Her first disappointment changed slowly into expectant and hopeful curiosity. The quaint irregularities of the architecture, and the vastness of the thronged perspectives, made promises to her romantic sense. The town seemed to be endless as London. There were hotels, churches, chapels, libraries, and music-shops on every hand. The more ordinary features of main streets—the marts of jewellery, drapery, and tobacco—had an air of grandiose respectability; while the narrow alleys that curved enigmatically away between the lofty buildings of these fine thoroughfares beckoned darkly to the fancy. The multiplicity of beggars, louts, and organ-grinders was alone a proof of Brighton's success in the world; the organ-grinders, often a man and a woman yoked together, were extraordinarily English, genteel, and prosperous as they trudged in their neat, middle-class raiment through the gritty mud of the macadam, stolidly ignoring the menace of high-stepping horses and disdainful glittering wheels. Brighton was evidently a city apart. Nevertheless, Hilda did not as yet understand why George Cannon should have considered it to be the sole field worthy of his enterprise.
Then the carriage rounded into King's Road, and suddenly she saw the incredible frontage of hotels, and pensions and apartments, and she saw the broad and boundless promenade alive with all its processions of pleasure, and she saw the ocean. And everything that she had seen up to that moment fell to the insignificance of a background. She understood.
After a blusterous but mild autumn day the scarlet sun was setting calmly between a saffron sky and saffron water; it flashed upon waves and sails and flags, and upon the puddles in the road, and upon bow-windows and flowered balconies, giving glory to human pride. The carriage, merged in a phalanx of carriages, rolled past innumerable splendid houses, and every house without exception was a hostel and an invitation. Some were higher than any she had ever seen; and one terrific building, in course of construction, had already far overtopped the highest of its neighbours. She glanced at George Cannon, who, by a carefully casual demeanour, was trying not to take the credit of the entire spectacle; and she admitted that he was indeed wonderful.
"Of course, Sarah," he said, as the carriage shortly afterwards turned up Preston Street, where the dying wind roughly caught them, "we aren't beginning with anything as big as all that, so you needn't shiver in your shoes. You know what my notion is"—he included Hilda in his address—"my notion is to get some experience first in a smaller house. We must pay for our experience, and my notion is to pay as little as possible. I can tell you there's quite a lot of things that have to be picked up before you've got the hang of a town like this—quite a lot."
Sarah grimly nodded. She had scarcely spoken.
"We're beginning rather well. I've told you all about the Watchett sisters, haven't I? They're an income, a positive income! And then Boutwood and his wife have decided to come—did I tell you?"
The syllable escaped explosively from Sarah Gailey's mouth, overcoming her stern guard. Instantly, by a tremendous effort, she checked the flow. But the violent shock of the news had convulsed her whole being. The look on her face was changed to desperation. Hilda trembled, and even the splendid and ever-resurgent George Cannon was discountenanced. Not till then had Hilda realized with what intense bitterness the souvenir of the Boutwoods festered in Sarah Gailey's unreasoning heart.
"Here we are!" said George Cannon jauntily, as the carriage stopped in front of No. 59 Preston Street. But his jauntiness seemed factitious. The demeanour of all three was diffident and unnatural, for now had arrived the moment when George Cannon had to submit his going concern to the ordeal of inspection by the women, and especially by Sarah Gailey. There the house stood, a physical fact, forcing George to justify it, and beseeching clemency from the two women. The occasion was critical; therefore everybody had to pretend that it was a perfectly ordinary occasion, well knowing the futility of the pretence. And the inevitable constraint was acutely aggravated by Sarah's silent and terrible reception of the news concerning the Boutwoods.
While George Cannon was paying the driver, Sarah and Hilda hesitated awkwardly on the pavement, their hands occupied with small belongings. They had the sensation of being foreigners to the house; they could not even mount the steps without his protection; scarcely might they in decency examine the frontage of the house. They could not, however, avoid seeing that a workman was fixing a new and splendid brass-plate at the entrance, and that this plate bore the words, "Cannon's Boarding- house." Hilda thought, startled: "At last he is using his own name!"
He turned to them.
"You have a view of the sea from the bow-window of the drawing-room—on the first floor," he remarked.
Neither Hilda nor Sarah responded.
"And of course from the other bow-window higher up," he added, almost pitifully, in his careful casualness.
Hilda felt sorry for him, and she could not understand why she felt sorry, why it seemed a shame that he should be mysteriously compelled thus to defend the house before it had been attacked.
"Oh yes!" she murmured foolishly, almost fatuously.
The street and the house were disappointing. After the grandeur of the promenade, the street appeared shabby and third-rate; it had the characteristics of a side street; it was the retreat of those who could not afford anything better, and its base inhabitants walked out on to the promenade and swaggeringly feigned to be the equals of their superiors. The house also was shabby and third-rate—with its poor little glimpse of the sea. Although larger than the Cedars, it was noticeably smaller and meaner than any house on the promenade, and whereas the Cedars was detached, No. 59 was not even semi-detached, but one of a gaunt, tall row of stuccoed and single-fronted dwellings. It looked like a boarding-house (which the Cedars did not), and not all the style of George Cannon's suit and cane and manner, as he mounted the steps, nor the polish of his new brass-plate, could redeem it from the disgrace of being a very ordinary boarding-house.
George Cannon had made a serious mistake in bringing the carriage round by the promenade. True, he had exhibited the glory of Brighton, but he had done so to the detriment of his new enterprise. That No. 59 ought to be regarded as merely an inexpensive field for the acquiring of preliminary experience did not influence the judgment of the women in the slightest degree. For them it was a house that rightly apologized for itself, and whose apologetic air deserved only a condescending tolerance.
The front door stood open for the convenience of the artisan who was screwing at the brass-plate. He moved aside, with the servility that always characterizes the worker in a city of idlers, and the party passed into a long narrow hall, whose walls were papered to imitate impossible blocks of mustard-coloured marble. The party was now at home.
"Here we are!" said Hilda, with a gaiety that absolutely desolated herself, and in the same instant she remembered that George Cannon had preceded her in saying 'Here we are!' She looked from the awful glumness of Sarah Gailey to the equally awful alacrity of George Cannon, and felt as though she had committed some crime whose nature she could not guess.
A middle-aged maid appeared, like a suspicious scout, at the far end of the hall, beyond the stairs, having opened a door which showed a glimpse of a kitchen.
"That tea ready?" asked George Cannon.
"No, sir," said the maid plumply.
"Well, let it be got ready."
"Yes, sir." The maid vanished, flouncing.
Sarah Gailey, with a heavy sigh, dropped her small belongings on to a narrow bare table that stood against the wall near the foot of the stairs. Daylight was fading.
"Well," said George Cannon, balancing his hat on his cane, "your luggage will be here directly. This is the dining-room." He pushed at a yellow-grained door.
The women followed him into the dining-room, and stared at the dining- room in silence.
"There's a bedroom behind," he said, as they came out, and he displayed the bedroom behind. "That's the kitchen." He pointed to the adjoining door.
"The drawing-room's larger," he said. "It includes the width of the hall."
They climbed the narrow stairs after him wearily. The door of the drawing-room was ajar, and the chatter of thin feminine voices could be heard within. George Cannon gave a soundless warning whisper: "The Watchetts." And Sarah Gailey frowned back the information that she did not wish to meet the Watchetts just then. With every precaution against noise, George Cannon opened two other doors, showing bedrooms. And then, as it were, hypnotized by him, the women climbed another flight of narrow stairs, darkening, and saw more rooms, and then still another flight, and still more rooms, and finally the boasted view of the sea! After all, Hilda was obliged to admit to herself that the house was more impressive than she had at first supposed. Although single-fronted, it was deep, and there were two bedrooms on the first floor, and four each—two large and two small—on the second and third. Eleven in all, they had seen, of which three were occupied by the Watchetts, and one, temporarily, by George Cannon. The rest were empty; but the season had scarcely begun, and the Boutwoods were coming. George Cannon had said grandly that Hilda must choose her room; she chose the smallest on the top floor. The furniture, if shabby and old-fashioned, was everywhere ample.
They descended, and not a word had been said about Sarah's room.
On the first-floor landing, where indeed the danger was acutest, they were trapped by two of the Watchetts. These elderly ladies shot almost roguishly out of the drawing-room, and by their smiles struck the descending party into immobility.
"Oh! We saw you arrive, Mr. Cannon!" said the elder, shaking her head. "So this is Miss Gailey! Good afternoon, Miss Gailey! So pleased to make your acquaintance!"
There was handshaking. Then it was Hilda's turn.
"We're so sorry our eldest sister isn't here to welcome you to No. 59," said the younger. "She's had to go to London for the day. We're very fond of No. 59. There's no place quite like it, to our minds. And we're quite sure we shall be quite as comfortable with dear Miss Gailey as we were with dear Mrs. Granville, poor thing. It was quite a wrench when we had to say good-bye to her last night. Do come into the drawing-room, please! There's a beautiful view of the sea!"
Sarah Gailey hesitated. A noise of bumping came from the hall below.
"I think that's the luggage," she said. The smile with which she forced herself to respond to the fixed simper of the Watchetts seemed to cause her horrible torment. She motioned nervously to George Cannon, who was nearest the stairs.
"A little later, then! A little later, then!" said both the Watchetts, bowing the party away with the most singular grimaces.
In the hall, a lad, perspiring and breathing quickly, stood behind the trunks.
"Wait a moment," George Cannon said to him, and murmured to Sarah: "This is the basement, here."
The middle-aged maid appeared at the kitchen door with a large loaded tray. "Come along with that tea, Louisa," he added pleasantly.
He went first, Sarah next, and Hilda last, cautiously down a short, dark flight of stone steps beneath the stairs; the servant followed. At the foot a gas-jet burned.
"Those Watchetts might be the landladies!" muttered Sarah, strangely ignoring the propinquity of the maid; and sniffed.
Hilda gave a short, uneasy laugh. She had a desire to laugh loudly and wildly, and by so doing to snap the nervous tension, which seemed to grow tighter and tighter every minute. Her wretchedness had become so exquisite that she could begin to enjoy it, to savour it like a pleasure.
And she thought, with conscious and satisfied grimness:
"So this is Brighton!"
CHAPTER IV THE SEA
In the evening Hilda, returning from a short solitary walk as far as the West Pier, found Sarah Gailey stooping over her open trunks in the bedroom which had been assigned to her. There were two quite excellent though low-ceiled rooms, of which this was one, in the basement; the other was to be used as a private parlour by the managers of the house. At night, with the gas lighted and the yellow blind drawn and the loose bundle of strips paper gleaming in the grate, the bedroom seemed very cozy and habitable in its shabbiness; like the rest of the house it had an ample supply of furniture, and especially of those trifling articles, useful or useless, which collect only by slow degrees, and which are a proof of long humanizing habitation. In that room Sarah Gailey was indeed merely the successor of the regretted Mrs. Granville, the landlady who had mysteriously receded into the unknown before the advent of Sarah and Hilda, but with whom George Cannon must have had many interviews. No doubt the room was an epitome of the character of Mrs. Granville, presumably a fussy and precise celibate, with a place for everything and everything in its place, and an indiscriminating tendency to hoard.
Sarah Gailey was at that stage of unpacking when, trunks being nearly empty and drawers having scarcely begun to fill, bed, table, and chairs are encumbered with confused masses of goods apparently far exceeding the cubical contents of the trunks.
"Can I do anything for you?" asked Hilda.
The new landlady raised her watery and dejected eyes. "If you wouldn't mind taking every single one of those knick-knacks off the mantelpiece and putting them away on the top shelf of the cupboard—"
Hilda smiled. "It's a bit crowded, isn't it?"
"Crowded!" By her intonation of this one word Sarah Gailey condemned Mrs. Granville's whole life.
"Can I empty this chair? I shall want something to stand on," said Hilda.
"Better see if the shelf's dusty," Sarah gloomily warned her.
"Well," murmured Hilda, on the chair. "If my feather doesn't actually touch the ceiling!" Sarah Gailey made no response to this light-heartedness, and Hilda, with her hands full of vain gewgaws, tried again: "I wonder what Mrs. Granville would say if she saw me!... My word, it's quite hot up here!"
A resonant, very amiable voice came from beyond the door: "Is she there?"
"Who?" demanded Sarah, grievous.
"Miss Lessways." It was George Cannon.
"I just want to speak to her if she's at liberty," said George Cannon.
Hilda cried from the ceiling: "I'll come as soon as I've—"
"Please go now," Sarah interrupted in tense accents. Hilda glanced down at her, astonished, and saw in her eyes an almost childish appeal, weak and passionate, which gripped the heart painfully.
She jumped from the chair. Sarah Gailey was now sitting on the bed. Yes, in her worn face of a woman who has definitely passed the climacteric, and in the abandoned pose of those thin arms, there was the look and gesture of a young girl desperately beseeching. Hilda was puzzled and intimidated. She had meant to be jocular, and to insist on staying till the task was finished. But she kept silence and obeyed the supplication, from a motive of prudence.
"I wouldn't keep you from him for anything," murmured Sarah Gailey tragically, as Hilda opened the door and left her sitting forlorn among all her skirts and linen.
"I'm here," George Cannon called out from the parlour when he heard the sound of the door. He was looking from the window up at the street; the blind had not been drawn. He turned as Hilda entered.
"You've been out!" he said, observing that she was in street attire.
"What is it?" she asked nervously, fearing that some altercation had already occurred between brother and sister.
"It's about your private affairs—that's all," he said easily, and half-humourously. "If you'll just come in."
"Oh!" she smiled her relief; but nevertheless she was still preoccupied by the image of the woman in the next room.
"They've been dragging on quite long enough," said George Cannon, as he stooped to poke the morsel of fire in the old-fashioned grate, which had a hob on either side. On one of these hobs was a glass of milk. Hilda had learnt that day for the first time that at a certain hour every evening George Cannon drank a glass of warm milk, and that this glass of warm milk was an important factor in his daily comfort. He now took the glass and drank it off. And Hilda had a peculiar sensation of being more intimate with him than she had ever been before.
They sat down to the square table in the middle of the room crowded with oddments of furniture, including a desk which George Cannon had appropriated to his own exclusive use. This desk was open and a portion of its contents were spread abroad on the crimson cloth of the table. Among them Hilda noticed, with her accustomed clerkly eye, two numbers of The Hotel-Keeper and Boarding-House Review, several sheets of advertisement-scales, and a many-paged document with the heading, "Inventory of Furniture at No. 59 Preston Street"; also a large legal envelope inscribed, "Lessways Estate."
From the latter George Cannon drew forth an engraved and flourished paper, which he silently placed in front of her. It was a receipt signed by the manager of the Brighton branch of the Southern Counties Bank for the sum of three thousand four hundred and forty-five pounds deposited at call by Miss Hilda Lessways.
"Everything is now settled up," he said. "Here are all the figures," and he handed her another paper showing the whole of the figures for the realization of her real property and of her furniture. "It's in your name, and nobody can touch it but you."
She glanced at the figures vaguely, not attempting to comprehend them. As for the receipt, it fascinated her. The fragile scrap represented her livelihood, her future, her salvation. It alone stood between her and unimagined terrors. And she was surprised to see it, surprised by its assurance that no accident had happened to her possessions during the process of transformation carried out by George Cannon. For, though he had throughout been almost worryingly meticulous in his business formalities and his promptitudes—never had any interest or rent been a day late!—she admitted to herself now that she had been afraid... that, in fact, she had not utterly trusted him.
"And what's got to be done with this?" she asked simply, fingering the receipt.
He smiled at her, with a touch of protective and yet sardonic condescension, without saying a word.
And suddenly it struck her that ages had elapsed since her first interview with him in the office over the ironmonger's at Turnhill, and that both of them were extraordinarily changed. (She was reminded of that interview not by his face and look, nor by their relative positions at the table, but by a very faint odour of gas-fumes, for at Turnhill also a gas-jet had been between them.) After an interval of anxiety and depression he had regained exactly the triumphant self-sure air which was her earliest recollection of him. He was not appreciably older. But for her he was no longer the same man, because she saw him differently; knowing much more of him, she read in his features a thousand minor significances to which before she had been blind. The dominating impression was not now the impression of his masculinity; there was no clearly dominating impression. He had lost, for her, the romantic allurement of the strange and the unknown.
Still, she liked and admired him. And she felt an awe, which was agreeable to her, of his tremendous enterprise and his obstinate volition. That faculty which he possessed, of uprooting himself and uprooting others, put her in fear of him. He had willed to be established as a caterer in Brighton—he who but yesterday (as it seemed) was a lawyer in Turnhill—and, on this very night, he was established in Brighton, and his sister with him, and she with his sister! The enormous affair had been accomplished. This thought had been obsessing Hilda all the afternoon and evening.
When she reflected upon the change in herself, the untravelled Hilda of Turnhill appeared a stranger to her, and a simpleton!; no more!
As George Cannon offered no answer to her question, she said:
"I suppose it will have to be invested, all this?"
"Well, considering it's only been bringing in one per cent. per annum for the last week... Of course I needn't have put it on deposit, but I always prefer that way. It's more satisfactory."
Hilda could hear faintly, through the thin wooden partition, the movements of Sarah Gailey in the next room. And the image of the mournful woman returned to disquiet her. What could be the meaning of that hysteric appeal and glance? Then she heard the door of the bedroom open violently, and the figure of Sarah Gailey passed like a flash across the doorway of the parlour. And the footsteps of Sarah Gailey pattered up the stone stairs; and the front door banged; and the skirts and feet of Sarah Gailey intercepted for an instant the light of the street-lamp that shone on the basement-window of the parlour.
"Excuse me a minute," muttered Hilda, frowning. By one of her swift and unreflecting impulses she abandoned George Cannon and her private affairs, and scurried by the area steps into the street.
Bareheaded, and with no jacket or mantle, Sarah Gailey was walking quickly down Preston Street towards the promenade, and Hilda, afraid but courageous, followed her at a distance of thirty or forty yards. Hilda could not decide why she was afraid, nor why it should be necessary, in so simple an undertaking as a walk down Preston Street, to call upon her courage. Assuming even that Sarah Gailey turned round and caught her—what then? The consequences could not be very terrible. But Sarah Gailey did not turn round. She went straight forward, as though on a definite errand in a town with which she was perfectly familiar, and, having arrived at the corner of Preston Street and the promenade, unhesitatingly crossed the muddy roadway of the promenade, and, after a moment's halt, vanished down the steps in the sea-wall to the left-hand of the pier. The pier, a double rope of twinkling lamps, hung magically over the invisible sea, and at the end of it, constant and grave, a red globe burned menacingly in the wind-haunted waste of the night. And Hilda thought, as she hastened with gathering terror across the promenade: "Out there, at the end of the pier, the water is splashing and beating against the piles!"
She stopped at the parapet of the sea-wall, and looked behind her, like a thief. The wrought-iron entrance to the pier was highly illuminated, but except for a man's head and shoulders caged in the ticket-box of the turnstile, there was no life there; the man seemed to be waiting solitary with everlasting patience in the web of wavering flame beneath the huge dark sky. Scores of posters, large and small, showed that Robertson's "School" was being performed in the theatre away over the sea at the extremity of the pier. The promenade, save for one gigantic policeman, and a few distant carriages, was apparently deserted, and the line of dimly lighted hotels, stretching vaguely east and west, had an air grim and forlorn at that hour.
Hilda ran down the steps; at the bottom another row of lamps defined the shore, and now she could hear the tide lapping ceaselessly amid the supporting ironwork of the pier. She at once descried the figure of Sarah Gailey in the gloom. The woman was moving towards the faintly white edge of the sea. Hilda started to run after her, first across smooth asphalt, and then over some sails stretched out to dry; and then her feet sank at each step into descending ridges of loose shingle, and she nearly fell. At length she came to firm sand, and stood still.
Sarah Gailey was now silhouetted against the pale shallows of foam that in ever-renewed curves divided the shore from the sea. After a time, she bent down, rose again, moved towards the water, and drew back. Hilda did not stir. She could not bring herself to approach the lonely figure. She felt that to go and accost Sarah Gailey would be indelicate and inexcusable. She felt as if she were basely spying. She was completely at a loss, and knew not how to act. But presently she discerned that the white foam was circling round Sarah's feet, and that Sarah was standing careless in the midst of it. And at last, timid and shaking with agitation, she ventured nearer and nearer. And Sarah heard her on the sand, and looked behind.
"Miss Gailey!" she appealed in a trembling voice.
Sarah made no response of any kind, and Hilda reached the edge of the foam.
"Please, please don't stand there! You'll catch a dreadful cold, and you've got nothing on your shoulders, either!"
"I want to make a hole in the water," said Sarah miserably. "I wanted to make a hole in the water!"
"Please do come back with me!" Hilda implored; but she spoke mechanically, as though saying something which she was bound to say, but which she did not feel.
The foam capriciously receded, and Hilda, still without any effort of her own will, stepped across the glistening, yielding sand and took Sarah Gailey's arm. There was no resistance.
"I wanted to make a hole in the water," Sarah repeated. "But I made a mistake. I ought to have gone to that groin over there. I knew there was a groin near here, only it's so long since I was here. I'd forgotten just the place."
"But what's the matter?" Hilda asked, leading her away from the sea.
She was not extremely surprised. But she was shocked into a most solemn awe as she pressed the arm of the poor tragic woman who, but for an accident, might have plunged off the end of the groin into water deep enough for drowning. She did really feel humble before this creature who had deliberately invited death; she in no way criticized her; she did not even presume to condescend towards the hasty clumsiness of Sarah Gailey's scheme to die. She was overwhelmed by the woman's utterly unconscious impressiveness, which exceeded that of a criminal reprieved on the scaffold, for the woman had dared an experience that only the fierce and sublime courage of desperation can affront. She had a feeling that she ought to apologize profoundly to Sarah Gailey for all that Sarah must have suffered. And as she heard the ceaseless, cruel play of the water amid the dark jungle of ironwork under the pier, and the soft creeping of the foam-curves behind, and the vague stirrings of the night-wind round about—these phenomena combined mysteriously with the immensity of the dome above and with the baffling strangeness of the town, and with the grandeur of the beaten woman by her side; and communicated to Hilda a thrill that was divine in its unexampled poignancy.
The great figure of the policeman, suspicious, was descending from the promenade discreetly towards them. To avoid any encounter with him Hilda guided her companion towards the pier, and they sheltered there under the resounding floor of the pier. By the light of one of the lower lamps Hilda could now clearly see Sarah Gailey's face. It showed no sign of terror. It was calm enough in its worn, resigned woe. It had the girlish look again, beneath the marks of age. Hilda could distinguish the young girl that Sarah had once been.
"Come home, will you?" she entreated.
Sarah Gailey sighed terribly. "I give it up," she said, with weariness. "I could never do it! I could never do it—now!"
Hilda pulled gently at her unwilling arm. She could not speak. She could not ask her again: "What's the matter?"
"It isn't that the house is too large," Sarah Gailey went on half meditatively; "though just think of all those stairs, and not a tap on any of the upper floors! No! And it isn't that I'm not ready enough to oblige him. No! I know as well as anybody there's only him between me and starvation. No! It isn't that he doesn't consider me! No! But when he goes and settles behind my back with those Boutwoods—" She began to weep. "And when I can hear you and him discussing me in the next room, and plotting against me—it's—it's more—" The tears gradually drowned her voice, and she ceased.
"I assure you, you're quite mistaken," Hilda burst out, with passionate and indignant persuasiveness. "We never mentioned you. He wanted to talk to me about my money. And if you feel like that over the Boutwoods, I'm certain he'll tell them they mustn't come."
Sarah Gailey shook her head blankly.
"I'm certain he will!" Hilda persisted. "Please—"
The other began to walk away, dragging Hilda with her. The policeman, inspecting them from a distance, coughed and withdrew. They climbed a flight of steps on the far side of the pier, crossed the promenade, and went up Preston Street in silence.
"I should prefer not to be seen going in with you," said Sarah Gailey suddenly. "It might—" she freed her arm.
"Go down the area steps," said Hilda, "and I'll wait a moment and then go in at the front door."
Sarah Gailey hurried forward alone.
Hilda, watching her, and observing the wet footmarks which she left on the pavement, was appalled by the sense of her own responsibility as to the future of Sarah Gailey. Till this hour, even at her most conscientious, she had under-estimated the seriousness of Sarah Gailey's case. Everybody had under-estimated the seriousness of Sarah Gailey's case.
She became aware of some one hurrying cautiously up the street on the other side. It was George Cannon. As soon as Sarah had disappeared within the house he crossed over.
"What's the matter?" he inquired anxiously.
"She hasn't been trying to drown herself, has she?"
Hilda nodded, and, speechless, moved towards the house. He turned abruptly away.
The front door of No. 59 was still open. Hilda passed through the silent hall, and went timorously down the steps to the basement. The gas was still burning, and the clothes were still strewn about in Sarah Gailey's bedroom, just as though naught had happened. Sarah stood between her two trunks in the middle of the floor.
"Where's George?" she asked, in a harsh, perfectly ordinary voice.
"I don't think he's in the parlour," Hilda prevaricated.
"Promise me you won't tell him!"
"Of course I won't!" said Hilda kindly. "Do get into bed, and let me make you some tea."
Sarah Gailey rushed at her and embraced her.
"I know I'm all wrong! I know it's all my own fault!" she murmured, with plaintive, feeble contrition, crying again. "But you've no idea how I try! If it wasn't for you—"
That night Hilda, in her small bedroom at the top of the house, was listlessly arranging, at the back of the dressing-table, the few volumes which had clung to her, or to which she had clung, throughout the convulsive disturbances following her mother's death. Among them was one which she did not wish to keep, The Girls' Week-day Book, and also the whole set of Victor Hugo, which did not belong to her. George Cannon had lent her the latter in instalments, and she had omitted to return it. She was saying to herself that the opportunity to return it had at length arrived, when she heard a low, conspiratorial tapping at the door. All her skin crept as, after a second's startled hesitation, she moved to open the door.
George Cannon, holding a candle, stood on the landing. She had not seen him since the brief colloquy between them outside the house. Having satisfied herself that Sarah Gailey was safe, and to a certain extent tranquillized, for the night, she had awaited George Cannon's reappearance a long time in vain, and had then retired upstairs.
"You aren't gone to bed!" he whispered very cautiously. Within a few feet of them was an airless kennel where Louisa, the chambermaid, slept.
"No! I'm just—I stayed up for you I don't know how long."
"Is she all right?"
"Well—she's in bed."
"I wish you'd come to one of these other rooms," he continued to whisper. All the sibilants in his words seemed to detach themselves, hissing, from the rest of the sounds.
She gave a gesture of assent. He tiptoed over the traitorous boards of the landing, and slowly turned the knob of a door in the end wall. The door exploded like the firing of a pistol; frowning, he grimly pushed it open. Hilda followed him, noiselessly creeping. He held the door for her. She entered, and he shut the door on the inside. They were in a small bedroom similar to Hilda's own; but the bed was stripped, the square of carpet rolled, the blind undrawn, and the curtains looped up from the floor. He put the candle on the tiny iron mantelpiece, and sat on the bed, his hands in his pockets.
"You don't mean to say she was wanting to commit suicide?" he said, after a short reflective silence, with his head bent but his eyes raised peeringly to Hilda's.
The crudity of the word, 'suicide,' affected Hilda painfully.
"If you ask me," said she, standing with her back rubbing against the small wardrobe, "she didn't know quite what she was doing; but there's no doubt that was what she went out for."
"You overtook her? I saw you coming up from the beach."
Hilda related what had happened.
"But had you any notion—before—"
"Me? No! Why?"
"Nothing! Only the way you rushed out like that!"
"Well—it struck me all of a sudden!... You've not seen her since you came in?"
He shook his head. "I thought I'd better keep out of the way. I thought I'd better leave it all to you. It's appalling, simply appalling!... Just when everything was shaping so well!"
Hilda thought, bewildered: 'Shaping so well?' With her glance she took in the little cheerless bedroom, and herself and George Cannon within it, overwhelmed. In imagination she saw all the other bedrooms, dark, forlorn, and inanimate, waiting through long nights and empty days until some human creature as pathetic as themselves should come and feebly vitalize them into a spurious transient homeliness; and she saw George Cannon's bedroom—the harsh bedroom of the bachelor who had never had a home; and the bedrooms of those fearsome mummies, the Watchetts, each bed with its grisly face on the pillow in the dark; and the kennels of the unclean servants; and so, descending through the floors, to Sarah Gailey's bedroom in the very earth, and the sleepless form on that bed, beneath the whole! And the organism of the boarding-house seemed absolutely tragic to her, compact of the stuff of sorrow itself! And yet George Cannon had said, 'Shaping so well!'
"What's to be done?" he inquired plaintively.
"Nothing that I can see!" she said. She had a tremendous desire to escape from the responsibility thrust on her by the situation; but she knew that she could never escape from it; that she was immovably pinned down by it.
"I can't see anything either," said he, quietly responsive, and speaking now in a gentle voice. "Supposing I tell her that she can go, and that I'll make her an allowance? What could she do, then? It would be madness for her to live alone any more. She's the very last person who ought to live alone. Moreover, she wouldn't accept the allowance. Well, then, she must stay with me—here. And if she stays here she must work, otherwise she'd never stay—not she! And she must be the mistress. She wouldn't stand having anyone above her, or even equal with her, that's a certainty! Besides, she's so good at her job. She hasn't got a great deal of system, so far as I can see, but she can get the work out of the servants without too much fuss, and she's so mighty economical in her catering! Of course she can't get on the right side of a boarder—but then I can! And that's the whole point! With me on the spot to run the place, she'd be perfect—perfect! Couldn't wish for anything better! And now she—I assure you I'm doing the best I can do for her. I do honestly assure you! If anybody can suggest to me anything else that I can do—I'll do it like a shot." He threw up his arms.
Hilda was touched by the benevolence of his tone. Nevertheless, it only intensified her helpless perplexity. Sarah Gailey was inexpressibly to be pitied, but George Cannon was not to be blamed. She had a feeling that for any piteous disaster some one ought to be definitely blamable.
"Do you think she'll settle down?" George Cannon asked, in a new voice.
"Oh yes!" said Hilda. "I think she will. It was just a sort of—attack she had, I think."
"She's not vexed with me?"
Hilda could not find courage to say: "She thinks you and I are plotting against her." And yet she wondered why she should hesitate to say it. After a pause she murmured, as casually as possible: "She doesn't like the Boutwoods coming back."
"I knew you were going to say that!" he frowned.
"If you could manage to stop them—"
"No, no!" He interrupted—nervous, impatient. "It wouldn't do, that wouldn't! It'd never do! A boarding-house can't be run on those lines. It isn't that I care so much as all that about losing a couple of boarders, and I'm not specially keen on the Boutwoods. But it wouldn't do! It's the wrong principle. You haven't got to let customers get on your nerves, so long as they pay and behave respectably. If I gave way, the very first thing Sarah would do would be to find a grievance against some other boarder, and there'd be no end to it. The fact is she wants a grievance, she must have a grievance—whether it's the Boutwoods or somebody else makes no matter!... Oh no!" He repeated softly, gently, "Oh no!"
She knew that his argument was unanswerable. She was perfectly aware that she ought to yield to it. Nevertheless, the one impulse of her being in that moment was to fight blindly and irrationally against it. Her instinct said: "I don't care for arguments. The Boutwoods must be stopped from coming. If they aren't stopped, I don't know what I shall do! I can't bear to think of that poor woman meeting them again! I can't bear it." She drew breath sharply. Startling hot tears came into her eyes; and she stepped forward on her left foot.
"Please!" she entreated, "please don't let them come!"
There was a silence. In the agonizing silence she felt acutely her girlishness, her helplessness, her unreason, confronted by his strong and shrewd masculinity. At the bottom of her soul she knew how wrong she was. But she was ready to do anything to save Sarah Gailey from the distress of one particular humiliation. With the whole of her volition she wanted to win.
"Oh well!" he said. "Of course, if you take it so much to heart—"
A peculiar bright glance shot from his eyes—the old glance that at once negligently asserted his power over her, and reassured her against his power. Her being was suffused with gladness and pride. She had won. She had won in defiance of reason. She had appealed and she had conquered. And she enjoyed his glance. She gloried in it. She blushed. A spasm of exquisite fear shot through her, and she savoured it deliciously. The deep organic sadness of the house presented itself to her in a new light. It was still sadness, but it was beautiful in the background. Her sympathy for Sarah Gailey was as keen as ever, but it had a different quality—an anguish less desolating. And the fact that a joint responsibility for Sarah Gailey's welfare bound herself and George Cannon together in spite of themselves—this fact seemed to her grandiose and romantic, no longer oppressive. To be alone with him in the secrecy of the small upper room seemed to endow her with a splendid worldly importance. And yet all the time a scarce-heard voice was saying clearly within her: "This appeal and this abandonment are unworthy. No matter if this man is kind and sincere and admirable! This appeal and this abandonment are unworthy!" But she did not care. She ignored the voice.
"I'll tell Sarah in the morning," he said.
"Please don't!" she begged. "You might pretend later on that you've had a letter from the Boutwoods and they can't come. If you tell her to-morrow, she'll guess at once I've been talking to you; and you're not supposed to know anything at all about what happened to-night. She made me promise. But of course she didn't know that you'd found out for yourself, you see!"
George Cannon walked away to the window, and then to the mantelpiece, from which he took up the candle.
"I'm very much obliged to you," he said simply, putting a faint emphasis on the last word. She knew that he meant it, without any reserves. But in his urbane tone there was a chill tranquillity that astonished and vaguely disappointed her.
* * * * *
BOOK IV HER FALL
CHAPTER I THE GOING CONCERN
On a Saturday afternoon of the following August, Hilda was sitting at a book in the basement parlour of "Cannon's Boarding-house" in Preston Street. She heard, through the open window, several pairs of feet mounting wearily to the front door, and then the long remote tinkling of the bell. Within the house there was no responsive sound; but from the porch came a clearing of throats, a muttering, impatient and yet resigned, and a vague shuffling. After a long pause the bell rang again; and then the gas globe over Hilda's head vibrated for a moment to footsteps in the hall, and the front door was unlatched. She could not catch the precise question; but the reply of Louisa, the chambermaid— haughty, scornful, and negligently pitying—was quite clear:
"Sorry, sir. We're full up. We've had to refuse several this very day.... No! I couldn't rightly tell you where.... You might try No. 51, 'Homeleigh' as they call it; but we're full up. Good afternoon, sir, 'd afternoon 'm."
The door banged arrogantly. The feet redescended to the pavement, and Hilda, throwing a careless glance at the window, saw two men and a woman pass melancholy down the hot street with their hand-luggage.
And although she condemned and despised the flunkey-souled Louisa, who would have abased herself with sickly smiles and sweet phrases before the applicants, if the house had needed custom; although in her mind she was saying curtly to the mature Louisa: "It's a good thing Mr. Cannon didn't hear you using that tone to customers, my girl;" nevertheless, she could not help feeling somewhat as Louisa felt. It was indubitably agreeable to hear a prosperous door closed on dusty and disappointed holiday-makers, and to realize, in her tranquil retreat, that she was part of a very thriving and successful concern.
George Cannon, in a light and elegant summer suit, passed slowly in front of the window, and, looking for Hilda in her accustomed place, saw her and nodded. Surprised by the unusual gesture, she moved uneasily and blushed; and as she did so, she asked herself resentfully: "Why do I behave like this? I'm only his clerk, and I shall never be anything else but his clerk; and yet I do believe I'm getting worse instead of better." George Cannon skipped easily up to the porch; he had a latchkey, but before he could put it into the keyhole Louisa had flown down the stairs and opened the door to him; she must have been on the watch from an upper floor. George Cannon would have been well served, whatever his situation in the house, for he was one of those genial bullies who are adored by the menials whom they alternately cajole and terrorize. But his situation in the house was that of a god, and like a god he was attended. He was the very creator of the house; all its life flowed from him. Without him the organism would have ceased to exist, and everybody in it was quite aware of this. He had fully learnt his business. He had learnt it in the fishmarket on the beach at seven o'clock in the morning, and in the vegetable market at eight, and in the shops; he had learnt it in the kitchen and on the stairs while the servants were cleaning; and he had learnt it at the dinner-table surrounded by his customers. There was nothing that he did not know and, except actual cooking and mending, little that he could not do. He always impressed his customers by the statement that he had slept in every room in the house in order to understand personally its qualities and defects; and he could and did in fact talk to each boarder about his room with the intimate geographical knowledge of a native. The boarders were further flattered by the mien and appearance of this practical housekeeper, who did not in the least resemble his kind, but had rather the style of a slightly doggish stockbroker. To be strolling on the King's Road in converse with George Cannon was a matter, of pride to boarders male and female. And there was none with whom he could not talk fluently, on any subject from cigars to ozone, according to the needs of the particular case. Nor did he ever seem to be bored by conversations. But sometimes, after benignantly speeding, for instance, one of the Watchetts on her morning constitutional, he would slip down into the basement and ejaculate, 'Cursed hag!' with a calm and natural earnestness, which frightened Hilda, indicating as it did that he must be capable of astounding duplicities.
He came, now, directly to the underground parlour, hat on head and ebony stick in hand. Hilda did not even look up, but self-consciously bent a little lower over her volume. Her relation to George Cannon in the successful enterprise was anomalous, and yet the habit of ten months had in practice defined it. Neither paying board nor receiving wages, she had remained in the house apparently as Sarah Gailey's companion and moral support; she had remained because Sarah Gailey had never been in a condition to be left—and the months had passed very quickly. But her lack of occupation and her knowledge of shorthand, and George Cannon's obvious need of clerical aid, had made it inevitable that they should resume their former roles of principal and clerk. Hilda worked daily at letters, circularizing, advertisements, and—to a less extent—accounts and bills; the second finger of her right hand had nearly always an agreeable stain of ink at the base of the nail; and she often dreamed about letter-filing. In this prosperous month of August she had, on the whole, less work than usual, for both circulating and advertisements were stopped.
George Cannon went to the desk in the dark corner between the window and the door, where all business papers were kept, but where neither he nor she actually wrote. When his back was turned she surreptitiously glanced at him without moving her head, and perceived that his hand was only moving idly about among the papers while he stared at the wall. She thought, half in alarm: "What is the matter now?" Then he came over to the table and hesitated by her shoulder. Still, she would not look up. She could no longer decipher a single word on the page. Her being was somehow monopolized by the consciousness of his nearness.
"Interesting?" he inquired.
She turned her head at last and glanced at him with a friendly smile of affirmation, fingering the leaves of the book nervously. It was Cranswick's History of Printing. One day, a fortnight earlier, while George Cannon, in company with her, was bargaining for an old London Directory outside a bookseller's shop in East Street, she had seen Cranswick's History of Printing (labelled "published at L1 1s., our price 6s. 6d.") and had opened it curiously. George Cannon, who always kept an eye on her, had said teasingly: "I suppose it's your journalistic past that makes you interested in that?" "I suppose it is," she answered. Which statement was an untruth, for the sole thought in her mind had been that Edwin Clayhanger was a printer. A strange, idle thought! She had laid the book down. The next day, however, George Cannon had brought it home, saying carelessly: "I bought that book—five and six; the man seemed anxious to do business, and it's a book to have." He had not touched it since.
"Page 473!" he murmured, looking at the number of the page. "If you keep on at this rate, you'll soon know more about printing than young Clayhanger himself!"
She was thunderstruck. Never before had the name of Clayhanger been mentioned between them! Could he, then, penetrate her thoughts? Could he guess that in truth she was reading Cranswick solely because Edwin Clayhanger happened to be a printer? No! It was impossible! The reason of her interest in Cranswick, inexplicable even to herself, was too fantastic to be divined. And yet was not his tone peculiar? Or was it only in her fancy that his tone was peculiar? She blushed scarlet, and her muscles grew rigid.
"I say," George Cannon continued, in a tone that now was unmistakably peculiar, "I want you to come out with me. I want to show you something on the front. Can you come?"
"At once?" she muttered glumly and painfully. What could be the mystery beneath this most singular behaviour?
"Florrie will be arriving at five," said Hilda, after artificially coughing. "I ought to be here then, oughtn't I?"
"Oh!" he cried. "We shall be back long before five."
"Very well," she agreed.
"I'll be ready in three minutes," he said, going gaily towards the door. From the door he gave her a glance. She met it, courageously exposing her troubled features and nodded.
Hilda went into the bedroom behind the parlour, to get her hat and gloves. A consequence of the success of the boarding-house was that she was temporarily sharing this chamber with Sarah Gailey. She had insisted on making the sacrifice, and she enjoyed the personal discomfort which it involved. When she cautiously lay down on the narrow and lumpy truckle-bed that had been insinuated against an unoccupied wall, and when she turned over restlessly in the night and the rickety ironwork creaked and Sarah Gailey moaned, and when she searched vainly for a particular garment lost among garments that were hung pell-mell on insecure hooks and jutting corners of furniture,—she was proud and glad because her own comfortable room was steadily adding thirty shillings or more per week to the gross receipts of the enterprise. The benefit was in no way hers, and yet she gloated on it, thinking pleasurably of George Cannon's great japanned cash-box, which seemed to be an exhaustless store of gold sovereigns and large silver, and of his mysterious—almost furtive—visits to the Bank. Her own capital, invested by George Cannon in railway stock, was bringing in four times as much as she disbursed; and she gloated also on her savings. The more money she amassed, the less willing was she to spend. This nascent avarice amused her, as a new trait in his character always amuses the individual. She said to herself: "I am getting quite a miser," with the assured reservation: "Of course I can stop being a miser whenever I feel like stopping."
Sarah Gailey was lulling herself in a rocking-chair when Hilda entered, and she neither regarded Hilda nor intermitted her see-saw. Her features were drawn into a preoccupied expression of martyrdom, and in fact she constantly suffered physical torture. She had three genuine complaints—rheumatism, sciatica, and neuritis; they were all painful. The latest and worst was the neuritis, which had attacked her in the wrist, producing swollen joints that had to be fomented with hot water. Sarah Gailey's life had indeed latterly developed into a continual fomentation and a continual rocking. She was so taken up with the elemental business of fomenting and of keeping warm, that she had no energy left for other remedial treatments, such as distraction in the open air. She sat for ever shawled, generally with heavy mittens on her arms and wrists, and either fomenting or rocking, in the eternal twilight of the basement bedroom. She eschewed aid—she could manage for herself—and she did not encourage company, apparently preferring to be alone with fate. In her easier hours, one hand resting on another and both hugged close to her breast, rocking to and fro with an astounding monotonous perseverance, she was like a mysterious Indian god in a subterranean temple. Above her, unseen by her, floor beyond floor, the life of the boarding-house functioned in the great holiday month of August.
"I quite forgot about the make-up bed for Florrie," said Sarah Gailey plaintively as she rocked. "Would you have time to see to it? Of course she will have to be with Louisa."
"Very well," said Hilda curtly, and not quite hiding exasperation.
There were three reasons for her exasperation. In the first place, the constant spectacle of Sarah Gailey's pain, and the effect of the pain on Sarah's character, was exasperating—to Hilda as well as to George Cannon. Both well knew that the watery-eyed, fretful spinster was a victim, utterly innocent and utterly helpless, of destiny, and that she merited nothing but patient sympathy; yet often the strain of relationship with Sarah produced in them such a profound feeling of annoyance that they positively resented Sarah's sufferings, and with a sad absence of logic blamed her in her misfortune, just as though she had wilfully brought the maladies upon herself in order to vex them. Then, further, it was necessary always to minister to Sarah's illusion that Sarah was the mainstay of the house, that she attended to everything and was responsible for everything, and that without her governance the machine would come to a disastrous standstill: the fact being that she had grown feeble and superfluous. Sarah had taught all she knew to two highly intelligent pupils, and had survived her usefulness. She had no right place on earth. But in her morose inefficiency she had developed into an unconscious tyrant—a tyrant whose power lay in the loyalty of her subjects and not at all in her own soul. She was indeed like a deity, immanent, brooding, and unaware of itself!... Thus, the question of Florrie's bed had been discussed and settled long before Sarah Gailey had even thought of it; but Hilda might not tell her so. Lastly, this very question of Florrie's bed was exasperating to Hilda. Already Louisa's kennel was inadequate for Louisa, and now another couch had been crowded into it. Hilda was ashamed of the shift; but there was no alternative. Here, for Hilda, was the secret canker of George Cannon's brilliant success. The servants were kindly ill-treated. In the commercial triumph she lost the sense of the tragic forlornness of boarding-house existence, as it had struck her on the day of her arrival. But the image of the Indian god in the basement and of the prone forms of the servants in stifling black cupboards under the roof and under the stairs—these images embittered at intervals the instinctive and reflecting exultation of her moods.
She adjusted her small, close-fitting flowered hat, dropped her parasol across the bed, and began to draw on her cotton gloves.
"Where are you going, dear?" asked Sarah Gailey.
"Out with Mr. Cannon."
"I don't know." In spite of herself there was a certain unnecessary defiance in Hilda's voice.
"You don't know, dear?" Sarah Gailey suddenly ceased rocking, and glanced at Hilda with the mournful expression of acute worry that was so terribly familiar on her features. Although it was notorious that baseless apprehensions were a part of Sarah's disease, nevertheless Hilda could never succeed in treating any given apprehension as quite baseless. And now Sarah's mere tone begot in Hilda's self-consciousness a vague alarm.
She continued busy with her gloves, silent.
"And on Saturday afternoon too, when everybody's abroad!" Sarah Gailey added gloomily, with her involuntary small movements of the head.
"He asked me if I could go out with him for a minute or two at once," said Hilda, and picked up the parasol with a decisive gesture.
"There's a great deal too much talk about you and George as it is," said Sarah with an acrid firmness.
"Talk about me and—!" Hilda cried, absolutely astounded.
She had no feeling of guilt, but she knew that she was looking guilty, and this knowledge induced in her the actual sensations of a criminal.
"I'm sure I don't want—" Sarah Gailey began, and was interrupted by a quiet tap at the door.
George Cannon entered.
"Ready, miss?" he demanded, smiling, before he had caught sight of her face.
For the second time that afternoon he saw her scarlet, and now there were tears in her eyes, too.
She hesitated an instant.
"Yes," she answered with a painful gulp, and moved towards the door.
CHAPTER II THE UNKNOWN ADVENTURE
When they were fairly out in the street Hilda felt like a mariner who has escaped from a lee shore, but who is beset by the vaguer and even more formidable perils of the open sea. She was in a state of extreme agitation, and much too self-conscious to be properly cognisant of her surroundings; she did not feel the pavement with her feet; she had no recollection of having passed out of the house. There she was walking along on nothing, by the side of a man who might or might not be George Cannon, amid tall objects that resembled houses! Her situation was in a high degree painful, but she could not have avoided it. She could not, in Sarah's bedroom, have fallen into sobs, or into a rage, or into the sulks, and told George Cannon that she would not go with him; she could not have dashed hysterically away and hidden herself on an upper floor, in the manner of a startled fawn. Her spirit was too high for such tricks. On the other hand, she was by no means sufficiently mistress of herself to be able to hide from him her shame. Hence she faced him and followed him, and let him see it. Their long familiarity had made this surrender somewhat easier for her. After all, in the countless daily contacts, they had grown accustomed to minor self-exposures—and Hilda more so than George Cannon; Hilda was too impatient and impulsive not to tear, at increasingly frequent intervals, the veil of conventional formality.
Her mood now, as she accompanied George Cannon on the unknown adventure, was one of abashed but still fierce resentment. She of course believed Sarah Gailey's statement that there had been "talk" about herself and the landlord, and yet it was so utterly monstrous as to be almost incredible. She was absolutely sure that she had never by her behaviour furnished the slightest excuse for such "talk." No eavesdropper could ever have caught the least word or gesture to justify it. Could a malicious eavesdropper have assisted at the secret operations of her inmost mind, even then he could scarcely have seen aught to justify it. Existence at Brighton had been too strenuous and strange—and, with Sarah Gailey in the house, too full of responsibilities—to favour dalliance. Hilda, examining herself, could not say that she had not once thought of George Cannon as a husband; because just as a young solitary man will imagine himself the spouse of a dozen different girls in a week, so will an unmated girl picture herself united to every eligible and passably sympathetic male that crosses her path. It is the everyday diversion of the fancy. But she could say that she had not once thought seriously of George Cannon as a husband. Why, he was not of her generation! Although she did not know his age, she guessed that he must be nearer forty than thirty. He was of the generation of Sarah Gailey, and Sarah Gailey was the contemporary of her dead mother! And he had never shown for her any sentiment but that of a benevolently teasing kindliness. Moreover, she was afraid of him, beyond question. And withal, he patently lacked certain qualities which were to be found in her image of a perfect man. No! She had more often thought of Edwin Clayhanger as a husband. Indeed she had married Edwin Clayhanger several times. The haunting youth would not leave her alone. And she said to herself, hot and indignant: "I shall have to leave Brighton! I can see that! Sarah Gailey's brought it on herself!" Yes, she was actually angry with Sarah Gailey, who however had only informed her of a fact which she would have been sorry not to know! And in leaving Brighton, that fancy of hers took her straight to Bursley, to stay with Janet Orgreave in the house next to the new house of the Clayhangers!
Whither was George Cannon leading her? He had not yet said a word in explanation of the errand, nor shown in any way that he had observed her extraordinary condition. He was silent, swinging his stick. She also was silent. She could not have spoken, not even to murmur: "Where are you taking me to?" They went forward as in an enchantment.
They were on the King's Road; and to the left were the high hotels and houses, stretching east and west under the glare of the sun into invisibility, and to the right was the shore, and the sea so bright that the eye could scarcely rest on it. Both the upper and the lower promenades were crowded with gay people surging in different directions. The dusty roadway was full of carriages, and of the glint of the sun on wheelspokes and horses' flanks, and of rolling, clear-cut shadows. The shore was bordered with flags and masts and white and brown sails; and in the white-and-green of billows harmlessly breaking could be seen the yellow bodies of the bathers. A dozen bare-legged men got hold of a yacht under sail with as many passengers on board, and pushed it forcibly right down into the sea, and then up sprang its nose and it heeled over and shot suddenly off, careering on the waves into the offing where other yachts were sliding to and fro between the piers, dominating errant fleets of rowboats. And the piers also were loaded with excited humanity and radiant colour. And all the windows of all the houses and hotels were open, and blowing with curtains and flowers and hats. The whole town was enfevered.
Hilda thought, her heart still beating, but less noisily, "I scarcely ever come here. I don't come here often enough." And she saw Sarah Gailey rocking and sighing and rocking and shaking her head in the mournful twilight of the basement in Preston Street. The contrasts of existence struck her as magnificent, as superb. The very misery and hopelessness of Sarah's isolation seemed romantic, splendid, touchingly beautiful. And she thought, inexplicably: "Why am I here? Why am I not at home in Turnhill? Why am I so different from what mother was? What am I going to be and to do? This that I now am can't continue for ever." She saw thousands of women with thousands of men. And, quite forgetting that to the view of the multitude she was just as much as any of them with a man (and a rather fine man, too!), she began to pity herself because she was not with a man! She dreamed, in her extreme excitation, of belonging absolutely to some man. And despite all her pride and independence, she dwelt with pleasure and longing on the vision of being his, of being at his disposal, of being under his might, of being helpless before him. She thought, desolated: "I am nobody's. And so there is 'talk'!" She scorned herself for being nobody's. To belong utterly to some male seemed to be the one tolerable fate for her in the world. And it was a glorious fate, whether it brought good or evil. Any other was ignobly futile, was despicable. And then she thought, savagely: "And just see my clothes! Why don't I take the trouble to look nice?"
Suddenly George Cannon stopped on the edge of the pavement, and turned towards the houses across the street.
"You see that?" he said, pointing with his stick.
She saw, in gold letters over the front of a tall corner house: "The Chichester Private Hotel."
"I've taken it—from Christmas. I signed about an hour ago. I just had to tell someone."
"Well I never!" Hilda exclaimed.
He was beyond question an extraordinary and an impressive man. He had said that, after experimenting in Preston Street, he should take a larger place, and lo! in less than a year, he had fulfilled his word. He had experimented in Preston Street, with immense success and now he was coming out into the King's Road! (Only those who have lived in a side street can pronounce the fine words 'King's Road' with the proper accent of deference.) And every house in the King's Road, Hilda now newly perceived, was a house of price and distinction. Nothing could be common in the King's Road: the address and the view were incomparably precious. Being established there, George Cannon might, and no doubt would, ultimately acquire one of the largest public hotels; indeed, dominate the promenade! It would be just like him to do so! A year ago he was a solicitor in Turnhill. To-day he was so perfectly and entirely a landlord that no one could ever guess his first career. He was not merely extraordinary: he was astounding. There could not be many of his calibre in the whole world.
"How does it strike you?" he asked, with an eagerness that touched her.
"Oh! It's splendid!" she answered, trying to put more natural enthusiasm into her voice. But the fact was that the Chichester had not yet struck her at all. It was only the idea of being in the King's Road that had struck her—and with such an effect that her attention was happily diverted from her trouble, and her vexatious self-consciousness disappeared. She had from time to time remarked the Chichester, but never with any particularity; it had been for her just an establishment among innumerable others, and not one of the best,—the reverse of imposing. It stood at the angle of King's Road and Ship Street, and a chemist's shop occupied the whole of the frontage, the hotel-entrance being in Ship Street; its architecture was fiat and plain, and the place seemed neglected, perhaps unprosperous.
"Twenty bow-windows!" murmured George Cannon, and then smiled at himself, as if ashamed of his own naivete.
And Hilda counted the windows. Yes, there were eight on King's Road and twelve at the side. The building was high, and it was deep, stretching far down Ship Street. In a moment it began to put on, for Hilda, quite special qualities. How high it was! How deep it was! And in what a situation! It possessed mysterious and fine characteristics which set it apart. Strange that hitherto she had been so blind to it! She and George Cannon were divided from the house by the confused and noisy traffic of the roadway, and by the streaming throngs on the opposite pavement. And none of these people riding or driving or walking, and none of the people pushing past them on the pavement behind, guessed that here on the kerb was the future master of the Chichester, an amazing man, and that she, Hilda Lessways, by his side, was the woman to whom he had chosen first to relate his triumph! This unrecognised secrecy in the great animated street was piquant and agreeable to Hilda, a source of pride.
"I suppose you've bought it?" she ventured. She had no notion of his financial resources, but her instinct was to consider them infinite.
"No! I've not exactly bought it," he laughed. "Not quite! I've got the lease, from Christmas. How much d'ye think the rent is?" He seemed to challenge her.
"Oh! Don't ask me!"
"Five hundred a year," he said, and raised his chin. "Five hundred a year! Ten pounds a week! Nearly thirty shillings a day! You've got to pay that before you can even begin to think of your own profits."
"But it's enormous!" Hilda was staggered. All her mother's houses put together had brought in scarcely a third of the rental of that single house, which was nevertheless only a modest unit in several miles of houses. "But can you make it pay?"
"I fancy so! Else I shouldn't have taken it. The present man can't. But then he's paying L550 for one thing, and he's old. And he doesn't know his business.... Oh yes! I think I can see my money back.... Wait till Christmas is turned and I make a start!"
She knew that the future would justify his self-confidence. How he succeeded she could not define. Why should he succeed where another was failing? He could not go out and drag boarders by physical force into his private hotel! Yet he would succeed. In every gesture he was the successful man. She looked timidly up at his eyes under the strong black eyelashes. His glance caught hers. He smiled conqueringly.
"Haven't said a word to Sarah yet!" he almost whispered, so low was his voice; and he put on a mock-rueful smile. Hilda smiled in response.
"Shall you keep Preston Street?" she asked.
"Of course!" he said with pride—"I shall run the two, naturally." He put his shoulders back. "One will help the other, don't you see?"
She thought she saw, and nodded appreciatively. He meant to run two establishments! At the same moment a young and stylish man drove rather slowly by in a high dog-cart. He nodded carelessly to George Cannon, and then, perceiving that George Cannon was with a lady, raised his hat in haste. George Cannon responded. The young man gazed for an instant hard at Hilda, with a peculiar expression, and passed on. She did not know who he was. Of George Cannon's relationships in the town she was entirely ignorant, but that he had relationships was always obvious.
She blushed, thinking of what Sarah Gailey had said about 'talk' concerning herself and George Cannon. In the young man's glance there had been something to annoy and shame her.
"Come across and have a look at the place," said George Cannon, suddenly stepping down into the gutter, with a look first in one direction and then in the other for threatening traffic.
"I don't think I'll come now," she replied.
"But why not? Are you in a hurry? You've plenty of time before five o'clock—heaps!"
"I'd prefer not to come," she insisted, in an abashed and diffident voice.
"But what's up?" he demanded, stepping back to the pavement, and glancing directly into her eyes.
She blushed more and more, dropping her eyelids.
"I don't want to be talked about too much!" she muttered, mortified. Her inference was unmistakable. The whole of her mind seemed now to be occupied with an enormous grievance which she somehow had against the world in general. Her very soul, too, was bursting with this grievance.
"Talked about? But who—"
"Never mind! I know! I've been told!" she interrupted him.
"Oh! I see!" He was now understanding the cause of her trouble in Sarah Gailey's bedroom.
"Now look here!" He went on. "I've just got to have a few words with you. You come across the road, please." He was imperious.
She raised her glance for a timid moment to his face, and saw to her intense astonishment that he also was blushing. Never before had she seen him blush.
"Come along!" he urged.
She followed him obediently across the dangerous road. He waited for her at the opposite kerb, and then they went up Ship Street. He turned into the entrance of the Chichester, which was grandiose, with a flight of shallow steps, and then a porch with two basket chairs, and then another flight of shallow steps ending in double doors which were noticeably higher than the street level. She still followed.
"Nobody in here, I expect," said George Cannon, indicating a door on the right, to an old waiter who stood in the dark hall.
George Cannon opened the door as a master, ushered Hilda into a tiny room furnished with a desk and two chairs, and shut the door.
The small window was of ground glass and gave no prospect of the outer world, from which it seemed to Hilda that she was as completely cut off as in a prison. She was alone with George Cannon, and beyond the narrow walls which caged them together, and close together, there was nothing! All Brighton, save this room, had ceased to exist. Hilda was now more than ever affrighted, shamed, perturbed, agonised. Yet at the same time she had the desperate calm of the captain of a ship about to founder with all hands. And she saw glimpses, beautiful and compensatory, of the romantic quality of common life. She was in a little office of a perfectly ordinary boarding-house—(she could even detect the stale odours of cooking)—with a realistic man of business, and they were about to discuss a perfectly ordinary piece of scandal; and surely they might be called two common-sense people! And withal, the ordinariness and the midland gumption of the scene were shot through with the bright exotic rays of romance! She thought: "It is painful and humiliating to be caught and fixed as I am. But it is wonderful too!"
"The fact is," said George Cannon, in an easy reassuring tone, "we never get the chance of a bit of quiet chat. Upon my soul we don't! Now I suppose it's Sarah who's been worrying you?"
"What did she say?... You'd better sit down, don't you think?" He swung round the pivoted arm-chair in front of the closed desk and pointed her to it.
"Oh!" Hilda hesitated, and then sank on to the chair without looking at it. "She simply said there was a lot of talk about you and me. Has she been saying anything to you?"
He shook his head, staring down at her. Hilda put her arms on the arms of the chair, and, shirking the man's gaze, stared down at the worn carpet and at his boots thereon. One instinct in her desired that he should move away or that the room should be larger, but another instinct wanted him to remain close, lest the savour of life should lose its sharpness.
"It passes me how people can say such things!" she went on, in a low, thrilled, meditative voice. "I can't understand it!" She was quite sincere in her astonished indignation. Nevertheless, she experienced a positive pride at being brought into a scandal with George Cannon; she derived from it a certain feeling of importance; it proved that she was no longer a mere girlish miss.
George Cannon kept silence.
"I shall leave Brighton," Hilda continued. "That I've quite decided! I don't like leaving your sister, as ill as she is! But really—" And she thought how prudent she was, and how capable of taking care of herself—she all alone in the world!
"Where should you go to? Bursley? The Orgreaves?" George Cannon asked absently and carelessly.
"I don't know," said Hilda, with curtness.
He stepped aside, in the direction of the window, and examined curiously the surface of the glass, as though in search of a concealed message which it might contain. In a new and much more animated voice he said to the window:
"Of course I know it's all my fault!"
Hilda glanced up at his back; he was still not more than three feet away from her.
"How is it your fault?" she asked, after a pause.
He made another pause.
"The way I look at you," he said.
These apparently simple words made Hilda tremble, and deprived her of speech. They shifted the conversation to another plane. 'The way I look at you! The way I look at you!' What did he mean? How did he look at her? She could not imagine what he was driving at! Yes, she could! She knew quite well. All the time, while pretending to herself not to understand, she understood. It was staggering, but she perfectly understood. He had looked at her 'like that' on the very first day of their acquaintance, in his office at Turnhill, and again at the house in Lessways Street, and again in the newspaper office, and on other occasions, and again on the night of their arrival at Brighton. But surely not lately! Or did he look at her 'like that' behind her back? Was it possible that people noticed it?... Absurd! His explanation of the origin of the gossip did not convince her. She had, however, suddenly lost interest in the origin of the gossip. She was entirely occupied with George Cannon's tone, and his calm, audacious reference to a phenomenon which had hitherto seemed to her to be far beyond the region of words.
She was frightened. She was like some one walking secure in the night, who is stopped by the sound of rushing water and stands with all his senses astrain, afraid to move a step farther, too absorbed and intimidated to be aware of astonishment. The point was not whether or not she had known or guessed the existence of this unseen and formidable river; the point was that she was thrillingly on its brink, in the dark. Every instant she heard its swelling current plainer and plainer. She thought: "Am I lost? How strange that this awful and exquisite thing should happen to just me!" She was quite fatalistic.
He turned his head suddenly and caught her guilty eyes for an instant before she could lower them.
"You don't mean to say you don't know what I mean?" he said.
She still could not speak. Her trouble was acute, her self-consciousness far keener than it had ever been before. She thought: "But it's impossible that this awful and exquisite thing should happen in this fashion!" George Cannon moved a step towards her. She could not see his face, but she knew that he was looking at her with his expression at once tyrannic and benevolent. She could feel, beating upon her, the emanating waves of his personality. And she was as confused as though she had been sitting naked in front of him.... And he had brought all this about by simply putting something into words—by saying: "It's the way I look at you!"
He went on:
"I can't help it, you know.... The very first minute I ever set eyes on you.... Of course I'm thirty-six. But there it is!... I've never seen any one like you; and I've seen a few! The fact is, Hilda, I do believe you don't know how fine you are." He spoke more quickly and with boyish enthusiasm; his voice became wonderfully persuasive. "You are fine, you know! And you're beautiful! I didn't think so at first, but you are! You're being wasted. Why, a woman like you...! You've no idea. You're so proud and stiff, when you want to be... I'd trust you with anything. You're absolutely the only woman I ever met that I'd trust like a man! And that's a fact.... Now, nobody could ever think as much of you as I do. I'm quite certain of it. It couldn't be done. I know you, you see! I understand everything you do, and whatever you do, it's just fine for me. You couldn't be as happy with any one else! You couldn't! I feel that in my bones.... Now—now, I must tell you something—"
The praise, the sympathy, the passion were astounding, marvellous, and delicious to her. Was it conceivable that this experienced and worldly man had been captivated by such a mere girl as herself? She had never guessed it! Or had she always guessed it? An intense pride warmed her blood like a powerful cordial. Life was even grander than she had thought!... She drooped into an intoxication. Among all that he had said, he had not said that he was not stronger than she. He had not relinquished his authority. She felt it, sitting almost beneath him in the slippery chair. She knew that she would yield to him. She desired to yield to him. Her mind was full of sensuous images based on the abdication of her will in favour of his.
"Now, look here, Hilda. I want to tell you—"
He perhaps did not intend that she should look up; but she looked up. And she was surprised to see that his face was full of troubled hesitations, showing almost dismay. He made the motion of swallowing. She smiled; and set her shoulders back—the very gesture that she had learned from him.
"What?" she questioned, in a whisper.
Her brief mood of courage was over. She sank before him again, and waited with bowed head.
Profoundly disturbed, he stood quite still for a few seconds, with shut lips, and then he made another step to approach.
"Your name's got to be Cannon," she heard him say.
She thought, still waiting: "If this goes on a moment longer I shall die of anticipation, in bliss." And when she felt his hand on her shoulder, and the great shadow of him on part of her face, her body seemed to sigh, acquiescent and for the moment assuaged: "This is a miracle, and life is miraculous!" She acknowledged that she had lacked faith in life.
She was now on the river, whirling. But at the same time she was in the small, hot room, and both George Cannon's hands were on her unresisting shoulders; and then they were round her, and she felt his physical nearness, the texture of his coat and of his skin; she could see in a mist the separate hairs of his tremendous moustache and the colours swimming in his eyes; her nostrils expanded in transient alarm to a faint, exciting masculine odour. She was disconcerted, if not panic-struck, by the violence of his first kiss; but her consternation was delectable to her.
And amid her fright and her joy, and the wonder of her extreme surprise, and the preoccupation of being whirled down the river, she calmly reflected, somewhere in her brain: "The door is not locked. Supposing some one were to come in and see us!" And she reflected also, in an ecstasy of relief: "My life will be quite simple, now. I shall have nothing to worry about. And I can help him." For during a year past she had never ceased to ask herself what she must do to arrange her life; her conscience had never ceased to tell her that she ought not to be content to remain in the narrow ideas of her mother, and that though she preferred marriage she ought to act independently of the hope of it. Throughout her long stay in Preston Street she had continually said: "After this—what? This cannot last for ever. When it comes to an end what am I to do to satisfy my conscience?" And she had thought vaguely of magnificent activities and purposes—she knew not what.... The problem existed no more. Her life was arranged. And now, far more sincerely than in the King's Road twenty minutes earlier, she regarded the career of a spinster with horror and with scorn. At best, she suddenly perceived with blinding clearness, it would have been pitiful—pitiful! Twenty minutes earlier, in the King's Road, she had dreamt of belonging absolutely to some man, of being at his disposal, of being under his might, of being helpless before him. And now!... Miracle thrice miraculous! Miracle unconceived, inconceivable!... No more 'talk' now!...
She told herself how admirable was the man. She assured herself that he was entirely admirable. She reminded herself that she had always deemed him admirable, that only twenty minutes earlier, in the King's Road, when there was in her mind no dimmest, wildest notion of the real future, she had genuinely admired him. How clever, how tactful, how indomitable, how conquering, how generous, how kind he was! How kind to his half-sister! How forbearing with her! Indeed, she could not recall his faults. And he was inevitably destined to brilliant success. She would be the wife of a great and a wealthy man. And in her own secret ways she could influence him, and thus be greater than the great.
Love? It is an absolute fact that the name of 'love' did not in the first eternal moments even occur to her. And when it did she gave it but little importance. She had to admit that she had not consciously thought of George Cannon with love—at any rate with love as she had imagined love to be. Indeed, her immediate experience would not fit any theory that she could formulate. But with the inexorable realism of her sex she easily dismissed inconvenient names and theories, and accommodated herself to the fact. And the fact was that she overwhelmingly wanted George Cannon, and, as she now recognized, had wanted him ever since she first saw him. The recognition afforded her intense pleasure. She abandoned herself candidly to this luxury of an unknown desire. It was incomparably the most splendid and dangerous experience that she had ever had. She did not reason and she had no wish to reason. She was set above reason. Happy to the point of delicious pain, she yet yearned forward to a happiness far more excruciating. She was perfectly aware that her bliss would be torment until George Cannon had married her, until she had wholly surrendered to him.
Yet at intervals a voice said very clearly within her: "All this is wrong. This is base and shameful. This is something to blush for, really!" She did blush. But her blushes were a part of the delight. And the voice was not persistent. She could silence it with scarcely an effort, despite its clarity.
"Kiss me!" George Cannon demanded of her, with eager masterfulness.
The request shocked her for an instant, and the young girl in her was about to revolt. But she kissed him—an act which combined the sweetness of submission with the glory of triumph! She looked at him steadily, confident in herself and in him. She felt that he knew how to love. His emotion filled her with superb pride. She seemed to be saying to him in a doomed rapture: "Do you think I don't know what I am doing? I know! I know!"
The current of the river was tremendous. She foresaw the probability of disaster. She was aware that she had definitely challenged the hazard of fate. But she was not terrified in the dark, swirling night of her destiny. She straightened her shoulders. With all her innocence and ignorance and impulsiveness and weakness, she had behind her the unique and priceless force of her youth. She was young, and she put her trust in life.
CHAPTER III FLORRIE AGAIN
As they were walking home along the King's Road, Hilda suddenly stopped in front of a chemist's shop. "I've got something to buy here," she said diffidently, and then added: "I'll follow you."
"And what have you got to buy?" he asked, facing her, with his benevolent, ironical expression.
"Never mind!" she gently laughed. "I shan't be many minutes after you." She pretended to make a mystery. But her sole purpose was to avoid re-entering the house in his company; and she knew that he had divined this. Nevertheless, she found pleasure in the perfectly futile pretence of a mysterious purchase.
She was very self-conscious as they stood there on the dusty footpath amid the promenaders gay and gloomy, chattering and silent, who were taking the sun and the salt breeze. Despite her reason, she had a fear that numbers of people would perceive her to be newly affianced and remark upon the contrast between her girlishness and his maturity. But George Cannon was not in the slightest degree self-conscious. He played the lover with ease and said quite simply and convincingly just the things which she would have expected a lover to say. Indeed, the conversation, as carried on by him, between the moment of betrothal and the arrival at the chemist's shop, was the one phenomenon of the engagement which corresponded with her preconceived ideas concerning such an affair. It convinced her that she really was affianced.
"Well?" he murmured fondly and yet quizzically, as they remained wordless, deliciously hesitating to part. "What are you thinking about?"
She replied with brave candour, appealing to him by a soft glance:
"I was only thinking how queer it is I should be engaged in a room I'd never seen before in my life—going into it like that!"
He looked at her uncomprehending; for an instant his features were blank; then he smiled kindly.
"It's so strange!" she encouraged him.
"Yes. Isn't it?" he agreed, with charming, tranquil politeness.
"He doesn't see it!" she thought, as she watched the play of his face. "He doesn't see how wonderful it is that I should go into a room that was absolutely unknown to me and then this should happen at once. Why! I never knew there was such a room!" She could not define how she was affected by this fact, but she regarded the fact as tremendously romantic, and its effect on her was profound. And George saw in it no significance! She was disconcerted. She felt a tremor; it was as though the entire King's Road had quivered for a fraction of a second and then, feigning nonchalance, resumed its moveless solidity.
Inside the chemist's she demanded the first thing she set eyes on—a tooth-brush. All the while she was examining various shapes of toothbrushes, she had a vision of George raising his hat to take leave of her, and she could see not only the curve of his hand and the whiteness of his cuff, but also the millions of tiny marks and creases on the coarse skin of his face, extraordinarily different from her own smooth, pure, delicate, silky complexion. And she remembered that less than three years ago she had regarded him as of another generation, as indefinitely older and infinitely more experienced than her childish and simple self. This reflection produced in her a consternation which was curiously blissful.
"No, madam," the white-aproned chemist was saying. "It's this size that we usually sell to ladies."
She put on the serious judicial air of an authentic adult woman, and frowned at the chemist.
When, in Preston Street, she was reluctantly approaching the house, she saw a cab, coming downwards in the opposite direction, stop at No. 59.
"That must be Florrie!" she said, half-aloud.
The boarding-house being in need of another servant, young, strong, and reliable, Hilda had suggested that Miss Florence Bagster might be invited to accept the situation. Sarah Gailey had agreed that it would be wise to have a servant from Turnhill; she mistrusted southern servants, and appeared to believe that there was no real honesty south of the Trent. Florence Bagster had accepted the situation with enthusiasm, writing that she longed to be again with her former mistress; she did not write that the mysterious and magnetic name of Brighton called her more loudly than the name of her former mistress. And now Florence was due.
But it was not Florence who emerged from the cab. It was a tall and full-bosomed young lady in a gay multi-coloured costume, and gloves and a sunshade and a striking hat. This young lady stood by the cab expectant and smiling while the cabman pulled a tin trunk off the roof of the vehicle, and then, when the cabman had climbed down and was dragging the trunk after him, she put out an arm and seized one handle of the trunk to help him, which act, so strange on the part of a young lady, made Hilda, coming nearer and nearer, look more carefully. She was astounded as she realized that the unknown young lady was not a young lady after all, but the familiar Florrie at the advanced age of sixteen.
The aged cabman had made no mistake. He left the tin trunk on the pavement and took timid Florrie's money without touching his hat for it. Florrie was laying her sunshade rather forlornly on the top of the tin trunk and preparing to lift the trunk unaided, when Mr. Boutwood, stout and all in black, came gallantly forth from the house to assist her. Sarah Gailey's opposition had not been persistent enough to keep the jovial Mr. Boutwood out of No. 59. Shortly after Christmas his wife had died suddenly, and Mr. Boutwood, with plenty of time and plenty of money on his hands, had found himself desolated. In his desolation he had sought his old acquaintance George Cannon, and the result had somehow been that bygones had become bygones and a new boarder had increased the prosperity of No. 59. Sarah Gailey could not object. Indeed, she had actually wept for the death of one enemy and the affliction of another. Moreover, she seldom had contact with the boarders now.
The rather peculiar circumstances of Florrie's arrival almost cured Hilda's self-consciousness, and she entered the house, in the wake of the trunk, with a certain forgetful ease. There was Mr. Boutwood, still dallying with Florrie and the trunk, in the narrow hall! The shocking phenomenon of a boarder helping a domestic servant with her luggage had been rendered possible only by a series of accidents. The front door being left open on account of the weather, Mr. Boutwood had had a direct view of the maiden, and the maiden had not been obliged to announce her arrival officially by ringing a bell. Hence the other servants had not had notice. And of the overseers of the house one was imprisoned in the basement and the other two had been out betrothing themselves! In the ordinary way the slightest unusualness in the hall would instantly attract the attention of somebody in authority.
Mr. Boutwood was not immediately aware of Hilda. His attitude towards Florrie was shocking to Hilda in a double sense; it shocked her as an overseer, but it shocked her quite as much as a young woman newly jealous for the pride of all her sex. Florrie was beyond question exceedingly pretty; in particular the chin pouted more deliriously than ever. Her complexion was even finer than Hilda's own. She had a simple, good-natured glance, a quick and extraordinarily seductive smile, and the unique bodily grace of her years. Her costume, though vulgar and very ill-made, was effective at a little distance; her form and movements gave it a fictitious worth. Indeed, she was an amazing blossom to have come off the dunghill of Calder Street. Domestic drudgery had not yet dehumanized nor disfigured her—it is true that her hands were concealed in gloves, and her feet beneath a flowing skirt. Now, Mr. Boutwood's attitude showed very plainly that the girlish charms of Florrie had produced in him a definite and familiar effect. He would have been ready to commit follies for the young woman, and to deny that she was a drudge or anything but a beautiful creature.
Hilda objected. She objected because Mr. Boutwood was a widower, holding that he had no right to joy, and that he ought to mourn practically for ever in solitude. She would make no allowance for his human instincts, his needs of intimate companionship, his enormous unoccupied leisure. She would have condemned him utterly on the score of his widowhood alone. But she objected far more strongly to his attitude because he was fat and looked somewhat coarse. She counted his obesity to him for a sin. And it was naught to her that he had been a martyr to idleness and wealth, which combination had prematurely aged him. Mr. Boutwood was really younger than George Cannon, and Florence Bagster certainly seemed as old as Hilda. Yet the juxtaposition of the young, slim, and virginal Florrie and the large, earth-worn Mr. Boutwood profoundly offended her.
It was Mr. Boutwood who first discovered that Hilda was in the doorway. He was immediately abashed, and presented the most foolish appearance. Whereupon Hilda added scorn to her disgust. Florrie, however, easily kept her countenance, and with a pert smile took the hand which her former mistress graciously extended. By universal custom a servant retains some of the privileges of humanity for several minutes after entering upon a new servitude. Mr. Boutwood vanished.
"Louisa will help you upstairs with the trunk," said Hilda, when she had made inquiries about the wonderful journey which Florrie had accomplished alone, and about the health of Florrie's aunt and of her family. "Louisa!" she called loudly up the stairs and down into the basement.
She followed the procession of the trunk upstairs, and, Louisa having descended again, showed Florrie into the kennel. This tiny apartment had in it two truckle-beds, and a wash-bowl on a chair, and little else. A very small square trap-window in the low ceiling procured a dusky light in the middle hours of the day. Florence seemed delighted with the room; she might have had to sleep under the stairs.
"Put on your afternoon apron, and then you can go down and see Miss Gailey," said Hilda, and shut the door upon Florrie in her new home.
When she turned, there was George Cannon on the half-landing beneath the skylight! She knew not how he had come there, nor whether he had entered the house before or after herself.
"I'm glad he isn't fat!" she thought. And it was as though she had thought: "If he were fat everything would be different." Her features did not relax as she went down the five steps to the half-landing where he waited, smiling faintly. She thought: "We must be very serious and circumspect in the house. There must never be the slightest—" But while she was yet on the last step, he firmly put his hands on her ears and, drawing her head towards him, kissed her full on the mouth, and she saw again, through her eyelashes, all the details of his face. She yielded. All her ideas of circumspection melted magically away in an abandoned tenderness of which she was ashamed, but for which she would have unreflectingly made any sacrifice. The embrace was over in an instant. Besides being guiltless of obesity, George Cannon was free from the unpardonable fault of clumsiness. He was audacious, but he was not foolhardy, and he would never be abashed. True, she had seen dismay on his face at the moment of his declaration, but that moment was unique, and his dismay had ineffably flattered her. Now, on the half-landing, she was drenched in bliss. And she felt dissolute; she felt even base. But she did not care. She thought, as it were, startled: "This is love. This must be what love is. I must have been in love without knowing it. And as for a girl always knowing when a man's in love with her, and foreseeing the proposal, and all that sort of thing...." Her practical contempt for all that sort of thing could not be stated in words.
"Florrie's just come," she whispered, and by a movement of the head indicated that Florrie was in the kennel.
They went together to the drawing-room on the first floor. It was, empty, the entire population of the boarding-houses being still on the seashore. Hilda stood near the door, which she left open, and gave detailed news of Florrie in a tone very matter-of-fact. There was no reference to love, or to the new situation created, or to the vast enterprise of the Chichester. The topic was Florrie, and somehow it held the field despite efforts to dislodge it.
Then the stairs creaked. Already Florrie was coming down. In a trice she had made herself ready for work. She came down timidly, not daring to look to right nor left, but concentrating her attention on the stairs. She passed along the landing outside the drawing-room door, and Hilda, opening the door a little wider, had a full surreptitious view of her back; and George Cannon, farther within the room, also saw her. They watched her disappear on her way to find the basement and the formidable Sarah Gailey. Hilda was touched by the spectacle of this child disguised as a strapping woman, far removed from her family and her companions and her familiar haunts, and driven or drawn into exile at Brighton, where she would only see the sea once a week, except through windows, and where she would have to work from fourteen to sixteen hours a day for a living, and sleep in a kennel. The prettiness, the pertness, and the naive contentedness of the child thus realizing an ambition touched her deeply.