Barbara gave the news of her brother's illness to no one else, common sense telling her to run no risk of disturbance. Of her own initiative, she brought a doctor, and went down twice a day to hear reports of Miltoun's progress.
As a fact, her father and mother had gone to Lord Dennis, for Goodwood, and the chief difficulty had been to excuse her own neglect of that favourite Meeting. She had fallen back on the half-truth that Eustace wanted her in Town; and, since Lord and Lady Valleys had neither of them shaken off a certain uneasiness about their son, the pretext sufficed:
It was not until the sixth day, when the crisis was well past and Miltoun quite free from fever, that she again went down to Nettlefold.
On arriving she at once sought out her mother, whom she found in her bedroom, resting. It had been very hot at Goodwood.
Barbara was not afraid of her—she was not, indeed, afraid of anyone, except Miltoun, and in some strange way, a little perhaps of Courtier; yet, when the maid had gone, she did not at once begin her tale. Lady Valleys, who at Goodwood had just heard details of a Society scandal, began a carefully expurgated account of it suitable to her daughter's ears—for some account she felt she must give to somebody.
“Mother,” said Barbara suddenly, “Eustace has been ill. He's out of danger now, and going on all right.” Then, looking hard at the bewildered lady, she added: “Mrs. Noel is nursing him.”
The past tense in which illness had been mentioned, checking at the first moment any rush of panic in Lady Valleys, left her confused by the situation conjured up in Barbara's last words. Instead of feeding that part of man which loves a scandal, she was being fed, always an unenviable sensation. A woman did not nurse a man under such circumstances without being everything to him, in the world's eyes. Her daughter went on:
“I took her to him. It seemed the only thing to do—since it's all through fretting for her. Nobody knows, of course, except the doctor, and—Stacey.”
“Heavens!” muttered Lady Valleys.
“It has saved him.”
The mother instinct in Lady Valleys took sudden fright. “Are you telling me the truth, Babs? Is he really out of danger? How wrong of you not to let me know before?”
But Barbara did not flinch; and her mother relapsed into rumination.
“Stacey is a cat!” she said suddenly. The expurgated details of the scandal she had been retailing to her daughter had included the usual maid. She could not find it in her to enjoy the irony of this coincidence. Then, seeing Barbara smile, she said tartly:
“I fail to see the joke.”
“Only that I thought you'd enjoy my throwing Stacey in, dear.”
“What! You mean she doesn't know?”
“Not a word.”
Lady Valleys smiled.
“What a little wretch you are, Babs!” Maliciously she added: “Claud and his mother are coming over from Whitewater, with Bertie and Lily Malvezin, you'd better go and dress;” and her eyes searched her daughter's so shrewdly, that a flush rose to the girl's cheeks.
When she had gone, Lady Valleys rang for her maid again, and relapsed into meditation. Her first thought was to consult her husband; her second that secrecy was strength. Since no one knew but Barbara, no one had better know.
Her astuteness and experience comprehended the far-reaching probabilities of this affair. It would not do to take a single false step. If she had no one's action to control but her own and Barbara's, so much the less chance of a slip. Her mind was a strange medley of thoughts and feelings, almost comic, well-nigh tragic; of worldly prudence, and motherly instinct; of warm-blooded sympathy with all love-affairs, and cool-blooded concern for her son's career. It was not yet too late perhaps to prevent real mischief; especially since it was agreed by everyone that the woman was no adventuress. Whatever was done, they must not forget that she had nursed him—saved him, Barbara had said! She must be treated with all kindness and consideration.
Hastening her toilette, she in turn went to her daughter's room.
Barbara was already dressed, leaning out of her window towards the sea.
Lady Valleys began almost timidly:
“My dear, is Eustace out of bed yet?”
“He was to get up to-day for an hour or two.”
“I see. Now, would there be any danger if you and I went up and took charge over from Mrs. Noel?”
“Yes, yes! But, exercise your judgment. Would it harm him?”
Barbara was silent. “No,” she said at last, “I don't suppose it would, now; but it's for the doctor to say.”
Lady Valleys exhibited a manifest relief.
“We'll see him first, of course. Eustace will have to have an ordinary nurse, I suppose, for a bit.”
Looking stealthily at Barbara, she added:
“I mean to be very nice to her; but one mustn't be romantic, you know, Babs.”
From the little smile on Barbara's lips she derived no sense of certainty; indeed she was visited by all her late disquietude about her young daughter, by all the feeling that she, as well as Miltoun, was hovering on the verge of some folly.
“Well, my dear,” she said, “I am going down.”
But Barbara lingered a little longer in that bedroom where ten nights ago she had lain tossing, till in despair she went and cooled herself in the dark sea.
Her last little interview with Courtier stood between her and a fresh meeting with Harbinger, whom at the Valleys House gathering she had not suffered to be alone with her. She came down late.
That same evening, out on the beach road, under a sky swarming with stars, the people were strolling—folk from the towns, down for their fortnight's holiday. In twos and threes, in parties of six or eight, they passed the wall at the end of Lord Dennis's little domain; and the sound of their sparse talk and laughter, together with the sighing of the young waves, was blown over the wall to the ears of Harbinger, Bertie, Barbara, and Lily Malvezin, when they strolled out after dinner to sniff the sea. The holiday-makers stared dully at the four figures in evening dress looking out above their heads; they had other things than these to think of, becoming more and more silent as the night grew dark. The four young people too were rather silent. There was something in this warm night, with its sighing, and its darkness, and its stars, that was not favourable to talk, so that presently they split into couples, drifting a little apart.
Standing there, gripping the wall, it seemed to Harbinger that there were no words left in the world. Not even his worst enemy could have called this young man romantic; yet that figure beside him, the gleam of her neck and her pale cheek in the dark, gave him perhaps the most poignant glimpse of mystery that he had ever had. His mind, essentially that of a man of affairs, by nature and by habit at home amongst the material aspects of things, was but gropingly conscious that here, in this dark night, and the dark sea, and the pale figure of this girl whose heart was dark to him and secret, there was perhaps something—yes, something—which surpassed the confines of his philosophy, something beckoning him on out of his snug compound into the desert of divinity. If so, it was soon gone in the aching of his senses at the scent of her hair, and the longing to escape from this weird silence.
“Babs,” he said; “have you forgiven me?”
Her answer came, without turn of head, natural, indifferent:
“Yes—I told you so.”
“Is that all you have to say to a fellow?”
“What shall we talk about—the running of Casetta?”
Deep down within him Harbinger uttered a noiseless oath. Something sinister was making her behave like this to him! It was that fellow—that fellow! And suddenly he said:
“Tell me this——” then speech seemed to stick in his throat. No! If there were anything in that, he preferred not to hear it. There was a limit!
Down below, a pair of lovers passed, very silent, their arms round each other's waists.
Barbara turned and walked away towards the house.