Helena by Mrs. Humphry Ward
Buntingford walked rapidly across the park, astonishing the old lodge-keeper who happened to see him pass through, and knew that his lordship had a large Whitsuntide party at the house, who must at that very moment be sitting down to dinner.
The Rectory lay at the further extremity of the village, which was long and straggling. The village street, still bathed in sun, was full of groups of holiday makers, idling and courting. To avoid them, Buntingford stepped into one of his own plantations, in which there was a path leading straight to the back of the Rectory.
He walked like one half-stunned, with very little conscious thought. As to the blow which had now fallen, he had lived under the possibility of it for fourteen years. Only since the end of the war had he begun to feel some security, and in consequence to realize a new ferment in himself. Well--now at least he would know. And the hunger to know winged his feet.
He found a gate leading into the garden of the Rectory open, and went through it towards the front of the house. A figure in grey flannels, with a round collar, was pacing up and down the little grass-plot there, waiting for him.
John Alcott came forward at sight of him. He took Buntingford's hand in both his own, and looked into his face. "Is it true?" he said, gently.
"Probably," said Buntingford, after a moment.
"Will you come into my study? I think you ought to hear our story before you see her."
He led the way into the tiny house, and into his low-roofed study, packed with books from floor to ceiling, the books of a lonely man who had found in them his chief friends. He shut the door with care, suggesting that they should speak as quietly as possible, since the house was so small, and sound travelled so easily through it.
"Where is she?" said Buntingford, abruptly, as he took the chair Alcott pushed towards him.
"Just overhead. It is our only spare room."
Buntingford nodded, and the two heads, the black and the grey, bent towards each other, while Alcott gave his murmured report.
"You know we have no servant. My sister does everything, with my help, and a village woman once or twice a week. Lydia came down this morning about seven o'clock and opened the front door. To her astonishment she found a woman leaning against the front pillar of our little porch. My sister spoke to her, and then saw she must be exhausted or ill. She told her to come in, and managed to get her into the dining-room where there is a sofa. She said a few incoherent things after lying down and then fainted. My sister called me, and I went for our old doctor. He came back with me, said it was collapse, and heart weakness--perhaps after influenza--and that we must on no account move her except on to a bed in the dining-room till he had watched her a little. She was quite unable to give any account of herself, and while we were watching her she seemed to go into a heavy sleep. She only recovered consciousness about five o'clock this evening. Meanwhile I had been obliged to go to a diocesan meeting at Dansworth and I left my sister and Dr. Ramsay in charge of her, suggesting that as there was evidently something unusual in the case nothing should be said to anybody outside the house till I came back and she was able to talk to us. I hurried back, and found the doctor giving injections of strychnine and brandy which seemed to be reviving her. While we were all standing round her, she said quite clearly--'I want to see Philip Buntingford.' Dr. Ramsay knelt down beside her, and asked her to tell him, if she was strong enough, why she wanted to see you. She did not open her eyes, but said again distinctly--'Because I am'--or was--I am not quite sure which--'his wife.' And after a minute or two she said twice over, very faintly--'Send for him--send for him.' So then I wrote my note to you and sent it off. Since then the doctor and my sister have succeeded in carrying her upstairs--and the doctor gives leave for you to see her. He is coming back again presently. During her sleep, she talked incoherently once or twice about a lake and a boat--and once she said--'Oh, do stop that music!' and moved her head about as though it hurt her. Since then I have heard some gossip from the village about a strange lady who was seen in the park last night. Naturally one puts two and two together--but we have said nothing yet to anyone. Nobody knows that she--if the woman seen in the park, and the woman upstairs are the same--is here."
He looked interrogatively at his companion. But Buntingford, who had risen, stood dumb.
"May I go upstairs?" was all he said.
The rector led the way up a small cottage staircase. His sister, a grey-haired woman of rather more than middle age, spectacled and prim, but with the eyes of the pure in heart, heard them on the stairs and came out to meet them.
"She is quite ready, and I am in the next room, if you want me. Please knock on the wall."
Buntingford entered and shut the door. He stood at the foot of the bed. The woman lying on it opened her eyes, and they looked at each other long and silently. The face on the pillow had still the remains of beauty. The powerful mouth and chin, the nose, which was long and delicate, the deep-set eyes, and broad brow under strong waves of hair, were all fused in a fine oval; and the modelling of the features was intensely and passionately expressive. That indeed was at once the distinction and, so to speak, the terror of the face,--its excessive, abnormal individualism, its surplus of expression. A woman to fret herself and others to decay--a woman, to burn up her own life, and that of her lover, her husband, her child. Only physical weakness had at last set bounds to what had once been a whirlwind force.
"Anna!" said Buntingford gently.
She made a feeble gesture which beckoned him to come nearer--to sit down--and he came. All the time he was sharply, irrelevantly conscious of the little room, the bed with its white dimity furniture, the texts on the distempered walls, the head of the Leonardo Christ over the mantelpiece, the white muslin dressing-table, the strips of carpet on the bare boards, the cottage chairs:--the spotless cleanliness and the poverty of it all. He saw as the artist, who cannot help but see, even at moments of intense feeling.
"You thought--I was dead?" The woman in the bed moved her haggard eyes towards him.
"Yes, lately I thought it. I didn't, for a long time."
"I put that notice in--so that--you might marry again," she said, slowly, and with difficulty.
"I suspected that."
"But you--didn't marry."
"How could I?--when I had no real evidence?"
She closed her eyes, as though any attempt to argue, or explain was beyond her, and he had to wait while she gathered strength again. After what seemed a long time, and in a rather stronger voice she said:
"Did you ever find out--what I had done?"
"I discovered that you had gone away with Rocca--into Italy. I followed you by motor, and got news of you as having gone over the Splugen. My car had a bad accident on the pass, and I was ten weeks in hospital at Chur. After that I lost all trace."
"I heard of the accident," she said, her eyes all the while searching out the changed details of a face which had once been familiar to her. "But Rocca wasn't with me then. I had only old Zelie--you remember?"
"The old bonne--we had at Melun?"
She made a sign of assent.--"I never lived with Rocca--till after the child was born."
"The child! What do you mean?"
The words were a cry. He hung over her, shaken and amazed.
"You never knew!"--There was a faint, ghastly note of triumph in her voice. "I wouldn't tell you--after that night we quarrelled--I concealed it. But he is your son--sure enough."
"My son!--and he is alive?" Buntingford bent closer, trying to see her face.
She turned to look at him, nodding silently.
"Where is he?"
"In London. It was about him--I came down here. I--I--want to get rid of him."
A look of horror crossed his face, as though in her faint yet violent words he caught the echoes of an intolerable past. But he controlled himself.
"Tell me more--I want to help you."
"You--you won't get any joy of him!" she said, still staring at him. "He's not like other children--he's afflicted. It was a bad doctor--when I was confined--up in the hills near Lucca. The child was injured. There's nothing wrong with him--but his brain."
A flickering light in Buntingford's face sank.
"And you want to get rid of him?"
"He's so much trouble," she said peevishly. "I did the best I could for him. Now I can't afford to look after him. I thought of everything I could do--before--"
"Before you thought of coming to me?"
She assented. A long pause followed, during which Miss Alcott came in, administered stimulant, and whispered to Buntingford to let her rest a little. He sat there beside her motionless, for half an hour or more, unconscious of the passage of time, his thoughts searching the past, and then again grappling dully with the extraordinary, the incredible statement that he possessed a son--a living but, apparently, an idiot son. The light began to fail, and Miss Alcott slipped in noiselessly again to light a small lamp out of sight of the patient. "The doctor will soon be here," she whispered to Buntingford.
The light of the lamp roused the woman. She made a sign to Miss Alcott to lift her a little.
"Not much," said the Rector's sister in Buntingford's ear. "It's the heart that's wrong."
Together they raised her just a little. Miss Alcott put a fan into Buntingford's hands, and opened the windows wider.
"I'm all right," said the stranger irritably. "Let me alone. I've got a lot to say." She turned her eyes on Buntingford. "Do you want to know--about Rocca?"
"He died seven years ago. He was always good to me--awfully good to me and to the boy. We lived in a horrible out-of-the-way place--up in the mountains near Naples. I didn't want you to know about the boy. I wanted revenge. Rocca changed his name to Melegrani. I called myself Francesca Melegrani. I used to exhibit both at Naples and Rome. Nobody ever found out who we were."
"What made you put that notice in the Times?"
She smiled faintly, and the smile recalled to him an old expression of hers, half-cynical, half-defiant.
"I had a pious fit once--when Rocca was very ill. I confessed to an old priest--in the Abruzzi. He told me to go back to you--and ask your forgiveness. I was living in sin, he said--and would go to hell. A dear old fool! But he had some influence with me. He made me feel some remorse--about you--only I wouldn't give up the boy. So when Rocca got well and was going to Lyons, I made him post the notice from there--to the Times. I hoped you'd believe it." Then, unexpectedly, she slightly raised her head, the better to see the man beside her.
"Do you mean to marry that girl I saw on the lake?"
"If you mean the girl that I was rowing, she is the daughter of a cousin of mine. I am her guardian."
"She's handsome." Her unfriendly eyes showed her incredulity.
He drew himself stiffly together.
"Don't please waste your strength on foolish ideas. I am not going to marry her, nor anybody."
"You couldn't--till you divorce me--or till I die," she said feebly, her lids dropping again--"but I'm quite ready to see any lawyers--so that you can get free."
"Don't think about that now, but tell me again--what you want me to do."
"I want--to go to--America. I've got friends there. I want you to pay my passage--because I'm a pauper--and to take over the boy."
"I'll do all that. You shall have a nurse--when you are strong enough--who will take you across. Now I must go. Can you just tell me first where the boy is?"
Almost inaudibly she gave an address in Kentish Town. He saw that she could bear no more, and he rose.
"Try and sleep," he said in a voice that wavered. "I'll see you again to-morrow. You're all right here."
She made no reply, and seemed again either asleep or unconscious.
As he stood by the bed, looking down upon her, scenes and persons he had forgotten for years rushed back into the inner light of memory:--that first day in Lebas's atelier when he had seen her in her Holland overall, her black hair loose on her neck, the provocative brilliance of her dark eyes; their close comradeship in the contests, the quarrels, the ambitions of the atelier; her patronage of him as her junior in art, though her senior in age; her increasing influence over him, and the excitement of intimacy with a creature so unrestrained, so gifted, so consumed with jealousies, whether as an artist or a woman; his proposal of marriage to her in one of the straight roads that cut the forest of Compiegne; the ceremony at the Mairie, with only a few of their fellow students for witnesses; the little apartment on the Rive Gauche, with its bits of old furniture, and unframed sketches pinned up on the walls; Anna's alternations of temper, now fascinating, now sulky, and that steady emergence in her of coarse or vulgar traits, like rocks in an ebbing sea; their early quarrels, and her old mother who hated him; their poverty because of her extravagance; his growing reluctance to take her to England, or to present her to persons of his own class and breeding in Paris, and her frantic jealousy and resentment when she discovered it; their scenes of an alternate violence and reconciliation and finally her disappearance, in the company, as he had always supposed, of Sigismondo Rocca, an Italian studying in Paris, whose pursuit of her had been notorious for some time.
The door opened gently, and Miss Alcott's grey head appeared.
"The doctor!" she said, just audibly.
Buntingford followed her downstairs, and found himself presently in Alcott's study, alone with a country doctor well known to him, a man who had pulled out his own teeth in childhood, had attended his father and grandfather before him, and carried in his loyal breast the secrets and the woes of a whole countryside.
They grasped hands in silence.
"You know who she is?" said Buntingford quietly.
"I understand that she tells Mr. Alcott that she was Mrs. Philip Bliss, that she left you fifteen years ago, and that you believed her dead?"
He saw Buntingford shrink.
"At times I did--yes, at times I did--but we won't go into that. Is she ill--really ill?"
Ramsay spoke deliberately, after a minute's thought:
"Yes, she is probably very ill. The heart is certainly in a dangerous state. I thought she would have slipped away this morning, when they called me in--the collapse was so serious. She is not a strong woman, and she had a bad attack of influenza last week. Then she was out all last night, wandering about, evidently in a state of great excitement. It was as bad a fainting fit as I have ever seen."
"It would be impossible to move her?"
"For a day or two certainly. She keeps worrying about a boy--apparently her own boy?"
"I will see to that."
Ramsay hesitated a moment and then said--"What are we to call her? It will not be possible, I imagine, to keep her presence here altogether a secret. She called herself, in talking to Miss Alcott, Madame Melegrani."
"Why not? As to explaining her, I hardly know what to say."
Buntingford put his hand across his eyes; the look of weariness, of perplexity, intensified ten-fold.
"An acquaintance of yours in Italy, come to ask you for help?" suggested Ramsay.
Buntingford withdrew his hand.
"No!" he said with decision. "Better tell the truth! She was my wife. She left me, as she has told the Alcotts, and took steps eleven years ago to make me believe her dead. And up to seven years ago, she passed as the wife of a man whom I knew by the name of Sigismondo Rocca. When the announcement of her death appeared, I set enquiries on foot at once, with no result. Latterly, I have thought it must be true; but I have never been quite certain. She has reappeared now, it seems, partly because she has no resources, and partly in order to restore to me my son."
"Your son!" said Ramsay, startled.
"She tells me that a boy was born after she left me, and that I am the father. All that I must verify. No need to say anything whatever about that yet. Her main purpose, no doubt, was to ask for pecuniary assistance, in order to go to America. In return she will furnish my lawyers with all the evidence necessary for my divorce from her."
Ramsay slowly shook his head.
"I doubt whether she will ever get to America. She has worn herself out."
There was a silence. Then Buntingford added:
"If these kind people would keep her, it would be the best solution. I would make everything easy for them. To-morrow I go up to Town--to the address she has given me. And--I should be glad if you would come with me?"
The doctor looked surprised.
"Of course--if you want me--"
"The boy--his mother says--is abnormal--deficient. An injury at birth. If you will accompany me I shall know better what to do."
A grasp of the hand, a look of sympathy answered; and they parted. Buntingford emerged from the little Rectory to find Alcott again waiting for him in the garden. The sun had set some time and the moon was peering over the hills to the east. The mounting silver rim suddenly recalled to Buntingford the fairy-like scene of the night before?--the searchlight on the lake, the lights, the music, and the exquisite figure of Helena dancing through it all. Into what Vale of the Shadow of Death had he passed since then?--
Alcott and he turned into the plantation walk together. Various practical arrangements were discussed between them. Alcott and his sister would keep the sick woman in their house as long as might be necessary, and Buntingford once more expressed his gratitude.
Then, under the darkness of the trees, and in reaction from the experience he had just passed through, an unhappy man's hitherto impenetrable reserve, to some extent, broke down. And the companion walking beside him showed himself a true minister of Christ---humble, tactful, delicate, yet with the courage of his message. What struck him most, perhaps, was the revelation of what must have been Buntingford's utter loneliness through long years; the spiritual isolation in which a man of singularly responsive and confiding temper had passed perhaps a quarter of his life, except for one blameless friendship with a woman now dead. His utmost efforts had not been able to discover the wife who had deserted him, or to throw any light upon her subsequent history. The law, therefore, offered him no redress. He could not free himself; and he could not marry again. Yet marriage and fatherhood were his natural destiny, thwarted by the fatal mistake of his early youth. Nothing remained but to draw a steady veil over the past, and to make what he could of the other elements in life.
Alcott gathered clearly from the story that there had been no other woman or women in the case, since his rupture with his wife. Was it that his marriage, with all its repulsive episodes, had disgusted a fastidious nature with the coarser aspects of the sex relation? The best was denied him, and from the worse he himself turned away; though haunted all the time by the natural hunger of the normal man.
As they walked on, Alcott gradually shaped some image for himself of what had happened during the years of the marriage, piecing it together from Buntingford's agitated talk. But he was not prepared for a sudden statement made just as they were reaching the spot where Alcott would naturally turn back towards the Rectory. It came with a burst, after a silence.
"For God's sake, Alcott, don't suppose from what I have been telling you that all the fault was on my wife's side, that I was a mere injured innocent. Very soon after we married, I discovered that I had ceased to love her, that there was hardly anything in common between us. And there was a woman in Paris--a married woman, of my own world--cultivated, and good, and refined--who was sorry for me, who made a kind of spiritual home for me. We very nearly stepped over the edge--we should have done--but for her religion. She was an ardent Catholic and her religion saved her. She left Paris suddenly, begging me as the last thing she would ever ask me, to be reconciled to Anna, and to forget her. For some days I intended to shoot myself. But, at last, as the only thing I could do for her, I did as she bade me. Anna and I, after a while, came together again, and I hoped for a child. Then, by hideous ill luck, Anna, about three months after our reconciliation, discovered a fragment of a letter--believed the very worst--made a horrible scene with me, and went off, as she has just told me,--not actually with Rocca as I believed, but to join him in Italy. From that day I lost all trace of her. Her concealment of the boy's birth was her vengeance upon me. She knew how passionately I had always wanted a son. But instead she punished him--the poor, poor babe!"
There was an anguish in the stifled voice which made sympathy impertinent. Alcott asked some practical questions, and Buntingford repeated his wife's report of the boy's condition, and her account of an injury at birth, caused by the unskilful hands of an ignorant doctor.
"But I shall see him to-morrow. Ramsay and I go together. Perhaps, after all, something can be done. I shall also make the first arrangements for the divorce."
Alcott was silent a moment--hesitating in the dark.
"You will make those arrangements immediately?"
"If she dies? She may die."
"I would do nothing brutal--but--She came to make a bargain with me."
"Yes--but if she dies--might you not have been glad to say, 'I forgive'?"
The shy, clumsy man was shaken as he spoke, with the passion of his own faith. The darkness concealed it, as it concealed its effect on Buntingford. Buntingford made no direct reply, and presently they parted, Alcott engaging to send a messenger over to Beechmark early, with a report of the patient's condition, before Buntingford and Dr. Ramsay started for London. Buntingford walked on. And presently in the dim moonlight ahead he perceived Geoffrey French.
The young man approached him timidly, almost expecting to be denounced as an intruder. Instead, Buntingford put an arm through his, and leaned upon him, at first in a pathetic silence that Geoffrey did not dare to break. Then gradually the story was told again, as much of it as was necessary, as much as Philip could bear. Geoffrey made very little comment, till through the trees they began to see the lights of Beechmark.
Then Geoffrey said in an unsteady voice:
"Philip!--there is one person you must tell--perhaps first of all. You must tell Helena--yourself."
Buntingford stopped as though under a blow.
"Of course, I shall tell Helena--but why?--"
His voice spoke bewilderment and pain.
"Tell her yourself--that's all," said Geoffrey, resolutely--"and, if you can, before she hears it from anybody else."