Pierson went back to his study, and wrote to Gratian.
"If you can get leave for a few days, my dear, I want you at home. I am troubled about Nollie. Ever since that disaster happened to her she has been getting paler; and to-day she fainted. She won't see a doctor, but perhaps you could get her to see George. If you come up, he will surely be able to run up to us for a day or two. If not, you must take her down to him at the sea. I have just seen the news of your second cousin Charlie Pierson's death; he was killed in one of the last attacks on the Somme; he was nephew of my cousin Leila whom, as you know, Noel sees every day at her hospital. Bertram has the D. S. O. I have been less hard-pressed lately; Lauder has been home on leave and has taken some Services for me. And now the colder weather has come, I am feeling much fresher. Try your best to come. I am seriously concerned for our beloved child.
"Your affectionate father
Gratian answered that she could get week-end leave, and would come on Friday. He met her at the station, and they drove thence straight to the hospital, to pick up Noel. Leila came to them in the waiting-room, and Pierson, thinking they would talk more freely about Noel's health if he left them alone, went into the recreation room, and stood watching a game of bagatelle between two convalescents. When he returned to the little sitting-room they were still standing by the hearth, talking in low voices. Gratian must surely have been stooping over the fire, for her face was red, almost swollen, and her eyes looked as if she had scorched them.
Leila said lightly:
"Well, Edward, aren't the men delightful? When are we going to another concert together?"
She, too, was flushed and looking almost young.
"Ah! If we could do the things we want to.
"That's very pretty, Edward; but you should, you know--for a tonic." He shook his head and smiled.
"You're a temptress, Leila. Will you let Nollie know, please, that we can take her back with us? Can you let her off to-morrow?"
"For as long as you like; she wants a rest. I've been talking to Gratian. We oughtn't to have let her go on after a shock like that--my fault, I'm afraid. I thought that work might be best."
Pierson was conscious of Gratian walking past him out of the room. He held out his hand to Leila, and followed. A small noise occurred behind him such as a woman makes when she has put a foot through her own skirt, or has other powerful cause for dismay. Then he saw Noel in the hall, and was vaguely aware of being the centre of a triangle of women whose eyes were playing catch-glance. His daughters kissed each other; and he became seated between them in the taxi. The most unobservant of men, he parted from them in the hall without having perceived anything except that they were rather silent; and, going to his study, he took up a Life of Sir Thomas More. There was a passage therein which he itched to show George Laird, who was coming up that evening.
Gratian and Noel had mounted the stairs with lips tight set, and eyes averted; both were very pale. When they reached the door of Gratian's room the room which had been their mother's--Noel was for passing on, but Gratian caught her by the arm, and said: "Come in." The fire was burning brightly in there, and the two sisters stood in front of it, one on each side, their hands clutching the mantel-shelf, staring at the flames. At last Noel put one hand in front of her eyes, and said:
"I asked her to tell you."
Gratian made the movement of one who is gripped by two strong emotions, and longs to surrender to one or to the other.
"It's too horrible," was all she said.
Noel turned towards the door.
Noel stopped with her hand on the door knob. "I don't want to be forgiven and sympathised with. I just want to be let alone."
"How can you be let alone?"
The tide of misery surged up in Noel, and she cried out passionately:
"I hate sympathy from people who can't understand. I don't want anyone's. I can always go away, and lose myself."
The words "can't understand" gave Gratian a shock.
"I can understand," she said.
"You can't; you never saw him. You never saw--" her lips quivered so that she had to stop and bite them, to keep back a rush of tears.
"Besides you would never have done it yourself."
Gratian went towards her, but stopped, and sat down on the bed. It was true. She would never have done it herself; it was just that which, for all her longing to help her sister, iced her love and sympathy. How terrible, wretched, humiliating! Her own sister, her only sister, in the position of all those poor, badly brought up girls, who forgot themselves! And her father--their father! Till that moment she had hardly thought of him, too preoccupied by the shock to her own pride. The word: "Dad!" was forced from her.
"That boy!" said Gratian suddenly; "I can't forgive him. If you didn't know--he did. It was--it was--" She stopped at the sight of Noel's face.
"I did know," she said. "It was I. He was my husband, as much as yours is. If you say a word against him, I'll never speak to you again: I'm glad, and you would be, if you were going to have one. What's the difference, except that you've had luck, and I--haven't." Her lips quivered again, and she was silent.
Gratian stared up at her. She had a longing for George--to know what he thought and felt.
"Do you mind if I tell George?" she said.
Noel shook her head. "No! not now. Tell anybody." And suddenly the misery behind the mask of her face went straight to Gratian's heart. She got up and put her arms round her sister.
"Nollie dear, don't look like that!"
Noel suffered the embrace without response, but when it was over, went to her own room.
Gratian stayed, sorry, sore and vexed, uncertain, anxious. Her pride was deeply wounded, her heart torn; she was angry with herself. Why couldn't she have been more sympathetic? And yet, now that Noel was no longer there, she again condemned the dead. What he had done was unpardonable. Nollie was such--a child! He had committed sacrilege. If only George would come, and she could talk it all out with him! She, who had married for love and known passion, had insight enough to feel that Noel's love had been deep--so far as anything, of course, could be deep in such a child. Gratian was at the mature age of twenty. But to have forgotten herself like that! And this boy! If she had known him, that feeling might have been mitigated by the personal element, so important to all human judgment; but never having seen him, she thought of his conduct as "caddish." And she knew that this was, and would be, the trouble between her and her sister. However she might disguise it, Noel would feel that judgment underneath.
She stripped off her nurse's garb, put on an evening frock, and fidgeted about the room. Anything rather than go down and see her father again before she must. This, which had happened, was beyond words terrible for him; she dreaded the talk with him about Noel's health which would have to come. She could say nothing, of course, until Noel wished; and, very truthful by nature, the idea, of having to act a lie distressed her.
She went down at last, and found them both in the drawing-room already; Noel in a frilly evening frock, sitting by the fire with her chin on her hand, while her father was reading out the war news from the evening paper. At sight of that cool, dainty, girlish figure brooding over the fire, and of her father's worn face, the tragedy of this business thrust itself on her with redoubled force. Poor Dad! Poor Nollie! Awful! Then Noel turned, and gave a little shake of her head, and her eyes said, almost as plainly as lips could have said it: 'Silence!' Gratian nodded, and came forward to the fire. And so began one of those calm, domestic evenings, which cover sometimes such depths of heartache.
Noel stayed up until her father went to bed, then went upstairs at once. She had evidently determined that they should not talk about her. Gratian sat on alone, waiting for her husband! It was nearly midnight when he came, and she did not tell him the family news till next morning. He received it with a curious little grunt. Gratian saw his eyes contract, as they might have, perhaps, looking at some bad and complicated wound, and then stare steadily at the ceiling. Though they had been married over a year, she did not yet know what he thought about many things, and she waited with a queer sinking at her heart. This skeleton in the family cupboard was a test of his affection for herself, a test of the quality of the man she had married. He did not speak for a little, and her anxiety grew. Then his hand sought hers, and gave it a hard squeeze.
"Poor little Nollie! This is a case for Mark Tapleyism. But cheer up, Gracie! We'll get her through somehow."
"But father! It's impossible to keep it from him, and impossible to tell him! Oh George! I never knew what family pride was till now. It's incredible. That wretched boy!"
"'De mortuis.' Come, Gracie! In the midst of death we are in life! Nollie was a plumb little idiot. But it's the war--the war! Your father must get used to it; it's a rare chance for his Christianity."
"Dad will be as sweet as anything--that's what makes it so horrible!"
George Laird redoubled his squeeze. "Quite right! The old-fashioned father could let himself go. But need he know? We can get her away from London, and later on, we must manage somehow. If he does hear, we must make him feel that Nollie was 'doing her bit.'"
Gratian withdrew her hand. "Don't!" she said in a muffled voice.
George Laird turned and looked at her. He was greatly upset himself, realising perhaps more truly than his young wife the violence of this disaster; he was quite capable, too, of feeling how deeply she was stirred and hurt; but, a born pragmatist, confronting life always in the experimental spirit, he was impatient of the: "How awful!" attitude. And this streak of her father's ascetic traditionalism in Gratian always roused in him a wish to break it up. If she had not been his wife he would have admitted at once that he might just as well try and alter the bone-formation of her head, as break down such a fundamental trait of character, but, being his wife, he naturally considered alteration as possible as putting a new staircase in a house, or throwing two rooms into one. And, taking her in his arms, he said: "I know; but it'll all come right, if we put a good face on it. Shall I talk to Nollie?"
Gratian assented, from the desire to be able to say to her father: "George is seeing her!" and so stay the need for a discussion. But the whole thing seemed to her more and more a calamity which nothing could lessen or smooth away.
George Laird had plenty of cool courage, invaluable in men who have to inflict as well as to alleviate pain, but he did not like his mission "a little bit" as he would have said; and he proposed a walk because he dreaded a scene. Noel accepted for the same reason. She liked George, and with the disinterested detachment of a sister-in-law, and the shrewdness of extreme youth, knew him perhaps better than did his wife. She was sure, at all events, of being neither condemned nor sympathised with.
They might have gone, of course, in any direction, but chose to make for the City. Such deep decisions are subconscious. They sought, no doubt, a dry, unemotional region; or perhaps one where George, who was in uniform, might rest his arm from the automatic-toy game which the military play. They had reached Cheapside before he was conscious to the full of the bizarre nature of this walk with his pretty young sister-in-law among all the bustling, black-coated mob of money-makers. 'I wish the devil we hadn't come out!' he thought; 'it would have been easier indoors, after all.'
He cleared his throat, however, and squeezing her arm gently, began: "Gratian's told me, Nollie. The great thing is to keep your spirit up, and not worry."
"I suppose you couldn't cure me."
The words, in that delicate spurning voice, absolutely staggered George; but he said quickly:
"Out of the question, Nollie; impossible! What are you thinking of?"
The words: "D--n Daddy!" rose to his teeth; he bit them off, and said: "Bless him! We shall have to see to all that. Do you really want to keep it from him? It must be one way or the other; no use concealing it, if it's to come out later."
He stole a look at her. She was gazing straight before her. How damnably young she was, how pretty! A lump came up in his throat.
"I shouldn't do anything yet," he said; "too early. Later on, if you'd like me to tell him. But that's entirely up to you, my dear; he need never know."
He could not follow her thought. Then she said:
"Gratian condemns Cyril. Don't let her. I won't have him badly thought of. It was my doing. I wanted to make sure of him."
George answered stoutly:
"Gracie's upset, of course, but she'll soon be all right. You mustn't let it come between you. The thing you've got to keep steadily before you is that life's a huge wide adaptable thing. Look at all these people! There's hardly one of them who hasn't got now, or hasn't had, some personal difficulty or trouble before them as big as yours almost; bigger perhaps. And here they are as lively as fleas. That's what makes the fascination of life--the jolly irony of it all. It would do you good to have a turn in France, and see yourself in proportion to the whole." He felt her fingers suddenly slip under his arm, and went on with greater confidence:
"Life's going to be the important thing in the future, Nollie; not comfort and cloistered virtue and security; but living, and pressure to the square inch. Do you twig? All the old hard-and-fast traditions and drags on life are in the melting-pot. Death's boiling their bones, and they'll make excellent stock for the new soup. When you prune and dock things, the sap flows quicker. Regrets and repinings and repressions are going out of fashion; we shall have no time or use for them in the future. You're going to make life--well, that's something to be thankful for, anyway. You've kept Cyril Morland alive. And--well, you know, we've all been born; some of us properly, and some improperly, and there isn't a ha'porth of difference in the value of the article, or the trouble of bringing it into the world. The cheerier you are the better your child will be, and that's all you've got to think about. You needn't begin to trouble at all for another couple of months, at least; after that, just let us know where you'd like to go, and I'll arrange it somehow."
She looked round at him, and under that young, clear, brooding gaze he had the sudden uncomfortable feeling of having spoken like a charlatan. Had he really touched the heart of the matter? What good were his generalities to this young, fastidiously nurtured girl, brought up to tell the truth, by a father so old-fashioned and devoted, whom she loved? It was George's nature, too, to despise words; and the conditions of his life these last two years had given him a sort of horror of those who act by talking. He felt inclined to say: 'Don't pay the slightest attention to me; it's all humbug; what will be will be, and there's an end of it:
Then she said quietly:
"Shall I tell Daddy or not?"
He wanted to say: "No," but somehow couldn't. After all, the straightforward course was probably the best. For this would have to be a lifelong concealment. It was impossible to conceal a thing for ever; sooner or later he would find out. But the doctor rose up in him, and he said:
"Don't go to meet trouble, Nollie; it'll be time enough in two months. Then tell him, or let me."
She shook her head. "No; I will, if it is to be done."
He put his hand on hers, within his arm, and gave it a squeeze.
"What shall I do till then?" she asked.
"Take a week's complete rest, and then go on where you are."
Noel was silent a minute, then said: "Yes; I will."
They spoke no more on the subject, and George exerted himself to talk about hospital experiences, and that phenomenon, the British soldier. But just before they reached home he said:
"Look here, Nollie! If you're not ashamed of yourself, no one will be ashamed of you. If you put ashes on your own head, your fellow-beings will, assist you; for of such is their charity."
And, receiving another of those clear, brooding looks, he left her with the thought: 'A lonely child!'
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