Part 4 out of 4
trees had the May magnificence--all but the oaks, which still dreamed of
a best to come. Here and there a few tufts of primroses, on the bosom of
the crag above the river, lonely and self-sufficing, like all loveliest
things, starred the dimness of the rock.
Laura's feet danced beneath her; the evening beauty and her passionate
response flowed as it were into each other, made one beating pulse;
never, in spite of qualms and angers, had she been more physically happy,
more alive. She passed the seat where she and Helbeck had lingered on
Easter Sunday; then she struck into a path high above the river, under
spreading oaks; and presently a little bridge came in sight, with some
steps in the crag leading down to it.
At the near end of the bridge, thrown out into the river a little way for
the convenience of fishermen, was a small wooden platform, with a
railing, which held a seat. The seat was well hidden under the trees and
bank, and Laura settled herself there.
She had hardly waited five minutes, absorbed in the sheer pleasure of the
rippling river and the soft air, when she heard steps approaching the
bank. Looking up, she saw Mason's figure against the sky. He paused at
the top of the rocky staircase, to scan the bridge and its approaches.
Not seeing her, he threw up his hand, with some exclamation that she
could not hear.
She smiled and rose.
As her small form became visible between the paleness of the wooden
platform and a luminous patch in the river, she heard a cry, then a
hurrying down the rock steps.
He stopped about a yard from her. She did not offer her hand, and after
an instant's pause, during which his eyes tried to search her face in the
darkness, he took off his hat and drew his hand across his brow with a
"I never thought you'd come," he said huskily.
"Well, certainly you had no business to ask me! And I can only stay a
very few minutes. Suppose you sit down there."
She pointed to one of the rock steps, while she settled herself again on
the seat, some little distance away from him.
Then there was an awkward silence, which Laura took no trouble to break.
Mason broke it at last in desperation.
"You know that I'm an awful hand at saying anything, Miss--Miss Fountain.
I can't--so it's no good. But I've got my lesson. I've had a pretty rough
time of it, I can tell you, since last week."
"You behaved about as badly as you could--didn't you?" said Laura's soft
yet cutting voice out of the dark.
"I can't make it no better," he said at last. "There's no saying I can,
for I can't. And if I did give you excuses, you'd not believe 'em. There
was a devil got hold of me that evening--that's the truth on't. And it
was only a glass or two I took. Well, there!--I'd have cut my hand off
His tone of miserable humility began to affect her rather strangely. It
was not so easy to drive in the nail.
"You needn't be so repentant," she said, with a little shrinking laugh.
"One has to forget--everything--in good time. You've given Whinthorpe
people something to talk about at my expense--for which I am not at all
obliged to you. You nearly killed me, which doesn't matter. And you
behaved disgracefully to Mr. Helbeck. But it's done--and now you've got
to make up--somehow."
"Has he made you pay for it--since?" said Mason eagerly.
"He? Mr. Helbeck?" She laughed. Then she added, with all the severity
she could muster, "He treated me in a most kind and gentlemanly
way--if you want to know. The great pity is that you--and Cousin
Elizabeth--understand nothing at all about him."
He groaned. She could hear his feet restlessly moving.
"Well--and now you are going to Froswick," she resumed. "What are you
going to do there?"
"There's an uncle of mine in one of the shipbuilding yards there. He's
got leave to take me into the fitting department. If I suit he'll get me
into the office. It's what I've wanted this two years."
"Well, now you've got it," she said impatiently, "don't be dismal. You
have your chance."
"Yes, and I don't care a haporth about it," he said, with sudden energy,
throwing his head up and bringing his fist down on his knee.
She felt her power, and liked it. But she hurried to answer:
"Oh! yes you do! If you're a man, you _must_. You'll learn a lot of new
things--you'll keep straight, because you'll have plenty to do. Why, it
will 'hatch you over again, and hatch, you different,' as somebody said.
He looked at her, trying hard to catch her expression in the dusk.
"And if I do come back different, perhaps--perhaps--soom day you'll not
be ashamed to be seen wi' me? Look here, Miss Laura. From the first time
I set eyes on you--from that day you came up--that Sunday--I haven't been
able to settle to a thing. I felt, right enough, I wasn't fit to speak to
you. And yet I'm your--well, your kith and kin, doan't you see? There
can't be no such tremendous gap atween us as all that. If I can just
manage myself a bit, and find the work that suits me, and get away from
these fellows here, and this beastly farm----"
"Ah!--have you been quarrelling with Daffady all day?"
She looked for him to fly out. But he only stared, and then turned away.
"O Lord! what's the good of talking?" he said, with an accent that
She rose from her seat.
"Are you sorry I came to talk to you? You didn't deserve it--did you?"
Her voice was the pearliest, most musical, and yet most distant of
things. He rose, too--held by it.
"And now you must just go and make a man of yourself. That's what you
have to do--you see? I wish papa was alive. He'd tell you how--I can't.
But if you forget your music, it'll be a sin--and if you send me your
song to write out for you, I'll do it. And tell Polly I'll come and see
her again some day. Now good-night! They'll be locking up if I don't
But he stood on the step, barring the way.
"I say, give me something to take with me," he said hoarsely. "What's
that in your hat?"
"In my hat?" she said, laughing--(but if there had been light he would
have seen that her lips had paled). "Why, a bunch of buttercups. I bought
them at Whinthorpe yesterday."
"Give me one," he said.
"Give you a sham buttercup? What nonsense!"
"It's better than nothing," he said doggedly, and he held out his hand.
She hesitated; then she took off her hat and quietly loosened one of the
flowers. Her golden hair shone in the dimness. Mason never took his eyes
off her little head. He was keeping a grip on himself that was taxing a
whole new set of powers--straining the lad's unripe nature in wholly new
She put the flower in his hand.
"There; now we're friends again, aren't we? Let me pass, please--and
He moved to one side, blindly fighting with the impulse to throw his
powerful arms round her and keep her there, or carry her across the
bridge--at his pleasure.
But her light fearlessness mastered him. He let her go; he watched her
figure on the steps, against the moonlight between the oaks overhead.
"Good-night!" she dropped again, already far away--far above him.
The young man felt a sob in his throat.
"My God! I shan't ever see her again," he said to himself in a sudden
terror. "She is going to that house--to that man!"
For the first time a wild jealousy of Helbeck awoke in him. He rushed
across the bridge, dropped on a stone half-way up the further bank, then
strained his eyes across the river.
... Yes, there she passed, a swift moving whiteness, among the great
trees that stood like watchmen along the high edge of the water. Below
him flowed the stream, a gulf of darkness, rent here and there by sheets
and jags of silver. And she, that pale wraith--across it--far away--was
flitting from his ken.
All the fountains of the youth's nature surged up in one great outcry and
confusion. He thought of his boyish loves and sensualities--of the girls
who had provoked them--of some of the ugly facts connected with them. A
great astonishment, a great sickening, came upon him. He felt the burden
of the flesh, the struggle of the spirit. And through it all, the maddest
and most covetous yearning!--welling up through schemes and hopes, that
like the moonlit ripples on the Greet, dissolved as fast as they took
* * * * *
Meanwhile Laura went quickly home. A new tenderness, a new remorse
towards the "cub" was in the girl's mind. Ought she to have gone? Had she
been kind? Oh! she would be his friend and good angel--without any
nonsense, of course.
She hurried through the trees and along the dimly gleaming path. Suddenly
she perceived in the distance the sparkle of a lantern.
How vexatious! Was there no escape for her? She looked in some trouble at
the climbing woods above, at the steep bank below.
Ah! well, her hat was large, and hid her face. And her dress was all
covered by her cloak. She hastened on.
It was a man--an old man--carrying a bundle and a lantern. He seemed to
waver and stop as she approached him, and at the actual moment of her
passing him, to her amazement, he suddenly threw himself against one of
the trees on the mountain side of the path, and his lantern showed her
his face for an instant--a white face, stricken with--fear, was it? or
Fright gained upon herself. She ran on, and as she ran it seemed to her
that she heard something fall with a clang, and, afterwards, a cry. She
looked back. The old man was still there, erect, but his light was gone.
Well, no doubt he had dropped his lantern. Let him light it again. It was
no concern, of hers.
Here was the door in the wall. It opened to her touch. She glided
in--across the garden--found the chapel door ajar, and in a few more
seconds was safe in her own room.
Laura was standing before her looking-glass straightening the curls that
her rapid walk had disarranged, when her attention was caught by certain
unusual sounds in the house. There was a hurrying of distant feet--calls,
as though from the kitchen region--and lastly, the deep voice of Mr.
Helbeck. Miss Fountain paused, brush in hand, wondering what had
A noise of fluttering skirts, and a cry for "Laura!"--Miss Fountain
opened her door, and saw Augustina, who never ran, hurrying as fast as
her feebleness would let her, towards her stepdaughter.
"Laura!--where is my sal volatile? You gave me some yesterday, you
remember, for my headache. There's somebody ill, downstairs."
She paused for breath.
"Here it is," said Laura, finding the bottle, and bringing it. "What's
"Oh, my dear, such an adventure! There's an old man fainted in the
kitchen. He came to the back door to ask for a light for his lantern.
Mrs. Denton says he was shaking all over when she first saw him, and as
white as her apron. He told her he'd seen the ghost! 'I've often heard
tell o' the Bannisdale Lady,' he said, 'an now I've seen her!' She asked
him to sit down a minute to rest himself, and he fainted straight away.
He's that old Scarsbrook, you know, whose wife does our washing. They
live in that cottage by the weir, the other end of the park. I must go!
Mrs. Denton's giving him some brandy--and Alan's gone down. Isn't it an
"Very," said Laura, accompanying her stepmother along the passage. "What
did he see?"
She paused, laying a restraining hand on Augustina's arm--cudgelling her
brains the while. Yes! she could remember now a few contemptuous remarks
of Mr. Helbeck to Father Leadham on the subject of a ghost story that had
sprung up during the Squire's memory in connection with the park and the
house--a quite modern story, according to Helbeck, turning on the common
motive of a gypsy woman and her curse, started some forty years before
this date, with a local success not a little offensive, apparently, to
the owner of Bannisdale.
"What did he see?" repeated the girl. "Don't hurry, Augustina; you know
the doctor told you not. Shall I take the sal volatile?"
"Oh, no!--they want me." In any matter of doctoring small or great,
Augustina had the happiest sense of her own importance. "I don't know
what he saw exactly. It was a lady, he says--he knew it was, by the hat
and the walk. She was all in black--with 'a Dolly Varden hat'--fancy the
old fellow!--that hid her face--and a little white hand, that shot out
sparks as he came up to her! Did you ever hear such, a tale? Now, Laura,
I'm all right. Let me go. Come when you like."
Augustina hurried off; Laura was left standing pensive in the passage.
"H'm, that's unlucky," she said to herself.
Then she looked down at her right hand. An old-fashioned diamond ring
with a large centre stone, which had been her mother's, shone on the
third finger. With an involuntary smile, she drew off the ring, and went
back to her room.
"What's to be done now?" she thought, as she put the ring in a drawer.
"Shall I go down and explain--say I was out for a stroll?"--She shook her
head.--"Won't do now--I should have had more presence of mind a minute
ago. Augustina would suspect a hundred things. It's really dramatic.
Shall I go down? He didn't see my face--no, that I'll answer for! Here's
She pulled out the golden mass of her hair till it made a denser frame
than usual round her brow, looked at her white dress--shook her head
dubiously--laughed at her own flushed face in the glass, and calmly went
She found an anxious group in the great bare servants' hall. The old man,
supported by pillows, was stretched on a wooden settle, with Helbeck,
Augustina, and Mrs. Denton standing by. The first things she saw were the
old peasant's closed eyes and pallid face--then Helbeck's grave and
puzzled countenance above him. The Squire turned at Miss Fountain's step.
Did she imagine it--or was there a peculiar sharpness in his swift
Mrs. Denton had just been administering a second dose of brandy, and was
apparently in the midst of her own report to her master of Scarsbrook's
"'I wor just aboot to pass her,' he said, 'when I nawticed 'at her feet
made noa noise. She keaem glidin--an glidin--an my hair stood reet oop--it
lifted t'whole top o' my yed. An she gaed passt me like a puff o'
wind--as cauld as ice--an I wor mair deed nor alive. An I luked afther
her, an she vanisht i' th' varra middle o' t' path. An my leet went
oot--an I durstn't ha gane on, if it wor iver so--so I juist crawled back
"The door in the wall!" thought Laura. "He didn't know it was there."
She had remained in the background while Mrs. Denton was speaking, but
now she approached the settle. Mrs. Denton threw a sour look at her, and
flounced out of her way. Helbeck silently made room for her. As she
passed him, she felt instinctively that his distant politeness had become
something more pronounced. He left her questions to Augustina to answer,
and himself thrust his hands into his pockets and moved away.
"Have you sent for anyone?" said Laura to Mrs. Fountain.
"Yes. Wilson's gone in the pony cart for the wife. And if he doesn't come
round by the time she gets here--some one will have to go for the doctor,
She looked round vaguely.
"Of course. Wilson must go on," said Helbeck from the distance. "Or I'll
"But he is coming round," said Laura, pointing.
"If yo'll nobbut move oot o' t' way, Miss, we'll be able to get at 'im,"
said Mrs. Denton sharply. Laura hastily obeyed her. The housekeeper
brought more brandy; then signs of returning force grew stronger, and by
the time the wife appeared the old fellow was feebly beginning to move
and look about him.
Amid the torrent of lamentations, questions, and hypotheses that the wife
poured forth, Laura withdrew into the background. But she could not
prevail on herself to go. Daring or excitement held her there, till the
old man should be quite himself again.
He struggled to his feet at last, and said, with a long sigh that was
still half a shudder, "Aye--noo I'll goa home--Lisbeth."
He was a piteous spectacle as he stood there, still trembling through all
his stunted frame, his wrinkled face drawn and bloodless, his grey hair
in a tragic confusion. Suddenly, as he looked at his wife, he said with a
clear solemnity, "Lisbeth--I ha' got my death warrant!"
"Don't say any such thing, Scarsbrook," said Helbeck, coming forward to
support him. "You know I don't believe in this ghost business--and never
did. You saw some stranger in the park--and she passed you too quickly
for you to see where she went to. You may be sure that'll turn out to be
the truth. You remember--it's a public path--anybody might be there. Just
try and take that view of it--and don't fret, for your wife's sake. We'll
make inquiries, and I'll come and see you to-morrow. And as for death
warrants, we're all in God's care, you know--don't forget that."
He smiled with a kindly concern and pity on the old man. But Scarsbrook
shook his head.
"It wur t' Bannisdale Lady," he repeated; "I've often heerd on
her--often--and noo I've seen her."
"Well, to-morrow you'll be quite proud of it," said Helbeck cheerfully.
"Come, and let me put you into the cart. I think, if we make a
comfortable seat for you, you'll be fit to drive home now."
Supported by the Squire's strong arm on one side, and his wife on the
other, Scarsbrook managed to hobble down the long passage leading to the
door in the inner courtyard, where the pony cart was standing. It was
evident that his perceptions were still wholly dazed. He had not
recognised or spoken to anyone in the room but the Squire--not even to
his old crony Mrs. Denton.
Laura drew a long breath.
"Augustina, do go to bed," she said, going up to her stepmother--"or
you'll be ill next."
Augustina allowed herself to be led upstairs. But it was long before she
would let her stepdaughter leave her. She was full of supernatural
terrors and excitements, and must talk about all the former appearances
of the ghost--the stories that used to be told in her childhood--the new
or startling details in the old man's version, and so forth. "What could
he have meant by the light on the hand?" she said wondering. "I never
heard of that before. And she used always to be in grey; and now he says
that she had a black dress from top to toe."
"Their wardrobes are so limited--poor damp, sloppy things!" said Laura
flippantly, as she brushed her stepmother's hair. "Do you suppose this
nonsense will be all over the country-side to-morrow, Augustina?"
"What do you _really_ think he saw, Laura?" cried Mrs. Fountain, wavering
between doubt and belief.
"Goodness!--don't ask me." Miss Fountain shrugged her small shoulders. "I
don't keep a family ghost."
* * * * *
When at last Augustina had been settled in bed, and persuaded to take
some of her sleeping medicine, Laura was bidding her good-night, when
Mrs. Fountain said, "Oh! I forgot, Laura--there was a letter brought in
for you from the post-office, by Wilson this afternoon--he gave it to
Mrs. Denton, and she forgot it till after dinner----"
"Of course--because it was mine," said Laura vindictively. "Where is it?"
"On the drawing-room chimney-piece."
"All right. I'll go for it. But I shall be disturbing Mr. Helbeck."
"Oh! no--it's much too late. Alan will have gone to his study."
Miss Fountain stood a moment outside her stepmother's door, consulting
For she was anxious to get her letter, and not at all anxious to fall in
with Mr. Helbeck. At least, so she would have explained herself had
anyone questioned her. In fact, her wishes and intentions were in
tumultuous confusion. All the time that she was waiting on Augustina, her
brain, her pulse was racing. In the added touch of stiffness which she
had observed in Helbeck's manner, she easily divined the result of that
conversation he had no doubt held with Augustina after dinner, while she
was by the river. Did he think even worse of her than he had before?
Well!--if he and Augustina could do without her, let them send her
away--by all manner of means! She had her own friends, her own money, was
in all respects her own mistress, and only asked to be allowed to lead
her life as she pleased.
Nevertheless--as she crossed the darkness of the hall, with her candle in
her hand--Laura Fountain was very near indeed to a fit of wild weeping.
During the months following her father's death, these agonies of crying
had come upon her night after night--unseen by any human being. She felt
now the approach of an old enemy and struggled with it. "One mustn't have
this excitement every night!" she said to herself, half mocking. "No
nerves would stand it."
A light under the library door. Well and good. How--she wondered--did he
occupy himself there, through so many solitary hours? Once or twice she
had heard him come upstairs to bed, and never before one or two o'clock.
Suddenly she stood abashed. She had thrown open the drawing-room door,
and the room lay before her, almost in darkness. One dim lamp still
burned at the further end, and in the middle of the room stood Mr.
Helbeck, arrested in his walk to and fro, and the picture of
Laura drew back in real discomfiture. "Oh, I beg your pardon, Mr.
Helbeck! I had no notion that anyone was still here."
"Is there anything I can do for you?" he said advancing.
"Augustina told me there was a letter for me this evening."
"Of course. It is here on the mantelpiece. I ought to have remembered
He took up the letter and held it towards her. Then suddenly he paused,
and sharply withdrawing it, he placed it on a table beside him, and laid
his hand upon it. She saw a flash of quick resolution in his face, and
her own pulses gave a throb.
"Miss Fountain, will you excuse my detaining you for a moment? I have
been thinking much about this old man's story, and the possible
explanation of it. It struck me in a very singular way. As you know, I
have never paid much attention to the ghost story here--we have never
before had a testimony so direct. Is it possible--that you might throw
some light upon it? You left us, you remember, after dinner. Did you by
chance go into the garden?--the evening was tempting, I think. If so,
your memory might possibly recall to you some--slight thing."
"Yes," she said, after a moment's hesitation, "I did go into the garden."
His eye gleamed. He came a step nearer.
"Did you see or hear anything--to explain what happened?"
She did not answer for a moment. She made a vague movement, as though to
recover her letter--looked curiously into a glass case that stood beside
her, containing a few Stuart relics and autographs. Then, with absolute
self-possession, she turned and confronted him, one hand resting on the
"Yes; I can explain it all. I was the ghost!"
There was a moment's silence. A smile--a smile that she winced under,
showed itself on Helbeck's lip.
"I imagined as much," he said quietly.
She stood there, torn by different impulses. Then a passion of annoyance
with herself, and anger with him, descended on her.
"Now perhaps you would like to know why I concealed it?" she said, with
all the dignity she could command. "Simply, because I had gone out to
meet and say good-bye to a person--who is my relation--whom I cannot meet
in this house, and against whom there is here an unreasonable--" She
hesitated; then resumed, leaning obstinately on the words--"Yes! take it
all in all, it _is_ an unreasonable prejudice."
"You mean Mr. Hubert Mason?"
"You think it an unreasonable prejudice after what happened the other
"I don't want to defend what happened the other night," she said, while
her voice shook.
Helbeck observed her carefully. There was a great decision in his manner,
and at the same time a fine courtesy.
"You knew, then, that he was to be in the park? Forgive my questions.
They are not mere curiosity."
"Perhaps not," she said indifferently. "But I think I have told you all
that needs to be told. May I have my letter?"
She stepped forward.
"One moment. I wonder, Miss Fountain,"--he chose his words slowly--"if I
could make you understand my position. It is this. My sister brings a
young lady, her stepdaughter, to stay under my roof. That young lady
happens to be connected with a family in this neighbourhood, which is
already well known to me. For some of its members I have nothing but
respect--about one I happen to have a strong opinion. I have reasons, for
my opinion. I imagine that very few people of any way of thinking would
hold me either unreasonable or prejudiced in the matter. Naturally, it
gives me some concern that a young lady towards whom I feel a certain
responsibility should be much seen with this young man. He is not her
equal socially, and--pardon me--she knows nothing at all about the type
to which he belongs. Indirectly I try to warn her. I speak to my sister
as gently as I can. But from the first she rejects all I have to say--she
gives me credit for no good intention--and she will have none of my
advice. At last a disagreeable incident happens--and unfortunately the
knowledge of it is not confined to ourselves----"
Laura threw him a flashing look.
"No!--there are people who have taken care of that!" she said.
Helbeck took no notice.
"It is known not only to ourselves," he repeated steadily. "It starts
gossip. My sister is troubled. She asks you to put an end to this state
of things, and she consults me, feeling that indeed we are all in some
"Oh, say at once that I have brought scandal on you all!" cried Laura.
"That of course is what Sister Angela and Father Bowles have been saying
to Augustina. They are pleased to show the greatest anxiety about me--so
much so, that they most kindly wish to relieve me of the charge of
Augustina.--So I understand! But I fear I am neither docile nor
grateful!--that I never shall be grateful----"
"Let us come to that presently. I should like to finish my story. While
my sister and I are consulting, trying to think of all that can be done
to stop a foolish talk and undo an unlucky incident, this same young
lady"--his voice took a cold clearness--"steals out by night to keep an
appointment with this man, who has already done her so great a
disservice. Now I should like to ask her, if all this is kind--is
reasonable--is generous towards the persons with whom she is at present
living--if such conduct is not"--he paused--"unwise towards
herself--unjust towards others."
His words came out with a strong and vibrating emphasis. Laura confronted
him with crimson cheeks.
"I think that will do, Mr. Helbeck!" she cried. "You have had your
say.--Now just let me say this,--these people were my relations--I have
no other kith and kin in the world."
He made a quick step forward as though in distress. But she put up her
"I want very much to say this, please. I knew perfectly well when I came
here that you couldn't like the Masons--for many reasons." Her voice
broke again. "You never liked Augustina's marriage--you weren't likely to
want to see anything of papa's people. I didn't ask you to see them. All
my standards and theirs are different from yours. But I prefer
theirs--not yours! I have nothing to do with yours. I was brought
up--well, to _hate_ yours--if one must tell the truth."
She paused, half suffocated, her chest heaving. Helbeck's glance
enveloped her--took in the contrast between her violent words and the
shrinking delicacy of her small form. A great melting stole over the
man's dark face. But he spoke dryly enough.
"I imagine the standards of Protestants and Catholics are pretty much
alike in matters of this kind. But don't let us waste time any more over
what has already happened. I should like, I confess, to plead with you as
to the future."
He looked at her kindly, even entreatingly. All through this scene she
had been unwittingly, angrily conscious of his personal dignity and
charm--a dignity that seemed to emerge in moments of heightened action or
feeling, and to slip out of sight again under the absent hermit-manner of
his ordinary life. She was smarting under his words--ready to concentrate
a double passion of resentment upon them, as soon as she should be alone
and free to recall them. And yet----
"As to the future," she said coldly. "That is simple enough as far as one
person is concerned. Hubert Mason is going to Froswick immediately, into
"I am glad to hear it--it will be very much for his good."
He stopped a moment, searching for the word of persuasion and
"Miss Fountain!--if you imagine that certain incidents which happened
here long before you came into this neighbourhood had anything to do with
what I have been saying now, let me assure you--most earnestly--that it
is not so! I recognise fully that with regard to a certain case--of which
you may have heard--the Masons and their friends honestly believed that
wrong and injustice had been done. They attempted personal violence. I
can hardly be expected to think it argument! But I bear them no malice. I
say this because you may have heard of something that happened three or
four years ago--a row in the streets, when Father Bowles and I were set
upon. It has never weighed with me in the slightest, and I could have
shaken hands with old Mason--who was in the crowd, and refused to stop
the stone throwing--the day after. As for Mrs. Mason"--he looked up with
a smile--"if she could possibly have persuaded herself to come with her
daughter and see you here, my welcome would not have been wanting. But,
you know, she would as soon visit Gehenna! Nobody could be more conscious
than I, Miss Fountain, that this is a dreary house for a young lady to
The colour mounted into his face, but he did not shrink from what he
meant to say.
"And you have made us all feel that you regard the practices and
observances by which we try to fill and inspire our lives, as mere
hateful folly and superstition!" He checked himself. "Is that too
strong?" he added, with a sudden eagerness. "If so, I apologise for and
Laura, for a moment, was speechless. Then she gathered her forces, and
said, with a voice she in vain tried to compose:
"I think you exaggerate, Mr. Helbeck; at any rate, I hope you do. But the
fact is, I--I ought not to have tried to bear it. Considering all that
had happened at home--it was more than I had strength for! And
perhaps--no good will come of going on with it--and it had better cease.
Mr. Helbeck!--if your Superior can really find a good nurse and companion
at once, will you kindly communicate with her? I will go to Cambridge
immediately, as soon as I can arrange with my friends. Augustina, no
doubt, will come and stay with me somewhere at the sea, later on in the
Helbeck had been listening to her--to the sharp determination of her
voice--in total silence. He was leaning against the high mantelpiece, and
his face was hidden from her. As she ceased to speak, he turned, and his
mere aspect beat down the girl's anger in a moment. He shook his head
"Dr. MacBride stopped me on the bridge yesterday, as he was coming away
from the house."
Laura drew back. Her eyes fastened upon him.
"He thinks her in a serious state. We are not to alarm her, or interfere
with her daily habits. There is valvular disease--as I think you
know--and it has advanced. Neither he nor anyone can forecast."
The girl's head fell. She recognised that the contest was over. She could
not go; she could not leave Augustina; and the inference was clear. There
had not been a word of menace, but she understood. Mr. Helbeck's will
must prevail. She had brought this humiliating half-hour on herself--and
she would have to bear the consequences of it. She moved towards Helbeck.
"Well then, I must stay," she said huskily, "and I must try to--to
remember where I am in future. I ought to be able to hide everything I
feel--of course! But that unfortunately is what I never learnt.
And--there are some ways of life--that--that are too far apart.
However!"--she raised her hand to her brow, frowned, and thought a
little--"I can't make any promise about my cousins, Mr. Helbeck. _I_ know
perfectly well--whatever may be said--that I have done nothing whatever
to be ashamed of. I have wanted to--to help my cousin. He is worth
helping--in spite of everything--and I _will_ help him, if I can! But if
I am to remain your guest, I see that I must consult your wishes----"
Helbeck tried again to stop her with a gesture, but she hurried on.
"As far as this house and neighbourhood are concerned, no one shall have
any reason--to talk."
Then she threw her head back with a sudden flush.
"Of course, if people are born to say and think ill-natured things!--like
"I will see to that," he said. "You shall have no reason to complain,
Laura shrugged her shoulders.
"Will you kindly give me my letter?"
As he handed it to her, she made him a little bow, walked to the door
before he could open it for her, and was gone.
Helbeck turned back, with a smothered exclamation. He put the lamps out,
and went slowly to his study.
* * * * *
As the master of Bannisdale closed the door of his library behind him,
the familiar room produced upon him a sharp and singular impression. The
most sacred and the most critical hours of his life had been passed
within its walls. As he entered it now, it seemed to repulse him, to be
no longer his.
The room was not large. It was the old library of the house, and the
Helbecks in their palmiest days had never been a literary race. There was
a little seventeenth century theology; and a few English classics. There
were the French books of Helbeck's grandmother--"Madame," as she was
always known at Bannisdale; and amongst them the worn brown volumes of
St. Francois de Sales, with the yellowish paper slips that Madame had put
in to mark her favourite passages, somewhere in the days of the First
Empire. Near by were some stray military volumes, treatises on tactics
and fortification, that had belonged to a dashing young officer in the
Dillon Regiment, close to some "Epitres Amoureux," a translation of
"Daphnis and Chloe," and the like--all now sunk together into the same
On the wall above Helbeck's writing-table were ranged the books that had
been his mother's, together with those that he himself habitually used.
Here every volume was an old friend, a familiar tool. Alan Helbeck was
neither a student nor a man of letters; but he had certain passionate
prejudices, instincts, emotions, of which some books were the source and
For the rest--during some years he had been a member of the Third Order
of St. Francis, and in its other features the room was almost the room of
a religious. A priedieu stood against the inner wall, and a crucifix hung
above it. A little further on was a small altar of St. Joseph with its
pictures, its statuette, and its candles; and a poor lithograph of Pio
Nono looked down from the mantelpiece. The floor was almost bare, save
for a few pieces of old matting here and there. The worn Turkey carpet
that had formerly covered it had been removed to make the drawing-room
comfortable for Augustina; so had most of the chairs. Those left were of
the straightest and hardest.
In that dingy room, however, Helbeck had known the most blessed, the most
intimate moments of the spiritual life. To-night he entered it with a
strange sense of wrench--of mortal discouragement. Mechanically he went
to his writing-table, and, sitting down before it, he took a key from his
watch-chain and opened a large locked note-book that lay upon it.
The book contained a number of written meditations, a collection of
passages and thoughts, together with some faded photographs of his
mother, and of his earliest Jesuit teachers at Stonyhurst.
On the last page was a paragraph that only the night before he had copied
from one of his habitual books of devotion--copying it as a spiritual
exercise--making himself dwell upon every word of it.
"_When shall I desire Thee alone--feed on Thee alone--O my Delight, my
only good! O my loving and almighty Lord! free now this wretched heart
from every attachment, from every earthly affection; adorn it with Thy
holy virtues, and with a pure intention of doing all things to please
Thee, that so I may open it to Thee, and with gentle violence compel Thee
to come in, that Thou, O Lord, mayest work therein without resistance all
those effects which from all Eternity Thou hast desired to produce in
He lingered a little on the words, his face buried in his hands. Then
slowly he turned back to an earlier page--
"_Man must use creatures as being in themselves indifferent. He must not
be under their power, but use them for his own purpose, his own first and
chiefest purpose, the salvation of his soul._"
A shudder passed through him. He rose hastily from his seat, and began to
pace the room. He had already passed through a wrestle of the same kind,
and had gone away to fight down temptation. To-night the struggle was
harder. The waves of rising passion broke through him.
"Little pale, angry face! I gave her a scolding like a child--what joy to
have forgiven her like a child!--to have asked her pardon in return--to
have felt the soft head against my breast. She was very fierce with
me--she hates me, I suppose. And yet--she is not indifferent to me!--she
knows when I am there. Downstairs she was conscious of me all through--I
knew it. Her secret was in her face. I guessed it--foolish child--from
the first moment. Strange, stormy nature!--I see it all--her passion for
her father, and for these peasants as belonging to him--her hatred of me
and of our faith, because her father hated us--her feeling for
Augustina--that rigid sense, of obligation she has, just on the two or
three points--points of natural affection. It is this sense, perhaps,
that makes the soul of her struggle with this house--with me. How she
loathes all that we love--humility, patience, obedience! She would sooner
die than obey. Unless she loved! Then what an art, what an enchantment to
command her! It would tax a lover's power, a lover's heart, to the
He stood still, and with an effort of iron resolution put from him the
fancies that were thronging on the brain. If it were possible for him to
conquer her, conceivable that he might win her--such a dream was
forbidden to him, Alan Helbeck, a thousandfold! Such a marriage would be
the destruction of innumerable schemes for the good of the Church, for
the perfecting of his own life. It would be the betrayal of great trusts,
the abandonment of great opportunities. "My life would centre in her. She
would come first--the Church second. Her nature would work on mine--not
mine on hers. Could I ever speak to her even of what I believe?--the very
alphabet of it is unknown to her. I shrink from proselytism. God forgive
me!--it is her wild pagan self that I love--that I desire----"
The blast of human longing, human pain, was hard to meet--hard to subdue.
But the Catholic fought--and conquered.
"I am not my own--I have taken tasks upon me that no honest man could
betray. There are vows on me also, that bind me specially to our Lord--to
his Church. The Church frowns on such a love--such marriages. She does
not forbid them--but they pain her heart. I have accepted her judgment
till now, without difficulty, without conflict. Now to obey is hard. But
I can obey--we are not asked impossibilities."
He walked to the crucifix, and threw himself down before it. A midnight
stillness brooded over the house.
* * * * *
But far away, in an upper room, Laura Fountain had cried herself to
sleep--only to wake again and again, with the tears flooding her cheeks.
Was it merely a disagreeable and exciting scene she had gone through?
What was this new invasion of her life?--this new presence to the inward
eye of a form and look that at once drew her and repulsed her. A hundred
alien forces were threatening and pressing upon her--and out from the
very heart of them came this strange drawing--this magnetism--this
To be prisoned in Bannisdale--under Mr. Helbeck's roof--for months and
months longer--this thought was maddening to her.
But when she imagined herself free to go--and far away once more from
this old and melancholy house--among congenial friends and scenes--she
was no happier than before. A little moan of anger and pain came, that
she stifled against her pillow, calling passionately on the sleep that
would, that must, chase all these phantoms of fatigue or excitement--and
give her back her old free self.
"We shall get there in capital time--that's nice!" said Polly Mason,
putting down the little railway guide she had just purchased at Marsland
Station, with a general rustle of satisfaction.
Polly indeed shone with good temper and new clothes. Her fringe--even
halved--was prodigious. Her cheap lemon-coloured gloves were cracking on
her large hands; and round her beflowered hat she had tied clouds on
clouds of white tulle, which to some extent softened the tans and
crimsons of her complexion. Her dress was of a stiff white cotton stuff,
that fell into the most startling folds and angles; and at every movement
of it, the starch rattled.
On the opposite seat of the railway carriage was Laura Fountain--an open
book upon her knee that she was not reading. She made no answer, however,
to Polly's remark; the impression left by her attitude was that she took
no interest in it. Miss Fountain herself hardly seemed to have profited
much by that Westmoreland air whereof the qualities were to do so much
for Augustina. It was now June, the end of June, and Laura was certainly
paler, less blooming, than she had been in March. She seemed more
conscious; she was certainly less radiant. Whether her prettiness had
gained by the slight change, might be debated. Polly's eyes, indeed, as
they sped along, paid her cousin one long covetous tribute. The
difficulty that she always had in putting on her own clothes, and
softening her own physical points, made her the more conscious of Laura's
delicate ease, of all the yielding and graceful lines into which the
little black and white muslin frock fell so readily, of all that natural
kinship between Laura and her hats, Laura and her gloves, which poor
Polly fully perceived, knowing well and sadly that she herself could
never attain to it.
Nevertheless--pretty, Miss Fountain might be; elegant she certainly was;
but Polly did not find her the best of companions for a festal day. They
were going to Froswick--the big town on the coast--to meet Hubert and
another young man, one Mr. Seaton, foreman in a large engineering
concern, whose name Polly had not been able to mention without bridling,
for some time past.
It was more than a fortnight since the sister, driven by Hubert's
incessant letters, had proposed to Laura that they two should spend a
summer day at Froswick and see the great steel works on which the fame of
that place depended, escorted and entertained by the two young men. Laura
at first had turned a deaf ear. Then all at once--a very flare of
eagerness and acceptance!--a sudden choosing of day and train. And now
that they were actually on their way, with everything arranged, and a
glorious June sun above their heads, Laura was so silent, so reluctant,
so irritable--you might have thought----
Well!--Polly really did not know what to think. She was not quite happy
herself. From time to time, as her look dwelt on Laura, she was conscious
of certain guilty reserves and concealments in her own breast. She wished
Hubert had more sense--she hoped to goodness it would all go off nicely!
But of course it would. Polly was an optimist and took all things simply.
Her anxieties for Laura did not long resist the mere pleasure of the
journey and the trip, the flatteries of expectation. What a very
respectable and, on the whole, good-looking young man was Mr. Seaton!
Polly had met him first at the Browhead dance; so that what was a mere
black and ugly spot in Laura's memory shone rosy-red in her cousin's.
Meanwhile Laura, mainly to avoid Polly's conversation, was looking hard
out of window. They were running along the southern shore of a great
estuary. Behind the loitering train rose the hills they had just left,
the hills that sheltered the stream and the woods of Bannisdale. That
rich, dark patch beneath the further brow was the wood in which the house
stood. To the north, across the bay, ran the line of high mountains, a
dim paradise of sunny slopes and steeps, under the keenest and brightest
of skies--blue ramparts from which the gently opening valleys flowed
downwards, one beside the other, to the estuary and the sea.
Not that the great plunging sea itself was much to be seen as yet.
Immediately beyond the railway line stretched leagues of firm reddish
sand, pierced by the innumerable channels of the Greet. The sun lay hot
and dazzling on the wide flat surfaces, on the flocks of gulls, on the
pools of clear water. The window was open, and through the June heat
swept a sharp, salt breath. Laura, however, felt none of the physical
exhilaration that as a rule overflowed in her so readily. Was it because
the Bannisdale Woods were still visible? What made the significance of
that dark patch to the girl's restless eye? She came back to it again and
again. It was like a flag, round which a hundred warring thoughts had
come to gather.
Were not she and Mr. Helbeck on the best of terms? Was not Augustina
quite pleased--quite content? "I always knew, my dear Laura, that you and
Alan would get on, in time. Why, anyone could get on with Alan--he's so
kind!" When these things were said, Laura generally laughed. She did not
remind Mrs. Fountain that she, at one time of her existence, had not
found it particularly easy and simple to "get on with Alan"; but the girl
did once allow herself the retort--"It's not so easy to quarrel, is it,
when you don't see a person from week's end to week's end?" "Week's end
to week's end?" Mrs. Fountain repeated vaguely. "Yes--Alan is away a
great deal--people trust him so much--he has so much business."
Laura was of opinion that his first business might very well have been to
see a little more of his widowed sister! She and Augustina spent days and
days alone, while Mr. Helbeck pursued the affairs of the Church. One
precious attempt indeed had been made to break the dulness of Bannisdale.
Miss Fountain's cheeks burned when she thought of it. There had been an
afternoon party! though Augustina's widowhood was barely a year old! Mrs.
Fountain had been sent about the country delivering notes and cards. And
the result:--oh, such a party!--such an interminable afternoon! Where had
the people come from?--who were they? If Polly, full of curiosity, asked
for some details, Laura would toss her head and reply that she knew
nothing at all about it; that Mrs. Denton had provided bad tea and worse
cakes, and the guests had "filled their chairs," and there was nothing
else to say. Mr. Helbeck's shyness and efforts; the glances of appeal he
threw every now and then towards his sister; his evident depression when
the thing was done--these things were not told to Polly. There was a
place for them in the girl's sore mind; but they did not come to speech.
Anyway she believed--nay, was quite sure--that Bannisdale would not be so
tried a second time. For whose benefit was it done?--whose!
As the train crossed the bridge of the estuary, from one stretch of hot
sand to another, Laura, staring at the view, saw really nothing but an
image of the mind, felt nothing except what came through the magic of
The hall of Bannisdale, with the lingering daylight of the north still
coming in at ten o'clock through the uncurtained oriel windows--herself
at the piano, Augustina on the settle--a scent of night and flowers
spreading through the dim place from the open windows of the drawing-room
beyond. One candle is beside her--and there are strange glints of
moonlight here and there on the panelling. A tall figure enters from the
chapel passage. Augustina makes room on the settle--the Squire leans back
and listens. And the girl at the piano plays; the stillness and the night
seem to lay releasing hands upon her; bonds that have been stifling and
cramping the soul break down; she plays with all her self, as she might
have talked or wept to a friend--to her father.... And at last, in a
pause, the Squire puts a new candle beside her, and his deep shy voice
commends her, asks her to go on playing. Afterwards, there is a pleasant
and gentle talk for half an hour--Augustina can hardly be made to go to
bed--and when at last she rises, the girl's small hand slips into the
man's, is lost there, feels a new lingering touch, from which both
withdraw in almost equal haste. And the night, for the girl, is broken
with restlessness, with wild efforts to draw the old fetters tight again,
to clamp and prison something that flutters--that struggles.
Then next morning, there is an empty chair at the breakfast table. "The
Squire left early on business." Without any warning--any courteous
message? One evening at home, after a long absence, and then--off again!
A good Catholic, it seems, lives in the train, and makes himself the
catspaw of all who wish to use him for their own ends!
... As to that old peasant, Scarsbrook, what could be more arbitrary,
more absurd, than Mr. Helbeck's behaviour? The matter turns out to be
serious. Fright blanches the old fellow's beard and hair; he takes to his
bed, and the doctor talks of severe "nervous shock"--very serious, often
deadly, at the patient's age. Why not confess everything at once, set
things straight, free the poor shaken mind from its oppression? Who's
afraid?--what harm is there in an after-dinner stroll?
But there!--truth apparently is what no one wants, what no one will
have--least of all, Mr. Helbeck. She sees a meeting in the park, under
the oaks--the same tall man and the girl--the girl bound impetuously for
confession, and the soothing of old Scarsbrook's terrors once for
all--the man standing in the way, as tough and prickly as one of his own
hawthorns. Courtesy, of course! there is no one can make courtesy so
galling; and then such a shooting out of will and personality, so sudden,
so volcanic a heat of remonstrance! And a woman is such a poor ill-strung
creature, even the boldest of them! She yields when she should have
pressed forward--goes home to rage, when she should have stayed to
Afterwards, another absence--the old house silent as the grave--and
Augustina so fretful, so wearisome! But she is better, much better. How
unscrupulous are doctors, and those other persons who make them say
exactly what suits the moment!
The dulness seems to grow with the June heat. Soon it becomes
intolerable. Nobody comes, nobody speaks; no mind offers itself to yours
for confidence and sympathy. Well, but change and excitement of some sort
one _must_ have!--who is to blame, if you get it where you can?
A day in Froswick with Hubert Mason? Yes--why not? Polly proposes it--has
proposed it once or twice before to no purpose. For two months now the
young man has been in training. Polly writes to him often; Laura
sometimes wonders whether the cross-examinations through which Polly puts
her may not partly be for Hubert's benefit. She herself has written twice
to him in answer to some half-dozen letters, has corrected his song for
him--has played altogether a very moral and sisterly part. Is the youth
really in love? Perhaps. Will it do him any harm?
Augustina of course dislikes the prospect of the Froswick day. But,
really, Augustina must put up with it! The Reverend Mother will come for
the afternoon, and keep her company. Such civility of late on the part of
all the Catholic friends of Bannisdale towards Miss Fountain!--a civility
always on the watch, week by week, day by day--that never yields itself
for an instant, has never a human impulse, an unguarded tone. Father
Leadham is there one day--he makes a point of talking with Miss Fountain.
He leads the conversation to Cambridge, to her father--his keen glance
upon her all the time, the hidden life of the convert and the mystic
leaping every now and then to the surface, and driven down again by a
will that makes itself felt--even by so cool a listener--as a living
tyrannous thing, developed out of all proportion to, nay at the cruel
expense of, the rest of the personality. Yet it is no will of the man's
own--it is the will of his order, of his faith. And why these repeated
stray references to Bannisdale--to its owner--to the owner's goings and
comings? They are hardly questions, but they might easily have done the
work of questions had the person addressed been willing. Laura laughs to
think of it.
Ah! well--but discretion to-day, discretion to-morrow, discretion always,
is not the most amusing of diets. How dumb, how tame, has she become!
There is no one to fight with, nothing whereon to let loose the
sharp-edged words and sayings that lie so close behind the girl's shut
lips. How amazing that one should positively miss those fuller activities
in the chapel that depend on the Squire's presence! Father Bowles says
Mass there twice a week; the light still burns before the altar; several
times a day Augustina disappears within the heavy doors. But when Mr.
Helbeck is at home, the place becomes, as it were, the strong heart of
the house. It beats through the whole organism; so that no one can ignore
or forget it.
What is it that makes the difference when he returns? Unwillingly, the
mind shapes its reply. A sense of unity and law comes back into the
house--a hidden dignity and poetry. The Squire's black head carries with
it stern reminders, reminders that challenge or provoke; but "he nothing
common does nor mean," and smaller mortals, as the weeks go by, begin to
feel their hot angers and criticisms driven back upon themselves, to
realise the strange persistency and force of the religious life.
Inhuman force! But force of any kind tends to draw, to conquer. More than
once Laura sees herself at night, almost on the steps of the chapel, in
the dark shadows of the passage--following Augustina. But she has never
yet mounted the steps--never passed the door. Once or twice she has
angrily snatched herself from listening to the distant voice.
... Mr. Helbeck makes very little comment on the Froswick plan. One swift
involuntary look at breakfast, as who might say--"Our compact?" But there
was no compact. And go she will.
And at last all opposition clears away. It must be Mr. Helbeck who has
silenced Augustina--for even she complains no more. Trains are looked
out; arrangements are made to fetch Polly from a half-way village; a fly
is ordered to meet the 9.10 train at night. Why does one feel a culprit
all through? Absurdity! Is one to be mewed up all one's life, to throw
over all fun and frolic at Mr. Helbeck's bidding--Mr. Helbeck, who now
scarcely sets foot in Bannisdale, who seems to have turned his back upon
his own house, since that precise moment when his sister and her
stepdaughter came to inhabit it? Never till this year was he restless in
this way--so says Mrs. Denton, whose temper grows shorter and shorter.
Oh--as to fun and frolic! The girl yawns as she looks out of window. What
a long hot day it is going to be--and how foolish are all expeditions,
all formal pleasures! 9.10 at Marsland--about seven, she supposes, at
Froswick? Already her thoughts are busy, hungrily busy with the evening,
and the return.
* * * * *
The train sped along. They passed a little watering-place under the steep
wooded hills--a furnace of sun on this hot June day, in winter a soft and
sheltered refuge from the north. Further on rose the ruins of a great
Cistercian abbey, great ribs and arches of red sandstone, that still, in
ruin, made the soul and beauty of a quiet valley; then a few busy towns
with mills and factories, the fringe of that industrial district which
lies on the southern and western border of the Lake Country; more wide
valleys sweeping back into blue mountains; a wealth of June leaf and
blossoming tree; and at last docks and buildings, warehouses and "works,"
a network of spreading railway lines, and all the other signs of an
important and growing town. The train stopped amid a crowd, and Polly
hurried to the door.
"Why, Hubert!--Mr. Seaton!--Here we are!"
She beckoned wildly, and not a few passers-by turned to look at the
nodding clouds of tulle.
"We shall find them, Polly--don't shout," said Laura behind her, in some
Shout and beckon, however, Polly did and would, till the two young men
were finally secured.
"Why, Hubert, you never towd me what a big place 'twas," said Polly
joyously. "Lor, Mr. Seaton, doant fash yoursel. This is Miss Fountain--my
cousin. You'll remember her, I knaw."
Mr. Seaton began a polite and stilted speech while possessing himself of
Polly's shawl and bag. He was a very superior young man of the clerk or
foreman type, somewhat ill put together at the waist, with a flat back to
his head, and a cadaverous countenance. Laura gave him a rapid look. But
her chief curiosity was for Hubert. And at her first glance she saw the
signs of that strong and silent process perpetually going on amongst us
that tames the countryman to the life and habits of the town. It was only
a couple of months since the young athlete from the fells had been
brought within its sway, and already the marks of it were evident in
dress, speech, and manner. The dialect was almost gone; the black Sunday
coat was of the most fashionable cut that Froswick could provide; and as
they walked along, Laura detected more than once in the downcast eyes of
her companion, a stealthy anxiety as to the knees of his new grey
trousers. So far the change was not an embellishment. The first loss of
freedom and rough strength is never that. But it roused the girl's
notice, and a sort of secret sympathy. She too had felt the curb of an
alien life!--she could almost have held out her hand to him as to a
comrade in captivity.
Outside the station, to Laura's surprise--considering the object of the
expedition--Hubert made a sign to his sister, and they two dropped behind
"What's the matter with her?" said Hubert abruptly, as soon as he judged
that they were out of hearing of the couple in front.
"Who do you mean? Laura? Why, she's well enoof!"
"Then she don't look it. She's fretting. What's wrong with her?"
As Hubert looked down upon his sister, Polly was startled by the
impatient annoyance of look and manner. And how red-rimmed and weary were
the lad's eyes! You might have thought he had not slept for a week.
Polly's mind ran through a series of conjectures; and she broke out with
"Hubert, I do wish tha wouldn't be sich a fool! I've towd tha so times
"Aye, and you may tell me so till kingdom come--I shan't mind you," he
said doggedly. "There's something between her and the Squire, I know
there is. I know it by the look of her."
"How you jump! I tell tha she never says a word aboot him."
Hubert looked moodily at Laura's little figure in front.
"All the more reason!" he said between his teeth. "She'd talk about him
when she first came. But I'll find out--never fear."
"For goodness' sake, Hubert, let her be!" said Polly, entreating. "Sich
wild stuff as thoo's been writin me! Yan might ha thowt yo'd be fer
cuttin yor throat, if yo' didn't get her doon here.--What art tha thinkin
of, lad? She'll never marry tha! She doan't belong to us--and there's noa
Hubert made no reply, but unconsciously his muscular frame took a
passionate rigidity; his face became set and obstinate.
"Well, you keep watch," he said. "You'll see--I'll make it worth your
Polly looked up--half laughing. She understood his reference to herself
and her new sweetheart. Hubert would play her game if she would play his.
Well--she had no objection whatever to help him to the sight of Laura
when she could. Polly's moral sense was not over-delicate, and as to the
upshot and issues of things, her imagination moved but slowly. She did
not like to let herself think of what might have been Hubert's relations
to women--to one or two wild girls about Whinthorpe for instance. But
Laura--Laura who was so much their social better, whose manners and
self-possession awed them both, what smallest harm could ever come to her
from any act or word of Hubert's? For this rustic Westmoreland girl,
Laura Fountain stood on a pedestal robed and sceptred like a little
queen. Hubert was a fool to fret himself--a fool to go courting some one
too high for him. What else was there to say or think about it?
At the next street corner Laura made a resolute stop. Polly should not
any longer be defrauded of her Mr. Seaton. Besides she, Laura, wished to
talk to Hubert. Mr. Beaton's long words, and way of mouthing his highly
correct phrases, had already seemed to take the savour out of the
When the exchange was made--Mr. Seaton alas! showing less eagerness than
might have been expected--Laura quietly examined her companion. It seemed
to her that he was taller than ever; surely she was not much higher than
his elbow! Hubert, conscious that he was being scrutinised, turned red,
looked away, coughed, and apparently could find nothing to say.
"Well--how are you getting on?" said the light voice, sending its
vibration through all the man's strong frame.
"I suppose I'm getting on all right," he said, switching at the railings
beside the road with his stick.
"What sort of work do you do?"
He gave her a stumbling account, from which she gathered that he was for
the time being the factotum of an office, sent on everybody's errands,
and made responsible for everybody's shortcomings.
She threw him a glance of pity. This young Hercules, with his open-air
traditions, and his athlete's triumphs behind him, turned into the butt
and underling of half a dozen clerks in a stuffy office!
"I don't mind," he said hastily. "All the others paid for their places; I
didn't pay for mine. I'll be even with them all some day. It was the
chance I wanted, and my uncle gives me a lift now and then. It was to
please him they gave me the berth; he's worth thousands and thousands a
year to them!"
And he launched into a boasting account of the importance and abilities
of his uncle, Daniel Mason, who was now managing director of the great
shipbuilding yard into which Hubert had been taken, as a favour to his
"He began at the bottom, same as me--only he was younger than me," said
Hubert, "so he had the pull. But you'll see, I'll work up. I've learnt a
lot since I've been here. The classes at the Institute--well, they're
Laura showed an astonished glance. New sides of the lad seemed to be
She inquired after his music. But he declared he was too busy to think of
it. By-and-by in the winter he would have lessons. There was a violin
class at the Institute--perhaps he'd join that. Then abruptly, staring
down upon her with his wide blue eyes--
"And how have you been getting on with the Squire?"
He thought she started, but couldn't be quite sure.
"Getting on with the Squire? Why, capitally! Whenever he's there to get
"What--he's been away?" he said eagerly.
She raised her shoulders.
"He's always away----"
"Why, I thought they'd have made a Papist of you by now," he said.
His laugh was rough, but his eyes held her with a curious insistence.
"Think something more reasonable, please, next time! Now, where are we
going to lunch?"
"We've got it all ready. But we must see the yard first.... Miss
Fountain--Laura--I've got that flower you gave me."
His voice was suddenly hoarse.
She glanced at him, lifting her eyebrows.
"Very foolish of you, I'm sure.... Now do tell me, how did you get off so
He sulkily explained to her that work was unusually slack in his own
yard; that, moreover, he had worked special overtime during the week in
order to get an hour or two off this Saturday, and that Seaton was on
night duty at a large engineering "works," and lord therefore of his
days. But she paid small attention. She was occupied in looking at the
new buildings and streets, the brand new squares and statues of Froswick.
"How can people build and live in such ugly places?" she said at last,
standing still that she might stare about her--"when there are such
lovely things in the world; Cambridge, for instance--or--Bannisdale."
The last word slipped out, dreamily, unaware.
The lad's face flushed furiously.
"I don't know what there is to see in Bannisdale," he said hotly. "It's a
damp, dark, beastly hole of a place."
"I prefer Bannisdale to this, thank you," said Laura, making a little
face at the very ample bronze gentleman in a frock coat who was standing
in the centre of a great new-built empty square, haranguing a phantom
crowd. "Oh! how ugly it is to succeed--to have money!"
Mason looked at her with a half-puzzled frown--a frown that of late had
begun to tease his handsome forehead habitually.
"What's the harm of having a bit of brass?" he said angrily. "And what's
the beauty o' livin in an old ramshackle place, without a sixpence in
your pocket, and a pride fit to bring you to the workhouse!"
Laura's little mouth showed amusement, an amusement that stung. She
lifted a little fan that hung at her girdle.
"Is there any shade in Froswick?" she said, looking round her.
Mason was silenced, and as Polly and Mr. Seaton joined them, he recovered
his temper with a mighty effort and once more set himself to do the
honours--the slighted honours--of his new home.
... But oh! the heat of the ship-building yard. Laura was already tired
and faint, and could hardly drag her feet up and down the sides of the
great skeleton ships that lay building in the docks, or through the
interminable "fitting" sheds with their piles of mahogany and teak, their
whirring lathes and saws, their heaps of shavings, their resinous wood
smell. And yet the managing director appeared in person for twenty
minutes, a thin, small, hawk-eyed man, not at all unwilling to give a
brief patronage to the young lady who might be said to link the houses of
Mason and Helbeck in a flattering equality.
"He wad never ha doon it for _us_!" Polly whispered in her awe to Miss
Fountain. "It's you he's affther!"
Laura, however, was not grateful. She took her industrial lesson ill,
with much haste and inattention, so that once when the director and his
nephew fell behind, the great man, whose speech to his kinsman in private
was often little less broad than Mrs. Mason's own--said scornfully:
"An I doan't think much o' your fine cousin, mon! she's nobbut a flighty
The young man said nothing. He was still slavishly ill at ease with his
uncle, on whose benevolence all his future depended.
"Is there something more to see?" said Laura languidly.
"Only the steel works," said Mr. Seaton, with a patronising smile. "You
young ladies, I presume, would hardly wish to go away without seeing our
chief establishment. Froswick Steel and Hematite Works employ three
"Do they?--and does it matter?" said Laura, playing with the salt.
She wore a little plaintive, tired air, which suited her soft paleness,
and made her extraordinarily engaging in the eyes of both the young men.
Mason watched her perpetually, anticipating her slightest movement,
waiting on her least want. And Mr. Seaton, usually so certain of his own
emotions and so wholly in command of them, began to feel himself
confused. It was with a distinct slackening of ardour that he looked from
Miss Fountain to Polly--his Polly, as he had almost come to think of her,
honest managing Polly, who would have a bit of "brass," and was in all
respects a tidy and suitable wife for such a man as he. But why had she
wrapped all that silly white stuff round her head? And her hands!--Mr.
Seaton slyly withdrew his eyes from Polly's reddened members to fix them
on the thin white wrist that Laura was holding poised in air, and the
pretty fingers twirling the salt spoon.
Polly meantime sat up very straight, and was no longer talkative. Lunch
had not improved her complexion, as the mirror hanging opposite showed
her. Every now and then she too threw little restless glances across at
"Why, we needn't go to the works at all if we don't like," said Polly.
"Can't we get a fly, Hubert, and take a jaunt soomwhere?"
Hubert bent forward with alacrity. Of course they could. If they went
four miles up the river or so, they would come to real nice country and a
farmhouse where they could have tea.
"Well, I'm game," said Mr. Seaton, magnanimously slapping his pocket.
"Anything to please these ladies."
"I don't know about that seven o'clock train," said Mason doubtfully.
"Well, if we can't get that, there's a later one."
"No, that's the last."
"You may trust me," said Seaton pompously. "I know my way about a railway
guide. There's one a little after eight."
Hubert shook his head. He thought Seaton was mistaken. But Laura settled
"Thank you--we'll not miss our train," she said, rising to put her hat
straight before the glass--"so it's the works, please. What is
it--furnaces and red-hot things?"
In another minute or two they were in the street again. Mr. Seaton
settled the bill with a magnificent "Damn the expense" air, which annoyed
Mason--who was of course a partner in all the charges of the day--and
made Laura bite her lip. Outside he showed a strong desire to walk with
Miss Fountain that he might instruct her in the details of the Bessemer
process and the manufacture of steel rails. But the ease with which the
little nonchalant creature disposed of him, the rapidity with which he
found himself transferred to Polly, and left to stare at the backs of
Laura and Hubert hurrying along in front, amazed him.
"Isn't she nice looking?" said poor Polly, as she too stared helplessly
at the distant pair.
Her shawl weighed upon her arm, Mr. Seaton had forgotten to ask for it.
But there was a little sudden balm in the irritable vexation of his
"Some people may be of that opinion, Miss Mason. I own I prefer a greater
degree of balance in the fair sex."
"Oh! does he mean me?" thought Polly.
And her spirits revived a little.
* * * * *
Meanwhile, as Laura and Hubert walked along to the desolate road that led
to the great steel works, Hubert knew a kind of jealous and tormented
bliss. She was there, fluttering beside him, her delicate face often
turned to him, her feet keeping step with his. And at the same time what
strong intangible barriers between them! She had put away her mocking
tone--was clearly determined to be kind and cousinly. Yet every word only
set the tides of love and misery swelling more strongly in the lad's
breast. "She doan't belong to us, an there's noa undoin it." Polly's
phrase haunted his ear. Yet he dared ask her no more questions about
Helbeck; small and frail as she was, she could wrap herself in an
unapproachable dignity; nobody had ever yet solved the mystery of Laura's
inmost feeling against her will; and Hubert knew despairingly that his
clumsy methods had small chance with her. But he felt with a kind of rage
that there were signs of suffering about her; he divined something to
know, at the same time that he realised with all plainness it was not for
his knowing. Ah! that man--that ugly starched hypocrite--after all had he
got hold of her? Who could live near her without feeling this pain--this
pang?... Was she to be surrendered to him without a struggle--to that
canting, droning fellow, with his jail of a house? Why, he would crush
the life out of her in six months!
There was a rush and whirl in the lad's senses. A cry of animal
jealousy--of violence--rose in his being.
* * * * *
"How wonderful!--how enchanting!" cried Laura, her glance sparkling, her
whole frame quivering with pleasure.
They had just entered the great main shed of the steel works. The
foreman, who had been induced by the young men to take them through, was
in the act of placing Laura in the shelter of a brick screen, so as to
protect her from a glowing shower of sparks that would otherwise have
swept over her; and the girl had thrown a few startled looks around her.
A vast shed, much of it in darkness, and crowded with dim forms of iron
and brick--at one end, and one side, openings, where the June day came
through. Within--a grandiose mingling of fire and shadow--a vast glare of
white or bluish flame from a huge furnace roaring against the inner wall
of the shed--sparks, like star showers, whirling through dark
spaces--ingots of glowing steel, pillars of pure fire passing and
repassing, so that the heat of them scorched the girl's shrinking
cheek--and everywhere, dark against flame, the human movement answering
to the elemental leap and rush of the fire, black forms of men in a
constant activity, masters and ministers at once of this crackling terror
round about them.
"Aye!" said their guide, answering the girl's questions as well as he
could in the roar--"that's the great furnace where they boil the steel.
Now you watch--when the flame--look! it's white now--turns blue--that
means the process is done--the steel's cooked. Then they'll bring the vat
beneath--turn the furnace over--you'll see the steel pour out."
"Is that a railway?"
She pointed to a raised platform in front of the furnace. A truck bearing
a high metal tub was running along it.
"Yes--it's from there they feed the furnace--in a minute you'll see the
tub tip over."
There was a signal bell--a rattle of machinery. The tub tilted--a great
jet of white flame shot upwards from the furnace--the great mouth had
swallowed down its prey.
"And those men with their wheelbarrows? Why do they let them go so
She shuddered and put her hand over her eyes.
The foreman laughed.
"Why, it's quite safe!--the tub's moved out of the way. You see the
furnace has to be fed with different stuffs---the tub brings one sort and
the barrows another. Now look--they're going to turn it over. Stand
He held up his hand to bid Mason come under shelter.
Laura looked round her.
"Where are the other two?" she asked.
"Oh! they've gone to see the bar-testing--they'll be here soon. Seaton
knows the man in charge of the testing workshop."
Laura ceased to think of them. She was absorbed in the act before her.
The great lip of the furnace began to swing downwards; fresh showers of
sparks fled in wild curves and spirals through the shed; out flowed the
stream of liquid steel into the vat placed beneath. Then slowly the fire
cup righted itself; the flame roared once more against the wall; the
swarming figures to either side began once more to feed the monster--men
and trucks and wheelbarrow, the little railway line, and the iron pillars
supporting it, all black against the glare----
Laura stood breathless--her wild nature rapt by what she saw. But while
she hung on the spectacle before her, Mason never spared it a glance. He
was conscious of scarcely anything but her--her childish form, in the
little clinging dress, her white face, every soft feature clear in the
glow, her dancing eyes, her cloud of reddish hair, from which her wide
black hat had slipped away in the excitement of her upward gaze. The lad
took the image into his heart--it burnt there as though it too were fire.
"Now let's look at something else!" said Laura at last, turning away with
a long breath.
And they took her to see the vat that had been filled from the furnace,
pouring itself into the ingot moulds--then the four moulds travelling
slowly onwards till they paused under a sort of iron hand that descended
and lifted them majestically from the white-hot steel beneath, uncovering
the four fiery pillars that reddened to a blood colour as they moved
across the shed--till, on the other side, one ingot after another was
lowered from the truck, and no sooner felt the ground than it became the
prey of some unseen force, which drove it swiftly onwards from beneath,
to where it leapt with a hiss and crunch into the jaws of the mill. Then
out again on the further side, lengthened, and pared, the demon in it
already half tamed!--flying as it were from the first mill, only to be
caught again in the squeeze of the second, and the third--until at last
the quivering rail emerged at the further end, a twisting fire serpent,
still soft under the controlling rods of the workmen. On it glided, on,
and out of the shed, into the open air, till it reached a sort of
platform over a pit, where iron claws caught at it from beneath, and
brought it to a final rest, in its own place, beside its innumerable
fellows, waiting for the market and its buyers.
"Mayn't we go back once more to the furnace?" said Miss Fountain eagerly
to her guide--"just for a minute!"
He smiled at her, unable to say no.
And they walked back across the shed, to the brick shelter. The great
furnace was roaring as before, the white sheet of flame was nearing its
last change of colour, tub after tub, barrow after barrow poured its
contents into the vast flaring throat. Behind the shelter was an elderly
woman with a shawl over her head. She had brought a jar of tea for some
workmen, and was standing like any stranger, watching the furnace and
hiding from the sparks.
Now there is only one man more--and after that, one more tub to be
lowered--and the hell-broth is cooked once again, and will come streaming
The man advances with his barrow. Laura sees his blackened face in the
intolerable light, as he turns to give a signal to those behind him. An
electric bell rings.
What was that?
God!--what was that?
A hideous cry rang through the works. Laura drew her hand in bewilderment
across her eyes. The foreman beside her shouted and ran forward.
"Where's the man?" she said helplessly to Mason.
But Mason made no answer. He was clinging to the brick wall, his eyes
staring out of his head. A great clamour rose from the little
railway--from beneath it--from all sides of it. The shed began to swarm
with running men, all hurrying towards the furnace. The air was full of
their cries. It was like the loosing of a maddened hive.
Laura tottered, fell back against the wall. The old woman who had come to
bring the tea rushed up to her.
"Oh, Lord, save us!--Lord, save us!" she cried, with a wail to rend the
And the two women fell into each other's arms, shuddering, with wild
broken words, which neither of them heard or knew.
END OF VOL. I