At three o'clock in the afternoon of the nineteenth of July little Ann Shropton commenced the ascent of the main staircase of Valleys House, London. She climbed slowly, in the very middle, an extremely small white figure on those wide and shining stairs, counting them aloud. Their number was never alike two days running, which made them attractive to one for whom novelty was the salt of life.
Coming to that spot where they branched, she paused to consider which of the two flights she had used last, and unable to remember, sat down. She was the bearer of a message. It had been new when she started, but was already comparatively old, and likely to become older, in view of a design now conceived by her of travelling the whole length of the picture gallery. And while she sat maturing this plan, sunlight flooding through a large window drove a white refulgence down into the heart of the wide polished space of wood and marble, whence she had come. The nature of little Ann habitually rejected fairies and all fantastic things, finding them quite too much in the air, and devoid of sufficient reality and 'go'; and this refulgence, almost unearthly in its travelling glory, passed over her small head and played strangely with the pillars in the hall, without exciting in her any fancies or any sentiment. The intention of discovering what was at the end of the picture gallery absorbed the whole of her essentially practical and active mind. Deciding on the left-hand flight of stairs, she entered that immensely long, narrow, and—with blinds drawn—rather dark saloon. She walked carefully, because the floor was very slippery here, and with a kind of seriousness due partly to the darkness and partly to the pictures. They were indeed, in this light, rather formidable, those old Caradocs black, armoured creatures, some of them, who seemed to eye with a sort of burning, grim, defensive greed the small white figure of their descendant passing along between them. But little Ann, who knew they were only pictures, maintained her course steadily, and every now and then, as she passed one who seemed to her rather uglier than the others, wrinkled her sudden little nose. At the end, as she had thought; appeared a door. She opened it, and passed on to a landing. There was a stone staircase in the corner, and there were two doors. It would be nice to go up the staircase, but it would also be nice to open the doors. Going towards the first door, with a little thrill, she turned the handle. It was one of those rooms, necessary in houses, for which she had no great liking; and closing this door rather loudly she opened the other one, finding herself in a chamber not resembling the rooms downstairs, which were all high and nicely gilded, but more like where she had lessons, low, and filled with books and leather chairs. From the end of the room which she could not see, she heard a sound as of someone kissing something, and instinct had almost made her turn to go away when the word: “Hallo!” suddenly opened her lips. And almost directly she saw that Granny and Grandpapa were standing by the fireplace. Not knowing quite whether they were glad to see her, she went forward and began at once:
“Is this where you sit, Grandpapa?”
“It's nice, isn't it, Granny? Where does the stone staircase go to?”
“To the roof of the tower, Ann.”
“Oh! I have to give a message, so I must go now.”
“Sorry to lose you.”
Hearing the door shut behind her, Lord and Lady Valleys looked at each other with a dubious smile.
The little interview which she had interrupted, had arisen in this way.
Accustomed to retire to this quiet and homely room, which was not his official study where he was always liable to the attacks of secretaries, Lord Valleys had come up here after lunch to smoke and chew the cud of a worry.
The matter was one in connection with his Pendridny estate, in Cornwall. It had long agitated both his agent and himself, and had now come to him for final decision. The question affected two villages to the north of the property, whose inhabitants were solely dependent on the working of a large quarry, which had for some time been losing money.
A kindly man, he was extremely averse to any measure which would plunge his tenants into distress, and especially in cases where there had been no question of opposition between himself and them. But, reduced to its essentials, the matter stood thus: Apart from that particular quarry the Pendridny estate was not only a going, but even a profitable concern, supporting itself and supplying some of the sinews of war towards Valleys House and the racing establishment at Newmarket and other general expenses; with this quarry still running, allowing for the upkeep of Pendridny, and the provision of pensions to superannuated servants, it was rather the other way.
Sitting there, that afternoon, smoking his favourite pipe, he had at last come to the conclusion that there was nothing for it but to close down. He had not made this resolution lightly; though, to do him justice, the knowledge that the decision would be bound to cause an outcry in the local, and perhaps the National Press, had secretly rather spurred him on to the resolve than deterred him from it. He felt as if he were being dictated to in advance, and he did not like dictation. To have to deprive these poor people of their immediate living was, he knew, a good deal more irksome to him than to those who would certainly make a fuss about it, his conscience was clear, and he could discount that future outcry as mere Party spite. He had very honestly tried to examine the thing all round; and had reasoned thus: If I keep this quarry open, I am really admitting the principle of pauperization, since I naturally look to each of my estates to support its own house, grounds, shooting, and to contribute towards the support of this house, and my family, and racing stable, and all the people employed about them both.
To allow any business to be run on my estates which does not contribute to the general upkeep, is to protect and really pauperize a portion of my tenants at the expense of the rest; it must therefore be false economics and a secret sort of socialism. Further, if logically followed out, it might end in my ruin, and to allow that, though I might not personally object, would be to imply that I do not believe that I am by virtue of my traditions and training, the best machinery through which the State can work to secure the welfare of the people....
When he had reached that point in his consideration of the question, his mind, or rather perhaps, his essential self, had not unnaturally risen up and said: Which is absurd!
Impersonality was in fashion, and as a rule he believed in thinking impersonally. There was a point, however, where the possibility of doing so ceased, without treachery to oneself, one's order, and the country. And to the argument which he was quite shrewd enough to put to himself, sooner than have it put by anyone else, that it was disproportionate for a single man by a stroke of the pen to be able to dispose of the livelihood of hundreds whose senses and feelings were similar to his own—he had answered: “If I didn't, some plutocrat or company would—or, worse still, the State!” Cooperative enterprise being, in his opinion, foreign to the spirit of the country, there was, so far as he could see, no other alternative. Facts were facts and not to be got over!
Notwithstanding all this, the necessity for the decision made him sorry, for if he had no great sense of proportion, he was at least humane.
He was still smoking his pipe and staring at a sheet of paper covered with small figures when his wife entered. Though she had come to ask his advice on a very different subject, she saw at once that he was vexed, and said:
“What's the matter, Geoff?”
Lord Valleys rose, went to the hearth, deliberately tapped out his pipe, then held out to her the sheet of paper.
“That quarry! Nothing for it—must go!”
Lady Valleys' face changed.
“Oh, no! It will mean such dreadful distress.”
Lord Valleys stared at his nails. “It's putting a drag on the whole estate,” he said.
“I know, but how could we face the people—I should never be able to go down there. And most of them have such enormous families.”
Since Lord Valleys continued to bend on his nails that slow, thought-forming stare, she went on earnestly:
“Rather than that I'd make sacrifices. I'd sooner Pendridny were let than throw all those people out of work. I suppose it would let.”
“Let? Best woodcock shooting in the world.”
Lady Valleys, pursuing her thoughts, went on:
“In time we might get the people drafted into other things. Have you consulted Miltoun?”
“No,” said Lord Valleys shortly, “and don't mean to—he's too unpractical.”
“He always seems to know what he wants very well.”
“I tell you,” repeated Lord Valleys, “Miltoun's no good in a matter of this sort—he and his ideas throw back to the Middle Ages.”
Lady Valleys went closer, and took him by the lapels of his collar.
“Geoff-really, to please me; some other way!”
Lord Valleys frowned, staring at her for some time; and at last answered:
“To please you—I'll leave it over another year.”
“You think that's better than letting?”
“I don't like the thought of some outsider there. Time enough to come to that if we must. Take it as my Christmas present.”
Lady Valleys, rather flushed, bent forward and kissed his ear.
It was at this moment that little Ann had entered.
When she was gone, and they had exchanged that dubious look, Lady Valleys said:
“I came about Babs. I don't know what to make of her since we came up. She's not putting her heart into things.”
Lord Valleys answered almost sulkily:
“It's the heat probably—or Claud Harbinger.” In spite of his easy-going parentalism, he disliked the thought of losing the child whom he so affectionately admired.
“Ah!” said Lady Valleys slowly, “I'm not so sure.”
“How do you mean?”
“There's something queer about her. I'm by no means certain she hasn't got some sort of feeling for that Mr. Courtier.”
“What!” said Lord Valleys, growing most unphilosophically red.
“Confound it, Gertrude, Miltoun's business was quite enough for one year.”
“For twenty,” murmured Lady Valleys. “I'm watching her. He's going to Persia, they say.”
“And leaving his bones there, I hope,” muttered Lord Valleys. “Really, it's too much. I should think you're all wrong, though.”
Lady Valleys raised her eyebrows. Men were very queer about such things! Very queer and worse than helpless!
“Well,” she said, “I must go to my meeting. I'll take her, and see if I can get at something,” and she went away.
It was the inaugural meeting of the Society for the Promotion of the Birth Rate, over which she had promised to preside. The scheme was one in which she had been prominent from the start, appealing as it did to her large and full-blooded nature. Many movements, to which she found it impossible to refuse her name, had in themselves but small attraction; and it was a real comfort to feel something approaching enthusiasm for one branch of her public work. Not that there was any academic consistency about her in the matter, for in private life amongst her friends she was not narrowly dogmatic on the duty of wives to multiply exceedingly. She thought imperially on the subject, without bigotry. Large, healthy families, in all cases save individual ones! The prime idea at the back of her mind was—National Expansion! Her motto, and she intended if possible to make it the motto of the League, was: 'De l'audace, et encore de l'audace!' It was a question of the full realization of the nation. She had a true, and in a sense touching belief in 'the flag,' apart from what it might cover. It was her idealism. “You may talk,” she would say, “as much as you like about directing national life in accordance with social justice! What does the nation care about social justice? The thing is much bigger than that. It's a matter of sentiment. We must expand!”
On the way to the meeting, occupied with her speech, she made no attempt to draw Barbara into conversation. That must wait. The child, though languid, and pale, was looking so beautiful that it was a pleasure to have her support in such a movement.
In a little dark room behind the hall the Committee were already assembled, and they went at once on to the platform.