The moment his visitor had vanished, Pierson paced up and down the study, with anger rising in his, heart. His daughter or his parish! The old saw, "An Englishman's house is his castle!" was being attacked within him. Must he not then harbour his own daughter, and help her by candid atonement to regain her inward strength and peace? Was he not thereby acting as a true Christian, in by far the hardest course he and she could pursue? To go back on that decision and imperil his daughter's spirit, or else resign his parish--the alternatives were brutal! This was the centre of his world, the only spot where so lonely a man could hope to feel even the semblance of home; a thousand little threads tethered him to his church, his parishioners, and this house--for, to live on here if he gave up his church was out of the question. But his chief feeling was a bewildered anger that for doing what seemed to him his duty, he should be attacked by his parishioners.
A passion of desire to know what they really thought and felt--these parishioners of his, whom he had befriended, and for whom he had worked so long--beset him now, and he went out. But the absurdity of his quest struck him before he had gone the length of the Square. One could not go to people and say: "Stand and deliver me your inmost judgments." And suddenly he was aware of how far away he really was from them. Through all his ministrations had he ever come to know their hearts? And now, in this dire necessity for knowledge, there seemed no way of getting it. He went at random into a stationer's shop; the shopman sang bass in his choir. They had met Sunday after Sunday for the last seven years. But when, with this itch for intimate knowledge on him, he saw the man behind the counter, it was as if he were looking on him for the first time. The Russian proverb, "The heart of another is a dark forest," gashed into his mind, while he said:
"Well, Hodson, what news of your son?"
"Nothing more, Mr. Pierson, thank you, sir, nothing more at present."
And it seemed to Pierson, gazing at the man's face clothed in a short, grizzling beard cut rather like his own, that he must be thinking: 'Ah! sir, but what news of your daughter?' No one would ever tell him to his face what he was thinking. And buying two pencils, he went out. On the other side of the road was a bird-fancier's shop, kept by a woman whose husband had been taken for the Army. She was not friendly towards him, for it was known to her that he had expostulated with her husband for keeping larks, and other wild birds. And quite deliberately he crossed the road, and stood looking in at the window, with the morbid hope that from this unfriendly one he might hear truth. She was in her shop, and came to the door.
"Have you any news of your husband, Mrs. Cherry?"
"No, Mr. Pierson, I 'ave not; not this week."
"He hasn't gone out yet?"
"No, Mr. Pierson; 'e 'as not."
There was no expression on her face, perfectly blank it was--Pierson had a mad longing to say 'For God's sake, woman, speak out what's in your mind; tell me what you think of me and my daughter. Never mind my cloth!' But he could no more say it than the woman could tell him what was in her mind. And with a "Good morning" he passed on. No man or woman would tell him anything, unless, perhaps, they were drunk. He came to a public house, and for a moment even hesitated before it, but the thought of insult aimed at Noel stopped him, and he passed that too. And then reality made itself known to him. Though he had come out to hear what they were thinking, he did not really want to hear it, could not endure it if he did. He had been too long immune from criticism, too long in the position of one who may tell others what he thinks of them. And standing there in the crowded street, he was attacked by that longing for the country which had always come on him when he was hard pressed. He looked at his memoranda. By stupendous luck it was almost a blank day. An omnibus passed close by which would take him far out. He climbed on to it, and travelled as far as Hendon; then getting down, set forth on foot. It was bright and hot, and the May blossom in full foam. He walked fast along the perfectly straight road till he came to the top of Elstree Hill. There for a few moments he stood gazing at the school chapel, the cricket-field, the wide land beyond. All was very quiet, for it was lunch-time. A horse was tethered there, and a strolling cat, as though struck by the tall black incongruity of his figure, paused in her progress, then, slithering under the wicket gate, arched her back and rubbed herself against his leg, crinkling and waving the tip of her tail. Pierson bent down and stroked the creature's head; but uttering a faint miaou, the cat stepped daintily across the road, Pierson too stepped on, past the village, and down over the stile, into a field path. At the edge of the young clover, under a bank of hawthorn, he lay down on his back, with his hat beside him and his arms crossed over his chest, like the effigy of some crusader one may see carved on an old tomb. Though he lay quiet as that old knight, his eyes were not closed, but fixed on the blue, where a lark was singing. Its song refreshed his spirit; its passionate light-heartedness stirred all the love of beauty in him, awoke revolt against a world so murderous and uncharitable. Oh! to pass up with that song into a land of bright spirits, where was nothing ugly, hard, merciless, and the gentle face of the Saviour radiated everlasting love! The scent of the mayflowers, borne down by the sun shine, drenched his senses; he closed his eyes, and, at once, as if resenting that momentary escape, his mind resumed debate with startling intensity. This matter went to the very well-springs, had a terrible and secret significance. If to act as conscience bade him rendered him unfit to keep his parish, all was built on sand, had no deep reality, was but rooted in convention. Charity, and the forgiveness of sins honestly atoned for--what became of them? Either he was wrong to have espoused straightforward confession and atonement for her, or they were wrong in chasing him from that espousal. There could be no making those extremes to meet. But if he were wrong, having done the hardest thing already--where could he turn? His Church stood bankrupt of ideals. He felt as if pushed over the edge of the world, with feet on space, and head in some blinding cloud. 'I cannot have been wrong,' he thought; 'any other course was so much easier. I sacrificed my pride, and my poor girl's pride; I would have loved to let her run away. If for this we are to be stoned and cast forth, what living force is there in the religion I have loved; what does it all come to? Have I served a sham? I cannot and will not believe it. Something is wrong with me, something is wrong--but where--what?' He rolled over, lay on his face, and prayed. He prayed for guidance and deliverance from the gusts of anger which kept sweeping over him; even more for relief from the feeling of personal outrage, and the unfairness of this thing. He had striven to be loyal to what he thought the right, had sacrificed all his sensitiveness, all his secret fastidious pride in his child and himself. For that he was to be thrown out! Whether through prayer, or in the scent and feel of the clover, he found presently a certain rest. Away in the distance he could see the spire of Harrow Church.
The Church! No! She was not, could not be, at fault. The fault was in himself. 'I am unpractical,' he thought. 'It is so, I know. Agnes used to say so, Bob and Thirza think so. They all think me unpractical and dreamy. Is it a sin--I wonder?' There were lambs in the next field; he watched their gambollings and his heart relaxed; brushing the clover dust off his black clothes, he began to retrace his steps. The boys were playing cricket now, and he stood a few minutes watching them. He had not seen cricket played since the war began; it seemed almost otherworldly, with the click of the bats, and the shrill young 'voices, under the distant drone of that sky-hornet threshing along to Hendon. A boy made a good leg hit. "Well played!" he called. Then, suddenly conscious of his own incongruity and strangeness in that green spot, he turned away on the road back to London. To resign; to await events; to send Noel away--of those three courses, the last alone seemed impossible. 'Am I really so far from them,' he thought, 'that they can wish me to go, for this? If so, I had better go. It will be just another failure. But I won't believe it yet; I can't believe it.'
The heat was sweltering, and he became very tired before at last he reached his omnibus, and could sit with the breeze cooling his hot face. He did not reach home till six, having eaten nothing since breakfast. Intending to have a bath and lie down till dinner, he went upstairs.
Unwonted silence reigned. He tapped on the nursery door. It was deserted; he passed through to Noel's room; but that too was empty. The wardrobe stood open as if it had been hastily ransacked, and her dressing-table was bare. In alarm he went to the bell and pulled it sharply. The old-fashioned ring of it jingled out far below. The parlour-maid came up.
"Where are Miss Noel and Nurse, Susan?"
"I didn't know you were in, sir. Miss Noel left me this note to give you. They--I--"
Pierson stopped her with his hand. "Thank you, Susan; get me some tea, please." With the note unopened in his hand, he waited till she was gone. His head was going round, and he sat down on the side of Noel's bed to read:
"The man who came this morning told me of what is going to happen. I simply won't have it. I'm sending Nurse and baby down to Kestrel at once, and going to Leila's for the night, until I've made up my mind what to do. I knew it was a mistake my coming back. I don't care what happens to me, but I won't have you hurt. I think it's hateful of people to try and injure you for my fault. I've had to borrow money from Susan--six pounds. Oh! Daddy dear, forgive me.
He read it with unutterable relief; at all events he knew where she was--poor, wilful, rushing, loving-hearted child; knew where she was, and could get at her. After his bath and some tea, he would go to Leila's and bring her back. Poor little Nollie, thinking that by just leaving his house she could settle this deep matter! He did not hurry, feeling decidedly exhausted, and it was nearly eight before he set out, leaving a message for Gratian, who did not as a rule come in from her hospital till past nine.
The day was still glowing, and now, in the cool of evening, his refreshed senses soaked up its beauty. 'God has so made this world,' he thought, 'that, no matter what our struggles and sufferings, it's ever a joy to live when the sun shines, or the moon is bright, or the night starry. Even we can't spoil it.' In Regent's Park the lilacs and laburnums were still in bloom though June had come, and he gazed at them in passing, as a lover might at his lady. His conscience pricked him suddenly. Mrs. Mitchett and the dark-eyed girl she had brought to him on New Year's Eve, the very night he had learned of his own daughter's tragedy--had he ever thought of them since? How had that poor girl fared? He had been too impatient of her impenetrable mood. What did he know of the hearts of others, when he did not even know his own, could not rule his feelings of anger and revolt, had not guided his own daughter into the waters of safety! And Leila! Had he not been too censorious in thought? How powerful, how strange was this instinct of sex, which hovered and swooped on lives, seized them, bore them away, then dropped them exhausted and defenceless! Some munition-wagons, painted a dull grey, lumbered past, driven by sunburned youths in drab. Life-force, Death-force--was it all one; the great unknowable momentum from which there was but the one escape, in the arms of their Heavenly Father? Blake's little old stanzas came into his mind:
"And we are put on earth a little space, That we may learn to bear the beams of love; And these black bodies and this sunburnt face Are but a cloud, and like a shady grove.
"For when our souls have learned the heat to bear, The cloud will vanish, we shall hear His voice, Saying: Come out from the grove, my love and care, And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice!"
Learned the heat to bear! Those lambs he had watched in a field that afternoon, their sudden little leaps and rushes, their funny quivering wriggling tails, their tiny nuzzling black snouts--what little miracles of careless joy among the meadow flowers! Lambs, and flowers, and sunlight! Famine, lust, and the great grey guns! A maze, a wilderness; and but for faith, what issue, what path for man to take which did not keep him wandering hopeless, in its thicket? 'God preserve our faith in love, in charity, and the life to come!' he thought. And a blind man with a dog, to whose neck was tied a little deep dish for pennies, ground a hurdy-gurdy as he passed. Pierson put a shilling in the dish. The man stopped playing, his whitish eyes looked up. "Thank you kindly, sir; I'll go home now. Come on, Dick!" He tapped his way round the corner, with his dog straining in front. A blackbird hidden among the blossoms of an acacia, burst into evening song, and another great grey munition-wagon rumbled out through the Park gate.
The Church-clock was striking nine when he reached Leila's flat, went up, and knocked. Sounds from-a piano ceased; the door was opened by Noel. She recoiled when she saw who it was, and said:
"Why did you come, Daddy? It was much better not."
"Are you alone here?"
"Yes; Leila gave me her key. She has to be at the hospital till ten to-night."
"You must come home with me, my dear."
Noel closed the piano, and sat down on the divan. Her face had the same expression as when he had told her that she could not marry Cyril Morland.
"Come, Nollie," he said; "don't be unreasonable. We must see this through together."
"My dear, that's childish. Do you think the mere accident of your being or not being at home can affect my decision as to what my duty is?"
"Yes; it's my being there that matters. Those people don't care, so long as it isn't an open scandal."
"But it is so, Daddy. Of course it's so, and you know it. If I'm away they'll just pity you for having a bad daughter. And quite right too. I am a bad daughter."
Pierson smiled. "Just like when you were a tiny."
"I wish I were a tiny again, or ten years older. It's this half age--But I'm not coming back with you, Daddy; so it's no good."
Pierson sat down beside her.
"I've been thinking this over all day," he said quietly. "Perhaps in my pride I made a mistake when I first knew of your trouble. Perhaps I ought to have accepted the consequences of my failure, then, and have given up, and taken you away at once. After all, if a man is not fit to have the care of souls, he should have the grace to know it."
"But you are fit," cried Noel passionately; "Daddy, you are fit!"
"I'm afraid not. There is something wanting in me, I don't know exactly what; but something very wanting."
"There isn't. It's only that you're too good--that's why!"
Pierson shook his head. "Don't, Nollie!"
"I will," cried Noel. "You're too gentle, and you're too good. You're charitable, and you're simple, and you believe in another world; that's what's the matter with you, Daddy. Do you think they do, those people who want to chase us out? They don't even begin to believe, whatever they say or think. I hate them, and sometimes I hate the Church; either it's hard and narrow, or else it's worldly." She stopped at the expression on her father's face, the most strange look of pain, and horror, as if an unspoken treachery of his own had been dragged forth for his inspection.
"You're talking wildly," he said, but his lips were trembling. "You mustn't say things like that; they're blasphemous and wicked."
Noel bit her lips, sitting very stiff and still, against a high blue cushion. Then she burst out again:
"You've slaved for those people years and years, and you've had no pleasure and you've had no love; and they wouldn't care that if you broke your heart. They don't care for anything, so long as it all seems proper. Daddy, if you let them hurt you, I won't forgive you!"
"And what if you hurt me now, Nollie?"
Noel pressed his hand against her warm cheek.
"Oh, no! Oh, no! I don't--I won't. Not again. I've done that already."
"Very well, my dear! then come home with me, and we'll see what's best to be done. It can't be settled by running away."
Noel dropped his hand. "No. Twice I've done what you wanted, and it's been a mistake. If I hadn't gone to Church on Sunday to please you, perhaps it would never have come to this. You don't see things, Daddy. I could tell, though I was sitting right in front. I knew what their faces were like, and what they were thinking."
"One must do right, Nollie, and not mind."
"Yes; but what is right? It's not right for me to hurt you, and I'm not going to."
Pierson understood all at once that it was useless to try and move her.
"What are you going to do, then?"
"I suppose I shall go to Kestrel to-morrow. Auntie will have me, I know; I shall talk to Leila."
"Whatever you do, promise to let me know."
"Daddy, you--look awfully, awfully tired. I'm going to give you some medicine." She went to a little three-cornered cupboard, and bent down. Medicine! The medicine he wanted was not for the body; knowledge of what his duty was--that alone could heal him!
The loud popping of a cork roused him. "What are you doing, Nollie?"
Noel rose with a flushed face, holding in one hand a glass of champagne, in the other a biscuit.
"You're to take this; and I'm going to have some myself."
"My dear," said Pierson bewildered; "it's not yours."
"Drink it; Daddy! Don't you know that Leila would never forgive me if I let you go home looking like that. Besides, she told me I was to eat. Drink it. You can send her a nice present. Drink it!" And she stamped her foot.
Pierson took the glass, and sat there nibbling and sipping. It was nice, very! He had not quite realised how much he needed food and drink. Noel returned from the cupboard a second time; she too had a glass and a biscuit.
"There, you look better already. Now you're to go home at once, in a cab if you can get one; and tell Gratian to make you feed up, or you won't have a body at all; you can't do your duty if you haven't one, you know."
Pierson smiled, and finished the champagne.
Noel took the glass from him. "You're my child to-night, and I'm going to send you to bed. Don't worry, Daddy; it'll all come right." And, taking his arm, she went downstairs with him, and blew him a kiss from the doorway.
He walked away in a sort of dream. Daylight was not quite gone, but the moon was up, just past its full, and the search-lights had begun their nightly wanderings. It was a sky of ghosts and shadows, fitting to the thought which came to him. The finger of Providence was in all this, perhaps! Why should he not go out to France! At last; why not? Some better man, who understood men's hearts, who knew the world, would take his place; and he could go where death made all things simple, and he could not fail. He walked faster and faster, full of an intoxicating relief. Thirza and Gratian would take care of Nollie far better than he. Yes, surely it was ordained! Moonlight had the town now; and all was steel blue, the very air steel-blue; a dream-city of marvellous beauty, through which he passed, exalted. Soon he would be where that poor boy, and a million others, had given their lives; with the mud and the shells and the scarred grey ground, and the jagged trees, where Christ was daily crucified--there where he had so often longed to be these three years past. It was ordained!
And two women whom he met looked at each other when he had gone by, and those words 'the blighted crow' which they had been about to speak, died on their lips.
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