Holm Oaks stood back but little from the road—an old manor-house, not set upon display, but dwelling close to its barns, stables, and walled gardens, like a good mother; long, flat-roofed, red, it had Queen Anne windows, on whose white-framed diamond panes the sunbeams glinted.
In front of it a fringe of elms, of all trees the tree of most established principle, bordered the stretch of turf between the gravel drive and road; and these elms were the homes of rooks of all birds the most conventional. A huge aspen—impressionable creature—shivered and shook beyond, apologising for appearance among such imperturbable surroundings. It was frequented by a cuckoo, who came once a year to hoot at the rules of life, but seldom made long stay; for boys threw stones at it, exasperated by the absence of its morals.
The village which clustered in the dip had not yet lost its dread of motor-cars. About this group of flat-faced cottages with gabled roofs the scent of hay, manure, and roses clung continually; just now the odour of the limes troubled its servile sturdiness. Beyond the dip, again, a square-towered church kept within grey walls the record of the village flock, births, deaths, and marriages—even the births of bastards, even the deaths of suicides—and seemed to stretch a hand invisible above the heads of common folk to grasp the forgers of the manor-house. Decent and discreet, the two roofs caught the eye to the exclusion of all meaner dwellings, seeming to have joined in a conspiracy to keep them out of sight.
The July sun had burned his face all the way from Oxford, yet pale was Shelton when he walked up the drive and rang the bell.
“Mrs. Dennant at home, Dobson?” he asked of the grave butler, who, old servant that he was, still wore coloured trousers (for it was not yet twelve o’clock, and he regarded coloured trousers up to noon as a sacred distinction between the footmen and himself).
“Mrs. Dennant,” replied this personage, raising his round and hairless face, while on his mouth appeared that apologetic pout which comes of living with good families—“Mrs. Dennant has gone into the village, sir; but Miss Antonia is in the morning-room.”
Shelton crossed the panelled, low-roofed hall, through whose far side the lawn was visible, a vision of serenity. He mounted six wide, shallow steps, and stopped. From behind a closed door there came the sound of scales, and he stood, a prey to his emotions, the notes mingling in his ears with the beating of his heart. He softly turned the handle, a fixed smile on his lips.
Antonia was at the piano; her head was bobbing to the movements of her fingers, and pressing down the pedals were her slim monotonously moving feet. She had been playing tennis, for a racquet and her tam-o’-shanter were flung down, and she was dressed in a blue skirt and creamy blouse, fitting collarless about her throat. Her face was flushed, and wore a little frown; and as her fingers raced along the keys, her neck swayed, and the silk clung and shivered on her arms.