When Edward Pierson, afraid of his own emotion, left the twilit nursery, he slipped into his own room, and fell on his knees beside his bed, absorbed in the vision he had seen. That young figure in Madonna blue, with the halo of bright hair; the sleeping babe in the fine dusk; the silence, the adoration in that white room! He saw, too; a vision of the past, when Noel herself had been the sleeping babe within her mother's arm, and he had stood beside them, wondering and giving praise. It passed with its other-worldliness and the fine holiness which belongs to beauty, passed and left the tormenting realism of life. Ah! to live with only the inner meaning, spiritual and beautifed, in a rare wonderment such as he had experienced just now!
His alarum clock, while he knelt in his narrow, monkish little room--ticked the evening hour away into darkness. And still he knelt, dreading to come back into it all, to face the world's eyes, and the sound of the world's tongue, and the touch of the rough, the gross, the unseemly. How could he guard his child? How preserve that vision in her life, in her spirit, about to enter such cold, rough waters? But the gong sounded; he got up, and went downstairs.
But this first family moment, which all had dreaded, was relieved, as dreaded moments so often are, by the unexpected appearance of the Belgian painter. He had a general invitation, of which he often availed himself; but he was so silent, and his thin, beardless face, which seemed all eyes and brow, so mournful, that all three felt in the presence of a sorrow deeper even than their own family grief. During the meal he gazed silently at Noel. Once he said: "You will let me paint you now, mademoiselle, I hope?" and his face brightened a little when she nodded. There was never much talk when he came, for any depth of discussion, even of art, brought out at once too wide a difference. And Pierson could never avoid a vague irritation with one who clearly had spirituality, but of a sort which he could not understand. After dinner he excused himself, and went off to his study. Monsieur would be happier alone with the two girls! Gratian, too, got up. She had remembered Noel's words: "I mind him less than anybody." It was a chance for Nollie to break the ice.
"I have not seen you for a long time, mademoiselle," said the painter, when they were alone.
Noel was sitting in front of the empty drawing-room hearth, with her arms stretched out as if there had been a fire there.
"I've been away. How are you going to paint me, monsieur?"
"In that dress, mademoiselle; Just as you are now, warming yourself at the fire of life."
"But it isn't there."
"Yes, fires soon go out. Mademoiselle, will you come and see my wife? She is ill."
"Now?" asked Noel, startled.
"Yes, now. She is really ill, and I have no one there. That is what I came to ask of your sister; but--now you are here, it's even better. She likes you."
Noel got up. "Wait one minute!" she said, and ran upstairs. Her baby was asleep, and the old nurse dozing. Putting on a cloak and cap of grey rabbit's fur, she ran down again to the hall where the painter was waiting; and they went out together.
"I do not know if I am to blame," he said, "my wife has been no real wife to me since she knew I had a mistress and was no real husband to her."
Noel stared round at his face lighted by a queer, smile.
"Yes," he went on, "from that has come her tragedy. But she should have known before I married her. Nothing was concealed. Bon Dieu! she should have known! Why cannot a woman see things as they are? My mistress, mademoiselle, is not a thing of flesh. It is my art. It has always been first with me, and always will. She has never accepted that, she is incapable of accepting it. I am sorry for her. But what would you? I was a fool to marry her. Chere mademoiselle, no troubles are anything beside the trouble which goes on day and night, meal after meal, year, after year, between two people who should never have married, because one loves too much and requires all, and the other loves not at all--no, not at all, now, it is long dead--and can give but little."
"Can't you separate?" asked Noel, wondering.
"It is hard to separate from one who craves for you as she craves her drugs--yes, she takes drugs now, mademoiselle. It is impossible for one who has any compassion in his soul. Besides, what would she do? We live from hand to mouth, in a strange land. She has no friends here, not one. How could I leave her while this war lasts? As well could two persons on a desert island separate. She is killing herself, too, with these drugs, and I cannot stop her."
"Poor madame!" murmured Noel. "Poor monsieur!"
The painter drew his hand across his eyes.
"I cannot change my nature," he said in a stifled voice, "nor she hers. So we go on. But life will stop suddenly some day for one of us. After all, it is much worse for her than for me. Enter, mademoiselle. Do not tell her I am going to paint you; she likes you, because you refused to let me."
Noel went up the stairs, shuddering; she had been there once before, and remembered that sickly scent of drugs. On the third floor they entered a small sitting-room whose walls were covered with paintings and drawings; from one corner a triangular stack of canvases jutted out. There was little furniture save an old red sofa, and on this was seated a stoutish man in the garb of a Belgian soldier, with his elbows on his knees and his bearded cheeks resting on his doubled fists. Beside him on the sofa, nursing a doll, was a little girl, who looked up at Noel. She had a most strange, attractive, pale little face, with pointed chin and large eyes, which never moved from this apparition in grey rabbits' skins.
"Ah, Barra! You here!" said the painter:
"Mademoiselle, this is Monsieur Barra, a friend of ours from the front; and this is our landlady's little girl. A little refugee, too, aren't you, Chica?"
The child gave him a sudden brilliant smile and resumed her grave scrutiny of the visitor. The soldier, who had risen heavily, offered Noel one of his podgy hands, with a sad and heavy giggle.
"Sit down, mademoiselle," said Lavendie, placing a chair for her: "I will bring my wife in," and he went out through some double doors.
Noel sat down. The soldier had resumed his old attitude, and the little girl her nursing of the doll, though her big eyes still watched the visitor. Overcome by strangeness, Noel made no attempt to talk. And presently through the double doors the painter and his wife came in. She was a thin woman in a red wrapper, with hollow cheeks, high cheek-bones, and hungry eyes; her dark hair hung loose, and one hand played restlessly with a fold of her gown. She took Noel's hand; and her uplifted eyes seemed to dig into the girl's face, to let go suddenly, and flutter.
"How do you do?" she said in English. "So Pierre brought you, to see me again. I remember you so well. You would not let him paint you. Ah! que c'est drole! You are so pretty, too. Hein, Monsieur Barra, is not mademoiselle pretty?"
The soldier gave his heavy giggle, and resumed his scrutiny of the floor.
"Henriette," said Lavendie, "sit down beside Chica--you must not stand. Sit down, mademoiselle, I beg."
"I'm so sorry you're not well," said Noel, and sat down again.
The painter stood leaning against the wall, and his wife looked up at his tall, thin figure, with eyes which had in them anger, and a sort of cunning.
"A great painter, my husband, is he not?" she said to Noel. "You would not imagine what that man can do. And how he paints--all day long; and all night in his head. And so you would not let him paint you, after all?"
Lavendie said impatiently: "Voyons, Henriette, causez d'autre chose."
His wife plucked nervously at a fold in her red gown, and gave him the look of a dog that has been rebuked.
"I am a prisoner here, mademoiselle, I never leave the house. Here I live day after day--my husband is always painting. Who would go out alone under this grey sky of yours, and the hatreds of the war in every face? I prefer to keep my room. My husband goes painting; every face he sees interests him, except that which he sees every day. But I am a prisoner. Monsieur Barra is our first visitor for a long time."
The soldier raised his face from his fists. "Prisonnier, madame! What would you say if you were out there?" And he gave his thick giggle. "We are the prisoners, we others. What would you say to imprisonment by explosion day and night; never a minute free. Bom! Bom! Bom! Ah! les tranchees! It's not so free as all that, there."
"Every one has his own prison," said Lavendie bitterly. "Mademoiselle even, has her prison--and little Chica, and her doll. Every one has his prison, Barra. Monsieur Barra is also a painter, mademoiselle."
"Moi!" said Barra, lifting his heavy hairy hand. "I paint puddles, star-bombs, horses' ribs--I paint holes and holes and holes, wire and wire and wire, and water--long white ugly water. I paint splinters, and men's souls naked, and men's bodies dead, and nightmare--nightmare--all day and all night--I paint them in my head." He suddenly ceased speaking and relapsed into contemplation of the carpet, with his bearded cheeks resting on his fists. "And their souls as white as snow, les camarades," he added suddenly and loudly, "millions of Belgians, English, French, even the Boches, with white souls. I paint those souls!"
A little shiver ran through Noel, and she looked appealingly at Lavendie.
"Barra," he said, as if the soldier were not there, "is a great painter, but the Front has turned his head a little. What he says is true, though. There is no hatred out there. It is here that we are prisoners of hatred, mademoiselle; avoid hatreds--they are poison!"
His wife put out her hand and touched the child's shoulder.
"Why should we not hate?" she said. "Who killed Chica's father, and blew her home to-rags? Who threw her out into this horrible England--pardon, mademoiselle, but it is horrible. Ah! les Boches! If my hatred could destroy them there would not be one left. Even my husband was not so mad about his painting when we lived at home. But here--!" Her eyes darted at his face again, and then sank as if rebuked. Noel saw the painter's lips move. The sick woman's whole figure writhed.
"It is mania, your painting!" She looked at Noel with a smile. "Will you have some tea, mademoiselle? Monsieur Barra, some tea?"
The soldier said thickly: "No, madame; in the trenches we have tea enough. It consoles us. But when we get away--give us wine, le bon vin; le bon petit vin!"
"Get some wine, Pierre!"
Noel saw from the painter's face that there was no wine, and perhaps no money to get any; but he went quickly out. She rose and said:
"I must be going, madame."
Madame Lavendie leaned forward and clutched her wrist. "Wait a little, mademoiselle. We shall have some wine, and Pierre shall take you back presently. You cannot go home alone--you are too pretty. Is she not, Monsieur Barra?"
The soldier looked up: "What would you say," he said, "to bottles of wine bursting in the air, bursting red and bursting white, all day long, all night long? Great steel bottles, large as Chica: bits of bottles, carrying off men's heads? Bsum, garra-a-a, and a house comes down, and little bits of people ever so small, ever so small, tiny bits in the air and all over the ground. Great souls out there, madame. But I will tell you a secret," and again he gave his heavy giggle, "all a little, little mad; nothing to speak of--just a little bit mad; like a watch, you know, that you can wind for ever. That is the discovery of this war, mademoiselle," he said, addressing Noel for the first time, "you cannot gain a great soul till you are a little mad." And lowering his piggy grey eyes at once, he resumed his former attitude. "It is that madness I shall paint some day," he announced to the carpet; "lurking in one tiny corner of each soul of all those millions, as it creeps, as it peeps, ever so sudden, ever so little when we all think it has been put to bed, here--there, now--then, when you least think; in and out like a mouse with bright eyes. Millions of men with white souls, all a little mad. A great subject, I think," he added heavily. Involuntarily Noel put her hand to her heart, which was beating fast. She felt quite sick.
"How long have you been at the Front, monsieur?"
"Two years, mademoiselle. Time to go home and paint, is it not? But art--!" he shrugged his heavy round shoulders, his whole bear-like body. "A little mad," he muttered once more. "I will tell you a story. Once in winter after I had rested a fortnight, I go back to the trenches at night, and I want some earth to fill up a hole in the ground where I was sleeping; when one has slept in a bed one becomes particular. Well, I scratch it from my parapet, and I come to something funny. I strike my briquet, and there is a Boche's face all frozen and earthy and dead and greeny-white in the flame from my briquet."
"Oh! but yes, mademoiselle; true as I sit here. Very useful in the parapet--dead Boche. Once a man like me. But in the morning I could not stand him; we dug him out and buried him, and filled the hole up with other things. But there I stood in the night, and my face as close to his as this"--and he held his thick hand a foot before his face. "We talked of our homes; he had a soul, that man. 'Il me disait des choses', how he had suffered; and I, too, told him my sufferings. Dear God, we know all; we shall never know more than we know out there, we others, for we are mad--nothing to speak of, but just a little, little mad. When you see us, mademoiselle, walking the streets, remember that." And he dropped his face on to his fists again.
A silence had fallen in the room-very queer and complete. The little girl nursed her doll, the soldier gazed at the floor, the woman's mouth moved stealthily, and in Noel the thought rushed continually to the verge of action: 'Couldn't I get up and run downstairs?' But she sat on, hypnotised by that silence, till Lavendie reappeared with a bottle and four glasses.
"To drink our health, and wish us luck, mademoiselle," he said.
Noel raised the glass he had given her. "I wish you all happiness."
"And you, mademoiselle," the two men murmured.
She drank a little, and rose.
"And now, mademoiselle," said Lavendie, "if you must go, I will see you home."
Noel took Madame Lavendie's hand; it was cold, and returned no pressure; her eyes had the glazed look that she remembered. The soldier had put his empty glass down on the floor, and was regarding it unconscious of her. Noel turned quickly to the door; the last thing she saw was the little girl nursing her doll.
In the street the painter began at once in his rapid French:
"I ought not to have asked you to come, mademoiselle; I did not know our friend Barra was there. Besides, my wife is not fit to receive a lady; vous voyez qu'il y a de la manie dans cette pauvre tote. I should not have asked you; but I was so miserable."
"Oh!" murmured Noel, "I know."
"In our home over there she had interests. In this great town she can only nurse her grief against me. Ah! this war! It seems to me we are all in the stomach of a great coiling serpent. We lie there, being digested. In a way it is better out there in the trenches; they are beyond hate, they have attained a height that we have not. It is wonderful how they still can be for going on till they have beaten the Boche; that is curious and it is very great. Did Barra tell you how, when they come back--all these fighters--they are going to rule, and manage the future of the world? But it will not be so. They will mix in with life, separate--be scattered, and they will be ruled as they were before. The tongue and the pen will rule them: those who have not seen the war will rule them."
"Oh!"' cried Noel, "surely they will be the bravest and strongest in the future."
The painter smiled.
"War makes men simple," he said, "elemental; life in peace is neither simple nor elemental, it is subtle, full of changing environments, to which man must adapt himself; the cunning, the astute, the adaptable, will ever rule in times of peace. It is pathetic, the belief of those brave soldiers that the-future is theirs."
"He said, a strange thing," murmured Noel; "that they were all a little mad."
"He is a man of queer genius--Barra; you should see some of his earlier pictures. Mad is not quite the word, but something is loosened, is rattling round in them, they have lost proportion, they are being forced in one direction. I tell you, mademoiselle, this war is one great forcing-house; every living plant is being made to grow too fast, each quality, each passion; hate and love, intolerance and lust and avarice, courage and energy; yes, and self-sacrifice--all are being forced and forced beyond their strength, beyond the natural flow of the sap, forced till there has come a great wild luxuriant crop, and then--Psum! Presto! The change comes, and these plants will wither and rot and stink. But we who see Life in forms of Art are the only ones who feel that; and we are so few. The natural shape of things is lost. There is a mist of blood before all eyes. Men are afraid of being fair. See how we all hate not only our enemies, but those who differ from us. Look at the streets too--see how men and women rush together, how Venus reigns in this forcing-house. Is it not natural that Youth about to die should yearn for pleasure, for love, for union, before death?"
Noel stared up at him. 'Now!' she thought: I will.'
"Yes," she said, "I know that's true, because I rushed, myself. I'd like you to know. We couldn't be married--there wasn't time. And--he was killed. But his son is alive. That's why I've been away so long. I want every one to know." She spoke very calmly, but her cheeks felt burning hot.
The painter had made an upward movement of his hands, as if they had been jerked by an electric current, then he said quite quietly:
"My profound respect, mademoiselle, and my great sympathy. And your father?"
"It's awful for him."
The painter said gently: "Ah! mademoiselle, I am not so sure. Perhaps he does not suffer so greatly. Perhaps not even your trouble can hurt him very much. He lives in a world apart. That, I think, is his true tragedy to be alive, and yet not living enough to feel reality. Do you know Anatole France's description of an old woman: 'Elle vivait, mais si peu.' Would that not be well said of the Church in these days: 'Elle vivait, mais si peu.' I see him always like a rather beautiful dark spire in the night-time when you cannot see how it is attached to the earth. He does not know, he never will know, Life."
Noel looked round at him. "What do you mean by Life, monsieur? I'm always reading about Life, and people talk of seeing Life! What is it--where is it? I never see anything that you could call Life."
The painter smiled.
"To 'see life'!" he said. "Ah! that is different. To enjoy yourself! Well, it is my experience that when people are 'seeing life' as they call it, they are not enjoying themselves. You know when one is very thirsty one drinks and drinks, but the thirst remains all the same. There are places where one can see life as it is called, but the only persons you will see enjoying themselves at such places are a few humdrums like myself, who go there for a talk over a cup of coffee. Perhaps at your age, though, it is different."
Noel clasped her hands, and her eyes seemed to shine in the gloom. "I want music and dancing and light, and beautiful things and faces; but I never get them."
"No, there does not exist in this town, or in any other, a place which will give you that. Fox-trots and ragtime and paint and powder and glare and half-drunken young men, and women with red lips you can get them in plenty. But rhythm and beauty and charm never. In Brussels when I was younger I saw much 'life' as they call it, but not one lovely thing unspoiled; it was all as ashes in the mouth. Ah! you may smile, but I know what I am talking of. Happiness never comes when you are looking for it, mademoiselle; beauty is in Nature and in real art, never in these false silly make believes. There is a place just here where we Belgians go; would you like to see how true my words are?
"Tres-bien! Let us go in?"
They passed into a revolving doorway with little glass compartments which shot them out into a shining corridor. At the end of this the painter looked at Noel and seemed to hesitate, then he turned off from the room they were about to enter into a room on the right. It was large, full of gilt and plush and marble tables, where couples were seated; young men in khaki and older men in plain clothes, together or with young women. At these last Noel looked, face after face, while they were passing down a long way to an empty table. She saw that some were pretty, and some only trying to be, that nearly all were powdered and had their eyes darkened and their lips reddened, till she felt her own face to be dreadfully ungarnished: Up in a gallery a small band was playing an attractive jingling hollow little tune; and the buzz of talk and laughter was almost deafening.
"What will you have, mademoiselle?" said the painter. "It is just nine o'clock; we must order quickly."
"May I have one of those green things?"
"Deux cremes de menthe," said Lavendie to the waiter.
Noel was too absorbed to see the queer, bitter little smile hovering about his face. She was busy looking at the faces of women whose eyes, furtively cold and enquiring, were fixed on her; and at the faces of men with eyes that were furtively warm and wondering.
"I wonder if Daddy was ever in a place like this?" she said, putting the glass of green stuff to her lips. "Is it nice? It smells of peppermint."
"A beautiful colour. Good luck, mademoiselle!" and he chinked his glass with hers.
Noel sipped, held it away, and sipped again.
"It's nice; but awfully sticky. May I have a cigarette?"
"Des cigarettes," said Lavendie to the waiter, "Et deux cafes noirs. Now, mademoiselle," he murmured when they were brought, "if we imagine that we have drunk a bottle of wine each, we shall have exhausted all the preliminaries of what is called Vice. Amusing, isn't it?" He shrugged his shoulders.
His face struck Noel suddenly as tarnished and almost sullen.
"Don't be angry, monsieur, it's all new to me, you see."
The painter smiled, his bright, skin-deep smile.
"Pardon! I forget myself. Only, it hurts me to see beauty in a place like this. It does not go well with that tune, and these voices, and these faces. Enjoy yourself, mademoiselle; drink it all in! See the way these people look at each other; what love shines in their eyes! A pity, too, we cannot hear what they are saying. Believe me, their talk is most subtle, tres-spirituel. These young women are 'doing their bit,' as you call it; bringing le plaisir to all these who are serving their country. Eat, drink, love, for tomorrow we die. Who cares for the world simple or the world beautiful, in days like these? The house of the spirit is empty."
He was looking at her sidelong as if he would enter her very soul.
Noel got up. "I'm ready to go, monsieur."
He put her cloak on her shoulders, paid the bill, and they went out, threading again through the little tables, through the buzz of talk and laughter and the fumes of tobacco, while another hollow little tune jingled away behind them.
"Through there," said the painter, pointing to another door, "they dance. So it goes. London in war-time! Well, after all, it is never very different; no great town is. Did you enjoy your sight of 'life,' mademoiselle?"
"I think one must dance, to be happy. Is that where your friends go?"
"Oh, no! To a room much rougher, and play dominoes, and drink coffee and beer, and talk. They have no money to throw away."
"Why didn't you show me?"
"Mademoiselle, in that room you might see someone perhaps whom one day you would meet again; in the place we visited you were safe enough at least I hope so."
Noel shrugged. "I suppose it doesn't matter now, what I do."
And a rush of emotion caught at her throat--a wave from the past--the moonlit night, the dark old Abbey, the woods and the river. Two tears rolled down her cheeks.
"I was thinking of--something," she said in a muffled voice. "It's all right."
"Chere mademoiselle!" Lavendie murmured; and all the way home he was timid and distressed. Shaking his hand at the door, she murmured:
"I'm sorry I was such a fool; and thank you awfully, monsieur. Good night."
"Good night; and better dreams. There is a good time coming--Peace and Happiness once more in the world. It will not always be this Forcing-House. Good night, chere mademoiselle!"
Noel went up to the nursery, and stole in. A night-light was burning, Nurse and baby were fast asleep. She tiptoed through into her own room. Once there, she felt suddenly so tired that she could hardly undress; and yet curiously rested, as if with that rush of emotion, Cyril and the past had slipped from her for ever.
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