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CHAPTER XVIII

Lord Valleys, relieved from official pressure by subsidence of the
war scare, had returned for a long week-end. To say that he had been
intensely relieved by the news that Mrs. Noel was not free, would be
to put it mildly. Though not old-fashioned, like his mother-in-law,
in regard to the mixing of the castes, prepared to admit that
exclusiveness was out of date, to pass over with a shrug and a laugh
those numerous alliances by which his order were renewing the sinews
of war, and indeed in his capacity of an expert, often pointing out
the dangers of too much in-breeding--yet he had a peculiar personal
feeling about his own family, and was perhaps a little extra
sensitive because of Agatha; for Shropton, though a good fellow, and
extremely wealthy, was only a third baronet, and had originally been
made of iron. It was inadvisable to go outside the inner circle
where there was no material necessity for so doing. He had not done
it himself. Moreover there was a sentiment about these things!

On the morning after his arrival, visiting the kennels before
breakfast, he stood chatting with his head man, and caressing the wet
noses of his two favourite pointers,--with something of the feeling
of a boy let out of school. Those pleasant creatures, cowering and
quivering with pride against his legs, and turning up at him their
yellow Chinese eyes, gave him that sense of warmth and comfort which
visits men in the presence of their hobbies. With this particular
pair, inbred to the uttermost, he had successfully surmounted a great
risk. It was now touch and go whether he dared venture on one more
cross to the original strain, in the hope of eliminating the last
clinging of liver colour. It was a gamble--and it was just that
which rendered it so vastly interesting.

A small voice diverted his attention; he looked round and saw little
Ann. She had been in bed when he arrived the night before, and he
was therefore the newest thing about.

She carried in her arms a guinea-pig, and began at once:

"Grandpapa, Granny wants you. She's on the terrace; she's talking to
Mr. Courtier. I like him--he's a kind man. If I put my guinea-pig
down, will they bite it? Poor darling--they shan't! Isn't it a
darling!"

Lord Valleys, twirling his moustache, regarded the guinea-pig without
favour; he had rather a dislike for all senseless kinds of beasts.

Pressing the guinea-pig between her hands, as it might be a
concertina, little Ann jigged it gently above the pointers, who,
wrinkling horribly their long noses, gazed upwards, fascinated.

"Poor darlings, they want it--don't they? Grandpapa"

"Yes."

"Do you think the next puppies will be spotted quite all over?"

Continuing to twirl his moustache, Lord Valleys answered:

"I think it is not improbable, Ann."

"Why do you like them spotted like that? Oh! they're kissing Sambo--
I must go!"

Lord Valleys followed her, his eyebrows a little raised.

As he approached the terrace his wife came, towards him. Her colour
was, deeper than usual, and she had the look, higher and more
resolute, peculiar to her when she had been opposed. In truth she
had just been through a passage of arms with Courtier, who, as the
first revealer of Mrs. Noel's situation, had become entitled to a
certain confidence on this subject. It had arisen from what she had
intended as a perfectly natural and not unkind remark, to the effect
that all the trouble had come from Mrs. Noel not having made her
position clear to Miltoun from the first.

He had at once grown very red.

"It's easy, Lady Valleys, for those who have never been in the
position of a lonely woman, to blame her."

Unaccustomed to be withstood, she had looked at him intently:

"I am the last person to be hard on a woman for conventional"
reasons. But I think it showed lack of character."

Courtier's reply had been almost rude.

"Plants are not equally robust, Lady Valleys. Some, as we know, are
actually sensitive."

She had retorted with decision

"If you like to so dignify the simpler word 'weak' "

He had become very rigid at that, biting deeply into his moustache.

"What crimes are not committed under the sanctity of that creed
'survival of the fittest,' which suits the book of all you fortunate
people so well!"

Priding herself on her restraint, Lady Valleys answered:

"Ah! we must talk that out. On the face of them your words sound a
little unphilosophic, don't they?

He had looked straight at her with a queer, unpleasant smile; and she
had felt at once disturbed and angry. It was all very well to pet
and even to admire these original sort of men, but there were limits.
Remembering, however, that he was her guest, she had only said:

"Perhaps after all we had better not talk it out;" and moving away,
she heard him answer: "In any case, I'm certain Audrey Noel never
wilfully kept your son in the dark; she's much too proud."

Though rude, she could not help liking the way he stuck up for this
woman; and she threw back at him the words:

"You and I, Mr. Courtier, must have a good fight some day!"

She went towards her husband conscious of the rather pleasurable
sensation which combat always roused in her.

These two were very good comrades. Theirs had been a love match, and
making due allowance for human nature beset by opportunity, had
remained, throughout, a solid and efficient alliance. Taking, as
they both did, such prominent parts in public and social matters, the
time they spent together was limited, but productive of mutual
benefit and reinforcement. They had not yet had an opportunity of
discussing their son's affair; and, slipping her hand through his
arm, Lady Valleys drew him away from the house.

"I want to talk to you about Miltoun, Geoff."

"H'm!" said Lord Valleys; "yes. The boy's looking worn. Good thing
when this election's over."

"If he's beaten and hasn't something new and serious to concentrate
himself on, he'll fret his heart out over that woman."

Lord Valleys meditated a little before replying.

"I don't think that, Gertrude. He's got plenty of spirit."

"Of course! But it's a real passion. And, you know, he's not like
most boys, who'll take what they can."

She said this rather wistfully.

"I'm sorry for the woman," mused Lord Valleys; "I really am."

"They say this rumour's done a lot of harm."

"Our influence is strong enough to survive that."

"It'll be a squeak; I wish I knew what he was going to do. Will you
ask him?"

"You're clearly the person to speak to him," replied Lord Valleys.
"I'm no hand at that sort of thing."

But Lady Valleys, with genuine discomfort, murmured:

"My dear, I'm so nervous with Eustace. When he puts on that smile of
his I'm done for, at once."

"This is obviously a woman's business; nobody like a mother."

"If it were only one of the others," muttered Lady Valleys: "Eustace
has that queer way of making you feel lumpy."

Lord Valleys looked at her askance. He had that kind of critical
fastidiousness which a word will rouse into activity. Was she lumpy?
The idea had never struck him.

"Well, I'll do it, if I must," sighed Lady Valleys.

When after breakfast she entered Miltoun's 'den,' he was buckling on
his spurs preparatory, to riding out to some of the remoter villages.
Under the mask of the Apache chief, Bertie was standing, more
inscrutable and neat than ever, in a perfectly tied cravatte,
perfectly cut riding breeches, and boots worn and polished till a
sooty glow shone through their natural russet. Not specially
dandified in his usual dress, Bertie Caradoc would almost sooner have
died than disgrace a horse. His eyes, the sharper because they had
only half the space of the ordinary eye to glance from, at once took
in the fact that his mother wished to be alone with 'old Miltoun,'
and he discreetly left the room.

That which disconcerted all who had dealings with Miltoun was the
discovery made soon or late, that they could not be sure how anything
would strike him. In his mind, as in his face, there was a certain
regularity, and then--impossible to say exactly where--it would,
shoot off and twist round a corner. This was the legacy no doubt of
the hard-bitten individuality, which had brought to the front so many
of his ancestors; for in Miltoun was the blood not only of the
Caradocs and Fitz-Harolds, but of most other prominent families in
the kingdom, all of whom, in those ages before money made the man,
must have had a forbear conspicuous by reason of qualities, not
always fine, but always poignant.

And now, though Lady Valleys had the audacity of her physique, and
was not customarily abashed, she began by speaking of politics,
hoping her son would give her an opening. But he gave her none, and
she grew nervous. At last, summoning all her coolness, she said:

"I'm dreadfully sorry about this affair, dear boy. Your father told
me of your talk with him. Try not to take it too hard."

Miltoun did not answer, and silence being that which Lady Valleys
habitually most dreaded, she took refuge in further speech, outlining
for her son the whole episode as she saw it from her point of view,
and ending with these words:

"Surely it's not worth it."

Miltoun heard her with his peculiar look, as of a man peering through
a vizor. Then smiling, he said:

"Thank you;" and opened the door.

Lady Valleys, without quite knowing whether he intended her to do so,
indeed without quite knowing anything at the moment, passed out, and
Miltoun closed the door behind her.

Ten minutes later he and Bertie were seen riding down the drive.




The Patrician by John Galsworthy
Category:
Contemporary

General Fiction
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