The Book Lover

Helen with The High Hand by Arnold Bennett

Helen with The High Hand by Arnold Bennett.jpg



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!


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