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CHAPTER XXI
She cried out when next she saw him, for between this and their next meeting he had grown gaunter, more nervous, sharper in voice and gesture.

"Oh, you're ill!" she said, and stepped back as though she did not know him.

"Yes, I'm ill." He held to a chair and tipped it back and forth. "For goodness' sake, don't talk about it any more. I'm ill. That's settled. Now let's get on to something else."

He saw her lip quiver and, uttering a desperate, "I'm sorry," he turned from her to the window.

The wisdom she could use so well with others was of no avail with him: he was too much herself to be treated cunningly. She felt that she floated on a sea vastly bigger than she had ever known, and its waves were love and fear and cruelty and fate, but in a moment he turned and she saw a raft on which she might sail for ever.

"Forgive me."

"You've made me love you more."

"With being a brute to you?"

"Were you one? But—don't often be angry. I might get used to it!"

He laughed. "Oh, Helen, you wonder! But I've spoilt our memories."

"With such a little thing? And when I liked it?"

"You nearly cried. I don't want to remember that."

"But I shall like to because we're nearer than we were," she said, and to that he solemnly agreed. "And I am going to talk about it."

"Anything, of course."

"You look tired and hungry and sleepy, and I'm going to send you away."

"My dear," he said with a grimace, "I've got to go."

"Give me the credit of sending you."

"I don't want it. Ah! you've no idea what leaving you is like."

"But I know—"

"That's not the same thing."

"It's worse, I believe. Darling one, go away and come back to me, but don't come back until you're well. I want—I want to do without you now—and get it over." Her eyes, close to his, were bright with the vision of things he could not see. "Get it over," she said again, "and then, perhaps, we shall be safe."

He had it in him at that moment to say he would not go because of his own fear for her, but he only took her on his knee and rocked her as though she were a baby on the point of sleep and he proved that, after all, he knew her very well, for when he spoke he said, "I don't think I can go."

She started up. "Have you thought of something?"

"Yes."

"What is it?"

"You."

"Me?" she asked on a long note.

"I don't know whether I can trust you."

"Me?" she said again.

"Don't you remember how I asked you to be brave?"

"I tried, but it was easier then because I hadn't you." Her arm tightened round his neck. "Now you're another to look after."

He held her off from him. "What am I to do with you? What am I to do with you? How can I leave this funny little creature who is afraid of shadows?"

"That night," she said in a small voice, "you told me I looked brave."

"Yes, brave and sane. And I have often thought—don't laugh at me—I have thought that was how Joan of Arc must have looked."

"And now?"

"Now you are like a Joan who does not hear her voices any more."

She slipped from his knee to hers. "You're disappointed then?"

"No."

"You ought to be."

"Perhaps."

"Would you love me more if I were brave?"

"I don't believe I could."

She laughed, and with her head aslant, she asked, "Then what's the good of trying?"

"Just to make it easier for me," he said.

She uttered a little sound like one who stands in mountain mists and through a rent in the grey curtain sees a light shining in the valley.

"Would it do that for you? Oh, if it's going to help you, I'm afraid no longer." She reached out and held his face between the finger-tips of her two hands. "I promise not to be afraid. Already"—she looked about her—"I am not afraid. How wonderful you are! And what a wise physician! Physician, heal thyself. You'll go away?"

"Yes, I can go now."

"Where?"

"For a voyage. The Mediterranean. Not a liner—on some slow-going boat."

"Not a leaky one," she begged.

"Ah, I'd come back if she had no bottom to her. Nothing is going to hurt me or keep me from you!"

She did not protest against his boasting, but smiled because she knew he meant to test her.

"You'll be away a long time," she said.

"And you'll marry me when I come back?"

"Yes. If I can."

"Why not? In April? May? June? In June—a lovely month. It has a sound of marriage in it. But after all," he said thoughtfully, "it seems a pity to go. And I wouldn't," he added with defiance, "if I were not afraid of being ill on your hands."

"My hands would like it rather."

"Bless them!"

"Oh—what silly things we say—and do—and you haven't seen Notya yet."

"Come along then," he said, and as they went up the stairs together Helen thought Mr. Pinderwell smiled.

It was after this visit that Mildred Caniper coolly asked Helen if Dr. Mackenzie were in the habit of using endearments towards her.

"Not often," Helen said. Slightly flushed and trying not to laugh, she stood at the bed-foot and faced Mildred Caniper fairly.

"You allow it?"

"I—like it."

Mildred Caniper closed her eyes. "Please ask him not to do it in my presence."

"I'll tell him when he comes again," Helen answered agreeably, and her stepmother realized that the only weapons to which this girl was vulnerable were ones not willingly used: such foolish things as tears or sickness; she seemed impervious to finer tools. Helen's looks at the moment were unabashed: she was trying to remember what Zebedee had said, both for its own sake and to gauge its effect on Notya to whose memory it was clear enough, and its naturalness, the slight and unmistakable change in his voice as he spoke to Helen, hurt her so much with their reminder of what she had missed that pain made her strike once more.

"This is what I might have expected from Miriam."

"But," said Helen, all innocence, "she doesn't care for him."

"And you do."

She did not wish to say yes; she could not say no; she kept her half-smiling silence.

"How long has this been going on?" The tones were sharp with impotence.

"Oh—well—since you went to Italy. At least," she murmured vaguely, "that was when he came to tea."

But Mildred did not hear the last homely sentence, and Helen's next words came from a great distance, even from the shuttered room in Italy.

"And why should you mind? Why shouldn't we—like each other?"

Mildred Caniper opened her remarkably blue eyes, and said, almost in triumph, "You'll be disappointed."

At that Helen laughed with a security which was pathetic and annoying to the woman in the bed.

"Life—" Mildred Caniper began, and stopped. She had not yet reached the stage, she reflected, when she must utter platitudes about the common lot. She looked at Helen with unusual candour. "I have never spoken to you of these things," she said.

"Oh, I shouldn't like you to!" Helen cried, and her hands were near her ears.

Mildred allowed her lips to curve. "I am not referring to the facts of generation," she said drily, and her smile broadened, her eyebrows lifted humorously. "I am quite aware that the—the advantages of a country life include an early arrival at that kind of knowledge. Besides, you were fortunate in your brothers. And then there were all the books."

"The books?"

"The ones Rupert used to bring you."

"So you knew about them."

"I have had to remind you before, Helen, that I am not out of my mind."

"What else do you know?" Helen asked with interest, and sat down on the bed.

This was Miriam's inquiry when the conversation was reported to her.

"She didn't tell me anything else. I think she had said more than she meant. She is like that sometimes, now. It's because she hasn't so much strength."

"I expect she knows everything we ever did."

"Well, we never did much."

"No. And everything we do now."

"She didn't know about Zebedee."

"Oh, she wouldn't suspect you."

"Then don't do anything you shouldn't," Helen said mildly.

"Her 'should' and my 'should' are very different members of the same family, my dear." She peered into Helen's face and squeaked, "And what the devil is there to do?"

"Don't use words like that."

"Wow! Wow! This is the devil's St. Helena, I imagine. There's nothing to be done in it. I believe she has eyes all round her head."

"He's a gentleman always, in pictures."

"Are you really stupid?"

"I think so."

"I was talking about Notya."

"Oh."

"And I believe she can see with her ears and hear with her eyes. Helen—Helen, you don't think she gets up sometimes in the night, and prowls about, do you?"

"I should hear her."

"Oh. Are you sure?"

"I sleep so lightly. The other night—"

"Yes?"

"I was waked by a sheep coughing outside the garden."

Miriam burst out laughing. "Did you think it was Zebedee?" She laughed a great deal more than was necessary. "Now she's putting on her never-smiled-again expression! Will he be back before I go away?"

Helen looked at her dumbly. She heard the garden gate shutting behind John and Zebedee, Rupert and Miriam, with a clang which seemed to forbid return, and her dread of Zebedee's going became sharper, though beneath her dread there lay the courage she had promised him.

"And there will be the dog," she found herself saying aloud.

The animal, when he arrived, leapt from the dog-cart in which he had been unwillingly conveyed and proved to be an Airedale, guaranteed to be a perfect watch-dog and suspicious of all strangers.

Proudly, Zebedee delivered himself of these recommendations.

"He's trained, thoroughly trained to bite. And he's enormously strong. Just look at his neck! Look at his teeth—get through anything."

Helen was kneeling to the dog and asking, "Are you sure he'll bite people? He seems to like me very much."

"I've been telling him about you. My precious child, you can't have a dog who leaps at people unprovoked. He'd be a public danger. You must say 'Rats!' or something like that when you want him to attack."

"Well—I love him," she said.

"And I've something else for you."

"Oh, no!"

"Shut your eyes—"

"And open my mouth?"

"No, give me your hand. There! Will you wear that for me?"

"Oh! Oh! It's the loveliest thing I've ever seen in my life! Much! Oh, it's perfect. It's so white."

"Tell me I'm rather a success today."

"You're one all the time. Did you have it made for me?"

"D'you think I'd get you something out of a shop window? I made it up. And there's another thing—"

"But you won't have any money left!" she cried.

"Then I won't tell you about the third thing."

She said solemnly, "You ought to have no secrets from me."

"Have you none from me?"

"Not one. Except—but that's so silly—except the tinker."

"Tell me that one."

She obeyed him, and she frowned a little, because she could not understand why the thing should need telling. "And then I went on to the moor, and George Halkett ran after me, and I thought it was the tinker."

"Why," Zebedee asked, "did he run after you?"

"He must have thought I was some one else."

"Why does he run after anybody?"

"Because he's George, I think, and if John were here he would tell you the story of how he tried to kiss Lily Brent!"

"That sort of animal oughtn't to be let loose."

"I like him," Helen said. "I'm sorry for him."

"H'm," said Zebedee. "Well, you have the dog."

"Oh," she said, "he isn't like that with me. We've known each other all our lives. And you don't mind about the tinker?"

"I don't think so."

"It's not nearly so bad," she persuaded him, "as the real woman you once liked."

He did not contradict her. "We're not going to argue about dreams and the past. We haven't time for that."

"And I haven't begun to thank you! I knew you were going to bring a dog!"

"Who told you?"

"I just knew you'd think of it. But two lovely presents in one day, and both from you! But I feel—I feel—"

"I know. You want to drown the dog and throw the ring away as hostages for my safety."

"Yes, don't laugh."

"My dear," he said wearily, "there are moments when one can do nothing else."

"I'm sorry. And don't be angry with me in case you make me love you too much to let you go! And I'm brave, really. I promise to be good."

He nodded in his quick way while he looked at her as though, in spite of all he said, he feared he might never look at her again, and she was proud of his firm lips and steady eyes in the moment of the passionate admiration which lived with her like a presence while he was away.


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