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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesHelen With The High Hand (2nd Ed.) - Chapter 6. Mrs. Butt's Departure
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Helen With The High Hand (2nd Ed.) - Chapter 6. Mrs. Butt's Departure Post by :howtocorp Category :Long Stories Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :860

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Helen With The High Hand (2nd Ed.) - Chapter 6. Mrs. Butt's Departure

CHAPTER VI. 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 what?"

"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.

A pause.

"Good-afternoon, miss."

"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.

"H'm!"--from James.

"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!"

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