Edward Pierson, dreaming over an egg at breakfast, opened a letter in a handwriting which he did not recognise.
"V. A. D. Hospital,
"Mulberry Road, St. John's Wood N. W.
"DEAR COUSIN EDWARD,
"Do you remember me, or have I gone too far into the shades of night? I was Leila Pierson once upon a time, and I often think of you and wonder what you are like now, and what your girls are like. I have been here nearly a year, working for our wounded, and for a year before that was nursing in South Africa. My husband died five years ago out there. Though we haven't met for I dare not think how long, I should awfully like to see you again. Would you care to come some day and look over my hospital? I have two wards under me; our men are rather dears.
"Your forgotten but still affectionate cousin
"P. S. I came across a little letter you once wrote me; it brought back old days."
No! He had not forgotten. There was a reminder in the house. And he looked up at Noel sitting opposite. How like the eyes were! And he thought: 'I wonder what Leila has become. One mustn't be uncharitable. That man is dead; she has been nursing two years. She must be greatly changed; I should certainly like to see her. I will go!' Again he looked at Noel. Only yesterday she had renewed her request to be allowed to begin her training as a nurse.
"I'm going to see a hospital to-day, Nollie," he said; "if you like, I'll make enquiries. I'm afraid it'll mean you have to begin by washing up."
"I know; anything, so long as I do begin."
"Very well; I'll see about it." And he went back to his egg.
Noel's voice roused him. "Do you feel the war much, Daddy? Does it hurt you here?" She had put her hand on her heart. "Perhaps it doesn't, because you live half in the next world, don't you?"
The words: "God forbid," sprang to Pierson's lips; he did not speak them, but put his egg-spoon down, hurt and bewildered. What did the child mean? Not feel the war! He smiled.
"I hope I'm able to help people sometimes, Nollie," and was conscious that he had answered his own thoughts, not her words. He finished his breakfast quickly, and very soon went out. He crossed the Square, and passed East, down two crowded streets to his church. In the traffic of those streets, all slipshod and confused, his black-clothed figure and grave face, with its Vandyk beard, had a curious remote appearance, like a moving remnant of a past civilisation. He went in by the side door. Only five days he had been away, but they had been so full of emotion that the empty familiar building seemed almost strange to him. He had come there unconsciously, groping for anchorage and guidance in this sudden change of relationship between him and his daughters. He stood by the pale brazen eagle, staring into the chancel. The choir were wanting new hymn-books--he must not forget to order them! His eyes sought the stained-glass window he had put in to the memory of his wife. The sun, too high to slant, was burnishing its base, till it glowed of a deep sherry colour. "In the next world!" What strange words of Noel's! His eyes caught the glimmer of the organ-pipes; and, mounting to the loft, he began to play soft chords wandering into each other. He finished, and stood gazing down. This space within high walls, under high vaulted roof, where light was toned to a perpetual twilight, broken here and there by a little glow of colour from glass and flowers, metal, and dark wood, was his home, his charge, his refuge. Nothing moved down there, and yet--was not emptiness mysteriously living, the closed-in air imprinted in strange sort, as though the drone of music and voices in prayer and praise clung there still? Had not sanctity a presence? Outside, a barrel-organ drove its tune along; a wagon staggered on the paved street, and the driver shouted to his horses; some distant guns boomed out in practice, and the rolling of wheels on wheels formed a net of sound. But those invading noises were transmuted to a mere murmuring in here; only the silence and the twilight were real to Pierson, standing there, a little black figure in a great empty space.
When he left the church, it was still rather early to go to Leila's hospital; and, having ordered the new hymn-books, he called in at the house of a parishioner whose son had been killed in France. He found her in her kitchen; an oldish woman who lived by charing. She wiped a seat for the Vicar.
"I was just makin' meself a cup o' tea, sir."
"Ah! What a comfort tea is, Mrs. Soles!" And he sat down, so that she should feel "at home."
"Yes; it gives me 'eart-burn; I take eight or ten cups a day, now. I take 'em strong, too. I don't seem able to get on without it. I 'ope the young ladies are well, sir?"
"Very well, thank you. Miss Noel is going to begin nursing, too."
"Deary-me! She's very young; but all the young gells are doin' something these days. I've got a niece in munitions-makin' a pretty penny she is. I've been meanin' to tell you--I don't come to church now; since my son was killed, I don't seem to 'ave the 'eart to go anywhere--'aven't been to a picture-palace these three months. Any excitement starts me cryin'."
"I know; but you'd find rest in church."
Mrs. Soles shook her head, and the small twisted bob of her discoloured hair wobbled vaguely.
"I can't take any recreation," she said. "I'd rather sit 'ere, or be at work. My son was a real son to me. This tea's the only thing that does me any good. I can make you a fresh cup in a minute."
"Thank you, Mrs. Soles, but I must be getting on. We must all look forward to meeting our beloved again, in God's mercy. And one of these days soon I shall be seeing you in church, shan't I."
Mrs. Soles shifted her weight from one slippered foot to the other.
"Well! let's 'ope so," she said. "But I dunno when I shall 'ave the spirit. Good day, sir, and thank you kindly for calling, I'm sure."
Pierson walked away with a very faint smile. Poor queer old soul!--she was no older than himself, but he thought of her as ancient--cut off from her son, like so many--so many; and how good and patient! The melody of an anthem began running in his head. His fingers moved on the air beside him, and he stood still, waiting for an omnibus to take him to St. John's Wood. A thousand people went by while he was waiting, but he did not notice them, thinking of that anthem, of his daughters, and the mercy of God; and on the top of his 'bus, when it came along, he looked lonely and apart, though the man beside him was so fat that there was hardly any seat left to sit on. Getting down at Lord's Cricket-ground, he asked his way of a lady in a nurse's dress.
"If you'll come with me," she said, "I'm just going there."
"Oh! Do you happen to know a Mrs. Lynch who nurses"
"I am Mrs. Lynch. Why, you're Edward Pierson!"
He looked into her face, which he had not yet observed.
"Leila!" he said.
"Yes, Leila! How awfully nice of you to come, Edward!"
They continued to stand, searching each for the other's youth, till she murmured:
"In spite of your beard, I should have known you anywhere!" But she thought: 'Poor Edward! He is old, and monk-like!'
And Pierson, in answer, murmured:
"You're very little changed, Leila! We haven't, seen each other since my youngest girl was born. She's just a little like you." But he thought: 'My Nollie! So much more dewy; poor Leila!'
They walked on, talking of his daughters, till they reached the hospital.
"If you'll wait here a minute, I'll take you over my wards."
She had left him in a bare hall, holding his hat in one hand and touching his gold cross with the other; but she soon came hack, and a little warmth crept about his heart. How works of mercy suited women! She looked so different, so much softer, beneath the white coif, with a white apron over the bluish frock.
At the change in his face, a little warmth crept about Leila, too, just where the bib of her apron stopped; and her eyes slid round at him while they went towards what had once been a billiard-room.
"My men are dears," she said; "they love to be talked to."
Under a skylight six beds jutted out from a green distempered wall, opposite to six beds jutting out from another green distempered wall, and from each bed a face was turned towards them young faces, with but little expression in them. A nurse, at the far end, looked round, and went on with her work. The sight of the ward was no more new to Pierson than to anyone else in these days. It was so familiar, indeed, that it had practically no significance. He stood by the first bed, and Leila stood alongside. The man smiled up when she spoke, and did not smile when he spoke, and that again was familiar to him. They passed from bed to bed, with exactly the same result, till she was called away, and he sat down by a young soldier with a long, very narrow head and face, and a heavily bandaged shoulder. Touching the bandage reverently, Pierson said:
"Well, my dear fellow-still bad?"
"Ah!" replied the soldier. "Shrapnel wound: It's cut the flesh properly."
"But not the spirit, I can see!"
The young soldier gave him a quaint look, as much as to say: "Not 'arf bad!" and a gramophone close to the last bed began to play: "God bless Daddy at the war!"
"Are you fond of music?"
"I like it well enough. Passes the time."
"I'm afraid the time hangs heavy in hospital."
"Yes; it hangs a bit 'eavy; it's just 'orspital life. I've been wounded before, you see. It's better than bein' out there. I expect I'll lose the proper use o' this arm. I don't worry; I'll get my discharge."
"You've got some good nurses here."
"Yes; I like Mrs. Lynch; she's the lady I like."
"I see you come in together. I see everything 'ere. I think a lot, too. Passes the time."
"Do they let you smoke?"
"Oh, yes! They let us smoke."
"Have one of mine?"
The young soldier smiled for the first time. "Thank you; I've got plenty."
The nurse came by, and smiled at Pierson.
"He's one of our blase ones; been in before, haven't you, Simson?"
Pierson looked at the young man, whose long, narrow face; where one sandy-lashed eyelid drooped just a little, seemed armoured with a sort of limited omniscience. The gramophone had whirred and grunted into "Sidi Brahim." The nurse passed on.
"'Seedy Abram,'" said the young soldier. "The Frenchies sing it; they takes it up one after the other, ye know."
"Ah!" murmured Pierson; "it's pretty." And his fingers drummed on the counterpane, for the tune was new to him. Something seemed to move in the young man's face, as if a blind had been drawn up a little.
"I don't mind France," he said abruptly; "I don't mind the shells and that; but I can't stick the mud. There's a lot o' wounded die in the mud; can't get up--smothered." His unwounded arm made a restless movement. "I was nearly smothered myself. Just managed to keep me nose up."
Pierson shuddered. "Thank God you did!"
"Yes; I didn't like that. I told Mrs. Lynch about that one day when I had the fever. She's a nice lady; she's seen a lot of us boys: That mud's not right, you know." And again his unwounded arm made that restless movement; while the gramophone struck up: "The boys in brown." The movement of the arm affected Pierson horribly; he rose and, touching the bandaged shoulder, said:
"Good-bye; I hope you'll soon be quite recovered."
The young soldier's lips twisted in the semblance of a smile; his drooped eyelid seemed to try and raise itself.
"Good day, sir," he said; "and thank you."
Pierson went back to the hall. The sunlight fell in a pool just inside the open door, and an uncontrollable impulse made him move into it, so that it warmed him up to the waist. The mud! How ugly life was! Life and Death! Both ugly! Poor boys! Poor boys!
A voice behind him said:
"Oh! There you are, Edward! Would you like to see the other ward, or shall I show you our kitchen?"
Pierson took her hand impulsively. "You're doing a noble work, Leila. I wanted to ask you: Could you arrange for Noel to come and get trained here? She wants to begin at once. The fact is, a boy she is attracted to has just gone out to the Front."
"Ah!" murmured Leila, and her eyes looked very soft. "Poor child! We shall be wanting an extra hand next week. I'll see if she could come now. I'll speak to our Matron, and let you know to-night." She squeezed his hand hard.
"Dear Edward, I'm so glad to see you again. You're the first of our family I've seen for sixteen years. I wonder if you'd bring Noel to have supper at my flat to-night--Just nothing to eat, you know! It's a tiny place. There's a Captain Fort coming; a nice man."
Pierson accepted, and as he walked away he thought: 'Dear Leila! I believe it was Providence. She wants sympathy. She wants to feel the past is the past. How good women are!'
And the sun, blazing suddenly out of a cloud, shone on his black figure and the little gold cross, in the middle of Portland Place.
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