When in the cupboard there is a real and very bony skeleton, carefully kept from the sight of a single member of the family, the position of that member is liable to become lonely. But Pierson, who had been lonely fifteen years, did not feel it so much, perhaps, as most men would have. In his dreamy nature there was a curious self-sufficiency, which only violent shocks disturbed, and he went on with his routine of duty, which had become for him as set as the pavements he trod on his way to and from it. It was not exactly true, as the painter had said, that this routine did not bring him into touch with life. After all he saw people when they were born, when they married, when they died. He helped them when they wanted money, and when they were ill; he told their children Bible stories on Sunday afternoons; he served those who were in need with soup and bread from his soup kitchen. He never spared himself in any way, and his ears were always at the service of their woes. And yet he did not understand them, and they knew that. It was as though he, or they, were colour-blind. The values were all different. He was seeing one set of objects, they another.
One street of his parish touched a main line of thoroughfare, and formed a little part of the new hunting-grounds of women, who, chased forth from their usual haunts by the Authorities under pressure of the country's danger, now pursued their calling in the dark. This particular evil had always been a sort of nightmare to Pierson. The starvation which ruled his own existence inclined him to a particularly severe view and severity was not his strong point. In consequence there was ever within him a sort of very personal and poignant struggle going on beneath that seeming attitude of rigid disapproval. He joined the hunters, as it were, because he was afraid-not, of course, of his own instincts, for he was fastidious, a gentleman, and a priest, but of being lenient to a sin, to something which God abhorred: He was, as it were, bound to take a professional view of this particular offence. When in his walks abroad he passed one of these women, he would unconsciously purse his lips, and frown. The darkness of the streets seemed to lend them such power, such unholy sovereignty over the night. They were such a danger to the soldiers, too; and in turn, the soldiers were such a danger to the lambs of his flock. Domestic disasters in his parish came to his ears from time to time; cases of young girls whose heads were turned by soldiers, so that they were about to become mothers. They seemed to him pitiful indeed; but he could not forgive them for their giddiness, for putting temptation in the way of brave young men, fighting, or about to fight. The glamour which surrounded soldiers was not excuse enough. When the babies were born, and came to his notice, he consulted a Committee he had formed, of three married and two maiden ladies, who visited the mothers, and if necessary took the babies into a creche; for those babies had a new value to the country, and were not--poor little things!--to be held responsible for their mothers' faults. He himself saw little of the young mothers; shy of them, secretly afraid, perhaps, of not being censorious enough. But once in a way Life set him face to face with one.
On New Year's Eve he was sitting in his study after tea, at that hour which he tried to keep for his parishioners, when a Mrs. Mitchett was announced, a small bookseller's wife, whom he knew for an occasional Communicant. She came in, accompanied by a young dark-eyed girl in a loose mouse-coloured coat. At his invitation they sat down in front of the long bookcase on the two green leather chairs which had grown worn in the service of the parish; and, screwed round in his chair at the bureau, with his long musician's fingers pressed together, he looked at them and waited. The woman had taken out her handkerchief, and was wiping her eyes; but the girl sat quiet, as the mouse she somewhat resembled in that coat.
"Yes, Mrs. Mitchett?" He said gently, at last.
The woman put away her handkerchief, sniffed resolutely, and began:
"It's 'Ilda, sir. Such a thing Mitchett and me never could 'ave expected, comin' on us so sudden. I thought it best to bring 'er round, poor girl. Of course, it's all the war. I've warned 'er a dozen times; but there it is, comin' next month, and the man in France." Pierson instinctively averted his gaze from the girl, who had not moved her eyes from his face, which she scanned with a seeming absence of interest, as if she had long given up thinking over her lot, and left it now to others.
"That is sad," he said; "very, very sad."
"Yes," murmured Mrs. Mitchett; "that's what I tell 'Ilda."
The girl's glance, lowered for a second, resumed its impersonal scrutiny of Pierson's face.
"What is the man's name and regiment? Perhaps we can get leave for him to come home and marry Hilda at once."
Mrs. Mitchett sniffed. "She won't give it, sir. Now, 'Ilda, give it to Mr. Pierson." And her voice had a real note of entreaty. The girl shook her head. Mrs. Mitchett murmured dolefully: "That's 'ow she is, sir; not a word will she say. And as I tell her, we can only think there must 'ave been more than one. And that does put us to shame so!"
But still the girl made no sign.
"You speak to her, sir; I'm really at my wit's end."
"Why won't you tell us?" said Pierson. "The man will want to do the right thing, 'I'm sure."
The girl shook her head, and spoke for the first time.
"I don't know his name."
Mrs. Mitchett's face twitched.
"Oh, dear!" she said: "Think of that! She's never said as much to us."
"Not know his name?" Pierson murmured. "But how--how could you--" he stopped, but his face had darkened. "Surely you would never have done such a thing without affection? Come, tell me!"
"I don't know it," the girl repeated.
"It's these Parks," said Mrs. Mitchett, from behind her handkerchief. "And to think that this'll be our first grandchild and all! 'Ilda is difficult; as quiet, as quiet; but that stubborn--"
Pierson looked at the girl, who seemed, if anything, less interested than ever. This impenetrability and something mulish in her attitude annoyed him. "I can't think," he said, "how you could so have forgotten yourself. It's truly grievous."
Mrs. Mitchett murmured: "Yes, sir; the girls gets it into their heads that there's going to be no young men for them."
"That's right," said the girl sullenly.
Pierson's lips grew tighter. "Well, what can I do for you, Mrs. Mitchett?" he said. "Does your daughter come to church?"
Mrs. Mitchett shook her head mournfully. "Never since she had her byke."
Pierson rose from his chair. The old story! Control and discipline undermined, and these bitter apples the result!
"Well," he said, "if you need our creche, you have only to come to me," and he turned to the girl. "And you--won't you let this dreadful experience move your heart? My dear girl, we must all master ourselves, our passions, and our foolish wilfulness, especially in these times when our country needs us strong, and self-disciplined, not thinking of ourselves. I'm sure you're a good girl at heart."
The girl's dark eyes, unmoved from his face, roused in him a spasm of nervous irritation. "Your soul is in great danger, and you're very unhappy, I can see. Turn to God for help, and in His mercy everything will be made so different for you--so very different! Come!"
The girl said with a sort of surprising quietness: "I don't want the baby!"
The remark staggered him, almost as if she had uttered a hideous oath.
"'Ilda was in munitions," said her mother in an explanatory voice: "earnin' a matter of four pound a week. Oh! dear, it is a waste an' all!" A queer, rather terrible little smile curled Pierson's lips.
"A judgment!" he said. "Good evening, Mrs. Mitchett. Good evening, Hilda. If you want me when the time comes, send for me."
They stood up; he shook hands with them; and was suddenly aware that the door was open, and Noel standing there. He had heard no sound; and how long she had been there he could not tell. There was a singular fixity in her face and attitude. She was staring at the girl, who, as she passed, lifted her face, so that the dark eyes and the grey eyes met. The door was shut, and Noel stood there alone with him.
"Aren't you early, my child?" said Pierson. "You came in very quietly."
"Yes; I heard."
A slight shock went through him at the tone of her voice; her face had that possessed look which he always dreaded. "What did you hear?" he said.
"I heard you say: 'A judgment!' You'll say the same to me, won't you? Only, I do want my baby."
She was standing with her back to the door, over which a dark curtain hung; her face looked young and small against its stuff, her eyes very large. With one hand she plucked at her blouse, just over her heart.
Pierson stared at her, and gripped the back of the chair he had been sitting in. A lifetime of repression served him in the half-realised horror of that moment. He stammered out the single word--
"It's quite true," she said, turned round, and went out.
Pierson had a sort of vertigo; if he had moved, he must have fallen down. Nollie! He slid round and sank into his chair, and by some horrible cruel fiction of his nerves, he seemed to feel Noel on his knee, as, when a little girl, she had been wont to sit, with her fair hair fluffing against his cheek. He seemed to feel that hair tickling his skin; it used to be the greatest comfort he had known since her mother died. At that moment his pride shrivelled like a flower held to a flame; all that abundant secret pride of a father who loves and admires, who worships still a dead wife in the children she has left him; who, humble by nature, yet never knows how proud he is till the bitter thing happens; all the long pride of the priest who, by dint of exhortation and remonstrance has coated himself in a superiority he hardly suspects--all this pride shrivelled in him. Then something writhed and cried within, as a tortured beast cries, at loss to know why it is being tortured. How many times has not a man used those words: "My God! My God! Why hast Thou forsaken me!" He sprang up and tried to pace his way out of this cage of confusion: His thoughts and feelings made the strangest medley, spiritual and worldly--Social ostracism--her soul in peril--a trial sent by God! The future! Imagination failed him. He went to his little piano, opened it, closed it again; took his hat, and stole out. He walked fast, without knowing where. It was very cold--a clear, bitter evening. Silent rapid motion in the frosty air was some relief. As Noel had fled from him, having uttered her news, so did he fly from her. The afflicted walk fast. He was soon down by the river, and turned West along its wall. The moon was up, bright and nearly full, and the steel-like shimmer of its light burnished the ebbing water. A cruel night! He came to the Obelisk, and leaned against it, overcome by a spasm of realisation. He seemed to see his dead wife's face staring at him out of the past, like an accusation. "How have you cared for Nollie, that she should have come to this?" It became the face of the moonlit sphinx, staring straight at him, the broad dark face with wide nostrils, cruel lips, full eyes blank of pupils, all livened and whitened by the moonlight--an embodiment of the marvellous unseeing energy of Life, twisting and turning hearts without mercy. He gazed into those eyes with a sort of scared defiance. The great clawed paws of the beast, the strength and remorseless serenity of that crouching creature with human head, made living by his imagination and the moonlight, seemed to him like a temptation to deny God, like a refutation of human virtue.
Then, the sense of beauty stirred in him; he moved where he could see its flanks coated in silver by the moonlight, the ribs and the great muscles, and the tail with tip coiled over the haunch, like the head of a serpent. It was weirdly living; fine and cruel, that great man-made thing. It expressed something in the soul of man, pitiless and remote from love--or rather, the remorselessness which man had seen, lurking within man's fate. Pierson recoiled from it, and resumed his march along the Embankment, almost deserted in the bitter cold. He came to where, in the opening of the Underground railway, he could see the little forms of people moving, little orange and red lights glowing. The sight arrested him by its warmth and motion. Was it not all a dream? That woman and her daughter, had they really come? Had not Noel been but an apparition, her words a trick which his nerves had played him? Then, too vividly again, he saw her face against the dark stuff of the curtain, the curve of her hand plucking at her blouse, heard the sound of his own horrified: "Nollie!" No illusion, no deception! The edifice of his life was in the dust. And a queer and ghastly company of faces came about him; faces he had thought friendly, of good men and women whom he knew, yet at that moment did not know, all gathered round Noel, with fingers pointing at her. He staggered back from that vision, could not bear it, could not recognise this calamity. With a sort of comfort, yet an aching sense of unreality, his mind flew to all those summer holidays spent in Scotland, Ireland, Cornwall, Wales, by mountain and lake, with his two girls; what sunsets, and turning leaves, birds, beasts, and insects they had watched together! From their youthful companionship, their eagerness, their confidence in him, he had known so much warmth and pleasure. If all those memories were true, surely this could not be true. He felt suddenly that he must hurry back, go straight to Noel, tell her that she had been cruel to him, or assure himself that, for the moment, she had been insane: His temper rose suddenly, took fire. He felt anger against her, against every one he knew, against life itself. Thrusting his hands deep into the pockets of his thin black overcoat, he plunged into that narrow glowing tunnel of the station booking-office, which led back to the crowded streets. But by the time he reached home his anger had evaporated; he felt nothing but utter lassitude. It was nine o'clock, and the maids had cleared the dining table. In despair Noel had gone up to her room. He had no courage left, and sat down supperless at his little piano, letting his fingers find soft painful harmonies, so that Noel perhaps heard the faint far thrumming of that music through uneasy dreams. And there he stayed, till it became time for him to go forth to the Old Year's Midnight Service.
When he returned, Pierson wrapped himself in a rug and lay down on the old sofa in his study. The maid, coming in next morning to "do" the grate, found him still asleep. She stood contemplating him in awe; a broad-faced, kindly, fresh-coloured girl. He lay with his face resting on his hand, his dark, just grizzling hair unruffled, as if he had not stirred all night; his other hand clutched the rug to his chest, and his booted feet protruded beyond it. To her young eyes he looked rather appallingly neglected. She gazed with interest at the hollows in his cheeks, and the furrows in his brow, and the lips, dark-moustached and bearded, so tightly compressed, even in sleep. Being holy didn't make a man happy, it seemed! What fascinated her were the cindery eyelashes resting on the cheeks, the faint movement of face and body as he breathed, the gentle hiss of breath escaping through the twitching nostrils. She moved nearer, bending down over him, with the childlike notion of counting those lashes. Her lips parted in readiness to say: "Oh!" if he waked. Something in his face, and the little twitches which passed over it, made her feel "that sorry" for him. He was a gentleman, had money, preached to her every Sunday, and was not so very old--what more could a man want? And yet--he looked so tired, with those cheeks.
She pitied him; helpless and lonely he seemed to her, asleep there instead of going to bed properly. And sighing, she tiptoed towards the door.
"Is that you, Bessie?"
The girl turned: "Yes, sir. I'm sorry I woke you, sir. 'Appy New Year, sir!"
"Ah, yes. A Happy New Year, Bessie."
She saw his usual smile, saw it die, and a fixed look come on his face; it scared her, and she hurried away. Pierson had remembered. For full five minutes he lay there staring at nothing. Then he rose, folded the rug mechanically, and looked at the clock. Eight! He went upstairs, knocked on Noel's door, and entered.
The blinds were drawn up, but she was still in bed. He stood looking down at her. "A Happy New Year, my child!" he said; and he trembled all over, shivering visibly. She looked so young and innocent, so round-faced and fresh, after her night's sleep, that the thought sprang up in him again: 'It must have been a dream!' She did not move, but a slow flush came up in her cheeks. No dream--dream! He said tremulously: "I can't realise. I--I hoped I had heard wrong. Didn't I, Nollie? Didn't I?"
She just shook her head.
"Tell me--everything," he said; "for God's sake!"
He saw her lips moving, and caught the murmur: "There 's nothing more. Gratian and George know, and Leila. It can't be undone, Daddy. Perhaps I wouldn't have wanted to make sure, if you hadn't tried to stop Cyril and me--and I'm glad sometimes, because I shall have something of his--" She looked up at him. "After all, it's the same, really; only, there's no ring. It's no good talking to me now, as if I hadn't been thinking of this for ages. I'm used to anything you can say; I've said it to myself, you see. There's nothing but to make the best of it."
Her hot hand came out from under the bedclothes, and clutched his very tight. Her flush had deepened, and her eyes seemed to him to glitter.
"Oh, Daddy! You do look tired! Haven't you been to bed? Poor Daddy!"
That hot clutch, and the words: "Poor Daddy!" brought tears into his eyes. They rolled slowly down to his beard, and he covered his face with the other hand. Her grip tightened convulsively; suddenly she dragged it to her lips, kissed it, and let it drop.
"Don't!" she said, and turned away her face.
Pierson effaced his emotion, and said quite calmly:
"Shall you wish to be at home, my dear, or to go elsewhere?"
Noel had begun to toss her head on her pillow, like a feverish child whose hair gets in its eyes and mouth.
"Oh! I don't know; what does it matter?"
"Kestrel; would you like to go there? Your aunt--I could write to her." Noel stared at him a moment; a struggle seemed going on within her.
"Yes," she said, "I would. Only, not Uncle Bob."
"Perhaps your uncle would come up here, and keep me company."
She turned her face away, and that tossing movement of the limbs beneath the clothes began again. "I don't care," she said; "anywhere--it doesn't matter."
Pierson put his chilly hand on her forehead. "Gently!" he said, and knelt down by the bed. "Merciful Father," he murmured, "give us strength to bear this dreadful trial. Keep my beloved child safe, and bring her peace; and give me to understand how I have done wrong, how I have failed towards Thee, and her. In all things chasten and strengthen her, my child, and me."
His thoughts moved on in the confused, inarticulate suspense of prayer, till he heard her say: "You haven't failed; why do you talk of failing--it isn't true; and don't pray for me, Daddy."
Pierson raised himself, and moved back from the bed. Her words confounded him, yet he was afraid to answer. She pushed her head deep into the pillow, and lay looking up at the ceiling.
"I shall have a son; Cyril won't quite have died. And I don't want to be forgiven."
He dimly perceived what long dumb processes of thought and feeling had gone on in her to produce this hardened state of mind, which to him seemed almost blasphemous. And in the very midst of this turmoil in his heart, he could not help thinking how lovely her face looked, lying back so that the curve of her throat was bared, with the short tendrils of hair coiling about it. That flung-back head, moving restlessly from side to side in the heat of the soft pillow, had such a passion of protesting life in it! And he kept silence.
"I want you to know it was all me. But I can't pretend. Of course I'll try and not let it hurt you more than I possibly can. I'm sorry for you, poor Daddy; oh! I'm sorry for you!" With a movement incredibly lithe and swift, she turned and pressed her face down in the pillow, so that all he could see was her tumbled hair and the bedclothes trembling above her shoulders. He tried to stroke that hair, but she shook her head free, and he stole out.
She did not come to breakfast; and when his own wretched meal was over, the mechanism of his professional life caught him again at once. New Year's Day! He had much to do. He had, before all, to be of a cheerful countenance before his flock, to greet all and any with an air of hope and courage.
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