“Babs,” she said, “go to the Inn and order me a ‘fly.’ I shall drive back, I feel very shaky,” and, as Mrs. Noel offered to send her maid, she added:
“No, no, my granddaughter will go.”
Barbara having departed with a quizzical look, Lady Casterley patted the rustic seat, and said:
“Do come and sit down, I want to talk to you:”
Mrs. Noel obeyed. And at once Lady Casterley perceived that “she had a most difficult task before her. She had not expected a woman with whom one could take no liberties. Those clear dark eyes, and that soft, perfectly graceful manner—to a person so ‘sympathetic’ one should be able to say anything, and—one couldn’t! It was awkward. And suddenly she noticed that Mrs. Noel was sitting perfectly upright, as upright—more upright, than she was herself. A bad, sign—a very bad sign! Taking out her handkerchief, she put it to her lips.
“I suppose you think,” she said, “that we were not chased by a bull.”
“I am sure you were.”
“Indeed! Ah! But I’ve something else to talk to you about.”
Mrs. Noel’s face quivered back, as a flower might when it was going to be plucked; and again Lady Casterley put her handkerchief to her lips. This time she rubbed them hard. There was nothing to come off; to do so, therefore, was a satisfaction.
“I am an old woman,” she said, “and you mustn’t mind what I say.”
Mrs. Noel did not answer, but looked straight at her visitor; to whom it seemed suddenly that this was another person. What was it about that face, staring at her! In a weird way it reminded her of a child that one had hurt—with those great eyes and that soft hair, and the mouth thin, in a line, all of a sudden. And as if it had been jerked out of her, she said:
“I don’t want to hurt you, my dear. It’s about my grandson, of course.”
But Mrs. Noel made neither sign nor motion; and the feeling of irritation which so rapidly attacks the old when confronted by the unexpected, came to Lady Casterley’s aid.
“His name,” she said, “is being coupled with yours in a way that’s doing him a great deal of harm. You don’t wish to injure him, I’m sure.”
Mrs. Noel shook her head, and Lady Casterley went on:
“I don’t know what they’re not saying since the evening your friend Mr. Courtier hurt his knee. Miltoun has been most unwise. You had not perhaps realized that.”
Mrs. Noel’s answer was bitterly distinct:
“I didn’t know anyone was sufficiently interested in my doings.”
Lady Casterley suffered a gesture of exasperation to escape her.
“Good heavens!” she said; “every common person is interested in a woman whose position is anomalous. Living alone as you do, and not a widow, you’re fair game for everybody, especially in the country.”
Mrs. Noel’s sidelong glance, very clear and cynical, seemed to say: “Even for you.”