THREE months had passed in the grey castle of mercy, and Meg Burstall was in love. Her secret, because nurses were expected to avoid that sort of thing. There was pity in it, but she felt pity for them all, the kind one must never express in words but translate into acts. It was inevitable that she should have learned to know Tennant as he had not been known before, and the thought of him had become her joy. She learned his moods, and perceived not a little of the struggle he was making and how unconsciously he depended on her. Determined not to return to idleness, he talked constantly about what he could do next. She sat beside him for hours, practising writing with her own left, hand, and became almost ambidexterous.
She was now twenty-five, very straight, with beautiful skin and shoulders and a touch of a modern Madonna about her, not a physical beauty but a spiritual quality that was all her own, and the suggestion of unexhaustedness that John Driver had recognized years before, but had been too blind to value. That was perhaps her strongest characteristic, the possession of something to lean on that would always be there. Her eyes were expressive, her mouth strong and tender. What she felt for Tennant was quite different from anything that John Driver had wakened in her. She wanted to repay something that all women seemed to owe him and his sort; wanted to give all she had, to be the mother of a brave man’s sons. In her heart, Tony had gained by his loss, and soon he became so dear that she found it hard to touch him.
On his side, he knew that she had grown into his life, but this only made the struggle more bitter. His sense of physical deprivation persisted, and he wanted her dreadfully. In another month he would be on his own again; then no more of Meg. He shrank from the thought of existence without her, and the place where his arm had been ached to have her there. Would the War Office keep him busy? What could he do? He put all this away in his heart, and said nothing about its hunger.
Shortly before he was due to be discharged he put his anxiety to Sir Hugh Peters, a great London surgeon who made weekly visits to the castle on the Lauder. Sir Hugh had given him a final overhaul in the room set apart for the purpose, and stood, smiling approval, his hand on the half-opened door.
“A clean job, and good nursing has had a lot to do with it. You’re right as a trivet, Tennant. There’ll be an occasional ache for a month or so longer, but nothing more. Let me tie that scarf."
Tony lifted his chin. "Thanks. What next?”
"Where do I go from here? I haven’t any people of my own, and my relations aren’t overattractive.”
Sir Hugh hesitated a moment. The same old question. It had been put by so many mutilated men, human debris of the war, men who had been through the furnace and later looked about with puzzled eyes to see what was left for them. They had a new consciousness, and a stubborn belief that somewhere and somehow there must be something they could still do. That broken army was swelling daily with every guarded hospital ship that reached the chalk cliffs of England, but as yet was only a trickle compared to what was to come. And, realized Sir Hugh, their spirits no less than their bodies needed help.
“Is it necessary that you should do anything yet?” he said quietly.
Tony nodded, and the look in his eyes was sufficient; the other man knew it of old. It came not long before one cracked.
"What did you do before?”
"Amused myself like a lot of others. Do I pay for it now?”
"Will you not marry?"
Tony gave a twisted smile. "Sort of left-handed compliment to the girl, eh?”
Sir Hugh, scrutinizing the thin face, shook his head. Someone had paused in the passageway, and he heard the sound of light steps hurrying on. He closed the door, came back to his table, and sat down.
“You’re wrong, Tennant. I’ve seen many cases like yours, and nothing could make me take that view. Our women—well, just think for a minute. It isn’t fair.”
Tony’s nerves jumped on edge. “Half a man,” he said bitterly. "That’s all I am.”
The surgeon, being a psychologist as well, altered his tone.
"If I may say so,” he replied stiffly, “that isn’t playing the game as you have till now. The half man you feel contemptuous about, is, if I may say so, and according to your own statement, a bigger one than you were a year ago. You know that if you’re not a fool. Other people know it also. That’s what you’re blind to.” Tony shook his head. “I suppose I’m a bit of a mule, but I’d have to get that first hand from the girl herself. It’s what I see in the eyes of other men like me. Oh, no, we don’t talk about it. No need to. Look here, sir, I’m a gunner; that is, I was one. Isn’t there any small thing that suggests itself?”
“There’s munitions—the Board,” said Sir Hugh, searching his brain. “I believe they’re taking on some men as inspectors. Know enough for that?”
“I’m no mechanic but I’ve seen a few shells in my time. Think you can swing it for me?”
"I can try.”
“What would I do?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea, but does that matter?” Tony admitted hastily that it did not. He wanted anything that would take him among those who were whole, and what he didn’t know he was eager to learn.
His speech tripped in his fervor, and he vowed to make up for his years of idleness. How soon could Sir Hugh find out?
“Tomorrow I’ll put it to a man I know. Can’t promise anything except that I’ll do my best. Now one last word to you. Hold on to yourself, even if nothing happens for some time. I know the kind of battle it’ll be, with zero hour coming pretty often, especially at night, but you’ve got to believe that the country is thinking about your sort and won’t let you down. Stick it, Tennant, stick it.’’
He gripped Tony’s hand and went out. At the end of the passage he found Meg.
“How do you find him?” she asked, with the least catch in her voice.
“It’s what you might expect; a psychological question now. Surgically, the job is done. Mentally, he’s in the transitional stage most of them have to go through, certainly the ones with any imagination. He’s very mindful of what was, and not yet master of the new present. He misses the stimulus of the front, and there’s reaction. Don’t let him think he’s a has-been. That’s one part of it.”
“And the other?”
“Is not in any medical lexicon, and should be better understood by your sex than mine. This man must not be left too much to himself, and should never live alone. It seems that he has no immediate relatives he cares for, so if you know anyone who can supply what’s wanted, I’d see to it. I mentioned a munitions post and—he’ll count on it, but what he really needs is a wife. You’ve had charge of his case how long?”
“Three months, Sir Hugh.”
“Then I’ve only told you what you probably know already. Good-by.”
HE HURRIED OFF, and for a week Meg found life very difficult, being equally afraid of seeing too little and too much of Tony. When they were alone he talked sometimes a good deal and with a touch of cynicism, and again would be moody and silent, brows drawn together, fingers bending and straightening. What he felt for her escaped from his eyes when he suspected it least. Then word came from the Munitions Board that, when fit, he could qualify as inspector. He waved the letter at her as though it were a passport to freedom and suggested a walk.
They went up along a burn that flows into the Lauder near the castle, up on to the scented moors, the longest walk they had had yet, till Meg forbade him to climb farther, and they rested in a patch of heather. October had come, but the air was still warm. Rain had fallen the night before, and everywhere sounded a faint liquid confusion of invisible runnels that choked and gurgled down the hills. No shooting that year, and the wild things of the uplands seemed to know it. To the North lifted the blue slopes of the Lammermuirs, and the castle was but a toy in the fat folds of the valley below. One could make out the blue-grey figures moving slowly about on the lawn. Tony took out his pipe, fingered it, and put it away.
“No smoke?” said she. “That’s not like you.”
“Not now; too much in my head. That job—it will be like going to school again.”
“A very grown-up school.”
“I suppose so.” He was silent for a moment, thrusting back the real thing he ached to say. “Y’know,” he went on jerkily, “there’s been so much done for me here that I can never—”
“You mustn’t thank me, Tony, or any of us. Don’t you understand?”
“I can’t see it that way.”
“People don’t want thanks for what they’re only too proud to do: and we are proud, all of us.”
"I'll think of it a lot,” he said. "You’ve been splendid, Meg. It was your good nursing; Sir Hugh told me so. There were times when I wouldn’t have cared if I d lost the other arm too, but you pulled me through that. I must have been a rotten patient.”
“There’s no such animal,” she smiled.
He lay on his back, gazing at the great dome of unflecked sky, and suddenly, so savage was the longing for her, he felt frightened. What if he did ask her now and she said yes; not because she loved him but out of her sweet largeness of heart? Her sort might well do such a thing, and spend the rest of her life chained involuntarily to a crippled man, a man who could never take her in his arms. Someone else would do it, and the thought was like a knife.
“I suppose I’ll be doing a bit of travelling,” he said in a creaky voice.
“Inspectors do, don’t they?” she answered vaguely, pausing on the edge of decision.
“I hope so, and perhaps I’ll see Driver’s place. The men told me it was bigger than ever. ’Twould be a queer second visit. Think he’d mind?”
“Not a bit, but he might.”
“Does that matter, Tony?” She put it curtly, knowing that only one thing mattered now.
“N-no, nothing matters very much. I often feel that way.”
“Which is all completely wrong.”
“Circumstances alter cases,” said he, fingering a sprig of heather. This coming freedom, this job, how little it meant after all. He felt choked, as though something were throttling his very soul. Hunger assailed him again, infinitely sharper than he had known before. Couldn’t she see what was the matter with him, and could she not, having so much to give, bestow just a little to tide him over the worst hour of all? They shouldn’t have come up here. He lay adoring her, not daring to touch her, hardly breathing. To touch her would run through him like flame, and all would come pouring out, all against which he now strove.
“I’ll often think of these months,” he said alter a long pause. “Will you carry on? Are discharged patients allowed as visitors?”
“You must come back, Tony.”
“I’d love to.”
“To me,” she said in a low voiced.
It seemed that the world had stopped for an instant. Tony dared not move, and something in him began to shout, setting up a clamor that grew and grew till presently it filled the universe.
“Meg, do you mean it?” He hardly knew that he spoke.
Leaning over him, she put her arms round him, and drew his head to the haven of her shoulder.
“Oh, my dear, my dear, who are so blind as those who won’t see? I mean every word of it. I love you, Tony. I want you for mine all the rest of my life.”
Still he hardly believed it. His lonely hand crept up over her arm, seeking her cheeks, her hair. She felt it tremble, moving like a blind thing in quest of it knew not what. She had an extraordinary moment in which she realized that two arms would never be round her, but this was instantly and forever submerged in the thrill of his contact and the tremendous reality of her love. He looked up at her, incredulous, adoring.
“Meg, do you know what you’ve done? Made it impossible for me to live without you.”
“That’s what I’ve wanted to do--for weeks.”
“Half of a man !” He got this out, and with the words emptied his soul of the last dregs of bitterness.
For answer she stooped lower, put her cheek to his, and then with a breathless oncoming of ecstasy her lips sought his own. There they rested, the clinging touch bearing so great a rapture that he shut his eyes, and all the strength of his body flowed into the single arm that held her closer and ever closer. Thus for an immortal moment. Then she drew back, her cheeks lovely with color.
“Didn’t you know, Tony? Couldn't you see?”
“No. I wondered once or twice, but thought I was mad. And you?”
“I’ve known for weeks,” she said, the hazel eyes very tender. “Now, before anything else, promise me something.”
“I promise. What is it?”
“Never, never again to say what you did just now. I know what was behind it, but you were horribly wrong. A year ago I didn’t love you. Now you’ve made yourself into something different that I admire enormously, and want for my own for ever and ever. Understand?”
“Some of it, darling, just some of it.”
“But the promise holds!”
“It holds. Put my head on your knee, Meg.”
He lay there, pondering this incredible thing. There was now no past, only thus amazing present, and a still more unbelievable future. He saw himself hers, and she his, and what he now experienced was so utterly satisfying that he could not picture what was yet to come. All that had gone before revealed itself in a jumble and was dismissed. But Sir Hugh had been right. How did the man know?
“Dearest, we ought to be getting back now.”
“Kiss me again, Meg.”
Their lips clung, and once more he trembled. Meg drew away, rejoicing in this new fear that she understood and shared.
"We must go, Tony.”
“One thing first. When? A very big when?”
"When do you think?”
“As soon as humanly or unhumanly possible.”
"I'd have to get leave,” she said. “I’ve signed on for duration; a whole-time job. But I fancy this has happened to others.”
“There are no others, and wouldn’t it be a whole-time job keeping me in order? Also what about my little affair?”
“I believe it would. You’ll stick to yours, won’t you?”
“I think it’s better all round."
"I hoped you’d say that, Tony.”
"From whom does a nurse get leave to be married?” he grinned.
“I’d go to Lady Mandera, and she’d send it on to the R.A.M.C.”
“Have to get permission from the W.O. to save another life, eh? Things have changed a bit. Where would you like it to be; at home?”
"No; some place near here. I’d get mother to come, that’s all.”
"That’s the way I feel; no fuss and feathers.”
“I know. Darling, do you feel better now?”
"It will take the rest of my life to tell you, then I’ll fail."
They came down from the hillside, their faces shining.
WHEN John Driver heard about the marriage, which was not till a week after it took place, he felt as much hurt as surprised, then was angry with himself for feeling anything. He meant nothing to Meg. But if she wanted Auriol’s discarded lover, she was welcome to him. Nurses, it appeared, were not overexacting in their requirements. At the same time, and now that she was another man’s bride, he was envious, realizing as never before how much she had to give. It filled him with visions he would have been glad to discard. He had had all that from another, and thrown it away. Was he only an obstinate fool?
This in mind, he was walking through the works, from which new bays, all crammed with whirring machinery, had thrust out. Here, at any rate, he was king. By now, the making of shells and fuses had become an established science all over England. One could get master gauges, specifications, measurements; all the exact and intricate things that appealed to a Driver. One knew where one was, and he had made a name for himself in the new world of munitions. On the money side of it, he couldn’t help making a fortune. The W.O. was bound to reduce prices, he felt sure of that, but even so the works would earn the biggest profit in their history. That would be his justification in piling up steel billets when there was no market and buying machinery before the rush began. One had to wait for such things now. He used to wonder what old James would have made of it all, and his thoughts dwelt on his grandfather, with his grey waxen face and hot old eyes, the night before he died. He had stopped to examine a new turret lathe when he saw Dodhurat coming toward him. Dodhurat held out a card.
Capt. A. Tennant
Sub-inspector, Ministry of Munitions.
“Waiting in your office, Mr. Driver.”
John took the card without a word, turned, and strode back. The older man, looking after him, gave a low whistle. He knew, they all knew, who Tennant was. Dodhurat had never seen him before, and the empty sleeve made one think hard.
Nearing hisoffice, John moved more slowly. He had heard about the arm, but had not written. One didn’t. Now he wished that he had, and felt as though he were going to meet Auriol as well. But there had been frequent visits from inspectors, and he assumed that this would be as businesslike as the rest. What had private affairs to do with shell output or methods?
It was the long back of the man he saw first while Tony stood examining a large blueprint of the works that hung on the wall, and the way in which the right shoulder ended so abruptly made him hesitate. Tony turned and they faced each other. A little silence. Tony put out his hand. John, jerking back his right, put out his left. Their palms touched briefly. That was over.
"Sit down, won’t you, Tennant.”
"Thanks, but I only have a short time. I’m not inspecting you -not up to that yet—and to begin with, the Board is sending me round to get an idea of how things should be done. They suggested I should come here first. Is that all right?” He spoke very evenly, his face calm, the face of a contented man. He should be, thought John, suddenly aware of a rush of memories.
How long was it—only a year and a half—since he himself, blue-clad and grimy of hands, had shown Auriol over the place? Now this man! It struck him as ridiculous, incongruous, and he could not separate Tennant sub-inspector, from Tennant, lover of his own wife. Of course he could send someone else as cicerone, but he was seized with an odd curiosity to know how the thing would work out.
"’Twill take a good hour. Shall we start now? I was sorry to hear about your arm.”
Tony ignored the arm. "Thanks, I’m quite ready.”
A curious thing then happened. It was John’s particular kingdom they began to explore, lane after lane of complicated machinery, all doing its work with sharp precision, a thing any engineer would be proud of, but, for some unknown cause, John seemed to lose all satisfaction in it. He was used to approval on this score from men and master mechanics who knew their job. He was aware that the thing was good, the smoothest running plant of its kind in England, but today it meant almost nothing. The men, the newly-trained girls, the lathes and presses, all had lost their point. He started with his customary curt description and broke off in the middle, finding it difficult to explain things that he knew like the back of his hand. The presence of Tennant had jerked him out of this mechanical world and back to a vague realization of the humanities of life.
Tennant, eyes roving, was of two minds. He admired this man for what he had made and despised him for what he had done, but he was on John’s ground here, official ground. The last time he passed this way, he was in love with Auriol. That started his thoughts in her direction, till he perceived that John had stopped talking and was looking at him hard. They had halted beside the last lathe of all, where a girl was working. In the machine was rotating a lump of brass, and from its blunt slowly-emerging nose there curled away a thread, fine as a hair and yellow as gold. Like Auriol’s hair, reflected Tony.
“This,” said the ironmaster, "is the end of the fuse department. Now we’ll see some shell casings.”
They went on and into a place of heat where red hot discs of steel were pressed by gigantic hydraulic plungers first into a cup shape, then a deep bowl, and finally to a great tube closed at one end. Metal was being molded like putty and lay about in piles, cooling before it was turned and finished. Tony stared hard and touched one with his stick.
“If we'd had more of those six months ago, it might have been different.”
“I was ready,” said John, "but the W.O. wasn’t.”
There, again, the situation was unexpected. He had been rather fond of announcing that he had foreseen the inevitable which was quite true—and had stacked up steel billets against the appointed day when they would be almost beyond price—which was also true. And heretofore what he had been told in reply was worth any man’s hearing. But now he merely blurted out the bald fact, and Tony only nodded, asking no questions and paying no compliments.
“Queer sort of inspector he’ll make,” ruminated John, "but I suppose they had to find something for him.” Then aloud, with an odd glance: “The rest of the place is much the same as. when you were here last, only bigger. I mean the converters, blast furnaces, cupolas and all that. Care to go over it?”
“Thanks, I think not.”
"Then, if you like to come back to my office, I’ll show you the production figures and the way they’re growing. That’s what interests the Board most.”
TONY agreed. On the way, they walked slowly while he tried to take the thing in. He never would, really. He’d never make an inspector. He knew that already. Doubtless the Board had foreseen this, and in a considerate way sent him up here for the purpose of disillusionment. He had some dim conception of the brain that moved behind what he had seen. But this place was too much for him. The thing had to be in one’s blood.
Thinking what all this meant to the men in France, it seemed that, since John Driver was able to do it, he was worth more to his country than an ordinary line regiment, and, so far as the Auriol matter was concerned, one might be sorry for him rather than condemn him. Evidently he knew all about metal and mechanics but very little of the human heart. Yet, were he not hard, dogged and dominant, England would be vastly the poorer. It was strange to have any promptings of pity for John Driver.
He glanced at the production reports, noted the ascending scale, and gave John a straight look.
“I might as well be frank,” he said, “and tell you at once that I can’t pretend to carry away much of what I’ve seen, but I know what it means to my battery and all the others.”
“It ought to help. We’re extending the works further as soon as I can get more lathes. They’re rationed now.” Tony nodded.
John, observing the empty sleeve with a sort of fascination, felt very uncomfortable.
“I must congratulate you on your marriage. I didn’t hear of it till a week afterward from Mrs. Burstall. At Lauder, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, very quietly, of course.”
“How is Meg?”
"Quite well. She wanted to go back to her nursing, but the authorities decided otherwise. She was very good at it.”
"She would be.”
It had all been very curt and controlled, with each of them on guard. John felt in his pocket for his pipe, but kept it there. The eyes of the two met, exchanging a challenge, while the women they were both thinking of seemed to float between them. Then John pictured Tennant going back to Meg at the end of the week, and envied him, while Tony wondered how a man could carry on work like that without a woman to go back to. The silence lengthened. Through the room in which they sat ran a tremor, the vibrant pulse of acres of speeding machinery. One smelled metal, almost tasted it. Finally John drew his dark brows together.
“I know what you’re thinking, Tennant.”
“I might say the same thing, Driver.”
“A good deal of water has run past the mill since we last met, eh?”
"Yes, I know.”
“Seen—Auriol—lately?” John forced this out, not knowing why he said it, yet unable to refrain.
“About a month ago. She’s well, and still at Waterloo. She gave her car to the Red Cross about two months ago.”
"Oh!” John was taken aback. It seemed a prodigal thing to do, and he rather resented it. That car had cost him two thousand pounds. His money and she getting the credit for it!
“Well,” said he, “she’s quite independent.” Tennant’s face suggested that this hardly called for comment, and John waited, with a feeling that it would be a long time before they met again. He could not imagine this man an inspector; and the sight of him brought back so much that belonged somehow to another age and other times, that he didn’t want Tennant to go. Queer to feel that way about the lover of one’s wife. But he knew that he was going to be terribly lonely tonight when he sat in old James’ study staring at the specimens of forgings in glass cases, the framed addresses on the walls, and the shelves full of technical books that he never opened.
“Where is Meg?” he ventured.
“At her mother’s. She came north with me, and we’ll be there for a few days. Got in last night.”
John winced, for this told him quite plainly what his oldest friend still thought of him. Evidently she was now giving her whole time to looking after her husband. That made him feel reckless, and he vowed to find some woman to do the same for him. This was war time, and the world was getting rid of a lot of sticky ideas about such matters. Also his own views about faithfulness were a bit antique.
"Remember me to her, will you?” he said with a shade of defiance.
“Yes, certainly. Is there anything else?”
John wanted to blurt out that there was much more. He wanted to put his cards on the table, state exactly how he felt, and see if between them he couldn’t unearth some good solid reason for starting this cursed affair all over again, with the slate clean and life back to normality. He was ready to take that road if Tennant would only give him some starting hint of the direction in which it lay. Then, even as he pondered on the edge of decision, the iron in his blood got at him with its old, inherited, hardening, fighting instinct, and he became again the standard Driver, shoulders squared, chin thrust out, refusing to acknowledge defeat, and staring at Tennant with dark hostile eyes exactly as he had stared so many years before.
“No, there’s nothing else,” he grunted, knowing that he lied.
Tennant picked up his hat.
“I’m sorry,” said he, pausing as he went out, “for you.”
AURIOL, snatching a moment’s respite, was seated behind a battery of cups and saucers, feeling as though she had poured tea for the entire British forces. Her arms ached, her back was tired, her feet hurt. She longed for her flat and a hot bath, and was wearily averse to the bus trip home.
The incident that resulted in her giving up the car was the sight of a small, middle-aged private, bending under full service kit, who had fainted halfway across Westminster Bridge in the heat of a July noon. The car pulled up beside him when he dropped, and she could not rid her mind of his awed expression when he came to himself and she insisted that he get in. Afraid to lean back, he sat, stiffly upright, marvelling at the luxury around him. Woman and car were both too much for him. At the end, he made a husky murmur of thanks and was instantly lost in a sea of khaki.
A small happening, but her mood was one on which small things made their mark. Auriol, looking after him, gulped and gave her head a little shake. He--every man who eyed her admiringly over his teacup—were all the same, going to something they knew not what except that it was the mouth of the pit, and she riding from Knightsbridge to Waterloo in a two-thousand-pound car. The irony of it hit her hard, and the car went to the Red Cross forthwith.
Now she had reached the stage of weariness when it seemed that all of her life had been bounded by Waterloo Station.
Coming or going, there were always new men, and not once in all those months could Auriol remember seeing the same face twice, so that after a while she seemed to be watching the output of some mysterious human factory that turned out mankind to order, its product varying but little.
Auriol was in it, not of it, having no man at stake.
The evening before she had been startled by a telephone call from Meg, demanding that she come out and dine with them. It was the first time she had seen Meg since the wedding, though Tony had been to Knightsbridge, looking very happy, and told her about his visit to the Driver works. She had expected that it would hurt to see the two together, but, curiously enough, it didn’t, and the empty sleeve had had something to do with that. He would be better looked after as it was. All evening they had avoided the matter of John, which made Auriol wonder if there was another woman in it. That gave her a feeling of deadness, because she knew that she was now ready to be to him what he wanted. But one couldn’t say that to Meg.
She did not understand what had changed her, since her thoughts still moved outward, but it was the alchemy of war, working invisibly in her soul, just as it worked in millions of others, that sharp, purging flood whose tidal wave, rising in ever-growing volume, was submerging all the old landmarks of life, its rivalries, its feuds, its jealousies and sense of injury, and leaving instead a vast perspective dipped in blood-red mist and throbbing with the mutter of distant guns. What, wondered Auriol, did she matter, or John, or anyone else?
She left Waterloo rather late that night, and walked home across Westminster Bridge. The river lay like dull silver under a faint moon. The streets were hut half lighted, there being talk of further air raids, but she was so small and London so big that she felt in no way nervous. After a solitary meal, she was seized with a desperate loneliness, and decided to go to a Strand theatre. Searchlights were stabbing the sky.
Men spoke to her. She walked on, with an odd certainty that in all this human motley there must be something waiting and meant particularly for her. In Trafalgar Square news from the front was being told in ripples of electric lamps that ran dizzily along the upper stories of high buildings, while everywhere spread a sea of grey-white faces, tilted, immobile, with narrowing eyes. “Advance consolidated; our line readjusted; no change in the general position.”
Auriol waited for a while, then walked on, not caring where, gradually leaving the crowds, on into Fleet Street and Ludgate. Pausing a moment before St. Paul’s, she surveyed the great pile, and its bulk, lifting majestically into a sky that was now clear, seemed restful and protective, like a portion of Eternity. She thought of going in to rest, and perhaps pray—if she could make up her mind what to pray for except the end of the war—but, in spite of a deadly fatigue, some indeterminate purpose drove her on, and she moved slowly toward the Bank.
Never before had she seen the city at night, and its silence, its emptiness, seemed ghostly, its streets deserted save by an occasional constable; and it was there, at the hub of Empire, that she heard the first dull boom far down the river, a solid thump of sound, quite new to her. Instinctively, she looked up.
Suddenly she saw the thing, high in air, how high she could not tell. It appeared to be hardly moving, a small object shaped like a blunt pencil, and touched into silver by the questing beam of a searchlight. It floated, beautiful, fairylike, then slid out of the light and was instantly lost. It looked too delicate to be of harm, but another boom sounded much closer. Auriol heard the running of distant feet, and began to run herself, blindly, halting every few steps and hammering at door after door. They were all sealed, and the city was a city of the dead. She dared not stare upward again lest something hit her in the face.
She became quite weak, so that when a man seized her arm and started a race for shelter she hung back, a dead weight, and fell, her knees giving out. It didn’t matter, she assured him. He, cursing, picked her up and staggered on. So queer, she thought, to have a man’s arms round her again. The last had been Tony’s, and, she reflected chaotically, Meg had missed that part of it.
They were in King William Street, making for the Tube entrance when, immediately above, came a whistling, tearing shriek, a crash, and the front of a building moved out bodily toward them. She saw it coming, and hid her face against the strange shoulder. Then something pushed them both flat—and that was all.
LATER, it seemed years later, the first thing she heard was a subdued rumble of traffic and the horns of cars. She lay quite still, very puzzled, eyes shut. Why traffic in the city at this hour, and why did her neck feel so stiff? She was utterly tired, and did not want to move. Then, very slowly, so that it was like the tardy dissipation of drifting mist, her mind cleared, and, looking up, she saw a nurse’s white cap, a round face, and large intelligent eyes. The nurse smiled at her.
“Don’t worry; you’ll be quite all right. Just give me your name and address.”
Auriol smiled back, but her cheek began to hurt dreadfully. She put up her hand, and felt bandages round her head, under her chin.
“Where am I?”
“Charing Cross Hospital.”
“I just came past there. I put something in the box.”
The nurse nodded. “Now you’re back again. Please don’t try to think yet.”
“Am I going to die?” said Auriol.
“Most certainly not of this. I wish all my patients were in your condition.”
“And that man?”
“All right too, and please don’t ask any more questions yet. We just want to know who you are, and your relations, or friends.”
Relations! Auriol wanted to laugh, but only her lips moved. She gave the Knightsbridge number, and where Meg might be found, drank something, and went to sleep again. When again she opened her eyes, Meg was in a chair beside her.
“Well, Meg, quite an adventure, wasn’t it?”
“Oh, my dear, my dear, I’m so thankful! Just keep quiet now. I’ll be here as long as you like.”
“I’m all right now. My face—is it—?”
“Nothing that anyone could notice,” Meg lied magnificently. She had seen the surgeon and was prepared. “You mustn’t talk so much.”
“I want to talk. What time is it?”
“About three. You were unconscious a long while.”
“Am I hurt anywhere else? I don’t feel anything.”
Meg shook her head. “That’s the amazing part of it. They found you under a pile of wreckage, protected by a beam of timber.”
“Who is the man, the one who saved me?”
“His name was—” Meg checked herself hard.
"Oh, my dear, try not to think about it now. One can’t do anything. He wasn’t under the beam.”
Auriol lay silent and horrified. No, one couldn’t do anything. ’Twas all done by a man she would never see. But his arms— she could feel them yet, and the way he panted when he carried her. It came much closer than all the invisible deaths across the Channel.
“I’m sorry it wasn’t for someone worth while,” she said in a ghost of a voice. Then vaguely: “When will I be about?”
“Quite soon, and you’ll come to us. We’re staying on in town.”
Auriol’s lips quivered a little. That was the last thing she could have anticipated: being Tony’s guest. A week ago she wouldn’t have thought of it, but now it seemed just right, and simply because she had been knocked out in an air raid. What a strange, unaccountable business war was. Month after month it applied only to others, then all in a flash it involved oneself.
“Tony’s getting another job from the W.O.,” she heard Meg say. “He’s not enough of a mechanic for an inspector of munitions. He knew that after he’d been through the Driver works and told his chief. They were very nice about it.” The two exchanged glances, and a touch of its old mockery crept back into the bandaged face.
“You haven’t done anything there, have you?”
“I telephoned to John the minute I heard, and he’s coming—if that’s anything.”
“O-oh! Awfully kind, I’m sure. Is this visiting day in Charing Cross?”
“Oh, my dear, you mustn’t fight any more, either of you. There’s enough suffering going on without that. Take your happiness while you may. You’ve been fighting yourselves as well as each other.”
“Did you say that to John?”
“All of it, and more.”
The door had opened very quietly, and a nurse beckoned to Meg. She went out, and found John standing rigid, his face grey with dust from the Great North Road. She put her finger to her lips, slipped her arm into his, and led him down the passage out of hearing.
“How is she?” he asked hoarsely.
“Doing splendidly, and out in a few days. Oh, John, I’m so glad you’re here. There’s really nothing to be frightened about.”
His dark eyes bored into her, eyes of a man who had spent seven hours in hell, while, driving like a desperate soul, he fought with shame and the fear that gripped his throat. The thing had descended on him like a black tornado, uprooting every idea he had of himself and his side of things, obliterating his sense of injury and bringing in its wake a flood of pity. He wanted her; had always wanted her. He knew that now. She had not lied; nor Tennant. They had both been right. But not himself.
“Can I see her now?”
“Yes, she’s expecting you. And, John, of course she doesn’t know. She mustn’t for some time.”
“About her face. You remember, I told you. It will always show; rather badly perhaps.”
He looked at her puzzled, as though that mattered, and moistening his dry lips.
“Will you wait here?”
She nodded, and he walked up the passage on his toes. At Auriol’s door he hesitated, took a long breath, and went in. The small bandaged face was watching for him.
“Hullo, John !”
“Hullo, Auriol! What rotten luck!”
“Yes, and I walked ever so far to find it. Wasn’t it stupid? You’ve got here very quickly.”
“I didn’t lose much time. How are you feeling, d-d-darling?”
The china-blue eyes grew misty, and she put out her hand. He, kneeling beside her, pressed it against his cheek.
“I’m sorry, John; but it wasn’t ever what you thought.”
He nodded, whispering that he knew it, and they gazed at each other, while the thing called love unfolded stiff wings, and there came to each of them visions of what might yet be fulfilled. In that moment the ironmaster became fused. He melted. He grew ductile. The hard stubborn nature yielded, and the warmth of what lay against his cheek, reaching his heart, charged it with an infinite pity and tenderness.
“I know, I know,” he repeated. “I was all wrong from the start. Now we’ll have one another, won’t we?”
“I’d like that, John. It’s been pretty lonely here. Were you lonely too?”
“Yes. But we mustn’t talk about it. It’s all over.”
“Yes, that’s it, all over. I’m so glad.” She examined him, her lips with something of their old provocative curve. “You’re not very clean for a hospital, John. I wonder they let you in.”
“I know: came just as I was from the works. Drove myself.”
She looked amused, then of a sudden felt very happily weary. So much had happened since she woke up.
“Meg wants me to stay with them when I get away from here.”
John jerked up his chin, met her eyes, and gave a chuckle.
“Good old Meg. But not this time. You’re staying with me.”
“That would be nice, and I think I’ll go to sleep now. Where will you be when I wake up?”
“Here; always here, every time you wake up.”
“Even if it’s after the whistle blows? I’m not very good at waking.”
“There won’t be any whistle where we are,” he said firmly. “Darling, do you think I could kiss you?”
“I’m sure I don’t know, John. You might try.”