To wash up is not an exciting operation. To wash up in August became for Noel a process which taxed her strength and enthusiasm. She combined it with other forms of instruction in the art of nursing, had very little leisure, and in the evenings at home would often fall asleep curled up in a large chintz-covered chair.
George and Gratian had long gone back to their respective hospitals, and she and her father had the house to themselves. She received many letters from Cyril which she carried about with her and read on her way to and from the hospital; and every other day she wrote to him. He was not yet in the firing line; his letters were descriptive of his men, his food, or the natives, or reminiscent of Kestrel; hers descriptive of washing up, or reminiscent of Kestrel. But in both there was always some little word of the longing within them.
It was towards the end of August when she had the letter which said that he had been moved up. From now on he would be in hourly danger! That evening after dinner she did not go to sleep in the chair, but sat under the open window, clenching her hands, and reading "Pride and Prejudice" without understanding a word. While she was so engaged her father came up and said:
"Captain Fort, Nollie. Will you give him some coffee? I'm afraid I must go out."
When he had gone, Noel looked at her visitor drinking his coffee. He had been out there, too, and he was alive; with only a little limp. The visitor smiled and said:
"What were you thinking about when we came in?"
"Only the war."
"Any news of him?"
Noel frowned, she hated to show her feelings.
"Yes! he's gone to the Front. Won't you have a cigarette?"
"Thanks. Will you?"
"I want one awfully. I think sitting still and waiting is more dreadful than anything in the world."
"Except, knowing that others are waiting. When I was out there I used to worry horribly over my mother. She was ill at the time. The cruelest thing in war is the anxiety of people about each other--nothing touches that."
The words exactly summed up Noel's hourly thought. He said nice things, this man with the long legs and the thin brown bumpy face!
"I wish I were a man," she said, "I think women have much the worst time in the war. Is your mother old?" But of course she was old why he was old himself!
"She died last Christmas."
"Oh! I'm so sorry!"
"You lost your mother when you were a babe, didn't you?"
"Yes. That's her portrait." At the end of the room, hanging on a strip of black velvet was a pastel, very faint in colouring, as though faded, of a young woman, with an eager, sweet face, dark eyes, and bent a little forward, as if questioning her painter. Fort went up to it.
"It's not a bit like you. But she must have been a very sweet woman."
"It's a sort of presence in the room. I wish I were like her!"
Fort turned. "No," he said; "no. Better as you are. It would only have spoiled a complete thing."
"She was good."
"And aren't you?"
"Oh! no. I get a devil."
"You! Why, you're out of a fairy-tale!"
"It comes from Daddy--only he doesn't know, because he's a perfect saint; but I know he's had a devil somewhere, or he couldn't be the saint he is."
"H'm!" said Fort. "That's very deep: and I believe it's true--the saints did have devils."
"Poor Daddy's devil has been dead ages. It's been starved out of him, I think."
"Does your devil ever get away with you?"
Noel felt her cheeks growing red under his stare, and she turned to the window:
"Yes. It's a real devil."
Vividly there had come before her the dark Abbey, and the moon balancing over the top of the crumbling wall, and the white owl flying across. And, speaking to the air, she said:
"It makes you do things that you want to do."
She wondered if he would laugh--it sounded so silly. But he did not.
"And damn the consequences? I know. It's rather a jolly thing to have."
Noel shook her head. "Here's Daddy coming back!"
Fort held out his hand.
"I won't stay. Good night; and don't worry too much, will you?"
He kept her hand rather a long time, and gave it a hard squeeze.
Don't worry! What advice! Ah! if she could see Cyril just for a minute!
In September, 1916, Saturday still came before Sunday, in spite of the war. For Edward Pierson this Saturday had been a strenuous day, and even now, at nearly midnight, he was still conning his just-completed sermon.
A patriot of patriots, he had often a passionate longing to resign his parish, and go like his curate for a chaplain at the Front. It seemed to him that people must think his life idle and sheltered and useless. Even in times of peace he had been sensitive enough to feel the cold draughty blasts which the Church encounters in a material age. He knew that nine people out of ten looked on him as something of a parasite, with no real work in the world. And since he was nothing if not conscientious, he always worked himself to the bone.
To-day he had risen at half-past six, and after his bath and exercises, had sat down to his sermon--for, even now, he wrote a new sermon once a month, though he had the fruits of twenty-six years to choose from. True, these new sermons were rather compiled than written, because, bereft of his curate, he had not time enough for fresh thought on old subjects. At eight he had breakfasted with Noel, before she went off to her hospital, whence she would return at eight in the evening. Nine to ten was his hour for seeing parishioners who had troubles, or wanted help or advice, and he had received three to-day who all wanted help, which he had given. From ten to eleven he had gone back to his sermon, and had spent from eleven to one at his church, attending to small matters, writing notices, fixing hymns, holding the daily half-hour Service instituted during wartime, to which but few ever came. He had hurried back to lunch, scamping it so that he might get to his piano for an hour of forgetfulness. At three he had christened a very noisy baby, and been detained by its parents who wished for information on a variety of topics. At half-past four he had snatched a cup of tea, reading the paper; and had spent from five to seven visiting two Parish Clubs, and those whose war-pension matters he had in hand, and filling up forms which would be kept in official places till such time as the system should be changed and a fresh set of forms issued. From seven to eight he was at home again, in case his flock wanted to see him; to-day four sheep had come, and gone away, he was afraid, but little the wiser. From half-past eight to half-past nine he had spent in choir practice, because the organist was on his holiday. Slowly in the cool of the evening he had walked home, and fallen asleep in his chair on getting in. At eleven he had woken with a start, and, hardening his heart, had gone back to his sermon. And now, at nearly midnight, it was still less than twenty minutes long. He lighted one of his rare cigarettes, and let thought wander. How beautiful those pale pink roses were in that old silver bowl-like a little strange poem, or a piece of Debussy music, or a Mathieu Maris picture-reminding him oddly of the word Leila. Was he wrong in letting Noel see so much of Leila? But then she was so improved--dear Leila!... The pink roses were just going to fall! And yet how beautiful!... It was quiet to-night; he felt very drowsy.... Did Nollie still think of that young man, or had it passed? She had never confided in him since! After the war, it would be nice to take her to Italy, to all the little towns. They would see the Assisi of St. Francis. The Little Flowers of St. Francis. The Little Flowers!... His hand dropped, the cigarette went out. He slept with his face in shadow. Slowly into the silence of his sleep little sinister sounds intruded. Short concussions, dragging him back out of that deep slumber. He started up. Noel was standing at the door, in a long coat. She said in her calm voice:
"Yes, my dear. Where are the maids?"
An Irish voice answered from the hall: "Here, sir; trustin' in God; but 'tis better on the ground floor."
He saw a huddle of three figures, queerly costumed, against the stairs.
"Yes, Yes, Bridgie; you're safe down here." Then he noticed that Noel was gone. He followed her out into the Square, alive with faces faintly luminous in the darkness, and found her against the garden railings.
"You must come back in, Nollie."
"Oh, no! Cyril has this every day."
He stood beside her; not loth, for excitement had begun to stir his blood. They stayed there for some minutes, straining their eyes for sight of anything save the little zagged splashes of bursting shrapnel, while voices buzzed, and muttered: "Look! There! There! There it is!"
But the seers had eyes of greater faith than Pierson's, for he saw nothing: He took her arm at last, and led her in. In the hall she broke from him.
"Let's go up on the roof, Daddy!" and ran upstairs.
Again he followed, mounting by a ladder, through a trapdoor on to the roof.
"It's splendid up here!" she cried.
He could see her eyes blazing, and thought: 'How my child does love excitement--it's almost terrible!'
Over the wide, dark, star-strewn sky travelling searchlights, were lighting up the few little clouds; the domes and spires rose from among the spread-out roofs, all fine and ghostly. The guns had ceased firing, as though puzzled. One distant bang rumbled out.
"A bomb! Oh! If we could only get one of the Zeps!"
A furious outburst of firing followed, lasting perhaps a minute, then ceased as if by magic. They saw two searchlights converge and meet right overhead.
"It's above us!" murmured Noel.
Pierson put his arm round her waist. 'She feels no fear!' he thought. The search-lights switched apart; and suddenly, from far away, came a confusion of weird sounds.
"What is it? They're cheering. Oh! Daddy, look!" There in the heavens, towards the east, hung a dull red thing, lengthening as they gazed.
"They've got it. It's on fire! Hurrah!"
Through the dark firmament that fiery orange shape began canting downward; and the cheering swelled in a savage frenzy of sound. And Pierson's arm tightened on her waist.
"Thank God!" he muttered.
The bright oblong seemed to break and spread, tilted down below the level of the roofs; and suddenly the heavens flared, as if some huge jug of crimson light had been flung out on them. Something turned over in Pierson's heart; he flung up his hand to his eyes.
"The poor men in it!" he said. "How terrible!"
Noel's voice answered, hard and pitiless:
"They needn't have come. They're murderers!"
Yes, they were murderers--but how terrible! And he stood quivering, with his hands pressed to his face, till the cheering had died out into silence.
"Let's pray, Nollie!" he whispered. "O God, Who in Thy great mercy hath delivered us from peril, take into Thy keeping the souls of these our enemies, consumed by Thy wrath before our eyes; give us the power to pity them--men like ourselves."
But even while he prayed he could see Noel's face flame-white in the darkness; and, as that glow in the sky faded out, he felt once more the thrill of triumph.
They went down to tell the maids, and for some time after sat up together, talking over what they had seen, eating biscuits and drinking milk, which they warmed on an etna. It was nearly two o'clock before they went to bed. Pierson fell asleep at once, and never turned till awakened at half-past six by his alarum. He had Holy Communion to administer at eight, and he hurried to get early to his church and see that nothing untoward had happened to it. There it stood in the sunlight; tall, grey, quiet, unharmed, with bell gently ringing.
And at that hour Cyril Morland, under the parapet of his trench, tightening his belt, was looking at his wrist-watch for the hundredth time, calculating exactly where he meant to put foot and hand for the going over: 'I absolutely mustn't let those chaps get in front of me,' he thought. So many yards before the first line of trenches, so many yards to the second line, and there stop. So his rehearsals had gone; it was the performance now! Another minute before the terrific racket of the drum-fire should become the curtain-fire, which would advance before them. He ran his eye down the trench. The man next him was licking his two first fingers, as if he might be going to bowl at cricket. Further down, a man was feeling his puttees. A voice said: "Wot price the orchestra nah!" He saw teeth gleam in faces burnt almost black. Then he looked up; the sky was blue beyond the brownish film of dust raised by the striking shells. Noel! Noel! Noel!... He dug his fingers deep into the left side of his tunic till he could feel the outline of her photograph between his dispatch-case and his heart. His heart fluttered just as it used when he was stretched out with hand touching the ground, before the start of the "hundred yards" at school. Out of the corner of his eye he caught the flash of a man's "briquet" lighting a cigarette. All right for those chaps, but not for him; he wanted all his breath--this rifle, and kit were handicap enough! Two days ago he had been reading in some paper how men felt just before an attack. And now he knew. He just felt nervous. If only the moment would come, and get itself over! For all the thought he gave to the enemy there might have been none--nothing but shells and bullets, with lives of their own. He heard the whistle; his foot was on the spot he had marked down; his hand where he had seen it; he called out: "Now, boys!" His head was over the top, his body over; he was conscious of someone falling, and two men neck and neck beside him. Not to try and run, not to break out of a walk; to go steady, and yet keep ahead! D--n these holes! A bullet tore through his sleeve, grazing his arm--a red-hot sensation, like the touch of an iron. A British shell from close over his head burst sixty yards ahead; he stumbled, fell flat, picked himself up. Three ahead of him now! He walked faster, and drew alongside. Two of them fell. 'What luck!' he thought; and gripping his rifle harder, pitched headlong into a declivity. Dead bodies lay there! The first German trench line, and nothing alive in it, nothing to clean up, nothing of it left! He stopped, getting his wind; watching the men panting and stumbling in. The roar of the guns was louder than ever again, barraging the second line. So far, good! And here was his captain!
"Ready, boys? On, then!"
This time he moved more slowly still, over terrible going, all holes and hummocks. Half consciously he took cover all he could. The air was alive with the whistle from machine-gun fire storming across zigzag fashion-alive it was with bullets, dust, and smoke. 'How shall I tell her?' he thought. There would be nothing to tell but just a sort of jagged brown sensation. He kept his eyes steadily before him, not wanting to seethe men falling, not wanting anything to divert him from getting there. He felt the faint fanning of the passing bullets. The second line must be close now. Why didn't that barrage lift? Was this new dodge of firing till the last second going to do them in? Another hundred yards and he would be bang into it. He flung himself flat and waited; looking at his wrist-watch he noted that his arm was soaked with blood. He thought: 'A wound! Now I shall go home. Thank God! Oh, Noel!' The passing bullets whirled above him; he could hear them even through the screech and thunder of the shell-fire. 'The beastly things!' he thought: A voice beside him gasped out:
"It's lifted, sir."
He called: "Come on, boys!" and went forward, stooping. A bullet struck his rifle. The shock made him stagger and sent an electric shock spinning up his arm. 'Luck again!' he thought. 'Now for it! I haven't seen a German yet!' He leaped forward, spun round, flung up his arms, and fell on his back, shot through and through....
The position was consolidated, as they say, and in the darkness stretcher-bearers were out over the half-mile. Like will-o'-the-wisps, with their shaded lanterns, they moved, hour after hour, slowly quartering the black honeycomb which lay behind the new British line. Now and then in the light of some star-shell their figures were disclosed, bending and raising the forms of the wounded, or wielding pick and shovel.
From the shaded lantern, lowered to just above the body, a yellowish glare fell on face and breast. The hands of the searcher moved in that little pool of light. The bearer who was taking notes bent down.
"Another boy," he said. "That all he has?"
The searcher raised himself.
"Just those, and a photo."
"Dispatch-case; pound loose; cigarette-case; wristwatch; photo. Let's see it."
The searcher placed the photo in the pool of light. The tiny face of a girl stared up at them, unmoved, from its short hair.
"Noel," said the searcher, reading.
"H'm! Take care of it. Stick it in his case. Come on!"
The pool of light dissolved, and darkness for ever covered Cyril Morland.
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