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CHAPTER III

A brick dower-house of the Fitz-Harolds, just outside the little
seaside town of Nettlefold, sheltered the tranquil days of Lord
Dennis. In that south-coast air, sanest and most healing in all
England, he raged very slowly, taking little thought of death, and
much quiet pleasure in his life. Like the tall old house with its
high windows and squat chimneys, he was marvellously self-contained.
His books, for he somewhat passionately examined old civilizations,
and described their habits from time to time with a dry and not too
poignant pen in a certain old-fashioned magazine; his microscope, for
he studied infusoria; and the fishing boat of his friend John Bogle,
who had long perceived that Lord Dennis was the biggest fish he ever
caught; all these, with occasional visitors, and little runs to
London, to Monkland, and other country houses, made up the sum of a
life which, if not desperately beneficial, was uniformly kind and
harmless, and, by its notorious simplicity, had a certain negative
influence not only on his own class but on the relations of that
class with the country at large. It was commonly said in Nettlefold,
that he was a gentleman; if they were all like him there wasn't much
in all this talk against the Lords. The shop people and lodging-
house keepers felt that the interests of the country were safer in
his hands: than in the hands of people who wanted to meddle with
everything for the good of those who were only anxious to be let
alone. A man too who could so completely forget he was the son of a
Duke, that other people never forgot it, was the man for their money.
It was true that he had never had a say in public affairs; but this
was overlooked, because he could have had it if he liked, and the
fact that he did not like, only showed once more that he was a
gentleman.

Just as he was the one personality of the little town against whom
practically nothing was ever, said, so was his house the one house
which defied criticism. Time had made it utterly suitable. The
ivied walls, and purplish roof lichened yellow in places, the quiet
meadows harbouring ponies and kine, reaching from it to the sea--all
was mellow. In truth it made all the other houses of the town seem
shoddy--standing alone beyond them, like its, master, if anything a
little too esthetically remote from common wants.

He had practically no near neighbours of whom he saw anything, except
once in a way young Harbinger three miles distant at Whitewater. But
since he had the faculty of not being bored with his own society,
this did not worry him. Of local charity, especially to the fishers
of the town, whose winter months were nowadays very bare of profit,
he was prodigal to the verge of extravagance, for his income was not
great. But in politics, beyond acting as the figure-head of certain
municipal efforts, he took little or no part. His Toryism indeed was
of the mild order, that had little belief in the regeneration of the
country by any means but those of kindly feeling between the classes.
When asked how that was to be brought about, he would answer with his
dry, slightly malicious, suavity, that if you stirred hornets' nests
with sticks the hornets would come forth. Having no land, he was shy
of expressing himself on that vexed question; but if resolutely
attacked would give utterance to some such sentiment as this: "The
land's best in our hands on the whole, but we want fewer dogs-in-the-
manger among us."

He had, as became one of his race, a feeling for land, tender and
protective, and could not bear to think of its being put out to farm
with that cold Mother, the State. He was ironical over the views of
Radicals or Socialists, but disliked to hear such people personally
abused behind their backs. It must be confessed, however, that if
contradicted he increased considerably the ironical decision of his
sentiments. Withdrawn from all chance in public life of enforcing
his views on others, the natural aristocrat within him was forced to
find some expression.

Each year, towards the end of July, he placed his house at the
service of Lord Valleys, who found it a convenient centre for
attending Goodwood.

It was on the morning after the Duchess of Gloucester's Ball, that he
received this note:

"VALLEYS HOUSE.
"DEAREST UNCLE DENNIS,

"May I come down to you a little before time and rest? London is so
terribly hot. Mother has three functions still to stay for, and I
shall have to come back again for our last evening, the political
one--so I don't want to go all the way to Monkland; and anywhere
else, except with you, would be rackety. Eustace looks so seedy.
I'll try and bring him, if I may. Granny is terribly well.

"Best love, dear, from your.
"BABS."

The same afternoon she came, but without Miltoun, driving up from the
station in a fly. Lord Dennis met her at the gate; and, having
kissed her, looked at her somewhat anxiously, caressing his white
peaked beard. He had never yet known Babs sick of anything, except
when he took her out in John Bogle's boat. She was certainly looking
pale, and her hair was done differently--a fact disturbing to one who
did not discover it. Slipping his arm through hers he led her out
into a meadow still full of buttercups, where an old white pony, who
had carried her in the Row twelve years ago, came up to them and
rubbed his muzzle against her waist. And suddenly there rose in Lord
Dennis the thoroughly discomforting and strange suspicion that,
though the child was not going to cry, she wanted time to get over
the feeling that she was. Without appearing to separate himself from
her, he walked to the wall at the end of the field, and stood looking
at the sea.

The tide was nearly up; the South wind driving over it brought him
the scent of the sea-flowers, and the crisp rustle of little waves
swimming almost to his feet. Far out, where the sunlight fell, the
smiling waters lay white and mysterious in July haze, giving him a
queer feeling. But Lord Dennis, though he had his moments of poetic
sentiment, was on the whole quite able to keep the sea in its proper
place--for after all it was the English Channel; and like a good
Englishman he recognized that if you once let things get away from
their names, they ceased to be facts, and if they ceased to be facts,
they became--the devil! In truth he was not thinking much of the
sea, but of Barbara. It was plain that she was in trouble of some
kind. And the notion that Babs could find trouble in life was
extraordinarily queer; for he felt, subconsciously, what a great
driving force of disturbance was necessary to penetrate the hundred
folds of the luxurious cloak enwrapping one so young and fortunate.
It was not Death; therefore it must be Love; and he thought at once
of that fellow with the red moustaches. Ideas were all very well--no
one would object to as many as you liked, in their proper place--the
dinner-table, for example. But to fall in love, if indeed it were
so, with a man who not only had ideas, but an inclination to live up
to them, and on them, and on nothing else, seemed to Lord Dennis
'outre'.

She had followed him to the wall, and he looked--at her dubiously.

"To rest in the waters of Lethe, Babs? By the way, seen anything of
our friend Mr. Courtier? Very picturesque--that Quixotic theory of
life!"

And in saying that, his voice (like so many refined voices which have
turned their backs on speculation) was triple-toned-mocking at ideas,
mocking at itself for mocking at ideas, yet showing plainly that at
bottom it only mocked at itself for mocking at ideas, because it
would be, as it were, crude not to do so.

But Barbara did not answer his question, and began to speak of other
things. And all that afternoon and evening she talked away so
lightly that Lord Dennis, but for his instinct, would have been
deceived.

That wonderful smiling mask--the inscrutability of Youth--was laid
aside by her at night. Sitting at her window, under the moon,
'a gold-bright moth slow-spinning up the sky,' she watched the
darkness hungrily, as though it were a great thought into whose heart
she was trying to see. Now and then she stroked herself, getting
strange comfort out of the presence of her body. She had that old
unhappy feeling of having two selves within her. And this soft night
full of the quiet stir of the sea, and of dark immensity, woke in her
a terrible longing to be at one with something, somebody, outside
herself. At the Ball last night the 'flying feeling' had seized on
her again; and was still there--a queer manifestation of her streak
of recklessness. And this result of her contacts with Courtier, this
'cacoethes volandi', and feeling of clipped wings, hurt her--as being
forbidden hurts a child.

She remembered how in the housekeeper's room at Monkland there lived
a magpie who had once sought shelter in an orchid-house from some
pursuer. As soon as they thought him wedded to civilization, they
had let him go, to see whether he would come back. For hours he had
sat up in a high tree, and at last come down again to his cage;
whereupon, fearing lest the rooks should attack him when he next took
this voyage of discovery, they clipped one of his wings. After that
the twilight bird, though he lived happily enough, hopping about his
cage and the terrace which served him for exercise yard, would seem
at times restive and frightened, moving his wings as if flying in
spirit, and sad that he must stay on earth.

So, too, at her window Barbara fluttered her wings; then, getting
into bed, lay sighing and tossing. A clock struck three; and seized
by an intolerable impatience at her own discomfort, she slipped a
motor coat over her night-gown, put on slippers, and stole out into
the passage. The house was very still. She crept downstairs,
smothering her footsteps. Groping her way through the hall,
inhabited by the thin ghosts of would-be light, she slid back the
chain of the door, and fled towards the sea. She made no more noise
running in the dew, than a bird following the paths of air; and the
two ponies, who felt her figure pass in the darkness, snuffled,
sending out soft sighs of alarm amongst the closed buttercups. She
climbed the wall over to the beach. While she was running, she had
fully meant to dash into the sea and cool herself, but it was so
black, with just a thin edging scarf of white, and the sky was black,
bereft of lights, waiting for the day!

She stood, and looked. And all the leapings and pulsings of flesh
and spirit slowly died in that wide dark loneliness, where the only
sound was the wistful breaking of small waves. She was well used to
these dead hours--only last night, at this very time, Harbinger's arm
had been round her in a last waltz! But here the dead hours had such
different faces, wide-eyed, solemn, and there came to Barbara,
staring out at them, a sense that the darkness saw her very soul, so
that it felt little and timid within her. She shivered in her fur-
lined coat, as if almost frightened at finding herself so
marvellously nothing before that black sky and dark sea, which seemed
all one, relentlessly great.... And crouching down, she waited for
the dawn to break.

It came from over the Downs, sweeping a rush of cold air on its
wings, flighting towards the sea. With it the daring soon crept back
into her blood. She stripped, and ran down into the dark water, fast
growing pale. It covered her jealously, and she set to work to swim.
The water was warmer than the air. She lay on her back and splashed,
watching the sky flush. To bathe like this in the half-dark, with
her hair floating out, and no wet clothes clinging to her limbs, gave
her the joy of a child doing a naughty thing. She swam out of her
depth, then scared at her own adventure, swam in again as the sun
rose.

She dashed into her two garments, climbed the wall, and scurried back
to the house. All her dejection, and feverish uncertainty were gone;
she felt keen, fresh, terribly hungry, and stealing into the dark
dining-room, began rummaging for food. She found biscuits, and was
still munching, when in the open doorway she saw Lord Dennis, a
pistol in one hand and a lighted candle in the other. With his
carved features and white beard above an old blue dressing-gown, he
looked impressive, having at the moment a distinct resemblance to
Lady Casterley, as though danger had armoured him in steel.

"You call this resting!" he said, dryly; then, looking at her drowned
hair, added: "I see you have already entrusted your trouble to the
waters of Lethe."

But without answer Barbara vanished into the dim hall and up the
stairs.




The Patrician by John Galsworthy
Category:
Contemporary

General Fiction
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