Though he would have liked Barbara with him that morning, he had only looked at her once after breakfast in such a way that she could not see him, and with a dry smile gone off by himself. Down by the stream it was dappled, both cool and warm, windless; the trees met over the river, and there were many stones, forming little basins which held up the ripple, so that the casting of a fly required much cunning. This long dingle ran for miles through the foot-growth of folding hills. It was beloved of jays; but of human beings there were none, except a chicken-farmer’s widow, who lived in a house thatched almost to the ground, and made her livelihood by directing tourists, with such cunning that they soon came back to her for tea.
It was while throwing a rather longer line than usual to reach a little dark piece of crisp water that Lord Dennis heard the swishing and crackling of someone advancing at full speed. He frowned slightly, feeling for the nerves of his fishes, whom he did not wish startled. The invader was Miltoun, hot, pale, dishevelled, with a queer, hunted look on his face. He stopped on seeing his great-uncle, and instantly assumed the mask of his smile.
Lord Dennis was not the man to see what was not intended for him, and he merely said:
“Well, Eustace!” as he might have spoken, meeting his nephew in the hall of one of his London Clubs.
Miltoun, no less polite, murmured:
“Hope I haven’t lost you anything.”
Lord Dennis shook his head, and laying his rod on the bank, said:
“Sit down and have a chat, old fellow. You don’t fish, I think?”
He had not, in the least, missed the suffering behind Miltoun’s mask; his eyes were still good, and there was a little matter of some twenty years’ suffering of his own on account of a woman—ancient history now—which had left him quaintly sensitive, for an old man, to signs of suffering in others.
Miltoun would not have obeyed that invitation from anyone else, but there was something about Lord Dennis which people did not resist; his power lay in a dry ironic suavity which could not but persuade people that impoliteness was altogether too new and raw a thing to be indulged in.
The two sat side by side on the roots of trees. At first they talked a little of birds, and then were dumb, so dumb that the invisible creatures of the woods consulted together audibly. Lord Dennis broke that silence.
“This place,” he said, “always reminds me of Mark Twain’s writings—can’t tell why, unless it’s the ever-greenness. I like the evergreen philosophers, Twain and Meredith. There’s no salvation except through courage, though I never could stomach the ’strong man’—captain of his soul, Henley and Nietzsche and that sort—goes against the grain with me. What do you say, Eustace?”
“They meant well,” answered Miltoun, “but they protested too much.”