Lord Valleys, relieved from official pressure by subsidence of the war scare, had returned for a long week-end. To say that he had been intensely relieved by the news that Mrs. Noel was not free, would be to put it mildly. Though not old-fashioned, like his mother-in-law, in regard to the mixing of the castes, prepared to admit that exclusiveness was out of date, to pass over with a shrug and a laugh those numerous alliances by which his order were renewing the sinews of war, and indeed in his capacity of an expert, often pointing out the dangers of too much in-breeding—yet he had a peculiar personal feeling about his own family, and was perhaps a little extra sensitive because of Agatha; for Shropton, though a good fellow, and extremely wealthy, was only a third baronet, and had originally been made of iron. It was inadvisable to go outside the inner circle where there was no material necessity for so doing. He had not done it himself. Moreover there was a sentiment about these things!
On the morning after his arrival, visiting the kennels before breakfast, he stood chatting with his head man, and caressing the wet noses of his two favourite pointers,—with something of the feeling of a boy let out of school. Those pleasant creatures, cowering and quivering with pride against his legs, and turning up at him their yellow Chinese eyes, gave him that sense of warmth and comfort which visits men in the presence of their hobbies. With this particular pair, inbred to the uttermost, he had successfully surmounted a great risk. It was now touch and go whether he dared venture on one more cross to the original strain, in the hope of eliminating the last clinging of liver colour. It was a gamble—and it was just that which rendered it so vastly interesting.
A small voice diverted his attention; he looked round and saw little Ann. She had been in bed when he arrived the night before, and he was therefore the newest thing about.
She carried in her arms a guinea-pig, and began at once:
“Grandpapa, Granny wants you. She's on the terrace; she's talking to Mr. Courtier. I like him—he's a kind man. If I put my guinea-pig down, will they bite it? Poor darling—they shan't! Isn't it a darling!”
Lord Valleys, twirling his moustache, regarded the guinea-pig without favour; he had rather a dislike for all senseless kinds of beasts.
Pressing the guinea-pig between her hands, as it might be a concertina, little Ann jigged it gently above the pointers, who, wrinkling horribly their long noses, gazed upwards, fascinated.
“Poor darlings, they want it—don't they? Grandpapa.”
“Do you think the next puppies will be spotted quite all over?”
Continuing to twirl his moustache, Lord Valleys answered:
“I think it is not improbable, Ann.”
“Why do you like them spotted like that? Oh! they're kissing Sambo—I must go!”
Lord Valleys followed her, his eyebrows a little raised.
As he approached the terrace his wife came, towards him. Her colour was, deeper than usual, and she had the look, higher and more resolute, peculiar to her when she had been opposed. In truth she had just been through a passage of arms with Courtier, who, as the first revealer of Mrs. Noel's situation, had become entitled to a certain confidence on this subject. It had arisen from what she had intended as a perfectly natural and not unkind remark, to the effect that all the trouble had come from Mrs. Noel not having made her position clear to Miltoun from the first.
He had at once grown very red.
“It's easy, Lady Valleys, for those who have never been in the position of a lonely woman, to blame her.”
Unaccustomed to be withstood, she had looked at him intently:
“I am the last person to be hard on a woman for conventional reasons. But I think it showed lack of character.”
Courtier's reply had been almost rude.
“Plants are not equally robust, Lady Valleys. Some, as we know, are actually sensitive.”
She had retorted with decision
“If you like to so dignify the simpler word 'weak'”
He had become very rigid at that, biting deeply into his moustache.
“What crimes are not committed under the sanctity of that creed 'survival of the fittest,' which suits the book of all you fortunate people so well!”
Priding herself on her restraint, Lady Valleys answered:
“Ah! we must talk that out. On the face of them your words sound a little unphilosophic, don't they?”
He had looked straight at her with a queer, unpleasant smile; and she had felt at once disturbed and angry. It was all very well to pet and even to admire these original sort of men, but there were limits. Remembering, however, that he was her guest, she had only said:
“Perhaps after all we had better not talk it out;” and moving away, she heard him answer: “In any case, I'm certain Audrey Noel never wilfully kept your son in the dark; she's much too proud.”
Though rude, she could not help liking the way he stuck up for this woman; and she threw back at him the words:
“You and I, Mr. Courtier, must have a good fight some day!”
She went towards her husband conscious of the rather pleasurable sensation which combat always roused in her.
These two were very good comrades. Theirs had been a love match, and making due allowance for human nature beset by opportunity, had remained, throughout, a solid and efficient alliance. Taking, as they both did, such prominent parts in public and social matters, the time they spent together was limited, but productive of mutual benefit and reinforcement. They had not yet had an opportunity of discussing their son's affair; and, slipping her hand through his arm, Lady Valleys drew him away from the house.
“I want to talk to you about Miltoun, Geoff.”
“H'm!” said Lord Valleys; “yes. The boy's looking worn. Good thing when this election's over.”
“If he's beaten and hasn't something new and serious to concentrate himself on, he'll fret his heart out over that woman.”
Lord Valleys meditated a little before replying.
“I don't think that, Gertrude. He's got plenty of spirit.”
“Of course! But it's a real passion. And, you know, he's not like most boys, who'll take what they can.”
She said this rather wistfully.
“I'm sorry for the woman,” mused Lord Valleys; “I really am.”
“They say this rumour's done a lot of harm.”
“Our influence is strong enough to survive that.”
“It'll be a squeak; I wish I knew what he was going to do. Will you ask him?”
“You're clearly the person to speak to him,” replied Lord Valleys. “I'm no hand at that sort of thing.”
But Lady Valleys, with genuine discomfort, murmured:
“My dear, I'm so nervous with Eustace. When he puts on that smile of his I'm done for, at once.”
“This is obviously a woman's business; nobody like a mother.”
“If it were only one of the others,” muttered Lady Valleys: “Eustace has that queer way of making you feel lumpy.”
Lord Valleys looked at her askance. He had that kind of critical fastidiousness which a word will rouse into activity. Was she lumpy? The idea had never struck him.
“Well, I'll do it, if I must,” sighed Lady Valleys.
When after breakfast she entered Miltoun's 'den,' he was buckling on his spurs preparatory, to riding out to some of the remoter villages. Under the mask of the Apache chief, Bertie was standing, more inscrutable and neat than ever, in a perfectly tied cravatte, perfectly cut riding breeches, and boots worn and polished till a sooty glow shone through their natural russet. Not specially dandified in his usual dress, Bertie Caradoc would almost sooner have died than disgrace a horse. His eyes, the sharper because they had only half the space of the ordinary eye to glance from, at once took in the fact that his mother wished to be alone with 'old Miltoun,' and he discreetly left the room.
That which disconcerted all who had dealings with Miltoun was the discovery made soon or late, that they could not be sure how anything would strike him. In his mind, as in his face, there was a certain regularity, and then—impossible to say exactly where—it would, shoot off and twist round a corner. This was the legacy no doubt of the hard-bitten individuality, which had brought to the front so many of his ancestors; for in Miltoun was the blood not only of the Caradocs and Fitz-Harolds, but of most other prominent families in the kingdom, all of whom, in those ages before money made the man, must have had a forbear conspicuous by reason of qualities, not always fine, but always poignant.
And now, though Lady Valleys had the audacity of her physique, and was not customarily abashed, she began by speaking of politics, hoping her son would give her an opening. But he gave her none, and she grew nervous. At last, summoning all her coolness, she said:
“I'm dreadfully sorry about this affair, dear boy. Your father told me of your talk with him. Try not to take it too hard.”
Miltoun did not answer, and silence being that which Lady Valleys habitually most dreaded, she took refuge in further speech, outlining for her son the whole episode as she saw it from her point of view, and ending with these words:
“Surely it's not worth it.”
Miltoun heard her with his peculiar look, as of a man peering through a vizor. Then smiling, he said:
“Thank you;” and opened the door.
Lady Valleys, without quite knowing whether he intended her to do so, indeed without quite knowing anything at the moment, passed out, and Miltoun closed the door behind her.
Ten minutes later he and Bertie were seen riding down the drive.