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Helbeck of Bannisdale, Vol. II by Mrs. Humphry Ward

Part 5 out of 5

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little blanched and stiffening face.

Helbeck stooped and kissed the brow of the dead woman.

"If I had only loved her better!" he said with emotion.

Laura stared at him. His words brought back to her a rush of
memories--Augustina's old fear of him--those twelve years in which no
member of the Fountain household had ever seen Mrs. Fountain's brother.
So long as Augustina had been Stephen Fountain's wife, she had been no
less dead for Helbeck, her only brother, than she was now.

The girl shuddered. She looked pitifully at the others.

"Please--please--leave me alone with her a little! She was my father's
wife--my dear father's wife!"

And again she sank on her knees, hiding her face against the dead. The
nurses hesitated, but Helbeck thought it best to let her have her way.

"We will go for half an hour," he said, stooping to her. Then, in a
whisper that only she could hear--"My Laura--you are mine now--let me
soon come back and comfort you!"

When they returned they found Laura sitting on a stool beside her
stepmother. One hand grasped that of Augustina, while the other dropped
listlessly in front of her. Her brow under its weight of curly hair hung
forward. The rest of the little face almost disappeared behind the fixed
and sombre intensity of the eyes.

She took no notice when they came in, and it was Helbeck alone who could
rouse her. He persuaded her to go, on a promise that the nurses would
soon recall her.

When all was ready she returned. Augustina was lying in a white pomp of
candles and flowers; the picture of the Virgin, the statue of St. Joseph,
her little praying table, were all garlanded with light; every trace of
the long physical struggle had been removed; the great bed, with its
meek, sleeping form and its white draperies, rose solitary amid its
lights--an altar of death in the void of the great panelled room.

Laura stood opposite to Helbeck, her hands clasped, as white and
motionless from head to foot as Augustina herself. Once amid the prayers
and litanies he was reciting with the Sisters, he lifted his head and
found that she was looking at him and not at Augustina. Her expression
was so forlorn and difficult to read, that he felt a vague uneasiness.
But his Catholic sense of the deep awe of what he was doing made him try
to concentrate himself upon it, and when he raised his eyes again Laura
was gone.

At four o'clock, in the dawn, he went himself to rest awhile, a little
surprised, perhaps, that Laura had not come back to share the vigils of
the night, but thankful, nevertheless, that she had been prudent enough
to spare herself.

Some little time before he went, while it was yet dark, Sister Rosa had
gone to lie down for a while. Her room was just beyond Laura's. As she
passed Miss Fountain's door she saw that there was a light within, and
for some time after the tired nurse had thrown herself on her bed, she
was disturbed by sounds from the next room. Miss Fountain seemed to be
walking up and down. Once or twice she broke out into sobs, then again
there were periods of quiet, and once a sharp sound that might have been
made by tearing a letter. But Sister Rosa did not listen long. It was
natural that Miss Fountain should sorrow and watch, and the nurse's
fatigue soon brought her sleep.

She had rejoined her companion, however, and Mr Helbeck had been in his
room about half an hour, when the door of the death chamber opened
softly, and Miss Fountain appeared.

The morning light was already full, though still rosily clear and cold,
and it fell upon the strangest and haggardest figure. Miss Fountain was
in a black dress, covered with a long black cloak. Her dress and cloak
were bedraggled with mud and wet. Her hat and hair were both in a
drenched confusion, and the wind had laid a passing flush, like a mask,
upon the pallor of her face. In her arms she held some boughs of wild
cherry, and a mass of wild clematis, gathered from a tree upon the house
wall, for which Augustina had cherished a particular affection.

She paused just inside the door, and looked at the nurses uncertainly,
like one who hardly knew what she was doing.

Sister Rosa went to her.

"They are so wet," she whispered with a troubled look, "and I went to the
most sheltered places. But I should like to put them by her. She loved
the cherry blossom--and this clematis."

The nurse took her into the next room, and between them they dried and
shook the beautiful tufted branches. As Laura was about to take them back
to the bed, Sister Rosa asked if she would not take off her wet cloak.

"Oh no!" said the girl, as though with a sudden entreaty. "No! I am going
out again. It shan't touch anything."

And daintily holding it to one side, she returned with the flowers in a
basket. She took them out one by one, and laid them beside Augustina,
till the bed was a vision of spring, starred and wreathed from end to
end, save for that waxen face and hands in the centre.

"There is no room for more," said the nurse gently, beside her.

Laura started.


She looked vaguely round the walls, saw a pair of old Delft vases still
empty, and said eagerly, pointing, "I will bring some for those. There is
a tree--a cherry tree," the nurse remembered afterwards that she had
spoken with a remarkable slowness and clearness, "just above the otter
cliff. You don't know where that is. But Mr. Helbeck knows."

The nurse glanced at her, and wondered. Miss Fountain, no doubt, had been
dazed a little by the sudden shock. She had learnt, however, not to
interfere with the first caprices of grief, and she did not try to
dissuade the girl from going.

When the flowers were all laid, Laura went round to the further side of
the bed and dropped on her knees. She gazed steadily at Augustina for a
little; then she turned to the faldstool beside the bed and the shelf
above it, with Augustina's prayer-books, and on either side of the St.
Joseph, on the wall, the portraits of Helbeck and his mother. The two
nurses moved away to the window that she might be left a little to
herself. They had seen enough, naturally, to make them divine a new
situation, and feel towards her with a new interest and compassion.

When she rejoined them, they were alternately telling their beads and
looking at the glory of the sunrise as it came marching from the distant
fells over the park. The rain had ceased, but the trees and grass were
steeped, and the river came down in a white flood under the pure greenish
spaces, and long pearly clouds of the morning sky.

Laura gave it all one look. Then she drew her cloak round her again.

"Dear Miss Fountain," whispered Sister Rosa, entreating, "don't be long.
And when you come in, let me get you dry things, and make you some tea."

The girl made a sign of assent.

"Good-bye," she said under her breath, and she gently kissed first Sister
Rosa, and then the other nurse, Sister Mary Raphael, who did not know her
so well, and was a little surprised perhaps to feel the touch of the cold
small lips.

They watched her close the door, and some dim anxiety made them wait at
the window till they saw her emerge from the garden wall into the park.
She was walking slowly with bent head. She seemed to stand for a minute
or two at the first seat commanding the bend of the river; then the rough
road along the Greet turned and descended. They saw her no more.

* * * * *

A little before eight o'clock, Helbeck, coming out of his room, met
Sister Rosa in the passage. She looked a little disturbed.

"Is Miss Fountain there?" asked Helbeck in the voice natural to those who
keep house with death. He motioned toward his sister's room.

"I have not seen Miss Fountain since she went out between four and five
o'clock," said the nurse.

"She went out for some flowers. As she did not come back to us, we
thought that she was tired and had gone straight to bed. But now I have
been to see. Miss Fountain is not in her room."

Helbeck stopped short.

"Not in her room! And she went out between four and five o'clock!"

"She told us she was going for some flowers to the otter cliff," said
Sister Rosa, with cheeks that were rapidly blanching. "I remember her
saying so very plainly. She said you would know where it was."

He stared at her, his face turning to horror. Then he was gone.

* * * * *

Laura was not far to seek. The tyrant river that she loved, had received
her, had taken her life, and then had borne her on its swirl of waters
straight for that little creek where, once before, it had tossed a human
prey upon the beach.

There, beating against the gravelly bank, in a soft helplessness, her
bright hair tangled among the drift of branch and leaf brought down by
the storm, Helbeck found her.

* * * * *

He brought her home upon his breast. Those who had come to search with
him followed at a distance.

He carried her through the garden, and at the chapel entrance nurses and
doctors met him. Long and fruitless efforts were made before all was
yielded to despair; but the river had done its work.

At last Helbeck said a hoarse word to Sister Rosa. She led the others

... In that long agony, Helbeck's soul parted for ever with the first
fresh power to suffer. Neither life nor death could ever stab in such
wise again. The half of personality--the chief forces of that Helbeck
whom Laura had loved, were already dead with Laura, when, after many
hours, his arms gave her back to the Sisters, and she dropped gently from
his hold upon her bed of death, in a last irrevocable submission.

* * * * *

Far on in the day, Sister Rosa discovered on Laura's table a sealed
letter addressed to Dr. Friedland of Cambridge. She brought it to
Helbeck. He looked at it blindly, then gradually remembered the name and
the facts connected with it. He wrote and sent a message to Dr. and Mrs.
Friedland asking them of their kindness to come to Bannisdale.

* * * * *

The Friedlands arrived late at night. They saw the child to whom they had
given their hearts lying at peace in the old tapestried room. Some of the
flowers she had herself brought for Augustina had been placed about her.
The nurses had exhausted themselves in the futile cares that soothe good
women at such a time.

The talk throughout the household was of sudden and hopeless accident.
Miss Fountain had gone for cherry blossom to the otter cliff; the cliff
was unsafe after the rain; only twenty-four hours before, Mr. Helbeck had
given orders on the subject to the old keeper. And the traces of a
headlong fall just below a certain flowery bent where a wild cherry stood
above a bank of primroses, were plainly visible.

Then, as the doctor and Mrs. Friedland entered their own room, Laura's
letter was brought to them.

They shut themselves in to read it, expecting one of those letters, those
unsuspicious letters of every day, which sudden death leaves behind it.

But this was what they read:

"Dear, dear friend,--Last night, nearly five hours ago, I promised for
the second time to marry Mr. Helbeck, and I promised, too, that I would
be a Catholic. I asked him to procure for me Catholic teaching and
instruction. I could not, you see, be his wife without it. His conscience
now would not permit it. And besides, last summer I saw that it could not

"... Then we were called to Augustina. It was she who finally persuaded
me. I did not do it merely to please her. Oh! no--_no_. I have been on
the brink of it for days--perhaps weeks. I have so hungered to be his
again.... But it gave it sweetness that Augustina wished it so much--that
I could tell her and make her happy before she died.

"Then, she was dead!--all in a moment--without a word--before we came to
her almost. She had prayed so--and yet God would not leave her a moment
in which to hear it. That struck me so. It was so strange, after all the
pains--all the clinging to Him--and entreating. It might have been a
sign, and there!--she never gave a thought to us. It seemed like an
intrusion, a disturbance even to touch her. How horrible it is that death
is so _lonely_! Then something was said that reminded me of my father. I
had forgotten him for so long. But when they left me with her, I seemed
to be holding not her hand, but his. I was back in the old life--I heard
him speaking quite distinctly. 'Laura, you cannot do it--_you cannot do
it_!' And he looked at me in sorrow and displeasure. I argued with him so
long, but he beat me down. And the voice I seemed to hear was not his
only,--it was the voice of my own life, only far stronger and crueller
than I had ever known it.

"Cruel!--I hardly know what I am writing--who has been cruel! I!--only I!
To open the old wounds--to make him glad for an hour--then to strike and
leave him--could anything be more pitiless? Oh! my best--best beloved....
But to live a lie--upon his heart, in his arms--that would be worse. I
don't know what drives me exactly--but the priests want my inmost
will--want all that is I--and I know when I sit down to think quietly,
that I cannot give it. I knew it last October. But to be with him, to see
him, was too much. Oh! if God hears, may He forgive me--I prayed to-night
that He would give me courage.

"He must always think it an accident--he will. I see it all so
plainly.--But I am afraid of saying or doing something to make the others
suspect.--My head is not clear. I can't remember from one moment to

"You understand--I must trouble him no more. And there is no other way.
This winter has proved it. Because death puts an _end_.

"This letter is for you three only, in all the world. Dear, dear Molly--I
sit here like a coward--but I can't go without a sign.--You wouldn't
understand me--I used to be so happy as a little child--but since Papa
died--since I came here--oh! I am not angry now, not proud--no, no.--It
is for love--for love.

"Good-bye--good-bye. You were all so good to me--think of me, grieve for
me sometimes.--

"Your ever grateful and devoted


Next morning early, Helbeck entered the dining-room, where Dr. Friedland
was sitting. He approached the doctor with an uncertain step, like one
finding his way in the dark.

"You had a letter," he said. "Is it possible that you could show it
me--or any part of it? Only a few hours before her death the old
relations between myself--and Miss Fountain--were renewed. We were to
have been husband and wife. That gives me a certain claim."

Dr. Friedland grew pale.

"My dear sir," he said, rising to meet his host,--"that letter contained
a message for my daughter which was not intended for other eyes than
hers. I have destroyed it."

And then speech failed him. The old man stood in a guilty confusion.

Helbeck lifted his deep eyes with the steady and yet muffled gaze of one
who, in the silence of the heart, lets hope go. Not another word was
said. The doctor found himself alone.

* * * * *

Three days later, the doctor wrote to his wife, who had gone back to
Cambridge to be with Molly.

"Yesterday Mrs. Fountain was buried in the Catholic graveyard at
Whinthorpe. To-day we carried Laura to a little chapel high in the hills.
A. lonely yet a cheerful spot! After these days and nights of horror,
there was a moment--a breath--of balm. The Westmoreland rocks and trees
will be about her for ever. She lies in sight, almost, of the Bannisdale
woods. Above her the mountain rises to the sky. One of those wonderful
Westmoreland dogs was barking and gathering the sheep on the crag-side,
while we stood there. And when it was all over I could hear the river in
the valley--a gay and open stream, with little bends and shadows--not
tragic like the Greet.

"Many of the country people came. I saw her cousins, the Masons; that
young fellow--you remember?--with a face swollen with tears. Mr. Helbeck
stood in the distance. He did not come into the chapel.

"How she loved this country! And now it holds her tenderly. It gives her
its loveliest and best. Poor, poor child!

"As for Mr. Helbeck, I have hardly seen him. He seems to live a life all
within. We must be as shadows to him; as men like trees walking. But I
have had a few conversations with him on necessary business; I have
observed his bearing under this intolerable blow. And always I have felt
myself in the presence of a good and noble man. In a few months, or even
weeks, they say he will have entered the Jesuit Novitiate. It gives me a
deep relief to think of it.

"What a fate!--that brought them across each other, that has left him
nothing but these memories, and led her, step by step, to this last
bitter resource--this awful spending of her young life--this blind
witness to august things!"

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