The flowers of summer in the great glass house at Ravensham were keeping the last afternoon-watch when Clifton summoned Lady Casterley with the words:
“Lady Valleys in the white room.”
Since the news of Miltoun's illness, and of Mrs. Noel's nursing, the little old lady had possessed her soul in patience; often, it is true, afflicted with poignant misgivings as to this new influence in the life of her favourite, affected too by a sort of jealousy, not to be admitted, even in her prayers, which, though regular enough, were perhaps somewhat formal. Having small liking now for leaving home, even for Catton, her country place, she was still at Ravensham, where Lord Dennis had come up to stay with her as soon as Miltoun had left Sea House. But Lady Casterley was never very dependent on company. She retained unimpaired her intense interest in politics, and still corresponded freely with prominent men. Of late, too, a slight revival of the June war scare had made its mark on her in a certain rejuvenescence, which always accompanied her contemplation of national crises, even when such were a little in the air. At blast of trumpet her spirit still leaped forward, unsheathed its sword, and stood at the salute. At such times, she rose earlier, went to bed later, was far less susceptible to draughts, and refused with asperity any food between meals. She wrote too with her own hand letters which she would otherwise have dictated to her secretary. Unfortunately the scare had died down again almost at once; and the passing of danger always left her rather irritable. Lady Valleys' visit came as a timely consolation.
She kissed her daughter critically; for there was that about her manner which she did not like.
“Yes, of course I am well!” she said. “Why didn't you bring Barbara?”
“She was tired!”
“H'm! Afraid of meeting me, since she committed that piece of folly over Eustace. You must be careful of that child, Gertrude, or she will be doing something silly herself. I don't like the way she keeps Claud Harbinger hanging in the wind.”
Her daughter cut her short:
“There is bad news about Eustace.”
Lady Casterley lost the little colour in her cheeks; lost, too, all her superfluity of irritable energy.
“Tell me, at once!”
Having heard, she said nothing; but Lady Valleys noticed with alarm that over her eyes had come suddenly the peculiar filminess of age.
“Well, what do you advise?” she asked.
Herself tired, and troubled, she was conscious of a quite unwonted feeling of discouragement before this silent little figure, in the silent white room. She had never before seen her mother look as if she heard Defeat passing on its dark wings. And moved by sudden tenderness for the little frail body that had borne her so long ago, she murmured almost with surprise:
“Yes,” said Lady Casterley, as if speaking to herself, “the boy saves things up; he stores his feelings—they burst and sweep him away. First his passion; now his conscience. There are two men in him; but this will be the death of one of them.” And suddenly turning on her daughter, she said:
“Did you ever hear about him at Oxford, Gertrude? He broke out once, and ate husks with the Gadarenes. You never knew. Of course—you never have known anything of him.”
Resentment rose in Lady Valleys, that anyone should knew her son better than herself; but she lost it again looking at the little figure, and said, sighing:
Lady Casterley murmured:
“Go away, child; I must think. You say he's to consult' Dennis? Do you know her address? Ask Barbara when you get back and telephone it to me. And at her daughter's kiss, she added grimly:
“I shall live to see him in the saddle yet, though I am seventy-eight.”
When the sound of her daughter's car had died away, she rang the bell.
“If Lady Valleys rings up, Clifton, don't take the message, but call me.” And seeing that Clifton did not move she added sharply: “Well?”
“There is no bad news of his young lordship's health, I hope?”
“Forgive me, my lady, but I have had it on my mind for some time to ask you something.”
And the old man raised his hand with a peculiar dignity, seeming to say: You will excuse me that for the moment I am a human being speaking to a human being.
“The matter of his attachment,” he went on, “is known to me; it has given me acute anxiety, knowing his lordship as I do, and having heard him say something singular when he was here in July. I should be grateful if you would assure—me that there is to be no hitch in his career, my lady.”
The expression on Lady Casterley's face was strangely compounded of surprise, kindliness, defence, and impatience as with a child.
“Not if I can prevent it, Clifton,” she said shortly; “in fact, you need not concern yourself.”
“Excuse me mentioning it, my lady;” a quiver ran over his face between its long white whiskers, “but his young lordship's career is more to me than my own.”
When he had left her, Lady Casterley sat down in a little low chair—long she sat there by the empty hearth, till the daylight, was all gone.