"Is anything wrong, Mr. Courtier?"
"Yes, Lady Barbara, something is very wrong—that miserable mean thing, the human tongue."
Barbara had an intuitive knowledge of how to handle things, a kind of moral sangfroid, drawn in from the faces she had watched, the talk she had heard, from her youth up. She trusted those intuitions, and letting her eyes conspire with his over Ann's brown hair, she said:
"Anything to do with Mrs. N——-?" Seeing "Yes" in his eyes, she added quickly: "And M——-?"
"I thought that was coming. Let them babble! Who cares?"
She caught an approving glance, and the word, "Good!"
But the car had drawn up at Bucklandbury Station.
The little grey figure of Lady Casterley, coming out of the station doorway, showed but slight sign of her long travel. She stopped to take the car in, from chauffeur to Courtier.
"Well, Frith!—Mr. Courtier, is it? I know your book, and I don't approve of you; you're a dangerous man—How do you do? I must have those two bags. The cart can bring the rest.... Randle, get up in front, and don't get dusty. Ann!" But Ann was already beside the chauffeur, having long planned this improvement. "H'm! So you've hurt your leg, sir? Keep still! We can sit three.... Now, my dear, I can kiss you! You've grown!"
Lady Casterley's kiss, once received, was never forgotten; neither perhaps was Barbara's. Yet they were different. For, in the case of Lady Casterley, the old eyes, bright and investigating, could be seen deciding the exact spot for the lips to touch; then the face with its firm chin was darted forward; the lips paused a second, as though to make quite certain, then suddenly dug hard and dry into the middle of the cheek, quavered for the fraction of a second as if trying to remember to be soft, and were relaxed like the elastic of a catapult. And in the case of Barbara, first a sort of light came into her eyes, then her chin tilted a little, then her lips pouted a little, her body quivered, as if it were getting a size larger, her hair breathed, there was a small sweet sound; it was over.
Thus kissing her grandmother, Barbara resumed her seat, and looked at Courtier. 'Sitting three' as they were, he was touching her, and it seemed to her somehow that he did not mind.
The wind had risen, blowing from the West, and sunshine was flying on it. The call of the cuckoos—a little sharpened—followed the swift-travelling car. And that essential sweetness of the moor, born of the heather roots and the South-West wind, was stealing out from under the young ferns.
With her thin nostrils distended to this scent, Lady Casterley bore a distinct resemblance to a small, fine game-bird.
"You smell nice down here," she said. "Now, Mr. Courtier, before I forget—who is this Mrs. Lees Noel that I hear so much of?"
At that question, Barbara could not help sliding her eyes round. How would he stand up to Granny? It was the moment to see what he was made of. Granny was terrific!
"A very charming woman, Lady Casterley."
"No doubt; but I am tired of hearing that. What is her story?"
"Has she one?"
"Ha!" said Lady Casterley.
Ever so slightly Barbara let her arm press against Courtiers. It was so delicious to hear Granny getting no forwarder.
"I may take it she has a past, then?"
"Not from me, Lady Casterley."
Again Barbara gave him that imperceptible and flattering touch.
"Well, this is all very mysterious. I shall find out for myself. You know her, my dear. You must take me to see her."
"Dear Granny! If people hadn't pasts, they wouldn't have futures."
Lady Casterley let her little claw-like hand descend on her grand-daughter's thigh.
"Don't talk nonsense, and don't stretch like that!" she said; "you're too large already...."
At dinner that night they were all in possession of the news. Sir William had been informed by the local agent at Staverton, where Lord Harbinger's speech had suffered from some rude interruptions. The Hon. Geoffrey Winlow; having sent his wife on, had flown over in his biplane from Winkleigh, and brought a copy of 'the rag' with him. The one member of the small house-party who had not heard the report before dinner was Lord Dennis Fitz-Harold, Lady Casterley's brother.
Little, of course, was said. But after the ladies had withdrawn, Harbinger, with that plain-spoken spontaneity which was so unexpected, perhaps a little intentionally so, in connection with his almost classically formed face, uttered words to the effect that, if they did not fundamentally kick that rumour, it was all up with Miltoun. Really this was serious! And the beggars knew it, and they were going to work it. And Miltoun had gone up to Town, no one knew what for. It was the devil of a mess!
In all the conversation of this young man there was that peculiar brand of voice, which seems ever rebutting an accusation of being serious—a brand of voice and manner warranted against anything save ridicule; and in the face of ridicule apt to disappear. The words, just a little satirically spoken: "What is, my dear young man?" stopped him at once.
Looking for the complement and counterpart of Lady Casterley, one would perhaps have singled out her brother. All her abrupt decision was negated in his profound, ironical urbanity. His voice and look and manner were like his velvet coat, which had here and there a whitish sheen, as if it had been touched by moonlight. His hair too had that sheen. His very delicate features were framed in a white beard and moustache of Elizabethan shape. His eyes, hazel and still clear, looked out very straight, with a certain dry kindliness. His face, though unweathered and unseamed, and much too fine and thin in texture, had a curious affinity to the faces of old sailors or fishermen who have lived a simple, practical life in the light of an overmastering tradition. It was the face of a man with a very set creed, and inclined to be satiric towards innovations, examined by him and rejected full fifty years ago. One felt that a brain not devoid either of subtlety or aesthetic quality had long given up all attempts to interfere with conduct; that all shrewdness of speculation had given place to shrewdness of practical judgment based on very definite experience. Owing to lack of advertising power, natural to one so conscious of his dignity as to have lost all care for it, and to his devotion to a certain lady, only closed by death, his life had been lived, as it were, in shadow. Still, he possessed a peculiar influence in Society, because it was known to be impossible to get him to look at things in a complicated way. He was regarded rather as a last resort, however. "Bad as that? Well, there's old Fitz-Harold! Try him! He won't advise you, but he'll say something."
And in the heart of that irreverent young man, Harbinger, there stirred a sort of misgiving. Had he expressed himself too freely? Had he said anything too thick? He had forgotten the old boy! Stirring Bertie up with his foot, he murmured "Forgot you didn't know, sir. Bertie will explain."
Thus called on, Bertie, opening his lips a very little way, and fixing his half-closed eyes on his great-uncle, explained. There was a lady at the cottage—a nice woman—Mr. Courtier knew her—old Miltoun went there sometimes—rather late the other evening—these devils were making the most of it—suggesting—lose him the election, if they didn't look out. Perfect rot, of course!
In his opinion, old Miltoun, though as steady as Time, had been a flat to let the woman come out with him on to the Green, showing clearly where he had been, when he ran to Courtier's rescue. You couldn't play about with women who had no form that anyone knew anything of, however promising they might look.
Then, out of a silence Winlow asked: What was to be done? Should Miltoun be wired for? A thing like this spread like wildfire! Sir William—a man not accustomed to underrate difficulties—was afraid it was going to be troublesome. Harbinger expressed the opinion that the editor ought to be kicked. Did anybody know what Courtier had done when he heard of it. Where was he—dining in his room? Bertie suggested that if Miltoun was at Valleys House, it mightn't be too late to wire to him. The thing ought to be stemmed at once! And in all this concern about the situation there kept cropping out quaint little outbursts of desire to disregard the whole thing as infernal insolence, and metaphorically to punch the beggars' heads, natural to young men of breeding.
Then, out of another silence came the voice of Lord Dennis:
"I am thinking of this poor lady."
Turning a little abruptly towards that dry suave voice, and recovering the self-possession which seldom deserted him, Harbinger murmured:
"Quite so, sir; of course!"
In the lesser withdrawing room, used when there was so small a party, Mrs. Winlow had gone to the piano and was playing to herself, for Lady Casterley, Lady Valleys, and her two daughters had drawn together as though united to face this invading rumour.
It was curious testimony to Miltoun's character that, no more here than in the dining-hall, was there any doubt of the integrity of his relations with Mrs. Noel. But whereas, there the matter was confined to its electioneering aspect, here that aspect was already perceived to be only the fringe of its importance. Those feminine minds, going with intuitive swiftness to the core of anything which affected their own males, had already grasped the fact that the rumour would, as it were, chain a man of Miltoun's temper to this woman.
But they were walking on such a thin crust of facts, and there was so deep a quagmire of supposition beneath, that talk was almost painfully difficult. Never before perhaps had each of these four women realized so clearly how much Miltoun—that rather strange and unknown grandson, son, and brother—counted in the scheme of existence. Their suppressed agitation was manifested in very different ways. Lady Casterley, upright in her chair, showed it only by an added decision of speech, a continual restless movement of one hand, a thin line between her usually smooth brows. Lady Valleys wore a puzzled look, as if a little surprised that she felt serious. Agatha looked frankly anxious. She was in her quiet way a woman of much character, endowed with that natural piety, which accepts without questioning the established order in life and religion. The world to her being home and family, she had a real, if gently expressed, horror of all that she instinctively felt to be subversive of this ideal. People judged her a little quiet, dull, and narrow; they compared her to a hen for ever clucking round her chicks. The streak of heroism that lay in her nature was not perhaps of patent order. Her feeling about her brother's situation however was sincere and not to be changed or comforted. She saw him in danger of being damaged in the only sense in which she could conceive of a man—as a husband and a father. It was this that went to her heart, though her piety proclaimed to her also the peril of his soul; for she shared the High Church view of the indissolubility of marriage.
As to Barbara, she stood by the hearth, leaning her white shoulders against the carved marble, her hands behind her, looking down. Now and then her lips curled, her level brows twitched, a faint sigh came from her; then a little smile would break out, and be instantly suppressed. She alone was silent—Youth criticizing Life; her judgment voiced itself only in the untroubled rise and fall of her young bosom, the impatience of her brows, the downward look of her blue eyes, full of a lazy, inextinguishable light:
Lady Valleys sighed.
"If only he weren't such a queer boy! He's quite capable of marrying her from sheer perversity."
"What!" said Lady Casterley.
"You haven't seen her, my dear. A most unfortunately attractive creature—quite a charming face."
Agatha said quietly:
"Mother, if she was divorced, I don't think Eustace would."
"There's that, certainly," murmured Lady Valleys; "hope for the best!"
"Don't you even know which way it was?" said Lady Casterley.
"Well, the vicar says she did the divorcing. But he's very charitable; it may be as Agatha hopes."
"I detest vagueness. Why doesn't someone ask the woman?"
"You shall come with me, Granny dear, and ask her yourself; you will do it so nicely."
Lady Casterley looked up.
"We shall see," she said. Something struggled with the autocratic criticism in her eyes. No more than the rest of the world could she help indulging Barbara. As one who believed in the divinity of her order, she liked this splendid child. She even admired—though admiration was not what she excelled in—that warm joy in life, as of some great nymph, parting the waves with bare limbs, tossing from her the foam of breakers. She felt that in this granddaughter, rather than in the good Agatha, the patrician spirit was housed. There were points to Agatha, earnestness and high principle; but something morally narrow and over-Anglican slightly offended the practical, this-worldly temper of Lady Casterley. It was a weakness, and she disliked weakness. Barbara would never be squeamish over moral questions or matters such as were not really, essential to aristocracy. She might, indeed, err too much the other way from sheer high spirits. As the impudent child had said: "If people had no pasts, they would have no futures." And Lady Casterley could not bear people without futures. She was ambitious; not with the low ambition of one who had risen from nothing, but with the high passion of one on the top, who meant to stay there.
"And where have you been meeting this—er—anonymous creature?" she asked.
Barbara came from the hearth, and bending down beside Lady Casterley's chair, seemed to envelop her completely.
"I'm all right, Granny; she couldn't corrupt me."
Lady Casterley's face peered out doubtfully from that warmth, wearing a look of disapproving pleasure.
"I know your wiles!" she said. "Come, now!"
"I see her about. She's nice to look at. We talk."
Again with that hurried quietness Agatha said:
"My dear Babs, I do think you ought to wait."
"My dear Angel, why? What is it to me if she's had four husbands?"
Agatha bit her lips, and Lady Valleys murmured with a laugh:
"You really are a terror, Babs."
But the sound of Mrs. Winlow's music had ceased—the men had come in. And the faces of the four women hardened, as if they had slipped on masks; for though this was almost or quite a family party, the Winlows being second cousins, still the subject was one which each of these four in their very different ways felt to be beyond general discussion. Talk, now, began glancing from the war scare—Winlow had it very specially that this would be over in a week—to Brabrook's speech, in progress at that very moment, of which Harbinger provided an imitation. It sped to Winlow's flight—to Andrew Grant's articles in the 'Parthenon'—to the caricature of Harbinger in the 'Cackler', inscribed 'The New Tory. Lord H-rb-ng-r brings Social Reform beneath the notice of his friends,' which depicted him introducing a naked baby to a number of coroneted old ladies. Thence to a dancer. Thence to the Bill for Universal Assurance. Then back to the war scare; to the last book of a great French writer; and once more to Winlow's flight. It was all straightforward and outspoken, each seeming to say exactly what came into the head. For all that, there was a curious avoidance of the spiritual significances of these things; or was it perhaps that such significances were not seen?
Lord Dennis, at the far end of the room, studying a portfolio of engravings, felt a touch on his cheek; and conscious of a certain fragrance, said without turning his head:
"Nice things, these, Babs!"
Receiving no answer he looked up.
There indeed stood Barbara.
"I do hate sneering behind people's backs!"
There had always been good comradeship between these two, since the days when Barbara, a golden-haired child, astride of a grey pony, had been his morning companion in the Row all through the season. His riding days were past; he had now no outdoor pursuit save fishing, which he followed with the ironic persistence of a self-contained, high-spirited nature, which refuses to admit that the mysterious finger of old age is laid across it. But though she was no longer his companion, he still had a habit of expecting her confidences; and he looked after her, moving away from him to a window, with surprised concern.
It was one of those nights, dark yet gleaming, when there seems a flying malice in the heavens; when the stars, from under and above the black clouds, are like eyes frowning and flashing down at men with purposed malevolence. The great sighing trees even had caught this spirit, save one, a dark, spire-like cypress, planted three hundred and fifty years before, whose tall form incarnated the very spirit of tradition, and neither swayed nor soughed like the others. From her, too close-fibred, too resisting, to admit the breath of Nature, only a dry rustle came. Still almost exotic, in spite of her centuries of sojourn, and now brought to life by the eyes of night, she seemed almost terrifying, in her narrow, spear-like austerity, as though something had dried and died within her soul. Barbara came back from the window.
"We can't do anything in our lives, it seems to me," she said, "but play at taking risks!"
Lord Dennis replied dryly:
"I don't think I understand, my dear."
"Look at Mr. Courtier!" muttered Barbara. "His life's so much more risky altogether than any of our men folk lead. And yet they sneer at him."
"Let's see, what has he done?"
"Oh! I dare say not very much; but it's all neck or nothing. But what does anything matter to Harbinger, for instance? If his Social Reform comes to nothing, he'll still be Harbinger, with fifty thousand a year."
Lord Dennis looked up a little queerly.
"What! Is it possible you don't take the young man seriously, Babs?"
Barbara shrugged; a strap slipped a little off one white shoulder.
"It's all play really; and he knows it—you can tell that from his voice. He can't help its not mattering, of course; and he knows that too."
"I have heard that he's after you, Babs; is that true?"
"He hasn't caught me yet."
Barbara's answer was another shrug; and, for all their statuesque beauty, the movement of her shoulders was like the shrug of a little girl in her pinafore.
"And this Mr. Courtier," said Lord Dennis dryly: "Are you after him?"
"I'm after everything; didn't you know that, dear?"
"In reason, my child."
"In reason, of course—like poor Eusty!" She stopped. Harbinger himself was standing there close by, with an air as nearly approaching reverence as was ever to be seen on him. In truth, the way in which he was looking at her was almost timorous.
"Will you sing that song I like so much, Lady Babs?"
They moved away together; and Lord Dennis, gazing after that magnificent young couple, stroked his beard gravely.
Miltoun's sudden journey to London had been undertaken in pursuance of a resolve slowly forming from the moment he met Mrs. Noel in the stone flagged passage of Burracombe Farm. If she would have him and since last evening he believed she would—he intended to marry her.
It has been said that except for one lapse his life had been austere, but this is not to assert that he had no capacity for passion. The contrary was the case. That flame which had been so jealously guarded smouldered deep within him—a smothered fire with but little air to feed on. The moment his spirit was touched by the spirit of this woman, it had flared up. She was the incarnation of all that he desired. Her hair, her eyes, her form; the tiny tuck or dimple at the corner of her mouth just where a child places its finger; her way of moving, a sort of unconscious swaying or yielding to the air; the tone in her voice, which seemed to come not so much from happiness of her own as from an innate wish to make others happy; and that natural, if not robust, intelligence, which belongs to the very sympathetic, and is rarely found in women of great ambitions or enthusiasms—all these things had twined themselves round his heart. He not only dreamed of her, and wanted her; he believed in her. She filled his thoughts as one who could never do wrong; as one who, though a wife would remain a mistress, and though a mistress, would always be the companion of his spirit.
It has been said that no one spoke or gossiped about women in Miltoun's presence, and the tale of her divorce was present to his mind simply in the form of a conviction that she was an injured woman. After his interview with the vicar, he had only once again alluded to it, and that in answer to the speech of a lady staying at the Court: "Oh! yes, I remember her case perfectly. She was the poor woman who——" "Did not, I am certain, Lady Bonington." The tone of his voice had made someone laugh uneasily; the subject was changed.
All divorce was against his convictions, but in a blurred way he admitted that there were cases where release was unavoidable. He was not a man to ask for confidences, or expect them to be given him. He himself had never confided his spiritual struggles to any living creature; and the unspiritual struggle had little interest for Miltoun. He was ready at any moment to stake his life on the perfection of the idol he had set up within his soul, as simply and straightforwardly as he would have placed his body in front of her to shield her from harm.
The same fanaticism, which looked on his passion as a flower by itself, entirely apart from its suitability to the social garden, was also the driving force which sent him up to London to declare his intention to his father before he spoke to Mrs. Noel. The thing should be done simply, and in right order. For he had the kind of moral courage found in those who live retired within the shell of their own aspirations. Yet it was not perhaps so much active moral courage as indifference to what others thought or did, coming from his inbred resistance to the appreciation of what they felt.
That peculiar smile of the old Tudor Cardinal—which had in it invincible self-reliance, and a sort of spiritual sneer—played over his face when he speculated on his father's reception of the coming news; and very soon he ceased to think of it at all, burying himself in the work he had brought with him for the journey. For he had in high degree the faculty, so essential to public life, of switching off his whole attention from one subject to another.
On arriving at Paddington he drove straight to Valleys House.
This large dwelling with its pillared portico, seemed to wear an air of faint surprise that, at the height of the season, it was not more inhabited. Three servants relieved Miltoun of his little luggage; and having washed, and learned that his father would be dining in, he went for a walk, taking his way towards his rooms in the Temple. His long figure, somewhat carelessly garbed, attracted the usual attention, of which he was as usual unaware. Strolling along, he meditated deeply on a London, an England, different from this flatulent hurly-burly, this 'omniuin gatherum', this great discordant symphony of sharps and flats. A London, an England, kempt and self-respecting; swept and garnished of slums, and plutocrats, advertisement, and jerry-building, of sensationalism, vulgarity, vice, and unemployment. An England where each man should know his place, and never change it, but serve in it loyally in his own caste. Where every man, from nobleman to labourer, should be an oligarch by faith, and a gentleman by practice. An England so steel-bright and efficient that the very sight should suffice to impose peace. An England whose soul should be stoical and fine with the stoicism and fineness of each soul amongst her many million souls; where the town should have its creed and the country its creed, and there should be contentment and no complaining in her streets.
And as he walked down the Strand, a little ragged boy cheeped out between his legs:
"Bloodee discoveree in a Bank—Grite sensytion! Pi-er!"
Miltoun paid no heed to that saying; yet, with it, the wind that blows where man lives, the careless, wonderful, unordered wind, had dispersed his austere and formal vision. Great was that wind—the myriad aspiration of men and women, the praying of the uncounted multitude to the goddess of Sensation—of Chance, and Change. A flowing from heart to heart, from lip to lip, as in Spring the wistful air wanders through a wood, imparting to every bush and tree the secrets of fresh life, the passionate resolve to grow, and become—no matter what! A sighing, as eternal as the old murmuring of the sea, as little to be hushed, as prone to swell into sudden roaring!
Miltoun held on through the traffic, not looking overmuch at the present forms of the thousands he passed, but seeing with the eyes of faith the forms he desired to see. Near St. Paul's he stopped in front of an old book-shop. His grave, pallid, not unhandsome face, was well-known to William Rimall, its small proprietor, who at once brought out his latest acquisition—a Mores 'Utopia.' That particular edition (he assured Miltoun) was quite unprocurable—he had never sold but one other copy, which had been literally, crumbling away. This copy was in even better condition. It could hardly last another twenty years—a genuine book, a bargain. There wasn't so much movement in More as there had been a little time back.
Miltoun opened the tome, and a small book-louse who had been sleeping on the word 'Tranibore,' began to make its way slowly towards the very centre of the volume.
"I see it's genuine," said Miltoun.
"It's not to read, my lord," the little man warned him: "Hardly safe to turn the pages. As I was saying—I've not had a better piece this year. I haven't really!"
"Shrewd old dreamer," muttered Miltoun; "the Socialists haven't got beyond him, even now."
The little man's eyes blinked, as though apologizing for the views of Thomas More.
"Well," he said, "I suppose he was one of them. I forget if your lordship's very strong on politics?"
"I want to see an England, Rimall, something like the England of Mores dream. But my machinery will be different. I shall begin at the top."
The little man nodded.
"Quite so, quite so," he said; "we shall come to that, I dare say."
"We must, Rimall." And Miltoun turned the page.
The little man's face quivered.
"I don't think," he said, "that book's quite strong enough for you, my lord, with your taste for reading. Now I've a most curious old volume here—on Chinese temples. It's rare—but not too old. You can peruse it thoroughly. It's what I call a book to browse on just suit your palate. Funny principle they built those things on," he added, opening the volume at an engraving, "in layers. We don't build like that in England."
Miltoun looked up sharply; the little man's face wore no signs of understanding.
"Unfortunately we don't, Rimall," he said; "we ought to, and we shall. I'll take this book."
Placing his finger on the print of the pagoda, he added: "A good symbol."
The little bookseller's eye strayed down the temple to the secret price mark.
"Exactly, my lord," he said; "I thought it'd be your fancy. The price to you will be twenty-seven and six."
Miltoun, pocketing the bargain, walked out. He made his way into the Temple, left the book at his Chambers, and passed on down to the bank of Mother Thames. The Sun was loving her passionately that afternoon; he had kissed her into warmth and light and colour. And all the buildings along her banks, as far as the towers at Westminster, seemed to be smiling. It was a great sight for the eyes of a lover. And another vision came haunting Miltoun, of a soft-eyed woman with a low voice, bending amongst her flowers. Nothing would be complete without her; no work bear fruit; no scheme could have full meaning.
Lord Valleys greeted his son at dinner with good fellowship and a faint surprise.
"Day off, my dear fellow? Or have you come up to hear Brabrook pitch into us? He's rather late this time—we've got rid of that balloon business no trouble after all."
And he eyed Miltoun with that clear grey stare of his, so cool, level, and curious. Now, what sort of bird is this? it seemed saying. Certainly not the partridge I should have expected from its breeding!
Miltoun's answer: "I came up to tell you some thing, sir," riveted his father's stare for a second longer than was quite urbane.
It would not be true to say that Lord Valleys was afraid of his son. Fear was not one of his emotions, but he certainly regarded him with a respectful curiosity that bordered on uneasiness. The oligarchic temper of Miltoun's mind and political convictions almost shocked one who knew both by temperament and experience how to wait in front. This instruction he had frequently had occasion to give his jockeys when he believed his horses could best get home first in that way. And it was an instruction he now longed to give his son. He himself had 'waited in front' for over fifty years, and he knew it to be the finest way of insuring that he would never be compelled to alter this desirable policy—for something in Lord Valleys' character made him fear that, in real emergency, he would exert himself to the point of the gravest discomfort sooner than be left to wait behind. A fellow like young Harbinger, of course, he understood—versatile, 'full of beans,' as he expressed it to himself in his more confidential moments, who had imbibed the new wine (very intoxicating it was) of desire for social reform. He would have to be given his head a little—but there would be no difficulty with him, he would never 'run out'—light handy build of horse that only required steadying at the corners. He would want to hear himself talk, and be let feel that he was doing something. All very well, and quite intelligible. But with Miltoun (and Lord Valleys felt this to be no, mere parental fancy) it was a very different business. His son had a way of forcing things to their conclusions which was dangerous, and reminded him of his mother-in-law. He was a baby in public affairs, of course, as yet; but as soon as he once got going, the intensity of his convictions, together with his position, and real gift—not of the gab, like Harbinger's—but of restrained, biting oratory, was sure to bring him to the front with a bound in the present state of parties. And what were those convictions? Lord Valleys had tried to understand them, but up to the present he had failed. And this did not surprise him exactly, since, as he often said, political convictions were not, as they appeared on the surface, the outcome of reason, but merely symptoms of temperament. And he could not comprehend, because he could not sympathize with, any attitude towards public affairs that was not essentially level, attached to the plain, common-sense factors of the case as they appeared to himself. Not that he could fairly be called a temporizer, for deep down in him there was undoubtedly a vein of obstinate, fundamental loyalty to the traditions of a caste which prized high spirit beyond all things. Still he did feel that Miltoun was altogether too much the 'pukka' aristocrat—no better than a Socialist, with his confounded way of seeing things all cut and dried; his ideas of forcing reforms down people's throats and holding them there with the iron hand! With his way too of acting on his principles! Why! He even admitted that he acted on his principles! This thought always struck a very discordant note in Lord Valleys' breast. It was almost indecent; worse-ridiculous! The fact was, the dear fellow had unfortunately a deeper habit of thought than was wanted in politics—dangerous—very! Experience might do something for him! And out of his own long experience the Earl of Valleys tried hard to recollect any politician whom the practice of politics had left where he was when he started. He could not think of one. But this gave him little comfort; and, above a piece of late asparagus his steady eyes sought his son's. What had he come up to tell him?
The phrase had been ominous; he could not recollect Miltoun's ever having told him anything. For though a really kind and indulgent father, he had—like so many men occupied with public and other lives—a little acquired towards his offspring the look and manner: Is this mine? Of his four children, Barbara alone he claimed with conviction. He admired her; and, being a man who savoured life, he was unable to love much except where he admired. But, the last person in the world to hustle any man or force a confidence, he waited to hear his son's news, betraying no uneasiness.
Miltoun seemed in no hurry. He described Courtier's adventure, which tickled Lord Valleys a good deal.
"Ordeal by red pepper! Shouldn't have thought them equal to that," he said. "So you've got him at Monkland now. Harbinger still with you?"
"Yes. I don't think Harbinger has much stamina.
"I rather resent his being on our side—I don't think he does us any good. You've seen that cartoon, I suppose; it cuts pretty deep. I couldn't recognize you amongst the old women, sir."
Lord Valleys smiled impersonally.
"Very clever thing. By the way; I shall win the Eclipse, I think."
And thus, spasmodically, the conversation ran till the last servant had left the room.
Then Miltoun, without preparation, looked straight at his father and said:
"I want to marry Mrs. Noel, sir."
Lord Valleys received the shot with exactly the same expression as that with which he was accustomed to watch his horses beaten. Then he raised his wineglass to his lips; and set it down again untouched. This was the only sign he gave of interest or discomfiture.
"Isn't this rather sudden?"
Miltoun answered: "I've wanted to from the moment I first saw her."
Lord Valleys, almost as good a judge of a man and a situation as of a horse or a pointer dog, leaned back in his chair, and said with faint sarcasm:
"My dear fellow, it's good of you to have told me this; though, to be quite frank, it's a piece of news I would rather not have heard."
A dusky flush burned slowly up in Miltoun's cheeks. He had underrated his father; the man had coolness and courage in a crisis.
"What is your objection, sir?" And suddenly he noticed that a wafer in Lord Valleys' hand was quivering. This brought into his eyes no look of compunction, but such a smouldering gaze as the old Tudor Churchman might have bent on an adversary who showed a sign of weakness. Lord Valleys, too, noticed the quivering of that wafer, and ate it.
"We are men of the world," he said.
Miltoun answered: "I am not."
Showing his first real symptom of impatience Lord Valleys rapped out:
"So be it! I am."
"Yes?", said Miltoun.
Nursing one knee, Miltoun faced that appeal without the faintest movement. His eyes continued to burn into his father's face. A tremor passed over Lord Valleys' heart. What intensity of feeling there was in the fellow, that he could look like this at the first breath of opposition!
He reached out and took up the cigar-box; held it absently towards his son, and drew it quickly back.
"I forgot," he said; "you don't."
And lighting a cigar, he smoked gravely, looking straight before him, a furrow between his brows. He spoke at last:
"She looks like a lady. I know nothing else about her."
The smile deepened round Miltoun's mouth.
"Why should you want to know anything else?"
Lord Valleys shrugged. His philosophy had hardened.
"I understand for one thing," he said coldly; "that there is a matter of a divorce. I thought you took the Church's view on that subject."
"She has not done wrong."
"You know her story, then?"
Lord Valleys raised his brows, in irony and a sort of admiration.
"Chivalry the better part of discretion?"
"You don't, I think, understand the kind of feeling I have for Mrs. Noel. It does not come into your scheme of things. It is the only feeling, however, with which I should care to marry, and I am not likely to feel it for anyone again."
Lord Valleys felt once more that uncanny sense of insecurity. Was this true? And suddenly he felt Yes, it is true! The face before him was the face of one who would burn in his own fire sooner than depart from his standards. And a sudden sense of the utter seriousness of this dilemma dumbed him.
"I can say no more at the moment," he muttered and got up from the table.
Lady Casterley was that inconvenient thing—an early riser. No woman in the kingdom was a better judge of a dew carpet. Nature had in her time displayed before her thousands of those pretty fabrics, where all the stars of the past night, dropped to the dark earth, were waiting to glide up to heaven again on the rays of the sun. At Ravensham she walked regularly in her gardens between half-past seven and eight, and when she paid a visit, was careful to subordinate whatever might be the local custom to this habit.
When therefore her maid Randle came to Barbara's maid at seven o'clock, and said: "My old lady wants Lady Babs to get up," there was no particular pain in the breast of Barbara's maid, who was doing up her corsets. She merely answered "I'll see to it. Lady Babs won't be too pleased!" And ten minutes later she entered that white-walled room which smelled of pinks-a temple of drowsy sweetness, where the summer light was vaguely stealing through flowered chintz curtains.
Barbara was sleeping with her cheek on her hand, and her tawny hair, gathered back, streaming over the pillow. Her lips were parted; and the maid thought: "I'd like to have hair and a mouth like that!" She could not help smiling to herself with pleasure; Lady Babs looked so pretty—prettier asleep even than awake! And at sight of that beautiful creature, sleeping and smiling in her sleep, the earthy, hothouse fumes steeping the mind of one perpetually serving in an atmosphere unsuited to her natural growth, dispersed. Beauty, with its queer touching power of freeing the spirit from all barriers and thoughts of self, sweetened the maid's eyes, and kept her standing, holding her breath. For Barbara asleep was a symbol of that Golden Age in which she so desperately believed. She opened her eyes, and seeing the maid, said:
"Is it eight o'clock, Stacey?"
"No, but Lady Casterley wants you to walk with her."
"Oh! bother! I was having such a dream!"
"Yes; you were smiling."
"I was dreaming that I could fly."
"I could see everything spread out below me, as close as I see you; I was hovering like a buzzard hawk. I felt that I could come down exactly where I wanted. It was fascinating. I had perfect power, Stacey."
And throwing her neck back, she closed her eyes again. The sunlight streamed in on her between the half-drawn curtains.
The queerest impulse to put out a hand and stroke that full white throat shot through the maid's mind.
"These flying machines are stupid," murmured Barbara; "the pleasure's in one's body—-wings!"
"I can see Lady Casterley in the garden."
Barbara sprang out of bed. Close by the statue of Diana Lady Casterley was standing, gazing down at some flowers, a tiny, grey figure. Barbara sighed. With her, in her dream, had been another buzzard hawk, and she was filled with a sort of surprise, and queer pleasure that ran down her in little shivers while she bathed and dressed.
In her haste she took no hat; and still busy with the fastening of her linen frock, hurried down the stairs and Georgian corridor, towards the garden. At the end of it she almost ran into the arms of Courtier.
Awakening early this morning, he had begun first thinking of Audrey Noel, threatened by scandal; then of his yesterday's companion, that glorious young creature, whose image had so gripped and taken possession of him. In the pleasure of this memory he had steeped himself. She was youth itself! That perfect thing, a young girl without callowness.
And his words, when she nearly ran into him, were: "The Winged Victory!"
Barbara's answer was equally symbolic: "A buzzard hawk! Do you know, I dreamed we were flying, Mr. Courtier."
Courtier gravely answered
"If the gods give me that dream——"
From the garden door Barbara turned her head, smiled, and passed through.
Lady Casterley, in the company of little Ann, who had perceived that it was novel to be in the garden at this hour, had been scrutinizing some newly founded colonies of a flower with which she was not familiar. On seeing her granddaughter approach, she said at once:
"What is this thing?"
"Never heard of it."
"It's rather the fashion, Granny."
"Nemesia?" repeated Lady Casterley. "What has Nemesis to do with flowers? I have no patience with gardeners, and these idiotic names. Where is your hat? I like that duck's egg colour in your frock. There's a button undone." And reaching up her little spidery hand, wonderfully steady considering its age, she buttoned the top button but one of Barbara's bodice.
"You look very blooming, my dear," she said. "How far is it to this woman's cottage? We'll go there now."
"She wouldn't be up."
Lady Casterley's eyes gleamed maliciously.
"You tell me she's so nice," she said. "No nice unencumbered woman lies in bed after half-past seven. Which is the very shortest way? No, Ann, we can't take you."
Little Ann, after regarding her great-grandmother rather too intently, replied:
"Well, I can't come, you see, because I've got to go."
"Very well," said Lady Casterley, "then trot along."
Little Ann, tightening her lips, walked to the next colony of Nemesia, and bent over the colonists with concentration, showing clearly that she had found something more interesting than had yet been encountered.
"Ha!" said Lady Casterley, and led on at her brisk pace towards the avenue.
All the way down the drive she discoursed on woodcraft, glancing sharply at the trees. Forestry—she said-like building, and all other pursuits which required, faith and patient industry, was a lost art in this second-hand age. She had made Barbara's grandfather practise it, so that at Catton (her country place) and even at Ravensham, the trees were worth looking at. Here, at Monkland, they were monstrously neglected. To have the finest Italian cypress in the country, for example, and not take more care of it, was a downright scandal!
Barbara listened, smiling lazily. Granny was so amusing in her energy and precision, and her turns of speech, so deliberately homespun, as if she—than whom none could better use a stiff and polished phrase, or the refinements of the French language—were determined to take what liberties she liked. To the girl, haunted still by the feeling that she could fly, almost drunk on the sweetness of the air that summer morning, it seemed funny that anyone should be like that. Then for a second she saw her grandmother's face in repose, off guard, grim with anxious purpose, as if questioning its hold on life; and in one of those flashes of intuition which come to women—even when young and conquering like Barbara—she felt suddenly sorry, as though she had caught sight of the pale spectre never yet seen by her. "Poor old dear," she thought; "what a pity to be old!"
But they had entered the footpath crossing three long meadows which climbed up towards Mrs. Noel's. It was so golden-sweet here amongst the million tiny saffron cups frosted with lingering dewshine; there was such flying glory in the limes and ash-trees; so delicate a scent from the late whins and may-flower; and, on every tree a greybird calling to be sorry was not possible!
In the far corner of the first field a chestnut mare was standing, with ears pricked at some distant sound whose charm she alone perceived. On viewing the intruders, she laid those ears back, and a little vicious star gleamed out at the corner of her eye. They passed her and entered the second field. Half way across, Barbara said quietly:
"Granny, that's a bull!"
It was indeed an enormous bull, who had been standing behind a clump of bushes. He was moving slowly towards them, still distant about two hundred yards; a great red beast, with the huge development of neck and front which makes the bull, of all living creatures, the symbol of brute force.
Lady Casterley envisaged him severely.
"I dislike bulls," she said; "I think I must walk backward."
"You can't; it's too uphill."
"I am not going to turn back," said Lady Casterley. "The bull ought not to be here. Whose fault is it? I shall speak to someone. Stand still and look at him. We must prevent his coming nearer."
They stood still and looked at the bull, who continued to approach.
"It doesn't stop him," said Lady Casterley. "We must take no notice. Give me your arm, my dear; my legs feel rather funny."
Barbara put her arm round the little figure. They walked on.
"I have not been used to bulls lately," said Lady Casterley. The bull came nearer.
"Granny," said Barbara, "you must go quietly on to the stile. When you're over I'll come too."
"Certainly not," said Lady Casterley, "we will go together. Take no notice of him; I have great faith in that."
"Granny darling, you must do as I say, please; I remember this bull, he is one of ours."
At those rather ominous words Lady Casterley gave her a sharp glance.
"I shall not go," she said. "My legs feel quite strong now. We can run, if necessary."
"So can the bull," said Barbara.
"I'm not going to leave you," muttered Lady Casterley. "If he turns vicious I shall talk to him. He won't touch me. You can run faster than I; so that's settled."
"Don't be absurd, dear," answered Barbara; "I am not afraid of bulls."
Lady Casterley flashed a look at her which had a gleam of amusement.
"I can feel you," she said; "you're just as trembly as I am."
The bull was now distant some eighty yards, and they were still quite a hundred from the stile.
"Granny," said Barbara, "if you don't go on as I tell you, I shall just leave you, and go and meet him! You mustn't be obstinate!"
Lady Casterley's answer was to grip her granddaughter round the waist; the nervous force of that thin arm was surprising.
"You will do nothing of the sort," she said. "I refuse to have anything more to do with this bull; I shall simply pay no attention."
The bull now began very slowly ambling towards them.
"Take no notice," said Lady Casterley, who was walking faster than she had ever walked before.
"The ground is level now," said Barbara; "can you run?"
"I think so," gasped Lady Casterley; and suddenly she found herself half-lifted from the ground, and, as it were, flying towards the stile. She heard a noise behind; then Barbara's voice:
"We must stop. He's on us. Get behind me."
She felt herself caught and pinioned by two arms that seemed set on the wrong way. Instinct, and a general softness told her that she was back to back with her granddaughter.
"Let me go!" she gasped; "let me go!"
And suddenly she felt herself being propelled by that softness forward towards the stile.
"Shoo!" she said; "shoo!"
"Granny," Barbara's voice came, calm and breathless, "don't! You only excite him! Are we near the stile?"
"Ten yards," panted Lady Casterley.
"Look out, then!" There was a sort of warm flurry round her, a rush, a heave, a scramble; she was beyond the stile. The bull and Barbara, a yard or two apart, were just the other side. Lady Casterley raised her handkerchief and fluttered it. The bull looked up; Barbara, all legs and arms, came slipping down beside her.
Without wasting a moment Lady Casterley leaned forward and addressed the bull:
"You awful brute!" she said; "I will have you well flogged."
Gently pawing the ground, the bull snuffled.
"Are you any the worse, child?"
"Not a scrap," said Barbara's serene, still breathless voice.
Lady Casterley put up her hands, and took the girl's face between them.
"What legs you have!" she said. "Give me a kiss!"
Having received a hot, rather quivering kiss, she walked on, holding somewhat firmly to Barbara's arm.
"As for that bull," she murmured, "the brute—to attack women!"
Barbara looked down at her.
"Granny," she said, "are you sure you're not shaken?"
Lady Casterley, whose lips were quivering, pressed them together very hard.
"Not a b-b-bit."
"Don't you think," said Barbara, "that we had better go back, at once—the other way?"
"Certainly not. There are no more bulls, I suppose, between us and this woman?"
"But are you fit to see her?"
Lady Casterley passed her handkerchief over her lips, to remove their quivering.
"Perfectly," she answered.
"Then, dear," said Barbara, "stand still a minute, while I dust you behind."
This having been accomplished, they proceeded in the direction of Mrs. Noel's cottage.
At sight of it, Lady Casterley said:
"I shall put my foot down. It's out of the question for a man of Miltoun's prospects. I look forward to seeing him Prime Minister some day." Hearing Barbara's voice murmuring above her, she paused: "What's that you say?"
"I said: What is the use of our being what we are, if we can't love whom we like?"
"Love!" said Lady Casterley; "I was talking of marriage."
"I am glad you admit the distinction, Granny dear."
"You are pleased to be sarcastic," said Lady Casterley. "Listen to me! It's the greatest nonsense to suppose that people in our caste are free to do as they please. The sooner you realize that, the better, Babs. I am talking to you seriously. The preservation of our position as a class depends on our observing certain decencies. What do you imagine would happen to the Royal Family if they were allowed to marry as they liked? All this marrying with Gaiety girls, and American money, and people with pasts, and writers, and so forth, is most damaging. There's far too much of it, and it ought to be stopped. It may be tolerated for a few cranks, or silly young men, and these new women, but for Eustace—" Lady Casterley paused again, and her fingers pinched Barbara's arm, "or for you—there's only one sort of marriage possible. As for Eustace, I shall speak to this good lady, and see that he doesn't get entangled further."
Absorbed in the intensity of her purpose, she did not observe a peculiar little smile playing round Barbara's lips.
"You had better speak to Nature, too, Granny!"
Lady Casterley stopped short, and looked up in her granddaughter's face.
"Now what do you mean by that?" she said "Tell me!"
But noticing that Barbara's lips had closed tightly, she gave her arm a hard—if unintentional-pinch, and walked on.
Lady Casterley's rather malicious diagnosis of Audrey Noel was correct. The unencumbered woman was up and in her garden when Barbara and her grandmother appeared at the Wicket gate; but being near the lime-tree at the far end she did not hear the rapid colloquy which passed between them.
"You are going to be good, Granny?"
"As to that—it will depend."
Lady Casterley could not possibly have provided herself with a better introduction than Barbara, whom Mrs. Noel never met without the sheer pleasure felt by a sympathetic woman when she sees embodied in someone else that 'joy in life' which Fate has not permitted to herself.
She came forward with her head a little on one side, a trick of hers not at all affected, and stood waiting.
The unembarrassed Barbara began at once:
"We've just had an encounter with a bull. This is my grandmother, Lady Casterley."
The little old lady's demeanour, confronted with this very pretty face and figure was a thought less autocratic and abrupt than usual. Her shrewd eyes saw at once that she had no common adventuress to deal with. She was woman of the world enough, too, to know that 'birth' was not what it had been in her young days, that even money was rather rococo, and that good looks, manners, and a knowledge of literature, art, and music (and this woman looked like one of that sort), were often considered socially more valuable. She was therefore both wary and affable.
"How do you do?" she said. "I have heard of you. May we sit down for a minute in your garden? The bull was a wretch!"
But even in speaking, she was uneasily conscious that Mrs. Noel's clear eyes were seeing very well what she had come for. The look in them indeed was almost cynical; and in spite of her sympathetic murmurs, she did not somehow seem to believe in the bull. This was disconcerting. Why had Barbara condescended to mention the wretched brute? And she decided to take him by the horns.
"Babs," she said, "go to the Inn and order me a 'fly.' I shall drive back, I feel very shaky," and, as Mrs. Noel offered to send her maid, she added:
"No, no, my granddaughter will go."
Barbara having departed with a quizzical look, Lady Casterley patted the rustic seat, and said:
"Do come and sit down, I want to talk to you:"
Mrs. Noel obeyed. And at once Lady Casterley perceived that "she had a most difficult task before her. She had not expected a woman with whom one could take no liberties. Those clear dark eyes, and that soft, perfectly graceful manner—to a person so 'sympathetic' one should be able to say anything, and—one couldn't! It was awkward. And suddenly she noticed that Mrs. Noel was sitting perfectly upright, as upright—more upright, than she was herself. A bad, sign—a very bad sign! Taking out her handkerchief, she put it to her lips.
"I suppose you think," she said, "that we were not chased by a bull."
"I am sure you were."
"Indeed! Ah! But I've something else to talk to you about."
Mrs. Noel's face quivered back, as a flower might when it was going to be plucked; and again Lady Casterley put her handkerchief to her lips. This time she rubbed them hard. There was nothing to come off; to do so, therefore, was a satisfaction.
"I am an old woman," she said, "and you mustn't mind what I say."
Mrs. Noel did not answer, but looked straight at her visitor; to whom it seemed suddenly that this was another person. What was it about that face, staring at her! In a weird way it reminded her of a child that one had hurt—with those great eyes and that soft hair, and the mouth thin, in a line, all of a sudden. And as if it had been jerked out of her, she said:
"I don't want to hurt you, my dear. It's about my grandson, of course."
But Mrs. Noel made neither sign nor motion; and the feeling of irritation which so rapidly attacks the old when confronted by the unexpected, came to Lady Casterley's aid.
"His name," she said, "is being coupled with yours in a way that's doing him a great deal of harm. You don't wish to injure him, I'm sure."
Mrs. Noel shook her head, and Lady Casterley went on:
"I don't know what they're not saying since the evening your friend Mr. Courtier hurt his knee. Miltoun has been most unwise. You had not perhaps realized that."
Mrs. Noel's answer was bitterly distinct:
"I didn't know anyone was sufficiently interested in my doings."
Lady Casterley suffered a gesture of exasperation to escape her.
"Good heavens!" she said; "every common person is interested in a woman whose position is anomalous. Living alone as you do, and not a widow, you're fair game for everybody, especially in the country."
Mrs. Noel's sidelong glance, very clear and cynical, seemed to say: "Even for you."
"I am not entitled to ask your story," Lady Casterley went on, "but if you make mysteries you must expect the worst interpretation put on them. My grandson is a man of the highest principle; he does not see things with the eyes of the world, and that should have made you doubly careful not to compromise him, especially at a time like this."
Mrs. Noel smiled. This smile startled Lady Casterley; it seemed, by concealing everything, to reveal depths of strength and subtlety. Would the woman never show her hand? And she said abruptly:
"Anything serious, of course, is out of the question."
That word, which of all others seemed the right one, was spoken so that Lady Casterley did not know in the least what it meant. Though occasionally employing irony, she detested it in others. No woman should be allowed to use it as a weapon! But in these days, when they were so foolish as to want votes, one never knew what women would be at. This particular woman, however, did not look like one of that sort. She was feminine—very feminine—the sort of creature that spoiled men by being too nice to them. And though she had come determined to find out all about everything and put an end to it, she saw Barbara re-entering the wicket gate with considerable relief.
"I am ready to walk home now," she said. And getting up from the rustic seat, she made Mrs. Noel a satirical little bow.
"Thank you for letting me rest. Give me your arm, child."
Barbara gave her arm, and over her shoulder threw a swift smile at Mrs. Noel, who did not answer it, but stood looking quietly after them, her eyes immensely dark and large.
Out in the lane Lady Casterley walked on, very silent, digesting her emotions.
"What about the 'fly,' Granny?"
"The one you told me to order."
"You don't mean to say that you took me seriously?"
"No," said Barbara.
They proceeded some little way farther before Lady Casterley said suddenly:
"She is deep."
"And dark," said Barbara. "I am afraid you were not good!"
Lady Casterley glanced upwards.
"I detest this habit," she said, "amongst you young people, of taking nothing seriously. Not even bulls," she added, with a grim smile.
Barbara threw back her head and sighed.
"Nor 'flys,'" she said.
Lady Casterley saw that she had closed her eyes and opened her lips. And she thought:
"She's a very beautiful girl. I had no idea she was so beautiful—but too big!" And she added aloud:
"Shut your mouth! You will get one down!"
They spoke no more till they had entered the avenue; then Lady Casterley said sharply:
"Who is this coming down the drive?"
"Mr. Courtier, I think."
"What does he mean by it, with that leg?"
"He is coming to talk to you, Granny."
Lady Casterley stopped short.
"You are a cat," she said; "a sly cat. Now mind, Babs, I won't have it!"
"No, darling," murmured Barbara; "you shan't have it—I'll take him off your hands."
"What does your mother mean," stammered Lady Casterley, "letting you grow up like this! You're as bad as she was at your age!"
"Worse!" said Barbara. "I dreamed last night that I could fly!"
"If you try that," said Lady Casterley grimly, "you'll soon come to grief. Good-morning, sir; you ought to be in bed!"
Courtier raised his hat.
"Surely it is not for me to be where you are not!" And he added gloomily: "The war scare's dead!"
"Ah!" said Lady Casterley: "your occupation's gone then. You'll go back to London now, I suppose." Looking suddenly at Barbara she saw that the girl's eyes were half-closed, and that she was smiling; it seemed to Lady Casterley too or was it fancy?—that she shook her head.
Thanks to Lady Valleys, a patroness of birds, no owl was ever shot on the Monkland Court estate, and those soft-flying spirits of the dusk hooted and hunted, to the great benefit of all except the creeping voles. By every farm, cottage, and field, they passed invisible, quartering the dark air. Their voyages of discovery stretched up on to the moor as far as the wild stone man, whose origin their wisdom perhaps knew. Round Audrey Noel's cottage they were as thick as thieves, for they had just there two habitations in a long, old, holly-grown wall, and almost seemed to be guarding the mistress of that thatched dwelling—so numerous were their fluttering rushes, so tenderly prolonged their soft sentinel callings. Now that the weather was really warm, so that joy of life was in the voles, they found those succulent creatures of an extraordinarily pleasant flavour, and on them each pair was bringing up a family of exceptionally fine little owls, very solemn, with big heads, bright large eyes, and wings as yet only able to fly downwards. There was scarcely any hour from noon of the day (for some of them had horns) to the small sweet hours when no one heard them, that they forgot to salute the very large, quiet, wingless owl whom they could espy moving about by day above their mouse-runs, or preening her white and sometimes blue and sometimes grey feathers morning and evening in a large square hole high up in the front wall. And they could not understand at all why no swift depredating graces nor any habit of long soft hooting belonged to that lady-bird.
On the evening of the day when she received that early morning call, as soon as dusk had fallen, wrapped in a long thin cloak, with black lace over her dark hair, Audrey Noel herself fluttered out into the lanes, as if to join the grave winged hunters of the invisible night. Those far, continual sounds, not stilled in the country till long after the sun dies, had but just ceased from haunting the air, where the late May-scent clung as close as fragrance clings to a woman's robe. There was just the barking of a dog, the boom of migrating chafers, the song of the stream, and of the owls, to proclaim the beating in the heart of this sweet Night. Nor was there any light by which Night's face could be seen; it was hidden, anonymous; so that when a lamp in a cottage threw a blink over the opposite bank, it was as if some wandering painter had wrought a picture of stones and leaves on the black air, framed it in purple, and left it hanging. Yet, if it could only have been come at, the Night was as full of emotion as this woman who wandered, shrinking away against the banks if anyone passed, stopping to cool her hot face with the dew on the ferns, walking swiftly to console her warm heart. Anonymous Night seeking for a symbol could have found none better than this errant figure, to express its hidden longings, the fluttering, unseen rushes of its dark wings, and all its secret passion of revolt against its own anonymity....
At Monkland Court, save for little Ann, the morning passed but dumbly, everyone feeling that something must be done, and no one knowing what. At lunch, the only allusion to the situation had been Harbinger's inquiry:
"When does Miltoun return?"
He had wired, it seemed, to say that he was motoring down that night.
"The sooner the better," Sir William murmured: "we've still a fortnight."
But all had felt from the tone in which he spoke these words, how serious was the position in the eyes of that experienced campaigner.
What with the collapse of the war scare, and this canard about Mrs. Noel, there was indeed cause for alarm.
The afternoon post brought a letter from Lord Valleys marked Express.
Lady Valleys opened it with a slight grimace, which deepened as she read. Her handsome, florid face wore an expression of sadness seldom seen there. There was, in fact, more than a touch of dignity in her reception of the unpalatable news.
"Eustace declares his intention of marrying this Mrs. Noel"—so ran her husband's letter—"I know, unfortunately, of no way in which I can prevent him. If you can discover legitimate means of dissuasion, it would be well to use them. My dear, it's the very devil."
It was the very devil! For, if Miltoun had already made up his mind to marry her, without knowledge of the malicious rumour, what would not be his determination now? And the woman of the world rose up in Lady Valleys. This marriage must not come off. It was contrary to almost every instinct of one who was practical not only by character, but by habit of life and training. Her warm and full-blooded nature had a sneaking sympathy with love and pleasure, and had she not been practical, she might have found this side of her a serious drawback to the main tenor of a life so much in view of the public eye. Her consciousness of this danger in her own case made her extremely alive to the risks of an undesirable connection—especially if it were a marriage—to any public man. At the same time the mother-heart in her was stirred. Eustace had never been so deep in her affection as Bertie, still he was her first-born; and in face of news which meant that he was lost to her—for this must indeed be 'the marriage of two minds' (or whatever that quotation was)—she felt strangely jealous of a woman, who had won her son's love, when she herself had never won it. The aching of this jealousy gave her face for a moment almost a spiritual expression, then passed away into impatience. Why should he marry her? Things could be arranged. People spoke of it already as an illicit relationship; well then, let people have what they had invented. If the worst came to the worst, this was not the only constituency in England; and a dissolution could not be far off. Better anything than a marriage which would handicap him all his life! But would it be so great a handicap? After all, beauty counted for much! If only her story were not too conspicuous! But what was her story? Not to know it was absurd! That was the worst of people who were not in Society, it was so difficult to find out! And there rose in her that almost brutal resentment, which ferments very rapidly in those who from their youth up have been hedged round with the belief that they and they alone are the whole of the world. In this mood Lady Valleys passed the letter to her daughters. They read, and in turn handed it to Bertie, who in silence returned it to his mother.
But that evening, in the billiard-room, having manoeuvred to get him to herself, Barbara said to Courtier:
"I wonder if you will answer me a question, Mr. Courtier?"
"If I may, and can."
Her low-cut dress was of yew-green, with, little threads of flame-colour, matching her hair, so that there was about her a splendour of darkness and whiteness and gold, almost dazzling; and she stood very still, leaning back against the lighter green of the billiard-table, grasping its edge so tightly that the smooth strong backs of her hands quivered.
"We have just heard that Miltoun is going to ask Mrs. Noel to marry him. People are never mysterious, are they, without good reason? I wanted you to tell me—who is she?"
"I don't think I quite grasp the situation," murmured Courtier. "You said—to marry him?"
Seeing that she had put out her hand, as if begging for the truth, he added: "How can your brother marry her—she's married!"
"I'd no idea you didn't know that much."
"We thought there was a divorce."
The expression of which mention has been made—that peculiar white-hot sardonically jolly look—visited Courtier's face at once. "Hoist with their own petard! The usual thing. Let a pretty woman live alone—the tongues of men will do the rest."
"It was not so bad as that," said Barbara dryly; "they said she had divorced her husband."
Caught out thus characteristically riding past the hounds Courtier bit his lips.
"You had better hear the story now. Her father was a country parson, and a friend of my father's; so that I've known her from a child. Stephen Lees Noel was his curate. It was a 'snap' marriage—she was only twenty, and had met hardly any men. Her father was ill and wanted to see her settled before he died. Well, she found out almost directly, like a good many other people, that she'd made an utter mistake."
Barbara came a little closer.
"What was the man like?"
"Not bad in his way, but one of those narrow, conscientious pig-headed fellows who make the most trying kind of husband—bone egoistic. A parson of that type has no chance at all. Every mortal thing he has to do or say helps him to develop his worst points. The wife of a man like that's no better than a slave. She began to show the strain of it at last; though she's the sort who goes on till she snaps. It took him four years to realize. Then, the question was, what were they to do? He's a very High Churchman, with all their feeling about marriage; but luckily his pride was wounded. Anyway, they separated two years ago; and there she is, left high and dry. People say it was her fault. She ought to have known her own mind—at twenty! She ought to have held on and hidden it up somehow. Confound their thick-skinned charitable souls, what do they know of how a sensitive woman suffers? Forgive me, Lady Barbara—I get hot over this." He was silent; then seeing her eyes fixed on him, went on: "Her mother died when she was born, her father soon after her marriage. She's enough money of her own, luckily, to live on quietly. As for him, he changed his parish and runs one somewhere in the Midlands. One's sorry for the poor devil, too, of course! They never see each other; and, so far as I know, they don't correspond. That, Lady Barbara, is the simple history."
Barbara, said, "Thank you," and turned away; and he heard her mutter: "What a shame!"
But he could not tell whether it was Mrs. Noel's fate, or the husband's fate, or the thought of Miltoun that had moved her to those words.
She puzzled him by her self-possession, so almost hard, her way of refusing to show feeling.' Yet what a woman she would make if the drying curse of high-caste life were not allowed to stereotype and shrivel her! If enthusiasm were suffered to penetrate and fertilize her soul! She reminded him of a great tawny lily. He had a vision of her, as that flower, floating, freed of roots and the mould of its cultivated soil, in the liberty of the impartial air. What a passionate and noble thing she might become! What radiance and perfume she would exhale! A spirit Fleur-de-Lys! Sister to all the noble flowers of light that inhabited the wind!
Leaning in the deep embrasure of his window, he looked at anonymous Night. He could hear the owls hoot, and feel a heart beating out there somewhere in the darkness, but there came no answer to his wondering. Would she—this great tawny lily of a girl—ever become unconscious of her environment, not in manner merely, but in the very soul, so that she might be just a woman, breathing, suffering, loving, and rejoicing with the poet soul of all mankind? Would she ever be capable of riding out with the little company of big hearts, naked of advantage? Courtier had not been inside a church for twenty years, having long felt that he must not enter the mosques of his country without putting off the shoes of freedom, but he read the Bible, considering it a very great poem. And the old words came haunting him: 'Verily I say unto you, It is harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven.' And now, looking into the Night, whose darkness seemed to hold the answer to all secrets, he tried to read the riddle of this girl's future, with which there seemed so interwoven that larger enigma, how far the spirit can free itself, in this life, from the matter that encompasseth.
The Night whispered suddenly, and low down, as if rising from the sea, came the moon, dropping a wan robe of light till she gleamed out nude against the sky-curtain. Night was no longer anonymous. There in the dusky garden the statue of Diana formed slowly before his eyes, and behind her—as it were, her temple—rose the tall spire of the cypress tree.
A copy of the Bucklandbury News, containing an account of his evening adventure, did not reach Miltoun till he was just starting on his return journey. It came marked with blue pencil together with a note. "MY DEAR EUSTACE,
"The enclosed—however unwarranted and impudent—requires attention. But we shall do nothing till you come back.
"Yours ever, "WILLIAM SHROPTON."
The effect on Miltoun might perhaps have been different had he not been so conscious of his intention to ask Audrey Noel to be his wife; but in any circumstances it is doubtful whether he would have done more than smile, and tear the paper up. Truly that sort of thing had so little power to hurt or disturb him personally, that he was incapable of seeing how it could hurt or disturb others. If those who read it were affected, so much the worse for them. He had a real, if unobtrusive, contempt for groundlings, of whatever class; and it never entered his head to step an inch out of his course in deference to their vagaries. Nor did it come home to him that Mrs. Noel, wrapped in the glamour which he cast about her, could possibly suffer from the meanness of vulgar minds. Shropton's note, indeed, caused him the more annoyance of those two documents. It was like his brother-in-law to make much of little!
He hardly dozed at all during his swift journey through the sleeping country; nor when he reached his room at Monkland did he go to bed. He had the wonderful, upborne feeling of man on the verge of achievement. His spirit and senses were both on fire—for that was the quality of this woman, she suffered no part of him to sleep, and he was glad of her exactions.
He drank some tea; went out, and took a path up to the moor. It was not yet eight o'clock when he reached the top of the nearest tor. And there, below him, around, and above, was a land and sky transcending even his exaltation. It was like a symphony of great music; or the nobility of a stupendous mind laid bare; it was God up there, in His many moods. Serenity was spread in the middle heavens, blue, illimitable, and along to the East, three huge clouds, like thoughts brooding over the destinies below, moved slowly toward the sea, so that great shadows filled the valleys. And the land that lay under all the other sky was gleaming, and quivering with every colour, as it were, clothed with the divine smile. The wind, from the North, whereon floated the white birds of the smaller clouds, had no voice, for it was above barriers, utterly free. Before Miltoun, turning to this wind, lay the maze of the lower lands, the misty greens, rose pinks, and browns of the fields, and white and grey dots and strokes of cottages and church towers, fading into the blue veil of distance, confined by a far range of hills. Behind him there was nothing but the restless surface of the moor, coloured purplish-brown. On that untamed sea of graven wildness could be seen no ship of man, save one, on the far horizon—the grim hulk, Dartmoor Prison. There was no sound, no scent, and it seemed to Miltoun as if his spirit had left his body, and become part of the solemnity of God. Yet, as he stood there, with his head bared, that strange smile which haunted him in moments of deep feeling, showed that he had not surrendered to the Universal, that his own spirit was but being fortified, and that this was the true and secret source of his delight. He lay down in a scoop of the stones. The sun entered there, but no wind, so that a dry sweet scent exuded from the young shoots of heather. That warmth and perfume crept through the shield of his spirit, and stole into his blood; ardent images rose before him, the vision of an unending embrace. Out of an embrace sprang Life, out of that the World was made, this World, with its innumerable forms, and natures—no two alike! And from him and her would spring forms to take their place in the great pattern. This seemed wonderful, and right-for they would be worthy forms, who would hand on those traditions which seemed to him so necessary and great. And then there broke on him one of those delirious waves of natural desire, against which he had so often fought, so often with great pain conquered. He got up, and ran downhill, leaping over the stones, and the thicker clumps of heather.
Audrey Noel, too, had been early astir, though she had gone late enough to bed. She dressed languidly, but very carefully, being one of those women who put on armour against Fate, because they are proud, and dislike the thought that their sufferings should make others suffer; because, too, their bodies are to them as it were sacred, having been given them in trust, to cause delight. When she had finished, she looked at herself in the glass rather more distrustfully than usual. She felt that her sort of woman was at a discount in these days, and being sensitive, she was never content either with her appearance, or her habits. But, for all that, she went on behaving in unsatisfactory ways, because she incorrigibly loved to look as charming as she could; and even if no one were going to see her, she never felt that she looked charming enough. She was—as Lady Casterley had shrewdly guessed—the kind of woman who spoils men by being too nice to them; of no use to those who wish women to assert themselves; yet having a certain passive stoicism, very disconcerting. With little or no power of initiative, she would do what she was set to do with a thoroughness that would shame an initiator; temperamentally unable to beg anything of anybody, she required love as a plant requires water; she could give herself completely, yet remain oddly incorruptible; in a word, hopeless, and usually beloved of those who thought her so.
With all this, however, she was not quite what is called a 'sweet woman—a phrase she detested—for there was in her a queer vein of gentle cynicism. She 'saw' with extraordinary clearness, as if she had been born in Italy and still carried that clear dry atmosphere about her soul. She loved glow and warmth and colour; such mysticism as she felt was pagan; and she had few aspirations—sufficient to her were things as they showed themselves to be.
This morning, when she had made herself smell of geraniums, and fastened all the small contrivances that hold even the best of women together, she went downstairs to her little dining-room, set the spirit lamp going, and taking up her newspaper, stood waiting to make tea.
It was the hour of the day most dear to her. If the dew had been brushed off her life, it was still out there every morning on the face of Nature, and on the faces of her flowers; there was before her all the pleasure of seeing how each of those little creatures in the garden had slept; how many children had been born since the Dawn; who was ailing, and needed attention. There was also the feeling, which renews itself every morning in people who live lonely lives, that they are not lonely, until, the day wearing on, assures them of the fact. Not that she was idle, for she had obtained through Courtier the work of reviewing music in a woman's paper, for which she was intuitively fitted. This, her flowers, her own music, and the affairs of certain families of cottagers, filled nearly all her time. And she asked no better fate than to have every minute occupied, having that passion for work requiring no initiation, which is natural to the owners of lazy minds.
Suddenly she dropped her newspaper, went to the bowl of flowers on the breakfast-table, and plucked forth two stalks of lavender; holding them away from her, she went out into the garden, and flung them over the wall.
This strange immolation of those two poor sprigs, born so early, gathered and placed before her with such kind intention by her maid, seemed of all acts the least to be expected of one who hated to hurt people's feelings, and whose eyes always shone at the sight of flowers. But in truth the smell of lavender—that scent carried on her husband's handkerchief and clothes—still affected her so strongly that she could not bear to be in a room with it. As nothing else did, it brought before her one, to live with whom had slowly become torture. And freed by that scent, the whole flood of memory broke in on her. The memory of three years when her teeth had been set doggedly, on her discovery that she was chained to unhappiness for life; the memory of the abrupt end, and of her creeping away to let her scorched nerves recover. Of how during the first year of this release which was not freedom, she had twice changed her abode, to get away from her own story—not because she was ashamed of it, but because it reminded her of wretchedness. Of how she had then come to Monkland, where the quiet life had slowly given her elasticity again. And then of her meeting with Miltoun; the unexpected delight of that companionship; the frank enjoyment of the first four months. And she remembered all her secret rejoicing, her silent identification of another life with her own, before she acknowledged or even suspected love. And just three weeks ago now, helping to tie up her roses, he had touched her, and she had known. But even then, until the night of Courtier's accident, she had not dared to realize. More concerned now for him than for herself, she asked herself a thousand times if she had been to blame. She had let him grow fond of her, a woman out of court, a dead woman! An unpardonable sin! Yet surely that depended on what she was prepared to give! And she was frankly ready to give everything, and ask for nothing. He knew her position, he had told her that he knew. In her love for him she gloried, would continue to glory; would suffer for it without regret. Miltoun was right in believing that newspaper gossip was incapable of hurting her, though her reasons for being so impervious were not what he supposed. She was not, like him, secured from pain because such insinuations about the private affairs of others were mean and vulgar and beneath notice; it had not as yet occurred to her to look at the matter in so lofty and general a light; she simply was not hurt, because she was already so deeply Miltoun's property in spirit, that she was almost glad that they should assign him all the rest of her. But for Miltoun's sake she was disturbed to the soul. She had tarnished his shield in the eyes of men; and (for she was oddly practical, and saw things in very clear proportion) perhaps put back his career, who knew how many years!
She sat down to drink her tea. Not being a crying woman, she suffered quietly. She felt that Miltoun would be coming to her. She did not know at all what she should say when he did come. He could not care for her so much as she cared for him! He was a man; men soon forget! Ah! but he was not like most men. One could not look at his eyes without feeling that he could suffer terribly! In all this her own reputation concerned her not at all. Life, and her clear way of looking at things, had rooted in her the conviction that to a woman the preciousness of her reputation was a fiction invented by men entirely for man's benefit; a second-hand fetish insidiously, inevitably set-up by men for worship, in novels, plays, and law-courts. Her instinct told her that men could not feel secure in the possession of their women unless they could believe that women set tremendous store by sexual reputation. What they wanted to believe, that they did believe! But she knew otherwise. Such great-minded women as she had met or read of had always left on her the impression that reputation for them was a matter of the spirit, having little to do with sex. From her own feelings she knew that reputation, for a simple woman, meant to stand well in the eyes of him or her whom she loved best. For worldly women—and there were so many kinds of those, besides the merely fashionable—she had always noted that its value was not intrinsic, but commercial; not a crown of dignity, but just a marketable asset. She did not dread in the least what people might say of her friendship with Miltoun; nor did she feel at all that her indissoluble marriage forbade her loving him. She had secretly felt free as soon as she had discovered that she had never really loved her husband; she had only gone on dutifully until the separation, from sheer passivity, and because it was against her nature to cause pain to anyone. The man who was still her husband was now as dead to her as if he had never been born. She could not marry again, it was true; but she could and did love. If that love was to be starved and die away, it would not be because of any moral scruples.
She opened her paper languidly; and almost the first words she read, under the heading of Election News, were these:
'Apropos of the outrage on Mr. Courtier, we are requested to state that the lady who accompanied Lord Miltoun to the rescue of that gentleman was Mrs. Lees Noel, wife of the Rev. Stephen Lees Noel, vicar of Clathampton, Warwickshire.'
This dubious little daub of whitewash only brought a rather sad smile to her lips. She left her tea, and went out into the air. There at the gate was Miltoun coming in. Her heart leaped. But she went forward quietly, and greeted him with cast-down eyes, as if nothing were out of the ordinary.
Exaltation had not left Miltoun. His sallow face was flushed, his eyes glowed with a sort of beauty; and Audrey Noel who, better than most women, could read what was passing behind a face, saw those eyes with the delight of a moth fluttering towards a lamp. But in a very unemotional voice she said:
"So you have come to breakfast. How nice of you!"
It was not in Miltoun to observe the formalities of attack. Had he been going to fight a duel there would have been no preliminary, just a look, a bow, and the swords crossed. So in this first engagement of his with the soul of a woman!
He neither sat down nor suffered her to sit, but stood looking intently into her face, and said:
"I love you."
Now that it had come, with this disconcerting swiftness, she was strangely calm, and unashamed. The elation of knowing for sure that she was loved was like a wand waving away all tremors, stilling them to sweetness. Since nothing could take away that knowledge, it seemed that she could never again be utterly unhappy. Then, too, in her nature, so deeply, unreasoningly incapable of perceiving the importance of any principle but love, there was a secret feeling of assurance, of triumph. He did love her! And she, him! Well! And suddenly panic-stricken, lest he should take back those words, she put her hand up to his breast, and said:
"And I love you."
The feel of his arms round her, the strength and passion of that moment, were so terribly sweet, that she died to thought, just looking up at him, with lips parted and eyes darker with the depth of her love than he had ever dreamed that eyes could be. The madness of his own feeling kept him silent. And they stood there, so merged in one another that they knew and cared nothing for any other mortal thing. It was very still in the room; the roses and carnations in the lustre bowl, seeming to know that their mistress was caught up into heaven, had let their perfume steal forth and occupy every cranny of the abandoned air; a hovering bee, too, circled round the lovers' heads, scenting, it seemed, the honey in their hearts.
It has been said that Miltoun's face was not unhandsome; for Audrey Noel at this moment when his eyes were so near hers, and his lips touching her, he was transfigured, and had become the spirit of all beauty. And she, with heart beating fast against him, her eyes, half closing from delight, and her hair asking to be praised with its fragrance, her cheeks fainting pale with emotion, and her arms too languid with happiness to embrace him—she, to him, was the incarnation of the woman that visits dreams.
So passed that moment.
The bee ended it; who, impatient with flowers that hid their honey so deep, had entangled himself in Audrey's hair. And then, seeing that words, those dreaded things, were on his lips, she tried to kiss them back. But they came:
"When will you marry me?"
It all swayed a little. And with marvellous rapidity the whole position started up before her. She saw, with preternatural insight, into its nooks and corners. Something he had said one day, when they were talking of the Church view of marriage and divorce, lighted all up. So he had really never known about her! At this moment of utter sickness, she was saved from fainting by her sense of humour—her cynicism. Not content to let her be, people's tongues had divorced her; he had believed them! And the crown of irony was that he should want to marry her, when she felt so utterly, so sacredly his, to do what he liked with sans forms or ceremonies. A surge of bitter feeling against the man who stood between her and Miltoun almost made her cry out. That man had captured her before she knew the world or her own soul, and she was tied to him, till by some beneficent chance he drew his last breath when her hair was grey, and her eyes had no love light, and her cheeks no longer grew pale when they were kissed; when twilight had fallen, and the flowers, and bees no longer cared for her.
It was that feeling, the sudden revolt of the desperate prisoner, which steeled her to put out her hand, take up the paper, and give it to Miltoun.
When he had read the little paragraph, there followed one of those eternities which last perhaps two minutes.
He said, then:
"It's true, I suppose?" And, at her silence, added: "I am sorry."
This queer dry saying was so much more terrible than any outcry, that she remained, deprived even of the power of breathing, with her eyes still fixed on Miltoun's face.
The smile of the old Cardinal had come up there, and was to her like a living accusation. It seemed strange that the hum of the bees and flies and the gentle swishing of the limetree should still go on outside, insisting that there was a world moving and breathing apart from her, and careless of her misery. Then some of her courage came back, and with it her woman's mute power. It came haunting about her face, perfectly still, about her lips, sensitive and drawn, about her eyes, dark, almost mutinous under their arched brows. She stood, drawing him with silence and beauty.
At last he spoke:
"I have made a foolish mistake, it seems. I believed you were free."
Her lips just moved for the words to pass: "I thought you knew. I never, dreamed you would want to marry me."
It seemed to her natural that he should be thinking only of himself, but with the subtlest defensive instinct, she put forward her own tragedy:
"I suppose I had got too used to knowing I was dead."
"Is there no release?"
"None. We have neither of us done wrong; besides with him, marriage is—for ever."
She had broken his smile, which had been cruel without meaning to be cruel; and with a smile of her own that was cruel too, she said:
"I didn't know that you believed in release either."
Then, as though she had stabbed herself in stabbing him, her face quivered.
He looked at her now, conscious at last that she was suffering. And she felt that he was holding himself in with all his might from taking her again into his arms. Seeing this, the warmth crept back to her lips, and a little light into her eyes, which she kept hidden from him. Though she stood so proudly still, some wistful force was coming from her, as from a magnet, and Miltoun's hands and arms and face twitched as though palsied. This struggle, dumb and pitiful, seemed never to be coming to an end in the little white room, darkened by the thatch of the verandah, and sweet with the scent of pinks and of a wood fire just lighted somewhere out at the back. Then, without a word, he turned and went out. She heard the wicket gate swing to. He was gone.