Thirza Pierson, seeing her brother-in-law's handwriting, naturally said: "Here's a letter from Ted."
Bob Pierson, with a mouth full of sausage, as naturally responded:
"What does he say?"
In reading on, she found that to answer that question was one of the most difficult tasks ever set her. Its news moved and disturbed her deeply. Under her wing this disaster had happened! Down here had been wrought this most deplorable miracle, fraught with such dislocation of lives! Noel's face, absorbed and passionate, outside the door of her room on the night when Cyril Morland went away--her instinct had been right!
"He wants you to go up and stay with him, Bob."
"Why not both of us?"
"He wants Nollie to come down to me; she's not well."
"Not well? What's the matter?"
To tell him seemed disloyalty to her sex; not to tell him, disloyalty to her husband. A simple consideration of fact and not of principle, decided her. He would certainly say in a moment: 'Here! Pitch it over!' and she would have to. She said tranquilly:
"You remember that night when Cyril Morland went away, and Noel behaved so strangely. Well, my dear; she is going to have a child at the beginning of April. The poor boy is dead, Bob; he died for the Country."
She saw the red tide flow up into his face.
"Poor Edward is dreadfully upset. We must do what we can. I blame myself." By instinct she used those words.
"Blame yourself? Stuff! That young--!" He stopped.
Thirza said quietly: "No, Bob; of the two, I'm sure it was Noel; she was desperate that day. Don't you remember her face? Oh! this war! It's turned the whole world upside down. That's the only comfort; nothing's normal."
Bob Pierson possessed beyond most men the secret of happiness, for he was always absorbed in the moment, to the point of unself-consciousness. Eating an egg, cutting down a tree, sitting on a Tribunal, making up his accounts, planting potatoes, looking at the moon, riding his cob, reading the Lessons--no part of him stood aside to see how he was doing it, or wonder why he was doing it, or not doing it better. He grew like a cork-tree, and acted like a sturdy and well-natured dog. His griefs, angers, and enjoyments were simple as a child's, or as his somewhat noisy slumbers. They were notably well-suited, for Thirza had the same secret of happiness, though her, absorption in the moment did not--as became a woman--prevent her being conscious of others; indeed, such formed the chief subject of her absorptions. One might say that they neither of them had philosophy yet were as philosophic a couple as one could meet on this earth of the self-conscious. Daily life to these two was still of simple savour. To be absorbed in life--the queer endless tissue of moments and things felt and done and said and made, the odd inspiriting conjunctions of countless people--was natural to them; but they never thought whether they were absorbed or not, or had any particular attitude to Life or Death--a great blessing at the epoch in which they were living.
Bob Pierson, then, paced the room, so absorbed in his dismay and concern, that he was almost happy.
"By Jove!" he said, "what a ghastly thing!
"Nollie, of all people! I feel perfectly wretched, Thirza; wretched beyond words." But with each repetition his voice grew cheerier, and Thirza felt that he was already over the worst.
"Your coffee's getting cold!" she said.
"What do you advise? Shall I go up, heh?"
"I think you'll be a godsend to poor Ted; you'll keep his spirits up. Eve won't get any leave till Easter; and I can be quite alone, and see to Nollie here. The servants can have a holiday--, Nurse and I will run the house together. I shall enjoy it."
"You're a good woman, Thirza!" Taking his wife's hand, he put it to his lips. "There isn't another woman like you in the world."
Thirza's eyes smiled. "Pass me your cup; I'll give you some fresh coffee."
It was decided to put the plan into operation at mid-month, and she bent all her wits to instilling into her husband the thought that a baby more or less was no great matter in a world which already contained twelve hundred million people. With a man's keener sense of family propriety, he could not see that this baby would be the same as any other baby. "By heaven!" he would say, "I simply can't get used to it; in our family! And Ted a parson! What the devil shall we do with it?"
"If Nollie will let us, why shouldn't we adopt it? It'll be something to take my thoughts off the boys."
"That's an idea! But Ted's a funny fellow. He'll have some doctrine of atonement, or other in his bonnet."
"Oh, bother!" said Thirza with asperity.
The thought of sojourning in town for a spell was not unpleasant to Bob Pierson. His Tribunal work was over, his early, potatoes in, and he had visions of working for the Country, of being a special constable, and dining at his Club. The nearer he was to the front, and the more he could talk about the war, the greater the service he felt he would be doing. He would ask for a job where his brains would be of use. He regretted keenly that Thirza wouldn't be with him; a long separation like this would be a great trial. And he would sigh and run his fingers through his whiskers. Still for the Country, and for Nollie, one must put up with it!
When Thirza finally saw him into the train, tears stood in the eyes of both, for they were honestly attached, and knew well enough that this job, once taken in hand, would have to be seen through; a three months' separation at least.
"I shall write every day."
"So shall I, Bob."
"You won't fret, old girl?"
"Only if you do."
"I shall be up at 5.5, and she'll be down at 4.50. Give us a kiss--damn the porters. God bless you! I suppose she'd mind if--I--were to come down now and then?"
"I'm afraid she would. It's--it's--well, you know."
"Yes, Yes; I do." And he really did; for underneath, he had true delicacy.
Her last words: "You're very sweet, Bob," remained in his ears all the way to Severn Junction.
She went back to the house, emptied of her husband, daughter, boys, and maids; only the dogs left and the old nurse whom she had taken into confidence. Even in that sheltered, wooded valley it was very cold this winter. The birds hid themselves, not one flower bloomed, and the red-brown river was full and swift. The sound of trees being felled for trench props, in the wood above the house resounded all day long in the frosty air. She meant to do the cooking herself; and for the rest of the morning and early afternoon she concocted nice things, and thought out how she herself would feel if she were Noel and Noel she, so as to smooth out of the way anything which would hurt the girl. In the afternoon she went down to the station in the village car, the same which had borne Cyril Morland away that July night, for their coachman had been taken for the army, and the horses were turned out.
Noel looked tired and white, but calm--too calm. Her face seemed to Thirza to have fined down, and with those brooding eyes, to be more beautiful. In the car she possessed herself of the girl's hand, and squeezed it hard; their only allusion to the situation, except Noel's formal:
"Thank you so much, Auntie, for having me; it's most awfully sweet of you and Uncle Bob."
"There's no one in the house, my dear, except old Nurse. It'll be very dull for you; but I thought I'd teach you to cook; it's rather useful."
The smile which slipped on to Noel's face gave Thirza quite a turn.
She had assigned the girl a different room, and had made it extraordinarily cheerful with a log fire, chrysanthemums, bright copper candlesticks, warming-pans, and such like.
She went up with her at bedtime, and standing before the fire, said:
"You know, Nollie, I absolutely refuse to regard this as any sort of tragedy. To bring life into the worlds in these days, no matter how, ought to make anyone happy. I only wish I could do it again, then I should feel some use. Good night dear; and if you want anything, knock on the wall. I'm next door. Bless you!" She saw that the girl was greatly moved, underneath her pale mask; and went out astonished at her niece's powers of self-control.
But she did not sleep at all well; for in imagination, she kept on seeing Noel turning from side to side in the big bed, and those great eyes of hers staring at the dark.
The meeting of the brothers Pierson took place at the dinner-hour, and was characterised by a truly English lack of display. They were so extremely different, and had been together so little since early days in their old Buckinghamshire home, that they were practically strangers, with just the potent link of far-distant memories in common. It was of these they talked, and about the war. On this subject they agreed in the large, and differed in the narrow. For instance, both thought they knew about Germany and other countries, and neither of course had any real knowledge of any country outside their own; for, though both had passed through considerable tracts of foreign ground at one time or another, they had never remarked anything except its surface,--its churches, and its sunsets. Again, both assumed that they were democrats, but neither knew the meaning of the word, nor felt that the working man could be really trusted; and both revered Church and, King: Both disliked conscription, but considered it necessary. Both favoured Home Rule for Ireland, but neither thought it possible to grant it. Both wished for the war to end, but were for prosecuting it to Victory, and neither knew what they meant by that word. So much for the large. On the narrower issues, such as strategy, and the personality of their country's leaders, they were opposed. Edward was a Westerner, Robert an Easterner, as was natural in one who had lived twenty-five years in Ceylon. Edward favoured the fallen government, Robert the risen. Neither had any particular reasons for their partisanship except what he had read in the journals. After all--what other reasons could they have had? Edward disliked the Harmsworth Press; Robert thought it was doing good. Robert was explosive, and rather vague; Edward dreamy, and a little didactic. Robert thought poor Ted looking like a ghost; Edward thought poor Bob looking like the setting sun. Their faces were indeed as curiously contrasted as their views and voices; the pale-dark, hollowed, narrow face of Edward, with its short, pointed beard, and the red-skinned, broad, full, whiskered face of Robert. They parted for the night with an affectionate hand-clasp. So began a queer partnership which consisted, as the days went on, of half an hour's companionship at breakfast, each reading the paper; and of dinner together perhaps three times a week. Each thought his brother very odd, but continued to hold the highest opinion of him. And, behind it all, the deep tribal sense that they stood together in trouble, grew. But of that trouble they never spoke, though not seldom Robert would lower his journal, and above the glasses perched on his well-shaped nose, contemplate his brother, and a little frown of sympathy would ridge his forehead between his bushy eyebrows. And once in a way he would catch Edward's eyes coming off duty from his journal, to look, not at his brother, but at--the skeleton; when that happened, Robert would adjust his glasses hastily, damn the newspaper type, and apologise to Edward for swearing. And he would think: 'Poor Ted! He ought to drink port, and--and enjoy himself, and forget it. What a pity he's a parson!'
In his letters to Thirza he would deplore Edward's asceticism. "He eats nothing, he drinks nothing, he smokes a miserable cigarette once in a blue moon. He's as lonely as a coot; it's a thousand pities he ever lost his wife. I expect to see his wings sprout any day; but--dash it all I--I don't believe he's got the flesh to grow them on. Send him up some clotted cream; I'll see if I can get him to eat it." When the cream came, he got Edward to eat some the first morning, and at tea time found that he had finished it himself. "We never talk about Nollie," he wrote, "I'm always meaning to have it out with him and tell him to buck up, but when it comes to the point I dry up; because, after all, I feel it too; it sticks in my gizzard horribly. We Piersons are pretty old, and we've always been respectable, ever since St. Bartholomew, when that Huguenot chap came over and founded us. The only black sheep I ever heard of is Cousin Leila. By the way, I saw her the other day; she came round here to see Ted. I remember going to stay with her and her first husband; young Fane, at Simla, when I was coming home, just before we were married. Phew! That was a queer menage; all the young chaps fluttering round her, and young Fane looking like a cynical ghost. Even now she can't help setting her cap a little at Ted, and he swallows her whole; thinks her a devoted creature reformed to the nines with her hospital and all that. Poor old Ted; he is the most dreamy chap that ever was."
"We have had Gratian and her husband up for the week-end," he wrote a little later; "I don't like her so well as Nollie; too serious and downright for me. Her husband seems a sensible fellow, though; but the devil of a free-thinker. He and poor Ted are like cat and dog. We had Leila in to dinner again on Saturday, and a man called Fort came too. She's sweet on him, I could see with half an eye, but poor old Ted can't. The doctor and Ted talked up hill and down dale. The doctor said a thing which struck me. 'What divides us from the beasts? Will power: nothing else. What's this war, really, but a death carnival of proof that man's will is invincible?' I stuck it down to tell you, when I got upstairs. He's a clever fellow. I believe in God, as you know, but I must say when it comes to an argument, poor old Ted does seem a bit weak, with his: 'We're told this,' and 'We're told that: Nobody mentioned Nollie. I must have the whole thing out with Ted; we must know how to act when it's all over."
But not till the middle of March, when the brothers had been sitting opposite each other at meals for two months, was the subject broached between them, and then not by Robert. Edward, standing by the hearth after dinner, in his familiar attitude, one foot on the fender, one hand grasping the mantel-shelf, and his eyes fixed on the flames, said: "I've never asked your forgiveness, Bob."
Robert, lingering at the table over his glass of port, started, looked at Edward's back in its parson's coat, and answered:
"My dear old chap!"
"It has been very difficult to speak of this."
"Of course, of course!" And there was a silence, while Robert's eyes travelled round the walls for inspiration. They encountered only the effigies of past Piersons very oily works, and fell back on the dining-table. Edward went on speaking to the fire:
"It still seems to me incredible. Day and night I think of what it's my duty to do."
"Nothing!" ejaculated Robert. "Leave the baby with Thirza; we'll take care of it, and when Nollie's fit, let her go back to work in a hospital again. She'll soon get over it." He saw his brother shake his head, and thought: 'Ah! yes; now there's going to be some d--d conscientious complication.'
Edward turned round on him: "That is very sweet of you both, but it would be wrong and cowardly for me to allow it."
The resentment which springs up in fathers when other fathers dispose of young lives, rose in Robert.
"Dash it all, my dear Ted, that's for Nollie to say. She's a woman now, remember."
A smile went straying about in the shadows of his brother's face. "A woman? Little Nollie! Bob, I've made a terrible mess of it with my girls." He hid his lips with his hand, and turned again to the flames. Robert felt a lump in his throat. "Oh! Hang it, old boy, I don't think that. What else could you have done? You take too much on yourself. After all, they're fine girls. I'm sure Nollie's a darling. It's these modern notions, and this war. Cheer up! It'll all dry straight." He went up to his brother and put a hand on his shoulder. Edward seemed to stiffen under that touch.
"Nothing comes straight," he said, "unless it's faced; you know that, Bob."
Robert's face was a study at that moment. His cheeks filled and collapsed again like a dog's when it has been rebuked. His colour deepened, and he rattled some money in a trouser pocket.
"Something in that, of course," he said gruffly. "All the same, the decision's with Nollie. We'll see what Thirza says. Anyway, there's no hurry. It's a thousand pities you're a parson; the trouble's enough without that:"
Edward shook his head. "My position is nothing; it's the thought of my child, my wife's child. It's sheer pride; and I can't subdue it. I can't fight it down. God forgive me, I rebel."
And Robert thought: 'By George, he does take it to heart! Well, so should I! I do, as it is!' He took out his pipe, and filled it, pushing the tobacco down and down.
"I'm not a man of the world," he heard his brother say; "I'm out of touch with many things. It's almost unbearable to me to feel that I'm joining with the world to condemn my own daughter; not for their reasons, perhaps--I don't know; I hope not, but still, I'm against her."
Robert lit his pipe.
"Steady, old man!" he said. "It's a misfortune. But if I were you I should feel: 'She's done a wild, silly thing, but, hang it, if anybody says a word against her, I'll wring his neck.' And what's more, you'll feel much the same, when it comes to the point." He emitted a huge puff of smoke, which obscured his brother's face, and the blood, buzzing in his temples, seemed to thicken the sound of Edward's voice.
"I don't know; I've tried to see clearly. I have prayed to be shown what her duty is, and mine. It seems to me there can be no peace for her until she has atoned, by open suffering; that the world's judgment is her cross, and she must bear it; especially in these days, when all the world is facing suffering so nobly. And then it seems so hard-so bitter; my poor little Nollie!"
There was a silence, broken only by the gurgling of Robert's pipe, till he said abruptly:
"I don't follow you, Ted; no, I don't. I think a man should screen his children all he can. Talk to her as you like, but don't let the world do it. Dash it, the world's a rotten gabbling place. I call myself a man of the world, but when it comes to private matters--well, then I draw the line. It seems to me it seems to me inhuman. What does George Laird think about it? He's a knowing chap. I suppose you've--no, I suppose you haven't--" For a peculiar smile had come on Edward's face.
"No," he said, "I should hardly ask George Laird's opinion."
And Robert realised suddenly the stubborn loneliness of that thin black figure, whose fingers were playing with a little gold cross. 'By Jove!' he thought, 'I believe old Ted's like one of those Eastern chaps who go into lonely places. He's got himself surrounded by visions of things that aren't there. He lives in unreality--something we can't understand. I shouldn't be surprised if he heard voices, like--'who was it? Tt, tt! What a pity!' Ted was deceptive. He was gentle and--all that, a gentleman of course, and that disguised him; but underneath; what was there--a regular ascetic, a fakir! And a sense of bewilderment, of dealing with something which he could not grasp, beset Bob Pierson, so that he went back to the table, and sat down again beside his port.
"It seems to me," he said rather gruffly, "that the chicken had better be hatched before we count it." And then, sorry for his brusqueness, emptied his glass. As the fluid passed over his palate, he thought: 'Poor old Ted! He doesn't even drink--hasn't a pleasure in life, so far as I can see, except doing his duty, and doesn't even seem to know what that is. There aren't many like him--luckily! And yet I love him--pathetic chap!'
The "pathetic chap" was still staring at the flames.
And at this very hour, when the brothers were talking--for thought and feeling do pass mysteriously over the invisible wires of space Cyril Morland's son was being born of Noel, a little before his time.
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