Down by the River Wye, among plum-trees in blossom, Noel had laid her baby in a hammock, and stood reading a letter:
"MY DEAREST NOLLIE,
"Now that you are strong again, I feel that I must put before you my feeling as to your duty in this crisis of your life. Your aunt and uncle have made the most kind and generous offer to adopt your little boy. I have known that this was in their minds for some time, and have thought it over day and night for weeks. In the worldly sense it would be the best thing, no doubt. But this is a spiritual matter. The future of our souls depends on how we meet the consequences of our conduct. And painful, dreadful, indeed, as they must be, I am driven to feel that you can only reach true peace by facing them in a spirit of brave humility. I want you to think and think--till you arrive at a certainty which satisfies your conscience. If you decide, as I trust you will, to come back to me here with your boy, I shall do all in my power to make you happy while we face the future together. To do as your aunt and uncle in their kindness wish, would, I am sore afraid, end in depriving you of the inner strength and happiness which God only gives to those who do their duty and try courageously to repair their errors. I have confidence in you, my dear child.
"Ever your most loving father,
She read it through a second time, and looked at her baby. Daddy seemed to think that she might be willing to part from this wonderful creature! Sunlight fell through the plum blossom, in an extra patchwork quilt over the bundle lying there, touched the baby's nose and mouth, so that he sneezed. Noel laughed, and put her lips close to his face. 'Give you up!' she thought: 'Oh, no! And I'm going to be happy too. They shan't stop me:
In answer to the letter she said simply that she was coming up; and a week later she went, to the dismay of her uncle and aunt. The old nurse went too. Everything had hitherto been so carefully watched and guarded against by Thirza, that Noel did not really come face to face with her position till she reached home.
Gratian, who had managed to get transferred to a London Hospital, was now living at home. She had provided the house with new maids against her sister's return; and though Noel was relieved not to meet her old familiars, she encountered with difficulty the stolid curiosity of new faces. That morning before she left Kestrel, her aunt had come into her room while she was dressing, taken her left hand and slipped a little gold band on to its third finger. "To please me, Nollie, now that you're going, just for the foolish, who know nothing about you."
Noel had suffered it with the thought: 'It's all very silly!' But now, when the new maid was pouring out her hot water, she was suddenly aware of the girl's round blue eyes wandering, as it were, mechanically to her hand. This little hoop of gold, then, had an awful power! A rush of disgust came over her. All life seemed suddenly a thing of forms and sham. Everybody then would look at that little ring; and she was a coward, saving herself from them! When she was alone again, she slipped it off, and laid it on the washstand, where the sunlight fell. Only this little shining band of metal, this little yellow ring, stood between her and the world's hostile scorn! Her lips trembled. She took up the ring, and went to the open window; to throw it out. But she did not, uncertain and unhappy--half realising the cruelty of life. A knock at the door sent her flying back to the washstand. The visitor was Gratian.
"I've been looking at him," she said softly; "he's like you, Nollie, except for his nose."
"He's hardly got one yet. But aren't his eyes intelligent? I think they're wonderful." She held up the ring: "What shall I do about this, Gratian?"
Gratian flushed. "Wear it. I don't see why outsiders should know. For the sake of Dad I think you ought. There's the parish."
Noel slipped the ring back on to her finger. "Would you?"
"I can't tell. I think I would."
Noel laughed suddenly. "I'm going to get cynical; I can feel it in my bones. How is Daddy looking?"
"Very thin; Mr. Lauder is back again from the Front for a bit, and taking some of the work now."
"Do I hurt him very much still?"
"He's awfully pleased that you've come. He's as sweet as he can be about you."
"Yes," murmured Noel, "that's what's dreadful. I'm glad he wasn't in when I came. Has he told anyone?"
Gratian shook her head. "I don't think anybody knows; unless--perhaps Captain Fort. He came in again the other night; and somehow--"
Noel flushed. "Leila!" she said enigmatically. "Have you seen her?"
"I went to her flat last week with Dad--he likes her."
"Delilah is her real name, you know. All men like her. And Captain Fort is her lover."
Gratian gasped. Noel would say things sometimes which made her feel the younger of the two.
"Of course he is," went on Noel in a hard voice. "She has no men friends; her sort never have, only lovers. Why do you think he knows about me?"
"When he asked after you he looked--"
"Yes; I've seen him look like that when he's sorry for anything. I don't care. Has Monsieur Lavendie been in lately?"
"Yes; he looks awfully unhappy."
"His wife drugs."
"Oh, Nollie! How do you know?"
"I saw her once; I'm sure she does; there was a smell; and she's got wandering eyes that go all glassy. He can paint me now, if he likes. I wouldn't let him before. Does he know?"
"Of course not."
"He knows there was something; he's got second sight, I think. But I mind him less than anybody. Is his picture of Daddy good?"
"Powerful, but it hurts, somehow."
"Let's go down and see it."
The picture was hung in the drawing-room, and its intense modernity made that old-fashioned room seem lifeless and strange. The black figure, with long pale fingers touching the paler piano keys, had a frightening actuality. The face, three-quarters full, was raised as if for inspiration, and the eyes rested, dreamy and unseeing, on the face of a girl painted and hung on a background of wall above the piano.
"It's the face of that girl," said Gratian, when they had looked at the picture for some time in silence:
"No," said Noel, "it's the look in his eyes."
"But why did he choose such a horrid, common girl? Isn't she fearfully alive, though? She looks as if she were saying: 'Cheerio!'"
"She is; it's awfully pathetic, I think. Poor Daddy!"
"It's a libel," said Gratian stubbornly.
"No. That's what hurts. He isn't quite--quite all there. Will he be coming in soon?"
Gratian took her arm, and pressed it hard. "Would you like me at dinner or not; I can easily be out?"
Noel shook her head. "It's no good to funk it. He wanted me, and now he's got me. Oh! why did he? It'll be awful for him."
Gratian sighed. "I've tried my best, but he always said: 'I've thought so long about it all that I can't think any longer. I can only feel the braver course is the best. When things are bravely and humbly met, there will be charity and forgiveness.'"
"There won't," said Noel, "Daddy's a saint, and he doesn't see."
"Yes, he is a saint. But one must think for oneself--one simply must. I can't believe as he does, any more; can you, Nollie?"
"I don't know. When I was going through it, I prayed; but I don't know whether I really believed. I don't think I mind much about that, one way or the other."
"I mind terribly," said Gratian, "I want the truth."
"I don't know what I want," said Noel slowly, "except that sometimes I want--life; awfully."
And the two sisters were silent, looking at each other with a sort of wonder.
Noel had a fancy to put on a bright-coloured blue frock that evening, and at her neck she hung a Breton cross of old paste, which had belonged to her mother. When she had finished dressing she went into the nursery and stood by the baby's cot. The old nurse who was sitting there beside him, got up at once and said:
"He's sleeping beautiful--the lamb. I'll go down and get a cup o' tea, and come up, ma'am, when the gong goes." In the way peculiar to those who have never to initiate, but only to support positions in which they are placed by others, she had adopted for herself the theory that Noel was a real war-widow. She knew the truth perfectly; for she had watched that hurried little romance at Kestrel, but by dint of charity and blurred meditations it was easy for her to imagine the marriage ceremony which would and should have taken place; and she was zealous that other people should imagine it too. It was so much more regular and natural like that, and "her" baby invested with his proper dignity. She went downstairs to get a "cup o' tea," thinking: 'A picture they make--that they do, bless his little heart; and his pretty little mother--no more than a child, all said and done.'
Noel had been standing there some minutes in the failing light, absorbed in the face of the sleeping baby, when, raising her eyes, she saw in a mirror the refection of her father's dark figure by the door. She could hear him breathing as if the ascent of the stairs had tired him; and moving to the head of the cot, she rested her hand on it, and turned her face towards him. He came up and stood beside her, looking silently down at the baby. She saw him make the sign of the Cross above it, and the movement of his lips in prayer. Love for her father, and rebellion against this intercession for her perfect baby fought so hard in the girl's heart that she felt suffocated, and glad of the dark, so that he could not see her eyes. Then he took her hand and put it to his lips, but still without a word; and for the life of her she could not speak either. In silence, he kissed her forehead; and there mounted in Noel a sudden passion of longing to show him her pride and love for her baby. She put her finger down and touched one of his hands. The tiny sleeping fingers uncurled and, like some little sea anemone, clutched round it. She heard her father draw his breath in; saw him turn away quickly, silently, and go out. And she stayed, hardly breathing, with the hand of her baby squeezing her finger.
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