Helena by Mrs. Humphry Ward
There was a light tap on Mrs. Friend's door. She said "Come in" rather unwillingly. Some time had elapsed since she had seen Helena's fluttering white disappear into the corridor beyond her room; and she had nourished a secret hope that the appointment had been forgotten. But the door opened slightly. Mrs. Friend saw first a smiling face, finger on lip. Then the girl slipped in, and closed the door with caution.
"I don't want that 'very magnificent three-tailed Bashaw' to know we are discussing him. He's somewhere still."
"What did you say?" asked Mrs. Friend, puzzled.
"Oh, it's only a line of an old poem--I don't know by whom--my father used to quote it. Well, now--did you see what happened at dinner?"
Helena had established herself comfortably in a capacious arm-chair opposite Mrs. Friend, tucking her feet under her. She was in a white dressing-gown, and she had hastily tied a white scarf round her loosened hair. In the dim light of a couple of candles her beauty made an even more exciting impression on the woman watching her than it had done in the lamp-lit drawing-room.
"It's war!" she said firmly, "war between Buntingford and me. I'm sorry it's come so soon--the very first evening!--and I know it'll be beastly for you--but I can't help it. I won't be dictated to. If I'm not twenty-one, I'm old enough to choose my own friends; and if Buntingford chooses to boycott them, he must take the consequences." And throwing her white arms above her head, her eyes looked out from the frame of them--eyes sparkling with pride and will.
Mrs. Friend begged for an explanation.
"Well, I happened to tell him that I had invited Lord Donald for Sunday. I'll tell you about Lord Donald presently--and he simply--behaved like a brute! He said he was sorry I hadn't told him, that he couldn't have Donald here, and would telegraph to him to-morrow--not to come. Just think of that! So then I said--why? And he said he didn't approve of Donald--or some nonsense of that sort. I was quite calm. I reminded him he had promised to let me invite my friends--that was part of the bargain. Yes--he said--but within limits--and Donald was the limit. That made me savage--so I upped and said, very well, if I couldn't see Donald here, I should see him somewhere else--and he wouldn't prevent me. I wasn't going to desert my friends for a lot of silly tales. So then he said I didn't know what I was talking about, and turned his back on me. He kept his temper provokingly--and I lost mine--which was idiotic of me. But I mean to be even with him--somehow. And as for Donald, I shall go up to town and lunch with him at the Ritz next week!"
"Oh, no, no, you can't!" cried Mrs. Friend in distress. "You can't treat your guardian like that! Do tell me what it's all about!" And bending forward, she laid her two small hands entreatingly on the girl's knee. She looked so frail and pitiful as she did so, in her plain black, that Helena was momentarily touched. For the first time her new chaperon appeared to her as something else than a mere receiver into which, or at which, it suited her to talk. She laid her own hand soothingly on Mrs. Friend's.
"Of course I'll tell you. I really don't mean to be nasty to you. But all the same I warn you that it's no good trying to stop me, when I've made up my mind. Well, now, for Donald. I know, of course, what Cousin Philip means. Donald ran away with the wife of a friend of his--of Buntingford's, I mean--three or four weeks ago."
Mrs. Friend gasped. The modern young woman was becoming altogether too much for her. She could only repeat foolishly--"ran away?"
"Yes, ran away. There was no harm done. Sir Luke Preston--that's the husband--followed them and caught them--and made her go back with him. But Donald didn't mean any mischief. She'd quarrelled with Sir Luke--she's an empty-headed little fluffy thing. I know her a little--and she dared Donald to run away with her--for a lark. So he took her on. He didn't mean anything horrid. I don't believe he's that sort. They were going down to his yacht at Southampton--there were several other friends of his on the yacht--and they meant to give Sir Luke a fright--just show him that he couldn't bully her as he had been doing--being sticky and stupid about her friends, just as Cousin Philip wants to be about mine--and quarrelling about her dress-bills--and a lot of things. Well, that's all! What's there in that?"
And the girl sat up straight, dropping her slim, white feet, while her great eyes challenged her companion to say a word in defence of her guardian. Mrs. Friend's head was turning.
"But it was surely wrong and foolish--" she began. Helena interrupted her.
"I daresay it was," she said impatiently, "but that's not my affair. It's Lord Donald's. I'm not responsible for him. But he's done nothing that I know of to make me cut him--and I won't! He told me all about it quite frankly. I said I'd stick by him--and I will."
"And Sir Luke Preston is a friend of Lord Buntingford's?"
"Yes--" said Helena unwillingly--"I suppose he is. I didn't know. Perhaps I wouldn't have asked Donald if I'd known. But I did ask him, and he accepted. And now Buntingford's going to insult him publicly. And that I won't stand--I vow I won't! It's insulting me too!"
And springing up, she began a stormy pacing of the room, her white gown falling back from her neck and throat, and her hair floating behind her. Mrs. Friend had begun to collect herself. In the few hours she had passed under Lord Buntingford's roof she seemed to herself to have been passing through a forcing house. Qualities she had never dreamed of possessing or claiming she must somehow show, or give up the game. Unless she could understand and get hold of this wholly unexpected situation, as Helena presented it, she might as well re-pack her box, and order the village fly for departure.
"Do you mind if I ask you some questions?" she said presently, as the white skirts swept past her.
"Mind! Not a bit. What do you want to know?"
"Are you in love with Lord Donald?"
"If I were, do you think I'd let him run away with Lady Preston or anybody else? Not at all! Lord Donald's just one of the men I like talking to. He amuses me. He's very smart. He knows everybody. He's no worse than anybody else. He did all sorts of plucky things in the war. I don't ask Buntingford to like him, of course. He isn't his sort. But he really might let me alone!"
"But you asked him to stay in Lord Buntingford's house--and without consulting--"
"Well--and it's going to be my house, too, for two years--if I can possibly bear it. When Mummy begged me, I told Buntingford my conditions. And he's broken them!"
And standing still, the tempestuous creature drew herself to her full height, her arms rigid by her side--a tragic-comic figure in the dim illumination of the two guttering candles.
Mrs. Friend attempted a diversion.
"Who else is coming for the week-end?"
Instantly Helena's mood dissolved in laughter. She came to perch herself on the arm of Mrs. Friend's chair.
"There--now let's forget my tiresome guardian. I promised to tell you about my 'boys.' Well, there are two of them coming--and Geoffrey French, besides a nephew of Buntingford's, who'll have this property and most of the money some day, always supposing this tyrant of mine doesn't marry, which of course any reasonable man would. Well--there's Peter Dale--the dearest, prettiest little fellow you ever saw. He was aide-de-camp to Lord Brent in the war--very smart--up to everything. He's demobbed, and has gone into the City. Horribly rich already, and will now, of course, make another pile. He dreadfully wants to marry me--but--" she shook her head with emphasis--"No!--it wouldn't do. He tries to kiss me sometimes. I didn't mind it at first. But I've told him not to do it again. Then there's Julian--Julian Horne--Balliol--awfully clever"--she checked off the various items on her fingers--"as poor as a rat--a Socialist, of course--they all are, that kind--but a real one--not like Geoffrey French, who's a sham, though he is in the House, and has joined the Labour party. You see"--her tone grew suddenly serious--"I don't reckon Geoffrey French among my boys."
"He's too old?"
"Oh, he's not so very old. But--I don't think he likes me very much--and I'm not sure whether I like him. He's good fun, however--and he rags Julian Horne splendidly. That's one of his chief functions--and another is, to take a hand in my education--when I allow him--and when Julian isn't about. They both tell me what to read. Julian tells me to read history, and gives me lists of books. Geoffrey talks economics--and philosophy--and I adore it--he talks so well. He gave me Bergson the other day. Have you ever read any of him?"
"Never," said Mrs. Friend, bewildered. "Who is he?"
Helena's laugh woke the echoes of the room. But she checked it at once.
"I don't want him to think we're plotting," she said in a stage-whisper, looking round her. "If I do anything I want to spring it on him!"
"Dear Miss Pitstone--please understand!--I can't help you to plot against Lord Buntingford. You must see I can't. He's my employer and your guardian. If I helped you to do what he disapproves I should simply be doing a dishonourable thing."
"Yes," said Helena reflectively. "Of course I see that. It's awkward. I suppose you promised and vowed a great many things--like one's godmothers and godfathers?"
"No, I didn't promise anything--except that I would go out with you, make myself useful to you, if I could--and help you with foreign languages."
"Goody," said Helena. "Do you really know French--and German?" The tone was incredulous. "I wish I did."
"Well, I was two years in France, and a year and a half in Germany when I was a girl. My parents wanted me to be a governess."
"And then you married?"
"Yes--just the year before the war."
"And your husband was killed?" The tone was low and soft. Mrs. Friend gave a mute assent. Suddenly Helena laid an arm round the little woman's neck.
"I want you to be friends with me--will you? I hated the thought of a chaperon--I may as well tell you frankly. I thought I should probably quarrel with you in a week. That was before I arrived. Then when I saw you, I suddenly felt--'I shall like her! I'm glad she's here--I shan't mind telling her my affairs.' I suppose it was because you looked so--well, so meek and mild--so different from me--as though a puff would blow you away. One can't account for those things, can one? Do tell me your Christian name! I won't call you by it--if you don't like it."
"My name is Lucy," said Mrs. Friend faintly. There was something so seductive in the neighbourhood of the girl's warm youth and in the new sweetness of her voice that she could not make any further defence of her "dignity."
"I might have guessed Lucy. It's just like you," said the girl triumphantly. "Wordsworth's Lucy--do you remember her?--'A violet by a mossy stone'--That's you exactly. I adore Wordsworth. Do you care about poetry?"
The eager eyes looked peremptorily into hers.
"Yes," said Mrs. Friend shyly--"I'm very fond of some things. But you'd think them old-fashioned!"
"What--Byron?--Shelley? They're never old-fashioned!"
"I never read much of them. But--I love Tennyson--and Mrs. Browning."
Helena made a face--
"Oh, I don't care a hang for her. She's so dreadfully pious and sentimental. I laughed till I cried over 'Aurora Leigh.' But now--French things! If you lived all that time in France, you must have read French poetry. Alfred de Musset?--Madame de Noailles?"
Mrs. Friend shook her head.
"We went to lectures. I learnt a great deal of Racine--a little Victor Hugo--and Rostand--because the people I boarded with took me to 'Cyrano'!"
"Ah, Rostand--" cried Helena, springing up. "Well, of course he's vieux jeu now. The best people make mock of him. Julian does. I don't care--he gives me thrills down my back, and I love him. But then panache means a good deal to me. And Julian doesn't care a bit. He despises people who talk about glory and honour--and that kind of thing. Well--Lucy--"
She stopped mischievously, her head on one side.
"Sorry!--but it slipped out. Lucy--good-night."
Mrs. Friend hurriedly caught hold of her.
"And you won't do anything hasty--about Lord Donald?"
"Oh, I can't promise anything. One must stand by one's friends. One simply must. But I'll take care Cousin Philip doesn't blame you."
"If I'm no use, you know--I can't stay."
"No use to Cousin Philip, you mean, in policing me?" said Helena, with a good-humoured laugh. "Well, we'll talk about it again to-morrow. Good-night--Lucy!"
The sly gaiety of the voice was most disarming.
"Good-night, Miss Pitstone."
"No, that won't do. It's absurd! I never ask people to call me Helena, unless I like them. I certainly never expected--there, I'll be frank!--that I should want to ask you--the very first night too. But I do want you to. Please, Lucy, call me Helena. Please!"
Mrs. Friend did as she was told.
"Sleep well," said Helena from the door. "I hope the housemaid's put enough on your bed, and given you a hot water-bottle? If anything scares you in the night, wake me--that is, if you can!" She disappeared.
Outside Mrs. Friend's door the old house was in darkness, save for a single light in the hall, which burnt all night. The hall was the feature of the house. A gallery ran round it supported by columns from below, and spaced by answering columns which carried the roof. The bedrooms ran round the hall, and opened into the gallery. The columns were of yellow marble brought from Italy, and faded blue curtains hung between them. Helena went cautiously to the balustrade, drew one of the blue curtains round her, and looked down into the hall. Was everybody gone to bed? No. There were movements in a distant room. Somebody coughed, and seemed to be walking about. But she couldn't hear any talking. If Cousin Philip were still up, he was alone.
Her anger came back upon her, and then curiosity. What was he thinking about, as he paced his room like a caged squirrel? About the trouble she was likely to give him--and what a fool he had been to take the job? She would like to go and reason with him. The excess of vitality that was in her, sighing for fresh worlds to conquer, urged her to vehement and self-confident action,--action for its own sake, for the mere joy of the heat and movement that go with it. Part of the impulse depended on the new light in which the gentleman walking about downstairs had begun to appear to her. She had known him hitherto as "Mummy's friend," always to be counted upon when any practical difficulty arose, and ready on occasion to put in a sharp word in defence of an invalid's peace, when a girl's unruliness threatened it. Remembering one or two such collisions, Helena felt her cheeks burn, as she hung over the hall, in the darkness. But those had been such passing matters. Now, as she recalled the expression of his eyes, during their clash at the dinner-table, she realized, with an excitement which was not disagreeable, that something much more prolonged and serious might lie before her. Accomplished modern, as she knew him to be in most things, he was going to be "stuffy" and "stupid" in some. Lord Donald's proceedings in the matter of Lady Preston evidently seemed to him--she had been made to feel it--frankly abominable. And he was not going to ask the man capable of them within his own doors. Well and good. "But as I don't agree with him--Donald was only larking!--I shall take my own way. A telegram goes anyway to Donald to-morrow morning--and we shall see. So good-night, Cousin Philip!" And blowing a kiss towards the empty hall, she gathered her white skirts round her, and fled laughing towards her own room.
But just as she neared it, a door in front of her, leading to a staircase, opened, and a man in khaki appeared, carrying a candle. It was Captain Lodge, her neighbour at the dinner-table. The young man stared with amazement at the apparition rushing along the gallery towards him,--the girl's floating hair, and flushed loveliness as his candle revealed it. Helena evidently enjoyed his astonishment, and his sudden look of admiration. But before he could speak, she had vanished within her own door, just holding it open long enough to give him a laughing nod before it shut, and darkness closed with it on the gallery.
"A man would need to keep his head with that girl!" thought Captain Lodge, with tantalized amusement. "But, my hat, what a beauty!"
Meanwhile in the library downstairs a good deal of thinking was going on. Lord Buntingford was taking more serious stock of his new duties than he had done yet. As he walked, smoking, up and down, his thoughts were full of his poor little cousin Rachel Pitstone. She had always been a favourite of his; and she had always known him better than any other person among his kinsfolk. He had found it easy to tell her secrets, when nobody else could have dragged a word from him; and as a matter of fact she had known before she died practically all that there was to know about him. And she had been so kind, and simple and wise. Had she perhaps once had a tendresse for him--before she met Ned Pitstone?--and if things had gone--differently--might he not, perhaps, have married her? Quite possibly. In any case the bond between them had always been one of peculiar intimacy; and in looking back on it he had nothing to reproach himself with. He had done what he could to ease her suffering life. Struck down in her prime by a mortal disease, a widow at thirty, with her one beautiful child, her chief misfortune had been the melancholy and sensitive temperament, which filled the rooms in which she lived as full of phantoms as the palace of Odysseus in the vision of Theoclymenus.
She was afraid for her child; afraid for her friend; afraid for the world. The only hope of happiness for a woman, she believed, lay in an honest lover, if such a lover could be found. Herself an intellectual, and a freed spirit, she had no trust in any of the new professional and technical careers into which she saw women crowding. Sex seemed to her now as always the dominating fact of life. Votes did not matter, or degrees, or the astonishing but quite irrelevant fact, as the papers announced it, that women should now be able not only to fit but to plan a battleship. Love, and a child's clinging mouth, and the sweetness of a Darby and Joan old age, for these all but the perverted women had always lived, and would always live.
She saw in her Helena the strong beginnings of sex. But she also realized the promise of intelligence, of remarkable brain development, and it seemed to her of supreme importance that sex should have the first innings in her child's life.
"If she goes to college at once, as soon as I am gone, and her brain and her ambition are appealed to, before she has time to fall in love, she will develop on that side, prematurely--marvellously--and the rest will atrophy. And then when the moment for falling in love is over--and with her it mayn't be a long one--she will be a lecturer, a member of Parliament perhaps--a Socialist agitator--a woman preacher,--who knows?--there are all kinds of possibilities in Helena. But she will have missed her chance of being a woman, and a happy one; and thirty years hence she will realize it, when it is too late, and think bitterly of us both. Believe me, dear Philip, the moment for love won't last long in Helena's life. I have seen it come and go so rapidly, in the case of some of the most charming women. For after all, the world is now so much richer for women; and many women don't know their own minds in time, or get lost among the new landmarks. And of course all women can't marry; and thank God, there are a thousand new chances of happiness for those who don't. But there are some--and Helena, I am certain, will be one--who will be miserable, and probably wicked, unless they fall in love, and are happy. And it is a strait gate they will have to pass through. For their own natures and the new voices in the world will tempt them to this side and that. And before they know where they are--the moment will have gone--the wish--and the power.
"So, dear Philip, lend yourself to my plan; though you may seem to yourself the wrong person, and though it imposes--as I know it will--a rather heavy responsibility on you. But once or twice you have told me that I have helped you--through difficult places. That makes me dare to ask you this thing. There is no one else I can ask. And it won't be bad for you, Philip,--it is good for us all, to have to think intimately--seriously--for some other human being or beings; and owing to circumstances, not your own fault, you have missed just this in life--except for your thoughts and care for me--bless you always, my dear friend.
"Am I preaching? Well, in my case the time for make-believe is over. I am too near the end. The simple and austere soul of things seems to shine out--
"And yet what I ask you is neither simple, nor austere! Take care of Helena for two years. Give her fun, and society,--a good time, and every chance to marry. Then, after two years, if she hasn't married--if she hasn't fallen in love---she must choose her course.
"You may well feel you are too young--indeed I wish, for this business, you were older!--but you will find some nice woman to be hostess and chaperon; the experiment will interest and amuse you, and the time will soon go. You know I could not ask you--unless some things were--as they are. But that being so, I feel as if I were putting into your hands the chance of a good deed, a kind deed,--blessing, possibly, him that gives, and her that takes. And I am just now in the mood to feel that kindness is all that matters, in this mysterious life of ours. Oh, I wish I had been kinder--to so many people!--I wish--I wish! The hands stretched out to me in the dark that I have passed by--the voices that have piped to me, and I have not danced--
"I mustn't cry. It is hard that in one of the few cases when I had the chance to be kind, and did not wholly miss it, I should be making in the end a selfish bargain of it--claiming so much more than I ever gave!
"Forgive me, my best of friends--
"You shall come and see me once about this letter, and then we won't discuss it again--ever. I have talked over the business side of it with my lawyer, and asked him to tell you anything you don't yet know about my affairs and Helena's. We needn't go into them."
"One of the few cases where I had the chance to be kind." Why, Rachel Pitstone's life had been one continuous selfless offering to God and man, from her childhood to her last hour! He knew very well what he had owed her--what others had owed--to her genius for sympathy, for understanding, for a compassion which was also a stimulus. He missed her sorely. At that very moment, he was in great practical need of her help, her guidance.
Whereas it was he--worse luck!--who must be the stumbling and unwelcomed guide of Rachel's child! How, in the name of mystery, had the child grown up so different from the mother? Well, impatience wouldn't help him--he must set his mind to it. That scoundrel, Jim Donald!