"I can't realise it, even now," she went on, drawing her hand away at last. "I pictured you at Westminster, in committee rooms and all sorts of places. Aren't you forging weapons to drive us from our homes and portion out our savings?"
"I have left the thunderbolts alone for one short week-end," he answered. "I felt a hunger for this moorland air. London becomes so enveloping." Jane sat upright upon her horse and looked at him with a mocking smile. "How ungallant! I hoped you had come to atone for your neglect."
"Have I neglected you?" he asked quietly, turning and walking by her side.
"Shockingly! You lunched with me on the seventh of August. I see you again on the second of November, and I do believe that I shall have to save you from starvation again."
"It's quite true," he admitted. "I have a sandwich in my pocket, though, in case you were away from home."
"Worse than ever," she sighed. "You didn't even trouble to make enquiries."
"From whom should I? Robert—my servant—his wife, and a boy to help in the garden are all my present staff at the Manor. Robert drives the car and waits on me, and his wife cooks. They are estimable people, but I don't think they are up in local news."
"You were quite safe," she said, looking ahead of her. "I am never away." The tail end of a scat of rain beat on their faces. From the hollow on their left, the wind came booming up.
"I should have thought that for these few months just now," he suggested, "you might have cared for a change."
"I have my work here, such as it is," she answered, a little listlessly. "If I were in town, for instance, I should have nothing to do."
"You would meet people. You must sometimes feel the need of society down here."
"I doubt whether I should meet the people who would interest me," she replied, "and in any case I have my work here. That keeps me occupied."
They turned into the avenue and soon the long front of the house spread itself out before them. Jane, who had been momentarily absorbed, looked down at her companion.
"You are alone at the Manor?" she asked.
She became the hostess directly they had passed the portals of the house. She led him across the hall into her little sanctum.
"This is the room," she told him, "in which I never do a stroke of work—sacred to the frivolities alone. I shall send Morton in to see what you will have to drink, while I change my habit. You must have something after that walk. I shan't be long."
For the second time she avoided meeting his eves as she left the room. Tallente stood on the hearth-rug, still looking at the closed door through which she had vanished, puzzled, a little chilled. He gave his order to the attentive butler who presently appeared and who looked at him with covert interest,—the Press had been almost hysterically prodigal of his name during the last few weeks. Then he settled down to wait for her return with an impatience which became almost uncontrollable. It seemed to him, as he paced restlessly about, that this little apartment, which he remembered so well, had in a measure changed, was revealing a different atmosphere, as though in sympathy with some corresponding change in its presiding spirit. There was a huge and well-worn couch, smothered with cushions and suggestive of a comfort almost voluptuous; a large easy-chair, into which he presently sank, of the same character. The wood logs burning in the grate gave out a pleasant sense of warmth. He took more particular note of the volumes in the well-filled bookcases,—volumes of poetry, French novels, with a fair sprinkling of modern English fiction. There was a plaster cast of the Paris Magdalene over the door and one or two fine point etchings, after the style of Heillieu, upon the walls. There was no writing table in the room, nor any signs of industry, but a black oak gate-table was laden with magazines and fashion papers. Against the brown walls, a clump of flaming yellow gorse leaned from a distant corner, its faint almond-like fragrance mingling aromatically with the perfume of burning logs and a great bowl of dried lavender. More than ever it seemed to Tallente that the atmosphere of the room had changed, had become in some subtle way at the same time more enervating and more exciting. It was like a revelation of a hidden side of the woman, who might indeed have had some purpose of her own in leaving him here. He set down his empty glass with the feeling that vermouth was a heavier drink than he had fancied. Then a streak of watery sunshine filtered its way through the plantation and crept across the worn, handsome carpet. He felt a queer exultation at the sound of her footsteps outside. She entered, as she had departed, without directly meeting his earnest gaze.
"I hope you have made yourself at home," she said. "Dear me, how untidy everything is!"
She moved about, altering the furniture a little, making little piles of the magazines, a graceful, elegant figure in her dark velvet house dress, with a thin band of fur at the neck. She turned suddenly around and found him watching her. This time she laughed at him frankly.
"Sit down at once," she ordered, motioning him back to his easy-chair and coming herself to a corner of the lounge. "Remember that you have a great deal to tell me and explain. The newspapers say such queer things. Is it true that I really am entertaining a possible future Prime Minister?"
"I suppose that might be," he answered, a little vaguely, his eyes still fixed upon her. "So this is your room. I like it. And I like—"
"Well, go on, please," she begged.
"I like the softness of your gown, and I like the fur against your throat and neck, and I like those buckles on your shoes, and the way you do your hair."
She laughed, gracefully enough, yet with some return to that note of uneasiness.
"You mustn't turn my head!" she protested. "You, fresh from London, which they tell me is terribly gay just now! I want to understand just what it means, your throwing in your lot with the Democrats. My uncle says, for instance, that you have abandoned respectable politics to become a Tower Hill pedagogue."
"Respectable politics," he replied, "if by that you mean the present government of the country, have been in the wrong hands for so long that people scarcely realise what is undoubtedly the fact—that the country isn't being governed at all. A Government with an Opposition Party almost as powerful as itself, all made up of separate parties which are continually demanding sops, can scarcely progress very far, can it?"
"But the Democrats," she ventured, "are surely only one of these isolated parties?"
"I have formed a different idea of their strength," he answered. "I believe that if a general election took place to-morrow, the Democrats would sweep the country. I believe that we should have the largest working majority any Government has had since the war."
"How terrible!" she murmured, involuntarily truthful.
"Your tame socialism isn't equal to the prospect," he remarked, a little bitterly.
"My tame socialism, as you call it," she replied, "draws the line at seeing the country governed by one class of person only, and that class the one who has the least at stake in it."
"Lady Jane," he said earnestly, "I am glad that I am here to point out to you a colossal mistake from which you and many others are suffering. The Democrats do not represent Labour only."
"The small shopkeepers?" she suggested.
"Nothing of the sort," he replied. "The influence of my party has spread far deeper and further. We number amongst our adherents the majority of the professional classes and the majority of the thinking people amongst the community of moderate means. Why, if you consider the legislation of the last seven or eight years, you will see how they have been driven to embrace some sort of socialism. Nothing so detestable and short-sighted as our financial policy has ever been known in the history of the world. The middle classes, meaning by the middle classes professional men and men of moderate means, bore the chief burden of the war. They submitted to terrible taxation, to many privations, besides the universal gift of their young blood. We won the war and what was the result? The wealth of the country, through ghastly legislation, drifted into the hands of the profiteering classes, the wholesale shopkeepers, the ship owners, the factory owners, the mine owners. The professional man with two thousand a year was able to save a quarter of that before the war. After the war, taxation demanded that quarter and more for income tax, thrust upon him an increased cost of living, cut the ground from beneath his feet. It isn't either of the two extremes—the aristocrat or the labouring man—where you must look for the pulse of a country's prosperity. It is to the classes in between, and, Lady Jane, they are flocking to our camp just as fast as they can, just as fast as the country is heading for ruin under its present Government."
"You are very convincing," she admitted. "Why have you not spoken so plainly in the House?"
"The moment hasn't arrived," Tallente replied. "There will be a General Election before many months have passed and that will be the end of the present fools' paradise at St. Stephen's."
"We shan't abuse our power," he assured her. "What we aim at is a National Party which will consider the interests of every class. That is our reading of the term 'Democrat.' Our programme is not nearly so revolutionary as you are probably led to believe, but we do mean to smooth away, so far as we can from a practical point of view, the inequalities of life. We want to sweep away the last remnants of feudalism."
"Tell me why they were so anxious to gather you into the fold?" she asked.
"I think for this reason," he explained. "Stephen Dartrey is a brilliant writer, a great orator, and an inspired lawmaker. The whole world recognises him as a statesman. It is his name and genius which have made the Democratic Party possible. On the other hand, he is not in the least a politician. He doesn't understand the game as it is played in the House of Commons. He lives above those things. That is why I suppose they wanted me. I have learnt the knack of apt debating and I understand the tricks. Even if ever I become the titular head of the party, Dartrey will remain the soul and spirit of it. If they were not able to lay their hands upon some person like myself, I believe that Miller was supposed to have the next claim, and I should think that Miller is the one man in the world who might disunite the strongest party on earth."
"Disunite it? I should think he would disperse it to the four corners of the world!" she exclaimed.
The butler announced luncheon. She rose to her feet.
"I cannot tell you," he said, with a little sigh of relief, as he held open the door for her, "how thankful I am that I happened to find you alone."
Luncheon was a pleasant, even a luxurious meal, for the Woolhanger chef had come from the ducal household, but it was hedged about with restraints which fretted Tallente and rendered conversation monosyllabic. It was served, too, in the larger dining room, where the table, reduced to its smallest dimensions, still seemed to place a formidable distance between himself and his hostess. A manservant stood behind Lady Jane's chair, and the butler was in constant attendance at the sideboard. Under such circumstances, conversation became precarious and was confined chiefly to local topics. When they left the room for their coffee, they found it served in the hall. Tallente, however, protested vigorously.
"Can't we have it served in your sitting room, please?" he begged. "It is impossible to talk to you here. There are people in the background all the time, and you might have callers."
She hesitated for a moment but yielded the point. With the door closed and the coffee tray between them, Tallente drew a sigh of relief.
"I hope you don't think I am a nuisance," he said bluntly, "but, after all, I came down from London purposely to see you."
"I am not so vain as to believe that," she answered.
"It is nevertheless true and I think that you do believe it. What have I done that you should all of a sudden build a fence around yourself?"
"That may be," she replied, smiling, "for my own protection. I can assure you that I am not used to tete-a-tete luncheons with guests who insist upon having their own way in everything."
"I wonder if it is a good thing for you to be so much your own mistress," he reflected.
"You must judge by results. I always have been—at least since I decided to lead this sort of life."
"Why have you never married?" he asked her, a little abruptly.
"We discussed that before, didn't we? I suppose because the right man has never asked me."
"Perhaps," he ventured, "the right man isn't able to."
"Perhaps there isn't any right man at all—perhaps there never will be."
The minutes ticked away. The room, with its mingled perfumes and pleasant warmth, its manifold associations with her wholesome and orderly life, seemed to have laid a sort of spell upon him. She was leaning back in her corner of the lounge, her hands hanging over the sides, her eyes fixed upon the burning log. She herself was so abstracted that he ventured to let his eyes dwell upon her, to trace the outline of her slim but powerful limbs, to admire her long, delicate feet and hands, the strong womanly face, with its kindly mouth and soft, almost affectionate eyes. Tallente, who for the last ten years had looked upon the other sex as non-existent, crushed into an uninteresting negation for him owing to his wife's cold and shadowy existence, twice within the last few months found himself pass in a different way under the greatest spell in life. Nora Miall had provoked his curiosity, had reawakened a dormant sense of sex without attracting it towards herself. Jane brought to him again, from the first moment he had seen her, that half-wistful recrudescence of the sentiment of his earlier days. He was amazed to find how once more in her presence that sentiment had taken to itself fire and life, how different a thing it was from those first dreams of her, which had seemed like an echo from the period of his poetry-reading youth. Of all women in the world she seemed to him now the most desirable. That she was unattainable he was perfectly willing to admit. Even then he had not the strength to deny himself the doubtful joys of imagination with regard to her. He revelled in her proximity because of the pleasure it gave him, heedless or reckless of consequences. Between them, in vastly different degrees, these two women seemed to have brought him back something of his youth.
The silence became noticeable, led him at last into a certain measure of alarm.
"Lady Jane," he ventured, "have I said anything to offend you?"
"Of course not," she answered, looking at him kindly.
"You are very silent. Are you afraid that I am going to attempt to make love to you?"
She was startled in earnest this time. She sat up and looked at him disapprovingly. There was a touch of the old hauteur in her tone.
"How can you be so ridiculous!" she exclaimed.
"Would it be ridiculous of me?"
"Does it occur to you," she asked, "that I am the sort of person to encourage attentions from a man who is not free to offer them?"
"I had forgotten that," he admitted, quite frankly. "Of course, I see the point. I have a wife, even though of her own choosing she does not count."
"So do I."
Jane broke into a little laugh.
"Now we are both being absurd," she declared, "and I don't want to be and I don't want you to be. Of course, you can't look at things just as I do. You belong to a very large world. You spend your life destroying obstacles. All my people, you know," she went on, "look upon me as terribly emancipated. They think my mild socialism and my refusal to listen to such a thing as a chaperon most terribly improper, but at heart, you know, I am still a very conventional person. I have torn down a great many conventions, but there are some upon which I cannot bring myself even to lay my fingers."
"Perhaps it wouldn't be you if you did," he reflected.
"And yet," he went on, "tell me, are you wholly content here? Your life, in its way, is splendid. You live as much for the benefit of others as for yourself. You are encouraging the right principle amongst your yeomen and your farmers. You are setting your heel upon feudalism—you, the daughter of a race who have always demanded it. You live amongst these wonderful surroundings, you grow into the bigness of them, nature becomes almost your friend. It is one of the most dignified and beautiful lives I ever knew for a woman, and yet—are you wholly content?"
"I am not," she admitted frankly. "And listen," she went on, after a moment's pause, "I will show you how much I trust you, how much I really want you to understand me. I am not completely happy because I know perfectly well that it is unnatural to live as I do. If I met the man I could care for and who cared for me, I should prefer to be married." She had commenced her speech with the faintest tinge of colour burning underneath the wholesome sunburn of her cheeks. She had spoken boldly enough, even though towards the end of her sentence her voice had grown very low. When she had finished, however, it seemed as though the memory of her words were haunting her, as though she suddenly realised the nakedness of them. She buried her face in her hands, and he saw her shoulders heave as though she were sobbing. He stood very close and for the first time he touched her. He held the fingers of her hand gently in his. "Dear Lady Jane," he begged, "don't regret even for a moment that you have spoken naturally. If we are to be friends, to be anything at all to one another, it is wonderful of you to tell me so sweetly what women take such absurd pains to conceal. . . . When you look up, let us start our friendship all over again, only before you do, listen to my confession. If fifteen years could be rolled off my back and I were free, it isn't political ambition I should look to for my guiding star. I should have one far greater, far more wonderful desire." The fingers he held were gently withdrawn. She drew herself up. Her forehead was wrinkled questioningly. She forced a smile. "You would be very foolish," she said, "if you tried to part with one of those fifteen years. Every one has brought you experiences Every one has helped to make you what you are."
"And yet—" he began.
He broke off abruptly in his speech. The hall seemed suddenly full of voices. Jane rose to her feet at the sound of approaching footsteps. She made the slightest possible grimace, but Tallente was oppressed with a suspicion that the interruption was not altogether unwelcome to her.
"Some of my cousins and their friends from Minehead," she said. "I am so sorry. I expect they have lost the hunt and come here for tea."
The room was almost instantly invaded by a company of light-hearted, noisy young people, flushed with exercise and calling aloud for tea, intimates all of them, calling one another by their Christian names, speaking a jargon which sounded to Tallente like another language. He stayed for a quarter of an hour and then took his leave. Of the newcomers, no one seemed to have an idea who he was, no one seemed to care in the least whether he remained or went, He was only able to snatch a word of farewell with Jane at the door. She shook her head at his whispered request.
"I am afraid not," she answered. "How could I? Besides, there is no telling when this crowd will go. You are sure you won't let me send you home?"
Tallente shook his head.
"The walk will do me good," he said. "I get lazy in town. But you are sure—"
The butler was holding open the door. Two of the girls had suddenly taken possession of Jane. She shook her head slightly.
"Good-by," she called out. "Come and see me next time you are down."
Tallente was suddenly his old self, grave and severe. He bowed stiffly in response to the little chorus of farewells and followed the butler down the hall. The latter, who was something of a politician, did his best to indicate by his manner his appreciation of Tallente's position.
"You are sure you won't allow me to order a car, sir?" he said, with his hand upon the door. "I know her ladyship would be only too pleased. It's a long step to the Manor, and if you'll forgive my saying so, sir, you've a good deal on your shoulders just now."
Tallente caught a glimpse of the bleak moorland and of the distant hills, wrapped in mist. The idea of vigorous exercise, however, appealed to him. He shook his head.
"I'd rather walk, thanks," he said.
"It's a matter of five miles, sir."
Tallente smiled. There was something in the fresh, cold air wonderfully alluring after the atmosphere of the room he had quitted. He turned his coat collar up and strode down the avenue.
Tallente reached the Manor about an hour and a half later, mud-splashed, wet and weary. Robert followed him into the study and mixed him a whisky and soda.
"You've walked all the way back, sir?" he remarked, with a note of protest in his tone.
"They offered me a car," Tallente admitted. "I didn't want it. I came down for fresh air and exercise."
"Two very good things in their way, sir, but easily overdone," was the mild rejoinder. "These hills are terrible unless you're at them all the time."
Tallente drank his whisky and soda almost greedily and felt the benefit of it, although he was still weary. He had walked for five miles in the company of ghosts and their faces had been grey. Perhaps, too, it was the passing of his youth which brought this tiredness to his limbs.
"Robert," he confessed abruptly, "I was a fool to come down here at all."
"It's dreary at this time of the year unless you've time to shoot or hunt, sir. Why not motor to Bath to-morrow? I could wire for rooms, and I could drive you up to London the next day. Motoring's a good way of getting the air, sir, and you won't overtire yourself."
"I'll think of it in the morning," his master promised.
"My wife has found the silver, sir," Robert announced, as he turned to leave the room, "and I managed to get a little fish. That, with some soup, a pheasant, and a fruit tart, we thought—"
"I shall be alone, Robert," Tallente interrupted. "There is no one coming for dinner."
The man's disappointment was barely concealed. He sighed as he took up the tray.
"Very good, sir. Your clothes are all out. I'll turn on the hot water in the bathroom."
Tallente threw off his rain and mud-soaked clothes, bathed, changed and descended to the dining room just as the gong sounded. Robert was in the act of moving the additional place from the little round dining table which he had drawn up closer to the wood fire, but his master stopped him.
"You can let those things be," he directed. "Take away the champagne, though. I shan't want that."
Robert bowed in silent appreciation of his master's humour and began ladling out soup at the sideboard. Tallente's lips were curled a little, partly in self-contempt, with perhaps just a dash of self-pity. It had come to this, then, that he must dine with fancies rather than alone, that this tardily developed streak of sentimentality must be ministered to or would drag him into the depths of dejection. He began to understand the psychology of its late appearance. Stella's artificial companionship had kept his thoughts imprisoned, fettered with the meshes of an instinctive fidelity, and had driven him sedulously to the solace of work and books. Now that it was removed and he was to all practical purposes a free man, they took their own course. His life had suddenly become a natural one, and all that was human in him responded to the possibilities of his solitude, He had had as yet no time to experience the relief, to appreciate his liberty, before he was face to face with this new loneliness. To-night, he thought, as he looked at the empty place and remembered his wistful, almost diffident invitation, the solitude was almost unendurable. If she had only understood how much it meant, surely she would have made some effort, would not have been content with that half-embarrassed, half-doubtful shake of the head! In the darkened room, with the throb of the sea and the crackling of the lop in his ears, and only Robert's silent form for company, he felt a sudden craving for the things of his youth, for another side of life, the restaurants, the bright eyes of women, the whispered words of pleasant sentiment, the perfume shaken into the atmosphere they created, the low music in the background "I beg your pardon, sir," Robert said in his ear, "your soup. Gertrude has taken such pains with the dinner, sir," he added diffidently. "If I might take the liberty of suggesting it, it would be as well if you could eat something." Tallente took up his spoon. Then they both started, they both turned to the window. A light had flashed into the room, a low, purring sound came from outside.
"A car, sir!" Robert exclaimed, his face full of pleasurable anticipation. "If you'll excuse me, I'll answer the door. Might it be the lady, after all, sir?" He hurried out. Tallente rose slowly to his feet. He was listening intently. The thing wasn't possible, he told himself. It wasn't possible! Then he heard a voice in the hall. Robert threw the door open and announced in a tone of triumph—
"Lady Jane Partington, sir."
She came towards him, smiling, self-possessed, but a little interrogative. He had a lightning-like impression of her beautiful shoulders rising from her plain black gown, her delightfully easy walk, the slimness and comeliness and stateliness of her.
"I know that I ought to be ashamed of myself for coming after I had told you I couldn't," she said. "It will serve me right if you've eaten all the dinner, but I do hope you haven't."
"I had only just sat down," he told her, as he and Robert held her chair, "and I think that this is the kindest action you ever performed in your life."
Robert, his face glowing with satisfaction, had become ubiquitous. She had scarcely subsided into her chair before he was offering her a cocktail on a silver tray, serving Tallente with his forgotten glass, at the sideboard ladling out soup, out of the room and in again, bringing back the rejected bottle of champagne.
"You will never believe that I am a sane person again," she laughed. "After you had gone, and all those foolish children had departed, I felt it was quite impossible to sit down and dine alone. I wanted so much to come and I realised how ridiculous it was of me not to have accepted at once. At the last moment I couldn't bear it any longer, so I rushed into the first gown I could find, ordered out my little coupe and here I am."
"The most welcome guest who ever came to a lonely man," he assured her. "A moment ago, Robert was complaining because I was sending my soup away. Now I shall show him what Devon air can do."
The champagne was excellent, and the dinner over which Gertrude had taken so much care was after all thoroughly appreciated. Tallente, suddenly and unexpectedly light-hearted, felt a keen desire to entertain his welcome guest, and remembered his former successes as a raconteur. They pushed politics and all personal matters far away. He dug up reminiscences of his class in foreign capitals, when he had first entered the Diplomatic Service, betrayed his intimate knowledge of the Florence which they both loved, of Paris, where she had studied and which he had seen under so many aspects,—Paris, the home of beauty and fashion before the war; torn with anguish and horror during its earlier stages; grim, steadfast and sombre in the clays of Verdun; wildly, madly exultant when wreathed and decorated with victory. There were so many things to talk about for two people of agile brains come together late in life. They had moved into the study and Lady Jane was sealed in his favourite easy-chair, sipping her coffee and some wonderful green chartreuse, before a single personal note had crept into the flow of their conversation.
"It can't be that I am in Devonshire," she said. "I never realised how much like a succession of pictures conversation can be. You seem to remind me so much of things which I have kept locked away just because I have had no one to share them with."
"You are in Devonshire all right," he answered, smiling. "You will realise it when you turn out of my avenue and face the hills. You see, you've dropped down from the fairyland of 'up over' to the nesting place of the owls and the gulls."
"Nine hundred feet," she murmured. "Thank heavens for my forty horsepower engine! I want to see the sea break against your rocks," she went on, as she took the cigarette which he passed her. "There used to be a little path through your plantation to a place where you look sheer down. Don't you remember, you took me there the first time I came to see you, in August, and I have never forgotten it."
He rang the bell for her coat. The night, though windy and dark, was warm. Stars shone out from unexpected places, pencil-like streaks of inky-black clouds stretched menacingly across the sky. The wind came down from the moors above with a dull boom which seemed echoed by the waves beating against the giant rocks. The beads of the bare trees among which they passed were bent this way and that, and the few remaining leaves rustled in vain resistance, or, yielding to the irresistible gusts, sailed for a moment towards the skies, to be dashed down into the ever-growing carpet. The path was narrow and they walked in single file, but at the bend he drew level with her, walking on the seaward side and guiding her with his fingers upon her arm. Presently they reached the little circular space where rustic seats had been placed, and leaned over a grey stone wall.
There was nothing of the midsummer charm about the scene to-night. Sheer below them the sea, driven by tide and wind, rushed upon the huge masses of rock or beat direct upon the cave-indented cliffs. The spray leapt high into the air, to be caught up by the wind in whirlpools, little ghostly flecks, luminous one moment and gone forever the next. Far away across the pitchy waters they could see at regular intervals a line of white where the breakers came rushing in, here and there the agitated lights of passing steamers; opposite, the twin flares on the Welsh coast, and every sixty seconds the swinging white illumination from the Lynmouth Lighthouse, shining up from behind the headland. Jane slipped one hand through his arm and stood there, breathless, rapturously watchful. "This is wonderful," she murmured. "It is the one thing we have always lacked at Woolhanger. We get the booming of the wind—wonderful it is, too, like the hollow thunder of guns or the quick passing of an underground army—but we miss this. I feel, somehow, as though I knew now why it tears past us, uprooting the very trees that stand in its way. It rushes to the sea. What a meeting!" Her hand tightened upon his arm as a great wave broke direct upon the cliff below and a torrent of wind, rushing through the trees and downwards, caught the spray and scattered it around them and high over their heads.
"We humans," he whispered, "are taught our lesson."
"Do we need it?" she asked, with sudden fierceness. "Do you believe that because some mysterious power imposes restraint upon us, the passion isn't there all the while?"
She was suddenly in his arms, the warm wind shrieking about them, the darkness thick and soft as a mantle. Only he saw the anguished happiness in her eyes as they closed beneath his kisses.
"One moment out of life," she faltered, "one moment!"
Another great wave shook the ground beneath them, but she had drawn away. She struggled for breath. Then once more her hand was thrust through his arm. He knew so well that his hour was over and he submitted.
"Back, please," she whispered, "back through the plantation—quietly."
An almost supernatural instinct divined and acceded to her desire for silence. So they walked slowly back towards the long, low house whose faint lights flickered through the trees. She leaned a little upon him, the hand which she had passed through his arm was clasped in his. Only the wind spoke. When at last they were en the terraces she drew a long breath.
"Dear friend," she said softly, "see how I trust you. I leave in your keeping the most precious few minutes of my life."
"This is to be the end, then?" he faltered.
"It is not we who have decided that," she answered. "It is just what must be. You go to a very difficult life, a very splendid one. I have my smaller task. Don't unfit me for it. We will each do our best."
Her servant was waiting by the car. His figure loomed up through the darkness. "You will come into the house for a few minutes?" he begged hoarsely. She shook her head.
"Why? Our farewells have been spoken. I leave you—so."
The man had disappeared behind the bonnet of the car. She grasped his hand with both of hers and brushed it lightly with her lips. Then she gilded away. A moment later he was listening to her polite speeches as she leaned out of the coupe. "My dinner was too wonderful," she said. "Do make my compliments to that dear Robert and his wife. Good luck to you, and don't rob us poor landowners of every penny we possess in life."
The car was gone in the midst of his vague little response. He watched the lights go flashing up the hillside, crawling around the hairpin corners, up until it seemed that they had reached the black clouds and were climbing into the heavens. Then he turned back into the house. The world was still a place for dreams.
Tallente sat in the morning train, on his way to town, and on the other side of the bare ridge at which he gazed so earnestly Lady Jane and Segerson had brought their horses to a standstill half way along a rude cart track which led up to a farmhouse tucked away in the valley.
"This is where James Crockford's land commences," Segerson remarked, riding up to his companion's side. "Look around you. I think you will admit that I have not exaggerated."
She frowned thoughtfully. On every side were evidences of poor farming and neglect. The untrimmed hedges had been broken down in many places by cattle. A plough which seemed as though it had been embedded there for ages, stood in the middle of a half-ploughed field. Several tracts of land which seemed prepared for winter sowing were covered with stones. The farmhouse yard, into which they presently passed, was dirty and untidy. Segerson leaned down and knocked on the door with his whip. After a short delay, a slatternly-looking woman, with tousled fair hair, answered the summons.
"Mr. Crockford in?" Segerson asked.
"You'll find him in the living room," the woman answered curtly, with a stare at Lady Jane. "Here's himself."
She retreated into the background. A man with flushed face, without collar or tie, clad in trousers and shirt only, had stepped out of the parlour. He stared at his visitors in embarrassment.
"I came over to have a word or two with you on business, Mr. Crockford," Jane said coldly. "I rather expected to find you on the land."
The man mumbled something and threw open the door of the sitting room.
"Won't you come in?" he invited. "There's just Mr. Pettigrew here—the vet from Barnstaple. He's come over to look at one of my cows."
Mr. Pettigrew, also flushed, rose to his feet. Jane acknowledged his greeting and glanced around the room. It was untidy, dirty and close, smelling strongly of tobacco and beer. On the table was a bottle of whisky, half empty, and two glasses.
"There is really no reason why I should disturb you," Jane said, turning back upon the threshold. "A letter from Mr. Segerson will do."
Crockford, however, had pulled himself together. A premonition of his impending fate had already produced a certain sullenness.
"Pettigrew," he directed, "you get out and have another look at the cow. If you've any business word to say to me, your ladyship, I'm here."
Jane looked once more around the squalid room, watched the unsteady figure of Pettigrew departing and looked back at her tenant.
"Your lease is up on March the twenty-fifth, Crockford," she reminded him. "I have come to tell you that I shall not be prepared to renew it."
The man simply blinked at her. His fuddled brain was not equal to grappling with such a catastrophe.
"Your farm is favourably situated," she continued, "and, although small, has great possibilities. I find you are dropping behind your neighbours and your crops are poorer each season. Have you saved any money, Crockford?"
"Saved any money," the man blustered, "with shepherd's wages alone at two pounds a week, and a week's rain starting in the day I began hay-making. Why, my barley—"
"You started your hay-making ten days too late," Segerson interrupted sternly. "You had plenty of warning. And as for your barley, you sold it in the King's Arms at Barnstaple, when you'd had too much to drink, at thirty per cent, below its value."
Jane turned towards the door.
"I need not stay any longer," she said. "I wanted to look at your farm for myself, Mr. Crockford, and I thought it only right that you should have early notice of my intention to ask you to vacate the place."
The cold truth was finding its way into the man's consciousness. It had a wonderfully sobering effect.
"Look here, ma'am," he demanded, "is it true that you lent Farmer Holroyd four hundred pounds to buy his own farm and the Crocombe brothers two hundred each?"
"Quite true," Jane replied coldly. "What of it?"
"What of it?" the man repeated. "You lend them youngsters money and then you come to me, a man who's been on this land for twenty-two years, and you've nothing to say but 'get out!' Where am I to find another farm at my time of life? Just answer me that, will you?"
"It is not my concern," Jane declared. "I only know that I decline to have any tenants on my property who do not do justice to the land. When I see that they do justice to it, then it is my wish that they should possess it. It is true that I have lent money to some of the farmers round here, but the greater part of what they have put down for the purchase of their holdings is savings,—money they had saved and earned by working early and late, by careful farming and husbandry, by putting money in the bank every quarter. You've had the same opportunity. You have preferred to waste your time and waste your money. You've had more than one warning you know, Crockford."
"Aye, more than a dozen," Segerson muttered.
The man looked at them both and there was a dull hate gathering in his eyes.
"It's easy to talk about saving money and working hard, you that have got everything you want in life and no work to do," he protested "It's enough to make a man turn Socialist to listen to un."
"Mr. Crockford," Jane said, "I am a Socialist and if you take the trouble to understand even the rudiments of socialism, you will learn that the drones have as small a part in that scheme of life as in any other. You have a right to what you produce. It is one of the pleasures of my life to help the deserving to enjoy what they produce. It is also one of the duties, when I find a non-productive person filling a position to which his daily life and character do not entitle him, to pull him up like a weed. That is my idea of socialism, Mr. Crockford. You will leave on March 25th."
They rode homeward into a gathering storm. A mass of black clouds was rolling up from the north, and an unexpected wind came bellowing down the coombs, bending the stunted oaks and dark pines and filling the air with sonorous but ominous music. The hills around soon became invisible, blotted out by fragments of the gathering mists. The cold sleet stung their faces. Out on the moors was no sound but time tinkling of distant sheep bells.
"There's snow coming," Segerson muttered, as he turned up his coat collar.
"It won't do any harm," she answered. "The earth lies warm under it."
The lights of Parracombe, precipitous and unexpected, were like flecks in the sky, wiped out by a sudden driving storm of sleet. A little while later they cantered up the avenue to Woolhanger and Jane slipped from her horse with a little sigh of relief.
"You'd better stay and have some tea, Mr. Segerson," she invited. "John will take your horse and give him a rubdown."
She changed her habit and, forgetting her guest, indulged in the luxury of a hot bath. She descended some time later to find him sitting in front of the tea tray in the hall. A more than usually gracious smile soon drove the frown from his forehead.
"I really am frightfully sorry," she apologised, as she handed him his tea. "I had no idea I was so wet. You'll have rather a bad ride home."
"Oh, I'm used to it," he answered. "I'm afraid they'll lose a good many sheep on the higher farms, though, if the storm turns out as bad as it threatens. Hear that!"
A tornado of wind seemed to shake the ground beneath their feet. Jane shivered.
"I suppose," she reflected, "that man Crockford thought I was very cruel to-day."
"I will tell you Crockford's point of view," Segerson replied. "He doesn't exactly understand what your aims are, and wherever he goes he hears nothing but praise of the way you have treated your tenants and the way you have tried to turn them into small landowners. He isn't intelligent enough to realise that there is a principle behind all this. He has simply come to feel that he has a lenient landlord and that he has only to sit still and the plums will drop into his mouth, too. Crockford is one of the weak spots in your system, Lady Jane. There is no place for him or his kind in a self-supporting world."
"Then I am afraid he must go down," she said. "He simply stands in the way of better men."
"One reads a good deal of Mr. Tallente, nowadays," Segerson remarked, changing the conversation a little abruptly.
Jane leaned over and stroked the head of a dog which had come to lie at her feet.
"He seems to be making a good deal of stir," she observed.
The young man frowned.
"You know I am not unsympathetic with your views, Lady Jane," he said, a little awkwardly, "but I don't mind admitting that if I had a big stake in the country I should be afraid of Tallente. No one seems to be able to pin him down to a definite programme and yet day by day his influence grows. The Labour Party is disintegrated. The best of all its factions are joining the Democrats. He is practically leader of the Opposition Party to-day and I don't see how they are going to stop his being Prime Minister whenever he chooses."
"Don't you think he'll make a good Prime Minister?" Jane asked.
"No, I don't," was the curt answer. "He is too dark a horse for my fancy."
"I expect Mr. Tallente will be ready with his programme when the time comes," she observed. "He is a people's man, of course, and his proposals will sound pretty terrible to a good many of the old school. Still, something of the sort has to come."
The butler brought in the postbag while they talked. Segerson, as he rose to depart, glanced with curiosity at half a dozen orange-coloured wrappers which were among the rest of the letters.
"Fancy your subscribing to a press-cutting agency, Lady Jane!" he exclaimed. "You haven't been writing a novel under a pseudonym, have you?"
She laughed as she gathered up her correspondence in her hand.
"Don't pry into my secrets," she enjoined. "We may meet in Barnstaple to-morrow. If the weather clears, I want to go in and see those cattle for myself."
The young man took his reluctant departure. Jane crossed the hall, entered her own little sanctum, drew the lamp to the edge of the table and sank into her easy-chair with a little sigh of relief. All the rest of her correspondence she threw to one side. The orange-coloured wrappers she tore off, one by one. As she read, her face softened and her eyes grew very bright. The first cutting was a report of Tallente's last speech in the House, a clever and forceful attack upon the Government's policy of compromise in the matter of recent strikes. The next was a speech at the Holborn Town Hall, on workmen's dwellings, another a thoughtful appreciation of him from the pages of a great review. There was also a eulogy from an American journal and a gloomy attack upon him in the chief Whig organ. When she had finished the pile, she sat for some time gazing at the burning logs. The little epitome of his daily life—there were records there even of many of his social engagements-seemed to carry her into another atmosphere, an atmosphere far removed from this lonely spot upon the moors. She seemed to catch from those printed lines some faint, reflective thrill of the more vital world of strife in which he was living. For a moment the roar of London was in her ears. She saw the lighted thoroughfares, the crowded pavements, the faces of the men and women, all a little strained and eager, so different from the placid immobility of the world in which she lived. She rose to her feet and moved restlessly about the room. Presently she lifted the curtain and looked out. There was a pause in the storm and a great mass of black clouds had just been driven past the face of the watery moon. Even the wind seemed to be holding its breath, but so far as she could see, moors and hillsides were wrapped in one unending mantle of snow. There was no visible sign of any human habitation, no sound from any of the birds or animals who were cowering in their shelters, not even a sheep hell or the barking of a dog to break the profound silence. She dropped the curtain and turned back to her chair. Her feet were leaden and her heart was heavy. The struggle of the day was at an end. Memory was asserting itself. She felt the flush in her cheek, the quickening heat of her heart, the thrill of her pulses as she lived again through those few wild minutes. There was no longer any escape from the wild, confusing truth. The thing which she had dreaded had come.
The most popular hostess in London was a little thrilled at the arrival of the moment for which she had planned so carefully. She laid her hand on Tallente's arm and led him towards a comparatively secluded corner of the winter garden which made her own house famous. "I must apologise, Mrs. Van Fosdyke," he said, "for my late appearance. I travelled up from Devonshire this afternoon and found snow all the way. We were nearly two hours late."
"It is all the more kind of you to have turned out at all, then," she told him warmly. "I don't mind telling you that I should have been terribly disappointed if you had failed me. It has been my one desire for months to have you three—the Prime Minister, Lethbridge and you—under my roof at the same time."
"You find politics interesting over here?" Tallente asked, a little curiously.
She flashed a quick glance at him.
"Why, I find them absolutely fascinating," she declared. "The whole thing is so incomprehensible. Just look at to-night. Half of Debrett is represented here, practically the whole of the diplomats, and yet, except yourself, not a single member of the political party who we are told will be ruling this country within a few months. The very anomaly of it is so fascinating."
"There is no necessary kinship between Society and politics," Tallente reminded her. "Your own country, for instance."
Mrs. Van Fosdyke, who was an American, shrugged her shoulders.
"My own country scarcely counts," she protested. "After all, we came into being as a republic, and our aristocracy is only a spurious conglomeration of people who are too rich to need to work. But many of these people whom you see here to-night still possess feudal rights, vast estates, great names, and yet over their heads there is coming this Government, in which they will be wholly unrepresented. What are you going to do with the aristocracy, Mr. Tallente?"
"Encourage them to work," he answered, smiling.
"But they don't know how."
"They must learn. No man has a right to his place upon the earth unless he is a productive human being. There is no room in the world which we are trying to create for the parasite pure and simple."
"You are a very inflexible person, Mr. Tallente."
"There is no place in politics for the wobbler."
"Do you know," she went on, glancing away for a moment, "that my rooms are filled with people who fear you. The Labour Party, as it was understood here five or six years ago, never inspired that feeling. There was something of the tub-thumper about every one of them. I think it is your repression, Mr. Tallente, which terrifies them. You don't say what you are going to do. Your programme is still a secret and yet every day your majority grows. Only an hour ago the Prime Minister told me that he couldn't carry on if you threw down the gage in earnest."
Tallente remained bland, but became a little vague.
"I see Foulds amongst your guests," he observed. "Have you seen his statue of Perseus and Andromeda!'"
"I have, but I am not going to discuss it. Of course, I accept the hint, but as a matter of fact I am a person to be trusted. I ask for no secrets. I have no position in this country. Even my sympathies are at present wobbling. I am simply a little thrilled to have you here, because the Prime Minister is within a few yards of us and I know that before many weeks are past the great struggle will come between you and him as to who shall guide the destinies of this country."
"You forget, Mrs. Van Fosdyke," he objected, "that I am not even the leader of my party. Stephen Dartrey is our chief."
She shook her head.
"Dartrey is a brilliant person," she admitted, "but we all know that he is not a practical politician. The battle is between you and Horlock."
Tallente was watching a woman go by, a woman in black and silver, whose walk reminded him of Jane. His hostess followed his eyes.
"You are one of Alice Mountgarron's admirers?" she enquired.
"I don't even know her," he replied. "She reminded me of some one for a moment."
"She is one of the Duchess of Barminster's daughters," his companion told him. "She married Mountgarron last year. Her sister, Lady Jane, is rather inclined towards your political outlook. She lives in Devonshire and tries to do good."
His eyes followed the woman in black and silver until she had passed out of sight. The family likeness was there, appealing to him curiously, tugging at his heartstrings. His artificial surroundings slipped easily away. He was back on the moors, he felt a sniff of the strong wind, the wholesome exaltation of the empty places. A more wonderful memory still was seeping in upon him. His companion intervened chillingly.
"One never sees your wife, nowadays, Mr. Tallente."
"My wife is in America." he answered mechanically. "She has gone there to stay with some relatives."
"She is interested in politics?"
"Not in the least."
Mrs. Van Fosdyke welcomed a newcomer with a gracious little smile and Tallente rose to his feet. Horlock had left the group in the centre of the room and was making his way towards them.
"At least we can talk here," he said, shaking hands with Tallente, "without any suggestion of a conspiracy. The old gang, you know," he went on, addressing his hostess, "simply close around me when I try to have a word with Tallente. They are afraid of some marvellous combination which is going to shut them out."
"Lethbridge is the only one of them here to-night," She observed, "and he is probably in one of the rooms where they are serving things. Now I must go back to my guests. If I see him, I'll head him off."
She strolled away. The Prime Minister sank back upon a couch. His air of well-bred content with himself and life fell away from him the moment his hostess was out of sight.
"Tallente," he said, "I suppose you mean to break us?"
"I thought we'd been rather friendly," was the quiet reply. "We've been letting you have your own way for nearly a month."
"That is simply because we are on work which we are tackling practically in the fashion you dictated," Horlock pointed out. "When we have finished this Irish business, what are you going to do?"
"I am not the leader of the party," Tallente reminded him.
"From a parliamentary point of view you are," was the impatient protest. "Dartrey is a dreamer. He might even have dreamed away his opportunities if you hadn't come along. Miller would never have handled the House as you have. Miller was made to create factions. You were made to coalesce, to smooth over difficulties, to bring men of opposite points of view into the same camp. You are a genius at it, Tallente. Six months ago I was only afraid of the Democrats. Now I dread them. Shall I tell you what it is that worries me most?"
"If you think it wise."
"Your absence of programme. Why don't you say what you want to do—give us some idea of how far you are going to carry your tenets? Are we to have the anarchy of Bolshevists or the socialism of Marx,—a red flag republic or a classical dictatorship?"
"We are not out for anarchy, at all events," Tallente assured him, "nor for revolutions in the ordinary sense of the word."
"You mean to upset the Constitution?"
"Speaking officially, I do not know. Speaking to you as a fellow politician, I should say that sooner or later some changes are desirable."
"You'll never get away from party government."
"Perhaps not, but I dare say we can find machinery to prevent the house of Commons being used for a debating society."
Horlock, whose sense of humour had never been entirely crushed by the exigencies of political leadership, suddenly grinned.
"The old gang will commit suicide," he declared. "If they aren't allowed to spout, they'll either wither or die. Old man Lethbridge's monthly attacks of high-minded patriotism are the only things that keep him alive."
"I don't fancy," Tallente remarked, "that we shall abandon any of our principles for the sake of keeping Lethbridge alive."
"What the mischief are your principles?"
"No doubt Dartrey would enlighten you, if you chose to go to him," was the indifferent reply. "Within the course of the next few months we shall launch our thunderbolt. You will know then what we claim for the people."
"Hang the people!" Horlock exclaimed. "I've legislated for them myself until I'm sick of it. They're never grateful."
"Perhaps you confine yourself too much to one class," Tallente observed drily. "As a rule, the less intelligent the voter, the more easily he is caught by flashy legislation."
"The operative pure and simple," Horlock announced, "has no political outlook. He'll never see beyond his trades union. You'll never found a great national party with his aid."
His companion smiled.
"Then we shall fail and you will continue to be Prime Minister."
Mrs. Van Fosdyke came back to them, on the arm of a foreign diplomat. She leaned over to Horlock and whispered:
"Lethbridge has heard that you two are here together and he is on your track. Better separate."
She passed on. The two men strolled away.
"Have you any personal feeling against me, Tallente?" Horlock asked.
"None whatever," his companion assured him. "You did me the best turn in your life when you left me stranded after Hellesfield."
"Lethbridge almost insisted, he looked upon you as a firebrand. He said there would be no repose about a Cabinet with you in it."
"Well, it's turned out for the best," Tallente remarked drily. "Au revoir!"
On his way back to the reception rooms, an acquaintance tapped him on the shoulder.
"One moment, Tallente. Lady Alice Mountgarron has asked me to present you."
Tallente bowed before the woman who stood looking at him pleasantly, but a little curiously. She held out her hand.
"I seem to have heard so much of you from my sister Jane," she said. "You are neighbours in Devonshire, aren't you?"
"Neighbours from a Devon man's point of view," he answered. "I live half-way down a precipice, and she five miles away, at the back of a Stygian moor, and incidentally a thousand feet above me."
"You seem to have surmounted such geographical obstacles."
"Your sister's friendship is worth greater efforts," Tallente replied.
Lady Alice smiled.
"I wish that some of you could persuade her to come to town occasionally," she said. "Jane is a perfect dear, of course, and I know she does a great deal of good down there, but I can't help thinking sometimes that she is a little wasted. Life must now and then be dreary for her." Tallente seemed for a moment to be looking through the walls of the room. "We are all made differently. Lady Jane is very self-reliant and Devonshire is one of those counties which have a curiously strong local hold."
"But when her moors and her farms are under snow, and Woolhanger is wreathed in mists, and one hears nothing except the moaning of animals in distress, what about the local attraction then?"
"You speak feelingly," Tallente observed, smiling. "I spent a fortnight with Jane last winter," she explains. "I had some idea of hunting. Never again! Only I miss Jane. She is such a dear and I don't see half enough of her."
"I saw her yesterday," Tallente said reminiscently. "This morning she told me she was going to ride out to inspect for herself the farm of the one black sheep amongst her tenants. I looked out towards Woolhanger as I came up in the train. It seemed like a miasma of driven snow and mists."
"Every one to his tastes," Lady Alice observed, as she turned away with a friendly little nod. "I have just an idea, however, that this morning's excursion was a little too much even for Jane."
"What do you mean?" Tallente asked eagerly. Lady Alice looked at him over the top of her fan. She was a woman of instinct. "I had a telegram from her just before I came out," she said. "There wasn't much in it, but it gave me an idea that after all perhaps she is thinking of a short visit to town. Come and see me, Mr. Tallente, won't you? I live in Mount Street—Number 17. My husband used to play cricket with you, I think."
She passed on and Tallente stood looking after her for a moment, a little dazed. A friend came up and took him by the arm.
"Unprotected and alone in the gilded halls of the enemy!" the newcomer exclaimed. "Come and have a drink. By the by, you look as though you'd had good news."
"I have," Tallente assented, smiling.
"Then we'll drink to it—Mum'll. Not bad stuff. This way."
Tallente, for the first time in his life, was dining a few evenings later at Dartrey's house in Chelsea, and he looked forward with some curiosity to this opportunity of studying his chief under different auspices. Dartrey, notwithstanding the fact that he was a miracle of punctuality and devotion to duty, both at the offices in Parliament Street and at the House, seemed to have the gift of fading absolutely out of sight from the ken of even his closest friends when the task of the day was accomplished. He excused himself always, courteously but finally, from accepting anything whatever in the way of social entertainment, he belonged to no clubs, and, if pressed, he frankly confessed a predilection which amounted almost to passion for solitude during those hours not actually devoted to official duties. The invitation to dinner, therefore, was received by Tallente with some surprise. He had grown into the habit of looking upon Dartrey as a man who had no real existence outside the routine of their daily work. He welcomed with avidity, therefore, this opportunity of understanding a little more thoroughly Dartrey's pleasant but elusive personality.
The house itself, situated in a Chelsea square of some repute, was small and unostentatious, but was painted a spotless white and possessed, even from the outside, an air of quiet and unassuming elegance. A trim maid-servant opened the door and ushered him into a drawing-room of grey and silver, with a little faded blue in the silks of the French chairs. There were a few fine-point etchings upon the walls, a small grand piano in a corner, and very little furniture, although the little there was was French of the best period. There were no flowers and the atmosphere would have been chilly, but for the brightly burning fire. Tallente was scarcely surprised when Dartrey's entrance alone indicated the fact that, as was generally supposed, he was free from family ties.
"I am a little early, I am afraid," Tallente remarked, as they shook hands.
"Admirably punctual," the other replied. "I shall make no apologies to you for my small party. I have asked only Miss Miall and Miller to meet you—just the trio of us who came to lure you out of your Devonshire paradise."
"Miller?" Tallente repeated, with instant comprehension.
"Yes! I was thinking, only the other day, that you scarcely see enough of Miller."
"I see all that I want to," was Tallente's candid comment.
Dartrey laid his hand upon his guest's shoulder. In his sombre dinner garb, with low, turned-down collar and flowing black tie, his grey-black beard cut to a point, his high forehead, his straightly brushed-back hair, which still betrayed its tendency to natural curls, he looked a great deal more like an artist of the dreamy and aesthetic type than a man who had elaborated a new system of life and government.
"It is because of the feeling behind those words, Tallente," he said, "that I have asked you to meet him here to-night. Miller has his objectionable points, but he possesses still a great hold upon certain types of the working man. I feel that you should appreciate that a little more thoroughly. The politician, as you should know better than I, has no personal feelings."
"The politician is left with very few luxuries," Tallente replied, with a certain grimness.
Nora was announced, brilliant and gracious in a new dinner gown which she frankly confessed had ruined her, and close behind her Miller, a little ungainly in his overlong dress coat and badly arranged white tie. It struck Tallente that he was aware of the object of the meeting and his manner, obviously intended to be ingratiating, had still a touch of self-conscious truculence.
They went into dinner, a few minutes later, and their host's tact in including Nora in the party was at once apparent. She talked brightly of the small happenings of their day-by-day political life and bridged over the moments of awkwardness before general conversation assumed its normal swing. Dartrey encouraged Miller to talk and they all listened while he spoke of the mammoth trades unions of the north, where his hold upon the people was greatest. He spoke still bitterly of the war, from the moral effect of which, he argued, the working man had never wholly recovered. Tallente listened a little grimly.
"The fervour of self-sacrifice and so-called patriotism which some of the proletariat undoubtedly felt at the outbreak of the war," Miller argued, "was only an incidental, a purely passing sensation compared to the idle and greedy inertia which followed it. The war lost," he went on, "might have acted as a lash upon the torpor of many of these men. Won, it created a wave of immorality and extravagance from which they had never recovered. They spent more than they had and they earned more than they were worth. That is to say, they lived an unnatural life."
"It is fortunate, then," Tallente remarked, "that the new generation is almost here."
"They, too, carry the taint," Miller insisted. Tallente looked thoughtfully across towards his host.
"It seems to me that this is a little disheartening," he said. "It is exactly what one might have expected from Horlock or even Lethbridge. Miller, who is nearer to the proletariat than any of us, would have us believe that the people who should be the bulwark of the State are not fit for their position."
"I fancy," Dartrey said soothingly, "that Miller was talking more as a philosopher than a practical man."
"I speak according to my experience," the latter insisted, a little doggedly.
"Amongst your own constituents?" Tallente asked, with a faint smile, reminiscent of a recent unexpected defeat of one of Miller's partisans in a large constituency.
"Amongst them and others," was the somewhat acid reply. "Sands lost his seat at Tenchester through the apathy of the very class for whom we fight."
"Tenchester is a wonderful place," Nora intervened. "I went down there lately to study certain phases of women's labour. Their factories are models and I found all the people with whom I came in contact exceptionally keen and well-informed."
Miller gnawed his moustache for a moment.
"Then I was probably unpopular there," he said. "I have to tell the truth. Sometimes people do not like it."
The dinner was simply but daintily served. There were wines of well-known vintages and as the meal progressed Dartrey unbent. Eating scarcely anything and drinking less, the purely intellectual stimulus of conversation seemed to unloose his tongue and give to his pronouncements a more pungent tone. Naturally, politics remained the subject of discussion and Dartrey disclosed a little the reason for the meeting which he had arranged.
"The craft of politics," he pointed out, "makes but one inexorable demand upon her followers—the demand for unity. The amazing thing is that this is not generally realised. It seems the fashion, nowadays, to dissent from everything, to cultivate the ego in its narrowest sense rather than to try and reach out and grasp the hands of those around. The fault, I think, is in an over-developed theatrical sense, the desire which so many clever men have for individual notoriety. We Democrats have prospered because we have been free from it. We have been able to sink our individual prejudices in our cause. That is because our cause has been great enough. We aim so high, we see so clearly, that it is rare indeed to find amongst us those individual differences which have been the ruin of every political party up to to-day. We have no Brown who will not serve with Smith, no Robinson who declines to be associated with Jones. We forget the small things which are repugnant to us in a fellowman, because of the great things which bind us together."
"To a certain extent, yes," Tallente agreed, with some reserve in his tone, "yet we are all human. There are some prejudices which no man may conquer. If he pretends he does, he only lives in an atmosphere of falsehood. The strong man loves or hates."
They took their coffee in their host's very fascinating study. There was little room here for decoration. The walls were lined with books, there were a few choice bronzes here and there, a statue of wonderful beauty upon the writing table, and a figure of Justice leaning with outstretched arms over the world, presented to Dartrey by a great French artist. For the rest, there were comfortable chairs, an ample fire, and a round table on which were set out coffee and liqueurs of many sorts.
"You will find that I am not altogether an anchorite," Dartrey observed, as they settled into their places.
"I am a lover of old brandy. The '68 I recommend especially, Tallente, and bring your chair round to the fire. There are cigars and cigarettes at your elbow. Miller, I think I know your taste. Help yourself, won't you?"
Miller drank creme de menthe and smoked homemade Virginia cigarettes. Tallente watched him and sighed. Then, suddenly conscious of his host's critical scrutiny, he felt an impulse of shame, felt that his contempt for the man had in it something almost snobbish. He leaned forward and did his best. Miller had been a school-board teacher, an exhibitioner at college, and was possessed of a singular though limited intelligence. He could deal adequately with any one problem presented by itself and affected only by local conditions, yet the more Tallente talked with him, the more he realised his lack of breadth, his curious weakness of judgment when called upon to consider questions dependent upon varying considerations. As to the right or wrong wording of a clause in the Factory Amendment Act, he could be lucid, explanatory and convincing; as to the justice of the same clause when compared with other forms of legislation, he was vague and unconvincing, didactic and prejudiced. If Dartrey's object had been to bring these two men into closer understanding of each other, he was certainly succeeding. It is doubtful, however, whether the understanding progressed entirely in the fashion he had desired. Nora, curled up in an easy-chair, affecting to be sleepy, but still listening earnestly, felt at last that intervention was necessary. The self-revelation of Miller under Tallente's surgical questioning was beginning to disturb even their host.
"I am being neglected," she complained. "If no one talks to me, I shall go home."
Tallente rose at once and sat on the lounge by her side. Dartrey stood on the hearth rug and plunged into an ingenious effort to reconcile various points of difference which had arisen between his two guests. Tallente all the time was politely acquiescent, Miller a little sullen. Like all men with brains acute enough to deal logically with a procession of single problems, he resented because he failed altogether to understand that a wider field of circumstances could possibly alter human vision.
Tallente walked home with Nora. They chose the longer way, by the Embankment.
"This is the Cockney's antithesis to the moonlight and hills of you country folk," Nora observed, as she pointed to the yellow lights gashing across the black water.
Tallente drew a long breath of content.
"It's good to be here, anyway. I am glad to be out of that house," he confessed.
"I'm afraid," she sighed, "that our dear host's party was a failure. You and Miller were born in different camps of life. It doesn't seem to me that anything will ever bring you together."
"For this reason," Tallente explained eagerly. "Miller's outlook is narrow and egotistical. He may be a shrewd politician, but there isn't a grain of statesmanship in him. He might make an excellent chairman of a parish council. As a Cabinet Minister he would be impossible."
"He will demand office, I am afraid," Nora remarked.
Tallente took off his hat. He was watching the lights from the two great hotels, the red fires from the funnel of a little tug, Mack and mysterious in the windy darkness.
"I am sick of politics," he declared suddenly. "We are a parcel of fools. Our feet move day and night to the solemn music."
"You, of all men," she protested, "to be talking like this!"
"I mean it," he insisted, a little doggedly. "I have spent too many of my years on the treadmill. A man was born to be either an egoist and parcel out the earth according to his tastes, or to develop like Dartrey into a dreamer.—Curse you!" he added, suddenly shaking his fist at the tall towers of the Houses of Parliament. "You're like an infernal boarding-school, with your detentions and impositions and castigations. There must be something beyond."
"A Cabinet Minister—" she began.
"The sixth form," he interrupted. "There's just one aspiration of life to be granted under that roof and to win it you are asked to stifle all the rest. It isn't worth it."
"It's the greatest game at which men can play," she declared.
"And also the narrowest because it is the most absorbing," he answered. "We have our triumphs there and they end in a chuckle. Don't you love sunshine in winter, strange cities, pictures, pictures of another age, pictures which take your thoughts back into another world, architecture that is not utilitarian, the faces of human beings on whom the strain of life has never fallen? And women—women whose eyes will laugh into yours, who haven't a single view in life, who don't care a fig about improving their race, who want just love, to give and to take?"
She gazed at him in astonishment, a little carried away, her eyes soft, her lips parted.
"But you have turned pagan!" she cried.
"An instant's revolt against the methodism of life," he replied, his feet once more upon the earth. "But the feeling's there, all the same," he went on doggedly. "I want to leave school. I have been there so long. It seems to me my holiday is overdue."
She passed her arm through his. She was a very clever and a very understanding woman.
"That comes of your having ignored us," she murmured.
"It isn't my fault if I have," he reminded her.
"In a sense it is," she insisted. "The woman in your life should be the most beautiful part of it. You chose to make her the stepping-stone to your ambition. Consequently you go through life hungry, you wait till you almost starve, and then suddenly the greatest things in the world which lie to your hand seem like baubles."
"You are hideously logical," he grumbled.
They were walking slower now, within a few yards of the entrance to her flat. Both of them were a little disturbed,—she, full as she was with all the generous impulses of sensuous humanity, intensely awakened, intensely sympathetic.
"Tell me, where is your wife?" she asked.
"It is hopeless with her?"
"Utterly and irretrievably hopeless."
"It has been for long?"
"And for the sake of your principles," she went on, almost angrily, "your stupid, canonical and dry-as-dust little principles, you've let your life shrivel up."
"I can't help it," he answered. "What would you have me do? Stand in the market place and shout my needs?"
She clung to his arm. "You dear thing!" she said. "You're a great baby!"
They were in the shadow of the entrance to the flats. He suddenly bent over her; his lips were almost on hers. There was a frightened gleam in her eyes, but she made no movement of retreat. Suddenly he drew himself upright.
"That wouldn't help, would it?" he said simply. "Thank you, all the same, Nora. Good-by!"
On his table, when he entered his rooms that night, lay the letter for which he had craved. He opened it almost fiercely. The few lines seemed like a message of hope:
"Don't laugh at me, dear friend, but I am coming to London for a week or two, to my little house in Charles Street. I don't know exactly when. You will find time to come and see me?"
Here the mists seem to have fallen upon us like a shroud, and we can't escape. I galloped many miles this morning, but it was like trying to find the edge of the world.
Please call on my sister at 17 Mount Street. She likes you and wants to see more of you.
For some weeks after his chief's dinner party, Tallente slackened a little in his grim devotion to work. A strangely quiescent period of day-by-day political history enabled him to be absent from his place in the House for several evenings during the week, and although he spent a good many hours with Dartrey at Demos House, carefully discussing and elaborating next season's programme, he still found himself with time to spare, and with Jane's note buttoned up in his pocket, he deliberately turned his face towards life in its more genial and human aspect.
He dined one night at the club to which he had belonged for many years, a club frequented chiefly by distinguished literary men, successful barristers, and a sprinkling of actors. His arrival created at first almost a sensation, a slight feeling of constraint even, amongst the little gathering of men drinking their aperitifs in the lounge under the stairs. Somehow or other, there was a feeling that many of the old ties had been broken. Tallente stood for new and menacing things in politics. He had to a certain extent cut himself adrift from the world which starts at Eton and Oxford and ends by making mild puns on the judicial bench, or uttering sonorous platitudes from a properly accredited seat in the House.
Tallente, fully appreciating the atmosphere, nevertheless made strenuous and not unsuccessful efforts to pick up the old threads. He abandoned even the moderation of his daily life. He drank cocktails, champagne and port, laughed heartily at the stories of the day and ransacked his brain to cap them. Of bridge, unfortunately, he knew nothing, but he played pool with some success, and left the club late, leaving behind him curiously mingled opinions as to the cause for this sudden return to his old haunts.
He himself walked through the streets, on his way homeward, conscious of at least partial success, feeling the pleasurable warmth of the wine he had drunk and the companionship for which he had so strenuously sought. He found himself thinking almost enviously of the men with whom he had associated,—Philipson, with whom he had been at college, with three plays running at different theatres, interested, even fascinated by his work, chaffing gaily with his principal actor as to the rendering of some of his lines. Then there was Fardell, also a schoolfellow, now a police magistrate, full of dry and pleasant humour, called by his intimates "The Beak "; Amberson, poseur and dilettante thirty years ago, but always a good fellow, now an acknowledged master of English prose and a critic whose word was unquestioned. These men, one and all, seemed to be up to the neck in life, kept young and human by the taste of it upon their palate. The contemplation of their whole-sided existence, their sound combination of work and play, produced in him a sort of jealousy, for he knew that there was something behind it, which he lacked.
The night was bright and dry and there were still crowds about Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circle and Piccadilly itself. As he walked, he looked into the faces of the women who passed him by, struggling against his old abhorrence as against one of the sickly offshoots of an over-eclectic epicureanism. They typified not vice but weakness, the unhappy result of man's inevitable revolt against unnatural laws. Yet even then the mingled purity and priggishness encouraged by years of repression forbade any vital change in his sentiments. The toleration for which he sought, when it made its grudging appearance, was mingled with dislike and distrust. He breathed more freely as he turned into the quieter street in which his rooms were situated, passing them by, however, crossing Curzon Street and embarking upon a brief pilgrimage which had become almost a nightly one. Within a very few minutes he paused before a certain number in a street even more secluded than his own. At last the thing which he had so greatly anticipated had happened. There were lights in the house from top to bottom. Jane had arrived!
He walked slowly back and forth several times. The music in his blood, stirred already by the wine he had drunk and the revival of old memories, moved to a new and more wonderful tune. He knew now, without any possibility of self-deception, exactly what he had been waiting for, exactly where all his thoughts and hopes for the future were centered. Was she there now, he wondered, gazing at the windows like a moon-struck boy. He lingered about and fate was kind to him.
A limousine swung around the corner and pulled up in front of the door, a few minutes later. The footman on the box sprang down. He heard her voice as she said "Good-by" to some one. The car rolled smoothly away. She crossed the pavement with an involuntary glance at the tall, approaching figure.
"Jane!" he exclaimed.
She stood quite still, with the latch-key in her hand. The car was out of sight now and they seemed to be almost alone in the street. At first there was something almost unfamiliar in her rather startled face, her coiffured hair, her bare neck with its collar of diamonds. There was a moment of suspense. Then he saw something flash into her eyes and he was glad to be there.
"You?" she exclaimed, a little breathlessly. He plunged into explanations.
"My rooms are close by here in Charges Street," he told her. "I was walking home from the club and saw you step out of the car."
"How could you know that I was coming to-day?" she asked. "I only telephoned Alice after I arrived."
"To tell you the truth," he confessed, "I have got into the habit of walking this way home, in case—well, to-night I have my reward."
She turned the key in the latch and pushed the door open.
"You must come in," she invited.
"Isn't it too late?"
"What does that matter so long as I ask you?"
He followed her gladly into the hall, closing the door behind him.
"That wretched switch is somewhere near here," she said, feeling along the wall.
Her fingers suddenly met his and stayed passive in his grasp. She turned a little around as she realised the nearness of him.
"Jane," he whispered, "I have wanted you so much."
For a single moment she rested in his arms,—a wonderful moment, inexplicable, voluptuous, stirring him to the very depths. Then she slipped away. Her fingers sought the wall once more and the place was flooded with light.
"You must come in here for a moment," she said, opening the nearest door. "I shall not ask you to share my milk, and I am afraid I don't know where to get you a whisky and soda, but you can light a cigarette and just tell me how things are and when you are coming to see me."
He followed her into a comfortable little apartment, furnished in mid-Victorian fashion, but with an easy-chair drawn up to the brightly burning fire. On a table near was a glass of milk and some biscuits. The ermine cloak slipped from her shoulders. She stood with one foot upon the fender, half turned towards him. His eyes rested upon her, filled with a great hunger.
"Well?" she queried.
"You are wonderful," he murmured.
She laughed and for a moment her eyes fell.
"But, my dear man," she said, "I don't want compliments. I want to know the news."
"There is none," he answered. "We are marking time while Horlock digs his own grave."
"You have been amusing yourself?"
"Indifferently. I dined the other night with Dartrey, to-night at the Sheridan Club. The most exciting thing in the twenty-four hours has been my nightly pilgrimage round here."
"How idiotic!" she laughed. "Supposing you had not happened to meet me? You could scarcely have rung my bell at this hour of the night."
"I should have been content to have seen the lights and to have known that you had arrived."
"You dear man!" she exclaimed, with a sudden smile, a smile of entire and sweet friendliness. "I like the thought of your doing that. It is something to know that one is welcome, when one breaks away from the routine of one's life, as I have."
"Tell me why you have done it?" he asked.
She looked back into the fire.
"Everything was going a little wrong," she explained. "One of my farmers was troublesome, and the snow has stopped work and hunting. We lost thirty of our best ewes last week. I found I was getting out of temper with everybody and everything, so I suddenly remembered that I had an empty house here and came up."
"To the city of adventures," he murmured.
She shrugged her shoulders.
"London has never seemed like that to me. I find it generally a very ugly and a very sordid place, where I am hedged in with relatives, generally wanting me to do the thing I loathe.—You have really no news for me, then?"
"None, except that I am glad to see you."
"When will you come and have a long talk?"
"Will you dine with me to-morrow night?" he begged eagerly. "In the afternoon I have committee meetings. Thursday afternoon you could come down to the House, if you cared to."
"Of course I should, but hadn't you better dine here?" she suggested. "I can ask Alice and another man."
"I want to see you alone," he insisted, "for the first time, at any rate."
"Then will you take me to that little place you told me of in Soho?" she suggested. "I don't want a whole crowd to know that I am in town just yet. Don't think that it sounds vain, but people have such a habit of almost carrying one off one's feet. I want to prowl about London and do ordinary things. One or two theatres, perhaps, but no dinner parties. I shan't stay long, I don't suppose. As soon as I hear from Mr. Segerson that the snow has gone and that terrible north wind has died away, I know I shall be wanting to get back."
"You are very conscientious about your work there," he complained. "Don't you ever realise that you may have an even more important mission here?"
For a single moment she seemed troubled. Her manner, when she spoke, had lost something of its calm graciousness.
"Really?" she said. "Well, you must tell me all about it to-morrow night. I shall wear a hat and you must not order the dinner beforehand. I don't mind your ordering the table, because I like a corner, but we must sail into the place just like any other two wanderers. It is agreed?"
He bent over her fingers. His good angel and his instinct of sensibility, which was always appraising her attitude towards him, prompted his studied farewell.
"You will let yourself out?" she begged. "I have taken off my cloak and I could not face that wind."
"Of course," he answered. "I shall call for you at a quarter to eight to-morrow night. I only wish I could make you understand what it means to have that to look forward to."
"If you can make me believe that," she answered gravely, "perhaps I shall be glad that I have come."
Whilst Tallente, rejuvenated, and with a wonderful sense of well-being at the back of his mind, was on his feet in the House of Commons on the following afternoon, leading an unexpected attack against the unfortunate Government, Dartrey sat at tea in Nora's study. Nora, who had had a very busy day, was leaning back in her chair, well content though a little fatigued. Dartrey, who had forgotten his lunch in the stress of work, was devoting himself to the muffins.
"While I think of it," he said, "let me thank you for playing hostess so charmingly the other night."
She made him a little bow.
"Your dinner party was a great success."
"Was it?" he murmured, a little doubtfully. "I am not quite so sure. I can't seem to get at Tallente, somehow."
"He is doing his work well, isn't he?"
"The mechanical side of it is most satisfactory," Dartrey confessed. "He is the most perfect Parliamentary machine that was ever evolved."
"Surely that is exactly what you want? You were always complaining that there was no one to bring the stragglers into line."
"For the present," Dartrey admitted, "Tallente is doing excellently. I wish, though, that I could see a little farther into the future."
"Tell me exactly what fault you find with him?" Nora persisted.
"He lacks enthusiasm already. He makes none of the mistakes which are coincident with genius and he is a little intolerant. He takes no trouble to adapt himself to varying views, he has a fine, broad outlook, but no man can see into every corner of the earth, and what is outside his outlook does not exist."
"He is not happy in his work. There is something wanting in his scheme of life. I have built a ladder for him to climb. I have given him the chance of becoming the greatest statesman of to-day. One would think that he had some other ambition."
Nora sighed. She looked across at her visitor a little diffidently.
"I can help you to understand Andrew Tallente," she declared. "His condition is the greatest of all tributes to my sex. He has had an unhappy married life. From forty to fifty he has borne it philosophically as a man may. Now the reaction has come. With the first dim approach of age, he becomes suddenly terrified for the things he is missing."
Dartrey was thoughtful.
"I dare say you are right," he admitted, "but if he needs an Aspasia, surely she could be found?"
Nora rested her head upon her fingers. She seemed to be watching intently the dancing flames. Her broad, womanly forehead was troubled, her soft brown eyes pensive.
"He is fifty years old," she said. "It is rather an anomalous age. At fifty a man's taste is almost hypercritical and his attraction to my sex is on the wane. No, the problem isn't so easy."
Dartrey had finished tea and was feeling for his cigarette case.
"I rather fancied, Nora, that he was attracted by you."
"Well, he isn't, then," she replied, with a smile.
"He was rather by way of thinking that he was, the other night, but that was simply because he was in a curiously unsettled state and he felt that I was sympathetic."
"You are a very clever woman, Nora," he said, looking across at her. "You could make him care for you if you chose."
"Is that to be my sacrifice to the cause?" she asked. "Am I to give my soul to its wrong keeper, that our party may flourish?"
"You don't like Tallente?"
"I like him immensely," she contradicted vigorously. "If I weren't hopelessly in love with some one else, I could find it perfectly easy to try and make life a different place for him."
He looked at her with trouble in his kind eyes. It was as though he had suddenly stumbled upon a tragedy.
"I have never guessed this about you, Nora," he murmured.
"You are not observant of small things," she answered, a little bitterly.
"Who is the man?"
"That I shall not tell you."
"Do I know him?"
"Less, I should say, than any one of your acquaintance."
He was silent for a moment or two. Then it chanced that the telephone rang for him, with a message from the House of Commons. He gave some instructions to his secretary.
"It is a queer thing," he remarked, as he replaced the receiver, "how far our daily work and our ambitions take us out of our immediate environment. I see you day by day, Nora, I have known you intimately since your school days—and I never guessed."
"You never guessed and I have no time to suffer," she answered. "So we go on until the breaking time comes, until one part of ourselves conquers and the other loses. It is rather like that just now with Andrew Tallente. A few more years and it will probably be like that with me."
He threw his cigarette away as though the flavour had suddenly become distasteful and sat drumming with his fingers upon the table, his eyes fixed upon Nora.
"Tallente's position," he said thoughtfully, "one can understand. He is married, isn't he, and with all the splendid breadth of his intellectual outlook he is still harassed by the social fetters of his birth and bringing up. I can conceive Tallente as a person too highminded to seek to evade the law and too scornful for intrigue. But you, Nora, how is it that your love brings you unhappiness? You are young and free, and surely," he concluded, with a little sigh, "when you choose you can make yourself irresistible."
She looked at him with a peculiar light in her eyes.
"I have proved myself very far from being irresistible," she declared. "The man for whose love my whole being is aching to-day is absolutely unawakened as to my desirability. I enjoy with him the most impersonal friendship in which two people of opposite sexes ever indulged."
"I thought that I was acquainted with all your intimates," Dartrey observed, in a puzzled tone. "Let me meet this man and judge for myself, Nora."
"Do you mean that?" she asked.
"Very well, then," she acquiesced, "I'll ask him to dinner here. When are you free?"
He glanced through a thin memorandum book.
"On Sunday night?"
"At eight o'clock," she said. "You won't mind a simple dinner, I know. I can promise you that you will be interested. My friend is worth knowing."
Dartrey took his departure a little hurriedly. He had suddenly remembered an appointment at his committee rooms and went off with his mind full of the troubles of a northern constituency. On his way up Parliament Street he met Miller, who turned and walked by his side.