Lord Dennis, at the far end of the room, studying a portfolio of engravings, felt a touch on his cheek; and conscious of a certain fragrance, said without turning his head:
“Nice things, these, Babs!”
Receiving no answer he looked up.
There indeed stood Barbara.
“I do hate sneering behind people’s backs!”
There had always been good comradeship between these two, since the days when Barbara, a golden-haired child, astride of a grey pony, had been his morning companion in the Row all through the season. His riding days were past; he had now no outdoor pursuit save fishing, which he followed with the ironic persistence of a self-contained, high-spirited nature, which refuses to admit that the mysterious finger of old age is laid across it. But though she was no longer his companion, he still had a habit of expecting her confidences; and he looked after her, moving away from him to a window, with surprised concern.
It was one of those nights, dark yet gleaming, when there seems a flying malice in the heavens; when the stars, from under and above the black clouds, are like eyes frowning and flashing down at men with purposed malevolence. The great sighing trees even had caught this spirit, save one, a dark, spire-like cypress, planted three hundred and fifty years before, whose tall form incarnated the very spirit of tradition, and neither swayed nor soughed like the others. From her, too close-fibred, too resisting, to admit the breath of Nature, only a dry rustle came. Still almost exotic, in spite of her centuries of sojourn, and now brought to life by the eyes of night, she seemed almost terrifying, in her narrow, spear-like austerity, as though something had dried and died within her soul. Barbara came back from the window.
“We can’t do anything in our lives, it seems to me,” she said, “but play at taking risks!”
Lord Dennis replied dryly:
“I don’t think I understand, my dear.”
“Look at Mr. Courtier!” muttered Barbara. “His life’s so much more risky altogether than any of our men folk lead. And yet they sneer at him.”
“Let’s see, what has he done?”
“Oh! I dare say not very much; but it’s all neck or nothing. But what does anything matter to Harbinger, for instance? If his Social Reform comes to nothing, he’ll still be Harbinger, with fifty thousand a year.”
Lord Dennis looked up a little queerly.
“What! Is it possible you don’t take the young man seriously, Babs?”
Barbara shrugged; a strap slipped a little off one white shoulder.
“It’s all play really; and he knows it—you can tell that from his voice. He can’t help its not mattering, of course; and he knows that too.”
“I have heard that he’s after you, Babs; is that true?”
“He hasn’t caught me yet.”
Barbara’s answer was another shrug; and, for all their statuesque beauty, the movement of her shoulders was like the shrug of a little girl in her pinafore.