He put his hand on hers, within his arm, and gave it a squeeze.
“What shall I do till then?” she asked.
“Take a week’s complete rest, and then go on where you are.”
Noel was silent a minute, then said: “Yes; I will.”
They spoke no more on the subject, and George exerted himself to talk about hospital experiences, and that phenomenon, the British soldier. But just before they reached home he said:
“Look here, Nollie! If you’re not ashamed of yourself, no one will be ashamed of you. If you put ashes on your own head, your fellow-beings will, assist you; for of such is their charity.”
And, receiving another of those clear, brooding looks, he left her with the thought: ‘A lonely child!’
Noel went back to her hospital after a week’s rest. George had done more for her than he suspected, for his saying: “Life’s a huge wide adaptable thing!” had stuck in her mind. Did it matter what happened to her? And she used to look into the faces of the people she met, and wonder what was absorbing them. What secret griefs and joys were they carrying about with them? The loneliness of her own life now forced her to this speculation concerning others, for she was extraordinarily lonely; Gratian and George were back at work, her father must be kept at bay; with Leila she felt ill at ease, for the confession had hurt her pride; and family friends and acquaintances of all sorts she shunned like the plague. The only person she did not succeed in avoiding was Jimmy Fort, who came in one evening after dinner, bringing her a large bunch of hothouse violets. But then, he did not seem to matter—too new an acquaintance, too detached. Something he said made her aware that he had heard of her loss, and that the violets were a token of sympathy. He seemed awfully kind that evening, telling her “tales of Araby,” and saying nothing which would shock her father. It was wonderful to be a man and roll about the world as he had, and see all life, and queer places, and people—Chinamen, and Gauchos, and Boers, and Mexicans. It gave her a kind of thirst. And she liked to watch his brown, humorous face; which seemed made of dried leather. It gave her the feeling that life and experience were all that mattered, doing and seeing things; it made her own trouble seem smaller; less important. She squeezed his hand when she said good night: “Thank you for my violets and for coming; it was awfully kind of you! I wish I could have adventures!” And he answered: “You will, my dear fairy princess!” He said it queerly and very kindly.
Fairy Princess! What a funny thing to call her! If he had only known!