Chapter VI
 

"Buntingford looks twice as old as he need!" said Geoffrey French, lighting a cigarette as he and Helena stepped out of the drawing-room window after dinner into the May world outside--a world which lay steeped in an after-glow of magical beauty. "What's wrong, I wonder! Have you been plaguing him, Helena?" The laughing shot was fired purely at random. But the slight start and flush it produced in Helena struck him.

"I see nothing wrong with him," said Helena, a touch of defiance in her voice. "But of course it's extraordinarily difficult to get on with him."

"With Philip!--the jolliest, kindest chap going! What do you mean?"

"All right. It's no good talking to anybody with a parti pris!"

"No--but seriously, Helena--what's the matter? Why, you told me you only began the new arrangement two days ago."

"Exactly. And there's been time already for a first-class quarrel. Time also for me to see that I shall never, never get on with him. I don't know how we are to get through the two years!"

"Well!" ejaculated her companion. "In Heaven's name, what has he been doing?"

Helena shrugged her shoulders. She was striding beside him like a young Artemis--in white, with a silver star in her hair, and her short skirts beaten back from her slender legs and feet by the evening wind. Geoffrey French, who had had a classical education, almost looked for the quiver and the bow. He was dazzled at once, and provoked. A magnificent creature, certainly--"very mad and very handsome!"--he recalled Buntingford's letter.

"Do tell me, Helena!" he urged.

"What's the good? You'll only side with him--and preach. You've done that several times already."

The young man frowned a little.

"I don't preach!" he said shortly. "I say what I think--when you ask me. Twice, if I remember right, you told me of some proceeding of yours, and asked me for my opinion. Well, I gave it, and it didn't happen to be yours. But that isn't preaching."

"You gave so many reasons--it was preaching."

"Great Scott!--wasn't it more polite to give one's reasons?"

"Perhaps. But one shouldn't burst with them. One should be sorry to disagree."

"Hm. Well--now kindly lay down for me, how I am to disagree with you about Philip. For I do disagree with you, profoundly."

"There it is. Profoundly--that shows how you enjoy disagreeing. Why can't you put yourself at my point of view?"

"Well, I'll try. But at least--explain it to me."

Helena threw herself into a garden chair, under a wild cherry which rose a pyramid of silver against an orange sky. Other figures were scattered about the lawns, three or four young men, and three or four girls in light dresses. The air seemed to be full of laughter and young voices. Only Mrs. Friend sat shyly by herself just within the drawing-room window, a book on her knee. A lamp behind her brought out the lines of her bent head and slight figure.

"I wonder if I like you well enough," said Helena coolly, biting at a stalk of grass--"well enough, I mean, to explain things. I haven't made you my father confessor yet, Geoffrey."

"Suppose you begin--and see how it answers," said French lazily, rolling over on the grass in front of her, his chin in his hands.

"Well, I don't mind--for fun. Only if you preach I shall stop. But, first of all, let's get some common ground. You admit, I suppose, that the war has changed the whole position of women?"

"Yes--with reservations."

"Don't state them!" said Helena hastily. "That would be preaching. Yes, or No?"

"Yes, then,--you tyrant!"

"And that means--doesn't it--at the very least--that girls of my own age have done with all the old stupid chaperonage business--at least nearly all--that we are to choose our own friends, and make our own arrangements?--doesn't it?" she repeated peremptorily.

"I don't know. My information is--that the mothers are stiffening."

A laughing face looked up at her from the grass.

"Stiffening!" The tone was contemptuous. "Well, that may be so--for babes of seventeen--like that one--" her gesture indicated a slight figure in white at the edge of the lawn--"who have never been out of the school-room--but--"

"You think nineteen makes all the difference? I doubt," said Geoffrey French coolly, as he sat up tailor-fashion, and surveyed her. "Well, my view is that for the babes, as you call them, chaperonage is certainly reviving. I have just been sitting next Lady Maud, this babe's mother, and she told me an invitation came for the babe from some great house last week, addressed to 'Miss Luton and partner'--whereon Lady Maud wrote back--'My daughter has no partner and I shall be very happy to bring her.' Rather a poke in the eye! Then there are the women of five or six and twenty who have been through the war, and are not likely to give up the freedom of it--ever again. That's all right. They'll take their own risks. Many of them will prefer not to live at home again. They'll live with a friend--and visit their people perhaps every day! But, then there's you, Helena--the betwixt and between!--"

"Well--what about me?"

"You're neither a babe--nor a veteran."

"I'm nineteen and a half--and I've done a year and a half of war work--"

"Canteen--and driving? All right. Am I to give an opinion?"

"You will give it, whatever I say. And it's you all over--to give it, before you've allowed me to explain anything."

"Oh, I know your point of view--" said Geoffrey, unperturbed--"know it by heart. Haven't you dinned it into me at half a dozen dances lately? No!--I'm entitled to my say--and here it is. Claim all the freedom you like--but as you're not twenty-five, but nineteen--let a good fellow like Buntingford give you advice--and be thankful!"

"Prig!" said Helena, pelting him with a spray of wild cherry, which he caught and put in his button-hole. "If that isn't preaching, I should like to know what is!"

"Not at all. Unbiased opinion--civilly expressed. If you really were an emancipated young woman, Helena, you'd take it so! But now--" his tone changed--"let's come to business. What have you and Philip been quarrelling about?"

Helena straightened her shoulders, as though to meet certain disapproval.

"Because--I asked Lord Donald to spend the week-end here--"

"You didn't!"

"I did; and Cousin Philip wired to him and forbade him the house. Offence No. 1. Then as I intended all the same to see Jim, I told him I would go up and lunch with him at the Ritz. Cousin Philip vows I shan't, and he seems to have some underhand means of stopping it--I--I don't know what--"

"Underhand! Philip! I say, Helena, I wonder whether you have any idea how people who really know him think about Buntingford!"

"Oh, of course men back up men!"

"Stuff! It's really silly--abominable too--the way you talk of him--I can't help saying it."

And this time it was Geoffrey's turn to look indignant. His long face with its deeply set grey eyes, a rather large nose, and a fine brow under curly hair, had flushed suddenly.

"If you can't help it, I suppose you must say it. But I don't know why I should stay and listen," said Helena provokingly, making a movement as though to rise. But he laid a hand on her dress:

"No, no, Helena, don't go--look here--do you ever happen to notice Buntingford--when he's sitting quiet--and other people are talking round him?"

"Not particularly." The tone was cold, but she no longer threatened departure.

"Well, I just ask you--some time--to watch. An old friend of his said to me the other day--'I often feel that Buntingford is the saddest man I know.'"

"Why should he be?" asked Helena imperiously.

"I can't tell you. No one can. It's just what those people think who know him best. Well, that's one fact about him--that his men friends feel they could no more torment a wounded soldier, than worry Buntingford--if they could help it. Then there are other facts that no one knows unless they've worked in Philip's office, where all the men clerks and all the women typists just adore him! I happen to know a good deal about it. I could tell you things--"

"For Heaven's sake, don't!" cried Helena impatiently. "What does it matter? He may be a saint--with seven haloes--for those that don't cross him. But I want my freedom!"--a white foot beat the ground impatiently--"and he stands in the way."

"Freedom to compromise yourself with a scoundrel like Donald! What can you know about such a man--compared with what Philip knows?"

"That's just it--I want to know--" said Helena in her most stubborn voice. "This is a world, now, in which we've all got to know,--both the bad and the good of it. No more taking it on trust from other people! Let us learn it for ourselves."

"Helena!--you're quite mad!" said the young man, exasperated.

"Perhaps I am. But it's a madness you can't cure." And springing to her feet, she sent a call across the lawn--"Peter!" A slim boy who was walking beside the "babe" of seventeen, some distance away, turned sharply at the sound, and running across the grass pulled up in front of Helena.

"Well?--here I am."

"Shall we go and look at the lake? You might pull me about a little."

"Ripping!" said the youth joyously. "Won't you want a cloak?"

"No--it's so hot. Shall we ask Miss Luton?"

Peter made a face.

"Why should we?"

Helena laughed, and they went off together in the direction of a strip of silver under distant trees on which the moon was shining.

French walked away towards the girlish figure now deserted.

Helena watched him out of the corner of her eyes, saw the girl's eager greeting, and the disappearance of the two in the woody walk that bordered the lawn. Then she noticed a man sitting by himself not far away, with a newspaper on his knee.

"Suppose we take Mr. Horne, Peter?"

"Don't let's take anybody!" said the boy. "And anyway Horne's a nuisance just now. He talks you dead with strikes--and nationalization--and labour men--and all that rot. Can't we ever let it alone? I want to talk to you, Helena. I say, you are ripping in that dress! You're just divine, Helena!" The girl laughed, her sweetest, most rippling laugh.

"Go on like that, Peter. You can't think how nice it sounds--especially after Geoffrey's been lecturing for all he's worth."

"Lecturing? Oh well, if it comes to that, I've got my grievance too, Helena. We'll have it out, when I've found the boat."

"Forewarned!" said Helena, still laughing. "Perhaps I won't come."

"Oh, yes, you will," said the boy confidently. "I believe you know perfectly well what it's about. You've got a guilty conscience, Miss Helena!"

Helena said nothing, till they had pushed the boat out from the reeds and the water-lilies, and she was sitting with the steering ropes in her hands opposite a boy in his shirt sleeves, with the head and face of a cherub, and the spare frame of an athlete, who was devouring her with his eyes.

"Are you quite done with the Army, Peter?"

"Quite. Got out a month ago. You come to me, Helena, if you want any advice about foreign loans--eh? I can tell you a thing or two."

"Are you going to be very rich?"

"Well, I'm pretty rich already," said the boy candidly. "It seems beastly to be wanting more. But my uncles would shove me into the Bank. I couldn't help it."

"You'll never look so nice as you did in your khaki, Peter. What have you done with all your ribbons?"

"What, the decorations? Oh, they're kicking about somewhere."

"You're not to let your Victoria Cross kick about, as you call it," said Helena severely. "By the way, Peter, you've never told me yet--Oh, I saw the bit in the Times. But I want you to tell me about it. Won't you?"

She bent forward, all softness, her beautiful eyes on her companion.

"No!" said Peter with energy--"never!"

She considered him.

"Was it so awful?" she asked under her breath.

"For God's sake, don't ask questions!" said the boy angrily. "You know I want to forget it. I shall never be quite right till I do forget it."

She was silent. It was his twin brother he had tried to save--staggering back through a British barrage with the wounded man on his shoulders--only to find, as he stumbled into the trench, that he had been carrying the dead. He himself had spent six months in hospital from the effects of wounds and shock. He had emerged to find himself a V. V. and A. D. C. to his Army Commander; and apparently as gay and full of fun as before. But his adoring mother and sisters knew very well that there were sore spots in Peter.

Helena realized that she had touched one. She bent forward presently, and laid her own hand on one of the hands that were handling the sculls.

"Dear Peter!"

He bent impetuously, and kissed the hand before she could withdraw it.

"Don't you play with me, Helena," he said passionately. "I'm not a child, though I look it ... Now, then, let's have it out."

They had reached the middle of the pond, and were drifting across a moonlit pathway, on either side of which lay the shadow of deep woods, now impenetrably dark. The star in Helena's hair glittered in the light, and the face beneath it, robbed of its daylight colour, had become a study in black and white, subtler and more lovely than the real Helena.

"Why did you do it, Helena?" said Peter suddenly.

"Do what?"

"Why did you behave to me as you did, at the Arts Ball? Why did you cut me, not once--but twice--three times--for that beast Donald?"

Helena laughed.

"Now you're beginning!" she said, as she lazily trailed her hand in the water. "It's really comic!"

"What do you mean?"

"Only that I've already quarrelled with Cousin Philip--and Geoffrey--about Lord Donald--so if you insist on quarrelling too, I shall have no friends left."

"Damn Donald! It's like his impudence to ask you to dance at all. It made me sick to see you with him. He's the limit. Well, but--I'm not going to quarrel about Donald, Helena--I'm not going to quarrel about anything. I'm going to have my own say--and you can't escape this time--you witch!"

Helena looked round the pond.

"I can swim," she said tranquilly.

"I should jump in after you--and we'd both go down together. No, but--listen to me, dear Helena! Why won't you marry me? You say sometimes--that you care for me a little."

The boy's tone faltered.

"Why won't I marry you? Perhaps because you ask me so often," said Helena, laughing. "Neglect me--be rude to me--cut me at a dance, and then see."

"I couldn't--it matters too much."

"Dear Peter! But can't you understand that I don't want to commit myself just yet? I want to have my life to myself a bit. I'm like the miners and the railway men. I'm full of unrest! I can't and won't settle down just yet. I want to look at things--the world's like a great cinema show just now--everything passing so quick you can hardly take breath. I want to sample it where I please. I want to dance--and talk--and make experiments."

"Well--marrying me would be an experiment," said Peter stoutly. "I vow you'd never regret it, Helena!"

"But I can't vow that you wouldn't! Let me alone, Peter. I suppose some time I shall quiet down. It doesn't matter if I break my own heart. But I won't take the responsibility of anybody else's heart just yet."

"Well, of course, that means you're not in love with anybody. You'd soon chuck all that nonsense if you were."

The young, despairing voice thrilled her. It was all experience--life--drama--this floating over summer water--with a beautiful youth, whose heart seemed to be fluttering in her very hands. But she was only thrilled intellectually--as a spectator. Peter would soon get over it. She would be very kind to him, and let him down easily. They drifted silently a little. Then Peter said abruptly:

"Well, at least, Helena, you might promise me not to dance with Jim Donald again!"

"Peter--my promises of that kind--are worth nothing! ... I think it's getting late--we ought to be going home!" And she gave the rudder a turn for the shore.

He unwillingly complied, and after rowing through the shadow of the woods, they emerged on a moonlit slope of lawn, where was the usual landing-place. Two persons who had been strolling along the edge of the water approached them.

"Who is that with Buntingford?" asked Dale.

"My new chaperon. Aren't you sorry for her?"

"I jolly well am!" cried Peter. "She'll have a dog's life!"

"That's very rude of you, Peter. You may perhaps be surprised to hear that I like her very much. She's a little dear--and I'm going to be awfully good to her."

"Which means, of course, that she'll never dare to cross you!"

"Peter, don't be unkind! Dear Peter--make it up! I do want to be friends. There's just time for you to say something nice!"

For his vigorous strokes were bringing them rapidly to the bank.

"Oh, what's the good of talking!" said the boy impatiently. "I shall be friends, of course--take what you fling me. I can't do anything else."

Helena blew him a kiss, to which he made no response.

"All right!--I'll bring you in!" said Lord Buntingford from the shore.

He dragged the boat up on the sandy edge, and offered a hand to Helena. She stumbled out, and would have fallen into the shallow water but for his sudden grip upon her.

"That was stupid of me!" she said, vexed with herself.

He made no reply. It was left to Mrs. Friend to express a hope that she had not sprained her foot.

"Oh, dear no," said Helena. "But I'm cold. Peter, will you race me to the house? Give me a fair start!"

Peter eagerly placed her, and then--a maiden flying and a young god pursuing--they had soon drawn the eyes and laughter of all the other guests, who cheered as the panting Helena, winner by a foot, dashed through the drawing-room window into the house.

Helena and Mrs. Friend had been discussing the evening,--Helena on the floor, in a white dressing-gown, with her hair down her back. She had amused herself with a very shrewd analysis--not too favourable--of Geoffrey French's character and prospects, and had rushed through an eloquent account of Peter's performances in the war; she had mocked at Lady Maud's conventionalities, and mimicked the "babe's" simpering manner with young men; she had enquired pityingly how Mrs. Friend had got on with the old Canon who had taken her in to dinner, and had launched into rather caustic and, to Mrs. Friend's ear, astonishing criticisms of "Cousin Philip's wine"--which Mrs. Friend had never even dreamt of tasting. But of Cousin Philip himself there was not a word. Mrs. Friend knew there had been an interview between them; but she dared not ask questions. How to steer her way in the moral hurricane she foresaw, was what preoccupied her; so as both to do her duty to Lord B. and yet keep a hold on this strange being in whose good graces she still found herself--much to her astonishment.

Then with midnight Helena departed. But long after she was herself in bed, Mrs. Friend heard movements in the adjoining room, and was aware of a scent of tobacco stealing in through her own open window.

Helena, indeed, when she found herself alone was, for a time, too excited to sleep, and cigarettes were her only resource. She was conscious of an exaltation of will, a passionate self-assertion, beating through all her veins, which made sleep impossible. Cousin Philip had scarcely addressed a word to her during the evening, and had bade her a chilly good-night. Of course, if that was to be his attitude it was impossible she could go on living under his roof. Her mother could not for a moment have expected her to keep her word, under such conditions ... And yet--why retreat? Why not fight it out, temperately, but resolutely? "I lost my temper again like an idiot, this morning--I mustn't--mustn't--lose it. He had jolly well the best of it."

"Self-determination"--that was what she was bent on. If it was good for nations, it was good also for individuals. Liberty to make one's own mistakes, to face one's own risks--that was the minimum. And for one adult human being to accept the dictation of another human being was the only sin worth talking about. The test might come on some trivial thing, like this matter of Lord Donald. Well,--she must be content to "find quarrel in a straw, where honour is at stake." Yet, of course, her guardian was bound to resist. The fight between her will and his was natural and necessary. It was the clash of two generations, two views of life. She was not merely the wilful and insubordinate girl she would have been before the war; she saw herself, at any rate, as something much more interesting. All over the world there was the same breaking of bonds; and the same instinct towards violence. "The violent taketh by force." Was it the instinct that war leaves, and must leave, behind it--its most sinister, or its most pregnant, legacy? She was passionately conscious of it, and of a strange thirst to carry it into reckless action. The unrest in her was the same unrest that was driving men everywhere--and women, too--into industrial disturbance and moral revolt. The old is done with; and the Tree of Life needs to be well shaken before the new fruit will drop.

Wild thoughts like these ran through her mind. Then she scoffed at herself for such large notions, about so small a thing. And suddenly something checked her--the physical recollection, as it were, left tingling in her hand, of the grasp by which Buntingford had upheld her, as she was leaving the boat. With it went a vision of his face, his dark, furrowed face, in the moonlight.

"The saddest man I know." Why and wherefore? Long after she was in bed, she lay awake, absorbed in a dreamy yet intense gathering together of all that she could recollect of Cousin Philip, from her childhood up, through her school years, and down to her mother's death. Till now he had been part of the more or less pleasant furniture of life. She seemed to be on the way to realize him as a man--perhaps a force. It was unsuspected--and rather interesting.