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CHAPTER IV
For Helen, the moor was a personality with moods flecking the solid substance of its character, and even Miriam, who avowed her hatred of its monotony, had to admit an occasional difference. There were days when she thought it was full of secrets and capable of harbouring her own, and there were other days when she forgot its little hills and dales and hiding-places and saw it as a large plain, spread under the glaring eye of the sun, and shelterless, so that when she walked there she believed that her body and, in some mysterious way, her soul, were visible to all men.

Such a day was that on which Uncle Alfred was expected. Miriam went out with a basket on her arm to find flowers for the decoration of his room, and she had no sooner banged the garden door behind her and mounted the first rise than she suffered from this sensation of walking under a spyglass of great size. There was a wonderful clearness everywhere. The grass and young heather were a vivid green, the blue of the sky had a certain harshness and heavily piled clouds rolled across it. Miriam stood on a hillock and gazed at the scene which looked as though something must happen to it under the concentration of the eye behind the glass, but she saw nothing more than the familiar things: the white road cutting the moor, Brent Farm lying placidly against the gentle hillside, the chimneys of Halkett's Farm rising amid trees, and her own home in its walled garden, and, as she looked, a new thought came to her. Perhaps her expectation was born of a familiarity so intense as to be unreal and rarely recognized, and with the thought she shut her eyes tightly and in despair. Nothing would happen. She did not live in a country subject to convulsions, and when she opened her eyes the same things would still be there; yet, to give Providence an opportunity of proving its strength and her folly, she kept her eyelids lowered for a while. This was another pastime of her childhood: she tried to tempt God, failed, and laughed at Him instead of at herself.

She stood there, clad in a colour of rich earth, her head bare and gilded by the sunlight, both hands on the frail basket, and the white eyelids giving the strange air of experience to her face.

"I'm going to look in a minute," she said, and kept her word. Her dark eyes illumined her face, searched the world and found nothing new. There was, indeed, the smallest possible change, but surely it was not one in which God would trouble to take a hand. She could see John's figure moving slowly on the Brent Farm road. A woman's form appeared in the porch and went to meet his: the two stood together in the road.

Miriam made an impatient noise and turned her back on them. She was irritated by the sight of another woman's power, even though John were its sole victim, for she knew that the world of men had only to become aware of her existence and the track to Pinderwell House would be impassable.

"There's no false modesty about me!" she cried to an astonished sheep, and threw a tuft of heather at it.

Suddenly she lifted her chin and began to sing on notes too high for her, and tunelessly, as sign of her defiance, and the words of her song dealt with the dreariness of the moor and her determination to escape from it; but in the midst of them she laughed delightedly.

"I'm an idiot! Uncle Alfred's coming. But if he fails me"—she kicked the basket and ran after it—"I'll do that to him!"

She sang naturally now, in her low, husky voice, as she searched the banks for violets, but once she broke off to murmur, without humour, with serious belief, "He can't fail me. Who could? No one but Notya." Such was her faith in the word's acknowledgement of charm.

She found the violets, but she would not pick them because they stared at her with a confidence like her own, and with an appealing innocence, and thinking she might get primroses under Halkett's larches she went on swiftly, waving the basket as though it were an Indian club.

She stopped when she met the stream which foamed into the stealthy quiet of the wood, and on a large flat stone she sat and was splashed by the noisy water. The larch-trees were alive with feathery green, and their arms waved with the wind, but when Miriam peered through their trunks, all was grave and secret except the stream which shouted louder than before in proof of courage. She did not like the trees, but the neighbourhood of Halkett's Farm had an attraction for her. Down there, in the hollow, old Halkett was drinking himself to death, after a life which had been sober in no respect. Mrs. Samson, the charwoman, now exerting herself at Pinderwell House, and the wife of one of Halkett's hands, had many tales of the old man's wickedness and many nodded hints that the son was taking after him. The Halketts were all alike, she said. They married young and their wives died early, leaving their men to take comfort, or celebrate relief, in their own way.

"Ah, yes! They're a hearty, jolly lot," she often said, and smacked her lips. She was proud and almost envious of the Halketts' exploits, for her own husband was a meek man who never misused her and seldom drank.

Widely different as Mrs. Samson and Miriam believed themselves to be, they had a common elementary pleasure in things of ill report, a savage excitement in the presence of certain kinds of danger, and Miriam sat half fearfully by the larch-wood and hoped something terrible would happen. If there was a bad old man on the moor it was a pity that she should not benefit by him, yet she dreaded his approach and would have run from him, for he was ugly, with a pendulous nose and a small leering eye. She decided to stay at a safe distance from the house and not to venture among the larches: any primroses growing there should live undisturbed, timid and pale, within earshot of old Halkett's ragings, and Uncle Alfred must go without his flowers. Helen had said he would not like them, but that was only because Helen did not like the thought of Uncle Alfred. Helen did not want new things: she was content: she was not wearied by the slow hours, the routine of the quiet house with its stately, polished furniture, chosen long ago by Mr. Pinderwell, the rumbling of cart-wheels on the road, and the homely sounds of John working in the garden. She belonged, as she herself averred, to people and to places.

"And I," Miriam called aloud, touching her breast—"I belong to nobody, though everything belongs to me."

In that announcement she outcried the stream, and through the comparative quietness that followed a hideous noise rumbled and shrieked upwards from the hollow. Bestial, but humanly inarticulate, it filled the air and ceased: there was the loud thud of furniture overthrown, a woman's voice, and silence. Then, while Miriam's legs shook and her back was chilled, she heard a sweet, clear whistling and the sound of feet. A minute later George Halkett issued from the trees.

"George!" she said, and half put out her hand.

He stood before her, his mouth still pursed for whistling, and jerked his head over his shoulder.

"You heard that?"

"Yes. Oh, yes!"

"I'm sorry."

"It's my fault for being here. Was it—what was it?"

His eyes narrowed and she could see a blue slit between lashes so thick that they seemed furred.

"My father. He's ill. I'm sorry you heard."

"Will he—do it again?"

"He's quiet now and Mrs. Biggs can manage him."

"Isn't she afraid?"

"Not she." His thoughts plainly left old Halkett and settled themselves on her. "Are you?"

"Yes." She shuddered. "But then, I'm not used to it."

He was beating his leggings with his cane. "There's a lot in use," he said vaguely. He was a tall man, and on his tanned face were no signs of the excesses imputed to him, perhaps out of vainglory, by Mrs. Samson. A brown moustache followed the line of a lip which was sometimes pouted sullenly, yet with a simplicity which could be lovable. The hair was short and crisp on his round head.

Miriam watched his shapely hands playing with the cane, and she looked up to find his eyes attentively on her. She smiled without haste. She had a gift for smiling. Her mouth stretched delicately, her lips parted to show a gleam of teeth, opened widely for a flash, and closed again.

"What are you laughing at?" he asked her, and there was a faint glow in his cheeks.

"That wasn't laughing. That was smiling. When I laugh I say ha, ha!"

"Well, you looked pleased about something," he mumbled.

"No, I was just being friendly to you."

He took a step nearer. "That's all very well. Last time I met you you hadn't a look for me, and you saw me right enough."

"Yes, George, I saw you, but I wasn't in the mood for you."

"And now you are?"

She looked down. "Do you like people always to be the same? I don't." Laughter bubbled in her voice. "I get moments, George, when my thoughts are so—so celestial that though I see earthly things like you, I don't understand them. They're like shadows, like trees walking." She pointed a finger. "Tell me where that comes from!"

He looked about him. "What?"

She addressed the stream. "He doesn't know the foundation of the English language, English morals—I said morals, George—the spiritual food of his fathers. Do you ever go to church?"

He did not answer: he was frowning at his boots.

"Neither do I," she said. "Help me up."

His hand shot out, but she did not take it. She leapt to her feet and jumped the stream, and when he said something in a low voice she put her fingers to her ears and shook her head, pretending that she could not hear and smiling pleasantly. Then she beckoned to him, but it was his turn to shake his head.

"Puss, puss, puss!" she called, twitching her finger at him. "Don't laugh! Well, I'll come to you." At his side, she looked up solemnly. "Let us be sensible and go where we needn't shout at each other. Beside that rock. I want to tell you something."

When they had settled themselves on a cushion of turf, she drew her knees to her chin and clasped her hands round them, and in that position she swayed lightly to and fro.

"I think I am going away," she said, and stared at the horizon. For a space she listened to the chirping of a cheerful insect and the small, regular noise of Halkett's breathing, but as he made no other sound she turned sharply and looked at him.

"All right," he said.

She moved impatiently, for that was not what she wished to hear, and, even if it expressed his feeling, it was the wrong word. He had roughnesses which almost persuaded her to neglect him.

"Aren't you sorry?"

There was courage in his decision to be truthful. He showed her the full blue of his eyes, and said "Yes" so simply that she felt compassionate. "Where?" he added.

"I'm going to be adopted by an uncle," she said boldly.

"You'll like that?"

"I'm tired of the moor."

"You don't fit it. I couldn't tire of it, but it'll be—different when you've gone."

She consoled him. "I may not go at once."

"How soon?"

"I don't know."

"Are you really going?" he asked and his look pleaded with her for honesty.

"I shall have to arrange it all with Uncle Alfred."

He straightened himself against the rock, but he said nothing.

"And we're just beginning to be friends," she added sensibly, with the faintest accent of regret.

At that he stirred again, and "No," he said steadily, "that's not true. We're not friends—couldn't be. You think I'm a fool, but I can see you're despising me all the time. I can see that, and I wonder why."

She caught her lip. "Well, George," she began, and thought quickly. "I have heard dreadful stories about you. You can't expect me to be—not to be careful with you."

"What stories?" he demanded.

"Oh! I couldn't tell you."

"H'm. There never was a Halkett but was painted so black that he got to think it was his natural colour. That doesn't matter. And you don't care about the stories. You've some notion—D'you know that I went to the same school as your brothers?"

"Yes, I know." She swung herself to her knees. "But you're not like them. But that isn't it either. It's because you're a man." She laughed a little as she knelt before him. "I can't help feeling that I can—that men are mine—to play with. There! I've told you a secret."

"I'd guessed it long ago," he muttered. He stood up and turned aside. "You're not going to play with me."

"Just a little bit, George!"

"Not a little bit."

"Very well," she said humbly, and rose too. "I may never see you again, so I'll say good-bye."

"Good-bye," he answered, and held her hand.

"And if I don't go away, and if I feel that I don't want to play with you, but just to—well, really to be friends with you, can I be?"

"I don't know," he said slowly. "I don't trust you."

She nodded, teasing her lip again. "Very well," she repeated. "I shall remember. Yes. You're going to be very unhappy, you know."

"Why?" he asked dully.

"For saying that to me."

"But it's the truth."

She shook her little hands at him and spoke loudly. "You seem to think the truth's excuse enough for anything, but you're wrong, George, and if you were worth it, I should hate you."

Then she turned from him, and as he watched her run towards home he wished he had lied to her and risked bewitchment.


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