Proudly restraining herself, she walked with composure to the stairs. She was astonished to see Florrie bending down to pick up the letter. Florrie must have been waiting ready to rush to the front door. As she raised her body and caught sight of Hilda, Florrie blushed.
The stairs were blocked by the trunk which Hilda had left on the stair-mat for the cabman to deal with. Standing behind the trunk, Hilda held forth her hand for the letter.
"Please, miss, it's for me," Florrie whispered, like a criminal.
"For you?" Hilda cried, startled.
In proof Florrie timidly exposed the envelope, on which Hilda plainly saw, in a coarse, scrawling masculine hand, the words "Miss Florrie Bagster." Florrie's face was a burning peony.
Hilda turned superciliously away, too proud to demand any explanations. All her alarms were refreshed by the failure of a letter from Miss Gailey. In vain she urged to herself that Miss Gailey had thought it unnecessary to write, expecting to see her; or that the illness having passed, Miss Gailey, busy, had put off writing. She could not dismiss a vision of a boarding-house in London upset from top to bottom by the grave illness of one person in it, and a distracted landlady who had not a moment even to scribble a post card. And all the time, as this vision tore and desolated her, she was thinking: "Fancy that child having a follower, at her age! She's certainly got a follower!"
The cab came five minutes before it was due.
As the cab rolled through Market Square, where the Saturday stalls were being busily set up, the ironmongery building was framed for an instant by the oblong of the rattling window. Hilda seemed to see the place anew—for the first time. A man was taking down the shutters of the shop. Above that were the wire-blinds with the name of "Q. Karkeek"; and above the blinds the blue posters of the Five Towns Chronicle. No outward sign of Mr. Cannon! And yet Mr. Cannon.... She had an extremely disconcerting sensation of the mysteriousness of Mr. Cannon, and of the mysteriousness of all existence. Mr. Cannon existed somewhere at that moment, engaged in some activity. In a house afar off, unknown to her, her mother existed—if she was not dead! Florrie, with a bundle of personal goods on her lap, and doubtless the letter in her bosom, sat impressed and subdued, opposite to her in the shifting universe of the cab, which was moving away from the empty and silent home. Florrie was being thrown back out of luxury into her original hovel, and was accepting the stroke with the fatalism of the young and of the poor. And one day Hilda and her mother and Florrie would be united again in the home now deserted, whose heavy key was in the traveller's satchel.... But would they?
At the station there was a quarter of an hour to wait. Hilda dismissed Florrie, with final injunctions, and followed her trunk to the bleak platform. The old porter was very kind. She went to the little yellow bookstall. There, under her hand, was a low pile of The Five Towns Chronicle. Miracle! Miraculous George Cannon! She flushed with pride, with a sense of ownership, as she took a penny from her purse to pay for a copy.
"It's th' new peeper," drawled the bookstall lad, with a most foolish condescension towards the new paper.
"Lout!" she addressed him in her heart. "If you knew whom you were talking to—!"
With what pride, masked by careful indifference, she would hand the copy of the Chronicle to her mother! Her mother would exclaim "Bless us!" and spend a day or two in conning the thing, making singular discoveries in it at short intervals.
It was not until she had reached Euston, and driven through a tumultuous and shabby thoroughfare to King's Cross, and taken another ticket, and installed herself in another train, that Hilda began to feel suddenly, like an abyss opening beneath her strength, the lack of food. Meticulous in her clerical duties, and in many minor mechanical details of her personal daily existence, she was capable of singular negligences concerning matters which the heroic part of her despised and which did not immediately bear on a great purpose in hand. Thus, in her carelessness, she found herself with less than two shillings in her pocket after paying for the ticket to Hornsey. She thought, grimly resigned: "Never heed! I shall manage. In half an hour I shall be there, and my anxiety will be at an end."
The train, almost empty, waited forlornly in a forlorn and empty part of the huge, resounding ochreish station. Then, without warning or signal, it slipped off, as though casually, towards an undetermined goal. Often it ran level with the roofs of vague, far-stretching acres of houses— houses vile and frowsy, and smoking like pyres in the dank air. And always it travelled on a platform of brick arches. Now and then the walled road received a tributary that rounded subtly into it, and this tributary could be seen curving away, on innumerable brick arches, through the chimneypots, and losing itself in a dim horizon of gloom. At intervals a large, lifeless station brought the train to a halt for a moment, and the march was resumed. A clock at one of these stations said a quarter to two.
Then the name of Hornsey quickened her apprehensive heart. As she descended nervously from the train, her trunk was shot out from the guard's van behind. She went and stood over it, until the last of a series of kindly porters came along and touched his cap. When she asked for a cab, he seemed doubtful whether a cab was available, and looked uncertainly along the immense empty platform and across at other platforms. The train had wandered away. She strove momentarily to understand the reason of these great sleeping stations; but fatigue, emotional and physical, had robbed her of all intelligent curiosity in the phenomena of the mysterious and formidable city.
Presently the porter threw the trunk on his shoulder and she trudged after him up steps and over an iron bridge and down steps; and an express whizzed like a flying shell through the station and vanished. And at a wicket, in a ragged road, there actually stood a cab and a skeleton of a horse between the shafts. The driver bounced up, enheartened at sight of the trunk and the inexperienced, timid girl; but the horse did not stir in its crooked coma.
"What address, miss?" asked the cabman.
"Cedars House, Harringay Park Road."
The cabman paused in intense thought, and after a few seconds responded cheerfully: "Yes, miss."
The porter touched his cap for threepence. The lashed horse plunged forward. Hilda leaned back in the creaking and depraved vehicle, and sighed, "So this is their London!"
She found herself travelling in the direction from which she had come, parallel to the railway, down the longest street that she had ever seen. On her left were ten thousand small new houses, all alike. On her right were broken patches of similar houses, interspersed with fragments of green field and views of the arches of the railway; the conception of the horrible patience which had gone to the construction of these endless, endless arches made her feel sick.
The cab turned into another road, and another; and then stopped. She saw the words "Cedars House" on a gateway. She could not open the door of the cab. The cabman opened it.
"Blinds down here, miss!" he said, with appropriate mournfulness.
It seemed a rather large house; and every blind was drawn. Had the incredible occurred, then? Had this disaster befallen just her, of all the young women in the world?
She saw the figure of Sarah Gailey.
"Good afternoon," she called out calmly. "Here I am. Only I'm afraid I haven't got enough to pay the cabman."
But while she was speaking she knew from Sarah Gailey's face that the worst and the most ridiculous of her night-fears had been justified by destiny.
Three days previously Mrs. Lessways had been suddenly taken ill in the street. A doctor passing in his carriage had come to her assistance and driven her home. Food eaten on the previous evening had 'disagreed' with her. At first the case was not regarded as very serious. But as the patient did not improve in the night Miss Gailey telegraphed to Hilda. Immediately afterwards, the doctor, summoned in alarm, diagnosed peritonitis caused by a perforating cancer. Mrs. Lessways had died on the third day at eleven in the morning, while Hilda was in the train. Useless to protest that these catastrophes were unthinkable, that Mrs. Lessways had never been ill in her life! The catastrophe had happened. And upstairs a corpse lay in proof.
* * * * *
BOOK II HER RECOVERY
CHAPTER I SIN
From her bed Hilda could see the trees waving in the wind. Every morning she had thus watched them, without interest. At first the branches had been utterly bare, and beyond their reticulation had been visible the rosy facade of a new Board-school. But now the branches were rich with leafage, hiding most of the Board-school, so that only a large upper window of it could be seen. This window, upon which the sun glinted dazzlingly, threw back the rays on to Hilda's bed, giving her for a few moments the illusion of direct sunlight. The hour was eleven o'clock. On the night-table lay a tea-tray in disorder, and on the turned-down sheet some crumbs of toast. A low, nervous tap at the door caused Hilda to stir in the bed. Sarah Gailey entered hurriedly. In her bony yellowed hand she held a collection of tradesmen's account-books.
"Good morning, dear, how are you?" she asked, bending awkwardly over the bed. In the same instant she looked askance at the tray.
"I'm all right, thanks," said Hilda lazily, observing the ceiling.
"You haven't been too cold without the eiderdown? I forgot to ask you before. You know I only took it off because I thought the weather was getting too warm.... I didn't want it for another bed. I assure you it's in the chest of drawers in my room." Sarah Gailey added the last words as if supplicating to be believed.
"You needn't tell me that," said Hilda. She was not angry, but bored, by this characteristic remark of Miss Gailey's. In three months she had learnt a great deal about the new landlady of the Cedars, that strange neurotic compound of ability, devotion, thin-skinned vanity, and sheer, narrow stupidity. "I've been quite warm enough," Hilda added as quickly as she could, lest Miss Gailey might have time to convince herself to the contrary.
"And the toast? I do hope—after all I've said to that Hettie about—"
"You see I've eaten it all," Hilda interrupted her, pointing to the plate.
Their faces were close together; they exchanged a sad smile. Miss Gailey was still bending over her, anxiously, as over a child. Yet neither the ageing and worn woman nor the flaccid girl felt the difference between them in age. Nor was Hilda in any ordinary sense ill. The explanation of Miss Gailey's yearning attitude lay in an exaggerated idea of her duty to Hilda, whose mother's death had been the result of an act of friendliness to her. If Mrs. Lessways had not come to London in order to keep company with Sarah, she might—she would, under Providence—have been alive and well that day; such was Sarah's reasoning, which by the way ignored certain statements of the doctor. Sarah would never forgive herself. But she sought, by an infatuated devotion, to earn the forgiveness of Caroline's daughter. Her attentions might have infuriated an earlier Hilda, or at least have been met with disdain only half concealed. But on the present actual Hilda they produced simply no effect of any kind. The actual Hilda, living far within the mysterious fastness of her own being, was too solitary, too preoccupied, and too fatigued, to be touched even by the noble beauty that distinguished the expiatory and protective gesture of the spinster, otherwise somewhat ludicrous, as she leaned across the bed and cut off the sunshine.
On the morning of her mother's funeral, Hilda had gone to Hornsey Station to meet an uncle of Mrs. Lessways, who was coming down from Scotland by the night-train. She scarcely knew him, but he was to be recognizable by his hat and his muffler, and she was to await him at the ticket-gate. An entirely foolish and unnecessary arrangement, contrived by a peculiar old man: the only possible course was to accept it.
She had waited over half an hour, between eight and nine, and in that time she had had full opportunity to understand why those suburban stations had been built so large. A dark torrent of human beings, chiefly men, gathered out of all the streets of the vicinity, had dashed unceasingly into the enclosure and covered the long platforms with tramping feet. Every few minutes a train rolled in, as if from some inexhaustible magazine of trains beyond the horizon, and, sucking into itself a multitude and departing again, left one platform for one moment empty,—and the next moment the platform was once more filled by the quenchless stream. Less frequently, but still often, other trains thundered through the station on a line removed from platforms, and these trains too were crammed with dark human beings, frowning in study over white newspapers. For even in 1880 the descent upon London from the suburbs was a formidable phenomenon. Train after train fled downwards with its freight towards the hidden city, and the torrent still surged, more rapid than ever, through the narrow gullet of the station. It was like the flight of some enormous and excited population from a country menaced with disaster.
Borne on and buffeted by the torrent, Hilda had seen a well-dressed epileptic youth, in charge of an elderly woman, approaching the station. He had passed slowly close by her, as she modestly waited in her hasty mourning, and she had had a fearful vision of his idiotic greenish face supported somehow like a mask at the summit of that shaky structure of limbs. He had indeed stared at her with his apelike eyes. She had watched him, almost shuddering, till he was lost amid the heedless crowd within. Then, without waiting longer for her relative, without reflecting upon what she did, she had walked tremblingly back to the Cedars, checked by tributaries of the torrent at every street corner....
She had known nothing of the funeral. She had not had speech with the relative. She was in bed, somehow. The day had elapsed. And in the following night, when she was alone and quite awake, she had become aware that she, she herself, was that epileptic shape; that that epileptic shape was lying in her bed and that there was none other in the bed. Nor was this a fancy of madness! She knew that she was not mad, that she was utterly sane; and the conviction of sanity only intensified her awful discovery. She passed a trembling hand over her face, and felt the skin corrupt and green. Gazing into the darkness, she knew that her stare was apelike. She had felt, then, the fullest significance of horror. In the morning she had ceased to be the epileptic shape, but the risk of re-transformation had hovered near her, and the intimidation of it was such that she had wept, aghast and broken as much by the future as by the past. She had been discovered weeping....
Later, the phrase 'nervous breakdown' had lodged in her confused memory. The doctor had been very matter-of-fact, logical, and soothing. Overwork, strain, loss of sleep, the journey, anxiety, lack of food, the supreme shock, the obstinate refusal of youth to succumb, and then the sudden sight of the epileptic (with whom the doctor was acquainted): thus had run the medical reasoning, after a discreet but thorough cross-examination of her; and it had seemed so plausible and so convincing that the doctor's pride in it was plain on his optimistic face as he gave the command: "Absolute repose." But to Hilda the reasoning and the resultant phrase, 'nervous breakdown,' had meant nothing at all. Words! Empty words! She knew, profoundly and fatally, the evil principle which had conquered her so completely that she had no power left with which to fight it. This evil principle was Sin; it was not the force of sins, however multifarious; it was Sin itself. She was the Sinner, convicted and self-convicted. One of the last intelligent victims of a malady which has now almost passed away from the civilized earth, she existed in the chill and stricken desolation of incommutable doom.
She had sinned against her mother, and she could not make amends. The mere thought of her mother, so vivacious, cheerful, life-loving, even-tempered, charitable, disorderly, incompetent, foolish, and yet shrewd, caused pain of such intensity that it ceased to be pain. She ought to have seen her mother before she died; she might have seen her, had she done what was obviously her duty. It was inconceivable to her, now, that she should have hesitated to fly instantly to London on receipt of the telegram. But she had hesitated, and her mother had expired without having sight of her. All exculpatory arguments were futile against the fact itself. In vain she blamed the wording of the telegram! In vain she tried to reason that chance, and not herself, was the evil-doer! In vain she invoked the aid of simple common sense against sentimental fancy! In vain she went over the events of the afternoon preceding the death, in order to prove that at no moment had she been aware of not acting in accordance with her conscience! The whole of her conduct had been against her conscience, but pride and selfishness had made her deaf to conscience. She was the Sinner.
Her despair, except when at intervals she became the loathed epileptic shape, had been calm. Its symptoms had been, and remained, a complete lack of energy, and a most extraordinary black indifference to the surrounding world. Save in the deep centre of her soul, where she agonized, she seemed to have lost all capacity for emotion. Nothing moved her, or even interested her. She sat in the house, and ate a little, and talked a little, like an automaton. She walked about the streets like a bored exile, but an exile who has forgotten his home. Her spirit never responded to the stimulus of environment. Suggestions at once lost their tonic force in the woolly cushion of her apathy. If she continued to live, it was by inertia; to cease from life would have required an effort. She did not regret the vocation which she had abandoned; she felt no curiosity about the fortunes of the newspaper. A tragic nonchalance held her.
After several weeks she had naturally begun to think of religion; for the malady alone was proof enough that she had a profoundly religious nature. Miss Gailey could rarely go to church, but one Sunday morning— doubtless with intent—she asked Hilda if they should go together, and Hilda agreed. As they approached the large, high-spired church, Hilda had vague prickings of hope, and was thereby much astonished. But the service in no way responded to her expectations. "How silly I am!" she thought disdainfully. "This sort of thing has never moved me before. Why should it move me now?" The sermon, evangelical, was upon the Creed, and the preacher explained the emotional quality of real belief. It was a goodish sermon. But the preacher had effectually stopped the very last of those exquisite vague prickings of hope. Hilda agreed with his definition of real belief, and she knew that real belief was impossible for her. She could never say, with joyous fervour: "I believe!" At best she could only assert that she did not disbelieve—and was she so sure even of that? No! Belief had been denied to her; and to dream of consolation from religion was sentimentally womanish; even in her indifference she preferred straightforward, honest damnation to the soft self-deceptions of feminine religiosity. Ah! If she could have been a Roman Catholic, genuine and convinced—with what ardour would she have cast herself down before the confessional, and whispered her sinfulness to the mysterious face within; and with what ecstasy would she have received the absolution—that cleansing bath of the soul! Then—she could have recommenced!... But she was not a Roman Catholic. She could no more become a Roman Catholic than she could become the queen of some romantic Latin country of palaces and cathedrals. She was a young provincial girl staying in a boarding-house at Hornsey, on the Great Northern line out of London, and she was suffering from nervous breakdown. Such was the exterior common sense of the situation.
Occasionally the memory of some verse of Victor Hugo, sounding the beat of one of his vast melancholies, would float through her mind and cause it to vibrate for an instant with a mournful sensation that resembled pleasure.
"Are you thinking of getting up, dear?" asked Sarah Gailey, as she arranged more securely the contents of the tray and found space on it for her weekly books.
"Yes, I suppose I may as well," Hilda murmured. "It'll be lunch-time soon." The days were long, yet somehow they seemed short too. Already before getting up, she would begin to think of the evening and of going to bed; and Saturday night followed quickly on Monday morning. It was scarcely credible that sixteen weeks had passed, thus, since her mother's death,—sixteen weeks whose retrospect showed no achievement of any kind, and hardly a desire.
"I've given those Boutwoods notice," said Sarah Gailey suddenly, the tray in her hands ready to lift.
"They were shockingly late for breakfast again, this morning, both of them. And Mr. Boutwood had the face to ask for another egg. Hettie came and told me, so I went in myself. I told him breakfast was served in my house at nine o'clock, and there was a notice to that effect in the bedrooms, not to mention the dining-room. And as good a breakfast as they'd get in any of their hotels, I lay! If the eggs are cold at ten o'clock and after, that's not my fault. They're both of them perfectly healthy, and yet they're bone-idle. They never want to go to bed and they never want to get up. It isn't as if they went to theatres and got home late and so on. I could make excuses for that—now and then. No! It's just idleness and carelessness. And if you saw their bedroom! Oh, my! A nice example to servants! Well, he was very insulting—most insulting. He said he paid me to give him not what I wanted, but what he wanted! He said if I went into a shop, and they began to tell me what I ought to want and when I ought to want it, I should be annoyed. I said I didn't need anyone to tell me that, I said! And my house wasn't a shop. He said it was a shop, and if it wasn't, it ought to be! Can you imagine it?"
Hilda tried to exhibit a tepid sympathy. Miss Gailey's nostrils were twitching, and the tears stood in those watery eyes. She could manage the house. By the exertion of all her powers and her force she had made of herself an exceptionally efficient mistress. But she could not manage the boarders, because she had not sufficient imagination to put herself in their place. Presiding over all her secret thoughts was the axiom that the Cedars was a perfect machine, and that the least that a grateful boarder could do was to fit into the machine.
"And so you said they could go?"
"That I did! And I'll tell you another thing, my dear, I—"
There was a knock at the door. Sarah Gailey stopped in her confidences like a caught conspirator, and opened the door. Hettie stood on the mat—the Hettie who despite frequent protests would leave Hilda's toast to cool into leather on the landing somewhere between the kitchen and the bedroom. In Hettie's hand was a telegram, which Miss Gailey accepted.
"Here, take the tray, Hettie," said she, nervously tearing at the envelope. "Put these books in my desk," she added.
"And I wonder what he'll say!" she observed, staring absently at the opened telegram, after Hettie had gone.
"George. He says he'll be up here for lunch. He's bound to be vexed about the Boutwoods. But he doesn't understand. Men don't, you know! They don't understand the strain it is on you." The appeal of her eyes was strangely pathetic.
"I don't think I shall get up for lunch to-day."
Sarah Gailey moved to the bed, forgetting her own trouble.
"You aren't so well, then, after all!" she muttered, with mournful commiseration. "But, you know, he'll have to see you, this time. He wants to."
"Your affairs, I suppose. He says so. 'Coming lunch one. Must see Hilda.—George.'"
Sarah Gailey offered the telegram. But Hilda could not bear to take it. This telegram was the first she had set eyes on since the telegram handed to her by Florrie in George Cannon's office. The mere sight of the salmon-tinted paper agitated her. "Is it possible that I can be so silly?" she thought, "over a bit of paper!" But so it was.
On a previous visit of George Cannon's to Hornsey she had kept her bed throughout the day, afraid to meet him, ashamed to meet him, inexplicably convinced that to meet him would be a crime against filial piety. There were obscure grottoes in her soul which she had not had the courage to explore candidly.
"I think," said Sarah Gailey, reflective and anxious, "I think if you could get up, it would be nicer than him seeing you here in bed."
Hilda perceived that at last she would be compelled to face George Cannon.
CHAPTER II THE LITTLE ROOM
After lunch Sarah Gailey left Hilda and Mr. Cannon in 'the little room' together.
'The little room'—about eight feet square—had no other name; it was always spoken of affectionately by the boarders, and by the landlady with pride in its coziness. Situated on the first floor, over the front part of the hall, it lay between the two principal bedrooms. Old boarders would discover the little room to new boarders, or new boarders would discover it for themselves, with immense satisfaction. It was the chamber of intimacy and of confidences; it was a refuge from the public life of the Cedars, and, to a certain extent, from the piano. Two women, newly acquainted, and feeling a mutual attraction, would say to each other: "Shall we go up to the little room?" "Oh yes, do let us!" And they would climb the stairs in a fever of anticipation. "Quite the most charming room in the house, dear Miss Gailey!" another simpering spinster would say. Yet it contained nothing but an old carpet, two wicker arm-chairs, a small chair, a nearly empty dwarf bookcase, an engraving of Marie Antoinette regally facing the revolutionary mob, and a couple of photographs of the Cedars.
Hilda sat down in one of the arm-chairs, and George Cannon in the other; he had a small black bag which he placed on the floor by his side. Hilda's diffidence was extreme. Throughout lunch she had scarcely spoken; but as there had been eight people at the table, and George Cannon had chatted with all of them, her taciturnity had passed inconspicuous. Now she would be obliged to talk. And the sensations which she had experienced on first meeting George Cannon in the dining-room were renewed in a form even more acute.
She had, in the first place, the self-consciousness due to her mourning attire, which drew attention to herself; it might have been a compromising uniform; and the mere fact of her mother's death—quite apart from the question of her conduct in relation thereto—gave her, in an interview with a person whom she had not seen since before the death, a feeling akin to guiltiness—guiltiness of some misdemeanour of taste, some infraction of the social law against notoriety. She felt, in her mourning, like one who is being led publicly by policemen to the police-station. In her fancy she could hear people saying: "Look at that girl in deep mourning," and she could see herself blushing, as it were apologetic.
But much worse than this general mortification in presence of an acquaintance seen after a long interval was the special constraint due to the identity of the acquaintance. It was with George Cannon that she had first deceived and plotted against her ingenuous mother's hasty plans. It was her loyalty to George Cannon that had been the cause of her inexplicable disloyalty to her mother. She could not recall her peculiar and delicious agitations during the final moments of her previous interview with Cannon—that night of February in the newspaper office, while her mother was dying in London—without a profound unreasoning shame which intensified most painfully her natural grief as an orphan.
There was this to be said: she was now disturbed out of her torpid indifference to her environment. As she fidgeted there, pale and frowning, in the noisy basket-chair, beneath George Cannon's eyes, she actually perceived again that romantic quality of existence which had always so powerfully presented itself to her in the past. She reflected: "How strange that the dreaded scene has now actually begun! He has come to London, and here we are together, in this house, which at the beginning of the year was nothing but a name to me! And mother is away there in the churchyard, and I am in black! And it is all due to him. He sent Miss Gailey and mother to London. He willed it!... No! It is all due to me! I went to see him one late afternoon. I sought him out. He didn't seek me out. And just because I went to see him one afternoon, mother is dead, and I am here! Strange!" These reflections were dimly beautiful to her, even in her sadness and in her acute distress. The coma had assuredly passed, if only for a space.
"Well, now," he said, after a few inanities had been succeeded by an awkward pause. "I've got to talk business with you, so I suppose we may as well begin, eh?" His tone was fairly blithe, but it was that of a man who was throwing off with powerful ease the weariness of somewhat exasperating annoyances. Since lunch he had had a brief interview with Sarah Gailey.
"Yes," she agreed glumly.
"Have you decided what you're going to do?" He began to smile sympathetically as he spoke.
"I'm not going back to the paper," she curtly answered, cutting short the smile with fierceness, almost with ferocity. Beyond question she was rude in her bitterness. She asked herself: "Why do I talk like this? Why can't I talk naturally and gently and cheerfully? I've really got nothing against him." But she could not talk otherwise than she did talk. It was by this symptom of biting acrimony that her agitation showed itself. She knew that she was scowling as she looked at the opposite wall, but she could not smooth away the scowl.
"No, I suppose not," he said quietly. "But are you thinking of coming back to Turnhill?"
She remained mute for some seconds. A feeling of desolation came over her, and it seemed to her that she welcomed it, trying to intensify it, and yielding her features to it. "How do I know?" she muttered at length, shrugging her shoulders.
"Because if you aren't," he resumed, "it's no use you keeping that house of yours empty. You must remember it's just as you left it; and the things in it aren't taking any good, either."
She shrugged her shoulders again.
"I don't see that it matters to anybody but me," she said, after another pause, with a sort of frigid and disdainful nonchalance. And once more she reflected: "Is it possible that I can behave so odiously?"
He stood up suddenly.
"I don't know what you and Sarah have been plotting together," he said, wounded and contemptuous, yet with lightness. "But I'm sure I don't want to interfere in your affairs. With Sarah's I've got to interfere, unfortunately, and a famous time I'm having!" His nostrils grew fastidious. "But not yours! I only promised your uncle.... Your uncle told me you wanted me to—" He broke off.
In an instant she grew confused, alarmed, and extremely ashamed. Her mood had changed in a flash. It seemed to her that she was in presence of a disgraceful disaster, which she herself had brought about by wicked and irresponsible temerity. She was like a child who, having naughtily trifled with danger, stands aghast at the calamity which his perverseness has caused. She was positively affrighted. She reflected in her terror: "I asked for this, and I've got it!"
George Cannon stooped and picked up his little bag. There he towered, high and massive, above her! And she felt acutely her slightness, her girlishness, and her need of his help. She could not afford to transform sympathy into antipathy. She was alone in the world. Never before had she realized, as she realized then, the lurking terror of her loneliness. The moment was critical. In another moment he might be gone from the room, and she left solitary to irremediable humiliation and self-disgust.
"Please!" she whispered appealingly. The whole of her being became an appeal—the glance, the gesture, the curve of the slim and fragile body. She was like a slave. She had no pride, no secret reserve of thought. She was an instinct. Tears showed in her eyes and affected her voice.
He gave the twisted, difficult, rather foolish smile of one who is cursing the mortification of a predicament into which he has been cast through no fault of his own.
"Please sit down."
He waved a hand, deprecatingly, and obeyed.
"It's all right," he said. "All right! I ought to have known—" Then he smiled generously.
"Known what?" Her voice was now weak and liquid with woe.
"You'd be likely to be upset."
Not furtively, but openly, she wiped her eyes.
"No, no!" she protested honestly. "It's not that. It's—but—I'm very sorry."
"I reckon I know a bit what worry is, myself!" he added, with a brief, almost harsh, laugh.
These strange words struck her with pity.
"Well, now,"—he seemed to be beginning again—let's leave Lessways Street for a minute.... I can sell the Calder Street property for you, if you like. And at a pretty good price. Sooner or later the town will have to buy up all that side of the street. You remember I told your mother last year but one I could get a customer for it? but she wasn't having any."
"Yes," said Hilda eagerly; "I remember."
In her heart she apologized to George Cannon, once more, for having allowed her mother to persuade her, even for a day, that that attempt to buy was merely a trick on his part invented to open negotiations for the rent-collecting.
"You know what the net rents are," he went on, "as you've had 'em every month. I dare say the purchase money if it's carefully invested will bring you in as much. But even if it doesn't bring in quite as much, you mustn't forget that Calder Street's going down—it's getting more and more of a slum. And there'll always be a lot of bother with tenants of that class."
"I wish I could sell everything—everything!" she exclaimed passionately. "Lessways Street as well! Then I should be absolutely free!"
"You can!" he said, with dramatic emphasis. "And let me tell you that ten years hence those Lessways Street houses won't be worth what they are now!"
"Is that property going down, too?" she asked. "I thought they were building all round there."
"So they are," he answered. "But cheap cottages. Your houses are too good for that part of the town; that's what's the matter with them. People who can afford L25 a year—and over—for rent won't care to live there much longer. You know the end house is empty."
All houses seemed to her to be a singularly insecure and even perilous form of property. And the sale of everything she possessed presented itself to her fancy as a transaction which would enfranchise her from the past. It symbolized the starting-point of a new life, of a recommencement unhampered by the vestiges of grief and error. She could go anywhere, do what she chose. The entire world would lie before her.
"Please do sell it all for me!" she pleaded wistfully. "Supposing you could, about how much should I have—I mean income?"
He glanced about, and then, taking a pencil from his waistcoat pocket, scribbled a few figures on his cuff.
"Quite three pounds a week," he said.
After a perfunctory discussion, which was somewhat self-consciously prolonged by both of them in order to avoid an appearance of hastiness in an important decision, George Cannon opened his black bag and then looked round for ink. The little room, having no table, had no inkpot, and the lawyer took from his pocket an Eagle indelible pencil—the fountain-pen of those simple days. It needed some adjustment; he stepped closer to the window, and held the pointed end of the case up to the light, while screwing the lower end; he was very fastidious in these mechanical details of his vocation. Hilda watched him from behind, with an intentness that fascinated herself.
"And how's the Chronicle getting on?" she asked, in a tone of friendly curiosity which gave an exaggerated impression of her actual feeling. She was more and more ashamed that during lunch she had not troubled to put a question about the paper. She was even ashamed of her social indifference. That Sarah Gailey, narrow and preoccupied, should be indifferent, should never once in three months have referred to her brother's organ, was not surprising; but it was monstrous that she, Hilda, the secretary, the priestess, should share this uncivil apathy; and it was unjust to mark the newspaper, as somehow she had been doing, with the stigma of her mother's death. She actually began to characterize her recent mental attitude to her past life as morbid.
"Oh!" he murmured absently, with gloomy hesitation, as he manipulated the pencil.
She went on still more persuasively:
"I suppose you've got a new secretary?"
"No," he said, as though it fatigued and annoyed him to dwell on the subject. "I told 'em they must manage without.... It's no fun starting a new paper in a God-forsaken hole like the Five Towns, I can tell you."
Plainly his high exuberant hopes had been dashed, had perhaps been destroyed.
She did not reply. She could not. She became suddenly sad with sympathy, and this sadness was beautiful to her. Already, when he was scribbling on it, she had noticed that his wristband was frayed. Now, silhouetted against the window, the edge of the wristband caught her attention again, and grew strangely significant. This man was passing through adversity! It seemed tragic and shocking to her that he should have to pass through adversity, that he could not remain for ever triumphant, brilliant, cocksure in all his grand schemes, and masculinely scathless. It seemed wrong to her that he should suffer, and desirable that anybody should suffer rather than he. George Cannon with faulty linen! By what error of destiny had this heart-rending phenomenon of discord been caused? (Yes, heart-rending!) Was it due to weary carelessness, or to actual, horrible financial straits? Either explanation was very painful to her. She had a vision of a whole sisterhood of women toiling amid steam and soapsuds in secret, and in secret denying themselves, to provide him with all that he lacked, so that he might always emerge into the world unblemished and glitteringly perfect. She would have sacrificed the happiness of multitudes to her sense of fitness.
There being no table, George Cannon removed a grotesque ornament from the dwarf bookcase, and used the top of the bookcase as a writing-board. Hilda was called upon to sign two papers. He explained exactly what these papers were, but she did not understand, nor did she desire to understand. One was an informal sale-note and the other was an authority; but which was which, and to what each had reference, she superbly and wilfully ignored. She could, by a religious effort of volition, make of herself an excellent clerk, eagerly imitative and mechanical, but she had an instinctive antipathy to the higher forms of business. Moreover, she wanted to trust herself to him, if only as a mystic reparation of her odious rudeness at the beginning of the interview. And she thought also: "These transactions will result in profit to him. It is by such transactions that he lives. I am helping him in his adversity."
When he gave her the Eagle pencil, and pointed to the places where she was to sign, she took the pencil with fervour, more and more anxious to atone to him. For a moment she stood bewildered, in a dream, staring at the scratched mahogany top of the bookcase. And the bookcase seemed to her to be something sentient, patient, and helpful, that had always been waiting there in the corner to aid George Cannon in this crisis—something human like herself. She loved the bookcase, and the Eagle pencil, and the papers, and the pattern on the wall. George Cannon was standing behind her. She felt his presence like a delicious danger. She signed the papers, in that large scrawling hand which for a few brief weeks she had by force cramped down to the submissive caligraphy of a clerk. As she signed, she saw the name "Karkeek" in the midst of one of the documents, and remembered, with joyous nonchalance, that George Cannon's own name never appeared in George Cannon's affairs.
He took her place in front of the little bookcase, and folded the documents. There he was, beside her, in all his masculinity—his moustache, his blue chin, his wide white hands, his broadcloth—there he was planted on his massive feet as on a pedestal! She did not see him; she was aware of him. And she was aware of the closed door behind them. One of the basket-chairs, though empty, continued to creak, like a thing alive. Faintly, very faintly, she could hear the piano—Mrs. Boutwood playing! Overhead were the footsteps of Sarah Gailey and Hettie—they were checking the linen from the laundry, as usual on Saturday afternoon. And she was aware of herself, thin, throbbing, fragile, mournful, somehow insignificant!
He looked round at her, with a half-turn of the head. In his glance was good humour, good nature, protectiveness, and rectitude; and, more than these, some of the old serenely smiling triumphant quality. He was not ruined! He was not really in adversity! He remained the conqueror! She thrilled with her relief.
"You're in my hands now—no mistake!" he murmured roguishly, picking up the documents, and bending over the bag.
Hilda could hear a heavy footstep on the stairs, ascending.
In the same instant she had an extraordinary and disconcerting impulse to seize his hand—she knew not why, whether it was to thank him, to express her sympathy, or to express her submission. She struggled against this impulse, but the impulse was part of herself and of her inmost self; She was afraid, but her fear was pleasurable. She was ashamed, but her shame was pleasurable. She wanted to move away from where she stood. She thought: "If only I willed to move away, I could move away. But, no! I shall not will it. I like remaining just here, in this fear, this shame, and this agitation." She had a clear, dazzling perception of the splendour and the fineness of sin; but she did not know what sin! And all the time the muscles of her arm were tense in the combat between the weakening desire to keep her arms still and the growing desire to let her hand seize the hand of George Cannon. And all the time the heavy footstep was ascending the interminable staircase. And all the time George Cannon, with averted head, was fumbling in the bag. And then, in a flash, she was really afraid; the fear was no longer pleasurable, and her shame had become a curse. She said to herself: "I cannot move, now. In a minute I shall do this horrible thing. Nothing can save me." Despairing, she found a dark and tumultuous joy in despair. The trance endured for ages, while disaster approached nearer and nearer.
Then, after the heavy footstep had been climbing the staircase since earth began, the door was brusquely opened, and the jovial fat face of Mr. Boutwood appeared, letting in the louder sound of the piano.
"Oh, I beg pardon!" he muttered, pretending that he had assumed the little room to be empty. The fact was that he was in search of George Cannon, in whom he had recognized a fraternal spirit.
"Come in, Mr. Boutwood," said Hilda, with an easy, disdainful calm which absolutely astounded herself. "That's all, then?" she added, to George Cannon, glancing at him indifferently. She departed without waiting for an answer.
Putting on a bonnet, and taking an umbrella to occupy her hands, she went out into the remedial freedom of the streets. And after turning the first corner she saw coming towards her the figure of a woman whom she seemed to know, elegant, even stately, in youthful grace. It was Janet Orgreave, wearing a fashionable fawn-coloured summer costume. As they recognized each other the girls blushed slightly. Janet hastened forward. Hilda stood still. She was amazed at the chance which had sent her two unexpected visitors in the same day. They shook hands and kissed.
"So I've found you!" said Janet. "How are you, you poor dear? Why didn't you answer my letter?"
"Letter?" Hilda repeated, wondering. Then she remembered that she had indeed received a letter from Janet, but in her comatose dejection had neglected to answer it.
"I'm up in London with father for the weekend. We want you to come with us to the Abbey to-morrow. And you must come back with us to Bursley on Monday. You must! We're quite set on it. I've left father all alone this afternoon, to come up here and find you out. Not that he minds! What a way it is! But how are you, Hilda?"
Hilda was so touched by Janet's affectionate solicitude that her eyes filled with tears. She looked at that radiating and innocent goodness, and thought: "How different I am from her! She hasn't the least idea how different I am!"
For a moment, Janet seemed to her to be a sort of angel—modish, but exquisitely genuine. She saw in the invitation to the Five Towns a miraculous defence against a peril the prospect of which was already alarming her. She would be compelled to go to Turnhill in order to visit Lessways Street and decide what of her mother's goods she must keep. She would of course take Janet with her. In all the Turnhill affairs Janet should accompany her. Her new life should begin under the protection of Janet's society. And her heart turned from the old life towards the new with hope and a vague brightening expectation of happiness.
At the Cedars she led Janet to her bedroom, and then came out of the bedroom to bid good-bye to George Cannon. The extreme complexity of existence and of her sensations baffled and intimidated her.
CHAPTER III JOURNEY TO BLEAKRIDGE
Hilda and Janet were mounting the precipitous Sytch Bank together on their way from Turnhill into Bursley. It was dark; they had missed one train at Turnhill and had preferred not to wait for the next. Although they had been very busy in Hilda's house throughout all the afternoon and a part of the evening, and had eaten only a picnic meal, neither of them was aware of fatigue, and the two miles to Bursley seemed a trifle.
Going slowly up the steep slope, they did not converse. Janet said that the weather was changing, and Hilda, without replying, peered at the black baffling sky. The air had, almost suddenly, grown warmer. Above, in the regions unseen, mysterious activities were in movement, as if marshalling vast forces. The stars had vanished. A gentle but equivocal wind on the cheek presaged rain, and seemed to be bearing downwards into the homeliness of the earth some strange vibration out of infinite space. The primeval elements of the summer night encouraged and intensified Hilda's mood, half joyous, half apprehensive. She thought: "A few days ago, I was in Hornsey, with the prospect of the visit to Turnhill before me. Now the visit is behind me. I said that Janet should be my companion, and she has been my companion. I said that I would cut myself free, and I have cut myself free. I need never go to Turnhill again, unless I like. The two trunks will be sent for to-morrow; and all the rest will be sold—even the clock. The thing is done. I have absolute liberty, and an income, and the intimacy of this splendid affectionate Janet.... How fortunate it was that Mr. Cannon was not at his office when we called! Of course I was obliged to call.... And yet would it not be more satisfactory if I had seen him?... I must have been in a horribly morbid state up at Hornsey.... Soon I must decide about my future. Soon I shall actually have decided!... Life is very queer!" She had as yet no notion whatever of what she would do with her liberty and her income and the future; but she thought vaguely of something heroic, grandiose, and unusual.
In her hand she carried a small shabby book, bound in blue and gold, with gilt edges a little irregular. She had found this book while sorting out the multitudinous contents of her mother's wardrobe, and at the last moment, perceiving that it had been overlooked, and being somehow ashamed to leave it to the auctioneers, she had brought it away, not knowing how she would ultimately dispose of it. The book had possibly been dear to her mother, but she could not embarrass her freedom by conserving everything that had possibly been dear to her mother. It was entitled The Girl's Week-day Book, by Mrs. Copley, and it had been published by the Religious Tract Society, no doubt in her mother's girlhood. The frontispiece, a steel engraving, showed a group of girls feeding some swans by the terraced margin of an ornamental water, and it bore the legend, "Feeding the Swans." And on the title- page was the text: "That our daughters may be as corner-stones, polished after the similitude of a palace. Psalm cxliv. 12." In the table of contents were such phrases as: "One thing at a time. Darkness and Light. Respect for Ministers. The Drowning Fly. Trifling with words of Scripture. Goose and Swan. Delicate Health. Conscientious Regard to Truth. Sensibility and Gentleness contrasted with Affectation. Curiosity and Tattling. Instability of Worldly Possessions." A book representing, for Hilda, all that was most grotesque in an age that was now definitely finished and closed! A silly book!
During the picnic meal she had idly read extracts from it to Janet, amusing sentences; and though the book had once been held sacred by her who was dead, and though they were engaged in stirring the scarce-cold ashes of a tragedy, the girls had nevertheless permitted themselves a kindly, moderate mirth. Hilda had quoted from a conversation in it: "Well, I would rather sit quietly round this cheerful fire, and talk with dear mamma, than go to the grandest ball that ever was known!" and Janet had plumply commented: "What a dreadful lie!" And then they had both laughed openly, perhaps to relieve the spiritual tension caused by the day's task and the surroundings. After that, Hilda had continued to dip into the book, but silently. And Janet had imagined that Hilda was merely bored by the monotonous absurdity of the sentiments expressed.
Janet was wrong. Hilda had read the following: "One word more. Do not rest in your religious impressions. You have, perhaps, been the subject of terror on account of sin; your mind has been solemnized by some event in Providence; by an alarming fit of sickness, or the death of a relative, or a companion.... This is indeed to be reckoned a great mercy; but then the danger is, lest you should rest here; lest those tears, and terrors, and resolutions, should be the only evidences on which you venture to conclude on the safety of your immortal state. What is your present condition?..."
Which words intimidated Hilda in spite of herself. In vain she repeated that the book was a silly book. She really believed that it was silly, but she knew also that there was an aspect of it which was not silly. She was reminded by it that she had found no solution of the problem which had distracted her in Hornsey. 'What is your present condition?' Her present condition was still that of a weakling and a coward who had sunk down inertly before the great problem of sin. And now, in the growing strength of her moral convalescence, she was raising her eyes again to meet the problem. Her future seemed to be bound up with the problem. As she breasted the top of the Sytch under the invisible lowering clouds, with her new, adored friend by her side, and the despised but powerful book in her hand, she mused in an ambiguous reverie upon her situation, dogged by the problem which alone was accompanying her out of the past into the future. Her reverie was shot through by piercing needles of regret for her mother; and even with the touch of Janet's arm against her own in the darkness she had sharp realizations of her extreme solitude in the world. Withal, the sense of life was precious and beautiful. She was not happy; but she was filled with the mysterious vital elation which surpasses happiness.
They descended gently into Bursley, crossing the top of St. Luke's Square and turning eastwards into Market Square, ruled by the sombre and massive Town Hall in whose high tower an illuminated dial shone like a topaz. To Hilda, this nocturnal entry into Bursley had the romance of an entry into a town friendly but strange and recondite. During the few days of her stay with the Orgreaves in the suburb of Bleakridge, she had scarcely gone into the town once. She had never seen it at night. In the old Turnhill days she had come over to Bursley occasionally with her mother; but to shoppers from Turnhill, Bursley meant St. Luke's Square and not a yard beyond.
Now the girls arrived at the commencement of the steam-car track, where a huge engine and tram were waiting, and as they turned another corner, the long perspective of Trafalgar Road, rising with its double row of lamps towards fashionable Bleakridge, was revealed to Hilda. She thought, naturally, that every other part of the Five Towns was more impressive and more important than the poor little outskirt, Turnhill, of her birth. In Turnhill there was no thoroughfare to compare with Trafalgar Road, and no fashionable suburb whatever. She had almost the feeling of being in a metropolis, if a local metropolis.
"It's beginning to rain, I think," said Janet.
"Who's that?" Hilda questioned abruptly, ignoring the remark in the swift, unreflecting excitement of a sensibility surprised.
They were going down Duck Bank into the hollow. On the right, opposite the lighted Dragon Hotel, lay Duck Square in obscure somnolence; at the corner of Duck Square and Trafalgar Road was a double-fronted shop, of which all the shutters were up except two or three in the centre of the doorway. Framed thus in the aperture, a young man stood within the shop under a bright central gas-jet; he was gazing intently at a large sheet of paper which he held in his outstretched hands, and the girls saw him in profile: tall, rather lanky, fair, with hair dishevelled, and a serious, studious, and magnanimous face; quite unconscious that he made a picture for unseen observers.
"That?" said Janet, in a confidential and interested tone. "That's young Clayhanger—Edwin Clayhanger. His father's the printer, you know. Came from Turnhill, originally."
"I never knew," said Hilda. "But I seem to have heard the name."
"Oh! It must have been a long time ago. He's got the best business in Bursley now. Father says it's one of the best in the Five Towns. He's built that new house just close to ours. Don't you remember I pointed it out to you? Father's the architect. They're going to move into it next week or the week after. I expect that's why the son and heir's working so late to-night, packing and so on, perhaps."
The young man moved out of sight. But his face had made in those few thrilling seconds a deep impression on Hilda; so that in her mind she still saw it, with an almost physical particularity of detail. It presented itself to her, in some mysterious way, as a romantic visage, wistful, full of sad subtleties, of the unknown and the seductive, and of a latent benevolence. It was as recondite and as sympathetic as the town in which she had discovered it.
She said nothing.
"Old Mr. Clayhanger is a regular character," Janet eagerly went on, to Hilda's great content. "Some people don't like him. But I rather do like him." She was always thus kind. "Grandmother once told me he sprang from simply nothing at all—worked on a potbank when he was quite a child."
"Who? The father, you mean?"
"Yes, the father. Now, goodness knows how much he isn't worth I Father is always saying he could buy us up, lock, stock, and barrel." Janet laughed. "People often call him a miser, but he can't be so much of a miser, seeing that he's built this new house."
"And I suppose the son's in the business?"
"Yes. He wanted to be an architect. That was how father got to know him. But old Mr. Clayhanger wouldn't have it. And so he's a printer, and one day he'll be one of the principal men in the town."
"Oh! So you know him?"
"Well, we do and we don't. I go into the shop sometimes; and then I've seen him once or twice up at the new house. We've asked him to come in and see us. But he's never come, and I don't think he ever will. I believe his father does keep him grinding away rather hard. I'm sure he's frightfully clever."
"How can you tell?"
"Oh! From bits of things he says. And he's read everything, it seems! And once he saved a great heavy printing-machine from going through the floor of the printing-shop into the basement. If it hadn't been for him there'd have been a dreadful accident. Everybody was talking about that. He doesn't look it, does he?"
They were now passing the corner at which stood the shop. Hilda peered within the narrowing, unshuttered slit, but she could see no more of Edwin Clayhanger.
"No, he doesn't," she agreed, while thinking nevertheless that he did look precisely that. "And so he lives all alone with his father. No mother?"
"No mother. But there are two sisters. The youngest is married, and just going to have a baby, poor thing! The other one keeps house. I believe she's a splendid girl, but neither of them is a bit like Edwin. Not a bit. He's—"
"I don't know. Look here, miss! What about this rain? I vote we take the car up the hill."
The steam-car was rumbling after them down Duck Bank. It stopped, huge above them, and they climbed into it through an odour of warm grease that trailed from the engine. The conductor touched his hat to Janet, who smiled like a sister upon this fellow-being. Two middle-aged men were the only other occupants of the interior of the car; both raised their hats to Janet. The girls sat down in opposite corners next to the door. Then, with a deafening continuous clatter of loose glass-panes and throbbing of its filthy floor, the vehicle started again, elephantine. It was impossible to talk in that unique din. Hilda had no desire to talk. She watched Janet pay the fares as in a dream, without even offering her own penny, though as a rule she was touchily punctilious in sharing expenses with the sumptuous Janet. Without being in the least aware of it, and quite innocently, Janet had painted a picture of the young man, Edwin Clayhanger, which intensified a hundredfold the strong romantic piquancy of Hilda's brief vision of him. In an instant Hilda saw her ideal future—that future which had loomed grandiose, indefinite, and strange—she saw it quite precise and simple as the wife of such a creature as Edwin Clayhanger. The change was astounding in its abruptness. She saw all the delightful and pure vistas of love with a man, subtle, baffling, and benevolent, and above all superior; with a man who would be respected by a whole town as a pillar of society, while bringing to his intimacy with herself an exotic and wistful quality which neither she nor anyone could possibly define. She asked: "What attracts me in him? I don't know. I like him." She who had never spoken to him! She who never before had vividly seen herself as married to a man! He was clever; he was sincere; he was kind; he was trustworthy; he would have wealth and importance and reputation. All this was good; but all this would have been indifferent to her, had there not been an enigmatic and inscrutable and unprecedented something in his face, in his bearing, which challenged and inflamed her imagination.
It did not occur to her to think of Janet as in the future a married woman. But of herself she thought, with new agitations: "I am innocent now! I am ignorant now! I am a girl now! But one day I shall be so no longer. One day I shall be a woman. One day I shall be in the power and possession of some man—if not this man, then some other. Everything happens; and this will happen!" And the hazardous strangeness of life enchanted her.
CHAPTER IV WITH THE ORGREAVES
The Orgreave family was holding its nightly session in the large drawing-room of Lane End House when Hilda and Janet arrived. The bow-window stood generously open in three different places, and the heavy outer curtains as well as the lace inner ones were moving gently in the capricious breeze that came across the oval lawn. The multitudinous sound of rain on leaves entered also with the wind; and a steam-car could be heard thundering down Trafalgar Road, from which the house was separated by only a few intervening minor roofs.
Mrs. Orgreave, the plump, faded image of goodness, with Janet's full red lips and Janet's kindly eyes, sat as usual, whether in winter or in summer, near the fireplace, surveying with placidity the theatre where the innumerable dramas of her motherhood had been enacted. Tom, her eldest, the thin, spectacled lawyer, had, as a boy of seven, rampaged on that identical Turkey hearthrug, when it was new, a quarter of a century earlier. He was now seated at the grand piano with the youngest child, Alicia, a gawky little treasure, always alternating between pertness and timidity, aged twelve. Jimmie and Johnnie, young bloods of nineteen and eighteen, were only present in their mother's heart, being in process of establishing, by practice, the right to go forth into the world of an evening and return when they chose without suffering too much from family curiosity. Two other children—Marian, eldest daughter and sole furnisher of grandchildren to the family, and Charlie, a young doctor— were permanently away in London. Osmond Orgreave, the elegant and faintly mocking father of the brood, a handsome grizzled man of between fifty and sixty, was walking to and fro between the grand piano and the small upright piano in the farther half of the room.
"Well, my dear?" said Mrs. Orgreave to Hilda. "You aren't wet?" She drew Hilda towards her and stroked her shoulder, and then kissed her. The embrace was to convey the mother's sympathy with Hilda in the ordeal of the visit to Turnhill, and her satisfaction that the ordeal was now over. The ageing lady seemed to kiss her on behalf of the entire friendly family; all the others, appreciating the delicacy of the situation, refrained from the peril of clumsy speech.
"Oh no, mother!" Janet exclaimed reassuringly. "We came up by car. And I had my umbrella. And it only began to rain in earnest just as we got to the gate."
"Very thoughtful of it, I'm sure!" piped the pig-tailed Alicia from the piano. She could talk, in her pert moments, exactly like her brothers.
"Alicia, darling," said Janet coaxingly, as she sat on the sofa flanked by the hat, gloves, and jacket which she had just taken off, "will you run upstairs with these things, and take Hilda's too? I'm quite exhausted. Father will swoon if I leave them here. I suppose he's walking about because he's so proud of his new birthday slippers."
"But I'm just playing the symphony with Tom!" Alicia protested.
"I'll run up—I was just going to," said Hilda.
"You'll do no such thing!" Mrs. Orgreave announced, sharply. "Alicia, I'm surprised at you! Here Janet and Hilda have been out since noon, and you—"
"And so on and so on," said Alicia, jumping up from the piano in obedience.
"We didn't wait supper," Mrs. Orgreave went on. "But I told Martha to leave—"
"Mother, dearest," Janet stopped her. "Please don't mention food. We've stuffed ourselves, haven't we, Hilda? Anyone been?"
"Swetnam," said Alicia, as she left the room with her arms full.
"Mr. Swetnam," corrected Mrs. Orgreave.
"Which one? The Ineffable?"
"The Ineffable," replied Mr. Orgreave, who had wandered, smiling enigmatically, to the sofa. His legs, like the whole of his person, had a distinguished air; and he held up first one slippered foot and then the other to the silent, sham-ecstatic inspection of the girls. "He may look in again, later on. It's evidently Hilda he wants to see." This said, Mr. Orgreave lazily sank into an easy chair, opposite the sofa, and lighted a cigarette. He was one of the most industrious men in the Five Towns, and assuredly the most industrious architect; but into an idle hour he could pack more indolence than even Johnnie and Jimmie, alleged wastrels, could accomplish in a week.
"I say, Janet," Tom sang out from the piano, "you aren't really exhausted, are you?"
"I'm getting better."
"Well, let's dash through the scherzo before the infant comes back. She can't take it half fast enough."
"And do you think I can?" said Janet, rising. In theory, Janet was not a pianist, and she never played solos, nor accompanied songs; but in the actual practice of duet-playing her sympathetic presence of mind at difficult crises of the music caused her to be esteemed by Tom, the expert and enthusiast, as superior to all other performers in the family.
Hilda listened with pleasure and with exaltation to the scherzo. Beyond a little part-singing at school she had no practical acquaintance with music; there had never been a piano at home. But she knew that this music was Beethoven's; and from the mere intonation of that name, as it was uttered in her presence in the house of the Orgreaves, she was aware of its greatness, and the religious faculty in her had enabled her at once to accept its supremacy as an article of genuine belief; so that, though she understood it not, she felt it, and was uplifted by it. Whenever she heard Beethoven—and she heard it often, because Tom, in the words of the family, had for the moment got Beethoven on the brain—her thoughts and her aspirations were ennobled.
She was singularly content with this existence amid the intimacy of the Orgreaves. The largeness and prodigality and culture of the family life, so different from anything she had ever known, and in particular so different from the desolating atmosphere of the Cedars, soothed and flattered her in a manner subtly agreeable. At the same time she was but little irked by it, for the reason that her spirit was not one to be unduly affected by exterior social, intellectual, and physical conditions. Moreover, the Orgreaves, though obviously of a class superior to her own, had the facile and yet aristocratic unceremoniousness which, unconsciously, repudiates such distinctions until circumstances arise that compel their acknowledgment. To live among the Orgreaves was like living in a small private republic that throbbed with a hundred activities and interests. Each member of it was a centre of various energy. And from each, Hilda drew something that was precious: from Mrs. Orgreave, sheer love and calm wisdom; from Janet, sheer love and the spectacle of elegance; from little Alicia candour and admiration; from Tom, knowledge, artistic enthusiasm, and shy, curt sympathy; from Johnnie and Jimmie the homage of their proud and naive mannishness: as for Mr. Orgreave, she admired him perhaps as much as she admired even Janet, and once when he and she had taken a walk together up to Toft End, she had thought him quite exquisite in his attitude to her, quizzical, worldly, and yet sensitively understanding and humane. And withal they never worried her by interferences and criticisms; they never presumed on their hospitality, but left her as free as though her age had been twice what it was. Undoubtedly, in the ardour of her gratitude she idealized every one of them. The sole reproach which in secret she would formulate against them had reference to their quasi- cynical levity in conversation. They would never treat a serious topic seriously for more than a few minutes. Either one or another would yield to the temptation of clever facetiousness, and clever facetiousness would always carry off the honours in a discussion. This did not apply to Mrs. Orgreave, who was incapable of humour; but it applied a little even to Janet.
The thought continually arising in Hilda's mind was: "Why do they care for me? What can they see in me? Why are they so good to me? I was never good to them." She did not guess that, at her very first visit to Lane End House, the force and mystery of her character had powerfully attracted these rather experienced amateurs of human nature. She was unaware that she had made her mark upon Janet and Charlie so far back as the days of the dancing-classes. And she under-estimated the appeal of her situation as an orphan and a solitary whose mother's death, in its swiftness, had amounted to a tragedy.
The scherzo was finished, and Alicia had not returned into the drawing-room. The two pianists sat hesitant.
"Where is that infant?" Tom demanded. "If I finish it all without her she'll be vexed."
"I can tell you where she ought to be," said Mrs. Orgreave placidly. "She ought to be in bed. No wonder she looks pale, stopping up till this time of night!"
Then there were unusual and startling movements behind the door, accompanied by giggling. And Alicia entered, followed by Charlie—Charlie who was supposed at that precise instant to be in London!
"Hello, mater!" said the curly-headed Charlie, with a sublime affectation of calmness, as though he had slipped out of the next room. He produced an effect fully equal to his desires.
In a little while, Charlie, on the sofa, was seated at a small table covered with viands and fruit; the white cloth spread on the table made a curiously charming patch amid the sombre colours of the drawing-room. He had protested that, having consumed much food en route, he was not hungry; but in vain. Mrs. Orgreave demolished such arguments by the power of her notorious theory, which admitted no exceptions, that any person coming off an express train must be in need of sustenance. The odd thing was that all the others discovered mysterious appetites and began to eat and drink with gusto, sitting, standing, or walking about, while Charlie, munching, related how he had miraculously got three days' leave from the hospital, and how he had impulsively 'cabbed it' to Euston, and how, having arrived at Knype, he had also 'cabbed it' from Knype to Bleakridge instead of waiting for the Loop Line train. The blot on his advent, in the eyes of Mrs. Orgreave, was that he had no fresh news of Marian and her children.
"You don't seem very surprised to find Hilda here," said Alicia.
"It's not my business to be surprised at anything, kid," Charlie retorted, smiling at Hilda, who sat beside him on the sofa. "Moreover, don't I get ten columns of news every three days? I know far more about this town than you do, I bet!"
Everybody laughed at Mrs. Orgreave, the great letter-writer and universal disseminator of information.
"Now, Alicia, you must go to bed," said Mrs. Orgreave. And Alicia regretted that she had been so indiscreet as to draw attention to herself.
"The kid can stay up if she will say her piece," said Charlie mockingly. He knew that he could play the autocrat, for that evening at any rate.
"What piece?" the child demanded, blushing and defiant.
"Her 'Abou Ben Adhem,'" said Charlie. "Do you think I don't know all about that too?"
"Oh, mother, you are a bore!" Alicia exclaimed, pouting. "Why did you tell him that?... Well, I'll say it if Hilda will recite something as well."
"Me!" murmured Hilda, staggered. "I never recite!"
"I've always understood you recite beautifully," said Mrs. Orgreave.
"You know you do, Hilda!" said Janet.
"Of course you do," said Charlie.
"You've never heard me, anyhow!" she replied to him obstinately. How could they have got it fixed into their heads that she was a reciter? This renown was most disconcerting.
"Now, Hilda!" Mr. Orgreave soothingly admonished her from the back of the sofa. She turned her head and looked up at him, smiling in her distress.
"Go ahead, then, kid! It's agreed," said Charlie.
And Alicia galloped through Leigh Hunt's moral poem, which she was preparing for an imminent speech-day, in an extraordinarily short space of time.
"But I can't remember anything. I haven't recited for years and years," Hilda pleaded, when the child burst out, "Now, Hilda!"
"Stuff!" Charlie pronounced.
"Some Tennyson?" Mrs. Orgreave suggested. "Don't you know any Tennyson? We must have something, now." And Alicia, exulting in the fact that she had paid the penalty imposed, cried that there could be no drawing back.
Hilda was lost. Mrs. Orgreave's tone, with all its softness, was a command. "Tennyson? I've forgotten 'Maud,'" she muttered.
"I'll prompt you," said Charlie. "Thomas!"
Everybody looked at Tom, expert in literature as well as in music; Tom, the collector, the owner of books and bookcases. Tom went to a bookcase and drew forth a green volume, familiar and sacred throughout all England.
"Oh dear!" Hilda moaned.
"Where do you mean to begin?" Charlie sternly inquired. "It just happens that I'm reading 'In Memoriam,' myself. I read ten stanzas a day."
Hilda bent over the book with him.
"But I must stand up," she said, with sudden fire. "I can't recite sitting down."
They all cried "Bravo!" and made a circle for her. And she stood up.
The utterance of the first lines was a martyrdom for her. But after that she surrendered herself frankly to the mood of the poem and forgot to suffer shame, speaking in a loud, clear, dramatic voice which she accompanied by glances and even by gestures. After about thirty lines she stopped, and, regaining her ordinary senses, perceived that the entire family was staring at her with an extreme intentness.
"I can't do any more," she murmured weakly, and dropped on to the sofa.
Everybody clapped very heartily.
"It's wonderful!" said Janet in a low tone.
"I should just say it was!" said Tom seriously, and Hilda was saturated with delicious joy.
"You ought to go on the stage; that's what you ought to do!" said Charlie.
For a fraction of a second, Hilda dreamt of the stage, and then Mrs. Orgreave said softly, like a mother:
"I'm quite sure Hilda would never dream of any such thing!"
There was an irruption of Jimmie and Johnnie, and three of the Swetnam brothers, including him known as the Ineffable. Jimmie and Johnnie played the role of the absolutely imperturbable with a skill equal to Charlie's own; and only a series of calm "How-do's?" marked the greetings of these relatives. The Swetnams were more rollickingly demonstrative. Now that the drawing-room was quite thickly populated, Hilda, made nervous by Mr. Orgreave's jocular insinuation that she herself was the object of the Swetnams' call, took refuge, first with Janet, and then, as Janet was drawn into the general crowd, with Charlie, who was absently turning over the pages of "In Memoriam."
"Know this?" he inquired, friendly, indicating the poem.
"I don't," she said. "It's splendid, isn't it?"
"Well," he answered. "It's rather on the religious tack, you know. That's why I'm reading it." He smiled oddly.
He hesitated, and then nodded. It was the strangest avowal from this young dandy of twenty-three with the airy and cynical tongue. Hilda thought: "Here, then, is another!" And her own most secret troubles recurred to her mind.
"What's that about Teddy Clayhanger?" Charlie cried out, suddenly looking up. He had caught the name in a distant conversation.
Janet explained how they had seen Edwin, and went on to say that it was impossible to persuade him to call.
"What rot!" said Charlie. "I bet you what you like I get him here to-morrow night." He added to Hilda: "Went to school with him!" Hilda's face burned.
"I bet you don't," said Janet stoutly, from across the room.
"I'll bet you a shilling I do," said Charlie.
"Haven't a penny left," Janet smiled. "Father, will you lend me a shilling?"
"That's what I'm here for," said Mr. Orgreave.
"Mr. Orgreave," the youngest Swetnam put in, "you talk exactly like the dad talks."
The bet was made, and according to a singular but long-established family custom, Tom had to be stake-holder.
Hilda became troubled and apprehensive. She hoped that Charlie would lose, and then she hoped that he would win. Looking forward to the intimate bedroom chat with Janet which brought each evening to a heavenly close, she said to herself: "If he does come, I shall make Janet promise that I'm not to be asked to recite or anything. In fact, I shall get her to see that I'm not discussed."
CHAPTER V EDWIN CLAYHANGER
The next evening, Mr. and Mrs. Orgreave, Hilda, Janet, and Alicia were in the dining-room of the Orgreaves awaiting the advent at the supper- table of sundry young men whose voices could be heard through open doors in the distance of the drawing-room.
Charlie Orgreave had won his bet: and Edwin Clayhanger was among those young men who had remained behind in the drawing-room to exchange, according to the practice of young men, ideas upon life and the world. Hilda had been introduced to him, but owing to the performance of another Beethoven symphony there had been almost no conversation before supper, and she had not heard him talk. She had stationed herself behind the grand piano, on the plea of turning over the pages for the musicians (though it was only with great uncertainty, and in peril of missing the exact instant for turning, that she followed the music on the page), and from this security she had furtively glanced at Edwin when her task allowed. "Perhaps I was quite mistaken last night," she said to herself. "Perhaps he is perfectly ordinary." The strange thing was that she could not decide whether he was ordinary or not. At one moment his face presented no interest, at another she saw it just as she had seen it, framed in the illuminated aperture of the shop-shutters, on the previous night. Or she fancied that she saw it thus. The more she tried to distinguish between Edwin's reality and her fancies concerning Edwin, the less she succeeded. She would pronounce positively that her fancies were absurd and even despicable. But this abrupt positiveness did not convince. Supposing that he was after all marvellous among men! During the day she had taken advantage of the mention of his name to ascertain discreetly some details of the legendary feat by which as a boy he had saved his father's printing-shop from destruction. The details were vague, and not very comprehensible, but they seemed to indicate on his part an astounding presence of mind, a heroic promptitude in action. Assuredly, the Orgreaves regarded him as a creature out of the common run. And at the same time they all had the air of feeling rather sorry for him.
Standing near the supper-table, Hilda listened intently for the sound of his voice among the other voices in the drawing-room. But she could not separate it from the rest. Perhaps he was keeping silence. She said to herself: "Yet what do I care whether he is keeping silence or not?"
Mr. Orgreave remarked, in the suspense, glancing ironically at his wife:
"I think I'll go upstairs and do an hour's planning. They aren't likely to be more than an hour, I expect?"
"Hilda," said Mrs. Orgreave, quite calm, but taking her husband quite seriously, "will you please go and tell those young men from me that supper is waiting?"
Of course Hilda obeyed, though it appeared strange to her that Mrs. Orgreave had not sent Alicia on such an errand. Passing out of the bright dining-room where the gas was lit, she hesitated a moment in the dark broad corridor that led to the drawing-room. The mission, she felt, would make her rather prominent in front of Edwin Clayhanger, the stranger, and she had an objection to being prominent in front of him; she had, indeed, taken every possible precaution against such a danger. "How silly I am to loiter here!" she thought. "I might be Alicia!"
The boys, she could now hear, were discussing French literature, and in particular Victor Hugo. When she caught the name of Victor Hugo she lifted her chin, and moved forward a little. She worshipped Victor Hugo with a passion unreflecting and intense, simply because certain detached lines from his poems were the most splendid occupants of her memory, dignifying every painful or sordid souvenir. At last Charlie's clear, gay voice said:
"It's all very well, and Victor Hugo is Victor Hugo; but you can say what you like—there's a lot of this that'll bear skipping, your worships."
Already she was at the doorway. In the dusk of the unlighted chamber the faces of the four Orgreaves and Clayhanger showed like pale patches on the gloom.
"Not a line!" she said fiercely, with her extremely clear articulation. She had no right to make such a statement, for she had not read the twentieth part of Victor Hugo's work; she did not even know what book they were discussing—Charlie held the volume lightly in his hand—but she was incensed against the mere levity of Charlie's tone.
She saw Edwin Clayhanger jump at the startling interruption. And all five looked round. She could feel her face burning.
Charlie quizzed her with a word, and then turned to Edwin Clayhanger for support. "Don't you think that some of it's dullish, Teddy?"
Edwin Clayhanger, shamefaced, looked at Hilda wistfully, as if in apology, as if appealing to her clemency against her fierceness; and said slowly:
He had agreed with Charlie; but while disagreeing with Hilda he had mysteriously proved to her that she had been right in saying to herself on the previous evening: "I like him."