She had seen Courtier three times. Once he had come to dine, in response to an invitation from Lady Valleys worded in that charming, almost wistful style, which she had taught herself to use to those below her in social rank, especially if they were intelligent; once to the Valleys House garden party; and next day, having told him what time she would be riding, she had found him in the Row, not mounted, but standing by the rail just where she must pass, with that look on his face of mingled deference and ironic self-containment, of which he was a master. It appeared that he was leaving England; and to her questions why, and where, he had only shrugged his shoulders. Up on this dusty platform, in the hot bare hall, facing all those people, listening to speeches whose sense she was too languid and preoccupied to take in, the whole medley of thoughts, and faces round her, and the sound of the speakers’ voices, formed a kind of nightmare, out of which she noted with extreme exactitude the colour of her mother’s neck beneath a large black hat, and the expression on the face of a Committee man to the right, who was biting his fingers under cover of a blue paper. She realized that someone was speaking amongst the audience, casting forth, as it were, small bunches of words. She could see him—a little man in a black coat, with a white face which kept jerking up and down.
“I feel that this is terrible,” she heard him say; “I feel that this is blasphemy. That we should try to tamper with the greatest force, the greatest and the most sacred and secret-force, that—that moves in the world, is to me horrible. I cannot bear to listen; it seems to make everything so small!” She saw him sit down, and her mother rising to answer.
“We must all sympathize with the sincerity and to a certain extent with the intention of our friend in the body of the hall. But we must ask ourselves:
“Have we the right to allow ourselves the luxury, of private feelings in a matter which concerns the national expansion. We must not give way to sentiment. Our friend in the body of the hall spoke—he will forgive me for saying so—like a poet, rather than a serious reformer. I am afraid that if we let ourselves drop into poetry, the birth rate of this country will very soon drop into poetry too. And that I think it is impossible for us to contemplate with folded hands. The resolution I was about to propose when our friend in the body of the hall——”
But Barbara’s attention, had wandered off again into that queer medley of thoughts, and feelings, out of which the little man had so abruptly roused her. Then she realized that the meeting was breaking up, and her mother saying:
“Now, my dear, it’s hospital day. We’ve just time.”
When they were once more in the car, she leaned back very silent, watching the traffic.
Lady Valleys eyed her sidelong.
“What a little bombshell,” she said, “from that small person! He must have got in by mistake. I hear Mr. Courtier has a card for Helen Gloucester’s ball to-night, Babs.”