Chapter VIII
 

"Oh, what a jolly day! We've had a glorious ride," said Helena, throwing herself down on the grass beside Mrs. Friend. "And how are you? Have you been resting--or slaving--as you were expressly forbidden to do?"

For Mrs. Friend had been enjoying a particularly bad cold and had not long emerged from her bedroom, looking such a pitiful little wreck, that both Lord Buntingford and Helena had been greatly concerned. In the five weeks that had now elapsed since her arrival at Beechmark she had stolen her quiet way into the liking of everybody in the house to such an extent that, during the days she had been in bed with a high temperature, she had been seriously missed in the daily life of the place, and the whole household had actively combined to get her well again. Mrs. Mawson had fed her; and Lucy Friend was aghast to think how much her convalescence must be costing her employer in milk, eggs, butter, cream and chickens, when all such foods were still so frightfully, abominably dear. But they were forced down her throat by Helena and the housekeeper; while Lord Buntingford enquired after her every morning, and sent her a reckless supply of illustrated papers and novels. To see her now in the library or on the lawn again, with her white shawl round her, and the usual needlework on her knee, was a pleasant sight to everybody in the house.

The little lady had not only won this place for herself by the sweet and selfless gift which was her natural endowment; she was becoming the practical helper of everybody, of Mrs. Mawson in the house, of old Fenn in the garden, even of Buntingford himself, who was gradually falling into the habit of letting her copy important letters for him, and keep some order in the library. She was not in the least clever or accomplished; but her small fingers seemed to have magic in them; and her good will was inexhaustible.

Helena had grown amazingly fond of her. She appealed to something maternal and protecting in the girl's strong nature. Since her mother's death, there had been a big streak of loneliness in Helena's heart, though she would have suffered tortures rather than confess it; and little Lucy Friend's companionship filled a void. She must needs respect Lucy's conscience, Lucy's instincts had more than once shamed her own.

"What are you going to wear to-night?" said Mrs. Friend, softly smoothing back the brown hair from the girl's hot brow.

"Pale green and apple-blossom."

Lucy Friend smiled, as though already she had a vision of the full-dress result.

"That'll be delicious," she said, with enthusiasm.

"Lucy!--am I good-looking?"

The girl spoke half wistfully, half defiantly, her eyes fixed on Lucy.

Mrs. Friend laughed.

"I asked that question before I had seen you."

"Of whom?" said Helena eagerly. "You didn't see anybody but Cousin Philip before I arrived. Tell me, Lucy--tell me at once."

Mrs. Friend kept a smiling silence for a minute. At last she said--"Lord Buntingford showed me a portrait of you before you arrived."

"A portrait of me? There isn't one in the house! Lucy, you deceiver, what do you mean?"

"I was taken to see one in the hall."

A sudden light dawned on Helena.

"The Romney? No! And I've been showing it to everybody as the loveliest thing going!"

"There--you see!"

Helena's face composed itself.

"I don't know why I should be flattered. She was a horrid minx. That no doubt was what the likeness consisted in!"

Mrs. Friend laughed, but said nothing. Helena rose from the grass, pausing to say as she turned towards the house:

"We're going to dance in the drawing-room, Mawson says. They've cleared it."

"Doesn't it look nice?"

Helena assented. "Let me see--" she added slowly--"this is the third dance, isn't it, since I came?"

"Yes--the third."

"I don't think we need have another"--the tone was decided, almost impatient--"at least when this party's over."

Mrs. Friend opened her eyes.

"I thought you liked to dance every week-end?"

"Well--ye-es--amongst ourselves. I didn't mean to turn the house upside-down every week."

"Well, you see--the house-parties have been so large. And besides there have been neighbours."

"I didn't ask them," said Helena. "But--we won't have another--till we go to Town."

"Very well. It might be wise. The servants are rather tired, and if they give warning, we shall never get any more!"

Mrs. Friend watched the retreating figure of Helena. There had indeed been a dizzy succession of week-end parties, and it seemed to her that Lord Buntingford's patience under the infliction had been simply miraculous. For they rarely contained friends of his own; his lameness cut him off from dancing; and it had been clear to Lucy Friend that in many cases Helena's friends had been sharply distasteful to him. He was, in Mrs. Friend's eyes, a strange mixture as far as social standards were concerned. A boundless leniency in some cases; the sternest judgment in others.

For instance, a woman he had known from childhood had lately left her husband, carried off her children, and joined her lover. Lord Buntingford was standing, stoutly by her, helping her in her divorce proceedings, paying for the education of the children, and defending her whenever he heard her attacked. On the other hand, his will had been iron in the matter of Lord Donald, whose exposure as co-respondent in the particularly disreputable case had been lately filling the newspapers. Mrs. Friend had seen Helena take up the Times on one of the days on which the evidence in this case had appeared, and fling it down again with a flush and a look of disgust. But since the day of the Dansworth riot, she had never mentioned Lord Donald's name.

Certainly the relations between her and her guardian had curiously changed. In the first place, since her Dansworth adventure, Helena had found something to do to think about other than quarrelling with "Cousin Philip." Her curiosity as to how the two wounded police, whom she had driven to the County Hospital that day, might be faring had led to her going over there two or three times a week, either to relieve an overworked staff, or to drive convalescent soldiers, still under treatment in the wards.

The occupation had been a godsend to her, and everybody else. She still talked revolution, and she was always ready to spar with Lord Buntingford, or other people. But all the same Lucy Friend was often aware of a much more tractable temper, a kind of hesitancy--and appeasement--which, even if it passed away, made her beauty, for the moment, doubly attractive.

Was it, after all, the influence of Lord Buntingford--and was the event justifying her mother's strange provision for her? He had certainly treated her with a wonderful kindness and indulgence. Of late he had returned to his work at the Admiralty, only coming down to Beechmark for long week-ends from Friday to Monday. But in these later week-ends he had gradually abandoned the detached and half-sarcastic attitude which he had originally assumed towards Helena, and it seemed to Lucy Friend that he was taking his function towards her with a new seriousness. If so, it had affected himself at least as much as the proud and difficult girl whose guidance had been so hurriedly thrust upon him. His new role had brought out in him unexpected resources, or revived old habits. For instance he had not ridden for years; though, as a young man, and before his accident, he had been a fine horseman. But he now rode whenever he was at Beechmark, to show Helena the country; and they both looked so well on horseback that it was a pleasure of which Lucy Friend never tired to watch them go and to welcome them home.

Then the fact that he was a trained artist, which most of his friends had forgotten, became significant again for Helena's benefit. She had some aptitude, and more ambition--would indeed, but for the war, have been a South Kensington student, and had long cherished yearnings for the Slade. He set her work to do during the week, and corrected it with professional sharpness when he reappeared.

And more important perhaps than either the riding or the drawing, was the partial relaxation for her benefit of the reserve and taciturnity which had for years veiled the real man from those who liked and respected him most. He never indeed talked of himself or his past; but he would discuss affairs, opinions, books--especially on their long rides together--with a frankness, and a tone of gay and equal comradeship, which, or so Mrs. Friend imagined, had had a disarming and rather bewildering effect on Helena. The girl indeed seemed often surprised and excited. It was evident that they had never got on during her mother's lifetime, and that his habitual bantering or sarcastic tone towards her while she was still in the school-room had roused an answering resentment in her. Hence the aggressive mood in which, after two or three months of that half-mad whirl of gaiety into which London had plunged after the Armistice, she had come down to Beechmark.

They still jarred, sometimes seriously; Helena was often provocative and aggressive; and Buntingford could make a remark sting without intending it. But on the whole Lucy Friend felt that she was watching something which had in it possibilities of beauty; indeed of a rather touching and rare development. But not at all as the preliminary to a love-affair. In Buntingford's whole relation to his ward, Lucy Friend, at least, had never yet detected the smallest sign of male susceptibility. It suggested something quite different. Julian Horne, who had taken a great fancy to Helena's chaperon, was now recommending books to her instead of to Helena, who always forgot or disobeyed his instructions. With a little preliminary lecture, he had put the "Greville Memoirs" in her hands by way of improving her mind; and she had been struck by a passage in which Greville describes Lord Melbourne's training of the young Queen Victoria, whose Prime Minister he was. The man of middle-age, accomplished, cynical and witty, suddenly confronted with a responsibility which challenged both his heart and his conscience--and that a responsibility towards an attractive young girl whom he could neither court nor command, towards whom his only instrument was the honesty and delicacy of his own purpose:--there was something in this famous, historical situation which seemed to throw a light on the humbler situation at Beechmark.

Four o'clock! In another hour the Whitsuntide party for which the house stood ready would have arrived. Helena's particular "pals" were all coming, and various friends and kinsfolk of Lord Buntingford's; including Lady Mary Chance, a general or two, some Admiralty officials, and one or two distinguished sailors with the halo of Zeebrugge about them. The gathering was to last nearly a week. Mrs. Mawson had engaged two extra servants, and the master of the house had resigned himself. But he had laid it down that the fare was to be simple--and "no champagne." And though of course there would be plenty of bridge, he had given a hint to Vivian Lodge, who, as his heir-apparent, was his natural aide-de-camp in the management of the party, that anything like high play would be unwelcome. Some of Helena's friends during the latter week-ends of May had carried things to extremes.

Meanwhile the social and political sky was darkening in the June England. Peace was on the point of being signed in Paris; but the industrial war at home weighed on every thinking mind. London was dancing night after night; money was being spent like water; and yet every man and woman of sense knew that the only hope for Britain lay in work and saving. Buntingford's habitual frown--the frown not of temper but of oppression--had grown deeper; and on their long rides together he had shown a great deal of his mind to Helena--the mind of a patriot full of fear for his country.

A man came across the lawn. Lucy Friend was glad to recognize Geoffrey French, who was a great favourite with her.

"You are early!" she said, as they greeted.

"I came down by motor-bike. London is hateful, and I was in a hurry to get out of it. Where is Helena?"

"Gone to change her dress. She has been riding."

Frank mopped his brow in silence for a little. Then he said with the half-mischievous smile which in Lucy Friend's eyes was one of his chief physical "points."

"How you and Philip have toned her down!"

"Oh, not I!" said Lucy, her modesty distressed. "I've always admired her so! Of course--I was sometimes surprised--"

Geoffrey laughed.

"I daresay we shall all be surprised a good many times yet?" Then he moved a little closer to the small person, who was becoming everybody's confidante. "Do you mind telling me something--if you know it?" he said, lowering his voice.

"Ask me--but I can't promise!"

"Do you think Helena has quite made up her mind not to marry Dale?"

Mrs. Friend hesitated.

"I don't know--"

"But what do you think?"

She lifted her gentle face, under his compulsion, and slowly, pitifully shook her head.

Geoffrey drew a long breath.

"Then she oughtn't to ask him here! The poor little fellow is going through the tortures of the damned!"

"Oh, I'm so sorry. Isn't there anything we can do?" cried Mrs. Friend.

"Nothing--but keep him away. After all he's only the first victim."

Startled by the note in her companion's voice, Mrs. Friend turned to look at him. He forced a smile, as their eyes met.

"Oh, we must all take our chance! But Peter's not the boy he was--before the war. Things bowl him over easily."

"She likes him so much," murmured Lucy. "I'm sure she never means to be unkind."

"She isn't unkind!" said Geoffrey with energy. "It's the natural fated thing. We are all the slaves of her car and she knows it. When she was in the stage of quarrelling with us all, it was just fun. But if Helena grows as delicious--as she promised to be last week--" He shrugged his shoulders, with a deep breath--"Well,--she'll have to marry somebody some day--and the rest of us may drown! Only, if you're to be umpire--and she likes you so much that I expect you will be--play fair!"

He held out his hand, and she put hers into it, astonished to realize that her own eyes were full of tears.

"I'm a mass of dust--I must go and change before tea," he said abruptly.

He went into the house, and she was left to some agitated thinking.

An hour later, the broad lawns of Beechmark, burnt yellow by the May drought, were alive with guests, men in khaki and red tabs, fresh from their War Office work; two naval Commanders, and a resplendent Flag-Lieutenant; a youth in tennis flannels, just released from a city office, who seven months earlier had been fighting in the last advance of the war, and a couple of cadets who had not been old enough to fight at all; girls who had been "out" before the war, and two others, Helena's juniors, who were just leaving the school-room and seemed to be all aglow with the excitement and wonder of this peace-world; a formidable grey-haired woman, who was Lady Mary Chance; Cynthia and Georgina Welwyn, and the ill-dressed, arresting figure of Mr. Alcott. Not all were Buntingford's guests; some were staying at the Cottage, some in another neighbouring house; but Beechmark represented the headquarters of a gathering of which Helena Pitstone and her guardian were in truth the central figures.

Helena in white, playing tennis; Helena with a cigarette, resting between her sets, and chaffing with a ring of dazzled young men; Helena talking wild nonsense with Geoffrey French, for the express purpose of shocking Lady Mary Chance; and the next minute listening with a deference graceful enough to turn even the seasoned head of a warrior to a grey-haired general describing the taking of the Vimy Ridge; and finally, Helena, holding a dancing class under the cedars on the yellow smoothness of the lawn, after tea, for such young men as panted to conquer the mysteries of "hesitation" or jazzing, and were ardently courting instruction in the desperate hope of capturing their teacher for a dance that night:--it was on these various avatars of Helena that the whole party turned; and Lady Mary indignantly felt that there was no escaping the young woman.

"Why do you let her smoke--and paint--and swear--I declare I heard her swear!" she said in Buntingford's ear, as the dressing-bell rang, and he was escorting her to the house. "And mark my words, Philip--men may be amused by that kind of girl, but they won't marry her."

Buntingford laughed.

"As Helena's guardian I'm not particularly anxious about that!"

"Ah, no doubt, she tells you people propose to her--but is it true?" snapped Lady Mary.

"You imagine that Helena tells me of her proposals?" said Buntingford, wondering.

"My dear Philip, don't pose! Isn't that the special function of a guardian?"

"It may be. But, if so, Helena has never given me the chance of performing it."

"I told you so! Men will flirt with her, but they don't propose to her!" said Lady Mary triumphantly.

Buntingford, smiling, let her have the last word, as he asked Mrs. Friend to show her to her room.

Meanwhile the gardens were deserted, save for a couple of gardeners and an electrician, who were laying some wires for the illumination of the rose-garden in front of the drawing-room, and Geoffrey French, who was in a boat, lazily drifting across the pond, and reading a volume of poems by a friend which he had brought down with him. The evening was fast declining; and from the shadow of the deep wood which bordered the western edge of the pond he looked out on the sunset glow as it climbed the eastern hill, transfiguring the ridge, and leaving a rich twilight in the valley below. The tranquillity of the water, the silence of the woods, the gentle swaying of the boat, finally wooed him from his book, which after all he had only taken up as a protection from tormenting thoughts. Had he--had he--any chance with Helena? A month before he would have scornfully denied that he was in love with her. And now--he had actually confessed his plight to Mrs. Friend!

As he lay floating between the green vault above, and the green weedy depths below, his thoughts searched the five weeks that lay between him and that first week-end when he had scolded Helena for her offences. It seemed to him that his love for her had first begun that day of the Dansworth riot. She had provoked and interested him before that--but rather as a raw self-willed child--a "flapper" whose extraordinary beauty gave her a distinction she had done nothing to earn. But every moment in that Dansworth day was clear in memory:--the grave young face behind the steering-wheel, the perfect lips compressed, the eyes intent upon their task, the girl's courage and self-command. Still more the patient Helena who waited for him at the farm--the grateful exultant look when he said "Come"--and every detail of the scene in Dansworth:--Helena with her most professional air, driving through soldiers and police, Helena helping to carry and place the two wounded men, and that smiling "good-bye" she had thrown him as she drove away with Buntingford beside her.

The young man moved restlessly; and the light boat was set rocking. It was curious how he too, like Lucy Friend, only from another point of view, was beginning to reflect on the new intimacy that seemed to be developing between Buntingford and his ward. Philip of course was an awfully good fellow, and Helena was just finding it out; what else was there in it? But the jealous pang roused by the thought of Buntingford, once felt, persisted. Not for a moment did French doubt the honour or the integrity of a man, who had done him personally many a kindness, and had moreover given him some reason to think---(he recalled the odd little note he had received from Buntingford before Helena's first week-end)--that if he were to fall in love with Helena, his suit would be favourably watched by Helena's guardian. He could recall moreover one or two quite recent indications on Buntingford's part--very slight and guarded--which seemed to point in the same direction.

All very well: Buntingford himself might be quite heart-whole and might remain so. French, who knew him well, though there was fourteen years between them, was tolerably certain--without being able to give any very clear reason for the conviction--that Buntingford would never have undertaken the guardianship of Helena, had the merest possibility of marrying her crossed his mind. French did not believe that it had ever yet crossed his mind. There was nothing in his manner towards her to suggest anything more than friendship, deepening interest, affectionate responsibility--all feelings which would have shown themselves plainly from the beginning had she allowed it.

But Helena herself? It was clear that however much they might still disagree, Buntingford had conquered her original dislike of him, and was in process of becoming the guide, philosopher, and friend her mother had meant him to be. And Buntingford had charm and character, and imagination. He could force a girl like Helena to respect him intellectually; with such a nature that was half the battle. He would be her master in time. Besides, there were all Philip's endless opportunities of making life agreeable and delightful to her. When they went to London, for instance, he would come out of the shell he had lived in so long, and Helena would see him as his few intimate friends had always seen him:--as one of the most accomplished and attractive of mortals, with just that touch of something ironic and mysterious in his personality and history, which appeals specially to a girl's fancy.

And what would be the end of it? Tragedy for Helena?--as well as bitter disappointment and heartache for himself, Geoffrey French? He was confident that Helena had in her the capacity for passion; that the flowering-time of such a nature would be one of no ordinary intensity. She would love, and be miserable--and beat herself to pieces--poor, brilliant Helena!--against her own pain.

What could he do? Might there not be some chance for himself--now--while the situation was still so uncertain and undeveloped? Helena was still unconscious, unpledged. Why not cut in at once? "She likes me--she has been a perfect dear to me these last few times of meeting! Philip backs me. He would take my part. Perhaps, after all, my fears are nonsense, and she would no more dream of marrying Philip, than he would dream, under cover of his guardianship, of making love to her."

He raised himself in the boat, filled with a new inrush of will and hope, and took up the drifting oars. Across the water, on the white slopes of lawn, and in some of the windows of the house, lights were appearing. The electricians were testing the red and blue lamps they had been stringing among the rose-beds, and from the gabled boathouse on the further side, a bright shaft from a small searchlight which had been fixed there, was striking across the water. Geoffrey watched it wandering over the dark wood on his right, lighting up the tall stems of the beeches, and sending a tricky gleam or two among the tangled underwood. It seemed to him a symbol of the sudden illumination of mind and purpose which had come to him, there, on the shadowed water--and he turned to look at a window which he knew was Helena's. There were lights within it, and he pictured Helena at her glass, about to slip into some bright dress or other, which would make her doubly fair. Meanwhile from the rose of the sunset, rosy lights were stealing over the water and faintly glorifying the old house and its spreading gardens. An overpowering sense of youth--of the beauty of the world--of the mystery of the future, beat through his pulses. The coming dance became a rite of Aphrodite, towards which all his being strained.

Suddenly, there was a loud snapping noise, as of breaking branches in the wood beside him. It was so startling that his hands paused on the oars, as he looked quickly round to see what could have produced it. And at the same moment the searchlight on the boathouse reached the spot to which his eyes were drawn, and he saw for an instant--sharply distinct and ghostly white--a woman's face and hands--amid the blackness of the wood. He had only a moment in which to see them, in which to catch a glimpse of a figure among the trees, before the light was gone, leaving a double gloom behind it.

Mysterious! Who could it be? Was it some one who wanted to be put across the pond? He shouted. "Who is that?"

Then he rowed in to the shore, straining his eyes to see. It occurred to him that it might be a lady's maid brought by a guest, who had been out for a walk, and missed her way home in a strange park. "Do you want to get to the house? I can put you across to it if you wish," he said in a loud voice, addressing the unknown--"otherwise you'll have to go a long way round."

No answer--only an intensity of silence, through which he heard from a great distance a church clock striking. The wood and all its detail had vanished in profound shadow.

Conscious of a curious excitement he rowed still further in to the bank, and again spoke to the invisible woman. In vain. He began then to doubt his own eyes. Had it been a mere illusion produced by some caprice of the searchlight opposite? But the face!--the features of it were stamped on his memory, the gaunt bitterness of them, the brooding misery.

How could he have imagined such a thing?

Much perplexed and rather shaken in nerve, he rowed back across the pond--to hear the band tuning in the flower-filled drawing-room, as he approached the house.