On the last day before Parliament rose, Lord Valleys, with a light heart, mounted his horse for a gallop in the Row. Though she was a blood mare he rode her with a plain snaffle, having the horsemanship of one who has hunted from the age of seven, and been for twenty years a Colonel of Yeomanry. Greeting affably everyone he knew, he maintained a frank demeanour on all subjects, especially of Government policy, secretly enjoying the surmises and prognostications, so pleasantly wide of the mark, and the way questions and hints perished before his sphinx-like candour. He spoke cheerily too of Miltoun, who was 'all right again,' and 'burning for the fray' when the House met again in the autumn. And he chaffed Lord Malvezin about his wife. If anything—he said—could make Bertie take an interest in politics, it would be she. He had two capital gallops, being well known to the police: The day was bright, and he was sorry to turn home. Falling in with Harbinger, he asked him to come back to lunch. There had seemed something different lately, an almost morose look, about young Harbinger; and his wife's disquieting words about Barbara came back to Lord Valleys with a shock. He had seen little of the child lately, and in the general clearing up of this time of year had forgotten all about the matter.
Agatha, who was still staying at Valleys House with little Ann, waiting to travel up to Scotland with her mother, was out, and there was no one at lunch except Lady Valleys and Barbara herself. Conversation flagged; for the young people were extremely silent, Lady Valleys was considering the draft of a report which had to be settled before she left, and Lord Valleys himself was rather carefully watching his daughter. The news that Lord Miltoun was in the study came as a surprise, and somewhat of a relief to all. To an exhortation to luring him in to lunch; the servant replied that Lord Miltoun had lunched, and would wait.
“Does he know there's no one here?”
“Yes, my lady.”
Lady Valleys pushed back her plate, and rose:
“Oh, well!” she said, “I've finished.”
Lord Valleys also got up, and they went out together, leaving Barbara, who had risen, looking doubtfully at the door.
Lord Valleys had recently been told of the nursing episode, and had received the news with the dubious air of one hearing something about an eccentric person, which, heard about anyone else, could have had but one significance. If Eustace had been a normal young man his father would have shrugged his shoulder's, and thought: “Oh, well! There it is!” As it was, he had literally not known what to think.
And now, crossing the saloon which intervened between the dining-room and the study, he said to his wife uneasily:
“Is it this woman again, Gertrude—or what?”
Lady Valleys answered with a shrug:
“Goodness knows, my dear.”
Miltoun was standing in the embrasure of a window above the terrace. He looked well, and his greeting was the same as usual.
“Well, my dear fellow,” said Lord Valleys, “you're all right again evidently—what's the news?”
“Only that I've decided to resign my seat.”
Lord Valleys stared.
“What on earth for?”
But Lady Valleys, with the greater quickness of women, divining already something of the reason, had flushed a deep pink.
“Nonsense, my dear,” she said; “it can't possibly be necessary, even if——” Recovering herself, she added dryly:
“Give us some reason.”
“The reason is simply that I've joined my life to Mrs. Noel's, and I can't go on as I am, living a lie. If it were known I should obviously have to resign at once.”
“Good God!” exclaimed Lord Valleys.
Lady Valleys made a rapid movement. In the face of what she felt to be a really serious crisis between these two utterly different creatures of the other sex, her husband and her son, she had dropped her mask and become a genuine woman. Unconsciously both men felt this change, and in speaking, turned towards her.
“I can't argue it,” said Miltoun; “I consider myself bound in honour.”
“And then?” she asked.
Lord Valleys, with a note of real feeling, interjected:
“By Heaven! I did think you put your country above your private affairs.”
“Geoff!” said Lady Valleys.
But Lord Valleys went on:
“No, Eustace, I'm out of touch with your view of things altogether. I don't even begin to understand it.”
“That is true,” said Miltoun.
“Listen to me, both of you!” said Lady Valleys: “You two are altogether different; and you must not quarrel. I won't have that. Now, Eustace, you are our son, and you have got to be kind and considerate. Sit down, and let's talk it over.”
And motioning her husband to a chair, she sat down in the embrasure of a window. Miltoun remained standing. Visited by a sudden dread, Lady Valleys said:
“Is it—you've not—there isn't going to be a scandal?”
Miltoun smiled grimly.
“I shall tell this man, of course, but you may make your minds easy, I imagine; I understand that his view of marriage does not permit of divorce in any case whatever.”
Lady Valleys sighed with an utter and undisguised relief.
“Well, then, my dear boy,” she began, “even if you do feel you must tell him, there is surely no reason why it should not otherwise be kept secret.”
Lord Valleys interrupted her:
“I should be glad if you would point out the connection between your honour and the resignation of your seat,” he said stiffly.
Miltoun shook his head.
“If you don't see already, it would be useless.”
“I do not see. The whole matter is—is unfortunate, but to give up your work, so long as there is no absolute necessity, seems to me far-fetched and absurd. How many men are, there into whose lives there has not entered some such relation at one time or another? This idea would disqualify half the nation.” His eyes seemed in that crisis both to consult and to avoid his wife's, as though he were at once asking her endorsement of his point of view, and observing the proprieties. And for a moment in the midst of her anxiety, her sense of humour got the better of Lady Valleys. It was so funny that Geoff should have to give himself away; she could not for the life of her help fixing him with her eyes.
“My dear,” she murmured, “you underestimate three-quarters, at the very least!”
But Lord Valleys, confronted with danger, was growing steadier.
“It passes my comprehension;” he said, “why you should want to mix up sex and politics at all.”
Miltoun's answer came very slowly, as if the confession were hurting his lips:
“There is—forgive me for using the word—such a thing as one's religion. I don't happen to regard life as divided into public and private departments. My vision is gone—broken—I can see no object before me now in public life—no goal—no certainty.”
Lady Valleys caught his hand:
“Oh! my dear,” she said, “that's too dreadfully puritanical!” But at Miltoun's queer smile, she added hastily: “Logical—I mean.”
“Consult your common sense, Eustace, for goodness' sake,” broke in Lord Valleys. “Isn't it your simple duty to put your scruples in your pocket, and do the best you can for your country with the powers that have been given you?”
“I have no common sense.”
“In that case, of course, it may be just as well that you should leave public life.”
“Nonsense!” cried Lady Valleys. “You don't understand, Geoffrey. I ask you again, Eustace, what will you do afterwards?”
“I don't know.”
“You will eat your heart out.”
“If you can't come to a reasonable arrangement with your conscience,” again broke in Lord Valleys, “for Heaven's sake give her up, like a man, and cut all these knots.”
“I beg your pardon, sir!” said Miltoun icily.
Lady Valleys laid her hand on his arm. “You must allow us a little logic too, my dear. You don't seriously imagine that she would wish you to throw away your life for her? I'm not such a bad judge of character as that.”
She stopped before the expression on Miltoun's face.
“You go too fast,” he said; “I may become a free spirit yet.”
To this saying, which seemed to her cryptic and sinister, Lady Valleys did not know what to answer.
“If you feel, as you say,” Lord Valleys began once more, “that the bottom has been knocked out of things for you by this—this affair, don't, for goodness' sake, do anything in a hurry. Wait! Go abroad! Get your balance back! You'll find the thing settle itself in a few months. Don't precipitate matters; you can make your health an excuse to miss the Autumn session.”
Lady Valleys chimed in eagerly
“You really are seeing the thing out of all proportion. What is a love-affair. My dear boy, do you suppose for a moment anyone would think the worse of you, even if they knew? And really not a soul need know.”
“It has not occurred to me to consider what they would think.”
“Then,” cried Lady Valleys, nettled, “it's simply your own pride.”
“You have said.”
Lord Valleys, who had turned away, spoke in an almost tragic voice
“I did not think that on a point of honour I should differ from my son.”
Catching at the word honour, Lady Valleys cried suddenly:
“Eustace, promise me, before you do anything, to consult your Uncle Dennis.”
“This becomes comic,” he said.
At that word, which indeed seemed to them quite wanton, Lord and Lady Valleys turned on their son, and the three stood staring, perfectly silent. A little noise from the doorway interrupted them.