s no use talking about that. That’s over. And I couldn’t help it. I had to do it. She’s come out of it all right. She’s not harmed, and I thank God for it! If there’d been a child living . . . well, it would ha’ been different.”
Edwin started. This man didn’t know he was a father — and his son was within a few yards of him — might come running in at any moment! (No! Young George would not come in. Nothing but positive orders would get the boy out of the engine-house so long as the engine-man remained there.) Was it possible that Hilda had concealed the existence of her child, or had announced the child’s death? If so, she had never done a wiser thing, and such sagacity struck him as heroic. But if Mrs. Cannon knew as to the child, then it was Mrs. Cannon who, with equal prudence and for a different end, had concealed its existence from George Cannon or lied to him as to its death. Certainly the man was sincere. As he said “Thank God!” his full voice had vibrated like the voice of an ardent religionist at a prayer-meeting.
George Cannon began again:
“All I mean is I’m an honest man. I’ve been damnably treated. Not that I want to go into that. No! I’m a fatalist. That’s over. That’s done with. I’m not whining. All I’m insisting on is that I’m not a thief, and I’m not a forger, and I’ve nothing to hide. Perhaps I brought my difficulties about that bank-note business on myself. But when you’ve once been in prison, you don’t choose your friends — you can’t. Perhaps I might have ended by being a thief or a forger, only on this occasion it just happens that I’ve had a good six years for being innocent. I never did anything wrong, or even silly, except let myself get too fond of somebody. That might happen to anyone. It did happen to me. But there’s nothing else. You understand? I never —”
“Yes, yes, certainly!” said Edwin, stopping him as he was about to repeat all the argument afresh. It was a convincing argument.
“No one’s got the right to look down on me, I mean,” George Cannon insisted, bringing his face forward over the desk. “On the contrary this country owes me an apology. However, I don’t want to go into that. That’s done with. Spilt milk’s spilt. I know what the world is.”
“I agree. I agree!” said Edwin.
He did. The honesty of his intelligence admitted almost too eagerly and completely the force of the pleading.
“Well,” said George Cannon, “to cut it short, I want help. And I’ve come to you for it.”
“Me!” Edwin feebly exclaimed.
“You, Mr. Clayhanger! I’ve come straight here from London. I haven’t a friend in the whole world, not one. It’s not everybody can say that. There was a fellow named Dayson at Turnhill — used to work for me — he’d have done something if he could. But he was too big a fool to be able to; and besides, he’s gone, no address. I wrote to him.”
“Oh, that chap!” murmured Edwin, trying to find relief in even a momentary turn of the conversation. “I know who you mean. Shorthand-writer. He died in the Isle of Man on his holiday two years ago. It was in the papers.”
“That’s his address, is it? Good old Dead Letter Office! Well, he is crossed off the list, then; no mistake!” Cannon snarled bitterly. “I’m aware you’re not a friend of mine. I’ve no claim on you. You don’t know me; but you know about me. When I saw you in Dartmoor I guessed who you were, and I said to myself you looked the sort of man who might help another man. . . . Why did you come into the prison? Why did you bring her there? You must have known I was there.” He spoke with a sudden change to reproachfulness.
“I didn’t bring her there.” Edwin blushed. “It was —— However, we needn’t go into that, if you don’t mind.”
“Was she upset?”
“What do you want me to do?” asked Edwin gloomily. In secret he was rather pleased that George Cannon should have deemed him of the sort likely to help. Was it the flattery of a mendicant? No, he did not think it was. He believed implicitly everything the man was saying.
“Money!” said Cannon sharply. “Money! You won’t feel it, but it will save me. After all, Mr. Clayhanger, there’s a bond between us, if it comes to that. There’s a bond between us. And you’ve had all the luck of it.”
Again Edwin blushed.
“But surely your wife —” he stammered. “Surely Mrs. Cannon isn’t without funds. Of course I know she was temporarily rather short a while back, but surely —”
“How do you know she was short?” Cannon grimly interrupted.
“My wife sent her ten pounds — I fancy it was ten pounds — towards expenses, you know.”
Cannon ejaculated, half to himself, savagely:
“Never told me!”
He remained silent.
“But I’ve always understood she’s a woman of property,” Edwin finished.
Cannon put both elbows on the desk, leaned further forward, and opened his mouth several seconds before speaking.
“Mr. Clayhanger, I’ve left my wife — as you call her. If I’d stayed with her I should have killed her. I’ve run off. Yes, I know all she’s done for me. I know without her I might have been in prison today and for a couple o’ years to come. But I’d sooner be in prison or in hell or anywhere you like than with Mrs. Cannon. She’s an old woman. She always was an old woman. She was nearly forty when she hooked me, and I was twenty-two. And I’m young yet. I’m not middle-aged yet. She’s got a clear conscience, Mrs. Cannon has. She always does her duty. She’d let me walk over her, she’d never complain, if only she could keep me. She’d just play and smile. Oh yes, she’d turn the other cheek — and keep on turning it. But she isn’t going to have me. And for all she’s done I’m not grateful. Hag. That’s what she is!” He spoke loudly, excitedly, under considerable emotion.
“Hsh!” Edwin, alarmed, endeavoured gently to soothe him.
“All right! All right!” Cannon proceeded in a lower but still impassioned voice. “But look here! You’re a man. You know what’s what. You’ll understand what I mean. Believe me when I say that I wouldn’t live with that woman for eternal salvation. I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it. I’ve taken some of her money, only a little, and run off . . . ” He paused, and went on with conscious persuasiveness now: “I’ve just got here. I had to ask your whereabouts. I might have been recognised in the streets, but I haven’t been. I didn’t expect to find you here at this time. I might have had to sleep in the town to-night. I wouldn’t have come to your private house. Now I’ve seen you I shall get along to Crewe to-night. I shall be safer there. And it’s on the way to Liverpool and America. I want to go to America. With a bit o’ capital I shall be all right in America. It’s my one chance; but it’s a good one. But I must have some capital. No use landing in New York with empty pockets.”
Said Edwin, still shying at the main issues:
“I was under the impression you had been to America once.”
“Yes, that’s why I know. I hadn’t any money. And what’s more,” he added with peculiar emphasis, “I was brought back.”
“I shall yield to this man.”
At that instant he saw the shadow of Hilda’s head and shoulders on the glass of the door.
“Excuse me a second,” he murmured, bounded with astonishing velocity out of the room, and pulled the door to after him with a bang.
Hilda, having observed the strange, excited gesture, paused a moment, in an equally strange tranquillity, before speaking. Edwin fronted her at the very door. Then she said, clearly and deliberately, through her veil:
“Auntie Hamps has had an attack — heart. The doctor says she can’t possibly live through the night. It was at Clara’s.”
This was the first of Mrs. Hamps’s fatal heart-attacks.
“Ah!” breathed Edwin, with apparently a purely artistic interest in the affair. “So that’s it, is it? Then she’s at Clara’s.”
“I forget his name. Lives in Acre Lane. They sent for the nearest. She can’t get her breath — has to fight for it. She jumped out of bed, struggling to breathe.”
“Have you seen her?”
“Yes. They made me.”
“Well, I suppose I’d better go round. You go back. I’ll follow you.”
He was conscious of not the slightest feeling of sorrow at the imminent death of Auntie Hamps. Even the image of the old lady fighting to fetch her breath scarcely moved him, though the deathbed of his father had been harrowing enough. He and Hilda had the same thought: “At last something has happened to Auntie Hamps!” And it gave zest.
“I must speak to you,” said Hilda, low, and moved towards the inner door.
The clerk Simpson was behind them at his ink-stained desk, stamping letters, and politely pretending to be deaf.
“No,” Edwin stopped her. “There’s someone in there. We can’t talk there.”
“Yes . . . I say, Simpson. Have you done those letters?”
“Yes, sir,” answered Simpson, smiling. He had been recommended as a “very superior” youth, and had not disappointed, despite a constitutional nervousness.
“Take them to the pillar, and call at Mr. Benbow’s and tell them that I’ll be round in about a quarter of an hour. I don’t know as you need come back. Hurry up.”
Edwin and Hilda watched Simpson go.
“Whatever’s the matter?” Hilda demanded in a low, harsh voice, as soon as the outer door had clicked. It was as if something sinister in her had been suddenly released.
“Matter? Nothing. Why?”
“You look so queer.”
“Well — you come along with these shocks.” He gave a short, awkward laugh. He felt and looked guilty, and he knew that he looked guilty.
“You looked queer when you came out.”
“You’ve upset yourself, my child, that’s all.” He now realised the high degree of excitement which he himself, without previously being aware of it, had reached.
“Edwin, who is it in there?”
“Don’t I tell you — it’s a customer.”
He could see her nostrils twitching through, the veil.
“It’s George Cannon in there!” she exclaimed.
He laughed again. “What makes you feel that?” he asked, feeling all the while the complete absurdity of such fencing.
“When I ran out I noticed somebody. He was reading a newspaper and I couldn’t see him. But he just moved it a bit, and I seemed to catch sight of the top of his head. And when I got into the street I said to myself, ‘It looked like George Cannon,’ and then I said, ‘Of course it couldn’t be.’ And then with this business about Auntie Hamps the idea went right out of my head.”
“Well, it is, if you want to know.”
Her mysterious body and face seemed to radiate a disastrous emotion that filled the whole office.
“Did you know he was coming?”
“I did not. Hadn’t the least notion!” The sensation of criminality began to leave Edwin. As Hilda seemed to move and waver, he added:
“Now you aren’t going to see him!”
And his voice menacingly challenged her, and defied her to stir a step. The most important thing in the world, then, was that Hilda should not see George Cannon. He would stop her by force. He would let himself get angry and brutal. He would show her that he was the stronger. He had quite abandoned his earlier attitude of unsentimental callousness which argued that after all it wouldn’t ultimately matter whether they encountered each other or not. Far from that, he was, so it appeared to him, standing between them, desperate and determined, and acting instinctively and conventionally. Their separate pasts, each full of grief and tragedy, converged terribly upon him in an effort to meet in just that moment, and he was ferociously resisting.
“What does he want?”
“He wants me to help him to go to America.”
“He says he hasn’t a friend.”
“But what about his wife?”
“That’s just what I said. . . . He’s left her. Says he can’t live with her.”
There was a silence, in which the tension appreciably lessened.
“Can’t live with her! Well, I’m not surprised. But I do think it’s strange, him coming to you.”
“So do I,” said Edwin drily, taking the upper hand; for the change in Hilda’s tone — her almost childlike satisfaction in the news that Cannon would not live with his wife — seemed to endow him with superiority. “But there’s a lot of strange things in this world. Now listen here. I’m not going to keep him waiting; I can’t.”
He then spoke very gravely, authoritatively and ominously: “Find George and take him home at once.”
Hilda, impressed, gave a frown.
“I think it’s very wrong that you should be asked to help him.” Her voice’ shook and nearly broke. “Shall you help him, Edwin?”
“I shall get him out of this town at once, and out of the country. Do as I say. As things are he doesn’t know there is any George, and it’s just as well he shouldn’t. But if he stays anywhere about, he’s bound to know.”
All Hilda’s demeanour admitted that George Cannon had never been allowed to know that he had a son; and the simple candour of the admission frightened Edwin by its very simplicity.
“Now! Off you go! George is in the engine-house.”
Hilda moved reluctantly towards the outer-door, like a reproved and rebellious schoolgirl. Suddenly she burst into tears, sprang at Edwin, and, putting her arms round his neck, kissed him through the veil.
“Nobody but you would have helped him — in your place!” she murmured passionately, half admiring, half protesting. And with a backward look as she hurried off, her face stern and yet soft seemed to appeal: “Help him.”
Edwin was at once deeply happy and impregnated with a sense of the frightful sadness that lurks in the hollows of the world. He stood alone with the flaring gas, overcome.
He went back to the private room, self-conscious and rather tongue-tied, with a clear feeling of relief that Hilda was disposed of, removed from the equation — and not unsuccessfully. After the woman, to deal with the man, in the plain language of men, seemed simple and easy. He was astounded, equally, by the grudging tardiness of Mrs. Cannon’s information to Hilda as to the release, and by the baffling, inflexible detraction of Hilda’s words: “Well, I’m not surprised.” And the flitting image of Auntie Hamps fighting for life still left him untouched. He looked at George Cannon, and George Cannon, with his unreliable eyes, looked at him. He almost expected Cannon to say: “Was that Hilda you were talking to out there?” But Cannon seemed to have no suspicion that, in either the inner or the outer room, he had been so close to her. No doubt, when he was waiting by the mantel-piece in the outer room, he had lifted the paper as soon as he heard the door unlatched, expressly in order to screen himself from observation. Probably he had not even guessed that the passer was a woman. Had Simpson been there, the polite young man would doubtless have said: “Good night, Mrs. Clayhanger,” but Simpson had happened not to be there.
“Are you going to help me?” asked George Cannon, after a moment, and his heavy voice was so beseeching, so humble, so surprisingly sycophantic, so fearful, that Edwin could scarcely bear to hear it. He hated to hear that one man could be so slavishly dependent on another. Indeed, he much preferred Cannon’s defiant, half-bullying tone.
“Yes,” said he. “I shall do what I can. What do you want?”
“A hundred pounds,” said George Cannon, and, as he named the sum, his glance was hard and steady.
Edwin was startled. But immediately he began to readjust his ideas, persuading himself that after all the man could not prudently have asked for less.
“I can’t give it you all now.”
Cannon’s face lighted up in relief and joy. His black eyes sparkled feverishly with the impatience of an almost hopeless desire about to be satisfied. Although he did not move, his self-control had for the moment gone completely, and the secrets of his soul were exposed.
“Can you send it me — in notes? I can give you an address in Liverpool.” His voice could hardly utter the words.
“Wait a second,” said Edwin.
He went to the safe let into the wall, of which he was still so naïvely proud, and unlocked it with the owner’s gesture. The perfect fitting of the bright key, the ease with which it turned, the silent, heavy swing of the massive door on its hinges — these things gave him physical as well as moral pleasure. He savoured the security of his position and his ability to rescue people from destruction. From the cavern of the safe he took out a bag of gold, part of the money required for wages on the morrow — he would have to send to the Bank again in the morning. He knew that the bag contained exactly twenty pounds in half-sovereigns, but he shed the lovely twinkling coins on the desk and counted them.
“Here,” he said. “Here’s twenty pounds. Take the bag, too — it’ll be handier,” and he put the money into the bag. Then a foolish, grand idea struck him. “Write down the address on this envelope, will you, and I’ll send you a hundred tomorrow. You can rely on it.”
“Eighty, you mean,” muttered George Cannon.
“No,” said Edwin, with affected nonchalance, blushing, “a hundred. The twenty will get you over and you’ll have a hundred clear when you arrive on the other side.”
“Ye’re very kind,” said Cannon weakly. “I—”
“Here. Here’s the envelope. Here’s a bit of pencil.” Edwin stopped him hastily. His fear of being thanked made him harsh.
While Cannon was nervously writing the address, he noticed that the man’s clumsy fingers were those of a day-labourer.
“You’ll get it all back. You’ll see,” said Cannon, as he stood up to leave, holding his glossy felt hat in his left hand.
“Don’t worry about that. I don’t want it. You owe me nothing.”
“You’ll have every penny back, and before long, too.”
Edwin smiled, deprecating the idea.
“Well, good luck!” he said. “You’ll get to Crewe all right. There’s a train at Shawport at eight seven.”
They shook hands, and quitted the inner office. As he traversed the outer office on his way forth, in front of Edwin, Cannon turned his head, as if to say something, but, confused, he said nothing and went on, and at once he disappeared into the darkness outside. And Edwin was left with a memory of his dubious eyes, hard rather than confident, profoundly relieved rather than profoundly grateful.
“By Jove!” Edwin murmured by himself. “Who’d have thought it? . . . They say those chaps always turn up again like bad pennies, but I bet he won’t.” Simultaneously he reflected upon the case of Mrs. Cannon, deserted; but it did not excite his pity. He fastened the safe, extinguished the lights, shut the office, and prepared his mind for the visit to Auntie Hamps.
Hilda and her son were in the dining-room, in which the table, set for a special meal — half-tea, half-supper — made a glittering oblong of white. On the table, among blue-and-white plates, and knives and forks, lay some of George’s shabby school-books. In most branches of knowledge George privately knew that he could instruct his parents — especially his mother. Nevertheless that beloved outgrown creature was still occasionally useful at home-lessons, as for instance in “poetry.” George, disdainful, had to learn some verses each week, and now his mother held a book entitled “The Poetry Reciter,” while George mumbled with imperfect verbal accuracy the apparently immortal lines:
Abou Ben Adhem, may his tribe increase,
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace.
His mother, however, scarcely regarded the book. She knew the poem by heart, and had indeed recited it to George, who, though he was much impressed by her fire, could not by any means have been persuaded to imitate the freedom of her delivery. His elocution to-night was unusually bad, for the reason that he had been pleasurably excited by the immense news of Auntie Hamps’s illness. Not that he had any grudge against Auntie Hamps! His pleasure would have been as keen in the grave illness of any other important family connection, save his mother and Edwin. Such notable events gave a sensational interest to domestic life which domestic life as a rule lacked.
Then, through the half-open door of the dining-room came the sound of Edwin’s latch-key in the front-door.
“There’s uncle!” exclaimed George, and jumped up.
Hilda stopped him.
“Put your books together,” said she. “You know uncle likes to go up to the bathroom before he does anything!”
It was a fact that the precisian hated even to be greeted, on his return home in the evening, until he came downstairs from the bathroom.
Hilda herself collected the books and put them on the sideboard.
“Shall I tell Ada?” George suggested, champing the bit.
“No. Ada knows.”
With deliberation Hilda tended the fire. Her mind was in a state of emotional flux. Memories and comparisons mournfully and yet agreeably animated it. She thought of the days when she used to recite amid enthusiasm in the old drawing-room of the Orgreaves; and of the days when she was a wanderer, had no home, no support, little security; and of the brief, uncertain days with George Cannon; and of the eternal days when her only assurance was the assurance of disaster. She glanced at George, and saw in him reminders of his tragic secret father now hidden away, forced into the background, like something obscene. Nearly every development of the present out of the past seemed to her, now, to be tragic. Johnnie Orgreave had of course not come back from his idyll with the ripping Mrs. Chris Hamson; their seclusion was not positively known; but the whole district knew that the husband had begun proceedings and that the Orgreave business was being damaged by the incompetence of Jimmie Orgreave, whose deplorable wife had a few days earlier been seen notoriously drunk in the dress-circle of the Hanbridge Theatre Royal. Janet was still at Tavy Mansion because there was no place for her in the Five Towns. Janet had written to Hilda, sadly, and the letter breathed her sense of her own futility and superfluousness in the social scheme. In one curt phrase, that very afternoon, the taciturn Maggie, who very seldom complained, had disclosed something of what it was to live day and night with Auntie Hamps. Even Clara, the self-sufficient, protected by an almost impermeable armour of conceit, showed signs of the anxiety due to obscure chronic disease and a husband who financially never knew where he was. Finally, the last glories of Auntie Hamps were sinking to ashes. Only Hilda herself was, from nearly every point of view, in a satisfactory and promising situation. She possessed love, health, money, stability. When danger threatened, a quiet and unfailingly sagacious husband was there to meet and destroy it. Surely nothing whatever worth mentioning, save the fact that she was distantly approaching forty, troubled the existence of Hilda now; and her age certainly did not trouble her.
Ada entered with the hot dishes, and went out.
At length Hilda heard the bathroom door. She left the dining-room, shutting the door on George, who could take a hint very well — considering his years. Edwin, brushed and spruce, was coming downstairs, rubbing his clean hands with physical satisfaction. He nodded amiably, but without smiling.
“Has he gone?” said Hilda, in a low voice.
Edwin nodded. He was at the foot of the stairs.
She did not offer to kiss him, having a notion that he would prefer not to be kissed just then.
“How much did you give him?” She knew he would not care for the question, but she could not help putting it.
He smiled, and touched her shoulder. She liked him to touch her shoulder.
“That’s all right,” he said, with a faint condescension. “Don’t you worry about that.”
She did not press the point. He could be free enough with information — except when it was demanded. Some time later he would begin of his own accord to talk.
“How was Auntie Hamps?”
“Well, if anything, she’s a bit easier. I don’t mind betting she gets over it.”
They went into the dining-room almost side by side, and she enquired again about his headache.
The meal was tranquil. After a few moments Edwin opened the subject of Auntie Hamps’s illness with some sardonic remarks upon the demeanour of Albert Benbow.
“Is Auntie dying?” asked George with gusto.
“What are those schoolbooks doing there on the sideboard? I thought it was clearly understood that you were to do your lessons in your mother’s boudoir.”
He spoke without annoyance, but coldly. He was aware that neither Hilda nor her son could comprehend that to a bookman schoolbooks were not books, but merely an eyesore. He did not blame them for their incapacity, but he considered that an arrangement was an arrangement.
“Mother put them there,” said the base George.
“Well, you can take them away,” said Edwin firmly. “Run along now.”
George rose from his place between Hilda and Edwin, and from his luscious plate, and removed the books. Hilda watched him meekly go. His father, too, had gone. Edwin was in the right; his position could not be assailed. He had not been unpleasant, but he had spoken as one sublimely confident that his order would not be challenged. Within her heart Hilda rebelled. If Edwin had been responsible for some act contrary to one of her decrees, she would never in his presence have used the tone that he used to enforce obedience. She would have laughed or she would have frowned, but she would never have been the polite autocrat. Nor would he have expected her to play the rôle; he would probably have resented it.
Why? Were they not equals? No, they were not equals. The fundamental unuttered assumption upon which the household life rested was that they were not equals. She might cross him, she might momentarily defy him, she might torture him, she might drive him to fury, and still be safe from any effective reprisals, because his love for her made her necessary to his being; but in spite of all that his will remained the seat of government, and she and George were only the Opposition. In the end, she had to incline. She was the complement of his existence, but he was not the complement of hers. She was just a parasite, though an essential parasite. Why? . . . The reason, she judged, was economic, and solely economic. She rebelled. Was she not as individual, as original, as he? Had she not a powerful mind of her own, experience of her own, ideals of her own? Was she not of a nature profoundly and exceptionally independent? . . .
Her lot was unalterable. She had of course, not the slightest desire to leave him; she was devoted to him; what irked her was that, even had she had the desire, she could not have fulfilled it, for she was too old now, and too enamoured of comfort and security, to risk such an enterprise. She was a captive, and she recalled with a gentle pang, less than regret, the days when she was unhappy and free as a man, when she could say, “I will go to London,” “I will leave London,” “I am deceived and ruined, but I am my own mistress.”
These thoughts in the idyllic tranquillity of the meal, mingled, below her smiling preoccupations of an honoured house-mistress, with the thoughts of her love for her husband and son and of their excellences, of the masculine love which enveloped and shielded her, of her security, of the tragedy of the bribed and dismissed victim and villain, George Cannon, of the sorrows of some of her friends, and of the dead. In her heart was the unquiet whispering: “I submit, and yet I shall never submit.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05