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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » Moor Fires » CHAPTER I
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In the dusk of a spring evening, Helen Caniper walked on the long road from the town. Making nothing of the laden basket she carried, she went quickly until she drew level with the high fir-wood which stood like a barrier against any encroachment on the moor, then she looked back and saw lights darting out to mark the streets she had left behind, as though a fairy hand illuminated a giant Christmas-tree.

Among the other trees, black and mysterious on the hill, a cold wind was moaning. "It's the night wind," Helen murmured. The moor was inhabited by many winds, and she knew them all, and it was only the night wind that cried among the trees, for, fearless though it seemed, it had a dread of the hours that made it. The fir-trees, their bare trunks like a palisade, swayed gently, and Helen's skirts flapped about her ankles. More lights glimmered in the town, and she turned towards home.

The moor stretched now on either hand until it touched a sky from which all the colour had not departed, and the road shone whitely, pale but courageous as it kept its lonely path. Helen's feet tapped clearly as she hurried on, and when she approached the road to Halkett's Farm, the sound of her going was mingled with that of hoofs, and an old horse, drawing a dog-cart, laboured round the corner. It was the horse Dr. Mackenzie had always driven up the long road; it was now driven by his son, and when he saw that some one motioned him to stop, the young doctor drew up. He bent forward to see her.

"It's Helen," he said. "Oh, Helen, how are you?"

She stood by the step and looked up at him. "I'm very well. I'm glad you knew me. It's three years."

"And your hair is up."

"Miriam and I are twenty," she said gravely, and he laughed.

The horse shook himself and set the dog-cart swaying; the jingle of his bit went adventurously across the moor; heather-stalks scratched each other in the wind.

"You haven't lighted your lamps," Helen said. "Somebody might run into you."

"They might." He jumped down and fumbled for his matches. "The comfort is that we're not likely to do it to any one, at our pace. When I've made my fortune I shall buy a horse from George Halkett, one that will go fast and far."

"But I like this one," said Helen. "We used to watch for him when we had measles. He's mixed up with everything. Don't have another one."

"The fortune's still to make," he said. He had lighted the nearer lamp and Helen's slim figure had become a thing of shadows. He took the basket from her and put it under the seat. She was staring over the horse's back.

"There was a thing we used to do. We had bets about Dr. Mackenzie's ties, what colour they were; but we never won or lost, because we never saw them. His beard was so big. And once Miriam pretended there was a huge spider on the ceiling, but he wouldn't look up, though she screamed. He told her not to be a silly little girl. So we never saw them."

"I'm not surprised," the young doctor said. "He didn't wear them. What was the use? He was a practical man."

"Oh," Helen cried, "isn't that just like life! You bother and bother about something that doesn't exist and make yourself miserable for nothing. No, I won't do it."

"Do you?"

"It's a great fault of mine," she said.

He went round the back of the cart and lighted the other lamp. "Now I'm going to drive you home. That basket's heavy."

"I have been shopping," she explained. "Tomorrow a visitor is coming."

"Your father?" he asked quickly.

"No; he hasn't been again. He's ill, Notya says, and it's too cold for him here. Dr. Zebedee, aren't you glad to be back on the moor?"

"Well, I don't see much of it, you know. My work is chiefly in the streets—but, yes, I think I'm glad."

"We've been watching for you, Miriam and I. She'll be angry that I've seen you first. No; she's thinking too much about tomorrow. It's an uncle who's coming, a kind of uncle—Notya's brother. We haven't seen him before and Miriam's excited."

"And you're not."

"I don't like new things. They feel dangerous. You don't know what they'll bring."

"I thought you weren't going to make yourself miserable," he said. "Jump up, and we'll take home the fatted calf."

She hesitated. "I'm not going straight home."

"Let me deliver the calf, then."

"No, please; it isn't heavy." She went to the horse's head and stroked his nose. "I've never known his name. What is it?"

"Upon my word, I don't believe he has one. He's just the horse. That's what we always called him."

"'The horse'! How dreary! It makes him not a person."

"But the one and only horse!"

"I don't suppose he minds very much," she murmured. "Good-night, horse. Good-night, Zebedee. My basket, please. I'm very late."

"I wish you'd let me take you home. You oughtn't to go wandering over the moor by night."

She laughed. "I've done it all my life. Do you remember," she went on slowly, "what I once told you about the fires? Oh, years ago, when I first saw you."

"The fires?" he said.

"Never mind if you've forgotten."

"I don't forget things," he said; "I'm remembering." His mind was urged by his sense of her disappointment and by the sight of her face, which the shadows saddened. The basket hung on her arm and her hands were clasped together: she looked like a child and he could not believe in her twenty years.

"It doesn't matter," she said softly.

"But I do remember. It's the spring fires."

"The Easter fires."

"Of course, of course, you told me—"

"I think they must be burning now. That's where I'm going—to look for them."

"I wish I could come too."

"Do you? Do you? Oh!" She made a step towards him. "The others never come. They laugh but I still go on. It's safer, isn't it? It can't do any harm to pray. And now that Uncle Alfred's coming—"

"Is he a desperate character?"

She made a gesture with her clasped hands. "It's like opening a door."

"You mustn't be afraid of open doors," he said—"you, who live on the moor." He grasped her shoulder in a friendly fashion. "You mustn't be afraid of anything. Go and find your fires, and don't forget to pray for me."

"Of course not. Good-night. Will you be coming again soon?"

"Old Halkett's pretty ill," was his reply and, climbing to his seat, he waved his hat and bade the old horse move on.

The moor lay dark as a lake at Helen's feet and the rustling of the heather might have been the sound of water fretted by the wind—deep, black water whose depths no wind could stir. At Helen's right hand a different darkness was made by the larch-trees clothing Halkett's hollow, and on her left a yellow gleam, like the light at the masthead of a ship at sea, betrayed her home. Behind her, and on the other side of the road, the Brent Farm dogs began to bark, and in the next instant they were answered from many points of the moor, so that houses and farmsteads became materialized in the night which had hidden them and Helen stood in a circle of echoing sound. Often, as a child, she had waked at such a clamour, and pictured homeless people walking on the road, and now, though she heard no footsteps, she seemed to feel the approach of noiseless feet, bringing the unknown. For her, youth's delights of strength and fleetness were paid for by the thought of the many years in which her happiness could be assailed. Age might be feeble, but it had, she considered, the consolation of knowing something of the limitations of its pain. She wished she could put an unscalable wall about the moor, so that the soundless feet should stay outside, for she did not know that already she had heard the footsteps of those whose actions were weaving her destiny. Helen Caniper might safely throw open all her doors.

The barking of the dogs lessened and then ceased; once more only the whistling of the wind broke the silence, until Helen's skirts rubbed the heather as she ran and something jingled in her basket. She went fast to find her fires and, while her mind was fixed on them, she was still aware of the vast moor she loved, its darkness, its silence, the smells it gave out, the promise of warmth and fertility in its bosom. She could not clearly see the ground, but her feet knew it: heather, grass, stones, and young bracken were to be overcome; here and there a rock or thorn-bush loomed out blacker than the rest in warning; sometimes a dip in the earth must be avoided; once or twice dim grey objects rose up and became sheep that bleated out of her way, and always, as she ran, she mounted. For a time she was level with the walled garden of her home, but, passing its limit, she topped a sudden steepness, descended it with a rush, and lost all glimmerings from road or dwelling-place.

A greenish sky, threatening to turn black, delicately roofed the world; no stars had yet come through, and, far away, as though in search of them, the moor rose to a line of hills. Their rounded tops had no defiance, their curve was that of a wave without the desire to break, held in its perfect contour by its own content. The moor itself had the patience of the wisdom which is faith, and Helen might have heard it laughing tenderly if she had been less concerned with the discovery of her fires. She stood still, and her eyes found only the moor, the rocks and hills.

"I must go on," she said in a whisper. And now, for pleasure in her strength, she went in running bounds over a stretch of close-cropped turf, and space became so changed for her that she hardly knew whether she leapt a league or foot; and it was all one, for she had a feeling of great power and happiness in a world which was empty without loneliness. And then a creeping line of fire arrested her. Not far off, it went snake-like over the ground, disappeared, and again burned out more brightly: it edged the pale smoke like embroidery on a veil, and behind that veil there lived and moved the smoke-god she had created for herself when she was ten years old. She could not hear the crackling of the twigs nor smell their burning, and she had no wish to draw nearer. She stretched out her arms and dropped to her knees and prayed.

"Oh, Thou, behind the smoke," she said aloud, "guard the moor and us. We will not harm your moor. Amen."

This was the eleventh time she had prayed to the God behind the smoke, and he had guarded both the Canipers and the moor, but now she felt the need to add more words to the childish ones she had never changed.

"And let me be afraid of nothing," she said firmly, and hesitated for a second. "For beauty's sake. Amen."


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