Part 6 out of 6
"Then, Sir," Fort burst out, "you wish her--"
Pierson had put his hand up, as if to ward off a blow; and, angry
though he was, Fort stopped.
"We are all made of flesh and blood," he continued coldly, "and it
seems to me that you think we aren't."
"We have spirits too, Captain Fort." The voice was suddenly so
gentle that Fort's anger evaporated.
"I have a great respect for you, sir; but a greater love for Noel,
and nothing in this world will prevent me trying to give my life to
A smile quivered over Pierson's face. "If you try, then I can but
pray that you will fail."
Fort did not answer, and went out.
He walked slowly away from the bungalow, with his head down, sore,
angry, and yet-relieved. He knew where he stood; nor did he feel
that he had been worsted--those strictures had not touched him.
Convicted of immorality, he remained conscious of private
justifications, in a way that human beings have. Only one little
corner of memory, unseen and uncriticised by his opponent, troubled
him. He pardoned himself the rest; the one thing he did not pardon
was the fact that he had known Noel before his liaison with Leila
commenced; had even let Leila sweep him away on, an evening when he
had been in Noel's company. For that he felt a real disgust with
himself. And all the way back to the station he kept thinking: 'How
could I? I deserve to lose her! Still, I shall try; but not now--
not yet!' And, wearily enough, he took the train back to town.
Both girls rose early that last day, and went with their father to
Communion. As Gratian had said to George: "It's nothing to me now,
but it will mean a lot to him out there, as a memory of us. So I
must go." And he had answered: "Quite right, my dear. Let him have
all he can get of you both to-day. I'll keep out of the way, and be
back the last thing at night." Their father's smile when he saw them
waiting for him went straight to both their hearts. It was a
delicious day, and the early freshness had not yet dried out of the
air, when they were walking home to breakfast. Each girl had slipped
a hand under his arm. 'It's like Moses or was it Aaron?' Noel
thought absurdly Memory had complete hold of her. All the old days!
Nursery hours on Sundays after tea, stories out of the huge Bible
bound in mother-o'pearl, with photogravures of the Holy Land--palms,
and hills, and goats, and little Eastern figures, and funny boats on
the Sea of Galilee, and camels--always camels. The book would be on
his knee, and they one on each arm of his chair, waiting eagerly for
the pages to be turned so that a new picture came. And there would
be the feel of his cheek, prickly against theirs; and the old names
with the old glamour--to Gratian, Joshua, Daniel, Mordecai, Peter; to
Noel Absalom because of his hair, and Haman because she liked the
sound, and Ruth because she was pretty and John because he leaned on
Jesus' breast. Neither of them cared for Job or David, and Elijah
and Elisha they detested because they hated the name Eliza. And
later days by firelight in the drawing-room, roasting chestnuts just
before evening church, and telling ghost stories, and trying to make
Daddy eat his share. And hours beside him at the piano, each eager
for her special hymns--for Gratian, "Onward, Christian Soldiers,"
"Lead, Kindly Light," and "O God Our Help"; for Noel, "Nearer, My
God, to Thee," the one with "The Hosts of Midian" in it, and "For
Those in Peril on the Sea." And carols! Ah! And Choristers! Noel
had loved one deeply--the word "chorister" was so enchanting; and
because of his whiteness, and hair which had no grease on it, but
stood up all bright; she had never spoken to him--a far worship, like
that for a star. And always, always Daddy had been gentle; sometimes
angry, but always gentle; and they sometimes not at all! And mixed
up with it all, the dogs they had had, and the cats they had had, and
the cockatoo, and the governesses, and their red cloaks, and the
curates, and the pantomimes, and "Peter Pan," and "Alice in
Wonderland"--Daddy sitting between them, so that one could snuggle
up. And later, the school-days, the hockey, the prizes, the
holidays, the rush into his arms; and the great and wonderful yearly
exodus to far places, fishing and bathing; walks and drives; rides
and climbs, always with him. And concerts and Shakespeare plays in
the Christmas and Easter holidays; and the walk home through the
streets--all lighted in those days--one on each side of him. And
this was the end! They waited on him at breakfast: they kept
stealing glances at him, photographing him in their minds. Gratian
got her camera and did actually photograph him in the morning
sunlight with Noel, without Noel, with the baby; against all
regulations for the defence of the realm. It was Noel who suggested:
"Daddy, let's take lunch out and go for all day on the cliffs, us
three, and forget there's a war."
So easy to say, so difficult to do, with the boom of the guns
travelling to their ears along the grass, mingled with the buzz of
insects. Yet that hum of summer, the innumerable voices of tiny
lives, gossamer things all as alive as they, and as important to
their frail selves; and the white clouds, few and so slow-moving, and
the remote strange purity which clings to the chalky downs, all this
white and green and blue of land and sea had its peace, which crept
into the spirits of those three alone with Nature, this once more,
the last time for--who could say how long? They talked, by tacit
agreement, of nothing but what had happened before the war began,
while the flock of the blown dandelions drifted past. Pierson sat
cross-legged on the grass, without his cap, suffering a little still
from the stiffness of his unwonted garments. And the girls lay one
on each side of him, half critical, and half admiring. Noel could
not bear his collar.
"If you had a soft collar you'd be lovely, Daddy. Perhaps out there
they'll let you take it off. It must be fearfully hot in Egypt. Oh!
I wish I were going. I wish I were going everywhere in the world.
Some day!" Presently he read to them, Murray's "Hippolytus" of
Euripides. And now and then Gratian and he discussed a passage. But
Noel lay silent, looking at the sky. Whenever his voice ceased,
there was the song of the larks, and very faint, the distant mutter
of the guns.
They stayed up there till past six, and it was time to go and have
tea before Evening Service. Those hours in the baking sun had drawn
virtue out of them; they were silent and melancholy all the evening.
Noel was the first to go up to her bedroom. She went without saying
good night--she knew her father would come to her room that last
evening. George had not yet come in; and Gratian was left alone with
Pierson in the drawing-room, round whose single lamp, in spite of
close-drawn curtains, moths were circling: She moved over to him on
"Dad, promise me not to worry about Nollie; we'll take care of her."
"She can only take care of herself, Gracie, and will she? Did you
know that Captain Fort was here yesterday?"
"She told me."
"What is her feeling about him?"
"I don't think she knows. Nollie dreams along, and then suddenly
"I wish she were safe from that man."
"But, Dad, why? George likes him and so do I."
A big grey moth was fluttering against the lamp. Pierson got up and
caught it in the curve of his palm. "Poor thing! You're like my
Nollie; so soft, and dreamy, so feckless, so reckless." And going to
the curtains, he thrust his hand through, and released the moth.
"Dad!" said Gratian suddenly, "we can only find out for ourselves,
even if we do singe our wings in doing it. We've been reading
James's 'Pragmatism.' George says the only chapter that's important
is missing--the one on ethics, to show that what we do is not wrong
till it's proved wrong by the result. I suppose he was afraid to
deliver that lecture."
Pierson's face wore the smile which always came on it when he had to
deal with George, the smile which said: "Ah, George, that's very
clever; but I know."
"My dear," he said, "that doctrine is the most dangerous in the
world. I am surprised at George."
"I don't think George is in danger, Dad."
"George is a man of wide experience and strong judgment and
character; but think how fatal it would be for Nollie, my poor
Nollie, whom a little gust can blow into the candle."
"All the same," said Gratian stubbornly, "I don't think anyone can be
good or worth anything unless they judge for themselves and take
Pierson went close to her; his face was quivering.
"Don't let us differ on this last night; I must go up to Nollie for a
minute, and then to bed. I shan't see you to-morrow; you mustn't get
up; I can bear parting better like this. And my train goes at eight.
God bless you, Gracie; give George my love. I know, I have always
known that he's a good man, though we do fight so. Good-bye, my
He went out with his cheeks wet from Gratian's tears, and stood in
the porch a minute to recover his composure. The shadow of the house
stretched velvet and blunt over the rock-garden. A night-jar was
spinning; the churring sound affected him oddly. The last English
night-bird he would hear. England! What a night-to say good-bye!
'My country!' he thought; 'my beautiful country!' The dew was lying
thick and silvery already on the little patch of grass-the last dew,
the last scent of an English night. The call of a bugle floated out.
"England!" he prayed; "God be about you!" A little sound answered
from across the grass, like an old man's cough, and the scrape and
rattle of a chain. A face emerged at the edge of the house's shadow;
bearded and horned like that of Pan, it seemed to stare at him. And
he saw the dim grey form of the garden goat, heard it scuttle round
the stake to which it was tethered, as though alarmed at this visitor
to its' domain.
He went up the half-flight of stairs to Noel's narrow little room,
next the nursery. No voice answered his tap. It was dark, but he
could see her at the window, leaning far out, with her chin on her
She answered without turning: "Such a lovely night, Daddy. Come and
look! I'd like to set the goat free, only he'd eat the rock plants.
But it is his night, isn't it? He ought to be running and skipping
in it: it's such a shame to tie things up. Did you never, feel wild
in your heart, Daddy?"
"Always, I think, Nollie; too wild. It's been hard to tame oneself."
Noel slipped her hand through his arm. "Let's go and take the goat
and skip together on the hills. If only we had a penny whistle! Did
you hear the bugle? The bugle and the goat!"
Pierson pressed the hand against him.
"Nollie, be good while I'm away. You know what I don't want. I told
you in my letter." He looked at her cheek, and dared say no more.
Her face had its "fey" look again.
"Don't you feel," she said suddenly, "on a night like this, all the
things, all the things--the stars have lives, Daddy, and the moon has
a big life, and the shadows have, and the moths and the birds and the
goats and the trees, and the flowers, and all of us--escaped? Oh!
Daddy, why is there a war? And why are people so bound and so
unhappy? Don't tell me it's God--don't!"
Pierson could not answer, for there came into his mind the Greek song
he had been reading aloud that afternoon
"O for a deep and dewy Spring,
With runlets cold to draw and drink,
And a great meadow blossoming,
Long-grassed, and poplars in a ring,
To rest me by the brink.
O take me to the mountain, O,
Past the great pines and through the wood,
Up where the lean hounds softly go,
A-whine for wild things' blood,
And madly flies the dappled roe,
O God, to shout and speed them there;
An arrow by my chestnut hair
Drawn tight and one keen glimmering spear
Ah! if I could!"
All that in life had been to him unknown, of venture and wild savour;
all the emotion he had stifled; the swift Pan he had denied; the
sharp fruits, the burning suns, the dark pools, the unearthly
moonlight, which were not of God--all came with the breath of that
old song, and the look on the girl's face. And he covered his eyes.
Noel's hand tugged at his arm. "Isn't beauty terribly alive," she
murmured, "like a lovely person? it makes you ache to kiss it."
His lips felt parched. "There is a beauty beyond all that," he said
"Holiness, duty, faith. O Nollie, my love!" But Noel's hand
tightened on his arm.
"Shall I tell you what I should like?" she whispered. "To take
God's hand and show Him things. I'm certain He's not seen
A shudder went through Pierson, one of those queer sudden shivers,
which come from a strange note in a voice, or a new sharp scent or
"My dear, what things you say!"
"But He hasn't, and it's time He did. We'd creep, and peep, and see
it all for once, as He can't in His churches. Daddy, oh! Daddy!
I can't bear it any more; to think of them being killed on a night
like this; killed and killed so that they never see it all again--
never see it--never see it!" She sank down, and covered her face
with her arms.
"I can't, I can't! Oh! take it all away, the cruelty! Why does it
come--why the stars and the flowers, if God doesn't care any more
Horribly affected he stood bending over her, stroking her head. Then
the habit of a hundred death-beds helped him. "Come, Nollie! This
life is but a minute. We must all die."
"But not they--not so young!" She clung to his knees, and looked up.
"Daddy, I don't want you to go; promise me to come back!"
The childishness of those words brought back his balance.
"My dear sweetheart, of course! Come, Nollie, get up. The sun's
been too much for you."
Noel got up, and put her hands on her father's shoulders. "Forgive
me for all my badness, and all my badness to come, especially all my
badness to come!"
Pierson smiled. "I shall always forgive you, Nollie; but there won't
be--there mustn't be any badness to come. I pray God to keep you,
and make you like your mother."
"Mother never had a devil, like you and me."
He was silent from surprise. How did this child know the devil of
wild feeling he had fought against year after year; until with the
many years he had felt it weakening within him! She whispered
on: "I don't hate my devil.
"Why should I?--it's part of me. Every day when the sun sets, I'll
think of you, Daddy; and you might do the same--that'll keep me good.
I shan't come to the station tomorrow, I should only cry. And I
shan't say good-bye now. It's unlucky."
She flung her arms round him; and half smothered by that fervent
embrace, he kissed her cheeks and hair. Freed of each other at last,
he stood for a moment looking at her by the moonlight.
"There never was anyone more loving than you; Nollie!" he said
quietly. "Remember my letter. And good night, my love!" Then,
afraid to stay another second, he went quickly out of the dark little
George Laird, returning half an hour later, heard a voice saying
softly: "George, George!"
Looking up, he saw a little white blur at the window, and Noel's face
"George, let the goat loose, just for to-night, to please me."
Something in that voice, and in the gesture of her stretched-out arm
moved George in a queer way, although, as Pierson had once said, he
had no music in his soul. He loosed the goat.
In the weeks which succeeded Pierson's departure, Gratian and George
often discussed Noel's conduct and position by the light of the
Pragmatic theory. George held a suitably scientific view. Just as
he would point out to his wife--in the physical world, creatures who
diverged from the normal had to justify their divergence in
competition with their environments, or else go under, so in the
ethical world it was all a question of whether Nollie could make good
her vagary. If she could, and grew in strength of character thereby,
it was ipso facto all right, her vagary would be proved an advantage,
and the world enriched. If not, the world by her failure to make
good would be impoverished, and her vagary proved wrong. The
orthodox and academies--he insisted--were always forgetting the
adaptability of living organisms; how every action which was out of
the ordinary, unconsciously modified all the other actions together
with the outlook, and philosophy of the doer. "Of course Nollie was
crazy," he said, "but when she did what she did, she at once began to
think differently about life and morals. The deepest instinct we all
have is the instinct that we must do what we must, and think that
what we've done is really all right; in fact the--instinct of self-
preservation. We're all fighting animals; and we feel in our bones
that if we admit we're beaten--we are beaten; but that every fight we
win, especially against odds, hardens those bones. But personally I
don't think she can make good on her own."
Gratian, whose Pragmatism was not yet fully baked, responded
"No, I don't think she can. And if she could I'm not sure. But
isn't Pragmatism a perfectly beastly word, George? It has no sense
of humour in it at all."
"It is a bit thick, and in the hands of the young, deuced likely to
become Prigmatism; but not with Nollie."
They watched the victim of their discussions with real anxiety. The
knowledge that she would never be more sheltered than she was with
them, at all events until she married, gravely impeded the formation
of any judgment as to whether or no she could make good. Now and
again there would come to Gratian who after all knew her sister
better than George--the disquieting thought that whatever conclusion
Noel led them to form, she would almost certainly force them to
abandon sooner or later.
Three days after her father's departure Noel had declared that she
wanted to work on the land. This George had promptly vetoed.
"You aren't strong enough yet, my dear: Wait till the harvest begins.
Then you can go and help on the farm here. If you can stand that
without damage, we'll think about it."
But the weather was wet and harvest late, and Noel had nothing much
to do but attend to her baby, already well attended to by Nurse, and
dream and brood, and now and then cook an omelette or do some
housework for the sake of a gnawing conscience. Since Gratian and
George were away in hospital all day, she was very much alone.
Several times in the evenings Gratian tried to come at the core of
her thoughts, Twice she flew the kite of Leila. The first time Noel
only answered: "Yes, she's a brick." The second time, she said: "I
don't want to think about her."
But, hardening her heart, Gratian went on: "Don't you think it's
queer we've never heard from Captain Fort since he came down?"
In her calmest voice Noel answered: "Why should we, after being told
that he wasn't liked?"
"Who told him that?"
"I told him, that Daddy didn't; but I expect Daddy said much worse
things." She gave a little laugh, then softly added: "Daddy's
wonderful, isn't he?"
"The way he drives one to do the other thing. If he hadn't opposed
my marriage to Cyril, you know, that wouldn't have happened, it just
made all the difference. It stirred me up so fearfully." Gratian
stared at her, astonished that she could see herself so clearly.
Towards the end of August she had a letter from Fort.
"DEAR MRS. LAIRD,
"You know all about things, of course, except the one thing which to
me is all important. I can't go on without knowing whether I have a
chance with your sister. It is against your father's expressed wish
that she should have anything to do with me, but I told him that I
could not and would not promise not to ask her. I get my holiday at
the end of this month, and am coming down to put it to the touch. It
means more to me than you can possibly imagine.
"I am, dear Mrs. Laird,
"Your very faithful servant,
She discussed the letter with George, whose advice was: "Answer it
politely, but say nothing; and nothing to Nollie. I think it would
be a very good thing. Of course it's a bit of a make-shift--twice
her age; but he's a genuine man, if not exactly brilliant."
Gratian answered almost sullenly: "I've always wanted the very best
George screwed up his steel-coloured eyes, as he might have looked at
one on whom he had to operate. "Quite so," he said." But you must
remember, Gracie, that out of the swan she was, Nollie has made
herself into a lame duck. Fifty per cent at least is off her value,
socially. We must look at things as they are."
"Father is dead against it."
George smiled, on the point of saying: 'That makes me feel it must be
a good thing' But he subdued the impulse.
"I agree that we're bound by his absence not to further it actively.
Still Nollie knows his wishes, and it's up to her and no one else.
After all, she's no longer a child."
His advice was followed. But to write that polite letter, which said
nothing, cost Gratian a sleepless night, and two or three hours'
penmanship. She was very conscientious. Knowledge of this impending
visit increased the anxiety with which she watched her sister, but
the only inkling she obtained of Noel's state of mind was when the
girl showed her a letter she had received from Thirza, asking her to
come back to Kestrel. A postscript, in Uncle Bob's handwriting,
added these words:
"We're getting quite fossilised down here; Eve's gone and left us
again. We miss you and the youngster awfully. Come along down,
Nollie there's a dear!"
"They're darlings," Noel said, "but I shan't go. I'm too restless,
ever since Daddy went; you don't know how restless. This rain simply
makes me want to die."
The weather improved next day, and at the end of that week harvest
began. By what seemed to Noel a stroke of luck the farmer's binder
was broken; he could not get it repaired, and wanted all the human
binders he could get. That first day in the fields blistered her
hands, burnt her face and neck, made every nerve and bone in her body
ache; but was the happiest day she had spent for weeks, the happiest
perhaps since Cyril Morland left her, over a year ago. She had a
bath and went to bed the moment she got in.
Lying there nibbling chocolate and smoking a cigarette, she
luxuriated in the weariness which had stilled her dreadful
restlessness. Watching the smoke of her cigarette curl up against
the sunset glow which filled her window, she mused: If only she could
be tired out like this every day! She would be all right then, would
lose the feeling of not knowing what she wanted, of being in a sort o
of large box, with the lid slammed down, roaming round it like a
dazed and homesick bee in an overturned tumbler; the feeling of being
only half alive, of having a wing maimed so that she could only fly a
little way, and must then drop.
She slept like a top that night. But the next day's work was real
torture, and the third not much better. By the end of the week,
however, she was no longer stiff.
Saturday was cloudless; a perfect day. The field she was working in
lay on a slope. It was the last field to be cut, and the best wheat
yet, with a glorious burnt shade in its gold and the ears blunt and
full. She had got used now to the feel of the great sheaves in her
arms, and the binding wisps drawn through her hand till she held them
level, below the ears, ready for the twist. There was no new
sensation in it now; just steady, rather dreamy work, to keep her
place in the row, to the swish-swish of the cutter and the call of
the driver to his horses at the turns; with continual little pauses,
to straighten and rest her back a moment, and shake her head free
from the flies, or suck her finger, sore from the constant pushing of
the straw ends under. So the hours went on, rather hot and
wearisome, yet with a feeling of something good being done, of a job
getting surely to its end. And gradually the centre patch narrowed,
and the sun slowly slanted down.
When they stopped for tea, instead of running home as usual, she
drank it cold out of a flask she had brought, ate a bun and some
chocolate, and lay down on her back against the hedge. She always
avoided that group of her fellow workers round the tea-cans which the
farmer's wife brought out. To avoid people, if she could, had become
habitual to her now. They must know about her, or would soon if she
gave them the chance. She had never lost consciousness of her ring-
finger, expecting every eye to fall on it as a matter of course.
Lying on her face, she puffed her cigarette into the grass, and
watched a beetle, till one of the sheep-dogs, scouting for scraps,
came up, and she fed him with her second bun. Having finished the
bun, he tried to eat the beetle, and, when she rescued it, convinced
that she had nothing more to give him, sneezed at her, and went away.
Pressing the end of her cigarette out against the bank, she turned
over. Already the driver was perched on his tiny seat, and his
companion, whose business it was to free the falling corn, was
getting up alongside. Swish-swish! It had begun again. She rose,
stretched herself, and went back to her place in the row. The field
would be finished to-night; she would have a lovely rest-all Sunday I
Towards seven o'clock a narrow strip, not twenty yards broad, alone
was left. This last half hour was what Noel dreaded. To-day it was
worse, for the farmer had no cartridges left, and the rabbits were
dealt with by hullabaloo and sticks and chasing dogs. Rabbits were
vermin, of course, and ate the crops, and must be killed; besides,
they were good food, and fetched two shillings apiece; all this she
knew but to see the poor frightened things stealing out, pounced on,
turned, shouted at, chased, rolled over by great swift dogs, fallen
on by the boys and killed and carried with their limp grey bodies
upside down, so dead and soft and helpless, always made her feel
quite sick. She stood very still, trying not to see or hear, and in
the corn opposite to her a rabbit stole along, crouched, and peeped.
'Oh!' she thought, 'come out here, bunny. I'll let you away--can't
you see I will? It's your only chance. Come out!' But the rabbit
crouched, and gazed, with its little cowed head poked forward, and
its ears laid flat; it seemed trying to understand whether this still
thing in front of it was the same as those others. With the thought,
'Of course it won't while I look at it,' Noel turned her head away.
Out of the corner of her eye she could see a man standing a few yards
off. The rabbit bolted out. Now the man would shout and turn it.
But he did not, and the rabbit scuttled past him and away to the
hedge. She heard a shout from the end of the row, saw a dog
galloping. Too late! Hurrah! And clasping her hands, she looked at
the man. It was Fort! With the queerest feeling--amazement,
pleasure, the thrill of conspiracy, she saw him coming up to her.
"I did want that rabbit to get off," she sighed out; "I've been
watching it. Thank you!"
He looked at her. "My goodness!" was all he said.
Noel's hands flew up to her cheeks. "Yes, I know; is my nose very
"No; you're as lovely as Ruth, if she was lovely."
Swish-swish! The cutter came by; Noel started forward to her place
in the row; but catching her arm, he said: "No, let me do this little
bit. I haven't had a day in the fields since the war began. Talk to
me while I'm binding."
She stood watching him. He made a different, stronger twist from
hers, and took larger sheaves, so that she felt a sort of jealousy.
"I didn't know you knew about this sort of thing."
"Oh, Lord, yes! I had a farm once out West. Nothing like field-
work, to make you feel good. I've been watching you; you bind jolly
Noel gave a sigh of pleasure.
"Where have you come from?" she asked.
"Straight from the station. I'm on my holiday." He looked up at
her, and they both fell silent.
Swish-swish! The cutter was coming again. Noel went to the
beginning of her portion of the falling corn, he to the end of it.
They worked towards each other, and met before the cutter was on them
a third time.
"Will you come in to supper?"
"I'd love to."
"Then let's go now, please. I don't want to see any more rabbits
They spoke very little on the way to the bungalow, but she felt his
eyes on her all the time. She left him with George and Gratian who
had just come in, and went up for her bath.
Supper had been laid out in the verandah, and it was nearly dark
before they had finished. In rhyme with the failing of the light
Noel became more and more silent. When they went in, she ran up to
her baby. She did not go down again, but as on the night before her
father went away, stood at her window, leaning out. A dark night, no
moon; in the starlight she could only just see the dim garden, where
no goat was grazing. Now that her first excitement had worn off,
this sudden reappearance of Fort filled her with nervous melancholy:
She knew perfectly well what he had come for, she had always known.
She had no certain knowledge of her own mind; but she knew that all
these weeks she had been between his influence and her father's,
listening to them, as it were, pleading with her. And, curiously,
the pleading of each, instead of drawing her towards the pleader, had
seemed dragging her away from him, driving her into the arms of the
other. To the protection of one or the other she felt she must go;
and it humiliated her to think that in all the world there was no
other place for her. The wildness of that one night in the old Abbey
seemed to have power to govern all her life to come. Why should that
one night, that one act, have this uncanny power to drive her this
way or that, to those arms or these? Must she, because of it, always
need protection? Standing there in the dark it was almost as if they
had come up behind her, with their pleadings; and a shiver ran down
her back. She longed to turn on them, and cry out: "Go away; oh; go
away! I don't want either of you; I just want to be left alone!"
Then something, a moth perhaps, touched her neck. She gasped and
shook herself. How silly!
She heard the back door round the corner of the house opening; a
man's low voice down in the dark said:
"Who's the young lady that comes out in the fields?"
Another voice--one of the maids--answered:
"The Missis's sister."
"They say she's got a baby."
"Never you mind what she's got."
Noel heard the man's laugh. It seemed to her the most odious laugh
she had ever heard. She thought swiftly and absurdly: 'I'll get away
from all this.' The window was only a few feet up. She got out on
to the ledge, let herself down, and dropped. There was a flower-bed
below, quite soft, with a scent of geranium-leaves and earth. She
brushed herself, and went tiptoeing across the gravel and the little
front lawn, to the gate. The house was quite dark, quite silent.
She walked on, down the road. 'Jolly!' she thought. 'Night after
night we sleep, and never see the nights: sleep until we're called,
and never see anything. If they want to catch me they'll have to
run.' And she began running down the road in her evening frock and
shoes, with nothing on her head. She stopped after going perhaps
three hundred yards, by the edge of the wood. It was splendidly dark
in there, and she groped her way from trunk to trunk, with a
delicious, half-scared sense of adventure and novelty. She stopped
at last by a thin trunk whose bark glimmered faintly. She felt it
with her cheek, quite smooth--a birch tree; and, with her arms round
it, she stood perfectly still. Wonderfully, magically silent, fresh
and sweet-scented and dark! The little tree trembled suddenly within
her arms, and she heard the low distant rumble, to which she had
grown so accustomed--the guns, always at work, killing--killing men
and killing trees, little trees perhaps like this within her arms,
little trembling trees! Out there, in this dark night, there would
not be a single unscarred tree like this smooth quivering thing, no
fields of corn, not even a bush or a blade of grass, no leaves to
rustle and smell sweet, not a bird, no little soft-footed night
beasts, except the rats; and she shuddered, thinking of the Belgian
soldier-painter. Holding the tree tight, she squeezed its smooth
body against her. A rush of the same helpless, hopeless revolt and
sorrow overtook her, which had wrung from her that passionate little
outburst to her father, the night before he went away. Killed, torn,
and bruised; burned, and killed, like Cyril! All the young things,
like this little tree.
Rumble! Rumble! Quiver! Quiver! And all else so still, so sweet
and still, and starry, up there through the leaves.... 'I can't bear
it!' she thought. She pressed her lips, which the sun had warmed all
day, against the satiny smooth bark. But the little tree stood
within her arms insentient, quivering only to the long rumbles. With
each of those dull mutterings, life and love were going out, like the
flames of candles on a Christmas-tree, blown, one by one. To her
eyes, accustomed by now to the darkness in there, the wood seemed
slowly to be gathering a sort of life, as though it were a great
thing watching her; a great thing with hundreds of limbs and eyes,
and the power of breathing. The little tree, which had seemed so
individual and friendly, ceased to be a comfort and became a part of
the whole living wood, absorbed in itself, and coldly watching her,
this intruder of the mischievous breed, the fatal breed which loosed
those rumblings on the earth. Noel unlocked her arms, and recoiled.
A bough scraped her neck, some leaves flew against her eyes; she
stepped aside, tripped over a root, and fell. A bough had hit her
too, and she lay a little dazed, quivering at such dark
unfriendliness. She held her hands up to her face for the mere
pleasure of seeing something a little less dark; it was childish, and
absurd, but she was frightened. The wood seemed to have so many
eyes, so many arms, and all unfriendly; it seemed waiting to give her
other blows, other falls, and to guard her within its darkness
until--! She got up, moved a few steps, and stood still, she had
forgotten from where she had come in. And afraid of moving deeper
into the unfriendly wood, she turned slowly round, trying to tell
which way to go. It was all just one dark watching thing, of limbs
on the ground and in the air. 'Any way,' she thought; 'any way of
course will take me out!' And she groped forward, keeping her hands
up to guard her face. It was silly, but she could not help the
sinking, scattered feeling which comes to one bushed, or lost in a
fog. If the wood had not been so dark, so,--alive! And for a second
she had the senseless, terrifying thought of a child: 'What if I
never get out!' Then she laughed at it, and stood still again,
listening. There was no sound to guide her, no sound at all except
that faint dull rumble, which seemed to come from every side, now.
And the trees watched her. 'Ugh!' she thought; 'I hate this wood!'
She saw it now, its snaky branches, its darkness, and great forms, as
an abode of giants and witches. She groped and scrambled on again,
tripped once more, and fell, hitting her forehead against a trunk.
The blow dazed and sobered her. 'It's idiotic,' she thought; 'I'm a
baby! I'll Just walk very slowly till I reach the edge. I know it
isn't a large wood!' She turned deliberately to face each direction;
solemnly selected that from which the muttering of the guns seemed to
come, and started again, moving very slowly with her hands stretched
out. Something rustled in the undergrowth, quite close; she saw a
pair of green eyes shining. Her heart jumped into her mouth. The
thing sprang--there was a swish of ferns and twigs, and silence.
Noel clasped her breast. A poaching cat! And again she moved
forward. But she had lost direction. 'I'm going round and round,'
she thought. 'They always do.' And the sinking scattered feeling of
the "bushed" clutched at her again. 'Shall I call?' she thought.
'I must be near the road. But it's so babyish.' She moved on again.
Her foot struck something soft. A voice muttered a thick oath; a
hand seized her ankle. She leaped, and dragged and wrenched it free;
and, utterly unnerved, she screamed, and ran forward blindly.
No one could have so convinced a feeling as Jimmy Fort that he would
be a 'bit of a makeshift' for Noel. He had spent the weeks after his
interview with her father obsessed by her image, often saying to
himself "It won't do. It's playing it too low down to try and get
that child, when I know that, but for her trouble, I shouldn't have a
chance." He had never had much opinion of his looks, but now he
seemed to himself absurdly old and dried-up in this desert of a
London. He loathed the Office job to which they had put him, and the
whole atmosphere of officialdom. Another year of it, and he would
shrivel like an old apple! He began to look at himself anxiously,
taking stock of his physical assets now that he had this dream of
young beauty. He would be forty next month, and she was nineteen!
But there would be times too when he would feel that, with her, he
could be as much of a "three-year-old" as the youngster she had
loved. Having little hope of winning her, he took her "past" but
lightly. Was it not that past which gave him what chance he had? On
two things he was determined: He would not trade on her past. And if
by any chance she took him, he would never show her that he
remembered that she had one.
After writing to Gratian he had spent the week before his holiday
began, in an attempt to renew the youthfulness of his appearance,
which made him feel older, leaner, bonier and browner than ever. He
got up early, rode in the rain, took Turkish baths, and did all
manner of exercises; neither smoked nor drank, and went to bed early,
exactly as if he had been going to ride a steeplechase. On the
afternoon, when at last he left on that terrific pilgrimage, he gazed
at his face with a sort of despair, it was so lean, and leather-
coloured, and he counted almost a dozen grey hairs.
When he reached the bungalow, and was told that she was working in
the corn-fields, he had for the first time a feeling that Fate was on
his side. Such a meeting would be easier than any other! He had
been watching her for several minutes before she saw him, with his
heart beating more violently than it had ever beaten in the trenches;
and that new feeling of hope stayed with him--all through the
greeting, throughout supper, and even after she had left them and
gone upstairs. Then, with the suddenness of a blind drawn down, it
vanished, and he sat on, trying to talk, and slowly getting more and
more silent and restless.
"Nollie gets so tired, working," Gratian said: He knew she meant it
kindly but that she should say it at all was ominous. He got up at
last, having lost hope of seeing Noel again, conscious too that he
had answered the last three questions at random.
In the porch George said: "You'll come in to lunch tomorrow, won't
"Oh, thanks, I'm afraid it'll bore you all."
"Not a bit. Nollie won't be so tired."
Again--so well meant. They were very kind. He looked up from the
gate, trying to make out which her window might be; but all was dark.
A little way down the road he stopped to light a cigarette; and,
leaning against a gate, drew the smoke of it deep into his lungs,
trying to assuage the ache in his heart. So it was hopeless! She
had taken the first, the very first chance, to get away from him!
She knew that he loved her, could not help knowing, for he had never
been able to keep it out of his eyes and voice. If she had felt ever
so little for him, she would not have avoided him this first evening.
'I'll go back to that desert,' he thought; 'I'm not going to whine
and crawl. I'll go back, and bite on it; one must have some pride.
Oh, why the hell am I crocked-up like this? If only I could get out
to France again!' And then Noel's figure bent over the falling corn
formed before him. 'I'll have one more try,' he thought; 'one more--
tomorrow somewhere, I'll get to know for certain. And if I get what
Leila's got I shall deserve it, I suppose. Poor Leila! Where is
she? Back at High Constantia?' What was that? A cry--of terror--in
that wood! Crossing to the edge, he called "Coo-ee!" and stood
peering into its darkness. He heard the sound of bushes being
brushed aside, and whistled. A figure came bursting out, almost into
"Hallo!" he said; "what's up?"
A voice gasped: "Oh! It's--it's nothing!"
He saw Noel. She had swayed back, and stood about a yard away. He
could dimly see her covering her face with her arms. Feeling
instinctively that she wanted to hide her fright, he said quietly:
"What luck! I was just passing. It's awfully dark."
"I--I got lost; and a man--caught my foot, in there!"
Moved beyond control by the little gulps and gasps of her breathing,
he stepped forward and put his hands on her shoulders. He held her
lightly, without speaking, terrified lest he should wound her pride.
"I-I got in there," she gasped, "and the trees--and I stumbled over a
roan asleep, and he--"
"Yes, Yes, I know," he murmured, as if to a child. She had dropped
her arms now, and he could see her face, with eyes unnaturally
dilated, and lips quivering. Then moved again beyond control, he
drew her so close that he could feel the throbbing of her heart, and
put his lips to her forehead all wet with heat. She closed her eyes,
gave a little choke, and buried her face against his coat.
"There, there, my darling!" he kept on saying. "There, there, my
darling!" He could feel the snuggling of her cheek against his
shoulder. He had got her--had got her! He was somehow certain that
she would not draw back now. And in the wonder and ecstasy of that
thought, all the world above her head, the stars in their courses,
the wood which had frightened her, seemed miracles of beauty and
fitness. By such fortune as had never come to man, he had got her!
And he murmured over and over again:
"I love you!" She was resting perfectly quiet against him, while her
heart ceased gradually to beat so fast. He could feel her cheek
rubbing against his coat of Harris tweed. Suddenly she sniffed at
it, and whispered:
"It smells good."
When summer sun has burned all Egypt, the white man looks eagerly
each day for evening, whose rose-coloured veil melts opalescent into
the dun drift, of the hills, and iridescent above, into the slowly
deepening blue. Pierson stood gazing at the mystery of the desert
from under the little group of palms and bougainvillea which formed
the garden of the hospital. Even-song was in full voice: From the
far wing a gramophone was grinding out a music-hall ditty; two
aeroplanes, wheeling exactly like the buzzards of the desert, were
letting drip the faint whir of their flight; metallic voices drifted
from the Arab village; the wheels of the water-wells creaked; and
every now and then a dry rustle was stirred from the palm-leaves by
puffs of desert wind. On either hand an old road ran out, whose line
could be marked by the little old watch-towers of another age. For
how many hundred years had human life passed along it to East and
West; the brown men and their camels, threading that immemorial track
over the desert, which ever filled him with wonder, so still it was,
so wide, so desolate, and every evening so beautiful! He sometimes
felt that he could sit for ever looking at it; as though its cruel
mysterious loveliness were--home; and yet he never looked at it
without a spasm of homesickness.
So far his new work had brought him no nearer to the hearts of men.
Or at least he did not feel it had. Both at the regimental base, and
now in this hospital--an intermediate stage--waiting for the draft
with which he would be going into Palestine, all had been very nice
to him, friendly, and as it were indulgent; so might schoolboys have
treated some well-intentioned dreamy master, or business men a
harmless idealistic inventor who came visiting their offices. He had
even the feeling that they were glad to have him about, just as they
were glad to have their mascots and their regimental colours; but of
heart-to-heart simple comradeship--it seemed they neither wanted it
of him nor expected him to give it, so that he had a feeling that he
would be forward and impertinent to offer it. Moreover, he no longer
knew how. He was very lonely. 'When I come face to face with
death,' he would think, 'it will be different. Death makes us all
brothers. I may be of real use to them then.'
They brought him a letter while he stood there listening to that
even-song, gazing at the old desert road.
"I do hope this will reach you before you move on to Palestine. You
said in your last--at the end of September, so I hope you'll just get
it. There is one great piece of news, which I'm afraid will hurt and
trouble you; Nollie is married to Jimmy Fort. They were married down
here this afternoon, and have just gone up to Town. They have to
find a house of course. She has been very restless, lonely, and
unhappy ever since you went, and I'm sure it is really for the best:
She is quite another creature, and simply devoted, headlong. It's
just like Nollie. She says she didn't know what she wanted, up to
the last minute. But now she seems as if she could never want
"Dad dear, Nollie could never have made good by herself. It isn't
her nature, and it's much better like this, I feel sure, and so does
George. Of course it isn't ideal--and one wanted that for her; but
she did break her wing, and he is so awfully good and devoted to her,
though you didn't believe it, and perhaps won't, even now. The great
thing is to feel her happy again, and know she's safe. Nollie is
capable of great devotion; only she must be anchored. She was
drifting all about; and one doesn't know what she might have done, in
one of her moods. I do hope you won't grieve about it. She's
dreadfully anxious about how you'll feel. I know it will be wretched
for you, so far off; but do try and believe it's for the best....
She's out of danger; and she was really in a horrible position. It's
so good for the baby, too, and only fair to him. I do think one must
take things as they are, Dad dear. It was impossible to mend
Nollie's wing. If she were a fighter, and gloried in it, or if she
were the sort who would 'take the veil'--but she isn't either. So it
is all right, Dad. She's writing to you herself. I'm sure Leila
didn't want Jimmy Fort to be unhappy because he couldn't love her; or
she would never have gone away. George sends you his love; we are
both very well. And Nollie is looking splendid still, after her
harvest work. All, all my love, Dad dear. Is there anything we can
get, and send you? Do take care of your blessed self, and don't
grieve about Nollie.
A half-sheet of paper fluttered down; he picked it up from among the
parched fibre of dead palm-leaves.
"I've done it. Forgive me-I'm so happy.
The desert shimmered, the palm-leaves rustled, and Pierson stood
trying to master the emotion roused in him by those two letters. He
felt no anger, not even vexation; he felt no sorrow, but a loneliness
so utter and complete that he did not know how to bear it. It seemed
as if some last link with life had' snapped. 'My girls are happy,'
he thought. 'If I am not--what does it matter? If my faith and my
convictions mean nothing to them--why should they follow? I must and
will not feel lonely. I ought to have the sense of God present, to
feel His hand in mine. If I cannot, what use am I--what use to the
poor fellows in there, what use in all the world?'
An old native on a donkey went by, piping a Soudanese melody on a
little wooden Arab flute. Pierson turned back into the hospital
humming it. A nurse met him there.
"The poor boy at the end of A ward is sinking fast, sir; I expect
he'd like to see you,"
He went into A ward, and walked down between the beds to the west
window end, where two screens had been put, to block off the cot.
Another nurse, who was sitting beside it, rose at once.
"He's quite conscious," she whispered; "he can still speak a little.
He's such a dear." A tear rolled down her cheek, and she passed out
behind the screens. Pierson looked down at the boy; perhaps he was
twenty, but the unshaven down on his cheeks was soft and almost
colourless. His eyes were closed. He breathed regularly, and did
not seem in pain; but there was about him that which told he was
going; something resigned, already of the grave. The window was wide
open, covered by mosquito-netting, and a tiny line of sunlight,
slanting through across the foot of the cot, crept slowly backwards
over the sheets and the boy's body, shortening as it crept. In the
grey whiteness of the walls; the bed, the boy's face, just that pale
yellow bar of sunlight, and one splash of red and blue from a little
flag on the wall glowed out. At this cooler hour, the ward behind
the screens was almost empty, and few sounds broke the stillness; but
from without came that intermittent rustle of dry palm-leaves.
Pierson waited in silence, watching the sun sink. If the boy might
pass like this, it would be God's mercy. Then he saw the boy's eyes
open, wonderfully clear eyes of the lighted grey which has dark rims;
his lips moved, and Pierson bent down to hear.
"I'm goin' West, zurr." The whisper had a little soft burr; the lips
quivered; a pucker as of a child formed on his face, and passed.
Through Pierson's mind there flashed the thought: 'O God! Let me be
some help to him!'
"To God, my dear son!" he said.
A flicker of humour, of ironic question, passed over the boy's lips.
Terribly moved, Pierson knelt down, and began softly, fervently
praying. His whispering mingled with the rustle of the palm-leaves,
while the bar of sunlight crept up the body. In the boy's smile had
been the whole of stoic doubt, of stoic acquiescence. It had met him
with an unconscious challenge; had seemed to know so much. Pierson
took his hand, which lay outside the sheet. The boy's lips moved, as
though in thanks; he drew a long feeble breath, as if to suck in the
thread of sunlight; and his eyes closed. Pierson bent over the hand.
When he looked up the boy was dead. He kissed his forehead and went
The sun had set, and he walked away from the hospital to a hillock
beyond the track on the desert's edge, and stood looking at the
afterglow. The sun and the boy--together they had gone West, into
that wide glowing nothingness.
The muezzin call to sunset prayer in the Arab village came to him
clear and sharp, while he sat there, unutterably lonely. Why had
that smile so moved him? Other death smiles had been like this
evening smile on the desert hills--a glowing peace, a promise of
heaven. But the boy's smile had said: 'Waste no breath on me--you
cannot help. Who knows--who knows? I have no hope, no faith; but I
am adventuring. Good-bye!' Poor boy! He had braved all things, and
moved out uncertain, yet undaunted! Was that, then, the uttermost
truth, was faith a smaller thing? But from that strange notion he.
recoiled with horror. 'In faith I have lived, in faith I will die!'
he thought, 'God helping me!' And the breeze, ruffling the desert
sand, blew the grains against the palms of his hands, outstretched
above the warm earth.