’Thank you, I’ve had my morning’s allowance. Hullo! Who did that? What an awfully fine thing!’
For suddenly, behind the Squire’s head, Chicksands had become aware of an easel, and on it a charcoal sketch, life-size, of a boy, who seemed about eighteen or nineteen, in cricketing dress.
The Squire looked round.
’What, that sketch of Desmond? Haven’t you seen it? Yes, it’s jolly good. I got Orpen to do it in July.’
Now that Sir Henry had once perceived the drawing it seemed to him to light up the whole place. The dress was the dress of the Eton Eleven; there was just a suggestion of pale blue in the sash round the waist. But the whole impression was Greek in its manly freedom and beauty; above all in its sacrifice of all useless detail to one broad and simple effect. Youth, eager, strong, self-confident, with its innocent parted lips, and its steadfast eyes looking out over the future—the drawing stood there as the quintessence, the embodiment, of a whole generation. So might the young Odysseus have looked when he left his mother on his first journey to hunt the boar with his kinsfolk on Mount Parnassus. And with such an air had hundreds of thousands of English boys gone out on a deadlier venture since the great war began, with a like intensity of will, a like merry scorn of fate.
Sir Henry was conscious of a lump in his throat. He had lost his youngest son in the retreat from Mons, and two nephews on the Somme.
‘It’s wonderful,’ he said, not very clearly. ’I envy you such a possession.’
The Squire made no reply. He sat with his long body hunched up in the deep chair, a pair of brooding eyes fixed on his visitor.
‘Well, what is it?’ he said again, in a voice that was barely civil.
Sir Henry had been talking some time. The Squire had not interrupted him much, but the papers which Sir Henry had presented to him from time to time—Government communications, Committee reports, and the like—were mostly lying on the floor, where, after a perfunctory glance at them, he had very quickly dropped them.
‘Well, that’s our case,’ said Sir Henry at last, thrusting his hands into his pockets and leaning back in his chair, ’and I assure you we’ve taken a great deal of trouble about it. We shouldn’t ask you or anybody else to do these things if it wasn’t vitally necessary for the food-supply of the country. But we’re going to have a narrow squeak for it next spring and summer, and we must get more food out of the land.’
Whereupon, in a manner rather provokingly reminiscent of a public meeting, Sir Henry fell into a discourse on submarines, tonnage, the food needs of our Allies, and the absolute necessity for undoing and repairing the havoc of Cobdenism—matters of which the newspapers of the day were commonly full. That the sound of his own voice was agreeable to him might have been suspected.