Awakened by that daily cruelty, the advent of hot water, Edward Pierson lay in his chintz-curtained room, fancying himself back in London. A wild bee hunting honey from the bowl of flowers on the window-sill, and the scent of sweetbrier, shattered that illusion. He drew the curtain, and, kneeling on the window-seat thrust his head out into the morning. The air was intoxicatingly sweet. Haze clung over the river and the woods beyond; the lawn sparkled with dew, and two wagtails strutted in the dewy sunshine. 'Thank God for loveliness!' he thought. 'Those poor boys at the front!' And kneeling with his elbows on the sill, he began to say his prayers. The same feeling which made him beautify his church, use vestments, good music, and incense, filled him now. God was in the loveliness of His world, as well as in His churches. One could worship Him in a grove of beech trees, in a beautiful garden, on a high hill, by the banks of a bright river. God was in the rustle of the leaves, and the hum of a bee, in the dew on the grass, and the scent of flowers; God was in everything! And he added to his usual prayer this whisper: "I give Thee thanks for my senses, O Lord. In all of us, keep them bright, and grateful for beauty." Then he remained motionless, prey to a sort of happy yearning very near, to melancholy. Great beauty ever had that effect on him. One could capture so little of it--could never enjoy it enough! Who was it had said not long ago: "Love of beauty is really only the sex instinct, which nothing but complete union satisfies." Ah! yes, George--Gratian's husband. George Laird! And a little frown came between his brows, as though at some thorn in the flesh. Poor George! But then, all doctors were materialists at heart--splendid fellows, though; a fine fellow, George, working himself to death out there in France. One must not take them too seriously. He plucked a bit of sweetbrier and put it to his nose, which still retained the shine of that bleaching ointment Noel had insisted on his using. The sweet smell of those little rough leaves stirred up an acute aching. He dropped them, and drew back. No longings, no melancholy; one ought to be out, this beautiful morning!
It was Sunday; but he had not to take three Services and preach at least one sermon; this day of rest was really to be his own, for once. It was almost disconcerting; he had so long felt like the cab horse who could not be taken out of the shafts lest he should fall down. He dressed with extraordinary deliberation, and had not quite finished when there came a knock on his door, and Noel's voice said: "Can I come in, Daddy?"
In her flax-blue frock, with a Gloire de Dijon rose pinned where it met on her faintly browned neck, she seemed to her father a perfect vision of freshness.
"Here's a letter from Gratian; George has been sent home ill, and he's gone to our house. She's got leave from her hospital to come home and nurse him."
Pierson read the letter. "Poor George!"
"When are you going to let me be a nurse, Daddy?"
"We must wait till you're eighteen, Nollie."
"I could easily say I was. It's only a month; and I look much more."
"You might be anything from fifteen to twenty-five, my dear, according as you behave."
"I want to go out as near the front as possible."
Her head was poised so that the sunlight framed her face, which was rather broad--the brow rather too broad--under the waving light-brown hair, the nose short and indeterminate; cheeks still round from youth, almost waxen-pale, and faintly hollowed under the eyes. It was her lips, dainty yet loving, and above all her grey eyes, big and dreamily alive, which made her a swan. He could not imagine her in nurse's garb.
"This is new, isn't it, Nollie?"
"Cyril Morland's sisters are both out; and he'll be going soon. Everybody goes."
"Gratian hasn't got out yet: It takes a long time to get trained."
"I know; all the more reason to begin."
She got up, looked at him, looked at her hands, seemed about to speak, but did not. A little colour had come into her cheeks. Then, obviously making conversation, she asked:
"Are you going to church? It's worth anything to hear Uncle Bob read the Lessons, especially when he loses his place. No; you're not to put on your long coat till just before church time. I won't have it!"
Obediently Pierson resigned his long coat.
"Now, you see, you can have my rose. Your nose is better!" She kissed his nose, and transferred her rose to the buttonhole of his short coat. "That's all. Come along!" And with her arm through his, they went down. But he knew she had come to say something which she had not said.
Bob Pierson, in virtue of greater wealth than the rest of the congregation, always read the Lessons, in his high steamy voice, his breathing never adjusted to the length of any period. The congregation, accustomed, heard nothing peculiar; he was the necessary gentry with the necessary finger in the pie. It was his own family whom he perturbed. In the second row, Noel, staring solemnly at the profile of her father in the front row, was thinking: 'Poor Daddy! His eyes look as if they were coming out. Oh, Daddy! Smile! or it'll hurt you!' Young Morland beside her, rigid in his tunic, was thinking: 'She isn't thinking of me!' And just then her little finger crooked into his. Edward Pierson was thinking: 'Oh! My dear old Bob! Oh!' And, beside him, Thirza thought: 'Poor dear Ted I how nice for him to be having a complete rest! I must make him eat he's so thin!' And Eve was thinking: 'Oh, Father! Mercy!' But Bob Pierson was thinking: 'Cheer oh! Only another three verses!' Noel's little finger unhooked itself, but her eyes stole round to young Morland's eyes, and there was a light in them which lingered through the singing and the prayers. At last, in the reverential rustle of the settling congregation, a surpliced figure mounted the pulpit.
"I come not to bring Peace, but a sword."
Pierson looked up. He felt deep restfulness. There was a pleasant light in this church; the hum of a country bluebottle made all the difference to the quality of silence. No critical thought stirred within him, nor any excitement. He was thinking: 'Now I shall hear something for my good; a fine text; when did I preach from it last?' Turned a little away from the others, he saw nothing but the preacher's homely face up there above the carved oak; it was so long since he had been preached to, so long since he had had a rest! The words came forth, dropped on his forehead, penetrated, met something which absorbed them, and disappeared. 'A good plain sermon!' he thought. 'I suppose I'm stale; I don't seem--' "Let us not, dear brethren," droned the preacher's earnest voice, "think that our dear Lord, in saying that He brought a sword, referred to a physical sword. It was the sword of the spirit to which He was undoubtedly referring, that bright sword of the spirit which in all ages has cleaved its way through the fetters imposed on men themselves by their own desires, imposed by men on other men in gratification of their ambitions, as we have had so striking an example in the invasion by our cruel enemies of a little neighbouring country which had done them no harm. Dear brethren, we may all bring swords." Pierson's chin jerked; he raised his hand quickly and passed it over his face. 'All bring swords,' he thought, 'swords--I wasn't asleep--surely!' "But let us be sure that our swords are bright; bright with hope, and bright with faith, that we may see them flashing among the carnal desires of this mortal life, carving a path for us towards that heavenly kingdom where alone is peace, perfect peace. Let us pray."
Pierson did not shut his eyes; he opened them as he fell on his knees. In the seat behind, Noel and young Morland had also fallen on their knees their faces covered each with a single hand; but her left hand and his right hung at their sides. They prayed a little longer than any others and, on rising, sang the hymn a little louder.
No paper came on Sundays--not even the local paper, which had so long and so nobly done its bit with headlines to win the war. No news whatever came, of men blown up, to enliven the hush of the hot July afternoon, or the sense of drugging--which followed Aunt Thirza's Sunday lunch. Some slept, some thought they were awake; but Noel and young Morland walked upward through the woods towards a high common of heath and furze, crowned by what was known as Kestrel rocks. Between these two young people no actual word of love had yet been spoken. Their lovering had advanced by glance and touch alone.
Young Morland was a school and college friend of the two Pierson boys now at the front. He had no home of his own, for his parents were dead; and this was not his first visit to Kestrel. Arriving three weeks ago, for his final leave before he should go out, he had found a girl sitting in a little wagonette outside the station, and had known his fate at once. But who knows when Noel fell in love? She was--one supposes--just ready for that sensation. For the last two years she had been at one of those high-class finishing establishments where, in spite of the healthy curriculum, perhaps because of it, there is ever an undercurrent of interest in the opposing sex; and not even the gravest efforts to eliminate instinct are quite successful. The disappearance of every young male thing into the maw of the military machine put a premium on instinct. The thoughts of Noel and her school companions were turned, perforce, to that which, in pre-war freedom of opportunity they could afford to regard as of secondary interest. Love and Marriage and Motherhood, fixed as the lot of women by the countless ages, were threatened for these young creatures. They not unnaturally pursued what they felt to be receding.
When young Morland showed, by following her about with his eyes, what was happening to him, Noel was pleased. From being pleased, she became a little excited; from being excited she became dreamy. Then, about a week before her father's arrival, she secretly began to follow the young man about with her eyes; became capricious too, and a little cruel. If there had been another young man to favour--but there was not; and she favoured Uncle Bob's red setter. Cyril Morland grew desperate. During those three days the demon her father dreaded certainly possessed her. And then, one evening, while they walked back together from the hay-fields, she gave him a sidelong glance; and he gasped out: "Oh! Noel, what have I done?" She caught his hand, and gave it a quick squeeze. What a change! What blissful alteration ever since!
Through the wood young Morland mounted silently, screwing himself up to put things to the touch. Noel too mounted silently, thinking: 'I will kiss him if he kisses me!' Eagerness, and a sort of languor, were running in her veins; she did not look at him from under her shady hat. Sun light poured down through every chink in the foliage; made the greenness of the steep wood marvellously vivid and alive; flashed on beech leaves, ash leaves, birch leaves; fell on the ground in little runlets; painted bright patches on trunks and grass, the beech mast, the ferns; butterflies chased each other in that sunlight, and myriads of ants and gnats and flies seemed possessed by a frenzy of life. The whole wood seemed possessed, as if the sunshine were a happy Being which had come to dwell therein. At a half-way spot, where the trees opened and they could see, far below them, the gleam of the river, she sat down on the bole of a beech-tree, and young Morland stood looking at her. Why should one face and not an other, this voice and not that, make a heart beat; why should a touch from one hand awaken rapture, and a touch from another awaken nothing? He knelt down and pressed his lips to her foot. Her eyes grew very bright; but she got up and ran on--she had not expected him to kiss her foot. She heard him hurrying after her, and stopped, leaning against a birch trunk. He rushed to her, and, without a word spoken, his lips were on her lips. The moment in life, which no words can render, had come for them. They had found their enchanted spot, and they moved no further, but sat with their arms round each other, while the happy Being of the wood watched. A marvellous speeder-up of Love is War. What might have taken six months, was thus accomplished in three weeks.
A short hour passed, then Noel said:
"I must tell Daddy, Cyril. I meant to tell him something this morning, only I thought I'd better wait, in case you didn't."
Morland answered: "Oh, Noel!" It was the staple of his conversation while they sat there.
Again a short hour passed, and Morland said:
"I shall go off my chump if we're not married before I go out."
"How long does it take?"
"No time, if we hurry up. I've got six days before I rejoin, and perhaps the Chief will give me another week, if I tell him."
"Poor Daddy! Kiss me again; a long one."
When the long one was over, she said:
"Then I can come and be near you till you go out? Oh, Cyril!"
"Perhaps you won't go so soon. Don't go if you can help it!"
"Not if I can help it, darling; but I shan't be able."
"No, of course not; I know."
Young Morland clutched his hair. "Everyone's in the same boat, but it can't last for ever; and now we're engaged we can be together all the time till I've got the licence or whatever it is. And then--!"
"Daddy won't like our not being married in a church; but I don't care!"
Looking down at her closed eyes, and their lashes resting on her cheeks, young Morland thought:
'My God! I'm in heaven!'
Another short hour passed before she freed herself.
"We must go, Cyril. Kiss me once more!"
It was nearly dinner-time, and they ran down. 4
Edward Pierson, returning from the Evening Service, where he had read the Lessons, saw them in the distance, and compressed his lips. Their long absence had vexed him. What ought he to do? In the presence of Love's young dream, he felt strange and helpless. That night, when he opened the door of his room, he saw Noel on the window-seat, in her dressing-gown, with the moonlight streaming in on her.
"Don't light up, Daddy; I've got something to say."
She took hold of the little gold cross on his vest, and turned it over.
"I'm engaged to Cyril; we want to be married this week."
It was exactly as if someone had punched him in the ribs; and at the sound he made she hurried on:
"You see, we must be; he may be going out any day."
In the midst of his aching consternation, he admitted a kind of reason in her words. But he said:
"My dear, you're only a child. Marriage is the most serious thing in life; you've only known him three weeks."
"I know all that, Daddy" her voice sounded so ridiculously calm; "but we can't afford to wait. He might never come back, you see, and then I should have missed him."
"But, Noel, suppose he never did come back; it would only be much worse for you."
She dropped the little cross, and took hold of his hand, pressing it against her heart. But still her voice was calm:
"No; much better, Daddy; you think I don't know my own feelings, but I do."'
The man in Pierson softened; the priest hardened.
"Nollie, true marriage is the union of souls; and for that, time is wanted. Time to know that you feel and think the same, and love the same things."
"Yes, I know; but we do."
"You can't tell that, my dear; no one could in three weeks."
"But these aren't ordinary times, are they? People have to do things in a hurry. Oh, Daddy! Be an angel! Mother would have understood, and let me, I know!"
Pierson drew away his hand; the words hurt, from reminder of his loss, from reminder of the poor substitute he was.
"Look, Nollie!" he said. "After all these years since she left us, I'm as lonely as ever, because we were really one. If you marry this young man without knowing more of your own hearts than you can in such a little time, you may regret it dreadfully; you may find it turn out, after all, nothing but a little empty passion; or again, if anything happens to him before you've had any real married life together, you'll have a much greater grief and sense of loss to put up with than if you simply stay engaged till after the war. Besides, my child, you're much too young."
She sat so still that he looked at her in alarm. "But I must!"
He bit his lips, and said sharply: "You can't, Nollie!"
She got up, and before he could stop her, was gone. With the closing of the door, his anger evaporated, and distress took its place. Poor child! What to do with this wayward chicken just out of the egg, and wanting to be full-fledged at once? The thought that she would be lying miserable, crying, perhaps, beset him so that he went out into the passage and tapped on her door. Getting no answer, he went in. It was dark but for a streak of moonlight, and in that he saw her, lying on her bed, face down; and stealing up laid his hand on her head. She did not move; and, stroking her hair, he said gently:
"Nollie dear, I didn't mean to be harsh. If I were your mother, I should know how to make you see, but I'm only an old bumble-daddy."
She rolled over, scrambling into a cross-legged posture on the bed. He could see her eyes shining. But she did not speak; she seemed to know that in silence was her strength.
He said with a sort of despair:
"You must let me talk it over with your aunt. She has a lot of good sense."
He bent over and kissed her hot forehead.
"Good night, my dear; don't cry. Promise me!"
She nodded, and lifted her face; he felt her hot soft lips on his forehead, and went away a little comforted.
But Noel sat on her bed, hugging her knees, listening to the night, to the emptiness and silence; each minute so much lost of the little, little time left, that she might have been with him.
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