‘I think so,’ said the doctor with slight hesitation, ‘I remember him very well at the wedding. Tall and slight?–not handsome exactly, but a good-looking gentlemanly chap? Oh yes, I remember him. But of course, to be alive now, if by some miraculous chance he were alive, and not to have let you know–why he must have had some brain mischief–paralysis–or—-‘
‘He isn’t alive!’ said Bridget impatiently. ‘The War Office have no doubts whatever.’
Howson was rather surprised at the sudden acerbity of her tone. But his momentary impression was immediately lost in the interest roused in him by the emergence from the wood, in front, of Nelly and Cicely. He was a warm-hearted fellow, himself just married, and the approach of the black-veiled figure, which he had last seen in bridal white, touched him like an incident in a play.
Nelly recognised him from a short distance, and went a little pale.
‘Who is that with your sister?’ asked Cicely.
‘It is a man we knew in Manchester,–Doctor Howson.’
‘Did you expect him?’
‘Oh no.’ After a minute she added–‘He was at our wedding. I haven’t seen him since.’
Cicely was sorry for her. But when the walkers met, Nelly greeted the young man very quietly. He himself was evidently moved. He held her hand a little, and gave her a quick, scrutinising look. Then he moved on beside her, and Cicely, in order to give Nelly the opportunity of talking to him for which she evidently wished, was forced to carry off Bridget, and endure her company patiently all the way home.
When Nelly and the doctor arrived, following close on the two in front, Cicely cried out that Nelly must go and lie down at once till supper. She looked indeed a deplorable little wraith; and the doctor, casting, again, a professional eye on her, backed up Cicely.
Nelly smiled, resisted, and finally disappeared.
‘You’ll have to take care of her,’ said Howson to Bridget. ‘She looks to me as if she couldn’t stand any strain.’
‘Well, she’s not going to have any. This place is quiet enough! She’s been talking of munition-work, but of course we didn’t let her.’
Cicely took the young man aside and expounded her brother’s plan of the farm on the western side of Loughrigg. Howson asked questions about its aspect, and general comfort, giving his approval in the end.
‘Oh, she’ll pull through,’ he said kindly, ‘but she must go slow. This kind of loss is harder to bear–physically–than death straight out. I’ve promised her’–he turned to Bridget–‘to make all the enquiries I can. She asked me that at once.’
After supper, just as Howson was departing, Farrell appeared, having driven himself over through the long May evening, ostensibly to take Cicely home, but really for the joy of an hour in Nelly’s company.
He sat beside her in the garden, after Howson’s departure, reading to her, by the lingering light, the poems of a great friend of his who had been killed at Gallipoli. Nelly was knitting, but her needles were often laid upon her knee, while she listened with all her mind, and sometimes with tears in her eyes, that were hidden by the softly dropping dusk. She said little, but what she did say came now from a greatly intensified inner life, and a sharpened intelligence; while all the time, the charm that belonged to her physical self, her voice, her movements, was at work on Farrell, so that he felt his hour with her a delight after his hard day’s work. And she too rested in his presence, and his friendship. It was not possible now for her to rebuff him, to refuse his care. She had tried, tried honestly, as Cicely saw, to live independently–to ‘endure hardness.’ And the attempt had broken down. The strange, protesting feeling, too, that she was doing some wrong to George by accepting it was passing away. She was George’s, she would always be his, to her dying day; but to live without being loved, to tear herself from those who wished to love her–for that she had proved too weak. She knew it, and was not unconscious of a certain moral defeat; as she looked out upon all the strenuous and splendid things that women were doing in the war.
* * * * *
Farrell and Cicely sped homeward through a night that was all but day. Cicely scarcely spoke; she was thinking of Marsworth. Farrell had still in his veins the sweetness of Nelly’s presence. But there were other thoughts too in his mind, the natural thoughts of an Englishman at war. Once, over their heads, through the luminous northern sky, there passed an aeroplane flying south-west high above the fells. Was it coming from the North Sea, from the neighbourhood of that invincible Fleet, on which all hung, by which all was sustained? He thought of the great ships, and the men commanding them, as greyhounds straining in the leash. What touch of fate would let them loose at last?
The Carton hospital was now full of men fresh from the front. The casualties were endless. A thousand a night often along the French front–and yet no real advance. The far-flung battle was practically at a stand-still. And beyond, the chaos in the Balkans, the Serbian debacle! No–the world was full of lamentation, mourning and woe; and who could tell how Armageddon would turn? His quick mind travelled through all the alternative possibilities ahead, on fire for his country. But always, after each digression through the problems of the war, thought came back to the cottage at Rydal, and Nelly on the lawn, her white throat emerging from the thin black dress, her hands clasped on her lap, her eyes turned to him as he read.
And all the time it was _just_ conceivable that Sarratt might still be discovered. At that thought, the summer night darkened.
In the summer of 1916, a dark and miserable June, all chilly showers and lowering clouds, followed on the short-lived joys of May. But all through it, still more through the early weeks of July, the spiritual heaven for English hearts was brightening. In June, two months before she was expected to move, Russia flung herself on the Eastern front of the enemy. Brussiloff’s victorious advance drove great wedges into the German line, and the effect on that marvellous six months’ battle, which we foolishly call the Siege of Verdun, was soon to be seen. Hard pressed they were, those heroes of Verdun!–how hard pressed no one in England knew outside the War Office and the Cabinet, till the worst was over, and the Crown Prince, ‘with his dead and his shame,’ had recoiled in sullen defeat from the prey that need fear him no more.
Then on the first of July, the British army, after a bombardment the like of which had never yet been seen in war, leapt from its trenches on the Somme front, and England held her breath while her new Armies proved of what stuff they were made. In those great days ‘there were no stragglers–none!’ said an eye-witness in amazement. The incredible became everywhere the common and the achieved. Life was laid down as at a festival. ‘From your happy son’–wrote a boy, as a heading to his last letter on this earth.
And by the end of July the sun was ablaze again on the English fields and harvests. Days of amazing beauty followed each other amid the Westmorland fells; with nights of moonlight on sleeping lakes, and murmuring becks; or nights of starlit dark, with that mysterious glow in the north-west which in the northern valleys so often links the evening with the dawn.
How often through these nights Nelly Sarratt lay awake, in her new white room in Mountain Ash Farm!–the broad low window beside her open to the night, to that ‘Venus’s Looking Glass’ of Loughrigg Tarn below her, and to the great heights beyond, now dissolving under the moon-magic, now rosy with dawn, and now wreathed in the floating cloud which crept in light and silver along the purple of the crags. To have been lifted to this height above valley and stream, had raised and strengthened her, soul and body, as Farrell and Hester had hoped. Her soul, perhaps, rather than her body; for she was still the frailest of creatures, without visible ill, and yet awakening in every quick-eyed spectator the same misgiving as in the Manchester doctor. But she was calmer, less apparently absorbed in her own grief; though only, perhaps, the more accessible to the world misery of the war. In these restless nights, her remarkable visualising power, which had only thriven, it seemed, upon the flagging of youth and health, carried her through a series of waking dreams, almost always concerned with the war. Under the stimulus of Farrell’s intelligence, she had become a close student of the war. She read much, and what she read, his living contact with men and affairs–with that endless stream of wounded in particular, which passed through the Carton hospital–and his graphic talk illumined for her. Then in the night arose the train of visions; the trenches–always the trenches; those hideous broken woods of the Somme front, where the blasted soil has sucked the best life-blood of England; those labyrinthine diggings and delvings in a tortured earth, made for the Huntings of Death–‘Death that lays man at his length’–for panting pursuit, and breathless flight, and the last crashing horror of the bomb, in some hell-darkness at the end of all:–these haunted her. Or she saw visions of men swinging from peak to peak above fathomless depths of ice and snow on the Italian front; climbing precipices where the foot holds by miracle, and where not only men but guns must go; or vanishing, whole lines of them, awfully forgotten in the winter snows, to reappear a frozen and ghastly host, with the melting of the spring.
And always, mingled with everything, in the tense night hours–that slender khaki figure, tearing the leaf from his sketch-book, leaping over the parados,–falling–in the No Man’s Land. But, by day, the obsession of it now often left her.
It was impossible not to enjoy her new home. Farrell had taken an old Westmorland farm, with its white-washed porch, its small-paned windows outlined in white on the grey walls, its low raftered rooms, and with a few washes of colour–pure blue, white, daffodil yellow–had made all bright within, to match the bright spaces of air and light without. There was some Westmorland oak, some low chairs, a sofa and a piano from the old Manchester house, some etchings and drawings, hung on the plain walls by Farrell himself, with the most fastidious care; and a few–a very few things–from his own best stores, which Hester allowed him to ‘house’ with Nelly from time to time–picture, or pot, or tapestry. She played watch-dog steadily, not resented by Farrell, and unsuspected by Nelly. Her one aim was that the stream of Nelly’s frail life should not be muddied by any vile gossip; and she achieved it. The few neighbours who had made acquaintance with ‘little Mrs. Sarratt’ had, all of them been tacitly, nay eagerly willing, to take their cue from Hester. To be vouched for by Hester Martin, the ‘wise woman’ and saint of a country-side, was enough. It was understood that the poor little widow had been commended to the care of William Farrell and his sister, by the young husband whose gallant death was officially presumed by the War Office. Of course, Mrs. Sarratt, poor child, believed that he was still alive–that was so natural! But that hope would die down in time. And then–anything might happen!
Meanwhile, elderly husbands–the sole male inhabitants left in the gentry houses of the district–who possessed any legal knowledge, informed their wives that no one could legally presume the death of a vanished husband, under seven years, unless indeed they happen to have a Scotch domicile, in which case two years was enough. _Seven years_!–preposterous!–in time of war, said the wives. To which the husbands would easily reply that, in such cases as Mrs. Sarratt’s, the law indeed might be ‘an ass,’ but there were ways round it. Mrs. Sarratt might re-marry, and no one could object, or would object. Only–if Sarratt did rise from the dead, the second marriage would be _ipso facto_ null and void. But as Sarratt was clearly dead, what did that matter?
So that the situation, though an observed one–for how could the Farrell comings and goings, the Farrell courtesies and benefactions, possibly be hid?–was watched only by friendly and discreet eyes, thanks always to Hester. Most people liked William Farrell; even that stricter sect, who before the war had regarded him as a pleasure loving dilettante, and had been often scandalised by his careless levity in the matter of his duties as a landlord and county magnate. ‘Bill Farrell’ had never indeed evicted or dealt hardly with any mortal tenant. He had merely neglected and ignored them; had cared not a brass farthing about the rates which he or they, paid–why should he indeed, when he was so abominably rich from other sources than land?–nothing about improving their cows, or sheep or pigs; nothing about ‘intensive culture,’ or jam or poultry, or any of the other fads with which the persons who don’t farm plague the persons who do; while the very mention of a public meeting, or any sort of public duty, put him to instant flight. Yet even the faddists met him with pleasure, and parted from him with regret. He took himself ‘so jolly lightly’; you couldn’t expect him to take other people seriously. Meanwhile, his genial cheery manner made him a general favourite, and his splendid presence, combined with his possessions and his descent, was universally accepted as a kind of Cumberland asset, to which other counties could hardly lay claim. If he wanted the little widow, why certainly, let him have her! It was magnificent what he had done for his hospital; when nobody before the war had thought him capable of a stroke of practical work. Real good fellow, Farrell! Let him go in and win. His devotion, and poor Nelly’s beauty, only infused a welcome local element of romance into the ever-darkening scene of war.
* * * * *
The first anniversary of Sarratt’s disappearance was over. Nelly had gone through it quite alone. Bridget was in London, and Nelly had said to Cicely–‘Don’t come for a few days–nor Sir William–please! I shall be all right.’
They obeyed her, and she spent her few days partly on the fells, and partly in endless knitting and sewing for a war-workroom recently started in her immediate neighbourhood. The emotion to which she surrendered herself would soon reduce her to a dull vacancy; and then she would sit passive, not forcing herself to think, alone in the old raftered room, or in the bit of garden outside, with its phloxes and golden rods; her small fingers working endlessly–till the wave of feeling and memory returned upon her. Those few days were a kind of ‘retreat,’ during which she lived absorbed in the recollections of her short, married life, and, above all, in which she tried piteously and bravely to make clear to herself what she believed; what sort of faith was in her for the present and the future. It often seemed to her that during the year since George’s death, her mind had been wrenched and hammered into another shape. It had grown so much older, she scarcely knew it herself. Doubts she had never known before had come to her; but also, intermittently, a much keener faith. Oh, yes, she believed in God. She must; not only because George had believed in Him, but also because she, her very self, had been conscious, again and again, in the night hours, or on the mountains, of ineffable upliftings and communings, of flashes through the veil of things. And so there must be another world; because the God she guessed at thus, with sudden adoring insight, could not have made her George, only to destroy him; only to give her to him for a month, and then strike him from her for ever. The books she learnt to know through Farrell, belonging to that central modern literature, which is so wholly sceptical that the ‘great argument’ itself has almost lost interest for those who are producing it, often bewildered her, but did not really affect her. Religion–a vague, but deeply-felt religion–soothed and sheltered her. But she did not want to talk about it.
After these days were over, she emerged conscious of some radical change. She seemed to have been walking with George ‘on the other side,’ and to have left him there–for a while. She now really believed him dead, and that she had got to live her life without him. This first full and sincere admission of her loss tranquillised her. All the more reason now that she should turn to the dear friendships that life still held, should live in and for them, and follow where they led, through the years before her. Farrell, Cicely, Hester–they stood between her weakness–oh how conscious, how scornfully conscious, she was of it!–and sheer desolation. Cicely, ‘Willy,’–for somehow she and he had slipped almost without knowing it into Christian names–had become to her as brother and sister. And Hester too–so strong!–so kind!–was part of her life; severe sometimes, but bracing. Nelly was conscious, indeed, occasionally, that something in Hester disapproved something in her. ‘But it would be all right,’ she thought, wearily, ‘if only I were stronger.’ Did she mean physically or morally? The girl’s thought did not distinguish.
‘I believe you want me “hatched over again and hatched different”!’ she said one evening to Hester, as she laid her volume of ‘Adam Bede’ aside.
‘Do I ever say so?’
‘No–but–if you were me–you wouldn’t stop here moping!’ said Nelly, with sudden passion. ‘You’d strike out–do something!’
‘With these hands?’ said Hester, raising one of them, and looking at it pitifully. ‘My dear–does Bridget feed you properly?’
‘I don’t know. I never think about it. She settles it.’
‘Why do you let her settle it?’
‘She will!’ cried Nelly, sitting upright in her chair, her eyes bright and cheeks flushing, as though something in Hester’s words accused her. ‘I couldn’t stop her!’
‘Well, but when she’s away?’
‘Then Mrs. Rowe settles it,’ said Nelly, half laughing. ‘I never enquire. What does it matter?’
She put down her knitting, and her wide, sad eyes followed the clouds as they covered the purple breast of the Langdales, which rose in threatening, thunder light, beyond the steely tarn in front. Hester watched her anxiously. How lovely was the brown head, with its short curls enclosing the delicate oval of the face! But Nelly’s lack of grip on life, of any personal demand, of any healthy natural egotism, whether towards Bridget, or anybody else, was very disquieting to Hester. In view of the situation which the older woman saw steadily approaching, how welcome would have been some signs of a greater fighting strength in the girl’s nature!
* * * * *
But Nelly had made two friends since the migration to the farm with whom at any rate she laughed; and that, as Hester admitted, was something.
One was a neighbouring farmer, an old man, with splendid eyes, under dark bushy brows, fine ascetic features, grizzled hair, and a habit of carrying a scythe over his shoulder which gave him the look of ‘Old Father Time,’ out for the mowing of men. The other was the little son of a neighbouring parson, an urchin of eight, who had succumbed to an innocent passion for the pretty lady at the farm.
One radiant October afternoon, Nelly carried out a chair and some sketching things into the garden. But the scheme Farrell had suggested to her, of making a profession of her drawing, had not come to much. Whether it was the dying down of hope, and therewith of physical energy, or whether she had been brought up sharp against the limits of her small and graceful talent, and comparing herself with Farrell, thought it no use to go on–in any case, she had lately given it up, except as an amusement. But there are days when the humblest artist feels the creative stir; and on this particular afternoon there were colours and lights abroad on the fells, now dyed red with withering fern, and overtopped by sunny cloud, that could not be resisted. She put away the splints she was covering, and spread out her easel.
And presently, through every bruised and tired sense, as she worked and worked, the ‘Eternal Fountain of that Heavenly Beauty’ distilled His constant balm. She worked on, soothed and happy.
In a few minutes there was a sound at the gate. A child looked in–black tumbled hair, dark eyes, a plain but most engaging countenance.
‘I’m tomin in,’ he announced, and without any more ado, came in. Nelly held out a hand and kissed him.
‘You must be very good.’
‘I is good,’ said the child, radiantly.
Nelly spread a rug for him to lie on, and provided him with a piece of paper, some coloured chalks and a piece of mill board. He turned over on his front and plunged into drawing–
Silence–till Nelly asked–
‘What are you drawing, Tommy?’
‘Haggans and Hoons,’ said a dreamy voice, the voice of one absorbed.
‘I forget’–said Nelly gravely–‘which are the good ones?’
‘The Hoons are good. The Haggans are awfully wicked!’ said the child, slashing away at his drawing with bold vindictive strokes.
‘Are you drawing a Haggan, Tommy?’
He held up a monster, half griffin, half crocodile, for her to see, and she heartily admired it.
‘Where do the Haggans live, Tommy?’
‘In Jupe,’ said the child, again drawing busily.
‘You mean Jupiter?’
‘I _don’t_!’ said Tommy reproachfully, ‘I said Jupe, and I mean Jupe. Perhaps’–he conceded, courteously–‘I may have got the idea from that other place. But it’s quite different. You do believe it’s quite different–don’t you?’
‘Certainly,’ said Nelly.
‘I’m glad of that–because–well, because I can’t be friends with people that say it isn’t different. You do see that, don’t you?’
Nelly assured him she perfectly understood, and then Tommy rolled over on his back, and staring at the sky, began to talk in mysterious tones of ‘Jupe,’ and the beings that lived in it, Haggans, and Hoons, lions and bears, and white mice. His voice grew dreamier and dreamier. Nelly thought he was asleep, and she suddenly found herself looking at the little figure on the grass with a passionate hunger. If such a living creature belonged to her–to call her its very own–to cling to her with its dear chubby hands!
She bent forward, her eyes wet, above the unconscious Tommy. But a step on the road startled her, and raising her head she saw ‘Old Father Time,’ with scythe on shoulder, leaning on the little gate which led from the strip of garden to the road, and looking at her with the expression which implied a sarcastic view of things in general, and especially of ‘gentlefolk.’ But he was favourably inclined to Mrs. Sarratt, and when Nelly invited him in, he obeyed her, and grounding his scythe, as though it had been a gun, he stood leaning upon it, indulgently listening while she congratulated him on a strange incident which, as she knew from Hester, had lately occurred to him.
A fortnight before, the old man had received a letter from the captain of his son’s company in France sympathetically announcing to him the death in hospital of his eldest son, from severe wounds received in a raid, and assuring him he might feel complete confidence ‘that everything that could be done for your poor boy has been done.’
The news had brought woe to the cottage where the old man and his wife lived alone, since the fledging of their sturdy brood, under a spur of Loughrigg. The wife, being now a feeble body, had taken to her bed under the shock of grief; the old man had gone to his work as usual, ‘nobbut a bit queerer in his wits,’ according to the farmer who employed him. Then after three days came a hurried letter of apology from the captain, and a letter from the chaplain, to say there had been a most deplorable mistake, and ‘your son, I am glad to say, was only slightly wounded, and is doing well!’
Under so much contradictory emotion, old Backhouse’s balance had wavered a good deal. He received Nelly’s remarks with a furtive smile, as though he were only waiting for her to have done, and when they ceased, he drew a letter slowly from his pocket.
‘D’ye see that, Mum?’
‘I’se juist gotten it from t’ Post Office. They woant gie ye noothin’ till it’s forced oot on ’em. But I goa regular, an to-day owd Jacob–‘at’s him as keps t’ Post Office–handed it ower. It’s from Donald, sure enoof.’
He held it up triumphantly. Nelly’s heart leapt–and sank. How often in the first months of her grief had she seen–in visions–that blessed symbolic letter held up by some ministering hand!–only to fall from the ecstasy of the dream into blacker depths of pain.
‘Oh, Mr. Backhouse, I’m so glad!’ was all she could find to say. But her sweet trembling face spoke for her. After a pause, she added–‘Does he write with his own hand?’
‘You mun see for yorsel’.’ He held it out to her. She looked at it mystified.
‘But it’s not opened!’
‘I hadna juist me spectacles,’ said Father Time, cautiously. ‘Mebbee yo’ll read it to me.’
‘But it’s to his mother!’ cried Nelly. ‘I can’t open your wife’s letter!’
‘You needn’t trooble aboot that. You read it, Mum. There’ll be noothin’ in it.’
He made her read it. There was nothing in it. It was just a nice letter from a good boy, saying that he had been knocked over in ‘a bit of a scrap,’ but was nearly all right, and hoped his father and mother were well, ‘as it leaves me at present.’ But when it was done, Father Time took off his hat, bent his grey head, and solemnly thanked his God, in broad Westmorland. Nelly’s eyes swam, as she too bowed the head, thinking of another who would never come back; and Tommy, thumb in mouth, leant against her, listening attentively.
At the end of the thanksgiving however, Backhouse raised his head briskly.
‘Not that I iver believed that foolish yoong mon as wrote me that Dick wor dead,’ he said, contemptuously. ‘Bit it’s as weel to git things clear.’
Nelly heartily agreed, adding–
‘I may be going to London next week, Mr. Backhouse. You say your son will be in the London Hospital. Shall I go and see him?’
Backhouse looked at her cautiously.
‘I doan’t know, Mum. His moother will be goin’, likely.’
‘Oh, I don’t want to intrude, Mr. Backhouse. But if she doesn’t go?’
‘Well, Mum; I will say you’ve a pleasant coontenance, though yo’re not juist sich a thrivin’ body as a’d like to see yer. But theer’s mony people as du more harm nor good by goin’ to sit wi’ sick foak.’
Nelly meekly admitted it; and then she suggested that she might be the bearer of anything Mrs. Backhouse would like to send her son–clothes, for instance? The old man thawed rapidly, and the three, Nelly, Tommy, and Father Time, were soon sincerely enjoying each other’s society, when a woman in a grey tweed costume, and black sailor hat, arrived at the top of a little hill in the road outside the garden, from which the farm and its surroundings could be seen.
At the sight of the group in front of the farm, she came to an abrupt pause, and hidden from them by a projecting corner of wall she surveyed the scene–Nelly, with Tommy on her knee, and the old labourer who had just shouldered his scythe again, and was about to go on his way.
It was Bridget Cookson, who had been to Kendal for the day, and had walked over from Grasmere, where the char-a-banc, alias the ‘Yellow Peril,’ had deposited her. She had passed the Post Office on her way, and had brought thence a letter which she held in her hand. Her face was pale and excited. She stood thinking; her eyes on Nelly, her lips moving as though she were rehearsing some speech or argument.
Then when she had watched old Backkhouse make his farewell, and turn towards the gate, she hastily opened a black silk bag hanging from her wrist, and thrust the letter into it.
After which she walked on, meeting the old man in the lane, and run into by Tommy, who, head foremost, was rushing home to shew his glorious Haggan to his ‘mummy.’
Nelly’s face at sight of her sister stiffened insensibly.
‘Aren’t you very tired, Bridget? Have you walked all the way? Yes, you _do_ look tired! Have you had tea?’
‘Yes, at Windermere.’
Bridget cleared the chair on which Nelly had placed her paint-box, and sat down. She was silent a little and then said abruptly–
‘It’s a horrid bore, I shall have to go to London again.’
‘Again?’ Nelly’s look of surprise was natural. Bridget had returned from another long stay in the Bloomsbury boarding-house early in October, and it was now only the middle of the month. But Bridget’s doings were always a great mystery to Nelly. She was translating something from the Spanish–that was all Nelly knew–and also, that when an offer had been made to her through a friend, of some translating work for the Foreign Office, she had angrily refused it. She would not, she said, be a slave to any public office.
‘Won’t it be awfully expensive?’ said Nelly after a pause, as Bridget did not answer. The younger sister was putting her painting things away, and making ready to go in. For though the day had been wonderfully warm for October, the sun had just set over Bowfell, and the air had grown suddenly chilly.
‘Well, I can’t help it,’ said Bridget, rather roughly. ‘I shall have to go.’
Something in her voice made Nelly look at her.
‘I say you _are_ tired! Come in and lie down a little. That walk from Grasmere’s too much for you!’
Bridget submitted with most unusual docility.
The sisters entered the house together.
‘I’ll go upstairs for a little,’ said Bridget. ‘I shall be all right by supper.’ Then, as she slowly mounted the stairs, a rather gaunt and dragged figure in her dress of grey alpaca, she turned to say–
‘I met Sir William on the road just now. He passed me in the car, and waved his hand. He called out something–I couldn’t hear it.’
‘Perhaps to say he would come to supper,’ said Nelly, her face brightening. ‘I’ll go and see what there is.’
Bridget went upstairs. Her small raftered room was invaded by the last stormy light of the autumn evening. The open casement window admitted a cold wind. Bridget shut it, with a shiver. But instead of lying down, she took a chair by the window, absently removed her hat, and sat there thinking. The coppery light from the west illumined her face with its strong discontented lines, and her hands, which were large, but white and shapely–a source indeed of personal pride to their owner.
Presently, in the midst of her reverie, she heard a step outside, and saw Sir William Farrell approaching the gate. Nelly, wrapped in a white shawl, was still strolling about the garden, and Bridget watched their meeting–Nelly’s soft and smiling welcome, and Farrell’s eagerness, his evident joy in finding her alone.
‘And she just wilfully blinds herself!’ thought Bridget contemptuously–‘talks about his being a brother to her, and that sort of nonsense. He’s in love with her!–of course he’s in love with her. And as for Nelly–she’s not in love with him. But she’s getting used to him; she depends on him. When he’s not there she misses him. She’s awfully glad to see him when he comes. Perhaps, it’ll take a month or two. I give it a month or two–perhaps six months–perhaps a year. And then she’ll marry him–and–‘
Here her thoughts became rather more vague and confused. They were compounded of a fierce impatience with the war, and of certain urgent wishes and ambitions, which had taken possession of a strong and unscrupulous character. She wanted to travel. She wanted to see the world, and not to be bothered by having to think of money. Contact with very rich people, like the Farrells, and the constant spectacle of what an added range and power is given to the human will by money, had turned the dull discontent of her youth into an active fever of desire. She had no illusions about herself at all. She was already a plain and unattractive old maid. Nobody would want to marry her; and she did not want to marry anybody. But she wanted to _do_ things and to _see_ things, when the hateful war was over. She was full of curiosities about life and the world, that were rather masculine than feminine. Her education, though it was still patchy and shallow, had been advancing since Nelly’s marriage, and her intelligence was hungry. The satisfaction of it seemed too to promise her the only real pleasures to which she could look forward in life. On the wall of her bedroom were hanging photographs of Rome, Athens, the East. She dreamt of a wandering existence; she felt that she would be insatiable of movement, of experience, if the chance were given her.
But how could one travel, or buy books, or make new acquaintances, without money?–something more at any rate than the pittance on which she and Nelly subsisted.
What was it Sir William was supposed to have, by way of income?–thirty thousand a year? Well, he wouldn’t always be spending it on his hospital, and War income tax, and all the other horrible burdens of the time. If Nelly married him, she would have an ample margin to play with; and to do Nelly justice, she was always open-handed, always ready to give away. She would hand over her own small portion to her sister, and add something to it. With six or seven hundred a year, Bridget would be mistress of her own fate, and of the future. Often, lately, in waking moments of the night, she had felt a sudden glow of exultation, thinking what she could do with such a sum. The world seemed to open out on all sides–offering her new excitements, new paths to tread in. She wanted no companion, to hamper her with differing tastes and wishes. She would be quite sufficient to herself.
The garden outside grew dark. She heard Farrell say ‘It’s too cold for you–you must come in,’ and she watched Nelly enter the house in front of him–turning her head back to answer something he said to her. Even through the dusk Bridget was conscious of her sister’s beauty. She did not envy it in the least. It was Nelly’s capital–Nelly’s opportunity. Let her use it for them both. Bridget would be well satisfied to gather up the crumbs from her rich sister’s table.
Then from the dream, she came back with chill and desperation–to reality. The letter in her pocket–the journey before her–she pondered alternatives. What was she to do in this case–or in that? Everything might be at stake–everything was at stake–her life and Nelly’s–
The voices from the parlour below came up to her. She heard the crackling of a newly lighted fire–Farrell reading aloud–and Nelly’s gentle laughter. She pictured the scene; the two on either side of the fire, with Nelly’s mourning, her plain widow’s dress, as the symbol–in Nelly’s eyes–of what divided her from Farrell, or any other suitor, and made it possible to be his friend without fear. Bridget knew that Nelly so regarded it. But that of course was just Nelly’s foolish way of looking at things. It was only a question of time.
And meanwhile the widow’s dress had quite other meanings for Bridget. She pondered long in the dark, till the supper bell rang.
At supper, her silence embarrassed and infected her companions, and Farrell, finding it impossible to get another tete-a-tete with Nelly, took his leave early. He must be up almost with the dawn so as to get to Carton by nine o’clock.
* * * * *
Out of a stormy heaven the moon was breaking as he walked back to his cottage. The solitude of the mountain ways, the freshness of the rain-washed air, and the sweetness of his hour with Nelly, after the bustle of the week, the arrivals and departures, the endless business, of a great hospital:–he was conscious of them all, intensely conscious, as parts of a single, delightful whole to which he had looked forward for days. And yet he was restless and far from happy. He wandered about the mountain roads for a long time–watching the moon as it rose above the sharp steep of Loughrigg and sent long streamers of light down the Elterwater valley, and up the great knees of the Pikes. The owls hooted in the oak-woods, and the sound of water–the Brathay rushing over the Skelwith rocks, and all the little becks in fell and field, near and far–murmured through the night air, and made earth-music to the fells. Farrell had much of the poet in him; and the mountains and their life were dear to him. But he was rapidly passing into the stage when a man over-mastered by his personal desires is no longer open to the soothing of nature. He had recently had a long and confidential talk with his lawyer at Carlisle, who was also his friend, and had informed himself minutely about the state of the law. Seven years!–unless, of her own free will, she took the infinitesimal risk of marriage before the period was up.
But he despaired of her doing any such thing. He recognised fully that the intimacy she allowed him, her sweet openness and confidingness, were all conditioned by what she regarded as the fixed points in her life; by her widowhood, legal and spiritual, and by her tacit reliance on his recognition of the fact that she was set apart, bound as other widows were not bound, protected by the very mystery of Sarratt’s fate, from any thought of re-marriage.
And he!–all the time the strength of a man’s maturest passion was mounting in his veins. And with it a foreboding–coming he knew not whence–like the sudden shadow that, as he looked, blotted out the moonlight on the shining bends and loops of the Brathay, where it wandered through the Elterwater fields.
Bridget Cookson slowly signed her name to the letter she had been writing in the drawing-room of the boarding-house where she was accustomed to stay during her visits to town. Then she read the letter through–
‘I can’t get back till the middle or end of next week at least. There’s been a great deal to do, of one kind or another. And I’m going down to Woking to-morrow to spend the week-end with a girl I met here who’s knocked up in munition-work. Don’t expect me till you see me. But I daresay I shan’t be later than Friday.’
Bridget Cookson had never yet arrived at telling falsehoods for the mere pleasure of it. On the whole she preferred not to tell them. But she was well aware that her letter to Nelly contained a good many, both expressed and implied.
Well, that couldn’t be helped. She put up her letter, and then proceeded to look carefully through the contents of her handbag. Yes, her passport was all right, and her purse with its supply of notes. Also the letter that she was to present to the Base Commandant, or the Red Cross representative at the port of landing. The latter had been left open for her to read. It was signed ‘Ernest Howson, M.D.,’ and asked that Miss Bridget Cookson might be sent forward to No. 102, General Hospital, X Camp, France, as quickly as possible.
There was also another letter addressed to herself in the same handwriting. She opened it and glanced through it–
‘DEAR MISS COOKSON,–I think I have made everything as easy for you as I can on this side. You won’t have any difficulty. I’m awfully glad you’re coming. I myself am much puzzled, and don’t know what to think. Anyway I am quite clear that my right course was to communicate with you–_first._ Everything will depend on what you say.’
The following afternoon, Bridget found herself, with a large party of V.A.D.’s, and other persons connected with the Red Cross, on board a Channel steamer. The day was grey and cold, and Bridget having tied on her life-belt, and wrapped herself in her thickest cloak, found a seat in the shelter of the deck cabins whence the choppy sea, the destroyer hovering round them, and presently the coast of France were visible. A secret excitement filled her. What was she going to see? and what was she going to do? All round her too were the suggestions of war, commonplace and familiar by now to half the nation, but not to Bridget who had done her best to forget the war. The steamer deck was crowded with officers returning from leave who were walking up and down, all of them in life-belts, chatting and smoking. All eyes were watchful of the sea, and the destroyer; and the latest submarine gossip passed from mouth to mouth. The V.A.D.’s with a few army nurses, kept each other company on the stern deck. The mild sea gave no one any excuse for discomfort, and the pleasant-faced rosy girls in their becoming uniforms, laughed and gossiped with each other, though not without a good many side glances towards the khaki figures pacing the deck, many of them specimens of English youth at its best.
Bridget however took little notice of them. She was becoming more and more absorbed in her own problem. She had not in truth made up her mind how to deal with it, and she admitted reluctantly that she would have to be guided by circumstance. Midway across, when the French coast and its lighthouses were well in view, she took out the same letter which she had received two days before at the Grasmere post-office, and again read it through.
‘X Camp, 102, General Hospital.
‘DEAR MISS COOKSON,–I am writing to _you_, in the first instance instead of to Mrs. Sarratt, because I have a vivid remembrance of what seemed to me your sister’s frail physical state, when I saw you last May at Rydal. I hope she is much stronger, but I don’t want to risk what, if it ended in disappointment, might only be a terrible strain upon her to no purpose–so I am preparing the way by writing to you.
‘The fact is I want you to come over to France–at once. Can you get away, without alarming your sister, or letting her, really, know anything about it? It is the merest, barest chance, but I think there is just a chance, that a man who is now in hospital here _may_ be poor George Sarratt–only don’t build upon it yet, _please_. The case was sent on here from one of the hospitals near the Belgian frontier about a month ago, in order that a famous nerve-specialist, who has joined us here for a time, might give his opinion on it. It is a most extraordinary story. I understand from the surgeon who wrote to our Commandant, that one night, about three months ago, two men, in German uniforms, were observed from the British front-line trench, creeping over the No Man’s Land lying between the lines at a point somewhere east of Dixmude. One man, who threw up his hands, was dragging the other, who seemed wounded. It was thought that they were deserters, and a couple of men were sent out to bring them in. Just as they were being helped into our trench, however, one of them was hit by an enemy sniper and mortally wounded. Then it was discovered that they were not Germans at all. The man who had been hit said a few incoherent things about his wife and children in the Walloon patois as he lay in the trench, and trying to point to his companion, uttered the one word “Anglais”–that, everyone swears to–and died. No papers were found on either of them, and when the other man was questioned, he merely shook his head, with a vacant look. Various tests were applied to him, but it was soon clear, both that he was dumb–and deaf–from nerve shock, probably–and that he was in a terrible physical state. He had been severely wounded–apparently many months before–in the shoulder and thigh. The wounds had evidently been shockingly neglected, and were still septic. The surgeon who examined him thought that what with exposure, lack of food, and his injuries, it was hardly probable he would live more than a few weeks. However, he has lingered till now, and the specialist I spoke of has just seen him.
‘As to identification marks there were none. But you’ll hear all about that when you come. All I can say is that, as soon as they got the man into hospital, the nurses and surgeons became convinced that he _was_ English, and that in addition to his wounds, it was a case of severe shell-shock–acute and long-continued neurasthenia properly speaking,–loss of memory, and all the rest of it.
‘Of course the chances of this poor fellow being George Sarratt are infinitesimal–I must warn you as to that. How account for the interval between September 1915 and June 1916–for his dress, his companion–for their getting through the German lines?
‘However, directly I set eyes on this man, which was the week after I arrived here, I began to feel puzzled about him. He reminded me of someone–but of whom I couldn’t remember. Then one afternoon it suddenly flashed upon me–and for the moment I felt almost sure that I was looking at George Sarratt. Then, of course, I began to doubt again. I have tried–under the advice of the specialist I spoke of–all kinds of devices for getting into some kind of communication with him. Sometimes the veil between him and those about him seems to thin a little, and one makes attempts–hypnotism, suggestion, and so forth. But so far, quite in vain. He has, however, one peculiarity which I may mention. His hands are long and rather powerful. But the little fingers are both crooked–markedly so. I wonder if you ever noticed Sarratt’s hands? However, I won’t write more now. You will understand, I am sure, that I shouldn’t urge you to come, unless I thought it seriously worth your while. On the other hand, I cannot bear to excite hopes which may–which probably will–come to nothing. All I can feel certain of is that it is my duty to write, and I expect that you will feel that it is your duty to come.
‘I send you the address of a man at the War Office–high up in the R.A.M.C.–to whom I have already written. He will, I am sure, do all he can to help you get out quickly. Whoever he is, the poor fellow here is very ill.’
* * * * *
The steamer glided up the dock of the French harbour. The dusk had fallen, but Bridget was conscious of a misty town dimly sprinkled with lights, and crowned with a domed church; of chalk downs, white and ghostly, to right and left; and close by, of quays crowded with soldiers, motors, and officials. Carrying her small suit-case, she emerged upon the quay, and almost immediately was accosted by the official of the Red Cross who had been told off to look after her.
‘Let me carry your suit-case. There is a motor here, which will take you to X—-. There will be two nurses going with you.’
Up the long hill leading southwards out of the town, sped the motor, stopping once to show its pass to the sentries–khaki and grey, on either side of the road, and so on into the open country, where an autumn mist lay over the uplands, beneath a faintly starlit sky. Soon it was quite dark. Bridget listened vaguely to the half-whispered talk of the nurses opposite, who were young probationers going back to work after a holiday, full of spirits and merry gossip about ‘Matron’ and ‘Sister,’ and their favourite surgeons. Bridget was quite silent. Everything was strange and dreamlike. Yet she was sharply conscious that she was nearing–perhaps–some great experience, some act–some decision–which she would have to make for herself, with no one to advise her. Well, she had never been a great hand at asking advice. People must decide things for themselves.
She wondered whether they would let her see ‘the man’ that same night. Hardly–unless he were worse–in danger. Otherwise, they would be sure to think it better for her to see him first in daylight. She too would be glad to have a night’s rest before the interview. She had a curiously bruised and battered feeling, as of someone who had been going through an evil experience.
Pale stretches of what seemed like water to the right, and across it a lighthouse. And now to the left, a sudden spectacle of lines of light in a great semicircle radiating up the side of a hill.
The nurses exclaimed–
‘There’s the Camp! Isn’t it pretty at night?’
The officer sitting in front beside the driver turned to ask–
‘Where shall I put you down?’
‘Number—-‘ said both the maidens in concert. The elderly major in khaki–who in peace-time was the leading doctor of a Shropshire country town–could not help smiling at the two lassies, and their bright looks.
‘You don’t seem particularly sorry to come back!’ he said.
‘Oh, we’re tired of holidays,’ said the taller of the two, with a laugh. ‘People at home think they’re _so_ busy, and—‘
‘You think they’re doing nothing?’
‘Well, it don’t seem much, when you’ve been out here!’ said the girl more gravely–‘and when you know what there is to do!’
‘Aye, aye,’ said the man in front. ‘We could do with hundreds more of your sort. Hope you preached to your friends.’
‘We did!’ said both, each with the same young steady voice.
‘Here we are–Stop, please.’
For the motor had turned aside to climb the hill into the semicircle. On all sides now were rows of low buildings–hospital huts–hospital marquees–stores–canteens. Close to the motor, as it came to a stand-still, the door of a great marquee stood open, and Bridget could see within, a lighted hospital ward, with rows of beds, men in scarlet bed-jackets, sitting or lying on them–flowers–nurses moving about. The scene was like some bright and delicate illumination on the dark.
‘I shall have to take you a bit further on,’ said the major to Bridget, as the two young nurses waved farewell. ‘We’ve got a room in the hotel for you. And Dr. Howson will come for you in the morning. He thought that would be more satisfactory both for you and the patient than that you should go to the hospital to-night.’
Bridget acquiesced, with a strong sense of relief. And presently the camp and its lights were all left behind again, and the motor was rushing on, first through a dark town, and then through woods–pine woods–as far as the faint remaining light enabled her to see, till dim shapes of houses, and scattered lamps began again to appear, and the motor drew up.
‘Well, you’ll find a bed here, and some food,’ said the major as he handed her out. ‘Can’t promise much. It’s a funny little place, but they don’t look after you badly.’
They entered one of the small seaside hotels of the cheaper sort which abound in French watering-places, where the walls of the tiny rooms seem to be made of brown paper, and everyone is living in their neighbour’s pocket. But a pleasant young woman came forward to take Bridget’s bag.
‘Mademoiselle Cook–Cookson?’ she said interrogatively. ‘I have a letter for Mademoiselle. Du medecin,’ she added, addressing the major.
‘Ah?’ That gentleman put down Bridget’s bag in the little hall, and stood attentive. Bridget opened the letter–a very few words–and read it with an exclamation.
‘DEAR MISS COOKSON,–I am awfully sorry not to meet you to-night, and at the hospital to-morrow. But I am sent for to Bailleul. My only brother has been terribly wounded–they think fatally–in a bombing attack last night. I am going up at once–there is no help for it. One of my colleagues, Dr. Vincent, will take you to the hospital and will tell me your opinion. In haste.–Yours sincerely,
‘H’m, a great pity!’ said the major, as she handed the note to him. ‘Howson has taken a tremendous interest in the case. But Vincent is next best. Not the same thing perhaps–but still–Of course the whole medical staff here has been interested in it. It has some extraordinary features. You I think have had a brother-in-law “missing” for some time?’
He had piloted her into the bare _salle a manger_, where two young officers, with a party of newly-arrived V.A.D.’s were having dinner, and where through an open window came in the dull sound of waves breaking on a sandy shore.
‘My brother-in-law has been missing since the battle of Loos,’ said Bridget–‘more than a year. We none of us believe that he can be alive. But of course when Dr. Howson wrote to me, I came at once.’
‘Has he a wife?’
‘Yes, but she is very delicate. That is why Dr. Howson wrote to me. If there were any chance–of course we must send for her. But I shall know–I shall know at once.’
‘I suppose you will–yes, I suppose you will,’ mused the major. ‘Though of course a man is terribly aged by such an experience. He’s English–that we’re certain of. He often seems to understand–half understand–a written phrase or word in English. And he is certainly a man of refinement. All his personal ways–all that is instinctive and automatic–the subliminal consciousness, so to speak–seems to be that of a gentleman. But it is impossible to get any response out of him, for anything connected with the war. And yet we doubt whether there is any actual brain lesion. So far it seems to be severe functional disturbance–which is neurasthenia–aggravated by his wounds and general state. But the condition is getting worse steadily. It is very sad, and very touching. However, you will get it all out of Vincent. You must have some dinner first. I wish you a good-night.’
And the good man, so stout and broad-shouldered that he seemed to be bursting out of his khaki, hurried away. The lady seemed to him curiously hard and silent–‘a forbidding sort of party.’ But then he himself was a person of sentiment, expressing all the expected feelings in the right places, and with perfect sincerity.
Bridget took her modest dinner, and then sat by the window, looking out over a lonely expanse of sand, towards a moonlit sea. To right and left were patches of pine wood, and odd little seaside villas, with fantastic turrets and balconies. A few figures passed–nurses in white head dresses, and men in khaki. Bridget understood after talking to the little _patronne_, that the name of the place was Paris a la Mer, that there was a famous golf course near, and that large building, with a painted front to the right, was once the Casino, and now a hospital for officers.
It was all like a stage scene, the sea, the queer little houses, the moonlight, the passing figures. Only the lights were so few and dim, and there was no music.
Bridget turned, to see a tall young surgeon in khaki, tired, pale and dusty, who looked at her with a frown of worry, a man evidently over-driven, and with hardly any mind to give to this extra task that had been put upon him.
‘I’m sorry to be late–but we’ve had an awful rush to-day,’ he said, as he perfunctorily shook hands. ‘There was some big fighting on the Somme, the night before last, and the casualty trains have been coming in all day. I’m only able to get away for five minutes.
‘Well now, Miss Cookson’–he sat down opposite her, and tried to get his thoughts into business shape–‘first let me tell you it’s a great misfortune for you that Howson’s had to go off. I know something about the case–but not nearly as much as he knows. First of all–how old was your brother-in-law?’
‘About twenty-seven–I don’t know precisely.’
‘H’m. Well of course this man looks much older than that–but the question is what’s he been through? Was Lieutenant Sarratt fair or dark?’
‘Rather dark. He had brown hair.’
‘I can’t remember precisely,’ said Bridget, after a moment. ‘I don’t notice the colour of people’s eyes. But I’m sure they were some kind of brown.’
‘This man’s are a greenish grey. Can you recollect anything peculiar about Lieutenant Sarratt’s hands?’
Again Bridget paused for a second or two, and then said–‘I can’t remember anything at all peculiar about them.’
The surgeon looked at her closely, and was struck with the wooden irresponsiveness of the face, which was however rather handsome, he thought, than otherwise. No doubt, she was anxious to speak deliberately, when so much might depend on her evidence and her opinion. But he had never seen any countenance more difficult to read.
‘Perhaps you’re not a close observer of such things?’
‘No, I don’t think I am.’
‘H’m–that’s rather a pity. A great deal may turn on them, in this case.’
Then the face before him woke up a little.
‘But I am quite sure I should know my brother-in-law again, under any circumstances,’ said Bridget, with emphasis.
‘Ah, don’t be so sure! Privation and illness change people terribly. And this poor fellow has _suffered_!’–he shrugged his shoulders expressively. ‘Well, you will see him to-morrow. There is of course no external evidence to help us whatever. The unlucky accident that the Englishman’s companion–who was clearly a Belgian peasant, disguised–of that there is no doubt–was shot through the lungs at the very moment that the two men reached the British line, has wiped out all possible means of identification–unless, of course, the man himself can be recognised by someone who knew him. We have had at least a dozen parties–relations of “missing” men–much more recent cases–over here already–to no purpose. There is really no clue, unless’–the speaker rose with a tired smile–‘unless you can supply one, when you see him. But I am sorry about the fingers. That has always seemed to me a possible clue. To-morrow then, at eleven?’
‘It is surely most unlikely that my brother-in-law could have survived all this time? If he had been a prisoner, we should have heard of him, long ago. Where could he have been?’
The young man shrugged his shoulders.
‘There have been a few cases, you know–of escaped prisoners–evading capture for a long time–and finally crossing the line. But of course it _is_ very unlikely–most unlikely. Well, to-morrow?’ He bowed and departed.
Bridget made her way to her small carpetless room, and sat for long with a shawl round her at the open window. She could imagine the farm in this moonlight. It was Saturday. Very likely both Cicely and Sir William were at the cottage. She seemed to see Nelly, with the white shawl over her dark head, saying good-night to them at the farm-gate. That meant that it was all going forward. Some day,–and soon,–Nelly would discover that Farrell was necessary to her–that she couldn’t do without him–just as she had never been able in practical ways to do without her sister. No, there was nothing in the way of Nelly’s great future, and the free development of her–Bridget’s–own life, but this sudden and most unwelcome stroke of fate. If she had to send for Nelly–supposing it really were Sarratt–and then if he died–Nelly might never get over it.
It might simply kill her–why not? All the world knew that she was a weakling. And if it didn’t kill her, it would make it infinitely less likely that she would marry Farrell–in any reasonable time. Nelly was not like other people. She was all feelings. Actually to see George die–and in the state that these doctors described–would rack and torture her. She would never be the same again. The first shock was bad enough; this might be far worse. Bridget’s selfishness, in truth, counted on the same fact as Farrell’s tenderness. ‘After all, what people don’t see, they can’t feel’–to quite the same degree. But if Nelly, being Nelly, had seen the piteous thing, she would turn against Farrell, and think it loyalty to George to send her rich suitor about his business. Bridget felt that she could exactly foretell the course of things. A squalid and melancholy veil dropped over the future. Poverty, struggle, ill-health for Nelly–poverty, and the starving of all natural desires and ambitions for herself–that was all there was to look forward to, if the Farrells were alienated, and the marriage thwarted.
A fierce revolt shook the woman by the window. She sat on there till the moon dropped into the sea, and everything was still in the little echoing hotel. And then though she went to bed she could not sleep.
* * * * *
After her coffee and roll in the little _salle a manger_, which with its bare boards and little rags of curtains was only meant for summer guests, and was now, on this first of November, nippingly cold, Bridget wandered a little on the shore watching the white dust of the foam as a chill west wind skimmed it from the incoming waves, then packed her bag, and waited restlessly for Dr. Vincent. She understood she was to be allowed, if she wished, two visits in the hospital, so as to give her an opportunity of watching the patient she was going to see, without undue hurry, and would then be motored back to D—- in time for the night boat. She was bracing herself therefore to an experience the details of which she only dimly foresaw, but which must in any case be excessively disagreeable. What exactly she was going to do or say, she didn’t know. How could she, till the new fact was before her?
Punctually on the stroke of eleven, a motor arrived in charge of an army driver, and Bridget set out. They were to pick up Vincent in the town of X—- itself and run on to the Camp. The sun was out by this time, and all the seaside village, with its gimcrack hotels and villas flung pell-mell upon the sand, and among the pines, was sparkling under it. So were the withered woods, where the dead leaves were flying before the wind, the old town where Napoleon gathered his legions for the attack on England, and the wide sandy slopes beyond it, where the pine woods had perished to make room for the Camp. The car stopped presently on the edge of the town. To the left spread a river estuary, with a spit of land beyond, and lighthouses upon it, sharp against a pale blue sky. Every shade of pale yellow, of lilac and pearl, sparkled in the distance, in the scudding water, the fast flying westerly clouds, and the sandy inlets among the still surviving pines.
‘You’re punctuality itself,’ said a man emerging from a building before which a sentry was pacing–‘Now we shall be there directly.’
The building, so Bridget was informed, housed the Headquarters of the Base, and from it the business of the great Camp, whether on its military or its hospital side, was mainly carried on. And as they drove towards the Camp her companion, with the natural pride of the Englishman in his job, told the marvellous tale of the two preceding years–how the vast hospital city had been reared, and organised–the military camp too–the convalescent camp–the transports–and the feeding.
‘The Boche thought they were the only organisers in the world!–We’ve taught them better!’ he said, with a laugh in his pleasant eyes, the whole man of him, so weary the night before, now fresh and alert in the morning sunshine.
Bridget listened with an unwilling attention. This bit of the war seen close at hand was beginning to suggest to her some new vast world, of which she was wholly ignorant, where she was the merest cypher on sufferance. The thought was disagreeable to her irritable pride, and she thrust it aside. She had other things to consider.
They drew up outside one of the general hospitals lined along the Camp road.
‘You’ll find him in a special ward,’ said Vincent, as he handed her out. ‘But I’ll take you first to Sister.’
They entered the first hut, and made their way past various small rooms, amid busy people going to and fro. Bridget was aware of the usual hospital smell of mingled anesthetic and antiseptic, and presently, her companion laid a hasty hand on her arm and drew her to one side. A surgeon passed with a nurse. They entered a room on the right, and left the door of it a little ajar.
‘The operating theatre,’ said Vincent, with a gesture that shewed her where to look; and through the open door Bridget saw a white room beyond, an operating table and a man, a splendid boy of nineteen or twenty lying on it, with doctors and nurses standing round. The youth’s features shewed waxen against the white walls, and white overalls of the nurses.
‘This way,’ said Vincent. ‘Sister, this is Miss Cookson. You remember–Dr. Howson sent for her.’
A shrewd-faced woman of forty in nurse’s dress looked closely at Bridget.
‘We shall be very glad indeed, Miss Cookson, if you can throw any light on this case. It is one of the saddest we have here. Will you follow me, please?’
Bridget found herself passing through the main ward of the hut, rows of beds on either hand. She seemed to be morbidly conscious of scores of eyes upon her, and was glad when she found herself in the passage beyond the ward.
The Sister opened a door into a tiny sitting-room, and offered Bridget a chair.
‘They have warned you that this poor fellow is deaf and dumb?’
‘Yes–I had heard that.’
‘And his brain is very clouded. He tries to do all we tell him–it is touching to see him. But his real intelligence seems to be far away. Then there are the wounds. Did Dr. Howson tell you about them?’
‘He said there were bad wounds.’
The Sister threw up her hands.
‘How he ever managed to do the walking he must have done to get through the lines is a mystery to us all. What he must have endured! The wounds must have been dressed to begin with in a German field-hospital. Then on his way to Germany, before the wounds had properly healed–that at least is our theory–somewhere near the Belgian frontier he must have made his escape. What happened then, of course, during the winter and spring nobody knows; but when he reached our lines, the wounds were both in a septic state. There have been two operations for gangrene since he has been here. I don’t think he’ll stand another.’
Bridget lifted her eyes and looked intently at the speaker–
‘You think he’s very ill?’
‘Very ill,’ said the Sister emphatically. ‘If you can identify him, you must send for his wife at once–_at once_! Lieutenant Sarratt was, I think, married?’
‘Yes,’ said Bridget. ‘Now may I see him?’
The Sister looked at her visitor curiously. She was both puzzled and repelled by Bridget’s manner, by its lack of spring and cordiality, its dull suggestion of something reserved and held back. But perhaps the woman was only shy; and oppressed by the responsibility of what she had come to do. The Sister was a very human person, and took tolerant views of everything that was not German. She rose, saying gently–
‘If I may advise you, take time to watch him, before you form or express any opinion. We won’t hurry you.’
Bridget followed her guide a few steps along the corridor. The Sister opened a door, and stood aside to let Bridget pass in. Then she came in herself, and beckoned to a young probationer who was rolling bandages on the further side of the only bed the room contained. The girl quietly put down her work and went out.
There was a man lying in the bed, and Bridget looked at him. Her heart beat so fast, that she felt for a moment sick and suffocated. The Sister bent over him tenderly, and put back the hair, the grey hair which had fallen over his forehead. At the touch, his eyes opened, and as he saw the Sister’s face he very faintly smiled. Bridget suddenly put out a hand and steadied herself by a chair standing beside the bed. The Sister however saw nothing but the face on the pillow, and the smile. The smile was so rare!–it was the one sufficient reward for all his nurses did for him.
‘Now I’ll leave you,’ said the Sister, forbearing to ask any further questions. ‘Won’t you sit down there? If you want anyone, you have only to touch that bell.’
She disappeared. And Bridget sat down, her eyes on the figure in the bed, and on the hand outside the sheet. Her own hands were trembling, as they lay crossed upon her lap.
How grey and thin the hair was–how ghostly the face–what suffering in every line!
Bridget drew closer.
‘George!’ she whispered.
No answer. The man’s eyes were closed again. He seemed to be asleep. Bridget looked at his hand–intently. Then she touched it.
The heavy blue-veined eyelids rose again, as though at the only summons the brain understood. Bridget bent forward. What colour there had been in it before ebbed from her sallow face; her lips grew white. The eyes of the man in the bed met hers–first mechanically–without any sign of consciousness; then–was it imagination?–or was there a sudden change of expression–a quick trouble–a flickering of the lids? Bridget shook through every limb. If he recognised her, if the sight of her brought memory back–even a gleam of it–there was an end of everything, of course. She had only to go to the nearest telegraph office and send for Nelly.
But the momentary stimulus passed as she looked–the eyes grew vacant again–the lids fell. Bridget drew a long breath. She raised herself and moved her chair farther away.
Time passed. The window behind her was open, and the sun came in, and stole over the bed. The sick man scarcely moved at all. There was complete silence, except for the tread of persons in the corridor outside, and certain distant sounds of musketry and bomb practice from the military camp half a mile away.
He was dying–the man in the bed. That was plain. Bridget knew the look of mortal illness. It couldn’t be long.
She sat there nearly an hour–thinking. At the end of that time she rang the hand-bell near her.
Sister Agnes appeared at once. Bridget had risen and confronted her.
‘Well,’ said the Sister eagerly. But the visitor’s irresponsive look quenched her hopes at once.
‘I see nothing at all that reminds me of my brother-in-law,’ said Bridget with emphasis. ‘I am very sorry–but I cannot identify this person as George Sarratt.’
The Sister’s face fell.
‘You don’t even see the general likeness Dr. Howson thought he saw?’
Bridget turned back with her towards the bed.
‘I see what Dr. Howson meant,’ she said, slowly. ‘But there is no real likeness. My brother-in-law’s face was much longer. His mouth was quite different. And his eyes were brown.’
‘Did you see the eyes again? Did he look at you?’
‘And there was no sign of recognition?’
‘Poor dear fellow!’ said the Sister, stooping over him again. There was a profound and yearning pity in the gesture. ‘I wish we could have kept him more alive–more awake–for you, to see. But there had to be morphia this morning. He had a dreadful night. Are you _quite_ sure? Wouldn’t you like to come back this afternoon, and watch him again? Sometimes a second time–Oh, and what of the hands?–did you notice them?’ And suddenly remembering Dr. Howson’s words, the Sister pointed to the long, bloodless fingers lying on the sheet, and to the marked deformity in each little finger.
‘Yet–but George’s hands were not peculiar in any way.’ Bridget’s voice, as she spoke, seemed to herself to come from far away; as though it were that of another person speaking under compulsion.
‘I’m sorry–I’m sorry!’–the Sister repeated. ‘It’s so sad for him to be dying here–all alone–nobody knowing even who he is–when one thinks how somebody must be grieving and longing for him.’
‘Have you no other enquiries?’ said Bridget, abruptly, turning to pick up some gloves she had laid down.
‘Oh yes–we have had other visitors–and I believe there is a gentleman coming to-morrow. But nothing that sounded so promising as your visit. You won’t come again?’
‘It would be no use,’ said the even, determined voice. ‘I will write to Dr. Howson from London. And I do hope’–for the first time, the kindly nurse perceived some agitation in this impressive stranger–‘I do hope that nobody will write to my sister–to Mrs. Sarratt. She is very delicate. Excitement and disappointment might just kill her. That’s why I came.’
‘And that of course is why Dr. Howson wrote to you first. Oh I am sure he will take every care. He’ll be very, very sorry! You’ll write to him? And of course so shall I.’
The news that the lady from England had failed to identify the nameless patient to whom doctor and nurses had been for weeks giving their most devoted care spread rapidly, and Bridget before she left the hospital had to run the gauntlet of a good many enquiries, at the hands of the various hospital chiefs. She produced on all those who questioned her the impression of an unattractive, hard, intelligent woman whose judgment could probably be trusted.
‘Glad she isn’t my sister-in-law!’ thought Vincent as he turned back from handing her into the motor which was to take her to the port. But he did not doubt her verdict, and was only sorry for ‘old Howson,’ who had been so sure that something would come of her visit.
The motor took Bridget rapidly back to D—-, where she would be in good time for an afternoon boat. She got some food, automatically, at a hotel near the quay, and automatically made her way to the boat when the time came. A dull sense of something irrevocable,–something horrible,–overshadowed her. But the ‘will to conquer’ in her was as iron; and, as in the Prussian conscience, left no room for pity or remorse.
A psychologist would have found much to interest him in Bridget Cookson’s mental state during the days which followed on her journey to France. The immediate result of that journey was an acute sharpening of intelligence, accompanied by a steady, automatic repression of all those elements of character or mind which might have interfered with its free working. Bridget understood perfectly that she had committed a crime, and at first she had not been able to protect herself against the normal reaction of horror or fear. But the reaction passed very quickly. Conscience gave up the ghost. Selfish will, and keen wits held the field; and Bridget ceased to be more than occasionally uncomfortable, though a certain amount of anxiety was of course inevitable.
She did not certainly want to be found out, either by Nelly or the Farrells; and she took elaborate steps to prevent it. She wrote first a long letter to Howson giving her reasons for refusing to believe in his tentative identification of the man at X—- as George Sarratt, and begging him not to write to her sister. ‘That would be indeed _cruel_. She can just get along now, and every month she gets a little stronger. But her heart, which was weakened by the influenza last year, would never stand the shock of a fearful disappointment. Please let her be. I take all the responsibility. That man is not George Sarratt. I hope you may soon discover who he is.’
Step No. 2 was to go, on the very morning after she arrived in London, to the Enquiry Office in A—- Street. Particulars of the case in France had that morning reached the office, and Bridget was but just in time to stop a letter from Miss Eustace to Nelly. When she pointed out that she had been over to France on purpose to see for herself, that there was no doubt at all in her own mind, and that it would only torment a frail invalid to no purpose to open up the question, the letter was of course countermanded. Who could possibly dispute a sister’s advice in such a case? And who could attribute the advice to anything else than sisterly affection!
Meanwhile among the mountains an unusually early winter was beginning to set in. The weather grew bitterly cold, and already a powdering of snow was on the fell-tops. For all that, Nelly could never drink deep enough of the November beauty, as it shone upon the fells through some bright frosty days. The oaks were still laden with leaf; the fern was still scarlet on the slopes; and the ghylls and waterfalls leapt foaming white down their ancestral courses. And in this austerer world, Nelly’s delicate personality, as though braced by the touch of winter, seemed to move more lightly and buoyantly. She was more vividly interested in things and persons–in her drawing, her books, her endless knitting and sewing for the wounded. She was puzzled that Bridget stayed so long in town, but alack! she could do very well without Bridget. Some portion of the savour of life, of that infinity of small pleasures which each day may bring for the simple and the pure in heart, was again hers. Insensibly the great wound was healing. The dragging anguish of the first year assailed her now but rarely.
One morning she opened the windows in the little sitting-room, to let in the sunshine, and the great spectacle of the Pikes wrapped in majestic shadow, purple-black, with the higher peaks ranged in a hierarchy of light behind them.
She leant far out of the window, breathing in the tonic smell of the oak leaves on the grass beneath her, and the freshness of the mountain air. Then, as she turned back to the white-walled raftered room with its bright fire, she was seized with the pleasantness of this place which was now her home. Insensibly it had captured her heart, and her senses. And who was it–what contriving brain–had designed and built it up, out of the rough and primitive dwelling it had once been?
Of course, William Farrell had done it all! There was scarcely a piece of furniture, a picture, a book, that was not of his choosing and placing. Little by little, they had been gathered round her. His hand had touched and chosen them, every one. He took far more pleasure and interest in the details of these few rooms than in any of his own houses and costly possessions.
Suddenly–as she sat there on the window-ledge, considering the room, her back to the mountains–one of those explosions of consciousness rushed upon Nelly, which, however surprising the crash, are really long prepared and inevitable.
What did that room really _mean_–the artistic and subtle simplicity of it?–the books, the flowers, and the few priceless things, drawings or terra-cottas, brought from the cottage, and changed every few weeks by Farrell himself, who would arrive with them under his arm, or in his pockets, and take them back in like manner.
The colour flooded into Nelly’s face. She dropped it in her hands with a low cry. An agony seized her. She loathed herself.
Then springing up passionately she began to pace the narrow floor, her slender arms and hands locked behind her.
Sir William was coming that very evening. So was Cicely, who was to be her own guest at the farm, while Marsworth, so she heard, was to have the spare room at the cottage.
She had not seen William Farrell for some time–for what counted, at least, as some time in their relation; not since that evening before Bridget went away–more than a fortnight. But it was borne in upon her that she had heard from him practically every day. There, in the drawer of her writing-table, lay the packet of his letters. She looked for them now morning after morning, and if they failed her, the day seemed blank. Anybody might have read them–or her replies. None the less Farrell’s letters were the outpouring of a man’s heart and mind to the one person with whom he felt himself entirely at ease. The endless problems and happenings of the great hospital to which he was devoting more and more energy, and more and more wealth; the incidents and persons that struck him; his loves and hates among the staff or the patients; the humour or the pity of the daily spectacle;–it was all there in his letters, told in a rich careless English that stuck to the memory. Nelly was accustomed to read and re-read them.
Yes, and she was proud to receive them!–proud that he thought so much of her opinion and cared so much for her sympathy. But _why_ did he write to her, so constantly, so intimately?–what was the real motive of it all?
At last, Nelly asked herself the question. It was fatal of course. So long as no question is asked of Lohengrin–who, what, and whence he is–the spell holds, the story moves. But examine it, as we all know, and the vision fades, the gleam is gone.
She passed rapidly, and almost with terror, into a misery of remorse. What had she been doing with this kindest and best of men? Allowing him to suppose that after a little while she would be quite ready to forget George and be his wife? That threw her into a fit of helpless crying. The tears ran down her cheeks as she moved to and fro. Her George!–falling out there, in that ghastly No Man’s Land, dying out there, alone, with no one to help, and quiet now in his unknown grave. And after little more than a year she was to forget him, and be rich and happy with a new lover–a new husband?
She seemed to herself the basest of women. Base towards George–and towards Farrell–both! What could she do?–what must she do? Oh, she must go away–she must break it all off! And looking despairingly round the room, which only an hour before had seemed to her so dear and familiar, she tried to imagine herself in exile from all it represented, cut off from Farrell and from Cicely, left only to her own weak self.
But she must–she _must_! That very evening she must speak to Willy–she must have it out. Of course he would urge her to stay there–he would promise to go away–and leave her alone. But that would be too mean, too ungrateful. She couldn’t banish him from this spot that he loved, where he snatched his few hours–always now growing fewer–of rest and pleasure. No, she must just depart. Without telling him? Without warning? Her will failed her.
She got out her table, with its knitting, and its bundles of prepared work which had arrived that morning from the workroom, and began upon one of them mechanically. But she was more and more weighed down by a sense of catastrophe–which was also a sense of passionate shame. Why, she was George’s wife, still!–his _wife_–for who could _know_, for certain, that he was dead? That was what the law meant. _Seven years_!
* * * * *
She spent the day in a wretched confusion of thoughts and plans. A telegram from Cicely arrived about midday–‘Can’t get to you till to-morrow. Willy and Marsworth coming to-day–Marsworth not till late.’
So any hour might bring Farrell. She sat desperately waiting for him. Meanwhile there was a post-card from Bridget saying that she too would probably arrive that evening.
That seemed the last straw. Bridget would merely think her a fool; Bridget would certainly quarrel with her. Why, it had been Bridget’s constant object to promote the intimacy with the Farrells, to throw her and Sir William together. Nelly remembered her own revolts and refusals. They seemed now so long ago! In those days it was jealousy for George that filled her, the fierce resolve to let no one so much as dream that she could ever forget him, and to allow no one to give money to George’s wife, for whom George himself had provided, and should still provide. And at an earlier stage–after George left her, and before he died–she could see herself, as she looked back, keeping Sir William firmly at a distance, resenting those friendly caressing ways, which others accepted–which she too now accepted, so meekly, so abominably! She thought of his weekly comings and goings, as they were now; how, in greeting and good-bye, he would hold her hands, both of them, in his; how once or twice he had raised them to his lips. And it had begun to seem quite natural to her, wretch that she was; because he pitied her, because he was so good to her–and so much older, nearly twenty years. He was her brother and dear friend, and she the little sister whom he cherished, who sympathised with all he did, and would listen as long as he pleased, while he talked of everything that filled his mind–the war news, his work, his books, his companions; or would sit by, watching breathlessly while his skilful hand put down some broad ‘note’ of colour or light, generally on a page of her own sketch-book.
Ah, but it must end–it must end! And she must tell him to-night.
Then she fell to thinking of how it was she had been so blind for so long; and was now in this tumult of change. One moment, and she was still the Nelly of yesterday, cheerful, patient, comforted by the love of her friends; and the next, she had become this poor, helpless thing, struggling with her conscience, her guilty conscience, and her sorrow. How had it happened? There was something uncanny, miraculous in it. But anyway, there, in a flash it stood revealed–her treason to George–her unkindness to Willy.
For she would never marry him–never! She simply felt herself an unfaithful wife–a disloyal friend.
* * * * *
The November day passed on, cloudless, to its red setting over the Coniston fells. Wetherlam stood black against the barred scarlet of the west, and all the valleys lay veiled in a blue and purple mist, traversed by rays of light, wherever a break in the mountain wall let the sunset through. The beautiful winter twilight had just begun, when Nelly heard the step she waited for outside.
She did not run to the window to greet him as she generally did. She sat still, by the fire, her knitting on her knee. Her black dress was very black, with the plainest white ruffle at her throat. She looked very small and pitiful. Perhaps she meant to look it! The weak in dealing with the strong have always that instinctive resource.
‘How jolly to find you alone!’ said Farrell joyously, as he entered the room. ‘I thought Miss Bridget was due.’ He put down the books with which he had come laden and approached her with outstretched hands. ‘I say!–you don’t look well!’ His look, suddenly sobered, examined her.
‘Oh yes, I am quite well. Bridget comes to-night.’
She hurriedly withdrew herself, and he sat down opposite her, holding some chilly fingers to the blaze, surveying her all the time.
‘Why doesn’t Bridget stop here and look after you?’
Nelly laughed. ‘Because she has much more interesting things to do!’
‘That’s most unlikely! Have you been alone all the week?’
‘Yes, but quite busy, thank you–and quite well.’ ‘You don’t look it,’ he repeated gravely, after a moment.
‘So busy, and so well,’ she insisted, ‘that even I can’t find excuses for idling here much longer.’
He gave a perceptible start. ‘What does that mean? What are you going to do?’
‘I don’t know. But I think’–she eyed him uneasily–‘hospital work of some kind.’
He shook his head.
‘I wouldn’t take you in my hospital! You’d knock up in a week.’
‘You’re quite, quite mistaken,’ she said, eagerly. ‘I can wash dishes and plates now as well as anyone. Hester told me the other day of a small hospital managed by a friend of hers–where they want a parlour-maid. I could do that capitally.’
‘Where is it?’ he asked, after a moment.
She hesitated, and at last said evasively–
‘In Surrey somewhere–I think.’
He took up the tongs, and deliberately put the fire together, in silence. At last he said–
‘I thought you promised Cicely and me that you wouldn’t attempt anything of the kind?’
‘Not till I was fit.’ Her voice trembled a little. ‘But now I am–quite fit.’
‘You should let your friends judge that for you,’ he said gently.
‘No, no, I can’t. I must judge for myself.’ She spoke with growing agitation. ‘You have been so awfully, awfully good to me!–and now’–she bent forward and laid a pleading hand on his arm–‘now you must be good to me in another way I you must let me go. I brood here too much. I want not to think–I am so tired of myself. Let me go and think about other people–drudge a little–and slave a little! Let me–it will do me good!’
His face altered perceptibly during this appeal. When he first came in, fresh from the frosty air, his fair hair and beard flaming in the firelight, his eyes all pleasure, he had seemed the embodiment of whatever is lusty and vigorous in life–an overwhelming presence in the little cottage room. But he had many subtler aspects. And as he listened to her, the Viking, the demi-god, disappeared.
‘And what about those–to whom it will do harm?’
‘Oh no, it won’t do harm–to anybody,’ she faltered.
‘It will do the greatest harm!’–he laid a sharp emphasis on the words. ‘Isn’t it worth while to be just the joy and inspiration of those who can work hard–so that they go away from you, renewed like eagles? Cicely and I come–we tell you our troubles–our worries–our failures, and our successes. We couldn’t tell them to anyone else. But you sit here; and you’re so gentle and so wise–you see things so clearly, just because you’re not in the crowd, not in the rough and tumble–that we go away–bucked up!–and run our shows the better for our hours with you. Why must women be always bustling and hurrying, and all of them doing the same things? If you only knew the blessing it is to find someone with a little leisure just to feel, and think!–just to listen to what one has to say. You know I am always bursting with things to say!’
He looked at her with a laugh. His colour had risen.
‘I arrive here–often–full of grievances and wrath against everybody–hating the Government–hating the War Office–hating our own staff, or somebody on it–entirely and absolutely persuaded that the country is going to the dogs, and that we shall be at Germany’s mercy in six months. Well, there you sit–I don’t know how you manage it!–but somehow it all clears away. I don’t want to hang anybody any more–I think we are going to win–I think our staff are splendid fellows, and the nurses, angels–(they ain’t, though, all the same!)–and it’s all _you_!–just by being you–just by giving me rope enough–letting me have it all out. And I go away with twice the work in me I had when I came. And Cicely’s the same–and Hester. You play upon us all–just because’–he hesitated–‘because you’re so sweet to us all. You raise us to a higher power; you work through us. Who else will do it if you desert us?’
Her lips trembled.
‘I don’t want to desert you, but–what right have I to such comfort–such luxury–when other people are suffering and toiling?’
He raised his eyebrows.
‘Luxury? This little room? And there you sit sewing and knitting all day! And I’ll be bound you don’t eat enough to keep a sparrow!’
There was silence. She was saying to herself–‘Shall I ever be able to go?–to break with them all?’ The thought, the image, of George flashed again through her mind. But why was it so much fainter, so much less distinct than it had been an hour ago? Yet she seemed to turn to him, to beg him piteously to protect her from something vague and undefined.
Suddenly a low voice spoke–
She looked up–startled–her childish eyes full of tears.
He held out his hand, and she could not help it, she yielded her own.
Farrell’s look was full of energy, of determination. He drew nearer to her, still holding her hand. But he spoke with perfect self-control.
‘Nelly, I won’t deceive you! I love you! You are everything to me. It seems as if I had never been happy–never known what happiness could possibly mean till I knew you. To come here every week–to see you like this for these few hours–it changes everything–it sweetens everything–because you are in my heart–because I have the hope–that some day—-‘
She withdrew her hand and covered her face.
‘Oh, it’s my fault–my fault!’ she said, incoherently–‘how could I?–how _could_ I?’
There was silence again. He opened his lips to speak once or twice, but no words came. One expression succeeded another on his face; his eyes sparkled. At last he said–‘How could you help it? You could not prevent my loving you.’
‘Yes, I could–I ought—-,’ she said, vehemently. ‘Only I was a fool–I never realised. That’s so like me. I won’t face things. And yet’–she looked at him miserably–‘I did beg you to let me live my own life–didn’t I?–not to spoil me–not–not to be so kind to me.’
‘Yes. But then you see–you were you!’
She sprang up, looking down upon him, as he sat by the fire. ‘That’s just it. If I were another person! But no!–no! I can’t be your friend. I’m not old enough–or clever enough. And I can’t ever be anything else.’
‘Why?’ He asked it very quietly, his eyes raised to hers. He could see the quick beat of her breath under her black dress.
‘Because I’m not my own. I’m not free–you know I’m not. I’m not free legally–and I’m not free in heart. Oh, if George were to come in at that door!’–she threw back her head with a passionate gesture–‘there would be nobody else in the world for me–nobody–nobody!’
He stooped over the fire, fidgeting with it, so that his face was hidden from her.
‘You know, I think, that if I believed there was the faintest hope of that, I should never have said a word–of my own feelings. But as it is–why must you feel bound to break up this–this friendship, which means so much to us all? What harm is there in it? Time will clear up a great deal. I’ll hold my tongue–I promise you. I won’t bother you. I won’t speak of it again–for a year–or more–if you wish. But–don’t forsake us!’
He looked up with that smile which in Cicely’s unbiased opinion gave him such an unfair advantage over womankind.
With a little sob, Nelly walked away towards the window, which was still uncurtained though the night had fallen. Outside there was a starry deep of sky, above Wetherlam and the northern fells. The great shapes held the valley in guard; the river windings far below seemed still to keep the sunset; while here and there shone scattered lights in farms and cottages, sheltering the old, old life of the dales.
Insensibly Nelly’s passionate agitation began to subside. Had she been filling her own path with imaginary perils and phantoms? Yet there echoed in her mind the low-spoken words–‘I won’t deceive you! I love you!’ And the recollection both frightened and touched her.
Presently Farrell spoke again, quite in his usual voice.
‘I shall be in despair if you leave me to tackle Cicely alone. She’s been perfectly mad lately. But you can put it all right if you choose.’
Nelly was startled into turning back towards him.
‘Oh!–how can I?’
‘Tell her she has been behaving abominably, and making a good fellow’s life a burden to him. Scold her! Laugh at her!’
‘What has she been doing?’ said Nelly, still standing by the window.
Farrell launched into a racy and elaborate account–the effort of one determined, _coute que coute_, to bring the conversation back to an ordinary key–of Cicely’s proceedings, during the ten days since Nelly had seen her.
It appeared that Marsworth, after many weeks during which they had heard nothing of him, had been driven north again to his Carton doctor, by a return of neuralgic trouble in his wounded arm; and as usual had put up at the Rectory, where as usual Miss Daisy, the Rector’s granddaughter, had ministered to him like the kind little brick she was.
‘You see, she’s altogether too good to be true!’ said Farrell. ‘And yet it is true. She looks after her grandfather and the parish. She runs the Sunday school, and all the big boys are in love with her. She does V.A.D. work at the hospital. She spends nothing on her dress. She’s probably up at six every morning. And all the time, instead of being plain, which of course virtue ought to be, she’s as pretty as possible–like a little bird. And Cicely can’t abide her. I don’t know whether she’s in love with Marsworth. Probably she is. Why not? At any rate, whenever Marsworth and Cicely fall out, which they do every day–Cicely has the vile habit–of course you know!–of visiting Marsworth’s sins upon little Daisy Stewart. I understood she was guilty of some enormity at the Red Cross sale in the village last week. Marsworth was shocked, and had it out with her. Consequently they haven’t been on speaking terms for days.’
‘What shall we do with them to-morrow?’ cried Nelly in alarm, coming to sit down again by the fire and taking up her knitting. How strange it was–after that moment of tempestuous emotion–to have fallen back within a few minutes into this familiar, intimate chat! Her pulse was still rushing. She knew that something irrevocable had happened, and that when she was alone, she must face it. And meanwhile here she sat knitting!–and trying to help him with Cicely as usual!
‘Oh, and to-morrow!’–said Farrell with amusement, ‘the fat will indeed be in the fire.’
And he revealed the fact that on his way through Grasmere he had fallen in with the Stewarts. The old man had been suffering from bronchitis, and the two had come for a few days’ change to some cousins at Grasmere.
‘And the old man’s a bit of a collector and wants to see the Turners. He knows Carton by heart. So I had to ask them to come up to-morrow–and there it is!–Cicely will find them in possession, with Marsworth in attendance!’
‘Why does she come at all?’ said Nelly, wondering. ‘She knows Captain Marsworth will be here. She said so, in her telegram.’
Farrell shrugged his shoulders.
‘”It taks aw soarts to mak a worrld,” as they say up here. But Marsworth and Cis are queer specimens! I am privately certain he can’t do for long without seeing her. And as for her, I had no sooner arranged that he should join me here to-night, than she telegraphed to you! Just like her! I had no idea she thought of coming. Well, I suppose to quarrel yourself into matrimony is one of the recognised openings!’
The talk dropped. The joint consciousness behind it was too much for it. It fell like a withered leaf.
Farrell got up to go. Nelly too rose, trembling, to her feet. He took her hand.
‘Don’t leave us,’ he repeated, softly. ‘You are our little saint–you help us by just living. Don’t attempt things too hard for you. You’ll kill yourself, and then—-‘
She looked at him mutely, held by the spell of his eyes.
‘Well then,’ he finished, abruptly, ‘there won’t be much left for one man to live for. Good-night.’
He was gone, and she was left standing in the firelight, a small, bewildered creature.
‘What shall I do?’ she was saying to herself, ‘Oh, what ought I to do?’
She sank down on the floor, and hid her face against a chair. Helplessly, she wished that Hester would come!–someone wise and strong who would tell her what was right. The thought of supplanting George, of learning to forget him, of letting somebody else take his place in her heart, was horrible–even monstrous–to her. Yet she did not know how she would ever find the strength to make Farrell suffer. His devotion appealed–not to any answering passion in her–there was none–but to an innate lovingness, that made it a torment to her to refuse to love and be loved. Her power of dream, of visualisation, shewed him to her alone and unhappy; when, perhaps, she might still–without harm–have been a help to him–have shewn him her gratitude. She felt herself wavering and retreating; seeking, as usual, the easiest path out of her great dilemma. Must she either be disloyal to her George?–her dead, her heroic George!–or unkind to this living man, whose unselfish devotion had stood between her and despair? After all, might it not still go on? She could protect herself. She was not afraid.
But she _was_ afraid! She was in truth held by the terror of her own weakness, and Farrell’s strength, as she lay crouching by the fire.
Outside the wind was rising. Great clouds were coming up from the south-west. The rain had begun. Soon it was lashing the windows, and pouring from the eaves of the old farmhouse.
Nelly went back to her work; and the wind and rain grew wilder as the hours passed. Just as she was thinking wearily of going to bed, there were sounds of wheels outside.
Bridget? so late! Nelly had long since given her up. What a night on which to face the drive from Windermere! Poor horse!–poor man!
Yes, it was certainly Bridget! As Nelly half rose, she heard the harsh, deep voice upon the stairs. A tall figure, heavily cloaked, entered.
‘My dear Bridget–I’d quite given you up!’
‘No need,’ said Bridget coolly, as she allowed Nelly to kiss her cheek. ‘The afternoon train from Euston was a little late. You can’t help that with all these soldiers about.’
‘Come and sit down by the fire. Have you done all you wanted to do?’
Bridget sat down, after taking off her wet water-proof, and held a draggled hat to the blaze. Nelly looking at her was struck by the fact that Bridget’s hair had grown very grey, and the lines in her face very deep. What an extraordinary person Bridget was! What had she been doing all this time?
But nothing could be got out of the traveller. She sat by the fire for a while, and let Nelly get her a tray of food. But she said very little, except to complain of the weather, and, once, to ask if the Farrells were at the cottage.