LEFT by her father and mother to the further entertainment of Harbinger, Barbara had said, ‘Let’s have coffee in here,’ and passed into the withdrawing-room.
Except for that one evening, when together by the sea wall they stood contemplating the populace, she had not been alone with him since he kissed her under the shelter of the ragged box-hedge. And now, after the first moment, she looked at him calmly, though in her breast there Was a fluttering, as if an imprisoned bird were struggling ever so feebly against that soft and solid cage. Her last jangled talk with Courtier had left an ache in her heart. Besides, did she not know all that Harbinger could give her?
Like a nymph pursued by a faun who held dominion over the groves, she, fugitive, kept looking back. There was nothing in that fair wood of his with which she was not familiar, no thicket she had not traveled, no stream she had not crossed, no kiss she could not return. His was a discovered land, in which, as of right, she would reign. She had nothing to hope from him but power, and solid pleasure. Her eyes said, How am I to know whether I shall not want more than you; feel suffocated in your arms; be surfeited by all that you will bring me? Have I not already got all that?
She knew, from his downcast, gloomy face, how cruel she seemed to him, and was sorry. She wanted to be good to him, and she said almost shyly, ‘Are you angry with me, Claud?’
Harbinger looked up.
‘What makes you so cruel, Babs?’
‘I am not cruel.’
‘You are. Where is your heart?’
‘Here!’ said Barbara, touching her breast.
‘ Ah! ’ muttered Harbinger; ‘ but I’m not joking.’
She said gently, ‘Is it as bad as that, my dear?’
But the softness of her voice seemed to fan the smouldering fires in Harbinger.
‘There’s something behind all this,’ he stammered; ‘you’ve no right to make a fool of me! ’
‘And what is the something, please?’
‘That’s for you to say. I’m not blind. What about this fellow Courtier?’
At that moment there was revealed to Barbara a new acquaintance — the male proper. No, to live with him would not be quite lacking in adventure!
Harbinger’s face had darkened; his eyes were dilated, his whole figure seemed to have grown. On his fists, clenched in front of him, Barbara suddenly noticed the hair which covered them. All his suavity had left him. He came very close.
How long that look between them lasted, and of all there was in it, she had no clear knowledge; thought after thought, wave after wave of feeling, rushed through her. Revolt and attraction, contempt and admiration, queer sensations of disgust and pleasure, all mingled — as on a May day one may see the hail fall, and the sun suddenly burn through, and steam from the grass.
Then he said hoarsely: ‘Oh! Babs, forgive; you madden me so!’
Smoothing her lips, as if to regain control of them, she answered, ‘Yes, I think I have had enough,’ and went out into her father’s study.
The sight of Lord and Lady Valleys so intently staring at Milton restored her self-possession.
It struck her as slightly comical, not knowing that the little scene was the outcome of that word. In truth, the contrast between Milton and his parents at this moment was almost ludicrous.
Lady Valleys was the first to speak.
‘Better comic than romantic. I suppose Barbara may know, considering her contribution to this matter. Your brother is resigning his seat, my dear; his conscience will not permit him to retain it, under certain circumstances that have arisen.’
‘Oh!’ cried Barbara; ‘but surely—’
‘The matter has been argued, Babs,’ Lord Valleys said shortly; ‘unless you have some better reason to advance than those of ordinary common sense, public spirit, and consideration for one’s family, it will hardly be worth your while to reopen the discussion.’
Barbara looked up at Milton, whose face, all but the eyes, was like a mask.
‘Oh, Eusty!’ she said, ‘you’re not going to spoil your life like this! Just think how I shall feel! ’
Milton answered stonily, ‘You did what you thought right; as I am doing.’
‘Does she want you to?’
‘There is, I should imagine,’ put in Lord Valleys, ‘not a solitary creature in the whole world but your brother who would wish for this consummation. But with him such a consideration does not weigh!’
‘Oh!’ sighed Barbara; ‘think of Granny!’
‘I prefer not to think of her,’ murmured Lady Valleys.
‘She’s so wrapped up in you, Eusty. She always has believed in you intensely.’
Milton sighed. And, encouraged by that sound, Barbara went closer.
It was plain enough that, behind his impassivity, a desperate struggle was going on in Milton. He spoke at last:
‘ If I have not already yielded to one who is more to me than anything, when she begged and entreated, it is because I feel this in a way you don’t realize. I apologize for using the word comic just now; I should have said tragic. I’ll enlighten Uncle Dennis, if that will comfort you; but this is not exactly a matter for any one, except myself.’
And, without another look or word, he went out.
As the door closed, Barbara ran towards it; and, with a motion strangely like the wringing of hands, said, ‘ Oh, dear! Oh, dear!’ Then, turning away to a bookcase, she began to cry.
This ebullition of feeling, surpassing even their own, came as a real shock to Lord and Lady Valleys, ignorant of how strung-up she had been before she entered the room. They had not seen Barbara cry since she was a tiny girl. And in face of her emotion any animus they might have shown her for having thrown Milton into Mrs. Noel’s arms, now melted away. Lord Valleys, especially moved, went up to his daughter, and stood with her in that dark corner, saying nothing, but gently stroking her hand. Lady Valleys, who herself felt very much inclined to cry, went out of sight into the embrasure of the window.
Barbara’s sobbing was soon subdued.
‘It’s his face,’ she said. ‘And why? Why? It’s so unnecessary!’
Lord Valleys, continually twisting his moustache, muttered, ‘Exactly! He makes things for himself! ’
‘Yes,’ murmured Lady Valleys from the window, ‘he was always like that, uncomfortable. I remember him as a baby. Bertie never was.’
And then the silence was only broken by the little angry sounds of Barbara blowing her nose.
‘I shall go and see mother,’ said Lady Valleys suddenly. ‘The boy’s whole life may be ruined if we can’t stop this. Are you coming, child?’
But Barbara refused.
She went to her room, instead. This crisis in Milton’s life had strangely shaken her. It was as if Fate had suddenly revealed all that any step out of the beaten path might lead to, had brought her sharply up against herself. To wing out into the blue! see what it meant! If Milton kept to his resolve, and gave up public life, he was lost! And she herself! The fascination of Courtier’s chivalrous manner, of a sort of innate gallantry, suggesting the quest of everlasting danger — was it not rather absurd? And — was she fascinated? Was it not simply that she liked the feeling of fascinating him? Through the maze of these thoughts darted the memory of Harbinger’s face close to her own, his clenched hands, the swift revelation of his dangerous masculinity. It was all a nightmare of scaring, queer sensations, of things that could never be settled. She was stirred for once out of all her normal philosophy. Her thoughts flew back to Milton. That which she had seen in their faces then had come to pass! And picturing Agatha’s horror, when she came to hear of it, Barbara could not help a smile. Poor Eustace! If only he would not take things so hard! If he really carried out his resolve — and he never changed his mind — it would be tragic! It would mean the end of everything for him!
Perhaps he would get tired of Mrs. Noel, now! But she was not the sort of woman a man would get tired of. She would never let him! She would never try to keep him! Why could n’t they go on as if nothing had happened? Could nobody persuade him? She thought again of Courtier. If he, who knew them both, would talk to Milton, about the right to be happy, the right to revolt? Eustace ought to revolt. It was his duty. She sat down and wrote; then, putting on her hat, took the note and slipped downstairs.
The flowers of summer in the great glass house at Ravensham were keeping the last afternoon-watch when Clifton summoned Lady Casterley with the words, ‘Lady Valleys is in the white room.’
Since the news of Milton’s illness, and of Mrs. Noel’s nursing, the little old lady had possessed her soul in patience; often, it is true, afflicted with poignant misgivings as to this new influence in the life of her favorite, affected too by a sort of jealousy which she did not admit, even in her prayers. Having small liking now for leaving home, even for Catton, her country place, she was still at Ravensham, where Lord Dennis had come up to stay with her as soon as Milton had left Sea House. But indeed Lady Casterley was never very dependent on company. She retained unimpaired her intense interest in politics, and still corresponded freely with prominent men. Of late, too, a slight revival of the June war-scare had made its mark on her in a certain rejuvenescence, which always accompanied her contemplation of national crises, even when such were a little in the air. At blast of trumpet her spirit still leaped forward, unsheathed its sword, and stood at the salute. At such times, she rose earlier, went to bed later, was far less susceptible to draughts, and refused with asperity any food between meals. She wrote too with her own hand letters which she would otherwise have dictated to her secretary. Unfortunately the scare had died down again almost at once; and the passing of danger always left her rather irritable. Lady Valleys’s visit came as a timely consolation.
She kissed her daughter critically, for there was that about her manner which she did not like.
‘Yes, of course I am well!’ she said. ‘Why did n’t you bring Barbara?’
‘ She was tired! ’
‘H’m! Afraid of meeting me, since she committed that piece of folly over Eustace. You must be careful of that child, Gertrude, or she will be doing something silly herself. I don’t like the way she keeps Claud Harbinger hanging in the wind.’
Her daughter cut her short: ‘There is bad news about Eustace.’
Lady Casterley lost the little color in her cheeks; lost too all her superfluity of irritable energy.
‘Tell me, at once!’
Having heard, she said nothing; but Lady Valleys noticed with alarm that over her eyes had come suddenly the peculiar filminess of age.
‘Well, what do you advise?’ she asked.
Tired herself, and troubled, she was conscious of a quite unwonted feeling of discouragement before this silent little figure, in the silent white room. She had never before seen her mother look as if she heard Defeat passing on its dark wings. And moved by sudden tenderness for the little frail body that had borne her so long ago, she murmured almost with surprise, ‘ Mother, dear!’
‘Yes,’ said Lady Casterley, as if speaking to herself, ‘the boy saves things up; he stores his feelings — they burst and sweep him away. First his passion; now his conscience. There are two men in him; but this will be the death of one of them.’ And suddenly turning on her daughter, she said, ‘ Did you ever hear about him at Oxford, Gertrude? He broke out once, and ate husks with the Gadarenes. You never knew. Of course — you never have known anything of him.’
Resentment rose in Lady Valleys, that any one should know her son better than herself; but she lost it again looking at the little figure, and said, sighing, ‘Well?’
Lady Casterley murmured, ‘Go away, child; I must think. You say he’s to consult Dennis? Do you know her address? Ask Barbara when you get back and telephone it to me.’ And at her daughter’s kiss, she added grimly, ‘I shall live to see him in the saddle yet, though I am seventy-eight.’
As the sound of the car died away, she rang the bell.
‘When Lady Valleys rings up, Clifton, don’t take the message, call me.’ And seeing that Clifton did not move, she added sharply, ‘Well?’
‘There is no bad news of his young lordship’s health, I hope, my lady.’
‘Forgive me, my lady, but I have had it on my mind for some time to ask you something.’
And the old man raised his hand with a peculiar dignity, seeming to say, You will excuse me that for the moment I am a human being speaking to a human being.
‘The matter of his attachment,’ he went on, ‘is known to me; it has given me acute anxiety, knowing his lordship as I do, and having heard him say something singular when he was here in July. I should be grateful if you would assure me that there is to be no hitch in his career, my lady.’
The expression on Lady Casterley’s face was strangely compounded of surprise, kindliness, defense, and impatience, as with a child.
‘Not if I can prevent it, Clifton,’ she said sharply; ‘you need not concern yourself.’
‘Excuse me mentioning it, my lady,’ a quiver ran over his face between its long white whiskers, ‘but his young lordship’s career is more to me than my own.’
When he had left her, Lady Casterley sat down in a little low chair — long she sat there by the empty hearth, till the daylight was all gone.
Not far from the dark-haloed indeterminate limbo where dwelt that bugbear of Charles Courtier, the great Half-Truth Authority, he himself had a couple of rooms at fifteen shillings a week. Their chief attraction was that the great Half-Truth Liberty had recommended them. They tied him to nothing, and were ever at his disposal when he was in London; for his landlady, though not bound by agreement so to do, let them in such a way that she could turn any one else out at a week’s notice. She was a gentle soul, married to a socialistic plumber twenty years her senior. The worthy man had given her two little boys, and the three of them kept her in such permanent order that to be in the presence of Courtier was the greatest pleasure she knew. When he disappeared on one of his missions, explorations, or adventures, she inclosed the whole of his belongings in two tin trunks, and placed them in a cupboard which smelled a little of mice. When he reappeared the trunks were reopened, and a powerful scent of dried rose-leaves would escape. For, recognizing the mortality of things human, she procured every summer from her sister, the wife of a market gardener, a consignment of this commodity, which she passionately sewed up in bags, and continued to deposit year by year in Courtier’s trunks. This, and the way she made his toast — very crisp — and aired his linen — very dry, were practically the only things she could do for a man naturally inclined to independence, and accustomed from his manner of life to fend for himself.
At first signs of his departure she would go into some closet or other, away from the plumber and the two marks of his affection, and cry quietly; but never in Courtier’s presence did she dream of manifesting grief — as soon weep in the presence of death or birth, or any other fundamental tragedy or joy. In face of the realities of life she had known from her youth up the value of the simple verb ‘sto — stare — to stand fast.’
And to her Courtier was a reality, the chief reality of life, the focus of her aspiration, the morning and the evening star.
The request, then,—five days after his farewell visit to Mrs. Noel, — for the elephant-hide trunk which accompanied his rovings, produced her habitual period of seclusion, followed by her habitual appearance in his sitting-room bearing a note, and some bags of dried rose-leaves on a tray. She found him in his shirt-sleeves, packing.
‘Well, Mrs. Benton: off again!’
Mrs. Benton, plaiting her hands, for she had not yet lost something of the look and manner of a little girl, answered in her flat, but serene voice, ‘Yes, sir; and I hope you’re not going anywhere very dangerous this time. I always think you go to such dangerous places.’
‘To Persia, Mrs. Benton, where the carpets come from.’
‘Oh! yes, sir. Your washing’s just come home.’
Her apparently cast-down eyes stored up a wealth of little details: the way his hair grew, the set of his back, the color of his braces. But suddenly she said in a surprising voice, ‘You have n’t a photograph you could spare, sir, to leave behind? Mr. Benton was only saying to me yesterday, we’ve nothing to remember you by, in case you should n’t come back.'
‘Yes, here’s an old one.’
Mrs. Benton took the photograph.
‘Oh!’ she said; ‘you can see who it is.’ And holding it perhaps too tightly, for her fingers trembled, she added, ‘A note, please, sir; the messenger boy is waiting for an answer.'
And while he read the note, she noticed with concern how packing had brought the blood into his head.
When, in response to that note, Courtier entered the well-known confectioner’s called Gustard’s, it was still not quite tea-time, and there seemed to him at first no one in the room save three middle-aged women packing sweets; then in the corner he saw Barbara. The blood was no longer in his head; he was pale, walking down that mahogany-colored room, impregnated with the scent of wedding-cake. Barbara, too, was pale.
Being so close to her that he could count every eyelash, and inhale the scent of her hair and clothes, to listen to her story of Milton, so hesitatingly, so wistfully told, seemed very like being kept waiting, with the rope already round his neck, to hear about another person’s toothache. He felt this to have been unnecessary on the part of Fate! And there came to him perversely the memory of that ride over the sun-warmed heather, when he had paraphrased the old Sicilian song, ‘ Here will I sit and sing.’ He was a long way from singing now; nor was there love in his arms. There was instead a cup of tea; and in his nostrils the scent of cake, with now and then a whiff of orange-flower water.
‘I see,’ he said, when she had finished telling him: “‘Liberty’s a glorious feast?” You want me to go to your brother, and quote Burns. You know, of course, that he regards me as dangerous.’
‘ Yes; but he respects, and likes you.’
‘And I respect and like him,’ answered Courtier.
One of the middle-aged females passed, carrying a large white cardboard box; and the creaking of her stays broke the hush.
‘You have been very sweet to me,’ said Barbara suddenly.
Courtier’s heart stirred, as if it were turning over within him; and gazing into his teacup, he answered, ‘All men are decent to the evening star. I will go at once and find your brother. When shall I bring you news?’
‘To-morrow at five.’
And repeating, ‘To-morrow at five,’ he rose.
Looking back from the door, he saw her face puzzled, rather reproachful, and went out gloomily. The scent of cake and orange-flower water, the creaking of the female’s stays, the color of mahogany, still clung to his eyes, and ears, and nose. It was all dull, baffled rage within him. Why had he not made the most of this unexpected chance? why had he not made desperate love to her? A conscientious fool! And yet — the whole thing was absurd! She was so young! God knew he would be glad to be out of it. If he stayed he was afraid that he would play the cad. But the memory of her words, ‘You have been very sweet to me!’ would not leave him; nor the memory of her face, so puzzled, and reproachful. Yes, if he stayed he would play the cad! He would be asking her to marry a man double her age, of no position but that which he had carved for himself, and without a rap. And he would be asking her in such a way that she might have some little difficulty in refusing. He would be letting himself go. And she was only twenty — for all her woman-of-the-world air, a child! No! He would be useful to her, if possible, this once, and then clear out!
When Milton left Valleys House he walked in the direction of Westminster. During the five days that he had been back in London he had not yet entered the House of Commons. After the seclusion of his illness, he still felt a yearning, almost painful, toward the movement and stir of the town. Everything he heard and saw made an intensely vivid impression. The lions in Trafalgar Square, the great, buildings of Whitehall, filled him with a sort of exultation. He was like a man who, after a long sea voyage, first catches sight of land, and stands straining his eyes, hardly breathing, taking in, one by one, the lost, features of that face. He walked on to Westminster Bridge, and going to an embrasure in the very centre, looked back.
It was said that the love of those towers passed into the blood. It was said that he who had sat beneath them could never again be quite the same. Milton knew that it was true — desperately true, of himself. In person he had sat there but three weeks, but in soul he seemed to have been sitting there hundreds of years. And now he would sit there no more! And there rose up in him an almost frantic desire to free himself from the coil around him. To be held a prisoner by that most secret of all his instincts, the instinct for authority! To be unable to wield authority because to wield authority was to insult authority. God! It was hard! He turned his back on the towers, and sought distraction in the faces of the passers-by.
Each of these, he knew, had his struggle to keep self-respect! Or was it that they were unconscious of struggle or of self-respect, and just let things drift? They looked like that, most of them! And all his inherent contempt for the average or common welled up as he watched them. Yes, they looked like that! Ironically, the sight of those from whom he had desired the comfort of compromise, served instead to stimulate that part of him which refused to let him compromise. They looked soft, soggy, without, pride or will, as though they knew that life was too much for them, and had shamefully accepted the fact. They so obviously needed to be told what they might do, and which way they should go; they would accept orders as they accepted their work, or pleasures. And the thought that he was now debarred from the right to give them orders rankled in him furiously. They, in their turn, glanced casually at his tall figure leaning against the parapet, not knowing how their fate was trembling in the balance. His thin, sallow face and hungry eyes gave one or two of them perhaps a feeling of interest or discomfort; but to most he was assuredly no more than any other man or woman in the hurly-burly. That dark figure of conscious power struggling in the fetters of its own belief in power, was a piece of sculpture they had neither time nor wish to understand; having no taste for tragedy, for witnessing the human spirit driven to the wall.
It was five o’clock before Milton left the bridge, and passed, like an exile, before the gates of Church and State, on his way to his uncle’s club. He stopped to telegraph to Mrs. Noel the time he would be coming to-morrow afternoon; and in leaving the Post Office, noticed in the window of the adjoining shop some reproductions of old Italian masterpieces, amongst them one of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. He had never seen that picture of everlasting love and joy; and, remembering that she had told him it was her favorite picture, he stopped to look at it. Ordinarily well versed in such matters, as became one of his caste, Milton had not the power of letting a work of art insidiously steal the private self from his soul, and replace it with the self of all the world. He examined this far-famed presentment of the heathen goddess with detachment, even with irritation. The drawing of the body seemed to him crude, the whole picture a little flat and Early; he did not like the figure of the Flora. That golden serenity, and tenderness, of which she had spoken, left him cold. Then he found himself looking at the face, and slowly, but with uncanny certainty, began to feel that he was looking at the face of Audrey. The hair was golden and different, the eyes gray and different, the mouth a little fuller; yet — it was her face; the same oval shape, the same far-apart arched brows, the same strangely tender, elusive spirit. And, as though offended, he turned and walked on.
In the window of a little shop was that for which he had bartered his life: the incarnation of passive and entwining love; that gentle creature who had given herself to him so utterly, for whom his senses yearned and his heart ached at the least thought, for whom love, and the flowers, and trees, and birds, music, the sky, and the slow-flowing river, were all-sufficing; who, like the goddess in the picture, seemed wondering at her own birth. He had a sudden glimpse of understanding, strange indeed in one who had so little power of seeing into others’ hearts. She was touching because of her dim wonder that into a world like this she should ever have been born! But this flash of insight quickly yielded to that sickening consciousness of his own position, which never left him now.
Whatever he did, he must get rid of that malaise! But what could he do? Write books? What sort of books could he write? Only such as expressed his views of citizenship, his political and social beliefs. As well remain sitting and speaking beneath those towers! He could never join the happy band of artists, those soft and indeterminate spirits for whom barriers had no meaning, content to understand, interpret, and create. What should he be doing in that galley? The thought was inconceivable. A career at the Bar — yes, he might take that up; but to what end? To become a judge! As well continue to sit beneath those towers! Too late for diplomacy. Too late for the army; besides, he had not the faintest taste for military glory. Bury himself in the country like Uncle Dennis, and administer one of his father’s estates? It would be death. Go amongst the poor? For a moment he thought he had found a new vocation. But in what capacity — to order their lives, when he could not order his own; or, as a mere conduit pipe for money, when he believed that charity was rotting the nation to its core!
At the head of every avenue stood an angel or devil with drawn sword. And then there came to him another thought. Since he was being cast forth from Church and State, could he not play the fallen spirit like a man — be Lucifer, and destroy! And instinctively he at once saw himself returning to those towers, and beneath them crossing the floor; joining the revolutionaries, the radicals, the freethinkers; scourging his present party, the party of authority and institutions. The idea struck him as supremely comic, and he laughed out loud in the street.
The club which Lord Dennis frequented was in St. James’s, untouched by the tides of the waters of fashion — steadily swinging to its moorings in a quiet backwater, and Milton found his uncle in the library. He was reading a volume of Burton’s travels, and drinking tea.
‘Nobody comes here,’ he said, ‘so, in spite of that word on the door, we shall talk. Waiter, bring some more tea, please.’
Impatiently, but with a sort of pity, Milton watched Lord Dennis’s urbane movements, wherein old age, pathetically, was trying to make each little thing seem important, if only to the doer. Nothing his great-uncle could say would outweigh the warning of his picturesque old figure! To be a bystander; to see it all go past you; to let your sword rust in its sheath, as this poor old fellow had done!
The notion of explaining what he had come about was particularly hateful to Milton; but since he had given his word, he nerved himself with secret anger, and began, ‘I promised my mother to ask you a question, Uncle Dennis. You know of my attachment, I believe?’
Lord Dennis nodded.
‘Well, I have joined my life to this lady’s. There will be no scandal, but I consider it my duty to resign my seat, and leave public life alone. Is that right or wrong according to your view?’
Lord Dennis looked at his nephew in silence. A faint flush colored his brown cheeks. He had the appearance of one traveling in mind over the past.
‘Wrong, I think,’ he said, at last.
‘Why, if I may ask? ’
‘I have not the pleasure of knowing this lady, and am therefore somewhat in the dark; but it appears to me that your decision is not fair to her.’
‘That is beyond me,’ said Milton.
Lord Dennis answered firmly, ‘You have asked me a frank question, expecting a frank answer; is that so?’
‘Then, my dear, don’t blame me if what I say is unpalatable.’
‘I shall not,’ said Milton.
‘Good! You say you are going to give up public life for the sake of your conscience. I should have no criticism to make, if it stopped there.’
He paused, and for quite a minute remained silent, evidently searching for words to express some intricate thread of thought.
‘But it won’t, Eustace; the public man in you is far stronger than the other. You want leadership more than you want love. Your sacrifice will kill your affection; what you imagine is your loss and hurt will prove to be this lady’s.’
Lord Dennis continued very dryly and with a touch of malice, ‘You are not listening to me; but I can see very well that the process has begun already underneath. There’s a curious streak of the Jesuit in you, Eustace. What you don’t want to see, you won’t see.’
‘You advise me, then, to compromise?’
‘On the contrary, I point out that you will be compromising if you try to keep both your conscience and your love. You will be seeking to have it both ways.’
‘That is interesting.’
‘And you will find yourself having it neither,’ said Lord Dennis sharply.
Milton rose. ‘In other words, you, like the others, recommend me to desert this lady who loves me, and whom I love. And yet, Uncle, they say that in your own case —'
But Lord Dennis had risen, too, having lost all the appanage and manner of old age.
‘Of my own case,’ he said bluntly, ‘we won’t talk. I don’t advise you to desert anyone; you quite mistake me. I advise you to know yourself. And I tell you my opinion of you — you were cut out by Nature for a statesman, not a lover! There’s something dried up in you, Eustace; I’m not sure there is n’t something dried up in all our caste. We ’ve had to do with forms and ceremonies too long. We’re not good at taking the lyrical point of view! ’
‘Unfortunately,’ said Milton, ‘I cannot , to fit in with a theory of yours, commit a baseness.’
Lord Dennis began pacing up and down. He was keeping his lips closed very tight.
‘A man who gives advice,’ he said, at last, ‘is always a fool. For all that, you have mistaken mine. I am not so presumptuous as to attempt to enter the inner chamber of your spirit. I have merely told you that, in my opinion, it would be more honest to yourself, and fairer to this lady, to compound with your conscience, and keep your love and your public life, than to pretend that you were capable of sacrificing what I know is the stronger element in you for the sake of the weaker. To that I can add nothing.’
Milton turned to the window. In the little side street over which the club looked, a man was sorting his evening papers before returning to the sale of them. And at the sight of that other creature quietly wrapped-up in his own life, Milton turned abruptly and said, ‘I am sorry to have troubled you, Uncle Dennis. A middle policy is no use to me. Good-bye! And without shaking hands, he went out.
As he crossed the hall a man rose from a sofa. It was Courtier. ‘Run you to earth at last,’ he said: ‘I wish you’d come and dine with me. I’m leaving England to-morrow night, and there are things I want to say.’
There passed through Milton’s mind the rapid thought, Does he know? But he assented, and they went out together.
‘It’s difficult to find a quiet place,’ said Courtier; ‘this might do.’
He led the way into a little hostel, frequented by racing-men, and famed for the excellence of its steaks. As they sat down opposite each other in an almost empty room, Milton thought, Yes, he does know! Can I stand any more of this? And he waited savagely for the attack he felt was coming.
‘So you are going to give up your seat?’ said Courtier.
Milton looked at him a long time, before replying.
‘From what town-crier did you hear that ? ’
But something in Courtier’s face had checked his anger; its friendliness was too transparent.
‘I am about her only friend,’ said Courtier earnestly; ‘and this is my last chance; to say nothing of my feeling toward you, which, believe me, is very cordial.’
‘Go on, then,’ muttered Milton.
‘Forgive me for putting it bluntly. But her position — have you considered what it was before she met you?’
Milton felt all the blood in his body rushing to his face, but he sat still, clenching his nails into the palms of his hands.
‘Yes, yes,’ said Courtier, ‘but this pharisaism — you used to have it yourself — which decrees either living death, or spiritual adultery to women, makes my blood boil. You can’t deny that those were the alternatives, and I say you had the right fundamentally to protest against them, not only in words but deeds. Well, I know, you did protest. But this present decision of yours is a climb-down; as much as to say that your protest was wrong.’
Milton half-rose from his seat. ‘I cannot discuss this,’ he said; ‘I cannot.’
‘For her sake, you must. If you give up your public work, you ’ll spoil her life again.’
Milton sat down again. At the word ‘must’ a steely feeling had come to his aid; his eyes began to look like the old Cardinal’s. ‘Your nature and mine, Courtier,’ he said, ‘are too far apart; we shall never understand each other.’
‘Never mind that,’ answered Courtier. ‘Admitting those two alternatives to be horrible, which you never would have done unless the facts had been brought home to you personally — ’
‘That,’ said Milton icily, ‘I deny your right to say.’
‘Anyway, you do admit them — if you believe you had not the right to rescue her, on what principle do you base that belief?’
Milton placed his elbow on the table, and leaning his chin on his hand, regarded the champion of lost causes without speaking. There was such a turmoil going on within him that it was with difficulty he could force his lips to obey him.
‘By what right do you ask me that?’ he said at last.
He saw Courtier’s face go scarlet, and his fingers twisting furiously at those flame-like moustaches; but his answer was as steadily ironical as usual.
‘I can hardly sit still, my last evening in England, without lifting a finger, while you half-murder a woman to whom I feel like a brother. I’ll tell you what your principle is: authority, unjust or just, desirable or undesirable, must be implicitly obeyed. To break a law, no matter on what provocation, or for whose sake, is to break the commandment — ’
‘Don’t hesitate — say, of God.’
‘Of an infallible fixed Power. Is that a true definition of your principle?
‘Yes,’said Milton between his teeth, ‘I think so.’
‘Exceptions prove the rule.’
‘Hard cases make bad law.’
Courtier smiled sardonically. ‘I knew you were coming out with that. I deny that they do with this law, which is behind the times and rotten. You had the right to rescue this woman.’
Milton’s eyes had begun to burn.
‘No, Courtier,’ he said, ‘if we must fight, let us fight on the naked facts. I have not rescued any one. I have merely stolen sooner than starve. That is why I cannot go on pretending to be a pattern. If it were known, I could not retain my seat an hour; I can’t take advantage of an accidental secrecy. Could you?’
Courtier was silent; and with his eyes Milton pressed on him, as though he would dispatch him with that glance.
‘Yes,’ said Courtier at last, ‘in such a case I could. I do not believe in this law as it stands. I revolt against it. It is tyrannical; it is the grave of all spirituality in the married state. I should not lose my self-respect, and that is all I care about.’
In Milton there was rising that vast and subtle passion for dialectic combat, which was of his very fibre. He had almost, lost the feeling that this was his own future being discussed. He saw before him in this sanguine man, whose voice and eyes had such a white-hot sound and look, the incarnation of all that he temperamentally opposed.
‘That,’ he said, ‘is devil’s advocacy. I admit no individual as judge in his own case.’
Courtier rose, ‘Ah!’ he said, ‘now we’re coming to it. By the way, shall we get out of this heat ?'
They were no sooner outside in the cooler street than the voice of Courtier began again.
‘Distrust of human nature, fear — it’s the whole basis of action for men of your stamp. You deny the right of the individual to judge, because you’ve no faith in the essential goodness of men; at heart you believe them bad. You give them no freedom, you allow them no consent, because you believe their decisions would move downwards, not upwards. Well, it’s the whole difference between the aristocratic and the democratic view of life. As you once told me, you hate and fear the crowd.’
Milton eyed him sidelong, with one of his queer, smouldering looks.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I do believe that men are raised in spite of themselves.’
‘You’re honest,’ muttered Courtier. ‘By whom?’
Again Milton felt rising within him a sort of fury. Once for all he would slay this red-haired rebel; he answered with almost savage irony, ‘Strangely enough, by that Being to mention whom you object — working through the medium of the best.'
Courtier gave him a no less sardonic look.
‘High-Priest!’ he said. ‘Look at that girl slinking along there, with her eye on us; suppose now, instead of withdrawing your garment, you went over and talked to her as a human being, and got her to tell you what she really felt and thought, you’d find things that would astonish you. At bottom, mankind is splendid. And they’re raised, sir, by the aspiration that’s in all of them. Have n’t you ever noticed that public sentiment is always in advance of the law ? ’
‘And you,’ said Milton, ‘are the man who is never on the side of the majority?’
The champion of lost causes uttered a short laugh.
‘Not so logical as all that,’ he muttered; ‘the wind still blows; and Life’s not a set of rules hung up in an office. Let’s see, where are we?’ They had been brought to a standstill by a group on the pavement in front of the Queen’s Hall. ‘Shall we go in and hear some music, and cool our tongues?’
Milton nodded, and they went in. The great lighted hall, filled with the faint bluish vapor from hundreds of little rolls of tobacco-leaf, was crowded from floor to ceiling.
As Milton took his stand among the straw-hatted crowd, he heard Courtier’s voice murmuring, ‘ Profanum vulgus! Come to listen to the finest piece of music ever written! Folk whom you would n’t trust a yard to know what was good for them! Deplorable sight, is n’t it?’
But Milton did not answer, for the first slow notes of the Seventh Symphony of Beethoven came stealing forth across a bank of flowers; and, save for the steady rising of that bluish vapor, as it were incense burnt to the god of melody, the crowd had become deathly still, as though one mind, one spirit, possessed every pale face and cranny of the hall, to listen to that music rising and falling, like the sighing of the winds, welcoming from death the freed spirits of the beautiful. When the last notes had died away he turned on his heel and walked out.
‘Well,’ said Courtier’s voice behind him, as he emerged into the air, ‘ has n’t that shown you how things swell and grow; how splendid the world is?'
‘It has shown me how beautiful the world can be made by a great man.’
And suddenly, as if the music had loosened some band within him, he began pouring out a stream of words.
‘Look at the crowd in this street, Courtier! Of all crowds in the whole world it can best afford to be left to itself; it’s secure from pestilence, earthquake, cyclone, drought, and from extremes of heat and cold, in the heart of the greatest and safest city in the world; and yet, see the figure of that policeman! Running through all the good behavior of this crowd, however safe and free it may look, there is, there always must be, the central force holding it together. Where does that central force come from? From the crowd itself, you say. I answer, no. Look back at the origin of human states. From the beginnings of things, the best man has been the unconscious medium of authority, of the controlling principle, of the divine force; he felt, that power within him, —physical, at first, — he used it to take the lead, he has held the lead ever since, he must always hold it. All your processes of election, your so-called democratic apparatus, are only a blind to the inquiring, a sop to the hungry, a salve to the pride of the rebellious. They are merely surface machinery, they cannot prevent the best man from coming to the top; for the best man stands nearest to the Deity, and is the first to receive the waves that come from Him. I’m not speaking of heredity. The best man is not necessarily born in my class. I, at all events, do not believe he is any more frequent in that class than in other classes.’
He stopped as suddenly as he had begun.
‘ You need n’t be afraid,’ said Courtier, ‘that I take you for an average specimen. You ’re at one end and I at the other — and very likely both wide of the golden mark. But the world is not ruled by power, and the fear which power produces, as you think; it is ruled by love. Society is held together by the natural decency in man, by fellowfeeling. The democratic principle, which you despise, at root means nothing at all but that. Man left to himself is on the upward lay. If it were n’t so, do you imagine for a moment your “boys in blue” could keep order? A man knows unconsciously what he can and what he can’t do, without losing self-respect. He sucks that knowledge in with every breath. Laws and authority are not the be-all and end-all, — they are conveniences, machinery, conduit pipes, main roads. They are not of the structure of the building — they ’re only scaffolding.’
Milton lunged out with the retort, ‘Without which no building could be built.’
Courtier parried : —
‘That’s rather different, my friend, from identifying them with the building. They are things to be taken down as fast as ever they can be cleared away, to make room for an edifice that begins on earth, not in the sky. All the scaffolding of law is merely there to save time, to prevent the temple, as it mounts, from losing its way, and straying out of form.’
‘No,’ said Milton, ‘no! The scaffolding as you call it is the material projection of the architect’s conception, without which the temple does not and cannot rise; and the architect is God, working through the minds and spirits most akin to Himself.’
‘We are now at the bed-rock,’ cried Courtier; ‘your God is outside this world; mine within it.’
‘ “And never the twain shall meet! ” ’
There followed silence. They were now in Leicester Square — quiet at this hour, before the theatres had disgorged; quiet yet waiting, with the lights, like yellow stars low-driven from the dark heavens, clinging to the white shapes of the music-halls and cafés; and a sort of flying glamour blanching the still foliage of the plane trees.
‘ A “ whitely wanton” — this square!’ said Courtier suddenly: ‘alive as a face; no end to its queer beauty! And, by Jove, if you go deep enough, you’ll find goodness even here.’
But Milton did not answer; he had begun to move on again towards the Temple. He felt weary all of a sudden, anxious to get to his rooms, unwilling to continue this battle of words, that brought him no nearer to any relief from his position.
It was with strange lassitude that he heard Courtier again speaking:—
‘We must make a night of it, since to-morrow we die. You would curb license from without — I from within. When I get up and when I go to bed, when I draw a breath, see a face, or a flower, or a tree — if I did n’t feel that I was looking on my God, I believe I should quit this palace of varieties, from sheer boredom. You, I understand, can’t look on your God, unless you withdraw into some high place. Tell me, is n’t it lonely there?’
But again Milton did not answer, and they walked on perforce in silence, till he suddenly broke out, ‘You talk of tyranny! What tyranny could equal this tyranny of your freedom? What tyranny in the world like that of this “free,” vulgar, narrow street, with its hundred journals, teeming like ants’ nests, to produce — what? In the entrails of that creature of your freedom there is room neither for exaltation, discipline, nor sacrifice; there is room only for commerce, and license.’
Courtier did not answer for a moment, looking dubiously back at those tall, narrow houses, as they turned dowm towards the river. ‘No,’ he said at last; ‘for all its faults, the wind blows in that street, and there’s a chance for everything. By God, I would rather see a few stars struggle out in a black sky than any of your perfect artificial lighting.’
But the flame had died down again in Milton, and he heard that answer with indifference.
The river’s black water was making stilly, slow recessional under a halfmoon. Beneath the cloak of night the chaos of the far bank, the forms of cranes, high buildings, jetties, the bodies of the sleeping barges, a million queer dark shapes, were invested with emotion. All was religious out there, all beautiful, all strange. And over this great quiet friend of man, lamps — those humble flowers of night — were throwing down the faint continual glamour of fallen petals; and a sweetscented wind stole along, from the west, very slow as yet, bringing in advance thetremorand perfumeof the innumerable trees and fields which the river had loved as she came by.
A murmur that was no true sound, but like the whisper of a heart to a heart, accompanied this voyage of the dark water.
Then a small blunt skiff manned by two rowers came by under the wall, with a thudding and creaking of oars.
‘ Yousaid, “To-morrowwe die,” ’ said Milton suddenly. ‘Did you mean that “public life” was the breath of my nostrils, and that I must die, because I give it up?’
Courtier nodded. ‘That, and other things.’
‘We shall see. I am right, I suppose, in thinking it was my young sister who sent you on this crusade?’
Courtier did not answer
‘And so,’ went on Milton, looking him through and through, ‘to-morrow is to be your last day, too? You’re right to go. She is not an ugly duckling, who can live out of the social pond; she’ll always want her native element. And now, we ’ll say good-bye! Whatever happens to us both, I shall remember this evening’; and smiling wistfully, he put out his hand: ‘Moriturus te saluto.’
Courtier sat in Hyde Park waiting for five o’clock.
The day had recovered somewhat from a gray morning, as if the glow of that long hot summer were too burntin on the air to yield to the first assault. The sun, piercing the crisped clouds, those breast-feat hers of heavenly doves, darted its beams at the mellowed leaves, and showered to the ground their delicate shadow stains. The first, too early, scent from leaves about to fall, penetrated to the heart. And sorrowful sweet birds were tuning their little autumn pipes, blowing into them fragments of spring odes to liberty.
And Courtier thought of Milton and his mistress. What strange fate had thrown those two together? to what end was their love coming? The seeds of grief were already sown: what flowers of darkness or of sorrow would come up? He saw her again as a little, grave, considering child, with her soft eyes, set wide apart under the dark arched brows, and the little tuck at the corner of her mouth that used to come when he teased her. Milton! A strange fellow— worshiping a strange God! A God that stood with a whip in hand, driving men to obedience. An old God that even now Courtier could conjure up staring at him from the walls of his nursery. The God his own father had believed in. A God of the Old Testament, that knew neither sympathy nor understanding. Strange that He should be alive still; that there should still be thousands who worshiped him. Yet, not so very strange, if, as they said, man made God in his own image! Here indeed was a curious mating of what the philosophers would call the Will to Love and the Will to Power.
A soldier and his girl came and sat down on a bench close by. They cast sidelong glances at this trim and upright figure with the fighting face; then, some subtle thing informing them that he was not of the disturbing breed called officer, they ceased regarding him, abandoning themselves to dumb and inexpressive felicity. Arm in arm, touching each other, they seemed to Courtier very jolly, having that look of living entirely in the moment, which always especially appealed to one whose blood ran too fast to allow him to speculate much upon the future, or brood much over the past.
A leaf from the bough above him, loosened by the sun’s kisses, dropped and fell yellow at his feet. The leaves were turning very soon! It was characteristic of this man, who could be so hot over the lost causes of others, that, sitting there within half an hour of the final loss of his own cause, he could be so calm, so almost apathetic. This apathy was partly due to the hopelessness, which Nature had long perceived, of trying to make him feel oppressed; but also to the habits of a man incurably accustomed to carrying his fortunes in his hand, and that hand open. It did not seem real to him that he was actually going to suffer a defeat, to have to confess that he had hankered after this girl all these past weeks, and that to-morrow all that would be wasted, and she as dead to him as if he had never seen her. No, it was not exactly resignation, it was rather sheer lack of commercial instinct. If only this had been the lost cause of another person! How gallantly he would have rushed to the assault, and taken her by storm! If only he himself could have been that other person, how easily, how passionately, could he not have pleaded, letting forth from him all those words, which had knocked at his teeth ever since he knew her, and which would have seemed so ridiculous and so unworthy, spoken on his own behalf. Yes, for that other person he could have cut her out from under the guns of the enemy, he could have taken her, that fairest prize.
And in queer, cheery-looking apathy — not far removed perhaps from despair — he sat, watching the leaves turn over and fall, and now and then cutting with his stick at the air, where autumn was already riding. And, if in imagination he saw himself carrying her away into the wilderness, and with his love making her happiness to grow, it was so far a flight, that a smile crept about his lips, and once or twice he snapped his jaws together.
The soldier and his girl rose, passing in front of him down the Row. He watched their scarlet and blue figures, moving slowly towards the sun, and a couple close to the rails crossing those receding forms. This new couple came nearer and nearer. Straight and tall, there was something exhilarating in the way they swung along, holding their heads up, turning towards each other, to exchange words or smiles. Even at that distance they could be seen to be of high fashion; in their gait was the indescribable poise of those who are above doubts and cares, certain of the world and of themselves. The girl’s dress was tawny brown, her hair and hat too of the same hue, and the pursuing sunlight endowed her with a hazy splendor. Then Courtier saw who they were.
Except for an unconscious grinding of his teeth, he made no sound or movement, so that they went by without seeing him. Her voice, though not the words, came to him distinctly. He saw her hand slip up under Harbinger’s arm, and swiftly down again. A smile, of whose existence he was unaware, settled on his lips. He got up, shook himself, as a dog shakes off a beating, and walked away, with his mouth set very firm.
(To be concluded.)