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CHAPTER XVII
Lily and John went down the track: Mildred Caniper climbed slowly, but with dignity, up the stairs; Miriam was heard to bang her bedroom door and Rupert and Helen were left together in the schoolroom.

"I can't get the tinker out of my head," she told him.

"I must have done it very well."

"Miriam didn't like it. She thought it silly."

"So it is."

"No, it's real, so real that he has been sitting in our hollow," she complained.

"That won't do. Turn him out. He doesn't belong to our moor."

"No. I think I'll go for a walk and forget him."

"I should," he said, in his sympathetic way. "I won't go to bed till you come back." He pulled his chair nearer to the lamp, opened a book and contentedly heard Helen leave the house, for though he was fond of her there were times when her forebodings and her conscience became wearisome. Let the moor be her confessor tonight!

Helen dropped into the darkness like a swimmer taking deep water quietly and at once she was immersed in happiness. She forgot her stepmother sitting so stiffly on the sofa and for a little while she forgot that the future which held her and Zebedee in its embrace held a solitary Mildred Caniper less warmly. In the scented night, Helen allowed herself to taste joy without misgiving.

She walked slowly because she was hemmed in by feelings which were blissful and undefined: she knew only that the world smelt sweeter than it had ever done, that the stars shone with amazing brightness. Through the darkness she could see the splendid curves of the moor and the shapes of thorn bushes thick with leaves. The familiar friends of other days seemed to wait upon her happiness, but the stars laughed at her as they had always done. She looked up and saw a host of them, clear and distant, shining in a sky so blue and vast that to see it was like flight. They were secure in their high places, and with the smiling benignity of gods they assured her of her littleness, and gladly she accepted that assurance, for she shared her littleness with Zebedee, and now she understood that her happiness was made of small great things, of the hope of caring for him, of keeping that shining house in order, of cradling children in wide, airy rooms. She had a sudden desire to mend Zebedee's clothes and put them neatly in their places, to feel the smoothness of his freshly-laundered collars in her hand.

She sat down in the heather and it was her turn to laugh up at the stars who could do none of these things and lived in isolated grandeur. The earth was nearer to her finite mind. It was warm with the sunshine of many days and trodden by human, beloved feet; it offered up food and drink and consolation. Darker than the sky, it had no colour but its own, yet Helen sat among pale spikes of blossom.

It was a night when even those beings who could not wander in the daytime must be content to lie and listen to the silence, when evil must run from the face of beauty and hide itself in streets. All round her, Helen fancied shapes without substance, lying in worship of the night which was their element, and when she rose from her bed at last she moved with quietness lest she should disturb them.

She had not gone far before she was aware that some one else was walking on the moor. For a moment she thought it must be Rupert in search of her, but Rupert would have called out, and this person, while he rustled through the heather, let forth a low whistled note, and though he went with care, it was for some purpose of his own and not for courtesy towards the mystery of the night.

She could not decide from what direction the sounds came; she stopped and they stopped; then she heard the whistle again, but nearer now, and with a sudden realization of loneliness and of the womanhood which had seldom troubled her, she ran with all her strength and speed for home.

Memories ran with her strangely, and brought back that day when she had been hotly chased by Mrs. Brent's big bull, and she remembered how, through all his fears for her, Rupert had laughed as though he would never stop. She laughed in recollection, but more in fear. The bull had snorted, his hoofs had thundered after her, as these feet were thundering now.

"But this is the tinker, the tinker!" her mind cried in terror, and overcome by her quickened breathing, by some sense of the inevitable in this affair, she stumbled as she ran. She saved herself, but a hand caught at her wrist and some one uttered a sound of satisfaction.

She did not struggle, but she wondered why God had made woman's strength so disproportionate to man's, and looking up, she saw that it was George Halkett who held her. At the same moment he would have loosed her hand, but she clung to his because she was trembling fiercely.

"Oh, George," she said, "it's you! And I thought it was some one horrid!"

She could not see him blush. "I'm sorry," he mumbled. She gleamed, in the starlight, as he had seen pale rocks gleaming on such a night, but she felt like the warm flesh she was, and the oval of her face was plain to him; he thought he could see the fear leaving her widely-opened eyes. "I'm sorry," he said again, and made an awkward movement. "I thought—I—Wouldn't you like to sit down? There's a stone here."

"It's the one I fell against!" She dropped on to it and laughed. "You weren't there, were you, years and years ago, when the bull chased me? That red bull of Mrs. Brent's? He was old and cross. No, of course you weren't."

"I remember the beast. He had a broken horn."

"Yes. Just a stump. It made him frightful. I dream about him now. And when you were running after me—"

He broke in with a muffled exclamation and shifted from one foot to the other like a chidden child. "I'm sorry," he said again, and muttered, "Fool!" as he bent towards her. "Did you hurt yourself against that stone? Are you all right? You've only slippers on."

"I've nearly stopped shaking," she said practically. "And it doesn't matter. You didn't mean to do it. I must go home. Rupert is waiting for me."

His voice was humble. "I don't believe I've spoken to you since that day in the hollow."

She remembered that occasion and the curious moment when she felt his eyes on her, and she was reminded that though he had not been running after her, he had certainly been running after somebody. She glanced at him and he looked very tall as he stood there, as tall as the tinker.

"Why don't you sit down?" she asked quickly, and as he did so she added, on a new thought, "But perhaps I'm keeping you. Perhaps—Don't wait for me."

"I've nothing else to do," he told her.

"I spoke to you," she said, "the day after your father died."

"I meant alone," he answered.

They sat in silence after that, and for Helen the smell of heather was the speech of those immaterial ones who lay about her. Some change had taken place among the stars: they were paler, nearer, as though they had grown tired of eminence and wanted commerce with the earth. The great quiet had failed before the encroachment of little sounds as of burrowing, nocturnal hunting, and the struggles of a breeze that was always foiled.

"Do you know what time it is?" Helen asked in a small voice.

He held his watch sideways, but he had to strike a match, and its light drew all the eyes of the moor.

"Quick!" Helen said.

He was not to be hurried. "Not far off midnight."

"And Rupert's waiting! Good-night, George."

"And you've forgiven me?" he asked as they parted at the gate.

"No." She laughed almost as Miriam might have done, and startled him. "I'll forgive you," she said, "I'll forgive you when you really hurt me." She gave him her cool hand and, holding it, he half asked, half told her, "That's a promise."

"Yes. Good-night."

Slowly she walked through the dark hall, hesitated at the schoolroom door and opened it.

"I've come back," she said, and disappeared before Rupert could reply, for she was afraid he would make some allusion to the tinker.

It was characteristic of her that, as she undressed, carefully laying her clothes aside, her concern was for George's moral welfare rather than for the safety of the person for whom he had mistaken her, and this was because she happened to know George, had known him nearly all her life, while the identity of the other was a blank to her, because she had no peculiar feeling for her sex; men and women were separated or united only by their claim on her.

Mildred Caniper, whose claim was great, came down to breakfast the next morning with a return of energy that gladdened Helen and set Miriam thinking swiftly of all the things she had left undone. But Mildred Caniper was fair, and where she no longer ruled, she would not criticize. She condescended, however, to ask one question.

"Who was on the moor last night?"

"Daniel," Helen said.

"Zebedee," said Miriam.

"Zebedee?" she said, pretending not to know to whom that name belonged.

"Dr. Mackenzie."

"Oh."

"The father of James and John," Miriam murmured.

"So he has children?" Mrs. Caniper went on with her superb assumption that no one joked in conversation with her.

"Oh, I don't think so," Helen said earnestly. "He isn't married! Miriam meant the gentleman in the Bible."

"I see." Her glance pitied Miriam. "But this was early in the evening. Some one came in very late. Rupert, perhaps."

"No, it was me," Helen said.

"I," Mildred Caniper corrected.

"Yes. I."

"Did I hear voices?"

"Did you?" Helen returned in another tone and with an innocence that surprised herself and revealed the deceit latent in the mouth of the most truthful. It was long since she had been so near a lie and lying was ugly: it made smudges on the world; but disloyalty was no better, and though she could not have explained the debt, she felt that she owed George silence. She had to choose. He had been like a child as he fumbled over his apologies and she could not but be tender with a child. Yet only a few seconds earlier she had thought he was the tinker. Oh, why had Rupert ever told her of the tinker?

"I would rather you did not wander on the moor so late at night," Mildred Caniper said.

"But it's the best time of all."

"I would rather you did not."

"Very well. I'll try to remember."

A sign from Miriam drew Helen into the garden.

"Silly of you to come in by the front way. Of course she heard. If the garden door is locked, you can climb the wall and get on to the scullery roof. Then there's my window."

Helen measured the distance with her eye. "It's too high up."

"Throw up a shoe and I'll lower a chair for you."

"But—this is horrid," Helen said. "Why should I?"

Miriam's thin shoulders went up and down. "You never know, you never know," she chanted. "You never know what you may come to."

"Don't!" Helen begged. She leaned against a poplar and looked mournfully from the window to Miriam's face.

"No," Miriam said, "I've never done it. I only planned it in case of need. It would be a way of escape, too, if she ever locked me up. She's capable of that. Helen, I don't like this rejuvenation!"

"Don't," Helen said again.

"I haven't mended the sheets she gave me weeks ago."

"I'll help you with them."

"Good, kind, Christian girl! There's nothing like having a reputation to keep up. That's why I told you about my secret road."

"You're—vulgar."

"No, I'm human, and very young, and rather beautiful. And quite intelligent." There came on her face the look which made her seem old and tired with her own knowledge. "Was it Zebedee last night?"

Heat ran over Helen's body like a living thing.

"You're hateful," she stammered. "As though Zebedee and I—as though Zebedee and I would meet by stealth!"

"Honestly, I can't see why you shouldn't. Why shouldn't you?"

Helen smoothed her forehead with both hands. "It was the way you said it," she murmured painfully and then straightened herself. "Of course nothing Zebedee would do could be anything but good. I beg his pardon." And in a failing voice, she explained again, "It was the way you said it."

"I suppose I'm not really a nice person," Miriam replied.


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