‘Good God!’–thought Farrell–‘Are they all–all the women–suffering like this?’
‘You’ll get a telegram from him to-morrow, I’m certain you will!’ he said, with eager kindness. ‘Try and look forward to it. You know the good chances are five to one.’
‘Not for a lieutenant,’ she said, under her breath. ‘They have to lead their men. They can’t think of their own lives.’
There was silence a little. Then Farrell said–floundering, ‘He’d want you to bear up!’
‘I am bearing up!’ she said quickly, a little resentfully.
‘Yes, indeed you are!’ He touched her arm a moment caressingly, as though in apology. It was natural to his emotional temperament to express itself so–through physical gesture. But Nelly disliked the touch.
‘I only meant’–Farrell continued, anxiously–‘that he would beg you not to anticipate trouble–not to go to meet it.’
She summoned smiles, altering her position a little, and drawing a wrap round her. The delicate arm was no longer within his reach.
And restlessly she began to talk of other things–the conscientious objectors of the morning–Zeppelins–a recruiting meeting at Ambleside. Farrell had the impression of a wounded creature that could not bear to be touched; and it was something new to his prevailing sense of power in life, to be made to realise that he could do nothing. His sympathy seemed to alienate her; and he felt much distressed and rebuffed.
* * * * *
Meanwhile as the clouds cleared away from the September afternoon, Marsworth and Cicely were strolling along the Lake, and sparring as usual.
He had communicated to her his intention of leaving Carton within a week or so, and trying some fresh treatment in London.
‘You’re tired of us?’ she enquired, her head very much in air.
‘Not at all. But I think I might do a bit of work.’
‘The doctors don’t think so.’
‘Ah, well–when a man’s got to my stage, he must make experiments on his own. It won’t be France–I know that. But there’s lots else.’
‘You’ll break down in a week!’ she said with energy. ‘I had a talk about you with Seaton yesterday.’
He looked at her with amusement. For the moment, she was no longer Cicely Farrell, extravagantly dressed, but the shrewd hospital worker, who although she would accept no responsibility that fettered her goings and comings beyond a certain point, was yet, as he well knew, invaluable, as a force in the background, to both the nursing and medical staff of Carton.
‘Well, what did Seaton say?’
‘That you would have another bad relapse, if you attempted yet to go to work.’
‘I shall risk it.’
‘That’s so like you. You never take anyone’s advice.’
‘On the contrary, I am the meekest and most docile of men.’ She shrugged her shoulders.
‘You were docile, I suppose, when Seaton begged you not to go off to the Rectory, and give yourself all that extra walking backwards and forwards to the hospital every day?’
‘I wanted a change of scene. I like the old Rector–I even like family prayers.’
‘I am sure everything–and _everybody_–is perfect at the Rectory!’
‘No–not perfect–but peaceable.’
He looked at her smiling. His grey eyes, under their strong black brows, challenged her. She perceived in them a whole swarm of unspoken charges. Her own colour rose.
‘So peace is what you want?’
‘Peace–and a little sympathy.’
‘And we give you neither?’
‘Willy never fails one.’
‘So it’s my crimes that are driving you away? It’s all to be laid on my shoulders?’
‘Don’t you believe me when I say I want to do some work?’
‘Not much. So I have offended you?’
His look changed, became grave–touched with compunction.
‘Miss Farrell, I oughtn’t to have been talking like this. You and Willy have been awfully good to me.’
‘And then you call me “Miss Farrell”!’ she cried, passionately–‘when you know very well that you’ve called me Cicely for years.’
‘Hush!’ said Marsworth suddenly, ‘what was that?’
He turned back towards Rydal. On the shore path, midway between them and the little bay at the eastern end of the lake, where Farrell and Nelly Sarratt had been sitting, were Hester Martin and Bridget. They too had turned round, arrested in their walk. Beyond them, at the edge of the water, Farrell could be seen beckoning. And a little way behind him on the slope stood a boy with a bicycle.
‘He is calling us,’ said Marsworth, and began to run.
Hester Martin was already running–Bridget too.
But Hester and Marsworth outstripped the rest. Farrell came to meet them.
‘Hester, for God’s sake, get her sister!’
‘What is it?’ gasped Hester. ‘Is he killed?’
‘No–“Wounded and missing!” Poor, poor child!’
‘Where is she?’
‘She’s sitting there–dazed–with the telegram. She’s hardly said anything since it came.’
Hester ran on. There on a green edge of the bank sat Nelly staring at a fluttering piece of paper.
Hester sank beside her, and put her arms round her.
‘Dear Mrs. Sarratt!’
‘What does it mean?’ said Nelly turning her white face. ‘Read it.’
‘”Deeply regret to inform you your husband reported wounded and missing!”‘
‘_Missing?_ That means–a prisoner. George is a prisoner–and wounded! Can’t I go to him?’
She looked piteously at Hester. Bridget had come up and was standing near.
‘If he’s a prisoner, he’s in a German hospital. Dear Mrs. Sarratt, you’ll soon hear of him!’
Nelly stood up. Her young beauty of an hour before seemed to have dropped from her like the petals of a rose. She put her hand to her forehead.
‘But I shan’t see him–again’–she said slowly–’till the end of the war–_the end of the war_’–she repeated, pressing her hands on her eyes. The note of utter desolation brought the tears to Hester’s cheeks. But before she could say anything, Nelly had turned sharply to her sister.
‘Bridget, I must go up to-night!’
‘Must you?’ said Bridget reluctantly. ‘I don’t see what you can do.’
‘I can go to the War Office–and to that place where they make enquiries for you. Of _course_, I must go to London!–and I must stay there. There might be news of him any time.’
Bridget and Hester looked at each other. The same thought was in their minds. But Nelly, restored to momentary calmness by her own suggestion, went quickly to Farrell, who with his sister and Marsworth was standing a little way off.
‘I must go to London to-night, Sir William. Could you order something for me?’
‘I’ll take you to Windermere, Mrs. Sarratt,’ said Cicely before her brother could reply. ‘The motor’s there now.’
‘No, no, Cicely, I’ll take Mrs. Sarratt,’ said Farrell impatiently. ‘I’ll send back a car from Ambleside, for you and Marsworth.’
‘You forget Sir George Whitehead,’ said Cicely quietly. ‘I’ll do everything.’
Sir George Whitehead of the A.M.S.C. was expected at Carton that evening on a visit of inspection to the hospital. Farrell, as Commandant, could not possibly be absent. He acknowledged the fact by a gesture of annoyance. Cicely immediately took things in charge.
A whirl of packing and departure followed. By the time she and her charges left for Windermere, Cicely’s hat and high heels had been entirely blotted out by a quite extraordinary display on her part of both thoughtfulness and efficiency. Marsworth had seen the same transformation before, but never so markedly. He tried several times to make his peace with her; but she held aloof, giving him once or twice an odd look out of her long almond-shaped eyes.
‘Good-bye, and good luck!’ said Farrell to Nelly, through the car window; and as she held out her hand, he stooped and kissed it with a gulp in his throat. Her deathly pallor and a grey veil thrown back and tied under her small chin gave her a ghostly loveliness which stamped itself on his recollection.
‘I am going up to town myself to-morrow. I shall come and see if I can do anything for you.’
‘Thank you,’ said Nelly mechanically. ‘Oh yes, I shall have thought of many things by then. Good-bye.’
Marsworth and Farrell were left to watch the disappearance of the car along the moonlit road.
‘Poor little soul!’ said Farrell–‘poor little soul!’ He walked on along the road, his eyes on the ground. Marsworth offered him a cigar, and they smoked in silence.
‘What’ll the next message be?’ said Farrell, after a little while. ‘”Reported wounded and missing–now reported killed”? Most probable!’
Marsworth assented sadly.
It was a pale September day. In the country, among English woods and heaths the sun was still strong, and trees and bracken, withered heath, and reddening berries, burned and sparkled beneath it. But in the dingy bedroom of a dingy Bloomsbury hotel, with a film of fog over everything outside, there was no sun to be seen; the plane trees beyond the windows were nearly leafless; and the dead leaves scudding and whirling along the dusty, airless streets, under a light wind, gave the last dreary touch to the scene that Nelly Sarratt was looking at. She was standing at a window, listlessly staring at some houses opposite, and the unlovely strip of garden which lay between her and the houses. Bridget Cookson was sitting at a table a little way behind her, mending some gloves.
The sisters had been four days in London. For Nelly, life was just bearable up to five or six o’clock in the evening because of her morning and afternoon visits to the Enquiry Office in D—- Street, where everything that brains and pity could suggest was being done to trace the ‘missing’; where sat also that kind, tired woman, at the table which Nelly by now knew so well, with her pitying eyes, and her soft voice, which never grew perfunctory or careless. ‘I’m _so_ sorry!–but there’s no fresh news.’ That had been the evening message; and now the day’s hope was over, and the long night had to be got through.
That morning, however, there had been news–a letter from Sarratt’s Colonel, enclosing letters from two privates, who had seen Sarratt go over the parapet in the great rush, and one of whom had passed him–wounded–on the ground and tried to stay by him. But ‘Lieutenant Sarratt wouldn’t allow it.’ ‘Never mind me, old chap’–one witness reported him as saying. ‘Get on. They’ll pick me up presently.’ And there they had left him, and knew no more.
Several other men were named, who had also seen him fall, but they had not yet been traced. They might be in hospital badly wounded, or if Sarratt had been made prisoner, they had probably shared his fate. ‘And if your husband has been taken prisoner, as we all hope,’ said the gentle woman at the office–‘it will be at least a fortnight before we can trace him. Meanwhile we are going on with all other possible enquiries.’
Nelly had those phrases by heart. The phrases too of that short letter–those few lines–the last she had ever received from George, written two days before the battle, which had reached her in Westmorland before her departure.
That letter lay now on her bosom, just inside the folds of her blouse, where her hand could rest upon it at any moment. How passionately she had hoped for another, a fragment perhaps torn from his notebook in the trenches, and sent back by some messenger at the last moment! She had heard of that happening to so many others. Why not to her!–oh, why not to her?
Her heart was dry with longing and grief; her eyes were red for want of sleep. There were strange numb moments when she felt nothing, and could hardly remember why she was in London. And then would come the sudden smart of reviving consciousness–the terrible returns of an anguish, under which her whole being trembled. And always, at the back of everything, the dull thought–‘I always knew it–I knew he would die!’–recurring again and again; only to be dashed away by a protest no less persistent–‘No, no! He is _not dead!–not dead!_ In a fortnight–she said so–there’ll be news–they’ll have found him. Then he’ll be recovering–and prisoners are allowed to write. Oh, my George!–my George!’
It was with a leap of ecstasy that yet was pain, that she imagined to herself the coming of the first word from him. Prisoners’ letters came regularly–no doubt of that. Why, the landlady at the hotel had a son who was at Ruhleben, and she heard once a month. Nelly pictured the moment when the letter would be in her hand, and she would be looking at it. Oh, no doubt it wouldn’t be addressed by him! By the nurse perhaps–a German nurse–or another patient. He mightn’t be well enough. All the same, the dream filled her eyes with tears, that for a moment eased the burning within.
Her life was now made up of such moments and dreams. On the whole, what held her most was the fierce refusal to think of him as dead. That morning, in dressing, among the clothes they had hurriedly brought with them from Westmorland, she saw a thin black dress–a useful stand-by in the grime of London–and lifted her hands to take it from the peg on which it hung. Only to recoil from it with horror. _That_–never! And she had dressed herself with care in a coat and skirt of rough blue tweed that George had always liked; scrupulously putting on her little ornaments, and taking pains with her hair. And at every step of the process, she seemed to be repelling some attacking force; holding a door with all her feeble strength against some horror that threatened to come in.
The room in which she stood was small and cheerless; but it was all they could afford. Bridget frankly hated the ugliness and bareness of it; hated the dingy hotel, and the slatternly servants, hated the boredom of the long waiting for news to which apparently she was to be committed, if she stayed on with Nelly. She clearly saw that public opinion would expect her to stay on. And indeed she was not without some natural pity for her younger sister. There were moments when Nelly’s state caused her extreme discomfort–even something more. But when they occurred, she banished them as soon as possible, and with a firm will, which grew the firmer with exercise. It was everybody’s duty to keep up their spirits and not to be beaten down by this abominable war. And it was a special duty for those who hated the war, and would stop it at once if they could. Yet Bridget had entirely declined to join any ‘Stop the War,’ or pacifist societies. She had no sympathy with ‘that sort of people.’ Her real opinion about the war was that no cause could be worth such wretched inconvenience as the war caused to everyone. She hated to feel and know that probably the majority of decent people would say, if asked,–as Captain Marsworth had practically said–that she, Bridget Cookson, ought to be doing V.A.D. work, or relieving munition-workers at week-ends, instead of fiddling with an index to a text-book on ‘The New Psychology.’ The mere consciousness of that was already an attack on her personal freedom to do what she liked, which she hotly resented. And as to that conscription of women for war-work which was vaguely talked of, Bridget passionately felt that she would go to prison rather than submit to such a thing. For the war said nothing whatever to her heart or conscience. All the great tragic side of it–the side of death and wounds and tears–of high justice and ideal aims–she put away from her, as she always had put away such things, in peace. They did not concern her personally. Why _make_ trouble for oneself?
And yet here was a sister whose husband was ‘wounded and missing’–probably, as Bridget firmly believed, already dead. And the meaning of that fact–that possibility–was writ so large on Nelly’s physical aspect, on Nelly’s ways and plans, that there was really no getting away from it. Also–there were other people to be considered. Bridget did not at all want to offend or alienate Sir William Farrell–now less than ever. And she was quite aware that he would think badly of her, if he suspected she was not doing her best for Nelly.
The September light waned. The room grew so dark that Bridget turned on an electric light beside her, and by the help of it stole a long look at Nelly, who was still standing by the window. Would grieving–would the loss of George–take Nelly’s prettiness away? She had certainly lost flesh during the preceding weeks and days. Her little chin was very sharp, as Bridget saw it against the window, and her hair seemed to have parted with its waves and curls, and to be hanging limp about her ears. Bridget felt a pang of annoyance that anything should spoil Nelly’s good looks. It was altogether unnecessary and absurd.
Presently Nelly moved back towards her sister.
‘I don’t know how I shall get through the next fortnight,’ she said in a low voice. ‘I wonder what we had better do?’
‘Well, we can’t stay here,’ said Bridget sharply. ‘It’s too expensive, though it is such a poky hole. We can find a lodging, I suppose, and feed ourselves. Unless of course we went back to Westmorland. Why can’t you? They can always telegraph.’
Nelly flushed. Her hand lying on the back of Bridget’s chair shook.
‘And if George sent for me,’ she said, in the same low, strained voice, ‘it would take eight hours longer to get to him than it would from here.’
Bridget said nothing. In her heart of hearts she felt perfectly certain that George never would send. She rose and put down her needlework.
‘I must go and post a letter downstairs. I’ll ask the woman in the office if she knows anything about lodgings.’
Nelly went back to her post by the window. Her mind was bruised between two conflicting feelings–a dumb longing for someone to caress and comfort her, someone who would meet her pain with a bearing less hard and wooden than Bridget’s–and at the same time, a passionate shrinking from the bare idea of comfort and sympathy, as something not to be endured. She had had a kind letter from Sir William Farrell that morning. He had spoken of being soon in London. But she did not know that she could bear to see him–unless he could help–get something _done!_
Bridget descended to the ground floor, and had a conversation with the young lady in the office, which threw no light at all on the question of lodgings. The young lady in question seemed to be patting and pinning up her back hair all the time, besides carrying on another conversation with a second young lady in the background. Bridget was disgusted with her and was just going upstairs again, when the very shabby and partly deformed hall porter informed her that someone–a gentleman–was waiting to see her in the drawing-room.
A gentleman? Bridget hastened to the small and stuffy drawing-room, where the hall porter had just turned on the light, and there beheld a tall bearded man pacing up and down, who turned abruptly as she entered.
‘How is she? Is there any news?’
Sir William Farrell hurriedly shook her offered hand, frowning a little at the sister who always seemed to him inadequate and ill-mannered.
‘Thank you, Sir William; she is quite well. There is a little news–but nothing of any consequence.’
She repeated the contents of the hospital letter, with the comments on it of the lady they had seen at the office.
‘We shan’t hear anything more for a fortnight. They have written to Geneva.’
‘Then they think he’s a prisoner?’
Bridget supposed so.
‘At any rate they hope he is. Well, I’m thankful there’s no worse news. Poor thing–poor little thing! Is she bearing up–eating?–sleeping?’
He asked the questions peremptorily, yet with a real anxiety. Bridget vaguely resented the peremptoriness, but she answered the questions. It was very difficult to get Nelly to eat anything, and Bridget did not believe she slept much.
Farrell shook his head impatiently, with various protesting noises, while she spoke. Then drawing up suddenly, with his hands in his pockets, he looked round the room in which they stood.
‘But why are you staying here? It’s a dreadful hole! That porter gave me the creeps. And it’s so far from everywhere.’
‘There is a tube station close by. We stay here because it’s cheap,’ said Bridget, grimly.
Sir William walked up the room again, poking his nose into the moribund geranium that stood, flanked by some old railway guides, on the middle table, surveyed the dirty and ill-kept writing-table, the uncomfortable chairs, and finally went to look out of the window; after which he suddenly and unaccountably brightened up and turned with a smile to Bridget.
‘Do you think you could persuade your sister to do something that would please me very much?’
‘I’m sure I don’t know, Sir William.’
‘Well, it’s this. Cicely and I have a flat in St. James’ Square. I’m there very little just now, and she less. You know we’re both awfully busy at Carton. We’ve had a rush of wounded the last few weeks. I must be up sometimes on business for the hospital, but I can always sleep at my club. So what I want to persuade you to do, Miss Cookson, is to get Mrs. Sarratt to accept the loan of our flat, for a few weeks while she’s kept in town. It would be a real pleasure to us. We’re awfully sorry for her!’
He beamed upon her, all his handsome face suffused with kindness and concern.
Bridget was amazed, but cautious.
‘It’s awfully good of you–but–shouldn’t we have to get a servant? I couldn’t do everything.’
Sir William laughed.
‘Gracious–I should think not! There are always servants there–it’s kept ready for us. I put in a discharged soldier–an army cook and his wife–a few months ago. They’re capital people. I’m sure they’d look after you. Well now, will you suggest that to Mrs. Sarratt? Could I see her?’
Bridget hesitated. Some instinct told her that Nelly would not wish to accept this proposal. She said slowly–
‘I’m afraid she’s very tired to-night.’
‘Oh, don’t bother her then! But just try and persuade her–won’t you–quietly? And send me a word to-night.’
He gave the address.
‘If I hear that you’ll come, I’ll make all the arrangements to-morrow morning before I leave for Westmorland. You can just take her round in a taxi any time you like, and the servants will be quite ready for you. You’ll be close to D—- Street–close to everything. Now do!’
He stood with his hands on his side looking down eagerly and a little sharply on the hard-featured woman before him.
‘It’s awfully good of you,’ said Bridget again–‘most awfully good. Of course I’ll tell Nelly what you say.’
‘And drop me a line to-night?’
‘Yes, I’ll write.’
Sir William took up his stick.
‘Well, I shall put everything in train. Tell her, please, what a pleasure she’d give us. And she won’t keep Cicely away. Cicely will be up next week. But there’s plenty of room. She and her maid wouldn’t make any difference to you. And please tell Mrs. Sarratt too, that if there’s anything I can do–_anything_–she has only to let me know.’
* * * * *
Bridget went back to the room upstairs. As she opened the door she saw Nelly standing under the electric light–motionless. Something in her attitude startled Bridget.
Nelly turned slowly, and Bridget saw that she had a letter in her hand. Bridget ran up to her.
‘Have you heard anything?’
‘He _did_ write to me!–he did!–just the last minute–in the trench. I knew he must. He gave it to an engineer officer who was going back to Headquarters, to post. The officer was badly wounded as he went back. They’ve sent it me from France. The waiter brought me the letter just after you’d gone down.’
The words came in little panting gasps.
Then, suddenly, she slipped down beside the table at which Bridget had been working, and hid her face. She was crying. But it was very difficult weeping–with few tears. The slight frame shook from top to toe.
Bridget stood by her, not knowing what to do. But she was conscious of a certain annoyance that she couldn’t begin at once on the subject of the flat. She put her hand awkwardly on her sister’s shoulder.
‘Don’t cry so. What does he say?’
Nelly did not answer for a little. At last she said, her face still buried–
‘It was only–to tell me–that he loved me–‘
There was silence again. Then Nelly rose to her feet. She pressed her hair back from her white face.
‘I don’t want any supper, Bridget. I think–I should like to go to bed.’
Bridget helped her to undress. It was now nearly dark and she drew down the blinds. When she looked again at Nelly, she saw her lying white and still, her wide eyes fixed on vacancy.
‘I found a visitor downstairs,’ she said, abruptly. ‘It was Sir William Farrell.’
Nelly shewed no surprise, or interest. But she seemed to find some words mechanically.
‘Why did he come?’
Bridget came to the bedside.
‘He wants us to go and stay at his flat–their flat. He and his sister have it together–in St. James’ Square. He wants us to go to-morrow. He’s going back to Carton. There are two servants there. We shouldn’t have any trouble. And you’d be close to D—- Street. Any news they got they could send round directly.’
Nelly closed her eyes.
‘I don’t care where we go,’ she said, under her breath.
‘He wanted a line to-night,’ said Bridget–‘I can’t hear of any lodgings. And the boarding-houses are all getting frightfully expensive–because food’s going up so.’
‘Not a boarding-house!’ murmured Nelly. A shiver of repulsion ran through her. She was thinking of a boarding-house in one of the Bloomsbury streets where she and Bridget had once stayed before her marriage–the long tables full of strange faces–the drawing-room crowded with middle-aged women, who stared so.
‘Well, I can write to him to-night then, and say we’ll go to-morrow? We certainly can’t stay here. The charges are abominable. If we go to their flat, for a few days, we can look round us and find something cheap.’
‘Where is it?’ said Nelly faintly.
‘In St. James’ Square.’
The address conveyed very little to Nelly. She knew hardly anything of London. Two visits–one to some cousins in West Kensington, another to a friend at Hampstead–together with the fortnight three years ago in the Bloomsbury boarding-house, when Bridget had had some grand scheme with a publisher which never came off, and Nelly had mostly stayed indoors with bad toothache:–her acquaintance with the great city had gone no further. Of its fashionable quarters both she and Bridget were entirely ignorant, though Bridget would not have admitted it.
Bridget got her writing-case out of her trunk and began to write to Sir William. Nelly watched her. At last she said slowly, as though she were becoming a little more conscious of the world around her:–
‘It’s awfully kind of them. But we needn’t stay long.’
‘Oh no, we needn’t stay long.’
Bridget wrote the letter, and disappeared to post it. Nelly was left alone in darkness. The air about her seemed to be ringing with the words of her letter.
‘MY OWN DARLING,–We are just going over. I have found a man going back to D.H.Q. who will post this–and I just want you to know that, whatever happens, you are my beloved, and our love can’t die. God bless you, my dear, dear wife…. We are all in good spirits–everything ought to go well–and I will write the first moment possible.
She seemed to see him, tearing the leaf from the little block she had given him, and standing in the trench, so slim and straight in his khaki. And then, what happened after? when the rush came? Would she never know? If he never came back to her, what was she going to do with her life? Waves of lonely terror went through her–terror of the long sorrow before her–terror of her own weakness.
And then again–reaction. She sat up in bed, angrily wrestling with her own lapse from hope. Of course it was all coming right! She turned on the light, with a small trembling hand, and tried to read a newspaper Bridget had brought in. But the words swam before her; the paper dropped from her grasp; and when Bridget came back, her face was hidden, she seemed to be asleep.
* * * * *
‘Is this it?’ said Nelly, looking in alarm at the new and splendid house before which the taxi had drawn up.
‘Well, it’s the right number!’ And Bridget, rather flurried, looked at the piece of paper on which Farrell had written the address for her, the night before.
She jumped out of the taxi and ran up some marble steps towards a glass door covered with a lattice metal-work, beyond which a hall, a marble staircase and a lift shewed dimly. Inside, a porter in livery, at the first sight of the taxi, put down the newspaper he was reading, and hurried to the door.
‘Is this Sir William Farrell’s flat?’ asked Bridget.
‘It’s all right, Miss. They’re expecting you. Sir William went off this morning. I was to tell you he had to go down to Aldershot to-day on business, but he hoped to look in this evening, on his way to Euston, to see that you had everything comfortable.’
Reluctantly, and with a feeble step, Nelly descended, helped by the porter.
‘Oh, Bridget, I wish we hadn’t come!’ She breathed it into her sister’s ear, as they stood together in the hall, waiting for the lift which had been called. Bridget shut her lips tightly, and said nothing.
The lift carried them up to the third floor, and there at the top the ex-army cook and his wife were waiting, a pair of stout and comfortable people, all smiles and complaisance. The two small trunks were shouldered by the man, and the woman led the way.
‘Lunch will be ready directly, Ma’am,’ she said to Nelly, who followed her in bewilderment across a hall panelled in marble and carpeted with something red and soft.
‘Sir William thought you would like it about one o’clock. And this is your room, please, Ma’am–unless you would like anything different. It’s Miss Farrell’s room. She always likes the quiet side. And I’ve put Miss Cookson next door. I thought you’d wish to be together?’
Nelly entered a room furnished in white and pale green, luxurious in every detail, and hung with engravings after Watteau framed in white wood. Through an open door shewed another room a little smaller, but equally dainty and fresh in all its appointments. Bridget tripped briskly through the open door, looked around her and deposited her bag upon the bed. Nelly meanwhile was being shewn the green-tiled and marble-floored bathroom attached to her room, Mrs. Simpson chattering on the various improvements and subtleties, which ‘Miss Cicely’ had lately commanded there.
‘But I’m sure you’ll be wanting your lunch, Ma’am,’ said the woman at last, venturing a compassionate glance at the pale young creature beside her. ‘It’ll be ready in five minutes. I’ll tell Simpson he can serve it.’
She disappeared, and Nelly sank into a chair. Why had they come to this place? Her whole nature was in revolt. The gaiety and luxury of the flat seemed to rise up and reproach her. What was she doing in such surroundings?–when George–Oh, it was hateful–hateful! She thought with longing of the little bare room in the Rydal lodgings, where they had been happy together.
‘Well, are you ready?’ said Bridget, bustling in. ‘Do take off your things. You look absolutely done up!’
Nelly rose slowly, but her face had flushed.
‘I can’t stay here, Bridget!’ she said with energy–‘I can’t! I don’t know why we came.’
‘Because we were asked,’ said Bridget calmly. ‘We can stay, I think, for a couple of days, can’t we, till we find something else? Where are your brushes?’
And she began vigorously unpacking for her sister, helplessly watched by Nelly. They had just come from D—- Street, where Nelly had been shewn various letters and telegrams; but nothing which promised any real further clue to George Sarratt’s fate. He had been seen advancing–seen wounded–by at least a dozen men of the regiment, and a couple of officers, all of whom had now been communicated with. But the wave of the counter-attack–temporarily successful–had rushed over the same ground before the British gains had been finally consolidated, and from that fierce and confused fighting there came no further word of George Sarratt. It was supposed that in the final German retreat he had been swept up as a German prisoner. He was not among the dead found and buried by an English search party on the following day–so much had been definitely ascertained.
The friendly volunteer in D—- Street–whose name appeared to be Miss Eustace–had tried to insist with Nelly that on the whole, and so far, the news collected was not discouraging. At least there was no verification of death. And for the rest, there were always the letters from Geneva to wait for. ‘One must be patient,’ Miss Eustace had said finally. ‘These things take so long! But everybody’s doing their best.’ And she had grasped Nelly’s cold hands in hers, long and pityingly. Her own fine aquiline face seemed to have grown thinner and more strained even since Nelly had known it. She often worked in the office, she said, up to midnight.
All these recollections and passing visualisations of words and faces, drawn from those busy rooms a few streets off, in which not only George Sarratt’s fate, but her own, as it often seemed to Nelly, were being slowly and inexorably decided, passed endlessly through her brain, as she mechanically took off her things, and brushed her hair.
Presently she was following Bridget across the hall to the drawing-room. Bridget seemed already to know all about the flat. ‘The dining-room opens out of the drawing-room. It’s all Japanese,’ she said complaisantly, turning back to her sister. ‘Isn’t it jolly? Miss Farrell furnished it. Sir William let her have it all her own way.’
Nelly looked vaguely round the drawing-room, which had a blue Persian carpet, pale purple walls, hung with Japanese colour prints, a few chairs, one comfortable sofa, a couple of Japanese cabinets, and pots of Japanese lilies in the corners. It was a room not meant for living in. There was not a book in it anywhere. It looked exactly what it was–a perching-place for rich people, who liked their own ways, and could not be bored with hotels.
The dining-room was equally bare, costly, and effective. Its only ornament was a Chinese Buddha, a great terra-cotta, marvellously alive, which had been looted from some Royal tomb, and now sat serenely out of place, looking over the dainty luncheon-table to the square outside, and wrapt in dreams older than Christianity.
The flat was nominally lent to ‘Mrs. Sarratt,’ but Bridget was managing everything, and had never felt so much in her element in her life. She sat at the head of the table, helped Nelly, gave all the orders, and was extraordinarily brisk and cheerful.
Nelly scarcely touched anything, and Mrs. Simpson who waited was much concerned.
‘Perhaps you’d tell Simpson anything you could fancy, Madam,’ she said anxiously in Nelly’s ear, as she handed the fruit. Nelly must needs smile when anyone spoke kindly to her. She smiled now, though very wearily.
‘Why, it’s all beautiful, thank you. But I’m not hungry.’
‘We’ll have coffee in the drawing-room, please, Mrs. Simpson,’ said Bridget rising–a tall masterful figure, in a black silk dress, which she kept for best occasions. ‘Now Nelly, you must rest.’
Nelly let herself be put on the sofa in the drawing-room, and Bridget–after praising the coffee, the softness of the chairs, the beauty of the Japanese lilies, and much speculation on the value of the Persian carpet which, she finally decided, was old and priceless–announced that she was going for a walk.
‘Why don’t you come too, Nelly? Come and look at the shops. You shouldn’t mope all day long. If they do send for you to nurse George, you won’t have the strength of a cat.’
But Nelly had shrunk into herself. She said she would stay in and write a letter to Hester Martin. Presently she was left alone. Mrs. Simpson had cleared away, and shut all the doors between the sitting-rooms and the kitchen. Inside the flat nothing was to be heard but the clock ticking on the drawing-room mantelpiece. Outside, there were intermittent noises and rattles from the traffic in the square, and beyond that again the muffled insistent murmur which seemed to Nelly this afternoon–in her utter loneliness–the most desolate sound she had ever heard. The day had turned to rain and darkness, and the rapid closing of the October afternoon prophesied winter. Nelly could not rouse herself to write the letter to Miss Martin. She lay prone in a corner of the sofa, dreaming, as she had done all her life; save that the faculty–of setting in motion at will a stream of vivid and connected images–which had always been one of her chief pleasures, was now an obsession and a torment. How often, in her wakeful nights at Rydal, had she lived over again every moment in the walk to Blea Tarn, till at last, gathered once more on George’s knees, and nestling to his breast, she had fallen asleep–comforted.
She went through it all, once more, in this strange room, as the darkness closed; only the vision ended now, not in a tender thrill–half conscious, fading into sleep–of remembered joy, but in an anguish of sobbing, the misery of the frail tormented creature, unable to bear its life.
Nevertheless sleep came. For nights she had scarcely slept, and in the silence immediately round her the distant sounds gradually lost their dreary note, and became a rhythmical and soothing influence. She fell into a deep unconsciousness.
* * * * *
An hour later, a tall man rang at the outer door of the flat. Mrs. Simpson obeyed the summons, and found Sir William Farrell on the threshold.
‘Well, have they come?’
‘Oh, yes, sir.’ And Mrs. Simpson gave a rapid, _sotto voce_ account of the visitors’ arrival, their lunch, Mrs. Sarratt’s sad looks–‘poor little lady!’–and much else.
Sir William stepped in.
‘Are they at home?’
Mrs. Simpson shook her head.
‘They went out after lunch, Sir William, and I have not heard them come in.’
Which, of course, was a mistake on the part of Mrs. Simpson, who, hearing the front door close half an hour after luncheon and no subsequent movement in the flat, had supposed that the sisters had gone out together.
‘All right. I’ll wait for them. I want to see Mrs. Sarratt before I start. You may get me a cup of tea, if you like.’
Mrs. Simpson disappeared with alacrity, and Farrell crossed the hall to the drawing-room. He turned on the light as he opened the door, and was at once aware of Nelly’s slight form on the sofa. She did not move, and something in her attitude–some rigidity that he fancied–alarmed him. He took a few steps, and then saw that there was no cause for alarm. She was only asleep, poor child, profoundly, pathetically asleep. Her utter unconsciousness, the delicate hand and arm lying over the edge of the sofa, and the gleam of her white forehead under its muffling cloud of hair, moved him strangely. He retreated as quietly as he could, and almost ran into Mrs. Simpson bringing a tray. He beckoned her into a small room which he used as his own den. But he had hardly explained the situation, before there were sounds in the drawing-room, and Nelly opened the door, which he had closed behind him. He had forgotten to turn out the light, and its glare had awakened her.
‘Oh, Sir William–‘ she said, in bewilderment–‘Did you come in just now?’
He explained his proceedings, retaining the hand she gave him, and looking down upon her with an impulsive and affectionate pity.
‘You were asleep. I disturbed you,’ he said, remorsefully.
‘Oh no, do come in.’
She led the way into the drawing-room.
‘I wanted–specially–to tell you some things I heard at Aldershot to-day, which I thought might cheer you,’ said Farrell.
And sitting beside her, while Mrs. Simpson lit a fire and spread a white tea-table, he repeated various stories of the safe return of ‘missing’ men which he had collected for her that morning, including the narrative of an escaped prisoner, who, although badly wounded, had managed to find his way back, at night, from the neighbourhood of Brussels, through various hairbreadth adventures and disguises, and after many weeks to the British lines. He brought the tale to her, as an omen of hope, together with his other gleanings; and under the influence of his cheerful voice and manner, Nelly’s aspect changed; the light came back into her eyes, which hung upon him, as Farrell talked on, persuading himself, as he persuaded her. So that presently, when tea came in, and the kettle boiled, she was quite ready to pour out for him, to ask him questions about his night journey, and thank him timidly for all his kindness.
‘But this–this is too grand for us!’–she said, looking round her. ‘We must find a lodging soon.’
He begged her earnestly to let the flat be of use to her, and she, embarrassed and unwilling, but dreading to hurt his feelings, was compelled at last to submit to a week’s stay.
Then he got up to go; and she was very sorry to say good-bye to him. As for him, in her wistful and gracious charm, she had never seemed to him more lovely. How she became grief!–in her measure reserve!
He ran down the stairs of the mansion just as Bridget Cookson arrived with the lift at the third floor. She recognised the disappearing figure, and stood a moment at the door of the flat, looking after it, a gleam of satisfaction in her eyes.
‘Is she out?’
The questioner was William Farrell, and the question was addressed to his cousin Hester, whom he had found sitting in the little upstairs drawing-room of the Rydal lodgings, partly knitting, but mostly thinking, to judge from her slowly moving needles, and her absent eyes fixed upon the garden outside the open window.
‘She has gone down to the lake–it is good for her to be alone a bit.’
‘You brought her up from Torquay?’
‘I did. We slept in London, and arrived yesterday. Miss Cookson comes this evening.’
‘Why doesn’t she keep away?’ said Farrell, impatiently.
He took a seat opposite his cousin. He was in riding-dress, and looked in splendid case. From his boyhood he had always been coupled in Hester’s mind with the Biblical words–‘ruddy and of a cheerful countenance’; and as he sat there flushed with air and exercise, they fitted him even better than usual. Yet there was modern subtlety too in his restless eyes, and mouth alternately sensitive and ironic.
Hester’s needles began to ply a little faster. A spring wind came through the window, and stirred her grey hair.
‘How did she get over it yesterday?’ Farrell presently asked.
‘Well, of course it was hard,’ said Hester, quietly. ‘I let her alone, poor child, and I told Mrs. Weston not to bother her. She came up to these rooms and shut herself up a little. I went over to my own cottage, and came back for supper. Then she had got it over–and I just kissed her and said nothing. It was much best.’
‘Do you think she gives up hope?’
Hester shook her head.
‘Not the least. You can see that.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘When she gives up hope, she will put on a black dress.’
Farrell gave an impatient sigh.
‘You know there can’t be the smallest doubt that Sarratt is dead! He died in some German hospital, and the news has never come through.’
‘The Red Cross people at Geneva declare that if he had died in hospital they would know. The identification disks are returned to them–so they say–with remarkable care.’
‘Well then, he died on the field, and the Germans buried him.’
‘In which case the poor soul will know nothing–ever,’ said Hester sadly. ‘But, of course, she believes he is a prisoner.’
‘My dear Hester, if he were, we should certainly have heard! Enquiries are now much more thorough, and the results much more accurate, than they were a year ago.’
‘Loss of memory?–shell-shock?’ said Hester vaguely.
‘They don’t do away with your disk, and your regimental marks, etc. Whatever may happen to a private, an officer doesn’t slip through and vanish like this, if he is still alive. The thing is perfectly clear.’
Hester shook her head without speaking. She was just as thoroughly convinced as Farrell that Nelly was a widow; but she did not see how anybody could proclaim it before Nelly did.
‘I wonder how long it will take to convince her,’ said Farrell, after a pause.
‘Well, I suppose when peace comes, if there’s no news then, she will have to give it up. By the way, when may one–legally–presume that one’s husband is dead?’ asked Hester, suddenly lifting her shrewd grey eyes to the face of her visitor.
‘It used to be seven years. But I believe now you can go to the Courts–‘
‘If a woman wants to re-marry? Well that, of course, Nelly Sarratt will never do!’
‘My dear Hester, what nonsense!’ said Farrell, vehemently. ‘Of course she’ll marry again. What is she?–twenty-one? It would be a sin and a shame.’
‘I only meant she would never take any steps of her own will to separate herself from Sarratt.’
‘Women look at things far too sentimentally!’ exclaimed Farrell, ‘and they just spoil their lives. However, neither you nor I can prophesy anything. Time works wonders; and if he didn’t, we should all be wrecks and lunatics!’
Hester said nothing. She was conscious of suppressed excitement in the man before her. Farrell watched her knitting fingers for a little, and then remarked:–
‘But of course at present what has to be done, is to improve her health, and distract her thoughts.’
Hester’s eyes lifted again.
‘And _you_ want to take it in hand?’
Her emphasis on the pronoun was rather sharp. Farrell’s fair though sunburnt skin shewed a sudden redness.
‘Yes, I do. Why shouldn’t I?’ His look met hers full.
‘She’s very lonely–very unprotected,’ said Hester, slowly.
‘You mean, you can’t trust me?’ he said, flushing deeper.
‘No, Willy–no!’ Hester’s earnest, perplexed look appeased his rising anger. ‘But it’s a very difficult position, you must see for yourself. Ever since George Sarratt disappeared, you’ve been–what shall I say?–the poor child’s earthly Providence. Her illness–her convalescence–you’ve done everything–you’ve provided everything–‘
‘With her sister’s consent, remember!–and I promised Sarratt to look after them!’
Farrell’s blue eyes were now bright and stubborn. Hester realised him as ready for an argument which both he and she had long foreseen. She and Farrell had always been rather intimate friends, and he had come to her for advice in some very critical moments of his life.
‘Her sister!’ repeated Hester, contemptuously. ‘Yes, indeed, Bridget Cookson–in my opinion–is a great deal too ready to accept everything you do! But Nelly has fought it again and again. Only, in her weakness, with you on one side–and Bridget on the other–what could she do?’
She had taken the plunge now. Her own colour had risen–her hand shook a little on her needles. And she had clearly roused some strong emotion in Farrell. After a few moments’ silence, he fell upon her, speaking rather huskily.
‘You mean I have taken advantage of her?’
‘I don’t mean anything of the kind!’ Hester’s tone shewed her distress. ‘I know that all you have done has been out of pure friendship and goodness–
He stopped her.
‘Don’t go on!’ he said roughly. ‘Whatever I am, I’m not a hypocrite. I worship the ground she treads on!’
There was silence. Hester bent again over her work. The thoughts of both flew back over the preceding six months. Nelly’s utter collapse after five or six weeks in London, when the closest enquiries, backed by Farrell’s intelligence, influence and money–he had himself sent out a special agent to Geneva–had failed to reveal the slightest trace of George Sarratt; her illness, pneumonia, the result of a slight chill affecting a general physical state depressed by grief and sleeplessness; her long and tedious convalescence; and that pitiful dumbness and inertia from which she had only just begun to emerge. Hester was thinking too of the nurses, the doctors, the lodgings at Torquay, the motor, the endless flowers and books!–all provided, practically, by Farrell, aided and abetted by Bridget’s readiness–a discreditable readiness, in the eyes of a person of such Spartan standards as Hester Martin–to avail herself to any extent of other people’s money. The patient was not to blame. Even in the worst times of her illness, Nelly had shewn signs of distress and revolt. But Bridget, instructed by Farrell, had talked vaguely of ‘a loan from a friend’; and Nelly had been too ill, too physically weak, to urge enquiry further.
Seeing that he was to blame, Farrell broke in upon Hester’s recollections.
‘You know very well’–he said vehemently–‘that if anything less had been done for her, she would have died!’
Would she? It was the lavishness and costliness of Farrell’s giving which had shocked Hester’s sense of delicacy, and had given rise–she was certain–to gossip among the Farrell friends and kindred that could easily have been avoided. She looked at her companion steadily.
‘Suppose we grant it, Willy. But now she’s convalescent, she’s going to get strong. Let her live her own life. You can’t marry her–and’–she added it deliberately–‘she is as much in love with her poor George as she ever was!’
Farrell moved restlessly in his chair. She saw him wince–and she had intended the blow.
‘I can’t marry her–yet–perhaps for years. But why can’t I be her friend? Why can’t I share with her the things that give me pleasure–books–art–and all the rest? Why should you condemn me to see her living on a pittance, with nobody but a sister who is as hard as nails to look after her?–lonely, and unhappy, and dull–when I know that I could help her, turn her mind away from her trouble–make her take some pleasure in life again? You talk, Hester, as though we had a dozen lives to play with, instead of this one rickety business!’
His resentment grew with the expression of it. But Hester met him unflinchingly.
‘I’m anxious–because human nature is human nature–and risk is risk,’ she said slowly.
He bent forward, his hands on his knees.
‘I swear to you I will be honestly her friend! What do you take me for, Hester? You know very well that–I have had my adventures, and they’re over. I’m not a boy. I can answer for myself.’
‘All very well!–but suppose–_suppose_–before she felt herself free–and against her conscience–_she_ were to fall in love with _you_?’
Farrell could not conceal the flash that the mere words, reluctantly as they were spoken, sent through his blue eyes. He laughed.
‘Well–you’re there! Act watch-dog as much as you please. Besides–we all know–you have just said so–that she does not believe in Sarratt’s death, that she feels herself still his wife, and not his widow. That fact establishes the relation between her and me. And if the outlook changes–‘
His voice dropped to a note of pleading–
‘Let me, Hester!–let me!’
‘As if I could prevent you!’ said Hester, rather bitterly, bending again over her work.
‘Yes, you could. You have such influence with her now, that you could banish me entirely if you pleased. A word from you would do it. But it would be hideously cruel of you–and abominally unjust! However, I know your power–over her–and so over me. And so I made up my mind it was no good trying to conceal anything from you. I’ve told you straight out. I love her–and because I love her–you may be perfectly certain I shall protect her!’
Silence again. Farrell had turned towards the open window. When Hester turned her eyes she saw his handsome profile, his Nibelung’s head and beard against the stony side of the fell. A man with unfair advantages, it seemed to her, if he chose to put out his strength;–the looks of a king, a warm heart, a sympathetic charm, felt quite as much by men as by women, and ability which would have distinguished him in any career, if his wealth had not put the drag on industry. But at the moment he was not idle. He was more creditably and fully employed then she had ever known him. His hospital and his pride in it were in fact Nelly Sarratt’s best safeguard. Whatever he wished, he could not possibly spend all his time at her feet.
Hester tried one more argument–the conventional.
‘Have you ever really asked yourself, Willy, how it will look to the outside world–what people will think? It is all very well to scoff at Mrs. Grundy, but the poor child has no natural guardian. We both agree her sister is no use to her.’
‘Let them think!’–he turned to her again with energy–‘so long as you and I _know_. Besides–I shan’t compromise her in any way. I shall be most careful not to do so.’
‘Look at this room!’ said Hester drily. She herself surveyed it. Farrell’s laugh had a touch of embarrassment.
‘Well?–mayn’t anyone give things to a sick child? Hush!–here she is!’
He drew further back into the room, and they both watched a little figure in a serge dress crossing the footbridge beyond the garden. Then she came into the garden, and up the sloping lawn, her hat dangling in her hand, and the spring sunshine upon her. Hester thought of the preceding June; of the little bride, with her springing step, and radiant eyes. Nelly, as she was now, seemed to her the typical figure–or rather, one of the two typical figures of the war–the man in action, the woman in bereavement. Sorrow had marked her; bitten into her youth, and blurred it. Yet it had also dignified and refined her. She was no less lovely.
As she approached, she saw them and waved to them. Farrell went to the sitting-room door to meet her, and it seemed both to him and Hester that in spite of her emaciation and her pallor, she brought the spring in with her. She had a bunch of willow catkins and primroses in her hand, and her face, for all its hollow cheeks and temples, shewed just a sparkle of returning health.
It was clear that she was pleased to see Farrell. But her manner of greeting him now was very different from what it had been in the days before her loss. It was much quieter and more assured. His seniority–there were nineteen years between them–his conspicuous place in the world, his knowledge and accomplishment, had evidently ceased to intimidate her. Something had equalised them.
But his kindness could still make her shy.
Half-way across the room, she caught sight of a picture, on an easel, both of which Farrell had brought with him.
‘Oh!—‘ she said, and stopped short, looking from it to him.
He enjoyed her surprise.
‘Well? Do you remember admiring it at the cottage? I’m up to the neck in work. I never go there. I thought you and Hester might as well take care of it for a bit.’
Nelly approached it. It was one of the Turner water-colours which glorified the cottage; the most adorable, she thought, of all of them. It shewed a sea of downs, their grassy backs flowing away wave after wave, down to the real sea in the gleaming distance. Between the downs ran a long valley floor–cottages on it, woods and houses, farms and churches, strung on a silver river; under the mingled cloud and sunshine of an April day. It breathed the very soul of England,–of this sacred long-descended land of ours. Sarratt, who had stood beside her when she had first looked at it, had understood it so at once.
‘Jolly well worth fighting for–this country! isn’t it?’ he had said to Farrell over her head, and once or twice afterwards he had spoken to her of the drawing with delight. ‘I shall think of it–over there. It’ll do one good.’
As she paused before it now, a sob rose in her throat. But she controlled herself quickly. Then something beyond the easel caught her eye–a mass of flowers, freesias, narcissus, tulips, tumbled on a table; then a pile of new books; and finally, a surprising piece of furniture.
‘What have you been doing now?’ she asked him, wondering, and, as Hester thought, shrinking back a little.
‘It’s from Cicely’–he said apologetically. ‘She made me bring it. She declared she’d sampled the sofa here,–‘ he pointed to an ancient one in a corner–‘and it would disgrace a dug-out. It’s her affair–don’t blame me!’
Nelly looked bewildered.
‘But I’m not ill now. I’m getting well.’
‘If you only knew what a ghost you look still,’ he said vehemently, ‘you’d let Cicely have her little plot. This used to stand in my mother’s sitting-room. It was bought for her. Cicely had it put to rights.’
As he spoke, he made a hasty mental note that Cicely would have to be coached in her part.
Nelly examined the object. It was a luxurious adjustable couch, covered in flowery chintz, with a reading-desk, and well supplied with the softest cushions.
She laughed, but there was rather a flutter in her laugh.
‘It’s awfully kind of Cicely. But you know–‘
Her eyes turned on Farrell with a sudden insistence. Hester had just left the room, and her distant voice–with other voices–could be heard in the garden.
‘–You know you mustn’t–all of you–spoil me so, any more. I’ve got my life to face. You mean it so kindly–but–‘
She sank into a chair by the window that Farrell had placed for her, and her aspect struck him painfully. There was so much weakness in it; and yet a touch of fierceness.
‘I’ve got my life to face,’ she repeated–‘and you mustn’t, Sir William–you _mustn’t_ let me get too dependent on you–and Cicely–and Hester. Be my friend–my true friend–and help me–‘
She bent forward, and her pale lips just breathed the rest–
‘Help me–_to endure hardness_! That’s what I want–for George’s sake–and my own. I must find some work to do. In a few months perhaps I might be able to teach–but there are plenty of things I could do now. I want to be just–neglected a little–treated as a normal person!’
She smiled faintly at him as he stood beside her. He felt himself rebuked–abashed–as though he had been in some sort an intruder on her spiritual freedom; had tried to purchase her dependence by a kindness she did not want. That was not in her mind, he knew. But it was in Hester’s. And there was not wanting a certain guilty consciousness in his own.
But he threw it off. Absurdity! She _did_ need his friendship; and he had done what he had done without the shadow of a corrupt motive–_en tout bien, tout honneur_.
It was intolerable to him to think of her as poor and resourceless–left to that disagreeable sister and her own melancholy thoughts. Still the first need of all was that she should trust him–as a good friend, who had slipped by force of circumstances into a kind of guardian’s position. Accordingly he applied himself to the kind of persuasion that befits seniority and experience. She had asked to be treated as a normal person. He proved to her, gently laughing at her, that the claim was preposterous. Ask her doctor!–ask Hester! As for teaching, time enough to talk about that when she had a little flesh on her bones, a little strength in her limbs. She might read, of course; that was what the couch was for. Lying there by the window she might become as learned as she liked, and get strong at the same time. He would keep her stocked with books. The library at Carton was going mouldy for lack of use. And as for her drawing, he had hoped–perhaps–she might some time take a lesson–
Then he saw a little shiver run through her.
‘Could I?’ she said in a low voice, turning her face away. And he perceived that the bare idea of resuming old pleasures–the pleasures of her happy, her unwidowed time–was still a shock to her.
‘I’m sure it would help’–he said, persevering. ‘You have a real turn for water-colour. You should cultivate it–you should really. In my belief you might do a great deal better with it than with teaching.’
That roused her. She sat up, her eyes brightening.
‘If I _worked_–you really think? And then,’ her voice dropped–‘if George came back–‘
‘Exactly,’ he said gravely–‘it might be of great use. Didn’t you wish for something normal to do? Well, here’s the chance. I can supply you with endless subjects to copy. There are more in the cottage than you would get through in six months. And I could send you over portfolios of my own studies and _academies_, done at Paris, and in the Slade, which would help you–and sometimes we could take some work out of doors.’
She said nothing, but her sad puzzled eyes, as they wandered over the garden and the lake, shewed that she was considering it.
Then suddenly her expression changed.
‘Isn’t that Cicely’s voice?’ She motioned towards the garden.
‘I daresay. I sent on the motor to meet her at Windermere. She’s been in town for two or three weeks, selling at Red Cross Bazaars and things. And by George!–isn’t that Marsworth?’
He sprang up to look, and verified his guess. The tall figure on the lawn with Cicely and Hester was certainly Marsworth. He and Nelly looked at each other, and Nelly smiled.
‘You know Cicely and I have become great friends?’ she said shyly. ‘It’s so odd that I should call her Cicely–but she makes me.’
‘She treats you nicely?–at last?’
‘She’s awfully good to me,’ said Nelly, with emphasis. ‘I used to be so afraid of her.’
‘What wrought the miracle?’
But Nelly shook her head, and would not tell.
‘I had a letter from Marsworth a week ago,’ said Farrell reflecting–‘asking how and where we all were. I told him I was tied and bound to Carton–no chance of getting away for ages–but that Cicely had kicked over the traces and gone up to London for a month. Then he sent a post-card to say that he was coming up for a fortnight’s treatment, and would go to his old quarters at the Rectory. Ah!–‘
He paused, grinning. The same thought occurred to both of them. Marsworth was still suffering very much at times from his neuralgia in the arm, and had a great belief in one of the Carton surgeons, who, with Farrell’s aid, had now installed one of the most complete electrical and gymnastic apparatus in the kingdom, at the Carton hospital. Once, during an earlier absence of Cicely’s before Christmas, he had suddenly appeared at the Rectory, for ten days’ treatment; and now–again! Farrell laughed.
‘As for Cicely, you can never count on her for a week together. She got home-sick, and wired to me that she was coming to-night. I forgot all about Marsworth. I expect they met at the station; and quarrelled all the way here. What on earth is Cicely after in that direction! You say you’ve made friends with her. Do you know?’
Nelly looked conscious.
‘I–I guess something,’ she said.
‘But you mustn’t tell?’
She nodded, smiling. Farrell shrugged his shoulders.
‘Well, am I to encourage Marsworth–supposing he comes to me for advice–to go and propose to the Rector’s granddaughter?’
‘Certainly not!’ said Nelly, opening a pair of astonished eyes.
‘Aha, I’ve caught you! You’ve given the show away. But you know’–his tone grew serious–‘it’s not at all impossible that he may. She torments him too much.’
‘He must do nothing of the kind,’ said Nelly, with decision.
‘Well, you tell him so. I wash my hands of them. I can’t fathom either of them. Here they are!’
Voices ascending the stairs announced the party. Cicely came in first; tired and travel-stained, and apparently in the worst of tempers. But she seemed glad to see Nelly Sarratt, whom she kissed, to the astonishment of her Cousin Hester, who was not as yet aware of the new relations between the two. And then, flinging herself into a chair beside Nelly, she declared that she was dead-beat, that the train had been intolerably full of khaki, and that soldiers ought to have trains to themselves.
‘Thank your stars, Cicely, that you are allowed to travel at all,’ said Farrell. ‘No civilian nowadays matters a hap’orth.’
‘And then we talk about Prussian Militarism!’ cried Cicely. And she went off at score describing the invasion of her compartment at Rugby by a crowd of young officers, whose manners were ‘atrocious.’
‘What was their crime?’ asked Marsworth, quietly. He sat in the background, cigarette in hand, a strong figure, rather harshly drawn, black hair slightly grizzled, a black moustache, civilian clothes. He had filled out since the preceding summer and looked much better in health. But his left arm was still generally in its sling.
‘They had every crime!’ said Cicely impatiently. ‘It isn’t worth discriminating.’
Marsworth raised his eyebrows.
‘You think, of course, I have no right to criticise anything in khaki!’
‘Not at all. Criticism is the salt of life.’ His eyes twinkled.
‘That I entirely deny!’ said Cicely, firmly. She made a fantastic but agreeable figure as she sat near the window in the full golden light of the March evening. Above her black toque there soared a feather which almost touched the ceiling of the low room–a _panache_, nodding defiance; while her short grey skirts shewed her shapely ankles and feet, clothed in grey gaiters and high boots of the very latest perfection.
‘What do you deny, Cicely?’ asked her brother, absently, conscious always, through all the swaying of talk, of the slight childish form of Nelly Sarratt beneath him, in her deep chair; and of the eyes and mouth, which after the few passing smiles he had struck from them, were veiled again in their habitual sadness. ‘_Here I and sorrow sit_.’ The words ran through his mind, only to be passionately rejected. She was young!–and life was long. Forget she would, and must.
At her brother’s question, Cicely merely shrugged her shoulders.
‘Your sister was critical,’ said Marsworth, laughing,–‘and then denies the uses of criticism.’
‘As some people employ it!’ said Cicely, pointedly.
Marsworth’s mouth twitched–but he said nothing.
Then Hester, perceiving that the atmosphere was stormy, started some of the usual subjects that relieve tension; the weather–the possibility of a rush of Easter tourists to the Lakes–the daffodils that were beginning to make beauty in some sheltered places. Marsworth assisted her; while Cicely took a chair beside Nelly, and talked exclusively to her, in a low voice. Presently Hester saw their hands slip together–Cicely’s long and vigorous fingers enfolding Nelly’s thin ones. How had two such opposites ever come to make friends? The kindly old maid was very conscious of cross currents in the spiritual air, as she chatted to Marsworth. She was keenly aware of Farrell, and could not keep the remembrance of what he had said to her out of her mind. Nelly’s face and form, also, as the twilight veiled them, were charged for Hester with pitiful meaning. While at the back of her thoughts there was an expectation, a constant and agitating expectation, of another arrival. Bridget Cookson might be upon them at any moment. To Hester Martin she was rapidly becoming a disquieting and sinister element in this group of people. Yet why, Hester could not really have explained.
The afternoon was rapidly drawing in, and Farrell was just beginning to take out his watch, and talk of starting home, when the usual clatter of wheels and hoofs announced the arrival of the evening coach. Nelly sat up, looking very white and weary.
‘I am expecting my sister,’ she said to Farrell. ‘She has no doubt come by this coach.’
And in a few more minutes, Bridget was in the room, distributing to everybody there the careless staccato greetings which were her way of protecting herself against the world. Her entrance and her manner had always a disintegrating effect upon other human beings; and Bridget had no sooner shaken hands with the Farrells than everybody–save Nelly–was upon their feet and ready to move. One of Bridget’s most curious and marked characteristics was an unerring instinct for whatever news might be disagreeable to the company in which she found herself; and on this occasion she brought some bad war news–a German advance at Verdun, with corresponding French losses–and delivered it with the emphasis of one to whom it was not really unwelcome. Cicely, to whom, flourishing her evening paper, she had mainly addressed herself, listened with the haughty and casual air she generally put on for Bridget Cookson. She had succumbed for her own reasons to the charm of Nelly. She was only the more inclined to be rude to Bridget. Accordingly she professed complete incredulity on the subject of the news. ‘Invented,’–she supposed–‘to sell some halfpenny rag or other. It would all be contradicted to-morrow.’ Then when Bridget, smarting under so much scepticism, attempted to support her tale by the testimony of various stale morsels of military gossip, current in a certain pessimist and pacifist household she had been visiting in Manchester, as to the unfavourable situation in France, and the dead certainty of the loss of Verdun; passing glibly on to the ‘bad staff work’ on the British side, and the ‘poor quality of the new officers compared to the old,’ etc.–Cicely visibly turned up her nose, and with a few deft, cat-like strokes put a raw provincial in her place. She, Cicely, of course–she made it plain, by a casual hint or two–had just come from the very centre of things; from living on a social diet of nothing less choice than Cabinet Ministers and leading Generals–Bonar Law, Asquith, Curzon, Briand, Lloyd George, Thomas, the great Joffre himself. Bridget began to scowl a little, and had it been anyone else than Cicely Farrell who was thus chastising her, would soon have turned her back upon them. For she was no indiscriminate respecter of persons, and cared nothing at all about rank or social prestige. But from a Farrell she took all things patiently; till Cicely, suddenly discovering that her victim was giving her no sport, called peremptorily to ‘Willy’ to help her put on her cloak. But Farrell was having some last words with Nelly, and Marsworth came forward–
‘Oh thank you!’ said Cicely carelessly, ‘I can manage it myself.’ And she did not allow him to touch it.
Marsworth retreated, and Hester, who had seen the little incident, whispered indignantly in her cousin’s ear–
‘Cicely!–you are a wicked little wretch!’
But Cicely only laughed, and her feather made defiant nods and flourishes all the way downstairs.
‘Come along Marsworth, my boy,’ said Farrell when the good-byes were said, and Hester stood watching their departure, while Cicely chattered from the motor, where she sat wrapped in furs against a rising east wind. ‘Outside–or inside?’ He pointed to the car.
‘Outside, thank you,’ said Marsworth, with decision. He promptly took his place beside the chauffeur, and Farrell and his sister were left to each other’s company. Farrell had seldom known his companion more cross and provoking than she was during the long motor ride home; and on their arrival at Carton she jumped out of the car, and with barely a nod to Marsworth, vanished into the house.
* * * * *
Meanwhile Nelly had let Hester install her on the Carton couch, and lay there well shawled, beside the window, her delicate face turned to the lake and the mountains. Bridget was unpacking, and Hester was just departing to her own house. Nelly could hardly let her go. For a month now, Hester had been with her at Torquay, while Bridget was pursuing some fresh ‘work’ in London. And Nelly’s desolate heart had found both calm and bracing in Hester’s tenderness. For the plain shapeless spinster was one of those rare beings who in the Lampadephoria of life, hand on the Lamp of Love, pure and undefiled, as they received it from men and women, like themselves, now dead.
But Hester went at last, and Nelly was alone. The lake lay steeped in a rich twilight, into which the stars were rising. The purple breast of Silver How across the water breathed of shelter, of rest, of things ineffable. Nelly’s eyes were full of tears, and her hands clasped on her breast scarcely kept down the sobbing. There, under the hands, was the letter which George had written to her, the night before he left her. She had been told of its existence within a few days of his disappearance; and though she longed for it, a stubborn instinct had bade her refuse to have it, refuse to open it. ‘No!–I was only to open it, if George was dead. And he is not dead!’ And as time went on, it had seemed to her for months, as if to open it, would be in some mysterious way to seal his fate. But at last she had sent for it–at last she had read it–with bitter tears.
She would wear no black for him–her lost lover. She told herself to hope still. But she was, in truth, beginning to despair. And into her veins, all unconsciously, as into those of the old brown earth, the tides of youth, the will to live, were slowly, slowly, surging back.
‘You have gone far enough,’ said Cicely imperiously. ‘I am going to take you home.’
‘Let me sit a little first. It’s all so lovely. Nelly dropped into the soft springy turf, dried by a mild east wind, and lay curled up under a rock, every tremulous nerve in her still frail body played on by the concert of earth and sky before her. It was May; the sky was china-blue, and the clouds sailed white upon it. The hawthorns too were white upon the fell-side, beside the ageing gold of the gorse, while below, the lake lay like roughened silver in its mountain cup, and on the sides of Nab Scar, below the screes, the bronze of the oaks ran in and out among the feathery green of the larch plantations, or the flowering grass of the hay-meadows dropping to the lake. The most spiritual moment of the mountain spring was over. This was earth in her moment of ferment, rushing towards the fruition of summer.
Nelly’s youth was keenly, automatically conscious of the physical pleasure of the day; except indeed for recurrent moments, when that very pleasure revived the sharpness of grief. Soon it would be the anniversary of her wedding day. Every hour of that day, and of the honeymoon bliss which followed it, seemed to be still so close to her. Surely she had only to put out her hand to find his, and all the horror and the anguish swept away. Directly she shut her eyes on this spring scene, she was in that other life, which had been, and therefore must still be.
But she had not been talking of him with Cicely. She very seldom talked of him now, or of the past. She kept up correspondence with half a dozen men of his company–the brother officer to whom Sarratt had given his last letter–a sergeant, and three or four privates, who had written to her about him. She had made friends with them all, especially with the young lieutenant. They seemed to like hearing from her; and she followed all their migrations and promotions with a constant sympathy. One of them had just written to her from a hospital at Boulogne. He had been seriously wounded in a small affair near Festubert early in May. He was getting better he said, but he hardly cared whether he recovered or not. Everybody he cared for in the regiment had ‘gone west’ in the fighting of the preceding month. No big push either,–just many little affairs that came to nothing–it was ‘damned luck!’ There was one of his officers that he couldn’t get over–he couldn’t get over ‘Mr. Edward’ being killed. He–the writer–had been Mr. Edward’s servant for a month or two–having known his people at home–and a nicer young fellow never stepped. ‘When I go back, I’m going to look for Mr. Edward–they say he was buried close to the trenches where he fell, and I’m going to put him in some quiet place; and then when the war’s over we can bring him back to Baston Magna, and lay him with his own people in Baston churchyard.’
‘I wonder who Mr. Edward was,’ said Nelly to herself, with half shut eyes. She had entirely forgotten Cicely’s neighbourhood. But Cicely turned round, and asked her what she was thinking of. Nelly repeated the letter, and Cicely suddenly shewed agitation–‘Edward!–Baston Magna!–he means Edward Longmore!’
Cicely rarely cried. When she was moved, she had a way of turning a grey-white, and speaking with particular deliberation, as though every word were an effort. Of late, for some mysterious reason, she only indulged occasionally in ‘make-up’; there was no rouge, at any rate, on this afternoon, to disguise her change of colour. She looked oddly at Nelly.
‘I danced with him at Christmas,’ she said. ‘There was a very smart party at a house in Grosvenor Square. The Prince was there, home on short leave, and about twenty young men in khaki, and twenty girls. Edward Longmore was there–he wrote to me afterwards. Oh, he was much younger than I. He was the dearest, handsomest, bravest little fellow. When I saw his name in the list–I just’–she ground her small white teeth–‘I just _cursed_ the war! Do you know’–she rolled over on the grass beside Nelly, her chin in her hands–‘the July before the war, I used to play tennis in a garden near London. There were always five or six boys hanging about there–jolly handsome boys, with everything that anybody could want–family, and money, and lots of friends–all the world before them. And there’s not one of them left. They’re all _dead_–_dead_! Think of that! Boys of twenty and twenty-one. What’ll the girls do they used to play and dance with? All their playfellows are gone. They can’t marry–they’ll never marry. It hadn’t anything to do with me, of course. I’m twenty-eight. I felt like a mother to them! But I shan’t marry either!’
Nelly didn’t answer for a moment. Then she put out a hand and turned Cicely’s face towards her.
‘Where is he?–and what is he doing?’ she said, half laughing, but always with that something behind her smile which seemed to set her apart.
Cicely sat up.
‘He? Oh, that gentleman! Well, _he_ has got some fresh work–just the work he wanted, he says, in the Intelligence Department, and he writes to Willy that life is “extraordinarily interesting,” and he’s “glad to have lived to see this thing, horrible as it is.”‘
‘Well, you wouldn’t wish him to be miserable?’
‘I should have no objection at all to his being miserable,’ said Cicely calmly, ‘but I am not such a fool as to suppose that I should ever know it, if he were.’
Cicely took up a stalk of grass, and began to bite it. Her eyes seemed on fire. Nelly was suddenly aware of the flaming up of fierce elemental things in this fashionably dressed young woman whose time was oddly divided between an important share in the running of her brother’s hospital, and a hungry search after such gaieties as a world at war might still provide her with. She could spend one night absorbed in some critical case, and eagerly rendering the humblest V.A.D. service to the trained nurses whom her brother paid; and the next morning she would travel to London in order to spend the second night in one of those small dances at great houses of which she had spoken to Nelly, where the presence of men just come from, or just departing to, the firing line lent a zest to the talk and the flirting, the jealousies and triumphs of the evening that the dances of peace must do without. Then after a morning of wild spending in the shops she would take a midday train back to Cumberland and duty.
Nelly, looking at her, wondered afresh how they had ever come to be friends. Yet they were friends, and her interest in Cicely’s affairs was one of the slender threads drawing her back to life.
It had all happened when she was ill at the flat; after that letter from the Geneva Red Cross which reported that in spite of exhaustive enquiries among German hospitals, and in the prisoners’ camps no trace of Lieutenant Sarratt could be found. On the top of the letter, and the intolerable despair into which it had plunged her, had come influenza. There was no doubt–Nelly’s recollection faced it candidly–that she would have come off badly but for Cicely. Bridget had treated the illness on the hardening plan, being at the moment slightly touched with Christian Science. Nelly should ‘think it away.’ To stay in bed and give in was folly. She meanwhile had found plenty to do in London, and was away for long hours. In one of these absences, Cicely–having been seized with a sudden hunger for the flesh-pots of ‘town’–appeared at the flat with her maid. She discovered Nelly Sarratt in bed, and so weak as to be hardly capable of answering any question. Mrs. Simpson was doing her best; but she gave an indignant account of Bridget’s behaviour, and Cicely at once took a strong line, both as a professional nurse–of sorts–and as mistress of the flat. Bridget, grimly defensive, was peremptorily put on one side, and Cicely devoted the night she was to have spent in dancing to tending her half-conscious guest. In the days that followed she fell, quite against her will, under the touching charm of Nelly’s refinement, humility and sweetness. Her own trenchant and masterful temper was utterly melted, for the time, by Nelly’s helpless state, by the grief which threatened to kill her, and by a gratefulness for any kindness shewn her, which seemed to Cicely almost absurd.
She fell in love–impetuously–with the little creature thus thrown upon her pity. She sent for a trained nurse and their own doctor. She wired for Hester Martin, and in forty-eight hours Bridget had been entirely ousted, and Nelly’s state had begun to shew signs of improvement. Bridget took the matter stoically. ‘I know nothing about nursing,’ she said, with composure. ‘If you wish to look after my sister, by all means look after her. Many thanks. I propose to go and stay near the British Museum, and will look in here when I can.’
So she departed, and Cicely stayed in London for three weeks until Nelly was strong enough to go to Torquay. Then, reluctantly, she gave up her charge to Bridget, she being urgently wanted at Carton, and Hester at Rydal. Bridget reappeared on the scene with the same sangfroid as she had left it. She had no intention of quarrelling with the Farrells whatever they might do; and in an eminently satisfactory interview with Sir William–quite unknown to Nelly–she allowed him to give her a cheque which covered all their expenses at Torquay.
Meanwhile Nelly had discovered Cicely’s secret–which indeed was not very secret. Captain Marsworth had appeared in London for the purpose of attending his Medical Board, and called at the flat. Nelly was by that time on the sofa, with Cicely keeping guard, and Nelly could sometimes deaden her own consciousness for a little in watching the two. What were they after? Marsworth’s ethical enthusiasms and resentments, the prophetic temper that was growing upon him in relation to the war, his impatience of idleness and frivolity and ‘slackness,’ of all modes of life that were not pitched in a key worthy of that continuous sacrifice of England’s youngest and noblest that was going on perpetually across the Channel:–these traits in him made it very easy to understand why, after years of philandering with Cicely Farrell, he was now, apparently, alienated from her, and provoked by her. But then, why did he still pursue her?–why did he still lay claim to the privileges of their old intimacy, and why did Cicely allow him to do so?
At last one evening, after a visit from Marsworth which had been one jar from beginning to end, Cicely had suddenly dropped on a stool, beside Nelly on the sofa.
‘What an intolerable man!’ she said with crimson cheeks. ‘Shall I tell Simpson not to let him in again?’
Nelly looked her surprise, for as yet there had been no confidence on this subject between them. And then had come a torrent–Cicely walking stormily up and down the room, and pouring out her soul.
The result of which outpouring was that through all the anger and denunciation, Nelly very plainly perceived that Cicely was a captured creature, endeavouring to persuade herself that she was still free. She loved Marsworth–and hated him. She could not make up her mind to give up for his sake the ‘lust of the eye and the pride of life,’ as he clearly would endeavour to make her give them up, the wild bursts of gaiety and flirting for which she periodically rushed up to town, the passion for dress, the reckless extravagance with which it pleased her to shock him whenever they met. And he also–so it seemed to Nelly–was torn by contradictory feelings. As soon as Cicely was within reach, he could not keep away from her; and yet when confronted with her, and some new vagary, invented probably to annoy him, though he might refrain ‘even from good words,’ his critical mouth and eye betrayed him, and set the offender in a fury.
However, it was the quarrels between these two strange lovers, if they were lovers, that had made a friendship, warm and real–on Cicely’s side even impassioned–between Nelly and Cicely. For Cicely had at last found someone–not of her own world–to whom she could talk in safety. Yet she had treated the Sarratts cavalierly to begin with, just because they were outsiders, and because ‘Willy’ was making such a fuss with them; for she was almost as easily jealous in her brother’s case as in Marsworth’s. But now Nelly’s sad remoteness from ordinary life, her very social insignificance, and the lack of any links between her and the great Farrell kinship of relations and friends, made her company, and her soft, listening ways specially welcome and soothing to Cicely’s excited mood.
During the latter half of the winter they had corresponded, though Cicely was the worst of letter-writers; and since Nelly and her sister had been in Rydal again there had been constant meetings. Nelly’s confidences in return for Cicely’s were not many nor frequent. The effects of grief were to be seen in her aspect and movements, in her most pathetic smile, in her increased dreaminess, and the inertia against which she struggled in vain. Since May began, she had for the first time put on black. Nobody had dared to speak to her about it, so sharply did the black veil thrown back from the childish brow intensify the impression that she made, as of something that a touch might break. But the appearance of the widow’s dress seemed to redouble the tenderness with which every member of the little group of people among whom she lived treated her–always excepting her sister. Nelly had in vain protested to Farrell against the ‘spoiling’ of which she was the object. ‘Spoiled’ she was, and it was clear both to Hester and Cicely, after a time, that though she had the will, she had not the strength to resist.
Unless on one point. She had long since stopped all subsidies of money from Farrell through Bridget, having at last discovered the plain facts about them. Her letter of thanks to him for all he had done for her was at once so touching and so determined, that he had not dared since to cross her will. All that he now found it possible to urge was that the sisters would allow him to lend them a vacant farmhouse of his, not far from the Loughrigg Tarn cottage. Nelly had been so far unwilling; it was clear that her heart clung to the Rydal lodgings. But Hester and Cicely were both on Farrell’s side. The situation of the farm was higher and more bracing than Rydal; and both Cicely and Farrell cherished the notion of making it a home for Nelly, until indeed–
At this point Farrell generally succeeded in putting a strong rein upon his thoughts, as part of the promise he had made to Hester. But Cicely, who was much cooler and more matter of fact than her brother, had long since looked further ahead. Willy was in love, irrevocably in love with Nelly Sarratt. That had been plain to her for some time. Before those days in the flat, when she herself had fallen in love with Nelly, and before the disappearance of George Sarratt, she had resented Willy’s absurd devotion to a little creature who, for all her beauty, seemed to Cicely merely an insignificant member of the middle classes, with a particularly impossible sister. And as to the notion that Mrs. Sarratt might become at some distant period her brother’s wife, Lady Farrell of Carton, Cicely would have received it with scorn, and fought the realisation of it tooth and nail. Yet now all the ‘Farrell feeling,’ the Farrell pride, in this one instance, at any rate, was gone. Why? Cicely didn’t know. She supposed first because Nelly was such a dear creature, and next because the war had made such a curious difference in things. The old lines were being rubbed out. And Cicely, who had been in her day as exclusively snobbish as any other well-born damsel, felt now that it would not matter in the least if they remained rubbed out. Persons who ‘did things’ by land or sea; persons who invented things; persons with ideas; persons who had the art of making others follow them into the jaws of death;–these were going to be the aristocracy of the future. Though the much abused aristocracy of the present hadn’t done badly either!
So she was only concerned with the emotional aspects of her brother’s state. Was Nelly now convinced of her husband’s death?–was that what her black meant? And if she were convinced, and it were legally possible for her to marry again and all that–what chance would there be for Willy? Cicely was much puzzled by Nelly’s relation to him. She had seen many signs, pathetic signs, of a struggle on Nelly’s side against Farrell’s influence; especially in the time immediately following her first return to the north in March. She had done her best then, it seemed to Cicely, to do without him and to turn to other interests and occupations than those he set her, and she had failed; partly no doubt owing to her physical weakness, which had put an end to many projects,–that of doing week-end munition work for instance–but still more, surely, to Farrell’s own qualities. ‘He is such a charmer with women,’ thought Cicely, half smiling; ‘that’s what it is.’
By which she meant that he had the very rare gift of tenderness; of being able to make a woman feel, that as a human being, quite apart from any question of passion, she interested and touched him. It was just sympathy, she supposed, the artistic magnetic quality in him, which made him so attractive to women, and women so attractive to him. He was no longer a young man in the strict sense; he was a man of forty, with the prestige of great accomplishment, and a wide knowledge of life. It was generally supposed that he had done with love-affairs, and women instinctively felt it safe to allow him a personal freedom towards them, which from other men would have offended them. He might pat a girl’s shoulder, or lay a playful grasp on a woman’s arm, and nobody minded; it was a sign of his liking, and most people wished to be liked by him. However he never allowed himself any half-caress of the kind towards Nelly Sarratt now; and once or twice, in the old days, before Sarratt’s disappearance, Cicely had fancied that she had seen Nelly check rather sharply one of these demonstrations of Willy’s which were so natural to him, and in general so unconscious and innocent.
And now he never attempted them. What did that mean? Simply–so Cicely thought–that he was in love, and dared venture such things no longer. But all the same there were plenty of devices open to him by which week after week he surrounded Nelly with a network of care, which implied that he was always thinking of her; which were in fact a caress, breathing a subtle and restrained devotion, more appealing than anything more open. And Cicely seemed to see Nelly yielding–unconsciously; unconsciously ‘spoilt,’ and learning to depend on the ‘spoiler.’ Why did Hester seem so anxious always about Farrell’s influence with Nelly–so ready to ward him off, if she could? For after all, thought Cicely, easily, however long it might take for Nelly to recover her hold on life, and to clear up the legal situation, there could be but one end of it. Willy meant to marry this little woman; and in the long run no woman would be able to resist him.
* * * * *
The friends set out to stroll homewards through the long May evening, talking of the hideous Irish news–how incredible amid the young splendour of the Westmorland May!–or of the progress of the war.
Meanwhile Bridget Cookson was walking to meet them from the Rydal end of the Lake. She was accompanied by a Manchester friend, a young doctor, Howson by name, who had known the sisters before Nelly’s marriage. He had come to Ambleside in charge of a patient that morning, and was going back on the morrow, and then to France. Bridget had stumbled on him in Ambleside, and finding he had a free evening had invited him to come and sup with them. And a vivid recollection of Nelly Cookson as a girl had induced him to accept. He had been present indeed at the Sarratt wedding, and could never forget Nelly as a bride, the jessamine wreath above her dark eyes, and all the exquisite shapeliness of her slight form, in the white childish dress of fine Indian muslin, which seemed to him the prettiest bridal garment he had ever seen. And now–poor little soul!
‘You think she still hopes?’
Bridget shrugged her shoulders.
‘She says so. But she has put on mourning at last–a few weeks ago.’
‘People do turn up, you know,’ said the doctor musing. ‘There have been some wonderful stories.’
‘They don’t turn up now,’ said Bridget positively–‘now that the enquiries are done properly.’
‘Oh, the Germans are pretty casual–and the hospital returns are far from complete, I hear. However the probabilities, no doubt, are all on the side of death.’
‘The War Office are certain of it,’ said Bridget with emphasis. ‘But it’s no good trying to persuade her. I don’t try.’
‘No, why should you? Poor thing! Well, I’m off to X—- next week,’ said the young man. ‘I shall keep my eyes open there, in case anything about him should turn up.’
Bridget frowned slightly, and her face flushed.
‘Should you know him again, if you saw him?’ she asked, abruptly.