Two days later, on reaching his rooms in the evening, he found this letter on ship’s note-paper, with the Plymouth postmark—
“Fare thee well, and
if for ever,
Then for ever fare thee well”
He read it with a really horrible feeling, for all the world as if he had been accused of a crime and did not know whether he had committed it or not. And, trying to collect his thoughts, he took a cab and drove to her fiat. It was closed, but her address was given him; a bank in Cape Town. He had received his release. In his remorse and relief, so confusing and so poignant, he heard the driver of the cab asking where he wanted to go now. “Oh, back again!” But before they had gone a mile he corrected the address, in an impulse of which next moment he felt thoroughly ashamed. What he was doing indeed, was as indecent as if he were driving from the funeral of his wife to the boudoir of another woman. When he reached the old Square, and the words “To let” stared him in the face, he felt a curious relief, though it meant that he would not see her whom to see for ten minutes he felt he would give a year of life. Dismissing his cab, he stood debating whether to ring the bell. The sight of a maid’s face at the window decided him. Mr. Pierson was out, and the young ladies were away. He asked for Mrs. Laird’s address, and turned away, almost into the arms of Pierson himself. The greeting was stiff and strange. ’Does he know that Leila’s gone?’ he thought. ’If so, he must think me the most awful skunk. And am I? Am I?’ When he reached home, he sat down to write to Leila. But having stared at the paper for an hour and written these three lines—
“My dear Leila, “I cannot express to you the feelings with which I received your letter—”
he tore it up. Nothing would be adequate, nothing would be decent. Let the dead past bury its dead—the dead past which in his heart had never been alive! Why pretend? He had done his best to keep his end up. Why pretend?
In the boarding-house, whence the Lairds had not yet removed, the old lady who knitted, sat by the fireplace, and light from the setting sun threw her shadow on the wall, moving spidery and grey, over the yellowish distemper, in time to the tune of her needles. She was a very old lady—the oldest lady in the world, Noel thought—and she knitted without stopping, without breathing, so that the girl felt inclined to scream. In the evening when George and Gratian were not in, Noel would often sit watching the needles, brooding over her as yet undecided future. And now and again the old lady would look up above her spectacles; move the corners of her lips ever so slightly, and drop her gaze again. She had pitted herself against Fate; so long as she