His alarum clock, while he knelt in his narrow, monkish little room—ticked the evening hour away into darkness. And still he knelt, dreading to come back into it all, to face the world’s eyes, and the sound of the world’s tongue, and the touch of the rough, the gross, the unseemly. How could he guard his child? How preserve that vision in her life, in her spirit, about to enter such cold, rough waters? But the gong sounded; he got up, and went downstairs.
But this first family moment, which all had dreaded, was relieved, as dreaded moments so often are, by the unexpected appearance of the Belgian painter. He had a general invitation, of which he often availed himself; but he was so silent, and his thin, beardless face, which seemed all eyes and brow, so mournful, that all three felt in the presence of a sorrow deeper even than their own family grief. During the meal he gazed silently at Noel. Once he said: “You will let me paint you now, mademoiselle, I hope?” and his face brightened a little when she nodded. There was never much talk when he came, for any depth of discussion, even of art, brought out at once too wide a difference. And Pierson could never avoid a vague irritation with one who clearly had spirituality, but of a sort which he could not understand. After dinner he excused himself, and went off to his study. Monsieur would be happier alone with the two girls! Gratian, too, got up. She had remembered Noel’s words: “I mind him less than anybody.” It was a chance for Nollie to break the ice.
“I have not seen you for a long time, mademoiselle,” said the painter, when they were alone.
Noel was sitting in front of the empty drawing-room hearth, with her arms stretched out as if there had been a fire there.
“I’ve been away. How are you going to paint me, monsieur?”
“In that dress, mademoiselle; Just as you are now, warming yourself at the fire of life.”
“But it isn’t there.”
“Yes, fires soon go out. Mademoiselle, will you come and see my wife? She is ill.”
“Now?” asked Noel, startled.
“Yes, now. She is really ill, and I have no one there. That is what I came to ask of your sister; but—now you are here, it’s even better. She likes you.”
Noel got up. “Wait one minute!” she said, and ran upstairs. Her baby was asleep, and the old nurse dozing. Putting on a cloak and cap of grey rabbit’s fur, she ran down again to the hall where the painter was waiting; and they went out together.
“I do not know if I am to blame,” he said, “my wife has been no real wife to me since she knew I had a mistress and was no real husband to her.”
Noel stared round at his face lighted by a queer, smile.