Produced by Andrew Templeton, Juliet Sutherland, Mary Meehan and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.
BY MRS. HUMPHRY WARD
AUTHOR OF LADY ROSE’S DAUGHTER, MISSING, ELIZABETH’S CAMPAIGN, ETC.
“I don’t care a hang about the Middle Classes!” said Lord Buntingford, resting his head on his hand, and slowly drawing a pen over a printed sheet that lay before him. The sheet was headed “Middle Class Defence League,” and was an appeal to whom it might concern to join the founders of the League in an attempt to curb the growing rapacity of the working-classes. “Why should we be snuffed out without a struggle?” said the circular. “We are fewer, no doubt, but we are better educated. Our home traditions are infinitely superior. It is on the Middle Classes that the greatness of England depends.”
“Does it?” thought Lord Buntingford irritably. “I wonder.”
He rose and began to pace his library, a shabby comfortable room which he loved. The room however had distinction like its master. The distinction came, perhaps, from its few pictures, of no great value, but witnessing to a certain taste and knowledge on the part of the persons, long since dead, who hung them there; from one or two cases of old Nankin; from its old books; and from a faded but enchanting piece of tapestry behind the cases of china, which seemed to represent a forest. The tapestry, which covered the whole of the end wall of the room, was faded and out of repair, but Lord Buntingford, who was a person of artistic sensibilities, was very fond of it, and had never been able to make up his mind to spare it long enough to have it sent to the School of Art Needlework for mending. His cousin, Lady Cynthia Welwyn, scolded him periodically for his negligence in the matter. But after all it was he, and not Cynthia, who had to live in the room. She had something to do with the School, and of course wanted jobs for her workers.
“I hope that good woman’s train will be punctual,” he thought to himself, presently, as he went to a window and drew up a blind. “Otherwise I shall have no time to look at her before Helena arrives.”
He stood awhile absently surveying the prospect outside. There was first of all a garden with some pleasant terraces, and flights of stone steps, planned originally in the grand style, but now rather dilapidated and ill-kept, suggesting either a general shortage of pelf on the part of the owner–or perhaps mere neglect and indifference.
Beyond the garden stretched a green rim of park, with a gleam of water in the middle distance which seemed to mean either a river or a pond, many fine scattered trees, and, girdling the whole, a line of wooded hill. Just such a view as any county–almost–in this beautiful England can produce. It was one of the first warm days of a belated spring. A fortnight before, park and hills and garden had been deep in snow. Now Nature, eager, and one might think ashamed, was rushing at her neglected work, determined to set the full spring going in a minimum of hours. The grass seemed to be growing, and the trees leafing under the spectator’s eyes. There was already a din of cuckoos in the park, and the nesting birds were busy.
The scene was both familiar and unfamiliar to Lord Buntingford. He had been brought up in it as a child. But he had only inherited the Beechmark property from his uncle just before the war, and during almost the whole of the war he had been so hard at work, as a volunteer in the Admiralty, that he had never been able to do more than run down once or twice a year to see his agent, go over his home farm, and settle what timber was to be cut before the Government commandeered it. He was not yet demobilized, as his naval uniform showed. There was a good deal of work still to do in his particular office, and he was more than willing to do it. But in a few months’ time at any rate–he was just now taking a fortnight’s leave–he would be once more at a loose end. That condition of things must be altered as soon as possible. When he looked back over the years of driving work through which he had just passed to the years of semi-occupation before them, he shrank from those old conditions in disgust. Something must be found to which he could enslave himself again. Liberty was the great delusion–at least for him.
Politics?–Well, there was the House of Lords, and the possibility of some minor office, when his Admiralty work was done. And the whole post-war situation was only too breathless. But for a man who, as soon as he had said Yes, was immediately seized with an insensate desire to look once more at all the reasons which might have induced him to say No, there was no great temptation in politics. Work was what the nation wanted–not talk.
Agriculture and the Simple Life?–Hardly! Five years of life in London, four of them under war conditions, had spoilt any taste for the country he had ever possessed. He meant to do his duty by his estate, and by the miscellaneous crowd of people, returned soldiers and others, who seemed to wish to settle upon it. But to take the plunge seriously, to go in heart and soul for intensive culture or scientific dairy-farming, to spend lonely winters in the country with his bailiffs and tenants for company–it was no good talking about it–he knew it could not be done.
And–finally–what was the good of making plans at all?–with these new responsibilities which friendship and pity and weakness of will had lately led him to take upon himself?–For two years at least he would not be able to plan his life in complete freedom.
His thoughts went dismally off in the new direction. As he turned away from the window, a long Venetian mirror close by reflected the image of a tall man in naval uniform, with a head and face that were striking rather than handsome–black curly hair just dusted with grey, a slight chronic frown, remarkable blue eyes and a short silky beard. His legs were slender in proportion to the breadth of his shoulders, and inadequate in relation to the dignity of the head. One of them also was slightly–very slightly–lame.
He wandered restlessly round the room again, stopping every now and then with his hands in his pockets, to look at the books on the shelves. Generally, he did not take in what he was looking at, but in a moment less absent-minded than others, he happened to notice the name of a stately octavo volume just opposite his eyes–
“Davison, on Prophecy.”
“Damn Davison!”–he said to himself, with sudden temper. The outburst seemed to clear his mind. He went to the bell and rang it. A thin woman in a black dress appeared, a woman with a depressed and deprecating expression which was often annoying to Lord Buntingford. It represented somehow an appeal to the sentiment of the spectator for which there was really no sufficient ground. Mrs. Mawson was not a widow, in spite of the Mrs. She was a well-paid and perfectly healthy person; and there was no reason, in Lord Buntingford’s view, why she should not enjoy life. All the same, she was very efficient and made him comfortable. He would have raised her wages to preposterous heights to keep her.
“Is everything ready for the two ladies, Mrs. Mawson?”
“Everything, my Lord. We are expecting the pony-cart directly.”
“And the car has been ordered for Miss Pitstone?”
“Oh, yes, my Lord, long ago.”
“Gracious! Isn’t that the cart!”
There was certainly a sound of wheels outside. Lord Buntingford hurried to a window which commanded the drive.
“That’s her! I must go and meet her.”
He went into the hall, reaching the front door just as the pony-cart drew up with a lady in black sitting beside the driver. Mrs. Mawson looked after him. She wondered why his lordship was in such a flurry. “It’s this living alone. He isn’t used to have women about. And it’s a pity he didn’t stay on as he was.”
Meanwhile the lady in the pony-cart, as she alighted, saw a tall man, of somewhat remarkable appearance, standing on the steps of the porch. Her expectations had been modest; and that she would be welcomed by her employer in person on the doorstep of Beechmark had not been among them. Her face flushed, and a pair of timid eyes met those of Lord Buntingford as they shook hands.
“The train was very late,” she explained in a voice of apology.
“They always are,” said Lord Buntingford. “Never mind. You are in quite good time. Miss Pitstone hasn’t arrived. Norris, take Mrs. Friend’s luggage upstairs.”
An ancient man-servant appeared. The small and delicately built lady on the step looked at him appealingly.
“I am afraid there is a box besides,” she said, like one confessing a crime. “Not a big one–” she added hurriedly. “We had to leave it at the station. The groom left word for it to be brought later.”
“Of course. The car will bring it,” said Lord Buntingford. “Only one box and those bags?” he asked, smiling. “Why, that’s most moderate. Please come in.”
And he led the way to the drawing-room. Reassured by his kind voice and manner, Mrs. Friend tripped after him. “What a charming man!” she thought.
It was a common generalization about Lord Buntingford. Mrs. Friend had still–like others–to discover that it did not take one very far.
In the drawing-room, which was hung with French engravings mostly after Watteau, and boasted a faded Aubusson carpet, a tea-table was set out. Lord Buntingford, having pushed forward a seat for his guest, went towards the tea-table, and then thought better of it.
“Perhaps you’ll pour out tea–” he said pleasantly. “It’ll be your function, I think–and I always forget something.”
Mrs. Friend took her seat obediently in front of the tea-table and the Georgian silver upon it, which had a look of age and frailty as though generations of butlers had rubbed it to the bone, and did her best not to show the nervousness she felt. She was very anxious to please her new employer.
“I suppose Miss Pitstone will be here before long?” she ventured, when she had supplied both the master of the house and herself.
“Twenty minutes–” said Lord Buntingford, looking at his watch. “Time enough for me to tell you a little more about her than I expect you know.”
And again his smile put her at ease.
She bent forward, clasping her small hands.
“Please do! It would be a great help.”
He noticed the delicacy of the hands, and of her slender body. The face attracted him–its small neat features, and brown eyes. Clearly a lady–that was something.
“Well, I shouldn’t wonder–if you found her a handful,” he said deliberately.
Mrs. Friend laughed–a little nervous laugh.
“Is she–is she very advanced?”
“Uncommonly–I believe. I may as well tell you candidly she didn’t want to come here at all. She wanted to go to college. But her mother, who was a favourite cousin of mine, wished it. She died last autumn; and Helena promised her that she would allow me to house her and look after her for two years. But she regards it as a dreadful waste of time.”
“I think–in your letter–you said I was to help her–in modern languages–” murmured Mrs. Friend.
Lord Buntingford shrugged his shoulders–
“I have no doubt you could help her in a great many things. Young people, who know her better than I do, say she’s very clever. But her mother and she were always wandering about–before the war–for her mother’s health. I don’t believe she’s been properly educated in anything. Of course one can’t expect a girl of nineteen to behave like a schoolgirl. If you can induce her to take up some serious reading–Oh, I don’t mean anything tremendous!–and to keep up her music—I expect that’s all her poor mother would have wanted. When we go up to town you must take her to concerts–the opera–that kind of thing. I dare say it will go all right!” But the tone was one of resignation, rather than certainty.
“I’ll do my best–” began Mrs. Friend.
“I’m sure you will. But–well, we’d better be frank with each other. Helena’s very handsome–very self-willed–and a good bit of an heiress. The difficulty will be–quite candidly–_lovers_!”
They both laughed. Lord Buntingford took out his cigarette case.
“You don’t mind if I smoke?”
“Not at all.”
“Won’t you have one yourself?” He held out the case. Mrs. Friend did not smoke. But she inwardly compared the gesture and the man with the forbidding figure of the old woman in Lancaster Gate with whom she had just completed two years of solitary imprisonment, and some much-baffled vitality in her began to revive.
Lord Buntingford threw himself back in his arm-chair, and watched the curls of smoke for a short space–apparently in meditation.
“Of course it’s no good trying the old kind of thing–strict chaperonage and that sort of business,” he said at last. “The modern girl won’t stand it.”
“No, indeed she won’t!” said Mrs. Friend fervently. “I should like to tell you–I’ve just come from —-” She named a university. “I went to see a cousin of mine, who’s in one of the colleges there. She’s going to teach. She went up just before the war. Then she left to do some war work, and now she’s back again. She says nobody knows what to do with the girls. All the old rules have just–_gone_!” The gesture of the small hand was expressive. “Authority–means nothing. The girls are entering for the sports–just like the men. They want to run the colleges–as they please–and make all the rules themselves.”
“Oh, I know–” broke in her companion. “They’ll just allow the wretched teachers and professors to teach–what their majesties choose to learn. Otherwise–they run the show.”
“Of course, they’re awfully _nice_ girls–most of them,” said Mrs. Friend, with a little, puzzled wrinkling of the brow.
“Ripping! Done splendid war work and all that. But the older generation, now that things have begun again, are jolly well up a tree–how to fit the new to the old. I have some elderly relations at Oxbridge–a nice old professor and his wife. Not stick-in-the-muds at all. But they tell me the world there–where the young women are concerned–seems to be standing on its head. Well!–as far as I can gather–I really know her very slightly–my little cousin Helena’s in just the same sort of stage. All we people over forty might as well make our wills and have done with it. They’ll soon discover some kind device for putting us out of the way. They’ve no use for us. And yet at the same time”–he flung his cigarette into the wood-fire beside him–“the fathers and mothers who brought them into the world will insist on clucking after them, or if they can’t cluck themselves, making other people cluck. I shall have to try and cluck after Helena. It’s absurd, and I shan’t succeed, of course–how could I? But as I told you, her mother was a dear woman–and–“
His sentence stopped abruptly. Mrs. Friend thought–“he was in love with her.” However, she got no further light on the matter. Lord Buntingford rose, and lit another cigarette.
“I must go and write a letter before post. Well, you see, you and I have got to do our best. Of course, you mustn’t try and run her on a tight rein–you’d be thrown before you were out of the first field–” His blue eyes smiled down upon the little stranger lady. “And you mustn’t spy upon her. But if you’re really in difficulties, come to me. We’ll make out, somehow. And now, she’ll be here in a few minutes. Would you like to stay here–or shall I ring for the housemaid to show you your room?”
“Thank you–I–think I’ll stay here. Can I find a book?”
She looked round shyly.
“Scores. There are some new books”–he pointed to a side-table where the obvious contents of a Mudie box, with some magazines, were laid out–“and if you want old ones, that door”–he waved towards one at the far end of the room–“will take you into the library. My great-grandfather’s collection–not mine! And then one has ridiculous scruples about burning them! However, you’ll find a few nice ones. Please make yourself at home!” And with a slight bow to her, the first sign in him of those manners of the _grand seigneur_ she had vaguely expected, he was moving away, when she said hurriedly, pursuing her own thought:
“You said Miss Pitstone was very good-looking?”
“Oh, very!” He laughed. “She’s exactly like Romney’s Lady Hamilton. You know the type?”
“Ye-es,” said Mrs. Friend. “I think I remember–before the war–at Agnew’s? My husband took me there once.” The tone was hesitating. The little lady was clearly not learned in English art. But Lord Buntingford liked her the better for not pretending.
“Of course. There’s always an Emma, when Old Masters are on show. Romney painted her forty or fifty times. We’ve got one ourselves–a sketch my grandfather bought. If you’ll come into the hall I’ll show it you.”
She followed obediently and, in a rather dark corner of the hall, Lord Buntingford pointed out an unfinished sketch of Lady Hamilton–one of the many Bacchante variants–the brown head bent a little under the ivy leaves in the hair, the glorious laughing eyes challenging the spectator.
“Is she like that?” asked Mrs. Friend, wondering.
“Who?–my ward?” laughed Lord Buntingford. “Well, you’ll see.”
He walked away, and Mrs. Friend stayed a few minutes more in front of the picture–thinking–and with half an ear listening for the sound of a motor. She was full of tremors and depression. “I was a fool to come–a fool to accept!” she thought. The astonishing force of the sketch–of the creature sketched–intimidated her. If Helena Pitstone were really like that–“How can she ever put up with me? She’ll just despise me. It will be only natural. And then if things go wrong, Lord Buntingford will find out I’m no good–and I shall have to go!”
She gave a long sigh, lifting her eyes a little–against her will–to the reflection of herself in an old mirror hanging beside the Romney. What a poor little insignificant figure–beside the other! No, she had no confidence in herself–none at all–she never had had. The people she had lived with had indeed generally been fond of her. It was because she made herself useful to them. Old Mrs. Browne had professed affection for her,–till she gave notice. She turned with a shiver from the recollection of an odious scene.
She went bade to the drawing-room and thence to the library, looking wistfully, as she passed through it, at the pleasant hall, with its old furniture, and its mellowed comfort. She would like to find a home here, if only they would put up with her. For she was very homeless.
As compared with the drawing-room, the library had been evidently lived in. Its books and shabby chairs seemed to welcome her, and the old tapestry delighted her. She stood some minutes before it in a quiet pleasure, dreaming herself into the forest, and discovering an old castle in its depths. Then she noticed a portrait of an old man, labelled as by “Frank Holl, R. A.,” hanging over the mantelpiece. She supposed it was the grandfather who had collected the books. The face and hair of the old man had blanched indeed to a singular whiteness; but the eyes, blue under strong eyebrows, with their concentrated look, were the eyes of the Lord Buntingford with whom she had just been talking.
The hoot of a motor startled her, and she ran to a window which commanded the drive. An open car was rapidly approaching. A girl was driving it, with a man in chauffeur’s uniform sitting behind her. She brought the car smartly up to the door, then instantly jumped out, lifted the bonnet, and stood with the chauffeur at her side, eagerly talking to him and pointing to something in the chassis. Mrs. Friend saw Lord Buntingford run down the steps to greet his ward. She gave him a smile and a left hand, and went on talking. Lord Buntingford stood by, twisting his moustache, till she had finished. Then the chauffeur, looking flushed and sulky, got into the car, and the girl with Lord Buntingford ascended the steps. Mrs. Friend left the window, and hurriedly went back to the drawing-room, where tea was still spread. Through the drawing-room door she heard a voice from the hall full of indignant energy.
“You ought to sack that man, Cousin Philip. He’s spoiling that beautiful car of yours.”
“Is he? He suits me. Have you been scolding him all the way?”
“Well, I told him a few things–in your interest.” Lord Buntingford laughed. A few words followed in lowered tones.
“He is telling her about me,” thought Mrs. Friend, and presently caught a chuckle, very merry and musical, which brought an involuntary smile to her own eyes. Then the door was thrown back, and Lord Buntingford ushered in his ward.
“This is Mrs. Friend, Helena. She arrived just before you did.”
The girl advanced with sudden gravity and offered her hand. Mrs. Friend was conscious that the eyes behind the hand were looking her all over.
Certainly a dazzling creature!–with the ripe red and white, the astonishing eyes, and brown hair, touched with auburn, of the Romney sketch. The beautiful head was set off by a khaki close cap, carrying a badge, and the khaki uniform, tunic, short skirt, and leggings, might have been specially designed to show the health and symmetry of the girl’s young form. She seemed to walk on air, and her presence transformed the quiet old room.
“I want some tea badly,” said Miss Pitstone, throwing herself into a chair, “and so would you, Cousin Philip, if you had been battling with four grubby children and an idiot mother all the way from London. They made me play ‘beasts’ with them. I didn’t mind that, because my roaring frightened them. But then they turned me into a fish, and fished for me with the family umbrellas. I had distinctly the worst of it.” And she took off her cap, turning it round on her hand, and looking at the dints in it with amusement.
“Oh, no, you never get the worst of it!” said Lord Buntingford, laughing, as he handed her the cake. “You couldn’t if you tried.”
She looked up sharply. Then she turned to Mrs. Friend.
“That’s the way my guardian treats me, Mrs. Friend. How can I take him seriously?”
“I think Lord Buntingford meant it as a compliment–didn’t he?” said Mrs. Friend shyly. She knew, alack, that she had no gift for repartee.
“Oh, no, he never pays compliments–least of all to me. He has a most critical, fault-finding mind. Haven’t you, Cousin Philip?”
“What a charge!” said Lord Buntingford, lighting another cigarette. “It won’t take Mrs. Friend long to find out its absurdity.”
“It will take her just twenty-four hours,” said the girl stoutly. “He used to terrify me, Mrs. Friend, when I was a little thing … May I have some tea, please? When he came to see us, I always knew before he had been ten minutes in the room that my hair was coming down, or my shoes were untied, or something dreadful was the matter with me. I can’t imagine how we shall get on, now that he is my guardian. I shall put him in a temper twenty times a day.”
“Ah, but the satisfactory thing now is that you will have to put up with my remarks. I have a legal right now to say what I like.”
“H’m,” said Helena, demurring, “if there are legal rights nowadays.”
“There, Mrs. Friend–you hear?” said Lord Buntingford, toying with his cigarette, in the depths of a big chair, and watching his ward with eyes of evident enjoyment. “You’ve got a Bolshevist to look after–a real anarchist. I’m sorry for you.”
“That’s another of his peculiarities!” said the girl coolly, “queering the pitch before one begins. You know you _might_ like me!–some people do–but he’ll never let you.” And, bending forward, with her cup in both hands, and her radiant eyes peering over the edge of it, she threw a most seductive look at her new chaperon. The look seemed to say, “I’ve been taking stock of you, and–well!–I think I shan’t mind you.”
Anyway, Mrs. Friend took it as a feeler and a friendly one. She stammered something in reply, and then sat silent while guardian and ward plunged into a war of chaff in which first the ward, but ultimately the guardian, got the better. Lord Buntingford had more resource and could hold out longer, so that at last Helena rose impatiently:
“I don’t feel that I have been at all prettily welcomed–have I, Mrs. Friend? Lord Buntingford never allows one a single good mark. He says I have been idle all the winter since the Armistice. I haven’t. I’ve worked like a nigger!”
“How many dances a week, Helena?–and how many boys?” Helena first made a face, and then laughed out.
“As many dances–of course–as one could stuff in–without taxis. I could walk down most of the boys. But Hampstead, Chelsea, and Curzon Street, all in one night, and only one bus between them–that did sometimes do for me.”
“When did you set up this craze?”
“Just about Christmas–I hadn’t been to a dance for a year. I had been slaving at canteen work all day”–she turned to Mrs. Friend–“and doing chauffeur by night–you know–fetching wounded soldiers from railway stations. And then somebody asked me to a dance, and I went. And next morning I just made up my mind that everything else in the world was rot, and I would go to a dance every night. So I chucked the canteen and I chucked a good deal of the driving–except by day–and I just dance–and dance!”
Suddenly she began to whistle a popular waltz–and the next minute the two elder people found themselves watching open-mouthed the whirling figure of Miss Helena Pitstone, as, singing to herself, and absorbed apparently in some new and complicated steps, she danced down the whole length of the drawing-room and back again. Then out of breath, with a curtsey and a laugh, she laid a sudden hand on Mrs. Friend’s arm.
“Will you come and talk to me–before dinner? I can’t talk–before _him_. Guardians are impossible people!” And with another mock curtsey to Lord Buntingford, she hurried Mrs. Friend to the door, and then disappeared.
Her guardian, with a shrug of the shoulders, walked to his writing-table, and wrote a hurried note.
“My dear Geoffrey–I will send to meet you at Dansworth to-morrow by the train you name. Helena is here–very mad and very beautiful. I hope you will stay over Sunday. Yours ever, Buntingford.”
“He shall have his chance anyway,” he thought, “with the others. A fair field, and no pulling.”
“There is only one bathroom in this house, and it is a day’s journey to find it,” said Helena, re-entering her own bedroom, where she had left Mrs. Friend in a dimity-covered arm-chair by the window, while she reconnoitred. “Also, the water is only a point or two above freezing–and as I like boiling–“
She threw herself down on the floor by Mrs. Friend’s side. All her movements had a curious certainty and grace like those of a beautiful animal, but the whole impression of her was still formidable to the gentle creature who was about to undertake what already seemed to her the absurd task of chaperoning anything so independent and self-confident. But the girl clearly wished to make friends with her new companion, and began eagerly to ask questions.
“How did you hear of me? Do you mind telling me?”
“Just through an agency,” said Mrs. Friend, flushing a little. “I wanted to leave the situation I was in, and the agency told me Lord Buntingford was looking for a companion for his ward, and I was to go and see Lady Mary Chance–“
The girl’s merry laugh broke out:
“Oh, I know Mary Chance–twenty pokers up her backbone! I should have thought–“
Then she stopped, looking intently at Mrs. Friend, her brows drawn together over her brilliant eyes.
“What would you have thought?” Mrs. Friend enquired, as the silence continued.
“Well–that if she was going to recommend somebody to Cousin Philip–to look after me, she would never have been content with anything short of a Prussian grenadier in petticoats. She thinks me a demon. She won’t let her daughters go about with me. I can’t imagine how she ever fixed upon anyone so–“
“So what?” said Mrs. Friend, after a moment, nervously. Lost in the big white arm-chair, her small hand propping her small face and head, she looked even frailer than she had looked in the library.
“Well, nobody would ever take you for my jailer, would they?” said Helena, surveying her.
Mrs. Friend laughed–a ghost of a laugh, which yet seemed to have some fun in it, far away.
“Does this seem to you like prison?”
“This house? Oh, no. Of course I shall do just as I like in it. I have only come because–well, my poor Mummy made a great point of it when she was ill, and I couldn’t be a brute to her, so I promised. But I wonder whether I ought to have promised. It is a great tyranny, you know–the tyranny of sick people. I wonder whether one ought to give in to her?”
The girl looked up coolly. Mrs. Friend felt as though she had been struck.
“But your _mother_!” she said involuntarily.
“Oh, I know, that’s what most people would say. But the question is, what’s reasonable. Well, I wasn’t reasonable, and here I am. But I make my conditions. We are not to be more than four months in the year in this old hole”–she looked round her in not unkindly amusement at the bare old-fashioned room; “we are to have four or five months in London, _at least_; and when travelling abroad gets decent again, we are to go abroad–Rome, perhaps, next winter. And I am jolly well to ask my friends here, or in town–male and female–and Cousin Philip promised to be nice to them. He said, of course, ‘Within limits.’ But that we shall see. I’m not a pauper, you know. My trustees pay Lord Buntingford whatever I cost him, and I shall have a good deal to spend. I shall have a horse–and perhaps a little motor. The chauffeur here is a fractious idiot. He has done that Rolls-Royce car of Cousin Philip’s balmy, and cut up quite rough when I spoke to him about it.”
“Done it what?” said Mrs. Friend faintly.
“Balmy. Don’t you know that expression?” Helena, on the floor with her hands under her knees, watched her companion’s looks with a grin. “It’s _our_ language now, you know–English–the language of us young people. The old ones have got to learn it, as _we_ speak it! Well, what do you think of Cousin Philip?”
Mrs. Friend roused herself.
“I’ve only seen him for half an hour. But he was very kind.”
“And isn’t he good-looking?” said the girl before her, with enthusiasm. “I just adore that combination of black hair and blue eyes–don’t you? But he isn’t by any means as innocent as he looks.”
“I never said–“
“No. I know you didn’t,” said Helena serenely; “but you might have–and he isn’t innocent a bit. He’s as complex as you make ’em. Most women are in love with him, except me!” The brown eyes stared meditatively out of window. “I suppose I could be if I tried. But he doesn’t attract me. He’s too old.”
“Old?” repeated Mrs. Friend, with astonishment.
“Well, I don’t mean he’s decrepit! But he’s forty-four if he’s a day–more than double my age. Did you notice that he’s a little lame?”
“He is. It’s very slight–an accident, I believe–somewhere abroad. But they wouldn’t have him for the Army, and he was awfully cut up. He used to come and sit with Mummy every day and pour out his woes. I suppose she was the only person to whom he ever talked about his private affairs–he knew she was safe. Of course you know he is a widower?”
Mrs. Friend knew nothing. But she was vaguely surprised.
“Oh, well, a good many people know that–though Mummy always said she never came across anybody who had ever seen his wife. He married her when he was quite a boy—abroad somewhere–when there seemed no chance of his ever being Lord Buntingford–he had two elder brothers who died–and she was an art student on her own. An old uncle of Mummy’s once told me that when Cousin Philip came back from abroad–she died abroad–after her death, he seemed altogether changed somehow. But he never, _never_ speaks of her”–the girl swayed her slim body backwards and forwards for emphasis–“and I wouldn’t advise you or anybody else to try. Most people think he’s just a bachelor. I never talk about it to people–Mummy said I wasn’t to–and as he was very nice to Mummy–well, I don’t. But I thought you’d better know. And now I think we’d better dress.”
But instead of moving, she looked down affectionately at her uniform and her neat brown leggings.
“What a bore! I suppose I’ve no right to them any more.”
“What is your uniform?”
“Women Ambulance Drivers. Don’t you know the hostel in Ruby Square? I bargained with Cousin Philip after Mummy’s death I should stay out my time, till I was demobbed. Awfully jolly time I had–on the whole–though the girls were a mixed lot. Well–let’s get a move on.” She sprang up. “Your room’s next door.”
Mrs. Friend was departing when Helena enquired:
“By the way–have you ever heard of Cynthia Welwyn?”
Mrs. Friend turned at the door, and shook her head.
“Oh, well, I can tot her up very quickly–just to give you an idea–as she’s coming to dinner. She’s fair and forty–just about Buntingford’s age–quite good-looking–quite clever–lives by herself, reads a great deal–runs the parish–you know the kind of thing. They swarm! I think she would like to marry Cousin Philip, if he would let her.”
Mrs. Friend hurriedly shut the door at her back, which had been slightly ajar. Helena laughed–the merry but very soft laugh Mrs. Friend had first heard in the hall–a laugh which seemed somehow out of keeping with the rest of its owner’s personality.
“Don’t be alarmed. I doubt whether that would be news to anybody in this house! But Buntingford’s quite her match. Well, ta-ta. Shall I come and help you dress?”
“The idea!” cried Mrs. Friend. “Shall I help you?” She looked round the room and at Helena vigorously tackling the boxes. “I thought you had a maid?”
“Not at all. I couldn’t be bored with one.”
“Do let me help you!”
“Then you’d be my maid, and I should bully you and detest you. You must go and dress.”
And Mrs. Friend found herself gently pushed out of the room. She went to her own in some bewilderment. After having been immured for some three years in close attendance on an invalided woman shut up in two rooms, she was like a person walking along a dark road and suddenly caught in the glare of motor lamps. Brought into contact with such a personality as Helena Pitstone promised to be, she felt helpless and half blind. A survival, too; for this world into which she had now stepped was one quite new to her. Yet when she had first shut herself up in Lancaster Gate she had never been conscious of any great difference between herself and other women or girls. She had lived a very quiet life in a quiet home before the war. Her father, a hard-working Civil Servant on a small income, and her mother, the daughter of a Wesleyan Minister, had brought her up strictly, yet with affection. The ways of the house were old-fashioned, dictated by an instinctive dislike of persons who went often to theatres and dances, of women who smoked, or played bridge, or indulged in loud, slangy talk. Dictated, too, by a pervading “worship of ancestors,” of a preceding generation of plain evangelical men and women, whose books survived in the little house, and whose portraits hung upon its walls.
Then, in the first year of the war, she had married a young soldier, the son of family friends, like-minded with her own people, a modest, inarticulate fellow, who had been killed at Festubert. She had loved him–oh, yes, she had loved him. But sometimes, looking back, she was troubled to feel how shadowy he had become to her. Not in the region of emotion. She had pined for his fondness all these years; she pined for it still. But intellectually. If he had lived, how would he have felt towards all these strange things that the war had brought about–the revolutionary spirit everywhere, the changes come and coming? She did not know; she could not imagine. And it troubled her that she could not find any guidance for herself in her memories of him.
And as to the changes in her own sex, they seemed to have all come about while she was sitting in a twilight room reading aloud to an old woman. Only a few months after her husband’s death her parents had both died, and she found herself alone in the world, and almost penniless. She was not strong enough for war work, the doctor said, and so she had let the doors of Lancaster Gate close upon her, only looking for something quiet and settled–even if it were a settled slavery.
After which, suddenly, just about the time of the Armistice, she had become aware that nothing was the same; that the women and the girls–so many of them in uniform!–that she met in the streets when she took her daily walk–were new creatures; not attractive to her as a whole, but surprising and formidable, because of the sheer life there was in them. And she herself began to get restive; to realize that she was not herself so very old, and to want to know–a hundred things! It had taken her five months, however, to make up her mind; and then at last she had gone to an agency–the only way she knew–and had braved the cold and purely selfish wrath of the household she was leaving. And now here she was in Lord Buntingford’s house–Miss Helena Pitstone’s chaperon. As she stood before her looking-glass, fastening her little black dress with shaking fingers, the first impression of Helena’s personality was upon her, running through her, like wine to the unaccustomed. She supposed that now girls were all like this–all such free, wild, uncurbed creatures, a law to themselves. One moment she repeated that she was a fool to have come; and the next, she would not have found herself back in Lancaster Gate for the world.
* * * * *
Meanwhile, in the adjoining room, Helena was putting on a tea-gown, a white and silver “confection,” with a little tail like a fish, and a short skirt tapering down to a pair of slim legs and shapely feet. After all her protestations, she had allowed the housemaid to help her unpack, and when the dress was on she had sent Mary flying down to the drawing-room to bring up some carnations she had noticed there. When these had been tucked into her belt, and the waves of her brown hair had been somehow pinned and coiled into a kind of order, and she had discovered and put on her mother’s pearls, she was pleased with herself, or rather with as much of herself as she could see in the inadequate looking-glass on the toilet-table. A pier-glass from somewhere was of course the prime necessity, and must be got immediately. Meanwhile she had to be content with seeing herself in the eyes of the housemaid, who was clearly dazzled by her appearance.
Then there were a few minutes before dinner, and she ran along the passage to Mrs. Friend’s room.
“May I come in? Oh, let me tie that for you?” And before Mrs. Friend could interpose, the girl’s nimble fingers had tied the narrow velvet carrying a round locket which was her chaperon’s only ornament. Drawing back a little, she looked critically at the general effect. Mrs. Friend flushed, and presently started in alarm, when Helena took up the comb lying on the dressing-table.
“What are you going to do?”
“Only just to alter your hair a little. Do you mind? Do let me. You look so nice in black. But your hair is too tight.”
Mrs. Friend stood paralysed, while with a few soft touches Helena applied the comb.
“Now, isn’t that nice! I declare it’s charming! Now look at yourself. Why should you make yourself look dowdy? It’s all very well–but you can’t be much older than I am!”
And dancing round her victim, Helena effected first one slight improvement and then another in Mrs. Friend’s toilette, till the little woman, standing in uneasy astonishment before the glass to which Helena had dragged her, plucked up courage at last to put an end to the proceedings.
“No, please don’t!” she said, with decision, warding off the girl’s meddling hand, and putting back some of the quiet bands of hair. “You mustn’t make me look so unlike myself. And besides–I couldn’t live up to it!” Her shy smile broke out.
“Oh, yes, you could. You’re quite nice-looking. I wonder if you’d mind telling me how old you are? And must I always call you ‘Mrs. Friend’? It is so odd–when everybody calls each other by their Christian names.”
“I don’t mind–I don’t mind at all. But don’t you think–for both our sakes–you’d better leave me all the dignity you can?” Laughter was playing round the speaker’s small pale lips, and Helena answered it with interest.
“Does that mean that you’ll have to manage me? Did Cousin Philip tell you you must? But that–I may as well tell you at once–is a vain delusion. Nobody ever managed me! Oh, yes, my superior officer in the Women’s Corps–she was master. But that was because I chose to make her so. Now I’m on my own–and all I can offer–I’m afraid!–is an alliance–offensive and defensive.”
Mrs. Friend looked at the radiant vision opposite to her with its hands on its sides, and slowly shook her head.
“Cousin Philip–if necessary.”
Mrs. Friend again shook her head.
“Oh, you’re in his pocket already!” cried Helena with a grimace. “But never mind. I’m sure I shall like you. You’ll come over to my side soon.”
“Why should I take any side?” asked Mrs. Friend, drawing on a pair of black gloves.
“Well, because”–said Helena slowly–“Cousin Philip doesn’t like some of my pals–some of the men, I mean–I go about with–and we _may_ quarrel about it. The question is which of them I’m going to marry–if I marry any of them. And some of them are married. Don’t look shocked! Oh, heavens, there’s the gong! But we’ll sit up to-night, if you’re not sleepy, and I’ll give you a complete catalogue of some of their qualifications–physical, intellectual, financial. Then you’ll have the _carte du pays_. Two of them are coming to-morrow for the Sunday. There’s nobody coming to-night of the least interest. Cynthia Welwyn, Captain Vivian Lodge, Buntingford’s cousin–rather a prig–but good-looking. A girl or two, no doubt–probably the parson–probably the agent. Now you know. Shall we go down?”
* * * * *
The library was already full when the two ladies entered. Mrs. Friend was aware of a tall fair woman, beautifully dressed in black, standing by Lord Buntingford; of an officer in uniform, resplendent in red tabs and decorations, talking to a spare grey-haired man, who might be supposed to be the agent; of a man in a round collar and clerical coat, standing awkward and silent by the tall lady in black; and of various other girls and young men.
All eyes were turned to Helena as she entered, and she was soon surrounded, while Lord Buntingford took special care of Helena’s companion. Mrs. Friend found herself introduced to Lady Cynthia Welwyn, the tall lady in black; to Mr. Parish, the grey-haired man, and to the clergyman. Lady Cynthia bestowed on her a glance from a pair of prominent eyes, and a few civil remarks, Mr. Parish made her an old-fashioned bow, and hoped she had not found the journey too dusty, while the clergyman, whose name she caught as Mr. Alcott, showed a sudden animation as they shook hands, and had soon put her at her ease by a manner in which she at once divined a special sympathy for the stranger within the gates.
“You have just come, I gather?”
“I only arrived this afternoon.”
“And you are to look after Miss Helena?” he smiled.
Mrs. Friend smiled too.
“I hope so. If she will let me!”
“She is a radiant creature!” And for a moment he stood watching the girl, as she stood, goddess-like, amid her group of admirers. His eyes were deep-set and tired; his scanty grizzled hair fell untidily over a furrowed brow; and his clothes were neither fresh nor well-brushed. But there was something about him which attracted the lonely; and Mrs. Friend was glad when she found herself assigned to him.
But though her neighbour was not difficult to talk to, her surroundings were so absorbing to her that she talked very little at dinner. It was enough to listen and look–at Lady Cynthia on Lord Buntingford’s right hand, and Helena Pitstone on his left; or at the handsome officer with whom Helena seemed to be happily flirting through a great part of dinner. Lady Cynthia was extremely good-looking, and evidently agreeable, though it seemed to Mrs. Friend that Lord Buntingford only gave her divided attention. Meanwhile it was very evident that he himself was the centre of his own table, the person of whom everyone at it was fundamentally aware, however apparently busy with other people. She herself observed him much more closely than before, the mingling in his face of a kind of concealed impatience, an eagerness held in chains and expressed by his slight perpetual frown, with a courtesy and urbanity generally gay or bantering, but at times, and by flashes–or so it seemed to her–dipped in a sudden, profound melancholy, like a quenched light. He held himself sharply erect, and in his plain naval uniform, with the three Commander’s stripes on the sleeve, made, in her eyes, an even more distinguished figure than the gallant and decorated hero on his left, with whom Helena seemed to be so particularly engaged, “prig” though she had dubbed him.
As to Lady Cynthia’s effect upon her host, Mrs. Friend could not make up her mind. He seemed attentive or amused while she chatted to him; but towards the end their conversation languished a good deal, and Lady Cynthia must needs fall back on the stubby-haired boy to her right, who was learning agency business with Mr. Parish. She smiled at him also, for it was her business, Mrs. Friend thought, to smile at everybody, but it was an absent-minded smile.
“You don’t know Lord Buntingford?” said Mr. Alcott’s rather muffled voice beside her.
Mrs. Friend turned hastily.
“No–I never saw him till this afternoon.”
“He isn’t easy to know. I know him very little, though he gave me this living, and I have business with him, of course, occasionally. But this I do know, the world is uncommonly full of people–don’t you find it so?–who say ‘I go, Sir’–and don’t go. Well, if Lord Buntingford says ‘I go, Sir’–he does go!”
“Does he often say it?” asked Mrs. Friend. And the man beside her noticed the sudden gleam in her quiet little face, that rare or evanescent sprite of laughter or satire that even the dwellers in Lancaster Gate had occasionally noticed.
Mr. Alcott considered.
“Well, no,” he said at last. “I admit he’s difficult to catch. He likes his own ways a great deal better than other people’s. But if you do catch him–if you do persuade him–well, then you can stake your bottom dollar on him. At least, that’s my experience. He’s been awfully generous about land here–put a lot in my hands to distribute long before the war ended. Some of the neighbours about–other landlords–were very sick–thought he’d given them away because of the terms. They sent him a round robin. I doubt if he read it. In a thing like that he’s adamant. And he’s adamant, too, when he’s once taken a real dislike to anybody. There’s no moving him.”
“You make me afraid!” said Mrs. Friend.
“Oh, no, you needn’t be–” Mr. Alcott turned almost eagerly to look at her. “I hope you won’t be. He’s the kindest of men. It’s extraordinarily kind of him–don’t you think?”–the speaker smilingly lowered his voice–“taking on Miss Pitstone like this? It’s a great responsibility.”
Mrs. Friend made the slightest timid gesture of assent.
“Ah, well, it’s just like him. He was devoted to her mother–and for his friends he’ll do anything. But I don’t want to make a saint of him. He can be a dour man when he likes–and he and I fight about a good many things. I don’t think he has much faith in the new England we’re all talking about–though he tries to go with it. Have you?” He turned upon her suddenly.
Mrs. Friend felt a pang.
“I don’t know anything,” she said, and he was conscious of the agitation in her tone. “Since my husband died, I’ve been so out of everything.”
And encouraged by the kind eyes in the plain face, she told her story, very simply and briefly. In the general clatter and hubbub of the table no one overheard or noticed.
“H’m–you’re stepping out into the world again as one might step out of a nunnery–after five years. I rather envy you. You’ll see things fresh. Whereas we–who have been through the ferment and the horror–” He broke off–“I was at the front, you see, for nearly two years–then I got invalided. So you’ve hardly realized the war–hardly known there was a war–not since–since Festubert?”
“It’s dreadful!” she said humbly–“I’m afraid I know just nothing about it.”
He looked at her with a friendly wonder, and she, flushing deeper, was glad to see him claimed by a lively girl on his left, while she fell back on Mr. Parish, the agent, who, however, seemed to be absorbed in the amazing–and agreeable–fact that Lord Buntingford, though he drank no wine himself, had yet some Moet-et-Charidon of 1904 left to give to his guests. Mr. Parish, as he sipped it, realized that the war was indeed over.
But, all the time, he gave a certain amount of scrutiny to the little lady beside him. So she was to be “companion” to Miss Helena Pitstone–to prevent her getting into scrapes–if she could. Lord Buntingford had told him that his cousin, Lady Mary Chance, had chosen her. Lady Mary had reported that “companions” were almost as difficult to find as kitchenmaids, and that she had done her best for him in finding a person of gentle manners and quiet antecedents. “Such people will soon be as rare as snakes in Ireland”–had been the concluding sentence in Lady Mary’s letter, according to Lord Buntingford’s laughing account of it. Ah, well, Lady Mary was old-fashioned. He hoped the young widow might be useful; but he had his doubts. She looked a weak vessel to be matching herself with anything so handsome and so pronounced as the young lady opposite.
Why, the young lady was already quarrelling with her guardian! For the whole table had suddenly become aware of a gust in the neighbourhood of Lord Buntingford–a gust of heated talk–although the only heated person seemed to be Miss Pitstone. Lord Buntingford was saying very little; but whatever he did say was having a remarkable effect on his neighbour. Then, before the table knew what it was all about, it was over. Lord Buntingford had turned resolutely away, and was devoting himself to conversation with Lady Cynthia, while his ward was waging a fresh war of repartee with the distinguished soldier beside her, in which her sharpened tones and quick breathing suggested the swell after a storm.
Mrs. Friend too had noticed. She had been struck with the sudden tightening of the guardian’s lip, the sudden stiffening of his hand lying on the table. She wondered anxiously what was the matter.
In the library afterwards, Lady Cynthia, Mrs. Friend, and the two girls–his daughter and his guest–who had come with Mr. Parish, settled into a little circle near the wood-fire which the chilliness of the May evening made pleasant.
Helena Pitstone meanwhile walked away by herself to a distant part of the room and turned over photographs, with what seemed to Mrs. Friend a stormy hand. And as she did so, everyone in the room was aware of her, of the brilliance and power of the girl’s beauty, and of the energy that like an aura seemed to envelop her personality. Lady Cynthia made several attempts to capture her, but in vain. Helena would only answer in monosyllables, and if approached, retreated further into the dim room, ostensibly in search of a book on a distant shelf, really in flight. Lady Cynthia, with a shrug, gave it up.
Mrs. Friend felt too strange to the whole situation to make any move. She could only watch for the entry of the gentlemen. Lord Buntingford, who came in last, evidently looked round for his ward. But Helena had already flitted back to the rest of the company, and admirably set off by a deep red chair into which she had thrown herself, was soon flirting unashamedly with the two young men, with Mr. Parish and the Rector, taking them all on in turn, and suiting the bait to the fish with the instinctive art of her kind. Lord Buntingford got not a word with her, and when the guests departed she had vanished upstairs before anyone knew that she had gone.
“Have a cigar in the garden, Vivian, before you turn in? There is a moon, and it is warmer outside than in,” said Lord Buntingford to his cousin, when they were left alone.
“By all means.”
So presently they found themselves pacing a flagged path outside a long conservatory which covered one side of the house. The moon was cloudy, and the temperature low. But the scents of summer were already in the air–of grass and young leaf, and the first lilac. The old grey house with its haphazard outline and ugly detail acquired a certain dignity from the night, and round it stretched dim slopes of pasture, with oaks rising here and there from bands of white mist.
“Is that tale true you told me before dinner about Jim Donald?” said Lord Buntingford abruptly. “You’re sure it’s true–honour bright?”
The other laughed.
“Why, I had it from Jim himself!” He laughed. “He just made a joke of it. But he is a mean skunk! I’ve found out since that he wanted to buy Preston out for the part Preston had taken in another affair. There’s a pretty case coming on directly, with Jim for hero. You have heard of it.”
“No,” said Buntingford curtly; “but in any case nothing would have induced me to have him here. Preston’s a friend of mine. So when Helena told me at dinner she had asked him for Saturday, I had to tell her I should telegraph to him to-morrow morning not to come. She was angry, of course.”
Captain Lodge gave a low whistle. “Of course she doesn’t know. But I think you would be wise to stop it. And I remember now she danced all night with him at the Arts Ball!”
There was a light tap on Mrs. Friend’s door. She said “Come in” rather unwillingly. Some time had elapsed since she had seen Helena’s fluttering white disappear into the corridor beyond her room; and she had nourished a secret hope that the appointment had been forgotten. But the door opened slightly. Mrs. Friend saw first a smiling face, finger on lip. Then the girl slipped in, and closed the door with caution.
“I don’t want that ‘very magnificent three-tailed Bashaw’ to know we are discussing him. He’s somewhere still.”
“What did you say?” asked Mrs. Friend, puzzled.
“Oh, it’s only a line of an old poem–I don’t know by whom–my father used to quote it. Well, now–did you see what happened at dinner?”
Helena had established herself comfortably in a capacious arm-chair opposite Mrs. Friend, tucking her feet under her. She was in a white dressing-gown, and she had hastily tied a white scarf round her loosened hair. In the dim light of a couple of candles her beauty made an even more exciting impression on the woman watching her than it had done in the lamp-lit drawing-room.
“It’s war!” she said firmly, “war between Buntingford and me. I’m sorry it’s come so soon–the very first evening!–and I know it’ll be beastly for you–but I can’t help it. I _won’t_ be dictated to. If I’m not twenty-one, I’m old enough to choose my own friends; and if Buntingford chooses to boycott them, he must take the consequences.” And throwing her white arms above her head, her eyes looked out from the frame of them–eyes sparkling with pride and will.
Mrs. Friend begged for an explanation.
“Well, I happened to tell him that I had invited Lord Donald for Sunday. I’ll tell you about Lord Donald presently–and he simply–behaved like a brute! He said he was sorry I hadn’t told him, that he couldn’t have Donald here, and would telegraph to him to-morrow–not to come. Just think of that! So then I said–why? And he said he didn’t approve of Donald–or some nonsense of that sort. I was quite calm. I reminded him he had promised to let me invite my friends–that was part of the bargain. Yes–he said–but within limits–and Donald was the limit. That made me savage–so I upped and said, very well, if I couldn’t see Donald here, I should see him somewhere else–and he wouldn’t prevent me. I wasn’t going to desert my friends for a lot of silly tales. So then he said I didn’t know what I was talking about, and turned his back on me. He kept his temper provokingly–and I lost mine–which was idiotic of me. But I mean to be even with him–somehow. And as for Donald, I shall go up to town and lunch with him at the Ritz next week!”
“Oh, no, no, you can’t!” cried Mrs. Friend in distress. “You can’t treat your guardian like that! Do tell me what it’s all about!” And bending forward, she laid her two small hands entreatingly on the girl’s knee. She looked so frail and pitiful as she did so, in her plain black, that Helena was momentarily touched. For the first time her new chaperon appeared to her as something else than a mere receiver into which, or at which, it suited her to talk. She laid her own hand soothingly on Mrs. Friend’s.
“Of course I’ll tell you. I really don’t mean to be nasty to you. But all the same I warn you that it’s no good trying to stop me, when I’ve made up my mind. Well, now, for Donald. I know, of course, what Cousin Philip means. Donald ran away with the wife of a friend of his–of Buntingford’s, I mean–three or four weeks ago.”
Mrs. Friend gasped. The modern young woman was becoming altogether too much for her. She could only repeat foolishly–“ran away?”
“Yes, ran away. There was no harm done. Sir Luke Preston–that’s the husband–followed them and caught them–and made her go back with him. But Donald didn’t mean any mischief. She’d quarrelled with Sir Luke–she’s an empty-headed little fluffy thing. I know her a little–and she dared Donald to run away with her–for a lark. So he took her on. He didn’t mean anything horrid. I don’t believe he’s that sort. They were going down to his yacht at Southampton–there were several other friends of his on the yacht–and they meant to give Sir Luke a fright–just show him that he couldn’t bully her as he had been doing–being sticky and stupid about her friends, just as Cousin Philip wants to be about mine–and quarrelling about her dress-bills–and a lot of things. Well, that’s all! What’s there in that?”
And the girl sat up straight, dropping her slim, white feet, while her great eyes challenged her companion to say a word in defence of her guardian. Mrs. Friend’s head was turning.
“But it was surely wrong and foolish–” she began. Helena interrupted her.
“I daresay it was,” she said impatiently, “but that’s not my affair. It’s Lord Donald’s. I’m not responsible for him. But he’s done nothing that I know of to make _me_ cut him–and I won’t! He told me all about it quite frankly. I said I’d stick by him–and I will.”
“And Sir Luke Preston is a friend of Lord Buntingford’s?”
“Yes–” said Helena unwillingly–“I suppose he is. I didn’t know. Perhaps I wouldn’t have asked Donald if I’d known. But I did ask him, and he accepted. And now Buntingford’s going to insult him publicly. And that I won’t stand–I vow I won’t! It’s insulting me too!”
And springing up, she began a stormy pacing of the room, her white gown falling back from her neck and throat, and her hair floating behind her. Mrs. Friend had begun to collect herself. In the few hours she had passed under Lord Buntingford’s roof she seemed to herself to have been passing through a forcing house. Qualities she had never dreamed of possessing or claiming she must somehow show, or give up the game. Unless she could understand and get hold of this wholly unexpected situation, as Helena presented it, she might as well re-pack her box, and order the village fly for departure.
“Do you mind if I ask you some questions?” she said presently, as the white skirts swept past her.
“Mind! Not a bit. What do you want to know?”
“Are you in love with Lord Donald?”
“If I were, do you think I’d let him run away with Lady Preston or anybody else? Not at all! Lord Donald’s just one of the men I like talking to. He amuses me. He’s very smart. He knows everybody. He’s no worse than anybody else. He did all sorts of plucky things in the war. I don’t ask Buntingford to like him, of course. He isn’t his sort. But he really might let me alone!”
“But you asked him to stay in Lord Buntingford’s house–and without consulting–“
“Well–and it’s going to be _my_ house, too, for two years–if I can possibly bear it. When Mummy begged me, I told Buntingford my conditions. And he’s broken them!”
And standing still, the tempestuous creature drew herself to her full height, her arms rigid by her side–a tragic-comic figure in the dim illumination of the two guttering candles.
Mrs. Friend attempted a diversion.
“Who else is coming for the week-end?”
Instantly Helena’s mood dissolved in laughter. She came to perch herself on the arm of Mrs. Friend’s chair.
“There–now let’s forget my tiresome guardian. I promised to tell you about my ‘boys.’ Well, there are two of them coming–and Geoffrey French, besides a nephew of Buntingford’s, who’ll have this property and most of the money some day, always supposing this tyrant of mine doesn’t marry, which of course any reasonable man would. Well–there’s Peter Dale–the dearest, prettiest little fellow you ever saw. He was aide-de-camp to Lord Brent in the war–_very_ smart–up to everything. He’s demobbed, and has gone into the City. Horribly rich already, and will now, of course, make another pile. He dreadfully wants to marry me–but–” she shook her head with emphasis–“No!–it wouldn’t do. He tries to kiss me sometimes. I didn’t mind it at first. But I’ve told him not to do it again. Then there’s Julian–Julian Horne–Balliol–awfully clever”–she checked off the various items on her fingers–“as poor as a rat–a Socialist, of course–they all are, that kind–but a real one–not like Geoffrey French, who’s a sham, though he is in the House, and has joined the Labour party. You see”–her tone grew suddenly serious–“I don’t reckon Geoffrey French among my boys.”
“He’s too old?”
“Oh, he’s not so very old. But–I don’t think he likes me very much–and I’m not sure whether I like him. He’s good fun, however–and he rags Julian Horne splendidly. That’s one of his chief functions–and another is, to take a hand in my education–when I allow him–and when Julian isn’t about. They both tell me what to read. Julian tells me to read history, and gives me lists of books. Geoffrey talks economics–and philosophy–and I adore it–he talks so well. He gave me Bergson the other day. Have you ever read any of him?”
“Never,” said Mrs. Friend, bewildered. “Who is he?”
Helena’s laugh woke the echoes of the room. But she checked it at once.
“I don’t want _him_ to think we’re plotting,” she said in a stage-whisper, looking round her. “If I do anything I want to spring it on him!”
“Dear Miss Pitstone–please understand!–I can’t help you to plot against Lord Buntingford. You must see I can’t. He’s my employer and your guardian. If I helped you to do what he disapproves I should simply be doing a dishonourable thing.”
“Yes,” said Helena reflectively. “Of course I see that. It’s awkward. I suppose you promised and vowed a great many things–like one’s godmothers and godfathers?”
“No, I didn’t promise anything–except that I would go out with you, make myself useful to you, if I could–and help you with foreign languages.”
“Goody,” said Helena. “Do you _really_ know French–and German?” The tone was incredulous. “I wish I did.”
“Well, I was two years in France, and a year and a half in Germany when I was a girl. My parents wanted me to be a governess.”
“And then you married?”
“Yes–just the year before the war.”
“And your husband was killed?” The tone was low and soft. Mrs. Friend gave a mute assent. Suddenly Helena laid an arm round the little woman’s neck.
“I want you to be friends with me–will you? I hated the thought of a chaperon–I may as well tell you frankly. I thought I should probably quarrel with you in a week. That was before I arrived. Then when I saw you, I suddenly felt–‘I shall like her! I’m glad she’s here–I shan’t mind telling her my affairs.’ I suppose it was because you looked so–well, so meek and mild–so different from me–as though a puff would blow you away. One can’t account for those things, can one? Do tell me your Christian name! I won’t call you by it–if you don’t like it.”
“My name is Lucy,” said Mrs. Friend faintly. There was something so seductive in the neighbourhood of the girl’s warm youth and in the new sweetness of her voice that she could not make any further defence of her “dignity.”
“I might have guessed Lucy. It’s just like you,” said the girl triumphantly. “Wordsworth’s Lucy–do you remember her?–‘A violet by a mossy stone’–That’s you exactly. I _adore_ Wordsworth. Do you care about poetry?”
The eager eyes looked peremptorily into hers.
“Yes,” said Mrs. Friend shyly–“I’m very fond of some things. But you’d think them old-fashioned!”
“What–Byron?–Shelley? They’re never old-fashioned!”
“I never read much of them. But–I love Tennyson–and Mrs. Browning.”
Helena made a face–
“Oh, I don’t care a hang for her. She’s so dreadfully pious and sentimental. I laughed till I cried over ‘Aurora Leigh.’ But now–French things! If you lived all that time in France, you must have read French poetry. Alfred de Musset?–Madame de Noailles?”
Mrs. Friend shook her head.
“We went to lectures. I learnt a great deal of Racine–a little Victor Hugo–and Rostand–because the people I boarded with took me to ‘Cyrano’!”
“Ah, Rostand–” cried Helena, springing up. “Well, of course he’s _vieux jeu_ now. The best people make mock of him. Julian does. I don’t care–he gives me thrills down my back, and I love him. But then _panache_ means a good deal to me. And Julian doesn’t care a bit. He despises people who talk about glory and honour–and that kind of thing. Well–Lucy–“
She stopped mischievously, her head on one side.
“Sorry!–but it slipped out. Lucy–good-night.”
Mrs. Friend hurriedly caught hold of her.
“And you won’t do anything hasty–about Lord Donald?”
“Oh, I can’t promise anything. One must stand by one’s friends. One simply must. But I’ll take care Cousin Philip doesn’t blame you.”
“If I’m no use, you know–I can’t stay.”
“No use to Cousin Philip, you mean, in policing me?” said Helena, with a good-humoured laugh. “Well, we’ll talk about it again to-morrow. Good-night–Lucy!”
The sly gaiety of the voice was most disarming.
“Good-night, Miss Pitstone.”
“No, that won’t do. It’s absurd! I never ask people to call me Helena, unless I like them. I certainly never expected–there, I’ll be frank!–that I should want to ask you–the very first night too. But I do want you to. Please, Lucy, call me Helena. _Please_!”
Mrs. Friend did as she was told.
“Sleep well,” said Helena from the door. “I hope the housemaid’s put enough on your bed, and given you a hot water-bottle? If anything scares you in the night, wake me–that is, if you can!” She disappeared.
Outside Mrs. Friend’s door the old house was in darkness, save for a single light in the hall, which burnt all night. The hall was the feature of the house. A gallery ran round it supported by columns from below, and spaced by answering columns which carried the roof. The bedrooms ran round the hall, and opened into the gallery. The columns were of yellow marble brought from Italy, and faded blue curtains hung between them. Helena went cautiously to the balustrade, drew one of the blue curtains round her, and looked down into the hall. Was everybody gone to bed? No. There were movements in a distant room. Somebody coughed, and seemed to be walking about. But she couldn’t hear any talking. If Cousin Philip were still up, he was alone.
Her anger came back upon her, and then curiosity. What was he thinking about, as he paced his room like a caged squirrel? About the trouble she was likely to give him–and what a fool he had been to take the job? She would like to go and reason with him. The excess of vitality that was in her, sighing for fresh worlds to conquer, urged her to vehement and self-confident action,–action for its own sake, for the mere joy of the heat and movement that go with it. Part of the impulse depended on the new light in which the gentleman walking about downstairs had begun to appear to her. She had known him hitherto as “Mummy’s friend,” always to be counted upon when any practical difficulty arose, and ready on occasion to put in a sharp word in defence of an invalid’s peace, when a girl’s unruliness threatened it. Remembering one or two such collisions, Helena felt her cheeks burn, as she hung over the hall, in the darkness. But those had been such passing matters. Now, as she recalled the expression of his eyes, during their clash at the dinner-table, she realized, with an excitement which was not disagreeable, that something much more prolonged and serious might lie before her. Accomplished modern, as she knew him to be in most things, he was going to be “stuffy” and “stupid” in some. Lord Donald’s proceedings in the matter of Lady Preston evidently seemed to him–she had been made to feel it–frankly abominable. And he was not going to ask the man capable of them within his own doors. Well and good. “But as I don’t agree with him–Donald was only larking!–I shall take my own way. A telegram goes anyway to Donald to-morrow morning–and we shall see. So good-night, Cousin Philip!” And blowing a kiss towards the empty hall, she gathered her white skirts round her, and fled laughing towards her own room.
But just as she neared it, a door in front of her, leading to a staircase, opened, and a man in khaki appeared, carrying a candle. It was Captain Lodge, her neighbour at the dinner-table. The young man stared with amazement at the apparition rushing along the gallery towards him,–the girl’s floating hair, and flushed loveliness as his candle revealed it. Helena evidently enjoyed his astonishment, and his sudden look of admiration. But before he could speak, she had vanished within her own door, just holding it open long enough to give him a laughing nod before it shut, and darkness closed with it on the gallery.
“A man would need to keep his head with that girl!” thought Captain Lodge, with tantalized amusement. “But, my hat, what a beauty!”
Meanwhile in the library downstairs a good deal of thinking was going on. Lord Buntingford was taking more serious stock of his new duties than he had done yet. As he walked, smoking, up and down, his thoughts were full of his poor little cousin Rachel Pitstone. She had always been a favourite of his; and she had always known him better than any other person among his kinsfolk. He had found it easy to tell her secrets, when nobody else could have dragged a word from him; and as a matter of fact she had known before she died practically all that there was to know about him. And she had been so kind, and simple and wise. Had she perhaps once had a _tendresse_ for him–before she met Ned Pitstone?–and if things had gone–differently–might he not, perhaps, have married her? Quite possibly. In any case the bond between them had always been one of peculiar intimacy; and in looking back on it he had nothing to reproach himself with. He had done what he could to ease her suffering life. Struck down in her prime by a mortal disease, a widow at thirty, with her one beautiful child, her chief misfortune had been the melancholy and sensitive temperament, which filled the rooms in which she lived as full of phantoms as the palace of Odysseus in the vision of Theoclymenus.
She was afraid for her child; afraid for her friend; afraid for the world. The only hope of happiness for a woman, she believed, lay in an honest lover, if such a lover could be found. Herself an intellectual, and a freed spirit, she had no trust in any of the new professional and technical careers into which she saw women crowding. Sex seemed to her now as always the dominating fact of life. Votes did not matter, or degrees, or the astonishing but quite irrelevant fact, as the papers announced it, that women should now be able not only to fit but to plan a battleship. Love, and a child’s clinging mouth, and the sweetness of a Darby and Joan old age, for these all but the perverted women had always lived, and would always live.
She saw in her Helena the strong beginnings of sex. But she also realized the promise of intelligence, of remarkable brain development, and it seemed to her of supreme importance that sex should have the first innings in her child’s life.
“If she goes to college at once, as soon as I am gone, and her brain and her ambition are appealed to, before she has time to fall in love, she will develop on that side, prematurely–marvellously–and the rest will atrophy. And then when the moment for falling in love is over–and with her it mayn’t be a long one–she will be a lecturer, a member of Parliament perhaps–a Socialist agitator–a woman preacher,–who knows?–there are all kinds of possibilities in Helena. But she will have missed her chance of being a woman, and a happy one; and thirty years hence she will realize it, when it is too late, and think bitterly of us both. Believe me, dear Philip, the moment for love won’t last long in Helena’s life. I have seen it come and go so rapidly, in the case of some of the most charming women. For after all, the world is now so much richer for women; and many women don’t know their own minds in time, or get lost among the new landmarks. And of course all women can’t marry; and thank God, there are a thousand new chances of happiness for those who don’t. But there are some–and Helena, I am certain, will be one–who will be miserable, and probably wicked, unless they fall in love, and are happy. And it is a strait gate they will have to pass through. For their own natures and the new voices in the world will tempt them to this side and that. And before they know where they are–the moment will have gone–the wish–and the power.
“So, dear Philip, lend yourself to my plan; though you may seem to yourself the wrong person, and though it imposes–as I know it will–a rather heavy responsibility on you. But once or twice you have told me that I have helped you–through difficult places. That makes me dare to ask you this thing. There is no one else I can ask. And it won’t be bad for you, Philip,–it is good for us all, to have to think intimately–seriously–for some other human being or beings; and owing to circumstances, not your own fault, you have missed just this in life–except for your thoughts and care for me–bless you always, my dear friend.
“Am I preaching? Well, in my case the time for make-believe is over. I am too near the end. The simple and austere soul of things seems to shine out–
“And yet what I ask you is neither simple, nor austere! Take care of Helena for two years. Give her fun, and society,–a good time, and every chance to marry. Then, after two years, if she hasn’t married–if she hasn’t fallen in love—she must choose her course.
“You may well feel you are too young–indeed I wish, for this business, you were older!–but you will find some nice woman to be hostess and chaperon; the experiment will interest and amuse you, and the time will soon go. You know I _could_ not ask you–unless some things were–as they are. But that being so, I feel as if I were putting into your hands the chance of a good deed, a kind deed,–blessing, possibly, him that gives, and her that takes. And I am just now in the mood to feel that kindness is all that matters, in this mysterious life of ours. Oh, I wish I had been kinder–to so many people!–I wish–I wish! The hands stretched out to me in the dark that I have passed by–the voices that have piped to me, and I have not danced–
“I mustn’t cry. It is hard that in one of the few cases when I had the chance to be kind, and did not wholly miss it, I should be making in the end a selfish bargain of it–claiming so much more than I ever gave!
“Forgive me, my best of friends–
“You shall come and see me once about this letter, and then we won’t discuss it again–ever. I have talked over the business side of it with my lawyer, and asked him to tell you anything you don’t yet know about my affairs and Helena’s. We needn’t go into them.”
“One of the few cases where I had the chance to be kind.” Why, Rachel Pitstone’s life had been one continuous selfless offering to God and man, from her childhood to her last hour! He knew very well what he had owed her–what others had owed–to her genius for sympathy, for understanding, for a compassion which was also a stimulus. He missed her sorely. At that very moment, he was in great practical need of her help, her guidance.
Whereas it was _he_–worse luck!–who must be the stumbling and unwelcomed guide of Rachel’s child! How, in the name of mystery, had the child grown up so different from the mother? Well, impatience wouldn’t help him–he must set his mind to it. That scoundrel, Jim Donald!
Mrs. Friend passed a somewhat wakeful night after the scene in which Helena Pitstone had bestowed her first confidences on her new companion. For Lucy Friend the experience had been unprecedented and agitating. She had lived in a world where men and women do not talk much about themselves, and as a rule instinctively avoid thinking much about themselves, as a habit tending to something they call “morbid.” This at least had been the tone in her parents’ house. The old woman in Lancaster Gate had not been capable either of talking or thinking about herself, except as a fretful animal with certain simple bodily wants. In Helena, Lucy Friend had for the first time come cross the type of which the world is now full–men and women, but especially women, who have no use any longer for the reticence of the past, who desire to know all they possibly can about themselves, their own thoughts and sensations, their own peculiarities and powers, all of which are endlessly interesting to them; and especially to the intellectual _elite_ among them. Already, before the war, the younger generation, which was to meet the brunt of it, was an introspective, a psychological generation. And the great war has made it doubly introspective, and doubly absorbed in itself. The mere perpetual strain on the individual consciousness, under the rush of strange events, has developed men and women abnormally.
Only now it is not an introspection, or a psychology, which writes journals or autobiography. It is an introspection which _talks_; a psychology which chatters, of all things small and great; asking its Socratic way through all the questions of the moment, the most trivial, and the most tremendous.
Coolness, an absence of the old tremors and misgivings that used especially to haunt the female breast in the days of Miss Austen, is a leading mark of the new type. So that Mrs. Friend need not have been astonished to find Helena meeting her guardian next morning at breakfast as though nothing had happened. He, like a man of the world, took his cue immediately from her, and the conversation–whether it ran on the return of Karsavina to the Russian Ballet, or the success of “Abraham Lincoln”; or the prospects of the Peace, or merely the weddings and buryings of certain common acquaintances which appeared in the morning’s _Times_–was so free and merry, that Mrs. Friend began soon to feel her anxieties of the night dropping away, to enjoy the little luxuries of the breakfast table, and the pleasant outlook on the park, of the high, faded, and yet stately room.
“What a charming view!” she said to Lord Buntingford, when they rose from breakfast, and she made her way to the open window, while Helena was still deep in the papers.
“You think so?” he said indifferently, standing beside her. “I’m afraid I prefer London. But now on another matter–Do you mind taking up your duties instanter?”
“Please–please let me!” she said, turning eagerly to him.
“Well–there is a cook-housekeeper somewhere–who, I believe, expects orders. Do you mind giving them? Please do not look so alarmed! It is the simplest matter in the world. You will appear to give orders. In reality Mrs. Mawson will have everything cut and dried, and you will not dare to alter a thing. But she expects you or me to pretend. And I should be greatly relieved if you would do the pretending?”
“Certainly,” murmured Mrs. Friend.
Lord Buntingford, looking at the terrace outside, made a sudden gesture–half despair, half impatience.
“Oh, and there’s old Fenn,–my head gardener. He’s been here forty years, and he sits on me like an old man of the sea. I know what he wants. He’s coming up to ask me about something he calls a herbaceous border. You see that border there?”–he pointed–“Well, I barely know a peony from a cabbage. Perhaps you do?” He turned towards her hopefully; and Mrs. Friend felt the charm, as many other women had felt it before her, of the meditative blue eyes, under the black and heavy brow. She shook her head smiling.
He smiled in return.
“But, if you don’t–would you mind–again–pretending? Would you see the old fellow, some time this morning–and tell him to do exactly what he damn pleases–I beg your pardon!–it slipped out. If not, he’ll come into my study, and talk a jargon of which I don’t understand a word, for half an hour. And as he’s stone deaf, he doesn’t understand a word I say. Moreover when he’s once there I can’t get him out. And I’ve got a bit of rather tough county business this morning. Would you mind? It’s a great deal to ask. But if you only let him talk–and look intelligent–“
“Of course I will,” said Mrs. Friend, bewildered, adding rather desperately, “But I don’t know anything at all about it.”
“Oh, that doesn’t matter. Perhaps Helena does! By the way, she hasn’t seen her sitting-room.”
He turned towards his ward, who was still reading at the table.
“I have arranged a special sitting-room for you, Helena. Would you like to come and look at it?”
“What fun!” said Helena, jumping up. “And may I do what I like in it?”
Buntingford’s mouth twisted a little.
“Naturally! The house is at your disposal. Turn anything out you like–and bring anything else in. There is some nice old stuff about, if you look for it. If you send for the odd man he’ll move anything. Well, I’d better show you what I arranged. But you can have any other room you prefer.”
He led the way to the first floor, and opened a door in a corner of the pillared gallery.
“Oh, jolly!” cried Helena.
For they entered a lofty room, with white Georgian panelling, a few pretty old cabinets and chairs, a chintz-covered sofa, a stand of stuffed humming-birds, a picture or two, a blue Persian carpet, and a large book-case full of books.
“My books!” cried Helena in amazement. “I was just going to ask if the cases had come. How ever did you get them unpacked, and put here so quickly?”
“Nothing easier. They arrived three days ago. I telephoned to a man I know in Leicester Square. He sent some one down, and they were all finished before you came down. Perhaps you won’t like the arrangement? Well, it will amuse you to undo it!”
If there was the slightest touch of sarcasm in the eyes that travelled from her to the books, Helena took it meekly. She went to the bookshelves. Poets, novelists, plays, philosophers, economists, some French and Italian books, they were all in their proper places. The books were partly her own, partly her mother’s. Helena eyed them thoughtfully.
“You must have taken a lot of trouble.”
“Not at all. The man took all the trouble. There wasn’t much.”
As he spoke, her eye caught a piano standing between the windows.
“Mummy’s piano! Why, I thought we agreed it should be stored?”
“It seemed to me you might as well have it down here. We can easily hire one for London.”
“Awfully nice of you,” murmured Helena. She opened it and stood with her hand on the keys, looking out into the park, as though she pursued some thought or memory of her own. It was a brilliant May morning, and the windows were open. Helena’s slim figure in a white dress, the reddish touch in her brown hair, the lovely rounding of her cheek and neck, were thrown sharply against a background of new leaf made by a giant beech tree just outside. Mrs. Friend looked at Lord Buntingford. The thought leaped into her mind–“How can he help making love to her himself?”–only to be immediately chidden. Buntingford was not looking at Helena but at his watch.
“Well, I must go and do some drivelling work before lunch. I have given Mrs. Friend _carte blanche_, Helena. Order what you like, and if Mrs. Mawson bothers you, send her to me. Geoffrey comes to-night, and we shall be seven to-morrow.”
He made for the door. Helena had turned suddenly at his last words, eye and cheek kindling.
“Hm–” she said, under her breath–“So he has sent the telegram.”
She left the window, and began to walk restlessly about the room, looking now at the books, now at the piano. Her face hardened, and she paid no attention to Mrs. Friend’s little comments of pleasure on the room and its contents. Presently indeed she cut brusquely across.
“I am just going down to the stables to see whether my horse has arrived. A friend of mine bought her for me in town–and she was to be here early this morning. I want, too, to see where they’re going to put her.”
“Mayn’t I come too?” said Mrs. Friend, puzzled by the sudden clouding of the girl’s beautiful looks.
“Oh, no–please don’t. You’ve got to see the housekeeper! I’ll get my hat and run down. I found out last night where the stables are. I shan’t be more than ten minutes or so.”
She hurried away, leaving Mrs. Friend once more a prey to anxieties. She recalled the threat of the night before. But no, _impossible_! After all the kindness and the forethought! She dismissed it from her mind.
The interview with the housekeeper was an ordeal to the gentle inexperienced woman. But her entire lack of any sort of pretension was in itself ingratiating; and her manner had the timid charm of her character. Mrs. Mawson, who might have bristled or sulked in stronger hands, in order to mark her distaste for the advent of a mistress in the house she had been long accustomed to rule, was soon melted by the docility of the little lady, and graciously consented to see her own plans approved _en bloc_, by one so frankly ignorant of how a country house party should be conducted. Then it was the turn of old Fenn; a more difficult matter, since he did genuinely want instructions, and Mrs. Friend had none to give him. But kind looks, and sympathetic murmurs, mingled with honest delight in the show of azaleas in the conservatory carried her through. Old Fenn too, instead of resenting her, adopted her. She went back to the house flushed with a little modest triumph.
Housewifely instincts revived in her. Her hands wanted to be doing. She had ventured to ask Fenn for some flowers, and would dare to arrange them herself if Mrs. Mawson would let her.
Then, as she re-entered the house, she came back at a bound to reality. “If I can’t keep Miss Pitstone out of mischief, I shan’t be here a month!” she thought pitifully; and how was it to be done?
She found Helena sitting demurely in the sitting-room, pretending to read a magazine, but really, or so it seemed to Mrs. Friend, keeping both eyes and ears open for events.
“I’m trying to get ready for Julian–” she said impatiently, throwing away her book. “He sent me his article in the _Market Place_, but it’s so stiff that I can’t make head or tail of it. I like to hear him talk–but he doesn’t write English.”
Mrs. Friend took up the magazine, and perceived a marked item in the table of contents–“A New Theory of Value.”
“What does it mean?” she asked.
“Oh, I wish I knew!” said Helena, with a little yawn. “And then he changes so. Last year he made me read Meredith–the novels, I mean. _One of Our Conquerors_, he vowed, was the finest thing ever written. He scoffed at me for liking _Diana_ and _Richard Feverel_ better, because they were easier. And _now_, nothing’s bad enough for Meredith’s ‘stilted nonsense’–‘characters without a spark of life in them’–‘horrible mannerisms’–you should hear him. Except the poems–ah, except the poems! He daren’t touch them. I say–do you know the ‘Hymn to Colour’?” The girl’s eager eyes questioned her companion. Her face in a moment was all softness and passion.
Mrs. Friend shook her head. The nature and deficiencies of her own education were becoming terribly plain to her with every hour in Helena’s company.
Helena sprang up, fetched the book, put Mrs. Friend forcibly into an arm-chair, and read aloud. Mrs. Friend listened with all her ears, and was at the end, like Faust, no wiser than before. What did it all mean? She groped, dazzled, among the Meredithian mists and splendours. But Helena read with a growing excitement, as though the flashing mysterious verse were part of her very being. When the last stanza was done, she flung herself fiercely down on a stool at Mrs. Friend’s feet, breathing fast:
“Look now where Colour, the soul’s bridegroom, makes The House of Heaven splendid for the Bride.”
She turned to look up at the little figure in the chair, half laughing, half passionate: “You do understand, don’t you?” Mrs. Friend again shook her head despairingly.
“It sounds wonderful–but I haven’t a notion what it means!” Helena laughed again, but without a touch of mockery.
“One has to be taught–coached–regularly coached. Julian coached me.”
“What is meant by Colour?” asked Mrs. Friend faintly.
“Colour is Passion, Beauty, Freedom!” said Helena, her cheek glowing. “It is just the opposite of dulness–and routine–and make-believe. It’s what makes life worth while. And it is the young who feel it–the young who hear it calling–the young who obey it! And then when they are old, they have it to remember. Now, do you understand?”
Lucy Friend did not answer. But involuntarily, two shining tears stood in her eyes. There was something extraordinarily moving in the girl’s ardour. She could hardly bear it. There came back to her momentary visions from her own quiet past–a country lane at evening where a man had put his arm round her and kissed her–her wedding-evening by the sea, when the sun went down, and all the ways were darkened, and the stars came out–and that telegram which put an end to everything, which she had scarcely had time to feel, because her mother was so ill, and wanted her every moment. Had she–even she–in her poor, drab, little life–had her moments of living Poetry, of transforming Colour, like others–without knowing it?
Helena watched her, as though in a quick, unspoken sympathy, her own storm of feeling subsiding.
“Do you know, Lucy, you look very nice indeed in that little black dress!” she said, in her soft, low voice, like the voice of an incantation, that she had used the night before. “You are the neatest, daintiest person!–not prim–but you make everything you wear refined. When I compare you with Cynthia Welwyn!”
She raised her shoulders scornfully. Lucy Friend, aghast at the outrageousness of the comparison, tried to silence her–but quite in vain. Helena ran on.
“Did you watch Cynthia last night? She was playing for Cousin Philip with all her might. Why doesn’t he marry her? She would suit his autocratic ideas very well. He is forty-four. She must be thirty-eight if she is a day. They have both got money–which Cynthia can’t do without, for she is horribly extravagant. But I wouldn’t give much for her chances. Cousin Philip is a tough proposition, as the American says. There is no getting at his real mind. All one knows is that it is a tyrannical mind!”
All softness had died from the girl’s face and sparkling eyes. She sat on the floor, her hands round her knees, defiance in every tense feature. Mrs. Friend was conscious of renewed alarm and astonishment, and at last found the nerve to express them.
“How can you call it tyrannical when he spends all this time and thought upon you!”
“The gilding of the cage,” said Helena stubbornly. “That is the way women have always been taken in. Men fling them scraps to keep them quiet. But as to the _real_ feast–liberty to discover the world for themselves, make their own experiments–choose and test their own friends–no, thank you! And what is life worth if it is only to be lived at somebody’s else’s dictation?”
“But you have only been here twenty-four hours–not so much! And you don’t know Lord Buntingford’s reasons–“
“Oh, yes, I do know!” said Helena, undisturbed–“more or less. I told you last night. They don’t matter to me. It’s the principle involved that matters. Am I free, or am I not free? Anyway, I’ve just sent that telegram.”
“To whom?” cried Mrs. Friend.
“To Lord Donald, of course, asking him to meet me at the Ritz next Wednesday. If you will be so good”–the brown head made her a ceremonial bow–“as to go up with me to town–we can go to my dressmaker’s together–I have got heaps to do there–then I can leave you somewhere for lunch–and pick you up again afterwards!”
“Of course, Miss Pitstone–Helena!–I can’t do anything of the sort, unless your guardian agrees.”
“Well, we shall see,” said Helena coolly, jumping up. “I mean to tell him after lunch. Don’t please worry. And good-bye till lunch. This time I am really going to look after my horse!”
A laugh, and a wave of the hand–she had disappeared. Mrs. Friend was left to reflect on the New Woman. Was it in truth the war that had produced her?–and if so, how and why? All that seemed probable was that in two or three weeks’ time, perhaps, she would be again appealing to the same agency that had sent her to Beechmark. She believed she was entitled to a month’s notice.
Poor Lord Buntingford! Her sympathies were hotly on his side, so far as she had any understanding of the situation into which she had been plunged with so little warning. Yet when Helena was actually there at her feet, she was hypnotized. The most inscrutable thing of all was, how she could ever have supposed herself capable of undertaking such a charge!
The two ladies were already lunching when Lord Buntingford appeared, bringing with him another neighbouring squire, come to consult him on certain local affairs. Sir Henry Bostock, one of those solid, grey-haired pillars of Church and State in which rural England abounds, was first dazzled by Miss Pitstone’s beauty, and then clearly scandalized by some of her conversation, and perhaps–or so Mrs. Friend imagined–by the rather astonishing “make-up” which disfigured lips and cheeks Nature had already done her best with.
He departed immediately after lunch. Lord Buntingford accompanied him to the front door, saw him mount his horse, and was returning to the library, when a white figure crossed his path.
“Cousin Philip, I want to speak to you.”
He looked up at once.
“All right, Helena. Will you come into the library?”
He ushered her in, shut the door behind her, and pushed forward an arm-chair.
“You’ll find that comfortable, I think?”
“Thank you, I’d rather stand. Cousin Philip, did you send that telegram this morning?”
“Certainly. I told you I should.”
“Then you won’t be surprised that I too sent mine.”
“I don’t understand what you mean?”
“When this morning you said there would be seven for dinner to-night, I of course realized that you meant to stick to what you had said about Lord Donald yesterday; and as I particularly want to see Lord Donald, I sent the new groom to the village this morning with a wire to him to say that I should be glad if he would arrange to give me luncheon at the Ritz next Wednesday. I have to go up to try a dress on.”
Lord Buntingford paused a moment, looking apparently at the cigarette with which his fingers were playing.
“You proposed, I imagine, that Mrs. Friend should go with you?”
“Oh, yes, to my dressmaker’s. Then I would arrange for her to go somewhere to lunch–Debenham’s, perhaps.”
“And it was your idea then to go alone–to meet Lord Donald?” He looked up.
“He would wait for me in the lounge at the Ritz. It’s quite simple!”
Philip Buntingford laughed–good-humouredly.
“Well, it is very kind of you to have told me so frankly, Helena–because now I shall prevent it. It is the last thing in the world that your mother would have wished, that you should be seen at the Ritz alone with Lord Donald. I therefore have her authority with me in asking you either to write or telegraph to him again to-night, giving up the plan. Better still if you would depute me to do it. It is really a very foolish plan–if I may say so.”
“Because–well, there are certain things a girl of nineteen can’t do without spoiling her chances in life–and one of them is to be seen about alone with a man like Lord Donald.”
“And again I ask–why?”
“I really can’t discuss his misdoings with you, Helena. Won’t you trust me in the matter? I thought I had made it plain that having been devoted to your mother, I was prepared to be equally devoted to you, and wished you to be as happy and free as possible.”
“That’s an appeal to sentiment,” said Helena, resolutely. “Of course I know it all sounds horrid. You’ve been as nice as possible; and anybody who didn’t sympathize with my views would think me a nasty, ungrateful toad. But I’m not going to be coaxed into giving them up, any more than I’m going to be bullied.”
Lord Buntingford surveyed her. The habitual slight pucker–as though of anxiety or doubt–in his brow was much in evidence. It might have meant the chronic effort of a short-sighted man to see. But the fine candid eyes were not short-sighted. The pucker meant something deeper.
“Of course I should like to understand what your views are,” he said at last, throwing away one cigarette, and lighting another.
Helena’s look kindled. She looked handsomer and more maenad-like than ever, as she stood leaning against Buntingford’s writing-table, her arms folded, one slim foot crossed over the other.