Chapter IX
 

About ten o'clock on the night of the ball at Beechmark, a labourer was crossing the park on his way home from his allotment. Thanks to summertime and shortened hours of labour he had been able to get his winter greens in, and to earth up his potatoes, all in two strenuous evenings; and he was sauntering home dead-tired. But he had doubled his wages since the outbreak of war and his fighting son had come back to him safe, so that on the whole he was inclined to think that the old country was worth living in! The park he was traversing was mostly open pasture studded with trees, except where at the beginning of the eighteenth century the Lord Buntingford of the day had planted a wood of oak and beech about the small lake which he had made by the diversion of two streamlets that had once found a sluggish course through the grassland. The trees in it were among the finest in the country, but like so much of English woodland before the war, they had been badly neglected for many years. The trees blown down by winter storms had lain year after year where they fell; the dead undergrowth was choking the young saplings; and some of the paths through the wood had practically disappeared.

The path from the allotments to the village passed at the back of the wood. Branching off from it, an old path leading through the trees and round the edge of the lake had once been frequently used as a short cut from the village to the house, but was now badly grown up and indeed superseded by the new drive from the western lodge, made some twenty years before this date.

The labourer, Richard Stimson, was therefore vaguely surprised when he turned the corner of the wood and reached the fork of the path, to see a figure of a woman, on the old right-of-way, between him and the wood, for which she seemed to be making.

It was not the figure of anyone he knew. It was a lady, apparently, in a dark gown, and a small hat with a veil. The light was still good, and he saw her clearly. He stopped indeed to watch her, puzzled to know what a stranger could be doing in the park, and on that path at ten o'clock at night. He was aware indeed that there were gay doings at Beechmark. He had seen the illuminated garden and house from the upper park, and had caught occasional gusts of music from the band to which no doubt the quality were dancing. But the fact didn't seem to have much to do with the person he was staring at.

And while he stared at her, she turned, and instantly perceived--he thought--that she was observed. She paused a moment, and then made an abrupt change of direction; running round the corner of the wood, she reached the path along which he himself had just come and disappeared from view.

The whole occurrence filliped the rustic mind; but before he reached his own cottage, Stimson had hit on an explanation which satisfied him. It was of course a stranger who had lost her way across the park, mistaking the two paths. On seeing him, she had realized that she was wrong and had quickly set herself right. He told his wife the tale before he went to sleep, with this commentary; and they neither of them troubled to think about it any more.

Perhaps the matter would not have appeared so simple to either of them had they known that Stimson had no sooner passed completely out of sight, leaving the wide stretches of the park empty and untenanted under a sky already alive with stars, than the same figure reappeared, and after pausing a moment, apparently to reconnoitre, disappeared within the wood.

"A year ago to-day, where were you?" said one Brigadier to another, as the two Generals stood against the wall in the Beechmark drawing-room to watch the dancing.

"Near Albert," said the man addressed. "The brigade was licking its wounds and training drafts."

The other smiled.

"Mine was doing the same thing--near Armentieres. We didn't think then, did we, that it would be all over in five months?"

"It isn't all over!" said the first speaker, a man with a refined and sharply cut face, still young under a shock of grey hair. "We are in the ground swell of the war. The ship may go down yet."

"While the boys and girls dance? I hope not!" The soldier's eyes ran smiling over the dancing throng. Then he dropped his voice:

"Listen!"

For a very young boy and girl had come to stand in front of them. The boy had just parted from a girl a good deal older than himself, who had nodded to him a rather patronizing farewell, as she glided back into the dance with a much decorated Major.

"These pre-war girls are rather dusty, aren't they?" said the boy angrily to his partner.

"You mean they give themselves airs? Well, what does it matter? It's we who have the good time now!" said the little creature beside him, a fairy in filmy white, dancing about him as she spoke, hardly able to keep her feet still for a moment, life and pleasure in every limb.

The two soldiers--both fathers--smiled at each other. Then Helena came down the room, a vision of spring, with pale green floating about her, and apple-blossoms in her brown hair. She was dancing with Geoffrey French, and both were dancing with remarkable stateliness and grace to some Czech music, imposed upon the band by Helena, who had given her particular friends instruction on the lawn that afternoon in some of the steps that fitted it. They passed with the admiring or envious eyes of the room upon them, and disappeared through the window leading to the lawn. For on the smooth-shaven turf of the lawn there was supplementary dancing, while the band in the conservatory, with all barriers removed, was playing both for the inside and outside revellers.

Peter Dale was sitting out on the terrace over-looking the principal lawn with the daughter of Lady Mary Chance, a rather pretty but stupid girl, with a genius for social blunders. Buntingford had committed him to a dance with her, and he was not grateful.

"She is pretty, of course, but horribly fast!" said his partner contemptuously, as Helena passed. "Everybody thinks her such bad style!"

"Then everybody is an ass!" said Peter violently, turning upon her. "But it doesn't matter to Helena."

The girl flushed in surprise and anger.

"I didn't know you were such great friends. I only repeat what I hear," she said stiffly.

"It depends on where you hear it," said Peter. "There isn't a man in this ball that isn't pining to dance with her."

"Has she given you a dance?" said the girl, with a touch of malice in her voice.

"Oh, I've come off as well as other people!" said Peter evasively.

Then, of a sudden, his chubby face lit up. For Helena, just as the music was slackening to the close of the dance, and a crowd of aspirants for supper dances were converging on the spot where she stood, had turned and beckoned to Peter.

"Do you mind?--I'll come back!" he said to his partner, and rushed off.

"Second supper dance!" "All right!"

He returned radiant, and in his recovered good humour proceeded to make himself delightful even to Miss Chance, whom, five minutes before, he had detested.

But when he had returned her to her mother, Peter wandered off alone. He did not want to dance with anybody, to talk to anybody. He wanted just to remember Helena's smile, her eager--"I've kept it for you, Peter, all the evening!"--and to hug the thought of his coming joy. Oh, he hadn't a dog's chance, he knew, but as long as she was not actually married to somebody else, he was not going to give up hope.

In a shrubbery walk, where a rising moon was just beginning to chequer the path with light and shade, he ran into Julian Horne, who was strolling tranquilly up and down, book in hand.

"Hullo, what are you doing here?" said the invaded one.

"Getting cool. And you?"

Julian showed his book--The Coming Revolution, a Bolshevist pamphlet, then enjoying great vogue in manufacturing England.

"What are you reading such rot for?" said Peter, wondering.

"It gives a piquancy to this kind of thing!" was Horne's smiling reply, as they reached an open space in the walk, and he waved his hand towards the charming scene before them, the house with its lights, on its rising ground above the lake, the dancing groups on the lawn, the illuminated rose-garden; and below, the lake, under its screen of wood, with boats on the smooth water, touched every now and then by the creeping fingers of the searchlight from the boathouse, so that one group after another of young men and maidens stood out in a white glare against the darkness of the trees.

"It will last our time," said Peter recklessly. "Have you seen Buntingford?"

"A little while ago, he was sitting out with Lady Cynthia. But when he passed me just now, he told me he was going down to look after the lake and the boats--in case of accidents. There is a current at one end apparently, and a weir; and the keeper who understands all about it is in a Canada regiment on the Rhine."

"Do you think Buntingford's going to marry Lady Cynthia?" asked Peter suddenly.

Horne laughed. "That's not my guess, at present," he said after a moment.

As he spoke, a boat on the lake came into the track of the searchlight, and the two persons in it were clearly visible--Buntingford rowing, and Helena, in the stern. The vision passed in a flash; and Horne turned a pair of eyes alive with satirical meaning on his companion.

"Well!" said Peter, troubled, he scarcely knew why--"what do you mean?"

Horne seemed to hesitate. His loose-limbed ease of bearing in his shabby clothes, his rugged head, and pile of reddish hair, above a thinker's brow, made him an impressive figure in the half light--gave him a kind of seer's significance.

"Isn't it one of the stock situations?" he said at last--"this situation of guardian and ward?--romantic situations, I mean? Of course the note of romance must be applicable. But it certainly is applicable, in this case."

Peter stared. Julian Horne caught the change in the boy's delicate face and repented him--too late.

"What rubbish you talk, Julian! In the first place it would be dishonourable!"

"Why?"

"It would, I tell you,--damned dishonourable! And in the next, why, a few weeks ago--Helena hated him!"

"Yes--she began with 'a little aversion'! One of the stock openings," laughed Horne.

"Well, ta-ta. I'm not going to stay to listen to you talking bosh any more," said Peter roughly. "There's the next dance beginning."

He flung away. Horne resumed his pacing. He was very sorry for Peter, whose plight was plain to all the world. But it was better he should be warned. As for himself, he too had been under the spell. But he had soon emerged. A philosopher and economist, holding on to Helena's skirts in her rush through the world, would cut too sorry a figure. Besides, could she ever have married him--which was of course impossible, in spite of the courses in Meredith and Modern Literature through which he had taken her--she would have tired of him in a year, by which time both their fortunes would have been spent. For he knew himself to be a spendthrift on a small income, and suspected a similar propensity in Helena, on the grand scale. He returned, therefore, more or less contentedly, to his musings upon an article he was to contribute to The Market Place, on "The Influence of Temperament in Economics." The sounds of dance music in the distance made an agreeable accompaniment.

Meanwhile a scene--indisputably sentimental--was passing on the lake. Helena and Geoffrey French going down to the water's edge to find a boat, had met halfway with Cynthia Welwyn, in some distress. She had just heard that Lady Georgina had been taken suddenly ill, and must go home. She understood that Mawson was looking after her sister, who was liable to slight fainting attacks at inconvenient moments. But how to find their carriage! She had looked for a servant in vain, and Buntingford was nowhere to be seen. French could do no less than offer to assist; and Helena, biting her lip, despatched him. "I will wait for you at the boathouse."

He rushed off, with Cynthia toiling after him, and Helena descended to the lake. As she neared the little landing stage, a boat approached it, containing Buntingford, and two or three of his guests.

"Hullo, Helena, what have you done with Geoffrey?"

She explained. "We were just coming down for a row."

"All right. I'll take you on till he comes. Jump in!"

She obeyed, and they were soon halfway towards the further side. But about the middle of the lake Buntingford was seized with belated compunction that he had not done his host's duty to his queer, inarticulate cousin, Lady Georgina. "I suppose I ought to have gone to look after her?"

"Not at all," said Helena coolly. "I believe she does it often. She can't want more than Lady Cynthia--and Geoffrey--and Mawson. People shouldn't be pampered!"

Her impertinence was so alluring as she sat opposite to him, trailing both hands in the water, that Buntingford submitted. There was a momentary silence. Then Helena said:

"Lady Cynthia came to see me the other day. Did you send her?"

"Of course. I wanted you to make friends."

"That we should never do! We were simply born to dislike each other."

"I never heard anything so unreasonable!" said Buntingford warmly. "Cynthia is a very good creature, and can be excellent company."

Helena gave a shrug.

"What does all that matter?" she said slowly--"when one has instincts--and intuitions. No!--don't let's talk any more about Lady Cynthia. But--there's something--please, Cousin Philip--I want to say--I may as well say it now."

He looked at her rather astonished, and, dimly as he saw her in the shadow they had just entered, it seemed to him that her aspect had changed.

"What is it? I hope nothing serious."

"Yes--it is serious, to me. I hate apologizing!--I always have."

"My dear Helena!--why should you apologize? For goodness' sake, don't! Think better of it."

"I've got to do it," she said firmly, "Cousin Philip, you were quite right about that man, Jim Donald, and I was quite wrong. He's a beast, and I loathe the thought of having danced with him--there!--I'm sorry!" She held out her hand.

Buntingford was supremely touched, and could not for the moment find a jest wherewith to disguise it.

"Thank you!" he said quietly, at last. "Thank you, Helena. That was very nice of you." And with a sudden movement he stooped and kissed the wet and rather quivering hand he held. At the same moment, the searchlight which had been travelling about the pond, lighting up one boat after another to the amusement of the persons in them, and of those watching from the shore, again caught the boat in which sat Buntingford and Helena. Both figures stood sharply out. Then the light had travelled on, and Helena had hastily withdrawn her hand.

She fell back on the cushions of the stern seat, vexed with her own agitation. She had described herself truly. She was proud, and it was hard for her to "climb down." But there was much else in the mixed feeling that possessed her. There seemed, for one thing, to be a curious happiness in it; combined also with a renewed jealousy for an independence she might have seemed to be giving away. She wanted to say--"Don't misunderstand me!--I'm not really giving up anything vital--I mean all the same to manage my life in my own way." But it was difficult to say it in the face of the coatless man opposite, of whose house she had become practically mistress, and who had changed all his personal modes of life to suit hers. Her eyes wandered to the gay scene of the house and its gardens, with its Watteau-ish groups of young men and maidens, under the night sky, its light and music. All that had been done, to give her pleasure, by a man who had for years conspicuously shunned society, and whose life in the old country house, before her advent, had been, as she had come to know, of the quietest. She bent forward again, impulsively:

"Cousin Philip!--I'm enjoying this party enormously--it's awfully, awfully good of you--but I don't want you to do it any more--"

"Do what, Helena?"

"Please, I can get along without any more week-ends, or parties. You--you spoil me!"

"Well--we're going up to London, aren't we, soon? But I daresay you're right"--his tone grew suddenly grave. "While we dance, there is a terrible amount of suffering going on in the world."

"You mean--after the war?"

He nodded. "Famine everywhere--women and children dying--half a dozen bloody little wars. And here at home we seem to be on the brink of civil war."

"We oughtn't to be amusing ourselves at all!--that's the real truth of it," said Helena with gloomy decision. "But what are we to do--women, I mean? They told me at the hospital yesterday they get rid of their last convalescents next week. What is there for me to do? If I were a factory girl, I should be getting unemployment benefit. My occupation's gone--such as it was--it's not my fault!"

"Marry, my dear child,--and bring up children," said Buntingford bluntly. "That's the chief duty of Englishwomen just now."

Helena flushed and said nothing. They drifted nearer to the bank, and Helena perceived, at the end of a little creek, a magnificent group of yew trees, of which the lower branches were almost in the water. Behind them, and to the side of them, through a gap in the wood, the moonlight found its way, but they themselves stood against the faint light, superbly dark, and impenetrable, black water at their feet. Buntingford pointed to them.

"They're fine, aren't they? This lake of course is artificial, and the park was only made out of arable land a hundred years ago. I always imagine these trees mark some dwelling-house, which has disappeared. They used to be my chief haunt when I was a boy. There are four of them, extraordinarily interwoven. I made a seat in one of them. I could see everything and everybody on the lake, or in the garden; and nobody could see me. I once overheard a proposal!"

"Eavesdropper!" laughed Helena. "Shall we land?--and go and look at them?"

She gave a touch to the rudder. Then a shout rang out from the landing-stage on the other side of the water.

"Ah, that's Geoffrey," said Buntingford. "And I must really get back to the house--to see people off."

With a little vigorous rowing they were soon across the lake. Helena sat silent. She did not want Geoffrey--she did not want to reach the land--she had been happy on the water--why should things end?

       *       *       *       *       *

Geoffrey reported that all was well with Lady Georgina, she had gone home, and then stepping into the boat as Buntingford stepped out, he began to push off.

"Isn't it rather late?" began Helena in a hesitating voice, half rising from her seat. "I promised Peter a supper dance."

Geoffrey turned to look at her.

"Nobody's gone in to supper yet. Shall I take you back?"

There was something in his voice which meant that this tete-a-tete had been promised him. Helena resigned herself. But that she would rather have landed was very evident to her companion, who had been balked of half his chance already by Lady Georgina. Why did elderly persons liable to faint come to dances?--that was what he fiercely wanted to know as he pulled out into the lake.

Helena was very quiet. She seemed tired, or dreamy. Instinctively Geoffrey lost hold on his own purpose. Something warned him to go warily. By way of starting conversation he began to tell her of his own adventure on the lake--of the dumb woman among the trees, whom he had seen and spoken to, without reply. Helena was only moderately interested. It was some village woman passing through the wood, she supposed. Very likely the searchlight frightened her, and she knew she had no business there in June when there were young pheasants about--

"Nobody's started preserving again yet--" put in Geoffrey.

"Old Fenn told me yesterday that there were lots of wild ones," said Helena languidly. "So there'll be something to eat next winter."

"Are you tired, Helena?"

"Not at all," she said, sitting up suddenly. "What were we talking about?--oh, pheasants. Do you think we really shall starve next winter, Geoffrey, as the Food Controller says?"

"I don't much care!" said French.

Helena bent forward.

"Now, you're cross with me, Geoffrey! Don't be cross! I think I really am tired. I seem to have danced for hours." The tone was childishly plaintive, and French was instantly appeased. The joy of being with her--alone--returned upon him in a flood.

"Well, then, rest a little. Why should you go back just yet? Isn't it jolly out here?"

"Lovely," she said absently--"but I promised Peter."

"That'll be all right. We'll just go across and back."

There was a short silence--long enough to hear the music from the house, and the distant voices of the dancers. A little northwest wind was creeping over the lake, and stirring the scents of the grasses and sedge-plants on its banks. Helena looked round to see in what direction they were going.

"Ah!--you see that black patch, Geoffrey?"

"Yes--it was near there I saw my ghost--or village woman--or lady's maid--whatever you like to call it."

"It was a lady's maid, I think," said Helena decidedly. "They have a way of getting lost. Do you mind going there?"--she pointed--"I want to explore it."

He pulled a stroke which sent the boat towards the yews; while she repeated Buntingford's story of the seat.

"Perhaps we shall find her there," said Geoffrey with a laugh.

"Your woman? No! That would be rather creepy! To think we had a spy on us all the time! I should hate that!"

She spoke with animation; and a sudden question shot across French's mind. She and Buntingford had been alone there under the darkness of the yews. If a listener had been lurking in that old hiding-place, what would he--or she--have heard? Then he shook the thought from him, and rowed vigorously for the creek.

He tied the boat to a willow-stump, and helped Helena to land.

"I warn you--" he said, laughing. "You'll tear your dress, and wet your shoes."

But with her skirts gathered tight round her she was already halfway through the branches, and Geoffrey heard her voice from the further side--

"Oh I--such a wonderful place!"

He followed her quickly, and was no less astonished than she. They stood in a kind of natural hall, like that "pillared shade" under the yews of Borrowdale, which Wordsworth has made immortal:

            beneath whose sable roof
Of boughs, as if for festal purpose, decked
With unrejoicing berries, Ghostly shapes
May meet at noon-tide; Fear and trembling Hope,
Silence and Foresight; Death the Skeleton
And Time the Shadow:--

For three yew trees of great age had grown together, forming a domed tent of close, perennial leaf, beneath which all other vegetation had disappeared. The floor, carpeted with "the pining members" of the yews, was dry and smooth; Helena's light slippers scarcely sank in it. They groped their way; and Helena's hand had slipped unconsciously into Geoffrey's. In the velvety darkness, indeed, they would have seen nothing, but for the fact that the moon stood just above the wood, and through a small gap in the dome, where a rotten branch had fallen, a little light came down.

"I've found the seat!" said Helena joyously, disengaging herself from her companion. And presently a dim ray from overhead showed her to him seated dryad-like in the very centre of the black interwoven trunks. Or, rather, he saw the sparkle of some bright stones on her neck, and the whiteness of her brow; but for the rest, only a suggestion of lovely lines; as it were, a Spirit of the Wood, almost bodiless.

He stood before her, in an ecstasy of pleasure.

"Helena!--you are a vision--a dream: Don't fade away! I wish we could stay here for ever."

"Am I a vision?" She put out a mischievous hand, and pinched him. "But come here, Geoffrey--come up beside me--look! Anybody sitting here could see a good deal of the lake!"

He squeezed in beside her, and true enough, through a natural parting in the branches, which no one could have noticed from outside, the little creek, with their boat in it, was plainly visible, and beyond it the lights on the lawn.

"A jolly good observation post for a sniper!" said Geoffrey, recollections of the Somme returning upon him; so far as he was able to think of anything but Helena's warm loveliness beside him. Mad thoughts began to surge up in him.

But an exclamation from Helena checked them:

"I say!--there's something here--in the seat."

Her hand groped near his. She withdrew it excitedly.

"It's a scarf, or a bag, or something. Let's take it to the light. Your woman, Geoffrey!"

She scrambled down, and he followed her unwillingly, the blood racing through his veins. But he must needs help her again through the close-grown branches, and into the boat.

She peered at the soft thing she held in her hand.

"It's a bag, a little silk bag. And there's something in it! Light a match, Geoffrey."

He fumbled in his waistcoat pocket, and obeyed her. Their two heads stooped together over the bag. Helena drew out a handkerchief--torn, with a lace edging.

"That's not a village woman's handkerchief!" she said, wondering. "And there are initials!"

He struck another match, and they distinguished something like F.M. very finely embroidered in the corner of the handkerchief. The match went out, and Helena put the handkerchief back into the bag, which she examined in the now full moonlight, as they drifted out of the shadow.

"And the bag itself is a most beautiful little thing! It's shabby and old, but it cost a great deal when it was new. What a strange, strange thing! We must tell Cousin Philip. Somebody, perhaps, was watching us all the time!"

She sat with her chin on her hands, gazing thoughtfully at French, the bag on her knees. Now that the little adventure was over, and she was begging him to take her back quickly to the house, Geoffrey was only conscious of disappointment and chagrin. What did the silly mystery in itself matter to him or her? But it had drawn a red herring across his track. Would the opportunity it had spoilt ever return?