Lady Casterley's rather malicious diagnosis of Audrey Noel was correct. The unencumbered woman was up and in her garden when Barbara and her grandmother appeared at the Wicket gate; but being near the lime-tree at the far end she did not hear the rapid colloquy which passed between them.
“You are going to be good, Granny?”
“As to that—it will depend.”
Lady Casterley could not possibly have provided herself with a better introduction than Barbara, whom Mrs. Noel never met without the sheer pleasure felt by a sympathetic woman when she sees embodied in someone else that 'joy in life' which Fate has not permitted to herself.
She came forward with her head a little on one side, a trick of hers not at all affected, and stood waiting.
The unembarrassed Barbara began at once:
“We've just had an encounter with a bull. This is my grandmother, Lady Casterley.”
The little old lady's demeanour, confronted with this very pretty face and figure was a thought less autocratic and abrupt than usual. Her shrewd eyes saw at once that she had no common adventuress to deal with. She was woman of the world enough, too, to know that 'birth' was not what it had been in her young days, that even money was rather rococo, and that good looks, manners, and a knowledge of literature, art, and music (and this woman looked like one of that sort), were often considered socially more valuable. She was therefore both wary and affable.
“How do you do?” she said. “I have heard of you. May we sit down for a minute in your garden? The bull was a wretch!”
But even in speaking, she was uneasily conscious that Mrs. Noel's clear eyes were seeing very well what she had come for. The look in them indeed was almost cynical; and in spite of her sympathetic murmurs, she did not somehow seem to believe in the bull. This was disconcerting. Why had Barbara condescended to mention the wretched brute? And she decided to take him by the horns.
“Babs,” she said, “go to the Inn and order me a 'fly.' I shall drive back, I feel very shaky,” and, as Mrs. Noel offered to send her maid, she added:
“No, no, my granddaughter will go.”
Barbara having departed with a quizzical look, Lady Casterley patted the rustic seat, and said:
“Do come and sit down, I want to talk to you:”
Mrs. Noel obeyed. And at once Lady Casterley perceived that “she had a most difficult task before her. She had not expected a woman with whom one could take no liberties. Those clear dark eyes, and that soft, perfectly graceful manner—to a person so 'sympathetic' one should be able to say anything, and—one couldn't! It was awkward. And suddenly she noticed that Mrs. Noel was sitting perfectly upright, as upright—more upright, than she was herself. A bad, sign—a very bad sign! Taking out her handkerchief, she put it to her lips.
“I suppose you think,” she said, “that we were not chased by a bull.”
“I am sure you were.”
“Indeed! Ah! But I've something else to talk to you about.”
Mrs. Noel's face quivered back, as a flower might when it was going to be plucked; and again Lady Casterley put her handkerchief to her lips. This time she rubbed them hard. There was nothing to come off; to do so, therefore, was a satisfaction.
“I am an old woman,” she said, “and you mustn't mind what I say.”
Mrs. Noel did not answer, but looked straight at her visitor; to whom it seemed suddenly that this was another person. What was it about that face, staring at her! In a weird way it reminded her of a child that one had hurt—with those great eyes and that soft hair, and the mouth thin, in a line, all of a sudden. And as if it had been jerked out of her, she said:
“I don't want to hurt you, my dear. It's about my grandson, of course.”
But Mrs. Noel made neither sign nor motion; and the feeling of irritation which so rapidly attacks the old when confronted by the unexpected, came to Lady Casterley's aid.
“His name,” she said, “is being coupled with yours in a way that's doing him a great deal of harm. You don't wish to injure him, I'm sure.”
Mrs. Noel shook her head, and Lady Casterley went on:
“I don't know what they're not saying since the evening your friend Mr. Courtier hurt his knee. Miltoun has been most unwise. You had not perhaps realized that.”
Mrs. Noel's answer was bitterly distinct:
“I didn't know anyone was sufficiently interested in my doings.”
Lady Casterley suffered a gesture of exasperation to escape her.
“Good heavens!” she said; “every common person is interested in a woman whose position is anomalous. Living alone as you do, and not a widow, you're fair game for everybody, especially in the country.”
Mrs. Noel's sidelong glance, very clear and cynical, seemed to say: “Even for you.”
“I am not entitled to ask your story,” Lady Casterley went on, “but if you make mysteries you must expect the worst interpretation put on them. My grandson is a man of the highest principle; he does not see things with the eyes of the world, and that should have made you doubly careful not to compromise him, especially at a time like this.”
Mrs. Noel smiled. This smile startled Lady Casterley; it seemed, by concealing everything, to reveal depths of strength and subtlety. Would the woman never show her hand? And she said abruptly:
“Anything serious, of course, is out of the question.”
That word, which of all others seemed the right one, was spoken so that Lady Casterley did not know in the least what it meant. Though occasionally employing irony, she detested it in others. No woman should be allowed to use it as a weapon! But in these days, when they were so foolish as to want votes, one never knew what women would be at. This particular woman, however, did not look like one of that sort. She was feminine—very feminine—the sort of creature that spoiled men by being too nice to them. And though she had come determined to find out all about everything and put an end to it, she saw Barbara re-entering the wicket gate with considerable relief.
“I am ready to walk home now,” she said. And getting up from the rustic seat, she made Mrs. Noel a satirical little bow.
“Thank you for letting me rest. Give me your arm, child.”
Barbara gave her arm, and over her shoulder threw a swift smile at Mrs. Noel, who did not answer it, but stood looking quietly after them, her eyes immensely dark and large.
Out in the lane Lady Casterley walked on, very silent, digesting her emotions.
“What about the 'fly,' Granny?”
“The one you told me to order.”
“You don't mean to say that you took me seriously?”
“No,” said Barbara.
They proceeded some little way farther before Lady Casterley said suddenly:
“She is deep.”
“And dark,” said Barbara. “I am afraid you were not good!”
Lady Casterley glanced upwards.
“I detest this habit,” she said, “amongst you young people, of taking nothing seriously. Not even bulls,” she added, with a grim smile.
Barbara threw back her head and sighed.
“Nor 'flys,” she said.
Lady Casterley saw that she had closed her eyes and opened her lips. And she thought:
“She's a very beautiful girl. I had no idea she was so beautiful—but too big!” And she added aloud:
“Shut your mouth! You will get one down!”
They spoke no more till they had entered the avenue; then Lady Casterley said sharply:
“Who is this coming down the drive?”
“Mr. Courtier, I think.”
“What does he mean by it, with that leg?”
“He is coming to talk to you, Granny.”
Lady Casterley stopped short.
“You are a cat,” she said; “a sly cat. Now mind, Babs, I won't have it!”
“No, darling,” murmured Barbara; “you shan't have it—I'll take him off your hands.”
“What does your mother mean,” stammered Lady Casterley, “letting you grow up like this! You're as bad as she was at your age!”
“Worse!” said Barbara. “I dreamed last night that I could fly!”
“If you try that,” said Lady Casterley grimly, “you'll soon come to grief. Good-morning, sir; you ought to be in bed!”
Courtier raised his hat.
“Surely it is not for me to be where you are not!” And he added gloomily: “The war scare's dead!”
“Ah!” said Lady Casterley: “your occupation's gone then. You'll go back to London now, I suppose.” Looking suddenly at Barbara she saw that the girl's eyes were half-closed, and that she was smiling; it seemed to Lady Casterley too or was it fancy?—that she shook her head.