In the lesser withdrawing room, used when there was so small a party, Mrs. Winlow had gone to the piano and was playing to herself, for Lady Casterley, Lady Valleys, and her two daughters had drawn together as though united to face this invading rumour.
It was curious testimony to Miltoun's character that, no more here than in the dining-hall, was there any doubt of the integrity of his relations with Mrs. Noel. But whereas, there the matter was confined to its electioneering aspect, here that aspect was already perceived to be only the fringe of its importance. Those feminine minds, going with intuitive swiftness to the core of anything which affected their own males, had already grasped the fact that the rumour would, as it were, chain a man of Miltoun's temper to this woman.
But they were walking on such a thin crust of facts, and there was so deep a quagmire of supposition beneath, that talk was almost painfully difficult. Never before perhaps had each of these four women realized so clearly how much Miltoun—that rather strange and unknown grandson, son, and brother—counted in the scheme of existence. Their suppressed agitation was manifested in very different ways. Lady Casterley, upright in her chair, showed it only by an added decision of speech, a continual restless movement of one hand, a thin line between her usually smooth brows. Lady Valleys wore a puzzled look, as if a little surprised that she felt serious. Agatha looked frankly anxious. She was in her quiet way a woman of much character, endowed with that natural piety, which accepts without questioning the established order in life and religion. The world to her being home and family, she had a real, if gently expressed, horror of all that she instinctively felt to be subversive of this ideal. People judged her a little quiet, dull, and narrow; they compared her to a hen for ever clucking round her chicks. The streak of heroism that lay in her nature was not perhaps of patent order. Her feeling about her brother's situation however was sincere and not to be changed or comforted. She saw him in danger of being damaged in the only sense in which she could conceive of a man—as a husband and a father. It was this that went to her heart, though her piety proclaimed to her also the peril of his soul; for she shared the High Church view of the indissolubility of marriage.
As to Barbara, she stood by the hearth, leaning her white shoulders against the carved marble, her hands behind her, looking down. Now and then her lips curled, her level brows twitched, a faint sigh came from her; then a little smile would break out, and be instantly suppressed. She alone was silent—Youth criticizing Life; her judgment voiced itself only in the untroubled rise and fall of her young bosom, the impatience of her brows, the downward look of her blue eyes, full of a lazy, inextinguishable light:
Lady Valleys sighed.
“If only he weren't such a queer boy! He's quite capable of marrying her from sheer perversity.”
“What!” said Lady Casterley.
“You haven't seen her, my dear. A most unfortunately attractive creature—quite a charming face.”
Agatha said quietly:
“Mother, if she was divorced, I don't think Eustace would.”
“There's that, certainly,” murmured Lady Valleys; “hope for the best!”
“Don't you even know which way it was?” said Lady Casterley.
“Well, the vicar says she did the divorcing. But he's very charitable; it may be as Agatha hopes.”
“I detest vagueness. Why doesn't someone ask the woman?”
“You shall come with me, Granny dear, and ask her yourself; you will do it so nicely.”
Lady Casterley looked up.
“We shall see,” she said. Something struggled with the autocratic criticism in her eyes. No more than the rest of the world could she help indulging Barbara. As one who believed in the divinity of her order, she liked this splendid child. She even admired—though admiration was not what she excelled in—that warm joy in life, as of some great nymph, parting the waves with bare limbs, tossing from her the foam of breakers. She felt that in this granddaughter, rather than in the good Agatha, the patrician spirit was housed. There were points to Agatha, earnestness and high principle; but something morally narrow and over-Anglican slightly offended the practical, this-worldly temper of Lady Casterley. It was a weakness, and she disliked weakness. Barbara would never be squeamish over moral questions or matters such as were not really, essential to aristocracy. She might, indeed, err too much the other way from sheer high spirits. As the impudent child had said: “If people had no pasts, they would have no futures.” And Lady Casterley could not bear people without futures. She was ambitious; not with the low ambition of one who had risen from nothing, but with the high passion of one on the top, who meant to stay there.
“And where have you been meeting this—er—anonymous creature?” she asked.
Barbara came from the hearth, and bending down beside Lady Casterley's chair, seemed to envelop her completely.
“I'm all right, Granny; she couldn't corrupt me.”
Lady Casterley's face peered out doubtfully from that warmth, wearing a look of disapproving pleasure.
“I know your wiles!” she said. “Come, now!”
“I see her about. She's nice to look at. We talk.”
Again with that hurried quietness Agatha said:
“My dear Babs, I do think you ought to wait.”
“My dear Angel, why? What is it to me if she's had four husbands?”
Agatha bit her lips, and Lady Valleys murmured with a laugh:
“You really are a terror, Babs.”
But the sound of Mrs. Winlow's music had ceased—the men had come in. And the faces of the four women hardened, as if they had slipped on masks; for though this was almost or quite a family party, the Winlows being second cousins, still the subject was one which each of these four in their very different ways felt to be beyond general discussion. Talk, now, began glancing from the war scare—Winlow had it very specially that this would be over in a week—to Brabrook's speech, in progress at that very moment, of which Harbinger provided an imitation. It sped to Winlow's flight—to Andrew Grant's articles in the 'Parthenon'—to the caricature of Harbinger in the 'Cackler', inscribed 'The New Tory. Lord H-rb-ng-r brings Social Reform beneath the notice of his friends,' which depicted him introducing a naked baby to a number of coroneted old ladies. Thence to a dancer. Thence to the Bill for Universal Assurance. Then back to the war scare; to the last book of a great French writer; and once more to Winlow's flight. It was all straightforward and outspoken, each seeming to say exactly what came into the head. For all that, there was a curious avoidance of the spiritual significances of these things; or was it perhaps that such significances were not seen?
Lord Dennis, at the far end of the room, studying a portfolio of engravings, felt a touch on his cheek; and conscious of a certain fragrance, said without turning his head:
“Nice things, these, Babs!”
Receiving no answer he looked up.
There indeed stood Barbara.
“I do hate sneering behind people's backs!”
There had always been good comradeship between these two, since the days when Barbara, a golden-haired child, astride of a grey pony, had been his morning companion in the Row all through the season. His riding days were past; he had now no outdoor pursuit save fishing, which he followed with the ironic persistence of a self-contained, high-spirited nature, which refuses to admit that the mysterious finger of old age is laid across it. But though she was no longer his companion, he still had a habit of expecting her confidences; and he looked after her, moving away from him to a window, with surprised concern.
It was one of those nights, dark yet gleaming, when there seems a flying malice in the heavens; when the stars, from under and above the black clouds, are like eyes frowning and flashing down at men with purposed malevolence. The great sighing trees even had caught this spirit, save one, a dark, spire-like cypress, planted three hundred and fifty years before, whose tall form incarnated the very spirit of tradition, and neither swayed nor soughed like the others. From her, too close-fibred, too resisting, to admit the breath of Nature, only a dry rustle came. Still almost exotic, in spite of her centuries of sojourn, and now brought to life by the eyes of night, she seemed almost terrifying, in her narrow, spear-like austerity, as though something had dried and died within her soul. Barbara came back from the window.
“We can't do anything in our lives, it seems to me,” she said, “but play at taking risks!”
Lord Dennis replied dryly:
“I don't think I understand, my dear.”
“Look at Mr. Courtier!” muttered Barbara. “His life's so much more risky altogether than any of our men folk lead. And yet they sneer at him.”
“Let's see, what has he done?”
“Oh! I dare say not very much; but it's all neck or nothing. But what does anything matter to Harbinger, for instance? If his Social Reform comes to nothing, he'll still be Harbinger, with fifty thousand a year.”
Lord Dennis looked up a little queerly.
“What! Is it possible you don't take the young man seriously, Babs?”
Barbara shrugged; a strap slipped a little off one white shoulder.
“It's all play really; and he knows it—you can tell that from his voice. He can't help its not mattering, of course; and he knows that too.”
“I have heard that he's after you, Babs; is that true?”
“He hasn't caught me yet.”
Barbara's answer was another shrug; and, for all their statuesque beauty, the movement of her shoulders was like the shrug of a little girl in her pinafore.
“And this Mr. Courtier,” said Lord Dennis dryly: “Are you after him?”
“I'm after everything; didn't you know that, dear?”
“In reason, my child.”
“In reason, of course—like poor Eusty!” She stopped. Harbinger himself was standing there close by, with an air as nearly approaching reverence as was ever to be seen on him. In truth, the way in which he was looking at her was almost timorous.
“Will you sing that song I like so much, Lady Babs?”
They moved away together; and Lord Dennis, gazing after that magnificent young couple, stroked his beard gravely.