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CHAPTER VII
She was not allowed time for that achievement. On the morning of the day which was to have been productive of so much happiness, the postman brought a letter with a foreign stamp, and Miriam took it to the kitchen where her stepmother and Helen were discussing meals.

"A letter," Miriam said flippantly, "from Italy."

"Thank you, Miriam. Put it on the table." The faint colour our deepened on her cheeks. "I'm afraid one of you will have to go into the town again. I forgot to ask Rupert to order the meat. Miriam—"

"No, I can't go. I'm engaged to Uncle Alfred."

"I think we might easily persuade him to excuse you. He really dislikes walking, though he would not say so."

"Or," Helen said with tact, "we could get chickens from Lily Brent. Wouldn't that be better?"

"Very well. Now, about sweets."

"This letter," Miriam said, bending over it and growing bold in the knowledge that Uncle Alfred was not far off, "this letter looks as if it wants to be opened. All the way from Italy," she mumbled so that Mildred Caniper could not distinguish the words, "and neglected when it gets here. If he took the trouble to write to me, I wouldn't treat him like that. Poor letter! Poor Mr. Caniper! No wonder he went away to Italy." She stood up. "His writing is very straggly," she said clearly.

Mildred Caniper put out a hand which Miriam pretended not to see.

"Shall I order the chickens?" she asked; but no one answered, for her stepmother was reading the letter, and Helen preserved silence as though she were in a church. With care that the dishes should not click against each other, she put the newly washed china on the dresser and laid the silver in its place, and now and then she glanced at Notya, who stood beside the table. It was some time before she folded the letter with a crackle and looked up. Her eyes wandered from Helen to Miriam, and rested there with an unconsciousness so rare as to be startling.

"Philip is ill," she said in a voice carried by her thoughts to a great distance. She corrected herself. "Your father is ill." She picked up the envelope and looked at it. "That's why his writing is so—straggly." She seemed to be thinking not only of Philip Caniper, but of many things besides, so that her words, like her thoughts, came through obstacles.

Intensely interested in a Notya moved to some sign of an emotion which was not annoyance, Miriam stood in the doorway and took care to make no movement which might betray her; but Helen stared at the fire and suffered the pain she had always felt for her stepmother's distresses.

"However—" Mildred Caniper said at last, and set briskly to work, while Miriam disappeared into the shadows of the hall and Helen watched the flames playing round the kettle in which the water for Uncle Alfred's breakfast was bubbling.

"How ill is he?" she asked.

"Are you speaking of your father?"

"Yes—please."

"I wish you would use names instead of pronouns. A good deal worse, I am afraid."

"And there's nobody to look after him—our father?"

"Certainly there is."

"Oh! I'm glad," Helen said, looking candidly at Notya. "We can't pretend to care about him—can we? But I don't like to have a father who is ill."

"If he had known that—" the other began, and stopped the foolish little sarcasm in time. "It is no use discussing things, Helen. We have to do them."

"Well, let us go to Italy," Helen said.

Mildred Caniper did not conceal her surprise. Her lips dropped apart, and she stood, balancing in a spoon the egg she was about to boil for Uncle Alfred, and gazed at Helen, before she recovered herself and said easily, "You are rather absurd, Helen, aren't you?"

But Helen knew that she was not. "I thought that was just what you were wanting to do," she answered.

The egg went into the saucepan and was followed by another.

"We can't," Mildred Caniper said with the admonishing air which sat like an imposition on her; "we cannot always do as we wish."

"Oh, I know that," Helen said. She put on a pair of gloves, armed herself with brooms and dusters, and left the room.

It seemed to her that people wilfully complicated life. She put a just value on the restraint which had been a great part of her training, but a pretence which had the transparency of its weakness moved her to a patient kind of scorn, and in that moment she had a flash of insight which showed her that she had sometimes failed to understand her stepmother because she had not suspected the variability of the elder woman's character. Mildred Caniper produced an impression of strength in which she herself did not believe; she had imprisoned her impulses in coldness, and they only escaped in the sharp utterances of her tongue; she was uncertain of her power, and she insisted on its acceptance.

"And she's miserable, miserable," Helen's heart cried out, and she laughed unhappily herself. "And Miriam's afraid of her! There's nothing to be afraid of. She knows that, and she's afraid we'll find it out all the time. And it might all have been so simple and so—so smooth."

Helen was considered by the other Canipers and herself as the dullest of the family, and this morning she swept, dusted and polished in the old ignorance of her acuteness, nor would the knowledge of it have consoled her. She was puzzling over the cause which kept the man in Italy apart from the woman here, and when she gave that up in weariness, she tried to picture him in a white house beside an eternally blue sea. The windows of the house had jalousies of a purplish red, there were palm-trees in the sloping garden and, at the foot of it, waves rocked a shallow, tethered boat. And her father was in bed, no doubt; the flush redder on his thin cheeks, his pointed black beard jerked over the sheet. She had seen him lying so on his last visit to the moor, and she had an important little feeling of triumph in the memory of that familiarity. She was not sentimental about this distant parent, for he was less real than old Halkett, far less real than Mr. Pinderwell; yet it seemed cruel that he should lie in that warm southern country without a wife or daughter to care for him.

"Helen," Miriam said from Ph[oe]be's door, "do you think he is going to die?"

"How can I tell?"

"And you don't care?"

"Not much, of course, but I'm sorry for him."

"Sweet thing! And if he dies, shall we wear black?"

Helen's pale lips condescended to a rather mocking smile. "I see you mean to."

"Well, if you can do the proper thing and look nice at the same time—" She broke off and fidgeted. "I don't mind his dying if he does it far away, but, oh, wouldn't it be horrible if he did it here? Ill people make me sick."

"Why don't you go and do something yourself? Go and amuse Uncle Alfred."

"No, he's not nice in the mornings. He said so, and I've peeped at him. Liverish."

"Order the chickens, then, but ask Notya first."

"Where is she?"

Together they peeped over the banisters and listened.

"You'd better ask," Miriam said. "I wonder where she is. Call her," she added, daring Helen to break one of the rules of that quiet house; and Helen, who had discovered the truth that day, lifted her voice clearly.

"If she's not cross," Miriam whispered, "we'll know she's worried."

"Oh," Helen said soberly, "how horrid of us! I wish I hadn't."

Miriam's elbow was in her side. "Here she comes, look!"

They could see the crown of Mildred Caniper's fair head, the white blot of her clasped hands.

"What is it?" she asked quietly, turning up her face.

"Shall Miriam order the chickens?" Helen called down.

"Oh, yes—yes," she answered, and went away.

"Ha, ha! Quite successful! Any special kind of chicken? Black legs? Yellow legs?"

"She'll give you the best she has," Helen said.

Miriam popped her head round the door of the dining-room where Uncle Alfred was smoking, waved her hand, and spared him the necessity of speech by running from the house. The sun shone in a callous sky and the wind bit at her playfully as she went down the track, to remind her that though she wore neither hat nor coat, summer was still weeks away. Miriam faced all the seasons now with equanimity, for Uncle Alfred was in the dining-room, and she intended that her future should be bound up with his. Gaily she mounted the Brent Farm road, with a word for a melancholy calf which had lost its way, and a feeling of affection for all she saw and soon meant to leave. She liked the long front of the farmhouse with its windows latticed into diamonds, the porch sentinelled by large white stones, the path outlined with smaller ones and the green gate with its two steps into the field.

The dairy door stood open, and Miriam found both Lily Brent and John within. They stood with the whole space of the floor between them and there was a certain likeness in their attitudes. Each leaned against the stone shelf which jutted, waist high, from the wall, but neither took support from it. Her brown eyes were level with his grey ones; her hands were on her hips, while his arms were folded across his breast.

"Hullo, Napoleon!" Miriam said. "Good-morning, Lily. Is he being tiresome? He looks it."

"We're only arguing," she said. "We often do it."

This was the little girl whom Mrs. Brent, now in her ample grave, had slapped and kissed and teased, to the edification of the Canipers. She had grown tall and very straight; her thick dark hair was twisted tightly round her head; her skirt was short, revealing firm ankles and wooden shoes, and she wore a jersey which fitted her body closely and left her brown neck bare. Her watchful eyes were like those of some shy animal, but her lips had the faculty of repose. Helen had once compared her to a mettlesome young horse and there was about her some quality of the male. She might have been a youth scorning passion because she feared it.

"If it's a very important argument," said Miriam, "I'll retire. There's a sad baby calf down by your gate. I could go and talk to him."

"Silly little beast!" Lily said; "he's always making a fuss. Listen to this, Miriam. John wants to pay me for letting him work a strip of my land that's been lying idle all these years."

"If you won't let me pay rent—"

"He hasn't any money, Lily."

"I can try to pay you by helping on the farm. You can lie in bed and let me do your share of milking."

"He'll do no harm," Miriam asserted.

"I know that. He's been doing odd jobs for us ever since we began carrying his vegetables to town. He likes to pay for all he gets. You're mean-spirited, John."

"All right. I'll be mean-spirited, and I'll be here for this evening's milking."

"That's settled, then," she said, with a great semblance of relief.

"And Mrs. Caniper of Pinderwell House will be very much obliged if you'll let her have two chickens as soon as possible."

"Certainly, miss. I'll go and see about them."

Miriam let out a little scream and put her hands to her ears.

"No, no, don't kill them yet! Not till you're quite sure that I'm safely on the other side of the road. John, stop her!"

"You're a little goose," Lily said. "They're lying quite comfortably dead in the larder."

"Oh, thank Heaven! Shall I tell you a horrible secret of my past life? Once when I was very small, I crept through Halkett's larch-wood just to see what was happening down there, because Mrs. Samson had been hinting things, and what I saw—oh, what do you think I saw?" She shuddered and, covering her face, she let one bright eye peep round the protecting hand. "I saw that idiot boy wringing a hen's neck! And now," she ended, "I simply can't eat chicken."

"Dear, dear!" John said, and clucked his tongue. "Dreadful confession of a young girl!"

Lily Brent was laughing. "And to think I've wrung their necks myself!"

"Have you? Ugh! Nasty!"

"It is, but some one had to do it."

"Don't do it again," said John quickly.

She raised her eyebrows, met his glance, and looked away.

"I can't get on with my work while you two are gossiping here."

"Come home, John. Father's iller. Notya's too much worried to be cross. She had a letter—Aren't you interested?"

He was thinking, "I'll start breaking up that ground tomorrow," and behind that conscious thought there was another: "I shall be able to watch her going in and out."

"John—"

"No, I'm not interested. Go home and look after your uncle. I've a lot to think about."

She left him sitting on a fence and staring creatively at his knees.



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