Helena by Mrs. Humphry Ward
It was a glorious June morning; and Beechmark, after the ball, was just beginning to wake up. Into the June garden, full of sun but gently beaten by a fresh wind, the dancers of the night before emerged one by one. Peter Dale had come out early, having quarrelled with his bed almost for the first time in his life. He was now, however, fast asleep in a garden-chair under a chestnut-tree. Buntingford, in flannels, and as fresh as though he had slept ten hours instead of three, strolled out through the library window, followed by French and Vivian Lodge.
"I say, what weather," said French, throwing himself down on the grass, his hands under his head. "Why can't Mother Nature provide us with this sort of thing a little more plentifully?"
"How much would any man jack of us do if it were always fine?" said Julian Horne, settling himself luxuriously in a deep and comfortable chair under a red hawthorn in full bloom. "When the weather makes one want to hang oneself, then's the moment for immortal works."
"For goodness' sake, don't prate, Julian!" said French, yawning, and flinging a rose-bud at Horne, which he had just gathered from a garden-bed at his elbow. "You've had so much more sleep than the rest of us, it isn't fair."
"I saw him sup," said Buntingford. "Who saw him afterwards?"
"No one but his Maker," said Lodge, who had drawn his hat over his eyes, and was lying on the grass beside French:--"and le bon Dieu alone knows what he was doing; for he wasn't asleep. I heard him tubbing at some unearthly hour in the room next to mine."
"I finished my article about seven a.m.," said Horne tranquilly--"while you fellows were sleeping off the effects of debauch."
"Brute!" said Geoffrey languidly. Then suddenly, as though he had remembered something, he sat up.
"By the way, Buntingford, I had an adventure yesterday evening--Ah, here comes Helena! Half the story's mine--and half is hers. So we'll wait a moment."
The men sprang to their feet. Helena in the freshest of white gowns, white shoes and a white hat approached, looking preoccupied. Lady Mary Chance, who was sitting at an open drawing-room window, with a newspaper she was far too tired to read on her lap, was annoyed to see the general eagerness with which a girl who occasionally, and horribly said "D--mn!" and habitually smoked, was received by a group of infatuated males. Buntingford found the culprit a chair, and handed her a cigarette. The rest, after greeting her, subsided again on the grass.
"Poor Peter!" said Helena, in a tone of mock pity, turning her eyes to the sleeping form under the chestnut. "Have I won, or haven't I? I bet him I would be down first."
"You've lost--of course," said Horne. "Peter was down an hour ago."
"That's not what I meant by 'down.' I meant 'awake.'"
"No woman ever pays a bet if she can help it," said Horne, "--though I've known exceptions. But now, please, silence. Geoffrey says he has something to tell us--an adventure--which was half his and half yours. Which of you will begin?"
Helena threw a quick glance at Geoffrey, who nodded to her, perceiving at the same moment that she had in her hand the little embroidered bag of the night before.
"Well, it'll thrill you," said Geoffrey slowly, "because there was a spy among us last night--'takin' notes.'"
And with the heightening touches that every good story-teller bestows upon a story, he described the vision of the lake--the strange woman's face, as he had seen it in the twilight beside the yew trees.
Buntingford gradually dropped his cigarette to listen.
"Very curious--very interesting," he said ironically, as French paused, "and has lost nothing in the telling."
"Ah, but wait till you hear the end!" cried Helena. "Now, it's my turn."
And she completed the tale, holding up the bag at the close of it, so that the tarnished gold of its embroidery caught the light.
Buntingford took it from her, and turned it over. Then he opened it, drew out the handkerchief, and looked at the initials, "'F. M.'" He shook his head. "Conveys nothing. But you're quite right. That bag has nothing to do with a village woman--unless she picked it up."
"But the face I saw had nothing to do with a village woman, either," said French, with conviction. "It was subtle--melancholy--intense--more than that!--fierce, fiercely miserable. I guess that the woman possessing it would be a torment to her belongings if they happened not to suit her. And, my hat!--if you made her jealous!"
"Was she handsome?" asked Lodge.
Geoffrey shrugged his shoulders.
"Must have been--probably--when she was ten years younger."
"And she possessed this bag?" mused Buntingford--"which she or some one bought at Florence--for I've discovered the address of a shop in it--Fratelli Cortis, Via Tornabuoni, Firenze. You didn't find that out, Helena."
He passed the bag to her, pointing out a little printed silk label which had been sewn into the neck of it. Then Vivian Lodge asked for it and turned it over.
"Lovely work--and beautiful materials. Ah!--do you see what it is?"--he held it up--"the Arms of Florence, embroidered in gold and silver thread. H'm. I suppose, Buntingford, you get some Whitsuntide visitors in the village?"
"Oh, yes, a few. There's a little pub with one or two decent rooms, and several cottagers take lodgers. The lady, whoever she was, was scarcely a person of delicacy."
"She was in that place for an object," said Geoffrey, interrupting him with some decision. "Of that I feel certain. If she had just lost her way, and was trespassing--she must have known, I think, that she was trespassing--why didn't she answer my call and let me put her over the lake? Of course I should never have seen her at all, but for that accident of the searchlight."
"The question is," said Buntingford, "how long did she stay there? She was not under the yews when you saw her?"
"Well, then, supposing, to get out of the way of the searchlight, she found her way in and discovered my seat--how long do you guess she was there?--and when the bag dropped?"
"Any time between then--and midnight--when Helena found it," said French. "She may have gone very soon after I saw her, leaving the bag on the seat; or, if she stayed, on my supposition that she was there for the purpose of spying, then she probably vanished when she heard our boat drawn up, and knew that Helena and I were getting out."
"A long sitting!" said Buntingford with a laugh--"four hours. I really can't construct any reasonable explanation on those lines."
"Why not? Some people have a passion for spying and eavesdropping. If I were such a person, dumped in a country village with nothing to do, I think I could have amused myself a good deal last night, in that observation post. Through that hole I told you of, one could see the lights and the dancing on the lawn, and watch the boats on the lake. She could hear the music, and if anyone did happen to be talking secrets just under the yews, she could have heard every word, quite easily."
Involuntarily he looked at Helena, Helena was looking at the grass. Was it mere fancy, or was there a sudden pinkness in her cheeks? Buntingford too seemed to have a slightly conscious air. But he rose to his feet, with a laugh.
"Well, I'll have a stroll to the village, some time to-day, and see what I can discover about your Incognita, Helena. If she is a holiday visitor, she'll be still on the spot. Geoffrey had better come with me, as he's the only person who's seen her."
"Right you are. After lunch."
Buntingford nodded assent and went into the house.
* * * * *
The day grew hotter. Lodge and Julian Horne went off for a swim in the cool end of the lake. Peter still slept, looking so innocent and infantine in his sleep that no one had the heart to wake him. French and Helena were left together, and were soon driven by the advancing sun to the deep shade of a lime-avenue, which, starting from the back of the house, ran for half a mile through the park. Here they were absolutely alone. Lady Mary's prying eyes were defeated, and Helena incidentally remarked that Mrs. Friend, being utterly "jacked up," had been bullied into staying in bed till luncheon.
So that in the green sunflecked shadow of the limes, Geoffrey had--if Helena so pleased--a longer tete-a-tete before him, and a more generous opportunity, even, than the gods had given him on the lake. His pulses leapt; goaded, however, by alternate hope and fear. But at least he had the chance to probe the situation a little deeper; even if prudence should ultimately forbid him anything more.
Helena had chosen a wooden seat round one of the finest limes. Some books brought out for show rather than use, lay beside her. A piece of knitting--a scarf of a bright greenish yellow--lay on the lap of her white dress. She had taken off her hat, and Geoffrey was passionately conscious of the beauty of the brown head resting, as she talked, against the furrowed trunk of the lime. Her brown-gold hair was dressed in the new way, close to the head and face, and fastened by some sapphire pins behind the ear. From this dark frame, and in the half light of the avenue, the exquisite whiteness of the forehead and neck, the brown eyes, so marvellously large and brilliant, and yet so delicately finished in every detail beneath their perfect brows, and the curve of the lips over the small white teeth, stood out as if they had been painted on ivory by a miniature-painter of the Renaissance. Her white dress, according to the prevailing fashion, was almost low--as children's frocks used to be in the days of our great-grandmothers. It was made with a childish full bodice, and a childish sash of pale blue held up the rounded breast, that rose and fell with her breathing, beneath the white muslin. Pale blue stockings, and a pair of white shoes, with preposterous heels and pointed toes, completed the picture. The mingling, in the dress, of extreme simplicity with the cunningest artifice, and the greater daring and joie de vivre which it expressed, as compared with the dress of pre-war days, made it characteristic and symbolic:--a dress of the New Time.
Geoffrey lay on the grass beside her, feasting his eyes upon her--discreetly. Since when had English women grown so beautiful? At all the weddings and most of the dances he had lately attended, the brides and the debutantes had seemed to him of a loveliness out of all proportion to that of their fore-runners in those far-off days before the war. And when a War Office mission, just before the Armistice, had taken him to some munition factories in the north, he had been scarcely less seized by the comeliness of the girl-workers:--the long lines of them in their blue overalls, and the blue caps that could scarcely restrain the beauty and wealth of pale yellow or red-gold hair beneath. Is there something in the rush and flame of war that quickens old powers and dormant virtues in a race? Better feeding and better wages among the working-classes--one may mark them down perhaps as factors in this product of a heightened beauty. But for these exquisite women of the upper class, is it the pace at which they have lived, unconsciously, for these five years, that has brought out this bloom and splendour?--and will it pass as it has come?
Questions of this kind floated through his mind as he lay looking at Helena, melting rapidly into others much more peremptory and personal.
"Are you soon going up to Town?" he asked her presently. His voice seemed to startle her. She returned evidently with difficulty from thoughts of her own. He would have given his head to read them.
"No," she said hesitatingly. "Why should we? It is so jolly down here. Everything's getting lovely."
"I thought you wanted a bit of season! I thought that was part of your bargain with Philip?"
"Yes--but"--she laughed--"I didn't know how nice Beechmark was."
His sore sense winced.
"Doesn't Philip want you to go?"
"Not at all. He says he gets much more work done in Town, without Mrs. Friend and me to bother him--"
"He puts it that way?"
"Politely! And it rests him to come down here for Sundays. He loves the riding."
"I shouldn't have thought the Sundays were much rest?"
"Ah, but they're going to be!" she said eagerly. "We're not going to have another party for a whole month. Cousin Philip has been treating me like a spoiled child--stuffing me with treats--and I've put an end to it!"
And this was the Helena that had stipulated so fiercely for her week-ends and her pals! The smart deepened.
"And you won't be tired of the country?"
"In the winter, perhaps," she said carelessly. "Philip and I have all sorts of plans for the things we want to do in London in the winter. But not now--when every hour's delicious!"
"Philip and I!"--a new combination indeed!
She threw her head back again, drinking in the warm light and shade, the golden intensity of the fresh leaf above her.
"And next week there'll be frost, and you'll be shivering over the fire," he threw at her, in a sarcastic voice.
"Well, even that--would be nicer--than London," she said slowly. "I never imagined I should like the country so much. Of course I wish there was more to do. I told Philip so last night."
"And what did he say?"
But she suddenly flushed and evaded the question.
"Oh, well, he hadn't much to say," said Helena, looking a little conscious. "Anyway, I'm getting a little education. Mrs. Friend's brushing up my French--which is vile. And I do some reading every week for Philip--and some drawing. By the way"--she turned upon her companion--"do you know his drawings?--they're just ripping! He must have been an awfully good artist. But I've only just got him to show me his things. He never talks of them himself."
"I've never seen one. His oldest friends can hardly remember that time in his life. He seems to want to forget it."
"Well, naturally!" said Helena, with an energy that astonished her listener; but before he could probe what she meant, she stooped over him:
He saw that she had coloured brightly.
"Do you remember all that nonsense I talked to you a month ago?"
"I can remember it if you want me to. Something about old Philip being a bully and a tyrant, wasn't it?"
"Some rubbish like that. Well--I don't want to be maudlin--but I wish to put it on record that Philip isn't a bully and he isn't a tyrant. He can be a jolly good friend!"
"With some old-fashioned opinions?" put in Geoffrey mockingly.
"Old-fashioned opinions?--yes, of course. And you needn't imagine that I shall agree with them all. Oh, you may laugh, Geoffrey, but it's quite true. I'm not a bit crushed. That's the delightful part of it. It's because he has a genius--yes, a genius--for friendship. I didn't know him when I came down here--I didn't know him a bit--and I was an idiot. But one could trust him to the very last."
Her hands lay idly on the bright-coloured knitting, and Geoffrey could watch the emotion on her face.
"And one is so glad to be his friend!" she went on softly, "because he has suffered so!"
"You mean in his marriage? What do you know about it?"
"Can't one guess?" she went on in the same low voice. "He never speaks of her! There isn't a picture of her, of any sort, in the house. He used to speak of her sometimes, I believe, to mother--of course she never said a word--but never, never, to anyone else. It's quite clear that he wants to forget it altogether. Well, you don't want to forget what made you happy. And he says such bitter things often. Oh, I'm sure it was a tragedy!"
"Well--why doesn't he marry again?" Geoffrey had turned over on his elbows, and seemed to be examining the performances of an ant who was trying to carry off a dead fly four times his size.
Helena did not answer immediately, and Geoffrey, looking up from the ant, was aware of conflicting expressions passing across her face. At last she said, drawing a deep breath:
"Well, at least, I'm glad he's come to like this dear old place--He never used to care about it in the least."
"That's because you've made it so bright for him," said Geoffrey, finding a seat on a tree-stump near her, and fumbling for a cigarette. The praises of Philip were becoming monotonous and a reckless wish to test his own fate was taking possession of him.
"I haven't!"--said Helena vehemently. "I have asked all sorts of people down he didn't like--and I've made him live in one perpetual racket. I've been an odious little beast. But now--perhaps--I shall know better what he wants."
"Excellent sentiments!" A scoffer looked down upon her through curling rings of smoke. "Shall I tell you what Philip wants?"
"He wants a wife."
The attentive eyes fixed on him withdrew themselves.
"Well--suppose he does?"
"Are you going to supply him with one? Lady Cynthia, I think, would accommodate you."
Helena flushed angrily.
"He hasn't the smallest intention of proposing to Cynthia. Nobody with eyes in their head would suggest it."
"No--but if you and he are such great friends--couldn't you pull it off? It would be very suitable," said Geoffrey coolly.
Helena broke out--the quick breath beating against her white bodice:
"Of course I understand you perfectly, Geoffrey--perfectly! You're not very subtle--are you? What you're thinking is that when I call Philip my friend I'm meaning something else--that I'm plotting--intriguing--"
Her words choked her. Geoffrey put out a soothing hand--and touched hers.
"My dear child:--how could I suggest anything of the kind? I'm only a little sorry--for Philip,"
"Philip can take care of himself," she said passionately. "Only a stupid--conventional--mind could want to spoil what is really so--so--"
"So charming?" suggested Geoffrey, springing to his feet. "Very well, Helena!--then if Philip is really nothing more to you than your guardian, and your very good friend--why not give some one else a chance?"
He bent over her, his kind, clever face aglow with the feeling he could no longer conceal. Their eyes met--Helena's at first resentful, scornful even--then soft. She too stood up, and put out a pair of protesting hands--"Please--please, Geoffrey,--don't."
"Why not--you angel!" He possessed himself of one of the hands and made her move with him along the avenue, looking closely into her eyes. "You must know what I feel! I wanted to speak to you last night, but you tricked me. I just adore you, Helena! I've got quite good prospects--I'm getting on in the House of Commons--and I would work for you day and night!"
"You didn't adore me a month ago!" said Helena, a triumphant little smile playing about her mouth. "How you lectured me!"
"For you highest good," he said, laughing; though his heart beat to suffocation. "Just give me a word of hope, Helena! Don't turn me down, at once."
"Then you mustn't talk nonsense," she said vehemently, withdrawing her hand. "I don't want to be engaged! I don't want to be married! Why can't I be let alone?"
Geoffrey had turned a little pale. In the pause that followed he fell back on a cigarette for consolation. "Why can't you be let alone?" he said at last. "Why?--because--you're Helena!"
"What a stupid answer!" she said contemptuously. Then, with one of her quick changes, she came near to him again. "Geoffrey!--it's no good pressing me--but don't be angry with me, there's a dear. Just be my friend and help me!"
She put a hand on his arm, and the face that looked into his would have bewitched a stone.
"That's a very old game, Helena. 'Marry you? Rather not! but you may join the queue of rejected ones if you like.'"
A mischievous smile danced in Helena's eyes.
"None of them can say I don't treat them nicely!"
"I daresay. But I warn you I shan't accept the position for long. I shall begin again."
"Well, but not yet!--not for a long time," she pleaded. Then she gave a little impatient stamp, as she walked beside him.
"I tell you--I don't want to be bound. I won't be bound! I want to be free."
"So you said--a propos of Philip," he retorted drily.
He saw the shaft strike home--the involuntary dropping of the eyelids, the soft catch in the breath. But she rallied quickly.
"That was altogether different! You had no business to say that, Geoffrey."
"Well, then, forgive me--and keep me quiet--just--just one kiss, Helena!"
The last passionate words were hardly audible. They had passed into the deepest shadow of the avenue. No one was visible in all its green length. They stood ensiled by summer; the great trees mounting guard. Helena threw a glance to right and left.
"Well, then--to keep you quiet--sans prejudice!"
She demurely offered her cheek. But his lips were scarcely allowed to touch it, she drew away so quickly.
"Now, then, that's quite settled!" she said in her most matter-of-fact voice. "Such a comfort! Let's go back."
They turned back along the avenue, a rather flushed pair, enjoying each other's society, and discussing the dance, and their respective partners.
It happened, however, that this little scene--at its most critical point--had only just escaped a spectator. Philip Buntingford passed across the further end of the avenue on his way to the Horne Farm, at the moment when Helena and Geoffrey turned their backs to him, walking towards the house. They were not aware of him; but he stopped a moment to watch the young figures disappearing under the green shade. A look of pleasure was in his blue eyes. It seemed to him that things were going well in that direction. And he wished them to go well. He had known Geoffrey since he was a little chap in his first breeches; had watched him through Winchester and Oxford, had taken as semi-paternal pride in the young man's distinguished war record, and had helped him with his election expenses. He himself was intimate with very few of the younger generation. His companions in the Admiralty work, and certain senior naval officers with whom that work had made him acquainted:--a certain intimacy, a certain real friendship had indeed grown up between him and some of them. But something old and tired in him made the effort of bridging the gulf between himself and men in their twenties--generally speaking--too difficult. Or he thought so. The truth was, perhaps, as Geoffrey had expressed it to Helena, that many of the younger men who had been brought into close official or business contact with him felt a real affection for him. Buntingford would have thought it strange that they should do so, and never for one moment assumed it.
After its languid morning, Beechmark revived with the afternoon. Its young men guests, whom the Dansworth rioters would probably have classed as parasites and idlers battening on the toil of the people, had in fact earned their holiday by a good many months of hard work, whether in the winding up of the war, or the re-starting of suspended businesses, or the renewed activities of the bar; and they were taking it whole-heartedly. Golf, tennis, swimming, and sleep had filled the day, and it was a crowd in high spirits that gathered round Mrs. Friend for tea on the lawn, somewhere about five o'clock. Lucy, who had reached that stage of fatigue the night before when--like Peter Dale, only for different reasons--her bed became her worst enemy, had scarcely slept a wink, but was nevertheless presiding gaily over the tea-table. She looked particularly small and slight in a little dress of thin grey stuff that Helena had coaxed her to wear in lieu of her perennial black, but there was that expression in her pretty eyes as of a lifted burden, and a new friendship with life, which persons in Philip Buntingford's neighbourhood, when they belonged to the race of the meek and gentle, were apt to put on. Peter Dale hung about her, distributing tea and cake, and obedient to all her wishes. More than once in these later weeks he had found, in the dumb sympathy and understanding of the little widow, something that had been to him like shadow in the desert. He was known to fame as one of the smartest young aide-de-camps in the army, and fabulously rich besides. His invitation cards, carelessly stacked in his Curzon Street rooms, were a sight to see. But Helena had crushed his manly spirit. Sitting under the shadow of Mrs. Friend, he liked to watch from a distance the beautiful and dazzling creature who would have none of him. He was very sorry for himself; but, all the same, he had had some rattling games of tennis; the weather was divine, and he could still gaze at Helena; so that although the world was evil, "the thrushes still sang in it."
Buntingford and Geoffrey were seen walking up from the lake when tea was nearly over.
All eyes were turned to them.
"Now, then," said Julian Horne--"for the mystery, and its key. What a pity mysteries are generally such frauds! They can't keep it up. They let you down when you least expect it."
"Well, what news?" cried Helena, as the two men approached. Buntingford shook his head.
"Not much to tell--very little, indeed."
It appeared to Horne that both men looked puzzled and vaguely excited. But their story was soon told. They had seen Richard Stimson, a labourer, who reported having noticed a strange lady crossing the park in the direction of the wood, which, however, she had not entered, having finally changed her course so as to bear towards the Western Lodge and the allotments.
"That, you will observe, was about ten o'clock," interjected French, "and I saw my lady about eight." Buntingford found a chair, lit a cigarette, and resumed:
"She appeared in the village some time yesterday morning and went into the church. She told the woman who was cleaning there that she had come to look at an old window which was mentioned in her guide-book. The woman noticed that she stayed some time looking at the monuments in the church, and the tombs in the Buntingford chantry, which all the visitors go to see. She ordered some sandwiches at the Rose-and-Crown and got into talk with the landlord. He says she asked the questions strangers generally do ask--'Who lived in the neighbourhood?'--If she took a lodging in the village for August were there many nice places to go and see?--and so on. She said she had visited the Buntingford tombs in the chantry, and asked some questions about the family, and myself--Was I married?--Who was the heir? etc. Then when she had paid her bill, she enquired the way across the park to Feetham Station, and said she would have a walk and catch a six o'clock train back to London. She loved the country, she said--and liked walking. And that really is--all!"
"Except about her appearance," put in Geoffrey. "The landlord said he thought she must be an actress, or 'summat o' that sort.' She had such a strange way of looking at you. But when we asked what that meant, he scratched his head and couldn't tell us. All that we got out of him was he wouldn't like to have her for a lodger--'she'd frighten his missus.' Oh, and he did say that she looked dead-tired, and that he advised her not to walk to Feetham, but to wait for the five o'clock bus that goes from the village to the station. But she said she liked walking, and would find some cool place in the park to sit in--till it was time to catch the train."
"She was well-dressed, he said," added Buntingford, addressing himself to Cynthia Welwyn, who sat beside him; "and his description of her hat and veil, etc., quite agreed with old Stimson's account."
There was a silence, in which everybody seemed to be trying to piece the evidence together as to the mysterious onlooker of the night, and make a collected whole of it. Buntingford and Geoffrey were especially thoughtful and preoccupied. At last the former, after smoking a while without speaking, got up with the remark that he must see to some letters before post.
"Oh, no!"--pleaded Helena, intercepting him, and speaking so that he only should hear. "To-morrow's Whitsunday, and Monday's Bank Holiday. What's the use of writing letters? Don't you remember--you promised to show me those drawings before dinner--and may Geoffrey come, too?"
A sudden look of reluctance and impatience crossed Buntingford's face. Helena perceived it at once, and drew back. But Buntingford said immediately:
"Oh, certainly. In half an hour, I'll have the portfolios ready."
He walked away. Helena sat flushed and silent, her eyes on the ground, twisting and untwisting the handkerchief on her lap. And, presently, she too disappeared. The rest of the party were left to discuss with Geoffrey French the ins and outs of the evidence, and to put up various theories as to the motives of the woman of the yew trees; an occupation that lasted them till dressing-time.
Cynthia Welwyn took but little share in it. She was sitting rather apart from the rest, under a blue parasol which made an attractive combination with her semi-transparent black dress and the bright gold of her hair. In reality, her thoughts were busy with quite other matters than the lady of the yews. It did not seem to her of any real importance that a half-crazy stranger, attracted by the sounds and sights of the ball, on such a beautiful night, should have tried to watch it from the lake. The whole tale was curious, but--to her--irrelevant. The mystery she burned to find out was nearer home. Was Helena Pitstone falling in love with Philip? And if so, what was the effect on Philip? Cynthia had not much enjoyed her dance. The dazzling, the unfair ascendency of youth, as embodied in Helena, had been rather more galling than usual; and the "sittings out" she had arranged with Philip during the supper dances had been all cancelled by her sister's tiresome attack. Julian Horne, who generally got on with her, chivalrously moved his seat near to her, and tried to talk. But he found her in a rather dry and caustic mood. The ball had seemed to her "badly managed"; and the guests, outside the house-party, "an odd set."
Meanwhile, exactly at the hour named by Buntingford, he heard a knock at the library door. Helena appeared.
She stood just inside the door, looking absurdly young and childish in her white frock. But her face was grave.
"I thought just now"--she said, almost timidly,--"that you were bored by my asking you to show us those things. Are you? Please tell me. I didn't mean to get in the way of anything you were doing."
"Bored! Not in the least. Here they are, all ready for you. Come in."
She saw two or three large portfolios distributed on chairs, and one or two drawings already on exhibition. Her face cleared.
"Oh, what a heavenly thing!"
She made straight for a large drawing of the Val d'Arno in spring, and the gap in the mountains that leads to Lucca, taken from some high point above Fiesole. She knelt down before it in an ecstasy of pleasure.
"Mummy and I were there two years before the war. I do believe you came too?" She looked up, smiling, at the face above her.
It was the first time she had ever appealed to her childish recollections of him in any other than a provocative or half-resentful tone. He could remember a good many tussles with her in her frail mother's interest, when she was a long-legged, insubordinate child of twelve. And when Helena first arrived at Beechmark, it had hurt him to realize how bitterly she remembered such things, how grossly she had exaggerated them. The change indicated in her present manner, soothed his tired, nervous mood. His smile answered her.
"Yes, I was there with you two or three days. Do you remember the wild tulips we gathered at Settignano?"
"And the wild cherries--and the pear-blossoms! Italy in the spring is Heaven!" she said, under her breath, as she dropped to a sitting posture on the floor while he put the drawings before her.
"Well!--shall we go there next spring?"
"Don't tempt me--and then back out!"
"If I did," he said, laughing, "you could still go with Mrs. Friend."
She made no answer. Another knock at the door.
"There's Geoffrey. Come in, old boy. We've only just begun."
Half an hour's exhibition followed. Both Helena and French were intelligent spectators, and their amazement at the quality and variety of the work shown them seemed half-welcome, half-embarrassing to their host.
"Why don't you go on with it? Why don't you exhibit?" cried Helena.
He shrugged his shoulders.
"It doesn't interest me now. It's a past phase."
She longed to ask questions. But his manner didn't encourage it. And when the half-hour was done he looked at his watch.
"Dressing-time," he said, smiling, holding it out to Helena. She rose at once. Philip was a delightful artist, but the operations of dressing were not to be trifled with. Her thanks, however, for "a lovely time!" and her pleading for a second show on the morrow, were so graceful, so sweet, that French, as he silently put the drawings back, felt his spirits drop to zero. What could have so changed the thorny, insolent girl of six weeks before--but the one thing? He stole a glance at Buntingford. Surely he must realize what was happening--and his huge responsibility--he must.
Helena disappeared. Geoffrey volunteered to tie up a portfolio they had only half examined, while Buntingford finished a letter. While he was handling it, the portfolio slipped, and a number of drawings fell out pell-mell upon the floor.
Geoffrey stooped to pick them up. A vehement exclamation startled Buntingford at his desk.
"What's the matter, Geoffrey?"
"Philip! That's the woman I saw!--that's her face!--I could swear to it anywhere!"
He pointed with excitement to the drawing of a woman's head and shoulders, which had fallen out from the very back of the portfolio, whereof the rotting straps and fastenings showed that it had not been opened for many years.
Buntingford came to his side. He looked at the drawing--then at French. His face seemed suddenly to turn grey and old.
"My God!" he said under his breath, and again, still lower--"My God! Of course. I knew it!"
He dropped into a chair beside Geoffrey, and buried his face in his hands.
Geoffrey stared at him in silence, a bewildering tumult of ideas and conjectures rushing through his brain.
Another knock at the door. Buntingford rose automatically, went to the door, spoke to the servant who had knocked, and came back with a note in his hand, which he took to the window to read. Then with steps which seemed to French to waver like those of a man half drunk he went to his writing-desk, and wrote a reply which he gave to the servant who was waiting in the passage. He stood a moment thinking, his hand over his eyes, before he approached his nephew.
"Geoffrey, will you please take my place at dinner to-night? I am going out. Make any excuse you like." He moved away--but turned back again, speaking with much difficulty--"The woman you saw--is at the Rectory. Alcott took her in last night. He writes to me. I am going there."