Part 3 out of 5
"Ah, no doubt, she tells you people propose to her--but is it true?"
snapped Lady Mary.
"You imagine that Helena tells me of her proposals?" said Buntingford,
"My dear Philip, don't pose! Isn't that the special function of a
"It may be. But, if so, Helena has never given me the chance of
"I told you so! Men will flirt with her, but they _don't_ propose to
her!" said Lady Mary triumphantly.
Buntingford, smiling, let her have the last word, as he asked Mrs. Friend
to show her to her room.
Meanwhile the gardens were deserted, save for a couple of gardeners and
an electrician, who were laying some wires for the illumination of the
rose-garden in front of the drawing-room, and Geoffrey French, who was in
a boat, lazily drifting across the pond, and reading a volume of poems by
a friend which he had brought down with him. The evening was fast
declining; and from the shadow of the deep wood which bordered the
western edge of the pond he looked out on the sunset glow as it climbed
the eastern hill, transfiguring the ridge, and leaving a rich twilight in
the valley below. The tranquillity of the water, the silence of the
woods, the gentle swaying of the boat, finally wooed him from his book,
which after all he had only taken up as a protection from tormenting
thoughts. Had he--had he--any chance with Helena? A month before he would
have scornfully denied that he was in love with her. And now--he had
actually confessed his plight to Mrs. Friend!
As he lay floating between the green vault above, and the green weedy
depths below, his thoughts searched the five weeks that lay between him
and that first week-end when he had scolded Helena for her offences. It
seemed to him that his love for her had first begun that day of the
Dansworth riot. She had provoked and interested him before that--but
rather as a raw self-willed child--a "flapper" whose extraordinary beauty
gave her a distinction she had done nothing to earn. But every moment in
that Dansworth day was clear in memory:--the grave young face behind the
steering-wheel, the perfect lips compressed, the eyes intent upon their
task, the girl's courage and self-command. Still more the patient Helena
who waited for him at the farm--the grateful exultant look when he said
"Come"--and every detail of the scene in Dansworth:--Helena with her most
professional air, driving through soldiers and police, Helena helping to
carry and place the two wounded men, and that smiling "good-bye" she had
thrown him as she drove away with Buntingford beside her.
The young man moved restlessly; and the light boat was set rocking. It
was curious how he too, like Lucy Friend, only from another point of
view, was beginning to reflect on the new intimacy that seemed to be
developing between Buntingford and his ward. Philip of course was an
awfully good fellow, and Helena was just finding it out; what else was
there in it? But the jealous pang roused by the thought of Buntingford,
once felt, persisted. Not for a moment did French doubt the honour or the
integrity of a man, who had done him personally many a kindness, and had
moreover given him some reason to think---(he recalled the odd little
note he had received from Buntingford before Helena's first
week-end)--that if he were to fall in love with Helena, his suit would be
favourably watched by Helena's guardian. He could recall moreover one or
two quite recent indications on Buntingford's part--very slight and
guarded--which seemed to point in the same direction.
All very well: Buntingford himself might be quite heart-whole and might
remain so. French, who knew him well, though there was fourteen years
between them, was tolerably certain--without being able to give any very
clear reason for the conviction--that Buntingford would never have
undertaken the guardianship of Helena, had the merest possibility of
marrying her crossed his mind. French did not believe that it had ever
yet crossed his mind. There was nothing in his manner towards her to
suggest anything more than friendship, deepening interest, affectionate
responsibility--all feelings which would have shown themselves plainly
from the beginning had she allowed it.
But Helena herself? It was clear that however much they might still
disagree, Buntingford had conquered her original dislike of him, and was
in process of becoming the guide, philosopher, and friend her mother had
meant him to be. And Buntingford had charm and character, and
imagination. He could force a girl like Helena to respect him
intellectually; with such a nature that was half the battle. He would be
her master in time. Besides, there were all Philip's endless
opportunities of making life agreeable and delightful to her. When they
went to London, for instance, he would come out of the shell he had lived
in so long, and Helena would see him as his few intimate friends had
always seen him:--as one of the most accomplished and attractive of
mortals, with just that touch of something ironic and mysterious in his
personality and history, which appeals specially to a girl's fancy.
And what would be the end of it? Tragedy for Helena?--as well as bitter
disappointment and heartache for himself, Geoffrey French? He was
confident that Helena had in her the capacity for passion; that the
flowering-time of such a nature would be one of no ordinary intensity.
She would love, and be miserable--and beat herself to pieces--poor,
brilliant Helena!--against her own pain.
What could he do? Might there not be some chance for
himself--_now_--while the situation was still so uncertain and
undeveloped? Helena was still unconscious, unpledged. Why not cut in at
once? "She likes me--she has been a perfect dear to me these last few
times of meeting! Philip backs me. He would take my part. Perhaps, after
all, my fears are nonsense, and she would no more dream of marrying
Philip, than he would dream, under cover of his guardianship, of making
love to her."
He raised himself in the boat, filled with a new inrush of will and
hope, and took up the drifting oars. Across the water, on the white
slopes of lawn, and in some of the windows of the house, lights were
appearing. The electricians were testing the red and blue lamps they had
been stringing among the rose-beds, and from the gabled boathouse on the
further side, a bright shaft from a small searchlight which had been
fixed there, was striking across the water. Geoffrey watched it
wandering over the dark wood on his right, lighting up the tall stems of
the beeches, and sending a tricky gleam or two among the tangled
underwood. It seemed to him a symbol of the sudden illumination of mind
and purpose which had come to him, there, on the shadowed water--and he
turned to look at a window which he knew was Helena's. There were lights
within it, and he pictured Helena at her glass, about to slip into some
bright dress or other, which would make her doubly fair. Meanwhile from
the rose of the sunset, rosy lights were stealing over the water and
faintly glorifying the old house and its spreading gardens. An
overpowering sense of youth--of the beauty of the world--of the mystery
of the future, beat through his pulses. The coming dance became a rite
of Aphrodite, towards which all his being strained.
Suddenly, there was a loud snapping noise, as of breaking branches in the
wood beside him. It was so startling that his hands paused on the oars,
as he looked quickly round to see what could have produced it. And at the
same moment the searchlight on the boathouse reached the spot to which
his eyes were drawn, and he saw for an instant--sharply distinct and
ghostly white--a woman's face and hands--amid the blackness of the wood.
He had only a moment in which to see them, in which to catch a glimpse of
a figure among the trees, before the light was gone, leaving a double
gloom behind it.
Mysterious! Who could it be? Was it some one who wanted to be put across
the pond? He shouted. "Who is that?"
Then he rowed in to the shore, straining his eyes to see. It occurred to
him that it might be a lady's maid brought by a guest, who had been out
for a walk, and missed her way home in a strange park. "Do you want to
get to the house? I can put you across to it if you wish," he said in a
loud voice, addressing the unknown--"otherwise you'll have to go a long
No answer--only an intensity of silence, through which he heard from a
great distance a church clock striking. The wood and all its detail had
vanished in profound shadow.
Conscious of a curious excitement he rowed still further in to the bank,
and again spoke to the invisible woman. In vain. He began then to doubt
his own eyes. Had it been a mere illusion produced by some caprice of the
searchlight opposite? But the face!--the features of it were stamped on
his memory, the gaunt bitterness of them, the brooding misery.
How could he have imagined such a thing?
Much perplexed and rather shaken in nerve, he rowed back across the
pond--to hear the band tuning in the flower-filled drawing-room, as he
approached the house.
About ten o'clock on the night of the ball at Beechmark, a labourer was
crossing the park on his way home from his allotment. Thanks to
summertime and shortened hours of labour he had been able to get his
winter greens in, and to earth up his potatoes, all in two strenuous
evenings; and he was sauntering home dead-tired. But he had doubled his
wages since the outbreak of war and his fighting son had come back to him
safe, so that on the whole he was inclined to think that the old country
was worth living in! The park he was traversing was mostly open pasture
studded with trees, except where at the beginning of the eighteenth
century the Lord Buntingford of the day had planted a wood of oak and
beech about the small lake which he had made by the diversion of two
streamlets that had once found a sluggish course through the grassland.
The trees in it were among the finest in the country, but like so much of
English woodland before the war, they had been badly neglected for many
years. The trees blown down by winter storms had lain year after year
where they fell; the dead undergrowth was choking the young saplings; and
some of the paths through the wood had practically disappeared.
The path from the allotments to the village passed at the back of the
wood. Branching off from it, an old path leading through the trees and
round the edge of the lake had once been frequently used as a short cut
from the village to the house, but was now badly grown up and indeed
superseded by the new drive from the western lodge, made some twenty
years before this date.
The labourer, Richard Stimson, was therefore vaguely surprised when he
turned the corner of the wood and reached the fork of the path, to see a
figure of a woman, on the old right-of-way, between him and the wood, for
which she seemed to be making.
It was not the figure of anyone he knew. It was a lady, apparently, in a
dark gown, and a small hat with a veil. The light was still good, and he
saw her clearly. He stopped indeed to watch her, puzzled to know what a
stranger could be doing in the park, and on that path at ten o'clock at
night. He was aware indeed that there were gay doings at Beechmark. He
had seen the illuminated garden and house from the upper park, and had
caught occasional gusts of music from the band to which no doubt the
quality were dancing. But the fact didn't seem to have much to do with
the person he was staring at.
And while he stared at her, she turned, and instantly perceived--he
thought--that she was observed. She paused a moment, and then made an
abrupt change of direction; running round the corner of the wood, she
reached the path along which he himself had just come and disappeared
The whole occurrence filliped the rustic mind; but before he reached his
own cottage, Stimson had hit on an explanation which satisfied him. It
was of course a stranger who had lost her way across the park, mistaking
the two paths. On seeing him, she had realized that she was wrong and had
quickly set herself right. He told his wife the tale before he went to
sleep, with this commentary; and they neither of them troubled to think
about it any more.
Perhaps the matter would not have appeared so simple to either of them
had they known that Stimson had no sooner passed completely out of sight,
leaving the wide stretches of the park empty and untenanted under a sky
already alive with stars, than the same figure reappeared, and after
pausing a moment, apparently to reconnoitre, disappeared within the wood.
"A year ago to-day, where were you?" said one Brigadier to another, as
the two Generals stood against the wall in the Beechmark drawing-room to
watch the dancing.
"Near Albert," said the man addressed. "The brigade was licking its
wounds and training drafts."
The other smiled.
"Mine was doing the same thing--near Armentieres. We didn't think then,
did we, that it would be all over in five months?"
"It isn't all over!" said the first speaker, a man with a refined and
sharply cut face, still young under a shock of grey hair. "We are in the
ground swell of the war. The ship may go down yet."
"While the boys and girls dance? I hope not!" The soldier's eyes ran
smiling over the dancing throng. Then he dropped his voice:
For a very young boy and girl had come to stand in front of them. The boy
had just parted from a girl a good deal older than himself, who had
nodded to him a rather patronizing farewell, as she glided back into the
dance with a much decorated Major.
"These pre-war girls are rather dusty, aren't they?" said the boy angrily
to his partner.
"You mean they give themselves airs? Well, what does it matter? It's _we_
who have the good time now!" said the little creature beside him, a fairy
in filmy white, dancing about him as she spoke, hardly able to keep her
feet still for a moment, life and pleasure in every limb.
The two soldiers--both fathers--smiled at each other. Then Helena came
down the room, a vision of spring, with pale green floating about her,
and apple-blossoms in her brown hair. She was dancing with Geoffrey
French, and both were dancing with remarkable stateliness and grace to
some Czech music, imposed upon the band by Helena, who had given her
particular friends instruction on the lawn that afternoon in some of the
steps that fitted it. They passed with the admiring or envious eyes of
the room upon them, and disappeared through the window leading to the
lawn. For on the smooth-shaven turf of the lawn there was supplementary
dancing, while the band in the conservatory, with all barriers removed,
was playing both for the inside and outside revellers.
Peter Dale was sitting out on the terrace over-looking the principal lawn
with the daughter of Lady Mary Chance, a rather pretty but stupid girl,
with a genius for social blunders. Buntingford had committed him to a
dance with her, and he was not grateful.
"She is pretty, of course, but horribly fast!" said his partner
contemptuously, as Helena passed. "Everybody thinks her such bad style!"
"Then everybody is an ass!" said Peter violently, turning upon her. "But
it doesn't matter to Helena."
The girl flushed in surprise and anger.
"I didn't know you were such great friends. I only repeat what I hear,"
she said stiffly.
"It depends on where you hear it," said Peter. "There isn't a man in this
ball that isn't pining to dance with her."
"Has she given you a dance?" said the girl, with a touch of malice in
"Oh, I've come off as well as other people!" said Peter evasively.
Then, of a sudden, his chubby face lit up. For Helena, just as the music
was slackening to the close of the dance, and a crowd of aspirants for
supper dances were converging on the spot where she stood, had turned and
beckoned to Peter.
"Do you mind?--I'll come back!" he said to his partner, and rushed off.
"Second supper dance!" "All right!"
He returned radiant, and in his recovered good humour proceeded to make
himself delightful even to Miss Chance, whom, five minutes before, he
But when he had returned her to her mother, Peter wandered off alone. He
did not want to dance with anybody, to talk to anybody. He wanted just to
remember Helena's smile, her eager--"I've kept it for you, Peter, all the
evening!"--and to hug the thought of his coming joy. Oh, he hadn't a
dog's chance, he knew, but as long as she was not actually married to
somebody else, he was not going to give up hope.
In a shrubbery walk, where a rising moon was just beginning to chequer
the path with light and shade, he ran into Julian Horne, who was
strolling tranquilly up and down, book in hand.
"Hullo, what are you doing here?" said the invaded one.
"Getting cool. And you?"
Julian showed his book--_The Coming Revolution_, a Bolshevist pamphlet,
then enjoying great vogue in manufacturing England.
"What are you reading such rot for?" said Peter, wondering.
"It gives a piquancy to this kind of thing!" was Horne's smiling reply,
as they reached an open space in the walk, and he waved his hand towards
the charming scene before them, the house with its lights, on its rising
ground above the lake, the dancing groups on the lawn, the illuminated
rose-garden; and below, the lake, under its screen of wood, with boats on
the smooth water, touched every now and then by the creeping fingers of
the searchlight from the boathouse, so that one group after another of
young men and maidens stood out in a white glare against the darkness of
"It will last our time," said Peter recklessly. "Have you seen
"A little while ago, he was sitting out with Lady Cynthia. But when he
passed me just now, he told me he was going down to look after the lake
and the boats--in case of accidents. There is a current at one end
apparently, and a weir; and the keeper who understands all about it is in
a Canada regiment on the Rhine."
"Do you think Buntingford's going to marry Lady Cynthia?" asked
Horne laughed. "That's not my guess, at present," he said after a moment.
As he spoke, a boat on the lake came into the track of the searchlight,
and the two persons in it were clearly visible--Buntingford rowing, and
Helena, in the stern. The vision passed in a flash; and Horne turned a
pair of eyes alive with satirical meaning on his companion.
"Well!" said Peter, troubled, he scarcely knew why--"what do you mean?"
Horne seemed to hesitate. His loose-limbed ease of bearing in his shabby
clothes, his rugged head, and pile of reddish hair, above a thinker's
brow, made him an impressive figure in the half light--gave him a kind of
"Isn't it one of the stock situations?" he said at last--"this
situation of guardian and ward?--romantic situations, I mean? Of course
the note of romance must be applicable. But it certainly is applicable,
in this case."
Peter stared. Julian Horne caught the change in the boy's delicate face
and repented him--too late.
"What rubbish you talk, Julian! In the first place it would be
"It would, I tell you,--damned dishonourable! And in the next, why, a few
weeks ago--Helena hated him!"
"Yes--she began with 'a little aversion'! One of the stock openings,"
"Well, ta-ta. I'm not going to stay to listen to you talking bosh any
more," said Peter roughly. "There's the next dance beginning."
He flung away. Horne resumed his pacing. He was very sorry for Peter,
whose plight was plain to all the world. But it was better he should be
warned. As for himself, he too had been under the spell. But he had soon
emerged. A philosopher and economist, holding on to Helena's skirts in
her rush through the world, would cut too sorry a figure. Besides, could
she ever have married him--which was of course impossible, in spite of
the courses in Meredith and Modern Literature through which he had taken
her--she would have tired of him in a year, by which time both their
fortunes would have been spent. For he knew himself to be a spendthrift
on a small income, and suspected a similar propensity in Helena, on the
grand scale. He returned, therefore, more or less contentedly, to his
musings upon an article he was to contribute to _The Market Place_, on
"The Influence of Temperament in Economics." The sounds of dance music in
the distance made an agreeable accompaniment.
Meanwhile a scene--indisputably sentimental--was passing on the lake.
Helena and Geoffrey French going down to the water's edge to find a boat,
had met halfway with Cynthia Welwyn, in some distress. She had just heard
that Lady Georgina had been taken suddenly ill, and must go home. She
understood that Mawson was looking after her sister, who was liable to
slight fainting attacks at inconvenient moments. But how to find their
carriage! She had looked for a servant in vain, and Buntingford was
nowhere to be seen. French could do no less than offer to assist; and
Helena, biting her lip, despatched him. "I will wait for you at the
He rushed off, with Cynthia toiling after him, and Helena descended to
the lake. As she neared the little landing stage, a boat approached it,
containing Buntingford, and two or three of his guests.
"Hullo, Helena, what have you done with Geoffrey?"
She explained. "We were just coming down for a row."
"All right. I'll take you on till he comes. Jump in!"
She obeyed, and they were soon halfway towards the further side. But
about the middle of the lake Buntingford was seized with belated
compunction that he had not done his host's duty to his queer,
inarticulate cousin, Lady Georgina. "I suppose I ought to have gone to
look after her?"
"Not at all," said Helena coolly. "I believe she does it often. She can't
want more than Lady Cynthia--_and_ Geoffrey--_and_ Mawson. People
shouldn't be pampered!"
Her impertinence was so alluring as she sat opposite to him, trailing
both hands in the water, that Buntingford submitted. There was a
momentary silence. Then Helena said:
"Lady Cynthia came to see me the other day. Did you send her?"
"Of course. I wanted you to make friends."
"That we should never do! We were simply born to dislike each other."
"I never heard anything so unreasonable!" said Buntingford warmly.
"Cynthia is a very good creature, and can be excellent company."
Helena gave a shrug.
"What does all that matter?" she said slowly--"when one has
instincts--and intuitions. No!--don't let's talk any more about Lady
Cynthia. But--there's something--please, Cousin Philip--I want to say--I
may as well say it now."
He looked at her rather astonished, and, dimly as he saw her in
the shadow they had just entered, it seemed to him that her aspect
"What is it? I hope nothing serious."
"Yes--it is serious, to me. I hate apologizing!--I always have."
"My dear Helena!--why should you apologize? For goodness' sake, don't!
Think better of it."
"I've got to do it," she said firmly, "Cousin Philip, you were quite
right about that man, Jim Donald, and I was quite wrong. He's a beast,
and I loathe the thought of having danced with him--there!--I'm sorry!"
She held out her hand.
Buntingford was supremely touched, and could not for the moment find a
jest wherewith to disguise it.
"Thank you!" he said quietly, at last. "Thank you, Helena. That was very
nice of you." And with a sudden movement he stooped and kissed the wet
and rather quivering hand he held. At the same moment, the searchlight
which had been travelling about the pond, lighting up one boat after
another to the amusement of the persons in them, and of those watching
from the shore, again caught the boat in which sat Buntingford and
Helena. Both figures stood sharply out. Then the light had travelled on,
and Helena had hastily withdrawn her hand.
She fell back on the cushions of the stern seat, vexed with her own
agitation. She had described herself truly. She was proud, and it was
hard for her to "climb down." But there was much else in the mixed
feeling that possessed her. There seemed, for one thing, to be a curious
happiness in it; combined also with a renewed jealousy for an
independence she might have seemed to be giving away. She wanted to
say--"Don't misunderstand me!--I'm not really giving up anything vital--I
mean all the same to manage my life in my own way." But it was difficult
to say it in the face of the coatless man opposite, of whose house she
had become practically mistress, and who had changed all his personal
modes of life to suit hers. Her eyes wandered to the gay scene of the
house and its gardens, with its Watteau-ish groups of young men and
maidens, under the night sky, its light and music. All that had been
done, to give her pleasure, by a man who had for years conspicuously
shunned society, and whose life in the old country house, before her
advent, had been, as she had come to know, of the quietest. She bent
forward again, impulsively:
"Cousin Philip!--I'm enjoying this party enormously--it's awfully,
awfully good of you--but I don't want you to do it any more--"
"Do what, Helena?"
"Please, I can get along without any more week-ends, or parties. You--you
"Well--we're going up to London, aren't we, soon? But I daresay you're
right"--his tone grew suddenly grave. "While we dance, there is a
terrible amount of suffering going on in the world."
"You mean--after the war?"
He nodded. "Famine everywhere--women and children dying--half a dozen
bloody little wars. And here at home we seem to be on the brink of
"We oughtn't to be amusing ourselves at all!--that's the real truth of
it," said Helena with gloomy decision. "But what are we to do--women, I
mean? They told me at the hospital yesterday they get rid of their last
convalescents next week. What _is_ there for me to do? If I were a
factory girl, I should be getting unemployment benefit. My occupation's
gone--such as it was--it's not my fault!"
"Marry, my dear child,--and bring up children," said Buntingford bluntly.
"That's the chief duty of Englishwomen just now."
Helena flushed and said nothing. They drifted nearer to the bank, and
Helena perceived, at the end of a little creek, a magnificent group of
yew trees, of which the lower branches were almost in the water. Behind
them, and to the side of them, through a gap in the wood, the moonlight
found its way, but they themselves stood against the faint light,
superbly dark, and impenetrable, black water at their feet. Buntingford
pointed to them.
"They're fine, aren't they? This lake of course is artificial, and the
park was only made out of arable land a hundred years ago. I always
imagine these trees mark some dwelling-house, which has disappeared. They
used to be my chief haunt when I was a boy. There are four of them,
extraordinarily interwoven. I made a seat in one of them. I could see
everything and everybody on the lake, or in the garden; and nobody could
see me. I once overheard a proposal!"
"Eavesdropper!" laughed Helena. "Shall we land?--and go and look at
She gave a touch to the rudder. Then a shout rang out from the
landing-stage on the other side of the water.
"Ah, that's Geoffrey," said Buntingford. "And I must really get back to
the house--to see people off."
With a little vigorous rowing they were soon across the lake. Helena sat
silent. She did not want Geoffrey--she did not want to reach the
land--she had been happy on the water--why should things end?
* * * * *
Geoffrey reported that all was well with Lady Georgina, she had gone
home, and then stepping into the boat as Buntingford stepped out, he
began to push off.
"Isn't it rather late?" began Helena in a hesitating voice, half rising
from her seat. "I promised Peter a supper dance."
Geoffrey turned to look at her.
"Nobody's gone in to supper yet. Shall I take you back?"
There was something in his voice which meant that this _tete-a-tete_ had
been promised him. Helena resigned herself. But that she would rather
have landed was very evident to her companion, who had been balked of
half his chance already by Lady Georgina. Why did elderly persons liable
to faint come to dances?--that was what he fiercely wanted to know as he
pulled out into the lake.
Helena was very quiet. She seemed tired, or dreamy. Instinctively
Geoffrey lost hold on his own purpose. Something warned him to go warily.
By way of starting conversation he began to tell her of his own adventure
on the lake--of the dumb woman among the trees, whom he had seen and
spoken to, without reply. Helena was only moderately interested. It was
some village woman passing through the wood, she supposed. Very likely
the searchlight frightened her, and she knew she had no business there in
June when there were young pheasants about--
"Nobody's started preserving again yet--" put in Geoffrey.
"Old Fenn told me yesterday that there were lots of wild ones," said
Helena languidly. "So there'll be something to eat next winter."
"Are you tired, Helena?"
"Not at all," she said, sitting up suddenly. "What were we talking
about?--oh, pheasants. Do you think we really shall starve next winter,
Geoffrey, as the Food Controller says?"
"I don't much care!" said French.
Helena bent forward.
"Now, you're cross with me, Geoffrey! Don't be cross! I think I really am
tired. I seem to have danced for hours." The tone was childishly
plaintive, and French was instantly appeased. The joy of being with
her--alone--returned upon him in a flood.
"Well, then, rest a little. Why should you go back just yet? Isn't it
jolly out here?"
"Lovely," she said absently--"but I promised Peter."
"That'll be all right. We'll just go across and back."
There was a short silence--long enough to hear the music from the house,
and the distant voices of the dancers. A little northwest wind was
creeping over the lake, and stirring the scents of the grasses and
sedge-plants on its banks. Helena looked round to see in what direction
they were going.
"Ah!--you see that black patch, Geoffrey?"
"Yes--it was near there I saw my ghost--or village woman--or lady's
maid--whatever you like to call it."
"It was a lady's maid, I think," said Helena decidedly. "They have a way
of getting lost. Do you mind going there?"--she pointed--"I want to
He pulled a stroke which sent the boat towards the yews; while she
repeated Buntingford's story of the seat.
"Perhaps we shall find her there," said Geoffrey with a laugh.
"Your woman? No! That would be rather creepy! To think we had a spy on us
all the time! I should hate that!"
She spoke with animation; and a sudden question shot across French's
mind. She and Buntingford had been alone there under the darkness of the
yews. If a listener had been lurking in that old hiding-place, what would
he--or she--have heard? Then he shook the thought from him, and rowed
vigorously for the creek.
He tied the boat to a willow-stump, and helped Helena to land.
"I warn you--" he said, laughing. "You'll tear your dress, and wet
But with her skirts gathered tight round her she was already
halfway through the branches, and Geoffrey heard her voice from the
"Oh I--such a wonderful place!"
He followed her quickly, and was no less astonished than she. They stood
in a kind of natural hall, like that "pillared shade" under the yews of
Borrowdale, which Wordsworth has made immortal:
beneath whose sable roof
Of boughs, as if for festal purpose, decked
With unrejoicing berries, Ghostly shapes
May meet at noon-tide; Fear and trembling Hope,
Silence and Foresight; Death the Skeleton
And Time the Shadow:--
For three yew trees of great age had grown together, forming a domed tent
of close, perennial leaf, beneath which all other vegetation had
disappeared. The floor, carpeted with "the pining members" of the yews,
was dry and smooth; Helena's light slippers scarcely sank in it. They
groped their way; and Helena's hand had slipped unconsciously into
Geoffrey's. In the velvety darkness, indeed, they would have seen
nothing, but for the fact that the moon stood just above the wood, and
through a small gap in the dome, where a rotten branch had fallen, a
little light came down.
"I've found the seat!" said Helena joyously, disengaging herself from her
companion. And presently a dim ray from overhead showed her to him seated
dryad-like in the very centre of the black interwoven trunks. Or, rather,
he saw the sparkle of some bright stones on her neck, and the whiteness
of her brow; but for the rest, only a suggestion of lovely lines; as it
were, a Spirit of the Wood, almost bodiless.
He stood before her, in an ecstasy of pleasure.
"Helena!--you are a vision--a dream: Don't fade away! I wish we could
stay here for ever."
"Am I a vision?" She put out a mischievous hand, and pinched him. "But
come here, Geoffrey--come up beside me--look! Anybody sitting here could
see a good deal of the lake!"
He squeezed in beside her, and true enough, through a natural parting in
the branches, which no one could have noticed from outside, the little
creek, with their boat in it, was plainly visible, and beyond it the
lights on the lawn.
"A jolly good observation post for a sniper!" said Geoffrey,
recollections of the Somme returning upon him; so far as he was able to
think of anything but Helena's warm loveliness beside him. Mad thoughts
began to surge up in him.
But an exclamation from Helena checked them:
"I say!--there's something here--in the seat."
Her hand groped near his. She withdrew it excitedly.
"It's a scarf, or a bag, or something. Let's take it to the light. Your
She scrambled down, and he followed her unwillingly, the blood racing
through his veins. But he must needs help her again through the
close-grown branches, and into the boat.
She peered at the soft thing she held in her hand.
"It's a bag, a little silk bag. And there's something in it! Light a
He fumbled in his waistcoat pocket, and obeyed her. Their two heads
stooped together over the bag. Helena drew out a handkerchief--torn, with
a lace edging.
"That's not a village woman's handkerchief!" she said, wondering. "And
there are initials!"
He struck another match, and they distinguished something like F.M. very
finely embroidered in the corner of the handkerchief. The match went out,
and Helena put the handkerchief back into the bag, which she examined in
the now full moonlight, as they drifted out of the shadow.
"And the bag itself is a most beautiful little thing! It's shabby and
old, but it cost a great deal when it was new. What a strange, strange
thing! We must tell Cousin Philip. Somebody, perhaps, was watching us all
She sat with her chin on her hands, gazing thoughtfully at French, the
bag on her knees. Now that the little adventure was over, and she was
begging him to take her back quickly to the house, Geoffrey was only
conscious of disappointment and chagrin. What did the silly mystery in
itself matter to him or her? But it had drawn a red herring across his
track. Would the opportunity it had spoilt ever return?
It was a glorious June morning; and Beechmark, after the ball, was just
beginning to wake up. Into the June garden, full of sun but gently beaten
by a fresh wind, the dancers of the night before emerged one by one.
Peter Dale had come out early, having quarrelled with his bed almost for
the first time in his life. He was now, however, fast asleep in a
garden-chair under a chestnut-tree. Buntingford, in flannels, and as
fresh as though he had slept ten hours instead of three, strolled out
through the library window, followed by French and Vivian Lodge.
"I say, what weather," said French, throwing himself down on the grass,
his hands under his head. "Why can't Mother Nature provide us with this
sort of thing a little more plentifully?"
"How much would any man jack of us do if it were always fine?" said
Julian Horne, settling himself luxuriously in a deep and comfortable
chair under a red hawthorn in full bloom. "When the weather makes one
want to hang oneself, then's the moment for immortal works."
"For goodness' sake, don't prate, Julian!" said French, yawning, and
flinging a rose-bud at Horne, which he had just gathered from a
garden-bed at his elbow. "You've had so much more sleep than the rest of
us, it isn't fair."
"I saw him sup," said Buntingford. "Who saw him afterwards?"
"No one but his Maker," said Lodge, who had drawn his hat over his eyes,
and was lying on the grass beside French:--"and _le bon Dieu_ alone knows
what he was doing; for he wasn't asleep. I heard him tubbing at some
unearthly hour in the room next to mine."
"I finished my article about seven a.m.," said Horne tranquilly--"while
you fellows were sleeping off the effects of debauch."
"Brute!" said Geoffrey languidly. Then suddenly, as though he had
remembered something, he sat up.
"By the way, Buntingford, I had an adventure yesterday evening--Ah,
here comes Helena! Half the story's mine--and half is hers. So we'll
wait a moment."
The men sprang to their feet. Helena in the freshest of white gowns,
white shoes and a white hat approached, looking preoccupied. Lady Mary
Chance, who was sitting at an open drawing-room window, with a newspaper
she was far too tired to read on her lap, was annoyed to see the general
eagerness with which a girl who occasionally, and horribly said "D--mn!"
and habitually smoked, was received by a group of infatuated males.
Buntingford found the culprit a chair, and handed her a cigarette. The
rest, after greeting her, subsided again on the grass.
"Poor Peter!" said Helena, in a tone of mock pity, turning her eyes to
the sleeping form under the chestnut. "Have I won, or haven't I? I bet
him I would be down first."
"You've lost--of course," said Horne. "Peter was down an hour ago."
"That's not what I meant by 'down.' I meant 'awake.'"
"No woman ever pays a bet if she can help it," said Horne, "--though I've
known exceptions. But now, please, silence. Geoffrey says he has
something to tell us--an adventure--which was half his and half yours.
Which of you will begin?"
Helena threw a quick glance at Geoffrey, who nodded to her, perceiving at
the same moment that she had in her hand the little embroidered bag of
the night before.
"Well, it'll thrill you," said Geoffrey slowly, "because there was a spy
among us last night--'takin' notes.'"
And with the heightening touches that every good story-teller bestows
upon a story, he described the vision of the lake--the strange woman's
face, as he had seen it in the twilight beside the yew trees.
Buntingford gradually dropped his cigarette to listen.
"Very curious--very interesting," he said ironically, as French paused,
"and has lost nothing in the telling."
"Ah, but wait till you hear the end!" cried Helena. "Now, it's my turn."
And she completed the tale, holding up the bag at the close of it, so
that the tarnished gold of its embroidery caught the light.
Buntingford took it from her, and turned it over. Then he opened it, drew
out the handkerchief, and looked at the initials, "'F. M.'" He shook his
head. "Conveys nothing. But you're quite right. That bag has nothing to
do with a village woman--unless she picked it up."
"But the face I saw had nothing to do with a village woman, either," said
French, with conviction. "It was subtle--melancholy--intense--more than
that!--_fierce_, fiercely miserable. I guess that the woman possessing it
would be a torment to her belongings if they happened not to suit her.
And, my hat!--if you made her jealous!"
"Was she handsome?" asked Lodge.
Geoffrey shrugged his shoulders.
"Must have been--probably--when she was ten years younger."
"And she possessed this bag?" mused Buntingford--"which she or some
one bought at Florence--for I've discovered the address of a shop in
it--Fratelli Cortis, Via Tornabuoni, Firenze. You didn't find that
He passed the bag to her, pointing out a little printed silk label which
had been sewn into the neck of it. Then Vivian Lodge asked for it and
turned it over.
"Lovely work--and beautiful materials. Ah!--do you see what it is?"--he
held it up--"the Arms of Florence, embroidered in gold and silver
thread. H'm. I suppose, Buntingford, you get some Whitsuntide visitors
in the village?"
"Oh, yes, a few. There's a little pub with one or two decent rooms, and
several cottagers take lodgers. The lady, whoever she was, was scarcely a
person of delicacy."
"She was in that place for an object," said Geoffrey, interrupting him
with some decision. "Of that I feel certain. If she had just lost her
way, and was trespassing--she must have known, I think, that she was
trespassing--why didn't she answer my call and let me put her over the
lake? Of course I should never have seen her at all, but for that
accident of the searchlight."
"The question is," said Buntingford, "how long did she stay there? She
was not under the yews when you saw her?"
"Well, then, supposing, to get out of the way of the searchlight, she
found her way in and discovered my seat--how long do you guess she was
there?--and when the bag dropped?"
"Any time between then--and midnight--when Helena found it," said French.
"She may have gone very soon after I saw her, leaving the bag on the
seat; or, if she stayed, on my supposition that she was there for the
purpose of spying, then she probably vanished when she heard our boat
drawn up, and knew that Helena and I were getting out."
"A long sitting!" said Buntingford with a laugh--"four hours. I really
can't construct any reasonable explanation on those lines."
"Why not? Some people have a passion for spying and eavesdropping. If I
were such a person, dumped in a country village with nothing to do, I
think I could have amused myself a good deal last night, in that
observation post. Through that hole I told you of, one could see the
lights and the dancing on the lawn, and watch the boats on the lake. She
could hear the music, and if anyone did happen to be talking secrets just
under the yews, she could have heard every word, quite easily."
Involuntarily he looked at Helena, Helena was looking at the grass. Was
it mere fancy, or was there a sudden pinkness in her cheeks? Buntingford
too seemed to have a slightly conscious air. But he rose to his feet,
with a laugh.
"Well, I'll have a stroll to the village, some time to-day, and see what
I can discover about your _Incognita_, Helena. If she is a holiday
visitor, she'll be still on the spot. Geoffrey had better come with me,
as he's the only person who's seen her."
"Right you are. After lunch."
Buntingford nodded assent and went into the house.
* * * * *
The day grew hotter. Lodge and Julian Horne went off for a swim in the
cool end of the lake. Peter still slept, looking so innocent and
infantine in his sleep that no one had the heart to wake him. French and
Helena were left together, and were soon driven by the advancing sun to
the deep shade of a lime-avenue, which, starting from the back of the
house, ran for half a mile through the park. Here they were absolutely
alone. Lady Mary's prying eyes were defeated, and Helena incidentally
remarked that Mrs. Friend, being utterly "jacked up," had been bullied
into staying in bed till luncheon.
So that in the green sunflecked shadow of the limes, Geoffrey had--if
Helena so pleased--a longer _tete-a-tete_ before him, and a more generous
opportunity, even, than the gods had given him on the lake. His pulses
leapt; goaded, however, by alternate hope and fear. But at least he had
the chance to probe the situation a little deeper; even if prudence
should ultimately forbid him anything more.
Helena had chosen a wooden seat round one of the finest limes. Some books
brought out for show rather than use, lay beside her. A piece of
knitting--a scarf of a bright greenish yellow--lay on the lap of her
white dress. She had taken off her hat, and Geoffrey was passionately
conscious of the beauty of the brown head resting, as she talked, against
the furrowed trunk of the lime. Her brown-gold hair was dressed in the
new way, close to the head and face, and fastened by some sapphire pins
behind the ear. From this dark frame, and in the half light of the
avenue, the exquisite whiteness of the forehead and neck, the brown eyes,
so marvellously large and brilliant, and yet so delicately finished in
every detail beneath their perfect brows, and the curve of the lips over
the small white teeth, stood out as if they had been painted on ivory by
a miniature-painter of the Renaissance. Her white dress, according to the
prevailing fashion, was almost low--as children's frocks used to be in
the days of our great-grandmothers. It was made with a childish full
bodice, and a childish sash of pale blue held up the rounded breast, that
rose and fell with her breathing, beneath the white muslin. Pale blue
stockings, and a pair of white shoes, with preposterous heels and pointed
toes, completed the picture. The mingling, in the dress, of extreme
simplicity with the cunningest artifice, and the greater daring and _joie
de vivre_ which it expressed, as compared with the dress of pre-war days,
made it characteristic and symbolic:--a dress of the New Time.
Geoffrey lay on the grass beside her, feasting his eyes upon
her--discreetly. Since when had English women grown so beautiful? At all
the weddings and most of the dances he had lately attended, the brides
and the _debutantes_ had seemed to him of a loveliness out of all
proportion to that of their fore-runners in those far-off days before the
war. And when a War Office mission, just before the Armistice, had taken
him to some munition factories in the north, he had been scarcely less
seized by the comeliness of the girl-workers:--the long lines of them in
their blue overalls, and the blue caps that could scarcely restrain the
beauty and wealth of pale yellow or red-gold hair beneath. Is there
something in the rush and flame of war that quickens old powers and
dormant virtues in a race? Better feeding and better wages among the
working-classes--one may mark them down perhaps as factors in this
product of a heightened beauty. But for these exquisite women of the
upper class, is it the pace at which they have lived, unconsciously, for
these five years, that has brought out this bloom and splendour?--and
will it pass as it has come?
Questions of this kind floated through his mind as he lay looking at
Helena, melting rapidly into others much more peremptory and personal.
"Are you soon going up to Town?" he asked her presently. His voice seemed
to startle her. She returned evidently with difficulty from thoughts of
her own. He would have given his head to read them.
"No," she said hesitatingly. "Why should we? It is so jolly down here.
Everything's getting lovely."
"I thought you wanted a bit of season! I thought that was part of your
bargain with Philip?"
"Yes--but"--she laughed--"I didn't know how nice Beechmark was."
His sore sense winced.
"Doesn't Philip want you to go?"
"Not at all. He says he gets much more work done in Town, without Mrs.
Friend and me to bother him--"
"He puts it that way?"
"Politely! And it rests him to come down here for Sundays. He loves
"I shouldn't have thought the Sundays were much rest?"
"Ah, but they're going to be!" she said eagerly. "We're not going to have
another party for a whole month. Cousin Philip has been treating me like
a spoiled child--stuffing me with treats--and I've put an end to it!"
And this was the Helena that had stipulated so fiercely for her week-ends
and her pals! The smart deepened.
"And you won't be tired of the country?"
"In the winter, perhaps," she said carelessly. "Philip and I have all
sorts of plans for the things we want to do in London in the winter. But
not now--when every hour's delicious!"
"_Philip and I_!"--a new combination indeed!
She threw her head back again, drinking in the warm light and shade, the
golden intensity of the fresh leaf above her.
"And next week there'll be frost, and you'll be shivering over the fire,"
he threw at her, in a sarcastic voice.
"Well, even that--would be nicer--than London," she said slowly. "I never
imagined I should like the country so much. Of course I wish there was
more to do. I told Philip so last night."
"And what did he say?"
But she suddenly flushed and evaded the question.
"Oh, well, he hadn't much to say," said Helena, looking a little
conscious. "Anyway, I'm getting a little education. Mrs. Friend's
brushing up my French--which is vile. And I do some reading every week
for Philip--and some drawing. By the way"--she turned upon her
companion--"do you know his drawings?--they're just ripping! He must have
been an awfully good artist. But I've only just got him to show me his
things. He never talks of them himself."
"I've never seen one. His oldest friends can hardly remember that time in
his life. He seems to want to forget it."
"Well, naturally!" said Helena, with an energy that astonished her
listener; but before he could probe what she meant, she stooped over him:
He saw that she had coloured brightly.
"Do you remember all that nonsense I talked to you a month ago?"
"I can remember it if you want me to. Something about old Philip being a
bully and a tyrant, wasn't it?"
"Some rubbish like that. Well--I don't want to be maudlin--but I wish to
put it on record that Philip _isn't_ a bully and he _isn't_ a tyrant. He
can be a jolly good friend!"
"With some old-fashioned opinions?" put in Geoffrey mockingly.
"Old-fashioned opinions?--yes, of course. And you needn't imagine that I
shall agree with them all. Oh, you may laugh, Geoffrey, but it's quite
true. I'm not a bit crushed. That's the delightful part of it. It's
because he has a genius--yes, a genius--for friendship. I didn't know him
when I came down here--I didn't know him a bit--and I was an idiot. But
one could trust him to the very last."
Her hands lay idly on the bright-coloured knitting, and Geoffrey could
watch the emotion on her face.
"And one is so glad to be his friend!" she went on softly, "because he
has suffered so!"
"You mean in his marriage? What do you know about it?"
"Can't one guess?" she went on in the same low voice. "He never speaks of
her! There isn't a picture of her, of any sort, in the house. He used to
speak of her sometimes, I believe, to mother--of course she never said a
word--but never, never, to anyone else. It's quite clear that he wants to
forget it altogether. Well, you don't want to forget what made you happy.
And he says such bitter things often. Oh, I'm sure it was a tragedy!"
"Well--why doesn't he marry again?" Geoffrey had turned over on his
elbows, and seemed to be examining the performances of an ant who was
trying to carry off a dead fly four times his size.
Helena did not answer immediately, and Geoffrey, looking up from the ant,
was aware of conflicting expressions passing across her face. At last she
said, drawing a deep breath:
"Well, at least, I'm glad he's come to like this dear old place--He never
used to care about it in the least."
"That's because you've made it so bright for him," said Geoffrey, finding
a seat on a tree-stump near her, and fumbling for a cigarette. The
praises of Philip were becoming monotonous and a reckless wish to test
his own fate was taking possession of him.
"I haven't!"--said Helena vehemently. "I have asked all sorts of people
down he didn't like--and I've made him live in one perpetual racket. I've
been an odious little beast. But now--perhaps--I shall know better what
"Excellent sentiments!" A scoffer looked down upon her through curling
rings of smoke. "Shall I tell you what Philip wants?"
"He wants a wife."
The attentive eyes fixed on him withdrew themselves.
"Well--suppose he does?"
"Are you going to supply him with one? Lady Cynthia, I think, would
Helena flushed angrily.
"He hasn't the smallest intention of proposing to Cynthia. Nobody with
eyes in their head would suggest it."
"No--but if you and he are such great friends--couldn't you pull it off?
It would be very suitable," said Geoffrey coolly.
Helena broke out--the quick breath beating against her white bodice:
"Of course I understand you perfectly, Geoffrey--perfectly! You're not
very subtle--are you? What you're thinking is that when I call Philip my
friend I'm meaning something else--that I'm plotting--intriguing--"
Her words choked her. Geoffrey put out a soothing hand--and touched hers.
"My dear child:--how could I suggest anything of the kind? I'm only a
little sorry--for Philip,"
"Philip can take care of himself," she said passionately. "Only a
_stupid--conventional_--mind could want to spoil what is really so--so--"
"So charming?" suggested Geoffrey, springing to his feet. "Very well,
Helena!--then if Philip is really nothing more to you than your guardian,
and your very good friend--why not give some one else a chance?"
He bent over her, his kind, clever face aglow with the feeling he could
no longer conceal. Their eyes met--Helena's at first resentful, scornful
even--then soft. She too stood up, and put out a pair of protesting
"Why not--you angel!" He possessed himself of one of the hands and made
her move with him along the avenue, looking closely into her eyes. "You
must know what I feel! I wanted to speak to you last night, but you
tricked me. I just adore you, Helena! I've got quite good
prospects--I'm getting on in the House of Commons--and I would work for
you day and night!"
"You didn't adore me a month ago!" said Helena, a triumphant little smile
playing about her mouth. "How you lectured me!"
"For you highest good," he said, laughing; though his heart beat to
suffocation. "Just give me a word of hope, Helena! Don't turn me
down, at once."
"Then you mustn't talk nonsense," she said vehemently, withdrawing her
hand. "I don't want to be engaged! I don't want to be married! Why can't
I be let alone?"
Geoffrey had turned a little pale. In the pause that followed he fell
back on a cigarette for consolation. "Why can't you be let alone?" he
said at last. "Why?--because--you're Helena!"
"What a stupid answer!" she said contemptuously. Then, with one of her
quick changes, she came near to him again. "Geoffrey!--it's no good
pressing me--but don't be angry with me, there's a dear. Just be my
friend and help me!"
She put a hand on his arm, and the face that looked into his would have
bewitched a stone.
"That's a very old game, Helena. 'Marry you? Rather not! but you may join
the queue of rejected ones if you like.'"
A mischievous smile danced in Helena's eyes.
"None of them can say I don't treat them nicely!"
"I daresay. But I warn you I shan't accept the position for long. I shall
"Well, but not yet!--not for a long time," she pleaded. Then she gave a
little impatient stamp, as she walked beside him.
"I tell you--I don't want to be bound. I won't be bound! I want to be
"So you said--_a propos_ of Philip," he retorted drily.
He saw the shaft strike home--the involuntary dropping of the eyelids,
the soft catch in the breath. But she rallied quickly.
"That was altogether different! You had no business to say that,
"Well, then, forgive me--and keep me quiet--just--just one kiss, Helena!"
The last passionate words were hardly audible. They had passed into the
deepest shadow of the avenue. No one was visible in all its green length.
They stood ensiled by summer; the great trees mounting guard. Helena
threw a glance to right and left.
"Well, then--to keep you quiet--_sans prejudice_!"
She demurely offered her cheek. But his lips were scarcely allowed to
touch it, she drew away so quickly.
"Now, then, that's quite settled!" she said in her most matter-of-fact
voice. "Such a comfort! Let's go back."
They turned back along the avenue, a rather flushed pair, enjoying each
other's society, and discussing the dance, and their respective partners.
It happened, however, that this little scene--at its most critical
point--had only just escaped a spectator. Philip Buntingford passed
across the further end of the avenue on his way to the Horne Farm, at the
moment when Helena and Geoffrey turned their backs to him, walking
towards the house. They were not aware of him; but he stopped a moment to
watch the young figures disappearing under the green shade. A look of
pleasure was in his blue eyes. It seemed to him that things were going
well in that direction. And he wished them to go well. He had known
Geoffrey since he was a little chap in his first breeches; had watched
him through Winchester and Oxford, had taken as semi-paternal pride in
the young man's distinguished war record, and had helped him with his
election expenses. He himself was intimate with very few of the younger
generation. His companions in the Admiralty work, and certain senior
naval officers with whom that work had made him acquainted:--a certain
intimacy, a certain real friendship had indeed grown up between him and
some of them. But something old and tired in him made the effort of
bridging the gulf between himself and men in their twenties--generally
speaking--too difficult. Or he thought so. The truth was, perhaps, as
Geoffrey had expressed it to Helena, that many of the younger men who had
been brought into close official or business contact with him felt a real
affection for him. Buntingford would have thought it strange that they
should do so, and never for one moment assumed it.
After its languid morning, Beechmark revived with the afternoon. Its
young men guests, whom the Dansworth rioters would probably have classed
as parasites and idlers battening on the toil of the people, had in fact
earned their holiday by a good many months of hard work, whether in the
winding up of the war, or the re-starting of suspended businesses, or the
renewed activities of the bar; and they were taking it whole-heartedly.
Golf, tennis, swimming, and sleep had filled the day, and it was a crowd
in high spirits that gathered round Mrs. Friend for tea on the lawn,
somewhere about five o'clock. Lucy, who had reached that stage of fatigue
the night before when--like Peter Dale, only for different reasons--her
bed became her worst enemy, had scarcely slept a wink, but was
nevertheless presiding gaily over the tea-table. She looked particularly
small and slight in a little dress of thin grey stuff that Helena had
coaxed her to wear in lieu of her perennial black, but there was that
expression in her pretty eyes as of a lifted burden, and a new friendship
with life, which persons in Philip Buntingford's neighbourhood, when they
belonged to the race of the meek and gentle, were apt to put on. Peter
Dale hung about her, distributing tea and cake, and obedient to all her
wishes. More than once in these later weeks he had found, in the dumb
sympathy and understanding of the little widow, something that had been
to him like shadow in the desert. He was known to fame as one of the
smartest young aide-de-camps in the army, and fabulously rich besides.
His invitation cards, carelessly stacked in his Curzon Street rooms, were
a sight to see. But Helena had crushed his manly spirit. Sitting under
the shadow of Mrs. Friend, he liked to watch from a distance the
beautiful and dazzling creature who would have none of him. He was very
sorry for himself; but, all the same, he had had some rattling games of
tennis; the weather was divine, and he could still gaze at Helena; so
that although the world was evil, "the thrushes still sang in it."
Buntingford and Geoffrey were seen walking up from the lake when tea was
All eyes were turned to them.
"Now, then," said Julian Horne--"for the mystery, and its key. What a
pity mysteries are generally such frauds! They can't keep it up. They let
you down when you least expect it."
"Well, what news?" cried Helena, as the two men approached. Buntingford
shook his head.
"Not much to tell--very little, indeed."
It appeared to Horne that both men looked puzzled and vaguely excited.
But their story was soon told. They had seen Richard Stimson, a labourer,
who reported having noticed a strange lady crossing the park in the
direction of the wood, which, however, she had not entered, having
finally changed her course so as to bear towards the Western Lodge and
"That, you will observe, was about ten o'clock," interjected French, "and
I saw my lady about eight." Buntingford found a chair, lit a cigarette,
"She appeared in the village some time yesterday morning and went into
the church. She told the woman who was cleaning there that she had come
to look at an old window which was mentioned in her guide-book. The woman
noticed that she stayed some time looking at the monuments in the church,
and the tombs in the Buntingford chantry, which all the visitors go to
see. She ordered some sandwiches at the Rose-and-Crown and got into talk
with the landlord. He says she asked the questions strangers generally do
ask--'Who lived in the neighbourhood?'--If she took a lodging in the
village for August were there many nice places to go and see?--and so on.
She said she had visited the Buntingford tombs in the chantry, and asked
some questions about the family, and myself--Was I married?--Who was the
heir? etc. Then when she had paid her bill, she enquired the way across
the park to Feetham Station, and said she would have a walk and catch a
six o'clock train back to London. She loved the country, she said--and
liked walking. And that really is--all!"
"Except about her appearance," put in Geoffrey. "The landlord said he
thought she must be an actress, or 'summat o' that sort.' She had such a
strange way of looking at you. But when we asked what that meant, he
scratched his head and couldn't tell us. All that we got out of him was
he wouldn't like to have her for a lodger--'she'd frighten his missus.'
Oh, and he did say that she looked dead-tired, and that he advised her
not to walk to Feetham, but to wait for the five o'clock bus that goes
from the village to the station. But she said she liked walking, and
would find some cool place in the park to sit in--till it was time to
catch the train."
"She was well-dressed, he said," added Buntingford, addressing himself to
Cynthia Welwyn, who sat beside him; "and his description of her hat and
veil, etc., quite agreed with old Stimson's account."
There was a silence, in which everybody seemed to be trying to piece the
evidence together as to the mysterious onlooker of the night, and make a
collected whole of it. Buntingford and Geoffrey were especially
thoughtful and preoccupied. At last the former, after smoking a while
without speaking, got up with the remark that he must see to some letters
"Oh, no!"--pleaded Helena, intercepting him, and speaking so that he only
should hear. "To-morrow's Whitsunday, and Monday's Bank Holiday. What's
the use of writing letters? Don't you remember--you promised to show me
those drawings before dinner--and may Geoffrey come, too?"
A sudden look of reluctance and impatience crossed Buntingford's face.
Helena perceived it at once, and drew back. But Buntingford said
"Oh, certainly. In half an hour, I'll have the portfolios ready."
He walked away. Helena sat flushed and silent, her eyes on the ground,
twisting and untwisting the handkerchief on her lap. And, presently, she
too disappeared. The rest of the party were left to discuss with Geoffrey
French the ins and outs of the evidence, and to put up various theories
as to the motives of the woman of the yew trees; an occupation that
lasted them till dressing-time.
Cynthia Welwyn took but little share in it. She was sitting rather apart
from the rest, under a blue parasol which made an attractive combination
with her semi-transparent black dress and the bright gold of her hair. In
reality, her thoughts were busy with quite other matters than the lady of
the yews. It did not seem to her of any real importance that a half-crazy
stranger, attracted by the sounds and sights of the ball, on such a
beautiful night, should have tried to watch it from the lake. The whole
tale was curious, but--to her--irrelevant. The mystery she burned to find
out was nearer home. Was Helena Pitstone falling in love with Philip? And
if so, what was the effect on Philip? Cynthia had not much enjoyed her
dance. The dazzling, the unfair ascendency of youth, as embodied in
Helena, had been rather more galling than usual; and the "sittings out"
she had arranged with Philip during the supper dances had been all
cancelled by her sister's tiresome attack. Julian Horne, who generally
got on with her, chivalrously moved his seat near to her, and tried to
talk. But he found her in a rather dry and caustic mood. The ball had
seemed to her "badly managed"; and the guests, outside the house-party,
"an odd set."
Meanwhile, exactly at the hour named by Buntingford, he heard a knock at
the library door. Helena appeared.
She stood just inside the door, looking absurdly young and childish in
her white frock. But her face was grave.
"I thought just now"--she said, almost timidly,--"that you were bored by
my asking you to show us those things. Are you? Please tell me. I didn't
mean to get in the way of anything you were doing."
"Bored! Not in the least. Here they are, all ready for you. Come in."
She saw two or three large portfolios distributed on chairs, and one or
two drawings already on exhibition. Her face cleared.
"Oh, what a heavenly thing!"
She made straight for a large drawing of the Val d'Arno in spring, and
the gap in the mountains that leads to Lucca, taken from some high point
above Fiesole. She knelt down before it in an ecstasy of pleasure.
"Mummy and I were there two years before the war. I do believe you came
too?" She looked up, smiling, at the face above her.
It was the first time she had ever appealed to her childish recollections
of him in any other than a provocative or half-resentful tone. He could
remember a good many tussles with her in her frail mother's interest,
when she was a long-legged, insubordinate child of twelve. And when
Helena first arrived at Beechmark, it had hurt him to realize how
bitterly she remembered such things, how grossly she had exaggerated
them. The change indicated in her present manner, soothed his tired,
nervous mood. His smile answered her.
"Yes, I was there with you two or three days. Do you remember the wild
tulips we gathered at Settignano?"
"And the wild cherries--and the pear-blossoms! Italy in the spring is
_Heaven_!" she said, under her breath, as she dropped to a sitting
posture on the floor while he put the drawings before her.
"Well!--shall we go there next spring?"
"Don't tempt me--and then back out!"
"If I did," he said, laughing, "you could still go with Mrs. Friend."
She made no answer. Another knock at the door.
"There's Geoffrey. Come in, old boy. We've only just begun."
Half an hour's exhibition followed. Both Helena and French were
intelligent spectators, and their amazement at the quality and variety of
the work shown them seemed half-welcome, half-embarrassing to their host.
"Why don't you go on with it? Why don't you exhibit?" cried Helena.
He shrugged his shoulders.
"It doesn't interest me now. It's a past phase."
She longed to ask questions. But his manner didn't encourage it. And when
the half-hour was done he looked at his watch.
"Dressing-time," he said, smiling, holding it out to Helena. She rose at
once. Philip was a delightful artist, but the operations of dressing
were not to be trifled with. Her thanks, however, for "a lovely time!"
and her pleading for a second show on the morrow, were so graceful, so
sweet, that French, as he silently put the drawings back, felt his
spirits drop to zero. What could have so changed the thorny, insolent
girl of six weeks before--but the one thing? He stole a glance at
Buntingford. Surely he must realize what was happening--and his huge
Helena disappeared. Geoffrey volunteered to tie up a portfolio they had
only half examined, while Buntingford finished a letter. While he was
handling it, the portfolio slipped, and a number of drawings fell out
pell-mell upon the floor.
Geoffrey stooped to pick them up. A vehement exclamation startled
Buntingford at his desk.
"What's the matter, Geoffrey?"
"Philip! _That's_ the woman I saw!--that's her face!--I could swear to it
He pointed with excitement to the drawing of a woman's head and
shoulders, which had fallen out from the very back of the portfolio,
whereof the rotting straps and fastenings showed that it had not been
opened for many years.
Buntingford came to his side. He looked at the drawing--then at French.
His face seemed suddenly to turn grey and old.
"My God!" he said under his breath, and again, still lower--"_My God_! Of
course. I knew it!"
He dropped into a chair beside Geoffrey, and buried his face in
Geoffrey stared at him in silence, a bewildering tumult of ideas and
conjectures rushing through his brain.
Another knock at the door. Buntingford rose automatically, went to the
door, spoke to the servant who had knocked, and came back with a note in
his hand, which he took to the window to read. Then with steps which
seemed to French to waver like those of a man half drunk he went to his
writing-desk, and wrote a reply which he gave to the servant who was
waiting in the passage. He stood a moment thinking, his hand over his
eyes, before he approached his nephew.
"Geoffrey, will you please take my place at dinner to-night? I am going
out. Make any excuse you like." He moved away--but turned back again,
speaking with much difficulty--"The woman you saw--is at the Rectory.
Alcott took her in last night. He writes to me. I am going there."
Buntingford walked rapidly across the park, astonishing the old
lodge-keeper who happened to see him pass through, and knew that his
lordship had a large Whitsuntide party at the house, who must at that
very moment be sitting down to dinner.
The Rectory lay at the further extremity of the village, which was long
and straggling. The village street, still bathed in sun, was full of
groups of holiday makers, idling and courting. To avoid them, Buntingford
stepped into one of his own plantations, in which there was a path
leading straight to the back of the Rectory.
He walked like one half-stunned, with very little conscious thought. As
to the blow which had now fallen, he had lived under the possibility of
it for fourteen years. Only since the end of the war had he begun to
feel some security, and in consequence to realize a new ferment in
himself. Well--now at least he would _know_. And the hunger to know
winged his feet.
He found a gate leading into the garden of the Rectory open, and went
through it towards the front of the house. A figure in grey flannels,
with a round collar, was pacing up and down the little grass-plot there,
waiting for him.
John Alcott came forward at sight of him. He took Buntingford's hand in
both his own, and looked into his face. "Is it true?" he said, gently.
"Probably," said Buntingford, after a moment.
"Will you come into my study? I think you ought to hear our story before
you see her."
He led the way into the tiny house, and into his low-roofed study, packed
with books from floor to ceiling, the books of a lonely man who had found
in them his chief friends. He shut the door with care, suggesting that
they should speak as quietly as possible, since the house was so small,
and sound travelled so easily through it.
"Where is she?" said Buntingford, abruptly, as he took the chair Alcott
pushed towards him.
"Just overhead. It is our only spare room."
Buntingford nodded, and the two heads, the black and the grey, bent
towards each other, while Alcott gave his murmured report.
"You know we have no servant. My sister does everything, with my help,
and a village woman once or twice a week. Lydia came down this morning
about seven o'clock and opened the front door. To her astonishment she
found a woman leaning against the front pillar of our little porch. My
sister spoke to her, and then saw she must be exhausted or ill. She told
her to come in, and managed to get her into the dining-room where there
is a sofa. She said a few incoherent things after lying down and then
fainted. My sister called me, and I went for our old doctor. He came back
with me, said it was collapse, and heart weakness--perhaps after
influenza--and that we must on no account move her except on to a bed in
the dining-room till he had watched her a little. She was quite unable to
give any account of herself, and while we were watching her she seemed to
go into a heavy sleep. She only recovered consciousness about five
o'clock this evening. Meanwhile I had been obliged to go to a diocesan
meeting at Dansworth and I left my sister and Dr. Ramsay in charge of
her, suggesting that as there was evidently something unusual in the case
nothing should be said to anybody outside the house till I came back and
she was able to talk to us. I hurried back, and found the doctor giving
injections of strychnine and brandy which seemed to be reviving her.
While we were all standing round her, she said quite clearly--'I want to
see Philip Buntingford.' Dr. Ramsay knelt down beside her, and asked her
to tell him, if she was strong enough, why she wanted to see you. She did
not open her eyes, but said again distinctly--'Because I am'--or was--I
am not quite sure which--'his wife.' And after a minute or two she said
twice over, very faintly--'Send for him--send for him.' So then I wrote
my note to you and sent it off. Since then the doctor and my sister have
succeeded in carrying her upstairs--and the doctor gives leave for you to
see her. He is coming back again presently. During her sleep, she talked
incoherently once or twice about a lake and a boat--and once she
said--'Oh, do stop that music!' and moved her head about as though it
hurt her. Since then I have heard some gossip from the village about a
strange lady who was seen in the park last night. Naturally one puts two
and two together--but we have said nothing yet to anyone. Nobody knows
that she--if the woman seen in the park, and the woman upstairs are the
He looked interrogatively at his companion. But Buntingford, who had
risen, stood dumb.
"May I go upstairs?" was all he said.
The rector led the way up a small cottage staircase. His sister, a
grey-haired woman of rather more than middle age, spectacled and prim,
but with the eyes of the pure in heart, heard them on the stairs and came
out to meet them.
"She is quite ready, and I am in the next room, if you want me. Please
knock on the wall."
Buntingford entered and shut the door. He stood at the foot of the bed.
The woman lying on it opened her eyes, and they looked at each other long
and silently. The face on the pillow had still the remains of beauty. The
powerful mouth and chin, the nose, which was long and delicate, the
deep-set eyes, and broad brow under strong waves of hair, were all fused
in a fine oval; and the modelling of the features was intensely and
passionately expressive. That indeed was at once the distinction and, so
to speak, the terror of the face,--its excessive, abnormal individualism,
its surplus of expression. A woman to fret herself and others to decay--a
woman, to burn up her own life, and that of her lover, her husband, her
child. Only physical weakness had at last set bounds to what had once
been a whirlwind force.
"Anna!" said Buntingford gently.
She made a feeble gesture which beckoned him to come nearer--to sit
down--and he came. All the time he was sharply, irrelevantly conscious of
the little room, the bed with its white dimity furniture, the texts on
the distempered walls, the head of the Leonardo Christ over the
mantelpiece, the white muslin dressing-table, the strips of carpet on the
bare boards, the cottage chairs:--the spotless cleanliness and the
poverty of it all. He saw as the artist, who cannot help but see, even at
moments of intense feeling.
"You thought--I was dead?" The woman in the bed moved her haggard eyes
"Yes, lately I thought it. I didn't, for a long time."
"I put that notice in--so that--you might marry again," she said, slowly,
and with difficulty.
"I suspected that."
"But you--didn't marry."
"How could I?--when I had no real evidence?"
She closed her eyes, as though any attempt to argue, or explain was
beyond her, and he had to wait while she gathered strength again. After
what seemed a long time, and in a rather stronger voice she said:
"Did you ever find out--what I had done?"
"I discovered that you had gone away with Rocca--into Italy. I followed
you by motor, and got news of you as having gone over the Splugen. My car
had a bad accident on the pass, and I was ten weeks in hospital at Chur.
After that I lost all trace."
"I heard of the accident," she said, her eyes all the while searching out
the changed details of a face which had once been familiar to her. "But
Rocca wasn't with me then. I had only old Zelie--you remember?"
"The old _bonne_--we had at Melun?"
She made a sign of assent.--"I never lived with Rocca--till after the
child was born."
"The child! What do you mean?"
The words were a cry. He hung over her, shaken and amazed.
"You never knew!"--There was a faint, ghastly note of triumph in her
voice. "I wouldn't tell you--after that night we quarrelled--I concealed
it. But he is your son--sure enough."
"My son!--and he is alive?" Buntingford bent closer, trying to see her
She turned to look at him, nodding silently.
"Where is he?"
"In London. It was about him--I came down here. I--I--want to get
rid of him."
A look of horror crossed his face, as though in her faint yet
violent words he caught the echoes of an intolerable past. But he
"Tell me more--I want to help you."
"You--you won't get any joy of him!" she said, still staring at him.
"He's not like other children--he's afflicted. It was a bad doctor--when
I was confined--up in the hills near Lucca. The child was injured.
There's nothing wrong with him--but his brain."
A flickering light in Buntingford's face sank.
"And you want to get rid of him?"
"He's so much trouble," she said peevishly. "I did the best I could for
him. Now I can't afford to look after him. I thought of everything I
"Before you thought of coming to me?"
She assented. A long pause followed, during which Miss Alcott came in,
administered stimulant, and whispered to Buntingford to let her rest a
little. He sat there beside her motionless, for half an hour or more,
unconscious of the passage of time, his thoughts searching the past, and
then again grappling dully with the extraordinary, the incredible
statement that he possessed a son--a living but, apparently, an idiot
son. The light began to fail, and Miss Alcott slipped in noiselessly
again to light a small lamp out of sight of the patient. "The doctor will
soon be here," she whispered to Buntingford.
The light of the lamp roused the woman. She made a sign to Miss Alcott to
lift her a little.
"Not much," said the Rector's sister in Buntingford's ear. "It's the
heart that's wrong."
Together they raised her just a little. Miss Alcott put a fan into
Buntingford's hands, and opened the windows wider.
"I'm all right," said the stranger irritably. "Let me alone. I've got a
lot to say." She turned her eyes on Buntingford. "Do you want to
"He died seven years ago. He was always good to me--awfully good to me
and to the boy. We lived in a horrible out-of-the-way place--up in the
mountains near Naples. I didn't want you to know about the boy. I wanted
revenge. Rocca changed his name to Melegrani. I called myself Francesca
Melegrani. I used to exhibit both at Naples and Rome. Nobody ever found
out who we were."
"What made you put that notice in the _Times_?"
She smiled faintly, and the smile recalled to him an old expression of
hers, half-cynical, half-defiant.
"I had a pious fit once--when Rocca was very ill. I confessed to an old
priest--in the Abruzzi. He told me to go back to you--and ask your
forgiveness. I was living in sin, he said--and would go to hell. A dear
old fool! But he had some influence with me. He made me feel some
remorse--about you--only I wouldn't give up the boy. So when Rocca got
well and was going to Lyons, I made him post the notice from there--to
the _Times_. I hoped you'd believe it." Then, unexpectedly, she slightly
raised her head, the better to see the man beside her.
"Do you mean to marry that girl I saw on the lake?"
"If you mean the girl that I was rowing, she is the daughter of a cousin
of mine. I am her guardian."
"She's handsome." Her unfriendly eyes showed her incredulity.
He drew himself stiffly together.
"Don't please waste your strength on foolish ideas. I am not going to
marry her, nor anybody."
"You couldn't--till you divorce me--or till I die," she said feebly, her
lids dropping again--"but I'm quite ready to see any lawyers--so that you
can get free."
"Don't think about that now, but tell me again--what you want me to do."
"I want--to go to--America. I've got friends there. I want you to pay my
passage--because I'm a pauper--and to take over the boy."
"I'll do all that. You shall have a nurse--when you are strong
enough--who will take you across. Now I must go. Can you just tell me
first where the boy is?"
Almost inaudibly she gave an address in Kentish Town. He saw that she
could bear no more, and he rose.
"Try and sleep," he said in a voice that wavered. "I'll see you again
to-morrow. You're all right here."
She made no reply, and seemed again either asleep or unconscious.
As he stood by the bed, looking down upon her, scenes and persons he had
forgotten for years rushed back into the inner light of memory:--that
first day in Lebas's atelier when he had seen her in her Holland overall,
her black hair loose on her neck, the provocative brilliance of her dark
eyes; their close comradeship in the contests, the quarrels, the
ambitions of the atelier; her patronage of him as her junior in art,
though her senior in age; her increasing influence over him, and the
excitement of intimacy with a creature so unrestrained, so gifted, so
consumed with jealousies, whether as an artist or a woman; his proposal
of marriage to her in one of the straight roads that cut the forest of
Compiegne; the ceremony at the Mairie, with only a few of their fellow
students for witnesses; the little apartment on the Rive Gauche, with its
bits of old furniture, and unframed sketches pinned up on the walls;
Anna's alternations of temper, now fascinating, now sulky, and that
steady emergence in her of coarse or vulgar traits, like rocks in an
ebbing sea; their early quarrels, and her old mother who hated him; their
poverty because of her extravagance; his growing reluctance to take her
to England, or to present her to persons of his own class and breeding in
Paris, and her frantic jealousy and resentment when she discovered it;
their scenes of an alternate violence and reconciliation and finally her
disappearance, in the company, as he had always supposed, of Sigismondo
Rocca, an Italian studying in Paris, whose pursuit of her had been
notorious for some time.
The door opened gently, and Miss Alcott's grey head appeared.
"The doctor!" she said, just audibly.
Buntingford followed her downstairs, and found himself presently in
Alcott's study, alone with a country doctor well known to him, a man who
had pulled out his own teeth in childhood, had attended his father and
grandfather before him, and carried in his loyal breast the secrets and
the woes of a whole countryside.
They grasped hands in silence.
"You know who she is?" said Buntingford quietly.
"I understand that she tells Mr. Alcott that she was Mrs. Philip Bliss,
that she left you fifteen years ago, and that you believed her dead?"
He saw Buntingford shrink.
"At times I did--yes, at times I did--but we won't go into that. Is she
Ramsay spoke deliberately, after a minute's thought:
"Yes, she is probably very ill. The heart is certainly in a dangerous
state. I thought she would have slipped away this morning, when they
called me in--the collapse was so serious. She is not a strong woman, and
she had a bad attack of influenza last week. Then she was out all last
night, wandering about, evidently in a state of great excitement. It was
as bad a fainting fit as I have ever seen."
"It would be impossible to move her?"
"For a day or two certainly. She keeps worrying about a boy--apparently
her own boy?"
"I will see to that."
Ramsay hesitated a moment and then said--"What are we to call her? It
will not be possible, I imagine, to keep her presence here altogether a
secret. She called herself, in talking to Miss Alcott, Madame Melegrani."
"Why not? As to explaining her, I hardly know what to say."
Buntingford put his hand across his eyes; the look of weariness, of
perplexity, intensified ten-fold.
"An acquaintance of yours in Italy, come to ask you for help?"
Buntingford withdrew his hand.
"No!" he said with decision. "Better tell the truth! She was my wife. She
left me, as she has told the Alcotts, and took steps eleven years ago to
make me believe her dead. And up to seven years ago, she passed as the
wife of a man whom I knew by the name of Sigismondo Rocca. When the
announcement of her death appeared, I set enquiries on foot at once, with
no result. Latterly, I have thought it must be true; but I have never
been quite certain. She has reappeared now, it seems, partly because she
has no resources, and partly in order to restore to me my son."
"Your son!" said Ramsay, startled.
"She tells me that a boy was born after she left me, and that I am the
father. All that I must verify. No need to say anything whatever about
that yet. Her main purpose, no doubt, was to ask for pecuniary
assistance, in order to go to America. In return she will furnish my
lawyers with all the evidence necessary for my divorce from her."
Ramsay slowly shook his head.
"I doubt whether she will ever get to America. She has worn herself out."
There was a silence. Then Buntingford added:
"If these kind people would keep her, it would be the best solution.
I would make everything easy for them. To-morrow I go up to Town--to
the address she has given me. And--I should be glad if you would
come with me?"
The doctor looked surprised.
"Of course--if you want me--"
"The boy--his mother says--is abnormal--deficient. An injury at birth. If
you will accompany me I shall know better what to do."
A grasp of the hand, a look of sympathy answered; and they parted.
Buntingford emerged from the little Rectory to find Alcott again waiting
for him in the garden. The sun had set some time and the moon was peering
over the hills to the east. The mounting silver rim suddenly recalled to
Buntingford the fairy-like scene of the night before?--the searchlight on
the lake, the lights, the music, and the exquisite figure of Helena
dancing through it all. Into what Vale of the Shadow of Death had he
passed since then?--
Alcott and he turned into the plantation walk together. Various practical
arrangements were discussed between them. Alcott and his sister would
keep the sick woman in their house as long as might be necessary, and
Buntingford once more expressed his gratitude.
Then, under the darkness of the trees, and in reaction from the
experience he had just passed through, an unhappy man's hitherto
impenetrable reserve, to some extent, broke down. And the companion
walking beside him showed himself a true minister of Christ---humble,
tactful, delicate, yet with the courage of his message. What struck him
most, perhaps, was the revelation of what must have been Buntingford's
utter loneliness through long years; the spiritual isolation in which a
man of singularly responsive and confiding temper had passed perhaps a
quarter of his life, except for one blameless friendship with a woman now
dead. His utmost efforts had not been able to discover the wife who had
deserted him, or to throw any light upon her subsequent history. The law,
therefore, offered him no redress. He could not free himself; and he
could not marry again. Yet marriage and fatherhood were his natural
destiny, thwarted by the fatal mistake of his early youth. Nothing
remained but to draw a steady veil over the past, and to make what he
could of the other elements in life.
Alcott gathered clearly from the story that there had been no other woman
or women in the case, since his rupture with his wife. Was it that his
marriage, with all its repulsive episodes, had disgusted a fastidious
nature with the coarser aspects of the sex relation? The best was denied
him, and from the worse he himself turned away; though haunted all the
time by the natural hunger of the normal man.
As they walked on, Alcott gradually shaped some image for himself of
what had happened during the years of the marriage, piecing it
together from Buntingford's agitated talk. But he was not prepared for
a sudden statement made just as they were reaching the spot where
Alcott would naturally turn back towards the Rectory. It came with a
burst, after a silence.
"For God's sake, Alcott, don't suppose from what I have been telling you
that all the fault was on my wife's side, that I was a mere injured
innocent. Very soon after we married, I discovered that I had ceased to
love her, that there was hardly anything in common between us. And there
was a woman in Paris--a married woman, of my own world--cultivated, and
good, and refined--who was sorry for me, who made a kind of spiritual
home for me. We very nearly stepped over the edge--we should have
done--but for her religion. She was an ardent Catholic and her religion
saved her. She left Paris suddenly, begging me as the last thing she
would ever ask me, to be reconciled to Anna, and to forget her. For some
days I intended to shoot myself. But, at last, as the only thing I could
do for her, I did as she bade me. Anna and I, after a while, came
together again, and I hoped for a child. Then, by hideous ill luck, Anna,
about three months after our reconciliation, discovered a fragment of a
letter--believed the very worst--made a horrible scene with me, and went
off, as she has just told me,--not actually with Rocca as I believed, but
to join him in Italy. From that day I lost all trace of her. Her
concealment of the boy's birth was her vengeance upon me. She knew how
passionately I had always wanted a son. But instead she punished him--the
poor, poor babe!"
There was an anguish in the stifled voice which made sympathy
impertinent. Alcott asked some practical questions, and Buntingford
repeated his wife's report of the boy's condition, and her account of an
injury at birth, caused by the unskilful hands of an ignorant doctor.
"But I shall see him to-morrow. Ramsay and I go together. Perhaps, after
all, something can be done. I shall also make the first arrangements for
Alcott was silent a moment--hesitating in the dark.
"You will make those arrangements immediately?"
"If she dies? She may die."
"I would do nothing brutal--but--She came to make a bargain with me."
"Yes--but if she dies--might you not have been glad to say, 'I forgive'?"
The shy, clumsy man was shaken as he spoke, with the passion of his own
faith. The darkness concealed it, as it concealed its effect on
Buntingford. Buntingford made no direct reply, and presently they parted,
Alcott engaging to send a messenger over to Beechmark early, with a
report of the patient's condition, before Buntingford and Dr. Ramsay
started for London. Buntingford walked on. And presently in the dim
moonlight ahead he perceived Geoffrey French.
The young man approached him timidly, almost expecting to be denounced as
an intruder. Instead, Buntingford put an arm through his, and leaned upon
him, at first in a pathetic silence that Geoffrey did not dare to break.
Then gradually the story was told again, as much of it as was necessary,
as much as Philip could bear. Geoffrey made very little comment, till
through the trees they began to see the lights of Beechmark.
Then Geoffrey said in an unsteady voice:
"Philip!--there is one person you must tell--perhaps first of all. You
must tell Helena--yourself."
Buntingford stopped as though under a blow.
"Of course, I shall tell Helena--but why?--"
His voice spoke bewilderment and pain.
"Tell her _yourself_--that's all," said Geoffrey, resolutely--"and, if
you can, before she hears it from anybody else."