When Leila opened her door to Edward Pierson, her eyes were smiling, and her lips were soft. She seemed to smile and be soft all over, and she took both his hands. Everything was a pleasure to her that day, even the sight of this sad face. She was in love and was loved again; had a present and a future once more, not only her own full past; and she must finish with Edward in half an hour, for Jimmy was coming. She sat down on the divan, took his hand in a sisterly way, and said:
"Tell me, Edward; I can see you're in trouble. What is it?"
"Noel. The boy she was fond of has been killed."
She dropped his hand.
"Oh, no! Poor child! It's too cruel!" Tears started up in her grey eyes, and she touched them with a tiny handkerchief. "Poor, poor little Noel! Was she very fond of him?"
"A very sudden, short engagement; but I'm afraid she takes it desperately to heart. I don't know how to comfort her; only a woman could. I came to ask you: Do you think she ought to go on with her work? What do you think, Leila? I feel lost!"
Leila, gazing at him, thought: 'Lost? Yes, you look lost, my poor Edward!'
"I should let her go on," she said: "it helps; it's the only thing that does help. I'll see if I can get them to let her come into the wards. She ought to be in touch with suffering and the men; that kitchen work will try her awfully just now: Was he very young?"
"Yes. They wanted to get married. I was opposed to it."
Leila's lip curled ever so little. 'You would be!' she thought.
"I couldn't bear to think of Nollie giving herself hastily, like that; they had only known each other three weeks. It was very hard for me, Leila. And then suddenly he was sent to the front."
Resentment welled up in Leila. The kill-Joys! As if life didn't kill joy fast enough! Her cousin's face at that moment was almost abhorrent to her, its gentle perplexed goodness darkened and warped by that monkish look. She turned away, glanced at the clock over the hearth, and thought: 'Yes, and he would stop Jimmy and me! He would say: "Oh, no! dear Leila--you mustn't love--it's sin!" How I hate that word!'
"I think the most dreadful thing in life," she said abruptly, "is the way people suppress their natural instincts; what they suppress in themselves they make other people suppress too, if they can; and that's the cause of half the misery in this world."
Then at the surprise on his face at this little outburst, whose cause he could not know, she added hastily: "I hope Noel will get over it quickly, and find someone else."
"Yes. If they had been married--how much worse it would have been. Thank God, they weren't!"
"I don't know. They would have had an hour of bliss. Even an hour of bliss is worth something in these days."
"To those who only believe in this 'life--perhaps."
'Ten minutes more!' she thought: 'Oh, why doesn't he go?' But at that very moment he got up, and instantly her heart went out to him again.
"I'm so sorry, Edward. If I can help in any way--I'll try my best with Noel to-morrow; and do come to me whenever you feel inclined."
She took his hand in hers; afraid that he would sit down again, she yet could not help a soft glance into his eyes, and a little rush of pitying warmth in the pressure of her hand.
Pierson smiled; the smile which always made her sorry for him.
"Good-bye, Leila; you're very good and kind to me. Good-bye."
Her bosom swelled with relief and compassion; and--she let him out.
Running upstairs again she thought: 'I've just time. What shall I put on? Poor Edward, poor Noel! What colour does Jimmy like? Oh! Why didn't I keep him those ten years ago--what utter waste!' And, feverishly adorning herself, she came back to the window, and stood there in the dark to watch, while some jasmine which grew below sent up its scent to her. 'Would I marry him?' she thought, 'if he asked me? But he won't ask me--why should he now? Besides, I couldn't bear him to feel I wanted position or money from him. I only want love--love--love!' The silent repetition of that word gave her a wonderful sense of solidity and comfort. So long as she only wanted love, surely he would give it.
A tall figure turned down past the church, coming towards her. It was he! And suddenly she bethought herself. She went to the little black piano, sat down, and began to sing the song she had sung to him ten years ago: "If I could be the falling dew and fall on thee all day!" She did not even look round when he came in, but continued to croon out the words, conscious of him just behind her shoulder in the dark. But when she had finished, she got up and threw her arms round him, strained him to her, and burst into tears on his shoulder; thinking of Noel and that dead boy, thinking of the millions of other boys, thinking of her own happiness, thinking of those ten years wasted, of how short was life, and love; thinking--hardly knowing what she thought! And Jimmy Fort, very moved by this emotion which he only half understood, pressed her tightly in his arms, and kissed her wet cheeks and her neck, pale and warm in the darkness.
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