Both girls rose early that last day, and went with their father to Communion. As Gratian had said to George: "It's nothing to me now, but it will mean a lot to him out there, as a memory of us. So I must go." And he had answered: "Quite right, my dear. Let him have all he can get of you both to-day. I'll keep out of the way, and be back the last thing at night." Their father's smile when he saw them waiting for him went straight to both their hearts. It was a delicious day, and the early freshness had not yet dried out of the air, when they were walking home to breakfast. Each girl had slipped a hand under his arm. 'It's like Moses or was it Aaron?' Noel thought absurdly Memory had complete hold of her. All the old days! Nursery hours on Sundays after tea, stories out of the huge Bible bound in mother-o'pearl, with photogravures of the Holy Land--palms, and hills, and goats, and little Eastern figures, and funny boats on the Sea of Galilee, and camels--always camels. The book would be on his knee, and they one on each arm of his chair, waiting eagerly for the pages to be turned so that a new picture came. And there would be the feel of his cheek, prickly against theirs; and the old names with the old glamour--to Gratian, Joshua, Daniel, Mordecai, Peter; to Noel Absalom because of his hair, and Haman because she liked the sound, and Ruth because she was pretty and John because he leaned on Jesus' breast. Neither of them cared for Job or David, and Elijah and Elisha they detested because they hated the name Eliza. And later days by firelight in the drawing-room, roasting chestnuts just before evening church, and telling ghost stories, and trying to make Daddy eat his share. And hours beside him at the piano, each eager for her special hymns--for Gratian, "Onward, Christian Soldiers," "Lead, Kindly Light," and "O God Our Help"; for Noel, "Nearer, My God, to Thee," the one with "The Hosts of Midian" in it, and "For Those in Peril on the Sea." And carols! Ah! And Choristers! Noel had loved one deeply--the word "chorister" was so enchanting; and because of his whiteness, and hair which had no grease on it, but stood up all bright; she had never spoken to him--a far worship, like that for a star. And always, always Daddy had been gentle; sometimes angry, but always gentle; and they sometimes not at all! And mixed up with it all, the dogs they had had, and the cats they had had, and the cockatoo, and the governesses, and their red cloaks, and the curates, and the pantomimes, and "Peter Pan," and "Alice in Wonderland"--Daddy sitting between them, so that one could snuggle up. And later, the school-days, the hockey, the prizes, the holidays, the rush into his arms; and the great and wonderful yearly exodus to far places, fishing and bathing; walks and drives; rides and climbs, always with him. And concerts and Shakespeare plays in the Christmas and Easter holidays; and the walk home through the streets--all lighted in those days--one on each side of him. And this was the end! They waited on him at breakfast: they kept stealing glances at him, photographing him in their minds. Gratian got her camera and did actually photograph him in the morning sunlight with Noel, without Noel, with the baby; against all regulations for the defence of the realm. It was Noel who suggested: "Daddy, let's take lunch out and go for all day on the cliffs, us three, and forget there's a war."
So easy to say, so difficult to do, with the boom of the guns travelling to their ears along the grass, mingled with the buzz of insects. Yet that hum of summer, the innumerable voices of tiny lives, gossamer things all as alive as they, and as important to their frail selves; and the white clouds, few and so slow-moving, and the remote strange purity which clings to the chalky downs, all this white and green and blue of land and sea had its peace, which crept into the spirits of those three alone with Nature, this once more, the last time for--who could say how long? They talked, by tacit agreement, of nothing but what had happened before the war began, while the flock of the blown dandelions drifted past. Pierson sat cross-legged on the grass, without his cap, suffering a little still from the stiffness of his unwonted garments. And the girls lay one on each side of him, half critical, and half admiring. Noel could not bear his collar.
"If you had a soft collar you'd be lovely, Daddy. Perhaps out there they'll let you take it off. It must be fearfully hot in Egypt. Oh! I wish I were going. I wish I were going everywhere in the world. Some day!" Presently he read to them, Murray's "Hippolytus" of Euripides. And now and then Gratian and he discussed a passage. But Noel lay silent, looking at the sky. Whenever his voice ceased, there was the song of the larks, and very faint, the distant mutter of the guns.
They stayed up there till past six, and it was time to go and have tea before Evening Service. Those hours in the baking sun had drawn virtue out of them; they were silent and melancholy all the evening. Noel was the first to go up to her bedroom. She went without saying good night--she knew her father would come to her room that last evening. George had not yet come in; and Gratian was left alone with Pierson in the drawing-room, round whose single lamp, in spite of close-drawn curtains, moths were circling: She moved over to him on the sofa.
"Dad, promise me not to worry about Nollie; we'll take care of her."
"She can only take care of herself, Gracie, and will she? Did you know that Captain Fort was here yesterday?"
"She told me."
"What is her feeling about him?"
"I don't think she knows. Nollie dreams along, and then suddenly rushes."
"I wish she were safe from that man."
"But, Dad, why? George likes him and so do I."
A big grey moth was fluttering against the lamp. Pierson got up and caught it in the curve of his palm. "Poor thing! You're like my Nollie; so soft, and dreamy, so feckless, so reckless." And going to the curtains, he thrust his hand through, and released the moth.
"Dad!" said Gratian suddenly, "we can only find out for ourselves, even if we do singe our wings in doing it. We've been reading James's 'Pragmatism.' George says the only chapter that's important is missing--the one on ethics, to show that what we do is not wrong till it's proved wrong by the result. I suppose he was afraid to deliver that lecture."
Pierson's face wore the smile which always came on it when he had to deal with George, the smile which said: "Ah, George, that's very clever; but I know."
"My dear," he said, "that doctrine is the most dangerous in the world. I am surprised at George."
"I don't think George is in danger, Dad."
"George is a man of wide experience and strong judgment and character; but think how fatal it would be for Nollie, my poor Nollie, whom a little gust can blow into the candle."
"All the same," said Gratian stubbornly, "I don't think anyone can be good or worth anything unless they judge for themselves and take risks."
Pierson went close to her; his face was quivering.
"Don't let us differ on this last night; I must go up to Nollie for a minute, and then to bed. I shan't see you to-morrow; you mustn't get up; I can bear parting better like this. And my train goes at eight. God bless you, Gracie; give George my love. I know, I have always known that he's a good man, though we do fight so. Good-bye, my darling."
He went out with his cheeks wet from Gratian's tears, and stood in the porch a minute to recover his composure. The shadow of the house stretched velvet and blunt over the rock-garden. A night-jar was spinning; the churring sound affected him oddly. The last English night-bird he would hear. England! What a night-to say good-bye! 'My country!' he thought; 'my beautiful country!' The dew was lying thick and silvery already on the little patch of grass-the last dew, the last scent of an English night. The call of a bugle floated out. "England!" he prayed; "God be about you!" A little sound answered from across the grass, like an old man's cough, and the scrape and rattle of a chain. A face emerged at the edge of the house's shadow; bearded and horned like that of Pan, it seemed to stare at him. And he saw the dim grey form of the garden goat, heard it scuttle round the stake to which it was tethered, as though alarmed at this visitor to its' domain.
He went up the half-flight of stairs to Noel's narrow little room, next the nursery. No voice answered his tap. It was dark, but he could see her at the window, leaning far out, with her chin on her hands.
She answered without turning: "Such a lovely night, Daddy. Come and look! I'd like to set the goat free, only he'd eat the rock plants. But it is his night, isn't it? He ought to be running and skipping in it: it's such a shame to tie things up. Did you never, feel wild in your heart, Daddy?"
"Always, I think, Nollie; too wild. It's been hard to tame oneself."
Noel slipped her hand through his arm. "Let's go and take the goat and skip together on the hills. If only we had a penny whistle! Did you hear the bugle? The bugle and the goat!"
Pierson pressed the hand against him.
"Nollie, be good while I'm away. You know what I don't want. I told you in my letter." He looked at her cheek, and dared say no more. Her face had its "fey" look again.
"Don't you feel," she said suddenly, "on a night like this, all the things, all the things--the stars have lives, Daddy, and the moon has a big life, and the shadows have, and the moths and the birds and the goats and the trees, and the flowers, and all of us--escaped? Oh! Daddy, why is there a war? And why are people so bound and so unhappy? Don't tell me it's God--don't!"
Pierson could not answer, for there came into his mind the Greek song he had been reading aloud that afternoon--
"O for a deep and dewy Spring, With runlets cold to draw and drink, And a great meadow blossoming, Long-grassed, and poplars in a ring, To rest me by the brink. O take me to the mountain, O, Past the great pines and through the wood, Up where the lean hounds softly go, A-whine for wild things' blood, And madly flies the dappled roe, O God, to shout and speed them there; An arrow by my chestnut hair Drawn tight and one keen glimmering spear Ah! if I could!"
All that in life had been to him unknown, of venture and wild savour; all the emotion he had stifled; the swift Pan he had denied; the sharp fruits, the burning suns, the dark pools, the unearthly moonlight, which were not of God--all came with the breath of that old song, and the look on the girl's face. And he covered his eyes.
Noel's hand tugged at his arm. "Isn't beauty terribly alive," she murmured, "like a lovely person? it makes you ache to kiss it."
His lips felt parched. "There is a beauty beyond all that," he said stubbornly.
"Holiness, duty, faith. O Nollie, my love!" But Noel's hand tightened on his arm.
"Shall I tell you what I should like?" she whispered. "To take God's hand and show Him things. I'm certain He's not seen everything."
A shudder went through Pierson, one of those queer sudden shivers, which come from a strange note in a voice, or a new sharp scent or sight.
"My dear, what things you say!"
"But He hasn't, and it's time He did. We'd creep, and peep, and see it all for once, as He can't in His churches. Daddy, oh! Daddy! I can't bear it any more; to think of them being killed on a night like this; killed and killed so that they never see it all again--never see it--never see it!" She sank down, and covered her face with her arms.
"I can't, I can't! Oh! take it all away, the cruelty! Why does it come--why the stars and the flowers, if God doesn't care any more than that?"
Horribly affected he stood bending over her, stroking her head. Then the habit of a hundred death-beds helped him. "Come, Nollie! This life is but a minute. We must all die."
"But not they--not so young!" She clung to his knees, and looked up. "Daddy, I don't want you to go; promise me to come back!"
The childishness of those words brought back his balance.
"My dear sweetheart, of course! Come, Nollie, get up. The sun's been too much for you."
Noel got up, and put her hands on her father's shoulders. "Forgive me for all my badness, and all my badness to come, especially all my badness to come!"
Pierson smiled. "I shall always forgive you, Nollie; but there won't be--there mustn't be any badness to come. I pray God to keep you, and make you like your mother."
"Mother never had a devil, like you and me."
He was silent from surprise. How did this child know the devil of wild feeling he had fought against year after year; until with the many years he had felt it weakening within him! She whispered on: "I don't hate my devil.
"Why should I?--it's part of me. Every day when the sun sets, I'll think of you, Daddy; and you might do the same--that'll keep me good. I shan't come to the station tomorrow, I should only cry. And I shan't say good-bye now. It's unlucky."
She flung her arms round him; and half smothered by that fervent embrace, he kissed her cheeks and hair. Freed of each other at last, he stood for a moment looking at her by the moonlight.
"There never was anyone more loving than you; Nollie!" he said quietly. "Remember my letter. And good night, my love!" Then, afraid to stay another second, he went quickly out of the dark little room....
George Laird, returning half an hour later, heard a voice saying softly: "George, George!"
Looking up, he saw a little white blur at the window, and Noel's face just visible.
"George, let the goat loose, just for to-night, to please me."
Something in that voice, and in the gesture of her stretched-out arm moved George in a queer way, although, as Pierson had once said, he had no music in his soul. He loosed the goat.
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