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CHAPTER XXIV
While these things happened at Halkett's Farm, Helen sat sewing in the schoolroom. Mildred Caniper had been in bed all day, as often happened now, and there Miriam was supposed to be, on account of that strange giddiness of hers.

Helen worked at the fashioning of a dress in which Zebedee should think her fair and the lamplight shone on the pale grey stuff strewing the table and brought sparks from the diamonds on her hand: the clipping of the scissors made a cheerful sound, and Jim, as he sat before the fire, looked up at her sometimes with wise and friendly eyes.

It was late when she began to be oppressed by the quiet of the house. It was as though some one had just stopped whispering and would begin again. She felt that she was watched by the unseen, and the loudness of her own movements shocked her, but she worked on, using the scissors stealthily and starting if a coal fell in the grate.

Surely there was some one standing outside the door? She changed her seat to face it. Surely eyes were peering through the window? She rose and drew the curtains with a suddenness that made Jim growl.

"Be quiet, dog!" She stood and listened. The night held its breath, the stored impressions of the old house took shape and drew close and, though they did not speak, their silent pressure was full of urging, ominous and discreet.

She folded her work and put out the light, told Jim to follow her up the stairs, and trod them quietly. It was comforting to see the Pinderwells on the landing, but she had no time for speech with them. She was wondering if death had come and filled the house with this sense of presences, but when she bent over Mildred Caniper's bed she found her sleeping steadily.

On the landing, she let out a long breath. "Oh, Jane, I'm thankful."

She went into Miriam's room and saw that the bed was empty and the window wide. She looked out, and there was a chair on the scullery roof and, as she leant, trembling, against the sill, she heard the note of the hall clock striking eleven. That was a late hour for the people of the moor, and she must hasten. She was sure that the house had warned her, and, gathering her wits, she posted Jim at the bottom of the stairs and ran out, calling as she ran. She had no answer. The lights of Brent Farm were all out and she went in a dark, immobile world. There was no wind to stir the branches of the thorn-bushes, the heather did not move unless she pressed it, and her voice floated to the sky where there were no stars. Then the heavier shade of the larches closed on her, and when she left them and fronted Halkett's Farm, there was one square of light, high up, at the further end, to splash a drop of gold into the hollow.

Towards that light Helen moved as through thick black water. She carried her slippers in her hand and felt her feet moulded to the cobbles as she crossed the yard and stood below the open window. She listened there, and for a little while she thought her fears were foolish: she heard no more than slight human stirrings and the sound of liquid falling into a glass. Then there came Miriam's voice, loud and high, cutting the stillness.

"I'll never promise!"

There was another silence that held hours in its black hands.

"No? Well, I don't know that I care. But you're not going home. When the morning comes perhaps it'll be you begging me for a promise! Think it over. No hurry. There's all night." George was speaking slowly, saying each word as if he loved it. "And you're going to sit on my knee, now, and read this letter to me. Come."

Helen heard no more. She rushed to the front door and found it locked, and wasted precious seconds in shaking it before she abandoned caution and rushed noisily round the house where the kitchen door luckily yielded to her hand. Through a narrow passage and up narrow stairs she blundered, involved in ignorance and darkness, until a streak of light ran across her path and she almost fell into a room where Miriam stood with her back against the wall. She had the look of one who has been tortured without uttering a sound and, in the strain of her dark head against the flowered wall, there was a determination not to plead.

Her face crumpled like paper at the sight of Helen.

"Oh," she said, smiling foolishly, "what—a good thing—you came."

She slipped as a picture falls, close to the wall, and there was hardly a thud as her body met the floor.

Helen did not stir: she looked at Miriam and at Halkett, who was sitting on the bed, and on him her gaze rested. His answered it, and while, for a moment, she saw the man beyond the beast, his life was enlightened by what was rare in her, and his mind, softened by passion to the consistency of clay, was stamped with the picture of her as she stood and looked at him. Vaguely, with uneasiness and dislike, he understood her value; it was something remote as heaven and less desired, yet it strengthened his sensual scorn of Miriam, and rising, he went and made a hateful gesture over her. Some exclamation came from him, and he stooped to pick her up and slake his thirst for kisses. He wanted to beat her about the face before he cast her out.

"Don't touch her!" Helen said in tones so quiet that he hesitated. "She has only fainted."

He laughed at that. "Don't think I'm worrying, but she's mine, and I'll do what I like with her."

He drew up her limp body and held it until it seemed to be merged into his own, and though his mouth was close on hers, he did not kiss it. His lips moved fast, but no words came, and he lowered her slowly and shakily to the floor. He turned to Helen, and she saw that all the colour had left his face.

"Go out!" he said, and pointed.

The clasp of her hands tightened, and while she looked up at him, she prayed vehemently. "O God, God," she thought, "let me save her. O God, what shall I do? O God, God, God!"

"Go out," he said. "I'm going to keep her here till she'll be glad to be my wife, and then it'll be my turn to laugh. She can go home in the morning."

"I want to sit down," Helen said.

She looked for a chair and sat on it, and he dropped to the bed, which gave out a loud groaning sound. He hid his face in his hands and rocked himself to and fro.

"She's tortured me," he muttered, and glared angrily at Helen.

She rose and went to him, saying, "Yes, but she's only a little girl. You must remember that. And you're a man."

"Yes, by God!" he swore.

He raised both hands. "Get out of this!" he shouted. "She shall stay here tonight." The hands went to Helen's shoulders and forced her to her knees. "D'ye hear? I tell you she's made me mad!"

Helen was more pitiful than afraid. She hardly knew what she did, but she thought God was in the room.

"George, I'll do anything in the world for you if you'll give her up. Anything. You couldn't be so wicked. George, be quick. Before she wakes. Shan't we carry her out now? Shan't we?" She forgot his manhood, and saw him only as a big animal that might spring and must be soothed. "Let us do that before she knows. George—"

He looked half stupefied as he said childishly, "But I swore I'd have her, and I want her."

"But you don't love her. No, no, you don't." She laid a hand on his knee. "Why, you've known us all our lives."

"Ah!" He sprang up and past her and the spell of the soft hands and voice was broken. He sneered at her. "You thought you'd done it that time!"

"Yes," she said sadly, and put herself between him and Miriam. With her chin on her clasped hands, and her steady eyes, she seemed to be the thing he had always wanted, for the lack of which he had suffered, been tormented.

"George," she said, "I'll give you everything I have—"

He caught his breath. "Yourself?" he asked on an inspiration that held him astonished, eager and translated.

She looked up as if she had been blinded, then stiffly she moved her head. "What do you mean?"

"Give me yourself. Oh, I've been mad tonight—for days—she made me." He pointed to the limp and gracious figure on the floor and leaned against the bed-rail. "Mad! And you, all the time, out there on the moor against the sky. Helen, promise!"

Her voice had no expression when she said, "I promised anything you asked for. Bring some water."

But he still stood, dazed and trembling.

"Bring some water," she said again.

He spilt it as he carried it. "Why didn't I see before? I did see before. On the moor, I watched for you You're beautiful." His voice sank. "You're good."

She was not listening to him. She dabbled water on Miriam's brow and lips and chafed her hands, but still she lay as if she were glad to sleep.

"Poor little thing!" Helen said deeply and half turned her head. "Some of your brandy," she commanded. "She is so cold."

"I'll take her to the kitchen."

"Is that woman in the house?" she asked sharply.

"She's in bed, I suppose."

"She must have heard—she must have known—and she didn't help!"

He put a hand to his forehead. "No, she didn't help. I'd meant to give her up, and then—I found her here, and I'd been drinking."

"Don't tell me! Don't tell me!" She twisted her hands together. "George, don't make me hate you."

"No," he said with a strange meekness. "Shall I take her to the kitchen? It'll be warm there, and the fire won't be out. I'll carry her."

"But I don't like you to touch her," Helen stated with a simplicity that had its fierceness.

"It's just as if she's dead," he said in a low voice, and at Helen's frightened gasp, he added—"I mean for me."

"Take her," she said, and when he had obeyed she sat on her heels and stared at nothing. For her, a mist was in the room, but through it there loomed the horrid familiarity of Halkett's bed, his washstand and a row of boots. Why was she here? What had she done? She heard him asking gently, "Aren't you coming?" and she remembered. She had promised to marry George because Miriam had been lying on the floor, because, years ago, the woman lying alone in Pinderwell House had brought the Canipers to the moor where George lived and was brutal and was going to marry her. But it could not be true, for, in some golden past, before this ugliness fell between her and beauty, she had promised to marry Zebedee. She held her head to think. No, of course she had given him no promise. They had come together like birds, like bees to flowers—

"Aren't you coming?" Halkett asked again.

She rose. Yes, here was her promised man. She had bought Miriam with a price. She stumbled after him down the stairs.

In the warmth of the kitchen, by the light of a glowing fire and a single candle, Miriam's eyelids fluttered and lay back.

"It's all right, darling," Helen said. "You're quite safe. You're with Helen, with Helen, dear."

Behind Miriam's eyes, thoughts like butterflies with wet wings were struggling to be free.

"Something happened. It was George. Has he gone away?"

"He isn't going to hurt you. He wants to take you home."

"Don't let him. We'll go together, Helen. Soon. Not yet. Take care of me. Don't leave me." She started up. "Helen! I didn't say I'd marry him. I wouldn't. Helen, I know I didn't!"

"You didn't, you didn't. He knows. He frightened you because you teased him so. He just frightened you. He's here—not angry. Look!"

He nodded at her clumsily.

"You see?"

"Yes. I'm glad. I'm sorry, George."

"It doesn't matter," he said.

He looked at Helen and she looked full at him and she knew, when he turned to Miriam, that he still watched over herself. She could recognize the tenderness and wonder in his eyes, but she could not understand how they had found a place there, ousting greed and anger for her sake, how his molten senses had taken an imprint of her to instruct his mind.

"Can you come now?" she said.

"Yes." Miriam stood up and laughed unsteadily. "How queer I feel! George—"

"It's all right," he said. "I'll take you home."

"But we're not afraid," Helen said. "There's nothing to be afraid of on the moor." All possibility of fear had gone: her dread had been for some uncertain thing that was to come, and now she knew the evil and found in it something almost as still as rest.

In the passage, he separated her from Miriam. "I want to speak to you."

"Yes. Be careful."

"Tonight. In your garden. I'll wait there. Come to me. Promise that, too."

"Oh, yes, yes," she said. "That, too."

He watched them go across the yard, their heads bent towards each other, and Helen's pale arm like a streak on Miriam's dress. He heard their footsteps and the shifting of a horse in the stables, and a mingled smell of manure and early flowers crept up to him. The slim figures were now hardly separable from the wood, and they were frail and young and touching. He looked at them, and he was sorry for all the unworthy things he had ever done. It was Helen who made him feel like that, Helen who shone like a star, very far off, but not quite out of reach. She was the only star that night. Not one showed its face among the clouds, and there was no moon to wrinkle her droll features at the little men on earth. Helen was the star, shining in the larch-wood. He called her name, but she did not hear, and he seemed to be caught up by the sound and to float among the clouds.

"It's like being converted," he told himself, and he followed slowly across the moor.


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