Noel felt light-hearted too, as if she had won a victory. She found some potted meat, spread it on another biscuit, ate it greedily, and finished the pint bottle of champagne. Then she hunted for the cigarettes, and sat down at the piano. She played old tunes--"There is a Tavern in the Town," "Once I Loved a Maiden Fair," "Mowing the Barley," "Clementine," "Lowlands," and sang to them such words as she remembered. There was a delicious running in her veins, and once she got up and danced. She was kneeling at the window, looking out, when she heard the door open, and without getting up, cried out:
"Isn't it a gorgeous night! I've had Daddy here. I gave him some of your champagne, and drank the rest--" then was conscious of a figure far too tall for Leila, and a man's voice saying:
"I'm awfully sorry. It's only I, Jimmy Fort."
Noel scrambled up. "Leila isn't in; but she will be directly--it's past ten."
He was standing stock-still in the middle of the room.
"Won't you sit down? Oh! and won't you have a cigarette?"
By the flash of his briquette she saw his face clearly; the look on it filled her with a sort of malicious glee.
"I'm going now," she said. "Would you mind telling Leila that I found I couldn't stop?" She made towards the divan to get her hat. When she had put it on, she found him standing just in front of her.
"Noel-if you don't mind me calling you that?"
"Not a bit."
"Don't go; I'm going myself."
"Oh, no! Not for worlds." She tried to slip past, but he took hold of her wrist.
"Please; just one minute!"
Noel stayed motionless, looking at him, while his hand still held her wrist. He said quietly:
"Do you mind telling me why you came here?"
"Oh, just to see Leila."
"Things have come to a head at home, haven't they?"
Noel shrugged her shoulders.
"You came for refuge, didn't you?"
"Don't be angry; from the need of hurting your father."
"I knew it would come to that. What are you going to do?"
"Enjoy myself." She was saying something fatuous, yet she meant it.
"That's absurd. Don't be angry! You're quite right. Only, you must begin at the right end, mustn't you? Sit down!"
Noel tried to free her wrist.
"No; sit down, please."
Noel sat down; but as he loosed her wrist, she laughed. This was where he sat with Leila, where they would sit when she was gone. "It's awfully funny, isn't it?" she said.
"Funny?" he muttered savagely. "Most things are, in this funny world."
The sound of a taxi stopping not far off had come to her ears, and she gathered her feet under her, planting them firmly. If she sprang up, could she slip by him before he caught her arm again, and get that taxi?
"If I go now," he said, "will you promise me to stop till you've seen Leila?"
"That's foolish. Come, promise!"
Noel shook her head. She felt a perverse pleasure at his embarrassment.
"Leila's lucky, isn't she? No children, no husband, no father, no anything. Lovely!"
She saw his arm go up as if to ward off a blow. "Poor Leila!" he said.
"Why are you sorry for her? She has freedom! And she has you!"
She knew it would hurt; but she wanted to hurt him.
"You needn't envy her for that."
He had just spoken, when Noel saw a figure over by the door.
She jumped up, and said breathlessly:
"Oh, here you are, Leila! Father's been here, and we've had some of your champagne!"
"Capital! You are in the dark!"
Noel felt the blood rush into her cheeks. The light leaped up, and Leila came forward. She looked extremely pale, calm, and self-contained, in her nurse's dress; her full lips were tightly pressed together, but Noel could see her breast heaving violently. A turmoil of shame and wounded pride began raging in the girl. Why had she not flown long ago? Why had she let herself be trapped like this? Leila would think she had been making up to him! Horrible! Disgusting! Why didn't he--why didn't some one, speak? Then Leila said:
"I didn't expect you, Jimmy; I'm glad you haven't been dull. Noel is staying here to-night. Give me a cigarette. Sit down, both of you. I'm awfully tired!"
She sank into a chair, leaning back, with her knees crossed; and at that moment Noel admired her. She had said it beautifully; she looked so calm. Fort was lighting her cigarette; his hand was shaking, his face all sorry and mortified.
"Give Noel one, too, and draw the curtains, Jimmy. Quick! Not that it makes any difference; it's as light as day. Sit down, dear."
But Noel remained standing.
"What have you been talking of? Love and Chinese lanterns, or only me?"
At those words Fort, who was drawing the last curtain, turned round; his tall figure was poised awkwardly against the wall, his face, unsuited to diplomacy, had a look as of flesh being beaten. If weals had started up across it, Noel would not have been surprised.
He said with painful slowness:
"I don't exactly know; we had hardly begun, had we?"
"The night is young," said Leila. "Go on while I just take off my things."
She rose with the cigarette between her lips, and went into the inner room. In passing, she gave Noel a look. What there was in that look, the girl could never make clear even to herself. Perhaps a creature shot would gaze like that, with a sort of profound and distant questioning, reproach, and anger, with a sort of pride, and the quiver of death. As the door closed, Fort came right across the room.
"Go to her;" cried Noel; "she wants you. Can't you see, she wants you?"
And before he could move, she was at the door. She flew downstairs, and out into the moonlight. The taxi, a little way off, was just beginning to move away; she ran towards it, calling out:
"Anywhere! Piccadilly!" and jumping in, blotted herself against the cushions in the far corner.
She did not come to herself, as it were, for several minutes, and then feeling she 'could no longer bear the cab, stopped it, and got out. Where was she? Bond Street! She began, idly, wandering down its narrow length; the fullest street by day, the emptiest by night. Oh! it had been horrible! Nothing said by any of them--nothing, and yet everything dragged out--of him, of Leila, of herself! She seemed to have no pride or decency left, as if she had been caught stealing. All her happy exhilaration was gone, leaving a miserable recklessness. Nothing she did was right, nothing turned out well, so what did it all matter? The moonlight flooding down between the tall houses gave her a peculiar heady feeling. "Fey" her father had called her. She laughed. 'But I'm not going home,' she thought. Bored with the street's length; she turned off, and was suddenly in Hanover Square. There was the Church, grey-white, where she had been bridesmaid to a second cousin, when she was fifteen. She seemed to see it all again--her frock, the lilies in her hand, the surplices of the choir, the bride's dress, all moonlight-coloured, and unreal. 'I wonder what's become of her!' she thought. 'He's dead, I expect, like Cyril!' She saw her father's face as he was marrying them, heard his voice: "For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do you part." And the moonlight on the Church seemed to shift and quiver-some pigeons perhaps had been disturbed up there. Then instead of that wedding vision, she saw Monsieur Barra, sitting on his chair, gazing at the floor, and Chica nursing her doll. "All mad, mademoiselle, a little mad. Millions of men with white souls, but all a little tiny bit mad, you know." Then Leila's face came before her, with that look in her eyes. She felt again the hot clasp of Fort's fingers on her wrist, and walked on, rubbing it with the other hand. She turned into Regent Street. The wide curve of the Quadrant swept into a sky of unreal blue, and the orange-shaded lamps merely added to the unreality. 'Love and Chinese lanterns! I should like some coffee,' she thought suddenly. She was quite close to the place where Lavendie had taken her. Should she go in there? Why not? She must go somewhere. She turned into the revolving cage of glass. But no sooner was she imprisoned there than in a flash Lavendie's face of disgust; and the red-lipped women, the green stuff that smelled of peppermint came back, filling her with a rush of dismay. She made the full circle in the revolving cage; and came out into the street again with a laugh. A tall young man in khaki stood there: "Hallo!" he said. "Come in and dance!" She started, recoiled from him and began to walk away as fast as ever she could. She passed a woman whose eyes seemed to scorch her. A woman like a swift vision of ruin with those eyes, and thickly powdered cheeks, and loose red mouth. Noel shuddered and fled along, feeling that her only safety lay in speed. But she could not walk about all night. There would be no train for Kestrel till the morning--and did she really want to go there, and eat her heart out? Suddenly she thought of George. Why should she not go down to him? He would know what was best for her to do. At the foot of the steps below the Waterloo Column she stood still. All was quiet there and empty, the great buildings whitened, the trees blurred and blue; and sweeter air was coming across their flowering tops. The queer "fey" moony sensation was still with her; so that she felt small and light, as if she could have floated through a ring. Faint rims of light showed round the windows of the Admiralty. The war! However lovely the night, however sweet the lilac smelt-that never stopped! She turned away and passed out under the arch, making for the station. The train of the wounded had just come in, and she stood in the cheering crowd watching the ambulances run out. Tears of excited emotion filled her eyes, and trickled down. Steady, smooth, grey, one after the other they came gliding, with a little burst of cheers greeting each one. All were gone now, and she could pass in. She went to the buffet and got a large cup of coffee, and a bun. Then, having noted the time of her early morning train, she sought the ladies' waiting-room, and sitting down in a corner, took out her purse and counted her money. Two pounds fifteen-enough to go to the hotel, if she liked. But, without luggage--it was so conspicuous, and she could sleep in this corner all right, if she wanted. What did girls do who had no money, and no friends to go to? Tucked away in the corner of that empty, heavy, varnished room, she seemed to see the cruelty and hardness of life as she had never before seen it, not even when facing her confinement. How lucky she had been, and was! Everyone was good to her. She had no real want or dangers, to face. But, for women--yes, and men too--who had no one to fall back on, nothing but their own hands and health and luck, it must be awful. That girl whose eyes had scorched her--perhaps she had no one--nothing. And people who were born ill, and the millions of poor women, like those whom she had gone visiting with Gratian sometimes in the poorer streets of her father's parish--for the first time she seemed to really know and feel the sort of lives they led. And then, Leila's face came back to her once more--Leila whom she had robbed. And the worst of it was, that, alongside her remorseful sympathy, she felt a sort of satisfaction. She could not help his not loving Leila, she could not help it if he loved herself! And he did--she knew it! To feel that anyone loved her was so comforting. But it was all awful! And she--the cause of it! And yet--she had never done or said anything to attract him. No! She could not have helped it.
She had begun to feel drowsy, and closed her eyes. And gradually there came on her a cosey sensation, as if she were leaning up against someone with her head tucked in against his shoulder, as she had so often leaned as a child against her father, coming back from some long darkening drive in Wales or Scotland. She seemed even to feel the wet soft Westerly air on her face and eyelids, and to sniff the scent of a frieze coat; to hear the jog of hoofs and the rolling of the wheels; to feel the closing in of the darkness. Then, so dimly and drowsily, she seemed to know that it was not her father, but someone--someone--then no more, no more at all.
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