MRS. HUMPHRY WARD
Author of “Robert Elsmere,” “Lady Rose’s Daughter,” “The Mating of Lydia,” etc.
Frontispiece in Colour by C. Allan Gilbert
[Illustration: _Deeply regret to inform you your husband reported wounded and missing_]
‘Shall I set the tea, Miss?’
Miss Cookson turned from the window.
‘Yes–bring it up–except the tea of course–they ought to be here at any time.’
‘And Mrs. Weston wants to know what time supper’s to be?’
The fair-haired girl speaking was clearly north-country. She pronounced the ‘u’ in ‘supper,’ as though it were the German ‘u’ in _Suppe_.
Miss Cookson shrugged her shoulders.
‘Well, they’ll settle that.’
The tone was sharp and off-hand. And the maid-servant, as she went downstairs, decided for the twentieth time that afternoon, that she didn’t like Miss Cookson, and she hoped her sister, Mrs. Sarratt, would be nicer. Miss Cookson had been poking her nose into everything that afternoon, fiddling with the rooms and furniture, and interfering with Mrs. Weston. As if Mrs. Weston didn’t know what to order for lodgers, and how to make them comfortable! As if she hadn’t had dozens of brides and bridegrooms to look after before this!–and if she hadn’t given them all satisfaction, would they ever have sent her all them picture-postcards which decorated her little parlour downstairs?
All the same, the house-parlourmaid, Milly by name, was a good deal excited about this particular couple who were now expected. For Mrs. Weston had told her it had been a ‘war wedding,’ and the bridegroom was going off to the front in a week. Milly’s own private affairs–in connection with a good-looking fellow, formerly a gardener at Bowness, now recently enlisted in one of the Border regiments–had caused her to take a special interest in the information, and had perhaps led her to put a bunch of monthly roses on Mrs. Sarratt’s dressing-table. Miss Cookson hadn’t bothered herself about flowers. That she might have done!–instead of fussing over things that didn’t concern her–just for the sake of ordering people about.
When the little red-haired maid had left the room, the lady she disliked returned to the window, and stood there absorbed in reflections that were not gay, to judge from the furrowed brow and pinched lips that accompanied them. Bridget Cookson was about thirty; not precisely handsome, but at the same time, not ill-looking. Her eyes were large and striking, and she had masses of dark hair, tightly coiled about her head as though its owner felt it troublesome and in the way. She was thin, but rather largely built, and her movements were quick and decided. Her tweed dress was fashionably cut, but severely without small ornament of any kind.
She looked out upon a beautiful corner of English Lakeland. The house in which she stood was built on the side of a little river, which, as she saw it, came flashing and sparkling out of a lake beyond, lying in broad strips of light and shade amid green surrounding fells. The sun was slipping low, and would soon have kindled all the lake into a white fire, in which its islands would have almost disappeared. But, for the moment, everything was plain:–the sky, full of light, and filmy grey cloud, the fells with their mingling of wood and purple crag, the shallow reach of the river beyond the garden, with a little family of wild duck floating upon it, and just below her a vivid splash of colour, a mass of rhododendron in bloom, setting its rose-pink challenge against the cool greys and greens of the fell.
But Bridget Cookson was not admiring the view. It was not new to her, and moreover she was not in love with Westmorland at all; and why Nelly should have chosen this particular spot, to live in, while George was at the war, she did not understand. She believed there was some sentimental reason. They had first seen him in the Lakes–just before the war–when they two girls and their father were staying actually in this very lodging-house. But sentimental reasons are nothing.
Well, the thing was done. Nelly was married, and in another week, George would be at the front. Perhaps in a fortnight’s time she would be a widow. Such things have happened often. ‘And then what shall I do with her?’ thought the sister, irritably,–recoiling from a sudden vision of Nelly in sorrow, which seemed to threaten her own life with even greater dislocation than had happened to it already. ‘I must have my time to myself!–freedom for what I want’–she thought to herself, impatiently, ‘I can’t be always looking after her.’
Yet of course the fact remained that there was no one else to look after Nelly. They had been left alone in the world for a good while now. Their father, a Manchester cotton-broker in a small way, had died some six months before this date, leaving more debts than fortune. The two girls had found themselves left with very small means, and had lived, of late, mainly in lodgings–unfurnished rooms–with some of their old furniture and household things round them. Their father, though unsuccessful in business, had been ambitious in an old-fashioned way for his children, and they had been brought up ‘as gentlefolks’–that is to say without any trade or profession.
But their poverty had pinched them disagreeably–especially Bridget, in whom it had produced a kind of angry resentment. Their education had not been serious enough, in these days of competition, to enable them to make anything of teaching after their Father’s death. Nelly’s water-colour drawing, for instance, though it was a passion with her, was quite untrained, and its results unmarketable. Bridget had taken up one subject after another, and generally in a spirit of antagonism to her surroundings, who, according to her, were always ‘interfering’ with what she wanted to do,–with her serious and important occupations. But these occupations always ended by coming to nothing; so that, as Bridget was irritably aware, even Nelly had ceased to be as much in awe of them as she had once been.
But the elder sister had more solid cause than this for dissatisfaction with the younger. Nelly had really behaved like a little fool! The one family asset of which a great deal might have been made–should have been made–was Nelly’s prettiness. She was _very_ pretty–absurdly pretty–and had been a great deal run after in Manchester already. There had been actually two proposals from elderly men with money, who were unaware of the child’s engagement, during the past three months; and though these particular suitors were perhaps unattractive, yet a little time and patience, and the right man would have come along, both acceptable in himself, and sufficiently supplied with money to make everything easy for everybody.
But Nelly had just wilfully and stubbornly fallen in love with this young man–and wilfully and stubbornly married him. It was unlike her to be stubborn about anything. But in this there had been no moving her. And now there was nothing before either of them but the same shabbiness and penury as before. What if George had two hundred and fifty a year of his own, besides his pay?–a fact that Nelly was always triumphantly brandishing in her sister’s eyes.
No doubt it was more than most young subalterns had–much more. But what was two hundred and fifty a year? Nelly would want every penny of it for herself–and her child–or children. For of course there would be a child–Bridget Cookson fell into profound depths of thought, emerging from them, now as often before, with the sore realisation of how much Nelly might have done with her ‘one talent,’ both for herself and her sister, and had not done.
The sun dropped lower; one side of the lake was now in shadow, and from the green shore beneath the woods and rocks, the reflections of tree and crag and grassy slope were dropping down and down, unearthly clear and far, to that inverted heaven in the ‘steady bosom’ of the water. A little breeze came wandering, bringing delicious scents of grass and moss, and in the lake the fish were rising.
Miss Cookson moved away from the window. How late they were! She would hardly get home in time for her own supper. They would probably ask her to stay and sup with them. But she did not intend to stay. Honeymooners were much better left to themselves. Nelly would be a dreadfully sentimental bride; and then dreadfully upset when George went away. She had asked her sister to join them in the Lakes, and it was taken for granted that they would resume living together after George’s departure. But Bridget had fixed her own lodgings, for the present, a mile away, and did not mean to see much of her sister till the bridegroom had gone.
There was the sound of a motor-car on the road, which ran along one side of the garden, divided from it by a high wall. It could hardly be they; for they were coming frugally by the coach. But Miss Cookson went across to a side window looking on the road to investigate.
At the foot of the hill opposite stood a luxurious car, waiting evidently for the party which was now descending the hill towards it. Bridget had a clear view of them, herself unseen behind Mrs. Weston’s muslin blinds. A girl was in front, with a young man in khaki, a convalescent officer, to judge from his frail look and hollow eyes. The girl was exactly like the fashion-plate in the morning’s paper. She wore a very short skirt and Zouave jacket in grey cloth, high-heeled grey boots, with black tips and gaiters, a preposterous little hat perched on one side of a broad white forehead, across which the hair was parted like a boy’s, and an ostrich plume on the top of the hat, which nodded and fluttered so extravagantly that the face beneath almost escaped the spectator’s notice. Yet it was on the whole a handsome face, audacious, like its owner’s costume, and with evident signs–for Bridget Cookson’s sharp eyes–of slight make-up.
Miss Cookson knew who she was. She had seen her in the neighbouring town that morning, and had heard much gossip about her. She was Miss Farrell, of Carton Hall, and that gentleman coming down the hill more slowly behind her was no doubt her brother Sir William.
Lame? That of course was the reason why he was not in the army. It was not very conspicuous, but still quite definite. A stiff knee, Miss Cookson supposed–an accident perhaps–some time ago. Lucky for him!–on any reasonable view. Bridget Cookson thought the war ‘odious,’ and gave no more attention to it than she could help. It had lasted now nearly a year, and she was heartily sick of it. It filled the papers with monotonous news which tired her attention–which she did not really try to understand. Now she supposed she would have to understand it. For George, her new brother-in-law, was sure to talk a terrible amount of shop.
Sir William was very tall certainly, and good-looking. He had a short pointed beard, a ruddy, sunburnt complexion, blue eyes and broad shoulders–the common points of the well-born and landowning Englishman. Bridget looked at him with a mixture of respect and hostility. To be rich was to be so far interesting; still all such persons, belonging to a world of which she knew nothing, were in her eyes ‘swells,’ and gave themselves airs; a procedure on their part, which would be stopped when the middle and lower classes were powerful enough to put them in their place. It was said, however, that this particular man was rather a remarkable specimen of his kind–didn’t hunt–didn’t preserve–had trained as an artist, and even exhibited. The shopwoman in B—- from whom Miss Cookson derived her information about the Farrells, had described Sir William as ‘queer’–said everybody knew he was ‘queer.’ Nobody could get him to do any county work. He hated Committees, and never went near them. It was said he had been in love and the lady had died. ‘But if we all turned lazy for that kind of thing!’–said the little shopwoman, shrugging her shoulders. Still the Farrells were not unpopular. Sir William had a pleasant slow way of talking, especially to the small folk; and he had just done something very generous in giving up his house–the whole of his house–somewhere Cockermouth way, to the War Office, as a hospital. As for his sister, she seemed to like driving convalescent officers about, and throwing away money on her clothes. There was no sign of ‘war economy’ about Miss Farrell.
Here, however, the shopwoman’s stream of gossip was arrested by the arrival of a new customer. Bridget was not sorry. She had not been at all interested in the Farrells’ idiosyncrasies; and she only watched their preparations for departure now, for lack of something to do. The chauffeur was waiting beside the car, and Miss Farrell got in first, taking the front seat. Then Sir William, who had been loitering on the hill, hurried down to give a helping hand to the young officer, who was evidently only in the early stages of convalescence. After settling his guest comfortably, he turned to speak to his chauffeur, apparently about their road home, as he took a map out of his pocket.
At this moment, a clatter of horses’ hoofs and the rattle of a coach were heard. Round the corner, swung the Windermere evening coach in fine style, and drew up at the door of Mrs. Weston’s lodgings, a little ahead of the car.
‘There they are!’ said Miss Cookson, excited in spite of herself. ‘Well, I needn’t go down. George will bring in the luggage.’
A young man and a young lady got up from their seats. A ladder was brought for the lady to descend. But just as she was about to step on it, a fidgeting horse in front made a movement, the ladder slipped, and the lady was only just in time to withdraw her foot and save herself.
Sir William Farrell, who had seen the little incident, ran forward, while the man who had been placing the ladder went to the horse, which was capering and trying to rear in his eagerness to be off.
Sir William raised the ladder, and set it firmly against the coach.
‘I think you might risk it now,’ he said, raising his eyes pleasantly to the young person above him.
‘Thank you,’ said a shy voice. Mrs. Sarratt turned round and descended. Meanwhile the man holding the ladder saw an officer in khaki standing on the top of the coach, and heard him address a word of laughing encouragement to the lady. And no sooner had her feet touched the ground than he was at her side in a trice.
‘Thank you, Sir!’ he said, saluting. ‘My wife was very nearly thrown off. That horse has been giving trouble all the way.’
‘Must be content with what you can get, in war-time!’ said the other smiling, as he raised his hat to the young woman he had befriended, whom he now saw plainly. ‘And there are so few visitors at present in these parts that what horses there are don’t get enough to do.’
The face turned upon him was so exquisite in line and colour that Sir William, suddenly struck, instead of retreating to his car, lingered while the soldier husband–a lieutenant, to judge from the stripes on his cuff,–collected a rather large amount of luggage from the top of the coach.
‘You must have had a lovely drive along Windermere,’ said Sir William politely. ‘Let me carry that bag for you. You’re stopping here?’
‘Yes–‘ said Mrs. Sarratt, distractedly, watching to see that the luggage was all right. ‘Oh, George, _do_ take care of that parcel!’
But she had spoken too late. As her husband, having handed over two suit cases to Mrs. Weston’s fourteen-year old boy, came towards her with a large brown paper parcel, the string of it slipped, Mrs. Sarratt gave a little cry, and but for her prompt rush to his assistance, its contents would have descended into the road. But through a gap in the paper various tin and china objects were disclosed.
‘That’s your “cooker,” Nelly,’ said her husband laughing. ‘I told you it would bust the show!’
But her tiny, deft fingers rapidly repaired the damage, and re-tied the string while he assisted her. The coach drove off, and Sir William patiently held the bag. Then she insisted on carrying the parcel herself, and the lieutenant relieved Sir William.
‘Awfully obliged to you!’ he said gratefully. ‘Good evening! We’re stopping here for a bit’ He pointed to the open door of the lodging-house, where Mrs. Weston and the boy were grappling with the luggage.
‘May I ask–‘ Sir William’s smile as he looked from one to the other expressed that loosening of conventions in which we have all lived since the war–‘Are you home on leave, or–‘
‘I came home to be married,’ said the young soldier, flushing slightly, while his eyes crossed those of the young girl beside him. ‘I’ve got a week more.’
‘You’ve been out some time?’
‘Since last November. I got a scratch in the Ypres fight in April–oh, nothing–a small flesh wound–but they gave me a month’s leave, and my medical board has only just passed me.’
‘Lanchesters?’ said Sir William, looking at his cap. The other nodded pleasantly.
‘Well, I am sure I hope you’ll have good weather here,’ said Sir William, stepping back, and once more raising his hat to the bride. ‘And–if there was Anything I could do to help your stay–‘
‘Oh, thank you, Sir, but–‘
The pair smiled again at each other. Sir William understood, and smiled too. A more engaging couple he thought he had never seen. The young man was not exactly handsome, but he had a pair of charming hazel eyes, a good-tempered mouth, and a really fine brow. He was tall too, and well proportioned, and looked the pick of physical fitness. ‘Just the kind of splendid stuff we are sending out by the ship-load,’ thought the elder man, with a pang of envy–‘And the girl’s lovely!’
She was at that moment bowing to him, as she followed her husband across the road. A thought occurred to Sir William, and he pursued her.
‘I wonder–‘ he said diffidently–‘if you care for boating–if you would like to boat on the lake–‘
‘Oh, but it isn’t allowed!’ She turned on him a pair of astonished eyes.
‘Not in general. Ah, I see you know these parts already. But I happen to know the owner of the boathouse. Shall I get you leave?’
‘Oh, that _would_ be delightful!’ she said, her face kindling with a child’s joyousness. ‘That _is_ kind of you! Our name is Sarratt–my husband is Lieutenant Sarratt.’
–‘Of the 21st Lanchesters? All right–I’ll see to it!’
And he ran back to his car, while the young people disappeared into the little entrance hall of the lodging-house, and the door shut upon them.
Miss Farrell received her brother with gibes. Trust William for finding out a beauty! Who were they?
Farrell handed on his information as the car sped along the Keswick road.
‘Going back in a week, is he?’ said the convalescent officer beside him. Then, bitterly–‘lucky dog!’
Farrell looked at the speaker kindly.
‘What–with a wife to leave?’
The boy, for he was little more, shrugged his shoulders. At that moment he knew no passion but the passion for the regiment and his men, to whom he couldn’t get back, because his ‘beastly constitution’ wouldn’t let him recover as quickly as other men did. What did women matter?–when the ‘push’ might be on, any day.
Cicely Farrell continued to chaff her brother, who took it placidly–fortified by a big cigar.
‘And if she’d been plain, Willy, you’d never have so much as known she was there! Did you tell her you haunted these parts?’
He shook his head.
* * * * *
Meanwhile the bride and bridegroom had been met on the lodging-house stairs by the bride’s sister, who allowed herself to be kissed by the bridegroom, and hugged by the bride. Her lack of effusion, however, made little impression on the newcomers. They were in that state of happiness which transfigures everything round it; they were delighted with the smallest things; with the little lodging-house sitting room, its windows open to the lake and river; with its muslin curtains, very clean and white, its duster-rose too, just outside the window; with Mrs. Weston, who in her friendly flurry had greeted the bride as ‘Miss Nelly,’ and was bustling to get the tea; even, indeed, with Bridget Cookson’s few casual attentions to them. Mrs. Sarratt thought it ‘dear’ of Bridget to have come to meet them, and ordered tea for them, and put those delicious roses in her room–
‘I didn’t!’ said Bridget, drily. ‘That was Milly. It didn’t occur to me.’
The bride looked a little checked. But then the tea came in, a real Westmorland meal, with its toasted bun, its jam, and its ‘twist’ of new bread; and Nelly Sarratt forgot everything but the pleasure of making her husband eat, of filling his cup for him, of looking sometimes through the window at that shining lake, beside which she and George would soon be roaming–for six long days. Yes, and nights too. For there was a moon rising, which would be at the full in two or three days. Imagination flew forward, as she leant dreamily back in her chair when the meal was over, her eyes on the landscape. They two alone–on that warm summer lake–drifting in the moonlight–heart against heart, cheek against cheek. A shiver ran through her, which was partly passion, partly a dull fear. But she banished fear. Nothing–_nothing_ should spoil their week together.
‘Darling!’ said her husband, who had been watching her–‘You’re not very tired?’ He slipped his hand round hers, and her fingers rested in his clasp, delighted to feel themselves so small, and his so strong. He had spoken to her in the low voice that was hers alone. She was jealous lest Bridget should have overheard it. But Bridget was at the other end of the room. How foolish it had been of her–just because she was so happy, and wanted to be nice to everybody!–to have asked Bridget to stay with them! She was always doing silly things like that–impulsive things. But now she was married. She must think more. It was really very considerate of Bridget to have got them all out of a difficulty and to have settled herself a mile away from them; though at first it had seemed rather unkind. Now they could see her always sometime in the day, but not so as to interfere. She was afraid Bridget and George would never really get on, though she–Nelly–wanted to forget all the unpleasantness there had been,–to forget everything–everything but George. The fortnight’s honeymoon lay like a haze of sunlight between her and the past.
But Bridget had noticed the voice and the clasped hands,–with irritation. Really, after a fortnight, they might have done with that kind of demonstrativeness. All the same, Nelly was quite extraordinarily pretty–prettier than ever. While the sister was slowly putting on her hat before the only mirror the sitting-room possessed, she was keenly conscious of the two figures near the window, of the man in khaki sitting on the arm of Nelly’s chair, holding her hand, and looking down upon her, of Nelly’s flushed cheek and bending head. What a baby she looked!–scarcely seventeen. Yet she was really twenty-one–old enough, by a long way, to have done better for herself than this! Oh, George, in himself, was well enough. If he came back from the war, his new-made sister-in-law supposed she would get used to him in time. Bridget however did not find it easy to get on with men, especially young men, of whom she knew very few. For eight or ten years now, she had looked upon them chiefly as awkward and inconvenient facts in women’s lives. Before that time, she could remember a few silly feelings on her own part, especially with regard to a young clerk of her father’s, who had made love to her up to the very day when he shamefacedly told her that he was already engaged, and would soon be married. That event had been a shock to her, and had made her cautious and suspicious towards men ever since. Her life was now full of quite other interests–incoherent and changeable, but strong while they lasted. Nelly’s state of bliss awoke no answering sympathy in her.
‘Well, good-bye, Nelly,’ she said, when she had put on her things–advancing towards them, while the lieutenant rose to his feet. ‘I expect Mrs. Weston will make you comfortable. I ordered in all the things for to-morrow.’
‘Everything’s _charming_!’ said Nelly, as she put her arms round her sister. ‘It was awfully good of you to see to it all. Will you come over to lunch to-morrow? We might take you somewhere.’
‘Oh, don’t bother about me! You won’t want me. I’ll look in some time. I’ve got a lot of work to do.’
Nelly withdrew her arms. George Sarratt surveyed his sister-in-law with curiosity.
‘Work?’ he repeated, with his pleasant, rather puzzled smile.
‘What are you doing now, Bridget?’ said Nelly, softly, stroking the sleeve of her sister’s jacket, but really conscious only of the man beside her.
‘Reading some proof-sheets for a friend,’ was the rather short reply, as Bridget released herself.
‘Something dreadfully difficult?’ laughed Nelly.
‘I don’t know what you mean by difficult,’ said Bridget ungraciously, looking for her gloves. ‘It’s psychology–that’s all. Lucy Fenn’s bringing out another volume of essays.’
‘It sounds awful!’ said George Sarratt, laughing. ‘I wish I knew what psychology was about. But can’t you take a holiday?–just this week?’
He looked at her rather gravely. But Bridget shook her head, and again said good-bye. George Sarratt took her downstairs, and saw her off on her bicycle. Then he returned smiling, to his wife.
‘I say, Bridget makes me feel a dunce! Is she really such a learned party?’
Nelly’s dark eyes danced a little. ‘I suppose she is–but she doesn’t stick to anything. It’s always something different. A few months ago, it was geology; and we used to go out for walks with a hammer and a bag. Last year it was _the_-ology! Our poor clergyman, Mr. Richardson, was no match for Bridget at all. She could always bowl him over.’
‘Somehow all the “ologies” seem very far away–don’t they?’ murmured Sarratt, after they had laughed together. They were standing at the window again, his arm close round her, her small dark head pressed against him. There was ecstasy in their nearness to each other–in the silver beauty of the lake–in the soft coming of the June evening; and in that stern fact itself that in one short week, he would have left her, would be facing death or mutilation, day after day, in the trenches on the Ypres salient. While he held her, all sorts of images flitted through his mind–of which he would not have told her for the world–horrible facts of bloody war. In eight months he had seen plenty of them. The signs of them were graven on his young face, on his eyes, round which a slight permanent frown, as of perplexity, seemed to have settled, and on his mouth which was no longer naif and boyish, but would always drop with repose into a hard compressed line.
Nelly looked up.
‘Everything’s far away’–she whispered–‘but this–and you!’ He kissed her upturned lips–and there was silence.
Then a robin singing outside in the evening hush, sent a message to them. Nelly with an effort drew herself away.
‘Shan’t we go out? We’ll tell Mrs. Weston to put supper on the table, and we can come in when we like. But I’ll just unpack a little first–in our room.’
She disappeared through a door at the end of the sitting-room. Her last words–softly spoken–produced a kind of shock of joy in Sarratt. He sat motionless, hearing the echo of them, till she reappeared. When she came back, she had taken off her serge travelling dress and was wearing a little gown of some white cotton stuff, with a blue cloak, the evening having turned chilly, and a hat with a blue ribbon. In this garb she was a vision of innocent beauty; wherein refinement and a touch of strangeness combined with the dark brilliance of eyes and hair, with the pale, slightly sunburnt skin, the small features and tiny throat, to rivet the spectator. And she probably knew it, for she flushed slightly under her husband’s eyes.
‘Oh, what a paradise!’ she said, under her breath, pointing to the scene beyond the window. Then–lifting appealing hands to him–‘Take me there!’
The newly-married pair crossed a wooden bridge over the stream from the Lake, and found themselves on its further shore, a shore as untouched and unspoilt now as when Wordsworth knew it, a hundred years ago. The sun had only just vanished out of sight behind the Grasmere fells, and the long Westmorland after-glow would linger for nearly a couple of hours yet. After much rain the skies were clear, and all the omens fair. But the rain had left its laughing message behind; in the full river, in the streams leaping down the fells, in the freshness of every living thing–the new-leafed trees, the grass with its flowers, the rushes spreading their light armies through the flooded margins of the lake, and bending to the light wind, which had just, as though in mischief, blotted out the dream-world in the water, and set it rippling eastwards in one sheet of living silver, broken only by a cloud-shadow at its further end. Fragrance was everywhere–from the trees, the young fern, the grass; and from the shining west, the shadowed fells, the brilliant water, there breathed a voice of triumphant beauty, of unconquered peace, which presently affected George Sarratt strangely.
They had just passed through a little wood; and in its friendly gloom, he had put his arm round his wife so that they had lingered a little, loth to leave its shelter. But now they had emerged again upon the radiance of the fell-side, and he had found a stone for Nelly to rest on.
‘That those places in France, and that sky–should be in the same world!’ he said, under his breath, pointing to the glow on the eastern fells, as he threw himself down on the turf beside her.
Her face flushed with exercise and happiness suddenly darkened.
‘Don’t–don’t talk of them to-night!’–she said passionately–‘not to-night–just to-night, George!’
And she stooped impetuously to lay her hand on his lips. He kissed the hand, held it, and remained silent, his eyes fixed upon the lake. On that day week he would probably just have rejoined his regiment. It was somewhere in the neighbourhood of Bailleul. Hot work, he heard, was expected. There was still a scandalous shortage of ammunition–and if there was really to be a ‘push,’ the losses would be appalling. Man after man that he knew had been killed within a week–two or three days–twenty-four hours even!–of rejoining. Supposing that within a fortnight Nelly sat here, looking at this lake, with the War Office telegram in her hand–‘Deeply regret to inform you, etc.’ This was not a subject on which he had ever allowed himself to dwell, more than in his changed circumstances he was bound to dwell. Every soldier, normally, expects to get through. But of course he had done everything that was necessary for Nelly. His will was in the proper hands; and the night before their wedding he had written a letter to her, to be given her if he fell. Otherwise he had taken little account of possible death; nor had it cost him any trouble to banish the thought of it.
But the beauty of the evening–of this old earth, which takes no account of the perishing of men–and Nelly’s warm life beside him, hanging upon his, perhaps already containing within it the mysterious promise of another life, had suddenly brought upon him a tremor of soul–an inward shudder. Did he really believe in existence after death–in a meeting again, in some dim other scene, if they were violently parted now? He had been confirmed while at school. His parents were Church people of a rather languid type, and it seemed the natural thing to do. Since then he had occasionally taken the Communion, largely to please an elder school-friend, who was ardently devout, and was now a Chaplain on the Western front. But what did it really mean to him?–what would it mean to _her_–if she were left alone? Images passed through his mind–the sights of the trenches–shattered and dying bodies. What was the _soul_?–had it really an independent life? _Something_ there was in men–quite rough and common men–something revealed by war and the sufferings of war–so splendid, so infinitely beyond anything he had ever dreamed of in ordinary life, that to think of it roused in him a passion of hidden feeling–perhaps adoration–but vague and speechless–adoration of he knew not what. He did not speak easily of his feeling, even to his young wife, to whom marriage had so closely, so ineffably bound him. But as he lay on the grass looking up at her–smiling–obeying her command of silence, his thoughts ranged irrepressibly. Supposing he fell, and she lived on–years and years–to be an old woman? Old! Nelly? Impossible! He put his hand gently on the slender foot, and felt the pulsing life in it. ‘Dearest!’ she murmured at his touch, and their eyes met tenderly.
‘I should be content–‘ he thought–‘if we could just live _this_ life out! I don’t believe I should want another life. But to go–and leave her; to go–just at the beginning–before one knows anything–before one has finished anything–‘
And again his eyes wandered from her to the suffusion of light and colour on the lake. ‘How could anyone ever want anything better than this earth–this life–at its best–if only one were allowed a full and normal share of it!’ And he thought again, almost with a leap of exasperation, of those dead and mangled men–out there–in France. Who was responsible–God?–or man? But man’s will is–must be–something dependent–something included in God’s will. If God really existed, and if He willed war, and sudden death–then there must be another life. Or else the power that devised the world was not a good, but an evil–at best, a blind one.
But while his young brain was racing through the old puzzles in the old ways, Nelly was thinking of something quite different. Her delicate small face kept breaking into little smiles with pensive intervals–till at last she broke out–
‘Do you remember how I caught you–turning back to look after us–just here–just about here? You had passed that thorn tree–‘
He came back to love-making with delight.
‘”Caught me!” I like that! As if you weren’t looking back too! How else did you know anything about me?’
He had taken his seat beside her on the rock, and her curly black head was nestling against his shoulder. There was no one on the mountain path, no one on the lake. Occasionally from the main road on the opposite shore there was a passing sound of wheels. Otherwise the world was theirs–its abysses of shadow, its ‘majesties of light.’
She laughed joyously, not attempting to contradict him. It was on this very path, just two months before the war, that they had first seen each other. She with her father and Bridget were staying at Mrs. Weston’s lodgings, because she, Nelly, had had influenza, and the doctor had sent her away for a change. They knew the Lakes well already, as is the way of Manchester folk. Their father, a hard-worked, and often melancholy man, had delighted in them, summer and winter, and his two girls had trudged about the fells with him year after year, and wanted nothing different or better. At least, Nelly had always been content. Bridget had grumbled often, and proposed Blackpool, or Llandudno, or Eastbourne for a change. But their father did not like ‘crowds.’ They came to the Lakes always before or after the regular season. Mr. Cookson hated the concourse of motorists in August, and never would use one himself. Not even when they went from Ambleside to Keswick. They must always walk, or go by the horse-coach.
Nelly presently looked up, and gave a little pull to the corner of her husband’s moustache.
‘Of course you know you behaved abominably that next day at Wythburn! You kept that whole party waiting while you ran after us. And I hadn’t dropped that bag. You knew very well I hadn’t dropped it!’
‘It did as well as anything else. I got five minutes’ talk with you. I found out where you lodged.’
‘Poor papa!’–said Nelly reflectively–‘he was so puzzled. “There’s that fellow we saw at Wythburn again! Why on earth does he come here to fish? I never saw anybody catch a thing in this bit of the river.” Poor papa!’
They were both silent a little. Mr. Cookson had not lived long enough to see Nelly and George Sarratt engaged. The war had killed him. Financial embarrassment was already closing on him when it broke out, and he could not stand the shock and the general dislocation of the first weeks, as sounder men could. The terror of ruin broke him down–and he was dead before Christmas, nominally of bronchitis and heart failure. Nelly had worn mourning for him up to her wedding day. She had been very sorry for ‘poor papa’–and very fond of him; whereas Bridget had been rather hard on him always. For really he had done his best. After all he had left them just enough to live upon. Nelly’s conscience, grown tenderer than of old under the touch of joy, pricked her as she thought of her father. She knew he had loved her best of his two daughters. She would always remember his last lingering hand-clasp, always be thankful for his last few words–‘God bless you, dear.’ But had she cared for him enough in return?–had she really tried to understand him? Some vague sense of the pathos of age–of its isolation–its dumb renouncements–gripped her. If he had only lived longer! He would have been so proud of George.
She roused herself.
‘You did really make up your mind–_then_?’ she asked him, just for the pleasure of hearing him confess it again.
‘Of course I did! But what was the good?’
She knew that he meant it had been impossible to speak while his mother was still alive, and he, her only child, was partly dependent upon her. But his mother had died not long after Nelly’s father, and her little income had come to her son. So now what with Nelly’s small portion, and his mother’s two hundred and fifty a year in addition to his pay, the young subaltern thought himself almost rich–in comparison with so many others. His father, who had died while he was still at school, had been a master at Harrow, and he had been brought up in a refined home, with high standards and ideals. A scholarship at Oxford at one of the smaller colleges, a creditable degree, then an opening in the office of a well-known firm of solicitors, friends of his father, and a temporary commission, as soon as war broke out, on his record as a keen and diligent member of the Harrow and Oxford O.T.C.’s:–these had been the chief facts of his life up to August 1914;–that August which covered the roads leading to the Aldershot headquarters, day by day, with the ever-renewed columns of the army to be, with masses of marching men, whose eager eyes said one thing only–‘_Training_!–_training_!’
The war, and the causes of the war, had moved his nature, which was sincere and upright, profoundly; all the more perhaps because of a certain kindling and awakening of the whole man, which had come from his first sight of Nelly Cookson in the previous June, and from his growing friendship with her–which he must not yet call love. He had decided however after three meetings with her that he would never marry anyone else. Her softness, her yieldingness, her delicate beauty intoxicated him. He rejoiced that she was no ‘new woman,’ but only a very girlish and undeveloped creature, who would naturally want his protection as well as his love. For it was his character to protect and serve. He had protected and served his mother–faithfully and well. And as she was dying, he had told her about Nelly–not before; only to find that she knew it all, and that the only soreness he had ever caused her came from the secrecy which he had tenderly thought her due.
But for all his sanity and sweet temper there was a hard tough strain in him, which had made war so far, even through the horrors of it, a great absorbing game to him, for which he knew himself fitted, in which he meant to excel. Several times during the fighting that led up to Neuve Chapelle he had drawn the attention of his superiors, both for bravery and judgment; and after Neuve Chapelle, he had been mentioned in despatches. He had never yet known fear in the field–never even such a shudder at the unknown–which was yet the possible!–as he had just been conscious of. His nerves had always been strong, his nature was in the main simple. Yet for him, as well as for so many other ‘fellows’ he knew, the war had meant a great deal of this new and puzzled thinking–on problems of right and wrong, of ‘whence’ and ‘whither,’ of the personal value of men–this man, or that man. By George, war brought them out!–these personal values. And the general result for him, up to now,–had he been specially lucky?–had been a vast increase of faith in his fellow men, yes, and faith in himself, modest as he was. He was proud to be an English soldier–proud to the roots of his being. His quiet patriotism had become a passion; he knew now in what he had believed.
Yes–England for ever! An English home after the war–and English children. Oh, he hoped Nelly would have children! As he held her pressed against him, he seemed to see her in the future–with the small things round her. But he did not speak of it.
She meanwhile was thinking of quite other things, and presently she said in a quick, troubled voice–
‘George!–while you are away–you don’t want me to do munitions?’
He laughed out.
‘Munitions! I see you at a lathe! Dear–I don’t think you’d earn your keep!’ And he lifted her delicate arm and tiny hand, and looked at them with scientific curiosity. Her frail build was a constant wonder and pleasure to him. But small as she was, there was something unusual, some prophecy, perhaps, of developments to come, in the carriage of her head, and in some of her looks. Her education had been extremely slight, many of her ideas were still childish, and the circle from which she came had been inferior in birth and breeding to his own. But he had soon realised on their honeymoon, in spite of her simple talk, that she was very quick–very intelligent.
‘Because–‘ she went on, doubtfully–‘there are so many other things I could do–quite useful things. There’s sphagnum moss! Everybody up here is gathering sphagnum moss–you know–for bandages–upon the fells. I daresay Bridget might help in that. She won’t do any other sort of war-work.’
‘Why, I thought all women were doing some kind of war-work!’
‘Bridget won’t. She doesn’t want to hear about the war at all. She’s bored with it.’
‘Bored with it! Good heavens!’ Sarratt’s countenance clouded. ‘Darling–that’ll be rather hard on you, if you and she are going to live together.’
Nelly lifted her head from his shoulder, and looked at him rather gravely.
‘I’m afraid you don’t know much about Bridget, George. She’s,–well, she’s–one of the–oddest women you ever met.’
‘So it seems! But why is she bored with the war?’
‘Well–you see–it doesn’t matter to _her_ in any way–and she doesn’t want it to matter to her. There’s nobody in it she cares about.’
‘Thanks!’ laughed Sarratt. But Nelly still grave, shook her head. ‘Oh, she’s not the least like other people. She won’t care about you, George, just because you’ve married me. And–‘
‘And what? Is she still angry with me for not being rich?’
And his thoughts went back to his first interview with Bridget Cookson–on the day when their engagement was announced. He could see the tall sharp-featured woman now, standing with her back to the light in the little sitting-room of the Manchester lodgings. She had not been fierce or abusive at all. She had accepted it quietly–with only a few bitter sentences.
‘All right, Mr. Sarratt. I have nothing to say. Nelly must please herself. But you’ve done her an injury! There are plenty of rich men that would have married her. You’re very poor–and so are we.’
When the words were spoken, Nelly had just accepted him; she was her own mistress; he had not therefore taken her sister’s disapproval much to heart. Still the words had rankled.
‘Darling!–when I made you marry me–_did_ I do you an injury?’ he said suddenly, as they were walking again hand in hand along the high green path with the lake at their feet, and a vision of blue and rose before them, in the shadowed western mountains, the lower grounds steeped in fiery light, and the red reflections in the still water.
‘What _do_ you mean?’ said Nelly, turning upon him a face of wonder.
‘Well, that was what Bridget said to me, when I told her that you had accepted me. But I was a great fool to tell you, darling! I’m sorry I did. It was only–‘
‘”Injury,”‘ repeated Nelly, not listening to him. ‘Oh, yes, of course that was money. Bridget says it’s all nonsense talking about honour, or love, or that kind of thing. Everything is really money. It was money that began this war. The Germans wanted our trade and our money–and we were determined they shouldn’t have them–and that’s all there is in it. With money you can have everything you want and a jolly life–and without money you can have nothing,–and are just nobody. When that rich old horror wanted to marry me last year in Manchester, Bridget thought me perfectly mad to refuse him. She didn’t speak to me for a week. Of course he would have provided for her too.’
Sarratt had flushed hotly; but he spoke good-naturedly.
‘Well, that was a miss for her–I quite see that. But after all we can help her a bit. We shall always feel that we must look after her. And why shouldn’t she herself marry?’
‘Never! She hates men.’
There was a silence a moment. And then Sarratt said, rather gravely–‘I say, darling, if she’s going to make you miserable while I am away, hadn’t we better make some other arrangement? I thought of course she would be good to you, and look after you! Naturally any sister would, that was worth her salt!’
And he looked down indignantly on the little figure beside him. But it roused Nelly’s mirth that he should put it in that way.
‘George,–you _are_ such a darling!–and–and, such a goose!’ She rubbed her cheek against his arm as though to take the edge off the epithet. ‘The idea of Bridget’s wanting to “look after” me! She’ll want to _manage_ me of course–and I’d much better let her do it. I don’t mind!’ And the speaker gave a long, sudden sigh.
‘But I won’t have you troubled and worried, when I’m not there to protect you!’ cried Sarratt, fiercely. ‘You could easily find a friend.’
But Nelly shook her head.
‘Oh, no. That wouldn’t do. Bridget and I always get on, George. We never quarrelled–except when I stuck to marrying you. Generally–I always give in. It doesn’t matter. It answers perfectly.’
She spoke with a kind of languid softness which puzzled him.
‘But now you can’t always give in, dearest! You belong to me!’ And his grasp tightened on the hand he held.
‘I can give in enough–to keep the peace,’ said Nelly slowly. ‘And if you weren’t here, it wouldn’t be natural that I shouldn’t live with Bridget. I’m used to her. Only I want to make you understand her, darling. She’s not a bit like–well, like the people you admire, and its no good expecting her to be.’
‘I shall talk to her before I go!’ he said, half laughing, half resolved.
Nelly looked alarmed.
‘No–please don’t! She always gets the better of people who scold her. Or if you were to get the better, then she’d visit it on me. And now don’t let’s talk of her any more! What were we saying? Oh, I know–what I was to do. Let’s sit down again,–there’s a rock, made for us.’
And on a natural seat under a sheltering rock canopied and hung with fern, the two rested once more, wrapped in one cloak, close beside the water, which was quiet again, and crossed by the magical lights and splendid shadows of the dying sunset. Nelly had been full of plans when they sat down, but the nearness of the man she loved, his arm round her, his life beating as it were in one pulse with hers, intoxicated, and for a time silenced her. She had taken off her hat, and she lay quietly against him in the warm shelter of the cloak. He thought presently she was asleep. How small and dear she was! He bent over her, watching as closely as the now dim light allowed, the dark eyelashes lying on her cheek, her closed mouth, and soft breathing. His very own!–the thought was ecstasy–he forgot the war, and the few days left him.
But this very intensity of brooding love in which he held her, made her restless after a little. She sat up, and smiled at him–
‘We must go home!–Yes, we must. But look!–there is a boat!’
And only a few yards from them, emerging from the shadows, they saw a boat rocking gently at anchor beside a tiny landing-stage. Nelly sprang to her feet.
‘George!–suppose you were just to row us out–there–into the light!’
But when they came to the boat they found it pad-locked to a post in the little pier.
‘Ah, well, never mind,’ said Nelly–‘I’m sure that man won’t forget?’
‘That man who spoke to us? Who was he?’
‘Oh, I found out from Bridget, and Mrs. Weston. He’s Sir William Farrell, a great swell, tremendously rich. He has a big place somewhere, out beyond Keswick, beyond Bassenthwaite. You saw he had a stiff knee?’
‘Yes. Can’t fight, I suppose–poor beggar! He was very much struck by _you_, Mrs. George Sarratt!–that was plain.’
Nelly laughed–a happy childish laugh.
‘Well, if he does get us leave to boat, you needn’t mind, need you? What else, I wonder, could he do for us?’
‘Nothing!’ The tone was decided. ‘I don’t like being beholden to great folk. But that, I suppose, is the kind of man whom Bridget would have liked you to marry, darling?’
‘As if he would ever have looked at me!’ said Nelly tranquilly. ‘A man like that may be as rich as rich, but he would never marry a poor wife.’
‘Thank God, I don’t believe money will matter nearly as much to people, after the war!’ said Sarratt, with energy. ‘It’s astonishing how now, in the army–of course it wasn’t the same before the war–you forget it entirely. Who cares whether a man’s rich, or who’s son he is? In my batch when I went up to Aldershot there were men of all sorts, stock-brokers, landowners, city men, manufacturers, solicitors, some of them awfully rich, and then clerks, and schoolmasters, and lots of poor devils, like myself. We didn’t care a rap, except whether a man took to his drill, or didn’t; whether he was going to keep the Company back or help it on. And it’s just the same in the field. Nothing counts but what you _are_–it doesn’t matter a brass hap’orth what you have. And as the new armies come along that’ll be so more and more. It’s “Duke’s son and Cook’s son,” everywhere, and all the time. If it was that in the South African war, it’s twenty times that now. This war is bringing the nation together as nothing ever has done, or could do. War is hellish!–but there’s a deal to be said for it!’
He spoke with ardour, as they strolled homeward, along the darkening shore, she hanging on his arm. Nelly said nothing. Her little face showed very white in the gathering shadows. He went on.
‘There was a Second Lieutenant in our battalion, an awfully handsome boy–heir to a peerage I think. But he couldn’t get a commission quick enough to please him when the war broke out, so he just enlisted–oh! of course they’ve given him a commission long ago. But his great friend was a young miner, who spoke broad Northumberland, a jolly chap. And these two stuck together–we used to call them the Heavenly Twins. And in the fighting round Hill 60, the miner got wounded, and lay out between the lines, with the Boche shells making hell round him. And the other fellow never rested till he’d crawled out to him, and taken him water, and tied him up, and made a kind of shelter for him. The miner was a big fellow, and the other was just a slip of a boy. So he couldn’t drag in his friend, but he got another man to go out with him, and between them they did it right enough. And when I was in the clearing station next day, I saw the two–the miner in bed, awfully smashed up, and the other sitting by him. It made one feel choky. The boy could have put down a cool hundred thousand, I suppose, if it could have done any good. But it wouldn’t. I can tell you, darling, this war knocks the nonsense out of a man!’
‘But Bridget is a woman!’ said a dreamy voice beside him.
Sarratt laughed; but he was launched on recollections and could not stop himself. Apparently everybody in his company was a hero, and had deserved the Military Cross ten times over, except himself. He described some incidents he had personally seen, and through the repressed fire with which he spoke, the personality and ideals of the man revealed themselves–normal, strong, self-forgetting. Had he even forgotten the little creature beside him? Hardly, for instinctively he softened away some of the terrible details of blood and pain. But he had forgotten Nelly’s prohibition. And when again they had entered the dark wood which lay between them and the cottage on the river-bank, suddenly he heard a trembling breath, and a sob.
He caught her in his arms.
‘Nelly, darling! Oh, I was a brute to talk to you like this.’
‘No,’ she said, struggling with herself–‘No! Wait a moment.’ She lay against him trembling through every limb, while he kissed and comforted her.
‘I’m–I’m not a coward, George!’ she said at last, gasping,–‘I’m not indeed. Only–well, this morning I had about a hundred and seventy hours left–I counted them. And now there are fifteen less. And all the time, while we talk, they are slipping away, so quick–so quick–‘
But she was regaining self-control, and soon released herself.
‘I won’t do it again!’ she said piteously, in the tone of a penitent child. ‘I won’t indeed. Let’s go home. I’m all right.’
And home they sped, hand in hand, silently. The little room when they re-entered it was bright with firelight, because kind Mrs. Weston had thought the flight chilly, and the white table laid out for them–its pretty china and simple fare–tempted and cheered them with its look of home. But Nelly lay on the sofa afterwards very pale, though smiling and talking as usual. And through the night she was haunted, sleeping and waking, by the image of the solitary boat rocking gently on the moonlit lake, the water lapping its sides. She saw herself and George adrift in it–sailing into–disappearing in–that radiance of silver light. Sleepily she hoped that Sir William Farrell would not forget his promise.
May I come in?’
Nelly Sarratt, who was standing beside the table in the sitting-room, packing a small luncheon-basket with sandwiches and cake, looked up in astonishment. Then she went to the door which was slightly ajar, and opened it.
She beheld a very tall man standing smiling on the threshold.
‘I hope I’m not disturbing you, Mrs. Sarratt–but I was on my way for a day’s sketching, and as my car passed your house, I thought I would like to bring you, myself, the permission which I spoke of on Saturday. I wrote yesterday, my friend was away from home but I got a telegram this morning.’
The visitor held out a telegram, which Nelly took in some bewilderment. It fluttered her to be so much thought for by a stranger–and a stranger moreover who seemed but to wave his wand and things were done. But she thanked him heartily.
‘Won’t you come in, Sir William?’ she asked him, shyly. ‘My husband will be here directly.’
It pleased him that she had found out who he was. He protested that he mustn’t stay a moment, but all the same he came in, and stood with his hands in his pockets looking at the view. He seemed to Nelly to fill the little sitting-room. Not that he was stout. There was not an ounce of superfluous flesh on him anywhere. But he stood at least six foot four in his boots; his shoulders were broad in proportion; and his head, with its strong curly hair of a light golden brown, which was repeated in his short beard, carried itself with the unconscious ease of one who has never known anything but the upper seats of life. His features were handsome, except for a broad irregular mouth, and his blue eyes were kind and lazily humorous.
‘There’s nothing better than that lake,’ he said, motioning towards it, with his hand, as though he followed the outlines of the hills. ‘But I never try to draw it. I leave that to the fellows who think they can! I’m afraid your permit’s only for a week, Mrs. Sarratt. The boat, I find, will be wanted after that.’
‘Oh, but my husband will be gone in a week–less than a week. I couldn’t row myself!’ said Nelly, smiling.
But Sir William thought the smile trembled a little, and he felt very sorry for the small, pretty creature.
‘You will be staying on here after your husband goes?’
‘Oh yes. My sister will be with me. We know the Lakes very well.’
‘Staying through the summer, I suppose?’ ‘I shan’t want to move–if the war goes on. We haven’t any home of our own–yet.’
She had seated herself, and spoke with the self-possession which belongs to those who know themselves fair to look upon. But there seemed to be no coquetry about her–no consciousness of a male to be attracted. All her ways were very gentle and childish, and in her white dress she made the same impression on Farrell as she had on Bridget, of extreme–absurd–youthfulness. He guessed her age about nineteen, perhaps younger.
‘I’m afraid the war will go on,’ he said, kindly. ‘We are only now just finding out our deficiencies.’
‘I know–it’s _awful_ how we want guns and shells! My husband says it makes him savage to see how we lose men for want of them. _Why_ are we so short? Whose fault is it?’
A spot of angry colour had risen in her cheek. It was the dove defending her mate. The change was lovely, and Farrell, with his artist’s eye, watched it eagerly. But he shook his head.
‘It’s nobody’s fault. It’s all on such a scale–unheard of! Nobody could have guessed before-hand–unless like Germany, we had been preparing for years to rob and murder our neighbours. Well, Mrs. Sarratt, I must be going on. But I wanted to say, that if we could do anything for you–please command us. We live about twenty miles from here. My sister hopes she may come and see you. And we have a big library at Carton. If there are any books you want–‘
‘Oh, how _very_ kind of you!’ said Nelly gratefully. She had risen and was standing beside him, looking at him with her dark, frank eyes. ‘But indeed I shall get on very well. There’s a war workroom in Manchester, which will send me work. And I shall try and help with the sphagnum moss. There’s a notice up near here, asking people to help. ‘And perhaps’–she laughed and colored–‘I shall try to sketch a little. I can’t do it a bit–but it amuses me.’
‘Oh, you _draw_?’ said Farrell, with a smile. Then, looking round him, he noticed a portfolio on the table, with a paint box beside it. ‘May I look?’
With rather red cheeks, Nelly showed her performances. She knew very well, being accustomed to follow such things in the newspapers, that Sir William Farrell had exhibited both in London and Manchester, and was much admired by some of the critics.
Farrell twisted his mouth over them a good deal, considering them carefully.
‘Yes, I see–I see exactly where you are. Not bad at all, some of them. I could lend you some things which would help you I think. Ah, here is your husband.’
George Sarratt entered, looking in some surprise at their very prompt visitor, and a little inclined to stand on his guard against a patronage that might be troublesome. But Farrell explained himself so apologetically that the young man could only add his very hearty thanks to his wife’s.
‘Well, I really _must_ be off,’ said Farrell again, looking for his hat. ‘And I see you are going out for the day.’ He glanced at the lunch preparations. ‘Do you know Loughrigg Tarn?’ He turned to Nelly.
‘Oh, yes!’ Her face glowed. ‘Isn’t it beautiful? But I don’t think George knows it.’ She looked up at him. He smiled and shook his head.
‘I have a cottage there,’ said Farrell, addressing Sarratt. ‘Wordsworth said it was like Nemi. It isn’t:–but it’s beautiful all the same. I wish you would bring your wife there to tea with me one day before you go? There is an old woman who looks after me. This view is fine’–he pointed to the window–‘but I think mine is finer.’
‘Thank you,’ said Sarratt, rather formally–‘but I am afraid our days are getting pretty full.’
‘Of course, of course!’ said Sir William, smiling. ‘I only meant, if you happened to be walking in that direction and want a rest. I have a number of drawings there–my own and other people’s, which Mrs. Sarratt might care to see–sometime. You go on Saturday?’
‘Yes. I’m due to rejoin by Monday.’
Farrell’s expression darkened.
‘You see what keeps me?’ he said, sharply, striking his left knee with the flat of his hand. ‘I had a bad fall, shooting in Scotland, years ago–when I was quite a lad. Something went wrong in the knee-cap. The doctors muffed it, and I have had a stiff knee ever since. I daresay they’d give me work at the War Office–or the Admiralty. Lots of fellows I know who can’t serve are doing war-work of that kind. But I can’t stand office work–never could. It makes me ill, and in a week of it I am fit to hang myself. I live out of doors. I’ve done some recruiting–speaking for the Lord Lieutenant. But I can’t speak worth a cent–and I do no good. No fellow ever joined up because of my eloquence!–couldn’t if he tried. No–I’ve given up my house–it was the best thing I could do. It’s a jolly house, and I’ve got lots of jolly things in it. But the War Office and I between us have turned it into a capital hospital. We take men from the Border regiments mostly. I wonder if I shall ever be able to live in it again! My sister and I are now in the agent’s house. I work at the hospital three or four days a week–and then I come here and sketch. I don’t see why I shouldn’t.’
He straightened his shoulder as though defying somebody. Yet there was something appealing, and, as it were, boyish, in the defiance. The man’s patriotic conscience could be felt struggling with his dilettantism. Sarratt suddenly liked him.
‘No, indeed,’ he said heartily. ‘Why shouldn’t you?’ ‘It’s when one thinks of _your_ job, one feels a brute to be doing anything one likes.’
‘Well, you’d be doing the same job if you could. That’s all right!’ said Sarratt smiling.
It was curious how in a few minutes the young officer had come to seem the older and more responsible of the two men. Yet Farrell was clearly his senior by some ten or fifteen years. Instinctively Nelly moved nearer to George. She liked to feel how easily he could hold his own with great people, who made _her_ feel nervous. For she understood from Mrs. Weston that the Farrells were very great people indeed, as to money and county position, and that kind of thing.
Sarratt took his visitor downstairs, and returned, laughing to himself.
‘Well, darling, I’ve promised we’ll go to his cottage one day this week. You’ve to let him know. He’s an odd fellow! Reminds me of that story of the young Don at Cambridge who spent all the time he could spare from neglecting his duties in adorning his person. And yet that doesn’t hit it quite either. For I don’t suppose he does spend much time in adorning his person. He doesn’t want it. He’s such a splendid looking chap to begin with. But I’m sure his duties have a poor time! Why, he told me–me, an utter stranger!–as we went downstairs–that being a landowner was the most boring trade in the world. He hated his tenants, and turned all the bother of them over to his agents. “But they don’t hate me”–he said–“because I don’t put the screw on. I’m rich enough without.” By Jove, he’s a queer specimen!’
And Sarratt laughed out, remembering some further items of the conversation on the stairs.
‘Whom are you discussing?’ said a cold voice in the background.
It was Bridget Cookson’s voice, and the husband and wife turned to greet her. The day was balmy–June at its best. But Bridget as she came in had the look of someone rasped with east wind. Nelly noticed too that since her marriage, Bridget had developed an odd habit of not looking her–or George–straight in the face. She looked sideways, as though determined to avoid the mere sight of their youth and happiness. ‘Is she going to make a quarrel of it all our lives?’ thought Nelly impatiently. ‘And when George is so nice to her! How can she be so silly!’
‘We were talking about our visitor who has just left,’ said Sarratt, clearing a chair for his sister-in-law. ‘Ah, you came from the other direction, you just missed him.’
‘The man’–said Nelly–‘who was so awfully polite to me on Saturday–Sir William Farrell.’
Bridget’s countenance lost its stiffness at once–became eager and alert.
‘What did he come for?’
‘To bring us permission to use the boat for a week,’ said Nelly. ‘Wasn’t it decent of him?–and to do it so quick!’
‘Oh, that’s the Farrell way–always was,’ said Bridget complacently, as though she had the family in her pocket. ‘When they think of a thing it’s done. It’s hit or miss. They never stop to think.’
Sarratt looked at his sister-in-law with a covert amusement. It was a left-handed remark. But she went on–while Nelly finished the packing of the luncheon-basket–pouring out a flood of gossip about the Farrells’s place near Cockermouth, their great relations, their wealth, their pictures, and their china, while Sarratt walked up and down, fidgeting with his mouth, and inwardly thanking his stars that his Nelly was not the least like her sister, that she was as refined and well-bred, as Bridget was beginning to seem to him vulgar and tiresome. But he realised that there was a personality in the tall harsh woman; that she might be formidable; and once or twice he found himself watching the curious side-long action of her head and neck, and the play of her eyes and mouth, with a mingling of close attention and strong dislike. He kept his own counsel however; and presently he heard Bridget, who had so far refused all their invitations to join their walks or excursions, rather eagerly accepting Nelly’s invitation to go with them to Sir William’s Loughrigg cottage. She knew all about it apparently, and said it was ‘a gem of a place!’ Sir William kept an old butler and his wife there–pensioned off–who looked after him when he came. ‘Everything’s tiny,’ said Bridget with emphasis–‘but _perfect_! Sir William has the most exquisite taste. But he never asks anybody to go there. None of the neighbours know him. So of course they say its “side,” and he gives himself airs. Anyway, Nelly, you may think yourselves highly honoured–‘
‘Darling, isn’t that basket ready?’ said Sarratt, coming to his wife’s aid. ‘We’re losing the best of the day–and if Bridget really won’t go with us–‘
Bridget frowned and rose.
‘How are the proofs getting on?’ said Sarratt, smiling, as she bade him a careless good-bye.
Bridget drew herself up.
‘I never talk about my work.’
‘I suppose that’s a good rule,’ he said doubtfully, ‘especially now that there’s so much else to talk about. The Russian news to-day is pretty bad!’
A dark look of anxiety crossed the young man’s face. For it was the days of the great Russian retreat in Galicia and Poland, and every soldier looking on, knew with gnashing of teeth that the happenings in the East meant a long postponement of our own advance.
‘Oh, I never trouble about the war!’ said Bridget, with a half-contemptuous note in her voice that fairly set George Sarratt on fire. He flushed violently, and Nelly looked at him in alarm. But he said nothing. Nelly however with a merry side-glance at him, unseen by Bridget, interposed to prevent him from escorting Bridget downstairs. She went herself. Most sisters would have dispensed with or omitted this small attention; but Nelly always treated Bridget with a certain ceremony. When she returned, she threw her arms round George’s neck, half laughing, and half inclined to cry.
‘Oh, George, I do wish I had a nicer sister to give you!’ But George had entirely recovered himself.
‘We shall get on perfectly!’ he declared, kissing the soft head that leant against him. ‘Give me a little time, darling. She’s new to me!–I’m new to her.’
Nelly sighed, and went to put on her hat. In her opinion it was no more easy to like Bridget after three years than three hours. It was certain that she and George would never suit each other. At the same time Nelly was quite conscious that she owed Bridget a good deal. But for the fact that Bridget did the housekeeping, that Bridget saw to the investment of their small moneys, and had generally managed the business of their joint life, Nelly would not have been able to dream, and sketch, and read, as it was her delight to do. It might be, as she had said to Sarratt, that Bridget managed because she liked managing. All the same Nelly knew, not without some prickings of conscience as to her own dependence, that when George was gone, she would never be able to get on without Bridget.
Into what a world of delight the two plunged when they set forth! The more it rains in the Westmorland country, the more heavenly are the days when the clouds forget to rain! There were white flocks of them in the June sky as the new-married pair crossed the wooden bridge beyond the garden, leading to the further side of the lake, but they were sailing serene and sunlit in the blue, as though their whole business were to dapple the hills with blue and violet shadows, or sometimes to throw a dazzling reflection down into the quiet water. There had been rain, torrential rain, just before the Sarratts arrived, so that the river was full and noisy, and all the little becks clattering down the fell, in their haste to reach the lake, were boasting to the summer air, as though in forty-eight hours of rainlessness they would not be as dry and dumb as ever again. The air was fresh, in spite of the Midsummer sun, and youth and health danced in the veins of the lovers. And yet not without a touch of something feverish, something abnormal, because of that day–that shrouded day–standing sentinel at the end of the week. They never spoke of it, but they never forgot it. It entered into each clinging grasp he gave her hand as he helped her up or down some steep or rugged bit of path–into the lingering look of her brown eyes, which thanked him, smiling–into the moments of silence, when they rested amid the springing bracken, and the whole scene of mountain, cloud and water spoke with that sudden tragic note of all supreme beauty, in a world of ‘brittleness.’ But they were not often silent. There was so much to say. They were still exploring each other, after the hurry of their marriage, and short engagement. For a time she chattered to him about her own early life–their old red-brick house in a Manchester suburb, with its good-sized rooms, its mahogany doors, its garden, in which her father used to work–his only pleasure, after his wife’s death, besides ‘the concerts’–‘You know we’ve awfully good music in Manchester!’ As for her own scattered and scanty education, she had begun to speak of it almost with bitterness. George’s talk and recollections betrayed quite unconsciously the standards of the academic or highly-trained professional class to which all his father’s kindred belonged; and his only sister, a remarkably gifted girl, who had died of pneumonia at eighteen, just as she was going to Girton, seemed to Nelly, when he occasionally described or referred to her, a miracle–a terrifying miracle–of learning and accomplishment.
Once indeed, she broke out in distress:–‘Oh, George, I don’t know anything! Why wasn’t I sent to school! We had a wretched little governess who taught us nothing. And then I’m lazy–I never was ambitious–like Bridget. Do you mind that I’m so stupid–do you mind?’
And she laid her hands on his knee, as they sat together among the fern, while her eyes searched his face in a real anxiety.
What joy it was to laugh at her–to tease her!
‘_How_ stupid are you, darling? Tell me, exactly. It is of course a terrible business. If I’d only known–‘
But she would be serious.
‘I don’t know _any_ languages, George! Just a little French–but you’d be ashamed if you heard me talking it. As to history–don’t ask!’ She shrugged her shoulders despairingly. Then her face brightened. ‘But there’s something! I do love poetry–I’ve read a lot of poetry.’
‘That’s all right–so have I,’ he said, promptly.
‘Isn’t it strange–‘ her tone was thoughtful–‘how people care for poetry nowadays! A few years ago, one never heard of people–ordinary people–_buying_ poetry, new poetry–or reading it. But I know a shop in Manchester that’s just full of poetry–new books and old books–and the shop-man told me that people buy it almost more than anything. Isn’t it funny? What makes them do it? Is it the war?’
Sarratt considered it, while making a smooth path for a gorgeous green beetle through the bit of turf beside him.
‘I suppose it’s the war,’ he said at last. ‘It does change fellows. It’s easy enough to go along bluffing and fooling in ordinary times. Most men don’t know what they think–or what they feel–or whether they feel anything. But somehow–out there–when you see the things other fellows are doing–when you know the things you may have to do yourself–well—-‘
‘Yes, yes–go on!’ she said eagerly, and he went on, but reluctantly, for he had seen her shiver, and the white lids fall a moment over her eyes.
‘–It doesn’t seem unnatural–or hypocritical–or canting–to talk and feel–sometimes–as you couldn’t talk or feel at home, with life going on just as usual. I’ve had to censor letters, you see, darling–and the letters some of the roughest and stupidest fellows write, you’d never believe. And there’s no pretence in it either. What would be the good of pretending out there? No–it’s just the pace life goes–and the fire–and the strain of it. It’s awful–and _horrible_–and yet you wouldn’t not be there for the world.’
His voice dropped a little; he looked out with veiled eyes upon the lake chequered with the blue and white of its inverted sky. Nelly guessed–trembling–at the procession of images that was passing through them; and felt for a moment strangely separated from him–separated and desolate.
‘George, it’s dreadful now–to be a woman!’
She spoke in a low appealing voice, pressing up against him, as though she begged the soul in him that had been momentarily unconscious of her, to come back to her.
He laughed, and the vision before his eyes broke up.
‘Darling, it’s adorable now–to be a woman! How I shall think of you, when I’m out there!–away from all the grime and the horror–sitting by this lake, and looking–as you do now.’
He drew a little further away from her, and lying on his elbows on the grass, he began to read her, as it were, from top to toe, that he might fix every detail in his mind.
‘I like that little hat so much, Nelly!–and that blue cloak is just ripping! And what’s that you’ve got at your waist–a silver buckle?–yes! I gave it you. Mind you wear it, when I’m away, and tell me you’re wearing it–then I can fancy it.’
‘Will you ever have time–to think of me–George?’
She bent towards him.
‘Well, not when I’m going over the parapet to attack the Boches. Honestly, one thinks of nothing then but how one can get one’s men across. But you won’t come off badly, my little Nell–for thoughts–night or day. And you mustn’t think of us too sentimentally. It’s quite true that men write wonderful letters–and wonderful verse too–men of all ranks–things you’d never dream they could write. I’ve got a little pocket-book full that I’ve collected. I’ve left it in London, but I’ll show you some day. But bless you, nobody _talks_ about their feelings at the front. We’re a pretty slangy lot in the trenches, and when we’re in billets, we read novels and rag each other–and _sleep_–my word, we do sleep!’
He rolled on his back, and drew his hat over his eyes a moment, for even in the fresh mountain air the June sun was fierce. Nelly sat still, watching him, as he had watched her–all the young strength and comeliness of the man to whom she had given herself.
And as she did so there came swooping down upon her, like the blinding wings of a Fury, the remembrance of a battle picture she had seen that morning: a bursting shell–limp figures on the ground. Oh not George–not _George_–never! The agony ran through her, and her fingers gripped the turf beside her. Then it passed, and she was silently proud that she had been able to hide it. But it had left her pale and restless. She sprang up, and they went along the high path leading to Grasmere and Langdale.
Presently at the top of the little neck which separates Rydal from Grasmere they came upon an odd cavalcade. In front walked an elderly lady, with a huge open bag slung round her, in which she carried an amazing load of the sphagnum moss that English and Scotch women were gathering at that moment all over the English and Scotch mountains for the surgical purposes of the war. Behind her came a pony, with a boy. The pony was laden with the same moss, so was the boy. The lady’s face was purple with exertion, and in her best days she could never have been other than plain; her figure was shapeless. She stopped the pony as she neared the Sarratts, and addressed them–panting.
‘I beg your pardon!–but have you by chance seen another lady carrying a bag like mine? I brought a friend with me to help gather this stuff–but we seem to have missed each other on the top of Silver How–and I can’t imagine what’s happened to her.’
The voice was exceedingly musical and refined–but there was a touch of power in it–a curious note of authority. She stood, recovering breath and looking at the young people with clear and penetrating eyes, suddenly observant.
The Sarratts could only say that they had not come across any other moss-gatherer on the road.
The strange lady sighed–but with a half humorous, half philosophical lifting of the eyebrows.
‘It was very stupid of me to miss her–but you really can’t come to grief on these fells in broad daylight. However, if you do meet her–a lady with a sailor hat, and a blue jersey–will you tell her that I’ve gone on to Ambleside?’
Sarratt politely assured her that they would look out for her companion. He had never yet seen a grey-haired Englishwoman, of that age, carry so heavy a load, and he liked both her pluck and her voice. She reminded him of the French peasant women in whose farms he often lodged behind the lines. She meanwhile was scrutinising him–the badge on his cap, and the two buttons on his khaki sleeve.
‘I think I know who you are,’ she said, with a sudden smile. ‘Aren’t you Mr. and Mrs. Sarratt? Sir William Farrell told me about you.’ Then she turned to the boy–‘Go on, Jim. I’ll come soon.’
A conversation followed on the mountain path, in which their new acquaintance gave her name as Miss Hester Martin, living in a cottage on the outskirts of Ambleside, a cousin and old friend of Sir William Farrell; an old friend indeed, it seemed, of all the local residents; absorbed in war-work of different kinds, and somewhere near sixty years of age; but evidently neither too old nor too busy to have lost the natural interest of a kindly spinster in a bride and bridegroom, especially when the bridegroom was in khaki, and under orders for the front. She promised, at once, to come and see Mrs. Sarratt, and George, beholding in her a possible motherly friend for Nelly when he should be far away, insisted that she should fix a day for her call before his departure. Nelly added her smiles to his. Then, with a pleasant nod, Miss Martin left them, refusing all their offers to help her with her load. ‘”My strength is as the strength of ten,”‘ she said with a flash of fun in her eyes–‘But I won’t go on with the quotation. Good-bye.’
George and Nelly went on towards a spot above a wood in front of them to which she had directed them, as a good point to rest and lunch. She, meanwhile, pursued her way towards Ambleside, her thoughts much more occupied with the young couple than with her lost companion. The little thing was a beauty, certainly. Easy to see what had attracted William Farrell! An uncommon type–and a very artistic type; none of your milk-maids. She supposed before long William would be proposing to draw her–hm!–with the husband away? It was to be hoped some watch-dog would be left. William was a good fellow–no real malice in him–had never _meant_ to injure anybody, that she knew of–but–
Miss Martin’s cogitations however went no farther in exploring that ‘but.’ She was really very fond of her cousin William, who bore an amount of discipline from her that no one else dared to apply to the owner of Carton. Tragic, that he couldn’t fight! That would have brought out all there was in him.
Nelly Sarratt stood lost in the beauty of the spectacle commanded by Sir William Farrell’s cottage. It was placed in a by-road on the western side of Loughrigg, that smallest of real mountains, beloved of poets and wanderers. The ground dropped sharply below it to a small lake or tarn, its green banks fringed with wood, while on the further side the purple crag and noble head of Wetherlam rose out of sunlit mist,–thereby indefinitely heightened–into a pearl and azure sky. To the north also, a splendid wilderness of fells, near and far; with the Pikes and Bowfell leading the host. White mists–radiant mists–perpetually changing, made a magic interweaving of fell with fell, of mountain with sky. Every tint of blue and purple, of amethyst and sapphire lay melted in the chalice carved out by the lake and its guardian mountains. Every line of that chalice was harmonious as though each mountain and valley filled its place consciously, in a living order; and in the grandeur of the whole there was no terror, no hint of a world hostile and inaccessible to man, as in the Alps and the Rockies.
‘These mountains are one’s friends,’ said Farrell, smiling as he stood beside Nelly, pointing out the various peaks by name. ‘If you know them only a little, you can trust yourself to them, at any hour of the day or night. Whereas, in the Alps, I always feel myself “a worm and no man”!’
‘I have never been abroad,’ said Nelly shyly.
For once he found an _ingenue_ attractive.
‘Then you have it to come–when the world is sane again. But some things you will have missed for ever. For instance, you will never see Rheims–as it was. I have spent months at Rheims in old days, drawing and photographing. I must show you my things. They have a tragic value now.’
And taking out a portfolio from a rack near him, he opened it and put it on a stand before her.
Nelly, who had in her the real instincts of the artist, turned over some very masterly drawings, in mingled delight and despair.
‘If I could only do something like that!’ she said, pointing to a study of some of the famous windows at Rheims, with vague forms of saint and king emerging from a conflagration of colour, kindled by the afternoon sun, and dyeing the pavement below.
‘Ah, that took me some time. It was difficult. But here are some fragments you’ll like–just bits from the facade and the monuments.’
The strength of the handling excited her. She looked at them in silence; remembering with disgust all the pretty sentimental work she had been used to copy. She began to envisage what this commonly practised art may be; what a master can do with it. Standards leaped up. Alp on Alp appeared. When George was gone she would _work_, yes, she would work hard–to surprise him when he came back.
Sir William meanwhile was increasingly taken with his guest. She was shy, very diffident, very young; but in the few things she said, he discerned–or fancied–the stirrings of a real taste–real intelligence. And she was prettier and more fetching than ever–with her small dark head, and her lovely mouth. He would like to draw the free sensuous line of it, the beautiful moulding of the chin. What a prize for the young man! Was he aware of his own good fortune? Was he adequate?
‘I say, how jolly!’ said Sarratt, coming up to look. ‘My wife, Sir William–I think she told you–has got a turn for this kind of thing. These will give her ideas.’
And while he looked at the drawings, he slipped a hand into his wife’s arm, smiling down upon her, and commenting on the sketches. There was nothing in what he said. He only ‘knew what he liked,’ and an unfriendly bystander would have been amused by his constant assumption that Nelly’s sketches were as good as anybody’s. Entirely modest for himself, he was inclined to be conceited for her, she checking him, with rather flushed cheeks. But Farrell liked him all the better, both for the ignorance and the pride. The two young people standing there together, so evidently absorbed in each other, yet on the brink of no ordinary parting, touched the romantic note in him. He was very sorry for them–especially for the bride–and eagerly, impulsively wished to befriend them.
In the background, the stout lady whom the Sarratts had met on Loughrigg Terrace, Miss Hester Martin, was talking to Miss Farrell, while Bridget Cookson was carrying on conversation with a tall officer who carried his arm in a sling, and was apparently yet another convalescent officer from the Carton hospital, whom Cicely Farrell had brought over in her motor to tea at her brother’s cottage. His name seemed to be Captain Marsworth, and he was doing his best with Bridget; but there were great gaps in their conversation, and Bridget resentfully thought him dull. Also she perceived–for she had extremely quick eyes in such matters–that Captain Marsworth, while talking to her, seemed to be really watching Miss Farrell, and she at once jumped to the conclusion that there was something ‘up’ between him and Miss Farrell.
Cicely Farrell certainly took no notice of him. She was sitting perched on the high end of a sofa smoking a cigarette and dangling her feet, which were encased, as before, in high-heeled shoes and immaculate gaiters. She was dressed in white serge with a cap and jersey of the brightest possible green. Her very open bodice showed a string of fine pearls and she wore pearl ear-rings. Seen in the same room with Nelly Sarratt she could hardly be guessed at less than twenty-eight. She was the mature woman in full possession of every feminine weapon, experienced, subtle, conscious, a little hard, a little malicious. Nelly Sarratt beside her looked a child. Miss Farrell had glanced at her with curiosity, but had not addressed many words to her. She had concluded at once that it was a type that did not interest her. It interested William of course, because he was professionally on the look out for beauty. But that was his affair. Miss Farrell had no use for anything so unfledged and immature. And as for the sister, Miss Cookson, she had no points of attraction whatever. The young man, the husband, was well enough–apparently a gentleman; but Miss Farrell felt that she would have forgotten his existence when the tea-party was over. So she had fallen back on conversation with her cousin. That Cousin Hester–dear, shapeless, Puritanical thing!–disapproved of her, her dress, her smoking, her ways, and her opinions, Cicely well knew–but that only gave zest to their meetings, which were not very frequent.
Meanwhile Bridget, in lieu of conversation and while tea was still preparing, was making mental notes of the cottage. It consisted apparently of two sitting-rooms, and a studio–in which they were to have tea–with two or three bedrooms above. It had been developed out of a Westmorland farm, but developed beyond recognition. The spacious rooms panelled in plain oak, were furnished sparely, with few things, but those of the most beautiful and costly kind. Old Persian rugs and carpets, a few Renaissance mirrors, a few priceless ‘pots,’ a picture or two, hangings and coverings of a dim purple–the whole, made by these various items and objects, expressed a taste perhaps originally florid, but tamed by long and fastidious practice of the arts of decoration.
In the study where tea had been laid, Nelly could not restrain her wonder and delight. On one wall hung ten of the most miraculous Turners–drawings from his best period, each of them irreplaceably famous. Another wall showed a group of Boningtons–a third a similar gathering of Whistlers. Sir William, charmed with the bride’s pleasure, took down drawing after drawing, carried them to the light for her, and discoursed upon them.
‘Would you like that to copy?’–he said, putting a Turner into her lap–a marvel of blue mountain peaks, and winding river, and aerial distance.
‘Oh, I shouldn’t dare–I should be afraid!’ said Nelly, hardly liking to take the treasure in her own hands. ‘Aren’t they–aren’t they worth immense sums?’
Sir William laughed.
‘Well, of course, they’re valuable–everybody wants them. But if you would ever like that one to copy, you shall have it, and any other that would help you. I know you wouldn’t let it be hurt, if you could help it–because you’d love it–as I do. You wouldn’t let a Turner drawing like that fade and blister in the sun–as I’ve seen happen again and again in houses he painted them for. Brutes! Hanging’s too good for people who maltreat Turners. Let me relieve you of it now. I must get you some tea. But the drawing will come to you next week. You won’t be able to think of it till then.’
He looked at her with the ardent sympathy which sprang easily from his quick, emotional temperament, and made it possible for him to force his way rapidly into intimacy, where he desired to be intimate. But Nelly shrank into herself. She put the drawing away, and did not seem to care to look at any more. Farrell wished he had left his remark unspoken, and finding that he had somehow extinguished her smiles and her talk, he relieved her of his company, and went away to talk to Sarratt and Captain Marsworth. As soon as tea was over, Nelly beckoned to her husband.
‘Are you going so soon?’ said Hester Martin, who had been unobtrusively mothering her, since Farrell left her–‘When may I come and see you?’
‘To-morrow?’ said Nelly vaguely, looking up. ‘George hoped you would come, before he goes. There are–there are only three days.’
‘I will come to-morrow,’ said Miss Martin, touching Nelly’s hand softly. The cold, small fingers moved, as though instinctively, towards her, and took refuge in her warm capacious hand. Then Nelly whispered to Bridget–appealingly–
‘I want to go, Bridget.’
Bridget frowned with annoyance. Why should Nelly want to go so soon? The beauty and luxury of the cottage–the mere tea-table with all its perfect appointments of fine silver and china, the multitude of cakes, the hot-house fruit, the well-trained butler–all the signs of wealth that to Nelly were rather intimidating, and to Sarratt–in war-time–incongruous and repellent, were to Bridget the satisfaction of so many starved desires. This ease and lavishness; the best of everything and no trouble to get it; the ‘cottage’ as perfect as the palace;–it was so, she felt, that life should be lived, to be really worth living. She envied the Farrells with an intensity of envy. Why should some people have so much and others so little? And as she watched Sir William’s attentions to Nelly, she said to herself, for the hundredth time, that but for Nelly’s folly, she could easily have captured wealth like this. Why not Sir William himself? It would not have been at all unlikely that they should come across him on one of their Westmorland holidays. The thought of their dingy Manchester rooms, of the ceaseless care and economy that would be necessary for their joint menage when Sarratt was gone, filled her with disgust. Their poverty was wholly unnecessary–it was Nelly’s silly fault. She felt at times as though she hated her brother-in-law, who had so selfishly crossed their path, and ruined the hopes and dreams which had been strengthening steadily in her mind during the last two years especially, since Nelly’s beauty had become more pronounced.
‘It’s not at all late!’ she said, angrily, in her sister’s ear.
‘Oh, but George wants to take me to Easedale,’ said Nelly under her breath. ‘It will be our last long walk.’
Bridget had to submit to be torn away. A little motor was waiting outside. It had brought the Sarratts and Bridget from Rydal, and was to take Bridget home, dropping the Sarratts at Grasmere for an evening walk. Sir William tried indeed to persuade them to stay longer, till a signal from his cousin Hester stopped him; ‘Well, if you must go, you must,’ he said, regretfully. ‘Cicely, you must arrange with Mrs. Sarratt, when she will pay us a visit–and’–he looked uncertainly round him, as though he had only just remembered Bridget’s existence–‘of course your sister must come too.’
Cicely came forward, and with a little lisp, repeated her brother’s invitation–rather perfunctorily.
Sir William took his guests to their car, and bade a cordial farewell to Sarratt.
‘Good-bye–and good luck. What shall I wish you? The D.S.O., and a respectable leave before the summer’s over? You will be in for great things.’
Sarratt shook his head.
‘Not till we get more guns, and tons more shell!’
‘Oh, the country’s waking up!’
‘It’s about time!’ said Sarratt, gravely, as he climbed into the car. Sir William bent towards him.
‘Anything that we can do to help your wife and her sister, during their stay here, you may be sure we shall do.’
‘It’s very kind of you,’ said the young officer gratefully, as he grasped Farrell’s hand. And Nelly sent a shy glance of thanks towards the speaker, while Bridget sat erect and impassive.
Sir William watched them disappear, and then returned to the tea-room. He was received with a burst of laughter from his sister.
‘Well, Willy, so you’re caught–fairly caught! What am I to do? When am I to ask her? And the sister too?’
And lighting another cigarette, Cicely looked at her brother with mocking eyes.
Farrell reddened a little, but kept his temper.
‘In a week or two I should think, you might ask her, when she’s got over her husband’s going away.’
‘They get over it very soon–in general,’ said Cicely coolly.
‘Not that sort.’
The voice was Captain Marsworth’s.
Cicely appeared to take no notice. But her eyelids flickered. Hester Martin interposed.
‘A dear, little, appealing thing,’ she said, warmly–‘and her husband evidently a capital fellow. I didn’t take to the sister–but who knows? She may be an excellent creature, all the same. I’m glad I shall be so near them. It will be a help to that poor child to find her something to do.’
‘You think she’ll hunt sphagnum–and make bandages? I don’t.’
‘Why this “thusness?”‘ said Miss Martin raising her eyebrows. ‘What has made you take a dislike to the poor little soul, Cicely? There never was anyone more plainly in love–‘
‘Or more to be pitied,’ said the low voice in the background–low but emphatic.
It was now Cicely’s turn to flush.
‘Of course I know I’m a beast,’ she said defiantly,–‘but the fact is I didn’t like either of them!–the sisters, I mean.’
‘What oh earth is there to dislike in Mrs. Sarratt!’ cried Farrell. ‘You’re quite mad, Cicely.’
‘She’s too pretty,’ said Miss Farrell obstinately–and too–too simple. And nobody as pretty as that can be really simple. It’s only pretence.’
As she spoke Cicely rose to her feet, and began to put on her veil in front of one of the old mirrors. ‘But of course, Will, I shall behave nicely to your friends. Don’t I always behave nicely to them?’
She turned lightly to her brother, who looked at her only half appeased.
‘I shan’t give you a testimonial to-day, Cicely.’
‘Then I must do without it. Well, this day three weeks, a party at Carton, for Mrs. Sarratt. Will that give her time to settle down?’
‘Unless her husband is killed by then,’ said Captain Marsworth, quietly. ‘His regiment is close to Loos. He’ll be in the thick of it directly.’
‘Oh no,’ said Cicely, twisting the ends of her veil lightly between a finger and thumb. ‘Just a “cushy” wound, that’ll bring him home on a three months’ leave, and give her the bore of nursing him.’
‘Cicely, you are a hard-hearted wretch!’ said her brother, angrily. ‘I think Marsworth and I will go and stroll till the motor is ready.’
The two men disappeared, and Cicely let herself drop into an arm-chair. Her eyes, as far as could be seen through her veil, were blazing; the redness in her cheeks had improved upon the rouge with which they were already touched; and the gesture with which she pulled on her gloves was one of excitement.
‘Cicely dear–what is the matter with you?’ said Miss Martin in distress. She was fond of Cicely, in spite of that young lady’s extravagances of dress and manner, and she divined something gone wrong.
‘Nothing is the matter–nothing at all. It is only necessary, sometimes, to shock people,’ said Cicely, calming down. She threw her head back against the chair and closed her eyes, while her lips still smiled triumphantly.
‘Were you trying to shock Captain Marsworth?’
‘It’s so easy–it’s hardly worth doing,’ said Cicely, sleepily. Then after a pause–‘Ah, isn’t that the motor?’
* * * * *
Meanwhile the little hired motor from Ambleside had dropped the Sarratts on the Easedale road, and carried Bridget away in an opposite direction, to the silent but great relief of the newly-married pair. And soon the husband and wife had passed the last farm in the valley, and were walking up a rough climbing path towards Sour Milk Ghyll, and Easedale Tarn. The stream was full, and its many channels ran white and foaming down the steep rock face, where it makes its chief leap to the valley. The summer weather held, and every tree and fell-side stood bathed in a warm haze, suffused with the declining light. All round, encircling fells in a purple shadow; to the north and east, great slopes appearing–Helvellyn, Grisedale, Fairfield. They walked hand in hand where the path admitted–almost silent–passionately conscious of each other–and of the beauty round them. Sometimes they stopped to gather a flower, or notice a bird; and then there would be a few words, with a meaning only for themselves. And when they reached the tarn,–a magical shadowed mirror of brown and purple water,–they sat for long beside it, while the evening faded, and a breathless quiet came across the hills, stilling all their voices, even, one might have fancied, the voice of the hurrying stream itself. At the back of Nelly’s mind there was always the same inexorable counting of the hours; and in his a profound and sometimes remorseful pity for this gentle creature who had given herself to him, together with an immense gratitude.
The stars came out, and a light easterly wind sprang up, sending ripples across the tarn, and stirring last year’s leaves among the new grass. It had grown chilly, and Sarratt took Nelly’s blue cloak from his arm and wrapped her in it–then in his arms, as she rested against him. Presently he felt her hand drop languidly from his, and he knew that–not the walk, but the rush of those half-spoken thoughts which held them both, had brought exhaustion.
‘Darling–we must go home!’ He bent over her.
She rose feebly.
‘Why am I so tired? It’s absurd.’
‘Let me carry you a little.’
‘You couldn’t!’ She smiled at him.
But he lifted her with ease–she was so small and slight, while in him a fresh wave of youth and strength had risen, with happiness, and the reaction of convalescence. She made no resistance, and he carried her down some way, through the broad mingled light. Her face was hidden on his breast, and felt the beating of his life. She said to herself more than once that to die so would be bliss. The marvel of love bewildered her. ‘What was I like before it?–what shall I be, when he is gone?’