He looked at her, then quickly withdrew his eyes, as though they offended. Through his mind had run the sacred thought, "Her children will fill her life—and mine!"
"When am I to teach you Latin?" he said, laughing.
She raised her shoulders.
"I wouldn't learn it if I could do without it! But you Catholics are bred upon it."
"We are the children of the Church," he said gently. "And it is her tongue."
She made no answer, and he talked of something else immediately. As they crossed the little footbridge he drew her attention to the deep pool on the further side, above which was built the wooden platform, where Laura had held her May tryst with Mason.
"Did I ever tell you the story of my great-grandfather drowning in that pool?"
"What, the drinking and gambling gentleman?"
"Yes, poor wretch! He had half killed his wife, and ruined the property—so it was time. He was otter hunting—there is an otter hole still, half-way down that bank. Somehow or other he came to the top of the crag alone, probably not sober. The river was in flood; and his poor wife, sitting on one of those rock seats with her needlework and her books, heard the shouts of the huntsmen—helped to draw him out and to carry him home. Do you see that little beach?"—he pointed to a break in the rocky bank. "It was there—so tradition says—that he lay upon her knee, she wailing over him. And in three months she too was gone."
Laura turned away.
"I won't think of it," she said obstinately. "I will only think of her as she is in the picture."
On the little platform she paused, with her hand on the railing, the dark water eddying below her, the crag above her.
"I could—tell you something about this place," she said slowly. "Do you want to hear?"
She bent over the water. He stood beside her. The solitude of the spot, the deep shadow of the crag, gave love freedom.
He drew her to him.
She too whispered:
"It was here—I saw Hubert Mason—that night."
"Culprit! Repeat every word—and I will determine the penance."
"As if there had not been already too much! Oh! what a lecture you read me—and you have never apologised yet! Begin—begin—at once!"
He raised her hand and kissed it.
And with some difficulty—half laughing—she described the scene with Hubert, her rush home, her meeting with old Scarsbrook.
"I tell you," she insisted at the end, "there is good in that boy somewhere—there is!"
Helbeck said nothing.
"But you always saw the worst," she added, looking up.
"I am afraid I only saw what there was," he said dryly. "Dear, it gets cold, and that white frock is very thin."
They walked on. In truth, he could hardly bear that she should take Mason's name upon her lips at all. The thoughts and comments of ill-natured persons, of some of his own friends—the sort of misgiving that had found expression in the Bishop's talk with his sister—he was perfectly aware of them all, impossible as it would have been for Augustina or anyone else to say a word to him on the subject. The dignity no less than the passion of a strong man was deeply concerned. He repented and humbled himself every day for his own passing doubts; but his resolution only stiffened the more. There was no room, there should never be any room in Laura's future life, for any further contact with the Mason family.
And, indeed, the Mason family itself seemed to have arrived at very similar conclusions! All that Helbeck knew of them since the Froswick day might have been summed up in a few sentences. On the Sunday morning Mason, in a wild state, with wet clothes and bloodshot eyes, had presented himself at the Wilsons' cottage, asking for news of Miss Fountain. They told him that she was safely at home, and he departed. As far as Helbeck knew, he had spent the rest of the Sunday drinking heavily at Marsland. Since then Laura had received one insolent letter from him, reiterating his own passion for her, attacking Helbeck in the fiercest terms, and prophesying that she would soon be tired of her lover and her bargain. Laura had placed the letter in Helbeck's hands, and Helbeck had replied by a curt note through his solicitor, to the effect that if any further annoyance were offered to Miss Fountain he would know how to protect her.
Mrs. Mason also had written. Madwoman! She forbade her cousin to visit the farm again, or to hold any communication with Polly or herself. A girl, born of a decent stock, who was capable of such an act as marrying a Papist and idolater was not fit to cross the threshold of Christian people. Mrs. Mason left her to the mercy of her offended God.
* * * * *
And in this matter of her cousins Laura was not unwilling to be governed. It was as though she liked to feel the curb.
And to-night as they strolled homewards, hand locked in hand, all her secret reserves and suspicions dropped away—silenced or soothed. Her charming head drooped a little; her whole small self seemed to shrink towards him as though she felt the spell of that mere physical maturity and strength that moved beside her youth. Their walk was all sweetness; and both would have prolonged it but that Augustina had been left too long alone.
She was no longer in the garden, however, and they went in by the chapel entrance, seeking for her.
"Let me just get my letters," said Helbeck, and Laura followed him to his study.
The afternoon post lay upon his writing-table. He opened the first, read it, and handed it with a look of hesitation to Laura.
"Dear, Mr. Williams comes to-morrow. They have given him a fortnight's holiday. He has had a sharp attack of illness and depression, and wants change. Will you feel it too long?"
Involuntarily her look darkened. She put down the letter without reading it.
"Why—I want to see him! I—I shall make a study of him," she said with some constraint.
But by this time Helbeck was half through the contents of his next envelope. She heard an exclamation of disgust, and he threw down what he held with vehemence.
"One can trust nobody!" he said—"nobody!"
He began to pace the floor with angry energy, his hands thrust into his pockets. She—in astonishment—threw him questions which he hardly seemed to hear. Suddenly he paused.
"Dear Laura!—will you forgive me?—but after all I must sell that picture!"
"I hear to-day, for the first time, who is to be the real purchaser of that land, and why it is wanted. It is to be the site of a new Anglican church and vicarage. I have been tricked throughout—tricked—and deceived! But thank God it is not too late! The circumstances of this afternoon were providential. There is still time for me to write to Whinthorpe." He glanced at the clock. "And my lawyers may tear up the contract when they please!"
"And—that means—you will sell the Romney?" said Laura slowly.
"I must! Dear little one!"—he came to stoop over her—"I am most truly grieved. But I am bound to my orphans by all possible engagements—both of honour and conscience."
"Why is it so horrible that an Anglican church should be built on your land?" she said, slightly holding him away from her.
"Because I am responsible for the use of my land, as for any other talent. It shall not be used for the spread of heresy."
"Are there any Catholics near it?"
"Not that I know of. But it has been a fixed principle with me throughout my life"—he spoke with a firm and, as she thought, a haughty decision—"to give no help, direct or indirect, to a schismatical and rebellious church. I see now why there has been so much secrecy! My land is of vital importance to them. They apparently feel that the whole Anglican development of this new town may depend upon it. Let them feel it. They shall not have a foot—not an inch of what belongs to me!"
"Then they are to have no church," said Laura. She had grown quite pale.
"Not on my land," he said, with a violence that first amazed and then offended her. "Let them find sympathisers of their own. They have filched enough from us Catholics in the past."
And he resumed his rapid walk, his face darkened with an anger he vainly tried to curb. Never had she seen him so roused.
She too rose, trembling a little.
"But I love that picture!" she said. "I beg you not to sell it."
He stopped, in distress.
"Unfortunately, dear, I have promised the money. It must be found within six weeks—and I see no other way."
She thought that he spoke stiffly, and she resented the small effect of her appeal.
"And you won't bend a single prejudice to—to save such a family possession—though I care for it so much?"
He came up to her with outstretched hands.
"I have been trying to save it all these weeks! Nothing but such a cause as this could have stood in the way. It is not a prejudice, darling—believe me!—it belongs, for me at any rate, to Catholic obligation."
She took no notice of the hands. With her own she clung to the table behind her.
"Why do you give so much to the Sisters? It is not right! They give a very bad education!"
He stared at her. How pale she had grown—and this half-stifled voice!——
"I think we must be the judges of that," he said, dropping his hands. "We teach what we hold most important."
"Nobody like Sister Angela ought to teach!" she cried—"you give money to bring pupils to Sister Angela. And she is not well trained. I never heard anyone talk so ignorantly as she does to Augustina. And the children learn nothing, of course—everyone says so."
"And you are so eager to listen to them?" he said, with sparkling eyes. Then he controlled himself.
"But that is not the point. I humbly admit our teaching is not nearly so good as it might be if we had larger funds to spend upon it. But the point is that I have promised the money, and that a number of arrangements—fresh teachers among them—are already dependent on it. Dearest, won't you recognise my difficulties, and—and help me through them?"
"You make them yourself," she said, drawing back. "There would be none if you did not—hate—your fellow-citizens."
"I hate no one—but I cannot aid and abet the English Church. That is impossible to me. Laura!" He observed her carefully. "I don't understand. Why do you say these things?—why does it hurt you so much?"
"Oh! let me go," she cried, flinging his hand away from her. "Let me go!"
And before he could stop her, she had fled to the door, and disappeared.
* * * * *
Helbeck and Augustina ate a lonely dinner.
"You must have taken Laura too far this afternoon, Alan," said Mrs. Fountain fretfully. "She says she is too tired to come down again to-night—so very unlike her!"
"She did not complain—but it may have been a long round," said her companion.
* * * * *
After dinner, Helbeck took his pipe into the garden, and walked for long up and down the bowling-green, torn with solitary thought. He had put up his pipe, and was beginning drearily to feel the necessity of going back to his study, and applying himself—if he could force his will so far—to some official business that lay waiting for him there, when a light noise on the gravel caught his ear.
His heart leapt.
She stopped—a white wraith in the light mist that filled the garden. He went up to her overwhelmed with the joy of her coming—accusing himself of a hundred faults.
She was too miserable to resist him. The storm of feeling through which she had passed had exhausted her wholly; and the pining for his step and voice had become an anguish driving her to him.
"I told you to make me afraid!" she said mournfully, as she found herself once more upon his breast—"but you can't! There is something in me that fears nothing—not even the breaking of both our hearts."
A week later the Jesuit scholastic Edward Williams arrived at Bannisdale.
In Laura his coming roused a curiosity half angry, half feminine, by which Helbeck was alternately harassed and amused. She never tired of asking questions about the Jesuits—their training, their rules, their occupations. She could not remember that she had ever seen one till she made acquaintance with Father Leadham. They were alternately a mystery and a repulsion to her.
Helbeck smilingly told her that she was no worse than the mass of English people. "They have set up their bogey and they like it." She would be surprised to find how simple was the Jesuit secret.
"What is it?—in two words?" she asked him.
"Obedience—training. So little!" he laughed at her, and took her hand tenderly.
She inquired if Mr. Williams were yet "a full Jesuit."
"Oh dear no! He has taken his first vows. Now he has three years' philosophy, then four years' theology. After that they will make him teach somewhere. Then he will take orders—go through a third year's noviceship—get a doctor's degree, if he can—and after that, perhaps, he will be a professed 'Father.' It isn't done just by wishing for it, you see."
The spirit of opposition reared its head. She coloured, laughed—and half without intending it repeated some of the caustic things she had heard occasionally from her father or his friends as to the learning of Jesuits. Helbeck, under his lover's sweetness, showed a certain restlessness. He hardly let himself think the thought that Stephen Fountain had been quoted to him very often of late; but it was there.
"I am no judge," he said at last. "I am not learned. I dare say you will find Williams ignorant enough. But he was a clever boy—besides his art."
"And they have made him give up his art?"
"For a time—yes—perhaps altogether. Of course it has been his great renunciation. His superiors thought it necessary to cut him off from it entirely. And no doubt during the novitiate he suffered a great deal. It has been like any other starved faculty."
The girl's instincts rose in revolt. She cried out against such waste, such mutilation. The Catholic tried to appease her; but in another language. He bade her remember the Jesuit motto. "A Jesuit is like any other soldier—he puts himself under orders for a purpose."
"And God is to be glorified by the crashing out of all He took the trouble to give you!"
"You must take the means to the end," said Helbeck steadily. "The Jesuit must yield his will—otherwise the Society need not exist. In Williams's case, so long as he had a fascinating and absorbing pursuit, how could he give himself up to his superiors? Besides"—his grave face stiffened—"in his case there were peculiar difficulties. His art had become a temptation. He wished to protect himself from it."
Laura's curiosity was roused; but Helbeck gently put her questions aside, and at last she said in a flash of something like passion that she wondered which the young man had felt most—the trampling on his art, or the forsaking his mother.
Helbeck looked at her with sudden animation.
"I knew you had heard that story. Dear—he did not forsake his mother! He meant to go—the Fathers had given him leave. But there was a mistake, a miscalculation—and he arrived too late."
Laura's beautiful eyes threw lightnings.
"A miscalculation!" she cried scornfully, her quick breath beating—"That puts it in a nutshell."
Helbeck looked at her sadly.
"So you are going to be very unkind to him?"
"No. I shall watch him."
"Look into him rather! Try and make out his spring. I will help you."
She protested that there was nothing she less desired. She had been reading some Jesuit biographies from Augustina's room, and they had made her feel that the only thing to be done with such people was to keep them at a distance.
Helbeck sighed and gave up the conversation. Then in a moment, compunctions and softenings began to creep over the girl's face. A small hand made its way to his.
"There is Wilson in the garden—shall we go and talk to him?"
They were in Helbeck's study—where Augustina had left them alone for a little after luncheon.
Helbeck put down his pipe with alacrity. Laura ran for her hat and cape, and they went out together.
A number of small improvements both inside and outside the house had been recently inaugurated to please the coming bride. Already Helbeck realised—and not without a secret chafing—the restraints that would soon be laid upon the almsgiving of Bannisdale. A man who marries, who may have children, can no longer deal with his money as he pleases. Meanwhile he found his reward in Laura's half-reluctant pleasure. She was at once full of eagerness and full of a proud shyness. No bride less grasping or more sensitive could have been imagined. She loved the old house and would fain repair its hurts. But her wild nature, at the moment, asked, in this at least, to be commanded, not to command. To be the managing wife of an obedient husband was the last thing that her imagination coveted. So that when any change in the garden, any repair in the house, was in progress, she would hover round Helbeck, half cold, half eager, now only showing a fraction of her mind, and now flashing out into a word or look that for Helbeck turned the whole business into pure joy. Day by day, indeed, amid all jars and misgivings, the once solitary master of Bannisdale was becoming better acquainted with that mere pleasantness of a woman's company which is not passion, but its best friend. In the case of those women whom nature marks for love, it is a company full of incident, full of surprise. Certainly Helbeck found it so.
A week or more had now passed since the quarrel over the picture. Not a word upon the subject had passed between them since. As for Laura, she took pains not to look at the picture—to forget its existence. It was as though she felt some hidden link between herself and it—as though some superstitious feeling attached to it in her mind.
Meanwhile a number of new understandings were developing in Helbeck. His own nature was simple and concentrated, with little introspective power of the modern kind—even through all the passions and subtleties of his religion. Nevertheless his lover's sense revealed to him a good deal of what was going on in the semi-darkness of Laura's feelings and ideas. He divined this jealousy of his religious life that had taken possession of her since their return from the sea. He felt by sympathy that obscure pain of separation that tormented her. What was he to do?—what could he do?
The change astonished him, for while they were at the sea, it seemed to him that she had accepted the situation with a remarkable resolution. But it also set him on new trains of thought; it roused in him a secret excitement, a vague hope. If her earlier mood had persisted; if amid the joys of their love she had continued to put the whole religious matter away from her, as many a girl with her training might and would have done—then indeed he must have resigned himself to a life-long difference and silence between them on these vital things.
But, since she suffered—since she felt the need of that more intimate, more exquisite link—? Since she could not let it alone, but must needs wound herself and him——?
Instinctively he felt the weakness of her intellectual defence. Once or twice he let himself imagine the capture of her little struggling soul, the break-down of her childish resistance, and felt the flooding of a joy, at once mystical and very human.
But that natural chivalry and deep self-distrust he had once expressed to Father Leadham kept him in check; made him very slow and scrupulous. Towards his Catholic friends indeed he stood all along in defence of Laura, an attitude which only made him more sensitive and more vulnerable in other directions.
Meanwhile his own struggles and discomforts were not few. No strong man of Helbeck's type endures so complete an overthrow at the hands of impulse and circumstance as he had done, without going afterwards through a period of painful readjustment. The new image of himself that he saw reflected in the astonished eyes of his Catholic companions worked in him a number of fresh forms of self-torment. His loyalty to Laura, indeed, and to his own passion was complete. Secretly, he had come to believe, with all the obstinate ardor of the religious mind, that the train of events which had first brought Laura into his life, and had then overcome his own resistance to her spell, represented, not temptation, but a Divine volition concerning him. No one so impoverished and forlorn as she in the matters of the soul! But not of her own doing. Was she responsible for her father? In the mere fact that she had so incredibly come to love him—he being what he was—there was surely a significance which the Catholic was free to interpret in the Catholic sense. So that, where others saw defection from a high ideal and danger to his own Catholic position, he, with hidden passion, and very few words of explanation even to his director, Father Leadham, felt the drawing of a heavenly force, the promise of an ultimate and joyful issue.
At the same time, the sadness of his Catholic friends should find no other pretext. Upon his fidelity now and here, not only his own eternal fate, but Laura's, might depend. Devotion to the crucified Lord and His Mother, obedience to His Church, imitation of His saints, charity to His poor—these are the means by which the Catholic draws down the grace, the condescension that he seeks. He felt his own life offered for hers. So that the more he loved her, the more set, the more rigid became all the habits and purposes of religion. Again and again he was tempted to soften them—to spend time with her that he had been accustomed to give to Catholic practice—to slacken or modify the harshness of that life of self-renouncement, solitude, unpopularity, to which he had vowed himself for years—to conceal from her the more startling and difficult of his convictions. But he crushed the temptation, guided, inflamed by that profound idea of a substituted life and a vicarious obedience which has been among the root forces of Christianity.
* * * * *
One evening, as she was dressing for the very simple meal that only Mrs. Denton dignified by the name of "dinner," Laura reminded herself that Mr. Williams must have arrived, and that she would probably find him in the hall on her descent.
It happened to be the moment for donning a new dress, which she had ordered from a local artist. She had no mind to exhibit it to the Jesuit. On the other hand the temptation to show it to Helbeck was irresistible. She put it on.
When she entered the hall, her feelings of dislike to Mr. Williams, and her pride in her new dress, had both combined to give her colour and radiance. Helbeck saw her come in with a start of pleasure. Augustina fidgeted uncomfortably. She thought that Laura might have dressed in something more quiet and retiring to meet a guest who was a religious, almost a priest.
Helbeck introduced the newcomer. Laura's quick eyes travelled over the young man who bowed to her with a cold awkwardness. She turned aside and seated herself in a corner of the settle, whither Helbeck came to bend over her.
"What have you been doing to yourself?" he asked her in a low voice. At the moment of her entrance she had thought him pale and fatigued. He had been half over the country that day on Catholic business. But now his deep-set eyes shone again. He had thrown off the load.
"Experimenting with a Whinthorpe dressmaker," she said; "do you approve?"
Her smile, her brilliance in her pretty dress, intoxicated him. He murmured some lover's words under his breath. She flushed a little deeper, then exerted herself to keep him by her. Till supper was announced they had not a word or look for anyone but each other. The young "scholastic" talked ceremoniously to Augustina.
"Who talks of Jesuit tyranny now?" said Helbeck, laughing, as he and Laura led the way to the dining-room. "If it is not too much for him, Williams has leave to finish some of his work in the chapel while he is here. But he looks very ill—don't you think so?"
She understood the implied appeal to her sympathy.
"He is extraordinarily handsome," she said, with decision.
At table, however, she came to terms more exactly with her impression. The face of the young Jesuit was indeed, in some ways, singularly handsome. The round, dark eyes, the features delicate without weakness, the high brow narrowed by the thick and curly hair that overhung it, the small chin and curving mouth, kept still something of the look and the bloom of the child—a look that was only intensified by the strange force of expression that was added to the face whenever the lids so constantly dropped over the eyes were raised. For one saw in it a mingling at once of sharp observation and of distrust; it seemed to spring from some fiery source of personality, which at the very moment it revealed itself, yet warned the spectator back, and stood, half proudly, half sullenly, on the defensive. Such a look one may often see in the eyes of a poetic and morbid child.
But the whole aspect was neither delicate nor poetic. For the beauty of the head was curiously and unexpectedly contradicted by the clumsiness of the frame below it. "Brother" Williams might have the head of a poet; he had the form and movements, the large feet and shambling gait, of the peasant. And Laura, scanning him with some closeness, noticed with distaste a good many signs of personal slovenliness and ill-breeding. His hands were not as clean as they might have been; his clerical coat badly wanted a brushing.
His talk to Augustina could hardly have been more formal. In speaking to ladies he seldom raised his eyes; and as far as she herself was concerned Laura was certain, before half an hour was over, that he meant to address her and to be addressed by her, as little as possible.
Towards Helbeck the visitor's manner was more natural and more attractive. It was a manner of affection, and great deference; but even here the occasional bursts of conversation into which the Squire drew his guest were constantly interrupted by fits of silence or absence on the part of the scholastic.
Perhaps the subject on which they talked most easily was that of Jesuit Missions—especially of certain West African stations. Helbeck had some old friends there; and Laura thought she detected that the young scholastic had himself missionary ambitions.
Augustina too joined in with eagerness; Laura fell silent.
But she watched Helbeck, she listened to Helbeck throughout. How full his mind and heart were of matters, persons, causes, that must for ever represent a sealed world to her! The eagerness, the knowledge with which he discussed them, roused in her that jealous, half-desolate sense that was becoming an habitual tone of mind.
And some things offended her taste. Helbeck showed most animation, and the young Jesuit most response, whenever it was a question not so much of Catholic triumphs, as of Protestant rebuffs. The follies, mistakes, and defeats of Anglican missions in particular—Helbeck's memory was stored with them. By his own confession he had made a Jesuit friend departing for the mission, promise to tell him any funny or discreditable tales that could be gathered as to their Anglican rivals in the same region. And while he repeated them for Williams's amusement, he laughed immoderately—he who laughed so seldom. The Jesuit too was convulsed—threw off all restraint for the first time.
The girl flushed brightly, and began to play with Bruno. Years ago she remembered hearing her father say approvingly of Helbeck's manner and bearing that they were those "of a man of rank, though not of a man of fashion;" and it was hardly possible to say how much of Helbeck's first effect on her imagination had been produced by that proud unworldliness, that gently, cold courtesy in which he was commonly wrapped. These silly pointless stories that he had been telling with such relish disturbed and repelled her. They revealed a new element in his character, something small and ugly, that was like the speck in a fine fruit, or, rather, like the disclosure of an angry sore beneath an outward health and strength.
She recalled the incident of the land, and that cold isolation in which Helbeck held himself towards his Protestant neighbours—the passionate animosity with which he would sometimes speak of their charities or their pietisms, the contempt he had for almost all their ideals, national or social. Again and again, in the early days at Bannisdale, it had ruffled or provoked her.
Helbeck soon perceived that she was jarred. When she called to Bruno he checked his flow of anecdote, and said to her in a lower voice:
"You think us uncharitable?"
She looked up—but rather at the Jesuit than at Helbeck.
"No—only it is not amusing! If Augustina or I could speak for the other side—that would be more fun!"
"Laura!" cried Augustina, scandalised.
"Oh, I know you wouldn't, if you could," said the girl gayly. "And I can't. So there it is. One can't stop you, I suppose!"
She threw back her bright head and turned to Helbeck. The action was pretty and coquettish; but there was a touch of fever in it, nevertheless, which did not escape the stranger sitting opposite to her. Brother Williams raised his down-dropped lids an instant. Those brilliant eyes of his took in the girl's beauty and the change in Helbeck's countenance.
"You shall stop what you like," said Helbeck. A mute conversation seemed to pass between him and Miss Fountain; then the Squire turned to his sister, and asked her cheerfully as to the merits of a new pony that she and Laura had been trying that afternoon.
* * * * *
After dinner Helbeck, much troubled by the pinched features and pale cheeks of his guest, descended himself to the cellar in search of a particular Burgundy laid down by his father and reputed to possess a rare medicinal force.
Mr. Williams was left standing before the hearth, and the famous carved mantelpiece put up by the martyr of 1596. As soon as Helbeck was gone he looked carefully—furtively—round the room. It was the look of the peasant appraising a world not his.
A noise made by the wind at one of the old windows disturbed him. He looked up and was caught by a photograph that had been propped against one of the vases of the mantelpiece. It was a picture—recently taken—of Miss Fountain sitting on the settle in the hall with the dogs beside her. And it rendered the half-mocking animation of her small face with a peculiar fidelity.
The young man was conscious of a strong movement of repulsion. Mr. Helbeck's engagement had sent a thrill of pain through a large section of the Catholic world; and the Jesuit had already divined a hostile force in the small and brilliant creature whose eyes had scanned him so coldly as she sat beside the Squire. He fell into a reverie, and took one or two turns up and down the room.
"Shall I?" he said to himself in an excitement that was half vanity, half religion.
* * * * *
Half an hour later Laura was in the oriel window of the drawing-room, looking out through the open casement at the rising of a golden moon above the fell. Her mind was full of confusion.
"Is he never to be free to say what he thinks and feels in his own house?" she asked herself passionately. "Or am I to sit by and see him sink to the level of these bigots?"
Augustina was upstairs, and Laura, absorbed in her own thoughts and the night loveliness of the garden, did not hear Helbeck and Mr. Williams enter the room, which was as usual but dimly lighted. Suddenly she caught the words:
"So you still keep her? That's good! One could not imagine this room without her."
The voice was the voice of the Jesuit, but in a new tone—more eager, more sincere. What were they talking of?—the picture? And she, Laura, of course was hidden from them by the heavy curtain half drawn across the oriel. She could not help waiting for Helbeck's reply.
"Ah!—you remember how she was threatened even when you first began to come here! I have clung to her, of course—there has always been a strong feeling about her in the family. Last week I thought again that she must go. But—well! it is too soon to speak—I still have some hopes—-I have been straining every nerve. You know, however, that we must begin our new buildings at the orphanage in six weeks—and that I must have the money?"
He spoke with his usual simplicity. Laura dropped her head upon the window-sill, and the tears rushed into her eyes.
"I know—we all know—what you have done and sacrificed for the faith," said the younger man with emotion.
"You will not venture to make a merit of it," said Helbeck gravely. "For we serve the same ends—only you perceive them more clearly—and follow them more persistently than I."
"I have stronger aids—and shall have to answer for more!" said Williams, in a low voice. "And I owe it all to you—my friend and rescuer."
"You use a great deal too strong language," said Helbeck, smiling.
Williams threw him an uncertain look. The colour mounted in the young man's sickly cheek. He approached the Squire.
"Mr. Helbeck—I know from something a common friend told me—that you think—that you have said to others—that my conversion was not your doing. You are mistaken. I should like to tell you the truth. May I?"
Helbeck looked uncomfortable, but was not ready enough to stave off the impending confidence. Williams fixed him with eyes now fully lifted, and piercingly bright.
"You said little—that is quite true. But it was what you did, what I saw as I worked here beside you week after week that conquered me. Do you remember once rebuking me in anger because I had made some mistake in the chapel work? You were very angry—and I was cut to the heart. That very night you came to me, as I was still working, and asked my pardon—you! Mr. Helbeck of Bannisdale, and I, a boy of sixteen, the son of the wheelwright who mended your farm carts. You made me kneel down beside you on the steps of the sanctuary—and we said the Confiteor together. Don't say you forget it!"
Helbeck hesitated, then spoke with evident unwillingness.
"You make a great deal of nothing, my dear Edward. I had treated you to one of the Helbeck rages, I suppose—and had the grace to be ashamed of myself."
"It made me a Catholic," said the other emphatically, "so I naturally dwell upon it. Next day I stole a 'Garden of the Soul' and a book of meditations from your study. Then, on the pretext of the work, I used to make you tell me or read me the stories of the saints—later, I often used to follow you in the morning when you went to Mass. I watched you day by day, till the sense of something supernatural possessed me. Then you noticed my coming to Mass—you asked Father Bowles to speak to me—you seemed to shrink—or I thought so—from speaking yourself. But it was not Father Bowles—it was not my first teachers at St. Aloysius it was you—who brought me to the faith!"
"Well, if so, I thank God. But I think your humility——"
"One moment," said the Jesuit hurriedly. "There is something on my mind to say to you—if I might be allowed to say it—if the gratitude, the strong and filial gratitude, which I feel towards you—for that, and much, much else," his voice shook, "might be my excuse——"
Helbeck was silent. Laura to her dismay heard the sound of steps. Mr. Williams had walked to the open door of the drawing-room and closed it. What was she to do? Indecision—a wilful passion of curiosity—held her where she was.
It was some moments, however, before the conversation was resumed. At last the young man said in a tone of strong agitation:
"You may blame me—my superiors may blame me. I have no leave—no commission whatever. The impulse to speak came to me when I was waiting for you in the dining-room just now. I can only plead your own goodness to me—and—the fact that I have remembered you before the Blessed Sacrament for these eight years.... It was an impression at meditation that I want to tell you of—an impression so strong that I have never since been able to escape from it—it haunts me perpetually. I was in our chapel at St. Aloysius. The subject of meditation was St. John vii. 36, 'Every man went unto his own house,' followed immediately by the first words of the eighth chapter, 'and Jesus went unto Mount Olivet.' ... I endeavoured strictly to obey the advice of St. Ignatius. I placed myself at the feet of our Lord. I went through the Preludes. Then I began on the meditation. I saw the multitude returning to their homes and their amusements—while our Lord went alone to the Mount of Olives. It was evening. The path seemed to me steep and weary—and He was bent with fatigue. At first He was all alone—darkness hung over the hill and the olive gardens. Then, suddenly, I became aware of forms that followed Him, at a long distance—saints, virgins, martyrs, confessors. They swept along in silence. I could just see them as a dim majestic crowd. Presently, a form detached itself from the crowd—to my amazement, I saw you distinctly—there seemed to be a special light upon your face. And the rest appeared to fall back. Soon I only saw the Form toiling in front, and you following. Then at the brow of the hill the Lord turned—and you, who were half-way up the last steep, paused also. The Lord beckoned to you. His Divine face was full of sweetness and encouragement—and you made a spring towards Him. Then something happened—something horrible—but I could hardly see what. But a figure seemed to snatch at you from behind—you stumbled—then you fell headlong. A black cloud fell from the sky—and covered you. I heard a wailing cry—I saw the Lord's face darkened—and immediately afterwards the train of saints swept past me once more, with bent heads, beating their breasts. I cannot describe the extraordinary vividness of it! The succession of thoughts and images never paused; and when I woke, or seemed to wake, I found myself bathed in sweat and nearly fainting."
There was a dead silence.
The scholastic began again, in still more rapid and troubled tones, to excuse himself. Mr. Helbeck might well think it presumption on his part to have repeated such a thing. He could only plead a strange pressure on his conscience—a sense of obligation. The fact was probably nothing—meant nothing. But if calamity came—if it meant calamity—and he had not delivered his message—would there not have been a burden on his soul?
Suddenly there was a sound. The handle of the drawing-room turned.
"Why, you are dark in here!" said Augustina. "What a wretched light that lamp gives!"
At the same moment the heavy curtain over the oriel window was drawn to one side, and a light figure entered the room.
The Jesuit made a step backwards. "Laura!" cried Helbeck in bewilderment. "Where have you come from?"
"I was in the window watching the moon rise. Didn't you know?"
She walked up to him, and without hesitation she did what she had never yet done before a spectator: she slipped her little hand into his. He looked down upon her, rather pale, his lips moving. Then withdrawing his hand, he quietly and proudly put his arm round her. She accepted the movement with equal pride, and without a word.
Augustina looked at them with discomfort—coughed, fumbled with her spectacles, and began to hunt for her knitting. The Jesuit, whiter and sicklier than before, murmured that he would go and rest after his journey, and with eyes steadily cast down he walked away.
"I don't wonder!" thought Augustina, in an inward heat; "they really are too demonstrative!"
That night for the first time since her arrival at Bannisdale, Laura, instead of saying good-night as soon as the clock reached a quarter to ten, quietly walked beside Augustina to the chapel.
She knelt at some distance from Helbeck. But when the prayers, which were read by Mr. Williams, were over, and the tiny congregation was leaving the chapel, she felt herself drawn back. Helbeck did not speak, but in the darkness of the corridor he raised her hands and held them long against his lips. She quickly escaped from him, and without another word to anyone she was gone.
But an hour or two later, as she lay wakeful in her room above the study, she still heard the sound of continuous voices from below.
Helbeck and the scholastic!—plunged once more in that common stock of recollections and interests in which she had no part, linked and reconciled through all difference by that Catholic freemasonry of which she knew nothing. The impertinent zeal of the evening—the young man's ill manners and hypocrisies—would be soon forgiven. In some ways Mr. Helbeck was more Jesuit than the Jesuits. He would not only excuse the audacity—was she quite sure that in his inmost heart he would not shrink before the warning?
"What chance have I?" she cried, in a sudden despair; and she wept long and miserably, oppressed by new terrors, new glimpses, as it were, of some hard or chilling reality that lay waiting for her in the dim corridors of life.
* * * * *
Next morning after breakfast, Helbeck and Mr. Williams disappeared. A light scaffolding had been placed in the chapel. Work was to begin.
Laura put on her hat, took a basket, and went into the garden to gather fresh flowers for the house. Along the edges of the bowling-green stood rows of sunflowers, a golden show against the deep bronze of the thick beech hedges that enclosed the ground. Laura was trying, without much success, to reach some of the top blossoms of a tall plant when Helbeck came upon her.
"Be as independent as you please," he said laughing, "but you will never be able to gather sunflowers without me!"
In a moment her basket was filled. He looked down upon her.
"You should live here—in the bowling-green. It frames you—your white hat—your grey dress. Laura!"—his voice leapt—"do I do enough to make you happy?"
She flushed—turned her little face, and smiled at him—but rather sadly, rather pensively. Then she examined him in her turn. He looked jaded and tired. From want of sleep?—or merely from the daily fatigue of that long walk, foodless, to Whinthorpe for early Mass? That morning, as usual, by seven o'clock she had seen him crossing the park. A cheerless rain was falling from a grey sky. But she had never yet known him stopped by weather.
There was a quick association of ideas—and she said abruptly:
"Why did Mr. Williams say all that to you last night, do you suppose?"
Helbeck's countenance changed. He sauntered on beside her, his hands in his pockets, frowning. But he did not reply, and she became impatient.
"I have been reading a French story this morning," she said quickly. "There is a character in it—a priest. The author says of him that he had 'une imagination faussee et troublee.'" She paused, then added with great vivacity—"I thought it applied to someone else—don't you?"
The fold in Helbeck's forehead deepened a little.
"Have you judged him already? I don't know—I can't take Williams, you see, quite as you take him. To me he is still the strange gifted boy I taught to draw—whom I had to protect from his brutal father. He has chosen the higher life, and will soon be a priest. He is therefore my superior. But at the same time I think I understand him and his character. I understand the kind of impulse—the impetuosity—that made him do and say what he did last night."
"It was our engagement, of course, that he meant—by your fall—the black cloud that covered you?"
The impetuous directness was all Laura; so was the sensitive change in eye and lip. But Helbeck neither wavered, nor caressed her. He had a better instinct. He looked at her with a penetrating glance.
"I don't think he quite knew what he meant. And you? Now I will carry the war into the enemy's country! Were you quite kind—quite right in doing what you did last night? Foolish or no, he was speaking in a very intimate way—of things that he felt deeply. It must have given him great pain to be overheard."
Her breath fluttered.
"It was quite an accident that I was there. But how could I help listening? I must know—I ought to know—what your Catholic friends think—what they say of me to you!"
She was conscious of a childish petulance. But it was as though she could not help herself.
"I wish you had not listened," he said, with gentle steadiness. "Won't you trust those things to me?"
"What power have I beside theirs?" she said, turning away her head. He saw the trembling of the soft throat, and bent over her.
"I only ask you, for both our sakes, not to test it too far!"
And taking her hand by force, he crushed it passionately in his own.
But she was only half appeased. Her mind, indeed, was in that miserable state when love finds its only pleasure in self-torment.
With a secret change of ground she asked him how he was going to spend the day. He answered, reluctantly, that there was a Diocesan Committee that would take the afternoon, and that the morning must be largely given to the preparation of papers.
"But you will come and look in upon me?—you will help me through?"
She raised her shoulders resentfully.
"And you have been, to Whinthorpe already!—Why do you go to Mass every morning?" she asked, looking up. "I know very few Catholics do. I wish you'd tell me."
He looked embarrassed.
"It has been my custom for a long time," he said at last.
Her look of pain checked him. He observed her rather sadly and silently for a moment, then said:
"I will tell you, dear, of course, if you want to know. It is one of the obligations of the Third Order of St. Francis, to which I belong."
"What does that mean?"
He shortly explained. She cross-examined. He was forced to describe to her in detail all the main constitutions of the Third Order; its obligations as to fasting, attendance at Mass, and at the special meetings of the fraternity; its prescriptions of a rigid simplicity in life and dress; its prohibition of theatre-going.
She stood amazed. All her old notions of Catholics as gay people, who practised a free Sunday and allowed you to enjoy yourself, had been long overthrown by the Catholicism of Bannisdale. But this—this might be Daffady's Methodism!
"So that is why you would not take us to Whinthorpe the other day to see that London company?"
"It was an unsuitable play," he said hastily. "Theatres are not wholly forbidden us; but the exceptions must be few, and the plays such as a Catholic can see without harm to his conscience."
"But I love acting!" she cried, almost with a sense of suffocation. "Whenever I could, I got papa to take me to the play. I shall always want to go."
"There will be nothing to prevent you."
"So that anything is good enough for those who are not tertiaries!" she cried, confronting him.
Her cheeks burned. Had there been any touch of spiritual arrogance in his tone?
"I think I shall not answer that," he said, after a pause.
They walked on—she blindly holding herself as far as possible from him; he, with the mingled ardour and maladroitness of his character, longing and not quite venturing to cut the whole coil, and silence all this mood in her, by some masterfulness of love.
Suddenly she paused—she stepped to him—she laid her fingers on his arms—bright tears shone in her eyes.
"You can't—you can't belong to that—when we are married?"
"To the Third Order? But, dear!—there is nothing in it that conflicts with married life! It was devised specially for persons living in the world. You would not have me give up what has been my help and salvation for ten years?"
He spoke with great emotion. She trembled and hid her face against him.
"Oh! I could not bear it!" she said. "Can't you realise how it would divide us? I should feel outside—a pariah. As it is, I seem to have nothing to do with half your life—there is a shut door between me and it."
A flash of natural, of wholly irresistible feeling passed through him. He stooped and kissed her hair.
"Open the door and come in!" he said in a whisper that seemed to rise from his inmost soul.
She shook her head. They were both silent. The deep shade of the "wilderness" trees closed them in. There was a gentle melancholy in the autumn morning. The first leaves were dropping on the cobwebbed grass; and the clouds were low upon the fells.
Presently Laura raised herself. "Promise me you will never press me," she said passionately; "don't send anyone to me."
One afternoon towards the end of Mr. Williams's visit, Laura was walking along a high field-path that overlooked the whole valley of the Flent. Helbeck had gone to meet the Bishop on some urgent business; but the name of his Catholic affairs was legion.
The weather, after long days of golden mist, of veiled and stealing lights on stream and fell, had turned to rain and tumult. This afternoon, indeed, the rain had made a sullen pause. It had drawn back for an hour or two from the drenched valleys, even from the high peaks that stood violet-black against a space of rainy light. Yet still the sky was full of anger. The clouds, dark and jagged, rushed across the marsh lands before the northwest wind. And the colour of everything—of the moss, the peaks, the nearer crags and fields—was superbly rich and violent. The soaked woods of the park from which she had just emerged were almost black, and from their heart Laura could hear the river's swollen voice pursuing her as she walked.
There was something in the afternoon that reminded her of her earliest impressions of Bannisdale and its fell country—of those rainy March winds that were blowing about her when she first alighted at the foot of the old tower.
The association made her tremble and catch her breath. It was not all joy—oh! far from it! The sweet common rapture of common love was not hers. Instinctively she felt something in her own lot akin to the wilder and more tragic aspects of this mountain land, to which she had turned from the beginning with a daughter's yearning.
Yet the tragedy, if tragedy there were, was all from within, not from without. Augustina—though Laura guessed her mind well enough—complained no more. The marriage was fixed for November; the dispensation from the Bishop had been obtained. No lover could be more ardent, more tender, than Helbeck.
Why then this weariness—this overwhelming melancholy that seized her in all her solitary moments? Her nature had lost its buoyancy, its old gift for happiness.
The truth was that her will was tired out. Her whole soul thirsted to submit, and yet could not submit. Was it the mere spell of Catholic order and discipline, working upon her own restless and ill-ordered nature? It had so worked, indeed, from the beginning. She could recall—with trembling—many a strange moment in Helbeck's presence, or in the chapel, when she had seemed to feel her whole self breaking up, dissolving in the grip of a power that was at once her foe and the bearer of infinite seduction. But always the will, the self, had won the victory, had delivered a final "No!" into which had rushed the whole energy of her being.
And now—if it were only possible to crush back that "No"—to beat down this resistance which, like an alien garrison, defended, as it were, a town that hated it; if she could only turn and knock—knock humbly—at that closed door in her lover's life and heart. One touch!—one step!
Just as Helbeck could hardly trust himself to think of the joy of conquest, so she shrank bewildered before the fancied bliss of yielding.
To what awful or tender things would it admit her! That ebb and flow of mystical emotion she dimly saw in Helbeck, a life within a life;—all that is most intimate and touching in the struggle of the soul—all that strains and pierces the heart—the world to which these belong rose before her, secret, mysterious, "a city not made with hands," now drawing, now repelling. Voices came from it to her that penetrated all the passion and the immaturity of her nature.
The mere imagination of what it would mean to surrender herself to Helbeck's teaching in these strange and moving things—what it would be to approach them through the sweetness, the chiding, the training of his love—could shake and unnerve her.
What stood in the way?
Simply a revolt and repulsion that seemed to be more than and outside herself—something independent and unconquerable, of which she was the mere instrument.
Had the differences between her and Helbeck been differences of opinion, they would have melted like morning dew. But they went far deeper. Helbeck, indeed, was in his full maturity. He had been trained by Jesuit teachers; he had lived and thought; his mind had a framework. Had he ever felt a difficulty, he would have been ready, no doubt, with the answer of the schools. But he was governed by heart and imagination no less than Laura. A serviceable intelligence had been used simply to strengthen the claims of feeling and faith. Such as it was, however, it knew itself. It was at command.
But Laura!—Laura was the pure product of an environment. She represented forces of intelligence, of analysis, of criticism, of which in themselves she knew little or nothing, except so far as they affected all her modes of feeling. She felt as she had been born to feel, as she had been trained to feel. But when in this new conflict—a conflict of instincts, of the deepest tendencies of two natures—she tried to lay hold upon the rational life, to help herself by it and from it, it failed her everywhere. She had no tools, no weapons. The Catholic argument scandalised, exasperated her; but she could not meet it. And the personal prestige and fascination of her lover did but increase with her, as her feeling grew more troubled and excited, and her intellectual defence weaker.
Meanwhile to the force of temperament there was daily added the force of a number of childish prejudices and dislikes. She had come to Bannisdale prepared to hate all she saw there; and with the one supreme exception, hatred had grown at command. She was a creature of excess; of poignant and indelible impressions. The nuns, with their unintelligible virtues, and their very obvious bigotries and littlenesses; the slyness and absurdities of Father Bowles; the priestly claims of Father Leadham; the various superstitions and peculiarities of the many priests and religious who had passed through the house since she knew it—alas! she hated them all!—and did not know how she was to help hating them in the future. These Catholic figures were to her so many disagreeable automata, moved by springs she could not possibly conceive, and doing perpetually the most futile and foolish things. She knew, moreover, by a sure instinct, that she had been unwelcome to them from the first moment of her appearance, and that she was now a stumbling-block and a grievance to them all.
Was she—by submission—to give these people, so to speak, a right to meddle and dabble in her heart? Was she to be wept over by Sister Angela—to confess her sins to Father Bowles—still worse, to Father Leadham? As she asked herself the question, she shrank in sudden passion from the whole world of ideas concerned—from all those stifling notions of sin, penance, absolution, direction, as they were conventionalised in Catholic practice and chattered about by stupid and mindless people. In defiance of them, her whole nature stood like a charged weapon, ready to strike.
For she had been bred in that strong sense of personal dignity which is the modern substitute for the abasements and humiliations of faith. And with that sense of dignity went reserve—the intimate conviction that no feeling which is talked about, which can be observed and handled and measured by other people, is worth a rush. It was what seemed to her the spiritual intrusiveness of Catholicism, its perpetual uncovering of the soul—its disrespect for the secrets of personality—its humiliation of the will—that made it most odious in the eyes of this daughter of a modern world, which finds in the development and dignifying of human life its most characteristic faith.
There were many moments indeed in which the whole Catholic system appeared to Laura's strained imagination as one vast chasse—an assemblage of hunters and their toils—against which the poor human spirit that was their quarry must somehow protect itself, with every possible wile or violence.
So that neither submission, nor a mere light tolerance and forgetting, were possible. Other girls, it seemed, married Catholics and made nothing of it—agreed pleasantly to differ all their lives. Her heart cried out! There could be no likeness between these Catholic husbands and Alan Helbeck.
In the first days of their engagement she had often said to herself: "I need have nothing to do with it!" or "Some things are so lovely!—I will only think of them." In those hours beside the sea it had been so easy to be tolerant and kind. Helbeck was hers from morning till night. And she, so much younger, so weak and small and ignorant, had seemed to hold his life, with all its unexplored depths and strengths, in her hand.
She threw herself down on a rock that jutted from the wet grass, and gave herself up to the jealous pain that possessed her.
* * * * *
A few days more and Mr. Williams would be gone. There was some relief in that thought. That strange scene in the drawing-room—deep as all concerned had buried it in oblivious silence—had naturally made his whole visit an offence to her. In her passionate way she felt herself degraded by his very presence in the house. His eyes constantly dropt, especially in her presence and Augustina's, his evident cold shrinking from the company of women—she thought of them with disgust and anger. For she said to herself that now she understood what they meant.
Of late she had been constantly busy with the books that stood to the right of Helbeck's table. She could not keep herself away from them, although the signs of tender and familiar use they bore, were as thorns in her sore sense. Even his books were better friends to him than she! And especially had she been dipping into those "Lives of the Saints" that Helbeck read habitually day by day; of which he talked to young Williams with a minuteness of knowledge that he scarcely possessed on any other subject—knowledge that appeared in all the details of the chapel painting. And on one occasion, as she turned over the small, worn volumes of his Alban Butler, she had come upon a certain passage in the life of St. Charles Borromeo:
"Out of a most scrupulous love of purity ... neither would he speak to any woman, not even to his pious aunt, or sisters, or any nun, but in sight of at least two persons, and in as few words as possible."
The girl flung it down. Surrounded as she often was by priests—affronted by those downcast eyes of the scholastic—the passage came upon her as an insult. Her cheeks burnt. Instinctively she showed herself that evening more difficult and exacting than ever with the man who loved her, and could yet feed his mind on the virtues of St. Charles Borromeo.
* * * * *
Nevertheless, she was often puzzled by the manner and demeanour of the young Jesuit.
During his work at the chapel frescoes certain curious transformations seemed to have passed over him. Or was it merely the change of dress? While painting he wore a long holland blouse that covered the clerical coat, concealed the clumsy limbs and feet, and concentrated the eye of the spectator on the young beauty of the head. When a visitor entered he would look up for an instant flushed with work and ardour, then plunge again into what he was doing. Art had reclaimed him; Laura could almost have said the Jesuit had disappeared. And what an astonishing gift there was in those clumsy fingers! His daring delicacies of colour; his ways of using the brush, that seemed to leave no clue behind; the liquid shimmer and brilliancy of his work—Helbeck could only explain them by saying that he had once taken him as a lad of nineteen to see a loan exhibition at Manchester, and then to the gallery at Edinburgh,
"There were three artists that he fastened upon—Watteau!—I have seen him recoil from the subjects (he was already balancing whether he should become a religious) and then go back again and again to the pictures, feeding himself upon them. Then there were two or three Rembrandts, and two or three Tintorets. One Tintoret Entombment I remember—a small picture. I never could get him away from it. He told me once that it was like something painted in powdered gems and then dipped in air. I believe he got the expression from some book he was reading," said Helbeck, with the good-humoured smile of one who does not himself indulge in the fineries of language.... "When we came home I borrowed a couple of pictures for him from a friend in Lancashire, who has good things. One was a Rembrandt—'The Casting-out of Hagar'—I have his copy of it in my room now—the other was a Tintoret sketch. He worked at them for days and weeks, pondering and copying them, bit by bit, till he was almost ill with excitement and enthusiasm. But you see the result in what he does."
And Helbeck smiled upon the artist with the affectionate sympathy of an elder brother. He and Laura were standing together one morning at the west end of the chapel, while Williams, in his blouse and mounted on a high stool, was painting a dozen yards away.
"And then he gave it up!" said Laura under her breath. "Who can understand that?"
Helbeck hesitated a little. His face was crossed for a moment by the shadow of some thought that he did not communicate. Then he said, "He came—as I told you—to think that it was right and best for him to do so. An artist, darling, has to think of the Four Last Things, like anybody else!"
"The Four Last Things!" said Laura, startled. "What do you mean?"
The words fell slowly from the half-whispering voice into the quiet darkness of the chapel. Laura looked up—Helbeck's eyes, fixed upon the crucifix over the altar, seemed to receive thence a stem and secret message to which the whole man responded.
The girl moved restlessly away.
"Let us go and see what he is doing."
As they approached, Williams turned to Helbeck—he seemed not to see Miss Fountain—and said a few troubled phrases that showed him wholly dissatisfied with his morning's work. Beads of perspiration stood on his brow; his lips were pinched and feverish; his eyes unhappy. He pointed Helbeck to the figure he was engaged upon—a strange dream of St. Mary of Egypt, as a very old woman, clothed in the mantle of Zosimus—the lion who was to bury her, couchant at her feet. Helbeck looked into it; admired some points, criticised others. Williams got down from his stool, talked with a low-voiced volubility, an egotistical passion and disturbance that roused astonishment in Laura. Till then she had been acquainted only with the measured attitudes and levelled voice that the Jesuit learns from the "Regulae Modestiae" of his order. But for the first time she felt a certain sympathy with him.
Afterwards for some days the young man, so recently an invalid, could hardly be persuaded to take sufficient exercise or food. He was absorbed in his saint and in the next figure beyond her, that was already growing under his brush. St. Ursula, white robed and fair haired, was springing like a flower from the wall; her delicate youth shone beside the age and austerity, the penitence and emaciation, of St. Mary of Egypt. Both looked towards the altar; but St. Mary with a mystic sadness that both adored and quailed; St. Ursula with the rapture, the confidence, of a bride.
The artist could not be torn from his conception; and upon Laura too the spell of the work steadily grew. She would slip into the chapel at all hours, and watch; sometimes standing a little way from the painter, a black lace scarf thrown round her bright hair, sometimes sitting motionless with a book on her knee, which she did not read. When Helbeck was there conversation arose into which she was often drawn. And out of a real wish to please Helbeck, she would silence her own resentments, and force herself to be friendly. Insensibly Williams began to talk to her; and it would sometimes happen, when Helbeck went away for a time, that the cold reserve or mauvaise honte of the Jesuit would melt wholly before the eagerness of the artist—when, with intervals of a brusque silence, he talked with the rapidity and force of a turbid stream on the imaginations and the memories embodied in his work. And on one occasion, when the painter was busy with the head of St. Ursula, Laura, who was talking to Helbeck a few yards away, turned suddenly and found those dark strange eyes, that as a rule evaded her, fixed steadily and intently upon her. Next day she fancied with a start of dislike that in the lines of St. Ursula's brow, and in the arrangement of the hair, there was a certain resemblance to herself. But Helbeck did not notice it, and nothing was said.
At meals, too, conversation turned now more on art than on missions. Pictures seen by the two friends years before; Helbeck's fading recollections of Florence and Rome; modern Catholic art as it was being developed in the Jesuit churches of the Continent: of these things Williams would talk, and talk eagerly. Sometimes Augustina would timidly introduce some subject of greater practical interest to the commonplace English Catholic. Mr. Williams would let it drop; and then Mrs. Fountain would sit silent and ill at ease, her head and hands twitching in a helpless bewildered way.
But in a moment came a change. After a certain Thursday when he was at work all day, the young man painted no more. Beyond St. Ursula, St. Eulalia of Saragossa, Virgin and Martyr, had been sketched in, with a strange force of line and some suggestions both of colour and symbolism that held Laura fascinated. But the sketch remained ghostlike on the wall. The high stool was removed; the blouse put away.
Thenceforward Mr. Williams—to Laura's secret anger—spent hours in Helbeck's study reading. His avoidance of her society and Mrs. Fountain's was more marked than ever. His face, which in the first days at Bannisdale had begun to recover a certain boyish bloom, became again white and drawn. The eyes were scarcely ever seen; if, by some rare chance, the heavy lids did lift, the fire and brilliance of the gaze below were startling to the bystander. But for the most part he seemed to be wrapped in a dumb sickliness and pain; his person was even less cleanly, his clothes less cared for, than before. At table he hardly talked at all; never of painting, or of any topic connected with it.
* * * * *
Once or twice Laura caught Helbeck's look fixed upon his guest in what seemed to her anxiety or perplexity. But when she carelessly asked him what might be wrong with Mr. Williams, the Squire gave a decided answer.
"He is ill—and we ought not to have allowed him to do this work. There must be complete rest till he goes."
"Has he seen his father?" asked Laura.
"No. That is still hanging over him."
"Does his father wish to see him?"
"No! But it is his duty to go."
"Why? That he may enjoy a little more martyrdom?"
Helbeck laughed and captured her hand.
"What penalty do I exact for that?"
"It doesn't deserve any," she said quickly. "I don't think it is for health he has given up his painting. I believe he is unhappy."
"It may have revived old struggles," said Helbeck, with a sigh that seemed to escape him against his will.
"Why doesn't he give it all up," she said with energy, "and be an artist? That's where his heart, his strength, lies."
Helbeck's manner changed and stiffened.
"You are entirely mistaken, dearest. His heart and his strength are in his vocation—in making himself a good Jesuit."
She shook her head obstinately, with that rising breath of excitement which the slightest touch of difference was now apt to call up.
"I don't think so!—and I have watched him. Suppose he did give it all up? He could, of course, at any time."
Helbeck tried to smile and change the subject. But Laura persisted. Till at last the Squire said with pain:
"Darling—I don't think you know how these things sound in Catholic ears."
"But I want to know. You see, I don't understand anything about vows. I can't imagine why that man can't walk into a studio and leave his clerical coat behind him to-morrow. To me nothing seems easier. He is a human being, and free."
Helbeck was silent, and began to put some letters in order that were lying on his table. Laura's caprice only grew stronger.
"If he were to leave the Jesuits," she said, "would you break with him?"
As Mr. Williams was safely in the park with Augustina, Laura had resumed her accustomed place in the low seat beside Helbeck's writing-table. Augustina, for decorum's sake, had her arm-chair on the further side of the fireplace, where she often dozed, knitted, and read the newspapers. But she left the betrothed a good deal alone, less from a natural feminine sympathy than because she fed herself day by day on the hope that, in spite of all, Alan would yet set himself in earnest to the task that was clearly his—the task of Laura's conversion.
Helbeck showed no more readiness to answer her second inquiry than her first. He seemed to be absorbed in reading over a business letter.
Laura's pride was roused. Her cheeks flushed, and she repeated her question, her mind filled all the time with that mingled dread and wilfulness that must have possessed poor Psyche when she raised the lamp.
"Well, no," said Helbeck dryly, without lifting his eyes from his letter—"I don't suppose that he would remain my friend, under such strange circumstances—or that he would wish it."
"So you would cast him off?"
"Why will you start such uncomfortable topics, dear?" he said, half laughing. "What has poor Williams done that you should imagine such things?"
"I want to know what you would do if Mr. Williams—if any priest you know were to break his vows and leave the Church, what would you do?"
"Follow the judgment of the Church," said Helbeck quietly.
"And give up your friend!"
"Friendship, darling, is a complex thing—it depends upon so much. But I am so tired of my letters! Your hat is in the hall. Won't you come out?"
He rose, and bent over her tenderly, his hand on the table. In a flash she felt all the strange dignity, the ascetic strength of his personality; it was suggested this time by the mere details of dress—by the contrast between the worn and shabby coat, and the stern force of the lips, the refined individuality of the hand. She was filled anew with the sudden sense that she knew but half of him—a sudden terror of the future.
She lay back in her chair, meeting his eyes and trying to smile. But in truth she was quivering with impatience.
"I won't move till I have my answer! Please tell me—would—would you regard him as a lost soul?"
"Dearest! I am neither Williams's judge nor anyone else's! Of course I must hold that a man who breaks the most solemn vows endangers his soul. What else do you expect of me?"
"What do you mean by 'soul'? Have I a soul?—and what do you suppose is going to happen to it?"
The words were flung out with a concentrated passion—almost an anguish—that for the moment struck him dumb. They both grew pale; he looked at her steadily, and spoke her name, in a low appealing voice. But she took no notice; she rose, and, turning away from him, she leant against the mantelpiece, speaking with a choking eagerness that forced its way.
"You were in the chapel last night—very late. I know, for I heard the door open and shut. You must be unhappy, or you wouldn't spend so much time praying. Are you unhappy about me? I know you don't want to force me; but if, in time, I don't agree with you—if it goes on all our lives—how can you help thinking that I shall be lost—lost eternally—separated from you? You would think it of Mr. Williams if he left the Church. I know you told me once about ignorance—invincible ignorance. But here there will be no ignorance. I shall have seen everything—heard everything—known everything. If living here doesn't teach one, what could? And"—she paused, then resumed with even greater emphasis—"and as far as I can see I shall reject it all—wilfully, knowingly, deliberately. What will you say? What do you say now—to yourself—when—when you pray for me? What do you really think—what do you fear—what must you fear? I ought to know."
Helbeck looked at her without answering for a long moment. Her agitation, his painful silence, bore pitiful testimony to the strange, insurmountable reality of those facts of the spirit that stood like rocks in the stream of their love.
At last he held out his hands to her with that half-reproachful gesture he had often used towards her. "I fear nothing!—I hope everything. You never forbade me that. Will you leave my love no mysteries, Laura—no reserve? Nothing for you to discover and explore as time goes on?"
She trembled under the mingled remonstrance and passion of his tone. But she persisted. "It's because—I feel—other things come before love. Tell me—I have a right to know. I shall never come first—quite first—shall I?"
She forced the saddest, proudest of smiles, as he took her reluctant hands.
And involuntarily her eyes travelled over the room, over the crucifix above the faldstool, the little altar to St. Joseph, the worn books upon his table. They were to her like the weapons and symbols of an enemy.
He made her no direct answer. His face was for a moment grave and set. Then he roused himself, kissed the hands he held, and resolutely began to talk of something else.
When a few minutes later he left her alone, she stood there quivering under the touch of power by which he had silenced her—under the angry sense that she was less and less able as the days went by to draw or drive him into argument. The more thorny her mood became, the more sadly did he seem to hide the treasures of the soul from her.
* * * * *
These memories, and many like them, were passing and repassing through Laura's mind as she sat listless and sad on the hillside.
When at last she shook them off, the light was failing over the western wall of mountains. She had an errand to do for Augustina in the village that lay half-way to the daffodil wood, and she sprang up, wondering whether there was still time for it before dark.
As she hurried on towards a stile that lay across the path, she saw a woman approaching on the further side.
The figure addressed stood still a moment in astonishment, then ran to meet the speaker.
"Laura!—well, I'm sure!"
The two girls kissed each other. Laura looked gayly, wistfully, at her cousin.
"Polly—are you all very cross with me still?"
Polly hesitated and fenced. Laura sighed. But she looked at the stout red-faced woman with a peculiar flutter of pleasure. The air of the wild upland—all the primitive, homely facts of the farm, seemed to come about her again. She had left Bannisdale, choked with feeling, tired with thought. Polly's broad speech and bouncing ways were welcome as a breeze in summer.
They sat down on the stile side by side. Laura gave up her errand, and they talked fast. Polly was all curiosity. When was Laura to be married, and what was she to wear?
"The plainest thing I can find," said Laura indifferently. "Unless Augustina teases me into something I don't want." Polly inquired if it would be in church. "In a Catholic church," said Laura with a shrug. "No flowers—no music. They just let you be married—that's all."
Polly's-eyes jumped with amazement. "Why, I thowt they had everything so grand!"
"Not if you will go and marry a heretic like me," said Laura. "Then they make you know your place."
"But—but Laura! yo're to be a Romanist too—for sure?" cried Polly in bewilderment.
"Do you think so?" said Laura. Her eyes sparkled. She was sitting on the edge of the stile, one small foot dangling. Polly's rustic sense was once more vaguely struck by the strange mingling in the little figure of an extreme, an exquisite delicacy with some tough, incalculable element. Miss Fountain's soft lightness seemed to offer no more resistance than a daffodil on its stalk. But approach her!—whether it was poor Hubert, or even——?
Polly looked and spoke her perplexity. She let Laura know that Miss Fountain's conversion was assumed at Browhead Farm. Through her blundering though not unkindly talk, Laura gradually perceived indeed a score of disagreeable things. Mrs. Mason and her fanatical friend, Mr. Bayley, were both persuaded—so it seemed—that Miss Fountain had set her cap at the Squire from the beginning, ready at a moment's notice to swallow the Scarlet Lady when required. And Catholic and Protestant alike were kind enough to say that she had made use of her cousin to draw on Mr. Helbeck. The neighbourhood, in fact, held her to be a calculating little minx, ripe for plots and Papistry, or anything else that might suit a daring game.
The girl gradually fell silent. Her head drooped. Her eyes looked at Polly askance and wistfully. She did not defend herself; but she showed the wound.
"Well, I'm sorry you don't understand," she said at last, while her voice trembled. "Perhaps you will some day. I don't know. Anyway, will you please tell Cousin Elizabeth that I'm not going to be a Catholic? Perhaps that will comfort her a little."
"But howiver are you goin to live wi Mr. Helbeck then?" asked Polly. Her loud surprise conveyed the image of Helbeck as it lay graven in the minds of the Browhead circle,—a sort of triple-crowned, black-browed tyrant, with all the wiles and torments of Rome in his pocket. A wife resist—defy? The Church knows how to deal with naughtiness of that kind.
"We can but try. But now then,"—she bent forward and put her hands impulsively on Polly's shoulders,—"tell me about everybody and everything. How's Daffady? how's the cow that was ill? how're the calves? how's Hubert?"
She laughed again, but there was moisture in her look. For the thousandth time, her heart told her that in this untoward marriage she was wrenching herself anew from her father and all his world.
Polly rather tossed her head at the mention of Hubert. She replied with some tartness that he was doing very well—nobody indeed could be doing better. Did Laura's eyebrows go up the very slightest trifle? If so, the sister beat down the surprise. Hubert no doubt had been upset, and a bit wild, after—well, Laura might guess what! But that was all past now, long ago. There was a friend, a musical friend, a rescuer, who had appeared, in the shape of a young organist who had come to lead the Froswick Philharmonic Society. Hubert was living with him now; and the young man, of whom all Froswick thought a wonderful deal, was looking after him, and making him write his songs. Some of them were to be sung at a festival——
Laura clapped her hands.
"I told him!" she said gayly. "If he'll only work, he'll do. And he is keeping straight?"
Her look was keen and sisterly. She wished to show that she had forgotten and forgiven. But Polly resented it.
"Why shouldn't he be keeping straight?" she asked. No doubt Laura had thought him just a ne'er do weel. But he was nothing of the sort—he was a bit wild and unruly, as young men are—"same as t' colts afoor yo break 'em." But Laura would have done much better for herself if she had stayed quietly with him that night at Braeside, and let him take her over the sands, as he wished to, instead of running away from him in that foolish way.
Polly spoke with significance—nay, with heat. Laura was first startled, then abashed.
"Do you think I made a ridiculous fuss?" she said humbly. "Perhaps I did. But if—if—" she spoke slowly, drawing patterns on the wood of the stile with her finger, "if I hadn't seen him drunk once—I suppose I shouldn't have been afraid."
"Well, you'd no call to be afraid!" cried Polly. "Hubert vowed to me, as he hadna had a drop of onything. And after all, he's a relation—an if you'd walked wi him, you'd not ha had telegrams sent aboot you to make aw th' coontry taak!"
"Telegrams!" Laura stared. "Oh, I know—Mr. Helbeck telegraphed to the station-master—but it must have come after I'd left the station."
"Aye—an t' station-master sent word back to Mr. Helbeck! Perhaps you doan't knaw onything aboot that!" exclaimed Polly triumphantly.
Laura turned rather pale.
"A telegram to Mr. Helbeck?"
Polly, surprised at so much ignorance, could not forego the sensation that it offered her. She bit her lip, but the lip would speak. So the story of the midnight telegram—as it had been told by that godly man Mr. Cawston of Braeside to that other godly man Mr. Bayley, perpetual curate of Browhead, and as by now it had gone all about the country-side—came piecemeal out.
"Oh! an at that Papist shop i' th' High Street—you remember that sickly-lukin fellow at the dance—they do say at they do taak shameful!" exclaimed Polly indignantly.
"What do they say?" said Laura in a low voice.
Polly hesitated. Then out of sheer nervousness she blundered into the harshest possible answer.
"Well, they said that Mr. Helbeck could do no different, that he did it to save his sister from knowing——"
"Knowing what?" said Laura.
Polly declared that she wasn't just certain. "A set o' slanderin backbitin tabbies as soom o' them Catholics is!" But she believed they said that Mr. Helbeck had asked Miss Fountain to marry him out of kindness, to shut people's mouths, and keep it from his sister——
"Keep what?" said Laura. Her eyes shone in her quivering proud face.
"Why, I suppose—at you'd been carryin on wi Hubert, and walkin aboot wi him aw neet," said Polly reluctantly.
And she again insisted how much wiser it would have been if Laura had just gone quietly over the sands to Marsland. There, no doubt, she might have got a car straight away, and there might have been no talk whatever.
"Mightn't there?" said Laura. Her little chin was propped in her hand. Her gaze swept the distant water of the estuary mouth, as it lay alternately dark and shining under the storm lights of the clouds.
"An I'll juist warn yo o' yan thing, Laura," said Polly, with fresh energy. "There's soom one at Bannisdale itsel, as spreads aw maks o' tales. There's a body theer, as is noa friend o' yours."
"Oh! Mrs. Denton," said Laura languidly. "Of course."
Then she fell silent. Not a word passed the small tightened lips. The eyes were fixed on distance or vacancy.
Polly began to be frightened. She had not meant any real harm, though perhaps there had been just a touch of malice in her revelations. Laura was going to marry a Papist; that was bad. But also she was going to marry into a sphere far out of the Masons' ken; and she had made it very plain that Hubert and the likes of Hubert were not good enough for her. Polly was scandalised on religion's account; but also a little jealous and sore, in a natural feminine way, on her own; the more so as Mr. Seaton had long since ceased to pay Sunday visits to the farm, and Polly had a sharp suspicion as to the when and why of that gentleman's disillusionment. There had been a certain temptation to let the future mistress of Bannisdale know that the neighbourhood was not all whispering humbleness towards her.
But at bottom Polly was honest and kind. So when she saw Laura sit so palely still, she repented her. She implored that Laura would not "worrit" herself about such fooleries. And then she added:
"But I wonder at Mr. Helbeck didna juist tell yo himsel aboot that telegram!"
"Do you?" said Laura. Her eyes flashed. She got down from the stile. "Good-bye, Polly! I must be going home."
Suddenly Polly gripped her by the arm.
"Luke there!" she said in excitement. "Luke!—theer he goes! That's Teddy—Teddy Williams! I knew as I had summat to tell you—and when you spoak o' Hubert—it went oot o' my head."
Laura looked at her cousin first, in astonishment, and then at the dark figure walking on the road below—the straight white road that ran across the marsh, past the lonely forge of old Ben Williams, the wheelwright, to the foot of the tall "Scar," opposite, where it turned seaward, and so vanished in the dimness of the coast. It was the Jesuit certainly. The two girls saw him plainly in the strong storm light. He was walking slowly with bent head, and seemed to be reading. His solitary form, black against the white of the road, made the only moving thing in the wide, rain-drenched landscape.
Laura instantly guessed that he had been paying his duty visit to his home. And Polly, it appeared, had been a witness of it.
For the cottage adjoining the wheelwright's workshop and forge, where Edward Williams had been brought up, was now inhabited by his father and sister. The sister, Jenny, was an old friend of Polly Mason's, who had indeed many young memories of the scholastic himself. They had been all children or schoolmates together.
And this afternoon, while she was in the parlour with Jenny, all of a sudden—voices and clamour in the forge outside! The son, the outcast son, had quietly presented himself to his father.
"Oh, an sic a to-do! His fadther wadna let him ben. 'Naa,' he says, 'if thoo's got owt to say, thoo may say it i' th' shop. Jenny doan't want tha!' An Jenny luked oot—an I just saw Teddy turn an speak to her—beggin her like, a bit masterfu too, aw t' time—and she flounced back again—'Keep yor distance, will yer!' an slammed to the door—an fell agen it, cryin. An sic a shoutin an hollerin frae the owd man! He made a gradely noise, he did—bit never a word fra Teddy—not as yo cud hear, I'll uphowd yo! An at lasst—when Jenny an I opened t' door again—juist a cranny like—theer he was, takin hissel off—his fadther screamin afther him—an he wi his Papish coat, an his head hangin as thoo there wor a load o' peaet on it—an his hands crossed—soa pious! Aye, theer he goes!—an he may goa!" cried Polly, her face flaming as it followed the Jesuit out of sight. "When a mon's treated his aan mother that gate, it's weary wark undoin it. Aye, soa 'tis, Mr. Teddy—soa 'tis!" And she raised her voice vindictively.
Laura's lips curled.
"Do you think he cares—one rap? It was his duty to go and see his father—so he went. And now he's all the more certain he's on the road to heaven—because his father abused him, and his sister turned him out. He's going to be a priest directly—and a missionary after that—and a holy martyr, too, if he gets his deserts. There's always fever, or natives, handy. What do earth-worms like mothers and sisters matter to him?"
Polly stared. Even she, as she looked, as she heard, felt that a gulf opened—that a sick soul spoke.
"Oh! an I'd clean forgot," she faltered—"as he must be stayin at Bannisdale—as yo wad be seein him."
"I see so many of them," said Laura wearily. She took up her bag, that had been leaning against the stile. "Now, good-bye!"
Suddenly Polly's eyes brimmed with tears. She flung an arm round the slim childish creature.
"Laura, whatever did you do it for? I doan't believe as yo're a bit happy i' yor mind! Coom away!—we'se luke after you—we're your aan kith an kin!"
Laura paused in Polly's arm. Then she turned her wild face—the eyes half closed, the pale lips passionately smiling.
"I'll come, Polly, when I'm dead—or my heart's dead—not before!"
And, wrenching herself away, she ran down the path. Polly, with her clutch of Brahma eggs in her hand, that she was taking to the Bannisdale Bridge Farm, leant against the stile and cried.
"Alan! is it to-night you expect Father Leadham?"
"Yes," said Helbeck.
"Have you told Laura?"
"I will remind her that we expect him. It is annoying that I must leave you to entertain him to-morrow."
"Oh! we shall do very well," said Augustina rather eagerly. "Alan, have you noticed Laura, yesterday and to-day? She doesn't look strong."
"I know," said the Squire shortly. His eyes were fixed all the time on the little figure of Laura, as she sat listlessly in a sunny corner of the bowling-green, with a book on her knee.
Augustina, who had been leaning on his arm, went back to the house. Helbeck advanced and threw himself down beside Laura.
"Little one—if you keep such pale cheeks—what am I to do?"
She looked down upon him with a languid smile.
"I am all right."
"That remark only fills up your misdoings! If I go down and get the pony carriage, will you drive with me through the park and tell me everything—everything—that has been troubling you the last few days?"
His voice was very low, his eyes all tenderness. He had been reproaching himself that he had so often of late avoided difficult discussions and thorny questions with her. Was she hurt, and did he deserve it?
"I will go driving with you," she said slowly.
"Very well"—he sprang up. "I will be back in twenty minutes—with the pony."
He left her, and she dreamed afresh over her book.
She was thinking of a luncheon at Whinthorpe, to which she had been taken, sorely against her will, to meet the Bishop. And the Bishop had treated her with a singular and slighting coldness. There was no blinking the fact in the least. Other people had noticed it. Helbeck had been pale with wrath and distress. As far as she could remember, she had laughed and talked a good deal.
Well, what wonder?—if they thought her just a fast ill-conducted girl, who had worked upon Mr. Helbeck's pity and softness of heart?
Suddenly she put out her hand restlessly to pluck at the hedge beside her. She had been stung by the memory of herself—under the Squire's window, in the dawn. She saw herself—helpless, and asleep, the tired truant come back to the feet of her master. When he found her so, what could he do but pity her?—be moved, perhaps beyond bounds, by the goodness of a generous nature?
Next, something stronger than this doubt touched the lips with a flying smile—shy and lovely. But she was far from happy. Since her talk with Polly especially, her pride was stabbed and tormented in all directions. And her nature was of the proudest.
Where could she feel secure? In Helbeck's heart? But in the inmost shrine of that heart she felt the brooding of a majestic and exacting power that knew her not. Her jealousy—her fear—grew day by day.
And as to the rest, her imagination was full of the most feverish and fantastic shapes. Since her talk with Polly the world had seemed to her a mere host of buzzing enemies. All the persons concerned passed through her fancy with the mask and strut of caricature. The little mole on Sister Angela's nose—the slightly drooping eyelid that marred the Reverend Mother's left cheek—the nasal twang of the orphans' singing—Father Bowles pouncing on a fly—Father Leadham's stately ways—she made a mock or an offence out of them all, bitterly chattering and drawing pictures with herself, like a child with a grievance.
And then on the top of these feelings and exaggerations of the child, would return the bewildering, the ever-increasing trouble of the woman.
She sprang up.
"If I could—if I could! Then it would be we two together—against the rest. Else—how shall I be his wife at all?"
She ran into the study. There on the shelf beside Helbeck's table stood a little Manual of Catholic Instruction, that she knew well. She turned over the pages, till she came to the sections dealing with the reception of converts.
How often she had pored over them! Now she pored over them again, twisting her lips, knitting her white brows.
"No adult baptized Protestant ('Am I a Protestant?—I am baptized!') is considered to be a convert to the Catholic Church until he is received into the Church according to the prescribed rite ('There!—it's the broken glass on the wall.—But if one could just slip in—without fuss or noise?') ... You must apply to a Catholic priest, who will judge of your dispositions, and of your knowledge of the Catholic faith. He will give you further instruction, and explain your duties, and how you have to act. When he is satisfied ('Father Leadham!—satisfied with me!'), you go to the altar or to the sacristy, or other place convenient for your reception. The priest who is with you says certain prayers appointed by the Church; you in the meantime kneel down and pray silently ('I prayed when papa died.'"—She looked up, her face trembling.—"Else?—Yes once!—that night when I went in to prayers.) 'You will then read or repeat aloud after the priest the Profession of Faith, either the Creed of Pope Pius IV'—(That's—let me see!—that's the Creed of the Council of Trent; there's a note about it in one of papa's books." She recalled it, frowning: "I often think that we of the Liberal Tradition have cause to be thankful that the Tridentine Catholics dug the gulf between them and the modern world so deep. Otherwise, now that their claws are all pared, and only the honey and fairy tales remain, there would be no chance at all for the poor rational life.")
She drew a long breath, taking a momentary pleasure in the strong words, as they passed through her memory, and then bruised by them.
"The priest will now release you from the ban and censures of the Church, and will so receive you into the True Fold. If you do not yourself say the Confiteor, you will do well to repeat in a low voice, with sorrow of heart, those words of the penitent in the Gospel: 'O God, be merciful to me a sinner!' He will then administer to you baptism under condition (sub conditione).... Being now baptized and received into the Church, you will go and kneel in the Confessional or other appointed place in the church to make your confession, and to receive from the priest the sacramental absolution. While receiving absolution you must renew your sorrow and hatred of sin, and your resolution to amend, making a sincere Act of Contrition."
Then, as the book was dropping from her hand, a few paragraphs further on her eyes caught the words:
"If we are not able to remember the exact number of our sins, it is enough to state the probable number to the best of our recollection and judgment, saying: 'I have committed that sin about so many times a day, a week, or a month.' Indeed, we are bound to reveal our conscience to the priest as we know it ourselves, there and then stating the things certain as certain, those doubtful as doubtful, and the probable number as probable."
She threw away the book. She crouched in her chair beside Helbeck's table, her small face buried despairingly in her hands. "I can't—I can't! I would if I could—I can't!"
Through the shiver of an invincible repulsion that held her spoke a hundred things—things inherited, things died for, things wrought out by the moral experience of generations. But she could not analyse them. All she knew were the two words—"I can't."
* * * * *
The little pony took them merrily through the gay October woods. Autumn was at its cheerfullest. The crisp leaves under foot, the tonic earth smells in the air, the wet ivy shining in the sun, the growing lightness and strength of the trees as the gold or red leaf thinned and the free branching of the great oaks or ashes came into sight—all these belonged to the autumn which sings and vibrates, and can in a flash disperse and drive away the weeping and melancholy autumn.
Laura's bloom revived. Her hair, blown about her, glowed and shone even amid the gold of the woods. Her soft lips, her eyes called back their fire. Helbeck looked at her in a delight mingled with pain, counting the weeks silently till she became his very own. Only five now before Advent; and in the fifth the Church would give her to him, grudgingly indeed, with scant ceremony and festivity, like a mother half grieved, still with her blessing, which must content him. And beyond? The strong man—stern with himself and his own passion, all the more that the adored one was under the protection of his roof, and yielded thereby to his sight and wooing more freely than a girl in her betrothal is commonly yielded to her lover—dared hardly in her presence evoke the thrill of that thought. Instinctively he knew, through the restraints that parted them, that Laura was pure woman, a creature ripe for the subtleties and poetries of passion. Would not all difficulties find their solvent—melt in a golden air—when once they had passed into the freedom and confidence of marriage?
Meanwhile the difficulties were all plain to him—more plain, indeed, than ever. He could not flatter himself that she looked any more kindly on his faith or his friends. And his friends—or some of them—were, to say the truth, pressing him hard. Father Leadham even, his director, upon whom during the earlier stages of their correspondence on the matter Helbeck seemed to have impressed his own waiting view with success, had lately become more exacting and more peremptory. The Squire was uncomfortable at the thought of his impending visit. It was hardly wise—had better have been deferred. Laura's quick, shrinking look when it was announced had not been lost upon her lover. Father Leadham should be convinced—must be convinced—that all would be imperilled—nay, lost—by haste. Yet unconsciously Helbeck himself was wavering—was changing ground.
He had come out, indeed, determined somehow to break down the barrier he felt rising between them. But it was not easy. They talked for long of the most obvious and mundane things. There were salmon in the Greet this month, and Helbeck had been waging noble war with them in the intervals of much business, with Laura often beside him, to join in the madness of the "rushes" down stream, to watch the fine strength of her lover's wrist, to shrink from the gaffing, and to count the spoil. The shooting days at Bannisdale were almost done, since the land had dwindled to a couple of thousand acres, much of it on the moss. But there were still two or three poor coverts along the upper edge of the park, where the old Irish keeper and woodman, Tim Murphy, cherished and counted the few score pheasants that provided a little modest November sport. And Helbeck, tying the pony to a tree, went up now with Laura to walk round the woods, showing in all his comments and calculations a great deal of shrewd woodcraft and beastcraft, enough to prove at any rate that the Esau of his race—feras consumere nati, to borrow the emendation of Mr. Fielding—had not yet been wholly cast out by the Jacob of a mystical piety.