Helbeck of Bannisdale, Vol. II
by Mrs. Humphry Ward
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

So all that was left to the two cronies was to sit night after night, talking to each other in the hot hope that Miss Fountain might be reached thereby and strengthened—that even Mrs. Fountain and that distant black brood of Bannisdale might in some indirect way be brought within the saving-power of the Gospel.

Strange fragments of this talk floated through the kitchen.—

"Oh, my dear friend!—forbidding to marry is a doctrine of devils!—Now Lima, as I have often told you, is a city of convents——"

There was a sudden grinding of chairs on the flagged floor. The grey head and the red approached each other; the nightly shudder began; while the girls chattered and coughed as loudly as they dared.

"No—a woan't—a conno believe 't!" Mrs. Mason would say at last, throwing herself back against her chair with very red cheeks. And Daffady would look round furtively, trying to hear.

But sometimes the curate would try to propitiate the young ladies. He made himself gentle; he raised the most delicate difficulties. He had, for instance, a very strange compassion for the Saints. "I hold it," he said—with an eye on Miss Fountain—"to be clearly demonstrable that the Invocation of Saints is, of all things, most lamentably injurious to the Saints themselves!"

"Hoo can he knaw?" said Polly to Laura, open-mouthed.

But Mrs. Mason frowned.

"A doan't hod wi Saints whativer," she said violently. "So A doan't fash mysel aboot em!"

Daffady sometimes would be drawn into these diversions, as he sat smoking on the settle. And then out of a natural slyness—perhaps on these latter occasions, from a secret sympathy for "missie"—he would often devote himself to proving the solidarity of all "church priests," Establishments, and prelatical Christians generally. Father Bowles might be in a "parlish" state; but as to all supporters of bishops and the heathenish custom of fixed prayers—whether they wore black gowns or no—"a man mut hae his doots."

Never had Daffady been so successful with his shafts as on this particular evening. Mrs. Mason grew redder and redder; her large face alternately flamed and darkened in the firelight. In the middle the girls tried to escape into the parlour. But she shouted imperiously after them.

"Polly—Laura—what art tha aboot? Coom back at yance. I'll not ha sickly foak sittin wi'oot a fire!"

They came back sheepishly. And when they were once more settled as audience, the mistress—who was by this time fanning herself tempestuously with the Whinthorpe paper—launched her last word:

"Daffady—thoo's naa call to lay doon t' law, on sic matters at aw. Mappen tha'll recolleck t' Bible—headstrong as tha art i' thy aan conceit. Bit t' Bible says 'How can he get wisdom that holdeth the plough—whose taak is o' bullocks?' Aa coom on that yestherday—an A've bin sair exercised aboot thy preachin ever sen!"

Daffady held his peace.

The clergyman departed, and Daffady went out to the cattle. Laura had not given the red-haired man her hand. She had found it necessary to carry her work upstairs, at the precise moment of his departure. But when he was safely off the premises she came down again to say good-night to her cousins.

Oh! they had not been unkind to her these last weeks. Far from it. Mrs. Mason had felt a fierce triumph—she knew—in her broken engagement. Probably at first Cousin Elizabeth had only acquiesced in Hubert's demand that Miss Fountain should be asked to stay at the farm, out of an ugly wish to see the girl's discomfiture for herself. And she had not been able to forego the joy of bullying Mr. Helbeck's late betrothed through Mr. Bayley's mouth.

Nevertheless, when this dwindled ghostly Laura appeared, and began to flit through the low-ceiled room and dark passages of the farm—carefully avoiding any talk about herself or her story—always cheerful, self-possessed, elusive—the elder woman began after a little to have strange stirrings of soul towards her. The girl's invincible silence, taken with those physical signs of a consuming pain that were beyond her concealment, worked upon a nature that, as far as all personal life and emotion were concerned, was no less strong and silent. Polly saw with astonishment that fires were lit in the parlour at odd times—that Laura might read or practise. She was amazed to watch her mother put out some little delicacy at tea or supper that Laura might be made to eat.

And yet!—after all these amenities, Mr. Bayley would still be asked to supper, and Laura would still be pelted and harried from supper-time till bed.

To-night when Laura returned, Mrs. Mason was in a muttering and stormy mood. Daffady had angered her sorely. Laura, moreover, had a letter from Bannisdale, and since it came there had been passing lights in Miss Fountain's eyes, and passing reds on her pale cheeks.

As the girl approached her cousin, Mrs. Mason turned upon her abruptly.

"Dostha want the cart to-morrow? Daffady said soomat aboot it."

"If it could be spared."

Mrs. Mason looked at her fixedly.

"If Aa was thoo," she said, "Aa'd not flutter ony more roond that can'le!"

Laura shrank as though her cousin had struck her. But she controlled herself.

"Do you forget my stepmother's state, Cousin Elizabeth?"

"Oh!—yo' con aw mak much o' what suits tha!" cried the mistress, as she walked fiercely to the outer door and locked it noisily from the great key-bunch hanging at her girdle.

The girl's eyes showed a look of flame. Then her head seemed to swim. She put her hand to her brow, and walked weakly across the kitchen to the door of the stairs.

"Mother!" cried Polly, in indignation; and she sprang after Laura. But Laura waved her back imperiously, and almost immediately they heard her door shut upstairs.

* * * * *

An hour later Laura was lying sleepless in her bed. It was a clear cold night—a spring frost after the rain. The moon shone through the white blind, on the old four-poster, on Laura's golden hair spread on the pillow, on the great meal-ark which barred the chimney, on the rude walls and woodwork of the room.

Her arms were thrown behind her head, supporting it. Nothing moved in the house, or the room—the only sound was the rustling of a mouse in one corner.

A door opened on a sudden. There was a step in the passage, and someone knocked at her door.

"Come in."

On the threshold stood Mrs. Mason in a cotton bedgown and petticoat, her grey locks in confusion about her massive face and piercing eyes.

She closed the door, and came to the bedside.

"Laura!—Aa've coom to ast thy pardon!"

Laura raised herself on one arm, and looked at the apparition with amazement.

"Mebbe A've doon wrang.—We shouldna quench the smoakin flax. Soa theer's my han, child—if thoo can teaek it."

The old woman held out her hand. There was an indescribable sound in her voice, as of deep waters welling up.

Laura fell back on her pillows—the whitest, fragilest creature—under the shadows of the old bed. She opened her delicate arms. "Suppose you kiss me, Cousin Elizabeth!"

The elder woman stooped clumsily. The girl linked her arms round her neck and kissed her warmly, repeatedly, feeling through all her motherless sense the satisfaction of a long hunger in the contact of the old face and ample bosom.

The reserve of both forbade anything more. Mrs. Mason tucked in the small figure—lingered a little—said, "Laura, th'art not coald—nor sick?"—and when Laura answered cheerfully, the mistress went.

The girl's eyes were wet for a while; her heart beat fast. There had been few affections in her short life—far too few. Her nature gave itself with a fatal prodigality, or not at all. And now—what was there left to give?

But she slept more peacefully for Mrs. Mason's visit—with Augustina's letter of summons under her hand.

* * * * *

The day was still young when Laura reached Bannisdale.

Never had the house looked so desolate. Dust lay on the oaken boards and tables of the hall. There was no fire on the great hearth, and the blinds in the oriel windows were still mostly drawn. But the remains of yesterday's fire were visible yet, and a dirty duster and pan adorned the Squire's chair.

The Irishwoman with a half-crippled husband, who had replaced Mrs. Denton, was clearly incompetent. Mrs. Denton at least had been orderly and clean. The girl's heart smote her with a fresh pang as she made her way upstairs.

She found Augustina no worse; and in her room there was always comfort, and even brightness. She had a good nurse; a Catholic "Sister" from London, of a kind and cheerful type, that Laura herself could not dislike; and whatever working power there was in the household was concentrated on her service.

Miss Fountain took off her things, and settled in for the day. Augustina chattered incessantly, except when her weakness threw her into long dozes, mingled often, Laura thought, with slight wandering. Her wish evidently was to be always talking of her brother; but in this she checked herself whenever she could, as though controlled by some resolution of her own, or some advice from another.

Yet in the end she said a great deal about him. She spoke of the last weeks of Lent, of the priests who had been staying in the house; of the kindness that had been shown her. That wonderful network of spiritual care and attentions—like a special system of courtesy having its own rules and etiquette—with which Catholicism surrounds the dying, had been drawn about the poor little widow. During the last few weeks Mass had been said several times in her room; Father Leadham had given her Communion every day in Easter week; on Easter Sunday the children from the orphanage had come to sing to her; that Roman palm over the bed was brought her by Alan himself. The statuette of St. Joseph, too, was his gift.

So she lay and talked through the day, cheerfully enough. She did not want to hear of Cambridge or the Friedlands, still less of the farm. Her whole interest now was centred in her own state, and in the Catholic joys and duties which it still permitted. She never spoke of her husband; Laura bitterly noted it.

But there were moments when she watched her stepdaughter, and once when the Sister had left them she laid her hand on Laura's arm and whispered:

"Oh! Laura—he has grown so much greyer—since—since October."

The girl said nothing. Augustina closed her eyes, and said with much twitching and agitation, "When—when I am gone, he will go to the Jesuits—I know he will. The place will come to our cousin, Richard Helbeck. He has plenty of money—it will be very different some day."

"Did—did Father Leadham tell you that?" said Laura, after a while.

"Yes. He admitted it. He said they had twice dissuaded him in former years. But now—when I'm gone—it'll be allowed."

Suddenly Augustina opened her eyes. "Laura! where are you?" Her little crooked face worked with tears. "I'm glad!—We ought all to be glad. I don't—I don't believe he ever has a happy moment!"

She began to weep piteously. Laura tried to console her, putting her cheek to hers, with inarticulate soothing words. But Augustina turned away from her—almost in irritation.

The girl's heart was wrung at every turn. She lingered, however, till the last minute—almost till the April dark had fallen.

When she reached the hall again, she stood a moment looking round its cold and gloom. First, with a start, she noticed a pile of torn envelopes and papers lying on a table, which had escaped her in the morning. The Squire must have thrown them down there in the early morning, just before starting on his journey. The small fact gave her a throb of strange joy—brought back the living presence. Then she noticed that the study door was open.

A temptation seized her—drove her before it. Silence and solitude possessed the house. The servants were far away in the long rambling basement. Augustina was asleep with her nurse beside her.

Laura went noiselessly across the hall. She pushed the door—she looked round his room.

No change. The books, the crucifix, the pictures, all as before. But the old walls, and wainscots, the air of the room, seemed still to hold the winter. They struck chill.

The same pile of books in daily use upon his table—a few little manuals and reprints—"The Spiritual Combat," the "Imitation," some sermons—the volume of "Acta Sanctorum" for the month.

She could not tear herself from them. Trembling, she hung over them, and her fingers blindly opened a little book which lay on the top. It fell apart at a place which had been marked—freshly marked, it seemed to her. A few lines had been scored in pencil, with a date beside them. She looked closer and read the date of the foregoing Easter Eve. And the passage with its scored lines ran thus:

"Drive far from us the crowd of evil spirits who strive to approach us; unloose the too firm hold of earthly things; untie with Thy gentle and wounded hands the fibres of our hearts that cling so fast round human affections; let our weary head rest on Thy bosom till the struggle is over, and our cold form falls back—dust and ashes."

She stood a moment—looking down upon the book—feeling life one throb of anguish. Then wildly she stooped and kissed the pages. Dropping on her knees too, she kissed the arm of the chair, the place where his hand would rest.

No one came—the solitude held. Gradually she got the better of her misery. She rose, replaced the book, and went.

* * * * *

The following night, very late, Laura again lay sleepless. But April was blowing and plashing outside. The high fell and the lonely farm seemed to lie in the very track of the storms, as they rushed from the south-west across the open moss to beat themselves upon the mountains.

But the moon shone sometimes, and then the girl's restlessness would remind her of the open fell-side, of pale lights upon the distant sea, of cool blasts whirling among the old thorns and junipers, and she would long to be up and away—escaped from this prison where she could not sleep.

How the wind could drop at times—to what an utter and treacherous silence! And what strange, misleading sounds the silence brought with it!

She sat up in bed. Surely someone had opened the further gate—the gate from the lane? But the wind surged in again, and she had to strain her ears. Nothing. Yes!—wheels and hoofs! a carriage of some sort approaching.

A sudden thought came to her. The dog-cart—it seemed to be such by the sound—drew up at the farm door, and a man descended. She heard the reins thrown over the horse's back, then the groping for the knocker, and at last blows loud and clear, startling the night.

Mrs. Mason's window was thrown open next, and her voice came out imperiously—"What is it?"

Laura's life seemed to hang on the answer.

"Will you please tell Miss Fountain that her stepmother is in great danger, and asks her to come at once."

She leapt from her bed, but must needs wait—turned again to stone—for the next word. It came after a pause.

"And wha's the message from?"

"Kindly tell her that Mr. Helbeck is here with the dog-cart."

The window closed. Laura slipped into her clothes, and by the time Mrs. Mason emerged the girl was already in the passage.

"I heard," she said briefly. "Let us go down."

Mrs. Mason, pale and frowning, led the way. She undid the heavy bars and lock, and for the first time in her life stood confronted—on her own threshold—with the Papist Squire of Bannisdale.

Mr. Helbeck greeted her ceremoniously. But his black eyes, so deep-set and cavernous in his strong-boned face, did not seem to notice her. They ran past her to that small shadow in the background.

"Are you ready?" he said, addressing the shadow.

"One moment, please," said Laura. She was tying a thick veil round her hat, and struggling with the fastenings of her cloak.

Mrs. Mason looked from one to another like a baffled lioness. But to let them go without a word was beyond her. She turned to the Squire.

"Misther Helbeck!—yo'll tell me on your conscience—as it's reet and just—afther aw that's passt—'at this yoong woman should go wi yo?"

Laura shivered with rage and shame. Her fingers hastened. Mr. Helbeck showed no emotion whatever.

"Mrs. Fountain is dying," he said briefly; and again his eye—anxious, imperious—sought for the girl. She came hastily forward from the shadows of the kitchen.

Mr. Helbeck mounted the cart, and held out his hand to her.

"Have you got a shawl? The wind is very keen!" He spoke with the careful courtesy one uses to a stranger.

"Thank you—I am all right. Please let us go! Cousin Elizabeth!" Laura threw herself backwards a moment, as the cart began to move, and kissed her hand.

Mrs. Mason made no sign. She watched the cart, slowly picking its way over the rough ground of the farm-yard, till it turned the corner of the big barn and disappeared in the gusty darkness.

Then she turned housewards. She put down her guttering candle on the great oak table of the kitchen, and sank herself upon the settle.

"Soa—that's him!" she said to herself; and her peasant mind in a dull heat, like that of the peat fire beside her, went wandering back over the hatreds of twenty years.


As the dog-cart reached the turning of the lane, Mr. Helbeck said to his companion:

"Would you kindly take the cart through? I must shut the gate."

He jumped down. Laura with some difficulty—for the high wind coming from the fell increased her general confusion of brain—passed the gate and took the pony safely down a rocky piece of road beyond.

His first act in rejoining her was to wrap the rugs which he had brought more closely about her.

"I had no idea in coming," he said—"that the wind was so keen. Now we face it."

He spoke precisely in the same voice that he might have used, say, to Polly Mason had she been confided to him for a night journey. But as he arranged the rug, his hand for an instant had brushed Laura's; and when she gave him the reins, she leant back hardly able to breathe.

With a passionate effort of will, she summoned a composure to match his own.

"When did the change come?" she asked him.

"About eight o'clock. Then it was she told me you were here. We thought at first of sending over a messenger in the morning. But finally my sister begged me to come at once."

"Is there immediate danger?" The girlish voice must needs tremble.

"I trust we shall still find her," he said gently—"but her nurses were greatly alarmed."

"And was there—much suffering?"

She pressed her hands together under the coverings that sheltered them, in a quick anguish. Oh! had she thought enough, cared enough, for Augustina!

As she spoke the horse gave a sudden swerve, as though Mr. Helbeck had pulled the rein involuntarily. They bumped over a large stone, and the Squire hastily excused himself for bad driving. Then he answered her question. As far as he or the Sister could judge there was little active suffering. But the weakness had increased rapidly that afternoon, and the breathing was much harassed.

He went on to describe exactly how he had left the poor patient, giving the details with a careful minuteness. At the same moment that he had started for Miss Fountain, old Wilson had gone to Whinthorpe for the doctor. The Reverend Mother was there; and the nurses—kind and efficient women—were doing all that could be done.

He spoke in a voice that seemed to have no colour or emphasis. One who did not know him might have thought he gave his report entirely without emotion—that his sister's coming death did not affect him.

Laura longed to ask whether Father Bowles was there, whether the Last Sacraments had been given. But she did not dare. That question seemed to belong to a world that was for ever sealed between them. And he volunteered nothing.

They entered on a steep descent to the main road. The wind came in fierce gusts—so that Laura had to hold her hat on with both hands. The carriage lamps wavered wildly on the great junipers and hollies, the clumps of blossoming gorse, that sprinkled the mountain; sometimes in a pause of the wind, there would be a roar of water, or a rush of startled sheep. Tumult had taken possession of the fells no less than of the girl's heart.

Once she was thrown against the Squire's shoulder, and murmured a hurried "I beg your pardon." And at the same moment an image of their parting on the stairs at Bannisdale rose on the dark. She saw his tall head bending—herself kissing the breast of his coat.

At last they came out above the great prospect of moss and mountain. There was just moon enough to see it by; though night and storm held the vast open cup, across which the clouds came racing—beating up from the coast and the south-west. Ghostly light touched the river courses here and there, and showed the distant portal of the sea. Through the cloud and wind and darkness breathed a great Nature-voice, a voice of power and infinite freedom. Laura suddenly, in a dim passionate way, thought of the words "to cease upon the midnight with no pain." If life could just cease, here, in the wild dark, while, for the last time in their lives, they were once more alone together!—while in this little cart, on this lonely road, she was still his charge and care—dependent on his man's strength, delivered over to him, and him only—out of all the world.

When they reached the lower road the pony quickened his pace, and the wind was less boisterous. The silence between them, which had been natural enough in the high and deafening blasts of the fell, began to be itself a speech. The Squire broke it.

"I am glad to hear that your cousin is doing so well at Froswick," he said, with formal courtesy.

Laura made a fitting reply, and they talked a little of the chances of business, and the growth of Froswick. Then the silence closed again.

Presently, as the road passed between stone walls, with a grass strip on either side, two dark forms shot up in front of them. The pony shied violently. Had they been still travelling on the edge of the steep grass slope which had stretched below them for a mile or so after their exit from the lane, they must have upset. As it was, Laura was pitched against the railing of the dog-cart, and as she instinctively grasped it to save herself, her wrist was painfully twisted.

"You are hurt!" said Helbeck, pulling up the pony.

The first cry of pain had been beyond her control. But she would have died rather than permit another.

"It is nothing," she said, "really nothing! What was the matter?"

"A mare and her foal, as far as I can see," said Helbeck, looking behind him. "How careless of the farm people!" he added angrily.

"Oh! they must have strayed," said Laura faintly. All her will was struggling with this swimming brain—it should not overpower her.

The tinkling of a small burn could be heard beside the road. Helbeck jumped down. "Don't be afraid; the pony is really quite quiet—he'll stand."

In a second or two he was back—and just in time. Laura knew well the touch of the little horn cup he put into her cold hand. Many and many a time, in the scrambles of their summer walks, had he revived her from it.

She drank eagerly. When he mounted the carriage again, some strange instinct told her that he was not the same. She divined—she was sure of an agitation in him which at once calmed her own.

She quickly assured him that she was much better, that the pain was fast subsiding. Then she begged him to hurry on. She even forced herself to smile and talk.

"It was very ghostly, wasn't it? Daffady, our old cow-man, will never believe they were real horses. He has a story of a bogle in this road—a horse-bogle, too—that makes one creep."

"Oh! I know that story," said Helbeck. "It used to be told of several roads about here. Old Wilson once said to me, 'When Aa wor yoong, ivery field an ivery lane wor fu o' bogles!' It is strange how the old tales have died out, while a brand new one, like our own ghost story, has grown up."

Laura murmured a "Yes." Had he forgotten who was once the ghost?

Silence fell again—a silence in which each heart could almost hear the other beat. Oh! how wicked—wicked—would she be if she had come meddling with his life again, of her own free will!

Here at last was the bridge, and the Bannisdale gate. Laura shut her eyes, and reckoned up the minutes that remained. Then, as they sped up the park, she wrestled indignantly with herself. She was outraged by her own callousness towards this death in front of her. "Oh! let me think of her! Let me be good to her!" she cried, in dumb appeal to some power beyond herself. She recalled her father. She tried with all her young strength to forget the man beside her—and those piteous facts that lay between them.

* * * * *

In Augustina's room—darkness—except for one shaded light. The doors were all open, that the poor tormented lungs might breathe.

Laura went in softly, the Squire following. A nurse rose.

"She has rallied wonderfully," she said in a cheerful whisper, as she approached them, finger on lip.

"Laura!" said a sighing voice.

It came from a deep old-fashioned chair, in which sat Mrs. Fountain, propped by many pillows.

Laura went up to her, and dropping on a stool beside her, the girl tenderly caressed the wasted hand that had itself no strength to move towards her.

In the few hours since Laura had last seen her, a great change had passed over Mrs. Fountain. Her little face, usually so red, had blanched to parchment white, and the nervous twitching of the head, in the general failure of strength, had almost ceased. She lay stilled and refined under the touch of death; and the sweetness of her blue eyes had grown more conscious and more noble.

"Laura—I'm a little better. But you mustn't go again. Alan—she must stay!"

She tried to turn her head to him, appealing. The Squire came forward.

"Everything is ready for Miss Fountain, dear—if she will be good enough to stay. Nurse will provide—and we will send over for any luggage in the morning."

At those words "Miss Fountain," a slight movement passed over the sister's face.

"Laura!" she said feebly.

"Yes, Augustina—I will stay. I won't leave you again."

"Your father did wish it, didn't he?"

The mention of her father so startled Laura that the tears rushed to her eyes, and she dropped her face for a moment on Mrs. Fountain's hand. When she lifted it she was no longer conscious that Helbeck stood behind his sister's chair, looking down upon them both.

"Yes—always, dear. Do you remember what a good nurse he was?—so much better than I?"

Her face shone through the tears that bedewed it. Already the emotion of her drive—the last battles with the wind—had for the moment restored the brilliancy of eye and cheek. Even Augustina's dim sight was held by her, and by the tumbled gold of her hair as it caught the candle-light.

But the name which had given Laura a thrill of joy had roused a disturbed and troubled echo in Mrs. Fountain.

She looked miserably at her brother and asked for her beads. He put them across her hand, and then, bending over her chair, he said a "Hail Mary" and an "Our Father," in which she faintly joined.

"And Alan—will Father Leadham come to-morrow?"

"Without fail."

* * * * *

A little later Laura was in her old room with Sister Rosa. The doctor had paid his visit. But for the moment the collapse of the afternoon had been arrested; Mrs. Fountain was in no urgent danger.

"Now then," said the nurse cheerily, when Miss Fountain had been supplied with all necessaries for sleep, "let us look at that arm, please."

Laura turned in surprise.

"Mr. Helbeck tells me you wrenched your wrist on the drive. He thought you would perhaps allow me to treat it."

Laura submitted. It was indeed nearly helpless and much swollen, though she had been hardly conscious of it since the little accident happened. The brisk, black-eyed Sister had soon put a comforting bandage round it, chattering all the time of Mrs. Fountain and the ups and downs of the illness.

"She missed you very much after you went yesterday. But now, I suppose, you will stay? It won't be long, poor lady!"

The Sister gave a little professional sigh, and Laura, of course, repeated that she must certainly stay. As the Sister broke off the cotton with which she had been stitching the bandage, she stole a curious glance at her patient. She had not frequented the orphanage in her off-time for nothing; and she was perfectly aware of the anxiety with which the Catholic friends of Bannisdale must needs view the re-entry of Miss Fountain. Sister Rosa, who spoke French readily, wondered whether it had not been after all "reculer pour mieux sauter."

After a first restless sleep of sheer fatigue, Laura found herself sitting up in bed struggling with a sense of horrible desolation. Augustina was dead—Mr. Helbeck was gone, was a Jesuit—and she herself was left alone in the old house, weeping—with no one, not a living soul, to hear. That was the impression; and it was long before she could disentangle truth from nightmare.

When she lay down again, sleep was banished. She lit a candle and waited for the dawn. There in the flickering light were the old tapestries—the princess stepping into her boat, Diana ranging through the wood. Nothing was changed in the room or its furniture. But the Laura who had fretted or dreamed there; who had written her first letter to Molly Friedland from that table; who had dressed for her lover's eye before that rickety glass; who had been angry or sullen, or madly happy there—why, the Laura who now for the second time watched the spring dawn through that diamond-paned window looked back upon her as the figures in Rossetti's strange picture meet the ghosts of their old selves—with the same sense of immeasurable, irrevocable distance. What childish follies and impertinences!—what misunderstanding of others, and misreckoning of the things that most concerned her—what blind drifting—what inevitable shipwreck!

Ah! this aching of the whole being, physical and moral,—again she asked herself, only with a wilder impatience, how long it could be borne.

The wind had fallen, but in the pause of the dawn the river spoke with the hills. The light mounted quickly. Soon the first glint of sun came through the curtains. Laura extinguished her candle, and went to let in the day. As on that first morning, she stood in the window, following with her eye the foaming curves of the Greet, or the last streaks of snow upon the hills, or the daffodil stars in the grass.

Hush!—what time was it? She ran for her watch. Nearly seven.

She wrapped a shawl about her, and went back to her post, straining to see the path on the further side of the river through the mists that still hung about it. Suddenly her head dropped upon her hands. One sob forced its way. Helbeck had passed.

* * * * *

For some three weeks, after this April night, the old house of Bannisdale was the scene of one of those dramas of life and death which depend, not upon external incident, but upon the inner realities of the heart, its inextinguishable affections, hopes, and agonies.

Helbeck and Laura were once more during this time brought into close and intimate contact by the claims of a common humanity. They were united by the common effort to soften the last journey for Augustina, by all the little tendernesses and cares that a sick room imposes, by the pities and charities, the small renascent hopes and fears of each successive day and night.

But all the while, how deeply were they divided!—how sharp was the clash between the reviving strength of passion, which could not but feed itself on the daily sight and contact of the beloved person, and those facts of character and individuality which held them separated!—facts which are always, and in all cases, the true facts of this world.

In Helbeck the shock of Laura's October flight had worked with profound and transforming power. After those first desperate days in which he had merely sought to recover her, to break down her determination, or to understand if he could the grounds on which she had acted, a new conception of his own life and the meaning of it had taken possession of him. He fell into the profoundest humiliation and self-abasement, denouncing himself as a traitor to his faith, who out of mere self-delusion, and a lawless love of ease, had endangered his own obedience, and neglected the plain task laid upon him. That fear of proselytism, that humble dread of his own influence, which had once determined his whole attitude towards those about him, began now to seem to him mere wretched cowardice and self-will—the caprice of the servant who tries to better his master's instructions.

But now I cast that finer sense And sorer shame aside; Such dread of sin was indolence, Such aim at heaven was pride.

Again and again he said to himself that if he had struck at once for the Church and for the Faith at the moment when Laura's young heart was first opened to him, when under the earliest influences of her love for him—how could he doubt that she had loved him!—her nature was still plastic, still capable of being won to God, as it were, by a coup de main—might not—would not—all have been well? But no!—he must needs believe that God had given her to him for ever, that there was room for all the gradual softening, the imperceptible approaches by which he had hoped to win her. It had seemed to him the process could not be too gentle, too indulgent. And meanwhile the will and mind that might have been captured at a rush had time to harden—the forces of revolt to gather.

What wonder? Oh! blind—infatuate! How could he have hoped to bring her, still untouched, within the circle of his Catholic life, into contact with its secrets and its renunciations, without recoil on her part, without risk of what had actually happened? The strict regulation of every hour, every habit, every thought, at which he aimed as a Catholic—what could it seem to her but a dreary and forbidding tyranny?—to her who had no clue to it, who was still left free, though she loved him, to judge his faith coldly from outside? And when at last he had begun to drop hesitation, to change his tone—then, it was too late!

Tyranny! She had used that word once or twice, in that first letter which had reached him on the evening of her flight, and in a subsequent one. Not of anything that had been, apparently—but of that which might be. It had wounded him to the very quick.

And yet, in truth, the course of his present thoughts—plainly interpreted—meant little else than this—that if, at the right moment, he had coerced her with success, they might both have been happy.

Later on he had seen his own self-judgment reflected in the faces, the consolations, of his few intimate friends. Father Leadham, for instance—whose letters had been his chief support during a period of dumb agony when he had felt himself more than once on the brink of some morbid trouble of brain.

"I found her adamant," said Father Leadham. "Never was I so powerless with any human soul. She would not discuss anything. She would only say that she was born in freedom—and free she would remain. All that I urged upon her implied beliefs in which she had not been brought up, which were not her father's and were not hers. Nor on closer experience had she been any more drawn to them—quite the contrary; whatever—and there, poor child! her eyes filled with tears—whatever she might feel towards those who held them. She said fiercely that you had never argued with her or persuaded her—or perhaps only once; that you had promised—this with an indignant look at me—that there should be no pressure upon her. And I could but feel sadly, dear friend, that you only, under our Blessed Lord, could have influenced her; and that you, by some deplorable mistake of judgment, had been led to feel that it was wrong to do so. And if ever, I will even venture to say, violence—spiritual violence, the violence that taketh by storm—could have been justified, it would have been in this case. Her affections were all yours; she was, but for you and her stepmother, alone in the world; and amid all her charms and gifts, a soul more starved and destitute I never met with. May our Lord and His Immaculate Mother strengthen you to bear your sorrow! For your friends, there are and must be consolations in this catastrophe. The cross that such a marriage would have laid upon you must have been heavy indeed."

Harassed by such thoughts and memories Helbeck passed through these strange, these miserable days—when he and Laura were once more under the same roof, living the same household life. Like Laura, he clung to every hour; like Laura, he found it almost more than he could bear. He suffered now with a fierceness, a moroseness, unknown to him of old. Every permitted mortification that could torment the body or humble the mind he brought into play during these weeks, and still could not prevent himself from feeling every sound of Laura's voice and every rustle of her dress as a rough touch upon a sore.

What was in her mind all the time—behind those clear indomitable eyes? He dared not let himself think of the signs of grief that were written so plainly on her delicate face and frame. One day he found himself looking at her from a distance in a passionate bewilderment. So white—so sad! For what? What was this freedom, this atrocious freedom—that a creature so fragile, so unfit to wield it, had yet claimed so fatally? His thoughts fell back to Stephen Fountain, cursing an influence at once so intangible and so strong.

* * * * *

It was some relief that they were in no risk of tete-a-tete outside Augustina's sick room. One or other of the nurses was always present at meals. And on the day after Laura's arrival Father Leadham appeared and stayed for ten days.

The relations of the Jesuit towards Miss Fountain during this time were curious. It was plain to Helbeck that Father Leadham treated the girl with a new respect, and that she on her side showed herself much more at ease with him than she had used to be. It was as though they had tested each other, with the result that each had found in the other something nobler and sincerer than they had expected to find. Laura might be spiritually destitute; but it was evident that since his conversation with her, Father Leadham had realised for the first time the "charms and gifts" which might be supposed to have captured Mr. Helbeck.

So that when they met at meals, or in the invalid's room, the Jesuit showed Miss Fountain a very courteous attention. He was fresh from Cambridge; he brought her gossip of her friends and acquaintances; he said pleasant things of the Friedlands. She talked in return with an ease that astonished Helbeck and his sister. She seemed to both to have grown years older.

It was the same with all the other Catholic haunters of the house. For the first time she discovered how to get on with the Reverend Mother, even with Sister Angela—how not to find Father Bowles himself too wearisome. She moved among them with a dignity, perhaps an indifference, that changed her wholly.

Once, when she had been chatting in the friendliest way with the Reverend Mother, she paused for a moment in the passage outside Augustina's room, amazed at herself.

It was liberty, no doubt—this strange and desolate liberty in which she stood, that made the contrast. By some obscure association she fell on the words that Helbeck had once quoted to her—how differently! "My soul is escaped like a bird out of the snare of the fowler; the snare is broken, and we are delivered."

"Ah! but the bird's wings are broken and its breast pierced. What can it do with its poor freedom?" she said to herself, in a passion of tears.

* * * * *

Meanwhile, she realised the force of the saying that Catholicism is the faith to die in.

The concentration of all these Catholic minds upon the dying of Augustina, the busy fraternal help evoked by every stage of her via dolorosa, was indeed marvellous to see. "It is a work of art," Laura thought, with that new power of observation which had developed in her. "It is—it must be—the most wonderful thing of its sort in the world!"

For it was no mere haphazard series of feelings or kindnesses. It was an act—a function—this "good death" on which the sufferer and those who assisted her were equally bent. Something had to be done, a process to be gone through; and everyone was anxiously bent upon doing it in the right, the prescribed, way—upon omitting nothing. The physical fact, indeed, became comparatively unimportant, except as the evoking cause of certain symbolisms—nay, certain actual and direct contacts between earth and heaven, which were the distraction of death itself—which took precedence of it, and reduced it to insignificance.

When Father Leadham left, Father Bowles came to stay in the house, and Communion was given to Mrs. Fountain every day. Two or three times a week, also, Mass was said in her room. Laura assisted once or twice at these scenes—the blaze of lights and flowers in the old panelled room—the altar adorned with splendid fittings brought from the chapel below—the small, blanched face in the depths of the great tapestried bed—the priest bending over it.

On one of these occasions, in the early morning, when the candles on the altar were almost effaced by the first brilliance of a May day, Laura stole away from the darkened room where Mrs. Fountain lay soothed and sleeping, and stood for long at an open window overlooking the wild valley outside.

She was stifled by the scent of flowers and burning wax; still more, mentally oppressed. The leaping river, the wide circuit of the fells, the blowing of the May wind!—to them, in a great reaction, the girl gave back her soul, passionately resting in them. They were no longer a joy and intoxication. But the veil lifted between her and them. They became a sanctuary and refuge.

From the Martha of the old faith, so careful and troubled about many things—sins and penances, creeds and sacraments, the miraculous hauntings of words and objects, of water and wafer, of fragments of bone and stuff, of scapulars and medals, of crucifixes and indulgences—her mind turned to this Mary of a tameless and patient nature, listening and loving in the sunlight.

Only, indeed, to destroy her own fancy as soon as woven! Nature was pain and combat, too, no less than Faith. But here, at least, was no jealous lesson to be learnt; no exclusions, no conditions. Her rivers were deep and clear for all; her "generous sun" was lit for all. What she promised she gave. Without any preliminary credo, her colours glowed, her breezes blew for the unhappy. Oh! such a purple shadow on the fells—such a red glory of the oak twigs in front of it—such a white sparkle of the Greet, parting the valley!

What need of any other sacrament or sign than these—this beauty and bounty of the continuing world? Indeed, Friedland had once said to her, "The joy that Catholics feel in the sacrament, the plain believer in God will get day by day out of the simplest things—out of a gleam on the hills—a purple in the distance—a light on the river; still more out of any tender or heroic action."

She thought very wistfully of her old friend and his talk; but here also with a strange sense of distance, of independence. How the river dashed and raced! There had been wild nights of rain amid this May beauty, and the stream was high. Day by day, of late, she had made it her comrade. Whenever she left Augustina it was always to wander beside it, or to sit above it, cradled and lost in that full triumphant song it went uttering to the spring.

* * * * *

But there was a third person in the play, by no means so passive an actor as Laura was wont to imagine her.

There is often a marvellous education in such a tedious parting with the world as Augustina was enduring. If the physical conditions allow it, the soul of the feeblest will acquire a new dignity, and perceptions more to the point. As she lay looking at the persons who surrounded her, Augustina passed without an effort, and yet wonderfully, as it seemed to her, into a new stage of thought and desire about them. A fresh, an eager ambition sprang up in her, partly of the woman, partly of the believer. She had been blind; now she saw. She felt the power of her weakness, and she would seize it.

Meanwhile, she made a rally which astonished all the doctors. Towards the end of the second week in May she had recovered strength so far that on several occasions she was carried down the chapel passage to the garden, and placed in a sheltered corner of the beech hedge, where she could see the bright turf of the bowling-green and the distant trees of the "Wilderness."

One afternoon Helbeck came out to sit with her. He was no sooner there than she became so restless that he asked her if he should recall Sister Rosa, who had retired to a distant patch of shade.

"No—no! Alan, I want to say something. Will you raise my pillow a little?"

He did so, and she looked at him for a moment with her haunting blue eyes, without speaking. But at last she said:

"Where is Laura?"

"Indoors, I believe."

"Don't call her. I have been talking to her, Alan, about—about what she means to do."

"Did she tell you her plans?"

He spoke very calmly, holding his sister's hand.

"She doesn't seem to have any. The Friedlands have offered her a home, of course. Alan!—will you put your ear down to me?"

He stooped, and she whispered brokenly, holding him several times when he would have drawn back.

But at last he released himself. A flush had stolen over his fine and sharpened features.

"My dear sister, if it were so—what difference can it make?"

He spoke with a quick interrogation. But his glance had an intensity, it expressed a determination, which made her cry out—

"Alan—if she gave way?"

"She will never give way. She has more self-control; but her mind is in precisely the same bitter and envenomed state. Indeed, she has grown more fixed, more convinced. The influence of her Cambridge friends has been decisive. Every day I feel for what she has to bear and put up with—poor child!—in this house."

"It can't be for long," said Augustina with tears; and she lay for a while, pondering, and gathering force. But presently she made her brother stoop to her again.

"Alan—please listen to me! If Laura did become a Catholic—is there anything in the way—anything you can't undo?"

He raised himself quickly. He would have suffered these questions from no one else. The stern and irritable temper that he inherited from his father had gained fast upon the old self-control since the events of October. Even now, with Augustina, he was short.

"I shall take no vows, dear, before the time. But it would please me—it would console me—if you would put all these things out of your head. I see the will of God very plainly. Let us submit to it."

"It hurts me so—to see you suffer!" she said, looking at him piteously.

He bent over the grass, struggling for composure.

"I shall have something else to do before long," he said in a low voice, "than to consider my own happiness."

She was framing another question, when there was a sound of footsteps on the gravel behind them.

Augustina exclaimed, with the agitation of weakness, "Don't let any visitors come!" Helbeck looked a moment in astonishment, then his face cleared.

"Augustina!—it is the relic—from the Carmelite nuns. I recognise their Confessor."

Augustina clasped her hands; and Sister Rosa, obeying Helbeck's signal, came quickly over to her. Mr. Helbeck bared his head and walked over the grass to meet the strange priest, who was carrying a small leather box.

Soon there was a happy group round Augustina's couch. The Confessor who had brought this precious relic of St. John of the Cross had opened the case, and placed the small and delicate reliquary that it contained in Mrs. Fountain's hands. She lay clasping it to her breast, too weak to speak, but flushed with joy. The priest, a southern-eyed kindly man, with an astonishing flow of soft pietistic talk, sat beside her, speaking soothingly of the many marvels of cure or conversion that had been wrought by the treasure she held. He was going on to hold a retreat at a convent of the order near Froswick, and would return, he said, by Bannisdale in a week's time, to reclaim his charge. The nuns, he repeated with gentle emphasis, had never done such an honour to any sick person before. But for Mr. Helbeck's sister nothing was too much. And a novena had already been started at the convent. The nuns were praying—praying hard that the relic might do its holy work.

He was still talking when there was a step and a sound of low singing behind the beech hedge. The garden was so divided by gigantic hedges of the eighteenth century, which formed a kind of Greek cross in its centre, that many different actions or conversations might be taking place in it without knowing anything one of the other. Laura, who had been away for an hour, was not aware that Augustina was in the garden till she came through a little tunnel in the hedge, and saw the group.

The priest looked up, startled by the appearance of the young lady. Laura had marked the outburst of warm weather by the donning of a white dress and her summer hat. In one hand she held a bunch of lilac that she had been gathering for her stepmother; in the other a volume of a French life of St. Theresa that she had taken an hour before from Augustina's table. In anticipation of the great favor promised her by the Carmelite nuns, Augustina had been listening feebly from time to time to her brother's reading from the biography of the greatest of Carmelite saints and founders.

"Laura!" said Mrs. Fountain faintly.

Helbeck's expression changed. He bent over his sister, and said in a low decided voice, "Will you give me the relic, dear? I will return it to its case."

"Oh, no, Alan," she said imploringly. "Laura, do you know what those kind dear nuns have done? They have sent me their relic. And I feel so much better already—so relieved!" Mrs. Fountain raised the little case and kissed it fervently. Then she held it out for Laura to see.

The girl bent over it in silence.

"What is it?" she said.

"It is a relic of St. John of the Cross," said the priest opposite, glancing curiously at Miss Fountain, "It once belonged to the treasury of the Cathedral of Seville, and was stolen during the great war. But it has been now formally conveyed to our community by the Archbishop and Chapter."

"Wasn't it kind of the dear nuns, Laura?" said Augustina fervently.

"I—I suppose so," said Laura, in a low embarrassed voice. Helbeck, who was watching her, saw that she could hardly restrain the shudder of repulsion that ran through her.

Her extraordinary answer threw a silence on the party. The tears started to the sick woman's eyes. The priest rose to take his leave. Mrs. Fountain asked him for an absolution and a blessing. He gave them, coldly bowed to Laura, shook hands with Sister Rosa, and took his departure, Helbeck conducting him.

"Oh, Laura!" said Mrs. Fountain reproachfully. The girl's lips were quite white. She knelt down by her stepmother and kissed her hand.

"Dear, I wouldn't have hurt you for the world! It was something I had been reading—it—it seemed to me horrible!—just for a moment. Of course I'm glad it comforts you, poor darling!—of course—of course, I am!"

Mrs. Fountain was instantly appeased—for herself.

"But Alan felt it so," she said restlessly, as she closed her eyes—"what you said. I saw his face."

It was time for the invalid to be moved, and Sister Rosa had gone for help. Laura was left for a moment kneeling by her stepmother. No one could see her; the penitence and pain in the girl's feeling showed in her pallor, her pitiful dropping lip.

Helbeck was heard returning. Laura looked up. Instinctively she rose and proudly drew herself together. Never yet had she seen that face so changed. It breathed the sternest, most concentrated anger—a storm of feeling that, in spite of the absolute silence that held it in curb, yet so communicated itself to her that her heart seemed to fail in her breast.

* * * * *

A few minutes later Miss Fountain, having gathered together a few scattered possessions of the invalid, was passing through the chapel passage. A step approached from the hall, and Helbeck confronted her.

"Miss Fountain—may I ask you a kindness?"

What a tone of steel! Her shoulders straightened—her look met his in a common flash.

"Augustina is weak. Spare her discussion—the sort of discussion with which, no doubt, your Cambridge life makes you familiar. It can do nothing here, and "—he paused, only to resume unflinchingly—"the dying should not be disturbed."

Laura wavered in the dark passage like one mortally struck. His pose as the protector of his sister—the utter distance and alienation of his tone—unjust!—incredible!

"I discussed nothing," she said, breathing fast.

"You might be drawn to do so," he said coldly. "Your contempt for the practices that sustain and console Catholics is so strong that no one can mistake the difficulty you have in concealing it. But I would ask you to conceal it for her sake."

"I thank you," she said quietly, as she swept past him. "But you are mistaken."

She walked away from him and mounted the stairs without another word.

* * * * *

Laura sat crouched and rigid in her own room. How had it happened, this horrible thing?—this break-down of the last vestiges and relics of the old relation—this rushing in of a temper and a hostility that stunned her!

She looked at the book on her knee. Then she remembered. In the "Wilderness" she had been reading that hideous account which appears in all the longer biographies, of the mutilation of St. Theresa's body three years after her death by some relic-hunting friars from Avila. In a ruthless haste, these pious thieves had lifted the poor embalmed corpse from its resting-place at Alba; they had cut the old woman's arm from the shoulder; they had left it behind in the rifled coffin, and then hastily huddling up the body, they had fled southwards with their booty, while the poor nuns, who had loved and buried their dead "mother," who had been shut by a trick into their own choir while the awful thing was done, were still singing the office, ignorant and happy.

The girl had read the story with sickening. Then Augustina had held up to her the relic case, with that shrivelled horror inside it. A finger, was it? or a portion of one. Perhaps torn from some poor helpless one in the same way. And to such aids and helps must a human heart come in dying!

She had not been quick enough to master herself. Oh! that was wrong—very wrong. But had it deserved a stroke so cruel—so unjust?

Oh! miserable, miserable religion! Her wild nature rose against it—accused—denounced it.

That night Augustina was marvellously well. She lay with the relic case beside her in a constant happiness.

"Oh, Laura! Laura, dear!—even you must see what it has done for me!"

So she whispered, when Sister Rosa had withdrawn into the next room and she and Laura were left together.

"I am so glad," said the girl gently, "so very glad."

"You are so dreadfully pale, Laura!"

Laura said nothing. She raised the poor hand she held, and laid it softly against her cheek. Augustina looked at her wistfully. Gradually her resolution rose.

"Laura, I must say it—God tells me to say it!"

"What! dear Augustina?"

"Laura—you could save Alan!—you could alter his whole life. And you are breaking his heart!"

Laura stared at her, letting the hand slowly drop upon the bed. What was happening in this strange, strange world?

"Laura, come here!—I can't bear it. He suffers so! You don't see it, but I do. He has the look of my father when my mother died. I know that he will go to the Jesuits. They will quiet him, and pray for him—and prayer saves you. But you, Laura—you might save him another way—oh! I must call it a happier way." She looked up piteously to the crucifix that hung on the wall opposite. "You thought me unkind when you were engaged—I know you did. I didn't know what to think—I was so upset by it all. But, oh! how I have prayed since I came back that he might marry, and have children,—and a little happiness. He is not forty yet—and he has had a hard life. How he will be missed here, too! Who can ever take his place? Why, he has made it all! And he loves his work. Of course I see that—now—he thinks it a sin—what happened last year—your engagement. But all the same, he can't tear his heart away from you. I can't understand it. It seems to me almost terrible—to love as he loves you."

"Dear Augustina, don't—don't say such things." The girl fell on her knees beside her stepmother. Her pride was broken; her face convulsed. "Why, you don't know, dear! He has lost all love for me. He says hard things to me even. He judges me like—like a stranger." She looked at Augustina imploringly through her tears.

"Did he scold you just now about the relic? But it was because it was you. Nobody else could have made him angry about such a thing. Why, he would have just laughed and pitied them!—you know he would. But you—oh, Laura, you torture him!"

Laura hid her face, shaking with the sobs she tried to control. Her heart melted within her. She thought of that marked book upon his table.

"And Laura," said the sighing thread of a voice, "how can you be wiser than all the Church?—all these generations? Just think, dear!—you against the Saints and the Fathers, and the holy martyrs and confessors, from our Lord's time till now! Oh! your poor father. I know. But he never came near the faith, Laura—how could he judge? It was not offered to him. That was my wicked fault. If I had been faithful I might have gained my husband. But Laura"—the voice grew so eager and sharp—"we judge no one. We must believe for ourselves the Church is the only way. But God is so merciful! But you—it is offered to you, Laura. And Alan's love with it. Just so little on your part—the Church is so tender, so indulgent! She does not expect a perfect faith all at once. One must just make the step blindly—obey—throw oneself into her arms. Father Leadham said so to me one day—-not minding what one thinks and believes—not looking at oneself—just obeying—and it will all come!"

But Laura could not speak. Little Augustina, full of a pleading, an apostolic strength, looked at her tenderly.

"He hardly sleeps, Laura. As I lie awake, I hear him moving about at all hours. I said to Father Leadham the other day—'his heart is broken. When you take him, he will be able to do what you tell him, perhaps. But—for this world—it will be like a dead man.' And Father Leadham did not deny it. He knows it is true."

And thus, so long as her poor strength lasted, Augustina lay and whispered—reporting all the piteous history of those winter months—things that Laura had never heard and never dreamed—a tale of grief so profound and touching that, by the time it ended, every landmark was uprooted in the girl's soul, and she was drifting on a vast tide of pity and passion, whither she knew not.


The next day there was no outing for Augustina. The south-west wind was again let loose upon the valley and the moss, with violent rain from the sea. In the grass the daffodils lay all faded and brown. But the bluebells were marching fast over the copses—as though they sprang in the traces of the rain.

Laura sat working beside Augustina, or reading to her, from morning till dark. Mr. Helbeck had gone into Whinthorpe as usual before breakfast, and was not expected home till the evening. Mrs. Fountain was perhaps more restless and oppressed than she had been the day before. But she would hardly admit it. She lay with the relic beside her, and took the most hopeful view possible of all her symptoms.

Miss Fountain herself that day was in singular beauty. The dark circles round her eyes did but increase their brilliance; the hot fire in Augustina's rooms made her cheeks glow; and the bright blue cotton of her dress had been specially chosen by Molly Friedland to set off the gold of her hair.

She was gay too, to Augustina's astonishment. She told stories of Daffady and the farm; she gossiped with Sister Rosa; she alternately teased and coaxed Fricka. Sister Rosa had been a little cool to her at first after the affair of the relic. But Miss Fountain was so charming this afternoon, so sweet to her stepmother, so amiable to other people, that the little nurse could not resist her.

And at regular intervals she would walk to the window, and report to Augustina the steady rising of the river.

"It has flooded all that flat bank opposite the first seat—and of that cattle-rail, that bar—what do you call it?—just at the bend—you can only see the very top line. And such a current under the otter cliff! It's splendid, Augustina!—it's magnificent!"

And she would turn her flushed face to her stepmother in a kind of triumph.

"It will wash away the wooden bridge if it goes on," said Augustina plaintively, "and destroy all the flowers."

But Laura seemed to exult in it. If it had not been for the curb of Mrs. Fountain's weakness she could not have kept still at all as the evening drew on, and the roar of the water became continuously audible even in this high room. And yet every now and then it might perhaps have been thought that she was troubled or annoyed by the sound—that it prevented her from hearing something else.

Mrs. Fountain did not know how to read her. Once, when they were alone, she tried to reopen the subject of the night before. But Laura would not even allow it to be approached. To-day she had the lightest, softest ways of resistance. But they were enough.

Mrs. Fountain could only sigh and yield.

Towards seven o'clock she began to fidget about her brother. "He certainly meant to be home for dinner," she said several times, with increasing peevishness.

"I am going to have dinner here!" said Laura, smiling.

"Why?" said Augustina, astonished.

"Oh! let me, dear. Mr. Helbeck is sure to be late. And Sister Rosa will look after him. Teaching Fricka has made me as hungry as that!"—and she opened her hands wide, as a child measures.

Augustina looked at her sadly, but said nothing. She remembered that the night before, too, Laura, would not go downstairs.

The little meal went gayly. Just as it was over, and while Laura was still chattering to her stepmother as she had not chattered for months, a step was heard in the passage.

"Ah! there is Alan!" cried Mrs. Fountain.

The Squire came in tired and mud-stained. Even his hair shone with rain, and his clothes were wet through.

"I must not come too near you," he said, standing beside the door.

Mrs. Fountain bade him dress, get some dinner, and come back to her. As she spoke, she saw him peering through the shadows of the room. She too looked round. Laura was gone.

"At the first sound of his step!" thought Augustina. And she wept a little, but so secretly that even Sister Rosa did not discover it. Her ambition—her poor ambition—was for herself alone. What chance had it?—alas! Never since Stephen's death surely had Augustina seen Laura shed such tears as she had shed the night before. But no words, no promises—nothing! And where, now, was any sign of it?

She drew out her beads for comfort. And so, sighing and praying, she fell asleep.

* * * * *

After supper Helbeck was in the hall smoking. He was half abashed that he should find so much comfort in his pipe, and that he should dread so much the prospect of giving it up.

His thoughts, however, were black enough—black as the windy darkness outside.

A step on the stairs—at which his breath leapt. Miss Fountain, in her white evening dress, was descending.

"May I speak to you, Mr. Helbeck?"

He flung down his pipe and approached her. She stood a little above him on one of the lower steps; and instantly he felt that she came in gentleness.

An agitation he could barely control took possession of him. All day long he had been scourging himself for the incident of the night before. They had not met since. He looked at her now humbly—with a deep sadness—and waited for what she had to say.

"Shall we go into the drawing-room? Is there a light?"

"We will take one."

He lifted a lamp, and she led the way. Without another word, she opened the door into the deserted room. Nobody had entered it since the orphanage function, when some extra service had been hastily brought in to make the house habitable. The mass of the furniture was gathered into the centre of the carpet, with a few tattered sheets flung across it. The gap made by the lost Romney spoke from the wall, and the windows stood uncurtained to the night.

Laura, however, found a chair and sank into it. He put down the lamp, and stood expectant.

They were almost in their old positions. How to find strength and voice! That room breathed memories.

When she did speak, however, her intonation was peculiarly firm and clear.

"You gave me a rebuke last night, Mr. Helbeck—and I deserved it!"

He made a sudden movement—a movement which seemed to trouble her.

"No!—don't!"—she raised her hand involuntarily—"don't please say anything to make it easier for me. I gave you great pain. You were right—oh! quite right—to express it. But you know——"

She broke off suddenly.

"You know, I can't talk—if you stand there like that! Won't you come here, and sit down"—she pointed to a chair near her—"as if we were friends still? We can be friends, can't we? We ought to be for Augustina's sake. And I very much want to discuss with you—seriously—what I have to say."

He obeyed her. He came to sit beside her, recovering his composure—bending forward that he might give her his best attention.

She paused a moment—knitting her brows.

"I thought afterwards, a long time, of what had happened. I talked, too, to Augustina. She was much distressed—she appealed to me. And I saw a great deal of force in what she said. She pointed out that it was absurd for me to judge before I knew; that I never—never—had been willing to know; that everything—even the Catholic Church"—she smiled faintly—"takes some learning. She pleaded with me—and what she said touched me very much. I do not know how long I may have to stay in your house—and with her. I would not willingly cause you pain. I would gladly understand, at least, more than I do—I should like to learn—to be instructed. Would—would Father Leadham, do you think, take the trouble to correspond with me—to point me out the books, for instance, that I might read?"

Helbeck's black eyes fastened themselves upon her.

"You—you would like to correspond with Father Leadham?" he repeated, in stupefaction.

She nodded. Involuntarily she began a little angry beating with her foot that he knew well. It was always the protest of her pride, when she could not prevent the tears from showing themselves.

He controlled himself. He turned his chair so as to come within an easy talking distance.

"Will you pardon me," he said quietly, "if I ask for more information? Did you only determine on this last night?"

"I think so."

He hesitated.

"It is a serious step, Miss Fountain! You should not take it only from pity for Augustina—only from a wish to give her comfort in dying!"

She turned away her face a little. That penetrating look pierced too deeply. "Are there not many motives?" she said, rather hoarsely—"many ways? I want to give Augustina a happiness—and—and to satisfy many questions of my own. Father Leadham is bound to teach, is he not, as a priest? He could lose nothing by it."

"Certainly he is bound," said Helbeck.

He dropped his head, and stared at the carpet, thinking.

"He would recommend you some books, of course."

The same remembrance flew through both. Absently and involuntarily, Helbeck shook his head, with a sad lifting of the eyebrows. The colour rushed into Laura's cheeks.

"It must be something very simple," she said hurriedly. "Not 'Lives of the Saints,' I think, and not 'Catechisms' or 'Outlines.' Just a building up from the beginning by somebody—who found it hard, very hard, to believe—and yet did believe. But Father Leadham will know—of course he would know."

Helbeck was silent. It suddenly appeared to him the strangest, the most incredible conversation. He felt the rise of a mad emotion—the beating in his breast choked him.

Laura rose, and he heard her say in low and wavering tones:

"Then I will write to him to-morrow—if you think I may."

He sprang to his feet, and as she passed him the fountains of his being broke up. With a wild gesture he caught her in his arms.


It was not the cry of his first love for her. It was a cry under which she shuddered. But she submitted at once. Nay, with a womanly tenderness—how unlike that old shrinking Laura—she threw her arm round his neck, she buried her little head in his breast.

"Oh, how long you were in understanding!" she said with a deep sigh. "How long!"

"Laura!—what does it mean?—my head turns!"

"It means—it means—that you shall never—never again speak to me as you did yesterday; that either you must love me or—well, I must just die!" she gave a little sharp sobbing laugh. "I have tried other things—and they can't—they can't be borne. And if you can't love me unless I am a Catholic—now, I know you wouldn't—I must just be a Catholic—if any power in the world can make me one. Why, Father Leadham can persuade me—he must!" She drew away from him, holding him, almost fiercely, by her two small hands. "I am nothing but an ignorant, foolish girl. And he has persuaded so many wise people—you have often told me. Oh, he must—he must persuade me!"

She hid herself again on his breast. Then she looked up, feeling the tears on his cheek.

"But you'll be very, very patient with me—won't you? Oh! I'm so dead to all those things! But if I say whatever you want me to say—if I do what is required of me—you won't ask me too many questions—you won't press me too hard? You'll trust to my being yours—to my growing into your heart? Oh! how did I ever bear the agony of tearing myself away!"

It was an ecstasy—a triumph. But it seemed to him afterwards in looking back upon it, that all through it was also an anguish! The revelation of the woman's nature, of all that had lived and burned in it since he last held her in his arms, brought with it for both of them such sharp pains of expansion, such an agony of experience and growth.

* * * * *

Very soon, however, she grew calmer. She tried to tell him what had happened to her since that black October day. But conversation was not altogether easy. She had to rush over many an hour and many a thought—dreading to remember. And again and again he could not rid himself of the image of the old Laura, or could not fathom the new. It was like stepping from the firmer ground of the moss on to the softer patches where foot and head lost themselves. He could see her as she had been, or as he had believed her to be, up to twenty-four hours before—the little enemy and alien in the house; or as she had lived beside him those four months—troubled, petulant, exacting. But this radiant, tender Laura—with this touch of feverish extravagance in her love and her humiliation—she bewildered him; or rather she roused a new response; he must learn new ways of loving her.

Once, as he was holding her hand, she looked at him timidly.

"You would have left Bannisdale, wouldn't you?"

He quickly replied that he had been in correspondence with his old Jesuit friends. But he would not dwell upon it. There was a kind of shame in the subject, that he would not have had her penetrate. A devout Catholic does not dwell for months on the prospects and secrets of the religious life to put them easily and in a moment out of his hand—even at the call of the purest and most legitimate passion. From the Counsels, the soul returns to the Precepts. The higher, supremer test is denied it. There is humbling in that—a bitter taste, not to be escaped.

Perhaps she did penetrate it. She asked him hurriedly if he regretted anything. She could so easily go away again—for ever. "I could do it—I could do it now!" she said firmly. "Since you kissed me. You could always be my friend."

He smiled, and raised her hands to his lips. "Where thou livest, dear, I will live, and where——"

She withdrew a hand, and quickly laid it on his mouth.

"No—not to-night! We have been so full of death all these weeks! Oh! how I want to tell Augustina!"

But she did not move. She could not tear herself from this comfortless room—this strange circle of melancholy light in which they sat—this beating of the rain in their ears as it dashed against the old and fragile casements.

"Oh! my dear," he said suddenly as he watched her, "I have grown so old and cross. And so poor! It has taken far more than the picture"—he pointed to the vacant space—"to carry me through this six months. My schemes have been growing—what motive had I for holding my hand? My friends have often remonstrated—the Jesuits especially. But at last I have had my way. I have far—far less to offer you than I had before."

He looked at her in a sad apology.

"I have a little money," she said shyly. "I don't believe you ever knew it before."

"Have you?" he said in astonishment.

"Just a tiny bit. I shall pay my way"—and she laughed happily. "Alan!—have you noticed—how well I have been getting on with the Sisters?—what friends Father Leadham and I made? But no!—you didn't notice anything. You saw me all en noirall" she repeated with a mournful change of voice.

Then her eyelids fell, and she shivered.

"Oh! how you hurt—how you hurt!—last night."

He passionately soothed her, denouncing himself, asking her pardon. She gave a long sigh. She had a strange sense of having climbed a long stair out of an abyss of misery. Now she was just at the top—just within light and welcome. But the dark was so close behind—one touch! and she was thrust down to it again.

"I have only hated two people this last six months," she said at last, a propos, apparently, of nothing. "Your cousin, who was to have Bannisdale—and—and—Mr. Williams. I saw him at Cambridge."

There was a pause; then Helbeck said, with an agitation that she felt beneath her cheek as her little head rested on his shoulder:

"You saw Edward Williams? How did he dare to present himself to you?"

He gently withdrew himself from her, and went to stand before the hearth, drawn up to his full stern height. His dark head and striking pale features were fitly seen against the background of the old wall. As he stood there he was the embodiment of his race, of its history, its fanaticisms, its "great refusals" at once of all mean joys and all new freedoms. To a few chosen notes in the universe, tender response and exquisite vibration—to all others, deaf, hard, insensitive, as the stone of his old house.

Laura looked at him with a mingled adoration and terror. Then she hastily explained how and where she had met Williams.

"And you felt no sympathy for him?" said Helbeck, wondering.

She flushed.

"I knew what it must have been to you. And—and—he showed no sense of it."

Her tone was so simple, so poignant, that Helbeck smiled only that he might not weep. Hurriedly coming to her he kissed her soft hair.

"There were temptations of his youth," he said with difficulty, "from which the Faith rescued him. Now these same temptations have torn him from the faith. It has been all known to me from first to last. I see no hope. Let us never speak of him again."

"No," she said trembling.

He drew a long breath. Suddenly he knelt beside her.

"And you!" he said in a low voice—"you! What love—what sweetness—shall be enough for you! Oh! my Laura, when I think of what you have done to-night—of all that it means, all that it promises—I humble myself before you. I envy and bless you. Yours has been no light struggle—no small sacrifice. I can only marvel at it. Dear, the Church will draw you so softly—teach you so tenderly! You have never known a mother. Our Lady will be your Mother. You have had few friends—they will be given to you in all times and countries—and this will you are surrendering will come back to you strengthened a thousand-fold for my support—and your own."

He looked at her with emotion. Oh! how pale she had grown under these words of benediction. There was a moment's silence—then she rose feebly.

"Now—let me go! To-morrow—will you tell Augustina? Or to-night, if she were awake, and strong enough? How can one be sure—?"

"Let us come and see."

He took her hand, and they moved a few steps across the room, when they were startled by the thunder of the storm upon the windows. They stopped involuntarily. Laura's face lit up.

"How the river roars! I love it so. Yesterday I was on the top of the otter cliff when it was coming down in a torrent! To-morrow it will be superb."

"I wish you wouldn't go there till I have had some fencing done," said Helbeck with decision. "The rain has loosened the moss and made it all slippery and unsafe. I saw some people gathering primroses there to-day, and I told Murphy to warn them off. We must put a railing——"

Laura turned her face to the hall.

"What was that?" she said, catching his arm.

A sudden cry—loud and piercing—from the stairs.

"Mr. Helbeck—Miss Fountain!"

They rushed into the hall. Sister Rosa ran towards them.

"Oh! Mr. Helbeck—come at once—Mrs. Fountain——"

* * * * *

Augustina still sat propped in her large chair by the fire.

But a nurse looked up with a scared face as they entered.

"Oh come—come—Mr. Helbeck! She is just going."

Laura threw herself on her knees beside her stepmother. Helbeck gave one look at his sister, then also kneeling he took her cold and helpless hand, and said in a steady voice—

"Receive thy servant, O Lord, into the place of salvation, which she hopes from Thy mercy."

The two nurses, sobbing, said the "Amen."

"Deliver, O Lord, the soul of Thy servant from all the perils of hell, from pains and all tribulations."


Mrs. Fountain's head fell gently back upon the cushions. The eyes withdrew themselves in the manner that only death knows, the lids dropped partially.

"Augustina—dear Augustina—give me one look!" cried Laura in despair. She wrapped her arms round her stepmother and laid her head on the poor wasted bosom.

But Helbeck possessed himself of one of the girl's hands, and with his own right he made the sign of the Cross upon his sister's brow.

"Depart, O Christian soul, from this world, in the name of God the Father Almighty, who created thee; in the name of Jesus Christ, the son of the living God, who suffered for thee; in the name of the Holy Ghost, who has been poured out upon thee; in the name of the angels and archangels; in the name of the thrones and dominations; in the name of the principalities and powers; in the name of the cherubim and seraphim; in the name of the patriarchs and prophets; in the name of the holy apostles and evangelists; in the name of the holy martyrs and confessors; in the name of the holy monks and hermits; in the name of the holy virgins, and of all the saints of God; let thy place be this day in peace, and thy abode in the Holy Sion; through Christ our Lord. Amen."

There was silence, broken only by Laura's sobs and the nurses' weeping. Helbeck alone was quite composed. He gazed at his sister, not with grief—rather with a deep, mysterious joy. When he rose, still looking down upon Augustina, he questioned the nurses in low tones.

There had been hardly any warning. Suddenly a stifled cry—a gurgling in the throat—a spasm. Sister Rosa thought she had distinguished the words "Jesus!—" "Alan—" but there had been no time for any message, any farewell. The doctors had once warned the brother that it was possible, though not likely, that the illness would end in this way.

"Father Bowles gave her Communion this morning?" said Helbeck, with a grave exactness, like one informing himself of all necessary things.

"This morning and yesterday," said Sister Rosa eagerly; "and dear Mrs. Fountain confessed on Saturday."

Laura rose from her knees and wrung her hands.

"Oh! I can't bear it!" she said to Helbeck. "If I had been there—if we could just have told her! Oh, how strange—how strange it is!"

And she looked wildly about her, seized by an emotion, a misery, that Helbeck could not altogether understand. He tried to soothe her, regardless of the presence of the nurses. Laura, too, did not think of them. But when he put his arm round her, she withdrew herself in a restlessness that would not be controlled.

"How strange—how strange!" she repeated, as she looked down on the little blanched and stiffening face.

Helbeck stooped and kissed the brow of the dead woman.

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

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

The girl shuddered. She looked pitifully at the others.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sister Rosa went to her.

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

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

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

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

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

Laura started.


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

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

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

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

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse