Chapter XVI
 

Mrs. Friend was sitting in the bow-window of the "Fisherman's Rest," a small Welsh inn in the heart of Snowdonia. The window was open, and a smell of damp earth and grass beat upon Lucy in gusts from outside, carried by a rainy west wind. Beyond the road, a full stream, white and foaming after rain, was dashing over a rocky bed towards some rapids which closed the view. The stream was crossed by a little bridge, and beyond it rose a hill covered with oak-wood. Above the oak-wood and along the road to the right--mountain forms, deep blue and purple, were emerging from the mists which had shrouded them all day. The sun was breaking through. A fierce northwest wind which had been tearing the young leaf of the oak-woods all day, and strewing it abroad, had just died away. Peace was returning, and light. The figure of Helena had just disappeared through the oak-wood; Lucy would follow her later.

Behind Mrs. Friend, the walls of the inn parlour were covered deep in sketches of the surrounding scenery--both oil and water-colour, bad and good, framed and unframed, left there by the artists who haunted the inn. The room was also adorned by a glass case full of stuffed birds, badly moth-eaten, a book-case containing some battered books mostly about fishing, and a large Visitors' Book lying on a centre-table, between a Bradshaw and an old guide-book. Shut up, in winter, the little room would smell intolerably close and musty. But with the windows open, and a rainy sun streaming in, it spoke pleasantly of holidays for plain hard-working folk, and of that "passion for the beauty flown," which distils, from the summer hours of rest, strength for the winter to come.

Lucy had let Helena go out alone, of set purpose. For she knew, or guessed, what Nature and Earth had done for Helena during the month they had passed together in this mountain-land, since that night at Beechmark. Helena had made no moan--revealed nothing. Only a certain paleness in her bright cheek, a certain dreamy habit that Lucy had not before noticed in her; a restlessness at night which the thin partitions of the old inn sometimes made audible, betrayed that the youth in her was fighting its first suffering, and fighting to win. Lucy had never dared to speak--still less to pity. But her love was always at hand, and Helena had repaid it, and the silence it dictated, with an answering love. Lucy believed--though with trembling--that the worst was now over, and that new horizons were opening on the stout soul that had earned them. But now, as before, she held her peace.

Her diary lay on her lap, and she was thoughtfully turning it over. It contained nothing but the barest entries of facts. But they meant a good deal to her, as she looked through them. Every letter, for instance, from Beechmark had been noted. Lord Buntingford had written three times to Helena, and twice to herself. She had seen Helena's letters; and Helena had read hers. It seemed to her that Helena had deliberately shown her own; that the act was part of the conflict which Lucy guessed at, but must not comment on, by word or look. All the letters were the true expression of the man. The first, in which he described in words, few; but singularly poignant, the death of his wife, his recognition of his son, and the faint beginnings of hope for the boy's maimed life, had forced tears from Lucy. Helena had read it dry-eyed. But for several hours afterwards, on an evening of tempest, she had vanished out of ken, on the mountainside; coming back as night fell, her hair and clothes, dripping with rain, her cheeks glowing from her battle with the storm, her eyes strangely bright.

Her answers to her guardian's letters had been, to Lucy's way of thinking, rather cruelly brief; at least after the first letter written in her own room, and posted by herself. Thenceforward, only a few post-cards, laid with Lucy's letters, for her or any one else to read, if they chose. And meanwhile Lucy was tolerably sure that she was slowly but resolutely making her own plans for the months ahead.

The little diary contained also the entry of Geoffrey French's visit--a long week-end, during which as far as Lucy could remember, Helena and he had never ceased "chaffing" from morning till night, and Helena had certainly never given him any opportunity for love-making. She, Lucy, had had a few short moments alone with him, moments in which his gaiety had dropped from him, like a ragged cloak, and a despondent word or two had given her a glimpse of the lover he was not permitted to be, beneath the role of friend he was tired of playing. He was coming again soon. Helena had neither invited nor repelled him. Whereas she had peremptorily bidden Peter Dale for this particular Sunday, and he had thrown over half a dozen engagements to obey her.

"Good afternoon, Mrs. Friend. Is Miss Pitstone at home?"

The speaker was a shaggy old fellow in an Inverness cape and an ancient wide-awake, carrying a portfolio and a camp-stool. He had stopped in his walk outside the open window, and his disappointed look searched the inn parlour for a person who was not there.

"Oh, Mr. McCready, I'm so sorry!--but Miss Pitstone is out, and I don't know when she will be back."

The artist undid his portfolio, and laid a half-finished sketch--a sketch of Helena's--on the window-sill.

"Will you kindly give her this? I have corrected it--made some notes on the side. Do you think Miss Helena will be likely to be sketching to-morrow?"

"I'm afraid I can't promise for her. She seems to like walking better than anything else just now."

"Yes, she's a splendid walker," said the old man, with a sigh. "I envy her strength. Well, if she wants me, she knows where to find me--just beyond that bend there." He pointed to the river.

"I'll tell her--and I'll give her the sketch. Good-bye."

She watched him heavily cross the foot-bridge to the other side of the river. Her quick pity went with him, for she herself knew well what it meant to be solitary and neglected. He seldom sold a picture, and nobody knew what he lived on. The few lessons he had given Helena had been as a golden gleam in a very grey day. But alack, Helena had soon tired of her lessons, as she had tired of the mile of coveted trout-fishing that Mr. Evans of the farm beyond the oak-wood had pressed upon her--or of the books the young Welsh-speaking curate of the little mountain church near by was so eager to lend her. Through and behind a much gentler manner, the girl's familiar self was to be felt--by Lucy at least--as clearly as before. She was neither to be held nor bound. Attempt to lay any fetter upon her--of hours, or habit--and she was gone; into the heart of the mountains where no one could follow her. Lucy would often compare with it the eager docility of those last weeks at Beechmark.

       *       *       *       *       *

Helena's walk had taken her through the dripping oak-wood and over the crest of the hill to a ravine beyond, where the river, swollen now by the abundant rains which had made an end of weeks of drought, ran, noisily full, between two steep banks of mossy crag. From the crag, oaks hung over the water, at fantastic angles, holding on, as it seemed, by one foot and springing from the rock itself; while delicate rock plants, and fern fringed every ledge down to the water. A seat on the twisted roots of an overhanging oak, from which, to either side, a little green path, as though marked for pacing, ran along the stream, was one of her favourite haunts. From up-stream a mountain peak now kerchiefed in wisps of sunlit cloud peered in upon her. Above it, a lake of purest blue from which the wind, which had brought them, was now chasing the clouds; and everywhere the glory of the returning sun, striking the oaks to gold, and flinging a chequer of light on the green floor of the wood.

Helena sat down to wait for Peter, who would be sure to find her wherever she hid herself. This spot was dear to her, as those places where life has consciously grown to a nobler stature are dear to men and women. It was here that within twenty-four hours of her last words with Philip Buntingford, she had sat wrestling with something which threatened vital forces in her that her will consciously, desperately, set itself to maintain. Through her whole ripened being, the passion of that inner debate was still echoing; though she knew that the fight was really won. It had run something like this:

"Why am I suffering like this?

"Because I am relaxed--unstrung. Why should I have everything I want--when others go bare? Philip went bare for years. He endured--and suffered. Why not I?

"But it is worse for me--who am young! I have a right to give way to what I feel--to feel it to the utmost.

"That was the doctrine for women before the war--the old-fashioned women. The modern woman is stronger. She is not merely nerves and feeling. She must never let feeling--pain--destroy her will! Everything depends upon her will. If I choose I can put this feeling down. I have no right to it. Philip has done me no wrong. If I yield to it, if it darkens my life, it will be another grief added to those he has already suffered. It shan't darken my life. I will--and can master it. There is so much still to learn, to do, to feel. I must wrench myself free--and go forward. How I chattered to Philip about the modern woman!--and how much older I feel, than I was then! If one can't master oneself, one is a slave--all the same. I didn't know--how could I know?--that the test was so near. If women are to play a greater and grander part in the world, they must be much, much greater in soul, firmer in will.

"Yet--I must cry a little. No one could forbid me that. But it must be over soon."

Then the letters from Beechmark had begun to arrive, each of them bringing its own salutary smart as part of a general cautery. No guardian could write more kindly, more considerately. But it was easy to see that Philip's whole being was, and would be, concentrated on his unfortunate son. And in that ministry Cynthia Welwyn was his natural partner, had indeed already stepped into the post; so that gratitude, if not passion, would give her sooner or later all that she desired.

"Cynthia has got the boy into her hands--and Philip with him. Well, that was natural. Shouldn't I have done the same? Why should I feel like a jealous beast, because Cynthia has had her chance, and taken it? I won't feel like this! It's vile!--it's degrading! Only I wish Cynthia was bigger, more generous--because he'll find it out some day. She'll never like me, just because he cares for me--or did. I mean, as my guardian, or an elder brother. For it was never--no never!--anything else. So when she comes in at the front door, I shall go out at the back. I shall have to give up even the little I now have. Let me just face what it means.

"Yet perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps Cynthia isn't as mean-spirited as I think.

"It's wonderful about the boy. I envy Cynthia--I can't help it. I would have given my whole life to it. I would have been trained--perhaps abroad. No one should have taught him but me. But then--if Philip had loved me--only that was never possible!--he would have been jealous of the boy--and I should have lost him. I never do things in moderation. I go at them so blindly. But I shall learn some day."

Thoughts like these, and many others, were rushing through Helena's mind, as after a long walk she found her seat again over the swollen stream. The evening had shaken itself free of the storm, and was pouring an incredible beauty on wood and river. The intoxication of it ran through Helena's veins. For she possessed in perfection that earth-sense, that passionate sense of kinship, kinship both of the senses and the spirit, with the eternal beauty of the natural world, which the gods implant in a blest minority of mortals. No one who has it can ever be wholly forlorn, while sense and feeling remain.

Suddenly:--a little figure on the opposite bank, and a child's cry.

Helena sprang to her feet in dismay. She saw the landlord's small son, a child of five, who had evidently lost his footing on the green bank above the crag which faced her, and was sliding down, unable to help himself, towards the point where nothing could prevent his falling headlong into the stream below. The bank, however, was not wholly bare. There were some thin gnarled oaks upon it, which might stop him.

"Catch hold of the trees, Bobby!" she shouted to him, in an agony.

The child heard, turned a white face to her, and tried to obey. He was already a stalwart little mountaineer, accustomed to trot over the fells after his father's sheep, and the physical instinct in his, sturdy limbs saved him. He caught a jutting root, held on, and gradually dragged himself up to the cushion of moss from which the tree grew, sitting astride the root, and clasping the tree with both arms. The position was still extremely dangerous, but for the moment he was saved.

"All right, Bobby--clever boy! Hold tight--I'm coming!"

And she rushed towards a little bridge at the head of the ravine. But before she could reach it, she saw the lad's father, cautiously descending the bank, helped by a rope tied to an oak tree at the top. He reached the child, tied the rope to the stem of the tree where the little fellow was sitting, and then with the boy under one arm and hauling on the rope with the other hand, he made his way up the few perilous yards that divided them from safety. At the top he relieved his parental feelings by a good deal of smacking and scolding. For Bobby was a notorious "limb," the terror of his mother and the inn generally. He roared vociferously under the smacking. But when Helena arrived on the scene, he stopped at once, and put out a slim red tongue at her. Helena laughed, congratulated the father on his skill, and returned to her seat.

"That's a parable of me!" she thought, as she sat with her elbows on her knees, staring at the bank opposite.

"I very nearly slipped in!--like Bobby--but not quite. I'm sound--though bruised. No desperate harm done." She drew a long breath--laughing to herself--though her eyes were rather wet. "Well, now, then--what am I going to do? I'm not going into a convent. I don't think I'm even going to college. I'm going to take my guardian's advice. 'Marry--my dear child--and bring up children.' 'Marry?'--Very well!"--she sprang to her feet--"I shall marry!--that's settled. As to the children--that remains to be seen!"

And with her hands behind her, she paced the little path, in a strange excitement and exaltation. Presently from the tower of the little church, half a mile down the river, a bell began to strike the hour. "Six o'clock!--Peter will be here directly. Now, he's got to be lectured--for his good. I'm tired of lecturing myself. It's somebody else's turn--"

And taking a letter from her pocket, she read and pondered it with smiling eyes. "Peter will think I'm a witch. Dear old Peter! ... Hullo!"

For the sound of her name, shouted by some one still invisible, caught her ear. She shouted back, and in another minute the boyish form of Peter Dale emerged among the oaks above her. Three leaps, and he was at her side.

"I say, Helena, this is jolly! You were a brick to write. How I got here I'm sure I don't know. I seem to have broken every rule, and put everybody out. My boss will sack me, I expect. Never mind!--I'd do it again!"

And dropping to a seat beside her, on a fallen branch that had somehow escaped the deluge of the day, he feasted his eyes upon her. She had clambered back into her seat, and taken off her water-proof hat. Her hair was tumbling about her ears, and her bright cheeks were moist with rain, or rather with the intermittent showers that the wind shook every now and then from the still dripping oak trees above her. Peter thought her lovelier than ever--a wood-nymph, half divine. Yet, obscurely, he felt a change in her, from the beginning of their talk. Why had she sent for him? The wildest notions had possessed him, ever since her letter reached him. Yet, now that he saw her, they seemed to float away from him, like thistle-down on the wind.

"Helena!--why did you send for me?"

"I was very dull, Peter,--I wanted you to amuse me!"

The boy laughed indignantly.

"That's all very well, Helena--but it won't wash. You're jolly well used to getting all you want, I know--but you wouldn't have ordered me up from Town--twelve hours in a beastly train--packed like sardines--just to tell me that."

Helena looked at him thoughtfully. She began to eat some unripe bilberries which she had gathered from the bank beside her, and they made little blue stains on her white teeth.

"Old boy--I wanted to give you some advice."

"Well, give it quick," said Peter impatiently.

"No--you must let me take my time. Have you been to a great many dances lately, Peter?"

"You bet!" The young Adonis shrugged his shoulders. "I seem to have been through a London season, which I haven't done, of course, since 1914. Never went to so many dances in my life!"

"Somebody tells me, Peter, that--you're a dreadful flirt!" said Helena, still with those grave, considering eyes.

Peter laughed--but rather angrily.

"All very well for you to talk, Miss Helena! Please--how many men were you making fools of--including your humble servant--before you went down to Beechmark? You have no conscience, Helena! You are the 'Belle Dame sans merci.'"

"All that is most unjust--and ridiculous!" said Helena mildly.

Peter went off into a peal of laughter. Helena persisted.

"What do you call flirting, Peter?"

"Turning a man's head--making him believe that you're gone on him--when, in fact, you don't care a rap!"

"Peter!--then of course you know I never flirted with you!" said Helena, with vigour. Peter hesitated, and Helena at once pursued her advantage.

"Let's talk of something more to the point. I'm told, Peter, that you've been paying great attentions--marked attentions--to a very nice girl--that everybody's talking about it,--and that you ought long ago either to have fixed it up,--or cleared out. What do you say to that, Peter?"

Peter flushed.

"I suppose you mean--Jenny Dumbarton," he said slowly. "Of course, she's a very dear, pretty, little thing. But do you know why I first took to her?" He looked defiantly at his companion.

"No."

"Because--she's rather like you. She's your colour--she has your hair--she's a way with her that's something like you. When I'm dancing with her, if I shut my eyes, I can sometimes fancy--it's you!"

"Oh, goodness!" cried Helena, burying her face in her hands. It was a cry of genuine distress. Peter was silent a moment. Then he came closer.

"Just look at me, please, Helena!"

She raised her eyes unwillingly. In the boy's beautiful clear-cut face the sudden intensity of expression compelled her--held her guiltily silent.

"Once more, Helena"--he said, in a voice that shook--"is there no chance for me?"

"No, no, dear Peter!" she cried, stretching out her hands to him. "Oh, I thought that was all over. I sent for you because I wanted just to say to you--don't trifle!--don't shilly-shally! I know Jenny Dumbarton a little. She's charming--she's got a delicate, beautiful character--and such a warm heart! Don't break anybody's heart, Peter--for my silly sake!"

The surge of emotion in Peter subsided slowly. He began to study the moss at his feet, poking at it with his stick.

"What makes you think I've been breaking Jenny's heart?" he said at last in another voice.

"Some of your friends, Peter, yours and mine--have been writing to me. She's--she's very fond of you, they say, and lately she's been looking a little limp ghost--all along of you, Mr. Peter! What have you been doing?"

"What any other man in my position would have been doing--wishing to Heaven I knew what to do!" said Peter, still poking vigorously at the moss.

Helena bent forward from the oak tree, and just whispered--"Go back to-morrow, Peter,--and propose to Jenny Dumbarton!"

Peter could not trust himself to look up at what he knew must be the smiling seduction of her eyes and lips. He was silent; and Helena withdrew--dryad-like--into the hollow made by the intertwined stems of the oak, threw her head back against the main trunk, dropped her eyelids, and waited.

"Are you asleep, Helena?" said Peter's voice at last.

"Not at all."

"Then sit up, please, and listen to me."

She obeyed. Peter was standing over her, his hands on his sides, looking very manly, and rather pale.

"Having disposed of me for the last six months--you may as well dispose of me altogether," he said slowly. "Very well--I will go--and propose to Jenny Dumbarton---the day after to-morrow. Her people asked me for the week-end. I gave a shuffling answer. I'll wire to her to-morrow that I'm coming--"

"Peter--you're a darling!" cried Helena in delight, clapping her hands. "Oh!--I wish I could see Jenny's face when she opens the wire! You'll be very good to her, Peter?"

She looked at him searchingly, stirred by one of the sudden tremors that beset even the most well-intentioned match-maker.

Peter smiled, with a rather twisted lip, straightening his shoulders.

"I shouldn't ask any girl to marry me, that I couldn't love and honour, not even to please you, Helena! And she knows all about you!"

"She doesn't!" said Helena, in consternation.

"Yes, she does. I don't mean to say that I've told her the exact number of times you've refused me. But she knows quite enough. She'll take me--if she does take me--with her eyes open. Well, now that's settled!--But you interrupted me. There's one condition, Helena!"

"Name it." She eyed him nervously.

--"That in return for managing my life, you give me some indication of how you're going to manage your own!"

Helena fell back on the bilberry stalk, to gain time.

--"Because--" resumed Peter--"it's quite clear the Beechmark situation is all bust up. Philip's got an idiot-boy to look after--with Cynthia Welwyn in constant attendance. I don't see any room for you there, Helena!"

"Neither do I," said Helena, quietly. "You needn't tell me that."

"Well, then, what are you going to do?"

"You forget, Peter, that I possess the dearest and nicest little chaperon. I can roam the world where I please--without making any scandals."

"You'll always make scandals--"

"Scandals, Peter!" protested Helena.

"Well, victories, wherever you go--unless somebody has you pretty tightly in hand. But you and I--both know a man--that would be your match!"

He had moved, so as to stand firmly across the little path that ran from Helena's seat to the inn. She began to fidget--to drop one foot, that had been twisted under her, to the ground, as though "on tiptoe for a flight."

"It's time for supper, Peter. Mrs. Friend will think we're drowned. And I caught such a beautiful dish of trout yesterday,--all for your benefit! There's a dear man here who puts on the worms."

"You don't go, till I get an answer, Helena."

"There's nothing to answer. I've no plans. I draw, and fish, and read poetry. I have some money in the bank; and Cousin Philip will let me do what I like with it. Lastly--I have another month in which to make up my mind."

"About what?"

"Goose!--where to go next, of course."

Peter shook his head. His mood was now as determined, as hot in pursuit, as hers had been, a little earlier.

"I bet you'll have to make up your mind about something much more important than that--before long. I happened to be--in the Gallery of the House of Commons yesterday--"

"Improving your mind?"

"Listening to a lot of wild men talking rot about the army. But there was one man who didn't talk rot, though I agreed with scarcely a thing he said. But then he's a Labour man--or thinks he is--and I know that I'm a Tory--as blue as you make 'em. Anyway I'm perfectly certain you'd have liked to be there, Miss Helena!"

"Geoffrey?" said Helena coolly.

"Right you are. Well, I can tell you he made a ripping success! The man next to me in the gallery, who seemed to have been born and bred there--knew everybody and everything--and got as much fun out of it as I do out of 'Chu-Chin-Chow'--he told me it was the first time Geoffrey had really got what he called the 'ear of the House'--it was pretty full too!--and that he was certain to get on--office, and all that kind of thing--if he stuck to it. He certainly did it jolly well. He made even an ignorant ass like me sit up. I'd go and hear him again--I vow I would! And there was such a fuss in the lobby! I found Geoffrey there, shovelling out hand-shakes, and talking to press-men. An old uncle of mine--nice old boy--who's sat for a Yorkshire constituency for about a hundred years, caught hold of me. 'Know that fellow, Peter?' 'Rather!' 'Good for you! He's got his foot on the ladder--he'll climb.'"

"Horrid word!" said Helena.

"Depends on what you mean by it. If you're to get to the top, I suppose you must climb. Now, then, Helena!--if you won't take a man like me whom you can run--take a man like Geoffrey who can run you--and make you jolly happy all the same! There--I can give advice too, you see--and you've no right to be offended!"

Helena could not keep her features still. Her eyes shot fire, though of what kind the fire might be Peter was not quite sure. The two young creatures faced each other. There was laughter in each face, but something else; something strenuous, tragic even; as though "Life at its grindstone set" had been at work on the radiant pair, evoking the Meredithian series of intellect from the senses,--"brain from blood"; with "spirit," or generous soul, for climax.

But unconsciously Peter had moved aside. In a flash Helena had slipped past him, and was flying through the wood, homeward, looking back to mock him, as he sped after her in vain.