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CHAPTER II
After her return over the moor, through the silent garden and the dim house, Helen was dazzled by the schoolroom lights and she stood blinking in the doorway.

"We're all here and all hungry," Rupert said. "You're late."

"I know." She shut the door and took off her hat. "Miriam, I met Zebedee."

"Oh," Miriam said on a disapproving note. She lay on the sofa as though a wind had flung her there, and her eyes were closed. In her composure she looked tired, older than Helen and more experienced, but her next words came youthfully enough. "Just like you. You get everything."

"I couldn't help it," Helen said mildly. "He came round the corner from Halkett's Farm. Ought I to have run away?"

Miriam sat up and laughed, showing dark eyes and shining little teeth which transformed her face into a childish one.

"Is he different?"

"I couldn't see very well."

"He is different," Rupert said; and John, on the window-seat, put down his book to listen.

"Tell us," Miriam said.

"Nothing much, but he is older."

"So are we."

"Not in his way."

"We haven't had the chance," Miriam complained. "I suppose you mean he has been doing things he ought not to do in London."

"Not necessarily," Rupert answered lightly and John picked up his book again. He generally found that his excursions into the affairs of men and women were dull and fruitless, while his book, on the subject of manures, satisfied his intellect and was useful in its results.

There was a silence in which both girls, though differently, were conscious of a dislike for Zebedee's unknown adventures.

Miriam laid her head on the red cushion. "I wish tomorrow would come."

"I bought turbot," Helen said. "I should think he's the kind of man who likes it."

"I suggest delicate sauces," Rupert said.

"You needn't be at all anxious about his food," Miriam assured them. "I'm going to be the attraction of this visit."

"How d'you know?"

Her teeth caught her under-lip. "Because I mean to be."

"Well, don't make a fool of yourself, my dear."

"She will," John growled.

Helen spoke quickly. "Oh, Miriam, I told Zebedee about Dr. Mackenzie's ties, and, do you know, he never wore any at all!"

"Old pig! He wouldn't. Mean. Scotch. We might have thought of that. If Daniel had a beard he would be just the same."

"It may surprise you to learn," Rupert remarked, "that Daniel takes a great interest in his appearance lately."

"That's me again," Miriam said complacently.

"Ugly people are rather like that," Helen said. "But he wears terrible boots."

"He's still at the collar-and-tie stage," Rupert said. "We'll get to boots later. He needs encouragement—and control. A great deal of control. He had a bright blue tie on yesterday."

"Ha!" Miriam shouted in a strangled laugh, and thrust her face into the cushion. "That's me, too!" she cried. "I told him blue would suit him."

Rupert wagged his head. "I can't see the fun in that kind of thing, making a fool of the poor beggar."

"Well," she flashed, "he shouldn't ask me to marry him!"

"You'd complain if he didn't."

"Of course I should—of course! I'm so dull that I'm really grateful to him, but I'm so dull that I have to tease him, too. It's only clutching at straws, and Daniel likes it."

"He's wasted half a crown on his tie, though. I'm going to tell him that you're not to be trusted."

"Then I shall devote myself to Zebedee."

"You won't influence Zebedee's ties," Helen said, "or his collars—the shiniest ones I have ever seen."

"She won't influence him at all, my good Helen. What's she got to do it with?"

"This!" Miriam said, rising superbly and displaying herself.

"Shut her up, somebody!" John begged. "This is beastly. Has she nothing better to do with herself than attracting men? If you met a woman who made that her profession instead of her play, you'd pass by on the other side."

Miriam flushed, frowned, and recovered herself. "I might. I don't think so. I can't see any harm in pleasing people. If I were clever and frightened them, or witty and made them laugh, it would be just the same. I happen to be beautiful." She spread her hands and waved them. "Tell birds not to fly, tell lambs not to skip, tell me to sit and darn the socks!" She stood on the fender and looked at herself in the glass. "Besides," she said, "I don't care. I'm not responsible. If Notya hadn't buried us all here, I might have been living a useful life!" She cast a sly glance at John. "I might be making butter like Lily Brent."

"Not half so good!"

She ignored that, and went on with her thoughts. "I shall ask Uncle Alfred what made Notya bring us here."

She turned and stood, very slim in her dark dress, her eyelids lowered, her lips parted, expectant of reproof and ready with defiance, but no one spoke. She constantly forgot that her family knew her, but, remembering that fact, her tilted eyebrows twitched a little. Her face broke into mischievous curves and dimples.

"What d'you bet?"

"No," Helen said, thinking of her stepmother. "Notya wouldn't like it."

"Bah! Pish! Faugh! Pshaw—and ugh! What do I care? I shall!"

"Oh, a rotten thing to do," said John.

"And, anyhow, it doesn't matter," Helen said. "We're here."

"Rupert?" Miriam begged.

"Better not," he answered kindly. "Not worth while." He lay back in a big chair and watched the world through his tobacco smoke. He had all Miriam's darkness and much of her beauty, but he had already acquired a tolerant view of things which made him the best of companions, the least ambitious of young men. "Live and let live, my dear."

"I shan't promise. I suppose I'm not up to your standards of honour, but if a person makes a mystery, why shouldn't the others try to find it out? That's what it's for! And there's nothing else to do."

"You're inventing the mystery," Rupert said. "If Notya and our absent parent didn't get on together—and who could get on with a man who's always ill?—they were wise in parting, weren't they?"

"But why the moor?"

"Ah, I think that was a sudden impulse, and she has always been too proud to own that it was a mistake."

"That's the first sensible thing any one has said yet," John remarked. "I quite agree with you. It's my own idea."

"I'm a young man of penetration, as I've told you all before."

"And shoved into a bank!" John grumbled.

"I like the bank. It's a cheerful place. There's lots of gold about, and people come and talk to me through the bars."

"But," Helen began, on the deep notes of her voice, "what should we have done if she had repented and taken us away? What should we have done?"

"We might have been happy," Miriam said.

"John, what would you have done?" Helen persisted.

"Said nothing, grown up as fast as I could, and come back."

"So should I."

Rupert chuckled. "You wouldn't, Helen. You'd have stayed with Notya and Miriam and me and looked after us all, and longed for this place and denied yourself."

"And made us all uncomfortable." Miriam pointed at Helen's grey dress. "What have you been doing?"

Helen looked down at the dark marks where her knees had pressed the ground.

"It will dry," she said, and went nearer the fire. "Zebedee says old Halkett's ill."

"Drink and the devil," Rupert hummed. "He'll die soon."

"Hope so," John said fervently. "I don't like to think of the bloated old beast alive."

"He'll be horrider dead, I think," said Helen. "Dead things should be beautiful."

"Well, he won't be. Moreover, nothing is, for long. You've seen sheep's carcasses after the snows. Don't be romantic."

"I said they should be."

"It's a good thing they're not. They wouldn't fertilize the ground. Can't we have supper?"

"Here's Notya!" Miriam uttered the warning, and began to poke the fire.

The room was entered by a small lady who carried her head well. She had fair, curling hair, serious blue eyes and a mouth which had been puckered into a kind of sternness.

"So you have come back, Helen," she said. "You should have told me. I have been to the road to look for you. You are very late."

"Yes. I'm sorry. I met Dr. Mackenzie."

"He ought to have brought you home."

"He wanted to. I got turbot for Uncle Alfred. It's on the kitchen table."

"Then I expect the cat has eaten it," said Mrs. Caniper with resignation, but her mouth widened delightfully into what might have been its natural shape. "Miriam, go and put it in the larder."

Surreptitiously and in farewell, Miriam dropped the poker on Helen's toes. "Why can't she send you?" she muttered. "It's your turbot."

"But it's your cat."

Wearing what the Canipers called her deaf expression, their stepmother looked at the closing door. "I did not hear what Miriam said," she remarked blandly.

"She was talking to me."

"Oh!" Mrs. Caniper flushed slowly. "It is discourteous to have private conversations in public, Helen. I have tried to impress that on you—unsuccessfully, it seems; but remember that I have tried."

"Yes, thank you," Helen said, with serious politeness. She made a movement unnatural to her in its violence, because she was forcing herself to speak. "But you don't mind if the boys do things like that." She hesitated and plunged again. "It's Miriam. You're not fair to her. You never have been."

Over Mrs. Caniper's small face there swept changes of expression which Helen was not to forget. Anger and surprise contended together, widening her eyes and lips, and these were both overcome, after a struggle, by a revelation of self-pity not less amazing to the woman than to the girl.

"Has she ever been fair to me?" Mildred Caniper asked stumblingly, before she went in haste, and Helen knew well why she fumbled for the door-handle.

The acute silence of the unhappy filled the room: John rose, collided clumsily with the table and approached the hearth.

"Now, what did you do that for?" he said. "I can't stomach these family affairs."

Helen smoothed her forehead and subdued the tragedy in her eyes. "I had to do it," she breathed. "It was true, wasn't it?" She looked at Rupert, but he was looking at the fire.

"True, yes," said John, "but it does Miriam no harm. A little opposition—"

"No," said Helen, "no. We don't want to drive her to—to being silly."

"She is silly," John said.

"No," Helen said again. "She ought not to live here, that's all."

"She'll have to learn to. Anyhow"—he put his hands into his pockets—"we can't have Notya looking like that. It's—it won't do."

"It's quite easy not to hurt people," Helen murmured; "but you had to hurt her yourself, John, about your gardening."

"That was different," he said. He was a masculine creature. "I was fighting for existence."

"Miriam has an existence, too, you know," Rupert said.

From the other side of the hall there came a faint chink of plates and Miriam's low voice singing.

"She's all right," John assured himself.

Helen was smiling tenderly at the sound. "But I wonder why Notya is so hard on her," she sighed.

Rupert knocked his pipe against the fender. "I should be very glad to know what our mother was like," he said.

Long ago, out of excess of loyalty, the Canipers had tacitly agreed not to discuss those matters on which their stepmother was determinedly reserved, and now a certain tightening of the atmosphere revealed the fact that John and Helen were controlling their desires to ask Rupert what he meant.


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