Helen with the High Hand - Arnold Bennett - ebook

A hopelessly mismatched niece and uncle find themselves thrown together by circumstance. But underneath their constant bickering and nitpicking, the pair truly cares about each other. Will this hilariously dysfunctional duo find a way to make their nontraditional household work?

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Helen with the High Hand

Arnold Bennett




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 Levée 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!



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 what?"

"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.



"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."

"Why not?"

"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, andMr. 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!"