Pierson was conscious of Gratian walking past him out of the room. He held out his hand to Leila, and followed. A small noise occurred behind him such as a woman makes when she has put a foot through her own skirt, or has other powerful cause for dismay. Then he saw Noel in the hall, and was vaguely aware of being the centre of a triangle of women whose eyes were playing catch-glance. His daughters kissed each other; and he became seated between them in the taxi. The most unobservant of men, he parted from them in the hall without having perceived anything except that they were rather silent; and, going to his study, he took up a Life of Sir Thomas More. There was a passage therein which he itched to show George Laird, who was coming up that evening.
Gratian and Noel had mounted the stairs with lips tight set, and eyes averted; both were very pale. When they reached the door of Gratian’s room the room which had been their mother’s—Noel was for passing on, but Gratian caught her by the arm, and said: “Come in.” The fire was burning brightly in there, and the two sisters stood in front of it, one on each side, their hands clutching the mantel-shelf, staring at the flames. At last Noel put one hand in front of her eyes, and said:
“I asked her to tell you.”
Gratian made the movement of one who is gripped by two strong emotions, and longs to surrender to one or to the other.
“It’s too horrible,” was all she said.
Noel turned towards the door.
Noel stopped with her hand on the door knob. “I don’t want to be forgiven and sympathised with. I just want to be let alone.”
“How can you be let alone?”
The tide of misery surged up in Noel, and she cried out passionately:
“I hate sympathy from people who can’t understand. I don’t want anyone’s. I can always go away, and lose myself.”
The words “can’t understand” gave Gratian a shock.
“I can understand,” she said.
“You can’t; you never saw him. You never saw—” her lips quivered so that she had to stop and bite them, to keep back a rush of tears.
“Besides you would never have done it yourself.”
Gratian went towards her, but stopped, and sat down on the bed. It was true. She would never have done it herself; it was just that which, for all her longing to help her sister, iced her love and sympathy. How terrible, wretched, humiliating! Her own sister, her only sister, in the position of all those poor, badly brought up girls, who forgot themselves! And her father—their father! Till that moment she had hardly thought of him, too preoccupied by the shock to her own pride. The word: “Dad!” was forced from her.
“That boy!” said Gratian suddenly; “I can’t forgive him. If you didn’t know—he did. It was—it was—” She stopped at the sight of Noel’s face.