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CHAPTER XXIII
Helen waked, that night, from a short deep sleep, to hear the falling of heavy rain and sharp gusts of wind that bowed the poplars. As the storm strengthened, raindrops were blown on to her pillow, and she could hear the wind gathering itself up before it swept moaning across the moor and broke with a miserable cry against the walls. She hoped Mildred Caniper slept through a wailing that might have a personal note for her, and as she prepared to leave the room and listen on the landing, she thought she heard a new sound cutting through the swish of the rainfall and the shriek of wind. It was a smaller sound, as though a child were alone and crying in the night, and she leaned from her window to look into the garden. The rain wetted her hair and hands and neck, while she stared into varying depths of blackness—the poplars against the sky, the lawn, like water, the close trees by the wall—and as she told herself that the wind had many voices, she heard a loud, unwary sob and the impact of one hard substance on another.

Some one was climbing the garden wall, and a minute later a head rose above the scullery roof. It was Miriam, crying, with wet clothes clinging to her, and Helen called out softly.

"Oh, is that you?" she answered, and laughed through a tangled breath. "I'm drenched."

"Wait! I'll go into Ph[oe]be and help you through."

"There's a chair here. I left it. I'm afraid it's ruined!"

Helen entered the other room as Miriam dropped from the window-ledge to the floor.

"Don't make a noise. We mustn't wake her. Oh, oh, you look—you look like rags!"

Miriam sat limply; she shook with cold and sobs and laughter. Water dripped from every part of her, and when Helen helped her up, all the streams became one river.

Helen let go of the cold hands and sank to the bed. "There must be gallons of it! And you—!"

"I'm frozen. Mop it up. Towels—anything. I'll fling my clothes out of the window. They are quite used to the scullery roof."

"Speak quietly. Whisper. She may hear you!"

"That would be—the devil, wouldn't it? Good thing Rupert isn't here! Put something at the bottom of the door. Lock it. My fingers are numb. Oh, dear, oh, dear, I can't undo my things."

"Let me. You ought to have hot water, and there's no fire. I'll rub you down. And your hair! Wring it out, child. What were you doing on the moor?"

"Just amusing myself."

"With George Halkett?"

"We-ell, I was with him in the spirit, oh, yes, I was; but in the flesh, only for a very little while. What made you think I was with him?"

"Something I heard. Are you warmer now?"

"Much warmer. Give me my nightgown, please. Oh, it's comfortable, and out there I was so cold, so cold. Oh," she cried out, "I should love to set his farm on fire!"

"Hush!"

"But I would! If I'd had matches, and if it hadn't been raining, and if I'd thought about it, I would have done it then."

"But what did he do to you?" Helen's eyes were sombre. "He surely didn't touch you?"

Miriam's arrested laughter marked their differences. She remembered George Halkett's hand on hers and the wilder, more distant passion of his arms clasping her among the larches.

"It wasn't that," she said. "He asked me to marry him—and it wasn't that. I met him to go riding, and I think I must have teased him. Yes, I did, because he hit my horse, and I couldn't hold him, and I fell off at last. I lay in the heather for a long time. It was wet, Helen, and I was all alone. I cried at first. I would have killed him if he had come near. I would, somehow, but he never came. He didn't care, and I might have been killed, just because I teased him. Then I cried again. Would you mind coming into bed with me to keep me warm? I'm glad I'm here. I lost my way. I thought I should be out there all night. It was dark, and the wind howled like demons, and the rain, the rain—! Closer, Helen."

"Did he frighten you?"

"Of course he didn't. I was angry. Oh"—the small teeth gritted on each other—"angry! But I'll pay him out. I swear I will."

"Don't swear it. Don't do it. I wish Rupert were here. I'm glad Zebedee gave me Jim."

"Pooh! Do you think George will break into the house? Jim would fly at him. I'd like that. He's got to be paid out."

Helen moved in the bed. "What's the good of doing that?"

"The good! He made me bite the earth. I joggled and joggled, and at last I went over with a bump, and when I bumped I vowed I'd hurt him."

"You needn't keep that kind of vow."

"Then what was the good of making it? We always keep our promises."

"Promise not to see him any more."

"Don't worry. I've finished with him—very nearly. Will you stay with me all night? There's not much room, but I want you to keep hold of me. I'm warm now, and so beautifully sleepy."

Her breathing became even, but once it halted to let her say, "He's a beast, but I can't help rather liking him."

She slept soon afterwards, but Helen lay awake with her arm growing stiff under Miriam's body, and her mind wondering if that pain were symbolic of what wild folly might inflict.

It was noticeable that Miriam did not venture on the moor in the days that followed, but every day Helen went there with Jim, who needed exercise and was only restrained from chasing sheep by timely employment of his energy, and every day Halkett, watching the house, saw these two sally forth together. They went at an easy pace, the woman with her skirt outblown, her breast fronting the wind, her head thrown back, her hands behind her, the dog marching by her side, and in their clearness of cut, their pale colour, for which the moor was dado and the sky frieze, he found some memory of sculptures he had seen and hardly heeded, ancient things with the eternity of youth on them, the captured splendour of moving limb and passionate brain. Then he was aware of fresh wind and fruitful earth, but as she passed out of sight, he was imprisoned again by stifling furies. He had begun to love Miriam with a sincerity that wished to win and not to force her; he had controlled the wild heritage of his fathers and tried to forget the sweetness of her body in the larch-wood; he was determined not to take what she would not give him gladly; and now, by her own act, she had changed his striving love into desire—desire to hurt, to feel her struggling in his arms, hating his kisses, paying a bitter price for her misuse of him. He had a vicious pleasure in waiting for the hour when he should feel her body straining away from his, and each night, as he sat drinking, he lived through that ecstasy; each day, as he went about his work, he kept an eye on the comings and goings of the Canipers, waiting for his chance. Miriam did not appear, and that sign of fear inflamed him; but on Sunday morning she walked on the moor with Rupert, holding him by the arm and making a parade of happiness, and in the afternoon, Daniel was added to the train.

Monday came, and no small, black-haired figure darted from the house: only Helen and the majestic dog walked together like some memory of a younger world.

His mind held two pictures as he sat alone at night, and, corresponding to them, two natures had command of him. He saw Helen like dawn and Miriam like night, and as one irritated him with her calm, the other roused him with her fire, and he came to watch for Helen that he might sneer inwardly at her, with almost as much eagerness as he watched for Miriam that he might mutter foul language, like loathed caresses.

Drink and desire and craving for peace were all at work in him. The dreams he had been building were broken by a callous hand, and he sat among the ruins. He could laugh, now, at his fair hopes, but they had had their part in him, and he could never go back to the days when he rode and drank and loved promiscuously, with a light heart. She had robbed, too, when she cast down his house, but there was no end to her offence, for when, out of coarser things, this timid love had begun to creep, it had been thrown back at him with a gibe.

He was in a state when the strongest suggestion would have its way with him. He wanted to make Miriam suffer; he wanted to be dealt with kindly, and he had a pitiful and unconscious willingness to take another's mould. So, when he saw Helen on the moor, the sneering born of her distance from him changed slowly to a desire for nearness, and he remembered with what friendliness they had sat together in the heather one autumn night, and how peace had seemed to lie upon them both. A woman like that might keep a man straight, he thought, and when she stopped to speak to him one morning, her smile was balm to his hurts.

She looked at him in her frank way. "You don't look well, George."

"Oh—I'm all right," he said, hitting his gaiters with his stick.

"It's a lovely day," she said, "and you have some lambs already. I hope the snow won't come and kill them."

"Hope not. We're bound to lose some of them, though."

Why, he asked himself angrily, was she not afraid of him who was planning injury to her sister? She made him feel as though he could never injure any one.

"You haven't noticed my dog," she said.

"Yes—" he began. He had been noticing him for days, marching beside her against the sky. "He's a fine beast."

"Isn't he?" Her finger-tips were on Jim's head.

"You want a dog now there's no man in your house."

She laughed a little as she said, "And he feels his responsibility, don't you, Jim?"

"Come here, lad," Halkett called to him. "Come on. That's right!"

"He seems to like you."

"I never knew the dog that didn't; but don't make him too soft, or he'll be no good to you."

"Well," she said gaily, "you are not likely to break into our house!"

His flush alarmed her, for it told her that she had happened on the neighbourhood of his thoughts, and her mind was in a flurry to assert her innocence and engender his, but no words came to her, and her hand joined his in fondling the dog's head.

"Well, I must be going on," George said, and after an uncertain instant he walked away, impoverished and enriched.

Helen sat down heavily, as though one of her own heart-beats had pushed her there, and putting her arm round Jim's neck, she leaned her head on him.

"Jim," she said, "don't you wish Zebedee would come back? If I hadn't promised—" She looked about her. George had disappeared, and near by grey sheep were eating with a concentration that disdained her and the dog. It was a peaceful scene, and a few early lambs dotted it with white. "It's silly to feel like this," she said. "Let's go and find Miriam."

She was discovered in the garden, digging.

"But why?" Helen asked.

"I must have exercise." Her hair was loosened, her teeth worked on her under-lip as her foot worked on the spade. "You don't know how I miss my riding!"

"I've just seen George."

"Have you?"

"I spoke to him."

"How brave! How did he look?"

"Horrid. His eyes were bloodshot."

"Ah! He has been drinking. That's despair. Perhaps it's time I tried to cheer him up."

"Don't make him angry."

"I'm not going to. I'm not vindictive. I'm rather nice. I've recovered from my rage, and now I wouldn't set his farm on fire for worlds. Why, if I saw it blazing, I should run to help! But I'd like to tease him just a little bit."

"I wish you wouldn't. I think it's rather mean, he looks so miserable. And I'm sure it isn't safe. Please, Miriam."

"I can take care of myself, my dear."

"I'm not so sure."

"Oh, yes, I can. I'm going to make it up with him. I must, or I shall never be able to walk about the moor again."

"I wish you didn't live here," Helen said.

"Well, so do I. But it's not for long." She was working vigorously, and, with her peculiar faculty for fitting her surroundings, she looked as though she had been begotten of sun and rain and soil. Helen took delight in her bright colour, strong hands and ready foot.

"I wonder," Helen said thoughtfully, "if Uncle Alfred would take you now."

"Do you want to save me from George's clutches?"

"Yes, I do."

Miriam threw back her head and laughed. "You funny little thing! You're rather sweet. George hasn't a clutch strong enough to hold me. You can be sure of that."

She was herself so certain that she waylaid him on the moor next day, but to her amazement he did not answer her smile of greeting and passed on without a word.

"George!" she called after him.

"Well?" He looked beyond her at the place where green moor met blue sky: he felt he had done with her, and Helen's trust had taken all the sweetness from revenge.

"Aren't you going to say good-morning? I came on purpose to see you."

"You needn't trouble," he said and, stealing a look at her, he weakened.

"But I need." He was wavering, she knew, and her mouth and eyes promised laughter, her body seemed to sway towards him.

"I want—I want to forgive you, George."

"Well, I'm—"

"Yes, you are, no doubt, but I don't want to be, so I forgive my trespassers, and I've come to make friends."

"You've said that before."

"I've always meant it. Must I hold out my arm any longer?"

"No." She was too tempting for his strength. He took her by the shoulders, looked greedily at her, saw the shrinking he had longed for and pressed his mouth on hers. She gave a cry that made a bird start from the heather, but he held her to him and felt her struggling with a force that could not last, and in a minute she dropped against him as helplessly as if she had been broken.

He turned her over on his arm. "You little devil!" he said, and kissed her lips again.

Her face was white and still: she did not move and he could not guess that behind the brows gathered as if she were in pain, her mind ransacked her home for a weapon that might kill him, and saw the carving-knife worn to a slip of steel that would glide into a man's body without a sound. She meant to use it: she was kept quiet by that determination, by the intensity of her horror for caresses that, unlike those first ones in the larch-wood, marked her as a thing to be used and thrown away.

She knew his thoughts of her, but she had her own amid a delirium of hate, and when he released her, she was shaking from the effort of her control.

"Now I've done with you," he said, and she heard him laugh as he went away.

She longed to scream until the sky cracked with the noise, and she had no knowledge of her journey home. She found herself sitting at the dinner-table with Helen, and heard her ask, "Don't you feel well?"

"No. I'm—rather giddy."

She watched the knife as Helen carved, and the beauty of its slimness gave her joy; but suddenly the blade slipped, and she saw blood on Helen's hand and, rushing from the table to the garden, she stood there panting.

"It's nothing," Helen shouted through the window. "Just a scratch."

"Oh, blood! It's awful!" She leaned on the gate and sobbed feebly, expecting to be sick. She could not make anybody bleed: it was terrible to see red blood.

Trembling and holding to the banisters, she went upstairs and lay down on her bed, and presently, through her subsiding sobs, there came a trickle of laughter born of the elfish humour which would not be suppressed. She could not kill George, but she must pay him out, and she was laughing at herself because she had discovered his real offence. It was not his kisses, not even his disdain of what he took, though that enraged her: it was his words as he cast her off and left her. She sat up on the bed, clenching her small hands. How dared he? How dared he? She could not ignore those words and she would let him know that he had been her plaything all the time.

"All the time, George, my dear," she muttered, nodding her black head. "I'll just write you a little letter, telling you!"

Kneeling before the table by her window, she wrote her foolish message and slipped it inside her dress: then, with a satisfaction which brought peace, she lay down again and slept.

She waked to find Helen at her bedside, a cup of tea in her hand.

"Oh—I've been to sleep?"

"Yes. It's four o'clock. Are you better?"

"Yes."

"Lily is here. John's gone to town. It's market-day."

"Market-day!" She laughed. "George will get drunk. Perhaps he'll fall off his horse and be killed. But I'd rather he was killed tomorrow. Perhaps a wild bull will gore him—right horn, left horn, right horn—Oh, my head aches!"

"Don't waggle it about."

"I was just showing you what the bull would do to George."

"Leave the poor man alone."

But that was what Miriam could not do, and she waited eagerly for the dark.

The new green of the larches was absorbed into the blackness of night when she went through them silently. She had no fear of meeting George, but she must wait an opportunity of stealing across the courtyard and throwing the letter through the open door, so she paused cautiously at the edge of the wood and saw the parlour lights turning the cobbles of the yard to lumps of gold. There was no sign of Mrs. Biggs, but about the place there was a vague stir made up of the small movements and breathings of the horses in the stable, the hens shut up for the night, the cows in their distant byres. Branches of trees fretted against each other and the stream sang, out of sight.

The parlour light burned steadily, no figure came into view, and, lifting her feet from her slippers, Miriam went silently towards the door. She had thrown in the letter and was turning back, when she heard nailed boots on the stones, a voice singing, a little thickly, in an undertone. She caught her breath and ran, but as she fumbled for her slippers in the dark, she knew she was discovered. He had uttered a loud, "Ha!" of triumph, his feet were after her, and she squealed like a hunted rabbit when he pounced on her.

It was very dark within the wood. His face was no more than a blur, and her unseen beauty was powerless to help her. She was desperate, and she laughed.

"George, you'll spoil my little joke. I've left a letter for you. It's a shame to spoil it, Georgie, Porgie."

His grasp was hurting her. "Where is the letter?" he asked in a curious, restrained voice.

"In the doorway. Let me go, George. I'll see you tomorrow. George—please!"

"No," he said thoughtfully, carefully, "I don't think I shall let you go. Come with me—come with me, pretty one, and we'll read your love-letter together."


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