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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesHelen With The High Hand (2nd Ed.) - Chapter 26. The Concert
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Helen With The High Hand (2nd Ed.) - Chapter 26. The Concert Post by :Baley Category :Long Stories Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :3447

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Helen With The High Hand (2nd Ed.) - Chapter 26. The Concert


On another afternoon a middle-aged man and a young-hearted woman emerged together from Bursley Railway Station. They had a little luggage, and a cab from the Tiger met them by appointment. Impossible to deny that the young-hearted one was wearing a flowered silk under a travelling mantle. The man, before getting into the cab, inquired as to the cost of the cab. The gold angel of the Town Hall rose majestically in front of him, and immediately behind him the Park, with the bowling-green at the top, climbed the Moorthorne slope. The bowling season was of course over, but even during the season he had scarcely played. He was a changed person. And the greatest change of all had occurred that very morning. Throughout a long and active career he had worn paper collars. Paper collars had sufficed him, and they had not shocked his friends. But now he wore a linen collar, and eleven other linen collars were in his carpet-bag. Yet it has been said, by some individual who obviously lacked experience of human nature, that a man never changes the style of his collar after forty.

The cab drove up to Hillport, and deposited flowered silk and one bag at the residence of Mrs. Prockter. It then ascended higher, passing into the grounds of Wilbraham Hall, and ultimately stopping at the grandiose portals thereof, which were wide open.

The occupant of the cab was surprised to see two other cabs just departing. The next moment he was more than surprised--he was startled. A gentleman in evening dress stood at the welcoming doors, and on perceiving him this gentleman ran down the steps, and, with a sort of hurried grace, took his carpet-bag from him, addressing him in broken English, and indicating by incomprehensible words and comprehensible signs that he regarded him, the new arrival, as the light of his eyes and the protector of the poor and of the oppressed. And no sooner had he got the new arrival safe into the hall than he stripped him of hat, coat, and muffler, and might have proceeded to extremes had not his attention been distracted by another vehicle.

This vehicle contained the aged rector of Bursley.

"Ha! Mr. Ollerenshaw!" cried the divine. "Your niece told me only yesterday that you were still in Derby buying property, and would not be back."

"I've bought it, parson," said James.

"Ha! ha!" said the divine, rubbing his hands. He stooped habitually, which gave him the air of always trying to glimpse at his toes over the promontory of his waist. And as James made no reply to the remark, he repeated: "Ha! ha! So you decided to come to my concert, eh?"

"I only heard of it yesterday," said James.

"Well," said the divine, "I'm afraid they'll be waiting for me. Ha! ha! This way, isn't it? Fine place you've got here. Very fine! Noble!"

And he disappeared through the double doors that led to the drawing-room, which doors were parted for him by a manikin whose clothes seemed to be held together by new sixpences. During the brief instant of opening, a vivacious murmur of conversation escaped like gas from the drawing-room into the hall.

James glanced about for his bag--it was gone. The gentleman in evening dress was out on the steps. Disheartened by the mysterious annihilation of his old friend the bag, James, weary with too much and too various emotion, went slowly up the grand staircase. In his bedroom the first thing he saw was his bag, which had been opened and its contents suitably bestowed. Thus his hair-brushes were on the dressing-table. This miracle completed his undoing. He sat down on an easy-chair, drew the eider-down off the bed, and put it on his knees, for the temperature was low. He did not intend to go to sleep. But he did go to sleep. It was simply a case of nature recovering from emotions.

He slept about an hour, and then, having brushed his wispish hair, he descended the stairs, determined to do or die. Perhaps he would not have plumped himself straight into the drawing-room had not the manikin clad in sixpences assumed that the drawing-room was his Mecca and thrown open the doors.

A loud "Hush!" greeted him. The splendid chamber was full of women's hats and men's heads; but hats predominated. And the majority of the audience were seated on gilt chairs which James had never before seen. Probably there were four or five score gilt chairs. At the other end of the room the aged rector sat in an easy-chair. Helen herself was perched at the piano, and in front of the piano stood Emanuel Prockter. Except that the room was much larger, and that, instead of a faultless evening dress, Emanuel wore a faultless frock-coat (with the rest of a suit), the scene reminded James of a similar one on the great concertina night at Mrs. Prockter's.

Many things had happened since then. Still, history repeats itself.

"O Love!" exclaimed Emanuel Prockter, adagio and sostenuto, thus diverting from James a hundred glances which James certainly was delighted to lose.

And Helen made the piano say "O Love!" in its fashion.

And presently Emanuel was launched upon the sea of his yearnings, and voyaging behind the hurricane of passion. And, as usual, he hid nothing from his hearers. Then he hove to, and, as it were, climbed to the main-topgallant-sail in order to announce:

"O Love!"

It was not surprising that his voice cracked. Emanuel ought to have been the last person to be surprised at such a phenomenon. But he was surprised. To him the phenomenon of that cracking was sempiternally novel and astounding. It pained and shocked him. He wondered whose the fault could be? And then, according to his habit, he thought of the pianist. Of course, it was the fault of the pianist. And, while continuing to sing, he slowly turned and gazed with sternness at the pianist. The audience must not be allowed to be under any misapprehension as to the identity of the culprit. Unfortunately, Emanuel, wrapped up, like the artist he was, in his performance, had himself forgotten the identity of the culprit. Helen had ceased to be Helen; she was merely his pianist. The thing that he least expected to encounter when gazing sternly at the pianist was the pianist's gaze. He was accustomed to flash his anger on the pianist's back. But Helen, who had seen other pianists at work for Emanuel, turned as he turned, and their eyes met. The collision disorganised Emanuel. He continued to glare with sternness, and he ceased to sing. A contretemps had happened. For the fifth of a second everybody felt exceedingly awkward. Then Helen said, with a faint, cold smile, in a voice very low and very clear:

"What's the matter with you, Mr. Prockter? It wasn't my voice that cracked."

The minx!

There was a half-hearted attempt at the maintenance of the proprieties, and then Wilbraham Hall rang with the laughter of a joke which the next day had become the common precious property of all the Five Towns. When the aged rector had restored his flock to a sense of decency Mr. Emanuel Prockter had vanished. In that laughter his career as a singer reached an abrupt and final conclusion. The concert also came to an end. And the collection, by which the divine always terminated these proceedings, was the largest in the history of the Guild.

A quarter of an hour or twenty minutes later all the guests, members, and patrons of the St. Luke's Guild had left, most of them full of kind inquiries after Mr. Ollerenshaw, the genial host of that so remarkably successful entertainment. The appearances and disappearances of Mr. Ollerenshaw had been a little disturbing. First it had been announced that he was detained in Derby, buying property. Indeed, few persons were unaware that, except for a flying visit in the middle, of two days, to collect his rents, James had spent a fortnight in Derby purchasing sundry portions of Derby. Certainly Helen had not expected him. Nor had she expected Mrs. Prockter, who two days previously had been called away by telegram to the bedside of a sick cousin in Nottingham. Nor had she expected Lilian Swetnam, who was indisposed. The unexpected ladies had not arrived; but James had arrived, as disconcerting as a ghost, and then had faded away with equal strangeness. None of the departing audience had seen even the tassel of his cap.

Helen discovered him in his little room at the end of the hall. She was resplendent in black and silver.

"So here you are, uncle!" said she, and kissed him. "I'm so glad you got back in time. Can you lend me sixpence?"

"What for, lass?"

"I want to give it to the man who's taking away the chairs I had to hire."

"What's become of that seven hundred and seventy pound odd as ye had?"

"Oh," she said, lightly, "I've spent that." She thought she might as well have done with it, and added: "And I'm in debt--lots. But we'll talk about that later. Sixpence, please."

He blenched. But he, too, had been expensive in the pursuit of delight. He, too, had tiresome trifles on his mind. So he produced the sixpence, and accepted the dissipation of nearly eight hundred pounds in less than a month with superb silence.

Helen rang the bell. "You see, I've had all the bells put in order," she said.

The gentleman in evening dress entered.

"Fritz," said she, "give this sixpence to the man with the chairs."

"Yes, miss," Fritz dolefully replied. "A note for you, miss."

And he stretched forth a charger on which was a white envelope.

"Excuse me, uncle," said she, tearing the envelope.

"Dinna' mind me, lass," said he.

The note ran:

"I must see you by the Water to-night at nine o'clock. Don't fail, or there will be a row.--


She crushed it.

"No answer, Fritz," said she. "Tell cook, dinner for two."

"Who's he?" demanded James when Fritz had bowed himself out.

"That's our butler," said Helen, kindly. "Don't you like his eyes?"

"I wouldna' swop him eyes," said James. He could not trust himself to discuss the butler's eyes at length.

"Don't be late for dinner, will you, uncle?" she entreated him.

"Dinner!" he cried. "I had my dinner at Derby. What about my tea?"

"I mean tea," she said.

He went upstairs again to his room, but did not stay there a moment. In the corridor he met Helen, swishing along.

"Look here, lass," he stopped her. "A straight question deserves a straight answer. I'm not given to curiosity as a rule, but what is Emanuel Prockter doing on my bed?"

"Emanuel Prockter on your bed!" Helen repeated, blankly. He saw that she was suffering from genuine surprise.

"On my bed!" he insisted.

The butler appeared, having heard the inquiry from below. He explained that Mr. Prockter, after the song, had come to him and asked where he could lie down, as he was conscious of a tendency to faint. The butler had indicated Mr. Ollerenshaw's room as the only masculine room available.

"Go and ask him how he feels," Helen commanded.

Fritz obeyed, and returned with the message that Mr. Prockter had "one of his attacks," and desired his mother.

"But he can't have his mother," said Helen. "She's at Nottingham. He told me so himself. He must be delirious." And she laughed.

"No, her isn't," James put in. "Her's at wum" (home).

"How do you know, uncle?"

"I know," said James. "Her'd better be sent for."

And she was sent for.

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