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CHAPTER XII
Miriam took Zebedee to the road and, finding him uninteresting, she gave him a scant good-night and left him. She sank into the heather and told herself many times that she did not know what to do. She had wit enough to realize that she was almost ridiculous in her discontent, but for that Notya must be blamed, and her own immediate necessity was to find amusement. In all the vastness of the moor, George Halkett was the only being who could give her a taste of what she wanted, and she had quarrelled with George Halkett. She sat and glowered at the white road cutting the darkness of the moor and she thought it had the cruel look of a sharp and powerful knife. It seemed to threaten her and, though she had all youth's faith in her good fortune, at times she was taken by a panic lest she should turn out to be one of those whom fate left stranded. That fear was on her now, for there were such women, she knew, and sometimes they were beautiful! Perhaps they were often beautiful, and in the long run it might be better to be good, yet she would not have exchanged her looks for all the virtues in the world.

"Nobody would!" she cried aloud, and, seizing two bunches of heather by their stalks, she shook them violently.

Nevertheless, she might grow old on the moor and marry Daniel in despair. She shuddered. No one could love Daniel enough to pardon his appearance, and amusement would soon change to hatred. She tormented herself with pictures of their common life. She saw his shapeless clothes lying about the room she had to share with him; his boots stared up at her from the hall with much of his own expression. She heard him talking legally to her through their meals and saw him gazing at her with his peculiar, timid worship. But if they had children, they would have Daniel's stamp on them, and then he would grow bold and take all she gave for granted. Girls and boys alike, they would be big and gaunt and clumsy, but considerate and good.

She threw her arms across her breast and held herself in a fury of self-possession. Marriage suddenly appeared to her as an ugly thing even if it attained to the ideal. No, no! Men were good to play with, to tease and torture, but she had fixed her limits, and she fixed them with some astonishment for her own reserve. The discovery of this inherent coldness had its effect: it bounded her future in a manner which was too disturbing for much contemplation, but it also gave her a new freedom of action, assuring her that she need have no fears for her own restraint, that when her chance came, she might go into the world like a Helen of Troy who could never be beguiled. In the meantime, though she had quarrelled with George Halkett, she remembered that she had not forsworn his company; she had only sworn to punish him for having told the truth, and she easily pretended not to know that her resentment was no more than an excuse.

She swung herself to her feet, and not without fear, for the moor had never been her friend, she walked quickly towards the patch of darkness made by the larch-trees. "I am being driven to this," she thought dramatically and with the froth of her mind. She went with her head held tragically high, but in her throat, where humour met excitement, there was a little run of laughter.

The trees stood without movement, as though they were weighted by foreknowledge and there was alarm in the voice of the stream. She stopped short of the water and stood by the brown path that led down to the farm, and her feet could feel the softness of many falls of larch needles. She listened and she could hear nothing but the small noises of the wood and all round it the moor was like a circle of enchantment keeping back intruders. There was no wind, but she was cold and her desire for George had changed its quality. She wanted the presence of another human being in this stillness; she would have welcomed Mrs. Samson with a shout and even Notya with a smile, but she found herself unable to turn and make for home. It would have been like letting danger loose on her.

"George!" she called loudly, before she knew she was going to do it. "George, George, George!" Her voice, shriller than its wont, raged at her predicament.

A dog barked in the hollow and came nearer. She heard George silence him, and she knew that man and dog were approaching through the wood. Then her fears vanished and she strolled a few paces from the trees and stood, an easy mark for George when he appeared.

"Was it you who called?" he asked her from a little distance.

"Me?" Now he was close to her, and she saw his guarded eyes soften unwillingly.

"Somebody called. Didn't you hear the dog barking? Somebody called 'George!'"

"Perhaps," she ventured in the falsely innocent manner which both recognized as foolish and unworthy and in which both took a different delight, "perhaps it was—thought-reading!"

"With the dog?" he sneered.

"You and the dog," she said, joining them deliberately. "It's getting so dark that I can hardly see your cross face. That's a good thing, because I want to say thank you for driving Uncle Alfred and Notya to the station."

"That's all right," he said, and added with a sullen curiosity, "Is he the one who's going to adopt you?"

"Yes."

"He hasn't done it yet?"

"I'm not sure that I want to go. George, shall I tell you something? Something charming, a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night—I did call you!"

"Well," he said after a pause, "I knew that."

"You weren't certain. Tell the truth! Were you certain?"

"No, I was not," he said with the sulky honesty which should have moved her.

"And had you been thinking of me?"

He would not answer that.

"I shan't be hurt," she said, swaying from foot to foot, "because I know!" Against the invading blackness her face and teeth gleamed clearly.

"You're like a black cat!" he burst out, in forgetfulness of himself.

"A witch's cat!"

"A witch."

"Do you think witches are ever afraid? Only when they see the cross, isn't it? But I was, George, when I called out."

"What of?"

"I—don't know. The quietness and the dark."

He gave a short laugh which tried to conceal his pleasure in her weakness.

"Aren't you ever?"

"Can't remember it."

"Not of anything?"

"No."

"How—stupid of you."

"Stupid?"

"Yes, when the world's full of things you don't understand."

"But nothing happens."

That was her own complaint, but from him the words came in the security of content. "But tonight—" she began, shivered lightly and raised her hand. "What's that?"

He lifted his head; the dog, sitting at his feet, had cocked his ears. "Nothing."

"I heard something."

Hardly heeded, he put his strong fingers on her wrist and grasped it. His voice was rich and soft. "What's the matter with you tonight?"

Unmistakably now, a sound came from the hollow; not, this time, the raging of old Halkett, but a woman's cry for help, clear and insistent.

"It must be my father," he said, and his hand fell away from Miriam's; but for a few seconds he stared at her as though she could tell him what had happened. Then he went after the dog in his swift passage through the trees, while, urged by an instinct to help and a need for George's solid company, Miriam followed. She was soon outstripped, so that her descent was made alone. Twigs crackled under her feet, the ranks of trees seemed to rush past her as she went, and, with the return of self-remembrance, she knew that this was how she had felt long ago when she read fairy stories about forests and enchanted castles.

Yet she would have been less alarmed at the sight of a moated, loop-holed pile than at this of Halkett's farm, a white-washed homestead, with light beaming from a window on the ground floor, the whole encompassed by a merely mortal possibility of strange events. Her impulse had been to rush into the house, but she stood still, feeling the presence of the trees like a thick curtain shutting away the outer, upper world and, having paused, she found that she could not pursue her course.

"I must go back," she whispered. After all, this was not her affair.

A murmur of voices came from the lighted room; the movement of a horse in the stables was the friendliest sound she had ever heard. Reluctantly, for she was alive with curiosity, she turned to go when a step rang on the flagged passage of the farm and George stood in the doorway. He beckoned and met her half way across the yard.

"He's gone," he said, and he looked dazed. "Can't believe it," he muttered.

"Oh!" she said under her breath. "Oh, dear!" It was her turn to put a hand on him, for she was afraid of death.

"Can't believe it," he said again, and taking her with him, he went as though he were drawn, towards the lighted windows and looked in.

"Yes," he said, assuring himself that this thing really was.

Fascinated by the steadfastness of his gaze, Miriam looked too and drew back with a muffled cry. She had seen the old man rigid on a red velvet sofa, his head on a yellow cushion, his grey hair in some way coarsened by the state of death, his limbs clad in the garments of every day and strangely insulted by them. Near him, with her back to the window and straight and stiff as a sentinel, sat Mrs. Biggs, the housekeeper, the knob of her smooth black hair defying destiny.

Still whispering, Miriam begged, "George, don't look any more." Her horror was as much for the immobile woman as for the dead man. "Come away, before she turns round. I want to go home. George—I'm sorry."

"Yes," he said.

"Good-night."

"Good-night," he answered, and she saw him look through the window again.

Going across the moor, she cried feebly. She wished old Halkett had not been lying on the red sofa. He should have died in the big kitchen of his fathers, or upstairs in a great bed, not in that commonly-furnished little sitting-room where the work-basket of Mrs. Biggs kept company with a cheap china lamp and photographs in frames. She wondered how they would manage to undress him, and for how long Mrs. Biggs would sit beside him like a fate, a fate in a red blouse and a brown skirt. Perhaps even now they were pulling off his clothes. Terrible for George to have to do that, she thought, yet it seemed natural enough work for Mrs. Biggs, with her hard mouth and cold eyes, and no doubt she had often put him to bed in the lusty days of his carousals. Perhaps the dead could really see from under their stiff eyelids, and old Halkett would laugh at the difficulty with which they disrobed him for this last time. Perhaps he had been watching when George and she looked through the window. Until now she had never seen him when he did not leer at her, and she felt that he must still be leering under the mask of death.

The taint of what she had looked on hung heavily about her, and the fresh air of the moor could not clear it away. Crying still, in little whimpers which consoled her, she stole through the garden and the house to the beautiful solitude of Ph[oe]be's room and the cleanliness of linen sheets.

Supperless she lay there, by turn welcoming and rejecting the pictures which appeared on the dark wall of her mind, and when Helen knocked on the door she was not bidden to enter.

"Don't you want anything to eat?" she called.

"No."

"What's the matter?"

"I—feel sick."

"Then mayn't I come in and look after you?" Helen asked in a voice which impelled Miriam to bark an angry negative.

It was Helen, who liked to help people, to whom this thing should have happened, yet Miriam possessed her experience jealously; it had broken into the monotony of life and to that extent she was grateful.

"And I must be very kind to George," she decided before she went to sleep.

She dropped her white eyelids the next morning when John gave the news of the old man's death, for she did not want to betray her knowledge.

"Oh!" Helen said, and Rupert remarked lightly and watchfully that Zebedee would now be less often on the moor.

"There's still the funeral," Helen said oddly.

"And let's hope they'll bury him soon," John added, and so finished with old Halkett.

Helen was still thoughtful. "Perhaps we ought to go and be nice to George. There won't be anything we can do, but we might ask him if there is."

"The less you have to do with George—" John began, and Miriam interrupted him, clicking her tongue.

"Helen, Helen, haven't you heard about George and Lily Brent? A dreadful story. Ask John."

"If you're not careful," he said menacingly, "I'll do what she did to him."

"No, no, you won't, Johnny; for, in spite of everything, you're a little gentleman."

"Oh, do be quiet, you two! Rupert's trying to say something."

"Send a note of condolence to George," he advised, "and I'll go to the funeral. It's no good asking John to do it. He wouldn't shine. Heavens! it's late, and I haven't cleaned the boots!"

The boys went about their business and left the girls to theirs.

"I don't think a note is enough for George," Helen said as she rolled up her sleeves. "A man without a mother or a father, and only a Mrs. Biggs!"

"H'm," Miriam commented. "Except for Mrs. Biggs, I don't know that he's to be pitied. Still, I'm quite willing to be agreeable, unless you mean to go and knock at the farm door?"

"No. Couldn't we catch him somewhere!"

"Yes," Miriam said too promptly. She made a cautious pause. "He won't be riding on the moor today, because there'll be undertakers and things. If we went down the road—or shall I go alone?"

"Both of us—to represent the family. And we can say we're sorry—"

"But we're not."

"Yes, in a way. Sorry he hadn't a nicer father to be sorry for."

"What about ours?" Miriam asked.

"He may be dead, too, by now."

"And that will matter less to us than old Halkett does to George."

"But the great thing," Helen said, "is to have people one can't be ashamed of."

"Oh!"

"I know; but it's true. And our father would always look nice and be polite, even when he was dying. Old Halkett—"

"Don't talk about him! Come along. We'll catch George on his way to that shop with the pictures of hearses in the window. If I die before you, don't put me in one of those black carts."

"I don't think I could put you into anything," Helen said with simple fervour.

"Then you'd have to mummify me and stick me up in the hall beside the grandfather clock, and you'd think the ticking was my heart."

"There are hearts beating all over the house now," Helen said. "But this is not meeting George," she added, and rolled her sleeves down again.

They waylaid him successfully where the road met Halkett's lane, and from his horse he looked down on the two upturned faces.

"We've heard about Mr. Halkett," Helen said, gazing with friendliness and without embarrassment into his eyes. "I suppose there's nothing we can do?"

"Nothing, thanks."

"And Rupert said he would like to go to the funeral, if he may."

"Thank you. I'll let him know about it." He glanced at Miriam and hesitated, yet when he spoke it was in a franker voice than the one she was used to hear. "I'm afraid you were upset last night."

Her answering look made a pact between them. "We didn't hear about it till this morning."

He nodded, watching her through his thick lashes. He gave her a strong impression that he was despising her a little, and she saw him look from her to Helen as though he made comparisons. Indeed, at that moment, he thought that these sisters were like thirst and the means to quench it, like heat and shade; and a sudden restlessness made him shift in his seat.

"I expect you have a lot to do," Helen said. "Good-bye."

"Good-bye. And thank you," he said gruffly, and caught the flash of Miriam's smile as he turned.

Helen stood looking after him. "Poor George!" she said. "I rather like him. I wish he wouldn't drink."

"Exaggerated stories," Miriam remarked neatly.

"Oh, yes, but he looks as if he had never had a chance of being nice."

"I don't believe he has ever wanted one," Miriam said.


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