Helena by Mrs. Humphry Ward
Cynthia Welwyn was giving an account of her evening at Beechmark to her elder sister, Lady Georgina. They had just met in the little drawing-room of Beechmark Cottage, and tea was coming in. It would be difficult to imagine a greater contrast than the two sisters presented. They were the daughters of a peer belonging to what a well-known frequenter of great houses and great families before the war used to call "the inferior aristocracy"--with an inflection of voice caught no doubt from the great families themselves. Yet their father had been an Earl, the second of his name, and was himself the son of a meteoric personage of mid-Victorian days--parliamentary lawyer, peer, and Governor of an Indian Presidency, who had earned his final step in the peerage by the skilful management of a little war, and had then incontinently died, leaving his family his reputation, which was considerable, and his savings, which were disappointingly small. Lady Cynthia and Lady Georgina were his only surviving children, and the earldom was extinct.
The sisters possessed a tiny house in Brompton Square, and rented Beechmark Cottage from Lord Buntingford, of whom their mother, long since dead, had been a cousin. The cottage stood within the enclosure of the park, and to their connection with the big house the sisters owed a number of amenities,--game in winter, flowers and vegetables in summer--which were of importance to their small income. Cynthia Welwyn, however, could never have passed as anybody's dependent. She thanked her cousin occasionally for the kindnesses of which his head gardener and his game-keeper knew much more than he did; and when he said impatiently--"Please never thank for that sort of thing!" she dropped the subject as lightly as she had raised it. Secretly she felt that such things, and much more, were her due. She had not got from life all she should have got; and it was only natural that people should make it up to her a little.
For Cynthia, though she had wished to marry, was unmarried, and a secret and melancholy conviction now sometimes possessed her that she would remain Cynthia Welwyn to the end. She knew very well that in the opinion of her friends she had fallen between two stools. Her neighbour, Sir Richard Watson, had proposed to her twice,--on the last occasion some two years before the war. She had not been able to make up her mind to accept him, because on the whole she was more in love with her cousin, Philip Buntingford, and still hoped that his old friendship for her might turn to something deeper. But the war had intervened, and during its four years she and Buntingford had very much lost sight of each other. She had taken her full share in the county war work; while he was absorbed body and soul by the Admiralty.
And now that they were meeting again as of old, she was very conscious, in some undefined way, that she had lost ground with him. Uneasily she felt that her talk sometimes bored him; yet she could not help talking. In the pre-war days, when they met in a drawing-room full of people, he had generally ended his evening beside her. Now his manner, for all its courtesy, seemed to tell her that those times were done; that she was four years older; that she had lost the first brilliance of her looks; and that he himself had grown out of her ken. Helena's young unfriendly eyes had read her rightly. She did wish fervently to recapture Philip Buntingford; and saw no means of doing so. Meanwhile Sir Richard, now demobilized, had come back from the war bringing great glory with him, as one of the business men whom the Army had roped in to help in its vast labour and transport organization behind the lines. He too had reappeared at Beechmark Cottage. But he too was four years older--and dreadfully preoccupied, it seemed to her, with a thousand interests which had mattered nothing to him in the old easy days.
Yet Cynthia Welwyn was still an extremely attractive and desirable woman, and was quite aware of it, as was her elder sister, Lady Georgina, who spent her silent life in alternately admiring and despising the younger. Lady Georgina was short, thin, and nearly white-haired. She had a deep voice, which she used with a harsh abruptness, startling to the newcomer. But she used it very little. Cynthia's friends, were used to see her sitting absolutely silent behind the tea-urn at breakfast or tea, filling the cups while Cynthia handed them and Cynthia talked; and they had learned that it was no use at all to show compassion and try to bring her into the conversation. A quiet rather stony stare, a muttered "Ah" or "Oh," were all that such efforts produced. Some of the frequenters of the cottage drawing-room were convinced that Lady Georgina was "not quite all there." Others had the impression of something watchful and sinister; and were accustomed to pity "dear Cynthia" for having to live with so strange a being.
But in truth the sisters suited each other very fairly, and Lady Georgina found a good deal more tongue when she was alone with Cynthia than at other times.
To the lively account that Cynthia had been giving her of the evening at Beechmark, and the behaviour of Helena Pitstone, Lady Georgina had listened in a sardonic silence; and at the end of it she said--
"What ever made the man such a fool?"
"Who?--Buntingford? My dear, what could he do? Rachel Pitstone was his greatest friend in the world, and when she asked him just the week before she died, how could he say No?" Lady Georgina murmured that in that case Rachel Pitstone also had been a fool--
"Unless, of course, she wanted the girl to marry Buntingford. Why, Philip's only forty-four now. A nice age for a guardian! Of course it's not proper. The neighbours will talk."
"Oh, no,--not with a chaperon. Besides nobody minds anything odd nowadays."
Cynthia meanwhile as she lay stretched in a deep arm-chair, playing with the tea-spoon in her shapely fingers, was a pleasant vision. Since coming in from the village, she had changed her tweed coat and skirt for a tea-frock of some soft silky stuff, hyacinth blue in colour; and Georgina, for whom tea-frocks were a silly abomination, and who was herself sitting bolt upright in a shabby blue serge some five springs old, could not deny the delicate beauty of her sister's still fresh complexion and pale gold hair, nor the effectiveness of the blue dress in combination with them. She did not really want Cynthia to look older, nor to see her ill-dressed; but all the same there were many days when Cynthia's mature perfections roused a secret irritation in her sister--a kind of secret triumph also in the thought that, in the end, Time would be the master even of Cynthia. Perhaps after all she would marry. It did look as though Sir Richard Watson, if properly encouraged, and indemnified for earlier rebuffs, might still mean business. As for Philip Buntingford, it was only Cynthia's vanity that had ever made her imagine him in love with her. Lady Georgina scoffed at the notion.
These fragmentary reflections, and others like them were passing rapidly and disconnectedly through the mind of the elder sister, when her ear caught the sound of footsteps in the drive. Drawing aside a corner of the muslin curtain beside her, which draped one of the French windows of the low room, she perceived the tall figure and scarcely perceptible limp of Lord Buntingford. Cynthia too saw him, and ceased to lounge. She quietly re-lit the tea-kettle, and took a roll of knitting from a table near her. Then as the front bell rang through the small house, she threw a scarcely perceptible look at her sister. Would Georgie "show tact," and leave her and Philip alone, or would she insist on her rights and spoil his visit? Georgina made no sign.
Buntingford entered, flushed with his walk, and carrying a bunch of blue-bells which he presented to Lady Georgina.
"I gathered them in Cricket Wood. The whole wood is a sea of blue. You and Cynthia must really go and see them."
He settled himself in a chair, and plunged into tea and small talk as though to the manner born. But all the time Cynthia, while approving his naval uniform, and his general picturesqueness, was secretly wondering what he had come about. For although he was enjoying a well-earned leave, the first for two years, and had every right to idle, the ordinary afternoon call of country life, rarely, as she knew, came into the scheme of his day. The weather was beautiful and she had made sure that he would be golfing on a well-known links some three miles off.
Presently the small talk flagged, and Buntingford began to fidget. Slowly Lady Georgina rose from her seat, and again extinguished the flame under the silver kettle. Would she go, or would she not go? Cynthia dropped some stitches in the tension of the moment. Then Buntingford got up to open the door for Georgina, who, without deigning to make any conventional excuse for her departure, nevertheless departed.
Buntingford returned to his seat, picked up Cynthia's ball of wool, and sat holding it, his eyes on the down-dropped head of his cousin, and on the beautiful hands holding the knitting-needles. Yes, she was still very good-looking, and had been sensible enough not to spoil herself by paint and powder, unlike that silly child, Helena, who was yet so much younger--twenty-two years younger, almost. It seemed incredible. But he could reckon Cynthia's age to a day; for they had known each other very well as children, and he had often given her a birthday present, till the moment when, in her third season, Cynthia had peremptorily put an end to the custom. Then he had gone abroad, and there had been a wide gap of years when they had never seen each other at all. And now, it was true, she did often bore him, intellectually. But at this moment, he was not bored--quite the contrary. The sunny cottage room, with its flowers and books and needlework, and a charming woman as its centre, evidently very glad to see him, and ready to welcome any confidences he might give her, produced a sudden sharp effect upon him. That hunger for something denied him--the "It" which he was always holding at bay--sprang upon him, and shook his self-control.
"We've known each other a long time, haven't we, Cynthia?" he said, smiling, and holding out her ball of wool.
Cynthia hardly concealed her start of pleasure. She looked up, shaking her hair from her white brow and temples with a graceful gesture, half responsive, half melancholy.
"So long!" she said--"it doesn't bear thinking of."
"Not at all. You haven't aged a bit. I want you to help me in something, Cynthia. You remember how you helped me out of one or two scrapes in the old days?"
They both laughed. Cynthia remembered very well. That scrape, for instance, with the seductive little granddaughter of the retired village school-master--a veritable Ancient of Days, who had been the witness of an unlucky kiss behind a hedge, and had marched up instanter, in his wrath, to complain to Lord Buntingford grand-pere. Or that much worse scrape, when a lad of nineteen, with not enough to do in his Oxford vacation, had imagined himself in love with a married lady of the neighbourhood, twenty years older than himself, and had had to be packed off in disgrace to Switzerland with a coach:--an angry grandfather breathing fire and slaughter. Certainly in those days Philip had been unusually--remarkably susceptible. Cynthia remembered him as always in or out of a love-affair, while she to whom he never made love was alternately champion and mentor. In those days, he had no expectation of the estates or the title. He was plain Philip Bliss, with an artistic and literary turn, great personal charm, and a temperament that invited catastrophes. That was before he went to Paris and Rome for serious work at painting. Seven years he had been away from England, and she had never seen him. He had announced his marriage to her in a short note containing hardly any particulars--except that his wife was a student like himself, and that he intended to live abroad and work. Some four years later, the Times contained the bare news, in the obituary column, of his wife's death, and about a year afterwards he returned to England, an enormously changed man, with that slight lameness, which seemed somehow to draw a sharp, dividing line between the splendid, impulsive youth who had gone abroad, and the reserved, and self-contained man of thirty-two--pessimist and dilettante--who had returned. His lameness he ascribed to an accident in the Alps, but would never say anything more about it; and his friends presently learned to avoid the subject, and to forget the slight signs of something unexplained which had made them curious at first.
In the intervening years before the war, Cynthia felt tolerably sure that she had been his only intimate woman friend. His former susceptibility seemed to have vanished. On the whole he avoided women's society. Some years after his return he had inherited the title and the estates, and might have been one of the most invited men in London had he wished to be; while Cynthia could remember at least three women, all desirable, who would have liked to marry him. The war had swept him more decidedly than ever out of the ordinary current of society. He had made it both an excuse and a shield. His work was paramount; and even his old friends had lost sight of him. He lived and breathed for an important Committee of the Admiralty, on which as time went on he took a more and more important place. In the four years Cynthia had scarcely seen him more than half a dozen times.
And now the war was over. It was May again, and glorious May with the world all colour and song, the garden a wealth of blossom, and the nights clear and fragrant under moon or stars. And here was Philip again--much more like the old Philip than he had been for years--looking at her with those enchanting blue eyes of his, and asking her to do something for him. No wonder Cynthia's pulses were stirred. The night before, she had come home depressed--very conscious that she had had no particular success with him at dinner, or afterwards. This unexpected tete-a-tete, with its sudden touch of intimacy, made up for it all.
What could she do but assure him--trying hard not to be too forthcoming--that she would be delighted to help him, if she could? What was wrong?
"Nothing but my own idiocy," he said, smiling. "I find myself guardian to an extremely headstrong young woman, and I don't know how to manage her. I want your advice."
Cynthia lay back in her chair, and prepared to give him all her mind. But her eyes showed a certain mockery.
"I wonder why you undertook it!"
"So do I. But--well, I couldn't help it. We won't discuss that. But what I had very little idea of--was the modern girl!" Cynthia laughed out.
"And now you have discovered her--in one day?" He laughed too, but rather dismally.
"Oh, I am only on the first step. What I shall come to presently, I don't know. But the immediate problem is that Helena bombed me last night by the unexpected announcement that she had asked Donald--Lord Donald--for the week-end. Do you know him?" Cynthia's eyebrows had gone up.
"You know his reputation?"
"I begin to remember a good deal about him. Go on."
"Well, Helena had asked that man, without consulting me, to stay at my house, and she sprang the announcement on me, on Thursday, the invitation being for Saturday. I had to tell her then and there--that he couldn't come."
"Naturally. How did she take it?"
"Very ill. You see, in a rash moment, I had told her to invite her friends for week-ends as she pleased. So she holds that I have broken faith, and this morning she told me she had arranged to go up and lunch with Donald at the Ritz next week--alone! So again I had to stop it. But I don't play the jailer even decently. I feel the greatest fool in creation." Cynthia smiled.
"I quite believe you! And this all happened in the first twenty-four hours? Poor Philip!"
"And I have also been informed that Helena's 'views' will not allow her--in the future--to take my advice on any such questions--that she prefers her liberty to her reputation--and 'wants to understand a bad man.' She said so. It's all very well to laugh, Cynthia! But what am I to do?"
Cynthia, however, continued to laugh unrestrainedly. And he joined in.
"And now you want advice?" she said at last, checking her mirth. "I'm awfully sorry for you, Philip. What about the little chaperon?"
"As nice a woman as ever was--but I don't see her preventing Helena from doing anything she wants to do. Helena will jolly well take care of that. Besides she is too new to the job."
"She may get on better with Helena, perhaps, than a stronger woman," mused Cynthia. "But I am afraid you have got your work cut out. Wasn't it very rash of you?"
"I couldn't help it," he repeated briefly. "And I must just do my best. But I'd be awfully grateful if you'd take a hand, Cynthia. Won't you come up and really make friends with her? She might take things from you that she wouldn't from me."
Cynthia looked extremely doubtful.
"I am sure last night she detested me."
"How could you tell? And why should she?"
"I'm twenty years older. That's quite enough."
"You scarcely look a day older, Cynthia."
She sighed, and lightly touched his hand, with a caressing gesture he remembered of old.
"Very nice of you to say it--but of course it isn't true. Well, Philip, I'll do what I can. I'll wander up some time--on Sunday perhaps. With your coaching, I could at least give her a biography of Jim Donald. One needn't be afraid of shocking her?"
His eyebrows lifted.
"Who's shocked at anything nowadays? Look at the things girls read and discuss! I'm old-fashioned, I suppose. But I really couldn't talk about Donald to her this morning. The fellow is such a worm! It would come better from you."
"Tell me a few more facts, then, about him, than I know at present."
He gave her rapidly a sketch of the life and antecedents of Lord Donald of Dunoon--gambler, wastrel, divorce, et cetera, speaking quite frankly, almost as he would have spoken to a man. For there was nothing at all distasteful to him in Cynthia's knowledge of life. In a woman of forty it was natural and even attractive. The notion of a discussion of Donald's love-affairs with Helena had revolted him. It was on the contrary something of a relief--especially with a practical object in view--to discuss them with Cynthia.
They sat chatting till the shadows lengthened, then wandered into the garden, still talking. Lady Georgina, watching from her window upstairs, had to admit that Buntingford seemed to like her sister's society. But if she had been within earshot at the last five minutes of their conversation, she would perhaps have seen no reason, finally, to change her opinion. Very agreeable that discursive talk had been to both participants. Buntingford had talked with great frankness of his own plans. In three months or so, his Admiralty work would be over. He thought very likely that the Government would then give him a modest place in the Administration. He might begin by representing the Admiralty in the Lords, and as soon as he got a foot on the political ladder prospects would open. On the whole, he thought, politics would be his line. He had no personal axes to grind; was afraid of nothing; wouldn't care if the Lords were done away with to-morrow, and could live on a fraction of his income if the Socialists insisted on grabbing the rest. But the new world which the war had opened was a desperately interesting one. He hadn't enough at stake in it to spoil his nerve. Whatever happened, he implied, he was steeled--politically and intellectually. Nothing could deprive him either of the joy of the fight, or the amusement of the spectacle.
And Cynthia, her honey-gold hair blown back from her white temples by the summer wind, her blue parasol throwing a summer shade about her, showed herself, as they strolled backwards and forwards over the shady lawn of the cottage, a mistress of the listening art; and there is no art more winning, either to men or women.
Then, in a moment, what broke the spell? Some hint or question from her, of a more intimate kind?--something that touched a secret place, wholly unsuspected by her? She racked her brains afterwards to think what it could have been; but in vain. All she knew was that the man beside her had suddenly stiffened. His easy talk had ceased to flow; while still walking beside her, he seemed to be miles away. So that by a quick common impulse both stood still.
"I must go back to the village," said Cynthia. She smiled, but her face had grown a little tired and faded.
He looked at his watch.
"And I told the car to fetch me half an hour ago. You'll be up some time perhaps--luncheon to-morrow?--or Sunday?"
"If I can. I'll do my best."
"Kind Cynthia!" But his tone was perfunctory, and his eyes avoided her. When he had gone, she could only wonder what she had done to offend him; and a certain dreariness crept into the evening light. She was not the least in love with Philip--that she assured herself. But his sudden changes of mood were very trying to one who would like to be his friend.
Buntingford walked rapidly home. His way lay through an oak wood, that was now a revel of spring; overhead, a shimmering roof of golden leaf and wild cherry-blossom, and underfoot a sea of blue-bells. A winding path led through it, and through the lovely open and grassy spaces which from time to time broke up the density of the wood--like so many green floors cleared for the wood nymphs' dancing. From the west a level sun struck through the trees, breaking through storm-clouds which had been rapidly filling the horizon, and kindling the tall trees, with their ribbed grey bark, till they shone for a brief moment like the polished pillars in the house of Odysseus. Then a nightingale sang. Nightingales were rare at Beechmark; and Buntingford would normally have hailed the enchanted flute-notes with a boyish delight. But this evening they fell on deaf ears, and when the garish sunlight gave place to gloom, and drops of rain began to patter on the new leaf, the gathering storm, and the dark silence of the wood, after the nightingale had given her last trill, were welcome to a man struggling with a recurrent and desperate oppression.
Must he always tamely submit to the fetters which bound him? Could he do nothing to free himself? Could the law do nothing? Enquiry--violent action of some sort--rebellion against the conditions which had grown so rigid about him:--for the hundredth time, he canvassed all ways of escape, and for the hundredth time, found none.
He knew very well what was wrong with him. It was simply the imperious need for a woman's companionship in his life--for love. Physically and morally, the longing which had lately taken possession of him, was becoming a gnawing and perpetual distress. There was the plain fact. This hour with Cynthia Welwyn had stirred in him the depths of old pain. But he was not really in love with Cynthia. During the war, amid the absorption of his work, and the fierce pressure of the national need, he had been quite content to forget her. His work--and England's strait--had filled his mind and his time. Except for certain dull resentments and regrets, present at all times in the background of consciousness, the four years of the war had been to him a period of relief, almost of deliverance. He had been able to lose himself; and in that inner history of the soul which is the real history of each one of us, that had been for long years impossible.
But now all that protection and help was gone; the floodgates were loosened again. His work still went on; but it was no longer absorbing; it no longer mattered enough to hold in check the vague impulses and passions that were beating against his will.
And meanwhile the years were running on. He was forty-four, Helena Pitstone's guardian, and clearly relegated already by that unmanageable child to the ranks of the middle-aged. He had read her thought in her great scornful eyes. "What has your generation to do with mine? Your day is over!"
And all the while the ugly truth was that he had never had his "day"--and was likely now to miss it for good. Or at least such "day" as had shone upon him had been so short, so chequered, so tragically wiped out, it might as well never have dawned. Yet the one dear woman friend to whom in these latter years he had spoken freely, who knew him through and through--Helena Pitstone's mother--had taken for granted, in her quiet ascetic way, that he had indeed had his chance, and must accept for good and all what had come of it. It was because she thought of him as set apart, as debarred by what had happened to him, from honest love-making, and protected by his own nature from anything less, that she had asked him to take charge of Helena. He realized it now. It had been the notion of a fanciful idealist, springing from certain sickroom ideas of sacrifice--renunciation--submission to the will of God--and so forth.
It was not the will of God!--that he should live forsaken and die forlorn! He hurled defiance, even at Rachel, his dear dead friend, who had been so full of pity for him, and for whom he had felt the purest and most unselfish affection he had ever known--since his mother's death.
And now the presence of her child in his house seemed to represent a verdict, a sentence--of hers upon him, which he simply refused to accept as just or final. If Rachel had only lived a little longer he would have had it out with her. But in those last terrible days, how could he either argue--or refuse?
All the same, he would utterly do his duty by Helena. If she chose to regard him as an old fogy, well and good--it was perhaps better so. Not that--if circumstances had been other than they were---he would have been the least inclined to make love to her. Her beauty was astonishing. But the wonderful energy and vitality of her crude youth rather repelled than attracted him.
The thought of the wrestles ahead of him was a weariness to an already tired man. Debate with her, on all the huge insoluble questions she seemed to be determined to raise, was of all things in the world most distasteful to him. He would certainly cut a sorry figure in it; nothing was more probable.
The rain began to plash down upon his face and bared head, cooling an inner fever. The damp wood, the soft continuous dripping of the cherry-blossoms, the scent of the blue-bells,--there was in them a certain shelter and healing. He would have liked to linger there. But already, at Beechmark, guests must have arrived; he was being missed.
The trees thinned, and the broad lawns of Beechmark came in sight. Ah!--there was Geoffrey, walking up and down with Helena. Suppose that really came off? What a comfortable way out! He and Cynthia must back it all they could.