Chapter XIV
 

The Alcotts' unexpected guest lingered another forty-eight hours under their roof,--making a hopeless fight for life. But the influenza poison, recklessly defied from the beginning, had laid too deadly a grip on an already weakened heart. And the excitement of the means she had taken to inform herself as to the conditions of Buntingford's life and surroundings, before breaking in upon them, together with the exhaustion of her night wandering, had finally destroyed her chance of recovery. Buntingford saw her whenever the doctors allowed. She claimed his presence indeed, and would not be denied. But she talked little more; and in her latest hours it seemed to those beside her both that the desire to live had passed, and that Buntingford's attitude towards her had, in the end, both melted and upheld her. On the second night after her arrival, towards dawn she sent for him. She then could not speak. But her right hand made a last motion towards his. He held it, till Ramsay who had his fingers on the pulse of the left, looked up with that quiet gesture which told that all was over. Then he himself closed her eyes, and stooping, he kissed her brow--

"Pardonnons--nous! Adieu!" he said, under his breath, in the language familiar to their student youth together. Then he went straight out of the room, and through the dewy park, and misty woods already vocal with the awakening birds; he walked back to Beechmark, and for some hours shut himself into his library, where no one disturbed him.

When he emerged it was with the air of a man turning to a new chapter in life. Geoffrey French was still with him. Otherwise the big house was empty and seemed specially to miss the sounds of Helena's voice, and tripping feet. Buntingford enquired about her at once, and Geoffrey was able to produce a letter from Mrs. Friend describing the little Welsh Inn, near the pass of Aberglasslyn, where they had settled themselves; the delicious river, shrunken however by the long drought, which ran past their windows, and the many virtues--qualified by too many children--of the primitive Welsh pair who ran the inn.

"I am to say that Miss Pitstone likes it all very much, and has found some glorious things to draw. Also an elderly gentleman who is sketching on the river has already promised her a lesson."

"You'll be going down there sometime?" said Buntingford, turning an enquiring look on his nephew.

"The week-end after next," said Geoffrey--"unless Helena forbids it. I must inspect the inn, which I recommended--and take stock of the elderly gentleman!"

The vision of Helena, in "fresh woods and pastures new" radiantly transfixing the affections of the "elderly gentleman," put them both for the moment in spirits. Buntingford smiled, and understanding that Geoffrey was writing to his ward, he left some special messages for her.

But in the days that followed he seldom thought of Helena. He buried his wife in the village church-yard, and the wondering villagers might presently read on the headstone he placed over her grave, the short inscription--"Anna Buntingford, wife of Philip, Lord Buntingford," with the dates of her birth and death. The Alcotts, authorized by Philip, made public as much of the story as was necessary, and the presence of the poor son and heir in the Welwyns' house, together with his tragic likeness to his father, both completed and verified it. A wave of unspoken but warm sympathy spread through the countryside. Buntingford's own silence was unbroken. After the burial, he never spoke of what had happened, except on one or two rare occasions to John Alcott, who had become his intimate friend. But unconsciously the attitude of his neighbours towards him had the effect of quickening his liking for Beechmark, and increasing the probability of his ultimate settlement there, at least for the greater part of the year.

Always supposing that it suited the boy--Arthur Philip--the names under which, according to Zelie, he had been christened in the church of the hill village near Lucca where he was born. For the care of this innocent, suffering creature became, from the moment of his mother's death, the dominating thought of Buntingford's life. The specialist, who came down before her death, gave the father however little hope of any favourable result from operation. But he gave a confident opinion that much could be done by that wonderful system of training which modern science and psychology combined have developed for the mentally deficient or idiot child. For the impression left by the boy on the spectator was never that of genuine idiocy. It was rather that of an imprisoned soul. The normal soul seemed somehow to be there; but the barrier between it and the world around it could not be broken through. By the specialist's advice, Buntingford's next step was to appeal to a woman, one of those remarkable women, who, unknown perhaps to more than local or professional fame, are every year bringing the results of an ardent moral and mental research to bear upon the practical tasks of parent and teacher. This woman, whom we will call Mrs. Delane, combined the brain of a man of science with the passion of motherhood. She had spent her life in the educational service of a great municipality, varied by constant travel and investigation; and she was now pensioned and retired. But all over England those who needed her still appealed to her; and she failed no one. She came down to see his son at Buntingford's request, and spent some days in watching the child, with Cynthia as an eager learner beside her.

The problem was a rare one. The boy was a deaf-mute, but not blind. His very beautiful eyes--; his father's eyes--seemed to be perpetually interrogating the world about him, and perpetually baffled. He cried--a monotonous wailing sound--but he never smiled. He was capable of throwing all his small possessions into a large basket, and of taking them out again; an operation which he performed endlessly hour after hour; but of purpose, or any action that showed it, he seemed incapable. He could not place one brick upon another, or slip one Japanese box inside its fellow. His temper seemed to be always gentle; and in simple matters of daily conduct and habit Zelie had her own ways of getting from him an automatic obedience. But he heard nothing; and in his pathetic look, however clearly his eyes might seem to be meeting those of a companion, there was no answering intelligence.

Mrs. Delane set patiently to work, trying this, and testing that; and at the end of the first week, she and Cynthia were sitting on the floor beside the boy, who had a heap of bricks before him. For more than an hour Mrs. Delane had been guiding his thin fingers in making a tower of bricks one upon another, and then knocking them down. Then, at one moment, it began to seem to her that each time his hand enclosed in hers knocked the bricks down, there was a certain faint flash in the blue eyes, as though the sudden movement of the bricks gave the child a thrill of pleasure. But to fall they must be built up. And his absorbed teacher laboured vainly, through sitting after sitting, to communicate to the child some sense of the connection between the two sets of movements.

Time after time the small waxen hand lay inert in hers as she put a brick between its listless fingers, and guided it towards the brick waiting for it. Gradually the column of bricks mounted--built by her action, her fingers enclosing his passive ones--and, finally, came the expected crash, followed by the strange slight thrill in the child's features. But for long there was no sign of spontaneous action of any kind on his part. The ingenuity of his teacher attempted all the modes of approach to the obstructed brain that were known to her, through the two senses left him--sight and touch. But for many days in vain.

At last, one evening towards the end of June, when his mother had been dead little more than a fortnight, Cynthia, Mrs. Delane's indefatigable pupil, was all at once conscious of a certain spring in the child's hand, as though it became--faintly--self-moved, a living thing. She cried out. Buntingford was there looking on; and all three hung over the child. Cynthia again placed the brick in his hand, and withdrew her own. Slowly the child moved it forward--dropped it--then, with help, raised it again--and, finally, with only the very slight guidance from Cynthia, put it on top of the other. Another followed, and another, his hand growing steadier with each attempt. Then breathing deeply,--flushed, and with a puckered forehead--the boy looked up at his father. Tears of indescribable joy had rushed to Buntingford's eyes. Cynthia's were hidden in her handkerchief.

The child's nurse peremptorily intervened and carried him off to bed. Mrs. Delane first arranged with Buntingford for the engagement of a special teacher, taught originally by herself, and then asked for something to take her to the station. She had set things in train, and had no time to lose. There were too many who wanted her.

Buntingford and Cynthia walked across the park to Beechmark. From the extreme despondency they were lifted to an extreme of hope. Buntingford had felt, as it were, the spirit of his son strain towards his own; the hidden soul had looked out. And in his deep emotion, he was very naturally conscious of a new rush of affection and gratitude towards his old playfellow and friend. The thought of her would be for ever connected in his mind with the efforts and discoveries of the agitating days through which--with such intensity--they had both been living. When he remembered that wonder-look in his son's, eyes, he would always see Cynthia bending over the child, no longer the mere agreeable and well-dressed woman of the world, but, to him, the embodiment of a heavenly pity, "making all things new."

Cynthia's spirits danced as she walked beside him. There was in her a joyous, if still wavering certainty that through the child, her hold upon Philip, whether he spoke sooner or later, was now secure. But she was still jealous of Helena. It had needed the moral and practical upheaval caused by the reappearance and death of Anna, to drive Helena from Philip and Beechmark; and if Helena--enchanting and incalculable as ever, even in her tamer mood--were presently to resume her life in Philip's house, no one could expect the Fates to intervene again so kindly. Georgina might be certain that in Buntingford's case the woman of forty had nothing to fear from the girl of nineteen. Cynthia was by no means so certain; and she shivered at the risks to come.

For it was soon evident that the question of his ward's immediate future was now much on Philip's mind. He complained that Helena wrote so little, and that he had not yet heard from Geoffrey since the week-end he was to spend in Wales. Mrs. Friend reported indeed in good spirits. But obviously, whatever the quarters might be, Helena could not stay there indefinitely.

"Of course I suggested the London house to her at once--with Mrs. Friend for chaperon. But she didn't take to it. This week I must go back to my Admiralty work. But we can't take the boy to London, and I intended to come back here every night. We mustn't put upon you much longer, my dear Cynthia!"

The colour rushed to Cynthia's face.

"You are going to take him away?" she said, with a look of consternation.

"Mustn't I bring him home, some time?" was his half-embarrassed reply.

"But not yet! And how would it suit--with week-ends and dances for Helena?"

"It wouldn't suit at all," he said, perplexed--"though Helena seems to have thrown over dancing for the present."

"That won't last long!"

He laughed. "I am afraid you never took to her!" he said lightly.

"She never took to me!"

"I wonder if that was my fault? She suspected that I had called you in to help me to keep her in order!"

"What was it brought her to reason--so suddenly?" said Cynthia, seeking light at last on a problem that had long puzzled her.

"Two things, I imagine. First that she was the better man of us all, that day of the Dansworth riot. She could drive my big car, and none of the rest of us could! That seemed to put her right with us all. And secondly--the reports of that abominable trial. She told me so. I only hope she didn't read much of it!"

They had just passed the corner of the house, and come out on the sloping lawn of Beechmark, with the lake, and the wood beyond it. All that had happened behind that dark screen of yew, on the distant edge of the water, came rushing back on Philip's imagination, so that he fell silent. Cynthia on her side was thinking of the moment when she came down to the edge of the lake to carry off Geoffrey French, and saw Buntingford and Helena push off into the puckish rays of the searchlight. She tasted again the jealous bitterness of it--and the sense of defeat by something beyond her fighting--the arrogance of Helena's young beauty. Philip was not in love with Helena; that she now knew. So far she, Cynthia, had marvellously escaped the many chances that might have undone her. But if Helena came back?

Meanwhile there were some uneasy thoughts at the back of Philip's mind; and some touching and tender recollections which he kept sacred to himself. Helena's confession and penitence--there, on that still water--how pretty they were, how gracious! Nor could he ever forget her sweetness, her pity on that first tragic evening. Geoffrey's alarms were absurd. Yet when he thought of merely reproducing the situation as it had existed before the night of the ball, something made him hesitate. And besides, how could he reproduce it? All his real mind was now absorbed in this overwhelming problem of his son; of the helpless, appealing creature to whose aid the whole energies of his nature had been summoned.

He walked back some way with Cynthia, talking of the boy, with an intensity of hope that frightened her.

"Don't, or don't be too certain--yet!" she pleaded. "We have only just seen the first sign--the first flicker. If it were all to vanish again!"

"Could I bear it?" he said, under his breath--"Could I?"

"Anyway, you'll let me keep him--a little longer?"

She spoke very softly and sweetly.

"If your kindness really wishes it," he said, rather reluctantly. "But what does Georgina say?"

"Georgina is just as keen as I am," said Cynthia boldly. "Don't you see how fond she is of him already?"

Buntingford could not truthfully say that he had seen any signs on Georgina's part, so far, of more than a decent neutrality in the matter. Georgina was a precisian; devoted to order, and in love with rules. The presence of the invalid boy, his nurse, and his teacher, must upset every rule and custom of the little house. Could she really put up with it? In general, she made the impression upon Philip of a very wary cat, often apparently asleep, but with her claws ready. He felt uncomfortable; but Cynthia had her way.

A specially trained teacher, sent down by Mrs. Delane, arrived a few days later, and a process began of absorbing and fascinating interest to all the spectators, except Georgina, who more than kept her head.

Every morning Buntingford would motor up to town, spend some strenuous hours in demobilization work at the Admiralty, returning in the evening to receive Cynthia's report of the day. Miss Denison, the boy's teacher, who had been trained in one of the London Special Schools, was a little round-faced lady with spectacles, apparently without any emotions, but really filled with that educator's passion which in so many women of our day fills the place of motherhood. From the beginning she formed the conclusion that the pitiable little fellow entrusted to her was to a great extent educable; but that he would not live to maturity. This latter conclusion was carefully hidden from Buntingford, though it was known to Cynthia; and Philip knew, for a time, all the happiness, the excitement even of each day's slight advance, combined with a boundless hope for the future. He spent his evenings absorbed in the voluminous literature dealing with the deaf-mute, which has grown up since the days of Laura Bridgman and Helen Keller. But Laura Bridgman and Helen Keller--as he eagerly reminded himself--were both of them blind; only one sense--that of touch--was left to them. Arthur's blue eyes, the copy of his own, already missed his father when he left home in the morning, and greeted him when he came home at night. They contained for Philip a mystery and a promise that he was never tired of studying. Every evening he would ride over from Dansworth station to the cottage, put up his horse, and spend the long summer twilights in carrying his son about the garden or the park, or watching Miss Denison at her work. The boy was physically very frail, and soon tired. But his look was now placid; the furrows in the white brow were smoothed away; his general nutrition was much better; his delicate cheeks had filled out a little; and his ghostly beauty fascinated Philip's artistic sense, while his helplessness appealed to the tenderest instinct of a strong man. Buntingford had discovered a new and potent reason for living; and for living happily.

And meanwhile with all this slowly growing joy, Cynthia was more and more closely connected. She and Buntingford had a common topic, which was endlessly interesting and delightful to them both. Philip was no longer conscious of her conventionalities and limitations, as he had been conscious of them on his first renewed acquaintance with her after the preoccupations of the war. He saw her now as Arthur's fairy godmother, and as his own daily companion and helper in an exquisite task.

But Georgina was growing impatient. One evening she came home tired and out of temper. She had been collecting the rents of some cottages belonging to her, and the periodical operation was always trying to everybody concerned. Georgina's secret conviction that "the poor in a loomp is bad" was stoutly met by her tenants' firm belief that all landlords are extortionate thieves. She came home, irritated by a number of petty annoyances, to find the immaculate little drawing-room, where every book and paper-knife knew its own place and kept it, given up to Arthur and Miss Denison, with coloured blocks, pictures and models used in that lady's teaching, strewn all over the floor, while the furniture had been pushed unceremoniously aside.

"I won't have this house made a bear-garden!" she said, angrily, to the dismayed teacher; and she went off straightway to find her sister.

Cynthia was in her own little den on the first floor happily engaged in trimming a new hat. Georgina swept in upon her, shut the door, and stood with her back to it.

"Cynthia--is this house yours or mine?"

As a matter of fact the house was Buntingford's. But Georgina was formally the tenant of it, while the furniture was partly hers and partly Cynthia's. In fact, however, Georgina had been always tacitly held to be the mistress.

Cynthia looked up in astonishment, and at once saw that Georgina was seriously roused. She put down her work and faced her sister.

"I thought it belonged to both of us," she said mildly. "What is the matter, Georgie?"

"I beg you to remember that I am the tenant. And I never consented to make it an institution for the training of imbeciles!"

"Georgie!--Arthur is not an imbecile!"

"Of course I know he is an interesting one," said Georgina, curtly. "But all the same, from my point of view--However, I won't repeat the word, if it annoys you. But what I want to know is, when are we to have the house to ourselves again? Because, if this is to go on indefinitely, I depart!"

Cynthia came nearer to her sister. Her colour fluttered a little.

"Don't interfere just at present, Georgie," she said imploringly, in a low voice.

The two sisters looked at each other--Georgina covered with the dust and cobwebs of her own cottages, her battered hat a little on one side, and her coat and skirt betraying at every seam its venerable antiquity; and Cynthia, in pale grey, her rose-pink complexion answering to the gold of her hair, with every detail of her summer dress as fresh and dainty as the toil of her maid could make it.

"Well, I suppose--I understand," said Georgina, at last, in her gruffest voice. "All the same, I warn you, I can't stand it much longer. I shall be saying something rude to Buntingford."

"No, no--don't do that!"

"I haven't your motive--you see."

Cynthia coloured indignantly.

"If you think I'm only pretending to care for the child, Georgie, you're very much mistaken!"

"I don't think so. You needn't put words into my mouth, or thoughts into my head. All the same, Cynthia,--cut it short!"

And with that she released the door and departed, leaving an anxious and meditative Cynthia behind her.

A little later, Buntingford's voice was heard below. Cynthia, descending, found him with Arthur in his arms. The day had been hot and rainy--an oppressive scirocco day--and the boy was languid and out of sorts. The nurse advised his being carried up early to bed, and Buntingford had arrived just in time.

When he came downstairs again, he found Cynthia in a garden hat, and they strolled out to look at the water-garden which was the common hobby of both the sisters. There, sitting among the rushes by the side of the little dammed-up stream, he produced a letter from Mrs. Friend, with the latest news of his ward.

"Evidently we shan't get Helena back just yet. I shall run up next week to see her, I think, Cynthia, if you will let me. I really will take Arthur to Beechmark this week. Mrs. Mawson has arranged everything. His rooms are all ready for him. Will you come and look at them to-morrow?"

Cynthia did not reply at once, and he watched her a little anxiously. He was well aware what giving up the boy would mean to her. Her devotion had been amazing. But the wrench must come some time.

"Yes, of course--you must take him," said Cynthia, at last. "If only--I hadn't come to love him so!"

She didn't cry. She was perfectly self-possessed. But there was something in her pensive, sorrowful look that affected Philip more than any vehement emotion could have done. The thought of all her devotion--their long friendship--her womanly ways--came upon him overwhelmingly.

But another thought checked it--Helena!--and his promise to her dead mother. If he now made Cynthia the mistress of Beechmark, Helena would never return to it. For they were incompatible. He saw it plainly. And to Helena he was bound; while she needed the shelter of his roof.

So that the words that were actually on Philip's lips remained unspoken. They walked back rather silently to the cottage.

At supper Cynthia told her sister that the boy, with Zelie and his teacher, would soon trouble her no more. Georgina expressed an ungracious satisfaction, adding abruptly--"You'll be able to see him there, Cynthy, just as well as here."

Cynthia made no reply.