In a very high, white-pannelled room, with but little furniture, Lord
Valleys greeted his mother-in-law respectfully.
"Motored up in nine hours, Ma'am--not bad going."
"I am glad you came. When is Miltoun's election?"
"On the twenty-ninth."
"Pity! He should be away from Monkland, with that--anonymous woman
"Ah! yes; you've heard of her!"
Lady Casterley replied sharply:
"You're too easy-going, Geoffrey."
Lord Valleys smiled.
"These war scares," he said, "are getting a bore. Can't quite make
out what the feeling of the country is about them."
Lady Casterley rose:
"It has none. When war comes, the feeling will be all right. It
always is. Give me your arm. Are you hungry?"...
When Lord Valleys spoke of war, he spoke as one who, since he arrived
at years of discretion, had lived within the circle of those who
direct the destinies of States. It was for him--as for the lilies in
the great glass house--impossible to see with the eyes, or feel with
the feelings of a flower of the garden outside. Soaked in the best
prejudices and manners of his class, he lived a life no more shut off
from the general than was to be expected. Indeed, in some sort, as a
man of facts and common sense, he was fairly in touch with the
opinion of the average citizen. He was quite genuine when he said
that he believed he knew what the people wanted better than those who
prated on the subject; and no doubt he was right, for temperamentally
he was nearer to them than their own leaders, though he would not
perhaps have liked to be told so. His man-of-the-world, political
shrewdness had been superimposed by life on a nature whose prime
strength was its practicality and lack of imagination. It was his
business to be efficient, but not strenuous, or desirous of pushing
ideas to their logical conclusions; to be neither narrow nor
puritanical, so long as the shell of 'good form' was preserved
intact; to be a liberal landlord up to the point of not seriously
damaging his interests; to be well-disposed towards the arts until
those arts revealed that which he had not before perceived; it was
his business to have light hands, steady eyes, iron nerves, and those
excellent manners that have no mannerisms. It was his nature to be
easy-going as a husband; indulgent as a father; careful and
straightforward as a politician; and as a man, addicted to pleasure,
to work, and to fresh air. He admired, and was fond of his wife, and
had never regretted his marriage. He had never perhaps regretted
anything, unless it were that he had not yet won the Derby, or quite
succeeded in getting his special strain of blue-ticked pointers to
breed absolutely true to type. His mother-in-law he respected, as
one might respect a principle.
There was indeed in the personality of that little old lady the
tremendous force of accumulated decision--the inherited assurance of
one whose prestige had never been questioned; who, from long
immunity, and a certain clear-cut matter-of-factness, bred by the
habit of command, had indeed lost the power of perceiving that her
prestige ever could be questioned. Her knowledge of her own mind was
no ordinary piece of learning, had not, in fact, been learned at all,
but sprang full-fledged from an active dominating temperament.
Fortified by the necessity, common to her class, of knowing
thoroughly the more patent side of public affairs; armoured by the
tradition of a culture demanded by leadership; inspired by ideas, but
always the same ideas; owning no master, but in servitude to her own
custom of leading, she had a mind, formidable as the two-edged swords
wielded by her ancestors the Fitz-Harolds, at Agincourt or Poitiers--
a mind which had ever instinctively rejected that inner knowledge of
herself or of the selves of others; produced by those foolish
practices of introspection, contemplation, and understanding, so
deleterious to authority. If Lord Valleys was the body of the
aristocratic machine, Lady Casterley was the steel spring inside it.
All her life studiously unaffected and simple in attire; of plain and
frugal habit; an early riser; working at something or other from
morning till night, and as little worn-out at seventy-eight as most
women of fifty, she had only one weak spot--and that was her
strength--blindness as to the nature and size of her place in the
scheme of things. She was a type, a force.
Wonderfully well she went with the room in which they were dining,
whose grey walls, surmounted by a deep frieze painted somewhat in the
style of Fragonard, contained many nymphs and roses now rather dim;
with the furniture, too, which had a look of having survived into
times not its own. On the tables were no flowers, save five lilies
in an old silver chalice; and on the wall over the great sideboard a
portrait of the late Lord Casterley.
"I hope Miltoun is taking his own line?"
"That's the trouble. He suffers from swollen principles--only wish
he could keep them out of his speeches."
"Let him be; and get him away from that woman as soon as his
election's over. What is her real name?"
"Mrs. something Lees Noel."
"How long has she been there?"
"About a year, I think."
"And you don't know anything about her?"
Lord Valleys raised his shoulders.
"Ah!" said Lady Casterley; "exactly! You're letting the thing drift.
I shall go down myself. I suppose Gertrude can have me? What has
that Mr. Courtier to do with this good lady?"
Lord Valleys smiled. In this smile was the whole of his polite and
easy-going philosophy. "I am no meddler," it seemed to say; and at
sight of that smile Lady Casterley tightened her lips.
"He is a firebrand," she said. "I read that book of his against War-
-most inflammatory. Aimed at Grant-and Rosenstern, chiefly. I've
just seen, one of the results, outside my own gates. A mob of anti-
Lord Valleys controlled a yawn.
"Really? I'd no idea Courtier had any influence."
"He is dangerous. Most idealists are negligible-his book was
"I wish to goodness we could see the last of these scares, they only
make both countries look foolish," muttered Lord Valleys.
Lady Casterley raised her glass, full of a bloody red wine. "The war
would save us," she said.
"War is no joke."
"It would be the beginning of a better state of things."
"You think so?"
"We should get the lead again as a nation, and Democracy would be put
back fifty years."
Lord Valleys made three little heaps of salt, and paused to count
them; then, with a slight uplifting of his eyebrows, which seemed to
doubt what he was going to say, he murmured: "I should have said that
we were all democrats nowadays.... What is it, Clifton?"
"Your chauffeur would like to know, what time you will have the car?"
"Directly after dinner."
Twenty minutes later, he was turning through the scrolled iron gates
into the road for London. It was falling dark; and in the tremulous
sky clouds were piled up, and drifted here and there with a sort of
endless lack of purpose. No direction seemed to have been decreed
unto their wings. They had met together in the firmament like a
flock of giant magpies crossing and re-crossing each others' flight.
The smell of rain was in the air. The car raised no dust, but bored
swiftly on, searching out the road with its lamps. On Putney Bridge
its march was stayed by a string of waggons. Lord Valleys looked to
right and left. The river reflected the thousand lights of buildings
piled along her sides, lamps of the embankments, lanterns of moored
barges. The sinuous pallid body of this great Creature, for ever
gliding down to the sea, roused in his mind no symbolic image. He
had had to do with her, years back, at the Board of Trade, and knew
her for what she was, extremely dirty, and getting abominably thin
just where he would have liked her plump. Yet, as he lighted a
cigar, there came to him a queer feeling--as if he were in the
presence of a woman he was fond of.
"I hope to God," he thought, "nothing'il come of these scares!" The
car glided on into the long road, swarming with traffic, towards the
fashionable heart of London. Outside stationers' shops, however, the
posters of evening papers were of no reassuring order.
'THE PLOT THICKENS.'
'GRAVE SITUATION THREATENED.'
And before each poster could be seen a little eddy in the stream of
the passers-by--formed by persons glancing at the news, and
disengaging themselves, to press on again. The Earl of Valleys
caught himself wondering what they thought of it! What was passing
behind those pale rounds of flesh turned towards the posters?
Did they think at all, these men and women in the street? What was
their attitude towards this vaguely threatened cataclysm? Face after
face, stolid and apathetic, expressed nothing, no active desire,
certainly no enthusiasm, hardly any dread. Poor devils! The thing,
after all, was no more within their control than it was within the
power of ants to stop the ruination of their ant-heap by some passing
boy! It was no doubt quite true, that the people had never had much
voice in the making of war. And the words of a Radical weekly, which
as an impartial man he always forced himself to read, recurred to
him. "Ignorant of the facts, hypnotized by the words 'Country' and
'Patriotism'; in the grip of mob-instinct and inborn prejudice
against the foreigner; helpless by reason of his patience, stoicism,
good faith, and confidence in those above him; helpless by reason of
his snobbery, mutual distrust, carelessness for the morrow, and lack
of public spirit-in the face of War how impotent and to be pitied is
the man in the street!" That paper, though clever, always seemed to
him intolerably hifalutin'!
It was doubtful whether he would get to Ascot this year. And his
mind flew for a moment to his promising two-year-old Casetta; then
dashed almost violently, as though in shame, to the Admiralty and the
doubt whether they were fully alive to possibilities. He himself
occupied a softer spot of Government, one of those almost nominal
offices necessary to qualify into the Cabinet certain tried minds,
for whom no more strenuous post can for the moment be found. From
the Admiralty again his thoughts leaped to his mother-in-law.
Wonderful old woman! What a statesman she would have made! Too
reactionary! Deuce of a straight line she had taken about Mrs. Lees
Noel! And with a connoisseur's twinge of pleasure he recollected
that lady's face and figure seen that morning as he passed her
cottage. Mysterious or not, the woman was certainly attractive!
Very graceful head with its dark hair waved back from the middle over
either temple--very charming figure, no lumber of any sort! Bouquet
about her! Some story or other, no doubt--no affair of his! Always
sorry for that sort of woman!
A regiment of Territorials returning from a march stayed the progress
of his car. He leaned forward watching them with much the same
contained, shrewd, critical look he would have bent on a pack of
hounds. All the mistiness and speculation in his mind was gone now.
Good stamp of man, would give a capital account of themselves! Their
faces, flushed by a day in the open, were masked with passivity, or,
with a half-aggressive, half-jocular self-consciousness; they were
clearly not troubled by abstract doubts, or any visions of the
horrors of war.
Someone raised a cheer 'for the Terriers!' Lord Valleys saw round him
a little sea of hats, rising and falling, and heard a sound, rather
shrill and tentative, swell into hoarse, high clamour, and suddenly
die out. "Seem keen enough!" he thought. "Very little does it!
Plenty of fighting spirit in the country." And again a thrill of
pleasure shot through him.
Then, as the last soldier passed, his car slowly forged its way
through the straggling crowd, pressing on behind the regiment--men of
all ages, youths, a few women, young girls, who turned their eyes on
him with a negligent stare as if their lives were too remote to
permit them to take interest in this passing man at ease.