"You can't do it," she concluded, "unless you are prepared to keep half the world's literature away from the children, sc.r.a.p half your music, edit your museums and your picture galleries; bowdlerize your Old Testament and rewrite your histories. And then you'll have to be careful for twenty-four hours a day that they never see a dog-fight."
Madge still held to her hope. G.o.d would make a wind of reason to pa.s.s over the earth. He would not smite again his people.
"I wish poor dear Sam could have been kept out of it," said Flossie. She wiped her eyes and finished her tea.
Joan had arranged to leave on the Monday. She ran down to see Mary Stopperton on the Sat.u.r.day afternoon. Mr. Stopperton had died the year before, and Mary had been a little hurt, divining insincerity in the condolences offered to her by most of her friends.
"You didn't know him, dear," she had said to Joan. "All his faults were on the outside."
She did not want to talk about the war.
"Perhaps it's wrong of me," she said. "But it makes me so sad. And I can do nothing."
She had been busy at her machine when Joan had entered; and a pile of delicate white work lay folded on a chair beside her.
"What are you making?" asked Joan.
The little withered face lighted up. "Guess," she said, as she unfolded and displayed a tiny garment.
"I so love making them," she said. "I say to myself, 'It will all come right. G.o.d will send more and more of His Christ babies; till at last there will be thousands and thousands of them everywhere; and their love will change the world!'"
Her bright eyes had caught sight of the ring upon Joan's hand. She touched it with her little fragile fingers.
"You will let me make one for you, dearie, won't you?" she said. "I feel sure it will be a little Christ baby."
Arthur was still away when she arrived home. He had gone to Norway on business. Her father was afraid he would find it difficult to get back.
Telegraphic communication had been stopped, and they had had no news of him. Her father was worried. A big Government contract had come in, while many of his best men had left to enlist.
"I've fixed you up all right at the hospital," he said. "It was good of you to think of coming home. Don't go away, for a bit." It was the first time he had asked anything of her.
Another fortnight pa.s.sed before they heard from Arthur, and then he wrote them both from Hull. He would be somewhere in the North Sea, mine sweeping, when they read his letters. He had hoped to get a day or two to run across and say good-bye; but the need for men was pressing and he had not liked to plead excuses. The boat by which he had managed to leave Bergen had gone down. He and a few others had been picked up, but the sights that he had seen were haunting him. He felt sure his uncle would agree that he ought to be helping, and this was work for England he could do with all his heart. He hoped he was not leaving his uncle in the lurch; but he did not think the war would last long, and he would soon be back.
"Dear lad," said her father, "he would take the most dangerous work that he could find. But I wish he hadn't been quite so impulsive. He could have been of more use helping me with this War Office contract. I suppose he never got my letter, telling him about it."
In his letter to Joan he went further. He had received his uncle's letter, so he confided to her. Perhaps she would think him a crank, but he couldn't help it. He hated this killing business, this making of machinery for slaughtering men in bulk, like they killed pigs in Chicago.
Out on the free, sweet sea, helping to keep it clean from man's abominations, he would be away from it all.
She saw the vision of him that night, as, leaning from her window, she looked out beyond the pines: the little lonely ship amid the waste of waters; his beautiful, almost womanish, face, and the gentle dreamy eyes with their haunting suggestion of a shadow.
Her little drummer played less and less frequently to her as the months pa.s.sed by. It didn't seem to be the war he had looked forward to. The ill.u.s.trated papers continued to picture it as a sort of glorified picnic where smiling young men lolled luxuriously in cosy dug-outs, reading their favourite paper. By curious coincidence, it generally happened to be the journal publishing the photograph. Occasionally, it appeared, they came across the enemy, who then put up both hands and shouted "Kamerad." But the weary, wounded men she talked to told another story.
She grew impatient of the fighters with their mouths; the savage old baldheads heroically prepared to sacrifice the last young man; the sleek, purring women who talked childish nonsense about killing every man, woman and child in Germany, but quite meant it; the shrieking journalists who had decided that their place was the home front; the press-spurred mobs, the spy hunters, chasing terrified old men and sobbing children through the streets. It was a relief to enter the quiet ward and close the door behind her. The camp-followers: the traders and pedlars, the balladmongers, and the mountebanks, the ghoulish sightseers! War brought out all that was worst in them. But the givers of their blood, the lads who suffered, who had made the sacrifice: war had taught them chivalry, manhood. She heard no revilings of hatred and revenge from those drawn lips. Patience, humour, forgiveness, they had learnt from war. They told her kindly stories even of Hans and Fritz.
The little drummer in her brain would creep out of his corner, play to her softly while she moved about among them.
One day she received a letter from Folk. He had come to London at the request of the French Government to consult with English artists on a matter he must not mention. He would not have the time, he told her, to run down to Liverpool. Could she get a couple of days' leave and dine with him in London.
She found him in the uniform of a French Colonel. He had quite a military bearing and seemed pleased with himself. He kissed her hand, and then held her out at arms' length.
"It's wonderful how like you are to your mother," he said, "I wish I were as young as I feel."
She had written him at the beginning of the war, telling him of her wish to get out to the front, and he thought that now he might be able to help her.
"But perhaps you've changed your mind," he said. "It isn't quite as pretty as it's painted."
"I want to," she answered. "It isn't all curiosity. I think it's time for women to insist on seeing war with their own eyes, not trust any longer to the pictures you men paint." She smiled.
"But I've got to give it up," she added. "I can't leave Dad."
They were sitting in the hall of the hotel. It was the dressing hour and the place was almost empty. He shot a swift glance at her.
"Arthur is still away," she explained, "and I feel that he wants me. I should be worrying myself, thinking of him all alone with no one to look after him. It's the mother instinct I suppose. It always has hampered woman." She laughed.
"Dear old boy," he said. He was watching her with a little smile. "I'm glad he's got some luck at last."
They dined in the great restaurant belonging to the hotel. He was still vastly pleased with himself as he marched up the crowded room with Joan upon his arm. He held himself upright and talked and laughed perhaps louder than an elderly gentleman should. "Swaggering old beggar," he must have overheard a young sub. mutter as they pa.s.sed. But he did not seem to mind it.
They lingered over the meal. Folk was a brilliant talker. Most of the men whose names were filling the newspapers had sat to him at one time or another. He made them seem quite human. Joan was surprised at the time.
"Come up to my rooms, will you?" he asked. "There's something I want to say to you. And then I'll walk back with you." She was staying at a small hotel off Jermyn Street.
He sat her down by the fire and went into the next room. He had a letter in his hand when he returned. Joan noticed that the envelope was written upon across the corner, but she was not near enough to distinguish the handwriting. He placed it on the mantelpiece and sat down opposite her.
"So you have come to love the dear old chap," he said.
"I have always loved him," Joan answered. "It was he didn't love me, for a time, as I thought. But I know now that he does."
He was silent for a few moments, and then he leant across and took her hands in his.
"I am going," he said, "where there is just the possibility of an accident: one never knows. I wanted to be sure that all was well with you."
He was looking at the ring upon her hand.
"A soldier boy?" he asked.
"Yes," she answered. "If he comes back." There was a little catch in her voice.
"I know he'll come back," he said. "I won't tell you why I am so sure.
Perhaps you wouldn't believe." He was still holding her hands, looking into her eyes.
"Tell me," he said, "did you see your mother before she died. Did she speak to you?"
"No," Joan answered. "I was too late. She had died the night before. I hardly recognized her when I saw her. She looked so sweet and young."
"She loved you very dearly," he said. "Better than herself. All those years of sorrow: they came to her because of that. I thought it foolish of her at the time, but now I know she was wise. I want you always to love and honour her. I wouldn't ask you if it wasn't right."
She looked at him and smiled. "It's quite easy," she answered. "I always see her as she lay there with all the sorrow gone from her. She looked so beautiful and kind."
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