To find out the worst is, for human nature, only a question of time. But where the "worst" is attached to a family haloed, as it were, by the authority and reputation of an institution like the Church, the process of discovery has to break through many a little hedge. Sheer unlikelihood, genuine respect, the defensive instinct in those identified with an institution, who will themselves feel weaker if its strength be diminished, the feeling that the scandal is too good to be true--all these little hedges, and more, had to be broken through. To the Dinnafords, the unholy importance of what Noel had said to them would have continued to keep them dumb, out of self-protection; but its monstrosity had given them the feeling that there must be some mistake, that the girl had been overtaken by a wild desire to "pull their legs" as dear Charlie would say. With the hope of getting this view confirmed, they lay in wait for the old nurse who took the baby out, and obtained the information, shortly imparted: "Oh, yes; Miss Noel's. Her 'usband was killed--poor lamb!" And they felt rewarded. They had been sure there was some mistake. The relief of hearing that word "'usband" was intense. One of these hasty war marriages, of which the dear Vicar had not approved, and so it had been kept dark. Quite intelligible, but so sad! Enough misgiving however remained in their minds, to prevent their going to condole with the dear Vicar; but not enough to prevent their roundly contradicting the rumours and gossip already coming to their ears. And then one day, when their friend Mrs. Curtis had said too positively: "Well, she doesn't wear a wedding-ring, that I'll swear, because I took very good care to look!" they determined to ask Mr. Lauder. He would--indeed must--know; and, of course, would not tell a story. When they asked him it was so manifest that he did know, that they almost withdrew the question. The poor young man had gone the colour of a tomato.
"I prefer not to answer," he said. The rest of a very short interview was passed in exquisite discomfort. Indeed discomfort, exquisite and otherwise, within a few weeks of Noel's return, had begun to pervade all the habitual congregation of Pierson's church. It was noticed that neither of the two sisters attended Service now. Certain people who went in the sincere hope of seeing Noel, only fell off again when she did not appear. After all, she would not have the face! And Gratian was too ashamed, no doubt. It was constantly remarked that the Vicar looked very grave and thin, even for him. As the rumours hardened into certainty, the feeling towards him became a curious medley of sympathy and condemnation. There was about the whole business that which English people especially resent. By the very fact of his presence before them every Sunday, and his public ministrations, he was exhibiting to them, as it were, the seamed and blushing face of his daughter's private life, besides affording one long and glaring demonstration of the failure of the Church to guide its flock: If a man could not keep his own daughter in the straight path--whom could he? Resign! The word began to be thought about, but not yet spoken. He had been there so long; he had spent so much money on the church and the parish; his gentle dreamy manner was greatly liked. He was a gentleman; and had helped many people; and, though his love of music and vestments had always caused heart-burnings, yet it had given a certain cachet to the church. The women, at any rate, were always glad to know that the church they went to was capable of drawing their fellow women away from other churches. Besides, it was war-time, and moral delinquency which in time of peace would have bulked too large to neglect, was now less insistently dwelt on, by minds preoccupied by food and air-raids. Things, of course, could not go on as they were; but as yet they did go on.
The talked-about is always the last to hear the talk; and nothing concrete or tangible came Pierson's way. He went about his usual routine without seeming change. And yet there was a change, secret and creeping. Wounded almost to death himself, he felt as though surrounded by one great wound in others; but it was some weeks before anything occurred to rouse within him the weapon of anger or the protective impulse.
And then one day a little swift brutality shook him to the very soul. He was coming home from a long parish round, and had turned into the Square, when a low voice behind him said:
"Wot price the little barstard?"
A cold, sick feeling stifled his very breathing; he gasped, and spun round, to see two big loutish boys walking fast away. With swift and stealthy passion he sprang after them, and putting his hands on their two neighbouring shoulders, wrenched them round so that they faced him, with mouths fallen open in alarm. Shaking them with all his force, he said:
"How dare you--how dare you use that word?" His face and voice must have been rather terrible, for the scare in their faces brought him to sudden consciousness of his own violence, and he dropped his hands. In two seconds they were at the corner. They stopped there for a second; one of them shouted "Gran'pa"; then they vanished. He was left with lips and hands quivering, and a feeling that he had not known for years--the weak white empty feeling one has after yielding utterly to sudden murderous rage. He crossed over, and stood leaning against the Garden railings, with the thought: 'God forgive me! I could have killed them--I could have killed them!' There had been a devil in him. If he had had something in his hand, he might now have been a murderer: How awful! Only one had spoken; but he could have killed them both! And the word was true, and was in all mouths--all low common mouths, day after day, of his own daughter's child! The ghastliness of this thought, brought home so utterly, made him writhe, and grasp the railings as if he would have bent them.
From that day on, a creeping sensation of being rejected of men, never left him; the sense of identification with Noel and her tiny outcast became ever more poignant, more real; the desire to protect them ever more passionate; and the feeling that round about there were whispering voices, pointing fingers, and a growing malevolence was ever more sickening. He was beginning too to realise the deep and hidden truth: How easily the breath of scandal destroys the influence and sanctity of those endowed therewith by vocation; how invaluable it is to feel untarnished, and how difficult to feel that when others think you tarnished.
He tried to be with Noel as much as possible; and in the evenings they sometimes went walks together, without ever talking of what was always in their minds. Between six and eight the girl was giving sittings to Lavendie in the drawing-room, and sometimes Pierson would come there and play to them. He was always possessed now by a sense of the danger Noel ran from companionship with any man. On three occasions, Jimmy Fort made his appearance after dinner. He had so little to say that it was difficult to understand why he came; but, sharpened by this new dread for his daughter, Pierson noticed his eyes always following her. 'He admires her,' he thought; and often he would try his utmost to grasp the character of this man, who had lived such a roving life. 'Is he--can he be the sort of man I would trust Nollie to?' he would think. 'Oh, that I should have to hope like this that some good man would marry her--my little Nollie, a child only the other day!'
In these sad, painful, lonely weeks he found a spot of something like refuge in Leila's sitting-room, and would go there often for half an hour when she was back from her hospital. That little black-walled room with its Japanese prints and its flowers, soothed him. And Leila soothed him, innocent as he was of any knowledge of her latest aberration, and perhaps conscious that she herself was not too happy. To watch her arranging flowers, singing her little French songs, or to find her beside him, listening to his confidences, was the only real pleasure he knew in these days. And Leila, in turn, would watch him and think: 'Poor Edward! He has never lived; and never will; now!' But sometimes the thought would shoot through her: 'Perhaps he's to be envied. He doesn't feel what I feel, anyway. Why did I fall in love again?'
They did not speak of Noel as a rule, but one evening she expressed her views roundly.
"It was a great mistake to make Noel come back. Edward. It was Quixotic. You'll be lucky if real mischief doesn't come of it. She's not a patient character; one day she'll do something rash. And, mind you, she'll be much more likely to break out if she sees the world treating you badly than if it happens to herself. I should send her back to the country, before she makes bad worse."
"I can't do that, Leila. We must live it down together."
"Wrong, Edward. You should take things as they are."
With a heavy sigh Pierson answered:
"I wish I could see her future. She's so attractive. And her defences are gone. She's lost faith, and belief in all that a good woman should be. The day after she came back she told me she was ashamed of herself. But since--she's not given a sign. She's so proud--my poor little Nollie. I see how men admire her, too. Our Belgian friend is painting her. He's a good man; but he finds her beautiful, and who can wonder. And your friend Captain Fort. Fathers are supposed to be blind, but they see very clear sometimes."
Leila rose and drew down a blind.
"This sun," she said. "Does Jimmy Fort come to you--often?"
"Oh! no; very seldom. But still--I can see."
'You bat--you blunderer!' thought Leila: 'See! You can't even see this beside you!'
"I expect he's sorry for her," she said in a queer voice.
"Why should he be sorry? He doesn't know:"
"Oh, yes! He knows; I told him."
"You told him!"
"Yes," Leila repeated stubbornly; "and he's sorry for her."
And even then "this monk" beside her did not see, and went blundering on.
"No, no; it's not merely that he's sorry. By the way he looks at her, I know I'm not mistaken. I've wondered--what do you think, Leila. He's too old for her; but he seems an honourable, kind man."
"Oh! a most honourable, kind man." But only by pressing her hand against her lips had she smothered a burst of bitter laughter. He, who saw nothing, could yet notice Fort's eyes when he looked at Noel, and be positive that he was in love with her! How plainly those eyes must speak! Her control gave way.
"All this is very interesting," she said, spurning her words like Noel, "considering that he's more than my friend, Edward." It gave her a sort of pleasure to see him wince. 'These blind bats!' she thought, terribly stung that he should so clearly assume her out of the running. Then she was sorry, his face had become so still and wistful. And turning away, she said:
"Oh! I shan't break my heart; I'm a good loser. And I'm a good fighter, too; perhaps I shan't lose." And snapping off a sprig of geranium, she pressed it to her lips.
"Forgive me," said Pierson slowly; "I didn't know. I'm stupid. I thought your love for your poor soldiers had left no room for other feelings."
Leila uttered a shrill laugh. "What have they to do with each other? Did you never hear of passion, Edward? Oh! Don't look at me like that. Do you think a woman can't feel passion at my age? As much as ever, more than ever, because it's all slipping away."
She took her hand from her lips, but a geranium petal was left clinging there, like a bloodstain. "What has your life been all these years," she went on vehemently--"suppression of passion, nothing else! You monks twist Nature up with holy words, and try to disguise what the eeriest simpleton can see. Well, I haven't suppressed passion, Edward. That's all."
"And are you happier for that?"
"I was; and I shall be again."
A little smile curled Pierson's lips. "Shall be?" he said. "I hope so. It's just two ways of looking at things, Leila."
"Oh, Edward! Don't be so gentle! I suppose you don't think a person like me can ever really love?"
He was standing before her with his head down, and a sense that, naive and bat-like as he was, there was something in him she could not reach or understand, made her cry out:
"I've not been nice to you. Forgive me, Edward! I'm so unhappy."
"There was a Greek who used to say: 'God is the helping of man by man.' It isn't true, but it's beautiful. Good-bye, dear Leila, and don't be sorrowful."
She squeezed his hand, and turned to the window.
She stood there watching his black figure cross the road in the sunshine, and pass round the corner by the railings of the church. He walked quickly, very upright; there was something unseeing even about that back view of him; or was it that he saw-another world? She had never lost the mental habits of her orthodox girlhood, and in spite of all impatience, recognised his sanctity. When he had disappeared she went into her bedroom. What he had said, indeed, was no discovery. She had known. Oh! She had known. 'Why didn't I accept Jimmy's offer? Why didn't I marry him? Is it too late?' she thought. 'Could I? Would he--even now?' But then she started away from her own thought. Marry him! knowing his heart was with this girl?
She looked long at her face in the mirror, studying with a fearful interest the little hard lines and markings there beneath their light coating of powder. She examined the cunning touches of colouring matter here and there in her front hair. Were they cunning enough? Did they deceive? They seemed to her suddenly to stare out. She fingered and smoothed the slight looseness and fulness of the skin below her chin. She stretched herself, and passed her hands down over her whole form, searching as it were for slackness, or thickness. And she had the bitter thought: 'I'm all out. I'm doing all I can.' The lines of a little poem Fort had showed her went thrumming through her head:
"Time, you old gipsy man Will you not stay Put up your caravan Just for a day?"
What more could she do? He did not like to see her lips reddened. She had marked his disapprovals, watched him wipe his mouth after a kiss, when he thought she couldn't see him. 'I need'nt!' she thought. 'Noel's lips are no redder, really. What has she better than I? Youth--dew on the grass!' That didn't last long! But long enough to "do her in" as her soldier-men would say. And, suddenly she revolted against herself, against Fort, against this chilled and foggy country; felt a fierce nostalgia for African sun, and the African flowers; the happy-go-lucky, hand-to-mouth existence of those five years before the war began. High Constantia at grape harvest! How many years ago--ten years, eleven years! Ah! To have before her those ten years, with him! Ten years in the sun! He would have loved her then, and gone on loving her! And she would not have tired of him, as she had tired of those others. 'In half an hour,' she thought, 'he'll be here, sit opposite me; I shall see him struggling forcing himself to seem affectionate! It's too humbling! But I don't care; I want him!'
She searched her wardrobe, for some garment or touch of colour, novelty of any sort, to help her. But she had tried them all--those little tricks--was bankrupt. And such a discouraged, heavy mood came on her, that she did not even "change," but went back in her nurse's dress and lay down on the divan, pretending to sleep, while the maid set out the supper. She lay there moody and motionless, trying to summon courage, feeling that if she showed herself beaten she was beaten; knowing that she only held him by pity. But when she heard his footstep on the stairs she swiftly passed her hands over her cheeks, as if to press the blood out of them, and lay absolutely still. She hoped that she was white, and indeed she was, with finger-marks under the eyes, for she had suffered greatly this last hour. Through her lashes she saw him halt, and look at her in surprise. Asleep, or-ill, which? She did not move. She wanted to watch him. He tiptoed across the room and stood looking down at her. There was a furrow between his eyes. 'Ah!' she thought, 'it would suit you, if I were dead, my kind friend.' He bent a little towards her; and she wondered suddenly whether she looked graceful lying there, sorry now that she had not changed her dress. She saw him shrug his shoulders ever so faintly with a puzzled little movement. He had not seen that she was shamming. How nice his face was--not mean, secret, callous! She opened her eyes, which against her will had in them the despair she was feeling. He went on his knees, and lifting her hand to his lips, hid them with it.
"Jimmy," she said gently, "I'm an awful bore to you. Poor Jimmy! No! Don't pretend! I know what I know!" 'Oh, God! What am I saying?' she thought. 'It's fatal-fatal. I ought never!' And drawing his head to her, she put it to her heart. Then, instinctively aware that this moment had been pressed to its uttermost, she scrambled up, kissed his forehead, stretched herself, and laughed.
"I was asleep, dreaming; dreaming you loved me. Wasn't it funny? Come along. There are oysters, for the last time this season."
All that evening, as if both knew they had been looking over a precipice, they seemed to be treading warily, desperately anxious not to rouse emotion in each other, or touch on things which must bring a scene. And Leila talked incessantly of Africa.
"Don't you long for the sun, Jimmy? Couldn't we--couldn't you go? Oh! why doesn't this wretched war end? All that we've got here at home every scrap of wealth, and comfort, and age, and art, and music, I'd give it all for the light and the sun out there. Wouldn't you?"
And Fort said he would, knowing well of one thing which he would not give. And she knew that, as well as he.
They were both gayer than they had been for a long time; so that when he had gone, she fell back once more on to the divan, and burying her face in a cushion, wept bitterly.
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