In the weeks which succeeded Pierson's departure, Gratian and George often discussed Noel's conduct and position by the light of the Pragmatic theory. George held a suitably scientific view. Just as he would point out to his wife--in the physical world, creatures who diverged from the normal had to justify their divergence in competition with their environments, or else go under, so in the ethical world it was all a question of whether Nollie could make good her vagary. If she could, and grew in strength of character thereby, it was ipso facto all right, her vagary would be proved an advantage, and the world enriched. If not, the world by her failure to make good would be impoverished, and her vagary proved wrong. The orthodox and academies--he insisted--were always forgetting the adaptability of living organisms; how every action which was out of the ordinary, unconsciously modified all the other actions together with the outlook, and philosophy of the doer. "Of course Nollie was crazy," he said, "but when she did what she did, she at once began to think differently about life and morals. The deepest instinct we all have is the instinct that we must do what we must, and think that what we've done is really all right; in fact the--instinct of self-preservation. We're all fighting animals; and we feel in our bones that if we admit we're beaten--we are beaten; but that every fight we win, especially against odds, hardens those bones. But personally I don't think she can make good on her own."
Gratian, whose Pragmatism was not yet fully baked, responded doubtfully:
"No, I don't think she can. And if she could I'm not sure. But isn't Pragmatism a perfectly beastly word, George? It has no sense of humour in it at all."
"It is a bit thick, and in the hands of the young, deuced likely to become Prigmatism; but not with Nollie."
They watched the victim of their discussions with real anxiety. The knowledge that she would never be more sheltered than she was with them, at all events until she married, gravely impeded the formation of any judgment as to whether or no she could make good. Now and again there would come to Gratian who after all knew her sister better than George--the disquieting thought that whatever conclusion Noel led them to form, she would almost certainly force them to abandon sooner or later.
Three days after her father's departure Noel had declared that she wanted to work on the land. This George had promptly vetoed.
"You aren't strong enough yet, my dear: Wait till the harvest begins. Then you can go and help on the farm here. If you can stand that without damage, we'll think about it."
But the weather was wet and harvest late, and Noel had nothing much to do but attend to her baby, already well attended to by Nurse, and dream and brood, and now and then cook an omelette or do some housework for the sake of a gnawing conscience. Since Gratian and George were away in hospital all day, she was very much alone. Several times in the evenings Gratian tried to come at the core of her thoughts, Twice she flew the kite of Leila. The first time Noel only answered: "Yes, she's a brick." The second time, she said: "I don't want to think about her."
But, hardening her heart, Gratian went on: "Don't you think it's queer we've never heard from Captain Fort since he came down?"
In her calmest voice Noel answered: "Why should we, after being told that he wasn't liked?"
"Who told him that?"
"I told him, that Daddy didn't; but I expect Daddy said much worse things." She gave a little laugh, then softly added: "Daddy's wonderful, isn't he?"
"The way he drives one to do the other thing. If he hadn't opposed my marriage to Cyril, you know, that wouldn't have happened, it just made all the difference. It stirred me up so fearfully." Gratian stared at her, astonished that she could see herself so clearly. Towards the end of August she had a letter from Fort.
"DEAR MRS. LAIRD,
"You know all about things, of course, except the one thing which to me is all important. I can't go on without knowing whether I have a chance with your sister. It is against your father's expressed wish that she should have anything to do with me, but I told him that I could not and would not promise not to ask her. I get my holiday at the end of this month, and am coming down to put it to the touch. It means more to me than you can possibly imagine.
"I am, dear Mrs. Laird,
"Your very faithful servant,
She discussed the letter with George, whose advice was: "Answer it politely, but say nothing; and nothing to Nollie. I think it would be a very good thing. Of course it's a bit of a make-shift--twice her age; but he's a genuine man, if not exactly brilliant."
Gratian answered almost sullenly: "I've always wanted the very best for Nollie."
George screwed up his steel-coloured eyes, as he might have looked at one on whom he had to operate. "Quite so," he said. "But you must remember, Gracie, that out of the swan she was, Nollie has made herself into a lame duck. Fifty per cent at least is off her value, socially. We must look at things as they are."
"Father is dead against it."
George smiled, on the point of saying: 'That makes me feel it must be a good thing!' But he subdued the impulse.
"I agree that we're bound by his absence not to further it actively. Still Nollie knows his wishes, and it's up to her and no one else. After all, she's no longer a child."
His advice was followed. But to write that polite letter, which said nothing, cost Gratian a sleepless night, and two or three hours' penmanship. She was very conscientious. Knowledge of this impending visit increased the anxiety with which she watched her sister, but the only inkling she obtained of Noel's state of mind was when the girl showed her a letter she had received from Thirza, asking her to come back to Kestrel. A postscript, in Uncle Bob's handwriting, added these words:
"We're getting quite fossilised down here; Eve's gone and left us again. We miss you and the youngster awfully. Come along down, Nollie there's a dear!"
"They're darlings," Noel said, "but I shan't go. I'm too restless, ever since Daddy went; you don't know how restless. This rain simply makes me want to die."
The weather improved next day, and at the end of that week harvest began. By what seemed to Noel a stroke of luck the farmer's binder was broken; he could not get it repaired, and wanted all the human binders he could get. That first day in the fields blistered her hands, burnt her face and neck, made every nerve and bone in her body ache; but was the happiest day she had spent for weeks, the happiest perhaps since Cyril Morland left her, over a year ago. She had a bath and went to bed the moment she got in.
Lying there nibbling chocolate and smoking a cigarette, she luxuriated in the weariness which had stilled her dreadful restlessness. Watching the smoke of her cigarette curl up against the sunset glow which filled her window, she mused: If only she could be tired out like this every day! She would be all right then, would lose the feeling of not knowing what she wanted, of being in a sort o of large box, with the lid slammed down, roaming round it like a dazed and homesick bee in an overturned tumbler; the feeling of being only half alive, of having a wing maimed so that she could only fly a little way, and must then drop.
She slept like a top that night. But the next day's work was real torture, and the third not much better. By the end of the week, however, she was no longer stiff.
Saturday was cloudless; a perfect day. The field she was working in lay on a slope. It was the last field to be cut, and the best wheat yet, with a glorious burnt shade in its gold and the ears blunt and full. She had got used now to the feel of the great sheaves in her arms, and the binding wisps drawn through her hand till she held them level, below the ears, ready for the twist. There was no new sensation in it now; just steady, rather dreamy work, to keep her place in the row, to the swish-swish of the cutter and the call of the driver to his horses at the turns; with continual little pauses, to straighten and rest her back a moment, and shake her head free from the flies, or suck her finger, sore from the constant pushing of the straw ends under. So the hours went on, rather hot and wearisome, yet with a feeling of something good being done, of a job getting surely to its end. And gradually the centre patch narrowed, and the sun slowly slanted down.
When they stopped for tea, instead of running home as usual, she drank it cold out of a flask she had brought, ate a bun and some chocolate, and lay down on her back against the hedge. She always avoided that group of her fellow workers round the tea-cans which the farmer's wife brought out. To avoid people, if she could, had become habitual to her now. They must know about her, or would soon if she gave them the chance. She had never lost consciousness of her ring-finger, expecting every eye to fall on it as a matter of course. Lying on her face, she puffed her cigarette into the grass, and watched a beetle, till one of the sheep-dogs, scouting for scraps, came up, and she fed him with her second bun. Having finished the bun, he tried to eat the beetle, and, when she rescued it, convinced that she had nothing more to give him, sneezed at her, and went away. Pressing the end of her cigarette out against the bank, she turned over. Already the driver was perched on his tiny seat, and his companion, whose business it was to free the falling corn, was getting up alongside. Swish-swish! It had begun again. She rose, stretched herself, and went back to her place in the row. The field would be finished to-night; she would have a lovely rest-all Sunday I Towards seven o'clock a narrow strip, not twenty yards broad, alone was left. This last half hour was what Noel dreaded. To-day it was worse, for the farmer had no cartridges left, and the rabbits were dealt with by hullabaloo and sticks and chasing dogs. Rabbits were vermin, of course, and ate the crops, and must be killed; besides, they were good food, and fetched two shillings apiece; all this she knew but to see the poor frightened things stealing out, pounced on, turned, shouted at, chased, rolled over by great swift dogs, fallen on by the boys and killed and carried with their limp grey bodies upside down, so dead and soft and helpless, always made her feel quite sick. She stood very still, trying not to see or hear, and in the corn opposite to her a rabbit stole along, crouched, and peeped. 'Oh!' she thought, 'come out here, bunny. I'll let you away--can't you see I will? It's your only chance. Come out!' But the rabbit crouched, and gazed, with its little cowed head poked forward, and its ears laid flat; it seemed trying to understand whether this still thing in front of it was the same as those others. With the thought, 'Of course it won't while I look at it,' Noel turned her head away. Out of the corner of her eye she could see a man standing a few yards off. The rabbit bolted out. Now the man would shout and turn it. But he did not, and the rabbit scuttled past him and away to the hedge. She heard a shout from the end of the row, saw a dog galloping. Too late! Hurrah! And clasping her hands, she looked at the man. It was Fort! With the queerest feeling--amazement, pleasure, the thrill of conspiracy, she saw him coming up to her.
"I did want that rabbit to get off," she sighed out; "I've been watching it. Thank you!"
He looked at her. "My goodness!" was all he said.
Noel's hands flew up to her cheeks. "Yes, I know; is my nose very red?"
"No; you're as lovely as Ruth, if she was lovely."
Swish-swish! The cutter came by; Noel started forward to her place in the row; but catching her arm, he said: "No, let me do this little bit. I haven't had a day in the fields since the war began. Talk to me while I'm binding."
She stood watching him. He made a different, stronger twist from hers, and took larger sheaves, so that she felt a sort of jealousy.
"I didn't know you knew about this sort of thing."
"Oh, Lord, yes! I had a farm once out West. Nothing like field-work, to make you feel good. I've been watching you; you bind jolly well."
Noel gave a sigh of pleasure.
"Where have you come from?" she asked.
"Straight from the station. I'm on my holiday." He looked up at her, and they both fell silent.
Swish-swish! The cutter was coming again. Noel went to the beginning of her portion of the falling corn, he to the end of it. They worked towards each other, and met before the cutter was on them a third time.
"Will you come in to supper?"
"I'd love to."
"Then let's go now, please. I don't want to see any more rabbits killed."
They spoke very little on the way to the bungalow, but she felt his eyes on her all the time. She left him with George and Gratian who had just come in, and went up for her bath.
Supper had been laid out in the verandah, and it was nearly dark before they had finished. In rhyme with the failing of the light Noel became more and more silent. When they went in, she ran up to her baby. She did not go down again, but as on the night before her father went away, stood at her window, leaning out. A dark night, no moon; in the starlight she could only just see the dim garden, where no goat was grazing. Now that her first excitement had worn off, this sudden reappearance of Fort filled her with nervous melancholy: She knew perfectly well what he had come for, she had always known. She had no certain knowledge of her own mind; but she knew that all these weeks she had been between his influence and her father's, listening to them, as it were, pleading with her. And, curiously, the pleading of each, instead of drawing her towards the pleader, had seemed dragging her away from him, driving her into the arms of the other. To the protection of one or the other she felt she must go; and it humiliated her to think that in all the world there was no other place for her. The wildness of that one night in the old Abbey seemed to have power to govern all her life to come. Why should that one night, that one act, have this uncanny power to drive her this way or that, to those arms or these? Must she, because of it, always need protection? Standing there in the dark it was almost as if they had come up behind her, with their pleadings; and a shiver ran down her back. She longed to turn on them, and cry out: "Go away; oh; go away! I don't want either of you; I just want to be left alone!" Then something, a moth perhaps, touched her neck. She gasped and shook herself. How silly!
She heard the back door round the corner of the house opening; a man's low voice down in the dark said:
"Who's the young lady that comes out in the fields?"
Another voice--one of the maids--answered:
"The Missis's sister."
"They say she's got a baby."
"Never you mind what she's got."
Noel heard the man's laugh. It seemed to her the most odious laugh she had ever heard. She thought swiftly and absurdly: 'I'll get away from all this.' The window was only a few feet up. She got out on to the ledge, let herself down, and dropped. There was a flower-bed below, quite soft, with a scent of geranium-leaves and earth. She brushed herself, and went tiptoeing across the gravel and the little front lawn, to the gate. The house was quite dark, quite silent. She walked on, down the road. 'Jolly!' she thought. 'Night after night we sleep, and never see the nights: sleep until we're called, and never see anything. If they want to catch me they'll have to run.' And she began running down the road in her evening frock and shoes, with nothing on her head. She stopped after going perhaps three hundred yards, by the edge of the wood. It was splendidly dark in there, and she groped her way from trunk to trunk, with a delicious, half-scared sense of adventure and novelty. She stopped at last by a thin trunk whose bark glimmered faintly. She felt it with her cheek, quite smooth--a birch tree; and, with her arms round it, she stood perfectly still. Wonderfully, magically silent, fresh and sweet-scented and dark! The little tree trembled suddenly within her arms, and she heard the low distant rumble, to which she had grown so accustomed--the guns, always at work, killing--killing men and killing trees, little trees perhaps like this within her arms, little trembling trees! Out there, in this dark night, there would not be a single unscarred tree like this smooth quivering thing, no fields of corn, not even a bush or a blade of grass, no leaves to rustle and smell sweet, not a bird, no little soft-footed night beasts, except the rats; and she shuddered, thinking of the Belgian soldier-painter. Holding the tree tight, she squeezed its smooth body against her. A rush of the same helpless, hopeless revolt and sorrow overtook her, which had wrung from her that passionate little outburst to her father, the night before he went away. Killed, torn, and bruised; burned, and killed, like Cyril! All the young things, like this little tree.
Rumble! Rumble! Quiver! Quiver! And all else so still, so sweet and still, and starry, up there through the leaves.... 'I can't bear it!' she thought. She pressed her lips, which the sun had warmed all day, against the satiny smooth bark. But the little tree stood within her arms insentient, quivering only to the long rumbles. With each of those dull mutterings, life and love were going out, like the flames of candles on a Christmas-tree, blown, one by one. To her eyes, accustomed by now to the darkness in there, the wood seemed slowly to be gathering a sort of life, as though it were a great thing watching her; a great thing with hundreds of limbs and eyes, and the power of breathing. The little tree, which had seemed so individual and friendly, ceased to be a comfort and became a part of the whole living wood, absorbed in itself, and coldly watching her, this intruder of the mischievous breed, the fatal breed which loosed those rumblings on the earth. Noel unlocked her arms, and recoiled. A bough scraped her neck, some leaves flew against her eyes; she stepped aside, tripped over a root, and fell. A bough had hit her too, and she lay a little dazed, quivering at such dark unfriendliness. She held her hands up to her face for the mere pleasure of seeing something a little less dark; it was childish, and absurd, but she was frightened. The wood seemed to have so many eyes, so many arms, and all unfriendly; it seemed waiting to give her other blows, other falls, and to guard her within its darkness until--! She got up, moved a few steps, and stood still, she had forgotten from where she had come in. And afraid of moving deeper into the unfriendly wood, she turned slowly round, trying to tell which way to go. It was all just one dark watching thing, of limbs on the ground and in the air. 'Any way,' she thought; 'any way of course will take me out!' And she groped forward, keeping her hands up to guard her face. It was silly, but she could not help the sinking, scattered feeling which comes to one bushed, or lost in a fog. If the wood had not been so dark, so,--alive! And for a second she had the senseless, terrifying thought of a child: 'What if I never get out!' Then she laughed at it, and stood still again, listening. There was no sound to guide her, no sound at all except that faint dull rumble, which seemed to come from every side, now. And the trees watched her. 'Ugh!' she thought; 'I hate this wood!' She saw it now, its snaky branches, its darkness, and great forms, as an abode of giants and witches. She groped and scrambled on again, tripped once more, and fell, hitting her forehead against a trunk. The blow dazed and sobered her. 'It's idiotic,' she thought; 'I'm a baby! I'll Just walk very slowly till I reach the edge. I know it isn't a large wood!' She turned deliberately to face each direction; solemnly selected that from which the muttering of the guns seemed to come, and started again, moving very slowly with her hands stretched out. Something rustled in the undergrowth, quite close; she saw a pair of green eyes shining. Her heart jumped into her mouth. The thing sprang--there was a swish of ferns and twigs, and silence. Noel clasped her breast. A poaching cat! And again she moved forward. But she had lost direction. 'I'm going round and round,' she thought. 'They always do.' And the sinking scattered feeling of the "bushed" clutched at her again. 'Shall I call?' she thought. 'I must be near the road. But it's so babyish.' She moved on again. Her foot struck something soft. A voice muttered a thick oath; a hand seized her ankle. She leaped, and dragged and wrenched it free; and, utterly unnerved, she screamed, and ran forward blindly.
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