小说搜索     点击排行榜   最新入库
首页 » 英文短篇小说 » Moor Fires » CHAPTER VIII
选择底色: 选择字号:【大】【中】【小】
CHAPTER VIII
Helen met Miriam in the hall.

"There's been a telegram and Notya's going to Italy."

"Ah!" Miriam said, but her bright looks faded when Helen added, "With Uncle Alfred."

Miriam dropped her head and thrust her doubled fists under her chin, in the angry movement of her childhood. "Oh, isn't that just my luck!" she muttered fiercely. "I—I hadn't done with Uncle Alfred."

"Perhaps father hasn't done with life," Helen remarked.

"Oh, don't be pious! Don't be pious! You're always adorning tales. You're a prig!"

"Well, I haven't time to think about that now," Helen said with the excellent humour which made amends for her many virtues. "I'm helping Notya to pack and I want you to ask George Halkett if he will drive her down. The train goes at a quarter to three."

"I'm sorry," Miriam said, looking like the heroine in a play, "but I can't go there. I—don't approve of George."

"Oh!" Helen cried, screwing up her face. "Has John been telling you about Lily Brent?"

"No. What? Tell me!" Miriam answered with complete forgetfulness of her pose.

"Some nonsense. George tried to kiss her."

"Did he?" There was a flat tone in Miriam's voice.

"And she hit him, and now John thinks he's wicked."

"So he is." She was hardly aware of what she said, for she was hesitating between the immediate establishment of her supremacy and the punishment of George, and having decided that his punishment should include sufficient tribute, she said firmly, "I won't have anything to do with him."

"Then I'll go. Help Notya if you can."

Miriam took a step nearer. "What is she like?"

"Oh—queer."

"Then perhaps I'd rather go to George," she whispered.

"I'm halfway there already," Helen said from the door.

She slipped across the moor with the speed which came so easily to her, and her breathing had hardly quickened when she issued from the larch-wood and stood on the cobble-stones before the low white house. Already the leaves of a rose-tree by the door were budding, for in that sheltered place the sun was gathered warmly. So, too, she thought, darkness would lie closely there and rain would shoot down in thick splinters with intent to hurt. She was oppressed by a sense of concentration in this tree-lined hollow, and before she stepped across the yard she lifted and shook her shoulders to free them of the weight. She remembered one summer day when the air had been clogged by the scent of marigolds, but this was not their season, and the smell of the larches came healthfully on the winds that struggled through the trees.

She had raised her hand to knock on the open door when she heard a step, and turned to see George Halkett.

"George," she said without preamble, "I've come to ask you to do something for us. Our stepmother has unexpectedly to catch a train. Could you, would you, drive her down—and a box, and our uncle, and his bag?"

She found, to her surprise, that John's story had given George a new place in her mind. She had been accustomed to see him as a mere part of the farm which bore his name, and now she looked at him with a different curiosity. She imagined him bending over Lily Brent and, with a strong distaste, she pictured him starting back at her assault. It seemed to her, she could not tell why, that no woman should raise her hand against a man, and that this restraint was less for her dignity than for his.

"I'll do it with pleasure," George was saying.

"Thank you very much," she murmured, and named the time. "Is Mr. Halkett better?"

"I'm afraid he's never going to get better, Miss Helen," he said, using the title he had given her long ago because of a childish dignity which amused him.

"I'm sorry," she said, and wondered if she spoke the truth.

Her gaze, very wide and serious, affected his, and as they looked at each other she realized that, with those half-closed eyes of his, he was considering her as he had never done before. She became conscious of her physical self at once, and this was an experience strange to her; she remembered the gown she wore, the fashion of her hair, her grey stockings and worn, low shoes; slowly, almost imperceptibly, she shifted a foot which was twisted inwards, and having done this, she found that she did not like George's appraisement. With a broken word of farewell and thanks she quickly left him.

"I didn't like that," she said emphatically to the broad freedom of the moor. George's interest was like the hollow: it hemmed her in and made her hot, but here the wide winds swept over her with a cleansing cold. Nevertheless, when she went to Notya's room, she took the opportunity of scanning herself in the glass.

"You have been running," Mildred Caniper said.

"No, not lately."

"You are very pink."

"Yes."

Mildred Caniper's tone changed suddenly. "And I don't know where you have been. I wish you would not run off without warning. And I could not find Miriam anywhere." From anger she sank back to helplessness. "I don't know what to take," she said, and her hands jerked on her lap.

"Let's see," Helen said cheerfully. "Warm things for the journey, and cooler things for when you get there." She made no show of consulting Notya and, moving with leisurely competence from wardrobe to chest of drawers, she laid little heaps of clothing on the bed.

"Handkerchiefs: one, two, three, four—"

"I shan't need many."

"But you'd better take a lot."

"I shall soon come back."

"Five, six, seven," Helen counted on, and her whispers sounded loudly in the room where Mildred Caniper's thoughts were busy.

"You haven't a very warm coat, so you must take mine," Helen said, and when she looked up she discovered in her stepmother the extraordinary stillness of a being whose soul has gone on a long journey. Her voice came, as before, from that great distance, yet with surprising clearness, as though she spoke through some instrument which reduced the volume and accentuated the peculiarities of her tones.

"One ought never to be afraid of anything," the small voice said—"never." Her lips tightened, and slowly she seemed to return to the body which sat on the sofa by the window. "I don't know what to take," she said again.

"I'm doing it," Helen told her. "You mustn't lose the train."

"No." She stood up, and, going to the dressing-table, she leaned on it as though she searched intently for something lying there. "I expect he will be dead," she said. "It's a long way. All those frontiers—"

Helen looked at the bent back, and her pity shaped itself in eager words. "Shall I come with you? Let me! I can get ready—"

Mildred Caniper straightened herself and turned, and Helen recognized the blue light in her eye.

"Your presence, Helen," she said distinctly, "will not reduce the number of the frontiers." Her manner blamed Helen for her own lack of self-control; but to this her stepchildren were accustomed, and Helen felt no anger.

"Oh, no," she answered pleasantly; "it would not do that."

She packed on methodically, and while she feigned absorption in that business her thoughts were swift and troubled, as they were when she was a little girl and, suffering for Notya's sake, wept in the heather. It was impossible to help this woman whose curling hair mocked her sternness, whose sternness so easily collapsed and as easily recovered at a word; it was, perhaps, intrusive to attempt it, yet the desire was as quick as Helen's blood.

"You are much too helpful, Helen," Mildred Caniper went on, and softened that harshness quickly. "You must learn that no one can help anybody else." She smiled. "You must deny yourself the luxury of trying!"

"I shall remember," Helen said with her quiet acquiescence, "but I must go now and see about your lunch. Would you mind writing the labels? Uncle Alfred will want one for his bag. Oh, I know I'm irritating," she added on a wave of feeling which had to break, "but I can't help it. I—I'm like that." She reflected with humiliation that it was absurd to obtrude herself thus on a scene shadowed by tragedy, yet when she saw a glint of real amusement on Mildred Caniper's face, a new thought came to her. Perhaps reserve was not so great a virtue as she had believed. She must not forget; nor must she forget that Miriam considered her a prig, that Mildred Caniper found her too helpful. She pressed her hands against her forehead and concentrated her energies on the travellers' food.

The minutes, busy as they were, dragged by like hours. Uncle Alfred ate his luncheon with the deliberation of a man who cannot expect to renew his digestive apparatus, and the road remained empty of George Halkett and his trap. Mildred Caniper, calm now, and dressed for her journey, had many instructions for Helen concerning food, the employment of Mrs. Samson, bills to be paid, and other domestic details which at this moment lacked reality.

"And," she ended, "tell Rupert not to be late. The house should be locked up at ten o'clock."

"Yes," Helen answered, but when she looked at her stepmother she could see only the distressed figure which had sat on the sofa, with hands jerking on its knee. Did she love Philip Caniper? Had they quarrelled long ago, and did she now want to make amends? No, no! She shut her eyes. She must not pry. She felt as though she had caught herself reading a letter which belonged to some one else.

Not deterred by such squeamishness, Miriam watched the luncheon-party with an almost indecent eagerness. Her curiosity about Mildred Caniper was blurred by pleasure in her departure, and each mouthful unwillingly taken by that lady seemed to minister to Miriam's freedom. Now and then she went to the garden gate to look for George, yet with her hurry to drive out her stepmother there was that luckless necessity to let Uncle Alfred go. On him her dark gaze was fastened expectantly. Surely he had something to say to her; doubtless he waited for a fitting opportunity, and she was determined that he should have it, but she realized that he was past the age when he would leap from an unfinished meal to whisper with her. This put a disturbing limit to her power, and with an instinct for preserving her faith in herself she slightly shifted the view from which she looked at him. So she was reassured, and she waited like an affectionate grand-daughter in the dark corner of the passage where his coat and hat were hanging.

"Let me help you on," she said.

"Thank you. Thank you. This is a sad business."

She handed him his hat. She found that, after all, she could say nothing, and though hope was dying in her, she made no effort to revive it.

"Well—good-bye," Uncle Alfred was saying, and holding out his hand.

She gave hers limply. "Good-bye." She hardly looked at him. Uncle Alfred, who had loved her mother, was going without so much as a cheering word. He looked old and rather dull as he went on with his precise small steps into the hall and she walked listlessly behind him.

"He's like a little performing animal," she thought.

Fumbling in his breast pocket, he turned to her. "If you should need me," he said, and produced his card. "I'll write and tell you what happens—er—when we get there."

She thanked and passed him coldly, for she felt that he had broken faith with her.

Outside the gate George Halkett sat in his high dog-cart and idly laid the whip across the horse's back. John stood and talked to him with the courtesy exacted by the circumstances, but George's eye caught the sunlight on Miriam's hair, and sullenly he bowed to her. She smiled back, putting the venom and swiftness of her emotion into that salute. She watched until his head slowly turned towards her again, and then it happened that she was looking far beyond the chimneys of Brent Farm.

"Now he's angry," she told herself, and pleasure went like a creeping thing down her back. She could see by the stubborn set of his head that he would not risk another glance.

Behind her, on the step, Notya was still talking to Helen.

Uncle Alfred stopped swinging his eyeglass and clicked the gold case of his watch. "We must be going," he said, and Miriam's heart cried out, "Yes; go, go, go!"

Lightly and strangely, Mildred Caniper kissed the cheeks of Miriam and Helen and shook John's hand, before she took her place beside George Halkett, with a word of thanks. Uncle Alfred stiffly climbed to his perch at the back, and, incommoded by his sister's box, he sat there, clasping the handrail. A few shufflings of his feet and rearrangements of his body told of his discomfort, and on his face there was the knowledge that this was but the prelude to worse things. Mildred Caniper did not look back nor wave a hand, but Uncle Alfred's unfortunate position necessitated a direct view of his young relatives. Three times he lifted his hat, and at last the cart swung into the road and he need look no more.

Miriam fanned herself with her little apron. "Now, how long can we count on in the most unfavourable circumstances?" she asked, but, to her astonishment, the others walked off without a word. She set her teeth in her under-lip and stared through tears at the lessening cart. She began to sing so that she might keep down the sobs that hurt her throat, and the words told of her satisfaction that Uncle Alfred was perched uncomfortably on the back seat of the cart.

"And I wish he would fall off," she sang. "Oh, dear, oh, dear, oh, dear!"


欢迎访问英文小说网http://novel.tingroom.com

©英文小说网 2005-2010

有任何问题,请给我们留言,管理员邮箱:tinglishi@gmail.com  站长QQ :点击发送消息和我们联系56065533

鲁ICP备05031204号