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CHAPTER V
The efforts of Mildred Caniper, Helen and Mrs. Samson produced a brighter polish on floors and furniture, a richer brilliance from brass, a whiter gleam from silver, in a house which was already irreproachable, and the smell of cleanliness was overcome by that of wood fires in the sitting-rooms and in Christopher where Uncle Alfred was to sleep. A bowl of primroses, brought by John from Lily Brent's garden and as yellow as her butter, stood on a table near the visitor's bed: the firelight cast shadows on the white counterpane, a new rug was awaiting Uncle Alfred's feet. In the dining-room, the table was spread with the best cloth and the candles were ready to be lighted.

"When we see the trap," Miriam said, "I'll go round with a taper. And we'd better light the lamp in the kitchen passage or Uncle Alfred may trip over something when he hangs up his coat."

"There won't be anything for him to trip over," Helen said.

"How do you know? It's just the sort of accident that happens to families that want to make a good impression. We'd better do it. Where are the steps?"

"The lamp hasn't been trimmed for months, and we can't have a smell of oil. Leave it alone. The hall is so beautifully dim. Rupert must take his coat and hang it up for him."

"Very well," Miriam said resignedly; "but if Notya or John had suggested the lamp, you would have jumped at it."

"No, I should have fetched the steps."

"Oh, funny, funny! Now I'm going to dress."

"There are two hours."

"It will take me as long as that. What shall I wear? Black or red? It's important, Helen. Tell me."

"Black is safer."

"Yes, if only I had pearls. I should look lovely in black and pearls."

"Pearls," Helen said slowly, "would suit me."

"You're better without them."

"I shall never have them."

"When I've a lot of money I'll give you some."

"Thank you," Helen said.

"Because," Miriam called out when she was half way up the stairs, "I'm going to marry a rich man."

"It would be wise," Helen answered, and went to the open door.

She could hear Notya moving in her bedroom, and she wondered how a sister must feel at the approach of a brother she had not seen for many years. She knew that if she should ever be parted from John or Rupert there would be no shyness at their meeting and no effusion: things would be just as they had been, for she was certain of an affection based on understanding, and now the thought of her brothers kept her warm in spite of the daunting coldness of the light lying on the moor and the fact that doors were opening to a stranger.

She checked a little sigh and stepped on to the gravel path, rounded the house and crossed the garden to find John locking up the hen-house for the night. He glanced at her but did not speak, and she stood with her hands clasped before her and watched the swaying of the poplars. The leaves were spreading and soon they would begin their incessant whispering while they peeped through the windows of the house to see what the Canipers were doing.

"They know all our secrets," she said aloud.

John dropped the key into his pocket. "Have we any?"

"Perhaps not. I should have said our fears."

"Our hopes," he said stubbornly.

"I haven't many of those," she told him and, to hide her trouble, she put the fingers of both hands to her forehead.

"What's the matter with you? You sound pretty morbid."

"No, I'm only—careful. John, are you afraid of life?"

His eyes fell on the rows of springing vegetables. "Look at 'em coming up," he murmured. "Rather not. I couldn't grow things." He gathered up his tools and put them in the shed.

"You see," she said, "one never knows what's going to happen, but it's no good worrying, and I suppose one must just go on."

"It's the only thing to do," John assured her gravely. "Have you made yourself beautiful for the uncle?"

She pointed to an upper window smeared with light. "I have left that to Miriam, but I must go and put on my best frock."

"You always look all right," he said. "I suppose it's because your hair's so smooth."

"No," she answered, and laughed with her transforming gaiety, "it's just because I'm mediocre and don't get noticed."

He hesitated and decided to be bold. "I'll tell you something, as you're so down in the mouth. Rupert thinks you're better looking than Miriam. There! Go and look at yourself." He waved her off, and the questions fell from her lips unuttered.

She lighted a candle and went upstairs, but when she had passed into the dark peace of Jane and put the candle on her dressing-table, she found she needed more illumination by which to see this face which Rupert considered fair.

"Miriam will have heaps of them," she said and knocked at Ph[oe]be's door.

"I've come to borrow a candle," she said as she was told to enter, and added, "Oh, what waste! I hope Notya won't come in."

"She can't unless I let her," Miriam answered grimly.

There were lights on the mantelpiece, on the dressing-table, on the washstand, and two in tall sticks burned before the cheval glass as though it had been an altar.

"You can take one of them," Miriam said airily.

The warm whiteness of her skin gleamed against her under-linen like a pale fruit fallen by chance on frozen snow: her hair was held up by the white comb she had been using, and this stood out at an impetuous angle. She went nearer to the mirror.

"I've been thinking," she said, "what a lovely woman my mother must have been. Do you think I look like a Spanish dancer? Now, don't tell me you've never seen one. Take your candle and go away."

Helen obeyed and shut both doors quietly. She put the second candle beside the first and studied her pale face. She was not beautiful, and Rupert was absurd. She was colourless and rather dull, and to compare her with the radiant being in the other room was to hold a stable lantern to a star.

She turned from her contemplation and, changing grey dress for grey dressing-gown, she brushed her long, straight hair. Ten minutes later she left the room and went about the house to see that all was ready for the guest.

She put coal on the fire in Christopher and left the door ajar so that the flames might cast warm light on the landing: she took a towel from the rail and changed it for another finer one; then she went quietly down the stairs, with a smile for Mr. Pinderwell, and fancied she smelt the spring through the open windows. The hall had a dimness which hid and revealed the rich mahogany of the clock and cupboard and the table from which more primroses sent up a memory of moonlight and a fragrance which was no sooner seized than lost. She could hear Mrs. Samson in the kitchen as she watched over the turbot, and from the schoolroom there came the scraping of a chair. John had dressed as quickly as herself.

In the dining-room she found her stepmother standing by the fire.

"Oh, you look sweet!" Helen exclaimed. "I love you in that dark blue."

"I think I'll wait in the drawing-room," Mildred Caniper said, and went away.

Once more, Helen wandered to the doorway; she always sought the open when she was unhappy and, as she looked over the gathering darkness, she tried not to remember the tone of Notya's words.

"It's like pushing me off a wall I'm trying to climb," she thought, "but I mean to climb it." And for the second time within an hour, she gave tongue to her sustaining maxim: "I must just go on."

She hoped Uncle Alfred was not expectant of affection.

Night was coming down. The road was hardly separable from the moor, and it was the Brent Farm dogs which warned her of the visitor's approach. Two yellow dots slowly swelled into carriage lamps, and the rolling of wheels and the thud of hoofs were faintly heard. She went quickly to the schoolroom.

"John, the trap's coming."

"Well, what d'you want me to do about it? Stop it?"

"I wish you could."

"Now, don't get fussy."

"I'm not."

"Not get fussy?"

"Not getting fussy."

"That's better. If your grammar's all right the nerves must be in order."

"You're stupid, John. I only want some one to support me—on the step."

"Need we stand there? Rupert's with him. Won't that do?"

"No, I think we ought to say how-d'you-do, here, and then pass him on to Notya in the drawing-room."

"Very good. Stand firm. But they'll be hours rolling up the track. What the devil do we want with an uncle? The last time we stood like this was when our revered father paid us a call. Five years ago—six?"

"Six."

"H'm. If I ever have any children—Where's Miriam? I suppose she's going to make a dramatic entry when she's sure she can't be missed."

"I hope so," Helen said. "The first sight of Miriam—"

"You're ridiculous. She's no more attractive than any other girl, and it's this admiration that's been her undoing."

"Is she undone?"

"She's useless."

"Like a flower."

"No, she has a tongue."

"Oh, John, you're getting bad-tempered."

"I'm getting tired of this damned step."

"You swear rather a lot," she said mildly. "They're on the track. Oh, Rupert's talking. Isn't it a comfortable sound?"

A few minutes later, she held open the gate and, all unaware of the beauty of her manners, she welcomed a small, neat man who wore an eyeglass. John took possession of him and led him into the hall and Helen waited for Rupert, who followed with the bag. She could see that his eyebrows were lifted comically.

"Well?" she asked.

"Awful. I know he isn't dumb because I've heard him speak, nor deaf because he noticed that the horse had a loose shoe, but that's all I can tell you, my dear. I talked—I had to talk. You can't sit in the dark for miles with some one you don't know and say nothing, but I've been sweating blood." He put the bag down and leaned against the gate. "That man," he said emphatically, "is a mining engineer. He—oh, good-night, Gibbons—he's been all over the globe, so Notya tells us. You'd think he might have picked up a little small talk as well as a fortune, but no. If he's picked it up, he's jolly careful with it. I tell you, I've made a fool of myself, and talked to a thing as unresponsive as a stone wall."

"Perhaps you talked too much."

"I know I did, but I've a hopeful disposition, and I've cured hard cases before now. Of course he must have been thinking me an insufferable idiot, but the darkness and his neighbourhood were too much for me. And that horse of Gibbons's! It's only fit for the knacker. Oh, Lord! I believe I told him the population of the town. There's humiliation for you! He grunted now and then. Well, I'll show the man I can keep quiet too. We ought to have sent John to meet him. They'd have been happy enough together."

"You know," Helen said sympathetically, "I don't suppose he heard half you said or was thinking about you at all."

Rupert laughed delightedly and put his arm through hers as he picked up the bag.

"Come in. No doubt you're right."

"I believe he's really afraid of us," she added. "I should be."

As they entered the hall, they saw Miriam floating down the stairs. One hand on the rail kept time with her descent; her black dress, of airy make, fluffed from stair to stair; the white neck holding her little head was as luminous as the pearls she wanted. She paused on one foot with the other pointed.

"Where is he?" she whispered.

"Just coming out of the drawing-room," Rupert answered quickly, encouraging her. "Stay like that. Chin a little higher. Yes. You're like Beatrix Esmond coming down the stairs. Excellent!"

A touch from Helen silenced him as Mildred Caniper and her brother turned the corner of the passage. They both stood still at the sight of this dark-clad vision which rested immobile for an instant before it smiled brilliantly and finished the flight.

"This is Miriam," Mildred Caniper said in hard tones.

Miriam cast a quick, wavering glance at her and returned to meet the gaze of Uncle Alfred, who had not taken her hand. At last, seeing it outstretched, he took it limply.

"Ah—Miriam," he said, with a queer kind of cough.

"She's knocked him all of a heap," Rupert told himself vulgarly as he carried the bag upstairs, and once more he wished he knew what his mother had been like.



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