Miltoun, whose constitution, had the steel-like quality of Lady Casterley's, had a very rapid convalescence. And, having begun to take an interest in his food, he was allowed to travel on the seventh day to Sea House in charge of Barbara.
The two spent their time in a little summer-house close to the sea; lying out on the beach under the groynes; and, as Miltoun grew stronger, motoring and walking on the Downs.
To Barbara, keeping a close watch, he seemed tranquilly enough drinking in from Nature what was necessary to restore balance after the struggle, and breakdown of the past weeks. Yet she could never get rid of a queer feeling that he was not really there at all; to look at him was like watching an uninhabited house that was waiting for someone to enter.
During a whole fortnight he did not make a single allusion to Mrs. Noel, till, on the very last morning, as they were watching the sea, he said with his queer smile:
“It almost makes one believe her theory, that the old gods are not dead. Do you ever see them, Babs; or are you, like me, obtuse?”
Certainly about those lithe invasions of the sea-nymph waves, with ashy, streaming hair, flinging themselves into the arms of the land, there was the old pagan rapture, an inexhaustible delight, a passionate soft acceptance of eternal fate, a wonderful acquiescence in the untiring mystery of life.
But Barbara, ever disconcerted by that tone in his voice, and by this quick dive into the waters of unaccustomed thought, failed to find an answer.
Miltoun went on:
“She says, too, we can hear Apollo singing. Shall we try.”
But all that came was the sigh of the sea, and of the wind in the tamarisk.
“No,” muttered Miltoun at last, “she alone can hear it.”
And Barbara saw, once more on his face that look, neither sad nor impatient, but as of one uninhabited and waiting.
She left Sea House next day to rejoin her mother, who, having been to Cowes, and to the Duchess of Gloucester's, was back in Town waiting for Parliament to rise, before going off to Scotland. And that same afternoon the girl made her way to Mrs. Noel's flat. In paying this visit she was moved not so much by compassion, as by uneasiness, and a strange curiosity. Now that Miltoun was well again, she was seriously disturbed in mind. Had she made a mistake in summoning Mrs. Noel to nurse him?
When she went into the little drawing-room Audrey was sitting in the deep-cushioned window-seat with a book on her knee; and by the fact that it was open at the index, Barbara judged that she had not been reading too attentively. She showed no signs of agitation at the sight of her visitor, nor any eagerness to hear news of Miltoun. But the girl had not been five minutes in the room before the thought came to her: “Why! She has the same look as Eustace!” She, too, was like an empty tenement; without impatience, discontent, or grief—waiting! Barbara had scarcely realized this with a curious sense of discomposure, when Courtier was announced. Whether there was in this an absolute coincidence or just that amount of calculation which might follow on his part from receipt of a note written from Sea House—saying that Miltoun was well again, that she was coming up and meant to go and thank Mrs. Noel—was not clear, nor were her own sensations; and she drew over her face that armoured look which she perhaps knew Courtier could not bear to see. His face, at all events, was very red when he shook hands. He had come, he told Mrs. Noel, to say good-bye. He was definitely off next week. Fighting had broken out; the revolutionaries were greatly outnumbered. Indeed he ought to have been there long before!
Barbara had gone over to the window; she turned suddenly, and said:
“You were preaching peace two months ago!”
“We are not all perfectly consistent, Lady Barbara. These poor devils have a holy cause.”
Barbara held out her hand to Mrs. Noel.
“You only think their cause holy because they happen to be weak. Good-bye, Mrs. Noel; the world is meant for the strong, isn't it!”
She intended that to hurt him; and from the tone of his voice, she knew it had.
“Don't, Lady Barbara; from your mother, yes; not from you!”
“It's what I believe. Good-bye!” And she went out.
She had told him that she did not want him to go—not yet; and he was going!
But no sooner had she got outside, after that strange outburst, than she bit her lips to keep back an angry, miserable feeling. He had been rude to her, she had been rude to him; that was the way they had said good-bye! Then, as she emerged into the sunlight, she thought: “Oh! well; he doesn't care, and I'm sure I don't!”
She heard a voice behind her.
“May I get you a cab?” and at once the sore feeling began to die away; but she did not look round, only smiled, and shook her head, and made a little room for him on the pavement.
But though they walked, they did not at first talk. There was rising within Barbara a tantalizing devil of desire to know the feelings that really lay behind that deferential gravity, to make him show her how much he really cared. She kept her eyes demurely lowered, but she let the glimmer of a smile flicker about her lips; she knew too that her cheeks were glowing, and for that she was not sorry. Was she not to have any—any—was he calmly to go away—without——And she thought: “He shall say something! He shall show me, without that horrible irony of his!”
She said suddenly:
“Those two are just waiting—something will happen!”
“It is probable,” was his grave answer.
She looked at him then—it pleased her to see him quiver as if that glance had gone right into him; and she said softly:
“And I think they will be quite right.”
She knew those were reckless words, nor cared very much what they meant; but she knew the revolt in them would move him. She saw from his face that it had; and after a little pause, said:
“Happiness is the great thing,” and with soft, wicked slowness: “Isn't it, Mr. Courtier?”
But all the cheeriness had gone out of his face, which had grown almost pale. He lifted his hand, and let it drop. Then she felt sorry. It was just as if he had asked her to spare him.
“As to that,” he said: “The rough, unfortunately, has to be taken with the smooth. But life's frightfully jolly sometimes.”
He looked at her with firm gravity, and answered
A sense of utter mortification seized on Barbara. He was too strong for her—he was quixotic—he was hateful! And, determined not to show a sign, to be at least as strong as he, she said calmly:
“Now I think I'll have that cab!”
When she was in the cab, and he was standing with his hat lifted, she looked at him in the way that women can, so that he did not realize that she had looked.