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CHAPTER XXVI
Her bargain had been made and must be kept and Zebedee would understand. He would not be angry with her: he had only been angry with her once, and he had always understood. He would feel her agony in that room at Halkett's Farm, with Miriam, white and stricken, on the floor, and George Halkett, hot and maddened, on the bed, and he would know that hers had been the only way.

These were her thoughts as she went about the house, hasping windows and bolting doors, with a dreary sense of the futility of caution.

"For you see, Jim, the horse is stolen already," she said.

She did not forget to bid Jane good-night; she undressed and laid her clothes neatly in their place, and without difficulty she dropped into a sleep as deep as her own trouble.

She had the virtues of her defects, a stoicism to match her resolutions, and she was angered when she rose and saw the reflection of eyes that had looked on sorrow. She shook her head at the person in the glass and, leaning from the window and finding the garden no less lovely for the traffic of the night, she was enspirited by that example, and ran downstairs to open the front door and let in the morning. Then she turned to face the business of another day.

She was amazed to find her stepmother in the kitchen, making pastry by the window, to see the fire burning heartily and the breakfast-things ready on a tray.

"What are you doing?" she demanded from the doorway.

Mildred Caniper looked round. Her eyes were very bright and Helen waited in dread of the garrulousness of last night, but Mildred spoke with the old incisive tongue, though it moved slowly.

"You can see what I am doing."

"But you ought not to do it."

"I refuse to be an invalid any longer."

"And all yesterday you were in bed."

"Yesterday is not today, and you may consider yourself second in command again. It is time I was about the house when you and Miriam choose to spend half the night on the moor. I was left in bed with a house unlocked."

"But Jim was there."

"Jim! Although Dr. Mackenzie gave you the dog, Helen, I have not all that faith in his invincibility."

Helen smiled her appreciation of that sentence, though she did not like her stepmother's looks.

"I would rather trust Jim's teeth than our bolts and locks, and I told him to take care of you."

"That was thoughtful of you!" Mildred said. She rolled her pastry, but it did not please her, and she squeezed the dough into a ball as she turned with unusual haste to Helen.

"You must not wander about at night alone."

"But on the moor—!" Helen protested.

"It's Miriam—Miriam—" the word came vaguely. "You must look after her."

"I do try," Helen said, and hearing the strangeness of her own voice she coughed and choked to cover it.

"What does that mean?"

"What?" Helen's hand was at her throat.

"You are trying to deceive me. Something has happened. Tell me at once!"

"I swallowed the wrong way," Helen said. "It's hurting still."

"I do not believe you."

"Oh, but, Notya, you must. You know I don't tell lies. Why should you be so much afraid for Miriam?"

"Because—Did I say anything? My head aches a little. In fact, I don't feel well." The rolling-pin fell noisily to the floor. "Tiresome!" she said, and sank into a chair.

When Helen returned with the medicine which Zebedee had left for such emergencies, she found her stepmother beside the rolling-pin. Her mouth was open and a little twisted, and she was heavy and unwieldy when Helen raised her body and made it lean against the wall.

"But she won't stay there," Helen murmured, looking at her. She was like a great doll with a distorted face, and while Helen watched her she slipped to the floor with the obstinacy of the inanimate.

Some one would have to go to Halkett's Farm. Helen stared at the rolling-pin and she thought her whole life had passed in tending Mildred Caniper and sending some one to Halkett's Farm. Yesterday she had done it, and the day before; today and tomorrow and all the days to come she would find her stepmother with this open, twisted mouth.

She forced her way out of this maze of thought and rushed out to see if George, by chance, were already on the moor, but he was not in sight, and she ran back again, through the kitchen, with a shirked glance for Mildred Caniper, and up the stairs to Miriam.

"I can't go!" Miriam cried. "I'll go for John, but I daren't go to Halkett's."

"John and Lily went with the milk this morning. You'll have to go for George. Be quick! She's lying there—"

"Nothing will make me go! How can you ask it?"

Helen longed to strike her. "Then I shall go, and you must stay with Notya," she said and, half-dressed, Miriam was hurried down the stairs. "And if you dare to leave her—!"

"I won't leave her," Miriam moaned, and sat with averted face.

Thus it was that George Halkett had his wish as the sun cleared blue mist from the larches, but Helen did not come stealing, shy and virginal, as he had pictured her; she bounded towards him like a hunted thing and stood and panted, struggling for her words.

He steadied himself against attack. No persuasion and no abuse would make him let her go. The road he had trodden in the night knew his great need of her and now she caught his senses, for her eyes had darkened, colour was in her cheeks, and she glowed as woman where she had shone as saint.

She did not see his offered hands. "It's Notya, again, George, please." She had a glimpse of Mrs. Biggs peering between window curtains, and her tongue tripped over the next words. "S-so will you—can you be very quick?"

"The doctor?"

"Yes. Dr. Mackenzie is away, but there's another there, and he must come."

He nodded, and he did not see her go, for he was in the stable harnessing the horse and shouting to a man to get the cart.

"You've got to drive to town like hell, William, and the sooner you bring the doctor the better for you."

"I'll have to change my clothes."

"You'll go as you are, God damn you, and you'll go now."

He waited until the cart was bowling towards the road before he followed Helen so swiftly that he saw her dress whisk through the garden door. He used no ceremony and he found her in the kitchen, where Miriam was sitting stiffly on a chair, her feet on one of its rungs, her neck and shoulders cream-coloured above the whiteness of her under-linen. He hardly looked at her and he did not know whether she went or stayed. He spoke to Helen:

"Do you want me to carry her upstairs? William's gone to town. I've come to help you."

"Then you've spoilt the game, George. It's always you who go to town and bring the doctor. Never mind. Yes. Carry her up. Don't step on the rolling-pin." She looked at it again. "She's not dead, is she?"

"No."

"What is it, then?"

He stooped to lift the heavy burden, and she heard him say a word mumblingly, as though ashamed of it.

She moved about the room, crying, "A stroke! It's ugly. It's horrid. A stroke! Why can't they say a blow?"

He could not bear the bitterness of her distress. "Don't, don't, my dear," he said, and startled her into quiet.

The doctor came and went, promising to return, and a nurse with large crowded teeth assumed control over the sick-room. There was little to be done; she sat on a chair by the window and, because of those excessive teeth, she seemed to smile continually at Mildred Caniper's mockery of death.

Outside, a cold rain was falling: it splashed on the laurel leaves by the gate and threw a shifting curtain across the moor. The fire in the room made small noises, as though it tried to talk; the nurse bent over her patient now and then, but Mildred Caniper did not move.

Downstairs, in the kitchen, Miriam sat on her feet in the big armchair: she was almost motionless, like one who has been startled into a posture and dare not move lest her fear should take shape. The rain darkened the room and filled it with a sound of hissing; a kettle whistled on the fire, and there was a smell of airing linen.

Helen turned a sheet. "The nurse must have Christopher's bed," she said at last. "We must carry it in."

"Who?"

"You and I."

"I can't! I can't go in. I should—I should be sick! I can't. Helen, after last night—"

"Very well. Can you manage to go to Brent Farm and tell John? They ought to be at home now."

"But there's George."

"He won't hurt you."

"He'd speak to me if he saw me."

"No. He took no notice of you this morning."

"That was because I wasn't dressed."

Helen laughed rather weakly and for a long time.

"You're not really laughing!" Miriam cried. "This house is horrible. You making that noise, and Notya upstairs, and that hideous nurse grinning, and George prowling about outside. I can't stay here."

"Go to Brent Farm, then. You can tell John and stay there. Lily won't mind."

"Shall I? John would be angry."

Helen made no reply as she moved quietly and efficiently about the kitchen, preparing food, setting things on a tray, turning the linen, working quickly but with no sign of haste. The rain splattered on the gravel path outside and clicked sharply into some vessel which stood by the scullery door.

A voice came unhappily from the pale face blotted against the chair.

"Helen, what are you going to do about me?"

She turned in astonishment and stared at Miriam.

"You said we were to talk about it."

"I know." What held her silent was the realization that while she felt herself helpless, under the control of some omnipotent will, here was one who cried out to her as arbiter. It was strange and she wanted to laugh again but, refusing that easy comment, she came upon a thought which terrified and comforted her together. She was responsible for what she had done; Zebedee would know that, and he would have the right, if he had the heart, to blame her. A faint sound was caught in her throat and driven back. She had to be prepared for blame and for the anger which so endeared him, but the belief that she was not the plaything of malevolence gave her the dignity of courage.

"Helen," said the voice again.

"Yes. I wrote to Uncle Alfred yesterday—this morning. I shouldn't think he could be here tomorrow, but the next day, if he comes—"

But blame or anger, how small they were in the face of this common gash—this hurt! She shut a door in her brain, the one which led into that chamber where all lovely things bloomed among the horrors. And Zebedee, as she had always told him, was just herself: they shared.

"Oh, you've done that? How wonderful! But—it's like running away."

"I don't want you here."

There was an exclamation and a protest.

"Only because I couldn't be happy about you."

"Because of George? No, I don't see how I can stay here, but there's Notya."

"You're no use, you see."

"Oh—"

"If you can't even carry in that bed."

"I'll try to go in," she said, in a muffled voice.

"I can ask the nurse. I don't want you to stay, but try," she went on dispassionately, "try not to be silly any more. I shan't always be there to—save you."

"It was very dramatic."

"Yes; just like a story, wasn't it?"

"Don't be so unpleasant. I still feel ill. It was horrid to faint. I can't make out why Mrs. Biggs didn't stop you."

"Do you want to talk about it?"

"N-no—"

"Neither do I."

"But I can't make out—"

"Never mind. What does it matter? It's over. For you it's over. But don't play with people's lives any more, and ruin them."

There was a pause, in which the room grew darker.

"Do you think," Miriam asked in an awed voice, "he minds so much?"

Helen moved the little clothes-horse and knelt before the fire and its heat burnt her face while her body shivered under a sudden cold. She thought of George, but not as an actor in last night's scenes; her memory swung back, as his had often done, to the autumn night when they sat together in the heather, and his figure and hers became huge with portent. She had thought he was the tinker, and so, indeed, he was, and he no doubt had mistaken her for Miriam, as latterly he had mistaken his own needs. No, she was not altogether responsible. And why had Rupert told her that tale? And why, if she must have a tinker, could she not desire him as Eliza had desired hers?

"Oh, no, no!" she said aloud and very quickly, and she folded her arms across her breast and held her shoulders, shrinking.

"I don't think so either," Miriam said.



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