It was not quite disillusionment that Pierson felt while he walked away. Perhaps he had not really believed in Leila's regeneration. It was more an acute discomfort, an increasing loneliness. A soft and restful spot was now denied him; a certain warmth and allurement had gone out of his life. He had not even the feeling that it was his duty to try and save Leila by persuading her to marry Fort. He had always been too sensitive, too much as it were of a gentleman, for the robuster sorts of evangelism. Such delicacy had been a stumbling-block to him all through professional life. In the eight years when his wife was with him, all had been more certain, more direct and simple, with the help of her sympathy, judgment; and companionship. At her death a sort of mist had gathered in his soul. No one had ever spoken plainly to him. To a clergyman, who does? No one had told him in so many words that he should have married again--that to stay unmarried was bad for him, physically and spiritually, fogging and perverting life; not driving him, indeed, as it drove many, to intolerance and cruelty, but to that half-living dreaminess, and the vague unhappy yearnings which so constantly beset him. All these celibate years he had really only been happy in his music, or in far-away country places, taking strong exercise, and losing himself in the beauties of Nature; and since the war began he had only once, for those three days at Kestrel, been out of London.
He walked home, going over in his mind very anxiously all the evidence he had of Fort's feeling for Noel. How many times had he been to them since she came back? Only three times--three evening visits! And he had not been alone with her a single minute! Before this calamity befell his daughter, he would never have observed anything in Fort's demeanour; but, in his new watchfulness, he had seen the almost reverential way he looked at her, noticed the extra softness of his voice when he spoke to her, and once a look of sudden pain, a sort of dulling of his whole self, when Noel had got up and gone out of the room. And the girl herself? Twice he had surprised her gazing at Fort when he was not looking, with a sort of brooding interest. He remembered how, as a little girl, she would watch a grown-up, and then suddenly one day attach herself to him, and be quite devoted. Yes, he must warn her, before she could possibly become entangled. In his fastidious chastity, the opinion he had held of Fort was suddenly lowered. He, already a free-thinker, was now revealed as a free-liver. Poor little Nollie! Endangered again already! Every man a kind of wolf waiting to pounce on her!
He found Lavendie and Noel in the drawing-room, standing before the portrait which was nearing completion. He looked at it for a long minute, and turned away:
"Don't you think it's like me, Daddy?"
"It's like you; but it hurts me. I can't tell why."
He saw the smile of a painter whose picture is being criticised come on Lavendie's face.
"It is perhaps the colouring which does not please you, monsieur?"
"No, no; deeper. The expression; what is she waiting for?"
The defensive smile died on Lavendie's lips.
"It is as I see her, monsieur le cure."
Pierson turned again to the picture, and suddenly covered his eyes. "She looks 'fey,"' he said, and went out of the room.
Lavendie and Noel remained staring at the picture. "Fey? What does that mean, mademoiselle?"
"Possessed, or something."
And they continued to stare at the picture, till Lavendie said:
"I think there is still a little too much light on that ear."
The same evening, at bedtime, Pierson called Noel back.
"Nollie, I want you to know something. In all but the name, Captain Fort is a married man."
He saw her flush, and felt his own face darkening with colour.
She said calmly: "I know; to Leila."
"Do you mean she has told you?"
Noel shook her head.
"I guessed. Daddy, don't treat me as a child any more. What's the use, now?"
He sat down in the chair before the hearth, and covered his face with his hands. By the quivering of those hands, and the movement of his shoulders, she could tell that he was stifling emotion, perhaps even crying; and sinking down on his knees she pressed his hands and face to her, murmuring: "Oh, Daddy dear! Oh, Daddy dear!"
He put his arms round her, and they sat a long time with their cheeks pressed together, not speaking a word.
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