Laura tripped and climbed, applauded by his eye, helped by his hand. But though her colour came back, her spirits were still to seek. She was often silent, and he hardly ever spoke to her without feeling a start run through the hand he held.
His grey eye tried to read her, but in vain. At last he wooed her from the fell-side where they were scrambling. "Come down to the river and rest."
Hand in hand they descended the steep slope to that rock-seat where he had found her on the morning of Easter Sunday. The great thorn which overhung it was then in bud; now the berries which covered the tree were already reddening to winter. Before her spread the silver-river, running to lose itself in the rocky bosom of that towering scar which closed the distance, whereon, too, all the wealth of the woods on either hand converged—the woods that hid the outer country, and all that was not Bannisdale and Helbeck's.
To-day, however, Laura felt no young passion of pleasure in the beauty at her feet. She was ill at ease, and her look fled his as he glanced up to her from the turf where he had thrown himself.
"Do you like me to read your books?" she said abruptly, her question swooping hawk-like upon his and driving it off the field.
He paused—to consider, and to smile.
"I don't know. I believe you read them perversely!"
"I know what you read this morning. Do you—do you think St. Francis Borgia was a very admirable person?"
"Well, I got a good deal of edification out of him," said Helbeck quietly.
"Did you? Would you be like him if you could? Do you remember when his wife was very ill, and he was praying for her, he heard a voice—do you remember?"
"Go on," said Helbeck, nodding.
"And the voice said, 'If thou wouldst have the life of the Duchess prolonged, it shall be granted; but it is not expedient for thee'—'thee,' mind—not her! When he heard this, he was penetrated by a most tender love of God, and burst into tears. Then he asked God to do as He pleased with the lives of his wife and his children and himself. He gave up—I suppose he gave up—praying for her. She became much worse and died, leaving him a widower at the age of thirty-six. Afterwards—please don't interrupt!—in the space of three years, he disposed somehow of all his eight children—some of them I reckoned must be quite babies—took the vows, became a Jesuit, and went to Rome. Do you approve of all that?"
Helbeck reddened. "It was a time of hard fighting for the Church," he said gravely, after a pause, "and the Jesuits were the advance guard. In such days a man may be called by God to special acts and special sacrifices."
"So you do approve? Papa was a member of an Ethical Society at Cambridge. They used sometimes to discuss special things—whether they were right or wrong. I wonder what they would have said to St. Francis Borgia?"
"Mercifully, darling, the ideals of the Catholic Church do not depend upon the votes of Ethical Societies!"
He turned his handsome head towards her. His tone was perfectly gentle, but behind it she perceived the breathing of a contempt before which she first recoiled—then sprang in revolt.
"As for me," she said, panting a little, "when I finished the Life this morning in your room, I felt like Ivan in Browning's poem—do you recollect?—about the mother who threw her children one by one to the wolves, to save her wretched self? I would like to have dropped the axe on St. Francis Borgia's neck—just one—little—clean cut!—while he was saying his prayers, and enjoying his burning love, and all the rest of it!"
Helbeck was silent, nor could she see his face, which was again turned from her towards the river. The eager feverish voice went on:
"Do you know that's the kind of thing you read always—always—day after day? And it's just the same now! That girl of twenty-three, Augustina was talking of, who is going into a convent, and her mother only died last year, and there are six younger brothers and sisters, and her father says it will break his heart—she must have been reading about St. Francis Borgia. Perhaps she felt 'burning love' and had 'floods of tears.' But Ivan with his axe—that's the person I'd bring in, if I could!"
Still not a word from the man beside her. She hesitated a moment—felt a sob of excitement in her throat—bent forward and touched his shoulder.
"Suppose—suppose I were to be ill—dying—and the voice came, 'Let her go! She is in your way; it would be better for you she should die'—would you just let go?—see me drop, drop, drop, through all eternity, to make your soul safe?"
"Laura!" cried a strong voice. And, with a spring, Helbeck was beside her, capturing both her cold hands in one of his, a mingled tenderness and wrath flashing from him before which she shrank. But though she drew away from him—her small face so white below the broad black hat!—she was not quelled. Before he could speak, she had said in sharp separate words, hardly above a whisper:
"It is that horrible egotism of religion that poisons everything! And if—if one shared it, well and good, one might make terms with it, like a wild thing one had tamed. But outside it, and at war with it, what can one do but hate—hate—hate—it!"
"My God!" he said in bewilderment, "where am I to begin?"
He stared at her with a passionate amazement. Never before had she shown such forces of personality, or been able to express herself with an utterance so mature and resonant. Her stature had grown before his eyes. In the little frowning figure there was something newly, tragically fine. The man for the first time felt his match. His own hidden self rose at last to the struggle with a kind of angry joy, eager at once to conquer the woman and to pierce the sceptic.
"Listen to me, Laura!" he said, bending over her. "That was more than I can bear—that calls me out of my tent. I have tried to keep my poor self out of sight, but it has rights. You have challenged it. Will you take the consequences?"
She trembled before the pale concentration of his face and bent her head.
"I will tell you," he said in a low determined voice, "the only story that a man truly knows—the story of his own soul. You shall know—what you hate."
And, after a pause of thought, Helbeck made one of the great efforts of his life.
* * * * *
He did not fully know indeed what it was that he had undertaken, till the wave of emotion had gathered through all the inmost chambers of memory, and was bearing outward in one great tide the secret nobilities, the hidden poetries, the unconscious weaknesses, of a nature no less narrow than profound, no less full of enmities than of loves.
But gradually from hurried or broken beginnings the narrative rose to clearness and to strength.
The first impressions of a lonely childhood; the first workings of the family history upon his boyish sense, like the faint, perpetual touches of an unseen hand moulding the will and the character; the picture of his patient mother on her sofa, surrounded with her little religious books, twisted and tormented, yet always smiling; his early collisions with his morose and half-educated father—he passed from these to the days of his first Communion, the beginnings of the personal life. "But I had very little fervour then, such as many boys feel. I did not doubt—I would not have shown any disrespect to my religion for the world, mostly, I think, from family pride—but I felt no ardour, and did not pretend any. My mother sometimes shed tears over it, and was comforted by her old confessor—so she told me when she was dying—who used to say to her: 'Feeling is good, but obedience is better. He obeys;' for I did all my religious duties without difficulty. Then at thirteen I was sent to Stonyhurst. And there, after a while, God began His work in me."
He paused a moment; and when he resumed, his voice shook:
"Among the masters there was a certain Father Lewin. He took an affection for me, and I for him. He was even then a dying man, but he accomplished more, and was more severe to himself, than any man in health I ever knew. So long as he lived, he made the path of religion easy to me. He was the supernatural life before my eyes. I had only to open them and see. The only difference between us was that I began—first out of love for him, I suppose—to have a great wish to become a Jesuit; whereas he was against it—he thought there were too many special claims upon me here. Then, when I was eighteen, he died. I had seen him the day before, when there seemed to be no danger, or they concealed it from me. But in the night I was called, too late to hear him speak; he was already in his agony. The sight terrified me. I had expected something much more consoling—more beautiful. For a long time I could not shake off the impression, the misery of it."
He was silent again for a minute. He still held Laura's hands close, as though there was something in their touch that spurred him on.
"After his death I got my father's leave to go and study at Louvain. I passed there the most wretched years of my life. Father Lewin's death had thrown me into an extraordinary dejection, which seemed to have taken from me all the joy of my faith; but at Louvain I came very near to losing it altogether. It came, I think, from the reading of some French sceptical books the first year I was there; but I went through a horror and anguish. Often I used to wander for a whole day along the Scheldt, or across lonely fields where no one could see me, lost in what seemed to me a fight with devils. The most horrible blasphemies—the most subtle, the most venomous thoughts—ah! well—by God's grace, I never gave up Confession and Communion—at long intervals, indeed—but still I held to them. The old Passionist father, my director, did not understand much about me. I seemed, indeed, to have no friends. I lived shut up with my own thoughts. The only comfort and relief I got was from painting. I loved the studio where I worked, poor as my own attempts were. It seemed often to be the only thing between me and madness.... Well, the first relief came in a strange way. I was visiting one of the professors, an old Canon of the Cathedral, on a June evening. The Bishop of the See was very ill, and while I was with the Canon word came round to summon the Chapter to assist at the administration of the last Sacraments, and to hear the sick man's Profession of Faith. The old Canon had been good to me. I don't know whether he suspected what was wrong with me. At any rate, he laid a kind hand on my arm. 'Come with me,' he said; and I went with him into the Bishop's residence. I can see the old house now—the black panelled stairs and passages, and the shadow of the great church outside.
"In the Bishop's room were gathered all the canons in their white robes; there was an altar blazing with lights, the windows were wide open to the dusk, and the cathedral bell was tolling. We all knelt, and Monseigneur received the Viaticum. He was fully vested. I could just see his venerable white head on the pillow. After the Communion one of the canons knelt by him and recited the Creed of Pope Pius IV."
Laura started. But Helbeck did not notice the sudden tremulous movement of the hands lying in his. He was sitting rigidly upright, the eyes half closed, his mind busy with the past.
"And as he recited it, the bands that held my own heart seemed to break. I had not been able to approach any clause of that creed for months without danger of blasphemy; and now—it was like a bird escaped from the nets. The snare is broken—and we are delivered! The dying man raised his voice in a last effort; he repeated the oath with which the Creed ends. The Gospels were handed to him; he kissed them with fervour. 'Sic me Deus adjuvet, et Sancta Dei Evangelia.' 'So may God help me, and His Holy Gospels!' I joined in the words mentally, overcome with joy. Before me, as in a vision, had risen the majesty and glory of the Catholic Church; I felt her foundations once more under my feet."
He drew a long breath. Then he turned. Laura felt his eyes upon her, as though in doubt. She herself neither moved nor spoke; she was all hearing, absorbed in a passionate prescience of things more vital yet to come.
"Laura!"—his voice dropped—"I want you to know it all, to understand me through and through. I will try that there shall not be a word to offend you. That scene I have described to you was for me only the beginning of another apostasy. I had no longer the excuse of doubt. I believed and trembled. But for two years after that, I was every day on the brink of ruining my own soul—and another's. The first, the only woman I ever loved before I saw you, Laura, I loved in defiance of all law—God's or man's. If she had struggled one heartbeat less, if God had let me wander one hair's breadth further from His hand, we had both made shipwreck—hopeless, eternal shipwreck. Laura, my little Laura, am I hurting you so?"
She gave a little sob, and mutely, with shut eyes, she raised her face towards him. He stooped and very tenderly and gravely kissed her cheek.
"But God's mercy did not fail!" he said or rather murmured. "At the last moment that woman—God rest her soul!—God bless her for ever!——"
He took off his hat, and bent forward silently for a moment.
—"She died, Laura, more than ten years ago!—At the last moment she saved both herself and me. She sent for one of my old Jesuit masters at Stonyhurst, a man who had been a great friend of Father Lewin's and happened to be at that moment in Brussels. He came. He brought me her last farewell, and he asked me to go back with him that evening to join a retreat that he was holding in one of the houses of the order near Brussels. I went in a sullen state, stunned and for the moment submissive.
"But the retreat was agony. I could take part in nothing. I neglected the prescribed hours and duties; it was as though my mind could not take them in, and I soon saw that I was disturbing others.
"One evening—I was by myself in the garden at recreation hour—the father who was holding the retreat came up to me, and sternly asked me to withdraw at once. I looked at him. 'Will you give me one more day?' I said. He agreed. He seemed touched. I must have appeared to him a miserable creature.
"Next day this same father was conducting a meditation—on 'the condescension of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.' I was kneeling, half stupefied, when I heard him tell a story of the Cure d'Ars. After the procession of Corpus Christi, which was very long and fatiguing, someone pressed the Cure to take food. 'I want nothing,' he said. 'How could I be tired? I was bearing Him who bears me!' 'My brothers,' said Father Stuart, turning to the altar, 'the Lord who bore the sin of the whole world on the Cross, who opens the arms of His mercy now to each separate sinful soul, is there. He beseeches you by me, "Choose, My children, between the world and Me, between sin and Me, between Hell and Me. Your souls are Mine: I bought them with anguish and tears. Why will ye now hold them back from Me—wherefore will ye die?"'
"My whole being seemed to be shaken by these words. But I instantly thought of Marie. I said to myself, 'She is alone—perhaps in despair. How can I save myself, wretched tempter and coward that I am, and leave her in remorse and grief?' And then it seemed to me as though a Voice came from the altar itself, so sweet and penetrating that it overpowered the voice of the preacher and the movements of my companions. I heard nothing in the chapel but It alone. 'She is saved!' It said—and again and again, as though in joy, 'She is saved—saved!'
"That night I crept to the foot of the crucifix in my little cell. 'Elegi, elegi: renuntio!'—I have chosen: I renounce.' All night long those alternate words seemed to be wrung from me."
There was deep silence. Helbeck knelt on the grass beside Laura and took her hands afresh.
"Laura, since that night I have been my Lord's. It seemed to me that He had come Himself—come from His cross—to raise two souls from the depths of Hell. Marie went into a convent, and died in peace and blessedness; I came home here, to do my duty if I could—and save my soul. That seems to you a mere selfish bargain with God—an 'egotism'—that you hate. But look at the root of it. Is the world under sin—and has a God died for it? All my nature—my intellect, my heart, my will, answer 'Yes.' But if a God died, and must die—cruelly, hideously, at the hands of His creatures—to satisfy eternal justice, what must that sin be that demands the Crucifixion? Of what revolt, what ruin is not the body capable? I knew—for I had gone down into the depths. Is any chastisement too heavy, any restraint too harsh, if it keep us from the sin for which our Lord must die? And if He died, are we not His from the first moment of our birth—His first of all? Is it a selfish bargain to yield Him what He purchased at such a cost, to take care that our just debt to Him is paid—so far as our miserable humanity can pay it. All these mortifications, and penances, and self-denials that you hate so, that make the saints so odious in your eyes, spring from two great facts—Sin and the Crucifixion. But, Laura, are they true?"
He spoke in a low, calm voice, yet Laura knew well that his life was poured into each word. She herself did not, could not, speak. But it seemed to her strangely that some spring within her was broken—some great decision had been taken, by whom she could not tell.
He looked with alarm at her pallor and silence.
"Laura, those are the hard and awful—to us Catholics, the majestic—facts on which our religion stands. Accept them, and nothing else is really difficult. Miracles, the protection of the saints, the mysteries of the sacraments, the place that Catholics give to Our Lady, the support of an infallible Church—what so easy and natural if these be true?... Sin and its Divine Victim, penance, regulation of life, death, judgment—Catholic thought moves perpetually from one of these ideas to another. As to many other thoughts and beliefs, it is free to us as to other men to take or leave, to think or not to think. The Church, like a tender mother, offers to her children an innumerable variety of holy aids, consolations, encouragements. These may or may not be of faith. The Crucifix is the Catholic Faith. In that the Catholic sees the Love that brought a God to die, the Sin that infects his own soul. To requite that love, to purge that sin there lies the whole task of the Catholic life."
He broke off again, anxiously studying the drooping face so near to him. Then gently he put his arm round her, and drew her to him till her brow rested against his shoulder.
"Laura, does it seem very hard—very awful—to you?"
She moved imperceptibly, but she did not speak.
"It may well. The way is strait! But, Laura, you see it from without—I from within. Won't you take my word for the sweetness, the reward, and the mercifulness of God's dealings with our souls?" He drew a long agitated breath. "Take my own case—take our love. You remember, Laura, when you sat here on Easter Sunday? I came from Communion and I found you here. You disliked and despised my faith and me. But as you sat here, I loved you—my eyes were first opened. The night of the dance, when you went upstairs, I took my own heart and offered it. You did not love me then: how could I dream you ever would? The sacrifice was mine; I tried to yield it. But it was not His will. I made my struggle—you made yours. He drew us to each other. Then——"
He faltered, looked down upon her in doubt.
"Since then, Laura, so many strange things have happened! Who was I that I should teach anybody? I shrank from laying the smallest touch on your freedom. I thought, 'Gradually, of her own will, she will come nearer. The Truth will plead for itself.' My duty is to trust, and wait. But, Laura, what have I seen in you? Not indifference—not contempt—never! But a long storm, a trouble, a conflict, that has filled me with confusion—overthrown all my own hopes and plans. Laura, my love, my sweet, why does our Faith hurt you so much if it means nothing to you? Is there not already some tenderness"—his voice dropped—"behind the scorn? Could it torment you if—if it had not gained some footing in your heart? Laura, speak to me!"
She slowly drew away from him. Gently she shook her head. Her eyes were full of tears.
But the strange look of power—almost of triumph—on Helbeck's face remained unaltered. She shrank before it.
"Laura, you don't know yourself! But no matter! Only, will you forgive me if you feel a change in me? Till now I have shrunk from fighting you. It seemed to me that an ugly habit of words might easily grow up that would poison all our future. But now I feel in it something more than words. If you challenge, Laura, I shall meet it! If you strike, I shall return it."
He took her hands once more. His bright eye looked for—demanded an answer. Her own personality, for all its daring, wavered and fainted before the attacking force of his.
But Helbeck received no assurance of it. She showed none of that girlish yielding which would have been so natural and so delightful to her lover. Without any direct answer to his appeal or his threat, she lifted to him a look that was far from easy to read—a look of passionate sadness and of pure love. Her delicate face seemed to float towards him, and her lips breathed.
"I was not worthy that you should tell me a word. But—" It was some time before she could go on. Then she said with sudden haste, the colour rushing back into her cheeks, "It is the most sacred honour that was ever done me. I thank—thank—thank you!"
And with her eyes still fixed upon his countenance, and all those deep traces that the last half hour had left upon it, she raised his hand and pressed her soft quivering mouth upon it.
* * * * *
Never had Helbeck been filled with such a tender and hopeful joy as in the hours that followed this scene between them. Father Leadham arrived in time for dinner. Laura treated him with a gentleness, even a sweetness, that from the first moment filled the Jesuit with a secret astonishment. She was very pale; her exhaustion was evident.
But Helbeck silenced his sister; and he surrounded Laura with a devotion that had few words, that never made her conspicuous, and yet was more than she could bear.
Augustina insisted on her going to bed early. Helbeck went upstairs with her to the first landing, to light her candle.
Nothing stirred in the old house. Father Leadham and Augustina were in the drawing-room. They two stood alone among the shadows of the panelling, the solitary candle shining on her golden hair and white dress.
"I have something to say to you, Laura," said Helbeck in a disturbed voice.
She looked up.
"I can't save the Romney, dear. I've tried my very best. Will you forgive me?"
She smiled, and put her hand timidly on his shoulder.
"Ask her, rather! I know you tried. Good-night."
And then suddenly, to his astonishment, she threw both her arms round his neck, and, like a child that nestles to another in penitence or for protection, she kissed his breast passionately, repeatedly.
"Laura, this can't be borne! Look up, beloved! Why should my coat be so blessed?" he said, half laughing, yet deeply moved, as he bent above her.
She disengaged herself, and, as she mounted the stairs, she waved her hand to him. As she passed out of his sight she was a vision of gentleness. The woman had suddenly blossomed from the girl. When Helbeck descended the stairs after she had vanished, his heart beat with a happiness he had never yet known.
And she, when she reached her own room, she let her arms drop rigidly by her side. "It would be a crime—a crime—to marry him," she said, with a dull resolve that was beyond weeping.
* * * * *
Helbeck and Father Leadham sat long together after Augustina had retired. There was an argument between them in which the Jesuit at last won the victory. Helbeck was persuaded to a certain course against his judgment—to some extent against his conscience.
Next morning the Squire left Bannisdale early. He was to be away two days on important business. Before he left he reluctantly told his sister that the Romney would probably be removed before his return, by the dealer to whom it had been sold. Laura did not appear at breakfast, and Helbeck left a written word of farewell, that Augustina delivered.
Meantime Father Leadham remained as the guest of the ladies. In the afternoon he joined Miss Fountain in the garden, and they walked up and down the bowling-green for some time together. Augustina, in the deep window of the drawing-room, was excitedly aware of the fact.
When the two companions came in, Father Leadham after a time rejoined Mrs. Fountain. She looked at him with eagerness. But his fine and scholarly face was more discomposed than she had ever seen it. And the few words that he said to her were more than enough.
Laura meanwhile went to her own room, and shut herself up there. Her cheeks were glowing, her eyes angry. "He promised me!" she said, as she sat down to her writing-table.
But she could not stay there. She got up and walked restlessly about the room. After half an hour's fruitless conversation, Father Leadham had been betrayed into an expression—hardly that—a shade of expression, which had set the girl's nature aflame. What it meant was, "So this—is your answer—to the chivalry of Mr. Helbeck's behaviour—to the delicacy which could go to such lengths in protecting a young lady from her own folly?" The meaning was conveyed by a look—an inflection—hardly a phrase. But Laura understood it perfectly; and when Father Leadham returned to Mrs. Fountain he guiltily knew what he had done, and, being a man in general of great tact and finesse, he hardly knew whom to blame most, himself, or the girl who had imperceptibly and yet deeply provoked him.
That evening Laura told her stepmother that she must go up to London the following day, by the early afternoon train, on some shopping business, and would stay the night with her friend Molly Friedland. Augustina fretfully acquiesced; and the evening was spent by Mrs. Fountain at any rate, in trying to console herself by much broken talk of frocks and winter fashions, while Laura gave occasional answers, and Father Leadham on a distant sofa buried himself in the "Tablet."
* * * * *
The word was Laura's. She had been busy in her room, and had come hurriedly downstairs to fetch her work-bag from the drawing-room. As she crossed the threshold, she saw that the picture had been taken down. Indeed, the van containing it was just driving through the park.
White and faltering, the girl came up to the wall whence the beautiful lady had just been removed, and leant her head against it. She raised her hand to her eyes. "Good-bye," said the inner sense—"Good-bye!" And the strange link which from the first moment almost had seemed to exist between that radiant daughter of Bannisdale and herself snapped and fell away, carrying how much else with it!
* * * * *
About an hour before Laura's departure there was a loud knock at her door, and Mrs. Denton appeared. The woman was pale with rage. Mrs. Fountain, in much trepidation, had just given her notice, and the housekeeper had not been slow to guess, from what quarter the blow had fallen.
Laura turned round bewildered. But she was too late to stop the outbreak. In the course of five minutes' violent speech Mrs. Denton wiped out the grievances of six months; she hurled the gossip of a country-side on Laura's head; and in her own opinion she finally avenged the cause of the Church and of female decorum upon the little infidel adventuress that had stolen away the wits and conscience of the Squire.
Miss Fountain, after' a first impatient murmur, "I might have remembered!"—stood without a word, with eyes cast down, and a little scornful smile on her colourless lips. When at last she had shut the door on her assailant, a great quivering sigh rose from the girl's breast. Was it the last touch? But she said nothing. She brushed away a tear that had unconsciously risen, and went back to her packing.
* * * * *
"Just wait a moment!" said Miss Fountain to old Wilson, who was driving her across the bridge on her way to the station. "I want to get a bunch of those berries by the water. Take the pony up the hill. I'll join you at the top."
Old Wilson drove on. Laura climbed a stile and slipped down to the waterside.
The river, full with autumn rain, came foaming down. The leaf was falling fast. Through the woods on the further bank she could just distinguish a gable of the old house.
A moan broke from her. She stooped and buried her face in the grass—his grass.
When she returned to the road, she looked for the letter-box in the wall of the bridge, and, walking up to it, she dropped into it two letters. Then she stood a moment with bent brows. Had she made all arrangements for Augustina?
But she dared not let herself think of the morrow. She set her face to the hill—trudging steadily up the wet, solitary road. Once—twice—she turned to look. Then the high trees that arched over the top of the hill received the little form; she disappeared into their shadow.
"My dear, where are the girls?"
The speaker was Dr. Friedland, the only intimate friend Stephen Fountain had ever made at Cambridge. The person addressed was Dr. Friedland's wife.
On hearing her husband's question, that lady's gentle and benevolent countenance emerged from the folds of a newspaper. It was the "first mild day of March," and she and her husband had been enjoying an after-breakfast chat in the garden of a Cambridge villa.
"Molly is arranging the flowers; Laura has had a long letter from Mrs. Fountain, and is now, I believe, gone to answer it."
"Then I shan't enjoy my lunch," said Dr. Friedland pensively.
He was an elderly gentleman, with a short beard and moustache turning to white, particularly black eyes, and a handsome brow. His wife had put a rug over his shoulders, and another over his knees, before she allowed him the "Times" and a cigarette. Amid the ample folds of these draperies, he had a Jove-like and benignant air.
His wife inquired what difference Miss Fountain's correspondence would or could make to her host's luncheon.
"Because she won't eat any," said the doctor, with a sigh, "and I find it infectious."
Mrs. Friedland laid down her newspaper.
"There is no doubt she is worried—about Mrs. Fountain."
"E tutti quanti" said the doctor, humming a tune. "My dear, it is surprising what an admiration I find myself possessed of for Sir John Pringle."
"Sir John Pringle?" said the lady, in bewilderment.
"Bozzy, my dear—the great Bozzy—amid the experiments of his youth, turned Catholic. His distracted relations deputed Sir John Pringle to deal with him. That great lawyer pointed out the worldly disadvantages of the step. Bozzy pleaded his immortal soul. Whereupon Sir John observed with warmth that anyone possessing a particle of gentlemanly spirit would sooner be damned to all eternity than give his relations so much trouble as Bozzy was giving his!"
"The application is not clear," said Mrs. Friedland.
"No," said the doctor, stretching his legs and puffing at his cigarette; "but when you speak of Laura, and tell me she is writing to Bannisdale, I find a comfort in Sir John Pringle."
"It would be more to the purpose if Laura did!" exclaimed Mrs. Friedland.
The doctor shook his head, and fell into a reverie. Presently he asked:
"You think Mrs. Fountain is really worse?"
"Laura is sure of it. And the difficulty is, what is she to do? If she goes to Bannisdale, she exiles Mr. Helbeck. Yet, if his sister is really in danger, Mr. Helbeck naturally will desire to be at home."
"And they can't meet?"
"Under the same roof—and the old conditions? Heaven forbid!" said Mrs. Friedland.
"Risk it!" said the doctor, violently slapping his fist on the little garden table that held his box of cigarettes.
"My dear—don't be a hypocrite! You and I know well enough what's wrong with that child."
"Perhaps." The lady's eyes filled with tears. "But you forget that by all accounts Mr. Helbeck is an altered man. From something Laura said to Molly last week, it seems that Mrs. Fountain even is now quite afraid of him—as she used to be."
"If she would only die—good lady!—her brother might go to his own place," said the doctor impatiently.
"To the Jesuits?"
The doctor nodded.
"Did he actually tell you that was his intention?"
"No. But I guessed. And that Trinity man Leadham, who went over, gave me to understand the other day what the end would probably be. But not while his sister lives."
"I should hope not!" said Mrs. Friedland.
After a pause, she turned to her husband.
"John! you know you liked him!"
"If you mean by that, my dear, that I showed a deplorable weakness in dealing with him, my conscience supports you!" said the doctor; "but I would have you remember that for a person of my quiet habits, to have a gentleman pale as death in your study, demanding his lady-love—you knowing all the time that the lady-love is upstairs—and only one elderly man between them—is an agitating situation."
"Poor Laura!—poor Mr. Helbeck!" murmured Mrs. Friedland. The agony of the man, the resolution of the girl, stood out sharply from the medley of the past.
"All very well, my dear—all very well. But you showed a pusillanimity on that occasion that I scorn to qualify. You were afraid of that child—positively afraid of her. I could have dealt with her in a twinkling, if you'd left her to me."
"What would you have said to her?" inquired Mrs. Friedland gently.
"How can there be any possible doubt what I should have said to her?" said the doctor, slapping his knee. "'My dear, you love him—ergo, marry him!' That first and foremost. 'And as to those other trifles, what have you to do with them? Look over them—look round them! Rise, my dear, to your proper dignity and destiny—have a right and natural pride—in the rock that bore you! You, a child of the Greater Church—of an Authority of which all other authorities are the mere caricature—why all this humiliation, these misgivings—this turmoil? Take a serener—take a loftier view!' Ah! if I could evoke Fountain for one hour!"
The doctor bent forward, his hands hanging over his knees, his lips moving without sound, under the sentences his brain was forming. This habit of silent rhetoric represented a curious compromise between a natural impetuosity of temperament, and the caution of scientific research. His wife watched him with a loving, half-amused eye.
"And what, pray, could Mr. Fountain do, John, but make matters ten times worse?"
"Do!—who wants him to do anything? But ten years ago he might have done something. Listen to me, Jane!" He seized his wife's arm. "He makes Laura a child of Knowledge, a child of Freedom, a child of Revolution—without an ounce of training to fit her for the part. It is like an heir—flung to the gypsies. Then you put her to the test—sorely—conspicuously. And she stands fast—she does not yield—it is not in her blood, scarcely in her power, to yield. But it is a blind instinct carried through at what a cost! You might have equipped and fortified her. You did neither. You trusted everything to the passionate loyalty of the woman. And it does not fail you. But——!"
The doctor shook his head, long and slowly. Mrs. Friedland quietly replaced the rugs which had gone wandering, in the energy of these remarks.
"You see, Jane, if it's true—'ne croit qui veut'—it's still more true, 'ne doute qui veut!' To doubt—doubt wholesomely, cheerfully, fruitfully—why, my dear, there's no harder task in the world! And a woman, who thinks with her heart—who can't stand on her own feet as a man can—you remove her from all her normal shelters and supports—you expect her to fling a 'No!' in the face of half her natural friends—and then you are too indolent or too fastidious to train the poor child for her work!—Fountain took Laura out of her generation, and gave her nothing in return. Did he read with her—share his mind with her? Never! He was indolent;-she was wilful; so the thing slid. But all the time he made a partisan of her—he expected her to echo his hates and his prejudice—he stamped himself and his cause deep into her affections——
"And then, my dear, she must needs fall in love with this man, this Catholic! Catholicism at its best—worse luck! No mean or puerile type, with all its fetishisms and unreasons on its head—no!—a type sprung from the finest English blood, disciplined by heroic memories, by the persecution and hardships of the Penal Laws. What happens? Why, of course the girl's imagination goes over! Her father in her—her temperament—stand in the way of anything more. But where is she to look for self-respect, for peace of mind? She feels herself an infidel—a moral outcast. She trembles before the claims of this great visible system. Her reason refuses them—but why? She cannot tell. For Heaven's sake, why do we leave our children's minds empty like this? If you believe, my good friend, Educate! And if you doubt, still more—Educate! Educate!"
The doctor rose in his might, tossed his rugs from him, and began to pace a sheltered path, leaning on his wife's arm.
Mrs. Friedland looked at him slyly, and laughed.
"So if Laura had been learned, she might have been happy?—John!—what a paradox!"
"Not mine then!—but the Almighty's—who seems to have included a mind in this odd bundle that makes up Laura. What! You set a woman to fight for ideas, and then deny her all knowledge of what they mean. Happy! Of course she might have been happy. She might have made her Catholic respect her. He offered her terms—she might have accepted them with a free and equal mind. There would have been none, anyway, of this moral doubt—this bogeyfication of things she don't understand! Ah! here she comes. Now just look at her, Jane! What's your housekeeping after? She's lost half a stone this month if she's lost an ounce."
And the doctor standing still peered discontentedly through his spectacles at the advancing figure.
Laura approached slowly, with her hands behind her, looking on her way at the daffodils and tulips just opening in the garden border.
"Pater!—Molly says you and Mater are to come in. It's March and not May, you'll please to remember."
She came up to them with the airs of a daughter, put a flower in Mrs. Friedland's dress—ran for one of the discarded rugs, and draped it again round the doctor's ample shoulders. Her manner to the two elderly folk was much softer and freer than it had ever been in the days of her old acquaintance with them. A wistful gratitude played through it, revealing a new Laura—a Laura that had passed, in these five months through deep waters, and had been forced, in spite of pride, to throw herself upon the friendly and saving hands held out to her.
They on their side looked at her with a tender concern, which tried to disguise itself in chat. The doctor hooked his arm through hers, and made her examine the garden.
"Look at these Lent lilies, Miss Laura. They will be out in two days at most."
Laura bent over them, then suddenly drew herself erect. The doctor felt the stiffening of the little arm.
"I suppose you had sheets of them in the north," he said innocently, as he poked a stone away from the head of an emerging hyacinth.
"Yes—a great many." She looked absently straight before her, taking no more notice of the flowers.
"Well—and Mrs. Fountain? Are you really anxious?"
The girl hesitated.
"She is ill—quite ill. I ought to see her somehow."
"Well, my dear, go!" He looked round upon her with a cheerful decision.
"No—that isn't possible," she said quietly. "But I might stay somewhere near. She must have lost a great deal of strength since Christmas."
At Christmas and for some time afterwards, she and Mrs. Fountain had been at St. Leonard's together. In fact, it was little more than a fortnight since Laura had parted from her stepmother, who had shown a piteous unwillingness to go back alone to Bannisdale.
The garden door opened and shut; a white-capped servant came along the path. A gentleman—for Miss Fountain.
"For me?" The girl's cheek flushed involuntarily. "Why, Pater—who is it?"
For behind the servant came the gentleman—a tall and comely youth, with narrow blue eyes, a square chin, and a very conscious smile. He was well dressed in a dark serge suit, and showed a great deal of white cuff, and a conspicuous watch-chain, as he took off his hat.
Laura advanced to him, with a face of astonishment, and held out her hand.
Mason greeted her with a mixture of confusion and assurance, glancing behind her at the Friedlands all the time. "Well, I was here on some business—and I thought I'd look you up, don't you know?"
"My cousin, Hubert Mason," said Laura, turning to the old people.
Friedland lifted his wide-awake. Mrs. Friedland, whose gentle face could be all criticism, eyed him quietly, and shook hands perfunctorily. A few nothings passed on the weather and the spring. Suddenly Mason said:
"Would you take a walk with me, Miss Laura?"
After a momentary hesitation, she assented, and went into the house for her walking things. Mason hurriedly approached the doctor.
"Why, she looks—she looks as if you could blow her away!" he cried, staring into the doctor's face, while his own flushed.
"Miss Fountain's health has not been strong this winter," said the doctor gravely, his spectacled eyes travelling up and down Mason's tall figure. "You, I suppose, became acquainted with her in Westmoreland?"
"Acquainted with her!" The young man checked himself, flushed still redder, then resumed. "Well, we're cousins, you see—though of course I don't mean to say that we're her sort—you understand?"
"Miss Fountain is ready," said Mrs. Friedland.
Mason looked round, saw the little figure in the doorway, and hastily saluting the Friedlands, took his leave.
"My dear," said the doctor anxiously, laying hold on his wife's arm, "should we have asked him to lunch?"
His wife smiled.
"By no means. That's Laura's business."
"Well, but, Jane—Jane! had you realised that young man?"
"Oh dear, yes," said Mrs. Friedland. "Don't excite yourself, John."
"Laura—gone out with a young man," said the doctor, musing. "I have been waiting for that all the winter—and he's extremely good-looking, Jane."
Mrs. Friedland lost patience.
"John! I really can't talk to you, if you're as dense as that."
"Talk to me!" cried the doctor—"why, you unreasonable woman, you haven't vouchsafed me a single word!"
"Well, and why should I?" said Mrs. Friedland provokingly.
* * * * *
Half an hour passed away. Mason and Laura were sitting in the garden of Trinity.
Up till now, Laura had no very clear idea of what they had been talking about. Mason, it appeared, had been granted three days' holiday by his employers, and had made use of it to come to Cambridge and present a letter of introduction from his old teacher, Castle, the Whinthorpe organist, to a famous Cambridge musician. But, at first, he was far more anxious to discuss Laura's affairs than to explain his own; and Laura had found it no easy matter to keep him at arm's length. For nine months, Mason had brooded, gossiped, and excused himself; now, conscious of being somehow a fine fellow again, he had come boldly to play the cousin—perhaps something more. He offered now a few words of stammering apology on the subject of his letter to Laura after the announcement of her engagement. She received them in silence; and the matter dropped.
As to his moral recovery, and material prospects, his manners and appearance were enough. A fledgeling ambition, conscious of new aims and chances, revealed itself in all he said. The turbid elements in the character were settling down; the permanent lines of it, strong, vulgar, self-complacent, emerged.
Here, indeed, was a successful man in the making. Once or twice the girl's beautiful eyes opened suddenly, and then sank again. Before her rose the rocky chasm of the Greet; the sound of the water was in her ears—the boyish tones of remorse, of entreaty.
"And you know I'll make some money out of my songs before long—see if I don't! I took some of em to the Professor this morning—and, my word, didn't he like em! Why, I couldn't repeat the things he said—you'd think I was bluffing!"
Strange gift!—"settling unaware"—on this rude nature and poor intelligence! But Laura looked up eagerly. Here she softened; here was the bridge between them. And when he spoke of his new friend, the young musical apostle who had reclaimed him, there was a note which pleased her. She began to smile upon him more freely; the sadness of her little face grew sweet.
And suddenly the young man stopped and looked at her. He reddened; and she flushed too, not knowing why.
"Well, that's where 'tis," he said, moving towards her on the seat. "I'm going to get on. I told you I was, long ago, and it's come true. My salary'll be a decent figure before this year's out, and I'm certain I'll make something out of the songs. Then there's my share of the farm. Mother don't give me more than she's obliged; but it's a tidy bit sometimes. Laura!—look here!—I know there's nothing in the way now. You were a plucky girl, you were, to throw that up. I always said so—I didn't care what people thought. Well, but now—you're free—and I'm a better sort—won't you give a fellow a chance?"
Midway, his new self-confidence left him. She sat there so silent, so delicately white! He had but to put out his hand to grasp her; and he dared, not move a finger. He stared at her, breathless and open-mouthed.
But she did not take it tragically at all. After a moment, she began to laugh, and shook her head.
"Do you mean that you want me to marry you, Hubert? Oh! you'd so soon be tired of that!—You don't know anything about me, really—we shouldn't suit each other at all."
His face fell. He drew sullenly away from her, and bending forward, began to poke at the grass with his stick.
"I see how 'tis. I'm not good enough for you—and I don't suppose I ever shall be."
She looked at him with a smiling compassion.
"I'm not in love with you, Mr. Hubert—that's all."
"No—you've never got over them things that happened up at Whinthorpe," he said roughly. "I've got a bone to pick with you though. Why did you give me the slip that night?"
He looked up. But in spite of his bravado, he reddened again, deeply.
"Well—you hadn't exactly commended yourself as an escort, had you?" she said lightly. But her tone pricked.
"I hadn't had a drop of anything," he declared hotly; "and I'd have looked after you, and stopped a deal of gossip. You hurt my feelings pretty badly. I can tell you."
"Did I?—Well, as you hurt mine on the first occasion, let's cry quits."
He was silent for a little, throwing furtive glances at her from time to time. She was wonderfully thin and fragile, but wonderfully pretty, as she sat there under the cedar.
At last he said, with a grumbling note:
"I wish you wouldn't look so thin and dowie-like, as we say up at home—you've no cause to fret, I'm sure."
The temper of twenty-one gave way. Laura sat up—nay, rose.
"Will you please come and look at the sights?—or shall I go home?"
He looked up at her flashing face, and stuck to his seat.
"I say—Miss Laura—you don't know how you bowl a fellow over!"
The expression of his handsome countenance—so childish still through all its athlete's force—propitiated her. And yet she felt instinctively that his fancy for her no longer went so deep as it had once done.
Well!—she was glad; of course she was glad.
"Oh! you're not so very much to be pitied," she said; but her hand lighted a moment kindly and shyly on the young man's arm. "Now, if you wouldn't talk about these things, Hubert—do you know what I should be doing?—I should be asking you to do me a service."
His manner changed—became businesslike and mannish at once.
"Then you'll please sit down again—and tell me what it is," he said.
She obeyed. He crossed his knees, and listened.
But she had some difficulty in putting it. At last she said, looking away from him:
"Do you think, if I proposed it, your mother could bear to have me on a visit to the farm?"
"Mother!—you!" he said in astonishment. A hundred notions blazed up in his mind. What on earth did she want to be in those parts again for?
"My stepmother is very unwell," she said hurriedly. "It—well, it troubles me not to see her. But I can't go to Bannisdale. If your mother doesn't hate me now, as she did last summer—perhaps—she and Polly would take me in for a while?"
He frowned over it—taking the airs of the relative and the counsellor.
"Mother didn't say much—well—about your affair. But Polly says she's never spoken again you since. But I expect—you know what she'd be afraid of?"
He nodded sagaciously.
"I can't imagine," said Laura, instantly. But the stiffening of her slight frame betrayed her.
"Why, of course—Miss Laura—you see she'd be afraid of its coming on again."
There was silence. The broad rim of Laura's velvet hat hid her face. Hubert began to be uncomfortable.
"I don't say as she'd have cause to," he said slowly; "but——"
Laura suddenly laughed, and Mason opened his eyes in astonishment. Such a strange little dry sound!
"Of course, if your mother were to think such things and to say them to me—every time I went to Bannisdale, I couldn't stay. But I want to see Augustina very, very much." Her voice wavered. "And I could easily go to her—if I were close by—when she was alone. And of course I should be no expense. Your mother knows I have my own money."
Hubert nodded. He was trying hard to read her face, but—what the deuce made girls so close? His countenance brightened however.
"All right. I'll see to it—I'll manage it—you wait."
"Ah! but stop a minute." Her smile shone out from the shadow of the hat. "If I go there's a condition. While I'm there, you mustn't come."
The young fellow flung away from her with a passionate exclamation, and her smile dropped—lost itself in a sweet distress, unlike the old wild Laura.
"I seem to be falling out with you all the time," she said in haste—"and I don't want to a bit! But indeed—it will be much better. You see, if you were to be coming over to pay visits to me—you would think it your duty to make love to me!"
"Well—and if I did?" he said fiercely.
"It would only put off the time of our making real friends. And—and—I do care very much for papa's people."
The tears leapt to her eyes for the first time. She held out her ungloved hand.
Reluctantly, and without looking at her, he took it. The touch of it roused a tempest in him. He crushed it and threw it away from him.
"Oh! if you'd never seen that man!" he groaned.
She got up without a word, and presently they were walking through the "backs," and she was gradually taming and appeasing him. By the time they reached the street gate of King's he was again in the full tide of musical talk and boasting, quite aware besides that his good looks and his magnificent physique drew the attention of the passers-by.
"Why, they're a poor lot—these 'Varsity men!" he said once contemptuously, as they passed a group of rather weedy undergraduates—"I could throw ten of em at one go!"
And perpetually he talked of money, the cost of his lodgings, of his railway fare, the swindling ways of the south. After all, the painful habits of generations had not run to waste; the mother began to show in the son.
In the street they parted. As he was saying good-bye to her, his look suddenly changed.
"I say!—that's the girl I travelled down with yesterday! And, by Jove! she knew me!"
And with a last nod to Laura, he darted after a tall woman who had thrown him a glance from the further pavement. Laura recognised the smart and buxom daughter of a Cambridge tradesman, a young lady whose hair, shoulders, millinery, and repartees were all equally pronounced.
* * * * *
Miss Fountain smiled, and turned away. But in the act of doing so, she came to a sudden stop. A face had arrested her—she stood bewildered.
A man walking in the road came towards her.
"I see that you recognise me, Miss Fountain!"
The ambiguous voice—the dark, delicate face—the clumsy gait—she knew them all. But—she stared in utter astonishment. The man who addressed her wore a short round coat and soft hat; a new beard covered his chin; his flannel shirt was loosely tied at the throat by a silk handkerchief. And over all the same air of personal slovenliness and ill-breeding.
"You didn't expect to see me in this dress, Miss Fountain? Let me walk a few steps with you, if I may. You perhaps hadn't heard that I had left the Jesuits—and ceased indeed to be a Catholic."
Her mind whirled, as she recognised the scholastic. She saw the study at Bannisdale—and Helbeck bending over her.
"No, indeed—I had not heard," she stammered, as they walked on. "Was it long ago?"
"Only a couple of months. The crisis came in January——"
And he broke out into a flood of autobiography. Already at Bannisdale he had been in confusion of mind—the voices of art and liberty calling to him each hour more loudly—his loyalty to Helbeck, to his boyish ideals, to his Jesuit training, holding him back.
"I believe, Miss Fountain"—the colour rushed into his womanish cheek—"you overheard us that evening—you know what I owe to that admirable, that extraordinary man. May I be frank? We have both been through deep waters!"
The girl's face grew rigid. Involuntarily she put a wider space between herself and him. But he did not notice.
"It will be no news to you, Miss Fountain, that Mr. Helbeck's engagement troubled his Catholic friends. I chose to take it morbidly to heart—I ventured that—that most presumptuous attack upon him." He laughed, with an affected note that made her think him odious. "But you were soon avenged. You little know, Miss Fountain, what an influence your presence at Bannisdale had upon me. It—well! it was like a rebel army, perpetually there, to help—to support, the rebel in myself. I saw the struggle—the protest in you. My own grew fiercer. Oh! those days of painting!—and always the stabbing thought, never again! I must confess even the passionate delight this has given me—the irreligious ideas it has excited. All my religious habits lost power—I could not meditate—I was always thinking of the problem of my work. Clearly I must never touch, a brush again.—For I was very soon to take orders—then to go out to missionary work. Well, I put the painting aside—I trampled on myself—I went to see my father and sister, and rejoiced in the humiliations they put upon me. Mr. Helbeck was all kindness, but he was naturally the last person I could confide in. Then, Miss Fountain, I went back, back to the Jesuit routine——"
He paused, looking instinctively for a glance from her. But she gave him none.
"And in three weeks it broke down under me for ever. I gave it up. I am a free man. Of the wrench I say nothing." He drew himself up with a shudder, which seemed to her theatrical. "There are sufferings one must not talk of. The Society have not been ungenerous. They actually gave me a little money. But, of course, for all my Catholic friends it is like death. They know me no more."
Then for the first time his companion turned towards him. Her eyelids lifted. Her lips framed rather than spoke the words, "Mr. Helbeck?"
"Ah! Mr. Helbeck—I am not mistaken, Miss Fountain, in thinking that I may now speak of Mr. Helbeck with more freedom?"
"My engagement with Mr. Helbeck is broken off," she said coldly. "But you were saying something of yourself?"
A momentary expression of dislike and disappointment crossed his face. He was of a soft, sensuous temperament, and had expected a good deal of sympathy from Miss Fountain.
"Mr. Helbeck has done what all of us might expect," he said, not without a betraying sharpness. "He has cast me off in the sternest way. Henceforth he knows me no more. Bannisdale is closed to me. But, indeed, the news from that quarter fills me with alarm."
Laura looked up again eagerly, involuntarily.
"Mr. Helbeck, by all accounts, grows more and more extreme—more and more solitary.—But of course your stepmother will have kept you informed. It was always to be foreseen. What was once a beautiful devotion, has become, with years—and, I suppose, opposition—a stern unbending passion—may not one say, a gloomy bigotry?"
He sighed delicately. Through the girl's stormy sense there ran a dumb rush of thoughts—"Insolent! ungrateful! He wounds the heart that loved him—and then dares to discuss—to blame!"
But before she could find something to say aloud, her companion resumed.
"But I must not complain. I was honoured by a superior man's friendship. He has withdrawn it. He has the right.—Now I must look to the future. You will, I think, be glad to hear that I am not in that destitute condition which generally awaits the Catholic deserter. My prospects indeed seem to be secured."
And with a vanity which did not escape her, he described the overtures that had been made to him by the editor of a periodical which was to represent "the new mystical school"—he spoke familiarly of great artists, and especially French ones, murdering the French names in a way that at once hurt the girl's ears, and pleased her secret spite against him—he threw in a critic or two without the Mr.—and he casually mentioned a few lords as persons on whom genius and necessity could rely.
All this in a confidential and appealing tone, which he no doubt imagined to be most suitable to women, especially young women. Laura thought it impertinent and unbecoming, and longed to be rid of him. At last the turning to the Friedlands' house appeared. She stood still, and stiffly wished him good-bye.
But he retained her hand and pressed it ardently.
"Oh! Miss Fountain—we have both suffered!"
* * * * *
The girl could hardly pacify herself enough to go in. Again and again she found a pleasure in those words of her French novel that she had repeated to Helbeck long ago: "Imagination faussee et troublee—faussee et troublee."
No delicacy—no modesty—no compunction! Her own poor heart flew to Bannisdale. She thought of all that the Squire had suffered in this man's cause. Outrage—popular hatred—her own protests and petulances,—all met with so unbending a dignity, so inviolable a fidelity, both to his friend and to his Church! She recalled that scarred brow—that kind and brotherly affection—that passionate sympathy which had made the heir of one of the most ancient names in England the intimate counsellor and protector of the wheelwright's son.
Popinjay!—renegade!—to come to her talking of "bigotry"—without a breath of true tenderness or natural remorse. Williams had done that which she had angrily maintained in that bygone debate with Helbeck he had every right to do. And she had nothing but condemnation. She walked up and down the shady road, her eyes blinded with tears. One more blow upon the heart that she herself had smitten so hard! Sympathy for this new pain took her back to every incident of the old—to every detail of that hideous week which had followed upon her flight.
How had she lived through it? Those letters—that distant voice in Dr. Friedland's study—her own piteous craving——
For the thousandth time, with the old dreary conviction, she said to herself that she had done right—terribly, incredibly right.
But all the while, she seemed to be sitting beside him in his study—laying her cheek upon his hand—eagerly comforting him for this last sorrow. His inexorable breach with Williams—well! it was part of his character—she would not have it otherwise. All that had angered her as imagination, was now natural and dignified as reality. Her thoughts proudly defended it. Let him be rigorous towards others if he pleased—he had been first king and master of himself.
* * * * *
Next day Molly Friedland and Laura went to London for the day. Laura was taking music lessons, as one means of driving time a little quicker; and there was shopping to be done both for the household and for themselves.
In the afternoon, as the girls were in Sloane Street together, Laura suddenly asked Molly to meet her in an hour at a friend's house, where they were to have tea. "I have something I want to do by myself." Molly asked no questions, and they parted.
A few minutes later, Laura stepped into the church of the Brompton Oratory. It was a Saturday afternoon, and Benediction was about to begin.
She drew down her thick veil, and took a seat near the door. The great heavy church was still nearly dark, save for a dim light in the sanctuary. But it was slowly filling with people, and she watched the congregation.
In front of her was a stout and fashionably dressed young man with an eyeglass and stick—evidently a stranger. He sat stolid and motionless, one knee crossed over the other, scrutinising everything that went on as though he had been at the play. Presently, a great many men began to stream in, most of them bald and grey, but some young fellows, who dropped eagerly on their knees as they entered, and rose reluctantly. Nuns in black hoods and habits would come briskly up, kneel and say a prayer, then go out again. Or sometimes they brought schools—girls, two and two—and ranged them decorously for the service. An elderly man, of the workman class, appeared with his small son, and sat in front of Laura. The child played tricks; the man drew it tenderly within his arm, and kept it quiet, while he himself told his beads. Then a girl with wild eyes and touzled hair, probably Irish, with her baby in her arms, sat down at the end of Laura's seat, stared round her for a few minutes, dropped to the altar, and went away. And all the time smartly dressed ladies came and went incessantly, knelt at side altars, crossed themselves, said a few rapid prayers, or disappeared into the mysteries of side aisles behind screens and barriers—going no doubt to confession.
There was an extraordinary life in it all. Here was no languid acceptance of a respectable habit. Something was eagerly wanted—diligently sought.
Laura looked round her, with a sigh from her inmost heart. But the vast church seemed to her ugly and inhuman. She remembered a saying of her father's as to its "vicious Roman style"—the "tomb of the Italian mind."
Ah!—Suddenly a dim surpliced figure in the distance, and lights springing like stars in the apse. Presently the high altar, in a soft glow, shone out upon the dark church. All was still silent; the sanctuary spoke in light.
For a few minutes. Then this exquisite and magical effect broke up. The lighting spread through the church, became commonplace, showed the pompous lines of capital and cornice, the bad sculpture in the niches. A procession entered, and the service began.
Laura dropped on her knees. But she was no longer in London, in the Oratory church. She was far away, in the chapel of an old northern house, where the walls glowed with strange figures, and a dark crucifix hovered austerely above the altar. She saw the small scattered congregation; Father Bowles's grey head and blanched, weak face; Augustina in her long widow's veil; the Squire in his corner. The same words were being said there now, at this same hour. She looked at her watch, then hid her eyes again, tortured with a sick yearning.
But when she came out, twenty minutes later, her step was more alert. For a little while, she had been almost happy.
* * * * *
That night, after the returned travellers had finished their supper, the doctor was in a talking mood. He had an old friend with him a thinker and historian like himself. Both of them had lately come across "Leadham of Trinity"—the convert and Jesuit, who was now engaged upon an important Catholic memoir, and was settled for a time, within reach of Cambridge libraries.
"You knew Father Leadham in the north, Miss Laura?" asked the doctor, as the girls came into the drawing-room.
"I saw him two or three times," she said, as she made her way to the warm but dark corner near the fire. "Is he in Cambridge?"
The doctor nodded.
"Come to embrace us all—breathing benediction on learning and on science! There has been a Catholic Congress somewhere."—He looked at his friend. "That will show us the way!"
The friend—a small, lively-eyed, black-bearded man, just returned from some theological work in a German university—threw back his head and laughed good-humouredly.
The talk turned on Catholic learning old and new; on the assumptions and limitations of it; on the forms taken by the most recent Catholic Apologetic; and so, like a vessel descending a great river, passed out at last, steered by Friedland, among the breakers of first principles.
As a rule the doctor talked in paradox and ellipse. He threw his sentences into air, and let them find their feet as they could.
But to-day, unconsciously, his talk took a tone that was rare with him—became prophetical, pontifical—assumed a note of unction. And often, as Molly noticed, with a slight instinctive gesture—a fatherly turning towards that golden spot made by Laura's hair among the shadows.
His friend fell silent after a while—watching Friedland with small sharp eyes. He had come there to discuss a new edition of Sidonius Apollinaris,—was himself one of the driest and acutest of investigators. All this talk for babes seemed to him the merest waste of time.
Friedland, however, with a curious feeling, let himself be carried away by it.
A little Catholic manual of Church history had fallen into his hands that morning. His fingers played with it as it lay on the table, and with the pages of a magazine beside it that contained an article by Father Leadham.
No doubt some common element in the two had roused him.——
"The Catholic war with history," he said, "is perennial! History, in fact, is the great rationalist; and the Catholic conscience is scandalised by her. And so we have these pitiful little books—" he laid his hand on the volume beside him—"which simply expunge history, or make it afresh. And we have a piece of Jesuit apologia, like this paper of Leadham's—so charming, in a sense, so scholarly! And yet one feels through it a cry of the soul—the Catholic arraignment of history, that she is what she is!"
"You'll find it in Newman—often," said the black-bearded man suddenly—and he ran through a list of passages, rapidly, in the student's way.
"Ah! Newman!" said Friedland with vivacity. "This morning I read over that sermon of his he delivered to the Oscott Synod, after the re-establishment of the Hierarchy—you remember it, Dalton?—What a flow and thunder in the sentences!—what an elevation in the thought! Who would not rather lament with Newman, than exult with Froude?—But here again, it is history that is the rationalist—not we poor historians!
"... Why was England lost to the Church? Because Henry was a villain?—because the Tudor bishops were slaves and poltroons? Does Leadham, or any other rational man really think so?"
The little black man nodded. He did not think it worth while to speak.
But Friedland went on enlarging, with his hand on his Molly's head—looking into her quiet eyes.
"... The fact is, the Catholic, who is in love with his Church, cannot let himself realise truly what the Home of the Renaissance meant: But turn your back on all the Protestant crew—even on Erasmus. Ask only those Catholic witnesses who were at the fountain-head, who saw the truth face to face. And then—ponder a little, what it was that really happened in those forty-five years of Elizabeth....
"Can Leadham, can anyone deny that the nation rose in them to the full stature of its manhood—to a buoyant and fruitful maturity? And more—if it had not been for some profound movement of the national life,—some irresistible revolt of the common intelligence, the common conscience—does anyone suppose that the whims and violences of any trumpery king could have broken the links with Rome?—that such a life and death as More's could have fallen barren on English hearts? Never!—How shallow are all the official explanations—how deep down lies the truth!"
Out of the monologues that followed, broken often by the impatience or the eagerness of Dalton, Molly, at least, who worked much with her father, remembered fragments like the following:
"... The figure of the Church,—spouse or captive, bride or martyr,—as she has become personified in Catholic imagination, is surely among the greatest, the most ravishing, of human conceptions. It ranks with the image of 'Jahve's Servant' in the poetry of Israel. And yet behind her, as she moves through history, the modern sees the rising of something more majestic still—the free human spirit, in its contact with the infinite sources of things!—the Jerusalem which is the mother of us all—the Greater, the Diviner Church.... Into her Ursula-robe all lesser forms are gathered. But she is not only a maternal, a generative power—she is chastisement and convulsion.
"... Look back again to that great rising of the North against the South, that we call the Reformation.—Catholicism of course is saved with the rest.—One may almost say that Newman's own type is made possible—all that touches and charms us in English Catholics has its birth, because York, Canterbury, and Salisbury are lost to the Mass.
"And abroad?—I always find a sombre fascination in the spectacle of the Tridentine reform. The Church in her stern repentance breaks all her toys, burns all her books! She shakes herself free from Guicciardini's 'herd of wretches.' She shuts her gates on the knowledge and the freedom that have rent her—and within her strengthened walls she sits, pondering on judgment to come. In so far as her submission is incomplete, she is raising new reckonings against herself every hour.—But for the moment the moralising influence of the lay intelligence has saved her—a new strength flows through her old veins.
"... And so with scholarship.—The great fabric of Gallican and Benedictine learning rises into being, under the hammer blows of a hostile research. The Catholics of Germany, says Renan, are particularly distinguished for acuteness and breadth of ideas. Why? Because of the 'perpetual contact of Protestant criticism.'—
"... More and more we shall come to see that it is the World that is the salt of the Church! She owes far more to her enemies than to any of her canonised saints. One may almost say that she lives on what the World can spare her of its virtues."
Laura, in her dark corner, had almost disappeared from sight. Molly, the soft, round-faced, spectacled Molly, turned now and then from her friend to her father. She would give Friedland sometimes a gentle restraining touch—her lips shaped themselves, as though she said, "Take care!"
And gradually Friedland fell upon things more intimate—the old topics of the relation between Catholicism and the will, Catholicism and conscience.
"... I often think we should be the better for some chair of 'The Inner Life,' at an English University!" he said presently, with a smile at Molly.—"What does the ordinary Protestant know of all those treasures of spiritual experience which Catholicism has secreted for centuries? There is the debt of debts that we all owe to the Catholic Church.
"Well!—Some day, no doubt, we shall all be able to make a richer use of what she has so abundantly to give.—
"At present what one sees going on in the modern world is a vast transformation of moral ideas, which for the moment holds the field. Beside the older ethical fabric—the fabric that the Church built up out of Greek and Jewish material—a new is rising. We think a hundred things unlawful that a Catholic permits; on the other hand, a hundred prohibitions of the older faith have lost their force. And at the same time, for half our race, the old terrors and eschatologies are no more. We fear evil for quite different reasons; we think of it in quite different ways. And the net result in the best moderns is at once a great elaboration of conscience—and an almost intoxicating sense of freedom.—
"Here, no doubt, it is the personal abjection of Catholicism, that jars upon us most—that divides it deepest from the modern spirit.—Molly!—don't frown!—Abjection is a Catholic word—essentially a Catholic temper. It means the ugliest and the loveliest things. It covers the most various types—from the nauseous hysteria of a Margaret Mary Alacoque, to the exquisite beauty of the Imitation.... And it derives its chief force, for good and evil, from the belief in the Mass. There again, how little the Protestant understands what he reviles! In one sense he understands it well enough. Catholicism would have disappeared long ago but for the Mass. Marvellous indestructible belief!—that brings God to Man, that satisfies the deepest emotions of the human heart!—
"What will the religion of the free mind discover to put in its place? Something, it must find. For the hold of Catholicism—or its analogues—upon the guiding forces of Christendom is irretrievably broken. And yet the needs of the soul remain the same....
"Some compensation, no doubt, we shall reap from that added sense of power and wealth, which the change in the root ideas of life has brought with it for many people. Humanity has walked for centuries under the shadow of the Fall, with all that it involves. Now, a precisely opposite conception is slowly incorporating itself with all the forms of European thought. It is the disappearance—the rise—of a world. At the beginning of the century, Coleridge foresaw it.
"... The transformation affects the whole of personality! The mass of men who read and think, and lead straight lives to-day, are often conscious of a dignity and range their fathers never knew. The spiritual stature of civilised man has risen—like his physical stature! We walk to-day a nobler earth. We come—not as outcasts, but as sons and freemen, into the House of God.—But all the secrets and formulae of a new mystical union have to be worked out. And so long as pain and death remain, humanity will always be at heart a mystic!"
* * * * *
Gradually, as the old man touched these more penetrating and personal matters, the head among the shadows had emerged. The beautiful eyes, so full—unconsciously full—of sad and torturing thought, rested upon the speaker. Friedland became sensitively conscious of them. The grey-haired scholar was in truth one of the most religious of men and optimists. The negations of his talk began to trouble him—in sight of this young grief and passion. He drew upon all that his heart could find to say of things fruitful and consoling. After the liberating joys of battle, he must needs follow the perennial human instinct and build anew the "Civitas Dei."
* * * * *
When Friedland and his wife were left alone, Friedland said with timidity:
"Jane, I played the preacher to-night, and preaching is foolishness. But I would willingly brace that poor child's mind a little. And it seemed to me she listened."
Mrs. Friedland laughed under her breath—the saddest laugh.
"Do you know what the child was doing this afternoon?"
"She went to the Oratory—to Benediction." Friedland looked up startled—then understood—raised his hands and let them drop despairingly.
"Missie—are yo ben?"
The outer door of Browhead Farm was pushed inwards, and old Daffady's head and face appeared.
"Come in, Daffady—please come in!"
Miss Fountain's tone was of the friendliest. The cow-man obeyed her. He came in, holding his battered hat in his hand.
"Missie—A thowt I'd tell yo as t' rain had cleared oop—yo cud take a bit air verra weel, if yo felt to wish it."
Laura turned a pale but smiling face towards him. She had been passing through a week of illness, owing perhaps to the April bleakness of this high fell, and old Daffady was much concerned. They had made friends from the first days of her acquaintance with the farm. And during these April weeks since she had been the guest of her cousins, Daffady had shown her a hundred quaint attentions. The rugged old cow-man who now divided with Mrs. Mason the management of the farm was half amused, half scandalised, by what seemed to him the delicate uselessness of Miss Fountain. "I'm towd as doon i' Lunnon town, yo'll find scores o' this mak"—he would say to his intimate the old shepherd—"what th' Awmighty med em for, bets me. Now Miss Polly, she can sarve t' beese"—(by which the old North Countryman meant "cattle")—"and mek a hot mash for t' cawves, an cook an milk, an ivery oother soart o' thing as t' Lord give us t' wimmen for—bit Missie!—yo've nobbut to luke ut her 'ands. Nobbut what theer's soomat endearin i' these yoong flibberties—yo conno let em want for owt—bit it's the use of em worrits me above a bit."
Certainly all that old Daffady could do to supply the girl's wants was done. Whether it was a continuous supply of peat for the fire in these chilly April days; or a newspaper from the town; or a bundle of daffodils from the wood below—some signs of a fatherly mind he was always showing towards this little drone in the hive. And Laura delighted in him—racked her brains to keep him talking by the fireside.
"Well, Daffady, I'll take your advice.—I'm hungering to be out again. But come in a bit first. When do you think the mistress will be back?"
Daffady awkwardly established himself just inside the door, looking first to see that his great nailed boots were making no unseemly marks upon the flags.
Laura was alone in the house. Mrs. Mason and Polly were gone to Whinthorpe, where they had some small sales to make. Mrs. Mason moreover was discontented with the terms under which she sold her milk; and there were inquiries to be made as to another factor, and perhaps a new bargain to be struck.
"Oh, the missis woan't be heaem till dark," said Daffady. "She's not yan to do her business i' haaeste. She'll see to 't aa hersen. An she's reet there. Them as ladles their wits oot o' other foak's brains gits nobbut middlin sarved."
"You don't seem to miss Mr. Hubert very much?" said Laura, with a laughing look.
Daffady scratched his head.
"Noa—they say he's doin wonnerfu well, deaen i' Froswick, an I'm juist glad on 't; for he wasna yan for work."
"Why, Daffady, they say now he's killing himself with work!"
Daffady grinned—a cautious grin.
"They'll deave yo, down i' th' town, wi their noise.—Yo'd think they were warked to deaeth.—Bit, yo can see for yorsen. Why, a farmin mon mut be allus agate: in t' mornin, what wi' cawves to serve, an t' coos to feed, an t' horses to fodder, yo're fair run aff your legs. Bit down i' Whinthorpe—or Froswick ayder, fer it's noa odds—why, theer's nowt stirrin for a yoong mon. If cat's loose, that's aboot what!"
Laura's face lit up. Very few things now had power to please her but Daffady's dialect, and Daffady's scorns.
"And so all the world is idle but you farm people?"
"A doan't say egsackly idle," said Daffady, with a good-humoured tolerance.
"But the factory-hands, Daffady?"
"O!—a little stannin an twiddlin!" said Daffady contemptuously—"I allus ses they pays em abuve a bit."
"But the miners?—come, Daffady!"
"I'm not stannin to it aw roond," said Daffady patiently—"I laid it down i' th' general."
"And all the people, who work with their heads, Daffady, like—like my papa?"
The girl smiled softly, and turned her slim neck to look at the old man. She was charmingly pretty so, among the shadows of the farm kitchen—but very touching—as the old man dimly felt. The change in her that worked so uncomfortably upon his rustic feelings went far deeper than any mere aspect of health or sickness. The spectator felt beside her a ghostly presence—that "sad sister, Pain"—stealing her youth away, smile as she might.
"I doan't knaw aboot them, Missie—nor aboot yor fadther—thoo I'll uphod tha Muster Stephen was a terr'ble cliver mon. Bit if yo doan't bring a gude yed wi yo to th' farmin yo may let it alane.—When th' owd measter here was deein, Mr. Hubert was verra down-hearted yo understan, an verra wishfa to say soomat frendly to th' owd man, noo it had coom to th' lasst of im. 'Fadther'—he ses—'dear fadther—is there nowt I could do fer tha?'—'Aye, lad'—ses th' owd un—'gie me thy yed, an tak mine—thine is gude enoof to be buried wi.' An at that he shet his mouth, and deed."
Daffady told his story with relish. His contempt for Hubert was of many years' standing. Laura lifted her eyebrows.
"That was sharp, for the last word. I don't think you should stick pins when you're dying—dying!"—she repeated the word with a passionate energy—"going quite away—for ever." Then, with a sudden change of tone—"Can I have the cart to-morrow, Daffady?"
Daffady, who had been piling the fire with fresh peat, paused and looked down upon her. His long, lank face, his weather-stained clothes, his great, twisted hand were all of the same colour—the colour of wintry grass and lichened rock. But his eyes were bright and blue, and a vivid streak of white hair fell across his high forehead. As the girl asked her question, the old man's air of fatherly concern became more marked.
"Mut yo goa, missie? It did yo noa gude lasst time."
"Yes, I must go. I think so—I hope so!"—She checked herself. "But I'll wrap up."
"Mrs. Fountain's nobbut sadly, I unnerstan?"
"She's rather better again. But I must go to-morrow. Daffady, Cousin Elizabeth won't forget to bring up the letters?"
"I niver knew her du sich a thing as thattens," said Daffady, with caution.
"And do you happen to know whether Mr. Bayley is coming to supper?"
"T' minister'll mebbe coom if t' weather hods up."
"Daffady—do you think—that when you don't agree with people about religion—it's right and proper to sit every night—and tear them to pieces?"
The colour had suddenly flooded her pale face—her attitude had thrown off languor.
Daffady showed embarrassment.
"Well, noa, missie—Aa doan't hod—mysen—wi personalities. Yo mun wrastle wi t' sin—an gaa saftly by t' sinner."
"Sin!" she said scornfully.
Daffady was quelled.
"I've allus thowt mysen," he said hastily, "as we'd a deal to larn from Romanists i' soom ways. Noo, their noshun o' Purgatory—I daurna say a word for 't when t' minister's taakin, for there's noa warrant for 't i' Scriptur, as I can mek oot—bit I'll uphod yo, it's juist handy! Aa've often thowt so, i' my aan preachin. Heaven an hell are verra well for t' foak as are ower good, or ower bad; bit t' moast o' foak—are juist a mish-mash."
He shook his head slowly, and then ventured a glance at Miss Fountain to see whether he had appeased her.
Laura seemed to rouse herself with an effort from some thoughts of her own.
"Daffady—how the sun's shining! I'll go out. Daffady, you're very kind and nice to me—I wonder why?"
She laid one of the hands that seemed to the cow-man so absurd upon his arm, and smiled at him. The old man reddened and grunted. She sprang up with a laugh; and the kitchen was instantly filled by a whirlwind of barks from Fricka, who at last foresaw a walk.
* * * * *
Laura took her way up the fell. She climbed the hill above the farm, and then descended slowly upon a sheltered corner that held the old Browhead Chapel, whereof the fanatical Mr. Bayley—worse luck!—was the curate in charge.
She gave a wide berth to the vicarage, which with two or three cottages, embowered in larches and cherry-trees, lay immediately below the chapel. She descended upon the chapel from the fell, which lay wild about it and above it; she opened a little gate into the tiny churchyard, and found a sunny rock to sit on, while Fricka rushed about barking at the tits and the linnets.
Under the April sun and the light wind, the girl gave a sigh of pleasure. It was a spot she loved. The old chapel stood high on the side of a more inland valley that descended not to the sea, but to the Greet—a green open vale, made glorious at its upper end by the overpeering heads of great mountains, and falling softly through many folds and involutions to the woods of the Greet—the woods of Bannisdale.
So blithe and shining it was, on this April day! The course of the bright twisting stream was dimmed here and there by mists of fruit blossom. For the damson trees were all out, patterning the valleys,—marking the bounds of orchard and field, of stream and road. Each with its larch clump, the grey and white farms lay scattered on the pale green of the pastures; on either side of the valley the limestone pushed upward, through the grassy slopes of the fells, and made long edges and "scars" against the sky; while down by the river hummed the old mill where Laura had danced, a year before.
It was Westmoreland in its remoter, gentler aspect—Westmoreland far away from the dust of coaches and hotels—an untouched pastoral land, enwrought with a charm and sweetness none can know but those who love and linger. Its hues and lines are all sober and very simple. In these outlying fell districts, there is no splendour of colour, no majesty of peak or precipice. The mountain-land is at its homeliest—though still wild and free as the birds that flash about its streams. The purest radiance of cool sunlight floods it on an April day; there are pale subtleties of grey and purple in the rocks, in the shadows, in the distances, on which the eye may feed perpetually; and in the woods and bents a never-ceasing pageantry of flowers.
And what beauty in the little chapel-yard itself! Below it the ground ran down steeply to the village and the river, and at its edge—out of its loose boundary wall—rose a clump of Scotch firs, drawn in a grand Italian manner upon the delicacy of the scene beyond. Close to them a huge wild cherry thrust out its white boughs, not yet in their full splendour, and through their openings the distant blues of fell and sky wavered and shimmered as the wind played with the tree. And all round, among the humble nameless graves, the silkiest, finest grass—grass that gives a kind of quality, as of long and exquisite descent, to thousands of Westmoreland fields—grass that is the natural mother of flowers, and the sister of all clear streams. Daffodils grew in it now, though the daffodil hour was waning. A little faded but still lovely, they ran dancing in and out of the graves—up to the walls of the chapel itself—a foam of blossom breaking on the grey rock of the church.
Generations ago, when the fells were roadless and these valleys hardly peopled, the monks of a great priory church on the neighbouring coast built here this little pilgrimage chapel, on the highest point of a long and desolate track connecting the inland towns with the great abbeys of the coast, and with all the western seaboard. Fields had been enclosed and farms had risen about it; but still the little church was one of the loneliest and remotest of fanes. So lonely and remote that the violent hand of Puritanism had almost passed it by, had been content at least with a rough blow or two, defacing, not destroying. Above the moth-eaten table that replaced the ancient altar there still rose a window that breathed the very secreta of the old faith—a window of radiant fragments, piercing the twilight of the little church with strange uncomprehended things—images that linked the humble chapel and its worshippers with the great European story, with Chartres and Amiens, with Toledo and Rome.
For here, under a roof shaken every Sunday by Mr. Bayley's thunders, there stood a golden St. Anthony, a virginal St. Margaret. And all round them, in a ruined confusion, dim sacramental scenes—that flamed into jewels as the light smote them! In one corner a priest raised the Host. His delicate gold-patterned vestments, his tonsured head, and the monstrance in his hands, tormented the curate's eyes every Sunday as he began, robed in his black Genevan gown, to read the Commandments. And in the very centre of the stone tracery, a woman lifted herself in bed to receive the Holy Oil—so pale, so eager still, after all these centuries! Her white face spoke week by week to the dalesfolk as they sat in their high pews. Many a rough countrywoman, old perhaps, and crushed by toil and child-bearing, had wondered over her, had felt a sister in her, had loved her secretly.
But the children's dreams followed St. Anthony rather—the kind, sly old man, with the belled staff, up which his pig was climbing.
Laura haunted the little place.
She could not be made to go when Mr. Bayley preached; but on week-days she would get the key from the schoolmistress, and hang over the old pews, puzzling out the window—or trying to decipher some of the other Popish fragments that the church contained. Sometimes she would sit rigid, in a dream that took all the young roundness from her face. But it was like the Oratory church, and Benediction. It brought her somehow near to Helbeck, and to Bannisdale.
To-day, however, she could not tear herself from the breeze and the sun. She sat among the daffodils, in a sort of sad delight, wondering sometimes at the veil that had dropped between her and beauty—dulling and darkening all things.
Surely Cousin Elizabeth would bring a letter from Augustina. Every day she had been expecting it. This was the beginning of the second week after Easter. All the Easter functions at Bannisdale must now be over; the opening of the new orphanage to boot; and the gathering of Catholic gentry to meet the Bishop—in that dreary, neglected house! Augustina, indeed, knew nothing of these things—except from the reports that might be brought to her by the visitors to her sick room. Bannisdale had now no hostess. Mr. Helbeck kept the house as best he could.
Was it not three weeks and more, now, that Laura had been at the farm? And only two visits to Bannisdale! For the Squire, by Augustina's wish, and against the girl's own judgment, knew nothing of her presence in the neighbourhood, and she could only see her stepmother on days when Augustina could be certain that her brother was away. During part of Passion week, all Holy week, and half Easter week, priests had been staying in the house—or the orphanage ceremony had detained the Squire. But by now, surely, he had gone to London on some postponed business. That was what Mrs. Fountain expected. The girl hungered for her letter.
Poor Augustina! The heart malady had been developing rapidly. She was very ill, and Laura thought unhappy.
And yet, when the first shock of it was over—in spite of the bewilderment and grief she suffered in losing her companion—Mrs. Fountain had been quite willing to recognise and accept the situation which had been created by Laura's violent action. She wailed over the countermanded gowns and furnishings; but she was in truth relieved. "Now we know where we are again," she had said both to herself and Father Bowles. That strange topsy—turveydom of things was over. She was no more tormented with anxieties; and she moved again with personal ease and comfort about her old home.
Poor Alan of course felt it dreadfully. And Laura could not come to Bannisdale for a long, long time. But Mrs. Fountain could go to her—several times a year. And the Sisters were very good, and chatty. Oh no, it was best—much best!
But now—whether it came from physical weakening or no—Mrs. Fountain was always miserable, always complaining. She spoke of her brother perpetually. Yet when he was with her, she thought him hard and cold. It was evident to Laura that she feared him; that she was never at ease with him. Merely to speak of those increased austerities of his, which had marked the Lent of this year, troubled and frightened her.
Often, too, she would lie and look at Laura with an expression of dry bitterness and resentment, without speaking. It was as though she were equally angry with the passion which had changed her brother—and with Laura's strength in breaking from it.
* * * * *
Laura moved her seat a little. Between the wild cherry and the firs was a patch of deep blue distance. Those were his woods. But the house, was hidden by the hills.
"Somehow I have got to live!" she said to herself suddenly, with a violent trembling.
But how? For she bore two griefs. The grief for him, of which she never let a word pass her lips, was perhaps the strongest among the forces that were destroying her. She knew well that she had torn the heart that loved her—that she had set free a hundred dark and morbid forces in Helbeck's life.
But it was because she had realised, by the insight of a moment, the madness of what they had done, the gulf to which they were rushing—because, at one and the same instant, there had been revealed to her the fatality under which she must still resist, and he must become gradually, inevitably, her persecutor, and her tyrant!
Amid the emotion, the overwhelming impressions of his story of himself, that conviction had risen in her inmost being—a strange inexorable voice of judgment—bidding her go! In a flash, she had seen the wretched future years—the daily struggle—the aspect of violence, even of horror, that his pursuit of her, his pressure upon her will, might assume—the sharpening of all those wild forces in her own nature.
She was broken with the anguish of separation—and how she had been able to do what she had done, she did not know. But the inner voice persisted—that for the first time, amid the selfish, or passionate, or joy-seeking impulses of her youth, she had obeyed a higher law. The moral realities of the whole case closed her in. She saw no way out—no way in which, so far as her last act was concerned, she could have bettered or changed the deed. She had done it for him, first of all. He must be delivered from her. And she must have room to breathe, without making of her struggle for liberty a hideous struggle with him, and with love.
Well, but—comfort!—where was it to be had? The girl's sensuous craving nature fought like a tortured thing in the grasp laid upon it. How was it possible to go on suffering like this? She turned impatiently to one thought after another.
Beauty? Nature? Last year, yes! But now! That past physical ecstasy—in spring—in flowing water—in flowers—in light and colour—where was it gone? Let these tears—these helpless tears—make answer!
Music?—books?—the books that "make incomparable old maids"—friends? The thought of the Friedlands made her realise that she could still love. But after all—how little!—against how much!
Religion? All religion need not be as Alan Helbeck's. There was religion as the Friedlands understood it—a faith convinced of God, and of a meaning for human life, trusting the "larger hope" that springs out of the daily struggle of conscience, and the garnered experience of feeling. Both in Friedland and his wife, there breathed a true spiritual dignity and peace.
But Laura was not affected by this fact in the least. She put away the suggestions of it with impatience. Her father had not been so. Now that she had lost her lover, she clung the more fiercely to her father. And there had been no anodynes for him.
... Oh if the sun—the useless sun—would only go—and Cousin Elizabeth would come back—and bring that letter! Yes, one little pale joy there was still—for a few weeks or months. The craving for the bare rooms of Bannisdale possessed her—for that shadow-happiness of entering his house as he quitted it—walking its old boards unknown to him—touching the cushions and chairs in Augustina's room that he would touch, perhaps that very same night, or on the morrow!
Till Augustina's death.—Then both for Laura and for Helbeck—an Unknown—before which the girl shut her eyes.
* * * * *
There was company that night in the farm kitchen. Mr. Bayley, the more than evangelical curate, came to tea.
He was a little man, with a small sharp anaemic face buried in red hair. It was two or three years of mission work, first in Mexico, and then at Lima as the envoy of one of the most thoroughgoing of Protestant societies, that had given him his strangely vivid notions of the place of Romanism among the world's forces. At no moment in this experience can he have had a grain of personal success. Lima, apparently, is of all towns in the universe the town where the beard of Protestantism is least worth the shaving—to quote a northern proverb. At any rate, Mr. Bayley returned to his native land at fifty with a permanent twist of brain. Hence these preposterous sermons in the fell chapel; this eager nosing out and tracking down of every scent of Popery; this fanatical satisfaction in such a kindred soul as that of Elizabeth Mason. Some mild Ritualism at Whinthorpe had given him occupation for years; and as for Bannisdale, he and the Masons between them had raised the most causeless of storms about Mr. Helbeck and his doings, from the beginning; they had kept up for years the most rancorous memory of the Williams affair; they had made the owner of the old Hall the bogey of a country-side.
Laura knew it well. She never spoke to the little red man if she could help it. What pleased her was to make Daffady talk of him—Daffady, whose contempt as a "Methody" for "paid priests" made him a sure ally.
"Why, he taaks i' church as thoo God Awmighty were on the pulpit stairs—gi-en him his worrds!" said the cow-man, with the natural distaste of all preachers for diatribes not their own; and Laura, when she wandered the fields with him, would drive him on to say more and worse.
Mr. Bayley, on the other hand, had found a new pleasure in his visits to the farm-since Miss Fountain's arrival. The young lady had escaped indeed from the evil thing—so as by fire. But she was far too pale and thin; she showed too many regrets. Moreover she was not willing to talk of Mr. Helbeck with his enemies. Indeed, she turned her back rigorously on any attempt to make her do so.