HELBECK OF BANNISDALE
MRS. HUMPHRY WARD
... metus ille ... Acheruntis ... Funditus humanam qui vitam turbat ab imo
In two volumes
E. de V.
"I must be turning back. A dreary day for anyone coming fresh to these parts!"
So saying, Mr. Helbeck stood still—both hands resting on his thick stick—while his gaze slowly swept the straight white road in front of him and the landscape to either side.
Before him stretched the marsh lands of the Flent valley, a broad alluvial plain brought down by the rivers Flent and Greet on their way to the estuary and the sea. From the slight rising ground on which he stood, he could see the great peat mosses about the river-mouths, marked here and there by lines of weather-beaten trees, or by more solid dots of black which the eye of the inhabitant knew to be peat stacks. Beyond the mosses were level lines of greyish white, where the looping rivers passed into the sea—lines more luminous than the sky at this particular moment of a damp March afternoon, because of some otherwise invisible radiance, which, miles away, seemed to be shining upon the water, slipping down to it from behind a curtain of rainy cloud.
Nearer by, on either side of the high road which cut the valley from east to west, were black and melancholy fields, half reclaimed from the peat moss, fields where the water stood in the furrows, or a plough driven deep and left, showed the nature of the heavy waterlogged earth, and the farmer's despair of dealing with it, till the drying winds should come. Some of it, however, had long before been reclaimed for pasture, so that strips of sodden green broke up, here and there, the long stretches of purple black. In the great dykes or drains to which the pastures were due, the water, swollen with recent rain, could be seen hurrying to join the rivers and the sea. The clouds overhead hurried like the dykes and the streams. A perpetual procession from the north-west swept inland from the sea, pouring from the dark distance of the upper valley, and blotting out the mountains that stood around its head.
A desolate scene, on this wild March day; yet full of a sort of beauty, even so far as the mosslands were concerned. And as Alan Helbeck's glance travelled along the ridge to his right, he saw it gradually rising from the marsh in slopes, and scars, and wooded fells, a medley of lovely lines, of pastures and copses, of villages clinging to the hills, each with its church tower and its white spreading farms—a laud of homely charm and comfort, gently bounding the marsh below it, and cut off by the seething clouds in the north-west from the mountains towards which it climbed. And as he turned homewards with the moss country behind him, the hills rose and fell about him in soft undulation more and more rich in wood, while beside him roared the tumbling Greet, with its flood-voice—a voice more dear and familiar to Alan Helbeck perhaps, at this moment of his life, than the voice of any human being.
He walked fast with his shoulders thrown back, a remarkably tall man, with a dark head and short grizzled beard. He held himself very erect, as a soldier holds himself; but he had never been a soldier.
Once in his rapid course, he paused to look at his watch, then hurried on, thinking.
"She stipulates that she is never to be expected to come to prayers," he repeated to himself, half smiling. "I suppose she thinks of herself as representing her father—in a nest of Papists. Evidently Augustina has no chance with her—she has been accustomed to reign! Well, we shall let her 'gang her gait.'"
His mouth, which was full and strongly closed, took a slight expression of contempt. As he turned over a bridge, and then into his own gate on the further side, he passed an old labourer who was scraping the mud from the road.
"Have you seen any carriage go by just lately, Reuben?"
"Noa—" said the man. "Theer's been none this last hour an more—nobbut carts, an t' Whinthrupp bus."
Helbeck's pace slackened. He had been very solitary all day, and even the company of the old road-sweeper was welcome.
"If we don't get some drying days soon, it'll be bad for all of us, won't it, Reuben?"
"Aye, it's a bit clashy," said the man, with stolidity, stopping to spit into his hands a moment, before resuming his work.
The mildness of the adjective brought another half-smile to Helbeck's dark face. A stranger watching it might have wondered, indeed, whether it could smile with any fulness or spontaneity.
"But you don't see any good in grumbling—is that it?"
"Noa—we'se not git ony profit that gate, I reckon," said the old man, laying his scraper to the mud once more.
"Well, good-night to you. I'm expecting my sister to-night, you know, my sister Mrs. Fountain, and her stepdaughter."
"Eh?" said Reuben slowly. "Then yo'll be hevin cumpany, fer shure. Good-neet to ye, Misther Helbeck."
But there was no great cordiality in his tone, and he touched his cap carelessly, without any sort of unction. The man's manner expressed familiarity of long habit, but little else.
Helbeck turned into his own park. The road that led up to the house wound alongside the river, whereof the banks had suddenly risen into a craggy wildness. All recollection of the marshland was left behind. The ground mounted on either side of the stream towards fell-tops, of which the distant lines could be seen dimly here and there behind the crowding trees; while, at some turns of the road, where the course of the Greet made a passage for the eye, one might look far away to the same mingled blackness of cloud and scar that stood round the head of the estuary. Clearly the mountains were not far off; and this was a border country between their ramparts and the sea.
The light of the March evening was dying, dying in a stormy greyness that promised more rain for the morrow. Yet the air was soft, and the spring made itself felt. In some sheltered places by the water, one might already see a shimmer of buds; and in the grass of the wild untended park, daffodils were springing. Helbeck was conscious of it all; his eye and ear were on the watch for the signs of growth, and for the birds that haunted the river, the dipper on the stone, the grey wagtail slipping to its new nest in the bank, the golden-crested wren, or dark-backed creeper moving among the thorns. He loved such things; though with a silent and jealous love that seemed to imply some resentment towards other things and forces in his life.
As he walked, the manner of the old peasant rankled a little in his memory. For it implied, if not disrespect, at least a complete absence of all that the French call "consideration."
"It's strange how much more alone I've felt in this place of late than I used to feel," was Helbeck's reflection upon it, at last. "I reckon it's since I sold the Leasowes land. Or is it perhaps——"
He fell into a reverie marked by a frowning expression, and a harsh drawing down of the mouth. But gradually as he swung along, muttered words began to escape him, and his hand went to a book that he carried in his pocket.—"O dust, learn of Me to obey! Learn of Me, O earth and clay, to humble thyself, and to cast thyself under the feet of all men for the love of Me."—As he murmured the words, which soon became inaudible, his aspect cleared, his eyes raised themselves again to the landscape, and became once more conscious of its growth and life.
Presently he reached a gate across the road, where a big sheepdog sprang out upon him, leaping and barking joyously. Beyond the gates rose a low pile of buildings, standing round three sides of a yard. They had once been the stables of the Hall. Now they were put to farm uses, and through the door of what had formerly been a coachhouse with a coat of arms worked in white pebbles on its floor, a woman could be seen milking. Helbeck looked in upon her.
"No carriage gone by yet, Mrs. Tyson?"
"Noa, sir," said the woman. "But I'll mebbe prop t' gate open, for it's aboot time." And she put down her pail.
"Don't move!" said Helbeck hastily. "I'll do it myself."
The woman, as she milked, watched him propping the ruinous gate with a stone; her expression all the time friendly and attentive. His own people, women especially, somehow always gave him this attention.
Helbeck hurried forward over a road, once stately, and now badly worn and ill-mended. The trees, mostly oaks of long growth, which had accompanied him since the entrance of the park, thickened to a close wood around till of a sudden he emerged from them, and there, across a wide space, rose a grey gabled house, sharp against a hillside, with a rainy evening light full upon it.
It was an old and weather-beaten house, of a singular character and dignity; yet not large. It was built of grey stone, covered with a rough-cast, so tempered by age to the colour and surface of the stone, that the many patches where it had dropped away produced hardly any disfiguring effect. The rugged "pele" tower, origin and source of all the rest, was now grouped with the gables and projections, the broad casemented windows, and deep doorways of a Tudor manor-house. But the whole structure seemed still to lean upon and draw towards the tower; and it was the tower which gave accent to a general expression of austerity, depending perhaps on the plain simplicity of all the approaches and immediate neighbourhood of the house. For in front of it were neither flowers nor shrubs—only wide stretches of plain turf and gravel; while behind it, beyond some thin intervening trees, rose a grey limestone fell, into which the house seemed to withdraw itself, as into the rock, "whence it was hewn."
There were some lights in the old windows, and the heavy outer door was open. Helbeck mounted the steps and stood, watch in hand, at the top of them, looking down the avenue he had just walked through. And very soon, in spite of the roar of the river, his ear distinguished the wheels he was listening for. While they approached, he could not keep himself still, but moved restlessly about the little stone platform. He had been solitary for many years, and had loved his solitude.
"They're just coomin', sir," said the voice of his old housekeeper, as she threw open an inner door behind him, letting a glow of fire and candles stream out into the twilight. Helbeck meanwhile caught sight for an instant of a girl's pale face at the window of the approaching carriage—a face thrust forward eagerly, to gaze at the pele tower.
The horses stopped, and out sprang the girl.
"Wait a moment—let me help you, Augustina. How do you do, Mr. Helbeck? Don't touch my dog, please—he doesn't like men. Fricka, be quiet!"
For the little black spitz she held in a chain had begun to growl and bark furiously at the first sight of Helbeck, to the evident anger of the old housekeeper, who looked at the dog sourly as she went forward to take some bags and rugs from her master. Helbeck, meanwhile, and the young girl helped another lady to alight. She came out slowly with the precautions of an invalid, and Helbeck gave her his arm.
At the top of the steps she turned and looked round her.
"Oh, Alan!" she said, "it is so long——"
Her lips trembled, and her head shook oddly. She was a short woman, with a thin plaintive face and a nervous jerk of the head, always very marked at a moment of agitation. As he noticed it, Helbeck felt times long past rush back upon him. He laid his hand over hers, and tried to say something; but his shyness oppressed him. When he had led her into the broad hall, with its firelight and stuccoed roof, she said, turning round with the same bewildered air—
"You saw Laura? You have never seen her before!"
"Oh yes; we shook hands, Augustina," said a young voice. "Will Mr. Helbeck please help me with these things?"
She was laden with shawls and packages, and Helbeck hastily went to her aid. In the emotion of bringing his sister back into the old house, which she had left fifteen years before, when he himself was a lad of two-and-twenty, he had forgotten her stepdaughter.
But Miss Fountain did not intend to be forgotten. She made him relieve her of all burdens, and then argue an overcharge with the flyman. And at last, when all the luggage was in and the fly was driving off, she mounted the steps deliberately, looking about her all the time, but principally at the house. The eyes of the housekeeper, who with Mr. Helbeck was standing in the entrance awaiting her, surveyed both dog and mistress with equal disapproval.
But the dusk was fast passing into darkness, and it was not till the girl came into the brightness of the hall where her stepmother was already sitting tired and drooping on a settle near the great wood fire, that Helbeck saw her plainly.
She was very small and slight, and her hair made a spot of pale gold against the oak panelling of the walls. Helbeck noticed the slenderness of her arms, and the prettiness of her little white neck, then the freedom of her quick gesture as she went up to the elder lady and with a certain peremptoriness began to loosen her cloak.
"Augustina ought to go to bed directly," she said, looking at Helbeck. "The journey tired her dreadfully."
"Mrs. Fountain's room is quite ready," said the housekeeper, holding herself stiffly behind her master. She was a woman of middle age, with a pinkish face, framed between two tiers of short grey curls.
Laura's eye ran over her.
"You don't like our coming!" she said to herself. Then to Helbeck—
"May I take her up at once? I will unpack, and put her comfortable. Then she ought to have some food. She has had nothing to-day but some tea at Lancaster."
Mrs. Fountain looked up at the girl with feeble acquiescence, as though depending on her entirely. Helbeck glanced from his pale sister to the housekeeper in some perplexity.
"What will you have?" he said nervously to Miss Fountain. "Dinner, I think, was to be at a quarter to eight."
"That was the time I was ordered, sir," said Mrs. Denton.
"Can't it be earlier?" asked the girl impetuously.
Mrs. Denton did not reply, but her shoulders grew visibly rigid.
"Do what you can for us, Denton," said her master hastily, and she went away. Helbeck bent kindly over his sister.
"You know what a small establishment we have, Augustina. Mrs. Denton, a rough girl, and a boy—that's all. I do trust they will be able to make you comfortable."
"Oh, let me come down, when I have unpacked, and help cook," said Miss Fountain brightly. "I can do anything of that sort."
Helbeck smiled for the first time. "I am afraid Mrs. Denton wouldn't take it kindly. She rules us all in this old place."
"I dare say," said the girl quietly. "It's fish, of course?" she added, looking down at her stepmother, and speaking in a meditative voice.
"It's a Friday's dinner," said Helbeck, flushing suddenly, and looking at his sister, "except for Miss Fountain. I supposed——"
Mrs. Fountain rose in some agitation and threw him a piteous look.
"Of course you did, Alan—of course you did. But the doctor at Folkestone—he was a Catholic—I took such care about that!—told me I mustn't fast. And Laura is always worrying me. But indeed I didn't want to be dispensed!—not yet!"
Laura said nothing; nor did Helbeck. There was a certain embarrassment in the looks of both, as though there was more in Mrs. Fountain's words than appeared. Then the girl, holding herself erect and rather defiant, drew her stepmother's arm in hers, and turned to Helbeck.
"Will you please show us the way up?"
Helbeck took a small hand-lamp and led the way, bidding the newcomers beware of the slipperiness of the old polished boards. Mrs. Fountain walked with caution, clinging to her stepdaughter. At the foot of the staircase she stopped, and looked upward.
"Alan, I don't see much change!"
He turned back, the light shining on his fine harsh face and grizzled hair.
"Don't you? But it is greatly changed, Augustina. We have shut up half of it."
Mrs. Fountain sighed deeply and moved on. Laura, as she mounted the stairs, looked back at the old hall, its ceiling of creamy stucco, its panelled walls, and below, the great bare floor of shining oak with hardly any furniture upon it—a strip of old carpet, a heavy oak table, and a few battered chairs at long intervals against the panelling. But the big fire of logs piled upon the hearth filled it all with cheerful light, and under her indifferent manner, the girl's sense secretly thrilled with pleasure. She had heard much of "poor Alan's" poverty. Poverty! As far as his house was concerned, at any rate, it seemed to her of a very tolerable sort.
* * * * *
In a few minutes Helbeck came downstairs again, and stood absently before the fire on the hearth. After a while, he sat down beside it in his accustomed chair—a carved chair of black Westmoreland oak—and began to read from the book which he had been carrying in his pocket out of doors. He read with his head bent closely over the pages, because of short sight; and, as a rule, reading absorbed him so completely that he was conscious of nothing external while it lasted. To-night, however, he several times looked up to listen to the sounds overhead, unwonted sounds in this house, over which, as it often seemed to him, a quiet of centuries had settled down, like a fine dust or deposit, muffling all its steps and voices. But there was nothing muffled in the voice overhead which he caught every now and then, through an open door, escaping, eager and alive, into the silence; or in the occasional sharp bark of the dog.
"Horrid little wretch!" thought Helbeck. "Denton will loathe it. Augustina should really have warned me. What shall we do if she and Denton don't get on? It will never answer if she tries meddling in the kitchen—I must tell her."
Presently, however, his inner anxieties grew upon him so much that his book fell on his knee, and he lost himself in a multitude of small scruples and torments, such as beset all persons who live alone. Were all his days now to be made difficult, because he had followed his conscience, and asked his widowed sister to come and live with him?
"Augustina and I could have done well enough. But this girl—well, we must put up with it—we must, Bruno!"
He laid his hand as he spoke on the neck of a collie that had just lounged into the hall, and come to lay its nose upon his master's knee. Suddenly a bark from overhead made the dog start back and prick its ears.
"Come here, Bruno—be quiet. You're to treat that little brute with proper contempt—do you hear? Listen to all that scuffling and talking upstairs—that's the new young woman getting her way with old Denton. Well, it won't do Denton any harm. We're put upon sometimes, too, aren't we?"
And he caressed the dog, his haughty face alive with something half bitter, half humorous.
At that moment the old clock in the hall struck a quarter past seven. Helbeck sprang up.
"Am I to dress?" he said to himself in some perplexity.
He considered for a moment or two, looking at his shabby serge suit, then sat down again resolutely.
"No! She'll have to live our life. Besides, I don't know what Denton would think."
And he lay back in his chair, recalling with some amusement the criticisms of his housekeeper upon a young Catholic friend of his who—rare event—had spent a fishing week with him in the autumn, and had startled the old house and its inmates with his frequent changes of raiment. "It's yan set o' cloas for breakfast, an anudther for fishin, an anudther for ridin, an yan for when he cooms in, an a fine suit for dinner—an anudther fer smoakin—A should think he mut be oftener naked nor donned!" Denton had said in her grim Westmoreland, and Helbeck had often chuckled over the remark.
An hour later, half an hour after the usual time, Helbeck, all the traces of his muddy walk removed, and garbed with scrupulous neatness in the old black coat and black tie he always wore of an evening, was sitting opposite to Miss Fountain at supper.
"You got everything you wanted for Augustina, I hope?" he said to her shyly as they sat down. He had awaited her in the dining-room itself, so as to avoid the awkwardness of taking her in. It was some years since a woman had stayed under his roof, or since he had been a guest in the same house with women.
"Oh yes!" said Miss Fountain. But she threw a sly swift glance towards Mrs. Denton, who was just coming into the room with some coffee, then compressed her lips and studied her plate. Helbeck detected the glance, and saw too that Mrs. Denton's pink face was flushed, and her manner discomposed.
"The coffee's noa good," she said abruptly, as she put it down; "I couldn't keep to 't."
"No, I'm afraid we disturbed Mrs. Denton dreadfully," said Miss Fountain, shrugging her shoulders. "We got her to bring up all sorts of things for Augustina. She was dreadfully tired—I thought she would faint. The doctor scolded me before we left, about letting her go without food. Shall I give you some fish, Mr. Helbeck?"
For, to her astonishment, the fish even—a very small portion—was placed before herself, side by side with a few fragments of cold chicken; and she looked in vain for a second plate.
As she glanced across the table, she caught a momentary shade of embarrassment in Helbeck's face.
"No, thank you," he said. "I am provided."
His provision seemed to be coffee and bread and butter. She raised her eyebrows involuntarily, but said nothing, and he presently busied himself in bringing her vegetables and wine, Mrs. Denton having left the room.
"I trust you will make a good meal," he said gravely, as he waited upon her. "You have had a long day."
"Oh, yes!" said Miss Fountain impetuously, "and please don't ever make any difference for me on Fridays. It doesn't matter to me in the least what I eat."
Helbeck offered no reply. Conversation between them indeed did not flow very readily. They talked a little about the journey from London; and Laura asked a few questions about the house. She was, indeed, studying the room in which they sat, and her host himself, all the time. "He may be a saint," she thought, "but I am sure he knows all the time there are very few saints of such an old family! His head's splendid—so dark and fine—with the great waves of grey-black hair—and the long features and the pointed chin. He's immensely tall too—six feet two at least—taller than father. He looks hard and bigoted. I suppose most people would be afraid of him—I'm not!"
And as though to prove even to herself she was not, she carried on a rattle of questions. How old was the tower? How old was the room in which they were sitting? She looked round it with ignorant, girlish eyes.
He pointed her to the date on the carved mantelpiece—1583.
"That is a very important date for us," he began, then checked himself.
He seemed to find a difficulty in going on, but at last he said:
"The man who put up that chimney-piece was hanged at Manchester later in the same year."
He suddenly noticed the delicacy of her tiny wrist as her hand paused at the edge of her plate, and the brilliance of her eyes—large and greenish-grey, with a marked black line round the iris. The very perception perhaps made his answer more cold and measured.
"He was a Catholic recusant, under Elizabeth. He had harboured a priest, and he and the priest and a friend suffered death for it together at Manchester. Afterwards their heads were fixed on the outside of Manchester parish church."
"How horrible!" said Miss Fountain, frowning. "Do you know anything more about him?"
"Yes, we have letters——"
But he would say no more, and the subject dropped. Not to let the conversation also come to an end, he pointed to some old gilded leather which covered one side of the room, while the other three walls were oak-panelled from ceiling to floor.
"It is very dim and dingy now," said Helbeck; "but when it was fresh, it was the wonder of the place. The room got the name of Paradise from it. There are many mentions of it in the old letters."
"Who put it up?"
"The brother of the martyr—twenty years later."
"The martyr!" she thought, half scornfully. "No doubt he is as proud of that as of his twenty generations!"
He told her a few more antiquarian facts about the room, and its builders, she meanwhile looking in some perplexity from the rich embossments of the ceiling with its Tudor roses and crowns, from the stately mantelpiece and canopied doors, to the few pieces of shabby modern furniture which disfigured the room, the half-dozen cane chairs, the ugly lodging-house carpet and sideboard. What had become of the old furnishings? How could they have disappeared so utterly?
Helbeck, however, did not enlighten her. He talked indeed with no freedom, merely to pass the time.
She perfectly recognised that he was not at ease with her, and she hurried her meal, in spite of her very frank hunger, that she might set him free. But, as she was putting down her coffee-cup for the last time, she suddenly said:
"It's a very good air here, isn't it, Mr. Helbeck?"
"I believe so," he replied, in some surprise. "It's a mixture of the sea and the mountains. Everybody here—most of the poor people—live to a great age."
"That's all right! Then Augustina will soon get strong here. She can't do without me yet—but you know, of course—I have decided—about myself?"
Somehow, as she looked across to her host, her little figure, in its plain white dress and black ribbons, expressed a curious tension. "She wants to make it very plain to me," thought Helbeck, "that if she comes here as my guest, it is only as a favour, to look after my sister."
Aloud he said:
"Augustina told me she could not hope to keep you for long."
"No!" said the girl sharply. "No! I must take up a profession. I have a little money, you know, from papa. I shall go to Cambridge, or to London, perhaps to live with a friend. Oh! you darling!—you darling!"
Helbeck opened his eyes in amazement. Miss Fountain had sprung from her seat, and thrown herself on her knees beside his old collie Bruno. Her arms were round the dog's neck, and she was pressing her cheek against his brown nose. Perhaps she caught her host's look of astonishment, for she rose at once in a flush of some feeling she tried to put down, and said, still holding the dog's head against her dress:
"I didn't know you had a dog like this. It's so like ours—you see—like papa's. I had to give ours away when we left Folkestone. You dear, dear thing!"—(the caressing intensity in the girl's young voice made Helbeck shrink and turn away)—"now you won't kill my Fricka, will you? She's curled up, such a delicious black ball, on my bed; you couldn't—you couldn't have the heart! I'll take you up and introduce you—I'll do everything proper!"
The dog looked up at her, with its soft, quiet eyes, as though it weighed her pleadings.
"There," she said triumphantly. "It's all right—he winked. Come along, my dear, and let's make real friends."
And she led the dog into the hall, Helbeck ceremoniously opening the door for her.
She sat herself down in the oak settle beside the hall fire, where for some minutes she occupied herself entirely with the dog, talking a sort of baby language to him that left Helbeck absolutely dumb. When she raised her head, she flung, dartlike, another question at her host.
"Have you many neighbours, Mr. Helbeck?"
Her voice startled his look away from her.
"Not many," he said, hesitating. "And I know little of those there are."
"Indeed! Don't you like—society?"
He laughed with some embarrassment. "I don't get much of it," he said simply.
"Don't you? What a pity!—isn't it, Bruno? I like society dreadfully,—dances, theatres, parties,—all sorts of things. Or I did—once."
She paused and stared at Helbeck. He did not speak, however. She sat up very straight and pushed the dog from her. "By the way," she said, in a shrill voice, "there are my cousins, the Masons. How far are they?"
"About seven miles."
"Quite up in the mountains, isn't it?"
"Oh! I shall go there at once, I shall go tomorrow," said the girl, with emphasis, resting her small chin lightly on the head of the dog, while she fixed her eyes—her hostile eyes—upon her host.
Helbeck made no answer. He went to fetch another log for the fire.
"Why doesn't he say something about them?" she thought angrily. "Why doesn't he say something about papa?—about his illness?—ask me any questions? He may have hated him, but it would be only decent. He is a very grand, imposing person, I suppose, with his melancholy airs, and his family. Papa was worth a hundred of him! Oh! past a quarter to ten? Time to go, and let him have his prayers to himself. Augustina told me ten."
She sprang up, and stiffly held out her hand.
"Good-night, Mr. Helbeck. I ought to go to Augustina and settle her for the night. To-morrow I should like to tell you what the doctor said about her; she is not strong at all. What time do you breakfast?"
"Half-past eight. But, of course——"
"Oh, no! of course Augustina won't come down! I will carry her up her tray myself. Good-night."
Helbeck touched her hand. But as she turned away, he followed her a few steps irresolutely, and then said: "Miss Fountain,"—she looked round in surprise,—"I should like you to understand that everything that can be done in this poor house for my sister's comfort, and yours, I should wish done. My resources are not great, but my will is good."
He raised his eyelids, and she saw the eyes beneath, full, for the first time,—eyes grey like her own, but far darker and profounder. She felt a momentary flutter, perhaps of compunction. Then she thanked him and went her way.
* * * * *
When she had made her stepmother comfortable for the night, Laura Fountain went back to her room, shielding her candle with difficulty from the gusts that seemed to tear along the dark passages of the old house. The March rawness made her shiver, and she looked shrinkingly into the gloom before her, as she paused outside her own door. There, at the end of the passage, lay the old tower; so Mrs. Denton had told her. The thought of all the locked and empty rooms in it,—dark, cold spaces,—haunted perhaps by strange sounds and presences of the past, seemed to let loose upon her all at once a little whirlwind of fear. She hurried into her room, and was just setting down her candle before turning to lock her door, when a sound from the distant hall caught her ear.
A deep monotonous sound, rising and falling at regular intervals, Mr. Helbeck reading prayers, with the two maids, who represented the only service of the house.
Laura lingered with her hand on the door. In the silence of the ancient house, there was something touching in the sound, a kind of appeal. But it was an appeal which, in the girl's mind, passed instantly into reaction. She locked the door, and turned away, breathing fast as though under some excitement.
The tears, long held down, were rising, and the room, where a large wood fire was burning,—wood was the only provision of which there was a plenty at Bannisdale,—seemed to her suddenly stifling. She went to the casement window and threw it open. A rush of mild wind came through, and with it, the roar of the swollen river.
The girl leant forward, bathing her hot face in the wild air. There was a dark mist of trees below her, trees tossed by the wind; then, far down, a ray of moonlight on water; beyond, a fell-side, clear a moment beneath a sky of sweeping cloud; and last of all, highest of all, amid the clouds, a dim radiance, intermittent and yet steady, like the radiance of moonlit snow.
A strange nobility and freedom breathed from the wide scene; from its mere depth below her; from the spacious curve of the river, the mountains half shown, half hidden, the great race of the clouds, the fresh beating of the wind. The north spoke to her and the mountains. It was like the rush of something passionate and straining through her girlish sense, intensifying all that was already there. What was this thirst, this yearning, this physical anguish of pity that crept back upon her in all the pauses of the day and night?
It was nine months since she had lost her father, but all the scenes of his last days were still so clear to her that it seemed to her often sheer incredibility that the room, the bed, the helpless form, the noise of the breathing, the clink of the medicine glasses, the tread of the doctor, the gasping words of the patient, were all alike fragments and phantoms of the past,—that the house was empty, the bed sold, the patient gone. Oh! the clinging of the thin hand round her own, the piteousness of suffering—of failure! Poor, poor papa!—he would not say, even to comfort her, that they would meet again. He had not believed it, and so she must not.
No, and she would not! She raised her head fiercely and dried her tears. Only, why was she here, in the house of a man who had never spoken to her father—his brother-in-law—for thirteen years; who had made his sister feel that her marriage had been a disgrace; who was all the time, no doubt, cherishing such thoughts in that black, proud head of his, while she, her father's daughter, was sitting opposite to him?
"How am I ever going to bear it—all these months?" she asked herself.
But the causes which had brought Laura Fountain to Bannisdale were very simple. It had all come about in the most natural inevitable way.
When Laura was eight years old—nearly thirteen years before this date—her father, then a widower with one child, had fallen in with and married Alan Helbeck's sister. At the time of their first meeting with the little Catholic spinster, Stephen Fountain and his child were spending part of the Cambridge vacation at a village on the Cumberland coast where a fine air could be combined with cheap lodgings. Fountain himself was from the North Country. His grandfather had been a small Lancashire yeoman, and Stephen Fountain had an inbred liking for the fells, the farmhouses, and even the rain of his native district. Before descending to the sea, he and his child had spent a couple of days with his cousin by marriage, James Mason, in the lonely stone house among the hills, which had belonged to the family since the Revolution. He left it gladly, however, for the farm life seemed to him much harder and more squalid than he had remembered it to be, and he disliked James Mason's wife. As he and Laura walked down the long, rough track connecting the farm with the main road on the day of their departure, Stephen Fountain whistled so loud and merrily that the skipping child beside him looked at him with astonishment.
It was his way no doubt of thanking Providence for the happy chance that had sent his father to a small local government post at Newcastle, and himself to a grammar school with openings on the University. Yet as a rule he thought himself anything but a successful man. He held a lectureship at Cambridge in an obscure scientific subject; and was in his way both learned and diligent. But he had few pupils, and had never cared to have them. They interfered with his own research, and he had the passionate scorn for popularity which grows up naturally in those who have no power with the crowd. His religious opinions, or rather the manner in which he chose to express them, divided him from many good men. He was poor, and he hated his poverty. A rather imprudent marriage had turned out neither particularly well nor particularly ill. His wife had some beauty, however, and there was hardly time for disillusion. She died when Laura was still a tottering baby, and Stephen had missed her sorely for a while. Since her death he had grown to be a very lonely man, silently discontented with himself and sourly critical of his neighbours. Yet all the same he thanked God that he was not his cousin James.
Potter's Beach as a watering-place was neither beautiful nor amusing. Laura was happy there, but that said nothing. All her childhood through, she had the most surprising gift for happiness. From morning till night she lived in a flutter of delicious nothings. Unless he watched her closely, Stephen Fountain could not tell for the life of him what she was about all day. But he saw that she was endlessly about something; her little hands and legs never rested; she dug, bathed, dabbled, raced, kissed, ate, slept, in one happy bustle, which never slackened except for the hours when she lay rosy and still in her bed. And even then the pretty mouth was still eagerly open, as though sleep had just breathed upon its chatter for a few charmed moments, and "the joy within" was already breaking from the spell.
Stephen Fountain adored her, but his affections were never enough for him. In spite of the child's spirits he himself found Potter's Beach a desolation, all the more that he was cut off from his books for a time by doctor's orders and his own common sense. Suddenly, as he took his daily walk over the sands with Laura, he began to notice a thin lady in black, sitting alone under a bank of sea-thistles, and generally struggling with an umbrella which she had put up to shelter herself and her book from a prevailing and boisterous wind. Sometimes when he passed her in the little street, he caught a glimpse of timid eyes, or he saw and pitied the slight involuntary jerk of the head and shoulders, which seemed to tell of nervous delicacy. Presently they made friends, and he found her lonely and discontented like himself. She was a Catholic, he discovered; but her Catholicism was not that of the convert, but of an old inherited sort which sat easily enough on a light nature. Then, to his astonishment, it appeared that she lived with a brother at an old house in North Lancashire—a well-known and even, in its degree, famous house—which lay not seven miles distant from his grandfather's little property, and had been quite familiar to him by repute, and even by sight as a child. When he was a small lad staying at Browhead Farm, he had once or twice found his way to the Greet, and had strayed along its course through Bannisdale Park. Once even, when he was in the act of fishing a particular pool where the trout were rising in a manner to tempt a very archangel, he had been seized and his primitive rod broken over his shoulder by an old man whom he believed to have been the owner, Mr. Helbeck himself,—a magnificent white-haired person, about whom tales ran freely in the country-side.
So this little, shabby old maid was a Helbeck of Bannisdale! As he looked at her, Fountain could not help thinking with a hidden amusement of all the awesome prestige the name had once carried with it for his boyish ear. Thirty years back, what a gulf had seemed to yawn between the yeoman's grandson and the lofty owners of that stern and ancient house upon the Greet! And now, how glad was old Helbeck's daughter to sit or walk with him and his child!—and how plain it grew, as the weeks passed on, that if he, Stephen Fountain, willed it, she would make no difficulty at all about a much longer companionship! Fountain held himself to be the most convinced of democrats, a man who had a reasoned right to his Radical opinions that commoner folk must do without. Nevertheless, his pride fed on this small turn of fortune, and when he carelessly addressed his new friend, her name gave him pleasure.
It seemed that she possessed but little else, poor lady. Even in his young days, Fountain could remember that the Helbecks were reported to be straitened, to have already much difficulty in keeping up the house and the estate. But clearly things had fallen by now to a much lower depth. Miss Helbeck's dress, talk, lodgings, all spoke of poverty, great poverty. He himself had never known what it was to have a superfluous ten pounds; but the feverish strain that belongs to such a situation as the Helbecks' awoke in him a new and sharp pity. He was very sorry for the little, harassed creature; that physical privation should touch a woman had always seemed to him a monstrosity.
What was the brother about?—a great strong fellow by all accounts, capable, surely, of doing something for the family fortunes. Instinctively Fountain held him responsible for the sister's fatigue and delicacy. They had just lost their mother, and Augustina had come to Potter's Beach to recover from long months of nursing. And presently Fountain discovered that what stood between her and health was not so much the past as the future.
"You don't like the idea of going home," he said to her once, abruptly, after they had grown intimate. She flushed, and hesitated; then her eyes filled with tears.
Gradually he made her explain herself. The brother, it appeared, was twelve years younger than herself, and had been brought up first at Stonyhurst, and afterwards at Louvain, in constant separation from the rest of the family. He had never had much in common with his home, since, at Stonyhurst, he had come under the influence of a Jesuit teacher, who, in the language of old Helbeck, had turned him into "a fond sort of fellow," swarming with notions that could only serve to carry the family decadence a step further.
"We have been Catholics for twenty generations," said Augustina, in her quavering voice. "But our ways—father's ways—weren't good enough for Alan. We thought he was making up his mind to be a Jesuit, and father was mad about it, because of the old place. Then father died, and Alan came home. He and my mother got on best; oh! he was very good to her. But he and I weren't brought up in the same way; you'd think he was already under a rule. I don't—know—I suppose it's too high for me——"
She took up a handful of sand, and threw it, angrily, from her thin fingers, hurrying on, however, as if the unburdenment, once begun, must have its course.
"And it's hard to be always pulled up and set right by some one you've nursed in his cradle. Oh! I don't mean he says anything; he and I never had words in our lives. But it's the way he has of doing things—the changes he makes. You feel how he disapproves of you; he doesn't like my friends—our old friends; the house is like a desert since he came. And the money he gives away! The priests just suck us dry—and he hasn't got it to give. Oh! I know it's all very wicked of me; but when I think of going back to him—just us two, you know, in that old house—and all the trouble about money——"
Her voice failed her.
"Well, don't go back," said Fountain, laying his hand on her arm.
* * * * *
And twenty-four hours later he was still pleased with himself and her. No doubt she was stupid, poor Augustina, and more ignorant than he had supposed a human being could be. Her only education seemed to have been supplied by two years at the "Couvent des Dames Anglaises" at St.-Omer, and all that she had retained from it was a small stock of French idioms, most of which she had forgotten how to use, though she did use them frequently, with a certain timid pretension. Of that habit Fountain, the fastidious, thought that he should break her. But for the rest, her religion, her poverty,—well, she had a hundred a year, so that he and Laura would be no worse off for taking her in, and the child's prospects, of course, should not suffer by a halfpenny. And as to the Catholicism, Fountain smiled to himself. No doubt there was some inherited feeling. But even if she did keep up her little mummeries, he could not see that they would do him or Laura any harm. And for the rest she suited him. She somehow crept into his loneliness and fitted it. He was getting too old to go farther, and he might well fare worse. In spite of her love of talk, she was not a bad listener; and longer experience showed her to be in truth the soft and gentle nature that she seemed. She had a curious kind of vanity which showed itself in her feeling towards her brother. But Fountain did not find it disagreeable; it even gave him pleasure to flatter it; as one feeds or caresses some straying half-starved creature, partly for pity, partly that the human will may feel its power.
"I wonder how much fuss that young man will make?" Fountain asked himself, when at last it became necessary to write to Bannisdale.
Augustina, however, was thirty-five, in full possession of her little moneys, and had no one to consult but herself. Fountain enjoyed the writing of the letter, which was brief, if not curt.
Alan Helbeck appeared without an hour's delay at Potter's Beach. Fountain felt himself much inclined beforehand to treat the tall dark youth, sixteen years his junior, as a tutor treats an undergraduate. Oddly enough, however, when the two men stood face to face, Fountain was once more awkwardly conscious of that old sense of social distance which the sister had never recalled to him. The sting of it made him rougher than he had meant to be. Otherwise the young man's very shabby coat, his superb good looks, and courteous reserve of manner might almost have disarmed the irritable scholar.
As it was, Helbeck soon discovered that Fountain had no intention of allowing Augustina to apply for any dispensation for the marriage, that he would make no promise of Catholic bringing-up, supposing there were children, and that his idea was to be married at a registry office.
"I am one of those people who don't trouble themselves about the affairs of another world," said Fountain in a suave voice, as he stood in the lodging-house window, a bearded, broad-shouldered person, his hands thrust wilfully into the very baggy pockets of his ill-fitting light suit. "I won't worry your sister, and I don't suppose there'll be any children. But if there are, I really can't promise to make Catholics of them. And as for myself, I don't take things so easy as it's the fashion to do now. I can't present myself in church, even for Augustina."
Helbeck sat silent for a few minutes with his eyes on the ground. Then he rose.
"You ask what no Catholic should grant," he said slowly. "But that of course you know. I can have nothing to do with such a marriage, and my duty naturally will be to dissuade my sister from it as strongly as possible."
"She is expecting you," he said. "I of course await her decision."
His tone was hardly serious. Nevertheless, during the time that Helbeck and Augustina were pacing the sands together, Fountain went through a good deal of uneasiness. One never knew how or where this damned poison in the blood might break out again. That young fanatic, a Jesuit already by the look of him, would of course try all their inherited Mumbo Jumbo upon her; and what woman is at bottom anything more than the prey of the last speaker?
When, however, it was all over, and he was allowed to see his Augustina in the evening, he found her helpless with crying indeed, but as obstinate as only the meek of the earth can be. She had broken wholly with her brother and with Bannisdale; and Fountain gathered that, after all Helbeck's arguments and entreaties, there had flashed a moment of storm between them, when the fierce "Helbeck temper," traditional through many generations, had broken down the self-control of the ascetic, and Augustina must needs have trembled. However, there she was, frightened and miserable, but still determined. And her terror was much more concerned with the possibility of any return to live with Alan and his all-exacting creed than anything else. Fountain caught himself wondering whether indeed she had imagination enough to lay much hold on those spiritual terrors with which she had no doubt been threatened. In this, however, he misjudged her, as will be seen.
Meanwhile he sent for an elderly Evangelical cousin of his wife's, who was accustomed to take a friendly interest in his child and himself. She, in Protestant jubilation over this brand snatched from the burning, came in haste, very nearly departing, indeed, in similar haste as soon as the unholy project of the secular marriage was mooted. However, under much persuasion she remained, lamenting; Augustina sent to Bannisdale for her few possessions, and the scanty ceremony was soon over.
Meanwhile Laura had but found in the whole affair one more amusement and excitement added to the many that, according to her, Potter's Beach already possessed. The dancing elfish child—who had no memory of her own mother—had begun by taking the little old maid under her patronising wing. She graciously allowed Augustina to make a lap for all the briny treasures she might accumulate in the course of a breathless morning; she rushed to give her first information whenever that encroaching monster the sea broke down her castles. And as soon as it appeared that her papa liked Augustina, and had a use for her, Laura at the age of eight promptly accepted her as part of the family circle, without the smallest touch of either sentiment or opposition. She walked gaily hand in hand with her father to the registry office at St. Bees. The jealously hidden, stormy little heart knew well enough that it had nothing to fear.
Then came many quiet years at Cambridge. Augustina spoke no more of her brother, and apparently let her old creed slip. She conformed herself wholly to her husband's ways,—a little colourless thread on the stream of academic life, slightly regarded, and generally silent out of doors, but at home a gentle, foolish, and often voluble person, very easily made happy by some small kindness and a few creature comforts.
Laura meanwhile grew up, and no one exactly knew how. Her education was a thing of shreds and patches, managed by herself throughout, and expressing her own strong will or caprice from the beginning. She put herself to school—a day school only; and took herself away as soon as she was tired of it. She threw herself madly into physical exercises like dancing or skating; and excelled in most of them by virtue of a certain wild grace, a tameless strength of spirits and will. And yet she grew up small and pale; and it was not till she was about eighteen that she suddenly blossomed into prettiness.
"Carrotina—why, what's happened to you?" said her father to her one day.
She turned in astonishment from her task of putting some books tidy on his study shelves. Then she coloured half angrily.
"I must put my hair up some time, I suppose," she said resentfully. There was something in the abruptness of her father's question, no less than in the new closeness and sharpness of eye with which he was examining her, that annoyed her.
"Well! you've made a young lady of yourself. I dare say I mustn't call you nicknames any more!"
"I don't mind," she said indifferently, going on with her work, while he looked at the golden-red mass she had coiled round her little head, with an odd half-welcome sense of change, a sudden prescience of the future.
Then she turned again.
"If—if you make any absurd changes," she said, with a frown, "I'll—I'll cut it all off!"
"You'd better not; there'd be ructions," he said laughing. "It's not yours till you're twenty-one."
And to himself he said, "Gracious! I didn't bargain for a pretty daughter. What am I to do with her? Augustina'll never get her married."
And certainly during this early youth, Laura showed no signs of getting herself married. She did not apparently know when a young man was by; and her bright vehement ways, her sharp turns of speech, went on just the same; she neither quivered nor thrilled; and her chatter, when she did chatter, spent itself almost with indifference on anyone who came near her. She was generally gay, generally in spirits; and her girl companions knew well that there was no one so reserved, and that the inmost self of her, if such a thing existed, dwelt far away from any ken of theirs. Every now and then she would have vehement angers and outbreaks which contrasted with the nonchalance of her ordinary temper; but it was hard to find the clue to them.
Altogether she passed for a clever girl, even in a University town, where cleverness is weighed. But her education, except in two points, was, in truth, of the slightest. Any mechanical drudgery that her father could set her, she did without a murmur; or, rather, she claimed it jealously, with a silent passion. But, with an obstinacy equally silent, she set herself against the drudgery that would have made her his intellectual companion.
His rows of technical books, the scholarly and laborious details of his work, filled her with an invincible repugnance. And he did not attempt to persuade her. As to women and their claims, he was old-fashioned and contemptuous; he would have been much embarrassed by a learned daughter. That she should copy and tidy for him; that she should sit curled up for hours with a book or a piece of work in a corner of his room; that she should bring him his pipe, and break in upon his work at the right moment with her peremptory "Papa, come out!"—these things were delightful, nay, necessary to him. But he had no dreams beyond; and he never thought of her, her education or her character, as a whole. It was not his way. Besides, girls took their chance. With a boy, of course, one plans and looks ahead. But Laura would have 200l. a year from her mother whatever happened, and something more at his own death. Why trouble oneself?
No doubt indirectly he contributed very largely to her growing up. The sight of his work and his methods; the occasional talks she overheard between him and his scientific comrades; the tones of irony and denial in the atmosphere about him; his antagonisms, his bitternesses, worked strongly upon her still plastic nature. Moreover she felt to her heart's core that he was unsuccessful; there were appointments he should have had, but had failed to get, and it was the religious party, the "clerical crew" of Convocation, that had stood in the way. From her childhood it came natural to her to hate bigoted people who believed in ridiculous things. It was they stood between her father and his deserts. There loomed up, as it were, on her horizon, something dim and majestic, which was called Science. Towards this her father pressed, she clinging to him; while all about them was a black and hindering crowd, through which they clove their way—contemptuously.
In one direction, indeed, Fountain admitted her to his mind. Like Mill, he found the rest and balm of life in poetry; and here he took Laura with him. They read to each other, they spurred each other to learn by heart. He kept nothing from her. Shelley was a passion of his own; it became hers. She taught herself German, that she might read Heine and Goethe with him; and one evening, when she was little more than sixteen, he rushed her through the first part of "Faust," so that she lay awake the whole night afterwards in such a passion of emotion, that it seemed, for the moment, to change her whole existence. Sometimes it astonished him to see what capacity she had, not only for the feeling, but for the sensuous pleasure, of poetry. Lines—sounds—haunted her for days, the beauty of them would make her start and tremble.
She did her best, however, to hide this side of her nature even from him. And it was not difficult. She remained childishly immature and backward in many things. She was a personality; that was clear; one could hardly say that she was or had a character. She was a bundle of loves and hates; a force, not an organism; and her father was often as much puzzled by her as anyone else.
Music perhaps was the only study which ever conquered her indolence. Here it happened that a famous musician, who settled in Cambridge for a time, came across her gift and took notice of it. And to please him she worked with industry, even with doggedness. Brahms, Chopin, Wagner—these great romantics possessed her in music as Shelley or Rossetti did in poetry. "You little demon, Laura! How do you come to play like that?" a girl friend—her only intimate friend—said to her once in despair. "It's the expression. Where do you get it? And I practise, and you don't; it's not fair."
"Expression!" said Laura, with annoyance, "what does that matter? That's the amateur all over. Of course I play like that because I can't do it any better. If I could play the notes"—she clenched her little hand, with a curious, almost a fierce energy—"if I had any technique—or was ever likely to have any, what should I want with expression? Any cat can give you expression! There was one under my window last night—you should just have heard it!"
Molly Friedland, the girl friend, shrugged her shoulders. She was as soft, as normal, as self-controlled, as Laura was wilful and irritable. But there was a very real affection between them.
Years passed. Insensibly Augustina's health began to fail; and with it the new cheerfulness of her middle life. Then Fountain himself fell suddenly and dangerously ill. All the peaceful habits and small pleasures of their common existence broke down after a few days, as it were, into a miserable confusion. Augustina stood bewildered. Then a convulsion of soul she had expected as little as anyone else, swept upon her. A number of obscure, inherited, half-dead instincts revived. She lived in terror; she slept, weeping; and at the back of an old drawer she found a rosary of her childhood to which her fingers clung night and day.
Meanwhile Fountain resigned himself to death. During his last days his dimmed senses did not perceive what was happening to his wife. But he troubled himself about her a good deal.
"Take care of her, Laura," he said once, "till she gets strong. Look after her.—But you can't sacrifice your life.—It may be Christian," he added, in a murmur, "but it isn't sense."
Unconsciousness came on. Augustina seemed to lose her wits; and at last only Laura, sitting pale and fierce beside her father, prevented her stepmother from bringing a priest to his death-bed. "You would not dare!" said the girl, in her low, quivering voice; and Augustina could only wring her hands.
* * * * *
The day after her husband died Mrs. Fountain returned to her Catholic duties. When she came back from confession, she slipped as noiselessly as she could into the darkened house. A door opened upstairs, and Laura came out of her father's room.
"You have done it?" she said, as her stepmother, trembling with agitation and weariness, came towards her. "You have gone back to them?"
"Oh, Laura! I had to follow the call—my conscience—Laura! oh! your poor father!"
And with a burst of weeping the widow held out her hands.
Laura did not move, and the hands dropped.
"My father wants nothing," she said.
The indescribable pride and passion of her accent cowed Augustina, and she moved away, crying silently. The girl went back to the dead, and sat beside him, in an anguish that had no more tears, till he was taken from her.
Mr. Helbeck wrote kindly to his sister in reply to a letter from her informing him of her husband's death, and of her own reconciliation with the Church. He asked whether he should come at once to help them through the business of the funeral, and the winding up of their Cambridge life. "Beg him, please, to stay away," said Laura, when the letter was shown her. "There are plenty of people here."
And indeed Cambridge, which had taken little notice of the Fountains during Stephen's lifetime, was even fussily kind after his death to his widow and child. It was at all times difficult to be kind to Laura in distress, but there was much true pity felt for her, and a good deal of curiosity as to her relations with her Catholic stepmother. Only from the Friedlands, however, would she accept, or allow her stepmother to accept, any real help. Dr. Friedland was a man of middle age, who had retired on moderate wealth to devote himself to historical work by the help of the Cambridge libraries. He had been much drawn to Stephen Fountain, and Fountain to him. It was a recent and a brief friendship, but there had been something in it on Dr. Friedland's side—something respectful and cordial, something generous and understanding, for which Laura loved the infirm and grey-haired scholar, and would always love him. She shed some stormy tears after parting with the Friedlands, otherwise she left Cambridge with joy.
On the day before they left Cambridge Augustina received a parcel of books from her brother. For the most part they were kept hidden from Laura. But in the evening, when the girl was doing some packing in her stepmother's room, she came across a little volume lying open on its face. She lifted it, saw that it was called "Outlines of Catholic Belief," and that one page was still wet with tears. An angry curiosity made her look at what stood there: "A believer in one God who, without wilful fault on his part, knows nothing of the Divine Mystery of the Trinity, is held capable of salvation by many Catholic theologians. And there is the 'invincible ignorance' of the heathen. What else is possible to the Divine mercy let none of us presume to know. Our part in these matters is obedience, not speculation."
In faint pencil on the margin was written: "My Stephen could not believe. Mary—pray——"
The book contained the Bannisdale book-plate, and the name "Alan Helbeck." Laura threw it down. But her face trembled through its scorn, and she finished what she was doing in a kind of blind passion. It was as though she held her father's dying form in her arms, protecting him against the same meddling and tyrannical force that had injured him while he lived, and was still making mouths at him now that he was dead.
She and Augustina went to the sea—to Folkestone, for Augustina's health. Here Mrs. Fountain began to correspond regularly with her brother, and it was soon clear that her heart was hungering for him, and for her old home at Bannisdale. But she was still painfully dependent on Laura. Laura was her maid and nurse; Laura managed all her business. At last one day she made her prayer. Would Laura go with her—for a little while—to Bannisdale? Alan wished it—Alan had invited them both. "He would be so good to you, Laura—and I'm sure it would set me up."
Laura gave a gulp. She dropped her little chin on her hands and thought. Well—why not? It would be all hateful to her—Mr. Helbeck and his house together. She knew very well, or guessed what his relation to her father had been. But what if it made Augustina strong, if in time she could be left with her brother altogether, to live with him?—In one or two of his letters he had proposed as much. Why, that would bring Laura's responsibility, her sole responsibility, at any rate, to an end.
She thought of Molly Friedland—of their girlish plans—of travel, of music.
"All right," she said, springing up. "We will go, Augustina. I suppose, for a little while, Mr. Helbeck and I can keep the peace. You must tell him to let me alone."
She paused, then said with sudden vehemence, like one who takes her stand—"And tell him, please, Augustina—make it very plain—that I shall never come in to prayers."
The sun was shining into Laura's room when she awoke. She lay still for a little while, looking about her.
Her room—which formed part of an eighteenth-century addition to the Tudor house—was rudely panelled with stained deal, save on the fireplace wall, where, on either side of the hearth, the plaster had been covered with tapestry. The subject of the tapestry was Diana hunting. Diana, white and tall, with her bow and quiver, came, queenly, through a green forest. Two greyhounds ranged beside her, and in the dim distance of the wood her maidens followed. On the right an old castle, with pillars like a Greek temple, rose stately but a little crooked on the edge of a blue sea; the sea much faded, with the wooden handle of a cupboard thrust rudely through it. Two long-limbed ladies, with pulled patched faces, stood on the castle steps. In front was a ship, with a waiting warrior and a swelling sail; and under him, a blue wave worn very threadbare, shamed indeed by that intruding handle, but still blue enough, still windy enough for thoughts of love and flight.
Laura, half asleep still, with her hands under her cheek, lay staring in a vague pleasure at the castle and the forest. "Enchanted casements"—"perilous seas"—"in fairy lands forlorn." The lines ran sleepily, a little jumbled, in her memory.
But gradually the morning and the freshness worked; and her spirits, emerging from their half-dream, began to dance within her. When she sprang up to throw the window wide, there below her was the sparkling river, the daffodils waving their pale heads in the delicate Westmoreland grass, the high white clouds still racing before the wind. How heavenly to find oneself in this wild clean country!—after all the ugly squalors of parade and lodging-house, after the dingy bow-windowed streets with the March dust whirling through them.
She leant across the broad window-sill, her chin on her hands, absorbed, drinking it in. The eastern sun, coming slanting-ways, bathed her tumbled masses of fair hair, her little white form, her bare feet raised tiptoe.
Suddenly she drew back. She had seen the figure of a man crossing the park on the further side of the river, and the maidenly instinct drove her from the window; though the man in question was perhaps a quarter of a mile away, and had he been looking for her, could not possibly have made out more than a pale speck on the old wall.
"Mr. Helbeck,"—she thought—"by the height of him. Where is he off to before seven o'clock in the morning? I hate a man that can't keep rational hours like other people! Fricka, come here!"
For her little dog, who had sprung from the bed after its mistress, was now stretching and blinking behind her. At Laura's voice it jumped up and tried to lick her face. Laura caught it in her arms and sat down on the bed, still hugging it.
"No, Fricka, I don't like him—I don't, I don't, I don't! But you and I have just got to behave. If you annoy that big dog downstairs, he'll break your neck,—he will, Fricka. As for me,"—she shrugged her small shoulders,—"well, Mr. Helbeck can't break my neck, so I'm dreadfully afraid I shall annoy him—dreadfully, dreadfully afraid! But I'll try not. You see, what we've got to do, is just to get Augustina well—stand over her with a broomstick and pour the tonics down her throat. Then, Fricka, we'll go our way and have some fun. Now look at us!——"
She moved a little, so that the cracked glass on the dressing-table reflected her head and shoulders, with the dog against her neck.
"You know we're not at all bad-looking, Fricka—neither of us. I've seen much worse. (Oh, Fricka! I've told you scores of times I can wash my face—without you—thank you!) There's all sorts of nice things that might happen if we just put ourselves in the way of them. Oh! I do want some fun—I do!—at least sometimes!"
But again the voice dropped suddenly; the big greenish eyes filled in a moment with inconsistent tears, and Laura sat staring at the sunshine, while the drops fell on her white nightgown.
Meanwhile Fricka, being half throttled, made a violent effort and escaped. Laura too sprang up, wiped away her tears as though she were furious with them, and began to look about her for the means of dressing. Everything in the room was of the poorest and scantiest—the cottage washstand with its crockery, the bare dressing-table and dilapidated glass.
"A bath!—my kingdom for a bath! I don't mind starving, but one must wash. Let's ring for that rough-haired girl, Fricka, and try and get round her. Goodness!—no bells?"
After long search, however, she discovered a tattered shred of tapestry hanging in a corner, and pulled it vigorously. Many efforts, however, were needed before there was a sound of feet in the passage outside. Laura hastily donned a blue dressing-gown, and stood expectant.
The door was opened unceremoniously and a girl thrust in her head. Laura had made acquaintance with her the night before. She was the housekeeper's underling and niece.
"Mrs. Denton says I'm not to stop. She's noa time for answerin bells. And you'll have some hot water when t' kettle boils."
The door was just shutting again when Laura sprang at the speaker and caught her by the arm.
"My dear," she said, dragging the girl in, "that won't do at all. Now look here"—she held up her little white hand, shaking the forefinger with energy—"I don't—want—to give—any trouble, and Mrs. Denton may keep her hot water. But I must have a bath—and a big can—and somebody must show me where to go for water—and then—then, my dear—if you make yourself agreeable, I'll—well, I'll teach you how to do your hair on Sundays—in a way that will surprise you!"
The girl stared at her in sudden astonishment, her dark stupid eyes wavering. She had a round, peasant face, not without comeliness, and a lustreless shock of black hair. Laura laughed.
"I will," she said, nodding; "you'll see. And I'll give you notions for your best frock. I'll be a regular elder sister to you—if you'll just do a few things for me—and Mrs. Fountain. What's your name—Ellen?—that's all right. Now, is there a bath in the house?"
The girl unwillingly replied that there was one in the big room at the end of the passage.
"Show it me," said Laura, and marched her off there. The rough-headed one led the way along the panelled passage and opened a door.
Then it was Laura's turn to stare.
Inside she saw a vast room with finely panelled walls and a decorated ceiling. The sunlight poured in through an uncurtained window upon the only two objects in the room,—a magnificent bed, carved and gilt, with hangings of tarnished brocade,—and a round tin bath of a common, old-fashioned make, propped up against the wall. The oak boards were absolutely bare. The bed and the bath looked at each other.
"What's become of all the furniture?" said Laura, gazing round her in astonishment.
"The gentleman from Edinburgh had it all, lasst month," said the girl, still sullenly. "He's affther the bed now."
"Oh!—Does he often come here?"
The girl hesitated.
"Well, he's had a lot o' things oot o' t' house, sen I came."
"Has he?" said Laura. "Now, then—lend a hand."
Between them they carried off the bath; and then Laura informed herself where water was to be had, and when breakfast would be ready.
"T' Squire's gone oot," said Ellen, still watching the newcomer from under a pair of very black and beetling brows; "and Mrs. Denton said she supposed yo'd be wantin a tray for Mrs. Fountain."
"Does the Squire take no breakfast?"
"Noa. He's away to Mass—ivery mornin, an' he gets his breakfast wi' Father Bowles."
The girl's look grew more hostile.
"Oh, does he?" said Laura in a tone of meditation. "Well, then, look here. Put another cup and another plate on Mrs. Fountain's tray, and I'll have mine with her. Shall I come down to the kitchen for it?"
"Noa," said the girl hastily. "Mrs. Denton doan't like foak i' t' kitchen."
At that moment a call in Mrs. Denton's angriest tones came pealing along the passage outside. Laura laughed and pushed the girl out of the room.
* * * * *
An hour later Miss Fountain was ministering to her stepmother in the most comfortable bedroom that the house afforded. The furniture, indeed, was a medley. It seemed to have been gathered out of many other rooms. But at any rate there was abundance of it; a carpet much worn, but still useful, covered the floor; and Ellen had lit the fire without being summoned to do it. Laura recognised that Mr. Helbeck must have given a certain number of precise orders on the subject of his sister.
Poor Mrs. Fountain, however, was not happy. She was sitting up in bed, wrapped in an unbecoming flannel jacket—Augustina had no taste in clothes—and looking with an odd repugnance at the very passable breakfast that Laura placed before her. Laura did not quite know what to make of her. In old days she had always regarded her stepmother as an easy-going, rather self-indulgent creature, who liked pleasant food and stuffed chairs, and could be best managed or propitiated through some attention to her taste in sofa-cushions or in tea-cakes.
No doubt, since Mrs. Fountain's reconciliation with the Church of her fathers, she had shown sometimes an anxious disposition to practise the usual austerities of good Catholics. But neither doctor nor director had been able to indulge her in this respect, owing to the feebleness of her health. And on the whole she had acquiesced readily enough.
But Laura found her now changed and restless.
"Oh! Laura, I can't eat all that!"
"You must," said Laura firmly. "Really, Augustina, you must."
"Alan's gone out," said Augustina, with a wistful inconsequence, straining her eyes as though to look through the diamond panes of the window opposite, at the park and the persons walking in it.
"Yes. He seems to go to Whinthorpe every morning for Mass. Ellen says he breakfasts with the priest."
Augustina sighed and fidgeted. But when she was half-way through her meal, Laura standing over her, she suddenly laid a shaking hand on Laura's arm.
"Laura!—Alan's a saint!—he always was—long ago—when I was so blind and wicked. But now—oh! the things Mrs. Denton's been telling me!"
"Has she?" said Laura coolly. "Well, make up your mind, Augustina"—she shook her bright head—"that you can't be the same kind of saint that he is—anyway."
Mrs. Fountain withdrew her hand in quick offence.
"I should be glad if you could talk of these things without flippancy, Laura. When I think how incapable I have been all these years, of understanding my dear brother——"
"No—you see you were living with papa," said Laura slowly.
She had left her stepmother's side, and was standing with her back to an old cabinet, resting her elbows upon it. Her brows were drawn together, and poor Mrs. Fountain, after a glance at her, looked still more miserable.
"Your poor papa!" she murmured with a gulp, and then, as though to propitiate Laura, she drew her breakfast back to her, and again tried to eat it. Small and slight as they both were, there was a very sharp contrast between her and her stepdaughter. Laura's features were all delicately clear, and nothing could have been more definite, more brilliant than the colour of the eyes and hair, or the whiteness—which was a beautiful and healthy whiteness—of her skin. Whereas everything about Mrs. Fountain was indeterminate; the features with their slight twist to the left; the complexion, once fair, and now reddened by years and ill-health; the hair, of a yellowish grey; the head and shoulders with their nervous infirmity. Only the eyes still possessed some purity of colour. Through all their timidity or wavering, they were still blue and sweet; perhaps they alone explained why a good many persons—including her stepdaughter—were fond of Augustina.
"What has Mrs. Denton been telling you about Mr. Helbeck?" Laura inquired, speaking with some abruptness, after a pause.
"You wouldn't have any sympathy, Laura," said Mrs. Fountain, in some agitation. "You see, you don't understand our Catholic principles. I wish you did!—oh! I wish you did! But you don't. And so perhaps I'd better not talk about it."
"It might interest me to know the facts," said Laura, in a little hard voice. "It seems to me that I'm likely to be Mr. Helbeck's guest for a good while."
"But you won't like it, Laura!" cried Mrs. Fountain—"and you'll misunderstand Alan. Your poor dear father always misunderstood him." (Laura made a restless movement.) "It is not because we think we can save our souls by such things—of course not!—that's the way you Protestants put it——"
"I'm not a Protestant!" said Laura hotly. Mrs. Fountain took no notice.
"But it's what the Church calls 'mortification,'" she said, hurrying on. "It's keeping the body under—as St. Paul did. That's what makes saints—and it does make saints—whatever people say. Your poor father didn't agree, of course. But he didn't know!—oh! dear, dear Stephen!—he didn't know. And Alan isn't cross, and it doesn't spoil his health—it doesn't, really."
"What does he do?" asked Laura, trying for the point.
But poor Augustina, in her mixed flurry of feeling, could hardly explain.
"You see, Laura, there's a strict way of keeping Lent, and—well—just the common way—doing as little as you can. It used to be all much stricter, of course."
"In the Dark Ages?" suggested Laura. Augustina took no notice.
"And what the books tell you now, is much stricter than what anybody does.—I'm sure I don't know why. But Alan takes it strictly—he wants to go back to quite the old ways. Oh! I wish I could explain it——"
Mrs. Fountain stopped bewildered. She was sure she had heard once that in the early Church people took no food at all till the evening—not even a drink. But Alan was not going to do that?
Laura had taken Fricka on her knee, and was straightening the ribbon round the dog's neck.
"Does he eat anything?" she asked carelessly, looking up. "If it's nothing—that would be interesting."
"Laura! if you only would try and understand!—Of course Alan doesn't settle such a thing for himself—nobody does with us. That's only in the English Church."
Augustina straightened herself, with an unconscious arrogance. Laura looked at her, smiling.
"Who settles it, then?"
"Why, his director, of course. He must have leave. But they have given him leave. He has chosen a rule for himself"—Augustina gave a visible gulp—"and he called Mrs. Denton to him before Lent, and told her about it. Of course he'll hide it as much as he can. Catholics must never be singular—never! But if we live in the house with him he can't hide it. And all Lent, he only eats meat on Sundays, and other days—he wrote down a list—— Well, it's like the saints—that's all!—I just cried over it!"
Mrs. Fountain shook with the emotion of saying such things to Laura, but her blue eyes flamed.
"What! fish and eggs?—that kind of thing?" said Laura. "As if there was any hardship in that!"
"Laura! how can you be so unkind?—I must just keep it all to myself.—I won't tell you anything!" cried Augustina in exasperation.
Laura walked away to the window, and stood looking out at the March buds on the sycamores shining above the river.
"Does he make the servants fast too?" she asked presently, turning her head over her shoulder.
"No, no," said her stepmother eagerly; "he's never hard on them—only to himself. The Church doesn't expect anything more than 'abstinence,' you understand—not real fasting—from people like them—people who work hard with their hands. But—I really believe—they do very much as he does. Mrs. Denton seems to keep the house on nothing. Oh! and, Laura—I really can't be always having extra things!"
Mrs. Fountain pushed her breakfast away from her.
"Please remember—nobody settles anything for themselves—in your Church," said Laura. "You know what that doctor—that Catholic doctor—said to you at Folkestone."
Mrs. Fountain sighed.
"And as to Mrs. Denton, I see—that explains the manners. No improvement—till Lent's over?"
But her stepdaughter, who was at the window again looking out, paid no heed, and presently Augustina said with timid softness:
"Won't you have your breakfast, Laura? You know it's here—on my tray."
Laura turned, and Augustina to her infinite relief saw not frowns, but a face all radiance.
"I've been watching the lambs in the field across the river. Such ridiculous enchanting things!—such jumps—and affectations. And the river's heavenly—and all the general feel of it! I really don't know, Augustina, how you ever came to leave this country when you'd once been born in it."
Mrs. Fountain pushed away her tray, shook her head sadly, and said nothing.
"What is it?—and who is it?" cried Laura, standing amazed before a picture in the drawing-room at Bannisdale.
In front of her, on the panelled wall, hung a dazzling portrait of a girl in white, a creature light as a flower under wind; eyes upraised and eager, as though to welcome a lover; fair hair bound turban-like with a white veil; the pretty hands playing with a book. It shone from the brown wall with a kind of natural sovereignty over all below it and around it, so brilliant was the picture, so beautiful the woman.
Augustina looked up drearily. She was sitting shrunk together in a large chair, deep in some thoughts of her own.
"That's our picture—the famous picture," she explained slowly.
"Your Romney?" said Laura, vaguely recalling some earlier talk of her stepmother's.
Augustina nodded. She stared at the picture with a curious agitation, as though she were seeing its long familiar glories for the first time. Laura was much puzzled by her.
"Well, but it's magnificent!" cried the girl. "One needn't know much to know that. How can Mr. Helbeck call himself poor while he possesses such a thing?"
"It's worth thousands," she said hastily. "We know that. There was a man from London came once, years ago. But papa turned him out—he would never sell his things. And she was our great-grandmother."
An idea flashed through Laura's mind.
"You don't mean to say that Mr. Helbeck is going to sell her?" said Laura impetuously. "It would be a shame!"
"Alan can do what he likes with anything," said Augustina in a quick resentment. "And he wants money badly for one of his orphanages—some of it has to be rebuilt. Oh! those orphanages—how they must have weighed on him—poor Alan!—poor dear Alan!—all these years!"
Mrs. Fountain clasped her thin hands together, with a sigh.
"Is it they that have eaten up the house bit by bit?—poor house!—poor dear house!" repeated Laura.
She was staring with an angry championship at the picture. Its sweet confiding air—as of one cradled in love, happy for generations in the homage of her kindred and the shelter of the old house—stood for all the natural human things that creeds and bigots were always trampling under foot.