The incident appeared to her to be enormous and dramatic. She moved away, as it were breathless under emotion, and then, remembering her errand, threw over her shoulder:
"Mrs. Orgreave wants to know when you're coming to supper."
The supper-table was noisy and joyous—more than usually so on account of the presence of Charlie, the gayest member of the family. At either end of the long, white-spread board sat Mr. and Mrs. Orgreave; Alicia stood by Mr. Orgreave, who accepted her caresses with the negligence of a handsome father. Along one side sat Hilda, next to Janet, and these two were flanked by Jimmie and Johnnie, tall, unbending, apparently determined to prove by a politely supercilious demeanor that to pass a whole evening thus in the home circle was considered by them to be a concession on their part rather than a privilege. Edwin Clayhanger sat exactly opposite to Hilda, with Charlie for sponsor; and Tom's spectacles gleamed close by.
Hilda, while still constrained, was conscious of pleasure in the scene, and of a certain pride in forming part of it. These prodigal and splendid persons respected and liked her, even loved her. Her recitation on the previous evening had been a triumph. She was glad that she had shown them that she could at any rate do one thing rather well; but she was equally glad that she had obtained Janet's promise to avoid any discussion of her qualities or her situation. After all, with her self-conscious restraint and her pitiful assured income of three pounds a week, she was a poor little creature compared with the easy, luxurious beings of this household, whose upkeep could not cost less than three pounds a day. Janet, in rich and complicated white, and glistening with jewels at hand and neck, was a princess beside her. She hated her spare black frock, and for the second time in her life desired expensive clothes markedly feminine. She felt that she was at a grave disadvantage, and that to remedy this disadvantage would be necessary, not only dresses and precious stones, but an instinctive faculty of soft allurement which she had not. Each gesture of Janet's showed seductive grace, while her own rare gestures were stiffened by a kind of masculine harshness. Every time that the sad-eyed and modest Edwin Clayhanger glanced at Janet, and included herself in the glance, she fancied that he was unjustly but inevitably misprising herself. And at length she thought: "Why did I make Janet promise that I shouldn't be talked about? Why shouldn't he know all about my mourning, and that I'm the only girl in the Five Towns that can write shorthand. Why should I be afraid to recite again? However much I might have suffered through nervousness if I'd recited, I should have shown I'm not such a poor little thing as all that! Why am I such a baby?" She wilted under her own disdain.
It was strange to think that Edwin Clayhanger, scarcely older than the irresponsible Charlie, was the heir to an important business, was potentially a rich and influential man. Had not Mr. Orgreave said that old Mr. Clayhanger could buy up all the Orgreaves if he chose? It was strange to think that this wistful and apparently timid young man, this nice boy, would one day be the head of a household, and of a table such as this! Yes, it would assuredly arrive! Everything happened. And the mother of that household? Would it be she? Her imagination leaped far into the future, as she exchanged a quiet, furtive smile with Mrs. Orgreave, and she tried to see herself as another Mrs. Orgreave, a strenuous and passionate past behind her, honoured, beloved, teased, adored. But she could not quite see herself thus. Impossible that she, with her temperament so feverish, restive, and peculiar, should ever reach such a haven! It was fantastically too much to expect! And yet, if not with Edwin Clayhanger, then with another, with some mysterious being whom she had never seen!... Did not everything happen?... But then, equally, strange and terrible misfortunes might be lying in wait for her!... The indescribable sharp savour of life was in her nostrils.
The conversation had turned upon Bradlaugh, the shameless free-thinker, the man who had known how to make himself the centre of discussion in every house in England. This was the Bradlaugh year, the apogee of his notoriety. Dozens of times at the Cedar's meal-table had she heard the shocking name of Bradlaugh on outraged tongues, but never once had a word been uttered in his favour. The public opinion of the boarding-house was absolutely unanimous in reckoning him a scoundrel. In the dining-room of the Orgreaves the attitude towards him was different. His free-thought was not precisely defended, but champions of his right to sit in the House of Commons were numerous. Hilda grew excited, and even more self-conscious. It was as if she were in momentary expectation of being challenged by these hardy debaters: "Are not you a free-thinker?" Her interest was personal; the interest of one in peril. Compared to the discussions at the Cedars, this discussion was as the open, tossing, windy sea to a weed-choked canal. The talk veered into mere profane politics, and Mr. Orgreave, entrenching himself behind an assumption of careless disdain, was severely attacked by all his sons except Jimmie, who, above Hilda's left shoulder, pretended to share the paternal scorn. The indifference of Hilda to politics was complete. She began to feel less disturbed; she began to dream. Then she suddenly heard, through her dream, the name of Bradlaugh again; and Edwin Clayhanger, in response to a direct question from Mr. Orgreave, was saying:
"You can't help what you believe. You can't make yourself believe anything. And I don't see why you should, either. There's no virtue in believing."
And Tom was crying "Hooray!"
Hilda was thunderstruck. She was blinded as though by a mystic revelation. She wanted to exult, and to exult with all the ardour of her soul. This truth which Edwin Clayhanger had enunciated she had indeed always been vaguely aware of; but now in a flash she felt it, she faced it, she throbbed to its authenticity, and was free. It solved every difficulty, and loosed the load that for months past had wearied her back. "There's no virtue in believing." It was fundamental. It was the gift of life and of peace. Her soul shouted, as she realized that just there, in that instant, at that table, a new epoch had dawned for her. Never would she forget the instant and the scene—scene of her re-birth!
Mrs. Orgreave remonstrated with mild sadness:
"No virtue in believing! Eh, Mr. Edwin!" And Hilda, under the ageing lady's grieved glance, tried to quench the exultation on her face, somewhat like a child trapped. But she could not. Tom again cried "Hooray!" His tone, however, grated on her sensibility. It lacked emotion. It was the tone of a pugilist's backer. And Janet permitted herself some pleasantry. And Charlie became frankly facetious. Was it conceivable that Charlie could be interested in religion? She liked him very much, partly because he and she had learnt to understand each other at the dancing-classes, and partly because his curly hair and his candid smile compelled sympathy. But her esteem for him had limits. It was astonishing that a family otherwise simply perfect should be content with jocosity when jocosity was so obviously out of place. Were they, then, afraid of being serious?... Edwin Clayhanger was not laughing; he had blushed. Her eyes were fixed on him with the extremest intensity, studying him, careless of the danger that his gaze might catch hers. She was lost in him. And then, he caught her; and, burning with honest shame, she looked downwards.
CHAPTER VI IN THE GARDEN
That evening Janet did not stay long in Hilda's bedroom, having perceived that Hilda was in one of her dark, dreamy moods.
As soon as she was gone, Hilda lowered the gas a little, and then went to the window, and opened it wider, and, drawing aside the blind, looked forth. The night was obscure and warm; and a wet wind moved furtively about in the elm-trees of the garden. The window was at the side of the house; it gave on the west, and commanded the new house just finished by Mr. Orgreave for the Clayhanger family. The block of this generously planned dwelling rose massively at a distance of perhaps forty feet, dwarfing a whole row of cottages in the small street behind Lane End House; its various chimneypots stood out a deeper black against the enigmatic sky. Beyond the Clayhanger garden-plot, as yet uncultivated, and its high boundary wall, ran the great silent thoroughfare, Trafalgar Road, whose gas-lamps reigned in the nocturnal silence that the last steam-car had left in its wake.
Hilda gazed at the house; and it seemed strange to her that the house, which but a short time ago had no existence whatever, and was yet cold and soulless, was destined to be the living home of a family, with history in its walls and memories clinging about it. The formidable magic of life was always thus discovering itself to her, so that she could not look upon even an untenanted, terra-cotta-faced villa without a secret thrill; and the impenetrable sky above was not more charmed and enchanted than those brick walls. When she reflected that one day the wistful, boyish Edwin Clayhanger would be the master of that house, that in that house his will would be stronger than any other will, the mystery that hides beneath the surface of all things surged up and overwhelmed thought. And although scarcely a couple of hours had elapsed since the key of the new life had been put into her hands, she could not make an answer when she asked herself: "Am I happy or unhappy?"
The sound of young men's voices came round the corner of the house from the lawn. Some of the brothers Orgreave were saying good-night to Edwin Clayhanger in the porch. She knew that they had been chatting a long time in the hall, after Clayhanger had bidden adieu to the rest of the family. She wondered what they had been talking about, and what young men did in general talk about when they were by themselves and confidential. In her fancy she endowed their conversations with the inexplicable attractiveness of masculinity, as masculinity is understood by women alone. She had an intense desire to overhear such a conversation, and she felt that she would affront the unguessed perils of it with delight, drinking it up eagerly, every drop, even were the draught deadly. Meanwhile, the mere inarticulate sound of those distant voices pleased her, and she was glad that she was listening and that the boys knew it not.
Silence succeeded the banging of the front door. And then, after a pause, she was startled to hear the crunching of gravel almost under her window. In alarm she dropped the blind, but continued to peer between the edge of the blind and the window-frame. At one point the contiguous demesnes of the Orgreaves and the Clayhangers were separated only by a poor, sparse hedge, a few yards in length. Somebody was pushing his way through this hedge. It was Edwin Clayhanger. Despite the darkness of the night she could be sure that the dim figure was Edwin Clayhanger's by the peculiar, exaggerated swing of the loose arms. He passed the hedge, carelessly brushed his clothes with his hands, and walked slowly up the Clayhanger garden towards the new house, and in the deep shadow of the house was lost. Still, she could catch vague noises of movement. In a state of extreme excitation she wondered what he could be doing. It seemed to her that he and she were sharing the night together.
"I would give anything to be able to speak to him privately and ask him a little more about what he said to-night. I ought to. I may never see him again. At any rate, I may never have another chance. He may have meant something else. He may not have been serious...." The skin of her face prickled, and a physical wave of emotion seemed to sweep downwards through her whole body. The thrill was exquisite, but it was intimidating.
She whispered to herself:
"I could go downstairs and outside, and find him, and just ask him."
The next instant she was opening the door of her bedroom.... No, all the household had not yet retired, for a light was still burning in the corridor. Nevertheless she might go. She descended the stairs, asking herself aghast: "Why am I doing this?" Another light was burning in the hall, and through the slit of the half-shut door of the breakfast-room she could see light. She stood hesitant. Then she heard the striking of a match in the breakfast-room, and she boldly pushed the door open. Tom, with a book before him, was lighting his pipe.
"Hello!" he said. "What's the matter?"
"Oh, nothing!" she replied. "Only, I'm just going to walk about in the garden a minute. I shan't go to sleep unless I do." She spoke quite easily.
"All serene!" he agreed. "So long as you keep off the grass! It's bound to be damp. I'll unchain the door for you, shall I?"
She said that she could unfasten the door for herself, and he did not insist. The hospitality of the Orgreaves was never irksome. Tom had scarcely half-risen from his chair.
"I shan't be long," she added casually.
"That's all right, Hilda," he said. "I'm not going to bed just yet."
"All the others gone?"
He nodded. She pulled the door to, tripped delicately through the hall, and unchained the heavy front door as quietly as she could.
She was outside, amid all the influences of the night. Gradually her eyes accustomed themselves again to the gloom. She passed along the facade of the house until she came to the corner, where the breeze surprised her, and whence she could discern the other house and, across the indistinct hedge, the other garden. Where was Edwin Clayhanger? Was he wandering in the other garden, or had he entered the house? Then a brief flare lit up a lower window of the dark mass for a few instants. He was within. She hesitated. Should she go forward, or should she go back? At length she went forward, and, finding in the hedge the gap which Clayhanger had made, forced her way through it. Her skirt was torn by an obstinate twig. Quite calmly she bent down and with her fingers examined the rent; it was not important. She was now in the garden of the Clayhangers, and he whom she sought was moving somewhere in the house. "Supposing I do meet him," she thought, "what shall I say to him?" She did not know what she should say to him, nor why she had entered upon this singular adventure. But the consciousness of self, the fine, disturbing sense of being alive in every vein and nerve, was a rich reward for her audacity. She wished that that tense moment of expectation might endure for ever.
She approached the house, trembling. It was not by volition that she walked over the uneven clayey ground, but by instinct. She was in front of the garden-porch, and here she hesitated again, apparently waiting for a sign from the house. She glanced timidly about her, as though in fear of marauders that might spring out upon her from the shadow. Just over the boundary wall the placid flame of a gas-lamp peeped. Then, feeling with her feet for the steps, she ascended into the shelter of the porch. Almost at the same moment there was another flare behind the glass of the door; she heard the sound of unlatching; the flare expired. She was absolutely terror-struck now.
The door opened, grating on some dirt or gravel.
"Who's there?" demanded a queer, shaking voice.
She could see his form.
"Me!" she answered, in a harsh tone which was the expression of her dismay.
The deed was done, irretrievably. In her bedroom she had said that she would try to speak with him, and lo! they were face to face, in the dark, in secret! Her terror was now, at any rate, desperately calm. She had plunged; she was falling into the deep sea; she was hopelessly cut off from the past.
"Oh!" came the uncertain voice weakly. "Did you want me? Did anyone want me?"
She heard the door being closed behind him.
She told him, with peculiar curtness, how she had seen him from her window, and how she wished to ask him an important question.
"I dare say you think it's very queer of me," she added.
"Not at all," he said, with an insincerity that annoyed her.
"Yes, you do!" she sharply insisted. "But I want to know"—what did she want to know?—"I want to know—did you mean it when you said—you know, at supper—that there's no virtue in believing?"
He stammered: "Did I say there was no virtue in believing?"
She cried out, irritated: "Of course you did! Do you mean to say you can say a thing like that and then forget about it? If it's true, it's one of the most wonderful things that were ever said. And that's why I wanted to know if you meant it, of whether you were only saying it because it sounded clever."
She stopped momentarily, wondering why she was thus implying an untruth; for the fact was that she had never doubted that he had been in earnest.
"That's what they're always doing in that house, you know—being clever!" she went on, in a tone apparently inimical to 'that house.'
"Yes," came the voice. "I meant it. Why?"
And the voice was so simple and so sincere that it pierced straight to her heart and changed her secret mood swiftly to the religious, so that she really was occupied by the thoughts with which, a moment previously, she had only pretended to be occupied; and the splendour of the revelation was renewed. Nevertheless, some impulse, perverse or defensive, compelled her to assume a doubt of his assurance. She suspected that, had she not adopted this tactic, she might have melted before him in gratitude.
"You did?" she murmured.
She thanked him, after that, rather coldly; and they talked a little about the mere worry of these religious questions. He protested that they never worried him, and reaffirmed his original proposition.
"I hope you are right," she said softly, in a thrilled voice. She was thinking that this was the most wonderful, miraculous experience that she had ever had.
"Now," she thought, "I must go back." Inwardly she gave a delicious sigh.
But just as she was about to take her prim leave, the scarce-discerned figure of her companion stepped out into the garden.
"By Jove!" said Edwin Clayhanger. "It's beginning to rain, I do believe."
The wind blew, and she felt rain on her cheek. Clayhanger advised her to stand against the other wall of the porch for better protection. She obeyed. He re-entered the porch, but was still exposed to the rain. She called him to her side. Already he was so close that she could have touched his shoulder by outstretching her arm.
"Oh! I'm all right!" he said lightly, and did not move.
"You needn't be afraid of me!" She was hurt that he had refused her invitation to approach her. The next instant she would have given her tongue not to have uttered those words. But she was in such a tingling state of extreme sensitiveness as rendered it impossible for her to exercise a normal self-control.
Scarcely conscious of what she did, she asked him the time. He struck a match to look at his watch. The wind blew the match out, but she saw his wistful face, with his disordered hair under the hat. It had the quality of a vision.
He offered to get a light in the house, but abruptly she said good night.
Then they were shaking hands—she knew not how or why. She could not loose his hand. She thought: "Never have I held a hand so honest as this hand." At last she dropped it. They stood silent while a trap rattled up Trafalgar Road. It was as if she was bound to remain moveless until the sounds of the trap had died away.
She walked proudly out into the rain. He called to her: "I say, Miss Lessways!" But she did not stop.
In a minute she was back again in Lane End House.
"That you?" Tom's voice from the breakfast-room!
"Yes," she answered clearly. "I've put the chain on. Good night."
"Good night. Thanks."
She ascended the stairs, smiling to herself, with the raindrops fresh on her cheek. In her mind were no distinct thoughts, either concerning the non-virtue of belief, or the new epoch, or Edwin Clayhanger, or even the strangeness of her behaviour. But all her being vibrated to the mysterious and beautiful romance of existence.
CHAPTER VII THE NEXT MEETING
For several days the town of Bursley was to Hilda simply a place made perilous and redoubtable by the apprehension of meeting Edwin Clayhanger accidentally in the streets thereof. And the burden of her meditations was: "What can he have thought of me?" She had said nothing to anybody of the deliberately-sought adventure in the garden. And with the strangest ingenuous confidence she assumed that Edwin Clayhanger, too, would keep an absolute silence about it. She had therefore naught to fear, except in the privacy of his own mind. She did not blame herself—it never occurred to her to do so—but she rather wondered at herself, inimically, prophesying that one day her impulsiveness would throw her into some serious difficulty. The memory of the night beautifully coloured her whole daily existence. In spite of her avoidance of the town, due to her dread of seeing Clayhanger, she was constantly thinking: "But this cannot continue for ever. One day I am bound to meet him again." And she seemed to be waiting for that day.
It came with inevitable quickness. The last day but one of June was appointed throughout the country for the celebration of the Centenary of Sunday Schools. Neither Hilda nor any of the Orgreave children had ever seen the inside of a Sunday School; and the tendency up at Lane End House was to condescend towards the festival as towards a rejoicing of the proletariat. But in face of the magnitude of the affair, looming more enormous as it approached, this attitude could not be maintained. The preparations for the Centenary filled newspapers and changed the physiognomy of towns. And on the morning of the ceremonial service, gloriously flattered by the sun, there was candid excitement at the breakfast-table of the Orgreaves. Mr. Orgreave regretted that pressure of work would prevent him from seeing the fun. Tom was going to see the fun at Hanbridge. Jimmie and Johnnie were going to see the fun, but they would not say where. The servants were going to see the fun. Charlie had returned to London. Alicia wanted to go and see the fun, but as she was flushed and feverish, Mrs. Orgreave forbade and decided to remain at home with Alicia. Otherwise, even Mrs. Orgreave would have gone to see the fun. Hilda and Janet apparently hesitated about going, but Mr. Orgreave, pointing out that there could not under the most favourable circumstance be another Centenary of Sunday Schools for at least a hundred years, sarcastically urged them to set forth. The fact was, as Janet teasingly told him while she hung on his neck, that he wished to accentuate as much as possible his own martyrdom to industry. Were not all the shops and offices of the Five Towns closed? Did not every member of his family, save those detained by illness, attend the historic spectacle of the Centenary? He alone had sacrificed pleasure to work. Thus Janet's loving, ironic smiles foretold, would the father of the brood discourse during the next few days.
Hilda and Janet accordingly went down a be-flagged and sunlit Trafalgar Road together. Janet was wearing still another white dress, and Hilda, to her marked relief, had abandoned black for a slate-coloured frock made by a dressmaker in Bleakridge. It was Mrs. Orgreave herself who had first counselled Hilda, if she hated black, as she said she did, to abandon black. The entire family chorus had approved.
The risk of encountering Edwin Clayhanger on that day of multitudes was surely infinitesimal. Nevertheless, in six minutes the improbable had occurred. At the corner of Trafalgar Road and Duck Square Janet, attracted by the sight of banners in the distance, turned to the left along Wedgwood Street and past the front of Clayhanger's shop. Theoretically shops were closed, but one shutter of Clayhanger's was down, and in its place stood Edwin Clayhanger. Hilda felt her features stiffening into a sort of wilful and insincere hostility as she shook hands. Within the darkness of the shop she saw the figure of two dowdy women—doubtless the sisters of whom Janet had told her; they disappeared before Janet and Hilda entered.
"It has happened! I have seen him again!" Hilda said to herself as she sat in the shop listening to Janet and to Edwin Clayhanger. It appeared likely that Edwin Clayhanger would join them in the enterprise of witnessing the historic spectacle.
A few minutes later everybody was startled by the gay apparition of Osmond Orgreave swinging his cane. Curiosity had been too much for industriousness, and Osmond Orgreave had yielded himself to the general interest.
"Oh! Father!" cried Janet. "What a deceitful thing you are!"
"Only a day or two ago," Hilda was thinking, "I had never even heard of him. And his shop seemed so strange and romantic to me. And now I am sitting in his shop like an old friend. And nobody suspects that he and I have had a secret meeting!" The shop itself seemed to be important and prosperous.
Mr. Orgreave, having decided for pleasure, was anxious to find it at once, and, under his impatience, they left the shop. Janet went out first with her gay father. Edwin Clayhanger waited respectfully for Hilda to pass. But just as she was about to step forth she caught sight of George Cannon coming along the opposite side of Wedgwood Street in the direction of Trafalgar Road; he was in close conversation with another man. She kept within the shelter of the shop until the two had gone by. She did not want to meet George Cannon, with whom she had not had speech since the interview at the Cedars; he had written to her about the property sales, and she had replied. There was no reason why she should hesitate to meet him. But she wished not to complicate the situation. She thought: "If he saw me, he'd come across and speak to me, and I might have to introduce him to all these people, and goodness knows what!" The contretemps caused her heart to beat.
When they emerged from the shop Janet, a few yards ahead with Mr. Orgreave, was beckoning.
Hilda stood on a barrel by the side of Edwin Clayhanger on another barrel. There, from the top of St. Luke's Square, they surveyed a vast rectangular carpet of upturned faces that made a pattern of pale dots on a coloured and black groundwork. Nearly all the children of Bursley, thousands upon thousands, were massed in the Square, wedged in tight together, so that there seemed not to be an inch of space anywhere between the shuttered shop fronts on the east of the Square and the shuttered shop fronts on the west of the Square. At the bottom of the Square a row of railway lorries were crammed with tiny babes—or such they appeared—toddlers too weak to walk in processions. At the top of the Square a large platform full of bearded adults rose like an island out of the unconscious sea of infants. And from every window of every house adults looked down in safe ease upon that wavy ocean over which banners gleamed in the dazzling and fierce sunshine.
She might have put up her sunshade. But she would not do so. She thought: "If all those children can stand the sun without fainting, I can!" She was extraordinarily affected by the mere sight of the immense multitude of children; they were as helpless and as fatalistic as sheep, utterly at the mercy of the adults who had herded them. There was about them a collective wistfulness that cut the heart; to dwell on the idea of it would have brought her to tears. And when the multitude sang, so lustily, so willingly, so bravely, pouring forth with the brass instruments a volume of tone enormous and majestic, she had a tightness of the throat that was excrutiating. The Centenary of Sunday Schools was quite other than she had expected; she had not bargained for these emotions.
It was after the hymn "There is a fountain filled with blood," during the quietude of a speech, that Edwin Clayhanger, taking up an evangelistic phrase in the speech, whispered to her:
"What?" she asked, amazed by his ironical accent, which jarred on her mood, and also by his familiar manner of leaning towards her and dropping the words in her ear.
"Well," he said. "Look at it! It only wants the Ganges at the bottom of the Square!"
Evidently for Edwin Clayhanger all religions were equally heathenish! She was quite startled out of her amazement, and her response was an almost humble entreaty not to make fun. The next moment she regretted that she had not answered him with sharp firmness. She was somewhat out of humour with him. He had begun by losing sight of Mr. Orgreave and Janet—and of course it was hopeless to seek for them in those thronging streets around St. Luke's Square. Then he had said to her, in a most peculiar tone: "I hope you didn't catch cold in the rain the other night," and she had not liked that. She had regarded it as a fault in tact, almost as a sexual disloyalty on his part to refer at all to the scene in the garden. Finally, his way of negotiating with the barrel man for the use of two barrels had been lacking, for Hilda, in the qualities of largeness and masterfulness; any one of the Orgreave boys would, she was sure, have carried the thing off in a more worldly manner.
The climax of the service came with the singing of "When I survey the wondrous Cross." The physical effect of it on Hilda was nearly overwhelming. The terrible and sublime words seemed to surge upon her charged with all the multitudinous significance of the crowd. She was profoundly stirred, and to prevent an outburst of tears she shook her head.
"What's the matter?" said Edwin Clayhanger.
"Clumsy dolt!" she thought. "Haven't you got enough sense to leave me alone?" And she said aloud, passionately transforming her weakness into ferocity: "That's the most splendid religious verse ever written! You can say what you like. It's worth while believing anything, if you can sing words like that and mean them!"
He agreed that the hymn was fine.
"Do you know who wrote it?" she demanded threateningly.
He did not. She was delighted.
"Dr. Watts, of course!" she said, with a scornful sneer. What did Janet mean by saying that he had read simply everything?
An episode which supervened close to their barrels did a great deal to intensify the hostility of her mood. On the edge of the crowd an old man, who had been trying to force his way through it, was being guyed by a gang of louts who had surrounded an ice-cream barrow. Suddenly she recognized this old man. His name was Shushions; he was a familiar figure of the streets of Turnhill, and he had the reputation of being the oldest Sunday School teacher in the Five Towns. He was indeed exceedingly old, foolish, and undignified in senility; and the louts were odiously jeering at his defenceless dotage, and a young policeman was obviously with the louts and against the aged, fatuous victim.
Hilda gave an exclamation of revolt, and called upon Edwin Clayhanger to go to the rescue of Mr. Shushions. Not he, however, but she jumped down first and pushed towards the barrow. She made the path, and he followed. She protested to the policeman, and he too modestly seconded her. Yet the policeman, ignoring her, addressed himself to Edwin Clayhanger. Hilda was infuriated. It appeared that old Mr. Shushions had had a ticket for the platform, but had lost it.
"He must be got on to the platform somehow!" she decided, with a fiery glance.
But Edwin Clayhanger seemed to be incapable of an heroic action. He hesitated. The policeman hesitated. Fortunately, the plight of the doting oldest Sunday School teacher in the Five Towns had been observed from the platform, and two fussy, rosetted officials bustled up and offered to take charge of him. And Hilda, dissolving in painful pity, bent over him softly and arranged his disordered clothes; she was weeping.
"Shall we go back to our barrels?" Edwin Clayhanger rather sheepishly suggested after Mr. Shushions had been dragged away.
But she would not go back to the barrels.
"I think it's time we set about to find Janet and Mr. Orgreave," she replied coldly, and they drew out of the crowd. She was profoundly deceived in Edwin Clayhanger, so famous for his presence of mind in saving printing-shops from destruction! She did not know what he ought to have done; she made no attempt to conceive what he ought to have done. But that he ought to have done something—something decisive and grandly masculine—she was sure.
Later, after sundry adventures, and having found Mr. Orgreave and Janet, they stood at the tail of the steam-car, which Janet had decided should carry her up to Bleakridge; and Edwin shook hands. Yes, Hilda was profoundly deceived in him. Nevertheless, his wistful and honest glance, as he parted from her, had its effect. If he had not one quality, he had another. She tried hard to maintain her scorn of him, but it was exceedingly difficult to do so.
Mr. Orgreave wiped his brow as the car jolted them out of the tumult of the Centenary. It was hot, but he did not seem to be in the slightest degree fatigued or dispirited, whereas Janet put back her head and shut her eyes.
"Caught sight of a friend of yours this morning, Hilda!" he said pleasantly.
"Yes. Mr. Cannon. By the way, I forgot to tell you yesterday that his famous newspaper—yours—has come to an end." He spoke, as it were, with calm sympathy. "Yes! Well, it's not surprising, not surprising! Nothing's ever stood up against the Signal yet!"
Hilda was saddened. When they reached Lane End House, a few seconds in front of the hurrying and apologetic servants, Mrs. Orgreave told her that Mr. George Cannon had called to see her, and had left a note for her. She ran up to her room with the note. It said merely that the writer wished to have an interview with her at once.
* * * * *
BOOK III HER BURDEN
CHAPTER I HILDA INDISPENSABLE
Hilda made no response of any kind to George Cannon's request for an immediate interview, allowing day after day to pass in inactivity, and wondering the while how she might excuse or explain her singular conduct when circumstances should bring the situation to a head. She knew that she ought either to go over to Turnhill, or write him with an appointment to see her at Lane End House; but she did nothing; nor did she say a word of the matter to Janet in the bedroom at nights. All that she could tell herself was that she did not want to see George Cannon; she was not honestly persuaded that she feared to see him. In the meantime, Edwin Clayhanger was invisible, though the removal of the Clayhanger household to the new residence at Bleakridge had made a considerable stir of straw and litter in Trafalgar Road.
On Tuesday in the following week she received a letter from Sarah Gailey. It was brought up to her room early in the morning by a half-dressed Alicia Orgreave, and she read it as she lay in bed. Sarah Gailey, struggling with the complexities of the Cedars, away in Hornsey, was unwell and gloomily desolate. She wrote that she suffered from terrible headaches on waking, and that she was often feverish, and that she had no energy whatever. "I am at a very trying age for a woman," she said. "I don't know whether you understand, but I've come to a time of life that really upsets one above a bit, and I'm fit for nothing." Hilda understood; she was flattered, even touched, by this confidence; it made her feel older, and more important in the world, and a whole generation away from Alicia, who was drawing up the blind with the cries and awkward gestures of a prattling infant. To the letter there was a postscript: "Has George been to see you yet about me? He wrote me he should, but I haven't heard since. In fact, I've been waiting to hear. I'll say nothing about that yet. I'm ashamed you should be bothered. It's so important for you to have a good holiday. Again, much love, S.G." The prim handwriting got smaller and smaller towards the end of the postscript and the end of the page, and the last lines were perfectly parallel with the lower edge of the paper; all the others sloped feebly downwards from left to right.
"Oh!" piped Alicia from the window. "Maggie Clayhanger has got her curtains up in the drawing-room! Oh! Aren't they proud things! Oh!—I do believe she's caught me staring at her!" And Alicia withdrew abruptly into the room, blushing for her detected sin of ungenteel curiosity. She bumped down on the bed. "Three days more," she said. "Not counting to-day. Four, counting to-day."
Alicia nodded, her finger in her mouth. "Isn't it horrid, going to school on a day like this? I hear you and Janet are off up to Hillport this afternoon again, to play tennis. You do have times!"
"No," said Hilda. "I've got to go to Turnhill this afternoon."
"But Janet told me you were—" Her glance fell on the letter. "Is it business?"
The child was impressed, and her change of tone, her frank awe, gave pleasure to Hilda's vanity. "Shall I go and tell Jane? She isn't near dressed."
Off scampered Alicia, leaving the door unlatched behind her.
Hilda gazed at the letter, holding it limply in her left hand amid the soft disorder of the counterpane. It had come to her, an intolerably pathetic messenger and accuser, out of the exacerbating frowsiness of the Cedars. Yesterday afternoon care-ridden Sarah Gailey was writing it, with sighs, at the desk in her stuffy, uncomfortable bedroom. As Hilda gazed at the formation of the words, she could see the unhappy Sarah Gailey writing them, and the letter was like a bit of Sarah Gailey's self, magically and disconcertingly projected into the spacious, laughing home of the Orgreaves, and into the mysterious new happiness that was forming around Hilda. The Orgreaves, so far as Hilda could discover, had no real anxieties. They were a joyous lot, favoured alike by temperament and by fortune. And she, Hilda—what real anxieties had she? None! She was sure of a small but adequate income. Her grief for her mother was assuaged. The problem of her soul no longer troubled: in part it had been solved, and in part it had faded imperceptibly away. Nor was she exercised about the future, about the 'new life.' Instead of rushing ardently to meet the future, she felt content to wait for its coming. Why disturb oneself? She was free. She was enjoying existence with the Orgreaves. Yes, she was happy in this roseate passivity.
The letter shook her, arousing as it did the sharp sense of her indebtedness to Sarah Gailey, who alone had succoured her in her long period of despairing infelicity. Had she guessed that it was Sarah Gailey's affair upon which George Cannon had desired to see her, she would not have delayed an hour; no reluctance to meet George Cannon would have caused her to tarry. But she had not guessed; the idea had never occurred to her.
She rose, picked up the envelope from the carpet, carefully replaced the letter in it, and laid it with love on the glittering dressing-table. Through the unlatched door she heard a tramping of unshod masculine feet in the passage, and the delightful curt greeting of Osmond Orgreave and his sleepy son Jimmie—splendid powerful males. She glanced at the garden, and at the garden of the Clayhangers, swimming in fresh sunshine. She glanced in the mirror, and saw the deshabille of her black hair and of her insecure nightgown, and thought: "Truly, I am not so bad-looking! And how well I feel! How fond they all are of me! I'm just at the right age. I'm young, but I'm mature. I've had a lot of experience, and I'm not a fool. I'm strong—I could stand anything!" She put her shoulders back, with a challenging gesture. The pride of life was hers.
And then, this disturbing vision of Sarah Gailey, alone, unhappy, unattractive, enfeebled, ageing—ageing! It seemed to her inexpressibly cruel that people must grow old and weak and desolate; it seemed monstrous. A pang, momentary but excruciating, smote her. She said to herself: "Sarah Gailey has nothing to look forward to, except worry. Sarah Gailey is at the end, instead of at the beginning!"
When she got off the train at Turnhill station, early that afternoon, she had no qualm at the thought of meeting George Cannon; she was not even concerned to invent a decent excuse for her silence in relation to his urgent letter. She went to see him for the sake of Sarah Gailey, and because she apparently might be of use in some affair of Sarah's—she knew not what. She was proud that either Sarah or he thought that she could be of use, or that it was worth while consulting her. She had a grave air, as of one to whom esteem has brought responsibilities.
In Child Street, leading to High Street, she passed the office of Godlimans, the auctioneers. And there, among a group of white posters covering the large window, was a poster of the sale of "valuable household furniture and effects removed from No. 15 Lessways Street." And on the poster, in a very black line by itself, stood out saliently the phrase: "Massive Bedroom Suite." Her mother's! Hers! She had to stop and read the poster through, though she was curiously afraid of being caught in the act. All the principal items were mentioned by the faithful auctioneers; and the furniture, thus described, had a strange aspect of special importance, as if it had been subtly better, more solid, more desirable, than any other houseful of furniture in the town,—Lessways' furniture! She sought for the date. The sale had taken place on the previous night, at the very hour when she was lolling and laughing in the drawing-room of Lane End House with the Orgreaves! The furniture was sold, dispersed, gone! The house was empty! The past was irremediably closed! The realization of this naturally affected her, raising phantoms of her mother, and of the face of the cab-driver as he remarked on the drawn blinds at the Cedars. But she was still more affected by the thought that the poster was on the window, and the furniture scattered, solely because she had willed it. She had said: "Please sell all the furniture, and you needn't consult me about the sale. I don't want to know. I prefer not to know. Just get it done." And it had been done! How mysteriously romantic! Some girls would not have sold the furniture, would not have dared to sell it, would have accepted the furniture and the house as a solemn charge, and gone on living among those relics, obedient to a tradition. But she had dared! She had willed—and the solid furniture had vanished away! And she was adventurously free!
She went forward. At the corner of Child Street and High Street the new Town Hall was rising to the skies. Already its walls were higher than the highest house in the vicinity. And workmen were crawling over it, amid dust, and a load of crimson bricks was trembling and revolving upwards on a thin rope that hung down from the blue. Glimpses of London had modified old estimates of her native town. Nevertheless, the new Town Hall still appeared extraordinarily large and important to her.
She saw the detested Arthur Dayson in the distance of the street, and crossed hurriedly to the Square, looking fixedly at the storeys above the ironmonger's so that Arthur Dayson could not possibly catch her eye. There was no sign of the Five Towns Chronicle in the bare windows of the second storey. This did not surprise her; but she was startled by the absence of the Karkeek wire-blinds from the first-floor windows, equally bare with those of the second. When she got to the entrance she was still more startled to observe that the Karkeek brass-plate had been removed. She climbed the long stairs apprehensively.
"Anybody here?" she called out timidly. She was in the clerk's office, which was empty; but she could hear movements in another room. The place seemed in process of being dismantled.
Suddenly George Cannon appeared in a doorway, frowning.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Cannon!"
"Good afternoon, Miss Lessways." He spoke with stiff politeness. His face looked weary.
After a slight hesitation he advanced, and they shook hands. Hilda was nervous. Her neglect of his letter now presented itself to her as inexcusable. She thought: "If he is vexed about it I shall have to humour him. I really can't blame him. He must think me very queer."
"I was wondering what had become of you," he said, amply polite, but not cordial.
"Well," she said, "every day I was expecting you to call again, or to send me a note or something.... And what with one thing and another—"
"I dare say your time's been fully occupied," he filled up her pause. And she fancied that he spoke in a peculiar tone. She absurdly fancied that he was referring to the time which she had publicly spent with Edwin Clayhanger at the Centenary. She conceived that he might have seen her and Edwin Clayhanger together.
"I had a letter from Miss Gailey this morning," she said. "And it seems that it's about her that you wanted—"
"I do wish I'd known. If I'd had the slightest idea I should have come over instantly." She spoke with eager seriousness, and then added, smiling as if in appeal to be favourably understood: "I thought it was only about my affairs—sale or what not. And as I'd asked you to manage all these things exactly as you thought best, I didn't trouble—"
He laughed, and either forgave or forgot.
"Will you come this way?" he invited, in a new tone of friendliness. "We're rather in a mess here."
"You're all alone, too," she said, following him into his room.
"Sowter's out," he answered laconically, waiting for her to precede him. He said nothing as to the office-boy, nor as to Mr. Karkeek. Hilda was now sure that something strange had happened.
"So you've heard from Sarah, have you?" he began, when they were both seated in his own room. There were still a lot of papers, though fewer than of old, on the broad desk; but the bookcase was quite empty, and several of the shelves in it had supped from the horizontal; the front part of the shelves was a pale yellow, and behind that, an irregular dark band of dust indicated the varying depths of the vanished tomes. The forlornness of the bookcase gave a stricken air to the whole room.
"She's not well."
"Or she imagines she's not well."
"Oh no!" said Hilda warmly. "It isn't imagination. She really isn't well."
"You think so?"
"I don't think—I know!" Hilda spoke proudly, but with the restraint which absolute certainty permits. She crushed, rather than resented, George Cannon's easy insinuation, full of the unjustified superiority of the male. How could he judge—how could any man judge? She had never before felt so sure of herself, so adult and experienced, as she felt then.
"But it's nothing serious?" he suggested with deference.
"N—no—not what you'd call serious," said Hilda judicially, mysteriously.
"Because she wants to give up the boarding-house business altogether— that's all!"
Having delivered this dramatic blow, George Cannon smiled, as it were, quizzically. And Hilda was reassured about him. She had been thinking: "Is he ruined? If he is not ruined, what is the meaning of these puzzling changes here?" And she had remembered her shrewd mother's hints, and her own later fears, concerning the insecurity of his position: and had studied his tired and worn face for an equivocal sign. But this smile, self-confident and firm, was not the smile of a ruined man; and his flashing glance seemed to be an omen of definite success.
"Wants to give it up?" exclaimed Hilda.
"But why? I thought she was doing rather well."
"So she is."
"Ah!" George Cannon lifted his head with a gesture signifying enigma. "That's just what I wanted to ask you. Hasn't she said anything to you?"
"As to giving it up? No!... So it was this that you wanted to see me about?"
He nodded. "She wrote me a few days after you came away, and suggested I should see you and ask you what you thought."
"But why me?"
"Well, she thinks the world of you, Sarah does."
Hilda thought: "How strange! She did nothing but look after me, and wait on me hand and foot, and I never helped her in any way; and yet she turns to me!" And she was extremely flattered and gratified, and was aware of a delicious increase of self-respect.
"But supposing she does give it up?" Hilda said aloud. "What will she do?"
"Exactly!" said George Cannon, and then, in a very confidential, ingratiating manner: "I wish you'd write to her and put some reason into her. She mustn't give it up. With her help—and you know in the management she's simply wonderful—with her help, I think I shall be able to bring something about that'll startle folks. Only, she mustn't throw me over. And she mustn't get too crotchety with the boarders. I've had some difficulty in that line, as it is. In fact, I've had to be rather cross. You know about the Boutwoods, for instance! Well, I've smoothed that over.... It's nothing, nothing—if she'll keep her head. If she'll keep her head it's a gold mine—you'll see! Only—she wants a bit of managing. If you'd write—"
"I shan't write," said Hilda. "I shall go and see her—at once. I should have gone in any case, after her letter this morning saying how unwell she is. She wants company. She was so kind to me I couldn't possibly leave her in the lurch. I can't very well get away to-day, but I shall go to-morrow, and I shall drop her a line to-night."
"It's very good of you, I'm sure," said George Cannon. Obviously he was much relieved.
"Not at all!" Hilda protested. She felt very content and happy.
"The fact is," he went on, "there's nobody but you can do it. Your mother was the only real friend she ever had. And this is the first time she's been left alone up there, you see. I'm quite sure you can save the situation."
He was frankly depending on her for something which he admitted he could not accomplish himself. Those two people, George Cannon and Sarah Gailey, had both instinctively turned to her in a crisis. None could do what she could do. She, by the force of her individuality, could save the situation. She was no longer a girl, but a mature and influential being. Her ancient diffidence before George Cannon had completely gone; she had no qualms, no foreboding, no dubious sensation of weakness. Indeed, she felt herself in one respect his superior, for his confidence in Sarah Gailey's housewifely skill, his conviction that it was unique and would be irreplaceable, struck her as somewhat naif, as being yet another example of the absurd family pride which she and her mother had often noticed in the Five Towns. She was not happy at the prospect of so abruptly quitting the delights of Lane End House and the vicinity of Edwin Clayhanger; she was not happy at the prospect of postponing the consideration of plans for her own existence; she was not happy at the prospect of Sarah Gailey's pessimistic complainings. She was above happiness. She was above even that thrill of sharp and intense vitality which in times past had ennobled trouble and misery. She had the most exquisite feeling of triumphant self-justification. She was splendidly conscious of power. She was indispensable.
And the dismantled desolation of the echoing office, and the mystery of George Cannon's personal position, somehow gave a strange poignancy to her mood.
They talked of indifferent matters: her property, the Orgreaves, even the defunct newspaper, as to which George Cannon shrugged his shoulders. Then the conversation drooped.
"I shall go up by the four train to-morrow," she said, clinching the interview, and rising.
"I may go up by that train myself," said George Cannon.
She started. "Oh! are you going to Hornsey, too?"
"No! Not Hornsey. I've other business."
CHAPTER II SARAH'S BENEFACTOR
On the following afternoon Hilda travelled alone by the local train from Bleakridge to Knype, the central station where all voyagers for London, Birmingham, and Manchester had to foregather in order to take the fast expresses that unwillingly halted there, and there only, in their skimming flights across the district. It was a custom of Five Towns hospitality that a departing guest should be accompanied as far as Knype and stowed with personal attentions into the big train. But on this occasion Hilda had wished otherwise. "I should prefer nobody to go with me to Knype," she had said, in a characteristic tone, to Janet. It was enough. The family had wondered; but it was enough. The family knew its singular, its mysterious Hilda. And instead of at Knype, the leave-takings had occurred at the little wayside station of Bleakridge, with wavy moorland behind, factory chimneys in front, and cinder and shawd heaps all around. Hilda had told Janet: "Mr. Cannon may be meeting me at Knype. He's probably going to London too." And the discreet Janet, comprehending Hilda, had not even mentioned this fact to the rest of the family.
George Cannon, in a light summer suit and straw hat, was already on the platform at Knype. Hilda had feared that at Bleakridge he might be looking out of the window of the local train, which started from Turnhill; she had desired not to meet him in the presence of any of the Orgreaves. But either he had caught the previous train to Knype, or he had driven down. Holding a Gladstone bag and a stick in one hand, he stood talking to another man of about his own age and height. The conversation was vivacious, at any rate on George Cannon's part. Hilda passed close by him amid the populous stir of the expectant platform. He saw her, turned, and raised his hat, but in a perfunctory, preoccupied manner; and instantly resumed the speech to his companion. Hilda recognized the latter. It was 'young Lawton,' son and successor to 'old Lawton,' the most famous lawyer in the Five Towns. Young Lawton had a branch office at Turnhill, and lived in an important house half-way between Turnhill and Bursley, where, behind the Town Hall, was the historic principal office of the firm.
The express came loudly in, and Hilda, having climbed into a second-class compartment, leaned out from it, to descry her porter and bestow on him a threepenny bit. George Cannon and young Lawton were still in argument, and apparently quite indifferent to the train. Young Lawton's thin face had its usual faint, harsh smile; his limbs were moveless in an exasperating and obstinate calm; Hilda detested the man from his mere looks. But George Cannon was very obviously under excitement. His face was flushed; he moved his free arm violently—even the Gladstone bag swung to and fro; he punctuated his sentences with sharp, angry nods of the head, insisting and protesting and insisting, while the other, saying much less, maintained his damnable stupid disdainful grin.
Would he let the train go, in his feverish preoccupation? Hilda was seriously afraid that he would. The last trunks were flung into the front van, the stationmaster in his tall hat waved curtly to the glittering guard; the guard waved his flag, and whistled; a porter banged the door of Hilda's compartment, ignoring her gestures; the engine whistled. And at that moment George Cannon, throwing apparently a last malediction at young Lawton, sprang towards the train, and, seeing Hilda's face, rushed to the door which she strained to open again.
"I was afraid you'd be left behind," she said, as he dropped his bag on the seat and the affronted stationmaster himself shut the door.
"Not quite!" ejaculated Cannon grimly.
The smooth, irresistible gliding of the train became apparent, establishing a sudden aloof calm. Hilda perceived that all her muscles were tense.
In the compartment was a middle-aged couple.
"What's this place?" asked the woman.
"Looks like Tamworth," said the man sleepily.
"Knype, sir!" George Cannon corrected him very sharply. He was so wrought up that he had omitted even to shake hands with Hilda. Making no effort to talk, and showing no curiosity about Hilda's welfare or doings, he moved uneasily on his seat, and from time to time opened and shut the Gladstone bag. Gradually the flush paled from his face.
At Lichfield the middle-aged couple took advice from a porter and stumbled out of the train.
"We're fairly out of the smoke now," said Hilda, when the train began to move again. As a fact, they had been fairly out of the smoke of the Five Towns for more than half an hour; but Hilda spoke at random, timidly, nervously, for the sake of speaking. And she was as apologetic as though it was she herself who by some untimely discretion had annoyed George Cannon.
"Yes, thank God!" he replied fiercely, blowing with pleasure upon the embers of his resentment. "And I'll take good care I never go into it again—to live, that is!"
"Really?" she murmured, struck into an extreme astonishment.
He produced a cigar and a match-box.
"May I?" he demanded carelessly, and accepted her affirmative as of course.
"You've heard about my little affair?" he asked, after lighting the cigar. And he gazed at her curiously.
"Do you mean to say that none of the Orgreaves have said anything this last day or two?" He leaned forward. They were in opposite corners.
"No," she repeated stiffly. Nevertheless, she remembered a peculiar glance of Tom's to his father on the previous day, when George Cannon's name had been mentioned.
"Well," said he. "You surprise me! That's all!"
"But—" She stopped, full of misgivings.
"Never heard any gossip about me—never?" he persisted, as it were, menacing her.
She shook her head.
"Never heard that I'm not really a solicitor?"
"Oh! well—I think mother once did say something—"
"I thought so."
"But I don't understand those things," she said simply. "Is anything the matter? Is—"
"Nothing!" he replied, calm and convincing. "Only I've been done! Done! You'll hear about it some day, I dare say.... Shall I tell you? Would you like me to tell you?" He smiled rather boyishly and leaned back.
"Yes," she nodded.
His attitude was very familiar, recalling their former relation of employer and employed. It seemed as natural to her as to him that he should not too ceremoniously conceal his feelings or disguise his mood.
"Well, you see, I expect I know as much about law as any of 'em, but I've never been admitted, and so—" He stopped, perceiving that she did not comprehend the significance of such a word as 'admitted.' "If you want to practise as a solicitor you have to pass examinations, and I never have passed examinations. Very expensive, all that! And I couldn't afford when I was young. It isn't the exams that are difficult—you may tell that from the fellows that pass them. Lawton, for instance. But after a certain age exams become a nuisance. However, I could do everything else. I might have had half a dozen situations as managing clerk in the Five Towns if I'd wanted. Only I didn't want! I wanted to be on my own. I could get clients as quick as any of them. And quicker! So I found Karkeek—the excellent Mr. Karkeek! Another of the bright ones that could pass the exams! Oh! He'd passed the exams all right! He'd spent five years and I don't know how many hundred pounds in passing the exams, and with it all he couldn't get above a couple of pounds a week. There are hundreds of real solicitors up and down the country who aren't earning more. And they aren't worth more. But I gave him more, and a lot more. Just to use his name on my door and my blinds. See? In theory I was his clerk, but in reality he was mine. It was all quite clear. He understood—I should think he did, by Jove!" George Cannon laughed shortly. "Every one understood. I got a practice together in no time. He didn't do it. He wouldn't have got a practice together in a thousand years. I had the second-best practice in Turnhill, and I should soon have had the best—if I hadn't been done."
"Yes?" said Hilda. The confidence flattered her.
"Well, Karkeek came into some money,—and he simply walked out of the office! Simply walked out! Didn't give me time to turn round. I'd always treated him properly. But he was jealous."
"What a shame!" Hilda's scorn shrivelled up Mr. Karkeek. There was nothing that she detested so much as a disloyalty.
"Yes. I couldn't stop him, of course. No formal agreement between us. Couldn't be, in a case like ours! So he had me. He'd taken my wages quick enough as long as it suited him. Then he comes into money, and behaves like that. Jealousy! They were all jealous,—always had been. I was doing too well. So I had the whole gang down on me instantly like a thousand of bricks. They knew I was helpless, and so they came on. Special meeting of the committee of the North Staffordshire Law Society, if you please! Rumours of prosecution—oh yes! I don't know what!... All because I wouldn't take the trouble to pass their wretched exams.... Why, I could pass their exams on my head, if I hadn't anything better to do. But I have. At first I thought I'd retire for five years and pass their exams, and then come back and make 'em sit up. And wouldn't I have made 'em sit up! But then I said to myself, 'No. It isn't good enough.'"
Hilda frowned. "What isn't?"
"What? The Five Towns isn't good enough! I can find something better than the law, and I can find something better than the Five Towns!... And here young Lawton has the impudence to begin to preach to me on Knype platform, and to tell me I'm wise in going! He's the President of the local Law Society, you know! No end of a President! And hasn't even got gumption enough to keep his father's practice together! Stupid ass! Well, I let him have it, and straight! He's no worse than the rest. They've got no brains in this district. And they're so narrow—narrow isn't the word! Thick-headed's the word. Stupid! Mean!... Mean!... What did it matter to them? I kept to all their rules. There was a real solicitor on the premises, and there'd soon have been another, if I'd had time. No concern of theirs how the money was divided between me and the real solicitor. But they were jealous—there you are! They don't understand enterprise. They hate it. Nothing ever moves in the Five Towns. And they've got no manners—I do believe that's the worst. Look at Lawton's manners! Nothing but a boor! They aren't civilized yet—that's what's the matter with them! That's what my father used to say. Barbarians, he used to say. 'Ce sont des barbares!'... Kids used to throw stones at him because of his neck-tie. The grown-ups chuck a brick at anything they don't quite fancy. That's their idea of wit."
Hilda was afraid of his tempestuous mood. But she enjoyed her fear, as she might have enjoyed exposure to a dangerous storm. She enjoyed the sensation of her fragility and helplessness there, cooped up with him in the close intimacy of the compartment. She was glad that he did not apologize to her for his lack of restraint, nor foolishly pretend that he was boring her.
"It does seem a shame!" she murmured, her eyes candidly admitting that she felt enormously flattered.
He sighed and laughed. "How often have I heard my father say that—'Ce sont des barbares!' Peels only brought him over because they could find nobody in the Five Towns civilized enough to do the work that he did.... I can imagine how he must have felt when he first came here!... My God!... Environment!... I tell you what—it's only lately I've realized how I loathe the provinces!"
The little interior in which they were, swept steadily and smoothly across the central sunlit plain of England, passing canals and brooks and cottages and churches—silent and stolid in that English stupidity that he was criticizing. And Hilda saw of George Cannon all that was French in him. She saw him quite anew, as something rather exotic and entirely marvellous. She thought: "When I first met him, I said to myself he was a most extraordinary man. And I was right. I was more right than I ever imagined. No one down there has any idea of what he really is. They're too stupid, as he says."
He imposed on her his scorn of the provincial. She had to share it. She had a vision of the Five Towns as a smoky blotch on the remote horizon,—negligible, crass, ridiculous in its heavy self-complacency. The very Orgreaves themselves were tinged with this odious English provincialism.
He smiled to himself, and then said, very quietly: "It isn't of the least importance, you know. In fact I'm rather glad. I've never had any difficulty in making money, and when I've settled up everything down there I shan't be precisely without. And I shall have no excuse for not branching out in a new line."
She meekly encouraged him to continue.
"Oh yes!" he went on. "The law isn't the only thing—not by a long way. And besides, I'm sick of it. Do you know what the great thing of the future is, I mean the really great thing—the smashing big thing?" He smiled, kindly and confidential.
She too smiled, shaking her head.
"Well, I'll tell you. Hotels!"
"Hotels?" She was perfectly nonplussed.
"Hotels! There'll be more money and more fun to be got out of hotels, soon, than out of any other kind of enterprise in the world. You should see those hotels that are going up in London! They'd give you a start, and no mistake! Yes, hotels! There aren't twenty people in England who know what a hotel is! But I know!" He paused, and added reflectively, in a comically naive tone: "Curious how these things come to you, bit by bit! Now, if it hadn't been for Sarah—and that boarding-house—"
He was using his straw hat as a fan. With an unexpected and almost childlike gesture he suddenly threw the hat up on to the rack above his head, "How's that?"
"What a boy he is, after all!" thought Hilda sympathetically, wondering why in the midst of all her manifold astonishment she felt so light-hearted and gay.
"Funny parcel you've got up there!" he idly observed, glancing from one rack to the other.
The parcel contained Mrs. Orgreave's generous conception of a repast proper to be eaten in a train in place of high tea. He helped her to eat it.
As the train approached London he resumed his manhood. And he was impeccably adult as he conducted her from Euston to King's Cross, and put her into a train in a corner of the station that the summer twilight had already taken possession of.
Late at night Hilda sat with Sarah Gailey in the landlady's small bedroom at the Cedars. It was lighted by a lamp, because the builder of the house, hating excess, had thought fit not to carry gas-pipes higher than the first floor. A large but old bedstead filled half the floor space. On the shabby dressing-table a pile of bills and various papers lay near the lamp. Clothes were hung behind the door, and a vague wisp of muslin moved slightly in the warm draught from the tiny open window. There were two small cane-chairs, enamelled, on which the women sat, close to each other, both incommoded by the unwholesome sultriness of the only chamber that could be spared for the private use of the house-mistress. This small bedroom was Sarah Gailey's home; its amenities were the ultimate nightly reward of her labours. If George Cannon had obtained possession of the Cedars as an occupation for Sarah, this room and Sarah's pleasure therein were the sole justification of the entire mansion.
As Hilda looked at Sarah Gailey's bowed head, but little greyed, beneath the ray of the lamp, and at her shrivelled, neurotic, plaintive face in shadow, and at her knotty hands loosely clasped, she contrasted her companion and the scene with the youthfulness and the spaciousness and the sturdy gay vigour of existence in the household of the Orgreaves. She thought, with a renewed sense of the mysterious strangeness of life: "Last night I was there, far away—all those scores of miles of fields and towns are between!—and to-night I am here. Down there I was nothing but an idler. Here I am the strongest. I am indispensable. I am the one person on whom she depends. Without me everything will go to pieces." And she thought of George Cannon's vast enigmatic projects concerning grand hotels. In passing the immense pile of St. Pancras on the way from Euston to King's Cross, George Cannon had waved his hand and said: "Look at that! Look at that! It's something after that style that I want for a toy! And I'll have it!" Yes, the lofty turrets of St. Pancras had not intimidated him. He, fresh from little Turnhill and from defeats, could rise at once to the height of them, and by the force of imagination make them his own! He could turn abruptly from the law—to hotels! A disconcerting man! And the mere tone in which he mentioned his enterprise seemed, in a most surprising way, to dignify hotels, and even boarding-houses; to give romance to the perfectly unromantic business of lodging and catering!... And the seed from which he was to grow the magic plant sat in the room there with Hilda: that bowed head! The ambition and the dream resembled St. Pancras: the present reality was the Cedars, and Sarah's poor, stuffy little bedroom in the Cedars.
Sarah began to cry, weakly.
"But what's the matter?" asked Hilda, the strong succourer.
"Nothing. Only it's such a relief to me you've come."
Hilda deprecated lightly. "I should have come sooner if I'd known. You ought to have sent word before."
"No, I couldn't. After all, what is it? I'm only silly. There's nothing really the matter. The minute you come I can see that. I can even stand those Boutwoods if you're here. You know George made it up with them; and I won't say he wasn't right. But I had to put my pride in my pocket. And yesterday it nearly made me scream out to see Mrs. Boutwood stir her tea."
"I don't know. It's nerves, that's what it is.... Well, I've got to go through these." She fingered the papers on the dressing-table with her left hand while drying her tears with the right. "He's very wishful for proper accounts, George is. That's right enough. But—well—I think I can make a shilling go as far as anyone, and choose flesh-meat with anyone, too—that I will say—but these accounts...! George is always wanting to know how much it costs a head a week for this that and the other.... It's all very well for him, but if he had the servants to look after and—"
"I'm going to keep your accounts for you," Hilda soothed her.
"I'm going to keep your accounts for you," And she thought: "How exactly like mother I was just then!"
It appeared to Hilda that she was making a promise, and shouldering a responsibility, against her will, and perhaps against her common sense. She might keep accounts at the Cedars for a week, a fortnight, a month. But she could not keep accounts there indefinitely. She was sowing complications for herself. Freedom and change and luxury were what she deemed she desired; not a desk in a boarding-house. And yet something within her compelled her to say in a firm, sure, kindly voice:
"Now give me all those papers, Miss Gailey."
And amid indefinite regret and foreboding, she was proud and happy in her role of benefactor.
When Hilda at length rose to go to her own room, Sarah Gailey had to move her chair so that she might pass. At the door both hesitated for an instant, and then Hilda with a sudden gesture advanced her lips. It was the first time she and Sarah had ever kissed. The contact with that desiccated skin intensified to an extraordinary degree Hilda's emotional sympathy for the ageing woman. She thought, poignantly: "Poor old thing!"
And when she was on the dark little square landing under the roof, Sarah, holding the lamp, called out in a whisper.
"Did he say anything to you about Brighton?"
"Brighton?" She perceived with certainty from Sarah's eager and yet apologetic tone, that the question had been waiting for utterance throughout the evening, and that Sarah had lacked courage for it until the kiss had enheartened her. And also she perceived that Sarah was suspecting her of being somehow in conspiracy with George Cannon.
"Yes," said Sarah. "He's got into his head that Brighton's the only place for this boarding-house business if it's to be properly done."
"He never said a word to me about Brighton," Hilda whispered positively.
Hilda descended the stairs, groping. Brighton? What next?
CHAPTER III AT BRIGHTON
She thought vividly, one afternoon about three months later, of that final scrap of conversation. Just as she had sat opposite George Cannon in a second-class compartment, so now she was sitting opposite Sarah Gailey in a second-class compartment. The train, having passed Lewes, was within a few minutes of Brighton. And following behind them, somewhere at the tail of the train, were certain trunks containing all that she possessed and all that Sarah Gailey possessed of personal property—their sole chattels and paraphernalia on earth. George Cannon had willed it and brought it about. He was to receive them on the platform of Brighton Station. She had not seen very much of him in the interval, for he had been continually on the move between Brighton and Turnhill. "In a moment we shall all be together again," she reflected. "This meeting also will happen, as everything else has happened, and a new period will definitely have begun." And she sat and stared at the closed eyes of the desiccated Sarah Gailey, and waited for the instant of arrival apprehensively and as it were incredulously—not with fear, not with pleasure, but with the foreboding of adventure and a curious idea that the instant of arrival never would come.
For thirteen weeks, which had gone very quickly, she had devoted herself to Sarah Gailey, acting as George Cannon's precursor, prophet, and expounder. While the summer cooled into autumn, and the boarding-house season slackened and once more feebly brightened, she had daily conversed with Sarah about George's plans, making them palatable to her, softening the shocks of them, and voluntarily promising not to quit her until the crisis was past. She had had to discourse on the unique advantages of Brighton as a field for George's enterprise, and on George's common sense and on Sarah's common sense, and the interdependence of the two. When the news came that George had acquired down there a house in going order, she had had to prove that it was not the end of the world that was announced. When the news came that George had re-sold the Cedars to its original occupier, she had had to prove that the transaction did not signify a mysterious but mortal insult to Sarah. When the news came that the Cedars must be vacated before noon on a given Saturday, she had had to begin all her demonstrations afresh, and in addition attempt to persuade Sarah that George was not utterly mad—buying and selling boarding-house tenancies all over the South of England!—and that the exit from the Cedars would not be the ruin of dignity and peace, and the commencement of fatal disasters. In the hour when Sarah Gailey learnt the immutable Saturday of departure, the Cedars, which had been her hell, promised to become, on that very Saturday, a paradise.
On the whole, the three months had constituted a quarter of exceeding difficulty and delicacy. The first month had been rendered memorable by Sarah's astonishing behaviour when Hilda had desired to pay, as before, for her board and lodging. The mere offer of the money had made plain to Sarah—what she then said she had always suspected—that Hilda was her enemy in disguise and (like the rest) bent on humiliating her, and outraging her most sacred feelings. In that encounter, but in no other, Sarah had won. The opportune withdrawal of the Boutwoods from the boarding-house had assisted the establishment of peace. When the Boutwoods left, Miss Gailey seemed to breathe the drawing-room air as though it were ozone of the mountains. But her joy had been quickly dissipated, for to dissipate joy was her chief recreation. A fortnight before the migration to Brighton Hilda, contemplating all that had to be done, had thought, aghast: "I shall never he able to humour her into doing it all!" Closing of accounts, dismissals, inventories, bills, receipts, packing, decision concerning trains, reception of the former proprietor (especially that!), good-byes, superintending the stowage of luggage on the cab...! George Cannon had not once appeared in the last sensitive weeks, and he had therein been wise. And all that had to be done had been done—not by Hilda, but by Sarah Gailey the touchy and the competent. Hilda had done little but the humouring.
And there sat Sarah Gailey, deracinated and captive, to prove how influential a person Hilda was! With the eyes shut, Sarah's worn face under her black bonnet had precisely the aspect of a corpse—and the corpse of somebody who had expired under the weight of all the world's woe! Hilda thought: "When she is dead she will look just like that!... And one day, sooner or later, she will be dead." Strange that Sarah Gailey, with no malady except her chronic rheumatism, and no material anxiety, and every prospect of security in old age, could not be content, could not at any rate refrain from being miserable! But she could not. She was an exhaustless fount of worry and misery. "I suppose I like her," thought Hilda. "But why do I like her? She isn't agreeable. She isn't amusing. She isn't pretty. She isn't even kind, now. She's only depressing and tedious. As soon as she's fixed up here, I shall go. I shall leave her. I've done enough, and I've had enough. I must attend to my own affairs a bit. After all—" And then Hilda's conscience interrupted: "But can you leave her altogether? Without you, what will happen to her? She's getting older and worse every day. Perhaps in a few years she won't even be competent. Already she isn't perhaps quite, quite as competent as she was." And Hilda said: "Well, of course, I shall have to keep an eye on her; come and see her sometimes—often." And she knew that as long as they both lived she could never be free from a sense of responsibility towards Sarah Gailey. Useless to argue: "It's George Cannon's affair, not mine!" Useless to ask: "Why should I feel responsible?" Only after she had laid Sarah Gailey in the tomb would she be free. "And that day too will come!" she thought again. "I shall have to go through it, and I shall go through it!"
The poignant romance of existence enveloped her in its beautiful veils. And through these veils she saw, vague and diminished, the far vista of the hours which she had spent with the Orgreaves. She saw the night of Edwin Clayhanger's visit, and herself and him together in the porch, and she remembered the shock of his words, "There's no virtue in believing." The vision was like that of another and quite separate life. Would she ever go back to it? Janet was her friend, in theory her one intimate friend: she had seen her once in London,—beautiful, agreeable, affectionate, intelligent; all the Orgreaves were lovable. The glance of Edwin Clayhanger, and the sincerity of his smile, had affected her in a manner absolutely unique.... But would she ever go back? It seemed to her fantastic, impossible, that she should ever go back. It seemed to her that she was netted by destiny. In any case she knew that she could not, meanwhile, give to that group in Bursley even a part of herself. Hilda could never give a part of herself. Moreover, she was a bad letter-writer. And so, if among themselves the group at Bursley charged her with inconstancy, she must accept the accusation, to which she was inevitably exposed by the very ardour of her temperament.
The putting-on of brakes took her unawares. The train was in Brighton, sliding over the outskirts of the town. Miss Gailey opened her apprehensive eyes. Hilda saw steep streets of houses that sprawled on the hilly mounds of the great town like ladders: reminiscent of certain streets of her native district, yet quite different, a physiognomy utterly foreign to her. This then, was Brighton. That which had been a postmark became suddenly a reality, shattering her preconceptions of it, and disappointing her she knew not why. She glanced forward, through the window, and saw the cavern of the station. In a few seconds they would have arrived, and her formal mission would be over. She was very agitated and very nervous. George Cannon had promised to meet them. Would he meet them?
The next instant she saw the platform. She saw George Cannon, conspicuous and debonair in a new suit, swinging his ebony stick. The train stopped. He descried them.
"There he is!" she said, bravely pretending to be gay. And she thought: "I could not believe that this moment would come, but it has come."
She had anticipated relief from this moment, but she was aware of no relief. On the contrary, she felt most uncomfortably apologetic to Sarah Gailey for George Cannon, and to George Cannon for Sarah Gailey. She had the constraint of a sinner. And, by the side of George Cannon on the platform, she was aware of her shabbiness and of her girlish fragility. Nevertheless, she put her shoulders back with a gesture like his own, thinking proudly, and trying to make her eyes speak: "Well, here is Sarah Gailey,—thanks to me!"
As Sarah greeted him, Hilda observed, with some dismay, a curious, very slight stiffening of her demeanour—familiar phenomenon, which denoted that Sarah was in the grip of a secret grievance. "Poor old thing!" she thought ruefully. "I'd imagined she'd forgiven him for bringing her here; but she hasn't."
They drove down from the station in an open carriage, unencumbered by the trunks, which George Cannon had separately disposed of. He sat with his back to the horse, opposite the two women, and talked at intervals about the weather, the prospects of the season, and the town. His familiarity with the town was apparently such that he seemed to be a native of it, and even in some mysterious way to have assisted in its creation and development; so that he took pride in its qualities and accepted responsibility for its defects. When he ceremoniously saluted two women who went by in another carriage, Hilda felt sharply the inferiority of an ignorant stranger in presence of one for whom the place had no secrets.