“Oh, Miss Noel, you can’t,—”
But Noel was gone. She walked towards Charing Cross; and, to kill time, went into a restaurant and had that simple repast, coffee and a bun, which those in love would always take if Society did not forcibly feed them on other things. Food was ridiculous to her. She sat there in the midst of a perfect hive of creatures eating hideously. The place was shaped like a modern prison, having tiers of gallery round an open space, and in the air was the smell of viands and the clatter of plates and the music of a band. Men in khaki everywhere, and Noel glanced from form to form to see if by chance one might be that which represented, for her, Life and the British Army. At half-past eight she went out and made her way: through the crowd, still mechanically searching “khaki” for what she wanted; and it was perhaps fortunate that there was about her face and walk something which touched people. At the station she went up to an old porter, and, putting a shilling into his astonished hand, asked him to find out for her whence Morland’s regiment would start. He came back presently, and said:
“Come with me, miss.”
Noel went. He was rather lame, had grey whiskers, and a ghostly thin resemblance to her uncle Bob, which perhaps had been the reason why she had chosen him. 64
“Brother goin’ out, miss?”
“Ah! It’s a crool war. I shan’t be sorry when it’s over. Goin’ out and comin’ in, we see some sad sights ’ere. Wonderful spirit they’ve got, too. I never look at the clock now but what I think: ’There you go, slow-coach! I’d like to set you on to the day the boys come back!’ When I puts a bag in: ’Another for ‘ell’ I thinks. And so it is, miss, from all I can ’ear. I’ve got a son out there meself. It’s ’ere they’ll come along. You stand quiet and keep a lookout, and you’ll get a few minutes with him when he’s done with ’is men. I wouldn’t move, if I were you; he’ll come to you, all right—can’t miss you, there.’ And, looking at her face, he thought: ‘Astonishin’ what a lot o’ brothers go. Wot oh! Poor little missy! A little lady, too. Wonderful collected she is. It’s ‘ard!’” And trying to find something consoling to say, he mumbled out: “You couldn’t be in a better place for seen’im off. Good night, miss; anything else I can do for you?”
“No, thank you; you’re very kind.”
He looked back once or twice at her blue-clad figure standing very still. He had left her against a little oasis of piled-up empty milk-cans, far down the platform where a few civilians in similar case were scattered. The trainway was empty as yet. In the grey immensity of the station and the turmoil of its noise, she felt neither lonely nor conscious of others waiting; too absorbed in the one thought of seeing him and touching him again. The empty train began backing in, stopped, and telescoped with a series of little clattering bangs, backed on again, and subsided to rest. Noel turned her eyes towards the station arch ways. Already she felt tremulous, as though the regiment were sending before it the vibration of its march.