Noel's first encounter with Opinion took place the following day. The baby had just come in from its airing; she had seen it comfortably snoozing, and was on her way downstairs, when a voice from the hall said:
"How do you do?" and she saw the khaki-clad figure of Adrian Lauder, her father's curate! Hesitating just a moment, she finished her descent, and put her fingers in his. He was a rather heavy, dough-coloured young man of nearly thirty, unsuited by khaki, with a round white collar buttoned behind; but his aspiring eyes redeemed him, proclaiming the best intentions in the world, and an inclination towards sentiment in the presence of beauty.
"I haven't seen you for ages," he said rather fatuously, following her into her father's study.
"No," said Noel. "How--do you like being at the Front?"
"Ah!" he said, "they're wonderful!" And his eyes shone. "It's so nice to see you again."
He seemed puzzled by that answer; stammered, and said:
"I didn't know your sister had a baby. A jolly baby."
Lauder's mouth opened. 'A silly mouth,' she thought.
"Oh!" he said. "Is it a protegee--Belgian or something?"
"No, it's mine; my own." And, turning round, she slipped the little ring off her finger. When she turned back to him, his face had not recovered from her words. It had a hapless look, as of one to whom such a thing ought not to have happened.
"Don't look like that," said Noel. "Didn't you understand? It's mine-mine." She put out her left hand. "Look! There's no ring."
He stammered: "I say, you oughtn't to--you oughtn't to--!"
"Joke about--about such things; ought you?"
"One doesn't joke if one's had a baby without being married, you know."
Lauder went suddenly slack. A shell might have burst a few paces from him. And then, just as one would in such a case, he made an effort, braced himself, and said in a curious voice, both stiff and heavy: "I can't--one doesn't--it's not--"
"It is," said Noel. "If you don't believe me, ask Daddy."
He put his hand up to his round collar; and with the wild thought that he was going to tear it off, she cried: "Don't!"
"You!" he said. "You! But--"
Noel turned away from him to the window: She stood looking out, but saw nothing whatever.
"I don't want it hidden," she said without turning round, "I want every one to know. It's stupid as it is--stupid!" and she stamped her foot. "Can't you see how stupid it is--everybody's mouth falling open!"
He uttered a little sound which had pain in it, and she felt a real pang of compunction. He had gripped the back of a chair; his face had lost its heaviness. A dull flush coloured his cheeks. Noel had a feeling, as if she had been convicted of treachery. It was his silence, the curious look of an impersonal pain beyond power of words; she felt in him something much deeper than mere disapproval--something which echoed within herself. She walked quickly past him and escaped. She ran upstairs and threw herself on her bed. He was nothing: it was not that! It was in herself, the awful feeling, for the first time developed and poignant, that she had betrayed her caste, forfeited the right to be thought a lady, betrayed her secret reserve and refinement, repaid with black ingratitude the love lavished on her up bringing, by behaving like any uncared-for common girl. She had never felt this before--not even when Gratian first heard of it, and they had stood one at each end of the hearth, unable to speak. Then she still had her passion, and her grief for the dead. That was gone now as if it had never been; and she had no defence, nothing between her and this crushing humiliation and chagrin. She had been mad! She must have been mad! The Belgian Barra was right: "All a little mad" in this "forcing-house" of a war! She buried her face deep in the pillow, till it almost stopped her power of breathing; her head and cheeks and ears seemed to be on fire. If only he had shown disgust, done something which roused her temper, her sense of justice, her feeling that Fate had been too cruel to her; but he had just stood there, bewilderment incarnate, like a creature with some very deep illusion shattered. It was horrible! Then, feeling that she could not stay still, must walk, run, get away somehow from this feeling of treachery and betrayal, she sprang up. All was quiet below, and she slipped downstairs and out, speeding along with no knowledge of direction, taking the way she had taken day after day to her hospital. It was the last of April, trees and shrubs were luscious with blossom and leaf; the dogs ran gaily; people had almost happy faces in the sunshine. 'If I could get away from myself, I wouldn't care,' she thought. Easy to get away from people, from London, even from England perhaps; but from oneself--impossible! She passed her hospital; and looked at it dully, at the Red Cross flag against its stucco wall, and a soldier in his blue slops and red tie, coming out. She had spent many miserable hours there, but none quite so miserable as this. She passed the church opposite to the flats where Leila lived, and running suddenly into a tall man coming round the corner, saw Fort. She bent her head, and tried to hurry past. But his hand was held out, she could not help putting hers into it; and looking up hardily, she said:
"You know about me, don't you?"
His face, naturally so frank, seemed to clench up, as if he were riding at a fence. 'He'll tell a lie,' she thought bitterly. But he did not.
"Yes, Leila told me."
And she thought: 'I suppose he'll try and pretend that I've not been a beast!'
"I admire your pluck," he said.
"I haven't any."
"We never know ourselves, do we? I suppose you wouldn't walk my pace a minute or two, would you? I'm going the same way."
"I don't know which way I'm going."
"That is my case, too."
They walked on in silence.
"I wish to God I were back in France," said Fort abruptly. "One doesn't feel clean here."
Noel's heart applauded.
Ah! to get away--away from oneself! But at the thought of her baby, her heart fell again. "Is your leg quite hopeless?" she said.
"That must be horrid."
"Hundreds of thousands would look on it as splendid luck; and so it is if you count it better to be alive than dead, which I do, in spite of the blues."
"How is Cousin Leila?"
"Very well. She goes on pegging away at the hospital; she's a brick." But he did not look at her, and again there was silence, till he stopped by Lord's Cricket-ground.
"I mustn't keep you crawling along at this pace."
"Oh, I don't mind!"
"I only wanted to say that if I can be of any service to you at any time in any way whatever, please command me."
He gave her hand a squeeze, took his hat off; and Noel walked slowly on. The little interview, with its suppressions, and its implications, had but exasperated her restlessness, and yet, in a way, it had soothed the soreness of her heart. Captain Fort at all events did not despise her; and he was in trouble like herself. She felt that somehow by the look of his face, and the tone of his voice when he spoke of Leila. She quickened her pace. George's words came back to her: "If you're not ashamed of yourself, no one will be of you!" How easy to say! The old days, her school, the little half grown-up dances she used to go to, when everything was happy. Gone! All gone!
But her meetings with Opinion were not over for the day, for turning again at last into the home Square, tired out by her three hours' ramble, she met an old lady whom she and Gratian had known from babyhood--a handsome dame, the widow of an official, who spent her days, which showed no symptom of declining, in admirable works. Her daughter, the widow of an officer killed at the Marne, was with her, and the two greeted Noel with a shower of cordial questions: So she was back from the country, and was she quite well again? And working at her hospital? And how was her dear father? They had thought him looking very thin and worn. But now Gratian was at home--How dreadfully the war kept husbands and wives apart! And whose was the dear little baby they had in the house?
"Mine," said Noel, walking straight past them with her head up. In every fibre of her being she could feel the hurt, startled, utterly bewildered looks of those firm friendly persons left there on the pavement behind her; could feel the way they would gather themselves together, and walk on, perhaps without a word, and then round the corner begin: "What has come to Noel? What did she mean?" And taking the little gold hoop out of her pocket, she flung it with all her might into the Square Garden. The action saved her from a breakdown; and she went in calmly. Lunch was long over, but her father had not gone out, for he met her in the hall and drew her into the dining-room.
"You must eat, my child," he said. And while she was swallowing down what he had caused to be kept back for her, he stood by the hearth in that favourite attitude of his, one foot on the fender, and one hand gripping the mantel-shelf.
"You've got your wish, Daddy," she said dully: "Everybody knows now. I've told Mr. Lauder, and Monsieur, and the Dinnafords."
She saw his fingers uncrisp, then grip the shelf again. "I'm glad," he said.
"Aunt Thirza gave me a ring to wear, but I've thrown it away."
"My dearest child," he began, but could not go on, for the quivering of his lips.
"I wanted to say once more, Daddy, that I'm fearfully sorry about you. And I am ashamed of myself; I thought I wasn't, but I am--only, I think it was cruel, and I'm not penitent to God; and it's no good trying to make me."
Pierson turned and looked at her. For a long time after, she could not get that look out of her memory.
Jimmy Fort had turned away from Noel feeling particularly wretched. Ever since the day when Leila had told him of the girl's misfortune he had been aware that his liaison had no decent foundation, save a sort of pity. One day, in a queer access of compunction, he had made Leila an offer of marriage. She had refused; and he had respected her the more, realising by the quiver in her voice and the look in her eyes that she refused him, not because she did not love him well enough, but because she was afraid of losing any of his affection. She was a woman of great experience.
To-day he had taken advantage of the luncheon interval to bring her some flowers, with a note to say that he could not come that evening. Letting himself in with his latchkey, he had carefully put those Japanese azaleas in the bowl "Famille Rose," taking water from her bedroom. Then he had sat down on the divan with his head in his hands.
Though he had rolled so much about the world, he had never had much to do with women. And there was nothing in him of the Frenchman, who takes what life puts in his way as so much enjoyment on the credit side, and accepts the ends of such affairs as they naturally and rather rapidly arrive. It had been a pleasure, and was no longer a pleasure; but this apparently did not dissolve it, or absolve him. He felt himself bound by an obscure but deep instinct to go on pretending that he was not tired of her, so long as she was not tired of him. And he sat there trying to remember any sign, however small, of such a consummation, quite without success. On the contrary, he had even the wretched feeling that if only he had loved her, she would have been much more likely to have tired of him by now. For her he was still the unconquered, in spite of his loyal endeavour to seem conquered. He had made a fatal mistake, that evening after the concert at Queen's Hall, to let himself go, on a mixed tide of desire and pity!
His folly came to him with increased poignancy after he had parted from Noel. How could he have been such a base fool, as to have committed himself to Leila on an evening when he had actually been in the company of that child? Was it the vague, unseizable likeness between them which had pushed him over the edge? 'I've been an ass,' he thought; 'a horrible ass.' I would always have given every hour I've ever spent with Leila, for one real smile from that girl.'
This sudden sight of Noel after months during which he had tried loyally to forget her existence, and not succeeded at all, made him realise as he never had yet that he was in love with her; so very much in love with her that the thought of Leila was become nauseating. And yet the instincts of a gentleman seemed to forbid him to betray that secret to either of them. It was an accursed coil! He hailed a cab, for he was late; and all the way back to the War Office he continued to see the girl's figure and her face with its short hair. And a fearful temptation rose within him. Was it not she who was now the real object for chivalry and pity? Had he not the right to consecrate himself to championship of one in such a deplorable position? Leila had lived her life; but this child's life--pretty well wrecked--was all before her. And then he grinned from sheer disgust. For he knew that this was Jesuitry. Not chivalry was moving him, but love! Love! Love of the unattainable! And with a heavy heart, indeed, he entered the great building, where, in a small room, companioned by the telephone, and surrounded by sheets of paper covered with figures, he passed his days. The war made everything seem dreary, hopeless. No wonder he had caught at any distraction which came along--caught at it, till it had caught him!
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