She was awakened by the scream of an engine, and looked around her amazed. Her neck had fallen sideways while she slept, and felt horridly stiff; her head ached, and she was shivering. She saw by the clock that it was past five. 'If only I could get some tea!' she thought. 'Anyway I won't stay here any longer!' When she had washed, and rubbed some of the stiffness out of her neck, the tea renewed her sense of adventure wonderfully. Her train did not start for an hour; she had time for a walk, to warm herself, and went down to the river. There was an early haze, and all looked a little mysterious; but people were already passing on their way to work. She walked along, looking at the water flowing up under the bright mist to which the gulls gave a sort of hovering life. She went as far as Blackfriars Bridge, and turning back, sat down on a bench under a plane-tree, just as the sun broke through. A little pasty woman with a pinched yellowish face was already sitting there, so still, and seeming to see so little, that Noel wondered of what she could be thinking. While she watched, the woman's face began puckering, and tears rolled slowly, down, trickling from pucker to pucker, till, summoning up her courage, Noel sidled nearer, and said:
"Oh! What's the matter?"
The tears seemed to stop from sheer surprise; little grey eyes gazed round, patient little eyes from above an almost bridgeless nose.
"I'ad a baby. It's dead.... its father's dead in France.... I was goin' in the water, but I didn't like the look of it, and now I never will."
That "Now I never will," moved Noel terribly. She slid her arm along the back of the bench and clasped the skinniest of shoulders.
"It was my first. I'm thirty-eight. I'll never 'ave another. Oh! Why didn't I go in the water?"
The face puckered again, and the squeezed-out tears ran down. 'Of course she must cry,' thought Noel; 'cry and cry till it feels better.' And she stroked the shoulder of the little woman, whose emotion was disengaging the scent of old clothes.
"The father of my baby was killed in France, too," she said at last. The little sad grey eyes looked curiously round.
"Was 'e? 'Ave you got your baby still?"
"Yes, oh, yes!"
"I'm glad of that. It 'urts so bad, it does. I'd rather lose me 'usband than me baby, any day." The sun was shining now on a cheek of that terribly patient face; its brightness seemed cruel perching there.
"Can I do anything to help you?" Noel murmured.
"No, thank you, miss. I'm goin' 'ome now. I don't live far. Thank you kindly." And raising her eyes for one more of those half-bewildered looks, she moved away along the Embankment wall. When she was out of sight, Noel walked back to the station. The train was in, and she took her seat. She had three fellow passengers, all in khaki; very silent and moody, as men are when they have to get up early. One was tall, dark, and perhaps thirty-five; the second small, and about fifty, with cropped, scanty grey hair; the third was of medium height and quite sixty-five, with a long row of little coloured patches on his tunic, and a bald, narrow, well-shaped head, grey hair brushed back at the sides, and the thin, collected features and drooping moustache of the old school. It was at him that Noel looked. When he glanced out of the window, or otherwise retired within himself, she liked his face; but when he turned to the ticket-collector or spoke to the others, she did not like it half so much. It was as if the old fellow had two selves, one of which he used when alone, the other in which he dressed every morning to meet the world. They had begun to talk about some Tribunal on which they had to sit. Noel did not listen, but a word or two carried to her now and then.
"How many to-day?" she heard the old fellow ask, and the little cropped man answering: "Hundred and fourteen."
Fresh from the sight of the poor little shabby woman and her grief, she could not help a sort of shrinking from that trim old soldier, with his thin, regular face, who held the fate of a "Hundred and fourteen" in his firm, narrow grasp, perhaps every day. Would he understand their troubles or wants? Of course he wouldn't! Then, she saw him looking at her critically with his keen eyes. If he had known her secret, he would be thinking: 'A lady and act like that! Oh, no! Quite-quite out of the question!' And she felt as if she could, sink under the seat with shame. But no doubt he was only thinking: 'Very young to be travelling by herself at this hour of the morning. Pretty too!' If he knew the real truth of her--how he would stare! But why should this utter stranger, this old disciplinarian, by a casual glance, by the mere form of his face, make her feel more guilty and ashamed than she had yet felt? That puzzled her. He was, must be, a narrow, conventional old man; but he had this power to make her feel ashamed, because she felt that he had faith in his gods, and was true to them; because she knew he would die sooner than depart from his creed of conduct. She turned to the window, biting her lips-angry and despairing. She would never--never get used to her position; it was no good! And again she had the longing of her dream, to tuck her face away into that coat, smell the scent of the frieze, snuggle in, be protected, and forget. 'If I had been that poor lonely little woman,' she thought, 'and had lost everything, I should have gone into the water. I should have rushed and jumped. It's only luck that I'm alive. I won't look at that old man again: then I shan't feel so bad.'
She had bought some chocolate at the station, and nibbled it, gazing steadily at the fields covered with daisies and the first of the buttercups and cowslips. The three soldiers were talking now in carefully lowered voices. The words: "women," "under control," "perfect plague," came to her, making her ears burn. In the hypersensitive mood caused by the strain of yesterday, her broken night, and the emotional meeting with the little woman, she felt as if they were including her among those "women." 'If we stop, I'll get out,' she thought. But when the train did stop it was they who got out. She felt the old General's keen veiled glance sum her up for the last time, and looked full at him just for a moment. He touched his cap, and said: "Will you have the window up or down?" and lingered to draw it half-way up.' His punctiliousness made her feel worse than ever. When the train had started again she roamed up and down her empty carriage; there was no more a way out of her position than out of this rolling cushioned carriage! And then she seemed to hear Fort's voice saying: 'Sit down, please!' and to feel his fingers clasp her wrist, Oh! he was nice and comforting; he would never reproach or remind her! And now, probably, she would never see him again.
The train drew up at last. She did not know where George lodged, and would have to go to his hospital. She planned to get there at half past nine, and having eaten a sort of breakfast at the station, went forth into the town. The seaside was still wrapped in the early glamour which haunts chalk of a bright morning. But the streets were very much alive. Here was real business of the war. She passed houses which had been wrecked. Trucks clanged and shunted, great lorries rumbled smoothly by. Sea--and Air-planes were moving like great birds far up in the bright haze, and khaki was everywhere. But it was the sea Noel wanted. She made her way westward to a little beach; and, sitting down on a stone, opened her arms to catch the sun on her face and chest. The tide was nearly up, with the wavelets of a blue bright sea. The great fact, the greatest fact in the world, except the sun; vast and free, making everything human seem small and transitory! It did her good, like a tranquillising friend. The sea might be cruel and terrible, awful things it could do, and awful things were being done on it; but its wide level line, its never-ending song, its sane savour, were the best medicine she could possibly have taken. She rubbed the Shelly sand between her fingers in absurd ecstasy; took off her shoes and stockings, paddled, and sat drying her legs in the sun.
When she left the little beach, she felt as if someone had said to her:
'Your troubles are very little. There's the sun, the sea, the air; enjoy them. They can't take those from you.'
At the hospital she had to wait half an hour in a little bare room before George came.
"Nollie! Splendid. I've got an hour. Let's get out of this cemetery. We'll have time for a good stretch on the tops. Jolly of you to have come to me. Tell us all about it."
When she had finished, he squeezed her arm.
"I knew it wouldn't do. Your Dad forgot that he's a public figure, and must expect to be damned accordingly. But though you've cut and run, he'll resign all the same, Nollie."
"Oh, no!" cried Noel.
George shook his head.
"Yes, he'll resign, you'll see, he's got no worldly sense; not a grain."
"Then I shall have spoiled his life, just as if--oh, no!"
"Let's sit down here. I must be back at eleven."
They sat down on a bench, where the green cliff stretched out before them, over a sea quite clear of haze, far down and very blue.
"Why should he resign," cried Noel again, "now that I've gone? He'll be lost without it all."
"Found, my dear. He'll be where he ought to be, Nollie, where the Church is, and the Churchmen are not--in the air!"
"Don't!" cried Noel passionately.
"No, no, I'm not chaffing. There's no room on earth for saints in authority. There's use for a saintly symbol, even if one doesn't hold with it, but there's no mortal use for those who try to have things both ways--to be saints and seers of visions, and yet to come the practical and worldly and rule ordinary men's lives. Saintly example yes; but not saintly governance. You've been his deliverance, Nollie."
"But Daddy loves his Church."
George frowned. "Of course, it'll be a wrench. A man's bound to have a cosey feeling about a place where he's been boss so long; and there is something about a Church--the drone, the scent, the half darkness; there's beauty in it, it's a pleasant drug. But he's not being asked to give up the drug habit; only to stop administering drugs to others. Don't worry, Nollie; I don't believe that's ever suited him, it wants a thicker skin than he's got."
"But all the people he helps?"
"No reason he shouldn't go on helping people, is there?"
"But to go on living there, without--Mother died there, you know!"
George grunted. "Dreams, Nollie, all round him; of the past and the future, of what people are and what he can do with them. I never see him without a skirmish, as you know, and yet I'm fond of him. But I should be twice as fond, and half as likely to skirmish, if he'd drop the habits of authority. Then I believe he'd have some real influence over me; there's something beautiful about him, I know that quite well."
"Yes," murmured Noel fervently.
"He's such a queer mixture," mused George. "Clean out of his age; chalks above most of the parsons in a spiritual sense and chalks below most of them in the worldly. And yet I believe he's in the right of it. The Church ought to be a forlorn hope, Nollie; then we should believe in it. Instead of that, it's a sort of business that no one can take too seriously. You see, the Church spiritual can't make good in this age--has no chance of making good, and so in the main it's given it up for vested interests and social influence. Your father is a symbol of what the Church is not. But what about you, my dear? There's a room at my boarding-house, and only one old lady besides myself, who knits all the time. If Grace can get shifted we'll find a house, and you can have the baby. They'll send your luggage on from Paddington if you write; and in the meantime Gracie's got some things here that you can have."
"I'll have to send a wire to Daddy."
"I'll do that. You come to my diggings at half past one, and I'll settle you in. Until then, you'd better stay up here."
When he had gone she roamed a little farther, and lay down on the short grass, where the chalk broke through in patches. She could hear a distant rumbling, very low, travelling in that grass, the long mutter of the Flanders guns. 'I wonder if it's as beautiful a day there,' she thought. 'How dreadful to see no green, no butterflies, no flowers-not even sky-for the dust of the shells. Oh! won't it ever, ever end?' And a sort of passion for the earth welled up in her, the warm grassy earth along which she lay, pressed so close that she could feel it with every inch of her body, and the soft spikes of the grass against her nose and lips. An aching sweetness tortured her, she wanted the earth to close its arms about her, she wanted the answer to her embrace of it. She was alive, and wanted love. Not death--not loneliness--not death! And out there, where the guns muttered, millions of men would be thinking that same thought!
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