BY THE SAME AUTHOR
A MAN FROM THE NORTH ANNA OF THE FIVE TOWNS LEONORA A GREAT MAN SACRED AND PROFANE LOVE WHOM GOD HATH JOINED BURIED ALIVE THE OLD WIVES' TALE THE GLIMPSE HELEN WITH THE HIGH HAND CLAYHANGER THE CARD HILDA LESSWAYS THE REGENT THE PRICE OF LOVE
THE GRAND BABYLON HOTEL THE GATES OF WRATH TERESA OF WATLING STREET THE LOOT OF CITIES HUGO THE GHOST THE CITY OF PLEASURE
TALES OF THE FIVE TOWNS THE GRIM SMILE OF THE FIVE TOWNS THE MATADOR OF THE FIVE TOWNS
JOURNALISM FOR WOMEN FAME AND FICTION HOW TO BECOME AN AUTHOR THE TRUTH ABOUT AN AUTHOR THE REASONABLE LIFE HOW TO LIVE ON 24 HOURS A DAY THE HUMAN MACHINE LITERARY TASTE THE FEAST OF ST. FRIEND THOSE UNITED STATES THE PLAIN MAN AND HIS WIFE PARIS NIGHTS THE AUTHOR'S CRAFT LIBERTY
POLITE FARCES CUPID AND COMMON SENSE WHAT THE PUBLIC WANTS THE HONEYMOON THE GREAT ADVENTURE
(In collaboration with Eden Phillpotts)
THE SINEWS OF WAR: A Romance THE STATUE: A Romance
(In collaboration with Edward Knoblauch)
HELEN WITH THE HIGH HAND
BY ARNOLD BENNETT
AUTHOR OF "THE OLD WIVES TALE," ETC.
A NEW EDITION
HODDER AND STOUGHTON
LONDON NEW YORK TORONTO
I BEGINNING OF THE IDYLL
II AN AFFAIR OF THE SEVENTIES
III MARRYING OFF A MOTHER
IV INVITATION TO TEA
V A SALUTATION
VI MRS. BUTT'S DEPARTURE
VII THE NEW COOK
IX A GREAT CHANGE
X A CALL
XI ANOTHER CALL
XIII THE WORLD
XIV SONG, SCENE AND DANCE
XV THE GIFT
XVI THE HALL AND ITS RESULT
XVII DESCENDANTS OF MACHIAVELLI
XIX THE TOSSING
XX THE FLITTING
XXI SHIP AND OCEAN
XXIV SEEING A LADY HOME
XXV GIRLISH CONFIDENCES
XXVI THE CONCERT
XXVII UNKNOTTING AND KNOTTING
BEGINNING OF THE IDYLL
In the Five Towns human nature is reported to be so hard that you can break stones on it. Yet sometimes it softens, and then we have one of our rare idylls of which we are very proud, while pretending not to be. The soft and delicate South would possibly not esteem highly our idylls, as such. Nevertheless they are our idylls, idyllic for us, and reminding us, by certain symptoms, that though we never cry there is concealed somewhere within our bodies a fount of happy tears.
The town park is an idyll in the otherwise prosaic municipal history of the Borough of Bursley, which previously had never got nearer to romance than a Turkish bath. It was once waste ground covered with horrible rubbish-heaps, and made dangerous by the imperfectly-protected shafts of disused coal-pits. Now you enter it by emblazoned gates; it is surrounded by elegant railings; fountains and cascades babble in it; wild-fowl from far countries roost in it, on trees with long names; tea is served in it; brass bands make music on its terraces, and on its highest terrace town councillors play bowls on billiard-table greens while casting proud glances on the houses of thirty thousand people spread out under the sweet influence of the gold angel that tops the Town Hall spire. The other four towns are apt to ridicule that gold angel, which for exactly fifty years has guarded the borough and only been regilded twice. But ask the plumber who last had the fearsome job of regilding it whether it is a gold angel to be despised, and—you will see!
The other four towns are also apt to point to their own parks when Bursley mentions its park (especially Turnhill, smallest and most conceited of the Five); but let them show a park whose natural situation equals that of Bursley's park. You may tell me that the terra-cotta constructions within it carry ugliness beyond a joke; you may tell me that in spite of the park's vaunted situation nothing can be seen from it save the chimneys and kilns of earthenware manufactories, the scaffoldings of pitheads, the ample dome of the rate-collector's offices, the railway, minarets of non-conformity, sundry undulating square miles of monotonous house-roofs, the long scarves of black smoke which add such interest to the sky of the Five Towns—and, of course, the gold angel. But I tell you that before the days of the park lovers had no place to walk in but the cemetery; not the ancient churchyard of St. Luke's (the rector would like to catch them at it!)—the borough cemetery! One generation was forced to make love over the tombs of another—and such tombs!—before the days of the park. That is the sufficient answer to any criticism of the park.
The highest terrace of the park is a splendid expanse of gravel, ornamented with flower-beds. At one end is the north bowling-green; at the other is the south bowling-green; in the middle is a terra-cotta and glass shelter; and at intervals, against the terra-cotta balustrade, are arranged rustic seats from which the aged, the enamoured, and the sedentary can enjoy the gold angel.
Between the southernmost seat and the south bowling-green, on that Saturday afternoon, stood Mr. James Ollerenshaw. He was watching a man who earned four-and-sixpence a day by gently toying from time to time with a roller on the polished surface of the green. Mr. James Ollerenshaw's age was sixty; but he looked as if he did not care. His appearance was shabby; but he did not seem to mind. He carried his hands in the peculiar horizontal pockets of his trousers, and stuck out his figure, in a way to indicate that he gave permission to all to think of him exactly what they pleased. Those pockets were characteristic of the whole costume; their very name is unfamiliar to the twentieth century. They divide the garment by a fissure whose sides are kept together by many buttons, and a defection on the part of even a few buttons is apt to be inconvenient. James Ollerenshaw was one of the last persons in Bursley to defy fashion in the matter of pockets. His suit was of a strange hot colour—like a brick which, having become very dirty, has been imperfectly cleaned and then powdered with sand—made in a hard, eternal, resistless cloth, after a pattern which has not survived the apprenticeship of Five Towns' tailors in London. Scarcely anywhere save on the person of James Ollerenshaw would you see nowadays that cloth, that tint, those very short coat-tails, that curved opening of the waistcoat, or those trouser-pockets. The paper turned-down collar, and the black necktie (of which only one square inch was ever visible), and the paper cuffs, which finished the tailor-made portion of Mr. Ollerenshaw, still linger in sporadic profusion. His low, flat-topped hat was faintly green, as though a delicate fungoid growth were just budding on its black. His small feet were cloistered in small, thick boots of glittering brilliance. The colour of his face matched that of his suit. He had no moustache and no whiskers, but a small, stiff grey beard was rooted somewhere under his chin. He had kept a good deal of his hair. He was an undersized man, with short arms and legs, and all his features—mouth, nose, ears, blue eyes—were small and sharp; his head, as an entirety, was small. His thin mouth was always tightly shut, except when he spoke. The general expression of his face was one of suppressed, sarcastic amusement.
He was always referred to as Jimmy Ollerenshaw, and he may strike you as what is known as a "character," an oddity. His sudden appearance at a Royal Levee would assuredly have excited remark, and even in Bursley he diverged from the ordinary; nevertheless, I must expressly warn you against imagining Mr. Ollerenshaw as an oddity. It is the most difficult thing in the world for a man named James not to be referred to as Jimmy. The temptation to the public is almost irresistible. Let him have but a wart on his nose, and they will regard it as sufficient excuse for yielding. I do not think that Mr. Ollerenshaw was consciously set down as an oddity in his native town. Certainly he did not so set down himself. Certainly he was incapable of freakishness. By the town he was respected. His views on cottage property, the state of trade, and the finances of the borough were listened to with a respectful absence of comment. He was one of the few who had made cottage property pay. It was said he owned a mile of cottages in Bursley and Turnhill. It was said that, after Ephraim Tellwright, he was the richest man in Bursley. There was a slight resemblance of type between Ollerenshaw and Tellwright. But Tellwright had buried two wives, whereas Ollerenshaw had never got within arm's length of a woman. The town much preferred Ollerenshaw.
After having duly surveyed the majestic activities of the ground-man on the bowling-green, and having glanced at his watch, Mr. Ollerenshaw sat down on the nearest bench; he was waiting for an opponent, the captain of the bowling-club. It is exactly at the instant of his downsitting that the drama about to be unfolded properly begins. Strolling along from the northern extremity of the terrace to the southern was a young woman. This young woman, as could be judged from her free and independent carriage, was such a creature as, having once resolved to do a thing, is not to be deterred from doing it by the caprices of other people. She had resolved—a resolution of no importance whatever—to seat herself on precisely the southernmost bench of the terrace. There was not, indeed, any particular reason why she should have chosen the southernmost bench; but she had chosen it. She had chosen it, afar off, while it was yet empty and Mr. Ollerenshaw was on his feet. When Mr. Ollerenshaw dropped into a corner of it the girl's first instinctive volition was to stop, earlier than she had intended, at one of the other seats.
Despite statements to the contrary, man is so little like a sheep that when he has a choice of benches in a park he will always select an empty one. This rule is universal in England and Scotland, though elsewhere exceptions to it have been known to occur. But the girl, being a girl, and being a girl who earned her own living, and being a girl who brought all conventions to the bar of her reason and forced them to stand trial there, said to herself, proudly and coldly: "It would be absurd on my part to change my mind. I meant to occupy that bench, and why should I not? There is amply sufficient space for the man and me too. He has taken one corner, and I will take the other. These notions that girls have are silly." She meant the notion that she herself had had.
So she floated forward, charmingly and inexorably. She was what in the Five Towns is called "a stylish piece of goods." She wore a black-and-white frock, of a small check pattern, with a black belt and long black gloves, and she held over her serenity a black parasol richly flounced with black lace—a toilet unusual in the district, and as effective as it was unusual. She knew how to carry it. She was a tall girl, and generously formed, with a complexion between fair and dark; her age, perhaps, about twenty-five. She had the eye of an empress—and not an empress-consort either, nor an empress who trembles in secret at the rumour of cabals and intrigues. Yes, considered as a decoration of the terrace, she was possibly the finest, most dazzling thing that Bursley could have produced; and Bursley doubtless regretted that it could only claim her as a daughter by adoption.
Approaching, step by dainty and precise step, the seat invested by Mr. James Ollerenshaw, she arrived at the point whence she could distinguish the features of her forestaller; she was somewhat short-sighted. She gave no outward sign of fear, irresolution, cowardice. But if she had not been more afraid of her own contempt than of anything else in the world, she would have run away; she would have ceased being an empress and declined suddenly into a scared child. However, her fear of her own contempt kept her spine straight, her face towards the danger, and her feet steadily moving.
"It's not my fault," she said to herself. "I meant to occupy that bench, and occupy it I will. What have I to be ashamed of?"
And she did occupy that bench. She contrived to occupy it without seeing Mr. Ollerenshaw. Each separate movement of hers denied absolutely the existence of Mr. Ollerenshaw. She arranged her dress, and her parasol, and her arms, and the exact angle of her chin; and there gradually fell upon her that stillness which falls upon the figure of a woman when she has definitively adopted an attitude in the public eye. She was gazing at the gold angel, a mile off, which flashed in the sun. But what a deceptive stillness was that stillness! A hammer was hammering away under her breast with what seemed to her a reverberating sound. Strange that that hammering did not excite attention throughout the park! Then she had the misfortune to think of the act of blushing. She violently willed not to blush. But her blood was too much for her. It displayed itself in the most sanguinary manner first in the centre of each cheek, and it increased its area of conquest until the whole of her visible skin—even the back of her neck and her lobes—had rosily yielded. And she was one of your girls who never blush! The ignominy of it! To blush because she found herself within thirty inches of a man, an old man, with whom she had never in her life exchanged a single word!
AN AFFAIR OF THE SEVENTIES
Having satisfied her obstinacy by sitting down on the seat of her choice, she might surely—one would think—have ended a mysteriously difficult situation by rising again and departing, of course with due dignity. But no! She could not! She wished to do so, but she could not command her limbs. She just sat there, in horridest torture, like a stoical fly on a pin—one of those flies that pretend that nothing hurts. The agony might have been prolonged to centuries had not an extremely startling and dramatic thing happened—the most startling and dramatic thing that ever happened either to James Ollerenshaw or to the young woman. James Ollerenshaw spoke, and I imagine that nobody was more surprised than James Ollerenshaw by his brief speech, which slipped out of him quite unawares. What he said was:
"Well, lass, how goes it, like?"
If the town could have heard him, the town would have rustled from boundary to boundary with agitated and delicious whisperings.
The young woman, instead of being justly incensed by this monstrous molestation from an aged villain who had not been introduced to her, gave a little jump (as though relieved from the spell of an enchantment), and then deliberately turned and faced Mr. Ollerenshaw. She also smiled, amid her roses.
"Very well indeed, thank you," she replied, primly, but nicely.
Upon this, they both of them sought to recover—from an affair that had occurred in the late seventies.
In the late seventies James Ollerenshaw had been a young-old man of nearly thirty. He had had a stepbrother, much older and much poorer than himself, and the stepbrother had died, leaving a daughter, named Susan, almost, but not quite, in a state of indigence. The stepbrother and James had not been on terms of effusive cordiality. But James was perfectly ready to look after Susan, his stepniece. Susan, aged seventeen years, was, however, not perfectly ready to be looked after. She had a little money, and she earned a little (by painting asters on toilet ware), and the chit was very rude to her stepuncle. In less than a year she had married a youth of twenty, who apparently had not in him even the rudiments of worldly successfulness. James Ollerenshaw did his avuncular duty by formally and grimly protesting against the marriage. But what authority has a stepuncle? Susan defied him, with a maximum of unforgettable impoliteness; and she went to live with her husband at Longshaw, which is at the other end of the Five Towns. The fact became public that a solemn quarrel existed between James and Susan, and that each of them had sworn not to speak until the other spoke. James would have forgiven, if she had hinted at reconciliation. And, hard as it is for youth to be in the wrong, Susan would have hinted at reconciliation if James had not been so rich. The riches of James offended Susan's independence. Not for millions would she have exposed herself to the suspicion that she had broken her oath because her stepuncle was a wealthy and childless man. She was, of course, wrong. Nor was this her only indiscretion. She was so ridiculously indiscreet as to influence her husband in such a way that he actually succeeded in life. Had James perceived them to be struggling in poverty, he might conceivably have gone over to them and helped them, in an orgy of forgiving charity. But the success of young Rathbone falsified his predictions utterly, and was, further, an affront to him. Thus the quarrel slowly crystallised into a permanent estrangement, a passive feud. Everybody got thoroughly accustomed to it, and thought nothing of it, it being a social phenomenon not at all unique of its kind in the Five Towns. When, fifteen years later, Rathbone died in mid-career, people thought that the feud would end. But it did not. James wrote a letter of condolence to his niece, and even sent it to Longshaw by special messenger in the tramcar; but he had not heard of the death until the day of the funeral, and Mrs. Rathbone did not reply to his letter. Her independence and sensitiveness were again in the wrong. James did no more. You could not expect him to have done more. Mrs. Rathbone, like many widows of successful men, was "left poorly off." But she "managed." Once, five years before the scene on the park terrace, Mrs. Rathbone and James had encountered one another by hazard on the platform of Knype Railway Station. Destiny hesitated while Susan waited for James's recognition and James waited for Susan's recognition. Both of them waited too long. Destiny averted its head and drew back, and the relatives passed on their ways without speaking. James observed with interest a girl of twenty by Susan's side—her daughter. This daughter of Susan's was now sharing the park bench with him. Hence the hidden drama of their meeting, of his speech, of her reply.
"And what's your name, lass?"
"Helen, great-stepuncle," said she.
He laughed; and she laughed also. The fact was that he had been aware of her name, vaguely. It had come to him, on the wind, or by some bird's wing, although none of his acquaintances had been courageous enough to speak to him about the affair of Susan for quite twenty years past. Longshaw is as far from Bursley, in some ways, as San Francisco from New York. There are people in Bursley who do not know the name of the Mayor of Longshaw—who make a point of not knowing it. Yet news travels even from Longshaw to Bursley, by mysterious channels; and Helen Rathbone's name had so travelled. James Ollerenshaw was glad that she was just Helen. He had been afraid that there might be something fancy between Helen and Rathbone—something expensive and aristocratic that went with her dress and her parasol. He illogically liked her for being called merely Helen—as if the credit were hers! Helen was an old Ollerenshaw name—his grandmother's (who had been attached to the household of Josiah Wedgwood), and his aunt's. Helen was historic in his mind. And, further, it could not be denied that Rathbone was a fine old Five Towns name too.
He was very illogical that afternoon; he threw over the principles of a lifetime, arguing from particulars to generals exactly like a girl. He had objected, always, to the expensive and the aristocratic. He was proud of his pure plebeian blood, as many plebeians are; he gloried in it. He disliked show, with a calm and deep aversion. He was a plain man with a simple, unostentatious taste for money. The difference between Helen's name and her ornamental raiment gave him pleasure in the name. But he had not been examining her for more than half a minute when he began to find pleasure in her rich clothes (rich, that is, to him!). Quite suddenly he, at the age of sixty, abandoned without an effort his dear prejudice against fine feathers, and began, for the first time, to take joy in sitting next to a pretty and well-dressed woman. And all this, not from any broad, philosophic perception that fine feathers have their proper part in the great scheme of cosmic evolution; but because the check dress suited her, and the heavy, voluptuous parasol suited her, and the long black gloves were inexplicably effective. Women grow old; women cease to learn; but men, never.
As for Helen, she liked him. She had liked him for five years, ever since her mother had pointed him out on the platform of Knype Railway Station. She saw him closer now. He was older than she had been picturing him; indeed, the lines on his little, rather wizened face, and the minute sproutings of grey-white hair in certain spots on his reddish chin, where he had shaved himself badly, caused her somehow to feel quite sad. She thought of him as "a dear old thing," and then as "a dear old darling." Yes, old, very old! Nevertheless, she felt maternal towards him. She felt that she was much wiser than he was, and that she could teach him a great deal. She saw very clearly how wrong he and her mother had been, with their stupidly terrific quarrel; and the notion of all the happiness which he had missed, in his solitary, unfeminised, bachelor existence, nearly brought into her eyes tears of a quick and generous sympathy.
He, blind and shabby ancient, had no suspicion that his melancholy state and the notion of all the happiness he had missed had tinged with sorrow the heart within the frock, and added a dangerous humidity to the glance under the sunshade. It did not occur to him that he was an object of pity, nor that a vast store of knowledge was waiting to be poured into him. The aged, self-satisfied wag-beard imagined that he had conducted his career fairly well. He knew no one with whom he would have changed places. He regarded Helen as an extremely agreeable little thing, with her absurd air of being grown-up. Decidedly in five years she had tremendously altered. Five years ago she had been gawky. Now ... Well, he was proud of her. She had called him great-stepuncle, thus conferring on him a sort of part-proprietorship in her; and he was proud of her. The captain of the bowling-club came along, and James Ollerenshaw gave him just such a casual nod as he might have given to a person of no account. The nod seemed to say: "Match this, if you can. It's mine, and there's nothing in the town to beat it. Mrs. Prockter herself hasn't got more style than this." (Of this Mrs. Prockter, more later.)
Helen soon settled down into a condition of ease, which put an end to blushing. She knew she was admired.
"What are you doing i' Bosley?" James demanded.
"I'm living i' Bosley," she retorted, smartly.
"Living here!" He stopped, and his hard old heart almost stopped too. If not in mourning, she was in semi-mourning. Surely Susan had not had the effrontery to die, away in Longshaw, without telling him!
"Mother has married again," said Helen, lightly.
"Married!" He was staggered. The wind was knocked out of him.
"Yes. And gone to Canada!" Helen added.
You pick up your paper in the morning, and idly and slowly peruse the advertisements on the first page, forget it, eat some bacon, grumble at the youngest boy, open the paper, read the breach of promise case on page three, drop it, and ask your wife for more coffee—hot—glance at your letters again, then reopen the paper at the news page, and find that the Tsar of Russia has been murdered, and a few American cities tumbled to fragments by an earthquake—you know how you feel then. James Ollerenshaw felt like that. The captain of the bowling-club, however, poising a bowl in his right hand, and waiting for James Ollerenshaw to leave his silken dalliance, saw nothing but an old man and a young woman sitting on a Corporation seat.
MARRYING OFF A MOTHER
"Yes," said Helen Rathbone, "mother fell in love. Don't you think it was funny?"
"That's as may be," James Ollerenshaw replied, in his quality of the wiseacre who is accustomed to be sagacious on the least possible expenditure of words.
"We both thought it was awfully funny," Helen said.
"Both? Who else is there?"
"Why, mother and I, of course! We used to laugh over it. You see, mother is a very simple creature. And she's only forty-four."
"She's above forty-four," James corrected.
"She told me she was thirty-nine five years ago," Helen protested.
"Did she tell ye she was forty, four years ago?"
"No. At least, I don't remember."
"Did she ever tell ye she was forty?"
"Happen she's not such a simple creature as ye thought for, my lass," observed James Ollerenshaw.
"You don't mean to infer," said Helen, with cold dignity, "that my mother would tell me a lie?"
"All as I mean is that Susan was above thirty-nine five years ago, and I can prove it. I had to get her birth certificate when her father died, and I fancy I've got it by me yet." And his eyes added: "So much for that point. One to me."
Helen blushed and frowned, and looked up into the darkling heaven of her parasol; and then it occurred to her that her wisest plan would be to laugh. So she laughed. She laughed in almost precisely the same manner as James had heard Susan laugh thirty years previously, before love had come into Susan's life like a shell into a fortress, and finally blown their fragile relations all to pieces. A few minutes earlier the sight of great-stepuncle James had filled Helen with sadness, and he had not suspected it. Now her laugh filled James with sadness, and she did not suspect it. In his sadness, however, he was glad that she laughed so naturally, and that the sombre magnificence of her dress and her gloves and parasol did not prevent her from opening her rather large mouth and showing her teeth.
"It was just like mother to tell me fibs about her age," said Helen, generously (it is always interesting to observe the transformation of a lie into a fib). "And I shall write and tell her she's a horrid mean thing. I shall write to her this very night."
"So Susan's gone and married again!" James murmured, reflectively.
Helen now definitely turned the whole of her mortal part towards James, so that she fronted him, and her feet were near his. He also turned, in response to this diplomatic advance, and leant his right elbow on the back of the seat, and his chin on his right palm. He put his left leg over his right leg, and thus his left foot swayed like a bird on a twig within an inch of Helen's flounce. The parasol covered the faces of the just and the unjust impartially.
"I suppose you don't know a farmer named Bratt that used to have a farm near Sneyd?" said Helen.
"I can't say as I do," said James.
"Well, that's the man!" said Helen. "He used to come to Longshaw cattle-market with sheep and things."
"Sheep and things!" echoed James. "What things?"
"Oh! I don't know," said Helen, sharply. "Sheep and things."
"And what did your mother take to Longshaw cattle-market?" James inquired. "I understood as she let lodgings."
"Not since I've been a teacher," said Helen, rather more sharply. "Mother didn't take anything to the cattle-market. But you know our house was just close to the cattle-market."
"No, I didn't," said James, stoutly. "I thought as it was in Aynsley-street."
"Oh! that's years ago!" said Helen, shocked by his ignorance. "We've lived in Sneyd-road for years—years."
"I'll not deny it," said James.
"The great fault of our house," Helen proceeded, "was that mother daren't stir out of it on cattle-market days."
"Cows!" said Helen. "Mother simply can't look at a cow, and they were passing all the time."
"She should ha' been thankful as it wasn't bulls," James put in.
"But I mean bulls too!" exclaimed Helen. "In fact, it was a bull that led to it."
"What! Th' farmer saved her from a mad bull, and she fell in love with him? He's younger than her, I lay!"
"How did you know that?" Helen questioned. "Besides, he isn't. They're just the same age."
"Forty-four?" Perceiving delicious danger in the virgin's face, James continued before she could retort, "I hope Susan wasn't gored?"
"You're quite wrong. You're jumping to conclusions," said Helen, with an air of indulgence that would have been exasperating had it not been enchanting. "Things don't happen like that except in novels."
"I've never read a novel in my life," James defended himself.
"Haven't you? How interesting!"
"But I've known a woman knocked down by a bull."
"Well, anyhow, mother wasn't knocked down by a bull. But there was a mad bull running down the street; it had escaped from the market. And Mr. Bratt was walking home, and the bull was after him like a shot. Mother was looking out of the window, and she saw what was going on. So she rushed to the front door and opened it, and called to Mr. Bratt to run in and take shelter. And they only just got the door shut in time."
"Bless us!" muttered James. "And what next?"
"Why, I came home from school and found them having tea together."
"And ninety year between them!" James reflected.
"Then Mr. Bratt called every week. He was a widower, with no children."
"It couldn't ha' been better," said James.
"Oh yes, it could," said Helen. "Because I had the greatest difficulty in marrying them; in fact, at one time I thought I should never do it. I'm always in the right, and mother's always in the wrong. She's admitted that for years. She's had to admit it. Yet she would go her own way. Nothing would ever cure mother."
"She used to talk just like that of your grandfather," said James. "Susan always reckoned as she'd got more than her fair share of sense."
"I don't think she thinks that now," said Helen, calmly, as if to say: "At any rate I've cured her of that." Then she went on: "You see, Mr. Bratt had sold his farm—couldn't make it pay—and he was going out to Manitoba. He said he would stop in England. Mother said she wouldn't let him stop in England where he couldn't make a farm pay. She was quite right there," Helen admitted, with careful justice. "But then she said she wouldn't marry him and go out to Manitoba, because of leaving me alone here to look after myself! Can you imagine such a reason?"
James merely raised his head quickly several times. The gesture meant whatever Helen preferred that it should mean.
"The idea!" she continued. "As if I hadn't looked after mother and kept her in order, and myself, too, for several years! No. She wouldn't marry him and go out there! And she wouldn't marry him and stay here! She actually began to talk all the usual conventional sort of stuff, you know—about how she had no right to marry again, and she didn't believe in second marriages, and about her duty to me. And so on. You know. I reasoned with her—I explained to her that probably she had another thirty years to live. I told her she was quite young. She is. And why should she make herself permanently miserable, and Mr. Bratt, and me, merely out of a quite mistaken sense of duty? No use! I tried everything I could. No use!"
"She was too much for ye?"
"Oh, no!" said Helen, condescendingly. "I'd made up my mind. I arranged things with Mr. Bratt. He quite agreed with me. He took out a licence at the registrar's, and one Saturday morning—it had to be a Saturday, because I'm busy all the other days—I went out with mother to buy the meat and things for Sunday's dinner, and I got her into the registrar's office—and, well, there she was! Now, what do you think?"
"Her last excuse was that she couldn't be married because she was wearing her third-best hat. Don't you think it's awfully funny?"
"That's as may be," said James. "When was all this?"
"Just recently," Helen answered. "They sailed from Glasgow last Thursday but two. And I'm expecting a letter by every post to say that they've arrived safely."
"And Susan's left you to take care of yourself!"
"Now, please don't begin talking like mother," Helen said, frigidly. "I've certainly got less to take care of now than I had. Mother quite saw that. But what difficulty I had in getting her off, even after I'd safely married her! I had to promise that if I felt lonely I'd go and join them. But I shan't."
"No. I don't see myself on a farm in Manitoba. Do you?"
"I don't know as I do," said James, examining her appearance, with a constant increase of his pride in it. "So ye saw 'em off at Glasgow. I reckon she made a great fuss?"
"Oh yes, of course."
"Did you cry, miss?"
"Of course I cried," said Helen, passionately, sitting up straight. "Why do you ask such questions?"
"And us'll never see Susan again?"
"Of course I shall go over and see them," said Helen. "I only meant that I shouldn't go to stop. I daresay I shall go next year, in the holidays."
INVITATION TO TEA
They were most foolishly happy as they sat there on the bench, this man whose dim eyes ought to have been waiting placidly for the ship of death to appear above the horizon, and this young girl who imagined that she knew all about life and the world. When I say that they were foolishly happy, I of course mean that they were most wisely happy. Each of them, being gifted with common sense, and with a certain imperviousness to sentimentality which invariably accompanies common sense, they did not mar the present by regretting the tragic stupidity of a long estrangement; they did not mourn over wasted years that could not be recalled. It must be admitted, in favour of the Five Towns, that when its inhabitants spill milk they do not usually sit down on the pavement and adulterate the milk with their tears. They pass on. Such passing on is termed callous and cold-hearted in the rest of England, which loves to sit down on pavements and weep into irretrievable milk.
Nor did Helen and her great-stepuncle mar the present by worrying about the future; it never occurred to them to be disturbed by the possibility that milk not already spilt might yet be spilt.
Helen had been momentarily saddened by private reflections upon what James Ollerenshaw had missed in his career; and James had been saddened, somewhat less, by reminiscences which had sprung out of Helen's laugh. But their melancholies had rapidly evaporated in the warmth of the unexpected encounter. They liked one another. She liked him because he was old and dry; and because he had a short laugh, and a cynical and even wicked gleam of the eye that pleased her; and because there was an occasional tone in his voice that struck her as deliciously masculine, ancient, and indulgent; and because he had spoken to her first; and because his gaze wandered with an admiring interest over her dress and up into the dome of her sunshade; and because he put his chin in his palm and leant his head towards her; and because the skin of his hand was so crinkled and glossy. And he liked her because she was so exquisitely fresh and candid, so elegant, so violent and complete a contrast to James Ollerenshaw; so absurdly sagacious and sure of herself, and perhaps because of a curve in her cheek, and a mysterious suggestion of eternal enigma in her large and liquid eye. When she looked right away from him, as she sometimes did in the conversation, the outline of her soft cheek, which drew in at the eye and swelled out again to the temple, resembled a map of the coast of some smooth, romantic country not mentioned in geographies. When she looked at him—well, the effect on him astonished him; but it enchanted him. He was discovering for the first time the soul of a girl. If he was a little taken aback he is to be excused. Younger men than he have been taken aback by that discovery. But James Ollerenshaw did not behave as a younger man would have behaved. He was more like some one who, having heard tell of the rose for sixty years, and having paid no attention to rumour, suddenly sees a rose in early bloom. At his age one knows how to treat a flower; one knows what flowers are for.
It was no doubt this knowledge of what flowers are for that almost led to the spilling of milk at the very moment when milk-spilling seemed in a high degree improbable.
The conversation had left Susan and her caprices, and had reached Helen and her solid wisdom.
"But you haven't told me what you're doing i' Bosley," said the old man.
"I've told you I'm living here," said Helen. "I've now been living here for one week and one day. I'm teaching at the Park Road Board School. I got transferred from Longshaw. I never liked Longshaw, and I always like a change."
"Yes," said Ollerenshaw, judiciously, "of the two I reckon as Bosley is the frying-pan. So you're teaching up yonder?" He jerked his elbow in the direction of the spacious and imposing terra-cotta Board School, whose front looked on the eastern gates of the park. "What dost teach?"
"Oh, everything," Helen replied.
"You must be very useful to 'em," said James. "What do they pay you for teaching everything?"
"Seventy-two pounds," said Helen.
"A month? It 'ud be cheap at a hundred, lass; unless there's a whole crowd on ye as can teach everything. Can you sew?"
"Sew!" she exclaimed. "I've given lessons in sewing for years. And cookery. And mathematics. I used to give evening lessons in mathematics at Longshaw secondary school."
Great-stepuncle James gazed at her. It was useless for him to try to pretend to himself that he was not, secretly, struck all of a heap by the wonders of the living organism in front of him. He was. And this shows, though he was a wise man and an experienced, how ignorant he was of the world. But I do not think he was more ignorant of the world than most wise and experienced men are. He conceived Helen Rathbone as an extraordinary, an amazing creature. Nothing of the kind. There are simply thousands of agreeable and good girls who can accomplish herring-bone, omelettes, and simultaneous equations in a breath, as it were. They are all over the kingdom, and may be seen in the streets and lanes thereof about half-past eight in the morning and again about five o'clock in the evening. But the fact is not generally known. Only the stern and blase members of School Boards or Education Committees know it. And they are so used to marvels that they make nothing of them.
However, James Ollerenshaw had no intention of striking his flag.
"Mathematics!" he murmured. "I lay you can't tell me the interest on eighty-nine pounds for six months at four and a half per cent."
Consols happened to be at eighty-nine that day.
Her lips curled. "I'm really quite surprised you should encourage me to gamble," said she. "But I'll bet you a shilling I can. And I'll bet you one shilling against half-a-crown that I do it in my head, if you like. And if I lose I'll pay."
She made a slight movement, and he noticed for the first time that she was carrying a small purse as black as her glove.
He hesitated, and then he proved what a wise and experienced man he was.
"No," he said, "I'll none bet ye, lass."
He had struck his flag.
It is painful to be compelled to reinforce the old masculine statement that women have no sense of honour. But have they? Helen clearly saw that he had hauled down his flag. Yet did she cease firing? Not a bit. She gave him a shattering broadside, well knowing that he had surrendered. Her disregard of the ethics of warfare was deplorable.
"Two pounds and one half-penny—to the nearest farthing," said she, a faint blush crimsoning her cheek.
Mr. Ollerenshaw glanced round at the bowling-green, where the captain in vain tried to catch his eye, and then at the groups of children playing on the lower terraces.
"I make no doubt ye can play the piano?" he remarked, when he had recovered.
"Certainly," she replied. "Not that we have to teach the piano. No! But it's understood, all the same, that one or another of us can play marches for the children to walk and drill to. In fact," she added, "for something less than thirty shillings a week we do pretty nearly everything, except build the schools. And soon they'll be expecting us to build the new schools in our spare time." She spoke bitterly, as a native of the Congo Free State might refer to the late King of the Belgians.
"Thirty shillings a wik!" said James, acting with fine histrionic skill. "I thought as you said seventy-two pounds a month!"
"Oh no, you didn't!" she protested, firmly. "So don't try to tease me. I never joke about money. Money's a very serious thing."
("Her's a chip o' th' owd block," he told himself, delighted. When he explained matters to himself, and when he grew angry, he always employed the Five Towns dialect in its purest form.)
"You must be same as them hospital nurses," he said, aloud. "You do it because ye like it—for love on it, as they say."
"Like it! I hate it. I hate any sort of work. What fun do you suppose there is in teaching endless stupid children, and stuffing in classrooms all day, and correcting exercises and preparing sewing all night? Of course, they can't help being stupid. It's that that's so amazing. You can't help being kind to them—they're so stupid."
"If ye didn't do that, what should ye do?" James inquired.
"I shouldn't do anything unless I was forced," said she. "I don't want to do anything, except enjoy myself—read, play the piano, pay visits, and have plenty of really nice clothes. Why should I want to do anything? I can tell you this—if I didn't need the money I'd never go inside that school again, or any other!"
She was heated.
"Dun ye mean to say," he asked, with an ineffable intonation, "that Susan and that there young farmer have gone gadding off to Canada and left you all alone with nothing?"
"Of course they haven't," said Helen. "Why, mother is the most generous old thing you can possibly imagine. She's left all her own income to me."
"Well, it comes to rather over thirty shillings a week."
"And can't a single woman live on thirty shillings a wik? Bless us! I don't spend thirty shillings a wik myself."
Helen raised her chin. "A single woman can live on thirty shillings a week," she said. "But what about her frocks?"
"Well, what about her frocks?" he repeated.
"Well," she said, "I like frocks. It just happens that I can't do without frocks. It's just frocks that I work for; I spend nearly all I earn on them." And her eyes, descending, seemed to say: "Look at the present example."
"Seventy pounds a year on ye clothes! Ye're not serious, lass?"
She looked at him coldly. "I am serious," she said.
Experienced as he was, he had never come across a fact so incredible as this fact. And the compulsion of believing it occupied his forces to such an extent that he had no force left to be wise. He did not observe the icy, darting challenge in her eye, and he ignored the danger in her voice.
"All as I can say is you ought to be ashamed o' yourself, lass!" he said, sharply. The reflection was blown out of him by the expansion of his feelings. Seventy pounds a year on clothes!... He too was serious.
Now, James Ollerenshaw was not the first person whom Helen's passion for clothes had driven into indiscretions. Her mother, for example, had done battle with that passion, and had been defeated with heavy loss. A head-mistress and a chairman of a School Board (a pompous coward) had also suffered severely. And though Helen had been the victor, she had not won without some injury to her nerves. Her campaigns and conquests had left her, on this matter, "touchy"—as the word is used in the Five Towns.
"I shall be very much obliged if you will not speak to me in that tone," said she. "Because I cannot permit it either from you or any other man. When I venture to criticise your private life I shall expect you to criticise mine—and not before. I don't want to be rude, but I hope you understand, great-stepuncle."
The milk was within the twentieth of an inch of the brim. James Ollerenshaw blushed as red as Helen herself had blushed at the beginning of their acquaintance. A girl, the daughter of the chit Susan, to address him so! She had the incomparable insolence of her mother. Yes, thirty years ago Susan had been just as rude to him. But he was thirty years younger then; he was not a sage of sixty then. He continued to blush. He was raging. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to assert that his health was momentarily in peril. He glanced for an instant at Helen, and saw that her nostrils were twitching. Then he looked hurriedly away, and rose. The captain of the bowling club excusably assumed that James was at length going to attack the serious business of the day.
"Now, Mr. Ollerenshaw!" the captain called out; and his tone implied, gently: "Don't you think you've kept me waiting long enough? Women are women; but a bowling-match is a bowling-match."
James turned his back on the captain, moved off, and then—how can one explain it? He realised that in the last six words of Helen's speech there had been a note, a hint, a mere nothing, of softness, of regret for pain caused. He realised, further, the great universal natural law that under any circumstances—no matter what they may be—when any man—no matter who he may be—differs from any pretty and well-dressed woman—no matter who she may be—he is in the wrong. He saw that it was useless for serious, logical, high-minded persons to inveigh against the absurdity of this law, and to call it bad names. The law of gravity is absurd and indefensible when you fall downstairs; but you obey it.
He returned to Helen, who bravely met his eyes. "I'm off home," he said, hoarsely. "It's my tea-time."
"Good-afternoon," she replied, with amiability.
"Happen you'll come along with me, like?"
The use of that word "like" at the end of an interrogative sentence, in the Five Towns, is a subject upon which a book ought to be written; but not this history. The essential point to observe is that Helen got up from the bench and said, with adorable sweetness:
"Why, I shall be charmed to come!"
("What a perfect old darling he is!" she said to herself.)
As they walked down Moorthorne-road towards the town they certainly made a couple piquant enough, by reason of the excessive violence of the contrast between them, to amuse the eye of the beholder. A young and pretty woman who spends seventy pounds a year on her ornamentations, walking by the side of a little old man (she had the better of him by an inch) who had probably not spent seventy pounds on clothes in sixty years—such a spectacle must have drawn attention even in the least attentive of towns. And Bursley is far from the least attentive of towns. James and his great-stepniece had not got as far as the new Independent Chapel when it was known in St. Luke's-square, a long way farther on, that they were together; a tramcar had flown forward with the interesting fact. From that moment, of course, the news, which really was great news, spread itself over the town with the rapidity of a perfume; no corner could escape it. All James's innumerable tenants seemed to sniff it simultaneously. And that evening in the mouth of the entire town (I am licensing myself to a little poetical exaggeration) there was no word but the word "Jimmy."
Their converse, as they descended into the town, was not effective. It was, indeed, feeble. They had fought a brief but bitter duel, and James Ollerenshaw had been severely wounded. His dignity bled freely; he made, strange to say, scarcely any attempt to staunch the blood, which might have continued to flow for a considerable time had not a diversion occurred. (It is well known that the dignity will only bleed while you watch it. Avert your eyes, and it instantly dries up.) The diversion, apparently of a trifling character, had, in truth, an enormous importance, though the parties concerned did not perceive this till later. It consisted in the passing of Mrs. Prockter and her stepson, Emanuel Prockter, up Duck Bank as James and Helen were passing down Duck Bank.
Mrs. Prockter (who by reason of the rare "k" in her name regarded herself as the sole genuine in a district full of Proctors) may be described as the dowager of Bursley, the custodian of its respectability, and the summit of its social ladder. You could not climb higher than Mrs. Prockter. She lived at Hillport, and even in that haughty suburb there was none who dared palter with an invitation from Mrs. Prockter. She was stout and deliberate. She had waving flowers in her bonnet and pictures of flowers on her silken gown, and a grey mantle. Much of her figure preceded her as she walked. Her stepson had a tenor voice and a good tailor; his age was thirty.
Now, Mrs. Prockter was simply nothing to James Ollerenshaw. They knew each other by sight, but their orbits did not touch. James would have gone by Mrs. Prockter as indifferently as he would have gone by a policeman or a lamp-post. As for Emanuel, James held him in mild, benignant contempt. But when, as the two pairs approached one another, James perceived Emanuel furtively shifting his gold-headed cane from his right hand to his left, and then actually raise his hat to Helen, James swiftly lost his indifference. He also nearly lost his presence of mind. He was utterly unaccustomed to such crises. Despite his wealthy indifference to Mrs. Prockter, despite his distinguished scorn of Emanuel, despite the richness of Helen's attire, he was astounded, and deeply impressed, to learn that Helen had the acquaintance of people like the Prockters. Further, except at grave-sides, James Ollerenshaw had never in his life raised his hat. Hat-raising formed no part of his code of manners. In his soul he looked upon hat-raising as affected. He believed that all people who raised hats did so from a snobbish desire to put on airs. Hat-raising was rather like saying "please," only worse.
Happily, his was one of those strong, self-reliant natures that can, when there is no alternative, face the most frightful situations with unthumping heart. He kept his presence of mind, and decided in the fraction of a second what he must do. The faculty of instant decision is indispensable to safety in these swift-rising crises.
He raised his hat, praying that Helen would not stop to speak. Not gracefully, not with the beauteous curves of an Emanuel did he raise his hat—but he raised it. His prayer was answered.
"There!" his chest said to Helen. "If you thought I didn't know how to behave to your conceited acquaintances, you were mistaken."
And his casual, roving eye pretended that hat-raising was simply the most ordinary thing on earth.
Such was the disturbing incident which ended the bleeding of his dignity. In order to keep up the pretence that hat-raising was a normal function of his daily life he was obliged to talk freely; and he did talk freely. But neither he nor Helen said a word as to the Prockters.
MRS. BUTT'S DEPARTURE
James Ollerenshaw's house was within a few hundred yards of the top of Trafalgar-road, on the way from Bursley to Hanbridge. I may not indicate the exact house, but I can scarcely conceal that it lay between Nos. 160 and 180, on the left as you go up. It was one of the oldest houses in the street, and though bullied into insignificance by sundry detached and semi-detached villas opposite—palaces occupied by reckless persons who think nothing of paying sixty or even sixty-five pounds a year for rent alone—it kept a certain individuality and distinction because it had been conscientiously built of good brick before English domestic architecture had lost trace of the Georgian style. First you went up two white steps (white in theory), through a little gate in a wrought-iron railing painted the colour of peas after they have been cooked in a bad restaurant. You then found yourself in a little front yard, twelve feet in width (the whole width of the house) by six feet in depth. The yard was paved with large square Indian-red tiles, except a tiny circle in the midst bordered with black-currant-coloured tiles set endwise with a scolloped edge. This magical circle contained earth, and in the centre of it was a rhododendron bush which, having fallen into lazy habits, had forgotten the art of flowering. Its leaves were a most pessimistic version of the tint of the railing.
The facade of the house comprised three windows and a door—that is to say, a window and a door on the ground floor and two windows above. The brickwork was assuredly admirable; James had it "pointed" every few years. Over the windows the bricks, of special shapes, were arranged as in a flat arch, with a keystone that jutted slightly. The panes of the windows were numerous and small; inside, on the sashes, lay long thin scarlet sausages of red cloth and sawdust, to keep out the draughts. The door was divided into eight small panels with elaborate beadings, and over it was a delicate fanlight—one of about a score in Bursley—to remind the observer of a lost elegance. Between the fanlight and the upstairs window exactly above it was a rusty iron plaque, with vestiges in gilt of the word "Phoenix." It had been put there when fire insurance had still the fancied charm of novelty. At the extremity of the facade farthest from the door a spout came down from the blue-slate roof. This spout began with a bold curve from the projecting horizontal spout under the eaves, and made another curve at the ground into a hollow earthenware grid with very tiny holes.
Helen looked delicious in the yard, gazing pensively at the slothful rhododendron while James Ollerenshaw opened his door. She was seen by two electric cars-full of people, for although James's latchkey was very highly polished and the lock well oiled, he never succeeded in opening his door at the first attempt. It was a capricious door. You could not be sure of opening it any more than Beau Brummel could be sure of tying his cravat. It was a muse that had to be wooed.
But when it did open you perceived that there were no half measures about that door, for it let you straight into the house. To open it was like taking down part of the wall. No lobby, hall, or vestibule behind that door! One instant you were in the yard, the next you were in the middle of the sitting-room, and through a doorway at the back of the sitting-room you could see the kitchen, and beyond that the scullery, and beyond that a back yard with a whitewashed wall.
James Ollerenshaw went in first, leaving Helen to follow. He had learnt much in the previous hour, but there were still one or two odd things left for him to learn.
"Ah!" he breathed, shut the door, and hung up his hard hat on the inner face of it. "Sit ye down, lass."
So she sat her down. It must be said that she looked as if she had made a mistake and got on to the wrong side of Trafalgar-road. The sitting-room was a crowded and shabby little apartment (though clean). There was a list carpet over the middle of the floor, which was tiled, and in the middle of the carpet a small square table with flap-sides. On this table was a full-rigged ship on a stormy sea in a glass box, some resin, a large stone bottle of ink, a ready reckoner, Whitaker's Almanack (paper edition), a foot-rule, and a bright brass candlestick. Above the table there hung from the ceiling a string with a ball of fringed paper, designed for the amusement of flies. At the window was a flat desk, on which were transacted the affairs of Mr. Ollerenshaw. When he stationed himself at it in the seat of custom and of judgment, defaulting tenants, twirling caps or twisting aprons, had a fine view of the left side of his face. He usually talked to them while staring out of the window. Before this desk was a Windsor chair. There were eight other Windsor chairs in the room—Helen was sitting on one that had not been sat upon for years and years—a teeming but idle population of chairs. A horsehair arm-chair seemed to be the sultan of the seraglio of chairs. Opposite the window a modern sideboard, which might have cost two-nineteen-six when new, completed the tale of furniture. The general impression was one of fulness; the low ceiling, and the immense harvest of overblown blue roses which climbed luxuriantly up the walls, intensified this effect. The mantelpiece was crammed with brass ornaments, and there were two complete sets of brass fire-irons in the brass fender. Above the mantelpiece a looking-glass, in a wan frame of bird's-eye maple, with rounded corners, reflected Helen's hat.
Helen abandoned the Windsor chair and tried the arm-chair, and then stood up.
"Which chair do you recommend?" she asked, nicely.
"Bless ye, child! I never sit here, except at th' desk. I sit in the kitchen."
A peculiarity of houses in the Five Towns is that rooms are seldom called by their right names. It is a point of honour, among the self-respecting and industrious classes, to prepare a room elaborately for a certain purpose, and then not to use it for that purpose. Thus James Ollerenshaw's sitting-room, though surely few apartments could show more facilities than it showed for sitting, was not used as a sitting-room, but as an office. The kitchen, though it contained a range, was not used as a kitchen, but as a sitting-room. The scullery, though it had no range, was filled with a gas cooking-stove and used as a kitchen. And the back yard was used as a scullery. This arrangement never struck anybody as singular; it did not strike even Helen as singular. Her mother's house had exhibited the same oddness until she reorganised it. If James Ollerenshaw had not needed an office, his sitting-room would have languished in desuetude. The fact is that the thrifty inhabitants of the Five Towns save a room as they save money. If they have an income of six rooms they will live on five, or rather in five, and thereby take pride to themselves.
Somewhat nervous, James feigned to glance at the rent books on the desk.
Helen's eye swept the room. "I suppose you have a good servant?" she said.
"I have a woman as comes in," said James. "But her isn't in th' house at the moment."
This latter statement was a wilful untruth on James's part. He had distinctly caught a glimpse of Mrs. Butt's figure as he entered.
"Well," said Helen, kindly, "it's quite nice, I'm sure. You must be very comfortable—for a man. But, of course, one can see at once that no woman lives here."
"How?" he demanded, naively.
"Oh," she answered, "I don't know. But one can."
"Dost mean to say as it isn't clean, lass?"
"The brasses are very clean," said Helen.
Such astonishing virtuosity in the art of innuendo is the privilege of one sex only.
"Come into th' kitchen, lass," said James, after he had smiled into a corner of the room, "and take off them gloves and things."
"But, great-stepuncle, I can't stay."
"You'll stop for tea," said he, firmly, "or my name isn't James Ollerenshaw."
He preceded her into the kitchen. The door between the kitchen and the scullery was half-closed; in the aperture he again had a momentary, but distinct, glimpse of the eye of Mrs. Butt.
"I do like this room," said Helen, enthusiastically.
"Uninterrupted view o' th' back yard," said Ollerenshaw. "Sit ye down, lass."
He indicated an article of furniture which stood in front of the range, at a distance of perhaps six feet from it, cutting the room in half. This contrivance may be called a sofa, or it may be called a couch; but it can only be properly described by the Midland word for it—squab. No other term is sufficiently expressive. Its seat—five feet by two—was very broad and very low, and it had a steep, high back and sides. All its angles were right angles. It was everywhere comfortably padded; it yielded everywhere to firm pressure; and it was covered with a grey and green striped stuff. You could not sit on that squab and be in a draught; yet behind it, lest the impossible should arrive, was a heavy curtain, hung on an iron rod which crossed the room from wall to wall. Not much imagination was needed to realise the joy and ecstasy of losing yourself on that squab on a winter afternoon, with the range fire roaring in your face, and the curtain drawn abaft.
Helen assumed the mathematical centre of the squab, and began to arrange her skirts in cascading folds; she had posed her parasol in a corner of it, as though the squab had been a railway carriage, which, indeed, it did somewhat resemble.
"By the way, lass, what's that as swishes?" James demanded.
"What's that as swishes?"
She looked puzzled for an instant, then laughed—a frank, gay laugh, light and bright as aluminium, such as the kitchen had never before heard.
"Oh!" she said. "It's my new silk petticoat, I suppose. You mean that?" She brusquely moved her limbs, reproducing the unique and delicious rustle of concealed silk.
"Ay!" ejaculated the old man, "I mean that."
"Yes. It's my silk petticoat. Do you like it?"
"I havena' seen it, lass."
She bent down, and lifted the hem of her dress just two inches—the discreetest, the modestest gesture. He had a transient vision of something fair—it was gone again.
"I don't know as I dislike it," said he.
He was standing facing her, his back to the range, and his head on a level with the high narrow mantelpiece, upon which glittered a row of small tin canisters. Suddenly he turned to the corner to the right of the range, where, next to an oak cupboard, a velvet Turkish smoking cap depended from a nail. He put on the cap, of which the long tassel curved down to his ear. Then he faced her again, putting his hands behind him, and raising himself at intervals on his small, well-polished toes. She lifted her two hands simultaneously to her head, and began to draw pins from her hat, which pins she placed one after another between her lips. Then she lowered the hat carefully from her head, and transfixed it anew with the pins.
"Will you mind hanging it on that nail?" she requested.
He took it, as though it had been of glass, and hung it on the nail.
Without her hat she looked as if she lived there, a jewel in a pipe-case. She appeared to be just as much at home as he was. And they were so at home together that there was no further necessity to strain after a continuous conversation. With a vague smile she gazed round and about, at the warm, cracked, smooth red tiles of the floor; at the painted green walls, at a Windsor chair near the cupboard—a solitary chair that had evidently been misunderstood by the large family of relatives in the other room and sent into exile; at the pair of bellows that hung on the wall above the chair, and the rich gaudiness of the grocer's almanac above the bellows; at the tea-table, with its coarse grey cloth and thick crockery spread beneath the window.
"So you have all your meals here?" she ventured.
"Ay," he said. "I have what I call my meals here."
"Why," she cried, "don't you enjoy them?"
"I eat 'em," he said.
"What time do you have tea?" she inquired.
"Four o'clock," said he. "Sharp!"
"But it's a quarter to, now!" she exclaimed, pointing to a clock with weights at the end of brass chains and a long pendulum. "And didn't you say your servant was out?"
"Ay," he mysteriously lied. "Her's out. But her'll come back. Happen her's gone to get a bit o' fish or something."
"Fish! Do you always have fish for tea?"
"I have what I'm given," he replied. "I fancy a snack for my tea. Something tasty, ye know."
"Why," she said, "you're just like me. I adore tea. I'd sooner have tea than any other meal of the day. But I never yet knew a servant who could get something tasty every day. Of course, it's quite easy if you know how to do it; but servants don't—that is to say, as a rule—but I expect you've got a very good one."
"So-so!" James murmured.
"The trouble with servants is that they always think that if you like a thing one day you'll like the same thing every day for the next three years."
"Ay," he said, drily. "I used to like a kidney, but it's more than three years ago." He stuck his lips out, and raised himself higher than ever on his toes.
He did not laugh. But she laughed, almost boisterously.
"I can't help telling you," she said, "you're perfectly lovely, great-stepuncle. Are we both going to drink out of the same cup?" In such manner did the current of her talk gyrate and turn corners.
He approached the cupboard.
"No, no!" She sprang up. "Let me. I'll do that, as the servant is so long."
And she opened the cupboard. Among a miscellany of crocks therein was a blue-and-white cup and saucer, and a plate to match underneath it, that seemed out of place there. She lifted down the pile.
"Steady on!" he counselled her. "Why dun you choose that?"
"Because I like it," she replied, simply.
He was silenced. "That's a bit o' real Spode," he said, as she put it on the table and dusted the several pieces with a corner of the tablecloth.
"It won't be in any danger," she retorted, "until it comes to be washed up. So I'll stop afterwards and wash it up myself. There!"
"Now you can't find the teaspoons, miss!" he challenged her.
"I think I can," she said.
She raised the tablecloth at the end, discovered the knob of a drawer, and opened it. And, surely, there were teaspoons.
"Can't I just take a peep into the scullery?" she begged, with a bewitching supplication. "I won't stop. It's nearly time your servant was back, if she's always so dreadfully prompt as you say. I won't touch anything. Servants are so silly. They always think one wants to interfere with them."
Without waiting for James's permission, she burst youthfully into the scullery.
"Oh," she exclaimed, "there's some one here!"
Of course there was. There was Mrs. Butt.
Although the part played by Mrs. Butt in the drama was vehement and momentous, it was nevertheless so brief that a description of Mrs. Butt is hardly called for. Suffice it to say that she had so much waist as to have no waist, and that she possessed both a beard and a moustache. This curt catalogue of her charms is unfair to her; but Mrs. Butt was ever the victim of unfairness.
James Ollerenshaw looked audaciously in at the door. "It's Mrs. Butt," said he. "Us thought as ye were out."
"Good-afternoon, Mrs. Butt," Helen began, with candid pleasantness.
"And what have you got for uncle's tea to-day? Something tasty?"
"I've got this," said Mrs. Butt, with candid unpleasantness. And she pointed to an oblate spheroid, the colour of brick, but smoother, which lay on a plate near the gas-stove. It was a kidney.
"It's not cooked yet, I see," Helen observed. "And—"
The clock finished her remark.
"No, miss, it's not cooked," said Mrs. Butt. "To tell ye the honest truth, miss, I've been learning, 'stead o' cooking this 'ere kidney." She picked up the kidney in her pudding-like hand and gazed at it. "I'm glad the brasses is clean, miss, at any rate, though the house does look as though there was no woman about the place, and servants are silly. I'm thankful to Heaven as the brasses is clean. Come into my scullery, and welcome."
She ceased, still holding up the kidney.
"H'm!"—from Uncle James.
This repeated remark of his seemed to rouse the fury in her. "You may 'h'm,' Mester Ollerenshaw," she glared at him. "You may 'h'm' as much as yo'n a mind." Then to Helen: "Come in, miss; come in. Don't be afraid of servants." And finally, with a striking instinct for theatrical effect: "But I go out!"
She flung the innocent and yielding kidney to the floor, snatched up a bonnet, cast off her apron, and departed.
"There!" said James Ollerenshaw. "You've done it!"
THE NEW COOK
Ten minutes later Mr. James Ollerenshaw stood alone in his kitchen-sitting-room. And he gazed at the door between the kitchen-sitting-room and the scullery. This door was shut; that is to say, it was nearly shut. He had been turned out of the scullery; not with violence—or, rather, with a sort of sweet violence that he liked, and that had never before been administered to him by any human soul. An afternoon highly adventurous—an afternoon on which he had permitted himself to be insulted, with worse than impunity to the insulter, by the childish daughter of that chit Susan—an afternoon on which he had raised his hat to Mrs. Prockter—a Saturday afternoon on which he had foregone, on account of a woman, his customary match at bowls—this afternoon was drawing to a close in a manner which piled thrilling event on thrilling event.
Mrs. Butt had departed. For unnumbered years Mrs. Butt had miscooked his meals. The little house was almost inconceivable without Mrs. Butt. And Mrs. Butt had departed. Already he missed her as one misses an ancient and supersensitive corn—if the simile may be permitted to one; it is a simile not quite nice, but, then, Mrs. Butt was not quite nice either. The fault was not hers; she was born so.
The dropping of the kidney with a plop, by Mrs. Butt, on the hard, unsympathetic floor of the scullery, had constituted an extremely dramatic moment in three lives. Certainly Mrs. Butt possessed a wondrous instinct for theatrical effect. Helen, on the contrary, seemed to possess none. She had advanced nonchalantly towards the kidney, and delicately picked it up between finger and thumb, and turned it over, and then put it on a plate.
"That's a veal kidney," she had observed.
"Art sure it isn't a sheep's kidney, lass?" James had asked, carefully imitating Helen's nonchalance.
"Yes," she had said. "I gather you are not passionately fond of kidneys, great-stepuncle?" she had asked.
"I was once. What art going to do, lass?"
"I'm going to get our tea," she had said.
At the words, our tea, the antique James Ollerenshaw, who had never thought to have such a sensation again, was most distinctly conscious of an agreeable, somewhat disturbing sensation of being tickled in the small of his back.
"Well," he had asked her, "what can I do?"
"You can go out," she had replied. "Wouldn't it be a good thing for you to go out for a walk? Tea will be ready at half-past four."
"I go for no walk," he said, positively....
"Yes, that's all right," she had murmured, but not in response to his flat refusal to obey her. She had been opening the double cupboard and the five drawers which constituted the receptacles of the scullery-larders; she had been spying out the riches and the poverty of the establishment. Then she had turned to him, and, instead of engaging him in battle, she had just smiled at him, and said: "Very well. As you wish. But do go into the front room, at any rate."
And there he was in the middle room, the kitchen, listening to her movements behind the door. He heard the running of water, and then the mild explosion of lighting the second ring of the gas-stove; the first had been lighted by Mrs. Butt. Then he heard nothing whatever for years, and when he looked at the clock it was fourteen minutes past four. In the act of looking at the clock, his eye had to traverse the region of the sofa. On the sofa were one parasol and two gloves. Astonishing, singular, disconcerting, how those articles—which, after all, bore no kind of resemblance to any style of furniture or hangings—seemed, nevertheless, to refurnish the room, to give the room an air of being thickly inhabited which it never had before!
Then she burst into the kitchen unexpectedly, with a swish of silk that was like the retreat of waves down the shingle of some Atlantic shore.
"My dear uncle," she protested, "please do make yourself scarce. You are in my way, and I'm very busy."
She went to the cupboard and snatched at some plates, two of which she dropped on the table, and three of which she took into the kitchen.
"Have ye got all as ye want?" he questioned her politely, anxious to be of assistance.
"Everything!" she answered, positively, and with just the least hint of an intention to crush him.
"Have ye indeed!"
He did not utter this exclamation aloud; but with it he applied balm to his secret breast. For he still remembered, being an old man, her crushing him in the park, and the peril of another crushing roused the male in him. And it was with a sardonic and cruel satisfaction that he applied such balm to his secret breast. The truth was, he knew that she had not got all she wanted. He knew that, despite her extraordinary capableness (of which she was rather vain), despite her ability to calculate mentally the interest on eighty-nine pounds for six months at four-and-a-half per cent., she could not possibly prepare the tea without coming to him and confessing to him that she had been mistaken, and that she had not got everything she wanted. She would be compelled to humble herself before him—were it ever so little. He was a hard old man, and the prospect of this humbling gave him pleasure (I regret to say).
You cannot have tea without tea-leaves; and James Ollerenshaw kept the tea-leaves in a tea-caddy, locked, in his front room. He had an extravagant taste in tea. He fancied China tea; and he fancied China tea that cost five shillings a pound. He was the last person to leave China tea at five shillings a pound to the economic prudence of a Mrs. Butt. Every day Mrs. Butt brought to him the teapot (warmed) and a teaspoon, and he unlocked the tea-caddy, dispensed the right quantity of tea, and relocked the tea-caddy.
There was no other tea in the house. So with a merry heart the callous fellow (shamefully delighting in the imminent downfall of a fellow-creature—and that a woman!) went into the front room as he had been bidden. On one of the family of chairs, in a corner, was a black octagonal case. He opened this case, which was not locked, and drew from it a concertina, all inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Then he went to the desk, and from under a pile of rent books he extracted several pieces of music, and selected one. This selected piece he reared up on the mantelpiece against two brass candlesticks. It was obvious, from the certainty and ease of his movements, that he had the habit of lodging pieces of music against those two brass candlesticks. The music bore the illustrious name of George Frederick Handel.
Then he put on a pair of spectacles which were lying on the mantelpiece, and balanced them on the end of his nose. Finally he adjusted his little hands to the straps of the concertina. You might imagine that he would instantly dissolve into melody. Not at all. He glanced at the page of music first through his spectacles, and then, bending forward his head, over his spectacles. Then he put down the concertina, gingerly, on a chair, and moved the music half-an-inch (perhaps five-eighths) to the left. He resumed the concertina, and was on the very point of song, when he put down the concertina for the second time, and moved the tassel of his Turkish cap from the neighbourhood of his left ear to the neighbourhood of his right ear. Then, with a cough, he resumed the concertina once more, and embarked upon the interpretation of Handel.
It was the Hallelujah Chorus.
Any surprise which the musical reader may feel on hearing that James Ollerenshaw was equal to performing the Hallelujah Chorus on a concertina (even one inlaid with mother-of-pearl) argues on the part of that reader an imperfect acquaintance with the Five Towns. In the Five Towns there are (among piano scorners) two musical instruments, the concertina and the cornet. And the Five Towns would like to see the composer clever enough to compose a piece of music that cannot be arranged for either of these instruments. It is conceivable that Beethoven imagined, when he wrote the last movement of the C Minor Symphony, that he had produced a work which it would be impossible to arrange for cornet solo. But if he did he imagined a vain thing. In the Five Towns, where the taste for classical music is highly developed, the C Minor Symphony on a single cornet is as common as "Robin Adair" on a full brass band.
James Ollerenshaw played the Hallelujah Chorus with much feeling and expression. He understood the Hallelujah Chorus to its profoundest depths; which was not surprising in view of the fact that he had been playing it regularly since before Helen was born. (The unfading charm of classical music is that you never tire of it.)
Nevertheless, the grandeur of his interpretation of the Hallelujah Chorus appeared to produce no effect whatever in the scullery; neither alarm nor ecstasy! And presently, in the midst of a brief pianissimo passage, James's sensitive ear caught the distant sound of chopping, which quite marred the soft tenderness at which he had been aiming. He stopped abruptly. The sound of chopping intrigued his curiosity. What could she be chopping? He advanced cautiously to the doorway; he had left the door open. The other door—between the kitchen and the scullery—which had previously been closed, was now open, so that he could see from the front room into the scullery. His eager, inquisitive glance noted a plate of beautiful bread and butter on the tea-table in the kitchen.
She was chopping the kidney. Utterly absorbed in her task, she had no suspicion that she was being overlooked. After the chopping of the kidney, James witnessed a series of operations the key to whose significance he could not find.
She put a flat pan over the gas, and then took it off again. Then she picked up an egg, broke it into a coffee-cup, and instantly poured it out of the coffee-cup into a basin. She did the same to another egg, and yet another. Four eggs! The entire household stock of eggs! It was terrible! Four eggs and a kidney among two people! He could not divine what she was at.
Then she got some butter on the end of a knife and dropped it into the saucepan, and put the saucepan over the gas; and then poured the plateful of kidney-shreds into the saucepan. Then she began furiously to beat the four eggs with a fork, glancing into the saucepan frequently, and coaxing it with little touches. Then the kidney-shreds raised a sound of frizzling, and bang into the saucepan went the contents of the basin. All the time she had held her hands and her implements and utensils away from her as much as possible, doubtless out of consideration for her frock; not an inch of apron was she wearing. Now she leant over the gas-stove, fork in hand, and made baffling motions inside the saucepan with the fork; and while doing so she stretched forth her left hand, obtained some salt, and sprinkled the saucepan therewith. The business seemed to be exquisitely delicate and breathless. Her face was sternly set, as though the fate of continents depended on her nerve and audacity in this tremendous crisis. But what she was doing to the interior of the saucepan James Ollerenshaw could not comprehend. She stroked it with a long gesture; she tickled it, she stroked it in a different direction; she lifted it and folded it on itself.
Anyhow, he knew it was not scrambled eggs, because you have to stir scrambled eggs without ceasing.
Then she stopped and stood quite still, regarding the saucepan.
"You've watched me quite long enough," she said, without moving her head. She must have known all the time that he was there.
So he shuffled away, and glanced out of the window at the stir and traffic of Trafalgar-road.
"Tea's ready," she said.
He went into the kitchen, smiling, enchanted, but disturbed. She had not come to him and confessed that she could not make tea without tea-leaves. Yet there was the teapot steaming and puffing on the table!
The mystery lay on a plate in the middle of the table. In colour it resembled scrambled eggs, except that it was tinted a more brownish, or coppery, gold—rather like a first-class Yorkshire pudding. He suspected for an instant that it might be a Yorkshire pudding according to the new-fangled recipe of Board Schools. But four eggs! No! He was sure that so small a quantity of Yorkshire pudding could not possibly have required four eggs.
He picked up the teapot, after his manner, and was in the act of pouring, when she struck him into immobility with a loud cry:
He understood that she had a caprice for pouring the tea on the top of the milk instead of the milk on the top of the tea.
"What difference does it make?" he demanded defiantly.
"What!" she cried again. "You think yourself a great authority on China tea, and yet you don't know that milk ought to be poured in first! Why, it makes quite a different taste!"
How in the name of Confucius did she know that he thought himself a great authority on China tea?
"Here!" she said. "If you don't mind, I'll pour out the tea. Thank you. Help yourself to this." She pointed to the mystery. "It must be eaten while it's hot, or it's worse than useless."
"What is it?" he asked, with false calm.
"It's a kidney omelette," she replied.
"Omelette!" he repeated, rather at a loss. He had never tasted an omelette; he had never seen an omelette. Omelettes form no part of the domestic cuisine of England. "Omelette!" he repeated. How was he familiar with the word—the word which conveyed nothing to his mind? Then he remembered: "You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs." Of course she had broken eggs. She had broken four eggs—she had broken the entire household stock of eggs. And he had employed that proverb scores, hundreds of times! It was one of half-a-dozen favourite proverbs which he flung at the less sagacious and prudent of his tenants. And yet it had never occurred to him to wonder what an omelette was! Now he knew. At any rate, he knew what it looked like; and he was shortly to know what it tasted like.
"Yes," she said. "Cut it with a knife. Don't be frightened of it. You'll eat it; it won't eat you. And please give me very little. I ate a quarter of a pound of chocolates after dinner."
He conveyed one-third of the confection to his plate, and about a sixth to hers.
And he tasted—just a morsel, with a dash of kidney in the centre of it, on the end of his fork. He was not aware of the fact, but that was the decisive moment of his life—sixty though he was!
Had she really made this marvel, this dream, this idyll, this indescribable bliss, out of four common fresh eggs and a veal kidney that Mrs. Butt had dropped on the floor? He had come to loathe kidney. He had almost come to swearing that no manifestation or incarnation of kidney should ever again pass between his excellent teeth. And now he was ravished, rapt away on the wings of paradisaical ecstasy by a something that consisted of kidney and a few eggs. This omelette had all the finer and nobler qualities of Yorkshire pudding and scrambled eggs combined, together with others beyond the ken of his greedy fancy. Yes, he was a greedy man. He knew he was greedy. He was a greedy man whose evil passion had providentially been kept in check for over a quarter of a century by the gross unskilfulness, the appalling monotony, of a Mrs. Butt. Could it be that there existed women, light and light-handed creatures, creatures of originality and resource, who were capable of producing prodigies like this kidney omelette on the spur of the moment? Evidently! Helen existed. And the whole omelette, from the melting of the butter to the final steady glance into the saucepan, had not occupied her more than six minutes—at most. She had tossed it off as he might have tossed off a receipt for a week's rent. And the exquisite thought in his mind, the thought of penetrating sweetness, was that whence this delicacy had come, other and even rarer delicacies might have come. All his past life seemed to him to be a miserable waste of gloomy and joyless years.
"Do you like it?" she inquired.
He paused, as though reflecting whether he liked it or not. "Ay," he said, judicially, "it's none so bad. I could do a bit more o' that."
"Well," she urged him, "do help yourself. Take it all. I shan't eat any more."
"Sure?" he said, trembling lest she might change her mind.
Then he ate the remaining half of the omelette, making five-sixths in all. He glanced at her surreptitiously, in her fine dress, on which was not a single splash or stain. He might have known that so extraordinary and exotic a female person would not concoct anything so trite as a Yorkshire pudding or scrambled eggs.
Not till the omelette was an affair of the past (so far as his plate was concerned) did he begin to attend to his tea—his tea which sustained a mystery as curious as, and decidedly more sinister than, the mystery of the omelette.
He stared into the cup; then, to use the Five Towns phrase, he supped it up.
There could be no doubt; it was his special China tea. It had a peculiar flavour (owing, perhaps, to the precedence given to milk), but it was incontestably his guarded and locked tea. How had she got it?
"Where didst find this tea, lass?" he asked.
"In the little corner cupboard in the scullery," she said. "I'd no idea that people drank such good China tea in Bursley."
"Ah!" he observed, concealing his concern under a mask of irony, "China tea was drunk i' Bursley afore your time."
"Mother would only drink Ceylon," said she.
"That doesna' surprise me," said he, as if to imply that no vagary on the part of Susan could surprise him. And he proceeded, reflectively: "In th' corner cupboard, sayst tha?"
"Yes, in a large tin box."
A large tin box. This news was overwhelming. He rose abruptly and went into the scullery. Indubitably there was a large tin box, pretty nearly half full of his guarded tea, in the corner cupboard.
He returned, the illusion of half a lifetime shattered. "That there woman was a thief!" he announced.
And he explained to Helen all his elaborate precautions for the preservation of his China tea. Helen was wholly sympathetic. The utter correctness of her attitude towards Mrs. Butt was balm to him. Only one theory was conceivable. The wretched woman must have had a key to his caddy. During his absence from the house she must have calmly helped herself to tea at five shillings a pound—a spoonful or so at a time. Doubtless she made tea for her private consumption exactly when she chose. It was even possible that she walked off from time to time with quantities of tea to her own home. And he who thought himself so clever, so much cleverer than a servant!
"You can't have her back, as she isn't honest, even if she comes back," said Helen.
"Oh, her won't come back," said James. "Fact is, I've had difficulties with her for a long time now."
"Then what shall you do, my poor dear uncle?"
"Nay," said he, "I mun ask you that. It was you as was th' cause of her going."
"Oh, uncle!" she exclaimed, laughing. "How can you say such a thing?" And she added, seriously: "You can't be expected to cook for yourself, can you? And as for getting a new one—"
He noticed with satisfaction that she had taken to calling him simply uncle, instead of great-stepuncle.
"A new 'un!" he muttered, grimly, and sighed in despair.
"I shall stay and look after your supper," she said, brightly.
"Yes, and what about to-morrow?" He grew gloomier.
"To-morrow's Sunday. I'll come to-morrow, for breakfast."
"Yes, and what about Monday?" His gloom was not easily to be dispersed.
"I'll come on Monday," she replied, with increasing cheerfulness.
"But your school, where ye teach everything, lass?"
"Of course, I shall give up school," said she, "at once. They must do without me. It will mean promotion for some one. I can't bother about giving proper notice. Supposing you had been dangerously ill, I should have come, and they would have managed without me. Therefore, they can manage without me. Therefore, they must."
He kept up a magnificent gloom until she left for the night. And then he danced a hornpipe of glee—not with his legs, but in his heart. He had deliberately schemed to get rid of Mrs. Butt by means of Helen Rathbone. The idea had occurred to him as he entered the house. That was why he had encouraged her to talk freely about servants by assuring her that Mrs. Butt was not in the scullery, being well aware that Mrs. Butt was in the scullery. He had made a tool of the unsuspecting, good-natured Helen, smart though she was! He had transitory qualms of fear about the possible expensiveness of Helen. He had decidedly not meant that she should give up school and nearly thirty shillings a week. But, still, he had managed her so far, and he reckoned that he could continue to manage her.
He regretted that she had not praised his music. And Helen wrote the same evening to her mother. From a very long and very exciting letter the following excerpts may be culled:
"I saw the fat old servant in the scullery at once. But uncle thought she wasn't there. He is a funny old man—rather silly, like most old men——but I like him, and you can say what you please. He isn't silly really. I instantly decided that I would get rid of that servant. And I did do, and poor uncle never suspected. In a few days I shall come to live here. It's much safer. Supposing he was taken ill and died, and left all his money to hospitals and things, how awfully stupid that would be! I told him I should leave the school, and he didn't turn a hair. He's a dear, and I don't care a fig for his money—except to spend it for him. His tiny house is simply lovely, terrifically clean, and in the loveliest order. But I've no intention that we shall stay here. I think I shall take a large house up at Hillport. Uncle is only old in some ways; in many ways he's quite young. So I hope he won't mind a change. By the way, he told me about your age. My dearest mother, how could you—" etc.
In such manner came Helen Rathbone to keep house for her great-stepuncle.
A GREAT CHANGE
"Helen Rathbone," said Uncle James one Tuesday afternoon, "have ye been meddling in my cashbox?"
They were sitting in the front room, Helen in a light-grey costume that cascaded over her chair and half the next chair, and James Ollerenshaw in the deshabille of his Turkish cap. James was at his desk. It is customary in the Five Towns, when you feel combative, astonished, or ironic towards another person, to address that other person by his full name.
"You left the key in your cashbox this morning, uncle," said Helen, glancing up from a book, "while you were fiddling with your safe in your bedroom."
He did not like the word "fiddling." It did not suit either his dignity or the dignity of his huge Milner safe.
"Well," he said, "and if I did! I wasn't upstairs more nor five minutes, and th' new servant had na' come! There was but you and me in th' house."
"Yes. But, you see, I was in a hurry to go out marketing, and I couldn't wait for you to come down."
He ignored this remark. "There's a tenpun' note missing," said he. "Don't play them tricks on me, lass; I'm getting an oldish man. Where hast hidden it? I mun go to th' bank." He spoke plaintively.
"My dear uncle," she replied, "I've not hidden your ten-pound note. I wanted some money in a hurry, so I took it. I've spent some of it."
"Spent some of it!" he exclaimed. "How much hast spent?"
"Oh, I don't know. But I make up my accounts every night."
"Lass," said he, staring firmly out of the window, "this won't do. I let ye know at once. This wunna' do." He was determined to be master in his own house. She also was determined to be master in his own house. Conflict was imminent.
"May I ask what you mean, uncle?"
He hesitated. He was not afraid of her. But he was afraid of her dress—not of the material, but of the cut of it. If she had been Susan in Susan's dowdy and wrinkled alpaca, he would have translated his just emotion into what critics call "simple, nervous English"—that is to say, Shakespearean prose. But the aristocratic, insolent perfection of Helen's gown gave him pause.
"Why didn't you tell me?" he demanded.
"I merely didn't think of it," she said. "I've been very busy."
"If you wanted money, why didn't you ask me for it?" he demanded.
"I've been here over a week," said she, "and you've given me a pound and a postal order for ten shillings, which I had to ask for. Surely you must have guessed, uncle, that even if I'd put the thirty shillings in the savings bank we couldn't live on the interest of it, and that I was bound to want more. Something like seventy meals have been served in this house since I entered it."
"I gave Mrs. Butt a pound a wik," he observed.
"But think what a good manager Mrs. Butt was!" she said, with the sweetness of a saint.
He was accustomed to distributing satire, but not to receiving it. And, receiving this snowball full in the mouth, he did not quite know what to do with it; whether to pretend that he had received nothing, or to call a policeman. He ended by spluttering.
"It's easy enough to ask for money when you want it," he said.
"I hate asking for money," she said. "All women do."
"Then am I to be inquiring every morning whether you want money?" he questioned, sarcastically.
"Certainly, uncle," she answered. "How else are you to know?"
Difficult to credit that that girl had been an angel of light all the week, existing in a paradise which she had created for herself, and for him! And now, to defend an action utterly indefensible, she was employing a tone that might be compared to some fiendish instrumental device of a dentist.
But James Ollerenshaw did not wish his teeth stopped, nor yet extracted. He had excellent teeth. And, in common with all men who have never taken thirty consecutive repasts alone with the same woman, he knew how to treat women, how to handle them—the trout!
He stood up. He raised all his body. Helen raised only her eyebrows.
"Helen Rathbone!" Such was the exordium. As an exordium, it was faultless. But it was destined to remain a fragment. It goes down to history as a perfect fragment, like the beginning of a pagan temple that the death of gods has rendered superfluous.
For a dog-cart stopped in front of the house at that precise second, deposited a lady of commanding mien, and dashed off again. The lady opened James's gate and knocked at James's front door. She could not be a relative of a tenant. James was closely acquainted with all his tenants, and he had none of that calibre. Moreover, Helen had caused a small board to be affixed to the gate: "Tenants will please go round to the back."
"Bless us!" he murmured, angrily. And, by force of habit, he went and opened the door. Then he recognised the lady. It was Sarah Swetnam, eldest child of the large and tumultuously intellectual Swetnam family that lived in a largish house in a largish way higher up the road, and as to whose financial stability rumour always had something interesting to say.
"Is Miss Rathbone here?"
Before he could reply, there was an ecstatic cry behind him: "Sally!" And another in front of him: "Nell!"
In the very nick of time he slipped aside, and thus avoided the inconvenience of being crushed to pulp between two locomotives under full steam. It appeared that they had not met for some years, Sally having been in London. The reunion was an affecting sight, and such a sight as had never before been witnessed in James's house. The little room seemed to be full of fashionable women, to be all gloves, frills, hat, parasol, veil, and whirling flowers; also scent. They kissed, through Sally's veil first, and then she lifted the veil, and four vermilion lips clung together. Sally was even taller than Helen, with a solid waist; and older, more brazen. They both sat down. Fashionable women have a manner of sitting down quite different from that of ordinary women, such as the wives of James's tenants. They only touch the back of the chair at the top. They don't loll, but they only escape lolling by dint of gracefulness. It is an affair of curves, slants, descents, nicely calculated. They elaborately lead your eye downwards over gradually increasing expanses, and naturally you expect to see their feet—and you don't see their feet. The thing is apt to be disturbing to unhabituated beholders.
Then fashionable women always begin their conversation right off. There are no modest or shy or decently awkward silences at the start. They slip into a conversation as a duck into water. In three minutes Helen had told Sarah Swetnam everything about her leaving the school, and about her establishment with her great-stepuncle. And Sarah seemed delighted, and tapped the tiles of the floor with the tip of her sunshade, and gazed splendidly over the room.
"And there are your books there, I see!" she said, in her positive, calm voice, pointing to a few hundred books that were stacked in a corner. "How lovely! You remember you promised to lend me that book of Thoreau's—what did you call it?—and you never did!"
"Next time you come I'll find it for you," said Helen.
Next time she came! This kind of visit would occur frequently, then! They were talking just as if James Ollerenshaw had been in Timbuctoo, instead of by the mantelpiece, when Sally suddenly turned on him.
"It must be very nice for you to have Nell like this!" She addressed him with a glowing smile.
They had never been introduced! A week ago they had passed each other in St. Luke's-square without a sign. Of the Swetnam family, James "knew" the father alone, and him slightly. What chiefly impressed him in Sarah was her nerve. He said nothing; he was tongue-tied.
"It's a great change for you," proceeded Sarah.
"Ay," he agreed; "it's that."
The next moment the two fluffy women had decided, without in the least consulting James, that they would ascend to Helen's bedroom to look at a hat which, James was surprised to learn, Helen had seen in Brunt's window that morning and had bought on the spot. No wonder she had been in a hurry to go marketing; no wonder she had spent "some" of his ten-pound note! He had seen hats in Brunt's marked as high as two guineas; but he had not dreamt that such hats would ever enter his house. While he had been labouring, collecting his rents and arranging for repairs, throughout the length and the breadth of Bursley and Turnhill, she, under pretence of marketing, had been flinging away ten-pound notes at Brunt's. The whole business was fantastic, simply and madly fantastic; so fantastic that he had not yet quite grasped the reality of it! The whole business was unheard of. He saw, with all the clearness of his masculine intellect, that it must cease. The force with which he decided within himself that it must cease—and instanter!—bordered upon the hysterical. As he had said, plaintively, he was an oldish man. His habits, his manners, and his notions, especially his notions about money, were fixed and set like plaster of Paris in a mould. Helen's conduct was nothing less than dangerous. It might bring him to a sudden death from heart disease. Happily, he had had a very good week indeed with his rents. He trotted about all day on Mondays and on Tuesday mornings, gathering his rents, and on Tuesday afternoons he usually experienced the assuaged content of an alligator after the weekly meal. Otherwise there was no knowing what might not have been the disastrous consequences of Helen's barefaced robbery and of her unscrupulous, unrepentant defence of that robbery. For days and days he had imagined himself in heaven with a seraph who was also a good cook. He had forty times congratulated himself on catching Helen. And now...!