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Helbeck of Bannisdale, Vol. II
by Mrs. Humphry Ward
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Laura gave it all one look. Then she drew her cloak round her again.

"Dear Miss Fountain," whispered Sister Rosa, entreating, "don't be long. And when you come in, let me get you dry things, and make you some tea."

The girl made a sign of assent.

"Good-bye," she said under her breath, and she gently kissed first Sister Rosa, and then the other nurse, Sister Mary Raphael, who did not know her so well, and was a little surprised perhaps to feel the touch of the cold small lips.

They watched her close the door, and some dim anxiety made them wait at the window till they saw her emerge from the garden wall into the park. She was walking slowly with bent head. She seemed to stand for a minute or two at the first seat commanding the bend of the river; then the rough road along the Greet turned and descended. They saw her no more.

* * * * *

A little before eight o'clock, Helbeck, coming out of his room, met Sister Rosa in the passage. She looked a little disturbed.

"Is Miss Fountain there?" asked Helbeck in the voice natural to those who keep house with death. He motioned toward his sister's room.

"I have not seen Miss Fountain since she went out between four and five o'clock," said the nurse.

"She went out for some flowers. As she did not come back to us, we thought that she was tired and had gone straight to bed. But now I have been to see. Miss Fountain is not in her room."

Helbeck stopped short.

"Not in her room! And she went out between four and five o'clock!"

"She told us she was going for some flowers to the otter cliff," said Sister Rosa, with cheeks that were rapidly blanching. "I remember her saying so very plainly. She said you would know where it was."

He stared at her, his face turning to horror. Then he was gone.

* * * * *

Laura was not far to seek. The tyrant river that she loved, had received her, had taken her life, and then had borne her on its swirl of waters straight for that little creek where, once before, it had tossed a human prey upon the beach.

There, beating against the gravelly bank, in a soft helplessness, her bright hair tangled among the drift of branch and leaf brought down by the storm, Helbeck found her.

* * * * *

He brought her home upon his breast. Those who had come to search with him followed at a distance.

He carried her through the garden, and at the chapel entrance nurses and doctors met him. Long and fruitless efforts were made before all was yielded to despair; but the river had done its work.

At last Helbeck said a hoarse word to Sister Rosa. She led the others away.

... In that long agony, Helbeck's soul parted for ever with the first fresh power to suffer. Neither life nor death could ever stab in such wise again. The half of personality—the chief forces of that Helbeck whom Laura had loved, were already dead with Laura, when, after many hours, his arms gave her back to the Sisters, and she dropped gently from his hold upon her bed of death, in a last irrevocable submission.

* * * * *

Far on in the day, Sister Rosa discovered on Laura's table a sealed letter addressed to Dr. Friedland of Cambridge. She brought it to Helbeck. He looked at it blindly, then gradually remembered the name and the facts connected with it. He wrote and sent a message to Dr. and Mrs. Friedland asking them of their kindness to come to Bannisdale.

* * * * *

The Friedlands arrived late at night. They saw the child to whom they had given their hearts lying at peace in the old tapestried room. Some of the flowers she had herself brought for Augustina had been placed about her. The nurses had exhausted themselves in the futile cares that soothe good women at such a time.

The talk throughout the household was of sudden and hopeless accident. Miss Fountain had gone for cherry blossom to the otter cliff; the cliff was unsafe after the rain; only twenty-four hours before, Mr. Helbeck had given orders on the subject to the old keeper. And the traces of a headlong fall just below a certain flowery bent where a wild cherry stood above a bank of primroses, were plainly visible.

Then, as the doctor and Mrs. Friedland entered their own room, Laura's letter was brought to them.

They shut themselves in to read it, expecting one of those letters, those unsuspicious letters of every day, which sudden death leaves behind it.

But this was what they read:

"Dear, dear friend,—Last night, nearly five hours ago, I promised for the second time to marry Mr. Helbeck, and I promised, too, that I would be a Catholic. I asked him to procure for me Catholic teaching and instruction. I could not, you see, be his wife without it. His conscience now would not permit it. And besides, last summer I saw that it could not be.

"... Then we were called to Augustina. It was she who finally persuaded me. I did not do it merely to please her. Oh! no—no. I have been on the brink of it for days—perhaps weeks. I have so hungered to be his again.... But it gave it sweetness that Augustina wished it so much—that I could tell her and make her happy before she died.

"Then, she was dead!—all in a moment—without a word—before we came to her almost. She had prayed so—and yet God would not leave her a moment in which to hear it. That struck me so. It was so strange, after all the pains—all the clinging to Him—and entreating. It might have been a sign, and there!—she never gave a thought to us. It seemed like an intrusion, a disturbance even to touch her. How horrible it is that death is so lonely! Then something was said that reminded me of my father. I had forgotten him for so long. But when they left me with her, I seemed to be holding not her hand, but his. I was back in the old life—I heard him speaking quite distinctly. 'Laura, you cannot do it—you cannot do it!' And he looked at me in sorrow and displeasure. I argued with him so long, but he beat me down. And the voice I seemed to hear was not his only,—it was the voice of my own life, only far stronger and crueller than I had ever known it.

"Cruel!—I hardly know what I am writing—who has been cruel! I!—only I! To open the old wounds—to make him glad for an hour—then to strike and leave him—could anything be more pitiless? Oh! my best—best beloved.... But to live a lie—upon his heart, in his arms—that would be worse. I don't know what drives me exactly—but the priests want my inmost will—want all that is I—and I know when I sit down to think quietly, that I cannot give it. I knew it last October. But to be with him, to see him, was too much. Oh! if God hears, may He forgive me—I prayed to-night that He would give me courage.

"He must always think it an accident—he will. I see it all so plainly.—But I am afraid of saying or doing something to make the others suspect.—My head is not clear. I can't remember from one moment to another.

"You understand—I must trouble him no more. And there is no other way. This winter has proved it. Because death puts an end.

"This letter is for you three only, in all the world. Dear, dear Molly—I sit here like a coward—but I can't go without a sign.—You wouldn't understand me—I used to be so happy as a little child—but since Papa died—since I came here—oh! I am not angry now, not proud—no, no.—It is for love—for love.

"Good-bye—good-bye. You were all so good to me—think of me, grieve for me sometimes.—

"Your ever grateful and devoted

"LAURA."

Next morning early, Helbeck entered the dining-room, where Dr. Friedland was sitting. He approached the doctor with an uncertain step, like one finding his way in the dark.

"You had a letter," he said. "Is it possible that you could show it me—or any part of it? Only a few hours before her death the old relations between myself—and Miss Fountain—were renewed. We were to have been husband and wife. That gives me a certain claim."

Dr. Friedland grew pale.

"My dear sir," he said, rising to meet his host,—"that letter contained a message for my daughter which was not intended for other eyes than hers. I have destroyed it."

And then speech failed him. The old man stood in a guilty confusion.

Helbeck lifted his deep eyes with the steady and yet muffled gaze of one who, in the silence of the heart, lets hope go. Not another word was said. The doctor found himself alone.

* * * * *

Three days later, the doctor wrote to his wife, who had gone back to Cambridge to be with Molly.

"Yesterday Mrs. Fountain was buried in the Catholic graveyard at Whinthorpe. To-day we carried Laura to a little chapel high in the hills. A. lonely yet a cheerful spot! After these days and nights of horror, there was a moment—a breath—of balm. The Westmoreland rocks and trees will be about her for ever. She lies in sight, almost, of the Bannisdale woods. Above her the mountain rises to the sky. One of those wonderful Westmoreland dogs was barking and gathering the sheep on the crag-side, while we stood there. And when it was all over I could hear the river in the valley—a gay and open stream, with little bends and shadows—not tragic like the Greet.

"Many of the country people came. I saw her cousins, the Masons; that young fellow—you remember?—with a face swollen with tears. Mr. Helbeck stood in the distance. He did not come into the chapel.

"How she loved this country! And now it holds her tenderly. It gives her its loveliest and best. Poor, poor child!

"As for Mr. Helbeck, I have hardly seen him. He seems to live a life all within. We must be as shadows to him; as men like trees walking. But I have had a few conversations with him on necessary business; I have observed his bearing under this intolerable blow. And always I have felt myself in the presence of a good and noble man. In a few months, or even weeks, they say he will have entered the Jesuit Novitiate. It gives me a deep relief to think of it.

"What a fate!—that brought them across each other, that has left him nothing but these memories, and led her, step by step, to this last bitter resource—this awful spending of her young life—this blind witness to august things!"

THE END

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