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CHAPTER XXVIII
The next day had its own bewilderment and confusion, and Helen learnt that high tragedy is not blackest gloom but a thing patched and streaked with painful brightness, and she found herself capable of a gaiety which made Miriam doubly reproachful.

"You've never been like this before," she said, "and we might have had such fun. And you shouldn't be like it now, when I'm going away tomorrow." She sat in her empty box, with her legs dangling over the side. "I'm not sure that I shall go."

"You've only two pairs of stockings without holes in them," Helen said. She was kneeling before Miriam's chest of drawers.

"Doesn't matter. I shall have to buy heaps of things. D'you know, I'm afraid he's going to be strict."

"Poor little man!"

"And when one begins to think about it seriously, Helen, will one like it very much? Who's going to play with me? There'll be Uncle Alfred and a housekeeper woman. And do you know what he said?" She struggled from the box, shut down the lid and sat on it. "He said I must think I'm going into the world to learn. Learn!"

"I expect you'll want to. You won't like yourself so much when you meet other people."

"And shan't I hate my clothes! And I have visions, sister Helen, of four elderly gentlemen sitting round a whist-table, and me reading a book in a corner. So you see—no, I don't want to take that: give it to Samson—so you see, I'm a little damped. Well, if I don't like it, I shall come back. After all, there's Daniel."

"He's tired of you."

She showed her bright, sharp teeth, and said, "He'll recover after a rest. Oh, dear! I find I'm not so young and trustful as I was, and I'm expecting to be disappointed."

"The best thing," Helen said slowly, sitting down with a lapful of clothes, "is for the worst to happen. Then you needn't be troubled any more." She took a breath. "It's almost a relief."

"Oh, I don't feel so bad as that," Miriam explained, and Helen fell back laughing loudly.

"You've spilt all my clothes," Miriam said, and began to pick them up. "And don't make such a noise. Remember Notya!"

Helen was on her side, her head rested on her outstretched arm, and her face was puckered, her mouth widened with the noise she made.

"Oh," she said, "you always think of Notya at such funny times."

"Somebody has to," Miriam replied severely, and Helen laughed again, and beat her toes against the ground. Over her, Miriam stood, stern and disgusted, clasping linen to her breast.

"You're hysterical. Nurse will come in. In fact, I'll go and fetch her. She'll grin at you!"

"Is this hysterical? It's rather nice," Helen giggled. "Let me laugh while I can. There'll be no one to say such things when you are gone." She sat up with a start, and seemed to instruct herself. "You're going," she said, and faced the fact.

Miriam threw her bundle on the bed and stood irresolute. For once, the thoughts of the two had kinship, and they saw the days before them deprived of the companionship which had been, as it were, abortive, yet dear to both; necessary, it seemed now; but the future had new things in it for Miriam, and for Helen it had fear. Nevertheless, it was Miriam who cried through quivering lips, "Helen, I won't go!"

"You must," she said practically.

"Because of George?"

She nodded: it was indeed because of George, for how could she keep her promise with Miriam in the house?

"And, after all," Miriam said brightly, "there's Zebedee. I'm not leaving you quite alone. He'll be back soon. But—it's that I don't want to do without you. I can't think how to do it."

"I know," Helen said, and added, "but you'll find out."

"And John—"

"Never mind. John doesn't know about—things. Let's pack."

And while Mildred Caniper lay on one side of the landing where the Pinderwells were playing quietly, Helen and Miriam, on the other, laughed at the prospect before them and made foolish jokes as they filled the trunk.

It was harder, next day, than Helen had guessed to hold Miriam's hand in good-bye, to kiss her with a fragile, short-lived kiss, to watch her climb into the trap and to hear her box banged into its place by the driver's seat, with an emphatic noise that settled the question of her going.

It was a cold morning and the wind bustled as though it had an interest in this affair; it caught Miriam's skirt as she stood on the trap step, and lifted the veil floating from her hat, fluttered the horse's mane and disordered Helen's hair. It was like a great cold broom trying to sweep these aliens off the moor, and, for a moment, Helen had more pity for Miriam than for herself. Miriam was exiled, while she stayed at home.

She looked up at the house front and heard the laurels rattling, and round her she saw the moor spread clear-coloured under the east wind. Halkett's high wood stood up like ranks of giants set to guard her and, though she saw them now as George's men, she had no fear of them.

"Helen!" Miriam called to her.

She went forward and stood at the carriage door. "Yes?"

"Helen—we're going. Do you remember the first time we bathed in the sea? The wind was so cold, like this, before we went into the water. We nearly ran back. That's how I feel now."

"But we didn't go back."

"Oh! here's Uncle Alfred."

"And we learnt to swim."

"Yes. Good-bye. Kiss me again."

Helen stood quite still with her hands by her sides, while the carriage bumped over the track, stopped on the road that John and Lily might say their farewells, and slowly went on again until it was out of sight and she saw the road left empty. It looked callous, too, as though it did not care what came or went on it, and as she looked about her, Helen discovered that she was in a desert world, a wilderness of wind and dead, rustling heather and angry laurel leaves, of empty houses and women whose breath whistled through their distorted mouths. And the giants, standing so great and black against the sky, were less to guard her than to keep a friend from attempted rescue.

She raised her arms and opened her hands in a gesture of avowal. No one would ever rescue her, for, by her own act, she would be chained more firmly than Andromeda when Zebedee next came up the road.

"I must get it over," she whispered quickly, and she sat down where she had stood. She had to keep her promise, and now that there was no one in the way, the thing must be done before Zebedee could come and fight for her, lest people should be hurt and precious things broken: her word, and peace, and the beauty of the moor. Yet things were broken already: life limped; it would never go quite smoothly again.

She wondered what God was doing in His own place; it seemed that He had too much to do, or had He been careless at the beginning of things and let them get out of hand? She was sorry for Him. It must be dreary to look down on His work and see it going wrong. He was probably looking at her now and clicking His tongue in vexation. "There's Helen Caniper. She ought to have married the doctor. That's what I meant her to do. What's gone wrong? Miriam? I ought to have watched her. Dear, dear, dear! I oughtn't to have set them going at all if I couldn't keep them straight." So her thoughts ran as she sat with her head bowed to her knees, but she remembered how, in George's room that night, with Miriam on the floor, she had called to God without premeditation, with the naturalness of any cry for help, and in a fashion, He had heard her. No one had taught her to pray and until then she had called on no god but the one behind the smoke. Perhaps this other one had a power which she could not understand.

She looked up, and saw a sky miraculously arched and stretching beyond sight and imagination, and she thought, simply enough, that, having made the sky, God might be tired. And surely He had proved Himself: a being who had created this did not make small mistakes with men. It was some human creature who had failed, and though it seemed like Miriam, might it not be herself? Or Mildred Caniper, or some cause beyond Mildred Caniper, going back and back, like the waves of the sea? It was impossible to fix the blame, foolish to try, unnecessary to know it. The thing had happened: it might be good, yet when she heard Halkett's voice behind her, she was only conscious of bitter evil.

"I want to talk to you," he said.

"Yes?"

He came into her view and looked down scowlingly. "I don't know what you've been up to, but I'd better tell you to begin with that I'm not a fool."

She frowned at his manner, but she said patiently, "I don't know what you mean."

"You're clever."

"No."

"Then why have you got rid of her like that?"

"Are you speaking of my sister?"

"Yes, I am. I want to know why you've sent her off."

"I don't think it's your affair, but I will tell you. She was not happy here. If she had been happy, she would not have behaved foolishly with you."

"Ah! I thought you'd come to that. I see."

"What do you see?"

"Why you've got rid of her."

"I suppose you are hinting something," she said wearily. "Please don't do it. I cannot—I cannot possibly be polite, if you are not straightforward. And please be quick, because I have a lot to do."

He flushed at this gentle hectoring, but he could not still his curiosity.

"I want to know," he said slowly, "what your little idea is about me—about me—and you. Are you going to try backing out of it, now that you have her safe?"

She had not thought of it; her face showed that, and he did not need the assurance of her quiet words.

"I was afraid," he muttered, half abashed. "I thought you'd take a chance."

"I couldn't take one unless you offered it," she said.

There were thoughts behind his eyes; he seemed to waver, and she steadied her own face for fear of doing the one thing that would not move him. Now she did not pray: she had a dread of asking for herself, lest God, in punishment, should grant the prayer and let worse follow. Escape was only to be made through a door of George's opening, and she knew he would never let her through, but she looked at the clouds and waited for him to speak.

His words were heralded by guttural noises in his throat.

"I want you," he said at last, with the simplicity of a desire for bread. "And there isn't any need to wait. I'm going to town today. I'll see about it. In three weeks—"

She said nothing; she was still watching the clouds; they were like baskets overbrimming with heaped snow.

He came nearer. "I'm going to get a ring. And, after all, we needn't wait three weeks. I'll get a licence. What kind of ring?"

Zebedee's ring was hanging on a ribbon round her neck, and she put a hand to her throat and pressed the hard stones against her skin.

"I suppose one has to have a wedding ring."

"I meant—another kind," he said.

"Is it worth while for such a little time?" she asked and did not look at him.

"There's afterwards."

"Yes. There's afterwards." She might have been lingering on the words with love, but suddenly she rose and stamped a foot as though to crush them, and cried out, "I will have no ring at all! Neither one nor the other!"

"You can't get married without a ring," he said stupidly. It pleased him to see her thus: she was less distant from him.

"Very well. Marry me with one. I will not wear it afterwards."

"I don't care about that," he muttered. He was looking at her, peering in the half-blind fashion he used towards her. "Helen—I was awake half the night."

She stared at him. It would not have troubled her if he had never slept again. It was absurd of him to think she cared whether he slept or waked.

"Thinking of you—" he added, and seemed to wait for some reward.

"I am going in," was all she said.

"Not yet. That's all you ever say to me. I wish you'd have a ring."

"But I will not!"

"Something, then," he begged.

"What do such things matter?" she cried, and hated her ungraciousness as she heard it. "If it will make you happy," she conceded. "Good-bye, George. The doctor will soon be here, and there is everything to do."

"Aren't you going to let me in?"

"Oh, yes." She passed into the house and up the stairs, and she did not look back to see if he had followed.

He found himself at a loss in the big house which seemed very empty. There was not a sound in it but the ticking of the clock and, upstairs, Helen's movements, which were few and quiet. He realized that he was practically alone with her, and though he listened earnestly, he could not tell exactly where she was, and at any moment she might come slipping down the stairs before he knew she was at the head of them. The fancy pleased him; it kept him poised for her; it would be fine, he thought, to play at hide-and-seek with her, to search the old house while she ran from him, to hear the clicking of a door or an unwary step, and at last to catch her in his arms, in the dark of a winter night.

He waited, but she did not come, and, understanding that his presence in the hall might well keep her upstairs, he wandered into the kitchen.

The room was neat, but a pile of dirty plates and dishes awaited washing, and having looked at them thoughtfully, he took off his coat, and he was working in the scullery when Helen appeared. Already he had filled the scuttles and the kettles.

"Thank you very much," she said, in a kind of wonder. He was a different person now, and she was touched by the sight of this careful dealing with mop and plates, by his puckered brow and lips. He was like a child, and she did not wish to see him so. If he continued simple, she might grow fond of him, and that, she thought, would be disloyalty to Zebedee. To marry George without love, affection, friendship or respect was only to pay the price he had demanded; but to feel kindness for him, even that human kindness she could seldom refuse to any one, was to make the sacrifice less complete, to cloud, in some way, the honesty of the eyes which would have to look at Zebedee when he learnt what she had done.

"It's kind, George, but don't do it."

"I'm slow, but I can manage."

"Splendidly, but I can do it."

"You can't do everything."

Her face was pinched as she said, "I'm glad to do it."

He straightened the big back he was bending in her service. "Let me help. I'll be here to light the kitchen fire tomorrow."

"There's no need: Mrs. Samson is coming, I've promised to have her every day."

"Samson is my man."

"I know." Lines were beginning to show between her brows. "George, nobody need be told."

Again he straightened himself, but now he seemed to threaten with his bulk. "I'd feel safer if you weren't so secret."

"Can't you trust me?" she said. "How often must I ask you that?"

He had a slow way of flushing to the eyes. "I'm sorry," he said humbly, as he used his thumb nail on a plate.

She was irritated by his meekness, for now he was not childlike. She felt his thoughts circling round her in a stubborn determination to possess, even, if it must be, through his own submission, but she hated him less for that than for his looks, which, at that moment, were without definite sex. He looked neither man nor woman: his knees were slightly bent; his face was red, and his nail still scraped patiently on the plate. Since she must marry him, she would have him as masculine as he could be, so that therein she might find shelter from the shame of being yoked to him.

Her cheeks grew cold in amazement at her own thought, and her mind shrank from it. She felt that all the blood in her body was dropping to her feet, and they were heavy as she moved towards the door.

"Are you going?" he asked her.

"I must watch for the doctor."

She had the mind of a slave, she told herself, the mind of a slave, and she deserved no better than to be one.

She wrapped a grey cape about her and sat outside the garden gate. The wind was strong enough to lean against, stronger than man or anything he had made. Its freshness seemed to get beneath her skin, into her mind, to clean every part of her. Its action had a swiftness that prevented thought, and she was content to sit there till the doctor came, though the nurse had gone to bed in Christopher, and Mildred Caniper was alone. If she could see through those closed lids, she would not mind: she must know how terrible it was to sit and watch her immobility.

The postman came before the doctor and brought a letter with a foreign stamp, and for a long time she held the envelope unopened between her palms. Her body felt like a great heart beating, and she was afraid to read what Zebedee had written, but at last she split the envelope and spread the sheets, and forgot George Halkett in the scullery and Mildred Caniper in bed: she did not hear the calling of the peewits or the melancholy of the sheep; she heard Zebedee's voice, clear-cut and quick, saying perfect things in ordinary tones. He told her of the sea that sometimes seemed to change into the moor, and of the sails that swelled into the big clouds they knew; he told her that though there was never any one who could claim likeness to her, it did not matter because she never left him, and that, in spite of her continuing presence, and because he was well again, he thought he would come home by land to reach her sooner.

She spoke aloud, but her forehead was on the letter on her knee.

"No, don't, Zebedee—darling—dearest—lover. Don't come any sooner. I don't want you to have more days of knowing than you need."


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