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´╗┐Title: Michael
Author: Benson, E. F. (Edward Frederic), 1867-1940
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Michael" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



MICHAEL

by E. F. Benson



CHAPTER I


Though there was nothing visibly graceful about Michael Comber, he
apparently had the art of giving gracefully. He had already told his
cousin Francis, who sat on the arm of the sofa by his table, that there
was no earthly excuse for his having run into debt; but now when the
moment came for giving, he wrote the cheque quickly and eagerly, as if
thoroughly enjoying it, and passed it over to him with a smile that was
extraordinarily pleasant.

"There you are, then, Francis," he said; "and I take it from you that
that will put you perfectly square again. You've got to write to me,
remember, in two days' time, saying that you have paid those bills. And
for the rest, I'm delighted that you told me about it. In fact, I should
have been rather hurt if you hadn't."

Francis apparently had the art of accepting gracefully, which is more
difficult than the feat which Michael had so successfully accomplished.

"Mike, you're a brick," he said. "But then you always are a brick.
Thanks awfully."

Michael got up, and shuffled rather than walked across the room to the
bell by the fireplace. As long as he was sitting down his big arms and
broad shoulders gave the impression of strength, and you would have
expected to find when he got up that he was tall and largely made. But
when he rose the extreme shortness of his legs manifested itself, and
he appeared almost deformed. His hands hung nearly to his knees; he was
heavy, short, lumpish.

"But it's more blessed to give than to receive, Francis," he said. "I
have the best of you there."

"Well, it's pretty blessed to receive when you are in a tight place, as
I was," he said, laughing. "And I am so grateful."

"Yes, I know you are. And it's that which makes me feel rather cheap,
because I don't miss what I've given you. But that's distinctly not a
reason for your doing it again. You'll have tea, won't you?"

"Why, yes," said Francis, getting up, also, and leaning his elbow on
the chimney-piece, which was nearly on a level with the top of Michael's
head. And if Michael had gracefulness only in the art of giving,
Francis's gracefulness in receiving was clearly of a piece with the rest
of him. He was tall, slim and alert, with the quick, soft movements of
some wild animal. His face, brown with sunburn and pink with brisk-going
blood, was exceedingly handsome in a boyish and almost effeminate
manner, and though he was only eighteen months younger than his cousin,
he looked as if nine or ten years might have divided their ages.

"But you are a brick, Mike," he said again, laying his long, brown hand
on his cousin's shoulder. "I can't help saying it twice."

"Twice more than was necessary," said Michael, finally dismissing the
subject.

The room where they sat was in Michael's flat in Half Moon Street, and
high up in one of those tall, discreet-looking houses. The windows were
wide open on this hot July afternoon, and the bourdon hum of London,
where Piccadilly poured by at the street end, came in blended and
blunted by distance, but with the suggestion of heat, of movement, of
hurrying affairs. The room was very empty of furniture; there was a rug
or two on the parquet floor, a long, low bookcase taking up the end near
the door, a table, a sofa, three or four chairs, and a piano. Everything
was plain, but equally obviously everything was expensive, and the
general impression given was that the owner had no desire to be
surrounded by things he did not want, but insisted on the superlative
quality of the things he did. The rugs, for instance, happened to be of
silk, the bookcase happened to be Hepplewhite, the piano bore the most
eminent of makers' names. There were three mezzotints on the walls, a
dragon's-blood vase on the high, carved chimney-piece; the whole bore
the unmistakable stamp of a fine, individual taste.

"But there's something else I want to talk to you about, Francis," said
Michael, as presently afterwards they sat over their tea. "I can't say
that I exactly want your advice, but I should like your opinion. I've
done something, in fact, without asking anybody, but now that it's done
I should like to know what you think about it."

Francis laughed.

"That's you all over, Michael," he said. "You always do a thing first,
if you really mean to do it--which I suppose is moral courage--and then
you go anxiously round afterwards to see if other people approve,
which I am afraid looks like moral cowardice. I go on a different
plan altogether. I ascertain the opinion of so many people before I do
anything that I end by forgetting what I wanted to do. At least,
that seems a reasonable explanation for the fact that I so seldom do
anything."

Michael looked affectionately at the handsome boy who lounged
long-legged in the chair opposite him. Like many very shy persons, he
had one friend with whom he was completely unreserved, and that was
this cousin of his, for whose charm and insouciant brilliance he had so
adoring an admiration.

He pointed a broad, big finger at him.

"Yes, but when you are like that," he said, "you can just float along.
Other people float you. But I should sink heavily if I did nothing. I've
got to swim all the time."

"Well, you are in the army," said Francis. "That's as much swimming as
anyone expects of a fellow who has expectations. In fact, it's I who
have to swim all the time, if you come to think of it. You are somebody;
I'm not!"

Michael sat up and took a cigarette.

"But I'm not in the army any longer," he said. "That's just what I am
wanting to tell you."

Francis laughed.

"What do you mean?" he asked. "Have you been cashiered or shot or
something?"

"I mean that I wrote and resigned my commission yesterday," said
Michael. "If you had dined with me last night--as, by the way, you
promised to do--I should have told you then."

Francis got up and leaned against the chimney-piece. He was conscious of
not thinking this abrupt news as important as he felt he ought to think
it. That was characteristic of him; he floated, as Michael had lately
told him, finding the world an extremely pleasant place, full of warm
currents that took you gently forward without entailing the slightest
exertion. But Michael's grave and expectant face--that Michael who had
been so eagerly kind about meeting his debts for him--warned him that,
however gossamer-like his own emotions were, he must attempt to ballast
himself over this.

"Are you speaking seriously?" he asked.

"Quite seriously. I never did anything that was so serious."

"And that is what you want my opinion about?" he asked. "If so, you
must tell me more, Mike. I can't have an opinion unless you give me the
reasons why you did it. The thing itself--well, the thing itself doesn't
seem to matter so immensely. The significance of it is why you did it."

Michael's big, heavy-browed face lightened a moment. "For a fellow who
never thinks," he said, "you think uncommonly well. But the reasons are
obvious enough. You can guess sufficient reasons to account for it."

"Let's hear them anyhow," said Francis.

Michael clouded again.

"Surely they are obvious," he said. "No one knows better than me, unless
it is you, that I'm not like the rest of you. My mind isn't the build of
a guardsman's mind, any more than my unfortunate body is. Half our work,
as you know quite well, consists in being pleasant and in liking it.
Well, I'm not pleasant. I'm not breezy and cordial. I can't do it.
I make a task of what is a pastime to all of you, and I only shuffle
through my task. I'm not popular, I'm not liked. It's no earthly use
saying I am. I don't like the life; it seems to me senseless. And those
who live it don't like me. They think me heavy--just heavy. And I have
enough sensitiveness to know it."

Michael need not have stated his reasons, for his cousin could certainly
have guessed them; he could, too, have confessed to the truth of them.
Michael had not the light hand, which is so necessary when young men
work together in a companionship of which the cordiality is an essential
part of the work; neither had he in the social side of life that
particular and inimitable sort of easy self-confidence which, as he had
said just now, enables its owner to float. Except in years he was not
young; he could not manage to be "clubable"; he was serious and awkward
at a supper party; he was altogether without the effervescence which is
necessary in order to avoid flatness. He did his work also in the same
conscientious but leaden way; officers and men alike felt it. All this
Francis knew perfectly well; but instead of acknowledging it, he tried
quite fruitlessly to smooth it over.

"Aren't you exaggerating?" he asked.

Michael shook his head.

"Oh, don't tone it down, Francis!" he said. "Even if I was
exaggerating--which I don't for a moment admit--the effect on my general
efficiency would be the same. I think what I say is true."

Francis became more practical.

"But you've only been in the regiment three years," he said. "It won't
be very popular resigning after only three years."

"I have nothing much to lose on the score of popularity," remarked
Michael.

There was nothing pertinent that could be consoling here.

"And have you told your father?" asked Francis. "Does Uncle Robert
know?"

"Yes; I wrote to father this morning, and I'm going down to Ashbridge
to-morrow. I shall be very sorry if he disapproves."

"Then you'll be sorry," said Francis.

"I know, but it won't make any difference to my action. After all, I'm
twenty-five; if I can't begin to manage my life now, you may be sure I
never shall. But I know I'm right. I would bet on my infallibility. At
present I've only told you half my reasons for resigning, and already
you agree with me."

Francis did not contradict this.

"Let's hear the rest, then," he said.

"You shall. The rest is far more important, and rather resembles a
sermon."

Francis appropriately sat down again.

"Well, it's this," said Michael. "I'm twenty-five, and it is time that
I began trying to be what perhaps I may be able to be, instead of not
trying very much--because it's hopeless--to be what I can't be. I'm
going to study music. I believe that I could perhaps do something there,
and in any case I love it more than anything else. And if you love a
thing, you have certainly a better chance of succeeding in it than in
something that you don't love at all. I was stuck into the army for no
reason except that soldiering is among the few employments which it is
considered proper for fellows in my position--good Lord! how awful it
sounds!--proper for me to adopt. The other things that were open were
that I should be a sailor or a member of Parliament. But the soldier was
what father chose. I looked round the picture gallery at home the other
day; there are twelve Lord Ashbridges in uniform. So, as I shall be
Lord Ashbridge when father dies, I was stuck into uniform too, to be the
ill-starred thirteenth. But what has it all come to? If you think of it,
when did the majority of them wear their smart uniforms? Chiefly when
they went on peaceful parades or to court balls, or to the Sir Joshua
Reynolds of the period to be painted. They've been tin soldiers,
Francis! You're a tin soldier, and I've just ceased to be a tin soldier.
If there was the smallest chance of being useful in the army, by which
I mean standing up and being shot at because I am English, I would not
dream of throwing it up. But there's no such chance."

Michael paused a moment in his sermon, and beat out the ashes from his
pipe against the grate.

"Anyhow the chance is too remote," he said. "All the nations with armies
and navies are too much afraid of each other to do more than growl. Also
I happen to want to do something different with my life, and you can't
do anything unless you believe in what you are doing. I want to leave
behind me something more than the portrait of a tin soldier in the
dining-room at Ashbridge. After all, isn't an artistic profession
the greatest there is? For what counts, what is of value in the
world to-day? Greek statues, the Italian pictures, the symphonies of
Beethoven, the plays of Shakespeare. The people who have made beautiful
things are they who are the benefactors of mankind. At least, so the
people who love beautiful things think."

Francis glanced at his cousin. He knew this interesting vital side of
Michael; he was aware, too, that had anybody except himself been in the
room, Michael could not have shown it. Perhaps there might be people
to whom he could show it but certainly they were not those among whom
Michael's life was passed.

"Go on," he said encouragingly. "You're ripping, Mike."

"Well, the nuisance of it is that the things I am ripping about appear
to father to be a sort of indoor game. It's all right to play the piano,
if it's too wet to play golf. You can amuse yourself with painting if
there aren't any pheasants to shoot. In fact, he will think that my
wanting to become a musician is much the same thing as if I wanted to
become a billiard-marker. And if he and I talked about it till we were a
hundred years old, he could never possibly appreciate my point of view."

Michael got up and began walking up and down the room with his slow,
ponderous movement.

"Francis, it's a thousand pities that you and I can't change places," he
said. "You are exactly the son father would like to have, and I should
so much prefer being his nephew. However, you come next; that's one
comfort."

He paused a moment.

"You see, the fact is that he doesn't like me," he said. "He has no
sympathy whatever with my tastes, nor with what I am. I'm an awful trial
to him, and I don't see how to help it. It's pure waste of time, my
going on in the Guards. I do it badly, and I hate it. Now, you're made
for it; you're that sort, and that sort is my father's sort. But I'm
not; no one knows that better than myself. Then there's the question of
marriage, too."

Michael gave a mirthless laugh.

"I'm twenty-five, you see," he said, "and it's the family custom for the
eldest son to marry at twenty-five, just as he's baptised when he's a
certain number of weeks old, and confirmed when he is fifteen. It's part
of the family plan, and the Medes and Persians aren't in it when the
family plan is in question. Then, again, the lucky young woman has to be
suitable; that is to say, she must be what my father calls 'one of us.'
How I loathe that phrase! So my mother has a list of the suitable, and
they come down to Ashbridge in gloomy succession, and she and I are
sent out to play golf together or go on the river. And when, to our
unutterable relief, that is over, we hurry back to the house, and I
escape to my piano, and she goes and flirts with you, if you are there.
Don't deny it. And then another one comes, and she is drearier than the
last--at least, I am."

Francis lay back and laughed at this dismal picture of the rejection of
the fittest.

"But you're so confoundedly hard to please, Mike," he said. "There was
an awfully nice girl down at Ashbridge at Easter when I was there, who
was simply pining to take you. I've forgotten her name."

Michael clicked his fingers in a summary manner.

"There you are!" he said. "You and she flirted all the time, and three
months afterwards you don't even remember her name. If you had only been
me, you would have married her. As it was, she and I bored each other
stiff. There's an irony for you! But as for pining, I ask you whether
any girl in her senses could pine for me. Look at me, and tell me! Or
rather, don't look at me; I can't bear to be looked at."

Here was one of Michael's morbid sensitivenesses. He seldom forgot his
own physical appearance, the fact of which was to him appalling. His
stumpy figure with its big body, his broad, blunt-featured face, his
long arms, his large hands and feet, his clumsiness in movement were to
him of the nature of a constant nightmare, and it was only with Francis
and the ease that his solitary presence gave, or when he was occupied
with music that he wholly lost his self-consciousness in this respect.
It seemed to him that he must be as repulsive to others as he was to
himself, which was a distorted view of the case. Plain without doubt he
was, and of heavy and ungainly build; but his belief in the finality of
his uncouthness was morbid and imaginary, and half his inability to get
on with his fellows, no less than with the maidens who were brought
down in single file to Ashbridge, was due to this. He knew very well
how light-heartedly they escaped to the geniality and attractiveness of
Francis, and in the clutch of his own introspective temperament he could
not free himself from the handicap of his own sensitiveness, and, like
others, take himself for granted. He crushed his own power to please by
the weight of his judgments on himself.

"So there's another reason to complain of the irony of fate," he said.
"I don't want to marry anybody, and God knows nobody wants to marry me.
But, then, it's my duty to become the father of another Lord Ashbridge,
as if there had not been enough of them already, and his mother must
be a certain kind of girl, with whom I have nothing in common. So I
say that if only we could have changed places, you would have filled
my niche so perfectly, and I should have been free to bury myself in
Leipzig or Munich, and lived like the grub I certainly am, and have
drowned myself in a sea of music. As it is, goodness knows what my
father will say to the letter I wrote him yesterday, which he will have
received this morning. However, that will soon be patent, for I go down
there to-morrow. I wish you were coming with me. Can't you manage to for
a day or two, and help things along? Aunt Barbara will be there."

Francis consulted a small, green morocco pocket-book.

"Can't to-morrow," he said, "nor yet the day after. But perhaps I could
get a few days' leave next week."

"Next week's no use. I go to Baireuth next week."

"Baireuth? Who's Baireuth?" asked Francis.

"Oh, a man I know. His other name was Wagner, and he wrote some tunes."

Francis nodded.

"Oh, but I've heard of him," he said. "They're rather long tunes, aren't
they? At least I found them so when I went to the opera the other night.
Go on with your plans, Mike. What do you mean to do after that?"

"Go on to Munich and hear the same tunes over, again. After that I shall
come back and settle down in town and study."

"Play the piano?" asked Francis, amiably trying to enter into his
cousin's schemes.

Michael laughed.

"No doubt that will come into it," he said. "But it's rather as if
you told somebody you were a soldier, and he said: 'Oh, is that quick
march?'"

"So it is. Soldiering largely consists of quick march, especially when
it's more than usually hot."

"Well, I shall learn to play the piano," said Michael.

"But you play so rippingly already," said Francis cordially. "You played
all those songs the other night which you had never seen before. If you
can do that, there is nothing more you want to learn with the piano, is
there?"

"You are talking rather as father will talk," observed Michael.

"Am I? Well, I seem to be talking sense."

"You weren't doing what you seemed, then. I've got absolutely everything
to learn about the piano."

Francis rose.

"Then it is clear I don't understand anything about it," he said. "Nor,
I suppose, does Uncle Robert. But, really, I rather envy you, Mike.
Anyhow, you want to do and be something so much that you are gaily going
to face unpleasantnesses with Uncle Robert about it. Now, I wouldn't
face unpleasantnesses with anybody about anything I wanted to do, and I
suppose the reason must be that I don't want to do anything enough."

"The malady of not wanting," quoted Michael.

"Yes, I've got that malady. The ordinary things that one naturally does
are all so pleasant, and take all the time there is, that I don't want
anything particular, especially now that you've been such a brick--"

"Stop it," said Michael.

"Right; I got it in rather cleverly. I was saying that it must be rather
nice to want a thing so much that you'll go through a lot to get it.
Most fellows aren't like that."

"A good many fellows are jelly-fish," observed Michael.

"I suppose so. I'm one, you know. I drift and float. But I don't think I
sting. What are you doing to-night, by the way?"

"Playing the piano, I hope. Why?"

"Only that two fellows are dining with me, and I thought perhaps you
would come. Aunt Barbara sent me the ticket for a box at the Gaiety,
too, and we might look in there. Then there's a dance somewhere."

"Thanks very much, but I think I won't," said Michael. "I'm rather
looking forward to an evening alone."

"And that's an odd thing to look forward to," remarked Francis.

"Not when you want to play the piano. I shall have a chop here at eight,
and probably thump away till midnight."

Francis looked round for his hat and stick.

"I must go," he said. "I ought to have gone long ago, but I didn't want
to. The malady came in again. Most of the world have got it, you know,
Michael."

Michael rose and stood by his tall cousin.

"I think we English have got it," he said. "At least, the English you
and I know have got it. But I don't believe the Germans, for instance,
have. They're in deadly earnest about all sorts of things--music among
them, which is the point that concerns me. The music of the world is
German, you know!"

Francis demurred to this.

"Oh, I don't think so," he said. "This thing at the Gaiety is ripping, I
believe. Do come and see."


Michael resisted this chance of revising his opinion about the German
origin of music, and Francis drifted out into Piccadilly. It was already
getting on for seven o'clock, and the roadway and pavements were full of
people who seemed rather to contradict Michael's theory that the nation
generally suffered from the malady of not wanting, so eagerly and
numerously were they on the quest for amusement. Already the street was
a mass of taxicabs and private motors containing, each one of them, men
and women in evening dress, hurrying out to dine before the theatre
or the opera. Bright, eager faces peered out, with sheen of silk and
glitter of gems; they all seemed alert and prosperous and keen for the
daily hours of evening entertainment. A crowd similar in spirit pervaded
the pavements, white-shirted men with coat on arm stepped in and out
of swinging club doors and the example set by the leisured class seemed
copiously copied by those whom desks and shops had made prisoners
all day. The air of the whole town, swarming with the nation that is
supposed to make so grave an affair of its amusements, was indescribably
gay and lighthearted; the whole city seemed set on enjoying itself.
The buses that boomed along were packed inside and out, and each
was placarded with advertisement of some popular piece at theatre or
music-hall. Inside the Green Park the grass was populous with lounging
figures, who, unable to pay for indoor entertainment, were making the
most of what the coolness of sunset and grass supplied them with gratis;
the newsboards of itinerant sellers contained nothing of more serious
import than the result of cricket matches; and, as the dusk began to
fall, street lamps and signs were lit, like early rising stars, so that
no hint of the gathering night should be permitted to intrude on the
perpetually illuminated city. All that was sordid and sad, all that was
busy (except on these gay errands of pleasure) was shuffled away out of
sight, so that the pleasure seekers might be excused for believing that
there was nothing in the world that could demand their attention except
the need of amusing themselves successfully. The workers toiled in order
that when the working day was over the fruits of their labour might
yield a harvest of a few hours' enjoyment; silkworms had spun so that
from carriage windows might glimmer the wrappings made from their
cocoons; divers had been imperilled in deep seas so that the pearls they
had won might embellish the necks of these fair wearers.

To Francis this all seemed very natural and proper, part of the
recognised order of things that made up the series of sensations known
to him as life. He did not, as he had said, very particularly care
about anything, and it was undoubtedly true that there was no motive
or conscious purpose in his life for which he would voluntarily have
undergone any important stress of discomfort or annoyance. It was true
that in pursuance of his profession there was a certain amount of "quick
marching" and drill to be done in the heat, but that was incidental to
the fact that he was in the Guards, and more than compensated for by the
pleasures that were also naturally incidental to it. He would have been
quite unable to think of anything that he would sooner do than what
he did; and he had sufficient of the ingrained human tendency to do
something of the sort, which was a matter of routine rather than effort,
than have nothing whatever, except the gratification of momentary
whims, to fill his day. Besides, it was one of the conventions or even
conditions of life that every boy on leaving school "did" something for
a certain number of years. Some went into business in order to acquire
the wealth that should procure them leisure; some, like himself, became
soldiers or sailors, not because they liked guns and ships, but because
to boys of a certain class these professions supplied honourable
employment and a pleasant time. Without being in any way slack in his
regimental duties, he performed them as many others did, without the
smallest grain of passion, and without any imaginative forecast as to
what fruit, if any, there might be to these hours spent in drill and
discipline. He was but one of a very large number who do their work
without seriously bothering their heads about its possible meaning or
application. His particular job gave a young man a pleasant position
and an easy path to general popularity, given that he was willing to be
sociable and amused. He was extremely ready to be both the one and the
other, and there his philosophy of life stopped.

And, indeed, it seemed on this hot July evening that the streets were
populated by philosophers like unto himself. Never had England generally
been more prosperous, more secure, more comfortable. The heavens of
international politics were as serene as the evening sky; not yet was
the storm-cloud that hung over Ireland bigger than a man's hand; east,
west, north and south there brooded the peace of the close of a halcyon
day, and the amazing doings of the Suffragettes but added a slight
incentive to the perusal of the morning paper. The arts flourished,
harvests prospered; the world like a newly-wound clock seemed to be in
for a spell of serene and orderly ticking, with an occasional chime just
to show how the hours were passing.

London was an extraordinarily pleasant place, people were friendly,
amusements beckoned on all sides; and for Francis, as for so many
others, but a very moderate amount of work was necessary to win him
an approved place in the scheme of things, a seat in the slow-wheeling
sunshine. It really was not necessary to want, above all to undergo
annoyances for the sake of what you wanted, since so many pleasurable
distractions, enough to fill day and night twice over, were so richly
spread around.

Some day he supposed he would marry, settle down and become in time one
of those men who presented a bald head in a club window to the gaze
of passers-by. It was difficult, perhaps, to see how you could enjoy
yourself or lead a life that paid its own way in pleasure at the age of
forty, but that he trusted that he would learn in time. At present it
was sufficient to know that in half an hour two excellent friends would
come to dinner, and that they would proceed in a spirit of amiable
content to the Gaiety. After that there was a ball somewhere (he had
forgotten where, but one of the others would be sure to know), and
to-morrow and to-morrow would be like unto to-day. It was idle to
ask questions of oneself when all went so well; the time for asking
questions was when there was matter for complaint, and with him
assuredly there was none. The advantages of being twenty-three years
old, gay and good-looking, without a care in the world, now that he had
Michael's cheque in his pocket, needed no comment, still less complaint.
He, like the crowd who had sufficient to pay for a six-penny seat at a
music-hall, was perfectly content with life in general; to-morrow
would be time enough to do a little more work and glean a little more
pleasure.

It was indeed an admirable England, where it was not necessary even
to desire, for there were so many things, bright, cheerful things to
distract the mind from desire. It was a day of dozing in the sun, like
the submerged, scattered units or duets on the grass of the Green Park,
of behaving like the lilies of the field. . . . Francis found he was
rather late, and proceeded hastily to his mother's house in Savile
Row to array himself, if not "like one of these," like an exceedingly
well-dressed young man, who demanded of his tailor the utmost of his
art; with the prospect, owing to Michael's generosity, of being paid
to-morrow.


Michael, when his cousin had left him, did not at once proceed to his
evening by himself with his piano, though an hour before he had longed
to be alone with it and a pianoforte arrangement of the Meistersingers,
of which he had promised himself a complete perusal that evening.
But Francis's visit had already distracted him, and he found now
that Francis's departure took him even farther away from his designed
evening. Francis, with his good looks and his gay spirits, his easy
friendships and perfect content (except when a small matter of deficit
and dunning letters obscured the sunlight for a moment), was exactly all
that he would have wished to be himself. But the moment he formulated
that wish in his mind, he knew that he would not voluntarily have parted
with one atom of his own individuality in order to be Francis or anybody
else. He was aware how easy and pleasant life would become if he could
look on it with Francis's eyes, and if the world would look on him as it
looked on his cousin. There would be no more bother. . . . In a
moment, he would, by this exchange, have parted with his own unhappy
temperament, his own deplorable body, and have stepped into an amiable
and prosperous little neutral kingdom that had no desires and no
regrets. He would have been free from all wants, except such as could
be gratified so easily by a little work and a great capacity for being
amused; he would have found himself excellently fitting the niche into
which the rulers of birth and death had placed him: an eldest son of
a great territorial magnate, who had what was called a stake in the
country, and desired nothing better.

Willingly, as he had said, would he have changed circumstances with
Francis, but he knew that he would not, for any bait the world could
draw in front of him, have changed natures with him, even when, to
all appearance, the gain would so vastly have been on his side. It was
better to want and to miss than to be content. Even at this moment,
when Francis had taken the sunshine out of the room with his departure,
Michael clung to his own gloom and his own uncouthness, if by getting
rid of them he would also have been obliged to get rid of his own
temperament, unhappy as it was, but yet capable of strong desire. He did
not want to be content; he wanted to see always ahead of him a golden
mist, through which the shadows of unconjecturable shapes appeared. He
was willing and eager to get lost, if only he might go wandering on,
groping with his big hands, stumbling with his clumsy feet,
desiring . . .

There are the indications of a path visible to all who desire. Michael
knew that his path, the way that seemed to lead in the direction of
the ultimate goal, was music. There, somehow, in that direction lay his
destiny; that was the route. He was not like the majority of his sex
and years, who weave their physical and mental dreams in the loom of a
girl's face, in her glance, in the curves of her mouth. Deliberately,
owing chiefly to his morbid consciousness of his own physical defects,
he had long been accustomed to check the instincts natural to a young
man in this regard. He had seen too often the facility with which
others, more fortunate than he, get delightedly lost in that golden
haze; he had experienced too often the absence of attractiveness in
himself. How could any girl of the London ballroom, he had so frequently
asked himself, tolerate dancing or sitting out with him when there was
Francis, and a hundred others like him, so pleased to take his place?
Nor, so he told himself, was his mind one whit more apt than his body.
It did not move lightly and agreeably with unconscious smiles and easy
laughter. By nature he was monkish, he was celibate. He could but cease
to burn incense at such ineffectual altars, and help, as he had helped
this afternoon, to replenish the censers of more fortunate acolytes.

This was all familiar to him; it passed through his head unbidden,
when Francis had left him, like the refrain of some well-known song,
occurring spontaneously without need of an effort of memory. It was
a possession of his, known by heart, and it no longer, except for
momentary twinges, had any bitterness for him. This afternoon, it is
true, there had been one such, when Francis, gleeful with his cheque,
had gone out to his dinner and his theatre and his dance, inviting him
cheerfully to all of them. In just that had been the bitterness--namely,
that Francis had so overflowing a well-spring of content that he
could be cordial in bidding him cast a certain gloom over these
entertainments. Michael knew, quite unerringly, that Francis and his
friends would not enjoy themselves quite so much if he was with them;
there would be the restraint of polite conversation at dinner instead of
completely idle babble, there would be less outspoken normality at the
Gaiety, a little more decorum about the whole of the boyish proceedings.
He knew all that so well, so terribly well. . . .

His servant had come in with the evening paper, and the implied
suggestion of the propriety of going to dress before he roused himself.
He decided not to dress, as he was going to spend the evening alone,
and, instead, he seated himself at the piano with his copy of the
Meistersingers and, mechanically at first, with the ragged cloud-fleeces
of his reverie hanging about his brain, banged away at the overture.
He had extraordinary dexterity of finger for one who had had so little
training, and his hands, with their great stretch, made light work of
octaves and even tenths. His knowledge of the music enabled him to wake
the singing bird of memory in his head, and before long flute and horn
and string and woodwind began to make themselves heard in his inner ear.
Twice his servant came in to tell him that his dinner was ready, but
Michael had no heed for anything but the sounds which his flying fingers
suggested to him. Francis, his father, his own failure in the life
that had been thrust on him were all gone; he was with the singers of
Nuremberg.


CHAPTER II


The River Ashe, after a drowsy and meandering childhood, passed
peacefully among the sedges and marigolds of its water meadows, suddenly
and somewhat disconcertingly grows up and, without any period of
transition and adolescence, becomes, from being a mere girl of a
rivulet, a male and full-blooded estuary of the sea. At Coton, for
instance, the tips of the sculls of a sauntering pleasure-boat will
almost span its entire width, while, but a mile farther down, you will
see stone-laden barges and tall, red-winged sailing craft coming up with
the tide, and making fast to the grey wooden quay wall of Ashbridge,
rough with barnacles. For the reeds and meadow-sweet of its margin are
exchanged the brown and green growths of the sea, with their sharp,
acrid odour instead of the damp, fresh smell of meadow flowers, and at
low tide the podded bladders of brown weed and long strings of marine
macaroni, among which peevish crabs scuttle sideways, take the place
of the grass and spires of loosestrife; and over the water, instead of
singing larks, hang white companies of chiding seagulls. Here at high
tide extends a sheet of water large enough, when the wind blows up the
estuary, to breed waves that break in foam and spray against the barges,
while at the ebb acres of mud flats are disclosed on which the boats
lean slanting till the flood lifts them again and makes them strain at
the wheezing ropes that tie them to the quay.

A year before the flame of war went roaring through Europe in
unquenchable conflagration it would have seemed that nothing could
possibly rouse Ashbridge from its red-brick Georgian repose. There was
never a town so inimitably drowsy or so sternly uncompetitive. A hundred
years ago it must have presented almost precisely the same appearance as
it did in the summer of 1913, if we leave out of reckoning a few
dozen of modern upstart villas that line its outskirts, and the very
inconspicuous railway station that hides itself behind the warehouses
near the river's bank. Most of the trains, too, quite ignore its
existence, and pass through it on their way to more rewarding
stopping-places, hardly recognising it even by a spurt of steam from
their whistles, and it is only if you travel by those that require
the most frequent pauses in their progress that you will be enabled to
alight at its thin and depopulated platform.

Just outside the station there perennially waits a low-roofed and
sanguine omnibus that under daily discouragement continues to hope that
in the long-delayed fulness of time somebody will want to be driven
somewhere. (This nobody ever does, since the distance to any house is so
small, and a porter follows with luggage on a barrow.) It carries on its
floor a quantity of fresh straw, in the manner of the stage coaches, in
which the problematic passenger, should he ever appear, will no doubt
bury his feet. On its side, just below the window that is not made to
open, it carries the legend that shows that it belongs to the Comber
Arms, a hostelry so self-effacing that it is discoverable only by the
sharpest-eyed of pilgrims. Narrow roadways, flanked by proportionately
narrower pavements, lie ribbon-like between huddled shops and
squarely-spacious Georgian houses; and an air of leisure and content,
amounting almost to stupefaction, is the moral atmosphere of the place.

On the outskirts of the town, crowning the gentle hills that lie to the
north and west, villas in acre plots, belonging to business men in the
county town some ten miles distant, "prick their Cockney ears" and are
strangely at variance with the sober gravity of the indigenous houses.
So, too, are the manners and customs of their owners, who go to
Stoneborough every morning to their work, and return by the train that
brings them home in time for dinner. They do other exotic and unsuitable
things also, like driving swiftly about in motors, in playing golf on
the other side of the river at Coton, and in having parties at each
other's houses. But apart from them nobody ever seems to leave Ashbridge
(though a stroll to the station about the time that the evening train
arrives is a recognised diversion) or, in consequence, ever to come
back. Ashbridge, in fact, is self-contained, and desires neither to
meddle with others nor to be meddled with.

The estuary opposite the town is some quarter of a mile broad at high
tide, and in order to cross to the other side, where lie the woods and
park of Ashbridge House, it is necessary to shout and make staccato
prancings in order to attract the attention of the antique ferryman, who
is invariably at the other side of the river and generally asleep at the
bottom of his boat. If you are strong-lunged and can prance and shout
for a long time, he may eventually stagger to his feet, come across
for you and row you over. Otherwise you will stand but little chance of
arousing him from his slumbers, and you will stop where you are, unless
you choose to walk round by the bridge at Coton, a mile above.

Periodical attempts are made by the brisker inhabitants of Ashbridge,
who do not understand its spirit, to substitute for this aged and
ineffectual Charon someone who is occasionally awake, but nothing ever
results from these revolutionary moves, and the requests addressed to
the town council on the subject are never heard of again. "Old George"
was ferryman there before any members of the town council were born, and
he seems to have established a right to go to sleep on the other side of
the river which is now inalienable from him. Besides, asleep or awake,
he is always perfectly sober, which, after all, is really one of the
first requirements for a suitable ferryman. Even the representations of
Lord Ashbridge himself who, when in residence, frequently has occasion
to use the ferry when crossing from his house to the town, failed to
produce the smallest effect, and he was compelled to build a boathouse
of his own on the farther bank, and be paddled across by himself or
one of the servants. Often he rowed himself, for he used to be a fine
oarsman, and it was good for the lounger on the quay to see the foaming
prow of his vigorous progress and the dignity of physical toil.

In all other respects, except in this case of "Old George," Lord
Ashbridge's wishes were law to the local authorities, for in this
tranquil East-coast district the spirit of the feudal system with
a beneficent lord and contented tenants strongly survived. It had
triumphed even over such modern innovations as railroads, for Lord
Ashbridge had the undoubted right to stop any train he pleased by signal
at Ashbridge station. This he certainly enjoyed doing; it fed his sense
of the fitness of things to progress along the platform with his genial,
important tiptoe walk, and elbows squarely stuck out, to the carriage
that was at once reserved for him, to touch the brim of his grey top-hat
(if travelling up to town) to the obsequious guard, and to observe the
heads of passengers who wondered why their express was arrested, thrust
out of carriage windows to look at him. A livened footman, as well as a
valet, followed him, bearing a coat and a rug and a morning or evening
paper and a dispatch-box with a large gilt coronet on it, and bestowed
these solaces to a railway journey on the empty seats near him. And
not only his sense of fitness was hereby fed, but that also of the
station-master and the solitary porter and the newsboy, and such
inhabitants of Ashbridge as happened to have strolled on to the
platform. For he was THEIR Earl of Ashbridge, kind, courteous and
dominant, a local king; it was all very pleasant.

But this arrest of express trains was a strictly personal privilege;
when Lady Ashbridge or Michael travelled they always went in the slow
train to Stoneborough, changed there and abided their time on the
platform like ordinary mortals. Though he could undoubtedly have
extended his rights to the stopping of a train for his wife or son, he
wisely reserved this for himself, lest it should lose prestige. There
was sufficient glory already (to probe his mind to the bottom) for Lady
Ashbridge in being his wife; it was sufficient also for Michael that he
was his son.

It may be inferred that there was a touch of pomposity about this
admirable gentleman, who was so excellent a landlord and so hard working
a member of the British aristocracy. But pomposity would be far too
superficial a word to apply to him; it would not adequately connote
his deep-abiding and essential conviction that on one of the days of
Creation (that, probably, on which the decree was made that there should
be Light) there leaped into being the great landowners of England.

But Lord Ashbridge, though himself a peer, by no means accepted the
peerage en bloc as representing the English aristocracy; to be, in
his phrase, "one of us" implied that you belonged to certain
well-ascertained families where brewers and distinguished soldiers
had no place, unless it was theirs already. He was ready to pay all
reasonable homage to those who were distinguished by their abilities,
their riches, their exalted positions in Church and State, but his
homage to such was transfused with a courteous condescension, and he
only treated as his equals and really revered those who belonged to the
families that were "one of us."

His wife, of course, was "one of us," since he would never have
permitted himself to be allied to a woman who was not, though for beauty
and wisdom she might have been Aphrodite and Athene rolled compactly
into one peerless identity. As a matter of fact, Lady Ashbridge had
not the faintest resemblance to either of these effulgent goddesses. In
person she resembled a camel, long and lean, with a drooping mouth and
tired, patient eyes, while in mind she was stunned. No idea other than
an obvious one ever had birth behind her high, smooth forehead, and she
habitually brought conversation to a close by the dry enunciation of
something indubitably true, which had no direct relation to the point
under discussion. But she had faint, ineradicable prejudices, and
instincts not quite dormant. There was a large quantity of mild
affection in her nature, the quality of which may be illustrated by
the fact that when her father died she cried a little every day after
breakfast for about six weeks. Then she did not cry any more. It was
impossible not to like what there was of her, but there was really very
little to like, for she belonged heart and soul to the generation and
the breeding among which it is enough for a woman to be a lady, and
visit the keeper's wife when she has a baby.

But though there was so little of her, the balance was made up for
by the fact that there was so much of her husband. His large, rather
flamboyant person, his big white face and curling brown beard, his loud
voice and his falsetto laugh, his absolutely certain opinions, above all
the fervency of his consciousness of being Lord Ashbridge and all which
that implied, completely filled any place he happened to be in, so
that a room empty except for him gave the impression of being almost
uncomfortably crowded. This keen consciousness of his identity was
naturally sufficient to make him very good humoured, since he was
himself a fine example of the type that he admired most. Probably only
two persons in the world had the power of causing him annoyance, but
both of these, by an irony of fate that it seemed scarcely possible to
consider accidental, were closely connected with him, for one was his
sister, the other his only son.

The grounds of their potentiality in this respect can be easily
stated. Barbara Comber, his sister (and so "one of us"), had married an
extremely wealthy American, who, in Lord Ashbridge's view, could not be
considered one of anybody at all; in other words, his imagination failed
to picture a whole class of people who resembled Anthony Jerome. He had
hoped when his sister announced her intention of taking this deplorable
step that his future brother-in-law would at any rate prove to be a
snob--he had a vague notion that all Americans were snobs--and that thus
Mr. Jerome would have the saving grace to admire and toady him. But Mr.
Jerome showed no signs of doing anything of the sort; he treated him
with an austere and distant politeness that Lord Ashbridge could
not construe as being founded on admiration and a sense of his own
inferiority, for it was so clearly founded on dislike. That, however,
did not annoy Lord Ashbridge, for it was easy to suppose that poor Mr.
Jerome knew no better. But Barbara annoyed him, for not only had she
shown herself a renegade in marrying a man who was not "one of us," but
with all the advantages she had enjoyed since birth of knowing what
"we" were, she gloried in her new relations, saying, without any proper
reticence about the matter, that they were Real People, whose character
and wits vastly transcended anything that Combers had to show.

Michael was an even more vexatious case, and in moments of depression
his father thought that he would really turn in his grave at the dismal
idea of Michael having stepped into his honourable shoes. Physically he
was utterly unlike a Comber, and his mind, his general attitude
towards life seemed to have diverged even farther from that healthy and
unreflective pattern. Only this morning his father had received a letter
from him that summed Michael up, that fulfilled all the doubts and fears
that had hung about him; for after three years in the Guards he had,
without consultation with anybody, resigned his commission on the
inexplicable grounds that he wanted to do something with his life. To
begin with that was rankly heretical; if you were a Comber there was no
need to do anything with your life; life did everything for you. . . .
And what this un-Comberish young man wanted to do with his life was to
be a musician. That musicians, artists, actors, had a right to exist
Lord Ashbridge did not question. They were no doubt (or might be)
very excellent people in their way, and as a matter of fact he often
recognised their existence by going to the opera, to the private view
of the Academy, or to the play, and he took a very considerable pride of
proprietorship in his own admirable collection of family portraits. But
then those were pictures of Combers; Reynolds and Romney and the rest of
them had enjoyed the privilege of perpetuating on their canvases these
big, fine men and charming women. But that a Comber--and that one
positively the next Lord Ashbridge--should intend to devote his energies
to an artistic calling, and allude to that scheme as doing something
with his life, was a thing as unthinkable as if the butler had developed
a fixed idea that he was "one of us."

The blow was a recent one; Michael's letter had only reached his father
this morning, and at the present moment Lord Ashbridge was attempting
over a cup of tea on the long south terrace overlooking the estuary to
convey--not very successfully--to his wife something of his feelings
on the subject. She, according to her custom, was drinking a little hot
water herself, and providing her Chinese pug with a mixture of cream
and crumbled rusks. Though the dog was of undoubtedly high lineage, Lord
Ashbridge rather detested her.

"A musical career!" he exclaimed, referring to Michael's letter. "What
sort of a career for a Comber is a musical career? I shall tell Michael
pretty roundly when he arrives this evening what I think of it all. We
shall have Francis next saying that he wants to resign, too, and become
a dentist."

Lady Ashbridge considered this for a moment in her stunned mind.

"Dear me, Robert, I hope not," she said. "I do not think it the least
likely that Francis would do anything of the kind. Look, Petsy is
better; she has drunk her cream and rusks quite up. I think it was only
the heat."

He gave a little good-humoured giggle of falsetto laughter.

"I wish, Marion," he said, "that you could manage to take your mind off
your dog for a moment and attend to me. And I must really ask you not to
give your Petsy any more cream, or she will certainly be sick."

Lady Ashbridge gave a little sigh.

"All gone, Petsy," she said.

"I am glad it has all gone," said he, "and we will hope it won't return.
But about Michael now!"

Lady Ashbridge pulled herself together.

"Yes, poor Michael!" she said. "He is coming to-night, is he not? But
just now you were speaking of Francis, and the fear of his wanting to be
a dentist!"

"Well, I am now speaking of Michael's wanting to be a musician. Of
course that is utterly out of the question. If, as he says, he has sent
in his resignation, he will just have to beg them to cancel it. Michael
seems not to have the slightest idea of the duties which his birth and
position entail on him. Unfitted for the life he now leads . . . waste
of time. . . . Instead he proposes to go to Baireuth in August, and then
to settle down in London to study!"

Lady Ashbridge recollected the almanac.

"That will be in September, then," she said. "I do not think I was ever
in London in September. I did not know that anybody was."

"The point, my dear, is not how or where you have been accustomed to
spend your Septembers," said her husband. "What we are talking about
is--"

"Yes, dear, I know quite well what we are talking about," said she. "We
are talking about Michael not studying music all September."

Lord Ashbridge got up and began walking across the terrace opposite the
tea-table with his elbows stuck out and his feet lifted rather high.

"Michael doesn't seem to realise that he is not Tom or Dick or Harry,"
said he. "Music, indeed! I'm musical myself; all we Combers are musical.
But Michael is my only son, and it really distresses me to see how
little sense he has of his responsibilities. Amusements are all very
well; it is not that I want to cut him off his amusements, but when it
comes to a career--"

Lady Ashbridge was surreptitiously engaged in pouring out a little more
cream for Petsy, and her husband, turning rather sooner than she had
expected, caught her in the act.

"Do not give Petsy any more cream," he said, with some asperity; "I
absolutely forbid it."

Lady Ashbridge quite composedly replaced the cream-jug.

"Poor Petsy!" she observed.

"I ask you to attend to me, Marion," he said.

"But I am attending to you very well, Robert," said she, "and I
understand you perfectly. You do not want Michael to be a musician in
September and wear long hair and perhaps play at concerts. I am sure
I quite agree with you, for such a thing would be as unheard of in my
family as in yours. But how do you propose to stop it?"

"I shall use my authority," he said, stepping a little higher.

"Yes, dear, I am sure you will. But what will happen if Michael doesn't
pay any attention to your authority? You will be worse off than ever.
Poor Michael is very obedient when he is told to do anything he intends
to do, but when he doesn't agree it is difficult to do anything with
him. And, you see, he is quite independent of you with my mother having
left him so much money. Poor mamma!"

Lord Ashbridge felt strongly about this.

"It was a most extraordinary disposition of her property for your mother
to make," he observed. "It has given Michael an independence which I
much deplore. And she did it in direct opposition to my wishes."

This touched on one of the questions about which Lady Ashbridge had her
convictions. She had a mild but unalterable opinion that when anybody
died, all that they had previously done became absolutely flawless and
laudable.

"Mamma did as she thought right with her property," she said, "and it
is not for us to question it. She was conscientiousness itself. You will
have to excuse my listening to any criticism you may feel inclined to
make about her, Robert."

"Certainly, my dear. I only want you to listen to me about Michael. You
agree with me on the impossibility of his adopting a musical career. I
cannot, at present, think so ill of Michael as to suppose that he will
defy our joint authority."

"Michael has a great will of his own," she remarked. "He gets that from
you, Robert, though he gets his money from his grandmother."

The futility of further discussion with his wife began to dawn on Lord
Ashbridge, as it dawned on everybody who had the privilege of conversing
with her. Her mind was a blind alley that led nowhere; it was clear that
she had no idea to contribute to the subject except slightly pessimistic
forebodings with which, unfortunately, he found himself secretly
disposed to agree. He had always felt that Michael was an uncomfortable
sort of boy; in other words, that he had the inconvenient habit of
thinking things out for himself, instead of blindly accepting the
conclusions of other people.

Much as Lord Ashbridge valued the sturdy independence of character which
he himself enjoyed displaying, he appreciated it rather less highly when
it was manifested by people who were not sensible enough to agree
with him. He looked forward to Michael's arrival that evening with the
feeling that there was a rebellious standard hoisted against the calm
blue of the evening sky, and remembering the advent of his sister he
wondered whether she would not join the insurgent. Barbara Jerome, as
has been remarked, often annoyed her brother; she also genially laughed
at him; but Lord Ashbridge, partly from affection, partly from a
loyal family sense of clanship, always expected his sister to spend
a fortnight with him in August, and would have been much hurt had she
refused to do so. Her husband, however, so far from spending a fortnight
with his brother-in-law, never spent a minute in his presence if it
could possibly be avoided, an arrangement which everybody concerned
considered to be wise, and in the interests of cordiality.

"And Barbara comes this evening as well as Michael, does she not?" he
said. "I hope she will not take Michael's part in his absurd scheme."

"I have given Barbara the blue room," said Lady Ashbridge, after a
little thought. "I am afraid she may bring her great dog with her. I
hope he will not quarrel with Petsy. Petsy does not like other dogs."


The day had been very hot, and Lord Ashbridge, not having taken any
exercise, went off to have a round of golf with the professional of the
links that lay not half a mile from the house. He considered exercise
an essential part of the true Englishman's daily curriculum, and as
necessary a contribution to the traditional mode of life which made them
all what they were--or should be--as a bath in the morning or attendance
at church on Sunday. He did not care so much about playing golf with
a casual friend, because the casual friend, as a rule, casually beat
him--thus putting him in an un-English position--and preferred a game
with this first-class professional whose duty it was--in complete
violation of his capacities--to play just badly enough to be beaten
towards the end of the round after an exciting match. It required a
good deal of cleverness and self-control to accomplish this, for Lord
Ashbridge was a notably puerile performer, but he generally managed it
with tact and success, by dint of missing absurdly easy putts, and (here
his skill came in) by pulling and slicing his ball into far-distant
bunkers. Throughout the game it was his business to keep up a running
fire of admiring ejaculations such as "Well driven, my lord," or "A
fine putt, my lord. Ah! dear me, I wish I could putt like that," though
occasionally his chorus of praise betrayed him into error, and from
habit he found himself saying: "Good shot, my lord," when my lord had
just made an egregious mess of things. But on the whole he devised so
pleasantly sycophantic an atmosphere as to procure a substantial tip for
himself, and to make Lord Ashbridge conscious of being a very superior
performer. Whether at the bottom of his heart he knew he could not play
at all, he probably did not inquire; the result of his matches and his
opponent's skilfully-showered praise was sufficient for him. So now he
left the discouraging companionship of his wife and Petsy and walked
swingingly across the garden and the park to the links, there to seek
in Macpherson's applause the self-confidence that would enable him to
encounter his republican sister and his musical son with an unyielding
front.

His spirits mounted rapidly as he went. It pleased him to go jauntily
across the lawn and reflect that all this smooth turf was his, to look
at the wealth of well-tended flowers in his garden and know that all
this polychromatic loveliness was bred in Lord Ashbridge's borders (and
was graciously thrown open to the gaze of the admiring public on Sunday
afternoon, when they were begged to keep off the grass), and that Lord
Ashbridge was himself. He liked reminding himself that the towering elms
drew their leafy verdure from Lord Ashbridge's soil; that the rows of
hen-coops in the park, populous and cheeping with infant pheasants,
belonged to the same fortunate gentleman who in November would so
unerringly shoot them down as they rocketted swiftly over the highest
of his tree-tops; that to him also appertained the long-fronted Jacobean
house which stood so commandingly upon the hill-top, and glowed with
all the mellowness of its three-hundred-years-old bricks. And his
satisfaction was not wholly fatuous nor entirely personal; all these
spacious dignities were insignia (temporarily conferred on him, like
some order, and permanently conferred on his family) of the splendid
political constitution under which England had made herself mistress
of an empire and the seas that guarded it. Probably he would have been
proud of belonging to that even if he had not been "one of us"; as it
was, the high position which he occupied in it caused that pride to be
slightly mixed with the pride that was concerned with the notion of the
Empire belonging to him and his peers.

But though he was the most profound of Tories, he would truthfully have
professed (as indeed he practised in the management of his estates) the
most Liberal opinions as to schemes for the amelioration of the lower
classes. Only, just as the music he was good enough to listen to had to
be played for him, so the tenants and farmers had to be his dependents.
He looked after them very well indeed, conceiving this to be the
prime duty of a great landlord, but his interest in them was really
proprietary. It was of his bounty, and of his complete knowledge of
what his duties as "one of us" were, that he did so, and any legislation
which compelled him to part with one pennyworth of his property for the
sake of others less fortunate he resisted to the best of his ability as
a theft of what was his. The country, in fact, if it went to the dogs
(and certain recent legislation distinctly seemed to point kennelwards),
would go to the dogs because ignorant politicians, who were most
emphatically not "of us," forced him and others like him to recognise
the rights of dependents instead of trusting to their instinctive
fitness to dispense benefits not as rights but as acts of grace. If
England trusted to her aristocracy (to put the matter in a nutshell) all
would be well with her in the future even as it had been in the past,
but any attempt to curtail their splendours must inevitably detract
from the prestige and magnificence of the Empire. . . . And he responded
suitably to the obsequious salute of the professional, and remembered
that the entire golf links were his property, and that the Club paid a
merely nominal rental to him, just the tribute money of a penny which
was due to Caesar.


For the next hour or two after her husband had left her, Lady Ashbridge
occupied herself in the thoroughly lady-like pursuit of doing nothing
whatever; she just existed in her comfortable chair, since Barbara
might come any moment, and she would have to entertain her, which she
frequently did unawares. But as Barbara continued not to come, she took
up her perennial piece of needlework, feeling rather busy and pressed,
and had hardly done so when her sister-in-law arrived.

She was preceded by an enormous stag-hound, who, having been shut up in
her motor all the way from London, bounded delightedly, with the sense
of young limbs released, on to the terrace, and made wild leaps in
a circle round the horrified Petsy, who had just received a second
saucerful of cream. Once he dashed in close, and with a single lick of
his tongue swept the saucer dry of nutriment, and with hoarse barkings
proceeded again to dance corybantically about, while Lady Ashbridge
with faint cries of dismay waved her embroidery at him. Then, seeing
his mistress coming out of the French window from the drawing-room, he
bounded calf-like towards her, and Petsy, nearly sick with cream and
horror, was gathered to Lady Ashbridge's bosom.

"My dear Barbara," she said, "how upsetting your dog is! Poor Petsy's
heart is beating terribly; she does not like dogs. But I am very pleased
to see you, and I have given you the blue room."

It was clearly suitable that Barbara Jerome should have a large dog,
for both in mind and body she was on the large scale herself. She had a
pleasant, high-coloured face, was very tall, enormously stout, and moved
with great briskness and vigour. She had something to say on any subject
that came on the board; and, what was less usual in these days of
universal knowledge, there was invariably some point in what she said.
She had, in the ordinary sense of the word, no manners at all,
but essentially made up for this lack by her sincere and humourous
kindliness. She saw with acute vividness the ludicrous side of
everybody, herself included, and to her mind the arch-humourist of
all was her brother, whom she was quite unable to take seriously. She
dressed as if she had looted a milliner's shop and had put on in a great
hurry anything that came to hand. She towered over her sister-in-law as
she kissed her, and Petsy, safe in her citadel, barked shrilly.

"My dear, which is the blue room?" she said. "I hope it is big enough
for Og and me. Yes, that is Og, which is short for dog. He takes two
mutton-chops for dinner, and a little something during the night if he
feels disposed, because he is still growing. Tony drove down with me,
and is in the car now. He would not come in for fear of seeing Robert,
so I ventured to tell them to take him a cup of tea there, which he will
drink with the blinds down, and then drive back to town again. He has
been made American ambassador, by the way, and will go in to dinner
before Robert. My dear, I can think of few things which Robert is less
fitted to bear than that. However, we all have our crosses, even those
of us who have our coronets also."

Lady Ashbridge's hospitable instincts asserted themselves. "But your
husband must come in," she said. "I will go and tell him. And Robert has
gone to play golf."

Barbara laughed.

"I am quite sure Tony won't come in," she said. "I promised him he
shouldn't, and he only drove down with me on the express stipulation
that no risks were to be run about his seeing Robert. We must take no
chances, so let him have his tea quietly in the motor and then drive
away again. And who else is there? Anybody? Michael?"

"Michael comes this evening."

"I am glad; I am particularly fond of Michael. Also he will play to us
after dinner, and though I don't know one note from another, it will
relieve me of sitting in a stately circle watching Robert cheat at
patience. I always find the evenings here rather trying; they remind me
of being in church. I feel as if I were part of a corporate body, which
leads to misplaced decorum. Ah! there is the sound of Tony's retreating
motor; his strategic movement has come off. And now give me some news,
if you can get in a word. Dear me, there is Robert coming back across
the lawn. What a mercy that Tony did not leave the motor. Robert always
walks as if he was dancing a minuet. Look, there is Og imitating him! Or
is he stalking him, thinking he is an enemy. Og, come here!"

She whistled shrilly on her fingers, and rose to greet her brother, whom
Og was still menacing, as he advanced towards her with staccato steps.
Barbara, however, got between Og and his prey, and threw her parasol at
him.

"My dear, how are you?" she said. "And how did the golf go? And did you
beat the professional?"

He suspected flippancy here, and became markedly dignified.

"An excellent match," he said, "and Macpherson tells me I played a very
sound game. I am delighted to see you, Barbara. And did Michael come
down with you?"

"No. I drove from town. It saves time, but not expense, with your awful
trains."

"And you are well, and Mr. Jerome?" he asked. He always called his
brother-in-law Mr. Jerome, to indicate the gulf between them. Barbara
gave a little spurt of laughter.

"Yes, his excellency is quite well," she said. "You must call him
excellency now, my dear."

"Indeed! That is a great step."

"Considering that Tony began as an office-boy. How richly rewarding you
are, my dear. And shan't I make an odd ambassadress! I haven't been to a
Court since the dark ages, when I went to those beloved States. We will
practise after dinner, dear, and you and Marion shall be the King and
Queen, and I will try to walk backwards without tumbling on my head. You
will like being the King, Robert. And then we will be ourselves again,
all except Og, who shall be Tony and shall go out of the room before
you."

He gave his treble little giggle, for on the whole it answered better
not to be dignified with Barbara, whenever he could remember not to
be; and Lady Ashbridge, still nursing Petsy, threw a bombshell of the
obvious to explode the conversation.

"Og has two mutton-chops for his dinner," she said, "and he is growing
still. Fancy!"

Lord Ashbridge took a refreshing glance at the broad stretch of country
that all belonged to him.

"I am rather glad to have this opportunity of talking to you, my dear
Barbara," he said, "before Michael comes."

"His train gets in half an hour before dinner" said Lady Ashbridge. "He
has to change at Stoneborough."

"Quite so. I heard from Michael this morning, saying that he has
resigned his commission in the Guards, and is going to take up music
seriously."

Barbara gave a delighted exclamation.

"But how perfectly splendid!" she said. "Fancy a Comber doing anything
original! Michael and I are the only Combers who ever have, since
Combers 'arose from out the azure main' in the year one. I married an
American; that's something, though it's not up to Michael!"

"That is not quite my view of it," said he. "As for its being original,
it would be original enough if Marion eloped with a Patagonian."

Lady Ashbridge let fall her embroidery at this monstrous suggestion.

"You are talking very wildly, Robert," she said, in a pained voice.

"My dear, get on with your sacred carpet," said he. "I am talking to
Barbara. I have already ascertained your--your lack of views on the
subject. I was saying, Barbara, that mere originality is not a merit."

"No, you never said that," remarked Lady Ashbridge.

"I should have if you had allowed me to. And as for your saying that he
has done it, Barbara, that is very wide of the mark, and I intend shall
continue to be so."

"Dear great Bashaw, that is just what you said to me when I told you
I was going to marry his Excellency. But I did. And I think it is a
glorious move on Michael's part. It requires brain to find out what you
like, and character to go and do it. Combers haven't got brains as
a rule, you see. If they ever had any, they have degenerated into
conservative instincts."

He again refreshed himself with the landscape. The roofs of Ashbridge
were visible in the clear sunset. . . . Ashbridge paid its rents with
remarkable regularity.

"That may or may not be so," he said, forgetting for a moment the danger
of being dignified. "But Combers have position."

Barbara controlled herself admirably. A slight tremor shook her, which
he did not notice.

"Yes, dear," she said. "I allow that Combers have had for many
generations a sort of acquisitive cunning, for all we possess has
come to us by exceedingly prudent marriages. They have also--I am an
exception here--the gift of not saying very much, which certainly has an
impressive effect, even when it arises from not having very much to say.
They are sticky; they attract wealth, and they have the force called vis
inertiae, which means that they invest their money prudently. You should
hear Tony--well, perhaps you had better not hear Tony. But now here
is Michael showing that he has got tastes. Can you wonder that I'm
delighted? And not only has he got tastes, but he has the strength of
character to back them. Michael, in the Guards too! It was a perfect
farce, and he's had the sense to see it. He hated his duties, and he
hated his diversions. Now Francis--"

"I am afraid Michael has always been a little jealous of Francis,"
remarked his father.

This roused Barbara; she spoke quite seriously:

"If you really think that, my dear," she said, "you have the distinction
of being the worst possible judge of character that the world has ever
known. Michael might be jealous of anybody else, for the poor boy feels
his physical awkwardness most sensitively, but Francis is just the one
person he really worships. He would do anything in the world for him."

The discussion with Barbara was being even more fruitless than that with
his wife, and Lord Ashbridge rose.

"All I can do, then, is to ask you not to back Michael up," he said.

"My dear, he won't need backing up. He's a match for you by himself. But
if Michael, after thoroughly worsting you, asks me my opinion, I shall
certainly give it him. But he won't ask my opinion first. He will strew
your limbs, Robert, over this delightful terrace."

"Michael's train is late," said Lady Ashbridge, hearing the stable clock
strike. "He should have been here before this."

Barbara had still a word to say, and disregarded this quencher.

"But don't think, Robert," she said, "that because Michael resists your
wishes and authority, he will be enjoying himself. He will hate doing
it, but that will not stop him."

Lord Ashbridge was not a bully; he had merely a profound sense of his
own importance.

"We will see about resistance," he said.

Barbara was not so successful on this occasion, and exploded loudly:

"You will, dear, indeed," she said.


Michael meantime had been travelling down from London without perturbing
himself over the scene with his father which he knew lay before him.
This was quite characteristic of him; he had a singular command over his
imagination when he had made up his mind to anything, and never indulged
in the gratuitous pain of anticipation. Today he had an additional
bulwark against such self-inflicted worries, for he had spent his last
two hours in town at the vocal recital of a singer who a month before
had stirred the critics into rhapsody over her gift of lyric song.
Up till now he had had no opportunity of hearing her; and, with the
panegyrics that had been showered on her in his mind, he had gone with
the expectation of disappointment. But now, an hour afterwards, the
wheels of the train sang her songs, and in the inward ear he could
recapture, with the vividness of an hallucination, the timbre of
that wonderful voice and also the sweet harmonies of the pianist who
accompanied her.

The hall had been packed from end to end, and he had barely got to his
seat, the only one vacant in the whole room, when Miss Sylvia Falbe
appeared, followed at once by her accompanist, whose name occurred
nowhere on the programme. Two neighbours, however, who chatted shrilly
during the applause that greeted them, informed him that this was
Hermann, "dear Hermann; there is no one like him!" But it occurred to
Michael that the singer was like him, though she was fair and he dark.
But his perception of either of them visually was but vague; he had come
to hear and not to see. Neither she nor Hermann had any music with them,
and Hermann just glanced at the programme, which he put down on the top
of the piano, which, again unusually, was open. Then without pause they
began the set of German songs--Brahms, Schubert, Schumann--with which
the recital opened. And for one moment, before he lost himself in the
ecstasy of hearing, Michael found himself registering the fact that
Sylvia Falbe had one of the most charming faces he had ever seen. The
next he was swallowed up in melody.

She had the ease of the consummate artist, and each note, like the gates
of the New Jerusalem, was a pearl, round and smooth and luminous almost,
so that it was as if many-coloured light came from her lips. Nor was
that all; it seemed as if the accompaniment was made by the song itself,
coming into life with the freshness of the dawn of its creation; it was
impossible to believe that one mind directed the singer and another the
pianist, and if the voice was an example of art in excelsis, not less
exalted was the perfection of the player. Not for a moment through the
song did he take his eyes off her; he looked at her with an intensity of
gaze that seemed to be reading the emotion with which the lovely melody
filled her. For herself, she looked straight out over the hall, with
grey eyes half-closed, and mouth that in the pauses of her song was
large and full-lipped, generously curving, and face that seemed lit with
the light of the morning she sang of. She was the song; Michael thought
of her as just that, and the pianist who watched and understood her so
unerringly was the song, too. They had for him no identity of their own;
they were as remote from everyday life as the mind of Schumann which
they made so vivid. It was then that they existed.

The last song of the group she sang in English, for it was "Who is
Sylvia?" There was a buzz of smiles and whispers among the front row in
the pause before it, and regaining her own identity for a moment, she
smiled at a group of her friends among whom clearly it was a cliche
species of joke that she should ask who Sylvia was, and enumerate her
merits, when all the time she was Sylvia. Michael felt rather impatient
at this; she was not anybody just now but a singer. And then came the
divine inevitable simplicity of perfect words and the melody preordained
for them. The singer, as he knew, was German, but she had no trace of
foreign accent. It seemed to him that this was just one miracle the
more; she had become English because she was singing what Shakespeare
wrote.

The next group, consisting of modern French songs, appeared to Michael
utterly unworthy of the singer and the echoing piano. If you had it in
you to give reality to great and simple things, it was surely a waste
to concern yourself with these little morbid, melancholy manikins, these
marionettes. But his emotions being unoccupied he attended more to the
manner of the performance, and in especial to the marvellous technique,
not so much of the singer, but of the pianist who caused the rain to
fall and the waters reflect the toneless grey skies. He had never, even
when listening to the great masters, heard so flawless a comprehension
as this anonymous player, incidentally known as Hermann, exhibited. As
far as mere manipulation went, it was, as might perhaps be expected,
entirely effortless, but effortless no less was the understanding of the
music. It happened. . . . It was like that.

All of this so filled Michael's mind as he travelled down that evening
to Ashbridge, that he scarcely remembered the errand on which he went,
and when it occurred to him it instantly sank out of sight again, lost
in the recollection of the music which he had heard to-day and which
belonged to the art that claimed the allegiance of his soul. The rattle
of the wheels was alchemised into song, and as with half-closed eyes he
listened to it, there swam across it now the full face of the singer,
now the profile of the pianist, that had stood out white and intent
against the dark panelling behind his head. He had gleaned one fact at
the box-office as he hurried out to catch his train: this Hermann was
the singer's brother, a teacher of the piano in London, and apparently
highly thought of.


CHAPTER III


Michael's train, as his mother had so infallibly pronounced, was late,
and he had arrived only just in time to hurry to his room and dress
quickly, in order not to add to his crimes the additional one of
unpunctuality, for unpunctuality, so Lord Ashbridge held, was the
politeness not only of kings, but of all who had any pretence to decent
breeding. His father gave him a carefully-iced welcome, his mother
the tip of her long, camel-like lips, and they waited solemnly for the
appearance of Aunt Barbara, who, it would seem, had forfeited her claims
to family by her marriage. A man-servant and a half looked after each
of them at dinner, and the twelve Lord Ashbridges in uniform looked down
from their illuminated frames on their degenerate descendant.

The only bright spot in this portentous banquet was Aunt Barbara, who
had chosen that evening, with what intention may possibly be guessed, to
put on an immense diamond tiara and a breastplate of rubies, while Og,
after one futile attempt to play with the footmen, yielded himself up to
the chilling atmosphere of good breeding, and ate his mutton-chops
with great composure. But Aunt Barbara, fortified by her gems, ate an
excellent dinner, and talked all the time with occasional bursts of
unexplained laughter.

Afterwards, when Michael was left alone with his father, he found that
his best efforts at conversation elicited only monosyllabic replies, and
at last, in the despairing desire to bring things to a head, he asked
him if he had received his letter. An affirmative monosyllable, followed
by the hissing of Lord Ashbridge's cigarette end as he dropped it into
his coffee cup, answered him, and he perceived that the approaching
storm was to be rendered duly impressive by the thundery stillness that
preceded it. Then his father rose, and as he passed Michael, who held
the door open for him, said:

"If you can spare the time, Michael, I would like to have a talk with
you when your mother and aunt have gone to bed."

That was not very long delayed; Michael imagined that Aunt Barbara must
have had a hint, for before half-past ten she announced with a skilfully
suppressed laugh that she was about to retire, and kissed Michael
affectionately. Both her laugh and her salute were encouraging; he felt
that he was being backed up. Then a procession of footmen came into the
room bearing lemonade and soda water and whiskey and a plate of plain
biscuits, and the moment after he was alone with his father.

Lord Ashbridge rose and walked, very tall and majestic, to the
fireplace, where he stood for a moment with his back to his son. Then he
turned round.

"Now about this nonsense of your resigning your commission, Michael,"
he said. "I don't propose to argue about it, and I am just going to tell
you. If, as you have informed me, you have actually sent it in, you will
write to-morrow with due apologies and ask that it may be withdrawn. I
will see your letter before you send it."

Michael had intended to be as quiet and respectful as possible,
consistent with firmness, but a sentence here gave him a spasm of anger.

"I don't know what you mean, sir," he said, "by saying 'if I have sent
it in.' You have received my letter in which I tell you that I have done
so."

Already, even at the first words, there was bad blood between them.
Michael's face had clouded with that gloom which his father would
certainly call sulky, and for himself he resented the tone of Michael's
reply. To make matters worse he gave his little falsetto cackle, which
no doubt was intended to convey the impression of confident good humour.
But there was, it must be confessed, very little good humour about
it, though he still felt no serious doubt about the result of this
interview.

"I'm afraid, perhaps, then, that I did not take your letter quite
seriously, my dear Michael," he said, in the bantering tone that froze
Michael's cordiality completely up. "I glanced through it; I saw a lot
of nonsense--or so it struck me--about your resigning your commission
and studying music; I think you mentioned Baireuth, and settling down in
London afterwards."

"Yes. I said all that," said Michael. "But you make a mistake if you do
not see that it was written seriously."

His father glanced across at him, where he sat with his heavy, plain
face, his long arms and short legs, and the sight merely irritated
him. With his passion for convention (and one of the most important
conventions was that Combers should be fine, strapping, normal people)
he hated the thought that it was his son who presented that appearance.
And his son's mind seemed to him at this moment as ungainly as his
person. Again, very unwisely, he laughed, still thinking to carry this
off by the high hand.

"Yes, but I can't take that rubbish seriously," he said. "I am asking
your permission now to inquire, without any nonsense, into what you
mean."

Michael frowned. He felt the insincerity of his father's laugh, and
rebelled against the unfairness of it. The question, he knew well, was
sarcastically asked, the flavour of irony in the "permission to inquire"
was not there by accident. To speak like that implied contempt of his
opposition; he felt that he was being treated like a child over some
nursery rebellion, in which, subsequently, there is no real possibility
of disobedience. He felt his anger rising in spite of himself.

"If you refer to it as rubbish, sir, there is the end of the matter."

"Ah! I thought we should soon agree," said Lord Ashbridge, chuckling.

"You mistake me," said Michael. "There is the end of the matter, because
I won't discuss it any more, if you treat me like this. I will say good
night, if you intend to persist in the idea that you can just brush my
resolves away like that."

This clearly took his father aback; it was a perfectly dignified and
proper attitude to take in the face of ridicule, and Lord Ashbridge,
though somewhat an adept at the art of self-deception--as, for instance,
when he habitually beat the golf professional--could not disguise from
himself that his policy had been to laugh and blow away Michael's absurd
ideas. But it was abundantly clear at this moment that this apparently
easy operation was out of his reach.

He got up with more amenity in his manner than he had yet shown,
and laid his hand on Michael's shoulder as he stood in front of him,
evidently quite prepared to go away.

"Come, my dear Michael. This won't do," he said. "I thought it best
to treat your absurd schemes with a certain lightness, and I have only
succeeded in irritating you."

Michael was perfectly aware that he had scored. And as his object was to
score he made another criticism.

"When you say 'absurd schemes,' sir," he said, with quiet respect, "are
you not still laughing at them?"

Lord Ashbridge again retreated strategically.

"Very well; I withdraw absurd," he said. "Now sit down again, and we
will talk. Tell me what is in your mind."

Michael made a great effort with himself. He desired, in the secret,
real Michael, to be reasonable and cordial, to behave filially, while
all the time his nerves were on edge with his father's ridicule, and
with his instinctive knowledge of his father's distaste for him.

"Well, it's like this, father," he said. "I'm doing no good as I am. I
went into the Guards, as you know, because it was the right thing to do.
A business man's son is put into business for the same reason. And I'm
not good at it."

Michael paused a moment.

"My heart isn't in it," he said, "and I dislike it. It seems to me
useless. We're for show. And my heart is quite entirely in music. It's
the thing I care for more than anything else."

Again he paused; all that came so easily to his tongue when he was
speaking to Francis was congealed now when he felt the contempt with
which, though unexpressed, he knew he inspired his father.

Lord Ashbridge waited with careful politeness, his eyes fixed on the
ceiling, his large person completely filling his chair, just as his
atmosphere filled the room. He said nothing at all until the silence
rang in Michael's ears.

"That is all I can tell you," he said at length.

Lord Ashbridge carefully conveyed the ash from his cigarette to the
fireplace before he spoke. He felt that the time had come for his most
impressive effort.

"Very well, then, listen to me," he said. "What you suffer from,
Michael, is a mere want of self-confidence and from modesty. You don't
seem to grasp--I have often noticed this--who you are and what your
importance is--an importance which everybody is willing to recognise if
you will only assume it. You have the privileges of your position, which
you don't sufficiently value, but you have, also, the responsibilities
of it, which I am afraid you are inclined to shirk. You haven't got the
large view; you haven't the sense of patriotism. There are a great many
things in my position--the position into which you will step--which I
would much sooner be without. But we have received a tradition, and we
are bound to hand it on intact. You may think that this has nothing
to do with your being in the Guards, but it has. We"--and he seemed to
swell a little--"we are bound in honour to take the lead in the service
of our country, and we must do it whether we like it or not. We have to
till, with our own efforts, 'our goodly heritage.' You have to learn the
meaning of such words as patriotism, and caste, and duty."

Lord Ashbridge thought that he was really putting this very well indeed,
and he had the sustaining consciousness of sincerity. He entirely
believed what he said, and felt that it must carry conviction to anyone
who listened to it with anything like an open mind. The only thing that
he did not allow for was that he personally immensely enjoyed his social
and dominant position, thinking it indeed the only position which was
really worth having. This naturally gave an aid to comprehension, and
he did not take into account that Michael was not so blessed as he, and
indeed lacked this very superior individual enlightenment. But his own
words kindled the flame of this illumination, and without noticing the
blank stolidity of Michael's face he went on with gathering confidence:

"I am sure you are high-minded, my dear Michael," he said. "And it is to
your high-mindedness that I--yes, I don't mind saying it--that I appeal.
In a moment of unreflectiveness you have thrown overboard what I am sure
is real to you, the sense, broadly speaking, that you are English and of
the highest English class, and have intended to devote yourself to more
selfish and pleasure-loving aims, and to dwell in a tinkle of pleasant
sounds that please your ear; and I'm sure I don't wonder, because, as
your mother and I both know, you play charmingly. But I feel confident
that your better mind does not really confuse the mere diversions of
life with its serious issues."

Michael suddenly rose to his feet.

"Father, I'm afraid this is no use at all," he said. "All that I feel,
and all that I can't say, I know is unintelligible to you. You have
called it rubbish once, and you think it is rubbish still."

Lord Ashbridge's eloquence was suddenly arrested. He had been cantering
gleefully along, and had the very distinct impression of having run up
against a stone wall. He dismounted, hurt, but in no way broken.

"I am anxious to understand you, Michael," he said.

"Yes, father, but you don't," said he. "You have been explaining me all
wrong. For instance, I don't regard music as a diversion. That is the
only explanation there is of me."

"And as regards my wishes and my authority?" asked his father.

Michael squared his shoulders and his mind.

"I am exceedingly sorry to disappoint you in the matter of your wishes,"
he said; "but in the matter of your authority I can't recognise it when
the question of my whole life is at stake. I know that I am your son,
and I want to be dutiful, but I have my own individuality as well. That
only recognises the authority of my own conscience."

That seemed to Lord Ashbridge both tragic and ludicrous. Completely
subservient himself to the conventions which he so much enjoyed, it was
like the defiance of a child to say such things. He only just checked
himself from laughing again.

"I refuse to take that answer from you," he said.

"I have no other to give you," said Michael. "But I should like to say
once more that I am sorry to disobey your wishes."

The repetition took away his desire to laugh. In fact, he could not have
laughed.

"I don't want to threaten you, Michael," he said. "But you may know that
I have a very free hand in the disposal of my property."

"Is that a threat?" asked Michael.

"It is a hint."

"Then, father, I can only say that I should be perfectly satisfied with
anything you may do," said Michael. "I wish you could leave everything
you have to Francis. I tell you in all sincerity that I wish he had been
my elder brother. You would have been far better pleased with him."

Lord Ashbridge's anger rose. He was naturally so self-complacent as to
be seldom disposed to anger, but its rarity was not due to kindliness of
nature.

"I have before now noticed your jealousy of your cousin," he observed.

Michael's face went white.

"That is infamous and untrue, father," he said.

Lord Ashbridge turned on him.

"Apologise for that," he said.

Michael looked up at his high towering without a tremor.

"I wait for the withdrawal of your accusation that I am jealous of
Francis," he replied.

There was a dead silence. Lord Ashbridge stood there in swollen and
speechless indignation, and Michael faced him undismayed. . . . And then
suddenly to the boy there came an impulse of pure pity for his father's
disappointment in having a son like himself. He saw with the candour
which was so real a part of him how hopeless it must be, to a man of his
father's mind, to have a millstone like himself unalterably bound round
his neck, fit to choke and drown him.

"Indeed, I am not jealous of Francis, father," he said, "and I speak
quite truthfully when I say how I sympathise with you in having a son
like me. I don't want to vex you. I want to make the best of myself."

Lord Ashbridge stood looking exactly like his statue in the market-place
at Ashbridge.

"If that is the case, Michael," he said, "it is within your power. You
will write the letter I spoke about."

Michael paused a moment as if waiting for more. It did not seem to him
possible that his appeal should bear no further fruit than that. But it
was soon clear that there was no more to come.

"I will wish you good night, father," he said.


Sunday was a day on which Lord Ashbridge was almost more himself than
during the week, so shining and public an example did he become of
the British nobleman. Instead of having breakfast, according to the
middle-class custom, rather later than usual, that solid sausagy meal
was half an hour earlier, so that all the servants, except those whose
presence in the house was imperatively necessary for purposes of lunch,
should go to church. Thus "Old George" and Lord Ashbridge's private boat
were exceedingly busy for the half-hour preceding church time, the last
boat-load holding the family, whose arrival was the signal for service
to begin. Lady Ashbridge, however, always went on earlier, for she
presided at the organ with the long, camel-like back turned towards the
congregation, and started playing a slow, melancholy voluntary when the
boy who blew the bellows said to her in an ecclesiastical whisper: "His
lordship has arrived, my lady." Those of the household who could sing
(singing being construed in the sense of making a loud and cheerful
noise in the throat) clustered in the choir-pews near the organ, while
the family sat in a large, square box, with a stove in the centre, amply
supplied with prayer-books of the time when even Protestants might pray
for Queen Caroline. Behind them, separated from the rest of the church
by an ornamental ironwork grille, was the Comber chapel, in which
antiquarians took nearly as much pleasure as Lord Ashbridge himself.
Here reclined a glorious company of sixteenth century knights, with
their honourable ladies at their sides, unyielding marble bolsters at
their heads, and grotesque dogs at their feet. Later, when their peerage
was conferred, they lost a little of their yeoman simplicity, and became
peruked and robed and breeched; one, indeed, in the age of George III.,
who was blessed with poetical aspirations, appeared in bare feet and a
Roman toga with a scroll of manuscript in his hand; while later again,
mere tablets on the walls commemorated their almost uncanny virtues.

And just on the other side of the grille, but a step away, sat the
present-day representatives of the line, while Lady Ashbridge finished
the last bars of her voluntary, Lord Ashbridge himself and his sister,
large and smart and comely, and Michael beside them, short and heavy,
with his soul full of the aspirations his father neither could nor cared
to understand. According to his invariable custom, Lord Ashbridge read
the lessons in a loud, sonorous voice, his large, white hands grasping
the wing-feathers of the brass eagle, and a great carnation in his
buttonhole; and when the time came for the offertory he put a sovereign
in the open plate himself, and proceeded with his minuet-like step to go
round the church and collect the gifts of the encouraged congregation.
He followed all the prayers in his book, he made the responses in a
voice nearly as loud as that in which he read the lessons; he sang the
hymns with a curious buzzing sound, and never for a moment did he lose
sight of the fact that he was the head of the Comber family, doing his
duty as the custom of the Combers was, and setting an example of godly
piety. Afterwards, as usual, he would change his black coat, eat a good
lunch, stroll round the gardens (for he had nothing to say to golf on
Sunday), and in the evening the clergyman would dine with him, and
would be requested to say grace both before and after the meal. He knew
exactly the proper mode of passing the Sunday for the landlord on his
country estate, and when Lord Ashbridge knew that a thing was proper he
did it with invariable precision.

Michael, of course, was in disgrace; his father, pending some further
course of action, neither spoke to him nor looked at him; indeed, it
seemed doubtful whether he would hand him the offertory plate, and
it was perhaps a pity that he unbent even to this extent, for Michael
happened to have none of the symbols of thankfulness about his person,
and he saw a slight quiver pass through Aunt Barbara's hymn-book. After
a rather portentous lunch, however, there came some relief, for his
father did not ask his company on the usual Sunday afternoon stroll, and
Aunt Barbara never walked at all unless she was obliged. In consequence,
when the thunderstorm had stepped airily away across the park, Michael
joined her on the terrace, with the intention of talking the situation
over with her.

Aunt Barbara was perfectly willing to do this, and she opened the
discussion very pleasantly with peals of laughter.

"My dear, I delight in you," she said; "and altogether this is the most
entertaining day I have ever spent here. Combers are supposed to be very
serious, solid people, but for unconscious humour there isn't a family
in England or even in the States to compare with them. Our lunch just
now; if you could put it into a satirical comedy called The Aristocracy
it would make the fortune of any theatre."

A dawning smile began to break through Michael's tragedy face.

"I suppose it was rather funny," he said. "But really I'm wretched about
it, Aunt Barbara."

"My dear, what is there to be wretched about? You might have been
wretched if you had found you couldn't stand up to your father, but I
gather, though I know nothing directly, that you did. At least, your
mother has said to me three times, twice on the way to church and once
coming back: 'Michael has vexed his father very much.' And the offertory
plate, my dear, and, as I was saying, lunch! I am in disgrace too,
because I said perfectly plainly yesterday that I was on your side; and
there we were at lunch, with your father apparently unable to see either
you or me, and unconscious of our presence. Fancy pretending not to see
me! You can't help seeing me, a large, bright object like me! And what
will happen next? That's what tickles me to death, as they say on my
side of the Atlantic. Will he gradually begin to perceive us again, like
objects looming through a fog, or shall we come into view suddenly, as
if going round a corner? And you are just as funny, my dear, with your
long face, and air of depressed determination. Why be heavy, Michael? So
many people are heavy, and none of them can tell you why."

It was impossible not to feel the unfreezing effect of this. Michael
thawed to it, as he would have thawed to Francis.

"Perhaps they can't help it, Aunt Barbara," he said. "At least, I know I
can't. I really wish I could learn how to. I--I don't see the funny side
of things till it is pointed out. I thought lunch a sort of hell, you
know. Of course, it was funny, his appearing not to see either of
us. But it stands for more than that; it stands for his complete
misunderstanding of me."

Aunt Barbara had the sense to see that the real Michael was speaking.
When people were being unreal, when they were pompous or adopting
attitudes, she could attend to nothing but their absurdity, which
engrossed her altogether. But she never laughed at real things; real
things were not funny, but were facts.

"He quite misunderstands," went on Michael, with the eagerness with
which the shy welcome comprehension. "He thinks I can make my mind
like his if I choose; and if I don't choose, or rather can't choose, he
thinks that his wishes, his authority, should be sufficient to make
me act as if it was. Well, I won't do that. He may go on,"--and that
pleasant smile lit up Michael's plain face--"he may go on being unaware
of my presence as long as he pleases. I am very sorry it should be so,
but I can't help it. And the worst of it is, that opposition of that
sort--his sort--makes me more determined than ever."

Aunt Barbara nodded.

"And your friends?" she asked. "What will they think?"

Michael looked at her quite simply and directly.

"Friends?" he said. "I haven't got any."

"Ah, my dear, that's nonsense!" she said.

"I wish it was. Oh, Francis is a friend, I know. He thinks me an odd
old thing, but he likes me. Other people don't. And I can't see why they
should. I'm sure it's my fault. It's because I'm heavy. You said I was,
yourself."

"Then I was a great ass," remarked Aunt Barbara. "You wouldn't be heavy
with people who understood you. You aren't heavy with me, for instance;
but, my dear, lead isn't in it when you are with your father."

"But what am I to do, if I'm like that?" asked the boy.

She held up her large, fat hand, and marked the points off on her
fingers.

"Three things," she said. "Firstly, get away from people who don't
understand you, and whom, incidentally, you don't understand. Secondly,
try to see how ridiculous you and everybody else always are; and,
thirdly, which is much the most important, don't think about yourself.
If I thought about myself I should consider how old and fat and ugly
I am. I'm not ugly, really; you needn't be foolish and tell me so. I
should spoil my life by trying to be young, and only eating devilled
codfish and drinking hot plum-juice, or whatever is the accepted remedy
for what we call obesity. We're all odd old things, as you say. We can
only get away from that depressing fact by doing something, and not
thinking about ourselves. We can all try not to be egoists. Egoism is
the really heavy quality in the world."

She paused a moment in this inspired discourse and whistled to Og,
who had stretched his weary limbs across a bed of particularly fine
geraniums.

"There!" she said, pointing, "if your dog had done that, you would be
submerged in depression at the thought of how vexed your father would
be. That would be because you are thinking of the effect on yourself. As
it's my dog that has done it--dear me, they do look squashed now he has
got up--you don't really mind about your father's vexation, because you
won't have to think about yourself. That is wise of you; if you were a
little wiser still, you would picture to yourself how ridiculous I shall
look apologising for Og. Kindly kick him, Michael; he will understand.
Naughty! And as for your not having any friends, that would be
exceedingly sad, if you had gone the right way to get them and failed.
But you haven't. You haven't even gone among the people who could be
your friends. Your friends, broadly speaking, must like the same sort of
things as you. There must be a common basis. You can't even argue with
somebody, or disagree with somebody unless you have a common ground to
start from. If I say that black is white, and you think it is blue, we
can't get on. It leads nowhere. And, finally--"

She turned round and faced him directly.

"Finally, don't be so cross, my dear," she said.

"But am I?" asked he.

"Yes. You don't know it, or else probably, since you are a very decent
fellow, you wouldn't be. You expect not to be liked, and that is cross
of you. A good-humoured person expects to be liked, and almost always
is. You expect not to be understood, and that's dreadfully cross. You
think your father doesn't understand you; no more he does, but don't go
on thinking about it. You think it is a great bore to be your father's
only son, and wish Francis was instead. That's cross; you may think it's
fine, but it isn't, and it is also ungrateful. You can have great fun if
you will only be good-tempered!"

"How did you know that--about Francis, I mean?" asked Michael.

"Does it happen to be true? Of course it does. Every cross young man
wishes he was somebody else."

"No, not quite that," began Michael.

"Don't interrupt. It is sufficiently accurate. And you think about
your appearance, my dear. It will do quite well. You might have had two
noses, or only one eye, whereas you have two rather jolly ones. And do
try to see the joke in other people, Michael. You didn't see the joke
in your interview last night with your father. It must have been
excruciatingly funny. I don't say it wasn't sad and serious as well. But
it was funny too; there were points."

Michael shook his head.

"I didn't see them," he said.

"But I should have, and I should have been right. All dignity is funny,
simply because it is sham. When dignity is real, you don't know it's
dignity. But your father knew he was being dignified, and you knew you
were being dignified. My dear, what a pair of you!"

Michael frowned.

"But is nothing serious, then?" he asked. "Surely it was serious enough
last night. There was I in rank rebellion to my father, and it vexed him
horribly; it did more, it grieved him."

She laid her hand on Michael's knee.

"As if I didn't know that!" she said. "We're all sorry for that, though
I should have been much sorrier if you had given in and ceased to vex
him. But there it is! Accept that, and then, my dear, swiftly apply
yourself to perceive the humour of it. And now, about your plans!"

"I shall go to Baireuth on Wednesday, and then on to Munich," began
Michael.

"That, of course. Perhaps you may find the humour of a Channel crossing.
I look for it in vain. Yet I don't know. . . . The man who puts on a
yachting-cap, and asks if there's a bit of a sea on. It proves to be the
case, and he is excessively unwell. I must look out for him next time I
cross. And then?"

"Then I shall settle in town and study. Oh, here's my father coming
home."

Lord Ashbridge approached down the terrace. He stopped for a moment at
the desecrated geranium bed, saw the two sitting together, and turned at
right angles and went into the house. Almost immediately a footman
came out with a long dog-lead and advanced hesitatingly to Og. Og was
convinced that he had come to play with him, and crouched and growled
and retreated and advanced with engaging affability. Out of the windows
of the library looked Lord Ashbridge's baleful face. . . . Aunt
Barbara swayed out of her chair, and laid a trembling hand on Michael's
shoulder.

"I shall go and apologise for Og," she said. "I shall do it quite
sincerely, my dear. But there are points."


CHAPTER IV


Michael practised a certain mature and rather elderly precision in the
ordinary affairs of daily life. His habits were almost unduly tidy and
punctual; he answered letters by return of post, he never mislaid things
nor tore up documents which he particularly desired should be preserved;
he kept his gold in a purse and his change in a trousers-pocket, and in
matters of travelling he always arrived at stations with plenty of time
to spare, and had such creature comforts as he desired for his journey
in a neat Gladstone bag above his head. He never travelled first-class,
for the very simple and adequate reason that, though very well off,
he preferred to spend his money in ways that were more productive of
usefulness or pleasure; and thus, when he took his place in the corner
of a second-class compartment of the Dover-Ostend express on the
Wednesday morning following, he was the only occupant of it.

Probably he had never felt so fully at liberty, nor enjoyed a keener
zest for life and the future. For the first time he had asserted his own
indisputable right to stand on his own feet, and though he was genuinely
sorry for his father's chagrin at not being able to tuck him up in
the family coach, his own sense of independence could not but wave its
banners. There had been a second interview, no less fruitless than the
first, and Lord Ashbridge had told him that when next his presence was
desired at home, he would be informed of the fact. His mother had cried
in a mild, trickling fashion, but it was quite obvious that in her
heart of hearts she was more concerned with a bilious attack of peculiar
intensity that had assailed Petsy. She wished Michael would not be so
disobedient and vex his father, but she was quite sure that before
long some formula, in diplomatic phrase, would be found on which
reconciliation could be based; whereas it was highly uncertain whether
any formula could be found that would produce the desired effect on
Petsy, whose illness she attributed to the shock of Og's sudden and
disconcerting appearance on Saturday, when all Petsy's nervous force
was required to digest the copious cream. Consequently, though she threw
reproachful glances at Michael, those directed at Barbara, who was the
cause of the acuter tragedy, were pointed with more penetrating blame.
Indeed, it is questionable whether Lady Ashbridge would have cried at
all over Michael's affairs had not Petsy's also been in so lamentable
and critical a state.

Just as the train began to move out of the station a young man rushed
across the platform, eluded the embrace of the guard who attempted to
stop him with amazing agility, and jumped into Michael's compartment.
He slammed the door after him, and leaned out, apparently looking for
someone, whom he soon saw.

"Just caught it, Sylvia," he shouted. "Send on my luggage, will you?
It's in the taxi still, I think, and I haven't paid the man. Good-bye,
darling."

He waved to her till the curving line took the platform out of sight,
and then sat down with a laugh, and eyes of friendly interest for
Michael.

"Narrow squeak, wasn't it?" he said gleefully. "I thought the guard had
collared me. And I should have missed Parsifal."

Michael had recognised him at once as he rushed across the platform; his
shouting to Sylvia had but confirmed the recognition; and here on the
day of his entering into his new kingdom of liberty was one of its
citizens almost thrown into his arms. But for the moment his old
invincible habit of shyness and sensitiveness forbade any responsive
lightness of welcome, and he was merely formal, merely courteous.

"And all your luggage left behind," he said. "Won't you be dreadfully
uncomfortable?"

"Uncomfortable? Why?" asked Falbe. "I shall buy a handkerchief and a
collar every day, and a shirt and a pair of socks every other day till
it arrives."

Michael felt a sudden, daring impulse. He remembered Aunt Barbara's
salutary remarks about crossness being the equivalent of thinking about
oneself. And the effort that it cost him may be taken as the measure of
his solitary disposition.

"But you needn't do that," he said, "if--if you will be good enough to
borrow of me till your things come."

He blurted it out awkwardly, almost brusquely, and Falbe looked slightly
amused at this wholly surprising offer of hospitality.

"But that's awfully good of you," he said, laughing and saying nothing
direct about his acceptance. "It implies, too, that you are going
to Baireuth. We travel together, then, I hope, for it is dismal work
travelling alone, isn't it? My sister tells me that half my friends were
picked up in railway carriages. Been there before?"

Michael felt himself lured from the ordinary aloofness of attitude and
demeanour, which had been somewhat accustomed to view all strangers with
suspicion. And yet, though till this moment he had never spoken to him,
he could hardly regard Falbe as a stranger, for he had heard him say
on the piano what his sister understood by the songs of Brahms and
Schubert. He could not help glancing at Falbe's hands, as they busied
themselves with the filling and lighting of a pipe, and felt that he
knew something of those long, broad-tipped fingers, smooth and white and
strong. The man himself he found to be quite different to what he had
expected; he had seen him before, eager and intent and anxious-faced,
absorbed in the task of following another mind; now he looked much
younger, much more boyish.

"No, it's my first visit to Baireuth," he said, "and I can't tell you
how excited I am about it. I've been looking forward to it so much that
I almost expect to be disappointed."

Falbe blew out a cloud of smoke and laughter.

"Oh, you're safe enough," he said. "Baireuth never disappoints. It's
one of the facts--a reliable fact. And Munich? Do you go to Munich
afterwards?"

"Yes. I hope so."

Falbe clicked with his tongue

"Lucky fellow," he said. "How I wish I was. But I've got to get back
again after my week. You'll spend the mornings in the galleries, and the
afternoons and evenings at the opera. O Lord, Munich!"

He came across from the other side of the carriage and sat next Michael,
putting his feet up on the seat opposite.

"Talk of Munich," he said. "I was born in Munich, and I happen to know
that it's the heavenly Jerusalem, neither more nor less."

"Well, the heavenly Jerusalem is practically next door to Baireuth,"
said Michael.

"I know; but it can't be managed. However, there's a week of unalloyed
bliss between me now and the desolation of London in August. What is
so maddening is to think of all the people who could go to Munich and
don't."

Michael held debate within himself. He felt that he ought to tell his
new acquaintance that he knew who he was, that, however trivial their
conversation might be, it somehow resembled eavesdropping to talk to
a chance fellow-passenger as if he were a complete stranger. But it
required again a certain effort to make the announcement.

"I think I had better tell you," he said at length, "that I know you,
that I've listened to you at least, at your sister's recital a few days
ago."

Falbe turned to him with the friendliest pleasure.

"Ah! were you there?" he asked. "I hope you listened to her, then, not
to me. She sang well, didn't she?"

"But divinely. At the same time I did listen to you, especially in the
French songs. There was less song, you know."

Falbe laughed.

"And more accompaniment!" he said. "Perhaps you play?"

Michael was seized with a fit of shyness at the idea of talking to Falbe
about himself.

"Oh, I just strum," he said.


Throughout the journey their acquaintanceship ripened; and casually,
in dropped remarks, the two began to learn something about each other.
Falbe's command of English, as well as his sister's, which was so
complete that it was impossible to believe that a foreigner was
speaking, was explained, for it came out that his mother was
English, and that from infancy they had spoken German and English
indiscriminately. His father, who had died some dozen years before, had
been a singer of some note in his native land, but was distinguished
more for his teaching than his practice, and it was he who had taught
his daughter. Hermann Falbe himself had always intended to be a pianist,
but the poverty in which they were left at his father's death had
obliged him to give lessons rather than devote himself to his own
career; but now at the age of thirty he found himself within sight of
the competence that would allow him to cut down his pupils, and begin to
be a pupil again himself.

His sister, moreover, for whom he had slaved for years in order that she
might continue her own singing education unchecked, was now more than
able, especially after these last three months in London, where she had
suddenly leaped into eminence, to support herself and contributed to the
expenses of their common home. But there was still, so Michael gathered,
no great superabundance of money, and he guessed that Falbe's inability
to go to Munich was due to the question of expense.

All this came out by inference and allusion rather than by direct
information, while Michael, naturally reticent and feeling that his
own uneventful affairs could have no interest for anybody, was
less communicative. And, indeed, while shunning the appearance
of inquisitiveness, he was far too eager to get hold of his new
acquaintance to think of volunteering much himself. Here to him was this
citizen of the new country who all his life had lived in the palace of
art, and that in no dilettante fashion, but with set aim and serious
purpose. And Falbe abounded in such topics; he knew the singers and
the musicians of the world, and, which was much more than that, he was
himself of them; humble, no doubt, in circumstances and achievement as
yet, but clearly to Michael of the blood royal of artistry. That was
the essential thing about him as regards his relations with his
fellow-traveller, though, when next morning the spires of Cologne and
the swift river of his Fatherland came into sight, he burst out into a
sort of rhapsody of patriotism that mockingly covered a great sincerity.

"Ah! beloved land!" he cried. "Soil of heaven and of divine harmony!
Hail to thee! Hail to thee! Rhine, Rhine deep and true and steadfast."
. . . And he waved his hat and sang the greeting of Brunnhilde. Then he
turned laughingly to Michael.

"I am sufficiently English to know how ridiculous that must seem to
you," he said, "for I love England also, and the passengers on the boat
would merely think me mad if I apostrophised the cliffs of Dover and
the mud of the English roads. But here I am a German again, and I would
willingly kiss the soil. You English--we English, I may say, for I am as
much English as German--I believe have got the same feeling somewhere in
our hearts, but we lock it up and hide it away. Pray God I shall never
have to choose to which nation I belong, though for that matter there in
no choice in it at all, for I am certainly a German subject. Guten Tag,
Koln; let us instantly have our coffee. There is no coffee like German
coffee, though the French coffee is undeniably pleasanter to the mere
superficial palate. But it doesn't touch the heart, as everything German
touches my heart when I come back to the Fatherland."

He chattered on in tremendous high spirits.

"And to think that to-night we shall sleep in true German beds," he
said. "I allow that the duvet is not so convenient as blankets, and that
there is a watershed always up the middle of your bed, so that during
the night your person descends to one side while the duvet rolls
down the other; but it is German, which makes up for any trifling
inconvenience. Baireuth, too; perhaps it will strike you as a dull and
stinking little town, and so I dare say it is. But after lunch we shall
go up the hillside to where the theatre stands, at the edge of the
pine-woods, and from the porch the trumpets will give out the motif of
the Grail, and we shall pass out of the heat into the cool darkness of
the theatre. Aren't you thrilled, Comber? Doesn't a holy awe pervade
you! Are you worthy, do you think?"

All this youthful, unrestrained enthusiasm was a revelation to Michael.
Intentionally absurd as Falbe's rhapsody on the Fatherland had been,
Michael knew that it sprang from a solid sincerity which was not ashamed
of expressing itself. Living, as he had always done, in the rather
formal and reticent atmosphere of his class and environment, he would
have thought this fervour of patriotism in an English mouth ridiculous,
or, if persevered in, merely bad form. Yet when Falbe hailed the Rhine
and the spires of Cologne, it was clear that there was no bad form about
it at all. He felt like that; and, indeed, as Michael was beginning to
perceive, he felt with a similar intensity on all subjects about which
he felt at all. There was something of the same vivid quality about Aunt
Barbara, but Aunt Barbara's vividness was chiefly devoted to the hunt
of the absurdities of her friends, and it was always the concretely
ridiculous that she pursued. But this handsome, vital young man, with
his eagerness and his welcome for the world, who had fallen with
so delightful a cordiality into Michael's company, had already an
attraction for him of a sort he had never felt before.

Dimly, as the days went by, he began to conjecture that he who had never
had a friend was being hailed and halloed to, was being ordered, if
not by precept, at any rate by example, to come out of the shell of his
reserve, and let himself feel and let himself express. He could see how
utterly different was Falbe's general conception and practice of
life from his own; to Michael it had always been a congregation of
strangers--Francis excepted--who moved about, busy with each other and
with affairs that had no allure for him, and were, though not uncivil,
wholly alien to him. He was willing to grant that this alienation, this
absence of comradeship which he had missed all his life, was of his own
making, in so far as his shyness and sensitiveness were the cause of it;
but in effect he had never yet had a friend, because he had never yet
taken his shutters down, so to speak, or thrown his front door open. He
had peeped out through chinks, and felt how lonely he was, but he had
not given anyone a chance to get in.

Falbe, on the other hand, lived at his window, ready to hail the
passer-by, even as he had hailed Michael, with cheerful words. There
he lounged in his shirt-sleeves, you might say, with elbows on the
window-sill; and not from politeness, but from good fellowship, from the
fact that he liked people, was at home to everybody. He liked people;
there was the key to it. And Michael, however much he might be capable
of liking people, had up till now given them no sign of it. It really
was not their fault if they had not guessed it.

Two days passed, on the first of which Parsifal was given, and on the
second Meistersinger. On the third there was no performance, and the two
young men had agreed to meet in the morning and drive out of the town to
a neighbouring village among the hills, and spend the day there in
the woods. Michael had looked forward to this day with extraordinary
pleasure, but there was mingled with it a sort of agony of apprehension
that Falbe would find him a very boring companion. But the precepts of
Aunt Barbara came to his mind, and he reflected that the certain and
sure way of proving a bore was to be taken up with the idea that he
might be. And anyhow, Falbe had proposed the plan himself.

They lunched in a little restaurant near a forest-enclosed lake, and
since the day was very hot, did no more than stroll up the hill for a
hundred yards, where they would get some hint of breeze, and disposed
themselves at length on the carpet of pine-needles. Through the thick
boughs overhead the sunlight reached them only in specks and flakes, the
wind was but as a distant sea in the branches, and Falbe rolled over
on to his face, and sniffed at the aromatic leaves with the gusto with
which he enjoyed all that was to him enjoyable.

"Ah; that's good, that's good!" he said. "How I love smells--clean,
sharp smells like this. But they've got to be wild; you can't tame a
smell and put it on your handkerchief; it takes the life out of it. Do
you like smells, Comber?"

"I--I really never thought about it," said Michael.

"Think now, then, and tell me," said Falbe. "If you consider, you know
such a lot about me, and, as a matter of fact, I know nothing whatever
about you. I know you like music--I know you like blue trout, because
you ate so many of them at lunch to-day. But what else do I know about
you? I don't even know what you thought of Parsifal. No, perhaps I'm
wrong there, because the fact that you've never mentioned it probably
shows that you couldn't. The symptom of not understanding anything about
Parsifal is to talk about it, and say what a tremendous impression it
has made on you."

"Ah! you've guessed right there," said Michael. "I couldn't talk about
it; there's nothing to say about it, except that it is Parsifal."

"That's true. It becomes part of you, and you can't talk of it any more
than you can talk about your elbows and your knees. It's one of the
things that makes you. . . ."

He turned over on to his back, and laid his hands palm uppermost over
his eyes.

"That's part of the glory of it all," he said; "that art and its
emotions become part of you like the food you eat and the wine you
drink. Art is always making us; it enters into our character and
destiny. As long as you go on growing you assimilate, and thank God
one's mind or soul, or whatever you like to call it, goes on growing for
a long time. I suppose the moment comes to most people when they cease
to grow, when they become fixed and hard; and that is what we mean by
being old. But till then you weave your destiny, or, rather, people and
beauty weave it for you, as you'll see the Norns weaving, and yet you
never know what you are making. You make what you are, and you never
are because you are always becoming. You must excuse me; but Germans are
always metaphysicians, and they can't help it."

"Go on; be German," said Michael.

"Lieber Gott! As if I could be anything else," said Falbe, laughing.
"We are the only nation which makes a science of experimentalism; we try
everything, just as a puppy tries everything. It tries mutton bones, and
match-boxes, and soap and boots; it tries to find out what its tail is
for, and bites it till it hurts, on which it draws the conclusion that
it is not meant to eat. Like all metaphysicians, too, and dealers in the
abstract, we are intensely practical. Our passion for experimentalism
is dictated by the firm object of using the knowledge we acquire. We
are tremendously thorough; we waste nothing, not even time, whereas
the English have an absolute genius for wasting time. Look at all your
games, your sports, your athletics--I am being quite German now, and
forgetting my mother, bless her!--they are merely devices for getting
rid of the hours, and so not having to think. You hate thought as
a nation, and we live for it. Music is thought; all art is thought;
commercial prosperity is thought; soldiering is thought."

"And we are a nation of idiots?" asked Michael.

"No; I didn't say that. I should say you are a nation of sensualists.
You value sensation above everything; you pursue the enjoyable. You are
a nation of children who are always having a perpetual holiday. You go
straying all over the world for fun, and annex it generally, so that
you can have tiger-shooting in India, and lots of gold to pay for your
tiger-shooting in Africa, and fur from Canada for your coats. But
it's all a game; not one man in a thousand in England has any idea of
Empire."

"Oh, I think you are wrong there," said Michael. "You believe that only
because we don't talk about it. It's--it's like what we agreed about
Parsifal. We don't talk about it because it is so much part of us."

Falbe sat up.

"I deny it; I deny it flatly," he said. "I know where I get my power of
foolish, unthinking enjoyment from, and it's from my English blood. I
rejoice in my English blood, because you are the happiest people on the
face of the earth. But you are happy because you don't think, whereas
the joy of being German is that you do think. England is lying in the
shade, like us, with a cigarette and a drink--I wish I had one--and a
golf ball or the world with which she has been playing her game. But
Germany is sitting up all night thinking, and every morning she gives an
order or two."

Michael supplied the cigarette.

"Do you mean she is thinking about England's golf ball?" asked Michael.

"Why, of course she is! What else is there to think about?"

"Oh, it's impossible that there should be a European war," said Michael,
"for that is what it will mean!"

"And why is a European war impossible?" demanded Falbe, lighting his
cigarette.

"It's simply unthinkable!"

"Because you don't think," he interrupted. "I can tell you that the
thought of war is never absent for a single day from the average German
mind. We are all soldiers, you see. We start with that. You start by
being golfers and cricketers. But 'der Tag' is never quite absent
from the German mind. I don't say that all you golfers and cricketers
wouldn't make good soldiers, but you've got to be made. You can't be a
golfer one day and a soldier the next."

Michael laughed.

"As for that," he said, "I made an uncommonly bad soldier. But I am an
even worse golfer. As for cricket--"

Falbe again interrupted.

"Ah, then at last I know two things about you," he said. "You were a
soldier and you can't play golf. I have never known so little about
anybody after three--four days. However, what is our proverb? 'Live and
learn.' But it takes longer to learn than to live. Eh, what nonsense I
talk."

He spoke with a sudden irritation, and the laugh at the end of his
speech was not one of amusement, but rather of mockery. To Michael this
mood was quite inexplicable, but, characteristically, he looked about in
himself for the possible explanation of it.

"But what's the matter?" he asked. "Have I annoyed you somehow? I'm
awfully sorry."

Falbe did not reply for a moment.

"No, you've not annoyed me," he said. "I've annoyed myself. But that's
the worst of living on one's nerves, which is the penalty of Baireuth.
There is no charge, so to speak, except for your ticket, but a
collection is made, as happens at meetings, and you pay with your
nerves. You must cancel my annoyance, please. If I showed it I did not
mean to."

Michael pondered over this.

"But I can't leave it like that," he said at length. "Was it about the
possibility of war, which I said was unthinkable?"

Falbe laughed and turned on his elbow towards Michael.

"No, my dear chap," he said. "You may believe it to be unthinkable, and
I may believe it to be inevitable; but what does it matter what either
of us believes? Che sara sara. It was quite another thing that caused me
to annoy myself. It does not matter."

Michael lay back on the soft slope.

"Yet I insist on knowing," he said. "That is, I mean, if it is not
private."

Falbe lay quietly with his long fingers in the sediment of pine-needles.

"Well, then, as it is not private, and as you insist," he said, "I will
certainly tell you. Does it not strike you that you are behaving like an
absolute stranger to me? We have talked of me and my home and my
plans all the time since we met at Victoria Station, and you have kept
complete silence about yourself. I know nothing of you, not who you are,
or what you are, or what your flag is. You fly no flag, you proclaim no
identity. You may be a crossing-sweeper, or a grocer, or a marquis for
all I know. Of course, that matters very little; but what does matter is
that never for a moment have you shown me not what you happen to be,
but what you are. I've got the impression that you are something, that
there's a real 'you' in your inside. But you don't let me see it. You
send a polite servant to the door when I knock. Probably this sounds
very weird and un-English to you. But to my mind it is much more weird
to behave as you are behaving. Come out, can't you. Let's look at you."

It was exactly that--that brusque, unsentimental appeal--that Michael
needed. He saw himself at that moment, as Falbe saw him, a shelled and
muffled figure, intangible and withdrawn, but observing, as it were,
through eye-holes, and giving nothing in exchange for what he saw.

"I'm sorry," he said. "It's quite true what you tell me. I'm like that.
But it really has never struck me that anybody cared to know."

Falbe ceased digging his excavation in the pine-needles and looked up on
Michael.

"Good Lord, man!" he said; "people care if you'll only allow them to.
The indifference of other people is a false term for the secretiveness
of oneself. How can they care, unless you let them know what there is to
care for?"

"But I'm completely uninteresting," said Michael.

"Yes; I'll judge of that," said Falbe.


Slowly, and with diffident pauses, Michael began to speak of himself,
feeling at first as if he was undressing in public. But as he went on
he became conscious of the welcome that his story received, though that
welcome only expressed itself in perfectly unemotional monosyllables. He
might be undressing, but he was undressing in front of a fire. He knew
that he uncovered himself to no icy blast or contemptuous rain, as he
had felt when, so few days before, he had spoken of himself and what
he was to his father. There was here the common land of music to build
upon, whereas to Lord Ashbridge that same soil had been, so to speak,
the territory of the enemy. And even more than that, there was the
instinct, the certain conviction that he was telling his tale to
sympathetic ears, to which the mere fact that he was speaking of himself
presupposed a friendly hearing. Falbe, he felt, wanted to know about
him, regardless of the nature of his confessions. Had he said that he
was an undetected kleptomaniac, Falbe would have liked to know, have
been pleased at any tidings, provided only they were authentic. This
seemed to reveal itself to him even as he spoke; it had been there
waiting for him to claim it, lying there as in a poste restante, only
ready for its owner.

At the end Falbe gave a long sigh.

"And why the devil didn't you give me any hint of it before?" he asked.

"I didn't think it mattered," said Michael.

"Well, then, you are amazingly wrong. Good Lord, it's about the most
interesting thing I've ever heard. I didn't know anybody could escape
from that awful sort of prison-house in which our--I'm English now--in
which our upper class immures itself. Yet you've done it. I take it that
the thing is done now?"

"I'm not going back into the prison-house again, if you mean that," said
Michael.

"And will your father cut you off?" asked he.

"Oh, I haven't the least idea," said Michael.

"Aren't you going to inquire?"

Michael hesitated.

"No, I'm sure I'm not," he said. "I can't do that. It's his business.
I couldn't ask about what he had done, or meant to do. It's a sort
of pride, I suppose. He will do as he thinks proper, and when he has
thought, perhaps he will tell me what he intends."

"But, then, how will you live?" asked Falbe.

"Oh, I forgot to tell you that. I've got some money, quite a lot, I
mean, from my grandmother. In some ways I rather wish I hadn't. It would
have been a proof of sincerity to have become poor. That wouldn't have
made the smallest difference to my resolution."

Falbe laughed.

"And so you are rich, and yet go second-class," he said. "If I were rich
I would make myself exceedingly comfortable. I like things that are
good to eat and soft to touch. But I'm bound to say that I get on
quite excellently without them. Being poor does not make the smallest
difference to one's happiness, but only to the number of one's
pleasures."

Michael paused a moment, and then found courage to say what for the last
two days he had been longing to give utterance to.

"I know; but pleasures are very nice things," he said. "And doesn't it
seem obvious now that you are coming to Munich with me? It's a purely
selfish suggestion on my part. After being with you it will be very
stupid to be alone there. But it would be so delightful if you would
come."

Falbe looked at him a moment without speaking, but Michael saw the light
in his eyes.

"And what if I have my pride too?" he said. "Then I shall apologise for
having made the proposal," said Michael simply.

For just a second more Falbe hesitated. Then he held out his hand.

"I thank you most awfully," he said. "I accept with the greatest
pleasure."

Michael drew a long breath of relief.

"I am glad," he said. "So that's settled. It's really nice of you."

The heat of the day was passing off, and over the sun-bleached plain the
coolness of evening was beginning to steal. Overhead the wind stirred
more resonantly in the pines, and in the bushes birds called to each
other. Presently after, they rose from where they had lain all the
afternoon and strolled along the needled slope to where, through a vista
in the trees, they looked down on the lake and the hamlet that clustered
near it. Down the road that wound through the trees towards it passed
labourers going homeward from their work, with cheerful guttural cries
to each other and a herd of cows sauntered by with bells melodiously
chiming, taking leisurely mouthfuls from the herbage of the wayside.
In the village, lying low in the clear dusk, scattered lights began to
appear, the smoke of evening fires to ascend, and the aromatic odour of
the burning wood strayed towards them up the wind.

Falbe, whose hand lay in the crook of Michael's arm, pointed downwards
to the village that lay there sequestered and rural.

"That's Germany," he said; "it's that which lies at the back of every
German heart. There lie the springs of the Rhine. It's out of that
originally that there came all that Germany stands for, its music, its
poetry, its philosophy, its kultur. All flowed from these quiet uplands.
It was here that the nation began to think and to dream. To dreamt! It's
out of dreams that all has sprung."

He laughed.

"And then next week when we go to Munich, you will find me saying that
this, this Athens of a town, with its museums and its galleries and its
music, is Germany. I shall be right, too. Out of much dreaming comes
the need to make. It is when the artist's head and heart are full of
his dreams that his hands itch for the palette or the piano. Nuremberg!
Cannot we stop a few hours, at least, in Nuremberg, and see the meadow
by the Pegnitz where the Meistersingers held their contest of song and
the wooden, gabled house where Albrecht Durer lived? That will teach you
Germany, too. The bud of their dream was opening then; and what flower,
even in the magnificence of its full-blowing, is so lovely? Albrecht
Durer, with his deep, patient eyes, and his patient hands with their
unerring stroke; or Bach, with the fugue flowing from his brain through
his quick fingers, making stars--stars fixed forever in the heaven
of harmony! Don't tell me that there is anything in the world more
wonderful! We may have invented a few more instruments, we may have
experimented with a few more combinations of notes, but in the B minor
Mass, or in the music of the Passion, all is said. And all that came
from the woods and the country and the quiet life in little towns, when
the artist did his work because he loved it, and cared not one jot about
what anybody else thought about it. We are a nation of thinkers and
dreamers."

Michael hesitated a moment.

"But you said not long ago that you were also the most practical
nation," he said. "You are a nation of soldiers, also."

"And who would not willingly give himself for such a Fatherland?" said
Falbe. "If need be, we will lay our lives down for that, and die more
willingly than we have lived. God grant that the need comes not. But
should it come we are ready. We are bound to be ready; it would be a
crime not to be ready--a crime against the Fatherland. We love peace,
but the peace-lovers are just those who in war are most terrible. For
who are the backbone of war when war comes? The women of the country,
my friend, not the ministers, not the generals and the admirals. I
don't say they make war, but when war is made they are the spirit of it,
because, more than men, they love their homes. There is not a woman
in Germany who will not send forth brother and husband and father and
child, should the day come. But it will not come from our seeking."

He turned to Michael, his face illuminated by the red glow of the
sinking sun.

"Germany will rise as one man if she's told to," he said, "for that is
what her unity and her discipline mean. She is patient and peaceful, but
she is obedient."

He pointed northwards.

"It is from there, from Prussia, from Berlin," he said, "that the word
will come, if they who rule and govern us, and in whose hands are all
organisation and equipment, tell us that our national existence compels
us to fight. They rule. The Prussians rule; there is no doubt of that.
From Germany have come the arts, the sciences, the philosophies of the
world, and not from there. But they guard our national life. It is they
who watch by the Rhine for us, patient and awake. Should they beckon us
one night, on some peaceful August night like this, when all seems so
tranquil, so secure, we shall go. The silent beckoning finger will be
obeyed from one end of the land to the other, from Poland on the east to
France on the west."

He turned away quickly.

"It does not bear thinking of," he said; "and yet there are many, oh, so
many, who night and day concern themselves with nothing else. Let us be
English again, and not think of anything serious or unpleasant. Already,
as you know, I am half English; there is something to build upon. Ah,
and this is the sentimental hour, just when the sun begins to touch the
horizon line of the stale, weary old earth and turns it into rosy gold
and heals its troubles and its weariness. Schon, Schon!"

He stood for a moment bareheaded to the breeze, and made a great florid
salutation to the sun, now only half-disk above the horizon.

"There! I have said my evensong," he remarked, "like a good German, who
always and always is ridiculous to the whole world, except those who are
German also. Oh, I can see how we look to the rest of the world so well.
Beer mug in one hand, and mouth full of sausage and song, and with the
other hand, perhaps, fingering a revolver. How unreal it must seem to
you, how affected, and yet how, in truth, you miss it all. Scratch a
Russian, they say, and you find a Tartar; but scratch a German and you
find two things--a sentimentalist and a soldier. Lieber Gott! No, I will
say, Good God! I am English again, and if you scratch me you will find a
golf ball."

He took Michael's arm again.

"Well, we've spent one day together," he said, "and now we know
something of who we are. I put this day in the bank; it's mine or yours
or both of ours. I won't tell you how I've enjoyed it, or you will say
that I have enjoyed it because I have talked almost all the time. But
since it's the sentimental hour I will tell you that you mistake. I have
enjoyed it because I believe I have found a friend."


CHAPTER V


Hermann Falbe had just gone back to his lodgings at the end of the
Richard Wagner Strasse late on the night of their last day at Baireuth,
and Michael, who had leaned out of his window to remind him of the hour
of their train's departure the next morning, turned back into the room
to begin his packing. That was not an affair that would take much time,
but since, on this sweltering August night, it would certainly be a
process that involved the production of much heat, he made ready for bed
first, and went about his preparations in pyjamas. The work of dropping
things into a bag was soon over, and finding it impossible to entertain
the idea of sleep, he drew one of the stiff, plush-covered arm-chairs to
the window and slipped the rein from his thoughts, letting them gallop
where they pleased.

In all his life he had never experienced so much sheer emotion as the
last week had held for him. He had enjoyed his first taste of liberty;
he had stripped himself naked to music; he had found a friend. Any one
of these would have been sufficient to saturate him, and they had all,
in the decrees of Fate, come together. His life hitherto had been like
some dry sponge, dusty and crackling; now it was plunged in the waters
of three seas, all incomparably sweet.

He had gained his liberty, and in that process he had forgotten about
himself, the self which up till now had been so intolerable a burden. At
school, and even before, when first the age of self-consciousness dawned
upon him, he had seen himself as he believed others saw him--a queer,
awkward, ill-made boy, slow at his work, shy with his fellows, incapable
at games. Walled up in this fortress of himself, this gloomy and
forbidding fastness, he had altogether failed to find the means of
access to others, both to the normal English boys among whom his path
lay, and also to his teachers, who, not unnaturally, found him sullen
and unresponsive. There was no key among the rather limited bunches at
their command which unlocked him, nor at home had anything been found
which could fit his wards. It had been the business of school to turn
out boys of certain received types. There was the clever boy, the
athletic boy, the merely pleasant boy; these and the combinations
arrived at from these types were the output. There was no use for
others.

Then had succeeded those three nightmare years in the Guards, where,
with his more mature power of observation, he had become more actively
conscious of his inability to take his place on any of the recognised
platforms. And all the time, like an owl on his solitary perch, he had
gazed out lonelily, while the other birds of day, too polite to mock
him, had merely passed him by. One such, it is true--his cousin--had sat
by him, and the poor owl's heart had gone out to him. But even Francis,
so he saw now, had not understood. He had but accepted the fact of him
without repugnance, had been fond of him as a queer sort of kind elder
cousin.

Then there was Aunt Barbara. Aunt Barbara, Michael allowed, had
understood a good deal; she had pointed out with her unerringly
humourous finger the obstacles he had made for himself.

But could Aunt Barbara understand the rapture of living which this
one week of liberty had given him? That Michael doubted. She had only
pointed out the disabilities he made for himself. She did not know
what he was capable of in the way of happiness. But he thought, though
without self-consciousness, how delightful it would be to show himself,
the new, unshelled self, to Aunt Barbara again.

A laughing couple went tapping down the street below his window, boy and
girl, with arms and waists interlaced. They were laughing at nothing at
all, except that they were boy and girl together and it was all glorious
fun. But the sight of them gave Michael a sudden spasm of envy. With all
this enlightenment that had come to him during this last week, there had
come no gleam of what that simplest and commonest aspect of human nature
meant. He had never felt towards a girl what that round-faced German
boy felt. He was not sure, but he thought he disliked girls; they meant
nothing to him, anyhow, and the mere thought of his arm round a girl's
waist only suggested a very embarrassing attitude. He had nothing to
say to them, and the knowledge of his inability filled him with
an uncomfortable sense of his want of normality, just as did the
consciousness of his long arms and stumpy legs.

There was a night he remembered when Francis had insisted that he should
go with him to a discreet little supper party after an evening at
the music-hall. There were just four of them--he, Francis, and two
companions--and he played the role of sour gooseberry to his cousin,
who, with the utmost gaiety, had proved himself completely equal to the
inauspicious occasion, and had drank indiscriminately out of both the
girls' glasses, and lit cigarettes for them; and, after seeing them both
home, had looked in on Michael, and gone into fits of laughter at his
general incompatibility.

The steps and conversation passed round the corner, and Michael,
stretching his bare toes on to the cool balcony, resumed his
researches--those joyful, unegoistic researches into himself. His
liberty was bound up with his music; the first gave the key to the
second. Often as he had rested, so to speak, in oases of music in
London, they were but a pause from the desert of his uncongenial life
into the desert again. But now the desert was vanished, and the oasis
stretched illimitable to the horizon in front of him. That was where,
for the future, his life was to be passed, not idly, sitting under
trees, but in the eager pursuit of its unnumbered paths. It was that
aspect of it which, as he knew so well, his father, for instance, would
never be able to understand. To Lord Ashbridge's mind, music was
vaguely connected with white waistcoats and opera glasses and large pink
carnations; he was congenitally incapable of viewing it in any other
light than a diversion, something that took place between nine and
eleven o'clock in the evening, and in smaller quantities at church on
Sunday morning. He would undoubtedly have said that Handel's Messiah was
the noblest example of music in the world, because of its subject; music
did not exist for him as a separate, definite and infinite factor of
life; and since it did not so exist for himself, he could not imagine
it existing for anybody else. That Michael correctly knew to be his
father's general demeanour towards life; he wanted everybody in their
respective spheres to be like what he was in his. They must take their
part, as he undoubtedly did, in the Creation-scheme when the British
aristocracy came into being.

A fresh factor had come into Michael's conception of music during these
last seven days. He had become aware that Germany was music. He had
naturally known before that the vast proportion of music came from
Germany, that almost all of that which meant "music" to him was of
German origin; but that was a very different affair from the conviction
now borne in on his mind that there was not only no music apart from
Germany, but that there was no Germany apart from music.

But every moment he spent in this wayside puddle of a town (for so
Baireuth seemed to an unbiased view), he became more and more aware that
music beat in the German blood even as sport beat in the blood of his
own people. During this festival week Baireuth existed only because of
that; at other times Baireuth was probably as non-existent as any dull
and minor town in the English Midlands. But, owing to the fact of music
being for these weeks resident in Baireuth, the sordid little townlet
became the capital of the huge, patient Empire. It existed just now
simply for that reason; to-night, with the curtain of the last act of
Parsifal, it had ceased to exist again. It was not that a patriotic
desire to honour one of the national heroes in the home where he had
been established by the mad genius of a Bavarian king that moved them;
it was because for the moment that Baireuth to Germans meant Germany.
From Berlin, from Dresden, from Frankfurt, from Luxemburg, from a
hundred towns those who were most typically German, whether high or
low, rich or poor, made their joyous pilgrimage. Joy and solemnity,
exultation and the yearning that could never be satisfied drew them
here. And even as music was in Michael's heart, so Germany was there
also. They were the people who understood; they did not go to the opera
as a be-diamonded interlude between a dinner and a dance; they came
to this dreadful little town, the discomforts of which, the utter
provinciality of which was transformed into the air of the heavenly
Jerusalem, as Hermann Falbe had said, because their souls were fed here
with wine and manna. He would find the same thing at Munich, so Falbe
had told him, the next week.

The loves and the tragedies of the great titanic forces that saw
the making of the world; the dreams and the deeds of the masters of
Nuremberg; above all, sacrifice and enlightenment and redemption of the
soul; how, except by music, could these be made manifest? It was the
first and only and final alchemy that could by its magic transformation
give an answer to the tremendous riddles of consciousness; that could
lift you, though tearing and making mincemeat of you, to the serenity
of the Pisgah-top, whence was seen the promised land. It, in itself, was
reality; and the door-keeper who admitted you into that enchanted
realm was the spirit of Germany. Not France, with its little, morbid
shiverings, and its meat-market called love; not Italy, with its
melodious declamations and tawdry tunes; not Russia even, with the wind
of its impenetrable winters, its sense of joys snatched from its eternal
frosts gave admittance there; but Germany, "deep, patient Germany," that
sprang from upland hamlets, and flowed down with ever-broadening stream
into the illimitable ocean.

Here, then, were two of the initiations that had come, with the
swiftness of the spate in Alpine valleys at the melting of the snow,
upon Michael; his own liberty, namely, and this new sense of music. He
had groped, he felt now, like a blind man in that direction, guided only
by his instinct, and on a sudden the scales had fallen from his eyes,
and he knew that his instinct had guided him right. But not less
epoch-making had been the dawn of friendship. Throughout the week his
intimacy with Hermann Falbe had developed, shooting up like an
aloe flower, and rising into sunlight above the mists of his own
self-occupied shyness, which had so darkly beset him all life long. He
had given the best that he knew of himself to his cousin, but all
the time there had never quite been absent from his mind his sense
of inferiority, a sort of aching wonder why he could not be more like
Francis, more careless, more capable of enjoyment, more of a normal
type. But with Falbe he was able for the first time to forget himself
altogether; he had met a man who did not recall him to himself, but
took him clean out of that tedious dwelling which he knew so well and,
indeed, disliked so much. He was rid for the first time of his morbid
self-consciousness; his anchor had been taken up from its dragging in
the sand, and he rode free, buoyed on waters and taken by tides. It
did not occur to him to wonder whether Falbe thought him uncouth and
awkward; it did not occur to him to try to be pleasant, a job over which
poor Michael had so often found himself dishearteningly incapable; he
let himself be himself in the consciousness that this was sufficient.

They had spent the morning together before this second performance of
Parsifal that closed their series, in the woods above the theatre, and
Michael, no longer blurting out his speeches, but speaking in the quiet,
orderly manner in which he thought, discussed his plans.

"I shall come back to London with you after Munich," he said, "and
settle down to study. I do know a certain amount about harmony already;
I have been mugging it up for the last three years. But I must do
something as well as learn something, and, as I told you, I'm going to
take up the piano seriously."

Falbe was not attending particularly.

"A fine instrument, the piano," he remarked. "There is certainly
something to be done with a piano, if you know how to do it. I can strum
a bit myself. Some keys are harder than others--the black notes."

"Yes; what of the black notes?" asked Michael.

"Oh! they're black. The rest are white. I beg your pardon!"

Michael laughed.

"When you have finished drivelling," he said, "you might let me know."

"I have finished drivelling, Michael. I was thinking about something
else."

"Not really?"

"Really."

"Then it was impolite of you, but you haven't any manners. I was talking
about my career. I want to do something, and these large hands are
really rather nimble. But I must be taught. The question is whether you
will teach me."

Falbe hesitated.

"I can't tell you," he said, "till I have heard you play. It's like
this: I can't teach you to play unless you know how, and I can't tell
if you know how until I have heard you. If you have got that particular
sort of temperament that can put itself into the notes out of the ends
of your fingers, I can teach you, and I will. But if you haven't, I
shall feel bound to advise you to try the Jew's harp, and see if you can
get it out of your teeth. I'm not mocking you; I fancy you know that.
But some people, however keenly and rightly they feel, cannot bring
their feelings out through their fingers. Others can; it is a special
gift. If you haven't got it, I can't teach you anything, and there is
no use in wasting your time and mine. You can teach yourself to be
frightfully nimble with your fingers, and all the people who don't
know will say: 'How divinely Lord Comber plays! That sweet thing; is it
Brahms or Mendelssohn?' But I can't really help you towards that; you
can do that for yourself. But if you've got the other, I can and will
teach you all that you really know already."

"Go on!" said Michael.

"That's just the devil with the piano," said Falbe. "It's the easiest
instrument of all to make a show on, and it is the rarest sort of person
who can play on it. That's why, all those years, I have hated giving
lessons. If one has to, as I have had to, one must take any awful miss
with a pigtail, and make a sham pianist of her. One can always do that.
But it would be waste of time for you and me; you wouldn't want to be
made a sham pianist, and simply I wouldn't make you one."

Michael turned round.

"Good Lord!" he said, "the suspense is worse than I can bear. Isn't
there a piano in your room? Can't we go down there, and have it over?"

"Yes, if you wish. I can tell at once if you are capable of playing--at
least, whether I think you are capable of playing--whether I can teach
you."

"But I haven't touched a piano for a week," said Michael.

"It doesn't matter whether you've touched a piano for a year."

Michael had not been prevented by the economy that made him travel
second-class from engaging a carriage by the day at Baireuth, since
that clearly was worth while, and they found it waiting for them by
the theatre. There was still time to drive to Falbe's lodging and get
through this crucial ordeal before the opera, and they went straight
there. A very venerable instrument, which Falbe had not yet opened,
stood against the wall, and he struck a few notes on it.

"Completely out of tune," he said; "but that doesn't matter. Now then!"

"But what am I to play?" asked Michael.

"Anything you like."

He sat down at the far end of the room, put his long legs up on to
another chair and waited. Michael sent a despairing glance at that
gay face, suddenly grown grim, and took his seat. He felt a paralysing
conviction that Falbe's judgment, whatever that might turn out to be,
would be right, and the knowledge turned his fingers stiff. From the few
notes that Falbe had struck he guessed on what sort of instrument his
ordeal was to take place, and yet he knew that Falbe himself would have
been able to convey to him the sense that he could play, though the
piano was all out of tune, and there might be dumb, disconcerting notes
in it. There was justice in Falbe's dictum about the temperament that
lay behind the player, which would assert itself through any faultiness
of instrument, and through, so he suspected, any faultiness of
execution.

He struck a chord, and heard it jangle dissonantly.

"Oh, it's not fair," he said.

"Get on!" said Falbe.

In spite of Germany there occurred to Michael a Chopin prelude, at which
he had worked a little during the last two months in London. The notes
he knew perfectly; he had believed also that he had found a certain
conception of it as a whole, so that he could make something coherent
out of it, not merely adding bar to correct bar. And he began the soft
repetition of chord-quavers with which it opened.

Then after stumbling wretchedly through two lines of it, he suddenly
forgot himself and Falbe, and the squealing unresponsive notes. He heard
them no more, absorbed in the knowledge of what he meant by them, of the
mood which they produced in him. His great, ungainly hands had all the
gentleness and self-control that strength gives, and the finger-filling
chords were as light and as fine as the settling of some poised bird on
a bough. In the last few lines of the prelude a deep bass note had to be
struck at the beginning of each bar; this Michael found was completely
dumb, but so clear and vivid was the effect of it in his mind that he
scarcely noticed that it returned no answer to his finger. . . . At the
end he sat without moving, his hands dropped on to his knees.

Falbe got up and, coming over to the piano, struck the bass note
himself.

"Yes, I knew it was dumb," he said, "but you made me think it wasn't.
. . . You got quite a good tone out of it."

He paused a moment, again striking the dumb note, as if to make sure
that it was soundless.

"Yes; I'll teach you," he said. "All the technique you have got, you
know, is wrong from beginning to end, and you mustn't mind unlearning
all that. But you've got the thing that matters."


All this stewed and seethed in Michael's mind as he sat that night by
the window looking out on to the silent and empty street. His thoughts
flowed without check or guide from his will, wandering wherever their
course happened to take them, now lingering, like the water of a river
in some deep, still pool, when he thought of the friendship that
had come into his life, now excitedly plunging down the foam of
swift-flowing rapids in the exhilaration of his newly-found liberty,
now proceeding with steady current at the thought of the weeks of
unremitting industry at a beloved task that lay in front of him. He
could form no definite image out of these which should represent his
ordinary day; it was all lost in a bright haze through which its shape
was but faintly discernible; but life lay in front of him with promise,
a thing to be embraced and greeted with welcome and eager hands, instead
of being a mere marsh through which he had to plod with labouring steps,
a business to be gone about without joy and without conviction in its
being worth while.

He wondered for a moment, as he rose to go to bed, what his feelings
would have been if, at the end of his performance on the sore-throated
and voiceless piano, Falbe had said: "I'm sorry, but I can't do anything
with you." As he knew, Falbe intended for the future only to take a few
pupils, and chiefly devote himself to his own practice with a view to
emerging as a concert-giver the next winter; and as Michael had sat
down, he remembered telling himself that there was really not the
slightest chance of his friend accepting him as a pupil. He did not
intend that this rejection should make the smallest difference to his
aim, but he knew that he would start his work under the tremendous
handicap of Falbe not believing that he had it in him to play, and under
the disappointment of not enjoying the added intimacy which work with
and for Falbe would give him. Then he had engaged in this tussle with
refractory notes till he quite lost himself in what he was playing,
and thought no more either of Falbe or the piano, but only of what the
melody meant to him. But at the end, when he came to himself again, and
sat with dropped hands waiting for Falbe's verdict, he remembered how
his heart seemed to hang poised until it came. He had rehearsed again
to himself his fixed determination that he would play and could play,
whatever his friend might think about it; but there was no doubt that he
waited with a greater suspense than he had ever known in his life before
for that verdict to be made known to him.

Next day came their journey to Munich, and the installation in the
best hotel in Europe. Here Michael was host, and the economy which he
practised when he had only himself to provide for, and which made him
go second-class when travelling, was, as usual, completely abandoned now
that the pleasure of hospitality was his. He engaged at once the best
double suite of rooms that the hotel contained, two bedrooms with
bathrooms, and an admirable sitting-room, looking spaciously out on
to the square, and with brusque decision silenced Falbe's attempted
remonstrance. "Don't interfere with my show, please," he had said, and
proceeded to inquire about a piano to be sent in for the week. Then he
turned to his friend again. "Oh, we are going to enjoy ourselves," he
said, with an irresistible sincerity.

Tristan und Isolde was given on the third day of their stay there, and
Falbe, reading the morning German paper, found news.

"The Kaiser has arrived," he said. "There's a truce in the army
manoeuvres for a couple of days, and he has come to be present at
Tristan this evening. He's travelled three hundred miles to get here,
and will go back to-morrow. The Reise-Kaiser, you know."

Michael looked up with some slight anxiety.

"Ought I to write my name or anything?" he asked. "He has stayed several
times with my father."

"Has he? But I don't suppose it matters. The visit is a
widely-advertised incognito. That's his way. God be with the
All-highest," he added.

"Well, I shan't" said Michael. "But it would shock my father dreadfully
if he knew. The Kaiser looks on him as the type and model of the English
nobleman."

Michael crunched one of the inimitable breakfast rusks in his teeth.

"Lord, what a day we had when he was at Ashbridge last year," he said.
"We began at eight with a review of the Suffolk Yeomanry; then we had a
pheasant shoot from eleven till three; then the Emperor had out a steam
launch and careered up and down the river till six, asking a thousand
questions about the tides and the currents and the navigable channels.
Then he lectured us on the family portraits till dinner; after dinner
there was a concert, at which he conducted the 'Song to Aegir,' and then
there was a torch-light fandango by the tenants on the lawn. He was on
his holiday, you must remember."

"I heard the 'Song to Aegir' once," remarked Falbe, with a perfectly
level intonation.

"I was--er--luckier," said Michael politely, "because on that occasion I
heard it twice. It was encored."

"And what did it sound like the second time?" asked Falbe.

"Much as before," said Michael.

The advent of the Emperor had put the whole town in a ferment. Though
the visit was quite incognito, an enormous military staff which had
been poured into the town might have led the thoughtful to suspect the
Kaiser's presence, even if it had not been announced in the largest type
in the papers, and marchings and counter-marchings of troops and sudden
bursts of national airs proclaimed the august presence. He held an
informal review of certain Bavarian troops not out for manoeuvres in the
morning, visited the sculpture gallery and pinacothek in the afternoon,
and when Hermann and Michael went up to the theatre they found rows
of soldiers drawn up, and inside unusual decorations over a section of
stalls which had been removed and was converted into an enormous box.
This was in the centre of the first tier, nearly at right angles to
where they sat, in the front row of the same tier; and when, with
military punctuality, the procession of uniforms, headed by the Emperor,
filed in, the whole of the crowded house stood up and broke into a roar
of recognition and loyalty.

For a minute, or perhaps more, the Emperor stood facing the house with
his hand raised in salute, a figure the uprightness of which made him
look tall. His brilliant uniform was ablaze with decorations; he seemed
every inch a soldier and a leader of men. For that minute he stood
looking neither to the right nor left, stern and almost frowning, with
no shadow of a smile playing on the tightly-drawn lips, above which his
moustache was brushed upwards in two stiff protuberances towards his
eyes. He was there just then not to see, but to be seen, his incognito
was momentarily in abeyance, and he stood forth the supreme head of his
people, the All-highest War Lord, who had come that day from the
field, to which he would return across half Germany tomorrow. It was an
impressive and dignified moment, and Michael heard Falbe say to himself:
"Kaiserlich! Kaiserlich!"

Then it was over. The Emperor sat down, beckoned to two of his officers,
who had stood in a group far at the back of the box, to join him, and
with one on each side he looked about the house and chatted to them. He
had taken out his opera-glass, which he adjusted, using his right hand
only, and looked this way and that, as if, incognito again, he was
looking for friends in the house. Once Michael thought that he looked
rather long and fixedly in his direction, and then, putting down his
glass, he said something to one of the officers, this time clearly
pointing towards Michael. Then he gave some signal, just raising his
hand towards the orchestra, and immediately the lights were put down,
the whole house plunged in darkness, except where the lamps in the sunk
orchestra faintly illuminated the base of the curtain, and the first
longing, unsatisfied notes of the prelude began.

The next hour passed for Michael in one unbroken mood of absorption. The
supreme moment of knowing the music intimately and of never having seen
the opera before was his, and all that he had dreamed of or imagined
as to the possibilities of music was flooded and drowned in the thing
itself. You could not say that it was more gigantic than The Ring, more
human than the Meistersingers, more emotional than Parsifal, but it
was utterly and wholly different to anything else he had ever seen or
conjectured. Falbe, he himself, the thronged and silent theatre, the
Emperor, Munich, Germany, were all blotted out of his consciousness.
He just watched, as if discarnate, the unrolling of the decrees of Fate
which were to bring so simple and overpowering a tragedy on the two who
drained the love-potion together. And at the end he fell back in his
seat, feeling thrilled and tired, exhilarated and exhausted.

"Oh, Hermann," he said, "what years I've wasted!"

Falbe laughed.

"You've wasted more than you know yet," he said. "Hallo!"

A very resplendent officer had come clanking down the gangway next them.
He put his heels together and bowed.

"Lord Comber, I think?" he said in excellent English.

Michael roused himself.

"Yes?" he said.

"His Imperial Majesty has done me the honour to desire you to come and
speak to him," he said.

"Now?" said Michael.

"If you will be so good," and he stood aside for Michael to pass up the
stairs in front of him.

In the wide corridor behind he joined him again.

"Allow me to introduce myself as Count von Bergmann," he said, "and
one of His Majesty's aides-de-camp. The Kaiser always speaks with
great pleasure of the visits he has paid to your father, and he saw you
immediately he came into the theatre. If you will permit me, I would
advise you to bow, but not very low, respecting His Majesty's incognito,
to seat yourself as soon as he desires it, and to remain till he gives
you some speech of dismissal. Forgive me for going in front of you here.
I have to introduce you to His Majesty's presence."

Michael followed him down the steps to the front of the box.

"Lord Comber, All-highest," he said, and instantly stood back.

The Emperor rose and held out his hand, and Michael, bowing over it as
he took it, felt himself seized in the famous grip of steel, of which
its owner as well as its recipient was so conscious.

"I am much pleased to see you, Lord Comber," said he. "I could not
resist the pleasure of a little chat with you about our beloved England.
And your excellent father, how is he?"

He indicated a chair to Michael, who, as advised, instantly took it,
though the Emperor remained a moment longer standing.

"I left him in very good health, Your Majesty," said Michael.

"Ah! I am glad to hear it. I desire you to convey to him my friendliest
greetings, and to your mother also. I well remember my last visit to
his house above the tidal estuary at Ashbridge, and I hope it may not be
very long before I have the opportunity to be in England again."

He spoke in a voice that seemed rather hoarse and tired, but his manner
expressed the most courteous cordiality. His face, which had been as
still as a statue's when he showed himself to the house, was now never
in repose for a moment. He kept turning his head, which he carried very
upright, this way and that as he spoke; now he would catch sight of
someone in the audience to whom he directed his glance, now he would
peer over the edge of the low balustrade, now look at the group of
officers who stood apart at the back of the box.

His whole demeanour suggested a nervous, highly-strung condition; the
restlessness of it was that of a man overstrained, who had lost the
capability of being tranquil. Now he frowned, now he smiled, but never
for a moment was he quiet. Then he launched a perfect hailstorm of
questions at Michael, to the answers to which (there was scarcely time
for more than a monosyllable in reply) he listened with an eager and
a suspicious attention. They were concerned at first with all sorts of
subjects: inquired if Michael had been at Baireuth, what he was going to
do after the Munich festival was over, if he had English friends
here. He inquired Falbe's name, looked at him for a moment through his
glasses, and desired to know more about him. Then, learning he was a
teacher of the piano in England, and had a sister who sang, he expressed
great satisfaction.

"I like to see my subjects, when there is no need for their services at
home," he said, "learning about other lands, and bringing also to other
lands the culture of the Fatherland, even as it always gives me pleasure
to see the English here, strengthening by the study of the arts the
bonds that bind our two great nations together. You English must
learn to understand us and our great mission, just as we must learn to
understand you."

Then the questions became more specialised, and concerned the state
of things in England. He laughed over the disturbances created by the
Suffragettes, was eager to hear what politicians thought about the state
of things in Ireland, made specific inquiries about the Territorial
Force, asked about the Navy, the state of the drama in London, the coal
strike which was threatened in Yorkshire. Then suddenly he put a series
of personal questions.

"And you, you are in the Guards, I think?" he said.

"No, sir; I have just resigned my commission," said Michael.

"Why? Why is that? Have many of your officers been resigning?"

"I am studying music, Your Majesty," said Michael.

"I am glad to see you came to Germany to do it. Berlin? You ought to
spend a couple of months in Berlin. Perhaps you are thinking of doing
so."

He turned round quickly to one of his staff who had approached him.

"Well, what is it?" he said.

Count von Bergmann bowed low.

"The Herr-Director," he said, "humbly craves to know whether it is Your
Majesty's pleasure that the opera shall proceed."

The Kaiser laughed.

"There, Lord Comber," he said, "you see how I am ordered about. They
wish to cut short my conversation with you. Yes, Bergmann, we will go
on. You will remain with me, Lord Comber, for this act."

Immediately after the lights were lowered again, the curtain rose, and
a most distracting hour began for Michael. His neighbour was never still
for a single moment. Now he would shift in his chair, now with his hand
he would beat time on the red velvet balustrade in front of him, and a
stream of whispered appreciation and criticism flowed from him.

"They are taking the opening scene a little too slow," he said. "I shall
call the director's attention to that. But that crescendo is well done;
yes, that is most effective. The shawl--observe the beautiful lines
into which the shawl falls as she waves it. That is wonderful--a very
impressive entry. Ah, but they should not cross the stage yet; it is
more effective if they remain longer there. Brangane sings finely; she
warns them that the doom is near."

He gave a little giggle, which reminded Michael of his father.

"Brangane is playing gooseberry, as you say in England," he said. "A big
gooseberry, is she not? Ah, bravo! bravo! Wunderschon! Yes, enter King
Mark from his hunting. Very fine. Say I was particularly pleased with
the entry of King Mark, Bergmann. A wonderful act! Wagner never touched
greater heights."

At the end the Emperor rose and again held out his hand.

"I am pleased to have seen you, Lord Comber," he said. "Do not forget
my message to your father; and take my advice and come to Berlin in the
winter. We are always pleased to see the English in Germany."

As Michael left the box he ran into the Herr-Director, who had been
summoned to get a few hints.

He went back to join Falbe in a state of republican irritation, which
the honour that had been done him did not at all assuage. There was an
hour's interval before the third act, and the two drove back to their
hotel to dine there. But Michael found his friend wholly unsympathetic
with his chagrin. To him, it was quite clear, the disappointment of not
having been able to attend very closely to the second act of Tristan was
negligible compared to the cause that had occasioned it. It was possible
for the ordinary mortal to see Tristan over and over again, but to
converse with the Kaiser was a thing outside the range of the average
man. And again in this interval, as during the act itself, Michael
was bombarded with questions. What did the Kaiser say? Did he remember
Ashbridge? Did Michael twice receive the iron grip? Did the All-highest
say anything about the manoeuvres? Did he look tired, or was it only the
light above his head that made him appear so haggard? Even his opinion
about the opera was of interest. Did he express approval?

This was too much for Michael.

"My dear Hermann," he said, "we alluded very cautiously to the 'Song to
Aegir' this morning, and delicately remarked that you had heard it once
and I twice. How can you care what his opinion of this opera is?"

Falbe shook his handsome head, and gesticulated with his fine hands.

"You don't understand," he said. "You have just been talking to him
himself. I long to hear his every word and intonation. There is the
personality, which to us means so much, in which is summed up all
Germany. It is as if I had spoken to Rule Britannia herself. Would you
not be interested? There is no one in the world who is to his country
what the Kaiser is to us. When you told me he had stayed at Ashbridge I
was thrilled, but I was ashamed lest you should think me snobbish, which
indeed I am not. But now I am past being ashamed."

He poured out a glass of wine and drank it with a "Hoch!"

"In his hand lies peace and war," he said. "It is as he pleases. The
Emperor and his Chancellor can make Germany do exactly what they choose,
and if the Chancellor does not agree with the Emperor, the Emperor can
appoint one who does. That is what it comes to; that is why he is as
vast as Germany itself. The Reichstag but advises where he is concerned.
Have you no imagination, Michael? Europe lies in the hand that shook
yours."

Michael laughed.

"I suppose I must have no imagination," he said. "I don't picture it
even now when you point it out."

Falbe pointed an impressive forefinger.

"But for him," he said, "England and Germany would have been at each
other's throats over the business at Agadir. He held the warhounds in
leash--he, their master, who made them."

"Oh, he made them, anyhow," said Michael.

"Naturally. It is his business to be ready for any attack on the part of
those who are jealous at our power. The whole Fatherland is a sword
in his hand, which he sheathes. It would long ago have leaped from the
scabbard but for him."

"Against whom?" asked Michael. "Who is the enemy?"

Falbe hesitated.

"There is no enemy at present," he said, "but the enemy potentially is
any who tries to thwart our peaceful expansion."

Suddenly the whole subject tasted bitter to Michael. He recalled,
instinctively, the Emperor's great curiosity to be informed on English
topics by the ordinary Englishman with whom he had acquaintance.

"Oh, let's drop it," he said. "I really didn't come to Munich to talk
politics, of which I know nothing whatever."

Falbe nodded.

"That is what I have said to you before," he remarked. "You are the most
happy-go-lucky of the nations. Did he speak of England?"

"Yes, of his beloved England," said Michael. "He was extremely cordial
about our relations."

"Good. I like that," said Falbe briskly.

"And he recommended me to spend two months in Berlin in the winter,"
added Michael, sliding off on to other topics.

Falbe smiled.

"I like that less," he said, "since that will mean you will not be in
London."

"But I didn't commit myself," said Michael, smiling back; "though I can
say 'beloved Germany' with equal sincerity."

Falbe got up.

"I would wish that--that you were Kaiser of England," he said.

"God forbid!" said Michael. "I should not have time to play the piano."

During the next day or two Michael often found himself chipping at
the bed-rock, so to speak, of this conversation, and Falbe's revealed
attitude towards his country and, in particular, towards its supreme
head. It seemed to him a wonderful and an enviable thing that anyone
could be so thoroughly English as Falbe certainly was in his ordinary,
everyday life, and that yet, at the back of this there should lie
so profound a patriotism towards another country, and so profound a
reverence to its ruler. In his general outlook on life, his friend
appeared to be entirely of one blood with himself, yet now on two or
three occasions a chance spark had lit up this Teutonic beacon. To
Michael this mixture of nationalities seemed to be a wonderful gift;
it implied a widening of one's sympathies and outlook, a larger
comprehension of life than was possible to any of undiluted blood.

For himself, like most young Englishmen of his day, he was not conscious
of any tremendous sense of patriotism like this. Somewhere, deep down
in him, he supposed there might be a source, a well of English waters,
which some explosion in his nature might cause to flood him entirely,
but such an idea was purely hypothetical; he did not, in fact, look
forward to such a bouleversement as being a possible contingency. But
with Falbe it was different; quite a small cause, like the sight of
the Rhine at Cologne, or a Bavarian village at sunset, or the fact of a
friend having talked with the Emperor, was sufficient to make his
innate patriotism find outlet in impassioned speech. He wondered vaguely
whether Falbe's explanation of this--namely, that nationally the English
were prosperous, comfortable and insouciant--was perhaps sound. It
seemed that the notion was not wholly foundationless.


CHAPTER VI


Michael had been practising all the morning of a dark November day, had
eaten a couple of sandwiches standing in front of his fire, and observed
with some secret satisfaction that the fog which had lifted for an
hour had come down on the town again in earnest, and that it was only
reasonable to dismiss the possibility of going out, and spend the
afternoon as he had spent the morning. But he permitted himself a few
minutes' relaxation as he smoked his cigarette, and sat down by the
window, looking out, in Lucretian mood, on to the very dispiriting
conditions that prevailed in the street.

Though it was still only between one and two in the afternoon, the
densest gloom prevailed, so that it was impossible to see the outlines
even of the houses across the street, and the only evidence that he
was not in some desert spot lay in the fact of a few twinkling lights,
looking incredibly remote, from the windows opposite and the gas-lamps
below. Traffic seemed to be at a standstill; the accustomed roar from
Piccadilly was dumb, and he looked out on to a silent and vapour-swathed
world. This isolation from all his fellows and from the chances of being
disturbed, it may be added, gave him a sense of extreme satisfaction. He
wanted his piano, but no intrusive presence. He liked the sensation of
being shut up in his own industrious citadel, secure from interruption.

During the last two months and a half since his return from Munich he
had experienced greater happiness, had burned with a stronger zest for
life than during the whole of his previous existence. Not only had he
been working at that which he believed he was fitted for, and which gave
him the stimulus which, one way or another, is essential to all good
work, but he had been thrown among people who were similarly employed,
with whom he had this great common ground of kinship in ambition and
aim. No more were the days too long from being but half-filled with work
with which he had no sympathy, and diversions that gave him no pleasure;
none held sufficient hours for all that he wanted to put into it. And in
this busy atmosphere, where his own studies took so much of his time
and energy, and where everybody else was in some way similarly employed,
that dismal self-consciousness which so drearily looked on himself
shuffling along through fruitless, uncongenial days was cracking off him
as the chestnut husk cracks when the kernel within swells and ripens.

Apart from his work, the centre of his life was certainly the household
of the Falbes, where the brother and sister lived with their mother. She
turned out to be in a rather remote manner "one of us," and had about
her, very faint and dim, like an antique lavender bag, the odour of
Ashbridge. She lived like the lilies of the field, without toiling or
spinning, either literally or with the more figurative work of the mind;
indeed, she can scarcely be said to have had any mind at all, for, as
with drugs, she had sapped it away by a practically unremitting perusal
of all the fiction that makes the average reader wonder why it was
written. In fact, she supplied the answer to that perplexing question,
since it was clearly written for her. She was not in the least excited
by these tales, any more than the human race are excited by the oxygen
in the air, but she could not live without them. She subscribed to three
lending libraries, which, by this time had probably learned her tastes,
for if she ever by ill-chance embarked on a volume which ever so faintly
adumbrated the realities of life, she instantly returned it, as she
found it painful; and, naturally, she did not wish to be pained. This
did not, however, prevent her reading those that dealt with amiable
young men who fell in love with amiable young women, and were for
the moment sundered by red-haired adventuresses or black-haired
moneylenders, for those she found not painful but powerful, and could
often remember where she had got to in them, which otherwise was not
usually the case. She wore a good deal of lace, spoke in a tired voice,
and must certainly have been of the type called "sweetly pretty" some
quarter of a century ago. She drank hot water with her meals, and
continually reminded Michael of his own mother.

Sylvia and Hermann certainly did all that could be done for her; in
other words, they invariably saw that her water was hot, and her stock
of novels replenished. But when that was accomplished, there really
appeared to be little more that could be done for her. Her presence in a
room counted for about as much as a rather powerful shadow on the wall,
unexplained by any solid object which could have made it appear there.
But most of the day she spent in her own room, which was furnished
exactly in accordance with her twilight existence. There was a
writing-table there, which she never used, several low arm-chairs (one
of which she was always using), by each of which was a small table, on
to which she could put the book that she was at the moment engaged on.
Lace hangings, of the sort that prevent anybody either seeing in or out,
obscured the windows; and for decoration there were china figures on the
chimney-piece, plush-rimmed plates on the walls, and a couple of easels,
draped with chiffon, on which stood enlarged photographs of her husband
and her children.

There was, it may be added, nothing in the least pathetic about her,
for, as far as could be ascertained, she had everything she wanted. In
fact, from the standpoint of commonsense, hers was the most successful
existence; for, knowing what she liked, she passed her entire life
in its accomplishment. The only thing that caused her emotion was the
energy and vitality of her two children, and even then that emotion was
but a mild surprise when she recollected how tremendous a worker and
boisterous a gourmand of life was her late husband, on the anniversary
of whose death she always sat all day without reading any novels at all,
but devoted what was left of her mind to the contemplation of nothing
at all. She had married him because, for some inscrutable reason, he
insisted on it; and she had been resigned to his death, as to everything
else that had ever happened to her.

All her life, in fact, she had been of that unchangeable, drab quality
in emotional affairs which is characteristic of advanced middle-age,
when there are no great joys or sorrows to look back on, and no
expectation for the future. She had always had something of the
indestructible quality of frail things like thistledown or cottonwool;
violence and explosion that would blow strong and distinct organisms
to atoms only puffed her a yard or two away where she alighted again
without shock, instead of injuring or annihilating her. . . . Yet, in
the inexplicable ways of love, Sylvia and her brother not only did what
could be done for her, but regarded her with the tenderest affection.
What that love lived on, what was its daily food would be hard to guess,
were it not that love lives on itself.

The rest of the house, apart from the vacuum of Mrs. Falbe's rooms,
conducted itself, so it seemed to Michael, at the highest possible
pressure. Sylvia and her brother were both far too busy to be restless,
and if, on the one hand, Mrs. Falbe's remote, impenetrable life was
inexplicable, not less inexplicable was the rage for living that
possessed the other two. From morning till night, and on Sundays from
night till morning, life proceeded at top speed.

As regards household arrangements, which were all in Sylvia's hands,
there were three fixed points in the day. That is to say, that there
was lunch for Mrs. Falbe and anybody else who happened to be there at
half-past one; tea in Mrs. Falbe's well-liked sitting-room at five,
and dinner at eight. These meals--Mrs. Falbe always breakfasted in her
bedroom--were served with quiet decorum. Apart from them, anybody who
required anything consulted the cook personally. Hermann, for instance,
would have spent the morning at his piano in the vast studio at the back
of their house in Maidstone Crescent, and not arrived at the fact that
it was lunch time till perhaps three in the afternoon. Unless then he
settled to do without lunch altogether, he must forage for himself; or
Sylvia, having to sing at a concert at eight, would return famished and
exultant about ten; she would then proceed to provide herself, unless
she supped elsewhere, with a plate of eggs and bacon, or anything
else that was easily accessible. It was not from preference that these
haphazard methods were adopted; but since they only kept two servants,
it was clear that a couple of women, however willing, could not possibly
cope with so irregular a commissariat in addition to the series of fixed
hours and the rest of the household work. As it was, two splendidly
efficient persons, one German, the other English, had filled the
posts of parlourmaid and cook for the last eight years, and regarded
themselves, and were regarded, as members of the family. Lucas,
the parlourmaid, indeed, from the intense interest she took in the
conversation at table, could not always resist joining in it, and was
apt to correct Hermann or his sister if she detected an inaccuracy in
their statements. "No, Miss Sylvia," she would say, "it was on Thursday,
not Wednesday," and then recollecting herself, would add, "Beg your
pardon, miss."

In this milieu, as new to Michael as some suddenly discovered country,
he found himself at once plunged and treated with instant friendly
intimacy. Hermann, so he supposed, must have given him a good character,
for he was made welcome before he could have had time to make any
impression for himself, as Hermann's friend. On the first occasion of
his visiting the house, for the purpose of his music lesson, he had
stopped to lunch afterwards, where he met Sylvia, and was in the
presence of (you could hardly call it more than that) their mother.

Mrs. Falbe had faded away in some mist-like fashion soon after, but it
was evident that he was intended to do no such thing, and they had gone
into the studio, already comrades, and Michael had chiefly listened
while the other two had violent and friendly discussions on every
subject under the sun. Then Hermann happened to sit down at the piano,
and played a Chopin etude pianissimo prestissimo with finger-tips that
just made the notes to sound and no more, and Sylvia told him that he
was getting it better; and then Sylvia sang "Who is Sylvia?" and Hermann
told her that she shouldn't have eaten so much lunch, or shouldn't have
sung; and then, by transitions that Michael could not recollect, they
played the Hailstone Chorus out of Israel in Egypt (or, at any rate,
reproduced the spirit of it), and both sang at the top of their voices.
Then, as usually happened in the afternoon, two or three friends dropped
in, and though these were all intimate with their hosts, Michael had no
impression of being out in the cold or among strangers. And when he left
he felt as if he had been stretching out chilly hands to the fire, and
that the fire was always burning there, ready for him to heat himself
at, with its welcoming flames and core of sincere warmth, whenever he
felt so disposed.

At first he had let himself do this much less often than he would have
liked, for the shyness of years, his over-sensitive modesty at his own
want of charm and lightness, was a self-erected barrier in his way. He
was, in spite of his intimacy with Hermann, desperately afraid of being
tiresome, of checking by his presence, as he had so often felt himself
do before, the ease and high spirits of others. But by degrees this
broke down; he realised that he was now among those with whom he had
that kinship of the mind and of tastes which makes the foundation on
which friendship, and whatever friendship may ripen into, is securely
built. Never did the simplicity and sincerity of their welcome fail;
the cordiality which greeted him was always his; he felt that it was
intended that he should be at home there just as much as he cared to be.

The six working days of the week, however, were as a rule too full both
for the Falbes and for Michael to do more than have, apart from the
music lessons, flying glimpses of each other; for the day was taken up
with work, concerts and opera occurred often in the evening, and the
shuttles of London took their threads in divergent directions. But on
Sunday the house at Maidstone Crescent ceased, as Hermann said, to be a
junction, and became a temporary terminus.

"We burst from our chrysalis, in fact," he said. "If you find it
clearer to understand this way, we burst from our chrysalis and become
a caterpillar. Do chrysalides become caterpillars! We do, anyhow. If
you come about eight you will find food; if you come later you will also
find food of a sketchier kind. People have a habit of dropping in on
Sunday evening. There's music if anyone feels inclined to make any, and
if they don't they are made to. Some people come early, others late,
and they stop to breakfast if they wish. It's a gaudeamus, you know, a
jolly, a jamboree. One has to relax sometimes."

Michael felt all his old unfitness for dreadful crowds return to him.

"Oh, I'm so bad at that sort of thing," he said. "I am a frightful
kill-joy, Hermann."

Hermann sat down on the treble part of his piano.

"That's the most conceited thing I've heard you say yet," he remarked.
"Nobody will pay any attention to you; you won't kill anybody's joy.
Also it's rather rude of you."

"I didn't mean to be rude," said Michael.

"Then we must suppose you were rude by accident. That is the worst sort
of rudeness."

"I'm sorry; I'll come," said Michael.

"That's right. You might even find yourself enjoying it by accident, you
know. If you don't, you can go away. There's music; Sylvia sings quite
seriously sometimes, and other people sing or bring violins, and those
who don't like it, talk--and then we get less serious. Have a try,
Michael. See if you can't be less serious, too."

Michael slipped despairingly from his seat.

"If only I knew how!" he said. "I believe my nurse never taught me to
play, only to remember that I was a little gentleman. All the same, when
I am with you, or with my cousin Francis, I can manage it to a certain
extent."

Falbe looked at him encouragingly.

"Oh, you're getting on," he said. "You take yourself more for granted
than you used to. I remember you when you used to be polite on purpose.
It's doing things on purpose that makes one serious. If you ever play
the fool on purpose, you instantly cease playing the fool."

"Is that it?" said Michael.

"Yes, of course. So come on Sunday, and forget all about it, except
coming. And now, do you mind going away? I want to put in a couple of
hours before lunch. You know what to practise till Tuesday, don't you?"

That was the first Sunday evening that Michael had spent with his
friends; after that, up till this present date in November, he had not
missed a single one of those gatherings. They consisted almost entirely
of men, and of the men there were many types, and many ages. Actors and
artists, musicians and authors were indiscriminately mingled; it was the
strangest conglomeration of diverse interests. But one interest, so it
seemed to Michael, bound them all together; they were all doing in their
different lives the things they most delighted in doing. There was the
key that unlocked all the locks--namely, the enjoyment that inspired
their work. The freemasonry of art and the freemasonry of the eager mind
that looks out without verdict, but with only expectation and delight in
experiment, passed like an open secret among them, secret because none
spoke of it, open because it was so transparently obvious. And since
this was so, every member of that heterogeneous community had a respect
for his companions; the fact that they were there together showed that
they had all passed this initiation, and knew what for them life meant.

Very soon after dinner all sitting accommodation, other than the floor,
was occupied; but then the floor held the later comers, and the
smoke from many cigarettes and the babble of many voices made a
constantly-ascending incense before the altar dedicated to the gods that
inspire all enjoyable endeavour. Then Sylvia sang, and both those who
cared to hear exquisite singing and those who did not were alike silent,
for this was a prayer to the gods they all worshipped; and Falbe played,
and there was a quartet of strings.

After that less serious affairs held the rooms; an eminent actor was
pleased to parody another eminent actor who was also present. This led
to a scene in which each caricatured the other, and a French poet did
gymnastic feats on the floor and upset a tray of soda-water, and a
German conductor fluffed out his hair and died like Marguerite. And when
in the earlier hours of the morning part of the guests had gone away,
and part were broiling ham in the kitchen, Sylvia sang again, quite
seriously, and Michael, in Hermann's absence, volunteered to play her
accompaniment for her. She stood behind him, and by a finger on his
shoulder directed him in the way she would have him go. Michael found
himself suddenly and inexplicably understanding this; her finger, by its
pressure or its light tapping, seemed to him to speak in a language that
he found himself familiar with, and he slowed down stroking the notes,
or quickened with staccato touch, as she wordlessly directed him.

Out of all these things, which were but trivialities, pleasant,
unthinking hours for all else concerned, several points stood out for
Michael, points new and illuminating. The first was the simplicity of it
all, the spontaneousness with which pleasure was born if only you took
off your clothes, so to speak, and left them on the bank while you
jumped in. All his life he had buttoned his jacket and crammed his hat
on to his head. The second was the sense, indefinable but certain, that
Hermann and Sylvia between them were the high priests of this memorable
orgie.

He himself had met, at dreadful, solemn evenings when Lady Ashbridge and
his father stood at the head of the stairs, the two eminent actors who
had romped to-night, and found them exceedingly stately personages, just
as no doubt they had found him an icy and awkward young man. But they,
like him, had taken their note on those different occasions from their
environment. Perhaps if his father and mother came here . . . but
Michael's imagination quailed before such a supposition.

The third point, which gradually through these weeks began to haunt him
more and more, was the personality of Sylvia. He had never come across
a girl who in the least resembled her, probably because he had not
attempted even to find in a girl, or to display in himself, the signals,
winked across from one to the other, of human companionship. Always
he had found a difficulty in talking to a girl, because he had, in his
self-consciousness, thought about what he should say. There had been the
cabalistic question of sex ever in front of him, a thing that troubled
and deterred him. But Sylvia, with her hand on his shoulder, absorbed in
her singing, and directing him only as she would have pressed the pedal
of the piano if she had been playing to herself, was no more agitating
than if she had been a man; she was just singing, just using him to help
her singing. And even while Michael registered to himself this charming
annihilation of sex, which allowed her to be to him no more than her
brother was--less, in fact, but on the same plane--she had come to
the end of her song, patted him on the back, as she would have patted
anybody else, with a word of thanks, and, for him, suddenly leaped into
significance. It was not only a singer who had sung, but an individual
one called Sylvia Falbe. She took her place, at present a most
inconspicuous one, on the back-cloth before which Michael's life was
acted, towards which, when no action, so to speak, was taking place,
his eyes naturally turned themselves. His father and mother were there,
Francis also and Aunt Barbara, and of course, larger than the rest,
Hermann. Now Sylvia was discernible, and, as the days went by and
their meetings multiplied, she became bigger, walked into a nearer
perspective. It did not occur to Michael, rightly, to imagine himself at
all in love with her, for he was not. Only she had asserted herself on
his consciousness.

Not yet had she begun to trouble him, and there was no sign, either
external or intimate, in his mind that he was sickening with the
splendid malady. Indeed, the significance she held for him was rather
that, though she was a girl, she presented none of the embarrassments
which that sex had always held for him. She grew in comradeship; he
found himself as much at ease with her as with her brother, and her
charm was just that which had so quickly and strongly attracted Michael
to Hermann. She was vivid in the same way as he was; she had the same
warm, welcoming kindliness--the same complete absence of pose. You knew
where you were with her, and hitherto, when Michael was with one of the
young ladies brought down to Ashbridge to be looked at, he only wished
that wherever he was he was somewhere else. But with Sylvia he had none
of this self-consciousness; she was bonne camarade for him in exactly
the same way as she was bonne camarade to the rest of the multitude
which thronged the Sunday evenings, perfectly at ease with them, as they
with her, in relationship entirely unsentimental.

But through these weeks, up to this foggy November afternoon, Michael's
most conscious preoccupation was his music. Falbe's principles in
teaching were entirely heretical according to the traditional school;
he gave Michael no scale to play, no dismal finger-exercise to fill the
hours.

"What is the good of them?" he asked. "They can only give you nimbleness
and strength. Well, you shall acquire your nimbleness and strength by
playing what is worth playing. Take good music, take Chopin or Bach or
Beethoven, and practise one particular etude or fugue or sonata; you may
choose anything you like, and learn your nimbleness and strength that
way. Read, too; read for a couple of hours every day. The written
language of music must become so familiar to you that it is to you
precisely what a book or a newspaper is, so that whether you read it
aloud--which is playing--or sit in your arm-chair with your feet on the
fender, reading it not aloud on the piano, but to yourself, it conveys
its definite meaning to you. At your lessons you will have to read aloud
to me. But when you are reading to yourself, never pass over a bar that
you don't understand. It has got to sound in your head, just as the
words you read in a printed book really sound in your head if you read
carefully and listen for them. You know exactly what they would be like
if you said them aloud. Can you read, by the way? Have a try."

Falbe got down a volume of Bach and opened it at random.

"There," he said, "begin at the top of the page."

"But I can't," said Michael. "I shall have to spell it out."

"That's just what you mustn't do. Go ahead, and don't pause till you get
to the bottom of the page. Count; start each bar when it comes to its
turn, and play as many notes as you can in it."

This was a dismal experience. Michael hitherto had gone on the
painstaking and thorough plan of spelling out his notes with laborious
care. Now Falbe's inexorable voice counted for him, until it was lost in
inextinguishable laughter.

"Go on, go on!" he shouted. "I thought it was Bach, and it is clearly
Strauss's Don Quixote."

Michael, flushed and determined, with grave, set mouth, ploughed his way
through amazing dissonances, and at the end joined Falbe's laughter.

"Oh dear," he said. "Very funny. But don't laugh so at me, Hermann."

Falbe dried his eyes.

"And what was it?" he said. "I declare it was the fourth fugue. An
entirely different conception of it! A thoroughly original view! Now,
what you've got to do, is to repeat that--not the same murder I mean,
but other murders--for a couple of hours a day. . . . By degrees--you
won't believe it--you will find you are not murdering any longer, but
only mortally wounding. After six months I dare say you won't even be
hurting your victims. All the same, you can begin with less muscular
ones."

In this way Michael's musical horizons were infinitely extended. Not
only did this system of Falbe's of flying at new music, and going
recklessly and regardlessly on, give quickness to his brain and finger,
make his wits alert to pick up the new language he was learning, but
it gloriously extended his vision and his range of country. He ran
joyfully, though with a thousand falls and tumbles, through these new
and wonderful vistas; he worshipped at the grave, Gothic sanctuaries of
Beethoven, he roamed through the enchanted garden of Chopin, he felt the
icy and eternal frosts of Russia, and saw in the northern sky the great
auroras spread themselves in spear and sword of fire; he listened to the
wisdom of Brahms, and passed through the noble and smiling country
of Bach. All this, so to speak, was holiday travel, and between his
journeys he applied himself with the same eager industry to the learning
of his art, so that he might reproduce for himself and others true
pictures of the scenes through which he scampered. Here Falbe was not so
easily moved to laughter; he was as severe with Michael as he was with
himself, when it was the question of learning some piece with a view
to really playing it. There was no light-hearted hurrying on through
blurred runs and false notes, slurred phrases and incomplete chords.
Among these pieces which had to be properly learned was the 17th Prelude
of Chopin, on hearing which at Baireuth on the tuneless and catarrhed
piano Falbe had agreed to take Michael as a pupil. But when it was
played again on Falbe's great Steinway, as a professed performance, a
very different standard was required.

Falbe stopped him at the end of the first two lines.

"This won't do, Michael," he said. "You played it before for me to see
whether you could play. You can. But it won't do to sketch it. Every
note has got to be there; Chopin didn't write them by accident. He knew
quite well what he was about. Begin again, please."

This time Michael got not quite so far, when he was stopped again. He
was playing without notes, and Falbe got up from his chair where he had
the book open, and put it on the piano.

"Do you find difficulty in memorising?" he asked.

This was discouraging; Michael believed that he remembered easily; he
also believed that he had long known this by heart.

"No; I thought I knew it," he said.

"Try again."

This time Falbe stood by him, and suddenly put his finger down into the
middle of Michael's hands, striking a note.

"You left out that F sharp," he said. "Go on. . . . Now you are leaving
out that E natural. Try to get it better by Thursday, and remember this,
that playing, and all that differentiates playing from strumming, only
begins when you can play all the notes that are put down for you to
play without fail. You're beginning at the wrong end; you have admirable
feeling about that prelude, but you needn't think about feeling till
you've got all the notes at your fingers' ends. Then and not till then,
you may begin to remember that you want to be a pianist. Now, what's the
next thing?"

Michael felt somewhat squashed and discouraged. He had thought he had
really worked successfully at the thing he knew so well by sight. His
heavy eyebrows drew together.

"You told me to harmonise that Christmas carol," he remarked, rather
shortly.

Falbe put his hand on his shoulder.

"Look here, Michael," he said, "you're vexed with me. Now, there's
nothing to be vexed at. You know quite well you were leaving out lots of
notes from those jolly fat chords, and that you weren't playing cleanly.
Now I'm taking you seriously, and I won't have from you anything but
the best you can do. You're not doing your best when you don't even play
what is written. You can't begin to work at this till you do that."

Michael had a moment's severe tussle with his temper. He felt vexed and
disappointed that Hermann should have sent him back like a schoolboy
with his exercise torn over. Not immediately did he confess to himself
that he was completely in the wrong.

"I'm doing the best I can," he said. "It's rather discouraging."

He moved his big shoulders slightly, as if to indicate that Hermann's
hand was not wanted there. Hermann kept it there.

"It might be discouraging," he said, "if you were doing your best."

Michael's ill-temper oozed from him.

"I'm wrong," he said, turning round with the smile that made his ugly
face so pleasant. "And I'm sorry both that I have been slack and that
I've been sulky. Will that do?"

Falbe laughed.

"Very well indeed," he said. "Now for 'Good King Wenceslas.' Wasn't
it--"

"Yes; I got awfully interested over it, Hermann. I thought I would try
and work it up into a few variations."

"Let's hear," said Falbe.

This was a vastly different affair. Michael had shown both ingenuity and
a great sense of harmonic beauty in the arrangement of the very simple
little tune that Falbe had made him exercise his ear over, and the
half-dozen variations that followed showed a wonderfully mature
handling. The air which he dealt with haunted them as a sort of unseen
presence. It moved in a tiny gavotte, or looked on at a minuet measure;
it wailed, yet without being positively heard, in a little dirge of
itself; it broadened into a march, it shouted in a bravura of rapid
octaves, and finally asserted itself, heard once more, over a great
scale base of bells.

Falbe, as was his habit when interested, sat absolutely still, but
receptive and alert, instead of jerking and fidgeting as he had done
over Michael's fiasco in the Chopin prelude, and at the end he jumped up
with a certain excitement.

"Do you know what you've done?" he said. "You've done something that's
really good. Faults? Yes, millions; but there's a first-rate imagination
at the bottom of it. How did it happen?"

Michael flushed with pleasure.

"Oh, they sang themselves," he said, "and I learned them. But will it
really do? Is there anything in it?"

"Yes, old boy, there's King Wenceslas in it, and you've dressed him up
well. Play that last one again."

The last one was taxing to the fingers, but Michael's big hands banged
out the octave scale in the bass with wonderful ease, and Falbe gave a
great guffaw of pleasure at the rollicking conclusion.

"Write them all down," he said, "and try if you can hear it singing half
a dozen more. If you can, write them down also, and give me leave to
play the lot at my concert in January."

Michael gasped.

"You don't mean that?" he said.

"Certainly I do. It's a fine bit of stuff."

It was with these variations, now on the point of completion that
Michael meant to spend his solitary and rapturous evening. The spirits
of the air--whatever those melodious sprites may be--had for the last
month made themselves very audible to him, and the half-dozen further
variations that Hermann had demanded had rung all day in his head. Now,
as they neared completion, he found that they ceased their singing;
their work of dictation was done; he had to this extent expressed
himself, and they haunted him no longer. At present he had but jotted
down the skeleton of bars that could be filled in afterwards, and it
gave him enormous pleasure to see the roles reversed and himself out of
his own brain, setting Falbe his task.

But he felt much more than this. He had done something. Michael, the
dumb, awkward Michael, was somehow revealed on those eight pages of
music. All his twenty-five years he had stood wistfully inarticulate,
unable, so it had seemed to him, to show himself, to let himself out.
And not till now, when he had found this means of access, did he know
how passionately he had desired it, nor how immensely, in the process
of so doing, his desire had grown. He must find out more ways, other
channels of projecting himself. The need for that, as of a diver
throwing himself into the empty air and the laughing waters below him,
suddenly took hold of him.

He took a clean sheet of music paper, into which he placed his pages,
and with a pleasurable sense of pomp wrote in the centre of it:

     VARIATIONS ON AN AIR.

           By

     Michael Comber.

He paused a moment, then took up his pen again.

"Dedicated to Sylvia Falbe," he wrote at the top.


CHAPTER VII


Michael had been so engrossingly employed since his return to London in
the autumn that the existence of other ties and other people apart from
those immediately connected with his work had worn a very shadow-like
aspect. He had, it is true, written with some regularity to his mother,
finding, somewhat to his dismay, how very slight the common ground
between them was for purposes of correspondence. He could outline the
facts that he had been to several concerts, that he had seen much of
his music-master, that he had been diligent at his work, but he realised
that there was nothing in detail about those things that could possibly
interest her, and that nothing except them really interested him. She
on her side had little to say except to record the welfare of Petsy, to
remark on the beauty of October, and tell him how many shooting parties
they had had.

His correspondence with his father had been less frequent, and
absolutely one-sided, since Lord Ashbridge took no notice at all of his
letters. Michael regretted this, as showing that he was still outcast,
but it cannot be said to have come between him and the sunshine, for he
had begun to manufacture the sunshine within, that internal happiness
which his environment and way of life produced, which seemed to be
independent of all that was not directly connected with it. But a letter
which he received next morning from his mother stated, in addition to
the fact that Petsy had another of her tiresome bilious attacks (poor
lamb), that his father and she thought it right that he should come down
to Ashbridge for Christmas. It conveyed the sense that at this joyful
season a truce, probably limited in duration, and, even while it lasted,
of the nature of a strongly-armed neutrality, was proclaimed, but the
prospect was not wholly encouraging, for Lady Ashbridge added that
she hoped Michael would not "go on" vexing his father. What precisely
Michael was expected to do in order to fulfil that wish was not further
stated, but he wrote dutifully enough to say that he would come down at
Christmas.

But the letter rekindled his dormant sense of there being other people
in the world beside his immediate circle; also, indefinably, it gave
him the sense that his mother wanted him. That should be so then, and
sequentially he remembered with a pang of self-reproach that he had not
as much as indicated his presence in London to Aunt Barbara, or set eyes
on her since their meeting in August. He knew she was in London, since
he had seen her name in some paragraph in the papers not long before,
and instantly wrote to ask her to dine with him at a near date. Her
answer was characteristic.

"Of course I'll dine with you, my dear," she wrote; "it will be
delightful. And what has happened to you? Your letter actually conveyed
a sense of cordiality. You never used to be cordial. And I wish to meet
some of your nice friends. Ask one or two, please--a prima donna of some
kind and a pianist, I think. I want them weird and original--the prima
donna with short hair, and the pianist with long. In Tony's new station
in life I never see anybody except the sort of people whom your father
likes. Are you forgiven yet, by the way?"

Michael found himself on the grin at the thought of Aunt Barbara
suddenly encountering the two magnificent Falbes (prima donna and
pianist exactly as she had desired) as representing the weird sort of
people whom she pictured his living among, and the result quite came
up to his expectations. As usual, Aunt Barbara was late, and came in
talking rapidly about the various causes that had detained her, which
her fruitful imagination had suggested to her as she dressed. In order,
perhaps, to suit herself to the circle in which she would pass the
evening, she had put on (or, rather, it looked as if her maid had thrown
at her) a very awful sort of tea-gown, brown and prickly-looking, and
adapted to Bohemian circles. She, with the same lively imagination, had
pictured Michael in a velveteen coat and soft shirt, the pianist as very
small, with spectacles and long hair, and the prima donna a full-blown
kind of barmaid with Roman pearls. . . .

"Yes, my dear, I know I am late," she began before she was inside the
door, "but Og had so much to say, and there was a block at Hyde Park
Corner. My dear Michael, how smart you look!"

She came round the corner of the screen and the Falbes burst upon her,
Hermann and Sylvia standing by the fire. For the short, spectacled
pianist there was this very tall, English-looking young man, upright and
soldierly, with his handsome, boyish face and well-fitting clothes. That
was bad enough, but infinitely worse was she who was to have been the
full-blown barmaid. Instead was this magnificent girl, nearly as tall as
her brother, with her small oval face crowning the column of her neck,
her eyes merry, her mouth laughing at some brotherly retort that Hermann
had just made. Aunt Barbara took her in with one second's survey--her
face, her neck, her beautiful dress, her whole air of ease and
good-breeding, and gave a despairing glance at her own prickly tea-gown.
For the moment, amiably accustomed as she was to laugh at herself, she
did not find it humourous.

"Miss Sylvia Falbe, Aunt Barbara," said Michael with a little tremor
in his voice; "and Mr. Hermann Falbe, Lady Barbara Jerome," he added,
rather as if he expected nobody to believe it.

Aunt Barbara made the best of it: shook hands in her jolly manner, and
burst into laughter.

"Michael, I could slay you," she said; "but before I do that I must tell
your friends all about it. This horrible nephew of mine, Miss Falbe,
promised me two weird musicians, and I expected--I really can't tell you
what I expected--but there were to be spectacles and velveteen coats and
the general air of an afternoon concert at Clapham Junction. But it is
nice to be made such a fool of. I feel precisely like an elderly and
sour governess who has been ordered to come down to dinner so that
there shan't be thirteen. Give me your arm, Mr. Falbe, and take me in
to dinner at once, where I may drown my embarrassment in soup. Or does
Michael go in first? Go on, wretch!"

Presently they were seated at dinner, and Aunt Barbara could not help
enlarging a little on her own discomfiture.

"It is all your fault, Michael," she said. "You have been in London all
these weeks without letting me know anything about you or your friends,
or what you were doing; so naturally I supposed you were leading some
obscure kind of existence. Instead of which I find this sort of thing.
My dear, what good soup! I shall see if I can't induce your cook to
leave you. But bachelors always have the best of everything. Now tell
me about your visit to Germany. Which was the point where we
parted--Baireuth, wasn't it? I would not go to Baireuth with anybody!"

"I went with Mr. Falbe," said Michael.

"Ah, Mr. Falbe has not asked me yet. I may have to revise what I say,"
said Aunt Barbara daringly.

"I didn't ask Michael," said Hermann. "I got into his carriage as the
train was moving; and my luggage was left behind."

"I was left behind," said Sylvia, "which was worse. But I sent Hermann's
luggage."

"So expeditiously that it arrived the day before we left for Munich,"
remarked Hermann.

"And that's all the gratitude I get. But in the interval you lived upon
Lord Comber."

"I do still in the money I earn by giving him music lessons. Mike, have
you finished the Variations yet?"

"Variations--what are Variations?" asked Aunt Barbara.

"Yes, two days ago. Variations are all the things you think about on the
piano, Aunt Barbara, when you are playing a tune made by somebody else."

"Should I like them? Will Mr. Falbe play them to me?" asked she.

"I daresay he will if he can. But I thought you loathed music."

"It certainly depends on who makes it," said Aunt Barbara. "I don't like
ordinary music, because the person who made it doesn't matter to me.
But if, so to speak, it sounds like somebody I know, it is a different
matter."

Michael turned to Sylvia.

"I want to ask your leave for something I have already done," he said.

"And if I don't give it you?"

"Then I shan't tell you what it is."

Sylvia looked at him with her candid friendly eyes. Her brother always
told her that she never looked at anybody except her friends; if she was
engaged in conversation with a man she did not like, she looked at his
shirt-stud or at a point slightly above his head.

"Then, of course, I give in," she said. "I must give you leave if
otherwise I shan't know what you have done. But it's a mean trick. Tell
me at once."

"I've dedicated the Variations to you," he said.

Sylvia flushed with pleasure.

"Oh, but that's absolutely darling of you," she said. "Have you, really?
Do you mean it?"

"If you'll allow me."

"Allow you? Hermann, the Variations are mine. Isn't it too lovely?"

It was at this moment that Aunt Barbara happened to glance at Michael,
and it suddenly struck her that it was a perfectly new Michael whom she
looked at. She knew and was secretly amused at the fiasco that always
attended the introduction of amiable young ladies to Ashbridge, and had
warned her sister-in-law that Michael, when he chose the girl he wanted,
would certainly do it on his own initiative. Now she felt sure that
Michael, though he might not be aware of it himself, was, even if he had
not chosen, beginning to choose. There was that in his eyes which
none of the importations to Ashbridge had ever seen there, that eager
deferential attention, which shows that a young man is interested
because it is a girl he is talking to. That, she knew, had never been
characteristic of Michael; indeed, it would not have been far from the
truth to say that the fact that he was talking to a girl was sufficient
to make his countenance wear an expression of polite boredom. Then for a
while, as dinner progressed, she doubted the validity of her conclusion,
for the Michael who was entertaining her to-night was wholly different
from the Michael she had known and liked and pitied. She felt that she
did not know this new one yet, but she was certain that she liked him,
and equally sure that she did not pity him at all. He had found his
place, he had found his work; he evidently fitted into his life, which,
after all, is the surest ground of happiness, and it might be that it
was only general joy, so to speak, that kindled that pleasant fire in
his face. And then once more she went back to her first conclusion, for
talking to Michael herself she saw, as a woman so infallibly sees, that
he gave her but the most superficial attention--sufficient, indeed, to
allow him to answer intelligently and laugh at the proper places, but
his mind was not in the least occupied with her. If Sylvia moved his
glance flickered across in her direction: it was she who gave him his
alertness. Aunt Barbara felt that she could have told him truthfully
that he was in love with her, and she rather thought that it would be
news to him; probably he did not know it yet himself. And she wondered
what his father would say when he knew it.

"And then Munich," she said, violently recalling Michael's attention
towards her. "Munich I could have borne better than Baireuth, and when
Mr. Falbe asks me there I shall probably go. Your Uncle Tony was in
Germany then, by the way; he went over at the invitation of the Emperor
to the manoeuvres."

"Did he? The Emperor came to Munich for a day during them. He was at the
opera," said Michael.

"You didn't speak to him, I suppose?" she asked.

"Yes; he sent for me, and talked a lot. In fact, he talked too much,
because I didn't hear a note of the second act."

Aunt Barbara became infinitely more interested.

"Tell me all about it, Michael," she said. "What did he talk about?"

"Everything, as far as I can remember, England, Ashbridge, armies,
navies, music. Hermann says he cast pearls before swine--"

"And his tone, his attitude?" she asked.

"Towards us?--towards England? Immensely friendly, and most inquisitive.
I was never asked so many questions in so short a time."

Aunt Barbara suddenly turned to Falbe.

"And you?" she asked. "Were you with Michael?"

"No, Lady Barbara. I had no pearls."

"And are you naturalised English?" she asked.

"No; I am German."

She slid swiftly off the topic.

"Do you wonder I ask, with your talking English so perfectly?" she said.
"You should hear me talking French when we are entertaining Ambassadors
and that sort of persons. I talk it so fast that nobody can understand a
word I say. That is a defensive measure, you must observe, because even
if I talked it quite slowly they would understand just as little. But
they think it is the pace that stupefies them, and they leave me in a
curious, dazed condition. And now Miss Falbe and I are going to leave
you two. Be rather a long time, dear Michael, so that Mr. Falbe can tell
you what he thinks of me, and his sister shall tell me what she thinks
of you. Afterwards you and I will tell each other, if it is not too
fearful."

This did not express quite accurately Lady Barbara's intentions, for she
chiefly wanted to find out what she thought of Sylvia.

"And you are great friends, you three?" she said as they settled
themselves for the prolonged absence of the two men.

Sylvia smiled; she smiled, Aunt Barbara noticed, almost entirely with
her eyes, using her mouth only when it came to laughing; but her eyes
smiled quite charmingly.

"That's always rather a rash thing to pronounce on," she said. "I can
tell you for certain that Hermann and I are both very fond of him, but
it is presumptuous for us to say that he is equally devoted to us."

"My dear, there is no call for modesty about it," said Barbara. "Between
you--for I imagine it is you who have done it--between you you have made
a perfectly different creature of the boy. You've made him flower."

Sylvia became quite grave.

"Oh, I do hope he likes us," she said. "He is so likable himself."

Barbara nodded

"And you've had the good sense to find that out," she said. "It's
astonishing how few people knew it. But then, as I said, Michael hadn't
flowered. No one understood him, or was interested. Then he suddenly
made up his mind last summer what he wanted to do and be, and
immediately did and was it."

"I think he told Hermann," said she. "His father didn't approve, did
he?"

"Approve? My dear, if you knew my brother you would know that the only
things he approves of are those which Michael isn't."

Sylvia spread her fine hands out to the blaze, warming them and shading
her face.

"Michael always seems to us--" she began. "Ah, I called him Michael by
mistake."

"Then do it on purpose next time," remarked Barbara. "What does Michael
seem?"

"Ah, but don't let him know I called him Michael," said Sylvia in some
horror. "There is nothing so awful as to speak of people formally to
their faces, and intimately behind their backs. But Hermann is always
talking of him as Michael."

"And Michael always seems--"

"Oh, yes; he always seems to me to have been part of us, of Hermann and
me, for years. He's THERE, if you know what I mean, and so few people
are there. They walk about your life, and go in and out, so to speak,
but Michael stops. I suppose it's because he is so natural."

Aunt Barbara had been a diplomatist long before her husband, and fearful
of appearing inquisitive about Sylvia's impression of Michael, which she
really wanted to inquire into, instantly changed the subject.

"Ah, everybody who has got definite things to do is natural," she said.
"It is only the idle people who have leisure to look at themselves in
the glass and pose. And I feel sure that you have definite things to do
and plenty of them, my dear. What are they?"

"Oh, I sing a little," said Sylvia.

"That is the first unnatural thing you have said. I somehow feel that
you sing a great deal."

Aunt Barbara suddenly got up.

"My dear, you are not THE Miss Falbe, are you, who drove London crazy
with delight last summer. Don't tell me you are THE Miss Falbe?"

Sylvia laughed.

"Do you know, I'm afraid I must be," she said. "Isn't it dreadful to
have to say that after your description?"

Aunt Barbara sat down again, in a sort of calm despair.

"If there are any more shocks coming for me to-night," she said, "I
think I had better go home. I have encountered a perfectly new nephew
Michael. I have dressed myself like a suburban housekeeper to meet a
Poiret, so don't deny it, and having humourously told Michael I wished
to see a prima donna and a pianist, he takes me at my word and produces
THE Miss Falbe. I'm glad I knew that in time; I should infallibly have
asked you to sing, and if you had done so--you are probably good-natured
enough to have done even that--I should have given the drawing-room
gasp at the end, and told your brother that I thought you sang very
prettily."

Sylvia laughed.

"But really it wasn't my fault, Lady Barbara," she said. "When we met I
couldn't have said, 'Beware! I am THE Miss Falbe.'"

"No, my dear; but I think you ought, somehow, to have conveyed the
impression that you were a tremendous swell. You didn't. I have been
thinking of you as a charming girl, and nothing more."

"But that's quite good enough for me," said Sylvia.

The two young men joined them after this, and Hermann speedily became
engrossed in reading the finished Variations. Some of these pleased him
mightily; one he altogether demurred to.

"It's just a crib, Mike," he said. "The critics would say I had
forgotten it, and put in instead what I could remember of a variation
out of the Handel theme. That next one's, oh, great fun. But I wish
you would remember that we all haven't got great orang-outang paws like
you."

Aunt Barbara stopped in the middle of her sentence; she knew Michael's
old sensitiveness about these physical disabilities, and she had a
moment's cold horror at the thought of Falbe having said so miserably
tactless a thing to him. But the horror was of infinitesimal duration,
for she heard Michael's laugh as they leaned over the top of the piano
together.

"I wish you had, Hermann," he said. "I know you'll bungle those tenths."

Falbe moved to the piano-seat.

"Oh, let's have a shot at it," he said. "If Lady Barbara won't mind,
play that one through to me first, Mike."

"Oh, presently, Hermann," he said. "It makes such an infernal row that
you can't hear anything else afterwards. Do sing, Miss Sylvia; my aunt
won't really mind--will you, Aunt Barbara?"

"Michael, I have just learned that this is THE Miss Falbe," she said. "I
am suffering from shock. Do let me suffer from coals of fire, too."

Michael gently edged Hermann away from the music-stool. Much as he
enjoyed his master's accompaniment he was perfectly sure that he
preferred, if possible, to play for Sylvia himself than have the
pleasure of listening to anybody else.

"And may I play for you, Miss Sylvia?" he asked.

"Yes, will you? Thanks, Lord Comber."

Hermann moved away.

"And so Mr. Hermann sits down by Lady Barbara while Lord Comber plays
for Miss Sylvia," he observed, with emphasis on the titles.

A sudden amazing boldness seized Michael.

"Sylvia, then," he said.

"All right, Michael," answered the girl, laughing.

She came and stood on the left of the piano, slightly behind him.

"And what are we going to have?" asked Michael.

"It must be something we both know, for I've brought no music," said
she.

Michael began playing the introduction to the Hugo Wolff song which
he had accompanied for her one Sunday night at their house. He knew it
perfectly by heart, but stumbled a little over the difficult syncopated
time. This was not done without purpose, for the next moment he felt her
hand on his shoulder marking it for him.

"Yes, that's right," she said. "Now you've got it." And Michael smiled
sweetly at his own amazing ingenuity.

Hermann put down the Variations, which he still had in his hand, when
Sylvia's voice began. Unaccustomed as she was to her accompanist, his
trained ear told him that she was singing perfectly at ease, and was
completely at home with her player. Occasionally she gave Michael some
little indication, as she had done before, but for the most part her
fingers rested immobile on his shoulder, and he seemed to understand
her perfectly. Somehow this was a surprise to him; he had not known that
Michael possessed that sort of second-sight that unerringly feels and
translates into the keys the singer's mood. For himself he always had to
attend most closely when he was playing for his sister, but familiar as
he was with her singing, he felt that Michael divined her certainly as
well as himself, and he listened to the piano more than to the voice.

"You extraordinary creature," he said when the song was over. "Where did
you learn to accompany?"

Suddenly Michael felt an access of shyness, as if he had been surprised
when he thought himself private.

"Oh, I've played it before for Miss--I mean for Sylvia," he said.

Then he turned to the girl.

"Thanks, awfully," he said. "And I'm greedy. May we have one more?"

He slid into the opening bars of "Who is Sylvia?" That song, since
he had heard her sing it at her recital in the summer, had grown in
significance to him, even as she had. It had seemed part of her then,
but then she was a stranger. To-night it was even more intimately part
of her, and she was a friend.

Hermann strolled across to the fireplace at the end of this, and lit a
cigarette.

"My sister's a blatant egoist, Lady Barbara," he said. "She loves
singing about herself. And she lays it on pretty thick, too, doesn't
she? Now, Sylvia, if you've finished--quite finished, I mean--do come
and sit down and let me try these Variations--"

"Shall we surrender, Michael?" asked the girl. "Or shall we stick to the
piano, now we've got it? If Hermann once sits down, you know, we shan't
get him away for the rest of the evening. I can't sing any more, but we
might play a duet to keep him out."

Hermann rushed to the piano, took his sister by the shoulders, and
pushed her into a chair.

"You sit there," he said, "and listen to something not about yourself.
Michael, if you don't come away from that piano, I shall take Sylvia
home at once. Now you may all talk as much as you like; you won't
interrupt me one atom--but you'll have to talk loud in certain parts."

Then a feat of marvellous execution began. Michael had taken an evil
pleasure in giving his master, for whom he slaved with so unwearied a
diligence, something that should tax his powers, and he gave a great
crash of laughter when for a moment Hermann was brought to a complete
standstill in an octave passage of triplets against quavers, and the
performer exultantly joined in it, as he pushed his hair back from his
forehead, and made a second attempt.

"It isn't decent to ask a fellow to read that," he shouted. "It's a
crime; it's a scandal."

"My dear, nobody asked you to read it," said Sylvia.

"Silence, you chit! Mike, come here a minute. Sit down one second and
play that. Promise to get up again, though, immediately. Just these
three bars--yes, I see. An orang-outang apparently can do it, so why
not I? Am I not much better than they? Go away, please; or, rather, stop
there and turn over. Why couldn't you have finished the page with the
last act, and started this one fresh, instead of making this Godforsaken
arrangement? Now!"

A very simple little minuet measure followed this outrageous passage,
and Hermann's exquisite lightness of touch made it sound strangely
remote, as if from a mile away, or a hundred years ago, some graceful
echo was evoked again. Then the little dirge wept for the memories
of something that had never happened, and leaving out the number he
disapproved of, as reminiscent of the Handel theme, Hermann gathered
himself up again for the assertion of the original tune, with its bars
of scale octaves. The contagious jollity of it all seized the others,
and Sylvia, with full voice, and Aunt Barbara, in a strange hooting,
sang to it.

Then Hermann banged out the last chord, and jumped up from his seat,
rolling up the music.

"I go straight home," he said, "and have a peaceful hour with it.
Michael, old boy, how did you do it? You've been studying seriously for
a few months only, and so this must all have been in you before. And
you've come to the age you are without letting any of it out. I suppose
that's why it has come with a rush. You knew it all along, while you
were wasting your time over drilling your toy soldiers. Come on, Sylvia,
or I shall go without you. Good night, Lady Barbara. Half-past ten
to-morrow, Michael."

Protest was clearly useless; and, having seen the two off, Michael came
upstairs again to Aunt Barbara, who had no intention of going away just
yet.

"And so these are the people you have been living with," she said. "No
wonder you had not time to come and see me. Do they always go that sort
of pace--it is quicker than when I talk French."

Michael sank into a chair.

"Oh, yes, that's Hermann all over," he said. "But--but just think what
it means to me! He's going to play my tunes at his concert. Michael
Comber, Op. 1. O Lord! O Lord!"

"And you just met him in the train?" said Aunt Barbara.

"Yes; second class, Victoria Station, with Sylvia on the platform. I
didn't much notice Sylvia then."

This and the inference that naturally followed was as much as could be
expected, and Aunt Barbara did not appear to wait for anything more on
the subject of Sylvia. She had seen sufficient of the situation to
know where Michael was most certainly bound for. Yet the very fact of
Sylvia's outspoken friendliness with him made her wonder a little as to
what his reception would be. She would hardly have said so plainly that
she and her brother were devoted to him if she had been devoted to him
with that secret tenderness which, in its essentials, is reticent about
itself. Her half-hour's conversation with the girl had given her a
certain insight into her; still more had her attitude when she stood by
Michael as he played for her, and put her hand on his shoulder precisely
as she would have done if it had been another girl who was seated at the
piano. Without doubt Michael had a real existence for her, but there
was no sign whatever that she hailed it, as a girl so unmistakably does,
when she sees it as part of herself.

"More about them," she said. "What are they? Who are they?"

He outlined for her, giving the half-English, half-German parentage, the
shadow-like mother, the Bavarian father, Sylvia's sudden and comet-like
rising in the musical heaven, while her brother, seven years her senior,
had spent his time in earning in order to give her the chance which she
had so brilliantly taken. Now it was to be his turn, the shackles of his
drudgery no longer impeded him, and he, so Michael radiantly prophesied,
was to have his rocket-like leap to the zenith, also.

"And he's German?" she asked.

"Yes. Wasn't he rude about my being a toy soldier? But that's the
natural German point of view, I suppose."

Michael strolled to the fireplace.

"Hermann's so funny," he said. "For days and weeks together you would
think he was entirely English, and then a word slips from him like that,
which shows he is entirely German. He was like that in Munich, when the
Emperor appeared and sent for me."

Aunt Barbara drew her chair a little nearer the fire, and sat up.

"I want to hear about that," she said.

"But I've told you; he was tremendously friendly in a national manner."

"And that seemed to you real?" she asked.

Michael considered.

"I don't know that it did," he said. "It all seemed to me rather
feverish, I think."

"And he asked quantities of questions, I think you said."

"Hundreds. He was just like what he was when he came to Ashbridge. He
reviewed the Yeomanry, and shot pheasants, and spent the afternoon in a
steam launch, apparently studying the deep-water channel of the river,
where it goes underneath my father's place; and then in the evening
there was a concert."

Aunt Barbara did not heed the concert.

"Do you mean the channel up from Harwich," she asked, "of which the
Admiralty have the secret chart?"

"I fancy they have," said Michael. "And then after the concert there was
the torchlight procession, with the bonfire on the top of the hill."

"I wasn't there. What else?"

"I think that's all," said Michael. "But what are you driving at, Aunt
Barbara?"

She was silent a moment.

"I'm driving at this," she said. "The Germans are accumulating a vast
quantity of knowledge about England. Tony, for instance, has a German
valet, and when he went down to Portsmouth the other day to see the
American ship that was there, he took him with him. And the man took a
camera and was found photographing where no photography is allowed. Did
you see anything of a camera when the Emperor came to Ashbridge?"

Michael thought.

"Yes; one of his staff was clicking away all day," he said. "He sent a
lot of them to my mother."

"And, we may presume, kept some copies himself," remarked Aunt Barbara
drily. "Really, for childish simplicity the English are the biggest
fools in creation."

"But do you mean--"

"I mean that the Germans are a very knowledge-seeking people, and that
we gratify their desires in a very simple fashion. Do you think they are
so friendly, Michael? Do you know, for instance, what is a very common
toast in German regimental messes? They do not drink it when there are
foreigners there, but one night during the manoeuvres an officer in
a mess where Tony was dining got slightly 'on,' as you may say, and
suddenly drank to 'Der Tag.'"

"That means 'The Day,'" said Michael confidently.

"It does; and what day? The day when Germany thinks that all is ripe
for a war with us. 'Der Tag' will dawn suddenly from a quiet, peaceful
night, when they think we are all asleep, and when they have got all the
information they think is accessible. War, my dear."

Michael had never in his life seen his aunt so serious, and he was
amazed at her gravity.

"There are hundreds and hundreds of their spies all over England," she
said, "and hundreds of their agents all over America. Deep, patient
Germany, as Carlyle said. She's as patient as God and as deep as the
sea. They are working, working, while our toy soldiers play golf. I
agree with that adorable pianist; and, what's more, I believe they think
that 'Der Tag' is near to dawn. Tony says that their manoeuvres this
year were like nothing that has ever been seen before. Germany is a
fighting machine without parallel in the history of the world."

She got up and stood with Michael near the fireplace.

"And they think their opportunity is at hand," she said, "though not
for a moment do they relax their preparations. We are their real enemy,
don't you see? They can fight France with one hand and Russia with the
other; and in a few months' time now they expect we shall be in the
throes of an internal revolution over this Irish business. They may be
right, but there is just the possibility that they may be astoundingly
wrong. The fact of the great foreign peril--this nightmare, this
Armageddon of European war--may be exactly that which will pull us
together. But their diplomatists, anyhow, are studying the Irish
question very closely, and German gold, without any doubt at all, is
helping the Home Rule party. As a nation we are fast asleep. I wonder
what we shall be like when we wake. Shall we find ourselves already
fettered when we wake, or will there be one moment, just one moment, in
which we can spring up? At any rate, hitherto, the English have always
been at their best, not their worst, in desperate positions. They hate
exciting themselves, and refuse to do it until the crisis is actually on
them. But then they become disconcertingly serious and cool-headed."

"And you think the Emperor--" began Michael.

"I think the Emperor is the hardest worker in all Germany," said
Barbara. "I believe he is trying (and admirably succeeding) to make us
trust his professions of friendship. He has a great eye for detail, too;
it seemed to him worth while to assure you even, my dear Michael, of his
regard and affection for England. He was always impressing on Tony the
same thing, though to him, of course, he said that if there was any
country nearer to his heart than England it was America. Stuff and
nonsense, my dear!"

All this, though struck in a more serious key than was usual with Aunt
Barbara, was quite characteristic of her. She had the quality of mind
which when occupied with one idea is occupied with it to the exclusion
of all others; she worked at full power over anything she took up. But
now she dismissed it altogether.

"You see what a diplomatist I have become," she said. "It is a
fascinating business: one lives in an atmosphere that is charged with
secret affairs, and it infects one like the influenza. You catch it
somehow, and have a feverish cold of your own. And I am quite useful to
him. You see, I am such a chatterbox that people think I let out things
by accident, which I never do. I let out what I want to let out on
purpose, and they think they are pumping me. I had a long conversation
the other day with one of the German Embassy, all about Irish affairs.
They are hugely interested about Irish affairs, and I just make a note
of that; but they can make as many notes as they please about what
I say, and no one will be any the wiser. In fact, they will be the
foolisher. And now I suppose I had better take myself away."

"Don't do anything of the kind," said Michael.

"But I must. And if when you are down at Ashbridge at Christmas you
find strangers hanging about the deep-water reach, you might just let me
know. It's no use telling your father, because he will certainly think
they have come to get a glimpse of him as he plays golf. But I expect
you'll be too busy thinking about that new friend of yours, and perhaps
his sister. What did she tell me we had got to do? 'To her garlands let
us bring,' was it not? You and I will both send wreaths, Michael, though
not for her funeral. Now don't be a hermit any more, but come and see
me. You shall take your garland girl into dinner, if she will come,
too; and her brother shall certainly sit next me. I am so glad you have
become yourself at last. Go on being yourself more and more, my dear: it
suits you."


CHAPTER VIII


Some fortnight later, and not long before Michael was leaving town for
his Christmas visit to Ashbridge, Sylvia and her brother were lingering
in the big studio from which the last of their Sunday evening guests had
just departed. The usual joyous chaos consequent on those entertainments
reigned: the top of the piano was covered with the plates and glasses of
those who had made an alfresco supper (or breakfast) of fried bacon and
beer before leaving; a circle of cushions were ranged on the floor round
the fire, for it was a bitterly cold night, and since, for some reason,
a series of charades had been spontaneously generated, there was lying
about an astonishing collection of pillow-cases, rugs, and table-cloths,
and such articles of domestic and household use as could be converted
into clothes for this purpose. But the event of the evening had
undoubtedly been Hermann's performance of the "Wenceslas Variations";
these he had now learned, and, as he had promised Michael, was going
to play them at his concert in the Steinway Hall in January. To-night
a good many musician friends had attended the Sunday evening gathering,
and there had been no two opinions about the success of them.

"I was talking to Arthur Lagden about them," said Falbe, naming a
prominent critic of the day, "and he would hardly believe that they were
an Opus I., or that Michael had not been studying music technically for
years instead of six months. But that's the odd thing about Mike; he's
so mature."

It was not unusual for the brother and sister to sit up like this, till
any hour, after their guests had gone; and Sylvia collected a bundle
of cushions and lay full length on the floor, with her feet towards the
fire. For both of them the week was too busy on six days for them to
indulge that companionship, sometimes full of talk, sometimes consisting
of those dropped words and long silences, on which intimacy lives;
and they both enjoyed, above all hours in the week, this time that lay
between the friendly riot of Sunday evening and the starting of work
again on Monday. There was between them that bond which can scarcely
exist between husband and wife, since it almost necessarily implies the
close consanguinity of brother and sister, and postulates a certain sort
of essential community of nature, founded not on tastes, nor even on
affection, but on the fact that the same blood beats in the two. Here
an intense affection, too strong to be ever demonstrative, fortified
it, and both brother and sister talked to each other, as if they were
speaking to some physically independent piece of themselves.

Sylvia had nothing apparently to add on the subject of Michael's
maturity. Instead she just raised her head, which was not quite high
enough.

"Stuff another cushion under my head, Hermann," she said. "Thanks; now
I'm completely comfortable, you will be relieved to hear."

Hermann gazed at the fire in silence.

"That's a weight off my mind," he said. "About Michael now. He's been
suppressed all his life, you know, and instead of being dwarfed he has
just gone on growing inside. Good Lord! I wish somebody would suppress
me for a year or two. What a lot there would be when I took the cork out
again. We dissipate too much, Sylvia, both you and I."

She gave a little grunt, which, from his knowledge of her inarticulate
expressions, he took to mean dissent.

"I suppose you mean we don't," he remarked.

"Yes. How much one dissipates is determined for one just as is the shape
of your nose or the colour of your eyes. By the way, I fell madly in
love with that cousin of Michael's who came with him to-night. He's
the most attractive creature I ever saw in my life. Of course, he's too
beautiful: no boy ought to be as beautiful as that."

"You flirted with him," remarked Hermann. "Mike will probably murder him
on the way home."

Sylvia moved her feet a little farther from the blaze.

"Funny?" she asked.

Instantly Falbe knew that her mind was occupied with exactly the same
question as his.

"No, not funny at all," he said. "Quite serious. Do you want to talk
about it or not?"

She gave a little groan.

"No, I don't want to, but I've got to," she said. "Aunt Barbara--we
became Sylvia and Aunt Barbara an hour or two ago, and she's a
dear--Aunt Barbara has been talking to me about it already."

"And what did Aunt Barbara say?"

"Just what you are going to," said Sylvia; "namely, that I had better
make up my mind what I mean to say when Michael says what he means to
say."

She shifted round so as to face her brother as he stood in front of the
fire, and pulled his trouser-leg more neatly over the top of his shoe.

"But what's to happen if I can't make up my mind?" she said. "I needn't
tell you how much I like Michael; I believe I like him as much as I
possibly can. But I don't know if that is enough. Hermann, is it enough?
You ought to know. There's no use in you unless you know about me."

She put out her arm, and clasped his two legs in the crook of her
elbow. That expressed their attitude, what they were to each other, as
absolutely as any physical demonstration allowed. Had there not been the
difference of sex which severed them she could never have got the sense
of support that this physical contact gave her; had there not been her
sisterhood to chaperon her, so to speak, she could never have been so
at ease with a man. The two were lover-like, without the physical
apexes and limitations that physical love must always bring with it.
The complement of sex that brought them so close annihilated the very
existence of sex. They loved as only brother and sister can love,
without trouble.

The closer contact of his fire-warmed trousers to the calf of his leg
made Hermann step out of her encircling arm without any question of
hurting her feelings.

"I won't be burned," he said. "Sorry, but I won't be burned. It seems
to me, Sylvia, that you ought to like Michael a little more and a little
less."

"It's no use saying what I ought to do," she said. "The idea of what I
'ought' doesn't come in. I like him just as much as I like him, neither
more nor less."

He clawed some more cushions together, and sat down on the floor by
her. She raised herself a little and rested her body against his folded
knees.

"What's the trouble, Sylvia?" he said.

"Just what I've been trying to tell you."

"Be more concrete, then. You're definite enough when you sing."

She sighed and gave a little melancholy laugh.

"That's just it," she said. "People like you and me, and Michael, too,
for that matter, are most entirely ourselves when we are at our music.
When Michael plays for me I can sing my soul at him. While he and I are
in music, if you understand--and of course you do--we belong to each
other. Do you know, Hermann, he finds me when I'm singing, without the
slightest effort, and even you, as you have so often told me, have
to search and be on the lookout. And then the song is over, and, as
somebody says, 'When the feast is finished and the lamps expire,'
then--well, the lamps expire, and he isn't me any longer, but Michael,
with the--the ugly face, and--oh, isn't it horrible of me--the long arms
and the little stumpy legs--if only he was rather different in things
that don't matter, that CAN'T matter! But--but, Hermann, if only Michael
was rather like you, and you like Michael, I should love you exactly as
much as ever, and I should love Michael, too."

She was leaning forward, and with both hands was very carefully tying
and untying one of Hermann's shoelaces.

"Oh, thank goodness there is somebody in the world to whom I can say
just whatever I feel, and know he understands," she said. "And I know
this, too--and follow me here, Hermann--I know that all that doesn't
really matter; I am sure it doesn't. I like Michael far too well to let
it matter. But there are other things which I don't see my way through,
and they are much more real--"

She was silent again, so long that Hermann reached out for a cigarette,
lit it, and threw away the match before she spoke.

"There is Michael's position," she said. "When Michael asks me if I
will have him, as we both know he is going to do, I shall have to make
conditions. I won't give up my career. I must go on working--in other
words, singing--whether I marry him or not. I don't call it singing, in
my sense of the word, to sing 'The Banks of Allan Water' to Michael
and his father and mother at Ashbridge, any more than it is being a
politician to read the morning papers and argue about the Irish question
with you. To have a career in politics means that you must be a member
of Parliament--I daresay the House of Lords would do--and make speeches
and stand the racket. In the same way, to be a singer doesn't mean to
sing after dinner or to go squawking anyhow in a workhouse, but it means
to get up on a platform before critical people, and if you don't do your
very best be damned by them. If I marry Michael I must go on singing
as a professional singer, and not become an amateur--the Viscountess
Comber, who sings so charmingly. I refuse to sing charmingly; I will
either sing properly or not at all. And I couldn't not sing. I shall
have to continue being Miss Falbe, so to speak."

"You say you insist on it," said Hermann; "but whether you did or not,
there is nothing more certain than that Michael would."

"I am sure he would. But by so doing he would certainly quarrel
irrevocably with his people. Even Aunt Barbara, who, after all, is very
liberally minded, sees that. They can none of them, not even she, who
are born to a certain tradition imagine that there are other traditions
quite as stiff-necked. Michael, it is true, was born to one tradition,
but he has got the other, as he has shown very clearly by refusing to
disobey it. He will certainly, as you say, insist on my endorsing the
resolution he has made for himself. What it comes to is this, that I
can't marry him without his father's complete consent to all that I have
told you. I can't have my career disregarded, covered up with awkward
silences, alluded to as a painful subject; and, as I say, even Aunt
Barbara seemed to take it for granted that if I became Lady Comber I
should cease to be Miss Falbe. Well, there she's wrong, my dear; I shall
continue to be Miss Falbe whether I'm Lady Comber, or Lady Ashbridge,
or the Duchess of anything you please. And--here the difficulty really
comes in--they must all see how right I am. Difficulty, did I say? It's
more like an impossibility."

Hermann threw the end of his cigarette into the ashes of the dying fire.

"It's clear, then," he said, "you have made up your mind not to marry
him."

She shook her head.

"Oh, Hermann, you fail me," she said. "If I had made up my mind not to I
shouldn't have kept you up an hour talking about it."

He stretched his hands out towards the embers already coated with grey
ash.

"Then it's like that with you," he said, pointing. "If there is the fire
in you, it is covered up with ashes."

She did not reply for a moment.

"I think you've hit it there," she said. "I believe there is the fire;
when, as I said, he plays for me I know there is. But the ashes? What
are they? And who shall disperse them for me?"

She stood up swiftly, drawing herself to her full height and stretching
her arms out.

"There's something bigger than we know coming," she said. "Whether it's
storm or sunshine I have no idea. But there will be something that shall
utterly sever Michael and me or utterly unite us."

"Do you care which it is?" he asked.

"Yes, I care," said she.

He held out his hands to her, and she pulled him up to his feet.

"What are you going to say, then, when he asks you?" he said.

"Tell him he must wait."

He went round the room putting out the electric lamps and opening the
big skylight in the roof. There was a curtain in front of this, which he
pulled aside, and from the frosty cloudless heavens the starshine of a
thousand constellations filtered down.

"That's a lot to ask of any man," he said. "If you care, you care."

"And if you were a girl you would know exactly what I mean," she said.
"They may know they care, but, unless they are marrying for perfectly
different reasons, they have to feel to the end of their fingers that
they care before they can say 'Yes.'"

He opened the door for her to pass out, and they walked up the passage
together arm-in-arm.

"Well, perhaps Michael won't ask you," he said, "in which case all
bother will be saved, and we shall have sat up talking till--Sylvia, did
you know it is nearly three--sat up talking for nothing!"

Sylvia considered this.

"Fiddlesticks!" she said.

And Hermann was inclined to agree with her.


This view of the case found confirmation next day, for Michael, after
his music lesson, lingered so firmly and determinedly when the three
chatted together over the fire that in the end Hermann found nothing
to do but to leave them together. Sylvia had given him no sign as to
whether she wished him to absent himself or not, and he concluded,
since she did not put an end to things by going away herself, that she
intended Michael to have his say.

The latter rose as the door closed behind Hermann, and came and stood
in front of her. And at the moment Sylvia could notice nothing of him
except his heaviness, his plainness, all the things that she had told
herself before did not really matter. Now her sensation contradicted
that; she was conscious that the ash somehow had vastly accumulated
over her fire, that all her affection and regard for him were suddenly
eclipsed. This was a complete surprise to her; for the moment she found
Michael's presence and his proximity to her simply distasteful.

"I thought Hermann was never going," he said.

For a second or two she did not reply; it was clearly no use to continue
the ordinary banter of conversation, to suggest that as the room was
Hermann's he might conceivably be conceded the right to stop there if he
chose. There was no transition possible between the affairs of every day
and the affair for which Michael had stopped to speak. She gave up all
attempt to make one; instead, she just helped him.

"What is it, Michael?" she asked.

Then to her, at any rate, Michael's face completely changed. There
burned in it all of a sudden the full glow of that of which she had only
seen glimpses.

"You know," he said.

His shyness, his awkwardness, had all vanished; the time had come for
him to offer to her all that he had to offer, and he did it with the
charm of perfect manliness and simplicity.

"Whether you can accept me or not," he said, "I have just to tell you
that I am entirely yours. Is there any chance for me, Sylvia?"

He stood quite still, making no movement towards her. She, on her side,
found all her distaste of him suddenly vanished in the mere solemnity of
the occasion. His very quietness told her better than any protestations
could have done of the quality of what he offered, and that quality
vastly transcended all that she had known or guessed of him.

"I don't know, Michael," she said at length.

She came a step forward, and without any sense of embarrassment
found that she, without conscious intention, had put her hands on his
shoulders. The moment that was done she was conscious of the impulse
that made her do it. It expressed what she felt.

"Yes, I feel like that to you," she said. "You're a dear. I expect you
know how fond I am of you, and if you don't I assure you of it now. But
I have got to give you more than that."

Michael looked up at her.

"Yes, Sylvia," he said, "much more than that."

A few minutes ago only she had not liked him at all; now she liked him
immensely.

"But how, Michael?" she asked. "How can I find it?"

"Oh, it's I who have got to find it for you," he said. "That is to say,
if you want it to be found. Do you?"

She looked at him gravely, without the tremor of a smile in her eyes.

"What does that mean exactly?" she said.

"It is very simple. Do you want to love me?"

She did not move her hands; they still rested on his shoulders like
things at ease, like things at home.

"Yes, I suppose I want to," she said.

"And is that the most you can do for me at present?" he asked.

That reached her again; all the time the plain words, the plain face,
the quiet of him stabbed her with daggers of which he had no idea.
She was dismayed at the recollection of her talk with her brother the
evening before, of the ease and certitude with which she had laid down
her conditions, of not giving up her career, of remaining the famous
Miss Falbe, of refusing to take a dishonoured place in the sacred
circle of the Combers. Now, when she was face to face with his love, so
ineloquently expressed, so radically a part of him, she knew that there
was nothing in the world, external to him and her, that could enter into
their reckonings; but into their reckonings there had not entered the
one thing essential. She gave him sympathy, liking, friendliness, but
she did not want him with her blood. And though it was not humanly
possible that she could want him with more than that, it was not
possible that she could take him with less.

"Yes, that is the most I can do for you at present," she said.

Still quite quietly he moved away from her, so that he stood free of her
hands.

"I have been constantly here all these last months," he said. "Now that
you know what I have told you, do you want not to see me?"

That stabbed her again.

"Have I implied that?" she asked.

"Not directly. But I can easily understand its being a bore to you. I
don't want to bore you. That would be a very stupid way of trying to
make you care for me. As I said, that is my job. I haven't accomplished
it as yet. But I mean to. I only ask you for a hint."

She understood her own feeling better than he. She understood at least
that she was dealing with things that were necessarily incalculable.

"I can't give you a hint," she said. "I can't make any plans about it.
If you were a woman perhaps you would understand. Love is, or it isn't.
That is all I know about it."

But Michael persisted.

"I only know what you have taught me," he said. "But you must know
that."

In a flash she became aware that it would be impossible for her to
behave to Michael as she had behaved to him for several months past.
She could not any longer put a hand on his shoulder, beat time with her
fingers on his arm, knowing that the physical contact meant nothing to
her, and all--all to him. The rejection of him as a lover rendered the
sisterly attitude impossible. And not only must she revise her conduct,
but she must revise the mental attitude of which it was the physical
counterpart. Up till this moment she had looked at the situation from
her own side only, had felt that no plans could be made, that the
natural thing was to go on as before, with the intimacy that she liked
and the familiarity that was the obvious expression of it. But now she
began to see the question from his side; she could not go on doing
that which meant nothing particular to her, if that insouciance meant
something so very particular to him. She realised that if she had loved
him the touch of his hand, the proximity of his face would have had
significance for her, a significance that would have been intolerable
unless there was something mutual and secret between them. It had seemed
so easy, in anticipation, to tell him that he must wait, so simple
for him just--well, just to wait until she could make up her mind. She
believed, as she had told her brother, that she cared for Michael, or
as she had told him that she wanted to--the two were to the girl's
mind identical, though expressed to each in the only terms that were
possible--but until she came face to face with the picture of the
future, that to her wore the same outline and colour as the past, she
had not known the impossibility of such a presentment. The desire of the
lover on Michael's part rendered unthinkable the sisterly attitude on
hers. That her instinct told her, but her reason revolted against it.

"Can't we go on as we were, Michael?" she said.

He looked at her incredulously.

"Oh, no, of course not that," he said.

She moved a step towards him.

"I can't think of you in any other way," she said, as if making an
appeal.

He stood absolutely unresponsive. Something within him longed that she
should advance a step more, that he should again have the touch of her
hands on his shoulders, but another instinct stronger than that made him
revoke his desire, and if she had moved again he would certainly have
fallen back before her.

"It may seem ridiculous to you," he said, "since you do not care. But I
can't do that. Does that seem absurd to you I? I am afraid it does; but
that is because you don't understand. By all means let us be what they
call excellent friends. But there are certain little things which seem
nothing to you, and they mean so much to me. I can't explain; it's just
the brotherly relation which I can't stand. It's no use suggesting that
we should be as we were before--"

She understood well enough for his purposes.

"I see," she said.

Michael paused for a moment.

"I think I'll be going now," he said. "I am off to Ashbridge in two
days. Give Hermann my love, and a jolly Christmas to you both. I'll let
you know when I am back in town."

She had no reply to this; she saw its justice, and acquiesced.

"Good-bye, then," said Michael.


He walked home from Chelsea in that utterly blank and unfeeling
consciousness which almost invariably is the sequel of any event that
brings with it a change of attitude towards life generally. Not for a
moment did he tell himself that he had been awakened from a dream, or
abandon his conviction that his dream was to be made real. The rare,
quiet determination that had made him give up his stereotyped mode of
life in the summer and take to music was still completely his, and, if
anything, it had been reinforced by Sylvia's emphatic statement that
"she wanted to care." Only her imagining that their old relations could
go on showed him how far she was from knowing what "to care" meant. At
first without knowing it, but with a gradually increasing keenness of
consciousness, he had become aware that this sisterly attitude of hers
towards him had meant so infinitely much, because he had taken it to be
the prelude to something more. Now he saw that it was, so to speak, a
piece complete in itself. It bore no relation to what he had imagined
it would lead into. No curtain went up when the prelude was over; the
curtain remained inexorably hanging there, not acknowledging the prelude
at all. Not for a moment did he accuse her of encouraging him to have
thought so; she had but given him a frankness of comradeship that meant
to her exactly what it expressed. But he had thought otherwise; he had
imagined that it would grow towards a culmination. All that (and here
was the change that made his mind blank and unfeeling) had to be cut
away, and with it all the budding branches that his imagination had
pictured as springing from it. He could not be comrade to her as he was
to her brother--the inexorable demands of sex forbade it.

He went briskly enough through the clean, dry streets. The frost of last
night had held throughout the morning, and the sunlight sparkled with
a rare and seasonable brightness of a traditional Christmas weather.
Hecatombs of turkeys hung in the poulterers' windows, among sprigs of
holly, and shops were bright with children's toys. The briskness of
the day had flushed the colour into the faces of the passengers in the
street, and the festive air of the imminent holiday was abroad. All this
Michael noticed with a sense of detachment; what had happened had caused
a veil to fall between himself and external things; it was as if he was
sealed into some glass cage, and had no contact with what passed round
him. This lasted throughout his walk, and when he let himself into his
flat it was with the same sense of alienation that he found his cousin
Francis gracefully reclining on the sofa that he had pulled up in front
of the fire.

Francis was inclined to be querulous.

"I was just wondering whether I should give you up," he said. "The hour
that you named for lunch was half-past one. And I have almost forgotten
what your clock sounded like when it struck two."

This also seemed to matter very little.

"Did I ask you to lunch?" he said. "I really quite forgot; I can't even
remember doing it now."

"But there will be lunch?" asked Francis rather anxiously.

"Of course. It'll be ready in ten minutes."

Michael came and stood in front of the fire, and looked with a sudden
spasm of envy on the handsome boy who lay there. If he himself had been
anything like that

--"I was distinctly chippy this morning," remarked Francis, "and so I
didn't so much mind waiting for lunch. I attribute it to too much beer
and bacon last night at your friend's house. I enjoyed it--I mean the
evening, and for that matter the bacon--at the time. It really was
extremely pleasant."

He yawned largely and openly.

"I had no idea you could frolic like that, Mike," he said. "It was quite
a new light on your character. How did you learn to do it? It's quite a
new accomplishment."

Here again the veil was drawn. Was it last night only that Falbe
had played the Variations, and that they had acted charades? Francis
proceeded in bland unconsciousness.

"I didn't know Germans could be so jolly," he continued. "As a rule
I don't like Germans. When they try to be jolly they generally only
succeed in being top-heavy. But, of course, your friend is half-English.
Can't he play, too? And to think of your having written those ripping
tunes. His sister, too--no wonder we haven't seen much of you, Mike, if
that's where you've been spending your time. She's rather like the new
girl at the Gaiety, but handsomer. I like big girls, don't you? Oh, I
forgot, you don't like girls much, anyhow. But are you learning your
mistake, Mike? You looked last night as if you were getting more
sensible."

Michael moved away impatiently.

"Oh, shut it, Francis," he observed.

Francis raised himself on his elbow.

"Why, what's up?" he asked. "Won't she turn a favourable eye?"

Michael wheeled round savagely.

"Please remember you are talking about a lady, and not a Gaiety lady,"
he remarked.

This brought Francis to his feet.

"Sorry," he said. "I was only indulging in badinage until lunch was
ready."

Michael could not make up his mind to tell his cousin what had happened;
but he was aware of having spoken more strongly than the situation, as
Francis knew of it, justified.

"Let's have lunch, then," he said. "We shall be better after lunch, as
one's nurse used to say. And are you coming to Ashbridge, Francis?"

"Yes; I've been talking to Aunt Bar about it this morning. We're both
coming; the family is going to rally round you, Mike, and defend you
from Uncle Robert. There's sure to be some duck shooting, too, isn't
there?"

This was a considerable relief to Michael.

"Oh, that's ripping," he said. "You and Aunt Barbara always make me feel
that there's a good deal of amusement to be extracted from the world."

"To be sure there is. Isn't that what the world is for? Lunch and
amusement, and dinner and amusement. Aunt Bar told me she dined with you
the other night, and had a quantity of amusement as well as an excellent
dinner. She hinted--"

"Oh, Aunt Barbara's always hinting," said Michael.

"I know. After all, everything that isn't hints is obvious, and so
there's nothing to say about it. Tell me more about the Falbes, Mike.
Will they let me go there again, do you think? Was I popular? Don't tell
me if I wasn't."

Michael smiled at this egoism that could not help being charming.

"Would you care if you weren't?" he asked.

"Very much. One naturally wants to please delightful people. And I think
they are both delightful. Especially the girl; but then she starts with
the tremendous advantage of being--of being a girl. I believe you are in
love with her, Mike, just as I am. It's that which makes you so grumpy.
But then you never do fall in love. It's a pity; you miss a lot of jolly
trouble."

Michael felt a sudden overwhelming desire to make Francis stop this
maddening twaddle; also the events of the morning were beginning to take
on an air of reality, and as this grew he felt the need of sympathy of
some kind. Francis might not be able to give him anything that was
of any use, but it would do no harm to see if his cousin's buoyant
unconscious philosophy, which made life so exciting and pleasant a thing
to him, would in any way help. Besides, he must stop this light banter,
which was like drawing plaster off a sore and unhealed wound.

"You're quite right," he said. "I am in love with her. Furthermore, I
asked her to marry me this morning."

This certainly had an effect.

"Good Lord!" said Francis. "And do you mean to say she refused you?"

"She didn't accept me," said Michael. "We--we adjourned."

"But why on earth didn't she take you?" asked Francis.

All Michael's old sensitiveness, his self-consciousness of his
plainness, his awkwardness, his big hands, his short legs, came back to
him.

"I should think you could see well enough if you look at me," he said,
"without my telling you."

"Oh, that silly old rot," said Francis cheerfully. "I thought you had
forgotten all about it."

"I almost had--in fact I quite had until this morning," said Michael.
"If I had remembered it I shouldn't have asked her."

He corrected himself.

"No, I don't think that's true," he said. "I should have asked her,
anyhow; but I should have been prepared for her not to take me. As a
matter of fact, I wasn't."

Francis turned sideways to the table, throwing one leg over the other.

"That's nonsense," he said. "It doesn't matter whether a man's ugly or
not."

"It doesn't as long as he is not," remarked Michael grimly.

"It doesn't matter much in any case. We're all ugly compared to girls;
and why ever they should consent to marry any of us awful hairy things,
smelling of smoke and drink, is more than I can make out; but, as a
matter of fact, they do. They don't mind what we look like; what they
care about is whether we want them. Of course, there are exceptions--"

"You see one," said Michael.

"No, I don't. Good Lord, you've only asked her once. You've got to make
yourself felt. You're not intending to give up, are you?"

"I couldn't give up."

"Well then, just hold on. She likes you, doesn't she?"

"Certainly," said Michael, without hesitation. "But that's a long way
from the other thing."

"It's on the same road."

Michael got up.

"It may be," he said, "but it strikes me it's round the corner. You
can't even see one from the other."

"Possibly not. But you never know how near the corner really is. Go for
her, Mike, full speed ahead."

"But how?"

"Oh, there are hundreds of ways. I'm not sure that one of the best isn't
to keep away for a bit. Even if she doesn't want you just now, when
you are there, she may get to want you when you aren't. I don't think I
should go on the mournful Byronic plan if I were you; I don't think it
would suit your style; you're too heavily built to stand leaning against
the chimney-piece, gazing at her and dishevelling your hair."

Michael could not help laughing.

"Oh, for God's sake, don't make a joke of it," he said.

"Why not? It isn't a tragedy yet. It won't be a tragedy till she marries
somebody else, or definitely says no. And until a thing is proved to be
tragic, the best way to deal with it is to treat it like a comedy
which is going to end well. It's only the second act now, you see, when
everything gets into a mess. By the merciful decrees of Providence, you
see, girls on the whole want us as much as we want them. That's what
makes it all so jolly."


Michael went down next day to Ashbridge, where Aunt Barbara and Francis
were to follow the day after, and found, after the freedom and
interests of the last six months, that the pompous formal life was more
intolerable than ever. He was clearly in disgrace still, as was made
quite clear to him by his father's icy and awful politeness when it
was necessary to speak to him, and by his utter unconsciousness of his
presence when it was not. This he had expected. Christmas had ushered
in a truce in which no guns were discharged, but remained sighted and
pointed, ready to fire.

But though there was no change in his father, his mother seemed to
Michael to be curiously altered; her mind, which, as has been already
noticed, was usually in a stunned condition, seemed to have awakened
like a child from its sleep, and to have begun vaguely crying in an
inarticulate discomfort. It was true that Petsy was no more, having
succumbed to a bilious attack of unusual severity, but a second Petsy
had already taken her place, and Lady Ashbridge sat with him--it was a
gentleman Petsy this time--in her lap as before, and occasionally shed
a tear or two over Petsy II. in memory of Petsy I. But this did not seem
to account for the wakening up of her mind and emotions into this
state of depression and anxiety. It was as if all her life she had been
quietly dozing in the sun, and that the place where she sat had passed
into the shade, and she had awoke cold and shivering from a bitter
wind. She had become far more talkative, and though she had by no
means abandoned her habit of upsetting any conversation by the extreme
obviousness of her remarks, she asked many more questions, and, as
Michael noticed, often repeated a question to which she had received an
answer only a few minutes before. During dinner Michael constantly found
her looking at him in a shy and eager manner, removing her gaze when she
found it was observed, and when, later, after a silent cigarette with
his father in the smoking-room, during which Lord Ashbridge, with some
ostentation, studied an Army List, Michael went to his bedroom, he was
utterly astonished, when he gave a "Come in" to a tapping at his door,
to see his mother enter. Her maid was standing behind her holding the
inevitable Petsy, and she herself hovered hesitatingly in the doorway.

"I heard you come up, Michael," she said, "and I wondered if it would
annoy you if I came in to have a little talk with you. But I won't come
in if it would annoy you. I only thought I should like a little chat
with you, quietly, secure from interruptions."

Michael instantly got up from the chair in front of his fire, in which
he had already begun to see images of Sylvia. This intrusion of his
mother's was a thing utterly unprecedented, and somehow he at once
connected its innovation with the strange manner he had remarked
already. But there was complete cordiality in his welcome, and he
wheeled up a chair for her.

"But by all means come in, mother," he said. "I was not going to bed
yet."

Lady Ashbridge looked round for her maid.

"And will Petsy not annoy you if he sits quietly on my knee?" she asked.

"Of course not."

Lady Ashbridge took the dog.

"There, that is nice," she said. "I told them to see you had a good fire
on this cold night. Has it been very cold in London?"

This question had already been asked and answered twice, now for the
third time Michael admitted the severity of the weather.

"I hope you wrap up well," she said. "I should be sorry if you caught
cold, and so, I am sure, your father would be. I wish you could make up
your mind not to vex him any more, but go back into the Guards."

"I'm afraid that's impossible, mother," he said.

"Well, if it's impossible there is no use in saying anything more about
it. But it vexed him very much. He is still vexed with you. I wish he
was not vexed. It is a sad thing when father and son fall out. But you
do wrap up, I hope, in the cold weather?"

Michael felt a sudden pang of anxiety and alarm. Each separate thing
that his mother said was sensible enough, but in the sum they were
nonsense.

"You have been in London since September," she went on. "That is a long
time to be in London. Tell me about your life there. Do you work hard?
Not too hard, I hope?"

"No! hard enough to keep me busy," he said.

"Tell me about it all. I am afraid I have not been a very good mother to
you; I have not entered into your life enough. I want to do so now.
But I don't think you ever wanted to confide in me. It is sad when sons
don't confide in their mothers. But I daresay it was my fault, and now I
know so little about you."

She paused a moment, stroking her dog's ears, which twitched under her
touch.

"I hope you are happy, Michael," she said. "I don't think I am so happy
as I used to be. But don't tell your father; I feel sure he does not
notice it, and it would vex him. But I want you to be happy; you used
not to be when you were little; you were always sensitive and queer. But
you do seem happier now, and that's a good thing."

Here again this was all sensible, when taken in bits, but its aspect was
different when considered together. She looked at Michael anxiously a
moment, and then drew her chair closer to him, laying her thin, veined
hand, sparkling with many rings, on his knee.

"But it wasn't I who made you happier," she said, "and that's so
dreadful. I never made anybody happy. Your father always made himself
happy, and he liked being himself, but I suspect you haven't liked being
yourself, poor Michael. But now that you're living the life you chose,
which vexes your father, is it better with you?"

The shyness had gone from the gaze that he had seen her direct at him
at dinner, which fugitively fluttered away when she saw that it was
observed, and now that it was bent so unwaveringly on him he saw shining
through it what he had never seen before, namely, the mother-love
which he had missed all his life. Now, for the first time, he saw it;
recognising it, as by divination, when, with ray serene and untroubled,
it burst through the mists that seemed to hang about his mother's mind.
Before, noticing her change of manner, her restless questions, he had
been vaguely alarmed, and as they went on the alarm had become
more pronounced; but at this moment, when there shone forth the
mother-instinct which had never come out or blossomed in her life, but
had been overlaid completely with routine and conventionality, rendering
it too indolent to put forth petals, Michael had no thought but for that
which she had never given him yet, and which, now it began to expand
before him, he knew he had missed all his life.

She took up his big hand that lay on his knee and began timidly stroking
it.

"Since you have been away," she said, "and since your father has been
vexed with you, I have begun to see how lonely you must have been. What
taught me that, I am afraid, was only that I have begun to feel lonely,
too. Nobody wants me; even Petsy, when she died, didn't want me to be
near her, and then it began to strike me that perhaps you might want me.
There was no one else, and who should want me if my son did not? I never
gave you the chance before, God forgive me, and now perhaps it is too
late. You have learned to do without me."

That was bitterly true; the truth of it stabbed Michael. On his side,
as he knew, he had made no effort either, or if he had they had been but
childish efforts, easily repulsed. He had not troubled about it, and if
she was to blame, the blame was his also. She had been slow to show the
mother-instinct, but he had been just as wanting in the tenderness of
the son.

He was profoundly touched by this humble timidity, by the sincerity,
vague but unquestionable, that lay behind it.

"It's never too late, is it?" he said, bending down and kissing the thin
white hands that held his. "We are in time, after all, aren't we?"

She gave a little shiver.

"Oh, don't kiss my hands, Michael," she said. "It hurts me that you
should do that. But it is sweet of you to say that I am not too late,
after all. Michael, may I just take you in my arms--may I?"

He half rose.

"Oh, mother, how can you ask?" he said.

"Then let me do it. No, my darling, don't move. Just sit still as you
are, and let me just get my arms about you, and put my head on your
shoulder, and hold me close like that for a moment, so that I can
realise that I am not too late."

She got up, and, leaning over him, held him so for a moment, pressing
her cheek close to his, and kissing him on the eyes and on the mouth.

"Ah, that is nice," she said. "It makes my loneliness fall away from me.
I am not quite alone any more. And now, if you are not tired will you
let me talk to you a little more, and learn a little more about you?"

She pulled her chair again nearer him, so that sitting there she could
clasp his arm.

"I want your happiness, dear," she said, "but there is so little now
that I can do to secure it. I must put that into other hands. You are
twenty-five, Michael; you are old enough to get married. All Combers
marry when they are twenty-five, don't they? Isn't there some girl you
would like to be yours? But you must love her, you know, you must want
her, you mustn't be able to do without her. It won't do to marry just
because you are twenty-five."

It would no more have entered into Michael's head this morning to tell
to his mother about Sylvia than to have discussed counterpoint with her.
But then this morning he had not been really aware that he had a mother.
But to tell her now was not unthinkable, but inevitable.

"Yes, there is a girl whom I can't do without," he said.

Lady Ashbridge's face lit up.

"Ah, tell me about her--tell me about her," she said. "You want her, you
can't do without her; that is the right wife for you."

Michael caught at his mother's hand as it stroked his sleeve.

"But she is not sure that she can do with me," he said.

Her face was not dimmed at this.

"Oh, you may be sure she doesn't know her own mind," she said. "Girls so
often don't. You must not be down-hearted about it. Who is she? Tell me
about her."

"She's the sister of my great friend, Hermann Falbe," he said, "who
teaches me music."

This time the gladness faded from her.

"Oh, my dear, it will vex your father again," she said, "that you should
want to marry the sister of a music-teacher. It will never do to vex him
again. Is she not a lady?"

Michael laughed.

"But certainly she is," he said. "Her father was German, her mother was
a Tracy, just as well-born as you or I."

"How odd, then, that her brother should have taken to giving music
lessons. That does not sound good. Perhaps they are poor, and certainly
there is no disgrace in being poor. And what is her name?"

"Sylvia," said Michael. "You have probably heard of her; she is the Miss
Falbe who made such a sensation in London last season by her singing."

The old outlook, the old traditions were beginning to come to the
surface again in poor Lady Ashbridge's mind.

"Oh, my dear!" she said. "A singer! That would vex your father terribly.
Fancy the daughter of a Miss Tracy becoming a singer. And yet you want
her--that seems to me to matter most of all."

Then came a step at the door; it opened an inch or two, and Michael
heard his father's voice.

"Is your mother with you, Michael?" he asked.

At that Lady Ashbridge got up. For one second she clung to her son, and
then, disengaging herself, froze up like the sudden congealment of a
spring.

"Yes, Robert," she said. "I was having a little talk to Michael."

"May I come in?"

"It's our secret," she whispered to Michael.

"Yes, come in, father," he said.

Lord Ashbridge stood towering in the doorway.

"Come, my dear," he said, not unkindly, "it's time for you to go to
bed."

She had become the mask of herself again.

"Yes, Robert," she said. "I suppose it must be late. I will come. Oh,
there's Petsy. Will you ring, Michael? then Fedden will come and take
him to bed. He sleeps with Fedden."


CHAPTER IX


Michael, in desperate conversational efforts next morning at breakfast,
mentioned the fact that the German Emperor had engaged him in a
substantial talk at Munich, and had recommended him to pass the winter
at Berlin. It was immediately obvious that he rose in his father's
estimation, for, though no doubt primarily the fact that Michael was
his son was the cause of this interest, it gave Michael a sort of
testimonial also to his respectability. If the Emperor had thought
that his taking up a musical career was indelibly disgraceful--as Lord
Ashbridge himself had done--he would certainly not have made himself
so agreeable. On anyone of Lord Ashbridge's essential and deep-rooted
snobbishness this could not fail to make a certain effect; his chilly
politeness to Michael sensibly thawed; you might almost have detected
a certain cordiality in his desire to learn as much as possible of this
gratifying occurrence.

"And you mean to go to Berlin?" he asked.

"I'm afraid I shan't be able to," said Michael; "my master is in
London."

"I should be inclined to reconsider that, Michael," said the father.
"The Emperor knows what he is talking about on the subject of music."

Lady Ashbridge looked up from the breakfast she was giving Petsy II.
His dietary was rather less rich than that of the defunct, and she was
afraid sometimes that his food was not nourishing enough.

"I remember the concert we had here," she said. "We had the 'Song to
Aegir' twice."

Lord Ashbridge gave her a quick glance. Michael felt he would not have
noticed it the evening before.

"Your memory is very good, my dear," he said with encouragement.

"And then we had a torchlight procession," she remarked.

"Quite so. You remember it perfectly. And about his visit here, Michael.
Did he talk about that?"

"Yes, very warmly; also about our international relations."

Lord Ashbridge gave a little giggle.

"I must tell Barbara that," he said. "She has become a sort of
Cassandra, since she became a diplomatist, and sits on her tripod and
prophesies woe."

"She asked me about it," said Michael. "I don't think she believes in
his sincerity."

He giggled again.

"That's because I didn't ask her down for his visit," he said.

He rose.

"And what are you going to do, my dear?" he said to his wife.

She looked across to Michael.

"Perhaps Michael will come for a stroll with me," she said.

"No doubt he will. I shall have a round of golf, I think, on this fine
morning. I should like to have a word with you, Michael, when you've
finished your breakfast."

The moment he had gone her whole manner changed: it was suffused with
the glow that had lit her last night.

"And we shall have another talk, dear?" she said. "It was tiresome being
interrupted last night. But your father was better pleased with you this
morning."


Michael's understanding of the situation grew clearer. Whatever was the
change in his mother, whatever, perhaps, it portended, it was certainly
accompanied by two symptoms, the one the late dawning of mother-love for
himself, the other a certain fear of her husband; for all her married
life she had been completely dominated by him, and had lived but in a
twilight of her own; now into that twilight was beginning to steal
a dread of him. His pleasure or his vexation had begun to affect her
emotionally, instead of being as before, merely recorded in her mind,
as she might have recorded an object quite exterior to herself, and seen
out of the window. Now it was in the room with her. Even as Michael
left her to speak with him, the consciousness of him rose again in her,
making her face anxious.

"And you'll try not to vex him, won't you?" she said.

His father was in the smoking-room, standing enormously in front of the
fire, and for the first time the sense of his colossal fatuity struck
Michael.

"There are several things I want to tell you about," he said. "Your
career, first of all. I take it that you have no intention of deferring
to my wishes on the subject."

"No, father, I am afraid not," said Michael.

"I want you to understand, then, that, though I shall not speak to
you again about it, my wishes are no less strong than they were. It is
something to me to know that a man whom I respect so much as the Emperor
doesn't feel as I do about it, but that doesn't alter my view."

"I understand," said Michael.

"The next is about your mother," he said. "Do you notice any change in
her?"

"Yes," said Michael.

"Can you describe it at all?"

Michael hesitated.

"She shows quite a new affection for myself," he said. "She came and
talked to me last night in a way she had never done before."

The irritation which Michael's mere presence produced on his father
was beginning to make itself felt. The fact that Michael was squat and
long-armed and ugly had always a side-blow to deal at Lord Ashbridge
in the reminder that he was his father. He tried to disregard this--he
tried to bring his mind into an impartial attitude, without seeing for
a moment the bitter irony of considering impartiality the ideal
quality when dealing with his son. He tried to be fair, and Michael was
perfectly conscious of the effort it cost him.

"I had noticed something of the sort," he said. "Your mother was always
asking after you. You have not been writing very regularly, Michael. We
know little about your life."

"I have written to my mother every week," said Michael.

The magical effects of the Emperor's interest were dying out. Lord
Ashbridge became more keenly aware of the disappointment that Michael
was to him.

"I have not been so fortunate, then," he said.

Michael remembered his mother's anxious face, but he could not let this
pass.

"No, sir," he said, "but you never answered any of my letters. I thought
it quite probable that it displeased you to hear from me."

"I should have expressed my displeasure if I had felt it," said his
father with all the pomposity that was natural to him.

"That had not occurred to me," said Michael. "I am afraid I took your
silence to mean that my letters didn't interest you."

He paused a moment, and his rebellion against the whole of his father's
attitude flared up.

"Besides, I had nothing particular to say," he said. "My life is passed
in the pursuit of which you entirely disapprove."

He felt himself back in boyhood again with this stifling and leaden
atmosphere of authority and disapproval to breathe. He knew that Francis
in his place would have done somehow differently; he could almost
hear Aunt Barbara laughing at the pomposity of the situation that had
suddenly erected itself monstrously in front of him. The fact that he
was Michael Comber vexed his father--there was no statement of the case
so succinctly true.

Lord Ashbridge moved away towards the window, turning his back
on Michael. Even his back, his homespun Norfolk jacket, his loose
knickerbockers, his stalwart calves expressed disapproval; but when his
father spoke again he realised that he had moved away like that, and
obscured his face for a different reason.

"Have you noticed anything else about your mother?" he asked.

That made Michael understand.

"Yes, father," he said. "I daresay I am wrong about it--"

"Naturally I may not agree with you; but I should like to know what it
is."

"She's afraid of you," said Michael.

Lord Ashbridge continued looking out of the window a little longer,
letting his eyes dwell on his own garden and his own fields, where
towered the leafless elms and the red roofs of the little town which
had given him his own name, and continued to give him so satisfactory an
income. There presented itself to his mind his own picture, painted and
framed and glazed and hung up by himself, the beneficent nobleman, the
conscientious landlord, the essential vertebra of England's backbone. It
was really impossible to impute blame to such a fine fellow. He turned
round into the room again, braced and refreshed, and saw Michael thus.

"It is quite true what you say," he said, with a certain pride in his
own impartiality. "She has developed an extraordinary timidity towards
me. I have continually noticed that she is nervous and agitated in my
presence--I am quite unable to account for it. In fact, there is no
accounting for it. But I am thinking of going up to London before long,
and making her see some good doctor. A little tonic, I daresay; though I
don't suppose she has taken a dozen doses of medicine in as many years.
I expect she will be glad to go up, for she will be near you. The one
delusion--for it is no less than that--is as strange as the other."

He drew himself up to his full magnificent height.

"I do not mean that it is not very natural she should be devoted to her
son," he said with a tremendous air.

What he did mean was therefore uncertain, and again he changed the
subject.

"There is a third thing," he said. "This concerns you. You are of the
age when we Combers usually marry. I should wish you to marry, Michael.
During this last year your mother has asked half a dozen girls down
here, all of whom she and I consider perfectly suitable, and no doubt
you have met more in London. I should like to know definitely if you
have considered the question, and if you have not, I ask you to set
about it at once."

Michael was suddenly aware that never for a moment had Sylvia been away
from his mind. Even when his mother was talking to him last night Sylvia
had sat at the back, in the inmost place, throned and secure. And now
she stepped forward. Apart from the impossibility of not acknowledging
her, he wished to do it. He wanted to wear her publicly, though she was
not his; he wanted to take his allegiance oath, though his sovereign
heeded not.

"I have considered the question," he said, "and I have quite made up my
mind whom I want to marry. She is Miss Falbe, Miss Sylvia Falbe, of whom
you may have heard as a singer. She is the sister of my music-master,
and I can certainly marry nobody else."

It was not merely defiance of the dreadful old tradition, which Lord
Ashbridge had announced in the manner of Moses stepping down from Sinai,
that prompted this appalling statement of the case; it was the joy
in the profession of his love. It had to be flung out like that. Lord
Ashbridge looked at him a moment in dead silence.

"I have not the honour of knowing Miss--Miss Falbe, is it?" he said;
"nor shall I have that honour."

Michael got up; there was that in his father's tone that stung him to
fury.

"It is very likely that you will not," he said, "since when I proposed
to her yesterday she did not accept me."

Somehow Lord Ashbridge felt that as an insult to himself. Indeed, it was
a double insult. Michael had proposed to this singer, and this singer
had not instantly clutched him. He gave his dreadful little treble
giggle.

"And I am to bind up your broken heart?" he asked.

Michael drew himself up to his full height. This was an indiscretion,
for it but made his father recognise how short he was. It brought farce
into the tragic situation.

"Oh, by no means," he said. "My heart is not going to break yet. I don't
give up hope."

Then, in a flash, he thought of his mother's pale, anxious face, her
desire that he should not vex his father.

"I am sorry," he said, "but that is the case. I wish--I wish you would
try to understand me."

"I find you incomprehensible," said Lord Ashbridge, and left the room
with his high walk and his swinging elbows.

Well, it was done now, and Michael felt that there were no new vexations
to be sprung on his father. It was bound to happen, he supposed, sooner
or later, and he was not sorry that it had happened sooner than he
expected or intended. Sylvia so held sway in him that he could not help
acknowledging her. His announcement had broken from him irresistibly,
in spite of his mother's whispered word to him last night, "This is our
secret." It could not be secret when his father spoke like that. . . .
And then, with a flare of illumination he perceived how intensely his
father disliked him. Nothing but sheer basic antipathy could have been
responsible for that miserable retort, "Am I to bind up your broken
heart?" Anger, no doubt, was the immediate cause, but so utterly
ungenerous a rejoinder to Michael's announcement could not have been
conceived, except in a heart that thoroughly and rootedly disliked him.
That he was a continual monument of disappointment to his father he knew
well, but never before had it been quite plainly shown him how essential
an object of dislike he was. And the grounds of the dislike were now
equally plain--his father disliked him exactly because he was his
father. On the other hand, the last twenty-four hours had shown him that
his mother loved him exactly because he was her son. When these two new
and undeniable facts were put side by side, Michael felt that he was an
infinite gainer.

He went rather drearily to the window. Far off across the field below
the garden he could see Lord Ashbridge walking airily along on his way
to the links, with his head held high, his stick swinging in his
hand, his two retrievers at his heels. No doubt already the soothing
influences of Nature were at work--Nature, of course, standing for the
portion of trees and earth and houses that belonged to him--and were
expunging the depressing reflection that his wife and only son inspired
in him. And, indeed, such was actually the case: Lord Ashbridge, in his
amazing fatuity, could not long continue being himself without being
cheered and invigorated by that fact, and though when he set out his
big white hands were positively trembling with passion, he carried
his balsam always with him. But he had registered to himself, even
as Michael had registered, the fact that he found his son a most
intolerable person. And what vexed him most of all, what made him clang
the gate at the end of the field so violently that it hit one of his
retrievers shrewdly on the nose, was the sense of his own impotence. He
knew perfectly well that in point of view of determination (that quality
which in himself was firmness, and in those who opposed him obstinacy)
Michael was his match. And the annoying thing was that, as his wife had
once told him, Michael undoubtedly inherited that quality from him. It
was as inalienable as the estates of which he had threatened to deprive
his son, and which, as he knew quite well, were absolutely entailed.
Michael, in this regard, seemed no better than a common but successful
thief. He had annexed his father's firmness, and at his death would
certainly annex all his pictures and trees and acres and the red roofs
of Ashbridge.

Michael saw the gate so imperially slammed, he heard the despairing howl
of Robin, and though he was sorry for Robin, he could not help laughing.
He remembered also a ludicrous sight he had seen at the Zoological
Gardens a few days ago: two seals, sitting bolt upright, quarrelling
with each other, and making the most absurd grimaces and noises. They
neither of them quite dared to attack the other, and so sat with their
faces close together, saying the rudest things. Aunt Barbara would
certainly have seen how inimitably his father and he had, in their
interview just now, resembled the two seals.

And then he became aware that all the time, au fond, he had thought
about nothing but Sylvia, and of Sylvia, not as the subject of quarrel,
but as just Sylvia, the singing Sylvia, with a hand on his shoulder.

The winter sun was warm on the south terrace of the house, when, an hour
later, he strolled out, according to arrangement, with his mother. It
had melted the rime of the night before that lay now on the grass in
threads of minute diamonds, though below the terrace wall, and on the
sunk rims of the empty garden beds it still persisted in outline of
white heraldry. A few monthly roses, weak, pink blossoms, weary with
the toil of keeping hope alive till the coming of spring, hung dejected
heads in the sunk garden, where the hornbeam hedge that carried its
russet leaves unfallen, shaded them from the wind. Here, too, a few
bulbs had pricked their way above ground, and stood with stout, erect
horns daintily capped with rime. All these things, which for years
had been presented to Lady Ashbridge's notice without attracting her
attention; now filled her with minute childlike pleasure; they were
discoveries as entrancing and as magical as the first finding of
the oval pieces of blue sky that a child sees one morning in a
hedge-sparrow's nest. Now that she was alone with her son, all her
secret restlessness and anxiety had vanished, and she remarked almost
with glee that her husband had telephoned from the golf links to say
that he would not be back for lunch; then, remembering that Michael
had gone to talk to his father after breakfast, she asked him about the
interview.

Michael had already made up his mind as to what to say here. Knowing
that his father was anxious about her, he felt it highly unlikely that
he would tell her anything to distress her, and so he represented the
interview as having gone off in perfect amity. Later in the day, on
his father's return, he had made up his mind to propose a truce between
them, as far as his mother was concerned. Whether that would be accepted
or not he could not certainly tell, but in the interval there was
nothing to be gained by grieving her.

A great weight was lifted off her mind.

"Ah, my dear, that is good," she said. "I was anxious. So now perhaps we
shall have a peaceful Christmas. I am glad your Aunt Barbara and Francis
are coming, for though your aunt always laughs at your father, she does
it kindly, does she not? And as for Francis--my dear, if God had given
me two sons, I should have liked the other to be like Francis. And shall
we walk a little farther this way, and see poor Petsy's grave?"

Petsy's grave proved rather agitating. There were doleful little stories
of the last days to be related, and Petsy II. was tiresome, and insisted
on defying the world generally with shrill barkings from the top of
the small mound, conscious perhaps that his helpless predecessor slept
below. Then their walk brought them to the band of trees that separated
the links from the house, from which Lady Ashbridge retreated, fearful,
as she vaguely phrased it, "of being seen," and by whom there was no
need for her to explain. Then across the field came a group of children
scampering home from school. They ceased their shouting and their games
as the others came near, and demurely curtsied and took off their caps
to Lady Ashbridge.

"Nice, well-behaved children," said she. "A merry Christmas to you all.
I hope you are all good children to your mothers, as my son is to me."

She pressed his arm, nodded and smiled at the children, and walked on
with him. And Michael felt the lump in his throat.

The arrival of Aunt Barbara and Francis that afternoon did something, by
the mere addition of numbers to the party, to relieve the tension of the
situation. Lord Ashbridge said little but ate largely, and during the
intervals of empty plates directed an impartial gaze at the portraits of
his ancestors, while wholly ignoring his descendant. But Michael was too
wise to put himself into places where he could be pointedly ignored, and
the resplendent dinner, with its six footmen and its silver service,
was not really more joyless than usual. But his father's majestic
displeasure was more apparent when the three men sat alone afterwards,
and it was in dead silence that port was pushed round and cigarettes
handed. Francis, it is true, made a couple of efforts to enliven things,
but his remarks produced no response whatever from his uncle, and he
subsided into himself, thinking with regret of what an amusing evening
he would have had if he had only stopped in town. But when they rose
Michael signed to his cousin to go on, and planted himself firmly in the
path to the door. It was evident that his father did not mean to speak
to him, but he could not push by him or walk over him.

"There is one thing I want to say to you, father," said he. "I have told
my mother that our interview this morning was quite amicable. I do not
see why she should be distressed by knowing that it was not."

His father's face softened a moment.

"Yes, I agree to that," he said.


As far as that went, the compact was observed, and whenever Lady
Ashbridge was present her husband made a point of addressing a few
remarks to Michael, but there their intercourse ended. Michael found
opportunity to explain to Aunt Barbara what had happened, suggesting
as a consolatory simile the domestic difficulties of the seals at the
Zoological Gardens, and was pleased to find her recognise the aptness of
this description. But heaviest of all on the spirits of the whole party
sat the anxiety about Lady Ashbridge. There could be no doubt that
some cerebral degeneration was occurring, and Lady Barbara's urgent
representation to her brother had the effect of making him promise
to take her up to London without delay after Christmas, and let a
specialist see her. For the present the pious fraud practised on her
that Michael and his father had had "a good talk" together, and were
excellent friends, sufficed to render her happy and cheerful. She
had long, dim talks, full of repetition, with Michael, whose presence
appeared to make her completely content, and when he was out or away
from her she would sit eagerly waiting for his return. Petsy, to the
great benefit of his health, got somewhat neglected by her; her whole
nature and instincts were alight with the mother-love that had burnt
so late into flame, with this tragic accompaniment of derangement. She
seemed to be groping her way back to the days when Michael was a little
boy, and she was a young woman; often she would seat herself at her
piano, if Michael was not there to play to her, and in a thin, quavering
voice sing the songs of twenty years ago. She would listen to his
playing, beating time to his music, and most of all she loved the hour
when the day was drawing in, and the first shadow and flame of dusk and
firelight; then, with her hand in his, sitting in her room, where
they would not be interrupted, she would whisper fresh inquiries about
Sylvia, offering to go herself to the girl and tell her how lovable
her suitor was. She lived in a dim, subaqueous sort of consciousness,
physically quite well, and mentally serene in the knowledge that Michael
was in the house, and would presently come and talk to her.

For the others it was dismal enough; this shadow, that was to her a
watery sunlight, lay over them all--this, and the further quarrel,
unknown to her, between Michael and his father. When they all met, as
at meal times, there was the miserable pretence of friendliness and
comfortable ease kept up, for fear of distressing Lady Ashbridge. It
was dreary work for all concerned, but, luckily, not difficult of
accomplishment. A little chatter about the weather, the merest small
change of conversation, especially if that conversation was held between
Michael and his father, was sufficient to wreathe her in smiles, and
she would, according to habit, break in with some wrecking remark, that
entailed starting this talk all afresh. But when she left the room a
glowering silence would fall; Lord Ashbridge would pick up a book or
leave the room with his high-stepping walk and erect head, the picture
of insulted dignity.

Of the three he was far most to be pitied, although the situation
was the direct result of his own arrogance and self-importance; but
arrogance and self-importance were as essential ingredients of his
character as was humour of Aunt Barbara's. They were very awkward and
tiresome qualities, but this particular Lord Ashbridge would have
no existence without them. He was deeply and mortally offended with
Michael; that alone was sufficient to make a sultry and stifling
atmosphere, and in addition to that he had the burden of his anxiety
about his wife. Here came an extra sting, for in common humanity he had,
by appearing to be friends with Michael, to secure her serenity, and
this could only be done by the continued profanation of his own highly
proper and necessary attitude towards his son. He had to address
friendly words to Michael that really almost choked him; he had to
practise cordiality with this wretch who wanted to marry the sister of
a music-master. Michael had pulled up all the old traditions, that
carefully-tended and pompous flower-garden, as if they had been weeds,
and thrown them in his father's face. It was indeed no wonder that, in
his wife's absence, he almost burst with indignation over the desecrated
beds. More than that, his own self-esteem was hurt by his wife's fear of
him, just as if he had been a hard and unkind husband to her, which he
had not been, but merely a very self-absorbed and dominant one, while
the one person who could make her quite happy was his despised son.
Michael's person, Michael's tastes, Michael's whole presence and
character were repugnant to him, and yet Michael had the power which, to
do Lord Ashbridge justice, he would have given much to be possessed of
himself, of bringing comfort and serenity to his wife.

On the afternoon of the day following Christmas the two cousins had been
across the estuary to Ashbridge together. Francis, who, in spite of his
habitual easiness of disposition and general good temper, had found the
conditions of anger and anxiety quite intolerable, had settled to leave
next day, instead of stopping till the end of the week, and Michael
acquiesced in this without any sense of desertion; he had really only
wondered why Francis had stopped three nights, instead of finding urgent
private business in town after one. He realised also, somewhat with
surprise, that Francis was "no good" when there was trouble about; there
was no one so delightful when there was, so to speak, a contest of who
should enjoy himself the most, and Francis invariably won. But if
the subject of the contest was changed, and the prize given for the
individual who, under depressing circumstances, should contrive to show
the greatest serenity of aspect, Francis would have lost with an even
greater margin. Michael, in fact, was rather relieved than otherwise
at his cousin's immediate departure, for it helped nobody to see the
martyred St. Sebastian, and it was merely odious for St. Sebastian
himself. In fact, at this moment, when Michael was rowing them back
across the full-flooded estuary, Francis was explaining this with his
customary lucidity.

"I don't do any good here, Mike," he said. "Uncle Robert doesn't speak
to me any more than he does to you, except when Aunt Marion is there.
And there's nothing going on, is there? I practically asked if I might
go duck-shooting to-day, and Uncle Robert merely looked out of the
window. But if anybody, specially you, wanted me to stop, why, of course
I would."

"But I don't," said Michael.

"Thanks awfully. Gosh, look at those ducks! They're just wanting to be
shot. But there it is, then. Certainly Uncle Robert doesn't want me, nor
Aunt Marion. I say, what do they think is the matter with her?"

Michael looked round, then took, rather too late, another pull on his
oars, and the boat gently grated on the pebbly mud at the side of the
landing-place. Francis's question, the good-humoured insouciance of it
grated on his mind in rather similar fashion.

"We don't know yet," he said. "I expect we shall all go back to town in
a couple of days, so that she may see somebody."

Francis jumped out briskly and gracefully, and stood with his hands in
his pockets while Michael pushed off again, and brought the boat into
its shed.

"I do hope it's nothing serious," he said. "She looks quite well,
doesn't she? I daresay it's nothing; but she's been alone, hasn't she,
with Uncle Robert all these weeks. That would give her the hump, too."

Michael felt a sudden spasm of impatience at these elegant and consoling
reflections. But now, in the light of his own increasing maturity, he
saw how hopeless it was to feel Francis's deficiencies, his entire lack
of deep feeling. He was made like that; and if you were fond of anybody
the only possible way of living up to your affection was to attach
yourself to their qualities.

They strolled a little way in silence.

"And why did you tell Uncle Robert about Sylvia Falbe?" asked Francis.
"I can't understand that. For the present, anyhow, she had refused you.
There was nothing to tell him about. If I was fond of a girl like that I
should say nothing about it, if I knew my people would disapprove, until
I had got her."

Michael laughed.

"Oh, yes you would," he said, "if you were to use your own words,
fond of her 'like that.' You couldn't help it. At least, I couldn't.
It's--it's such a glory to be fond like that."

He stopped.

"We won't talk about it," he said--"or, rather, I can't talk about it,
if you don't understand."

"But she had refused you," said the sensible Francis.

"That makes no difference. She shines through everything, through the
infernal awfulness of these days, through my father's anger, and my
mother's illness, whatever it proves to be--I think about them really
with all my might, and at the end I find I've been thinking about
Sylvia. Everything is she--the woods, the tide--oh, I can't explain."

They had walked across the marshy land at the edge of the estuary, and
now in front of them was the steep and direct path up to the house,
and the longer way through the woods. At this point the estuary made
a sudden turn to the left, sweeping directly seawards, and round the
corner, immediately in front of them was the long reach of deep water
up which, even when the tide was at its lowest, an ocean-going steamer
could penetrate if it knew the windings of the channel. To-day, in the
windless, cold calm of mid-winter, though the sun was brilliant in a
blue sky overhead, an opaque mist, thick as cotton-wool, lay over the
surface of the water, and, taking the winding road through the woods,
which, following the estuary, turned the point, they presently found
themselves, as they mounted, quite clear of the mist that lay below them
on the river. Their steps were noiseless on the mossy path, and almost
immediately after they had turned the corner, as Francis paused to light
a cigarette, they heard from just below them the creaking of oars in
their rowlocks. It caught the ears of them both, and without conscious
curiosity they listened. On the moment the sound of rowing ceased, and
from the dense mist just below them there came a sound which was quite
unmistakable, namely, the "plop" of something heavy dropped into the
water. That sound, by some remote form of association, suddenly recalled
to Michael's mind certain questions Aunt Barbara had asked him about the
Emperor's stay at Ashbridge, and his own recollection of his having gone
up and down the river in a launch. There was something further, which he
did not immediately recollect. Yes, it was the request that if when he
was here at Christmas he found strangers hanging about the deep-water
reach, of which the chart was known only to the Admiralty, he should
let her know. Here at this moment they were overlooking the mist-swathed
water, and here at this moment, unseen, was a boat rowing stealthily,
stopping, and, perhaps, making soundings.

He laid his hand on Francis's arm with a gesture for silence, then,
invisible below, someone said, "Fifteen fathoms," and again the oars
creaked audibly in the rowlocks.

Michael took a step towards his cousin, so that he could whisper to him.

"Come back to the boat," he said. "I want to row round and see who that
is. Wait a moment, though."

The oars below made some half-dozen strokes, and then were still again.
Once more there came the sound of something heavy dropped into the
water.

"Someone is making soundings in the channel there," he said. "Come."

They went very quietly till they were round the point, then quickened
their steps, and Michael spoke.

"That's the uncharted channel," he said; "at least, only the Admiralty
have the soundings. The water's deep enough right across for a ship
of moderate draught to come up, but there is a channel up which any
man-of-war can pass. Of course, it may be an Admiralty boat making fresh
soundings, but not likely on Boxing Day."

"What are you going to do?" asked Francis, striding easily along by
Michael's short steps.

"Just see if we can find out who it is. Aunt Barbara asked me about it.
I'll tell you afterwards. Now the tide's going out we can drop down
with it, and we shan't be heard. I'll row just enough to keep her head
straight. Sit in the bow, Francis, and keep a sharp look-out."

Foot by foot they dropped down the river, and soon came into the thick
mist that lay beyond the point. It was impossible to see more than
a yard or two ahead, but the same dense obscurity would prevent any
further range of vision from the other boat, and, if it was still at its
work, the sound of its oars or of voices, Michael reflected, might guide
him to it. From the lisp of little wavelets lapping on the shore below
the woods, he knew he was quite close in to the bank, and close also to
the place where the invisible boat had been ten minutes before. Then,
in the bewildering, unlocalised manner in which sound without the
corrective guidance of sight comes to the ears, he heard as before the
creaking of invisible oars, somewhere quite close at hand. Next moment
the dark prow of a rowing-boat suddenly loomed into sight on their
starboard, and he took a rapid stroke with his right-hand scull to bring
them up to it. But at the same moment, while yet the occupants of the
other boat were but shadows in the mist, they saw him, and a quick word
of command rang out.

"Row--row hard!" it cried, and with a frenzied churning of oars in the
water, the other boat shot by them, making down the estuary. Next moment
it had quite vanished in the mist, leaving behind it knots of swirling
water from its oar-blades.

Michael started in vain pursuit; his craft was heavy and clumsy, and
from the retreating and faint-growing sound of the other, it was clear
that he could get no pace to match, still less to overtake them. Soon he
pantingly desisted.

"But an Admiralty boat wouldn't have run away," he said. "They'd have
asked us who the devil we were."

"But who else was it?" asked Francis.

Michael mopped his forehead.

"Aunt Barbara would tell you," he said. "She would tell you that they
were German spies."

Francis laughed.

"Or Timbuctoo niggers," he remarked.

"And that would be an odd thing, too," said Michael.

But at that moment he felt the first chill of the shadow that
menaced, if by chance Aunt Barbara was right, and if already the clear
tranquillity of the sky was growing dim as with the mist that lay
that afternoon on the waters of the deep reach, and covered mysterious
movements which were going on below it. England and Germany--there was
so much of his life and his heart there. Music and song, and Sylvia.


CHAPTER X


Michael had heard the verdict of the brain specialist, who yesterday had
seen his mother, and was sitting in his room beside his unopened
piano quietly assimilating it, and, without making plans of his own
initiative, contemplating the forms into which the future was beginning
to fall, mapping itself out below him, outlining itself as when objects
in a room, as the light of morning steals in, take shape again. And even
as they take the familiar shapes, so already he felt that he had guessed
all this in that week down at Ashbridge, from which he had returned with
his father and mother a couple of days before.

She was suffering, without doubt, from some softening of the brain;
nothing of remedial nature could possibly be done to arrest or cure the
progress of the disease, and all that lay in human power was to secure
for her as much content and serenity as possible. In her present
condition there was no question of putting her under restraint, nor,
indeed, could she be certified by any doctor as insane. She would have
to have a trained attendant, she would live a secluded life, from which
must be kept as far as possible anything that could agitate or distress
her, and after that there was nothing more that could be done except
to wait for the inevitable development of her malady. This might come
quickly or slowly; there was no means of forecasting that, though the
rapid deterioration of her brain, which had taken place during those
last two months, made it, on the whole, likely that the progress of the
disease would be swift. It was quite possible, on the other hand, that
it might remain stationary for months. . . . And in answer to a question
of Michael's, Sir James had looked at him a moment in silence. Then he
answered.

"Both for her sake and for the sake of all of you," he had said, "one
hopes that it will be swift."


Lord Ashbridge had just telephoned that he was coming round to see
Michael, a message that considerably astonished him, since it would have
been more in his manner, in the unlikely event of his wishing to see his
son, to have summoned him to the house in Curzon Street. However, he had
announced his advent, and thus, waiting for him, and not much concerning
himself about that, Michael let the future map itself. Already it was
sharply defined, its boundaries and limits were clear, and though it was
yet untravelled it presented to him a familiar aspect, and he felt that
he could find his allotted road without fail, though he had never yet
traversed it. It was strongly marked; there could be no difficulty or
question about it. Indeed, a week ago, when first the recognition of his
mother's condition, with the symptoms attached to it, was known to him,
he had seen the signpost that directed him into the future.

Lord Ashbridge made his usual flamboyant entry, prancing and swinging
his elbows. Whatever happened he would still be Lord Ashbridge, with his
grey top-hat and his large carnation and his enviable position.

"You will have heard what Sir James's opinion is about your poor
mother," he said. "It was in consequence of what he recommended when he
talked over the future with me that I came to see you."

Michael guessed very well what this recommendation was, but with a
certain stubbornness and sense of what was due to himself, he let his
father proceed with the not very welcome task of telling him.

"In fact, Michael," he said, "I have a favour to ask of you."

The fact of his being Lord Ashbridge, and the fact of Michael being his
unsatisfactory son, stiffened him, and he had to qualify the favour.

"Perhaps I should not say I am about to ask you a favour," he corrected
himself, "but rather to point out to you what is your obvious duty."

Suddenly it struck Michael that his father was not thinking about Lady
Ashbridge at all, nor about him, but in the main about himself. All
had to be done from the dominant standpoint; he owed it to himself to
alleviate the conditions under which his wife must live; he owed it to
himself that his son should do his part as a Comber. There was no longer
any possible doubt as to what this favour, or this direction of duty,
must be, but still Michael chose that his father should state it. He
pushed a chair forward for him.

"Won't you sit down?" he said.

"Thank you, I would rather stand. Yes; it is not so much a favour as the
indication of your duty. I do not know if you will see it in the same
light as I; you have shown me before now that we do not take the same
view."

Michael felt himself bristling. His father certainly had the effect of
drawing out in him all the feelings that were better suppressed.

"I think we need not talk of that now, sir," he remarked.

"Certainly it is not the subject of my interview with you now. The fact
is this. In some way your presence gives a certain serenity and content
to your mother. I noticed that at Ashbridge, and, indeed, there has been
some trouble with her this morning because I could not take her to come
to see you with me. I ask you, therefore, for her sake, to be with us as
much as you can, in short, to come and live with us."

Michael nodded, saluting, so to speak, the signpost into the future as
he passed it.

"I had already determined to do that," he said. "I had determined, at
any rate, to ask your permission to do so. It is clear that my mother
wants me, and no other consideration can weigh with that."

Lord Ashbridge still remained completely self-sufficient.

"I am glad you take that view of it," he said. "I think that is all I
have to say."

Now Michael was an adept at giving; as indicated before, when he
gave, he gave nobly, and he could not only outwardly disregard, but
he inwardly cancelled the wonderful ungenerosity with which his father
received. That did not concern him.

"I will make arrangements to come at once," he said, "if you can receive
me to-day."

"That will hardly be worth while, will it? I am taking your mother back
to Ashbridge tomorrow."

Michael got up in silence. After all, this gift of himself, of his time,
of his liberty, of all that constituted life to him, was made not to
his father, but to his mother. It was made, as his heart knew, not
ungrudgingly only, but eagerly, and if it had been recommended by
the doctor that she should go to Ashbridge, he would have entirely
disregarded the large additional sacrifice on himself which it entailed.
Thus it was not owing to any retraction of his gift, or reconsideration
of it, that he demurred.

"I hope you will--will meet me half-way about this, sir," he said. "You
must remember that all my work lies in London. I want, naturally, to
continue that as far as I can. If you go to Ashbridge it is completely
interrupted. My friends are here too; everything I have is here."

His father seemed to swell a little; he appeared to fill the room.

"And all my duties lie at Ashbridge," he said. "As you know, I am not
of the type of absentee landlords. It is quite impossible that I should
spend these months in idleness in town. I have never done such a thing
yet, nor, I may say, would our class hold the position they do if we
did. We shall come up to town after Easter, should your mother's health
permit it, but till then I could not dream of neglecting my duties in
the country."

Now Michael knew perfectly well what his father's duties on that
excellently managed estate were. They consisted of a bi-weekly interview
in the "business-room" (an abode of files and stags' heads, in which
Lord Ashbridge received various reports of building schemes and
repairs), of a round of golf every afternoon, and of reading the
lessons and handing the offertory-box on Sunday. That, at least, was
the sum-total as it presented itself to him, and on which he framed
his conclusions. But he left out altogether the moral effect of the
big landlord living on his own land, and being surrounded by his
own dependents, which his father, on the other hand, so vastly
over-estimated. It was clear that there was not likely to be much accord
between them on this subject.

"But could you not go down there perhaps once or twice a week, and get
Bailey to come and consult you here?" he asked.

Lord Ashbridge held his head very high.

"That would be completely out of the question," he said.

All this, Michael felt, had nothing to do with the problem of his
mother and himself. It was outside it altogether, and concerned only
his father's convenience. He was willing to press this point as far as
possible.

"I had imagined you would stop in London," he said. "Supposing under
these circumstances I refuse to live with you?"

"I should draw my own conclusion as to the sincerity of your profession
of duty towards your mother."

"And practically what would you do?" asked Michael.

"Your mother and I would go to Ashbridge tomorrow all the same."

Another alternative suddenly suggested itself to Michael which he was
almost ashamed of proposing, for it implied that his father put his own
convenience as outweighing any other consideration. But he saw that if
only Lord Ashbridge was selfish enough to consent to it, it had manifest
merits. His mother would be alone with him, free of the presence that so
disconcerted her.

"I propose, then," he said, "that she and I should remain in town, as
you want to be at Ashbridge."

He had been almost ashamed of suggesting it, but no such shame was
reflected in his father's mind. This would relieve him of the perpetual
embarrassment of his wife's presence, and the perpetual irritation of
Michael's. He had persuaded himself that he was making a tremendous
personal sacrifice in proposing that Michael should live with them, and
this relieved him of the necessity.

"Upon my word, Michael," he said, with the first hint of cordiality that
he had displayed, "that is very well thought of. Let us consider; it is
certainly the case that this derangement in your poor mother's mind has
caused her to take what I might almost call a dislike to me. I mentioned
that to Sir James, though it was very painful for me to do so, and he
said that it was a common and most distressing symptom of brain disease,
that the sufferer often turned against those he loved best. Your plan
would have the effect of removing that."

He paused a moment, and became even more sublimely fatuous.

"You, too," he said, "it would obviate the interruption of your work,
about which you feel so keenly. You would be able to go on with it. Of
myself, I don't think at all. I shall be lonely, no doubt, at Ashbridge,
but my own personal feelings must not be taken into account. Yes; it
seems to me a very sensible notion. We shall have to see what your
mother says to it. She might not like me to be away from her, in spite
of her apparent--er--dislike of me. It must all depend on her attitude.
But for my part I think very well of your scheme. Thank you, Michael,
for suggesting it."

He left immediately after this to ascertain Lady Ashbridge's feelings
about it, and walked home with a complete resumption of his usual
exuberance. It indeed seemed an admirable plan. It relieved him from
the nightmare of his wife's continual presence, and this he expressed
to himself by thinking that it relieved her from his. It was not that
he was deficient in sympathy for her, for in his self-centred way he was
fond of her, but he could sympathise with her just as well at Ashbridge.
He could do no good to her, and he had not for her that instinct of love
which would make it impossible for him to leave her. He would also be
spared the constant irritation of having Michael in the house, and this
he expressed to himself by saying that Michael disliked him, and would
be far more at his ease without him. Furthermore, Michael would be able
to continue his studies . . . of this too, in spite of the fact that he
had always done his best to discourage them, he made a self-laudatory
translation, by telling himself that he was very glad not to have
to cause Michael to discontinue them. In fine, he persuaded himself,
without any difficulty, that he was a very fine fellow in consenting to
a plan that suited him so admirably, and only wondered that he had not
thought of it himself. There was nothing, after his wife had expressed
her joyful acceptance of it, to detain him in town, and he left for
Ashbridge that afternoon, while Michael moved into the house in Curzon
Street.

Michael entered upon his new life without the smallest sense of having
done anything exceptional or even creditable. It was so perfectly
obvious to him that he had to be with his mother that he had no
inclination to regard himself at all in the matter; the thing was
as simple as it had been to him to help Francis out of financial
difficulties with a gift of money. There was no effort of will, no
sense of sacrifice about it, it was merely the assertion of a paramount
instinct. The life limited his freedom, for, for a great part of the day
he was with his mother, and between his music and his attendance on her,
he had but little leisure. Occasionally he went out to see his friends,
but any prolonged absence on his part always made her uneasy, and he
would often find her, on his return, sitting in the hall, waiting
for him, so as to enjoy his presence from the first moment that he
re-entered the house. But though he found no food for reflection in
himself, Aunt Barbara, who came to see them some few days after Michael
had been installed here, found a good deal.

They had all had tea together, and afterwards Lady Ashbridge's nurse had
come down to fetch her upstairs to rest. And then Aunt Barbara surprised
Michael, for she came across the room to him, with her kind eyes full of
tears, and kissed him.

"My dear, I must say it once," she said, "and then you will know that it
is always in my mind. You have behaved nobly, Michael; it's a big word,
but I know no other. As for your father--"

Michael interrupted her.

"Oh, I don't understand him," he said. "At least, that's the best way to
look at it. Let's leave him out."

He paused a moment.

"After all, it is a much better plan than our living all three of us at
Ashbridge. It's better for my mother, and for me, and for him."

"I know, but how he could consent to the better plan," she said. "Well,
let us leave him out. Poor Robert! He and his golf. My dear, your father
is a very ludicrous person, you know. But about you, Michael, do you
think you can stand it?"

He smiled at her.

"Why, of course I can," he said. "Indeed, I don't think I'll accept that
statement of it. It's--it's such a score to be able to be of use, you
know. I can make my mother happy. Nobody else can. I think I'm getting
rather conceited about it."

"Yes, dear; I find you insufferable," remarked Aunt Barbara
parenthetically.

"Then you must just bear it. The thing is"--Michael took a moment to
find the words he searched for--"the thing is I want to be wanted. Well,
it's no light thing to be wanted by your mother, even if--"

He sat down on the sofa by his aunt.

"Aunt Barbara, how ironically gifts come," he said. "This was rather a
sinister way of giving, that my mother should want me like this just as
her brain was failing. And yet that failure doesn't affect the quality
of her love. Is it something that shines through the poor tattered
fabric? Anyhow, it has nothing to do with her brain. It is she herself,
somehow, not anything of hers, that wants me. And you ask if I can stand
it?"

Michael with his ugly face and his kind eyes and his simple heart seemed
extraordinarily charming just then to Aunt Barbara. She wished that
Sylvia could have seen him then in all the unconsciousness of what he
was doing so unquestioningly, or that she could have seen him as she
had with his mother during the last hour. Lady Ashbridge had insisted
on sitting close to him, and holding his hand whenever she could possess
herself of it, of plying him with a hundred repeated questions, and
never once had she made Michael either ridiculous or self-conscious. And
this, she reflected, went on most of the day, and for how many days it
would go on, none knew. Yet Michael could not consider even whether he
could stand it; he rejected the expression as meaningless.

"And your friends?" she said. "Do you manage to see them?"

"Oh, yes, occasionally," said Michael. "They don't come here, for the
presence of strangers makes my mother agitated. She thinks they have
some design of taking her or me away. But she wants to see Sylvia. She
knows about--about her and me, and I can't make up my mind what to do
about it. She is always asking if I can't take her to see Sylvia, or get
her to come here."

"And why not? Sylvia knows about your mother, I suppose."

"I expect so. I told Hermann. But I am afraid my mother will--well, you
can't call it arguing--but will try to persuade her to have me. I can't
let Sylvia in for that. Nor, if it comes to that, can I let myself in
for that."

"Can't you impress on your mother that she mustn't?"

Michael leaned forward to the fire, pondering this, and stretching out
his big hands to the blaze.

"Yes, I might," he said. "I should love to see Sylvia again, just
see her, you know. We settled that the old terms we were on couldn't
continue. At least, I settled that, and she understood."

"Sylvia is a gaby," remarked Aunt Barbara.

"I'm rather glad you think so."

"Oh, get her to come," said she. "I'm sure your mother will do as you
tell her. I'll be here too, if you like, if that will do any good. By
the way, I see your Hermann's piano recital comes off to-morrow."

"I know. My mother wants to go to that, and I think I shall take her.
Will you come too, Aunt Barbara, and sit on the other side of her? My
'Variations' are going to be played. If they are a success, Hermann
tells me I shall be dragged screaming on to the platform, and have to
bow. Lord! And if they're not, well, 'Lord' also."

"Yes, my dear, of course I'll come. Let me see, I shall have to lie, as
I have another engagement, but a little thing like that doesn't bother
me."

Suddenly she clapped her hands together.

"My dear, I quite forgot," she said. "Michael, such excitement. You
remember the boat you heard taking soundings on the deep-water reach? Of
course you do! Well, I sent that information to the proper quarter, and
since then watch has been kept in the woods just above it. Last night
only the coastguard police caught four men at it--all Germans. They
tried to escape as they did before, by rowing down the river, but there
was a steam launch below which intercepted them. They had on them a
chart of the reach, with soundings, nearly complete; and when they
searched their houses--they are all tenants of your astute father, who
merely laughed at us--they found a very decent map of certain private
areas at Harwich. Oh, I'm not such a fool as I look. They thanked me, my
dear, for my information, and I very gracefully said that my information
was chiefly got by you."

"But did those men live in Ashbridge?" asked Michael.

"Yes; and your father will have four decorous houses on his hands. I am
glad: he should not have laughed at us. It will teach him, I hope. And
now, my dear, I must go."

She stood up, and put her hand on Michael's arm.

"And you know what I think of you," she said. "To-morrow evening, then.
I hate music usually; but then I adore Mr. Hermann. I only wish he
wasn't a German. Can't you get him to naturalise himself and his
sister?"

"You wouldn't ask that if you had seen him in Munich," said Michael.

"I suppose not. Patriotism is such a degrading emotion when it is not
English."


Michael's "Variations" came some half-way down the programme next
evening, and as the moment for them approached, Lady Ashbridge got more
and more excited.

"I hope he knows them by heart properly, dear," she whispered to
Michael. "I shall be so nervous for fear he'll forget them in the
middle, which is so liable to happen if you play without your notes."

Michael laid his hand on his mother's.

"Hush, mother," he said, "you mustn't talk while he's playing."

"Well, I was only whispering. But if you tell me I mustn't--"

The hall was crammed from end to end, for not only was Hermann a person
of innumerable friends, but he had already a considerable reputation,
and, being a German, all musical England went to hear him. And to-night
he was playing superbly, after a couple of days of miserable nervousness
over his debut as a pianist; but his temperament was one of those
that are strung up to their highest pitch by such nervous agonies; he
required just that to make him do full justice to his own personality,
and long before he came to the "Variations," Michael felt quite at ease
about his success. There was no question about it any more: the
whole audience knew that they were listening to a master. In the row
immediately behind Michael's party were sitting Sylvia and her mother,
who had not quite been torn away from her novels, since she had sought
"The Love of Hermione Hogarth" underneath her cloak, and read it
furtively in pauses. They had come in after Michael, and until the
interval between the classical and the modern section of the concert he
was unaware of their presence; then idly turning round to look at the
crowded hall, he found himself face to face with the girl.

"I had no idea you were there," he said. "Hermann will do, won't he? I
think--"

And then suddenly the words of commonplace failed him, and he looked at
her in silence.

"I knew you were back," she said. "Hermann told me about--everything."

Michael glanced sideways, indicating his mother, who sat next him, and
was talking to Barbara.

"I wondered whether perhaps you would come and see my mother and me," he
said. "May I write?"

She looked at him with the friendliness of her smiling eyes and her
grave mouth.

"Is it necessary to ask?" she said.

Michael turned back to his seat, for his mother had had quite enough of
her sister-in-law, and wanted him again. She looked over her shoulder
for a moment to see whom Michael was talking to.

"I'm enjoying my concert, dear," she said. "And who is that nice young
lady? Is she a friend of yours?"

The interval was over, and Hermann returned to the platform, and waiting
for a moment for the buzz of conversation to die down, gave out,
without any preliminary excursion on the keys, the text of Michael's
"Variations." Then he began to tell them, with light and flying fingers,
what that simple tune had suggested to Michael, how he imagined himself
looking on at an old-fashioned dance, and while the dancers moved to
the graceful measure of a minuet, or daintily in a gavotte, the tune of
"Good King Wenceslas" still rang in his head, or, how in the joy of
the sunlight of a spring morning it still haunted him. It lay behind
a cascade of foaming waters that, leaping, roared into a ravine; it
marched with flying banners on some day of victorious entry, it watched
a funeral procession wind by, with tapers and the smell of incense; it
heard, as it got nearer back to itself again, the peals of Christmas
bells, and stood forth again in its own person, decorated and
emblazoned.

Hermann had already captured his audience; now he held them tame in the
hollow of his hand. Twice he bowed, and then, in answer to the demand,
just beckoned with his finger to Michael, who rose. For a moment his
mother wished to detain him.

"You're not going to leave me, my dear, are you?" she asked anxiously.

He waited to explain to her quietly, left her, and, feeling rather
dazed, made his way round to the back and saw the open door on to the
platform confronting him. He felt that no power on earth could make him
step into the naked publicity there, but at the moment Hermann appeared
in the doorway.

"Come on, Mike," he said, laughing. "Thank the pretty ladies and
gentlemen! Lord, isn't it all a lark!"

Michael advanced with him, stared and hoped he smiled properly, though
he felt that he was nailing some hideous grimace to his face; and then
just below him he saw his mother eagerly pointing him out to a total
stranger, with gesticulation, and just behind her Sylvia looking at her,
and not at him, with such tenderness, such kindly pity. There were the
two most intimately bound into his life, the mother who wanted him, the
girl whom he wanted; and by his side was Hermann, who, as Michael always
knew, had thrown open the gates of life to him. All the rest, even
including Aunt Barbara, seemed of no significance in that moment.
Afterwards, no doubt, he would be glad they were pleased, be proud of
having pleased them; but just now, even when, for the first time in his
life, that intoxicating wine of appreciation was given him, he stood
with it bubbling and yellow in his hand, not drinking of it.


Michael had prepared the way of Sylvia's coming by telling his mother
the identity of the "nice young lady" at the concert; he had also
impressed on her the paramount importance of not saying anything with
regard to him that could possibly embarrass the nice young lady, and
when Sylvia came to tea a few days later, he was quite without any
uneasiness, while for himself he was only conscious of that thirst for
her physical presence, the desire, as he had said to Aunt Barbara, "just
to see her." Nor was there the slightest embarrassment in their meeting!
it was clear that there was not the least difficulty either for him
or her in being natural, which, as usually happens, was the complete
solution.

"That is good of you to come," he said, meeting her almost at the door.
"My mother has been looking forward to your visit. Mother dear, here is
Miss Falbe."

Lady Ashbridge was pathetically eager to be what she called "good."
Michael had made it clear to her that it was his wish that Miss Falbe
should not be embarrassed, and any wish just now expressed by Michael
was of the nature of a divine command to her.

"Well, this is a pleasure," she said, looking across to Michael with the
eyes of a dog on a beloved master. "And we are not strangers quite, are
we, Miss Falbe? We sat so near each other to listen to your brother, who
I am sure plays beautifully, and the music which Michael made. Haven't I
got a clever son, and such a good one?"

Sylvia was unerring. Michael had known she would be.

"Indeed, you have," she said, sitting down by her. "And Michael mustn't
hear what we say about him, must he, or he'll be getting conceited."

Lady Ashbridge laughed.

"And that would never do, would it?" she said, still retaining Sylvia's
hand. Then a little dim ripple of compunction broke in her mind.
"Michael," she said, "we are only joking about your getting conceited.
Miss Falbe and I are only joking. And--and won't you take off your hat,
Miss Falbe, for you are not going to hurry away, are you? You are going
to pay us a long visit."

Michael had not time to remind his mother that ladies who come to tea
do not usually take their hats off, for on the word Sylvia's hands were
busy with her hatpins.

"I'm so glad you suggested that," she said. "I always want to take my
hat off. I don't know who invented hats, but I wish he hadn't."

Lady Ashbridge looked at her masses of bright hair, and could not help
telegraphing a note of admiration, as it were, to Michael.

"Now, that's more comfortable," she said. "You look as if you weren't
going away next minute. When I like to see people, I hate their going
away. I'm afraid sometimes that Michael will go away, but he tells me he
won't. And you liked Michael's music, Miss Falbe? Was it not clever of
him to think of all that out of one simple little tune? And he tells me
you sing so nicely. Perhaps you would sing to us when we've had tea. Oh,
and here is my sister-in-law. Do you know her--Lady Barbara? My dear,
what is your husband's name?"

Seeing Sylvia uncovered, Lady Barbara, with a tact that was creditable
to her, but strangely unsuccessful, also began taking off her hat. Her
sister-in-law was too polite to interfere, but, as a matter of fact, she
did not take much pleasure in the notion that Barbara was going to stay
a very long time, too. She was fond of her, but it was not Barbara whom
Michael wanted. She turned her attention to the girl again.

"My husband's away," she said, confidentially; "he is very busy down at
Ashbridge, and I daresay he won't find time to come up to town for many
weeks yet. But, you know, Michael and I do very well without him,
very well, indeed, and it would never do to take him away from his
duties--would it, Michael?"

Here was a shoal to be avoided.

"No, you mustn't think of tempting him to come up to town," said
Michael. "Give me some tea for Aunt Barbara."

This answer entranced Lady Ashbridge; she had to nudge Michael several
times to show that she understood the brilliance of it, and put lump
after lump of sugar into Barbara's cup in her rapt appreciation of it.
But very soon she turned to Sylvia again.

"And your brother is a friend of Michael's, too, isn't he?" she said.
"Some day perhaps he will come to see me. We don't see many people,
Michael and I, for we find ourselves very well content alone. But
perhaps some day he will come and play his concert over again to us; and
then, perhaps, if you ask me, I will sing to you. I used to sing a great
deal when I was younger. Michael--where has Michael gone?"

Michael had just left the room to bring some cigarettes in from next
door, and Lady Ashbridge ran after him, calling him. She found him in
the hall, and brought him back triumphantly.

"Now we will all sit and talk for a long time," she said. "You one side
of me, Miss Falbe, and Michael the other. Or would you be so kind as to
sing for us? Michael will play for you, and would it annoy you if I came
and turned over the pages? It would give me a great deal of pleasure to
turn over for you, if you will just nod each time when you are ready."

Sylvia got up.

"Why, of course," she said. "What have you got, Michael? I haven't
anything with me."

Michael found a volume of Schubert, and once again, as on the first time
he had seen her, she sang "Who is Sylvia?" while he played, and Lady
Ashbridge had her eyes fixed now on one and now on the other of them,
waiting for their nod to do her part; and then she wanted to sing
herself, and with some far-off remembrance of the airs and graces of
twenty-five years ago, she put her handkerchief and her rings on the
top of the piano, and, playing for herself, emitted faint treble sounds
which they knew to be "The Soldier's Farewell."

Then presently her nurse came for her to lie down before dinner, and she
was inclined to be tearful and refuse to go till Michael made it clear
that it was his express and sovereign will that she should do so. Then
very audibly she whispered to him. "May I ask her to give me a kiss?"
she said. "She looks so kind, Michael, I don't think she would mind."


Sylvia went back home with a little heartache for Michael, wondering,
if she was in his place, if her mother, instead of being absorbed in her
novels, demanded such incessant attentions, whether she had sufficient
love in her heart to render them with the exquisite simplicity, the
tender patience that Michael showed. Well as she knew him, greatly as
she liked him, she had not imagined that he, or indeed any man could
have behaved quite like that. There seemed no effort at all about it;
he was not trying to be patient; he had the sense of "patience's perfect
work" natural to him; he did not seem to have to remind himself that his
mother was ill, and thus he must be gentle with her. He was gentle with
her because he was in himself gentle. And yet, though his behaviour was
no effort to him, she guessed how wearying must be the continual strain
of the situation itself. She felt that she would get cross from mere
fatigue, however excellent her intentions might be, however willing
the spirit. And no one, so she had understood from Barbara, could take
Michael's place. In his occasional absences his mother was fretful and
miserable, and day by day Michael left her less. She would sit close to
him when he was practising--a thing that to her or to Hermann would have
rendered practice impossible--and if he wrestled with one hand over a
difficult bar, she would take the other into hers, would ask him if he
was not getting tired, would recommend him to rest for a little; and yet
Michael, who last summer had so stubbornly insisted on leading his own
life, and had put his determination into effect in the teeth of all
domestic opposition, now with more than cheerfulness laid his own life
aside in order to look after his mother. Sylvia felt that the real
heroisms of life were not so much the fine heady deeds which are so
obviously admirable, as such serene steadfastness, such unvarying
patience as that which she had just seen.

Her whole soul applauded Michael, and yet below her applause was this
heartache for him, the desire to be able to help him to bear the burden
which must be so heavy, though he bore it so blithely. But in the very
nature of things there was but one way in which she could help him, and
in that she was powerless. She could not give him what he wanted. But
she longed to be able to.


CHAPTER XI


It was a morning of early March, and Michael, looking out from the
dining-room window at the house in Curzon Street, where he had just
breakfasted alone, was smitten with wonder and a secret ecstasy, for he
suddenly saw and felt that it was winter no longer, but that spring had
come. For the last week the skies had screamed with outrageous winds
and had been populous with flocks of sullen clouds that discharged
themselves in sleet and snowy rain, and half last night, for he had
slept very badly, he had heard the dashing of showers, as of wind-driven
spray, against the window-panes, and had listened to the fierce rattling
of the frames. Towards morning he had slept, and during those hours it
seemed that a new heaven and a new earth had come into being; vitally
and essentially the world was a different affair altogether.

At the back of the house on to which these windows looked was a garden
of some half acre, a square of somewhat sooty grass, bounded by high
walls, with a few trees at the further end. Into it, too, had the
message that thrilled through his bones penetrated, and this little
oasis of doubtful grass and blackened shrubs had a totally different
aspect to-day from that which it had worn all those weeks. The sparrows
that had sat with fluffed-up feathers in corners sheltered from the
gales, were suddenly busy and shrilly vocal, chirruping and dragging
about straws, and flying from limb to limb of the trees with twigs in
their beaks. For the first time he noticed that little verdant cabochons
of folded leaf had globed themselves on the lilac bushes below the
window, crocuses had budded, and in the garden beds had shot up the
pushing spikes of bulbs, while in the sooty grass he could see specks
and patches of vivid green, the first growth of the year.

He opened the window and strolled out. The whole taste and savour of the
air was changed, and borne on the primrose-coloured sunshine came the
smell of damp earth, no longer dead and reeking of the decay of autumn,
but redolent with some new element, something fertile and fecund,
something daintily, indefinably laden with the secret of life and
restoration. The grey, lumpy clouds were gone, and instead chariots of
dazzling white bowled along the infinite blue expanse, harnessed to the
southwest wind. But, above all, the sparrows dragged straws to and fro,
loudly chirruping. All spring was indexed there.

For a moment Michael was entranced with the exquisite moment, and stood
sunning his soul in spring. But then he felt the fetters of his own
individual winter heavy on him again, and he could only see what was
happening without feeling it. For that moment he had felt the leap in
his blood, but the next he was conscious again of the immense
fatigue that for weeks had been growing on him. The task which he had
voluntarily taken on himself had become no lighter with habit, the
incessant attendance on his mother and the strain of it got heavier day
by day. For some time now her childlike content in his presence had
been clouded and, instead, she was constantly depressed and constantly
querulous with him, finding fault with his words and his silences, and
in her confused and muffled manner blaming him and affixing sinister
motives to his most innocent actions. But she was still entirely
dependent on him, and if he left her for an hour or two, she would wait
in an agony of anxiety for his return, and when he came back overwhelmed
him with tearful caresses and the exaction of promises not to go away
again. Then, feeling certain of him once more, she would start again on
complaints and reproaches. Her doctor had warned him that it looked
as if some new phase of her illness was approaching, which might
necessitate the complete curtailment of her liberty; but day had
succeeded to day and she still remained in the same condition, neither
better nor worse, but making every moment a burden to Michael.

It had been necessary that Sylvia should discontinue her visits, for
some weeks ago Lady Ashbridge had suddenly taken a dislike to her, and,
when she came, would sit in silent and lofty displeasure, speaking to
her as little as possible, and treating her with a chilling and awful
politeness. Michael had enough influence with his mother to prevent her
telling the girl what her crime had been, which was her refusal to
marry him; but, when he was alone with his mother, he had to listen to
torrents of these complaints. Lady Ashbridge, with a wealth of language
that had lain dormant in her all her life, sarcastically supposed that
Miss Falbe was a princess in disguise ("very impenetrable disguise, for
I'm sure she reminds me of a barmaid more than a princess"), and thought
that such a marriage would be beneath her. Or, another time, she hinted
that Miss Falbe might be already married; indeed, this seemed a very
plausible explanation of her attitude. She desired, in fact, that Sylvia
should not come to see her any more, and now, when she did not, there
was scarcely a day in which Lady Ashbridge would not talk in a pointed
manner about pretended friends who leave you alone, and won't even take
the trouble to take a two-penny 'bus (if they are so poor as all that)
to come from Chelsea to Curzon Street.

Michael knew that his mother's steps were getting nearer and nearer to
that border line which separates the sane from the insane, and with all
the wearing strain of the days as they passed, had but the one desire
in his heart, namely, to keep her on the right side for as long as was
humanly possible. But something might happen, some new symptom develop
which would make it impossible for her to go on living with him as she
did now, and the dread of that moment haunted his waking hours and his
dreams. Two months ago her doctor had told him that, for the sake of
everyone concerned, it was to be hoped that the progress of her disease
would be swift; but, for his part, Michael passionately disclaimed such
a wish. In spite of her constant complaints and strictures, she was
still possessed of her love for him, and, wearing though every day was,
he grudged the passing of the hours that brought her nearer to the awful
boundary line. Had a deed been presented to him for his signature, which
bound him indefinitely to his mother's service, on the condition that
she got no worse, his pen would have spluttered with his eagerness to
sign.

In consequence of his mother's dislike to Sylvia, Michael had hardly
seen her during this last month. Once, when owing to some small physical
disturbance, Lady Ashbridge had gone to bed early on a Sunday evening,
he had gone to one of the Falbes' weekly parties, and had tried to fling
himself with enjoyment into the friendly welcoming atmosphere. But for
the present, he felt himself detached from it all, for this life with
his mother was close round him with a sort of nightmare obsession,
through which outside influence and desire could only faintly trickle.
He knew that the other life was there, he knew that in his heart he
longed for Sylvia as much as ever; but, in his present detachment, his
desire for her was a drowsy ache, a remote emptiness, and the veil that
lay over his mother seemed to lie over him also. Once, indeed, during
the evening, when he had played for her, the veil had lifted and for the
drowsy ache he had the sunlit, stabbing pang; but, as he left, the veil
dropped again, and he let himself into the big, mute house, sorry that
he had left it. In the same way, too, his music was in abeyance: he
could not concentrate himself or find it worth while to make the effort
to absorb himself in it, and he knew that short of that, there was
neither profit nor pleasure for him in his piano. Everything seemed
remote compared with the immediate foreground: there was a gap, a gulf
between it and all the rest of the world.

His father wrote to him from time to time, laying stress on the extreme
importance of all he was doing in the country, and giving no hint of his
coming up to town at present. But he faintly adumbrated the time when
in the natural course of events he would have to attend to his national
duties in the House of Lords, and wondered whether it would not (about
then) be good for his wife to have a change, and enjoy the country
when the weather became more propitious. Michael, with an excusable
unfilialness, did not answer these amazing epistles; but, having basked
in their unconscious humour, sent them on to Aunt Barbara. Weekly
reports were sent by Lady Ashbridge's nurse to his father, and Michael
had nothing whatever to add to these. His fear of him had given place
to a quiet contempt, which he did not care to think about, and certainly
did not care to express.

Every now and then Lady Ashbridge had what Michael thought of as a good
hour or two, when she went back to her content and childlike joy in his
presence, and it was clear, when presently she came downstairs as he
still lingered in the garden, reading the daily paper in the sun, that
one of these better intervals had visited her. She, too, it appeared,
felt the waving of the magic wand of spring, and she noted the signs of
it with a joy that was infinitely pathetic.

"My dear," she said, "what a beautiful morning! Is it wise to sit out
of doors without your hat, Michael? Shall not I go and fetch it for you?
No? Then let us sit here and talk. It is spring, is it not? Look how the
birds are collecting twigs for their nests! I wonder how they know that
the time has come round again. Sweet little birds! How bold and merry
they are."

She edged her way a little nearer him, so that her shoulder leaned on
his arm.

"My dear, I wish you were going to nest, too," she said. "I wonder--do
you think I have been ill-natured and unkind to your Sylvia, and that
makes her not come to see me now? I do remember being vexed at her for
not wanting to marry you, and perhaps I talked unkindly about her. I am
sorry, for my being cross to her will do no good; it will only make
her more unwilling than ever to marry a man who has such an unpleasant
mamma. Will she come to see me again, do you think, if I ask her?"

These good hours were too rare in their appearances and swift in their
vanishings to warrant the certainty that she would feel the same this
afternoon, and Michael tried to turn the subject.

"Ah, we shall have to think about that, mother," he said. "Look, there
is a quarrel going on between those two sparrows. They both want the
same straw."

She followed his pointing finger, easily diverted.

"Oh, I wish they would not quarrel," she said. "It is so sad and stupid
to quarrel, instead of being agreeable and pleasant. I do not like them
to do that. There, one has flown away! And see, the crocuses are coming
up. Indeed it is spring. I should like to see the country to-day. If you
are not busy, Michael, would you take me out into the country? We might
go to Richmond Park perhaps, for that is in the opposite direction from
Ashbridge, and look at the deer and the budding trees. Oh, Michael,
might we take lunch with us, and eat it out of doors? I want to enjoy as
much as I can of this spring day."

She clung closer to Michael.

"Everything seems so fragile, dear," she whispered. "Everything may
break. . . . Sometimes I am frightened."

The little expedition was soon moving, after a slight altercation
between Lady Ashbridge and her nurse, whom she wished to leave behind
in order to enjoy Michael's undiluted society. But Miss Baker, who had
already spoken to Michael, telling him she was not quite happy in her
mind about her patient, was firm about accompanying them, though she
obligingly effaced herself as far as possible by taking the box-seat by
the chauffeur as they drove down, and when they arrived, and Michael
and his mother strolled about in the warm sunshine before lunch, keeping
carefully in the background, just ready to come if she was wanted. But
indeed it seemed as if no such precautions were necessary, for never had
Lady Ashbridge been more amenable, more blissfully content in her son's
companionship. The vernal hour, that first smell of the rejuvenated
earth, as it stirred and awoke from its winter sleep had reached her
no less than it had reached the springing grass and the heart of buried
bulbs, and never perhaps in all her life had she been happier than on
that balmy morning of early March. Here the stir of spring that had
crept across miles of smoky houses to the gardens behind Curzon Street,
was more actively effervescent, and the "bare, leafless choirs" of the
trees, which had been empty of song all winter, were once more resonant
with feathered worshippers. Through the tussocks of the grey grass of
last year were pricking the vivid shoots of green, and over the grove
of young birches and hazel the dim, purple veil of spring hung mistlike.
Down by the water-edge of the Penn ponds they strayed, where moor-hens
scuttled out of rhododendron bushes that overhung the lake, and hurried
across the surface of the water, half swimming, half flying, for the
shelter of some securer retreat. There, too, they found a plantation of
willows, already in bud with soft moleskin buttons, and a tortoiseshell
butterfly, evoked by the sun from its hibernation, settled on one of the
twigs, opening and shutting its diapered wings, and spreading them to
the warmth to thaw out the stiffness and inaction of winter. Blackbirds
fluted in the busy thickets, a lark shot up near them soaring and
singing till it became invisible in the luminous air, a suspended
carol in the blue, and bold male chaffinches, seeking their mates with
twittered songs, fluttered with burr of throbbing wings. All the promise
of spring was there--dim, fragile, but sure, on this day of days,
this pearl that emerged from the darkness and the stress of winter,
iridescent with the tender colours of the dawning year.

They lunched in the open motor, Miss Baker again obligingly removing
herself to the box seat, and spreading rugs on the grass sat in the
sunshine, while Lady Ashbridge talked or silently watched Michael as he
smoked, but always with a smile. The one little note of sadness which
she had sounded when she said she was frightened lest everything should
break, had not rung again, and yet all day Michael heard it echoing
somewhere dimly behind the song of the wind and the birds, and the
shoots of growing trees. It lurked in the thickets, just eluding him,
and not presenting itself to his direct gaze; but he felt that he saw it
out of the corner of his eye, only to lose it when he looked at it. And
yet for weeks his mother had never seemed so well: the cloud had lifted
off her this morning, and, but for some vague presage of trouble that
somehow haunted his mind, refusing to be disentangled, he could have
believed that, after all, medical opinion might be at fault, and that,
instead of her passing more deeply into the shadows as he had been
warned was inevitable, she might at least maintain the level to which
she had returned to-day. All day she had been as she was before the
darkness and discontent of those last weeks had come upon her: he
who knew her now so well could certainly have affirmed that she had
recovered the serenity of a month ago. It was so much, so tremendously
much that she should do this, and if only she could remain as she had
been all day, she would at any rate be happy, happier, perhaps, than she
had consciously been in all the stifled years which had preceded this.
Nothing else at the moment seemed to matter except the preservation to
her of such content, and how eagerly would he have given all the service
that his young manhood had to offer, if by that he could keep her
from going further into the bewildering darkness that he had been told
awaited her.

There was some little trouble, though no more than the shadow of a
passing cloud, when at last he said that they must be getting back to
town, for the afternoon was beginning to wane. She besought him for five
minutes more of sitting here in the sunshine that was still warm, and
when those minutes were over, she begged for yet another postponement.
But then the quiet imposition of his will suddenly conquered her, and
she got up.

"My dear, you shall do what you like with me," she said, "for you have
given me such a happy day. Will you remember that, Michael? It has been
a nice day. And might we, do you think, ask Miss Falbe to come to tea
with us when we get back? She can but say 'no,' and if she comes, I will
be very good and not vex her."

As she got back into the motor she stood up for a moment, her vague blue
eyes scanning the sky, the trees, the stretch of sunlit park.

"Good-bye, lake, happy lake and moor-hens," she said. "Good-bye, trees
and grass that are growing green again. Good-bye, all pretty, peaceful
things."


Michael had no hesitation in telephoning to Sylvia when they got back to
town, asking her if she could come and have tea with his mother, for the
gentle, affectionate mood of the morning still lasted, and her eagerness
to see Sylvia was only equalled by her eagerness to be agreeable to her.
He was greedy, whenever it could be done, to secure a pleasure for his
mother, and this one seemed in her present mood a perfectly safe one.
Added to that impulse, in itself sufficient, there was his own longing
to see her again, that thirst that never left him, and soon after they
had got back to Curzon Street Sylvia was with them, and, as before,
in preparation for a long visit, she had taken off her hat. To-day she
divested herself of it without any suggestion on Lady Ashbridge's part,
and this immensely pleased her.

"Look, Michael," she said. "Miss Falbe means to stop a long time. That
is sweet of her, is it not? She is not in such a hurry to get away
today. Sugar, Miss Falbe? Yes, I remember you take sugar and milk, but
no cream. Well, I do think this is nice!"

Sylvia had seen neither mother nor son for a couple of weeks, and her
eyes coming fresh to them noticed much change in them both. In Lady
Ashbridge this change, though marked, was indefinable enough: she seemed
to the girl to have somehow gone much further off than she had been
before; she had faded, become indistinct. It was evident that she found,
except when she was talking to Michael, a far greater difficulty in
expressing herself, the channels of communication, as it were, were
getting choked. . . . With Michael, the change was easily stated, he
looked terribly tired, and it was evident that the strain of these weeks
was telling heavily on him. And yet, as Sylvia noticed with a sudden
sense of personal pride in him, not one jot of his patient tenderness
for his mother was abated. Tired as he was, nervous, on edge, whenever
he dealt with her, either talking to her, or watching for any little
attention she might need, his face was alert with love. But she noticed
that when the footman brought in tea, and in arranging the cups let a
spoon slip jangling from its saucer, Michael jumped as if a bomb had
gone off, and under his breath said to the man, "You clumsy fool!"
Little as the incident was, she, knowing Michael's courtesy and
politeness, found it significant, as bearing on the evidence of his
tired face. Then, next moment his mother said something to him, and
instantly his love transformed and irradiated it.

To-day, more than ever before, Lady Ashbridge seemed to exist only
through him. As Sylvia knew, she had been for the last few weeks
constantly disagreeable to him; but she wondered whether this exacting,
meticulous affection was not harder to bear. Yet Michael, in spite of
the nervous strain which now showed itself so clearly, seemed to find no
difficulty at all in responding to it. It might have worn his nerves to
tatters, but the tenderness and love of him passed unhampered through
the frayed communications, for it was he himself who was brought into
play. It was of that Michael, now more and more triumphantly revealed,
that Sylvia felt so proud, as if he had been a possession, an
achievement wholly personal to her. He was her Michael--it was just that
which was becoming evident, since nothing else would account for her
claim of him, unconsciously whispered by herself to herself.

It was not long before Lady Ashbridge's nurse appeared, to take her
upstairs to rest. At that her patient became suddenly and unaccountably
agitated: all the happy content of the day was wiped off her mind. She
clung to Michael.

"No, no, Michael," she said, "they mustn't take me away. I know they are
going to take me away from you altogether. You mustn't leave me."

Nurse Baker came towards her.

"Now, my lady, you mustn't behave like that," she said. "You know you
are only going upstairs to rest as usual before dinner. You will see
Lord Comber again then."

She shrank from her, shielding herself behind Michael's shoulder.

"No, Michael, no!" she repeated. "I'm going to be taken away from you.
And look, Miss--ah, my dear, I have forgotten your name--look, she has
got no hat on. She was going to stop with me a long time. Michael, must
I go?"

Michael saw the nurse looking at her, watching her with that quiet eye
of the trained attendant.

Then she spoke to Michael.

"Well, if Lord Comber will just step outside with me," she said, "we'll
see if we can arrange for you to stop a little longer."

"And you'll come back, Michael," said she.

Michael saw that the nurse wanted to say something to him, and with
infinite gentleness disentangled the clinging of Lady Ashbridge's hand.

"Why, of course I will," he said. "And won't you give Miss Falbe another
cup of tea?"

Lady Ashbridge hesitated a moment.

"Yes, I'll do that," she said. "And by the time I've done that you will
be back again, won't you?"

Michael followed the nurse from the room, who closed the door without
shutting it.

"There's something I don't like about her this evening," she said. "All
day I have been rather anxious. She must be watched very carefully. Now
I want you to get her to come upstairs, and I'll try to make her go to
bed."

Michael felt his mouth go suddenly dry.

"What do you expect?" he said.

"I don't expect anything, but we must be prepared. A change comes very
quickly."

Michael nodded, and they went back together.

"Now, mother darling," he said, "up you go with Nurse Baker. You've been
out all day, and you must have a good rest before dinner. Shall I come
up and see you soon?"

A curious, sly look came into Lady Ashbridge's face.

"Yes, but where am I going to?" she said. "How do I know Nurse Baker
will take me to my own room?"

"Because I promise you she will," said Michael.

That instantly reassured her. Mood after mood, as Michael saw, were
passing like shadows over her mind.

"Ah, that's enough!" she said. "Good-bye, Miss--there! the name's gone
again! But won't you sit here and have a talk to Michael, and let him
show you over the house to see if you like it against the time--Oh,
Michael said I mustn't worry you about that. And won't you stop and have
dinner with us, and afterwards we can sing."

Michael put his arm around her.

"We'll talk about that while you're resting," he said. "Don't keep Nurse
Baker waiting any longer, mother."

She nodded and smiled.

"No, no; mustn't keep anybody waiting," she said. "Your father taught me
to be punctual."

When they had left the room together, Sylvia turned to Michael.

"Michael, my dear," she said, "I think you are--well, I think you are
Michael."

She saw that at the moment he was not thinking of her at all, and her
heart honoured him for that.

"I'm anxious about my mother to-night," he said. "She has been so--I
suppose you must call it--well all day, but the nurse isn't easy about
her."

Suddenly all his fears and his fatigue and his trouble looked out of his
eyes.

"I'm frightened," he said, "and it's so unutterably feeble of me. And
I'm tired: you don't know how tired, and try as I may I feel that all
the time it is no use. My mother is slipping, slipping away."

"But, my dear, no wonder you are tired," she said. "Michael, can't
anybody help? It isn't right you should do everything."

He shook his head, smiling.

"They can't help," he said. "I'm the only person who can help her. And
I--"

He stood up, bracing mind and body.

"And I'm so brutally proud of it," he said. "She wants me. Well, that's
a lot for a son to be able to say. Sylvia, I would give anything to keep
her."

Still he was not thinking of her, and knowing that, she came close
to him and put her arm in his. She longed to give him some feeling of
comradeship. She could be sisterly to him over this without suggesting
to him what she could not be to him. Her instinct had divined right,
and she felt the answering pressure of his elbow that acknowledged her
sympathy, welcomed it, and thought no more about it.

"You are giving everything to keep her," she said. "You are giving
yourself. What further gift is there, Michael?"

He kept her arm close pressed by him, and she knew by the frankness of
that holding caress he was thinking of her still either not at all, or,
she hoped, as a comrade who could perhaps be of assistance to courage
and clear-sightedness in difficult hours. She wanted to be no more than
that to him just now; it was the most she could do for him, but with
a desire, the most acute she had ever felt for him, she wanted him to
accept that--to take her comradeship as he would have surely taken her
brother's. Once, in the last intimate moments they had had together, he
had refused to accept that attitude from her--had felt it a relationship
altogether impossible. She had seen his point of view, and recognised
the justice of the embarrassment. Now, very simply but very eagerly,
she hoped, as with some tugging strain, that he would not reject it. She
knew she had missed this brother, who had refused to be brother to her.
But he had been about his own business, and he had been doing his own
business, with a quiet splendour that drew her eyes to him, and as they
stood there, thus linked, she wondered if her heart was following. . . .
She had seen, last December, how reasonable it was of him to refuse this
domestic sort of intimacy with her; now, she found herself intensely
longing that he would not persist in his refusal.

Suddenly Michael awoke to the fact of her presence, and abruptly he
moved away from her.

"Thanks, Sylvia," he said. "I know I have your--your good wishes.
But--well, I am sure you understand."

She understood perfectly well. And the understanding of it cut her to
the quick.

"Have you got any right to behave like that to me, Michael?" she asked.
"What have I done that you should treat me quite like that?"

He looked at her, completely recalled in mind to her alone. All the
hopes and desires of the autumn smote him with encompassing blows.

"Yes, every right," he said. "I wasn't heeding you. I only thought of my
mother, and the fact that there was a very dear friend by me. And then I
came to myself: I remembered who the friend was."

They stood there in silence, apart, for a moment. Then Michael came
closer. The desire for human sympathy, and that the sympathy he most
longed for, gripped him again.

"I'm a brute," he said. "It was awfully nice of you to--to offer me
that. I accept it so gladly. I'm wretchedly anxious."

He looked up at her.

"Take my arm again," he said.

She felt the crook of his elbow tighten again on her wrist. She had not
known before how much she prized that.

"But are you sure you are right in being anxious, Mike?" she asked.
"Isn't it perhaps your own tired nerves that make you anxious?"

"I don't think so," he said. "I've been tired a long time, you see,
and I never felt about my mother like this. She has been so bright and
content all day, and yet there were little lapses, if you understand.
It was as if she knew: she said good-bye to the lake and the jolly
moor-hens and the grass. And her nurse thinks so, too. She called me out
of the room just now to tell me that. . . . I don't know why I should
tell you these depressing things."

"Don't you?" she asked. "But I do. It's because you know I care.
Otherwise you wouldn't tell me: you couldn't."

For a moment the balance quavered in his mind between Sylvia the beloved
and Sylvia the friend. It inclined to the friend.

"Yes, that's why," he said. "And I reproach myself, you know. All these
years I might, if I had tried harder, have been something to my mother.
I might have managed it. I thought--at least I felt--that she didn't
encourage me. But I was a beast to have been discouraged. And now her
wanting me has come just when it isn't her unclouded self that wants me.
It's as if--as if it had been raining all day, and just on sunset there
comes a gleam in the west. And so soon after it's night."

"You made the gleam," said Sylvia.

"But so late; so awfully late."

Suddenly he stood stiff, listening to some sound which at present
she did not hear. It sounded a little louder, and her ears caught the
running of footsteps on the stairs outside. Next moment the door opened,
and Lady Ashbridge's maid put in a pale face.

"Will you go to her ladyship, my lord?" she said. "Her nurse wants you.
She told me to telephone to Sir James."

Sylvia moved with him, not disengaging her arm, towards the door.

"Michael, may I wait?" she said. "You might want me, you know. Please
let me wait."


Lady Ashbridge's room was on the floor above, and Michael ran up the
intervening stairs three at a time. He knocked and entered and wondered
why he had been sent for, for she was sitting quietly on her sofa near
the window. But he noticed that Nurse Baker stood very close to her.
Otherwise there was nothing that was in any way out of the ordinary.

"And here he is," said the nurse reassuringly as he entered.

Lady Ashbridge turned towards the door as Michael came in, and when he
met her eyes he knew why he had been sent for, why at this moment Sir
James was being summoned. For she looked at him not with the clouded
eyes of affection, not with the mother-spirit striving to break
through the shrouding trouble of her brain, but with eyes of blank
non-recognition. She saw him with the bodily organs of her vision,
but the picture of him was conveyed no further: there was a blank wall
behind her eyes.

Michael did not hesitate. It was possible that he still might be
something to her, that he, his presence, might penetrate.

"But you are not resting, mother," he said. "Why are you sitting up? I
came to talk to you, as I said I would, while you rested."

Suddenly into those blank, irresponsive eyes there leaped recognition.
He saw the pupils contract as they focused themselves on him, and hand
in hand with recognition there leaped into them hate. Instantly that
was veiled again. But it had been there, and now it was not banished; it
lurked behind in the shadows, crouching and waiting.

She answered him at once, but in a voice that was quite toneless. It
seemed like that of a child repeating a lesson which it had learned by
heart, and could be pronounced while it was thinking of something quite
different.

"I was waiting till you came, my dear," she said. "Now I will lie down.
Come and sit by me, Michael."

She watched him narrowly while she spoke, then gave a quick glance at
her nurse, as if to see that they were not making signals to each other.
There was an easy chair just behind her head, and as Michael wheeled it
up near her sofa, he looked at the nurse. She moved her hand slightly
towards the left, and interpreting this, he moved the chair a little to
the left, so that he would not sit, as he had intended, quite close to
the sofa.

"And you enjoyed your day in the country, mother?" asked Michael.

She looked at him sideways and slowly. Then again, as if recollecting a
task she had committed to memory, she answered.

"Yes, so much," she said. "All the trees and the birds and the sunshine.
I enjoyed them so much."

She paused a moment.

"Bring your chair a little closer, my darling," she said. "You are so
far off. And why do you wait, nurse? I will call you if I want you."

Michael felt one moment of sickening spiritual terror. He understood
quite plainly why Nurse Baker did not want him to go near to his mother,
and the reason of it gave him this pang, not of nervousness but of black
horror, that the sane and the sensitive must always feel when they are
brought intimately in contact with some blind derangement of instinct in
those most nearly allied to them. Physically, on the material plane, he
had no fear at all.

He made a movement, grasping the arm of his chair, as if to wheel it
closer, but he came actually no nearer her.

"Why don't you go away, nurse?" said Lady Ashbridge, "and leave my son
and me to talk about our nice day in the country?"

Nurse Baker answered quite naturally.

"I want to talk, too, my lady," she said. "I went with you and Lord
Comber. We all enjoyed it together."

It seemed to Michael that his mother made some violent effort towards
self-control. He saw one of her hands that were lying on her knee clench
itself, so that the knuckles stood out white.

"Yes, we will all talk together, then," she said. "Or--er--shall I have
a little doze first? I am rather sleepy with so much pleasant air. And
you are sleepy, too, are you not, Michael? Yes, I see you look sleepy.
Shall we have a little nap, as I often do after tea? Then, when I am
fresh again, you shall come back, nurse, and we will talk over our
pleasant day."

When he entered the room, Michael had not quite closed the door, and
now, as half an hour before, he heard steps on the stairs. A moment
afterwards his mother heard them too.

"What is that?" she said. "Who is coming now to disturb me, just when I
wanted to have a nap?"

There came a knock at the door. Nurse Baker did not move her head, but
continued watching her patient, with hands ready to act.

"Come in," she said, not looking round.

Lady Ashbridge's face was towards the door. As Sir James entered, she
suddenly sprang up, and in her right hand that lay beside her was a
knife, which she had no doubt taken from the tea-table when she came
upstairs. She turned swiftly towards Michael, and stabbed at him with
it.

"It's a trap," she cried. "You've led me into a trap. They are going to
take me away."

Michael had thrown up his arm to shield his head. The blow fell between
shoulder and elbow, and he felt the edge of the knife grate on his bone.

And from deep in his heart sprang the leaping fountains of compassion
and love and yearning pity.


CHAPTER XII


Michael was sitting in the big studio at the Falbes' house late
one afternoon at the end of June, and the warmth and murmur of the
full-blown summer filled the air. The day had so far declined that the
rays of the sun, level in its setting, poured slantingly in through
the big window to the north, and shining through the foliage of the
plane-trees outside made a diaper of rosy illuminated spots and angled
shadows on the whitewashed wall. As the leaves stirred in the evening
breeze, this pattern shifted and twinkled; now, as the wind blew aside a
bunch of foliage, a lake of rosy gold would spring up on the wall; then,
as the breath of movement died, the green shadows grew thicker again
faintly stirring. Through the window to the south, which Hermann had
caused to be cut there, since the studio was not used for painting
purposes, Michael could see into the patch of high-walled garden, where
Mrs. Falbe was sitting in a low basket chair, completely absorbed in a
book of high-born and ludicrous adventures. She had made a mild attempt
when she found that Michael intended to wait for Sylvia's return to
entertain him till she came; but, with a little oblique encouragement,
remarking on the beauty and warmth of the evening, and the pleasure of
sitting out of doors, Michael had induced her to go out again, and leave
him alone in the studio, free to live over again that which, twenty-four
hours ago, had changed life for him.

He reconstructed it as he sat on the sofa and dwelt on the pearl-moments
of it. Just this time yesterday he had come in and found Sylvia alone.
She had got up, he remembered, to give him greeting, and just opposite
the fireplace they had come face to face. She held in her hand a small
white rose which she had plucked in the tiny garden here in the middle
of London. It was not a very fine specimen, but it was a rose, and she
had said in answer to his depreciatory glance: "But you must see it when
I have washed it. One has to wash London flowers."

Then . . . the miracle happened. Michael, with the hand that had just
taken hers, stroked a petal of this prized vegetable, with no thought in
his mind stronger than the thoughts that had been indigenous there since
Christmas. As his finger first touched the rim of the town-bred petals,
undersized yet not quite lacking in "rose-quality," he had intended
nothing more than to salute the flower, as Sylvia made her apology for
it. "One has to wash London flowers." But as he touched it he looked
up at her, and the quiet, usual song of his thoughts towards her grew
suddenly loud and stupefyingly sweet. It was as if from the vacant
hive-door the bees swarmed. In her eyes, as they met his, he thought
he saw an expectancy, a welcome, and his hand, instead of stroking the
rose-petals, closed on the rose and on the hand that held it, and kept
them close imprisoned and strongly gripped. He could not remember if he
had spoken any word, but he had seen that in her face which rendered all
speech unnecessary, and, knowing in the bones and the blood of him that
he was right, he kissed her. And then she had said, "Yes, Michael."

His hand still was tight on hers that held the crumpled rose, and when
he opened it, lover-like, to stroke and kiss it, there was a spot of
blood in the palm of it, where a rose-thorn had pricked her, just one
drop of Sylvia's blood. As he kissed it, he had wiped it away with
the tip of his tongue between his lips, and she smiling had said, "Oh,
Michael, how silly!"

They had sat together on the sofa where this afternoon he sat alone
waiting for her. Every moment of that half hour was as distinct as the
outline of trees and hills just before a storm, and yet it was still
entirely dream-like. He knew it had happened, for nothing but the
happening of it would account now for the fact of himself; but, though
there was nothing in the world so true, there was nothing so incredible.
Yet it was all as clean-cut in his mind as etched lines, and round
each line sprang flowers and singing birds. For a long space there was
silence after they had sat down, and then she said, "I think I always
loved you, Michael, only I didn't know it. . . ." Thereafter, foolish
love talk: he had claimed a superiority there, for he had always loved
her and had always known it. Much time had been wasted owing to her
ignorance . . . she ought to have known. But all the time that existed
was theirs now. In all the world there was no more time than what they
had. The crumpled rose had its petals rehabilitated, the thorn that had
pricked her was peeled off. They wondered if Hermann had come in yet.
Then, by some vague process of locomotion, they found themselves at
the piano, and with her arm around his neck Sylvia has whispered half a
verse of the song of herself. . . .

They became a little more definite over lover-confessions. Michael had,
so to speak, nothing to confess: he had loved all along--he had wanted
her all along; there never had been the least pretence or nonsense about
it. Her path was a little more difficult to trace, but once it had been
traversed it was clear enough. She had liked him always; she had felt
sister-like from the moment when Hermann brought him to the house, and
sister-like she had continued to feel, even when Michael had definitely
declared there was "no thoroughfare" there. She had missed that
relationship when it stopped: she did not mind telling him that now,
since it was abandoned by them both; but not for the world would she
have confessed before that she had missed it. She had loved being asked
to come and see his mother, and it was during those visits that she had
helped to pile the barricade across the "sister-thoroughfare" with her
own hands. She began to share Michael's sense of the impossibility of
that road. They could not walk down it together, for they had to be
either more or less to each other than that. And, during these visits,
she had begun to understand (and her face a little hid itself) what
Michael's love meant. She saw it manifested towards his mother; she was
taught by it; she learned it; and, she supposed, she loved it. Anyhow,
having seen it, she could not want Michael as a brother any longer, and
if he still wanted anything else, she supposed (so she supposed) that
some time he would mention that fact. Yes: she began to hope that he
would not be very long about it. . . .


Michael went over this very deliberately as he sat waiting for her
twenty-four hours later. He rehearsed this moment and that over and over
again: in mind he followed himself and Sylvia across to the piano, not
hurrying their steps, and going through the verse of the song she
sang at the pace at which she actually sang it. And, as he dreamed and
recollected, he heard a little stir in the quiet house, and Sylvia came.

They met just as they met yesterday in front of the fireplace.

"Oh, Michael, have you been waiting long?" she said.

"Yes, hours, or perhaps a couple of minutes. I don't know."

"Ah, but which? If hours, I shall apologise, and then excuse myself by
saying that you must have come earlier than you intended. If minutes I
shall praise myself for being so exceedingly punctual."

"Minutes, then," said he. "I'll praise you instead. Praise is more
convincing if somebody else does it."

"Yes, but you aren't somebody else. Now be sensible. Have you done all
the things you told me you were going to do?"

"Yes."

Sylvia released her hands from his.

"Tell me, then," she said. "You've seen your father?"

There was no cloud on Michael's face. There was such sunlight where his
soul sat that no shadow could fall across it.

"Oh, yes, I saw him," he said.

He captured Sylvia's hand again.

"And what is more he saw me, so to speak," he said. "He realised that I
had an existence independent of him. I used to be a--a sort of clock to
him; he could put its hands to point to any hour he chose. Well, he has
realised--he has really--that I am ticking along on my own account.
He was quite respectful, not only to me, which doesn't matter, but to
you--which does." Michael laughed, as he plaited his fingers in with
hers.

"My father is so comic," he said, "and unlike most great humourists his
humour is absolutely unconscious. He was perfectly well aware that I
meant to marry you, for I told him that last Christmas, adding that you
did not mean to marry me. So since then I think he's got used to you.
Used to you--fancy getting used to you!"

"Especially since he had never seen me," said the girl.

"That makes it less odd. Getting used to you after seeing you would be
much more incredible. I was saying that in a way he had got used to
you, just as he's got used to my being a person, and not a clock on his
chimney-piece, and what seems to have made so much difference is what
Aunt Barbara told him last night, namely, that your mother was a Tracy.
Sylvia, don't let it be too much for you, but in a certain far-away
manner he realises that you are 'one of us.' Isn't he a comic? He's
going to make the best of you, it appears. To make the best of you! You
can't beat that, you know. In fact, he told me to ask if he might come
and pay his respects to your mother to-morrow.

"And what about my singing, my career?" she asked.

Michael laughed again.

"He was funny about that also," he said. "My father took it absolutely
for granted that having made this tremendous social advance, you
would bury your past, all but the Tracy part of it, as if it had
been something disgraceful which the exalted Comber family agreed to
overlook."

"And what did you say?"

"I? Oh, I told him that, of course, you would do as you pleased about
that, but that for my part I should urge you most strongly to do nothing
of the kind."

"And he?"

"He got four inches taller. What is so odd is that as long as I never
opposed my father's wishes, as long as I was the clock on the chimney
piece, I was terrified at him. The thought of opposing myself to him
made my knees quake. But the moment I began doing so, I found there was
nothing to be frightened at."

Sylvia got up and began walking up and down the long room.

"But what am I to do about it, Michael?" she asked. "Oh, I blush when
I think of a conversation I had with Hermann about you, just before
Christmas, when I knew you were going to propose to me. I said that I
could never give up my singing. Can you picture the self-importance of
that? Why, it doesn't seem to me to matter two straws whether I do
or not. Naturally, I don't want to earn my living by it any more, but
whether I sing or not doesn't matter. And even as the words are in my
mouth I try to imagine myself not singing any more, and I can't. It's
become part of me, and while I blush to think of what I said to Hermann,
I wonder whether it's not true."

She came and sat down by him again.

"I believe you have got enough artistic instinct to understand that,
Michael," she said, "and to know what a tremendous help it is to one's
art to be a professional, and to be judged seriously. I suppose that,
ideally, if one loves music as I do one ought to be able to do one's
very best, whether one is singing professionally or not, but it
is hardly possible. Why, the whole difference between amateurs and
professionals is that amateurs sing charmingly and professionals just
sing. Only they sing as well as they possibly can, not only because they
love it, but because if they don't they will be dropped on to, and if
they continue not singing their best, will lose their place which they
have so hardly won. I can see myself, perhaps, not singing at all,
literally never opening my lips in song again, but I can't see myself
coming down to the Drill Hall at Brixton, extremely beautifully
dressed, with rows of pearls, and arriving rather late, and just singing
charmingly. It's such a spur to know that serious musicians judge one's
performance by the highest possible standard. It's so relaxing to think
that one can easily sing well enough, that one can delight ninety-nine
hundredths of the audience without any real effort. I could sing 'The
Lost Chord' and move the whole Drill Hall at Brixton to tears. But there
might be one man there who knew, you or Hermann or some other, and at
the end he would just shrug his shoulders ever so slightly, and I would
wish I had never been born."

She paused a moment.

"I'll not sing any more at all, ever," she said, "or I must sing to
those who will take me seriously and judge me ruthlessly. To sing just
well enough to please isn't possible. I'll do either you like."

Mrs. Falbe strayed in at this moment with her finger in her book, but
otherwise as purposeless as a wandering mist.

"I was afraid it might be going to get chilly," she remarked. "After a
hot day there is often a cool evening. Will you stop and dine, Lord--I
mean, Michael?"

"Please; certainly!" said Michael.

"Then I hope there will be something for you to eat. Sylvia, is there
something to eat? No doubt you will see to that, darling. I shall just
rest upstairs for a little before dinner, and perhaps finish my book. So
pleased you are stopping."

She drifted towards the studio door, in thistledown fashion catching at
corners a little, and then moving smoothly on again, talking gently half
to herself, half to the others.

"And Hermann's not in yet, but if Lord--I mean, Michael, is going to
stop here till dinnertime, it won't matter whether Hermann comes in in
time to dress or not, as Michael is not dressed either. Oh, there is the
postman's knock! What a noise! I am not expecting any letters."

The knock in question, however, proved to be Hermann, who, as was
generally the case, had forgotten his latchkey. He ran into his mother
at the studio door, and came and sat down, regardless of whether he was
wanted or not, between the two on the sofa, and took an arm of each.

"I probably intrude," he said, "but such is my intention. I've just seen
Lady Barbara, who says that the shock has not been too much for Mike's
father. That is a good thing; she says he is taking nourishment much as
usual. I suppose I oughtn't to jest on so serious a subject, but I
took my cue from Lady Barbara. It appears that we have blue blood too,
Sylvia, and we must behave more like aristocrats. A Tracy in the time
of King John flirted, if no more, with a Comber. And what about your
career, Sylvia? Are you going to continue to urge your wild career,
or not? I ask with a purpose, as Blackiston proposes we should give a
concert together in the third week in July. The Queen's Hall is vacant
one afternoon, and he thinks we might sing and play to them. I'm on if
you are. It will be about the last concert of the season, too, so we
shall have to do our best. Otherwise we, or I, anyhow, will start again
in the autumn with a black mark. By the way, are you going to start
again in the autumn? It wouldn't surprise me one bit to hear that you
and Mike had been talking about just that."

"Don't be too clever to live, Hermann," said Sylvia.

"I don't propose to die, if you mean that. Oh, Blackiston had another
suggestion also. He wanted to know if we would consider making a short
tour in Germany in the autumn. He says that the beloved Fatherland is
rather disposed to be interested in us. He thinks we should have
good audiences at Leipzig, and so on. There's a tendency, he says, to
recognise poor England, a cordial intention, anyhow. I said that in your
case there might be domestic considerations which--But I think I shall
go in any case. Lord, fancy playing in Germany to Germans again. Fancy
being listened to by a German audience; fancy if they approved."

Michael leaned forward, putting his elbow into Hermann's chest. Early
December had already been mentioned as a date for their marriage, and as
a pre-nuptial journey, this seemed to him a plan ecstatically ideal.

"Yes, Sylvia," he said. "The answer is yes. I shall come with you, you
know. I can see it; a triumphal procession, you two making noises, and
me listening. A month's tour, Hermann. Middle of October till middle of
November. Yes, yes."

All his tremendous pride in her singing, dormant for the moment under
the wonder of his love, rose to the surface. He knew what her singing
meant to her, and, from their conversation together just now, how keen
was her eagerness for the strict judgment of those who knew, how she
loved that austere pinnacle of daylight. Here was an ideal opportunity;
never yet, since she had won her place as a singer, had she sung in
Germany, that Mecca of the musical artist, and in her case, the land
from which she sprung. Had the scheme implied a postponement of their
marriage, he would still have declared himself for it, for he unerringly
felt for her in this; he knew intuitively what delicious beckoning this
held for her.

"Yes, yes," he repeated, "I must have you do that, Sylvia. I don't care
what Hermann wants or what you want. I want it."

"Yes, but who's to do the playing and the singing?" asked Hermann.
"Isn't it a question, perhaps, for--"

Michael felt quite secure about the feelings of the other two, and
rudely interrupted.

"No," he said. "It's a question for me. When the Fatherland hears that
I am there it will no doubt ask me to play and sing instead of you two.
Lord! Fancy marrying into such a distinguished family. I burst with
pride!"

It required, then, little debate, since all three were agreed, before
Hermann was empowered with authority to make arrangements, and they
remained simultaneously talking till Mrs. Falbe, again drifting in,
announced that the bell for dinner had sounded some minutes before. She
had her finger in the last chapter of "Lady Ursula's Ordeal," and laid
it face downwards on the table to resume again at the earliest possible
moment. This opportunity was granted her when, at the close of dinner,
coffee and the evening paper came in together. This Hermann opened at
the middle page.

"Hallo!" he said. "That's horrible! The Heir Apparent of the Austrian
Emperor has been murdered at Serajevo. Servian plot, apparently."

"Oh, what a dreadful thing," said Mrs. Falbe, opening her book. "Poor
man, what had he done?"

Hermann took a cigarette, frowning.

"It may be a match--" he began.

Mrs. Falbe diverted her attention from "Lady Ursula" for a moment.

"They are on the chimney-piece, dear," she said, thinking he spoke of
material matches.

Michael felt that Hermann saw something, or conjectured something
ominous in this news, for he sat with knitted brow reading, and letting
the match burn down.

"Yes; it seems that Servian officers are implicated," he said. "And
there are materials enough already for a row between Austria and Servia
without this."

"Those tiresome Balkan States," said Mrs. Falbe, slowly immersing
herself like a diving submarine in her book. "They are always
quarrelling. Why doesn't Austria conquer them all and have done with
it?"

This simple and striking solution of the whole Balkan question was
her final contribution to the topic, for at this moment she became
completely submerged, and cut off, so to speak, from the outer world, in
the lucent depths of Lady Ursula.

Hermann glanced through the other pages, and let the paper slide to the
floor.

"What will Austria do?" he said. "Supposing she threatens Servia in some
outrageous way and Russia says she won't stand it? What then?"

Michael looked across to Sylvia; he was much more interested in the way
she dabbled the tips of her hands in the cool water of her finger bowl
than in what Hermann was saying. Her fingers had an extraordinary life
of their own; just now they were like a group of maidens by a fountain.
. . . But Hermann repeated the question to him personally.

"Oh, I suppose there will be a lot of telegraphing," he said, "and
perhaps a board of arbitration. After all, one expected a European
conflagration over the war in the Balkan States, and again over their
row with Turkey. I don't believe in European conflagrations. We are all
too much afraid of each other. We walk round each other like collie dogs
on the tips of their toes, gently growling, and then quietly get back to
our own territories and lie down again."

Hermann laughed.

"Thank God, there's that wonderful fire-engine in Germany ready to turn
the hose on conflagrations."

"What fire-engine?" asked Michael.

"The Emperor, of course. We should have been at war ten times over but
for him."

Sylvia dried her finger-tips one by one.

"Lady Barbara doesn't quite take that view of him, does she, Mike?" she
asked.

Michael suddenly remembered how one night in the flat Aunt Barbara had
suddenly turned the conversation from the discussion of cognate topics,
on hearing that the Falbes were Germans, only to resume it again when
they had gone.

"I don't fancy she does," he said. "But then, as you know, Aunt Barbara
has original views on every subject."

Hermann did not take the possible hint here conveyed to drop the matter.

"Well, then, what do you think about him?" he asked.

Michael laughed.

"My dear Hermann," he said, "how often have you told me that we English
don't pay the smallest attention to international politics. I am aware
that I don't; I know nothing whatever about them."

Hermann shook off the cloud of preoccupation that so unaccountably,
to Michael's thinking, had descended on him, and walked across to the
window.

"Well, long may ignorance be bliss," he said. "Lord, what a divine
evening! 'Uber allen gipfeln ist Ruhe.' At least, there is peace on the
only summits visible, which are house roofs. There's not a breath of
wind in the trees and chimney-pots; and it's hot, it's really hot."

"I was afraid there was going to be a chill at sunset," remarked Mrs.
Falbe subaqueously.

"Then you were afraid even where no fear was, mother darling," said he,
"and if you would like to sit out in the garden I'll take a chair out
for you, and a table and candles. Let's all sit out; it's a divine hour,
this hour after sunset. There are but a score of days in the whole year
when the hour after sunset is warm like this. It's such a pity to
waste one indoors. The young people"--and he pointed to Sylvia and
Michael--"will gaze into each other's hearts, and Mamma's will beat in
unison with Lady Ursula's, and I will sit and look at the sky and become
profoundly sentimental, like a good German."

Hermann and Michael bestirred themselves, and presently the whole little
party had encamped on chairs placed in an oasis of rugs (this was done
at the special request of Mrs. Falbe, since Lady Ursula had caught a
chill that developed into consumption) in the small, high-walled garden.
Beyond at the bottom lay the road along the embankment and the grey-blue
Thames, and the dim woods of Battersea Park across the river. When they
came out, sparrows were still chirping in the ivy on the studio wall
and in the tall angle-leaved planes at the bottom of the little plot,
discussing, no doubt, the domestic arrangements for their comfort
during the night. But presently a sudden hush fell upon them, and their
shrillness was sharp no more against the drowsy hum of the city. The
sky overhead was of veiled blue, growing gradually more toneless as the
light faded, and was unflecked by any cloud, except where, high in the
zenith, a fleece of rosy vapour still caught the light of the sunken
sun, and flamed with the soft radiance of some snow-summit. Near it
there burned a molten planet, growing momentarily brighter as the night
gathered and presently beginning to be dimmed again as a tawny moon
three days past the full rose in the east above the low river horizon.
Occasionally a steamer hooted from the Thames and the noise of churned
waters sounded, or the crunch of a motor's wheels, or the tapping of
the heels of a foot passenger on the pavement below the garden wall. But
such evidence of outside seemed but to accentuate the perfect peace of
this secluded little garden where the four sat: the hour and the place
were cut off from all turmoil and activities: for a moment the stream
of all their lives had flowed into a backwater, where it rested immobile
before the travel that was yet to come. So it seemed to Michael then,
and so years afterwards it seemed to him, as vividly as on this evening
when the tawny moon grew golden as it climbed the empty heavens, dimming
the stars around it.

What they talked of, even though it was Sylvia who spoke, seemed
external to the spirit of the hour. They seemed to have reached a point,
some momentary halting-place, where speech and thought even lay outside,
and the need of the spirit was merely to exist and be conscious of
its existence. Sometimes for a moment his past life with its
self-repression, its mute yearnings, its chrysalis stirrings, formed a
mist that dispersed again, sometimes for a moment in wonder at what
the future held, what joys and troubles, what achings, perhaps, and
anguishes, the unknown knocked stealthily at the door of his mind, but
then stole away unanswered and unwelcome, and for that hour, while Mrs.
Falbe finished with Lady Ursula, while Hermann smoked and sighed like a
sentimental German, and while he and Sylvia sat, speaking occasionally,
but more often silent, he was in some kind of Nirvana for which its own
existence was everything. Movement had ceased: he held his breath while
that divine pause lasted.

When it was broken, there was no shattering of it: it simply died away
like a long-drawn chord as Mrs. Falbe closed her book.

"She died," she said, "I knew she would."

Hermann gave a great shout of laughter.

"Darling mother, I'm ever so much obliged," he said. "We had to return
to earth somehow. Where has everybody else been?"

Michael stirred in his chair.

"I've been here," he said.

"How dull! Oh, I suppose that's not polite to Sylvia. I've been in
Leipzig and in Frankfort and in Munich. You and Sylvia have been there,
too, I may tell you. But I've also been here: it's jolly here."

His sentimentalism had apparently not quite passed from him.

"Ah, we've stolen this hour!" he said. "We've taken it out of the
hurly-burly and had it to ourselves. It's been ripping. But I'm back
from the rim of the world. Oh, I've been there, too, and looked out over
the immortal sea. Lieber Gott, what a sea, where we all come from, and
where we all go to! We're just playing on the sand where the waves have
cast us up for one little hour. Oh, the pleasant warm sand and the play!
How I love it."

He got out of his chair stretching himself, as Mrs. Falbe passed into
the house, and gave a hand on each side to Michael and Sylvia.

"Ah, it was a good thing I just caught that train at Victoria nearly
a year ago," he said. "If I had been five seconds later, I should have
missed it, and so I should have missed my friend, and Sylvia would have
missed hers, and Mike would have missed his. As it is, here we all are.
Behold the last remnant of my German sentimentality evaporates, but I am
filled with a German desire for beer. Let us come into the studio, liebe
Kinder, and have beer and music and laughter. We cannot recapture this
hour or prolong it. But it was good, oh, so good! I thank God for this
hour."

Sylvia put her hand on her brother's arm, looking at him with just a
shade of anxiety.

"Nothing wrong, Hermann?" she asked.

"Wrong? There is nothing wrong unless it is wrong to be happy. But we
have to go forward: my only quarrel with life is that. I would stop it
now if I could, so that time should not run on, and we should stay just
as we are. Ah, what does the future hold? I am glad I do not know."

Sylvia laughed.

"The immediate future holds beer apparently," she said. "It also hold
a great deal of work for you and me, if it is to hold Leipzig and
Frankfort and Munich. Oh, Hermann, what glorious days!"

They walked together into the studio, and as they entered Hermann looked
back over her into the dim garden. Then he pulled down the blind with a
rattle.

"'Move on there!' said the policeman," he remarked. "And so they moved
on."


The news about the murder of the Austrian Grand Duke, which, for that
moment at dinner, had caused Hermann to peer with apprehension into the
veil of the future, was taken quietly enough by the public in general in
England. It was a nasty incident, no doubt, and the murder having been
committed on Servian soil, the pundits of the Press gave themselves
an opportunity for subsequently saying that they were right, by
conjecturing that Austria might insist on a strict inquiry into the
circumstances, and the due punishment of not only the actual culprits
but of those also who perhaps were privy to the plot. But three days
afterwards there was but little uneasiness; the Stock Exchanges of
the European capitals--those highly sensitive barometers of coming
storm--were but slightly affected for the moment, and within a week
had steadied themselves again. From Austria there came no sign of any
unreasonable demand which might lead to trouble with Servia, and so with
Slavonic feeling generally, and by degrees that threatening of storm,
that sudden lightning on the horizon passed out of the mind of the
public. There had been that one flash, no more, and even that had not
been answered by any growl of thunder; the storm did not at once move
up and the heavens above were still clear and sunny by day, and
starry-kirtled at night. But here and there were those who, like Hermann
on the first announcement of the catastrophe, scented trouble, and
Michael, going to see Aunt Barbara one afternoon early in the second
week of July, found that she was one of them.

"I distrust it all, my dear," she said to him. "I am full of uneasiness.
And what makes me more uneasy is that they are taking it so quietly
at the Austrian Embassy and at the German. I dined at one Embassy
last night and at the other only a few nights ago, and I can't get
anybody--not even the most indiscreet of the Secretaries--to say a word
about it."

"But perhaps there isn't a word to be said," suggested Michael.

"I can't believe that. Austria cannot possibly let an incident of that
sort pass. There is mischief brewing. If she was merely intending to
insist--as she has every right to do--on an inquiry being held that
should satisfy reasonable demands for justice, she would have insisted
on that long ago. But a fortnight has passed now, and still she makes
no sign. I feel sure that something is being arranged. Dear me, I quite
forgot, Tony asked me not to talk about it. But it doesn't matter with
you."

"But what do you mean by something being arranged?" asked Michael.

She looked round as if to assure herself that she and Michael were
alone.

"I mean this: that Austria is being persuaded to make some outrageous
demand, some demand that no independent country could possibly grant."

"But who is persuading her?" asked Michael.

"My dear, you--like all the rest of England--are fast asleep. Who but
Germany, and that dangerous monomaniac who rules Germany? She has long
been wanting war, and she has only been delaying the dawning of Der Tag,
till all her preparations were complete, and she was ready to hurl her
armies, and her fleet too, east and west and north. Mark my words! She
is about ready now, and I believe she is going to take advantage of her
opportunity."

She leaned forward in her chair.

"It is such an opportunity as has never occurred before," she said, "and
in a hundred years none so fit may occur again. Here are we--England--on
the brink of civil war with Ireland and the Home Rulers; our hands are
tied, or, rather, are occupied with our own troubles. Anyhow, Germany
thinks so: that I know for a fact among so much that is only conjecture.
And perhaps she is right. Who knows whether she may not be right, and
that if she forces on war whether we shall range ourselves with our
allies?"

Michael laughed.

"But aren't you piling up a European conflagration rather in a hurry,
Aunt Barbara?" he asked.

"There will be hurry enough for us, for France and Russia and perhaps
England, but not for Germany. She is never in a hurry: she waits till
she is ready."

A servant brought in tea and Lady Barbara waited till he had left the
room again.

"It is as simple as an addition sum," she said, "if you grant the first
step, that Austria is going to make some outrageous demand of
Servia. What follows? Servia refuses that demand, and Austria begins
mobilisation in order to enforce it. Servia appeals to Russia,
invokes the bond of blood, and Russia remonstrates with Austria. Her
representations will be of no use: you may stake all you have on that;
and eventually, since she will be unable to draw back she, too, will
begin in her slow, cumbrous manner, hampered by those immense distances
and her imperfect railway system, to mobilise also. Then will Germany,
already quite prepared, show her hand. She will demand that Russia shall
cease mobilisation, and again will Russia refuse. That will set the
military machinery of France going. All the time the governments of
Europe will be working for peace, all, that is, except one, which is
situated at Berlin."

Michael felt inclined to laugh at this rapid and disastrous sequence of
ominous forebodings; it was so completely characteristic of Aunt Barbara
to take the most violent possible view of the situation, which no doubt
had its dangers. And what Michael felt was felt by the enormous majority
of English people.

"Dear Aunt Barbara, you do get on quick," he said.

"It will happen quickly," she said. "There is that little cloud in the
east like a man's hand today, and rather like that mailed fist which
our sweet peaceful friend in Germany is so fond of talking about. But it
will spread over the sky, I tell you, like some tropical storm. France
is unready, Russia is unready; only Germany and her marionette, Austria,
the strings of which she pulls, is ready."

"Go on prophesying," said Michael.

"I wish I could. Ever since that Sarajevo murder I have thought of
nothing else day and night. But how events will develop then I can't
imagine. What will England do? Who knows? I only know what Germany
thinks she will do, and that is, stand aside because she can't stir,
with this Irish mill-stone round her neck. If Germany thought otherwise,
she is perfectly capable of sending a dozen submarines over to our naval
manoeuvres and torpedoing our battleships right and left."

Michael laughed outright at this.

"While a fleet of Zeppelins hovers over London, and drops bombs on the
War Office and the Admiralty," he suggested.

But Aunt Barbara was not in the least diverted by this.

"And if England stands aside," she said, "Der Tag will only dawn a
little later, when Germany has settled with France and Russia. We shall
live to see Der Tag, Michael, unless we are run over by motor-buses, and
pray God we shall see it soon, for the sooner the better. Your adorable
Falbes, now, Sylvia and Hermann. What do they think of it?"

"Hermann was certainly rather--rather upset when he read of the Sarajevo
murders," he said. "But he pins his faith on the German Emperor, whom he
alluded to as a fire-engine which would put out any conflagration."

Aunt Barbara rose in violent incredulity.

"Pish and bosh!" she remarked. "If he had alluded to him as an
incendiary bomb, there would have been more sense in his simile."

"Anyhow, he and Sylvia are planning a musical tour in Germany in the
autumn," said Michael.

"'It's a long, long way to Tipperary,'" remarked Aunt Barbara
enigmatically.

"Why Tipperary?" asked Michael.

"Oh, it's just a song I heard at a music-hall the other night. There's
a jolly catchy tune to it, which has rung in my head ever since. That's
the sort of music I like, something you can carry away with you. And
your music, Michael?"

"Rather in abeyance. There are--other things to think about."

Aunt Barbara got up.

"Ah, tell me more about them," she said. "I want to get this nightmare
out of my head. Sylvia, now. Sylvia is a good cure for the nightmare. Is
she kind as she is fair, Michael?"

Michael was silent for a moment. Then he turned a quiet, radiant face to
her.

"I can't talk about it," he said. "I can't get accustomed to the wonder
of it."

"That will do. That's a completely satisfactory account. But go on."

Michael laughed.

"How can I?" he asked. "There's no end and no beginning. I can't 'go on'
as you order me about a thing like that. There is Sylvia; there is me."

"I must be content with that, then," she said, smiling.

"We are," said Michael.

Lady Barbara waited a moment without speaking.

"And your mother?" she asked.

He shook his head.

"She still refuses to see me," he said. "She still thinks it was I who
made the plot to take her away and shut her up. She is often angry with
me, poor darling, but--but you see it isn't she who is angry: it's just
her malady."

"Yes, my dear," said Lady Barbara. "I am so glad you see it like that."

"How else could I see it? It was my real mother whom I began to know
last Christmas, and whom I was with in town for the three months that
followed. That's how I think of her: I can't think of her as anything
else."

"And how is she otherwise?"

Again he shook his head.

"She is wretched, though they say that all she feels is dim and veiled,
that we mustn't think of her as actually unhappy. Sometimes there are
good days, when she takes a certain pleasure in her walks and in looking
after a little plot of ground where she gardens. And, thank God, that
sudden outburst when she tried to kill me seems to have entirely passed
from her mind. They don't think she remembers it at all. But then the
good days are rare, and are growing rarer, and often now she sits doing
nothing at all but crying."

Aunt Barbara laid her hand on him.

"Oh, my dear," she said.

Michael paused for a moment, his brown eyes shining.

"If only she could come back just for a little to what she was in
January," he said. "She was happier then, I think, than she ever was
before. I can't help wondering if anyhow I could have prolonged those
days, by giving myself up to her more completely."

"My dear, you needn't wonder about that," said Aunt Barbara. "Sir James
told me that it was your love and nothing else at all that gave her
those days."

Michael's lips quivered.

"I can't tell you what they were to me," he said, "for she and I found
each other then, and we both felt we had missed each other so much and
so long. She was happy then, and I, too. And now everything has
been taken from her, and still, in spite of that, my cup is full to
overflowing."

"That's how she would have it, Michael," said Barbara.

"Yes, I know that. I remind myself of that."

Again he paused.

"They don't think she will live very long," he said. "She is getting
physically much weaker. But during this last week or two she has been
less unhappy, they think. They say some new change may come any time:
it may be only the great change--I mean her death; but it is possible
before that that her mind will clear again. Sir James told me that
occasionally happened, like--like a ray of sunlight after a stormy day.
It would be good if that happened. I would give almost anything to feel
that she and I were together again, as we were."

Barbara, childless, felt something of motherhood. Michael's simplicity
and his sincerity were already known to her, but she had never yet
known the strength of him. You could lean on Michael. In his quiet,
undemonstrative way he supported you completely, as a son should; there
was no possibility of insecurity. . . .

"God bless you, my dear," she said.


CHAPTER XIII


One close thundery morning about a week later, Michael was sitting at
his piano in his shirtsleeves, busy practising. He was aware that at the
other end of the room the telephone was calling for him, but it seemed
to be of far greater importance at the minute to finish the last page of
one of the Bach fugues, than to attend to what anybody else might have
to say to him. Then it suddenly flashed across him that it might be
Sylvia who wanted to speak to him, or that there might be news about his
mother, and his fingers leaped from the piano in the middle of a bar,
and he ran and slid across the parquet floor.

But it was neither of these, and compared to them it was a case of
"only" Hermann who wanted to see him. But Hermann, it appeared, wanted
to see him urgently, and, if he was in (which he was) would be with him
in ten minutes.

But the Bach thread was broken, and Michael, since it was not worth
while trying to mend it for the sake of these few minutes, sat down by
the open window, and idly took up the morning paper, which as yet he had
not opened, since he had hurried over breakfast in order to get to his
piano. The music announcements on the outside page first detained him,
and seeing that the concert by the Falbes, which was to take place in
five or six days, was advertised, he wondered vaguely whether it was
about that that Hermann wanted to see him, and, if so, why he could not
have said whatever he had to say on the telephone, instead of cutting
things short with the curt statement that he wished to see him urgently,
and would come round at once. Then remembering that Francis had been
playing cricket for the Guards yesterday, he turned briskly over to the
last page of sporting news, and found that his cousin had distinguished
himself by making no runs at all, but by missing two expensive catches
in the deep field. From there, after a slight inspection of a couple
of advertisement columns, he worked back to the middle leaf, where were
leaders and the news of nations and the movements of kings. All this
last week he had scanned such items with a growing sense of amusement
in the recollection of Hermann's disquiet over the Sarajevo murders,
and Aunt Barbara's more detailed and vivid prognostications of coming
danger, for nothing more had happened, and he supposed--vaguely only,
since the affair had begun to fade from his mind--that Austria had
made inquiries, and that since she was satisfied there was no public
pronouncement to be made.

The hot breeze from the window made the paper a little unmanageable for
a moment, but presently he got it satisfactorily folded, and a big black
headline met his eye. A half-column below it contained the demands which
Austria had made in the Note addressed to the Servian Government.
A glance was sufficient to show that they were framed in the most
truculent and threatening manner possible to imagine. They were not
the reasonable proposals that one State had a perfect right to make
of another on whose soil and with the connivance of whose subjects the
murders had been committed; they were a piece of arbitrary dictation, a
threat levelled against a dependent and an inferior.

Michael had read them through twice with a growing sense of uneasiness
at the thought of how Lady Barbara's first anticipations had been
fulfilled, when Hermann came in. He pointed to the paper Michael held.

"Ah, you have seen it," he said. "Perhaps you can guess what I wanted to
see you about."

"Connected with the Austrian Note?" asked Michael.

"Yes."

"I have not the vaguest idea."

Hermann sat down on the arm of his chair.

"Mike, I'm going back to Germany to-day," he said. "Now do you
understand? I'm German."

"You mean that Germany is at the back of this?"

"It is obvious, isn't it? Those demands couldn't have been made without
the consent of Austria's ally. And they won't be granted. Servia will
appeal to Russia. And . . . and then God knows what may happen. In the
event of that happening, I must be in my Fatherland ready to serve, if
necessary."

"You mean you think it possible you will go to war with Russia?" asked
Michael.

"Yes, I think it possible, and, if I am right, if there is that
possibility, I can't be away from my country."

"But the Emperor, the fire-engine whom you said would quench any
conflagration?"

"He is away yachting. He went off after the visit of the British fleet
to Kiel. Who knows whether before he gets back, things may have gone
too far? Can't you see that I must go? Wouldn't you go if you were me?
Suppose you were in Germany now, wouldn't you hurry home?"

Michael was silent, and Hermann spoke again.

"And if there is trouble with Russia, France, I take it, is bound to
join her. And if France joins her, what will England do?"

The great shadow of the approaching storm fell over Michael, even as
outside the sultry stillness of the morning grew darker.

"Ah, you think that?" asked Michael.

Hermann put his hand on Michael's shoulder.

"Mike, you're the best friend I have," he said, "and soon, please God,
you are going to marry the girl who is everything else in the world to
me. You two make up my world really--you two and my mother, anyhow.
No other individual counts, or is in the same class. You know that,
I expect. But there is one other thing, and that's my nationality. It
counts first. Nothing, nobody, not even Sylvia or my mother or you can
stand between me and that. I expect you know that also, for you saw,
nearly a year ago, what Germany is to me. Perhaps I may be quite wrong
about it all--about the gravity, I mean, of the situation, and perhaps
in a few days I may come racing home again. Yes, I said 'home,' didn't
I? Well, that shows you just how I am torn in two. But I can't help
going."

Hermann's hand remained on his shoulder gently patting it. To Michael
the world, life, the whole spirit of things had suddenly grown sinister,
of the quality of nightmare. It was true that all the ground of this
ominous depression which had darkened round him, was conjectural and
speculative, that diplomacy, backed by the horror of war which surely
all civilised nations and responsible govermnents must share, had, so
far from saying its last, not yet said its first word; that the wits of
all the Cabinets of Europe were at this moment only just beginning to
stir themselves so as to secure a peaceful solution; but, in spite
of this, the darkness and the nightmare grew in intensity. But as to
Hermann's determination to go to Germany, which made this so terribly
real, since it was beginning to enter into practical everyday life,
he had neither means nor indeed desire to combat it. He saw perfectly
clearly that Hermann must go.

"I don't want to dissuade you," he said, "not only because it would be
useless, but because I am with you. You couldn't do otherwise, Hermann."

"I don't see that I could. Sylvia agrees too."

A terrible conjecture flashed through Michael's mind.

"And she?" he asked.

"She can't leave my mother, of course," said Hermann, "and, after all,
I may be on a wild goose chase. But I can't risk being unable to get to
Germany, if--if the worst happens."

The ghost of a smile played round his mouth for a moment.

"And I'm not sure that she could leave you, Mike," he added.

Somehow this, though it gave Michael a moment of intensest relief to
know that Sylvia remained, made the shadow grow deeper, accentuated the
lines of the storm which had begun to spread over the sky. He began
to see as nightmare no longer, but as stern and possible realities,
something of the unutterable woe, the divisions, the heart-breaks which
menaced.

"Hermann, what do you think will happen?" he said. "It is incredible,
unfaceable--"

The gentle patting on his shoulder, that suddenly and poignantly
reminded him of when Sylvia's hand was there, ceased for a moment, and
then was resumed.

"Mike, old boy," said Hermann, "we've got to face the unfaceable, and
believe that the incredible is possible. I may be all wrong about it,
and, as I say, in a few days' time I may come racing back. But, on
the other hand, this may be our last talk together, for I go off this
afternoon. So let's face it."

He paused a moment.

"It may be that before long I shall be fighting for my Fatherland,"
he said. "And if there is to be fighting, it may be that Germany will
before long be fighting England. There I shall be on one side, and,
since naturally you will go back into the Guards, you will be fighting
on the other. I shall be doing my best to kill Englishmen, whom I love,
and they will be doing their best to kill me and those of my blood.
There's the horror of it, and it's that we must face. If we met in a
bayonet charge, Mike, I should have to do my best to run you through,
and yet I shouldn't love you one bit the less, and you must know that.
Or, if you ran me through, I shall have to die loving you just the same
as before, and hoping you would live happy, for ever and ever, as the
story-books say, with Sylvia."

"Hermann, don't go," said Michael suddenly.

"Mike, you didn't mean that," he said.

Michael looked at him for a moment in silence.

"No, it is unsaid," he replied.

Hermann looked round as the clock on the chimney-piece chimed.

"I must be going," he said, "I needn't say anything to you about Sylvia,
because all I could say is in your heart already. Well, we've met in
this jolly world, Mike, and we've been great friends. Neither you nor I
could find a greater friend than we've been to each other. I bless God
for this last year. It's been the happiest in my life. Now what else is
there? Your music: don't ever be lazy about your music. It's worth while
taking all the pains you can about it. Lord! do you remember the evening
when I first tried your Variations? . . . Let me play the last one now.
I want something jubilant. Let's see, how does it go?"

He held his hands, those long, slim-fingered hands, poised for a moment
above the keys, then plunged into the glorious riot of the full chords
and scales, till the room rang with it. The last chord he held for a
moment, and then sprang up.

"Ah, that's good," he said. "And now I'm going to say good-bye, and go
without looking round."

"But might I see you off this afternoon?" asked Michael.

"No, please don't. Station partings are fussy and disagreeable. I want
to say good-bye to you here in your quiet room, just as I shall say
goodbye to Sylvia at home. Ah, Mike, yes, both hands and smiling. May
God give us other meetings and talks and companionship and years of
love, my best of friends. Good-bye."

Then, as he had said, he walked to the door without looking round, and
next moment it had closed behind him.


Throughout the next week the tension of the situation grew ever greater,
strained towards the snapping-point, while the little cloud, the man's
hand, which had arisen above the eastern horizon grew and overspread the
heavens in a pall that became ever more black and threatening. For a few
days yet it seemed that perhaps even now the cataclysm might be averted,
but gradually, in spite of all the efforts of diplomacy to loosen the
knot, it became clear that the ends of the cord were held in hands that
did not mean to release their hold till it was pulled tight. Servia
yielded to such demands as it was possible for her to grant as an
independent State; but the inflexible fingers never abated one jot
of their strangling pressure. She appealed to Russia, and Russia's
remonstrance fell on deaf ears, or, rather, on ears that had determined
not to hear. From London and Paris came proposals for conference, for
arbitration, with welcome for any suggestion from the other side which
might lead to a peaceful solution of the disputed demands, already
recognised by Europe as a firebrand wantonly flung into the midst
of dangerous and inflammable material. Over that burning firebrand,
preventing and warding off all the eager hands that were stretched to
put it out, stood the figure of the nation at whose bidding it had been
flung there.

Gradually, out of the thunder-clouds and gathering darkness, vaguely at
first and then in definite and menacing outline, emerged the inexorable,
flint-like face of Germany, whose figure was clad in the shining armour
so well known in the flamboyant utterances of her War Lord, which had
been treated hitherto as mere irresponsible utterances to be greeted
with a laugh and a shrugged shoulder. Deep and patient she had always
been, and now she believed that the time had come for her patience to
do its perfect work. She had bided long for the time when she could
best fling that lighted brand into the midst of civilisation, and she
believed she had calculated well. She cared nothing for Servia nor for
her ally. On both her frontiers she was ready, and now on the East
she heeded not the remonstrance of Russia, nor her sincere and cordial
invitation to friendly discussion. She but waited for the step that she
had made inevitable, and on the first sign of Russian mobilisation she,
with her mobilisation ready to be completed in a few days, peremptorily
demanded that it should cease. On the Western frontier behind the
Rhine she was ready also; her armies were prepared, cannon fodder in
uncountable store of shells and cartridges was prepared, and in endless
battalions of men, waiting to be discharged in one bull-like rush, to
overrun France, and holding the French armies, shattered and dispersed,
with a mere handful of her troops, to hurl the rest at Russia.

The whole campaign was mathematically thought out. In a few months at
the outside France would be lying trampled down and bleeding; Russia
would be overrun; already she would be mistress of Europe, and prepared
to attack the only country that stood between her and world-wide
dominion, whose allies she would already have reduced to impotence.
Here she staked on an uncertainty: she could not absolutely tell what
England's attitude would be, but she had the strongest reason for hoping
that, distracted by the imminence of civil strife, she would be unable
to come to the help of her allies until the allies were past helping.

For a moment only were seen those set stern features mad for war;
then, with a snap, Germany shut down her visor and stood with sword
unsheathed, waiting for the horror of the stupendous bloodshed which
she had made inevitable. Her legions gathered on the Eastern front
threatening war on Russia, and thus pulling France into the spreading
conflagration and into the midst of the flame she stood ready to cast
the torn-up fragments of the treaty that bound her to respect the
neutrality of Belgium.

All this week, while the flames of the flung fire-brand began to spread,
the English public waited, incredulous of the inevitable. Michael, among
them, found himself unable to believe even then that the bugles were
already sounding, and that the piles of shells in their wicker-baskets
were being loaded on to the military ammunition trains. But all the
ordinary interests in life, all the things that busily and contentedly
occupied his day, one only excepted, had become without savour. A dozen
times in the morning he would sit down to his piano, only to find
that he could not think it worth while to make his hands produce these
meaningless tinkling sounds, and he would jump up to read the paper
over again, or watch for fresh headlines to appear on the boards of
news-vendors in the street, and send out for any fresh edition. Or he
would walk round to his club and spend an hour reading the tape news and
waiting for fresh slips to be pinned up. But, through all the nightmare
of suspense and slowly-dying hope, Sylvia remained real, and after he
had received his daily report from the establishment where his mother
was, with the invariable message that there was no marked change of any
kind, and that it was useless for him to think of coming to see her, he
would go off to Maidstone Crescent and spend the greater part of the day
with the girl.

Once during this week he had received a note from Hermann, written at
Munich, and on the same day she also had heard from him. He had gone
back to his regiment, which was mobilised, as a private, and was very
busy with drill and duties. Feeling in Germany, he said, was elated and
triumphant: it was considered certain that England would stand aside, as
the quarrel was none of hers, and the nation generally looked forward to
a short and brilliant campaign, with the occupation of Paris to be made
in September at the latest. But as a postscript in his note to Sylvia he
had added:


"You don't think there is the faintest chance of England coming in, do
you? Please write to me fully, and get Mike to write. I have heard from
neither of you, and as I am sure you must have written, I conclude
that letters are stopped. I went to the theatre last night: there was a
tremendous scene of patriotism. The people are war-mad."


Since then nothing had been heard from him, and to-day, as Michael drove
down to see Sylvia, he saw on the news-boards that Belgium had appealed
to England against the violation of her territory by the German armies
en route for France. Overtures had been made, asking for leave to pass
through the neutral territory: these Belgium had rejected. This was
given as official news. There came also the report that the Belgian
remonstrances would be disregarded. Should she refuse passage to the
German battalions, that could make no difference, since it was a matter
of life and death to invade France by that route.

Sylvia was out in the garden, where, hardly a month ago, they had spent
that evening of silent peace, and she got up quickly as Michael came
out.

"Ah, my dear," she said, "I am glad you have come. I have got the
horrors. You saw the latest news? Yes? And have you heard again from
Hermann? No, I have not had a word."

He kissed her and sat down.

"No, I have not heard either," he said. "I expect he is right. Letters
have been stopped."

"And what do you think will be the result of Belgium's appeal?" she
asked.

"Who can tell? The Prime Minister is going to make a statement on
Monday. There have been Cabinet meetings going on all day."

She looked at him in silence.

"And what do you think?" she asked.

Quite suddenly, at her question, Michael found himself facing it, even
as, when the final catastrophe was more remote, he had faced it with
Falbe. All this week he knew he had been looking away from it, telling
himself that it was incredible. Now he discovered that the one thing
he dreaded more than that England should go to war, was that she
should not. The consciousness of national honour, the thing which, with
religion, Englishmen are most shy of speaking about, suddenly asserted
itself, and he found on the moment that it was bigger than anything else
in the world.

"I think we shall go to war," he said. "I don't see personally how we
can exist any more as a nation if we don't. We--we shall be damned if we
don't, damned for ever and ever. It's moral extinction not to."

She kindled at that.

"Yes, I know," she said, "that's what I have been telling myself; but,
oh, Mike, there's some dreadful cowardly part of me that won't listen
when I think of Hermann, and . . ."

She broke off a moment.

"Michael," she said, "what will you do, if there is war?"

He took up her hand that lay on the arm of his chair.

"My darling, how can you ask?" he said. "Of course I shall go back to
the army."

For one moment she gave way.

"No, no," she said. "You mustn't do that."

And then suddenly she stopped.

"My dear, I ask your pardon," she said. "Of course you will. I know
that really. It's only this stupid cowardly part of me that--that
interrupted. I am ashamed of it. I'm not as bad as that all through.
I don't make excuses for myself, but, ah, Mike, when I think of what
Germany is to me, and what Hermann is, and when I think what England is
to me, and what you are! It shan't appear again, or if it does, you
will make allowance, won't you? At least I can agree with you utterly,
utterly. It's the flesh that's weak, or, rather, that is so strong. But
I've got it under."

She sat there in silence a little, mopping her eyes.

"How I hate girls who cry!" she said. "It is so dreadfully feeble! Look,
Mike, there are some roses on that tree from which I plucked the one you
didn't think much of. Do you remember? You crushed it up in my hand and
made it bleed."

He smiled.

"I have got some faint recollection of it," he said.

Sylvia had got hold of her courage again.

"Have you?" she asked. "What a wonderful memory. And that quiet evening
out here next day. Perhaps you remember that too. That was real: that
was a possession that we shan't ever part with."

She pointed with her finger.

"You and I sat there, and Hermann there," she said. "And mother
sat--why, there she is. Mother darling, let's have tea out here, shall
we? I will go and tell them."

Mrs. Falbe had drifted out in her usual thistledown style, and shook
hands with Michael.

"What an upset it all is," she said, "with all these dreadful rumours
going about that we shall be at war. I fell asleep, I think, a little
after lunch, when I could not attend to my book for thinking about war."

"Isn't the book interesting?" asked Michael.

"No, not very. It is rather painful. I do not know why people write
about painful things when there are so many pleasant and interesting
things to write about. It seems to me very morbid."

Michael heard something cried in the streets, and at the same moment he
heard Sylvia's step quickly crossing the studio to the side door that
opened on to it. In a minute she returned with a fresh edition of an
evening paper.

"They are preparing to cross the Rhine," she said.

Mrs. Falbe gave a little sigh.

"I don't know, I am sure," she said, "what you are in such a state
about, Sylvia. Of course the Germans want to get into France the easiest
and quickest way, at least I'm sure I should. It is very foolish of
Belgium not to give them leave, as they are so much the strongest."

"Mother darling, you don't understand one syllable about it," said
Sylvia.

"Very likely not, dear, but I am very glad we are an island, and that
nobody can come marching here. But it is all a dreadful upset, Lord--I
mean Michael, what with Hermann in Germany, and the concert tour
abandoned. Still, if everything is quiet again by the middle of October,
as I daresay it will be, it might come off after all. He will be on the
spot, and you and Michael can join him, though I'm not quite sure if
that would be proper. But we might arrange something: he might meet you
at Ostend."

"I'm afraid it doesn't look very likely," remarked Michael mildly.

"Oh, and are you pessimistic too, like Sylvia? Pray don't be
pessimistic. There is a dreadful pessimist in my book, who always thinks
the worst is going to happen."

"And does it?" asked Michael.

"As far as I have got, it does, which makes it all the worse. Of course
I am very anxious about Hermann, but I feel sure he will come back
safe to us. I daresay France will give in when she sees Germany is in
earnest."

Mrs. Falbe pulled the shattered remnants of her mind together. In her
heart of hearts she knew she did not care one atom what might happen to
armies and navies and nations, provided only that she had a quantity
of novels to read, and meals at regular hours. The fact of being on an
island was an immense consolation to her, since it was quite certain
that, whatever happened, German armies (or French or Soudanese, for that
matter) could not march here and enter her sitting-room and take her
books away from her. For years past she had asked nothing more of the
world than that she should be comfortable in it, and it really seemed
not an unreasonable request, considering at how small an outlay of money
all the comfort she wanted could be secured to her. The thought of war
had upset her a good deal already: she had been unable to attend to her
book when she awoke from her after-lunch nap; and now, when she hoped to
have her tea in peace, and find her attention restored by it, she found
the general atmosphere of her two companions vaguely disquieting. She
became a little more loquacious than usual, with the idea of talking
herself back into a tranquil frame of mind, and reassuring to herself
the promise of a peaceful future.

"Such a blessing we have a good fleet," she said. "That will make us
safe, won't it? I declare I almost hate the Germans, though my dear
husband was one himself, for making such a disturbance. The papers all
say it is Germany's fault, so I suppose it must be. The papers
know better than anybody, don't they, because they have foreign
correspondents. That must be a great expense!"

Sylvia felt she could not endure this any longer. It was like having a
raw wound stroked. . . .

"Mother, you don't understand," she said. "You don't appreciate what is
happening. In a day or two England will be at war with Germany."

Mrs. Falbe's book had slipped from her knee. She picked it up and
flapped the cover once or twice to get rid of dust that might have
settled there.

"But what then?" she said. "It is very dreadful, no doubt, to think
of dear Hermann being with the German army, but we are getting used to
that, are we not? Besides, he told me it was his duty to go. I do not
think for a moment that France will be able to stand against Germany.
Germany will be in Paris in no time, and I daresay Hermann's next letter
will be to say that he has been walking down the boulevards. Of course
war is very dreadful, I know that. And then Germany will be at war with
Russia, too, but she will have Austria to help her. And as for Germany
being at war with England, that does not make me nervous. Think of our
fleet, and how safe we feel with that! I see that we have twice as many
boats as the Germans. With two to one we must win, and they won't be
able to send any of their armies here. I feel quite comfortable again
now that I have talked it over."

Sylvia caught Michael's eye for a moment over the tea-urn. She felt he
acquiesced in what she was intending to say.

"That is good, then," she said. "I am glad you feel comfortable about
it, mother dear. Now, will you read your book out here? Why not, if I
fetch you a shawl in case you feel cold?"

Mrs. Falbe turned a questioning eye to the motionless trees and the
unclouded sky.

"I don't think I shall even want a shawl, dear," she said. "Listen, how
the newsboys are calling! is it something fresh, do you think?"

A moment's listening attention was sufficient to make it known that
the news shouted outside was concerned only with the result of a county
cricket match, and Michael, as well as Sylvia, was conscious of a
certain relief to know that at the immediate present there was no fresh
clang of the bell that was beating out the seconds of peace that still
remained. Just for now, for this hour on Saturday afternoon, there was
a respite: no new link was forged in the intolerable sequence of
events. But, even as he drew breath in that knowledge, there came
the counter-stroke in the sense that those whose business it was to
disseminate the news that would cause their papers to sell, had just a
cricket match to advertise their wares. Now, when the country and
when Europe were on the brink of a bloodier war than all the annals of
history contained, they, who presumably knew what the public desired
to be informed on, thought that the news which would sell best was that
concerned with wooden bats and leather balls, and strong young men
in flannels. Michael had heard with a sort of tender incredulity Mrs.
Falbe's optimistic reflections, and had been more than content to let
her rest secure in them; but was the country, the heart of England, like
her? Did it care more for cricket matches, as she for her book, than for
the maintenance of the nation's honour, whatever that championship might
cost? . . . And the cry went on past the garden-walk. "Fine innings by
Horsfield! Result of the Oval match!"

And yet he had just had his tea as usual, and eaten a slice of cake, and
was now smoking a cigarette. It was natural to do that, not to make a
fuss and refuse food and drink, and it was natural that people should
still be interested in cricket. And at the moment his attitude towards
Mrs. Falbe changed. Instead of pity and irritation at her normality, he
was suddenly taken with a sense of gratitude to her. It was restful to
suspense and jangled nerves to see someone who went on as usual. The sun
shone, the leaves of the plane-trees did not wither, Mrs. Falbe read
her book, the evening paper was full of cricket news. . . . And then the
reaction from that seized him again. Supposing all the nation was like
that. Supposing nobody cared. . . . And the tension of suspense strained
more tightly than ever.

For the next forty-eight hours, while day and night the telegraph wires
of Europe tingled with momentous questions and grave replies, while
Ministers and Ambassadors met and parted and met again, rumours
flew this way and that like flocks of wild-fowl driven backwards and
forwards, settling for a moment with a stir and splash, and then with
rush of wings speeding back and on again. A huge coal strike in the
northern counties, fostered and financed by German gold, was supposed to
be imminent, and this would put out of the country's power the ability
to interfere. The Irish Home Rule party, under the same suasion, was
said to have refused to call a truce. A letter had been received in
high quarters from the German Emperor avowing his fixed determination to
preserve peace, and this was honey to Lord Ashbridge. Then in turn each
of these was contradicted. All thought of the coal strike in this crisis
of national affairs was abandoned; the Irish party, as well as the
Conservatives, were of one mind in backing up the Government, no matter
what postponement of questions that were vital a month ago, their
cohesion entailed; the Emperor had written no letter at all. But through
the nebulous mists of hearsay, there fell solid the first drops of the
imminent storm. Even before Michael had left Sylvia that afternoon,
Germany had declared war on Russia, on Sunday Belgium received a Note
from Berlin definitely stating that should their Government not grant
the passage to the German battalions, a way should be forced for them.
On Monday, finally, Germany declared war on France also.

The country held its breath in suspense at what the decision of the
Government, which should be announced that afternoon, should be. One
fact only was publicly known, and that was that the English fleet, only
lately dismissed from its manoeuvres and naval review, had vanished.
There were guard ships, old cruisers and what not, at certain ports,
torpedo-boats roamed the horizons of Deal and Portsmouth, but the great
fleet, the swift forts of sea-power, had gone, disappearing no one knew
where, into the fine weather haze that brooded over the midsummer sea.
There perhaps was an indication of what the decision would be, yet there
was no certainty. At home there was official silence, and from abroad,
apart from the three vital facts, came but the quacking of rumour,
report after report, each contradicting the other.

Then suddenly came certainty, a rainbow set in the intolerable cloud. On
Monday afternoon, when the House of Commons met, all parties were known
to have sunk their private differences and to be agreed on one point
that should take precedence of all other questions. Germany should not,
with England's consent, violate the neutrality of Belgium. As far as
England was concerned, all negotiations were at an end, diplomacy had
said its last word, and Germany was given twenty-four hours in which to
reply. Should a satisfactory answer not be forthcoming, England would
uphold the neutrality she with others had sworn to respect by force
of arms. And at that one immense sigh of relief went up from the whole
country. Whatever now might happen, in whatever horrors of long-drawn
and bloody war the nation might be involved, the nightmare of possible
neutrality, of England's repudiating the debt of honour, was removed.
The one thing worse than war need no longer be dreaded, and for the
moment the future, hideous and heart-rending though it would surely be,
smiled like a land of promise.


Michael woke on the morning of Tuesday, the fourth of August, with the
feeling of something having suddenly roused him, and in a few seconds he
knew that this was so, for the telephone bell in the room next door sent
out another summons. He got straight out of bed and went to it, with a
hundred vague shadows of expectation crossing his mind. Then he learned
that his mother was gravely ill, and that he was wanted at once. And in
less than half an hour he was on his way, driving swiftly through the
serene warmth of the early morning to the private asylum where she had
been removed after her sudden homicidal outburst in March.


CHAPTER XIV


Michael was sitting that same afternoon by his mother's bedside. He
had learned the little there was to be told him on his arrival in the
morning; how that half an hour before he had been summoned, she had had
an attack of heart failure, and since then, after recovering from the
acute and immediate danger, she had lain there all day with closed eyes
in a state of but semi-conscious exhaustion. Once or twice only, and
that but for a moment she had shown signs of increasing vitality, and
then sank back into this stupor again. But in those rare short intervals
she had opened her eyes, and had seemed to see and recognise him, and
Michael thought that once she had smiled at him. But at present she had
spoken no word. All the morning Lord Ashbridge had waited there too, but
since there was no change he had gone away, saying that he would return
again later, and asking to be telephoned for if his wife regained
consciousness. So, but for the nurse and the occasional visits of the
doctor, Michael was alone with his mother.

In this long period of inactive waiting, when there was nothing to be
done, Michael did not seem to himself to be feeling very vividly, and
but for one desire, namely, that before the end his mother would come
back to him, even if only for a moment, his mind felt drugged and
stupefied. Sometimes for a little it would sluggishly turn over thoughts
about his father, wondering with a sort of blunt, remote contempt how it
was possible for him not to be here too; but, except for the one great
longing that his mother should cleave to him once more in conscious
mind, he observed rather than felt. The thought of Sylvia even was dim.
He knew that she was somewhere in the world, but she had become for the
present like some picture painted in his mind, without reality. Dim,
too, was the tension of those last days. Somewhere in Europe was a
country called Germany, where was his best friend, drilling in the ranks
to which he had returned, or perhaps already on his way to bloodier
battlefields than the world had ever dreamed of; and somewhere set in
the seas was Germany's arch-foe, who already stood in her path with open
cannon mouths pointing. But all this had no real connection with him.
From the moment when he had come into this quiet, orderly room and saw
his mother lying on the bed, nothing beyond those four walls really
concerned him.

But though the emotional side of his mind lay drugged and insensitive
to anything outside, he found himself observing the details of the room
where he waited with a curious vividness. There was a big window opening
down to the ground in the manner of a door on to the garden outside,
where a smooth lawn, set with croquet hoops and edged with bright
flower-beds, dozed in the haze of the August heat. Beyond was a row
of tall elms, against which a copper beech glowed metallically, and
somewhere out of sight a mowing-machine was being used, for Michael
heard the click of its cropping journey, growing fainter as it receded,
followed by the pause as it turned, and its gradual crescendo as it
approached again. Otherwise everything outside was strangely silent; as
the hot hours of midday and early afternoon went by there was no note of
bird-music, nor any sound of wind in the elm-tops. Just a little breeze
stirred from time to time, enough to make the slats of the half-drawn
Venetian blind rattle faintly. Earlier in the day there had come in from
the window the smell of dew-damp earth, but now that had been sucked up
by the sun.

Close beside the window, with her back to the light and facing the bed,
which projected from one of the side walls out into the room, sat Lady
Ashbridge's nurse. She was reading, and the rustle of the turned page
was regular; but regular and constant also were her glances towards the
bed where her patient lay. At intervals she put down her book, marking
the place with a slip of paper, and came to watch by the bed for a
moment, looking at Lady Ashbridge's face and listening to her breathing.
Her eye met Michael's always as she did this, and in answer to his
mute question, each time she gave him a little head-shake, or perhaps a
whispered word or two, that told him there was no change. Opposite the
bed was the empty fireplace, and at the foot of it a table, on which
stood a vase of roses. Michael was conscious of the scent of these every
now and then, and at intervals of the faint, rather sickly smell of
ether. A Japan screen, ornamented with storks in gold thread, stood
near the door and half-concealed the washing-stand. There was a chest
of drawers on one side of the fireplace, a wardrobe with a looking-glass
door on the other, a dressing-table to one side of the window, a few
prints on the plain blue walls, and a dark blue drugget carpet on
the floor; and all these ordinary appurtenances of a bedroom etched
themselves into Michael's mind, biting their way into it by the acid of
his own suspense.

Finally there was the bed where his mother lay. The coverlet of blue
silk upon it he knew was somehow familiar to him, and after fitful
gropings in his mind to establish the association, he remembered that it
had been on the bed in her room in Curzon Street, and supposed that it
had been brought here with others of her personal belongings. A little
core of light, focused on one of the brass balls at the head of the bed,
caught his eye, and he saw that the sun, beginning to decline, came in
under the Venetian blind. The nurse, sitting in the window, noticed
this also, and lowered it. The thought of Sylvia crossed his brain for
a moment; then he thought of his father; but every train of reflection
dissolved almost as soon as it was formed, and he came back again and
again to his mother's face.

It was perfectly peaceful and strangely young-looking, as if the cool,
soothing hand of death, which presently would quiet all trouble for
her, had been already at work there erasing the marks that the years had
graven upon it. And yet it was not so much young as ageless; it seemed
to have passed beyond the register and limitations of time. Sometimes
for a moment it was like the face of a stranger, and then suddenly it
would become beloved and familiar again. It was just so she had looked
when she came so timidly into his room one night at Ashbridge, asking
him if it would be troublesome to him if she sat and talked with him for
a little. The mouth was a little parted for her slow, even breathing;
the corners of it smiled; and yet he was not sure if they smiled. It
was hard to tell, for she lay there quite flat, without pillows, and he
looked at her from an unusual angle. Sometimes he felt as if he had been
sitting there watching for uncounted years; and then again the hours
that he had been here appeared to have lasted but for a moment, as if he
had but looked once at her.

As the day declined the breeze of evening awoke, rattling the blind. By
now the sun had swung farther west, and the nurse pulled the blind up.
Outside in the bushes in the garden the call of birds to each other had
begun, and a thrush came close to the window and sang a liquid
phrase, and then repeated it. Michael glanced there and saw the bird,
speckle-breasted, with throat that throbbed with the notes; and then,
looking back to the bed, he saw that his mother's eyes were open.

She looked vaguely about the room for a moment, as if she had awoke from
some deep sleep and found herself in an unfamiliar place. Then, turning
her head slightly, she saw him, and there was no longer any question
as to whether her mouth smiled, for all her face was flooded with deep,
serene joy.

He bent towards her and her lips parted.

"Michael, my dear," she said gently.

Michael heard the rustle of the nurse's dress as she got up and came to
the bedside. He slipped from his chair on to his knees, so that his face
was near his mother's. He felt in his heart that the moment he had so
longed for was to be granted him, that she had come back to him, not
only as he had known her during the weeks that they had lived alone
together, when his presence made her so content, but in a manner
infinitely more real and more embracing.

"Have you been sitting here all the time while I slept, dear?" she
asked. "Have you been waiting for me to come back to you?"

"Yes, and you have come," he said.

She looked at him, and the mother-love, which before had been veiled and
clouded, came out with all the tender radiance of evening sun, with the
clear shining after rain.

"I knew you wouldn't fail me, my darling," she said. "You were so
patient with me in the trouble I have been through. It was a nightmare,
but it has gone."

Michael bent forward and kissed her.

"Yes, mother," he said, "it has all gone."

She was silent a moment.

"Is your father here?" she said.

"No; but he will come at once, if you would like to see him."

"Yes, send for him, dear, if it would not vex him to come," she said;
"or get somebody else to send; I don't want you to leave me."

"I'm not going to," said he.

The nurse went to the door, gave some message, and presently returned to
the other side of the bed. Then Lady Ashbridge spoke again.

"Is this death?" she asked.

Michael raised his eyes to the figure standing by the bed. She nodded to
him.

He bent forward again.

"Yes, dear mother," he said.

For a moment her eyes dilated, then grew quiet again, and the smile
returned to her mouth.

"I'm not frightened, Michael," she said, "with you there. It isn't
lonely or terrible."

She raised her head.

"My son!" she said in a voice loud and triumphant. Then her head fell
back again, and she lay with face close to his, and her eyelids quivered
and shut. Her breath came slow and regular, as if she slept. Then he
heard that she missed a breath, and soon after another. Then, without
struggle at all, her breathing ceased. . . . And outside on the lawn
close by the open window the thrush still sang.


It was an hour later when Michael left, having waited for his father's
arrival, and drove to town through the clear, falling dusk. He was
conscious of no feeling of grief at all, only of a complete pervading
happiness. He could not have imagined so perfect a close, nor could he
have desired anything different from that imperishable moment when his
mother, all trouble past, had come back to him in the serene calm of
love. . . .

As he entered London he saw the newsboards all placarded with one fact:
England had declared war on Germany.


He went, not to his own flat, but straight to Maidstone Crescent. With
those few minutes in which his mother had known him, the stupor that had
beset his emotions all day passed off, and he felt himself longing, as
he had never longed before, for Sylvia's presence. Long ago he had given
her all that he knew of as himself; now there was a fresh gift. He had
to give her all that those moments had taught him. Even as already they
were knitted into him, made part of him, so must they be to her. . . .
And when they had shared that, when, like water gushing from a spring
she flooded him, there was that other news which he had seen on the
newsboards that they had to share together.

Sylvia had been alone all day with her mother; but, before Michael
arrived, Mrs. Falbe (after a few more encouraging remarks about war in
general, to the effect that Germany would soon beat France, and what a
blessing it was that England was an island) had taken her book up to her
room, and Sylvia was sitting alone in the deep dusk of the evening. She
did not even trouble to turn on the light, for she felt unable to apply
herself to any practical task, and she could think and take hold of
herself better in the dark. All day she had longed for Michael to come
to her, though she had not cared to see anybody else, and several times
she had rung him up, only to find that he was still out, supposedly
with his mother, for he had been summoned to her early that morning, and
since then no news had come of him. Just before dinner had arrived the
announcement of the declaration of war, and Sylvia sat now trying to
find some escape from the encompassing nightmare. She felt confused
and distracted with it; she could not think consecutively, but
only contemplate shudderingly the series of pictures that presented
themselves to her mind. Somewhere now, in the hosts of the Fatherland,
which was hers also, was Hermann, the brother who was part of herself.
When she thought of him, she seemed to be with him, to see the glint
of his rifle, to feel her heart on his heart, big with passionate
patriotism. She had no doubt that patriotism formed the essence of his
consciousness, and yet by now probably he knew that the land beloved by
him, where he had made his home, was at war with his own. She could not
but know how often his thoughts dwelled here in the dark quiet studio
where she sat, and where so many days of happiness had been passed. She
knew what she was to him, she and her mother and Michael, and the hosts
of friends in this land which had become his foe. Would he have gone,
she asked herself, if he had guessed that there would be war between the
two? She thought he would, though she knew that for herself she would
have made it as hard as possible for him to do so. She would have used
every argument she could think of to dissuade him, and yet she felt that
her entreaties would have beaten in vain against the granite of his and
her nationality. Dimly she had foreseen this contingency when, a few
days ago, she had asked Michael what he would do if England went to war,
and now that contingency was realised, and Hermann was even now perhaps
on his way to violate the neutrality of the country for the sake of
which England had gone to war. On the other side was Michael, into whose
keeping she had given herself and her love, and on which side was she?
It was then that the nightmare came close to her; she could not tell,
she was utterly unable to decide. Her heart was Michael's; her heart
was her brother's also. The one personified Germany for her, the other
England. It was as if she saw Hermann and Michael with bayonet and rifle
stalking each other across some land of sand-dunes and hollows, creeping
closer to each other, always closer. She felt as if she would have
gladly given herself over to an eternity of torment, if only they could
have had one hour more, all three of them, together here, as on that
night of stars and peace when first there came the news which for the
moment had disquieted Hermann.

She longed as with thirst for Michael to come, and as her solitude
became more and more intolerable, a hundred hideous fancies obsessed
her. What if some accident had happened to Michael, or what, if in this
tremendous breaking of ties that the war entailed, he felt that he could
not see her? She knew that was an impossibility; but the whole world had
become impossible. And there was no escape. Somehow she had to adjust
herself to the unthinkable; somehow her relations both with Hermann and
Michael had to remain absolutely unshaken. Even that was not enough:
they had to be strengthened, made impregnable.

Then came a knock on the side door of the studio that led into the
street: Michael often came that way without passing through the house,
and with a sense of relief she ran to it and unlocked it. And even as
he stepped in, before any word of greeting had been exchanged, she flung
herself on him, with fingers eager for the touch of his solidity. . . .

"Oh, my dear," she said. "I have longed for you, just longed for you.
I never wanted you so much. I have been sitting in the dark
desolate--desolate. And oh! my darling, what a beast I am to think of
nothing but myself. I am ashamed. What of your mother, Michael?"

She turned on the light as they walked back across the studio, and
Michael saw that her eyes, which were a little dazzled by the change
from the dark into the light, were dim with unshed tears, and her hands
clung to him as never before had they clung. She needed him now with
that imperative need which in trouble can only turn to love for comfort.
She wanted that only; the fact of him with her, in this land in which
she had suddenly become an alien, an enemy, though all her friends
except Hermann were here. And instantaneously, as a baby at the breast,
she found that all his strength and serenity were hers.

They sat down on the sofa by the piano, side by side, with hands
intertwined before Michael answered. He looked up at her as he spoke,
and in his eyes was the quiet of love and death.

"My mother died an hour ago," he said. "I was with her, and as I had
longed might happen, she came back to me before she died. For two or
three minutes she was herself. And then she said to me, 'My son,' and
soon she ceased breathing."

"Oh, Michael," she said, and for a little while there was silence, and
in turn it was her presence that he clung to. Presently he spoke again.

"Sylvia, I'm so frightfully hungry," he said. "I don't think I've eaten
anything since breakfast. May we go and forage?"

"Oh, you poor thing!" she cried. "Yes, let's go and see what there is."

Instantly she busied herself.

"Hermann left the cellar key on the chimney-piece, Michael," she said.
"Get some wine out, dear. Mother and I don't drink any. And there's some
ham, I know. While you are getting wine, I'll broil some. And there
were some strawberries. I shall have some supper with you. What a good
thought! And you must be famished."

As they ate they talked perfectly simply and naturally of the hundred
associations which this studio meal at the end of the evening called
up concerning the Sunday night parties. There was an occasion on which
Hermann tried to recollect how to mull beer, with results that smelled
like a brickfield; there was another when a poached egg had fallen,
exploding softly as it fell into the piano. There was the occasion,
the first on which Michael had been present, when two eminent actors
imitated each other; another when Francis came and made himself so
immensely agreeable. It was after that one that Sylvia and Hermann had
sat and talked in front of the stove, discussing, as Sylvia laughed to
remember, what she would say when Michael proposed to her. Then had come
the break in Michael's attendances and, as Sylvia allowed, a certain
falling-off in gaiety.

"But it was really Hermann and I who made you gay originally," she said.
"We take a wonderful deal of credit for that."

All this was as completely natural for them as was the impromptu meal,
and soon without effort Michael spoke of his mother again, and presently
afterwards of the news of war. But with him by her side Sylvia found
her courage come back to her; the news itself, all that it certainly
implied, and all the horror that it held, no longer filled her with
the sense that it was impossibly terrible. Michael did not diminish the
awfulness of it, but he gave her the power of looking out bravely at it.
Nor did he shrink from speaking of all that had been to her so grim a
nightmare.

"You haven't heard from Hermann?" he asked.

"No. And I suppose we can't hear now. He is with his regiment, that's
all; nor shall we hear of him till there is peace again."

She came a little closer to him.

"Michael, I have to face it, that I may never see Hermann again," she
said. "Mother doesn't fear it, you know. She--the darling--she lives
in a sort of dream. I don't want her to wake from it. But how can I get
accustomed to the thought that perhaps I shan't see Hermann again? I
must get accustomed to it: I've got to live with it, and not quarrel
with it."

He took up her hand, enclosing it in his.

"But, one doesn't quarrel with the big things of life," he said. "Isn't
it so? We haven't any quarrel with things like death and duty. Dear me,
I'm afraid I'm preaching."

"Preach, then," she said.

"Well, it's just that. We don't quarrel with them: they manage
themselves. Hermann's going managed itself. It had to be."

Her voice quivered as she spoke now.

"Are you going?" she asked. "Will that have to be?"

Michael looked at her a moment with infinite tenderness.

"Oh, my dear, of course it will," he said. "Of course, one doesn't know
yet what the War Office will do about the Army. I suppose it's possible
that they will send troops to France. All that concerns me is that I
shall rejoin again if they call up the Reserves."

"And they will?"

"Yes, I should think that is inevitable. And you know there's something
big about it. I'm not warlike, you know, but I could not fail to be a
soldier under these new conditions, any more than I could continue being
a soldier when all it meant was to be ornamental. Hermann in bursts of
pride and patriotism used to call us toy-soldiers. But he's wrong now;
we're not going to be toy-soldiers any more."

She did not answer him, but he felt her hand press close in the palm of
his.

"I can't tell you how I dreaded we shouldn't go to war," he said. "That
has been a nightmare, if you like. It would have been the end of us if
we had stood aside and seen Germany violate a solemn treaty."

Even with Michael close to her, the call of her blood made itself
audible to Sylvia. Instinctively she withdrew her hand from his.

"Ah, you don't understand Germany at all," she said. "Hermann always
felt that too. He told me he felt he was talking gibberish to you when
he spoke of it. It is clearly life and death to Germany to move against
France as quickly as possible."

"But there's a direct frontier between the two," said he.

"No doubt, but an impossible one."

Michael frowned, drawing his big eyebrows together.

"But nothing can justify the violation of a national oath," he said.
"That's the basis of civilisation, a thing like that."

"But if it's a necessity? If a nation's existence depends on it?" she
asked. "Oh, Michael, I don't know! I don't know! For a little I am
entirely English, and then something calls to me from beyond the Rhine!
There's the hopelessness of it for me and such as me. You are English;
there's no question about it for you. But for us! I love England: I
needn't tell you that. But can one ever forget the land of one's birth?
Can I help feeling the necessity Germany is under? I can't believe that
she has wantonly provoked war with you."

"But consider--" said he.

She got up suddenly.

"I can't argue about it," she said. "I am English and I am German. You
must make the best of me as I am. But do be sorry for me, and never,
never forget that I love you entirely. That's the root fact between us.
I can't go deeper than that, because that reaches to the very bottom of
my soul. Shall we leave it so, Michael, and not ever talk of it again?
Wouldn't that be best?"

There was no question of choice for Michael in accepting that appeal.
He knew with the inmost fibre of his being that, Sylvia being Sylvia,
nothing that she could say or do or feel could possibly part him from
her. When he looked at it directly and simply like that, there was
nothing that could blur the verity of it. But the truth of what she
said, the reality of that call of the blood, seemed to cast a shadow
over it. He knew beyond all other knowledge that it was there: only it
looked out at him with a shadow, faint, but unmistakable, fallen
across it. But the sense of that made him the more eagerly accept her
suggestion.

"Yes, darling, we'll never speak of it again," he said. "That would be
much wisest."


Lady Ashbridge's funeral took place three days afterwards, down in
Suffolk, and those hours detached themselves in Michael's mind from all
that had gone before, and all that might follow, like a little piece
of blue sky in the midst of storm clouds. The limitations of man's
consciousness, which forbid him to think poignantly about two things at
once, hedged that day in with an impenetrable barrier, so that while it
lasted, and afterwards for ever in memory, it was unflecked by trouble
or anxiety, and hung between heaven and earth in a serenity of its own.

The coffin lay that night in his mother's bedroom, which was next to
Michael's, and when he went up to bed he found himself listening for
any sound that came from there. It seemed but yesterday when he had gone
rather early upstairs, and after sitting a minute or two in front of
his fire, had heard that timid knock on the door, which had meant the
opening of a mother's heart to him. He felt it would scarcely be strange
if that knock came again, and if she entered once more to be with him.
From the moment he came upstairs, the rest of the world was shut down
to him; he entered his bedroom as if he entered a sanctuary that was
scented with the incense of her love. He knew exactly how her knock had
sounded when she came in here that night when first it burned for him:
his ears were alert for it to come again. Once his blind tapped against
the frame of his open window, and, though knowing it was that, he heard
himself whisper--for she could hear his whisper--"Come in, mother," and
sat up in his deep chair, looking towards the door. But only the blind
tapped again, and outside in the moonlit dusk an owl hooted.

He remembered she liked owls. Once, when they lived alone in Curzon
Street, some noise outside reminded her of the owls that hooted at
Ashbridge--she had imitated their note, saying it sounded like sleep.
. . . She had sat in a chintz-covered chair close to him when at
Christmas she paid him that visit, and now he again drew it close to his
own, and laid his hand on its arm. Petsy II. had come in with her, and
she had hoped that he would not annoy Michael.

There were steps in the passage outside his room, and he heard a little
shrill bark. He opened his door and found his mother's maid there,
trying to entice Petsy away from the room next to his. The little dog
was curled up against it, and now and then he turned round scratching at
it, asking to enter. "He won't come away, my lord," said the maid; "he's
gone back a dozen times to the door."

Michael bent down.

"Come, Petsy," he said, "come to bed in my room."

The dog looked at him for a moment as if weighing his trustworthiness.
Then he got up and, with grotesque Chinese high-stepping walk, came to
him.

"He'll be all right with me," he said to the maid.

He took Petsy into his room next door, and laid him on the chair in
which his mother had sat. The dog moved round in a circle once or twice,
and then settled himself down to sleep. Michael went to bed also, and
lay awake about a couple of minutes, not thinking, but only being, while
the owls hooted outside.

He awoke into complete consciousness, knowing that something had aroused
him, even as three days ago when the telephone rang to summon him to his
mother's deathbed. Then he did not know what had awakened him, but now
he was sure that there had been a tapping on his door. And after he had
sat up in bed completely awake, he heard Petsy give a little welcoming
bark. Then came the noise of his small, soft tail beating against the
cushion in the chair.

Michael had no feeling of fright at all, only of longing for something
that physically could not be. And longing, only longing, once more he
said:

"Come in, mother."

He believed he heard the door whisper on the carpet, but he saw nothing.
Only, the room was full of his mother's presence. It seemed to him that,
in obedience to her, he lay down completely satisfied. . . . He felt no
curiosity to see or hear more. She was there, and that was enough.

He woke again a little after dawn. Petsy between the window and the door
had jumped on to his bed to get out of the draught of the morning wind.
For the door was opened.


That morning the coffin was carried down the long winding path above the
deep-water reach, where Michael and Francis at Christmas had heard the
sound of stealthy rowing, and on to the boat that awaited it to ferry it
across to the church. There was high tide, and, as they passed over the
estuary, the stillness of supreme noon bore to them the tolling of the
bell. The mourners from the house followed, just three of them, Lord
Ashbridge, Michael, and Aunt Barbara, for the rest were to assemble at
the church. But of all that, one moment stood out for Michael above all
others, when, as they entered the graveyard, someone whom he could not
see said: "I am the Resurrection and the Life," and he heard that his
father, by whom he walked, suddenly caught his breath in a sob.

All that day there persisted that sense of complete detachment from all
but her whose body they had laid to rest on the windy hill overlooking
the broad water. His father, Aunt Barbara, the cousins and relations who
thronged the church were no more than inanimate shadows compared with
her whose presence had come last night into his room, and had not left
him since. The affairs of the world, drums and the torch of war, had
passed for those hours from his knowledge, as at the centre of a cyclone
there was a windless calm. To-morrow he knew he would pass out into
the tumult again, and the minutes slipped like pearls from a string,
dropping into the dim gulf where the tempest raged. . . .

He went back to town next morning, after a short interview with his
father, who was coming up later in the day, when he told him that he
intended to go back to his regiment as soon as possible. But, knowing
that he meant to go by the slow midday train, his father proposed to
stop the express for him that went through a few minutes before. Michael
could hardly believe his ears. . . .


CHAPTER XV


It was but a day or two after the outbreak of the war that it was
believed that an expeditionary force was to be sent to France, to help
in arresting the Teutonic tide that was now breaking over Belgium; but
no public and authoritative news came till after the first draft of the
force had actually set foot on French soil. From the regiment of the
Guards which Michael had rejoined, Francis was among the first batch of
officers to go, and that evening Michael took down the news to Sylvia.
Already stories of German barbarity were rife, of women violated, of
defenceless civilians being shot down for no object except to terrorise,
and to bring home to the Belgians the unwisdom of presuming to cross the
will of the sovereign people. To-night, in the evening papers, there had
been a fresh batch of these revolting stories, and when Michael entered
the studio where Sylvia and her mother were sitting, he saw the girl let
drop behind the sofa the paper she had been reading. He guessed what she
must have found there, for he had already seen the paper himself, and
her silence, her distraction, and the misery of her face confirmed his
conjecture.

"I've brought you a little news to-night," he said. "The first draft
from the regiment went off to-day."

Mrs. Falbe put down her book, marking the place.

"Well, that does look like business, then," she said, "though I must say
I should feel safer if they didn't send our soldiers away. Where have
they gone to?"

"Destination unknown," said Michael. "But it's France. My cousin has
gone."

"Francis?" asked Sylvia. "Oh, how wicked to send boys like that."

Michael saw that her nerves were sharply on edge. She had given him no
greeting, and now as he sat down she moved a little away from him. She
seemed utterly unlike herself.

"Mother has been told that every Englishman is as brave as two Germans,"
she said. "She likes that."

"Yes, dear," observed Mrs. Falbe placidly. "It makes one feel safer. I
saw it in the paper, though; I read it."

Sylvia turned on Michael.

"Have you seen the evening paper?" she asked.

Michael knew what was in her mind.

"I just looked at it," he said. "There didn't seem to be much news."

"No, only reports, rumours, lies," said Sylvia.

Mrs. Falbe got up. It was her habit to leave the two alone together,
since she was sure they preferred that; incidentally, also, she got on
better with her book, for she found conversation rather distracting. But
to-night Sylvia stopped her.

"Oh, don't go yet, mother," she said. "It is very early."

It was clear that for some reason she did not want to be left alone with
Michael, for never had she done this before. Nor did it avail anything
now, for Mrs. Falbe, who was quite determined to pursue her reading
without delay, moved towards the door.

"But I am sure Michael wants to talk to you, dear," she said, "and you
have not seen him all day. I think I shall go up to bed."

Sylvia made no further effort to detain her, but when she had gone, the
silence in which they had so often sat together had taken on a perfectly
different quality.

"And what have you been doing?" she said. "Tell me about your day. No,
don't. I know it has all been concerned with war, and I don't want to
hear about it."

"I dined with Aunt Barbara," said Michael. "She sent you her love. She
also wondered why you hadn't been to see her for so long."

Sylvia gave a short laugh, which had no touch of merriment in it.

"Did she really?" she asked. "I should have thought she could have
guessed. She set every nerve in my body jangling last time I saw her by
the way she talked about Germans. And then suddenly she pulled herself
up and apologised, saying she had forgotten. That made it worse!
Michael, when you are unhappy, kindness is even more intolerable than
unkindness. I would sooner have Lady Barbara abusing my people than
saying how sorry she is for me. Don't let's talk about it! Let's do
something. Will you play, or shall I sing? Let's employ ourselves."

Michael followed her lead.

"Ah, do sing," he said. "It's weeks since I have heard you sing."

She went quickly over to the bookcase of music by the piano.

"Come, then, let's sing and forget," she said. "Hermann always said the
artist was of no nationality. Let's begin quick. These are all German
songs: don't let's have those. Ah, and these, too! What's to be done?
All our songs seem to be German."

Michael laughed.

"But we've just settled that artists have no nationality, so I suppose
art hasn't either," he said.

Sylvia pulled herself together, conscious of a want of control, and laid
her hand on Michael's shoulder.

"Oh, Michael, what should I do without you?" she said. "And yet--well,
let me sing."

She had placed a volume of Schubert on the music-stand, and opening it
at random he found "Du Bist die Ruhe." She sang the first verse, but in
the middle of the second she stopped.

"I can't," she said. "It's no use."

He turned round to her.

"Oh, I'm so sorry," he said. "But you know that."

She moved away from him, and walked down to the empty fireplace.

"I can't keep silence," she said, "though I know we settled not to talk
of those things when necessarily we cannot feel absolutely at one. But,
just before you came in, I was reading the evening paper. Michael, how
can the English be so wicked as to print, and I suppose to believe,
those awful things I find there? You told me you had glanced at it.
Well, did you glance at the lies they tell about German atrocities?"

"Yes, I saw them," said Michael. "But it's no use talking about them."

"But aren't you indignant?" she said. "Doesn't your blood boil to read
of such infamous falsehoods? You don't know Germans, but I do, and it is
impossible that such things can have happened."

Michael felt profoundly uncomfortable. Some of these stories which
Sylvia called lies were vouched for, apparently, by respectable
testimony.

"Why talk about them?" he said. "I'm sure we were wise when we settled
not to."

She shook her head.

"Well, I can't live up to that wisdom," she said. "When I think of this
war day and night and night and day, how can I prevent talking to
you about it? And those lies! Germans couldn't do such things. It's a
campaign of hate against us, set up by the English Press."

"I daresay the German Press is no better," said Michael.

"If that is so, I should be just as indignant about the German Press,"
said she. "But it is only your guess that it is so."

Suddenly she stopped, and came a couple of steps nearer him.

"Michael, it isn't possible that you believe those things of us?" she
said.

He got up.

"Ah, do leave it alone, Sylvia," he said. "I know no more of the truth
or falsity of it than you. I have seen just what you have seen in the
papers."

"You don't feel the impossibility of it, then?" she asked.

"No, I don't. There seems to have been sworn testimony. War is a cruel
thing; I hate it as much as you. When men are maddened with war, you
can't tell what they would do. They are not the Germans you know, nor
the Germans I know, who did such things--not the people I saw when I
was with Hermann in Baireuth and Munich a year ago. They are no more the
same than a drunken man is the same as that man when he is sober. They
are two different people; drink has made them different. And war has
done the same for Germany."

He held out his hand to her. She moved a step back from him.

"Then you think, I suppose, that Hermann may be concerned in those
atrocities," she said.

Michael looked at her in amazement.

"You are talking sheer nonsense, Sylvia," he said.

"Not at all. It is a logical inference, just an application of the
principle you have stated."

Michael's instinct was just to take her in his arms and make the
final appeal, saying, "We love each other, that's all," but his reason
prevented him. Sylvia had said a monstrous thing in cold blood, when she
suggested that he thought Hermann might be concerned in these deeds, and
in cold blood, not by appealing to her emotions, must she withdraw that.

"I'm not going to argue about it," he said. "I want you to tell me at
once that I am right, that it was sheer nonsense, to put no other name
to it, when you suggested that I thought that of Hermann."

"Oh, pray put another name to it," she said.

"Very well. It was a wanton falsehood," said Michael, "and you know it."

Truly this hellish nightmare of war and hate which had arisen brought
with it a brood not less terrible. A day ago, an hour ago he would have
merely laughed at the possibility of such a situation between Sylvia and
himself. Yet here it was: they were in the middle of it now.

She looked up at him flashing with indignation, and a retort as stinging
as his rose to her lips. And then quite suddenly, all her anger went
from her, as her, heart told her, in a voice that would not be silenced,
the complete justice of what he had said, and the appeal that Michael
refrained from making was made by her to herself. Remorse held her on
its spikes for her abominable suggestion, and with it came a sense
of utter desolation and misery, of hatred for herself in having thus
quietly and deliberately said what she had said. She could not account
for it, nor excuse herself on the plea that she had spoken in passion,
for she had spoken, as he felt, in cold blood. Hence came the misery in
the knowledge that she must have wounded Michael intolerably.

Her lips so quivered that when she first tried to speak no words would
come. That she was truly ashamed brought no relief, no ease to her
surrender, for she knew that it was her real self who had spoken thus
incredibly. But she could at least disown that part of her.

"I beg your pardon, Michael," she said. "I was atrocious. Will you
forgive me? Because I am so miserable."

He had nothing but love for her, love and its kinsman pity.

"Oh, my dear, fancy you asking that!" he said.

Just for the moment of their reconciliation, it seemed to both that they
came closer to each other than they had ever been before, and the chance
of the need of any such another reconciliation was impossible to the
verge of laughableness, so that before five minutes were past he could
make the smile break through her tears at the absurdity of the moment
that now seemed quite unreal. Yet that which was at the root of their
temporary antagonism was not removed by the reconciliation; at most
they had succeeded in cutting off the poisonous shoot that had suddenly
sprouted from it. The truth of this in the days that followed was
horribly demonstrated.

It was not that they ever again came to the spoken bitterness of words,
for the sharpness of them, once experienced, was shunned by each of
them, but times without number they had to sheer off, and not approach
the ground where these poisoned tendrils trailed. And in that sense of
having to take care, to be watchful lest a chance word should bring the
peril close to them, the atmosphere of complete ease and confidence,
in which alone love can flourish, was tainted. Love was there, but its
flowers could not expand, it could not grow in the midst of this bitter
air. And what made the situation more and increasingly difficult was
the fact that, next to their love for each other, the emotion that
most filled the mind of each was this sense of race-antagonism. It was
impossible that the news of the war should not be mentioned, for that
would have created an intolerable unreality, and all that was in their
power was to avoid all discussion, to suppress from speech all the
feelings with which the news filled them. Every day, too, there came
fresh stories of German abominations committed on the Belgians, and each
knew that the other had seen them, and yet neither could mention them.
For while Sylvia could not believe them, Michael could not help doing
so, and thus there was no common ground on which they could speak of
them. Often Mrs. Falbe, in whose blood, it would seem, no sense of
race beat at all, would add to the embarrassment by childlike comments,
saying at one time in reference to such things that she made a point of
not believing all she saw in the newspapers, or at another ejaculating,
"Well, the Germans do seem to have behaved very cruelly again!" But no
emotion appeared to colour these speeches, while all the emotion of the
world surged and bubbled behind the silence of the other two.

Then followed the darkest days that England perhaps had ever known, when
the German armies, having overcome the resistance of Belgium, suddenly
swept forward again across France, pushing before them like the jetsam
and flotsam on the rim of the advancing tide the allied armies. Often in
these appalling weeks, Michael would hesitate as to whether he should go
to see Sylvia or not, so unbearable seemed the fact that she did not and
could not feel or understand what England was going through. So far
from blaming her for it, he knew that it could not be otherwise, for her
blood called to her, even as his to him, while somewhere in the onrush
of those advancing and devouring waves was her brother, with whom, so it
had often seemed to him, she was one soul. Thus, while in that his whole
sympathy and whole comprehension of her love was with him, there was as
well all that deep, silent English patriotism of which till now he had
scarcely been conscious, praying with mute entreaty that disaster and
destruction and defeat might overwhelm those advancing hordes. Once,
when the anxiety and peril were at their height, he made up his mind not
to see her that day, and spent the evening by himself. But later, when
he was actually on his way to bed, he knew he could not keep away from
her, and though it was already midnight, he drove down to Chelsea, and
found her sitting up, waiting for the chance of his coming.

For a moment, as she greeted him and he kissed her silently, they
escaped from the encompassing horror.

"Ah, you have come," she said. "I thought perhaps you might. I have
wanted you dreadfully."

The roar of artillery, the internecine strife were still. Just for a
few seconds there was nothing in the world for him but her, nor for her
anything but him.

"I couldn't go to bed without just seeing you," he said. "I won't keep
you up."

They stood with hands clasped.

"But if you hadn't come, Michael," she said, "I should have understood."

And then the roar and the horror began again. Her words were the
simplest, the most directly spoken to him, yet could not but evoke the
spectres that for the moment had vanished. She had meant to let her
love for him speak; it had spoken, and instantly through the momentary
sunlight of it, there loomed the fierce and enormous shadow. It could
not be banished from their most secret hearts; even when the doors
were shut and they were alone together thus, it made its entrance,
ghost-like, terrible, and all love's bolts and bars could not keep it
out. Here was the tragedy of it, that they could not stand embraced with
clasped hands and look at it together and so rob it of its terrors, for,
at the sight of it, their hands were loosened from each other's, and in
its presence they were forced to stand apart. In his heart, as surely
as he knew her love, Michael knew that this great shadow under which
England lay was shot with sunlight for Sylvia, that the anxiety, the
awful suspense that made his fingers cold as he opened the daily papers,
brought into it to her an echo of victorious music that beat to the
tramp of advancing feet that marched ever forward leaving the glittering
Rhine leagues upon leagues in their rear. The Bavarian corps in which
Hermann served was known to be somewhere on the Western front, for
the Emperor had addressed them ten days before on their departure from
Munich, and Sylvia and Michael were both aware of that. But they
who loved Hermann best could not speak of it to each other, and the
knowledge of it had to be hidden in silence, as if it had been some
guilty secret in which they were the terrified accomplices, instead of
its being a bond of love which bound them both to Hermann.

In addition to the national anxiety, there was the suspense of those
whose sons and husbands and fathers were in the fighting line. Columns
of casualty lists were published, and each name appearing there was a
sword that pierced a home. One such list, published early in September,
was seen by Michael as he drove down on Sunday morning to spend the rest
of the day with Sylvia, and the first name that he read there was that
of Francis. For a moment, as he remembered afterwards, the print had
danced before his eyes, as if seen through the quiver of hot air. Then
it settled down and he saw it clearly.

He turned and drove back to his rooms in Half Moon Street, feeling that
strange craving for loneliness that shuns any companionship. He must,
for a little, sit alone with the fact, face it, adjust himself to it.
Till that moment when the dancing print grew still again he had not, in
all the anxiety and suspense of those days, thought of Francis's death
as a possibility even. He had heard from him only two mornings before,
in a letter thoroughly characteristic that saw, as Francis always saw,
the pleasant and agreeable side of things. Washing, he had announced,
was a delusion; after a week without it you began to wonder why you had
ever made a habit of it. . . . They had had a lot of marching, always
in the wrong direction, but everyone knew that would soon be over. . . .
Wasn't London very beastly in August? . . . Would Michael see if he
could get some proper cigarettes out to him? Here there was nothing but
little black French affairs (and not many of them) which tied a knot in
the throat of the smoker. . . . And now Francis, with all his gaiety
and his affection, and his light pleasant dealings with life, lay dead
somewhere on the sunny plains of France, killed in action by shell
or bullet in the midst of his youth and strength and joy in life, to
gratify the damned dreams of the man who had been the honoured guest
at Ashbridge, and those who had advised and flattered and at the end
perhaps just used him as their dupe. To their insensate greed and
swollen-headed lust for world-power was this hecatomb of sweet and
pleasant lives offered, and in their onward course through the vines
and corn of France they waded through the blood of the slain whose only
crime was that they had dared to oppose the will of Germany, as voiced
by the War Lord. And as milestones along the way they had come were set
the records of their infamy, in rapine and ruthless slaughter of the
innocent. Just at first, as he sat alone in his room, Michael but
contemplated images that seemed to form in his mind without his
volition, and, emotion-numb from the shock, they seemed external to
him. Sometimes he had a vision of Francis lying without mark or wound or
violence on him in some vineyard on the hill-side, with face as quiet
as in sleep turned towards a moonlit sky. Then came another picture, and
Francis was walking across the terrace at Ashbridge with his gun
over his shoulder, towards Lord Ashbridge and the Emperor, who stood
together, just as Michael had seen the three of them when they came
in from the shooting-party. As Francis came near, the Emperor put a
cartridge into his gun and shot him. . . . Yes, that was it: that was
what had happened. The marvellous peacemaker of Europe, the fire-engine
who, as Hermann had said, was ready to put out all conflagrations,
the fatuous mountebank who pretended to be a friend to England, who
conducted his own balderdash which he called music, had changed his role
and shown his black heart and was out to kill.

Wild panoramas like these streamed through Michael's head, as if
projected there by some magic lantern, and while they lasted he was
conscious of no grief at all, but only of a devouring hate for the mad,
lawless butchers who had caused Francis's death, and willingly at that
moment if he could have gone out into the night and killed a German, and
met his death himself in the doing of it, he would have gone to his
doom as to a bridal-bed. But by degrees, as the stress of these unsought
imaginings abated, his thoughts turned to Francis himself again, who,
through all his boyhood and early manhood, had been to him a sort of
ideal and inspiration. How he had loved and admired him, yet never with
a touch of jealousy! And Francis, whose letter lay open by him on the
table, lay dead on the battlefields of France. There was the envelope,
with the red square mark of the censor upon it, and the sheet with its
gay scrawl in pencil, asking for proper cigarettes. And, with a pang
of remorse, all the more vivid because it concerned so trivial a thing,
Michael recollected that he had not sent them. He had meant to do so
yesterday afternoon but something had put it out of his head. Never
again would Francis ask him to send out cigarettes. Michael laid his
head on his arms, so that his face was close to that pencilled note, and
the relief of tears came to him.

Soon he raised himself again, not ashamed of his sorrow, but somehow
ashamed of the black hate that before had filled him. That was gone for
the present, anyhow, and Michael was glad to find it vanished. Instead
there was an aching pity, not for Francis alone nor for himself, but for
all those concerned in this hideous business. A hundred and a thousand
homes, thrown suddenly to-day into mourning, were there: no doubt there
were houses in that Bavarian village in the pine woods above which he
and Hermann had spent the day when there was no opera at Baireuth where
a son or a brother or a father were mourned, and in the kinship of
sorrow he found himself at peace with all who had suffered loss, with
all who were living through days of deadly suspense. There was nothing
effeminate or sentimental about it; he had never been manlier than in
this moment when he claimed his right to be one with them. It was right
to pause like this, with his hand clasped in the hands of friends and
foes alike. But without disowning that, he knew that Francis's death,
which had brought that home to him, had made him eager also for his own
turn to come, when he would go out to help in the grim work that lay in
front of him. He was perfectly ready to die if necessary, and if not, to
kill as many Germans as possible. And somehow the two aspects of it
all, the pity and the desire to kill, existed side by side, neither
overlapping nor contradicting one another.


His servant came into the room with a pencilled note, which he opened.
It was from Sylvia.

"Oh, Michael, I have just called and am waiting to know if you will see
me. I have seen the news, and I want to tell you how sorry I am. But if
you don't care to see me I know you will say so, won't you?"

Though an hour before he had turned back on his way to go to Sylvia, he
did not hesitate now.

"Yes, ask Miss Falbe to come up," he said.

She came up immediately, and once again as they met, the world and the
war stood apart from them.

"I did not expect you to come, Michael," she said, "when I saw the news.
I did not mean to come here myself. But--but I had to. I had just to
find out whether you wouldn't see me, and let me tell you how sorry I
am."

He smiled at her as they stood facing each other.

"Thank you for coming," he said; "I'm so glad you came. But I had to be
alone just a little."

"I didn't do wrong?" she asked.

"Indeed you didn't. I did wrong not to come to you. I loved Francis, you
see."

Already the shadow threatened again. It was just the fact that he loved
Francis that had made it impossible for him to go to her, and he could
not explain that. And as the shadow began to fall she gave a little
shudder.

"Oh, Michael, I know you did," she said. "It's just that which concerns
us, that and my sympathy for you. He was such a dear. I only saw him,
I know, once or twice, but from that I can guess what he was to you. He
was a brother to you--a--a--Hermann."

Michael felt, with Sylvia's hand in his, they were both running
desperately away from the shadow that pursued them. Desperately he tried
with her to evade it. But every word spoken between them seemed but to
bring it nearer to them.

"I only came to say that," she said. "I had to tell you myself, to see
you as I told you, so that you could know how sincere, how heartfelt--"

She stopped suddenly.

"That's all, my dearest," she added. "I will go away again now."

Across that shadow that had again fallen between them they looked and
yearned for each other.

"No, don't go--don't go," he said. "I want you more than ever. We are
here, here and now, you and I, and what else matters in comparison of
that? I loved Francis, as you know, and I love Hermann, but there is our
love, the greatest thing of all. We've got it--it's here. Oh, Sylvia, we
must be wise and simple, we must separate things, sort them out, not let
them get mixed with one another. We can do it; I know we can. There's
nothing outside us; nothing matters--nothing matters."

There was just that ray of sun peering over the black cloud that
illumined their faces to each other, while already the sharp peaked
shadow of it had come between them. For that second, while he spoke, it
seemed possible that, in the middle of welter and chaos and death and
enmity, these two souls could stand apart, in the passionate serene of
love, and the moment lasted for just as long as she flung herself into
his arms. And then, even while her face was pressed to his, and while
the riotous blood of their pressed lips sang to them, the shadow fell
across them. Even as he asserted the inviolability of the sanctuary in
which they stood, he knew it to be an impossible Utopia--that he should
find with her the peace that should secure them from the raging storm,
the cold shadow--and the loosening of her arms about his neck but
endorsed the message of his own heart. For such heavenly security cannot
come except to those who have been through the ultimate bitterness that
the world can bring; it is not arrived at but through complete surrender
to the trial of fire, and as yet, in spite of their opposed patriotism,
in spite of her sincerest sympathy with Michael's loss, the assault
on the most intimate lines of the fortress had not yet been delivered.
Before they could reach the peace that passed understanding, a fiercer
attack had to be repulsed, they had to stand and look at each other
unembittered across waves and billows of a salter Marah than this.

But still they clung, while in their eyes there passed backwards and
forwards the message that said, "It is not yet; it is not thus!" They
had been like two children springing together at the report of some
thunder-clap, not knowing in the presence of what elemental outpouring
of force they hid their faces together. As yet it but boomed on the
horizon, though messages of its havoc reached them, and the test would
come when it roared and lightened overhead. Already the tension of the
approaching tempest had so wrought on them that for a month past they
had been unreal to each other, wanting ease, wanting confidence; and
now, when the first real shock had come, though for a moment it threw
them into each other's arms, this was not, as they knew, the real, the
final reconciliation, the touchstone that proved the gold. Francis's
death, the cousin whom Michael loved, at the hands of one of the nation
to whom Sylvia belonged, had momentarily made them feel that all else
but their love was but external circumstance; and, even in the moment
of their feeling this, the shadow fell again, and left them chilly and
shivering.

For a moment they still held each other round the neck and shoulder,
then the hold slipped to the elbow, and soon their hands parted. As yet
no word had been said since Michael asserted that nothing else mattered,
and in the silence of their gradual estrangement the sanguine falsity of
that grew and grew and grew.

"I know what you feel," she said at length, "and I feel it also."

Her voice broke, and her hands felt for his again.

"Michael, where are you?" she cried. "No, don't touch me; I didn't mean
that. Let's face it. For all we know, Hermann might have killed Francis.
. . . Whether he did or not, doesn't matter. It might have been. It's
like that."

A minute before Michael, in soul and blood and mind and bones, had said
that nothing but Sylvia and himself had any real existence. He had clung
to her, even as she to him, hoping that this individual love would
prove itself capable of overriding all else that existed. But it had not
needed that she should speak to show him how pathetically he had erred.
Before she had made a concrete instance he knew how hopeless his wish
had been: the silence, the loosening of hands had told him that. And
when she spoke there was a brutality in what she said, and worse than
the brutality there was a plain, unvarnished truth.

There was no question now of her going away at once, as she had
proposed, any more than a boat in the rapids, roared round by breakers,
can propose to start again. They were in the middle of it, and so
short a way ahead was the cataract that ran with blood. On each side
at present were fine, green landing-places; he at the oar, she at the
tiller, could, if they were of one mind, still put ashore, could run
their boat in, declining the passage of the cataract with all its risks,
its river of blood. There was but a stroke of the oar to be made, a pull
on a rope of the rudder, and a step ashore. Here was a way out of the
storm and the rapids.

A moment before, when, by their physical parting they had realised
the strength of the bonds that held them apart this solution had not
occurred to Sylvia. Now, critically and forlornly hopeful, it flashed
on her. She felt, she almost felt--for the ultimate decision rested with
him--that with him she would throw everything else aside, and escape,
just escape, if so he willed it, into some haven of neutrality, where
he and she would be together, leaving the rest of the world, her country
and his, to fight over these irreconcilable quarrels. It did not seem to
matter what happened to anybody else, provided only she and Michael were
together, out of risk, out of harm. Other lives might be precious, other
ideals and patriotisms might be at stake, but she wanted to be with him
and nothing else at all. No tie counted compared to that; there was but
one life given to man and woman, and now that her individual happiness,
the individual joy of her love, was at stake, she felt, even as Michael
had said, that nothing else mattered, that they would be right to
realise themselves at any cost.

She took his hands again.

"Listen to me, Michael," she said. "I can't bear any longer that these
horrors should keep rising up between us, and, while we are here in the
middle of it all, it can't be otherwise. I ask you, then, to come away
with me, to leave it all behind. It is not our quarrel. Already Hermann
has gone; I can't lose you too."

She looked up at him for a moment, and then quickly away again, for she
felt her case, which seemed to her just now so imperative, slipping away
from her in that glance she got of his eyes, that, for all the love that
burned there, were blank with astonishment. She must convince him; but
her own convictions were weak when she looked at him.

"Don't answer me yet," she said. "Hear what I have to say. Don't you
see that while we are like this we are lost to each other? And as you
yourself said just now, nothing matters in comparison to our love. I
want you to take me away, out of it all, so that we can find each other
again. These horrors thwart and warp us; they spoil the best thing that
the world holds for us. My patriotism is just as sound as yours, but
I throw it away to get you. Do the same, then. You can get out of your
service somehow. . . ."

And then her voice began to falter.

"If you loved me, you would do it," she said. "If--"

And then suddenly she found she could say no more at all. She had hoped
that when she stated these things she would convince him, and, behold,
all she had done was to shake her own convictions so that they fell
clattering round her like an unstable card-house. Desperately she looked
again at him, wondering if she had convinced him at all, and then again
she looked, wondering if she should see contempt in his eyes. After that
she stood still and silent, and her face flamed.

"Do you despise me, Michael?" she said.

He gave a little sigh of utter content.

"Oh, my dear, how I love you for suggesting such a sweet impossibility,"
he said. "But how you would despise me if I consented."

She did not answer.

"Wouldn't you?" he repeated.

She gave a sorrowful semblance of a laugh.

"I suppose I should," she said.

"And I know you would. You would contrast me in your mind, whether
you wished to or not, with Hermann, with poor Francis, sorely to my
disadvantage."

They sat silent a little, but there was another question Sylvia had to
ask for which she had to collect her courage. At last it came.

"Have they told you yet when you are going?" she said.

"Not for certain. But--it will be before many days are passed. And the
question arises--will you marry me before I go?"

She hid her face on his shoulder.

"I will do what you wish," she said.

"But I want to know your wish."

She clung closer to him.

"Michael, I don't think I could bear to part with you if we were
married," she said. "It would be worse, I think, than it's going to be.
But I intend to do exactly what you wish. You must tell me. I'm going to
obey you before I am your wife as well as after."

Michael had long debated this in his mind. It seemed to him that if
he came back, as might easily happen, hopelessly crippled, incurably
invalid, it would be placing Sylvia in an unfairly difficult position,
if she was already his wife. He might be hideously disfigured; she would
be bound to but a wreck of a man; he might be utterly unfit to be her
husband, and yet she would be tied to him. He had already talked the
question over with his father, who, with that curious posthumous anxiety
to have a further direct heir, had urged that the marriage should take
place at once; but with his own feeling on the subject, as well as
Sylvia's, he at once made up his mind.

"I agree with you," he said. "We will settle it so, then."

She smiled at him.

"How dreadfully business-like," she said, with an attempt at lightness.

"I know. It's rather a good thing one has got to be business-like,
when--"

That failed also, and he drew her to him and kissed her.


CHAPTER XVI


Michael was sitting in the kitchen of a French farm-house just outside
the village of Laires, some three miles behind the English front. The
kitchen door was open, and on the flagged floor was cast an oblong of
primrose-coloured November sunshine, warm and pleasant, so that the
bluebottle flies buzzed hopefully about it, settling occasionally on
the cracked green door, where they cleaned their wings, and generally
furbished themselves up, as if the warmth was that of a spring day that
promised summer to follow. They were there in considerable numbers,
for just outside in the cobbled yard was a heap of manure, where they
hungrily congregated. Against the white-washed wall of the house there
lay a fat sow, basking contentedly, and snorting in her dreams. The
yard, bounded on two sides by the house walls, was shut in on the third
by a row of farm-sheds, and the fourth was open. Just outside it stood
a small copse half flooded with the brimming water of a sluggish stream
that meandered by the side of the farm-road leading out of the yard,
which turned to the left, and soon joined the highway. This farm-road
was partly under water, though not deeply, so that by skirting along its
raised banks it was possible to go dry-shod to the highway underneath
which the stream passed in a brick culvert.

Through the kitchen window, set opposite the door, could be seen a broad
stretch of country of the fenland type, flat and bare, and intersected
with dykes, where sedges stirred slightly in the southerly breeze. Here
and there were pools of overflowed rivulets, and here and there were
plantations of stunted hornbeam, the russet leaves of which still
clung thickly to them. But in the main it was a bare and empty land,
featureless and stolid.

Just below the kitchen window there was a plot of cultivated ground,
thriftily and economically used for the growing of vegetables.
Concession, however, was made to the sense of brightness and beauty, for
on each side of the path leading up to the door ran a row of Michaelmas
daisies, rather battered by the fortnight of rain which had preceded
this day of still warm sun, but struggling bravely to shake off the
effect of the adverse conditions under which they had laboured.

The kitchen itself was extremely clean and orderly. Its flagged floor
was still damp and brown in patches from the washing it had received two
hours before; but the draught between open window and open door was fast
drying it. Down the centre of the room was a deal table without a cloth,
on which were laid some half-dozen places, each marked with a knife and
fork and spoon and a thick glass, ready for the serving of the midday
meal. On the white-washed walls hung two photographs of family groups,
in one of which appeared the father and mother and three little
children, in the other the same personages some ten years later, and a
lithograph of the Blessed Virgin. On each side of the table was a
deal bench, at the head and foot two wooden armchairs. A dresser stood
against the wall, on the floor by the oven was a frayed rug, and most
important of all, to Michael's mind, was a big stewpot that stood on
the top of the oven. From time to time a fat, comfortable Frenchwoman
bustled in, and took off the lid of this to stir it, or placed on the
dresser a plate of cheese, or a loaf of freshly cooked brown bread. Two
or three of Michael's brother-officers were there, one sitting in the
patch of sunlight with his back against the green door, another on the
step outside. The post had come in not long before, and all of them,
Michael included, were occupied with letters and papers.

To-day there happened to be no letters for Michael, and the paper which
he glanced at seemed a very feeble effort in the way of entertainment.
There was no news in it, except news about the war, which here, out at
the front, did not interest him in the least. Perhaps in England people
liked to know that a hundred yards of trenches had been taken at one
place, and that three German attacks had failed at another; but when
you were actually engaged (or had been or would soon again be) in taking
part in those things, it seemed a waste of paper and compositor's
time to record them. There was a column of letters also from indignant
Britons, using violent language about the crimes and treachery of
Germany. That also was uninteresting and far-fetched. Nothing that
Germany had done mattered the least. There was no use in arguing and
slinging wild expressions about; it was a stale subject altogether
when you were within earshot of that incessant booming of guns. All the
morning that had gone on without break, and no doubt they would get news
of what had happened before they set out again that evening for another
spell in the trenches. But in all probability nothing particular had
happened. Probably the London papers would record it next day, a further
tediousness on their part. It would be much more interesting to hear
what was going on there, whether there were any new plays, whether there
had been any fresh concerts, what the weather was like, or even who had
been lunching at Prince's, or dining at the Carlton.

He put down his uninteresting paper, and strolled out into the farmyard,
stepping over the legs of the junior officer who blocked the doorway,
and did not attempt to move. On the doorstep was sitting a major of his
regiment, who, more politely, shifted his place a little so that Michael
should pass. Outside the smell of manure was acrid but not unpleasant,
the old sow grunted in her sleep, and one of the green shutters outside
the upper windows slowly blew to. There was someone inside the room
apparently, for the moment after a hand and arm bare to the elbow were
protruded, and fastened the latch of the shutter, so that it should not
move again.

A little further on was a rail that separated the copse from the
roadway, and here out of the wind Michael sat down, and lit a cigarette
to stop his yearning for the bubbling stewpot, which would not be
broached for half an hour yet. The day, he believed, was Wednesday,
but the whole quiet of the place, apart from that drowsy booming on
the eastern horizon, made it feel like Sunday. Nobody but the fat
Frenchwoman who bustled about had anything to do; there was a Sabbath
leisure about everything, about the dozing sow, the buzzing flies, the
lounging figures that read letters and papers. When last they were here,
it is true, there were rather more of them. Eight officers had been
billeted here last week, before they had been in the trenches and now
there were but six. This evening they would set out again for another
forty-eight hours in that hellish inferno, but to-morrow a fresh draft
was arriving, so that when next they foregathered here, whatever had
happened in the interval, there would probably be at least six of them.

It did not seem to matter much what six there would be, or whether there
would be more than six or less. All that mattered at this moment, as he
inhaled the first incense of his cigarette, was that the rain was
over for the present, that the sun shone from a blue sky, that he felt
extraordinarily well and tranquil, and that dinner would soon be
ready. But of all these agreeable things what pleased him most was the
tranquillity; to be alive here with the manure heap steaming in the
sun, and the sow asleep by the house wall, and swallows settling on the
eaves, was "Paradise enow." Somewhere deep down in him were streams of
yearning and of horror, flowing like an underground river in the dark.
He yearned for Sylvia, he thought with horror of the two days in the
trenches that had preceded this rest in the white-washed farm-house, and
with horror he thought of the days and nights that would succeed it. But
both horror and yearnings were stupefied by the content that flooded the
present moment. No doubt it was reaction from what had gone before, but
the reaction was complete. Just now he asked for nothing but to sit in
the sun and smoke his cigarette, and wait for dinner. As far as he knew
he did not think of anything particular; he just existed in the sun.

The wind must have shifted a little, for before long it came round
the corner of the house, and slightly spoiled the mellow warmth of the
sunshine. This would never do. The Epicurean in him revolted at the idea
of losing a moment of this complete well-being, and arguing that if the
wind blew here, it must be dead calm below the kitchen window on the
other side of the house, he got off his rail and walked along the
slippery bank at the edge of the flooded road in order to go there. It
was hard to keep his footing here, and his progress was slow, but he
felt he would take any amount of trouble to avoid getting his feet wet
in the flooded road. Then there was a patch of kitchen-garden to cross,
where the mud clung rather annoyingly to his instep, and, having gained
the garden path, he very carefully wiped his boots and with a fallen
twig dug away the clots of soil that stuck to the instep.

He found that he had been quite right in supposing that the air would
be windless here, and full of great content he sat down with his back
to the house wall. A tortoise-shell butterfly, encouraged by the warmth,
was flitting about among the Michaelmas daisies that bordered the path
and settling on them, opening its wings to the genial sun. Two or three
bees buzzed there also; the summer-like tranquillity inserted into the
middle of November squalls and rain, deluded them as well as Michael
into living completely in the present hour. Gnats hovered about. One
settled on Michael's hand, where he instantly killed it, and was sorry
he had done so. For the time the booming of guns which had sounded
incessantly all the morning to the east, stopped altogether, and
absolute quiet reigned. Had he not been so hungry, and so unable to get
the idea of the stewpot out of his head, Michael would have been content
to sit with his back to the sun-warmed wall for ever.

The high-road, raised and embanked above the low-lying fields, ran
eastwards in an undeviating straight line. Just opposite the farm were
the last outlying huts of the village, and from there onwards it lay
untenanted. But before many minutes were passed, the quiet of the autumn
noon began to be overscored by distant humming, faint at first, and then
quickly growing louder, and he saw far away a little brown speck coming
swiftly towards him. It turned out to be a dispatch-rider, mounted on a
motor-bicycle, who with a hoot of his horn roared westward through
the village. Immediately afterwards another humming, steadier and
more sonorous, grew louder, and Michael, recognising it, looked up
instinctively into the blue sky overhead, as an English aeroplane,
flying low, came from somewhere behind, and passed directly over him,
going eastwards. Before long it stopped its direct course, and began to
mount in spirals, and when at a sufficient height, it resumed its onward
journey towards the German lines. Then three or four privates, billeted
in the village, and now resting after duty in the trenches, strolled
along the road, laughing and talking. They sat down not a hundred yards
from Michael and one began to whistle "Tipperary." Another and another
took it up until all four were engaged on it. It was not precisely
in tune nor were the performers in unison, but it produced a vaguely
pleasant effect, and if not in tune with the notes as the composer wrote
them, the sight and sound of those four whistling and idle soldiers was
in tune with the air of security of Sunday morning.

Something far down the road caught Michael's eye, some moving line
of brown wagons. As they came nearer he saw that they were the
motor-ambulances of the Red Cross, moving slowly along the ruts and
holes which the traffic had worn, so that the occupants should suffer
as little jolting as was possible. They carried no doubt the wounded who
had been taken from the trenches last night, and now, after calling
for them at the first dressing station in the rear of the lines, were
removing them to hospital. As they passed the four men sitting by the
roadside, one of them shouted, "Cheer, oh, mates!" and then they fell
to whistling "Tipperary" again. Then, oh, blessed moment! the fat
Frenchwoman looked out of the kitchen window just above his head.

"Diner, m'sieu," she said, and Michael, without another thought of
ambulance or aeroplane, scrambled to his feet. Somewhere in the middle
distance of his mind he was sorry that this tranquil morning was over,
just as below in the darkness of it there ran those streams of yearning
and of horror, but all his ordinary work-a-day self was occupied with
the immediate prospect of the stewpot. It was some sort of a ragout, he
knew, and he lusted for it. Red wine of the country would be there,
and cheese and new brown bread. . . . It surprised him to find how
completely his bodily needs and the pleasure of their gratification had
possession of him.

They were under orders to go back to the trenches shortly after sunset,
and when their meal was over there remained but an hour or two before
they had to start. The warmth and glory of the day was already gone,
and streamers of cloud were beginning to form over the open sky.
All afternoon these thickened till a dull layer of grey had thickly
overspread the heavens and below that arch of vapour that cut off
the sun the wind was blowing chilly. With that change in the weather,
Michael's mood changed also, and the horror of the return to the
trenches began to come to the surface. He was not as yet aware of any
physical fear of death or of wound, rather, the feeling was one of some
mental and spiritual shrinking from the whole of this vast business of
murder, where hundreds and thousands of men along the battle front that
stretched half-way across Europe, were employed, day and night, without
having any quarrel with each other, in the unsleeping vigilant work of
killing. Most of them in all probability, were quite decent fellows,
like those four who had whistled "Tipperary" together, and yet they were
spending months of young, sweet life up to the knees in water, in foul
and ill-smelling trenches in order to kill others whom they had never
seen except as specks on the sights of their rifles. Somewhere behind
that gruesome business, as he knew, there stood the Cause, calm and
serene, like some great statue, which made this insensate murdering
necessary; but just for an hour to-day, as he waited till they had to be
on the move again, he found himself unable to make real to his own mind
the existence of that cause, and could not see beyond the bloody and
hideous things that resulted from it.

Then, in this inaction of waiting, an attack of mere physical cowardice
seized him, and he found himself imagining the mutilation and torture
that perhaps awaited him personally in those deathly ditches. He tried
to busy himself with the preparation of the few things that he would
take with him, he tried to encourage himself by remembering that in his
previous experiences there he had not been conscious of any fear, by
telling himself that these were only the unreal anticipations that were
always ready to pounce on one even before such mildly alarming affairs
as a visit to the dentist; but in spite of his efforts, he found his
hands growing clammy and cold at the thoughts which beset his brain.
What if there happened to him what had happened to another junior
officer who was close to him at the moment, when a fragment of shell
turned him from a big gay boy into a writhing bundle at the bottom of
the trench! He had lived for a couple of hours like that, moaning and
crying out, "For God's sake kill me!" What if, more mercifully, he was
killed outright, so that he would lie there in peace till next night
they removed his body, or perhaps had to bury him in the trench itself,
with a dozen handfuls of soil cast over him! At that he suddenly
realised how passionately he wanted to live, to escape from this
infernal butchery, to be safe again, gloriously or ingloriously, it
mattered not which, to be with Sylvia once more. He told himself that
he had been an utter fool ever to re-enter the army again like this.
He could certainly have got some appointment as dispatch-carrier or had
himself attached to the headquarters staff, or even have shuffled out of
it altogether. . . . But, above all, he wanted Sylvia; he wanted to be
allowed to lead the ordinary human life, safely and securely, with the
girl he loved, and with the musical pursuits that were his passion.
He had hated soldiering in times of peace; he found now that he was
terrified of it in times of war. He felt physically sick, as with cold
hands and trembling knees he stood and waited, lighting cigarettes and
throwing them away, in front of the kitchen fire, where the stewpot
was already bubbling again for those lucky devils who would return here
to-night.

The Major of his company was sitting in the window watching him, though
Michael was unaware of it. Suddenly he got up, and came across to the
fire, and put his hand on his shoulder.

"Don't mind it, Comber," he said quietly. "We all get a touch of it
sometimes. But you'll find it will pass all right. It's the waiting
doing nothing that does it."

That touched Michael absolutely in the right place.

"Thanks awfully, sir," he said.

"Not a bit. But it's damned beastly while it lasts. You'll be all right
when we move. Don't forget to take your fur coat up if you've got one.
We shall have a cold night."

Just after sunset they set out, marching in the gathering dusk down the
road eastwards, where in a mile or two they would strike the huge rabbit
warren of trenches that joined the French line to the north and south.
Once or twice they had to open out and go by the margin of the road to
let ambulances or commissariat wagon go by, but there was but little
traffic here, as the main lines of communication lay on other roads.
High above them, scarcely visible in the dusk, an English aeroplane
droned back from its reconnaissance, and once there was the order given
to scatter over the fields as a German Taube passed across them. This
caused much laughter and chaff among the men, and Michael heard one
say, "Dove they call it, do they? I'd like to make a pigeon-pie of
them doves." Soon they scrambled back on to the road again, and the
interminable "Tipperary" was resumed, in whistle and song. Michael
remembered how Aunt Barbara had heard it at a music-hall, and had spoken
of it as a new and catchy tune which you could carry away with you.
Nowadays, it carried you away. It had become the audible soul of the
British army.

The trench which Michael's company were to occupy for the next
forty-eight hours was in the first firing-line, and to reach it they had
to pass in single file up a mile of communication trenches, from
which on all sides, like a vast rabbit warren, there opened out other
galleries and passages that led to different parts of this net-work
of the lines. It ran not in a straight line but in short sections with
angles intervening, so under no circumstances could any considerable
length of it be enfiladed, and was lit here and there by little oil
lamps placed in embrasures in one or other wall of it, or for some
distance at a time it was dark except for the vague twilight of the
cloudy sky overhead. Then again, as they approached the firing-line, it
would suddenly become intensely bright, when from the English lines, or
from those of the Germans which lay not more than two hundred yards
in front of them, a fireball or star-shell was sent up, that caused
everything it shone upon to leap into vivid illumination. Usually, when
this happened, there came from one side or the other a volley of rifle
shots, that sounded like the crack of stock-whips, and once or twice a
bullet passed over their heads with the buzz as of some vicious stinging
insect. Here and there, where the bottom lay in soft and clayey soil,
they walked through mud that came half-way up to the knee, and each foot
had to be lifted with an effort, and was set free with a smacking suck.
Elsewhere, if the ground was gravelly, the rain which for two days
previously had been incessant, had drained off, and the going was easy.
But whether the path lay over dry or soft places the air was sick with
some stale odour which the breeze that swept across the lines from the
south-east could not carry away. There was a perpetual pervading reek
that flowed along from the entrance of trenches to right and left, that
reminded Michael of the smell of a football scrimmage on a wet day,
laden with the odours of sweat and dripping clothes, and something
deadlier and more acrid. Sometimes they passed under a section covered
in with boards, over which the earth and clods of turf had been
replaced, so that reconnoitring aeroplanes should not so easily spy it
out, and here from dark excavations the smell hung overpoweringly. Now
and then the ground over which they passed yielded uneasily to the foot,
where lay, only lightly covered over, some corpse which it had been
impossible to remove, and from time to time they passed a huddled bundle
of khaki not yet taken away. But except for the artillery duel that
day they had heard going on that morning, the last day or two had been
quiet, and the wounded had all been got out, and for the most part the
dead also.

After a long tramp in this communication trench they made a sharp turn
to the right, and entered that which they were going to hold for
the next forty-eight hours. Here they relieved the regiment that
had occupied it till now, who filed out as they came in. Along it at
intervals were excavations dug out in the side, some propped up with
boards and posts, others, where the ground was of sufficiently holding
character, just scooped out. In front, towards the German lines ran a
parapet of excavated earth, with occasional peep-holes bored in it, so
that the sentry going his rounds could look out and see if there was
any sign of movement from opposite without showing his head above the
entrenchment. But even this was a matter of some risk, since the enemy
had located these peep-holes, and from time to time fired a shot from a
fixed rifle that came straight through them and buried its bullet in the
hinder wall of the trench. Other spy-holes were therefore being made,
but these were not yet finished, and for the present till they were dug,
it was necessary to use the old ones. The trench, like all the others,
was excavated in short, zigzag lengths, so that no point, either to
right or left, commanded more than a score of yards of it.

In front, from just outside the parapet to a depth of some twenty yards,
stretched the spider-web of wire entanglements, and a little farther
down on the right there had been a copse of horn-beam saplings. An
attempt had been made by the enemy during the morning to capture and
entrench this, thus advancing their lines, but the movement had been
seen, and the artillery fire, which had been so incessant all the
morning, denoted the searching of this and the rendering of it
untenable. How thorough that searching had been was clear, for that
which had been an acre of wood was now but a heap of timber fit only for
faggots. Scarcely a tree was left standing, and Michael, looking out
of one of the peep-holes by the light of a star-shell saw that the wire
entanglements were thick with leaves that the wind and the firing had
detached from the broken branches. In turn, the wire entanglements had
come in for some shelling by the enemy, and a squad of men were out now
under cover of the darkness repairing these. There was a slight dip in
the ground here, and by crouching and lying they were out of sight of
the trenches opposite; but there were some snipers in that which had
been a wood, from whom there came occasional shots. Then, from lower
down to the right, there came a fusillade from the English lines
suddenly breaking out, and after a few minutes as suddenly stopping
again. But the sniping from the wood had ceased.

Michael did not come on duty till six in the morning, and for the
present he had nothing to do except eat his rations and sleep as well as
he could in his dug-out. He had plenty of room to stretch his legs if he
sat half upright, and having taken his Major's advice in the matter of
bringing his fur coat with him, he found himself warm enough, in spite
of the rather bitter wind that, striking an angle in the trench wall,
eddied sharply into his retreat, to sleep. But not less justified than
the advice to bring his fur coat was his Major's assurance that the
attack of the horrors which had seized him after dinner that day, would
pass off when the waiting was over. Throughout the evening his
nerves had been perfectly steady, and, when in their progress up the
communication trench they had passed a man half disembowelled by a
fragment of a shell, and screaming, or when, as he trod on one of the
uneasy places an arm had stirred and jerked up suddenly through the
handful of earth that covered it, he had no first-hand sense of horror:
he felt rather as if those things were happening not to him but to
someone else, and that, at the most, they were strange and odd, but no
longer horrible. But now, when reinforced by food again and comfortable
beneath his fur cloak he let his mind do what it would, not checking
it, but allowing it its natural internal activity, he found that a mood
transcending any he had known yet was his. So far from these experiences
being terrifying, so far from their being strange and unreal, they
suddenly became intensely real and shone with a splendour that he had
never suspected. Originally he had been pitchforked by his father into
the army, and had left it to seek music. Sense of duty had made it easy
for him to return to it at a time of national peril; but during all the
bitter anxiety of that he had never, as in the light of the perception
that came to him now, as the wind whistled round him in the dim lit
darkness, had a glimpse of the glory of service to his country. Here,
out in this small, evil-smelling cavern, with the whole grim business of
war going on round him, he for the first time fully realised the reality
of it all. He had been in the trenches before, but until now that had
seemed some vague, evil dream, of which he was incredulous. Now in the
darkness the darkness cleared, and the knowledge that this was the very
thing itself, that a couple of hundred yards away were the lines of the
enemy, whose power, for the honour of England and for the freedom of
Europe, had to be broken utterly, filled him with a sense of firm,
indescribable joy. The minor problems which had worried him, the fact
of millions of treasure that might have fed the poor and needy over all
Britain for a score of years, being outpoured in fire and steel, the
fact of thousands of useful and happy lives being sacrificed, of widows
and orphans and childless mothers growing ever a greater company--all
these things, terrible to look at, if you looked at them alone, sank
quietly into their sad appointed places when you looked at the thing
entire. His own case sank there, too; music and life and love for which
he would so rapturously have lived, were covered up now, and at this
moment he would as rapturously have died, if, by his death, he could
have served in his own infinitesimal degree, the cause he fought for.

The hours went on, whether swiftly or slowly he did not consider.
The wind fell, and for some minutes a heavy shower of rain plumped
vertically into the trench. Once during it a sudden illumination blazed
in the sky, and he saw the pebbles in the wall opposite shining with
the fresh-falling drops. There were a dozen rifle-shots and he saw
the sentry who had just passed brushing the edge of his coat against
Michael's hand, pause, and look out through the spy-hole close by, and
say something to himself. Occasionally he dozed for a little, and woke
again from dreaming of Sylvia, into complete consciousness of where he
was, and of that superb joy that pervaded him. By and by these dozings
grew longer, and the intervals of wakefulness less, and for a couple of
hours before he was roused he slept solidly and dreamlessly.

His spell of duty began before dawn, and he got up to go his rounds,
rather stiff and numb, and his sleep seemed to have wearied rather
than refreshed him. In that hour of early morning, when vitality burns
lowest, and the dying part their hold on life, the thrill that had
possessed him during the earlier hours of the night, had died down. He
knew, having once felt it, that it was there, and believed that it would
come when called upon; but it had drowsed as he slept, and was overlaid
by the sense of the grim, inexorable side of the whole business. A
disconcerting bullet was plugged through a spy-hole the second after
he had passed it; it sounded not angry, but merely business-like, and
Michael found himself thinking that shots "fired in anger," as the
phrase went, were much more likely to go wide than shots fired calmly.
. . . That, in his sleepy brain, did not sound nonsense: it seemed to
contain some great truth, if he could bother to think it out.

But for that, all was quiet again, and he had returned to his dug-out,
just noticing that the dawn was beginning to break, for the clouds
overhead were becoming visible in outline with the light that filtered
through them, and on their thinner margin turning rose-grey, when the
alarm of an attack came down the line. Instantly the huddled, sleeping
bodies that lay at the side of the trench started into being, and in the
moment's pause that followed, Michael found himself fumbling at the butt
of his revolver, which he had drawn out of its case. For that one moment
he heard his heart thumping in his throat, and felt his mouth grow
dry with some sudden panic fear that came from he knew not where, and
invaded him. A qualm of sickness took him, something gurgled in his
throat, and he spat on the floor of the trench. All this passed in one
second, for at once he was master of himself again, though not master of
a savage joy that thrilled him--the joy of this chance of killing those
who fought against the peace and prosperity of the world. There was an
attack coming out of the dark, and thank God, he was among those who had
to meet it.

He gave the order that had been passed to him, and on the word, this
section of the trench was lined with men ready to pour a volley over the
low parapet. He was there, too, wildly excited, close to the spy-hole
that now showed as a luminous disc against the blackness of the trench.
He looked out of this, and in the breaking dawn he saw nothing but
the dark ground of the dip in front, and the level lines of the German
trenches opposite. Then suddenly the grey emptiness was peopled; there
sprang from the earth the advance line of the surprise, who began hewing
a way through the entanglements, while behind the silhouette of the
trenches was broken into a huddled, heaving line of men. Then came the
order to fire, and he saw men dropping and falling out of sight, and
others coming on, and yet again others. These, again, fell, but others
(and now he could see the gleam of bayonets) came nearer, bursting and
cutting their way through the wires. Then, from opposite to right and
left sounded the crack of rifles, and the man next to Michael gave one
grunt, and fell back into the trench, moving no more.

Just immediately opposite were the few dozen men whose part it was to
cut through the entanglements. They kept falling and passing out of
sight, while others took their places. And then, for some reason,
Michael found himself singling out just one of these, much in advance of
the others, who was now close to the parapet. He was coming straight on
him, and with a leap he cleared the last line of wire and towered above
him. Michael shot him with his revolver as he stood but three yards from
him, and he fell right across the parapet with head and shoulders inside
the trench. And, as he dropped, Michael shouted, "Got him!" and then he
looked. It was Hermann.

Next moment he had scaled the side of the trench and, exerting all
his strength, was dragging him over into safety. The advance of this
section, who were to rush the trench, had been stopped, and again from
right and left the rifle-fire poured out on the heads that appeared
above the parapet. That did not seem to concern him; all he had to do
that moment was to get Hermann out of fire, and just as he dragged his
legs over the parapet, so that his weight fell firm and solid on to
him, he felt what seemed a sharp tap on his right arm, and could not
understand why it had become suddenly powerless. It dangled loosely from
somewhere above the elbow, and when he tried to move his hand he found
he could not.

Then came a stab of hideous pain, which was over almost as soon as he
had felt it, and he heard a man close to him say, "Are you hit, sir?"

It was evident that this surprise attack had failed, for five minutes
afterwards all was quiet again. Out of the grey of dawn it had come, and
before dawn was rosy it was over, and Michael with his right arm numb
but for an occasional twinge of violent agony that seemed to him more
like a scream or a colour than pain, was leaning over Hermann, who lay
on his back quite still, while on his tunic a splash of blood slowly
grew larger. Dawn was already rosy when he moved slightly and opened his
eyes.

"Lieber Gott, Michael!" he whispered, his breath whistling in his
throat. "Good morning, old boy!"


CHAPTER XVII


Three weeks later, Michael was sitting in his rooms in Half Moon Street,
where he had arrived last night, expecting Sylvia. Since that attack at
dawn in the trenches, he had been in hospital in France while his arm
was mending. The bone had not been broken, but the muscles had been so
badly torn that it was doubtful whether he would ever recover more than
a very feeble power in it again. In any case, it would take many months
before he recovered even the most elementary use of it.

Those weeks had been a long-drawn continuous nightmare, not from the
effect of the injury he had undergone, nor from any nervous breakdown,
but from the sense of that which inevitably hung over him. For he knew,
by an inward compulsion of his mind that admitted of no argument, that
he had to tell Sylvia all that had happened in those ten minutes while
the grey morning grew rosy. This sense of compulsion was deaf to all
reasoning, however plausible. He knew perfectly well that unless he told
Sylvia who it was whom he had shot at point-blank range, as he leaped
the last wire entanglement, no one else ever could. Hermann was buried
now in the same grave as others who had fallen that morning: his name
would be given out as missing from the Bavarian corps to which he
belonged, and in time, after the war was over, she would grow to believe
that she would never see him again.

But the sheer impossibility of letting this happen, though it entailed
nothing on him except the mere abstention from speech, took away the
slightest temptation that silence offered. He knew that again and again
Sylvia would refer to Hermann, wondering where he was, praying for his
safety, hoping perhaps even that, like Michael, he would be wounded and
thus escape from the inferno at the front, and it was so absolutely
out of the question that he should listen to this, try to offer little
encouragements, wonder with her whether he was not safe, that even
in his most depressed and shrinking hours he never for a moment
contemplated silence. Certainly he had to tell her that Hermann was
dead, and to account for the fact that he knew him to be dead. And
in the long watches of the wakeful night, when his mind moved in the
twilight of drowsiness and fever and pain, it was here that a certain
temptation entered. For it was easy to say (and no one could ever
contradict him) that some man near him, that one perhaps who had fallen
back with a grunt, had killed Hermann on the edge of the trench. Humanly
speaking, there was no chance at all of that innocent falsehood being
disproved. In the scurry and wild confusion of the attack none but he
would remember exactly what had happened, and as he thought of that
tossing and turning, it seemed to one part of his mind that the
innocence of that falsehood would even be laudable, be heroic. It would
save Sylvia the horrible shock of knowing that her lover had killed her
brother; it would save her all that piercing of the iron into her soul
that must inevitably be suffered by her if she knew the truth. And who
could tell what effect the knowledge of the truth would have on her?
Michael felt that it was at the least possible that she could never bear
to see him again, still less sleep in the arms of the one who had killed
her brother. That knowledge, even if she could put it out of mind in
pity and sorrow for Michael, would surely return and return again,
and tear her from him sobbing and trembling. There was all to risk
in telling her the truth; sorrow and bitterness for her and for him
separation and a lifelong regret were piled up in the balance against
the unknown weight of her love. Indeed, there was love on both sides of
that balance. Who could tell how the gold weighed against the gold?

Yet, after those drowsy, pain-streaked nights, when the sober light of
dawn crept in at the windows, then, morning after morning, Michael knew
that the inward compulsion was in no way weakened by all the reasons
that he had urged. It remained ruthless and tender, a still small voice
that was heard after the whirlwind and the fire. For the very reason why
he longed to spare Sylvia this knowledge, namely, that they loved each
other, was precisely the reason why he could not spare her. Yet it
seemed so wanton, so useless, so unreasonable to tell her, so laden with
a risk both for him and her that no standard could measure. But he no
more contemplated--except in vain imagination--making up some ingenious
story of this kind which would account for his knowledge of Hermann's
death than he contemplated keeping silence altogether. It was not
possible for him not to tell her everything, though, when he pictured
himself doing so, he found himself faced by what seemed an inevitable
impossibility. Though he did not see how his lips could frame the words,
he knew they had to. Yet he could not but remember how mere reports in
the paper, stories of German cruelty and what not, had overclouded the
serenity of their love. What would happen when this news, no report or
hearsay, came to her?

He had not heard her foot on the stairs, nor did she wait for his
servant to announce her; but, a little before her appointed time, she
burst in upon him midway between smiles and tears, all tenderness.

"Michael, my dear, my dear," she cried, "what a morning for me! For the
first time to-day when I woke, I forgot about the war. And your poor
arm? How goes it? Oh, I will take care, but I must and will have you in
my arms."

He had risen to greet her, and softly and gently she put her arms round
his neck, drawing his head to her.

"Oh, my Michael!" she whispered. "You've come back to me. Lieber Gott,
how I have longed for you!"

"Lieber Gott!" When last had he heard those words? He had to tell her.
He would tell her in a minute or two. Perhaps she would never hold him
like that again. He could not part with her at the very moment he had
got her.

"You look ever so well, Michael," she said, "in spite of your wound.
You're so brown and lean and strong. And oh, how I have wanted you! I
never knew how much till you went away."

Looking at her, feeling her arms round him, Michael felt that what he
had to say was beyond the power of his lips to utter. And yet, here in
her presence, the absolute necessity of telling her climbed like some
peak into the ample sunrise far above the darkness and the mists that
hung low about it.

"And what lots you must have to tell me," she said. "I want to hear
all--all."

Suddenly Michael put up his left hand and took away from his neck the
arm that encircled it. But he did not let go of it. He held it in his
hand.

"I have to tell you one thing at once," he said. She looked at him, and
the smile that burned in her eyes was extinguished. From his gesture,
from his tone, she knew that he spoke of something as serious as their
love.

"What is it?" she said. "Tell me, then."

He did not falter, but looked her full in the face. There was no
breaking it to her, or letting her go through the gathering suspense of
guessing.

"It concerns Hermann," he said. "It concerns Hermann and me. The last
morning that I was in the trenches, there was an attack at dawn from
the German lines. They tried to rush our trench in the dark. Hermann
led them. He got right up to the trench. And I shot him. I did not know,
thank God!"

Suddenly Michael could not bear to look at her any more. He put his arm
on the table by him and, leaning his head on it, covering his eyes he
went on. But his voice, up till now quite steady, faltered and failed,
as the sobs gathered in his throat.

"He fell across the parapet close to me," he said. . . . "I lifted him
somehow into our trench. . . . I was wounded, then. . . . He lay at the
bottom of the trench, Sylvia. . . . And I would to God it had been I who
lay there. . . . Because I loved him. . . . Just at the end he opened
his eyes, and saw me, and knew me. And he said--oh, Sylvia, Sylvia!--he
said 'Lieber Gott, Michael. Good morning, old boy.' And then he
died. . . . I have told you."

And at that Michael broke down utterly and completely for the first time
since the morning of which he spoke, and sobbed his heart out, while,
unseen to him, Sylvia sat with hands clasped together and stretched
towards him. Just for a little she let him weep his fill, but her
yearning for him would not be withstood. She knew why he had told her,
her whole heart spoke of the hugeness of it.

Then once more she laid her arm on his neck.

"Michael, my heart!" she said.





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