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CHAPTER XVIII
During the week that followed, a remembrance of her responsibilities came back to Helen and when she looked at Mildred Caniper, alternating between energy and lassitude, the shining house seemed wearily far off, or, at the best, Notya was in it, bringing her own shadows. Helen had been too happy, she told herself. She must not be greedy, she must hold very lightly to her desires lest they should turn and hurt her, yet with all her heart she wanted to see Zebedee, who was a surety for everything that was good.

By Rupert he sent letters which delighted her and gave her a sense of safety by their restraint, and on Sunday another letter was delivered by Daniel because Zebedee was kept in town by a serious case.

"So there will be no fear of my saying all those things that were ready on my tongue," he wrote, to tease, perhaps to test her, and she cried out to herself, "Oh, I'd let him say anything in the whole world if only he would come!" And she added, on her own broken laughter, "At least, I think so."

She felt the need to prove her courage, but she also wanted an excuse fit to offer to the fates, and when she had examined the larder and the store cupboard she found that the household was in immediate need of things which must be brought from the town. She laughed at her own quibble, but it satisfied her and, refusing Miriam's company, she set off on Monday afternoon.

It was a soft day and the air, moist on her cheek, smelt of damp, black earth. The moor would be in its gorgeous autumn dress for some months yet and the distances were cloaked in blue, promising the wayfarer a heaven which receded with every step.

With a destination of her own, Helen was not daunted. Walking with her light long stride, she passed the side road leading to Halkett's farm and remembered how George and Zebedee, seated side by side, something like figures on a frieze, had swung down that road to tend old Halkett. Beyond the high fir-wood she came upon the fields where old Halkett had grown his crops: here and there were the cottages of his hands, with dahlias and staring children in the gardens, and before long other houses edged the road and she saw the thronging roofs of the town.

It was Zebedee who chanced to open to her when she knocked and she saw a grave face change to one of youth as he took her by the wrist to draw her in.

"Do you always look like that when I'm not here?" she asked anxiously, quickly, but he did not answer.

"It's you!" he said. "You!"

In the darkness of the passage they could hardly see each other, but he had not loosed his grasp and with a deft turn of the wrist she thrust her whole hand into his.

"I was tired of waiting for you," she said. "A whole week! I was afraid you were never coming back!"

"You know I'd come back to you if I were dead."

"Yes, I know." She leaned towards him and laughed and, wrenching himself free from the contemplation of her, he led her to his room. There he shut the door and stood against it.

"I want to look at you. No, I don't think I'd better look at you." He spoke in his quick usual way. "Come and sit down. Is that chair all right? And here's a cushion for you, but I don't believe it's clean. Everything looks dirty now that you are in the room. Helen, are you sure it's you?"

"Yes. Are you sure you're glad? I want to sit and laugh and laugh, do all the laughing I've never had. And I want to cry—with loud noises. Which shall I do? Oh—I can't do either!"

"I've hardly ever seen you in a hat before. You must take it off. No, let me find the pins. Now you're my Helen again. Sit there. Don't move. Don't run away. I'm going to tell Eliza about tea."

She heard a murmur in the passage, the jingle of money, the front door opened and shut and she knew the Eliza had been sent out to buy cakes.

"I had to get rid of her," Zebedee said. "I had to have you to myself." He knelt before her. "I'm going to take off your gloves. What do you wear them for? So that I can take them off?"

He did it slowly. Each hand was like a flower unsheathed, and when he had kissed her fingers and her palms he looked up and saw a face made tragic by sudden knowledge of passion. Her eyes were dark with it and her mouth had shaped itself for his.

"Helen—!"

"I know—I know—"

"And there's nothing to say."

"It doesn't matter—doesn't matter—" His head was on her knees and her hands stroked his hair. He heard her whispering: "What soft hair! It's like a baby's." She laughed. "So soft! No, no. Stay there. I want to stroke it."

"But I want to see you. I haven't seen you since I kissed you. And you're more beautiful. I love you more—" He rose, and would not see the persuasion of her arms. "Ah, dear, dearest one, forget I love you. You are too young and too beautiful for me, Desire."

"But I shall soon be old. You don't want to wait until I'm old."

"I don't want to wait at all."

"And I'm twenty, Zebedee."

"Twenty! Well, Heaven bless you for it," he said and swung the hand she held out to him.

"And this is true," she said.

"It is."

"And I never thought it would be. I was afraid Miriam was loving you."

"But," he said, still swinging, "I was never in any danger of loving Miriam."

She shook her head. "I couldn't have let her be unhappy."

"And me?"

She gave him an illuminating smile. "You're just myself. It doesn't matter if one hurts oneself."

"Ah!" He bent her fingers and straightened them. "How small they are. I could break them—funny things. So you'd marry me to Miriam if she wanted me. That isn't altogether satisfactory, my dear. To be you—that's perfect, but treat me more kindly than you treat yourself."

"Just the same—it must be. Swing my hand again. I like it." She went on in a low voice. "All the time, I've been thinking she would come between."

"She can't now."

She looked up, troubled, and begged, "Don't say so. Sometimes she's just like a bat, flying into one's face. Only more lovely, and I can't be angry with her."

"I could. But let's talk about you and me, how much we love each other, and how nice we are."

"We do, don't we?"

"We are, aren't we?"

"Oh, how silly!"

"Let's be sillier than any one has ever been before."

"Listen!" Helen said and Zebedee stopped on his way to her.

"It's that woman. Why didn't something run over her? Is my hair ruffled?"

"Come quickly and let me smooth it. Nice hair."

"Yours is always smooth, but do you know, it curls a little."

"Oh, no."

"It does, really, on the temples. Come and look. No, stay there. She'll be in soon, confound her."

"We ought to be talking sensibly."

"Can we?"

"I can. Shall I put my hat on?"

"No, no, not for one greater than Eliza. I'm afraid of you in a hat. Now I'll sit here and you can begin your sensible conversation."

"I'm serious, truly. It's about Notya. She's funny, Zebedee. At night I can hear her walking about her room and she's hardly ever strict. She doesn't care. I wish you would make her well."

"Will she let me try?"

"I couldn't ask her that because I pretend not to notice. We all do. She's like a person who—who can't forget. I—don't know."

"I'm sorry, darling."

"Don't be. I'm always afraid of being sorry or glad because you don't know what will happen. Father leaving us like that, making her miserable—it's given you to me." She looked up at him. "The world's difficult."

"Always; but there are times when it is good. Helen—"

Eliza entered, walking heavily in creaking boots, and when Helen looked at her, she wondered at the tinker. Eliza was hard-featured: she had not much hair, and on it a cap hung precariously. Spreading a cloth on a small table, she went about her business slowly, carrying one thing at a time and leaving the door open as a protest against Helen's presence.

"Who'll pour?" she asked.

"You can leave the table there."

"They were out of sugar cakes. I got buns."

He looked at them. "If that's the best they can do, they ought to be ashamed of themselves."

"If you want cakes you should get them in the morning. I've kept the change to pay the milkman."

With a flourish of the cosy Zebedee turned to Helen as the door was shut.

"Isn't she dreadful?"

"She wants a new pair of boots."

"And a new face."

"I know she doesn't clean the house properly. How often does she sweep this carpet? It isn't clean, but I wouldn't mind that if she took care of you."

"Daniel beat her on the supper question. He thought she'd leave rather than give in, and he was hopeful, but she saw through that. She stuck."

"Isn't she fond of you?" Helen asked wistfully.

"No, darling, we detest each other. Do I put the milk in first?"

"Bring the table to me and I'll do it. Is she honest?"

"Rigidly. I notice that the dishonest are generally pleasing. No, you can't have the table. It would hide a lot of you. I want to talk to you, Helen. Have one of these stale buns. What a meal for you! We've got to settle this affair."

"But it is settled."

"Eat your bun and listen, and don't be forward."

She laughed at him. "It was forward to come here, wasn't it?"

"It was adorable. But since last Sunday, I have been thinking. What do you know about life, about men? I'm just the one who has chanced across your path. It's like stealing you. It isn't fair."

"There's Daniel," she said solemnly. "And the dentist. And your father when we had measles. And George Halkett—"

"Be serious."

"There's the tinker."

"Who on earth is he?"

"A man Rupert told me about, a made-up man, but he has come alive in my mind. I wish he hadn't. I might meet him. Once I nearly did, and if I met him, Zebedee—"

"Darling, I wish you'd listen. Suppose you married me—"

"You want me to marry you?"

"My dear, precious child—"

"I wasn't sure. Go on."

"If you married me, and afterwards you found some one you liked better, as well you might, what would happen then?"

"I should make the best of you."

"You wouldn't run away?"

"If I went, I should walk, but I shouldn't go. I'm like that. I belong to people and to places."

"You belong to me."

"Not yet. Not quite. I wish I did, because then I should feel safe, but now I belong to the one who needs me most. Notya, perhaps."

"And if we were married?"

"Then I should just be yours."

"But we are married."

"No," she said.

"I don't see the distinction."

"But it's there," she said, and once more he felt the iron under her grace.

"This isn't modern, Helen."

"No, I'm simple."

"And I don't like it." He was grave; the muscles in his cheek were twitching and the brown flecks in his eyes moved quickly. "Marry me at once."

"You said I was too young!"

"I say it still." He paced the room. "It's true, but neither your youth nor anything else shall take you from me, and, oh, my little heart, be good to me."

"I can't be good enough and I'll marry you when you want me."

"This week?"

She caught his hand and laid her cheek against it. "Oh, I would, I would, if Notya didn't need me."

"No one," he said, "needs you as I do. We'll be married in the spring."

Her hand and her smile acknowledged what he said while her eyes were busy on his thin face, his worn, well-brushed clothes, the books and papers on his desk, the arrangements of the room.

"I don't like any of your furniture," she said suddenly. "And those ornaments are ugly."

He took them from the mantelpiece and threw them into the waste-paper basket.

"Anything else? It won't hold the furniture."

"Ah, you're nice," she said, and, going to the window, she looked out on the garden, where the apple-trees twisted themselves out of a rough lawn.

"When you marry me," Zebedee said, standing beside her and speaking quietly, "we'll leave this house to Daniel and Eliza. There's one outside the town, on the moor road, but set back in a big garden, a square house. Shall we—shall we go and look at it?"

"Shall we?" she repeated, and they faced each other unsmiling.

"It's an old house, with big square windows, and there's a rising copse behind it."

"I know," Helen said.

"There's a little stream that falls into the road."

"Does it run inside the garden?"

"That's what I'm not sure about."

"It must."

He put his hand on her shoulder. "We could peep through the windows. Are you coming?"

"I don't know," she said and there was a fluttering movement in her throat. "Don't you think it's rather dangerously near the road?"

"We could lock the gate," he said.

She dropped her face into her hands. "No, I can't come. I'm afraid. It's tempting things to happen."

"It has been empty for a long time," he went on in the same quiet tones. "I should think we could get it cheap."

She looked up again. "And I shall have a hundred pounds a year. That would pay the rent and keep the garden tidy."

He turned on her sharply. "Mind, I'm going to buy your clothes!"

"I can make them all," she said serenely. She leaned against him. "We love each other—and we know so little about each other. I don't even know how old you are!"

"I'm nearly thirty-one."

"That's rather old. You must know more than I do."

"I expect I do."

A faint line came between her eyebrows. "Perhaps you have been in love before."

"I have." His lips tightened at the memory.

"Very much in love?"

"Pretty badly."

"Then I hope she's dead!"

"I don't know."

"I can't bear her to be alive. Oh, Zebedee, why didn't you wait for me?"

"I should have loved you less, child."

"Would you? You never loved her like this?"

"She wasn't you."

In a little while she said, "I don't understand love. Why should we matter so much to each other? So much that we're afraid? Or do we only think we do? Perhaps that's it. It can't matter so much as we make out, because we die and it's all over, and no one cares any more about our little lives." On a sigh he heard her last words. "We mustn't struggle."

"Struggle?"

"For what we want."

To this he made no answer, but he had a strange feeling that the firm, fine body he held was something more perishable than glass and might be broken with a word.

He took her to the moor, but when they passed the empty house she would not look at it.

"The stream does run through the garden," he said. "We could sail boats on it." And he added thoughtfully, "We should have to dam it up somewhere to make a harbour."


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