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Chapter XII

The return to Mildenham was made by easy stages nearly two months after Summerhay's death, on New Year's day--Mildenham, dark, smelling the same, full of ghosts of the days before love began. For little Gyp, more than five years old now, and beginning to understand life, this was the pleasantest home yet. In watching her becoming the spirit of the place, as she herself had been when a child, Gyp found rest at times, a little rest. She had not picked up much strength, was shadowy as yet, and if her face was taken unawares, it was the saddest face one could see. Her chief preoccupation was not being taken unawares. Alas! To Winton, her smile was even sadder. He was at his wits' end about her that winter and spring. She obviously made the utmost effort to keep up, and there was nothing to do but watch and wait. No use to force the pace. Time alone could heal--perhaps. Meanwhile, he turned to little Gyp, so that they became more or less inseparable.

Spring came and passed. Physically, Gyp grew strong again, but since their return to Mildenham, she had never once gone outside the garden, never once spoken of The Red House, never once of Summerhay. Winton had hoped that warmth and sunlight would bring some life to her spirit, but it did not seem to. Not that she cherished her grief, appeared, rather, to do all in her power to forget and mask it. She only had what used to be called a broken heart. Nothing to be done. Little Gyp, who had been told that "Baryn" had gone away for ever, and that she must "never speak of him for fear of making Mum sad," would sometimes stand and watch her mother with puzzled gravity. She once remarked uncannily to Winton:

"Mum doesn't live with us, Grandy; she lives away somewhere, I think. Is it with Baryn?"

Winton stared, and answered:

"Perhaps it is, sweetheart; but don't say that to anybody but me. Don't ever talk of Baryn to anyone else."

"Yes, I know; but where is he, Grandy?"

What could Winton answer? Some imbecility with the words "very far" in it; for he had not courage to broach the question of death, that mystery so hopelessly beyond the grasp of children, and of himself--and others.

He rode a great deal with the child, who, like her mother before her, was never so happy as in the saddle; but to Gyp he did not dare suggest it. She never spoke of horses, never went to the stables, passed all the days doing little things about the house, gardening, and sitting at her piano, sometimes playing a little, sometimes merely looking at the keys, her hands clasped in her lap. This was early in the fateful summer, before any as yet felt the world-tremors, or saw the Veil of the Temple rending and the darkness beginning to gather. Winton had no vision of the coif above the dark eyes of his loved one, nor of himself in a strange brown garb, calling out old familiar words over barrack-squares. He often thought: 'If only she had something to take her out of herself!'

In June he took his courage in both hands and proposed a visit to London. To his surprise, she acquiesced without hesitation. They went up in Whit-week. While they were passing Widrington, he forced himself to an unnatural spurt of talk; and it was not till fully quarter of an hour later that, glancing stealthily round his paper, he saw her sitting motionless, her face turned to the fields and tears rolling down it. And he dared not speak, dared not try to comfort her. She made no sound, the muscles of her face no movement; only, those tears kept rolling down. And, behind his paper, Winton's eyes narrowed and retreated; his face hardened till the skin seemed tight drawn over the bones, and every inch of him quivered.

The usual route from the station to Bury Street was "up," and the cab went by narrow by-streets, town lanes where the misery of the world is on show, where ill-looking men, draggled and over-driven women, and the jaunty ghosts of little children in gutters and on doorsteps proclaim, by every feature of their clay-coloured faces and every movement of their unfed bodies, the post-datement of the millennium; where the lean and smutted houses have a look of dissolution indefinitely put off, and there is no more trace of beauty than in a sewer. Gyp, leaning forward, looked out, as one does after a long sea voyage; Winton felt her hand slip into his and squeeze it hard.

That evening after dinner--in the room he had furnished for her mother, where the satinwood chairs, the little Jacobean bureau, the old brass candelabra were still much as they had been just on thirty years ago--she said:

"Dad, I've been thinking. Would you mind if I could make a sort of home at Mildenham where poor children could come to stay and get good air and food? There are such thousands of them."

Strangely moved by this, the first wish he had heard her express since the tragedy, Winton took her hand, and, looking at it as if for answer to his question, said:

"My dear, are, you strong enough?"

"Quite. There's nothing wrong with me now except here." She drew his hand to her and pressed it against her heart. "What's given, one can't get back. I can't help it; I would if I could. It's been so dreadful for you. I'm so sorry." Winton made an unintelligible sound, and she went on: "If I had them to see after, I shouldn't be able to think so much; the more I had to do the better. Good for our gipsy-bird, too, to have them there. I should like to begin it at once."

Winton nodded. Anything that she felt could do her good--anything!

"Yes, yes," he said; "I quite see--you could use the two old cottages to start with, and we can easily run up anything you want."

"Only let me do it all, won't you?"

At that touch of her old self, Winton smiled. She should do everything, pay for everything, bring a whole street of children down, if it would give her any comfort!

"Rosamund'll help you find 'em," he muttered. "She's first-rate at all that sort of thing." Then, looking at her fixedly, he added: "Courage, my soul; it'll all come back some day."

Gyp forced herself to smile. Watching her, he understood only too well the child's saying: "Mum lives away somewhere, I think."

Suddenly, she said, very low:

"And yet I wouldn't have been without it."

She was sitting, her hands clasped in her lap, two red spots high in her cheeks, her eyes shining strangely, the faint smile still on her lips. And Winton, staring with narrowed eyes, thought: 'Love! Beyond measure--beyond death--it nearly kills. But one wouldn't have been without it. Why?'

Three days later, leaving Gyp with his sister, he went back to Mildenham to start the necessary alterations in the cottages. He had told no one he was coming, and walked up from the station on a perfect June day, bright and hot. When he turned through the drive gate, into the beech-tree avenue, the leaf-shadows were thick on the ground, with golden gleams of the invincible sunlight thrusting their way through. The grey boles, the vivid green leaves, those glistening sun-shafts through the shade entranced him, coming from the dusty road. Down in the very middle of the avenue, a small, white figure was standing, as if looking out for him. He heard a shrill shout.

"Oh, Grandy, you've come back--you've come back! What fun!"

Winton took her curls in his hand, and, looking into her face, said:

"Well, my gipsy-bird, will you give me one of these?"

Little Gyp looked at him with flying eyes, and, hugging his legs, answered furiously:

"Yes; because I love you. Pull!"

John Galsworthy