It was not till the morning of polling day itself that Courtier left Monkland Court. He had already suffered for some time from bad conscience. For his knee was practically cured, and he knew well that it was Barbara, and Barbara alone, who kept him staying there. The atmosphere of that big house with its army of servants, the impossibility of doing anything for himself, and the feeling of hopeless insulation from the vivid and necessitous sides of life, galled him greatly. He felt a very genuine pity for these people who seemed to lead an existence as it were smothered under their own social importance. It was not their fault. He recognized that they did their best. They were good specimens of their kind; neither soft nor luxurious, as things went in a degenerate and extravagant age; they evidently tried to be simple—and this seemed to him to heighten the pathos of their situation. Fate had been too much for them. What human spirit could emerge untrammelled and unshrunken from that great encompassing host of material advantage? To a Bedouin like Courtier, it was as though a subtle, but very terrible tragedy was all the time being played before his eyes; and in, the very centre of this tragedy was the girl who so greatly attracted him. Every night when he retired to that lofty room, which smelt so good, and where, without ostentation, everything was so perfectly ordered for his comfort, he thought:
“My God, to-morrow I'll be off!”
But every morning when he met her at breakfast his thought was precisely the same, and there were moments when he caught himself wondering: “Am I falling under the spell of this existence—am I getting soft?” He recognized as never before that the peculiar artificial 'hardness' of the patrician was a brine or pickle, in which, with the instinct of self-preservation they deliberately soaked themselves, to prevent the decay of their overprotected fibre. He perceived it even in Barbara—a sort of sentiment-proof overall, a species of mistrust of the emotional or lyrical, a kind of contempt of sympathy and feeling. And every day he was more and more tempted to lay rude hands on this garment; to see whether he could not make her catch fire, and flare up with some emotion or idea. In spite of her tantalizing, youthful self-possession, he saw that she felt this longing in him, and now and then he caught a glimpse of a streak of recklessness in her which lured him on:
And yet, when at last he was saying good-bye on the night before polling day, he could not flatter himself that he had really struck any spark from her. Certainly she gave him no chance, at that final interview, but stood amongst the other women, calm and smiling, as if determined that he should not again mock her with his ironical devotion.
He got up very early the next morning, intending to pass away unseen. In the car put at his disposal; he found a small figure in a holland-frock, leaning back against the cushions so that some sandalled toes pointed up at the chauffeur's back. They belonged to little Ann, who in the course of business had discovered the vehicle before the door. Her sudden little voice under her sudden little nose, friendly but not too friendly, was comforting to Courtier.
“Are you going? I can come as, far as the gate.” “That is lucky.”
“Yes. Is that all your luggage?”
“I'm afraid it is.”
“Oh! It's quite a lot, really, isn't it?”
“As much as I deserve.”
“Of course you don't have to take guinea-pigs about with you?”
“Not as a rule.”
“I always do. There's great-Granny!”
There certainly was Lady Casterley, standing a little back from the drive, and directing a tall gardener how to deal with an old oak-tree. Courtier alighted, and went towards her to say good-bye. She greeted him with a certain grim cordiality.
“So you are going! I am glad of that, though you quite understand that I like you personally.”
Her eyes gleamed maliciously.
“Men who laugh like you are dangerous, as I've told you before!”
Then, with great gravity; she added
“My granddaughter will marry Lord Harbinger. I mention that, Mr. Courtier, for your peace of mind. You are a man of honour; it will go no further.”
Courtier, bowing over her hand, answered:
“He will be lucky.”
The little old lady regarded him unflinchingly.
“He will, sir. Good-bye!”
Courtier smilingly raised his hat. His cheeks were burning. Regaining the car, he looked round. Lady Casterley was busy once more exhorting the tall gardener. The voice of little Ann broke in on his thoughts:
“I hope you'll come again. Because I expect I shall be here at Christmas; and my brothers will be here then, that is, Jock and Tiddy, not Christopher because he's young. I must go now. Good-bye! Hallo, Susie!”
Courtier saw her slide away, and join the little pale adoring figure of the lodge-keeper's daughter.
The car passed out into the lane.
If Lady Casterley had planned this disclosure, which indeed she had not, for the impulse had only come over her at the sound of Courtier's laugh, she could not have, devised one more effectual, for there was deep down in him all a wanderer's very real distrust, amounting almost to contempt, of people so settled and done for; as aristocrats or bourgeois, and all a man of action's horror of what he called puking and muling. The pursuit of Barbara with any other object but that of marriage had naturally not occurred to one who had little sense of conventional morality, but much self-respect; and a secret endeavour to cut out Harbinger, ending in a marriage whereat he would figure as a sort of pirate, was quite as little to the taste of a man not unaccustomed to think himself as good as other people.
He caused the car to deviate up the lane that led to Audrey Noel's, hating to go away without a hail of cheer to that ship in distress.
She came out to him on the verandah. From the clasp of her hand, thin and faintly browned—the hand of a woman never quite idle—he felt that she relied on him to understand and sympathize; and nothing so awakened the best in Courtier as such mute appeals to his protection. He said gently:
“Don't let them think you're down;” and, squeezing her hand hard: “Why should you be wasted like this? It's a sin and shame!”
But he stopped in what he felt to be an unlucky speech at sight of her face, which without movement expressed so much more than his words. He was protesting as a civilized man; her face was the protest of Nature, the soundless declaration of beauty wasted against its will, beauty that was life's invitation to the embrace which gave life birth.
“I'm clearing out, myself,” he said: “You and I, you know, are not good for these people. No birds of freedom allowed!”
Pressing his hand, she turned away into the house, leaving Courtier gazing at the patch of air where her white figure had stood. He had always had a special protective feeling for Audrey Noel, a feeling which with but little encouragement might have become something warmer. But since she had been placed in her anomalous position, he would not for the world have brushed the dew off her belief that she could trust him. And, now that he had fixed his own gaze elsewhere, and she was in this bitter trouble, he felt on her account the rancour that a brother feels when Justice and Pity have conspired to flout his sister. The voice of Frith the chauffeur roused him from gloomy reverie.
“Lady Barbara, sir!”
Following the man's eyes, Courtier saw against the sky-line on the for above Ashman's Folly, an equestrian statue. He stopped the car at once, and got out.
He reached her at the ruin, screened from the road, by that divine chance which attends on men who take care that it shall. He could not tell whether she knew of his approach, and he would have given all he had, which was not much, to have seen through the stiff grey of her coat, and the soft cream of her body, into that mysterious cave, her heart. To have been for a moment, like Ashman, done for good and all with material things, and living the white life where are no barriers between man and woman. The smile on her lips so baffled him, puffed there by her spirit, as a first flower is puffed through the sur face of earth to mock at the spring winds. How tell what it signified! Yet he rather prided himself on his knowledge of women, of whom he had seen something. But all he found to say was:
“I'm glad of this chance.”
Then suddenly looking up, he found her strangely pale and quivering.
“I shall see you in London!” she said; and, touching her horse with her whip, without looking back, she rode away over the hill.
Courtier returned to the moor road, and getting into the car, muttered:
“Faster, please, Frith!”....