In a very high, white-panelled 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 living there."
"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-War agitators."
Lord Valleys controlled a yawn.
"Really? I'd no idea Courtier had any influence."
"He is dangerous. Most idealists are negligible-his book was clever."
"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'll 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.' 'MORE REVELATIONS.' '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.
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