Three days after his first, and as he promised himself, his last Society Ball, Courtier received a note from Audrey Noel, saying that she had left Monkland for the present, and come up to a little flat—on the riverside not far from Westminster.
When he made his way there that same July day, the Houses of Parliament were bright under a sun which warmed all the grave air emanating from their counsels of perfection: Courtier passed by dubiously. His feelings in the presence of those towers were always a little mixed. There was not so much of the poet in him as to cause him to see nothing there at all save only same lines against the sky, but there was enough of the poet to make him long to kick something; and in this mood he wended his way to the riverside.
Mrs. Noel was not at home, but since the maid informed him that she would be in directly, he sat down to wait. Her flat, which was on—the first floor, overlooked the river and had evidently been taken furnished, for there were visible marks of a recent struggle with an Edwardian taste which, flushed from triumph over Victorianism, had filled the rooms with early Georgian remains. On the only definite victory, a rose-coloured window seat of great comfort and little age, Courtier sat down, and resigned himself to doing nothing with the ease of an old soldier.
To the protective feeling he had once had for a very graceful, dark-haired child, he joined not only the championing pity of a man of warm heart watching a woman in distress, but the impatience of one, who, though temperamentally incapable of feeling oppressed himself, rebelled at sight of all forms of tyranny affecting others.
The sight of the grey towers, still just visible, under which Miltoun and his father sat, annoyed him deeply; symbolizing to him, Authority—foe to his deathless mistress, the sweet, invincible lost cause of Liberty. But presently the river; bringing up in flood the unbound water that had bathed every shore, touched all sands, and seen the rising and falling of each mortal star, so soothed him with its soundless hymn to Freedom, that Audrey Noel coming in with her hands full of flowers, found him sleeping firmly, with his mouth shut.
Noiselessly putting down the flowers, she waited for his awakening. That sanguine visage, with its prominent chin, flaring moustaches, and eyebrows raised rather V-shaped above his closed eyes, wore an expression of cheery defiance even in sleep; and perhaps no face in all London was so utterly its obverse, as that of this dark, soft-haired woman, delicate, passive, and tremulous with pleasure at sight of the only person in the world from whom she felt she might learn of Miltoun, without losing her self-respect.
He woke at last, and manifesting no discomfiture, said:
“It was like you not to wake me.”
They sat for a long while talking, the riverside traffic drowsily accompanying their voices, the flowers drowsily filling the room with scent; and when Courtier left, his heart was sore. She had not spoken of herself at all, but had talked nearly all the time of Barbara, praising her beauty and high spirit; growing pale once or twice, and evidently drinking in with secret avidity every allusion to Miltoun. Clearly, her feelings had not changed, though she would not show them! Courtier's pity for her became well-nigh violent.
It was in such a mood, mingled with very different feelings, that he donned evening clothes and set out to attend the last gathering of the season at Valleys House, a function which, held so late in July, was perforce almost perfectly political.
Mounting the wide and shining staircase, that had so often baffled the arithmetic of little Ann, he was reminded of a picture entitled 'The Steps to Heaven' in his nursery four-and-thirty years before. At the top of this staircase, and surrounded by acquaintances, he came on Harbinger, who nodded curtly. The young man's handsome face and figure appeared to Courtier's jaundiced eye more obviously successful and complacent than ever; so that he passed him by sardonically, and manoeuvred his way towards Lady Valleys, whom he could perceive stationed, like a general, in a little cleared space, where to and fro flowed constant streams of people, like the rays of a star. She was looking her very best, going well with great and highly-polished spaces; and she greeted Courtier with a special cordiality of tone, which had in it, besides kindness towards one who must be feeling a strange bird, a certain diplomatic quality, compounded of desire, as it were, to 'warn him off,' and fear of saying something that might irritate and make him more dangerous. She had heard, she said, that he was bound for Persia; she hoped he was not going to try and make things more difficult there; then with the words: “So good of you to have come!” she became once more the centre of her battlefield.
Perceiving that he was finished with, Courtier stood back against a wall and watched. Thus isolated, he was like a solitary cuckoo contemplating the gyrations of a flock of rooks. Their motions seemed a little meaningless to one so far removed from all the fetishes and shibboleths of Westminster. He heard them discussing Miltoun's speech, the real significance of which apparently had only just been grasped. The words 'doctrinaire,' 'extremist,' came to his ears, together with the saying 'a new force.' People were evidently puzzled, disturbed, not pleased—as if some star not hitherto accounted for had suddenly appeared amongst the proper constellations.
Searching this crowd for Barbara, Courtier had all the time an uneasy sense of shame. What business had he to come amongst these people so strange to him, just for the sake of seeing her! What business had he to be hankering after this girl at all, knowing in his heart that he could not stand the atmosphere she lived in for a week, and that she was utterly unsuited for any atmosphere that he could give her; to say nothing of the unlikelihood that he could flutter the pulses of one half his age!
A voice, behind him said: “Mr. Courtier!”
He turned, and there was Barbara.
“I want to talk to you about something serious: Will you come into the picture gallery?”
When at last they were close to a family group of Georgian Caradocs, and could as it were shut out the throng sufficiently for private speech, she began:
“Miltoun's so horribly unhappy; I don't know what to do for him: He's making himself ill!”
And she suddenly looked up, in Courtier's face. She seemed to him very young, and touching, at that moment. Her eyes had a gleam of faith in them, like a child's eyes; as if she relied on him to straighten out this tangle, to tell her not only about Miltoun's trouble, but about all life, its meaning, and the secret of its happiness: And he said gently:
“What can I do? Mrs. Noel is in Town. But that's no good, unless—” Not knowing how to finish this sentence; he was silent.
“I wish I were Miltoun,” she muttered.
At that quaint saying, Courtier was hard put to it not to take hold of the hands so close to him. This flash of rebellion in her had quickened all his blood. But she seemed to have seen what had passed in him, for her next speech was chilly.
“It's no good; stupid of me to be worrying you.”
“It is quite impossible for you to worry me.”
Her eyes lifted suddenly from her glove, and looked straight into his.
“Are you really going to Persia?”
“But I don't want you to, not yet!” and turning suddenly, she left him.
Strangely disturbed, Courtier remained motionless, consulting the grave stare of the group of Georgian Caradocs.
A voice said:
“Good painting, isn't it?”
Behind him was Lord Harbinger. And once more the memory of Lady Casterley's words; the memory of the two figures with joined hands on the balcony above the election crowd; all his latent jealousy of this handsome young Colossus, his animus against one whom he could, as it were, smell out to be always fighting on the winning side; all his consciousness too of what a lost cause his own was, his doubt whether he were honourable to look on it as a cause at all, flared up in Courtier, so that his answer was a stare. On Harbinger's face, too, there had come a look of stubborn violence slowly working up towards the surface.
“I said: 'Good, isn't it?' Mr. Courtier.”
“I heard you.”
“And you were pleased to answer?”
“With the civility which might be expected of your habits.”
Coldly disdainful, Courtier answered:
“If you want to say that sort of thing, please choose a place where I can reply to you,” and turned abruptly on his heel.
But he ground his teeth as he made his way out into the street.
In Hyde Park the grass was parched and dewless under a sky whose stars were veiled by the heat and dust haze. Never had Courtier so bitterly wanted the sky's consolation—the blessed sense of insignificance in the face of the night's dark beauty, which, dwarfing all petty rage and hunger, made men part of its majesty, exalted them to a sense of greatness.