LEFT alone among the little mahogany tables of Gustard’s, where the scent of cake and orange-flower water made happy all the air, Barbara had sat for some minutes, her eyes cast down, as a child from whom a toy has been taken contemplates the ground, not knowing precisely what she is feeling. Then, paying one of the middle-aged females, she went out into the Square. There a German band was playing Delibes’ Coppelia; and the murdered tune came haunting her, a ghost of incongruity.
She went straight back to Valleys House. In the room where three hours ago she had been left alone after lunch with Harbinger, her sister was seated in the window, looking decidedly disturbed. In fact, Agatha had just spent an awkward hour. Chancing, with little Ann, into that confectioner’s where she could best obtain a particularly gummy sweet which she believed wholesome for her children, she had been engaged in purchasing a pound, when, looking down, she perceived Ann standing stock-still, with her sudden little nose pointed down the shop, and her mouth opening; glancing in the direction of those frank, inquiring eyes, Agatha saw to her amazement her sister and a man whom she recognized as Courtier. With a readiness which did her complete credit, she placed a sweet in Ann’s mouth, and saying to the middle-aged female, ‘Then you’ll send those, please. Come Ann!’ went out.
Shocks never coming singly, she had no sooner reached home than from her father she learned of the development of Milton’s love-affair. When Barbara returned, she was sitting, unfeignedly upset and grieved; unable to decide whether or no she ought to divulge what she herself had seen, but withal buoyed up by that peculiar indignation of the essentially domestic woman whose ideals have been outraged.
Judging at once from the expression of her face that she must have heard the news of Milton, Barbara said, ‘ Well, my dear Angel, any lecture for me?’
Agatha answered coldly, ‘I think you were quite mad to take Mrs. Noel to him.’
‘The whole duty of woman,’ murmured Barbara,‘includes a little madness.’
Agatha looked at her in silence.
‘I can’t make you out,’ she said at last; ‘you’re not a fool!’
‘Only a knave.’
‘You may think it right to joke over the ruin of Milton’s life,’ murmured Agatha; ‘I don’t.’
Barbara’s eyes grew bright; and in a hard voice she answered, ‘The world is not your nursery, Angel!’
Agatha closed her lips very tightly, as who should imply, ‘Then it ought to be!’ But she only answered, ‘I don’t think you know that I saw you just now in Gustard’s.’
Barbara eyed her for a moment in amazement, and began to laugh.
‘I see,’ she said; ‘monstrous depravity— poor old Gustard’s!’
And still laughing that dangerous laugh, she turned on her heel and went out.
At dinner and afterwards that evening she was very silent, having on her face the same look that she wore out hunting, especially when in difficulties of any kind, or if advised to ‘take a pull.' When she got away to her own room she had a longing to relieve herself by some kind of action that would hurt some one, if only herself. To go to bed and toss about in a fever — for she knew herself in these thwarted moods—was of no use! For a moment she thought of going out. That would be fun, and hurt them, too; but it was difficult. She did not want to be seen, and have the humiliation of an open row. Then there came into her head the memory of the roof of the tower, where she had once been as a little girl. She would be in the air there, she would be able to breathe, to get rid of this feverishness. With the unhappy pleasure of a spoiled child taking its revenge, she took care to leave her bedroom door open, so that her maid would wonder where she was, and perhaps be anxious, and make them anxious.
Slipping through the moonlit picturegallery, to the landing outside her father’s sanctum, whence rose the stone staircase leading to the roof, she began to mount. She was quite breathless when, after that unending flight of stairs, she emerged on the roof at the extreme northern end of the big house, where, below her, was a sheer drop of a hundred feet. At first she stood, a little giddy, grasping the rail that ran round that garden of lead, still absorbed in her brooding, rebellious thoughts. Gradually she lost consciousness of everything save the scene before her. High above all neighboring houses, she was almost appalled by the majesty of what she saw. This nightclothed city, so remote and dark, so white-gleaming and alive, on whose purple hills and valleys grew such myriads of golden flowers of light, from whose heart came this deep incessant murmur — could it possibly be the same city through which she had been walking that very day! From its sleeping body the supreme wistful spirit had emerged in dark loveliness, and was low-flying down there, tempting her.
Barbara turned round, to take in all that amazing prospect, from the black glades of Hyde Park, in front, to the powdery white ghost of a churchtower, away to the east. How marvelous was this city of night! And as, in presence of that wide darkness of the sea before dawn, her spirit had felt little and timid within her — so it felt now, in face of this great, brooding, beautiful creature, whom man had made. She singled out the shapes of the Piccadilly hotels, and beyond them the palaces and towers of Westminster and Whitehall; and everywhere the inextricable loveliness of dim blue forms and sinuous pallid lines of light, under an indigo-dark sky. Near at hand, she could see plainly the still-lighted windows, the motor-cars gliding by far down, even the tiny shapes of people walking; and the thought that each of them meant some one like herself, seemed strange.
Drinking of this wonder-cup, she began to experience a queer intoxication, and lost the sense of being little; rather she had the feeling of powder, as in her dream at Monkland. She too, as well as this great thing below her, seemed to have shed her body, to be emancipated from every barrier—floating deliciously identified with air. She seemed to be one with the enfranchised spirit of the city, drowned in perception of its beauty. Then all that feeling went, and left her frowning, shivering, though the wind from the west was warm. Her whole adventure of coming up here seemed bizarre, ridiculous. Very stealthily she crept down, and had reached once more the door into the picture-gallery, when she heard her mother’s voice in amazement say, ‘That you, Babs?’ And turning, saw her coming from the doorway of the sanctum.
Of a sudden very cool, with all her faculties about her, Barbara only stood looking at Lady Valleys, who said with hesitation, ‘Come in here, dear, a minute, will you ?'
In that room, resorted to for comfort, Lord Valleys was standing with his back to the hearth, and an expression on his face that wavered between vexation and decision. The doubt in Agatha’s mind whether she should tell or no, had been terribly resolved by little Ann, who in a pause of conversation had announced, ‘We saw Auntie Babs and Mr. Courtier in Gustard’s, but we did n’t speak to them.’
Upset by the events of the afternoon, Lady Valleys had not shown her usual savoir faire. She had told her husband. A meeting of this sort in a shop celebrated for little save its wedding-cakes was, in a sense, of no importance; but, being both disturbed already by the news of Milton, it seemed to them nothing less than sinister, as though the heavens were in league for the demolition of their house. To Lord Valleys it was peculiarly mortifying, because of his real admiration for his daughter, and because he had paid so little attention to his wife’s warning of some weeks back. In consultation, however, they had only succeeded in deciding that Lady Valleys should talk with her. Though without much spiritual insight, both these two had a certain cool judgment; and they were fully alive to the danger of thwarting Barbara. This had not prevented Lord Valleys from expressing himself strongly on the ‘confounded unscrupulousness of that fellow,’and secretly forming his own plan of dealing with this matter. Lady Valleys, more deeply conversant with her daughter’s nature, and by reason of femininity more lenient toward the other sex, had not tried to excuse Courtier, but had thought privately, ‘Babs is rather a flirt.’ For she could not altogether help remembering herself at the same age.
Summoned thus unexpectedly, Barbara, her lips very firmly pressed together, took her stand coolly enough by her father’s writing-table.
Seeing her thus suddenly appear, Lord Valleys instinctively relaxed his frown; his experience of men and things, his thousands of diplomatic hours, served to give him an air of coolness and detachment which he was very far from feeling. In truth, he would rather have faced a hostile mob than his favorite daughter in such circumstances. His tanned face, with its crisp, gray moustache, his whole head indeed, took on, unconsciously, a more than ordinarily soldier-like appearance. His eyelids drooped a little, his brows rose slightly.
She was wearing a blue wrap over her evening frock, and he seized instinctively on that indifferent trifle to begin this talk.
‘Ah! Babs, have you been out?’
Alive to her very finger-nails, with every nerve tingling, but showing no sign, Barbara answered, ‘No; on the roof of the tower.’
It gave her a malicious pleasure to feel the real perplexity beneath her father’s dignified exterior. And detecting that covert mockery, Lord Valleys said dryly, ‘Star-gazing?’
Then, with that sudden resolution peculiar to him, as though he were bored with having to delay and temporize, he added, ‘ Do you know, I doubt whether it’s wise to make appointments in confectioners’ shops when Ann is in London.’
The dangerous little gleam in Barbara’s eyes escaped his vision, but not that of Lady Valleys, who said at once,
‘ No doubt you had the best of reasons, my dear.’
Barbara curled her lip, inscrutably. Indeed, had it not been for the scene they had been through that day with Milton, and for their very real anxiety, both would have seen then, that, while their daughter was in this mood, least said was soonest mended. But their nerves were not quite within control; and with more than a touch of impatience Lord Valleys ejaculated, ‘It does n’t appear to you, I suppose, to require any explanation?’
Barbara answered, ‘No.’
‘Ah!’said Lord Valleys. ‘I see. An explanation can be had, no doubt, from the gentleman whose sense of proportion was such as to cause him to suggest such a thing.'
‘He did not suggest it. I did.’
Lord Valleys’s eyebrows rose still higher.
‘ Indeed! ’ he said,
‘ Geoffrey! ’ murmured Lady Valleys, ‘I thought I was to talk to Babs.’
‘It would no doubt be wiser.’
In Barbara, thus for the first time in her life seriously reprimanded, there was at work the most peculiar sensation she had ever felt, as if something were scraping her very skin — a sick, and at the same time devilish, feeling. At that moment she could have struck her father dead. But she showed nothing, having lowered the lids of her eyes.
‘Anything else?’ she said.
Lord Valleys’s jaw had become suddenly more prominent.
‘As a sequel to your share in Milton’s business, it is peculiarly entrancing.’
‘ My dear,’ broke in Lady Valleys very suddenly, ‘Babs will tell me. It’s nothing, of course.’
Barbara’s calm voice said again, ‘Anything else?’
The repetition of this phrase in that maddening cool voice almost broke down her father’s sorely-tried control.
‘Nothing from you,’ he said with deadly coldness. ‘I shall have the honor of telling this gentleman what I think of him.'
At those words Barbara drew herself together, and turned her eyes from one face to the other.
Under that gaze, which, for all its cool hardness, was so furiously alive, neither Lord nor Lady Valleys could keep quite still. It was as if she had stripped from them the well-bred mask of those whose spirits, by long unquestioning acceptance of themselves, have become inelastic, inexpansive, commoner than they knew. In fact, a rather awful moment! Then Barbara said, ‘If there’s nothing else, I’m going to bed. Good-night!’
And as calmly as she had come in, she went out.
When she had regained her room, she locked the door, threw off her cloak, and looked at herself in the glass. With pleasure she saw how firmly her teeth were clenched, how her breast was heaving, how her eyes seemed to be stabbing herself. And all the time she thought, ‘Very well! my dears! Very well!’
In that mood of rebellious mortification she fell asleep. And, curiously enough, dreamed not of him whom she had in mind been so furiously defending, but of Harbinger. She fancied herself in prison, lying in a cell fashioned like the drawing-room at Sea House; and in the next cell, into which she could somehow look, Harbinger was digging at the wall with his nails. She could distinctly see the hair on the back of his hands, and hear him breathing. The hole he was making grew larger and larger. Her heart began to beat furiously; she awoke.
She rose with a new and malicious resolution to show no sign of rebellion, to go through the day as if nothing had happened, to deceive them all, and then—! Exactly what ‘and then’ meant, she did not explain even to herself.
In accordance with this plan of action she presented an untroubled front at breakfast, went out riding with little Ann, and shopping with her mother afterwards. Owing to this news of Milton, the journey to Scotland had been postponed. She parried with cool ingenuity each attempt made by Lady Valleys to draw her into conversation on the subject of that meeting at Gustard’s, nor would she talk of her brother; in every other way she was her usual self.
In the afternoon she even volunteered to accompany her mother to old Lady Harbinger’s, in the neighborhood of Prince’s Gate. She knew that Harbinger would be there, and with the thought of meeting that other at ‘five o’clock,’ had a cynical pleasure in thus encountering him. It was so complete a blind to them all! Then, feeling that she was accomplishing a master-stroke, she even told him, in her mother’s hearing, that she would walk home, and he might come if he cared. He did care.
But when once she had begun to swing along in the mellow afternoon, under the mellow trees, where the air was sweetened by the southwest wind, all that mutinous, reckless mood of hers vanished, she felt suddenly happy and kind, glad to be walking with him. To-day too he was cheerful, as if determined not to spoil her gayety; and she was grateful for this. Once or twice she even put her hand up and touched his sleeve, calling his attention to birds or trees, friendly, and glad, after all those hours of bitter feelings, to be giving happiness. When they parted at the door of Valleys House, she looked back at him, with a queer, half-rueful smile. For, now the hour had come!
In a little unfrequented ante-room, all white panels and polish, she sat down to wait. The entrance drive was visible from here; and she meant to encounter Courtier casually in the hall. She was excited, and a little scornful of her own excitement. She had expected him to be punctual, but it was already past five; and soon she began to feel uneasy, almost ridiculous, sitting in this room where no one ever came. Going to the window, she looked out.
A sudden voice behind her said, ‘Auntie Babs!’
Turning, she saw little Ann regarding her with those wide, frank, hazel eyes. A shiver of nerves passed through Barbara.
‘ Is this your room? It’s a nice room, is n’t it?’
She answered, ’Quite a nice room, Ann.’
‘Yes. I’ve never been in here before. There’s somebody just come, so I must go now.’
Barbara involuntarily put her hands up to her cheeks, and quickly passed with her niece into the hall. At the very door the footman William handed her a note. She looked at the superscription. It was from Courtier. She went back into the room. Through its half-closed door the figure of little Ann could be seen, with her legs rather wide apart, and her hands clasped on her low-down belt, pointing up at William her sudden little nose. Barbara shut the door abruptly, broke the seal, and read: —
DEAR LADY BARBARA, — I am sorry to say my interview with your brother was fruitless.
I happened to be sitting in the Park just now, and I want to wish you every happiness before I go. It has been the greatest pleasure to know you. I shall never have a thought of you that will not be my pride; nor a memory that will not help me to believe that life is good. If I am tempted to feel that things are dark, I shall remember that you are breathing this same mortal air. And to beauty and joy I shall take off my hat with the greater reverence, that once I was permitted to walk and talk with you. And so, good-bye, and God bless you.
Your faithful servant,
Her cheeks burned, quick sighs escaped her lips; she read the letter again, but before getting to the end could not see the words for mist. If in that letter there had been a word of complaint or even of regret! She could not let him go like this, without good-bye, without any explanation at all. He should not think of her as a cold, stony flirt, who had been merely stealing a few weeks’ amusement out of him. She would explain to him at all events that it had not been that. She would make him understand that it was not what he thought — that something in her wanted — wanted —! Her mind was all confused. ‘What was it?’ she thought; ‘what did I do?’ And sore with anger at herself, she screwed the letter up in her glove, and ran out. She walked swiftly down to Piccadilly, and crossed into the Green Park. There she passed Lord Malvezin and a friend strolling up toward Hyde Park Corner, and gave them a very faint bow. The composure of those two precise and well-groomed figures sickened her just then. She wanted to run, to fly to this meeting that should remove from him the odious feeling he must have, that she, Barbara Caradoc, was a vulgar enchantress, a common traitress and coquette! And his letter — without a syllable of reproach! Her cheeks burned so that she could not help trying to hide them from people who passed.
As she drew nearer to his rooms she walked slower, forcing herself to think what she should do, what she should let him do! But she continued resolutely forward. She would not shrink now — whatever came of it! Her heart fluttered, seemed to stop beating, fluttered again. She set her teeth; a sort of desperate hilarity rose in her. It was an adventure! Then she was gripped by the feeling that had come to her on the roof. The whole thing was bizarre, ridiculous! She stopped, and drew the letter from her glove. It might be ridiculous, but it was due from her; and closing her lips very tight, she walked on. In thought she was already standing close to him, her eyes shut, waiting, with her heart beating wildly, to know what she would feel when his lips had spoken, perhaps touched her face or hand. And she had a sort of mirage vision of herself, with eyelashes resting on her cheeks, lips a little parted, arms helpless at her sides. Yet, incomprehensibly, his figure was invisible. She discovered then that she was standing before his door.
She rang the bell calmly, but instead of dropping her hand, pressed the little bare patch of palm left open by the glove to her face, to see whether it was indeed her own cheek flaming so.
The door had been opened by some unseen agency, disclosing a passage and flight of stairs covered by a red carpet, at the foot of which lay an old, tangled, brown-white dog full of fleas and sorrow. Unreasoning terror seized on Barbara; her body remained rigid, but her spirit began flying back across the Green Park, to the very hall of Valleys House. Then she saw coming towards her a youngish woman in a blue apron, with mild, reddened eyes.
‘Is this where Mr. Courtier lives?’
’Yes, Miss.’ The teeth of the young woman were few in number and rather black; and Barbara could only stand there saying nothing, as if her body had been deserted between the sunlight and this dim red passage, which led to — what ?
The woman spoke again, ‘I’m sorry if you was wanting him, Miss, he’s just gone away.’
Barbara felt a movement in her heart, like the twang and quiver of an elastic band, suddenly relaxed. She bent to stroke the head of the old dog, who was smelling her shoes.
The woman said, ‘And, of course, I can’t give you his address, because he’s gone to foreign parts.’
With a murmur, of whose sense she knew nothing, Barbara hurried out into the sunshine. Was she glad ? Was she sorry? At the corner of the street she turned and looked back; the two heads, of the woman and the dog, were there still, poked out through the doorway.
A horrible inclination to laugh seized her, followed by as horrible a desire to cry.
By the river the west wind, whose murmuring had visited Courtier and Milton the night before, was bringing up the first sky of autumn. Slow-creeping and fleecy gray, the clouds seemed trying to overpower a sun that shone but fitfully even thus early in the day. While Audrey Noel was dressing, sunbeams danced desperately on the white wall, like little lost souls with no tomorrow, or gnats that wheel and wheel in brief joy, leaving no footmarks on the air. Through the chinks of a side window covered by a dark blind, some smoky filaments of light were tethered to the back of her mirror. Compounded of trembling gray spirals, so thick to the eye that her hand felt astonishment when it failed to grasp them, and as jealous as ghosts of the space they occupied, they brought a moment’s distraction to a heart not happy. For how could she be happy, her lover having been away from her now thirty hours, without having overcome with his last kisses the feeling of disaster which had settled on her when he told her of his resolve. Her eyes had seen deeper than his; her instinct had received a message from Fate.
To be the dragger-down, the destroyer of his usefulness; to be not the helpmate, but the clog; not the inspiring sky, but the cloud! And because of a scruple which she could not understand! She had no anger with that unintelligible scruple; but her fatalism and her sympathy had followed it out into his future. Things being so, it could not be long before he felt that her love was maiming him; even if he went on desiring her, it would be only with his body. And if, for this scruple, he were capable of giving up his public life, he would be capable of living on with her after his love was dead! This thought she could not bear. It stung to the very marrow of her nerves. And yet surely life could not be so cruel as to have given her such happiness, meaning to take it from her! Surely her love was not to be only one summer’s day; his love but an embrace, and then — forever nothing!
This morning, fortified by despair, she admitted her own beauty. He would, he must want her more than that other life, at the very thought of which her face darkened. That other life was so hard, and far from her! So loveless, formal, and yet — to him so real, so desperately, accursedly real! If he must indeed give up his career, then surely the life they could live together would make up to him — a life among simple and sweet things, all over the world, with music and pictures, and the flowers and all Nature, and friends who sought them for themselves, and in being kind to every one, and helping the poor and the unfortunate, and loving each other! But he did not want that sort of life! What was the good of pretending that he did ? It was right and natural that he should want to use his powers! To lead and serve! She would not have him otherwise. With these thoughts hovering and darting within her, she went on twisting and coiling her dark hair, and burying her heart beneath its lace defenses. She noted too, with her usual care, two fading blossoms in the bowl of flowers on her dressing-table, and, removing them, emptied out the water and refilled the bowl.
Before she left her bedroom the sunbeams had already ceased to dance, the gray filaments of light were gone. Autumn sky had come into its own. Passing the mirror in the hall which was always rough with her, she had not courage to glance at it. Then suddenly a woman’s belief in the power of her charm came to her aid; she felt almost happy—surely he must love her better than his conscience! But that confidence was very tremulous, ready to yield to the first rebuff. Even the friendly, fresh-cheeked maid seemed that morning to be regarding her with compassion; and all the innate sense, not of ‘good form,’ but of form, which made her shrink from anything that should disturb or hurt another, or make any one think she was to be pitied, rose up at once within her; she became more than ever careful to show nothing even to herself.
So she passed the morning, mechanically doing the little usual things. An overpowering longing was with her all the time, to get him away with her from England, and see whether the thousand beauties she could show him would not fire him with love of the things she loved. As a girl she had spent nearly three years abroad. And Eustace had never been to Italy, nor to her beloved mountain valleys! Then, the remembrance of his rooms at the Temple broke in on that vision, and shattered it. No Titian’s feast of gentian, tawny brown, and alpenrose could intoxicate the lover of those books, those papers, that great map. And the scent of leather came to her now as poignantly as if she were once more flitting about noiselessly on her business of nursing. Then there rushed through her again the warm, wonderful sense that had been with her all those precious days — of love that knew secretly of its approaching triumph and fulfillment; the delicious sense of giving every minute of her time, every thought and movement; and all the sweet unconscious waiting for the divine, irrevocable moment when at last she would give herself and be his. The remembrance too of how tired, how sacredly tired, she had been, and of how she had smiled all the time with her inner joy of being tired for him.
The sound of the bell startled her. His telegram had said, the afternoon! She determined to show nothing of the trouble darkening the whole world for her, and drew a deep breath, waiting for his kiss.
It was not Milton, but Lady Casterley.
The shock sent the blood buzzing into her temples. Then she noticed that the little figure before her was also trembling; drawing up a chair, shesaid, ‘Won’t you sit down?’
The tone of that old voice, thanking her, brought back sharply the memory of her garden at Monkland, bathed in the sweetness and shimmer of summer, and of Barbara standing at her gate, towering above this little figure, which now sat there so silent, with very white face. Those carved features, those keen, yet veiled eyes, had too often haunted her thoughts; they ware like a bad dream come true.
‘My grandson is not here, is he?’
Audrey shook her head.
‘We have heard of his decision. I will not beat about the bush with you. It is a disaster — for me a calamity. I have known and loved him since he was born, and I have been foolish enough to dream dreams about him. I wondered perhaps whether you knew how much we counted on him. You must forgive an old woman’s coming here like this. At my age there are few things that matter, but they matter very much.’
And Audrey thought, ‘And at my age there is but one thing that matters, and that matters worse than death.’ But she did not speak. To whom, to what should she speak? To this hard old woman, who personified the world? Of what use, words?
‘ I can say to you,’went on the voice of the little figure, that seemed so to fill the room with its gray presence, ‘what I could not bring myself to say to others; for you are not hard-hearted.’
A quiver passed up from the heart so praised to the still lips. No, she was not hard-hearted! She could even feel for this old woman from whose voice anxiety had stolen its despotism.
‘Eustace cannot live without his career. His career is himself; he must be doing, and leading, and spending his powers. What he has given you is not his true self. I don’t want to hurt you, but the truth is the truth, and we must all bow before it. I may be hard, but I can respect sorrow.’
To respect sorrow! Yes, this gray visitor could do that, as the wind passing over the sea respects its surface, as the air respects the surface of a rose, but to penetrate to the heart, to understand her sorrow, that old age could not do for youth! As well try to track out the secret of the twistings in the flight of those swallows out there above the river, or to follow to its source the faint scent of the lilies in that bowl! How should she know what was passing in here — this little old woman whose blood was cold? And Audrey had the sensation of watching some one pelt her with the rind and husks of what her own spirit had long devoured. She had a longing to get up, and take the hand, the chill, spidery hand of age, and thrust it into her breast, and say, ‘Feel that, and cease!’
But, withal, she never lost her queer dull compassion for the owner of that white carved face. It was not her visitor’s fault that she had come! Again Lady Casterley was speaking.
' It is early days. If you do not end it now, at once, it will only come harder on you presently. You know how determined he is. He will not change his mind. If you cut him off from his work in life, it will but recoil on you. I can only expect your hatred, for talking like this; but, believe me, it’s for your good, as well as his, in the long run.’
A tumultuous heart-beating of ironical rage seized on the listener to that speech. Her good! The good of a corse that the breath is just abandoning; the good of a flower beneath a heel; the good of an old dog whose master leaves it for the last time! Slowly a weight like lead stopped all that fluttering of her heart. If she did not end it at once! The words had now been spoken that for so many hours, she knew, had lain unspoken within her own breast. Yes, if she did not, she could never know a moment’s peace, feeling that she was forcing him to a death in life, desecrating her own love and pride! And the spur had been given by another! The thought that some one — this hard old woman of the hard world —should have shaped in words the hauntings of her love and pride through all those ages since Milton spoke to her of his resolve; that some one else should have had to tell her what her heart had so long known it must do — this stabbed her like a knife! This, at all events, she could not bear!
She stood up, and said, ‘Please leave me now! I have a great many things to do, before I go.’
With a sort of pleasure she saw a look of bewilderment cover that old face; with a sort of pleasure she marked the trembling of the hands raising their owner from the chair, and heard the stammering in the voice: ‘You are going? Before — before he comes? You — you won’t be seeing him again?’ With a sort of pleasure she marked the hesitation, which did not know whether to thank, or bless, or just say nothing and creep away. With a sort of pleasure she watched the flush mount in the faded cheeks, the faded lips pressed together. Then, at the scarcely whispered words, ‘Thank you, my dear!’ she turned, unable to bear further sight or sound. She went to the window and pressed her forehead against the glass, trying to think of nothing. She heard the sound of wheels — Lady Casterley had gone. And then, of all the awful feelings man or woman can know, she experienced the worst: she could not cry!
At this most bitter and deserted moment of her life, she felt strangely calm, foreseeing clearly, exactly, what she must do, and where go. Quickly it must be done, or it would never be done! Quickly! And without fuss! She put some things together, sent the maid out for a cab, and sat down to write.
She must do and say nothing that could excite him, and bring back his illness. Let it all be sober, reasonable! It would be easy to let him know where she was going, to write a letter that would bring him flying after her. But to write the calm reasonable words that would keep him waiting and thinking, till he never again came to her, broke her heart.
When she had finished and sealed the letter, she sat motionless, with a numb feeling in hands and brain, trying to realize what she had next to do. To go, and that was all!
Her trunks had been taken down already. She chose the little hat that he liked her best in, and over it fastened her thickest veil. Then, putting on her traveling-coat and gloves, she looked in the long mirror, and seeing that there was nothing more to keep her, lifted her dressing-bag, and went down.
Over on the embankment a child was crying; and the passionate screaming sound, broken by the gulping of tears, made her cover her lips, as if she had heard her own escaped soul wailing out there.
She leaned out of the cab to say to the maid, ‘ Go and comfort that crying, Ella.’
Only when she was alone in the train, secure from all eyes, did she give way to desperate weeping. The white smoke rolling past the windows was not more evanescent than her joy had been. For she had no illusions — it was over! From first to last, not quite a year! But even at this moment, not for all the world would she have been without her love, gone to its grave, like a dead child that evermore would be touching her breast with its wistful fingers.
Barbara, returning from her visit to Courtier’s deserted rooms, was met at Valleys House with the message: Would she please go at once to Lady Casterley?
When, in obedience, she reached Ravensham, she found her grandmother and Lord Dennis in the white room. They were standing by one of the tall windows, apparently contemplating the view. They turned indeed at sound of Barbara’s approach, but neither of them spoke or nodded. Not having seen her grand-uncle since before Milton’s illness, Barbara found it strange to be so treated; she too took her stand silently before the window. A very large wasp was crawling up the pane, then slipping down with a faint buzz.
Suddenly Lady Casterley spoke.
‘Kill that thing!’
Lord Dennis drew forth his handkerchief.
‘ Not with that, Dennis. It will make a mess. Take a paper-knife.’
‘ I was going to put it out,’ murmured Lord Dennis.
‘Let Barbara with her gloves.’
Barbara moved towards the pane.
‘It’s a hornet, I think,’ she said.
‘So he is! ’said Lord Dennis dreamily.
‘Nonsense,’ murmured Lady Casterley, ‘it’s a common wasp.’
‘I know it’s a hornet, granny. The rings are darker.’
Lady Casterley bent down; when she raised herself she had a slipper in her hand.
‘Don’t irritate him!’ cried Barbara, catching her wrist.
But Lady Casterley freed her hand. ‘I will,’ she said, and brought the sole of the slipper down on the insect, so that it dropped on the floor, dead. ‘He has no business in here.’
And, as if that little incident had happened to three other people, they again stood silently looking through the window.
Then Lady Casterley turned to Barbara. ‘Well, have you realized the mischief that you’ve done?’
‘Ann!’ murmured Lord Dennis.
‘Yes, yes; she is your favorite, but that won’t save her. This woman — to her great credit — I say to her great credit — has gone away, so as to put herself out of Eustace’s reach, until he has recovered his senses.’
With a sharp-drawn breath Barbara said, ‘Oh! poor thing!’
But on Lady Casterley’s face had come an almost cruel look.
‘Ah!’she said. ‘Exactly. But, curiously enough, I am thinking of Eustace.’ Her little figure was quivering from head to foot. ‘This will be a lesson to you not to play with fire!’
‘ Ann! ’ murmured Lord Dennis again, slipping his arm through Barbara’s.
‘The world,’ went on Lady Casterley, ‘ is a place of facts, not of romantic fancies. You have done more harm than can possibly be repaired. I went to her myself. I was very much moved. If it had n’t been for your foolish conduct — ’
‘Ann!’ said Lord Dennis once more.
Lady Casterley paused, tapping the floor with her little foot.
Barbara’s eyes were gleaming. ‘Is there anything else you would like to squash, dear?’
‘Babs!’ murmured Lord Dennis.
But, unconsciously pressing his hand against her heart, the girl went on, — ‘You are lucky to be abusing me today — if it had been yesterday —’
At these dark words Lady Casterley turned away, her shoes leaving little dull stains on the polished floor.
Barbara raised to her cheek the fingers which she had been so convulsively embracing. ‘Don’t let her go on, uncle,’ she whispered, ‘not just now!’
‘ No, no, my dear,’ Lord Dennis murmured, ‘certainly not — it is enough.’
‘It has been your sentimental folly,’ came Lady Casterley’s voice from a far corner, ‘which has brought this on the boy.’
Responding to the pressure of the hand, back now at her waist, Barbara did not answer; and the sound of the little feet retracing their steps rose in the stillness. Neither of those two at the window turned their heads; once more the feet receded, and again began coming back.
Suddenly Barbara, pointing to the floor, cried, ‘Oh, granny, for Heaven’s sake, stand still; have n’t you squashed the hornet enough, even if he did come in where he had n’t any business?’
Lady Casterley looked down at the debris of the insect. ‘Disgusting!’ she said; but when she next spoke it was in a less hard, more querulous voice. ‘That man — what was his name — have you got rid of him?’
Barbara went crimson. ‘Abuse my friends, and I will go straight home and never speak to you again.’
For a moment Lady Casterley looked almost as if she might strike her granddaughter; then a little sardonic smile broke out on her face. ‘A creditable sentiment!’ she said.
Letting fall her uncle’s hand, Barbara cried, ‘In any case, I’d better go. I don’t know why you sent for me.'
Lady Casterley answered coldly : ‘To let you and your mother know of this woman’s most unselfish behavior; to put you on the qui vive for what Eustace may do now; to give you a chance to make up for your folly. Moreover, to warn you against —’ she paused.
‘ Let me — ’ interrupted Lord Dennis.
‘No, Uncle Dennis, let granny take her shoe!’
She had withdrawn against the wall, tall, and as it were, formidable, with her head up. Lady Casterley remained silent.
‘Have you got it ready?’ cried Barbara. ‘Unfortunately he’s flown!’
A voice said, ‘Lord Milton.’
He had come in quietly and quickly, preceding the announcement, and stood almost touching that little group at the window before they caught sight of him. His face had the rather ghastly look of sunburnt faces from which emotion has driven the blood; and his eyes, always so much the most living part of him, were full of such stabbing anger, that involuntarily they all looked down.
‘I want to speak to you alone,’ he said to Lady Casterley.
Visibly, for perhaps the first time in her life, that indomitable little figure flinched. Lord Dennis drew Barbara away, but at the door he whispered, ’Stay here quietly, Babs; I don’t like the look of this.’
Unnoticed, Barbara remained hovering.
The two voices, low, and so far off in the long white room, were uncannily distinct, emotion charging each word with preternatural power of penetration ; and every movement of the speakers had to the girl’s excited eyes a weird precision, as of little figures she had once seen at a Paris puppet-show. She could hear Milton reproaching his grandmother in words terribly dry and bitter. She edged nearer and nearer, till, seeing that they paid no more heed to her than if she were an attendant statue, she had regained her position by the window.
Lady Casterley was speaking.
‘I was not going to see you ruined before my eyes, Eustace. I did what I did at very great cost. I did my best for you.’
Barbara saw Milton’s face transfigured by a dreadful smile — the smile of one defying his torturer with hate.
Lady Casterley went on. ‘Yes, you stand there looking like a devil. Hate me if you like — but don’t betray us, moaning and moping because you can’t have the moon. Put on your armor, and go down into the battle. Don’t play the coward, boy! ’
’By God! Be silent!’
Milton’s answer cut like the lash of a whip.
And weirdly, there was silence. It was not the brutality of the words, but the sight of force suddenly naked of all disguise — like a fierce dog let for a moment off its chain — which made Barbara utter a little dismayed sound. Lady Casterley had dropped into a chair, trembling. And without a look Milton passed her.
If their grandmother had fallen dead, Barbara knew he would not have stopped to see. She ran forward, but the old woman waved her away. ‘Go after him,’ she said; ‘don’t let him go alone.’
And infected by the fear in that wizened voice, Barbara flew.
She caught her brother as he was entering the taxi-cab in which he had come, and without a word slipped in beside him. The driver’s face appeared at the window, but Milton only motioned with his head, as if to say, ‘Anywhere, away from here!’
The thought flashed through Barbara, ‘If only I can keep him in here with me!’ She leaned out, and said quietly, ‘To Nettlefold, in Sussex — never mind your petrol — get more on the road. You can have what fare you like. Quick!’
The man hesitated, looked in her face, and said, ‘Very well, Miss. By Dorking, ain’t it?’
The clock over the stables was chiming seven when Milton and Barbara passed out of the tall iron gates, in their swift-moving small world, that smelled faintly of petrol. Though the cab was closed, light spurts of rain drifted in through the open windows, refreshing the girl’s hot face, relieving a little her dread of this drive. For, now that Fate had been really cruel, now that it no longer lay in Milton’s hands to save himself from suffering, her heart bled for him; and she remembered to forget herself. The immobility with which he had received her intrusion was ominous. And though silent in her corner, she was desperately working all her woman’s wits to discover a way of breaking into the house of his secret mood. He appeared not even to have noticed that they had turned their backs on London and passed into Richmond Park.
Here the trees, made dark by rain, seemed to watch gloomily the progress of this whirring-wheeled red box, unreconciled even yet to such harsh intruders on their wind-scented tranquillity. And the deer, pursuing happiness on the sweet grasses, raised disquieted noses, as who should say, ‘Poisoners of the fern, defilers of the trails of air!’
Barbara vaguely felt the serenity out there in the clouds, and the trees, and the wind. If it would but creep into this dim, traveling prison, and help her; if it would but come, like sleep, and steal away dark sorrow, and in one moment make grief — joy. But it stayed outside on its wistful wings; and that grand chasm which yawns between soul and soul remained unabridged. For what could she say? How make him speak of what he was going to do? What alternatives indeed were now before him? Would he sullenly resign his seat, and wait till he could find Audrey Noel again? But even if he did find her, they would only be where they were. She had gone, in order not to be a drag on him — it would only be the same thing all over again! Would he then, as granny had urged him, put on his armor, and go down into the fight? But that indeed would mean the end, for if she had had the strength to go away now, she would surely never come back and break in on his life a second time. And a grim thought swooped down on Barbara. What if he resigned everything! Went out into the dark! Men did sometimes — she knew — caught like this in the full flush of passion. But surely not Milton, with his faith! ‘If the lark’s song means nothing — if that sky is a morass of our invention — if we are pettily creeping on, furthering nothing — persuade me of it, Babs, and I’ll bless you.’ But had he still that anchorage, to prevent his slipping out to sea? This sudden thought of death to one for whom life was joy, who had never even seen the Great Stillness, was very terrifying. She fixed her eyes on the back of the chauffeur, in his drab coat with the red collar, finding some comfort in its solidity. They were in a taxi-cab, in Richmond Park! Death — incongruous, incredible death! It was stupid to be frightened! She forced herself to look at Milton. He seemed to be asleep; his eyes were closed, his arms folded — only a quivering of his eyelids betrayed him. Impossible to tell what was going on in that grim waking sleep, which made her feel that she was not there at all, so utterly did he seem withdrawn into himself!
He opened his eyes, and said suddenly, ‘So you think I’m going to lay hands on myself, Babs?’
Horribly startled by this reading of her thoughts, Barbara could only edge away and stammer, ‘No; oh, no!’
‘Where are we going in this thing?’
‘Nettlefold. Would you like him stopped?’
‘It will do as well as anywhere.’
Terrified lest he should relapse into that grim silence, she timidly possessed herself of his hand.
It was fast growing dark; the cab, having left the villas of Surbiton behind, was flying along at great speed among pine trees and stretches of heather, gloomy with faded daylight.
Milton said presently, in a queer, slow voice, ‘If I want, I have only to open that door and jump. You who believe that “to-morrow we die” — give me the faith to feel that I can free myself by that jump, and out I go!’ Then, seeming to pity her terrified squeeze of his hand, he added, ‘It’s all right, Babs; we shall sleep comfortably enough in our beds to-night.’
But so desolate to the girl was his voice, that she hoped now for silence.
‘Let us be skinned quietly,’ muttered Milton, ‘if nothing else. Sorry to have disturbed you.’
Pressing close up to him, Barbara murmured, ‘If only— Talk to me!’
But Milton, though he stroked her hand, was silent.
The cab, moving at unaccustomed speed along these deserted roads, moaned dismally; and Barbara was possessed now by a desire which she dared not put in practice, to pull his head down, and rock it against her. Her heart felt empty, and timid; to have something warm resting on it would have made all the difference. Everything real, substantial, comforting, seemed to have slipped away. Among these flying dark ghosts of pine trees — as it were the unfrequented borderland between two worlds — the feeling of a cheek against her breast alone could help muffle the deep disquiet in her, lost like a child in a wood.
The cab slackened speed; the driver was lighting his lamps, and his red face appeared at the window.
‘We’ll ’ave to stop here, Miss; I’m out of petrol. Will you get some dinner, or go through?’
‘Through,’ answered Barbara.
While they were passing the little town, buying their petrol, asking the way, she felt less miserable, and even looked about her with a sort of eagerness. Then when they had started again, she thought: If I could get him to sleep — the sea will comfort him! But his eyes were staring, wide open. She feigned sleep herself; letting her head slip a little to one side, causing small sounds of breathing to escape. The whirring of the wheels, the moaning of the cab-joints, the dark trees slipping by, the scent of the wet fern drifting in, all these must surely help! And presently she felt that he was indeed slipping into darkness — and then — she felt nothing.
When she awoke from the sleep into which she had seen Milton fall, the cab was slowly mounting a steep hill, above which the moon had risen. The air smelled strong and sweet, as though it had passed over leagues of grass.
‘The Downs!’ she thought. ‘I must have been asleep!’
In sudden terror, she looked round for Milton. But he was still there, exactly as before, leaning back rigid in his corner of the cab, with staring eyes, and no other signs of life. And still only half awake, like a great warm sleepy child startled out of too deep slumber, she clutched, and clung to him. The thought that he had been sitting like that, with his spirit far away, all the time that she had been betraying her watch in sleep, was dreadful. But to her embrace there was no response, and awake indeed now, ashamed, sore, Barbara released him, and turned her face to the air.
Out there, two thin, dense-black, long clouds, shaped like the wings of a hawk, had joined themselves together, so that nothing of the moon showed but a living brightness imprisoned, like the eyes and life of a bird, between those swift sweeps of darkness. This great uncanny spirit, brooding malevolent over the high leagues of moon-wan grass, seemed waiting to swoop, and pluck up in its talons, and devour, all that intruded on the wild loneness of these far-up plains of freedom. Barbara almost expected to hear coming from it the lost whistle of the buzzard hawks. And her dream came back to her. Where were her wings — the wings that in sleep had borne her to the stars; the wings that would never lift her — waking — from the ground ? Where too were Milton’s wings? She crouched back into her corner; a tear stole up and trickled out between her closed lids — another and another followed. Faster and faster they came. Then she felt Milton’s arm round her, and heard him say, ‘Don’t cry, Babs!’ Instinct telling her what to do, she laid her head against his chest, and sobbed bitterly. Struggling with those sobs, she grew less and less unhappy—knowing that he could never again feel quite so desolate as before he tried to give her comfort. It was all a bad dream, and they would soon wake from it! And they would be happy; as happy as they had been before — before these last months! And she whispered, ‘Only a little while, Eusty!’
Old Lady Harbinger dying in the early February of the following year, the marriage of Barbara with her son was postponed till June.
Much of the wild sweetness of spring still clung to the high moor borders of Monkland on the early morning of the wedding-day.
Barbara was already up and dressed for riding when her maid came to call her; and noting Stacey’s astonished eyes fix themselves on her boots, she said, ‘Well, Stacey?’
‘It’ll tire you.’
‘Nonsense; I’m not going to be hung.’
Refusing the company of a groom, she made her way towards the stretch of high moor where she had ridden with Courtier a year ago. Here, over the short and as yet unflowering heather, there was a mile or more of level galloping ground. She mounted steadily, and her spirit rode, as it were, before her, longing to get up there among the peewits and curlew, to feel the crisp, peaty earth slip away under her, and the wind drive in her face, under that deep blue sky. Carried by this warmblooded sweetheart of hers, ready to jump out of his smooth hide with pleasure, snuffling and sneezing in sheer joy, whose eye she could see straying round to catch a glimpse of her intentions, from whose lips she could hear issuing the sweet bit-music, whose vagaries even seemed designed to startle from her a closer embracing—she was filled with a sort of delicious impatience with everything that was not this perfect communing with vigor.
Reaching the top, she put him into a gallop. With the wind furiously assailing her face and throat, every muscle crisped, and all her blood tingling — this was a very ecstasy of motion!
She reined in at the cairn whence she and Courtier had looked down at the herds of ponies. It was the merest memory now, vague and a little sweet, like the remembrance of some exceptional spring day, when trees seem to flower before your eyes, and in sheer wantonness exhale a scent of lemons. The ponies were there still, and in distance the shining sea. She sat thinking of nothing but how good it was to be alive. The fullness and sweetness of it all, the freedom and strength! Away to the west, over a lonely farm, she could see two buzzard hawks hunting in wide circles. She did not envy them
— so happy was she, as happy as the morning. And there came to her suddenly the true, the overmastering longing of mountain-tops.
‘I must,’ she thought, — ‘I simply must! ’
Slipping off her horse she lay down on her back, and at once everything was lost except the sky. Over her body, supported above solid earth by the warm, soft heather, the wind skimmed without sound or touch. Her spirit became one with that calm, unimaginable freedom. Transported beyond her own contentment, she no longer even knew whether she was joyful.
The horse Hal, attempting to eat her sleeve, aroused her. She mounted him, and rode down. Near home she took a short cut across a meadow, through which flowed two thin bright streams, forming a delta full of lingering ‘milkmaids,’mauve marsh orchis, and yellow flags. From end to end of this long meadow, so varied, so pied with trees and stones and flowers and water, the last of Spring was passing.
Some ponies, shyly curious of Barbara and her horse, stole up, and stood at a safe distance, with their noses dubiously stretched out, swishing their lean tails. And suddenly, far up, following their own music, two cuckoos flew across, seeking the thorn trees out on the moor. While she was watching the arrowy birds, she caught sight of some one coming towards her from a clump of beech trees, and suddenly saw that it was Mrs. Noel.
She rode forward, flushing. What dared she say? Could she speak of her wedding, and betray Milton’s presence? Could she open her mouth at all without rousing painful feeling of some sort? Then, impatient of indecision, she began, ‘I’m so glad to see you again. I did n’t know you were still down here.’
‘I only came back to England yesterday, and I’m just here to see to the packing of my things.’
‘Oh!’ murmured Barbara. ‘You know what’s happening to me, I suppose ? ’
Mrs. Noel smiled, looked up, and said, ‘I heard last night. All joy to you! ’
A lump rose in Barbara’s throat.
‘I’m so glad to have seen you,’ she murmured once more; ‘ I expect I ought to be getting on’; and with the word ‘Good-bye,’ gently echoed, she rode away.
But her mood of delight was gone; even Hal seemed to tread unevenly, for all that he was going back to that stable which ever appeared to him desirable ten minutes after he had left it.
Except that her eyes seemed darker, Mrs. Noel had not changed. If she had shown the faintest sign of self-pity, the girl would never have felt, as she did now, so sorry and upset.
Leaving the stables, she saw that the wind was driving up a huge, white, shining cloud. ‘Is n’t it going to be fine after all?’ she thought.
Reentering the house by an old and so-called secret stairway that led straight to the library, she had to traverse that great dark room. There, buried in an armchair in front of the hearth, she saw Milton with a book on his knee, not reading, but looking up at the picture of the old cardinal. She hurried on, tiptoeing over the soft carpet, holding her breath, fearful of disturbing the queer interview, feeling guilty, too, of her new knowledge, which she did not mean to impart. She had burnt her fingers once at the flame between them; she would not do so a second time!
Through the window at the far end she saw that the cloud had burst; it was raining furiously. She regained her bedroom unseen. In spite of her joy out there on the moors, this last adventure of her girlhood had not been all success; she had again the old sensations, the old doubts, the dissatisfaction which she had thought dead. Those two! To shut one’s eyes, and be happy — was it possible? A great rainbow, the nearest she had ever seen, had sprung up in the park, and was come to earth again in some fields close by. The sun was shining already through the wind-driven bright rain. Jewels of blue had begun to star the black and white and golden clouds. A strange white light — ghost of Spring passing in this last violent outburst — painted the leaves of every tree; and a hundred savage hues had come down like a motley of bright birds on moor and fields.
The moment of desperate beauty caught Barbara by the throat. Its spirit of galloping wildness flew straight into her heart. She clasped her hands across her breast to try and keep that moment. Far out, a cuckoo hooted — and the immortal call passed on the wind. In that call all the beauty and color and rapture of life seemed to be flying by. If she could only seize and evermore have it in her heart, as the buttercups imprisoned the sun, or the fallen raindrops on the sweetbriers round the windows inclosed all changing light! If only there were no chains, no walls, and finality were dead!
Her clock struck ten. At this time to-morrow! Her cheeks turned hot; in a mirror she could see them burning, her lips scornfully curved, her eyes strange. Standing there, she looked long at herself, till, little by little, her face lost every vestige of that disturbance, became solid and resolute again. She ceased to have the galloping wild feeling in her heart, and instead felt cold. Detached from herself, she watched, with contentment, her own calm and radiant beauty resume the armor it had for that moment put off.
After dinner that night, when the men left the dining-hall, Milton slipped away to his den. Of all those present in the little church he had seemed most unemotional, and had been most moved. Though it had been so quiet and private a wedding, he had resen ted all cheap festivity accompanying the passing of his young sister. He would have had that ceremony in the little dark disused chapel at the Court; those two, and the priest alone. Here, in this halfpagan little country church, smothered hastily in flowers, with the raw singing of the half-pagan choir, and all the village curiosity and homage — everything had jarred, and the stale aftermath sickened him. Changing his swallow-tail to an old smoking-jacket, he went out on to the lawn. In the wide darkness he could rid himself of his exasperation.
Since the day of his election he had not once been at Monkland; since Mrs. Noel’s flight he had never left London. In London and work he had buried himself; by London and work he had saved himself! He had gone down into the battle.
Dew had not yet fallen, and he took the path across the fields. There was no moon, no stars, no wind; the cattle were noiseless under the trees; there were no owls calling, no night-jars churring, the fly-by-night chafers were not abroad. The stream alone was alive in the quiet darkness. And as Milton followed the wispy line of gray path cleaving the dim glamour of daisies and buttercups, there came to him the feeling that he was in the presence, not of sleep, but of eternal waiting. The sound of his footfalls seemed desecration. So devotional was that hush, burning the spicy incense of millions of leaves and blades of grass.
Crossing the last stile, he came out, close to her deserted cottage, under her lime tree, which on the night of Courtier’s adventure had hung blueblack round the moon. On that side, only a rail and a few shrubs confined her garden.
The house was all dark, but the many tall white flowers, like a bright vapor rising from earth, clung to the air above the beds. Leaning against the tree, Milton gave himself to memory.
From the silent boughs which drooped round his dark figure, a little sleepy bird uttered a faint cheep; a hedgehog, or some small beast of night, rustled away in the grass close by; a moth flew past, seeking its candle flame. And something in Milton’s heart took wings after it, searching for the warmth and light of his blown candle of love. Then, in the hush he heard a sound as of a branch ceaselessly trailed through long grass, fainter and fainter, more and more distinct; again fainter; but nothing could he see that should make that homeless sound. And the sense of some near but unseen presence crept on him, till the hair moved on his scalp. If God would light the moon or stars, and let him see! If God would end the expectation of this night, let one wan glimmer down into her garden, and one wan glimmer into his breast! But it stayed dark, and the homeless noise never ceased. The weird thought came to Milton that it was made by his own heart, wanderingout there, trying to feel warm again. He closed his eyes and at once knew that it was not his heart, but indeed some external presence, unconsoled. And stretching his hands out, he moved forward to arrest that sound. As he reached the railing, it ceased. And he saw a flame leap up, a pale broad pathway of light blanching the grass.
And, realizing that she was there, within, he gasped. His finger-nails bent and broke against the iron railing without his knowledge. It was not as on that night when the red flowers on her window-sill had wafted their scent to him; it was no sheer overpowering rush of passion. Profounder, more terrible, was this rising up within him of yearning for love — as if, now defeated, it would nevermore stir, but lie dead on that dark grass beneath those dark boughs. And if victorious—what then? He stole back under the tree.
He could see little white moths traveling down that path of lamplight; he could see the white flowers quite plainly now, a pale watch of blossoms guarding the dark sleepy ones; and he stood, not reasoning, hardly any longer feeling; stunned, battered by struggle. His face and hands were sticky with the honey-dew, slowly, invisibly distilling from the lime tree. He bent down and felt the grass. And suddenly there came over him the certainty of her presence. Yes, she was there — out on the veranda! He could see her white figure from head to foot; and, not realizing that she could not see him, he expected her to utter some cry. But no sound came from her, no gesture; she turned back into the house. Milton ran forward to the railing. But there, once more, he stopped — unable to think, unable to feel; as it were, abandoned by himself. And he suddenly found his hand up at his mouth, as though there were blood there to be stanched that had escaped from his heart.
Still holding that hand before his mouth, and smothering the sound of his feet in the long grass, he crept away.
In the great glass house at Ravensham, Lady Casterley stood close to some Japanese lilies, with a letter in her hand. Her face was very white, for it was the first day she had been allowed down after an attack of influenza; nor had the hand in which she held the letter its usual steadiness. She read: —
‘ MONKLAND COURT.
‘ Just a line, dear, before the post goes, to tell you that Babs has gone off happily. The child looked beautiful. She sent you her love, and some absurd message — that you would be glad to hear, she was perfectly safe, with both feet firmly on the ground,’
A grim little smile played on Lady Casterley’s pale lips: Yes, indeed, and time too! The child had been very near the edge of the cliffs! Very near committing a piece of romantic folly! That was well over! And raising the letter again, she read on: —
‘We were all down for it, of course, and come back to-morrow. Geoffrey is quite cut up. Things can’t be what they were without our Babs. I’ve watched Eustace very carefully, and I really believe he’s safely over that affair at last. He is doing extraordinarily well in the House just now. Geoffrey says his speech on the Poor Law was head and shoulders the best made.’
Lady Casterley let fall the hand which held the letter. Safe? Yes, he was safe! He had done the right — the natural thing! And in time he would be happy! He would rise now to that pinnacle of desired authority which she had dreamed of for him, ever since he was a tiny thing, ever since his little thin brown hand had clasped hers in their wanderings amongst the flowers, and the furniture of tall rooms. But, as she stood — crumpling the letter, gray-white as some small resolute ghost, among her tall lilies that filled with their scent the great glass house — shadows flitted across her face. Was it the fugitive noon sunshine? Or was it some glimmering perception of the old Greek saying—‘Character is Fate’; some sudden sense of the universal truth that all are in bond to their own natures, and what a man has most desired shall in the end enslave him?