“I don’t think I quite grasp the situation,” murmured Courtier. “You said—to marry him?”
Seeing that she had put out her hand, as if begging for the truth, he added: “How can your brother marry her—she’s married!”
“I’d no idea you didn’t know that much.”
“We thought there was a divorce.”
The expression of which mention has been made—that peculiar white-hot sardonically jolly look—visited Courtier’s face at once. “Hoist with their own petard! The usual thing. Let a pretty woman live alone—the tongues of men will do the rest.”
“It was not so bad as that,” said Barbara dryly; “they said she had divorced her husband.”
Caught out thus characteristically riding past the hounds Courtier bit his lips.
“You had better hear the story now. Her father was a country parson, and a friend of my father’s; so that I’ve known her from a child. Stephen Lees Noel was his curate. It was a ‘snap’ marriage—she was only twenty, and had met hardly any men. Her father was ill and wanted to see her settled before he died. Well, she found out almost directly, like a good many other people, that she’d made an utter mistake.”
Barbara came a little closer.
“What was the man like?”
“Not bad in his way, but one of those narrow, conscientious pig-headed fellows who make the most trying kind of husband—bone egoistic. A parson of that type has no chance at all. Every mortal thing he has to do or say helps him to develop his worst points. The wife of a man like that’s no better than a slave. She began to show the strain of it at last; though she’s the sort who goes on till she snaps. It took him four years to realize. Then, the question was, what were they to do? He’s a very High Churchman, with all their feeling about marriage; but luckily his pride was wounded. Anyway, they separated two years ago; and there she is, left high and dry. People say it was her fault. She ought to have known her own mind—at twenty! She ought to have held on and hidden it up somehow. Confound their thick-skinned charitable souls, what do they know of how a sensitive woman suffers? Forgive me, Lady Barbara—I get hot over this.” He was silent; then seeing her eyes fixed on him, went on: “Her mother died when she was born, her father soon after her marriage. She’s enough money of her own, luckily, to live on quietly. As for him, he changed his parish and runs one somewhere in the Midlands. One’s sorry for the poor devil, too, of course! They never see each other; and, so far as I know, they don’t correspond. That, Lady Barbara, is the simple history.”
Barbara, said, “Thank you,” and turned
away; and he heard her mutter:
“What a shame!”
But he could not tell whether it was Mrs. Noel’s fate, or the husband’s fate, or the thought of Miltoun that had moved her to those words.