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CHAPTER IX

In the lesser withdrawing room, used when there was so small a party,
Mrs. Winlow had gone to the piano and was playing to herself, for
Lady Casterley, Lady Valleys, and her two daughters had drawn
together as though united to face this invading rumour.

It was curious testimony to Miltoun's character that, no more here
than in the dining-hall, was there any doubt of the integrity of his
relations with Mrs. Noel. But whereas, there the matter was confined
to its electioneering aspect, here that aspect was already perceived
to be only the fringe of its importance. Those feminine minds, going
with intuitive swiftness to the core of anything which affected their
own males, had already grasped the fact that the rumour would, as it
were, chain a man of Miltoun's temper to this woman.

But they were walking on such a thin crust of facts, and there was so
deep a quagmire of supposition beneath, that talk was almost
painfully difficult. Never before perhaps had each of these four
women realized so clearly how much Miltoun--that rather strange and
unknown grandson, son, and brother--counted in the scheme of
existence. Their suppressed agitation was manifested in very
different ways. Lady Casterley, upright in her chair, showed it only
by an added decision of speech, a continual restless movement of one
hand, a thin line between her usually smooth brows. Lady Valleys
wore a puzzled look, as if a little surprised that she felt serious.
Agatha looked frankly anxious. She was in her quiet way a woman of
much character, endowed with that natural piety, which accepts
without questioning the established order in life and religion. The
world to her being home and family, she had a real, if gently
expressed, horror of all that she instinctively felt to be subversive
of this ideal. People judged her a little quiet, dull, and narrow;
they compared her to a hen for ever clucking round her chicks. The
streak of heroism that lay in her nature was not perhaps of patent
order. Her feeling about her brother's situation however was sincere
and not to be changed or comforted. She saw him in danger of being
damaged in the only sense in which she could conceive of a man--as a
husband and a father. It was this that went to her heart, though her
piety proclaimed to her also the peril of his soul; for she shared
the High Church view of the indissolubility of marriage.

As to Barbara, she stood by the hearth, leaning her white shoulders
against the carved marble, her hands behind her, looking down. Now
and then her lips curled, her level brows twitched, a faint sigh came
from her; then a little smile would break out, and be instantly
suppressed. She alone was silent--Youth criticizing Life; her
judgment voiced itself only in the untroubled rise and fall of her
young bosom, the impatience of her brows, the downward look of her
blue eyes, full of a lazy, inextinguishable light:

Lady Valleys sighed.

"If only he weren't such a queer boy! He's quite capable of marrying
her from sheer perversity."

"What!" said Lady Casterley.

"You haven't seen her, my dear. A most unfortunately attractive
creature--quite a charming face."

Agatha said quietly:

"Mother, if she was divorced, I don't think Eustace would."

"There's that, certainly," murmured Lady Valleys; "hope for the
best!"

"Don't you even know which way it was?" said Lady Casterley.

"Well, the vicar says she did the divorcing. But he's very
charitable; it may be as Agatha hopes."

"I detest vagueness. Why doesn't someone ask the woman?"

"You shall come with me, Granny dear, and ask her yourself; you will
do it so nicely."

Lady Casterley looked up.

"We shall see," she said. Something struggled with the autocratic
criticism in her eyes. No more than the rest of the world could she
help indulging Barbara. As one who believed in the divinity of her
order, she liked this splendid child. She even admired--though
admiration was not what she excelled in--that warm joy in life, as of
some great nymph, parting the waves with bare limbs, tossing from her
the foam of breakers. She felt that in this granddaughter, rather
than in the good Agatha, the patrician spirit was housed. There were
points to Agatha, earnestness and high principle; but something
morally narrow and over-Anglican slightly offended the practical,
this-worldly temper of Lady Casteriey. It was a weakness, and she
disliked weakness. Barbara would never be squeamish over moral
questions or matters such as were not really, essential to
aristocracy. She might, indeed, err too much the other way from
sheer high spirits. As the impudent child had said: "If people had
no pasts, they would have no futures." And Lady Casterley could not
bear people without futures. She was ambitious; not with the low
ambition of one who had risen from nothing, but with the high passion
of one on the top, who meant to stay there.

"And where have you been meeting this--er--anonymous creature?" she
asked.

Barbara came from the hearth, and bending down beside Lady
Casterley's chair, seemed to envelop her completely.

"I'm all right, Granny; she couldn't corrupt me."

Lady Casterley's face peered out doubtfully from that warmth, wearing
a look of disapproving pleasure.

"I know your wiles!" she said. "Come, now!"

"I see her about. She's nice to look at. We talk."

Again with that hurried quietness Agatha said:

"My dear Babs, I do think you ought to wait."

"My dear Angel, why? What is it to me if she's had four husbands?"

Agatha bit her lips, and Lady Valleys murmured with a laugh:

"You really are a terror, Babs."

But the sound of Mrs. Winlow's music had ceased--the men had come in.
And the faces of the four women hardened, as if they had slipped on
masks; for though this was almost or quite a family party, the
Winlows being second cousins, still the subject was one which each of
these four in their very different ways felt to be beyond general
discussion. Talk, now, began glancing from the war scare--Winlow had
it very specially that this would be over in a week--to Brabrook's
speech, in progress at that very moment, of which Harbinger provided
an imitation. It sped to Winlow's flight--to Andrew Grant's articles
in the 'Parthenon'--to the caricature of Harbinger in the 'Cackler',
inscribed 'The New Tory. Lord H-rb-ng-r brings Social Reform beneath
the notice of his friends,' which depicted him introducing a naked
baby to a number of coroneted old ladies. Thence to a dancer.
Thence to the Bill for Universal Assurance. Then back to the war
scare; to the last book of a great French writer; and once more to
Winlow's flight. It was all straightforward and outspoken, each
seeming to say exactly what came into the head. For all that, there
was a curious avoidance of the spiritual significances of these
things; or was it perhaps that such significances were not seen?

Lord Dennis, at the far end of the room, studying a portfolio of
engravings, felt a touch on his cheek; and conscious of a certain
fragrance, said without turning his head:

"Nice things, these, Babs!"

Receiving no answer he looked up.

There indeed stood Barbara.

"I do hate sneering behind people's backs!"

There had always been good comradeship between these two, since the
days when Barbara, a golden-haired child, astride of a grey pony, had
been his morning companion in the Row all through the season. His
riding days were past; he had now no outdoor pursuit save fishing,
which he followed with the ironic persistence of a self-contained,
high-spirited nature, which refuses to admit that the mysterious
finger of old age is laid across it. But though she was no longer
his companion, he still had a habit of expecting her confidences; and
he looked after her, moving away from him to a window, with surprised
concern.

It was one of those nights, dark yet gleaming, when there seems a
flying malice in the heavens; when the stars, from under and above
the black clouds, are like eyes frowning and flashing down at men
with purposed malevolence. The great sighing trees even had caught
this spirit, save one, a dark, spire-like cypress, planted three
hundred and fifty years before, whose tall form incarnated the very
spirit of tradition, and neither swayed nor soughed like the others.
>From her, too close-fibred, too resisting, to admit the breath of
Nature, only a dry rustle came. Still almost exotic, in spite of her
centuries of sojourn, and now brought to life by the eyes of night,
she seemed almost terrifying, in her narrow, spear-like austerity, as
though something had dried and died within her soul. Barbara came
back from the window.

"We can't do anything in our lives, it seems to me," she said, "but
play at taking risks!"

Lord Dennis replied dryly:

"I don't think I understand, my dear."

"Look at Mr. Courtier!" muttered Barbara. "His life's so much more
risky altogether than any of our men folk lead. And yet they sneer
at him."

"Let's see, what has he done?"

"Oh! I dare say not very much; but it's all neck or nothing. But
what does anything matter to Harbinger, for instance? If his Social
Reform comes to nothing, he'll still be Harbinger, with fifty
thousand a year."

Lord Dennis looked up a little queerly.

"What! Is it possible you don't take the young man seriously, Babs?"

Barbara shrugged; a strap slipped a little off one white shoulder.

"It's all play really; and he knows it--you can tell that from his
voice. He can't help its not mattering, of course; and he knows that
too."

"I have heard that he's after you, Babs; is that true?"

"He hasn't caught me yet."

"Will he?"

Barbara's answer was another shrug; and, for all their statuesque
beauty, the movement of her shoulders was like the shrug of a little
girl in her pinafore.

"And this Mr. Courtier," said Lord Dennis dryly: "Are you after him?"

"I'm after everything; didn't you know that, dear?"

"In reason, my child."

"In reason, of course--like poor Eusty!" She stopped. Harbinger
himself was standing there close by, with an air as nearly
approaching reverence as was ever to be seen on him. In truth, the
way in which he was looking at her was almost timorous.

"Will you sing that song I like so much, Lady Babs?"

They moved away together; and Lord Dennis, gazing after that
magnificent young couple, stroked his beard gravely.




The Patrician by John Galsworthy
Category:
Contemporary

General Fiction
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