Such a day made glad the heart. All the flags of July were waving; the sun and the poppies flaming; white butterflies spiring up and twining, and the bees busy on the snapdragons. The lime-trees were coming into flower. Tall white lilies in the garden beds already rivaled the delphiniums; the York and Lancaster roses were full-blown round their golden hearts. There was a gentle breeze, and a swish and stir and hum rose and fell above the head of Edward Pierson, coming back from his lonely ramble over Tintern Abbey. He had arrived at Kestrel, his brother Robert's home on the bank of the Wye only that morning, having stayed at Bath on the way down; and now he had got his face burnt in that parti-coloured way peculiar to the faces of those who have been too long in London. As he came along the narrow, rather overgrown avenue, the sound of a waltz thrummed out on a piano fell on his ears, and he smiled, for music was the greatest passion he had. His dark grizzled hair was pushed back off his hot brow, which he fanned with his straw hat. Though not broad, that brow was the broadest part of a narrow oval face whose length was increased by a short, dark, pointed beard--a visage such as Vandyk might have painted, grave and gentle, but for its bright grey eyes, cinder-lashed and crow's-footed, and its strange look of not seeing what was before it. He walked quickly, though he was tired and hot; tall, upright, and thin, in a grey parsonical suit, on whose black kerseymere vest a little gold cross dangled.
Above his brother's house, whose sloping garden ran down to the railway line and river, a large room had been built out apart. Pierson stood where the avenue forked, enjoying the sound of the waltz, and the cool whipping of the breeze in the sycamores and birches. A man of fifty, with a sense of beauty, born and bred in the country, suffers fearfully from nostalgia during a long unbroken spell of London; so that his afternoon in the old Abbey had been almost holy. He had let his senses sink into the sunlit greenery of the towering woods opposite; he had watched the spiders and the little shining beetles, the flycatchers, and sparrows in the ivy; touched the mosses and the lichens; looked the speedwells in the eye; dreamed of he knew not what. A hawk had been wheeling up there above the woods, and he had been up there with it in the blue. He had taken a real spiritual bath, and washed the dusty fret of London off his soul.
For a year he had been working his parish single-handed--no joke--for his curate had gone for a chaplain; and this was his first real holiday since the war began, two years ago; his first visit, too, to his brother's home. He looked down at the garden, and up at the trees of the avenue. Bob had found a perfect retreat after his quarter of a century in Ceylon. Dear old Bob! And he smiled at the thought of his elder brother, whose burnt face and fierce grey whiskers somewhat recalled a Bengal tiger; the kindest fellow that ever breathed! Yes, he had found a perfect home for Thirza and himself. And Edward Pierson sighed. He too had once had a perfect home, a perfect wife; the wound of whose death, fifteen years ago, still bled a little in his heart. Their two daughters, Gratian and Noel, had not "taken after" her; Gratian was like his own mother, and Noel's fair hair and big grey eyes always reminded him of his cousin Leila, who--poor thing!--had made that sad mess of her life, and now, he had heard, was singing for a living, in South Africa. Ah! What a pretty girl she had been!
Drawn by that eternal waltz tune he reached the doorway of the music-room. A chintz curtain hung there, and to the sound of feet slipping on polished boards, he saw his daughter Noel waltzing slowly in the arms of a young officer in khaki: Round and round they went, circling, backing, moving sideways with curious steps which seemed to have come in recently, for he did not recognise them. At the piano sat his niece Eve, with a teasing smile on her rosy face. But it was at his young daughter that Edward Pierson looked. Her eyes were half-closed, her cheeks rather pale, and her fair hair, cut quite short, curled into her slim round neck. Quite cool she seemed, though the young man in whose arms she was gliding along looked fiery hot; a handsome boy, with blue eyes and a little golden down on the upper lip of his sunny red-cheeked face. Edward Pierson thought: 'Nice couple!' And had a moment's vision of himself and Leila, dancing at that long-ago Cambridge May Week--on her seventeenth birthday, he remembered, so that she must have been a year younger than Nollie was now! This would be the young man she had talked of in her letters during the last three weeks. Were they never going to stop?
He passed into view of those within, and said:
"Aren't you very hot, Nollie?"
She blew him a kiss; the young man looked startled and self-conscious, and Eve called out:
"It's a bet, Uncle. They've got to dance me down."
Pierson said mildly:
"A bet? My dears!"
Noel murmured over her shoulder:
"It's all right, Daddy!" And the young man gasped:
"She's bet us one of her puppies against one of mine, sir!"
Pierson sat down, a little hypnotized by the sleepy strumming, the slow giddy movement of the dancers, and those half-closed swimming eyes of his young daughter, looking at him over her shoulder as she went by. He sat with a smile on his lips. Nollie was growing up! Now that Gratian was married, she had become a great responsibility. If only his dear wife had lived! The smile faded from his lips; he looked suddenly very tired. The struggle, physical and spiritual, he had been through, these fifteen years, sometimes weighed him almost to the ground: Most men would have married again, but he had always felt it would be sacrilege. Real unions were for ever, even though the Church permitted remarriage.
He watched his young daughter with a mixture of aesthetic pleasure and perplexity. Could this be good for her? To go on dancing indefinitely with one young man could that possibly be good for her? But they looked very happy; and there was so much in young creatures that he did not understand. Noel, so affectionate, and dreamy, seemed sometimes possessed of a little devil. Edward Pierson was naif; attributed those outbursts of demonic possession to the loss of her mother when she was such a mite; Gratian, but two years older, had never taken a mother's place. That had been left to himself, and he was more or less conscious of failure.
He sat there looking up at her with a sort of whimsical distress. And, suddenly, in that dainty voice of hers, which seemed to spurn each word a little, she said:
"I'm going to stop!" and, sitting down beside him, took up his hat to fan herself.
Eve struck a triumphant chord. "Hurrah I've won!"
The young man muttered:
"I say, Noel, we weren't half done!"
"I know; but Daddy was getting bored, weren't you, dear? This is Cyril Morland."
Pierson shook the young man's hand.
"Daddy, your nose is burnt!"
"My dear; I know."
"I can give you some white stuff for it. You have to sleep with it on all night. Uncle and Auntie both use it."
"Well, Eve says so. If you're going to bathe, Cyril, look out for that current!"
The young man, gazing at her with undisguised adoration, muttered:
"Rather!" and went out.
Noel's eyes lingered after him; Eve broke a silence.
"If you're going to have a bath before tea, Nollie, you'd better hurry up."
"All right. Was it jolly in the Abbey, Daddy?"
"Lovely; like a great piece of music."
"Daddy always puts everything into music. You ought to see it by moonlight; it's gorgeous then. All right, Eve; I'm coming." But she did not get up, and when Eve was gone, cuddled her arm through her father's and murmured:
"What d'you think of Cyril?"
"My dear, how can I tell? He seems a nice-looking young man."
"All right, Daddy; don't strain yourself. It's jolly down here, isn't it?" She got up, stretched herself a little, and moved away, looking like a very tall child, with her short hair curling in round her head.
Pierson, watching her vanish past the curtain, thought: 'What a lovely thing she is!' And he got up too, but instead of following, went to the piano, and began to play Mendelssohn's Prelude and Fugue in E minor. He had a fine touch, and played with a sort of dreamy passion. It was his way out of perplexities, regrets, and longings; a way which never quite failed him.
At Cambridge, he had intended to take up music as a profession, but family tradition had destined him for Holy Orders, and an emotional Church revival of that day had caught him in its stream. He had always had private means, and those early years before he married had passed happily in an East-End parish. To have not only opportunity but power to help in the lives of the poor had been fascinating; simple himself, the simple folk of his parish had taken hold of his heart. When, however, he married Agnes Heriot, he was given a parish of his own on the borders of East and West, where he had been ever since, even after her death had nearly killed him. It was better to go on where work and all reminded him of one whom he had resolved never to forget in other ties. But he knew that his work had not the zest it used to have in her day, or even before her day. It may well be doubted whether he, who had been in Holy Orders twenty-six years, quite knew now what he believed. Everything had become circumscribed, and fixed, by thousands of his own utterances; to have taken fresh stock of his faith, to have gone deep into its roots, would have been like taking up the foundations of a still-standing house. Some men naturally root themselves in the inexpressible--for which one formula is much the same as another; though Edward Pierson, gently dogmatic, undoubtedly preferred his High-Church statement of the inexpressible to that of, say, the Zoroastrians. The subtleties of change, the modifications by science, left little sense of inconsistency or treason on his soul. Sensitive, charitable, and only combative deep down, he instinctively avoided discussion on matters where he might hurt others or they hurt him. And, since explanation was the last thing which o could be expected of one who did not base himself on Reason, he had found but scant occasion ever to examine anything. Just as in the old Abbey he had soared off into the infinite with the hawk, the beetles, and the grasses, so now, at the piano, by these sounds of his own making, he was caught away again into emotionalism, without realising that he was in one of his, most religious moods.
"Aren't you coming to tea, Edward?"
The woman standing behind him, in a lilac-coloured gown, had one of those faces which remain innocent to the end of the chapter, in spite of the complete knowledge of life which appertains to mothers. In days of suffering and anxiety, like these of the great war, Thirza Pierson was a valuable person. Without ever expressing an opinion on cosmic matters, she reconfirmed certain cosmic truths, such as that though the whole world was at war, there was such a thing as peace; that though all the sons of mothers were being killed, there remained such a thing as motherhood; that while everybody was living for the future, the present still existed. Her tranquil, tender, matter-of-fact busyness, and the dew in her eyes, had been proof against twenty-three years of life on a tea-plantation in the hot part of Ceylon; against Bob Pierson; against the anxiety of having two sons at the front, and the confidences of nearly every one she came across. Nothing disturbed her. She was like a painting of "Goodness" by an Old Master, restored by Kate Greenaway. She never went to meet life, but when it came, made the best of it. This was her secret, and Pierson always felt rested in her presence.
He rose, and moved by her side, over the lawn, towards the big tree at the bottom of the garden.
"How d'you think Noel is looking, Edward?"
"Very pretty. That young man, Thirza?"
"Yes; I'm afraid he's over head and ears in love with her."
At the dismayed sound he uttered, she slipped her soft round arm within his. "He's going to the front soon, poor boy!"
"Have they talked to you?"
"He has. Nollie hasn't yet."
"Nollie is a queer child, Thirza."
"Nollie is a darling, but rather a desperate character, Edward."
In a swing under the tree, where the tea-things were set out, the "rather desperate character" was swaying. "What a picture she is!" he said, and sighed again.
The voice of his brother came to them,--high and steamy, as though corrupted by the climate of Ceylon:
"You incorrigible dreamy chap, Ted! We've eaten all the raspberries. Eve, give him some jam; he must be dead! Phew! the heat! Come on, my dear, and pour out his tea. Hallo, Cyril! Had a good bathe? By George, wish my head was wet! Squattez-vous down over there, by Nollie; she'll swing, and keep the flies off you."
"Give me a cigarette, Uncle Bob--"
"What! Your father doesn't--"
"Just for the flies. You don't mind, Daddy?"
"Not if it's necessary, my dear."
Noel smiled, showing her upper teeth, and her eyes seemed to swim under their long lashes.
"It isn't necessary, but it's nice."
"Ah, ha!" said Bob Pierson. "Here you are, Nollie!"
But Noel shook her head. At that moment she struck her father as startlingly grown-up-so composed, swaying above that young man at her feet, whose sunny face was all adoration. 'No longer a child!' he thought. 'Dear Nollie!'
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