When those four took their seats in the Grand Circle at Queen's Hall the programme was already at the second number, which, in spite of all the efforts of patriotism, was of German origin--a Brandenburg concerto by Bach. More curious still, it was encored. Pierson did not applaud, he was too far gone in pleasure, and sat with a rapt smile on his face, oblivious of his surroundings. He remained thus removed from mortal joys and sorrows till the last applause had died away, and Leila's voice said in his ear:
"Isn't it a wonderful audience, Edward? Look at all that khaki. Who'd have thought those young men cared for music--good music--German music, too?"
Pierson looked down at the patient mass of standing figures in straw hats and military caps, with faces turned all one way, and sighed.
"I wish I could get an audience like that in my church."
A smile crept out at the corner of Leila's lips. She was thinking: 'Ah! Your Church is out of date, my dear, and so are you! Your Church, with its smell of mould and incense, its stained-glass, and narrowed length and droning organ. Poor Edward, so out of the world!' But she only pressed his arm, and whispered:
"Look at Noel!"
The girl was talking to Jimmy Fort. Her cheeks were gushed, and she looked prettier than Pierson had seen her look for a long time now, ever since Kestrel, indeed. He heard Leila sigh.
"Does she get news of her boy? Do you remember that May Week, Edward? We were very young then; even you were young. That was such a pretty little letter you wrote me. I can see you still-wandering in your dress clothes along the river, among the 'holy' cows."
But her eyes slid round again, watching her other neighbour and the girl. A violinist had begun to play the Cesar Franck Sonata. It was Pierson's favourite piece of music, bringing him, as it were, a view of heaven, of devotional blue air where devout stars were shining in a sunlit noon, above ecstatic trees and waters where ecstatic swans were swimming.
"Queer world, Mr. Pierson! Fancy those boys having to go back to barrack life after listening to that! What's your feeling? Are we moving back to the apes? Did we touch top note with that Sonata?"
Pierson turned and contemplated his questioner shrewdly.
"No, Captain Fort, I do not think we are moving back to the apes; if we ever came from them. Those boys have the souls of heroes!"
"I know that, sir, perhaps better than you do."
"Ah! yes," said Pierson humbly, "I forgot, of course." But he still looked at his neighbour doubtfully. This Captain Fort, who was a friend of Leila's, and who had twice been to see them, puzzled him. He had a frank face, a frank voice, but queer opinions, or so it seemed to, Pierson--little bits of Moslemism, little bits of the backwoods, and the veldt; queer unexpected cynicisms, all sorts of side views on England had lodged in him, and he did not hide them. They came from him like bullets, in that frank voice, and drilled little holes in the listener. Those critical sayings flew so much more poignantly from one who had been through the same educational mill as himself, than if they had merely come from some rough diamond, some artist, some foreigner, even from a doctor like George. And they always made him uncomfortable, like the touch of a prickly leaf; they did not amuse him. Certainly Edward Pierson shrank from the rough touches of a knock-about philosophy. After all, it was but natural that he should.
He and Noel left after the first part of the concert, parting from the other two at the door. He slipped his hand through her arm; and, following out those thoughts of his in the concert-hall, asked:
"Do you like Captain Fort, Nollie?"
"Yes; he's a nice man."
"He seems a nice man, certainly; he has a nice smile, but strange views, I'm afraid."
"He thinks the Germans are not much worse than we are; he says that a good many of us are bullies too."
"Yes, that is the sort of thing I mean."
"But are we, Daddy?"
"A policeman I talked to once said the same. Captain Fort says that very few men can stand having power put into their hands without being spoiled. He told me some dreadful stories. He says we have no imagination, so that we often do things without seeing how brutal they are."
"We're not perfect, Nollie; but on the whole I think we're a kind people."
Noel was silent a moment, then said suddenly:
"Kind people often think others are kind too, when they really aren't. Captain Fort doesn't make that mistake."
"I think he's a little cynical, and a little dangerous."
"Are all people dangerous who don't think like others, Daddy?"
Pierson, incapable of mockery, was not incapable of seeing when he was being mocked. He looked at his daughter with a smile.
"Not quite so bad as that, Nollie; but Mr. Fort is certainly subversive. I think perhaps he has seen too many queer sides of life."
"I like him the better for that."
"Well, well," Pierson answered absently. He had work to do in preparation for a Confirmation Class, and sought his study on getting in.
Noel went to the dining-room to drink her hot milk. The curtains were not drawn, and bright moonlight was coming in. Without lighting up, she set the etna going, and stood looking at the moon-full for the second time since she and Cyril had waited for it in the Abbey. And pressing her hands to her breast, she shivered. If only she could summon him from the moonlight out there; if only she were a witch-could see him, know where he was, what doing! For a fortnight now she had received no letter. Every day since he had left she had read the casualty lists, with the superstitious feeling that to do so would keep him out of them. She took up the Times. There was just enough light, and she read the roll of honour--till the moon shone in on her, lying on the floor, with the dropped journal....
But she was proud, and soon took grief to her room, as on that night after he left her, she had taken love. No sign betrayed to the house her disaster; the journal on the floor, and the smell of the burnt milk which had boiled over, revealed nothing. After all, she was but one of a thousand hearts which spent that moonlit night in agony. Each night, year in, year out, a thousand faces were buried in pillows to smother that first awful sense of desolation, and grope for the secret spirit-place where bereaved souls go, to receive some feeble touch of healing from knowledge of each other's trouble....
In the morning she got up from her sleepless bed, seemed to eat her breakfast, and went off to her hospital. There she washed up plates and dishes, with a stony face, dark under the eyes.
The news came to Pierson in a letter from Thirza, received at lunch-time. He read it with a dreadful aching. Poor, poor little Nollie! What an awful trouble for her! And he, too, went about his work with the nightmare thought that he had to break the news to her that evening. Never had he felt more lonely, more dreadfully in want of the mother of his children. She would have known how to soothe, how to comfort. On her heart the child could have sobbed away grief. And all that hour, from seven to eight, when he was usually in readiness to fulfil the functions of God's substitute to his parishioners, he spent in prayer of his own, for guidance how to inflict and heal this blow. When, at last, Noel came, he opened the door to her himself, and, putting back the hair from her forehead, said: "Come in here a moment, my darling!" Noel followed him into the study, and sat down. "I know already, Daddy." Pierson was more dismayed by this stoicism than he would have been by any natural out burst. He stood, timidly stroking her hair, murmuring to her what he had said to Gratian, and to so many others in these days: "There is no death; look forward to seeing him again; God is merciful" And he marvelled at the calmness of that pale face--so young.
"You are very brave, my child!" he said.
"There's nothing else to be, is there?"
"Isn't there anything I can do for you, Nollie?"
"When did you see it?"
"Last night." She had already known for twenty-four hours without telling him!
"Have you prayed, my darling?"
"It would be ridiculous, Daddy; you don't know."
Grievously upset and bewildered, Pierson moved away from her, and said:
"You look dreadfully tired. Would you like a hot bath, and your dinner in bed?"
"I'd like some tea; that's all." And she went out.
When he had seen that the tea had gone up to her, he too went out; and, moved by a longing for woman's help, took a cab to Leila's flat.
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