The Patrician


It was past four o'clock the following day when Barbara issued from Valleys House on foot; clad in a pale buff frock, chosen for quietness, she attracted every eye. Very soon entering a taxi-cab, she drove to the Temple, stopped at the Strand entrance, and walked down the little narrow lane into the heart of the Law. Its votaries were hurrying back from the Courts, streaming up from their Chambers for tea, or escaping desperately to Lord's or the Park—young votaries, unbound as yet by the fascination of fame or fees. And each, as he passed, looked at Barbara, with his fingers itching to remove his hat, and a feeling that this was She. After a day spent amongst precedents and practice, after six hours at least of trying to discover what chance A had of standing on his rights, or B had of preventing him, it was difficult to feel otherwise about that calm apparition—like a golden slim tree walking. One of them, asked by her the way to Miltoun's staircase, preceded her with shy ceremony, and when she had vanished up those dusty stairs, lingered on, hoping that she might find her visitee out, and be obliged to return and ask him the way back. But she did not come, and he went sadly away, disturbed to the very bottom of all that he owned in fee simple.

In fact, no one answered Barbara's knock, and discovering that the door yielded, she walked through the lobby past the clerk's den, converted to a kitchen, into the sitting-room. It was empty. She had never been to Miltoun's rooms before, and she stared about her curiously. Since he did not practise, much of the proper gear was absent. The room indeed had a worn carpet, a few old chairs, and was lined from floor to ceiling with books. But the wall space between the windows was occupied by an enormous map of England, scored all over with figures and crosses; and before this map stood an immense desk, on which were piles of double foolscap covered with Miltoun's neat and rather pointed writing. Barbara examined them, puckering up her forehead; she knew that he was working at a book on the land question; but she had never realized that the making of a book requited so much writing. Papers, too, and Blue Books littered a large bureau on which stood bronze busts of AEschylus and Dante.

“What an uncomfortable place!” she thought. The room, indeed, had an atmosphere, a spirit, which depressed her horribly. Seeing a few flowers down in the court below, she had a longing to get out to them. Then behind her she heard the sound of someone talking. But there was no one in the room; and the effect of this disrupted soliloquy, which came from nowhere, was so uncanny, that she retreated to the door. The sound, as of two spirits speaking in one voice, grew louder, and involuntarily she glanced at the busts. They seemed quite blameless. Though the sound had been behind her when she was at the window, it was again behind her now that she was at the door; and she suddenly realized that it was issuing from a bookcase in the centre of the wall. Barbara had her father's nerve, and walking up to the bookcase she perceived that it had been affixed to, and covered, a door that was not quite closed. She pulled it towards her, and passed through. Across the centre of an unkempt bedroom Miltoun was striding, dressed only in his shirt and trousers. His feet were bare, and his head and hair dripping wet; the look on his thin dark face went to Barbara's heart. She ran forward, and took his hand. This was burning hot, but the sight of her seemed to have frozen his tongue and eyes. And the contrast of his burning hand with this frozen silence, frightened Barbara horribly. She could think of nothing but to put her other hand to his forehead. That too was burning hot!

“What brought you here?” he said.

She could only murmur:

“Oh! Eusty! Are you ill?”

Miltoun took hold of her wrists.

“It's all right, I've been working too hard; got a touch of fever.”

“So I can feel,” murmured Barbara. “You ought to be in bed. Come home with me.”

Miltoun smiled. “It's not a case for leeches.”

The look of his smile, the sound of his voice, sent a shudder through her.

“I'm not going to leave you here alone.”

But Miltoun's grasp tightened on her wrists.

“My dear Babs, you will do what I tell you. Go home, hold your tongue, and leave me to burn out in peace.”

Barbara sustained that painful grip without wincing; she had regained her calmness.

“You must come! You haven't anything here, not even a cool drink.”

“My God! Barley water!”

The scorn he put into those two words was more withering than a whole philippic against redemption by creature comforts. And feeling it dart into her, Barbara closed her lips tight. He had dropped her wrists, and again, begun pacing up and down; suddenly he stopped:

        “'The stars, sun, moon all shrink away,
               A desert vast, without a bound,
          And nothing left to eat or drink,

               “And a dark desert all around.'

“You should read your Blake, Audrey.”

Barbara turned quickly, and went out frightened. She passed through the sitting-room and corridor on to the staircase. He was ill-raving! The fever in Miltoun's veins seemed to have stolen through the clutch of his hands into her own veins. Her face was burning, she thought confusedly, breathed unevenly. She felt sore, and at the same time terribly sorry; and withal there kept rising in her the gusty memory of Harbingers kiss.

She hurried down the stairs, turned by instinct down-hill and found herself on the Embankment. And suddenly, with her inherent power of swift decision, she hailed a cab, and drove to the nearest telephone office.

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