Claud Fresnay, Viscount Harbinger was, at the age of thirty-one, perhaps the least encumbered peer in the United Kingdom. Thanks to an ancestor who had acquired land, and departed this life one hundred and thirty years before the town of Nettlefold was built on a small portion of it, and to a father who had died in his son's infancy, after judiciously selling the said town, he possessed a very large income independently of his landed interests. Tall and well-built, with handsome, strongly-marked features, he gave at first sight an impression of strength—which faded somewhat when he began to talk. It was not so much the manner of his speech—with its rapid slang, and its way of turning everything to a jest—as the feeling it produced, that the brain behind it took naturally the path of least resistance. He was in fact one of those personalities who are often enough prominent in politics and social life, by reason of their appearance, position, assurance, and of a certain energy, half genuine, and half mere inherent predilection for short cuts. Certainly he was not idle, had written a book, travelled, was a Captain of Yeomanry, a Justice of the Peace, a good cricketer, and a constant and glib speaker. It would have been unfair to call his enthusiasm for social reform spurious. It was real enough in its way, and did certainly testify that he was not altogether lacking either in imagination or good-heartedness. But it was over and overlaid with the public-school habit—that peculiar, extraordinarily English habit, so powerful and beguiling that it becomes a second nature stronger than the first—of relating everything in the Universe to the standards and prejudices of a single class. Since practically all his intimate associates were immersed in it, he was naturally not in the least conscious of this habit; indeed there was nothing he deprecated so much in politics as the narrow and prejudiced outlook, such as he had observed in the Nonconformist, or labour politician. He would never have admitted for a moment that certain doors had been banged-to at his birth, bolted when he went to Eton, and padlocked at Cambridge. No one would have denied that there was much that was valuable in his standards—a high level of honesty, candour, sportsmanship, personal cleanliness, and self-reliance, together with a dislike of such cruelty as had been officially (so to speak) recognized as cruelty, and a sense of public service to a State run by and for the public schools; but it would have required far more originality than he possessed ever to look at Life from any other point of view than that from which he had been born and bred to watch Her. To fully understand harbinger, one must, and with unprejudiced eyes and brain, have attended one of those great cricket matches in which he had figured conspicuously as a boy, and looking down from some high impartial spot have watched the ground at lunch time covered from rope to rope and stand to stand with a marvellous swarm, all walking in precisely the same manner, with precisely the same expression on their faces, under precisely the same hats—a swarm enshrining the greatest identity of, creed and habit ever known since the world began. No, his environment had not been favourable to originality. Moreover he was naturally rapid rather than deep, and life hardly ever left him alone or left him silent. Brought into contact day and night with people to whom politics were more or less a game; run after everywhere; subjected to no form of discipline—it was a wonder that he was as serious as he was. Nor had he ever been in love, until, last year, during her first season, Barbara had, as he might have expressed it—in the case of another 'bowled him middle stump. Though so deeply smitten, he had not yet asked her to marry him—had not, as it were, had time, nor perhaps quite the courage, or conviction. When he was near her, it seemed impossible that he could go on longer without knowing his fate; when he was away from her it was almost a relief, because there were so many things to be done and said, and so little time to do or say them in. But now, during this fortnight, which, for her sake, he had devoted to Miltoun's cause, his feeling had advanced beyond the point of comfort.
He did not admit that the reason of this uneasiness was Courtier, for, after all, Courtier was, in a sense, nobody, and 'an extremist' into the bargain, and an extremist always affected the centre of Harbinger's anatomy, causing it to give off a peculiar smile and tone of voice. Nevertheless, his eyes, whenever they fell on that sanguine, steady, ironic face, shone with a sort of cold inquiry, or were even darkened by the shade of fear. They met seldom, it is true, for most of his day was spent in motoring and speaking, and most of Courtier's in writing and riding, his leg being still too weak for walking. But once or twice in the smoking room late at night, he had embarked on some bantering discussion with the champion of lost causes; and very soon an ill-concealed impatience had crept into his voice. Why a man should waste his time, flogging dead horses on a journey to the moon, was incomprehensible! Facts were facts, human nature would never be anything but human nature! And it was peculiarly galling to see in Courtier's eye a gleam, to catch in his voice a tone, as if he were thinking: “My young friend, your soup is cold!”
On a morning after one of these encounters, seeing Barbara sally forth in riding clothes, he asked if he too might go round the stables, and started forth beside her, unwontedly silent, with an odd feeling about his heart, and his throat unaccountably dry.
The stables at Monkland Court were as large as many country houses. Accommodating thirty horses, they were at present occupied by twenty-one, including the pony of little Ann. For height, perfection of lighting, gloss, shine, and purity of atmosphere they were unequalled in the county. It seemed indeed impossible that any horse could ever so far forget himself in such a place as to remember that he was a horse. Every morning a little bin of carrots, apples, and lumps of sugar, was set close to the main entrance, ready for those who might desire to feed the dear inhabitants.
Reined up to a brass ring on either side of their stalls with their noses towards the doors, they were always on view from nine to ten, and would stand with their necks arched, ears pricked, and coats gleaming, wondering about things, soothed by the faint hissing of the still busy grooms, and ready to move their noses up and down the moment they saw someone enter.
In a large loose-box at the end of the north wing Barbara's favourite chestnut hunter, all but one saving sixteenth of whom had been entered in the stud book, having heard her footstep, was standing quite still with his neck turned. He had been crumping up an apple placed amongst his feed, and his senses struggled between the lingering flavour of that delicacy,—and the perception of a sound with which he connected carrots. When she unlatched his door, and said “Hal,” he at once went towards his manger, to show his independence, but when she said: “Oh! very well!” he turned round and came towards her. His eyes, which were full and of a soft brilliance, under thick chestnut lashes, explored her all over. Perceiving that her carrots were not in front, he elongated his neck, let his nose stray round her waist, and gave her gauntletted hand a nip with his lips. Not tasting carrot, he withdrew his nose, and snuffled. Then stepping carefully so as not to tread on her foot, he bunted her gently with his shoulder, till with a quick manoeuvre he got behind her and breathed low and long on her neck. Even this did not smell of carrots, and putting his muzzle over her shoulder against her cheek, he slobbered a very little. A carrot appeared about the level of her waist, and hanging his head over, he tried to reach it. Feeling it all firm and soft under his chin, he snuffled again, and gave her a gentle dig with his knee. But still unable to reach the carrot, he threw his head up, withdrew, and pretended not to see her. And suddenly he felt two long substances round his neck, and something soft against his nose. He suffered this in silence, laying his ears back. The softness began puffing on his muzzle. Pricking his ears again, he puffed back a little harder, with more curiosity, and the softness was withdrawn. He perceived suddenly that he had a carrot in his mouth.
Harbinger had witnessed this episode, oddly pale, leaning against the loose-box wall. He spoke, as it came to an end:
The tone of his voice must have been as strange as it sounded to himself, for Barbara spun round.
“How long am I going on like this?”
Neither changing colour nor dropping her eyes, she regarded him with a faintly inquisitive interest. It was not a cruel look, had not a trace of mischief, or sex malice, and yet it frightened him by its serene inscrutability. Impossible to tell what was going on behind it. He took her hand, bent over it, and said in a low voice:
“You know what I feel; don't be cruel to me!”
She did not pull away her hand; it was as if she had not thought of it.
“I am not a bit cruel.”
Looking up, he saw her smiling.
His face was close to hers, but Barbara did not shrink back. She just shook her head; and Harbinger flushed up.
“Why?” he asked; and as though the enormous injustice of that rejecting gesture had suddenly struck him, he dropped her hand.
“Why?” he said again, sharply.
But the silence was only broken by the cheeping of sparrows outside the round window, and the sound of the horse, Hal, munching the last morsel of his carrot. Harbinger was aware in his every nerve of the sweetish, slightly acrid, husky odour of the loosebox, mingling with the scent of Barbara's hair and clothes. And rather miserably, he said for the third time:
But folding her hands away behind her back she answered gently:
“My dear, how should I know why?”
She was calmly exposed to his embrace if he had only dared; but he did not dare, and went back to the loose-box wall. Biting his finger, he stared at her gloomily. She was stroking the muzzle of her horse; and a sort of dry rage began whisking and rustling in his heart. She had refused him—Harbinger! He had not known, had not suspected how much he wanted her. How could there be anybody else for him, while that young, calm, sweet-scented, smiling thing lived, to make his head go round, his senses ache, and to fill his heart with longing! He seemed to himself at that moment the most unhappy of all men.
“I shall not give you up,” he muttered.
Barbara's answer was a smile, faintly curious, compassionate, yet almost grateful, as if she had said:
“Thank you—who knows?”
And rather quickly, a yard or so apart, and talking of horses, they returned to the house.
It was about noon, when, accompanied by Courtier, she rode forth.
The Sou-Westerly spell—a matter of three days—had given way before radiant stillness; and merely to be alive was to feel emotion. At a little stream running beside the moor under the wild stone man, the riders stopped their horses, just to listen, and, inhale the day. The far sweet chorus of life was tuned to a most delicate rhythm; not one of those small mingled pipings of streams and the lazy air, of beasts, men; birds, and bees, jarred out too harshly through the garment of sound enwrapping the earth. It was noon—the still moment—but this hymn to the sun, after his too long absence, never for a moment ceased to be murmured. And the earth wore an under-robe of scent, delicious, very finely woven of the young fern sap, heather buds; larch-trees not yet odourless, gorse just going brown, drifted woodsmoke, and the breath of hawthorn. Above Earth's twin vestments of sound and scent, the blue enwrapping scarf of air, that wistful wide champaign, was spanned only by the wings of Freedom.
After that long drink of the day, the riders mounted almost in silence to the very top of the moor. There again they sat quite still on their horses, examining the prospect. Far away to South and East lay the sea, plainly visible. Two small groups of wild ponies were slowly grazing towards each other on the hillside below.
Courtier said in a low voice:
“'Thus will I sit and sing, with love in my arms; watching our two herds mingle together, and below us the far, divine, cerulean sea.'”
And, after another silence, looking steadily in Barbara's face, he added:
“Lady Barbara, I am afraid this is the last time we shall be alone together. While I have the chance, therefore, I must do homage.... You will always be the fixed star for my worship. But your rays are too bright; I shall worship from afar. From your seventh Heaven, therefore, look down on me with kindly eyes, and do not quite forget me:”
Under that speech, so strangely compounded of irony and fervour, Barbara sat very still, with glowing cheeks.
“Yes,” said Courtier, “only an immortal must embrace a goddess. Outside the purlieus of Authority I shall sit cross-legged, and prostrate myself three times a day.”
But Barbara answered nothing.
“In the early morning,” went on Courtier, “leaving the dark and dismal homes of Freedom I shall look towards the Temples of the Great; there with the eye of faith I shall see you.”
He stopped, for Barbara's lips were moving.
“Don't hurt me, please.”
Courtier leaned over, took her hand, and put it to his lips. “We will now ride on....”
That night at dinner Lord Dennis, seated opposite his great-niece, was struck by her appearance.
“A very beautiful child,” he thought, “a most lovely young creature!”
She was placed between Courtier and Harbinger. And the old man's still keen eyes carefully watched those two. Though attentive to their neighbours on the other side, they were both of them keeping the corner of an eye on Barbara and on each other. The thing was transparent to Lord Dennis, and a smile settled in that nest of gravity between his white peaked beard and moustaches. But he waited, the instinct of a fisherman bidding him to neglect no piece of water, till he saw the child silent and in repose, and watched carefully to see what would rise. Although she was so calmly, so healthily eating, her eyes stole round at Courtier. This quick look seemed to Lord Dennis perturbed, as if something were exciting her. Then Harbinger spoke, and she turned to answer him. Her face was calm now, faintly smiling, a little eager, provocative in its joy of life. It made Lord Dennis think of his own youth. What a splendid couple! If Babs married young Harbinger there would not be a finer pair in all England. His eyes travelled back to Courtier. Manly enough! They called him dangerous! There was a look of effervescence, carefully corked down—might perhaps be attractive to a girl! To his essentially practical and sober mind, a type like Courtier was puzzling. He liked the look of him, but distrusted his ironic expression, and that appearance of blood to the head. Fellow—no doubt—that would ride off on his ideas, humanitarian! To Lord Dennis there was something queer about humanitarians. They offended perhaps his dry and precise sense of form. They were always looking out for cruelty or injustice; seemed delighted when they found it—swelled up, as it were, when they scented it, and as there was a good deal about, were never quite of normal size. Men who lived for ideas were, in fact, to one for whom facts sufficed always a little worrying! A movement from Barbara brought him back to actuality. Was the possessor of that crown of hair and those divine young shoulders the little Babs who had ridden with him in the Row? Time was certainly the Devil! Her eyes were searching for something; and following the direction of that glance, Lord Dennis found himself observing Miltoun. What a difference between those two! Both no doubt in the great trouble of youth; which sometimes, as he knew too well, lasted on almost to old age. It was a curious look the child was giving her brother, as if asking him to help her. Lord Dennis had seen in his day many young creatures leave the shelter of their freedom and enter the house of the great lottery; many, who had drawn a prize and thereat lost forever the coldness of life; many too, the light of whose eyes had faded behind the shutters of that house, having drawn a blank. The thought of 'little' Babs on the threshold of that inexorable saloon, filled him with an eager sadness; and the sight of the two men watching for her, waiting for her, like hunters, was to him distasteful. In any case, let her not, for Heaven's sake, go ranging as far as that red fellow of middle age, who might have ideas, but had no pedigree; let her stick to youth and her own order, and marry the—young man, confound him, who looked like a Greek god, of the wrong period, having grown a moustache. He remembered her words the other evening about these two and the different lives they lived. Some romantic notion or other was working in her! And again he looked at Courtier. A Quixotic type—the sort that rode slap-bang at everything! All very well—but not for Babs! She was not like the glorious Garibaldi's glorious Anita! It was truly characteristic of Lord Dennis—and indeed of other people—that to him champions of Liberty when dead were far dearer than champions of Liberty when living. Yes, Babs would want more, or was it less, than just a life of sleeping under the stars for the man she loved, and the cause he fought for. She would want pleasure, and, not too much effort, and presently a little power; not the uncomfortable after-fame of a woman who went through fire, but the fame and power of beauty, and Society prestige. This, fancy of hers, if it were a fancy, could be nothing but the romanticism of a young girl. For the sake of a passing shadow, to give up substance? It wouldn't do! And again Lord Dennis fixed his shrewd glance on his great-niece. Those eyes, that smile! Yes! She would grow out of this. And take the Greek god, the dying Gaul—whichever that young man was!