Helena by Mrs. Humphry Ward
The drought continued; and under the hot sun the lilacs were already pyramids of purple, the oaks were nearly in full leaf, and the hawthorns in the park and along the hedges would soon replace with another white splendour the fading blossom of the wild cherries.
It was Sunday morning, and none of the Beechmark party except Mrs. Friend, Lady Luton and her seventeen-year-old daughter had shown any inclination to go to church. Geoffrey French and Helena had escorted the churchgoers the short way across the park, taking a laughing leave of them at the last stile, whence the old church was but a stone's throw. There was a circle of chairs on the lawn intermittently filled by talkers. Lord Buntingford was indoors and was reported to have had some ugly news that morning of a discharged soldiers' riot in a neighbouring town where he owned a good deal of property. The disturbance had been for the time being suppressed, but its renewal was expected, and Buntingford, according to Julian Horne, who had been in close consultation with him, was ready to go over at any moment, on a telephone call from the town authorities, and take what other "specials" he could gather with him.
"It's not at all a nice business," said Horne, looking up from his long chair, as Geoffrey French and Helena reappeared. "And if Philip is rung up, he'll sweep us all in. So don't be out of the way, Geoffrey."
"What's the matter? Somebody has been bungling as usual, I suppose," said Helena in her most confident and peremptory tone.
"The discharged men say that nobody pays any attention to them--and they mean to burn down something."
"On the principle of the Chinaman, and 'roast pig,'" said French, stretching himself at full length on the grass, where Helena was already sitting. "What an extraordinary state of mind we're all in! We all want to burn something. I want to burn the doctors, because some of the medical boards have been beasts to some of my friends; the soldiers over at Dansworth want to burn the town, because they haven't been made enough of; the Triple Alliance want to burn up the country to cook their roast pig--and as for you, Helena--"
He turned a laughing face upon her--but before she could reply, a telephone was heard ringing, through the open windows of the house.
"For me, I expect," exclaimed Helena, springing up. She disappeared within the drawing-room, returning presently, with flushed cheeks, and a bearing of which Geoffrey French at once guessed the meaning.
"Donald has thrown her over?" he said to himself. "Of course Philip had the trump card!"
Helena, however, said nothing. She took up a book she had left on the grass, and withdrew with it to the solitary shelter of a cedar some yards away. Quiet descended on the lawns. The men smoked or buried themselves in a sleepy study of the Sunday papers. The old house lay steeped in sunshine. Occasional bursts of talk arose and died away; a loud cuckoo in a neighbouring plantation seemed determined to silence all its bird rivals; while once or twice the hum of an aeroplane overhead awoke even in the drowsiest listener dim memories of the war.
Helena was only pretending to read. The telephone message which had reached her had been from Lord Donald's butler--not even from Lord Donald himself!--and had been to the effect that "his lordship" asked him to say that he had been obliged to go to Scotland for a fortnight, and was very sorry he had not been able to answer Miss Pitstone's telegram before starting. Helena's cheeks were positively smarting under the humiliation of it. Donald daring to send her a message through a servant, when she had telegraphed to him! For of course it was all a lie as to his having left town--one could tell that from the butler's voice. He had been somehow frightened by Cousin Philip, and was revenging himself by rudeness to her. She seemed to hear "Jim" and his intimates discussing the situation. Of course it would only amuse them!--everything amused them!--that Buntingford should have put his foot down. How she had boasted, both to Jim and to some of his friends, of the attitude she meant to take up with her guardian during her "imprisonment on parole." And this was the end of the first bout. Cousin Philip had been easily master, and instead of making common cause with her against a ridiculous piece of tyranny, Lord Donald had backed out. He might at least have been sympathetic and polite--might have come himself to speak to her at the telephone, instead--
Her blood boiled. How was she going to put up with this life? The irony of the whole position was insufferable. Geoffrey's ejaculation for instance when she had invited him to her sitting-room after breakfast that he might look for a book he had lent her--"My word, Helena, what a jolly place!--Why, this was the old school-room--I remember it perfectly--the piggiest, shabbiest old den. And Philip has had it all done up for you? Didn't know he had so much taste!" And then, Geoffrey's roguish look at her, expressing the "chaff" he restrained for fear of offending her. Lucy Friend, too, Captain Lodge, Peter--everybody--no one had any sympathy with her. And lastly, Donald himself--coward!--had refused to play up. Not that she cared one straw about him personally. She knew very well that he was a poor creature. It was the principle involved:--that a girl of nineteen is to be treated as a free and responsible being, and not as though she were still a child in the nursery. "Cousin Philip may have had the right to say he wouldn't have Jim Donald in his house, if he felt that way--but he had no right whatever to prevent my meeting him in town, if I chose to meet him--that's my affair!--that's the point! All these men here are in league. It's not Jim's character that's in question--I throw Jim's character to the wolves--it's the freedom of women!"
So the tumult in her surged to and fro, mingled all through with a certain unwilling preoccupation. That semi-circular bow-window on the south side of the house, which she commanded from her seat under the cedar, was one of the windows of the library. Hidden from her by the old bureau at which he was writing, sat Buntingford at work. She could see his feet under the bureau, and sometimes the top of his head. Oh, of course, he had a way with him--a certain magnetism--for the people who liked him, and whom he liked. Lady Maud, for instance--how well they had got on at breakfast? Naturally, she thought him adorable. And Lady Maud's girl. To see Buntingford showing her the butterfly collections in the library--devoting himself to her--and the little thing blushing and smiling--it was simply idyllic! And then to contrast the scene with that other scene, in the same room, the day before!
"Well, now, what am I going to do here--or in town?" she asked herself in exasperation. "If Cousin Philip and I liked each other it would be pleasant enough to ride together, to talk and read and argue--his brain's all right!--with Lucy Friend to fall back upon between whiles--for just these few weeks, at any rate, before we go to town--and with the week-ends to help one out. But if we are to be at daggers-drawn--he determined to boss me--and I equally determined not to be bossed--why, the thing will be intolerable! Hullo!--is that Cynthia Welwyn? She seems to be making for me."
It was Lady Cynthia, very fresh and brilliant in airy black and white, with a purple sunshade. She came straight over the grass to Helena's shady corner.
"You look so cool! May I share?"
Helena rather ungraciously pushed forward a chair as they shook hands.
"The rest of your party seem to be asleep," said Cynthia, glancing at various prostrate forms belonging to the male sex that were visible on a distant slope of the lawn. "But you've heard of the Dansworth disturbances?--and that everybody here may have to go?"
"Yes. It's probably exaggerated--isn't it?"
"I don't know. Everybody coming out of church was talking of it. There was bad rioting last night--and a factory burnt down. They say it's begun again. Buntingford will probably have to go. Where is he?"
Helena pointed to the library and to the feet under the bureau.
"He's waiting indoors, no doubt, in case there's a summons."
"No doubt," said Helena.
Cynthia found her task difficult. She had come determined to make friends with this thorny young woman, and to smooth Philip's path for him if she could. But now face to face with Helena she was conscious that neither was Philip's ward at all in a forthcoming mood, nor was her own effort spontaneous or congenial. They were both Buntingford's kinswomen, Helena on his father's side, Cynthia on his mother's, and had been more or less acquainted with each other since Helena left the nursery. But there was nearly twenty years between them, and a critical spirit on both sides.
Conversation very soon languished. An instinctive antagonism that neither could have explained intelligibly would have been evident to any shrewd listener. Helena was not long in suspecting that Lady Cynthia was in some way Buntingford's envoy, and had been sent to make friends, with an ulterior object; while Cynthia was repelled by the girl's ungracious manner, and by the gulf which it implied between the outlook of forty, and that of nineteen. "She means to make me feel that I might have been her mother--and that we have nothing in common!"
The result was that Cynthia was driven into an intimate and possessive tone with regard to Buntingford, which was more than the facts warranted, and soon reduced Helena to monosyllables, and a sarcastic lip.
"You can't think," said Cynthia effusively--"how good he is to us two. It is so like him. He never forgets us. But indeed he never forgets anybody."
Helena raised her eyebrows, as though the news astonished her, but she was too polite to contradict.
"He sends you flowers, doesn't he?" she said carelessly.
"He sends us all kinds of things. But that's not what makes him so charming. He's always so considerate for everybody! The day you were coming, for instance, he thought of nothing but how to get your room finished and your books in order. I hope you liked it?"
"Very much." The tone was noncommittal.
"I don't suppose he told you how he worked," said Cynthia, smiling. "Oh, he's a great dear, Philip! Only he takes a good deal of knowing."
"Did you ever see his wife?" said Helena abruptly.
Cynthia's movement showed her unpleasantly startled. She looked instinctively towards the library window, where Buntingford was now standing with his back to them. No, he couldn't have heard.
"No, never," she said hurriedly, in a low voice. "Nobody ever speaks to him about her. She was of course not his equal socially."
"Is that the reason why nobody speaks of her?"
Cynthia flushed indignantly.
"Not that I know of. Why do you ask?"
"I thought you put the two things together," said Helena in her most detached tone. "And she was an artist?"
"A very good one, I believe. A man who had seen her in Paris before her marriage told me long ago--oh, years ago--that she was extraordinarily clever, and very ambitious."
"And beautiful?" said Helena eagerly.
"I don't know. I never saw a picture of her."
"I'll bet anything she was beautiful!"
"Most likely. Philip's very fastidious."
"I wonder if she had a good time?" she said at last.
"If she didn't, it couldn't have been Philip's fault!" said Cynthia, with some vigour.
The girl's note of interrogation was curiously provoking, and Cynthia could have shaken her.
Suddenly through the open French windows of the library, a shrill telephone call rang out. It came from the instrument on Buntingford's desk, and the two outside could see him take up the receiver.
"It's a message from Dansworth," said Cynthia, springing to her feet. "They've sent for him."
"Yes--yes--" came to them in Buntingford's deep assenting voice, as he stood with the receiver to his ear. "All right--In an hour?--That's it. Less, if possible? Well, I think we can do it in less. Good-bye."
Helena had also risen. Buntingford emerged.
"Geoffrey!--Peter!--Horne!--all of you!"
From different parts of the lawn, men appeared running. Geoffrey French, Captain Lodge, Peter, and Julian Horne, were in a few instants grouped round their host, with Helena and Cynthia just behind.
"The Dansworth mob's out of hand," said Buntingford briefly. "They've set fire to another building, and the police are hard pressed. They want specials at once. Who'll come? I've just had a most annoying message from my chauffeur. His wife's been in to say that he's got a temperature--since eight o'clock this morning--and has gone to bed. She won't hear of his coming."
"Funk?" said French quietly,--"or Bolshevism?"
Buntingford shrugged his shoulders. "We'll enquire into that later. There are two cars--a Vauxhall and a small Renault--a two-seater. Who can drive?"
"I think I can drive the Renault," said Dale. "I'll go and get it at once. Hope I shan't kill anybody."
He ran off. The other men looked at each other in perplexity. None of them knew enough about the business to drive a high-powered car without serious risk to their own lives and the car's.
"I'll go and telephone to a man I know near here," said Buntingford, turning towards the house. "He'll lend us his chauffeur."
"Why not let me drive?" said a girl's half-sarcastic voice. "I've driven a Vauxhall most of the winter."
Buntingford turned, smiling but uncertain.
"Of course! I had forgotten! But I don't like taking you into danger, Helena. It sounds like an ugly affair!"
"Lodge and I will go with her," said French, eagerly. "We can stop the car outside the town. Horne can go with Dale."
The eyes of the men were on the girl in white--men half humiliated, half admiring. Helena, radiant, was looking at Buntingford, and at his reluctant word of assent, she began joyously taking the hat-pins out of her white lace hat.
"Give me five minutes to change. Lucky I've got my uniform here! Then I'll go for the car."
Within the five minutes she was in the garage in full uniform, looking over and tuning up the car, without an unnecessary word. She was the professional, alert, cheerful, efficient--and handsomer than ever, thought French, in her close-fitting khaki.
"One word, Helena," said Buntingford, laying a hand on her arm, when all was ready, and she was about to climb into her seat. "Remember I am in command of the expedition--and for all our sakes there must be no divided authority. You agree?"
She looked up quietly.
He made way for her, and she took her seat with him beside her. French, Lodge, Jones the butler, and Tomline the odd man, got in behind her. Mrs. Friend appeared with a food hamper that she and Mrs. Mawson had been rapidly packing. Her delicate little face was very pale, and Buntingford stooped to reassure her.
"We'll take every care of her. Don't be alarmed. It's always a woman comes to the rescue, isn't it? We're all ashamed. I shall take some lessons next week!"
Helena, with her hand on the steering wheel, nodded and smiled to her, and in another minute the splendid car was gliding out of the garage yard, and flying through the park.
Cynthia, with Mrs. Friend, Lady Maud Luton, and Mrs. Mawson, were left looking after them. Cynthia's expression was hard to read; she seemed to be rushing on with the car, watching the face beside Buntingford, the young hands on the wheel, the keen eyes looking ahead, the play of talk between them.
"What a splendid creature!" said Lady Maud half-unwillingly, as she and Cynthia walked back to the lawn. "I'm afraid I don't at all approve of her in ordinary life. But just now--she was in her element."
"Mother, you must let me learn motoring!" cried the girl of seventeen, hanging on her mother's arm. She was flushed with innocent envy. Helena driving Lord Buntingford seemed to her at the top of creation.
"Goose! It wouldn't suit you at all," said the mother, smiling. "Please take my prayer-book indoors."
The babe went obediently.
The miles ran past. Helena, on her mettle, was driving her best, and Buntingford had already paid her one or two brief compliments, which she had taken in silence. Presently they topped a ridge, and there lay Dansworth in a hollow, a column of smoke gashed with occasional flame rising above the town.
"A big blaze," said Buntingford, examining it through a field-glass. "It's the large brewery in the market-place. Hullo, you there!" He hailed a country cart, full of excited occupants, which was being driven rapidly towards them. The driver pulled up with difficulty.
Buntingford jumped out and went to make enquiries.
"It's a bad business, Sir," said the man in charge of the cart, a small farmer whom Buntingford recognized. "The men in it are just mad--they don't know what they've done, nor why they've done it. But the soldiers will be there directly. There's far too few police, and I'm afraid there's some people hurt. I wouldn't take ladies into the town if I was you, Sir." He glanced at Helena.
Buntingford nodded, and returned to the car.
"You see that farm-house down there on the right?" he said to Helena as they started again. "We'll stop there."
They ran down the long slope to the town, the smoke carried towards them by a westerly wind beginning to beat in their faces,--the roar of the great bonfire in their ears.
Helena drew up at the entrance of a short lane leading to a farm on the outskirts of the small country town--the centre of an active furniture-making industry, for which the material lay handy in the large beechwoods which covered the districts round it. The people of the farm were all standing outside the house-door, watching the fire and talking.
"You're going to leave me here?" said Helena wistfully, looking at Buntingford.
"Please. You've brought us splendidly! I'll send Geoffrey back to you as soon as possible, with instructions."
She drove the car up to the farm. An elderly man came forward with whom Buntingford made arrangements. The car was to be locked up. "And you'll take care of the lady, till I send?"
"Aye, aye, Sir."
"I'll come back to you, as soon as I can," said French to Helena. "Don't be anxious about us. We shall get into the market-hall by a back way and find out what's going on. They've probably got the hose on by now. Nothing like a hose-pipe for this kind of thing! Congratters on a splendid bit of driving!"
"Hear, hear," said Buntingford.
They went off, and Helena was left alone with the farm people, who made much of her, and poured into her ears more or less coherent accounts of the rioting and its causes. A few discontented soldiers, an unpopular factory manager, and a badly-handled strike:--the tale was a common one throughout England at the moment, and behind and beneath the surface events lay the heaving of that "tide in the affairs of men," a tide of change, of restlessness, of revolt, set in motion by the great war. Helena paced up and down the orchard slope behind the house, watching the conflagration which was beginning to die down, startled every now and then by what seemed to be the sound of shots, and once by the rush past of a squadron of mounted police coming evidently from the big country town some ten miles away. Hunger asserted itself, and she made a raid on the hamper in the car, sharing some of its contents with the black-eyed children of the farm. Every now and then news came from persons passing along the road, and for a time things seemed to be mending. The police were getting the upper hand; the Mayor had made a plucky speech to the crowd in the market-place, with good results; the rioters were wavering; and the soldiers had been stopped by telephone. Then following hard on the last rumour came a sudden rush of worse news. A policeman had been killed--two injured--the rioters had gained a footing in the market-hall, and driven out both the police and the specials--and after all, the soldiers had been sent for.
Helena wandered down to the gate of the farm lane opening on the main road, consumed with restlessness and anxiety. If only they had let her go with them! Buntingford's last look as he raised his hat to her before departing, haunted her memory--the appeal in it, the unspoken message. Might they not, after all, be friends? There seemed to be an exquisite relaxation in the thought.
Another hour passed. Geoffrey French at last! He came on a motor bicycle, and threw himself off beside her, breathless.
"Please get the car, Helena, and I'll go on with you. The town's safe. The troops have arrived, and the rioters are scattering. The police have made some arrests, and Philip believes the thing is over--or I shouldn't have been allowed to come for you!"
"Why not?" said Helena half-indignantly, as they hurried towards the barn in which the car had been driven. "Perhaps I might have been of some use!"
"No--you helped us best by staying here. The last hour's been pretty bad. And now Philip wants you to take two wounded police to the Smeaton Hospital--five miles. He'll go with you. They're badly hurt, I'm afraid--there was some vicious stone-throwing."
"All right! Perhaps you don't know that's my job!"
French helped her get out the car.
"We shall want mattresses and stretcher boards," said Helena, surveying it thoughtfully. "A doctor too and a nurse."
"Right you are. They've thought of all that. You'll find everything at the market-hall,--where the two men are."
They drove away together, and into the outer streets of the town, where now scarcely a soul was to be seen, though as the car passed, the windows were crowded with heads. Police were everywhere, and the market-place--a sorry sight of smoky wreck and ruin--was held by a cordon of soldiers, behind which a crowd still looked on. French, sitting beside her, watched the erect girl-driver, the excellence of her driving, the brain and skill she was bringing to bear upon her "job." Here was the "new woman" indeed, in her best aspect. He could not but compare the Helena of this adventure--this competent and admirable Helena--with the girl of the night before. Had the war produced the same dual personality in thousands of English men and English women?--in the English nation itself?
They drew up at the steps of the market-hall, where a group of persons were standing, including a nurse in uniform. Buntingford came forward, and bending over the side of the car, said to Helena:
"Do you want to be relieved? There are several people here who could drive the car."
"I want to take these men to hospital."
He smiled at her.
He turned back to speak to the doctor who was to accompany the car. Helena jumped out, and went to consult with the nurse. In a very short time, the car had been turned as far as possible into an ambulance, and the wounded men were brought out.
"As gently as you can," said the doctor to Helena. "Are your springs good?"
"The car's first-rate, and I'll do my best. I've been driving for nearly a year, up to the other day." She pointed to her badge. The doctor nodded approval, and he and the nurse took their places. Then Buntingford jumped into the car, beside Helena.
"I'll show you the way. It won't take long."
In a few minutes, the car was in country lanes, and all the smoking tumult of the town had vanished from sight and hearing. It had become already indeed almost incredible, in the glow of the May afternoon, and amid the hawthorn white of the hedges, the chattering birds that fled before them, the marvellous green of the fields. Helena drove with the deftness of a practised hand, avoiding ruts, going softly over rough places.
"Good!" said Buntingford to her more than once--"that was excellent!"
But the suffering of the men behind overshadowed everything else, and it was with a big breath of relief that Buntingford at last perceived the walls of the county hospital rising out of a group of trees in front of them. Helena brought the car gently to a standstill, and, jumping out, was ready to help as a V. A. D. in the moving of the men. The hospital had been warned by telephone, and all preparations had been made. When the two unconscious men were safely in bed, the Dansworth doctor turned warmly to Helena:
"I don't know what we should have done without you, Miss Pitstone! But you look awfully tired. I hope you'll go home at once, and rest."
"I'm going to take her home--at once," said Buntingford. "We can't do anything more, can we?"
"Nothing. And here's the matron with a message."
The message was from the mayor of Dansworth. "Situation well in hand. No more trouble feared. Best thanks."
"All right!" said Buntingford. He turned smiling to Helena. "Now we'll go home and get some dinner!"
The Dansworth doctor and nurse remained behind. Once more Buntingford got into the car beside his ward.
"What an ass I am!" he said, in disgust--"not to be able to drive the car. But I should probably kill you and myself."
Helena laughed at him, a new sweetness in the sound, and they started.
Presently Buntingford said gently:
"I want to thank you,--for one thing especially--for having waited so patiently--while we got the thing under."
"I wasn't patient at all! I wanted desperately to be in it!"
"All the more credit! It would have been a terrible anxiety if you had been there. A policeman was killed just beside us. There was a man with a revolver running amuck. He just missed French by a hair-breadth."
Helena exclaimed in horror.
"You see--one puts the best face on it--but it might have been a terrible business. But what I shall always remember most--is your part in it"
Their eyes met, hers half shy, half repentant, his full of a kindness she had never yet seen there.