Title: Five People Author: Marjorie Bowen * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 2001171h.html Language: English Date first posted: Oct 2020 Most recent update: Oct 2020 This eBook was produced by Colin Choat and Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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THIS is the third modern novel from Miss Marjorie Bowen and her work in modern writing has certainly been more powerful and more vivid than ever her long series of historical romances. Five People is a book of remarkable psychological insight and its plot is intricate and simple at once, as is the way of nature itself, the basis of all that truth to life which it is the novelist's business to attain. Here is a book stronger in many aspects than anything its finely imaginitive writer has hitherto written.
SHE fastened a thin bracelet of gold silk rosebuds round her wrist and thought: "How happy I am. How happy I have always been."
And a light fear shadowed this reflection: "Is it possible always to be so happy?"
She smiled at this fear; of course she would always be happy, because this happiness was the result not only of her circumstances, but of her disposition; she gave and received light to and from everything about her; nothing unkind had ever pierced the radiance of her personality.
Her smile dimpled as she studied the childish ornament she had fastened gaily round the fair wrist she so innocently admired; she sat looking down at her curved hand lying at ease on her satin knee.
The scene was a Paris flat, a choice and secret apartment concealed in the graceful and melancholy garden of the sombre and despoiled building of one of those ancient convents still standing among the network of modern activities adrift from their time and purpose, not far from the Rue de Sèvres, yet defended by several obscure and lonely streets from the noise and vitality of the modern thoroughfares.
This apartment that Helen St. Luc had occupied for ten years had been that part of the convent that had formerly been set apart for the use of great ladies temporarily retired from the world, or permanently forced into a secular retreat dignified by the approximity of sanctity.
These stately rooms, lofty mannered and shadowed half the year by the tall trees in the deserted garden, had housed many a noble dame whose stately retreat from temptations that no longer tempted had earned her a holy reputation in her old age, many a wit and belle whose later years here had effaced a dubious and splendid youth.
People said it was a queer place, inconvenient and out of the way, for a woman like Helen St. Luc to live in. Gloomy too, especially for a woman living alone, for the centre of the building was only occupied during the day, as a tapestry and embroidery school, and the other wing was merely used as a storehouse by an antique dealer.
Under Madame St. Luc's flat lived the concierge and his family; these were her sole company in the ancient convent of Ste. Angelique. She loved the queer place and had always been wealthy enough to do as she pleased; she was not there very much, for her life, her interests and her friends were all cosmopolitan; but she never stayed anywhere else when she was in Paris, and was always, she declared, happier here than in any other part of the world she knew.
It was an evening of full summer. Helen St. Luc was seldom in Paris in the summer; she went to her bedroom window and gazed out into the shadow of the lime trees from which the green-gold flowers and fruit drooped in profusion. These trees were as high as the building; between the pale transparent leaves that the last light transmuted into the colour of amber, Helen could glimpse the garden, always deserted; the sweeps of grass, the neglected parterres, the overgrown box, the old bushes of roses and geraniums, the little painted summer-house where the nuns had sat and sewed; the mossy cracked basin of the dry stone fountain.
In the faint jade-green sky that arched over Paris hung the new moon, a vivid crescent in the heavens still pulsating with the withdrawing light of the sun.
Helen drew her silver brocade curtains further apart, so that the scent of the lime blossoms and the hesitating twilight came full into the tenderly lit room; Helen used candles of yellowish scented wax. As she stood so, taken with a curious little sense of uncertainty, she frowned slightly with the emotional woman's effort logically to pursue a thought to a clear conclusion, usually a fruitless effort.
She was the daughter of a middle-class Englishman and a Frenchwoman of no family and the widow of a Provençal perfume manufacturer of mean origin, but wealth and some chance trick of nature had given her that grace, that allure, that air of fragility and delicacy, the exquisite lines and poise associated with, but not always the result of, pure patrician blood.
Madame St. Luc was pale, of medium colouring, with uncommonly large grey eyes and a mobile mouth, rather wide and constantly trembling into a smile, her features were of ordinary feminine prettiness; it was her carriage, her movements, her hands and arms, her lovely feet, that made her beautiful; if she had had to jostle along with the crowd she might all her life have passed unnoticed, but placed, adorned, set off with every advantage, no person of taste could have overlooked her uncommon grace. Thirty-three years old, she had never shed a tear save out of gentle compassion for some stranger, and for one personal grief, her father's death; brought up as the only child of a widowed father, she had been completely happy, married at twenty-three to an elderly man she did not love, she had still been completely happy. When he had died she had not been callously glad to be rid of a burden; it had been a sincere sorrow.
With deep tenderness the kind old man had kissed her "Good-bye."
"Thank you for seven years of happiness," he had said. "And now you must marry Louis Van Quellin."
That was three years ago, and Helen had not yet married Louis Van Quellin.
She owed a deep respect to the memory of Etienne St. Luc. She did not know the exact nature of her feelings towards Louis Van Quellin.
Some day she would marry him, of course, for he was already part of her life, but she felt no deep urge to do so; her present existence was very pleasant and hers was a nature to be long satisfied with a delicate and distant devotion. Nor had he pressed her, nor intruded on the delectable ground of their tacit understanding; he, too, was fastidious and fine with a certain added melancholy that she entirely lacked.
He was a man of peculiar character, of too many gifts, too much money, and one overwhelming obsession, rooted in an extravagant remorse.
This obsession was a sick girl, his half-sister, whose affliction was the one shadow over the brightness of Helen, who was so warmly piteous towards Cornelia; she loved the poor, ineffective cripple creature, really loved her, and had often thought:
"I should not like to take Louis away from her until she is better. No, not even by a little."
And she persuaded herself that this was why she had so constantly evaded the moment of a definite promise to Louis; she would have liked, before there was any precise talk of marriage, Cornelia to be cured.
There was always talk of her cure, first this treatment, then that; first one doctor, then another; hope was never dismissed, never allowed out of sight...Superb Helen left her bedroom and went into the salon that overlooked the courtyard by two lofty windows the entire height of the walls, which were hung with faded tapestry of faint lavender, cinnamon and rose hues, where heraldic beasts upheld fantastic shields on close packed fields of flowers.
Every object in the room was lovely and costly; the candle-light picked out from pools of shadow the acacia wood furniture, the chairs covered with white satin Chinese stitchery, the long wreaths of carved cedar wood fruit above the pelmets of the window and the slender mantelpiece, the puce coloured and saffron coloured crystal vases holding tuberoses, lilies and clove carnations, and the long straight yellow silk sofa near the gilt work-table and gilt bookcase where Helen usually sat.
When she entered this room she found Louis Van Quellin standing by the open window, through which the last twilight flowed to mingle with the golden flush of the candle radiance. She knew him so well that she could tell at once, from the very way he stood, that he was depressed. And his depression could only mean the one thing. Cornelia was worse, or, at least, not so well.
She asked before he had time to speak:
"Shall I go and sit with Cornelia to-night?"
"No. Why? She has a great deal of company. Even too much." It was as if he defended himself. "She is never alone."
"Of course. But I do not like to take you away from her—even for an evening, when she is not well."
"I did not say she was not well," he smiled. "You guessed that."
"Well, yes." She seated herself on the yellow sofa, the folds of her dress, which were stiff, of a ribbed silk in a dark petunia colour, made a flow of darkness in the blonde faded tints of the lovely gracious room.
"It is not so." She could see that he was denying his own conviction. "Cornelia is very well. Let us be alone together this evening."
They were due at the reception of a famous artist where fêtes en plein air were at present so fashionable, but Helen said at once:
"Shall we not go? Shall we stay here?"
"If that would please you? I like your old garden better than the park of M. de Guerin."
"Of course it pleases me. We will have coffee here and then go out."
"Everything pleases you, doesn't it?"
He smiled tenderly at her docility, her desire, so delicate and fine, to share her gaiety of spirits.
She considered him a little before she answered; this man, whose full name was Louis Van Quellin Van Paradys, came, as she came, of mixed ancestry; his mother English, his father Flemish, of an ancient and rather remarkable family, whose estate had been at one time of such princely beauty as to gain the name Paradys, which hereafter had remained to the Van Quellins, together with considerable wealth gained as bankers and spent as nobles.
Louis Van Quellin was a celebrated collector of all forms of rather exotic, over-refined and subtle objects of beauty; some people said that he would marry Helen St. Luc only to add another choice piece to his already world-famous collection.
He was now in his thirty-fifth year, very quiet in manner and appearance, with an aquiline face and close hair, slightly dark reddish; his eyes were rather too light, and this pale clear grey hawk's look from the dark face was discomposing to most people, for the expression was often both cold and lonely and always proud and keen, so that the finished courtesy of his manner seemed discounted as a mere surface pleasantness; his intimates called him un grand homme manqué, he was not idle, but seemed to disdain ambition.
Helen St. Luc was now, after her scrutiny, moved to confide in him, not so much for the sake of the confession, but to rouse him from one of those fits of inner abstraction which she knew and faintly disliked in him, as she faintly disliked anything that was not absolutely candid and clear.
"Do you know, just before you came, I was looking out on the lime trees—and I had a moment of fear—just a little stir of fear—that I was too happy."
"Polycrates and the ring," he quoted, smiling, taking her very lightly.
"Yes! But that is an unfortunate illustration, isn't it? Polycrates sacrificed his favourite ring and it was brought back to him—and afterwards he had all manner of misery."
"Sacrifice something that cannot be brought back," he suggested with a hint of mockery. "Polycrates threw his ring into the sea and a fish swallowed it—you could make a more definite offer to the gods—sometimes there is no possibility even of a fish."
Helen St. Luc leaned towards him, trying to understand his mood.
"What? I would like to sacrifice something—tell me what."
"Seriously? Now what could threaten you?"
"I don't know. Polycrates didn't, did he?"
"All a clear horizon, isn't it?"
"Yes—everything has been so happy for me. I came out of happiness, my father had a smooth, easy life. I've been too cherished, too comfortable, and ahead, well, as you say, Louis, what could happen to me?" She finished with a tender coquetry.
"Nothing. You haven't an enemy in the world."
"Nor a relation," she laughed. "Yes, it is all dangerously bright. Quick, what do we sacrifice?"
She rose and looked mischievously round the room, yet really watching him.
Louis Van Quellin took up something she had said.
"Have you really no relation, Helen?" He had always seen her surrounded by so many friends, she was so popular, so much of the world, that this thought of her inner isolation seemed strange.
She shook her fine little head.
"No—but yes! A cousin, I do believe. I had an uncle," she reflected, "who went quite definitely to the bad, like people used to in those days. You know, Louis, the absolute black sheep who was so shameful you could not speak of him and seems so old-fashioned now. My father hardly mentioned him. He died long ago, before I was born, but there was a daughter—my cousin, of course."
"She would be hardly likely to affect you," said Van Quellin, without much interest in what she said, but absorbed in watching the tender animation of her delicious face.
"No—she may be dead too, for all I have heard—I don't know where she is, if she is alive. I believe they went to Australia. My father was always helping them."
"I wonder why you have thought of her to-night?"
"Oh, yes, it is strange—but I do sometimes think of it. My poor uncle was an engineer too, and with my father at first. He left the firm in some awful disgrace just before father's big success—it seems sad." She spoke earnestly. Helen could be earnest in a second when thinking of other people's griefs.
Van Quellin lightly mocked her sudden interest in this dead trouble; to tease her he turned and picked up, as the first object that came to his hand, a long graceful vase in pink alabaster. "What of your sacrifice to the gods? This vase I brought you from Greece."
"Ah, Louis, I value that!"
"Isn't that what you throw away? What you value?"
She laughed at the discovery of her insincerity.
"Of course. Well, I will sacrifice it. I am too happy."
Van Quellin was surprised at the seriousness obvious under the raillery of her manner; he fancied that she was slightly, unaccountably nervous, yet he had never known Helen nervous, but he had always believed that the most sensible of women were at heart superstitious, and that it was kind to humour them in their superstitions.
"Very well," he said, "I will throw the vase from the window, and when you hear it crash below you will know that your sacrifice has been accepted by the gods—"
"My beautiful vase!" cried Helen a little breathlessly.
With mock drama Louis Van Quellin held the lovely rosy shape up and out of the open window that gave directly on to the quiet shadowed courtyard, empty save for Van Quellin's car near the old iron gates.
"I pray the high gods to accept this offering from one afraid of her happiness," he cried.
Helen's pearly laugh followed his words; she came close beside him and her silks rustled over her hastened breathing as she pressed into the window space.
Van Quellin dropped the vase.
"I didn't hear the crash," whispered Helen with an excited shiver.
They leant out but could see nothing in the soft gloom save the dark shape of the empty building, the sky, now a limpid violet, and the sinking crescent of the new moon; below was a mere well of shadow, with the pompous twists of the gate showing in the dimmed headlights of the car in which Van Quellin had driven, from his place at Marli.
"I will go down and see," smiled Van Quellin.
While he was gone, Helen's maid brought in her cloak.
Helen ordered coffee; she was rather vexed at the loss of the vase, yet secretly pleased that she had really carried out her unaccountable and, of course, foolish whim.
She put on her cloak and went to the window again; the tranquil harmony of the evening was exquisite with pulsations of dying light, with fading drifts of lime perfume, with the ripple of unseen trees coming and going on the fragile trembling of the furtive breeze.
Van Quellin returned; he held the intact alabaster vase.
"It fell on a pile of sacking," he explained, "some unwrappings from the tapestry people's goods. You see, Helen, we have been saved from the consequences of our own foolishness."
He put the vase back in its place; she saw that the incident meant nothing to him, and dutifully she laughed it off as a jest that had been carried far enough.
"How lucky—I am glad to have my vase back," she answered. "One cannot often be foolish with impunity."
But she glanced at the rejected offering with a suspicion of dread; Van Quellin had been right in thinking her a superstitious woman. The invisible menace to her flawless content seemed to have become suddenly definite. This was perhaps because the happiness of which she had been frightened was really established on nothing more stable than money and her own disposition; she had nothing else.
Her father had been what the world she now moved in but did not belong to, and never would belong to, still called a self-made man; he had been a very successful engineer, wealthy, kind, prudent, but reserved and solitary, not a morose or melancholy man, but one in whom the natural gaiety seemed to have been quenched; he had made few friends, and though he had loved Helen deeply, she had not seen very much of him; in the pleasant life he arranged for her, with a certain anxiety, he had himself taken little part; it had been with a certain anxiety too that he had insisted on her marriage to a man much older than herself, but a kind man, a reliable man; it was as if Mark Fermor had wished to consolidate his daughter's position; he was not strong and he continually told her that she had no one but himself; her mother was long since dead, and her mother's people were negative; insignificant and obscure French provincials; even in the tender regard of his daughter Mark Fermor's marriage had been vague and ineffective; she had never thought that grief for her mother had made of her father a quiet, slightly depressed man.
Soon after Mark Fermor had arranged this sensible successful marriage for his cherished daughter, he died, rather suddenly.
That had been Helen's one grief; yet not as deep a grief as it might have been, for her father had kept her so apart from his own simple reserved life that she had never been able to love him as it was in her nature to love; yet she knew how he loved her, and the pang of the unexpected parting had been poignant enough.
Mark Fermor had been away for a few days and returned to his London home a sick man; he had caught a chill that ended in sharp bronchitis, and Helen had hurried from France to find him dead before her arrival.
He left her a considerable fortune; he had founded a firm success and made a good deal of money by the invention, early in his career, of a new brake system, and his business had been one of steady and increasing prosperity.
Yet he left her nothing but the money; she never thought of, yet sometimes faintly sensed, the fact that she was really very much isolated, a waif and stray among the kind, pleasant people who caressed her in so amiable a fashion.
The death of her husband had further emphasised her position; once again there was nothing left her but money, and, by her own wish, not much of this. Etienne St. Luc had provided generously for his own people, none of whom was well off, for he, like Mark Fermor, was a self-made man.
Helen might have known that she was lonely had it not been for Louis Van Quellin; this man, her superior in everything but character, had something grand about him that gave a splendour to all his actions.
During her husband's lifetime his acquaintance had been the colour of her days, and since he had been her declared lover she had known this happiness of which she was afraid; yet Helen, who had never realised passion, was not sure that she loved this man any more than she had loved her father or Etienne St. Luc.
Possibly it was this uncertainty that was like the shadow behind the radiance of her delight in life; perhaps the shadow came from her sense of being indefinably alien to her world, even a little alien to Louis Van Quellin; she knew that he loved her almost with reluctance; that he unconsciously condescended, that he was moody, melancholy, obsessed by an invalid, that it was despite himself that he was tempted by her, Helen's gaiety, candour and simplicity.
Afraid of happiness she had said; it was really of Louis Van Quellin that she was afraid; such frankness as hers is always afraid of what it does not understand.
While she drank her coffee and listened to him talking, with a sort of reluctant interest, of his recent treasures purchased at a sale in Brussels, she was looking at an engraving by Guidon that hung beside the fireplace.
It was the portrait of a man in rigid modern dress, a man with a humorous, cheerful face, from which the humour and the cheerfulness seemed to have been sharply withdrawn—a portrait of her father, Mark Fermor.
HELEN received her letters on the eve of her departure for Marli, where the Van Quellins had an elegant little château that had lately pleased the errant whim, the sick mood of Cornelia Van Quellin.
Neither Madame St. Luc nor the Van Quellins followed the conventional conceits of fashion; despite the immense number of their acquaintances and a certain conspicuousness in their position they lived rather apart from other people; and Helen, since her husband's death, had discontinued much of her social life; she, besides, had not much but the paternal fortune; ample, of course, but not sufficient to leave much margin after the ordinary requirements of a wealthy, generous woman had been fulfilled.
During her widowhood she had kept up the flat in London, a flat in Paris, and not lived very much at either, but mostly in quiet and exquisite hotels or with some of her charming and affectionate friends.
She was going now to stay for a few days with the Montmorins, always the friends of Louis Van Quellin and now her friends.
As she motored out of Paris she read the letters her maid had handed her. She had taken them gaily with a sense of pleasure in seeing several familiar writings.
Reading these light agreeable letters occupied her until the car was out on the long straight French road so uniform and exact to a pattern of efficiency, and a cheap envelope addressed in an illiterate hand lay neglected on her lap.
Two of the women who wrote to her asked her when she was going to marry Louis Van Quellin; Helen smiled, she had guessed that she was wearing out the patience of her friends by this prolonged dalliance; and she wondered, as she read these two letters, one after the other, asking the same thing, quite why it was that she did still hesitate, quite why she still kept Van Quellin at a distance, very gaily and tenderly, yet still at a distance.
She thought that it was because of Cornelia; she had always been so sensitive about coming between brother and sister, and from month to month had beckoned a beguiling hope that the girl might suddenly be cured.
And yet it was a little something besides that; something more personal, something that Helen could not quite label, perhaps a little uncertainty as to Louis Van Quellin, perhaps, though this sounded absurd, an indefinite, unacknowledged fear of putting herself wholly and for ever in his power.
Still distracted by this subtle reflection, Helen picked up the remaining letter; she received a certain amount of appeals for charities, and even begging letters, and she thought this was one of them, and opened it with reluctance and a distaste for the vulgar envelope and common handwriting at once sprawling and cramped.
In the shaded electric light that filled the pearl-tinted interior of the car Helen St. Luc read:
My dear Cousin Helen,
I don't know if you you will get this, I don't know your address, I expect that you have hardly heard of me. I am your Uncle Paul's daughter. My mother is blind and crippled and we live together here. I don't suppose you ever come to a place like this. If you ever did it would be nice to see you, as I have no other relations. I often see your picture in the paper. Perhaps if you get this you might let me know.
Your affectionate cousin,
Madame St. Luc was deeply shocked; she forgot her other correspondents and even Louis Van Quellin as she turned over and over this wretched letter.
An inevitable flush of humiliation coloured her gentle face at his claim of kinship from someone whom she felt to be degraded; absolutely without vanity or arrogance, Helen yet detested, unconsciously and instinctively, all that was vulgar, and brought up as she had been, living as she lived, it could not fail to come as a stab that she was herself related to vulgarity and commonness.
And instantly after this sensation of disgust came, wonder; she stared at the address printed carefully in irregular letters at the top of the letter.
In England? So near to London? Why, then, this silence of a lifetime, why had her father, on the very rare occasions when he had mentioned his brother's family, spoken as if they had gone to Australia—and the mother blind and crippled!
How old would this Pauline be?—her own age or a little younger, and quite illiterate—a council school education, if that—how did she live? What did she do? No one who could write that letter could be much above a servant, and what did she want—why had she suddenly written?
Helen revolved these questions in rapid dismay, but it never occurred to her that she could ignore the letter or fail to be of the utmost possible service to the writer; yet she was both bewildered and aghast at the task, the problem, and, as it seemed to her, the menace, suddenly confronting her; why a menace?
There was nothing save what was silly and pitiful in this letter; yet Helen felt that the sheer fact of the existence of this cousin was a threat to her own happiness; she knew dim stirrings of remorse, a doubt as to the past, a wonder as to the events that had made such a cleavage between two women of the same age, the same blood, who were the sole survivors of their family.
"I must ask Louis," thought Helen, "exactly what I ought to do."
And as she thought of Louis Van Quellin she thought of her pink alabaster vase that had been so strangely returned to her; she laughed, though a little ruefully, at herself; but she could not resist connecting this portent with the letter from this cousin Pauline. She observed nothing more of the road, and it was absently that she noticed the car sweep through the wide gates of the Château Montmorin and along the smooth gravel drive; the rich summer air was suddenly bitter sweet with the perfume of box hedges, of lime blossoms and of privet blooming in the star-lit darkness; the long, low gracious windows of the château showed the opal and amber light of hidden lamps and a flare of crimson damask roses in the open casements between the looped back curtains of pale gold silk; through these wide set windows came the intermittent half muted playing of a violin, very exquisite and precise.
As Helen descended from her car Madame de Montmorin was on the terrace steps to welcome her; Helen divined a sort of compassion in this lady's kind greeting.
"You are rather late, my dear child—perhaps you are not too tired to go over at once to Geaudesert? Cornelia"—this a little anxiously—"is urgently asking for you—"
"I will go at once," answered Helen in a slightly absorbed fashion; her mind could not immediately be freed from the thoughts evoked by Pauline's letter, and she was used to Cornelia's moods, depressions and relapses.
"Is Louis there?" she added.
And Madame de Montmorin, still holding her warmly by the shoulders, kissed her again and said:
"Why don't you marry Louis; wouldn't it make things easier all round?"
"Jeanne," replied Helen seriously, "I am afraid things are too easy—for me at least, as they are. Do you know that I was so scared at being too fortunate that I tried to sacrifice my pink alabaster vase—you know, the ring of Polycrstes!"
"You silly child!" The elder woman caressed the soft tender face that looked so audaciously charming and yet so appealingly gentle; there was a peculiarly disarming quality about Helen's beauty; she had never yet evoked jealousy.
"Louis threw it out of my window," she added with a little grimace, "and it fell on some sacking and didn't break. What do you think of that, Jeanne?"
"That you were luckier than you deserved to be—really, Helen, your superstitions are shameless! Now will you go over and see Cornelia, and when she is quieted, Louis can bring you back here to supper—"
"Louis will not like to leave her—"
"My dear," said Madame de Montmorin calmly and firmly, "you must not allow Cornelia to become an obsession. I was telling Louis so to-day; it will be three lives spoiled instead of one if you are not careful."
"That sounds rather brutal," answered Helen wistfully; her emotions always ruled her mind, and her naturally good judgment was usually obscured by sentiment.
"You need saving from yourself," remarked Madame de Montmorin affectionately.
M. de Montmorin had put down his violin and come on to the steps to greet his guest; he brought with him a large gilt basket of peaches adorned with the pure blooms and glossy petals of rose coloured camellias; one of the perpetual offerings that went from Château Montmorin to Beaudesert.
During the few moments' drive Helen was uneasily thinking of Pauline's letter; she felt a rather subtle shame in showing it to Van Quellin; not for herself, but for this unknown cousin; it seemed like an exposure, like an affront, to show that letter to such a man as Louis Van Quellin.
Yet she was too entirely dependent on him to be really able to act without his advice, besides being, by nature and training, the type of woman always to refer all problems to a man.
Beaudesert was a small, elegant, ancient building, something between a toy château and a toy farm. It stood sheltered by a bouquet of tall trees in a gracious and careless little park, and close to the house was a pond, darkened by weeping willows, where the still artificial water, the drooping boughs and the pure whiteness of the swans against the tourelles of the house, were like a scene from an eighteenth-century pastoral; Cornelia's room looked on to this delicate, formal and melancholy view, and Helen found her, late as it was, sitting by the long open window looking out on to the stars and the willow.
Cornelia Van Quellin was eighteen years old and had something of the sad beauty of anaemia, the pallid loveliness of the disease that used to be masked under the gentle word "decline"; her Irish mother had died of tuberculosis at twenty-four, having captured the fastidious taste of her husband by precisely this unearthly fragility, this exquisite and fatal bloom.
All her life Cornelia had been ill, and as well as the symptoms of hereditary weakness, she was afflicted with a definite injury to the spine, the effect, as was generally believed, yet sometimes doubted, of a fall. Louis Van Quellin, a boy of sixteen, had taken the baby, his step-sister, tossed her up and dropped her, with the consequence of this disablement of body for her and a disease of the soul for him; several doctors had assured him that if this poor child had been healthy, the injury would have healed easily enough and that her present state of health was due to her disease, not to her injury; the remorse was ineffaceable; years of lavish care, of prodigal expenditure, had not balanced the boyish carelessness in Louis Van Quellin's sensitive mind, and he evinced for this pathetic child of his father's second marriage a devotion and a solicitude that touched the fantastic.
Cornelia did not, as so many chronic invalids do, possess any remarkable gifts of character or personality. Her spirit was as faint and ineffective as her body, her mind seemed as helpless as her limbs. She was gentle and affectionate and her own passion was the absorbing desire to be "cured"; from her couch, her chair, her carriage she frantically pursued the gleaming wings, the averted face of Hope.
Helen placed the basket of peaches on the table by the bed.
"I have just arrived, Cornelia. I came over at once. How beautiful your room looks, darling. M. de Montmorin sent you some of his peaches; see they are the same colour as the camellias—"
She lifted out two of the pure rosy blossoms and placed them on the girl's knee; Cornelia moved her head, heavy with fallen wreaths of glossy chestnut hair, on the cushions.
"I wanted to see you," she whispered, "and now you have come lam too tired to talk."
There was a nurse in the room, one of the two who were always with Cornelia, and Helen glanced at this woman apprehensively; surely the girl looked, even for her, very ill.
"Louis is on the balcony in the bedroom; don't you want to see him?" murmured Cornelia.
"Presently—when I have seen something of you—"
Helen sat on a low bergère by the invalid's sofa; she felt to-night, and for the first time, curiously unable to cope with the sick girl's melancholy; it must be, she thought, Pauline's letter like a weight on her spirits, usually so volatile.
This little room, which was circular, being in one of the tourelles, was entirely furnished in giltwood and orchid-tinted satin, and over-loaded with exotic flowers—carnation, jasmine, tuberose, verbena and roses, Cornelia's one definite taste; these stood on little shelves and brackets in crystal vases that they entirely hid, so that the sprays and cascades of blooms seemed to grow from the satin walls. Through the open inner door showed the palest lilac blue of the bedroom, the great uncurtained windows open on to the immaculate purity of the night, and a hanging lamp of such vivid glass that the light seemed to shine through a bed of tulips.
Cornelia wore a lace robe, a jacket of white fur and held spread over her knees a wrap of opal coloured velvet, on which the two red camellias showed with rich intensity; she had the long curved throat, the full red lips, the heavy eyes, the transparent carnation and the abundant reddish hair that is the beauty of decadence and sometimes even of imbecility.
Helen, so alert, so vivid, with her quick movements and changeful face, always flushing and smiling into animation, was a piquant, perhaps cruel contrast to the sick girl, as her quiet grey wrap and long swathed grey motoring veil were in contrast to the exaggerated luxury of the room.
Cornelia closed her eyes with an air of exhaustion, and Helen sat silent, looking out on to the pond and the willows faintly visible below.
She knew that Louis was standing on the light iron balcony of the inner room; she could see when she turned from where she sat, the long graceful line of his figure, and she knew also that he must be aware of her presence; from the fact that he remained on the balcony she guessed that he was in one of those strange moods when he seemed isolated in an impenetrable loneliness which her warmest affection was powerless to combat.
Helen, looking through the lamp-lit room at that motionless masculine figure, almost like a shadow, felt, for the first time during her relations with Louis Van Quellin, a tiny thrill of fear, an absurd fear, a grotesque fear—the fear of losing his love.
She had been always so sure of him that she had become almost indifferent to the value of this man as complete security and long use will breed a certain indifference even towards the most magnificent possessions.
Now, from this trivial fact that he had not come forward at once to greet her, she suddenly, in a chill clearness visualised a world without the love of Louis Van Quellin and found it intolerable.
If Cornelia had not been there she must have risen at once and gone to him; as it was it cost her an effort to remain placidly by the sick girl.
Cornelia looked up suddenly; the lustre of her large eyes, heightened by the wild rose flush on the pale cheek beneath had that over-luxuriant life that breeds death.
"I have something important to say," she whispered.
Helen endeavoured to dismiss all thoughts of Louis and to concentrate on Cornelia; this was more difficult as, for the first time, she found the exotic atmosphere of this sick room oppressive, the perfume of the masses of hothouse flowers too violent, and the unearthly beauty of the invalid girl too unnatural and painful; she would have liked to have escaped into the cool of the garden and sat alone under the willows that enclosed the pond, in the tranquil stillness of the murmuring evening.
"Something important, Cornelia?" She took one of the invalid's pallid damp hands in her firm fingers.
"Yes, I was afraid to speak to Louis—so I had to wait till you came and to-night you are late," complained Cornelia fretfully.
"Afraid to speak to Louis? But why?"
"He would not do what I wanted."
"But, Cornelia, he always does what you want."
Helen spoke very gently, but she was thinking of what Madame de Montmorin had said of Cornelia becoming an "obsession."
"He wouldn't allow this," replied Cornelia. "I know Louis—"
"What is it?" asked Helen; she had never known Louis flinch from any extravagance to gratify Cornelia.
"I wish to try a faith cure," said the girl most unexpectedly. "I was reading in the paper about a Mrs. Falaise, an American, who had the gift of healing—people are going to her from all over the world."
Helen was truly dismayed; she now agreed with Cornelia that this was the one thing that Louis would refuse his sister: Mrs. Falaise, whether sincere or not, had a flamboyant reputation and had more than once been in the courts as a witness at the inquests on her patients; yet that sparkling Hope they all pursued, might, to Cornelia, wear, for a space, even the aspect of a charlatan, and Helen could not endure to check this piteous enthusiasm.
"Mrs. Falaise?" she hesitated. "Perhaps there is something in her, Cornelia. Of course there is a great deal in a faith cure, but I think it is your own faith and the faith of those who love you—"
"But that hasn't cured me, has it?" interrupted the sick girl restlessly. "I don't really get stronger, Helen, it is all pretence that I do; every day I think—tomorrow—but to-morrow is just the same, and I'm grown up now. There is so much to learn. I want to dance, to play games, to drive a car—and I can't learn anything till I can walk, can I? I would like nice dresses too, not just these dressing-gown things, and oh, Helen! I would like the pain to stop!"
Her head drooped back on the pillows as if she was exhausted with so long a speech.
Helen thought that she would willingly give her anything, even the services of Mrs. Falaise.
Cornelia opened again her pathetic eyes, so unhealthily luminous behind the fringe of thick lashes.
"I get so tired of the pain, Helen, headaches and aches in my back and on my chest. I don't tell Louis about it, he gets so frantic, but it is there and I am so weary of lying down."
"But you are so much better this summer, all the doctors say so."
"I don't feel it—and even if I did, what is the use if I can't walk? I don't want to be better just lying on a sofa—I want to be like other girls."
Helen's heart contracted with anguish; "like other girls!" Could this ever be possible, whatever "cure" was effected? The very shape and look of Cornelia marked her out as one apart, dedicated her to disease and suffering, the commonplace joys she longed for could never be hers; at the very best she would always be languid, frail, ailing, only kept alive by all the resources of science and wealth.
Looking up into Helen's grieved face, the sick girl continued:
"And there is another thing. If I was well you would marry Louis at once, wouldn't you?"
Startled, Helen answered:
"You must not think of that, dear."
"But I know that you don't want to take him away from me."
"I could never do that," replied Helen warmly. "You will always be first with Louis."
"But that isn't right, is it?" asked Cornelia with amazing clearness of judgment. "I want to be well so that Louis doesn't have to care for me so much."
"Dear child," protested Helen, troubled, "you must not think of such things."
"But I do, I have so much time for thinking. Louis loves me—to make up, because he is so sorry. I want to set Louis free from that—I want someone to love me just for myself."
She pressed her handkerchief to her glazed lips and her eyes flashed through the crystal of tears.
"My darling, that will not be difficult." Helen had never seen so far into this wounded child's soul and she was confused and overwhelmed.
"Some people might think me pretty," continued Cornelia wistfully. "That is why I won't have my hair cut off, though it does make my head ache."
"You are lovely," said Helen softly. "Everyone thinks that, dear."
And in her romantic, sensitive and emotional mind she was thinking that surely it would be easy for some man to love Cornelia even as she was, to take over Louis's task of consoler and protector; Helen, though she knew that the idea would have been considered impossible, crazy and wrong, would willingly have seen Cornelia loved and even married; it was this isolation from all hope of the dearest relation in life that was thwarting the girl's chance of health; to Helen the role of Cornelia's lover did not seem impossible; but there was no such lover; the girl was dedicated to the nunnery of her sick chamber.
"Will you speak to Louis about Mrs. Falaise?" persisted Cornelia. "Tell him that I have set my mind on it—even the chance makes me feel happy—tell him that."
She was moving restlessly on her cushions, the pearly drops of weakness showed on the brow beneath the cherished crown of hair and the incredible scarlet of the lips were trembling.
"Of course I will speak, now, at once, if you like."
Cornelia pressed her hand, but did not answer; she was suddenly too exhausted to speak, and huddled together in her pillows, with closed eyes fell asleep at once. Helen crossed over to the nurse who sat near the bedroom entrance with the unobtrusive needlework.
"You heard what she said, nurse?" whispered Helen. "What do you think of it?"
The pleasant efficient woman rose.
"Of course there is nothing in it, Madame St. Luc."
"But if she believes there is, might not just that confidence do her some good?"
The nurse shook her sensible head.
"I'm afraid not. I've seen that sort of thing tried; you see, there's the reaction; perhaps these people work on them until they think they are better, there is a fearful lot of excitement and then a dreadful relapse. Miss Van Quellin," added the Englishwoman seriously, "couldn't stand anything like that—I'm sure any doctor would say so—and that is another difficulty you'd have. If you called in anyone like Mrs. Falaise, no doctor would go on with the case. I wouldn't care to nurse Miss Van Quellin myself, with anyone like that about," she finished firmly.
Helen was helpless before this combination of professional prejudice and sheer common sense.
She sighed. "I am sure that Mr. Van Quellin will not allow it," she answered, "but it is such a pity that she has set her heart on it."
"A great pity," agreed the nurse and went quickly across to her patient, while Helen entered the inner bedroom where Louis Van Quellin was still waiting on the low fronted balcony.
She had two troubles to bring him; Pauline's letter, which seemed so alien to this life, and this unfortunate business of Mrs. Falaise; that perfect happiness that had frightened her when she tried to sacrifice the vase was not hers to-night; in the light of the lamp, the bedroom showed large and pale in faint hues and sparse of furniture, to balance this the lamp gave a false rosiness; here were neither carpets, curtains nor flowers allowed, the two big windows stood perpetually open, and yet neither fresh air nor perfume could efface a faint clean odour of drugs.
At Helen's step in this room Louis Van Quellin turned and came in from the balcony; she knew at once that he had been waiting and listening, and she checked her advance with a queer sense of something formidable in her way. As she almost imperceptibly paused Louis Van Quellin came close to her and took her in his arms with a gesture that was, for him, impatient, yet sullen.
HELEN wanted to say: "I love you! I love you!" but she was taken by surprise and rather bewildered by his sudden intensity of feeling precisely when she had been, for the first time, slightly fearful of his perfect allegiance; so she was silent, and when he released her, clasped his arm, a little shaken.
And while she was framing some too-careful speech she saw that she had made a mistake by this silence, for he was instantly withdrawn into himself and became at once so coldly composed that it was impossible for her to refer to what he had just done—to his sudden clasp and impatient kiss.
Helen knew that she had allowed a notable moment to be rejected and a certain regret further quenched the lightness of her spirits; for a second she saw her long dalliance as a melancholy thing, and she had a queer consciousness of time, flowing away, steadily and swiftly, stealing with inexorable precision, day and night, all the joy of life and finally life itself.
"Come on to the balcony," said Louis. "It is so cool there, almost as if we were on the tree tops."
The bouquet of trees that sheltered Beaudesert did here encroach upon the bricks, and the green gold bunches of leaves of the maples and the erect red-stemmed leaves could be plucked from the end of the balcony, while from the other side was the view of the pond and the willows, the long trailing boughs now as still as the water beneath the summer stars.
Van Quellin stood so that the maple leaves brushed his shoulders and the luxuriant light of Cornelia's lamp was on him; the authoritative, aquiline face, slightly too narrow, looked neither kind nor gentle to-night, and the pale vivid eyes, that same clear uncommon crystal grey that Helen had actually seen in a captive hawk, were full of a haughty but none the less poignant loneliness, that both touched and frightened Helen. Leaning against the twisting iron scrolls of the balcony she told him what Cornelia had said about Mrs. Falaise.
Despite the sound advice of the experienced nurse, she finished:
"I think I should humour her, Louis, if I possibly could."
"I know," he answered, "that is what you do, humour people, isn't it?"
Helen felt a double meaning in his words, but would not notice this, nor did she look at him, but away into the chill peace of the night.
"I think Cornelia needs some—well, excitement—perhaps it is difficult to realize, Louis, the sheer boredom of her life—"
"Dr. Henriot thinks differently—he says that she is definitely stronger this summer and should be absolutely quiet."
"Very well for the body, Louis, but the mind!"
"Do you think that a woman like Mrs. Falaise could really do any good?"
"I think if Cornelia believed—"
"It is impossible. I am really in the hands of Henriot. I couldn't of course suggest such a thing to him—and personally, I think it nonsense—"
"There seem to have been some wonderful cures," murmured Helen wistfully.
"Nervous and mental perhaps—but for organic disease! No, Helen, you must try to get the idea out of Cornelia's head. When," he added sharply, "does she see the papers? I try to keep them from her—"
"Oh, it was an article on faith healing in some very discreet periodical, and Mrs. Falaise was mentioned—"
"A pity," he remarked. "Anything of that kind is out of the question, Helen."
The words were like a courteous rebuke, and Helen felt herself put gently away from and forbidden to pursue the subject. She glanced up quickly at his face, the clean line of cheek and chin, the too firm set of the full lips and those clear intently gazing eyes; she had of course always known that force and power underlay this man's grace and careless accomplishment, but now, she thought, reluctantly, that he might be perilous, might dominate too utterly, taking her away from much that was dear, much that was essential to her life; even as now, when he was quietly intolerant of her aching desire to champion Cornelia's whims.
A breeze that seemed to have come from very far away, and leaped upon them suddenly, rustled the tree tops behind Van Quellin, and that was all the sound between them.
She was thinking:
"He is displeased with me—how often he will be displeased with me!"
"If she really only loved me! But she is in love with the whole world, not with me!"
It was easy, he was brooding, for people to laugh and sneer at love, to treat it as an episode or a diversion, but to love a woman like Helen was a tremendous thing, a thing you could hardly overvalue. Why, to love her was to have all the current of your days changed, it meant living deliciously, passing from one exquisite emotion to another, being tormented by her alluring absurdities, soothed by her delightful sympathy, stirred by the vivacity of her gaiety. Ah, you couldn't put it into words, she made music of the commonplace harmonies of every day, she gave to the most ordinary sky the colours of the rainbow; and she did not really love him, she was not really his; she might think she did and was, but he knew better—and this semblance of love was to him like a loaned treasure that might any moment be withdrawn.
Helen was speaking again:
"I've got something else to speak to you about, Louis—my own little bother this time; my cousin has written to me, rather a dismal sort of letter, and I don't quite know what to do about it."
"Your cousin? You were speaking of her the other day. And now she has written to you!"
"Yes, I suppose she must have been writing at the very time I was talking of her—a sort of telepathy, wasn't it? The night I tried to sacrifice the alabaster vase!"
Helen spoke rapidly, nervously, and Louis Van Quellin was moved to say (so well he knew her):
"Was there anything unpleasant in the letter?"
"Unpleasant? No, but it came as a slight shock—difficult to explain, but she was so vague to me, lost in the void, and then suddenly she was there."
"I know. What does she say?"
"Nothing really, it is just to bring herself to my notice; she must, poor thing, want us to be friends."
"How did she get at you?"
"Through a newspaper she saw, I suppose, some snapshot; anyhow they forwarded it to Paris—here it is."
She gave him the letter, taking it from the silk satchel on her arm, and he turned so that the rosy-toned light of Cornelia's lamp fell over the sheet.
When he had read it he handed it back to Helen and said:
"There is a great deal behind that letter."
"You mean?" Helen was puzzled, still a little anxious.
"I think the writer intends a very great deal more than she says—she wants you to do something for her, this letter is a kind of speculation on your character, she just risks on the chance that you are kind, generous."
Helen defended the unknown relative.
"I don't see why she shouldn't want to know me; that is quite natural, isn't it?"
"But why," asked Louis instantly, "did she keep silence so long?"
Helen had no suggestion to offer; the past was as shadowy to her as it was to Pauline Fermor, only when to one woman these shadows were dark and dreadful, to the other they were bright and lovely.
Louis Van Quellin answered his own question.
"I expect that it was the mother—some hostile influence there, holding the daughter back—"
"Hostile tome?" asked Helen, surprised. "But why? Father was very good to her mother—to all of them."
"There seems to have been some very decided estrangement—you don't know anything about it?"
"No—only what I told you. I really hardly knew of the existence of this cousin, certainly not that she was living in England—"
"And the mother blind, and evidently things going hard with them—there is something curious in the story."
He reflected a little; he was taking the matter more seriously than Helen had thought he would; she had rather hoped that he would make light of Pauline Fermor.
"What are you going to do?" he asked imperiously.
Thus directly challenged Helen fell into confusion, not because she did not know her own mind, but because she was afraid that Louis Van Quellin would not approve her decision.
"What would you suggest I did?" she asked with a pretty appeal in her voice.
"Have nothing to do with it," he answered promptly. "Don't answer that letter."
"That is impossible," said Helen quickly.
"Well then in the briefest way possible, and leave her alone; if you don't deliberately seek her out, you are not likely to meet."
"I don't know why you advise that, Louis."
"Just ordinary sense," he replied tolerantly. "This woman can have nothing in common with you. I don't like her letter nor her handwriting."
"You are very arrogant, Louis. She is, well, illiterate," replied Helen gently. "I suppose she was never educated and she must be very poor. I daresay she earns her living at some hard work—"
"I know, but I didn't mean that, only that letter is too simple, it isn't genuine—it's crafty; if she was absolutely sincere she wouldn't write like that. An ignorant person is usually very elaborate and long-winded—she would explain why she had never written before, go into the past—"
"Why should she know more of it than I do?" interrupted Helen.
"She knows some version of it—her mother has told her something, people who are fortunate don't trouble why they became so, those who aren't try to blame something—this woman born your equal, and sunk as she must have sunk, hasn't submitted without protest and rancour, Helen."
The gentle heart to whom he spoke resented this cold sagacity.
"Madame de Montmorin will be wondering what has become of us," she answered. "Let us go, Louis, while Cornelia sleeps."
But if she hoped to direct him from the subject of Pauline Fermor she was disappointed. As they crossed the park that sloped to the ornate gardens of Château Montmorin, he asked:
"What have you decided about your cousin, Helen?"
"When lam next in London I shall go and see her—"
"I think you make a great mistake."
"I'm sorry, but I cannot see anything else to do," murmured Helen.
"It will be painful for you—you don't know what the milieu is."
"I can guess from that letter."
"But you don't know it, Helen. You haven't really been near anything sordid in your life."
"That sounds like a reproach," said Helen, troubled. "I've been very selfish—"
"Don't," he answered roughly. "I didn't want you to say that; I don't want you to be bothered in the least by this; I don't," he added rather passionately, "want you to see this woman; if you do, you will be anxious to make amends.
"Why not?" asked Helen.
He took her arm to guide her lightly in between the tall chestnut trees that formed a scattered belt on the edge of the park; the stars glimmered low between the slender trunks, and here and there flashed between the thickly leaved boughs.
"Because it can't be done," he answered. "You can't make amends to anyone—if this cousin wanted help and you gave it her she would only detest you."
"Why should she detest me?"
"Because she isn't like you and never could be," he answered as if he was humouring a child; she replied to his tone more than to his words.
"You are very wise, Louis, and I can't argue with you, but all the same I am going to see my Cousin Pauline."
"At least let me go first."
"No." Helen was quite resolute now. She felt that to send Louis Van Quellin would be to expose this unknown Pauline to humiliation. "That is impossible, Louis, I must go myself."
"Then I will come with you."
Helen was doubtful even of that, but she made no further protest.
"Will you go to London in September?" she asked.
"Towards the end of September, yes. I must go to Paradys for a month or two, and then to Brussels. I will leave Cornelia here, if you are staying with the Montmorins—"
"Yes, I've promised Jeanne to remain till I go to London. I like Marli."
"Cornelia really loves the place—and Henriot can stay here—"
He spoke as if he hardly was thinking of what he said; the lights in the château windows now showed across the level sweep of grass and parterres and very distantly came the melody of the slow violin.
"When are you going to marry me?" added Van Quellin seriously.
Helen did not want to reply; she was still thinking of Pauline and Mrs. Falaise, both unpleasant difficulties that had yet to be faced, and the question of Louis reminded her, rather sharply, that her liberty of action was becoming jealously circumscribed; if she had been married to Louis she would probably have been actually forbidden to have anything to do with Pauline Fermor.
"What are you delaying for?" he urged. "Aren't you quite sure?"
"You know lam quite sure, Louis," she answered faintly. "It is Cornelia."
This was true, but there was something besides, and he knew it.
"You must not think of that," he answered harshly. "Henriot told me to-day that things will never be different for Cornelia—she may live for years, even to be old, and she may be, probably will be much stronger, but—"
His firm voice ceased, and Helen was grateful to the merciful veiling bloom of the summer dark that hid his passion and his pain.
"Louis," she said; and now she spoke entirely without reserve. "Does Cornelia really like me? I should have to go away for ever if she didn't really like me—"
"Cornelia loves you, Helen; everyone who knows you loves you."
They were walking across the garden now; the smell of the box hedges was like an aromatic in the air.
Helen could not altogether satisfy herself that her marriage would not hurt Cornelia; not so much for the reason, which one could speak of, that it would take her brother away from her, as for the reason, which one could not speak of, that it would be melancholy for the sick girl to be daily witness of that particular happiness that she must never know.
But Louis Van Quellin insisted on his own viewpoint; he would have no more hesitations nor refinements. "The alterations I am having at Paradys will be finished in the early spring—your rooms, your gardens; will you marry me then, Helen?"
She felt that it would be an unkindness, almost a meanness to dally any longer, perilous too with a man like this; and though she did not want wholly to surrender to him (and she guessed that marriage with him would mean a complete surrender) still less did she wish to lose his love or any tittle of his complete devotion.
"I will marry you in the spring," she said simply. "April—Louis, will that please you? I hope," she added wistfully, "that you will be kind to me and just sometimes let me do as I like—even if it is silly."
"I shall not thwart you in a single whim!" he conceded with a sudden rise of spirits.
"Ah, whims!" answered Helen. "It is one thing to indulge one's whims and another to let one really have one's own way."
Louis Van Quellin thought so too, but he did not care to enlarge on the subtle difference.
The supper was served on the terrace, lit by the saffron electric lamps cunningly contrived among the frail trails of jasmine that floated from the brick front of the château; this light ended with the terrace; below the garden was in darkness, and beyond were the darker park and dense hedges of blackness where the groves of trees were reared up against the pellucid night sky, where the stars flashed coloured rays with a cold intensity of radiance.
Helen was suddenly very tired and oppressed with her problems—the problem of how to soothe Cornelia on the question of Mrs. Falaise, and the problem of what quite to do with this unknown cousin; both these would have appeared trivial to many, perhaps most people, but Helen's life had been unclouded even by difficulties slight as these.
She noted the animation that Louis showed, the conquering look in those pale formidable eyes, and she dreaded the struggle there would be with him on the subject of Pauline Fermor.
MADAME DE MONTMORIN rose.
"Helen, lam sure that you are very tired—that long motor drive and then going straight to Cornelia—it is really late, and you are to come upstairs at once."
Helen was glad of these affectionate commands; she was not only tired, she wished very much to be alone and to read quietly again the letter of Pauline Fermor; as the men watched the pale, soft dresses of the women fade into the dusk beyond the saffron of the lamplight, M. de Montmorin said:
"Helen agitated! I have never noticed that before."
And Van Quellin, immovable, pushed back his easy chair in the shadow by the balustrade:
"The poor child has two worries—the first is purely chimerical; Cornelia took a fancy to calling in that American faith healer, Mrs. Falaise' and Helen thinks she ought to be indulged." He lit a cigar and the spurt of the light showed his long hands. "Of course it is impossible, and I fear that Helen thinks me a brute."
The elder man made a little gesture that regretfully dismissed a charming feminine folly.
"The other," continued Van Quellin out of the pleasant dusk, "is more important—a cousin has appeared out of nowhere."
"Helen's cousin? I did not know that she had any relations."
"Nor I till the other day; this is the only one, the daughter of an Uncle Paul."
"Why is it a trouble to Helen?"
A slight silence fell; it was tacitly understood between the two men, both of noble birth, that the beloved Helen was of a meaner origin than the admiring people among whom she moved, but it had, naturally, never been mentioned.
Now, Van Quellin at length said to this old friend of his, who had also been the friend of M. St. Luc:
"Helen's father was an engineer, you know, a mechanical engineer, the son of a gentleman farmer I think; there were two brothers, and the other, Paul' was a scoundrel; he seems to have died under disgraceful circumstances, leaving a widow and this daughter unprovided for."
"Wasn't the other M. Fermor a very wealthy man?"
"Yes, after the success of his new brake system, the patent brought him in hundreds of thousands. I never met him; he died soon after Helen's marriage—he seems to have lived very quietly and to have made few friends. Helen has an etching of him. I like his face."
"Didn't he help his brother?" asked M. de Montmorin.
Van Quellin shrugged his shoulders.
"Helen believes so; of course she only knows what her father chose to tell her, and there was, at any rate, a complete cleavage between the two. Helen is—as you see her, and this woman writes a letter like a kitchen-maid from a back street in an English country town."
M. de Montmorin was shocked.
"That is disgusting," he remarked.
"Yes. There is something behind it too, after a silence of thirty years!"
"Afraid to approach the father perhaps?"
"But M. Mark Fermor has been dead eight years."
M. de Montmorin reflected a moment; then asked:
"What do you make of it?"
"I don't quite know till I've heard something more about M. Paul Fermor. I'm going to make inquiries in London; if he was a real outsider this girl may be as bad, and I don't know anything about the mother. She is blind, by the way."
"How do they exist?"
"I don't know at all; I didn't like the letter. It seemed to me artificial and sly. Hopelessly illiterate."
"How horrible for Helen," said M. de Montmorin. "And for you," he added carefully.
"Yes. You can understand the appeal to one of Helen's temperament! The poverty, the blind mother, the only relation she has in the world, and so on. Helen's so tender-hearted and romantic—will just allow herself to be tormented and despoiled."
"You must prevent that."
"Yes. It isn't so easy without hurting Helen. It is a delicate matter too. They are not my relations, and Helen has her own money."
"If she only gives them money," suggested the elder man, "it will not so much matter, but I fear, with Helen, it will not stop at money."
"Of course not," replied Van Quellin calmly, "she will overwhelm them with attentions. Naturally they are entirely unpresentable."
"The girl might not be, she's Helen's cousin."
"My dear Montmorin, you have not seen the letter she wrote!" replied the young man dryly. "The mother must have been of the lowest class to have allowed them to sink like this, the father was a drunkard and a wastrel, and the Fermors," added the aristocratic Fleming unconsciously, "were hardly gentle people; Helen is scarcely prepared for what she will find."
"You must not allow them to see her alone."
"Certainly not. I hope she won't see them at all; but she is bent on it, as soon as she returns to London in September."
M. de Montmorin could deeply sympathise with the acute though well-concealed annoyance of Louis Van Quellin; he was a wide-minded, sensible, tolerant man, and could easily appreciate the present-day discount of aristocracy, yet himself a cadet of one of the oldest French families, he must appreciate the vexation that a man of Van Quellin's birth must always have felt at Helen's frankly middle-class origin; fine breeding was a tradition and a natural tradition with the Van Quellins and the mother of Louis had been a rather austere and narrow English patrician.
While Helen stood absolutely alone this question of her antecedents had been a very deeply concealed irritation; now, it had come, with the discovery of these incredible relations, very prominently to the front.
M. de Montmorin, with an elderly Frenchman's fine flavour for subtle emotions, wondered if Helen quite knew what her championing of these relations would mean to Louis Van Quellin; he would never be able to tell her, and she—and that was where the middle class would show in sweet Helen—would never be able to guess.
"It is a thousand pities," remarked the old man sincerely, "that this has risen."
The seriousness with which he spoke showed Louis that he had been completely comprehended; M. de Montmorin had appreciated the sting about which neither of them could speak.
"Helen," said the young man slowly; he always lingered a little over her darling name, for sheer pleasure in the sound, "is too good-hearted; wherever she goes she comes back with an empty purse; she always spies out some recipient for her alms."
"Without you these people would have found an easy victim—do they ask for any help?"
"No. I feel that is to come, the letter is very cautious. Of course the woman would never have written if she had had any decent reserves—what could," added the young man impatiently, "she have brought herself to the notice of Helen for, if not for some hoped-for benefit?"
"Exactly. I don't understand the long silence; even if they dared not approach M. Fermor, they must have been easily able to trace Helen's movements since her marriage."
"Of course. I am sure there is something unpleasant behind that letter. I'm afraid that Helen feels that also—she is so superstitious," he smiled tenderly. "She really was in earnest about her vase, and then when I brought it back whole—the ring of Polycrates, you know, she was quite disturbed."
"You should have broken the vase yourself, Van Quellin."
The young man shook his head.
"You can't cheat with Helen."
M. de Montmorin saw that; impossible to deceive that fine candour, that complete trust.
"That will make it more difficult as regards this cousin," he remarked.
"Ah, yes, you may be sure that Helen will have her own way," and he spoke regretfully, as if he did not altogether care for the prospect of Helen having always her own way.
Madame de Montmorin joined them; she took the chair that Helen had left between the two men.
"Helen is very tired," she said. "Something is troubling her. What was it that Cornelia wanted to see her about so urgently?"
"A certain Mrs. Falaise, a faith healer; Cornelia had the caprice to want to try the woman; of course impossible."
Jeanne de Montmorin took this very seriously.
"Louis, you must be very careful that Cornelia never meets a person like that; she could not endure the excitement. I am quite sure that it would kill her."
"Naturally I should not think of it," replied Van Quellin briefly.
He rose and went to the terrace balustrade that still seemed to hold the warmth of the long day's sun, and looked across the dark park to where Helen had looked; he guessed that she had been thinking of Cornelia, and he allowed himself to dwell on the fact that the sick girl, for all her slightness and humility, was powerfully affecting them both.
And he decided that this poignant burden was enough; he would have nothing to do with Helen's obscure cousin.
Even as he was resolving this, Helen, upstairs in her bedroom, was writing an affectionate letter to this same cousin.
ALL these reflections, hesitations, influences and counter influences ended in one clear fact; on a bright afternoon in September, six weeks later, Helen St. Luc drove out to see Pauline; and Louis Van Quellin was with her in the car.
He had defeated her on the subject of Mrs. Falaise; nothing more had been said, for weeks now, about the American faith healer, but he had not been able to defeat her on the matter of Pauline Fermor.
Helen had only been a few days in London when she insisted on seeking out her cousin; Van Quellin had only been able to obtain the privilege of accompanying her; and this had been conceded with reluctance.
"You're hostile, Louis, and it will show," she said. "I don't think it quite fair for you to come."
But he was there, and apparently in the best of good humours; the day seemed brimful of sunshine that overflowed everything with prodigal light, the rich fields, the yellowing trees, the bronze and crimson fruit in the orchards were all drenched in this mellow radiance.
Helen began to lose the sense of the squalor that letter had conveyed; she thought of Pauline in one of these little white cottages, singing at a latticed window while the quiet old mother dozed among the autumn flowers in the garden shaded by an apple tree; and she told Van Quellin, with much enthusiasm, of this picture she had evolved from the inspiration of the delicious countryside.
He smiled, but kindly.
"You forget they live in a town."
But no, Helen was not daunted; the town proved to be wholly charming, with an enchanting high street sloping down to the trickle of the river across the lush meadows.
But Louis still smiled.
There was a pause while inquiries were made for "Fernlea," Clifton Street. Helen refused to recognise the ugliness of these names, or the visible surprise on the part of the inhabitants that such a lady in such a car should ask for them; but directions were at last given and the car turned out of the old streets with the air of spare dignity, into a congerie of modern streets straggling up the hill; and Helen found that there could be dingy, meagre quarters even in the most engaging of ancient towns; and as the car slowly moved down the narrowness of Clifton Street, she began to feel foolishly nervous.
Pauline had not replied to her affectionate letter, promising a visit in the autumn, and she had not let her know of her coming.
This on the stern solicitation of Louis, who did not want a scene staged for their benefit, but to discover these people in the ordinary vocations of their ordinary life; Helen had agreed, for it never occurred to her that a surprise visit could embarrass anyone; she had not the shrewdness that can guess at things entirely beyond personal experience.
But as she realised the dilapidated modernity of Clifton Street, she saw that it was impossible to take either the car or Louis Van Quellin to "Fernlea."
She made the chauffeur back and stopped him at the corner by the pillar box where Pauline had posted her letter to her cousin.
"You must wait here for me," she said hurriedly. "I will go and see what they are like—if they want to see you or not," she added dubiously, for both the magnificence of Louis and the elegance of the car looked cruelly out of place against this background of stingy drabness.
"If you don't return soon I shall come and fetch you," returned Louis; he did not mean to give her more than ten minutes.
Helen went nervously along the wretched little street; conscious of frousy heads behind white Nottingham curtains at the windows, and dirty gazing children at the tiny gates; the sordid air of the city slum dweller was here mingled with the spiritless apathy of the peasant; Clifton Street gained an air of mingy decency by this close proximity to the open country, but also a dullness almost an imbecility, unknown in cities.
Helen found "Fernlea."
The house was incredible to her; or rather not a house, only a portion of a house as a crazy paling bisected the garden and the low windows of the miserable little building, making it into the dwellings.
The low window in "Fernlea" was masked by the lead colour of the badly washed curtains pinned together in the centre, and garnished with a card with the word "Apartments" in silver on a harsh blue ground; the last rain had traced lines on the dirt of the window-pane, dust and soot lay thick on the peeling stucco of the sill.
The door was blistered; neglect had turned the knocker and the letter box acid with verdigris colour, and in the fanlight was another card, "Apartments," hanging slightly crooked.
The small square of garden was a mere tangle of sprawling seeding marigolds, the upper window had the faded blind pulled down.
Helen stepped back to make sure that there was not some mistake; but the word "Fernlea" was written in chocolate brown on either of the short plaster pillars at the gate. There was something so repellent, even sinister, about this blank dismal house that Helen would have turned away, in sheer cowardice, if it had not been for the thought of Van Quellin waiting in the car, and of having to confess her failure to his amusement.
As she timidly raised the knocker and saw her beautiful gloved hands resting on that horrible little door she was conscious how out of harmony her clothes were with this visit; she had come dressed plainly, but she had nothing in her wardrobe that would have been suitable for "Fernlea."
She had to knock again before the door was opened; and then it was only moved cautiously, a mere suspicious slit; Helen could not know that the few people who came to this house passed round the back to the door that opened into the scullery.
Helen saw the face of a young woman against the murk of the cramped hall, a peculiar face she thought it, with the grand brows, the scowling eyes and the mass of dried bay leaf coloured hair slipping down her back.
"Is Miss Fermor here?" asked Helen nervously. "Miss Pauline Fermor?"
Pauline opened the door wider; in this slender stranger in the pearl coloured coat and collar of smoky fox fur and the black hat with the single drooping grey plume, she had not recognised her cousin; she thought of a possible lodger, but saw at once that this lady was too fine for "Fernlea," so answered sullenly, without any attempt to please:
"I'm Pauline Fermor."
"Then you are my cousin," said Helen, holding out her hand. "May I come in and speak to you?"
Pauline had something of the sensation of the poor Arabian fisherman who rubbed an old bottle and evoked a genie; her letter to have brought this creature to her doorstep!
Helen had written certainly, and spoken of a visit, but Pauline had never given any credence to that.
She flushed dully, and just touched the outstretched hand with her soiled fingers.
"Please come in." She led the way into the parlour, that was only used by the occasional summer lodger.
The cramped hall, the shabby room, half stifled Helen; the atrocious wall paper, ornaments and fusty furniture, the cheap piano loaded with little vases, the paper flowers in the grate, the stale, rancid, enclosed air she found unbearable.
"It is so strange that we have not met before," she smiled.
"Very," said Pauline.
With keen, swift glances she was noting every detail of Helen's person; the other cousin dare not make this close scrutiny; she had a distressing impression of a shabby serge frock and a dirty apron, ruined hands and a manner of dreadful defiance.
"You said that you would like to see me," she continued, bravely pursuing her point, "so I have come as soon as I returned to London."
"I never thought that you would," returned Pauline bluntly.
"Well—look at us."
Even Helen's ready sweetness could not immediately find an answer to this.
"You would hardly think," added Pauline, "that our fathers were brothers."
And she continued to regard her cousin with those darting glances of hostile curiosity.
Helen could not reconcile this sombre personality with that simple letter; she saw now that Louis was right in believing that epistle to be perfectly insincere, and almost she wished she had not come.
"I thought," she answered, "that you wished to see me; it seems a pity that there are only two of us and that we should be strangers—as for the old troubles, I know nothing of them at all."
"Don't you?" asked Pauline defiantly.
"No," replied Helen, flushing but still gentle, "and I think it foolish to dwell on them—sad things—"
"But you," remarked Pauline grimly, "have no sad things to dwell on, have you?"
It was, to Helen, like her secret conscience speaking; it was an indictment, an accusation; she did not reply.
Pauline pitilessly pursued her advantage.
"Would you like me to tell you something about myself? Will you sit down?" added Pauline, turning round one of the cheap chairs. "I never thought that you would come."
"Why? I wish you had written to me before. I could have come at once if I had known." Helen's sincerity gave her a dignity that balanced her embarrassment and remorse. "You see, Pauline, I really know nothing."
She had taken the offered chair and Pauline was seated on the music stool in front of the shiny piano and the twopenny vases; between them was the heavy square table with the threadbare chenille cloth.
As Helen used her name, Pauline seemed to start or wince.
"Do you really want to be friendly—with me?" she asked.
There was something pleasing about her as she said this; she lost her air of half-savage awkwardness and her accent, so at odds with her appearance, graced her words; she had caught an old-fashioned refinement of speech from her mother, and living so alone had never learnt the easy catch words, the tripping phrasing, of any class; she was largely, through repression and lack of education, inarticulate, but when she felt deeply she expressed herself with an unconscious drama that was not without grandeur.
"Of course," replied Helen earnestly, "I do really want to be friendly with you."
"I've often seen your pictures in the papers and read about you—I've got some idea of what your life is, you can't have any idea of mine."
And she looked sombrely at the gracious tender figure against this atrocious background.
"No," said Helen humbly. "Perhaps not—won't you tell me?"
"There isn't much to say after all. Mother and I have lived in this house ever since I can remember. Mother's been blind ever since I was fifteen. I've looked after her, and done the work and let rooms and given piano lessons when I could get them, which isn't often now that they teach at the schools; we didn't get a lodger this summer, and mother's been ill the last few weeks. I've done a bit of washing for neighbours, a little sewing too, that's all, I think."
She ended with a dry smile and put one scarred rough hand up to the slipping coils of dead coloured hair in the nape of her neck.
"Why didn't you write before?" was all Helen could say.
"Mother wouldn't allow it. I wanted to but mother was too bitter—she wouldn't have anything to do with the Fermors."
"Bitter? I don't understand," murmured Helen, then stopped at a loss; she wanted to say that she could not understand this bitterness because her father had always done his utmost for his impossible brother; but this could not be said, and now that she knew the circumstances of Pauline, Helen was herself bewildered as to why her father had both abandoned these two and kept silence about them.
"I daresay not," replied Pauline, "but she is—she doesn't know I wrote, she mustn't know; it would upset her very much, she wouldn't be able to bear it if she knew you were in the house."
"Then I will go—you should have told me, and I would never have come."
"But I wanted to see you. I don't know anything about these old things any more than you do." For the first time a slight eagerness touched Pauline's manner, "I've got nothing when mother dies, I go nearly crazy thinking of it—nothing! I thought," she added rapidly, "that I'd just write and see what you were like."
The conclusion ran lamely, and Helen knew that it should have run—"what you would do for me."
"There was no one else," continued Pauline with drooped eyelids and twisting her fingers awkwardly. "I don't make friends—not among these people, and we are relations," she added defiantly.
Yes, they were close kin; the children of the two brothers and of women of equal birth, only if anything Maria Gainsborough had been superior in everything but money to Helene Bonnot—everything but money; there was no difference but money between them, never had been; Helen's advantages, Helen's happiness were due to money. Pauline's miseries wholly to the lack of it; Helen realised this with horror, with almost a self disgust.
"I would do anything for you, Pauline," she answered with a generous haste, "anything I could. You mustn't worry about the future at all." She searched for some means whereby to avoid the hatefulness of alms-giving, to avoid this vital word "money."
"You must come and stay with me. I believe that I could make it pleasant for you; do come, Pauline; we must not lose each other again."
A dull red stained Pauline's sallow face.
"I've got to work," she replied. "I shall always have to work."
"No." Helen brought out the detestable sentence, "I've enough—I'm wealthy; please make me your banker."
To her relief, Pauline, instead of being offended at what, disguise it as she would, was but an offer of charity, seemed to grasp at the opening.
"A little money would mean a lot to me," she said. "If I'd had a few pounds I could have started a little business time and again."
"There's no need," said Helen, grateful that she was not offended. "You must come with me—this isn't your right surrounding; I mean, you can't really like it. Oh, it would be delicious to take you away, Pauline, and to give you a rest and a change from—all this."
Pauline did not relax from her rigid attitude, half watchful, half defiant.
"There's mother," she said dryly.
The charming Helen, who had never been rebuffed nor disliked, was inclined to make light even of this hostile personage.
"Couldn't I see her? She can't really dislike me when she has never seen me. Couldn't we take her away somewhere—if she is not well? France, perhaps. Pauline, do let us be happy together now that we have found each other at last."
As she stood in an attitude both ardent and pleading, trying to woo this stiff gloomy creature, with all the grace and caress of her delicious personality, she was, despite the worldly elegance, the cultured finish of her individuality, a being almost childlike.
But Pauline's expression did not change in response to this generous offer of hand and heart; the sardonic amusement of intelligence confronted by folly gleamed in her eyes—a second and then she was indifferent, quiet again.
"Mother would never come," she remarked.
"Not if you persuaded her?"
"Could I see her perhaps?" pleaded Helen, with an unconscious confidence in her own powers of conciliation.
"It would be much better if you didn't see her," replied Pauline. "If you want to do anything for me you must do it secretly."
Helen was repelled by this coarse bluntness of speech, this cold reflection of her affection and this grasping acceptance of her favours.
"Of course, as you wish," she assented gently.
"I can't get mother away from here and I can't leave her."
"I understand. But if she would see me, and be reasonable! Any trouble there was, was before I was born."
"Before we were either of us born, I suppose," said Pauline carelessly, "but it affects all one's life, doesn't it? Now, if my father had invented the Fermor brake system—"
Helen did not like this tone, which touched the insolent, and she was surprised at Pauline's knowledge of this patent that had been the basis of the Fermor fortune.
"It is a question of luck," she replied kindly. "My father was a brilliant engineer, but it was just good fortune that he chanced on something so successful—"
"Oh, yes," echoed Pauline, "good fortune, just good fortune."
"I've been very fortunate," admitted Helen wistfully. "I know that—I've even felt sorry about it, as if I'd had no right to so much ease and pleasure; I've been selfish of course, but now if I could share some of this good fortune with you I should feel so much happier."
Pauline paid no attention; she had risen from the music stool and appeared to be listening.
"That's mother moving," she exclaimed and moved towards the door; but she had heard too late the sound of shuffling footsteps; there was a noise of fumbling round the lock, the handle was turned jerkily, and the blind woman entered with her cumbrous, dragging walk, helping herself by a stick and by the furniture.
"Mother, you should not have come down alone," cried Pauline angrily, while Helen paled at the sight of this blind, crippled creature, so shabby, even ragged, so old and malevolent and idiotic in expression.
"I heard a voice," said Mrs. Fermor, "a lady's voice; one doesn't often hear a lady's voice here—now who is it, Pauline?"
Her daughter had taken her by the shaking arm and was trying to lead her away.
"I thought," added the old woman, "that it was like Mark Fermor's voice—"
Helen, even in the face of this dismal creature, found her spirits.
"I am Mark Fermor's daughter—your niece, Helen."
"Helen St. Luc!" shrilled Mrs. Fermor. "In my house!"
This meant nothing to Helen but a vague horror from which she might quickly get away; the words, the tone, the gesture, were all outside her comprehension, never had she seen such things save vaguely and dimly from a distance, someone shouting at a street corner or at a window as she drove quickly by through her different world. She looked at Pauline expecting to see an echo of her own dismay, but Pauline was merely gazing at her with a stealthy curiosity.
"I must go," murmured Helen, almost with a gasp. "Your mother is not well—"
But the fell figure of the blind woman was directly in her path, for with one hand Mrs. Fermor clutched the table and the other, that grasped the stick, nearly touched the wall, so that Helen could not pass to the door.
"One moment," replied this terrible figure that blocked the way, "and then you shall go—but there are one or two things to be said first—"
"Mother," interrupted Pauline, "Madame St. Luc came here in quite a friendly way."
But she did not speak as if she meant to soothe her mother, but almost as if she would, secretly, goad her to further violence.
"A friendly way!" muttered Mrs. Fermor. "Yes, it would be a very friendly way in which Mark Fermor's daughter would come to see me."
Disgust and alarm had now been overcome by pity in Helen's gentle heart; she trembled with the unpleasantness of her position, but she still strove to conciliate her piteous adversary.
"Mrs. Fermor—indeed I know nothing of any past troubles. They must have been before either Pauline or I was born—"
"It was a few months before Pauline was born," said the blind woman with a clearness of utterance forced by the clearness of the thought that made her, temporarily, like a young and vigorous woman, "that your father turned me out of his office where I had come to beg, to beg, mind you, and called me a blackmailer."
"That is not possible!" exclaimed Helen, while Pauline watched them both, with arid curiosity.
"And now I," continued Mrs. Fermor, relentless and still with that deadly lucidity, "turn you out of my house, calling you the daughter of a thief, a thief—"
"You must tell me what you mean by that," replied Helen proudly. "You seem to know what you are saying, and you must explain that word, please."
Mrs. Fermor had begun to sway on her feet, and Pauline was supporting her, but not endeavouring to silence her, only staring greedily, listening greedily, with a sinister delight in Helen's distress.
"You're a thief, too," answered the old woman. "Every penny you have belongs to Pauline—your father stole those plans from my husband."
"It is difficult to forgive you for saying that," cried Helen. "My father—you don't know what you say."
Mrs. Fermor gave a dreary, forlorn and malicious laugh. "It's been some pleasure to me to turn Mark Fermor's daughter out of my house," she remarked; she began to mumble; the fierce effort that she had made to come downstairs and face her enemy, was beginning to sap her strength; Pauline pushed her, not too gently, into a chair by the piano, and the way being thus free Helen was able to pass to the door.
Pauline called after her:
"I'm sorry; I couldn't stop her, could I? She thinks that what she says is true. She's always been saying that—about the stolen plans."
Helen shuddered, without answering, and went into the close, grimy passage; when her trembling and unaccustomed fingers had pulled open the creaking front door, she saw Louis Van Quellin on the step.
"I've been knocking, but no one heard—Helen, what is the matter?"
Never had she loved him, admired him, wanted him, as at that moment; he typified all that was normal and kind and friendly after the dreadful moments she had been through in the horrible little parlour.
"Louis, it is unspeakable—that old woman there, my aunt, I suppose, turned me out of her house, called me the daughter of a thief—"
She spoke in French, the language she commonly used with Louis Van Quellin, and the more freely for the shield of this tongue which she knew was not understood here—in this barbarous place. Incredulous rage sharpened the young man's face.
"She said," answered Helen, nearly weeping, "that father had stolen the Fermor brake system from her husband—"
Van Quellin's reply to this was swift action; he turned and battered at the discoloured knocker on the still open door.
"Oh, no, let them alone!" pleaded Helen fearfully. "I couldn't see that old woman again—she is blind, you know, and distorted—"
Pauline appeared in the passage; she looked calmly, almost contemptuously, at her cousin.
"Are you Miss Fermor?" asked Van Quellin in his excellent English that was yet not quite the English of an Englishman. And Pauline said "yes," and stared at him as if she had forgotten her mother and Helen; she had, of course, never seen anything like this young man, in his aquiline radiance, his strength masked with fineness and now in the vividness of his wrath, more easily roused and more articulate wrath than the wrath of the Anglo-Saxon.
"Will you please explain what has happened? Madame St. Luc came here with the most generous intentions and has been turned away with insult; will you tell me at once what is meant?"
Pauline quailed before this superb and formidable opponent.
"Won't you come in?" she asked. "We can't talk here because of the neighbours—"
"I couldn't come in again," said Helen. "Not after what your mother said—"
"Mother is still in the parlour," replied Pauline confusedly. "Won't you come round to the back for a moment?"
"Why?" asked Helen, who wanted only to get away; but Van Quellin took her by the arm.
"I must have an explanation," he commanded, and the three ill-assorted people went round the house to the dishevelled little back-yard, where the weary untidiness of the house overflowed and was dammed up in a dismal backwater of rubbish.
Helen still protested:
"Let us go—it was a mistake for me to come. I can do no good here."
But Pauline was taking no heed of her cousin; her whole attention was for Louis Van Quellin.
"I suppose you are a friend of Madame St. Luc?" she asked almost humbly.
He nodded stiffly, disdaining explanations.
"Well, I can't tell you why mother has got this idea in her head," continued Pauline hurriedly. "She's been failing lately and doesn't know what she says perhaps. She really believes it is true—I didn't know she would come down to-day. I didn't know Madame St. Luc was coming."
"There is no more to be said," murmured Helen. "I am sure you disassociate yourself from what your mother said, Pauline."
She would have left it at that, but the man pressed the point home.
"Do you?" he insisted.
Pauline hesitated; she flinched before those pale imperious eyes, yet she longed to pour out her grievances and her hatreds, and her instinct was to say that she did believe her mother's monstrous accusation; but her strong common sense and natural shrewdness checked her; she saw at once that she could not deal with this man as she had dealt with Helen, and that to support her mother would be never to see either of these people again; and in her cousin lay her sole hope of escape from her present torments.
"Of course, I know it can't be true," she answered in a low voice. "But mother's been very unfortunate and very ill, and lives in the past—as for myself, I don't know anything at all—"
"I am very sorry for you, Pauline," said Helen, instantly accepting the awkward, half-hearted excuse, "and if ever I can be of any help—"
"Miss Fermor will, no doubt, let you know when and how," put in Louis quietly, "and now you must not stay here any longer, Helen."
His words, his gesture, conveyed his intense regard for her and his contempt of her surroundings; Pauline was watching him with a dreadful fascination, and suddenly divined that they were lovers.
Helen held out her hand.
"The address on my letter will find me," she said. "I am very sorry for to-day—"
Pauline took no notice of this—no notice of either the fair hand or the fair words.
She did not take her cousin's hand; she appeared to only see the man; she gave him a look of bitter challenge, jerked back her head and went into the house by the scullery door, which she closed sharply behind her; and Louis Van Quellin, extremely angry, said, for once, not what he believed would please Helen, but what he really thought:
"A couple of blackmailers!"
DURING the return journey to London, Helen really wept, like someone shaken out of all control by the remembrance of a devastating dream; but she would not admit that Van Quellin had been right in advising her not to see her unknown relations.
Nor was this altogether feminine perversity on Helen's part, but a certain fineness of feeling, the same feeling that had made her endeavour to sacrifice the alabaster vase.
"But I ought to know about these things," she protested. "I've no right to be always saved from everything—if that had been going on all these years I ought to have known of it—"
"Why? No one could have helped people like that."
Helen would not agree.
"They are only like that because they have been neglected so long—you must expect people who have been pushed under to be bitter—"
"Mrs. Fermor had been pushed under, as you put it, Helen, before you were born."
M. de Montmorin's intuition had been right; Helen's fineness of feeling did not carry her to the extent of appreciating Van Quellin's sensations in this affair; her gentility was always the gentility of the middle classes, to whom all mischances are possible and she would have had to have it explained to her in words before she could have realized Van Quellin's instinctive ideal of an impregnable aristocracy to whom such incidents as the Fermors were utterly impossible.
Returned to Helen's flat, they had the matter out again, Helen seated mournfully by the window looking out on the autumn mists that veiled the park, Van Quellin walking up and down the low, pretty room with a look of impatience.
"I must do something for them," was always the conclusion of Helen's troubled considerations.
And at last Van Quellin was moved to try to defeat this tender foolishness, as he considered Helen's too lavish kindness.
"If you must, do it through your lawyer—pay that young woman a certain amount quarterly and never have anything to do with her—make that clearly understood from the first, that you will never even see her—"
"That is merely giving charity."
"That is all she wants."
"I thought she was rather remarkable, intelligent and handsome," protested Helen. "There was something grand and queer about her—she didn't seem to me a bit like someone who just wanted money."
"Quite a remarkable young woman," he agreed dryly. "She might have done much better than she has with herself. I judge her lazy, sullen and idle, and, Helen, I must tell you about her father—"
"Do you know anything of my Uncle Paul?" asked Helen, surprised both at his words and his manner.
"I felt I had to find out," he admitted, with a certain reluctance, yet firmly. "You must be protected—it wasn't difficult—there is an old clerk at the works knows the whole story. I went to your lawyers, too. Mr. Holt remembers both your father and your uncle."
"Mr. Holt? I often see him, but I didn't know he knew anything of Uncle Paul—"
"He wouldn't tell you; he was very devoted to your father, and to the firm—"
Helen was amazed, as she had been before, at this freemasonry between men; this old lawyer, this old clerk, both of whom she was so fond and who had both caressed her as a child, had evidently at once imparted to Van Quellin information which they had kept secret from her for a lifetime; did men distrust women's judgments or their emotions that they kept them so in the dark about important matters?
"I think I ought to have known," she remarked.
"My dear child, why ever should you be worried about it? I only mention it now as it is so difficult to put you on your guard. Paul Fermor was really a scoundrel, his father and his brother helped him again and again, and he only laughed at them. Your father bore with him for years, and had at last to turn him away because of the flagrant scandal of his behaviour—"
"But that wasn't the fault of these two—"
"His wife was hand in glove with him; she extorted large sums of money out of your father; she used to go to his house and his office and make scenes."
"What about?" frowned Helen. "About what she said to-day—about the Fermor brake system?"
"I'm afraid so at the end—but there had always been trouble of some kind—her husband had sent in some designs and a model, absolute rubbish, of course, for the man was lazy and hardly ever sober, and when your father's invention was put on the market, they made this preposterous claim—sheer blackmail."
"I suppose that was why father could never speak of them," murmured Helen.
"Yes, the climax was when the woman came round with some documents she wanted to sell, proofs, she called them, she threatened to send them to the newspapers, and your father had to have her turned out of the office."
There was something else in this interview that Van Quellin had learnt from Mr. Holt, but which he did not care to repeat to Helen, and that was that the blackmail of Mrs. Fermor (who was, according to the old clerk, a thoroughly unscrupulous and violent woman) had taken a double form; not only had she menaced Mark Fermor with the brand of thief, but she had threatened his peace with his young French wife, by declaring that she would reveal to her that Mr. Fermor had been her former suitor, and even, she swore, pursued her since his marriage; there were love letters of a compromising nature among the documents Maria Fermor had for sale.
"She spoke of that," replied Helen sadly. "She is still dwelling on it, after all these years. Louis, isn't it ghastly!"
"And even after that," continued Van Quellin, "your father sent them money—in answer to a last appeal for the fare to Australia from Paul—who died soon after, and the woman disappeared."
Helen strove to find something to redeem this sordid welter of lies and misery.
"Pauline had nothing to do with it," she urged. "You heard her repudiate the slander about my father."
"Only because she was afraid of offending you," replied Van Quellin quickly. "Do you think that she has lived with that fell old woman all her life without absorbing her wickedness, her bitterness? You didn't really like her yourself; confess now, Helen."
"No, I felt ill at ease with her, from the first, but oh, Louis, I was so dreadfully sorry!"
He shrugged his shoulders.
"I know—but you can't save anyone from such an environment as that; it is a case of the sins of the fathers, I'm afraid." He added imperiously: "Anyhow, Helen, you cannot possibly have anything to do with them while Mrs. Fermor is alive—it would be an outrage to your father's memory."
Helen acquiesced, but with a sigh; she did not dare tell Louis Van Quellin, but she felt that her days would never be quite as unclouded as they had been now that she knew of the existence of the Fermors. She sensed that her lover would say no more on this subject and that also his investigations had discovered to him a great deal more about her uncle Paul than he chose to admit, so she gave the matter up with one last protest.
"After all, Louis, the difference between Pauline and myself is only the money—I wish I could get you to see that—"
He smiled indulgently; very likely there was much in what she said; such a woman as Helen was only possible from an upbringing of luxury and wealth; but what did it matter to him what had produced this delicious creature?
He troubled about that as little as the purchaser of a unique bloom troubles about the soil in which it has been grown.
Seating himself beside her, he took her hand in his; in a few days he must go back to Marli, to Cornelia, and then take the sick girl to Madeira, where she commonly spent the winter with her retinue of attendants from doctor to maid; Helen, becoming more and more consecrated to the service of Cornelia, despite Madame de Montmorin's warning, would presently leave all her friends in London and Paris and join her, while Van Quellin returned to Paradys, where the three would go after the marriage in April.
So there were only these snatched moments for the lovers before another long separation, and half of these had been absorbed by the Fermor affair; that Helen did not perceive this, was a bitter little pang to Louis.
"Haven't you got anything to say about ourselves, Helen?" he begged. "With you it is always other people."
She started faintly at his approximity that always brought with it that sense of fear; she could not meet his fierce and lonely look.
"I suppose you spoil me," she answered with a trembling smile. "I am too sure of you."
"Don't be too sure," he said quickly. "I am not by nature so very faithful—" She did not look at him now.
"I wonder what you mean by that?"
"Oh, I would disdain to importune," he replied rising. He was smiling, yet impatient. "I couldn't beg for crumbs too long—"
Helen was uneasy; she hardly knew how to meet this mood which seemed to her unfair; couldn't he see that she had given him all she had to give? What did he really want?
"I didn't know I kept you begging," she answered gently, "nor for crumbs—perhaps some day someone will be more generous with you," she finished gaily.
And he surprised her by his confirmatory:
Helen, never so at ease with her own emotions as she was with those of other people, became confused, almost abashed, at this declaration (for so she read his speech) from Louis Van Quellin.
She had a bewildering sensation of groping after something unknown in the dark, and once more she was aware of missing in him her own essential candour.
"Louis, lam afraid I disappoint you in some way, at least that I don't quite please you—"
He was standing by the hearth where the first wood fire burnt, and Helen turned, in her low chair, towards him with an almost supplicating attitude.
"Please tell me," she insisted.
"As if one could analyse these things!" he answered with a light impatience.
"I don't see anything to analyse," said Helen simply, "You can tell me what you miss in me?"
"I can't," he smiled, "I can't."
"Well then you can tell me what you meant just now when you spoke of fidelity," and she was so little a coquette that she added gravely, "it would never occur to me to question my own fidelity to you."
"No," he replied quickly, "because it isn't of enough importance to you—you are faithful as a matter of course, and because there is nothing to tempt you, nothing likely ever to tempt you—"
"What could tempt you?" asked Helen.
He looked at her quizzically a second.
"Someone who cared for me as I care for you," he returned.
"Oh!" said Helen. "You think I don't care enough?"
"It is a terrific thing—caring tremendously. Of course it is very rare, and people discount it because they don't know, or are afraid. It upsets things rather, caring tremendously."
Helen was silenced; she did not know of any flaw in her feeling for Van Quellin, yet she would scarcely have applied the word "tremendous" to her love; she was so used to him, so sure of him, so intimate with him; he was more like her daily bread than any delicious draught of nectar; and Helen hardly believed in this "caring tremendously"; she had been so happy with the placid tender affection of Etienne St. Luc.
Distressed and puzzled she leant towards him, still with her supplicant's gesture of clasped hands over the back of the silk chair.
"I suppose I'm spoiled," she pleaded. "First there was my father, and then Etienne, and now you—all spoiling me. I've never been allowed to miss anything, I've had everything without asking."
Van Quellin smiled to hear how completely she had misunderstood him; he looked beyond her at the yellow shapes of the trees looming through the bluish mists of the northern autumn that showed behind the warm grace of her figure; useless for him to torment her, to torment himself. He had all of this childlike soul, this tranquil heart; his insatiable love must be satisfied with this serene, this evasive, this delicate return.
"Poor Helen," he remarked. "So afraid of being too happy, eh?"
"So afraid of not being able to make you happy," she answered sincerely.
"You must not take that burden on you—my happiness depends on Cornelia."
"I know. But Cornelia cannot bear you to be so dependent on her—she told me so." Helen, now that the talk was no longer of herself, spoke with ease and vivacity. "Jeanne mentioned it too, Louis, and I do see how right they are—to try too hard to make up to Cornelia is to put a burden on her—"
"You are conscience free," replied Louis Van Quellin. "You don't know what remorse is, Helen."
"But just a child's carelessness," she argued gently. "And if she had been strong, it would have been nothing—Dr. Henriot says that the effects of the fall have long since disappeared."
"I pay Henriot," said Van Quellin bitterly. "It is part of his métier to be—civil."
"But anyone can see that Cornelia is delicate, Louis; you must think that if it had not been for you she would never have grown up at all—you know that."
But the young man rejected all these palliatives.
"I feel that spoiled life on my account," he said. "There it is, the sheer fact. I was responsible for the accident, and there she is—maimed, and what use to her is everything I can do? She wants to live."
Helen sighed deeply, thinking of what Cornelia had herself said—just that, about wanting to live.
"Perhaps this winter," she suggested timidly, glancing at the aquiline face that in repose was so cold and even formidable, at the pale grey eyes that looked so remote and lonely, "Cornelia will get stronger—" Van Quellin roused himself.
"I shouldn't be bothering you with this, Helen; it is something you can never understand, thank heaven."
Helen, thinking of Pauline Fermor, was not so sure; she could imagine as possible the stinging of remorse, the bitter workings of conscience, but she did not dare mention again that problem of her cousin. "Will you dine with me to-night?" asked Louis swiftly.
"Oh, lam so sorry, I promised the Mathisons—I have put them off twice—"
"Put them off again."
"Louis, I can't. Mrs. Mathison has been ill and I promised to see her the moment I came to London—"
"You've plenty of time yet—"
"But I promised for to-night—won't you come? They would be so flattered."
"No," he answered shortly. "They're dull bores; no one bothers with them."
"They're kind," protested Helen, "and so lonely. I think it must be terrible to be dull and have people avoiding you—I must go, please don't try to dissuade me."
"Helen, you are incorrigible, don't you know I've only a few more days in London and then perhaps I shan't see you for months."
Helen thought, though she would not say so, that she was giving the whole winter up to Cornelia and might have been allowed a little latitude now for her own friends.
She sat silent, with a downcast face.
"Put these people off and come with me," he commanded.
"I've done that twice," she answered. "They think it unkind that you don't come with me; they keep asking me to bring you."
"Oh, la, la," he cried with sudden impatience. "Will you come with me or not?"
Helen did not hesitate in her choice.
There were a hundred things that Van Quellin could do, a hundred places where he would be welcome, whereas the Mathisons were, as he had said, dull, boring—if Helen disappointed them they would be alone—and hurt.
She wished, wistfully, that Van Quellin could have sacrificed himself this one evening to give her and the old people a pleasure; but the young man, she knew, disdained these small and tender virtues.
"I'm afraid I must go," she denied him reluctantly. "I'm very sorry, Louis—and it is time that I went to dress."
She knew that he was deeply vexed and she half shivered, fearing an outburst of anger.
Not that she had ever known him angry with her, but she was aware of latent temper behind this even serenity and greatly feared one day to provoke it; a quarrel was unthinkable, of course; Helen would never quarrel, but she could imagine herself, on some fatal day, weeping before his wrath. But however near the edge of violence Louis had been now, he controlled himself, perhaps with the thought that he would soon have complete domination over this charming, soft foolishness.
"Very well," he said, "to-morrow then—I want to show you some new photographs of Pargdys—I'm very pleased with the work there—don't you want to see the plans of your Pavilion?"
Helen melted instantly at this surrender, a gracious surrender for Louis Van Quellin; she knew what he meant by this tender reference to the Pavilion he was building specially for her.
She would like to have kissed him, of her own free will, an offering that she knew would give him intense pleasure; but she hesitated and did not, half afraid of herself, half afraid of him.
"You see, you do spoil me," she smiled gaily. "The Mathisons will be so pleased, poor dears—"
"I suppose it doesn't matter if I am pleased or not?"
"Louis, you don't need pleasing," she assured him. "You've got everything."
"But not you."
She gave him her hands and he kissed them, foreign fashion.
"Don't say that;" she replied, gravely and sadly. "You have got me—only I'm not quite what you want me to be."
Still holding her hands, he looked straight into her soft, vivacious, flushing face.
"Aren't you? Aren't you, Helen?"
He dropped her hands at that, and left her abruptly; she heard the click of the front door of the flat.
Helen felt a touch of fright, almost of terror.
"I don't love him enough—there is something wrong. I am not capable of loving him enough."
IN the middle of October, Helen was preparing to join Cornelia at Marli; this surrender of her entire winter and the last winter of her freedom to a sick woman did not please her many friends. The extravagant luxury that enveloped Cornelia was already a matter of comment—a doctor, a governess or duenna, two nurses and two maids composed the usual retinue that accompanied Cornelia Van Quellin on her slow opulent travels; then there would be the brother with his own men servants—so why, argued friends, should Helen be added to this train?
But Madame St. Luc saw no sacrifice; convinced that Cornelia really wanted her, she was very pleased to go; ever since her husband's death Van Quellin had been detaching her more and more from her friends, her social uses and amusements; a man himself inclined to solitude, he had used his considerable power over the beloved woman to withdraw her from everything and attach her to himself and to Cornelia.
He secretly intended his own place, Paradys, to be a retreat for the two women where he would keep them enclosed from the world, a week or so in Brussels or Paris (London he did not like) would be sufficient for Helen. Paradys was a world in itself—or would be when he had finished with it, and Helen would find her joy and her diversion in being a very perfect châtelaine. Helen guessed, though perhaps vaguely, this intention and did not resent it, nor indeed, much trouble about it at all; she was so used to being planned for, to being taken care of no sooner had she lost her husband than she had put all her business affairs in Van Quellin's hands; she managed her money without prodigality, but with a nice discretion, neither laxly lavish, nor crazily extravagant, but she had very little idea where this money came from, nor quite how much she could command, and she never ventured on a considerable expenditure without asking Van Quellin's advice.
Helen was leaving London without having heard again from Pauline Fermor.
Against the wishes of Louis Van Quellin she had ventured to write to her forlorn cousin, offering her, with all the nuance of delicacy of which she was capable, any assistance Pauline might care to ask, but there had been no answer.
Pauline evidently intended to maintain that gesture of defiance with which she had crossed her miserable little yard and shut her miserable little door behind her, tossing her grand head with a bitter challenge.
Helen regretted, with heartfelt pity, her own powerlessness; but she could think of nothing further to do; it was equally impossible either to visit Pauline again, or to write to her; Helen with infinite sorrow forced herself to regard the incident as over.
And just when she had been forced to this conclusion and was on the eve of her departure for Paris, Pauline Fermor, who had receded into a painful distance, was suddenly, as Helen had said before, was suddenly there.
Helen returned home one clear afternoon of curdled clouds in a frosty blue sky and a great wind that seemed to rush to and fro across the park, to find Pauline Fermor waiting in the sparse, gracious sitting-room.
She had been there, the maid said, over an hour, and had insisted on waiting for madame, her errand being one of the utmost importance; Helen noticed, inside the door, a small shabby valise.
With an inward quiver of distaste she forced herself to face Pauline and tried to forget their last meeting.
The low room was lit by firelight and the last glimmers of the autumn day that fell with pale lucidity through the long uncurtained window that gave on to the park, a blurred background now of dead gold leaves and purplish vapours.
Save for the deep squat chairs piled with bronze cushions there was nothing in the room save a beautiful eighteenth-century harpsichord, and a dim painting of flowers in a dull gold frame; orange, crimson and blue showed in Helen's embroidery silks piled in a gilt basket in the deep window seat, and above the flat fireplace was a shelf holding a white vase full of scarlet and yellow Japanese lilies.
In these choice and rather mannered surroundings sat Pauline Fermor; she wore a rough wool coat of a rusty black and a black felt hat; her hands were clasped firmly on her lap and she did not rise as Helen entered.
"Mother is dead," she said at once, without any form of greeting.
Helen felt an undeniable relief; the death of Maria Fermor would surely finally heal an old wound, silence the last clamouring echo of an age-long scandal; life would surely be easier even for Pauline Fermor without her terrible mother.
Yet Helen was able to appreciate the sense of loss that must be devastating this forlorn figure in the cheap attempt at "decent" mourning.
"That must be dreadful for you," she said gently. "I am sorry that you had to wait so long for me. I will get you some tea at once—"
Pauline replied only to the first part of this sentence.
"It isn't dreadful. I think it much better for mother and for myself. You couldn't call that a happy life, could you?"
"No," replied Helen softly, "but I suppose you were fond of her, after tending her for so long."
"I don't know." Pauline spoke dully. "I don't really know. I think that I feel a release, as if a burden had dropped off."
Helen did not care for such plain speaking, but she strove to be tolerant.
"I wish you had told me. I might have helped; I would have come to see you. But you never answered my letter."
"What was the use, while mother was alive?" returned Pauline doggedly. "I'd promised her to have nothing more to do with you."
"I see," said Helen quietly. "But now?"
"Now," replied Pauline, "I'm free and must look after myself a bit."
She gave a grim glance at the bright lady in her smoke coloured bloomy furs and falling plumes, who looked at her with such anxious kindness.
The tea was brought in, and Pauline's avid gaze fell to the delicate service, the milk-coloured handleless cups on the black lacquer tray; the pale orange cake, the fantastic sweets in a bowl of blue crackle ware.
"Have you left your house?" asked Helen as she served the tea; she was wondering what form of help Pauline had come to solicit.
"Yes, there was another two years of the lease to run, but the landlord was glad to get 'Fernlea' back; you can always let those houses. I sold everything. I got ten pounds with the beds and the piano—there was enough left of mother's last money for the funeral; I paid the doctor and got a black coat and hat, and there's three pounds left. We lived on mother's annuity, you know; it died with her."
Helen winced; it all sounded as ugly as incomprehensible. She blamed herself for the mental nausea that made it difficult to look at Pauline, clasping her shabby sham leather bag on her knee and eating and drinking as if she was hungry.
"Where are you staying?" she forced herself to ask.
"Mother's only been dead a fortnight; I had the house up to three days ago; then I stayed with Mrs. Marshall next door."
Still she did not declare herself, and Helen's spirit failed before the blunt question: "What do you want?" Pauline had an air of calm, almost of ease; she did not appear to be overwhelmed by her surroundings, though her continuous, appraising glance showed how conscious she was of this fastidious luxury.
She had herself gained by the change of background, even in her nasty clothes she looked impressive; the natural grace of her limbs, the sombre good looks of her dark face were now undeniable, discounted as these were by her atrocious garments, her sallow complexion and ruined hands.
"I'm glad you came to me," said Helen. "I was afraid I shouldn't see you again."
"Are you," asked Pauline, "are you glad?"
Helen faintly coloured (her blushes came so easily).
"Yes, I'm glad, Pauline," she replied firmly, despite the rose in her face.
"There was no one else to go to," said Pauline, but not in any soft nor appealing tone. "Mother's money died with her, you see. I've got absolutely nothing—I always thought of daily work, I could always earn four or five shillings a day, and I'm used to living on that. I'm strong, too—"
"You must please not think of that," interrupted Helen with an attempt at a gay smile. "It is too foolish and impossible. Why, Pauline, you have only to tell me what you want—"
But Pauline evaded.
"What do you think I ought to have, Madame St. Luc?"
Helen was arrested sharply by this appeal to her justice, to her generosity, to her conscience.
What was indeed due to this woman, her equal in every way, her sole relative, and separated from her only by a gulf of misfortune?
As Helen faced herself, honestly, with this question, Pauline spoke again.
"I thought you would let me stay with you, for awhile, anyhow. I have nowhere else to go."
Of all things Helen had not thought of this; she felt ashamed that it had not occurred to her, ashamed that the suggestion came with a considerable shock, but she said with nervous haste:
"Of course you must stay, Pauline, as long as you wish."
"I brought my things; I have nowhere else to go. You're the only relation I have, you see; if you really meant what you said the other day, I thought that you would let me stay."
She was exacting, in cold blood, the performance of Helen's vague, generous and impulsive offers and promises. She had, as it were, thrown herself across her cousin's path, knowing that this gentle spirit was not capable of doing otherwise than raise her up as high as herself, and with instinctive cleverness she repeated the sentence that was her trump card.
"What do you think I ought to have, Madame St. Luc?"
Helen rose, crossed to the fireplace where the logs had burnt to a clear steady heart of ruddy gold, and snapped on the electric lights hidden in the cornice; the twilight room was filled with a delicate amber glow.
What was due to Pauline Fermor?
"If you don't see it yourself—what is due to me I mean—I don't want to stay, but I knew you'd be fair."
"I am trying to be fair," replied Helen faintly. "I want you to stay; I want to do all I can for you—"
"But do you feel you ought to?" insisted Pauline, cautious as a skilful campaigner, who makes his position impregnable from the first. "It wasn't my fault that my father went to the bad; he started the same as yours, and it wasn't my fault that my mother got bitter and said horrible things. Your mother might have done so if she had been treated the same as mine. I had to take my life as I found it. I inherited my parents as you inherited yours. I had to bear it; I've been bearing it, since I was born—for thirty years."
Behind the commonplace idiom and the guarded tone Helen could discern a deep passion and a dramatic force that moved and startled her; she was deeply troubled; mechanically she put off her furs and sank on the low padded stool drawn up by the fire.
"I had to pay for father's sins," continued Pauline drearily, "and then for mother's pride. I've missed everything, and I'm getting too old to learn."
It reminded Helen of Cornelia's cry, the bitter complaint of a woman shut outside in each case, one by sickness, the other by poverty, but whereas it was in no one's power to set Cornelia free, money would open the doors of Pauline's prison.
"You mustn't think that I was ever used to that life I had to live; one doesn't get used to it if one isn't born to it, and I knew that I wasn't. From the first there was mother always to tell me how everything ought to be—"
"You must forgive me," murmured Helen. "I didn't know anything—anything of what happened."
"How could you? I daresay you never knew that I had been born, or thought I was dead. But my Uncle Mark knew."
Helen had no answer to that; she could not herself understand how a man as just and generous as her father had been able so utterly to abandon these two unhappy beings, whatever his righteous indignation, and she found it impossible to tell Pauline the reasons she knew of for this same indignation.
"We must leave the past alone," she answered; "that is the only way. I will do all I can for you, Pauline, and you must help me by not bearing any rancour or ill-will because of—what has been."
"That is all dead, with mother," said Pauline levelly. "I want us to start fresh, as I've said. I've no cause to—to—bear any ill-will. It's been just bad luck—but you'll agree, Madame St Luc, that it was bad luck—hellish bad luck."
There was a quiver on these last words, a flash in the eyes under the heavy drooping lids that belied the studied humility of her quiet manner; Helen was quite incapable of reading or understanding a woman like Pauline, but she did feel uneasily, that there was much passion concealed beneath this almost dull exterior.
"It was terrible, Pauline," she agreed. "I want to efface it; you're young still, younger than I, and you'll be happy yet."
"Do you think that I deserve to be happy?" demanded Pauline almost roughly.
"Yes, I do, of course I do. I think that no one can do enough to make amends, but I'll do my best," added the poor lady, with the tears in her gentle eyes.
"Then I may stay?"
"Naturally, you will stay."
Then Helen, through this absorption in her cousin's troubles, thought of her own plans.
"I am going abroad in a few days—to Marli—"
"Near Paris. I'm shutting up the flat." She paused, hesitated.
"Can't I come with you? I would like to go abroad," urged Pauline eagerly.
"Yes, you must come with me. I can't very well put the journey off; you will like it—a good thing for you to get away from England."
Helen endeavoured to speak warmly, but she had now thought, with an icy dismay, of Louis Van Quellin; too well could she foresee his fierce opposition to her impulsive adoption of Pauline; and how impossible to introduce this new-found cousin into the household of Beaudesert!
But Pauline must never suspect these difficulties; she, Helen, must meet them presently. Pauline might be left in Paris with some friend. Madame de Montmorin might come to the rescue.
While she was grappling with these hurried reflections, Pauline was watching her with greedy curiosity.
"Perhaps you don't want to take me? Perhaps it isn't convenient? I only need a little rest and then I'll find some work to do."
"Please don't talk like that; it will be very delightful to have you." Helen had really by now persuaded herself that this was true and that she was already fond of Pauline. "I am going to stay with the sister of Monsieur Van Quellin."
"Who is he?"
"The man who came with me to see you," said Helen quickly and abashed.
"Oh! You are going to marry him?"
Helen hurriedly made the admission that seemed so like a flaunt over the friendless dreariness of the other woman's portion.
"Yes—he won't be with us this winter, he has to go to Paradys—to Belgium—I am going with his sister to Madeira; you can come too; Cornelia has always been an invalid, but she is very charming."
"I'm used to invalids," replied Pauline, "from being with mother."
Helen was revolted by this comparison of the fell old woman, so hideous and malevolent, with the lovely young girl.
"M. Van Quellin is absorbed in his sister," she said, like a delicate rebuke. "I hope you will like her, but perhaps it would be rather dull for you. I could easily find someone for you to stay with here, or in Paris."
She wished that Pauline would be explicit and tell her exactly what she wanted, instead of sitting so quiet, with that avid air masked in sullenness.
Helen's desire to be loved amounted to a weakness; she could not endure that anyone should resist her affectionate advances; she had the pretty ardour of the child, the innocent wish to be liked by all who approached her; and she felt that it would be unbearable if Pauline, who was to be so suddenly and so intimately thrust into her life, was to remain cold and hostile.
As her cousin did not answer this last remark of hers she crossed to her and stood beside the low silk chair from which Pauline had never moved since she had entered the room.
"Aren't you going to like me, Pauline? Do try to like me a little?"
Pauline did rise now; she was notably taller than her cousin.
"I suppose I've got out of the way of liking people," she replied slowly. "Of course you are very good. I never thought you would be so good, Madame St. Luc."
"That is what you mustn't say, and you must call me Helen."
"That seems queer, doesn't it," Pauline smiled slowly, "calling you Helen?"
"You'll get used to it—I'm Helen to everyone."
Pauline stood erect, clasping the shabby bag; it seemed impossible to put her at her ease, or melt her reserve, and yet she stood her ground, and seemed to be determined to exact to the utmost Helen's promises, to exploit to the utmost Helen's compassionate generosity.
"I am sure that we shall get on very well together," said Madame St. Luc, sweetly disguising a sense of defeat. "Now, will you come into my room while yours is being got ready?"
"I've got no clothes fit for this place," replied Pauline sternly.
"How splendid! I love buying clothes—for tonight, we won't dress—I'm staying in," said Helen, mentally running over the three engagements she would have to put off in order to keep Pauline company.
Shut in the beautiful bedroom, so delicate, fragrant and tranquil, Pauline shuddered with the reaction from long repression.
By the yellow silk-covered bed, on a gilt table stood a photograph of Louis Van Quellin; the likeness was accurately caught; the vivid look finely rendered; Pauline snatched the portrait up and stared at it fiercely; if her thoughts could have been put in words they would have read:
"How did you come to love that shallow little fool?"
A PORTION of the next letter that Helen wrote to Louis Van Quellin was devoted to the subject of Pauline Fermor; to the acute observation of the recipient the trepidation of the writer was betrayed behind the brave words:
I am bringing my cousin Pauline to Marli. I've asked Jeanne to have her with me, it will only be for a short time, as I must think of something for her. I know you would not care for her to come to Madeira.
The mother is dead and Pauline is really penniless and friendless; it seems strange how that could happen, but it has; she has absolutely no one save myself.
Louis, she has had a frightful life! No man could imagine it, and through no fault of her own either, you you'll admit that—she seems to me to be free from rancour considering how she was brought up; I don't find her at all prejudiced or bitter, she is really very eager to find something to do, work, you know, but I don't know what it could be; she is quite untrained in everything.
I expect and hope that she will get married, well, too. She is really rather wonderful now. I know you'll smile at that, but you haven't seen her with decent clothes.
Louis, I am so glad to be able to do this; it is not costing me anything save money I don't miss, and the tiniest scrap of inconvenience, and it takes away that feeling of utter selfishness that used to haunt me. Please don't call me silly or imprudent, I'm so afraid you will!
I had to act quickly, without consulting you. If I had hesitated Pauline would have thought that I did not want her, you can see that, can't you, dear? It had to appear spontaneous, not at all calculated.
Try and think that you have never seen her, that one glimpse was under such dreadful disadvantages; she is very quick, and learns things every day—Louis, it would please me so much if you would try to like her—
Van Quellin was on a short visit to Marli when he received this letter; he had come to bring Cornelia an ancient reliquary that he had bought for her in Berlin, and he was in good spirits, for the progress that Dr. Henriot reported in his patient was visible to Van Quellin's own keen scrutiny; the sick girl was stronger and happier than she had ever been; she even walked between the nurses, round her room, and, on fine days, in the garden.
Helen's letter was, therefore, a flash from a serene sky; he took the fatal epistle over at once to the Mortmorins.
"See what Helen writes; is it possible that you have been encouraging her?"
Jeanne de Montmorin looked guilty, but defensive.
"But, Louis, what could I do? Helen asked me to have the girl—how churlish to say no—and how useless! Helen would have gone to a hotel—you know what Helen is."
Yes, that was the worst of it, they did know what Helen was, poor darling Helen who must be saved from herself!
But M. de Montmorin was inclined to disagree with his wife.
"I think that you should have been firm with Helen from the first, told her plainly that you disapproved and that Louis disapproved."
But Jeanne de Montmorin reminded them both:
"No one has got any authority over Helen, you know, not even Louis—yet."
Van Quellin agreed, sourly.
"That is the curse of it—one has no proper control."
"That being so, there is nothing left but tact, is there? Helen's pity is roused, she'll champion this wretched girl whatever we do, and isn't it better for her to bring her here where we can see what is going on, than for Helen to take her away somewhere?"
M. de Montmorin was incredulous.
"Do you really think that Helen would abandon her own life, her own friends, for this preposterous cousin?"
"Not abandon—she would divide her time between us somehow—but this girl is an unknown quantity; she might defeat us in the end."
Van Quellin recognized the fineness of this perception.
"I am sure she is intelligent and unscrupulous," he remarked.
"Of course, you can see how she has worked on Helen—and the sheer effrontery of her attack! I gather from Helen's letter she just walked in on her and demanded instant adoption!"
"Helen made all kinds of crazy promises when she went to see her; the woman hoarded them up till the mother was dead."
"The mother was hostile?"
"Absolutely—I met Helen flying from her abuse—"
"Well, I respect that more than this girl's attitude," replied Madame de Montmorin. "What was the old woman's grievance?"
"The eternal grievance of the unscrupulous rogue. I made some inquiries about Paul Fermor, a scoundrel and a blackmailer, the wife was his accomplice; it seems that Helen's father was attracted by her at one time, and she tried to menace him with that—you can't tell Helen these things," added Van Quellin with an air of deep vexation.
"Helen is utterly unreasonable where her sentiments are touched," agreed Madame de Montmorin; she put her hand affectionately on Van Quellin's sleeve. "But don't you see, Louis, that it is better she should bring the girl here where we can all observe exactly what is going on? After all, surely we are equal to one uneducated young woman."
"But what is to be done with her?" demanded Van Quellin impatiently. "She must, somehow, be got rid of—I'll not have her in Madeira, nor yet at Paradys—"
"Surely Helen doesn't ask that!" exclaimed M. de Montmorin.
"Not yet," replied the young man grimly, "but she is likely enough to ask it, if she can't find anything else to satisfy the girl—"
"You must leave it to me," said Jeanne de Montmorin. "I will study the girl—I will speak to Helen, I will endeavour to find something for her—a place—some work."
"But Helen," replied the young man, "has emblazoned, or will, blazon it everywhere that the girl is her cousin."
His friends were silent; this was the bitter crux of the whole matter that Helen would never understand—how impossible for the cousin of Madame Van Quellin Van Paradys to do anything below the standard of Louis' patrician and narrow values; better a Pauline in the vague position of an unwanted but also unplaced relation, than a Pauline earning a living of middle-class gentility in a bonnet or flower shop of Madame de Montmorin's finding!
The only hope was marriage, Helen's own tentative suggestion. And how difficult, how problematical a hope was that!
Van Quellin found Helen's action, viewed from any angle, unforgivable.
He began to express himself with less restraint; her foolishness was more than a weakness; it was a definite defect in character; it was an over emphasis of sweetness that sickened, it was a flaunting of common sense, of common propriety.
"Poor Helen!" sighed Madame de Montmorin.
But Van Quellin could not see that Helen was to be pitied, it was her victims who were deserving of compassion, he declared.
And in his vexation he hit upon another aspect of his annoyance.
"Cornelia will be upset—you know how fond she is of Helen—think of the effect on her of this stranger thrust between them!"
"Oh, I will see that Cornelia is not worried," replied Jeanne de Montmorin quickly. "I will keep the young woman away from Beaudesert altogether."
"But Cornelia will know about her." Van Quellin was not to be consoled. "Cornelia will feel that part of Helen's interest is withdrawn—for someone else."
Madame de Montmorin did not hesitate to remark upon the selfishness of this complaint; there was no quality of cloying sweetness in Helen's patient devotion to Cornelia, no stupid folly in her exiling herself to Madeira for the winter in the retinue of the sick girl; with feminine fineness Jeanne de Montmorin saw that it was natural for Helen to be as interested in her own cousin as in the sister of Louis Van Quellin.
The young man continued to dwell on his grievance.
"Helen is already late—over a week. She is delaying in Paris to buy things for this girl."
"Well," suggested M. de Montmorin, "it is as well for the young woman to be properly equipped."
"I shall soon," said Jeanne de Montmorin, "be able to tell you whether she is a person easily disposed of or not—"
If these three people discussing Pauline so earnestly could have known what she was doing at that precise moment their uneasiness would have been considerably increased.
Pauline was shopping in Paris; but it was not the kind of shopping that Van Quellin or the Montmorins thought of Helen had been telling her about Cornelia, and Pauline, on that late October evening was in the English bookshop in the Rue Rivoli, buying a book by Mrs. Falaise, a book on faith healing.
HELEN and Pauline motored to Marli on a November day of thin white mist; a violent gale had stripped the trees a week before, and only one leaf lingered here and there, like a bright sequin on the bare boughs.
The very last flowers were over in the garden of the Château Montmorin, only the box borders and the clipped evergreen showed a sombre life among the bare beds and dull damp grass; the rigid grace of the château rose through a faint vapour, like the dim outline of the castle that adorns the end of a fairy tale.
Servants and baggage had come by train; there was a maid and considerable luggage for Pauline; the Montmorins glanced at each other and at Van Quellin.
It seemed that this parasite was already firmly established; Van Quellin was stung by a sense of the ridiculous.
"She won't know how to behave—it will be a kitchen maid en masquerade!"
He was there as the motor-car stopped at the terrace steps; Helen alighted first, an unchanged, delightful Helen in furs and veils, full of smiles and quick words of pleasure and affection.
Behind her came another, a taller, more beautiful, more imposing woman—Pauline Fermor.
Her borrowed plumes became her well; there was no need to fear the absurd or the grotesque in connection with her; she stood composed on the lower step before these three friends who were her enemies; it did not appear even that she was going to trouble to be very civil; she accepted Helen's nervous introductions in a silence, only half smiling; at Louis Van Quellin she did not even glance.
As the three women went into the house the two men lingered on the terrace; both watched with a feeling of premonition the tall figure of the stranger cross the threshold.
"Hateful," murmured M. de Montmorin.
Van Quellin agreed.
"She's beautiful," he said grimly.
"That makes it worse. More difficult."
Van Quellin did not reply to this; he repeated:
"But she is beautiful."
"I did not notice her so much," announced the old man loyally. "I was looking at Helen."
"You had not seen her before," remarked Van Quellin. "I thought her coarse, rather plain, sluttish—"
"Ah, Helen has clever dressmakers—but she is detestable, this Pauline."
"Detestable," agreed Van Quellin, "but you can't treat a beautiful woman the same as an ordinary one—"
"That is what I mean—it accounts for her self assurance, of course, too."
Later they both spoke to Jeanne de Montmorin in the terrace drawing-room before either of the cousins had come down to dinner.
"She is perfectly well behaved," Madame de Montmorin reported, "very cautious, watching all the time, learning very quickly."
"What do you think of her?" frowned Van Quellin. "Really?"
"I'm surprised. She would be difficult to place. Not a gentlewoman of course—but not common. So extremely self-confident."
"Like an actress," added M. de Montmorin. "That is the type—I dislike her," he added firmly.
"I also," said his wife, "but she is not to be despised. She's handsome and she's clever, and probably heartless."
They none of them dwelt much on the beauty of Pauline, that was a fact too discomposing, too startling, too unpalatable.
In their world a beautiful woman was an event, something notable, to be cherished and approved; beauty among these people was a power not easily to be disregarded; and it was abominable to them that this woman possessed this power.
"But how is it possible," asked M. de Montmorin, "that this Miss Fermor has lived in obscurity so long? That she has been content to endure the life she has lived?"
"Helen," Van Quellin reminded him, "was her first chance—she isn't the type to impress the kind of people who formed her surroundings."
But he remained himself troubled by Pauline, by her transformation, by the impression of power she gave him; when she came into the room he could not but admire her courage, however reluctantly.
After all, she was in an odious position, she must know the hostility of her host and hostess, his own resentment of her presence; she was aware, too, that all here knew of her history, of her dependence on her cousin's charity, yet she bore herself with a tranquil air and there was neither humility nor cringing in her glance.
And she was beautiful.
Helen, so slender, so delicious, with the light curls overflowing the high comb, her piquant irregular face, her delicate gown, ivory with bouquets of flowers in pale silks; adorable Helen herself was eclipsed by Pauline, who looked like an odalisque by Ingres.
As M. de Montmorin had known, she had been taken to clever dressmakers; what he did not know but was soon to find out was that she was extremely quick and shrewd and possessed instinctive good taste and sure judgment.
In this setting of dark tones and veiled lights she looked superb; her figure was lovely, her bare arms and shoulders were magnificent, the plain lines of the dull coloured gown showed cunningly the curves of her long grace; her hair, so remarkable in the even dead tint, was wound smoothly round her head; her tint was a warm amber in this light; her only jewels were a pair of orange topaz earrings, Helen's impulsive gift, that nearly touched the warm slope of her shoulders.
She was very quiet, very alert, watching, learning; the Montmorins conducted themselves towards her with an almost exaggerated courtesy; Van. Quellin took no notice of her at all.
But he was, during the length of the first distasteful meal he had taken in this house, painfully, acutely aware of her presence, and of Helen's forced spirits and artificial gaiety.
"How is it possible," he was thinking, "for this to continue?"
After dinner Helen, despite the cold dreary night, must go over to see Cornelia; Van Quellin, partly to punish her and partly because he did not want to speak to her alone while he was still so angry, did not accompany her; he would go over to Beaudesert, he said, when she returned.
This left him with Pauline and the Montmorins; there was no excuse to avoid the stranger; the breeding of Jeanne de Montmorin forced her to exquisite hospitality towards a guest, especially towards one beneath her own rank; Van Quellin was obliged to make one of a circle of four round the huge fire.
None of the usual evening diversions were suggested, neither music, nor cards, nor reading, nor discussion of their own world, since it was obvious that Pauline could not join in any of these; but Jeanne de Montmorin brought out a book of water-colour paintings of flowers and showed them to her guest, while the old man explained how and where he had grown these blooms and the pleasure the artist had taken in making what he called these "portraits."
Pauline sat on a low couch with the book on her knee, her host and hostess either side of her. Van Quellin was opposite, with the light behind him, looking at her and hating her, hating her for being beautiful, more beautiful than Helen.
She appeared to take but a languid interest in the book, and answered, when she was forced to answer, in a distracted fashion.
"What is to be done with her?" Van Quellin was thinking. "With an appearance like that—"
"When will Helen come back?" asked Pauline suddenly; the sentence rang sharply into his reflections.
"Not till late, I expect. Cornelia has not seen her for some time—and is sure to keep her—you must not wait for her, Miss Fermor, if you are tired; we are early people in the country here—"
"I'm not in the least tired," replied Pauline clearly. "I'm very strong—I'm used to hard work and disturbed nights."
Van Quellin spoke to her directly for the first time.
"I daresay you will find idleness pall on you, Miss Fermor."
"I am not going to be idle." She looked at him straight and spoke in the same distinct tone. "I've a great deal to learn."
"Ah, yes," put in M. de Montmorin gently. "We all have always much to learn."
Pauline glanced at him and faintly smiled.
"But what I want to learn you all know already," she replied.
It was difficult to answer, this abominable frankness; Van Quellin's lip quivered with an expression of challenge; Jeanne de Montmorin with an instinctive horror of a social gaffe, tried desperately to talk about the flowers that she had felt to be such a safe and neutral subject.
But Pauline firmly closed the book and put it beside her on the sofa.
"Of course, you must all dislike me very much," she said resolutely. "I should like to explain myself—to all of you."
But it was at Van Quellin alone that she looked.
Madame de Montmorin was still desirous of covering everything up with courtesy, of passing the moment over with her social tact, but her husband said gently:
"Yes, perhaps if mademoiselle explains a little we shall all be better friends."
Van Quellin's whole figure quickened with interest; it was to him one of those rare moments when the indolent half sleepiness of life seems to cease, and a sense of alert excited wakefulness animates the soul. What Pauline had said was commonplace, but it had given him a moment of vision; in the sombre figure of the beautiful woman looking at him he was aware of passion, of tragedy, strong, vital and impelling, he was conscious of those emotions usually so carefully concealed, so seldom provoked—love and hate.
"Mr. Van Quellin is going to marry Helen," continued Pauline slowly, "and you are her great friends—who have asked me here—I met several of Helen's friends in London and Paris. Of course they all hated me."
Jeanne de Montmorin picked up a parchment fan painted with wreaths of gay blossoms and held it between her face and the blaze of the fire.
"No, mademoiselle," she said quietly, "we don't any of us hate you—you must not deal in words like that—"
"I daresay," replied Pauline, "that I don't use the right words; all I know I learnt from books, old-fashioned books. But I daresay," she added with amazing boldness, "you understand what I mean, just the same, all of you being such clever people."
"I think," remarked M. de Montmorin evenly, "mademoiselle must make herself even clearer—"
Pauline addressed herself to the young man.
"But Mr. Van Quellin doesn't speak? And he is rather important—since he is to marry Helen."
Van Quellin smiled; he was relishing the moment.
"I will deliver judgment when Miss Fermor has stated her case."
Pauline slightly threw back her head, it was a modification of the gesture with which she had left them, Helen and her lover, standing in her yard while she snapped the scullery door in their faces.
"I'm as well born as Helen," she remarked. "Her mother was only a tradesman's daughter; we're neither of us aristocrats—"
Jeanne de Montmorin quietly interrupted, while the delicate fan trembled in her frail hand.
"We don't talk about those things; we don't use those terms—"
"No, but you think them," replied Pauline with her slow smile. "All the time, don't you? You must have discussed me, quite a lot—and it's bothered you that I was poor and common and sponging on Helen—"
"And suppose it has?" took up Van Quellin swiftly. "What would your answer be, Miss Fermor?"
Pauline showed now a deeper animation, or, rather, a less austere repression, as if she was delighted to have roused this formidable adversary.
"I wanted to tell you, that's better, isn't it, than whispering behind each other's backs? To begin with, I'm not afraid of you, all the tricks that make you different from me I can soon learn; they're even easier than I thought. I'm not stupid and I'm not plain; all lever lacked was the money."
"Do you think you have a right to Helen's money?" asked Louis bluntly.
"Helen thinks so—Helen believes that she can't do enough to make up—I put it fairly to her as I'm putting it to you, and she believes that she can't do too much for me."
"But Helen," protested Jeanne de Montmorin, "is generous to weakness—impulsive—rash—"
"Helen," persisted Pauline, "wants to do a great deal for me—she has promised to treat me as an equal—"
"But you must see that Helen is most imprudently lavish, most recklessly warm-hearted!" cried M. de Montmorin.
Pauline half turned her superb head towards him.
"Well, isn't that my luck?"
Jeanne de Montmorin trembled with anger; it was one of the rare occasions of her gracious life when she felt at a social loss—confronted by a mental impasse.
But Van Quellin said gravely:
"I think it very kind of Miss Fermor to be so explicit."
"Not kind," replied Pauline. "I know you can make it terribly difficult for me, almost impossible. I'm trying to explain myself. We were equals, Helen and I—Helen had all the luck, some people try to make amends to some under dog for having all the luck—Helen is like that."
So she had found out that, had she? Put her finger accurately on this tender weakness of her cousin's character.
Van Quellin regarded her with his pale hostile eyes narrowed.
"My one bit of luck," continued Pauline, "has been finding Helen like that; she wants to give me all the things I want, and I want to take them."
Even Van Quellin was silenced by the bold simplicity of this.
Pauline rose, with a restless movement.
"Of course you know that I've had nothing. And that it wasn't my fault."
Van Quellin rose and stood beside her; they were just of a height.
"Supposing my father had discovered the Fermor brake system?" she added with bold carelessness.
"I shouldn't talk of that if I were you," suggested Louis softly.
She was not daunted, though he could see her lovely throat throbbing, her full lips quivering.
"It is all a matter of chance," she said. "Don't be too sure of chance, Mr. Van Quellin."
"Aren't you rather presuming on your influence over Helen?"
"No. Helen will stand by me."
"Of course," he replied elaborately, "I have no direct control over your cousin till we are married, but that is only a question of a few months—"
"Oh, I may be married before Helen," she answered astonishingly; she glanced now at the other two, at the bowed figure of the old man who had also risen and at the disconsolate droop of his wife, who remained on the satin sofa, holding her forlorn little fan before the now failing flame.
"I hope that you will all leave me alone," she added slowly. "I shan't worry you, nor get in your way, nor abuse Helen's kindness—if you let me alone—"
"Eh, mademoiselle!" cried Jeanne de Montmorin, pricked into answer. "You threaten us as if you had pretensions to magic. What could you do that would annoy or worry us?"
Pauline gazed at her with a certain eagerness.
"I read a story once of a woman who got tremendous power—over a queen—and they asked her what magic she had used—and she said, 'only the magic of the influence of a strong mind over a weak one.'"
"That was the Marâchale de Concini," said Van Quellin instantly. "And she was burnt as a witch."
Pauline gave him a look of cool insolence.
"Aren't you sorry that burning witches has gone out of fashion? Now I'll go to bed, and you can talk about me, and see if you are going to be friends or not."
She gave a brief good-night to her host and hostess; Van Quellin opened the door for her; as she passed him she bent her fine head in a queer sort of humble salutation, quite at variance with her former manner.
"What courage!" exclaimed M. de Montmorin.
"The courage of the gamine," said his wife, who was deeply angry, "of the street corner—"
"But still courage," agreed Van Quellin; there was an unusual colour in his face and his eyes glittered.
"Just think of it—defying us on our own ground—everything strange to her—think what that must have meant—"
"Bah!" cried Jeanne de Montmorin, "the impudence of a washerwoman—I ought to ask her to leave my house."
"Helen would go with her—after all, she has checkmated us very neatly—she has stated her position," argued Van Quellin, "and that she means to keep it."
"She must have a considerable hold on Helen to be quite so bold," remarked M. de Montmorin grimly, while his wife declared:
"I shall take no notice of her whatever, and I shall speak most seriously to Helen. The situation is preposterous."
But Van Quellin smiled; he seemed pleased about something.
"I shall enjoy mastering that woman," he remarked with a glance at the clock, "and now I must go and fetch Helen—Cornelia will have had enough excitement by now."
When he left the room the Montmorins looked at each other in dismay.
"He actually admires her," murmured the lady. "Isn't it grotesque?"
"Admires her? That sulky devil? Impossible!"
"His eyes were never away from her—she is tremendously clever; as he says, she has really silenced us all—but I could bear anything if Louis didn't admire her."
"What did she mean about very likely getting married before Helen?" asked M. de Montmorin with sudden sharpness.
"I don't know." They stared at each other with increasing dismay as they visualised the possibility of an abominable eventuality.
HELEN had particularly dreaded the meeting between Cornelia and Pauline; she used artless expedients to prevent this and did actually postpone it for several days; the more easily as Pauline evinced not the slightest desire to visit the invalid, about whom she had shown herself so curious in Paris.
But Cornelia persistently asked about Helen's new-found cousin; she was always eager for any novelty, and she persuaded both Helen and Louis to repeat to her several times what she considered the romantic story of Pauline. She also, with her childish directness, speared Helen with sharp questions.
"Is your cousin coming to Funchal with us? What is going to happen to her? Will she live with us at Paradys? Do you like her?"
Madame St. Luc had no answer to any of these questions; she was conscious that by introducing Pauline among these people she had suspended their plans, even, perhaps rendered them chaotic; she was sure that Louis would not wish Pauline to go to Madeira, and she did not know what else to do with her cousin, who, sombre and reserved, waited silently in the midst of the unpleasant tension her presence created.
On a morning of bitter mist, the still trees full of sodden and decayed leaves showing immobile shapes through the mournful vapour and the swans huddled against the dripping rankness of the grass overhanging the stagnant pond, Pauline came to see Cornelia.
The warmth, colour and extravagant luxury of Cornelia's rooms were delicious to Pauline after the shivering walk across the chill park; she had found the Montmorins home rather austere and stiff; this exotic over-emphasis of beauty and wealth pleased her far more than the fine quiet taste of the French patricians.
Cornelia startled her; this girl with the long curved throat, the mass of coarse rippling hair, the monstrous eyes, pearly pallor and full brilliant lips, so lavishly dressed, at once imperious and childish in manner, was a new type for Pauline Fermor.
And the tall Englishwoman with her grand air and abrupt speech and intense, almost brutal vitality, her direct sombre beauty, was a new type for Cornelia.
They looked at each other with curiosity, not unmingled with distaste.
"You're not a bit like Helen," said Cornelia.
"There's no reason why I should be," replied Pauline. "Our fathers weren't alike either."
"Sit down and talk," said the sick girl.
Pauline sat close to the fire of orange and bay wood that filled the chamber with aromatic perfume.
"I haven't much to talk about, I'm afraid—not to a fortunate person like yourself," she answered.
"Fortunate?" echoed Cornelia incredulously; she was totally used to being an object of passionate loving commiseration. "What do you mean by saying that lam fortunate?"
"To me you are," smiled Pauline.
"But don't you see that lam an invalid? I've always been like this."
"Oh, I daresay you're not so ill as people think—you've been fearfully fussed over, haven't you?" remarked Pauline bluntly. "I've lived roughly, and I've seen those worse than you having to shift for themselves."
Cornelia listened eagerly; with all the reed of affection, sympathy and admiration she received no one ever discussed her personality with her, or allowed her to talk of herself, her own emotions and thoughts.
"Yes, I believe sometimes there is too much fuss," she answered. "I get so tired of the doctor and the nurses—I even get tired of Louis, always looking sad and anxious. But lam astonishingly better. I shall soon be quite well."
"I think you'd be quite well sooner without all this bother," said Pauline. "If your brother hadn't had so much money I daresay you would have been a stronger girl."
Her tone was one of great intimacy, and Cornelia, far from resenting this, did not even notice it; she was too entranced by this new and startling point of view.
"If you could get away from all this atmosphere of sickness," added Pauline, paraphrasing Mrs. Falaise, "you would be better at once; why everyone is always reminding you that you are ill."
Cornelia repeated the pathetic fallacy with which she had been beguiled for years.
"And, of course, I'm not really ill, only delicate."
"Of course," said Pauline; and in her hard shrewdness, her robust contempt of all weakness, and her profound ignorance of any disease save that which she had watched devour her mother, she did really think that Cornelia was being foolishly pampered and shut up and probably was no worse than more sickly girls she used to see in Clifton Street, up and about and even working.
Judging doctors and nurses by herself, she dismissed their opinions as those of paid sycophants. Helen she regarded as a complete fool, and Louis as the dupe of these others and of his own remorse; and from the very specious and well-written work by Mrs. Falaise she had picked up a good deal of superficial knowledge of spiritual healing; to her nature, not in the least spiritual, it was all nonsense, but as good nonsense as the doctors for a silly creature like this girl.
So she expounded, with considerable cleverness, the doctrines she had learnt from Mrs. Falaise to the eager straining attention of Cornelia until the nurse entered.
Pauline knew that the nurse had disliked her at sight.
She turned abruptly to the tulip wood table beside Cornelia's chair.
"What is that, what a lovely thing!"
"A reliquary," replied Cornelia. "Louis has just bought it for me—there is a lock of hair inside that crystal; we call her Santa Ignota."
"Who was she?" asked Pauline.
"Oh, it isn't a name—I suppose in English you would say—Saint Unknown."
"You see lam very ignorant," said Pauline. "There are a lot of things you could teach me, if you would."
Cornelia's eyes sparkled with pleasure; never before had she been able to be of any service to anyone.
"I don't know much, but of course it would be delightful," she responded.
Pauline had taken in her hand the reliquary, that was of pure gold set with jewels and antique cameos.
"That's a strange sensation for me," she said, "to hold this—"
"Because of the relic? Are you also a Roman Catholic?" asked Cornelia innocently.
"No. Because of the gold and jewels—I never touched anything like this before—fancy having a thing like that in your hand!"
Awe, delight and greed showed in her intent face as she gazed at the gorgeous object she held. Cornelia was pleased at this appreciation.
"Louis has some wonderful things—you ought to see Paradys, it really is a beautiful place."
"What a queer name," remarked Pauline smiling.
"It is our name you know—in Belgium most people call him Louis Van Paradys; it is because it was so wonderful, years ago, really a Paradise, or what they thought a Paradise then—"
"Miss Van Quellin," put in the nurse gently, marking the girl's flushed cheeks and sparkling eyes, "it will never do for you to get excited, which you will do, talking so much."
Pauline rose instantly.
But Cornelia said impatiently:
"Please stay—I want to tell you about Paradys."
Pauline replaced the reliquary.
"It must be wonderful, of course. I wonder you don't live there."
"Louis will be there this winter while we are in Funchal."
"I'd rather be there too, if I were you," said Pauline slightly. "Why go to Funchal?"
The nurse answered:
"It is the best climate for Miss Van Quellin. Belgium is very cold till May at least."
Cornelia received this interruption with obvious irritation.
"I'm very fond of Paradys," she remarked, "and I really would rather be there with Louis—are you going to Madeira?" she added abruptly.
"I don't think there is much chance."
"Helen would ask you, of course."
"Well, I don't want to go."
Cornelia looked disappointed; her simple emotions showed clearly in her guileless face.
"But you'll come and see me soon again?" she asked eagerly.
"Oh, yes, as often as you like—but it is for you to decide that; you must have so many friends, I haven't any."
"And all Helen's friends."
"They don't like me. You could hardly expect them to—I'm an outsider, you know."
Cornelia looked puzzled, and the nurse irritated; secretly she had called Pauline, despite her quiet exterior, "flashy" and "up to no good"; and she considered this last remark as in obvious bad taste; but Cornelia, puzzled, was sorry for Pauline.
She looked at the cold wreaths of vapour muffling the motionless trees without, and the weary boredom to which she was for so short a time a stranger dismally approached; Pauline had been a rare, an exhilarating diversion, and Pauline was going away—"chased away," thought Cornelia with a vexed glance at the nurse.
"Why didn't Helen bring you?" she asked pettishly.
"I asked to come alone—I thought I'd get to know you better alone."
"What a wretched day!"
"There will be sunshine in Funchal," said the nurse quickly.
"But it will be a very invalidish sort of life," was Pauline's bold comment, "a sort of colony of sick people, and doctors and nurses."
"I don't think that I want to go," murmured the girl. "If we went to Paradys would you come too?"
"If I was asked to Paradys I'd come," answered Pauline, regardless of the nurse's glance of dislike. "I should like to see your place—to be with you there."
"Would you?" Cornelia was flattered.
"Yes, but now I must go. Nurse is looking very cross, and will soon turn me out, I know."
"I was thinking of it, Miss Fermor," replied that individual crisply. "There has been too much talk already."
Pauline thought: "Afraid of losing a soft job, aren't you?" and her eyes said this as her gaze flickered over the nurse.
She gave a brief good-bye to Cornelia and left the room, leaving behind her excitement, interest and discontent.
The Madeira plan seemed to her absurd; she did not, either, relish being shut up in a hotel with Helen, this sick girl and doctors, nurses and servants; Louis Van Quellin was the only one among these people in whom she felt any personal interest, and he would not be there; it would all be very comfortable and luxurious no doubt, and Helen would be very kind and sweet, but Pauline's turbulent and sombre spirit wanted something more than comfort and luxury, and cared nothing for anyone's kindness and sweetness.
LOUIS showed Helen some drawings of the Pavilion at Paradys, the Pavilion that was to be finished for their marriage in April. There was a tender little history attached to this Pavilion.
Some years ago Helen had seen an old water-colour in faded bistres and blackish greens showing Le Pavilion sur l'Eau at Paradys, Het Slot Paradys or Het Huis Quellin, as these old drawings were always described in the double inscriptions of French and Dutch beneath.
She had liked the rigid grace of the classic building rising against the curled trees and was sorry that it had been destroyed, burnt down, nearly fifty years ago, through an overturned lamp.
For, after all, this coquettish temple had been largely of wood.
And Louis had said that he would build it for her again, this time in marble, and she could fill it with the citrons and myrtles from the orangery and take her coffee there on a summer day.
Helen knew, though he had never said so, that this magnificent gift was meant as a wedding present, for he had declared that she and no possible other, was to be the first to enter it, and that the key was to be always hers, so that she might exclude whom she would.
Now, when he showed her these drawings, in the terrace room of the Montmorins, she felt shy, for their relations had been slightly embarrassed since the coming of Pauline, and she believed that he was endeavouring to please her before asking her to give way on the subject of her cousin.
"They are very beautiful, Louis," she said meekly. "You have taken a lot of trouble."
"To please you."
"I am pleased." Her smile was pleading; she saw the opening she had given him.
"And will you please me now?" He used his advantage remorselessly, looking at her in a manner that impelled her to look at him, though she did so with confusion and reluctance. "Will you send away your cousin Pauline?"
"I thought that you admired her."
"I do. Do you want me to admire her?"
"Yes, of course."
"Well, I do. I think that what she is doing she is doing extremely well—she has some excellent qualities."
Helen did not like his inflexion and flushed.
"She need not get in your way, Louis."
"I don't want her to get in yours—do you mean to take her to Funchal with you?"
Again Helen evaded.
"Cornelia doesn't seem to want to go to Funchal; she would prefer Paradys—but I don't know what Dr. Henriot says."
"I'm going to ask him. Cornelia told me that she had changed her mind. I think she is getting tired of Madame Fisher and of nurse. Your cousin," he added with meaning, "is very much with her."
"Cornelia is growing up," murmured Helen, "and so much the better—I daresay she feels too many people about her."
Van Quellin ignored this.
"Well, if you went to Madeira, did you mean to take Miss Fermor?"
"I suppose I did, Louis; since Cornelia likes her, I don't see any objection."
Helen, restless at this pressure, answered distractedly.
"Oh, Louis, one can't plan so long ahead in a thing like this! Something will come along."
"We are to be married in April," he reminded her briefly.
Thus cornered, Helen said, helplessly:
"What do you advise, Louis; what do you exactly want me to do?"
"Get rid of her," he replied at once. "Settle an income on her, arrange with Holt about the payment of it, give her any present you like and pack her off."
Helen smiled faintly.
"Can you really see me doing that?"
"No, I don't say I can, but I'll do it for you."
Helen shook the graceful head bent over the drawings of Le Pavilion sur l'Eau.
"That wouldn't be fair."
"Then you really mean to allow this woman to live with you, with us, indefinitely?"
"I can't see," said Helen simply, "anything else to do. It isn't money that Pauline wants—but well, countenance, a friend, a relation, a home; there are just the two of us, you see, and I do feel a strong obligation towards her—"
Helen, more and more oppressed by this antagonism, laboured to explain herself; she tried to show Pauline as a sad cheated figure, the fool of circumstances, and to explain, without throwing the least shade of discredit on the dead, that her father's abandonment of these two women, no matter after what provocation, had, by her, to be in some way atoned for; or, supposing that Maria Fermor had made all effort to help her impossible, there was no need, for this reason, to wreak vengeance on Pauline.
Whichever way you looked at the case, argued Helen, Pauline was an innocent victim—and think how she must have suffered—a lifetime in the squalid house, looking after a blind, half-crazy woman, counting the pence, doing hard manual labour!
Louis was not impressed, had never intended to be impressed, of course, by anything that Helen said.
An adequate allowance, he declared, would cover all obligations to Pauline; there were plenty of families where she could stay till she married or found "something to do."
Helen looked beyond the firelit room to the dank mist that hung over the chill park without; she did not care to look at Louis when he had that cold, imperious expression on the face she knew and loved so well; it seemed to her as absurd that Louis could not see the pathos of Pauline, as it seemed to him absurd that she could not see the folly of her impulsive generosity; both were aware of this conflict of their wills, this clash of their very spirits that went deeper than any words; Helen's gentleness was no nearer yielding than Louis's strength, and he perceived this firmness beneath her shrinking distress and called it blameable obstinacy.
"These people," he declared, "went far to break your father's heart, I believe. I can see by his face in that etching of yours that he wasn't a happy man."
"I don't like to think of him as unhappy," protested Helen.
"Well, I know about your uncle. He was a complete scoundrel—I couldn't go into details, when he was in partnership with your father, he nearly ruined the business, and when he was turned out he blackmailed. His wife was no better, Helen, you must have seen that for yourself."
"But all that has nothing to do with Pauline," murmured Helen.
"You re wrong—she comes from a bad stock, a poisonous environment, she is greedy, selfish, unscrupulous, untaught, untrained—and," he added unexpectedly, "beautiful—in a powerful fashion."
"She's clever too," said Helen, eagerly catching at this scrap of commendation. "She learns quickly and she isn't a bit afraid of anything."
"With all those qualifications," returned Louis dryly, "she ought to be able to do very well for herself." He looked at Helen, and added, more kindly: "No one likes her—you don't yourself, really."
Helen's candour could not resist this direct appeal.
"No, perhaps I really don't, Louis, but that is my fault. I'm spoilt with pleasant people—but I try to be fair, to see that Pauline is only what she was bound to be—from the life she has had."
"Well, will you send her off?"
Outwardly Helen hesitated, but she was only hesitating how to most pleasingly word a refusal.
"As long as she wants to stay I must let her, Louis. I promised, and I think it only just," she said at length. "Of course this is only for the present—later, if you still don't care about having her, I must think of something else."
Van Quellin sensed that this refusal was final, and he was deeply angry—angry because he had failed to achieve his object, and angry because Helen had dared to defy, resist and disobey him.
He did not believe that it was possible that Helen was actuated by such scrupulous nicety of feeling towards her cousin, he thought that she refused to give way out of a desire to resist him, to prove her will against his; in this he was altogether wrong; Helen's motives were of that pure purity and sincerity that is generally misjudged. She would much have preferred to have given in to Louis; to refuse him cost her considerable pain, and she would have been far happier if Pauline had decided to lead an independent life, far from her and her lover; but Helen thought it impossible to urge this decision on her cousin, her dependent, by as much as the gentlest hint.
"Well, this is an ungraceful argument," said Louis shortly. "I don't think you see the consequences of what you do—but no doubt they will be brought home to you in time."
It sounded, if not like a threat, at least like a withdrawal of his help and countenance, a harsh aloofness from her affairs.
Helen was humbly silent with her pain; it was not the first time that Louis had hurt her; she had often missed in him the praise which to her was such a joy, not because of vanity, but because of her constant doubt of herself, her constant fear of not deserving love, affection or admiration.
Too rare were his caresses, his kindnesses, too infrequent was his homage, and often he could be harsh.
Helen disliked these discussions with him; she was simple enough to think secretly, delicately that lovers should talk of little but love.
And here they jarred, for her idea of love was not that of her lover.
Van Quellin put up his drawings without any further spoken reproach; but Helen, glancing once at his face, glanced away again.
The damp cold from outside seemed to have invaded the room, and Helen drew closer over the fire.
DR. HENRIOt told Louis Van Quellin that he did not think his attendance on Cornelia any longer necessary; the girl had evinced a great reluctance to undertake the Funchal expedition, and a considerable distaste for her retinue of nurses and attendants; the severe crisis that threatened her that summer had passed, she was remarkably better, and there was really no reason why both her desires should not be indulged.
Thus Dr. Henriot, expounding his opinion with ease and courtesy, but with, Louis thought, a hint of reserve.
Louis plied him keenly with questions as to Cornelia's health; but, however amplified or disguised, the fiat was exactly the same always—"she is as well as she can hope to be—as she is ever likely to be."
Louis said bluntly:
"Has Miss Fermor anything to do with your decision, doctor?"
The doctor's reply was frank.
"Miss Fermor has to a great extent taken my place—Miss Van Quellin's sudden fancy for Miss Fermor—makes, you will understand, it very difficult for anyone else to have any influence with her—makes, in fact, my position—useless—for, as a medical man—there is little or nothing I can do. Of course, she should be continually seen by a doctor, and a nurse is desirable—"
Van Quellin interrupted abruptly.
"Is Miss Fermor having, or is she likely to have, a bad effect on my sister?"
"No." Dr. Henriot was emphatic. "Quite the opposite—Miss Van Quellin is happy, and that is of course, the great thing, to keep her interested and amused, and this lady seems able to do this."
"She does nothing to which you could take exception?"
"Absolutely nothing. I have found her patient, discreet and sensible. I should think she is used to being with an invalid. You may believe me," added the dry little man with a smile, "when I add that I do not altogether like Miss Fermor."
"Nurse doesn't. I've noticed that."
"Well, it is only natural. But we must think of your sister's point of view; if she prefers Miss Fermor to the rest of us, I don't think she should be thwarted."
"Madame Fisher won't like her either."
"She doesn't—but there again"—the doctor smiled—"it is your sister who must be considered. The more contented she is the better in health she should be—and anyone who is in the least an irritation to her should be removed."
"And there is no possible danger in this—letting up of your case?"
"No—both you and Madame St. Luc know the treatment—you should keep one efficient nurse and be within easy reach of a doctor."
"But this wish to go to Paradys?"
"Let her go—if she hated Funchal it wouldn't do her any good."
Louis, with a bitter sinking of the heart, thought there was something sinister in this resolve to allow Cornelia to do as she wished; as if, from the doctor's point of view, nothing much mattered, either way, in the case of one whose grasp on life was so frail, and likely to be so brief.
This conversation could not but increase his interest in Pauline and heighten his resentment against Helen.
If Helen had sent her cousin away at first, when he had asked it, Cornelia would not have been able to indulge this affection that it might now be perilous to interfere with; therefore Helen had put him in an awkward, a foolish position; Pauline would have to come to Paradys.
Louis condescended to thoughts of punishment for Helen.
Towards Pauline his feelings were not so unkind; he thought he knew why she had influenced Cornelia to wish to go to Paradys (Helen ought to have guessed this, it was a sign of lightness, indifference, or folly that she had not) and why she spent so much pains on Cornelia, and he had tried to act on this knowledge and be rid of her; but Helen had insisted that Pauline stayed.
And now he must let her stay and be revenged on Helen by merely tolerating Pauline and waiting.
He had never pretended to himself that Pauline was not beautiful and exciting in her queer downcast repression that was neither dull nor boring; she was always, this sombre woman whom everyone disliked, most pliant and humble towards him; he was not insensible of the flattery of that.
The Montmorins found themselves at once and completely outside this situation, the inbred Latin fastidiousness, the Latin definite knowledge of a definite art of life, the Latin culture was absolutely alien to, not only the frank crudity of Pauline's attitude, but to the pliant submission of Helen and the interested alertness with which Louis Van Quellin considered this intruder; his manner of avenging himself on Madame St. Luc by a bold admiration of her cousin, his rather brutal and disloyal holding of the balance between the two women alike repelled these two delicate observers.
The Montmorins were reminded that though both Louis and Helen were of their world, neither was of their race.
Louis was an aristocrat, and to a point, fine; "but a Fleming," remarked M. de Montmorin, "after all, a Fleming—you have the pedigree, but not the breed, au fond there is something brutal and coarse there to which this woman appeals; he hates her but he is interested."
"Helen will refuse to see it," regretted Helen's friend.
"Helen should never have brought the woman into her home, it was more than foolishness, it was a gaffe—it was underbred, it makes you aware of the middle class in Helen—"
"It was sheer goodness," pleaded Jeanne de Montmorin.
The old man shrugged his shoulders.
"Oh, goodness! Did you speak to her?" he added.
"Yes. I tried to be very fair, to see things on her level, but it is, as this Pauline boasted, the influence of a strong mind over—well, not a weak one, but a scrupulous, tender one. She has persuaded Helen that the utmost she can get is only her due, a sense of duty, a superstition of duty, is in Helen's blood. Pauline has her firmly on that one point. Helen doesn't like her, she only pretends to, she cried at last, under my reproaches, quite bitterly, but I could not move her."
"One is disappointed in Helen," remarked the old Count coldly.
But Jeanne de Montmorin still defended her friend; she was a woman who could see deeper than the depth of her own code; she realised that Helen must be abandoned, but realised it with infinite regret.
"It is she who is right really—the only one; all the rest of us are wrong. Goodness is the extraordinary thing—anyone could behave as Pauline Fermor is behaving, it is Helen who is remarkable. But behaviour, like that won't square with anything; you know she is right, but you can't support her—virtue is so often such bad taste."
"And Cornelia?" asked M. de Montmorin, "do you think Cornelia likes Miss Fermor?"
"She does; the woman has certainly some power, for Cornelia really likes her, likes her for her strength and vitality."
The old man smiled with full appreciation of the low cleverness of this adventuress.
"Then she has Helen through her generosity, Cornelia through her weakness—and Louis—"
"And Louis," finished his wife quietly, "through possessing precisely what he has always missed in Helen—she will rouse in him, and hold him through all that Helen did not know of in his character."
M. de Montmorin made a movement of washing his hands.
"Eh," he said, "we will return to Paris; this journey to Madeira is being postponed, but we will not keep our house open for the convenience of Miss Pauline Fermor."
When Jeanne de Montmorin told Helen that she was closing the château at the end of the month Helen perfectly understood her meaning, and kissed her sadly.
"You have been very patient," she murmured. "Of course you have disliked it intensely—"
"I dislike seeing you victimised," retorted Jeanne de Montmorin. "I dislike this young woman; she is very handsome and very clever, but you will never get people to tolerate her—the people who like you, I mean, Helen."
"I suppose not," admitted Madame St. Luc reluctantly, "but," she added with her devastating honesty, "she is really more of my milieu than—these people who have been so kind to me."
The Frenchwoman did not contradict this; she said, wistfully, "Are you going to abandon us all, Helen?"
Madame St. Luc's pretty smile quivered.
"I suppose between Cornelia and Pauline and Louis I shall lead rather a remote life."
"Is Louis going to put up with her?"
"Louis has been very good." Helen was evasive and it was very notable when the candid Helen was evasive. "I'm afraid he doesn't care for Pauline, but she doesn't really interfere with him much."
Jeanne de Montmorin glanced at her with deep anxiety.
"Are you going to Madeira?"
"Cornelia does not seem to wish to—it is no use taking her against her will."
"Where are you going for the winter, then?"
"I don't quite know. Cornelia will decide, of course, probably to Paradys."
"Oh, to Beaudesert."
"Louis is agreeable?" insisted Jeanne de Montmorin, "to—having Miss Fermor in his house?"
"Agreeable? I don't know," replied Helen sadly, "but he allows me to bring her; Cornelia likes her, you see, that makes such a difference."
Madame de Montmorin shook her head.
"Oh, Helen, Helen, you are making such a mistake, such a terrible mistake."
"Indeed, you are very prejudiced, Jeanne," replied Madame St. Luc faintly. "I don't find Pauline at all impossible—she is even a kind of companion for me, a sort of balance to Cornelia—"
"But need you sacrifice yourself for either Cornelia or Pauline? Mon Dieu! if I were in your place I should cut away from all three of them."
"All three?" echoed Helen, bewildered.
But the elder woman would not explain herself beyond "Louis is a tyrant, too."
Helen knew that she was being abandoned, knew that Madame de Montmorin's attitude would be that of all those friends she had made since her marriage to Etienne St. Luc; they would consider her degraded by her protection of Pauline; Helen was surprised, a little annoyed, but she submitted without any sensation of being in the wrong, only with the feeling that these people had never really been at one with her or her world, but only pleasant acquaintances; when a crisis arose, Helen, of good middle English stock, must, for all her grace and finish, think differently from French aristocrats.
Jeanne de Montmorin saw the look of pain and regret in Helen's gentle eyes.
"I think you are right, but I can't stand by you," she said wistfully.
It was now Helen who shook her head.
"That is too fine for me," she answered.
"It is too fine for me," countered Madame de Montmorin, "that you don't like what you do, that you see the evil consequences of what you do, and yet you persist in it simply because of some puritanical abstract idea of right."
By the end of that week, when Pauline had been a fortnight at Marli, the Montmorins had left for Paris and the cousins had taken up their residence at Beaudesert.
Full winter had now set in, not cold, but bleak and arid, the mists of autumn had congealed into chill fogs, and Marli seemed deserted and isolated.
But Cornelia persisted in her refusal to go to Madeira. She dreaded the journey, she disliked what she had heard of the place—she longed for Paradys—she was homesick for Paradys.
"I can't quite see why you have changed so," argued Helen. "Why not wait and go to Paradys in April, when it will be warmer?"
"Louis is going to Paradys for the winter; I want to be with Louis," replied the sick girl peevishly.
"You did not feel that before," suggested Helen gently. "I think it would be so much better if you came to Madeira."
"Pauline would like to go to Paradys—"
"Pauline!" echoed Helen; then said no more.
That evening she asked Louis if he really intended to take them all to Paradys with him.
"Cornelia seems to want to go," she added in her soft, slightly amazed way. "I don't understand."
"Don't you?" asked Van Quellin sharply. "Pauline Fermor has persuaded her—your cousin wants to go to Belgium."
"But if it is not for Cornelia's good—"
"Oh, I think Cornelia can please herself, she is much stronger, and your cousin, Helen, has a good effect on her."
Helen felt that he was trying to be cruel; lately she had discovered that he could be very cruel; a dim estrangement chilled their love; Helen, groping in the dusk, laid hold simply of the old honours, pity, loyalty, truth, and clung to them with timid steadfastness.
PAULINE FERMOR was like the pebble thrown into a quiet pool, which remains motionless while all the water is agitated into endless movement; so she, while so profoundly affecting the lives of those with whom she had come so suddenly and violently into contact, remained unchanged, inactive, withdrawn into herself.
She did not intrude herself upon Helen, and Louis she only saw briefly, and in the company of others. Much of her day was passed in solitude, either in her room or walking about the wintry roads and very often she was with Cornelia; she appeared to have made no effort to woo or flatter the sick girl, and for that very reason had acquired an influence over this weak, suffering and frail nature, into whose enervated existence she bore down with a certain magnificence of bitter careless strength that was like a pungent flavour to Cornelia, after the long cloying sweetness of petting and caressing that had hitherto composed her pointless days.
All Helen's patient administrations, all Louis' almost abject devotion, did not please Cornelia as much as this handsome, vivid personality, who spoke to her in such direct and vigorous tones of such queer events; the acrid little anecdotes of Clifton Street, told with a dry contempt, had a peculiar zest to the secluded girl almost sickened by delicacy and tenderness.
Helen had been surprised by this preference on the part of Cornelia and much relieved; a Cornelia hostile to Pauline would have made the difficult situation impossible.
It was all rather amazing to Helen that Pauline should have the patience to sit so long in a sick room and should trouble to be at such pains to please and amuse a person who could be of no great interest to her; she said as much to her cousin the day they moved to Beaudesert.
"I am afraid that this is going to be rather dull for you, Pauline. It seems that we shall not go to Madeira, after all, but to Belgium, as Cornelia has taken a whim to go to Paradys—I don't think," she added with her sensitive altruism, "that this is the life you wanted; after all you have been through, I could arrange, if you liked, for you to go to London or Paris this winter."
Pauline could read the sincerity of this offer; though Helen might have secretly preferred to be rid of her, she did not speak from any such motive, and Pauline answered with equal frankness:
"No, I would rather stay with you—no one you could introduce me to would endure me—yet. I'm resting, and I'm learning—that's all I want at present."
"It is rather dull," smiled Helen wistfully. "We shall meet very few people at Paradys."
"I don't want to meet people—can't you understand being so tired that it is heavenly to sit still?"
Helen was still bewildered, though always in her kind and gentle fashion.
"But it seemed to me, Pauline, that you wanted something very different from this—you'll get nothing of what—you've missed—at Paradys."
Pauline abruptly turned her face away, but answered steadily:
"I'm quite content."
"And then you are with Cornelia so much—that must be wearisome for you, who have had illness all your life."
"That is no burden," smiled Pauline. "Cornelia teaches me a great deal."
Helen said no more; she felt that her cousin was inflexible, that she would always do as she liked and that if she elected to live this life she must really want to live it; Helen could not understand Pauline nor Pauline's preference, nor could she see clearly whether or no her cousin had influenced Cornelia to abandon the winter's plans, nor if she had, why? surely it would have been more amusing for Pauline at Madeira than at Paradys?
Helen, baffled, stepped aside and made no further attempt to argue with Pauline or Cornelia; Louis had gone to Paris for a few days and Helen was much alone, for the little household had suddenly diminished. Dr. Henriot, who had been willing to accompany his patient to Madeira, found himself utterly unable to go to Paradys, he told Helen. Madame Fisher, the gouvernante, who had been with Cornelia for ten years, suddenly announced herself called upon to keep house for a widowed brother during an indefinite period, and Nurse Parkins, the extremely able and trustworthy Englishwoman, decided that she had been abroad long enough and must find a post at home during the winter.
So swift an exodus on the part of these people who had seemed so devoted and permanent a part of the establishment, gave Helen a sense of panic; there was a savour almost of conspiracy about so unanimous a resolution.
But from none of the three was anything to be gained save polite excuses and formal regrets; Van Quellin seemed indifferent, and Cornelia ungratefully declared herself pleased to be rid of three people of whom she was weary.
But Helen felt a genuine pang at seeing these kind, familiar figures depart, and an emphasis of that sensation of desertion she had experienced on seeing the Montmorins leave.
Pauline made no comment, but Helen knew that she had disliked these people, and must be glad that they were gone, and Helen feared secretly that it was because of Pauline that they had gone; a nightmarish feeling this, to be kept at bay in the day, but unconquerable in the dark heart of the night when Helen lay awake assailed by the memory of tangled dreams.
A feeling that this Pauline was an incubus, of dreadful power, never to be banished, clinging with claws and teeth, driving away with baleful looks, all the allies of her victim, that she might settle down with fatal relish, to the gorging of her prey.
A nightmare, of course, to be laughed at in the day as a thing childishly absurd, yet a nightmare that ever lurked in the shadows, waiting for Helen.
The Sunday after Nurse Parkins had left, Helen and the remaining nurse had gone to church; it was Pauline's first intimation of the fact that both were Roman Catholics. The nurse was a Frenchwoman of a conscientious but timid character, a good underling to the Englishwoman, but ineffective now she was in sole charge; in three days Pauline had dominated in the sick room, and now she suggested to Cornelia that this nurse Felice was unnecessary.
"You don't want her, Cornelia—your maid can do all you need. You've been fussed about too much—why, you're better already without that stupid doctor and his endless rules and that stiff Nurse Parkins."
Yes, Cornelia was better; there could be no question about that. She was animated, eager, she sat in her cushioned chair by the aromatic fire and watched Pauline with dancing eyes.
"All this fidgeting keeps you ill," continued this powerful monitor. "Why, if you'd been a poor girl you'd have been better long ago; there is nothing really the matter with you."
"Don't you think so?" whispered Cornelia. "You're the first person who has said that."
"I'm the first person from outside who has seen you—of course you're delicate, and everyone has told you you were ill and thought of you as ill, and all these doctors and nurses have fussed as they're paid to fuss."
"Helen supported them," said Cornelia.
"I know. Helen isn't very intelligent," replied Pauline calmly. "You could persuade her of anything."
"Your brother was over-anxious, of course, but you get well without the doctors and see how pleased he'll be! You don't want to waste your life as an invalid, do you? You're very lovely, you know, Cornelia, and rich—think of the life you could have!"
The girl glanced at her with burning wistfulness and then into the mirror wreathed with pale glass flowers that hung in the alcove beside the fireplace.
Lovely she was, with a wild, hectic and unearthly loveliness, the unnatural thick smooth whiteness of her complexion that really had the quality of a lily petal, the feverish red of her too full lips, the glittering lustre of her dark eyes behind the abnormal sweep of lash, the profusion of red brown hair arranged in a coronal of interlaced ringlets, the curve of the pale throat, all composed a sad and doomed beauty, a brief blossom of a dark and troubled blooming; but Cornelia saw, as in a mirage, this deadly fair face inheriting a woman's kingdom of delight.
"I am pretty," she said with heartrending pride. "If only I could go about a little!"
The handsome countenance gazing at her relaxed into a smile.
"You shall go about—of course. Only listen to me a little. You mustn't take any notice of these quacks. You've got to think of life, and pleasure, not illness and medicine. I'm going to concentrate on making you well."
Cornelia pressed her hands together impulsively.
"Oh, will you? Why are you so good to me?"
"Helen has been good to me," replied Pauline quietly. "This is a return to her—and you, for having me here at all. I heard you were interested in this book. I got it in Paris, and now that the doctor has gone I can give it to you."
On the little table where stood Van Quellin's gorgeous reliquary she laid a slim volume entitled "Modern Miracles. A treatise on Faith Healing, by Mrs. Falaise."
Cornelia clutched the book.
"Oh, I wanted to get that, but they would never let me have it!"
"I know, that's why I didn't give it to you before—I knew that if the doctor saw it there would be a fuss. Don't let Helen or your brother see it, or there'll be a bother now."
"Oh, no, no. I'll read it quite by myself!" cried Cornelia. "Do you believe in it—Faith Healing, I mean?" she added passionately.
"Yes, I do," replied Pauline.
Cornelia glanced at the title of the volume.
"And in miracles?"
"I don't see," smiled Pauline, "how good religious people can fail to believe in miracles."
"But this woman, Mrs. Falaise' she isn't religious?"
"Faith in itself is a religion, faith in anything," said the other quickly. "You've got to believe."
The girl flushed and quivered.
"Then I've got to believe that I'm not ill?"
"You've got to believe that you're going to get well."
"Pauline! You make me feel better already—I've never felt like this before. Oh, I think it is a miracle in itself that I met you—"
"Hush, you mustn't get excited, or that will do you harm and then I shall be sent away—"
"No, no, Pauline. I could never let you go."
"I'm not going, but you must be quiet, dear, and when you see your brother again tell him that you like being with me and that you feel better, or he may bring another doctor. Now you must give me my lessons."
"When can I read this?" pleaded Cornelia, holding up the book.
"Presently—I will put it in the bottom of your work basket, under your silks, where no one looks. Now you must show me that new stitch."
Pauline had given the invalid girl the supreme delight of imparting knowledge; Cornelia, hitherto utterly useless found herself for the first time in a position of authority and importance; with piteous pride the poor child gave Pauline French and needlework lessons, and little discourses from her delicate store of refined knowledge, and these hours were a vast pleasure to her, for Pauline was the most docile and attentive of pupils, clever, interested and tactful; she never wearied, argued nor contradicted; her entire shrewd intelligence was devoted to pleasing Cornelia, and she succeeded easily, triumphantly.
Now, as her needle went in and out of the crispy lawn in emulation of Cornelia's light skill, she was glancing stealthily at the reliquary, Van Quellin's gift, which sparkled in the firelight; the baroque triptych which folded up into the form of a book and now stood open; the material was smooth greenish gold set with square amethyst and chrysoprase in a design of crosses and in the centre was a crystal case preserving the lock of dark hair twisted with a braid of seed pearls.
As Pauline sewed and Cornelia spoke French to her, she looked frequently at this costly toy, and a little smile hovered in her deep eyes.
If Santa Ignota, why not Mrs. Falaise?
Helen entered, so quiet and soft, but Cornelia made a gesture of impatience.
"Helen, you always come and interrupt—I like to be left alone when lam giving Pauline her lessons."
"I only came to tell you that Louis has returned—he has brought you such flowers—may I bring them up and arrange them?"
Cornelia shook her head peevishly.
"No. I'm tired of flowers. Pauline thinks I have too many in the room; they sicken one and give one a headache, especially now when one must have the window closed."
"You used to be so fond of them," returned Helen wistfully.
"Well, I don't want any now."
"May Louis come up?"
"Presently—I'm really busy now."
Helen glanced at her cousin, who did not look up, but seemed intent on her embroidery, which she was essaying with meticulous care.
"Do go, Helen dear," begged Cornelia impatiently; and Helen went.
Downstairs she found Louis Van Quellin opening the florist's boxes and taking out the hothouse blossoms, carnations, tuberoses, gardenias, myrtle and lilies all pale and melancholy as Cornelia herself in their forced and reluctant loveliness.
"She doesn't want them," said Helen, hesitatingly. "She seems to have tired of flowers."
She had thought that Louis would be hurt or angry, but instead he answered:
"Well, it was an unhealthy taste, perhaps—does she seem still well?"
"Yes, really much better. But Louis, I hate Dr. Henriot going."
"He said there was nothing more for him to do, and that she had taken such an aversion to him that he was only causing harm."
"Louis, she ought to have someone," urged Helen anxiously.
"No need, if she maintains her improvement."
"But Madame Fisher has gone and dear Nurse Parkins."
"Cornelia says they worried her," replied Louis indifferently.
But Helen was troubled; she stood by the round table where the pure delicacy of the blossoms sprayed the darkness of the shining wood; something was wrong, something was changed, not all her sweetness and candour could put matters in that lovely kind lucidity through which they once had glowed as through a web of happy light.
"Are you sure you want us all at Paradys?" she asked wistfully. "Won't it be rather sad and dull and lonely?"
"You've got your cousin," he reminded her. "The cousin you would have."
"You need not be cruel about it."
"Cruel? You don't like her, then, after all?"
"I don't want her to change things," she replied.
"Send her away."
"She wants to stay. I promised to let her stay if she wanted to."
"Why does she want to stay?" demanded Louis sharply. "Isn't she dull?"
"She says not—and she and Cornelia have become very devoted to each other."
A peculiar expression hardened the young man's aquiline face; an expression, Helen thought, of excitement, but that was not, surely, possible.
"I wish that you didn't dislike her, Louis."
"I don't dislike her," he replied coldly. "I think that she is a very interesting young woman—and if you are satisfied with her, there is nothing more to be said."
But Helen knew that there was a great deal more to be said, only that Louis would not say it; more than ever she felt put aside, beyond the circle of his invincible loneliness.
And this was so unbearable to her yearning affection that she went up to him with spontaneous appeal and put her hands on his folded arms.
"Can't you be a little kind to me, Louis, a little pleased to see me?"
The tender and gracious face raised to his was trembling on the verge of tears, and looking down at her, the young man's eyes were filled with pain and shame.
"I'm an arrogant beast," he said, clasping her yielding humility. "I can understand that you could never quite care for me."
"What do you mean by can? Why can I never convince you—satisfy you? Louis, I really love you."
She spoke with gravity, with sincerity, with a deep affection—but without passion; Louis thought that he could see her innocent spirit standing before him, as pale, as pure, as frail as these too exquisite blossoms that had never been coloured by the splendour of the sun nor touched by the glory of the moon; he kissed her gently on the candid forehead where the light curls waved so delicately.
"Poor Helen," he said, loosening his slight clasp of her gentleness. "You have lost your gaiety—why, you must tell me howl can bring it back."
His words rang as artificial as a compliment from a chance acquaintance; Helen abruptly moving away, gazed into the fire, wondering, wondering And Louis, with strong restless fingers, turned the flowers over in the cotton-wool lined boxes.
Pauline entered; with what seemed studied rudeness she took no notice of Louis Van Quellin; to her cousin she said:
"Cornelia would like to see you now, I think."
Without an answer Helen left the room.
Pauline came through the shadows of the gathering twilight and stood beside the young man, who, without raising his eyes, turned over his rejected flowers. "Aren't you tired of all this?" she asked hotly. "Cotton-wool—these bloodless, hot-house things?"
PAULINE spoke violently, almost coarsely, with a complete denial of her usual manner.
Van Quellin seemed completely at his ease with her, not hesitant and reserved as he had been lately with Helen.
"I bought them for Cornelia," he answered. "She used to be very fond of these flowers."
"Yes, morbid and sickly; she is getting on much better without that kind of thing," challenged Pauline. "Don't you notice that yourself, Mr. Van Quellin?"
"Have I to thank you for that?"
"I get on very well with your sister," replied Pauline. "I daresay she wanted some outside influence—something quite different, everyone seemed to have combined to make her feel ill."
"And where is your account in this?" asked Van Quellin. "The only other time that I heard you speak plainly I understood you were decidedly out for your own interests."
Pauline moved to the fireplace and replied, at a tangent:
"How do you think lam progressing? Do you think lam learning to be a lady?"
Van Quellin laughed.
"I don't know what a lady is—I shouldn't imitate anyone if I were you."
"Not imitate—but I suppose I've got to learn manners."
"It depends what you mean to do—not, I take it, live like this indefinitely—"
"Sponging on Helen?" she finished; then she shrugged her shoulders as if she threw off the subject and came with one of her quick movements, back to the table.
"What are you going to do with these?" she asked; "they smell rank to me—I hate these forced flowers."
"Throw them into the fire if you like," he replied impetuously.
She gathered up the gardenias, moon white, the sprays of bleached lilac already beginning to wilt in the warm air, and cast them, with the cotton-wool that enwrapped their tender delicacy, into the flames.
Van Quellin assisted at this holocaust; their hands nearly touched among the long sceptres of the tuberoses; the cotton-wool and the boxes raised a thin flare on the dense heart of the fire where the flowers curled and sizzled.
This ephemeral light showed Pauline, the blonde amber rose and gold of her face and throat, the smooth swathe of her dull hair, her powerful eyes that flashed with excitement, and the grand lines of her tall figure in the dark gown.
She was flushed, not alone by the firelight, but by some inner glow of her blood, her face, so firm, rounded and precise in line, had the definite perfection of a ripe fruit or a clear-cut, completely blown blossom; these few weeks of luxury had opened and gilded her beauty as summer will open and gild the mature, long-waiting rose.
She appeared to receive a ferocious joy from the sacrifice of the flowers and watched the consuming fire devour this poor innocence of loveliness as a young priestess might have watched the dove or the lamb bound to the altar stone.
She waited, with her hands full of white roses, till the rush of unsubstantial flame had grown tall and insistent; this was the last offering; the dark table lay bare behind her; the outer verge of the large room was dark with the sunless shadow of a winter dusk; like an incoming tide the shadows encroached on the firelight.
"You are up to something," said Van Quellin, suddenly, from the silence of his observation of her splendour. "You may as well tell me what it is."
Pauline pressed the roses to her bosom with what seemed a joyous movement.
"You said yourself I was out for myself; I made no disguise of that, did I?"
"But there is something more than that—something definite. A woman like you doesn't endure these moping days for nothing."
"No, not for nothing," replied Pauline.
"Then you may as well tell me; I shall surely find out."
"Oh, surely you'll find out!" mocked Pauline. "You're not a fool, are you?"
She went on her knees by the hearth and cast the roses, one by one, into the blaze.
Van Quellin came nearer; he could have put his foot on the strong hand she rested on the ground.
"You re a savage, really," he said; his voice and his eyes were excited.
"I was brought up like a savage," she replied. "Life was just sordid work, and little snatches of food and sleep and listening to a crazy old woman talking about her wrongs."
"But you had yourself?—your own thoughts?" asked Van Quellin curiously.
"Oh yes, I had my thoughts," smiled Pauline. "Perhaps you wouldn't care to hear them."
"Were none pleasant?"
"Pleasant? I don't know."
"Didn't you have any consolation—wasn't there anything that you believed in?"
"I suppose I believed in myself, up to a point. I believed in doing as had been done by."
"That's a hopeless code; didn't anyone teach you about honour?" asked Van Quellin uneasily. "Loyalty? Gratitude? Fidelity?"
Pauline flung the last rose into the fire, looked up and laughed in his face.
"Those things are luxuries," she answered.
"I hope you are loyal," he urged. "I hope you would always be loyal to Helen."
"You ask why? Consider how Helen has behaved to you."
Sitting at his feet, illuminated by the fading flames that rose from the ashes of the flowers, Pauline replied with bold carelessness.
"You advised me not to imitate anyone; Helen is herself, and I'm myself. She can't help being what she is any more than I can. You can't frighten me with her virtues!"
"Still," he insisted, visibly troubled, "I should like to think that you were loyal to Helen."
"There is only one person I could be loyal to," replied Pauline, "and that was to the man I loved."
"Ah, you thought about that, then?" he asked imperiously. "You had time for that?"
"For a few dreams, yes. I've never seen, nor heard of what I call love."
"What do you call love?" His tone was amused, but his clear, light, formidable eyes gleamed with excited interest.
"Can't you guess?" she replied with a superb contempt for his reserve, his evasion. "I would let anything go—I would risk anything—well, I simply shouldn't care what happened."
"You really wouldn't? Not any consideration for—what people usually consider?"
"I know—considerations! Of course, that isn't love, when people stop to consider—that is because they don't know how to love—few people do, I think. I suppose that is a good thing; it's terrific—real love."
It was the same sentiment, more violently and crudely put, as he had tried to express to Helen about "caring tremendously"; he remembered now her complete failure to respond or even to understand; her slight uneasy bewilderment.
The fire had died down to a tranquil red heat. A gusty wind sprayed the panes with cold rain; Pauline crouched against a low chair, her face in her hand, suddenly sombre, almost sullen.
"Helen," said the young man, looking down at her, "doesn't know what you are."
"Tell her," replied Pauline indifferently.
"Why should I trouble?" he asked proudly. "Helen is secure."
Pauline did not reply to this; his boast dwindled down a mocking silence.
Was Helen secure? In his love, his loyalty, his admiration?
Could Helen, on the dizzy height of her incredible goodness, ever be secure against the onslaughts of those passions to whom goodness is a lost echo of a forgotten word?
At this moment Helen seemed pale and ineffective in the mind of Louis Van Quellin, a creature remote and unfitted for human ends.
And from Pauline came slowly:
"It doesn't matter what you tell Helen about me—Helen can't hate. And can't love."
He had no answer; his defence of Helen would not rise from his heart to his lips; instead he thought, obscurely:
"It is Helen's fault that I'm here with this woman now—Helen's folly provoked this situation."
"Help me up," demanded Pauline.
He gave her his hand; it was the first time that their hands had touched; he noted that and how her fingers clung, as she raised herself, leaning on his strength, getting to her feet with one movement.
"I must find Helen," he said quickly. "I have a great deal to talk of with Helen."
Pauline looked at him, then flung herself indolently into the chair by the fire.
"Poor Helen," she remarked quietly.
THESE four people went to Paradys; detached as it were, by a chosen yet forced isolation, from the rest of the world; to Helen at least the sensation was one of abandonment; she was a woman of many interests, of a gay social disposition, and this narrowing of a wide life to one focus was painful to her warm gaiety.
And there was a sensation of faint disappointment in coming to Paradys as Cornelia's guest when she had thought to come there as châtelaine, her position was rather vague; the invalid girl was nominally her hostess, Pauline was at her charge and yet another's guest, Louis Van Quellin, at once her host and the man she would marry in a few months, was in a position of authority; they were all really in his power as to all the minor liberties of existence; and Louis spared none of them; the days passed at Paradys exactly as he ordered them to pass, and all Helen's English blood and English training yearned secretly for a more conventional, defined and freer mode of existence; she even disliked accepting the lavish hospitality of this man and accepting his daily supervision, and her deep inherited instincts of decorum would have been relieved by the presence of the nurses, Madame Fisher, or the doctor; Nurse Felice, the little Frenchwoman, had left at Marli, and there were only the Belgian servants at Paradys.
Helen had even a strange maid; the clever Parisienne to whom she had become used had refused to spend the winter in exile; for Pauline, untidy and haughty, it had been impossible to find a permanent maid; she herself declared she was only bothered by someone "fussing," so shared the services of Helen's rather dour Belgian.
The whole situation into which she had somehow been inevitably drawn secretly seemed to Helen purposeless and rather painful; it was queer to live at Paradys with Louis before she was married to him; it was queer to think of this postponed marriage, coming at the end of these months together in the place that would be their home; and it was queer to be in this intimate relation to this man, and yet, as it were, have all mental and spiritual access to him blocked by these two other personalities; Cornelia who hung so on him, Pauline who hung so on her; they were hardly ever alone; and when they were, Helen found him distracted from her and occupied with commonplaces.
Nor could Helen see any solution ahead; Cornelia would always be there, in her married life as now, and Pauline?
Helen could devise no unravelling of the tangled problem of Pauline—Pauline who seemed to have become an integral part of all their lives.
Madame St. Luc had never been what is called a religious woman, but she had accepted, with pious sincerity, the faith of her husband, and through the alembic of her pure nature, only what was lovely in this faith remained with her; in her happiness she had prayed, with pathetic earnestness, for more humility, for more compassion, now, in her shadowed days, she prayed that she might keep hold of what was right; if her vision was simple it was very clear.
"I've got to be kind to Cornelia. I've got to make up to Pauline, and I've got to leave Louis free—so that, if he does not want to marry me after all, it won't be difficult for him to say so."
For it had already come to this with Helen; she was no longer quite sure that Van Quellin really did want to marry her; she was no longer quite sure that Cornelia needed her; these two had detached her from her own life, the remote possibility that she had been thus detached just to be cast away was now faintly apparent.
Louis's work was the superintending of the alterations that would not be complete until the spring, and which were to restore the place to the ancient magnificence that had gained the name of Paradys.
The estate was situated in a part of what was still in fact, as once in name, the Nether Lands, the low countries fringed by sea and dunes; Flemish, French and Spanish, Austrian and English had each had a hand in the old castle that stood on solid thousand-year-old foundations in the midst of a moat, encircled again by another ring of water, and approached by bridges.
Careful restoration had preserved the ancient shape; the four red-brick towers marked the corners of the quadrangle, a square courtyard faced the entrance, flanked by eighteenth century stables; in the centre of the inner court grew a massive lime tree, which in summer darkened all these inner windows.
At the back, attached to the outer walls was a medley of baroque additions now being removed to give place to an accurate restoration of the old bastions and approach bridges, while the moat which here had been dammed, was being again allowed to meet in an embrace round the castle.
The gardens, which were now laid out in the sham romantic style of the early nineteenth century, were now being restored to the original formal Dutch style, the gardens de broderie so beloved of the elder Van Quellins. Beyond the gardens were miles of park land and cultivated woods, old, magnificent and haunted by tradition and legend; these woods stretched directly to a grove of stunted oaks that joined the dunes and the sea; the gulls often screamed over Paradys, and the pigeons from the cotes of Paradys often flew to the blonde sands.
"It is a place to be happy in," Helen had once said, and she resolved with desperate gallantry that she would be happy here now.
On one bright hope she dwelt with fond insistence. Cornelia was better; here at least Pauline was justified of her works; Cornelia was nearer health than she had ever been, and Helen tried not to notice the girl's almost slighting indifference towards herself—towards the Helen on whom she had so relied; now she did not care if she did not see Helen all day; she was always with Pauline, with Louis, or with both Pauline and Louis.
There was very little for Helen to do; it pleased Cornelia to play the châtelaine, and when she wanted help or assistance she turned to Pauline; Louis, who went less and less to Brussels, was absorbed in his building; his sister, and, it seemed, his thoughts. There was very little for Helen to do.
Except to give.
Pauline wanted to learn to ride, and Helen bought her a horse; Pauline wanted to learn to drive a light car, and Helen bought her a coupé two-seater.
Pauline wanted books, clothes, money, pictures, perfumes, music. Helen provided all with the best possible grace.
She told her cousin, with sweet sincerity, that she made these offerings with heartfelt pleasure.
"You do credit to everything you touch, dear Pauline."
It was true; everything Pauline Fermor learnt, she learnt well; she assimilated all the knowledge she desired with almost painful quickness, and she was beautiful, with a triumphant bloom impossible to describe.
And Helen, who was not beautiful, but merely charming and graceful, and who had lost something of her delicious gaiety and her delicate lustre lately, looked, beside Pauline, like the ghost of a pretty woman.
To Helen at least these long wintry days seemed endless; she read, she played, she walked and rode, and then there were many empty hours with only anxious thought to fill them.
Once she surprised Cornelia with the book on Faith Healing, the banned book by Mrs. Falaise.
Everything had so changed since Cornelia had been forbidden this subject that Helen was not as shocked as she would have been three months ago.
But she was surprised.
"Why, wherever did you get that, Cornelia?"
The girl became at once sullen.
"Pauline got it for me."
"When?" Helen was startled.
"I don't know. She gave it to me in Marli. She said she had bought it in Paris."
This was to Helen as if some vague floating miasma had suddenly solidified into an object of horror in her grasp; she remembered telling Pauline, confiding in Pauline on this subject, and now she knew definitely that her cousin could be deliberately treacherous.
Cornelia misinterpreted her look of pale dismay.
"It's all right," she said in hostile tones. "Louis knows I've got it."
"Does he know," asked Helen quietly, "how you got it?"
Cornelia was fretful at once.
"What does it matter, Helen? You ought to be glad to see how well I'm getting—why, Pauline and Louis would both like to take me to Paris in the spring—real Paris, the season."
"Why not, dear, if you are well enough?"
"There's your marriage in April." Cornelia spoke as if she mentioned something unpleasant.
"Perhaps I shall not be married in the Spring," returned Helen.
She walked to the window of the tower room and looked out on the grey desolation of water and bare trees and barren park.
Helen took, not her trouble, but some of the outward showing of her trouble, to Louis Van Quellin.
Wrapped up in fur, but still shuddering under the icy rawness of the January day, she spoke to him in the park, standing at the edge of the moat, where the blackish water was covered by a thin film of ice; she had followed him on his daily visit to the new buildings which had been interrupted lately through frost. Only on such an occasion as this could she be sure of being quite alone with Louis.
"Are you quite satisfied about Cornelia?" she began.
"Why not?" he asked lightly, as if, she thought, he kept her at bay.
"This is rather a solitary, morbid kind of life for her, and she is under no one's care—not even a nurse's supervision—it is so different to the treatment she has always had," replied Helen hurriedly and anxiously.
"But it seems successful. I think Cornelia is extremely well."
"But we don't know, we can't know, can we?" pleaded Helen with deep solicitude. "Only a doctor could tell if she is genuinely recovering."
A blast of bitter wind blew round the castle, and Louis shivered.
"Let us walk on," he said; "it is so cold standing here."
"You see," continued Helen as she fell into step beside him, "I think this apparent improvement in Cornelia is due to mental excitement. I don't think that she is really any stronger."
"Helen! You are not generally of a gloomy turn—indeed, I thought you an optimist."
"It is a matter of judgment. I think," replied Helen firmly, "that Cornelia should see another doctor, and that there should be a trained nurse in charge. You know that she is absorbing that book by Mrs. Falaise?"
"Yes—it appears to give her a great stimulus."
"Louis, when I wished, last autumn, to indulge her on this point, you very sternly refused," remarked Madame St. Luc gently. "And I never suggested anything as extreme as this."
"Extreme?" he repeated, startled.
"I do think it extreme—isolating Cornelia like this, with no support but this kind of faith-cure."
"The doctors did no good," he interrupted savagely.
"We don't know," replied Helen. "I, at least, cannot like this. And, Louis, she told me that you had been indulging her with the hope of a season in Paris this spring. There can be no good come of such a cruel illusion."
They had come round the moat to where the new bridge shot across the released waters that joined a dark stillness round the castle; the four massive towers rose austerely against a sky curdled into motionless clouds like the breast of a grey goose.
"Need it be an illusion?" muttered Louis uneasily. She pressed his arm.
"You know it must. Look at Cornelia—remember what Dr. Henriot said."
Across the moat two swans came sailing, breaking the fine crust of ice with slow accurate feet. Louis watched them.
"Why don't you send Pauline Fermor away?" he asked.
At the mention of this name, which she had so scrupulously avoided, Helen shivered; she drew her fur closely round her bosom; and she also looked down at the slow-gliding white birds.
"Do you want her to go, Louis?"
"Yes, I want her to go."
"You know that I can't send her away," replied Helen in a low voice. "I don't think this enclosed life is good for any of us, and I have suggested a change to her, but she prefers Paradys."
"Why can't you insist?"
"Because I have no such power over her," said Helen sadly.
"You would have her," he retorted grimly. "If I had had more authority you should not have taken her to live with you."
"I did not know," said Helen earnestly, "that we should come here, that she would get such an influence over Cornelia."
The white swans were just below them now, waiting expectantly.
"Do you think that influence bad for Cornelia?" he asked keenly.
"No, no," replied Helen eagerly. "I do not indeed. Cornelia is certainly better, happier, only—only—"
"Only? Only? You seem troubled."
"You also—Louis"—she made a desperate attempt to get within his guard—"why did you say you wanted Pauline to go?"
He did not answer; he looked down at the swans waiting proudly for crumbs, and his face was cold. This silence terrified Helen; she felt that she had risked something with that question. And lost.
But again she essayed her fortune.
"Louis, why don't you go? There is nothing to keep you here."
And he answered, "Nothing, nothing," but whether as a confirmation or a question she could not tell.
The disappointed swans moved slowly away, with disdainful dignity, leaving in their wake the trail of clear water which looked brackish and sad as tears.
To Helen they were a symbol of something else that had moved away from her—something white and pure and proud—happiness.
The strange eyes of Louis Van Quellin were also watching the swans sail round the moat; as if he roused himself from much abstraction, he said:
"I must see how the work gets on—the new Pavilion is nearly finished. Will you come and see it?"
Helen shook her head; the Pavilion was to have been a surprise, a marriage present. Perhaps Louis had forgotten this; but Helen did not wish to see it to-day.
"You won't come?"
"No—it is so chill and grey. I would like to see it first in the sunshine. Choose me a fine day, Louis."
She smiled at him tenderly, wistfully, but she evoked none of the affection for which she longed; she also had waited for her crumbs in vain.
When he had left her and she was crossing the bridge she noticed the swans return and pause where the water circled the round base of one of the towers, and glancing up, saw the dark face of Pauline at the upper window; she was breaking bread and throwing it down into the moat.
It was not her room; all the inhabited apartments were the other side of the quadrangle, away from the possible noise of the workmen; there the towers stood empty save for Louis's stacked, costly lumber.
And yet there she was, serene, sombre, powerful, feeding the swans who had left the others in contempt. Helen's candid mind could not readily formulate a suspicion against anyone, but her flesh winced with the sense of being watched with hostile eyes.
She did not look up again at Pauline, but entered the castle, crossed the passage through into the inner courtyard of the quadrangle and sat, regardless of the gathering chill in the air, on the seat that ringed the gigantic lime.
Helen St. Luc tried to face her problem and discover a solution. When mere expediency is the guide such problems are decided with a certain ease, but to one following an unconscious and lofty morality they hold a bitter, often an eternal difficulty.
Helen was willing to sacrifice herself to others, but she could not tell how to make this sacrifice most useful to those others; and her ardent wish to follow the dictates of the highest honour was negatived by her conviction of positive evil—so it seemed to her—in Pauline.
To give place to one wronged and unhappy had been easy to Helen, but to give place to one dishonourable, treacherous, perfidious, was another matter; here Helen could not see her way with any clearness.
She only reached any conclusion by the supreme nobility (of which she was entirely unconscious) of refusing to judge Pauline, of delaying the evil she had noted in her cousin.
"I'm sure she is good—it is just that she hasn't learnt some things—a question of manners. I mustn't allow myself to imagine anything else."
This conclusion brought Helen a certain peace; she tried to think hopefully of the future. As matters still stood, she would be the wife of Louis in two months; she endeavoured to imagine a day of sunshine when he would take her to see the Pavilion on the water he had so lovingly framed for her pleasure. How delicious in the remembrance were those days in Paris when he had shown her the plans and the bistre drawing of the old Pavilion.
It was for her he was creating this extravagant gift. Once he had told her, fantastically, that no one save herself was to enter this Pavilion, and she had agreed, at least, to being the first to cross the threshold, alone.
Helen St. Luc wished to forget that casual invitation of to-day; nothing had happened, she told herself as she rose; there was no need to be frightened. She glanced round, however, with an unconscious apprehension.
She saw Pauline, who had come to the inner window of the tower, and was looking down into the quadrangle, directly at her, watching.
FROM the first Helen was impressed, almost obsessed, by the house; she had never been there before save for a brief visit in the summer time, and she had never realized before how out of place this man, who had so little in common with so many aspects of his own time, was almost everywhere save in Paradys, which would-be always slightly alien to Helen.
The house was exactly of this country, the people, the history, the scenery; it was like nothing either in England or France or the South, nor were the gardens; there was something poignant in this intense individualism, which was flavoured more by the past than the present; Paradys was most efficiently kept up, there were no exterior traces of decay, but through this gloss of external care and neatness penetrated the sense of obsolete ideals, standards and thoughts; Paradys might be intact, but everything that had gone to make Paradys was dead.
Helen could not evade a feeling of nostalgia when she looked at the prints and pictures of a former Paradys that hung in the long corridor between the elaborate coloured and gilded wooden coats of arms.
Most of these were called "'t Huys te Kruiskerke," or "'t Huys te Paradys," and showed slim cavaliers on prancing horses, slim dogs and ornate coaches passing round the moat into the stiff allées of trees; in some, ladies with fans of lace in combed back hair, crossed the light drawbridge.
The castle, or house, was the same then as now; the prints stated that it had been built in 1200; if so, nothing remained save the foundation and perhaps portions of the outer castellated wall of the large old reddish bricks, and possibly the shape of the inner triangle; a wealthy Van Quellin of the seventeenth century, the prosperous days of the Spanish Netherlands, had built most of the present slot, preserving the four tournelles with the pointed caps and weathercocks; above the entrance his arms, paired with Van Haselt, whose heiress he had married, showed blatantly in painted stone red and black dragons supporting two oval shields bright with blue and gold, and trampling the curling ribbon that bore the motto: "Devant si je puis"; and when Louis was in residence a flag of narrow blue and red stripes flew from the keep as in the old paintings. There was a curious flavour to this obsolete pomp.
Helen found the exterior of the house dark and oppressive; the walls were so thick, the furniture was so massive, everything was old, heavy, splendid and unfriendly; the portraits showed the formidable Van Quellin face, and seemed definitely the likenesses of dead people.
There was little of what Helen understood as comfort in the large rooms with the small windows; Louis had been always reluctant to make any concessions to the taste of his own time; he was more jealous of his traditions than he allowed to appear; but Helen liked the gardens that could have been nowhere else but in the Low Countries, and she liked the woods beyond the gardens which stretched to the dunes and the sea, and which had justly earned the name Paradys for this spot, so rare in a flat land of marsh and scrub.
The gardens were an epitome of formalism; the lawns near the house were covered with a pattern de broderie, like the designs on old brocade, in clipped box, which, viewed from the upper windows, showed with startling artificiality; there was a maze, also of box, a sunk Dutch garden surrounded with a walk of twisted lime that met closely overhead and in which regular apertures were cut; there were an orangery in red brick and white stucco and formal walks one after another, a rococco summer house, a shaven lawn with a gilded zonnewizer and box trees shaped as peacocks, Chinese pagodas and dwarfs, and beyond this the avenues leading into the woods where lordly hunters had once galloped and where, legend said, an Emperor had wandered, waiting at Paradys for the wind to fill his sails.
Louis kept these woods enclosed and inaccessible; on one side bounded by the dunes and dykes, on the other they stretched to the remote village of Kruiskerke, which belonged to him and where stood the huge gaunt church that was the burial place of his family; a road of red clinkers, straight, narrow, edged by very tall, very slender trees, ran directly through this wood, from Kruiskerke to Mael-Strede on the dunes; for the rest the wood was wild and unpenetrated, and full, to Helen, of awe and gloom.
In a grove there a Roman altar had been found, and the ancient trees were too full of faint echoes of the long since dead.
The quiet of this winter was broken by a great sea, wind that blew for a week together, strewing the moat with shrivelled red leaves and dry boughs, rustling perpetually in the wood and sending flocks of sea birds screaming over the box hedges and the pear thickets in the fruit garden; the weathercocks, those four gold ocean beasts, swung round and round in the gale as if straining to be free, and Helen, wandering under the groaning despoiled trees, felt sad and restless. The Latin in her resented this gloom and solitude which she noticed even Cornelia seemed to feel less than she felt; Cornelia was at home in Paradys and she was riot.
She thought, fearfully, of the differences of blood, breed and tradition that separated her from Louis; while his ancestors had been holding stately court here hers had been ploughing with their own hands the pleasant Devonshire fields; her money was the result of sheer chance, his was the accumulation of generations domination, success and magnificent marriages.
Helen was troubled by these thoughts, troubled by Paradys, by this atmosphere to which she did not belong, by the dark house, the grave gardens, the mournful woods that were so majestic, secretive and lonely—like Louis himself.
Helen walked between the hedges of russet pears. Now bare of leaf and fruit, where in the autumn the ill-considered flowers, gaudy dahlia, zinnia and scabious grew riotously, and where now the bed was empty; overhead the clouds curdled and the lash of the wind and the smoke coloured seamews mingled with the pinkish white, ashy-hued doves in a restless flight; beyond were the tall trees circled in bouquets and abrupt avenues, the prim old gardens, the dark moat, the castle with the striped flag straining and fluttering at the pole.
LOUIS spoke to Cornelia gravely.
"I am taking a great responsibility in allowing you to have your own way, darling child. Are you quite, quite sure that I may not have Henriot down for a day or so?"
For once he had found her alone in her turret room. Cornelia liked a round chamber; this, in the left tower by the entrance, opened into further rooms of Cornelia on the front, and to Pauline's apartments at the side.
The meals were generally served in one of the women's sitting-rooms, and Louis, who liked late hours, often dined alone; so there was no common meeting-place or time, and Louis had had actually to wait before he found this chance to speak to his sister without either Pauline or Helen present.
"If you talk of doctors," replied the girl passionately, "I shall be ill again."
"But, Cornelia, are you well now? Really well?"
Tears instantly heightened the lustre of the glittering eyes.
"Can't you see I'm well?" she asked violently. "Don't I look well?"
"Yes, yes, darling—but Helen thought that perhaps, just as a precaution, you should see Henriot again—"
"I detest Dr. Henriot. And Helen is so gloomy and fussy."
"Helen gloomy! Why, Cornelia, Helen is the gayest person."
"Well, she won't admit that I'm better; she won't understand how all that bothering with nurses and doctors was bad for me—she thinks I can't go to Paris this spring, but I can, can't I? To balls—to the opera? Oh, say I can!"
The blazing eager eyes, the parted glistening lips, the whole passionate flame of the hungry spirit burning behind the thin, frail body hurt and startled Louis.
"Do you want—all that—so much?" he asked in an agony of compassion.
"What do you mean?" Her voice was angry. "Don't you know I do? Haven't you promised me all these things—when lam well? And am I not nearly well now?"
"Yes, yes—you are indeed nearly well, Cornelia," he answered; but his eyes were not as assured as his voice, and tender consideration outweighed his sincerity.
She was better, stronger, happier than his secret agony had ever dared to hope to see her—and yet how far from health and activity. She could walk with almost a semblance of ease, but for how short a time and with what aftermath of fatigue; and though she passionately denied all weariness and pain, Louis had sometimes thought, with a terrible uneasiness, that he surprised the old look of suffering on her face, the old abandon of utter weakness in her drooping pose, in her fretful gestures and moody silences.
With a swift terror he studied her now.
Her attitude was alert; she leant forward with an air of vivacity and she had the advantage of the glowing firelight, which coloured her with a warm rosiness; but surely the ethereal quality of her beauty was pitiful, perilous.
"Cornelia," he asked, "you are sure that you are better? No pain? Not much weakness?"
"No pain," she smiled; "not much weakness, and oh, so much more hope! You can't understand what that means to me—so much hope, Louis."
"But we are none of us without hope, ever, dear."
The girl made a movement as if she was impatient at his obtuseness.
"But I felt ill, condemned—how could I feel otherwise, with doctors and nurses and medicine? Mrs. Falaise says you've got to get all thoughts of illness out of the atmosphere. You, Louis, must cease to talk to me about illness, or you will keep me back."
"Is it Pauline Fermor who has done this for you?" asked Van Quellin gently.
"Of course! Pauline."
"But she—she has no gifts as a faith healer?" asked Louis, like one slowly feeling his way obliquely to some guessed-at and unwanted truth.
"I don't know. I think she has—such courage, such life and energy. When you take her hand you can feel life; she tells you such interesting things, too, about work and poverty, and how one can overcome everything by force of will."
She spoke in excited tones, and the flush in her face deepened to a burning red. Van Quellin fondled one of her flower-like hands.
"You would not care for Pauline to go away?" he asked.
"Pauline? To go away? Pauline must never go away!" she cried impetuously.
"But perhaps Helen will not want to keep her always."
"Then she can stay with us," replied Cornelia. "Of course she can stay with us."
"But Helen is going to marry me," smiled Louis.
Astonishingly, Cornelia made a bitter little grimace.
"I wish you were going to marry Pauline!" she cried.
The young man withdrew his hand from hers.
"You must be more loyal to Helen, Cornelia."
At this rebuke the ready tears sprang to the girl's great eyes, and she gave him a look of hurt and heartrending appeal.
"But Pauline makes me feel well," she pleaded, "and Helen drags me back, and I don't want to be with Helen any more—Helen thinks of me as ill."
"Pauline told you that—that about Helen," he said quietly.
"Yes, Pauline told me that—but it is true."
True? It might be true. Why not believe in this, as in everything else?
As well Pauline Fermor as Dr. Henriot; as well Mrs. Falaise as Santa Ignota in her shrine!
Van Quellin dared not judge; he only knew that he would as soon have taken a crutch from a cripple as Pauline from his sister.
"She must stay," insisted Cornelia violently. "Promise me that, Louis."
"Yes, of course," he assured her quickly; "of course she shall stay—Helen is willing, too. But I don't want you—us—to forget how generous Helen is. She—well, there isn't much for her in this; she gave up a good deal to come here—for you, and now you don't really want her. That is what it comes to, Cornelia."
But Cornelia, absorbed in her new and desperate joy, refused to be affected by this aspect of the situation.
"Helen can go away," she announced. "There is plenty for Helen to do."
"Go away, and leave Pauline? Scarcely."
"Why not? She doesn't really like Pauline."
"Don't you think she really likes her?" asked Louis anxiously, and Cornelia, with the intuition and frankness of a child, replied:
"No—they don't like each other at all. I should really feel easier if Helen went away—she worries me."
"Helen is so good," he answered wistfully.
"Perhaps that is what worries me," replied Cornelia. "She makes me feel uneasy."
Van Quellin felt that there was a devastating truth about this impetuous statement, given with a child's selfish ignorant candour. Helen made him feel uneasy too.
She had never made them feel uneasy until the advent of Pauline; when they had been at one with her they had found her entirely delightful, and it was they who had changed, not Helen. This uneasiness arose through their consciousness of something wrong with them. Something wrong? Van Quellin did not know what was wrong.
Cornelia, who was leaning back on her cushions, sighed.
"Helen is coming to sit with me. I have begged Pauline to go out—she doesn't go out enough; she is so often with me."
Van Quellin really wished to leave before he met Madame St. Luc, but by the time he was freed from Cornelia's affectionate detainings Helen was on the threshold, with a message from Pauline.
"Louis, Pauline asked me if you had possibly time to show her the new work—the moat and so on. She says she hasn't seen it yet."
"I never thought that she would be interested," he answered.
"Oh, she is," put in Cornelia eagerly, "but she didn't like to ask."
"Please take her," said Helen. "She is in the quadrangle court."
Madame St. Luc could not bring herself to add that Pauline had particularly asked that she might be shown the Pavilion—Helen's Pavilion on the water.
IT was a bitter day, heavy with regret, it seemed, for this long cold, this long twilight of winter; the light that filtered through the dense clouds was not like sunshine; in the inner courtyard of Paradys the boughs of the great linden showed like stiff menacing tentacles; the warm rose-ochre of the castle was dimmed by wet and mist to a dun hue; from this side, the windows looked blank, unenlivened by the sparkle of fire or lamp.
Van Quellin, muffled in his great coat, found Pauline by the linden tree; she also wore a dark heavy garment that fell from her chin to her feet.
This figure of a woman seemed, like the day, sombre, regretful, vague, a silent uncertainty.
Meeting her, Van Quellin lost the sharp edges of actuality; he ceased to be so sorry for Helen, for Cornelia; there was only one thing he must remember. Pauline could not go. Pauline must stay, because of Cornelia.
And he thought: "It is I who will go away. I play a foolish part among these three women. I will go to Brussels to-morrow."
To-morrow. To-day he would walk with Pauline and show her his buildings—the work he had undertaken with such enthusiasm and which Helen seemed to have lost pleasure in—lately. Helen had lost pleasure in so much lately. Helen without her gaiety was like a rose plucked of petals!
"What did you wish me to show you?" he asked. "Very little has been done these last few days."
"Didn't Helen tell you? I wanted to see the Pavilion, that mysterious Pavilion on the water. That is finished, isn't it?"
Helen had not told him, and he knew why; yet Helen had sent him out knowing that Pauline would demand this favour herself.
And Helen, when he had asked her the other day, had refused to see the Pavilion.
He said, indifferently:
"I don't think that it will interest you."
"Well," said Pauline, "I have asked to see it. If you say no—"
"It isn't worth while to say no."
They walked side by side, through the castle, out on to the moat. The water was still glazed with ice, the grass rimed with melted frost. Pauline looked haggard; her beauty, that seemed to bloom in luxury and comfort, was effaced by the grey light, the acrid cold. The swans came slowly up to the bridge as these two dark figures passed; the melancholy of the damp country was penetrating, an odour of decay; the bare trees of the park disclosed in the distance the bleached whiteness of the Pavilion in the midst of the petrified water.
"To-morrow lam going to Brussels," said Van Quellin. The sentence was intended to cut him sharply away from this—the solitude, the austerity of Paradys, the three women.
"What does it matter?" asked Pauline.
He also felt indifferent, too indifferent. He thought life is a series of combats, and we are only at peace when we are too exhausted to fight. And they walked towards the Pavilion.
"Do not you find this melancholy?" asked Van Quellin. "I thought, from what you said at Marli, that you were avid for life, and Paradys is dead in winter."
"People, not places, count with me," replied Pauline.
"You are, then, so interested in my sister? Orin Helen?" he asked dryly.
"I am very interested in your sister," she answered.
"It was unexpected—on my part." he remarked. "If I had guessed at such a thing I think I should hardly have allowed you to gain such an influence."
"Don't you think that my influence is all for the good?" demanded Pauline quickly.
"It seems so—but it is a perilous thing—with a child. Cornelia has a child's mind."
"If you tell me to," offered Pauline instantly, "I will leave her quite alone."
"Ah, it is too late now. You have become the only person Cornelia cares for—or perhaps believes in. That is what I rather blame myself for permitting," he added haughtily.
"Then why did you permit it?" she asked swiftly.
He echoed her question in his heart. Why had he permitted the first swift encroachment of Pauline? As usual in human actions, the motives were tangled and obscure; partly he had been angry with Helen and had acted with a cold indifferent refusal to mingle in her affairs; partly he had been attracted by this half-grand, half-savage creature with her sudden wealth of beauty and wished to see how she would behave in her flamboyant situation.
The person and the position had fascinated a man too used to the refined, the sweet and the gracious; it was as Jeanne de Montmorin had said—all of his nature that Helen did not know of, that he indeed scarcely knew of himself, had answered the quick appeal of Pauline's personality.
And then, almost at once, there had been Cornelia's fascination, Cornelia's need of the stranger; and that queer change of plan which had isolated them in Paradys for the winter.
Van Quellin evaded her question with an answer that was yet near the truth.
"It was Helen's affair, not mine."
"But you told me," replied Pauline, "that you controlled Helen's affairs."
"I thought that I did, but I was mistaken," he replied coldly. "Helen acted against my wishes."
"In taking me to live with her?"
"That sounds brutal."
"It is only worldly wisdom, Miss Fermor. I was Helen's guardian, not yours."
"Do you still wish me away?"
"No. I have told you—because of Cornelia."
The Pavilion was ahead of them, clear at the end of a curving avenue of beech trees that, in the rimy mist, looked the colour of jade under sea-water. Pauline spoke with a sudden soft violence:
"You don't think that I have done your sister any harm? It has been a question of common sense. I was brought up hard, and I couldn't help seeing how much too soft it was for her. She was morbid—bleached—like a thing grown in a cellar."
"We are all too soft," replied Van Quellin grimly, and he thought of himself, too wealthy, too indulged, too capricious and fastidious—like Helen, too lucky.
They walked over the rotting beech-mast, the crushed sodden ruddy black leaves of last year; the Pavilion rose out of the solitude with the delicacy of a gallant dream that dares the common light. Pauline continued her self-defence.
"Isn't your sister better? Aren't you satisfied with what I have done?"
"Yes, yes; but it is perilous that she won't see a doctor. Henriot was firm about that. He said she was extraordinarily better, but that she ought to be under constant medical supervision—and this faith cure—"
"I practise no faith cure," replied Pauline quickly. "At least, no quackery. I only give her hope."
They had reached the bridge and stood looking at the little lake, a sheet of artificial water that would be bordered with willows and syringa, laurel and myrtle, but which was now bare all round the banks, as was the island on which the Pavilion stood. In the spring the white walls would rise from sprays of flowers.
The Pavilion was of fine white stone, in nineteenth century classic style, with fluted Ionic pilasters and a peristyle in front; there was one slender bridge across the water; Pauline was the first woman who had crossed this bridge. She did so slowly, as if relishing every step.
"You can't think," she said, "how strange and wonderful this is to me. I never even saw pictures of things like this!"
Van Quellin kindled in response to her animation; he had always shrunk from the crude excitement of the uneducated, but now he found that there was something épatant about this beautiful ignorant woman, so eager to learn, who knew nothing and would so humbly take the crumbs of knowledge he threw her; and he thought, with the relish that one thinks of forbidden fruit, of the education of Pauline.
They crossed the peristyle; the chill given off by the stone was like a faint rebuke as they passed; they entered the vestibule lined with yellow marble, with niches for statues, and then they crossed the threshold of the main room.
The light filtered through thin sheets of transparent rose and amber alabaster let into the long window spaces; there was a sliding roof, now closed, and in the centre the pale flesh-coloured marble basin of an unfinished fountain, where curling dolphins supported the stands for rose or orange trees.
Round the wall ran a frieze, white bas-relief on pale grey, slender unicorns, tall dancing figures, comic masks all bound together by wreaths of close-pressed flowers which seemed to float from one leaping limb to another.
It was all chill, pale, silent; they seemed locked from the outer world.
Louis Van Quellin, looking at Pauline, remembered only that this was his wedding gift to Madame St. Luc.
"It is very good of you to have brought me here," said Pauline humbly.
Her submission pleased Van Quellin, as the submission of the proud and violent cannot fail to please a dominant nature that despises the subjection of the weak.
Helen was meek with everyone, Pauline only with him; but he defended himself from her encroachments.
"Helen asked me to bring you."
"Here? To the Pavilion?"
Louis smiled, unwillingly; her sharp shrewdness amounted to cunning; her face, so noble in line, was expressive of that feminine falsehood that is so distinct from masculine falsehood; not the falsehood that breaks a law, but the falsehood that has never known any.
"I suppose," he asked curiously, "if you knew that Helen didn't wish you to come here, you would come just the same?"
"Yes. I don't believe in rules—one has to take what one can get."
It was the code of the gamine, taken as that, Van Quellin had a certain sympathy with it. What he did not quite understand was that Pauline had not the soul of the gamine, she was a great deal more dangerous than that.
Watching his amused, authoritative face, she added warmly with a thickness in her voice:
"I don't see how you can believe in all these niceties! You couldn't if you'd been brought up as I've been—it is like a starving person stealing. If nothing has ever happened to you, you snatch, you—"
"You steal, too," he finished. "An emotional theft, eh? Well, I suppose honour is a luxury."
"I don't see what that means," replied Pauline impatiently. "It seems to me a funny thing to talk about."
"I suppose it is," he agreed slowly. "Very funny—very funny."
It was all rather "funny," if it came to that; even the fact of them being here together, in Helen's Pavilion, was "funny." Pauline's phrasing, sometimes so old-fashioned, an echo of Mrs. Fermor, sometimes so common, an echo of Clifton Road, always amused Van Quellin.
"What do you want to talk about?" he asked.
"So much! I never get a chance of talking—real talk. Your sister has to be kept quiet, and Helen doesn't care for conversation."
"There doesn't seem to be much in it for you," he agreed. "I can't think why you stay."
He thought he knew, but the whim took him to force the matter to an issue; he was interested, rather excited, to discover quite how far her amazing boldness went.
She had moved a little from him and was looking round the pale walls of the Pavilion.
"Why did you build this queer place?"
"As a wedding present for Helen."
He saw the spasm of jealousy that crossed her face, but he could not guess the cold fury of hatred, of the hatred that agonizes for vengeance, that possessed her; he judged her childish when she was terrible.
"It must have cost a lot of money," she said. "I suppose that money is nothing to you?"
"Not very much," he admitted.
"It is a queer place. Why did you build it—what is it for?"
Van Quellin explained.
"My great-grandfather built a Pavilion here for his wife; about fifty years ago it was destroyed—burnt—by the explosion of a lamp. Helen saw an old drawing of it and liked it very well, so I promised to build it again for her."
"She hasn't seen it yet?"
"No," he said cruelly. "I am keeping it for her till there are flowers and sunshine to make it gay."
"Are there any other rooms?"
"One other—a little room that gives on the lake. Would you like to see it, or are you too cold?"
And she answered as, of course, he had known she would:
"I should like to see it."
He opened an end door into a small circular apartment with a brilliant window that completely occupied the centre width of the alabaster walls. The domed ceiling was lined with gold mosaic and the floor was of scarlet mosaic, some glittering stone that had the vivid quality of a geranium petal.
A low seat ran round beneath the window which, as a protection against the weather, was partially boarded up and partially covered with sacking.
"This is unfinished," said Van Quellin. "There will be a view across the lake and the park—a summer-house, really."
Pauline seated herself; every line of her dark figure was strongly detached from this light background; there was no hypocrisy now about the tragedy in her face. Van Quellin began to feel a dim pity for Pauline.
"Don't you like it?" he asked, with a hint of tenderness, of compassion.
"Like it? It isn't for me, is it?"
"Do you care about that?"
She turned her face away in silence.
But Louis Van Quellin, half-malicious, half-fascinated, would probe deeper into this strange soul.
"Doesn't Helen, with all she has done for you, make you happy?"
"Helen!" she exclaimed fiercely. "Always Helen! Helen!"
"But aren't you happy?" he insisted.
She looked at him full now.
"I'm the stray cat that has crept in out of the rain, and got a cushion by the fire—out of charity. Do you think that is happiness?—clinging to the cushion desperately, watching what you can steal—hating the people who took you in—"
"That is a strange simile," he said lightly, to disguise his mounting emotion. "Do you really hate us, then?"
"You know that I love you."
Yes, he knew; he had wondered if she would say so, had given her the opportunity to say so, had even goaded her to say so. Well, he was satisfied now as to the length her courage would go.
"Poor child!" he said.
"Why else did I come here?" she continued sombrely. "To live in your home, to be near you—I told you, didn't I, what caring meant for me?"
Despite himself he was stirred; but he answered easily:
"This fancy of yours is because you have seen no one else. Mon Dieu! one must go about a little."
"Don't fool me," replied Pauline roughly. "I tell you I love you."
To Van Quellin this was, after all, commonplace; any woman situated as she had been would have believed she loved any man who had come into her life as he had come. He knew he must have been a fairy knight indeed compared to the youths of Clifton Road; what was amazing, what did stir him, was her tenacity and her confession. He trembled to think that there might be in this passion all he had missed in Helen's love; these fine natures fell into extravagances of refinement; this violent creature offered something which he had always wanted.
"What of Helen?" he added, just to hear her defiance.
"I don't care about Helen—about anything. You know I don't. And I don't care what you do to me. I love you."
She made no attempt to approach him; she looked at him, a glance of agonised, of passionate appeal, and sat huddled against the white wall, her hands clasped in her lap.
"What do you think lam going to say to you?" he asked.
"I don't know. You let me speak."
Yes, he had provoked the situation and must meet it; he could have done so more easily had he been as indifferent as he appeared to be; but she moved him, she delighted him with a sense of peril and curiosity.
"I warned you," he said, "to be loyal to Helen."
"And I told you that there was only one person I'd ever be loyal to—"
Van Quellin restlessly pulled the sacking away from a corner of the window and looked on to the grey water, the grey park and sky.
And Pauline looked at him, waiting.
At that moment obligations and promises, loyalties and duties, did seem as bonds to the young man; in this half-light of the winter day these things appeared as restrictions, as irritations. Helen had never cared, he thought, or she would have foreseen this, would have noticed, would have guessed.
Helen must be passionless, to be so without a trace of jealousy; Helen had, as it were, delivered him to Pauline.
He half turned, with his irresolution showing in his frowning face.
"Don't look at me like that!" he exclaimed roughly.
Pauline put her hand across her eyes with a gesture of despair; she began to sob.
"Mon Dieu!" cried Van Quellin. "It is none of it worth tears!"
"Not to you," she muttered.
He sat down beside her, leant towards her, caught hold of her impetuously, impatiently. She flung her arms tightly round his shoulders; they gazed at each other sombrely a second, with hostile eyes. Then kissed.
THIS kiss marked the limit of Van Quellin's curiosity about Pauline; it satisfied him as to her boldness, her insistent boldness, and the quality of her feeling for him, that feeling which he had from the first suspected but had left lying dormant, almost despised, but never quite overlooked. He had never been able to tell how much the knowledge of this feeling, his curiosity concerning this feeling, had had to do with his submission to Helen's—to him—fantastic sense of duty, and Cornelia's sudden caprice.
And now he knew all he wanted to know about Pauline and while she still clung, moved and put her aside.
The woman sat silent, watching him.
Louis Van Quellin did not understand Pauline.
To him she had been a "gamine" amongst the "gamines," and must often have been kissed before; the peculiar strata of dingy respectability and austere manners to which she belonged were unknown to this cosmopolitan who came of that easy world that is aware of so little beyond ease.
For the same reason her beauty and her ignorance made him undervalue her intelligence; he considered her not foolish, but a creature of common instincts, rapacious, passionate, coarse.
Inasmuch as she did not enter into the same category with Helen, one could amuse oneself with her a little without being disloyal to Helen.
Except that she was Helen's cousin and Helen was under his roof; for these two reasons he was checked in further experiments with Pauline, and he was sorry, for she did attract him; she offered slyly, furtively, that intense personal passion that he had always wanted from Helen openly and honourably, but which Helen was incapable of giving, he believed.
It was exactly as Jeanne de Montmorin had predicted, Pauline pleased in Van Quellin those qualities which Helen did not know of in him and which he was angry with her for not perceiving; as he stood now, looking at Pauline, he was angry with Helen not only for this, but for persistently forcing another woman on him; whereas Helen's implicit trust in his loyalty would have seemed admirable to an Englishman, to Van Quellin's mind and training it was almost an indecorum—a gaffe.
"Either Helen is a trifler or she doesn't care—probably it is a little of both."
And Pauline waited, looking at him; she did not embarrass him—he considered her too far his inferior for that; that was where neither Helen nor Pauline understood this foreigner; it was in his blood to consider all women as creatures below serious masculine judgment; his Gallic chivalry masked a definite, if amused, disdain.
Pauline, shivering on the cold seat, guessed with a fair accuracy his indifference; she ventured on no further emotional appeal.
"Let us go back," she said, rising, "I am sure that it is going to snow."
She roused him by that as she could have roused him in no other way; her quiet acceptance of his silence interested him intensely; discretion, quietness—laudable feminine virtues!
He glanced at her with a flicker of eagerness in the pale eyes; if she had not been Helen's cousin—if this had not been Paradys...
"Yes, we will return," he answered. "Some day I will show you the Pavilion when it is finished—it needs, you see, the flowers and the sun."
She followed him into the other chamber, that, in the now waning light, was of a glacial grey, one pale shadow, without either light or darkness; and then into the vestibule overlooking the water, stiff with the faint frost film, and the far-reaching sombre park with the blackish trees and still, iron-coloured sky.
There she paused, blocking his way between the slender pillar of new sparkling marble.
"Tell me," she whispered humbly, touching his thick sleeve with cold ungloved fingers, "that you are a little sorry for me..."
This appeal, that held no claim nor any reproach, was exactly the appeal to move Van Quellin; once Pauline so submissively accepted her place he could afford to be generous.
"No one need be sorry for you, Pauline," he answered quickly. "It is you who must be sorry for others, eh? How, you don't need me to tell you..."
He broke off, for she was standing very close to him, and a sudden confusion troubled him.
"I don't care what you say," answered Pauline, "as long as you talk to me."
He smiled, but when he spoke it was without his usual smoothness. "Well, you are a beautiful woman, and that is something."
"But you? Do you think I am beautiful?" She asked this with naïve wistfulness, and the hand on his sleeve tightened so that he felt the clasp on his arm.
"What is the use of this?" asked Van Quellin; he had already said more than he had meant to say. "If I were free—"
"Ah!" cried Pauline. "Let us return."
Her quick swing back to reserve again, gratified him; in acknowledgment he lifted the hand clutching his arm and kissed the chilled fingers; a reliable and obedient woman; in that moment he admired Pauline for so thoroughly understanding her place.
Pauline looked away, sharply turning her head to hide the expression of her face; she knew she had moved him as far as she could move him; even with the assistance of Helen's incredible foolishness, of Cornelia's fanatic devotion, she would never be able to go further than this.
She did not quite know what held him back, because she had no knowledge of, no instinct about, a man's code of honour; her relationship to Helen, the proximity of Helen never occurred to her as obstacles; she thought that it was his love for Helen defeating her, not his loyalty. If she had been a man she would have detested him as much as she detested her cousin; her intellect detested him now against her profound feminine response to his masculine attractiveness, her passionate desire to be wanted and flattered by this man so much her superior in all the things she valued, this man through whom she could strike so surely at the envied, hated Helen.
She said no more as they walked back across the park; he found no lack in the quality of her submission and talked of subjects commonplace to him, but which inflamed her admiration.
Five metres, he said, was the right width for a path, so that three people could walk gracefully abreast; and he spoke about forestry and the laying of pipes for fountains and the planting of an avenue of poplar trees, all of which heightened Pauline's impression of him as someone princely, ordering carelessly what she, with the viewpoint of a provincial back street, had always regarded as immutable things.
In the castle Helen waited for their return; to her the afternoon seemed very long, Cornelia peevish and difficult and the bleak prospect without of a hideous dreariness; surely this exile was for all of them a senseless martyrdom!
Helen's writing table was piled with unanswered letters; protesting, wondering, amused letters from her friends; why did she stay in Paradys? Why? Why?
Lately Helen had not had the heart to reply to these questions and the letters were now much more infrequent; her world was forgetting her, as she desired to be forgotten; only Jeanne de Montmorin wrote, anxiously, masking her questions with delicate tact.
"There can be no reason for your stay in that isolation unless you are absolutely essential to Cornelia and she will not be moved," she had written.
Helen thought of this sentence as she listened to Cornelia's weary teasings for Pauline, for Pauline to come back.
"She does not want me any longer," thought Helen. "And Louis? Does he? I am really only staying here to keep Pauline in countenance. How long they are away, he and she. I wonder if after all she asked him to take her to the Pavilion? Of course she asked, not understanding—Louis would have to refuse."
At this point it occurred to Helen to put a question to Cornelia.
"Did you ever tell Pauline about the Pavilion, dear, and that Louis was building it for me?"
"Oh yes; I told her long ago, of course."
Another piece of evidence condemning the traitress; Helen went to the window, suddenly conscious of an aching head; a cry of delight from Cornelia told of the entry of Pauline; Helen turning her head saw her cousin singularly radiant and lustrous.
Helen knew at once that she had been to the Pavilion.
It was at that moment impossible for Helen to speak to Pauline; she left the room while her cousin took her place by the sick girl.
The white corridors of the castle seemed icy in the colourless light; the place was, of course, luxuriously warmed, but it gave Helen that poignant impression of chilliness; she went into the big room the other side of the corridor which was so seldom used.
Van Quellin was there still in his heavy overcoat, leaning thoughtfully against one of the stiff chairs, as if he had been talking to someone who had just abruptly left.
Helen had always been rather afraid of the sombre splendour of this room; the walls of dark, rubbed gilt leather, where gigantic flowers opened on monstrous leaves; the heavy beams across the ceiling, each ending in a coloured shield with flamboyant quarterings, and the massive mantelpiece where all these coats and others were repeated hanging on the branches of a sculptured tree.
The furniture was huge, black and weighty; even the large rare vases in coloured Delft always had, to Helen, an alien, queer look; she knew that as mistress of Paradys she would never be allowed to alter this room, but she would never use it much and it further depressed her to find Louis Van Quellin here now.
She thought, forlornly, that he was as alien as the room, as faintly terrifying; the dense winter twilight gathering here without the heat of fire or lamp seemed to enmesh her in doubt and gloom.
"You seemed to be away a long time," she said hesitatingly.
"Why did you notice that?" he asked.
"Cornelia was worrying so for Pauline."
She hoped that he would tell her where he had taken her cousin, since she could not ask, but as he was silent she added:
"It is surely such a mistake for us all to stay here. If it is Cornelia's wish—I think Pauline—"
"You think Pauline has such an influence over Cornelia?"
"Yes—it is not good. I want you to help in this, Louis—"
"Help you? Send Pauline away? You brought her here, you insisted on her remaining here."
As Helen was desperately silent, he added across the twilight:
"Can I send Pauline away, or even try to? I think you'd resent that, wouldn't you?"
He was hostile, perhaps angry; she drew further away against the colossal cabinet with the ferocious dragons' heads sprawling round the summit.
"You don't speak very kindly, Louis."
"I'm sorry. I'm going to Brussels to-morrow. I daresay you've seen too much of me—shut up here—just the four of us—"
"Louis," she was frankly frightened, "what makes you speak like that?"
He was so secure in the discretion, the reserve, the abnegation, the humility of Pauline, that he never feared that Helen would come at any of the truth of that afternoon; he was confident in the belief that Helen was the type who would never ask anything, and Pauline was the type who would never tell anything.
"You seem rather bored with me," he remarked lightly.
"I think," said Helen in a trembling voice, "you know that isn't true—but didn't I say that one ought to leave this place?—it is melancholy, just the four of us, in the winter—"
"Well," he interrupted, "I am going—I shall stay away as long as you please."
"And we are to remain here?"
"My dear Helen! At your pleasure! Can I dismiss Pauline?"
And he was gone, with a clear directness, through the well-remembered room that was as dear and familiar to him as hateful and strange to Helen.
He had thought her more than ever evasive, reserved, chill, and he called her indifferent, even futile, in comparison with the other woman; he was beginning to forget the gaiety he had effaced and once found so lovely; it was not she, with all her refinements and delicacies, who was interesting, but the crude Pauline. In the corridor he met this woman who pleased him by looking at him with a discretion that had the effect of simplicity.
"Where is Helen?" she asked humbly. "I have a message from Cornelia."
He told her, and Pauline entered, with some curiosity, the large room into which she had so seldom been and which appeared to her so imposing and magnificent.
Even now, when everything was blotted with the dark, and the recesses of the room were pools of shadows, Pauline felt as if she moved in a palace.
She had no message from Cornelia.
Her alert eyes soon spied the oval of Helen's pale face and the blur of Helen's pale gown.
"Helen, is that you? Shall I turn on the light?" she asked.
Madame St. Luc was startled at being followed into this uncommon retreat; she did not want to talk to Pauline, nor indeed to anyone.
"No," she answered rising, "I am going upstairs
"I want to speak to you, Helen."
This commonplace phrase so seldom used save as a portent of something disagreeable or painful, gave Helen a sense almost of panic.
"Must it be now? Is it important?" She endeavoured to stave off Pauline—Pauline's presence, Pauline's communication, whatever it might be—to escape and be alone. But the other woman was not to be so evaded; she advanced into the room, not walking surely as Van Quellin had walked, but uncertainly.
"I think I must speak," she said. "I think you ought to know—"
Helen winced from these glib preliminaries that her cousin offered so easily; whatever Pauline's roughness of manners might be, she seemed to have no difficulty in dealing with an emotional crisis; her words came as smoothly as if she spoke of something in which she was not greatly concerned; only the usual peculiarity of her manner at once old-fashioned and common, was emphasised.
"I couldn't go on with this between us, Helen; it is better to get it out of the way, as it were, isn't it?"
Helen put out her hand and switched on the two electric lights hidden along the heavy cornice of the pretentious overmantel; a golden glow touched the gilding of the grandiloquent coats of arms and illuminated to Helen her enemy standing, resolute, composed and splendid before her.
"I don't know what it is you can have to say, Pauline—have you thought about it? Have you considered if it is necessary for you to—to speak at all?"
Pauline ignored this appeal.
"Louis," she used the Christian name with careless boldness, "took me this afternoon to the Pavilion—the new Pavilion—"
Helen had known this from the woman's face, from the man's manner, but she had not expected to have the fact thus cast at her, but she did not wince nor lower her gentle gaze.
"I think that you asked him," she replied quietly.
Pauline ignored this with a smile that seemed to conceal an infinite knowledge of the weakness of Helen's position.
"I don't want to talk about that," she said. "I don't want to say much about any of it—of course, I'm very very sorry, and I'm sure that Louis is sorry too."
At this second use of her lover's name, Helen did make a movement of intolerable pain, and flinched in a manner that Pauline mistook for cowardice as she answered:
"Tell me what you are both sorry about."
"Perhaps you've guessed—perhaps you'd rather say it first—"
"No," said Helen quickly. "No, I can't do that."
Pauline relished her moment, delayed her triumph while her mind was turning over keenly and fiercely the cheated past. "Well, then," she replied slowly, "Louis loves me."
HELEN shaded her eyes for a second as if from something very glaring.
"I don't think that is true," she answered. "I have no reason to suppose it is true. If it had been true Louis would have told me himself."
"He will never tell you," replied Pauline. "He's bound to you, isn't he? And he has those ideas—about loyalty and so on that I never pretended to have—"
"Does he know that you—that this is happening?" murmured Helen.
"No. Of course not. He thinks that lam going to bear it."
Helen frowned faintly.
"Bear it? I don't understand."
"I love him also—don't you see?"
"Love?" repeated Helen in a baffled way. "That is incredible to me. You don't—it isn't love—you couldn't sit there talking about it. Oh, how impossible this is! What did Louis say to you?"
Triumphant truth thrilled in Pauline's voice.
"He kissed me, he said 'If I were free.'"
"He did that? He said that?"
"I believe nothing of what you say. You are too cool, too apt. Pauline, all this is premeditated—I have discovered lately that you—play tricks—I think this is a trick. Don't speak of it again. Louis is going away, and then I will decide what is to be done—"
"About what I have told you?" asked Pauline fiercely.
"Not about Monsieur Van Quellin," said Helen quietly, "for that is not to be discussed—but about how we are to live in future, for I am afraid that it cannot be together—"
She spoke gently and she looked stricken, but Pauline was defeated; she had not reckoned on these reserves on the part of Helen; she had indeed thought to catch her cousin off her guard and to swamp both her and Louis Van Quellin in a whirlpool of emotion.
But she had been, as Helen said, too cool, too apt; she was not believed.
At that moment Helen saw matters with an almost exact clarity, Pauline's part, Van Quellin's part, her own part seemed definite enough; on the strength of this truth she could repudiate the woman, pity the man and go her way in silence.
And there, as before, this silence was her mistake, she did not speak to Louis, she let him leave the next morning for Brussels with only commonplaces between them, with a fatal indifference and timidity of manner, that delicate sensitiveness which is so hard to read, veiling all her warm impulses.
Van Quellin also, still sure of Pauline's discretion, held himself aloof; he was conscious only of a desire to get away from both these women and to think out quietly the problem of Pauline and Cornelia; something must be decided about the future of both these women before his marriage in April; now as always the passionate attachment of Cornelia to Helen's cousin was the bitter question; yet impossible for his wife and Pauline to live together!
So he went, vexed with his own difficulties and knowing nothing of those which were devastating the heart of Helen.
Before he left he told her, indifferently, of a probable visitor—a fact in itself startling as no visitors came to Paradys, so isolated as it was, in the winter.
"An Englishman, a Mr. Bamfylde, a sort of antiquary and painter, rather a queer chap. I met him in Brussels a few weeks ago—he is coming to examine the finds at Kruiskerke—you know—the altar."
Helen did know something of this, but had not been interested.
"I asked him to come here—I don't know when he is due—but if it is in my absence—"
"Of course I will deputy for Cornelia," smiled Helen. And then he startled her by adding:
"He knew your father—quite well, he said—that was why he introduced himself to me, I think—"
"My father? I don't know the name at all. Mr. Bamfylde? I thought I knew all father's friends."
"I suppose he will explain himself if he comes. I thought him eccentric, quite absorbed in his work—he seemed to attach a great deal of importance to the altar at Kruiskerke—"
Helen thought no more of the matter; these four people had indeed grown so wrapt up in each other and their mutual reactions during this confined winter that outsiders seemed shadowy and vague.
Helen had Pauline to deal with and could think of nothing but this.
Of course Pauline must go.
With much anguish of spirit Helen sought out a solution to the perplexity of this matter of the sick girl, endeavoured to come at some honest means of detaching her from Pauline, of making her happy without Pauline, of causing her, even to forget Pauline.
This seemed impossible without the co-operation of Louis, and equally impossible did it seem to ask the co-operation of Louis, or even talk to him of Pauline at all.
On the day after the departure of Van Quellin, Madame St. Luc took her misery to the Church of Kruiskerke, the big edifice dominating the small village where the Roman altar that Mr. Bamfylde was interested in had been found; Helen was too preoccupied to think much about this, but she did give a passing thought to this stranger who claimed to have been a friend of her father.
Mark Fermor had been so candid, so open hearted, on such affectionate terms, although he had lived such a lonely life, with his daughter that it was difficult for Helen to believe that he had any friends or even acquaintances of whom she knew nothing—not even the name.
As this reflection flashed across Helen's distraught mind she was conscious of a dreadful regret for those old English days, her happy youth, her kind father, even the placid contentment of her first marriage which had been disturbed neither by love nor hate.
Unconsciously this terrible word "hate" slipped into Helen's mind; she shuddered, but she could not reject it; "I believe that Pauline hates me," was what she was forced to admit to herself; to a character like Helen this was an awful thing with which to have to deal—another person's hatred.
As she stayed, lonely on her knees, in the austere yet gilded shadow of the vast Church, her prayers took the form of tears, the searing dreadful tears of a grown woman who has never wept from agony before. The Church was huge and had been despoiled, but Louis Van Quellin had very lovingly restored it, like Paradys it was at once formal and ornate; gigantic saints in fluttering drapery, with flowing locks and beards, filled the warm shadows where the light from the brilliant windows did not penetrate, and in the murk of side chapels sparkled coronals of candles which gleamed on gilt halos and glorious inclining images in brocade and silk.
There were many tombs; a Van Quellin in white marble, a slender knight in a niche, a Van Quellin with flowing curls on a mattress with a relief of a sea piece, a Van Quellin in a peruke, seated, holding his side while a skeleton grinned at him, mural tablets to Van Quellins and the glory of God.
Again and again was there the name Louis and Cornelia, Louisa and Cornelius, Lodewyck and Lodewycka.
Kneeling in the hard pew, Helen wept.
Before her a pyramid of candles burnt before a figure of St. George in lustrous purple armour who trod down a scarlet dragon; his infantile face looked out from a fleece of yellow curls and his doll's eyes stared with a puppet's wonder at the weeping woman.
And at Paradys Pauline was with Cornelia, Cornelia who was not so well to-day, but who tossed restlessly from side to side with impatient movements, complaining of the sudden departure of her brother, groaning at the length of the winter and panting after the spring, health—Paris—the season—life.
Pauline was moody also; she found herself bound by the chains of her own forging; Van Quellin had escaped her by a clean cut departure, her cousin had escaped her spiritually by her disbelief; there remained only Cornelia, and Pauline did not know how further to use Cornelia for her own ends; it seemed as if her influence over the sick girl could no longer serve her designs on Van Quellin and her cousin; the tension was beginning to tell on Pauline too; not with impunity had she kissed Louis Van Quellin; all her long repressed and now roused passions tormented her; what had been just bearable before was now unbearable; kneeling by Cornelia's chair, before the luxurious fire she shivered as Helen, not far away, shivered in the cold Church in which she had taken refuge.
"Eh, but lam getting tired of Paradys," moaned Cornelia. "And I don't get well so fast, Pauline, not so fast as you promised I would—I don't believe I shall be well by the spring."
Pauline did not answer; indeed scarcely heard.
"And you are so gloomy to-day," continued the complaining voice. "You don't help me at all."
Pauline forced herself to say:
"I feel rather low spirited."
"Because Louis has gone away?" asked Cornelia sharply.
With a flash of animation like a player suddenly hearing the signal for her part Pauline looked up and said:
"Cornelia, Louis loves me—but Helen won't set him free—that is why he has gone away."
The words had been spoken with a sudden brutal impulse; the effect of them was such that even Cornelia's absorbed selfishness was moved; this invalided, undeveloped girl who knew nothing of passion, was shocked and frightened. Pauline saw a purity of soul that she had hardly troubled to reckon with before, look at her from Cornelia's startled eyes, as she said:
"I don't understand."
"I can't explain," said Pauline sullenly. "I ought not to have told you."
The wind rushed continuously past the window with a sound like the sea; low swollen purplish clouds hung over the black trees in the park; the short light was withdrawing into a colourless winter twilight; the girl and the woman looked away from each other, each heavy with troubled thoughts.
Pauline was thinking of Louis in Brussels; her spirit was dragging at him with fierce sombre jealousy. What was he doing and saying? How could one bear it—waiting here?
The thin thread of Cornelia's husky voice disturbed her torment.
"Helen has so much, everyone likes Helen. Helen could go away—"
"Yes. I can't. I've nowhere to go—I'm a pauper."
Cornelia shivered with distress.
"You mustn't go—I won't let you go."
Pauline looked at her; excitement had flushed the sick girl's cheeks; she was so thin that her figure looked rigid, without curves or grace; the soft folds of her silk gown emphasized this pitiful emaciation.
"It depends on Helen," said Pauline gloomily.
And the girl, who knew nothing at all about the passion of love, said:
"But if it is you Louis cares for, Helen will surely go away. Helen isn't selfish."
Pauline was silent, listening to the wind, watching the clouds overspreading sullenly the sky.
"I should be glad," added Cornelia, "for you to marry Louis; then you would never need to go away."
She spoke eagerly, her animation was feverish, and she plucked with twitching fingers at the heavy gold plaque set with pearls that hung round her neck by a chain of almost imperceptible fineness.
"Will you tell him so?" asked Pauline. "If he speaks of this to you, will you tell him so?"
She was, for the first time, abashed at the meanness of her methods, discomposed by the innocence of her instrument, but she did not try to resist the temptation; an impulse of compassion for Cornelia was overwhelmed by the urge of her feeling for Louis, that feeling that was fast becoming so terribly powerful that it threatened to slip her control.
"I don't like this unhappiness," said Cornelia nervously. "Louis away—you and Helen sad—and winter time."
Pauline insisted sullenly:
"You'll tell Louis?"
"Of course I'll tell him," replied Cornelia wistfully. "It worries me. I wish it was all arranged—happily."
Pauline looked at her queerly and rose from her long chair by the vast fire.
"I must go out for awhile," she said, "before it is quite dark—for a walk—"
She kissed Cornelia and left her with Mrs. Falaise and Santa Ignota and the Flemish maid who would sit roasting chestnuts and talking fairy stories about the choristers of Saint Gudule and Balen and the Wolf to distract these long evenings, so sombre with the sough of the wind rushing up from the sea.
Pauline went downstairs; she passed the heavy coats of arms in bright colours, the stately portraits, the pictures of 'tHuys te Kruiskerke, 'tHuys te Paradys where slim cavaliers, like Louis, pranced by the moat and went out into the overwhelming wind and walked between the pear hedges and the long empty flower beds.
HELEN went through the gardens of Paradys. Louis had written her a barren letter merely soliciting her interest in Fearon Bamfylde, the man who had come to stay at Kruiskerke, the man who had been, he said, a friend of her father.
At first Helen had been surprised at this, but upon reflection she had seen that it was very possible; her father had lived very much apart from her really, eschewing all the pleasures and gaieties that he had insisted upon for her; she thought that she began to understand why; his brother and his brother's wife must have been in his life what Pauline was threatening to be in hers, a spreading blot on the clear face of happiness.
She had looked, lovingly and sadly, at the etching by Guidon; it is in moments of trouble that one regrets most the dear kind dead.
The day was one of rare clarity; the low sun divided every object into light and shape, the shadows were long, flat and distinct; in the sky which was of the faintest hue of lavender, fading to bird's-egg green on the horizon, floated one wisp of motionless cloud, a soft faded yellow rose.
The sharply outlined boughs of the fruit trees showed every knot and every green and silver lichen cup; there was an infinite melancholy in this universal pale sunlight and the long, long shadows.
As Madame St. Luc left the fruit garden for one of the straight avenues of frail trees leading to the woods, she met the curé of Kruiskerke returning from his visit to Paradys; Louis, a munificent patron and an orthodox follower of the Church, yet scarcely encouraged the curé, whose visits partook of the nature of a formality.
Helen liked the pleasant sensible priest; save for M. de Reede, Louis's agent, he was the only person beyond the peasants she had seen at Paradys, and now M. de Reede had been away on the Van Quellin estates in Nord Brabant for some weeks, and the two clerks who cycled over from Kruiskerke every day ran the office between them under Louis's own supervision; so the curé's visit was an event, not only for his own sake.
They stood together at the entrance to the avenue; the slim stems threw regular strips of shadow over the narrow road, the fine branches in the upper air, delicate as feather fronds, intertwined in the breathless stillness.
The priest said, rather abruptly:
"I don't think Mademoiselle Van Quellin is so well—more alert, but not so well."
"You have just seen her?"
"Yes. This is rather lonely for her, rather a change from her former life, from her many friends and pleasures," replied the old man gently.
"It was her own earnest wish to come to Paradys," replied Helen with a sinking voice. "She has taken a great liking to my cousin, Pauline Fermor, who seems to supply all she needs."
"Even a doctor?"
"She dreads that word now. Pauline encourages her to hope for a—well, almost a faith cure—" faltered Helen, as if she was to blame herself for Pauline's influence over Cornelia.
"Why not a faith cure through the doctor?" suggested the curé. "The Almighty can use those means as well as another. Anti-toxins are as much His doings, madame, as any so-called spiritual healing, and I think that Miss Fermor is not likely to be the vehicle of a miracle."
"I do not support my cousin," said Helen quickly. "I have no influence either way."
"And M. Van Quellin is not here?"
"No, in Brussels."
And Helen knew, as she spoke, that it must seem strange for Louis to be away, leaving his sister entirely to Pauline; but there was nothing more that she could say.
The curé waited a second, then said again:
"I am sorry that mademoiselle does not seem so well."
"You really think that?"
They both hesitated; there was so much neither must speak of; Helen slowly shook her head.
"I'm sorry," she said.
He respected her evasion and wished her a gentle "good night;" she stood at the end of the avenue and watched him walk away; when the pale sunlight fell on him between the straight trunks she noticed how rusty was his black robe, how rounded his shoulders; a long walk for the old man to Kruiskerke; if Pauline had not been there he would probably have stayed in the castle a little; he must have disliked Pauline.
And he had thought that Cornelia was looking worse.
Helen had thought so too; but it was impossible to combat three wills: Pauline's will, now hostile to her in everything; Louis's will, estranged, deadly proud; Cornelia's will, passionately set in opposition.
She went down the bare open avenue, a wistful figure with a long shadow behind her, and went slowly towards the woods.
The little soft faded rose gold cloud was spreading in the distance; other clouds, a soft purplish blue, were advancing above the horizon; the pellucid quality of the sky had something poignant; the crystal light edged every branch, every blade of grass, every stone, and the stillness was as definite as any sound could be.
Helen passed from the avenue into the woods; here a dark rot of leaves lay beneath the crooked twists of the brambles, and the big trees reached so high and the big boughs interlaced so thickly that even now there was more shade than light in the wood; the clusters of grass here and there looked pallid and lifeless, only the silver and jade mosses that had a look of lustre and softness in their immaculate growth had any air of life.
Helen walked quickly deeper into the wood, along the narrow path that seemed to have no purpose beyond the hastening away from the dwellings of men.
The stillness seemed to guard a silence inviolate from humanity; if any presence haunted such a place and such an hour it was one that was neither disdainful nor sympathetic towards human passions, but utterly remote.
Helen hastened into this remoteness; she was not thinking, nor reasoning, her mind put no check on the emotions that devastated her heart.
She walked till the clear light faded, faintly withdrawing; the elongated, twisted shadows became merged in a common gloom; then she turned back, remembering with dread, Paradys, the sick girl, and Pauline.
Urged by the chill creeping on of the cold dusk she walked more quickly, then suddenly stopped with a dart of fear at her heart.
She had seen a figure in front of her, a dark tall woman's figure that moved swiftly between the trees, deeper into the shadows.
Helen's trouble that had so long been bursting her heart found a wild vent; it seemed to her that if she could meet and speak to Pauline here in this pure loneliness she might make her understand, might bring her again into love and friendship with her; nothing seemed so important to Helen as winning the friendship of Pauline.
She hastened, she cried:
It is an awesome thing to raise the voice in solitude after a long silence; Helen was frightened at the sound of that long echoing call.
"Pauline! Speak to me!"
The woman in front did not turn nor look back; she was being lost in the shadows; Helen's fear deepened to panic; it is dangerous when utterly alone to translate emotion into word and gesture; as she hurried and called she lost her long control, she plunged through the trails of brambles between the trees, dragging away her coat as it caught on the red thorns.
"Pauline! Listen! Pauline, speak to me! Pauline, everything can be all right!"
Trembling like a child, she held out her hands in an unconscious gesture of entreaty; the woman she pursued looked back; it was Pauline.
At her cousin's rigid waiting Helen stopped short; they were quite close to each other now and Pauline's expression of contempt, of dislike, of triumph—that cold, hard, thin-lipped mask, grand and yet detestable, looking out of the shadows, quenched Helen's melting passion of kindness and pity.
She turned away and stumbled back to the path.
Pauline, who had never spoken, took another way to Paradys.
WHEN Louis was away from Paradys, the efficient, quiet and loyal Hollander, who was Louis's steward, took down the red and blue striped flag from the castle; an absurd, yet impressive pomp, out of time with to-day, but in keeping with that air of formal grandeur, of aloof authority that, combined with a charming personality, made him attractive to most women.
With the removal of the flag his presence seemed the more definitely withdrawn from Paradys. Helen, at least, felt the possibility now of that hysteria likely to women enclosed together in loneliness and devastated by suppressed passions; the departure of Louis seemed like a desertion of these feminine problems, a gesture of contempt for these feminine emotions.
In one day the weather changed; nothing remained but the stillness; a most heavy rally of clouds covered the entire sky, and the creeping chill that penetrated even the thick walls of Paradys seemed to hold the expectation of snow.
It was that period of the year when there was little outdoor work to fill the short gloomy day; everything seemed at a standstill; the heavy cold air hung like a negation over the dead landscape; even with the dawn came the sense of twilight, by noon was felt the sombre encroachment of the long unlit night, for there were neither moon nor stars.
It appeared to Helen that she and Pauline pursued each other through the corridors of Paradys; they would meet, pass, glance, never speak more than a word, two people avoiding, yet absorbed in each other; the only time they kept company was when they chanced to come together in Cornelia's room, and then, at the first opportunity, Helen would escape.
Pauline and Cornelia divided the rooms on one side, the left, of the castle, and Helen was alone with her maid in the other; she had her meals by herself, the sumptuous Eet Zaal, Blauw Zaal and Groene Zaal being unused, and two sides of the quadrangle were empty save for Louis's yet unarranged collection; as the castle was still so considerably under repair the servants were the fewest possible and all peasants from Louis's estates; this added to Helen's loneliness, to her impression of being surrounded by Louis's creatures.
"How does he think that I can endure this?"
And, as his brief formal letters held no hope of his immediate return, she resolved to go to Brussels.
But first to speak to Pauline.
She stopped her in the corridor under the great oil painting of 't Huys te Paradys, with the peacocks and dogs in the box walks and a man like Louis in a laced coat crossing the drawbridge.
"Pauline, it is necessary that I should speak to you."
"Why? I haven't any more to say."
"Do you think that everything is decided, then? Why did you run away from me in the woods?"
"Because I had nothing to say."
"I am going to Brussels," said Helen, "and I want to speak to you first."
At that Pauline did look interested, even startled, as if she had hardly believed Helen to be capable of any definite independent action; her cleverness was not of the quality that could judge or understand Helen.
She followed to her cousin's sitting-room which was the pleasantest apartment in Paradys; Helen had her own bright graceful possessions there, golden glass holding blue hothouse flowers, pale silk cushions, piles of books and magazines, a work-basket full of charming trifles, some endearing pictures, among them the Guidon etching of Mark Fermor.
"Someone is with Cornelia?" asked Helen.
"Yes, Betje." Pauline named the little maid, and Helen replied abruptly:
"M. le Curé did not think that Cornelia looked so well."
"Ah, but he knows nothing about it, does he?" said Pauline calmly.
Not the slightest trace of uneasiness nor compunction nor trouble could Helen discern in her cousin's face; so composed was Pauline that the other woman even found a certain comfort in this steadfastness; surely Pauline must have some more or less certain confidence in Cornelia's health for her to be so assured.
"I suppose that it wasn't this you wanted to speak about, was it?" added Pauline.
"No—it was about the future, our living together—when I brought you here I so little thought of this."
Pauline's eyes said a mocking "Why not?" but her lips were silent.
"I am going to Brussels," added Helen, "to see if Louis Van Quellin can help me; he can have no idea of what you said, and I think he should know."
This held peril for the other woman, but she did not falter; anything was better than that these two should ignore her; Helen's scrupulousness in speaking to Louis would play into her hands. Pauline guessed that he would be amazed and angry, but his amazement and his anger would be preferable to his indifference.
So she merely replied by reminding Helen of what was in truth her stable weapon:
"Everything I told you was true."
Helen could not be insensible of the cold force with which this was said; her disbelief in the atrocious statement had for some days been shaken by Louis's departure, Louis's length of absence, Louis's dry letters.
"I will talk of this again when I return from Brussels," she answered. "Meanwhile you cannot wish to stay in Paradys."
"Cornelia needs me."
"You mean you want to stay?"
"There's Cornelia," persisted Pauline.
Helen looked at her earnestly and said suddenly:
"If you really care about Cornelia, we've got to be friends."
"We're not enemies."
"I wonder," said Helen gently. "You treat me as if I were an enemy."
"I don't," replied Pauline. "We've crossed each other, that's all—I haven't pretended to be grateful or abject."
"You know," interrupted Helen, "that I never wanted anything like that, but I did think we might come to care for each other—"
"I wasn't trained to care for people," said Pauline.
"Yes, that's the word; you were brought up soft and sentimental, weren't you? I wasn't. That is the difference between us."
Pauline added, in her mind: "There's another difference, you're a fool and I'm not;" but Helen believed what she said; Helen believed that a great difference between them was one of fortune and that she might have been such a woman as her cousin if so brought up.
"We should have got on well enough if this hadn't happened. I couldn't help it; I didn't suppose you would want me to try."
"No, no," exclaimed Helen, "not if it is all genuine, but you see I can't credit it and I can't discuss it—until I've been to Brussels."
"Then what did you want to speak to me about?"
"I want to ask you to be friends."
Pauline was amused at what seemed to her really incredible foolishness; she hardly troubled to conceal her contempt.
"We could, you know," continued Helen gravely, "there's no reason why not."
"You think that?" asked Pauline curiously. "No reason? We never talk of our fathers and what they felt about things, do we?" she added sharply and glanced at the etching of Mark Fermor.
"Why should we? That's over."
"No. We're living it out now, you with your good luck, I with my bad luck."
"No longer bad luck," said Helen troubled.
"Do you call it good? I don't like charity, an obligation—I don't like the handicap of ignorance and poverty and disgrace. I don't like being what I am."
"Pauline, I did what I could."
"I daresay. But I know what your friends think of me, what you think yourself. And now there's this man, what are you going to do?"
"It rests with him," replied Helen faintly. "I—it is impossible to talk of that—"
"You're fussy and fastidious," flashed Pauline, "but you don't care for him, you know—"
Helen looked round startled at this violent change in Pauline's manner.
"You think I don't care?"
"You don't. Why have you been waiting three years? You couldn't—if you cared. A man like that!"
It was Louis's own accusation put in other words; Helen searched her own heart with a half horror.
"I wish to God," cried Pauline fiercely, "I was as cold as you are—I didn't mean this to get hold of me—I didn't mean it."
The sincerity of this was obvious. Helen said eagerly:
"Then you have tried to be loyal to me?"
Again Pauline gave her a scornful look of amazement.
"I was thinking of myself—it doesn't suit me, or anything I meant to do—if—if this gets the mastery of me."
She closed her lips abruptly; it was impossible for her to add that her intention had been to avenge herself on the detested Helen by stealing her lover, but not so to lose herself in a passion for this lover that she lost sight of all other ends; in tampering with Louis Van Quellin she had involved herself in what might be a calamity.
Helen looked intently at Pauline's frowning sombre unhappy face; she was baffled and distracted; it seemed an incredible misfortune that she had brought nothing but evil on everyone by her effort to repay her cousin for old sufferings, by her attempt to obliterate old wrongs; she was exhausted; as Pauline remained silent Helen looked away into a small diminishing mirror in a tall frame that hung on the opposite wall; there she saw her cousin, rigid, grand, menacing in her silence, a dark figure in untidy clothes with that smooth swathe of dried bay leaf coloured hair, and herself elegant, weary, fragile, leaning back despondently in the deep chair.
Saw them both small, insignificant, wistful, far away, and a sense of the futility of all their passions, of the smallness of all their problems, soothed her; perhaps everything was wrong because her own atonement had been so slight—mere money giving; if she should give up Louis perhaps they might all be happy; it was possible, she struggled to admit, that Louis did love Pauline in a way he had never been able to love her; he had always said that she did not "care enough," always seemed restless and dissatisfied; she recalled his disappointment, so vivid, so silent, the night at Marli when he had come in from the balcony—she recalled the day when he had told her not to be so sure of his fidelity, when he had spoken of "caring tremendously;" well, Pauline seemed to care like that.
Helen slowly envisaged a sacrifice the magnitude of which she did not yet know.
Pauline was not waiting for her cousin to speak; she glanced at Helen's tired face and thought how strange it was that Mark Fermor's heiress, the loathed object of her entire life, should be such an extraordinary fool.
A fool you could do anything with, thought Pauline, pilfer, cheat, steal from, insult; and this fool had had the life of a fairy princess while she had had Fernlea, Clifton Street; there was indeed a large balance to be adjusted; she would not let go of Helen till this adjustment had been made; only there was her own crazy feeling for Louis Van Quellin to be mastered—there she needed all her strength and all her wit; if she couldn't keep her head with this man, all her plans would be brittle in her fingers.
Thus the thoughts of Pauline.
The barren day was coming to an end; the landscape beyond the window was filmed in a deepening grey fog, drops of rain hung stationary on the window, the silence seemed heavy with the fruitlessness of the two women's talk, with the sadness of Helen's effort towards goodwill which had failed so dismally before Pauline's implacable contempt.
When Pauline rose Helen did not change her hopeless position nor speak.
At the door Pauline spoke, harshly.
"I should go to Brussels—how you can stay here—as if there weren't any other women in the world—a man—like that."
The door fell sharply to on Helen's shudder of repugnance.
ALL of them waited, dallied in a dangerous pause; Pauline waited for Helen to go to Brussels, and, some way, rouse Louis. Helen waited, putting off her visit, in the hope that Louis would write frankly or come back and speak frankly; and Cornelia waited, also for Louis to return, and for Helen to leave; Helen now fretted Cornelia as Madame Fisher, Dr. Henriot and the nurses had once fretted her; she wanted nothing but Pauline and Pauline's wonderful hopes and Pauline's talks of the future and Pauline's insidious flatteries; Helen, knowing this, kept away from the sick girl and was unaware that Pauline had told her about the catastrophe of her infatuation for Louis; it did not occur to Helen to suspect her cousin of this final treachery; she was so slow to learn the lesson that there may be active evil in others; she still excused Pauline.
And she began to hesitate as to her visit to Brussels; she did not in any way wish to urge or challenge or question Louis, and it seemed impossible to her to pry into anything that he kept concealed from her; nervously rehearsing their possible interview she could think of no words in which she could speak to him of Pauline.
Equally impossible was to contemplate marrying him while she was in this state of uncertainty, but this did not much trouble Helen, for her marriage seemed so vague, so far away, even so unlikely.
Into this perilous hesitation, this impatient calm that filled Paradys, came Mr. Bamfylde, the antiquary from Kruiskerke.
The formal letters of Louis had urged Helen to go and see the excavations, but she had had no heart for such things, and when Mr. Bamfylde called at Paradys she felt a little sense of mortification, as if she had been detected in a discourtesy; she was conscious too of a certain absurdity in her position, or what the Englishman might think absurd or worse; she was acting as the châtelaine of Paradys and she was not married to Louis; there was only the frail figure of the invalid girl to excuse her presence there at all—and now she saw so little of Cornelia.
As she went downstairs to see this stranger she thought at a tangent definitely of flight.
With distaste, almost with awkwardness she entered the room; it seemed to her that she had lived apart from the world so long; even the architect, the agent and the curé had not been near Paradys for weeks.
The Englishman had been shown into the Groene Zaal, the grandiose and sombre room that Helen disliked, with the heavy armorial carvings, the massive black furniture, the rich threadbare green tapestry and the dark stately luxurious pictures of tumbled fruit and flowers.
The antiquary was standing by the hearth; a tall, thin man with glasses, with a sensitive face; Helen remembered that Louis had spoken of him as eccentric, a rather "queer" personality and he made the same impression on her but in no unpleasant way; there was indeed something appealing and charming about him and Helen was moved to see how obviously shy he was, how anxious not to intrude or give trouble; and she noticed that he nervously clasped a roll of blue paper with white diagrams, his plans, and she was at once sorry that she had not been to Kruiskerke, as she was always quickly sorry for her rare omissions and neglects.
"It is very good of you to see me," he began eagerly, "I'm afraid that I'm a frightful bore, turning up like this."
Helen smiled; she was really rather soothed to hear this quiet English voice; she felt at once at ease with him; and rather sorry for him too, he was so obviously awkward and even agitated.
"Mr. Van Quellin told me about you," she answered kindly. "You've come about the find at Kruiskerke? I'm so sorry that I know very little about it and have been too lazy to come."
"Well," replied Mr. Bamfylde with the frankness of the recluse who has not learnt to use the mask of words, "I didn't really come about that—I wanted to see you."
Helen remembered what Louis had said about his knowing her father; she did not care to broach this subject herself so she asked him, with her pretty eager grace, to sit down, and she herself took the other big sombre chair the other side of the empty hearth; the room was heated, but lacked the life given by a fire; Helen was conscious of a sensation of dis-ease and even chill from the room, not from the man.
"It was such a curious combination," began Mr. Bamfylde in his hesitating way. "I read about the altar in Le Gaulois and got an introduction to Mr. Van Quellin. He was most kind. He had practically put the excavations in my hands."
Helen listened civilly, kindly.
"...And then I heard you were here, Madame St. Luc. Of course there were plenty of other occasions when I might have called on you, but this seemed absolutely indicated, didn't it?" He paused, hesitated, and added:
"You see, I used to know your father. Rather well."
"Then you are very welcome," said Helen simply.
"Thank you. Thank you very much. I was afraid that you would think it rather odd."
He was silent in an embarrassed way, and Helen, who did not know quite what to say, studied him kindly and curiously.
Mr. Bamfylde was a man of forty or so, slightly ascetic in appearance, stiff and yet with more than a hint of grace, as if he had been naturally swift and buoyant but become awkward through long repression and a nervous habit of mind.
Helen liked his face, lean, dark with sincere blue eyes and a mouth too sensitive; he was carelessly dressed, a gentleman, but not of the world to which Helen had belonged since her marriage.
He seemed to have something more to say, so Helen waited, looking at him still kindly.
"I daresay you have never heard of me?" he asked finally.
"No." She smiled to soften this. "Perhaps you didn't see my father—lately? I mean during the last years of his life?"
"Yes. Yes I did. I was always a bit of a hermit so he never brought me forward—that is why I never met you. But I did see you once," he added unexpectedly, "when we were both children—you don't remember that?"
"I'm afraid not."
"No, I suppose not. Well, as Mr. Van Quellin isn't here I won't bother you—I'm staying at Kruiskerke and I'll run over again."
He rose with a stiff abruptness, and Helen, if her own mind had been freer, would have endeavoured to detain him, to put him at his ease, out of sheer good nature, but now she was not equal to this effort.
"This is a beautiful room," added Mr. Bamfylde speaking with more animation. "A magnificent place! What extraordinary preservation."
"Louis will like to show it to you, he is making a good many restorations—it is a fine castle, but lonely," said Helen, "in the winter."
"Ah, yes." He was touchingly eager to be sympathetic. "And Miss Van Quellin is an invalid? But you'll have friends here?"
"Only my cousin."
The effect of these three words on Mr. Bamfylde was such that Helen swiftly concluded him to be not only eccentric but slightly unbalanced, as people did become, she believed, who lived much alone with the past.
"Your cousin?" he repeated. "Did I hear you say your cousin?"
"Not your own cousin? Your husband's cousin, or Mr. Van Quellin's cousin?"
Helen tried to laugh off this rudeness, which was not offensive, but like the frankness of a child.
"No, my own cousin, Pauline Fermor."
This name seemed further to amaze Mr. Bamfylde, and not only was he amazed he seemed to be touched with terror.
"Paul Fermor's daughter? How very extraordinary."
Then Helen realized that this man must know something of her family and the trouble between the two brothers and that his indiscreet astonishment must be based on his knowledge of the long and horrible estrangement in the Fermor family.
"Yes, Paul Fermor's daughter. She lives with me now."
"How very extraordinary," repeated Mr. Bamfylde staring in front of him.
"Did you know my Uncle Paul?" asked Helen. "But no, he must have died when you were a child—perhaps you heard there was some quarrel and tragedy, Mr. Bamfylde, but that is all over now," and she was able to say this without bitterness.
"Yes, I know all about it," said Fearon Bamfylde, blankly and most unexpectedly.
Then Helen's hurt incredulous look seemed to pierce his self-absorption in his own inner astonishment; he pulled himself up with an anxious painful attempt at ease.
"I beg your pardon. I'm afraid I seem very inquisitive, but you see I did know your father rather well. I was very fond of your father. And I happened to know about—" he broke off in uncontrollable embarrassment.
Helen pitied him for the impasse into which his own awkwardness had brought him.
"You need not mind talking about it," she assured him. "It is all over now—"
"But this daughter," said Mr. Bamfylde still anxiously. "I thought they went to Australia, had quite disappeared as it were—"
"I thought so too," replied Helen with equal honesty; between these two essentially simple people subterfuge and conventionality was soon dropped; besides they liked each other, "but it was not so. And when Mrs. Fermor died Pauline came to live with me."
"And she is here now?"
"Yes, in Paradys with us," said Helen bravely. "You must meet her."
"How strange," murmured Mr. Bamfylde. "How strange—"
"You must come again—and talk about my father—or rather, won't you stay now?"
"No, thank you, but I must get back to Kruiskerke." He seemed confused, agitated. "You'll come over and see what lam doing, won't you? And—and bring Miss Fermor?"
"If we can both leave together; you see, we have an invalid to think of—"
"Ah, yes, of course, of course—when Mr. Van Quellin returns perhaps?"
"With pleasure, with so much pleasure."
Helen was really sorry to see this kindly queer man leave so hurriedly; he had brought a sense of friendliness into her life that had been greatly lacking of late.
But Fearon Bamfylde hurried away from Paradys as if he detested every inch of the ground.
"Both of them there," he was thinking. "How horrible, how really horrible."
He had forgotten his roll of drawings; and Helen, though it lay on the table in front of her, had forgotten it too; she was too absorbed in wondering why he had seemed so dismayed at the mention of Pauline, why everything about Pauline seemed to be connected with dislike, with trouble, why they could not live down, shake off these ancient calamities.
HELEN was relieved to find the girl alone. Cornelia was still in bed, with the apricot coloured curtains drawn across the prospect of the winter day, and the electric lights, muffled in rose silk, burning; the room was closer, more perfumed, more crowded than it should have been, and Cornelia in her white satin wrap and cap of Malines lace did not, to Helen's sad glance, look even as well as in the days of Beaudesert. She had sent for Helen who did not now come here unless sent for; to this had it come.
Cornelia was propped up with piles of cushions and covered by a luxurious orchid-hued eiderdown flung over the bed, and on the adjacent gilt chairs were various extravagant garments impetuously pulled out of gay boxes that had come by that morning's post from Paris.
"Where is Pauline?" asked Helen, glancing round with an instinctive dread of seeing her cousin come from some inner room.
"She isn't here," whispered Cornelia. "I want to speak to you alone."
This was rare; Helen seated herself by the bed nervously clasping her hands in her lap; she no longer felt at ease with the sister of Louis, and recently she felt oppressed, as never before, by the drowsy atmosphere of this opulent sick chamber. Outside a gale swept the bare trees, even through the thick wall it murmured.
"Pauline has been up with me nearly all night," added Cornelia. "I haven't been nearly so well—"
Helen's uppermost thought found anxious expression.
"You must have Dr. Henriot again, Cornelia, this can't go on."
The girl shook her head fretfully.
"I don't want doctors. I'm getting better. Pauline has done more for me than any doctors."
Helen could not reply; she could not combat an obsession, an infatuation, the imperious sway of a healthy strong mind over a sick weak one; how useless, in the light of her present knowledge of Pauline, to argue with Cornelia! But someone ought to speak to Louis, was Helen's nervous thought.
"It was what Pauline told me that upset me," added the girl. "That put me back—"
"How could Pauline tell you what would bother you?" asked Helen gently, "anything that would—put you back?"
"She had to—poor Pauline, she had to speak."
"What was it that Pauline had to say?"
"That is what I want to tell you. I wish my head didn't ache so this morning."
Cornelia lay still a moment with closed eyes and Helen gazed at her with infinite pity and a horrible misgiving, while the whisper of the gale shuddered through the closed windows.
The girl's beauty had always had a too lustrous quality, the hectic radiance of disease; and now, to Helen's fearful gaze, it was beginning to be marked by traces of worse than disease; the face sunk on the pillow was like the long plucked stale lily that has pitifully preserved a stagnant loveliness but at last shows an unmistakable decay.
Here and there a lilac shadow, here and there a fallen contour, a strained line to the full mouth, a deep wrinkle between the smooth brows, a little pearl of sweat under the too heavy masses of the burnished hair—Helen looking down at this vanquished youth thought of nothing but rousing, warning Louis, Louis who could not surely be so infatuate...
Cornelia looked up.
"Helen, can't you understand?" she asked. "Can't you give way?"
She was a child in everything and did not consider her own cruelty; Helen observed this even as she received her wound.
"My darling, I thought I had given way," she answered faintly.
"You mean? You want me, perhaps, to go away altogether?"
Cornelia shook that piteous head of hers that drooped so heavily into the pillows.
"Louis and Pauline love each other—you ought to let him go."
Helen pulled at the eiderdown and delicately drew it straight; for a full second she listened to the struggle of the shut-out wind to be heard. "Who told you that?"
"No. But Louis went away."
Yes, Louis had gone away and left her to this.
"Louis couldn't speak of it, could he?" continued Cornelia impatiently. "But you ought to understand, Helen."
"I think I do, but Pauline is perhaps mistaken. I can't talk about it, of course."
Cornelia raised herself on her elbow.
"But what are you going to do?" she asked eagerly.
"Oh, darling, try not to think about it—leave it to me—to Louis—"
"But how can I? You can't go on like this—"
"No," agreed Helen quietly, "but don't you see—that just because Pauline spoke to you about this how impossible it is for it to be right? When people care very much they don't—don't behave as Pauline is behaving."
"I guessed before Pauline told me," answered Cornelia quickly, "and from Louis, too—"
"From Louis?" Helen's voice held terror.
"You and he haven't been getting on well together, have you? And I saw in his way with Pauline..."
Helen looked away; she had not before believed that Louis was Pauline's accomplice in this in spite of all evidence she had not believed, but now it seemed possible—suddenly possible.
"I want Pauline to be happy," said the feeble voice from the bed. "She has done so much for me—you've got everything else, Helen, you've always had everything."
Helen had never visualised the possibility of a moment as dreadful as this moment, as full of ugly pain and brutal humiliation, as completely overwhelming.
She rose, almost involuntarily, as one will move before the sting of physical anguish.
"It isn't as if you cared very much about Louis," continued Cornelia. "Pauline said that anyone could see it was just the usual kind of fashionable engagement."
Helen's outraged nerves could endure no more; this poor echo of Pauline's incredible phrases sent her walking up and down the room with a desperate step; that distant wind noise was like the rush of oncoming waters engulfing her senses.
"Ah, no, you're angry," murmured Cornelia. "I can't bear it if you're angry—Pauline said you would be..."
Helen paused by the bed.
"No, I'm not angry. You mustn't worry or bother, Cornelia, it isn't likely I should keep Louis to—to—a promise, you poor child! Tell Pauline not to think of me—any more—as in her way—"
It was all so pitiful—pitiful and ridiculous that she should be talking to Cornelia about this! Talking and arguing with this sick girl about Pauline and Louis, about what everyone had said, what everyone must do.
At least all her doubts and hesitancies were solved; it was now abundantly clear that one of them must leave the Van Quellins, either she or Pauline; it was no longer a question of counting the cost, even the cost to Cornelia, who even now was watching her with feverish eyes.
"I want Louis back," came the fretful lament to Helen's aching senses. "He won't come unless—"
Madame St. Luc could not allow this sentence to be finished.
"I am going to Brussels to-day," she interrupted. "I will speak to Louis—if he wishes Pauline to remain, well, I can't very well talk about it, Cornelia—you must be patient a little longer."
She felt herself trembling as if she was going to be ill, a slight but unmistakable nausea assailed her; she tried to steady herself by looking at the glittering reliquary Louis had given his sister and endeavouring to count the bright stones that circled the centre crystal.
But she could speak no more to Cornelia; for the first time she left her without a kiss or a word of farewell and shut the door of the sick room with a gesture of repulsion.
Pauline was close outside in the corridor; listening perhaps, thought Helen with a shudder; anything seemed possible now, and she drew back and wished to move away so as to avoid her cousin; but Pauline came forward; there was more emotion in that handsome face, more humility in that grand figure than Helen had ever noticed before.
"I do love him," she said thickly.
Helen did not answer, neither did she move away.
It was dusk in the corridor and here the wind could be heard clearly rushing through the bare park, over the formal garden and the towers of Paradys.
"I can't stand it any longer—you're both so silent," continued Pauline. "I've broken down, I suppose—if you don't go to Brussels—I must—"
"I'm going," shuddered Helen with averted eyes, and escaped.
HELEN had not answered Pauline's abject, "I do love him," uttered outside Cornelia's room, but the words accompanied her on her journey to Brussels; not that she thought Pauline's love very important; it seemed to her, as it had seemed to Van Quellin himself, the most ordinary thing for a woman of Pauline's type and Pauline's upbringing to consider herself in love with the first attractive man who was picturesquely put in her way; granted her capacity for treachery, the situation was to Helen ordinary, it was only strange that Pauline should have had this capacity for treachery, that she should from the first have concentrated on her cousin's lover by obstinately refusing to see other people, to mingle with the new world to which Helen had introduced her, by influencing Cornelia to this isolation at Paradys.
Her "I do love him" did not seem an outburst of spontaneous passion, but the climax of a long deliberate and carefully planned intrigue.
For a moment Helen was near the truth; she glimpsed the hatred of herself as Pauline's master motive; but immediately the thought seemed too fantastically horrible; Helen could see no reason for such a hatred, nor conceive of any woman capable of entertaining such a hideous passion; she rejected Pauline as a schemer animated by fury against herself and accepted her as a merely bold selfish and ignorant, but sincere and honest woman.
"After all, she told me; it may have been put very insolently, but that is her manner. She did tell me, and at once."
It was not so easy, however, even for Helen to palliate the speaking to Cornelia; this agitating of the sick girl on such a subject seemed intolerable, unforgivable.
There was only one possible excuse; Pauline's knowledge of the mind of Louis.
Helen could not imagine Louis being deliberately treacherous, but she could believe that perhaps he found in Pauline what he had missed in herself; she recalled, with a sad pain, his frequent impatience with the quality of her love, his accusations of some lack in her; she thought of the day when he had said half jestingly:
"Don't be too sure of me," and "if I met someone who cared tremendously;" perhaps Pauline could give him that which he wanted, or some counterfeit that deceived him; it was clear that lately he had been most indifferent towards herself.
Helen could not believe that a man like Louis could marry Pauline, but she thought it possible that he might be too interested in Pauline to wish to marry any other woman.
Lastly Helen came to her own feelings; she was conscious only of a sensation of deep woe; Pauline had spoken of a visit to the unfinished Pavilion, of a kiss, of a "If I were free!" from Louis.
If he admitted these things there was an end of the marriage in April; and Helen knew now how much of her being had been bound up in the prospect of this marriage.
It was curious to be in Brussels alone with only her maid and this dreary excuse of shopping; the town looked sombre, veiled in fold and fold of mist with the dun coloured towers and spires of the low streets rising from the heavy vapours, and the upper town blotted into the frowning winter sky.
Helen had no heart for even a pretence at visiting the shops; the very afternoon of her arrival she telephoned to Louis whose hotel was near hers, the other side of the bare park.
He chanced to be in, and his surprise at her voice was painful to Helen.
"Louis, why shouldn't I come to Brussels? We have begun to think of each other as prisoners—"
"But you have left Cornelia—"
"Cornelia has Pauline—and I must speak to you."
"I was returning immediately."
"I want to speak to you—away from Paradys."
He answered without cordiality:
"Of course I will come round at once."
Helen, waiting for him in her hotel sitting-room, felt a coward before her pain; she remembered the happiness that had been so unsullied that she had been afraid of it and blamed herself that she could not with more fortitude meet this misfortune.
It was overwhelmingly discomposing, too, to find in what trepidation the thought of meeting him put her; she thought of seeing this man whom she had met almost every day for years and whom she had taken so for granted, with an almost fainting trepidation.
She could not yet determine what her feelings for Louis were, but at least they were no longer serene and happy and gay. How detestable seemed the barren dull hotel sitting-room with the parade of senseless, tasteless luxury; how atrocious that view of the town blotted by the heavy fog that had followed the gale from the tall windows with the chill muslin curtains; when Louis entered this dreary room Helen was too agitated to speak; the sense of his presence affected her as never before; it was as if she had never known him till this moment.
He came straight up to her where she sat on the gaudy little sofa beneath the gilt rococco clock.
"Well, Helen, what is your news?"
Her trouble was so extreme that she rushed into foolish excuses.
"I had a tiresome journey—I've a headache—sit down. I'll tell you in a moment—"
She made a little gesture that implored him to move away from her; he understood instantly and went to one of the long glimmering white windows against which the increasing fog was piling; he was in an ill-humour; she had noticed that as soon as he entered the tall white door.
"Helen, what is the matter?"
She shook her head, indicating her inability to speak; she watched his face with an eagerness new in her glances at his familiar presence.
He was different—his voice, his personality, his look, but she knew even at once that this difference was not in him but in herself.
She had never understood how handsome he was, compact, elegant, at once light and strong, with that curious narrow face and the close dark red hair; she thought of the old simile of a hawk—a bird of prey, sly as well as noble; those queer light eyes that she had admired for their pride and pitied for their pride now appeared to flash with a metallic gleam, and the full firm lips appeared not only resolute, but sensual and even cruel.
As in a moment of vision Helen saw him and saw herself, and was frightened at her passionate need of him, her passionate desire for him, her delight in him; she averted her eyes, she understood Pauline's haggard despair, she understood that sort of love, she understood what it would be to love this man, what to lose him; she sat dumb.
"What has happened, Helen?"
He was more gentle, trying to be kind, thought Helen; she answered with an unnatural coldness:
"Louis, I've got to know; things can't go on another day like this—I must know about Pauline."
Van Quellin looked so sincerely startled that she thought perhaps after all Pauline had been lying; he was amazed at his own monstrous miscalculation; he had counted on the secretive discretion of Pauline as he might have counted on the devotion of a spaniel dog.
"Forgive me," added Helen, replying to his expression, "if it is all a mistake—but Pauline told me, and told Cornelia—"
"What did she tell you?"
"It sounds so—childish—put into words—but she said you care about her—"
"Oh, these phrases," interrupted Louis irritably, "what did she exactly say?"
Helen knew now that Pauline had not been lying.
"Louis," she said, "you took her to the Pavilion and"—Helen could not mention the kiss—"and said 'if I were free'—"
"She told Cornelia that?"
"Yes," Helen smiled piteously. "Cornelia wants me to go away—"
The dominant emotion in Van Quellin's mind was still astonishment at Pauline's action; he could never have believed that she would dare to try to force his hand in this fashion. Helen, wincing before his formidable silence, continued casting her troubled words before his troubled thoughts.
"You see, I had to tell you—one of us must leave Paradys—"
"You seem to take this all very indifferently. I suppose it doesn't really affect you much."
"Do you expect me to say so?" asked Helen, "when I don't know how your mind lies?"
"You don't know?" he challenged queerly. "You don't know?"
He was confirmed now in his suspicions of her essential coldness, her essential indifference towards him, towards perhaps everything.
Helen, controlling herself to abnegation that he, unswayed by pity, might decide justly, according to his heart, made the impression on him of an emotional calm.
He felt he needed no further proof of the negative state of her feelings towards himself; first she had forced Pauline on him, then she had taken seriously Pauline's tale of a kiss and a half phrase and come to him coolly with a gesture that seemed to ask him to decide between them!
"We can't possibly talk about this," he said with deep and bitter vexation. "I don't see how you could come to me about it—"
"But I must," she answered simply, "know if it is true?"
"What Pauline said?"
"That doesn't matter, I think, very much. You are so obviously tired of me—so clearly seeking a way to be rid of me..."
He spoke in desperate sincerity, but Helen read in his words a signal for her own self-sacrifice; she thought he was giving her a chance to withdraw with dignity her claims on him, and she took it earnestly, even passionately. "Louis, you are quite free for me—I've meant to say that for a long time, apart from any question of Pauline, only, we won't quarrel."
"No, you're too indifferent to quarrel, aren't you?" he replied. "I think you are wise, we will end all this—this false position. I hope," he added coldly, "you will go back to Paradys for a few days—for Cornelia's sake?"
She answered dutifully:
"Yes, I will go back to Paradys and try to arrange things quietly."
It did not matter what she said, scarcely what she did; the strange mightiness of it was above words or actions; it had needed the intervention of another woman to show her this other face of love, not gay affection but tormenting passion—passion of love; she knew now what he had missed in her...caring tremendously; she thought of his kisses and embraces, of delight enveloping both of them; all learnt too late, all lost.
And he seeing her still small and cold on the little sofa thought her indifferent, heartless, a cipher.
Yet he hesitated, if not without hope, yet with anger; he had suffered so much through this woman and he did not bear suffering well; his pride was pleased that this was the end of his ignominious waiting and her evasions and pretences; but his senses ached with the loss of her, the relinquishing of that long enduring hope that one day she might have cared as he cared.
He smiled faintly, hesitating by the tall white door; it had been a sweet deception, and the blame was not hers; he might have known when he had seen her the happy wife of that old man that she would never be his lover.
She did not answer; she could not say that word to him; he left her, and then she moved and looked round the room, and presently put on her hat and coat and went out into the fog which began to be scattered by the acrid electric lights of the city.
HELEN crossed the park; the trees showed dimly through the fog; the outline of the seats and the railings, the crouched-up figures seated or passing were all blurred; the ground was wet and as the fog drifted into Helen's face she found that wet too, and bitter.
She fumbled her way aimlessly through the park on to the dirty pavement and came on to the Rue Royale, where the heavy featureless buildings blended with the vaporous skies and the flat squares of the shop windows glowed pink and yellow in artificial prettiness filled with, useless objects that looked both frivolous and forlorn.
At the foot of the "Colonne du Congres" Helen paused, drawn by the sudden widening of the view over which the fog was lifting revealing the bleached light of the moon and the spires of the old, sunk city below.
Helen stood by the base of the dark ugly over-powering column; an open door that seemed an open grave was at her feet piled with decaying tumbled flowers, sodden florists' wreaths, dead bouquets, broken palms, knots of cottage berries, all dirty, drooping, soiled by the fog, battered by the late gale.
Helen shuddered away, leant on the wet balustrade and endeavoured to think; but she could not, her emotion was too acute; she hurried on again anywhere over the filthy pavements, between the massive bleak buildings, through the choking dusk riven by electric light and moonlight.
She made her way to the hotel where Louis was staying, Hotel Leopold; often had she looked at that name above his brief letters.
Abroad wash of light fell from the open doorway; Helen remained beyond, staring at the glass and stucco, the trim flowers, the neat porters; at any moment Louis might pass in or out.
To what humiliation was she reduced, to what utter abnegation and despair, waiting in the foul night for a possible glimpse of this man—the man who, for years, a gesture, a word, had brought to her side.
He did not come; shame and terror drove Helen away into the darkness again, hurrying through the murky city; she stopped at a church door; she knew this church, Notre Dame des Victoires; what a long way she had walked—a church, Notre Dame des Victoires.
"Can any God turn to Victory my utter defeat?"
Helen went in.
The fog had penetrated the interior of the church that was sweet with incense, foul with enclosed air and mistily bright with lamps and candles; the floor was wet and muddy from the feet of many people; figures curved over the high backs of chairs with rosaries trailing from their hands; circles of candles sparkled before tinfoil roses, flowers of pink and blue and plaster figures gaudily painted; high overhead the columns disappeared in a mystic gloom; a priest walked up and down a side aisle, from one confessional box to another, reading a book, never raising his eyes, so many paces, then back, up and down.
Helen crept to the furthest most obscure altar and sat down; she was too aching with fatigue to kneel; that dramatic gesture was beyond her; she sat with her hands in her lap.
The only sound was the light footfalls of the priest and the thud of the padded swing door as the silent people came and went.
Helen, in her abject misery, thought of how she had sat in the church at Kruiskerke and believed herself in trouble—how tranquil, how safe she had really been then compared to this anguish.
Tranquil and safe up to the moment of this disastrous awakening.
She looked back with amazement at her own gay security, at her blindness, at the patience of Louis, at that frittered wasted time; now she understood him, now she understood Pauline, now she knew that other face of Love.
Trembling she thought of what might have been, of what had been within her reach for years, but ignorantly rejected; it was overwhelming, it was terrible.
Passion of love, delight of love, that man holding her, that man kissing her, the two of them together caught away from the rest of the world, passion of love, delight of love; in one moment realised and missed.
With a different mind she now saw that scene in the Pavilion; Louis, hungry for love, tired of waiting for her to respond, had found love in Pauline; deep jealousy shook Helen at the thought of that kiss, at the thought of the actual touching of Louis and Pauline.
Here she was riven with an even more exquisite agony.
She loved children, in a gay serenity had looked forward to children with happy tranquillity, but now it seemed that she must have that man's children or die—and beyond all measure insufferable was the prevision of his children with another woman for their mother.
She bowed deep in the stiff straw chair till her cold face was in her cold hands.
This was true pain, true defeat, to be suddenly at the mercy of this ungovernable passion. She did not commend herself; even now she saw this love as something to be chastised, something gross of the body and perilous to the soul.
All her intense spirituality, her great capacity for self-sacrifice, her innate nobility and loftiness—all these qualities which were pushed to such extremes in her that she was so often set down a fool—struggled valiantly against this sudden passion of the senses.
Louis must be free, Pauline must be free; it was all her own fault, she must not hamper or sadden anyone—she must go away.
Never back to Paradys—never.
She could not conceive what she would do with the rest of life; it lay before her as a vague blankness.
Her spirit was so pure and lovely that it never occurred to her to try to win Louis back. She never considered how long he had desired her, and that she, now desiring him, might easily revive his love that had been so patient and so steadfast; she thought only of sacrifice and abnegation; she put two concrete facts before her—Pauline and Louis loved each other—and Cornelia wanted them to stay, wanted her to go.
Only one indulgence did she allow herself.
"I'll not go back to Paradys; I'll avoid him. I won't see him again."
That was the impossible thing, to see him again as the lover of another woman.
Pauline must be abandoned; she had Cornelia; perhaps Louis would marry her very soon.
"At least I can't go back."
The priest walked up and down, intent upon his book, the door thudded as the worshippers crept in and out; the candles on the metal stand before Helen guttered into long clinging waxen sheets, and threw a flicker of startled upleaping light on the face of the brocaded puppet on the altar.
Helen looked up, looked beyond the doll's features and saw serenity, tranquillity, peace; she instinctively stretched out her hands as she had stretched them out after Pauline in the wood.
She was so alone; her world had gradually narrowed to Louis Van Quellin, and now he was gone she was desolate of all close companionship and affection.
She writhed beneath the immensity of her affliction; if she might only love him as she had loved him before, she might renounce him and the memory of him would sanctify her days, but to love him like this.
By an immense effort of will she rose and left the chapel; the priest, chancing to look up noticed her distorted face, her pallor, her rich clothes so carelessly put on, so damp and muddy; his glance rested on her a second; he was well used to turmoil of soul, to grief, to pain, the abasement of anguish, and the warm pity that never ceased to flow from him enveloped Helen.
She did not see him; she passed on slowly towards the doors, and he bent again over his book; he saw so many faces, but he never forgot her face, ravaged as it was by pain and fatigue; he thought that he had never seen a countenance so spiritually lovely.
When Helen, walking feebly and grateful for the physical fatigue, reached her hotel, she found a telephone message awaiting her.
Cornelia "not so well"—Cornelia "wanting her;" a message from Betje, Cornelia's maid.
"I can't go," said Helen aloud, so that the porter stared at her, but she did not notice that; she walked upstairs, forgetting the lift, stumbled into the terrible room where Louis had said "good-bye," looked again at the message on the slip of paper, and repeated:
"I can't go."
The struggle was at the height; she felt as if her very bones and sinews were being rent.
She spoke to her frightened maid:
"I'm not well, I'm tired, I've been out too long—long—in the fog. I'm cold."
She sat huddled over the fire with her hand in front of her hot eyes.
Cornelia would want to know if Louis was free, Pauline would urge her to discover this; poor Pauline, poor wretch, perhaps Louis did not love her either.
Presently she asked her maid to telephone to Paradys; Betje answered; it was true Miss Van Quellin was not so well, she was fretting because she was so much alone.
On this being repeated to Helen she went herself to the instrument and asked where Pauline was?
"Out, madame; she has begun to go a great deal to Kruiskerke to see Mr. Bamfylde."
"Out now, so late?"
"Yes, madame, she drives herself back. The doctor has been to see Miss Van Quellin; he thinks Dr. Henriot should be called in."
"Have you let Mr. Van Quellin know this?" asked Helen steadily.
"Yes, madame—he is returning, he says, immediately, but it is you Miss Van Quellin wishes to see."
Helen hung up the receiver, repeating:
"I can't go."
It just flicked across her consciousness that it was queer that Pauline should discover an interest in Mr. Bamfylde, that quiet, nervous man, but she did not think about it, being too absorbed in her own pain.
She sent her frightened and curious maid to bed and remained seated by the fire, which she did not even replenish when it fell out; towards the morning, the cold, sad morning of mid-winter, she fell asleep, her pretty tumbled light hair falling over her clasped hands.
It had been such a vigil as no one could survive unchanged; Helen's gaiety that Louis had so loved, had died during that long struggle, that long watch in the dismal hotel room.
CORNELIA continued to ask why she was so much alone; every day since Helen had gone to Brussels, Pauline had driven over to Kruiskerke.
The excuse she gave to Cornelia was exciting enough; an altar had been discovered, an altar to the goddess of Health; the sick girl responded to this fresh stimulus as she had responded to Mrs. Falaise and Santa Ignota, but she lamented her long loneliness; she missed, without knowing it, the atmosphere of happiness that had been hers till the coming of Pauline; her own frustration and suppression was harried by these silent passions and miseries which plundered the people she knew; she asked for Louis, for Helen, for Pauline till the little maid, Betje, was anxious and nervous. The very servants began to whisper that she was too much alone, that it was strange to leave her like that, after the retinue to which she was used; the local doctor called in when she had an attack of feverish languor had instantly suggested a visit from Dr. Henriot, but Cornelia had refused to see the conscientious man again.
In the afternoon of a freezing iron-coloured day Helen returned to Paradys; none of those who called Helen weak and foolish could have estimated the strength she had exercised to achieve this return to Paradys; she was changed; even Cornelia noticed that—very quiet, very gentle, but different.
Cornelia was further troubled by this; there was a moment of pitiful silence between the two women. Helen wore her heavy coat and furs, a hat with plume; and veil; her shadows lay gigantic behind her in a room already too full of shadows.
"Did you want me?" asked Helen.
"Yes," said Cornelia at once fretfully and wistfully. "I want everyone—this is horrid, so much alone."
"But isn't Louis coming?"
"He says so, but he doesn't come."
"He will come, Cornelia. And Pauline?"
"Pauline goes so much to Kruiskerke; there is a wonderful altar there, but it is no use talking of that to you, is it; you don't believe in miracles."
"Surely I have never said that," whispered Helen.
And again there was silence; Cornelia was very weak, agitated and restless; she certainly looked, as the little maid had said, "not so well;" but Helen could not talk of doctors, nurses, remedies; she could do nothing but sit there patiently.
"You and Louis?" murmured Cornelia at last.
Helen had had her answer to this ready for so long.
"It is over, dear."
"And Pauline? Is he going to marry Pauline?"
Helen stared down at her, and Cornelia cried out:
"Helen, how changed you are; you look different."
"Do I? Different? Oh, about Pauline, I don't know. I shall leave Paradys as soon as—your brother comes."
Cornelia made a miserable gesture.
"I wish it were all happier."
"Happier?" repeated Helen. "Oh, happiness!"
"Why doesn't Pauline come back?" demanded Cornelia restlessly. "She needn't stay so long at Kruiskerke. Mr. Bamfylde came here yesterday."
"You saw him?"
Cornelia had seen him, had found him negligible, unimpressive, as indeed had Helen, who could see no reason for her cousin's interest in the antiquary—but what did any of it matter!
Jealousy of this neglect appeared to have slackened the sick girl's obsession for Pauline; she looked at Helen almost remorsefully, she spoke of Pauline with doubt, with hesitation, with annoyance; Helen noticed these signs of a change in Cornelia, but was not affected by them; everything now was too late for happiness; Helen had even ceased to think of happiness; a miracle, Pauline was beguiling Cornelia with the hope of a miracle; Helen did not dare to think that there might not be miracles possible even for such as these.
She thought that a miracle had happened to her that night in Brussels, to enable her to face this return to Paradys, to enable her to effront her fate with serenity.
Cornelia moved restlessly; she began to speak of the altar, this miraculous heathen altar, as she had once spoken of Mrs. Falaise; she had become too tired to sit up, and lay back in her luxurious bed, hot, shadowed and ghastly in her ruined loveliness, that loveliness that had always held a quality of decay.
"I'm glad that you have come back," she said suddenly, wistfully.
But Helen knew that she had not come back in the sense that Cornelia meant; it was only a phantom of herself that sat here in the shadows by the heavy bed.
Pauline entered, in a dark coat glittering with damp.
"I did not think you would return," she said, looking at Helen.
"It is only for a few days, to say good-bye," answered Helen; she was moved by the look of Pauline, so distracted, overwrought and ill did this woman who had been so still and grand appear.
"You're going away?" muttered Pauline stupidly.
"Yes." Helen hoped that she need say no more; hoped that Pauline would understand without any mention of Louis; surely even Pauline must see how unbearable any further words would be; surely it was enough that she was going away.
Pauline went and sat by the fire; her attitude was sunk, almost cowering, in the low black chair; it reminded Helen of how she had sat, that hideous night in Brussels; she was sorry, sorry for Pauline, who was at the mercy of Louis, for though he had broken with her it was not clear what he meant to do with Pauline, only clear that he was keeping her in silence, waiting.
Cornelia began talking about the altar, and Pauline answered heavily, as if she were absorbed in something else.
"Why do you go so much to Kruiskerke—this weather?" asked Helen gently. "Is there anything to see?"
Pauline looked at her, across the room, across the bed with the restless, eager girl.
"Mr. Bamfylde interests me," she said unexpectedly. "He knew your father—and mine, rather well. There is a copy of that portrait you have, in his sitting-room at the inn—"
"The Guidon etching?" asked Helen.
"Yes; queer, isn't it?"
"I suppose they were intimate friends," said Helen. "I liked him; he is the kind of man my father would like."
"But he was only a child," replied Pauline. "It was his mother who was your father's friend; he has her portrait there too, side by side with the other."
She still spoke in that distracted way, and in an abstracted way Helen listened; she was not interested, as she would have been interested, even a few days before; nothing seemed to matter, either in the past or the future; there was just this unbearable present somehow to live through.
She rose; there was something mournful now about her long grace, so fragile and fine, meant for swift gaiety, and now checked and stilled. She said "good night" to Cornelia and left her to Pauline; before she had closed the door she heard the eager trembling talk begin about the altar, the miraculous altar.
There was still a dim glimmer of light outside; Helen left the house and came out on to the drawbridge; all the landscape was purplish grey, the park, the moat, the trees, even the bulk of the castle; a few seagulls, refugees from the late gale, still circled overhead, hesitating before a seaward flight, and the lily-white swans glimmered by the dark bank.
Helen, a shadow among shadows, crossed the black and quiet water and wandered down the bare, dark avenue; as she turned, reluctantly back, she noticed the Van Quellin flag broken from the castle, hanging sullenly from the keep.
Louis had returned.
Helen hastened in so that she might gain her rooms without seeing him; but as she hurried through the corridors she had one glimpse of him as she looked back.
He was standing beneath a magnificent Hondecoter that hung at the foot of the stairs, a peacock and other exotic birds of glittering plumage; his reserved, proud face, with the marked features and authoritative outline was thrown up clearly against the rich painting; nothing of his mind was to be learnt from his expression.
He made no attempt to see Helen, but spent the evening with his sister.
TO escape from Paradys and to avoid Louis, Helen went early to Kruiskerke; the day was still, and Helen walked in preference to using one of the Van Quellin cars; she had written to Madame de Montmorin and waited an answer, not from any fear that Jeanne de Montmorin would not receive her, but from an uncertainty where this friend, who had last written from Marli, was at the moment luring.
Kruiskerke was a wide, silent, precise village of steep gabled houses of fine laid bricks and square later houses with facings of white stucco on the red; in the centre of the wide cobbled square, that was nearly always empty, stood a rococco pump with swelling wreaths of bronze fruit; either side the small stadhuis a stone lion guarded the posts of the winged steps; some of the houses were sheltered by a screen of clipped trees, so thick and stiff that even now, when leafless, the windows were darkened.
The church ungainly, overwhelming, ancient, patched and melancholy—rose behind this main square and precisely behind the flat-fronted decorous inn.
Mr. Bamfylde was not there, but in the field of the excavations, close to the village.
Helen, tired by her long walk, and glad of the fatigue for the sake of the passivity it induced, went to this place which was only divided from the long main road by a thin straggling avenue of spindly poplars. An old farmhouse that had been at one time a portion of a castle had stood here and had recently been demolished, as it was too large, gloomy and uncomfortable; below this building, indeed below the entire field, had been found the foundations of the castle, and below that again the brickwork of some Roman structure and this curious altar which had so excited Cornelia and which was itself remarkable and in a fair state of preservation.
Van Quellin, who possessed both generosity and taste, had liberally employed Mr. Bamfylde, who had come to him in Brussels with such eager interest in the "find," to superintend the excavations which were now slowly proceeding.
Helen found the antiquary in the field outside the village among the broken masonry, holes and pits of the excavations; the water was coming in, and a small pump was beginning work; he took Helen away from the noise of this, to a big stout barn where he had his altar and other treasures.
This place was heated, and he had his meals there; but he suddenly remembered how rough it all was, and begged Helen to come to the inn where he lodged—"not that it is so much better."
Helen decided to stay in the barn; she liked the great beams, the brown shadows, the square of clear, pale bluish winter landscape with the flats spreading to the sea, the willows and the faint but unclouded sunshine.
She asked Bamfylde, simply, about himself, and he simply answered.
As before, she found him shy, but not embarrassed; strange, but with the manners of a gentle culture; as before, she liked him.
He had enough money, and no ties, responsibilities, or expensive tastes; he had written a few books, he lectured, he contributed to several quarterlies—always on the subject of those ancient Roman or Greek remains that seemed to Helen so lifeless and uninspiring.
He had never been to school, he said, but had been brought up by his mother, who had employed transitory tutors; Bamfylde had been all his life very closely associated with this lady, who had, Helen thought, rather selfishly absorbed him, and kept him away from other people.
Her death, five years ago, had set him free, but he had not known what to do with this freedom; he was still like a man hedged and caged; he told Helen all this simply and naturally, with a certain friendly eagerness.
Only when it came to his work was he absolutely natural, self assured and impressive.
"It was my mother your father used to know," he told Helen; "he used to come down to our little place in Surrey when I was a child. It is very extraordinary meeting you like this. I often thought of looking you up," he added with a certain wistfulness. "But I never quite had the courage."
"I am sorry that you didn't," replied Helen. "I would like to know all my father's friends."
"Oh, you wouldn't hear of me, of course; I was a child—it was my mother who was your father's friend."
"But I'm afraid I never heard about your mother," smiled Madame St. Luc.
"No," reflectively, "no—"
"My cousin has been to see you?"
"Yes. I thought it so strange that she should be staying with you."
"Why? Did you know about her?"
"My mother did—the whole story. And told it to me."
"What story?" asked Helen, painfully bewildered.
"All the old trouble," replied Mr. Bamfylde simply. "You see, Mr. Fermor—Mr. Mark Fermor, used to confide in my mother."
"This is all very strange to me," said Madame St. Luc. "What do you mean by the old trouble?"
She felt anxious to defend her father's memory from any possible imputation of any kind, and as Mr. Bamfylde was silent, she added:
"There was much unhappiness about my uncle Paul; no one could do anything with him, though my father was very patient and kind."
"But when Paul Fermor died his widow and daughter must have had a very hard life," remarked Mr. Bamfylde thoughtfully.
Helen was startled, even stung; the remark had touched on what had always seemed to her something rather strange and ugly—the abandonment of these two miserable women; the something that had really induced her to try to "make amends" to Pauline.
"I think Mrs. Fermor was difficult to help," was her defence. "Something dreadful had occurred between her and my father."
"I know, she accused him of stealing the Fermor Brake patent," said Mr. Bamfylde surprisingly.
"Oh!" cried Helen. "You have heard of that? You do really know all about it?"
"I'm afraid," he answered apologetically, "I do know all about it."
"You say that," said Helen uneasily, "as if there was something to know that lam in ignorance of—"
"Oh, no, no, as if there could be," he answered hastily. "I daresay you think it peculiar of me to mention such things; I daresay it wasn't very tactful to do so—but your father played a big part in our lives—I often thought—if I met you—"
His voice wandered off, his rather wistful eyes searched Helen's face; finding nothing there but kindness, he added:
"My parents were very unhappy; I think all my father's fault, but I am prejudiced of course; they had been separated for a good many years when Mr. Fermor met us, in the train, I remember, and helped us with our luggage. I was about ten—we lived very quietly in the country on a little allowance. My mother was a very sensitive, timid sort of woman, and I think—heartbroken."
It sounded so remote, so alien even to Helen—this stranger and her father.
"I am so glad to be able to talk about them," continued Mr. Bamfylde simply. "When people are dead you don't get much chance to talk about them, do you? It is thought morbid, or boring, or even bad taste, but I like to talk about those two."
Helen looked past him into the square of cold, limpid landscape, so crystal blue, so still, showing in the big open door of the barn.
"You say—those two?" she questioned.
"Yes. Mr. Fermor would have married my mother if she had been free. My father and he died the same year. I thought I would like to tell you."
This was a queer pang to Helen, as unexpected news of the near dear dead must be; it had never remotely occurred to her that her candid father had had a romance hidden away in his busy life; he had survived his wife by over twenty years, but Helen had never heard any suggestion of a second marriage.
She recalled now, queerly, that in his youth he had loved Maria Gainsborough, who had become his brother Paul's wife; the twisted pattern worked out strangely; Helen felt reverently towards this secret now so simply disclosed; from Fearon Bamfylde's way of telling it she knew that it had been lovely and of fair repute.
"A pity I never knew," she said, and for a moment forgot her own heartache. "I suppose they suffered—
"They suffered terribly."
Helen winced from that thought.
"How secret it was kept!"
"Yes. I've all his letters; perhaps some day you would like to see them. It was in my mother's house your father was taken ill; he was really a dying man when he went home."
Helen remembered, with the brilliant horror of the one tragedy of her life, her father returning with the chill and fever that developed so swiftly into pneumonia; but she had thought he had been in France.
"He meant to do something for your cousin," continued Mr. Bamfylde. "My mother persuaded him to do that; he went away, meaning to, but he died too soon."
"But I did!" exclaimed Helen. "I've tried to make amends."
"I know. I'm so glad. It is a load off my conscience. As long as my mother lived she was always urging me to speak to you. But I didn't like to—and then my mother died too, and there was no one to remind me. Now I've met you it all seems simple."
"I wish I had done something before. I didn't know," said Helen quietly.
"My mother always thought you ought to have been told."
Helen had a sudden and appalling sense of bewilderment and loss; mental darkness seemed to have descended on her as the waters descend over the head of the drowning. Everything they were talking of, thinking of, swung into a confusion; and in this confusion something terrific seemed to rush by and escape her comprehension.
"Ought to have been told?" she repeated. She saw Mr. Bamfylde's dark, thoughtful face flush slowly under her gaze.
"I mean about having a cousin and looking after her," he said clumsily and awkwardly.
"I thought you meant something more," answered Helen. "I had, I don't know, a queer sensation; of course your news is strange and most unexpected."
"I suppose I shouldn't have told you," he said remorsefully. "I get a thing so much in my mind, that on the first chance I come out with it—that's through living so much alone, you know."
"I'm pleased that you told me—I always tried to think of my father as a happy man; it is strange to find he wasn't."
"No, not at all happy; he had a happy nature, but he wasn't happy."
"I know what that means now," said Helen. "You feel so secure, and then suddenly—a happy nature, yes, some day you must show me those letters."
He looked at her pathetically, she thought, as if he was sorry for both of them and could not do anything to help either; as if he regretted having said so much, yet had a great deal more to say.
Helen thought of Pauline, to whom she was now doubly bound; it seemed to her that this man was only the instrument to make known to her father's wishes and commands, as if a stern injunction had been laid on her to repay Pauline.
She hoped he would say no more; it would be unbearable if he should say any more.
"Show me your altar," she asked. "Tell me about it."
He divined her mood and rose obediently; she found that she had been seated quite near the altar, which was covered up with sacks and standing between her and the heavy wooden wall of the barn.
As Fearon Bamfylde took off these sacks Helen saw what looked like a squat table on a square plinth, each square being sculptured with unearthly figures.
It had been cleaned, but was still stained by earth and damp.
"What is it?" asked Helen.
"We don't quite know—the lettering is half effaced but it is an altar, I believe, in honour of a certain goddess of Health, a local Hygeia; that was why your cousin was so interested. She had Miss Van Quellin's care much at heart."
"What has that to do with the altar?" asked Helen quickly.
"Oh, nothing, of course; she thought it was a little coincidence that would encourage Miss Van Quellin—she suggested that the altar be sent up to Paradys."
"Has Mr. Van Quellin heard anything of that?"
"No, there has been no chance to tell him, but I suppose in any case he would like it sent there before the Government take it."
"I don't think," said Helen, "that he would want his sister excited about it; she is quite seriously ill."
"Much stronger lately, Miss Fermor said."
"Ah! I don't know. What do these figures mean?"
Helen stooped to look at the altar bas-reliefs where seated women in rippling robes that seemed to flutter in a perpetual breeze received tributes of fruit, fish and flowers from kneeling bowed figures.
Mr. Bamfylde did not answer; instead he said with sudden vehemence:
"I wish you would prevent your cousin from coming here again—I don't wish to see her."
Helen was disagreeably surprised by Mr. Bamfylde's words, because they seemed to show her the light in which Pauline was regarded by other people, as something repellent and to be avoided.
"You won't take it ill, if I tell you," added the excavator nervously, "that I took a considerable aversion to your cousin. She is a very dominant personality."
"She had a wretched sort of life," murmured Helen. "Her mother was a terrible woman, ill, blind and bitter."
"I know. But let me tell you, Madame St. Luc, that they—the father and mother—were bad people, thoroughly bad people. I've had the interest to find out about them; Paul Fermor was a rogue and a swindler, and his wife was his accomplice; and if I had been you I shouldn't have had much to do with the daughter."
Van Quellin's judgment coming from a man so unlike Van Quellin smote Madame St. Luc; if this simple, unworldly man considered her action folly, surely monstrous folly it must have been—surely folly it had come to be.
And yet she was surprised.
"I don't see what else I could have done; the woman was destitute, my next of kin, my only kin."
Mr. Bamfylde shook his head dubiously.
"Has she proved grateful?" he asked.
Helen strove to defend her enemy.
"One didn't look for gratitude. I think she is rather a strange character; there is something grand and powerful about her."
Mr. Bamfylde answered irrelevantly and with a hint of an appeal.
"I wish you would keep her away from me. She has been over here four times; she said she would come again to-day."
"Do you know why?" asked Helen puzzled.
"She wants to find out things," replied Mr. Bamfylde in a worried tone. "When she first came she saw your father's portrait, and she keeps on asking questions, sort of forcing you to tell her things."
"Why not tell her?"
"I was your father's friend," said Mr. Bamfylde stubbornly.
"But surely—as you don't know anything disagreeable—"
"I believe she has written to England to find out things about my mother, and so on."
"How could she? She knows no one."
"Well there are detective agencies."
"But what would her purpose be?" exclaimed Helen amazed.
Mr. Bamfylde was silent; it was plain that he was uneasy, bothered.
Helen could not pretend to herself that she believed Pauline incapable of treachery, but she could not see where her interest was served by any interference here; what could this man know that would be any use to Pauline?
Only, at the back of Helen's mind, came a queer, agitated recollection of that incredible scene with old Mrs. Fermor; the talk of blackmail; she, Maria Fermor, had been called blackmailer and turned out of her father's office; was it not just possible that Pauline might be also searching for opportunities for blackmail?
Helen would not entertain this thought, but it lurked, dreadfully, at the back of her clear mind.
"She hates you," said Mr. Bamfylde suddenly into this pause. "I was alarmed to see how she hates you."
"Ah, no," replied Helen quickly. "She has never pretended to care for me—but hatred; no, people don't hate nowadays."
"You might as well say that they don't love," returned the antiquary dryly. "We're afraid of these things now and shut them away, but that doesn't say that they don't exist."
"She has no reason to hate me," said Madame St. Luc.
"Only her own nature, and the poisoned thoughts put into her mind by a half insane woman. I've heard your father speak of Mrs. Fermor; he used to say that he would have tried to do something for her, after all, but that it was like approaching a viper with fangs out—he was sure the daughter was the same."
What Helen noticed most about this speech was her father's attitude, not towards his sister-in-law, but towards the Bamfyldes; it was most strange that he should have been on these terms of intimacy with two people of whom she had never heard.
"And he was right," added Fearon Bamfylde. "She is the same—a scourge." Helen was touched with panic; she thought of her lost lover.
"I can't send her away—yet," she answered. "We are separating though—"
"Are you? lam so glad of that. Give her anything you like, but don't let her live with you."
This advice came too late, but Helen did not say so; she could not tell the story of her broken engagement and the part Pauline had played therein.
"We can't live together, I've seen that—but there is the great difficulty of Cornelia. You see Pauline has a curious hold on her, she has been persuaded that Pauline can cure her—
"Exactly the sort of thing that woman would do," replied Mr. Bamfylde. "But how is it possible that it has been allowed?"
Helen found a considerable relief in talking to this kindly, simple man; she felt he was not only her father's friend, but hers, and after much dealing with foreigners, she found in this Englishman of her own class a certain sense of kinship.
"Louis Van Quellin adores his sister," she explained, "and has devoted his life to her—everything she wanted she had to have—you see, he dropped her when she was a baby and he has always had that on his mind. I don't think that had so much to do with her illness, but it made Cornelia, for him, not only a matter of love, but a matter of conscience."
"Conscience!" exclaimed Mr. Bamfylde.
"Yes, conscience. I suppose it sounds stupid, but I have," added Madame St. Luc earnestly, "often tried to think what it would mean, to have something on your conscience, to have wronged someone unwittingly; it must be terrible, you know."
"What would you do?" asked the antiquary sharply.
"Just what Louis did, I suppose: devote myself to expiation. He couldn't bear not to give her everything she wanted. And the last whim was this obsession for Pauline and the desire to come here alone to Paradys. And Louis gave in."
"I expect there was something more in it than that—Miss Fermor is so powerful. I expect she affected Mr. Van Quellin too, influenced him, I mean."
Helen rose; she was bewildered by all this criss-cross of emotions and motives that, compared to her simple feelings, were like the dancing of flies in the air.
She was here now because she had wanted to get away from Paradys, to leave Louis alone with those two women, to give Pauline a chance to speak to him, or a chance for him to speak to Pauline.
And now here, in her place of flight, she was entangled in discussions of these same issues.
"I'm stupid," she confessed sincerely. "I only see two sides to everything, the right and the wrong. I know there must be many shades of each; but I can't see them. There was so much to make up to Pauline," she added wearily.
"But you said she was going away, didn't you?" Mr. Bamfylde asked eagerly.
"Yes—we are making some arrangement."
"What happened to decide you that you couldn't live together?"
Helen looked at him with a mild rebuke.
"I couldn't tell you that—I suppose we rather came to the end of things."
Mr. Bamfylde looked so instantly discomfited and confused that Helen was at once sorry for noticing his indiscretion, which was one of kindness she was sure.
"Please show me those portraits you spoke of," she said, with a gracious hand on his arm.
He walked beside her down the lonely village street; the snow lay in drifts in front of the closed houses, the pale blank void of the blue sky was only pierced by the massive tower of the disproportionate church and the straight fragile tracery of the poplar trees in the churchyard.
Helen loved the church; she thought of the sombre gilded interior, with the tombs of the Van Quellins in the eternal shadows of the walls.
The inn was ancient and silent, the green shutters closed against the hard weather, the weather-cock tipped with snow, the round smooth cobbles of the courtyard outlined with snow.
Mr. Bamfylde had arranged one of the sitting-rooms into an appearance of some comfort; over-heated by the green glazed stove though it was, yet there was an impression of coldness from the reflection of the brilliant chill winter day without.
Helen saw at once on the travelling desk the portrait of her father; it was the Guidon etching, so familiar to her; the companion likeness was the photograph of a woman.
Helen picked this up gently and looked into the face of Prudence Bamfylde.
LOUIS VAN QUELLIN came downstairs exhausted from his interview with Cornelia; the end of the bright winter day was overcast with snow clouds; Paradys was dark.
The emotional agitation of the sick girl had been contagious and he felt unnerved, which was a rare sensation for him; she had talked of little but Pauline.
Pauline, she declared, sustained her, helped her, encouraged her; without Pauline she would fall into the abyss; Pauline had told her of the altar discovered at Kruiskerke, the altar to the goddess of Health, and Cornelia had deliriously hailed this as a good omen; she must see this altar—or have it brought to her; before this pathetic mingling of Mrs. Falaise, a heathen goddess and Santa Ignota, for the shrine still sparkled by the bedside, Louis winced.
Cornelia did not seem to think at all of Helen; indeed, Helen appeared to have faded out of both their lives as something futile, ineffective and foolish; as Louis Van Quellin listened to the feverish incoherencies of his sister's talk, only one person seemed vivid to him—Pauline Fermor.
As he came down into the well of darkness at the bottom of the stairs he found her waiting for him—Pauline, not Helen, he noted that; Helen had not troubled to be there.
But Pauline was there waiting for him like a slave expecting punishment, distraught and livid, with her grand beauty distorted by dark clouds of passion, but beauty still looming up potently out of the dusk.
"A wretched coil you have got us all into," he said sternly. "Why couldn't you keep silent?"
She shook her head.
"Helen came to Brussels," added Louis, "and broke off our marriage."
Pauline moved nearer to him.
"You are one of those who know how to make truth sound like a lie," he continued harshly; then as he thought she was going to fall at his feet and he was fearful of someone coming on them, he drew her into the dark room looking on to the moat, the Groene Zaal that Helen disliked.
As he touched her, rather roughly, on the arm, to make her come into this chamber, she gave a deep sigh; as he snapped on the tawny lights and closed the door she said hoarsely:
"Helen never cared about you; I couldn't have got between you if she had."
He thought this unanswerable truth; it seemed to him as if Helen was the real traitress, not Pauline; Helen who had never loved as she had pretended to love; Helen who had abandoned him to this other woman.
"I have nothing to say about Madame St. Luc," he answered brutally. "It is my sister who concerns me."
"I've done no harm there." Pauline's voice was near a whimper; she kept pulling and loosening a black wrap round her shoulders and throat.
"Harm? I don't know. You have got such a hold on her."
"I'm helping her—I'm giving her hope, courage," urged Pauline. "I've made her happier than she ever was—
"Why," asked Van Quellin, "did you take all this trouble?"
She eyed him with the desperation of a creature at bay, at the end of a fight.
"Oh, you needn't make words about it," she muttered. "You know why—and why I told them both—I love you—you. I didn't want to, not like this. I didn't know one did feel like this, but I love you, and you've got to reckon with it, some way."
Her words were jangled, almost incoherent, and she had collapsed across the big black chair, shaking and pulling at her scarf in an aimless fashion that showed she was unconscious of the action of her fingers.
It was the reckless passion that Van Quellin had often tingled in vain to hear from Helen; it was the bold passion he quickened to and understood; there was no question that she lied or acted or exaggerated; her words were obviously but the poor overflow of her emotion, the inadequate expression of intense feeling.
More by her look, her gesture, her attitude than her words did she convince Van Quellin of her complete sincerity and her complete indifference to any issue but this one issue.
That moved him, not the woman, but the passion that possessed her, and he thought, with an angry ache—"If only Helen could have come to me like this, instead of rejecting me with that delicate coldness; but Helen is insensible; Helen is futile."
He was so tired with the long feverish talk with Cornelia in the close room, that he could not find himself the strength, the surge of force to combat Pauline; he leant against the side of the heavy mantelpiece with the bright little shields on the gilt tree behind him; there was a decision to be made and quickly, but he could not make it; Pauline he ought to reject, and harshly, but he could not do it; Pauline loved him, it was the love he had long looked for, thought he had found, more than once, yet never found; he had not now the strength to repulse this love as it should be repulsed.
"You don't really care about anything but this?" he asked curiously, in a fatigued voice.
"Why should I? I told you that from the first. I wasn't brought up to care about things, to believe in things; talk is just talk to me—I know what I feel."
"What do you think lam going to do with you?" asked Van Quellin heavily.
"Can't you decide?" muttered Pauline.
He thought that she was exactly the kind of woman to size up his difficulty, and he smiled unkindly.
She was Helen's cousin and Cornelia's friend; he must marry her or send her away; if she had been another woman there would have been other solutions.
Marriage with her was unthinkable; she must know that.
"You'll have to go away," he said in a tired voice. "Helen will look after you."
The words sounded awkward even to himself, and she gave a laugh that seemed to blow them away.
"I'm a pauper, but not a child; you can't dispose of me like that."
"No, I daresay that you will be trouble enough," he conceded.
"And if you send me off you'll have to reckon with Cornelia."
"Don't threaten me with that. I can manage Cornelia," he replied coldly.
"Can you? Can you?"
He was silent, and she added:
"Why do you want to send me away? I thought you were sorry for me."
"You told," he accused her, "you told about what was nothing, and made—this—out of it."
"And you wouldn't have told? You and Helen don't care for each other, yet you wanted to go on with it."
Her commonplace idiom was spoken in a poignant tone that gave it the force of lofty anguish; her eyes had the lustre of gathering tears.
"I don't understand," she continued hoarsely. "How can you pass by anyone who feels for you as I do?"
"I don't pass you by," he answered queerly. "I don't."
His light hard eyes that looked so fierce and lonely, flashed and softened as he gazed at Pauline; she was so crude, so ignorant, so untrained, but she was also sincere, and beautiful, with a noble beauty; any man might find solace in what she offered.
And Helen was lost, nay, Helen had never been his to lose.
Seeing his kinder look she crept closer, like a chided dog taking trembling courage; her attitude with him was always that of a dog or a slave, cringing, fawning, and something brutal in Van Quellin's Flemish blood was pleased by this submission of a creature naturally hard and proud.
"You did take me in your arms, you did kiss me," muttered Pauline. "You don't hate me, do you?"
She touched him timidly, putting her cold hand on his sleeve.
"I'm sick and tired," she continued. "What do you think it has been like, waiting, waiting? Oh, if you knew how awful it is to be a woman."
He allowed her to rest against his shoulder, to lean humbly against him; he was profoundly sorry for her, poor wretch, taken in like a dog out of the streets and crazily petted; what a fool Helen had been! He mainly thought of that—the folly of Helen.
He sighed and caressed the poor dark head drooping so hopelessly against him; he saw the tears slipping over her cheek.
"Pauline, it isn't worth all this trouble." She was really in his arms now and a lovely burden against his heart; Helen was lost; he kissed Pauline.
"You don't want me to go?" she whispered.
"No—stay," he told her. "There is no need for you to go, until you wish to."
She stood slackly, hiding her face on his shoulder.
"I won't bother you," she muttered, "if you'll only be a little kind."
Van Quellin sighed and smiled together; her childish words had a curious sting, a curious flavour; he moved aside gently and left her standing, with hidden face against the mantelpiece.
HELEN, meeting Louis by the moat, told him of her departure; in a few days, she said; she did not wish anything to seem hurried or desperate, or like a flight.
She looked at him with unconscious tenderness as she spoke; he looked very cold and grand and formidable, but now she was not so much afraid of him; she had found fortitude that night in Brussels.
He accepted her statement, only asking where she was going, and she said:
"To Jeanne de Montmorin if she will have me, but lam afraid she is away. I wrote, but I haven't heard."
They lingered a little by the edge of the moat; it was a luminous day of pale blue and lilac with a great movement of wind that turned the great clouds and the bare boughs of the trees into one harmony; the water of the moat was clear and rippled into a little wave at the edge, the lines of the castle rose with a sharp rigid grace into those tumultuous shapes of flying clouds.
Helen thought how beautiful it all was, how mournful.
"That man Bamfylde is coming this afternoon," said Van Quellin. "A queer chap. Do you know much about him?"
"No," answered Madame St. Luc. "But he knew my father very well—most intimately. I like him. I think he is queer because he had a lonely, marked-apart sort of bringing up: his parents weren't happy, and he lived with his mother."
"I like him, too," assented Louis indifferently. "He is bringing his altar this afternoon. I hope you will stay and see it."
And Helen said:
"I saw it at Kruiskerke, but I shall be here this afternoon."
So they parted, like pleasant, casual acquaintances. No passionate quarrel could have shown Helen the completeness of their separation as did this casual courtesy; she felt that she must leave Paradys immediately, without waiting for Jeanne de Montmorin's reply.
Louis moved away towards the new buildings where the restoration of the castle was in progress; this work was nearly completed.
Helen thought of the Pavilion, built for her, which she had never seen, and now never would see—the desolation of her spirit hurt like the physical taxe and burn of an open wound.
She returned to the castle and told her maid to begin her packing.
"I may have to leave very soon, to-morrow perhaps, or the day after."
Then, as she had seen Pauline leave the gates driving in the direction of Kruiskerke, she went to visit Cornelia.
There would be so few more visits to pay to Cornelia.
The girl was dozing, with only the Belgian maid for company; the overheated room was close and faint, and Cornelia, stirring in her sleep, coughed slightly, but continuously.
Helen dismissed Betje and sat down by Cornelia, who woke up almost at once and seemed glad to see her—glad, at least, to have someone to talk to.
She began at once to speak about the altar which was being brought for her inspection that afternoon.
"Pauline says that it may make all the difference to me—isn't it queer, though, that such a thing should be found here? Almost like a miracle!"
And she dwelt lovingly on this coincidence—an altar to a goddess of Health.
Helen looked at her anxiously; she did appear stronger, her movements were not so languid, her animation was not so forced; the sparkling eyes, the bright abundant hair, the rosy flush seemed to-day less exotic, more like normal youth; Helen dared to hope that perhaps after all Pauline's treatment had been successful.
"Has Dr. Frickler been to see you again?" she asked gently.
"The village doctor?" smiled Cornelia. "Oh, no! What good could he do me? I was very angry with Louis for sending him."
"Do you know what he said?"
"Nothing at all—simply suggested that Dr. Henriot be sent for!"
Helen did not like the sound of that.
"Does Louis know?"
Helen could say no more; neither Louis nor Louis's sister were any concern of hers now; they had both rejected her; they did not want her tenderness, her solicitude; but she did say, wistfully:
"You won't stay much longer at Paradys, will you, Cornelia? It is so far from everyone—so remote and lonely."
"I don't know—it rests with Pauline and Louis."
Helen controlled a wince at the conjunction of these two names, and answered:
"It is long since you saw your friends, Cornelia; don't let yourself be cut off from everything."
Cornelia clutched together her extravagant lace gown with a huddled movement, as if she was suddenly cold.
"Of course lam going to Paris in the spring," she answered impatiently. "I shall be cured then. Pauline and Louis will take me about—we talk of nothing else."
Cornelia smiled as she spoke, but in a vague and almost senseless fashion, that seemed to Helen horrible.
And then she began to talk of the altar again, but Helen could hardly endure that (to her it was a "heathen stone," more pernicious even than Mrs. Falaise) and so asked where Pauline was.
"She has gone to Kruiskerke—to see Mr. Bamfylde about the altar, to make sure that he brings it, I mean, and to arrange the time, when I've had my sleep and am rested."
Helen remembered how poor Mr. Bamfylde had seemed to dislike Pauline, how he had begged that she might be kept away, and indeed, at this very moment Mr. Bamfylde was receiving Pauline's visit with every mark of irritation; he appeared a man of moods who could be disagreeable enough upon occasion.
Pauline had driven her two-seater, which she did not yet manage at all skilfully, up to the ruins of the old farm and the field where the Englishman was directing his excavations. The silver day, keen yet not cold, was perfect for work, so perhaps it was the interruption that annoyed Mr. Bamfylde.
"There was no need for you to come," he said bluntly. "I had arranged everything with Mr. Van Quellin—about taking the altar over this afternoon."
"I didn't come about that," replied Pauline coolly, standing at the entrance to the flat field that was bordered all round with poplar trees. "I wanted to impress on you to be careful what you say to Miss Van Quellin."
"I probably shan't say anything at all," he rejoined snappishly.
"But I want you to—it is most important to her; she is an invalid and she is so impressed that this altar has been found—"
"Well—it is to the goddess of Health, isn't it?"
"I don't really know. It is most uncertain. A goddess of health perhaps, some local deity, but what possibly can it matter to Miss Van Quellin?"
"She puts a lot of faith—"
Mr. Bamfylde interrupted with nervous anger.
"I never heard such nonsense! The lady is not a Pagan I take it? Anyway the Ancients never pretended to work that kind of miracle."
"No one hopes for a miracle," replied Pauline. "But you can do a lot by encouraging people, can't you? Getting to believe in things? Cornelia Van Quellin has a Romish relic, and a copy of Mrs. Falaise's book, and now this altar; all so many crutches to help her along."
"To her grave, I suppose," said Mr. Bamfylde crossly. Pauline looked startled.
"Oh, no—she is getting better, extraordinarily better."
"Then I suppose she has a good doctor besides all this nonsense."
Pauline turned the subject.
"You seem to be in an ill-humour. Am I bothering you?"
"Well, you are rather," he replied ungraciously. "Going up to Paradys will take the whole afternoon, and I hoped to get a lot done this morning."
Pauline looked at him with malicious sharpness; his expression was agitated and annoyed; he wore his glasses, that she had never observed him do before, and the fact seemed to give him a greater courage in staring at her; his thick black hair that seemed just rubbed with ash on the flat temples, was spraying about in the wind, and the open air had set a red colour on his cheek bones.
"You're very rude to me," remarked Pauline, leaning against the gate.
"You worry me, Miss Fermor," he declared, exasperated. "It seems as if you were trying to find out something."
"Well, I haven't anything to tell you! I can't imagine why you should think I have!"
"It is so queer that you should have known my Uncle Mark. Such a coincidence."
"Not so queer as you think. It's a long day since I decided to know Madame St. Luc. I've got as far as her doorstep in London and Paris, but I'm a shy man. When I heard about this find here I thought it would be a good opportunity, since she was staying at Paradys."
"You heard that she was going to marry Mr. Van Quellin, I suppose?"
"Of course. I didn't hear you were at Paradys; that's the queer part, that's the coincidence."
"Is it? Why did you want so much to meet Helen?"
"Because of the feeling I had for her father. I don't know why you make so much of it," he declared irritably.
"I feel you know something of the family history," replied Pauline. "It's funny—seeing those portraits in your room. I don't know much myself, only what my mother told me and what I could piece together."
"You needn't know anything more," said Mr. Bamfylde hastily. "It is all over and done with, isn't it? I daresay you had a very bad time, but Madame St. Luc has made up for that splendidly it seems to me—"
"You see you do know a good deal," retorted Pauline angrily. "Helen has done her best—but it's only months against a lifetime."
"You must blame your father for that, Miss Fermor."
"It is what you know about him I want to get at," insisted Pauline.
"I've only common knowledge," said Mr. Bamfylde unpleasantly; "nothing that would be of any interest or use to you."
"Mother always said there was a mystery—no, not a mystery, a wrong."
"Ah! I suppose you took no notice?"
"I can't help remembering it. Mother was crazy, but still—she always told me that my uncle had stolen that famous patent from my father."
"Really, Miss Fermor, this is a waste of time," declared Mr. Bamfylde impatiently. "I don't want to hear such rubbish. I was very fond, very fond indeed, of Mr. Fermor, and I can't hear such—such nonsense."
"Nonsense, no doubt," admitted Pauline sullenly, "but I wish I could find out how the trouble lay between those two."
"Whatever for? What do you want to rake it all up for when Madame St. Luc has been so good to you?"
"Do you think it pleasant for me that she was in a position to be 'good' to me?" sneered Pauline. "By the by," she added, "her marriage is broken off."
At this news Mr. Bamfylde looked still more annoyed and agitated; he darted a glance full of suspicion and dislike at Pauline from behind those thick pebble glasses.
"Her marriage? I'm very, very sorry."
"Why?" challenged Pauline. "They didn't care for each other."
"Umph. I shouldn't have thought that a woman like Madame St. Luc would have engaged herself to a man she didn't care for."
"You seem to think very highly of her." Pauline was trembling on the verge of violence.
"I do," he stated valiantly. "She is so like her father. I like and admire her immensely."
"An ordinary fool, that is what she is," Pauline tossed out with sombre force. "No brains, no character, just able to grin and chatter—think of the life she's had! Ease, luxury, flattery! She doesn't know the meaning of work or trouble and never will!"
"I hope not." Mr. Bamfylde was quite roused, and vehement also. "I really can't allow these remarks, Miss Fermor, and please don't tease me any more about what I know, for I can't and won't speak."
Like most reserved, solitary people, when goaded into speech, Mr. Bamfylde had lost his head with the rare excitement of his own emotion; the powerful overbearing personality had this effect on him too; he disliked her so much that he really scarcely knew what he said when speaking to her; now, of course, she saw his slip and held it up, with vicious triumph.
"You do know something, then; there is something to know!"
"There isn't," he assured her savagely. "Only disgraceful stories about your father that I should be sorry to repeat to you—or anyone."
Pauline was quelled; her glance sank in humiliation; she detested this man for his championship of Helen, but there was nothing more she could do; her audacious hope that she might worm out of him some knowledge of those old miseries that would give her some power over Helen was quenched; her angry bitterness was not soothed by the stinging reminder of her lamentable parentage; she felt more deeply than ever the mean brand of the social outcast, and the accompanying acrid surge of desperate revolt against the people and the conditions that had forced on her this brand.
She sighed deeply; then, moved beyond her usual taciturn discretion, she said:
"Well, the marriage has been broken off," and turned away towards her car waiting under the thin line of poplars.
Mr. Bamfylde watched her go without offering the barest civility; her last remark had convinced him that she had had something to do with thwarting Helen's marriage, and this angered him exceedingly; he admired Louis Van Quellin, who was so different from himself, in the way that modest quiet timid people will admire the imposing, the proud and the charming; he thought Van Quellin almost worthy of Madame St. Luc, and he was really disturbed at the thought of this marriage, which he had liked to think about as something rather strange and beautiful, being frustrated.
As he went indignantly back to his interrupted work he thought:
"I'll burn it to-night, that scrap of evidence, I really will."
LOUIS VAN QUELLIN shut himself away from the gloom of Paradys in the wing of the castle that housed his collection, where were all the treasures gathered by himself and his father before him; he had there a room, or office, used by several generations of Van Quellins and untouched for a couple of hundred years and more.
Louis belonged very little to his own generation; the last of an old family of a type of aristocracy rapidly disappearing, his mind was chained by traditions now worthless, by ambitions now futile, by prides and disdains now absurd; money had enabled him to maintain his alien attitude towards the world, Helen had kept him in harmony with that world, but money and Helen had kept him lulled, indifferent, enervated with ease and pleasure, and now, in the reaction from the discovery of what seemed the futility and foolishness of Helen, he felt a contempt for himself and his own life, which, through the defects of his own character, had been so lonely, so burdened with a sick girl, so melancholic with remorse, so disturbed with old dreams.
Helen had been the panacea for all his ills; in her gaiety, her sweetness, her delicious good humour and lovely high spirits, in her ardent vitality that was in touch with everything about her, Louis had found peace and pleasure, interest and amusement; from the first she had literally charmed him by the perpetual sparkle of her ingenuous happiness, and lately she had given meaning to his days by rousing in him a passion that he was fantastically delighted with and which absorbed him in the attempt to awaken her to such another love, when they would together, he thought, enjoy perfect content.
This had proved a dry illusion; there was no passion in Helen; the gay sweetness that pleased him so was all there was of her; and even that was eclipsed now; how frigid, how aloof she had sat on that gaudy little sofa, with her head turned away, giving him his dismissal in schoolgirl terms!
How much time he had lost over her! His disdain of himself deepened; he was nearly forty and a dilettant in everything.
Now that Helen, an obsession of years, had blown away like a scrap of gossamer, there remained nothing real in his life but Cornelia, this heritage of his father's infatuate folly and his own boy's remorse—nothing but Cornelia, the poor frustrated child with her endless sufferings and whims and caprices.
Of Pauline he hardly thought at all; he had satisfied his curiosity, his malice, with regard to Pauline; he had come to the end of his interest in her. She had moved him by her frank boldness, her grand handsomeness, her coarse, lawless tactics had appealed to something coarse and lawless in him, but she had lost her head, gone whining to Helen, to Cornelia, and so proved herself ordinary; there were too many women like her, beauty and boldness were, after all, cheap; Louis had many passports to the favour of most women to be long impressed by Pauline, from whom he was precluded by all his honours and loyalties.
He was neither sorry for her nor angry with her; he believed that he would have to tolerate her a little because of Cornelia, but he need see very little of her; he thought that she could very well look after herself in the future; Helen would provide her with money, and some stupid man would marry her; that she was capable of further troubling him he did not, in his unconscious pride, consider, he simply involved her in the general indifference with which he regarded all the world.
He walked restlessly up and down his room and sighed for the coming of the summer; this winter had seemed intolerable; he had ceased to take any interest in the alterations of Paradys, the whole affair had been turned over to the architect; he had ceased to take much interest in anything; he was appalled by the staleness of a life not lightened by the soft laughter, the gay sallies of Helen; he frowned, with a return to his problem as to why she had never cared for him; he had not before found it difficult to inspire love in women, and he had been very faithful, very devoted to Helen; shallow she must be, a pretty, empty shell.
Beyond the windows in the thick wall the sun shone with a kind of brittle brightness on the frozen moat, the avenues of trees bare as the strings of a harp, the formal beds de broderie, the stiff lines of walls and hedges before the Park, the flats one side and the woods the other.
A faint white vapour obscured the distance and even the upper, unclouded sky was so faintly blue as to be more the colour of dimmed crystal than any azure; through the dark rigid branches of the trees in the Park showed the white ice of the lake and the garish bleached walls of the Pavilion.
Louis detested the Pavilion; it looked to him monstrous, atrocious; all his rage, which was greater than he knew, vented itself on the Pavilion; he could never live in Paradys and look on that every time he glanced from the windows. He returned to his desk and considered.
In front of him hung a portrait on panel of one "Lodewyck Van Quellin Van Paradys," a red-haired man holding a carnation, in the flat hat, square hair and huge sleeves of the early sixteenth century, so like him that it might have been his portrait; his narrow face, the metallic eyes, the heavy under lip and chin, the Flemish colouring seemed more appropriate to the old stately dress than to modern garments; it was the living man who had an air of being in disguise, of being curiously clothed.
Near this portrait hung the rarest of all the rare objects in the room; the mournful Lucas Van Leyden's engraving of Eulenspiegel, all the temperament, the tradition, the nationality of Louis were expressed in this print; the melancholy, the fantasy, the Gothic crudeness and the Gothic cynicism; the passion and the philosophy.
In that little hooded figure with the owl, in the man with the bagpipes with the babies in a basket on his back, in the mysterious woman, in the whole beautiful and terrible composition that sums up the torment, the desire, the despair, the horror and the jest of the middle ages, Louis found his own counterpart.
He, too, was Eulenspiegel in his relation to his world; he laughed, staring at the beloved familiar print.
Very clearly had he heard the piping of the mocking pipes yesterday when he had met Helen by the moat and spoken to her casually, without hate or vexation, he and Helen—as far apart as that!
His mood must devastate something; he went downstairs along the corridors where the walls held the heavy coats of arms, the dark formal views and maps, het Slot Van Gistrellis, which had stood where there were now open fields, 't Gesloopte Slot Van Paradys, and 't huis Van Kruiskerke, all so ornate, so stiff, so unexplainable to any but the descendants of the men who had built them.
Van Quellin went out on to the drawbridge; the day was extremely lovely with the icy clarity of the air, the pale lucidity of the sun and the dry precision of the delicate groups of trees, the distinct lines of the avenues and the gleam of the frozen water in the moat, here and there thinning to a film; Louis remembered that Mr. Bamfylde was bringing his altar over to-day; it cost him a pang to think of this last superstition; whatever Cornelia said, he did not think her so well, he would send for Henriot; he would take her away from Paradys.
He looked at his watch; there was just time to do what he wished to and return to meet Mr. Bamfylde; he went to the group of workmen engaged in laying out the approach to the Pavilion, spoke to them a short time, and came back through the pale tranquil light as Mr. Bamfylde and the clumsy motor from Kruiskerke arrived before the drawbridge.
Despite his preoccupied and nervous mood, due to the last visit of Pauline, Mr. Bamfylde was taken with a sincere admiration of the castle as he came upon it that cold silver afternoon; it was beautiful, it was unique; it made him think of Van Quellin himself, stately, grand, a little hostile to common things.
The building had been very finely restored and rose in clean precise lines from the complete circle of the moat.
The scene was lovely too in this crystal sunlight, the flatness of the country hidden by the great woods, that even in their bareness were grand and luxuriant looking.
But when Mr. Bamfylde entered Paradys Castle his feeling of pleasure vanished.
Living much with the past he was very sensitive to atmosphere, and the interior of the castle was, for him, too hushed, too still, too full of shadows.
He had brought the altar and some other of his treasures on the small motor lorry, and the servant who admitted him asked him to have them brought into the room, a kind of antechamber which was outside Cornelia's apartments, on the ground floor.
This was like the rest of the castle, darkish by reason of the deep greenish tapestry and monstrous black furniture, and the low massive beams with the gilt bosses.
Mr. Bamfylde went uneasily to the window and looked on the moat that lay only a few feet below; he generally disliked meeting strangers very much, and to-day he had a very special dislike to meeting Cornelia Van Quellin; and he detested the fact that he would again see Pauline Fermor.
While the workmen were bringing in the altar which was placed on a piece of sacking in the centre of the floor, Louis Van Quellin entered in his great coat, hatless and flushed from the cold. Mr. Bamfylde thought, with trepidation, that he looked perilous—a man on the verge of—anything.
Van Quellin glanced at the altar without much enthusiasm; his interest was for later treasures; he found these loveliness of the ancient world cold; his taste was for the extravagant, the gorgeous, the superb.
He yet admitted the altar a delight, the fine proportions, the noble grace of the relief, even the stained earthy colours of the pure marble pleased him; and he picked up one of the other pieces Mr. Bamfylde had brought, a fragment of a mask of a statue with a deep brooding look and a broken crescent on the brow, a woman's face, and looked at it as Helen entered; she also admired the altar and spoke to the two men quietly and pleasantly. All the time Mr. Bamfylde was conscious of the tension between these two, and Helen's ravaged looks; her gaiety was quenched, and her face at once faded and sharp, yet of an unconquerable sweetness; of all her charms and graces only her elegance remained; she wore, Mr. Bamfylde noticed, something very rich, of a wine colour; when she had praised the altar she went and sat by the fire, complaining of the cold.
Louis Van Quellin was still examining the fragment of stone face he held in his hand; he appeared to be absorbed in this; Mr. Bamfylde stole a glance at Helen, while he affected to be occupied with the altar.
She was looking at her former lover with her secret bare in her innocent eyes; it was such an expression of love and tenderness, kindness and sweetness as Mr. Bamfylde had never seen on a living face, only sometimes in some old simple, gracious picture.
It was the expression of a second only, for she was quick to turn away and gaze into the fire, but it was enough for Mr. Bamfylde; he became her secret, hot, indignant champion; he knew she loved this foreigner and that in some way he had been taken from her by Pauline, the Englishman was sure.
The inner door opened.
"My sister," said Louis Van Quellin painfully, without looking up; he did not know that the antiquary had met Cornelia.
Cornelia entered, supported between Pauline and Betje; she was most lavishly attired in white wool, white brocade and twists of big pearls round her neck and wrists.
She made a horrible impression on Mr. Bamfylde; he had once seen an idiot child at a concert; the creature's face had been meant for beauty, but was of an ashy colour, and the lips were drawn into a perpetual smile of imbecility, while the dim milky eyes gazed continually upwards; it was a caricature of the lovely and the angelic; Mr. Bamfylde had never seen anything so awful.
And he was reminded of this sight by Cornelia Van Quellin; imperceptibly to those always with her, the fatal gloss and bloom of her beauty had disappeared lately, and when, as now, she was without fever she had this bloodless look, this greyness invading even eyes and lips; the thick fringe of lashes, the long mass of rippling hair looked grotesque in contrast with her pitiful emaciation, her extreme feebleness, for that mantle of hair seemed alive and vital.
"This is the altar," said Pauline.
Cornelia gazed at it with her unchanging smile, and Mr. Bamfylde murmured what explanations he could.
A large deep tapestry chair had been placed for the sick girl and she was placed in it; Helen did not look round from the fire.
"Where is the goddess?" asked Cornelia, panting a little. "Which is the goddess?"
Mr. Bamfylde pointed out the stern seated figure in the bas relief to whom the others were bringing tributes.
"The goddess of Health, is she not?"
"It is very likely," admitted Mr. Bamfylde reluctantly. "It might be an aspect of Diana, or even Hecate—one doesn't know."
"I," replied Cornelia, huskily, "have been an invalid all my life, Mr. Bamfylde. Of course, lam much better lately—but—but not quite strong."
Still her smile did not change; the sense of tension, of expectancy, of suppression in the room was unbearable; the sullen face of Pauline, the downcast face of Helen, the cold face of Louis Van Quellin, the smiling face of Cornelia, all expressed this tension, this endurance, this pain.
These people seemed to be bound together as if nothing else in the world existed—just them and the passions that were dealing with them.
Mr. Bamfylde wished that he did not know so much about the others, wished that he did not like Helen and dislike Pauline so intensely; wished, in fact, that they would let him go.
But they wouldn't; they were all there, holding him.
"Does your goddess work miracles?" asked Cornelia, smiling. (He could not look at her.)
"No—the ancients hardly thought about miracles, I think, Miss Van Quellin."
"Why did they put an altar to the goddess of Health?"
He explained laboriously.
"Well, you see, they found a beautiful spot, with fine air and a lovely grove, and they always put up altars in such places, to try and consecrate and honour beauty as it were, a kind of joyous identification and dedication of themselves with and to all that was desirable in nature—of course, there is no more in it than that."
"You don't know," interrupted Pauline. "You said yourself that you don't know."
"Perhaps I ought to offer her something," said Cornelia. "My pearls?"
She plucked at the strings on her wrist.
"It is only a stone," answered Louis suddenly. "You must not take it so seriously."
When he spoke he seemed to dominate them all.
"What is that you are holding?" asked Cornelia, looking at him for the first time.
"A fragment, part of a broken statue, probably of the same goddess," explained Mr. Bamfylde; how intolerable this tension was; if only they would let him go!
"You don't believe in miracles?" asked Cornelia slyly.
"Modern miracles, yes, I do, but they are more in the scope of present-day thought and faith, more part of Christianity than Paganism."
"Louis would never allow me to go to Lourdes," said Cornelia simply.
"It is what you believe in yourself," whispered Pauline, "that has effect."
Cornelia slowly shook her head from side to side; whether it was an involuntary trembling or a denial Mr. Bamfylde did not know.
"The altar is lovely," she said, the first words she had spoken since Cornelia entered and her voice was lovely too. "It speaks at least of happiness and joy."
And she crossed to the door as if she, like Mr. Bamfylde, found the tension unendurable.
Cornelia looked at her blankly, then glanced at Pauline.
"Don't go, Helen," she said huskily; Helen paused instantly. "I've been so looking forward to this—an altar to the goddess of Health; don't you think that wonderful?" she added with a painful intensity.
"Yes, it is wonderful," replied Helen in a low voice, but Louis, putting down the stone mask that seemed to him to hold a look of menace, said:
"You must not think too much of it, Cornelia. Several such altars have been found—probably it is to some local deity older than the Romans and adopted by them."
"But a goddess of Health," murmured Cornelia obstinately, "always a goddess of Health—Pauline told me so."
She leant forward, with that heavy fleece of hair falling sharply to one side of her pinched face, and stared eagerly at the cracked stone; the main figure of the relief was headless, so were two flying boys who appeared to hold a canopy over her head, but the other details were exquisitely clear as were the letters "D.E.A.E." under the throne; with a thin finger Cornelia traced these letters.
"That means goddess, doesn't it?" she asked. "Where does it say Health?"
"Nowhere," replied Mr. Bamfylde brusquely.
"But Pauline—" stammered Cornelia.
"Miss Fermor was mistaken." The antiquary knew that he was being brutal, but his dislike of Pauline mastered all other considerations. "We know nothing about the altar—nothing at all—most of the lettering has been defaced."
Cornelia looked beseechingly at Helen who still hesitated by the door; the engathering shadows filled the massive room that seemed to Mr. Bamfylde to bear down and press on them; the dark arras where black leaves of gigantic forests showed against indigo skies and melancholy figures glimmered from the worn threads, the low ceiling with the huge beams where Gothic angels in red and blue were holding up the endless armorial shield, the four people all transfixed in some unexplainable emotion, all this oppressed the Englishman with a sense of suspended fate; Cornelia, in her crazy hope, her pitiful splendour, seemed to him the victim of some immutable and terrible decree.
"No miracle then," muttered Cornelia, "no miracle here—either."
She stressed the last word slightly and glanced up at Pauline; she seemed bewildered, yet sly; her awful smile continued distorting her face from any likeness to youth or femininity.
No one had the courage to speak; Helen, released from Cornelia's appealing glance, went quietly away; Pauline stood sullenly.
Louis suddenly spoke, and his voice sounded harsh.
"I think you get tired, Cornelia. I think it is useless to stay."
"Useless," repeated Cornelia. "Oh, yes."
She turned from Pauline and made a movement towards her brother.
"Will you help me, Louis?"
Pauline followed them; Mr. Bamfylde, left alone, wiped his forehead, took off his glasses and polished them, and gave the altar a malicious look; the stone seemed to him evil, as if the headless creature seated there was really Hecate, the mysterious embodiment of the Evil Moon and all night horrors.
He was glad to escape from Paradys; he nervously declined the hospitality offered by Van Quellin; as his car rumbled down the long klinker avenue he noticed a bright bluish smoke rising from the Park, a delicate blur of azure in the frosty air, in the last light of day, shot with almost invisible flames.
HELEN watched the pale distant flames springing into the moonlight; the fire was nearly over and only here and there the long darts of flames rose from the smouldering ruins.
Helen, seated at her window, had been watching a long time.
Louis had burnt down the Pavilion.
Early that afternoon the workmen had received imperious orders; the interior of the Pavilion had been filled with petrol-soaked wood and ignited; isolated in the centre of the artificial lake the unfinished building had burnt steadily till it was gutted.
Helen had sent down to inquire what was this conflagration in the Park, and when she had heard of this savage whim on the part of Louis she had been pleased; it had seemed to her a not unworthy gesture of farewell, and it was expressive of something large and grand about the man that he had not merely pulled down, but burnt his marriage gift; as Helen watched the last glow of the purging flames she knew that the happiness she had missed had been a magnificent happiness; she knew, too, that he might have ceased to love her, but he had loved her once; he would not so passionately have destroyed the Pavilion for any sham passion.
She had missed a tremendous thing; but she was resigned, almost tranquil; the terrific struggle that had begun that day in Brussels when she had at once realized and lost her love had not been in vain; Helen's temperament, so easily exalted by any stimulus towards nobility, had triumphed over her emotions; she had almost been able to eliminate all that was agonizing and desperate in her feeling for Louis; she believed that she could go away and think of him as if he was dead.
She moved about the room slowly, delaying the moment of going to bed, where she would not sleep; she had many sumptuous presents to return to Louis; that seemed so banal, to return his presents; she thought that he would have liked her to cast them into the bonfire of the Pavilion; she went to her drawers and cases and took out his jewels and cast them all together on the light and blue brocade of the heavy bed cover; it seemed a meanness to send them back to a man so magnificent as Louis; she would write to him and say that she kept them for remembrance—yet, some were so valuable, even in the estimation of a rich man.
At least she must send back her betrothed ring, which for weeks she had not worn.
It was a Roman jewel, bought by a Lodewyck Van Quellin from the collection of that Cardinal Giovanni dei Medici, who became Pope Leo X, the most splendid of Pontiffs, and it was a deep intaglio in emerald, showing two amorini wreathed in vines and playing with a goat, the unique stone being mounted in old Italian chased gold, which even after alteration had always been too heavy for Helen's fine hand; it had been the betrothal ring of the Van Quellins for generations and Helen could not avoid the miserable act of its return—so stupid a gesture from her after his burning of the Pavilion.
She reluctantly handled the jewels on the bed, the strings and braids of pearls, the lotus and lily of white jade, the earrings of cinnamon diamonds, the queer necklace of square emeralds to match the ring, all old, choice, peculiar gems, part of this house and the master of this house.
Helen decided to leave them behind, lock them in her case and give him the key; she believed that Louis would understand that she acted without spite or feminine pettishness.
This must be her last night at Paradys.
The whole aspect of life had changed from the possible to the impossible; the dim horror of a twilight dream murked everything; the strain, the tension, the suspense were such as were not to be endured; Jeanne de Montmorin had not answered; but Helen could not wait for that; she would go to-morrow to Brussels, and then to Paris.
It was impossible for her to rest; every time she closed her eyes the picture of Cornelia seated in front of the stone altar with that rigid smile, leapt up before her inner vision—and Pauline's face, sullen and averted, and the face of Louis Van Quellin, closed, proud and angry.
Helen was sorry for Mr. Bamfylde, this man who had been a friend of her father; she had observed his silence and his confusion, his agitated dislike of the whole atmosphere, and she thought, wearily, that when she got away, really away, into her own loneliness she must find Mr. Bamfylde again and be kind to him, for her father's sake.
A sharp knock at the door caused her to turn; all her own misery was engulfed by the swift thought that Cornelia was ill, perhaps dying.
"Who is it?" she asked as she turned towards the door.
The knock was repeated.
Helen opened the door.
Pauline stood outside.
"Cornelia, of course," cried Helen. "She is very much worse? I'll come at once."
Pauline shook her head.
"No—I wanted to speak to you. Cornelia is asleep; she is quite well."
Helen did not move aside from the opening of the door.
"Now? You want to speak to me now? Please wait till the morning, for lam very tired."
"The morning will be too late," said Pauline. "I'm in an extremity; you've got to hear me."
She spoke in a rough commanding way; Helen noticed that she had evidently not been to bed since she wore her dark careless dress.
"Come in, then," conceded Helen; she had never had her cousin in her bedroom before, and she detested this intrusion at such a moment; the Van Quellin jewels lay heaped on the bed.
Pauline went straight to the hearth and sat down in the winged chair drawn up by the fireplace; the last embers of the wood fire were still glowing.
Helen turned up another light so that the beautiful room was brightly revealed; it was now an impersonal room, most of Helen's possessions having been taken away—there only remained that glittering heap on the bed.
Pauline sat still, almost huddled; there was something grand and terrible in her attitude; her hair, usually so smooth, hung on to her shoulders in loose loops; her intense, pale and brooding look had obliterated her beauty; Helen found no strength in herself to meet anything that her cousin was going to say; her own vitality was at a low ebb; the clock showed half-past two—a cold, friendless night; between the folds of the heavy curtains showed the new moon; it seemed frozen, a chip of ice, in a frozen sky; below the burning Pavilion was a smear of yellow.
Helen pulled her white wool wrap round her with a shiver and took the chair opposite to Pauline.
"I hear you are going away to-morrow."
Pauline's voice, rugged, a little hoarse, with that curious accent between the common and the old-fashioned, jarred on Helen; everything Pauline did jarred. Helen could admit that now to herself.
"Yes, lam leaving. Not with any ill-will to anyone, Pauline."
Pauline did not answer, and Helen, with a painful effort, added:
"I dislike to talk of these things so much—but perhaps you have come to see me about practical matters. I am seeing my lawyers about a settlement for you—meanwhile, you will find your bank account well supplied."
"No—it isn't about money," answered Pauline dully. "Perhaps you owe me more than money. Have you asked Mr. Bamfylde all he knows?"
"What about?" asked Helen, astonished.
"Your father and mine. There's some secret, some mystery, I'm sure. He won't tell me because he was your father's friend, but you ask him."
"But it is impossible that there could be anything," replied Helen quietly. "How can you keep thinking so?"
"There's something, and that man's got it on his conscience, some wrong, some disgrace. Prudence Bamfylde seems to have been your father's pretty good friend, and he told her a lot—too much. Ask Fearon Bamfylde yourself."
"Certainly," said Helen. "Did you come here now to tell me this?"
"Not altogether." Pauline huddled lower in her chair, her elbow on her knee, her face pressed into her hand. "I want you to speak to Louis Van Quellin."
"Aren't you going to marry him?" asked Helen rising. "I thought from what Cornelia said—"
"Cornelia will say anything I put in her head. He is going away to-morrow—he won't even say where—I can't move him—he just laughs. He ought to marry me; he must marry me. Why did he lead me on? Kissed me, every time he had the chance."
"Pauline, don't talk like that—it makes it all so mean," whispered Helen.
Her cousin glanced up with fierce eyes.
"I suppose everything that is real sounds coarse to you? I don't care. I don't care about anything or anyone but Louis Van Quellin—it was different at first; I had other ideas in my head—now there's nothing else."
"It is strange for you to come to me with this," murmured Helen.
"You think I've behaved badly to you? But you never cared about each other—but I—? wonder if you can understand what I feel?"
Helen could not look at her as she writhed in her confession. "What do you want me to do, Pauline?"
"Speak to him—tell him he can't leave me here; tell him that Cornelia is expecting our marriage."
"You made her expect it," said Helen sadly. "I thought it strange that Louis should—"
"Want to marry me?" interrupted Pauline. "Why?"
"—be moved from his course by anyone," finished Helen. "A man like that—oh, Pauline, you have deceived me a great deal, but I know that what you say now is true—I am sure that you love Louis."
"Tell him so," gasped Pauline. "Speak for me."
The errand was grotesque; Helen could scarce forbear a smile of anguish.
"Why, Pauline," she said gently, "can't you yourself—"
"No—I don't speak his language. I'm not of his world, he puts me off with—quips and turns—but I could make him love me—only tell him he must marry me."
It was the code, the morality of the provincial back street from which Pauline had sprung; caught in the trap of her own setting, she fell back on these primitive ethics; never from the first had she understood Louis any more than he had understood her; they were both clever, but both had gone out of their depths in judging one another; Helen saw this; she could not yet quite gauge the depths of Pauline's low cunning and mean treachery, masked as they were by the sullen grandeur of her demeanour, but she could see the hopeless cleavage between the outlook of Louis and the outlook of Pauline.
In her opinion either Louis cared for Pauline only as something curious and attractive that had chanced to flatter him, or returned her passion and concealed it out of regard for her, Helen.
In either case it was pitiful; it was dreadful to have to interfere.
"That's all." Pauline rose heavily. "I thought you'd want to help me—maybe you owe me something—as I said—besides money. You're the kind who seems to like to do these things. You can impress him, I daresay."
Even to Helen this had the sound of pure insolence; yet the woman's desperate sincerity, the passion distorted face, the reckless boldness that considered one thing only—all this forced Helen to forego judgment.
She did not know how far Louis had gone in caresses and pledges to Pauline; when she had spoken to him in Brussels he had denied nothing; it had been her own impression that he intended to marry Pauline.
Helen revolved these things in her just and generous mind; she considered the stricken figure before her—this creature lost to all but passion, desperate, half frantic, this creature who had never had a chance to learn about honour or fineness, or delicacy or nobility—yes, more than money was owing to Pauline.
Helen melted into a deep compassion; even if Pauline's love was of a poor quality, uncontrollable and only for the mere outward bravery and charm of the man, at least it was a genuine passion.
Helen, tired, almost at the end of emotion, saw Pauline as a reflex of herself.
So had she suffered, that day in Brussels, when she had walked to the very door of his hotel and waited beyond the garish light of the door for him to come out; when she had walked aimlessly through the dark damp city and into the warmth of the church; when she had sat up all night in the hotel room that had been the scene of their parting, and never noticed the fire drop from flame to ember, from ember to ash.
Helen's fatigue, which freed her from all hot feeling, showed her, by the unhampered light of the imagination, herself and Pauline, as she had seen them in the diminishing glass, both small, insignificant, wretched, tormented by the same passion, devastated by the same desires.
Helen scorned herself for this resemblance; seeing Pauline in torture she cast contempt on her own pain; this passion of love seemed doubly ignoble, savage, terrible, when personified in this other woman.
"I was the same," thought Helen. "I also loved him like that."
She could think of this love as in the past; Pauline had brought her her last release; she shuddered away from this passion that could master and degrade, she became cold, remote in sheer fastidiousness.
Pauline, who was standing leaning against the bedpost, as if she had no ability to move, looked greedily down on the clustered jewels.
"What are those?" she asked, as if she guessed.
Helen could not tell her, could not answer; Pauline sighed heavily and went to the window; she noticed, with astonishment, the faint glare in the moonlight.
Her rooms and Cornelia's rooms were on the other side of Paradys, and there she had been all day.
"Surely something is burning in the Park!" she exclaimed.
"The Pavilion," said Helen without moving. "Mr. Van Quellin has burnt down the Pavilion." Pauline returned to the hearth.
"I can't tell you," replied Helen wearily.
Pauline spoke fiercely:
"What does he mean by that? What does he mean?"
"Pauline, won't you go now? I want to be alone, lam going to-morrow."
Pauline had moved restlessly to the bed again; she picked up the jewels in greedy fingers.
"How wonderful! Did he give you these? Are you sending them back? What did he mean by burning the Pavilion?"
Helen was silent, shrinking, shrinking, withdrawing her soul from contact with any of this. Louis himself was smirched and spoilt by this base, wild, jealous love.
"Oh, God," prayed Helen in her heart, "save me from that kind of love!"
Pauline looked at her averted figure, looked with restless hate, suspicion, and yet with supplication.
"Why did you bring me into the same house with him?" she said at length, and now at least she spoke sincerely. "After the life I'd led—a man like that—you might have known—"
As she spoke she had really forgotten that malice and revenge had at first directed her attention towards her cousin's lover; and Helen had never known this.
"I have been foolish, I think, Pauline. But it is over now."
Helen rose, so tired, so weighted with weariness!
"Very foolish, Pauline, but I will do what I can," she smiled, with a pitiful reflex of her one-time gaiety.
"If my father had had the money, Louis would have married me," muttered Pauline. "Money is the only difference between us—between you and me."
"I have said so," replied Helen faintly.
The room, softly lit artificially, seemed unreal, a transient refuge against the darkness, the real darkness that was dominant outside; beyond the window were that fading fire, that icy moon and universal stillness.
Helen looked at Pauline with a most delicate pride.
"You want me to ask Louis Van Quellin—to—what?"
Pauline turned away with a slinking movement.
"I don't know—ask him not to leave me alone here—tell him—he doesn't take me seriously."
She stumbled over her words and was silent. Helen could feel compassion for her, a chill compassion without sympathy.
Pauline was weeping; leaning against the bedpost she was heavily sobbing; pressing her hands to her eyes she began to move slowly towards the door.
"I will speak to Louis," said Helen, looking after her; she thought: "I will speak to him, this last torment, as a thank offering for my own tranquillity."
Pauline went out; when she was alone, Helen snapped off the lights; in the fireglow she returned the jewels to the case and locked it, then went for the last time to the window.
But the moon was alone now; the red haze of the Pavilion had disappeared behind the bare trees; the farewell of Louis had faded into the universal silence and stillness.
HELEN believed that she was clear of any emotion now save compassion, for Pauline, for Louis, for herself, for their weak and common humanity.
But none of them (she thought), not even Cornelia, deserved compassion as much as Pauline; never before had Pauline's heritage seemed to her so inevitable and so awful.
And she blamed herself for taking this woman, not a malleable girl, but a woman just as she was, and so impetuously setting her down in a different and dazzling environment; she, Helen, had believed that there were in everyone certain levels of honour, fineness and nobility, and she had been disgusted when she found that Pauline did not recognise these principles and ideals; now she told herself that it had been foolish and presumptuous of her to expect such things from Pauline, and she was able to say to herself:
"Had I been brought up as she was—had all this happened to me, I should have behaved the same."
For another disaster Helen blamed herself; she ought to have seen that Pauline might love Louis, she thought, that Louis might care for Pauline, she should not have been so sure of these rigid niceties of conduct—from the first she had been to blame; with a certain languor, a certain coldness she admitted this.
It seemed to her now, that if Louis had the least affection for Pauline that he ought to marry her; she could see the passionate woman's salvation in such a marriage; Van Quellin would look after her, teach her, train her. Pauline, through love, might be redeemed from the shadows of her old gloom, unhappiness and meanness, Helen did not know; here, too, her thoughts were languid; she was most tired.
She was leaving Paradys that afternoon, and they met, she and Louis, like two acquaintances to say good-bye.
Louis had asked her about her journey, seemed solicitous about her comfort in a formal fashion; they were in the large dark Flemish room that was almost their only common meeting ground, and Helen's grey furs and gloves were ready flung across a chair; the sunshine outside was like a queer copy of summer, light without heat or colour.
"Perhaps you will say good-bye to Cornelia," suggested Louis, completely composed and smiling.
And Helen answered:
"Yes, but first I have something more to say to you."
"To me?" It seemed impossible that anything could pierce his indifference.
"About Pauline. I am leaving Pauline here." Helen's voice sank a little; the room seemed full of something of which neither wished to speak, something sad, frightful.
"Yes?" He looked at her as if to discover her hidden purpose in this incredible sentence.
"I would like to know what you are doing with regard to Pauline?" Helen spoke with the languor of resignation.
"I? Miss Fermor is not my responsibility. If she chooses to stay with Cornelia, and Cornelia chooses to have her, it will make no difference to me. I shall be scarcely at all at Paradys."
"I don't want to hear you say that," said Helen painfully. "I thought, I hoped that you and Pauline—"
"You settle my affairs too officiously," he answered with a look of sincere anger. "I have not, and never have had, the least intention of a marriage with your cousin—if that is what you mean."
"You let her think you had, you let Cornelia think so—" Helen felt her own words grotesque.
"Never. Don't you know yet that your cousin lies? And that Cornelia says whatever she suggests?"
Helen remembered that Pauline had admitted this herself, almost in the same words, last night; she had another way of looking at these things, but that way seemed vague and inexpressible compared to the downright clarity of Van Quellin's judgment.
And while she hesitated Louis spoke again:
"You are rather too indifferent to—even appearances—it is enough that you turn me down so coolly yourself without using me as the means of an establishment for your cousin."
"Indifferent? I, indifferent?" said Helen.
And then she was silent, overcome by the thought of the difficulty, the impossibility of making Louis understand.
"Please don't talk any more of it," he finished, and it sounded like a command.
"But Louis, I must—I must get this straightened out—Pauline thinks, Pauline believes—Louis, you must see it can't be left like this—"
"Why not? You go your way. Miss Fermor is well able to take care of herself."
Helen, not noticing the interruption, looking at him, said with candid simplicity:
"Louis, if you don't care for Pauline, what came between us?"
"Your own desire to be free. It was a light excuse, but sufficient." Then he added, with the pale clear eyes challenging: "Now let me ask a frank question—why did you thrust Pauline on me?"
"I never did. It simply never occurred to me that you two—" Helen paused, then gave him, with a pitiful gentleness, the truth:
"You see, I thought that you loved me, Louis. I believed that no one else would make any difference to us because of that. I was so sure. I had no right to be so sure."
"When did you cease to be sure?"
She looked at him in a bewildered way; he stood in that searching winter sunshine against one of the dark formal pictures, and every line in his handsome head and face was sharp and clear.
"When Pauline told me, I didn't believe—I doubted Cornelia too, but when I asked you in Brussels—you never denied anything—I thought, then, that it was true, you had always complained of me, you said once that you would leave me for someone who gave you just what you wanted, and I believed you had found that person in Pauline. When I heard that there was going to be nothing—that you were leaving Paradys—I was at a loss. I remain at a loss, Louis."
She clasped her hands in her deep distress and agitation and the tears wetted her lashes; she was beginning to forget the woman whose mouthpiece she had promised to be.
"Tell me the truth, please," she added simply with her air of noble candour. "Things have gone so wrong, there must be some way of putting them right."
"It was your light indifference, your foolishness," he answered quickly. "Your disregard for my wishes—your thrusting of this woman on us against—all—all common sense, decency almost. All this showed me how little you cared—I—Pauline Fermor amused me—roused my curiosity, made me malicious, if you like to know. I would like to have punished you, Helen. I suppose," he added fiercely, "I—once, you see, you were lost."
Helen saw in his formidable defiant eyes the bitter loneliness that had so often amazed and frightened her before; she thought of the day of parting in Brussels when she had seemed indeed lost, to him and to herself.
An immense melancholy surged over her; perhaps it had all been for nothing, this suffering, this struggle, this sad victory over herself; if he could have spoken like this before!—now she looked at him with as much detachment as the dying may look at the living.
"Poor Pauline!" she said, and with this little lament she moved to the window, on the way picking up her gloves and putting them on slowly.
The landscape was half effaced by this December sun that made the distant woods faint traceries in a faint sky, and the frail trees in the avenue thin as harp strings; in the pale azure of the moat the living white of the swans showed rich and pure and was reflected in the tranquil water as in a mirror.
Helen was taking farewell of Paradys; she did not look at Louis Van Quellin; farewell of Paradys; farewell of so much; her spirit was drowsy with sadness, it was herself too, to which she said farewell, the Helen full of simple and gay tenderness, of lively laughter and spontaneous caresses; as Louis watched the fine grace of her figure which expressed her infinite melancholy, he began to lose his own composure.
"How could you think—about your cousin?" he asked in a shaken voice.
"Is she nothing to you?" replied Helen.
"How could she be?" he demanded.
Helen did look at him now with remote amazement.
"There is no one in this but you and I?"
"How could there be?"
"But I was never lost to you," she murmured. "I did not want to hold you against your will."
She spoke these words without knowing that she said them; they were a spontaneous expression of her intense thought.
"No one in this but you and I"—"how could there be?"—"but I was never lost."
These sentences hung in the air as a perfume; they gazed at each other, dumb, before this glimpse of the truth, of their monstrous misunderstanding forced on them by his pride and her simplicity.
Helen drew on her soft gloves slowly, finger by finger.
"It is a pity," she whispered gently, "that this is too late."
She took from the palm of her hand, inside her glove, a small key.
"I am sorry I must give this to you—forgive me. The case is in the room I had—"
And she put the key gently on the black table to spare him taking it from her.
Louis bit his lip; she noticed, curiously, that there was an expression on his face that she had never seen there before, an expression that changed him; he looked older, she observed the grey in his reddish hair at the temples, the fine lines by his frowning eyes.
"Poor Louis," she murmured; she was so full of compassion for all of them, empty of everything but languor and compassion.
"I burnt the Pavilion," he said, "didn't you understand that?"
"It was a splendid good-bye—"
Even now his pride had kept him back, made him wait for her loving submission; he had explained; they understood each other; he had expected her to turn naturally to his arms; instead she had put the key of her jewel case on the table, and, seeing her sad tranquillity, his pride capitulated in sheer terror.
"There are no good-byes, Helen; nothing has happened, you are not going—it is all clear now, isn't it?"
His rare agitation was pitiful, painful; Helen, already so exhausted, began to tremble with distress.
"Please let me go, Louis—quietly—please—I must get right away."
He was incredulous of his ill-fortune; he came up to her and took her hands and pulled her gloves off clumsily, for his own hands were unsteady.
"Helen, you can't go. It is impossible—you know that—you are tired now, but to-morrow; listen, dear, nothing has happened. I was a fool, but it's over now—"
A flame of colour spread over Helen's face at this spectacle of his pride that had held her so long in awe, in ruins; she tried to take away his hands, to check his hot impetuous almost incoherent words. "Please, Louis, I must go."
At the note of finality in her voice he ceased his importunities to demand violently:
"I don't suppose I could tell you," said Helen wearily.
He released her hands; he was quickly losing all control.
"You mean you won't forgive?"
Helen, at the sound of this last word was quickened into animation.
"Forgive! Oh, I have nothing to forgive—don't think I'm hard or angry—it isn't that—"
"What is it then?"
Helen seated herself in the heavy tapestry chair and took her sick head in her hand, her elbow resting on the wide chair arm; her long grey veil half obscured the pretty fair hair, the tired face. "I'll try to tell you;" this in justice to his anguish, so hurt, so angry, so amazed; she closed her eyes, subdued her inner fatigue in the effort to explain to Louis Van Quellin.
"That day in Brussels. I was so certain that you did not care; I could not tell if it was Pauline—but I was certain—I had to let you go—and then, Louis, it came upon me, how much it was to me—"
"Well—then—" he cried.
She stopped his passionate advance by a frightened gesture.
"Let me tell you—I saw the other side of it—the hurt—the—I thought I might have died. I wished I could. I walked about the streets; I sat in a church—I prayed to be delivered from love." She only just breathed this last word; her eyes were closed again. "I fought for the courage to come back here, to be just to Pauline, to you, to Cornelia—it was almost more than I could do. Louis—you see, I'm not angry or I should not tell you this."
He gave a bitter miserable ejaculation and walked impatiently to the window.
"I managed to come back to Paradys," continued Helen, with grievous difficulty in finding and using her words, "but I was different, I was changed."
"In what way? Towards me?" he asked roughly.
"I believe my prayers were answered," whispered Helen. "Something died, my heart, perhaps, I don't know. I feel only tired—and sorry, sorry—"
She could not get nearer to it than this, even to put herself right with Louis; she could not tell him of last night, of the abasement of Pauline, of her comparison of Pauline with herself and her subsequent shrinking from passions that produced this devastation; she was changed, different indeed; she shivered away from the rare roused emotion of Louis, she only wanted him to be quiet and say good-bye and let her go.
And he, seeing this changed different Helen sitting there in lassitude like an image of herself, and thinking how she had coloured his lonely enclosed life, how love of her and pursuit of her love had filled his days with adventure and delight, thinking of this, and of her frightful story of the day in Brussels when she had deliberately killed what he had taken years to bring to life, felt an acrid and boundless despair; he found nothing fantastic in her tale; he remembered how he had passed that same night; he believed that she was the type of woman who would and could deliberately break her own heart in an excess of divine folly; and he did not dare to urge or plead for fear of further terrifying her outraged fastidiousness.
"You must give me time," was all he allowed himself to say, "a day or two at least—it is impossible for you to go like this—give me a day or two."
Helen shook her head; she and Pauline could not both remain at Paradys; Pauline! she was sure that Louis had forgotten Pauline, and she could not remind him; she could do nothing more for Pauline who had caused all this bewilderment of suffering.
She realised her own incurable wound, which she would always hide as best she knew, of which, perhaps, she would die, but she realised it as she realised the distress and pain of these other people, without emotion, only with pity, pity; she took up her gloves that Louis had pulled off her hands and began to draw them on again while she gazed out of the window at that pale ethereal lifeless landscape that so exactly reflected her mood.
Louis was speaking again; holding on to the back of the chair, he was talking to her in a voice that she knew he was striving to make calm, reasonable, impressive; but his words were tinged with desperation, shaken with despair.
He told her that she was unreasonable, unjust, that she had not really forgiven him, that he would take any punishment she gave him but that of losing her; he asked her to marry him at once, as soon as possible, in a few days; he was confident of their happiness—then seeing her immobile sadness he asked her abruptly, all his pride in the dust, to have pity on him.
"You've put me off so much—it's years now—one can't go on—"
Helen felt no response to this; she was thinking of last night's scene with Pauline, of how terribly everything had been spoiled; tears blurred her vision of the thin fine icy sunny landscape, but she shook her head with a definite rejection of all he had to say.
She picked up her long grey fur and was turning away down the long heavy room where even the sunshine only showed, without enlightening the sombre indigo and blackish greens of the tapestry, the dark massive furniture, the dull reds, bronze gilts and blues of the armorial bearings on the bosses of the thick beams and over and round the chimney piece; she did not wish to say "good-bye;" there seemed to her a meanness about any definite farewell.
As she passed him, mute and downcast, he timidly took her hand; the pity of this chidden gesture from one so dominant moved Helen as nothing else he had urged had done; this tremble of a timid caress, appealing, ashamed, from Louis Van Quellin!
"Ah," she whispered, pausing, "you're lonely, aren't you?"
Louis did not dare to answer; he contained himself, waited while she hesitated, only he ventured to take her languid passive hand and hold it to his heart.
The door opened violently and Pauline entered; for the moment Helen had forgotten her, and Louis looked at her as if she was a stranger.
PAULINE had seen Helen's hand caressed by Louis Van Quellin, and she—Pauline—stood also silent as if she looked at a stranger.
"Are you going away this afternoon?" were her first words; she came down into the room, pulling at the throat of her untidy dark garments. Louis answered:
"I see." Pauline's heavy look fell on her cousin. "It was all a trick then? What you promised me last night?"
Helen, with averted face, shrank away from this attack; the knowledge that Louis loved her, had always loved her, and that this woman had made her doubt that love had caused her to spoil that love, caused her to see Pauline not without compassion, but still as something monstrous, a scourge, an implacable enemy.
"Don't press me any further, Pauline," she answered faintly. "We've had as much as we can bear—all of us—It was like an appeal for the mercy of silence, but Pauline's lip lifted in a dark sneer.
"Since you two," she declared harshly, "are lovers you might have said so—before—" Louis would have spoken, but Helen, by a desperate gesture, implored his silence.
"Don't," she begged, "say things. Pauline, let us try to keep quiet." She had the air offending off something physically threatening, unendurable, incredible. "Please, Pauline, please—"
"Why do you want to hush me up? Last night you asked me to be frank—"
"Last night I didn't understand—it's—it's clear now, there is nothing more to be said."
Pauline gave Louis a withering glance.
"Haven't you got anything more to say?" she asked violently.
He gave her the one word that he had given her before:
"And you expect me to keep quiet!"
There was something so insolent, so insulting, so vulgar in Pauline's tone and manner that Helen, for the first time in her life, felt an angry passion, unreasoning, devastating, shake her soul.
"For God's sake go away," she commanded unsteadily. "I'll talk to you afterwards, afterwards."
"I'll say what I've got to say now. I dealt frankly with you and you've fooled me up—that's where your sickly pretence at sacrifice ends—with this man!"
"Come away," said Louis, thickly, to Helen; but Pauline was before the door crying out to them:
"You thought you could square accounts with me by money. I told you, you owe me more than that. I guess what I can't prove—I'm glad my mother said what she did to you—turned you out of her house—daughter of a thief, she said. I believe it now; you're that sort, like he was, a whining hypocrite—"
She had rushed this with passionate venom, in a breath, in a second, and then Louis Van Quellin silenced her; his passion bore down her passion as the big wave washes down the murmur of the ripples.
The two women, so desperately intent on each other, had not noticed him or they would before this have quailed before the fury that was gathering in those pale eyes; he cut through Pauline's speech with a sentence in his own language, not the French he habitually used, but the rough Flemish he had learned as a child among his father's people at Paradys; neither of them understood this, nor wished to; from the hot sound it was ugly enough; then in French he said:
"Sale bête! will you be gone?"
Pauline recoiled, but rallied.
"No, I won't."
Louis had now controlled himself sufficiently to use Pauline's language, the only language that she perfectly understood; his hands and his voice shook. "Will you get out of my house? Instantly? Will you take your lies, and tricks, elsewhere?"
"Where am I going to?" she muttered.
"I don't know," he cried with fierce violence. "Mon Dieu, you've made mischief enough here. I put up with it—for Helen—now, no longer—
"Not like this," stammered Pauline. "You must have something to say to me first, something else—"
"Go, go," whispered Helen, to whom this was a terrible, an incredible spectacle. "He doesn't know what he says—"
"I do," exclaimed Louis. "No more weakness, Helen, that way of paltering has cost us too much already. This woman goes at once, within the hour—
"I won't," said Pauline frantically. "What have you against me?"
She had had both these people so long and so subtly in her power, she had drawn so finely over them the nets of their own honours, loyalties and niceties, weaknesses and prides, that it seemed unbelievable that she had suddenly gone too far, that everything had snapped...
Louis Van Quellin answered, still on the high crest of fury.
"I've got against you that you're vile; you came here to work evil by mean, trashy ways—you greedily seized on Helen's senseless generosity as a lever to embroil us all—all that I've got against you—"
"What of the Pavilion?" cried Pauline.
"Get out of the way," said Louis, "or I'll make you—away from the door, I say—"
But Pauline did not stir; Louis turned to Helen.
"Make her move," he said.
Helen wrung her hands.
"What can I say to make you leave us, Pauline? Can't you see that it is all over?"
"All over?" Pauline muttered. "Have you turned against me also?"
Even now, at this acute moment, Helen could marvel at herself that she no longer felt pity; she would never have believed it possible that she could view one as wretched, as forlorn as Pauline was now and feel no compassion; but it was so; Pauline still appeared to her solely as something inhuman, monstrous.
"I want you to go," she murmured.
"At once," insisted Louis. "Out of my house, my sight—"
Pauline made a movement towards her cousin.
"I appeal to you, Helen, against—this man."
But Helen answered:
"I can't interfere."
"You mean you won't? You mean you think what he has said is true and just?"
Louis looked at Helen.
"You know that it is," he said.
She understood that; she realised his justice and his reason; it was as if she had been asked to decide between them.
And to decide between them was like deciding between love and hate.
"I think that Louis is right, Pauline," she answered in a low voice. "I think that what he says is true and just. I want you to go—I don't want to see you ever again."
Such words, coming from such a woman were to Pauline an immense, an incalculable defeat; she was amazed by the immensity of her disaster.
She stared at them both, all her bold audacity toppled over, and stumbled away from the door.
Louis Van Quellin at once left the room; as he passed Pauline he said quickly:
"It is understood that you go—at once."
As the door closed Pauline spoke to Helen.
"You heard that?"
"It is for him to decide," replied Helen. "I think he is right—you pushed us all too far."
She felt that keenly; Pauline had driven them against the wall and on an instinct of self defence they had turned desperately; all her compassion for Pauline had withered before this last atrocious intrusion, this incredible rifling of their last intimacies, even the secret pain of her parting from Louis had been profaned by Pauline; Helen sickened as she realised that this spy, dogging her departing happiness, must have been listening at the door; this was, to Helen, an even more final meanness than the lies about Louis; she averted her whole spirit from Pauline.
Pauline saw this; saw her ultimate defeat and turned away and crept along the corridors, not to her own rooms—to those of Cornelia.
PAULINE had lately neglected Cornelia; that is, she had been so absorbed in herself and in Mr. Bamfylde that she had had no leisure to follow, as she usually followed, all the moods and caprices of the sick girl; since the episode of the altar yesterday, Cornelia had been much alone, and Pauline had not troubled with her; had, indeed, forgotten her, but now she became of terrible importance.
Cornelia wanted her, Cornelia would never let her go—from Cornelia's side she could defy both Louis and Helen.
She went straight, in her distraught passion, across the corridors to Cornelia's room.
Though it was now well on into the morning, the girl was still in bed; she lay flat on her pillows with her hands on her breast, and stared at the square of crystal white sky and the winter sunshine beyond the window, that same chill fairy landscape upon which Helen had gazed just now.
Pauline closed the door abruptly.
"I'm in awful trouble."
Cornelia glanced at her, without curiosity.
Pauline came to the bedside and stood, grand, tempestuous, dominating, overwhelming the frail girl.
"Cornelia, you've got to show now what I mean to you."
"What has happened?"
"They've turned me out," replied Pauline violently. "Your brother—and Helen; she's got round him; they've told me to go at once."
"And why do you come to me?"
Pauline stared down with panic at the wasted face between the thick folds of hair.
"Cornelia," she demanded, amazed, incredulous, "won't you help me?"
Cornelia's awful smile dragged her ashy lips.
"I can't help anyone. I'm dying."
"No, no," cried Pauline vehemently. "You're better; you know you're better."
"I'm not. I never have been. It seems all clear now—there wasn't a miracle yesterday with that altar—was there? Nor with Mrs. Falaise's methods."
"Yogi re not blaming me, are you?" asked Pauline frantically.
"No—? daresay it didn't any of it make any difference—I've been dying ever since I was born, and perhaps this helped me on. But perhaps if you had left me with the doctors I'd have lived longer. I don't know."
"Helen has been at you."
"No—Helen wouldn't. I'm afraid I've lost Helen. I want her to come back, and Louis, and Madame de Montmorin—and all the old friends."
The voice was only like a whisper from the pillow, but it was a thunder of doom to Pauline.
"You mean you don't want me any more?" she stammered.
"No more. You deluded me—to get hold of them, I suppose—it isn't as if you ever cared about me—I'm glad they've found you out; I'm glad you're going away."
Pauline stood rigid by the bed.
"What makes you think all that?" she asked miserably.
"I don't think—I know it. Everything is clear. Because I'm dying, I suppose."
"Nonsense," replied Pauline roughly. "Someone has been speaking to you—Helen, of course."
Cornelia shook her head feebly.
"No—Helen is good. If anything told me, it was that man who brought the altar. I saw the way he looked at you, and the way he looked at Helen."
Pauline turned sharply away from the bed, like one convicted who for a second avoids the eyes of the judge, and Cornelia, now free of her scrutiny, dragged herself up, huddling against the pillows with an effort and a shiver.
"Won't you go away?" she asked unsteadily, coughing.
"You want me to? Cornelia, you?"
"Yes," replied the sick girl wearily. "I don't want ever to see you again—I want Helen."
Pauline went out of the room without looking at her and into her own apartment; Cornelia's words had reminded her of Fearon Bamfylde. If he knew anything, now was the moment to make him say it; she dismissed Louis, Helen and Cornelia from her thoughts in this concentration on Fearon Bamfylde.
She became intensely practical; she put everything of value that Helen had given her or that she had bought herself into a valise; she secured a wad of ready money that she had, after the manner of her bringing up, hoarded; to Pauline a cheque book had always seemed impotent beside ready money; but she took the cheque book also, for Helen had spoken, last night, of money at the bank.
She took a few clothes; there were a great many other things that she wanted, but those she would, she thought, send for; the little car was hers, too, she would take that; she put on the fur coat her cousin had given her, and, with the valise in her hand, went out; she met no one; it was as if everyone, even the servants, was shut away, waiting for her to go; it occurred to her that Cornelia had looked very ill, and someone ought to be sent to her, but she took no steps to do this; she had no longer any interest in Cornelia, she even felt a certain relief at no longer having to pretend to care about this difficult, foolish invalid.
Without looking back she went to the garage and got out her car and drove to Kruiskerke.
Mr. Bamfylde was having tea in the parlour of the inn that he had arranged so comfortably according to his own taste; he had a big German book on the new discoveries at Crete propped up beside him, and he was drinking weak tea and reading the learned author's dissertations with equal relish; Pauline left the car in the cobbled square and crossed to the inn window. She carried with her the valise of valuables; to make sure that Mr. Bamfylde was there she peered in through the uncurtained, unshuttered window.
And he, looking up, saw her; he could have seen nothing more unexpected and disagreeable; his nervous dislike of this woman amounted to a passion, and to see her thus, peering and spying on his easy seclusion, looking stormy, dark and sinister, was intolerable.
"Go away!" he cried; "go away!"
He was the third person who had said that to her that day; whether she heard it or not she must have seen the gesture of repulsion that accompanied it; with a dreadful smile she surveyed him through the narrow glass panes.
Mr. Bamfylde went to the window and opened it slightly; he tried hard to control himself.
"Has anything happened, Miss Fermor? Can I be of any help? Do you want me?"
"Those people—up at the castle, have turned me out—even Cornelia—I'm going—I don't know where."
He stared in agitated dismay.
"Don't get frightened," said Pauline with sombre contempt. "I'm not asking you to go with me."
"There's been a quarrel?"
"It was that woman, Helen; perhaps you can guess what I feel about her. Perhaps you can't. Anyway I suppose you can see I'm desperate, absolutely desperate. And I've come here to find out what you know."
"I don't know anything."
Pauline fixed him with her powerful and sinister glance.
"I think you do—will you swear—that you don't? With those two portraits there will you swear?"
"Don't be ridiculous," he said angrily. "This is no case for swearing. I know nothing at all of your father's affairs."
She kept her frowning eyes on him steadily, but could not make his falter.
"Do you mind—if I shut the window—it is so cold."
She turned away at that, across the twilight square; there was something fearful in her look of baffled defeat; Mr. Bamfylde ran round to the door and after the lonely figure.
"I say," he said foolishly, "where are you going?"
"To Brussels—I suppose."
"Know an hotel?"
"Try the 'Duc de Brabant,' it's jolly good."
She climbed into the car without answering.
"I say, let us know your address."
Pauline did not answer; the car slid away along the darkening road. Mr. Bamfylde, hatless and slippered, watched it go; the short day was ending; the clear sky was troubled with many clouds that might mean snow; the Flemish village looked bleached and chill in the receding light; the great trees by the monstrous church were bleak in the rising north wind.
EARLY the next morning Mr. Bamfylde presented himself at Paradys with a request to see Madame St. Luc. Helen came almost at once; she said that she had been up nearly all night with Cornelia; the girl was very listless and weak and Dr. Henriot had been telegraphed for; Helen seemed exhausted and spoke quickly and nervously. Mr. Bamfylde was nervous too.
"Miss Fermor came to see me last night," he began clumsily. "She told me that she had left Paradys."
"Yes," replied Helen wearily. "She has gone. That is why lam still here—someone had to stay with Cornelia."
"You've really sent her away—definitely? Turned her out, as it were?"
Madame St. Luc seemed faintly surprised at this insistence.
"I don't want to see her again," she replied faintly.
"Well, there is something I ought to tell you—she, Miss Fermor, has always had the idea that I know something about her father."
"She came to me last evening about that; wanted to insist there was something."
Helen shivered; she felt so at the end of everything.
"To vent her hatred on me, I suppose—this—this kind of blackmail seems to be her inheritance."
Mr. Bamfylde rambled on, as if he hadn't heard; he was walking up and down the sombre room, while Helen, in her pale morning dress, sat languidly by the fire.
"Of course, I said, no, no; oh, dear no, nothing of the kind, and she went off, to Brussels, I suppose. I gave her the address of the 'Duc de Brabant'—she wanted me to swear, but I was firm, firm."
"It seems to have upset you," said Helen kindly and wearily. "I'm sorry."
"I was up all night, thinking it out," went on Mr. Bamfylde. "I'd been evading the thing all my life nearly, and then it suddenly got me by the throat, as it were."
"Thinking what out?" asked Helen, puzzled.
"The—the position. I felt I ought to speak to you about it, you see. I'm so strongly prejudiced in your favour that it makes it very difficult to be just—and yet I know that you would want to be just."
He paused with an overwhelmed air; Helen did not understand in the least what he meant.
"If I can help you," she began vaguely.
"I'm afraid you can't—I'm afraid no one can—I've got to do it myself, and I don't know how to begin."
He looked so wretched that Helen was moved to say:
"Need you talk of this, whatever it is?"
"I'm afraid I must—it is a question of conscience."
Helen started; conscience had made her tolerate Pauline; she was afraid of the word conscience.
"My mother was entrusted with something," continued Mr. Bamfylde, "that was in turn trusted to me, and I've never had the courage either to destroy it or speak about it—I just hid it away—like a fool."
"Yes, someone else's secret," said Mr. Bamfylde miserably, "the secret of a—person—I loved, who was very good to me. I wish that I hadn't to know about it, but now I daren't keep quiet any longer."
Helen made no personal application of what he said: she thought he wanted help in some trouble of his own and listened in patient sympathy, though she was tired and weary to the point of utter languor.
"When Miss Fermor came yesterday—"
"Oh, it is to do with Pauline?"
"Yes—that—that's the devil of it—absolutely, I really detest Miss Fermor."
"What has she done to you?"
"To me? Nothing. But I can see what she is. I wish you would guess what I've got to say; that would help a little."
She thought him very incoherent, but said kindly:
"Who is it about—this secret?"
"Miss Fermor—and your father."
He could not meet her amazed, candid eyes.
"My father? You do know something about my father then?"
"I wish I didn't—I wish to God I didn't."
"But you do?"
"Yes, I do."
"What is it? He was unjust to his brother perhaps? Not tolerant enough, not patient enough? I thought so, too, secretly; that is why I tried to make up to Pauline—but I find you can't—I mean there are people you can't tolerate."
"I'm afraid he was—unjust."
Helen answered quickly; she seemed slightly frightened. "It is so easy to be unjust to horrible people. I know, I'm sorry for yesterday, already—what we said, what happened—but I couldn't have her back. I expect my father was like that; he was sorry all the time, but he couldn't bear to see them—"
Mr. Bamfylde agreed eagerly.
"They were unspeakable. I'm sure Mrs. Fermor was a thorough bad lot. And your father tried not to lose sight of them, tried to send them money; but after Paul died, she hid away somewhere; she was so venomous then that she didn't even want the money, and she, Mrs. Fermor, was always queer, mentally, and partially blind, from the time Pauline was born."
"Then my father was not so much to blame; he did what he could?"
"Yes, I think in that way, he did what he could."
"Then I don't understand."
"There's something else behind it all—something that I feel I've got to tell you."
Helen's fright was manifest now.
"Need you?" she asked. "I've had enough of—horrible things."
"I don't know if I need. I'm all in a confusion, it's just a matter of conscience."
"Can you think what my father would have wished?"
"I think," replied Mr. Bamfylde earnestly, "he would have wanted you to be told—now—when you and your cousin were together, like sisters, it was different, but now that she's gone—"
"She had to go," broke in Helen. "I can't tell you about it, but she had to go."
"I can believe it; I can guess what she did—you can't detest her more than I do; that's what makes it so difficult—you want to be more just when you detest a person."
Helen was in full sympathy with that.
"There is something that affects that—justice towards Pauline?"
"Then I think that you ought to tell me, Mr. Bamfylde."
"It's difficult—I suppose you haven't heard anything at all—any whisper—any rumour—any hint—" He broke off wretchedly.
"About?" Helen had a look of panic. "About your father and his brother."
"A patent, an invention—the Fermor Brake patent."
"You don't mean—yes, of course I've heard of it; that's an absurd story old Mrs. Fermor had got hold of."
"I'm afraid it isn't an absurd story. I daresay she thought it was herself, but it isn't; that is what I've been trying to tell you."
"You've been trying to tell me?"
Desperately they stammered at each other.
"Mr. Paul Fermor invented that Brake system—Mr. Paul—"
"And my father?"
"Well, my father?"
"Mr. Mark Fermor stole it—stole the idea."
There was a silence, during which they did not look at each other; though the thing was so atrocious, so monstrous, Helen did not doubt it; the pain of Fearon Bamfylde was the seal of truth on the frightful revelation; she accepted the horror; it at once became part of herself as if she had never been without it; the whole of life which had been lately darkened enough for her, was further gloomed with an intolerable murk.
"I should never blame you if you said nothing," came Mr. Bamfylde's nervous eager voice. "Only I thought you ought to know. It's been on my mind for years. A matter of conscience."
"Oh, God!" whispered Helen. "Conscience! Oh, God!"
"I was so thankful," went on the antiquary, "to find you and she together—there seemed no need to speak while you were giving her everything."
Helen tried to rise, in restless misery of spirit, but her overburdened body would not respond, her limbs were so weak and trembling that she could not move.
"Have you any proof?" she asked and put her hand to her throat to ease the dry clutch there.
"Not much proof—there is just one letter he wrote my mother. She asked me to keep it—in case lever met you—"
"Why didn't she, your mother, tell me before?"
"She hadn't the courage. You see, your father hadn't decided, when he died, so suddenly—it was all in suspension," he replied, adding painfully: "Don't ever think of your father as other than a good man."
Helen gazed at him pitifully, as if she did not understand, and he began, incoherently but whole heartedly, to defend Mark Fermor. But Helen was not able, in this first shock of this tremendous revelation, to understand, nor even listen to, all that he had said, all the pleas he had put forward on behalf of her father, all his desperate exposition of Mark Fermor's case, which he seemed to have learnt by heart, as if it was his own case, his own crime, his own conscience.
Helen could not feel much concern in all this; it seemed to her to belong to other lives, to other stories.
One thing only was her affair. How, in the light of this awful knowledge, was she to deal with Pauline? She had forced herself to look at the letter that Fearon Bamfylde gave her, unloading his conscience as he unloaded his hands.
"It's yours now," he said with relief. "It is for you to do as you like; of course I shall never say a word."
And Helen, clinging still with bitter desperation to those old loyalties, trying not to be utterly overwhelmed and defeated, said:
"Tell me again what was the truth of it all."
Mr. Bamfylde tried to tell.
When the two brothers were on the worst of terms, Mark at last on the breaking point of patience and endurance, the miserable drunkard had sent in the model and the drawings on which he had staked his last effort.
As far as Mr. Bamfylde knew, Mark had been quite sincere when he had written saying these were nonsense; he had not looked at them, honestly believing that the work of such a man as Paul was certain to be useless, and Paul had replied with insults that further inflamed Mark.
Then, by some chance, Mark had investigated the thing, found it workable, got into it further, and found it likely to be valuable. He improved it, modified it, altered it; he copied Paul's model, then destroyed it, together with the drawings, and put the invention on the market as his own, patented in his name.
He was perfectly secure in doing this; not only had Paul hardly a shred of evidence, but he was of such a character that nothing he claimed would ever be credited; Mark had meant to give him the money. What he couldn't bring himself to give him was the glory, the triumph, the reputation—the justification, as it were, of his whole disreputable life which he, Mark, had always so hotly condemned.
"You see," Mr. Bamfylde said, "he stood for work and honesty—everything that was decent and upright; he'd tried very hard, and never succeeded very well, and Paul represented all that he loathed—he couldn't give this wonderful success—for he soon saw the success it was going to be—to this scoundrel and his atrocious wife—he wasn't even sure that Paul remembered about the patent—you see he never was quite sure, Paul, I mean, nor was Mrs. Fermor—it was Mark who knew."
Mr. Bamfylde emphasised that Mark had given Paul at this time a lot of money; he thought Paul, dying of drink, would be satisfied with the money; but he wasn't satisfied, he found out about the patent; Mark denied it—there were awful scenes.
So far Helen followed, step after step of anguish.
The brothers parted again, Paul howling the curses of despair, and Mark silent.
Mark had gone too far to retreat, to retract; he let Paul go; he maintained the invention was his; he didn't even send any more money—Paul had had a lot of money.
And Paul had slipped into utter misery, very soon of course, and come torturing, pestering, and Maria Fermor had begun her blackmail; it was blackmail, Mr. Bamfylde said, about the love letters, anyhow; Mark had been her suitor once, incredible as it seemed, and what she had never forgiven was having chosen the unsuccessful man.
So far Helen followed to that awful day in her father's office.
"She brought some drawings along—she had no hope then of anything but selling them for a good price, but she was a very violent woman, beginning to lose her sight, and in her rage and misery she made an unspeakable scene. She was turned out of the office."
Mr. Bamfylde tried to explain.
"You see, one day he meant to make reparation; it was a question of putting off—"
"For a lifetime," said Helen bitterly. "What have Ito do with this old story? My problem is with the present, with Pauline."
And now, after all their silences, it was for Helen to decide. Mr. Bamfylde stood before Helen like a criminal.
"I couldn't tell Pauline Fermor," he pleaded, "but I felt I had to tell you."
"Yes," said Helen dully, "you had to tell me."
"You can give her the money," he suggested desperately, "without letting her know why—
"That is what my father did, isn't it? And what did Pauline say herself—'Money isn't enough, you owe me more than money'—it's true you see."
"You mean that money isn't enough?" he asked unhappily.
"I mean, that."
"Ask Mr. Van Quellin—he can advise you."
Helen shook her head.
"No, I can't put it on him; it is my trouble." She corrected herself—"My inheritance."
What she really thought was that Louis would make light of the thing, that he, too, would talk of money being enough.
"What can you do? You can't tell her—a woman like that."
"I ought to," said Helen. "That is just what I ought to do, tell her."
He repeated: "A woman like that! She'd triumph, she'd insult you."
"That is the punishment," returned Helen with a quivering lip. "That is what I ought to take."
"But it isn't your fault."
"I enjoyed the consequences of my father's fault. I've got to tell her."
"When you know how hateful she is? When you know how she feels towards you?"
"Yes," said Helen, "it is going to be difficult."
But Mr. Bamfylde thought that it was going to be more than difficult; he thought it was going to be impossible, a martyrdom that no one could have the fortitude voluntarily to endure.
LONG after Fearon Bamfylde had gone shamefacedly away Helen remained in the low dark chair by the window with the little letter on her lap.
The mist was close and sullen round Paradys, the sad waters of the moat had a stagnant look, the woods were blurs of darkness in the still fog that rose from the marshland.
She had not perfectly understood the letter that Prudence Bamfylde had treasured so long; there were references in it to things she did not know of, that she did not wish to know of, but there was much that was clear enough—the allusions to a "confession," to "my theft," to "the horrible wrong I did my brother Paul."
It was a sad, almost a hopeless letter, and the subject treated therein was obviously well known to writer and recipient; there were references to other letters, to conversations on this same matter.
One sentence impressed Helen more than the whole of the rest.
"I am sure that some how, some way, reparation will be made, whether I wish it or not. Even if I never have the strength to speak myself, I believe that, some way, it will come to light."
Helen was frightened by the thought of her father's suffering; to think that she had lived beside him in love and confidence and never guessed at his secret torment.
The sufferings of Paul had been nothing compared to the sufferings of Mark; as all Pauline had endured would be nothing compared with what she, Helen, must now endure.
Where was Pauline?
The "Duc de Brabant," Mr. Bamfylde had said. Helen's mind had mechanically registered the address; she did not know the place; she could find it.
Sophistries might refine on the matter, but there remained to Helen only those two words:
She rose stiffly, carefully put the letter into the envelope, and then into her dress.
She was slowly and painfully leaving the room when Louis Van Quellin entered; she had forgotten him; she paused and stood rigid, as if an enemy had stood before her—suddenly.
"Helen," he exclaimed anxiously, "Helen, darling, what is the matter?"
She gazed at him vaguely; curious how everything combined to estrange her from Louis; this news put her outside his world.
"What is the matter?" he insisted.
"I feel tired," she answered. "I was up all night, you know."
"Yes, Cornelia is ill—I've wired for Henriot; but you, I must think of you."
"Don't think of me," said Helen. "To-day lam really going away."
"No—of course not."
"For God's sake," she said with sudden violence, "don't importune me—I've business, urgent business, in Brussels—I must go—at once."
"Then I will come with you," he replied, alarmed and startled.
She looked at him; the remoteness in her eyes was a decree of finality.
"Can't you see when a thing is over?" she asked sadly. "I told you, I told you yesterday."
"But you stayed."
"And now for me."
She sat down again, being really unable to stand, and said, with a sudden gasp of weakness:
"Get me a little wine—something, Louis—I feel so faint."
"You're ill—you're not fit to go anywhere. I won't let you go."
She did not answer, but sat immobile while he rang the bell; when the wine came he gave it her and she drank it with a certain eagerness.
"Surely," he urged, containing himself with difficulty from being violent and despotic, "you can trust me with your trouble, whatever it is."
For one moment temptation shook Helen; she closed her eyes and dealt with it; to tell Louis, to cast off the intolerable burden—to let this man take it from her; she had only to caress him, to promise to stay by way of reward.
She could guess how he would deal with the matter, investigations, lawyers, money for Pauline. And silence. But as Pauline had said, she was owed more than money.
Louis would not see that; Louis wanted to marry her and he would not want a scandal, a disgrace; he would think as Mark Fermor had thought, that money would be enough; useless to tell Louis save as a cowardly shifting of responsibility.
While she brooded, he too was busy with his thoughts; he said:
"I'll come to Brussels and wait outside for you—wherever it is you have to go."
Helen shook her head.
"You must stay with Cornelia; she really needs you, poor child—she has no one else now save little Betje."
"Then you'll promise to come back?" he demanded quickly.
Helen clasped her hands nervously; if only he could see into her spirit—if only he could realise how completely it was over, how utterly she had subdued and destroyed her brief passion.
"No," she answered uneasily. "I can't promise."
"You don't mean that I'm really going to lose you?"
"I'm lost," smiled Helen wanly, "really lost now. Louis; it's good-bye."
"No," he answered sullenly; "no. What has happened? That man Bamfylde was here this morning—just now? Has he anything to do with it?"
"Not with things as between you and me; that was over yesterday," she laboured to explain. "I've no—love—left, Louis. I've suffered too much; I don't know what it is—but, I haven't the strength for it; please understand, please let me go.
"It is impossible for me to do that," he answered. "You were always so much to me—? won't pester you, now, but you must promise to come back."
These words sounded empty to Helen—come back—come back to what?
You couldn't, she thought, come back to what was no longer there—and how impossible to convey to Louis her own barrenness of all feeling, barrenness of love, of sorrow, even of pity.
Van Quellin was not a man to be easily turned aside, not a personality to be lightly resisted; as Helen did not answer, he persisted:
"You're in trouble, and you're shutting me out."
Helen had to listen to him, even had to answer him; lately she had understood Louis better, still imperfectly, not as the De Montmorins had understood him from the first, but more clearly than she had ever done before in their careless times of pleasure and mutual delight in each other.
She realised his essential pride and narrowness, his secret, rigid standards, his fastidious worldliness, his melancholy loneliness of spirit, and it seemed to her that if he married her he would hush up her father's disgrace, and if this was made public he would not marry her, any more than he would have married Pauline, however she had enticed him. And she thought, it is merciful that we were estranged before, for this would be a terrible end to what had been so charming.
But he must be answered; angry and formidable he waited for that answer.
"I have to shut you out, Louis; there is no other way."
"Because," she sought painfully for words, "because you misunderstand, no, not that, you disapprove of me—you're so intolerant of folly."
"You've no trust or confidence in me, then? And you admit your trouble is folly?"
This unkindness strengthened Helen; since he had driven her to bay, it was best, perhaps, to make now, and for ever, the final severance.
Once he knew her secret and her resolution he would not want to delay her going.
She sighed and looked at the motionless mist-swathed landscape, the spindly avenues of bare trees that led to vague foggy flats, the ranked trees in the distant woods, dim bluish masses in the thick vaporous morning; the immobility, the indifference of this prospect, so sterile and forlorn, was in harmony with her complete grief.
"Do you remember that terrible visit—to Pauline, the first time, so incredible, so grotesque?"
"Of course," he answered quickly.
"Well, what the old woman—Mrs. Fermor—said, was true, Louis."
"Who told you?"
"Mr. Bamfylde." She touched her breast. "I've got proof here—my poor father did—it was fundamentally his brother's invention."
"I'm sorry you've found out," said Louis.
"You," stammered Helen frightened, "speak as if you knew already."
"I didn't know—I guessed that, well, something was wrong—from things I heard in London when I made inquiries about your uncle Paul—from—even your father's face in the Guidon—from what Mrs. Fermor said—it was just that secret feeling that made me tolerate your cousin, when I was a fool to do so. Of course," he added firmly, "her parents remain rogues and blackmailers. What proof is it that you have?"
During this speech Helen remained mute and still—curious that Louis should take, with this logical calmness what to her was such a devastating tragedy; his masculine wits seemed even relieved to have something tangible to deal with, instead of all these feminine subtleties.
"My proof is a letter from my father to Prudence Bamfylde."
"Easily destroyed. I suppose Bamfylde won't speak?"
"No, he won't speak."
To Helen this was the final moment of their severance, more final even than his burning of the Pavilion; something more vital than his marriage gift was being destroyed now, their belief and trust in each other; he will think me a fool, mused Helen, as he always has thought me a fool, and I shall know how really hard he is—"easily destroyed" he had already said.
She continued her thoughts out loud, in halting phrases.
"Yet you ought to know something about conscience, Louis. Your life too—hasn't that been a little spoilt by it? Cornelia! You know, perhaps, how my father suffered."
"I can guess. But he is dead. What will you do? It rests entirely with you, doesn't it, Helen?"
"Pauline could never find out; you must remember that—Bamfylde won't speak, and if he did you have his only proof; unless you deliberately tell your cousin she will never know—you have thought of that?"
"Your father didn't speak."
"No. He wanted to—he said, in his letter I have here—'some way, whether I will or not, reparation will be made.'"
"Do you think your father would have wished you to speak?"
"I think so—I can't tell; he left me no message; as you say, he is dead and it is all left to me."
"And you've no doubt as to what you will do?"
"None, Louis." She moved further away from him unconsciously symbolizing the great rift there would presently be between them. "I am going to tell Pauline."
"I thought you would."
"That is why lam going to Brussels—let me go now, Louis—and good-bye."
"I am coming with you."
"You?" She frowned faintly.
"Yes, I. Why should you think I'd desert you?"
"But you—it is all folly."
"No. I think you ought to tell Pauline; I think it is the only thing that you can do."
A lovely colour flushed over Helen's amazed face.
"Pauline may make it public—disgrace," she murmured. "I mean to give her, too, all my money. I'll be stripped."
"It doesn't matter, Helen; can't you understand that it doesn't matter?"
Helen stared at him piteously; how incredible that when she had believed they had come to the final parting they should prove to be more one in spirit than they had ever been!
"I approve of what you do," insisted Louis, seeing she was baffled. "I think you are right. Only you must allow me to come with you."
"Thank you," said Helen faintly, "thank you."
"It is all I can do," answered Louis sadly; he thought of a story he had read of a gallant man sentenced to execution—and first a public whipping—and how his servant had asked permission to walk behind him, as he had walked in the days of his master's splendour; just that, to walk behind, with bared head, respectfully; it was all he could do.
Helen understood him, and the hard coldness of her sorrow seemed gently relieved.
"You'll stand by?—thank you."
HELEN'S terror now became the dread that Pauline would have left Brussels or never have gone to the address Mr. Bamfylde had given her; in her nervous state that seemed to Helen the intolerable thing, that she should have to pursue Pauline during, perhaps, a long search, with this horrible secret.
But Louis ascertained soon that Pauline was at the "Duc de Brabant," and left a telephone message at that hotel, asking Miss Fermor to remain in that afternoon.
Helen roused herself to suggest again that they should not both of them leave Cornelia; but the sick girl was quiet and seemed no worse. Betje and the housekeeper would stay with her; by to-morrow Dr. Henriot would be there, with nurses, and, it was hoped, Madame Fisher, for whom Cornelia had begun to ask.
The steward, M. de Reede, was also at Paradys, and he had been instructed to telephone to Brussels, the "Duc de Brabant," if Cornelia became worse, or wanted either of them.
Louis told Helen these practical details quietly, as if the business they were engaged on was an ordinary affair, and Helen felt comforted by this tranquillity, which covered such a passionate concern for her and her torment.
The pale light of a rainy sky shone on the journey to Brussels; they passed the island where the Pavilion had stood; the black charred vestiges of the fire were reflected on the lake still, and luminous as transparent silver; the thin fine twisted lines of the bouquets of poplars, of the avenues of wych-elms, rose into low soft vague clouds into which the morning mists had been gathered; the large graceful beeches, with boles green with damp, rose from the blackish rot of dead mast, the purple bronze of last summer's decayed leaves; Helen could see, as they passed, the garden with the dovecote and the pear hedges and the zonnewizer, and then the formal orangery with the white pilasters on the red brick and small panel windows, and the lawn in front, exquisite even in mid-winter.
Through Helen's absorption in her own trouble, penetrated the meaning of these familiar aspects of Paradys, the pity of her intrusion on something so stable, so old, so dignified, so complete, the injustice of the suffering she was causing the man by her side.
"Louis," she said impetuously, "I've been so selfish—this must be terrible for you. Let me go alone."
"What made you suddenly think of that?" he asked quietly.
"This"—she faintly indicated the prospect beyond the windows of the car—"you belong here, I don't-I've always been here under false pretences, you see really a waif, like Pauline—you have nothing to do with me."
He turned his fine head away as he answered:
"You told me that at Brussels; when I had gone you found you wanted me."
"Yes," said Helen without bitterness or pride, "but I conquered myself—I set myself free from that—obsession."
"But I have never conquered my love of you, Helen," he replied gravely. "I loved you from the first time I saw you—to the full height of love, and you only understood, for that short time, in Brussels. What you felt then, I have felt since I met you. Do you remember?—in Paris six years ago."
Helen drooped her head, ashamed.
"I began to think you had no feeling, that you played—but you tell me, no, that it did, after all, mean something to you."
"You thought me," said Helen sadly, "foolish, futile, frivolous—"
"Yes—you angered me about your cousin."
"Yet now—you come with me—on this errand!"
"Because I know you now. Your resolution would have been mine."
"Not folly?" she asked.
He turned to look at her, and she ventured to gaze at him; at last the devious windings of their characters, conducts and motives had united on common ground, her nobility, masked by softness, foolishness even, his nobility masked by pride, hardness even, at last recognized each other. Helen had overcome her late flowering passion for this man, but now she began to feel the warmth of a loftier emotion for him, a tenderness enhanced by gratitude and admiration, that, whether they parted or no, would never be anything but a joy to her and need never fear comparison with vulgar passions.
He took her hand with that touching timidity he had shown before; as if he respected her wretchedness, her humiliation, more than he had ever respected her gaiety and her ease of heart.
Helen allowed him to take her hand; her barrenness of all feeling had been followed by this one vague, tremulous, amazed feeling towards Louis, who was standing by her when she had expected his desertion, and approving her when she had expected his scorn.
And through this feeling came others, emotional palimpsests, one superimposed on the other, the sense of the working out of this dishonourable action, a good man's dishonourable action, running underground so long, now, at last, to be brought to light, the sense of the secret pain of her father, and the secret pain of Prudence Bamfylde, whose quiet, rather ordinary face in the photograph she had looked at so curiously, and the secret doubt and wonder and distress of Fearon Bamfylde, all flowing wearily towards this present sacrifice.
How little any of these people had to do with her—even her father; they were shadowy, they were spent, they were ended; and in a few years she and Pauline would be ended and all her anguish of to-day would be over and no one would care; Helen had the impression, as she had once before, of time rushing steadily away, day and time, stealing happiness and life; and now this swiftness seemed instantaneous like the existence of the ribbon of water thrown from a glass into the air—a second's flash of brilliancy and then the untroubled air again.
In this darkness of the spirit Helen sought sadly for the bright countenance of her Deity, but he was lost in the gorgeous ramifications of an elaborate creed, an orgy of symbols; Helen could only see the close churches, the plaster faces of saints, the stiff wreaths of artificial flowers, the faint glooms and dusk shadows behind pillars that wearily supported a roof that shut out the sun.
Louis, who continually and anxiously looked at her during the swift journey, at length suggested that he should see Pauline, that he should tell her; Helen shook her head; she was afraid, but more than anything she was afraid of cowardice.
As they left the large melancholy of the country and come to the confinement of the streets, Helen's mind, jolted into alertness, began painfully to revolve practical questions; what would Pauline exact? A public confession? How could one make such a thing? How much money had the Fermor Brake earned? She would give up all her money, save just a pittance—how was that done? How many people would have to know? How ignorant, futile and foolish she was!
Her head began to ache. When they stopped at the modest door of the "Duc de Brabant," she doubted if she could get out, and a new terror assailed her, the terror that she would lose control of her tongue and limbs and not be able to carry through her task; with a resolute effort she controlled this weakness, left the car and entered the vestibule of the hotel, saying to Louis:
"Will you wait down here for me?"
As Pauline did not know Brussels at all she had gone to the hotel that Mr. Bamfylde had named to her, and there for two days she had remained, exhausted, at the end of her resources, completely baffled and defeated; she had at once ascertained that there was money in the bank, so that the panic fear of destitution was removed; but she could not tell that Helen would keep her replenished—perhaps, when those few hundreds were gone, there would be no more; and if she asked for any sort of help and countenance she would put herself on a level with her wretched parents, cadgers, duns, leeches—blackmailers.
She did not know what to do; she had been so swiftly transported from the world she knew to a world she knew nothing of, that she was lost between the two; it seemed so impossible to go back as it was to remain where she was; she had absolutely no friends. She was entirely ignorant of how to use her looks or her abilities to any advantage to herself, and she was tortured with a fierce passion of love for Louis Van Quellin that hurt like the drag and claw of some physical disease.
She was, above all, intolerably lonely; she counted over her ready money jealously and decided to return to England; this place was alien to her; she did not like it; she wanted to slink away in quiet somewhere, to nurse her wounds in quiet.
When she was told that Madame St. Luc wished to see her, Pauline's feeling was at once one of a contemptuous triumph; Helen being a fool was "sorry" and had come to say so. Yet Pauline waited with a dull curiosity for her cousin's visit.
She received her in her sitting-room with frigid hostility, but she was a little shocked to see the change in Helen's appearance; Helen looked not only ill, but dying.
"I'm glad I found you," she said in a murmuring voice. "Mr. Bamfylde said he had given you this address."
"Well?" Pauline waited, suspicious, watchful. "I didn't think we had anything more to say to each other."
Helen sat down, though she had not been asked to do so; she could not stand any longer; she did not look at Pauline as she spoke.
"You remember that you thought that Mr. Bamfylde knew something—about us? About the past? You went to ask him when you left Paradys—"
"Oh, he sneaked over to you with that news, did he?" sneered Pauline.
"He came to tell me that he did know something—something of great importance."
Pauline thought at once that some new disgrace had been discovered about her father or mother, otherwise she could see no reason for Helen to come to her with this news; she stood silent, at bay, with a dark and defiant look.
"You see you were right, Pauline," added Helen faintly and mournfully. "There was something—terrible." She sighed as one might sigh in the exhaustion of long torture, and added in a slurred voice: "What your mother said was true."
"True?" snapped Pauline greedily. "About what?"
"About the Fermor Brake system—" Helen could hardly articulate; the words sounded stiff, queer.
"True? Why—she said you were the daughter of a thief—"
"That my father invented the thing—"
"And then your father stole it—"
They stared at each other, panting, stricken.
Helen dragged a letter from her muff.
"This is a letter my father wrote to Mrs. Bamfylde, it contains his confession—I think I ought to give it to you."
Her hand shook so that the letter slipped from it before Pauline's savage clutch could fasten on it; Pauline picked it up from the floor; Helen averted her face.
Pauline looked at her; she seemed more interested in her cousin even than in this stupendous news.
"Why did you bring this to me?" she asked. "Was someone else going to tell?"
"No. I had to try to make amends."
Pauline put down the letter.
"Take that. It's yours. Oh, after all these years!"
Helen forced herself to look round.
"I know it's late. Nothing can give you back your—lost chances, but the rest, the money, that I can return."
"You mean to give me back the money? I suppose that it will be a lot of money?"
Pauline moved restlessly towards the narrow window curtained with chill white muslin against which the mists of the winter dusk were mournfully rising.
A terrible exhaustion prostrated Helen; she thought with relief of Louis waiting for her downstairs; her task was done; surely she could go; everything was in Pauline's hands; she did not dare look at that poor letter lying on the cheap garish hotel table.
"Pauline, take this letter up. Read it."
The other woman did not answer; she remained motionless by the pale square of the window; her head was bent.
"Pauline, don't you understand what I've told you? I must go now."
Pauline moved now and showed that she was crying.
"I don't want to read it, take it away, I don't want to hear anything more. I shall forget what you've told me—"
She turned round, with something of her old vigour and dashed away her tears.
"You loved your father, didn't you?" she asked almost roughly.
"Yes," said Helen, not understanding this changed Pauline, who began to pace about the room with her grand sullen air.
"Well, I've had three days alone to think things over in; I really hated you, I've been trying all the time to hurt you—if I could have found out this myself I'd have blasted you with it—but now there is nothing I can do. Go away; for God's sake, leave me alone."
"You mean, you can't use it?" faltered Helen. "Then how shall I make amends?"
"You can't make amends. It's all too late."
"Oh, no, there must be some way out—"
"Yes, this for me," replied Pauline passionately. "A way out of my own vileness. Did you want me to say that? I'm vile. And you're good."
"Never have I borne you any malice; for what I said the other day I'm sorry, sorry—" Pauline checked the eager words.
"Are you going to marry Louis Van Quellin?"
"And yet you came to tell me about—"
Helen could not see the connection between her confession and her break with Louis, so completely had she forgotten Pauline's part in this cleavage between herself and her lover.
"I did that to you," added Pauline roughly, "spoilt that for you."
"No," said Helen, "no one could do that, but ourselves, could they? I came to an end. Louis has been so generous. He is waiting for me now—"
"Of course he always adored you," replied Pauline in stifled tones. "Does he know—about your father?"
"Yet it made no difference," muttered Pauline restlessly moving about again. "But with me he must always remember my disgraces—won't you go, please?"
"Yes, but what are you going to do?"
"Nothing," answered Pauline fiercely. "I can't do anything. It's too long ago. It doesn't mean anything, it's dead, dead. I'm Pauline and you're Helen, and we can't change places now."
She stopped in front of Helen and demanded:
"Did Louis Van Quellin think I would accept your sacrifice?"
"It isn't a sacrifice, only bare justice—I don't know what he thought—" Pauline took up Mark Fermor's letter and thrust it into Helen's muff.
"Tell him he thinks too meanly of me—"
A knock at the door; a message from Louis. A scribble on one of his cards:
"De Reede has just telephoned. Cornelia worse. Asking for you and Pauline Fermor.—Louis."
CORNELIA was just leaving them; the Brussels doctor who waited in the next room had said that she could not live more than a few days; Dr. Henriot was coming but he might not be in time; Cornelia had been dying for a long time; lately they had been so absorbed in themselves that they had not noticed this; even Helen had been distracted for the last few days, but before that Helen had noticed and she had not dared to speak.
No one knew why she should, after being ill so long, die so suddenly; perhaps it was the shock of reaction from her intense faith in Pauline that had culminated in the altar, and the lack of a miracle.
In any case, anyhow, Cornelia was dying, and they all waited, hushed and stayed, for this little longer that she was with them; Pauline had come back because Cornelia had asked her; nothing else would have brought her again to Paradys, nothing else would have induced Louis to allow her to enter; but Cornelia was dying.
She no longer seemed childish, and she was not peevish nor fretful; she, who had complained so much of little things, complained no more.
When Louis had taken Helen to Brussels, Cornelia had felt very much alone; Louis, taking leave of her with anxious caresses, had told her that Helen was in great, great trouble and that he must stand by; only for this reason, the vast need of Helen, would he leave her, and he would be back very soon.
Cornelia had acquiesced; when he had gone she felt this great gulf of loneliness invade her, wave on wave of dark waters rising to her heart. She was, she told herself, better; a certain strength animated her; she got up and sat by the fire and showed pleasure in the new wrap of fur and satin that had just come from Paris.
From her low chair she could see many things; the glittering shrine on the table with the book by Mrs. Falaise near; the opulent room, dark, gilded wood, stiff embroidered hangings, and the large bed hung with fine silk.
Then from the window she could see the view over the formal gardens, the spindly avenues leading to the woods, the bouquets of gracile trees, all fine cold and faint against a sky almost colourless, tinged only with a timid flush of lavender.
Cornelia wondered what was Helen's trouble; she guessed that it was to do with Pauline—with Pauline's dismissal from Paradys; she had told Pauline that she was dying; now she was no longer conscious of this approaching death, but she felt detached from the world—indifferent to everyone.
During the afternoon she seemed so much stronger that when she sent Betje away to fetch her some milk the girl obeyed.
When she was alone Cornelia rose and, helping herself by the furniture, left the room; she felt curiously strong, almost cured; only rarely had she been able to walk without assistance, but now it seemed no great effort to do so.
She passed into the corridor; it was so long since she had left her room that it all looked strange to her, rather like a dream castle, in this muted light of the winter afternoon; she stared curiously at the sombre stately pictures of Paradys, at the massive coats of arms with the manifold quarterings. She turned and went round the quadrangle to the left where Louis kept his collections in the unfurnished wing; now, looking out of the narrow windows to the right she could see in the centre of the court the gigantic linden that was supposed to be a thousand years old; ancient and benevolent, with an air of godlike immortality, the huge tree, bare now of the smallest leaves, overtopped the castle and raised branches into the tremulous, nebulous sky.
Cornelia smiled and passed on.
She reached the little room that Louis used as an office and which he had left hastily unlocked and in disorder; she entered, curious, and looked round.
Her glance fell on the Eulenspiegel and then on the man with the carnation, Lodewyck Van Quellin; how like her brother that was; she had forgotten how like.
She sat down in Louis's chair and stared at the Eulenspiegel.
How strange! Did anyone know what it meant? The jester with the pipes, the little figure with the owl, the babies in the basket.
Cornelia thought she had seen all of them, by twilight, wandering down the thin avenues to the woods; surely she had watched them from her tower window and heard the pipes at cock-crow, those long nights when she could not sleep.
Full of this drowsy thought her head drooped into her hands; when she looked up she saw herself in a mirror wreathed with wooden flowers painted a coarse bright blue.
Her face so colourless and frail, her hair flowing loose, so dark and heavy, were outlined against the sombre background of the shadowy room, ringed round by those vivid, stiff flowers; all her soft contours had withered, every line was pinched, the lips strained, the sockets of the eyes outlined and lilac shadows here and there on the bloodless skin.
Cornelia gazed at herself till she seemed to see, in the shadows, Eulenspiegel himself looking over her shoulder, beckoning, grinning, whistling his unearthly melody, while his face, more ghastly even than hers, was bleached by the long whiteness of the grave.
Cornelia rose; the shadows were gaining on her; she left the room, gently as a sigh, and crept back along the corridor.
Now the moon showed above the old linden; Cornelia thought of the altar, the mysterious goddess, perhaps Hecate they had said, perhaps the evil magic that is in the moon.
But now the silver-gold globe above the linden looked pure and remote, unstained by human fancies; Cornelia stared at it, leaning against the window; what were those Italian lines Louis had translated for her once?
Most beautiful maiden,
Sweet to see, not as
The coward fancy of men depict her—
But that was not the moon.
The old poet had meant Death.
Cornelia went back to her room; with slow and painful efforts she put away the shrine, the book by Mrs. Falaise, the boxes of finery; when Betje returned she was quiet in her chair again, but her face frightened the maid into suggesting that Louis be sent for.
"No hurry," she whispered. "Tell him to come when he can—and bring Madame St. Luc and, if he will, Miss Fermor."
When they arrived from Brussels it was well into the night, for Louis had stopped to bring a doctor and a nurse with him; he had travelled with these, and Pauline had come with Helen.
Little had they spoken during that swift journey; when they came to Paradys above which the moon sailed high in a cold sky, both shuddered; the chill air pricked the skin, the moat was icy, a deep frost was rigid on the land, the heavy lines of Paradys Castle showed sombrely melancholy against the luminous void filled by the winter moonlight.
Cornelia was asleep; there was nothing left for any of them to do; Helen had no strength left: she went to her room and lay down, shuddering with fatigue in every aching limb; if she was wanted they promised she would be roused.
She had actually left in the motor car her muff into which Pauline had thrust Mark Fermor's letter; but Pauline brought it into Paradys.
She was not weary, but alert and taut in every nerve; no one took any notice of her; the new doctor and nurse—those strangers—were in Cornelia's room, and she was excluded from her old apartments.
There was a fire in the Groene Zaal, and she waited there; Betje, crying, brought her some supper; it was midnight; Cornelia might die at dawn; steadily, point by point, the fever was rising; the temperature, taken at every half-hour, never failed to show this deadly increase.
Louis Van Quellin came into the Groene Zaal; he did not know of Pauline's attitude, he had not seen either her or Helen since he had sent up the message at the "Duc de Brabant," for he had left at once in search of Dr. Paullain; he regarded her therefore as Helen's implacable and triumphant enemy, and looked at her curiously.
The discovery about her father had not impressed him save as far as it affected Helen; he thought it a fluke, a chance, and it did not alter his opinion of either Paul Fermor or his daughter.
"Won't you go to bed?" he suggested. "Cornelia is not likely to—want any of us—before the morning."
Pauline had risen when he entered.
"Do you blame me for this?" she asked in a low voice, "for my interference?"
Louis struggled with himself a moment; he felt a temptation to crush Pauline by blaming her for this relapse, which honestly had seemed to him due to her influence.
"No," he said coldly. "Dr. Paullain thinks, as Henriot thought, that it was always inevitable. I should thank you for some happiness you gave her."
"I never thought she would die," replied Pauline, shivering. "I really believed she would get better—"
"We won't talk of it," said Louis Van Quellin. "For my poor Cornelia everything is over, and for the rest of us—" Pauline looked at him eagerly.
"I can do something for you," she struck across his broken speech; she caught up the muff and pulled out the letter. "There, that's for you—"
He took it, frowning, instantly recognized Mark Fermor's letter, and said:
"Helen gave you that?"
"Yes, and I give it to you."
"What do you expect I shall do with it?" asked Louis sharply.
"Put it on the fire," she replied with a touch of her old sullenness.
"You aren't going to speak?"
"No. Nothing has happened. Do you understand? I've forgotten. Nothing happened. Helen will give me a pension. I shall go away."
"What is this for?" he demanded.
Pauline shook her head; all her soul was saying "for you"—"for you"; she looked at him jealously; he was so dear, so splendid, even in his dark grief and closed pride; would he not accept her offering, her one offering she had to make with kindness?
Still frowning he handed her back the letter.
"You must deal with that. It is yours. I can't interfere."
Pauline cast it at once into the fire; it curled up and was gone before Louis could speak.
"Why did you do that?" he asked as if he was startled; she looked at him defiantly.
"Do you remember what I told you—about caring tremendously? Perhaps now you'll believe that I meant it."
He was silent, and Pauline added:
"It puts you at ease, doesn't it? Safety for Helen."
"I thought you hated her," remarked Louis slowly.
"Oh, hate!—that isn't so strong as the other thing."
She was sitting huddled in the chair now, lifeless and dull; her little moment had come and gone, swift as the flare of the momentous paper; she had nothing more to give him.
"Helen will make up for this," he said.
Again Pauline shook her head; she saw his thoughts were not with her, but with Helen; he was relieved at the relief to Helen; some way they would repay, he was thinking, she, Pauline, was only an instrument to secure Helen's happiness.
"Didn't you," she asked curiously, "think Helen foolish, futile, once?"
"I did," he replied shortly, "but now I know—it's—goodness that's extraordinary—so extraordinary we take it often for folly."
"Yes," said Pauline. "I found that out."
It was nearly two o'clock; Cornelia woke from her feverish sleep and asked for them; they went up together.
"It seems to make you more important than you are—dying," smiled Cornelia.
The room was full of subdued amber light, aired, cool and warm, everything neat and folded away; Cornelia was propped up with cushions and her emaciated figure did not disturb the flatness of the rich coverlet.
To one of these five people there was an end of this world; to the others, though they might talk of ends and finalities, these would never be either to them till they too came to this hour; they could not check their destinies or quench their sorrows, but they could cease to hate, to struggle against each other—they could go free, each his or her own way.
Cornelia smiled at Pauline.
"I've left you my little work-basket and the pearls you always liked—we had some pleasant times together."
She looked from Pauline to Louis, and said, clasping her hands like a tiny child:
"Louis, thank you for so much love."
Louis glanced across at the doctor who just raised his brows and shook his head; Louis whispered to Betje to fetch Helen.
Cornelia was dozing now; she was flushed with the bitter fever and spoke of Eulenspiegel in the woods, and Death in a flower-wreathed mirror.
"Louis, do you remember the verse:
"Most beautiful maiden,
Sweet to see—"
So in the end in her last earthly sleep, sighing a little.
Helen came and joined the little company; Louis took her hand and placed her beside Pauline; when Cornelia woke and saw the two cousins together she seemed pleased.
"I hope all the trouble's over and that we can be happy again," she muttered. "Love, love—"
She seemed to forget what she was going to say.
"All the trouble is over," said Louis, whose voice was rough with tears.
She kissed them all, searching in her own shadow for their faces; then Louis asked the women to go and let him stay alone with her; she was leaving them so swiftly.
Helen begged to be allowed to remain, and crept into the inner room, but Pauline, noticed by no one, went away.
She would always love him like this; that was her punishment; but he and Helen might return to their delight in each other.
She waited till the broadening daylight, then put on her coat and hat and left Paradys Castle; she could walk to Kruiskerke Station and so get back to the "Duc de Brabant."
As she crossed the drawbridge, shuddering with the raw cold, she saw the Van Quellin flag flying at half mast and the curtains drawn closely in Cornelia's room.
Pauline passed down the long avenue of spindly trees that looked spectral in this pallid light of early day, and looked at the formal garden with the pear hedges and the zonnewizer, the day was cloudy, sad, but Pauline was too tired for despair; she walked steadily.
A lumbering old-fashioned car passed her; Mr. Bamfylde coming from Kruiskerke for news; he stopped and asked Pauline:
"About Miss Cornelia? I heard something."
"That's over. Don't go up there now. They want to be alone."
Mr. Bamfylde took his hat off; they looked at each other.
"I burnt that letter Madame St. Luc gave me," said Pauline abruptly. "I thought that you would like to know—you were such a friend of Mr. Fermor—"
She passed on rapidly down the melancholy avenue of thin trees; Mr. Bamfylde looked back, then jumped from the car and hastened after her as he had hastened in the village of Kruiskerke.
"Miss Fermor!" he called. "I say, Miss Fermor!"
It was the voice of a friend.
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