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By the side of little Ann, Barbara sat leaning back amongst the cushions of the car. In spite of being already launched into high-caste life which brings with it an early knowledge of the world, she had still some of the eagerness in her face which makes children lovable. Yet she looked negligently enough at the citizens of Bucklandbury, being already a little conscious of the strange mixture of sentiment peculiar to her countrymen in presence of herself--that curious expression on their faces resulting from the continual attempt to look down their noses while slanting their eyes upwards. Yes, she was already alive to that mysterious glance which had built the national house and insured it afterwards--foe to cynicism, pessimism, and anything French or Russian; parent of all the national virtues, and all the national vices; of idealism and muddle-headedness, of independence and servility; fosterer of conduct, murderer of speculation; looking up, and looking down, but never straight at anything; most high, most deep, most queer; and ever bubbling-up from the essential Well of Emulation.
Surrounded by that glance, waiting for Courtier, Barbara, not less British than her neighbours, was secretly slanting her own eyes up and down over the absent figure of her new acquaintance. She too wanted something she could look up to, and at the same time see damned first. And in this knight-errant it seemed to her that she had got it.
He was a creature from another world. She had met many men, but not as yet one quite of this sort. It was rather nice to be with a clever man, who had none the less done so many outdoor things, been through so many bodily adventures. The mere writers, or even the 'Bohemians,' whom she occasionally met, were after all only 'chaplains to the Court,' necessary to keep aristocracy in touch with the latest developments of literature and art. But this Mr. Courtier was a man of action; he could not be looked on with the amused, admiring toleration suited to men remarkable only for ideas, and the way they put them into paint or ink. He had used, and could use, the sword, even in the cause of Peace. He could love, had loved, or so they said: If Barbara had been a girl of twenty in another class, she would probably never have heard of this, and if she had heard, it might very well have dismayed or shocked her. But she had heard, and without shock, because she had already learned that men were like that, and women too sometimes.
It was with quite a little pang of concern that she saw him hobbling down the street towards her; and when he was once more seated, she told the chauffeur: "To the station, Frith. Quick, please!" and began:
"You are not to be trusted a bit. What were you doing?"
But Courtier smiled grimly over the head of Ann, in silence.
At this, almost the first time she had ever yet encountered a distinct rebuff, Barbara quivered, as though she had been touched lightly with a whip. Her lips closed firmly, her eyes began to dance. "Very well, my dear," she thought. But presently stealing a look at him, she became aware of such a queer expression on his face, that she forgot she was offended.
"Is anything wrong, Mr. Courtier?"
"Yes, Lady Barbara, something is very wrong--that miserable mean thing, the human tongue."
Barbara had an intuitive knowledge of how to handle things, a kind of moral sangfroid, drawn in from the faces she had watched, the talk she had heard, from her youth up. She trusted those intuitions, and letting her eyes conspire with his over Ann's brown hair, she said:
"Anything to do with Mrs. N-----?" Seeing "Yes" in his eyes, she added quickly: "And M-----?"
"I thought that was coming. Let them babble! Who cares?"
She caught an approving glance, and the word, "Good!"
But the car had drawn up at Bucklandbury Station.
The little grey figure of Lady Casterley, coming out of the station doorway, showed but slight sign of her long travel. She stopped to take the car in, from chauffeur to Courtier.
"Well, Frith!--Mr. Courtier, is it? I know your book, and I don't approve of you; you're a dangerous man--How do you do? I must have those two bags. The cart can bring the rest.... Randle, get up in front, and don't get dusty. Ann!" But Ann was already beside the chauffeur, having long planned this improvement. "H'm! So you've hurt your leg, sir? Keep still! We can sit three.... Now, my dear, I can kiss you! You've grown!"
Lady Casterley's kiss, once received, was never forgotten; neither perhaps was Barbara's. Yet they were different. For, in the case of Lady Casterley, the old eyes, bright and investigating, could be seen deciding the exact spot for the lips to touch; then the face with its firm chin was darted forward; the lips paused a second, as though to make quite certain, then suddenly dug hard and dry into the middle of the cheek, quavered for the fraction of a second as if trying to remember to be soft, and were relaxed like the elastic of a catapult. And in the case of Barbara, first a sort of light came into her eyes, then her chin tilted a little, then her lips pouted a little, her body quivered, as if it were getting a size larger, her hair breathed, there was a small sweet sound; it was over.
Thus kissing her grandmother, Barbara resumed her seat, and looked at Courtier. 'Sitting three' as they were, he was touching her, and it seemed to her somehow that he did not mind.
The wind had risen, blowing from the West, and sunshine was flying on it. The call of the cuckoos--a little sharpened--followed the swift-travelling car. And that essential sweetness of the moor, born of the heather roots and the South-West wind, was stealing out from under the young ferns.
With her thin nostrils distended to this scent, Lady Casterley bore a distinct resemblance to a small, fine game-bird.
"You smell nice down here," she said. "Now, Mr. Courtier, before I forget--who is this Mrs. Lees Noel that I hear so much of?"
At that question, Barbara could not help sliding her eyes round. How would he stand up to Granny? It was the moment to see what he was made of. Granny was terrific!
"A very charming woman, Lady Casterley."
"No doubt; but I am tired of hearing that. What is her story?"
"Has she one?"
"Ha!" said Lady Casterley.
Ever so slightly Barbara let her arm press against Courtiers. It was so delicious to hear Granny getting no forwarder.
"I may take it she has a past, then?"
"Not from me, Lady Casterley."
Again Barbara gave him that imperceptible and flattering touch.
"Well, this is all very mysterious. I shall find out for myself. You know her, my dear. You must take me to see her."
"Dear Granny! If people hadn't pasts, they wouldn't have futures."
Lady Casterley let her little claw-like hand descend on her grand-daughter's thigh.
"Don't talk nonsense, and don't stretch like that!" she said; "you're too large already...."
At dinner that night they were all in possession of the news. Sir William had been informed by the local agent at Staverton, where Lord Harbinger's speech had suffered from some rude interruptions. The Hon. Geoffrey Winlow; having sent his wife on, had flown over in his biplane from Winkleigh, and brought a copy of 'the rag' with him. The one member of the small house-party who had not heard the report before dinner was Lord Dennis Fitz-Harold, Lady Casterley's brother.
Little, of course, was said. But after the ladies had withdrawn, Harbinger, with that plain-spoken spontaneity which was so unexpected, perhaps a little intentionally so, in connection with his almost classically formed face, uttered words to the effect that, if they did not fundamentally kick that rumour, it was all up with Miltoun. Really this was serious! And the beggars knew it, and they were going to work it. And Miltoun had gone up to Town, no one knew what for. It was the devil of a mess!
In all the conversation of this young man there was that peculiar brand of voice, which seems ever rebutting an accusation of being serious--a brand of voice and manner warranted against anything save ridicule; and in the face of ridicule apt to disappear. The words, just a little satirically spoken: "What is, my dear young man?" stopped him at once.
Looking for the complement and counterpart of Lady Casterley, one would perhaps have singled out her brother. All her abrupt decision was negated in his profound, ironical urbanity. His voice and look and manner were like his velvet coat, which had here and there a whitish sheen, as if it had been touched by moonlight. His hair too had that sheen. His very delicate features were framed in a white beard and moustache of Elizabethan shape. His eyes, hazel and still clear, looked out very straight, with a certain dry kindliness. His face, though unweathered and unseamed, and much too fine and thin in texture, had a curious affinity to the faces of old sailors or fishermen who have lived a simple, practical life in the light of an overmastering tradition. It was the face of a man with a very set creed, and inclined to be satiric towards innovations, examined by him and rejected full fifty years ago. One felt that a brain not devoid either of subtlety or aesthetic quality had long given up all attempts to interfere with conduct; that all shrewdness of speculation had given place to shrewdness of practical judgment based on very definite experience. Owing to lack of advertising power, natural to one so conscious of his dignity as to have lost all care for it, and to his devotion to a certain lady, only closed by death, his life had been lived, as it were, in shadow. Still, he possessed a peculiar influence in Society, because it was known to be impossible to get him to look at things in a complicated way. He was regarded rather as a last resort, however. "Bad as that? Well, there's old Fitz-Harold! Try him! He won't advise you, but he'll say something."
And in the heart of that irreverent young man, Harbinger, there stirred a sort of misgiving. Had he expressed himself too freely? Had he said anything too thick? He had forgotten the old boy! Stirring Bertie up with his foot, he murmured "Forgot you didn't know, sir. Bertie will explain."
Thus called on, Bertie, opening his lips a very little way, and fixing his half-closed eyes on his great-uncle, explained. There was a lady at the cottage--a nice woman--Mr. Courtier knew her--old Miltoun went there sometimes--rather late the other evening--these devils were making the most of it--suggesting--lose him the election, if they didn't look out. Perfect rot, of course!
In his opinion, old Miltoun, though as steady as Time, had been a flat to let the woman come out with him on to the Green, showing clearly where he had been, when he ran to Courtier's rescue. You couldn't play about with women who had no form that anyone knew anything of, however promising they might look.
Then, out of a silence Winlow asked: What was to be done? Should Miltoun be wired for? A thing like this spread like wildfire! Sir William--a man not accustomed to underrate difficulties--was afraid it was going to be troublesome. Harbinger expressed the opinion that the editor ought to be kicked. Did anybody know what Courtier had done when he heard of it. Where was he--dining in his room? Bertie suggested that if Miltoun was at Valleys House, it mightn't be too late to wire to him. The thing ought to be stemmed at once! And in all this concern about the situation there kept cropping out quaint little outbursts of desire to disregard the whole thing as infernal insolence, and metaphorically to punch the beggars' heads, natural to young men of breeding.
Then, out of another silence came the voice of Lord Dennis:
"I am thinking of this poor lady."
Turning a little abruptly towards that dry suave voice, and recovering the self-possession which seldom deserted him, Harbinger murmured:
"Quite so, sir; of course!"
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