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CHAPTER XIII
Uncle Alfred wrote a short note from Calais, and on the day when old Halkett was taken to his grave another letter came to say that Philip Caniper was dead before the travellers could reach him.

"Then we're poor little orphans, like George," Miriam said, and, with the peering look which asked how far she might venture, she added, "And, like George, we have our Mrs. Biggs."

If Helen heard those words, she made no sign. "She'll never be happy again," she said.

"Well, she never has been happy, and she has never wanted us to be happy, so nothing's changed."

"What can we do?" Helen went on, and her thoughts alighted on such practical kindnesses as a perfect state of cleanliness in the house to which Notya would return, flowers in her bedroom for a welcome, and a great willingness to do what pleased her. "But we mustn't be too obvious," she murmured to herself.

"And whatever you do, don't slobber."

"Is it likely?" Helen asked superbly.

The firmest intentions in that direction would have been frustrated by the sight of Mildred Caniper's cold face, and Helen saw with surprise that it was almost as it had always been. Her "Well, Helen!" was as calm as her kiss, and only when she raised her veil was her bitter need of sleep revealed. Then, too, Helen saw that her features and her fair, bright colouring had suffered an indefinable blurring, as though, in some spiritual process, their sharpness had been lost, and while she looked at her, Helen felt the full weight of responsibility for this woman settling once more on her own slim shoulders. Yet she noticed that the shadows which had hung so thickly in the house became thinner as soon as Mildred Caniper entered it. No doubt they had slipped into the body which was their home.

"Daniel is here," Helen said, "because it's Saturday and we didn't know you were coming."

"Well?"

"I thought you might be sorry. And we have asked him to stay the night."

"I promise not to turn him out," Mildred Caniper said, with her humorous look, and Helen laughed back with a friendliness for which Miriam, listening in a corner, admired her secretly.

"But I shall want to talk to you this evening when you are all together," Notya said.

For that ceremony, Miriam wore her customary black with an air which at once changed the dress into one of mourning; the fashion of her hair was subdued to match her manners, and Daniel, having a dim notion that he might unknowingly have offended, asked in his clumsy way what troubled her.

She edged closer to him and looked up, and he could see that she was laughing at herself, though that helped him not at all.

"Isn't my father dead? And aren't we going to have a family consultation in the dining-room? Well, here am I."

"I see."

"What do you see?"

He turned away. "I'm not going to tell you."

"Ah, Daniel dear, do! I know I'm horrid and frivolous and vain, and I tease you, but I'm very fond of you and I should love—oh, love—you to tell me something nice. Quick, Daniel! Quick, before the others come in!"

He was red, and his forehead glistened as he said, "You'll only throw it up at me."

"Oh, as if I would! I don't care for that expression, but I won't. Daniel, some one's coming!"

He blew his nose and bent over his book, yet through the trumpeting and the manipulation of his handkerchief, she heard a word.

"Beautiful," he mumbled.

"Always?"

He nodded, and like a delighted child, she clapped her hands.

Rupert, less debonair than usual, opened the door. "Come on," he said. "We're all ready. Daniel, stay where you are. We don't want you tumbling into the conclave."

"All right, all right."

"Got something to keep you quiet?"

"Greek grammar."

"Good man. Now then!" He plunged across the hall as though it were an icy bath.

In the candle-lighted dining-room, Mildred Caniper sat by a wood fire. The table barricaded her from the four Canipers who sat and looked at her with serious eyes, and suddenly she found that she had very little to say. Those eyes and the four mouths curved, in their different ways, for passion and resolve, seemed to be making courteous mock of her; yet three at least of the Canipers were conscious only of pity for her loneliness behind the shining table.

"After all," she said, trying to be at ease, "there is not much to tell you; but I felt that, perhaps, you have never understood your father very well."

"He did not give us the opportunity," Rupert said.

John had his shoulders raised as though he would shield his ears from family discordances, and he swore inwardly at Rupert for answering back. What was the good of that? The man was dead, and he might be allowed to rest. It was strange, he thought, that Rupert, under his charming ways, had a hardness of which he himself was not capable.

"No," Mildred Caniper was saying, and by her tone she shifted the blame from her husband to his children. The word acted as a full stop to her confidences, and there was an uneasy pause.

"But tell us, please," Helen said, leaning forward.

"Oh, please," Rupert added.

Mildred Caniper smiled waveringly, between pride and pain. "I was only going to tell you a little about him, but now I don't know that I can." She swallowed hard. "I wanted you to know how gifted he was."

"How?" Rupert asked.

"He wrote," she said, defying their criticism of what they had not seen, "but he destroyed all he did because he was never satisfied. I found nothing—anywhere."

Here was a father whom Rupert could understand, and for the first time he regretted not having known him; but to John it was foolishness for a man to set his hand to work which was not good enough to stand. He must content himself with a humbler job.

"He liked only the best," Mildred Caniper said, doing her duty by him, and the next moment she caught the full shaft of Miriam's unwary glance which was bright with the conviction that her father's desertion needed no more explanation.

Mildred Caniper's mind registered the personal affront, and swept on to its implication as rain sweeps up a valley. The result was darkness, and as she sat straight and motionless in her chair, she seemed to herself to struggle, for her soul sighted despair. Long ago, she had taken life into her hands and used it roughly, and life was taking its slow revenge. In the shuttered room by the sea, the dead man, deaf to the words with which she had hurried to him, and here, in this house, the eyes of Miriam announced her failure, yet to that cold clay and to this living flesh she had been, and was, a power.

She dropped her hands limply. She was tired of this fictitious power; she was almost ready to pretend no longer; and with that thought she found herself being observed by Helen with a tenderness she was not willing to endure. She spoke abruptly, resigning the pious task of sweetening Philip Caniper's memory.

"Your father has left you each nearly a hundred pounds a year"—she glanced at Miriam—"to be handed over when you have reached the age of twenty-one."

There was a feeling that some one ought to thank him, but no one spoke, and his children left the room with an unaccountable sense of guilt.

In the safety of the schoolroom Miriam's voice rose bitterly: "Oh, why aren't we an ordinary family? Why can't we cry for a father who leaves us nearly a hundred pounds?"

"Try to," Rupert advised. He was smiling queerly to himself.

"Helen, isn't it horrid?"

"No: I don't like crying."

"John, you look as though you're going to refuse the money. I will if you do. John—"

"Don't be a little fool," he said. "Refuse it! I'm holding on to it with both hands."

She drooped forlornly, but no one seemed to notice her. Daniel was absorbed in the Greek grammar, and the others were thinking their own thoughts.

"I'll go on to the moor," she told herself, and she slipped through the window in search of what adventure she could find. Outside the garden she paused and nodded towards the house.

"I don't care," she said. "It's all their fault. And Helen—oh, I could kill Helen!" Wickedly she tried to mimic Helen's face.

A few minutes later John followed through the window, and he went into the darkness with a strange excitement. For a time he did not think, for he was experiencing all the relief of daring to feel freely, and the effect was at first only a lightening of the heart and feet. Hardly knowing where he wandered, he found himself on the moor behind Brent Farm, and there, in the heather, he sat down to light his pipe. He was puzzled when the match quivered in his hand, and then he became aware that innumerable pulses were beating in his body, and with that realization others rushed on him, and he knew how he had held himself in check for months, and how he desired the touch of Lily Brent's splendid strength and the sight of her drowsy, threatening eyes. Picturing her, he could not rest, and he rose and marched aimlessly to and fro. He had been a fool, he told himself: he had denied his youth and doubted her: proud in poverty, he should have gone to her and offered all he had, the love and labour of his body and brain, honouring her in asking her to take him empty-handed if she would take him at all. Now he must go to her as though she could be bought at the price of a hundred pounds a years and the poor thing he had once called his pride, known now for a mere notion gathered from some source outside himself. He who had scorned convention had been its easy victim, and he bit hard at his pipe stem and grunted in disgust.

"We get half our ideas out of books," he said. "No woman would have been such a fool. They get things at first hand."

He stopped and pointed at the farm. No doubt the woman down there had read his thoughts and laughed at him, yes, loving him or not, she must be laughing at him. He laughed himself, then listened for the chance sound of her distant voice. He could hear footsteps on the cobbled yard, the clattering of a pail, the shrill stave of a song uttered by the maid-servant, but no more; and he paced on until the lights in Brent Farm went out and his own home was darkened.

In the grey of the morning, he went down the track. Mists were lying on the moor; above them, trees showed like things afloat, and when he crossed the road he felt that he was breasting silent floods. Through his thick boots he could feel the cold of ground soaked by a night of unexpected rain, and against his gaiters the long grasses rid themselves of their loads of drops and swung back to their places as he passed. He turned at the sound of footsteps on the road and saw one of Halkett's men walking through that semblance of grey water. The man gave a nod of greeting, John raised a hand, and the peace of the waking day was not shattered by human speech.

In the corner of the meadow near the house, the cows, looming large and mysterious and unfamiliar, were waiting with hanging heads, and John stood and looked at them in a kind of dream before he fetched his pail and stool and settled down to work. His hands were not steady and the cow was restless at his touch, and when he spoke to her the sound of his own voice startled him, for the world was leagued with silence and even the hissing of the milk into the pail had the extravagance of a cascade.

As he worked, he watched the house. No smoke came from its chimneys, but at length he heard the opening of a door and Lily Brent appeared. He thought she was like the morning, fresh and young, with all the promise and danger of a new day, and while he looked at her his hands dropped idle. She stood on the step and nodded to him before she walked across the grass.

"You here alone?" she said, and there was a fine frown on her brow. "Where's the rest of them? If I don't rout them out myself—"

"Don't," he said. "It's early, and it's Sunday morning. They'll come soon enough." He stood up and rested his folded arms on the cow's back and looked at Lily.

"She'll have the pail over," she warned him quickly.

He put it out of danger and returned.

"You haven't fetched my stool," she said.

"I forgot it. Wait a bit. I'll get it soon."

"What's the matter with you this morning? We're wasting time."

"Let's waste time," he said. He looked round at the mists floating off the moor. The light was clearing; the cows had dwindled; the road was no longer a fairy flood but a highway for the feet of men.

"I want you to pretend it's yesterday," he said.

"What's the matter with you, John?"

"I'm going to tell you. Will you pretend it's yesterday?"

"Yes. It's Saturday morning, a busy day for us. We ought to get to work."

"Come a step nearer," he said, and she obeyed.

He clutched the hair on the cow's back and spoke in a harsh voice. "Will you marry me?" he said, frowning and looking her in the eyes. "I've hardly any money, but I love you. I want you. I didn't know what to do. If I'd waited till I had as much as you, I might have lost you. I didn't know what to do, but I thought I'd tell you."

"You needn't explain any more," she said. Her hands, too, fell on the cow's back, and with a little movement she bade him take them. He gathered her fingers into his and turned and twisted them.

"I thought—if you wanted me—why should we live on opposite sides of the way? I can help you—and I love you." He relied on that.

"I love you," he said again.

He heard her ask softly, "Why?"

"Because—because—oh, you're all I want. You're like the earth, like herbs, like fresh green grass. I've got your hands: give me the rest of you!"

Her eyes flashed open, he saw and heard her laugh, and their lips met across the bulky barrier.

"But I want you in my arms," he said, and in the clearing light he held her there, though the sound of an opening window told them that the farm was waking.


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