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CHAPTER XXII
Helen passed into a pale windy world one February morning and walked slowly down the track. There was no sharpness in the air and the colours of approaching spring seemed to hover between earth and heaven, though they promised soon to lay themselves down to make new green and splendid purple and misty blue. Slow-moving clouds paced across the sky, and as she looked at them Helen thought of Zebedee sailing under richer colour and with white canvas in the place of clouds. She wondered if time crept with him as slowly as it did with her; if he had as much faith in her courage as she had in his return. She knew he would come back, and she had trained herself to patience: indeed, it was no hard matter, for hers had always been a world in which there was no haste. The seasons had their leisured way; the people moved with heavy feet; the moor lay in its wisdom, suffering decay and growth. Even the Brent Farm cattle made bright but stationary patches in the field before the house, and as she drew nearer she came upon John and Lily leaning on a fence. Their elbows touched; their faces were content, as slowly they discussed the fate of the cow they contemplated, and Helen sat down to await their leisure.

Before her, the moor sloped to the road and rose again, lifting Pinderwell House on its bosom, and to her right, from the hidden chimneys of Halkett's Farm, she could see smoke rising as though it were the easy breath of some monster lying snug among the trees. There was no other movement, though the sober front of Pinderwell House was animated for an instant by the shaking of some white substance from a window. Miriam was at her household tasks, and Helen waved a hand to the dark being who had made life smoother for her since her night of stormy weeping. She waved a hand of gratitude and friendship, but the signal was not noticed, the house returned to its discretion, John and Lily talked sparsely but with complete understanding, and Helen grew drowsy in the sunshine. She was happier than she had ever been, for Zebedee had laid peace on her, like a spell, and the warmth of that happiness stole up from her feet and spread over her breast; it curled the corners of her mouth so that John, turning to look at her, asked her why she smiled.

"I'm comfortable," she said.

"Never been comfortable before?"

She gave him the clear depths of her eyes. "Not often."

He went away, driving the cow before him, and Lily stood looking after him.

"He's wonderful," she said. "He comes along and takes hold of things and begins to teach me my own business."

"So you're pleased with him?" Helen said demurely.

"Yes," the other answered with twitching lips, "he's doing very well." Her laughter faded, and she said softly, "I wonder if they often happen—marriages like ours."

"Tell me about it."

"Nothing to tell. It's just as if it's always been, and every minute it seems fresh."

"No," Helen said consideringly, "I shouldn't think it often happens. I've come for a pound of butter, please."

"How's Mrs. Caniper?"

"She's better, but I think she would be rather glad to die. I let her make a cake yesterday, and it did her good. Come and see her soon."

"I will. Let's go to the dairy. Will you have it in halves or quarters? Look at my new stamp!"

"What is it meant to be?"

"Well! It's a Shetland pony, of course."

"I like the pineapple better. I don't think a pony seems right on butter. I'll have the pineapple."

"John says there's as much sense in one as in the other, because we don't get butter from either of them."

"The pineapple is food, though."

"So's the pony, by some accounts!" She leaned in her old attitude against a shelf, and eyed Helen nervously. "Talking of ponies, have you seen anything of these ghostly riders?"

"I don't know what they are."

"That's what my—our—shepherd calls them. He saw them late one night, a while back. One was a woman, he said, and the air was cold with them and set him sneezing. That's what he says."

"It was some of the wild ponies, I suppose."

"Maybe."

"You don't think it was really ghosts?"

"No, for I've seen them myself." She paused. "I haven't said anything to John, but I'm wondering if I ought."

"Why not?"

Lily's gaze widened in her attempt to see what Helen's point of view would be and she spoke slowly, that, if possible, she might not offend.

"It was George Halkett I saw. There was no woman, but he was leading one horse and riding another. It was one night when John was late on the moor and I went to look for him. George didn't see me. I kept quiet till he'd gone by. There was a side saddle on the led horse."

"Well?" Helen said.

"That's all. I thought you ought to know."

In that moment Helen hated Lily. "Is it Miriam you're hinting at?" she asked on a high note.

"Yes, it is. You're making me feel mean, but I'm glad I've told you. It's worried me, and John—I didn't like to tell John, for he has a grudge against the man, and he might have made trouble before he need."

"I think that's what you're doing," Helen said.

"That may be. I took the risk. I know George Halkett. Miriam, having a bit of fun, might find herself landed in a mess. I'm sorry, Helen. I hope I'm wrong."

Helen was half ashamed to hear herself asking, "How late was it?"

"About twelve."

"But I'm awake half the night. I should have heard. Besides—would there be any harm?"

"Just as much as there is in playing with fire," Lily said.

"'Behold how great a matter a little fire kindleth,'" Helen said, looking at the ground.

"Yes, but there's more than a little fire in Miriam, and George Halkett's a man, you know."

Helen raised her head and said, "We've lived here all our lives, and we have been very lonely, but I have hardly spoken to a man who was not gentle. John and Rupert and Zebedee and Daniel, all these—no one has spoken roughly to us. It makes one trustful. And George is always kind, Lily."

"Yes, but Miriam—she's not like you."

"She's much more beautiful."

Lily's laughter was half a groan. "That won't make George any gentler, my dear."

"Won't it?"

Lily shook her head. "But perhaps there's nothing in it. I'm sorry to have added to your worries, but Miriam's so restless and discontented, and I thought—"

"Ah," Helen interrupted gladly, "but lately she has been different. Lately she has been happier. Oh!" She saw where her words had led her, and with a little gesture of bewilderment she turned and walked away.

Perhaps, after all, the things that happened were not necessarily best, and for the first time Helen felt a blind anger against the unknown. In a moment of sharp vision, she saw what this vaguely concentrated life had done for her and Miriam, and she wondered by whose law it had been decreed that no human being could have a destiny unconditioned by some one else, and though she also saw that this law was the glory as well as the tragedy of life, she rebelled against it now, lest the radiant being whom she loved should be dishonoured or disillusioned.

Helen's firm curved lips took a harder line as she went slowly home, for it seemed to her that in an active world the principle of just going on left all the foes unconquered and ready for the next victim who should pass that way.

She slept fitfully that night, and once she woke to a sound of galloping on the moor. She knew it was made by more animals than two, yet her heart beat quickly, and her thoughts sprang together to make a picture of George Halkett leading a horse without a rider through the night, waiting in the darkness with his ears stretched for the sound of one coming through the heather.

She started up in bed, for the mysterious allurement of George's image was strong enough to make her understand what it might be for Miriam, and she held herself to the bed lest she should be tempted to play the spy; yet, had she brought herself to open her sister's door, she would have been shamed and gladdened by the sight of that pretty sleeper lying athwart her bed in profound unconsciousness.

Miriam, whose heart was still untouched by God or man, could lie and sleep soundly, though she knew George waited for her on the moor. The restlessness that had first driven her there had sent her home again, that, by a timely abstention, she might recover the full taste of adventure, and that, by the same means, George might learn her worth. She was a little puzzled by his behaviour, and she began to find monotony in its decorum. According to his promise, he had taught her to ride, and while all her faculties were bent on that business, she hardly noticed him, but with confidence in her own seat and Charlie's steadiness, there came freedom to look at George, and with it the desire to rule the expression of his face and the modulations of his voice.

He would not be beguiled. "I'm teaching you to ride," he said, and though she mocked him he was not stirred to quarrel. She was temporarily incapable of realizing that while she learnt to ride, he learnt to honour her, and found safety for himself and her in silence; nor, had she realized it, would she have welcomed it. What she wanted was the pleasure of being hunted and seeing the hunter discomfited, and though she could not get that from him, she had a new joy when Charlie carried her strongly and safely across the moor; again she knew the feeling of passing through a void, of sailing on a thunder-cloud without hope of rescue and careless of it, and she paid a heavy price when she decided that it would do George good to wait in vain for her. She would not have him disrespectful, but she desired him ardent; she wished to see that stubbornly set mouth open to utter longings, and, when she went to bed after a dull day, she laughed to think of how he waited and stared into the gloom.

A fortnight passed before she stole out on a misty night and at the appointed place found him like a grey carved figure on a grey carved horse. Only his lips moved when she peered at him through the mist. He said, "This is the fifteenth night. If you'd waited till tomorrow, you wouldn't have found me here."

"George," she said, with her face close to his knee, "how unkind you are to me. And, oh, George, do you really think I should have cared?"

In the mist, she, too, had the look of one not made of flesh and blood, but she had no likeness to some figure carved: she was the spirit of the mist with its drops on her hair, a thing intangible, yet dowered with power to make herself a torment. So she looked, but Halkett had felt the touch of her, and taking her by the wrist, he dragged her upwards while he bent down to her.

"You—you—!" he panted.

"You're hurting, George!"

"What do I care? I haven't seen you for two weeks. I've been—been starving for you."

She spoke coolly, with a ringing quality in her tones. "You would see me better if you didn't come so near."

Immediately he loosened her without looking at her, and she stood chafing her hands, hating his indifference, though she knew it was assumed, uncertain how to regain her supremacy. Then she let instinct guide her, and she looked a little piteous.

"Don't be rough with me. I didn't mean—I don't like you to be rough with me."

He was off his horse and standing by her at those words, and, still watchful for rebuffs, he took her hand and stroked it gently.

"Did I hurt you, then?" he said.

"Yes. Why are you like that?" She lifted her head and gave him the oval face, the dark, reproachful eyes like night.

"Because I'm mad for you—mad for you. Little one—you make me mad. And you'll never marry me. I know that. And I'm a fool to let you play the devil with me. I know that, too. A mad fool. But you—you're in my blood."

Softly she said, "You never told me that before. You needn't scold me so. How should I know you wanted that?"

"You knew I loved you."

"No. I knew you liked me and I hoped—"

He bent his head to listen.

"I hoped you loved me."

His words came thickly, a muddy torrent. "Then marry me, marry me, Miriam. Marry me. I want—I can't—You must say you'll marry me."

Keeping her eyes on him, she moved slowly away, and from behind Charlie's back she laughed with a genuine merriment that wounded inexpressibly.

"You're funny, George," she said. "Very funny. At present I have no intention of doing anything but riding Charlie."

Through a mist doubled and coloured by his red rage, he watched her climb into the saddle and, before she was fairly settled in it, he gave the horse a blow that sent him galloping indignantly out of sight.

Halkett did not care if she were thrown, for his anger and his passion were confounded into one emotion, and he would have rejoiced to see her on the ground, her little figure twisted with her fall, but he did not follow her. He went home in the rain that was now falling fast, and when the mare was stabled he brewed himself a drink that brought oblivion.



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