He raised his eyes and fixed them on her with a pleading, dog-like look.
"For G.o.d's sake don't take even that away from me," he said. "Unless you want me to go to pieces altogether. A crust does just keep one alive.
One can't help thinking what a fine, strong chap one might be if one wasn't always hungry."
She felt so sorry for him. He looked such a boy, with the angry tears in his clear blue eyes, and that little childish quivering of the kind, strong, sulky mouth.
She rose and took his head between her hands and turned his face towards her. She had meant to scold him, but changed her mind and laid his head against her breast and held it there.
He clung to her, as a troubled child might, with his arms clasped round her, and his head against her breast. And a mist rose up before her, and strange, commanding voices seemed calling to her.
He could not see her face. She watched it herself with dim half consciousness as it changed before her in the tawdry mirror above the mantelpiece, half longing that he might look up and see it, half terrified lest he should.
With an effort that seemed to turn her into stone, she regained command over herself.
"I must go now," she said in a harsh voice, and he released her.
"I'm afraid I'm an awful nuisance to you," he said. "I get these moods at times. You're not angry with me?"
"No," she answered with a smile. "But it will hurt me if you fail.
She turned down the Embankment after leaving the house. She always found the river strong and restful. So it was not only bad women that needed to be afraid of themselves--even to the most high-cla.s.s young woman, with letters after her name, and altruistic interests: even to her, also, the longing for the lover's clasp. Flossie had been right. Mother Nature was not to be flouted of her children--not even of her new daughters; to them, likewise, the family trait.
She would have run away if she could, leaving him to guess at her real reason--if he were smart enough. But that would have meant excuses and explanations all round. She was writing a daily column of notes for Greyson now, in addition to the weekly letter from Clorinda; and Mrs.
Denton, having compromised with her first dreams, was delegating to Joan more and more of her work. She wrote to Mrs. Phillips that she was feeling unwell and would be unable to lunch with them on the Sunday, as had been arranged. Mrs. Phillips, much disappointed, suggested Wednesday; but it seemed on Wednesday she was no better. And so it drifted on for about a fortnight, without her finding the courage to come to any decision; and then one morning, turning the corner into Abingdon Street, she felt a slight pull at her sleeve; and Hilda was beside her.
The child had shown an uncanny intuition in not knocking at the door.
Joan had been fearing that, and would have sent down word that she was out. But it had to be faced.
"Are you never coming again?" asked the child.
"Of course," answered Joan, "when I'm better. I'm not very well just now. It's the weather, I suppose."
The child turned her head as they walked and looked at her. Joan felt herself smarting under that look, but persisted.
"I'm very much run down," she said. "I may have to go away."
"You promised to help him," said the child.
"I can't if I'm ill," retorted Joan. "Besides, I am helping him. There are other ways of helping people than by wasting their time talking to them."
"He wants you," said the child. "It's your being there that helps him."
Joan stopped and turned. "Did he send you?" she asked.
"No," the child answered. "Mama had a headache this morning, and I slipped out. You're not keeping your promise."
Palace Yard, save for a statuesque policeman, was empty.
"How do you know that my being with him helps him?" asked Joan.
"You know things when you love anybody," explained the child. "You feel them. You will come again, soon?"
Joan did not answer.
"You're frightened," the child continued in a pa.s.sionate, low voice. "You think that people will talk about you and look down upon you. You oughtn't to think about yourself. You ought to think only about him and his work. Nothing else matters."
"I am thinking about him and his work," Joan answered. Her hand sought Hilda's and held it. "There are things you don't understand. Men and women can't help each other in the way you think. They may try to, and mean no harm in the beginning, but the harm comes, and then not only the woman but the man also suffers, and his work is spoilt and his life ruined."
The small, hot hand clasped Joan's convulsively.
"But he won't be able to do his work if you keep away and never come back to him," she persisted. "Oh, I know it. It all depends upon you. He wants you."
"And I want him, if that's any consolation to you," Joan answered with a short laugh. It wasn't much of a confession. The child was cute enough to have found that out for herself. "Only you see I can't have him. And there's an end of it."
They had reached the Abbey. Joan turned and they retraced their steps slowly.
"I shall be going away soon, for a little while," she said. The talk had helped her to decision. "When I come back I will come and see you all.
And you must all come and see me, now and then. I expect I shall have a flat of my own. My father may be coming to live with me. Good-bye. Do all you can to help him."
She stooped and kissed the child, straining her to her almost fiercely.
But the child's lips were cold. She did not look back.
Miss Greyson was sympathetic towards her desire for a longish holiday and wonderfully helpful; and Mrs. Denton also approved, and, to Joan's surprise, kissed her; Mrs. Denton was not given to kissing. She wired to her father, and got his reply the same evening. He would be at her rooms on the day she had fixed with his travelling bag, and at her Ladyship's orders. "With love and many thanks," he had added. She waited till the day before starting to run round and say good-bye to the Phillipses. She felt it would be unwise to try and get out of doing that. Both Phillips and Hilda, she was thankful, were out; and she and Mrs. Phillips had tea alone together. The talk was difficult, so far as Joan was concerned. If the woman had been possessed of ordinary intuition, she might have arrived at the truth. Joan almost wished she would. It would make her own future task the easier. But Mrs. Phillips, it was clear, was going to be no help to her.
For her father's sake, she made pretence of eagerness, but as the sea widened between her and the harbour lights it seemed as if a part of herself were being torn away from her.
They travelled leisurely through Holland and the Rhine land, and that helped a little: the new scenes and interests; and in Switzerland they discovered a delightful little village in an upland valley with just one small hotel, and decided to stay there for a while, so as to give themselves time to get their letters. They took long walks and climbs, returning tired and hungry, looking forward to their dinner and the evening talk with the few other guests on the veranda. The days pa.s.sed restfully in that hidden valley. The great white mountains closed her in. They seemed so strong and clean.
It was on the morning they were leaving that a telegram was put into her hands. Mrs. Phillips was ill at lodgings in Folkestone. She hoped that Joan, on her way back, would come to see her.
She showed the telegram to her father. "Do you mind, Dad, if we go straight back?" she asked.
"No, dear," he answered, "if you wish it."
"I would like to go back," she said.
Mrs. Phillips was sitting up in an easy chair near the heavily-curtained windows when Joan arrived. It was a pleasant little house in the old part of the town, and looked out upon the harbour. She was startlingly thin by comparison with what she had been; but her face was still painted. Phillips would run down by the afternoon train whenever he could get away. She never knew when he was coming, so she explained; and she could not bear the idea of his finding her "old and ugly." She had fought against his wish that she should go into a nursing home; and Joan, who in the course of her work upon the _Nursing Times_ had acquired some knowledge of them as a whole, was inclined to agree with her. She was quite comfortable where she was. The landlady, according to her account, was a dear. She had sent the nurse out for a walk on getting Joan's wire, so that they could have a cosy chat. She didn't really want much attendance. It was her heart. It got feeble now and then, and she had to keep very still; that was all. Joan told how her father had suffered for years from much the same complaint. So long as you were careful there was no danger. She must take things easily and not excite herself.
Mrs. Phillips acquiesced. "It's turning me into a lazy-bones," she said with a smile. "I can sit here by the hour, just watching the bustle. I was always one for a bit of life."
The landlady entered with Joan's tea. Joan took an instinctive dislike to her. She was a large, flashy woman, wearing a quant.i.ty of cheap jewellery. Her familiarity had about it something almost threatening.
Joan waited till she heard the woman's heavy tread descending the stairs, before she expressed her opinion.
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