Noel went back to her hospital after a week's rest. George had done more for her than he suspected, for his saying: "Life's a huge wide adaptable thing!" had stuck in her mind. Did it matter what happened to her? And she used to look into the faces of the people she met, and wonder what was absorbing them. What secret griefs and joys were they carrying about with them? The loneliness of her own life now forced her to this speculation concerning others, for she was extraordinarily lonely; Gratian and George were back at work, her father must be kept at bay; with Leila she felt ill at ease, for the confession had hurt her pride; and family friends and acquaintances of all sorts she shunned like the plague. The only person she did not succeed in avoiding was Jimmy Fort, who came in one evening after dinner, bringing her a large bunch of hothouse violets. But then, he did not seem to matter--too new an acquaintance, too detached. Something he said made her aware that he had heard of her loss, and that the violets were a token of sympathy. He seemed awfully kind that evening, telling her "tales of Araby," and saying nothing which would shock her father. It was wonderful to be a man and roll about the world as he had, and see all life, and queer places, and people--Chinamen, and Gauchos, and Boers, and Mexicans. It gave her a kind of thirst. And she liked to watch his brown, humorous face; which seemed made of dried leather. It gave her the feeling that life and experience were all that mattered, doing and seeing things; it made her own trouble seem smaller; less important. She squeezed his hand when she said good night: "Thank you for my violets and for coming; it was awfully kind of you! I wish I could have adventures!" And he answered: "You will, my dear fairy princess!" He said it queerly and very kindly.
Fairy Princess! What a funny thing to call her! If he had only known!
There were not many adventures to be had in those regions where she washed up. Not much "wide and adaptable life" to take her thoughts off herself. But on her journeys to and from the hospital she had more than one odd little experience. One morning she noticed a poorly dressed woman with a red and swollen face, flapping along Regent Street like a wounded bird, and biting strangely at her hand. Hearing her groan, Noel asked her what the matter was. The woman held out the hand. "Oh!" she moaned, "I was scrubbin' the floor and I got this great needle stuck through my 'and, and it's broke off, and I can't get it out. Oh! Oh!" She bit at the needle-end, not quite visible, but almost within reach of teeth, and suddenly went very white. In dismay, Noel put an arm round her, and turned her into a fine chemist's shop. Several ladies were in there, buying perfumes, and they looked with acerbity at this disordered dirty female entering among them. Noel went up to a man behind the counter. "Please give me something quick, for this poor woman, I think she's going to faint. She's run a needle through her hand, and can't get it out." The man gave her "something quick," and Noel pushed past two of the dames back to where the woman was sitting. She was still obstinately biting at her hand, and suddenly her chin flew up, and there, between her teeth, was the needle. She took it from them with her other hand, stuck it proudly in the front of her dress, and out tumbled the words: "Oh! there--I've got it!"
When she had swallowed the draught, she looked round her, bewildered, and said:
"Thank you kindly, miss!" and shuffled out. Noel paid for the draught, and followed; and, behind her, the shining shop seemed to exhale a perfumed breath of relief.
"You can't go back to work," she said to the woman. "Where do you live?"
"You must take a 'bus and go straight home, and put your hand at once into weak Condy's fluid and water. It's swelling. Here's five shillings."
"Yes, miss; thank you, miss, I'm sure. It's very kind of you. It does ache cruel."
"If it's not better this afternoon, you must go to a doctor. Promise!"
"Oh, dear, yes. 'Ere's my 'bus. Thank you kindly, miss."
Noel saw her borne away, still sucking at her dirty swollen hand. She walked on in a glow of love for the poor woman, and hate for the ladies in the chemist's shop, and forgot her own trouble till she had almost reached the hospital.
Another November day, a Saturday, leaving early, she walked to Hyde Park. The plane-trees were just at the height of their spotted beauty. Few--very few-yellow leaves still hung; and the slender pretty trees seemed rejoicing in their freedom from summer foliage. All their delicate boughs and twigs were shaking and dancing in the wind; and their rain-washed leopard-like bodies had a lithe un-English gaiety. Noel passed down their line, and seated herself on a bench. Close by, an artist was painting. His easel was only some three yards away from her, and she could see the picture; a vista of the Park Lane houses through, the gay plane-tree screen. He was a tall man, about forty, evidently foreign, with a thin, long, oval, beardless face, high brow, large grey eyes which looked as if he suffered from headaches and lived much within himself. He cast many glances at her, and, pursuant of her new interest in "life" she watched him discreetly; a little startled however, when, taking off his broad-brimmed squash hat, he said in a broken accent:
"Forgive me the liberty I take, mademoiselle, but would you so very kindly allow me to make a sketch of you sitting there? I work very quick. I beg you will let me. I am Belgian, and have no manners, you see." And he smiled.
"If you like," said Noel.
"I thank you very much:"
He shifted his easel, and began to draw. She felt flattered, and a little fluttered. He was so pale, and had a curious, half-fed look, which moved her.
"Have you been long in England?" she said presently.
"Ever since the first months of the war."
"Do you like it?"
"I was very homesick at first. But I live in my pictures; there are wonderful things in London."
"Why did you want to sketch me?"
The painter smiled again. "Mademoiselle, youth is so mysterious. Those young trees I have been painting mean so much more than the old big trees. Your eyes are seeing things that have not yet happened. There is Fate in them, and a look of defending us others from seeing it. We have not such faces in my country; we are simpler; we do not defend our expressions. The English are very mysterious. We are like children to them. Yet in some ways you are like children to us. You are not people of the world at all. You English have been good to us, but you do not like us."
"And I suppose you do not like us, either?"
He smiled again, and she noticed how white his teeth were.
"Well, not very much. The English do things from duty, but their hearts they keep to themselves. And their Art--well, that is really amusing!"
"I don't know much about Art," Noel murmured.
"It is the world to me," said the painter, and was silent, drawing with increased pace and passion.
"It is so difficult to get subjects," he remarked abruptly. "I cannot afford to pay models, and they are not fond of me painting out of doors. If I had always a subject like you! You--you have a grief, have you not?"
At that startling little question, Noel looked up, frowning.
"Everybody has, now."
The painter grasped his chin; his eyes had suddenly become tragical.
"Yes," he said, "everybody. Tragedy is daily bread. I have lost my family; they are in Belgium. How they live I do not know."
"I'm sorry; very sorry, too, if we aren't nice to you, here. We ought to be."
He shrugged his shoulders. "What would you have? We are different. That is unpardonable. An artist is always lonely, too; he has a skin fewer than other people, and he sees things that they do not. People do not like you to be different. If ever in your life you act differently from others, you will find it so, mademoiselle."
Noel felt herself flushing. Was he reading her secret? His eyes had such a peculiar, secondsighted look.
"Have you nearly finished?" she asked.
"No, mademoiselle; I could go on for hours; but I do not wish to keep you. It is cold for you, sitting there."
Noel got up. "May I look?"
She did not quite recognise herself--who does?--but she saw a face which affected her oddly, of a girl looking at something which was, and yet was not, in front of her.
"My name is Lavendie," the painter said; "my wife and I live here," and he gave her a card.
Noel could not help answering: "My name is Noel Pierson; I live with my father; here's the address"--she found her case, and fished out a card. "My father is a clergyman; would you care to come and see him? He loves music and painting."
"It would be a great pleasure; and perhaps I might be allowed to paint you. Alas! I have no studio."
Noel drew back. "I'm afraid that I work in a hospital all day, and--and I don't want to be painted, thank you. But, Daddy would like to meet you, I'm sure."
The painter bowed again; she saw that he was hurt.
"Of course I can see that you're a very fine painter," she said quickly; "only--only--I don't want to, you see. Perhaps you'd like to paint Daddy; he's got a most interesting face."
The painter smiled. "He is your father, mademoiselle. May I ask you one question? Why do you not want to be painted?"
"Because--because I don't, I'm afraid." She held out her hand. The painter bowed over it. "Au revoir, mademoiselle."
"Thank you," said Noel; "it was awfully interesting." And she walked away. The sky had become full of clouds round the westerly sun; and the foreign crinkled tracery of the plane-tree branches against that French-grey, golden-edged mass, was very lovely. Beauty, and the troubles of others, soothed her. She felt sorry for the painter, but his eyes saw too much! And his words: "If ever you act differently from others," made her feel him uncanny. Was it true that people always disliked and condemned those who acted differently? If her old school-fellows now knew what was before her, how would they treat her? In her father's study hung a little reproduction of a tiny picture in the Louvre, a "Rape of Europa," by an unknown painter--a humorous delicate thing, of an enraptured; fair-haired girl mounted on a prancing white bull, crossing a shallow stream, while on the bank all her white girl-companions were gathered, turning half-sour, half-envious faces away from that too-fearful spectacle, while one of them tried with timid desperation to mount astride of a sitting cow, and follow. The face of the girl on the bull had once been compared by someone with her own. She thought of this picture now, and saw her school fellows-a throng of shocked and wondering girls. Suppose one of them had been in her position! 'Should I have been turning my face away, like the rest? I wouldn't no, I wouldn't,' she thought; 'I should have understood!' But she knew there was a kind of false emphasis in her thought. Instinctively she felt the painter right. One who acted differently from others, was lost.
She told her father of the encounter, adding:
"I expect he'll come, Daddy."
Pierson answered dreamily: "Poor fellow, I shall be glad to see him if he does."
"And you'll sit to him, won't you?"
"He's lonely, you know, and people aren't nice to him. Isn't it hateful that people should hurt others, because they're foreign or different?"
She saw his eyes open with mild surprise, and went on: "I know you think people are charitable, Daddy, but they aren't, of course."
"That's not exactly charitable, Nollie."
"You know they're not. I think sin often just means doing things differently. It's not real sin when it only hurts yourself; but that doesn't prevent people condemning you, does it?"
"I don't know what you mean, Nollie."
Noel bit her lips, and murmured: "Are you sure we're really Christians, Daddy?"
The question was so startling, from his own daughter, that Pierson took refuge in an attempt at wit. "I should like notice of that question, Nollie, as they say in Parliament."
"That means you don't."
Pierson flushed. "We're fallible enough; but, don't get such ideas into your head, my child. There's a lot of rebellious talk and writing in these days...."
Noel clasped her hands behind her head. "I think," she said, looking straight before her, and speaking to the air, "that Christianity is what you do, not what you think or say. And I don't believe people can be Christians when they act like others--I mean, when they join together to judge and hurt people."
Pierson rose and paced the room. "You have not seen enough of life to talk like that," he said. But Noel went on:
"One of the men in her hospital told Gratian about the treatment of conscientious objectors--it was horrible. Why do they treat them like that, just because they disagree? Captain Fort says it's fear which makes people bullies. But how can it be fear when they're hundreds to one? He says man has domesticated his animals but has never succeeded in domesticating himself. Man must be a wild beast, you know, or the world couldn't be so awfully brutal. I don't see much difference between being brutal for good reasons, and being brutal for bad ones."
Pierson looked down at her with a troubled smile. There was something fantastic to him in this sudden philosophising by one whom he had watched grow up from a tiny thing. Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings--sometimes! But then the young generation was always something of a sealed book to him; his sensitive shyness, and, still more, his cloth, placed a sort of invisible barrier between him and the hearts of others, especially the young. There were so many things of which he was compelled to disapprove, or which at least he couldn't discuss. And they knew it too well. Until these last few months he had never realised that his own daughters had remained as undiscovered by him as the interior of Brazil. And now that he perceived this, he was bewildered, yet could not imagine how to get on terms with them.
And he stood looking at Noel, intensely puzzled, suspecting nothing of the hard fact which was altering her--vaguely jealous, anxious, pained. And when she had gone up to bed, he roamed up and down the room a long time, thinking. He longed for a friend to confide in, and consult; but he knew no one. He shrank from them all, as too downright, bluff, and active; too worldly and unaesthetic; or too stiff and narrow. Amongst the younger men in his profession he was often aware of faces which attracted him, but one could not confide deep personal questions to men half one's age. But of his own generation, or his elders, he knew not one to whom he could have gone.
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