Noel reached her father's house next day late in the afternoon. There was a letter in the hall for her. She tore it open, and read:
"MY DARLING LOVE,
"I got back all right, and am posting this at once to tell you we shall pass through London, and go from Charing Cross, I expect about nine o'clock to-night. I shall look out for you, there, in case you are up in time. Every minute I think of you, and of last night. Oh! Noel!
"Your devoted lover,
She looked at the wrist-watch which, like every other little patriot, she possessed. Past seven! If she waited, Gratian or her father would seize on her.
"Take my things up, Dinah. I've got a headache from travelling; I'm going to walk it off. Perhaps I shan't be in till past nine or so. Give my love to them all."
"Oh, Miss Noel, you can't,--"
But Noel was gone. She walked towards Charing Cross; and, to kill time, went into a restaurant and had that simple repast, coffee and a bun, which those in love would always take if Society did not forcibly feed them on other things. Food was ridiculous to her. She sat there in the midst of a perfect hive of creatures eating hideously. The place was shaped like a modern prison, having tiers of gallery round an open space, and in the air was the smell of viands and the clatter of plates and the music of a band. Men in khaki everywhere, and Noel glanced from form to form to see if by chance one might be that which represented, for her, Life and the British Army. At half-past eight she went out and made her way: through the crowd, still mechanically searching "khaki" for what she wanted; and it was perhaps fortunate that there was about her face and walk something which touched people. At the station she went up to an old porter, and, putting a shilling into his astonished hand, asked him to find out for her whence Morland's regiment would start. He came back presently, and said:
"Come with me, miss."
Noel went. He was rather lame, had grey whiskers, and a ghostly thin resemblance to her uncle Bob, which perhaps had been the reason why she had chosen him. 64
"Brother goin' out, miss?"
"Ah! It's a crool war. I shan't be sorry when it's over. Goin' out and comin' in, we see some sad sights 'ere. Wonderful spirit they've got, too. I never look at the clock now but what I think: 'There you go, slow-coach! I'd like to set you on to the day the boys come back!' When I puts a bag in: 'Another for 'ell' I thinks. And so it is, miss, from all I can 'ear. I've got a son out there meself. It's 'ere they'll come along. You stand quiet and keep a lookout, and you'll get a few minutes with him when he's done with 'is men. I wouldn't move, if I were you; he'll come to you, all right--can't miss you, there.' And, looking at her face, he thought: 'Astonishin' what a lot o' brothers go. Wot oh! Poor little missy! A little lady, too. Wonderful collected she is. It's 'ard!'" And trying to find something consoling to say, he mumbled out: "You couldn't be in a better place for seen'im off. Good night, miss; anything else I can do for you?"
"No, thank you; you're very kind."
He looked back once or twice at her blue-clad figure standing very still. He had left her against a little oasis of piled-up empty milk-cans, far down the platform where a few civilians in similar case were scattered. The trainway was empty as yet. In the grey immensity of the station and the turmoil of its noise, she felt neither lonely nor conscious of others waiting; too absorbed in the one thought of seeing him and touching him again. The empty train began backing in, stopped, and telescoped with a series of little clattering bangs, backed on again, and subsided to rest. Noel turned her eyes towards the station arch ways. Already she felt tremulous, as though the regiment were sending before it the vibration of its march.
She had not as yet seen a troop-train start, and vague images of brave array, of a flag fluttering, and the stir of drums, beset her. Suddenly she saw a brown swirling mass down there at the very edge, out of which a thin brown trickle emerged towards her; no sound of music, no waved flag. She had a longing to rush down to the barrier, but remembering the words of the porter, stayed where she was, with her hands tightly squeezed together. The trickle became a stream, a flood, the head of which began to reach her. With a turbulence of voices, sunburnt men, burdened up to the nose, passed, with rifles jutting at all angles; she strained her eyes, staring into that stream as one might into a walking wood, to isolate a single tree. Her head reeled with the strain of it, and the effort to catch his voice among the hubbub of all those cheery, common, happy-go-lucky sounds. Some who saw her clucked their tongues, some went by silent, others seemed to scan her as though she might be what they were looking for. And ever the stream and the hubbub melted into the train, and yet came pouring on. And still she waited motionless, with an awful fear. How could he ever find her, or she him? Then she saw that others of those waiting had found their men. And the longing to rush up and down the platform almost overcame her; but still she waited. And suddenly she saw him with two other officer boys, close to the carriages, coming slowly down towards her. She stood with her eyes fixed on his face; they passed, and she nearly cried out. Then he turned, broke away from the other two, and came straight to her. He had seen her before she had seen him. He was very flushed, had a little fixed frown between his blue eyes and a set jaw. They stood looking at each other, their hands hard gripped; all the emotion of last night welling up within them, so that to speak would have been to break down. The milk-cans formed a kind of shelter, and they stood so close together that none could see their faces. Noel was the first to master her power of speech; her words came out, dainty as ever, through trembling lips:
"Write to me as much as ever you can, Cyril. I'm going to be a nurse at once. And the first leave you get, I shall come to you--don't forget."
"Forget! Move a little back, darling; they can't see us here. Kiss me!" She moved back, thrust her face forward so that he need not stoop, and put her lips up to his. Then, feeling that she might swoon and fall over among the cans, she withdrew her mouth, leaving her forehead against his lips. He murmured:
"Was it all right when you got in last night?"
"Yes; I said good-bye for you."
"Oh! Noel--I've been afraid--I oughtn't--I oughtn't--"
"Yes, yes; nothing can take you from me now."
"You have got pluck. More than!"
Along whistle sounded. Morland grasped her hands convulsively:
"Good-bye, my little wife! Don't fret. Goodbye! I must go. God bless you, Noel!"
"I love you."
They looked at each other, just another moment, then she took her hands from his and stood back in the shadow of the milk-cans, rigid, following him with her eyes till he was lost in the train.
Every carriage window was full of those brown figures and red-brown faces, hands were waving vaguely, voices calling vaguely, here and there one cheered; someone leaning far out started to sing: "If auld acquaintance--" But Noel stood quite still in the shadow of the milk-cans, her lips drawn in, her hands hard clenched in front of her; and young Morland at his window gazed back at her.
How she came to be sitting in Trafalgar Square she did not know. Tears had formed a mist between her and all that seething, summer-evening crowd. Her eyes mechanically followed the wandering search-lights, those new milky ways, quartering the heavens and leading nowhere. All was wonderfully beautiful, the sky a deep dark blue, the moonlight whitening the spire of St. Martin's, and everywhere endowing the great blacked-out buildings with dream-life. Even the lions had come to life, and stared out over this moonlit desert of little human figures too small to be worth the stretching out of a paw. She sat there, aching dreadfully, as if the longing of every bereaved heart in all the town had settled in her. She felt it tonight a thousand times worse; for last night she had been drugged on the new sensation of love triumphantly fulfilled. Now she felt as if life had placed her in the corner of a huge silent room, blown out the flame of joy, and locked the door. A little dry sob came from her. The hay-fields and Cyril, with shirt unbuttoned at the neck, pitching hay and gazing at her while she dabbled her fork in the thin leavings. The bright river, and their boat grounded on the shallows, and the swallows flitting over them. And that long dance, with the feel of his hand between her shoulder-blades! Memories so sweet and sharp that she almost cried out. She saw again their dark grassy courtyard in the Abbey, and the white owl flying over them. The white owl! Flying there again to-night, with no lovers on the grass below! She could only picture Cyril now as a brown atom in that swirling brown flood of men, flowing to a huge brown sea. Those cruel minutes on the platform, when she had searched and searched the walking wood for her, one tree, seemed to have burned themselves into her eyes. Cyril was lost, she could not single him out, all blurred among those thousand other shapes. And suddenly she thought: 'And I--I'm lost to him; he's never seen me at home, never seen me in London; he won't be able to imagine me. It's all in the past, only the past--for both of us. Is there anybody so unhappy?' And the town's voices-wheels, and passing feet, whistles, talk, laughter--seemed to answer callously: 'Not one.' She looked at her wrist-watch; like his, it had luminous hands: 'Half-past ten' was greenishly imprinted there. She got up in dismay. They would think she was lost, or run over, or something silly! She could not find an empty taxi, and began to walk, uncertain of her way at night. At last she stopped a policeman, and said:
"Which is the way towards Bloomsbury, please? I can't find a taxi." The man looked at her, and took time to think it over; then he said:
"They're linin' up for the theatres," and looked at her again. Something seemed to move in his mechanism:
"I'm goin' that way, miss. If you like, you can step along with me." Noel stepped along.
"The streets aren't what they ought to be," the policeman said. "What with the darkness, and the war turning the girls heads--you'd be surprised the number of them that comes out. It's the soldiers, of course."
Noel felt her cheeks burning.
"I daresay you wouldn't have noticed it," the policeman went on: "but this war's a funny thing. The streets are gayer and more crowded at night than I've ever seen them; it's a fair picnic all the time. What we're goin' to settle down to when peace comes, I don't know. I suppose you find it quiet enough up your way, miss?"
"Yes," said Noel; "quite quiet."
"No soldiers up in Bloomsbury. You got anyone in the Army, miss?"
"Ah! It's anxious times for ladies. What with the Zeps, and their brothers and all in France, it's 'arassin'. I've lost a brother meself, and I've got a boy out there in the Garden of Eden; his mother carries on dreadful about him. What we shall think of it when it's all over, I can't tell. These Huns are a wicked tough lot!"
Noel looked at him; a tall man, regular and orderly, with one of those perfectly decent faces so often seen in the London police.
"I'm sorry you've lost someone," she said. "I haven't lost anyone very near, yet."
"Well, let's 'ope you won't, miss. These times make you feel for others, an' that's something. I've noticed a great change in folks you'd never think would feel for anyone. And yet I've seen some wicked things too; we do, in the police. Some of these English wives of aliens, and 'armless little German bakers, an' Austrians, and what-not: they get a crool time. It's their misfortune, not their fault, that's what I think; and the way they get served--well, it makes you ashamed o' bein' English sometimes--it does straight: And the women are the worst. I said to my wife only last night, I said: 'They call themselves Christians,' I said, 'but for all the charity that's in 'em they might as well be Huns.' She couldn't see it-not she!' Well, why do they drop bombs?' she says. 'What!' I said, 'those English wives and bakers drop bombs? Don't be silly,' I said. 'They're as innocent as we.' It's the innocent that gets punished for the guilty. 'But they're all spies,' she says. 'Oh!' I said, 'old lady! Now really! At your time of life!' But there it is; you can't get a woman to see reason. It's readin' the papers. I often think they must be written by women--beggin' your pardon, miss--but reely, the 'ysterics and the 'atred--they're a fair knockout. D'you find much hatred in your household, miss?"
Noel shook her head. "No; my father's a clergyman, you see."
"Ah!" said the policeman. And in the glance he bestowed on her could be seen an added respect.
"Of course," he went on, "you're bound to have a sense of justice against these Huns; some of their ways of goin' on have been above the limit. But what I always think is--of course I don't say these things--no use to make yourself unpopular--but to meself I often think: Take 'em man for man, and you'd find 'em much the same as we are, I daresay. It's the vicious way they're brought up, of actin' in the mass, that's made 'em such a crool lot. I see a good bit of crowds in my profession, and I've a very low opinion of them. Crowds are the most blunderin' blighted things that ever was. They're like an angry woman with a bandage over her eyes, an' you can't have anything more dangerous than that. These Germans, it seems, are always in a crowd. They get a state o' mind read out to them by Bill Kaser and all that bloody-minded lot, an' they never stop to think for themselves."
"I suppose they'd be shot if they did," said Noel.
"Well, there is that," said the policeman reflectively. "They've brought discipline to an 'igh pitch, no doubt. An' if you ask me,"--he lowered his voice till it was almost lost in his chin-strap, "we'll be runnin' 'em a good second 'ere, before long. The things we 'ave to protect now are gettin' beyond a joke. There's the City against lights, there's the streets against darkness, there's the aliens, there's the aliens' shops, there's the Belgians, there's the British wives, there's the soldiers against the women, there's the women against the soldiers, there's the Peace Party, there's 'orses against croolty, there's a Cabinet Minister every now an' then; and now we've got these Conchies. And, mind you, they haven't raised our pay; no war wages in the police. So far as I can see, there's only one good result of the war--the burglaries are off. But there again, you wait a bit and see if we don't have a prize crop of 'm, or my name's not 'Arris."
"You must have an awfully exciting life!" said Noel.
The policeman looked down at her sideways, without lowering his face, as only a policeman can, and said indulgently:
"We're used to it, you see; there's no excitement in what you're used to. They find that in the trenches, I'm told. Take our seamen--there's lots of 'em been blown up over and over again, and there they go and sign on again next day. That's where the Germans make their mistake! England in war-time! I think a lot, you know, on my go; you can't 'elp it--the mind will work--an' the more I think, the more I see the fightin' spirit in the people. We don't make a fuss about it like Bill Kaser. But you watch a little shopman, one o' those fellows who's had his house bombed; you watch the way he looks at the mess--sort of disgusted. You watch his face, and you see he's got his teeth into it. You watch one of our Tommies on 'is crutches, with the sweat pourin' off his forehead an' 'is eyes all strainy, stumpin' along--that gives you an idea! I pity these Peace fellows, reely I pity them; they don't know what they're up against. I expect there's times when you wish you was a man, don't you, miss? I'm sure there's times when I feel I'd like to go in the trenches. That's the worst o' my job; you can't be a human bein'--not in the full sense of the word. You mustn't let your passions rise, you mustn't drink, you mustn't talk; it's a narrow walk o' life. Well, here you are, miss; your Square's the next turnin' to the right. Good night and thank you for your conversation."
Noel held out her hand. "Good night!" she said.
The policeman took her hand with a queer, flattered embarrassment.
"Good night, miss," he said again. "I see you've got a trouble; and I'm sure I hope it'll turn out for the best."
Noel gave his huge hand a squeeze; her eyes had filled with tears, and she turned quickly up towards the Square, where a dark figure was coming towards her, in whom she recognised her father. His face was worn and harassed; he walked irresolutely, like a man who has lost something.
"Nollie!" he said. "Thank God!" In his voice was an infinite relief. "My child, where have you been?"
"It's all right, Daddy. Cyril has just gone to the front. I've been seeing him off from Charing Cross."
Pierson slipped his arm round her. They entered the house without speaking....
By the rail of his transport, as far--about two feet--as he could get from anyone, Cyril Morland stood watching Calais, a dream city, brighten out of the heat and grow solid. He could hear the guns already, the voice of his new life-talking in the distance. It came with its strange excitement into a being held by soft and marvellous memories, by one long vision of Noel and the moonlit grass, under the dark Abbey wall. This moment of passage from wonder to wonder was quite too much for a boy unused to introspection, and he stood staring stupidly at Calais, while the thunder of his new life came rolling in on that passionate moonlit dream.
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