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CHAPTER XIV
On the night of Mildred Caniper's return, Helen felt that the house had changed. A new emotion was mingling with the rest, and it was as unmistakable as a scent, and like a scent, it would grow fainter, but now it hung in every room and on the stairs. Surely Mr. Pinderwell must be disturbed by it. She fancied his grey old face puckered in bewilderment and his steps going faster up and down the stairs. Helen, too, was restless, and having slept uneasily, she woke in the dark of the night.

Outside her widely-opened windows the poplars were moving gently. They seemed near enough to touch, but she found something formidable in their aspect. Black, tall and bare, they watched her to the accompaniment of their indifferent whispering and swaying, and they warned her that whatever might be her lot, theirs would continue to be this one of lofty swinging. So, aware of all that happened they had always watched and whispered, and only tonight was she resentful in her love for them. Could they not feel a little sorrow for the woman burdened with trouble who had come back to the house? Had not the sense of that trouble stolen through the doors and windows? Beyond the garden walls there was, she knew, immunity from human pain. The moor understood it and therefore remained unmoved. It was the winds that grieved, the grey clouds that mourned and the sunshine that exulted; under all these, and changed only on the surface, the moor spread itself tranquilly, but the poplars were different. For Helen, all trees were people in another shape and she could not remember a time when these had not been her friends, but now they seemed not to care, and she started up in the sudden suspicion that nothing cared, that perhaps the great world of earth and sky and growing things had lives as absorbing and more selfish than her own.

"But only perhaps," she said aloud, asserting her faith in what she loved.

She pushed the pillow behind her back and stared into the clearing darkness of Jane's large bare room. The curved front of her elegant dressing-table with its oval mirror became distinct. Helen's clothes lay like a patch of moonlight on a chair, the tallboy and the little stool by which she reached the topmost drawers changed from their semblances of beasts to sedate and beautiful furniture. By the bedside, soft slippers waited with an invitation, and into them Helen soon slipped her feet, for it seemed to her that the trouble thickened with each minute and that Notya must be in need of help.

Yet, when she had noiselessly opened the door of the room opposite, she found Mildred Caniper sleeping in her narrow bed with the steadiness of complete fatigue, with something, too, touchingly childlike in her pose. She might have been a child who had cried bitterly for hours before she at last found rest, but Notya's grief, Helen divined, had not the simplicity which allowed of tears nor the beauty which was Mr. Pinderwell's consolation. It was not death which had hurt her.

Mildred Caniper's head had slid from the pillow and lay on her outstretched arm; the other arm, slender and round as youth, was thrown outside the bed-clothes, and only when Helen bent quite low could she see the frown of trouble between the brows. Then, feeling like a spy, she returned to the darkness of the landing where Ph[oe]be and Jane and Christopher were wondering what she did.

She might have been a mother who, waking from a bad dream, goes about the house to see that all is safe: she wished she could go into each room to make sure that its occupant was there, but such kindnesses had never been encouraged in a family trained to restraint; moreover, Miriam might wake in fright, Rupert was a light sleeper and John had an uncertain temper. There was nothing to do but to go back to bed, and she did not want to do that. She could not sleep, and she would rather stay on the landing with the Pinderwells, so she leaned against the wall and folded her arms across her breast. She wanted to be allowed to care for people practically and she wished her brothers and sister were small enough to be held in the arms which had to be contented with herself. She had, she complained silently to the Pinderwells, to pretend not to care for the others very much, lest she should weary them. But she had her secret visions of a large house with unencumbered shining floors on which children could slide, with a broad staircase down which they would come heavily, holding to the rails and bringing both feet to each stair. She lived there with them happily, not thwarted by moods and past miseries, and though she had not yet seen the father of those children about the house, tonight, as she stood in the covering darkness, she thought she heard his footsteps in the garden where the children played among the trees.

She moved abruptly, slipped, and sat down with a thud. Her laughter, like a ghost's, trickled through the stillness, and even while she laughed a door was opened and John appeared, holding a lighted candle in his hand.

"It's only me," Helen said.

"What the devil are you up to?"

"I'm not up to anything. I'm on the floor."

"Ill?"

"No."

"I thought I heard some one prowling about."

"Couldn't you sleep either?"

He put his fingers through his hair. "No, I couldn't sleep."

"The house is full of—something, isn't it?"

"Fools, I think," he answered, laughing a little. "Look here, you mustn't sit there. It's cold. Get up."

"Help me."

"Why didn't you put on your dressing-gown?"

"You didn't."

"I don't wear this flimsy rubbish. Go back to bed."

"Yes. What's the time?"

"One o'clock. The longest night I've ever known!"

Rather wistfully she looked at him. "What's the matter, John?"

"I'm waiting for tomorrow," he said almost roughly.

"So am I," she said, surprising herself so that she repeated the words slowly, to know their meaning. "So am I—and it's here."

"Not till the dawn," he said. "Go to sleep."

Together their doors were softly closed and Helen knew now whose footsteps were in the children's garden. She went to the window and nodded to the poplars. "And you knew, I suppose; but so did I, really, all the time."

She slept profoundly and woke to a new wonder for the possibilities of life, a new fear for the dangers which might assail those who had much to cherish; and now she descried dimly the truth she was one day to see in the full light, that there is no gain without loss and no loss without gain, that things are divinely balanced, though man may sometimes throw his clumsy weight into the scale. Yet under these serious thoughts there was a song in her heart and her pleasure in its music shone out of her eyes so brilliantly that Rupert, watching her with tolerant amusement, asked what had befallen her.

"It's only that it's Sunday," the quick-witted Miriam said and Helen replied with the gravity which was more misleading than a lie: "Yes, that's all."

Nevertheless, when Zebedee arrived on the moor, her brightness faded. Already the desire of possession hurt her and Miriam had attached herself to him as though she owned him. She was telling him about Philip Caniper's death, about the money which was to come to them, and asserting that Daniel now wanted to marry her more than ever. Daniel was protesting through his blushes, and Zebedee was laughing. It all seemed very foolish, and she was annoyed with Zebedee for even pretending to be amused.

"Oh, don't," she murmured and lay back.

"Be quiet, prig!"

"She's not that, is she?" Zebedee asked, his strangely flecked eyes twinkling.

"Oh, a bad one. She disapproves of everything she doesn't like herself."

"Helen, wake up! I want to know if this is true."

"Do you think it is?"

"I'm afraid it's very likely."

"Oh, dear!" she sighed, "I don't know what to do about it. A person without opinions is just nothing, and you really were being very silly just now. I hate jokes about marrying."

"H'm, they are rather feeble," Zebedee owned.

"Vulgar, I think," she said, with her little air of Mildred Caniper.

"Ah," said Rupert, tapping Daniel lightly on the head, "a man with a brain like this can't develop a taste for the real thing. I've seen him shaking over jokes that made me want to cry, but you mustn't expect too much of him. He does very well. Come along, my boy, and let's have some reasonable talk."

"He doesn't want to go!" Miriam cried.

"But he must. I know what's good for him."

"He looks just like an overgrown dancing bear," Miriam said as she watched the two figures stepping across the moor.

Helen continued her own gloomy thoughts. "No one can like a prig."

"Oh, yes," Zebedee assured her cheerfully, "I can. Besides, you'll grow out of it."

"She never will! She's getting worse, and it's with living here. As a doctor, I think you might prescribe a change for her—for all of us. What will become of us? I can't," she added bitterly, "be expected to marry a dancing bear!"

"If you're speaking of Daniel—" Zebedee began sharply.

"Oh, don't you be cross, too! I did think I had one friend!"

"Daniel's a good man. He may be queer to look at, but he's sound. You only hurt yourself, you know, when you speak like that."

Miriam pouted and was silent, and Helen was not sure whether to be angry with Zebedee for speaking thus to her who must be spoiled, or glad that he could do it to one so beautiful, while he could preserve friendliness for a prig. But her life-long loyalty refused this incipient rivalry; once more she decided that Miriam must have what she wanted, and she lay with clenched hands and a tranquil brow while she listened to the chatter which proclaimed Miriam's recovery.

Helen could see nothing but a sky which was colourless and unclouded, and she wished she could be like that—vague, immaterial, without form. Perhaps to reach that state was happiness; it might be negation, but it would be peace and she had a young, desperate wish to die and escape the alternations of joy and pain. "And yet this is nothing," she said with foresight, and she stood up. "I'm going home."

"No!" Zebedee exclaimed in the middle of one of Miriam's sentences.

"I must. Notya's all alone. Good-night."

He would not say the word, and he walked beside her. "But I'm your guest," he reminded her.

"I know. But you see, she's lonely."

"And I've been lonely all my life."

She caught her breath. "Have you?" Her hands moved against her skirt and she looked uneasily about her. "Have you?" She was pulled two ways, and with a feeling of escape, she found an answer for him. "But you are you. You're not like her. You're strong. You can manage without any one."

"I've had to."

"Oh," she moaned, "don't make me feel unhappy about going."

"I wouldn't have you unhappy about anything."

"You're a wonderful friend to me. Good-night."

He watched her move away, but when she had gone a few paces she ran back.

"It wasn't quite the truth," she said. "It was only partly Notya."

"You're not angry with me?"

"With you? I couldn't be. It was just my silly self, only I didn't want to be half truthful with you."

Their hands touched and parted, and he waited until she was out of sight before he went back to Miriam.

"You're a little pest," he said, "wasting my time—"

"Ha, ha! I knew. I won't waste any more of it. Wasn't it horrid of me? If you hadn't scolded me I might have been kind; but I always, always pay people out."

"Silly thing to do," he muttered, and went off.

Miriam chuckled under her whistling as she strolled across the moor. She did not whistle a tune, but uttered sweet, plaintive notes like a bird's call, and as she reached the stream a tall figure rose up from the darkness of the ground.

"Oh, are you here, George?" she said. "I'm glad. I'm sick of everything."

"H'm. I'm glad I'm useful. Are the others having their usual prayer-meeting?"

"What do you mean?"

"That Mackenzie of yours and your brother, sitting in the dip and talking. I can't think what on earth they find to say."

"Well, you see, George, they are very clever people. Let us sit down. You can't—I mean you and I can't appreciate them properly."

"The Mackenzie looks a fool."

"He is a great friend of mine. You must not be rude. Manners makyth man. According to that, you are not always a man when you're with me."

He breathed deeply. "There's something about you—"

"Now you're blaming me, and that's not gallant."

"You think I'm not fit to breathe the same air with you, don't you?"

"Yes, sometimes." She sat hugging her knees and swaying to and fro, and with each forward movement her face neared his. "But at others you are quite presentable. Last night you were charming to me, George."

"I can be what I choose. D'you know that I had the same education as your brothers?"

"You're always saying that. But you forget that you didn't have me for a sister."

"No, thank God."

"Now—!"

"That's a compliment."

"Oh! And, George," she peered at him and dared herself to say the words, though old Halkett's ghost might be lurking among the trees: "I don't think your father can have been a ve-ry good influence on a wild young man like you."

"The old man's dead. Leave it at that. And who says I'm wild?"

"Aren't you? Don't disappoint me."

"I'm all right," he said with admirable simplicity, "if I don't drink."

"Then you mustn't, and yet I love to think that you're a bold, bad man."

His eyes, which rarely widened, did so now, and in the gathering dusk she saw a flash of light.

"You see, it makes me feel so brave, George."

"It ought to."

There was danger in his presence and she liked invoking it; but there was a certain coarseness, also invoked by her, from which she shrank, towards which she crept, step by step, again. She made no answer to his words. In her black dress and against the darkness of the wood, she was hardly more than a face and two small hands. There was a gentle movement among the trees; they were singing their welcome of a peaceful night; the running of the stream came loudly, giving itself courage for the plunge into the wood.

Miriam spoke in a low voice. "It's getting late. The others must have gone in. They'll wonder where I am."

"And they'd be horrified, I suppose, if they knew."

She bent towards him so that he might see her reproachful face.

"You've spoilt this lovely night. You don't match the sky and stars. I wish I hadn't met you."

"You needn't have done," he said.

"Are you sorry I did?" she challenged him.

"Oh, I don't know," he muttered almost to himself. "That's it. I never know."

She choked down the lilt of triumph in her voice. "I'll leave you to think, about it," she said and, looking at the high fir-wood, she added, "But I thought we were going to be such friends, after all."

Halkett stood up, and he said nothing, for his feelings were not to be put into words he could say to her. In her presence he suffered a mingling of pain and pleasure, anger and delight; cruelty strove in him with gentleness, coarseness with courtesy; he wanted to kiss her roughly and cast her off, yet he would have been grateful for the chance of serving her.

"George," she said quietly.

"Yes?"

"When you think of life, what do you see?"

"I—don't know."

"But you must."

He compelled his imagination. "The moor, and the farm, and the folks in the town, standing on the pavement, and Oxford Street in London—and Paris."

"Have you been to Paris?"

"I couldn't think about it if I hadn't."

She gave the laugh which coolly put him from her. "Couldn't you? Poor George!" She balanced from her heels to her toes and back again, with steadying movements of her arms, so that she was like a bird refusing to take flight. "I don't see things plainly like that," she murmured. "It's like a black ball going round and round with sparks inside, and me; and the blackness and the sparks are feelings and thoughts, and things that have happened and are going to happen, all mixing themselves up with the me in the middle. George, do you feel how strange it is? I can't explain, but here we are on the moor, with the sky above us, and the earth underneath—and why? But I'm really rolling over and over in the black ball, and I can't stop and I can't go on. I'm just inside."

"I know," he said. "It's all mixed. It's—" He kicked a heather-bush. "You want a thing and you don't want it—I don't know."

"I always know what I want," she said, and into her thoughtfulness there crept the personal taint. "I want every one to adore me. Good-night, George. I wonder if we shall ever meet again!"

In the garden, with her hands folded on her knee, Helen was sitting meekly on a stool under the poplars and watching the swaying of the tree-tops.

"The young nun at prayer," Miriam said. "I thought you came back to be with Notya."

"She seemed not to want me."

"Then you sacrificed me for nothing. That's just like you."

"How?"

"By throwing me into the alluring company of that young man. If I love him and he doesn't love me, well, you've blighted my life. And if he loves me and I don't love him—"

"You are always talking about love," Helen said with an accent of distaste.

"I know it's not the sort of thing a young virgin should be interested in; but after all, what else can be so interesting to the Y. V.?"

"But you spoil it."

"I don't. Do you mind if I put my head on your knee? No, I'm not comfortable. That's better. It's you who spoil it with being sentimental and one-love-one-life-ish. Now for me it's a game that nymphs and goddesses might play at."

"But you can't play it alone," said Helen, troubled.

"No, that's the fun of it." She smiled against Helen's dress. "I wonder if my young man is at home yet. And there's only a cold supper for him! Dear, dear, dear!"

With her apparent obtuseness, Helen said, "It won't matter so much in the summertime."

"Ah, that's a comfort," Miriam said, and rolled her head luxuriously.

John came through the French window.

"I've been looking for you both," he said. "I want to tell you something."

"Now it's coming," Miriam muttered.

"Sit down, then," Helen said. "We can't see you so high up."

"What! in my best clothes? All right." The light was dim, but they felt the joviality that hung about him and saw his teeth exposed in a smile he could not subdue. "The ground's damp, you know. There's a heavy dew."

There was a silence through which the poplars whispered in excitement.

"Perhaps I am a little deaf," Miriam said politely, "but I haven't heard you telling us anything."

"Yes; he said the ground was damp."

"So he did! Come along, we'll go in."

"No, don't!" he begged. "I know I'm not getting on very fast, but the fact is—I can't bear women to be called after flowers. If it weren't for that I should have told you long ago. And hers is one of the worst," he added sadly.

Miriam and Helen shook each other with their silent laughter.

"You can call her something else," Helen said.

"Mrs. C. would be a jaunty way of addressing her."

"Well, anyway, she's going to marry me, bless her heart. Get up! Notya wants to know why supper isn't ready." He did a clumsy caper on the grass. "Who's glad?"

"I am," Helen said.

"When?" Miriam asked.

"Soon."

"What did Notya say?" was Helen's question.

"Nothing worth repeating. Don't talk of that."

"Well," Miriam remarked, "it will be a very interesting affair to watch."

"Confound your impudence!"

"You're sure to have heaps of children," she warned him.

"Hope so."

"You'll forget how many there are, and mix them up with the dogs and the cats and the geese. They'll be very dirty."

"And perfectly happy."

"Oh, yes. Now Helen's will always be clean little prigs who couldn't be naughty if they tried. I shall like yours best, John, though they won't be clean enough to kiss."

"Shut up!" he said.

"I shall be a lovely aunt. I shall come from London Town with a cornucopia of presents. We're beginning to go," she went on. "First John, and then me, as soon as I am twenty-one."

"But Rupert will be here," Helen said quickly.

"He'll marry, too, and you'll be left with Notya. Somebody will have to look after her old age. And as you've always been so fond of her—!"

"There would be the moor," Helen said, answering all her unspoken thoughts.

"It wouldn't comfort me!"

"Don't worry, my dear," John said kindly; "the gods are surely tender with the good."

"But she won't grow old," Helen said earnestly. "I don't believe she could grow old. It would be terrible." And it was of Mildred Caniper and not of herself she thought.


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