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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesHelen With The High Hand (2nd Ed.) - Chapter 16. The Hall And Its Result
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Helen With The High Hand (2nd Ed.) - Chapter 16. The Hall And Its Result Post by :shamrock Category :Long Stories Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :2674

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Helen With The High Hand (2nd Ed.) - Chapter 16. The Hall And Its Result


"Yes," said Mrs. Prockter, gazing about her, to James Ollerenshaw, "it certainly is rather spacious."

"Rather spacious!" James repeated in the secret hollows of his mind. It was not spacious; it was simply fantastic. They stood, those two--Mrs. Prockter in her usual flowered silk, and James in his usual hard, rent-collecting clothes--at the foot of the double staircase, which sprang with the light of elegance of wings from the floor of the entrance-hall of Wilbraham Hall. In front of them, over the great door, was a musicians' gallery, and over that a huge window. On either side of the great door were narrow windows which looked over stretches of green country far away from the Five Towns. For Wilbraham Hall was on the supreme ridge of Hillport, and presented only its back yard, so to speak, to the Five Towns. And though the carpets were rolled up and tied with strings, and though there were dark rectangular spaces on the walls showing where pictures had been, the effect of the hall was quite a furnished effect. Polished oak and tasselled hangings, and monstrous vases and couches and chairs preserved in it the appearance of a home, if a home of giants.

Decidedly it was worthy of the mighty reputations of the extinct Wilbrahams. The Wilbrahams had gradually risen in North Staffordshire for two centuries. About the Sunday of the Battle of Waterloo they were at their apogee. Then for a century they had gradually fallen. And at last they had extinguished themselves in the person of a young-old fool who was in prison for having cheated a pawnbroker. This young-old fool had nothing but the name of Wilbraham to his back. The wealth of the Wilbrahams, or what remained of it after eight decades of declension, had, during the course of a famous twenty years' law-suit between the father of the said young-old fool and a farming cousin in California, slowly settled like golden dust in the offices of lawyers in Carey-street, London. And the house, grounds, lake, and furniture (save certain portraits) were now on sale by order of the distant winner of the law-suit. And both Mrs. Prockter and James could remember the time when the twin-horsed equipage of the Wilbrahams used to dash about the Five Towns like the chariot of the sun. The recollection made Mrs. Prockter sad, but in James it produced no such feeling. To Mrs. Prockter, Wilbraham Hall was the last of the stylish port-wine estates that in old days dotted the heights around the Five Towns. To her it was the symbol of the death of tone and the triumph of industrialism. Whereas James merely saw it as so much building land upon which streets of profitable and inexpensive semi-detached villas would one day rise at the wand's touch of the man who had sufficient audacity for a prodigious speculation.

"It 'ud be like living in th' covered market, living here," James observed.

The St. Luke's Market is the largest roof in Bursley. And old inhabitants, incapable of recovering from the surprise of marketing under cover instead of in an open square, still, after thirty years, refer to it as the covered market.

Mrs. Prockter smiled.

"By the way," said James, "where's them childer?"

The old people looked around. Emanuel and Helen, who had entered the proud precincts with them, had vanished.

"I believe they're upstairs, ma'am," said the fat caretaker, pleating her respectable white apron.

"You can go," said Mrs. Prockter, curtly, to this vestige of grandeur. "I will see you before I leave."

The apron resented the dismissal, and perhaps would have taken it from none but Mrs. Prockter. But Mrs. Prockter had a mien, and a flowered silk, before which even an apron of the Wilbrahams must quail.

"I may tell you, Mr. Ollerenshaw," she remarked, confidentially, when they were alone, "that I have not the slightest intention of buying this place. Emanuel takes advantage of my good nature. You've no idea how persistent he is. So all you have to do is to advise me firmly not to buy it. That's why I've asked you to come up. He acknowledges that you're an authority, and he'll be forced to accept your judgment."

"Why didn't ye say that afore, missis?" asked James bluntly.

"Before when?"

"Before that kick-up (party) o' yours. He got out of me then as I thought it were dirt cheap at eight thousand."

"But I don't want to move," pleaded Mrs. Prockter.

"I'm asking ye why ye didn't tell me afore?" James repeated.

Mrs. Prockter looked at him. "Men are trying creatures!" she said. "So it seems you can't tell a tarradiddle for me?" And she sighed.

"I don't know as I object to that. What I object to is contradicting mysen."

"Why did you bring Helen?" Mrs. Prockter demanded.

"I didna'. She come hersen."

They exchanged glances.

"And now she and Emanuel have run off."

"It looks to me," said James, "as if your plan for knocking their two heads together wasna' turning out as you meant it, missis."

"And what's more," said she, "I do believe that Emanuel wants me to buy this place so that when I'm gone he can make a big splash here with your niece and your money, Mr. Ollerenshaw! What do you think of that?"

"He may make as much splash as he's a mind to, wi' my niece," James answered. "But he won't make much of a splash with my money, I can promise ye." His orbs twinkled. "I can promise ye," he repeated.

"To whom do you mean to leave it, then?"

"Not to _his wife."

"H'm! Well, as we're here, I suppose we may as well see what there is to be seen. And those two dreadful young people must be found."

They mounted the stairs.

"Will you give me your arm, Mr. Ollerenshaw?"

To such gifts he was not used. Already he had given twenty-six pounds that day. The spectacle of Jimmy ascending the state staircase of Wilbraham Hall with all the abounding figure of Mrs. Prockter on his arm would have drawn crowds had it been offered to the public at sixpence a head.

They inspected the great drawing-room, the great dining-room, the great bedroom, and all the lesser rooms; the galleries, the balconies, the panellings, the embrasures, the suites and suites and suites of Georgian and Victorian decaying furniture; the ceilings and the cornices; the pictures and engravings (of which some hundreds remained); the ornaments, the clocks, the screens, and the microscopic knick-knacks. Both of them lost count of everything, except that before they reached the attics they had passed through forty-five separate apartments, not including linen closets. It was in one of the attics, as empty as Emanuel's head, that they discovered Emanuel and Helen, gazing at a magnificent prospect over the moorlands, with the gardens, the paddock, and Wilbraham Water immediately beneath.

"We've been looking for you everywhere," Helen burst out. "Oh, Mrs. Prockter, do come with me to the end of the corridor, and look at three old distaffs that I've found in a cupboard!"

During the absence of the women, James Ollerenshaw contradicted himself to Emanuel for the sweet sake of Emanuel's stepmother. Little by little they descended to the earth, with continual detours and halts by Helen, who was several times lost and found.

"I've told him," said James, quietly and proudly. "I've told him it's no use to you unless you want to turn it into a building estate."

They separated into two couples at the gate, with elaborate formalities on the part of Emanuel, which Uncle James more or less tried to imitate.

"Well?" murmured James, sighing relief, as they waited for the electric tram in that umbrageous and aristocratic portion of the Oldcastle-road which lies nearest to the portals of Wilbraham Hall. He was very pleased with himself, because, at the cost of his own respect, he had pleased Mrs. Prockter.

"Well?" murmured Helen, in response, tapping on the edge of the pavement the very same sunshade in whose company James had first made her acquaintance. She seemed nervous, hesitating, apprehensive.

"What about that house as ye've so kindly chosen for me?" he asked, genially. He wanted to humour her.

She looked him straight in the eyes. "You've seen it," said she.

"What!" he snorted. "When han I seen it?"

"Just now," she replied. "It's Wilbraham Hall. I knew that Mrs. Prockter wouldn't have it. And, besides, I've made Emanuel give up all idea of it."

He laughed, but with a strange and awful sensation in his stomach.

"A poor joke, lass!" he observed, with the laugh dead in his throat.

"It isn't a poor joke," said she. "It isn't a joke at all."

"Didst thou seriously think as I should buy that there barracks to please thee?"

"Certainly," she said, courageously. "Just that--to please me."

"I'm right enough where I am," he asserted, grimly. "What for should I buy Wilbraham Hall? What should I do in it?"

"Live in it."

"Trafalgar-road's good enough for me."

"But it isn't good enough for me," said she.

"I wouldna' ha' minded," he said, savagely--"I wouldna' ha' minded going into a house a bit bigger, but--"

"Nothing is big enough for me except Wilbraham Hall," she said.

He said nothing. He was furious. It was her birthday, and he had given her six-and-twenty pounds--ten shillings a week for a year--and she had barely kissed him. And now, instantly after that amazing and mad generosity, she had the face to look cross because he would not buy Wilbraham Hall! It was inconceivable; it was unutterable. So he said nothing.

"Why shouldn't you, after all?" she resumed. "You've got an income of nearly five thousand a year." (Now he hated her for the mean manner in which she had wormed out of him secrets that previously he had shared with no one.) "You don't spend the twentieth part of it. What are you going to do with it? _What are you going to do with it_? You're getting an old man." (Cold horrors!) "You can't take it with you when you leave the Five Towns, you know. Whom shall you leave your money to? You'll probably die worth a hundred thousand pounds, at this rate. You'll leave it to me, of course. Because there's nobody else for you to leave it to. Why can't you use it now, instead of wasting it in old stockings?"

"I bank my money, wench," he hissingly put in.

"Old stockings!" she repeated, loudly. "We could live splendidly at Wilbraham Hall on two thousand a year, and you would still be saving nearly three thousand a year."

He said nothing.

"Do you suppose I gave up my position at school in order to live in a poky little hole at eighteen pounds a year? What do you think I can do with myself all day in Trafalgar-road? Why, nothing. There's no room even for a piano, and so my fingers are stiffening every day. It's not life at all. Naturally, it's a great privilege," she pursued, with a vicious inflection that reminded him perfectly of Susan, "for a girl like me to live with an old man like you, all alone, with one servant and no sitting-room. But some privileges cost too dear. The fact is, you never think of me at all." (And he had but just given her six-and-twenty pounds.) "You think you've got a cheap housekeeper in me--but you haven't. I'm a very good housekeeper--especially in a very large house--but I'm not cheap."

She spoke as if she had all her life been accustomed to living in vast mansions. But James knew that, despite her fine friends, she had never lived in anything appreciably larger than his own dwelling. He knew there was not a house in Sneyd-road, Longshaw, worth more than twenty-five pounds a year. The whole outbreak was shocking and disgraceful. He scarcely recognised her.

He said nothing. And then suddenly he said: "I shall buy no Wilbraham Hall, lass." His voice was final.

"You could sell it again at a profit," said she. "You could turn it into a building estate" (parrot-cry caught from himself or from Emanuel), "and later on we could go and live somewhere else."

"Yes," said he; "Buckingham Palace, likely!"

"I don't--" she began.

"I shall buy no Wilbraham Hall," he reiterated. Greek had met Greek.

The tram surged along and swallowed up the two Greeks. They were alone in the tram, and they sat down opposite each other. The conductor came and took James's money, and the conductor had hardly turned his back when Helen snapped, with nostrils twitching:

"You're a miser, that's what you are! A regular old miser! Every one knows that. Every one calls you a miser. If you aren't a miser, I should like you to tell me why you live on about three pounds a week when your income is ninety pounds a week. I thought I might do you some good. I thought I might get you out of it. But it seems I can't."

"All!" he snorted. It was a painful sight. Other persons boarded the car.

At tea she behaved precisely like an angel. Not the least hint of her demeanour of the ineffable affray of the afternoon. She was so sweet that he might have given her twenty-six Wilbraham Halls instead of twenty-six pounds. He spoke not. He was, in a very deep sense, upset.

She spent the evening in her room.

"Good-bye," she said the next morning, most amiably. It was after breakfast. She was hatted, gloved and sunshaded.

"What?" he exclaimed.

"Au revoir," she said. "All my things are packed up. I shall send for them. I think I can go back to the school. If I can't, I shall go to mother in Canada. Thank you very much for all your kindness. If I go to Canada, of course I shall come and see you before I leave." He let her shake his hand.

* * * * *

For two days he was haunted by memories of kidney omelettes and by the word "miser." Miser, eh? Him a miser! Him! Ephraim Tellwright was a miser--but _him_!

Then the natty servant gave notice, and Mrs. Butt called and suggested that she should resume her sway over him. But she did not employ exactly that phrase.

He longed for one of Helen's meals as a drunkard longs for alcohol.

Then Helen called, with the casual information that she was off to Canada. She was particularly sweet. She had the tact to make the interview short. The one blot on her conduct of the interview was that she congratulated him on the possible return of Mrs. Butt, of which she had heard from the natty servant.

"Good-bye, uncle," she said.


She had got as far as the door, when he whispered, brokenly: "Lass--"

Helen turned quickly towards him.

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