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Chapter 17

When everything, that night, was quiet, Barbara, her hair hanging loose outside her dressing gown, slipped from her room into the dim corridor. With bare feet thrust into fur-crowned slippers which made no noise, she stole along looking at door after door. Through a long Gothic window, uncurtained, the mild moonlight was coming. She stopped just where that moonlight fell, and tapped. There came no answer. She opened the door a little way, and said:

"Are you asleep, Eusty?"

There still came no answer, and she went in.

The curtains were drawn, but a chink of moonlight peering through fell on the bed. This was empty. Barbara stood uncertain, listening. In the heart of that darkness there seemed to be, not sound, but, as it were, the muffled soul of sound, a sort of strange vibration, like that of a flame noiselessly licking the air. She put her hand to her heart, which beat as though it would leap through the thin silk covering. From what corner of the room was that mute tremor coming? Stealing to the window, she parted the curtains, and stared back into the shadows. There, on the far side, lying on the floor with his arms pressed tightly round his head and his face to the wall, was Miltoun. Barbara let fall the curtains, and stood breathless, with such a queer sensation in her breast as she had never felt; a sense of something outraged-of scarred pride. It was gone at once, in a rush of pity. She stepped forward quickly in the darkness, was visited by fear, and stopped. He had seemed absolutely himself all the evening. A little more talkative, perhaps, a little more caustic than usual. And now to find him like this! There was no great share of reverence in Barbara, but what little she possessed had always been kept for her eldest brother. He had impressed her, from a child, with his aloofness, and she had been proud of kissing him because he never seemed to let anybody else do so. Those caresses, no doubt, had the savour of conquest; his face had been the undiscovered land for her lips. She loved him as one loves that which ministers to one's pride; had for him, too, a touch of motherly protection, as for a doll that does not get on too well with the other dolls; and withal a little unaccustomed awe.

Dared she now plunge in on this private agony? Could she have borne that anyone should see herself thus prostrate? He had not heard her, and she tried to regain the door. But a board creaked; she heard him move, and flinging away her fears, said: "It's me! Babs!" and dropped on her knees beside him. If it had not been so pitch dark she could never have done that. She tried at once to take his head into her arms, but could not see it, and succeeded indifferently. She could but stroke his arm continually, wondering whether he would hate her ever afterwards, and blessing the darkness, which made it all seem as though it were not happening, yet so much more poignant than if it had happened. Suddenly she felt him slip away from her, and getting up, stole out. After the darkness of that room, the corridor seemed full of grey filmy light, as though dream-spiders had joined the walls with their cobwebs, in which innumerable white moths, so tiny that they could not be seen, were struggling. Small eerie noises crept about. A sudden frightened longing for warmth, and light, and colour came to Barbara. She fled back to her room. But she could not sleep. That terrible mute unseen vibration in the unlighted room-like the noiseless licking of a flame at bland air; the touch of Miltoun's hand, hot as fire against her cheek and neck; the whole tremulous dark episode, possessed her through and through. Thus had the wayward force of Love chosen to manifest itself to her in all its wistful violence. At this fiat sight of the red flower of passion her cheeks burned; up and down her, between the cool sheets, little hot cruel shivers ran; she lay, wide-eyed, staring at the ceiling. She thought, of the woman whom he so loved, and wondered if she too were lying sleepless, flung down on a bare floor, trying to cool her forehead and lips against a cold wall.

Not for hours did she fall asleep, and then dreamed of running desperately through fields full of tall spiky asphodel-like flowers, and behind her was running herself.

In the morning she dreaded to go down. Could she meet Miltoun now that she knew of the passion in him, and he knew that she knew it? She had her breakfast brought upstairs. Before she had finished Miltoun himself came in. He looked more than usually self-contained, not to say ironic, and only remarked: "If you're going to ride you might take this note for me over to old Haliday at Wippincott." By his coming she knew that he was saying all he ever meant to say about that dark incident. And sympathizing completely with a reticence which she herself felt to be the only possible way out for both of them, Barbara looked at him gratefully, took the note and said: "All right!"

Then, after glancing once or twice round the room, Miltoun went away.

He left her restless, divested of the cloak 'of course,' in a strange mood of questioning, ready as it were for the sight of the magpie wings of Life, and to hear their quick flutterings. Talk jarred on her that morning, with its sameness and attachment to the facts of the present and the future, its essential concern with the world as it was-she avoided all companionship on her ride. She wanted to be told of things that were not, yet might be, to peep behind the curtain, and see the very spirit of mortal happenings escaped from prison. And this was all so unusual with Barbara, whose body was too perfect, too sanely governed by the flow of her blood not to revel in the moment and the things thereof. She knew it was unusual. After her ride she avoided lunch, and walked out into the lanes. But about two o'clock, feeling very hungry, she went into a farmhouse, and asked for milk. There, in the kitchen, like young jackdaws in a row with their mouths a little open, were the three farm boys, seated on a bench gripped to the alcove of the great fire-way, munching bread and cheese. Above their heads a gun was hung, trigger upwards, and two hams were mellowing in the smoke. At the feet of a black-haired girl, who was slicing onions, lay a sheep dog of tremendous age, with nose stretched out on paws, and in his little blue eyes a gleam of approaching immortality. They all stared at, Barbara. And one of the boys, whose face had the delightful look of him who loses all sense of other things in what he is seeing at the moment, smiled, and continued smiling, with sheer pleasure. Barbara drank her milk, and wandered out again; passing through a gate at the bottom of a steep, rocky tor, she sat down on a sun-warmed stone. The sunlight fell greedily on her here, like an invisible swift hand touching her all over, and specially caressing her throat and face. A very gentle wind, which dived over the tor tops into the young fern; stole down at her, spiced with the fern sap. All was warmth and peace, and only the cuckoos on the far thorn trees--as though stationed by the Wistful Master himself--were there to disturb her heart: But all the sweetness and piping of the day did not soothe her. In truth, she could not have said what was the matter, except that she felt so discontented, and as it were empty of all but a sort of aching impatience with--what exactly she could not say. She had that rather dreadful feeling of something slipping by which she could not catch. It was so new to her to feel like that--for no girl was less given to moods and repinings. And all the time a sort of contempt for this soft and almost sentimental feeling made her tighten her lips and frown. She felt distrustful and sarcastic towards a mood so utterly subversive of that fetich 'Hardness,' to the unconscious worship of which she had been brought up. To stand no sentiment or nonsense either in herself or others was the first article of faith; not to slop-over anywhere. So that to feel as she did was almost horrible to Barbara. Yet she could not get rid of the sensation. With sudden recklessness she tried giving herself up to it entirely. Undoing the scarf at her throat, she let the air play on her bared neck, and stretched out her arms as if to hug the wind to her; then, with a sigh, she got up, and walked on. And now she began thinking of 'Anonyma'; turning her position over and over. The idea that anyone young and beautiful should thus be clipped off in her life, roused her impatient indignation. Let them try it with her! They would soon see! For all her cultivated 'hardness,' Barbara really hated anything to suffer. It seemed to her unnatural. She never went to that hospital where Lady Valleys had a ward, nor to their summer camp for crippled children, nor to help in their annual concert for sweated workers, without a feeling of such vehement pity that it was like being seized by the throat: Once, when she had been singing to them, the rows of wan, pinched faces below had been too much for her; she had broken down, forgotten her words, lost memory of the tune, and just ended her performance with a smile, worth more perhaps to her audience than those lost verses. She never came away from such sights and places without a feeling of revolt amounting almost to rage; and she only continued to go because she dimly knew that it was expected of her not to turn her back on such things, in her section of Society.

But it was not this feeling which made her stop before Mrs. Noel's cottage; nor was it curiosity. It was a quite simple desire to squeeze her hand.

'Anonyma' seemed taking her trouble as only those women who are no good at self-assertion can take things--doing exactly as she would have done if nothing had happened; a little paler than usual, with lips pressed rather tightly together.

They neither of them spoke at first, but stood looking, not at each other's faces, but at each other's breasts. At last Barbara stepped forward impulsively and kissed her.

After that, like two children who kiss first, and then make acquaintance, they stood apart, silent, faintly smiling. It had been given and returned in real sweetness and comradeship, that kiss, for a sign of womanhood making face against the world; but now that it was over, both felt a little awkward. Would that kiss have been given if Fate had been auspicious? Was it not proof of misery? So Mrs. Noel's smile seemed saying, and Barbara's smile unwillingly admitted. Perceiving that if they talked it could only be about the most ordinary things, they began speaking of music, flowers, and the queerness of bees' legs. But all the time, Barbara, though seemingly unconscious, was noting with her smiling eyes, the tiny movement's, by which one woman can tell what is passing in another. She saw a little quiver tighten the corner of the lips, the eyes suddenly grow large and dark, the thin blouse desperately rise and fall. And her fancy, quickened by last night's memory, saw this woman giving herself up to the memory of love in her thoughts. At this sight she felt a little of that impatience which the conquering feel for the passive, and perhaps just a touch of jealousy.

Whatever Miltoun decided, that would this woman accept! Such resignation, while it simplified things, offended the part of Barbara which rebelled against all inaction, all dictation, even from her favourite brother. She said suddenly:

"Are you going to do nothing? Aren't you going to try and free yourself? If I were in your position, I would never rest till I'd made them free me."

But Mrs. Noel did not answer; and sweeping her glance from that crown of soft dark hair, down the soft white figure, to the very feet, Barbara cried:

"I believe you are a fatalist."

Soon after that, not knowing what more to say, she went away. But walking home across the fields, where full summer was swinging on the delicious air and there was now no bull but only red cows to crop short the 'milk-maids' and buttercups, she suffered from this strange revelation of the strength of softness and passivity--as though she had seen in the white figure of 'Anonyma,' and heard in her voice something from beyond, symbolic, inconceivable, yet real.


John Galsworthy