The days when Miltoun was first allowed out of bed were a time of mingled joy and sorrow to her who had nursed him. To see him sitting up, amazed at his own weakness, was happiness, yet to think that he would be no more wholly dependent, no more that sacred thing, a helpless creature, brought her the sadness of a mother whose child no longer needs her. With every hour he would now get farther from her, back into the fastnesses of his own spirit. With every hour she would be less his nurse and comforter, more the woman he loved. And though that thought shone out in the obscure future like a glamorous flower, it brought too much wistful uncertainty to the present. She was very tired, too, now that all excitement was over—so tired that she hardly knew what she did or where she moved. But a smile had become so faithful to her eyes that it clung there above the shadows of fatigue, and kept taking her lips prisoner.
Between the two bronze busts she had placed a bowl of lilies of the valley; and every free niche in that room of books had a little vase of roses to welcome Miltoun's return.
He was lying back in his big leather chair, wrapped in a Turkish gown of Lord Valleys'—on which Barbara had laid hands, having failed to find anything resembling a dressing-gown amongst her brother's austere clothing. The perfume of lilies had overcome the scent of books, and a bee, dusky, adventurer, filled the room with his pleasant humming.
They did not speak, but smiled faintly, looking at one another. In this still moment, before passion had returned to claim its own, their spirits passed through the sleepy air, and became entwined, so that neither could withdraw that soft, slow, encountering glance. In mutual contentment, each to each, close as music to the strings of a violin, their spirits clung—so lost, the one in the other, that neither for that brief time seemed to know which was self.
In fulfilment of her resolution, Lady Valleys, who had returned to Town by a morning train, started with Barbara for the Temple about three in the after noon, and stopped at the doctor's on the way. The whole thing would be much simpler if Eustace were fit to be moved at once to Valleys House; and with much relief she found that the doctor saw no danger in this course. The recovery had been remarkable—touch and go for bad brain fever just avoided! Lord Miltoun's constitution was extremely sound. Yes, he would certainly favour a removal. His rooms were too confined in this weather. Well nursed—(decidedly) Oh; yes! Quite! And the doctor's eyes became perhaps a trifle more intense. Not a professional, he understood. It might be as well to have another nurse, if they were making the change. They would have this lady knocking up. Just so! Yes, he would see to that. An ambulance carriage he thought advisable. That could all be arranged for this afternoon—at once—he himself would look to it. They might take Lord Miltoun off just as he was; the men would know what to do. And when they had him at Valleys House, the moment he showed interest in his food, down to the sea-down to the sea! At this time of year nothing like it! Then with regard to nourishment, he would be inclined already to shove in a leetle stimulant, a thimbleful perhaps four times a day with food—not without—mixed with an egg, with arrowroot, with custard. A week would see him on his legs, a fortnight at the sea make him as good a man as ever. Overwork—burning the candle—a leetlemore would have seen a very different state of things! Quite so! quite so! Would come round himself before dinner, and make sure. His patient might feel it just at first! He bowed Lady Valleys out; and when she had gone, sat down at his telephone with a smile flickering on his clean-cut lips.
Greatly fortified by this interview, Lady Valleys rejoined her daughter in the ear; but while it slid on amongst the multitudinous traffic, signs of unwonted nervousness began to start out through the placidity of her face.
“I wish, my dear,” she said suddenly, “that someone else had to do this. Suppose Eustace refuses!”
“He won't,” Barbara answered; “she looks so tired, poor dear. Besides——”
Lady Valleys gazed with curiosity at that young face, which had flushed pink. Yes, this daughter of hers was a woman already, with all a woman's intuitions. She said gravely:
“It was a rash stroke of yours, Babs; let's hope it won't lead to disaster.”
Barbara bit her lips.
“If you'd seen him as I saw him! And, what disaster? Mayn't they love each other, if they want?”
Lady Valleys swallowed a grimace. It was so exactly her own point of view. And yet——!
“That's only the beginning,” she said; “you forget the sort of boy Eustace is.”
“Why can't the poor thing be let out of her cage?” cried Barbara. “What good does it do to anyone? Mother, if ever, when I am married, I want to get free, I will!”
The tone of her voice was so quivering, and unlike the happy voice of Barbara, that Lady Valleys involuntarily caught hold of her hand and squeezed it hard.
“My dear sweet,” she said, “don't let's talk of such gloomy things.”
“I mean it. Nothing shall stop me.”
But Lady Valleys' face had suddenly become rather grim.
“So we think, child; it's not so simple.”
“It can't be worse, anyway,” muttered Barbara, “than being buried alive as that wretched woman is.”
For answer Lady Valleys only murmured:
“The doctor promised that ambulance carriage at four o'clock. What am I going to say?”
“She'll understand when you look at her. She's that sort.”
The door was opened to them by Mrs. Noel herself.
It was the first time Lady Valleys had seen her in a house, and there was real curiosity mixed with the assurance which masked her nervousness. A pretty creature, even lovely! But the quite genuine sympathy in her words: “I am truly grateful. You must be quite worn out,” did not prevent her adding hastily: “The doctor says he must be got home out of these hot rooms. We'll wait here while you tell him.”
And then she saw that it was true; this woman was the sort who understood.
Left in the dark passage, she peered round at Barbara.
The girl was standing against the wall with her head thrown back. Lady Valleys could not see her face; but she felt all of a sudden exceedingly uncomfortable, and whispered:
“Two murders and a theft, Babs; wasn't it 'Our Mutual Friend'?”
“Her face! When you're going to throw away a flower, it looks at you!”
“My dear!” murmured Lady Valleys, thoroughly distressed, “what things you're saying to-day!”
This lurking in a dark passage, this whispering girl—it was all queer, unlike an experience in proper life.
And then through the reopened door she saw Miltoun, stretched out in a chair, very pale, but still with that look about his eyes and lips, which of all things in the world had a chastening effect on Lady Valleys, making her feel somehow incurably mundane.
She said rather timidly:
“I'm so glad you're better, dear. What a time you must have had! It's too bad that I knew nothing till yesterday!”
But Miltoun's answer was, as usual, thoroughly disconcerting.
“Thanks, yes! I have had a perfect time—and have now to pay for it, I suppose.”
Held back by his smile from bending to kiss him, poor Lady Valleys fidgeted from head to foot. A sudden impulse of sheer womanliness caused a tear to fall on his hand.
When Miltoun perceived that moisture, he said:
“It's all right, mother. I'm quite willing to come.”
Still wounded by his voice, Lady Valleys hardened instantly. And while preparing for departure she watched the two furtively. They hardly looked at one another, and when they did, their eyes baffled her. The expression was outside her experience, belonging as it were to a different world, with its faintly smiling, almost shining, gravity.
Vastly relieved when Miltoun, covered with a fur, had been taken down to the carriage, she lingered to speak to Mrs. Noel.
“We owe you a great debt. It might have been so much worse. You mustn't be disconsolate. Go to bed and have a good long rest.” And from the door, she murmured again: “He will come and thank you, when he's well.”
Descending the stone stairs, she thought: “'Anonyma'—'Anonyma'—yes, it was quite the name.” And suddenly she saw Barbara come running up again.
“What is it, Babs?”
“Eustace would like some of those lilies.” And, passing Lady Valleys, she went on up to Miltoun's chambers.
Mrs. Noel was not in the sitting-room, and going to the bedroom door, the girl looked in.
She was standing by the bed, drawing her hand over and over the white surface of the pillow. Stealing noiselessly back, Barbara caught up the bunch of lilies, and fled.