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CHAPTER XXI

It was not till the morning of polling day itself that Courtier left
Monkland Court. He had already suffered for some time from bad
conscience. For his knee was practically cured, and he knew well
that it was Barbara, and Barbara alone, who kept him staying there.
The atmosphere of that big house with its army of servants, the
impossibility of doing anything for himself, and the feeling of
hopeless insulation from the vivid and necessitous sides of life,
galled him greatly. He felt a very genuine pity for these people who
seemed to lead an existence as it were smothered under their own
social importance. It was not their fault. He recognized that they
did their best. They were good specimens of their kind; neither soft
nor luxurious, as things went in a degenerate and extravagant age;
they evidently tried to be simple--and this seemed to him to heighten
the pathos of their situation. Fate had been too much for them.
What human spirit could emerge untrammelled and unshrunken from that
great encompassing host of material advantage? To a Bedouin like
Courtier, it was as though a subtle, but very terrible tragedy was
all the time being played before his eyes; and in, the very centre of
this tragedy was the girl who so greatly attracted him. Every night
when he retired to that lofty room, which smelt so good, and where,
without ostentation, everything was so perfectly ordered for his
comfort, he thought:

"My God, to-morrow I'll be off!"

But every morning when he met her at breakfast his thought was
precisely the same, and there were moments when he caught himself
wondering: "Am I falling under the spell of this existence--am I
getting soft?" He recognized as never before that the peculiar
artificial 'hardness' of the patrician was a brine or pickle, in
which, with the instinct of self-preservation they deliberately
soaked themselves, to prevent the decay of their overprotected fibre.
He perceived it even in Barbara--a sort of sentiment-proof overall, a
species of mistrust of the emotional or lyrical, a kind of contempt
of sympathy and feeling. And every day he was more and more tempted
to lay rude hands on this garment; to see whether he could not make
her catch fire, and flare up with some emotion or idea. In spite of
her tantalizing, youthful self-possession, he saw that she felt this
longing in him, and now and then he caught a glimpse of a streak of
recklessness in her which lured him on:

And yet, when at last he was saying good-bye on the night before
polling day, he could not flatter himself that he had really struck
any spark from her. Certainly she gave him no chance, at that final
interview, but stood amongst the other women, calm and smiling, as if
determined that he should not again mock her with his ironical
devotion.

He got up very early the next morning, intending to pass away unseen.
In the car put at his disposal; he found a small figure in a holland-
frock, leaning back against the cushions so that some sandalled toes
pointed up at the chauffeur's back. They belonged to little Ann, who
in the course of business had discovered the vehicle before the door.
Her sudden little voice under her sudden little nose, friendly but
not too friendly, was comforting to Courtier.

"Are you going? I can come as, far as the gate." "That is lucky."

"Yes. Is that all your luggage?"

"I'm afraid it is."

"Oh! It's quite a lot, really, isn't it?"

"As much as I deserve."

"Of course you don't have to take guinea-pigs about with you?"

"Not as a rule."

"I always do. There's great-Granny!"

There certainly was Lady Casterley, standing a little back from the
drive, and directing a tall gardener how to deal with an old oak-
tree. Courtier alighted, and went towards her to say good-bye. She
greeted him with a certain grim cordiality.

"So you are going! I am glad of that, though you quite understand
that I like you personally."

"Quite!"

Her eyes gleamed maliciously.

"Men who laugh like you are dangerous, as I've told you before!"

Then, with great gravity; she added

"My granddaughter will marry Lord Harbinger. I mention that, Mr.
Courtier, for your peace of mind. You are a man of honour; it will
go no further."

Courtier, bowing over her hand, answered:

"He will be lucky."

The little old lady regarded him unflinchingly.

"He will, sir. Good-bye!"

Courtier smilingly raised his hat. His cheeks were burning.
Regaining the car, he looked round. Lady Casterley was busy once
more exhorting the tall gardener. The voice of little Ann broke in
on his thoughts:

"I hope you'll come again. Because I expect I shall be here at
Christmas; and my brothers will be here then, that is, Jock and
Tiddy, not Christopher because he's young. I must go now. Good-bye!
Hallo, Susie!"

Courtier saw her slide away, and join the little pale adoring figure
of the lodge-keeper's daughter.

The car passed out into the lane.

If Lady Casterley had planned this disclosure, which indeed she had
not, for the impulse had only come over her at the sound of
Courtier's laugh, she could not have, devised one more effectual, for
there was deep down in him all a wanderer's very real distrust,,
amounting almost to contempt, of people so settled and done for; as
aristocrats or bourgeois, and all a man of action's horror of what he
called puking and muling. The pursuit of Barbara with any other
object but that of marriage had naturally not occurred to one who had
little sense of conventional morality, but much self-respect; and a
secret endeavour to cut out Harbinger, ending in a marriage whereat
he would figure as a sort of pirate, was quite as little to the taste
of a man not unaccustomed to think himself as good as other people.

He caused the car to deviate up the lane that led to Audrey Noel's,
hating to go away without a hail of cheer to that ship in distress.

She came out to him on the verandah. From the clasp of her hand,
thin and faintly browned--the hand of a woman never quite idle--he
felt that she relied on him to understand and sympathize; and nothing
so awakened the best in Courtier as such mute appeals to his
protection. He said gently:

"Don't let them think you're down;" and, squeezing her hand hard:
"Why should you be wasted like this? It's a sin and shame!"

But he stopped in what he felt to be an unlucky speech at sight of
her face, which without movement expressed so much more than his
words. He was protesting as a civilized man; her face was the
protest of Nature, the soundless declaration of beauty wasted against
its will, beauty that was life's invitation to the embrace which gave
life birth.

"I'm clearing out, myself," he said: "You and I, you know, are not
good for these people. No birds of freedom allowed!"

Pressing his hand, she turned away into the house, leaving Courtier
gazing at the patch of air where her white figure had stood. He had
always had a special protective feeling for Audrey Noel, a feeling
which with but little encouragement might have become something
warmer. But since she had been placed in her anomalous position, he
would not for the world have brushed the dew off her belief that she
could trust him. And, now that he had fixed his own gaze elsewhere,
and she was in this bitter trouble, he felt on her account the
rancour that a brother feels when Justice and Pity have conspired to
flout his sister. The voice of Frith the chauffeur roused him from
gloomy reverie.

"Lady Barbara, sir!"

Following the man's eyes, Courtier saw against the sky-line on the
for above Ashman's Folly, an equestrian statue. He stopped the car
at once, and got out.

He reached her at the ruin, screened from the road, by that divine
chance which attends on men who take care that it shall. He could
not tell whether she knew of his approach, and he would have given
all he had, which was not much, to have seen through the stiff grey
of her coat, and the soft cream of her body, into that mysterious
cave, her heart. To have been for a moment, like Ashman, done for
good and all with material things, and living the white life where
are no barriers between man and woman. The smile on her lips so
baffled him, puffed there by her spirit, as a first flower is puffed
through the sur face of earth to mock at the spring winds. How tell
what it signified! Yet he rather prided himself on his knowledge of
women, of whom he had seen something. But all he found to say was:

"I'm glad of this chance."

Then suddenly looking up, he found her strangely pale and quivering.

"I shall see you in London!" she said; and, touching her horse with
her whip, without looking back, she rode away over the hill.

Courtier returned to the moor road, and getting into the car,
muttered:

"Faster, please, Frith!"....




The Patrician by John Galsworthy
Category:
Contemporary

General Fiction
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