eBooks Cube
 
CHAPTER II

Unmoved by the stares of the audience, Barbara sat absorbed in moody
thoughts.

Into the three weeks since Miltoun's election there had been crowded
such a multitude of functions that she had found, as it were, no
time, no energy to know where she stood with herself. Since that
morning in the stable, when he had watched her with the horse Hal,
Harbinger had seemed to live only to be close to her. And the
consciousness of his passion gave her a tingling sense of pleasure.
She had been riding and dancing with him, and sometimes this had been
almost blissful. But there were times too, when she felt--though
always with a certain contempt of herself, as when she sat on that
sunwarmed stone below the tor--a queer dissatisfaction, a longing for
something outside a world where she had to invent her own starvations
and simplicities, to make-believe in earnestness.

She had seen Courtier three times. Once he had come to dine, in
response to an invitation from Lady Valleys worded in that charming,
almost wistful style, which she had taught herself to use to those
below her in social rank, especially if they were intelligent; once
to the Valleys House garden party; and next day, having told him what
time she would be riding, she had found him in the Row, not mounted,
but standing by the rail just where she must pass, with that look on
his face of mingled deference and ironic self-containment, of which
he was a master. It appeared that he was leaving England; and to her
questions why, and where, he had only shrugged his shoulders. Up on
this dusty platform, in the hot bare hall, facing all those people,
listening to speeches whose sense she was too languid and preoccupied
to take in, the whole medley of thoughts, and faces round her, and
the sound of the speakers' voices, formed a kind of nightmare, out of
which she noted with extreme exactitude the colour of her mother's
neck beneath a large black hat, and the expression on the face of a
Committee man to the right, who was biting his fingers under cover of
a blue paper. She realized that someone was speaking amongst the
audience, casting forth, as it were, small bunches of words. She
could see him--a little man in a black coat, with a white face which
kept jerking up and down.

"I feel that this is terrible," she heard him say; "I feel that this
is blasphemy. That we should try to tamper with the greatest force,
the greatest and the most sacred and secret-force, that--that moves
in the world, is to me horrible. I cannot bear to listen; it seems
to make everything so small!" She saw him sit down, and her mother
rising to answer.

"We must all sympathize with the sincerity and to a certain extent
with the intention of our friend in the body of the hall. But we
must ask ourselves:

Have we the right to allow ourselves the luxury, of private feelings
in a matter which concerns the national expansion. We must not give
way to sentiment. Our friend in the body of the hall spoke--he will
forgive me for saying so--like a poet, rather than a serious
reformer. I am afraid that if we let ourselves drop into poetry, the
birth rate of this country will very soon drop into poetry too. And
that I think it is impossible for us to contemplate with folded
hands. The resolution I was about to propose when our friend in the
body of the hall----"

But Barbara's attention, had wandered off again into that queer
medley of thoughts, and feelings, out of which the little man had so
abruptly roused her. Then she realized that the meeting was breaking
up, and her mother saying:

"Now, my dear, it's hospital day. We've just time."

When they were once more in the car, she leaned back very silent,
watching the traffic.

Lady Valleys eyed her sidelong.

"What a little bombshell," she said, "from that small person! He
must have got in by mistake. I hear Mr. Courtier has a card for
Helen Gloucester's ball to-night, Babs."

"Poor man!"

"You will be there," said Lady Valleys dryly.

Barbara drew back into her corner.

"Don't tease me, Mother!"

An expression of compunction crossed Lady Valleys' face; she tried to
possess herself of Barbara's hand. But that languid hand did not
return her squeeze.

"I know the mood you're in, dear. It wants all one's pluck to shake
it off; don't let it grow on you. You'd better go down to Uncle
Dennis to-morrow. You've been overdoing it."

Barbara sighed.

"I wish it were to-morrow."

The car had stopped, and Lady Valleys said:

"Will you come in, or are you too tired? It always does them good to
see you."

"You're twice as tired as me," Barbara answered; "of course I'll
come."

At the entrance of the two ladies, there rose at once a faint buzz
and murmur. Lady Valleys, whose ample presence radiated suddenly a
businesslike and cheery confidence, went to a bedside and sat down.
But Barbara stood in a thin streak of the July sunlight, uncertain
where to begin, amongst the faces turned towards her. The poor dears
looked so humble, and so wistful, and so tired. There was one lying
quite flat, who had not even raised her head to see who had come in.
That slumbering, pale, high cheek-boned face had a frailty as if a
touch, a breath, would shatter it; a wisp of the blackest hair, finer
than silk, lay across the forehead; the closed eyes were deep sunk;
one hand, scarred almost to the bone with work, rested above her
breast. She breathed between lips which had no colour. About her,
sleeping, was a kind of beauty. And there came over the girl a queer
rush of emotion. The sleeper seemed so apart from everything there,
from all the formality and stiffness of the ward. To look at her
swept away the languid, hollow feeling with which she had come in; it
made her think of the tors at home, when the wind was blowing, and
all was bare, and grand, and sometimes terrible. There was something
elemental in that still sleep. And the old lady in the next led,
with a brown wrinkled face and bright black eyes brimful of life,
seemed almost vulgar beside such remote tranquillity, while she was
telling Barbara that a little bunch of heather in the better half of
a soap-dish on the window-sill had come from Wales, because, as she
explained: "My mother was born in Stirling, dearie; so I likes a bit
of heather, though I never been out o' Bethnal Green meself."

But when Barbara again passed, the sleeping woman was sitting up, and
looked but a poor ordinary thing--her strange fragile beauty all
withdrawn.

It was a relief when Lady Valleys said:

"My dear, my Naval Bazaar at five-thirty; and while I'm there you
must go home and have a rest, and freshen yourself up for the
evening. We dine at Plassey House."

The Duchess of Gloucester's Ball, a function which no one could very
well miss, had been fixed for this late date owing to the Duchess's
announced desire to prolong the season and so help the hackney
cabmen; and though everybody sympathized, it had been felt by most
that it would be simpler to go away, motor up on the day of the Ball,
and motor down again on the following morning. And throughout the
week by which the season was thus prolonged, in long rows at the
railway stations, and on their stands, the hackney cabmen,
unconscious of what was being done for them, waited, patient as their
horses. But since everybody was making this special effort, an
exceptionally large, exclusive, and brilliant company reassembled at
Gloucester House.

In the vast ballroom over the medley of entwined revolving couples,
punkahs had been fixed, to clear and freshen the languid air, and
these huge fans, moving with incredible slowness, drove a faint
refreshing draught down over the sea of white shirt-fronts and bare
necks, and freed the scent from innumerable flowers.

Late in the evening, close by one of the great clumps of bloom, a
very pretty woman stood talking to Bertie Caradoc. She was his
cousin, Lily Malvezin, sister of Geoffrey Winlow, and wife of a
Liberal peer, a charming creature, whose pink cheeks, bright eyes,
quick lips, and rounded figure, endowed her with the prettiest air of
animation. And while she spoke she kept stealing sly glances at her
partner, trying as it were to pierce the armour of that self-
contained young man.

"No, my dear," she said in her mocking voice, "you'll never persuade
me that Miltoun is going to catch on. 'Il est trop intransigeant'.
Ah! there's Babs!"

For the girl had come gliding by, her eyes wandering lazily, her lips
just parted; her neck, hardly less pale than her white frock; her
face pale, and marked with languor, under the heavy coil of her tawny
hair; and her swaying body seeming with each turn of the waltz to be
caught by the arms of her partner from out of a swoon.

With that immobility of lips, learned by all imprisoned in Society,
Lily Malvezin murmured:

"Who's that she's dancing with? Is it the dark horse, Bertie?"

Through lips no less immobile Bertie answered:

"Forty to one, no takers."

But those inquisitive bright eyes still followed Barbara, drifting in
the dance, like a great waterlily caught in the swirl of a mill pool;
and the thought passed through that pretty head:

"She's hooked him. It's naughty of Babs, really!" And then she saw
leaning against a pillar another whose eyes also were following those
two; and she thought: "H'm! Poor Claud--no wonder he's looking like
that. Oh! Babs!"

By one of the statues on the terrace Barbara and her partner stood,
where trees, disfigured by no gaudy lanterns, offered the refreshment
of their darkness and serenity.

Wrapped in her new pale languor, still breathing deeply from the
waltz, she seemed to Courtier too utterly moulded out of loveliness.
To what end should a man frame speeches to a vision! She was but an
incarnation of beauty imprinted on the air, and would fade out at a
touch-like the sudden ghosts of enchantment that came to one under
the blue, and the starlit snow of a mountain night, or in a birch
wood all wistful golden! Speech seemed but desecration! Besides,
what of interest was there for him to say in this world of hers, so
bewildering and of such glib assurance--this world that was like a
building, whose every window was shut and had a blind drawn down. A
building that admitted none who had not sworn, as it were, to believe
it the world, the whole world, and nothing but the world, outside
which were only the nibbled remains of what had built it. This,
world of Society, in which he felt like one travelling through a
desert, longing to meet a fellow-creature.

The voice of Harbinger behind them said:

"Lady-Babs!"

Long did the punkahs waft their breeze over that brave-hued wheel of
pleasure, and the sound of the violins quaver and wail out into the
morning. Then quickly, as the spangles of dew vanish off grass when
the sun rises, all melted away; and in the great rooms were none but
flunkeys presiding over the polished surfaces like flamingoes by some
lakeside at dawn.




The Patrician by John Galsworthy
Category:
Contemporary

General Fiction
Nabou.com: the big site