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CHAPTER III
The Canipers had lived on the moor for sixteen years, and Rupert was the only one of the children who had more distant memories. These were like flashes of white light on general darkness, for the low house of his memory was white and the broad-leaved trees of the garden cast their shadows on a pale wall: there was a white nursery of unlimited dimensions and a white bath-room with a fluffy mat which comforted the soles of his feet and tickled his toes. Another recollection was of the day when a lady already faintly familiar to him was introduced by an officious nurse as his new mother, and when he looked up at her, with interest in her relationship and admiration for her prettiness, he saw her making herself look very tall and stern as she said clearly, "I am not your mother, Rupert."

"Notya mother," he echoed amiably, and so Mildred Caniper received her name.

As he grew older, he wondered if he really remembered this occasion or whether Notya herself had told him of it, but he knew that the house and the garden wall and the nursery were true. True, too, was a dark man with a pointed beard whom he called his father, who came and went and at last disappeared; and his next remembrance was of the moor, the biggest thing he had ever seen, getting blacker and blacker as the carriage-load of Canipers jogged up the road. The faces of his stepmother, the nursemaid, John and the twins, were like paper lanterns on the background of night, things pale and impermanent, swaying to the movements of the carriage while this black, outspread earth threatened them, and, with the quick sympathy natural to him even then, he knew that Notya was afraid of something too. Then the horse stopped and Rupert climbed stiffly to the ground and heard the welcome of the friend whom he was to know thereafter as Mrs. Brent. Her voice and presence were rich with reassurance: she was fat and hearty, and the threatening earth had spared her, so he took comfort. The laurels by the small iron gate rattled at him as he passed, but Mrs. Brent had each boy by a hand, and no one could be afraid. It was, he remembered, impossible for the three to go through the gate abreast.

"Run in now," said Mrs. Brent, and when he had obeyed he heard a tall grandfather clock ticking in the hall. He could see a staircase running upwards into shadows, and the half-opened doors made him think of the mouths of monsters. It seemed a long time before Mrs. Brent followed him and made a cheerful noise.

With these memories he could always keep the little girls entranced, even when great adventures of their own came to them on the moor, for Notya was a stepmother by her own avowal, and in fairy tales a stepmother was always cruel. They pretended to believe that she had carried them away by force, that some day they would be rescued and taken back to the big white nursery and the fluffy white mat; but Helen at last spoilt the game by asserting that she did not want to be rescued and by refusing to allow Notya to be the villain of the piece.

"She isn't cruel. She's sad," Helen explained.

"Yes, really; but this is pretending," Rupert said.

"It's not pretending. It's true," Miriam said, and she went on with the game though she had to play alone. At the age of twenty she still played it: Notya was still the cruel stepmother and Miriam's eyes were eager on a horizon against which the rescuer should stand. At one time he had been splendid and invincible, a knight to save her, and if his place had now been taken by the unknown Uncle Alfred, it was only that realism had influenced her fiction, and with a due sense of economy she used the materials within her reach.

Domestic being though Helen was, the white nursery had no attraction for her: she was more than satisfied with her many-coloured one; its floor had hills and tiny dales, pools and streams, and it was walled by greater hills and roofed by sky. On it there grew thorn-bushes which thrust out thin hands, begging for food, in winter, and which wore a lady's lovely dress in summertime and a warm red coat for autumn nights. There was bracken, like little walking-sticks in spring, and when the leaves uncurled themselves and spread, they made splendid feathers with which to trim a hat or play at ostrich farms; but, best of all and most fearsome, as the stems shot upwards and overtopped a child, the bracken became a forest through which she hardly dared to walk, so dense and interminable it was. To crawl up and down a fern-covered hillock needed all Helen's resolution and she would emerge panting and wild-eyed, blessing the open country and still watchful for what might follow her. After that experience a mere game of hunters, with John and Rupert roaring like lions and trumpeting like elephants, was a smaller though glorious thing, and for hot and less heroic days there was the game of dairymen, played in the reedy pool or in Halkett's stream with the aid of old milk-cans of many sizes, lent to the Canipers by the lovable Mrs. Brent.

In those days Mrs. Brent furnished them with their ideas of motherhood. She seemed old to them because her husband was long dead and she was stout, but she had a dark-eyed girl no older than John, and her she kissed and nursed, scolded, teased and loved with a joyous confidence which impressed the Canipers. Their stepmother rarely kissed, her reprimands had not the familiarity of scoldings, and though she had a sense of fun which could be reached and used with discretion, there was no feeling of safety in her company. They were too young to realize that this was because she was uncertain of herself, as that puckered mouth revealed. That she loved them they believed; with all the aloofness of their young souls they were thankful that she did not caress them; but they liked to see Lily Brent fondled by her mother, and they themselves suffered Mrs. Brent's endearments with a happy sense of irresponsibility. It was Mrs. Brent who gave them hot cakes when they went to the dairy to fetch butter or eggs, and who sometimes let them skim the milk and eventually lick the ladle, but she was chiefly wonderful because she could tell them about Mr. Pinderwell. Poor Mr. Pinderwell was the late owner of the Canipers' home. He had lived for more than fifty years in the house chosen and furnished for a bride who had softly fallen ill on the eve of her wedding-day and softly died, and Mr. Pinderwell, distracted by his loss, had come to live in the big, lonely house and had grown old and at last died there, in the hall, with no voice to bewail him but the ticking of the grandfather clock. Going on her daily visit, for she alone was permitted to approach him, Mrs. Brent had found him lying with his face on his outflung arm, "just like a little boy in his bed."

"And were you frightened?" Miriam asked.

"There was nothing to be afraid of, my dear," Mrs. Brent replied. "Death comes to all of us. It's a good thing to get used to the look of him."

Mrs. Brent had been fond of Mr. Pinderwell. He was a gentleman, she said, and though his mind had become more and more bewildered towards the end, he had been unfailingly courteous to her. She would find him wandering up and down the stairs, carrying a small basket of tools in his hand, for he took to wood-carving at the last, as the panels of the bedroom doors were witness, and he would stop to speak about the weather and beg her to allow him to make her some return for all her kindness.

"I used to clean up the place for him," Mrs. Brent would always continue, "and do a little cooking for him, poor old chap! I missed him when he'd gone, and I was glad when your mother came and took the house, just as it stood, with his lady's picture and all, and made the place comfortable again."

Miriam would press against Mrs. Brent's wide knees. "Will you tell us the story again, please, Mrs. Brent?"

"If you're good children, but not today. Run along home."

At that stage of their development they were hardly interested in the portrait of Mr. Pinderwell's bride, hanging above the sofa in the drawing-room. It was the only picture in the house, and from an oval frame of gilt a pretty lady, crowned with a plait of hair, looked mildly on these usurpers of her home. She was not real to them, though for Helen she was to become so, but Mr. Pinderwell, pacing up and down the stairs, carrying a little chisel, was a living friend. On the wide, wind-swept landing, they studied his handiwork on the doors, and they made a discovery which Mrs. Brent had missed. These roughnesses, known to their fingers from their first day in the house, were letters, and made names. Laboriously they spelt them out. Jane, on the door of Helen's room, was easy; Ph[oe]be, on Miriam's, was for a long time called Pehebe; and Christopher, on another, had a familiar and adventurous sound.

"Funny," Rupert said. "What are they?"

Helen spoke with that decision which often annoyed her relatives. "I know. It's the names of the children he was going to have. Jane and Pehebe and Christopher. That's what it is. And these were the rooms he'd settled for them. Jane is a quiet little girl with a fringe and a white pinafore, and Pehebe has a sash and cries about things, and Christopher is a strong boy in socks."

"Stockings," Rupert said. "He's the oldest."

"He isn't. He's the baby. He wears socks. He's not so smooth as the others, and look, poor Mr. Pinderwell hadn't time to put a full stop. I'm glad I sleep in Jane."

"And of course you give me a girl who cries!" Miriam said. But the characters of Mr. Pinderwell's children had been settled, and they were never altered. Jane and Christopher and Ph[oe]be were added to the inhabitants whom Mildred Caniper did not see, but these three did not leave the landing. They lived there quietly in the shadows, speaking only in whispers, while Mr. Pinderwell continued his restless tramping and his lady smiled, unwearied, in the drawing-room.

"He's the only one who can get at her and them," Helen said in pain. "I don't know how their mother can bear it. I wonder if she'd mind if we hung her on the landing, but then Mr. Pinderwell might miss her. He's so used to her in the drawing-room, and perhaps she doesn't mind about the children."

"I'm sure she doesn't," said John, for he thought she had a silly face.

This was when John and Rupert went to the Grammar School in the town, while the girls did their lessons with Mildred Caniper in the schoolroom of Pinderwell House. Enviously, they watched the boys step across the moor each morning, but their stepmother could not be persuaded to allow them to go too. The distance was so great, she said, and there was no school for girls to which she would entrust them.

"The boys get all the fun," Miriam said. "They see the people in the streets, and get a ride in Mrs. Brent's milk-cart nearly every day, and we sit in the stuffy schoolroom, and Notya's cross."

"You make her cross on purpose," Helen said.

"She shouldn't let me," Miriam answered with perspicuity.

"But it's so silly to make ugliness. It's wicked. Do be good, and let's try to enjoy the lessons and get them over."

But Miriam was not to be influenced by these wise counsels. During lesson hours the strange antipathy between herself and Mildred Caniper often blazed into a storm, and Helen, who loved to keep life smooth and gracious, had the double mortification of seeing Miriam, whom she loved, made naughtier, and Notya, whom she pitied, made more miserable.

"Oh, that we'd had an ignorant stepmother!" Miriam cried. "If stepmothers are not witches they ought to be dunces. Everybody knows that. I'll worry her till she sends us both to boarding-school."

Mildred Caniper was not to be coerced. Her mouth grew more puckered, her eyes more serious, and her tongue sharper; for though anger, as she found, was useless, sarcasm was potent, and in time Miriam gave up the battle. But she did not intend to forgive Mildred Caniper for a single injury, and even now that she was almost woman she refused her own responsibility. Notya had arranged her life, and the evil of it, at least, should be laid at Notya's door.


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