Helena by Mrs. Humphry Ward
Mrs. Friend passed a somewhat wakeful night after the scene in which Helena Pitstone had bestowed her first confidences on her new companion. For Lucy Friend the experience had been unprecedented and agitating. She had lived in a world where men and women do not talk much about themselves, and as a rule instinctively avoid thinking much about themselves, as a habit tending to something they call "morbid." This at least had been the tone in her parents' house. The old woman in Lancaster Gate had not been capable either of talking or thinking about herself, except as a fretful animal with certain simple bodily wants. In Helena, Lucy Friend had for the first time come cross the type of which the world is now full--men and women, but especially women, who have no use any longer for the reticence of the past, who desire to know all they possibly can about themselves, their own thoughts and sensations, their own peculiarities and powers, all of which are endlessly interesting to them; and especially to the intellectual elite among them. Already, before the war, the younger generation, which was to meet the brunt of it, was an introspective, a psychological generation. And the great war has made it doubly introspective, and doubly absorbed in itself. The mere perpetual strain on the individual consciousness, under the rush of strange events, has developed men and women abnormally.
Only now it is not an introspection, or a psychology, which writes journals or autobiography. It is an introspection which talks; a psychology which chatters, of all things small and great; asking its Socratic way through all the questions of the moment, the most trivial, and the most tremendous.
Coolness, an absence of the old tremors and misgivings that used especially to haunt the female breast in the days of Miss Austen, is a leading mark of the new type. So that Mrs. Friend need not have been astonished to find Helena meeting her guardian next morning at breakfast as though nothing had happened. He, like a man of the world, took his cue immediately from her, and the conversation--whether it ran on the return of Karsavina to the Russian Ballet, or the success of "Abraham Lincoln"; or the prospects of the Peace, or merely the weddings and buryings of certain common acquaintances which appeared in the morning's Times--was so free and merry, that Mrs. Friend began soon to feel her anxieties of the night dropping away, to enjoy the little luxuries of the breakfast table, and the pleasant outlook on the park, of the high, faded, and yet stately room.
"What a charming view!" she said to Lord Buntingford, when they rose from breakfast, and she made her way to the open window, while Helena was still deep in the papers.
"You think so?" he said indifferently, standing beside her. "I'm afraid I prefer London. But now on another matter--Do you mind taking up your duties instanter?"
"Please--please let me!" she said, turning eagerly to him.
"Well--there is a cook-housekeeper somewhere--who, I believe, expects orders. Do you mind giving them? Please do not look so alarmed! It is the simplest matter in the world. You will appear to give orders. In reality Mrs. Mawson will have everything cut and dried, and you will not dare to alter a thing. But she expects you or me to pretend. And I should be greatly relieved if you would do the pretending?"
"Certainly," murmured Mrs. Friend.
Lord Buntingford, looking at the terrace outside, made a sudden gesture--half despair, half impatience.
"Oh, and there's old Fenn,--my head gardener. He's been here forty years, and he sits on me like an old man of the sea. I know what he wants. He's coming up to ask me about something he calls a herbaceous border. You see that border there?"--he pointed--"Well, I barely know a peony from a cabbage. Perhaps you do?" He turned towards her hopefully; and Mrs. Friend felt the charm, as many other women had felt it before her, of the meditative blue eyes, under the black and heavy brow. She shook her head smiling.
He smiled in return.
"But, if you don't--would you mind--again--pretending? Would you see the old fellow, some time this morning--and tell him to do exactly what he damn pleases--I beg your pardon!--it slipped out. If not, he'll come into my study, and talk a jargon of which I don't understand a word, for half an hour. And as he's stone deaf, he doesn't understand a word I say. Moreover when he's once there I can't get him out. And I've got a bit of rather tough county business this morning. Would you mind? It's a great deal to ask. But if you only let him talk--and look intelligent--"
"Of course I will," said Mrs. Friend, bewildered, adding rather desperately, "But I don't know anything at all about it."
"Oh, that doesn't matter. Perhaps Helena does! By the way, she hasn't seen her sitting-room."
He turned towards his ward, who was still reading at the table.
"I have arranged a special sitting-room for you, Helena. Would you like to come and look at it?"
"What fun!" said Helena, jumping up. "And may I do what I like in it?"
Buntingford's mouth twisted a little.
"Naturally! The house is at your disposal. Turn anything out you like--and bring anything else in. There is some nice old stuff about, if you look for it. If you send for the odd man he'll move anything. Well, I'd better show you what I arranged. But you can have any other room you prefer."
He led the way to the first floor, and opened a door in a corner of the pillared gallery.
"Oh, jolly!" cried Helena.
For they entered a lofty room, with white Georgian panelling, a few pretty old cabinets and chairs, a chintz-covered sofa, a stand of stuffed humming-birds, a picture or two, a blue Persian carpet, and a large book-case full of books.
"My books!" cried Helena in amazement. "I was just going to ask if the cases had come. How ever did you get them unpacked, and put here so quickly?"
"Nothing easier. They arrived three days ago. I telephoned to a man I know in Leicester Square. He sent some one down, and they were all finished before you came down. Perhaps you won't like the arrangement? Well, it will amuse you to undo it!"
If there was the slightest touch of sarcasm in the eyes that travelled from her to the books, Helena took it meekly. She went to the bookshelves. Poets, novelists, plays, philosophers, economists, some French and Italian books, they were all in their proper places. The books were partly her own, partly her mother's. Helena eyed them thoughtfully.
"You must have taken a lot of trouble."
"Not at all. The man took all the trouble. There wasn't much."
As he spoke, her eye caught a piano standing between the windows.
"Mummy's piano! Why, I thought we agreed it should be stored?"
"It seemed to me you might as well have it down here. We can easily hire one for London."
"Awfully nice of you," murmured Helena. She opened it and stood with her hand on the keys, looking out into the park, as though she pursued some thought or memory of her own. It was a brilliant May morning, and the windows were open. Helena's slim figure in a white dress, the reddish touch in her brown hair, the lovely rounding of her cheek and neck, were thrown sharply against a background of new leaf made by a giant beech tree just outside. Mrs. Friend looked at Lord Buntingford. The thought leaped into her mind--"How can he help making love to her himself?"--only to be immediately chidden. Buntingford was not looking at Helena but at his watch.
"Well, I must go and do some drivelling work before lunch. I have given Mrs. Friend carte blanche, Helena. Order what you like, and if Mrs. Mawson bothers you, send her to me. Geoffrey comes to-night, and we shall be seven to-morrow."
He made for the door. Helena had turned suddenly at his last words, eye and cheek kindling.
"Hm--" she said, under her breath--"So he has sent the telegram."
She left the window, and began to walk restlessly about the room, looking now at the books, now at the piano. Her face hardened, and she paid no attention to Mrs. Friend's little comments of pleasure on the room and its contents. Presently indeed she cut brusquely across.
"I am just going down to the stables to see whether my horse has arrived. A friend of mine bought her for me in town--and she was to be here early this morning. I want, too, to see where they're going to put her."
"Mayn't I come too?" said Mrs. Friend, puzzled by the sudden clouding of the girl's beautiful looks.
"Oh, no--please don't. You've got to see the housekeeper! I'll get my hat and run down. I found out last night where the stables are. I shan't be more than ten minutes or so."
She hurried away, leaving Mrs. Friend once more a prey to anxieties. She recalled the threat of the night before. But no, impossible! After all the kindness and the forethought! She dismissed it from her mind.
The interview with the housekeeper was an ordeal to the gentle inexperienced woman. But her entire lack of any sort of pretension was in itself ingratiating; and her manner had the timid charm of her character. Mrs. Mawson, who might have bristled or sulked in stronger hands, in order to mark her distaste for the advent of a mistress in the house she had been long accustomed to rule, was soon melted by the docility of the little lady, and graciously consented to see her own plans approved en bloc, by one so frankly ignorant of how a country house party should be conducted. Then it was the turn of old Fenn; a more difficult matter, since he did genuinely want instructions, and Mrs. Friend had none to give him. But kind looks, and sympathetic murmurs, mingled with honest delight in the show of azaleas in the conservatory carried her through. Old Fenn too, instead of resenting her, adopted her. She went back to the house flushed with a little modest triumph.
Housewifely instincts revived in her. Her hands wanted to be doing. She had ventured to ask Fenn for some flowers, and would dare to arrange them herself if Mrs. Mawson would let her.
Then, as she re-entered the house, she came back at a bound to reality. "If I can't keep Miss Pitstone out of mischief, I shan't be here a month!" she thought pitifully; and how was it to be done?
She found Helena sitting demurely in the sitting-room, pretending to read a magazine, but really, or so it seemed to Mrs. Friend, keeping both eyes and ears open for events.
"I'm trying to get ready for Julian--" she said impatiently, throwing away her book. "He sent me his article in the Market Place, but it's so stiff that I can't make head or tail of it. I like to hear him talk--but he doesn't write English."
Mrs. Friend took up the magazine, and perceived a marked item in the table of contents--"A New Theory of Value."
"What does it mean?" she asked.
"Oh, I wish I knew!" said Helena, with a little yawn. "And then he changes so. Last year he made me read Meredith--the novels, I mean. One of Our Conquerors, he vowed, was the finest thing ever written. He scoffed at me for liking Diana and Richard Feverel better, because they were easier. And now, nothing's bad enough for Meredith's 'stilted nonsense'--'characters without a spark of life in them'--'horrible mannerisms'--you should hear him. Except the poems--ah, except the poems! He daren't touch them. I say--do you know the 'Hymn to Colour'?" The girl's eager eyes questioned her companion. Her face in a moment was all softness and passion.
Mrs. Friend shook her head. The nature and deficiencies of her own education were becoming terribly plain to her with every hour in Helena's company.
Helena sprang up, fetched the book, put Mrs. Friend forcibly into an arm-chair, and read aloud. Mrs. Friend listened with all her ears, and was at the end, like Faust, no wiser than before. What did it all mean? She groped, dazzled, among the Meredithian mists and splendours. But Helena read with a growing excitement, as though the flashing mysterious verse were part of her very being. When the last stanza was done, she flung herself fiercely down on a stool at Mrs. Friend's feet, breathing fast:
"Look now where Colour, the soul's bridegroom, makes The House of Heaven splendid for the Bride."
She turned to look up at the little figure in the chair, half laughing, half passionate: "You do understand, don't you?" Mrs. Friend again shook her head despairingly.
"It sounds wonderful--but I haven't a notion what it means!" Helena laughed again, but without a touch of mockery.
"One has to be taught--coached--regularly coached. Julian coached me."
"What is meant by Colour?" asked Mrs. Friend faintly.
"Colour is Passion, Beauty, Freedom!" said Helena, her cheek glowing. "It is just the opposite of dulness--and routine--and make-believe. It's what makes life worth while. And it is the young who feel it--the young who hear it calling--the young who obey it! And then when they are old, they have it to remember. Now, do you understand?"
Lucy Friend did not answer. But involuntarily, two shining tears stood in her eyes. There was something extraordinarily moving in the girl's ardour. She could hardly bear it. There came back to her momentary visions from her own quiet past--a country lane at evening where a man had put his arm round her and kissed her--her wedding-evening by the sea, when the sun went down, and all the ways were darkened, and the stars came out--and that telegram which put an end to everything, which she had scarcely had time to feel, because her mother was so ill, and wanted her every moment. Had she--even she--in her poor, drab, little life--had her moments of living Poetry, of transforming Colour, like others--without knowing it?
Helena watched her, as though in a quick, unspoken sympathy, her own storm of feeling subsiding.
"Do you know, Lucy, you look very nice indeed in that little black dress!" she said, in her soft, low voice, like the voice of an incantation, that she had used the night before. "You are the neatest, daintiest person!--not prim--but you make everything you wear refined. When I compare you with Cynthia Welwyn!"
She raised her shoulders scornfully. Lucy Friend, aghast at the outrageousness of the comparison, tried to silence her--but quite in vain. Helena ran on.
"Did you watch Cynthia last night? She was playing for Cousin Philip with all her might. Why doesn't he marry her? She would suit his autocratic ideas very well. He is forty-four. She must be thirty-eight if she is a day. They have both got money--which Cynthia can't do without, for she is horribly extravagant. But I wouldn't give much for her chances. Cousin Philip is a tough proposition, as the American says. There is no getting at his real mind. All one knows is that it is a tyrannical mind!"
All softness had died from the girl's face and sparkling eyes. She sat on the floor, her hands round her knees, defiance in every tense feature. Mrs. Friend was conscious of renewed alarm and astonishment, and at last found the nerve to express them.
"How can you call it tyrannical when he spends all this time and thought upon you!"
"The gilding of the cage," said Helena stubbornly. "That is the way women have always been taken in. Men fling them scraps to keep them quiet. But as to the real feast--liberty to discover the world for themselves, make their own experiments--choose and test their own friends--no, thank you! And what is life worth if it is only to be lived at somebody's else's dictation?"
"But you have only been here twenty-four hours--not so much! And you don't know Lord Buntingford's reasons--"
"Oh, yes, I do know!" said Helena, undisturbed--"more or less. I told you last night. They don't matter to me. It's the principle involved that matters. Am I free, or am I not free? Anyway, I've just sent that telegram."
"To whom?" cried Mrs. Friend.
"To Lord Donald, of course, asking him to meet me at the Ritz next Wednesday. If you will be so good"--the brown head made her a ceremonial bow--"as to go up with me to town--we can go to my dressmaker's together--I have got heaps to do there--then I can leave you somewhere for lunch--and pick you up again afterwards!"
"Of course, Miss Pitstone--Helena!--I can't do anything of the sort, unless your guardian agrees."
"Well, we shall see," said Helena coolly, jumping up. "I mean to tell him after lunch. Don't please worry. And good-bye till lunch. This time I am really going to look after my horse!"
A laugh, and a wave of the hand--she had disappeared. Mrs. Friend was left to reflect on the New Woman. Was it in truth the war that had produced her?--and if so, how and why? All that seemed probable was that in two or three weeks' time, perhaps, she would be again appealing to the same agency that had sent her to Beechmark. She believed she was entitled to a month's notice.
Poor Lord Buntingford! Her sympathies were hotly on his side, so far as she had any understanding of the situation into which she had been plunged with so little warning. Yet when Helena was actually there at her feet, she was hypnotized. The most inscrutable thing of all was, how she could ever have supposed herself capable of undertaking such a charge!
The two ladies were already lunching when Lord Buntingford appeared, bringing with him another neighbouring squire, come to consult him on certain local affairs. Sir Henry Bostock, one of those solid, grey-haired pillars of Church and State in which rural England abounds, was first dazzled by Miss Pitstone's beauty, and then clearly scandalized by some of her conversation, and perhaps--or so Mrs. Friend imagined--by the rather astonishing "make-up" which disfigured lips and cheeks Nature had already done her best with.
He departed immediately after lunch. Lord Buntingford accompanied him to the front door, saw him mount his horse, and was returning to the library, when a white figure crossed his path.
"Cousin Philip, I want to speak to you."
He looked up at once.
"All right, Helena. Will you come into the library?"
He ushered her in, shut the door behind her, and pushed forward an arm-chair.
"You'll find that comfortable, I think?"
"Thank you, I'd rather stand. Cousin Philip, did you send that telegram this morning?"
"Certainly. I told you I should."
"Then you won't be surprised that I too sent mine."
"I don't understand what you mean?"
"When this morning you said there would be seven for dinner to-night, I of course realized that you meant to stick to what you had said about Lord Donald yesterday; and as I particularly want to see Lord Donald, I sent the new groom to the village this morning with a wire to him to say that I should be glad if he would arrange to give me luncheon at the Ritz next Wednesday. I have to go up to try a dress on."
Lord Buntingford paused a moment, looking apparently at the cigarette with which his fingers were playing.
"You proposed, I imagine, that Mrs. Friend should go with you?"
"Oh, yes, to my dressmaker's. Then I would arrange for her to go somewhere to lunch--Debenham's, perhaps."
"And it was your idea then to go alone--to meet Lord Donald?" He looked up.
"He would wait for me in the lounge at the Ritz. It's quite simple!"
Philip Buntingford laughed--good-humouredly.
"Well, it is very kind of you to have told me so frankly, Helena--because now I shall prevent it. It is the last thing in the world that your mother would have wished, that you should be seen at the Ritz alone with Lord Donald. I therefore have her authority with me in asking you either to write or telegraph to him again to-night, giving up the plan. Better still if you would depute me to do it. It is really a very foolish plan--if I may say so."
"Because--well, there are certain things a girl of nineteen can't do without spoiling her chances in life--and one of them is to be seen about alone with a man like Lord Donald."
"And again I ask--why?"
"I really can't discuss his misdoings with you, Helena. Won't you trust me in the matter? I thought I had made it plain that having been devoted to your mother, I was prepared to be equally devoted to you, and wished you to be as happy and free as possible."
"That's an appeal to sentiment," said Helena, resolutely. "Of course I know it all sounds horrid. You've been as nice as possible; and anybody who didn't sympathize with my views would think me a nasty, ungrateful toad. But I'm not going to be coaxed into giving them up, any more than I'm going to be bullied."
Lord Buntingford surveyed her. The habitual slight pucker--as though of anxiety or doubt--in his brow was much in evidence. It might have meant the chronic effort of a short-sighted man to see. But the fine candid eyes were not short-sighted. The pucker meant something deeper.
"Of course I should like to understand what your views are," he said at last, throwing away one cigarette, and lighting another.
Helena's look kindled. She looked handsomer and more maenad-like than ever, as she stood leaning against Buntingford's writing-table, her arms folded, one slim foot crossed over the other.
"The gist of them is," she said eagerly, "that we--the women of the present day--are not going to accept our principles--moral--or political--or economic--on anybody's authority. You seem, Cousin Philip, in my case at any rate, to divide the world into two sets of people, moral and immoral, good and bad--desirable and undesirable--that kind of thing! And you expect me to know the one set, and ignore the other set. Well, we don't see it that way at all. We think that everybody is a pretty mixed lot. I know I am myself. At any rate I'm not going to begin my life by laying down a heap of rules about things I don't understand--or by accepting them from you, or anybody. If Lord Donald's a bad man, I want to know why he is a bad man--and then I'll decide. If he revolts my moral sense, of course I'll cut him. But I won't take anybody else's moral sense for judge. We've got to overhaul that sort of thing from top to bottom."
Buntingford looked thoughtfully at the passionate speaker. Should he--could he argue with her? Could he show her, for instance, a letter, or parts of it, which he had received that very morning from poor Luke Preston, his old Eton and Oxford friend? No!--it would be useless. In her present mood she might treat it so as to rouse his own temper--let alone the unseemliness of the discussion it must raise between them. Or should he give her a fairly full biography of Jim Donald, as he happened to know it? He revolted against the notion, astonished to find how strong certain old-fashioned instincts still were in his composition. And, after all, he had said a good deal the night before, at dinner, when Helena's invitation to a man he despised as a coward and a libertine had been first sprung upon him. There really was only one way out. He took it.
"Well, Helena, I'm very sorry," he said slowly. "Your views are very interesting. I should like some day to discuss them with you. But the immediate business is to stop this Ritz plan. You really won't stop it yourself?"
"Certainly not!" said Helena, her breath fluttering.
"Well, then, I must write to Donald myself. I happen to possess the means of making it impossible for him to meet you at the Ritz next Wednesday, Helena; and I shall use them. You must make some other arrangement."
"What means?" she demanded. She had turned very pale.
"Ah, no!--that you must leave to me. Look here, Helena"--his tone softened--"can't we shake hands on it, and make up? I do hate quarrelling with your mother's daughter."
Involuntarily, through all her rage, Helena was struck by the extreme sensitiveness of the face opposite her--a sensitiveness often disguised by the powerful general effect of the man's head and eyes. In a calmer mood she might have said to herself that only some past suffering could have produced it. At the moment, however, she was incapable of anything but passionate resentment.
All the same there was present in her own mind an ideal of what the action and bearing of a girl in her position should be, which, with the help of pride, would not allow her to drift into mere temper. She put her hands firmly behind her; so that Buntingford was forced to withdraw his; but she kept her self-possession.
"I don't see what there is but quarrelling before us, Cousin Philip, if you are to proceed on these lines. Are you really going to keep me to my promise?"
"To let me take care of you--for these two years? It was not a promise to me, Helena."
The girl's calm a little broke down.
"Mummy would never have made me give it," she said fiercely, "if she had known--"
"Well, you can't ask her now," he said gently. "Hadn't we better make the best of it?"
She scorned to reply. He opened the door for her, and she swept through it.
Left to himself, Buntingford gave a great stretch.
"That was strenuous!"--he said to himself--"uncommonly strenuous. How many times a week shall I have to do it? Can't Cynthia Welwyn do anything? I'll go and see Cynthia this afternoon."
With which very natural, but quite foolish resolution, he at last succeeded in quieting his own irritation, and turning his mind to a political speech he had to make next week in his own village.