Arnold Bennett.

Helen with the High Hand (2nd ed.) online

. (page 11 of 13)
Online LibraryArnold BennettHelen with the High Hand (2nd ed.) → online text (page 11 of 13)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

free. He did not know whether to be glad or sorry that Helen had
departed to bed. He did not even know whether to be glad or sorry that
Mrs. Prockter had called. But he vividly remembered what Helen had said
about caps.

Naturally, he had to let her in. He held the candle in his left hand,
as he opened the door with his right, and the tassel of his cap was over
his eye.

"You'll think I'm in the habit of calling on you at night," said Mrs.
Prockter, as she slid through the narrow space which James allotted to
her, and she laughed again. "Where is dear Helen?"

"She's gone to bed, missis," said James, holding high the candle and
gazing at the generous vision in front of him. It wore a bonnet, and a
rich Paisley shawl over its flowered silk.

"But it's only ten o'clock!" Mrs. Prockter protested.

"Yes. But her's gone to bed."

"Why," Mrs. Prockter exclaimed, changing the subject wilfully, "you are
all straight here!" (For the carpets had been unrolled and laid.)

And she sat down on a massive Early Victorian mahogany chair about
fifteen feet from the dying fire, and began to fan herself with her
hands. She was one of your women who are never cold.

James, having nothing to say, said nothing, following his custom.

"I'm not ill-pleased," said Mrs. Prockter, "that Helen is out of the
way. The fact is - it was you that I wanted to have a word with. You'll
guess what about?"

"Mr. Emanuel?" James hazarded.

"Precisely. I had to put him to bed. He is certainly in for a very
serious cold, and I trust - I fervently trust - it may not be bronchitis.
That would mean nurses, and nothing upsets a house more than nurses.
What happened, Mr. Ollerenshaw?"

James set the candle down on another Early Victorian chair, there being
no occasional table at hand, and very slowly lowered himself to a
sitting posture on a third.

"I'll tell you what happened, missis," he said, putting his hands on his

And he told her, beginning with the loss of the ship and ocean, and
ending with Helen's ever memorable words: "You must help me."

"That's what happened, missis," he said, grimly.

She had punctuated his recital by several exclamations, and when he had
finished she gave rein to her sentiments.

"My _dear_ Mr. Ollerenshaw," she said, in the kindest manner
conceivable, "how I sympathise with you! How I wish I could help you!"

Her sympathy was a genuine comfort to him. He did not, in that instant,
care a fig for Helen's notion about the direction of caps. He was simply
and humanly eased by the sweet tones of this ample and comely dame.
Besides, the idea of a woman such as Mrs. Prockter marrying a man such
as him was (he knew) preposterous. She belonged to a little world which
called him "Jimmy," whereas he belonged to a little world of his own.
True, he was wealthy; but she was not poor - and no amount of money (he
thought) could make a bridge to join those two worlds. Nevertheless,
here she was, talking to him alone at ten o'clock at night - and not for
the first time, either! Obviously, then, there was no nonsense about
_her_, whatever nonsensical world she belonged to.

She ran over with sympathy. Having no further fear of Helen making
trouble in her own family, she had all her feelings at liberty to
condone with James.

The candle, throwing a small hemisphere of feeble radiance in the
vastness of the dim hall, sat on its chair between them.

"I _can_ help you," she said, suddenly, after grunts from James. "I'm
calling on the Swetnams the day after to-morrow. I'll tell them
about - about to-day, and when Mrs. Swetnam asks me for an explanation of
it, I will be mysterious. If Lilian is there, Mrs. Swetnam will
certainly get her out of the room. Then I will just give the faintest
hint that the explanation is merely jealousy between Emanuel and Mr.
Dean concerning - a certain young lady. I shall treat it all as a joke;
you can rely on me. Immediately I am gone Lilian will hear about it. She
will quarrel with Andrew the next time she sees him; and if he _wishes_
to be free, he may be."

She smiled the arch, naughty, pleasantly-malign smile of a terribly
experienced dowager. And she seemed positively anxious that James should
have Andrew Dean for a son-in-law.

James, in his simplicity, was delighted. It appeared to him a
Mephistophelian ingenuity. He thought how clever women were, on their
own ground, and what an advantage they had in their immense lack of

"Of course," said she, "I have always said that a marriage between
Andrew Dean and Lilian would be a mistake - a very serious mistake. They
are quite unsuited to each other. She isn't in love with him - she's only
been flattered by his attentions into drawing him on. I feel sorry for
the little thing."

At a stroke, she had converted a shameful conspiracy into an act of the
highest virtue. And her smile changed, too - became a _good_ smile, a
smile on which a man might depend. His heart went out to her, and he
contemplated the smile in a pleased, beatific silence.

Just then the candle - a treacherous thing - flamed up and went out.

"Oh!" cried Mrs. Prockter.

And James had not a match. He never smoked. And without an atlas of the
Hall, showing the location of match-boxes, he saw no hope of finding a

The fire was as good as gone. A few cinders burnt red under the ash,
showing the form of the chimney-piece, but no more.

"An ye got a match?" he asked her.

"No," she said, drily, "I don't carry matches. But I can tell you I
don't like being in the dark at all." Her voice came to him out of
nothing, and had a most curious effect on his spine. "Where are you, Mr.

"I'm a-sitting here," he replied.

"Well," said she, "if _you_ can't find a match, I think you had better
lead me to the door. I certainly can't find my way there myself. Where
is your hand?"

Then a hand touched his shoulder and burnt him. "Is that you?" asked the

"Ay!" he said.

And he took the hand, and the hand squeezed his hand - squeezed it
violently. It may have been due to fear, it may have been due to mere
inadvertence on the part of the hand; but the hand did, with
unmistakable, charming violence, squeeze his hand.

And he rose.

"What's that light there?" questioned the voice, in a whisper.

"Where?" he whispered also.

"There - behind."

He turned. A luminance seemed to come from above, from the unseen
heights of the magnificent double staircase. As his eyes grew accustomed
to the conditions, he gradually made out the details of the staircase.

"You'd better go and see," the whispering voice commanded.

He dropped the hand and obeyed, creeping up the left wing of the
staircase. As he faced about at the half-landing, he saw Helen, in an
orange-tinted peignoir, and her hair all down her back, holding a
candle. She beckoned to him. He ascended to her.

"Who's there?" she inquired, coldly.

"Mrs. Prockter," he murmured.

"And are you sitting together in the dark?" she inquired, coldly.

The story that the candle had expired seemed feeble in the extreme. And
for him the word "cap" was written in letters of fire on the darkness

He made no attempt to answer her question.



Those words of Helen's began a fresh chapter in the life of her
great-stepuncle, James Ollerenshaw. They set up in him a feeling, or
rather a whole range of feelings, which he had never before experienced.
At tea, Helen had hinted at the direction of Mrs. Prockter's cap. That
was nothing. He could not be held responsible for the direction of Mrs.
Prockter's cap. He could laugh at that, even though he faintly blushed.
But to be caught sitting in the dark with Mrs. Prockter, after ten
o'clock at night, in his own house; to have the fact pointed out to him
in such a peculiar, meaningful tone as Helen employed - here was
something that connected him and Mrs. Prockter in a manner just a shade
too serious for mere smiling. Here was something that had not before
happened to him in his career as rent-collector and sage.

Not that he minded! No, he did not mind. Although he had no intention
whatever of disputing the possession of Mrs. Prockter with her stepson,
he did not object to all the implication in Helen's remarkable tone. On
the contrary, he was rather pleased. Why should not he sit with a lady
in the dark? Was he not as capable as any man of sitting with a lady in
the dark? He was even willing that Helen should credit him, or pretend
to credit him, with having prearranged the dark.

Ah! People might say what they chose! But what a dog he might have been
had he cared to be a dog! Here he was, without the slightest preliminary
practice, successfully sitting with a lady in the dark, at the first
attempt! And what lady? Not the first-comer! Not Mrs. Butt! Not the
Mayoress! But the acknowledged Queen of Bursley, the undisputed leader
of all that was most distinguished in Bursley society! And no difficulty
about it either! And she had squeezed his hand. She had continued to
squeeze it. She, in her rich raiment, with her fine ways, and her
correct accent, had squeezed the hand of Jimmy Ollerenshaw, with his
hard old clothes and his Turkish cap, his simple barbarisms, his lack of
style, and his uncompromising dialect! Why? Because he was rich? No.
Because he was a man, because he was the best man in Bursley, when you
came down to essentials.

So his thoughts ran.

His interest in Helen's heart had become quite a secondary interest, but
she recalled him to a sense of his responsibilities as great-stepuncle
of a capricious creature like her.

"What are you and Mrs. Prockter talking about?" she questioned him in a
whisper, holding the candle towards his face and scrutinising it, as
seemed to him, inimically.

"Well," he said, "if you must know, about you and that there Andrew

She made a brusque movement. And then she beckoned him to follow her
along the corridor, out of possible earshot of Mrs. Prockter.

"Do you mean to say, uncle," she demanded, putting the candle down on a
small table that stood under a large oil-painting of Joshua and the Sun
in the corridor, "that you've been discussing my affairs with Mrs.

He saw instantly that he had not been the sage he imagined himself to
be. But he was not going to be bullied by Helen, or any other woman
younger than Mrs. Prockter. So he stiffly brazened it out.

"Ay!" he said.

"I never heard of such a thing!" she exploded, but still whispering.

"You said as I must help ye, and I'm helping ye," said he.

"But I didn't mean that you were to go chattering about me all over
Bursley, uncle," she protested, adopting now the pained, haughty, and
over-polite attitude.

"I don't know as I've been chattering all over Bursley," he rebutted
her. "I don't know as I'm much of a chatterer. I might name them as
could give me a start and a beating when it comes to talking the nose
off a brass monkey. Mrs. Prockter came in to inquire about what had
happened here this afternoon, as well she might, seeing as Emanuel went
home with a couple o' gallons o' my water in his pockets. So I told her
all about it. Her's a very friendly woman. And her's promised to do what
her can for ye."


"Why, to get Andrew Dean for ye, seeing as ye're so fixed on him, wi' as
little gossip as maybe."

"Oh! So Mrs. Prockter has kindly consented to get Andrew Dean for me!
And how does she mean to do it?"

James had no alternative; he was obliged to relate how Mrs. Prockter
meant to do it.

"Now, uncle," said Helen, "just listen to me. If Mrs. Prockter says a
single word about me to any one, I will never speak either to her or you
again. Mind! A single word! A nice thing that she should go up to
Swetnam's, and hint that Andrew and Emanuel have been fighting because
of me! What about my reputation? And do you suppose that I want the
leavings of Lilian Swetnam? Me! The idea is preposterous!"

"You wanted 'em badly enough this afternoon," said he.

"No, I didn't," she contradicted him passionately. "You are quite
mistaken. You misunderstood me, though I'm surprised that you should
have done. Perhaps I was a little excited this afternoon. Certainly you
were thinking about other things. I expect you were expecting Mrs.
Prockter this evening. It would have been nicer of you to have told me
she was coming."

"Now, please let it be clearly understood," she swept on. "You must go
down and tell Mrs. Prockter at once that you were entirely in error, and
that she is on no account to breathe a word about me to any one.
Whatever you were both thinking of I cannot imagine! But I can assure
you I'm extremely annoyed. Mrs. Prockter putting her finger in the
pie!... Let her take care that I don't put my finger into _her_ pie! I
always knew she was a gossiping old thing, but, really - "

"Mr. Ollerenshaw!" A prettily plaintive voice rose from the black depths

"There! she's getting impatient for you!" Helen snapped. "Run off to her
at once. To think that if I hadn't happened to hear the bell ring, and
come out to see what was the matter, I should have been the talk of
Bursley before I was a day older!"

She picked up the candle.

"I must have a light!" said James, somewhat lamely.

"Why?" Helen asked, calmly. "If you could begin in the dark, why can't
you finish in the dark? You and she seem to like being in the dark."

"Mr. Ollerenshaw!" The voice was a little nearer.

"Her's coming!" James ejaculated.

Helen seemed to lose her courage before that threat.

"Here! Take this one, then!" said she, giving James her candle, and
fleeing down the corridor.

James had the sensation of transacting a part in a play at a theatre
where the scenery was absolutely realistic and at the same time of a
romantic quality. Moonlight streaming in through the windows of the
interminable corridor was alone wanting to render the illusion perfect.
It was certainly astonishing - what you could buy with seven thousand two
hundred and fifty pounds! Perhaps the most striking portion of the
scenery was Helen's peignoir. He had not before witnessed her in a
peignoir. The effect of it was agreeable; but, indeed, the modern taste
for luxury was incredible! He wondered if Mrs. Prockter practised
similar extravagances.

While such notions ran through his head he was hurrying to the stairs,
and dropping a hail of candle-grease on the floor. He found Mrs.
Prockter slowly and cautiously ascending the stairway. If he was at the
summit of Mont Blanc she had already reached Les Grands Mulets.

"What is it?" she asked, pausing, and looking up at him with an
appealing gesture.

"What's what?"

"Why have you been so long?" It was as if she implied that these minutes
without him were an eternity of ennui. He grew more and more conceited.
He was already despising Don Juan as a puling boy.

"Helen heard summat, and so she had come out of her bedroom. Her's
nervous i' this big house."

"Did you tell her I was here, Mr. Ollerenshaw?"

By this time he had rejoined her at Les Grands Mulets.

"No," he said, without sufficiently reflecting.

"She didn't hear me call out, then?"

"Did ye call out?" If he was in a theatre, he also could act.

"Perhaps it's just as well," said Mrs. Prockter, after a momentary
meditation. "Under the circumstances she cannot possibly suspect our
little plot."

Their little plot! In yielding to the impulse to tell her that Helen was
unaware of her presence in the house he had forgotten that he had made
it excessively difficult for him to demolish the said plot. He could not
one moment agree with enthusiasm to the plot, and the next moment say
that the plot had better be abandoned. Some men, doubtless, could. But
he could not. He was scarcely that kind of man. His proper course would
have been to relate to Mrs. Prockter exactly what had passed between
himself and Helen, and trust to her common sense. Unhappily, with the
intention of pleasing her, or reassuring her, or something equally
silly, he had lied to her and rendered the truth impracticable. However,
he did not seem to care much. He had already pushed Helen's affairs back
again to quite a secondary position.

"I suppose ye think it'll be all right, missis," he said,
carelessly - "ye going up to Mrs. Swetnam's o' that 'n, and - "

"Rely on me," said she, silencing him. Thus, without a pang, he left
Helen to her fate. They had touched the ground-floor. "Thank you very
much, Mr. Ollerenshaw," said Mrs. Prockter. "Good-night. I'll make the
best of my way home."

Curious, how sorry he felt at this announcement! He had become quite
accustomed to being a conspirator with her in the vast house lighted by
a single candle, and he did not relish the end of the performance.

"I'll step along wi' ye," said he.

"Oh, no!" she said. "I really can't allow - "

"Allow what?"

"Allow you to inconvenience yourself like that for me."

"Pooh!" said he.

And he, who had never in his life seen a lady to her door, set out on
the business as though he had done nothing else every night of his life,
as though it was an enterprise that did not require practice.

He opened the door, and put the candle on the floor behind it, where he
could easily find it on returning. "I'll get a box o' matches from
somewhere while I'm out," said he.

He was about to extinguish the candle when she stopped him. "Mr.
Ollerenshaw," she said, firmly, "you haven't got your boots on. Those
slippers are not thick enough for this weather."

He gazed at her. Should he yield to her? The idea of yielding to her,
for the mere sake of yielding to her, presented itself to him as a
charming idea. So he disappeared with the candle, and reappeared in his

"You won't need a muffler?" she suggested.

Now was the moment to play the hardy Norseman. "Oh, no!" he laughed.

This concern for his welfare, coming from such a royal creature, was,
however, immensely agreeable.

She stood out on the steps; he extinguished the candle, and then joined
her and banged the door. They started. Several hundred yards of winding
pitch-dark drive had to be traversed.

"Will you kindly give me your arm?" she said.

She said it so primly, so correctly, and with such detachment, that they
might have been in church, and she saying: "Will you kindly let me look
over your Prayer Book?"

When they arrived at the gas-lit Oldcastle-road he wanted to withdraw
his arm, but he did not know how to begin withdrawing it. Hence he was
obliged to leave it where it was.

And as they were approaching the front gate of the residence of Mr.
Buchanan, the Scotch editor of the _Signal_, a perfect string of people
emerged from that front gate. Mrs. Buchanan had been giving a whist
drive. There were sundry Swetnams among the string. And the whole string
was merry and talkative. It was a fine night. The leading pearls of the
string bore down on the middle-aged pair, and peered, and passed.

"Good-night, Mrs. Prockter. Good-night, Mr. Ollerenshaw."

Then another couple did the same. "Good-night, Mrs. Prockter.
Good-night, Mr. Ollerenshaw."

And so it went on. And the string, laughing and talking, gradually
disappeared diminuendo in the distance towards Bursley.

"I suppose you know you've done it this time?" observed Mrs. Prockter.

It was a dark saying, but James fully understood it. He felt as though
he had drunk champagne. "As well be hung for a sheep as a lamb!" he said
to himself. And deliberately squeezed the royal arm.

Nothing violent happened. He had rather expected the heavens to fall, or
that at least Mrs. Prockter would exclaim: "Unhand me, monster!" But
nothing violent happened.

"And this is me, James Ollerenshaw!" he said to himself, still



One afternoon Sarah Swetnam called, and Helen in person opened the great
door to the visitor.

"I saw that frock in Brunt's three days ago," Helen began, kissing the
tall, tightbound, large-boned woman.

"I know you did, Nell," Sarah admitted. "But you needn't tell me so.
Don't you like it?"

"I think it's a dream," Helen replied, quickly. "Turn round." But there
was a certain lack of conviction in her voice, and in Sarah's manner
there was something strained. Accordingly, they both became
extravagantly effusive - or, at any rate, more effusive than usual,
though each was well aware that the artifice was entirely futile.

"All alone?" Sarah asked, when she had recovered from the first shock of
the hall's magnificence.

"Yes," said Helen. "It's Georgiana's afternoon out, and uncle's away,
and I haven't got any new servants yet."

"Mr. Ollerenshaw away! No one ever heard of such a thing! If you knew
him as well as we do, you'd have fainted with surprise. It ought to be
in the paper. Where's he gone to?"

"He's gone to Derby, to try to buy some property that he says is going
very cheap there. He's been gone three days now. He got a letter at
breakfast, and said he must go to Derby at once. However, he had to
finish his rents. The trouble is that his rents never are finished, and
I'm bothered all the time by people coming with three and sixpence, or
four shillings, and a dirty rent-book! Oh! and the dirt on the coins! My
dear, you can't imagine! There's one good thing. He will have to come
back for next week's rents. Not that I'm sorry he's gone. It gives me a
chance, you see. By the time he returns I shall have my servants in."

"Do tell me what servants you're going to have?"

"Well, I went to that agency at Oldcastle. I've got a German butler. He
speaks four languages, and has beautiful eyes."

"A German butler!"

If it had been a German prince Sarah could not have been more startled
nor more delighted.

"Yes, and a cook, and two other maids; and a gardener and a boy. I shall
keep Georgiana as my own maid."

"My child, you're going it!"

"My child, I came here to go it."

"And - and Mr. Ollerenshaw is really pleased?"

Helen laughed. "Uncle never goes into raptures, you know. But I hope he
will be pleased. The fact is, he doesn't know anything about these new
servants yet. He'll find them installed when he returns. It will be a
little treat for him. My piano came this morning. Care to try it?"

"Rather!" said Sarah. "Well, I never saw anything like it!" This was in
reference to her first glimpse of the great drawing-room. "How you've
improved it, you dear thing!"

"You see, I have my own cheque-book; it saves worry."

"I see!" said Sarah, meaningly, putting her purse on the piano, her
umbrella on a chair, and herself on the music-stool.

"Shall we have tea?" Helen suggested, after Sarah had performed on the

"Yes. Let me help you, do, dearest."

They wandered off to the kitchens, and while they were seated at the
kitchen-table, sipping tea, side by side, Sarah said:

"Now if you want an idea, I've got a really good one for you."

"For me? What sort of an idea?"

"I'll tell you. You know Mrs. Wiltshire is dead."

"I don't. I didn't even know there was a Mrs. Wiltshire."

"Well, there was, and there isn't any longer. Mrs. Wiltshire was the
main social prop of the old rector. And the annual concert of the St.
Luke's Guild has always been held at her house, down at Shawport, you
know. Awfully poky! But it was the custom since the Flood, and no one
ever dared to hint at a change. Now the concert was to have been next
week but one, and she's just gone and died, and the rector is wondering
where he can hold it. I met him this morning. Why don't you let him hold
it here? That would be a splendid way of opening your house - Hall, I beg
its pardon. And you could introduce the beautiful eyes of your German
butler to the entire neighbourhood. Of course, I don't know whether Mr.
Ollerenshaw would like it."

"Oh!" said Helen, without blenching, "uncle would do as I wish."

She mused, in silence, during a number of seconds.

"The idea doesn't appeal to you?" Sarah queried, disappointment in her

"Yes, it does," said Helen. "But I must think it over. Now, would you
care to see the rest of the house?"

"I should love to. Oh dear, I've left my handkerchief with my purse in
the drawing-room."

"Have mine!" said Helen, promptly.

But even after this final proof of intimate friendship, there still
remained an obstinate trifle of insincerity in their relations that
afternoon. Helen was sure that Sarah Swetnam had paid the call specially
to say something, and that the something had not yet been said. And the
apprehension of an impending scene gradually took possession of her
nerves and disarranged them. When they reached the attics, and were

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 11 13

Online LibraryArnold BennettHelen with the High Hand (2nd ed.) → online text (page 11 of 13)