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CHAPTER XX
It was a bitter winter, with more rain than snow, more snow than sunshine, and it seemed to Helen that half her life was spent in watching for Zebedee's figure bent against the storm as he drove up the road, while Mildred Caniper lay slackly in her bed. She no longer stared at the ceiling, for though her body had collapsed, her will had only wavered, and it was righting itself slowly, and the old thoughts which had been hunting her for years had not yet overcome her. Like hounds, they bayed behind, and some day their breath would be on her neck, their teeth in her flesh, and she would fall to them. This was the threat in the sound which reached her, soft or loud, as bells are heard in the wind, and in the meantime she steadied herself with varying arguments. Said one of these, "The past is over," yet she saw the whole future of these Canipers as the product of her acts. Reason, unsubdued, refused to allow her so much power, and she gave in; but she knew that if good befell the children she could claim no credit; if evil, she would take all the blame. There remained the comfortable assurance that she had done her best, and then Miriam's face mocked her as it peeped furtively round the bedroom door. Thus she was brought back to her starting place, and finding the circle a giddy one, she determined to travel on it no more, and with her old rigidity, she kept this resolve. It was, however, less difficult than it would once have been, for her mind was weary and glad of an excuse to take the easiest path. She lay in bed according to Zebedee's bidding, hardly moving under the clothes, and listening to the noises in the house. She was astonished by their number and significance. All through the night, cooling coals ticked in the grate or dropped on to the hearth; sometimes a mouse scratched or cheeped in the walls, and on the landing there were movements for which Helen could have accounted: Mr. Pinderwell, more conscious of his loss in the darkness, and unaware that his children had taken form, was moving from door to door and scraping his hands across the panels. Often the wind howled dolorously round the house while rain slashed furiously at the windows, and there were stealthy nights when snow wound a white muffler against the noises of the world. The clock in the hall sent out clear messages as to the passing of man's division of time, and at length there came the dawn, aged and eternally young, certain of itself, with a grey amusement for man's devices. Before that, Helen had opened her door and gone in soft slippers to light the kitchen fire, and presently Rupert was heard to whistle as he dressed. Meanwhile, as though it looked for something, the light spread itself in Mildred Caniper's room and she attuned her ears for the different noises of the day. There was Miriam's laughter, more frequent than it had been before her stepmother was tied to bed, and provocative of a wry smile from the invalid; there was her farewell shout to Rupert when he took the road, her husky singing as she worked about the house. Occasionally Mildred heard the stormy sound of Mrs. Samson's breathing as she polished the landing floor, or her voice raised in an anecdote too good to keep. Brooms knocked against the woodwork or swished on the bare floors, and still the clock, hardly noticed now, let out its warning that human life is short, or as it might be, over long. Later, but not on every day of the week, the jingle of a bit, the turning of wheels, rose to Mildred's window, telling her that the doctor had arrived, and though she had a grudge against all who saw her incapacitated, she found herself looking forward to his visits. He did not smile too much, nor stay too long, though it was remarkable that his leave-taking of her was not immediately followed by the renewed jingling of the bit. She was sure her condition did not call for prolonged discussion and, as she remembered Miriam who was free to come and go unchecked, to laugh away a man's wits, as her mother had done before her, Mildred Caniper grew hot and restless: she felt that she must get up and resume control, yet she knew that it would never be hers in full measure again, and while, in a rare, false moment, she pretended that the protection of Zebedee was her aim, truth stared at her with the reminder that the legacy of her old envy of the mother was this desire to thwart the daughter.

After that, her thoughts were long and bitter, and their signs were on her face when Helen returned.

"What have you been doing?" Helen demanded, for she no longer had any awe of Mildred Caniper, a woman who had been helpless in her hands.

"Please don't be ridiculous, Helen."

"I'm not."

"This absurd air of authority—"

"But you look—"

"We won't discuss how I look. Where is Miriam?"

"I don't know. Yes, I do. She went to Brent Farm to get some cream. Zeb—He says you're to have cream."

Mildred made a movement which was meant to express baffled patience. "I have tried to persuade you not to use pronouns instead of proper names. Can't you hear how vulgar it is?"

"Dr. Mackenzie wishes you to have cream," Helen said meekly.

"I do not need cream, and his visits are becoming quite unnecessary."

"So he said today."

"Oh."

"But I," Helen said, smiling to herself, "wish him to come."

"And no doubt the discussion of what primarily concerns me is what kept Dr. Mackenzie so long this afternoon."

"How did you know he stayed?"

"My good Helen, though I am in bed, I am neither deaf nor an imbecile."

"Oh, I know," Helen said with a seriousness which might as well have been mockery as stupidity. "I gave him—I gave Dr. Mackenzie tea. He was driving further, and it's such a stormy day."

"Quite right. He looks overworked—ill. I don't suppose he is properly cared for."

"He has a cough. He says he often gets one," Helen almost pleaded, and she went, at the first opportunity, from the room.

She encountered Jane's solemn and sympathetic stare. "I can't have neglected him, can I?" she asked of the little girl in the pinafore, and the shadows on the landing once more became alive with the unknown. "He does cough a lot, Jane, but he says it's nothing, and he tells the truth." She added involuntarily and with her hand at her throat, "I've been so happy," and immediately the words buzzed round her with menace. She should not have said that; it was a thing hardly to be thought, and she had betrayed her secret, but it comforted her to remember that this was nearly the end of January, and before long the Easter fires would burn again and she could pray.

Between the present and that one hour in the year when she might ask for help, Zebedee's cough persisted and grew worse. He had to own to a weakness of the lungs; he suffered every winter, more or less, and there had been one which had driven him to warmer climes.

"And you never told me that before!" she cried, with her hand in that tell-tale position at her throat.

"My dear, there has been no time to tell you anything. There hasn't been one day when we could be lavish. We've counted seconds. Would I talk about my lungs?"

"Perhaps we don't really know each other," Helen said, hoping he would not intercept this hostage she was offering to fortune, and she looked at him under her raised brows, and smiled a little, tempting him.

"We don't," he said firmly, and she drew a breath. "We only know we want each other, and all the rest of our lives is to be the adventure of finding each other out."

"But I'm not adventurous," she said.

"Oh, you'll like it," he assured her, smiling with his wonderfully white teeth and still more with the little lines round his eyes. He looked at her with that practical air of adoration which was as precious to her as his rare caress; she felt doubly honoured because, in his love-making, he preserved a humour which did not disguise his worship of her. "You'll like it," he said cheerfully. "Why don't you marry me now and take care of me?"

She made a gesture towards the upper room. "How can I?"

"No, you can't. Not," he added, "so much on that account, as simply because you can't. I'd rather wait a few months more—"

"You must," she said, and faintly irritated him. She looked at her clasped hands. "Zebedee, do you feel you want to be taken care of?" Her voice was anxious and, though he divined how much was balanced on his answer, he would not adjust it nicely.

"Not exactly," he said honestly, and he saw a light of relief and a shadow of disappointment chase each other on her face.

"After all, I think I do know you rather well," he murmured, as he took her by the shoulders. "Do you understand what I am doing?"

"You're telling me the truth."

"And at what a cost?"

She nodded. "But you couldn't help telling me the truth."

"And if I bemoaned my loneliness, how my collars get lost in the wash, how tired I am of Eliza's cooking and her face, how bad my cough is, then you'd let me carry you away?"

"I might. Zebedee—are those things true, too?"

"Not particularly."

"And your cough isn't bad?"

He hesitated. "It is rather bad."

"And you're a doctor!"

"But my dear, darling, love—I've no control over the weather."

"You ought to go away," she said in a low voice.

"I hope it won't come to that," he said.

It was Rupert who asked her a week later if she had jilted Zebedee.

"Why?" she asked quickly.

"He's ill, woman."

"I know."

"But really ill. You ought to send him away until the spring."

Her lips moved for a few seconds before she uttered "Yes," and after that sound she was mute under the double fear of keeping him and parting from him, but, since to let him go would give her the greater pain, it was the lesser fear, and it might be that the powers who were always waiting near to demand a price would, in this manner, let her get her paying done. She welcomed the chance of paying in advance and she kept silence while she strengthened herself to do it bravely.

Because she did not speak, Rupert elaborated. "When Zebedee loses his temper, there's something wrong."

"Has he done that?"

"Daniel daren't speak to him."

"He never speaks to people: he expounds."

"True; but your young man was distinctly short with me, even me, yesterday. Listen to your worldly brother, Helen. Why don't you marry him and take him into the sun? It's shining somewhere, one supposes."

"I can't."

"Why not? There's Miriam."

"What good is she?"

"You never give her a chance. You're one of those self-sacrificing, selfish people who stunt other people's growth. It's like not letting a baby learn to walk for fear it falls and hurts itself, or tumbles into the best flower-beds and ruins 'em. Have you ever thought of that?"

"But she's happier than she used to be," Helen said and smiled as though nothing more were needed. "And soon she will be going away. She won't stay after she is twenty-one."

"D'you think that fairy-tale is going to come true?"

"Oh, yes. She always does what she wants, you know. And she is counting on Uncle Alfred, though she says she isn't. She had a letter from him the other day."

"And when she has gone, what are you going to do?"

"I don't know what I'm going to do."

"Things won't be easier for you then. You'd better face that."

"But she'll be better—Notya will be better."

"And you'll marry Zebedee."

"I don't like saying what I'm going to do."

Rupert's dark eyes had a hard, bright light. "Are you supposed to love that unfortunate man? Look here, you're not going to be tied to Notya all her life. Zebedee and I won't have it."

"What's going to happen to her, then?"

"Bless the child! She's grown up. She can look after herself."

"But I can't leave just you and her in this house together."

He said in rather a strained voice, "I shan't be here. The bank's sending me to the new branch."

"Oh!" Helen said.

"I'm sorry about it. I tried not to seem efficient, but there's something about me—charm, I think. They must have noticed how I talk to the old ladies who don't know how to make out their cheques. So they're sending me, but I don't know that I ought to leave you all."

"Of course you must."

"I can come home on Saturdays."

"Yes. And Notya's better, and John is near. Why shouldn't you go?"

"Because your face fell."

"It's only that everybody's going. It seems like the end of things." She pictured the house without Rupert and she had a sense of desolation, for no one would whistle on the track at night and make the house warmer and more beautiful with his entrance; there would be no one to look up from his book with unfailing readiness to listen to everything and understand it; no one to say pleasant things which made her happy.

"Why," she said, plumbing the depths of loss, "there'll be no one to get up early for!"

"Ah, it's Miriam who'll feel that!" he said.

"And even Daniel won't come any more. He's tired of Miriam's foolishness."

"To tell you a secret, he's in love with some one else. But he has no luck. No wonder! If you could be married to him for ten years before you married him at all—"

"I don't know," Helen said thoughtfully. "Those funny men—" She did not finish her thought. "It will be queer without you," and after a pause she added the one word, "lonely."

It was strange that Miriam, whom she loved best, should never present herself to Helen's mind as a companion: the sisters, indeed, rarely spoke together except to argue some domestic point, to scold each other, or to tease, yet each was conscious of the other's admiration, though Helen looked on Miriam as a pretty ornament or toy, and Miriam gazed dubiously at what she called the piety of the other.

"Yes, lonely," she said, but in her heart she was glad that her payment should be great, and she said loudly, as though she recited her creed: "I wouldn't change anything. I believe in the things that happen."

"May they reward you!" he said solemnly.

"When will you have to go?"

"I'm not sure. Pretty soon. Look here, my dear, you three lone women ought to have a dog to take man's place as your natural protector—and so on."

"Have you told Zebedee you are going?"

"Yesterday."

"Then he will be getting one."

"H'm. He seems to be a satisfactory lover."

"He is, you know."

"Thank God for him."

"Would you?" Helen said. She had a practical as well as a superstitious distaste for offering thanks for benefits not actually received, and also a disbelief in the present certainty of her possession, but she took hope. John had gone, Rupert was going, of her own will she would send Zebedee away, and then surely the powers would be appeased, and if she suffered enough from loneliness, from dread of seeing Mildred Caniper ill again, of never getting her lover back, the rulers of her life might be willing, at the end, to let her have Zebedee and the shining house—the shining house which lately had taken firmer shape, and stood squarely back from the road, with a little copse of trees rising behind.


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