Lord Denis was fly-fishing—the weather just too bright to allow the little trout of that shallow, never silent stream to embrace with avidity the small enticements which he threw in their direction. Nevertheless he continued to invite them, exploring every nook of their watery pathway with his soft-swishing line. In a rough suit and battered hat adorned with those artificial and other flies, which infest Harris tweed, he crept along among the hazel bushes and thorn-trees, perfectly happy. Like an old spaniel, who has once gloried in the fetching of hares, rabbits, and all manner of fowl, and is now glad if you will but throw a stick for him, so one, who had been a famous fisher before the Lord, who had harried the waters of Scotland and Norway, Florida and Iceland, now pursued trout no bigger than sardines. The glamour of a thousand memories hallowed the hours he thus spent by that brown water. He fished unhasting, religious, like some good Catholic adding one more to the row of beads already told, as though he would fish himself, gravely, without complaint, into the other world. With each fish caught he experienced a solemn satisfaction.
Though he would have liked Barbara with him that morning, he had only looked at her once after breakfast in such a way that she could not see him, and with a dry smile gone off by himself. Down by the stream it was dappled, both cool and warm, windless; the trees met over the river, and there were many stones, forming little basins which held up the ripple, so that the casting of a fly required much cunning. This long dingle ran for miles through the foot-growth of folding hills. It was beloved of jays; but of human beings there were none, except a chicken-farmer's widow, who lived in a house thatched almost to the ground, and made her livelihood by directing tourists, with such cunning that they soon came back to her for tea.
It was while throwing a rather longer line than usual to reach a little dark piece of crisp water that Lord Dennis heard the swishing and crackling of someone advancing at full speed. He frowned slightly, feeling for the nerves of his fishes, whom he did not wish startled. The invader was Miltoun, hot, pale, dishevelled, with a queer, hunted look on his face. He stopped on seeing his great-uncle, and instantly assumed the mask of his smile.
Lord Dennis was not the man to see what was not intended for him, and he merely said:
“Well, Eustace!” as he might have spoken, meeting his nephew in the hall of one of his London Clubs.
Miltoun, no less polite, murmured:
“Hope I haven't lost you anything.”
Lord Dennis shook his head, and laying his rod on the bank, said:
“Sit down and have a chat, old fellow. You don't fish, I think?”
He had not, in the least, missed the suffering behind Miltoun's mask; his eyes were still good, and there was a little matter of some twenty years' suffering of his own on account of a woman—ancient history now—which had left him quaintly sensitive, for an old man, to signs of suffering in others.
Miltoun would not have obeyed that invitation from anyone else, but there was something about Lord Dennis which people did not resist; his power lay in a dry ironic suavity which could not but persuade people that impoliteness was altogether too new and raw a thing to be indulged in.
The two sat side by side on the roots of trees. At first they talked a little of birds, and then were dumb, so dumb that the invisible creatures of the woods consulted together audibly. Lord Dennis broke that silence.
“This place,” he said, “always reminds me of Mark Twain's writings—can't tell why, unless it's the ever-greenness. I like the evergreen philosophers, Twain and Meredith. There's no salvation except through courage, though I never could stomach the 'strong man'—captain of his soul, Henley and Nietzsche and that sort—goes against the grain with me. What do you say, Eustace?”
“They meant well,” answered Miltoun, “but they protested too much.”
Lord Dennis moved his head in assent.
“To be captain of your soul!” continued Miltoun in a bitter voice; “it's a pretty phrase!”
“Pretty enough,” murmured Lord Dennis.
Miltoun looked at him.
“And suitable to you,” he said.
“No, my dear,” Lord Dennis answered dryly, “a long way off that, thank God!”
His eyes were fixed intently on the place where a large trout had risen in the stillest toffee-coloured pool. He knew that fellow, a half-pounder at least, and his thoughts began flighting round the top of his head, hovering over the various merits of the flies. His fingers itched too, but he made no movement, and the ash-tree under which he sat let its leaves tremble, as though in sympathy.
“See that hawk?” said Miltoun.
At a height more than level with the tops of the hills a buzzard hawk was stationary in the blue directly over them. Inspired by curiosity at their stillness, he was looking down to see whether they were edible; the upcurved ends of his great wings flirted just once to show that he was part of the living glory of the air—a symbol of freedom to men and fishes.
Lord Dennis looked at his great-nephew. The boy—for what else was thirty to seventy-six?—was taking it hard, whatever it might be, taking it very hard! He was that sort—ran till he dropped. The worst kind to help—the sort that made for trouble—that let things gnaw at them! And there flashed before the old man's mind the image of Prometheus devoured by the eagle. It was his favourite tragedy, which he still read periodically, in the Greek, helping himself now and then out of his old lexicon to the meaning of some word which had flown to Erebus. Yes, Eustace was a fellow for the heights and depths!
He said quietly:
“You don't care to talk about it, I suppose?”
Miltoun shook his head, and again there was silence.
The buzzard hawk having seen them move, quivered his wings like a moth's, and deserted that plane of air. A robin from the dappled warmth of a mossy stone, was regarding them instead. There was another splash in the pool.
Lord Dennis said gently:
“That fellow's risen twice; I believe he'd take a 'Wistman's treasure.'” Extracting from his hat its latest fly, and binding it on, he began softly to swish his line.
“I shall have him yet!” he muttered. But Miltoun had stolen away....
The further piece of information about Mrs. Noel, already known by Barbara, and diffused by the 'Bucklandbury News', had not become common knowledge at the Court till after Lord Dennis had started out to fish. In combination with the report that Miltoun had arrived and gone out without breakfast, it had been received with mingled feelings. Bertie, Harbinger, and Shropton, in a short conclave, after agreeing that from the point of view of the election it was perhaps better than if she had been a divorcee, were still inclined to the belief that no time was to be lost—in doing what, however, they were unable to determine. Apart from the impossibility of knowing how a fellow like Miltoun would take the matter, they were faced with the devilish subtlety of all situations to which the proverb 'Least said, soonest mended' applies. They were in the presence of that awe-inspiring thing, the power of scandal. Simple statements of simple facts, without moral drawn (to which no legal exception could be taken) laid before the public as pieces of interesting information, or at the worst exposed in perfect good faith, lest the public should blindly elect as their representative one whose private life might not stand the inspection of daylight—what could be more justifiable! And yet Miltoun's supporters knew that this simple statement of where he spent his evenings had a poisonous potency, through its power of stimulating that side of the human imagination the most easily excited. They recognized only too well, how strong was a certain primitive desire, especially in rural districts, by yielding to which the world was made to go, and how remarkably hard it, was not to yield to it, and how interesting and exciting to see or hear of others yielding to it, and how (though here, of course, men might differ secretly) reprehensible of them to do so! They recognized, too well, how a certain kind of conscience would appreciate this rumour; and how the puritans would lick their lengthened chops. They knew, too, how irresistible to people of any imagination at all, was the mere combination of a member of a class, traditionally supposed to be inclined to having what it wanted, with a lady who lived alone! As Harbinger said: It was really devilish awkward! For, to take any notice of it would be to make more people than ever believe it true. And yet, that it was working mischief, they felt by the secret voice in their own souls, telling them that they would have believed it if they had not known better. They hung about, waiting for Miltoun to come in.
The news was received by Lady Valleys with a sigh of intense relief, and the remark that it was probably another lie. When Barbara confirmed it, she only said: “Poor Eustace!” and at once wrote off to her husband to say that 'Anonyma' was still married, so that the worst fortunately could not happen.
Miltoun came in to lunch, but from his face and manner nothing could be guessed. He was a thought more talkative than usual, and spoke of Brabrook's speech—some of which he had heard. He looked at Courtier meaningly, and after lunch said to him:
“Will you come round to my den?”
In that room, the old withdrawing-room of the Elizabethan wing—where once had been the embroideries, tapestries, and missals of beruffled dames were now books, pamphlets, oak-panels, pipes, fencing gear, and along one wall a collection of Red Indian weapons and ornaments brought back by Miltoun from the United States. High on the wall above these reigned the bronze death-mask of a famous Apache Chief, cast from a plaster taken of the face by a professor of Yale College, who had declared it to be a perfect specimen of the vanishing race. That visage, which had a certain weird resemblance to Dante's, presided over the room with cruel, tragic stoicism. No one could look on it without feeling that, there, the human will had been pushed to its farthest limits of endurance.
Seeing it for the first time, Courtier said:
“Fine thing—that! Only wants a soul.”
“Sit down,” he said.
Courtier sat down.
There followed one of those silences in which men whose spirits, though different, have a certain bigness in common—can say so much to one another:
At last Miltoun spoke:
“I have been living in the clouds, it seems. You are her oldest friend. The immediate question is how to make it easiest for her in face of this miserable rumour!”
Not even Courtier himself could have put such whip-lash sting into the word 'miserable.'
“Oh! take no notice of that. Let them stew in their own juice. She won't care.”
Miltoun listened, not moving a muscle of his face.
“Your friends here,” went on Courtier with a touch of contempt, “seem in a flutter. Don't let them do anything, don't let them say a word. Treat the thing as it deserves to be treated. It'll die.”
Miltoun, however, smiled.
“I'm not sure,” he said, “that the consequences will be as you think, but I shall do as you say.”
“As for your candidature, any man with a spark of generosity in his soul will rally to you because of it.”
“Possibly,” said Miltoun. “It will lose me the election, for all that.”
Then, dimly conscious that their last words had revealed the difference of their temperaments and creeds, they stared at one another.
“No,” said Courtier, “I never will believe that people can be so mean!”
“Until they are.”
“Anyway, though we get at it in different ways, we agree.”
Miltoun leaned his elbow on the mantelpiece, and shading his face with his hand, said:
“You know her story. Is there any way out of that, for her?”
On Courtier's face was the look which so often came when he was speaking for one of his lost causes—as if the fumes from a fire in his heart had mounted to his head.
“Only the way,” he answered calmly, “that I should take if I were you.”
“The law into your own hands.”
Miltoun unshaded his face. His gaze seemed to have to travel from an immense distance before it reached Courtier. He answered:
“Yes, I thought you would say that.”