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CHAPTER VI
At supper, Uncle Alfred was monosyllabic, and the Canipers, realizing that he was much shyer than themselves, became hospitable. Notya made the droll remarks of which she was sometimes capable, and Miriam showed off without fear of a rebuke. It was a comely party, and Mrs. Samson breathed her heavy pleasure in it as she removed the plates. When the meal was over and Uncle Alfred was smoking placidly in the drawing-room, Helen wandered out to the garden gate. There she found John biting an empty pipe.

After their fashion, they kept silence for a time before Helen said, "Would it matter if I went for a walk?"

"I was thinking of having one myself."

"He won't miss you and me," she said. "May I come with you, or were you going to Brent Farm?"

"I'm not going there. Come on."

The wind met them lightly as they headed towards the road. The night was very dark, and the ground seemed to lift itself before them and sink again at their approach.

"It's like butting into a wave," John said. "I keep shutting my eyes, ready for the shock."

"Yes." Helen began to talk as though she were alone. "The moor is always like the sea, when it's green and when it's black. It moves, too, gently. And now the air feels like water, heavy and soft. And yet the wind's far more alive than water. I'd like to have a wind bath every day. Oh, I'm glad we live here."

She stumbled, and John caught her by the elbow.

"Want a hand?"

"No, thank you. It's these slippers."

"High heels?"

"No, a stone. I wonder if the fires are out. It's so long since last night. We'd better not go far, John."

"We'll stop at Halkett's turning."

They took the road, and their pace quickened to the drum beats of their feet.

"It sounds like winter," Helen said.

"But it feels like spring."

She thought she heard resentment for that season in his voice. "Well, why don't you go and tell her?"

"Oh, shut up! What's the use? I've no money. A nice suitor I'd make for a woman like that!"

Helen's voice sang above their footsteps and the swishing of her dress. "Silly, old-fashioned ideas you've got! They're rather insulting to her, I think."

"Perhaps, if she cares; but if she doesn't—She'd send me off like a stray dog."

"That's pride. You shouldn't be proud in love."

"You should be proud in everything, I believe. And what do you know about it?"

"Oh—I think. Can you hear a horse, a long way off? And of course I want to be married, too, but Miriam is sure to be, and then Notya would be left alone. Besides, I couldn't leave the moor, and there's no one but George Halkett here!"

"H'm. You're not going to marry him."

"No, I'm not—but I'm sorry for him."

"You needn't be. He's no good. You must have nothing to do with him. Ask Lily Brent. He tried to kiss her once, the beast, but she nearly broke his nose, and serve him right."

"Oh? Did she mind?"

"Mind!"

"I don't think I should have. He looks clean, and if he really wanted to kiss me very badly, I expect I should let him. It's such a little thing."

"Good heavens, girl!" He stopped in a stride and turned to her. "That kind of charity is very ill-advised."

Her laughter floated over his head with the coolness of the wind. "I hope I shan't have to give way to it."

He continued to be serious. "Well, you're not ignorant. Rupert and I made up our minds to that as soon as we knew anything ourselves; but women are such fools, such fools! Tender-hearted idiots!"

"Is that why you're afraid to go to Lily Brent?" she asked.

"Ah, that's different," he mumbled. "She's more like a man."

Helen was smiling as they walked on. "If you could have Lily Brent and give up your garden, or keep your garden and lose her—"

"I'm not going to talk about it," he said.

"I wanted to know how much love really matters. That horse is much nearer now. We'll see the lights soon. And there's some one by the roadside, smoking. It's George. Good-evening, George."

His deep voice rumbled through the darkness, exchanging salutations. "I'm waiting for the doctor."

"Some one's coming now."

"Yes, it's his old nag. That horse makes you believe in eternity, anyhow."

She felt a sudden, painful anger. "He's a friend of mine—the horse," and quietly, she repeated to herself, "The horse," because he had no name by which she could endear him.

"Is Mr. Halkett worse?" John asked, from the edge of the road.

The red end of Halkett's cigar glowed and faded. "I'm anxious about him."

The yellow lights of the approaching dog-cart swept the borders of the moor and Helen felt herself caught in the illumination. The horse stopped and she heard the doctor's clear-cut voice.

"Is that you, Helen?"

"Yes."

"Anything wrong?"

"No, I'm just here with John," she said and went close to the cart. "And George is waiting for you."

"He'd better hop up, then." He bent towards her. "Did you find the fires?"

She nodded with the vehemence of her gladness that he should remember. "And," she whispered hurriedly, "you were quite right about the doors. Uncle Alfred's going to be a friend."

"That's good. Hullo, Halkett. Get up, will you, and we'll go on. Where's John?"

"Sitting on the bank."

The cart shook under Halkett's added weight, and as he took his seat he bulked enormous in the darkness. Dwarfed by that nearness, the doctor sat with his hat in one hand and gathered the reins up with the other.

"No, just a minute!" Helen cried. "I want to stroke the horse." Her voice had laughter in it.

"There's a patient waiting for me, you know."

"Yes. There! It's done. Go on. Good-night."

The cart took the corner in a blur of lamplight and shadow, tipped over a large stone and disappeared down the high-banked lane, leaving Helen with an impressive, half-alarming memory of the two jolted figures, black, with white ovals for faces, side by side, and Zebedee's spare frame clearing itself, now and then, from the other's breadth.

In the drawing-room, Uncle Alfred sat on one side of the hearth and Miriam on the other. The room was softly lighted by candles and the fire, and at the dimmer end Mr. Pinderwell's bride was smiling. The sound of Mildred Caniper's needle, as she worked at an embroidery frame, was added to the noises of the fire and Uncle Alfred's regular pulling at his pipe. Rupert was proving his capacity for silence on the piano stool.

"And which country," Miriam asked, leaning towards her uncle, "do you like best?"

"Oh—well, I hardly know."

"I never care for the sound of Africa—so hot."

"Hottish," conceded Uncle Alfred.

"Oh, Lord!" Rupert groaned in spirit.

"And South America, full of crocodiles, isn't it?"

"Is it?"

"Haven't you been there?"

"Yes, yes—parts of it."

"Miriam," said Mildred Caniper, "Alfred is not a geography book."

"But he ought to be," she dared.

"And," the cool voice went on, "you never cared for geography, I remember."

Miriam sat back sullenly, stiffening until her prettily shod feet reached an inch further along the fender. Rupert would not relieve the situation and the visitor smoked on, watching Miriam through his tobacco smoke, until a knock came at the door.

"I beg your pardon, M'm—"

"It's Mother Samson," said Rupert. "Shall I look after her?"

"No. I will go." The door closed quietly behind Mrs. Caniper.

Uncle Alfred lowered his pipe. "You are extraordinarily like your mother," he said in quick and agitated tones, and the life of the room was changed amazingly. Rupert turned on his seat, and his elbow scraped the piano notes so that they jangled like a hundred questions. Miriam slipped out of her chair.

"Am I?" she asked from her knees. "I knew I was. Tell me!"

He put his hand to his breast-pocket. "Ah," he said, as a step sounded in the passage, "perhaps tomorrow—"

Miriam lifted the poker. "Because you mustn't poke the fire, Uncle Alfred," she was saying as Mildred Caniper came back. "You haven't known us long enough." She turned to her stepmother. "Did Mrs. Samson want her money? She's saving up. She's going to have a new dress this summer because she hasn't had one since she was married."

"And if she hadn't married," Rupert went on, feeling like a conspirator, "she would have had one every year."

"That gives one something to think about—yes," said Uncle Alfred, doing his share. He was astonished at himself. He had spent the greater part of his life in avoiding relationships which might hamper him and already he was in league with these young people and finding pleasure in the situation.

Miriam was looking at him darkly, mischievously, from the hearthrug. "Tomorrow," she said, resting on the word, "I'll take you for a walk to see the sights. There are rabbits, sheep, new lambs, very white and lively, a hare if we're lucky, ponies, perhaps, if we go far enough. We've all these things on the moor. Oh," her grimace missed foolishness by the hair's breadth which fortune always meted to her, "it's a wonderful place. Will you come with me?"

He nodded with a guilty quickness. "What are these ponies?"

"Little wild ones, with long tails."

"I'm fond of horses," he said and immediately looked ashamed of the confession. "Ha, ha, 'um," he half hummed, trying to cloak embarrassment.

"I'm fond of all animals," Miriam said with loud bitterness, "but we are only allowed to have a cat."

"Hens," Rupert reminded her.

"They're not animals; they're idiots."

"Would you like to keep a cow in the garden?" Mildred Caniper enquired in the pleasantly cold tones which left Miriam powerless.

Uncle Alfred's tuneless humming began again. "Yes, fond of horses," he said vaguely, his eyes quick on woman and girl.

"And can you ride?" Miriam asked politely, implying that it was not necessary for the whole family to be ill-mannered.

"I've had to—yes, but I don't care about it. No, I like to look at them."

"We rode when we were children," his sister said.

"Hung on."

"Well, yes."

Miriam would not encourage these reminiscences, so belated on the part of her stepmother. "We have a neighbour who grows horses," she said. "And he's a wonderful rider. Rupert, don't you think he'd like to show them to Uncle Alfred? On Saturday afternoon, couldn't you take him to the farm?"

"But I'm going on Saturday," Uncle Alfred interposed.

"Saturday! And today's Thursday! Oh!"

"At least I think so," he said weakly.

Secretly she shook her head at him. "No, no," she signed, and said aloud, "A Sunday in the country—"

"No place of worship within four miles," Rupert announced.

"Ah," Uncle Alfred said with a gleam of humour, "that's distinctly cheering."

Miriam beat her hands together softly. "And yet," she said, "I've sometimes been to church for a diversion. Have you?"

"Never," he answered firmly.

"I counted the bald heads," she said mournfully, "but they didn't last out." She looked up and saw that Uncle Alfred was laughing silently: she glanced over her shoulder and saw Mildred Caniper's lips compressed, and she had a double triumph. This was the moment when it would be wise for her to go to bed. Like a dark flower, lifting itself to the sun, she rose from her knees in a single, steady movement.

"Good-night," she said with a little air. "And we'll have our walk tomorrow?"

He was at the door, holding it open. "Yes, but—in the afternoon, if we may. I am not an early riser, and I don't feel very lively in the mornings."

"Ah," she thought as she went upstairs, "he wouldn't have said that to my mother. He's getting old: but never mind, I'm like a lady in a romance! I believe he loved my mother and I'll make him love me."




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