Pierson woke after a troubled and dreamful night, in which he had thought himself wandering in heaven like a lost soul.
After regaining his room last night nothing had struck him more forcibly than the needlessness of his words: "Don't cry, Nollie!" for he had realised with uneasiness that she had not been near crying. No; there was in her some emotion very different from the tearful. He kept seeing her cross-legged figure on the bed in that dim light; tense, enigmatic, almost Chinese; kept feeling the feverish touch of her lips. A good girlish burst of tears would have done her good, and been a guarantee. He had the uncomfortable conviction that his refusal had passed her by, as if unspoken. And, since he could not go and make music at that time of night, he had ended on his knees, in a long search for guidance, which was not vouchsafed him.
The culprits were demure at breakfast; no one could have told that for the last hour they had been sitting with their arms round each other, watching the river flow by, talking but little, through lips too busy. Pierson pursued his sister-in-law to the room where she did her flowers every morning. He watched her for a minute dividing ramblers from pansies, cornflowers from sweet peas, before he said:
"I'm very troubled, Thirza. Nollie came to me last night. Imagine! They want to get married--those two!"
Accepting life as it came, Thirza showed no dismay, but her cheeks grew a little pinker, and her eyes a little rounder. She took up a sprig of mignonette, and said placidly:
"Oh, my dear!"
"Think of it, Thirza--that child! Why, it's only a year or two since she used to sit on my knee and tickle my face with her hair."
Thirza went on arranging her flowers.
"Noel is older than you think, Edward; she is more than her age. And real married life wouldn't begin for them till after--if it ever began."
Pierson experienced a sort of shock. His sister-in-law's words seemed criminally light-hearted.
"But--but--" he stammered; "the union, Thirza! Who can tell what will happen before they come together again!"
She looked at his quivering face, and said gently:
"I know, Edward; but if you refuse, I should be afraid, in these days, of what Noel might do. I told you there's a streak of desperation in her."
"Noel will obey me."
"I wonder! There are so many of these war marriages now."
Pierson turned away.
"I think they're dreadful. What do they mean--Just a momentary gratification of passion. They might just as well not be."
"They mean pensions, as a rule," said Thirza calmly.
"Thirza, that is cynical; besides, it doesn't affect this case. I can't bear to think of my little Nollie giving herself for a moment which may come to nothing, or may turn out the beginning of an unhappy marriage. Who is this boy--what is he? I know nothing of him. How can I give her to him--it's impossible! If they had been engaged some time and I knew something of him--yes, perhaps; even at her age. But this hasty passionateness--it isn't right, it isn't decent. I don't understand, I really don't--how a child like that can want it. The fact is, she doesn't know what she's asking, poor little Nollie. She can't know the nature of marriage, and she can't realise its sacredness. If only her mother were here! Talk to her, Thirza; you can say things that I can't!"
Thirza looked after the retreating figure. In spite of his cloth, perhaps a little because of it, he seemed to her like a child who had come to show her his sore finger. And, having finished the arrangement of her flowers, she went out to find her niece. She had not far to go; for Noel was standing in the hall, quite evidently lying in wait. They went out together to the avenue.
The girl began at once:
"It isn't any use talking to me, Auntie; Cyril is going to get a license."
"Oh! So you've made up your minds?"
"Do you think that's fair by me, Nollie? Should I have asked him here if I'd thought this was going to happen?"
Noel only smiled.
"Have you the least idea what marriage means?"
"Of course. Gratian is married. Besides, at school--"
"Your father is dead against it. This is a sad thing for him. He's a perfect saint, and you oughtn't to hurt him. Can't you wait, at least till Cyril's next leave?"
"He might never have one, you see."
The heart of her whose boys were out there too, and might also never have another leave; could not but be responsive to those words. She looked at her niece, and a dim appreciation of this revolt of life menaced by death, of youth threatened with extinction, stirred in her. Noel's teeth were clenched, her lips drawn back, and she was staring in front of her.
"Daddy oughtn't to mind. Old people haven't to fight, and get killed; they oughtn't to mind us taking what we can. They've had their good time."
It was such a just little speech that Thirza answered:
"Yes; perhaps he hasn't quite realised that."
"I want to make sure of Cyril, Auntie; I want everything I can have with him while there's the chance. I don't think it's much to ask, when perhaps I'll never have any more of him again."
Thirza slipped her hand through the girl's arm.
"I understand," she said. "Only, Nollie, suppose, when all this is over, and we breathe and live naturally once more, you found you'd made a mistake?"
Noel shook her head. "I haven't."
"We all think that, my dear; but thousands of mistakes are made by people who no more dream they're making them than you do now; and then it's a very horrible business. It would be especially horrible for you; your father believes heart and soul in marriage being for ever."
"Daddy's a darling; but I don't always believe what he believes, you know. Besides, I'm not making a mistake, Auntie! I love Cyril ever so."
Thirza gave her waist a squeeze.
"You mustn't make a mistake. We love you too much, Nollie. I wish we had Gratian here."
"Gratian would back me up," said Noel; "she knows what the war is. And you ought to, Auntie. If Rex or Harry wanted to be married, I'm sure you'd never oppose them. And they're no older than Cyril. You must understand what it means to me Auntie dear, to feel that we belong to each other properly before--before it all begins for him, and--and there may be no more. Daddy doesn't realise. I know he's awfully good, but--he's forgotten."
"My dear, I think he remembers only too well. He was desperately attached to your mother."
Noel clenched her hands.
"Was he? Well, so am I to Cyril, and he to me. We wouldn't be unreasonable if it wasn't--wasn't necessary. Talk, to Cyril, Auntie; then you'll understand. There he is; only, don't keep him long, because I want him. Oh! Auntie; I want him so badly!"
She turned; and slipped back into the house; and Thirza, conscious of having been decoyed to this young man, who stood there with his arms folded, like Napoleon before a battle, smiled and said:
"Well, Cyril, so you've betrayed me!"
Even in speaking she was conscious of the really momentous change in this sunburnt, blue-eyed, lazily impudent youth since the day he arrived, three weeks ago, in their little wagonette. He took her arm, just as Noel had, and made her sit down beside him on the rustic bench, where he had evidently been told to wait.
"You see, Mrs. Pierson," he said, "it's not as if Noel were an ordinary girl in an ordinary time, is it? Noel is the sort of girl one would knock one's brains out for; and to send me out there knowing that I could have been married to her and wasn't, will take all the heart out of me. Of course I mean to come back, but chaps do get knocked over, and I think it's cruel that we can't take what we can while we can. Besides, I've got money; and that would be hers anyway. So, do be a darling, won't you?" He put his arm round her waist, just as if he had been her son, and her heart, which wanted her own boys so badly, felt warmed within her.
"You see, I don't know Mr. Pierson, but he seems awfully gentle and jolly, and if he could see into me he wouldn't mind, I know. We don't mind risking our lives and all that, but we do think we ought to have the run of them while we're alive. I'll give him my dying oath or anything, that I could never change towards Noel, and she'll do the same. Oh! Mrs. Pierson, do be a jolly brick, and put in a word for me, quick! We've got so few days!"
"But, my dear boy," said Thirza feebly, "do you think it's fair to such a child as Noel?"
"Yes, I do. You don't understand; she's simply had to grow up. She is grown-up--all in this week; she's quite as old as I am, really--and I'm twenty-two. And you know it's going to be--it's got to be--a young world, from now on; people will begin doing things much earlier. What's the use of pretending it's like what it was, and being cautious, and all that? If I'm going to be killed, I think we've got a right to be married first; and if I'm not, then what does it matter?"
"You've known each other twenty-one days, Cyril."
"No; twenty-one years! Every day's a year when--Oh! Mrs. Pierson, this isn't like you, is it? You never go to meet trouble, do you?"
At that shrewd remark, Thirza put her hand on the hand which still clasped her waist, and pressed it closer.
"Well, my dear," she said softly, "we must see what can be done."
Cyril Morland kissed her cheek. "I will bless you for ever," he said. "I haven't got any people, you know, except my two sisters."
And something like tears started up on Thirza's eyelashes. They seemed to her like the babes in the wood--those two!
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