Chapter XII
 

Buntingford and French reached home between ten and eleven o'clock. When they entered the house, they heard sounds of music from the drawing-room. Peter Dale was playing fragments from the latest musical comedy, with a whistled accompaniment on the drawing-room piano. There seemed to be nothing else audible in the house, in spite of the large party it contained. Amid the general hush, unbroken by a voice or a laugh, the "funny bits" that Peter was defiantly thumping or whistling made a kind of goblin chorus round a crushed and weary man, as he pushed past the door of the drawing-room to the library. Geoffrey followed him.

"No one knows it yet," said the young man, closing the door behind them. "I had no authority from you to say anything. But of course they all understood that something strange had happened. Can I be any help with the others, while--"

"While I tell Helena?" said Buntingford, heavily. "Yes. Better get it over. Say, please--I should be grateful for no more talk than is inevitable."

Geoffrey stood by awkwardly, not knowing how to express the painful sympathy he felt. His very pity made him abrupt.

"I am to say--that you always believed--she was dead?"

Under what name to speak of the woman lying at the Rectory puzzled him. The mere admission of the thought that however completely in the realm of morals she might have forfeited his name, she was still Buntingford's wife in the realm of law, seemed an outrage.

At the question, Buntingford sprang up suddenly from the seat on which he had fallen; and Geoffrey, who was standing near him involuntarily retreated a few steps, in amazement at the passionate animation which for the moment had transformed the whole aspect of the elder man.

"Yes, you may say so--you must say so! There is no other account you can give of it!--no other account I can authorize you to give it. It is four-fifths true--and no one in this house--not even you--has any right to press me further. At the same time, I am not going to put even the fraction of a lie between myself and you, Geoffrey, for you have been--a dear fellow--to me!" He put his hand a moment on Geoffrey's shoulder, withdrawing it instantly. "The point is--what would have come about--if this had not happened? That is the test. And I can't give a perfectly clear answer." He began to pace the room--thinking aloud. "I have been very anxious--lately--to marry. I have been so many years alone; and I--well, there it is!--I have suffered from it, physically and morally; more perhaps than other men might have suffered. And lately--you must try and understand me, Geoffrey!--although I had doubts--yes, deep down, I still had doubts--whether I was really free--I have been much more ready to believe than I used to be, that I might now disregard the doubts--silence them!--for good and all. It has been my obsession--you may say now my temptation. Oh! the divorce court would probably have freed me--have allowed me to presume my wife's death after these fifteen years. But the difficulty lay in my own conscience. Was I certain? No! I was not certain! Anna's ways and standards were well known to me. I could imagine various motives which might have induced her to deceive me. At the same time"--he stopped and pointed to his writing-table--"these drawers are stuffed full of reports and correspondence, from agents all over Europe, whom I employed in the years before the war to find out anything they could. I cannot accuse myself of any deliberate or wilful ignorance. I made effort after effort--in vain. I was entitled--at last--it often seemed to me to give up the effort, to take my freedom. But then"--his voice dropped--"I thought of the woman I might love--and wish to marry. I should indeed have told her everything, and the law might have been ready to protect us. But if Anna still lived, and were suddenly to reappear in my life--what a situation!--for a sensitive, scrupulous woman!"

"It would have broken--spoiled--everything!" said Geoffrey, under his breath, but with emphasis. He was leaning against the mantelpiece, and his face was hidden from his companion. Buntingford threw him a strange, deprecating look.

"You are right--you are quite right. Yet I believe, Geoffrey, I might have committed that wrong--but for this--what shall I call it?--this 'act of God' that has happened to me. Don't misunderstand me!" He came to stand beside his nephew, and spoke with intensity. "It was only a possibility--and there is no guilt on my conscience. I have no real person in my mind. But any day I might have failed my own sense of justice--my own sense of honour--sufficiently--to let a woman risk it!"

Geoffrey thought of one woman--if not two women--who would have risked it. His heart was full of Helena. It was as though he could only appreciate the situation as it affected her. How deep would the blow strike, when she knew? He turned to look at Buntingford, who had resumed his restless walk up and down the room, realizing with mingled affection and reluctance the charm of his physical presence, the dark head, the kind deep eyes, the melancholy selfishness that seemed to enwrap him. Yet all the time he had not been selfless! There had been no individual woman in the case. But none the less, he had been consumed with the same personal longing--the same love of loving; the amor amandi--as other men. That was a discovery. It brought him nearer to the young man's tenderness; but it made the chance of a misunderstanding on Helena's part greater.

"Shall I tell Helena you would like to speak to her?" he said, breaking the silence.

Buntingford assented.

Philip, left alone, tried to collect his thoughts. He did not conceal from himself what had been implied rather than said by Geoffrey. The hint had startled and disquieted him. But he could not believe it had any real substance; and certainly he felt himself blameless. A creature so radiant, with the world at her feet!--and he, prematurely aged, who had seemed to her, only a few weeks ago, a mere old fogy in her path! That she should have reconsidered her attitude towards him, was surely natural, considering all the pains he had taken to please her. But as to anything else--absurd!

Latterly, indeed, since she had come to that tacit truce with Jim, he was well aware how much her presence in his house had added to the pleasant moments of daily life. In winning her good will, in thinking for her, in trying to teach her, in watching the movements of her quick untrained intelligence and the various phases of her enchanting beauty, he had found not only a new occupation, but a new joy. Rachel's prophecy for him had begun to realize itself. And, all the time, his hopes as to Geoffrey's success with her had been steadily rising. He and Geoffrey had indeed been at cross-purposes, if Geoffrey really believed what he seemed to believe! But it was nothing--it could be nothing--but the fantasy of a lover, starting at a shadow.

And suddenly his mind, as he stood waiting, plunged into matters which were not shadows--but palpitating realities. His son!--whom he was to see on the morrow. He believed the word of the woman who had been his wife. Looking back on her character with all its faults, he did not think she would have been capable of a malicious lie, at such a moment. Forty miles away then, there was a human being waiting and suffering, to whom his life had given life. Excitement--yearning--beat through his pulses. He already felt the boy in his arms; was already conscious of the ardour with which every device of science should be called in, to help restore to him, not only his son's body, but his mind.

There was a low tap at the door. He recalled his thoughts and went to open it.

"Helena!--my dear!"

He took her hand and led her in. She had changed her white dress of the afternoon for a little black frock, one of her mourning dresses for her mother, with a bunch of flame-coloured roses at her waist. The semi-transparent folds of the black brought out the brilliance of the white neck and shoulders, the pale carnations of the face, the beautiful hair, following closely the contours of the white brow. Even through all his pain and preoccupation, Buntingford admired; was instantly conscious of the sheer pleasure of her beauty. But it was the pleasure of an artist, an elder brother--a father even. Her mother was in his mind, and the strong affection he had begun to feel for his ward was shot through and through by the older tenderness.

"Sit there, dear," he said, pushing forward a chair. "Has Geoffrey told you anything?"

"No. He said you wanted to tell me something yourself, and he would speak to the others."

She was very pale, and the hand he touched was cold. But she was perfectly self-possessed.

He sat down in front of her collecting his thoughts.

"Something has happened, Helena, to-day--this very evening--which must--I fear--alter all your plans and mine. The poor woman whom Geoffrey saw in the wood, whose bag you found, was just able to make her escape, when you and Geoffrey landed. She wandered about the rest of the night, and in the early morning she asked for shelter--being evidently ill--at the Rectory, but it was not till this evening that she made a statement which induced them to send for me. Helena!--what did your mother ever tell you about my marriage?"

"She told me very little--only that you had married someone abroad--when you were studying in Paris--and that she was dead."

Buntingford covered his eyes with his hand.

"I told your mother, Helena, all I knew. I concealed nothing from her--both what I knew--and what I didn't know."

He paused, to take from his pocket a small leather case and to extract from it a newspaper cutting. He handed it to her. It was from the first column of the Times, was dated 1907, and contained the words:--"On July 19th at Lyons, France, Anna, wife of Philip Bliss, aged 28."

Helena read it, and looked up. Buntingford anticipated the words that were on her lips.

"Wait a moment!--let me go on. I read that announcement in the Times, Helena, three years after my wife had deserted me. I had spent those three years, first in recovering from a bad accident, and then in wandering about trying to trace her. Naturally, I went off to Lyons at once, and could discover--nothing! The police there did all they could to help me--our own Embassy in Paris got at the Ministry of the Interior--useless! I recovered the original notice and envelope from the Times. Both were typewritten, and the Lyons postmark told us no more than the notice had already told. I could only carry on my search, and for some years afterwards, even after I had returned to London, I spent the greater part of all I earned and possessed upon it. About that time my friendship with your mother began. She was already ill, and spent most of her life--as you remember--except for those two or three invalid winters in Italy--in that little drawing-room, I knew so well. I could always be sure of finding her at home; and gradually--as you recollect--she became my best friend. She was the only person in England who knew the true story of my marriage. She always suspected, from the time she first heard of it, that the notice in the Times--"

Helena made a quick movement forward. Her lips parted.

"--was not true?"

Buntingford took her hand again, and they looked at each other, she trembling involuntarily.

"And the woman last night?" she said, breathlessly--"was she someone who knew--who could tell you the truth?"

"She was my wife--herself!"

Helena withdrew her hand.

"How strange!--how strange!" She covered her eyes. There was a silence. After it, Buntingford resumed:

"Has Geoffrey told you the first warning of it--you left this room?"

"No."

He described the incident of the sketch.

"It was a drawing I had made of her only a few weeks before she left me. I had no idea it was in that portfolio. We had scarcely time to put it away before Mr. Alcott's note arrived--sending for me at once."

Helena's hands had dropped, while she hung upon his story. And a wonderful unconscious sweetness had stolen into her expression. Her young heart was in her eyes.

"Oh, I am so glad--so glad--you had that warning!"

Buntingford was deeply touched.

"You dear child!" he said in a rather choked voice, and, rising, he walked away from her to the further end of the room. When he returned, he found a pale and thoughtful Helena.

"Of course, Cousin Philip, this will make a great change--in your life--and in mine."

He stood silently before her--preferring that she should make her own suggestions.

"I think--I ought to go away at once. Thanks to you--I have Mrs. Friend--who is such a dear."

"There is the London house, Helena. You can make any use of it you like."

"No, I think not," she said resolutely. Then with an odd laugh which recalled an earlier Helena--"I don't expect Lucy Friend would want to have the charge of me in town; and you too--perhaps--would still be responsible--and bothered about me--if I were in your house."

Buntingford could not help a smile.

"My responsibility scarcely depends--does it--upon where you are?" Then his voice deepened. "I desire, wherever you are, to cherish and care for you--in your mother's place. I can't say what a joy it has been to me to have you here."

"No!--that's nonsense!--ridiculous!--" she said, suddenly breaking down, and dashing the tears from her eyes.

"It's very true," he said gently. "You've been the dearest pupil, and forgiven me all my pedantic ways. But if not London--I will arrange anything you wish."

She turned away, evidently making a great effort not to weep. He too was much agitated, and for a little while he busied himself with some letters on his table.

When, at her call, he returned to her, she said, quite in her usual voice:

"I should like to go somewhere--to some beautiful place--and draw. That would take a month--perhaps. Then we can settle." After a pause, she added without hesitation--"And you?--what is going to happen?"

"It depends--upon whether it's life at the Rectory--or death."

She was evidently startled, but said nothing, only gave him her beautiful eyes again, and her unspoken sympathy.

Then an impulse which seemed invincible came upon him to be really frank with her--to tell her more.

"It depends, also,--upon something else. But this I asked Geoffrey not to tell the others in the drawing-room--just yet--and I ask you the same. Of course you may tell Mrs. Friend." She saw his face work with emotion. "Helena, this woman that was my wife declares to me--that I have a son living."

He saw the light of amazement that rushed into her face, and hurried on:--"But in the same breath that she tells me that, she tells me the tragedy that goes with it." And hardly able to command his voice, he repeated what had been told him.

"Of course everything must be enquired into--verified. I go to town to-morrow--with Ramsay. Possibly I shall bring him back--perhaps to Ramsay's care, for the moment. Possibly, I shall leave him with someone in town."

"Couldn't I help," she said, after a moment, "if I stayed?"

"No, no!" he said with repugnance, which was almost passion. "I couldn't lay such a burden upon you, or any young creature. You must go and be happy, dear Helena--it is your duty to be happy! And this home for a time will be a tragic one. Well, but now, where would you like to go? Will you and Geoffrey and Mrs. Friend consult? I will leave any money you want in Geoffrey's hands."

"You mean"--she said abruptly--"that I really ought to go at once--to-morrow."

"Wouldn't it be best? It troubles me to think of you here--under the shadow--of this thing."

"I see!--I see! All right. You are going to London to-morrow morning?" She had risen, and was moving towards the door.

"Yes, I shall go to the Rectory first for news. And then on to the station."

She paused a moment.

"And if--if she--I don't know what to call her--if she lives?"

"Well, then--I must be free," he said, gravely; adding immediately--"She passed for fifteen years after she left me as the wife of an Italian I used to know. It would be very quickly arranged. I should provide for her--and keep my boy. But all that is uncertain."

"Yes, I understand." She held out her hand. "Cousin Philip--I am awfully sorry for you. I--I realized--somehow--only after I'd come down here--that you must have had--things in your life--to make you unhappy. And you've been so nice--so awfully nice to me! I just want to thank you--with all my heart."

And before he could prevent her, she had seized his hands and kissed them. Then she rushed to the door, turning to show him a face between tears and laughter.

"There!--I've paid you back!"

And with that she vanished.

Helena was going blindly through the hall, towards her own room, when Peter Dale emerged from the shadows. He caught her as she passed.

"Let me have just a word, Helena! You know, everything will be broken up here. I only want to say my mother would just adore to have you for the season. We'd all make it nice for you--we'd be your slaves--just let me wire to Mater to-morrow morning."

"No, thank you, Peter. Please--please! don't stop me! I want to see Mrs. Friend."

"Helena, do think of it!" he implored.

"No, I can't. It's impossible!" she said, almost fiercely. "Let me go, Peter! Good-night!"

He stood, a picture of misery, at the foot of the stairs watching her run up. Then at the top she turned, ran down a few steps again, kissed her hand to him, and vanished, the bright buckles on her shoes flashing along the gallery overhead.

But in the further corner of the gallery she nearly ran into the arms of Geoffrey French, who was waiting for her outside her room.

"Is it too late, Helena--for me to have just a few words in your sitting-room?"

He caught hold of her. The light just behind him showed him a tense and frowning Helena.

"Yes--it is much too late! I can't talk now."

"Only a few words?"

"No"--she panted--"no!--Geoffrey, I shall hate you if you don't let me go!"

It seemed to her that everybody was in league to stand between her and the one thing she craved for--to be alone and in the dark.

She snatched her dress out of his grasp, and he fell back.

She slipped into her own room, and locked the door. He shook his head, and went slowly downstairs. He found Peter pacing the hall, and they went out into the June dark together, a discomfited pair.

Meanwhile Mrs. Friend waited for Helena. She heard voices in the passage and the locking of Helena's door. She was still weak from her illness, so it seemed wisest to get into bed. But she had no hope or intention of sleep. She sat up in bed, with a shawl round her, certain that Helena would come. She was in a ferment of pity and fear,--she scarcely knew why--fear for the young creature she had come to love with all her heart; and she strained her ears to catch the sound of an opening door.

But Helena did not come. Through her open window Lucy could hear steps along the terrace coming and going--to and fro. Then they ceased; all sounds in the house ceased. The church clock in the distance struck midnight, and a little owl close to the house shrieked and wailed like a human thing, to the torment of Lucy's nerves. A little later she was aware of Buntingford coming upstairs, and going to his room on the further side of the gallery.

Then, nothing. Deep silence--that seemed to flow through the house and all its rooms and passages like a submerging flood.

Except!--What was that sound, in the room next to hers--in Helena's room?

Lucy Friend got up trembling, put on a dressing-gown, and laid an ear to the wall between her and Helena. It was a thin wall, mostly indeed a panelled partition, belonging to an old bit of the house, in which the building was curiously uneven in quality--sometimes inexplicably strong, and sometimes mere lath and plaster, as though the persons, building or re-building, had come to an end of their money and were scamping their work.

Lucy, from the other side of the panels, had often heard Helena singing while she dressed, or chattering to the housemaid. She listened now in an anguish, her mind haunted alternately by the recollection of the scene in the drawing-room, and the story told by Geoffrey French, and by her rising dread and misgiving as to Helena's personal stake in it. She had observed much during the preceding weeks. But her natural timidity and hesitancy had forbidden her so far to draw hasty deductions. And now--perforce!--she drew them.

The sounds in the next room seemed to communicate their rhythm of pain to Lucy's own heart. She could not bear it after a while. She noiselessly opened her own door, and went to Helena's. To her scarcely audible knock there was no answer. After an interval she knocked again--a pause. Then there were movements inside, and Helena's muffled voice through the door.

"Please, Lucy, go to sleep! I am all right."

"I can't sleep. Won't you let me in?"

Helena seemed to consider. But after an interval which seemed interminable to Lucy Friend, the key was slowly turned and the door yielded.

Helena was standing inside, but there was so little light in the room that Lucy could only see her dimly. The moon was full outside, but the curtains had been drawn across the open window, and only a few faint rays came through. As Mrs. Friend entered Helena turned from her, and groping her way back to the bed, threw herself upon it, face downwards. It was evidently the attitude from which she had risen.

Lucy Friend followed her, trembling, and sat down beside her. Helena was still fully dressed, except for her hair, which had escaped from combs and hairpins. As her eyes grew used to the darkness, Lucy could see it lying, a dim mass on the white pillow, also a limp hand upturned. She seized the hand and cherished it in hers.

"You are so cold, dear! Mayn't I cover you up and help you into bed?"

No answer. She found a light eiderdown that had been thrown aside, and covered the prone figure, gently chafing the cold hands and feet. After what seemed a long time, Helena, who had been quite still, said in a voice she had to stoop to hear:

"I suppose you heard me crying. Please, Lucy, go back to bed. I won't cry any more."

"Dear--mayn't I stay?"

"Well, then--you must come and lie beside me. I am a brute to keep you awake."

"Won't you undress?"

"Please let me be! I'll try and go to sleep."

Lucy slipped her own slight form under the wide eiderdown. There was a long silence, at the end of which Helena said:

"I'm only--sorry--it's all come to an end--here."

But with the words the girl's self-control again failed her. A deep sob shook her from head to foot. Lucy with the tears on her own cheeks, hung over her, soothing and murmuring to her as a mother might have done. But the sob had no successor, and presently Helena said faintly--"Good-night, Lucy. I'm warm now. I'm going to sleep."

Lucy listened for the first long breaths of sleep, and seemed to hear them, just as the dawn was showing itself, and the dawn-wind was pushing at the curtains. But she herself did not sleep. This young creature lying beside her, with her full passionate life, seemed to have absolutely absorbed her own. She felt and saw with Helena. Through the night, visions came and went--of "Cousin Philip,"--the handsome, melancholy, courteous man, and of all his winning ways with the girl under his care, when once she had dropped her first foolish quarrel with him, and made it possible for him to show without reserve the natural sweetness and chivalry of his character. Buntingford and Helena riding, their well-matched figures disappearing under the trees, the sun glancing from the glossy coats of their horses; Helena, drawing in some nook of the park, her face flushed with the effort to satisfy her teacher, and Buntingford bending over her; or again, Helena dancing, in pale green and apple-blossom, while Buntingford leaned against the wall, watching her with folded arms, and eyes that smiled over her conquests.

It all grew clear to Lucy--Helena's gradual capture, and the innocence, the unconsciousness, of her captor. Her own shrewdness, nevertheless, put the same question as Buntingford's conscience. Could he ever have been quite sure of his freedom? Yet he had taken the risks of a free man. But she could not, she did not blame him. She could only ask herself the breathless question that French had already asked:

"How far has it gone with her? How deep is the wound?"