"It does seem a shame, doesn't it?" she said.
"Bringing her all the way up here, like this! She doesn't know a soul in Brighton. She's bound to be frightfully home-sick—"
"What about you?" George Cannon interrupted politely. "Doesn't she know you?" He smiled with all his kindness.
Hilda did not finish. It was not worth while. George Cannon had not understood. He did not feel as she felt, and her emotion was incommunicable to him. A tremendous misgiving seized her, and she had a physical feeling of emptiness in the stomach. It passed, swiftly as a hallucination. Just such a misgiving as visits nearly every normal person immediately before or immediately after marriage! She ignored it. She was engaged—that was the paramount fact! She was engaged, and joyously determined to prosecute the grand adventure to the end. The immensity of the risks forced her to accept them.
That evening Sarah Gailey was in torment from the pain in her wrists. There was nothing to be done. She had had the doctor, and no article of the prescribed treatment had been neglected. With unaccustomed aid from Hilda she had accomplished the business of undressing and getting into bed, and now she sat up in bed, supported by her own pillows and one from Hilda's bed, and nursed her wrists, while Hilda poured drops of a narcotic for her into a glass of water. Apart from the serious local symptoms, her health was fairly good. She could eat, she could talk, she could walk, and her brain was clear. Hilda held the glass for her to drink, for it was prudent to keep her hands as much as possible in repose.
"There!" said Hilda, as if to a young child who had been querulous. "I'm sure you'll sleep now!"
"I don't think I shall," the sufferer whined.
"Oh yes, you will!" Hilda insisted firmly, although she was by no means sure. "Let me take this extra pillow away, and then you can lie down properly." She was thinking reproachfully: "What a pity it is for all of us that the poor thing can't bear her pain with a little less fuss!" It was not Sarah alone who was embittered and fatigued by Sarah's pain.
"Where's George?" asked the invalid, when she was laid down.
"In the parlour. Why?"
"By the way," said Hilda, seized by a sudden impulse, which had its origin in Sarah's tone at once martyrized and accusing,—"by the way, who is it that's been talking scandal about me and George?"
"Scandal?" Sarah Gailey seemed weakly to protest against the word.
"Because, if you want to know," Hilda continued, "we're engaged to be married!" She reflected, contrite: "This won't help her to sleep!" And then added, in a new, endearing accent, awaiting an outburst of some kind from Sarah: "Of course it's a secret, dear. I'm telling no one but you."
After a moment's silence, Sarah remarked casually, with shut eyes: "It'll be much the best not to tell anyone. And the shorter the engagement the better! Don't let anybody in the house know till you're married." She sighed, put her cheek into the pillow, and moved her bound wrists for a few seconds, restlessly. "If you turn the gas down," she finished very wearily, "I dare say I may get off. If only they'd stop that piano upstairs!"
She had displayed no surprise at the tremendous event, no sentimental interest in it. The fact was that Sarah Gailey's wrists were infinitely more interesting to her than any conceivable project of marriage. Continuous and acute pain had withdrawn her from worldly affairs, making her more than ever like a god.
Hilda was startled. But she was relieved. Now for the first time she had the authentic sensation of being engaged. And it appeared to her that she had been engaged for a very long period, and that the engagement was a quite ordinary affair. She was relieved; yet she was also grievously saddened. She lowered the gas, and in the gloom gazed for a few seconds at the vague, huddled, sheeted, faintly moaning figure on the bed; the untidy grey hair against the pillow struck her as intolerably pathetic.
"Good night," she said softly.
And the feeble, plaintive voice responded: "Good night."
She went out, leaving the door slightly ajar.
In the parlour adjoining George Cannon was seated at the table. When Hilda saw him and their eyes met, she was comforted; a wave of tenderness seemed to agitate her. She realized that this man was hers, and the realization was marvellously reassuring. The sound of the piano descended delicately from the drawing-room as from a great distance. From the kitchen came the muffled clatter of earthenware and occasionally a harsh, loud voice; it was the hour of relaxed discipline in the kitchen, where amid the final washing-up and much free discussion and banter, Florrie was recommencing her career on a grander basis. Hilda closed the door very quietly. When she had closed it and was shut in with George Cannon her emotion grew intenser.
"I think she'll get off now," she whispered, standing near the door.
"Have you told her?"
"What does she say?"
Hilda raised her eyebrows: "Oh!... Well, she says we'd better keep it quiet, and make the engagement as short as possible." She blushed.
"Look here," said George. "Let's go out, eh?"
"But—what will people say?"
"What the devil does it matter what they say? I want you to come out with me."
The whispered oath, and his defiant smile, enchanted her.
"We can go out by the area steps," he continued. "There's two of 'em sitting in the hall, but the front door's shut. Do go and get your hat."
She left the room with an obedient smile. Pushing open Sarah's door very gently, she groped on the hooks behind it for her hat. "It won't matter about gloves—in the dark," she thought. "Besides, I mustn't disturb her." Before drawing-to the door she looked again at the bed. There was neither sound nor movement. Probably Sarah Gailey slept. The dim vision of the form on the bed and the blue spark of gas in the corner produced in Hilda a mood of poignant and yet delicious sorrow.
"Why, what's the matter?" George Cannon asked when she had returned to the parlour.
She knew that her eyes were humid with tears. Both her arms were raised above her head as she fixed the hat. This act of fixing the hat in George's presence gave her a new pleasure. She smiled at him.
"Nothing!" she said, whispering mysteriously. "I think she's gone off. I'm so glad. You know she really does suffer dreadfully."
His look was uncomprehending; but she did not care. The anticipation of going out with him was now utterly absorbing her.
He waited with his hand on the gas-tap till she was ready, and then he lowered the gas.
"Wait a moment," she whispered at the door, and with a gesture called him back into the room from the flagged passage leading to the area steps.
On the desk was his evening glass of milk, which he drank cold in summer. She offered it to him in the twilit room like an enraptured handmaid. He had forgotten it. The fact that he had forgotten it and she had remembered it yet further increased her strange, mournful, ecstatic bliss.
"Have some," he whispered, when he had drunk.
She finished the glass, trembling. They went forth, climbing the area steps with proper precautions and escaping as thieves escape, down the street. For an instant she glimpsed the wide-open windows of the drawing-room, and the dining-room, from behind whose illuminated blinds came floating, as it were wistfully, the sound of song and chatter. She thought of Sarah Gailey prone and unconscious in the basement. And she felt the moisture of the milk on her lips. "Am I happy or unhappy?" she questioned herself, and could not reply. She knew only that she was thrillingly, smartingly alive.
At the corner of Preston Street and King's Road a landau waited.
"This is ours," said George casually.
What a splendid masculine idea! How it proved that he too had been absorbed in the adventure! She admired him humbly, like a girl, like a little girl. With the most formal deference he helped her into the carriage.
"Drive towards Shoreham," he commandingly directed the driver, and took his place by her side.
Yes! He was mature. He was a man of the world. He had had every experience. He knew how to love. That such a being was hers, that she without any effort had captured such a being, flattered her to an extreme degree. She was glorious with pride. She leaned back in the carriage negligently, affecting an absolute calm. She armed herself in her virginity. Not George Cannon himself could have guessed that only by a miracle of self-control did she prevent her hand from seeking his beneath the light rug that covered their knees! She intimidated George Cannon in that hour, and the while her heart burned with shame at the secret violence of her feelings. She thought: "This must be love. This is love!" And yet her conscience inarticulately accused her of obliquity. But she did not care, and she would not reflect. She thought that she wilfully, perversely, refused to reflect; but in reality she was quite helpless.
Under the still and feverish night the landau rolled slowly along between the invisible murmuring sea and the lighted facades of Hove. Occasionally other carriages, containing other couples, approached, were plain for a moment, and dissolved away.
"So she thinks the engagement ought to be short?" said George Cannon.
"So do I!" he pronounced with emphasis.
Hilda desired to ask him: "How short?" But she could not. She could not bring herself to put the question. She was too proud. By a short engagement, did he mean six months, three months, a month? Dared she hope that he meant... a month? This was a thought buried in the deepest fastness of her soul, a thought that she would have perished in order not to expose; but it existed.
"I think I should like to go back now," she breathed timidly, before they were beyond Hove. It was not a request to be ignored. The carriage turned. She felt relief. The sensation of being alive had been too acute to be borne, and it was now a little eased. She knew that her destiny was irrevocable, that nothing could prevent her from being George Cannon's. Whether the destiny was evil or good did not paramountly interest her. But she wanted to rush forward into the arms of fate and know her fate. She dreamed only of the union.
* * * * *
BOOK V HER DELIVERANCE
CHAPTER I LOUISA UNCONTROLLED
Hilda, after a long railway journey, was bathing her face, arms, and neck at the large double washstand in the large double bedroom on the second floor of No. 59 Preston Street. At the back of the washstand was an unused door which gave into a small bedroom occupied by the youngest Miss Watchett. George Cannon came up quietly behind her. She pretended not to hear him. He put his hands lightly on her wet arms. Smiling with condescending indulgence, half to herself, she still pretended to ignore him, and continued her toilet.
The return from the honeymoon, which she had feared, had accomplished itself quite simply and easily. She had feared the return, because only upon the return was the marriage to be formally acknowledged and published. It had been obviously impossible to announce, during the strenuous summer season, the engagement of the landlord to a young woman who lived under the same roof with him. The consequences of such an indiscretion would have been in various ways embarrassing. Hence not a word was said. Nor were definite plans for the wedding made until George remarked one evening that he would like to be married at Chichester, Chichester being the name of his new private hotel. Which exhibition of sentimentality had both startled and touched Hilda. Chichester, however, had to be renounced, owing to the difficulty of residence. The subject having been thus fairly broached, George had pursued it, and one day somewhat casually stated that he had taken a room in Lewes and meant to sleep there every night for the term imposed by the law. Less than three weeks later, Hilda had inobtrusively departed from No. 59, the official account being that she was to take a holiday with friends after the fatigues of August and early September. She left the train at Lewes, and there, in the presence of strangers, was married to George Cannon, who had quitted Brighton two days earlier and was supposed to be in London on business. Even Sarah Gailey, though her health had improved, did not assist at the wedding. Sarah, sole depositary of the secret, had to remain in charge of No. 59.
A strange wedding! Not a single wedding present, except those interchanged by the principals! Nor had any of the problems raised by the marriage been solved, or attacked. The future of Sarah Gailey, for example! Was Sarah to go on living with them? It was inconceivable, and yet the converse was also inconceivable. Sarah had said nothing, and nothing had been said to Sarah. Matters were to settle themselves. It had not even been decided which room Mr. and Mrs. Cannon should inhabit as man and wife. It was almost certain that, in the dead period between the popular summer season and the fashionable autumn season, there would be several bedrooms empty. Hilda, like George, did not want to bother with a lot of tedious details, important or unimportant. The attitude of each was: "Let me get married first, and then I'll see to all that."
Thus had the return been formidable to Hilda. All the way from Ireland she had been saying to herself: "I shall have to go up the steps, and into the house, and be spoken to as Mrs. Cannon! And then there'll be Sarah...!" But the entry into the house had produced no terror. Everywhere George's adroitness had been wonderful, extraordinarily comforting and reassuring, and nowhere more so than in the vestibule of No. 59. The tone in which he had said to Louisa, "Take Mrs. Cannon's handbag, Louisa," had been a marvel of ease. Louisa had incontestably blenched, for the bizarre Sarah, who conserved in Brighton the inmost spirit of the Five Towns, had thought fit to tell the servants nothing whatever. But the trained veteran in Louisa had instantly recovered, and she had replied "Yes, sir," with a simplicity which proved her to be the equal of George Cannon.... The worst was over for Hilda. And the next moments were made smooth by reason of a great piece of news which, forcing Sarah Gailey to communicate it at once, monopolized attention, and so entirely relieved the bride's self-consciousness.
Florence Bagster, having insolently quarrelled with her mistress, had left her service without notice. Mr. Boutwood had also gone, and the connection between the two departures was only too apparent, not merely to Sarah, but also to the three Miss Watchetts, who had recently arrived. Florence, who could but whisper, had shouted at her mistress. Little, flushing, modest Florrie, who yesterday in the Five Towns was an infant, had compromised herself with a fat widower certainly old enough to be her father. And the widower, the friend of the house, had had so little regard for the feelings of the house that he had not hesitated to flaunt with Florrie in the town. It was known that they were more or less together, and that he stood between Florrie and the world.
"I suppose I'd better write at once to her mother—or perhaps her aunt; her aunt's got more sense," said Hilda, as she dropped the sponge and groped for a towel, her eyes half blinded.
In moving she had escaped from his hands.
"What do you say?" she asked, having heard a vague murmur through the towel.
"I say you can write if you like." George spoke with a careless smile.
Now, facing her, he put his hands on her damp shoulders. She looked up at him over the towel, leaning her head forward, and suspending action. Her nose was about a foot from his. She saw, as she had seen a hundred times, every detail of his large, handsome and yet time-worn face, every hair of his impressive moustache, all the melting shades of colour in his dark eyes. His charm was coarse and crude, but he was very skilful, and there was something about his experienced, weather-beaten, slightly depraved air, which excited her. She liked to feel young and girlish before him; she liked to feel that with him, alone of all men, her modesty availed nothing. She was beginning to realize her power over him, and the extent of it. It was a power miraculous and mysterious, never claimed by her, and never admitted by him save in glance and gesture. This power lay in the fact that she was indispensable to him. He was not her slave—she might indeed have been considered the human chattel—but he was the slave of his need of her. He loved her. In him she saw what love was; she had seen it more and more clearly ever since the day of their engagement. She was both proud and ashamed of her power. He did not possess a similar power over herself. She was fond of him, perhaps getting fonder; but his domination of her senses was already nearly at an end. She had passed through painful, shattering ecstasies of bliss, hours unforgettable, hours which she knew could never recur. And she was left sated and unsatisfied. So that by virtue of this not yet quite bitter disillusion, she was coming to regard herself as his superior, as being less naive than he, as being even essentially older than he. And in speaking to him sometimes she would put on a grave and precociously sapient mien, as if to indicate that she had access to sources of wisdom for ever closed to him.
"But don't you think we ought to write?" she frowned.
"Certainly if you like! It won't do any good. You don't suppose her aunt will come down here, do you? And even if she did.... There it is, and there you are!"
"Just let me wipe my shoulders, will you?" she said.
He lifted his hands obediently, and as they were damp he rubbed them on the loose corner of the towel.
"Well," he said, "I must be off, I reckon."
"Shall you see Mr. Boutwood?"
"I might.... I know where to catch him, I fancy."
She seemed to have a glimpse of her husband's separate life in the town—masculine haunts and habits of which she knew nothing and would always know nothing. And the large existence of the male made her envious.
"Going to see him now?"
"Well, yes." George smiled roguishly.
"What shall you say to him?"
"What can I say to him? No business of mine, you know, except that we've lost a decent servant. But I expect that's Sarah's fault. She's no use whatever with servants, now, Sarah isn't."
"I shall never speak to Mr. Boutwood again!" Hilda exclaimed almost passionately.
"His behaviour is simply scandalous. It's really wicked. A man like him!"
George put his lips out deprecatingly. "You may depend she asked for it," he said.
"She asked for it," he repeated with convinced firmness, and looked at her steadily.
A flush slowly spread over her face and neck, and she lowered her gaze. In her breast pride and shame were again mingled.
"You keep your hair on, littl'un," said George soothingly, and kissed her. Then he took his hat and stick, which were with a lot of other things on the broad white counterpane, and went off stylishly.
"You don't understand," she threw at him with a delicious side-glance of reproof as he opened the door. She reproached herself for the deceiving coquetry of the glance.
"Don't I?" he returned airily.
He was quite sure that nothing escaped his intelligence. To Hilda, shocked by the coarseness and the obtuseness which evidently characterized his attitude, now as on other occasions, this self-confidence was desolating; it was ominously sinister.
She was alone with her image in the mirror, and the image was precisely the same that she had always seen; she could detect no change in it whatever. She liked the sensation of being alone and at home in this room which before she had only entered as an overseer and which she had never expected to occupy. She savoured the intimacy of the room—the necessaries on the washstand, the superb tortoiseshell brushes, bought by George in Dublin, on the dressing-table, the open trunks, George's clothes on a chair, and her own flimsy trifles on the bed. Through the glass she saw, behind her image, the image of the closed door; and then she turned round to look at the real door and to assure herself that it was closed. Childish! And yet...! George had shut the door. She remembered the noise of its shutting. And that noise, in her memory, seemed to have transformed itself into the sound of fate's deep bell. She could hear the clang, sharp, definite. She realized suddenly and with awe that her destiny was fixed hereafter. She had come to the end of her adventures and her vague dreams. For she had always dreamt vaguely of an enlarged liberty, of wide interests, and of original activities—such as no woman to her knowledge had ever had. She had always compared the life of men with the life of women, and admitted and resented the inferiority of the latter. She had had glimpses, once, of the male world; she had made herself the only woman shorthand-writer in the Five Towns, and one of the earliest in England—dizzy thought! But the glimpses had been vain and tantalizing. She had been in the male world, but not of it, as though encircled in a glass ball which neither she nor the males could shatter. She had had money, freedom, and ambition, and somehow, through ignorance or through lack of imagination or opportunity, had been unable to employ them. She had never known what she wanted. The vision had never been clear. And she reflected: "I wonder if my daughter, supposing I had one, would be as different from me as I am from my mother!"
She could recall with intense vividness the moment when she had first really contemplated marriage. It was in the steam-tram after having seen Edwin Clayhanger at the door of Clayhanger's shop. And she could recall the sense of relief with which she had envisaged a union with some man stronger and more experienced than herself. In the relief was a certain secret shame, as though it implied cowardice, a shrinking away from the challenge of life and from the call of a proud instinct. In the steam-tram she had foreseen the time when she would belong utterly to some man, surrendering to him without reserve, the time when she would be a woman. And the thing had come about! Only yesterday she had been a little girl entering George Cannon's office with timid audacity to consult him. Only yesterday George Cannon had been a strange, formidable man, indefinitely older and infinitely cleverer than she. And now they were man and wife! Now she was his! Now she profoundly knew him, and he was no longer formidable, in spite of his force. She had a recondite dominion over him. She guessed herself to be his superior in certain qualities. He was revealed to her; she felt that she was not revealed to him, and that in spite of her wholehearted surrender she had not given all because of his blindness to what she offered. She could not completely respect him. But she was his. She was naught apart from him. She was the wife. His existence went on mainly as before; hers was diverted, narrowed—fundamentally altered. Never now could she be enfranchised into the male world!
She slipped her arms into a new bodice purchased in London on the second day of the marriage. Blushing, she had tried on that bodice in a great shop in Oxford Street; then it was that she had first said 'my husband' in public. All that day she had felt so weak and shy and light and helpless and guilty that she had positively not known what she was doing; she had moved in a phantom world. Only, she had perceived quite steadily and practically that she must give more attention to her clothes. Her old contempt for finery expired in the glory of her new condition. And now, as she settled the elegant bodice on her shoulders, and fastened it, and patted her hair, and picked up the skirt and poised it over her head, she had a stern, preoccupied look, as of one who said: "This that I am doing is important. I must not be hurried in doing it. It is vital that I should look well and that no detail of my appearance should jar." Already she could see herself standing before George when he returned for the meal—the first meal which they would take together in the home. She could feel his eyes on her: she could anticipate her own mood—in which would be mingled pride, misgiving, pleasure, helplessness, abandonment—and the secret condescension towards him of her inmost soul.
All alone in the room she could feel his hands again on her shoulders: a mysterious excitation.... She was a married woman. She had the right to discuss Florrie's case with aloof disdain, if she chose. Her respectability was unassailable. None might penetrate beyond the fact of her marriage. And yet, far within her, she was ashamed. She dimly admitted once more, as on several occasions previous to her marriage, that she had dishonoured an ideal. Her conscience would not chime with the conscience of society. She thought, as she prepared with pleasurable expectancy for her husband: "This is not right. This cannot lead to good. It must lead to evil. I am bound to suffer for it. The whole thing is wrong. I know it and I have always known it."
Already she was disappointed with her marriage. Amid the fevers of bodily appetite she could clearly distinguish the beginning of lassitude; she no longer saw her husband as a romantic and baffling figure; she had explored and chartered his soul, and not all his excellences could atone for his earthliness. She wondered grimly where and under what circumstances he had acquired the adroitness which had charmed and still did charm her. She saw in front of her a vista of days and years in which ennui would probably increase and joy diminish. And she put her shoulders back defiantly, and thought: "Well, here I am anyhow! I wanted him and I've got him. What I have to go through I shall go through!"
And all the time, floating like vapour over these depths was a sheeny mood of bright expectation and immediate naive content. And she said gaily that she must write at once to Janet Orgreave to announce the marriage, and that her mother's uncle up in the north must also be informed.
Unusual phenomena made themselves apparent on the top staircase: raised voices which Hilda could hear more and more plainly, even through the shut door. At No. 59, in the off-seasons, nobody ever spoke in a loud tone, particularly on the staircase, except perhaps Florrie when, in conversation with Louisa, she thought she was out of all other hearing. Hilda's voice was very clear and penetrating, but not loud. George Cannon's voice in public places such as the staircase had an almost caressing softness. The Watchetts cooed like faint doves, thereby expressing the delicate refinement of their virginal natures. The cook's voice was unknown beyond the kitchen. And nobody was more grimly self-controlled in speech than Sarah Gailey and Louisa. These two—and especially Louisa—seemed generally to be restraining with ease tremendous secret forces of bitterness and contempt. And now it was just these two who were noisy, and becoming noisier, to the dismay of a scandalized house. Owing to some accident or negligence the secret forces had got loose.
Hilda shook her head. It was clear that the problem of Sarah Gailey would have to be tackled and settled very soon. The poor woman's physical sufferings had without doubt reacted detrimentally on her temperament and temper. She used to be quite extraordinarily adroit in the directing of servants, though her manner to them never approached geniality. But she had quarrelled with Florrie, and now she was breaking the peace with Louisa! It was preposterous and annoying, and it could not be allowed to continue. Hilda was not seriously alarmed, because she had the most perfect confidence in George's skill to restore order and calm, and to conquer every difficulty of management; and she also put a certain trust in herself; but the menacing and vicious accents of Louisa startled her, and she sympathized with Sarah Gailey, for whom humiliation was assuredly in store—if not immediately at the tongue of Louisa, then later when George would have to hint the truth to her about her decadence.
The dispute on the attic landing appeared to be concerning linen which Louisa had omitted to remove from Florrie's abandoned couch in her kennel.
"I ain't going to touch her sheets, not for nobody!" Louisa proclaimed savagely. And by that single phrase, with its implications, she laid unconsciously bare the sordid baseness of her ageing heart; she exposed by her mere intonation of the word 'sheets' all the foulness of jealousy and thwarted salacity that was usually concealed beneath her tight dress and neat apron, and beneath her prim gestures and deferential tones. Her undisciplined voice rang spinsterishly down the staircase, outraging it, defiling the whole interior.
Hilda as silently as possible unlatched the door of the bedroom, and stood with ear cocked. Should she issue forth and interfere, or should she remain discreetly where she was? Almost in the same instant she heard the cautious unlatching of the drawing-room door; two of the Watchetts were there listening also. And there came up from the ground floor a faint giggle. The cook, at the kitchen door, was enjoying herself and giggling moral support to her colleague. The giggle proved that the master was out, that the young mistress had not yet established a definite position, and that during recent weeks the old mistress must have been steadily dissipating her own authority. Hilda peered along the landing from her lair, and upstairs and downstairs; she could see nothing but senseless carpets and brass rods and steps and banisters; but she knew that the entire household—she had the sensation that the very house itself—was alert and eavesdropping.
There was a hesitating movement on the unseen stairs above, and then Hilda could see Sarah Gailey's felt slippers and the valance of her skirt. And she could hear Sarah's emotional breathing.
"Very well, Louisa, I've done!" Sarah's voice was quieter now. She was trying to control it, and to a limited extent was controlling its volume. It shook in spite of her. She spoke true. She had indeed done. She was at the end of her resources.
"I've been in houses," Louisa conqueringly sneered, "that I have! But I never been in a house afore where one as ought to have been scullery- girl went off with a boarder, and nothing said, and him the friend of the master! And it isn't as if that was all!... Sheets, indeed!"
"I've nothing further to say," Sarah returned unnecessarily, and descended the stair. "I shall simply report to Mr. Cannon. We shall see."
"And what's this about Mrs. Cannon?" Louisa shouted, beside herself.
The peculiarity of her tone arrested Sarah Gailey. Hilda flushed. The Watchetts were listening. The Watchetts had not yet been told of the marriage. The announcement was to be made to them formally, a little later. And now it was Louisa who was making the announcement, brutally, coarsely. The outrage of the episode was a hundredfold intensified; it grew into an inconceivable ghastly horror. Hilda's self-respect seemed to have a physical body and Louisa to be hacking at it with a jagged knife.
"Mr. Cannon has brought his wife home," said Sarah Gailey shortly, with a dignity and courage that increased as her distance from the appalling, the incredible Louisa. Hilda could see her pale face now. The eyebrows and chin were lifted in scorn of the vile menial, but the poor head was trembling.
"And what about his other wife?"
"Louisa!"—Sarah Gailey looked again up the stairs—"I know you're in a temper and not responsible for what you say. But you'd better be careful." She spoke with elaborate haughty negligence.
"Had I?" Louisa shrilled. "What I say is, what about his other wife? What about the old woman he married in Devonshire? Why, God bless me, Florrie was full of it—couldn't talk about anything else in bed of a night! Didn't you know the old woman'd been inquiring for her beautiful 'usband down your way?" She laughed loudly. "Turnhill—what's-its-name?... And all of you lying low, and then making out all of a sudden as he's brought his wife home! A nice house! And I've been in a few, too!"
Hilda could feel her heart beating with terrific force against her bodice, but she was conscious of no other sensation. She heard a loud snort of shattering contempt from Louisa; and then a strange and terrific silence fell on the stairs. There was no sound even of a movement. The Watchetts did not stir; the cook did not stir; Sarah Gailey did not stir; Louisa's fury was sated. The empty landing lay, as it were, expectant at Hilda's door.
Then Sarah Gailey perceived Hilda half hidden in the doorway, and staggeringly rushed towards her. In an instant they were both in the bedroom and the door shut.
"When will George be back so that he can put her out of the house?" Sarah whispered frantically.
"Soon, I expect," said Hilda, and felt intensely self-conscious.
They said no more. And it was as though the house were besieged and invested, and only in that room were they safe, and even in that room only for a few moments.
CHAPTER II SOME SECRET HISTORY
Without a word, Sarah had left the bedroom. Hilda waited, sitting on the bed, for George to come back from his haunts in the town. She both intensely desired and intensely feared his return. A phrase or two of an angry and vicious servant had almost destroyed her faith in her husband. It seemed very strange, even to her, that this should be so; and she wondered whether she had ever had a real faith in him, whether—passion apart—her feeling for him had ever been aught but admiration of his impressive adroitness. Was it possible that he had another wife alive? No, it was not possible! That is to say, it was not possible that such a catastrophe should have happened to just her, to Hilda Lessways, sitting there on the bed with her hands pressing on the rough surface of the damask counterpane. And yet—how could Louisa or Florrie have invented the story?... Wicked, shocking, incredible, that Florrie, with her soft voice and timid, affectionate manner, should have been chattering in secret so scandalously during all these weeks! She remembered the look on Florrie's blushing face when the child had received the letter on the morning of their departure from the house in Lessways Street. Even then the attractively innocent and capable Florrie must have had her naughty secrets!... An odious world. And Hilda, married, had seriously thought that she knew all about the world! She had to admit, bewildered: "I'm only a girl after all, and a very simple one." She compared her own heart in its simplicity with that of Louisa. Louisa horrified and frightened her.... Louisa and Florrie were mischievous liars. Florrie had seized some fragment of silly gossip—Turnhill was notorious for its silly gossip—and the two of them had embroidered it in the nastiness of their souls. She laughed shortly, disdainfully, to wither up silly gossip.... Preposterous!
And yet—when George had shown her the licence, in the name of Cannon, and she had ventured to say apologetically and caressingly: "I always understood your real name was Canonges,"—how queerly he had looked as he answered: "I changed it long ago—legally!" Yes, and she had persuaded herself that the queerness of his look was only in her fancy! But it was not only in her fancy. Suspicions, sinister trifling souvenirs, crowded into her mind. Had she not always doubted him? Had she not always said to herself that she was doing wrong in her marriage and that she would thereby suffer? Had she not abandoned the pursuit of religious truth in favour of light enjoyments?... Foolish of course, old-fashioned of course, to put two and two together in this way! But she could not refrain.
"I am ruined!" she decided, in awe.
And the next instant she was saying: "How absurd of me to be like this, merely because Louisa..."
She thought she heard a noise below. Her heart leapt again into violent activity. Trembling, she crept to the door, and gently unlatched it. No slightest sound in the whole house! Dusk was coming on swiftly. Then she could hear all the noises, accentuated beyond custom, of Louisa setting tea in the dining-room for the Watchetts, and then the tea-bell rang. Despite her fury, apparent in the noises, Louisa had not found courage to neglect the sacred boarders. She made a defiant fuss, but she had to yield, intimidated, to the force of habit and tradition. The Watchetts descended the staircase from the drawing-room, practising as usual elaborate small-talk among themselves. They had heard every infamous word of Louisa's tirade; which had engendered in them a truly dreadful and still delicious emotion; but they descended the staircase in good order, discussing the project for a new pier.... They reached the dining-room and shut the door on themselves.
Silence again! Louisa ought now to have set the tea in the basement parlour. But Louisa did not. Louisa was hidden in the kitchen, doubtless talking fourteen to the dozen with the cook. She had done all she meant to do. She knew that she would be compelled to leave at once, and not another stroke would she do of any kind! The master and the mistresses must manage as best they could. Louisa was already wondering where she would sleep that night, for she was alone on earth and owned one small trunk and a Post Office Savings Bank book.... All this trouble on account of Florrie's sheets!
Sarah Gailey was in her bedroom, and did not dare to came out of it even to accuse Louisa of neglecting the basement tea. And Hilda continued to stand for ages at the bedroom door, while the dusk grew deeper and deeper. At last the front door opened, and George's step was in the hall. Hilda recognized it with a thrill of terror, turning pale. George ran down into the basement and stumbled. "Hello!" she heard him call out, "what about tea? Where are you all? Sarah!" No answer, no sound in response! He ran up the basement steps. Would he call in at the dining-room, or would he come to the bedroom in search of her? He did not stop at the dining-room. Hilda wanted to shut the bedroom door, but dared not because she could not do it noiselessly. Now he was on the first floor! She rushed to the bed, and sat on it, as she had been sitting previously, and waited in the most painful and irrational agony. She was astonished at the darkness of the room. Turning her head, she saw only a whitish blur instead of a face in the dressing-table mirror.
"What's up?" he demanded, bursting somewhat urgently into the bedroom with his hat on. "What price the husband coming home to his tea? No tea! No light! I nearly broke my neck down the basement stairs."
He put his hands against her elbows and kissed her, rather clumsily, owing to the gloom, between her nose and her mouth. She did not shrink back, but accepted the embrace quite insensibly. The contact of his moustache and of his lips, and his slight, pleasant masculine odour, produced no effect on her whatever.
"Why are you sitting here? Look here, I've signed the transfer of those Continental shares, and paid the cheque! So it's domino, now!"
Between the engagement and the marriage there had been an opportunity of purchasing three thousand pounds' worth of preference shares in the Brighton Hotel Continental Limited, which hotel was the latest and largest in the King's Road, a vast affair of eight storeys and bathrooms on every floor. The chance of such an investment had fascinated George. It helped his dreams and pointed to the time when he would be manager and part proprietor of a palace like the Continental. Hilda being very willing, he had sold her railways shares and purchased the hotel shares, and he knew that he had done a good thing. Now he possessed an interest in three different establishments, he who had scarcely been in Brighton a year. The rapid progress, he felt, was characteristic of him.
Hilda kept silence, for the sole reason that she could think of no words to say. As for the matter of the investment, it appeared to her to be inexpressibly uninteresting. From under the lashes of lowered eyes she saw his form shadowily in front of her.
"You don't mean to say Sarah's been making herself disagreeable already!" he said. And his tone was affectionate and diplomatic, yet faintly ironical. He had perceived that something unusual had occurred, perhaps something serious, and he was anxious to soothe and to justify his wife. Hilda perfectly understood his mood and intention, and she was reassured.
"Hasn't Sarah told you?" she asked in a harsh, uncontrolled voice, though she knew that he had not seen Sarah.
"No; where is she?" he inquired patiently.
"It's Louisa," Hilda went on, with the sick fright of a child compelled by intimidation to affront a danger. Her mouth was very dry.
"She lost her temper and made a fearful scene with Sarah, on the stairs; she said the most awful things."
George laughed low, and lightly. He guessed Louisa's gift for foul insolence and invective.
"For instance?" George encouraged. He was divining from Hilda's singular tone that tact would be needed.
"Well, she said you'd got a wife living in Devonshire."
There was a pause.
"And who'd told her that?"
"Indeed!" muttered George. Hilda could not decide whether his voice was natural or forced.
Then he stepped across to the door, and opened it.
"What are you going to do to her?" Hilda questioned, as it were despairingly.
He left the room and banged the door.
"It's not true," Hilda was beginning to say to herself, but she seemed to derive no pleasure from the dawning hope of George's innocence.
Then George came into the room again, hesitated, and shut the door carefully.
"I suppose it's no good shilly-shallying about," he said, in such a tone as he might have used had he been vexed and disgusted with Hilda. "I have got a wife living, and she's in Devonshire! I expect she's been inquiring in Turnhill if I'm still in the land of the living. Probably wants to get married again herself."
Hilda glanced at his form, and suddenly it was the form of a stranger, but a stranger who had loved her. And she thought: "Why did I let this stranger love me?" It was scarce believable that she had ever seriously regarded him as a husband. And she found that tears were running down her cheeks; and she felt all her girlishness and fragility. "Didn't I always know," she asked herself with weak resignation, "that it was unreal? What am I to do now?" The catastrophe had indeed happened to her, and she could not deal with it! She did not even feel tragic. She did not feel particularly resentful against George. She had read of such catastrophes in the newspapers, but the reality of experience nonplussed her. "I ought to do something," she reflected. "But what?"
"What's the use of me saying I'm sorry?" he asked savagely. "I acted for the best. The chances were ten thousand to one against me being spotted. But there you are! You never know your luck." He spoke meditatively, in a rather hoarse, indistinct voice. "All owing to Florrie, of course! When it was suggested we should have that girl, I knew there was a danger. But I pooh-poohed it! I said nothing could possibly happen.... And just look at it now!... I wanted to cut myself clear of the Five Towns, absolutely—absolutely! And then like a damnation fool I let Florrie come here! If she hadn't come, that woman might have inquired about me in Turnhill till all was blue, without you hearing about her! But there it is!" He snapped his fingers. "It's my fault for being found out! That's the only thing I'm guilty of.... And look at it! Look at it!"
Hilda could tell from the movements of the vague form in the corner by the door, and by the quality of his voice, that George Cannon was in a state of extreme emotion. She had never known him half so moved. His emotion excited her and flattered her. She thought how wonderful it was that she, the shaking little girl who yesterday had run off with fourpence to buy a meal at a tripe-shop, should be the cause of this emotion in such a man. She thought: "My life is marvellous." She was dizzied by the conception of the capacity of her own body and soul for experience. No factors save her own body and soul and his had been necessary to the bringing about of the situation. It was essential only that the man and the woman should be together, and their companionship would produce miracles of experience! She ceased crying. Astounding that she had never, in George's eyes, suspected his past! It was as if he had swiftly opened a concealed door in the house of their passion and disclosed a vista of which she had not dreamed.
"But surely that must have been a long time ago!" she said in an ordinary tone.
"Considering that I was twenty-two—yes!"
"Why did you leave her?"
"Why did I leave her? Because I had to! I'd gone as a clerk in a solicitor's office in Torquay, and she was a client. She went mad about me. I'm only telling you. She was a spinster. Had one of those big houses high up on the hill behind the town!" He stopped; and then his voice began to come again out of the deep shadow in the corner. "She wanted me, and she got me. And she didn't care who knew! The wedding was in the Torquay Directory. I told her I'd got no relations, and she was jolly glad."
"But how old was she? Young?"
George sneered. "She'd never see thirty-six again, the day she was married. Good-looking. Well-dressed. Very stylish and all that! Carried me off my feet. Of course there was the money.... I may as well out with it all while I'm about it! She made me an absolute present of four thousand pounds. Insisted on doing it. I never asked. Of course I know I married for money. It happens to youths sometimes just as it does to girls. It may be disgusting, but not more disgusting for one than for the other. Besides, I didn't realize it was a sale and purchase, at the time!... Oh! And it lasted about ten days. I couldn't stand it, so I told her so and chucked it. She began an action for restitution of conjugal rights, but she soon tired of that. She wouldn't have her four thousand back. Simply wouldn't! She was a terror, but I'll say that for her. Well, I kept it. Four thousand pounds is a lot of brass. That's how I started business in Turnhill, if you want to know!" He spoke defiantly. "You may depend I never let on in the Five Towns about my beautiful marriage.... That's the tale. You've got to remember I was twenty-two!"
She thought of Edwin Clayhanger and Charlie Orgreave as being about twenty-two, and tried in her imagination to endow the mature George Cannon with their youth and their simplicity and their freshness. She was saddened and overawed; not wrathful, not obsessed by a sense of injury.
Then she heard a sob in the corner, and then another. The moment was terrible for her. She could only distinguish in the room the blur of a man's shape against the light-coloured wall-paper, and the whiteness of the counterpane, and the dark square of the window broken by the black silhouette of the mirror. She slipped off the bed, and going in the direction of the dressing-table groped for a match-box and lit the gas. Dazzled by the glare of the gas, she turned to look at the corner where stood George Cannon.
The whole aspect of the room was now altered. The window was blacker than anything else; light shone on the carved frame of the mirror and on the vessels of the washstand; the trunks each threw a sharply defined shadow; the bed was half in the shadow of its mahogany foot, and half a glittering white; all the array of requisites on the dressing-table lay stark under the close scrutiny of the gas; and high above the bed, partly on the wall and partly on the ceiling, was a bright oblong reflection from the upturned mirror.
Hilda turned to George with a straightening of the shoulders, as if to say: "It is I who have the courage to light the gas and face the situation!" But when she saw him her challenging pride seemed to die slowly away. Though there was no sign of a tear on his features, and though it was difficult to believe that it was he who had just sobbed, nevertheless, his figure was dismayingly tragic. Every feature was distorted by agitation. He was absorbed in himself, shameless and careless of appearances. He was no more concerned about appearances and manly shame than a sufferer dying in torment. He was beyond all that—in truth a new George Cannon! He left the corner, and sat down on the bed in the hollow made by Hilda, and stared at the wall, his hands in the pockets of his gay suit. His gestures as he moved, and his posture as he sat, made their unconscious appeal to her in their abandonment. He was caught; he was vanquished; he was despairing; but he instinctively, and without any wish to do so, kept his dignity. He was still, in his complete overthrow, the mature man of the world, the man to whom it was impossible to be ridiculous.
Hilda in a curious way grew proud of him. With an extraordinary inconsequence she dwelt upon the fact that, always grand—even as a caterer, he had caused to be printed at the foot of the menu forms which he had instituted, the words: "A second helping of all or any of the above dishes will willingly be served if so desired." And in the general havoc of the shock she began to be proud also of herself, because it was the mysterious power of her individuality that had originated the disaster. The sense of their intimate withdrawn seclusion in the room, disordered and littered by arrival, utterly alone save for the living flame of the gas, the sense of the tragedy, and of the responsibility for it, and especially her responsibility, the sense of an imposed burden to be grimly borne and of an unknown destiny to be worked out, the sense of pity, the sense of youth and force,—these things gradually exalted her and ennobled her desolation.
"Why did you keep it from me?" she asked in a very clear and precise tone, not aggrieved, but fatalistic and melancholy.
"Keep what from you?" At length he met her eyes, darkly.
"All this about your being married."
"Why did I keep it from you?" he repeated harshly, and then his tone changed from defiance to a softened regret: "I'll tell you why I kept it from you! Because I knew if I told you I should have no chance with a girl like you. I knew it'd be all up—if I so much as breathed a hint of it! I don't suppose you've the slightest idea how stand-offish you are!"
"Me stand-offish!" she protested.
"Look here!" he said persuasively. "Supposing I'd told you I wanted you, and then that I'd got a wife living—what would you have said?"
"I don't know."
"No! But I know! And suppose I'd told you I'd got a wife living and then told you I wanted you—what then? No, Hilda! Nobody could fool about with you!"
She was flattered, but she thought secretly: "He could have won me on any terms he liked!... I wonder whether he could have won me on any terms!... That first night in this house, when we were in the front attic—suppose he'd told me then—I wonder! What should I have said?" But the severity of her countenance was a perfect mask for such weak and uncertain ideas, and confirmed him deeply in his estimate of her.
"Now that first night in this house, upstairs!" He jerked his head towards the ceiling. She blushed, not from any shame, but because his thought had surprised hers. "I was as near as dammit to letting out the whole thing and chancing it with you. But I didn't—I saw it'd be no use. And that's not the only time either!"
She stood silent by the dressing-table, calmly looking at him, and she asked herself, eagerly curious: "When were the other times?"
"Of course it's all my fault!" he said.
"This!... All my fault! I don't want to excuse myself. I've nothing to say for myself."
In her mind she secretly interrupted him: "Yes, you have. You couldn't do without me—isn't that enough?"
"I'm ashamed!" he said, without reserve, abasing himself. "I'm utterly ashamed. I'd give anything to be able to undo it."
She was startled and offended. She had not expected that he would kiss the dust. She hated to see him thus. She thought: "It isn't all your fault. It's just as much mine as yours. But even if I was ashamed I'd never confess it. Never would I grovel! And never would I want to undo anything! After all you took the chances. You did what you thought best. Why be ashamed when things go wrong? You wouldn't have been ashamed if things had gone right."
"Of course," he said, after a pause, "I'm completely done for!"
He spoke so solemnly, and with such intense conviction, that she was awed and appalled. She felt as one who, having alone escaped destruction in an earthquake, stands afar off and contemplates the silent, corpse- strewn ruin of a vast city.
And the thought ran through her mind like a squirrel through a tree: "How could he refuse her four thousand pounds? And if she wouldn't have it back,—well, what was he to do? She must be a horrible woman!"
Both of them heard a heavy step pass up the staircase. It was Louisa's; she paused to strike a match and light the gas on the landing; and went on. But Sarah Gailey had given no sign, and the Watchetts were still shut in the dining-room. All these middle-aged women were preoccupied by the affair of George Cannon. All of them guessed now that Louisa's charge was not unfounded—otherwise, why the mysterious and interminable interview between George Cannon and Hilda in the bedroom? Hilda pictured them all. And she thought: "But it is I who am in the bedroom with him! It is I who am living through it and facing it out! They are all far older than me, but they are outsiders. They don't know what life is!"
George rose, picked up a portmanteau, and threw it open on the bed.
"And what is to be done?" Hilda asked, trembling.
He turned and looked at her.
"I suppose I mustn't stay here?"
She shook her head, with lips pressed tight.
His voice was thick and obscure when he asked: "You won't come with me?"
She shook her head again. She could not have spoken. She was in acute torture.
"Well," he said, "I suppose I can count on you not to give me up to the police?"
"The police?" she exclaimed. "Why?"
"Well, you know,—it's a three years' job—at least. Ever heard the word 'bigamy'?" His voice was slightly ironical.
"Oh dear!" she breathed, already disconcerted. It had positively not occurred to her to consider the legal aspect of George's conduct.
"But what can you do?" she asked, with the innocent, ignorant helplessness of a girl.
"I can disappear," he replied. "That's all I can do! I don't see myself in prison. I went over Stafford Prison once. The Governor showed several of us over. And I don't see myself in prison."
He began to cast things into the portmanteau, and as he did so he proceeded, without a single glance at Hilda:
"You'll be all right for money and so on. But I should advise you to leave here and not to come back any sooner than you can help. That's the best thing you can do. And be Hilda Lessways again!... Sarah will have to manage this place as best she can. Fortunately, her health's improved. She can make it pay very well if she likes. It's a handsome living for her. My deposit on the Chichester and so on will have to be forfeited."
"And you?" she murmured.
His back was towards her. He turned his head, looked at her enigmatically for an instant, and resumed his packing.
She desired to help him with the packing, she desired to show him some tenderness; her heart was cleft in two with pity; but she could not move; some harshness of pride or vanity prevented her from moving.
When he had carelessly finished the portmanteau, he strode to the door, opened it wide, and called out in a loud, firm voice:
A reply came weakly from the top floor:
"I want you." He had a short way with Louisa.
After a brief delay, she came to the bedroom door.
"Run down to the King's Road and get me a cab," he said to her at the door, as it were confidentially.
"Yes, sir." The woman was like a Christian slave.
"Here! Take the portmanteau down with you to the front door." He gave her the portmanteau.
She disappeared; and then there was the noise of the front door opening.
George picked up his hat and abruptly left the room. Hilda moved to and fro nervously, stiff with having stood still so long. She wondered how he, and how she, would comport themselves in the ordeal of adieu. In a few moments a cab drove up—Louisa had probably encountered it on the way. Hilda waited, tense. Then she heard the cab driving off again. She rushed aghast to the window. She saw the roof of the disappearing cab, and the unwieldy portmanteau on it.... He had gone! He had gone without saying good-bye! That was his device for simplifying the situation. It was drastic, but it was magnificent. He had gone out of the house and out of her life. As she gazed at the dim swaying roof of the cab, magically the roof was taken off, and she could see the ravaged and stricken figure within, sitting grimly in the dark between the wheels that rolled him away from her. The vision was intolerable. She moved aside and wept passionately. How could he help doing all he had done? She had possessed him—the memories of his embrace told her how utterly! All that he had said was true; and this being so, who could blame his conduct? He had only risked and lost.
Sarah Gailey suddenly appeared in the room, and shut the door like a conspirator.
"Then—" she began, terror-struck.
And Hilda nodded, ceasing to cry.
"Oh! My poor dear!" Sarah Gailey moaned feebly, her head bobbing with its unconscious nervous movements. The sight of her worn, saddened features sharpened Hilda's appreciation of her own girlishness and inexperience.
But despite the shock, despite her extreme misery, despite the anguish and fear in her heart and the immense difficulty of the new situation into which she was thus violently thrust, Hilda was not without consolation. She felt none of the shame conventionally proper to a girl deceived. On the contrary, deep within herself, she knew that the catastrophe was a deliverance. She knew that fate had favoured her by absolving her from the consequences of a tragic weakness and error. These thoughts inflamed and rendered more beautiful the apprehensive pity for the real victim—now affronted by a new danger, the menace of the law.
* * * * *
BOOK VI HER PUNISHMENT
CHAPTER I EVENING AT BLEAKRIDGE
When Hilda's cab turned, perilously swaying, through the gate into the dark garden of the Orgreaves, Hilda saw another cab already at the open house door, and in the lighted porch stood figures distinguishable as Janet and Alicia, all enwrapped for a journey, and Martha holding more wraps. The long facade of the house was black, save for one window on the first floor, which threw a faint radiance on the leafless branches of elms, and thus intensified the upper mysteries of the nocturnal garden. The arrival of the second cab caused excitement in the porch; and Hilda, leaning out of the window into the November mist, shook with apprehension, as her vehicle came to a halt behind the other one. She was now to meet friends for the first time after her secret and unhappy adventure. She feared that Janet, by some magic insight of affection, would read at once in her face the whole history of the past year.
Janet had written to her, giving and asking for news, and urging a visit, on the very day after the scene in which George Cannon admitted his turpitude. Had the letter been sent a day or two sooner, reaching Hilda on her honeymoon, she would certainly have replied to it with the tremendous news of her marriage, and, her marriage, having been made public in the Five Towns, her shame also would necessarily be public. But chance had saved her from this humiliation. Nobody in the district was aware of the marriage. By a characteristic instinct, she had been determined not to announce it in any way until the honeymoon was over. In answer to Janet, she had written very briefly, as was usual with her, and said that she would come to Lane End House as soon as she could. "Shall I tell her, or shan't I?" she had cogitated, and the decision had been for postponement. But she strongly desired, nevertheless, to pay the visit. She had had more than enough of Preston Street and of Brighton, and longed to leave at any price.
And, at length, one dull morning, after George Cannon had sailed for America, and all affairs were somehow arranged or had arranged themselves, and Sarah Gailey was better and the autumn season smoothly running with new servants, she had suddenly said to Sarah: "I have to go to Bursley to-day, for a few days." And she had gone, upon the impulse, without having previously warned Janet. Changing at Knype, she had got into the wrong train, and had found herself at Shawport, at the far, lower end of Bursley, instead of up at Bleakridge, close by the Orgreaves! And there was, of course, no cab for her. But a cabman who had brought a fare to the station, and was driving his young woman back, had offered in a friendly way to take Hilda too. And she had sat in the cab with the young woman, who was a paintress at Peel's great manufactory at Shawport, and suffered from a weak chest; and they had talked about the potters' strike which was then upheaving the district, and the cab had overtaken a procession of thinly clad potters, wending in the bitter mist to a mass meeting at Hanbridge; and Hilda had been thereby much impressed and angered against all employers. And the young woman had left the cab, half-way up Trafalgar Road, with a delicious pink-and-white smile of adieu. And Hilda had thought how different all this was from Brighton, and how much better and more homely and understandable. And now she was in the garden of the Orgreaves.
Martha came peeping, to discover the explanation of this singular concourse of cabs in the garden, and she cried joyously:
"Oh, Miss Janet, it's Miss Hilda—Miss Lessways, I mean!"
Alicia shrieked. The first cab drew forward to make room for Hilda's, and Hilda stepped down into the glare of the porch, and was plainly beheld by all three girls.
"Will they notice anything?" she asked herself, self-conscious, almost trembling, as she thought of the terrific changes that had passed in her since her previous visit.
But nobody noticed anything. Nobody observed that this was not the same Hilda. Even in the intimacy of the affectionate kiss, for which she lifted her veil, Janet seemed to have no suspicion whatever.
"We were just off to Hillport," said Janet. "How splendid of you to come like this!"
"Don't let's go to Hillport!" said Alicia.
Janet hesitated, pulling down her veil.
"Of course you must go!" Hilda said positively.
"I'm afraid we shall have to go," said Janet, with reluctance. "You see, it's the Marrions—Edie's cousins—and Edie will be there!"
"Why! Tom's fiancee! Surely I told you!"
"Yes," said Hilda; "only I didn't just remember the name. How nice!"
(She thought: "No sooner do I get here than I talk like they do! Fancy me saying, 'How nice'!")
"Oh, it's all Edie nowadays!" said Alicia lightly. "We have to be frightfully particular, or else Tom would cut our heads off. That's why we're going in a cab! We should have walked,—shouldn't we, Janet?—only it would never do for us to walk to the Marrions' at night! 'The Misses Lessways' carriage!'" she mimicked, and finicked about on her toes.
Janet was precisely the same as ever, but the pig-tailed Alicia had developed. Her childishness was now shot through with gestures and tones of the young girl. She flushed and paled continuously, and was acutely self-conscious and somewhat vain, but not offensively vain.
"I say, Jan," she exclaimed, "why shouldn't Hilda come with us?"
"To the Marrions'? Oh no, thanks!" said Hilda.
"But do, Hilda! I'm sure they'd be delighted!" Janet urged. "I never thought of it."
Though she was flattered and, indeed, a little startled by the extraordinary seriousness of Janet's insistence, Hilda shook her head.
"Where's Tom?" she inquired, to change the subject.
"Oh!" Alicia burst out again. "He's gone off hours ago to escort his ladylove from Hanbridge to Hillport."
"You wait till you're engaged, Alicia!" Janet suggested. But Janet's eyes, too, twinkled the admission that Tom was just then providing much innocent amusement to the family.
"You'll sleep in my room to-night, anyhow, dear," said Janet, when Martha and Hilda's cabman had brought a trunk into the hall, and Hilda had paid the cabman far more than his fare because he was such a friendly young cabman and because he possessed a pulmonary sweetheart. "Come along, dear!... Alicia, ask Swindells to wait a minute or two."
"Swindells," Alicia shouted to the original cabman, "just wait a jiff!"
"Yes, miss." The original cabman, being old and accustomed to evening- party work in the Five Towns, knew the length of a jiff, and got down from his seat to exercise both arms and legs. With sardonic pleasure he watched the young cabman cut a black streak in the sodden lawn with his near front-wheel as he clumsily turned to leave. Then Martha banged the front door, and another servant appeared in the hall to help the trunk on its way upstairs.
"No! I shall never be able to tell them!" thought Hilda, following the trunk.
Alicia had scampered on in front of the trunk, to inform her parents of the arrival. Mrs. Orgreave, Hilda learnt, was laid up with an attack of asthma, and Osmond Orgreave was working in their bedroom.
Hilda stood in front of the fire in Janet's bedroom, and Janet was unlocking her trunk.
"Why! What a pretty bodice!" said Janet, opening the trunk. She stood up, and held forth the bodice to inspect it; and beneath Janet's cloak Hilda could see the splendour of her evening dress. "Where did you get it?"
"In London," Hilda was about to answer, but she took thought. "Oh! Brighton." It was a lie.
She had a longing to say:
"No, not Brighton! What am I thinking of? I got it in London on my honeymoon!"
What a unique sensation that one word would have caused! But she could not find courage to utter it.
Alicia came importantly in.
"Mother's love, and you are to go into her room as soon as you're ready. Martha will bring up a tray for you, and you'll eat there by the fire. It's all arranged."
"And what about father's love?" Hilda demanded, with a sprightliness that astonished herself. And she thought: "Why are these people so fond of me? They don't even ask how it was I didn't write to tell them I was coming. They just accept me and welcome me without questions.... No! I can never tell them! It simply couldn't be told, here! If they find out, so much the worse!"
"You must ask him!" Alicia answered, blushing.
"All right, Alicia. We'll be ready in a minute or two," said Janet in a peculiar voice.
It was a gentle command to Alicia to leave her elders alone to their adult confidences. And unwilling Alicia had to obey.
But there were no confidences. The talk, as it were, shivered on the brink of a confidence, but never plunged.
"Does she guess?" Hilda reflected.
The conversation so halted that at length Janet was driven to the banality of saying:
"I'm so sorry we have to go out!"
And Hilda protested with equal banality, and added: "I suppose you're going out a lot just now?"
"Oh no!" said Janet. "We go out less and less, and we get quieter and quieter. I mean us. The boys are always out, you know." She seemed saddened. "I did think Edwin Clayhanger would come in sometimes, now they're living next door—"
"They're in their new house, then!" said Hilda, with casualness.
"Oh, long ago! And I'm sure it's ages since he was here. I like Maggie—his sister."
Hilda knelt to her trunk.
"Did he ever inquire after me?" she demanded, with an air of archness, but hiding her face.
"As a matter of fact he did—once," said Janet, imitating Hilda's manner.
"Well, that's something," said Hilda.
There was a sharp knock at the door.
"Hot water, miss!" cried the voice of Martha.
The next instant Martha was arranging the ewer and the can and some clean towels on the washstand. Her face was full of joy in the unexpected arrival. She was as excited as if Hilda had been her own friend instead of Janet's.
"Well, dear, shall you be all right now?" said Janet. "Perhaps I ought to be going. You may depend on it I shall get back as early as ever I can."
The two girls kissed, with even more freedom than in the hall. It seemed astonishing to Hilda, as her face was close to Janet's, that Janet did not exclaim: "Something has happened to you. What is it? You are not as you used to be! You are not like me!" She felt herself an imposter.
"Why should I tell?" Hilda reflected. "What end will it serve? It's nobody's business but mine. He is gone. He'll never come back. Everything's over.... And if it does get about, well, they'll only praise me for my discretion. They can't do anything else."
Still, she longed timorously to confide in Janet. And when Janet had departed she breathed relief because the danger of confiding in Janet was withdrawn for the moment.
Later, as the invalid had ordained, Hilda, having eaten, sat by the fire in the large, quiet bedroom of Mr. and Mrs. Orgreave. The latter was enjoying a period of ease, and lay, with head raised very high on pillows, in her own half of the broad bed. The quilt extended over her without a crease in its expanse; the sheet was turned down with precision, making a level white border to the quilt; and Mrs. Orgreave did not stir; not one of her grey locks stirred; she spoke occasionally in a low voice. On the night-table stood a Godfrey's Chloride of Ammonia Inhaler, with its glass cylinder and triple arrangement of tubes. There was only this, and the dark lips and pale cheeks of the patient, to remind the beholder that not long since the bed had been a scene of agony. Mr. Orgreave, in bright carpet slippers, and elegant wristbands blossoming out of the sleeves of his black house-jacket, stood bending above a huge board that was laid horizontally on trestles to the left of the fireplace. This board was covered by a wide length of bluish transparent paper which at intervals he pulled towards him, making billows of paper at his feet and gradually lessening a roll of it that lay on the floor beyond the table. A specially arranged gas-bracket with a green shade which threw a powerful light on the paper showed that Osmond Orgreave's habit was to work in that spot of an evening.
"Astonishing I have to do this myself, isn't it?" he observed, stooping to roll up the accumulated length of paper about his feet.
"What is it?" Hilda asked.
"It's a full-sized detail drawing. Simple!... But do you suppose I could trust either of my ingenious sons to get the curves of the mouldings right?"
"You'll never be able to trust them unless you begin to trust them," said Mrs. Orgreave sagely from the bed.
"Ha!" ejaculated Osmond Orgreave satirically. This remark was one of his most effective counters to argument.
"The fact is he thoroughly enjoys it, doesn't he, Mrs. Orgreave?" said Hilda.
"You're quite right, my dear," said Mrs. Orgreave.
"Ah!" from Mr. Orgreave.
He sketched with a pencil and rubbed out, vigorously. Then his eye caught Hilda's, and they both smiled, very content. "They'd look nice if I took to drink instead of to work, for a change!" he murmured, pausing to caress his handsome hair.
There was a sharp knock at the door, and into this room also the watchful Martha entered.
"Here's the Signal, sir. The boy's only just brought it."
"Give it to Miss Hilda," said Mr. Orgreave, without glancing up.
"Shall I take the tray away, 'm?" Martha inquired, looking towards the bed, the supreme centre of domestic order and authority.
"Perhaps Miss Hilda hasn't finished?"
"Oh yes, I have, thanks."
Martha rearranged the vessels and cutlery upon the tray, with quick, expert movements of the wrists. Her gaze was carefully fixed on the tray. Endowed though she was with rare privileges, as a faithful retainer, she would have been shocked and shamed had her gaze, improperly wandering, encountered the gaze of the master or the guest. Then she picked up the tray, and, pushing the small table into its accustomed place with a deft twist of the foot, she sailed erect and prim out of the room, and the door primly clicked on her neat-girded waist and flying white ribbons.
"And what am I to do with this Signal" Hilda asked, fingering the white, damp paper.
"I should like you to read us about the strike," said Mrs. Orgreave. "It's a dreadful thing."
"I should thing it was!" Hilda agreed fervently. "Oh! Do you know, on the way from Shawport, I saw a procession of the men, and anything more terrible—"
"It's the children I think of!" said Mrs. Orgreave softly.
"Pity the men don't!" Mr. Orgreave murmured, without raising his head.
"Don't what?" Hilda asked defiantly.
"Think of the children."
Bridling, but silent, Hilda opened the sheet, and searched round and about its columns with the embarrassed bewilderment of one unaccustomed to the perusal of newspapers.
"Look on page three—first column," said Mr. Orgreave.
"That's all about racing," said Hilda.
"Oh dear, dear!" from the bed.
"Well, second column."
"The Potters' Strike. The men's leaders," she read the headlines. "There isn't much of it."
"How beautifully clearly you read!" said Mrs. Orgreave, with mild enthusiasm, when Hilda had read the meagre half-column.
"Do I?" Hilda flushed.
"Is that all there is about it?"
"Yes. They don't seem to think it's very important that half the people are starving!" Hilda sneered.
"Whose fault is it if they do starve?" Osmond Orgreave glanced at her with lowered head.
"I think it's a shame!" she exclaimed.
"Do you know that the men broke the last award, not so very long since?" said Osmond Orgreave. "What can you do with such people?"
"Broke the last award?" She was checked.
"Broke the last award! Wouldn't stick by their own agreement, their own words. I'll just tell you. A wise young woman like you oughtn't to be carried away by the sight of a procession on a cold night."
He smiled; and she smiled, but awkwardly.
And then he told her something of the case for the employers.
"How hard you are on the men!" she protested, when he had done.
"Not at all! Not at all!" He stretched himself, and came round his trestles to poke the fire. "You should hear Mr. Clayhanger on the men, if you want to know what hard is."
"Mr. Clayhanger? You mean old Mr. Clayhanger?"
"But he isn't a manufacturer."
"No. But he's an employer of labour."
Hilda rose uneasily from her chair, and walked towards the distant, shadowed dressing-table.
"I should like to go over a printing-works," she said abruptly.
"Very easy," said Mr. Orgreave, resuming his work with a great expulsion of breath.
Hilda thought: "Why did I say that?" And, to cover her constraint, she cried out: "Oh, what a lovely book!"
A small book, bound in full purple calf, lay half hidden in a nest of fine tissue paper on the dressing-table.
"Yes, isn't it?" said Mrs. Orgreave. "Tom brought it in to show me, before he went this afternoon. It's a birthday present for Edie. He's had it specially bound. I must write myself, and ask Edie to come over and meet you. I'm sure you'd like her. She's a dear girl. I think Tom's very fortunate."
"No, you don't," Osmond Orgreave contradicted her, with a great rustling of paper. "You think Edie's very fortunate."
Hilda looked round, and caught the architect's smile.
"I think they're both fortunate," said Mrs. Orgreave simply. She had almost no sense of humour. "I'm sure she's a real good girl, and clever too."
"Clever enough to get on the right side of her future mother-in-law, anyway!" growled Mr. Orgreave.
"Anyone might think Osmond didn't like the girl," said Mrs. Orgreave, "from the way he talks. And yet he adores her! And it's no use him pretending he doesn't!"
"I only adore you!" said Osmond.
"You needn't try to turn it off!" his wife murmured, beaming on Hilda.
Tears came strangely into Hilda's eyes, and she turned again to the dressing-table. And through a blur, she saw all the objects ranged in a long row on the white cloth that covered the rosewood; and she thought: "All this is beautiful." And she saw the pale blinds drawn down behind the dressing-table, and the valance at the top, and the draped curtains; and herself darkly in the glass. And she could feel the vista of the large, calm, comfortable room behind her, and could hear the coals falling together in the grate, and the rustling of the architect's paper, and Mrs. Orgreave's slight cough. And, in her mind, she could see all the other rooms in the spacious house, and the dim, misted garden beyond. She thought: "All this house is beautiful. It is the most beautiful thing I have ever known, or ever shall know. I'm happy here!" And then her imagination followed each of the children. She imagined Marian, the eldest, and her babies, in London; and Charlie, also in London, practising medicine; and Tom and Janet and Alicia at the party at Hillport; and Jimmie and Johnnie seeing life at Hanbridge; while the parents remained in tranquillity in their bedroom. All these visions were beautiful; even the vision of Jimmie and Johnnie flourishing billiard-cues and glasses and pipes in the smoky atmosphere of a club—even this was beautiful; it was as simply touching as the other visions.... And she was at home with the parents, and so extremely intimate with them that she could nearly conceive herself a genuine member of the house. She was in bliss. Her immediate past dropped away from her like an illusion, and she became almost the old Hilda: she was almost born again into innocence. Only the tragic figure of George Cannon hung vague in the far distance of memory, and the sight thereof constricted her heart. Utterly her passion for him had expired: she was exquisitely sad for him; she felt towards him kindly and guiltily, as one feels towards an old error.... And, withal, the spell of the home of the Orgreaves took away his reality.
She was fingering the book. Its title-page ran: The English Poems of Richard Crashaw. Now she had never even heard of Richard Crashaw, and she wondered who he might be. Turning the pages, she read:
All thy old woes shall now smile on thee, And thy pains sit bright upon thee, All thy sorrows here shall shine, All thy sufferings be divine: Tears shall take comfort, and turn gems, And wrongs repent to diadems.
And she read again, as though the words had been too lovely to be real, and she must assure herself of them:
Tears shall take comfort, and turn gems, And wrongs repent to diadems.
She turned back to the beginning of the poem, and read the title of it: "A Hymn, to the name and honour of the admirable Saint Teresa—Foundress of the Reformation of the discalced Carmelites, both men and women: a woman for angelical height of speculation, for masculine courage of performance more than a woman: who yet a child outran maturity, and durst plot a martyrdom."
The prose thrilled her even more intimately than the verse. She cried within herself: "Why have I never heard of Richard Crashaw? Why did Tom never tell me?" She became upon the instant a devotee of this Saint Teresa. She thought inconsequently, with a pang that was also a reassurance: "George Cannon would never have understood this. But everyone here understands it." And with hands enfevered, she turned the pages again, and, after several disappointments, read:
Oh, thou undaunted daughter of desires! By all thy dower of lights and fires; By all the eagle in thee, all the dove: By all thy lives and deaths of love: By thy large draughts of intellectual day; And by thy thirsts of love more large than they: By all thy brim-filled bowls of fierce desire, By this last morning's draught of liquid fire: By the full kingdom of that final kiss——
She ceased to read. It was as if her soul was crying out: "I also am Teresa. This is I! This is I!"
And then the door opened, and Martha appeared once more:
"If you please, sir, Mr. Edwin Clayhanger's called."
"Oh... well, I'm nearly finished. Where is he?"
"In the breakfast-room, sir."
"Well, tell him I'll be down in a minute."
"Hilda," said Mrs. Orgreave, "will you mind going and telling him?"
Hilda had replaced the book in its nest, and gone quickly back to her chair. The entrance of the servant at that moment, to announce Edwin Clayhanger, seemed to her startlingly dramatic. "What," she thought, "I am just reading that and he comes!... He hasn't been here for ages, and, on the very night that I come, he comes!"
"Certainly," she replied to Mrs. Orgreave. And she thought: "This is the second time she has sent me with a message to Edwin Clayhanger."
Suddenly, she blushed in confusion before the mistress of the home. "Is it possible," she asked herself,—"is it possible that Mrs. Orgreave doesn't guess what has happened to me? Is it possible she can't see that I'm different from what I used to be? If she knew... if they knew... here!"
She left the room like a criminal. When she was going down the stairs, she discovered that she held the Signal in her hand. She had no recollection of picking it up, and there was no object in taking it to the breakfast-room! She thought: "What a state I must be in!"
CHAPTER II A RENDEZVOUS
"I suppose you've never thought about me once since I've left!"
She was sitting on the sofa in the small, shelved breakfast-room, and she shot these words at Edwin Clayhanger, who was standing near her. The singular words were certainly uttered out of bravado: they were a challenge to adventure. She thought: "It is madness for me to say such a thing." But such a thing had, nevertheless, come quite glibly out of her mouth, and she knew not why. If Edwin Clayhanger was startled, so was she startled.
"Oh yes, I have!" he stammered—of course, she had put him out of countenance.
She smiled, and said persuasively: "But you've never inquired after me."
"Yes, I have," he answered, with a hint of defiance, after a pause.
"Only once." She continued to smile.
"How do you know?" he demanded.
Then she told him very calmly, extinguishing the smile, that her source of information was Janet.
"That's nothing to go by!" he exclaimed, with sudden roughness. "That's nothing to go by—the number of times I've inquired!"
She was silenced. She thought: "If I am thus intimate with him, it must be because of the talk we had in the garden that night." And it seemed to her that the scene in the garden had somehow bound them together for ever in intimacy, that, even if they pretended to be only acquaintances, they would constantly be breaking through the thin shell of formality into some unguessed deep of intimacy. She regarded—surreptitiously—his face, with a keen sense of pleasure. It was romantic, melancholy, wistful, enigmatic—and, above all, honest. She knew that he had desired to be an architect, and that his father had thwarted his desire, and this fact endowed him for her with the charm of a victim. The idea that all his life had been embittered and shadowed by the caprice of an old man was beautiful to her in its sadness: she contemplated it with vague bliss. At their last meeting, during the Sunday School Centenary, he had annoyed her; he had even drawn her disdain, by his lack of initiative and male force in the incident of the senile Sunday School teacher. He had profoundly disappointed her. Now, she simply forgot this; the sinister impression vanished from her mind. She recalled her first vision of him in the lighted doorway of his father's shop. Her present vision confirmed that sympathetic vision. She liked the feel of his faithful hand, and the glance of his timid and yet bellicose eye. And she reposed on his very apparent honesty as on a bed. She knew, with the assurance of perfect faith, that he had nothing dubious to conceal, and that no test could strain his magnanimity. And, while she so reflected, she was thinking, too, of Janet's fine dress, and her elegance and jewels, and wishing that she had changed the old black frock in which she travelled. The perception that she could never be like Janet cast her down. But, the next moment, she was saying to herself proudly: "What does it matter? Why should I be like Janet?" And, the next moment after that, she was saying, in another phase of her pride: "I will be like Janet!"
They began to discuss the strike. It was a topic which, during those weeks, could not be avoided, either by the rich or by the poor.
"I suppose you're like all the rest—against the men?" she challenged him again, inviting battle.
He replied bluntly: "What earthly right have you to suppose that I'm like all the rest?"
She bent her head lower, so that she could only see him through the veil of her eyelashes.
"I'm very sorry," she said, in a low, smiling, meditative voice. "I knew all the time you weren't."
The thought shot through her mind like a lance: "It is incredible, and horribly dangerous, that I should be sitting here with him, after all that has happened to me, and him without the slightest suspicion!... And yet what can stop it from coming out, sooner or later? Nothing can stop it."
Edwin Clayhanger continued to talk of the strike, and she heard him saying: "If you ask me, I'll tell you what I think—workmen on strike are always in the right... you've only got to look at them in a crowd together. They don't starve themselves for fun."
What he said thrilled her. There was nothing in it, but there was everything in it. His generosity towards the oppressed was everything to her. His whole attitude was utterly and mysteriously different from that of any other man whom she had known.... And with that simple, wistful expression of his!
They went on talking, and then, following in secret the train of her own thoughts, she suddenly burst out:
"I never met anybody like you before." A pause ensued. "No, never!" she added, with intense conviction.
"I might say the same of you," he replied, moved.
"Oh no! I'm nothing!" she breathed.
She glanced up, exquisitely flattered. His face was crimson. Exquisite moment, in the familiarity of the breakfast-room, by the fire, she on the sofa, with him standing over her, a delicious peril. The crimson slowly paled.
Osmond Orgreave entered the room, quizzical, and at once began to tease Clayhanger about the infrequency of his visits.
Turning to Hilda, he said: "He scarcely ever comes to see us, except when you're here." It was just as if he had said: "I heard every word you spoke before I came in, and I have read your hearts." Both Hilda and Clayhanger were disconcerted—Clayhanger extremely so.
"Steady on!" he protested uncouthly. And then, with the most naive ingenuousness: "Mrs. Orgreave better?"
But Osmond Orgreave was not in a merciful mood. A moment later he was saying:
"Has she told you she wants to go over a printing-works?"
"No," Clayhanger answered, with interest. "But I shall be very pleased to show her over ours, any time."
Hilda struck into silence, made no response, and instantly Clayhanger finished, in another tone: "Look here, I must be off. I only slipped in for a minute—really."
And he went, declining Mr. Orgreave's request to give a date for his next call. The bang of the front door resounded through the house.
Mr. Orgreave, having taken Clayhanger to the front door, did not return immediately into the breakfast-room. Hilda jumped up from the sofa, hesitant. She was disappointed; she was even resentful; assuredly she was humiliated. "Oh no!" she thought. "He's weak and afraid.... I dare say he went off because Janet wasn't here." She heard through the half-open door Mr. Orgreave's slippers on the tiles of the passage leading to the stairs.
Martha came into the room with a delighted, curious smile.
"If you please, miss, could you come into the hall a minute?... Some one to speak to you."
Hilda blushed silently, and obeyed. Clayhanger was standing in the chill hall, hat in hand. Her heart jumped.
"When will you come to look over our works?" he muttered rapidly and very nervously, and yet with a dictatorial gruffness. "To-morrow? I should like you to come."
He had put an enchantment upon her by this marvellous return. And to conceal from him what he had done, she frowned and kept silent.
"What time?" she asked suddenly.
"Any time." His eagerness was thrilling.
"Oh no! You must fix the time."
"Say between half-past six and a quarter to seven. That do?"
She nodded. Their hands met. He said adieu. He pulled open the heavy door. She saw his back for an instant against the pale gloom of the garden, in which vapour was curling. And then she had shut the door, and was standing alone in the confined hall. A miracle had occurred, and it intimidated her. And, amid her wondrous fears, she was steeped in the unique sense of adventure. "This morning I was in Brighton," she thought. "Half an hour ago I had no notion of seeing him. And now!... And to-morrow?" The tragic sequel to one adventure had not impaired her instinct for experience. On the contrary, it had strengthened it. The very failure of the one excited her towards another. The zest of living was reborn in her. The morrow beckoned her, golden and miraculous. The faculty of men and women to create their own lives seemed divine, and the conception of it enfevered her.
CHAPTER III AT THE WORKS
That night, late, Hilda and Janet shut themselves up in the bedroom together. The door clicked softly under Janet's gentle push, and they were as safe from invasion as if the door had been of iron, and locked and double-locked and barred with bars of iron. Alicia alone might have disturbed them, but Alicia was asleep. Hilda had a sense of entire security in this room such as she had never had since she drove away from Lessways Street, Turnhill, early one morning, with Florrie Bagster in a cab. It was not that there had been the least real fear of any room of hers being attacked: it was that this room seemed to have been rendered mystically inviolate by long years of Janet's occupation. "Janet's bedroom!"—the phrase had a sanction which could not possibly have attached itself to, for instance, "Hilda's bedroom!" Nor even to "mother's bedroom"—mother's bedroom being indeed at the mercy of any profane and marauding member of the family, a sort of market-place for the transaction of affairs.