Leila had pluck, but little patience. Her one thought was to get away and she at once began settling up her affairs and getting a permit to return to South Africa. The excitements of purchase and preparation were as good an anodyne as she could have taken. The perils of the sea were at full just then, and the prospect of danger gave her a sort of pleasure. 'If I go down,' she thought, 'all the better; brisk, instead of long and dreary.' But when she had the permit and her cabin was booked, the irrevocability of her step came to her with full force. Should she see him again or no? Her boat started in three days, and she must decide. If in compunction he were to be affectionate, she knew she would never keep to her decision, and then the horror would begin again, till again she was forced to this same action. She let the hours go and go till the very day before, when the ache to see him and the dread of it had become so unbearable that she could not keep quiet. Late that afternoon--everything, to the last label, ready--she went out, still undecided. An itch to turn the dagger in her wound, to know what had become of Noel, took her to Edward's house. Almost unconsciously she had put on her prettiest frock, and spent an hour before the glass. A feverishness of soul, more than of body, which had hung about her ever since that night, gave her colour. She looked her prettiest; and she bought a gardenia at a shop in Baker Street and fastened it in her dress. Reaching the old Square, she was astonished to see a board up with the words: "To let," though the house still looked inhabited. She rang, and was shown into the drawing-room. She had only twice been in this house before; and for some reason, perhaps because of her own unhappiness, the old, rather shabby room struck her as pathetic, as if inhabited by the past. 'I wonder what his wife was like,' she thought: And then she saw, hanging against a strip of black velvet on the wall, that faded colour sketch of the slender young woman leaning forward, with her hands crossed in her lap. The colouring was lavender and old ivory, with faint touches of rose. The eyes, so living, were a little like Gratian's; the whole face delicate, eager, good. 'Yes,' she thought, 'he must have loved you very much. To say good-bye must have been hard.' She was still standing before it when Pierson came in.
"That's a dear face, Edward. I've come to say good-bye. I'm leaving for South Africa to-morrow." And, as her hand touched his, she thought: 'I must have been mad to think I could ever have made him love me.'
"Are you--are you leaving him?"
"That's very brave, and wonderful."
"Oh! no. Needs must when the devil drives--that's all. I don't give up happiness of my own accord. That's not within a hundred miles of the truth. What I shall become, I don't know, but nothing better, you may be sure. I give up because I can't keep, and you know why. Where is Noel?"
"Down at the sea, with George and Gratian."
He was looking at her in wonder; and the pained, puzzled expression on his face angered her.
"I see the house is to let. Who'd have thought a child like that could root up two fossils like us? Never mind, Edward, there's the same blood in us. We'll keep our ends up in our own ways. Where are you going?"
"They'll give me a chaplaincy in the East, I think."
For a wild moment Leila thought: 'Shall I offer to go with him--the two lost dogs together?'
"What would have happened, Edward, if you had proposed to me that May week, when we were--a little bit in love? Which would it have been, worst for, you or me?"
"You wouldn't have taken me, Leila."
"Oh, one never knows. But you'd never have been a priest then, and you'd never have become a saint."
"Don't use that silly word. If you knew--"
"I do; I can see that you've been half burned alive; half burned and half buried! Well, you have your reward, whatever it is, and I mine. Good-bye, Edward!" She took his hand. "You might give me your blessing; I want it."
Pierson put his other hand on her shoulder and, bending forward, kissed her forehead.
The tears rushed up in Leila's eyes. "Ah me!" she said, "it's a sad world!" And wiping the quivering off her lips with the back of her gloved hand, she went quickly past him to the door. She looked back from there. He had not stirred, but his lips were moving. 'He's praying for me!' she thought. 'How funny!'
The moment she was outside, she forgot him; the dreadful ache for Fort seemed to have been whipped up within her, as if that figure of lifelong repression had infuriated the love of life and pleasure in her. She must and would see Jimmy again, if she had to wait and seek for him all night! It was nearly seven, he would surely have finished at the War Office; he might be at his Club or at his rooms. She made for the latter.
The little street near Buckingham Gate, where no wag had chalked "Peace" on the doors for nearly a year now, had an arid look after a hot day's sun. The hair-dresser's shop below his rooms was still open, and the private door ajar: 'I won't ring,' she thought; 'I'll go straight up.' While she was mounting the two flights of stairs, she stopped twice, breathless, from a pain in her side. She often had that pain now, as if the longing in her heart strained it physically. On the modest landing at the top, outside his rooms, she waited, leaning against the wall, which was covered with a red paper. A window at the back was open and the confused sound of singing came in--a chorus "Vive-la, vive-la, vive-la ve. Vive la compagnie." So it came to her. 'O God!' she thought: 'Let him be in, let him be nice to me. It's the last time.' And, sick from anxiety, she opened the door. He was in--lying on a wicker-couch against the wall in the far corner, with his arms crossed behind his head, and a pipe in his mouth; his eyes were closed, and he neither moved, nor opened them, perhaps supposing her to be the servant. Noiseless as a cat, Leila crossed the room till she stood above him. And waiting for him to come out of that defiant lethargy, she took her fill of his thin, bony face, healthy and hollow at the same time. With teeth clenched on the pipe it had a look of hard resistance, as of a man with his head back, his arms pinioned to his sides, stiffened against some creature, clinging and climbing and trying to drag him down. The pipe was alive, and dribbled smoke; and his leg, the injured one, wriggled restlessly, as if worrying him; but the rest of him was as utterly and obstinately still as though he were asleep. His hair grew thick and crisp, not a thread of grey in it, the teeth which held the pipe glinted white and strong. His face was young; so much younger than hers. Why did she love it--the face of a man who couldn't love her? For a second she felt as if she could seize the cushion which had slipped down off the couch, and smother him as he lay there, refusing, so it seemed to her, to come to consciousness. Love despised! Humiliation! She nearly turned and stole away. Then through the door, left open, behind her, the sound of that chorus: "Vive-la, vive-la, vive-la ve!" came in and jolted her nerves unbearably. Tearing the gardenia from her breast, she flung it on to his upturned face.
Fort struggled up, and stared at her. His face was comic from bewilderment, and she broke into a little nervous laugh.
"You weren't dreaming of me, dear Jimmy, that's certain. In what garden were you wandering?"
"Leila! You! How--how jolly!"
"How--how jolly! I wanted to see you, so I came. And I have seen you, as you are, when you aren't with me. I shall remember it; it was good for me--awfully good for me."
"I didn't hear you."
"Far, far away, my dear. Put my gardenia in, your buttonhole. Stop, I'll pin it in. Have you had a good rest all this week? Do you like my dress? It's new. You wouldn't have noticed it, would you?"
"I should have noticed. I think it's charming.
"Jimmy, I believe that nothing--nothing will ever shake your chivalry."
"Chivalry? I have none."
"I am going to shut the door, do you mind?" But he went to the door himself, shut it, and came back to her. Leila looked up at him.
"Jimmy, if ever you loved me a little bit, be nice to me today. And if I say things--if I'm bitter--don't mind; don't notice it. Promise!"
She took off her hat and sat leaning against him on the couch, so that she could not see his face. And with his arm round her, she let herself go, deep into the waters of illusion; down-down, trying to forget there was a surface to which she must return; like a little girl she played that game of make-believe. 'He loves me-he loves me--he loves me!' To lose herself like that for, just an hour, only an hour; she felt that she would give the rest of the time vouchsafed to her; give it all and willingly. Her hand clasped his against her heart, she turned her face backward, up to his, closing her eyes so as still not to see his face; the scent of the gardenia in his coat hurt her, so sweet and strong it was.
When with her hat on she stood ready to go, it was getting dark. She had come out of her dream now, was playing at make-believe no more. And she stood with a stony smile, in the half-dark, looking between her lashes at the mortified expression on his unconscious face.
"Poor Jimmy!" she said; "I'm not going to keep you from dinner any longer. No, don't come with me. I'm going alone; and don't light up, for heaven's sake."
She put her hand on the lapel of his coat. "That flower's gone brown at the edges. Throw it away; I can't bear faded flowers. Nor can you. Get yourself a fresh one tomorrow."
She pulled the flower from his buttonhole and, crushing it in her hand, held her face up.
"Well, kiss me once more; it won't hurt you."
For one moment her lips clung to his with all their might. She wrenched them away, felt for the handle blindly, opened the door, and, shutting it in his face, went slowly, swaying a little, down the stairs. She trailed a gloved hand along the wall, as if its solidity could help her. At the last half-landing, where a curtain hung, dividing off back premises, she stopped and listened. There wasn't a sound. 'If I stand here behind this curtain,' she thought, 'I shall see him again.' She slipped behind the curtain, close drawn but for a little chink. It was so dark there that she could not see her own hand. She heard the door open, and his slow footsteps coming down the stairs. His feet, knees, whole figure came into sight, his face just a dim blur. He passed, smoking a cigarette. She crammed her hand against her mouth to stop herself from speaking and the crushed gardenia filled her nostrils with its cold, fragrant velvet. He was gone, the door below was shut. A wild, half-stupid longing came on her to go up again, wait till he came in, throw herself upon him, tell him she was going, beg him to keep her with him. Ah! and he would! He would look at her with that haggard pity she could not bear, and say, "Of course, Leila, of course." No! By God, no! "I am going quietly home," she muttered; "just quietly home! Come along, be brave; don't be a fool! Come along!" And she went down into the street: At the entrance to the Park she saw him, fifty yards in front, dawdling along. And, as if she had been his shadow lengthened out to that far distance, she moved behind him. Slowly, always at that distance, she followed him under the plane-trees, along the Park railings, past St. James's Palace, into Pall Mall. He went up some steps, and vanished into his Club. It was the end. She looked up at the building; a monstrous granite tomb, all dark. An emptied cab was just moving from the door. She got in. "Camelot Mansions, St. John's Wood." And braced against the cushions, panting, and clenching her hands, she thought: 'Well, I've seen him again. Hard crust's better than no bread. Oh, God! All finished--not a crumb, not a crumb! Vive-la, vive-la, vive-la ve. Vive-la compagnie!'
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