The maid, who one Saturday in July opened the door to Jimmy Fort, had never heard the name of Laird, for she was but a unit in the ceaseless procession which pass through the boarding-houses of places subject to air-raids. Placing him in a sitting-room, she said she would find Miss 'Allow. There he waited, turning the leaves of an illustrated Journal, wherein Society beauties; starving Servians, actresses with pretty legs, prize dogs, sinking ships, Royalties, shells bursting, and padres reading funeral services, testified to the catholicity of the public taste, but did not assuage his nerves. What if their address were not known here? Why, in his fear of putting things to the test, had he let this month go by? An old lady was sitting by the hearth, knitting, the click of whose needles blended with the buzzing of a large bee on the window-pane. 'She may know,' he thought, 'she looks as if she'd been here for ever.' And approaching her, he said:
"I can assure you those socks are very much appreciated, ma'am."
The old lady bridled over her spectacles.
"It passes the time," she said.
"Oh, more than that; it helps to win the war, ma'am."
The old lady's lips moved at the corners; she did not answer. 'Deaf!' he thought.
"May I ask if you knew my friends, Doctor and Mrs. Laird, and Miss Pierson?"
The old lady cackled gently.
"Oh, yes! A pretty young girl; as pretty as life. She used to sit with me. Quite a pleasure to watch her; such large eyes she had."
"Where have they gone? Can you tell me?"
"Oh, I don't know at all."
It was a little cold douche on his heart. He longed to say: 'Stop knitting a minute, please. It's my life, to know.' But the tune of the needles answered: 'It's my life to knit.' And he turned away to the window.
"She used to sit just there; quite still; quite still."
Fort looked down at the window-seat. So, she used to sit just here, quite still.
"What a dreadful war this is!" said the old lady. "Have you been at the front?"
"To think of the poor young girls who'll never have husbands! I'm sure I think it's dreadful."
"Yes," said Fort; "it's dreadful--" And then a voice from the doorway said:
"Did you want Doctor and Mrs. Laird, sir? East Bungalow their address is; it's a little way out on the North Road. Anyone will tell you."
With a sigh of relief Fort looked gratefully at the old lady who had called Noel as pretty as life. "Good afternoon, ma'am."
"Good afternoon." The needles clicked, and little movements occurred at the corners of her mouth. Fort went out. He could not find a vehicle, and was a long time walking. The Bungalow was ugly, of yellow brick pointed with red. It lay about two-thirds up between the main road and cliffs, and had a rock-garden and a glaring, brand-new look, in the afternoon sunlight. He opened the gate, uttering one of those prayers which come so glibly from unbelievers when they want anything. A baby's crying answered it, and he thought with ecstasy: 'Heaven, she is here!' Passing the rock-garden he could see a lawn at the back of the house and a perambulator out there under a holm-oak tree, and Noel--surely Noel herself! Hardening his heart, he went forward. In a lilac sunbonnet she was bending over the perambulator. He trod softly on the grass, and was quite close before she heard him. He had prepared no words, but just held out his hand. The baby, interested in the shadow failing across its pram, ceased crying. Noel took his hand. Under the sunbonnet, which hid her hair, she seemed older and paler, as if she felt the heat. He had no feeling that she was glad to see him.
"How do you do? Have you seen Gratian; she ought to be in."
"I didn't come to see her; I came to see you."
Noel turned to the baby.
"Here he is."
Fort stood at the end of the perambulator, and looked at that other fellow's baby. In the shade of the hood, with the frilly clothes, it seemed to him lying with its head downhill. It had scratched its snub nose and bumpy forehead, and it stared up at its mother with blue eyes, which seemed to have no underlids so fat were its cheeks.
"I wonder what they think about," he said.
Noel put her finger into the baby's fist.
"They only think when they want some thing."
"That's a deep saying: but his eyes are awfully interested in you."
Noel smiled; and very slowly the baby's curly mouth unclosed, and discovered his toothlessness.
"He's a darling," she said in a whisper.
'And so are you,' he thought, 'if only I dared say it!'
"Daddy is here," she said suddenly, without looking up. "He's sailing for Egypt the day after to-morrow. He doesn't like you."
Fort's heart gave a jump. Why did she tell him that, unless--unless she was just a little on his side?
"I expected that," he said. "I'm a sinner, as you know."
Noel looked up at him. "Sin!" she said, and bent again over her baby. The word, the tone in which she said it, crouching over her baby, gave him the thought: 'If it weren't for that little creature, I shouldn't have a dog's chance.' He said, "I'll go and see your father. Is he in?"
"I think so."
"May I come to-morrow?"
"It's Sunday; and Daddy's last day."
"Ah! Of course." He did not dare look back, to see if her gaze was following him, but he thought: 'Chance or no chance, I'm going to fight for her tooth and nail.'
In a room darkened against the evening sun Pierson was sitting on a sofa reading. The sight of that figure in khaki disconcerted Fort, who had not realised that there would be this metamorphosis. The narrow face, clean-shaven now, with its deep-set eyes and compressed lips, looked more priestly than ever, in spite of this brown garb. He felt his hope suddenly to be very forlorn indeed. And rushing at the fence, he began abruptly:
"I've come to ask you, sir, for your permission to marry Noel, if she will have me."
He had thought Pierson's face gentle; it was not gentle now. "Did you know I was here, then, Captain Fort?"
"I saw Noel in the garden. I've said nothing to her, of course. But she told me you were starting to-morrow for Egypt, so I shall have no other chance."
"I am sorry you have come. It is not for me to judge, but I don't think you will make Noel happy."
"May I ask you why, sir?"
"Captain Fort, the world's judgment of these things is not mine; but since you ask me. I will tell you frankly. My cousin Leila has a claim on you. It is her you should ask to marry you."
"I did ask her; she refused."
"I know. She would not refuse you again if you went out to her."
"I am not free to go out to her; besides, she would refuse. She knows I don't love her, and never have."
"Because I'm a man, I suppose, and a fool"
"If it was simply, 'because you are a man' as you call it, it is clear that no principle or faith governs you. And yet you ask me to give you Noel; my poor Noel, who wants the love and protection not of a 'man' but of a good man. No, Captain Fort, no!"
Fort bit his lips. "I'm clearly not a good man in your sense of the word; but I love her terribly, and I would protect her. I don't in the least know whether she'll have me. I don't expect her to, naturally. But I warn you that I mean to ask her, and to wait for her. I'm so much in love that I can do nothing else."
"The man who is truly in love does what is best for the one he loves." Fort bent his head; he felt as if he were at school again, confronting his head-master. "That's true," he said. "And I shall never trade on her position. If she can't feel anything for me now or in the future, I shan't trouble her, you may be sure of that. But if by some wonderful chance she should, I know I can make her happy, sir."
"She is a child."
"No, she's not a child," said Fort stubbornly.
Pierson touched the lapel of his new tunic. "Captain Fort, I am going far away from her, and leaving her without protection. I trust to your chivalry not to ask her, till I come back."
Fort threw back his head. "No, no, I won't accept that position. With or without your presence the facts will be the same. Either she can love me, or she can't. If she can, she'll be happier with me. If she can't, there's an end of it."
Pierson came slowly up to him. "In my view," he said, "you are as bound to Leila as if you were married to her."
"You can't, expect me to take the priest's view, sir."
Pierson's lips trembled.
"You call it a priest's view; I think it is only the view of a man of honour."
Fort reddened. "That's for my conscience," he said stubbornly. "I can't tell you, and I'm not going to, how things began. I was a fool. But I did my best, and I know that Leila doesn't think I'm bound. If she had, she would never have gone. When there's no feeling--there never was real feeling on my side--and when there's this terribly real feeling for Noel, which I never sought, which I tried to keep down, which I ran away from--"
"Yes. To go on with the other was foul. I should have thought you might have seen that, sir; but I did go on with it. It was Leila who made an end."
"Leila behaved nobly, I think."
"She was splendid; but that doesn't make me a brute.".
Pierson turned away to the window, whence he must see Noel.
"It is repugnant to me," he said. "Is there never to be any purity in her life?"
"Is there never to be any life for her? At your rate, sir, there will be none. I'm no worse than other men, and I love her more than they could."
For fully a minute Pierson stood silent, before he said: "Forgive me if I've spoken harshly. I didn't mean to. I love her intensely; I wish for nothing but her good. But all my life I have believed that for a man there is only one woman--for a woman only one man."
"Then, Sir," Fort burst out, "you wish her--"
Pierson had put his hand up, as if to ward off a blow; and, angry though he was, Fort stopped.
"We are all made of flesh and blood," he continued coldly, "and it seems to me that you think we aren't."
"We have spirits too, Captain Fort." The voice was suddenly so gentle that Fort's anger evaporated.
"I have a great respect for you, sir; but a greater love for Noel, and nothing in this world will prevent me trying to give my life to her."
A smile quivered over Pierson's face. "If you try, then I can but pray that you will fail."
Fort did not answer, and went out.
He walked slowly away from the bungalow, with his head down, sore, angry, and yet-relieved. He knew where he stood; nor did he feel that he had been worsted--those strictures had not touched him. Convicted of immorality, he remained conscious of private justifications, in a way that human beings have. Only one little corner of memory, unseen and uncriticised by his opponent, troubled him. He pardoned himself the rest; the one thing he did not pardon was the fact that he had known Noel before his liaison with Leila commenced; had even let Leila sweep him away on, an evening when he had been in Noel's company. For that he felt a real disgust with himself. And all the way back to the station he kept thinking: 'How could I? I deserve to lose her! Still, I shall try; but not now--not yet!' And, wearily enough, he took the train back to town.
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