Helena by Mrs. Humphry Ward
"There is only one bathroom in this house, and it is a day's journey to find it," said Helena, re-entering her own bedroom, where she had left Mrs. Friend in a dimity-covered arm-chair by the window, while she reconnoitred. "Also, the water is only a point or two above freezing--and as I like boiling--"
She threw herself down on the floor by Mrs. Friend's side. All her movements had a curious certainty and grace like those of a beautiful animal, but the whole impression of her was still formidable to the gentle creature who was about to undertake what already seemed to her the absurd task of chaperoning anything so independent and self-confident. But the girl clearly wished to make friends with her new companion, and began eagerly to ask questions.
"How did you hear of me? Do you mind telling me?"
"Just through an agency," said Mrs. Friend, flushing a little. "I wanted to leave the situation I was in, and the agency told me Lord Buntingford was looking for a companion for his ward, and I was to go and see Lady Mary Chance--"
The girl's merry laugh broke out:
"Oh, I know Mary Chance--twenty pokers up her backbone! I should have thought--"
Then she stopped, looking intently at Mrs. Friend, her brows drawn together over her brilliant eyes.
"What would you have thought?" Mrs. Friend enquired, as the silence continued.
"Well--that if she was going to recommend somebody to Cousin Philip--to look after me, she would never have been content with anything short of a Prussian grenadier in petticoats. She thinks me a demon. She won't let her daughters go about with me. I can't imagine how she ever fixed upon anyone so--"
"So what?" said Mrs. Friend, after a moment, nervously. Lost in the big white arm-chair, her small hand propping her small face and head, she looked even frailer than she had looked in the library.
"Well, nobody would ever take you for my jailer, would they?" said Helena, surveying her.
Mrs. Friend laughed--a ghost of a laugh, which yet seemed to have some fun in it, far away.
"Does this seem to you like prison?"
"This house? Oh, no. Of course I shall do just as I like in it. I have only come because--well, my poor Mummy made a great point of it when she was ill, and I couldn't be a brute to her, so I promised. But I wonder whether I ought to have promised. It is a great tyranny, you know--the tyranny of sick people. I wonder whether one ought to give in to her?"
The girl looked up coolly. Mrs. Friend felt as though she had been struck.
"But your mother!" she said involuntarily.
"Oh, I know, that's what most people would say. But the question is, what's reasonable. Well, I wasn't reasonable, and here I am. But I make my conditions. We are not to be more than four months in the year in this old hole"--she looked round her in not unkindly amusement at the bare old-fashioned room; "we are to have four or five months in London, at least; and when travelling abroad gets decent again, we are to go abroad--Rome, perhaps, next winter. And I am jolly well to ask my friends here, or in town--male and female--and Cousin Philip promised to be nice to them. He said, of course, 'Within limits.' But that we shall see. I'm not a pauper, you know. My trustees pay Lord Buntingford whatever I cost him, and I shall have a good deal to spend. I shall have a horse--and perhaps a little motor. The chauffeur here is a fractious idiot. He has done that Rolls-Royce car of Cousin Philip's balmy, and cut up quite rough when I spoke to him about it."
"Done it what?" said Mrs. Friend faintly.
"Balmy. Don't you know that expression?" Helena, on the floor with her hands under her knees, watched her companion's looks with a grin. "It's our language now, you know--English--the language of us young people. The old ones have got to learn it, as we speak it! Well, what do you think of Cousin Philip?"
Mrs. Friend roused herself.
"I've only seen him for half an hour. But he was very kind."
"And isn't he good-looking?" said the girl before her, with enthusiasm. "I just adore that combination of black hair and blue eyes--don't you? But he isn't by any means as innocent as he looks."
"I never said--"
"No. I know you didn't," said Helena serenely; "but you might have--and he isn't innocent a bit. He's as complex as you make 'em. Most women are in love with him, except me!" The brown eyes stared meditatively out of window. "I suppose I could be if I tried. But he doesn't attract me. He's too old."
"Old?" repeated Mrs. Friend, with astonishment.
"Well, I don't mean he's decrepit! But he's forty-four if he's a day--more than double my age. Did you notice that he's a little lame?"
"He is. It's very slight--an accident, I believe--somewhere abroad. But they wouldn't have him for the Army, and he was awfully cut up. He used to come and sit with Mummy every day and pour out his woes. I suppose she was the only person to whom he ever talked about his private affairs--he knew she was safe. Of course you know he is a widower?"
Mrs. Friend knew nothing. But she was vaguely surprised.
"Oh, well, a good many people know that--though Mummy always said she never came across anybody who had ever seen his wife. He married her when he was quite a boy---abroad somewhere--when there seemed no chance of his ever being Lord Buntingford--he had two elder brothers who died--and she was an art student on her own. An old uncle of Mummy's once told me that when Cousin Philip came back from abroad--she died abroad--after her death, he seemed altogether changed somehow. But he never, never speaks of her"--the girl swayed her slim body backwards and forwards for emphasis--"and I wouldn't advise you or anybody else to try. Most people think he's just a bachelor. I never talk about it to people--Mummy said I wasn't to--and as he was very nice to Mummy--well, I don't. But I thought you'd better know. And now I think we'd better dress."
But instead of moving, she looked down affectionately at her uniform and her neat brown leggings.
"What a bore! I suppose I've no right to them any more."
"What is your uniform?"
"Women Ambulance Drivers. Don't you know the hostel in Ruby Square? I bargained with Cousin Philip after Mummy's death I should stay out my time, till I was demobbed. Awfully jolly time I had--on the whole--though the girls were a mixed lot. Well--let's get a move on." She sprang up. "Your room's next door."
Mrs. Friend was departing when Helena enquired:
"By the way--have you ever heard of Cynthia Welwyn?"
Mrs. Friend turned at the door, and shook her head.
"Oh, well, I can tot her up very quickly--just to give you an idea--as she's coming to dinner. She's fair and forty--just about Buntingford's age--quite good-looking--quite clever--lives by herself, reads a great deal--runs the parish--you know the kind of thing. They swarm! I think she would like to marry Cousin Philip, if he would let her."
Mrs. Friend hurriedly shut the door at her back, which had been slightly ajar. Helena laughed--the merry but very soft laugh Mrs. Friend had first heard in the hall--a laugh which seemed somehow out of keeping with the rest of its owner's personality.
"Don't be alarmed. I doubt whether that would be news to anybody in this house! But Buntingford's quite her match. Well, ta-ta. Shall I come and help you dress?"
"The idea!" cried Mrs. Friend. "Shall I help you?" She looked round the room and at Helena vigorously tackling the boxes. "I thought you had a maid?"
"Not at all. I couldn't be bored with one."
"Do let me help you!"
"Then you'd be my maid, and I should bully you and detest you. You must go and dress."
And Mrs. Friend found herself gently pushed out of the room. She went to her own in some bewilderment. After having been immured for some three years in close attendance on an invalided woman shut up in two rooms, she was like a person walking along a dark road and suddenly caught in the glare of motor lamps. Brought into contact with such a personality as Helena Pitstone promised to be, she felt helpless and half blind. A survival, too; for this world into which she had now stepped was one quite new to her. Yet when she had first shut herself up in Lancaster Gate she had never been conscious of any great difference between herself and other women or girls. She had lived a very quiet life in a quiet home before the war. Her father, a hard-working Civil Servant on a small income, and her mother, the daughter of a Wesleyan Minister, had brought her up strictly, yet with affection. The ways of the house were old-fashioned, dictated by an instinctive dislike of persons who went often to theatres and dances, of women who smoked, or played bridge, or indulged in loud, slangy talk. Dictated, too, by a pervading "worship of ancestors," of a preceding generation of plain evangelical men and women, whose books survived in the little house, and whose portraits hung upon its walls.
Then, in the first year of the war, she had married a young soldier, the son of family friends, like-minded with her own people, a modest, inarticulate fellow, who had been killed at Festubert. She had loved him--oh, yes, she had loved him. But sometimes, looking back, she was troubled to feel how shadowy he had become to her. Not in the region of emotion. She had pined for his fondness all these years; she pined for it still. But intellectually. If he had lived, how would he have felt towards all these strange things that the war had brought about--the revolutionary spirit everywhere, the changes come and coming? She did not know; she could not imagine. And it troubled her that she could not find any guidance for herself in her memories of him.
And as to the changes in her own sex, they seemed to have all come about while she was sitting in a twilight room reading aloud to an old woman. Only a few months after her husband's death her parents had both died, and she found herself alone in the world, and almost penniless. She was not strong enough for war work, the doctor said, and so she had let the doors of Lancaster Gate close upon her, only looking for something quiet and settled--even if it were a settled slavery.
After which, suddenly, just about the time of the Armistice, she had become aware that nothing was the same; that the women and the girls--so many of them in uniform!--that she met in the streets when she took her daily walk--were new creatures; not attractive to her as a whole, but surprising and formidable, because of the sheer life there was in them. And she herself began to get restive; to realize that she was not herself so very old, and to want to know--a hundred things! It had taken her five months, however, to make up her mind; and then at last she had gone to an agency--the only way she knew--and had braved the cold and purely selfish wrath of the household she was leaving. And now here she was in Lord Buntingford's house--Miss Helena Pitstone's chaperon. As she stood before her looking-glass, fastening her little black dress with shaking fingers, the first impression of Helena's personality was upon her, running through her, like wine to the unaccustomed. She supposed that now girls were all like this--all such free, wild, uncurbed creatures, a law to themselves. One moment she repeated that she was a fool to have come; and the next, she would not have found herself back in Lancaster Gate for the world.
* * * * *
Meanwhile, in the adjoining room, Helena was putting on a tea-gown, a white and silver "confection," with a little tail like a fish, and a short skirt tapering down to a pair of slim legs and shapely feet. After all her protestations, she had allowed the housemaid to help her unpack, and when the dress was on she had sent Mary flying down to the drawing-room to bring up some carnations she had noticed there. When these had been tucked into her belt, and the waves of her brown hair had been somehow pinned and coiled into a kind of order, and she had discovered and put on her mother's pearls, she was pleased with herself, or rather with as much of herself as she could see in the inadequate looking-glass on the toilet-table. A pier-glass from somewhere was of course the prime necessity, and must be got immediately. Meanwhile she had to be content with seeing herself in the eyes of the housemaid, who was clearly dazzled by her appearance.
Then there were a few minutes before dinner, and she ran along the passage to Mrs. Friend's room.
"May I come in? Oh, let me tie that for you?" And before Mrs. Friend could interpose, the girl's nimble fingers had tied the narrow velvet carrying a round locket which was her chaperon's only ornament. Drawing back a little, she looked critically at the general effect. Mrs. Friend flushed, and presently started in alarm, when Helena took up the comb lying on the dressing-table.
"What are you going to do?"
"Only just to alter your hair a little. Do you mind? Do let me. You look so nice in black. But your hair is too tight."
Mrs. Friend stood paralysed, while with a few soft touches Helena applied the comb.
"Now, isn't that nice! I declare it's charming! Now look at yourself. Why should you make yourself look dowdy? It's all very well--but you can't be much older than I am!"
And dancing round her victim, Helena effected first one slight improvement and then another in Mrs. Friend's toilette, till the little woman, standing in uneasy astonishment before the glass to which Helena had dragged her, plucked up courage at last to put an end to the proceedings.
"No, please don't!" she said, with decision, warding off the girl's meddling hand, and putting back some of the quiet bands of hair. "You mustn't make me look so unlike myself. And besides--I couldn't live up to it!" Her shy smile broke out.
"Oh, yes, you could. You're quite nice-looking. I wonder if you'd mind telling me how old you are? And must I always call you 'Mrs. Friend'? It is so odd--when everybody calls each other by their Christian names."
"I don't mind--I don't mind at all. But don't you think--for both our sakes--you'd better leave me all the dignity you can?" Laughter was playing round the speaker's small pale lips, and Helena answered it with interest.
"Does that mean that you'll have to manage me? Did Cousin Philip tell you you must? But that--I may as well tell you at once--is a vain delusion. Nobody ever managed me! Oh, yes, my superior officer in the Women's Corps--she was master. But that was because I chose to make her so. Now I'm on my own--and all I can offer--I'm afraid!--is an alliance--offensive and defensive."
Mrs. Friend looked at the radiant vision opposite to her with its hands on its sides, and slowly shook her head.
"Cousin Philip--if necessary."
Mrs. Friend again shook her head.
"Oh, you're in his pocket already!" cried Helena with a grimace. "But never mind. I'm sure I shall like you. You'll come over to my side soon."
"Why should I take any side?" asked Mrs. Friend, drawing on a pair of black gloves.
"Well, because"--said Helena slowly--"Cousin Philip doesn't like some of my pals--some of the men, I mean--I go about with--and we may quarrel about it. The question is which of them I'm going to marry--if I marry any of them. And some of them are married. Don't look shocked! Oh, heavens, there's the gong! But we'll sit up to-night, if you're not sleepy, and I'll give you a complete catalogue of some of their qualifications--physical, intellectual, financial. Then you'll have the carte du pays. Two of them are coming to-morrow for the Sunday. There's nobody coming to-night of the least interest. Cynthia Welwyn, Captain Vivian Lodge, Buntingford's cousin--rather a prig--but good-looking. A girl or two, no doubt--probably the parson--probably the agent. Now you know. Shall we go down?"
* * * * *
The library was already full when the two ladies entered. Mrs. Friend was aware of a tall fair woman, beautifully dressed in black, standing by Lord Buntingford; of an officer in uniform, resplendent in red tabs and decorations, talking to a spare grey-haired man, who might be supposed to be the agent; of a man in a round collar and clerical coat, standing awkward and silent by the tall lady in black; and of various other girls and young men.
All eyes were turned to Helena as she entered, and she was soon surrounded, while Lord Buntingford took special care of Helena's companion. Mrs. Friend found herself introduced to Lady Cynthia Welwyn, the tall lady in black; to Mr. Parish, the grey-haired man, and to the clergyman. Lady Cynthia bestowed on her a glance from a pair of prominent eyes, and a few civil remarks, Mr. Parish made her an old-fashioned bow, and hoped she had not found the journey too dusty, while the clergyman, whose name she caught as Mr. Alcott, showed a sudden animation as they shook hands, and had soon put her at her ease by a manner in which she at once divined a special sympathy for the stranger within the gates.
"You have just come, I gather?"
"I only arrived this afternoon."
"And you are to look after Miss Helena?" he smiled.
Mrs. Friend smiled too.
"I hope so. If she will let me!"
"She is a radiant creature!" And for a moment he stood watching the girl, as she stood, goddess-like, amid her group of admirers. His eyes were deep-set and tired; his scanty grizzled hair fell untidily over a furrowed brow; and his clothes were neither fresh nor well-brushed. But there was something about him which attracted the lonely; and Mrs. Friend was glad when she found herself assigned to him.
But though her neighbour was not difficult to talk to, her surroundings were so absorbing to her that she talked very little at dinner. It was enough to listen and look--at Lady Cynthia on Lord Buntingford's right hand, and Helena Pitstone on his left; or at the handsome officer with whom Helena seemed to be happily flirting through a great part of dinner. Lady Cynthia was extremely good-looking, and evidently agreeable, though it seemed to Mrs. Friend that Lord Buntingford only gave her divided attention. Meanwhile it was very evident that he himself was the centre of his own table, the person of whom everyone at it was fundamentally aware, however apparently busy with other people. She herself observed him much more closely than before, the mingling in his face of a kind of concealed impatience, an eagerness held in chains and expressed by his slight perpetual frown, with a courtesy and urbanity generally gay or bantering, but at times, and by flashes--or so it seemed to her--dipped in a sudden, profound melancholy, like a quenched light. He held himself sharply erect, and in his plain naval uniform, with the three Commander's stripes on the sleeve, made, in her eyes, an even more distinguished figure than the gallant and decorated hero on his left, with whom Helena seemed to be so particularly engaged, "prig" though she had dubbed him.
As to Lady Cynthia's effect upon her host, Mrs. Friend could not make up her mind. He seemed attentive or amused while she chatted to him; but towards the end their conversation languished a good deal, and Lady Cynthia must needs fall back on the stubby-haired boy to her right, who was learning agency business with Mr. Parish. She smiled at him also, for it was her business, Mrs. Friend thought, to smile at everybody, but it was an absent-minded smile.
"You don't know Lord Buntingford?" said Mr. Alcott's rather muffled voice beside her.
Mrs. Friend turned hastily.
"No--I never saw him till this afternoon."
"He isn't easy to know. I know him very little, though he gave me this living, and I have business with him, of course, occasionally. But this I do know, the world is uncommonly full of people--don't you find it so?--who say 'I go, Sir'--and don't go. Well, if Lord Buntingford says 'I go, Sir'--he does go!"
"Does he often say it?" asked Mrs. Friend. And the man beside her noticed the sudden gleam in her quiet little face, that rare or evanescent sprite of laughter or satire that even the dwellers in Lancaster Gate had occasionally noticed.
Mr. Alcott considered.
"Well, no," he said at last. "I admit he's difficult to catch. He likes his own ways a great deal better than other people's. But if you do catch him--if you do persuade him--well, then you can stake your bottom dollar on him. At least, that's my experience. He's been awfully generous about land here--put a lot in my hands to distribute long before the war ended. Some of the neighbours about--other landlords--were very sick--thought he'd given them away because of the terms. They sent him a round robin. I doubt if he read it. In a thing like that he's adamant. And he's adamant, too, when he's once taken a real dislike to anybody. There's no moving him."
"You make me afraid!" said Mrs. Friend.
"Oh, no, you needn't be--" Mr. Alcott turned almost eagerly to look at her. "I hope you won't be. He's the kindest of men. It's extraordinarily kind of him--don't you think?"--the speaker smilingly lowered his voice--"taking on Miss Pitstone like this? It's a great responsibility."
Mrs. Friend made the slightest timid gesture of assent.
"Ah, well, it's just like him. He was devoted to her mother--and for his friends he'll do anything. But I don't want to make a saint of him. He can be a dour man when he likes--and he and I fight about a good many things. I don't think he has much faith in the new England we're all talking about--though he tries to go with it. Have you?" He turned upon her suddenly.
Mrs. Friend felt a pang.
"I don't know anything," she said, and he was conscious of the agitation in her tone. "Since my husband died, I've been so out of everything."
And encouraged by the kind eyes in the plain face, she told her story, very simply and briefly. In the general clatter and hubbub of the table no one overheard or noticed.
"H'm--you're stepping out into the world again as one might step out of a nunnery--after five years. I rather envy you. You'll see things fresh. Whereas we--who have been through the ferment and the horror--" He broke off--"I was at the front, you see, for nearly two years--then I got invalided. So you've hardly realized the war--hardly known there was a war--not since--since Festubert?"
"It's dreadful!" she said humbly--"I'm afraid I know just nothing about it."
He looked at her with a friendly wonder, and she, flushing deeper, was glad to see him claimed by a lively girl on his left, while she fell back on Mr. Parish, the agent, who, however, seemed to be absorbed in the amazing--and agreeable--fact that Lord Buntingford, though he drank no wine himself, had yet some Moet-et-Charidon of 1904 left to give to his guests. Mr. Parish, as he sipped it, realized that the war was indeed over.
But, all the time, he gave a certain amount of scrutiny to the little lady beside him. So she was to be "companion" to Miss Helena Pitstone--to prevent her getting into scrapes--if she could. Lord Buntingford had told him that his cousin, Lady Mary Chance, had chosen her. Lady Mary had reported that "companions" were almost as difficult to find as kitchenmaids, and that she had done her best for him in finding a person of gentle manners and quiet antecedents. "Such people will soon be as rare as snakes in Ireland"--had been the concluding sentence in Lady Mary's letter, according to Lord Buntingford's laughing account of it. Ah, well, Lady Mary was old-fashioned. He hoped the young widow might be useful; but he had his doubts. She looked a weak vessel to be matching herself with anything so handsome and so pronounced as the young lady opposite.
Why, the young lady was already quarrelling with her guardian! For the whole table had suddenly become aware of a gust in the neighbourhood of Lord Buntingford--a gust of heated talk--although the only heated person seemed to be Miss Pitstone. Lord Buntingford was saying very little; but whatever he did say was having a remarkable effect on his neighbour. Then, before the table knew what it was all about, it was over. Lord Buntingford had turned resolutely away, and was devoting himself to conversation with Lady Cynthia, while his ward was waging a fresh war of repartee with the distinguished soldier beside her, in which her sharpened tones and quick breathing suggested the swell after a storm.
Mrs. Friend too had noticed. She had been struck with the sudden tightening of the guardian's lip, the sudden stiffening of his hand lying on the table. She wondered anxiously what was the matter.
In the library afterwards, Lady Cynthia, Mrs. Friend, and the two girls--his daughter and his guest--who had come with Mr. Parish, settled into a little circle near the wood-fire which the chilliness of the May evening made pleasant.
Helena Pitstone meanwhile walked away by herself to a distant part of the room and turned over photographs, with what seemed to Mrs. Friend a stormy hand. And as she did so, everyone in the room was aware of her, of the brilliance and power of the girl's beauty, and of the energy that like an aura seemed to envelop her personality. Lady Cynthia made several attempts to capture her, but in vain. Helena would only answer in monosyllables, and if approached, retreated further into the dim room, ostensibly in search of a book on a distant shelf, really in flight. Lady Cynthia, with a shrug, gave it up.
Mrs. Friend felt too strange to the whole situation to make any move. She could only watch for the entry of the gentlemen. Lord Buntingford, who came in last, evidently looked round for his ward. But Helena had already flitted back to the rest of the company, and admirably set off by a deep red chair into which she had thrown herself, was soon flirting unashamedly with the two young men, with Mr. Parish and the Rector, taking them all on in turn, and suiting the bait to the fish with the instinctive art of her kind. Lord Buntingford got not a word with her, and when the guests departed she had vanished upstairs before anyone knew that she had gone.
"Have a cigar in the garden, Vivian, before you turn in? There is a moon, and it is warmer outside than in," said Lord Buntingford to his cousin, when they were left alone.
"By all means."
So presently they found themselves pacing a flagged path outside a long conservatory which covered one side of the house. The moon was cloudy, and the temperature low. But the scents of summer were already in the air--of grass and young leaf, and the first lilac. The old grey house with its haphazard outline and ugly detail acquired a certain dignity from the night, and round it stretched dim slopes of pasture, with oaks rising here and there from bands of white mist.
"Is that tale true you told me before dinner about Jim Donald?" said Lord Buntingford abruptly. "You're sure it's true--honour bright?"
The other laughed.
"Why, I had it from Jim himself!" He laughed. "He just made a joke of it. But he is a mean skunk! I've found out since that he wanted to buy Preston out for the part Preston had taken in another affair. There's a pretty case coming on directly, with Jim for hero. You have heard of it."
"No," said Buntingford curtly; "but in any case nothing would have induced me to have him here. Preston's a friend of mine. So when Helena told me at dinner she had asked him for Saturday, I had to tell her I should telegraph to him to-morrow morning not to come. She was angry, of course."
Captain Lodge gave a low whistle. "Of course she doesn't know. But I think you would be wise to stop it. And I remember now she danced all night with him at the Arts Ball!"