The day after that silent outburst of emotion in the drawing-room was a Sunday. And, obeying the longing awakened overnight to be as good as she could to her father; Noel said to him:
"Would you like me to come to Church?"
"Of course, Nollie."
How could he have answered otherwise? To him Church was the home of comfort and absolution, where people must bring their sins and troubles--a haven of sinners, the fount of charity, of forgiveness, and love. Not to have believed that, after all these years, would have been to deny all his usefulness in life, and to cast a slur on the House of God.
And so Noel walked there with him, for Gratian had gone down to George, for the week-end. She slipped quietly up the side aisle to their empty pew, under the pulpit. Never turning her eyes from the chancel, she remained unconscious of the stir her presence made, during that hour and twenty minutes. Behind her, the dumb currents of wonder, disapproval, and resentment ran a stealthy course. On her all eyes were fixed sooner or later, and every mind became the play ground of judgments. From every soul, kneeling, standing, or sitting, while the voice of the Service droned, sang, or spoke, a kind of glare radiated on to that one small devoted head, which seemed so ludicrously devout. She disturbed their devotions, this girl who had betrayed her father, her faith, her class. She ought to repent, of course, and Church was the right place; yet there was something brazen in her repenting there before their very eyes; she was too palpable a flaw in the crystal of the Church's authority, too visible a rent in the raiment of their priest. Her figure focused all the uneasy amazement and heart searchings of these last weeks. Mothers quivered with the knowledge that their daughters could see her; wives with the idea that their husbands were seeing her. Men experienced sensations varying from condemnation to a sort of covetousness. Young folk wondered, and felt inclined to giggle. Old maids could hardly bear to look. Here and there a man or woman who had seen life face to face, was simply sorry! The consciousness of all who knew her personally was at stretch how to behave if they came within reach of her in going out. For, though only half a dozen would actually rub shoulders with her, all knew that they might be, and many felt it their duty to be, of that half-dozen, so as to establish their attitude once for all. It was, in fact, too severe a test for human nature and the feelings which Church ought to arouse. The stillness of that young figure, the impossibility of seeing her face and judging of her state of mind thereby; finally, a faint lurking shame that they should be so intrigued and disturbed by something which had to do with sex, in this House of Worship--all combined to produce in every mind that herd-feeling of defence, which so soon becomes, offensive. And, half unconscious, half aware of it all, Noel stood, and sat, and knelt. Once or twice she saw her father's eyes fixed on her; and, still in the glow of last night's pity and remorse, felt a kind of worship for his thin grave face. But for the most part, her own wore the expression Lavendie had translated to his canvas--the look of one ever waiting for the extreme moments of life, for those few and fleeting poignancies which existence holds for the human heart. A look neither hungry nor dissatisfied, but dreamy and expectant, which might blaze into warmth and depth at any moment, and then go back to its dream.
When the last notes of the organ died away she continued to sit very still, without looking round.
There was no second Service, and the congregation melted out behind her, and had dispersed into the streets and squares long before she came forth. After hesitating whether or no to go to the vestry door, she turned away and walked home alone.
It was this deliberate evasion of all contact which probably clinched the business. The absence of vent, of any escape-pipe for the feelings, is always dangerous. They felt cheated. If Noel had come out amongst all those whose devotions her presence had disturbed, if in that exit, some had shown and others had witnessed one knows not what of a manifested ostracism, the outraged sense of social decency might have been appeased and sleeping dogs allowed to lie, for we soon get used to things; and, after all, the war took precedence in every mind even over social decency. But none of this had occurred, and a sense that Sunday after Sunday the same little outrage would happen to them, moved more than a dozen quite unrelated persons, and caused the posting that evening of as many letters, signed and unsigned, to a certain quarter. London is no place for parish conspiracy, and a situation which in the country would have provoked meetings more or less public, and possibly a resolution, could perhaps only thus be dealt with. Besides, in certain folk there is ever a mysterious itch to write an unsigned letter--such missives satisfy some obscure sense of justice, some uncontrollable longing to get even with those who have hurt or disturbed them, without affording the offenders chance for further hurt or disturbance.
Letters which are posted often reach their destination.
On Wednesday morning Pierson was sitting in his study at the hour devoted to the calls of his parishioners, when the maid announced, "Canon Rushbourne, sir," and he saw before him an old College friend whom he had met but seldom in recent years. His visitor was a short, grey-haired man of rather portly figure, whose round, rosy, good-humoured face had a look of sober goodness, and whose light-blue eyes shone a little. He grasped Pierson's hand, and said in a voice to whose natural heavy resonance professional duty had added a certain unction:
"My dear Edward, how many years it is since we met! Do you remember dear old Blakeway? I saw him only yesterday. He's just the same. I'm delighted to see you again," and he laughed a little soft nervous laugh. Then for a few moments he talked of the war and old College days, and Pierson looked at him and thought: 'What has he come for?'
"You've something to say to me, Alec," he said, at last.
Canon Rushbourne leaned forward in his chair, and answered with evident effort: "Yes; I wanted to have a little talk with you, Edward. I hope you won't mind. I do hope you won't."
"Why should I mind?"
Canon Rushbourne's eyes shone more than ever, there was real friendliness in his face.
"I know you've every right to say to me: 'Mind your own business.' But I made up my mind to come as a friend, hoping to save you from--er" he stammered, and began again: "I think you ought to know of the feeling in your parish that--er--that--er--your position is very delicate. Without breach of confidence I may tell you that letters have been sent to headquarters; you can imagine perhaps what I mean. Do believe, my dear friend, that I'm actuated by my old affection for you; nothing else, I do assure you."
In the silence, his breathing could be heard, as of a man a little touched with asthma, while he continually smoothed his thick black knees, his whole face radiating an anxious kindliness. The sun shone brightly on those two black figures, so very different, and drew out of their well-worn garments the faint latent green mossiness which. underlies the clothes of clergymen.
At last Pierson said: "Thank you, Alec; I understand."
The Canon uttered a resounding sigh. "You didn't realise how very easily people misinterpret her being here with you; it seems to them a kind--a kind of challenge. They were bound, I think, to feel that; and I'm afraid, in consequence--" He stopped, moved by the fact that Pierson had closed his eyes.
"I am to choose, you mean, between my daughter and my parish?"
The Canon seemed, with a stammer of words, to try and blunt the edge of that clear question.
"My visit is quite informal, my dear fellow; I can't say at all. But there is evidently much feeling; that is what I wanted you to know. You haven't quite seen, I think, that--"
Pierson raised his hand. "I can't talk of this."
The Canon rose. "Believe me, Edward, I sympathise deeply. I felt I had to warn you." He held out his hand. "Good-bye, my dear friend, do forgive me"; and he went out. In the hall an adventure befell him so plump, and awkward, that he could barely recite it to Mrs. Rushbourne that night.
"Coming out from my poor friend," he said, "I ran into a baby's perambulator and that young mother, whom I remember as a little thing"--he held his hand at the level of his thigh--"arranging it for going out. It startled me; and I fear I asked quite foolishly: 'Is it a boy?' The poor young thing looked up at me. She has very large eyes, quite beautiful, strange eyes. 'Have you been speaking to Daddy about me?' 'My dear young lady,' I said, 'I'm such an old friend, you see. You must forgive me.' And then she said: 'Are they going to ask him to resign?' 'That depends on you,' I said. Why do I say these things, Charlotte? I ought simply to have held my tongue. Poor young thing; so very young! And the little baby!" "She has brought it on herself, Alec," Mrs. Rushbourne replied.
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