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  • 1917
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upon them. Here, the war came home to her, as a vast machine by which George, like millions of others, had been caught and crushed. She shuddered to think of it.

At intervals Sarratt still spoke a good deal, though rarely after their third day together. He asked her once–‘Dear, did you ever send for my letter?’ She paused a moment to think. ‘You mean the letter you left for me–in case?’ He made a sign of assent, and then smiled into the face bending over him. ‘Read it again, darling. I mean it all now, as I did then.’ She could only kiss him softly–without tears. After the first day she never cried.

On the last night of his life, when she thought that all speech was over, and that she would never hear his voice, or see a conscious look, again, he opened his eyes suddenly, and she heard–‘I love you, sweetheart! I love you, sweetheart!’ twice over. That was the last sound. Towards midnight he died.

Next morning Cicely wrote to Farrell:–

‘We are coming home to-morrow after they bury him in the cemetery here. Please get Hester–_whatever she may be doing_–to throw it up, and come and meet us. She is the only person who can help Nelly now for a bit Nelly pines for Rydal–where they were together. She would go to Hester’s cottage. Tell Hester.

‘Why, old boy, do such things happen? That’s what I keep asking–not being a saint, like these dear nurses here, who really have been angelic. I am the only one who rebels. George Sarratt was so patient–so terribly patient! And Nelly is just crushed–for the moment, though I sometimes expect to see a strange energy in her before long. But I keep knocking my head all day, and part of the night–the very small part that I’m not asleep–against the questions that everybody seems to have asked since the world began–and I know that I am a fool, and go on doing it.

‘George Sarratt, I think, was a simple Christian, and died like one. He seemed to like the Chaplain, which was a comfort. How much any of that means to Nelly I don’t know.’

She also wrote to Marsworth:–

‘Meet us, please, at Charing Cross. I have no spirit to answer your last letters as they deserve. But I give you notice that I don’t thrive on too sweet a diet–and praise is positively bad for me. It wrinkles me up the wrong way.

‘What can be done about that incredible sister? She ought to know that Nelly is determined not to see her. Just think!–they might have had nearly a month together, and she cut it down to five days!

(‘Dear Herbert, say anything you like, and the sweeter the better!)

‘Yours,

‘CICELY.’

CHAPTER XVII

‘Well–what news?’ said Farrell abruptly. For Cicely had come into his library with a letter in her hand. The library was a fine eighteenth-century room still preserved intact amid the general appropriation of the big house by the hospital, and when he was not busy in his office, it was his place of refuge.

Cicely perched herself on the edge of his writing-table.

‘Hester has brought her to Rydal all right,’ she said cheerfully.

‘How is she?’

‘As you might expect. But Hester says she talks of nothing but going to work. She has absolutely set her heart upon it, and there is no moving her.’

‘It is, of course, an absurdity,’ said Farrell, frowning.

‘Absurdity or not, she means to do it, and Hester begs that nobody will try to persuade her against it. She has promised Hester to stay with her for three weeks, and then she has already made her arrangements.’

‘What is she going to do?’

‘She is going to a hospital near Manchester. They want a V.A.D. housemaid.’

Farrell rose impatiently, and stretching out his hand for his pipe, began to pace the room, steeped evidently in disagreeable reflection.

‘You know as well as I do’–he said at last–that she hasn’t the physical strength for it.’

‘Well then she’ll break down, and we can put her to bed. But try she will, and I entirely approve of it,’ said Cicely firmly. ‘Hard physical work–till you drop–till you’re so tired, you must go to sleep–that’s the only thing when you’re as miserable as poor Nelly. You know it is, Will. Don’t you remember that poor Mrs. Henessy whose son died here? Her letters to me afterwards used to be all about scrubbing. If she could scrub from morning till night, she could just get along. She scrubbed herself sane again. The bigger the floor, the better she liked it. When bedtime came, she just slept like a log. And at last she got all right. But it was touch-and-go when she left here.’

‘She was a powerfully-built woman,’ said Farrell gloomily.

‘Oh, well, it isn’t always the strapping ones that come through. Anyway, old boy, I’m afraid you can’t do anything to alter it.’

She looked at him a little askance. It was perfectly understood between them that Cicely was more or less acquainted with her brother’s plight, and since her engagement to Marsworth had been announced it was astonishing how much more ready Farrell had been to confide in her, and she to be confided in.

But for her few days in France, however, with Nelly Sarratt, Marsworth might still have had some wrestles to go through with Cicely. At the very moment when Farrell’s telephone message arrived, imploring her to take charge of Nelly on her journey, Cicely was engaged in fresh quarrelling with her long-suffering lover. But the spectacle of Sarratt’s death, and Nelly’s agony, together with her own quick divination of Nelly’s inner mind, had worked profoundly on Cicely, and Marsworth had never shewn himself a better fellow than in his complete sympathy with her, and his eager pity for the Sarratts. ‘I haven’t the heart to tease him’–Cicely had said candidly after her return to England. ‘He’s been so horribly nice to me!’ And the Petruchio having once got the upper hand, the Katherine was–like her prototype–almost overdoing it. The corduroy trousers, Russian boots, the flame-coloured jersey actually arrived. Cicely looked at them wistfully and locked them up. As to the extravagances that still remained, in hats, or skirts, or head-dressing, were they to be any further reduced, Marsworth would probably himself implore her not to be too suddenly reasonable. For, without them, Cicely would be only half Cicely.

But his sister’s engagement, perhaps, had only made Farrell feel more sharply than ever the collapse of his own hopes. Three days after Sarratt’s death Nelly had written to him to give him George’s dying message, and to thank him on her own account for all that he had done to help her journey. The letter was phrased as Nelly could not help phrasing anything she wrote. Cicely, to whom Nelly dumbly shewed it, thought it ‘sweet.’ But on Farrel’s morbid state, it struck like ice, and he had the greatest difficulty in writing a letter of sympathy, such as any common friend must send her, in return. Every word seemed to him either too strong or too weak. The poor Viking, indeed, had begun to look almost middle-aged, and Cicely with a pang had discovered or fancied some streaks of grey in the splendid red beard and curly hair. At the same time her half-sarcastic sense perceived that he was far better provided than Nelly, with the means of self-protection against his trouble. ‘Men always are,’ thought Cicely–‘they have so much more interesting things to do.’ And she compared the now famous hospital, with its constant scientific developments, the ever-changing and absorbing spectacle of the life within it, and Farrell’s remarkable position amid its strenuous world–with poor Nelly’s ‘housemaiding.’

But Nelly was choosing the path that suited her own need, and in the spiritual world, the humblest means may be the best. It was when she was cooking for her nuns that some of St. Teresa’s divinest ecstasies came upon her! Not that there was any prospect of ecstasy for Nelly Sarratt. She seemed to herself to be engaged in a kind of surgery–the cutting or burning away of elements in herself that she had come to scorn. Hester, who was something of a saint herself, came near to understanding her. Cicely could only wonder. But Hester perceived, with awe, a _fierceness_ in Nelly–a kind of cruelty–towards herself, with which she knew well, from a long experience of human beings, that it was no use to argue. The little, loving, easy-going thing had discovered in her own gentleness and weakness, the source of something despicable–that is, of her own failure to love George as steadfastly and truly as he had loved her. The whole memory of her marriage was poisoned for her by this bitter sense that in little more than a year after she had lost him, while he was actually still alive, and when the law even, let alone the highest standards of love, had not released her, she had begun to yield to the wooing of another man. Perhaps only chance, under all the difficult circumstances of her intimacy with Farrell, had saved her from a shameful yielding–from dishonour, as well as a broken faith.

‘What had brought it about?’–she asked herself. And she asked it with a desperate will, determined to probe her own sin to the utmost. ‘Soft living!’–was her own reply–moral and physical indolence. The pleasure of being petted and spoiled, the readiness to let others work for her, and think for her, what people called her ‘sweetness!’ She turned upon it with a burning hatred and contempt. She would scourge it out of herself. And then perhaps some day she would be able to think of George’s last faint words with something else than remorseful anguish–_ love you, sweetheart!–I love you, sweetheart!’_

During the three weeks, however, that she was with Hester, she was very silent. She clung to Hester without words, and with much less than her usual caressingness. She found–it was evident–a certain comfort in solitary walks, in the simple talk of Mrs. Tyson, and ‘Father Time,’ who came to see her, and scolded her for her pale cheeks with a disrespectful vigour which brought actually a smile to her eyes. Tommy was brought over to see her; and she sat beside him, while he lay on the floor drawing Hoons and Haggans, at a great rate, and brimful of fresh adventures in ‘Jupe.’ But he was soon conscious that his old playfellow was not the listener she had been; and he presently stole away with a wistful look at her.

One evening early in December, Hester coming in from marketing in Ambleside, found Nelly, sitting by the fire, a book open on her knee, so absorbed in thought that she had not heard her friend’s entrance. Yet her lips seemed to be moving. Hester came softly, and knelt down beside her.

‘Darling, I have been such a long time away!’

Nelly drew a deep breath.

‘Oh, no I–I–I’ve been thinking,’

Hester looked at the open book, and saw that it was ‘The Letters of St. Ignatius’–a cheap copy, belonging to a popular theological ‘Library,’ she herself had lately bought.

‘Did that interest you, Nelly?’ she asked, wondering.

‘Some of it’–said Nelly, flushing a little. And after a moment’s hesitation, she pointed to a passage under her hand:–‘For I fear your love, lest it injure me, for it is easy to do what you will; but it is difficult for me to attain unto God, if ye insist on sparing me.’

And suddenly Hester remembered that before going out she had entreated Nelly to give herself another fortnight’s rest before going to Manchester. It would then be only six weeks since her husband’s death. ‘And if you break down, dear,’–she had ventured–‘it won’t only be trouble to you–but to them ‘–meaning the hospital authorities. Whereupon for the first time since her return, Nelly’s eyes had filled with tears. But she made no reply, and Hester had gone away uneasy.

‘Why will you be so hard on yourself?’ she murmured, taking the lovely childish face in her two hands and kissing it.

Nelly gently released herself, and pointed again, mutely, to a passage further on–the famous passage in which the saint, already in the ecstasy of martyrdom, appeals again to the Christian church in Rome, whether he is bound, not to save him from the wild beasts of the arena. ‘I entreat you, shew not unto me an unseasonable love! Suffer me to be the food of wild beasts, through whom it is allowed me to attain unto God. I am the corn of God; let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ…. Pardon me in this. I know what is expedient for me. I am but now beginning to be a disciple.’

‘Nelly dear–what do you mean?’

A faint little smile crossed Nelly’s face.

‘Oh, nothing–only;–‘ she sighed again–‘It’s so _splendid_! Such a will!–such a faith! No one thinks like that now. No one is willing to be “the corn of God.”‘

‘Oh, yes they are!’ said Hester, passionately. ‘There are thousands of men–and women–in this war, who are willing to do everything–suffer everything–for others–their country–their people at home.’

‘Well, then they’re happy!–and why hold anyone back?’ said Nelly, with soft reproach. And letting her head drop on Hester’s shoulder, she said, slowly–

‘Let me go, dear Hester–let me go! It’s drudgery I want–_drudgery_’ she repeated with intensity. ‘Something that I don’t want to do–something that’s against the grain–all day long.’ Then she laughed and roused herself. ‘Not much likeness between me and St. Ignatius, is there?’

Hester considered her gravely.

‘When people like you are wrestling all day and every day with something too hard for them, their strength gives way. They think they can do it, but they can’t.’

‘My strength won’t give way,’ said Nelly, with quiet conviction. Then, after pausing a moment, she said with a strange ardour–‘I once heard a story–a true story–of a man, who burnt his own hand off, because it had struck his friend. He held it in a flame till there was only the burnt stump, and after that he forgave himself and could bear to live again.’

‘But whom have you struck, you poor child!’ cried Hester.

‘_George_!’ said Nelly, looking at her with bitterly shining eyes.

Hester’s arms enfolded her, and they talked far into the night. Before they separated, Hester had agreed that the date of Nelly’s departure should be not postponed, but quickened.

And during the few remaining days they were together, Hester could only notice with growing amazement the change in all the small ways and habits that had once characterised Nelly Sarratt–especially since her Torquay illness; the small invalidisms and self-indulgences, the dependence on a servant or on Bridget. Now the ascetic, penitential passion had come upon her; as it comes in different forms, upon many a man or woman in the _selva oscura_ of their life; and Hester knew that there was no resisting it.

Hester went back to her ‘Welfare’ work. Cicely travelled between Carton and London, collecting her trousseau and declaring that she _would_ be married in Lent, whatever people might say. Farrell was deeply engaged in introducing a new antiseptic treatment of an extremely costly kind throughout his hospital, in watching the results of it, and in giving facilities for the study of it, to the authorities and officials of all kinds who applied to him. A sorrowful man–but a very busy one. Marsworth was making his mark in the Intelligence Department of the War Office, and was being freely named as the head of an important Military Mission to one of the Allied Headquarters. What would become of Cicely and the wedding, if the post were given him, and–as was probable–at a day’s warning–was not quite clear. Cicely, however, took it calmly. ‘They can’t give us less than three hours’ notice–and if it’s after two o’clock, we can always get married somehow by five. You scurry round, pay fifty pounds, and somebody at Lambeth does it. Then–I should see him safely off in the evening!’

Meanwhile Bridget Cookson was living in her usual Bloomsbury boarding-house, holding herself quite aloof from the idle ways of its inmates, who, in the midst of the world-war, were still shopping as usual in the mornings and spending the afternoons in tea and gossip. Bridget, however, was scarcely employing her own time to any greater profit for a burdened country. She was learning various languages, and attending a number of miscellaneous lectures. Her time was fairly full, and she lived in an illusion of multifarious knowledge which flattered her vanity. She was certainly far cleverer; and better-educated than the other women of her boarding-house; and she was one of those persons who throughout life prefer to live with their inferiors. ‘The only remedy against a superiority,’–says some French writer–‘is to love it.’ But Bridget was so made that she could not love it; she could only pull it down and belittle it.

But all the same, Bridget Cookson was no monster, though she was probably without feelings and instincts that most people possess. She missed Nelly a good deal, more than Nelly herself would have believed. And she thought now, that she had behaved like a fool in not recognising Sarratt at once, and so preserving her influence with her sister. Morally, however, she saw no great harm in what she had done. It was arguable, at any rate. Everything was arguable. As to the effect on Nelly of the outward and visible facts of Sarratt’s death, it seemed to have been exactly what she, Bridget, had foreseen. Through some Manchester acquaintance she succeeded in getting occasional news of Nelly, who was, it appeared, killing herself with hard and disagreeable work. She heard also from the woman left in charge of the Loughrigg farm that all Mrs. Sarratt’s personal possessions had been sent to the care of Miss Martin, and that Sir William had shut up the cottage and never came there. Sometimes Bridget would grimly contrast this state of things with what might have happened, had her stroke succeeded, and had George died unrecognised. In that event how many people would have been made happy, who were now made miserable!

The winter passed away, the long and bitter winter which seemed to sharpen for English hearts and nerves all the suffering of the war. On the Somme the Germans were secretly preparing the retreat which began with the spring, while the British armies were growing to their full stature, month by month, and England was becoming slowly accustomed to the new and amazing consciousness of herself as a great military power. And meanwhile death in the trenches still took its steady toll of our best and dearest; and at sea, while British sea-power pressed home its stifling grasp on the life of Germany, the submarine made England anxious, but not afraid.

March shewed some pale gleams of spring, but April was one of the coldest and dreariest in the memory of living man. The old earth in sympathy with the great struggle that was devastating and searing her, seemed to be withholding leaf and flower, and forbidding the sun to woo her.

Till the very first days of May! Then, with a great return upon herself, Nature flew to work. The trees rushed into leaf, and never had there been such a glorious leafage. Everything was late, but everything was perfection. And nowhere was the spring loveliness more lovely than in Westmorland. The gentle valleys of the Lakes had been muffled in snow and scourged with hail. The winter furies had made their lairs in the higher fells, and rushed shrieking week after week through delicate and quiet scenes not made for them. The six months from November to May had been for the dale-dwellers one long endurance. But in one May week all was forgotten, and atoned for. Beauty, ‘an hourly presence,’ reigned without a rival. From the purple heights that stand about Langdale and Derwentwater, to the little ferns and mountain plants that crept on every wall, or dipped in every brook, the mountain land was all alive and joyful. The streams alone made a chorus for the gods.

Hester, who was now a woman of sixty, had reluctantly admitted, by the middle of the month, that, after a long winter spent in a munition factory and a Lancashire town, employed on the most strenuous work that she, an honest worker all her life, had ever known, a fortnight’s holiday was reasonable. And she wrote to Nelly Sarratt, just as she was departing northwards, to say–cunningly–that she was very tired and run down, and would Nelly come and look after her for a little? It was the first kindness she had ever asked of Nelly, to whom she had done so many. Nelly telegraphed in reply that in two days she would be at Rydal.

Hester spent the two days in an expectation half-eager, half-anxious. It had been agreed between them that in their correspondence the subject of Nelly’s health was to be tabooed. In case of a serious breakdown, the Commandant of Nelly’s hospital would write. Otherwise there were to be no enquiries and no sympathy. Cicely Marsworth before her marriage in early March had seen Nelly twice and had reported–against the grain–that although ‘most unbecomingly thin,’ the obstinate little creature said she was well, and apparently was well. Everybody in the hospital, said Cicely, was at Nelly’s feet. ‘It is of course nonsense for her to lay down, that she won’t be petted, Nature has settled that for her. However, I am bound to say it is the one thing that makes her angry, and the nurses are all amazed at what she has been able to stand. There is a half-blind boy, suffering from “shock” in one of the wards, to whom they say she has devoted herself for months. She has taught him to speak again, and to walk, and the nerve-specialist who has been looking after the poor fellow told her he would trust her with his worst cases, if only she would come and nurse for him. That did seem to please her. She flushed up a little when she told me. Otherwise she has become _horribly impersonal_! Her wings are growing rapidly. But oh, Hester, I did and do prefer the old Nelly to any angel I’ve ever known. If I hadn’t married Herbert, I should like to spend all my time in _tempting her_–the poor darling!–as the devil–who was such a fool!–tempted St. Anthony. I know plenty of saints; but I know only one little, soft kissable Nelly. She shan’t be taken from us!’

_So horribly impersonal_! What did Cicely mean?

Well, Cicely–with the object described in full view–would soon be able to tell her. For the Marsworths were coming to Carton for a week, before starting for Rome, and would certainly come over to her to say good-bye. As to William–would it really be necessary to leave him behind? Nelly must before long brace herself to see him again, as an ordinary friend. He had meant no harm–and done no harm–poor William! Hester was beginning secretly to be his warm partisan.

Twenty-four hours later, Nelly arrived. As Hester received her from the coach, and walked with her arm round the tiny waist to the cottage by the bend of the river, where tea beside the sun-flecked stream was set for the traveller, the older friend was at once startled and reassured. Reassured–because, after these six months, Nelly could laugh once more, and her step was once more firm and normal; and startled, by the new and lonely independence she perceived in her frail visitor. Nelly was in black again, with a small black hat from which her widow’s veil fell back over her shoulders. The veil, the lawn collar and cuffs, together with her childish slightness, and the curls on her temples and brow that she had tried in vain to straighten, made her look like a little girl masquerading. And yet, in truth, what struck her hostess was the sad maturity for which she seemed to have exchanged her old clinging ways. She spoke, for the first time, as one who was mistress of her own life and its issues; with a perfectly clear notion of what there was for her to do. She had made up her mind, she told Hester, to take work offered her in one of the new special hospitals for nervous cases which were the product of the war. ‘They think I have a turn for it, and they are going to train me. Isn’t it kind and dear of them?’

‘But I am told it is the most exhausting form of nursing there is,’ said Hester wondering. ‘Are you quite sure you can stand it?’

‘Try me!’ said Nelly, with a strange brightness of look. Then reaching out a hand she slipped it contentedly into her friend’s. ‘Hester!–isn’t it strange what we imagine about ourselves–and what is really true? I thought the first weeks that I was in hospital, I _must_ break down. I never dreamt that anyone could feel so tired–so deadly ill–and yet go on. And then one began, little by little, to get hardened,–of course I’m only now beginning to feel that!–and it seems like being born again, with a quite new body, that one can make–yes, _make_–do as one likes. That’s what the soldiers tell me–about _their_ training. And they wonder at it, as I do.’

‘My dear, you’re horribly thin,’ interrupted Hester.

‘Oh, not too thin!’ said Nelly, complacently.

Then she lifted up her eyes suddenly, and saw the lake in a dazzle of light, and Silver How, all purple, as of old; yet another family of wild duck swimming where the river issued from the lake; and just beyond, the white corner of the house where she and George had spent their few days of bliss. Slowly, the eyes filled with brimming tears. She threw off her hat and veil, and slipping to the grass, she laid her head against her friend’s knee, and there was a long silence.

Hester broke it at last.

‘I want you to come a little way up the fell, and look at a daffodil field. We’ll leave a message, and Cicely can follow us there.’ And then she added, not without trepidation–‘and I asked her to bring William, if he had time.’

Nelly was silent a moment, and then said quietly—‘Thank you. I’m glad you did.’

They left the garden and wandered through some rocky fields on the side of the fell, till they came to one where Linnaeus or any other pious soul might well have gone upon his knees for joy. Some loving hand had planted it with daffodils–the wild Lent lily of the district, though not now very plentiful about the actual lakes. And the daffodils had come back rejoicing to their kingdom, and made it their own again. They ran in lines and floods, in troops and skirmishers, all through the silky grass, and round the trunks of the old knotted oaks, that hung as though by one foot from the emerging rocks and screes. Above, the bloom of the wild cherries made a wavering screen of silver between the daffodils and the May sky; amid the blossom the golden-green of the oaks struck a strong riotous note; and far below, at their feet, the lake lay blue, with all the sky within it, and the softness of the larch-woods on its banks.

Nelly dropped into the grass among the daffodils. One could not have called her the spirit of the spring–the gleeful, earthly spring–as it would have been natural to do, in her honeymoon days. And yet, as Hester watched her, she seemed in her pale, changed beauty to be in some strange harmony with that grave, renewing, fruitful heart of all things, whereof the daffodils and the cherry-blossom were but symbols.

Presently there were voices beneath them–climbing voices that came nearer–of a man and a woman. Nelly’s hand begun to pluck restlessly at the grass beside her.

Cicely emerged first, Cicely in white, very bridal, and very happy. Very conscious too, though she did not betray it by a movement or a look, of the significance of this first meeting, since Sarratt’s death, between her brother and Nelly. But they met very simply. Nelly went a little way down the steep to meet them. She kissed Cicely, and gave Farrell her hand.

‘It was very good of you to come.’

But then it seemed to Hester, who could not help watching it, that Nelly’s face, as she stood there looking gravely at Farrell, shewed a sudden trouble and agitation. It was gone very quickly, however, and she and he walked on together along a green path skirting the fells, and winding through the daffodils and the hawthorns.

Cicely and Hester followed, soon perceiving that the two ahead had slipped into animated conversation.

‘What can it be about?’ said Cicely, in Hester’s ear.

‘I heard the word “Charcot,”‘ said Hester.

The bride listened deliberately.

‘And William’s talking about an article in the _Lancet_ he’s been boring Herbert and me with, by that very specialist that Nelly’s so keen about,–the man that is going to have her trained to nurse his cases. Something about the new treatment of “shock.” I say, Hester, what an odd sort of fresh beginning!’

Cicely turned a look half grave, half laughing on her companion–adding hastily–

‘The specialist’s married!’

Hester frowned a little.

‘Beginning of what?’

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ said Cicely, with a shrug, ‘But life is long, Mademoiselle Hester, and now they’ve got a common interest–outside themselves. They can talk about _things_–not feelings. Goodness!–did you hear that? William is head over ears in his new antiseptic–and look at Nelly–she’s quite pink! That’s what I meant by her being _horribly impersonal_. She used the word “scientific” to me, three times, when I went to see her–_Nelly_!’

‘If she’s impersonal, I should doubt whether William is,’ said Hester drily.

‘Ah, no–poor Willy!’ was Cicely’s musing reply. ‘It’s a hard time for him. I don’t believe she’s ever out of his mind. Or at least, she wouldn’t be, if it weren’t for his work. That’s the blessed part–for both of them. And now you see–it gives them such a deal to talk about’–her gesture indicated the couple in front. ‘It’s like two sore surfaces, isn’t it, that mustn’t touch–you want something between.’

‘All the same, William mustn’t set his heart–‘

‘And Hester–dear old thing!–mustn’t preach!’ said Cicely laughing, and pinching her cousin’s arm. ‘What’s the good of saying that, about a man like William, who knows what he wants? Of course he’s set his heart, and will go on setting it. But he’ll _wait_–as long as she likes.’

‘It’ll be a long time.’

‘All right! They’re neither of them Methuselahs yet. Heavens!–What are they at now? _Ambrine_!–_she’s_ talking to _him_’

But some deep mingled instinct, at once of sympathy with Nelly and pity for Farrell, made Hester unwilling to discuss the subject any more. George’s death was too recent; peace and a happy future too remote. So she turned on Cicely.

‘And please, what have you done with Herbert? I was promised a bridegroom.’

‘Business!’ said Cicely, sighing. ‘We had hardly arrived for our week’s leave, when the wretched War Office wired him to come back. He went this morning, and I wanted to go too, but–I’m not to racket just now.’

Cicely blushed, and Hester, smiling, pressed her hand.

‘Then you’re not going to Rome?’

‘Certainly I am! But one has to give occasional sops to the domestic tyrant.’

They sauntered back to tea in Hester’s garden by the river, and there the talk of her three guests was more equal and unfettered, more of a real interchange, than Hester ever remembered it. Of old, Farrell had been the guardian and teacher, indoctrinating Nelly with his own views on art, reading to her from his favourite poets, or surrounding her in a hundred small matters with a playful and devoted homage. But now in the long wrestle with her grief and remorse, she had thought, as well as felt. She was as humble and simple as ever, but her companions realised that she was standing on her own feet. And this something new in her–which was nothing but a strengthened play of intelligence and will–had a curious effect on Farrell. It seemed to bring him out, also; so that the nobler aspects of his life, and the nobler proportions of his character shewed themselves, unconsciously. Hester, with anxious joy, guessed at the beginnings of a new moral relation, a true comradeship, between himself and Nelly, such as there had never yet been–which might go far. It masked the depths in both of them; or rather it was a first bridge thrown over the chasm between them. What would come of it?

Again she rebuked herself even for the question. But when the time for departure came, and Nelly took Cicely into the house to fetch the wraps which had been left there, Farrell drew his chair close to Hester’s. She read agitation in his look.

‘So she’s actually going to take up this new nursing? She says she is to have six months’ training.’

‘Yes–don’t grudge it her!’

Farrell was silent a moment, then broke out–‘Did you ever see anything so small and transparent as her hands are? I was watching them as she sat there.’

‘But they’re capable!’ laughed Hester. ‘You should hear what her matron says of her.’

Farrell sighed.

‘How much weight has she lost?’

‘Not more–as yet–than she can stand. There’s an intense life in her–a spiritual life–that seems to keep her going.’

‘Hester–dear Hester–watch over her!’

He put out a hand and grasped his cousin’s.

‘Yes, you may trust me.’

‘Hester!–do you believe there’ll ever be any hope for me?’

‘It’s unkind even to think of it yet,’ she said gravely.

He drew himself up, recovering self-control.

‘I know–I know. I hope I’m not quite a fool! And indeed it’s better than I thought. She’s not going to banish me altogether. When this new hospital’s open–in another month or so–and she’s settled there–she asks me to call upon her. She wants me to go into this man’s treatment.’ There was a touch of comedy in the words; but the emotion in his face was painful to see.

‘Good!’ said Hester, smiling.

When the guests were gone, Nelly came slowly back to Hester from the garden gate. Her hands were loosely clasped before her, her eyes on the ground. When she reached Hester she looked up and Hester saw that her eyes were full of tears.

‘He’ll miss her very much,’ she said, sadly.

‘Cicely?’

‘Yes–she’s been a great deal more to him lately than she used to be.’

Nelly stood silently looking out over the lake for a while. In her mind and Hester’s there were thoughts which neither could express. Suddenly, Nelly turned to Hester. Her voice sounded strained and quick. ‘I never told you–on my way here, I went to see Bridget.’

Hester was taken by surprise. After a moment’s silence she said–

‘Has she ever repented–ever asked your forgiveness?

Nelly shook her head.

‘But I think–she would be sorry–if she could. I shall go and see her sometimes. But she doesn’t want me. She seems quite busy–and satisfied.’

‘Satisfied!’ said Hester, indignantly.

‘I mean with what she is doing–with her way of living.’

There was silence. But presently there was a stifled sob in the darkness; and Hester knew that Nelly was thinking of those irrecoverable weeks of which Bridget’s cruelty had robbed her.

Then presently bedtime came, and Hester saw her guest to her room. But a little while after, as she was standing by her own window she heard the garden door open and perceived a small figure slipping down over the lawn–a shadow among shadows–towards the path along the lake. And she guessed of course that Nelly had gone out to take a last look at the scene of her lost happiness, before her departure on the morrow.

Only twenty-two–with all her life before her–if she lived!

Of course, the probability was that she would live–and gradually forget–and in process of time marry William Farrell. But Hester could not be at all sure that the story would so work out. Supposing that the passion of philanthropy, or the passion of religion, fastened upon her–on the girlish nature that had proved itself with time to be of so much finer and rarer temper than those about her had ever suspected? Both passions are absorbing; both tend to blunt in many women the natural instinct of the woman towards the man. Nelly had been an old-fashioned, simple girl, brought up in a backwater of life. Now she was being drawn into that world of the new woman–where are women policemen, and women chauffeurs, and militant suffragists, and women in overalls and breeches, and many other strange types. The war has shown us–suddenly and marvellously–the adaptability of women. Would little Nelly, too, prove as plastic as the rest, and in the excitement of meeting new demands, and reaching out to new powers, forget the old needs and sweetnesses?

It might be so; but in her heart of hearts, Hester did not believe it would be so.

Meanwhile Nelly was wandering through the May dusk along the lake. She walked through flowers. The scents of a rich earth were in the air; daylight lingered, but a full and golden moon hung over Loughrigg in the west; and the tranced water of the lake was marvellously giving back the beauty amid which it lay–form, and colour, and distance–and all the magic of the hour between day and night. There was no boat, alack, to take her to the island; but there it lay, dreaming on the silver water, with a great hawthorn in full flower shewing white upon its rocky side. She made her way to the point nearest to the island, and there sat down on a stone at the water’s edge.

Opposite to her was the spot where she and George had drifted with the water on their last night together. If she shut her eyes she could see his sunburnt face, blanched by the moonlight, his strong shoulders, his hands–which she had kissed–lying on the oars. And mingling with the vision was that other–of a grey, dying face, a torn and broken body.

Her heart was full of intensest love and yearning; but the love was no longer a torment. She knew now that if she had been able to tell George everything, he would never have condemned her; he would only have opened his arms and comforted her.

She was wrapped in a mystical sense of communion with him, as she sat dreaming there. But in such a calm and exaltation of spirit, that there was ample room besides in her mind for the thought of William Farrell–her friend. Her most faithful and chivalrous friend! She thought of Farrell’s altered aspect, of the signs of a great task laid upon him, straining even his broad back. And then, of his loneliness. Cicely was gone–his ‘little friend’ was gone.

What could she still do for him? It seemed to her that even while George stood spiritually beside her, in this scene of their love, he was bidding her think kindly and gratefully of the man whom he had blessed in dying–the man who, in loving her, had meant him no harm.

Her mind formed no precise image of the future. She was incapable, indeed, as yet, of forming any that would have disturbed that intimate life with George which was the present fruit in her of remorseful love and pity. The spring shores of Rydal, the meadows steeping their flowery grasses in the water, the new leaf, the up-curling fern, breathed in her unconscious ear their message of re-birth. But she knew only that she was uplifted, strengthened–to endure and serve.