E. H. YOUNG
Author of "WILLIAM" and "THE MALLETTS"
New York Harcourt, Brace and Company
Printed in the U. S. A.
In the dusk of a spring evening, Helen Caniper walked on the long road from the town. Making nothing of the laden basket she carried, she went quickly until she drew level with the high fir-wood which stood like a barrier against any encroachment on the moor, then she looked back and saw lights darting out to mark the streets she had left behind, as though a fairy hand illuminated a giant Christmas-tree.
Among the other trees, black and mysterious on the hill, a cold wind was moaning. "It's the night wind," Helen murmured. The moor was inhabited by many winds, and she knew them all, and it was only the night wind that cried among the trees, for, fearless though it seemed, it had a dread of the hours that made it. The fir-trees, their bare trunks like a palisade, swayed gently, and Helen's skirts flapped about her ankles. More lights glimmered in the town, and she turned towards home.
The moor stretched now on either hand until it touched a sky from which all the colour had not departed, and the road shone whitely, pale but courageous as it kept its lonely path. Helen's feet tapped clearly as she hurried on, and when she approached the road to Halkett's Farm, the sound of her going was mingled with that of hoofs, and an old horse, drawing a dog-cart, laboured round the corner. It was the horse Dr. Mackenzie had always driven up the long road; it was now driven by his son, and when he saw that some one motioned him to stop, the young doctor drew up. He bent forward to see her.
"It's Helen," he said. "Oh, Helen, how are you?"
She stood by the step and looked up at him. "I'm very well. I'm glad you knew me. It's three years."
"And your hair is up."
"Miriam and I are twenty," she said gravely, and he laughed.
The horse shook himself and set the dog-cart swaying; the jingle of his bit went adventurously across the moor; heather-stalks scratched each other in the wind.
"You haven't lighted your lamps," Helen said. "Somebody might run into you."
"They might." He jumped down and fumbled for his matches. "The comfort is that we're not likely to do it to any one, at our pace. When I've made my fortune I shall buy a horse from George Halkett, one that will go fast and far."
"But I like this one," said Helen. "We used to watch for him when we had measles. He's mixed up with everything. Don't have another one."
"The fortune's still to make," he said. He had lighted the nearer lamp and Helen's slim figure had become a thing of shadows. He took the basket from her and put it under the seat. She was staring over the horse's back.
"There was a thing we used to do. We had bets about Dr. Mackenzie's ties, what colour they were; but we never won or lost, because we never saw them. His beard was so big. And once Miriam pretended there was a huge spider on the ceiling, but he wouldn't look up, though she screamed. He told her not to be a silly little girl. So we never saw them."
"I'm not surprised," the young doctor said. "He didn't wear them. What was the use? He was a practical man."
"Oh," Helen cried, "isn't that just like life! You bother and bother about something that doesn't exist and make yourself miserable for nothing. No, I won't do it."
"It's a great fault of mine," she said.
He went round the back of the cart and lighted the other lamp. "Now I'm going to drive you home. That basket's heavy."
"I have been shopping," she explained. "Tomorrow a visitor is coming."
"Your father?" he asked quickly.
"No; he hasn't been again. He's ill, Notya says, and it's too cold for him here. Dr. Zebedee, aren't you glad to be back on the moor?"
"Well, I don't see much of it, you know. My work is chiefly in the streets—but, yes, I think I'm glad."
"We've been watching for you, Miriam and I. She'll be angry that I've seen you first. No; she's thinking too much about tomorrow. It's an uncle who's coming, a kind of uncle—Notya's brother. We haven't seen him before and Miriam's excited."
"And you're not."
"I don't like new things. They feel dangerous. You don't know what they'll bring."
"I thought you weren't going to make yourself miserable," he said. "Jump up, and we'll take home the fatted calf."
She hesitated. "I'm not going straight home."
"Let me deliver the calf, then."
"No, please; it isn't heavy." She went to the horse's head and stroked his nose. "I've never known his name. What is it?"
"Upon my word, I don't believe he has one. He's just the horse. That's what we always called him."
"'The horse'! How dreary! It makes him not a person."
"But the one and only horse!"
"I don't suppose he minds very much," she murmured. "Good-night, horse. Good-night, Zebedee. My basket, please. I'm very late."
"I wish you'd let me take you home. You oughtn't to go wandering over the moor by night."
She laughed. "I've done it all my life. Do you remember," she went on slowly, "what I once told you about the fires? Oh, years ago, when I first saw you."
"The fires?" he said.
"Never mind if you've forgotten."
"I don't forget things," he said; "I'm remembering." His mind was urged by his sense of her disappointment and by the sight of her face, which the shadows saddened. The basket hung on her arm and her hands were clasped together: she looked like a child and he could not believe in her twenty years.
"It doesn't matter," she said softly.
"But I do remember. It's the spring fires."
"The Easter fires."
"Of course, of course, you told me—"
"I think they must be burning now. That's where I'm going—to look for them."
"I wish I could come too."
"Do you? Do you? Oh!" She made a step towards him. "The others never come. They laugh but I still go on. It's safer, isn't it? It can't do any harm to pray. And now that Uncle Alfred's coming—"
"Is he a desperate character?"
She made a gesture with her clasped hands. "It's like opening a door."
"You mustn't be afraid of open doors," he said—"you, who live on the moor." He grasped her shoulder in a friendly fashion. "You mustn't be afraid of anything. Go and find your fires, and don't forget to pray for me."
"Of course not. Good-night. Will you be coming again soon?"
"Old Halkett's pretty ill," was his reply and, climbing to his seat, he waved his hat and bade the old horse move on.
The moor lay dark as a lake at Helen's feet and the rustling of the heather might have been the sound of water fretted by the wind—deep, black water whose depths no wind could stir. At Helen's right hand a different darkness was made by the larch-trees clothing Halkett's hollow, and on her left a yellow gleam, like the light at the masthead of a ship at sea, betrayed her home. Behind her, and on the other side of the road, the Brent Farm dogs began to bark, and in the next instant they were answered from many points of the moor, so that houses and farmsteads became materialized in the night which had hidden them and Helen stood in a circle of echoing sound. Often, as a child, she had waked at such a clamour, and pictured homeless people walking on the road, and now, though she heard no footsteps, she seemed to feel the approach of noiseless feet, bringing the unknown. For her, youth's delights of strength and fleetness were paid for by the thought of the many years in which her happiness could be assailed. Age might be feeble, but it had, she considered, the consolation of knowing something of the limitations of its pain. She wished she could put an unscalable wall about the moor, so that the soundless feet should stay outside, for she did not know that already she had heard the footsteps of those whose actions were weaving her destiny. Helen Caniper might safely throw open all her doors.
The barking of the dogs lessened and then ceased; once more only the whistling of the wind broke the silence, until Helen's skirts rubbed the heather as she ran and something jingled in her basket. She went fast to find her fires and, while her mind was fixed on them, she was still aware of the vast moor she loved, its darkness, its silence, the smells it gave out, the promise of warmth and fertility in its bosom. She could not clearly see the ground, but her feet knew it: heather, grass, stones, and young bracken were to be overcome; here and there a rock or thorn-bush loomed out blacker than the rest in warning; sometimes a dip in the earth must be avoided; once or twice dim grey objects rose up and became sheep that bleated out of her way, and always, as she ran, she mounted. For a time she was level with the walled garden of her home, but, passing its limit, she topped a sudden steepness, descended it with a rush, and lost all glimmerings from road or dwelling-place.
A greenish sky, threatening to turn black, delicately roofed the world; no stars had yet come through, and, far away, as though in search of them, the moor rose to a line of hills. Their rounded tops had no defiance, their curve was that of a wave without the desire to break, held in its perfect contour by its own content. The moor itself had the patience of the wisdom which is faith, and Helen might have heard it laughing tenderly if she had been less concerned with the discovery of her fires. She stood still, and her eyes found only the moor, the rocks and hills.
"I must go on," she said in a whisper. And now, for pleasure in her strength, she went in running bounds over a stretch of close-cropped turf, and space became so changed for her that she hardly knew whether she leapt a league or foot; and it was all one, for she had a feeling of great power and happiness in a world which was empty without loneliness. And then a creeping line of fire arrested her. Not far off, it went snake-like over the ground, disappeared, and again burned out more brightly: it edged the pale smoke like embroidery on a veil, and behind that veil there lived and moved the smoke-god she had created for herself when she was ten years old. She could not hear the crackling of the twigs nor smell their burning, and she had no wish to draw nearer. She stretched out her arms and dropped to her knees and prayed.
"Oh, Thou, behind the smoke," she said aloud, "guard the moor and us. We will not harm your moor. Amen."
This was the eleventh time she had prayed to the God behind the smoke, and he had guarded both the Canipers and the moor, but now she felt the need to add more words to the childish ones she had never changed.
"And let me be afraid of nothing," she said firmly, and hesitated for a second. "For beauty's sake. Amen."
After her return over the moor, through the silent garden and the dim house, Helen was dazzled by the schoolroom lights and she stood blinking in the doorway.
"We're all here and all hungry," Rupert said. "You're late."
"I know." She shut the door and took off her hat. "Miriam, I met Zebedee."
"Oh," Miriam said on a disapproving note. She lay on the sofa as though a wind had flung her there, and her eyes were closed. In her composure she looked tired, older than Helen and more experienced, but her next words came youthfully enough. "Just like you. You get everything."
"I couldn't help it," Helen said mildly. "He came round the corner from Halkett's Farm. Ought I to have run away?"
Miriam sat up and laughed, showing dark eyes and shining little teeth which transformed her face into a childish one.
"Is he different?"
"I couldn't see very well."
"He is different," Rupert said; and John, on the window-seat, put down his book to listen.
"Tell us," Miriam said.
"Nothing much, but he is older."
"So are we."
"Not in his way."
"We haven't had the chance," Miriam complained. "I suppose you mean he has been doing things he ought not to do in London."
"Not necessarily," Rupert answered lightly and John picked up his book again. He generally found that his excursions into the affairs of men and women were dull and fruitless, while his book, on the subject of manures, satisfied his intellect and was useful in its results.
There was a silence in which both girls, though differently, were conscious of a dislike for Zebedee's unknown adventures.
Miriam laid her head on the red cushion. "I wish tomorrow would come."
"I bought turbot," Helen said. "I should think he's the kind of man who likes it."
"I suggest delicate sauces," Rupert said.
"You needn't be at all anxious about his food," Miriam assured them. "I'm going to be the attraction of this visit."
"How d'you know?"
Her teeth caught her under-lip. "Because I mean to be."
"Well, don't make a fool of yourself, my dear."
"She will," John growled.
Helen spoke quickly. "Oh, Miriam, I told Zebedee about Dr. Mackenzie's ties, and, do you know, he never wore any at all!"
"Old pig! He wouldn't. Mean. Scotch. We might have thought of that. If Daniel had a beard he would be just the same."
"It may surprise you to learn," Rupert remarked, "that Daniel takes a great interest in his appearance lately."
"That's me again," Miriam said complacently.
"Ugly people are rather like that," Helen said. "But he wears terrible boots."
"He's still at the collar-and-tie stage," Rupert said. "We'll get to boots later. He needs encouragement—and control. A great deal of control. He had a bright blue tie on yesterday."
"Ha!" Miriam shouted in a strangled laugh, and thrust her face into the cushion. "That's me, too!" she cried. "I told him blue would suit him."
Rupert wagged his head. "I can't see the fun in that kind of thing, making a fool of the poor beggar."
"Well," she flashed, "he shouldn't ask me to marry him!"
"You'd complain if he didn't."
"Of course I should—of course! I'm so dull that I'm really grateful to him, but I'm so dull that I have to tease him, too. It's only clutching at straws, and Daniel likes it."
"He's wasted half a crown on his tie, though. I'm going to tell him that you're not to be trusted."
"Then I shall devote myself to Zebedee."
"You won't influence Zebedee's ties," Helen said, "or his collars—the shiniest ones I have ever seen."
"She won't influence him at all, my good Helen. What's she got to do it with?"
"This!" Miriam said, rising superbly and displaying herself.
"Shut her up, somebody!" John begged. "This is beastly. Has she nothing better to do with herself than attracting men? If you met a woman who made that her profession instead of her play, you'd pass by on the other side."
Miriam flushed, frowned, and recovered herself. "I might. I don't think so. I can't see any harm in pleasing people. If I were clever and frightened them, or witty and made them laugh, it would be just the same. I happen to be beautiful." She spread her hands and waved them. "Tell birds not to fly, tell lambs not to skip, tell me to sit and darn the socks!" She stood on the fender and looked at herself in the glass. "Besides," she said, "I don't care. I'm not responsible. If Notya hadn't buried us all here, I might have been living a useful life!" She cast a sly glance at John. "I might be making butter like Lily Brent."
"Not half so good!"
She ignored that, and went on with her thoughts. "I shall ask Uncle Alfred what made Notya bring us here."
She turned and stood, very slim in her dark dress, her eyelids lowered, her lips parted, expectant of reproof and ready with defiance, but no one spoke. She constantly forgot that her family knew her, but, remembering that fact, her tilted eyebrows twitched a little. Her face broke into mischievous curves and dimples.
"What d'you bet?"
"No," Helen said, thinking of her stepmother. "Notya wouldn't like it."
"Bah! Pish! Faugh! Pshaw—and ugh! What do I care? I shall!"
"Oh, a rotten thing to do," said John.
"And, anyhow, it doesn't matter," Helen said. "We're here."
"Rupert?" Miriam begged.
"Better not," he answered kindly. "Not worth while." He lay back in a big chair and watched the world through his tobacco smoke. He had all Miriam's darkness and much of her beauty, but he had already acquired a tolerant view of things which made him the best of companions, the least ambitious of young men. "Live and let live, my dear."
"I shan't promise. I suppose I'm not up to your standards of honour, but if a person makes a mystery, why shouldn't the others try to find it out? That's what it's for! And there's nothing else to do."
"You're inventing the mystery," Rupert said. "If Notya and our absent parent didn't get on together—and who could get on with a man who's always ill?—they were wise in parting, weren't they?"
"But why the moor?"
"Ah, I think that was a sudden impulse, and she has always been too proud to own that it was a mistake."
"That's the first sensible thing any one has said yet," John remarked. "I quite agree with you. It's my own idea."
"I'm a young man of penetration, as I've told you all before."
"And shoved into a bank!" John grumbled.
"I like the bank. It's a cheerful place. There's lots of gold about, and people come and talk to me through the bars."
"But," Helen began, on the deep notes of her voice, "what should we have done if she had repented and taken us away? What should we have done?"
"We might have been happy," Miriam said.
"John, what would you have done?" Helen persisted.
"Said nothing, grown up as fast as I could, and come back."
"So should I."
Rupert chuckled. "You wouldn't, Helen. You'd have stayed with Notya and Miriam and me and looked after us all, and longed for this place and denied yourself."
"And made us all uncomfortable." Miriam pointed at Helen's grey dress. "What have you been doing?"
Helen looked down at the dark marks where her knees had pressed the ground.
"It will dry," she said, and went nearer the fire. "Zebedee says old Halkett's ill."
"Drink and the devil," Rupert hummed. "He'll die soon."
"Hope so," John said fervently. "I don't like to think of the bloated old beast alive."
"He'll be horrider dead, I think," said Helen. "Dead things should be beautiful."
"Well, he won't be. Moreover, nothing is, for long. You've seen sheep's carcasses after the snows. Don't be romantic."
"I said they should be."
"It's a good thing they're not. They wouldn't fertilize the ground. Can't we have supper?"
"Here's Notya!" Miriam uttered the warning, and began to poke the fire.
The room was entered by a small lady who carried her head well. She had fair, curling hair, serious blue eyes and a mouth which had been puckered into a kind of sternness.
"So you have come back, Helen," she said. "You should have told me. I have been to the road to look for you. You are very late."
"Yes. I'm sorry. I met Dr. Mackenzie."
"He ought to have brought you home."
"He wanted to. I got turbot for Uncle Alfred. It's on the kitchen table."
"Then I expect the cat has eaten it," said Mrs. Caniper with resignation, but her mouth widened delightfully into what might have been its natural shape. "Miriam, go and put it in the larder."
Surreptitiously and in farewell, Miriam dropped the poker on Helen's toes. "Why can't she send you?" she muttered. "It's your turbot."
"But it's your cat."
Wearing what the Canipers called her deaf expression, their stepmother looked at the closing door. "I did not hear what Miriam said," she remarked blandly.
"She was talking to me."
"Oh!" Mrs. Caniper flushed slowly. "It is discourteous to have private conversations in public, Helen. I have tried to impress that on you—unsuccessfully, it seems; but remember that I have tried."
"Yes, thank you," Helen said, with serious politeness. She made a movement unnatural to her in its violence, because she was forcing herself to speak. "But you don't mind if the boys do things like that." She hesitated and plunged again. "It's Miriam. You're not fair to her. You never have been."
Over Mrs. Caniper's small face there swept changes of expression which Helen was not to forget. Anger and surprise contended together, widening her eyes and lips, and these were both overcome, after a struggle, by a revelation of self-pity not less amazing to the woman than to the girl.
"Has she ever been fair to me?" Mildred Caniper asked stumblingly, before she went in haste, and Helen knew well why she fumbled for the door-handle.
The acute silence of the unhappy filled the room: John rose, collided clumsily with the table and approached the hearth.
"Now, what did you do that for?" he said. "I can't stomach these family affairs."
Helen smoothed her forehead and subdued the tragedy in her eyes. "I had to do it," she breathed. "It was true, wasn't it?" She looked at Rupert, but he was looking at the fire.
"True, yes," said John, "but it does Miriam no harm. A little opposition—"
"No," said Helen, "no. We don't want to drive her to—to being silly."
"She is silly," John said.
"No," Helen said again. "She ought not to live here, that's all."
"She'll have to learn to. Anyhow"—he put his hands into his pockets—"we can't have Notya looking like that. It's—it won't do."
"It's quite easy not to hurt people," Helen murmured; "but you had to hurt her yourself, John, about your gardening."
"That was different," he said. He was a masculine creature. "I was fighting for existence."
"Miriam has an existence, too, you know," Rupert said.
From the other side of the hall there came a faint chink of plates and Miriam's low voice singing.
"She's all right," John assured himself.
Helen was smiling tenderly at the sound. "But I wonder why Notya is so hard on her," she sighed.
Rupert knocked his pipe against the fender. "I should be very glad to know what our mother was like," he said.
Long ago, out of excess of loyalty, the Canipers had tacitly agreed not to discuss those matters on which their stepmother was determinedly reserved, and now a certain tightening of the atmosphere revealed the fact that John and Helen were controlling their desires to ask Rupert what he meant.
The Canipers had lived on the moor for sixteen years, and Rupert was the only one of the children who had more distant memories. These were like flashes of white light on general darkness, for the low house of his memory was white and the broad-leaved trees of the garden cast their shadows on a pale wall: there was a white nursery of unlimited dimensions and a white bath-room with a fluffy mat which comforted the soles of his feet and tickled his toes. Another recollection was of the day when a lady already faintly familiar to him was introduced by an officious nurse as his new mother, and when he looked up at her, with interest in her relationship and admiration for her prettiness, he saw her making herself look very tall and stern as she said clearly, "I am not your mother, Rupert."
"Notya mother," he echoed amiably, and so Mildred Caniper received her name.
As he grew older, he wondered if he really remembered this occasion or whether Notya herself had told him of it, but he knew that the house and the garden wall and the nursery were true. True, too, was a dark man with a pointed beard whom he called his father, who came and went and at last disappeared; and his next remembrance was of the moor, the biggest thing he had ever seen, getting blacker and blacker as the carriage-load of Canipers jogged up the road. The faces of his stepmother, the nursemaid, John and the twins, were like paper lanterns on the background of night, things pale and impermanent, swaying to the movements of the carriage while this black, outspread earth threatened them, and, with the quick sympathy natural to him even then, he knew that Notya was afraid of something too. Then the horse stopped and Rupert climbed stiffly to the ground and heard the welcome of the friend whom he was to know thereafter as Mrs. Brent. Her voice and presence were rich with reassurance: she was fat and hearty, and the threatening earth had spared her, so he took comfort. The laurels by the small iron gate rattled at him as he passed, but Mrs. Brent had each boy by a hand, and no one could be afraid. It was, he remembered, impossible for the three to go through the gate abreast.
"Run in now," said Mrs. Brent, and when he had obeyed he heard a tall grandfather clock ticking in the hall. He could see a staircase running upwards into shadows, and the half-opened doors made him think of the mouths of monsters. It seemed a long time before Mrs. Brent followed him and made a cheerful noise.
With these memories he could always keep the little girls entranced, even when great adventures of their own came to them on the moor, for Notya was a stepmother by her own avowal, and in fairy tales a stepmother was always cruel. They pretended to believe that she had carried them away by force, that some day they would be rescued and taken back to the big white nursery and the fluffy white mat; but Helen at last spoilt the game by asserting that she did not want to be rescued and by refusing to allow Notya to be the villain of the piece.
"She isn't cruel. She's sad," Helen explained.
"Yes, really; but this is pretending," Rupert said.
"It's not pretending. It's true," Miriam said, and she went on with the game though she had to play alone. At the age of twenty she still played it: Notya was still the cruel stepmother and Miriam's eyes were eager on a horizon against which the rescuer should stand. At one time he had been splendid and invincible, a knight to save her, and if his place had now been taken by the unknown Uncle Alfred, it was only that realism had influenced her fiction, and with a due sense of economy she used the materials within her reach.
Domestic being though Helen was, the white nursery had no attraction for her: she was more than satisfied with her many-coloured one; its floor had hills and tiny dales, pools and streams, and it was walled by greater hills and roofed by sky. On it there grew thorn-bushes which thrust out thin hands, begging for food, in winter, and which wore a lady's lovely dress in summertime and a warm red coat for autumn nights. There was bracken, like little walking-sticks in spring, and when the leaves uncurled themselves and spread, they made splendid feathers with which to trim a hat or play at ostrich farms; but, best of all and most fearsome, as the stems shot upwards and overtopped a child, the bracken became a forest through which she hardly dared to walk, so dense and interminable it was. To crawl up and down a fern-covered hillock needed all Helen's resolution and she would emerge panting and wild-eyed, blessing the open country and still watchful for what might follow her. After that experience a mere game of hunters, with John and Rupert roaring like lions and trumpeting like elephants, was a smaller though glorious thing, and for hot and less heroic days there was the game of dairymen, played in the reedy pool or in Halkett's stream with the aid of old milk-cans of many sizes, lent to the Canipers by the lovable Mrs. Brent.
In those days Mrs. Brent furnished them with their ideas of motherhood. She seemed old to them because her husband was long dead and she was stout, but she had a dark-eyed girl no older than John, and her she kissed and nursed, scolded, teased and loved with a joyous confidence which impressed the Canipers. Their stepmother rarely kissed, her reprimands had not the familiarity of scoldings, and though she had a sense of fun which could be reached and used with discretion, there was no feeling of safety in her company. They were too young to realize that this was because she was uncertain of herself, as that puckered mouth revealed. That she loved them they believed; with all the aloofness of their young souls they were thankful that she did not caress them; but they liked to see Lily Brent fondled by her mother, and they themselves suffered Mrs. Brent's endearments with a happy sense of irresponsibility. It was Mrs. Brent who gave them hot cakes when they went to the dairy to fetch butter or eggs, and who sometimes let them skim the milk and eventually lick the ladle, but she was chiefly wonderful because she could tell them about Mr. Pinderwell. Poor Mr. Pinderwell was the late owner of the Canipers' home. He had lived for more than fifty years in the house chosen and furnished for a bride who had softly fallen ill on the eve of her wedding-day and softly died, and Mr. Pinderwell, distracted by his loss, had come to live in the big, lonely house and had grown old and at last died there, in the hall, with no voice to bewail him but the ticking of the grandfather clock. Going on her daily visit, for she alone was permitted to approach him, Mrs. Brent had found him lying with his face on his outflung arm, "just like a little boy in his bed."
"And were you frightened?" Miriam asked.
"There was nothing to be afraid of, my dear," Mrs. Brent replied. "Death comes to all of us. It's a good thing to get used to the look of him."
Mrs. Brent had been fond of Mr. Pinderwell. He was a gentleman, she said, and though his mind had become more and more bewildered towards the end, he had been unfailingly courteous to her. She would find him wandering up and down the stairs, carrying a small basket of tools in his hand, for he took to wood-carving at the last, as the panels of the bedroom doors were witness, and he would stop to speak about the weather and beg her to allow him to make her some return for all her kindness.
"I used to clean up the place for him," Mrs. Brent would always continue, "and do a little cooking for him, poor old chap! I missed him when he'd gone, and I was glad when your mother came and took the house, just as it stood, with his lady's picture and all, and made the place comfortable again."
Miriam would press against Mrs. Brent's wide knees. "Will you tell us the story again, please, Mrs. Brent?"
"If you're good children, but not today. Run along home."
At that stage of their development they were hardly interested in the portrait of Mr. Pinderwell's bride, hanging above the sofa in the drawing-room. It was the only picture in the house, and from an oval frame of gilt a pretty lady, crowned with a plait of hair, looked mildly on these usurpers of her home. She was not real to them, though for Helen she was to become so, but Mr. Pinderwell, pacing up and down the stairs, carrying a little chisel, was a living friend. On the wide, wind-swept landing, they studied his handiwork on the doors, and they made a discovery which Mrs. Brent had missed. These roughnesses, known to their fingers from their first day in the house, were letters, and made names. Laboriously they spelt them out. Jane, on the door of Helen's room, was easy; Phoebe, on Miriam's, was for a long time called Pehebe; and Christopher, on another, had a familiar and adventurous sound.
"Funny," Rupert said. "What are they?"
Helen spoke with that decision which often annoyed her relatives. "I know. It's the names of the children he was going to have. Jane and Pehebe and Christopher. That's what it is. And these were the rooms he'd settled for them. Jane is a quiet little girl with a fringe and a white pinafore, and Pehebe has a sash and cries about things, and Christopher is a strong boy in socks."
"Stockings," Rupert said. "He's the oldest."
"He isn't. He's the baby. He wears socks. He's not so smooth as the others, and look, poor Mr. Pinderwell hadn't time to put a full stop. I'm glad I sleep in Jane."
"And of course you give me a girl who cries!" Miriam said. But the characters of Mr. Pinderwell's children had been settled, and they were never altered. Jane and Christopher and Phoebe were added to the inhabitants whom Mildred Caniper did not see, but these three did not leave the landing. They lived there quietly in the shadows, speaking only in whispers, while Mr. Pinderwell continued his restless tramping and his lady smiled, unwearied, in the drawing-room.
"He's the only one who can get at her and them," Helen said in pain. "I don't know how their mother can bear it. I wonder if she'd mind if we hung her on the landing, but then Mr. Pinderwell might miss her. He's so used to her in the drawing-room, and perhaps she doesn't mind about the children."
"I'm sure she doesn't," said John, for he thought she had a silly face.
This was when John and Rupert went to the Grammar School in the town, while the girls did their lessons with Mildred Caniper in the schoolroom of Pinderwell House. Enviously, they watched the boys step across the moor each morning, but their stepmother could not be persuaded to allow them to go too. The distance was so great, she said, and there was no school for girls to which she would entrust them.
"The boys get all the fun," Miriam said. "They see the people in the streets, and get a ride in Mrs. Brent's milk-cart nearly every day, and we sit in the stuffy schoolroom, and Notya's cross."
"You make her cross on purpose," Helen said.
"She shouldn't let me," Miriam answered with perspicuity.
"But it's so silly to make ugliness. It's wicked. Do be good, and let's try to enjoy the lessons and get them over."
But Miriam was not to be influenced by these wise counsels. During lesson hours the strange antipathy between herself and Mildred Caniper often blazed into a storm, and Helen, who loved to keep life smooth and gracious, had the double mortification of seeing Miriam, whom she loved, made naughtier, and Notya, whom she pitied, made more miserable.
"Oh, that we'd had an ignorant stepmother!" Miriam cried. "If stepmothers are not witches they ought to be dunces. Everybody knows that. I'll worry her till she sends us both to boarding-school."
Mildred Caniper was not to be coerced. Her mouth grew more puckered, her eyes more serious, and her tongue sharper; for though anger, as she found, was useless, sarcasm was potent, and in time Miriam gave up the battle. But she did not intend to forgive Mildred Caniper for a single injury, and even now that she was almost woman she refused her own responsibility. Notya had arranged her life, and the evil of it, at least, should be laid at Notya's door.
For Helen, the moor was a personality with moods flecking the solid substance of its character, and even Miriam, who avowed her hatred of its monotony, had to admit an occasional difference. There were days when she thought it was full of secrets and capable of harbouring her own, and there were other days when she forgot its little hills and dales and hiding-places and saw it as a large plain, spread under the glaring eye of the sun, and shelterless, so that when she walked there she believed that her body and, in some mysterious way, her soul, were visible to all men.
Such a day was that on which Uncle Alfred was expected. Miriam went out with a basket on her arm to find flowers for the decoration of his room, and she had no sooner banged the garden door behind her and mounted the first rise than she suffered from this sensation of walking under a spyglass of great size. There was a wonderful clearness everywhere. The grass and young heather were a vivid green, the blue of the sky had a certain harshness and heavily piled clouds rolled across it. Miriam stood on a hillock and gazed at the scene which looked as though something must happen to it under the concentration of the eye behind the glass, but she saw nothing more than the familiar things: the white road cutting the moor, Brent Farm lying placidly against the gentle hillside, the chimneys of Halkett's Farm rising amid trees, and her own home in its walled garden, and, as she looked, a new thought came to her. Perhaps her expectation was born of a familiarity so intense as to be unreal and rarely recognized, and with the thought she shut her eyes tightly and in despair. Nothing would happen. She did not live in a country subject to convulsions, and when she opened her eyes the same things would still be there; yet, to give Providence an opportunity of proving its strength and her folly, she kept her eyelids lowered for a while. This was another pastime of her childhood: she tried to tempt God, failed, and laughed at Him instead of at herself.
She stood there, clad in a colour of rich earth, her head bare and gilded by the sunlight, both hands on the frail basket, and the white eyelids giving the strange air of experience to her face.
"I'm going to look in a minute," she said, and kept her word. Her dark eyes illumined her face, searched the world and found nothing new. There was, indeed, the smallest possible change, but surely it was not one in which God would trouble to take a hand. She could see John's figure moving slowly on the Brent Farm road. A woman's form appeared in the porch and went to meet his: the two stood together in the road.
Miriam made an impatient noise and turned her back on them. She was irritated by the sight of another woman's power, even though John were its sole victim, for she knew that the world of men had only to become aware of her existence and the track to Pinderwell House would be impassable.
"There's no false modesty about me!" she cried to an astonished sheep, and threw a tuft of heather at it.
Suddenly she lifted her chin and began to sing on notes too high for her, and tunelessly, as sign of her defiance, and the words of her song dealt with the dreariness of the moor and her determination to escape from it; but in the midst of them she laughed delightedly.
"I'm an idiot! Uncle Alfred's coming. But if he fails me"—she kicked the basket and ran after it—"I'll do that to him!"
She sang naturally now, in her low, husky voice, as she searched the banks for violets, but once she broke off to murmur, without humour, with serious belief, "He can't fail me. Who could? No one but Notya." Such was her faith in the word's acknowledgement of charm.
She found the violets, but she would not pick them because they stared at her with a confidence like her own, and with an appealing innocence, and thinking she might get primroses under Halkett's larches she went on swiftly, waving the basket as though it were an Indian club.
She stopped when she met the stream which foamed into the stealthy quiet of the wood, and on a large flat stone she sat and was splashed by the noisy water. The larch-trees were alive with feathery green, and their arms waved with the wind, but when Miriam peered through their trunks, all was grave and secret except the stream which shouted louder than before in proof of courage. She did not like the trees, but the neighbourhood of Halkett's Farm had an attraction for her. Down there, in the hollow, old Halkett was drinking himself to death, after a life which had been sober in no respect. Mrs. Samson, the charwoman, now exerting herself at Pinderwell House, and the wife of one of Halkett's hands, had many tales of the old man's wickedness and many nodded hints that the son was taking after him. The Halketts were all alike, she said. They married young and their wives died early, leaving their men to take comfort, or celebrate relief, in their own way.
"Ah, yes! They're a hearty, jolly lot," she often said, and smacked her lips. She was proud and almost envious of the Halketts' exploits, for her own husband was a meek man who never misused her and seldom drank.
Widely different as Mrs. Samson and Miriam believed themselves to be, they had a common elementary pleasure in things of ill report, a savage excitement in the presence of certain kinds of danger, and Miriam sat half fearfully by the larch-wood and hoped something terrible would happen. If there was a bad old man on the moor it was a pity that she should not benefit by him, yet she dreaded his approach and would have run from him, for he was ugly, with a pendulous nose and a small leering eye. She decided to stay at a safe distance from the house and not to venture among the larches: any primroses growing there should live undisturbed, timid and pale, within earshot of old Halkett's ragings, and Uncle Alfred must go without his flowers. Helen had said he would not like them, but that was only because Helen did not like the thought of Uncle Alfred. Helen did not want new things: she was content: she was not wearied by the slow hours, the routine of the quiet house with its stately, polished furniture, chosen long ago by Mr. Pinderwell, the rumbling of cart-wheels on the road, and the homely sounds of John working in the garden. She belonged, as she herself averred, to people and to places.
"And I," Miriam called aloud, touching her breast—"I belong to nobody, though everything belongs to me."
In that announcement she outcried the stream, and through the comparative quietness that followed a hideous noise rumbled and shrieked upwards from the hollow. Bestial, but humanly inarticulate, it filled the air and ceased: there was the loud thud of furniture overthrown, a woman's voice, and silence. Then, while Miriam's legs shook and her back was chilled, she heard a sweet, clear whistling and the sound of feet. A minute later George Halkett issued from the trees.
"George!" she said, and half put out her hand.
He stood before her, his mouth still pursed for whistling, and jerked his head over his shoulder.
"You heard that?"
"Yes. Oh, yes!"
"It's my fault for being here. Was it—what was it?"
His eyes narrowed and she could see a blue slit between lashes so thick that they seemed furred.
"My father. He's ill. I'm sorry you heard."
"Will he—do it again?"
"He's quiet now and Mrs. Biggs can manage him."
"Isn't she afraid?"
"Not she." His thoughts plainly left old Halkett and settled themselves on her. "Are you?"
"Yes." She shuddered. "But then, I'm not used to it."
He was beating his leggings with his cane. "There's a lot in use," he said vaguely. He was a tall man, and on his tanned face were no signs of the excesses imputed to him, perhaps out of vainglory, by Mrs. Samson. A brown moustache followed the line of a lip which was sometimes pouted sullenly, yet with a simplicity which could be lovable. The hair was short and crisp on his round head.
Miriam watched his shapely hands playing with the cane, and she looked up to find his eyes attentively on her. She smiled without haste. She had a gift for smiling. Her mouth stretched delicately, her lips parted to show a gleam of teeth, opened widely for a flash, and closed again.
"What are you laughing at?" he asked her, and there was a faint glow in his cheeks.
"That wasn't laughing. That was smiling. When I laugh I say ha, ha!"
"Well, you looked pleased about something," he mumbled.
"No, I was just being friendly to you."
He took a step nearer. "That's all very well. Last time I met you you hadn't a look for me, and you saw me right enough."
"Yes, George, I saw you, but I wasn't in the mood for you."
"And now you are?"
She looked down. "Do you like people always to be the same? I don't." Laughter bubbled in her voice. "I get moments, George, when my thoughts are so—so celestial that though I see earthly things like you, I don't understand them. They're like shadows, like trees walking." She pointed a finger. "Tell me where that comes from!"
He looked about him. "What?"
She addressed the stream. "He doesn't know the foundation of the English language, English morals—I said morals, George—the spiritual food of his fathers. Do you ever go to church?"
He did not answer: he was frowning at his boots.
"Neither do I," she said. "Help me up."
His hand shot out, but she did not take it. She leapt to her feet and jumped the stream, and when he said something in a low voice she put her fingers to her ears and shook her head, pretending that she could not hear and smiling pleasantly. Then she beckoned to him, but it was his turn to shake his head.
"Puss, puss, puss!" she called, twitching her finger at him. "Don't laugh! Well, I'll come to you." At his side, she looked up solemnly. "Let us be sensible and go where we needn't shout at each other. Beside that rock. I want to tell you something."
When they had settled themselves on a cushion of turf, she drew her knees to her chin and clasped her hands round them, and in that position she swayed lightly to and fro.
"I think I am going away," she said, and stared at the horizon. For a space she listened to the chirping of a cheerful insect and the small, regular noise of Halkett's breathing, but as he made no other sound she turned sharply and looked at him.
"All right," he said.
She moved impatiently, for that was not what she wished to hear, and, even if it expressed his feeling, it was the wrong word. He had roughnesses which almost persuaded her to neglect him.
"Aren't you sorry?"
There was courage in his decision to be truthful. He showed her the full blue of his eyes, and said "Yes" so simply that she felt compassionate. "Where?" he added.
"I'm going to be adopted by an uncle," she said boldly.
"You'll like that?"
"I'm tired of the moor."
"You don't fit it. I couldn't tire of it, but it'll be—different when you've gone."
She consoled him. "I may not go at once."
"I don't know."
"Are you really going?" he asked and his look pleaded with her for honesty.
"I shall have to arrange it all with Uncle Alfred."
He straightened himself against the rock, but he said nothing.
"And we're just beginning to be friends," she added sensibly, with the faintest accent of regret.
At that he stirred again, and "No," he said steadily, "that's not true. We're not friends—couldn't be. You think I'm a fool, but I can see you're despising me all the time. I can see that, and I wonder why."
She caught her lip. "Well, George," she began, and thought quickly. "I have heard dreadful stories about you. You can't expect me to be—not to be careful with you."
"What stories?" he demanded.
"Oh! I couldn't tell you."
"H'm. There never was a Halkett but was painted so black that he got to think it was his natural colour. That doesn't matter. And you don't care about the stories. You've some notion—D'you know that I went to the same school as your brothers?"
"Yes, I know." She swung herself to her knees. "But you're not like them. But that isn't it either. It's because you're a man." She laughed a little as she knelt before him. "I can't help feeling that I can—that men are mine—to play with. There! I've told you a secret."
"I'd guessed it long ago," he muttered. He stood up and turned aside. "You're not going to play with me."
"Just a little bit, George!"
"Not a little bit."
"Very well," she said humbly, and rose too. "I may never see you again, so I'll say good-bye."
"Good-bye," he answered, and held her hand.
"And if I don't go away, and if I feel that I don't want to play with you, but just to—well, really to be friends with you, can I be?"
"I don't know," he said slowly. "I don't trust you."
She nodded, teasing her lip again. "Very well," she repeated. "I shall remember. Yes. You're going to be very unhappy, you know."
"Why?" he asked dully.
"For saying that to me."
"But it's the truth."
She shook her little hands at him and spoke loudly. "You seem to think the truth's excuse enough for anything, but you're wrong, George, and if you were worth it, I should hate you."
Then she turned from him, and as he watched her run towards home he wished he had lied to her and risked bewitchment.
The efforts of Mildred Caniper, Helen and Mrs. Samson produced a brighter polish on floors and furniture, a richer brilliance from brass, a whiter gleam from silver, in a house which was already irreproachable, and the smell of cleanliness was overcome by that of wood fires in the sitting-rooms and in Christopher where Uncle Alfred was to sleep. A bowl of primroses, brought by John from Lily Brent's garden and as yellow as her butter, stood on a table near the visitor's bed: the firelight cast shadows on the white counterpane, a new rug was awaiting Uncle Alfred's feet. In the dining-room, the table was spread with the best cloth and the candles were ready to be lighted.
"When we see the trap," Miriam said, "I'll go round with a taper. And we'd better light the lamp in the kitchen passage or Uncle Alfred may trip over something when he hangs up his coat."
"There won't be anything for him to trip over," Helen said.
"How do you know? It's just the sort of accident that happens to families that want to make a good impression. We'd better do it. Where are the steps?"
"The lamp hasn't been trimmed for months, and we can't have a smell of oil. Leave it alone. The hall is so beautifully dim. Rupert must take his coat and hang it up for him."
"Very well," Miriam said resignedly; "but if Notya or John had suggested the lamp, you would have jumped at it."
"No, I should have fetched the steps."
"Oh, funny, funny! Now I'm going to dress."
"There are two hours."
"It will take me as long as that. What shall I wear? Black or red? It's important, Helen. Tell me."
"Black is safer."
"Yes, if only I had pearls. I should look lovely in black and pearls."
"Pearls," Helen said slowly, "would suit me."
"You're better without them."
"I shall never have them."
"When I've a lot of money I'll give you some."
"Thank you," Helen said.
"Because," Miriam called out when she was half way up the stairs, "I'm going to marry a rich man."
"It would be wise," Helen answered, and went to the open door.
She could hear Notya moving in her bedroom, and she wondered how a sister must feel at the approach of a brother she had not seen for many years. She knew that if she should ever be parted from John or Rupert there would be no shyness at their meeting and no effusion: things would be just as they had been, for she was certain of an affection based on understanding, and now the thought of her brothers kept her warm in spite of the daunting coldness of the light lying on the moor and the fact that doors were opening to a stranger.
She checked a little sigh and stepped on to the gravel path, rounded the house and crossed the garden to find John locking up the hen-house for the night. He glanced at her but did not speak, and she stood with her hands clasped before her and watched the swaying of the poplars. The leaves were spreading and soon they would begin their incessant whispering while they peeped through the windows of the house to see what the Canipers were doing.
"They know all our secrets," she said aloud.
John dropped the key into his pocket. "Have we any?"
"Perhaps not. I should have said our fears."
"Our hopes," he said stubbornly.
"I haven't many of those," she told him and, to hide her trouble, she put the fingers of both hands to her forehead.
"What's the matter with you? You sound pretty morbid."
"No, I'm only—careful. John, are you afraid of life?"
His eyes fell on the rows of springing vegetables. "Look at 'em coming up," he murmured. "Rather not. I couldn't grow things." He gathered up his tools and put them in the shed.
"You see," she said, "one never knows what's going to happen, but it's no good worrying, and I suppose one must just go on."
"It's the only thing to do," John assured her gravely. "Have you made yourself beautiful for the uncle?"
She pointed to an upper window smeared with light. "I have left that to Miriam, but I must go and put on my best frock."
"You always look all right," he said. "I suppose it's because your hair's so smooth."
"No," she answered, and laughed with her transforming gaiety, "it's just because I'm mediocre and don't get noticed."
He hesitated and decided to be bold. "I'll tell you something, as you're so down in the mouth. Rupert thinks you're better looking than Miriam. There! Go and look at yourself." He waved her off, and the questions fell from her lips unuttered.
She lighted a candle and went upstairs, but when she had passed into the dark peace of Jane and put the candle on her dressing-table, she found she needed more illumination by which to see this face which Rupert considered fair.
"Miriam will have heaps of them," she said and knocked at Phoebe's door.
"I've come to borrow a candle," she said as she was told to enter, and added, "Oh, what waste! I hope Notya won't come in."
"She can't unless I let her," Miriam answered grimly.
There were lights on the mantelpiece, on the dressing-table, on the washstand, and two in tall sticks burned before the cheval glass as though it had been an altar.
"You can take one of them," Miriam said airily.
The warm whiteness of her skin gleamed against her under-linen like a pale fruit fallen by chance on frozen snow: her hair was held up by the white comb she had been using, and this stood out at an impetuous angle. She went nearer to the mirror.
"I've been thinking," she said, "what a lovely woman my mother must have been. Do you think I look like a Spanish dancer? Now, don't tell me you've never seen one. Take your candle and go away."
Helen obeyed and shut both doors quietly. She put the second candle beside the first and studied her pale face. She was not beautiful, and Rupert was absurd. She was colourless and rather dull, and to compare her with the radiant being in the other room was to hold a stable lantern to a star.
She turned from her contemplation and, changing grey dress for grey dressing-gown, she brushed her long, straight hair. Ten minutes later she left the room and went about the house to see that all was ready for the guest.
She put coal on the fire in Christopher and left the door ajar so that the flames might cast warm light on the landing: she took a towel from the rail and changed it for another finer one; then she went quietly down the stairs, with a smile for Mr. Pinderwell, and fancied she smelt the spring through the open windows. The hall had a dimness which hid and revealed the rich mahogany of the clock and cupboard and the table from which more primroses sent up a memory of moonlight and a fragrance which was no sooner seized than lost. She could hear Mrs. Samson in the kitchen as she watched over the turbot, and from the schoolroom there came the scraping of a chair. John had dressed as quickly as herself.
In the dining-room she found her stepmother standing by the fire.
"Oh, you look sweet!" Helen exclaimed. "I love you in that dark blue."
"I think I'll wait in the drawing-room," Mildred Caniper said, and went away.
Once more, Helen wandered to the doorway; she always sought the open when she was unhappy and, as she looked over the gathering darkness, she tried not to remember the tone of Notya's words.
"It's like pushing me off a wall I'm trying to climb," she thought, "but I mean to climb it." And for the second time within an hour, she gave tongue to her sustaining maxim: "I must just go on."
She hoped Uncle Alfred was not expectant of affection.
Night was coming down. The road was hardly separable from the moor, and it was the Brent Farm dogs which warned her of the visitor's approach. Two yellow dots slowly swelled into carriage lamps, and the rolling of wheels and the thud of hoofs were faintly heard. She went quickly to the schoolroom.
"John, the trap's coming."
"Well, what d'you want me to do about it? Stop it?"
"I wish you could."
"Now, don't get fussy."
"Not get fussy?"
"Not getting fussy."
"That's better. If your grammar's all right the nerves must be in order."
"You're stupid, John. I only want some one to support me—on the step."
"Need we stand there? Rupert's with him. Won't that do?"
"No, I think we ought to say how-d'you-do, here, and then pass him on to Notya in the drawing-room."
"Very good. Stand firm. But they'll be hours rolling up the track. What the devil do we want with an uncle? The last time we stood like this was when our revered father paid us a call. Five years ago—six?"
"H'm. If I ever have any children—Where's Miriam? I suppose she's going to make a dramatic entry when she's sure she can't be missed."
"I hope so," Helen said. "The first sight of Miriam—"
"You're ridiculous. She's no more attractive than any other girl, and it's this admiration that's been her undoing."
"Is she undone?"
"Like a flower."
"No, she has a tongue."
"Oh, John, you're getting bad-tempered."
"I'm getting tired of this damned step."
"You swear rather a lot," she said mildly. "They're on the track. Oh, Rupert's talking. Isn't it a comfortable sound?"
A few minutes later, she held open the gate and, all unaware of the beauty of her manners, she welcomed a small, neat man who wore an eyeglass. John took possession of him and led him into the hall and Helen waited for Rupert, who followed with the bag. She could see that his eyebrows were lifted comically.
"Well?" she asked.
"Awful. I know he isn't dumb because I've heard him speak, nor deaf because he noticed that the horse had a loose shoe, but that's all I can tell you, my dear. I talked—I had to talk. You can't sit in the dark for miles with some one you don't know and say nothing, but I've been sweating blood." He put the bag down and leaned against the gate. "That man," he said emphatically, "is a mining engineer. He—oh, good-night, Gibbons—he's been all over the globe, so Notya tells us. You'd think he might have picked up a little small talk as well as a fortune, but no. If he's picked it up, he's jolly careful with it. I tell you, I've made a fool of myself, and talked to a thing as unresponsive as a stone wall."
"Perhaps you talked too much."
"I know I did, but I've a hopeful disposition, and I've cured hard cases before now. Of course he must have been thinking me an insufferable idiot, but the darkness and his neighbourhood were too much for me. And that horse of Gibbons's! It's only fit for the knacker. Oh, Lord! I believe I told him the population of the town. There's humiliation for you! He grunted now and then. Well, I'll show the man I can keep quiet too. We ought to have sent John to meet him. They'd have been happy enough together."
"You know," Helen said sympathetically, "I don't suppose he heard half you said or was thinking about you at all."
Rupert laughed delightedly and put his arm through hers as he picked up the bag.
"Come in. No doubt you're right."
"I believe he's really afraid of us," she added. "I should be."
As they entered the hall, they saw Miriam floating down the stairs. One hand on the rail kept time with her descent; her black dress, of airy make, fluffed from stair to stair; the white neck holding her little head was as luminous as the pearls she wanted. She paused on one foot with the other pointed.
"Where is he?" she whispered.
"Just coming out of the drawing-room," Rupert answered quickly, encouraging her. "Stay like that. Chin a little higher. Yes. You're like Beatrix Esmond coming down the stairs. Excellent!"
A touch from Helen silenced him as Mildred Caniper and her brother turned the corner of the passage. They both stood still at the sight of this dark-clad vision which rested immobile for an instant before it smiled brilliantly and finished the flight.
"This is Miriam," Mildred Caniper said in hard tones.
Miriam cast a quick, wavering glance at her and returned to meet the gaze of Uncle Alfred, who had not taken her hand. At last, seeing it outstretched, he took it limply.
"Ah—Miriam," he said, with a queer kind of cough.
"She's knocked him all of a heap," Rupert told himself vulgarly as he carried the bag upstairs, and once more he wished he knew what his mother had been like.
At supper, Uncle Alfred was monosyllabic, and the Canipers, realizing that he was much shyer than themselves, became hospitable. Notya made the droll remarks of which she was sometimes capable, and Miriam showed off without fear of a rebuke. It was a comely party, and Mrs. Samson breathed her heavy pleasure in it as she removed the plates. When the meal was over and Uncle Alfred was smoking placidly in the drawing-room, Helen wandered out to the garden gate. There she found John biting an empty pipe.
After their fashion, they kept silence for a time before Helen said, "Would it matter if I went for a walk?"
"I was thinking of having one myself."
"He won't miss you and me," she said. "May I come with you, or were you going to Brent Farm?"
"I'm not going there. Come on."
The wind met them lightly as they headed towards the road. The night was very dark, and the ground seemed to lift itself before them and sink again at their approach.
"It's like butting into a wave," John said. "I keep shutting my eyes, ready for the shock."
"Yes." Helen began to talk as though she were alone. "The moor is always like the sea, when it's green and when it's black. It moves, too, gently. And now the air feels like water, heavy and soft. And yet the wind's far more alive than water. I'd like to have a wind bath every day. Oh, I'm glad we live here."
She stumbled, and John caught her by the elbow.
"Want a hand?"
"No, thank you. It's these slippers."
"No, a stone. I wonder if the fires are out. It's so long since last night. We'd better not go far, John."
"We'll stop at Halkett's turning."
They took the road, and their pace quickened to the drum beats of their feet.
"It sounds like winter," Helen said.
"But it feels like spring."
She thought she heard resentment for that season in his voice. "Well, why don't you go and tell her?"
"Oh, shut up! What's the use? I've no money. A nice suitor I'd make for a woman like that!"
Helen's voice sang above their footsteps and the swishing of her dress. "Silly, old-fashioned ideas you've got! They're rather insulting to her, I think."
"Perhaps, if she cares; but if she doesn't—She'd send me off like a stray dog."
"That's pride. You shouldn't be proud in love."
"You should be proud in everything, I believe. And what do you know about it?"
"Oh—I think. Can you hear a horse, a long way off? And of course I want to be married, too, but Miriam is sure to be, and then Notya would be left alone. Besides, I couldn't leave the moor, and there's no one but George Halkett here!"
"H'm. You're not going to marry him."
"No, I'm not—but I'm sorry for him."
"You needn't be. He's no good. You must have nothing to do with him. Ask Lily Brent. He tried to kiss her once, the beast, but she nearly broke his nose, and serve him right."
"Oh? Did she mind?"
"I don't think I should have. He looks clean, and if he really wanted to kiss me very badly, I expect I should let him. It's such a little thing."
"Good heavens, girl!" He stopped in a stride and turned to her. "That kind of charity is very ill-advised."
Her laughter floated over his head with the coolness of the wind. "I hope I shan't have to give way to it."
He continued to be serious. "Well, you're not ignorant. Rupert and I made up our minds to that as soon as we knew anything ourselves; but women are such fools, such fools! Tender-hearted idiots!"
"Is that why you're afraid to go to Lily Brent?" she asked.
"Ah, that's different," he mumbled. "She's more like a man."
Helen was smiling as they walked on. "If you could have Lily Brent and give up your garden, or keep your garden and lose her—"
"I'm not going to talk about it," he said.
"I wanted to know how much love really matters. That horse is much nearer now. We'll see the lights soon. And there's some one by the roadside, smoking. It's George. Good-evening, George."
His deep voice rumbled through the darkness, exchanging salutations. "I'm waiting for the doctor."
"Some one's coming now."
"Yes, it's his old nag. That horse makes you believe in eternity, anyhow."
She felt a sudden, painful anger. "He's a friend of mine—the horse," and quietly, she repeated to herself, "The horse," because he had no name by which she could endear him.
"Is Mr. Halkett worse?" John asked, from the edge of the road.
The red end of Halkett's cigar glowed and faded. "I'm anxious about him."
The yellow lights of the approaching dog-cart swept the borders of the moor and Helen felt herself caught in the illumination. The horse stopped and she heard the doctor's clear-cut voice.
"Is that you, Helen?"
"No, I'm just here with John," she said and went close to the cart. "And George is waiting for you."
"He'd better hop up, then." He bent towards her. "Did you find the fires?"
She nodded with the vehemence of her gladness that he should remember. "And," she whispered hurriedly, "you were quite right about the doors. Uncle Alfred's going to be a friend."
"That's good. Hullo, Halkett. Get up, will you, and we'll go on. Where's John?"
"Sitting on the bank."
The cart shook under Halkett's added weight, and as he took his seat he bulked enormous in the darkness. Dwarfed by that nearness, the doctor sat with his hat in one hand and gathered the reins up with the other.
"No, just a minute!" Helen cried. "I want to stroke the horse." Her voice had laughter in it.
"There's a patient waiting for me, you know."
"Yes. There! It's done. Go on. Good-night."
The cart took the corner in a blur of lamplight and shadow, tipped over a large stone and disappeared down the high-banked lane, leaving Helen with an impressive, half-alarming memory of the two jolted figures, black, with white ovals for faces, side by side, and Zebedee's spare frame clearing itself, now and then, from the other's breadth.
In the drawing-room, Uncle Alfred sat on one side of the hearth and Miriam on the other. The room was softly lighted by candles and the fire, and at the dimmer end Mr. Pinderwell's bride was smiling. The sound of Mildred Caniper's needle, as she worked at an embroidery frame, was added to the noises of the fire and Uncle Alfred's regular pulling at his pipe. Rupert was proving his capacity for silence on the piano stool.
"And which country," Miriam asked, leaning towards her uncle, "do you like best?"
"Oh—well, I hardly know."
"I never care for the sound of Africa—so hot."
"Hottish," conceded Uncle Alfred.
"Oh, Lord!" Rupert groaned in spirit.
"And South America, full of crocodiles, isn't it?"
"Haven't you been there?"
"Yes, yes—parts of it."
"Miriam," said Mildred Caniper, "Alfred is not a geography book."
"But he ought to be," she dared.
"And," the cool voice went on, "you never cared for geography, I remember."
Miriam sat back sullenly, stiffening until her prettily shod feet reached an inch further along the fender. Rupert would not relieve the situation and the visitor smoked on, watching Miriam through his tobacco smoke, until a knock came at the door.
"I beg your pardon, M'm—"
"It's Mother Samson," said Rupert. "Shall I look after her?"
"No. I will go." The door closed quietly behind Mrs. Caniper.
Uncle Alfred lowered his pipe. "You are extraordinarily like your mother," he said in quick and agitated tones, and the life of the room was changed amazingly. Rupert turned on his seat, and his elbow scraped the piano notes so that they jangled like a hundred questions. Miriam slipped out of her chair.
"Am I?" she asked from her knees. "I knew I was. Tell me!"
He put his hand to his breast-pocket. "Ah," he said, as a step sounded in the passage, "perhaps tomorrow—"
Miriam lifted the poker. "Because you mustn't poke the fire, Uncle Alfred," she was saying as Mildred Caniper came back. "You haven't known us long enough." She turned to her stepmother. "Did Mrs. Samson want her money? She's saving up. She's going to have a new dress this summer because she hasn't had one since she was married."
"And if she hadn't married," Rupert went on, feeling like a conspirator, "she would have had one every year."
"That gives one something to think about—yes," said Uncle Alfred, doing his share. He was astonished at himself. He had spent the greater part of his life in avoiding relationships which might hamper him and already he was in league with these young people and finding pleasure in the situation.
Miriam was looking at him darkly, mischievously, from the hearthrug. "Tomorrow," she said, resting on the word, "I'll take you for a walk to see the sights. There are rabbits, sheep, new lambs, very white and lively, a hare if we're lucky, ponies, perhaps, if we go far enough. We've all these things on the moor. Oh," her grimace missed foolishness by the hair's breadth which fortune always meted to her, "it's a wonderful place. Will you come with me?"
He nodded with a guilty quickness. "What are these ponies?"
"Little wild ones, with long tails."
"I'm fond of horses," he said and immediately looked ashamed of the confession. "Ha, ha, 'um," he half hummed, trying to cloak embarrassment.
"I'm fond of all animals," Miriam said with loud bitterness, "but we are only allowed to have a cat."
"Hens," Rupert reminded her.
"They're not animals; they're idiots."
"Would you like to keep a cow in the garden?" Mildred Caniper enquired in the pleasantly cold tones which left Miriam powerless.
Uncle Alfred's tuneless humming began again. "Yes, fond of horses," he said vaguely, his eyes quick on woman and girl.
"And can you ride?" Miriam asked politely, implying that it was not necessary for the whole family to be ill-mannered.
"I've had to—yes, but I don't care about it. No, I like to look at them."
"We rode when we were children," his sister said.
Miriam would not encourage these reminiscences, so belated on the part of her stepmother. "We have a neighbour who grows horses," she said. "And he's a wonderful rider. Rupert, don't you think he'd like to show them to Uncle Alfred? On Saturday afternoon, couldn't you take him to the farm?"
"But I'm going on Saturday," Uncle Alfred interposed.
"Saturday! And today's Thursday! Oh!"
"At least I think so," he said weakly.
Secretly she shook her head at him. "No, no," she signed, and said aloud, "A Sunday in the country—"
"No place of worship within four miles," Rupert announced.
"Ah," Uncle Alfred said with a gleam of humour, "that's distinctly cheering."
Miriam beat her hands together softly. "And yet," she said, "I've sometimes been to church for a diversion. Have you?"
"Never," he answered firmly.
"I counted the bald heads," she said mournfully, "but they didn't last out." She looked up and saw that Uncle Alfred was laughing silently: she glanced over her shoulder and saw Mildred Caniper's lips compressed, and she had a double triumph. This was the moment when it would be wise for her to go to bed. Like a dark flower, lifting itself to the sun, she rose from her knees in a single, steady movement.
"Good-night," she said with a little air. "And we'll have our walk tomorrow?"
He was at the door, holding it open. "Yes, but—in the afternoon, if we may. I am not an early riser, and I don't feel very lively in the mornings."
"Ah," she thought as she went upstairs, "he wouldn't have said that to my mother. He's getting old: but never mind, I'm like a lady in a romance! I believe he loved my mother and I'll make him love me."
She was not allowed time for that achievement. On the morning of the day which was to have been productive of so much happiness, the postman brought a letter with a foreign stamp, and Miriam took it to the kitchen where her stepmother and Helen were discussing meals.
"A letter," Miriam said flippantly, "from Italy."
"Thank you, Miriam. Put it on the table." The faint colour our deepened on her cheeks. "I'm afraid one of you will have to go into the town again. I forgot to ask Rupert to order the meat. Miriam—"
"No, I can't go. I'm engaged to Uncle Alfred."
"I think we might easily persuade him to excuse you. He really dislikes walking, though he would not say so."
"Or," Helen said with tact, "we could get chickens from Lily Brent. Wouldn't that be better?"
"Very well. Now, about sweets."
"This letter," Miriam said, bending over it and growing bold in the knowledge that Uncle Alfred was not far off, "this letter looks as if it wants to be opened. All the way from Italy," she mumbled so that Mildred Caniper could not distinguish the words, "and neglected when it gets here. If he took the trouble to write to me, I wouldn't treat him like that. Poor letter! Poor Mr. Caniper! No wonder he went away to Italy." She stood up. "His writing is very straggly," she said clearly.
Mildred Caniper put out a hand which Miriam pretended not to see.
"Shall I order the chickens?" she asked; but no one answered, for her stepmother was reading the letter, and Helen preserved silence as though she were in a church. With care that the dishes should not click against each other, she put the newly washed china on the dresser and laid the silver in its place, and now and then she glanced at Notya, who stood beside the table. It was some time before she folded the letter with a crackle and looked up. Her eyes wandered from Helen to Miriam, and rested there with an unconsciousness so rare as to be startling.
"Philip is ill," she said in a voice carried by her thoughts to a great distance. She corrected herself. "Your father is ill." She picked up the envelope and looked at it. "That's why his writing is so—straggly." She seemed to be thinking not only of Philip Caniper, but of many things besides, so that her words, like her thoughts, came through obstacles.
Intensely interested in a Notya moved to some sign of an emotion which was not annoyance, Miriam stood in the doorway and took care to make no movement which might betray her; but Helen stared at the fire and suffered the pain she had always felt for her stepmother's distresses.
"However—" Mildred Caniper said at last, and set briskly to work, while Miriam disappeared into the shadows of the hall and Helen watched the flames playing round the kettle in which the water for Uncle Alfred's breakfast was bubbling.
"How ill is he?" she asked.
"Are you speaking of your father?"
"I wish you would use names instead of pronouns. A good deal worse, I am afraid."
"And there's nobody to look after him—our father?"
"Certainly there is."
"Oh! I'm glad," Helen said, looking candidly at Notya. "We can't pretend to care about him—can we? But I don't like to have a father who is ill."
"If he had known that—" the other began, and stopped the foolish little sarcasm in time. "It is no use discussing things, Helen. We have to do them."
"Well, let us go to Italy," Helen said.
Mildred Caniper did not conceal her surprise. Her lips dropped apart, and she stood, balancing in a spoon the egg she was about to boil for Uncle Alfred, and gazed at Helen, before she recovered herself and said easily, "You are rather absurd, Helen, aren't you?"
But Helen knew that she was not. "I thought that was just what you were wanting to do," she answered.
The egg went into the saucepan and was followed by another.
"We can't," Mildred Caniper said with the admonishing air which sat like an imposition on her; "we cannot always do as we wish."
"Oh, I know that," Helen said. She put on a pair of gloves, armed herself with brooms and dusters, and left the room.
It seemed to her that people wilfully complicated life. She put a just value on the restraint which had been a great part of her training, but a pretence which had the transparency of its weakness moved her to a patient kind of scorn, and in that moment she had a flash of insight which showed her that she had sometimes failed to understand her stepmother because she had not suspected the variability of the elder woman's character. Mildred Caniper produced an impression of strength in which she herself did not believe; she had imprisoned her impulses in coldness, and they only escaped in the sharp utterances of her tongue; she was uncertain of her power, and she insisted on its acceptance.
"And she's miserable, miserable," Helen's heart cried out, and she laughed unhappily herself. "And Miriam's afraid of her! There's nothing to be afraid of. She knows that, and she's afraid we'll find it out all the time. And it might all have been so simple and so—so smooth."
Helen was considered by the other Canipers and herself as the dullest of the family, and this morning she swept, dusted and polished in the old ignorance of her acuteness, nor would the knowledge of it have consoled her. She was puzzling over the cause which kept the man in Italy apart from the woman here, and when she gave that up in weariness, she tried to picture him in a white house beside an eternally blue sea. The windows of the house had jalousies of a purplish red, there were palm-trees in the sloping garden and, at the foot of it, waves rocked a shallow, tethered boat. And her father was in bed, no doubt; the flush redder on his thin cheeks, his pointed black beard jerked over the sheet. She had seen him lying so on his last visit to the moor, and she had an important little feeling of triumph in the memory of that familiarity. She was not sentimental about this distant parent, for he was less real than old Halkett, far less real than Mr. Pinderwell; yet it seemed cruel that he should lie in that warm southern country without a wife or daughter to care for him.
"Helen," Miriam said from Phoebe's door, "do you think he is going to die?"
"How can I tell?"
"And you don't care?"
"Not much, of course, but I'm sorry for him."
"Sweet thing! And if he dies, shall we wear black?"
Helen's pale lips condescended to a rather mocking smile. "I see you mean to."
"Well, if you can do the proper thing and look nice at the same time—" She broke off and fidgeted. "I don't mind his dying if he does it far away, but, oh, wouldn't it be horrible if he did it here? Ill people make me sick."
"Why don't you go and do something yourself? Go and amuse Uncle Alfred."
"No, he's not nice in the mornings. He said so, and I've peeped at him. Liverish."
"Order the chickens, then, but ask Notya first."
"Where is she?"
Together they peeped over the banisters and listened.
"You'd better ask," Miriam said. "I wonder where she is. Call her," she added, daring Helen to break one of the rules of that quiet house; and Helen, who had discovered the truth that day, lifted her voice clearly.
"If she's not cross," Miriam whispered, "we'll know she's worried."
"Oh," Helen said soberly, "how horrid of us! I wish I hadn't."
Miriam's elbow was in her side. "Here she comes, look!"
They could see the crown of Mildred Caniper's fair head, the white blot of her clasped hands.
"What is it?" she asked quietly, turning up her face.
"Shall Miriam order the chickens?" Helen called down.
"Oh, yes—yes," she answered, and went away.
"Ha, ha! Quite successful! Any special kind of chicken? Black legs? Yellow legs?"
"She'll give you the best she has," Helen said.
Miriam popped her head round the door of the dining-room where Uncle Alfred was smoking, waved her hand, and spared him the necessity of speech by running from the house. The sun shone in a callous sky and the wind bit at her playfully as she went down the track, to remind her that though she wore neither hat nor coat, summer was still weeks away. Miriam faced all the seasons now with equanimity, for Uncle Alfred was in the dining-room, and she intended that her future should be bound up with his. Gaily she mounted the Brent Farm road, with a word for a melancholy calf which had lost its way, and a feeling of affection for all she saw and soon meant to leave. She liked the long front of the farmhouse with its windows latticed into diamonds, the porch sentinelled by large white stones, the path outlined with smaller ones and the green gate with its two steps into the field.
The dairy door stood open, and Miriam found both Lily Brent and John within. They stood with the whole space of the floor between them and there was a certain likeness in their attitudes. Each leaned against the stone shelf which jutted, waist high, from the wall, but neither took support from it. Her brown eyes were level with his grey ones; her hands were on her hips, while his arms were folded across his breast.
"Hullo, Napoleon!" Miriam said. "Good-morning, Lily. Is he being tiresome? He looks it."
"We're only arguing," she said. "We often do it."
This was the little girl whom Mrs. Brent, now in her ample grave, had slapped and kissed and teased, to the edification of the Canipers. She had grown tall and very straight; her thick dark hair was twisted tightly round her head; her skirt was short, revealing firm ankles and wooden shoes, and she wore a jersey which fitted her body closely and left her brown neck bare. Her watchful eyes were like those of some shy animal, but her lips had the faculty of repose. Helen had once compared her to a mettlesome young horse and there was about her some quality of the male. She might have been a youth scorning passion because she feared it.
"If it's a very important argument," said Miriam, "I'll retire. There's a sad baby calf down by your gate. I could go and talk to him."
"Silly little beast!" Lily said; "he's always making a fuss. Listen to this, Miriam. John wants to pay me for letting him work a strip of my land that's been lying idle all these years."
"If you won't let me pay rent—"
"He hasn't any money, Lily."
"I can try to pay you by helping on the farm. You can lie in bed and let me do your share of milking."
"He'll do no harm," Miriam asserted.
"I know that. He's been doing odd jobs for us ever since we began carrying his vegetables to town. He likes to pay for all he gets. You're mean-spirited, John."
"All right. I'll be mean-spirited, and I'll be here for this evening's milking."
"That's settled, then," she said, with a great semblance of relief.
"And Mrs. Caniper of Pinderwell House will be very much obliged if you'll let her have two chickens as soon as possible."
"Certainly, miss. I'll go and see about them."
Miriam let out a little scream and put her hands to her ears.
"No, no, don't kill them yet! Not till you're quite sure that I'm safely on the other side of the road. John, stop her!"
"You're a little goose," Lily said. "They're lying quite comfortably dead in the larder."
"Oh, thank Heaven! Shall I tell you a horrible secret of my past life? Once when I was very small, I crept through Halkett's larch-wood just to see what was happening down there, because Mrs. Samson had been hinting things, and what I saw—oh, what do you think I saw?" She shuddered and, covering her face, she let one bright eye peep round the protecting hand. "I saw that idiot boy wringing a hen's neck! And now," she ended, "I simply can't eat chicken."
"Dear, dear!" John said, and clucked his tongue. "Dreadful confession of a young girl!"
Lily Brent was laughing. "And to think I've wrung their necks myself!"
"Have you? Ugh! Nasty!"
"It is, but some one had to do it."
"Don't do it again," said John quickly.
She raised her eyebrows, met his glance, and looked away.
"I can't get on with my work while you two are gossiping here."
"Come home, John. Father's iller. Notya's too much worried to be cross. She had a letter—Aren't you interested?"
He was thinking, "I'll start breaking up that ground tomorrow," and behind that conscious thought there was another: "I shall be able to watch her going in and out."
"No, I'm not interested. Go home and look after your uncle. I've a lot to think about."
She left him sitting on a fence and staring creatively at his knees.
Helen met Miriam in the hall.
"There's been a telegram and Notya's going to Italy."
"Ah!" Miriam said, but her bright looks faded when Helen added, "With Uncle Alfred."
Miriam dropped her head and thrust her doubled fists under her chin, in the angry movement of her childhood. "Oh, isn't that just my luck!" she muttered fiercely. "I—I hadn't done with Uncle Alfred."
"Perhaps father hasn't done with life," Helen remarked.
"Oh, don't be pious! Don't be pious! You're always adorning tales. You're a prig!"
"Well, I haven't time to think about that now," Helen said with the excellent humour which made amends for her many virtues. "I'm helping Notya to pack and I want you to ask George Halkett if he will drive her down. The train goes at a quarter to three."
"I'm sorry," Miriam said, looking like the heroine in a play, "but I can't go there. I—don't approve of George."
"Oh!" Helen cried, screwing up her face. "Has John been telling you about Lily Brent?"
"No. What? Tell me!" Miriam answered with complete forgetfulness of her pose.
"Some nonsense. George tried to kiss her."
"Did he?" There was a flat tone in Miriam's voice.
"And she hit him, and now John thinks he's wicked."
"So he is." She was hardly aware of what she said, for she was hesitating between the immediate establishment of her supremacy and the punishment of George, and having decided that his punishment should include sufficient tribute, she said firmly, "I won't have anything to do with him."
"Then I'll go. Help Notya if you can."
Miriam took a step nearer. "What is she like?"
"Then perhaps I'd rather go to George," she whispered.
"I'm halfway there already," Helen said from the door.
She slipped across the moor with the speed which came so easily to her, and her breathing had hardly quickened when she issued from the larch-wood and stood on the cobble-stones before the low white house. Already the leaves of a rose-tree by the door were budding, for in that sheltered place the sun was gathered warmly. So, too, she thought, darkness would lie closely there and rain would shoot down in thick splinters with intent to hurt. She was oppressed by a sense of concentration in this tree-lined hollow, and before she stepped across the yard she lifted and shook her shoulders to free them of the weight. She remembered one summer day when the air had been clogged by the scent of marigolds, but this was not their season, and the smell of the larches came healthfully on the winds that struggled through the trees.
She had raised her hand to knock on the open door when she heard a step, and turned to see George Halkett.
"George," she said without preamble, "I've come to ask you to do something for us. Our stepmother has unexpectedly to catch a train. Could you, would you, drive her down—and a box, and our uncle, and his bag?"
She found, to her surprise, that John's story had given George a new place in her mind. She had been accustomed to see him as a mere part of the farm which bore his name, and now she looked at him with a different curiosity. She imagined him bending over Lily Brent and, with a strong distaste, she pictured him starting back at her assault. It seemed to her, she could not tell why, that no woman should raise her hand against a man, and that this restraint was less for her dignity than for his.
"I'll do it with pleasure," George was saying.
"Thank you very much," she murmured, and named the time. "Is Mr. Halkett better?"
"I'm afraid he's never going to get better, Miss Helen," he said, using the title he had given her long ago because of a childish dignity which amused him.
"I'm sorry," she said, and wondered if she spoke the truth.
Her gaze, very wide and serious, affected his, and as they looked at each other she realized that, with those half-closed eyes of his, he was considering her as he had never done before. She became conscious of her physical self at once, and this was an experience strange to her; she remembered the gown she wore, the fashion of her hair, her grey stockings and worn, low shoes; slowly, almost imperceptibly, she shifted a foot which was twisted inwards, and having done this, she found that she did not like George's appraisement. With a broken word of farewell and thanks she quickly left him.
"I didn't like that," she said emphatically to the broad freedom of the moor. George's interest was like the hollow: it hemmed her in and made her hot, but here the wide winds swept over her with a cleansing cold. Nevertheless, when she went to Notya's room, she took the opportunity of scanning herself in the glass.
"You have been running," Mildred Caniper said.
"No, not lately."
"You are very pink."
Mildred Caniper's tone changed suddenly. "And I don't know where you have been. I wish you would not run off without warning. And I could not find Miriam anywhere." From anger she sank back to helplessness. "I don't know what to take," she said, and her hands jerked on her lap.
"Let's see," Helen said cheerfully. "Warm things for the journey, and cooler things for when you get there." She made no show of consulting Notya and, moving with leisurely competence from wardrobe to chest of drawers, she laid little heaps of clothing on the bed.
"Handkerchiefs: one, two, three, four—"
"I shan't need many."
"But you'd better take a lot."
"I shall soon come back."
"Five, six, seven," Helen counted on, and her whispers sounded loudly in the room where Mildred Caniper's thoughts were busy.
"You haven't a very warm coat, so you must take mine," Helen said, and when she looked up she discovered in her stepmother the extraordinary stillness of a being whose soul has gone on a long journey. Her voice came, as before, from that great distance, yet with surprising clearness, as though she spoke through some instrument which reduced the volume and accentuated the peculiarities of her tones.
"One ought never to be afraid of anything," the small voice said—"never." Her lips tightened, and slowly she seemed to return to the body which sat on the sofa by the window. "I don't know what to take," she said again.
"I'm doing it," Helen told her. "You mustn't lose the train."
"No." She stood up, and, going to the dressing-table, she leaned on it as though she searched intently for something lying there. "I expect he will be dead," she said. "It's a long way. All those frontiers—"
Helen looked at the bent back, and her pity shaped itself in eager words. "Shall I come with you? Let me! I can get ready—"
Mildred Caniper straightened herself and turned, and Helen recognized the blue light in her eye.
"Your presence, Helen," she said distinctly, "will not reduce the number of the frontiers." Her manner blamed Helen for her own lack of self-control; but to this her stepchildren were accustomed, and Helen felt no anger.
"Oh, no," she answered pleasantly; "it would not do that."
She packed on methodically, and while she feigned absorption in that business her thoughts were swift and troubled, as they were when she was a little girl and, suffering for Notya's sake, wept in the heather. It was impossible to help this woman whose curling hair mocked her sternness, whose sternness so easily collapsed and as easily recovered at a word; it was, perhaps, intrusive to attempt it, yet the desire was as quick as Helen's blood.
"You are much too helpful, Helen," Mildred Caniper went on, and softened that harshness quickly. "You must learn that no one can help anybody else." She smiled. "You must deny yourself the luxury of trying!"
"I shall remember," Helen said with her quiet acquiescence, "but I must go now and see about your lunch. Would you mind writing the labels? Uncle Alfred will want one for his bag. Oh, I know I'm irritating," she added on a wave of feeling which had to break, "but I can't help it. I—I'm like that." She reflected with humiliation that it was absurd to obtrude herself thus on a scene shadowed by tragedy, yet when she saw a glint of real amusement on Mildred Caniper's face, a new thought came to her. Perhaps reserve was not so great a virtue as she had believed. She must not forget; nor must she forget that Miriam considered her a prig, that Mildred Caniper found her too helpful. She pressed her hands against her forehead and concentrated her energies on the travellers' food.
The minutes, busy as they were, dragged by like hours. Uncle Alfred ate his luncheon with the deliberation of a man who cannot expect to renew his digestive apparatus, and the road remained empty of George Halkett and his trap. Mildred Caniper, calm now, and dressed for her journey, had many instructions for Helen concerning food, the employment of Mrs. Samson, bills to be paid, and other domestic details which at this moment lacked reality.
"And," she ended, "tell Rupert not to be late. The house should be locked up at ten o'clock."
"Yes," Helen answered, but when she looked at her stepmother she could see only the distressed figure which had sat on the sofa, with hands jerking on its knee. Did she love Philip Caniper? Had they quarrelled long ago, and did she now want to make amends? No, no! She shut her eyes. She must not pry. She felt as though she had caught herself reading a letter which belonged to some one else.