Read CHAPTER XXV - GIRLISH CONFIDENCES of Helen with the High Hand, free online book, by Arnold Bennett, on ReadCentral.com.

One afternoon Sarah Swetnam called, and Helen in person opened the great door to the visitor.

“I saw that frock in Brunt’s three days ago,” Helen began, kissing the tall, tightbound, large-boned woman.

“I know you did, Nell,” Sarah admitted.  “But you needn’t tell me so.  Don’t you like it?”

“I think it’s a dream,” Helen replied, quickly.  “Turn round.”  But there was a certain lack of conviction in her voice, and in Sarah’s manner there was something strained.  Accordingly, they both became extravagantly effusive-or, at any rate, more effusive than usual, though each was well aware that the artifice was entirely futile.

“All alone?” Sarah asked, when she had recovered from the first shock of the hall’s magnificence.

“Yes,” said Helen.  “It’s Georgiana’s afternoon out, and uncle’s away, and I haven’t got any new servants yet.”

“Mr. Ollerenshaw away!  No one ever heard of such a thing!  If you knew him as well as we do, you’d have fainted with surprise.  It ought to be in the paper.  Where’s he gone to?”

“He’s gone to Derby, to try to buy some property that he says is going very cheap there.  He’s been gone three days now.  He got a letter at breakfast, and said he must go to Derby at once.  However, he had to finish his rents.  The trouble is that his rents never are finished, and I’m bothered all the time by people coming with three and sixpence, or four shillings, and a dirty rent-book!  Oh! and the dirt on the coins!  My dear, you can’t imagine!  There’s one good thing.  He will have to come back for next week’s rents.  Not that I’m sorry he’s gone.  It gives me a chance, you see.  By the time he returns I shall have my servants in.”

“Do tell me what servants you’re going to have?”

“Well, I went to that agency at Oldcastle.  I’ve got a German butler.  He speaks four languages, and has beautiful eyes.”

“A German butler!”

If it had been a German prince Sarah could not have been more startled nor more delighted.

“Yes, and a cook, and two other maids; and a gardener and a boy.  I shall keep Georgiana as my own maid.”

“My child, you’re going it!”

“My child, I came here to go it.”

“And-and Mr. Ollerenshaw is really pleased?”

Helen laughed.  “Uncle never goes into raptures, you know.  But I hope he will be pleased.  The fact is, he doesn’t know anything about these new servants yet.  He’ll find them installed when he returns.  It will be a little treat for him.  My piano came this morning.  Care to try it?”

“Rather!” said Sarah.  “Well, I never saw anything like it!” This was in reference to her first glimpse of the great drawing-room.  “How you’ve improved it, you dear thing!”

“You see, I have my own cheque-book; it saves worry.”

“I see!” said Sarah, meaningly, putting her purse on the piano, her umbrella on a chair, and herself on the music-stool.

“Shall we have tea?” Helen suggested, after Sarah had performed on the Bechstein.

“Yes.  Let me help you, do, dearest.”

They wandered off to the kitchens, and while they were seated at the kitchen-table, sipping tea, side by side, Sarah said: 

“Now if you want an idea, I’ve got a really good one for you.”

“For me?  What sort of an idea?”

“I’ll tell you.  You know Mrs. Wiltshire is dead.”

“I don’t.  I didn’t even know there was a Mrs. Wiltshire.”

“Well, there was, and there isn’t any longer.  Mrs. Wiltshire was the main social prop of the old rector.  And the annual concert of the St. Luke’s Guild has always been held at her house, down at Shawport, you know.  Awfully poky!  But it was the custom since the Flood, and no one ever dared to hint at a change.  Now the concert was to have been next week but one, and she’s just gone and died, and the rector is wondering where he can hold it.  I met him this morning.  Why don’t you let him hold it here?  That would be a splendid way of opening your house-Hall, I beg its pardon.  And you could introduce the beautiful eyes of your German butler to the entire neighbourhood.  Of course, I don’t know whether Mr. Ollerenshaw would like it.”

“Oh!” said Helen, without blenching, “uncle would do as I wish.”

She mused, in silence, during a number of seconds.

“The idea doesn’t appeal to you?” Sarah queried, disappointment in her tones.

“Yes, it does,” said Helen.  “But I must think it over.  Now, would you care to see the rest of the house?”

“I should love to.  Oh dear, I’ve left my handkerchief with my purse in the drawing-room.”

“Have mine!” said Helen, promptly.

But even after this final proof of intimate friendship, there still remained an obstinate trifle of insincerity in their relations that afternoon.  Helen was sure that Sarah Swetnam had paid the call specially to say something, and that the something had not yet been said.  And the apprehension of an impending scene gradually took possession of her nerves and disarranged them.  When they reached the attics, and were enjoying the glorious views of the moorland in the distance and of Wilbraham Water in the immediate foreground, Helen said, very suddenly: 

“Will the rector be in this afternoon?”

“I should say so.  Why?”

“I was thinking we might walk down there together, and I could suggest to him at once about having the concert here.”

Sarah clapped her hands.  “Then you’ve decided?”

“Certainly.”

“How funny you are, Nell, with your decisions!”

In Helen’s bedroom, amid her wardrobe, there was no chance of dangerous topics, the attention being monopolised by one subject, and that a safe one.

At last they went out together, two models of style and deportment, and Helen pulled to the great front door with a loud echoing clang.

“Fancy that place being all empty.  Aren’t you afraid of sleeping there while your uncle is away?”

“No,” said Helen.  “But I should be afraid if Georgiana wasn’t afraid.”

After this example of courageous introspection, a silence fell upon the pair; the silence held firm while they got out of the grounds and crossed Oldcastle-road, and took to the Alls field-path, from which a unique panorama of Bursley-chimneys, kilns, canals, railways, and smoke-pall-is to be obtained.  Helen was determined not to break the silence.  And then came the moment when Sarah Swetnam could no longer suffer the silence; and she began, very cautiously: 

“I suppose you’ve heard all about Andrew and Emanuel Prockter?”

Helen perceived that she had not been mistaken, and that the scene was at hand.  “No,” said she.  “What about them?”

“You don’t mean to say you’ve not heard?”

“No.  What about?”

“The quarrel between those two?”

“Emanuel and Mr. Dean?”

“Yes.  But you must have heard?”

“I assure you, Sally, no one has told me a word about it.” (Which was just as true as it was untrue.)

“But they quarrelled up here.  I did hear that Andrew threw Emanuel into your lake.”

“Who told you that?”

“It was Mrs. Prockter.  She was calling on the mater yesterday, and she seemed to be full of it-according to the mater’s account.  Mrs. Prockters’ idea was that they had quarrelled about a woman.”

("Mrs. Prockter shall be repaid for this,” said Helen to herself.)

“Surely Emanuel hasn’t been falling in love with Lilian, has he?” said Helen, aloud.  She considered this rather clever on her part.  And it was.

“Oh, no!” replied Sally, positively.  “It’s not Lilian.”  And there was that in her tone which could not be expressed in ten volumes.  “You know perfectly well who the woman is,” Helen seemed to hear her say.

Then Helen said:  “I think I can explain it.  They were both at our house the day we removed.”

“Oh, were they?” murmured Sarah, in well-acted surprise.

“And Mr. Dean fell off some steps that Emanuel was supposed to be holding.  I thought he was furious-but not to that point.  That’s probably the secret of the whole thing.  As for Mr. Dean having pushed Emanuel into the lake, I don’t believe a word of it.”

“Then how was it that Emanuel had a cold and had to stay in bed?”

“My dear, to have a cold it isn’t necessary to have been thrown into Wilbraham Water!”

“That’s true,” Sarah admitted.

“However,” Helen calmly proceeded, “I’ll find out all about it and let you know.”

“How shall you find out?”

“I shall make Emanuel tell me.  He will tell me anything.  And he’s a dear boy.”

“Do you see him often up here?” Sarah inquired.

“Oh, yes!” This was not true.  “We get on together excellently.  And I’m pretty sure that Emanuel is not-well-interested in any other woman.  That’s why I should say that they have not been quarrelling about a woman.  Unless, of course, the woman is myself.”  She laughed, and added:  “But I’m not jealous.  I can trust Emanuel.”

And with marvellous intrepidity she looked Sarah Swetnam in the face.

“Then,” Sarah stammered, “you and Emanuel-you don’t mean -”

“My dear Sally, don’t you think Emanuel is a perfectly delightful boy?”

“Oh, yes!” said Sarah.

“So do I,” said Helen.

“But are you -”

“Between ourselves,” Helen murmured.  “Mind you, between ourselves-I could imagine stranger things happening.”

“Well,” said Sarah, “this is news.”

“Mind, not a syllable!”

“Oh, of course not.”

“By the way,” Helen asked, “when are Andrew and Lilian going to get married?”

“I don’t know.  No one knows.  One confidence for another, my dear; they don’t always hit it off.”

“What a pity!” Helen remarked.  “Because if ever two people were suited to each other in this world, they are.  But I hope they’ll shake down.”

They arrived at the rector’s.