But on the same afternoon, just about that hour, Noel was sitting on the river-bank with her arms folded tight across her chest, and by her side Cyril Morland, with despair in his face, was twisting a telegram "Rejoin tonight. Regiment leaves to-morrow."
What consolation that a million such telegrams had been read and sorrowed over these last two years! What comfort that the sun was daily blotted dim for hundreds of bright eyes; the joy of life poured out and sopped up by the sands of desolation!
"How long have we got, Cyril?"
"I've engaged a car from the Inn, so I needn't leave till midnight. I've packed already, to have more time."
"Let's have it to ourselves, then. Let's go off somewhere. I've got some chocolate."
Morland answered miserably:
"I can send the car up here for my things, and have it pick me up at the Inn, if you'll say goodbye to them for me, afterwards. We'll walk down the line, then we shan't meet anyone."
And in the bright sunlight they walked hand in hand on each side of a shining rail. About six they reached the Abbey.
"Let's get a boat," said Noel. "We can come back here when it's moonlight. I know a way of getting in, after the gate's shut."
They hired a boat, rowed over to the far bank, and sat on the stern seat, side by side under the trees where the water was stained deep green by the high woods. If they talked, it was but a word of love now and then, or to draw each other's attention to a fish, a bird, a dragon-fly. What use making plans--for lovers the chief theme? Longing paralysed their brains. They could do nothing but press close to each other, their hands enlaced, their lips meeting now and then. On Noel's face was a strange fixed stillness, as if she were waiting--expecting! They ate their chocolates. The sun set, dew began to fall; the river changed, and grew whiter; the sky paled to the colour of an amethyst; shadows lengthened, dissolved slowly. It was past nine already; a water-rat came out, a white owl flew over the river, towards the Abbey. The moon had come up, but shed no light as yet. They saw no beauty in all this--too young, too passionate, too unhappy.
Noel said: "When she's over those trees, Cyril, let's go. It'll be half dark."
They waited, watching the moon, which crept with infinite slowness up and up, brightening ever so little every minute.
"Now!" said Noel. And Morland rowed across.
They left the boat, and she led the way past an empty cottage, to a shed with a roof sloping up to the Abbey's low outer wall.
"We can get over here," she whispered.
They clambered up, and over, to a piece of grassy courtyard, and passed on to an inner court, under the black shadow of the high walls.
"What's the time?" said Noel.
"Already! Let's sit here in the dark, and watch for the moon."
They sat down close together. Noel's face still had on it that strange look of waiting; and Morland sat obedient, with his hand on her heart, and his own heart beating almost to suffocation. They sat, still as mice, and the moon crept up. It laid a first vague greyness on the high wall, which spread slowly down, and brightened till the lichen and the grasses up there were visible; then crept on, silvering the dark above their heads. Noel pulled his sleeve, and whispered: "See!" There came the white owl, soft as a snowflake, drifting across in that unearthly light, as if flying to the moon. And just then the top of the moon itself looked over the wall, a shaving of silvery gold. It grew, became a bright spread fan, then balanced there, full and round, the colour of pale honey.
"Ours!" Noel whispered.
From the side of the road Noel listened till the sound of the car was lost in the folds of the valley. She did not cry, but passed her hands over her face, and began to walk home, keeping to the shadow of the trees. How many years had been added to her age in those six hours since the telegram came! Several times in that mile and a half she stepped into a patch of brighter moonlight, to take out and kiss a little photograph, then slip it back next her heart, heedless that so warm a place must destroy any effigy. She felt not the faintest compunction for the recklessness of her love--it was her only comfort against the crushing loneliness of the night. It kept her up, made her walk on with a sort of pride, as if she had got the best of Fate. He was hers for ever now, in spite of anything that could be done. She did not even think what she would say when she got in. She came to the avenue, and passed up it still in a sort of dream. Her uncle was standing before the porch; she could hear his mutterings. She moved out of the shadow of the trees, went straight up to him, and, looking in his perturbed face, said calmly:
"Cyril asked me to say good-bye to you all, Uncle. Good night!"
"But, I say, Nollie look here you!"
She had passed on. She went up to her room. There, by the door, her aunt was standing, and would have kissed her. She drew back:
"No, Auntie. Not to-night!" And, slipping by, she locked her door.
Bob and Thirza Pierson, meeting in their own room, looked at each other askance. Relief at their niece's safe return was confused by other emotions. Bob Pierson expressed his first:
"Phew! I was beginning to think we should w have to drag the river. What girls are coming to!"
"It's the war, Bob."
"I didn't like her face, old girl. I don't know what it was, but I didn't like her face."
Neither did Thirza, but she would not admit it, and encourage Bob to take it to heart. He took things so hardly, and with such a noise!
She only said: "Poor young things! I suppose it will be a relief to Edward!"
"I love Nollie!" said Bob Pierson suddenly. "She's an affectionate creature. D-nit, I'm sorry about this. It's not so bad for young Morland; he's got the excitement--though I shouldn't like to be leaving Nollie, if I were young again. Thank God, neither of our boys is engaged. By George! when I think of them out there, and myself here, I feel as if the top of my head would come off. And those politician chaps spouting away in every country--how they can have the cheek!"
Thirza looked at him anxiously.
"And no dinner!" he said suddenly. "What d'you think they've been doing with themselves?"
"Holding each other's hands, poor dears! D'you know what time it is, Bob? Nearly one o'clock."
"Well, all I can say is, I've had a wretched evening. Get to bed, old girl. You'll be fit for nothing."
He was soon asleep, but Thirza lay awake, not exactly worrying, for that was not her nature, but seeing Noel's face, pale, languid, passionate, possessed by memory.
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