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CHAPTER XXV
As the girls passed under the trees, Miriam began to cry.

"Helen, if you hadn't come!"

"But I did."

"Yes, yes. To see you there! It was—oh! And then I fainted. What did you do to him?"

"We needn't talk about it. And don't cry." She was afraid of having to hate this daring, helpless being who clung to her; yet she could hate no one who needed her, and she said tenderly, "Don't cry. It's over now."

"Yes. I've lost my handkerchief."

"Here's mine."

"You're not angry with me, are you? How did you know I'd gone?"

"I think the house told me. Oh, here's the moor. How good to get to it out of that pit. Come quickly. Notya—"

"I can't come faster. Tell me what you said to him. Nothing I said was any good."

"I managed him."

"And I couldn't. Suppose he catches me again."

"He won't. Can't you understand that he may not want you any more? Let us get home."

"I'm doing my best. I wish I were a man. A woman can't have fun."

"Fun!"

"Oh, you're so good! I meant it for fun, and now he'll come after me again. Of course he wants me. He's in love with me."

"There's love and love," Helen said.

"And if you subtract one from the other—I don't know what I'm saying—there may be nothing left. If George does that little sum in the morning—"

"I think it's done already."

"I hope so. I'm miserable. I wish the sea would come up and wash me and make me forget. You're not holding me so lovingly as you did. In the kitchen you were sweet."

"Is that better? I think the moor is like the sea. It's a great, clean bath to plunge into. And here's the garden. That's another bath, a little one, so dark and cold and peaceful. And the poplars. Soon there will be leaves on them." She stopped with a thin cry. "What has happened? I left the house in darkness, and look now!" Every window gave out light that fell in differing patterns on the grass. "Oh! what is it?" For an instant she thought the whole night's work must be some evil fancy, this brilliance as well as the sordid horror at the farm, and then, as Miriam cried, "Is it the house on fire?" the other rushed across the lawn, leaping the golden patches as though, indeed, they might have burned her.

Miriam tried to follow, but, weakness overcoming her, she sat down on the lawn. Half drowsily, she was interested in the windows, for their brightness promised gaiety within the house and she bent her ear expectantly for music. There ought to have been music, sweet and tinkling, and people dancing delicately, but the lights were not darkened by moving figures, and the only sound was Helen's voice anxiously calling her in.

Miriam was indifferent to the anxiety, and she did not want to rise: she was comfortable on the soft, damp earth, and the night had been so long that the morning must be near. If she stayed there, she would be spared the trouble of going to bed and getting up again, and when Helen called once more, she heard the voice as from a great way off, and answered sleepily, "Yes, I'm coming," but the next minute she was annoyed to find Helen standing over her.

"Why didn't you come in? It's Notya. She has put lights in every room. She was afraid of the dark, she says. She couldn't find us. She has been talking—oh, talking. Come and let her see you."

"I wish things wouldn't go round and round."

"You must go to bed, but first you must let her see you. She thinks you are not coming back."

"And I nearly didn't. I won't see her if she's ill."

"You must. She isn't—green, or anything."

"I'm ill, too. I'm giddy."

"Oh, can't you do this to help me? Haven't I helped you?"

"Oh, yes, you have! I'll come, but help me up." Her laughter bubbled out. "I'm afraid you're having rather a busy night!"

Mildred Caniper was sitting on the edge of the bed. Swinging a foot, and with her curly hair hanging to her shoulders, she had a very youthful look.

"So she has come back," she said. Her voice was small and secret. "I thought she wouldn't. She is like Edith. Edith went. And I was glad. Yes, for a little while." Her tones grew mournful and she looked at the floor. "But it hasn't been a happy thing for me. No. I have been very unhappy."

Miriam stood at the door and, holding on to it, she stared with fear and fascination at the strange woman on the bed, and from her throat there came a tiny sound, like the beating of a little animal's heart. "Oh, oh, oh! Oh, oh, oh!"

Helen was murmuring to her stepmother: "Yes, dear, yes. Get into bed. It's late, and we are all going to bed. You are getting cold, you know. Let me lift your feet up. There! That's better."

"Yes." Mildred lay passive. She seemed to think and, in the pause, Miriam's ejaculations changed to sighs that ceased as Mildred said in the sharp tones they welcomed now, "What are you both doing here? Go to bed. Helen, don't fuss. And let us have no more of this wandering about at night."

They left the room like threatened children, and on the landing they took each other's hands.

"Is she mad?" Miriam whispered. "Are we all mad? What's happening to us all?"

"I think she was just—dazed. Come to bed. I'll help you to undress."

"Once before you did. That night it rained—"

"Yes. Don't talk."

"But if she goes out of her mind, will it be my fault? Because of not finding us, and the house all dark? Will that be my fault, too?"

Helen was busy with strings and buttons. "How can we tell who does things?"

"She was talking about Mother. I wish I had a real, comfortable mother now. It was horrible, but I wanted to hear more. I did, Helen. Didn't you?"

"No. I don't like seeing souls if there are spots on them. Shall I put out the light?"

"Yes. Now the darkness is going round. It will whirl me to sleep. I want to go away. Do you think Uncle Alfred—? I'm frightened of this house. And there's George. I think I'd better go away in case he comes after me again."

A whistle like the awakening chirrup of a bird sounded from the garden, and Helen's voice quavered as she said, "We'll talk about it in the morning."

Quietly she shut the door and went downstairs. She had a lighted candle in one hand, and a great shadow moved beside her—went with her to the drawing-room, and stayed there while she wrote a letter to the accompaniment of George's persistent whistling. She hardly needed it, and it stopped abruptly as she passed through the long window to the garden.

Among the poplars she found him waiting and at once she was aware of some change in him. His head was thrust forward from his shoulders, and he searched greedily for her face.

"I thought you'd given me the slip," he muttered.

She frowned a little at his use of words, yet what had he to do with her? She looked up at the bare branches and thought of Zebedee and the masts of ships.

"This must be a secret," she said through stiffening lips. "Come further from the house." She led him to the garden door and opened it. "Out here," she whispered.

The moor was like a tired, simple man asleep, yet it still kept its quality of water, buoyant, moving and impetuous, and she felt that it had swung her here and there amid its waves for many hours, and now had left her on a little shore, battered and bereft, but safe.

"I can't stay," she said softly.

"I thought you wouldn't come," he answered. He did not understand her: she gave no sign of pleading or withdrawal: he was sure she had no fear, and another certainty was born in him.

"I can trust you," he said with a sigh of peace.

"Yes."

"I thought you wouldn't come," he said again.

"But I'm here, you see."

His voice rose. "I'd have got in."

"It would have been quite easy."

"Weren't you afraid?" he asked, and he found a memory of Miriam in her laughter. "No, I wasn't afraid."

"But you're going to marry me."

"That was the bargain."

Her passivity angered him. This dignity of submission put him in the wrong. She seemed to be waiting patiently and without anxiety for her release. Why should he give it? How could he give it? Would he deny God in God's own presence?

He turned to look at her, and as they stood side by side, a foot of earth between them, he could almost hear her breathing. Her smoothly-banded hair and the clear line of brow and nose and chin mocked him with their calm. He spoke loudly, but his voice dropped as the star to which he likened her might shoot across the heavens and disappear.

"You make me think—of stars," he said.

Again she looked upward, and her tilted face was like a waning moon. "There are no stars tonight. I must go in."

"But—tomorrow?" he said.

"Tomorrow?"

"I shall see you tomorrow?"

The repetition of the word gave her its meaning. She took the letter from her belt and held it out to him.

"No, no," he said.

"Won't you have it posted for me?"

"I—I thought it was for me," he stammered. "Yes, I'll have it posted."

"Will it go early?" she asked earnestly.

"I'll take it down tonight."

"Oh, there's no need of that."

"I'd like to do it," and touching his forehead with a childish gesture, he added, "I couldn't sleep."

"It's morning already," Helen said.

He looked eastward. "Hours of darkness yet."

"And you'll go down the road and back, before it's light. You needn't, George."

"I want to think of you," he answered simply, turning the letter in his hands.

She moved to the door and stood against it. "George—" she said. She had an impulse to tell him that his bargain was useless to him because she was a woman no longer. She had been changed from living flesh and blood to something more impalpable than air. She had promised to marry him, and she remained indifferent because, being no woman, she could not suffer a woman's pain; because, by her metamorphosis, there was no fear of that promise's fulfilment. It seemed only fair to tell him, but when he came to her, she shook her head.

"It was nothing," she murmured. Bulky of body, virile of sense, he was immature in mind, and she knew he would not understand.

"I must go now. Good-night."

"Don't go," he muttered.

She stood still, waiting for the words that laboured in him.

"I was mad," he said at last. "She makes me feel like that. You—you're different."

He wanted help from her, but she gave him none, and again there was a silence in which Jim came through the door and put his head into Helen's hand.

"Jim!" she said, "Jim!" Her thoughts went across a continent to blue water.

"I'd begun to love her," he explained, and moved from one foot to the other.

"George, I must go in."

"But I don't love her now," he added fiercely, with pride, almost with reassurance.

She would have laughed if she had heard him, but her numbness had passed by and all her powers were given to resisting the conviction that she was indeed Helen Caniper, born, to die, a woman; that Zebedee was on the sea, and had not ceased to love her, that she would have a tale to tell him on his return, and a dishonoured body to elude his arms, but she could not resist the knowledge, and under its gathering strength she cried out in a fury of pain that drove Halkett back a step.

"What is it?" he asked.

She did not answer. Her rage and misery left her weak and hopeless and though for a bright, flaming instant she had loathed him, she was now careless of him and of herself because nothing mattered any more.

She drooped against the door, and he approached her nervously, saying as he went, "You're tired. You ought to go to bed. I'll take you to the house."

That roused her and she looked at him. "No. Some one might hear."

"I can tread softly."

"Very well." She halted him among the poplars. "No further."

"I'll come tomorrow," he whispered.

"No, not tomorrow. Not until I tell you. I don't want any one to know. Don't come tomorrow."

"Then come to me," he said. "I wish you'd come to me. I'd like to see you coming through our wood and across the cobbles. And in the morning, the sun's on that side of the house. Helen," he pleaded, "will you come?" It was Miriam who had come before, a dark sprite, making and loving mischief, lowering him in his own regard until he had a longing to touch bottom and make her touch it, too; but if Helen came in her grey frock, slipping among the trees like silver light, he knew she would bring healing to his home and to his heart.

"Will you?" he begged. "Will you, Miss Helen? D'you remember how I used to call you that? Will you?"

"I don't know."

"But I want you so," he said; and when he would have touched her he found her gone.


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