"My compliments to your mother," he said at parting.
She gazed at him questioningly.
"Oh! I was forgetting," he corrected himself, with an avuncular, ironic smile. "You're not supposed to have seen me, are you?"
Then she was outside in the din; and from thrilling altitudes she had to bring her mind to marketing. She hid under apples the flat blue parcel in the basket.
CHAPTER VII THE EDITORIAL SECRETARY
Arthur Dayson, though a very good shorthand writer, and not without experience as a newspaper reporter and sub-editor, was a nincompoop. There could be no other explanation of his bland, complacent indifference as he sat poking at a coke stove one cold night of January, 1880, in full view of a most marvellous and ravishing spectacle. The stove was in a room on the floor above the offices labelled as Mr. Q. Karkeek's; its pipe, supported by wire stays, went straight up nearly to the grimy ceiling, and then turned horizontally and disappeared through a clumsy hole in the scorched wall. It was a shabby stove, but not more so than the other few articles of furniture—a large table, a small desk, three deteriorated cane-chairs, two gas brackets, and an old copying-press on its rickety stand. The sole object that could emerge brightly from the ordeal of the gas-flare was a splendid freshly printed blue poster gummed with stamp-paper to the wall: which poster bore the words, in vast capitals of two sizes: "The Five Towns Chronicle and Turnhill Guardian." Copies of this poster had also been fixed, face outwards, on the two curtainless black windows, to announce to the Market Square what was afoot in the top storey over the ironmonger's.
A young woman, very soberly attired, was straining at the double iron-handles of the copying-press. Some copying-presses have a screw so accurately turned and so well oiled, and handles so massively like a fly-wheel, that a touch will send the handles whizzing round and round till they stop suddenly, and then one slight wrench more, and the letters are duly copied! But this was not such a press. It had been outworn in Mr. Karkeek's office; rust had intensified its original defects of design, and it produced the minimum of result with the maximum of means. Nevertheless, the young woman loved it. She clenched her hands and her teeth, and she frowned, as though she loved it. And when she had sufficiently crushed the letter-book in the press, she lovingly unscrewed and drew forth the book; and with solicitude she opened the book on the smaller table, and tenderly detached the blotting-paper from the damp tissue paper, and at last extracted the copied letter and examined its surface.
"Smudged!" she murmured, tragic.
And the excellent ass Dayson, always facetiously cheerful, and without a grain of humour, remarked:
"Copiousness with the H2O, Miss Lessways, is the father of smudged epistles. I'm ready to go through these proofs with you as soon as you are."
He was over thirty. He had had affairs with young women. He reckoned that there remained little for him to learn. He had deliberately watched this young woman at the press. He had clearly seen her staring under the gas-jet at the copied letter. And yet in her fierce muscular movements, and in her bendings and straightenings, and in her delicate caressings, and in her savage scowlings and wrinklings, and in her rapt gazings, and in all her awful absorption, he had quite failed to perceive the terrible eager outpouring of a human soul, mighty, passionate, and wistful. He had kept his eyes on her slim bust and tight-girded waist that sprung suddenly neat and smooth out of the curving skirt-folds, and it had not occurred to him to exclaim even in his own heart: "With your girlishness and your ferocity, your intimidating seriousness and your delicious absurdity, I would give a week's wages just to take hold of you and shake you!" No! The dolt had seen absolutely naught but a conscientious female beginner learning the duties of the post which he himself had baptized as that of 'editorial secretary.'
Hilda was no longer in a nameless trouble. She no longer wanted she knew not what. She knew beyond all questioning that she had found that which she had wanted. For nearly a year she had had lessons in phonography from Miss Dayson's nephew, often as a member of a varying night-class, and sometimes alone during the day. She could not write shorthand as well as Mr. Dayson, and she never would, for Mr. Dayson had the shorthand soul; but, as the result of sustained and terrific effort, she could write it pretty well. She had grappled with Isaac Pitman as with Apollyon and had not been worsted. She could scarcely believe that in class she had taken down at the rate of ninety words a minute Mr. Dayson's purposely difficult political speechifyings (which always contained the phrase 'capital punishment,' because 'capital punishment' was a famous grammalogue); but it was so, Mr. Dayson's watch proved it.
About half-way through the period of study, she had learnt from Mr. Cannon, on one of his rare visits to her mother's, something about his long-matured scheme for a new local paper. She had at once divined that he meant to offer her some kind of a situation in the enterprise, and she was right. Gratitude filled her. Mrs. Lessways, being one of your happy-go-lucky, broad-minded women, with an experimental disposition—a disposition to let things alone and see how they will turn out—had made little objection, though she was not encouraging.
Instantly the newspaper had become the chief article of Hilda's faith. She accepted the idea of it as a nun accepts the sacred wafer, in ecstasy. Yet she knew little about it. She was aware that Mr. Cannon meant to establish it first as a weekly, and then, when it had grown, to transform it into a daily and wage war with that powerful monopolist, The Staffordshire Signal, which from its offices at Hanbridge covered the entire district. The original title had been The Turnhill Guardian and Five Towns General Chronicle, and she had approved it; but when Mr. Cannon, with a view to the intended development, had inverted the title to The Five Towns Chronicle and Turnhill Guardian, she had enthusiastically applauded his deep wisdom. Also she had applauded his project of moving, later on, to Hanbridge, the natural centre of the Five Towns. This was nearly the limit of her knowledge. She neither knew nor cared anything about the resources or the politics or the programme or the prospects of the paper. To her all newspapers were much alike. She did not even explore, in meditation, the extraordinary psychology of Mr. Cannon—the man whose original energy and restless love of initiative was leading him to found a newspaper on the top of a successful but audaciously irregular practice as a lawyer. She incuriously and with religious admiration accepted Mr. Cannon as she accepted the idea of the paper. And being, of course, entirely ignorant of journalism, she was not in a position to criticize the organizing arrangements of the newspaper. Not that these would have seemed excessively peculiar to anybody familiar with the haphazard improvisations of minor journalism in the provinces! She had indeed, in her innocence, imagined that the basic fact of a newspaper enterprise would be a printing-press; but when Mr. Dayson, who had been on The Signal and on sundry country papers in Shropshire, assured her that the majority of weekly sheets were printed on jobbing presses in private hands, she corrected her foolish notion.
Her sole interest—but it was tremendous!—lay in what she herself had to do—namely, take down from dictation, transcribe, copy, classify, and keep letters and documents, and occasionally correct proofs. All beyond this was misty for her, and she never adjusted her sight in order to pierce the mist.
Save for her desire to perfect herself in her duties, she had no desire. She was content. In the dismal, dirty, untidy, untidiable, uncomfortable office, arctic near the windows, and tropic near the stove, with dust on her dress and ink on her fingers and the fumes of gas in her quivering nostrils, and her mind strained and racked by an exaggerated sense of her responsibilities, she was in heaven! She who so vehemently objected to the squalid mess of the business of domesticity, revelled in the squalid mess of this business. She whose heart would revolt because Florrie's work was never done, was delighted to wait all hours on the convenience of men who seemed to be the very incarnation of incalculable change and caprice. And what was she? Nothing but a clerk, at a commencing salary of fifteen shillings per week! Ah! but she was a priestess! She had a vocation which was unsoiled by the economic excuse. She was a pioneer. No young woman had ever done what she was doing. She was the only girl in the Five Towns who knew shorthand. And in a fortnight (they said) the paper was to come out!
At the large table which was laden with prodigious, heterogeneous masses of paper and general litter, she bent over the proofs by Mr. Dayson's side. He had one proof; she had a duplicate; the copy lay between them. It was the rough galley of a circular to the burgesses that they were correcting together. Reading and explaining aloud, he inscribed the cabalistic signs of correction in the margin of his proof, and she faithfully copied them in the margin of hers, for practice.
"l.c.," he intoned.
"What does that mean?"
"Lower case," he explained grandiosely, in the naive vanity of his knowledge. "Small letter; not a capital."
"Thank you," she said, and, writing "l.c.," noted in her striving brain that 'lower case' meant a small letter instead of a capital; but she knew not why, and she did not ask; the reason did not trouble her.
"I think we'll put 'enlightened' there, before 'public' Ring it, will you?"
"Ring it? Oh! I see!"
"Yes, put a ring round the word in the margin. That's to show it isn't the intelligent compositor's mistake, you see!"
Then there was a familiar and masterful footstep on the stairs, and the attention of both of them wavered.
Arthur Dayson and his proof-correcting lost all interest and all importance for Hilda as Mr. Cannon came into the room. The unconscious, expressive gesture, scornful and abrupt, with which she neglected them might have been terribly wounding to a young man more sensitive than Dayson. But Dayson, in his self-sufficient, good-natured mediocrity, had the hide of an alligator. He even judged her movement quite natural, for he was a flunkey born. Hilda gazed at her master with anxiety as he deposited his black walking-stick in the corner behind the door and loosed his white muffler and large overcoat (which Dayson called an 'immensikoff.') She thought the master looked tired and worried. Supposing he fell ill at this supreme juncture! The whole enterprise would be scotched, and not forty Daysons could keep it going! The master was doing too much—law by day and journalism by night. They were perhaps all doing too much, but the others did not matter. Nevertheless, Mr. Cannon advanced to the table buoyant and faintly smiling, straightening his shoulders back, proudly proving to himself and to them that his individual force was inexhaustible. That straightening of the shoulders always affected Hilda as something wistful, as almost pathetic in its confident boyishness. It made her feel maternal and say to herself (but not in words) with a sort of maternal superiority: "How brave he is, poor thing!" Yes, in her heart she would apply the epithet 'poor thing' to this grand creature whose superiority she acknowledged with more fervour than anybody. As for the undaunted straightening of the shoulders, she adopted it, and after a time it grew to be a characteristic gesture with her.
"Well?" Mr. Cannon greeted them.
"Well," said Arthur Dayson, with a factitious air of treating him as an equal, "I've been round to Bennions and made it clear to him that if he can't guarantee to run off a maximum of two thousand of an eight-page sheet we shall have to try Clayhanger at Bursley, even if it's the last minute."
"What did he say?"
"I shall risk two thousand, any way."
"Paper delivered, governor?" Dayson asked in a low voice, leering pawkily, as though to indicate that he was a man who could be trusted to think of everything.
"Will be to-morrow, I think," said Mr. Cannon. "Got that letter ready, Miss Lessways?"
Hilda sprang into life.
"Yes," she said, handing it diffidently. "But if you'd like me to do it again—you see it's—"
"Plethora of H2O," Dayson put in, indulgent.
"Oh no!" Mr. Cannon decided. Having read the letter, he gave it to Dayson. "It doesn't matter, but you ought to have signed it before it was copied in the letter-book."
"Gemini! Miss!" murmured Dayson, glancing at Hilda with uplifted brows.
The fact was that both of them had forgotten this formality. Dayson took a pen, and after describing a few flourishes in the air, about a quarter of an inch above the level of the paper, he magnificently signed: "Dayson & Co." Such was the title of the proprietorship. Just as Karkeek was Mr. Cannon's dummy in the law, so was Dayson in the newspaper business. But whereas Karkeek was privately ashamed, Dayson was proud of his role, which gave him the illusion of power and glory.
"Just take this down, will you?" said Mr. Cannon.
Hilda grasped at her notebook and seized a pencil, and then held herself tense to receive the message, staring downwards at the blank page. Dayson lolled in his chair, throwing his head back. He knew that the presence of himself, the great shorthand expert, made Hilda nervous when she had to write from dictation; and this flattered his simple vanity. Hilda hated and condemned her nervousness, but she could not conquer it.
Mr. Cannon, standing over the table, pushed his hat away from his broad, shining forehead, and then, meditative, absently lifted higher his carefully tended hand and lowered the singing gas-jet, only to raise it again.
"Mr. Ezra Brunt. Dear Sir, Re advertisement. With reference to your letter replying to ours in which you inquire as to the circulation of the above newspaper, we beg to state that it is our intention to print four thousand of—"
"Two thousand," Hilda interrupted confidently.
Unruffled, Mr. Cannon went on politely: "No—four thousand of the first number. Our representative would be pleased to call upon you by appointment. Respectfully yours.—You might sign that, Dayson, and get it off to-night. Is Sowter here?"
For answer, Dayson jerked his head towards an inner door. Sowter was the old clerk who had first received Hilda into the offices of Mr. Q. Karkeek. He was earning a little extra money by clerical work at nights in connection with the advertisement department of the new organ.
Mr. Cannon marched to the inner door and opened it. Then he turned and called:
"Certainly," said Dayson, jumping up. He planted his hat doggishly at the back of his head, stuck his hands into his pockets, and swaggered after his employer.
The inner door closed on the three men. Hilda, staring at the notebook, blushing and nibbling at the pencil, was left alone under the gas. She could feel her heart beating violently.
CHAPTER VIII JANET ORGREAVE
"Our friend is waiting for that letter to Brunt," said Arthur Dayson, emerging from the inner room, a little later.
"In one moment," Hilda replied coldly, though she had not begun to write the letter.
Dayson disappeared, nodding.
She resented his referring to Mr. Cannon as 'our friend,' but she did not know why, unless it was that she vaguely regarded it as presumptuous, or, in the alternative, if he meant to be facetious, as ill-bred, on the part of Arthur Dayson. She chose a sheet of paper, and wrote the letter in longhand, as quickly as she could, but with arduous care in the formation of every character; she wrote with the whole of her faculties fully applied. Even in the smallest task she could not economize herself; she had to give all or nothing. When she came to the figures—4000—she intensified her ardour, lavishing enormous unnecessary force: it was like a steamhammer cracking a nut. Her conscience had instantly and finally decided against her. But she ignored her conscience. She knew and owned that she was wrong to abet Mr. Cannon's deception. And she abetted it. She would have abetted it if she had believed that the act would involve her in everlasting damnation,—not solely out of loyalty to Mr. Cannon; only a little out of loyalty; chiefly out of mere unreasoning pride and obstinate adherence to a decision.
The letter finished, she took it into the inner room, where the three men sat in mysterious conclave. Mr. Cannon read it over, and then Arthur Dayson borrowed the old clerk's vile pen and with the ceremonious delays due to his sense of his own importance, flourishingly added the signature.
When she came forth she heard a knock at the outer door.
"Come in," she commanded defiantly, for she was still unconsciously in the defiant mood in which she had offered the lying letter to Mr. Cannon.
A well-dressed, kind-featured, and almost beautiful young woman, of about the same age as Hilda, opened the door, with a charming gesture of diffidence.
For a second the two gazed at each other astounded.
"Well, Hilda, of all the—"
It was an old schoolfellow, Janet Orgreave, daughter of Osmond Orgreave, a successful architect at Bursley. Janet had passed part of her schooldays at Chetwynd's; and with her brother Charlie she had also attended Sarah Gailey's private dancing-class (famous throughout Turnhill, Bursley, and Hanbridge) at the same time as Hilda. She was known, she was almost notorious, as a universal favourite. By instinct, without taking thought, she pleased everybody, great and small. Nature had spoiled her, endowing her with some beauty, and undeniable elegance, and abundant sincere kindliness. She had only to smile, and she made a friend; it cost her nothing. She smiled now, and produced the illusion, not merely in Hilda but in herself also, that her pleasure in this very astonishing encounter was quite peculiarly poignant.
They shook hands, as women of the world.
"Did you know I was here?" Hilda questioned, characteristically on her guard, with a nervous girlish movement of the leg that perhaps sinned against the code of authentic worldliness.
"No indeed!" exclaimed Janet.
"Well, I am! I'm engaged here."
"How splendid of you!" said Janet enthusiastically, with no suggestion whatever in her tone that Hilda's situation was odd, or of dubious propriety, or aught but enviable.
But Hilda surveyed her with secret envy, transient yet real. In the half-dozen years that had passed since the days of the dancing-class, Janet had matured. She was now the finished product. She had the charm of her sex, and she depended on it. She had grace and an overflowing goodness. She had a smooth ease of manner. She was dignified. And, with her furs, and her expensive veil protecting those bright apple-red cheeks, and all the studied minor details of her costume, she was admirably and luxuriously attired. She was the usual, as distinguished from the unusual, woman, brought to perfection. She represented no revolt against established custom. Doubts and longings did not beset her. She was content within her sphere: a destined queen of the home. And yet she could not be accused of being old-fashioned. None would dare to despise her. She was what Hilda could never be, had never long desired to be. She was what Hilda had definitely renounced being. And there stood Hilda, immature, graceless, harsh, inelegant, dowdy, holding the letter between her inky fingers, in the midst of all that hard masculine mess,—and a part of it, the blindly devoted subaltern, who could expect none of the ritual of homage given to women, who must sit and work and stand and strain and say 'yes,' and pretend stiffly that she was a sound, serviceable, thick-skinned imitation man among men! If Hilda had been a valkyrie or a saint she might have felt no envy and no pang. But she was a woman. Self-pity shot through her tremendous pride; and the lancinating stab made her inattentive even to her curiosity concerning the purpose of Janet's visit.
"I came to see Mr. Cannon," said Janet. "The housekeeper downstairs told me he was here somewhere."
"He's engaged," answered Hilda in a low voice, with the devotee's instinct to surround her superior with mystery.
"Oh!" murmured Janet, checked.
Hilda wondered furiously what she could be wanting with Mr. Cannon.
Janet recommenced: "It's really about Miss Gailey, you know."
Hilda nodded eagerly, speaking in a tone still lower and more careful.
Janet dropped her voice accordingly: "She's Mr. Cannon's sister, of course?"
"I mean. I've just come away from seeing her." She hesitated. "I only heard by accident. So I came over with father. He had to come to a meeting of the Guardians here, or something. They've quarrelled, haven't they?"
"Who? Miss Gailey and Mr. Cannon? Well, you see, she quarrels with every one." Hilda appeared to defend Mr. Cannon.
"I'm afraid she does, poor thing!"
"She quarrelled with mother."
"Really! when was that?"
"Oh! Years and years ago! I don't know when. I was always surprised mother let me go to the class."
"It was very nice of your mother," said Janet, appreciative.
"Is she in trouble?" Hilda asked bluntly.
"I'm afraid she is."
Janet suddenly gave a gesture of intimacy. "I believe she's starving!"
"Starving!" Hilda repeated in a blank whisper.
"Yes, I do! I do really believe she hasn't got enough to eat. She's quarrelled with just about everybody there was to quarrel with. She suffers fearfully with rheumatism. She never goes out—or scarcely ever. You know her dancing-classes have all fallen away to nothing. I fancy she tried taking lodgers—"
"Yes, she did. I understood she was very good at housekeeping."
"She hasn't got any lodgers now. There she is, all alone in that house, and—"
"But she can't be starving!" Hilda protested. At intervals she glanced at the inner door, alarmed.
"I really think she is," Janet persisted, softly persuasive.
"But what's to be done?"
"That's the point. I've just seen her. I went on purpose, because I'd heard.... But I had to pretend all sorts of things to make an excuse for myself. I couldn't offer her anything, could I? Isn't it dreadful?"
They were much worried, these two young maids, full of health and vigour and faith, and pride and simplicity, by this startling first glimpse into one of the nether realities of existence. And they loyally tried to feel more worried than they actually were; they did their best, out of sympathy, to moderate the leaping, joyous vitality that was in them,— and did not succeed very well. They were fine, they were touching—but they were also rather deliciously amusing—as they concentrated all their resources of solemnity and of worldly experience on the tragic case of the woman whom life had defeated. Hilda's memory rushed strangely to Victor Hugo. She was experiencing the same utter desolation—but somehow less noble—as had gripped her when she first realized the eternal picture, in Oceana Nox, of the pale-fronted widows who, tired of waiting for those whose barque had never returned out of the tempest, talked quietly among themselves of the lost—stirring the cinders in the fireplace and in their hearts.... Yet Sarah Gailey was not even a widow. She was an ageing dancing-mistress. She had once taught the grace of rhythmic movement to young limbs; and now she was rheumatic.
"Nobody but Mr. Cannon can do anything," Janet murmured.
"I'm sure he hasn't the slightest idea—not the slightest!" said Hilda half defensively. But she was saying to herself: "This man made me write a lie, and now I hear that his sister is starving—in the same town!" And she thought of his glossy opulence. "I'm quite sure of that!" she repeated to Janet.
"Oh! So am I!" Janet eagerly concurred. "That's why I came.... Somebody had to give him a hint.... I never dreamt of finding you, dear!"
"It is strange, isn't it?" said Hilda, the wondrous romance of things seizing her. Seen afresh, through the eyes of this charming, sympathetic acquaintance, was not Mr. Cannon's originality in engaging her positively astounding?
"I suppose you couldn't give him a hint?"
"Yes, I'll tell him," said Hilda. "Of course!" In spite of herself she was assuming a certain proprietorship in Mr. Cannon.
"I'm so glad!" Janet replied. "It is good of you!"
"It seems to me it's you that's good, Janet," Hilda said grimly. She thought: "Should I, out of simple kindliness and charity, have deliberately come to tell a man I didn't know... that his sister was starving? Never!"
"He's bound to see after it!" said Janet, content.
"Why, of course!" said Hilda, clinching the affair, in an intimate, confidential murmur.
"You'll tell him to-night?"
They exchanged a grave glance of mutual appreciation and understanding. Each was sure of the other's high esteem. Each was glad that chance had brought about the meeting between them. Then they lifted away their apprehensive solicitude for Sarah Gailey, and Janet, having sighed relief, began to talk about old times. And their voices grew louder and more free.
"Can you tell me what time it is?" Janet asked, later. "I've broken the spring of my watch, and I have to meet father at the station at ten-fifteen."
"I haven't a notion!" said Hilda, rather ashamed.
"I hope it isn't ten o'clock."
"I could ask," said Hilda hesitatingly. The hour, for aught she knew, was nine, eleven, or even midnight. She was oblivious of time.
"I'll run," said Janet, preparing to go. "I shall tell Charlie I've seen you, next time I write to him. I'm sure he'll be glad. And you must come to see us. You really must, now! Mother and father will be delighted. Do you still recite, like you used to?"
Hilda shook her head, blushing.
She made no definite response to the invitation, which surprised, agitated, and flattered her. She wanted to accept it, but she was convinced that she never would accept it. Before departing, Janet lifted her veil, with a beautiful gesture, and offered her lips to kiss. They embraced affectionately. The next moment Hilda, at the top of the dim, naked, resounding stair, was watching Janet descend—a figure infinitely stylish and agreeable to the eye.
CHAPTER IX IN THE STREET
A few minutes later, just as Hilda had sealed up the last of the letters, Mr. Cannon issued somewhat hurriedly out of the inner room, buttoning his overcoat at the neck.
"Good night," he said, and took his stick from the corner where he had placed it.
"I wanted to speak to you."
"What is it? I'm in a hurry."
She glanced at the inner door, which he had left open. From beyond that door came the voices of Arthur Dayson and the old clerk; Hilda lacked the courage to cross the length of the room and deliberately close it, and though Mr. Cannon did not seem inclined to move, his eyes followed the direction of hers and he must have divined her embarrassment. She knew not what to do. A crisis seemed to rise up monstrous between them, in an instant. She was trembling, and in acute trouble.
"It's rather important," she said timidly, but not without an unintentional violence.
"Well, to-morrow afternoon."
He, too, was apparently in a fractious state. The situation was perhaps perilous. But she could not allow her conduct to be influenced by danger or difficulty, which indeed nearly always had the effect of confirming her purpose. If something had to be done, it had to be done—and let that suffice! He waited, impatient, for her to agree and allow him to go.
"No," she answered, with positive resentment in her clear voice. "I must speak to you to-night. It's very important."
He made with his tongue an inarticulate noise of controlled exasperation.
"If you've finished, put your things on and walk along with me," he said.
She hurried to obey, and overtook him as he slowly descended the lower flight of stairs. She had buttoned her jacket and knotted her thick scarf, and now, with the letters pressed tightly under her arm lest they should fall, she was pulling on her gloves.
"I have an appointment at the Saracen's," he said mildly, meaning the Saracen's Head—the central rendezvous of the town, where Conservative and Liberal met on neutral ground.
He turned to the left, toward the High Street and the great cleared space out of which the cellarage of the new Town Hall had already been scooped. He carried his thick gloves in his white and elegant hand, as one who did not feel the frost. She stepped after him. Their breaths whitened the keen air. She was extremely afraid, and considered herself an abject coward, but she was determined to the point of desperation. He ought to know the truth and he ought to know it at once: nothing else mattered. She reflected in her terror: "If I don't begin right off, he will be asking me to begin, and that will be worse than ever." She was like one who, having boastfully undertaken to plunge into deep, cold water from a height, has climbed to the height, and measured the fearful distance, and is sick, and dares not leap, but knows that he must leap.
"I suppose you know Miss Gailey is practically starving," she said abruptly, harshly, staring at the gutter.
She had leapt. Life seemed to leave her. She had not intended to use such words, nor such a tone. She certainly did not suppose that he knew about Miss Gailey's condition. She had affirmed to Janet Orgreave her absolute assurance that he did not know. As for the tone, it was accusing, it was brutal, it was full of the unconscious and terrible clumsy cruelty of youth.
"What?" His head moved sharply sideways, to look at her.
"Miss Gailey—she's starving, it seems!" Hilda said timidly now, almost apologetically. "I felt sure you didn't know. I thought some one should tell you."
"What do you mean—starving?" he asked gruffly.
"Not enough to eat," she replied, with the direct simplicity of a child.
"And how did this tale get about?"
"It's true," she said. "I was told to-night."
"Who told you?"
"A friend of mine—who's seen her!"
"It wouldn't be right for me to tell you who."
They walked on in an appalling silence to the corner of the Square and the High Street.
"Here's the letter-box," he said, stopping.
She dropped the letters with nervous haste into the box. Then she looked up at him appealingly. In the brightness of the starry night she saw that his face had a sardonic, meditative smile. The middle part of the lower lip was pushed out, while the corners were pulled down—an expression of scornful disgust. She burst out:
"Of course, I know very well it's not your fault. I know, if you'd known... but what with her never seeing you, and perhaps people not caring to—"
"I'm very much obliged to you," he interrupted her quietly, still meditative. He was evidently sincere. His attitude was dignified. Many men would have been ashamed, humiliated, even though aware of innocence. But he contrived to rise above such weakness. She was glad; she admired him. And she was very glad also that he did not deign to asseverate that he had been ignorant of his half-sister's plight. Naturally he had been ignorant!
She was suddenly happy; she was inspired by an unreasoning joy. She was happy because she was so young and fragile and inexperienced, and he so much older, and more powerful and more capable. She was happy because she was a mere girl and he a mature and important male. She thought their relation in that moment exquisitely beautiful. She was happy because she had been exceedingly afraid and the fear had gone. The dark Square and far-stretching streets lay placid and void under the night, surrounding their silence in a larger silence: and because of that also she was happy. A policeman with his arms hidden under his cloak marched unhasting downwards from the direction of the Bank.
"Fine night, officer," said Mr. Cannon cordially.
"Yes, sir. Good night, sir," the policeman responded, with respect and sturdy self-respect, his footsteps ringing onwards.
And the sight and bearing of this hardy, frost-defying policeman watching over the town, and the greetings between him and Mr. Cannon— these too seemed strangely beautiful to Hilda. And then a train reverberated along its embankment in the distance, and the gliding procession of yellow windows was divided at regular intervals by the black silhouettes of the scaffolding-poles of the new Town Hall. Beautiful! She was filled with a delicious sadness. It was Janet's train. In some first-class compartment Janet and her father were shut together, side by side, intimate, mutually understanding. Again, a beautiful relation! From the summit of a high kiln in the middle distance, flames shot intermittently forth, formidable. Crockery was being fired in the night: and unseen the fireman somewhere flitted about the mouths of the kiln. And here and there in the dim faces of the streets a window shone golden... there were living people behind the blind! It was all beautiful, joy-giving. The thought of her mother fidgeting for her return home was delightful. The thought of Mr. Cannon and Miss Gailey, separated during many years, and now destined to some kind of reconciliation was indescribably touching, and beautiful in a way that she could not define.
"I was only thinking the other day," said Mr. Cannon, treating her as an equal in years and wisdom—"I was only thinking I'd got the very thing for my half-sister—the very opening for her—a chance in a thousand, if only she'd..." It was unnecessary for him to finish the sentence.
"And is it too late now?" Hilda asked eagerly.
"No," he said. "It isn't too late. I shall go round and see her to-morrow morning first thing. It wouldn't do for me to go to-night—you see—might seem too odd."
"Yes," Hilda murmured. "Well, good night."
They separated. She knew that he was profoundly stirred. Nevertheless, he had inquired for no further details concerning Miss Gailey. He was too proud, and beneath his inflexibility too sensitive, to do so. He meant to discover the truth for himself. He had believed—that was the essential. His behaviour had been superb. The lying letter to Ezra Brunt was a mere peccadillo, even if it was that, even if it was not actually virtuous.
She walked off rapidly, trying to imitate the fine, free, calmly defiant bearing of Mr. Cannon and the policeman.
"Florrie gone to bed?" she asked briskly of her mother, who was fussing about her in the parlour, pretending to be fretful, but secretly enchanted to welcome her, with a warm fire and plenteous food, back again into the house. And Hilda, too, was enchanted at her reception.
"Florrie gone to bed? I should just think Florrie has gone to bed. Half-past ten and after! Eh my! This going out after tea. I never heard of such doings. Now do warm your feet."
"I should have been home sooner, only something happened," said Hilda.
"Oh!" Mrs. Lessways exclaimed indifferently. She had in fact no curiosity as to the affairs of Dayson and Company. The sole thing that interested her was Hilda's daily absence and daily return. She seemed quite content to remain in ignorance of what Hilda did in the mysterious office. Her conversation, profuse when she was in good spirits, rarely went beyond the trifling separate events of existence personal and domestic—the life of the house hour by hour and minute by minute. It was often astounding to Hilda that her mother never showed any sign of being weary of these topics, nor any desire to discover other topics.
"Yes," said Hilda. "Miss Gailey—"
Mrs. Lessways became instantly a different creature.
"And does he know?" she asked blankly, when Hilda had informed her of Janet's visit and news.
"Yes. I told him—of course."
"Well, somebody had to tell him," said Hilda, with an affectation of carelessness. "So I told him myself."
"And how did he take it?"
"Well, how should he take it?" Hilda retorted largely. "He had to take it! He was much obliged, and he said so."
Mrs. Lessways began to weep.
"What ever's the matter?"
"I was only thinking of poor Sarah!" Mrs. Lessways answered the implied rebuke of Hilda's brusque question. "I shall go and see her to-morrow morning."
"But, mother, don't you think you'd better wait?"
Mrs. Lessways spoke up resolutely: "I shall go and see Sarah Gailey to-morrow morning, and let that be understood! I don't need my daughter to teach me when I ought to go and see my friends and when I oughtn't.... I knew Sarah Gailey before your Mr. Cannon was born."
"Oh, very well! Very well!" Hilda soothed her lightly.
"I shall tell Sarah Gailey she's got to reckon with me, whether she wants to or not! That's what I shall tell Sarah Gailey!" Mrs. Lessways wiped her eyes.
"Mother," Hilda asked, when they had gone upstairs, "did you wind the clock?"
"I don't think I did," answered the culprit uncertainly from her bedroom door.
"Mother, how tiresome you are! Night before last you wouldn't let me touch it. You said you preferred to do it yourself. And now I shall be waiting for it to strike to-morrow morning, to get up—lend me that candle, do!"
She tripped down to the lobby gladly, and opened the big door of the clock, and put her hand into the dark cavity and, grimacing, hauled up the heavy weights. This forgetfulness of her mother's somehow increased her extraordinary satisfaction with life. She remounted the shadowy stairs on the wings of a pure and ingenuous elation.
CHAPTER X MISS GAILEY IN DECLENSION
Knowing whom she was to meet, Hilda came home to tea, on the next day but one, with a demeanour whose characteristics were heightened by nervousness. The weather was still colder, and she had tied the broad ribbons of her small bonnet rather closely under her chin, the double bow a little to the left. A knitted bodice over the dress and under the jacket made the latter tighter than usual, so that the fur edges of it curved away somewhat between the buttons, and all the upper part of the figure seemed to be too strictly confined, while the petticoats surged out freely beneath. A muff, brightly coloured to match the skirt and the bonnet and her cheeks, completed the costume. She went into the house through the garden and delicately stamped her feet on the lobby tiles, partly to warm them and shake off a few bits of snow, and partly to announce clearly her arrival. Then, just as she was, hands in muff, she entered the parlour. She was tingling with keen, rosy life, and with the sense of youthful power. She had the deep, unconscious conviction of the superiority of youth to age. And there were the two older women, waiting for her, as it were on the defensive, and as nervous as she!
"Good afternoon, Miss Gailey," she said, with a kind and even very cordial smile, and heartily shook the flaccid, rheumatic hand that was primly held out to her. And yet in spite of herself, perhaps unknown to herself, there was in her tone and her smile and her vigorous clasp something which meant, "Poor old thing!" pityingly, indulgently, scornfully.
She had not spoken to Miss Gailey, and she had scarcely seen her, since the days of the dancing-class. A woman who is in process of losing everything but her pride can disappear from view as easily in a small town as in a great city; her acquaintances will say to each other, "I haven't met So-and-so lately. I wonder..." And curiosity will go no further. And in a short time her invisibility will cease to excite any remark, except, "She keeps herself to herself nowadays." To Hilda Miss Gailey appeared no older; her brown hair had very little grey in it, and her skin was fairly smooth and well-preserved. But she seemed curiously smaller, and less significant, this woman who, with a certain pedagogic air, used to instruct girls in grace and boys in gallantry, this woman who was regarded by all her pupils as the authoritative source of correctness and ease in deportment. "Now, Master Charles," Hilda could remember her saying, "will you ask me for the next polka all over again, and try not to look as if you were doing me a favour and were rather ashamed of yourself?" She had a tongue for the sneaping of too casual boys, and girls also.
And she spoke so correctly, as correctly as she performed the figures of a dance! Hilda, who also spoke without the local peculiarities, had been deprived of her Five Towns accent at Chetwynd's School, where the purest Kensingtonian was inculcated; but Miss Gailey had lost hers in Kensington itself—so rumour said—many years before. And now, in her declension, she was still perfect of speech. But the authority and the importance were gone in substance: only the shadow of them remained. She had now, indeed, a manner half apologetic and half defiant, but timorously and weakly defiant. Her head was restless with little nervous movements; her watery eyes seemed to say: "Do not suppose that I am not as proud and independent as ever I was, because I am. Look at my silk dress, and my polished boots, and my smooth hair, and my hands! Can anyone find any trace of shabbiness in me?" But beneath all this desperate bravery was the wistful acknowledgment, continually-peeping out, that she had after all come down in the world, albeit with a special personal dignity that none save she could have kept.
The two women were seated at a splendid fire. Hilda, whose nervousness was quickly vanishing, came between them to warm her hands that were shining with cold, despite muff and gloves. "Here, mother!" she said teasingly, putting the muff and gloves in her mother's lap.
Sarah Gailey rose with slow stiffness from her chair.
"Now don't let this child disturb you, Sarah!" Mrs. Lessways protested.
"Oh no, Caroline!" said Miss Gailey composedly. "I was only getting my apron."
From a reticule on the table she drew forth a small black satin apron on which was embroidered in filoselle a spray of moss-roses. It was extremely elegant—much more so than Mrs. Lessways'—though not in quite the latest style of fashionable aprons; not being edible, it had probably been long preserved in a wardrobe, on the chance of just such an occasion as this. She adjusted the elastic round her thin waist, and sat down again. The apron was a sign that she had come definitely to spend the whole evening. It was a proof of the completeness of the reconciliation between the former friends.
As the conversation shifted from the immediate topic of the weather to the great general question of cures for chilblains, Hilda wondered what had passed between her mother and Miss Gailey, and whether her mother had overcome by mere breezy force or by guile: which details she never learnt, for Mrs. Lessways was very loyal to her former crony, and moreover she had necessarily to support the honour of the older generation against the younger. It seemed incredible to Hilda that this woman who sat with such dignity and such gentility by her mother's fire was she who the day before yesterday had been starving in the pride-imposed prison of her own house. Could Miss Gailey have known that Hilda knew!... But Hilda knew that Miss Gailey knew that she knew—and that others guessed! Such, however, was the sublime force of convention that the universal pretence of ignorance securely triumphed.
Then Florrie—changed, grown, budded, practised in the technicalities of parlours, but timid because of "company"—came in to set the tea. And Miss Gailey inspected her with the calm and omniscient detachment of a deity, and said to Caroline when she was gone that Florrie seemed a promising little thing—with the 'makings of a good servant' in her. Afterwards the mistress recounted this judgment to Florrie, who was thereby apparently much impressed and encouraged in well-doing.
"And so you're thinking of going to London, Miss Gailey?" said Hilda, during tea. The meal was progressing satisfactorily, though Caroline could not persuade Sarah to eat enough.
Miss Gailey flushed slightly, with the characteristic nervous movement of the head. Evidently her sensitiveness was extreme.
"And what do you know about it, you inquisitive little puss?" Mrs. Lessways intervened hastily, though it was she who had informed Hilda of the vague project. Somehow, in presence of her old friend, Mrs. Lessways seemed to feel herself under an obligation to play the assertive and crushing mother.
"Has Mr. Cannon mentioned it?" said Miss Gailey politely. Miss Gailey, at any rate, recognized in the most scrupulous way that Hilda was an adult, and no longer a foal-legged pupil for dancing. "Well, he seems so set on it. He came round to see me about it yesterday morning, without any warning. And he was full of it! I told you how full he was of it, didn't I, Caroline? You know how he is when anything takes him."
"Do I know how he is?" murmured Caroline, arching her eyebrows. She spoke much more broadly than either of the others.
Miss Gailey continued to Hilda, with seriousness: "It's a boarding-house that he's got control of up there. Something about a bill of sale on the furniture, I think. But perhaps you know?"
"No, I don't," said Hilda.
"Oh!" said Miss Gailey, relieved. "Well, anyhow he's bent on me taking charge of this boarding-house. He will have it it's just the thing for me. But—but I don't know!" She finished weakly.
"Everyone knows you're a splendid housekeeper," said Mrs. Lessways. "Always were."
"I remember the refreshments at your annual dances," said Hilda, politely enthusiastic.
"I always attended to those myself," Miss Gailey judicially observed.
"I don't know anything about refreshments at dances," said Mrs. Lessways, "but I do know what your housekeeping is, Sarah!"
"Well, that's what George says!" Sarah simpered. "He says he never had such meals and such attention as that year he lived with me."
"I'm sure he's been sorry many a time he ever left you!" exclaimed Caroline. "Many and many a time!"
"Oh, well.... Relatives, you know...." Sarah murmured vaguely. This was the only reference to the estrangement. She went on with more vivacity. "And then Mr. Cannon has always had ideas about boarding-houses and furnished rooms and so on. He always did say there was lots of money to be made out of them if only they were managed properly; only they never are.... He ought to know; he's been a bachelor long enough, and he's tried enough of them! He says he isn't at all comfortable where he is," she added, as it were aside to Caroline. "It's some people who used to let lodgings to theatre people at Hanbridge."
"Oh! Them!" cried Caroline.
The talk meandered into a maze of reminiscences, and Hilda had to realize her youthfulness and the very inferior range of her experience: Sarah and Caroline recalled to each other dozens of persons and events, opening up historical vistas in a manner that filled the young girl with envious respect, in spite of herself.
"Do you remember Hanbridge Theatre being built, Sarah?" questioned Caroline. "My grandfather—Hilda's great-grandfather—tendered for it—not that he got the job—but he was very old."
"Did he now? No, I don't. But I dare say I was in London then."
"I dare say that would be it."
"Yes," said Sarah, turning to Hilda once more, "that's just what Mr. Cannon says. He says it isn't as if I didn't know what London is.... But it's such a long time ago!" She glanced at Caroline as if for sympathy.
"Come, come, Sarah!" Caroline protested stoutly, and yet with a care for Sarah's sensitiveness. "It isn't so long ago as all that!"
"It seems so long," said Sarah, reflective; and her mouth worked uneasily. Then, after a pause: "He's so set on it!"
"Set on what? On your going to London?"
"And why not?"
"Well, I don't know whether I could—"
"Paw!" scoffed Caroline lightly and flatteringly. "You're younger than I am, and I'm not going to have anyone making out that I'm getting old. Now do finish that bit of cake."
"No, thank you, Caroline. I really couldn't."
"Not but what I should be sorry enough to lose you," Caroline concluded. "There's no friends like the old friends."
"Ah! No!" Sarah thickly muttered, gazing with her watery eyes at a spot on the white diaper.
"Hilda, do turn down that there gas a bit," said Mrs. Lessways sharply and self-consciously. "It's fizzing." And she changed the subject.
With a nervous exaggeration of solicitude Hilda sprang to the gas-jet. Suddenly she was drenched in the most desolating sadness. She could not bear to look at Miss Gailey; and further, Miss Gailey seemed unreal to her, not an actual woman, but an abstract figure of sorrow that fancy had created. A few minutes previously Hilda had been taking pride in the tact and the enterprise of George Cannon, who possessed a mysterious gift of finding an opportunity for everybody who needed it. He had set Hilda on her feet; and he was doing the same for his half-sister, and with such skilful diplomacy that Miss Gailey was able to pretend to herself and to others that George Cannon, and not Sarah Gailey, was the obliged person. But now Hilda saw Sarah Gailey afraid to go to London, and George Cannon pushing her forward with all the ruthless strength of his enterprising spirit. And the sight was extraordinarily, incomprehensibly tragic. Sarah Gailey's timorous glance seemed to be saying: "I am terrified to go. It isn't beyond my strength—it's beyond my spirit. But I shall have to go, and I shall have to seem glad to go. And nobody can save me!"
And Miss Gailey's excellent silk dress, and her fine apron, and her primness and dignified manners, and her superb pretence of being undamaged struck Hilda as intolerably pathetic—so that she was obliged to look away lest she might weep at the sight of that pathos. Yes, it was a fact that she could not bear to look! Nor could she bear to let her imagination roam into Miss Gailey's immediate past! She said to herself: "Only yesterday morning perhaps she didn't know where her next meal was coming from. He must have managed somehow to give her some money. Only yesterday morning perhaps she didn't know where her next meal—If I say that to myself once more I shall burst out crying!" She balanced her spoon on her teacup and let it fall.
"Now, Miss Fidgety!" her mother commented, with good humour. And then they all heard a knock at the front door.
"Will Florrie have heard it?" Mrs. Lessways asked nervously. What she meant was: "Who on earth can this be?" But such questions cannot be put in the presence of a newly reconciled old friend. It was necessary to behave as though knocks at the front door were a regular accompaniment of tea.
CHAPTER XI DISILLUSION
The entrance of George Cannon into the parlour produced a tumult greatly stimulating the vitality and the self-consciousness of all three women. Sarah Gailey's excitement was expressed in flushing, and in characteristic small futile movements of the head and hands, and in monosyllables that conveyed naught except a vague but keen apprehension. Mrs. Lessways was perturbed and somewhat apprehensive also; but she was flattered and pleased. Hilda was frankly suspicious during the first moments. She guessed that Mr. Cannon was aware of his sister's visit, and that he had come to further his own purposes. He confirmed her idea by greeting his sister without apparent surprise; but as, in response to Mrs. Lessways' insistence, he took off his great overcoat, with those large, powerful gestures which impress susceptible women and give pleasure even to the indifferent, he said casually to Sarah Gailey, "I didn't expect to meet you here, Sally. I've come to have a private word with Mrs. Lessways about putting one of her Calder Street tenants on to the pavement." Sarah laughed nervously and said that she would retire, and Mrs. Lessways said that Sarah would do no such thing, and that she was very welcome to hear all that Mr. Cannon might have to say concerning the Calder Street property.
In a minute Mr. Cannon was resplendently sitting down to the table with them, and rubbing his friendly hands, and admitting that he should not refuse a cup of tea if pressed. And Hilda received her mother's sharp instructions to get a cup and saucer from the sideboard and a spoon from the drawer. She bore these to the table like a handmaid, but like a delicate and superior handmaid, and it pleased her to constitute herself a delicate and superior handmaid. Mr. Cannon sat next to her mother, and Hilda put down the tinkling cup and saucer on the white cloth between them; and as she did so Mr. Cannon turned and thanked her with a confidential smile, to which she responded. They were not now employer and employee, but exclusively in the social world; nevertheless, their business relations made an intimacy which it was piquant to feel in the home. Moreover, Sarah Gailey was opposite to them, and Hilda could not keep out of her dark eyes the intelligence: "If she is here, if you are all amicable together, it is due to me." Delicious and somehow perilous secret!... Going back to her seat, she arranged more safely the vast overcoat which he had thrown carelessly down on her mother's rocking- chair. It was inordinately heavy, and would have outweighed a dozen of her skimpy little jackets; she, who would have been lost in it like a cat in a rug, enjoyed the thought of the force of the creature capable of wearing it lightly for a garment. Withal the rough, soft surface of it was agreeable to the hand. Out of one of the immense pockets hung the end of a coloured silk muffler, filmy as anything that she herself wore.
Then they were all definitely seated, and Mr. Cannon accepted his tea from the hand of Mrs. Lessways. The whiteness of his linen, the new smartness of his suit, the elegance and gallantry of his gestures—these phenomena incited the women to a responsive emulation; they were something which it was a feminine duty to live up to. Archness reigned, especially between the hostess and the caller. Hilda answered to the mood. And Sarah Gailey, though she said little and never finished a sentence, did her best to answer to it by noddings and nervous appreciative smiles, and swift turnings of the head from one to another. When Mr. Cannon and Mrs. Lessways, in half a dozen serious words interjected among the archness, had adversely settled the fate of a whole family in Calder Street, there remained scarcely a trace, in the company's demeanour, of the shamed consciousness that only two days before its members had been divided by disastrous enmities and that one of them had lacked the means of life.
"Oh no! my dear girl! You're too modest—that's what's the matter with you," said George Cannon eagerly to his half-sister. The epithet flattered but did not allay her timidity. To Hilda it seemed mysteriously romantic.
The supreme topic had worked its way into the conversation. Uppermost in the minds of all, it seemed to have forced itself out by its own intrinsic energy, against the will of the company. Impossible to decide who first had let it forth! But George Cannon had now fairly seized it and run off with it. He was almost boyishly excited over it. The Latin strain in him animated his features and his speech. He was a poet as he talked of the boarding-house that awaited a mistress. He had pulled out of his pocket the cutting of an advertisement of it from the London Daily Telegraph, a paper that was never seen in Turnhill. And this bit of paper, describing in four lines the advantages of the boarding-house, had the effect of giving the actual house a symbolic reality. "There it is!" he exclaimed, slapping down the paper. And there it appeared really to be. The bit of paper was extraordinarily persuasive. It compelled everybody to realize, now for the first time, that the house did in fact exist. George Cannon had an overwhelming answer to all timorous objections. The boarding-house was remunerative; boarders were at that very moment in it. The nominal proprietor was not leaving it because he was losing money on the boarding-house, but because he had lost money in another enterprise quite foreign to it, and had pledged all the contents of the boarding-house as security. The occasion was one in a thousand, one in a million. He, George Cannon, through a client, had the entire marvellous affair between his finger and thumb, and most obviously Sarah Gailey was the woman of all women for the vacant post at his disposition. Chance was waiting on her. She had nothing whatever to do but walk into the house as a regent into a kingdom, and rule. Only, delay was impossible. All was possible except delay. She would inevitably succeed; she could not fail. And it would be a family affair....
Tea was finished and forgotten.
"For your own sake!" he wound up a peroration. "It really doesn't matter to me.... Don't you agree with me, Mrs. Lessways?" His glance was a homage.
"Oh, you!" exclaimed Mrs. Lessways, smiling happily. "You've only got to open your mouth, and you'd talk anybody into the middle of next week."
"Mother!" Hilda mildly reproved. She was convinced now that Mr. Cannon had come on purpose to clinch the affair.
He laughed appreciatively.
"But really! Seriously!" he insisted.
And Mrs. Lessways, straightening her face, said, with slight self-consciousness: "Oh, I think it's worth while considering!"
"There you are!" cried Mr. Cannon to Miss Gailey.
"I shall be all alone up there!" said Miss Gailey, as cheerfully as she could.
"I'll go up with you and see you into the place. I should have to come back the same night—I'm so tremendously busy just now—what with the paper and so on."
"Yes, but—I quite admit all you say, George—but—"
"Here's another idea," he broke out. "Why don't you ask Mrs. Lessways to go up with you and stay a week or two? It would be a rare change for her, and company for you."
Miss Gailey looked quickly at her old friend.
"Oh! Bless you!" said Mrs. Lessways. "I've only been to London once, and that was only for two days—before Hilda was born. I should be no use in London, at my time of life. I'm one of your home-stayers." Nevertheless it was plain that the notion appealed to her fancy, and that she would enjoy flirting with it.
"Nonsense, Mrs. Lessways!" said George Cannon. "It would do you a world of good, and it would make all the difference to Sally."
"That it would!" Sarah agreed, still questioning Caroline with her watery, appealing eyes. In Caroline, Sarah saw her salvation, and snatched at it. Caroline could no nothing well; she had no excellence; all that Caroline could do Sarah could do better. And yet Caroline, by the mysterious virtue of her dry and yet genial shrewdness, and of the unstable but reliable equilibrium of her temperament, was the skilled Sarah's superior. They both knew it and felt it. The lofty Hilda admitted it. Caroline herself negligently admitted it by a peculiar, brusque, unaffected geniality of condescension towards Sarah.
"Do go, mother!" said Hilda. To herself she had been saying: "Another of his wonderful ideas!" The prospect of being alone in the house with Florrie, of being free for a space to live her own life untrammelled and throw all her ardour into her work, was inexpressibly attractive to Hilda. It promised the most delicious experience that she had ever had.
"Yes," retorted Mrs. Lessways. "And leave you here by yourself! A nice thing!"
"I shall be all right," said Hilda confidently and joyously. She was sure that the excursion to London had appealed to her mother's latent love of the unexpected, and that her faculty for accepting placidly whatever fate offered would prevent her from resisting the pressure that Sarah Gailey and Mr. Cannon would obviously exert.
"Shall you!" Mrs. Lessways muttered.
"Why not take your daughter with you, too?" Mr. Cannon suggested.
"Oh!" cried Hilda, shocked. "I couldn't possibly leave my work just now.... The paper just coming out.... You couldn't spare me." She spoke with pride, using phrases similar to those which he had used to explain to Sarah Gailey why he could not remain with her in London even for a night.
"Oh yes, I could," he answered kindly, lightly, carelessly, shattering—in his preoccupation with one idea—all her fine, loyal pretensions. "We should manage all right."
She was hurt. She was mortally pierced. The blow was too cruel. She lowered her glance before his, and fixed it on the table-cloth. Her brow darkened. Her lower lip bulged out. She was the child again. He had with atrocious inhumanity reduced her to the unimportance of a child. She had bestowed on him and his interests the gift of her whole soul, and he had said that it was negligible. And the worst was that he was perfectly unaware of what he had done. He had not even observed the symptoms of her face. He had turned at once to the older women and was continuing the conversation. He had ridden over her, and ridden on without a look behind. The conversation moved, after a pause, back to the plausible excuse for his call. He desired to see some old rent-book which would show how the doomed tenant in Calder Street had originally fallen into arrears.
"Where is that old book of Mr. Skellorn's, Hilda?" her mother asked.
She could not speak. The sob was at her throat. If she had spoken it would have burst through, and she would have been not merely the child, but the disgraced child.
"Hilda!" repeated her mother.
Her singular silence drew the attention of all. She blushed a sombre scarlet. No! She could not speak. She cursed herself. "What a little fool I am! Surely I can..." Useless! She could not speak. She took the one desperate course open to her, and ran out of the room, to the astonishment of three puzzled and rather frightened adults. Her shame was now notorious. "Baby! Great baby!" she gnashed at her own inconceivable silliness. Had she no pride?... And now she was in the gloom of the lobby, and she could hear Florrie in the kitchen softly whistling.... She was out in the dark lobby exactly like a foolish, passionate child.... She knew all the time that she could easily persuade her mother to leave her alone with Florrie in the house; she had levers to move her mother.... But of what use, now, to do that?
CHAPTER XII THE TELEGRAM
It was the end of February 1880. A day resembling spring had come, illusive, but exquisite. Hilda, having started out too hurriedly for the office after the midday dinner, had had to return home for a proof which she had forgotten.
She now had the house to herself, as a kingdom over which she reigned; for, amid all her humiliation and pensive dejection, she had been able to exert sufficient harsh force to drive her mother to London in company with Miss Gailey. She was alone, free; and she tasted her freedom to the point of ecstasy. She conned corrected proofs at her meals: this was life. When Florrie came in with another dish, Hilda looked up impatiently from printed matter, as if disturbed out of a dream, and Florrie put on an apologetic air, to invoke pardon. It was largely pretence on Hilda's part, but it was life. Then she had the delicious anxiety of being responsible for Florrie. "Now, Florrie, I'm going out to-night, to see Miss Orgreave at Bleakridge. I shall rely on you to go to bed not later than nine. I've got the key. I may not be back till the last train." "Yes, miss!" And what with Hilda's solemnity and Florrie's impressed eyes, the ten-forty-five was transformed into a train that circulated in the dark and mysterious hour just before cockcrow. Hilda, alone, was always appealing to Florrie's loyalty. Sometimes when discreetly abolishing some old-fashioned, work-increasing method of her mother's, she would speak to Florrie in a tone of sudden, transient intimacy, raising her for a moment to the rank of an intellectual equal as her voice hinted that her mother after all belonged to the effete generation.
Awkwardly, with her gloved hands, turning over the pages of a book in which the slip-proof had been carelessly left hidden, Hilda, from her bedroom, heard Florrie come whistling down the attic stairs. Florrie had certainly heard nothing of her young mistress since the door-bang which had signalled her departure for the office. In the delusion that she was utterly solitary in the house, Florrie was whistling, not at all like a modest young woman, but like a carter. Hilda knew that she could whistle, and had several times indicated to her indirectly that whistling was undesirable; but she had never heard her whistling as she whistled now. Her first impulse was to rush out of the bedroom and 'catch' Florrie and make her look foolish, but a sense of honour restrained her from a triumph so mean, and she kept perfectly still. She heard Florrie run into her mother's bedroom; and then she heard that voice, usually so timid, saying loudly, exultantly, and even coarsely: "Oh! How beautiful I am! How beautiful I am! Shan't I just mash the men! Shan't I just mash 'em!" This new and vulgar word 'mash' offended Hilda.
She crept noiselessly to the door, which was ajar, and looked forth like a thief. The door of her mother's room was wide open, and across the landing she could see Florrie posturing in front of the large mirror of the wardrobe. The sight shocked her in a most peculiar manner. It was Florrie's afternoon out, and the child was wearing, for the first time, an old brown skirt that Hilda had abandoned to her. But in this long skirt she was no more a child. Although scarcely yet fifteen years old, she was a grown woman. She had astoundingly developed during her service with Mrs. Lessways. She was scarcely less tall than Hilda, and she possessed a sturdy, rounded figure which put Hilda's to shame. It was uncanny—the precocity of the children of the poor! It was disturbing! On a chair lay Florrie's new 'serviceable' cloak, and a cheap but sound bonnet: both articles the fruit of a special journey with her aunt to Baines's drapery shop at Bursley, where there was a small special sober department for servants who were wise enough not to yield to the temptation of 'finery.' Florrie, who at thirteen and a half had never been able to rattle one penny against another, had since then earned some two thousand five hundred pennies, and had clothed herself and put money aside and also poured a shower of silver upon her clamorous family. Amazing feat! Amazing growth! She seized the 'good' warm cloak and hid her poor old bodice beneath it, and drew out her thick pig-tail, and shook it into position with a free gesture of the head; and on the head she poised the bonnet, and tied the ribbons under the delightful chin. And then, after a moment of hard scrutiny, danced and whistled, and cried again: "How beautiful I am! How pretty I am!"
She was. She positively did not look a bit like a drudge. She was not the Florrie of the kitchen and of the sack-apron, but a young, fledged creature with bursting bosom who could trouble any man by the capricious modesty of a gaze downcast. The miraculous skirt, odious on Hilda, had the brightness of a new skirt. Her hands and arms were red and chapped, but her face had bloomed perfect in the kitchen like a flower in a marl-pit. It was a face that an ambitious girl could rely on. Its charm and the fluid charm of her movements atoned a thousand times for all her barbaric ignorance and crudity; the grime on her neck was naught.
Hilda watched, intensely ashamed of this spying, but she could not bring herself to withdraw. She was angry with Florrie; she was outraged. Then she thought: "Why should I be angry? The fact is I'm being mother all over again. After all, why shouldn't Florrie...?" And she was a little jealous of Florrie, and a little envious of her, because Florrie had the naturalness of a savage or of an animal, unsophisticated by ideals of primness. Hilda was disconcerted at the discovery of Florrie as an authentic young woman. Florrie, more than seven years her junior! She felt experienced, and indulgent as the old are indulgent. For the first time in her life she did honestly feel old. And she asked herself—half in dismay: "Florrie has got thus far. Where am I? What am I doing?" It was upsetting.
At length Florrie took off the bonnet and ran upstairs, and shut the door of her attic. Apparently she meant to improve the bonnet by some touch. After waiting nervously a few moments, the aged Hilda slipped silently downstairs, and through the kitchen, and so by the garden, where with their feet in mire the hare trees were giving signs of hope under the soft blue sky, into the street. Florrie would never know that she had been watched.
Ten minutes later, when she went into the office of Dayson & Co., Hilda was younger than ever. It was a young, fragile girl, despite the dark frown of her intense seriousness, who with accustomed gestures poked the stove, and hung bonnet and jacket on a nail and then sat down to the loaded desk; it was an ingenuous girl absurdly but fiercely anxious to shoulder the world's weight. She had passed a whole night in revolt against George Cannon's indignity; she had called it, furiously, an insult. She had said to herself: "Well, if I'm so useless as all that, I'll never go near his office again." But the next afternoon she had appeared as usual at the office, meek, modest, with a smile, fatigued and exquisitely resigned, and a soft voice. And she had worked with even increased energy and devotion. This kissing of the rod, this irrational instinctive humility, was a strange and sweet experience for her. Such was the Hilda of the office; but Hilda at home, cantankerous, obstinate, and rude, had offered a remarkable contrast to her until the moment when it was decided that her mother should accompany Miss Gailey to London. From that moment Hilda at home had been an angel, and the Hilda of the office had shown some return of sturdy pride.
To-day the first number of The Five Towns Chronicle was to go to press.... The delays had been inexplicable and exasperating to Hilda, though she had not criticized them, even to herself; they were now over. The town had no air of being excited about the appearance of its new paper. But the office was excited. The very room itself looked feverish. It was changed; more tables had been brought into it, and papers and litter had accumulated enormously; it was a room humanized by habitation, with a physiognomy that was individual and sympathetic.
From beyond the closed door of the inner room came the sound of men's rapid voices. Hilda could distinguish Mr. Cannon's and Arthur Dayson's; there was a third, unfamiliar to her. Having nothing to do, she began to make work, rearranging the contents of her table, fingering with a factitious hurry the thick bundles of proofs of correspondence from the villages (so energetically organized by the great Dayson), and the now useless 'copy,' and the innumerable letters, that Dayson was always disturbing, and the samples of encaustic tiles brought in by an inventor who desired the powerful aid of the press, and the catalogues, and Dayson's cuttings from the Manchester, Birmingham, and London papers, and the notepaper and envelopes and cards, and Veale Chifferiel & Co.'s almanac that had somehow come up with other matters from Mr. Karkeek's office below. And then she dusted, with pursed lips that blamed the disgraceful and yet excusable untidiness of men, and then she examined, with despair and with pride, her dirty little hands, whose finger-tips all clustered together (they were now like the hands of a nice, careless schoolboy), and lightly dusted one against the other. Then she found a galley-proof under the table. It was a duplicate proof of The Five Towns Chronicle's leading article, dictated to her by a prodigious Arthur Dayson, in Mr. Cannon's presence, on the previous day, and dealing faithfully with "The Calder Street Scandal" and with Mr. Enville, a member of the Local Board—implicated in the said scandal. The proof was useless now, for the leader-page was made up. Nevertheless, Hilda carefully classified it "in case..."
On a chair was The Daily Telegraph, which Dayson had evidently been reading, for it was blue pencilled. Hilda too must read it; her duty was to read it: Dayson had told her that she ought never to neglect the chance of reading any newspaper whatever, and that a young woman in her responsible situation could not possibly know too much. Which advice, though it came from a person ridiculous to her, seemed sound enough, and was in fact rather flattering. In the Telegraph she saw, between Dayson's blue lines, an account of a terrible military disaster. She was moved by it in different ways. It produced in her a grievous, horror- struck desolation; but it also gave her an extraordinary sensation of fervid pleasure. It was an item of news that would have to appear in the Chronicle, and this would mean changes in the make-up, and work at express speed, and similar delights. Already the paper was supposed to be on the machine, though in fact, as she well knew, it was not. No doubt the subject of discussion in the inner room was the disaster!... Yes, she was acutely and happily excited. And always afterwards, when she heard or saw the sinister word 'Majuba' (whose political associations never in the least interested her), she would recall her contradictory, delicious feelings on that dramatic afternoon.
While she was busily cutting out the news from the Telegraph to be ready for Arthur Dayson, there was a very timid knock at the door, and Florrie entered, as into some formidable cabinet of tyrannic rulers.
"If you please, miss—" she began to whisper.
"Why, Florrie," Hilda exclaimed, "what have you put that old skirt on for, when I've given you mine? I told you—"
"I did put it on, miss. But there came a telegram. I told the boy you were here, but he said that wasn't no affair of his, so I brought it myself, and I thought you wouldn't care for to see me in your skirt, miss, not while on duty, miss, 'specially here like! So I up quick and changed it back."
"Telegram?" Hilda repeated the word.
Florrie, breathless after running and all this whispering, advanced in the prettiest confusion towards the throne, and Hilda took the telegram with a gesture as casual as she could manage. Florrie's abashed mien, and the arrival of the telegram, stiffened her back and steadied her hand. Imagine that infant being afraid of her, Hilda! This too was life! And the murmur of the men in the inner room was thrilling to Hilda's ears.
She brusquely opened the telegram and read: "Lessways, Lessways Street, Turnhill. Mother ill. Can you come?—Gailey."
CHAPTER XIII HILDA'S WORLD
The conversation in the inner room promised to be interminable. Hilda could not decide what to do. She felt no real alarm on her mother's account. Mrs. Lessways, often slightly indisposed, was never seriously ill; she possessed one of those constitutions which do not go to extremes of disease; if a malady overtook her, she invariably 'had' it in a mild form. Doubtless Sarah Gailey, preoccupied and worried by new responsibilities, desired to avoid the added care of nursing the sick. Hence the telegram. Moreover, if the case had been grave, she would not have put the telegram in the interrogative; she would have written, 'Please come at once.' No, Hilda was not unduly disturbed. Nevertheless, she had an odd idea that she ought to rush to the station and catch the next train, which left Knype at five minutes to four; this idea did not spring from her own conscience, but rather from the old-fashioned collective family conscience. But at a quarter to four, when it was already too late to catch the local train at Turnhill, the men had not emerged from the inner room; nor had Hilda come to any decision. As the departure of her mother and Miss Gailey had involved much solemn poring over time-tables, it happened that she knew the times of all the trains to London; to catch the next and last she would have to leave Turnhill at 5.55. She said that she would wait and see. Her work for the first number of the paper was practically done, but there was this mysterious conclave which fretted her curiosity and threatened exciting development; also the Majuba disaster would mean trouble for somebody. And in any event she hated the very thought of quitting Turnhill before the Chronicle was definitely out. She had lived for the moment of its publication, and she could not bear to miss it. She was almost angry with her mother; she was certainly angry with Miss Gailey. All the egotism of the devotee in her was aroused and irate.
Then the men came forth from the inner room, with a rather unexpected suddenness. Mr. Cannon appeared first; and after him Mr. Enville; lastly Arthur Dayson, papers in hand. Intimidated by the presence of the stranger, Hilda affected to be busy at her table. Mr. Enville shook hands very amicably with George Cannon, and instantly departed. As he passed down the stairs she caught sight of him; he was a grizzled man of fifty, lean and shabby, despite his reputation for riches. She knew that he was a candidate for the supreme position of Chief Bailiff at the end of the year, and he did not accord with her spectacular ideal of a Chief Bailiff; the actual Chief Bailiff was a beautiful and picturesque old man, with perfectly tended white whiskers, and always a flower in his coat. Further, she could not reconcile this nearly effusive friendliness between Mr. Enville and Mr. Cannon with the animadversions of the leading article which Arthur Dayson had composed, and Mr. Cannon had approved, only twenty-four hours earlier.
As Mr. Cannon shut the door at the head of the stairs, she saw him give a discreet, disdainful wink to Dayson. Then he turned sharply to Hilda, and said, thoughtful and stern:
"Your notebook, please."
Bracing herself, and still full of pride in her ability to write this mysterious shorthand, she opened her notebook, and waited with poised pencil. The mien of the two men had communicated to her an excitement far surpassing their own, in degree and in felicity. The whole of her vital force was concentrated at the point of her pencil, and she seemed to be saying to herself: "I'm very sorry, mother, but see how important this is! I shall consider what I can do for you the very moment I am free."
Arthur Dayson coughed and plumped heavily on a chair.
It was in such moments as this that Dayson really lived, with all the force of his mediocrity. George Cannon was not a journalist; he could compose a letter, but he had not the trick of composing an article. He felt, indeed, a negligent disdain for the people who possessed this trick, as for performers in a circus; he certainly did not envy them, for he knew that he could buy them, as a carpenter buys tools. His attitude was that of the genuine bourgeois towards the artist: possessive, incurious, and contemptuous. Dayson, however, ignored George Cannon's attitude, perhaps did not even perceive what it was. He gloried in his performance. Accustomed to dictate extempore speeches on any subject whatever to his shorthand pupils, he was quite at his ease, quite master of his faculties, and self-satisfaction seemed to stand out on his brow like genial sweat while the banal phrases poured glibly from the cavern behind his jagged teeth; and each phrase was a perfect model of provincial journalese. George Cannon had to sit and listen,—to approve, or at worst to make tentative suggestions.
The first phrase which penetrated through the outer brain of the shorthand writer to the secret fastness where Hilda sat in judgment on the world was this:
"The campaign of vulgar vilification inaugurated yesterday by our contemporary The Staffordshire Signal against our esteemed fellow-townsman Mr. Richard Enville..."
This phrase came soon after such phrases as "Our first bow to the public"... "Our solemn and bounden duty to the district which it is our highest ambition to serve..." etc. Phrases which had already occurred in the leading article dictated on the previous day.
Hilda soon comprehended that in twenty-four hours Mr. Enville, from being an unscrupulous speculator who had used his official position to make illicit profits out of the sale of land to the town for town improvements, had become the very mirror of honesty and high fidelity to the noblest traditions of local government. Without understanding the situation, and before even she had formulated to herself any criticism of the persons concerned, she felt suddenly sick. She dared not look at George Cannon, but once when she raised her head to await the flow of a period that had been arrested at a laudatory superlative, she caught Dayson winking coarsely at him. She hated Dayson for that; George Cannon might wink at Dayson (though she regretted the condescending familiarity), but Dayson had no right to presume to wink at George Cannon. She hoped that Mr. Cannon had silently snubbed him.
As the article proceeded there arose a crying from the Square below. A Signal boy, one of the earliest to break the silent habit of the Square, was bawling a fresh edition of Arthur Dayson's contemporary, and across the web of the dictator's verbiage she could hear the words: "South Africa—Details—" Mr. Cannon glanced at his watch impatiently. Hilda could see, under her bent and frowning brow, his white hand moving on the dark expanse of his waistcoat.
Immediately afterwards Mr. Cannon, interrupting, said:
"That'll be all right. Finish it. I must be off."
"Right you are!" said Dayson grandly. "I'll run down with it to the printer's myself—soon as it's copied."
Mr. Cannon nodded. "And tell him we've got to be on the railway bookstalls first thing to-morrow morning."
"He'll never do it."
"He must do it. I don't care if he works all night."
"There hasn't got to be any 'buts,' Dayson. There's been a damned sight too much delay as it is."
"All right! All right!" Dayson placated him hastily.
Mr. Cannon departed.
It seemed to Hilda that she shivered, but whether with pain or pleasure she knew not. Never before had Mr. Cannon sworn in her presence. All day his manner had been peculiar, as though the strain of mysterious anxieties was changing his spirit. And now he was gone, and she had said naught to him about the telegram from Miss Gailey!
Arthur Dayson rolled oratorically on in defence of the man whom yesterday he had attacked.
And then Sowter, the old clerk, entered.
"What is it? Don't interrupt me!" snapped Dayson.
"There's the Signal.... Latest details.... This here Majuba business!"
"What do I care about your Majuba?" Dayson retorted. "I've got something more important than your Majuba."
"It was the governor as told me to give it you," said Sowter, restive.
"Well, give it me, then; and don't waste my time!" Dayson held out an imperial hand for the sheet. He looked at Hilda as if for moral support and added, to her, in a martyred tone: "I suppose I shall have to dash off a few lines about Sowter's Majuba while you're copying out my article."
"And the governor said to remind you that Mr. Enville wants a proof of his advertisement," Sowter called out sulkily as he was disappearing down the stairs.
Hilda blushed, as she had blushed in writing George Cannon's first lie about the printing of the first issue. She had accustomed herself to lies, and really without any difficulty or hesitation. Yes! She had even reached the level of being religiously proud of them! But now her bullied and crushed conscience leaped up again, and in the swift alarm of the shock her heart was once more violently beating. Yet amid the wild confusion of her feelings, a mechanical intelligence guided her hand to follow Arthur Dayson's final sentences. And there shone out from her soul a contempt for the miserable hack, so dazzling that it would have blinded him—had he not been already blind.
That evening she sat alone in the office. The first number of The Five Towns Chronicle, after the most astounding adventures, had miraculously gone to press. Dayson and Sowter had departed. There was no reason why Hilda should remain,—burning gas to no purpose. She had telegraphed, by favour of a Karkeek office-boy, to Miss Gailey, saying that she would come by the first train on the morrow—Saturday, and she had therefore much to do at home. Nevertheless, she sat idle in the office, unable to leave. Her whole life was in that office, and it was just when she was most weary of the environment that she would vacillate longest before quitting it. She was unhappy and apprehensive, much less about her mother than about the attitude of her conscience towards the morals of this new world of hers. The dramatic Enville incident had spoiled the pleasure which she had felt in sacrificing her formal duty as a daughter to her duty as a clerk. She had been disillusioned. She foresaw the future with alarm.
And yet, strangely, the disillusion and the fear were a source of pleasure. She savoured them with her loyalty, that loyalty which had survived even the frightful blow of George Cannon's casual disdain at her mother's tea-table! Whatever this new world might be, it was hers, it was precious. She would no more think of abandoning it than a young mother would think of abandoning a baby obviously imperfect.... Nay, she would cling to it the tighter!
George Cannon came up the stairs with his decisive and rapid step. She rose from her chair at the table as he entered. He was wearing a new overcoat, that she had never seen before, with a fine velvet collar.
"You're going?" he asked, a little breathless.
"I was going," she replied in her clear, timid voice, implying that she was ready to stay.
"Everything all right?"
"Mr. Dayson said so."
"Yes. Mr. Sowter's gone too."
"Good!" he murmured. And he straightened his shoulders, and, putting his hands in the pockets of his trousers, began to walk about the room.
Hilda moved to get her bonnet and jacket. She moved very quietly and delicately, and, because he was there, she put on her bonnet and jacket with gestures of an almost apologetic modesty. He seemed to ignore her, so that she was able to glance surreptitiously at his face. He was now apparently less worried. Still, it was an enigmatic face. She had no notion of what he had been doing since his hurried exit in the afternoon. He might have been attending to his legal practice, or he might have been abroad on mysterious errands.
"Funny business, this newspaper business is, isn't it?" he remarked, after a moment. "Just imagine Enville, now! Upon my soul I didn't think he had it in him!... Of course,"—he threw his head up with a careless laugh,—"of course, it would have been madness for us to miss such a chance! He's one of the men of the future, in this town."
"Yes," she agreed, in an eager whisper.
In an instant George Cannon had completely changed the attitude of her conscience,—by less than a phrase, by a mere intonation. In an instant he had reassured her into perfect security. It was plain, from every accent of his voice, that he had done nothing of which he thought he ought to be ashamed. Business was business, and newspapers were newspapers; and the simple truth was that her absurd conscience had been in the wrong. Her duty was to accept the standards of her new world. Who was she? Nobody! She did accept the standards of her new world, with fervour. She was proud of them, actually proud of their apparent wickedness. She had accomplished an act of faith. Her joy became intense, and shot glinting from her eyes as she put on her gloves. Her life became grand to her. She knew she was known in the town as 'the girl who could write shorthand.' Her situation was not ordinary; it was unique. Again, the irregularity of the hours, and the fact that the work never commenced till the afternoon, seemed to her romantic and beautiful. Here she was, at nine o'clock, alone with George Cannon on the second floor of the house! And who, gazing from the Square at the lighted window, would guess that she and he were there alone?
All the activities of newspaper production were poetized by her fervour. The Chronicle was not a poor little weekly sheet, struggling into existence anyhow, at haphazard, dependent on other newspapers for all except purely local items of news. It was an organ! It was the courageous rival of the ineffable Signal, its natural enemy! One day it would trample on the Signal! And though her role was humble, though she understood scarcely anything of the enterprise beyond her own duties, yet she was very proud of her role too. And she was glad that the men were seemingly so careless, so disorderly, so forgetful of details, so—in a word—childish! For it was part of her role to remind them, to set them right, to watch over their carelessness, to restore order where they had left disorder. In so far as her role affected them, she condescended to them.
She informed George Cannon of her mother's indisposition, and that she meant to go to London the next morning, and to return most probably in a few days. He stopped in his walk, near her. Like herself, he was not seriously concerned about Mrs. Lessways, but he showed a courteous sympathy.
"It's a good thing you didn't go to London when your mother went," he said, after a little conversation.
He did not add: "You've been indispensable." He had no air of apologizing for his insult at the tea-table. But he looked firmly at her, with a peculiar expression.
Suddenly she felt all her slimness and fragility; she felt all the girl in herself and all the dominant man in him, and all the empty space around them. She went hot. Her sight became dim. She was ecstatically blissful; she was deeply ashamed. She desired the experience to last for ever, and him and herself to be eternally moveless; and at the same time she desired to fly. Or rather, she had no desire to fly, but her voice and limbs acted of themselves, against her volition.
"But I say! Your wages. Shall I pay you now?"
"No, no! It doesn't matter in the least, thanks."
He shook hands with a careless, good-natured smile, which seemed to be saying: "Foolish creature! You can't defend yourself, and these airs are amusing. But I am benevolent." And she was ashamed of her shame, and furious against the childishness that made her frown, and lower her eyes, and escape out of the room like a mouse.
CHAPTER XIV TO LONDON
In the middle of the night Hilda woke up, and within a few seconds she convinced herself that her attitude to Miss Gailey's telegram had been simply monstrous. She saw it, in the darkness, as an enormity. She ought to have responded to the telegram at once; she ought to have gone to London by the afternoon train. What had there been to prevent her from knocking at the door of the inner room, and saying to Mr. Cannon, in the presence of no matter whom: "I am very sorry, Mr. Cannon, but I've just had a telegram that mother is ill in London, and I must leave by the next train"? There had been nothing to prevent her! At latest she should have caught the evening train. Business was of no account in such a crisis. Her mother might be very ill, might be dying, might be dead. It was not for trifles that people sent such telegrams. The astounding thing was that she should have been so blind to her obvious duty.... And she said to herself, thinking with a mysterious and beautiful remorse of the last minute of her talk with Mr. Cannon: "If I had done as I ought to have done, I should have been in London, or on my way to London, instead of in the room with him there; and that would not have occurred!" But what 'that' was, she could not have explained. Nevertheless, Mr. Cannon's phrase, "It's a good thing you didn't go to London," still gave her a pleasure, though the pleasure was dulled.
Then she tried to reassure herself. Sarah Gailey was nervous and easily frightened. Her mother had an excellent constitution. The notion of her mother being seriously ill was silly. In a few hours she would be with her mother, and would be laughing at these absurd night-fears. In any case there would assuredly be a letter from Sarah Gailey by the first post, so that before starting she would have exact information. She succeeded, partially, in reassuring herself for a brief space; but soon she was more unhappy than ever in the clear conviction of her wrongdoing. Again and again she formulated, in her fancy, scenes of the immediate future, as for example at her mother's dying bed, and she imagined conversations and repeated the actual words used by herself and others, interminably. And then she returned to the previous day, and hundreds of times she went into the inner room and said to Mr. Cannon: "I'm very sorry, Mr. Cannon, but I've just had a telegram—" etc. Why had she not said it?... Thus worked the shuttles of her mind, with ruthless, insane insistence, until she knew not whether she was awake or asleep, and the very tissues of her physical brain seemed raw.
She thought feebly: "If I got up and lighted the candle and walked about, I should end this." But she could not rise. She was netted down to the bed. And when she tried to soothe herself with other images—images of delight—she found that they had lost their power. Undressing, a few hours earlier, she had lived again, in exquisite and delicious alarm, through the last minute of her talk with Mr. Cannon; she had gone to sleep while reconstituting those instants. But now their memory left her indifferent, even inspired repugnance. And her remorse little by little lost its mysterious beauty.
She clung to the idea of the reassuring letter which she would receive. That was her sole glint of consolation.
At six she was abroad in the house, intensely alive, intensely conscious of every particle of her body, and of every tiniest operation of her mind. In less than two hours the letter would drop into the lobby! At half-past six both she and Florrie were dressed, and Florrie, stern with the solemnity and importance of her mission, was setting forth to the Saracen's Head to order a cab to be at the door at eight o'clock.
Hilda had much to do, for it was of course necessary to shut up the house, and the packing of her trunk had to be finished, and the trunk locked and corded, and a label found; and there was breakfast to cook. Mrs. Lessways would have easily passed a couple of days in preparing the house for closure. Nevertheless, time, instead of flying, lagged. At seven-thirty Hilda, in the partially dismantled parlour, and Florrie in the kitchen, were sitting down to breakfast. "In a quarter of an hour," said Hilda to herself, "the post will be here." But in four minutes she had eaten the bacon and drunk the scalding tea, and in five she had carried all the breakfast-things into the kitchen, where Florrie was loudly munching over the sloppy deal table. She told Florrie sharply that there would be ample time to wash up. Then she went to her bedroom, and, dragging out her trunk, slid it unaided down the stairs. Back again in the bedroom, she carelessly glanced at the money in her purse, and then put on her things for the journey. Waiting, she stood at the window to look for the postman. Presently she saw him in the distance; he approached quickly, but spent an unendurable minute out of sight in the shop next door. When he emerged Hilda was in anguish. Had he a letter for her? Had he not? He seemed to waver at the gateway, and to decide to enter.... She heard the double blow of his drumstick baton.... Now in a few seconds she would know about her mother.