E. F. Benson
Part 4 out of 6
"I hope you are happy, Michael," she said. "I don't think I am so
happy as I used to be. But don't tell your father; I feel sure he
does not notice it, and it would vex him. But I want you to be
happy; you used not to be when you were little; you were always
sensitive and queer. But you do seem happier now, and that's a
Here again this was all sensible, when taken in bits, but its
aspect was different when considered together. She looked at
Michael anxiously a moment, and then drew her chair closer to him,
laying her thin, veined hand, sparkling with many rings, on his
"But it wasn't I who made you happier," she said, "and that's so
dreadful. I never made anybody happy. Your father always made
himself happy, and he liked being himself, but I suspect you
haven't liked being yourself, poor Michael. But now that you're
living the life you chose, which vexes your father, is it better
The shyness had gone from the gaze that he had seen her direct at
him at dinner, which fugitively fluttered away when she saw that it
was observed, and now that it was bent so unwaveringly on him he
saw shining through it what he had never seen before, namely, the
mother-love which he had missed all his life. Now, for the first
time, he saw it; recognising it, as by divination, when, with ray
serene and untroubled, it burst through the mists that seemed to
hang about his mother's mind. Before, noticing her change of
manner, her restless questions, he had been vaguely alarmed, and as
they went on the alarm had become more pronounced; but at this
moment, when there shone forth the mother-instinct which had never
come out or blossomed in her life, but had been overlaid completely
with routine and conventionality, rendering it too indolent to put
forth petals, Michael had no thought but for that which she had
never given him yet, and which, now it began to expand before him,
he knew he had missed all his life.
She took up his big hand that lay on his knee and began timidly
"Since you have been away," she said, "and since your father has
been vexed with you, I have begun to see how lonely you must have
been. What taught me that, I am afraid, was only that I have begun
to feel lonely, too. Nobody wants me; even Petsy, when she died,
didn't want me to be near her, and then it began to strike me that
perhaps you might want me. There was no one else, and who should
want me if my son did not? I never gave you the chance before, God
forgive me, and now perhaps it is too late. You have learned to do
That was bitterly true; the truth of it stabbed Michael. On his
side, as he knew, he had made no effort either, or if he had they
had been but childish efforts, easily repulsed. He had not
troubled about it, and if she was to blame, the blame was his also.
She had been slow to show the mother-instinct, but he had been just
as wanting in the tenderness of the son.
He was profoundly touched by this humble timidity, by the
sincerity, vague but unquestionable, that lay behind it.
"It's never too late, is it?" he said, bending down and kissing the
thin white hands that held his. "We are in time, after all, aren't
She gave a little shiver.
"Oh, don't kiss my hands, Michael," she said. "It hurts me that
you should do that. But it is sweet of you to say that I am not
too late, after all. Michael, may I just take you in my arms--may
He half rose.
"Oh, mother, how can you ask?" he said.
"Then let me do it. No, my darling, don't move. Just sit still as
you are, and let me just get my arms about you, and put my head on
your shoulder, and hold me close like that for a moment, so that I
can realise that I am not too late."
She got up, and, leaning over him, held him so for a moment,
pressing her cheek close to his, and kissing him on the eyes and on
"Ah, that is nice," she said. "It makes my loneliness fall away
from me. I am not quite alone any more. And now, if you are not
tired will you let me talk to you a little more, and learn a little
more about you?"
She pulled her chair again nearer him, so that sitting there she
could clasp his arm.
"I want your happiness, dear," she said, "but there is so little
now that I can do to secure it. I must put that into other hands.
You are twenty-five, Michael; you are old enough to get married.
All Combers marry when they are twenty-five, don't they? Isn't
there some girl you would like to be yours? But you must love her,
you know, you must want her, you mustn't be able to do without her.
It won't do to marry just because you are twenty-five."
It would no more have entered into Michael's head this morning to
tell to his mother about Sylvia than to have discussed counterpoint
with her. But then this morning he had not been really aware that
he had a mother. But to tell her now was not unthinkable, but
"Yes, there is a girl whom I can't do without," he said.
Lady Ashbridge's face lit up.
"Ah, tell me about her--tell me about her," she said. "You want
her, you can't do without her; that is the right wife for you."
Michael caught at his mother's hand as it stroked his sleeve.
"But she is not sure that she can do with me," he said.
Her face was not dimmed at this.
"Oh, you may be sure she doesn't know her own mind," she said.
"Girls so often don't. You must not be down-hearted about it. Who
is she? Tell me about her."
"She's the sister of my great friend, Hermann Falbe," he said, "who
teaches me music."
This time the gladness faded from her.
"Oh, my dear, it will vex your father again," she said, "that you
should want to marry the sister of a music-teacher. It will never
do to vex him again. Is she not a lady?"
"But certainly she is," he said. "Her father was German, her
mother was a Tracy, just as well-born as you or I."
"How odd, then, that her brother should have taken to giving music
lessons. That does not sound good. Perhaps they are poor, and
certainly there is no disgrace in being poor. And what is her
"Sylvia," said Michael. "You have probably heard of her; she is
the Miss Falbe who made such a sensation in London last season by
The old outlook, the old traditions were beginning to come to the
surface again in poor Lady Ashbridge's mind.
"Oh, my dear!" she said. "A singer! That would vex your father
terribly. Fancy the daughter of a Miss Tracy becoming a singer.
And yet you want her--that seems to me to matter most of all."
Then came a step at the door; it opened an inch or two, and Michael
heard his father's voice.
"Is your mother with you, Michael?" he asked.
At that Lady Ashbridge got up. For one second she clung to her
son, and then, disengaging herself, froze up like the sudden
congealment of a spring.
"Yes, Robert," she said. "I was having a little talk to Michael."
"May I come in?"
"It's our secret," she whispered to Michael.
"Yes, come in, father," he said.
Lord Ashbridge stood towering in the doorway.
"Come, my dear," he said, not unkindly, "it's time for you to go to
She had become the mask of herself again.
"Yes, Robert," she said. "I suppose it must be late. I will come.
Oh, there's Petsy. Will you ring, Michael? then Fedden will come
and take him to bed. He sleeps with Fedden."
Michael, in desperate conversational efforts next morning at
breakfast, mentioned the fact that the German Emperor had engaged
him in a substantial talk at Munich, and had recommended him to
pass the winter at Berlin. It was immediately obvious that he rose
in his father's estimation, for, though no doubt primarily the fact
that Michael was his son was the cause of this interest, it gave
Michael a sort of testimonial also to his respectability. If the
Emperor had thought that his taking up a musical career was
indelibly disgraceful--as Lord Ashbridge himself had done--he would
certainly not have made himself so agreeable. On anyone of Lord
Ashbridge's essential and deep-rooted snobbishness this could not
fail to make a certain effect; his chilly politeness to Michael
sensibly thawed; you might almost have detected a certain
cordiality in his desire to learn as much as possible of this
"And you mean to go to Berlin?" he asked.
"I'm afraid I shan't be able to," said Michael; "my master is in
"I should be inclined to reconsider that, Michael," said the
father. "The Emperor knows what he is talking about on the subject
Lady Ashbridge looked up from the breakfast she was giving Petsy
II. His dietary was rather less rich than that of the defunct, and
she was afraid sometimes that his food was not nourishing enough.
"I remember the concert we had here," she said. "We had the 'Song
to Aegir' twice."
Lord Ashbridge gave her a quick glance. Michael felt he would not
have noticed it the evening before.
"Your memory is very good, my dear," he said with encouragement.
"And then we had a torchlight procession," she remarked.
"Quite so. You remember it perfectly. And about his visit here,
Michael. Did he talk about that?"
"Yes, very warmly; also about our international relations."
Lord Ashbridge gave a little giggle.
"I must tell Barbara that," he said. "She has become a sort of
Cassandra, since she became a diplomatist, and sits on her tripod
and prophesies woe."
"She asked me about it," said Michael. "I don't think she believes
in his sincerity."
He giggled again.
"That's because I didn't ask her down for his visit," he said.
"And what are you going to do, my dear?" he said to his wife.
She looked across to Michael.
"Perhaps Michael will come for a stroll with me," she said.
"No doubt he will. I shall have a round of golf, I think, on this
fine morning. I should like to have a word with you, Michael, when
you've finished your breakfast."
The moment he had gone her whole manner changed: it was suffused
with the glow that had lit her last night.
"And we shall have another talk, dear?" she said. "It was tiresome
being interrupted last night. But your father was better pleased
with you this morning."
Michael's understanding of the situation grew clearer. Whatever
was the change in his mother, whatever, perhaps, it portended, it
was certainly accompanied by two symptoms, the one the late dawning
of mother-love for himself, the other a certain fear of her
husband; for all her married life she had been completely dominated
by him, and had lived but in a twilight of her own; now into that
twilight was beginning to steal a dread of him. His pleasure or
his vexation had begun to affect her emotionally, instead of being
as before, merely recorded in her mind, as she might have recorded
an object quite exterior to herself, and seen out of the window.
Now it was in the room with her. Even as Michael left her to speak
with him, the consciousness of him rose again in her, making her
"And you'll try not to vex him, won't you?" she said.
His father was in the smoking-room, standing enormously in front of
the fire, and for the first time the sense of his colossal fatuity
"There are several things I want to tell you about," he said.
"Your career, first of all. I take it that you have no intention
of deferring to my wishes on the subject."
"No, father, I am afraid not," said Michael.
"I want you to understand, then, that, though I shall not speak to
you again about it, my wishes are no less strong than they were.
It is something to me to know that a man whom I respect so much as
the Emperor doesn't feel as I do about it, but that doesn't alter
"I understand," said Michael.
"The next is about your mother," he said. "Do you notice any
change in her?"
"Yes," said Michael.
"Can you describe it at all?"
"She shows quite a new affection for myself," he said. "She came
and talked to me last night in a way she had never done before."
The irritation which Michael's mere presence produced on his father
was beginning to make itself felt. The fact that Michael was squat
and long-armed and ugly had always a side-blow to deal at Lord
Ashbridge in the reminder that he was his father. He tried to
disregard this--he tried to bring his mind into an impartial
attitude, without seeing for a moment the bitter irony of
considering impartiality the ideal quality when dealing with his
son. He tried to be fair, and Michael was perfectly conscious of
the effort it cost him.
"I had noticed something of the sort," he said. "Your mother was
always asking after you. You have not been writing very regularly,
Michael. We know little about your life."
"I have written to my mother every week," said Michael.
The magical effects of the Emperor's interest were dying out. Lord
Ashbridge became more keenly aware of the disappointment that
Michael was to him.
"I have not been so fortunate, then," he said.
Michael remembered his mother's anxious face, but he could not let
"No, sir," he said, "but you never answered any of my letters. I
thought it quite probable that it displeased you to hear from me."
"I should have expressed my displeasure if I had felt it," said his
father with all the pomposity that was natural to him.
"That had not occurred to me," said Michael. "I am afraid I took
your silence to mean that my letters didn't interest you."
He paused a moment, and his rebellion against the whole of his
father's attitude flared up.
"Besides, I had nothing particular to say," he said. "My life is
passed in the pursuit of which you entirely disapprove."
He felt himself back in boyhood again with this stifling and leaden
atmosphere of authority and disapproval to breathe. He knew that
Francis in his place would have done somehow differently; he could
almost hear Aunt Barbara laughing at the pomposity of the situation
that had suddenly erected itself monstrously in front of him. The
fact that he was Michael Comber vexed his father--there was no
statement of the case so succinctly true.
Lord Ashbridge moved away towards the window, turning his back on
Michael. Even his back, his homespun Norfolk jacket, his loose
knickerbockers, his stalwart calves expressed disapproval; but when
his father spoke again he realised that he had moved away like
that, and obscured his face for a different reason.
"Have you noticed anything else about your mother?" he asked.
That made Michael understand.
"Yes, father," he said. "I daresay I am wrong about it--"
"Naturally I may not agree with you; but I should like to know what
"She's afraid of you," said Michael.
Lord Ashbridge continued looking out of the window a little longer,
letting his eyes dwell on his own garden and his own fields, where
towered the leafless elms and the red roofs of the little town
which had given him his own name, and continued to give him so
satisfactory an income. There presented itself to his mind his own
picture, painted and framed and glazed and hung up by himself, the
beneficent nobleman, the conscientious landlord, the essential
vertebra of England's backbone. It was really impossible to impute
blame to such a fine fellow. He turned round into the room again,
braced and refreshed, and saw Michael thus.
"It is quite true what you say," he said, with a certain pride in
his own impartiality. "She has developed an extraordinary timidity
towards me. I have continually noticed that she is nervous and
agitated in my presence--I am quite unable to account for it. In
fact, there is no accounting for it. But I am thinking of going up
to London before long, and making her see some good doctor. A
little tonic, I daresay; though I don't suppose she has taken a
dozen doses of medicine in as many years. I expect she will be
glad to go up, for she will be near you. The one delusion--for it
is no less than that--is as strange as the other."
He drew himself up to his full magnificent height.
"I do not mean that it is not very natural she should be devoted to
her son," he said with a tremendous air.
What he did mean was therefore uncertain, and again he changed the
"There is a third thing," he said. "This concerns you. You are of
the age when we Combers usually marry. I should wish you to marry,
Michael. During this last year your mother has asked half a dozen
girls down here, all of whom she and I consider perfectly suitable,
and no doubt you have met more in London. I should like to know
definitely if you have considered the question, and if you have
not, I ask you to set about it at once."
Michael was suddenly aware that never for a moment had Sylvia been
away from his mind. Even when his mother was talking to him last
night Sylvia had sat at the back, in the inmost place, throned and
secure. And now she stepped forward. Apart from the impossibility
of not acknowledging her, he wished to do it. He wanted to wear
her publicly, though she was not his; he wanted to take his
allegiance oath, though his sovereign heeded not.
"I have considered the question," he said, "and I have quite made
up my mind whom I want to marry. She is Miss Falbe, Miss Sylvia
Falbe, of whom you may have heard as a singer. She is the sister
of my music-master, and I can certainly marry nobody else."
It was not merely defiance of the dreadful old tradition, which
Lord Ashbridge had announced in the manner of Moses stepping down
from Sinai, that prompted this appalling statement of the case; it
was the joy in the profession of his love. It had to be flung out
like that. Lord Ashbridge looked at him a moment in dead silence.
"I have not the honour of knowing Miss--Miss Falbe, is it?" he
said; "nor shall I have that honour."
Michael got up; there was that in his father's tone that stung him
"It is very likely that you will not," he said, "since when I
proposed to her yesterday she did not accept me."
Somehow Lord Ashbridge felt that as an insult to himself. Indeed,
it was a double insult. Michael had proposed to this singer, and
this singer had not instantly clutched him. He gave his dreadful
little treble giggle.
"And I am to bind up your broken heart?" he asked.
Michael drew himself up to his full height. This was an
indiscretion, for it but made his father recognise how short he
was. It brought farce into the tragic situation.
"Oh, by no means," he said. "My heart is not going to break yet.
I don't give up hope."
Then, in a flash, he thought of his mother's pale, anxious face,
her desire that he should not vex his father.
"I am sorry," he said, "but that is the case. I wish--I wish you
would try to understand me."
"I find you incomprehensible," said Lord Ashbridge, and left the
room with his high walk and his swinging elbows.
Well, it was done now, and Michael felt that there were no new
vexations to be sprung on his father. It was bound to happen, he
supposed, sooner or later, and he was not sorry that it had
happened sooner than he expected or intended. Sylvia so held sway
in him that he could not help acknowledging her. His announcement
had broken from him irresistibly, in spite of his mother's
whispered word to him last night, "This is our secret." It could
not be secret when his father spoke like that. . . . And then,
with a flare of illumination he perceived how intensely his father
disliked him. Nothing but sheer basic antipathy could have been
responsible for that miserable retort, "Am I to bind up your broken
heart?" Anger, no doubt, was the immediate cause, but so utterly
ungenerous a rejoinder to Michael's announcement could not have
been conceived, except in a heart that thoroughly and rootedly
disliked him. That he was a continual monument of disappointment
to his father he knew well, but never before had it been quite
plainly shown him how essential an object of dislike he was. And
the grounds of the dislike were now equally plain--his father
disliked him exactly because he was his father. On the other hand,
the last twenty-four hours had shown him that his mother loved him
exactly because he was her son. When these two new and undeniable
facts were put side by side, Michael felt that he was an infinite
He went rather drearily to the window. Far off across the field
below the garden he could see Lord Ashbridge walking airily along
on his way to the links, with his head held high, his stick
swinging in his hand, his two retrievers at his heels. No doubt
already the soothing influences of Nature were at work--Nature, of
course, standing for the portion of trees and earth and houses that
belonged to him--and were expunging the depressing reflection that
his wife and only son inspired in him. And, indeed, such was
actually the case: Lord Ashbridge, in his amazing fatuity, could
not long continue being himself without being cheered and
invigorated by that fact, and though when he set out his big white
hands were positively trembling with passion, he carried his balsam
always with him. But he had registered to himself, even as Michael
had registered, the fact that he found his son a most intolerable
person. And what vexed him most of all, what made him clang the
gate at the end of the field so violently that it hit one of his
retrievers shrewdly on the nose, was the sense of his own
impotence. He knew perfectly well that in point of view of
determination (that quality which in himself was firmness, and in
those who opposed him obstinacy) Michael was his match. And the
annoying thing was that, as his wife had once told him, Michael
undoubtedly inherited that quality from him. It was as inalienable
as the estates of which he had threatened to deprive his son, and
which, as he knew quite well, were absolutely entailed. Michael,
in this regard, seemed no better than a common but successful
thief. He had annexed his father's firmness, and at his death
would certainly annex all his pictures and trees and acres and the
red roofs of Ashbridge.
Michael saw the gate so imperially slammed, he heard the despairing
howl of Robin, and though he was sorry for Robin, he could not help
laughing. He remembered also a ludicrous sight he had seen at the
Zoological Gardens a few days ago: two seals, sitting bolt upright,
quarrelling with each other, and making the most absurd grimaces
and noises. They neither of them quite dared to attack the other,
and so sat with their faces close together, saying the rudest
things. Aunt Barbara would certainly have seen how inimitably his
father and he had, in their interview just now, resembled the two
And then he became aware that all the time, au fond, he had thought
about nothing but Sylvia, and of Sylvia, not as the subject of
quarrel, but as just Sylvia, the singing Sylvia, with a hand on his
The winter sun was warm on the south terrace of the house, when, an
hour later, he strolled out, according to arrangement, with his
mother. It had melted the rime of the night before that lay now on
the grass in threads of minute diamonds, though below the terrace
wall, and on the sunk rims of the empty garden beds it still
persisted in outline of white heraldry. A few monthly roses, weak,
pink blossoms, weary with the toil of keeping hope alive till the
coming of spring, hung dejected heads in the sunk garden, where the
hornbeam hedge that carried its russet leaves unfallen, shaded them
from the wind. Here, too, a few bulbs had pricked their way above
ground, and stood with stout, erect horns daintily capped with
rime. All these things, which for years had been presented to Lady
Ashbridge's notice without attracting her attention; now filled her
with minute childlike pleasure; they were discoveries as entrancing
and as magical as the first finding of the oval pieces of blue sky
that a child sees one morning in a hedge-sparrow's nest. Now that
she was alone with her son, all her secret restlessness and anxiety
had vanished, and she remarked almost with glee that her husband
had telephoned from the golf links to say that he would not be back
for lunch; then, remembering that Michael had gone to talk to his
father after breakfast, she asked him about the interview.
Michael had already made up his mind as to what to say here.
Knowing that his father was anxious about her, he felt it highly
unlikely that he would tell her anything to distress her, and so he
represented the interview as having gone off in perfect amity.
Later in the day, on his father's return, he had made up his mind
to propose a truce between them, as far as his mother was
concerned. Whether that would be accepted or not he could not
certainly tell, but in the interval there was nothing to be gained
by grieving her.
A great weight was lifted off her mind.
"Ah, my dear, that is good," she said. "I was anxious. So now
perhaps we shall have a peaceful Christmas. I am glad your Aunt
Barbara and Francis are coming, for though your aunt always laughs
at your father, she does it kindly, does she not? And as for
Francis--my dear, if God had given me two sons, I should have liked
the other to be like Francis. And shall we walk a little farther
this way, and see poor Petsy's grave?"
Petsy's grave proved rather agitating. There were doleful little
stories of the last days to be related, and Petsy II. was tiresome,
and insisted on defying the world generally with shrill barkings
from the top of the small mound, conscious perhaps that his
helpless predecessor slept below. Then their walk brought them to
the band of trees that separated the links from the house, from
which Lady Ashbridge retreated, fearful, as she vaguely phrased it,
"of being seen," and by whom there was no need for her to explain.
Then across the field came a group of children scampering home from
school. They ceased their shouting and their games as the others
came near, and demurely curtsied and took off their caps to Lady
"Nice, well-behaved children," said she. "A merry Christmas to you
all. I hope you are all good children to your mothers, as my son
is to me."
She pressed his arm, nodded and smiled at the children, and walked
on with him. And Michael felt the lump in his throat.
The arrival of Aunt Barbara and Francis that afternoon did
something, by the mere addition of numbers to the party, to relieve
the tension of the situation. Lord Ashbridge said little but ate
largely, and during the intervals of empty plates directed an
impartial gaze at the portraits of his ancestors, while wholly
ignoring his descendant. But Michael was too wise to put himself
into places where he could be pointedly ignored, and the
resplendent dinner, with its six footmen and its silver service,
was not really more joyless than usual. But his father's majestic
displeasure was more apparent when the three men sat alone
afterwards, and it was in dead silence that port was pushed round
and cigarettes handed. Francis, it is true, made a couple of
efforts to enliven things, but his remarks produced no response
whatever from his uncle, and he subsided into himself, thinking
with regret of what an amusing evening he would have had if he had
only stopped in town. But when they rose Michael signed to his
cousin to go on, and planted himself firmly in the path to the
door. It was evident that his father did not mean to speak to him,
but he could not push by him or walk over him.
"There is one thing I want to say to you, father," said he. "I
have told my mother that our interview this morning was quite
amicable. I do not see why she should be distressed by knowing
that it was not."
His father's face softened a moment.
"Yes, I agree to that," he said.
As far as that went, the compact was observed, and whenever Lady
Ashbridge was present her husband made a point of addressing a few
remarks to Michael, but there their intercourse ended. Michael
found opportunity to explain to Aunt Barbara what had happened,
suggesting as a consolatory simile the domestic difficulties of the
seals at the Zoological Gardens, and was pleased to find her
recognise the aptness of this description. But heaviest of all on
the spirits of the whole party sat the anxiety about Lady
Ashbridge. There could be no doubt that some cerebral degeneration
was occurring, and Lady Barbara's urgent representation to her
brother had the effect of making him promise to take her up to
London without delay after Christmas, and let a specialist see her.
For the present the pious fraud practised on her that Michael and
his father had had "a good talk" together, and were excellent
friends, sufficed to render her happy and cheerful. She had long,
dim talks, full of repetition, with Michael, whose presence
appeared to make her completely content, and when he was out or
away from her she would sit eagerly waiting for his return. Petsy,
to the great benefit of his health, got somewhat neglected by her;
her whole nature and instincts were alight with the mother-love
that had burnt so late into flame, with this tragic accompaniment
of derangement. She seemed to be groping her way back to the days
when Michael was a little boy, and she was a young woman; often she
would seat herself at her piano, if Michael was not there to play
to her, and in a thin, quavering voice sing the songs of twenty
years ago. She would listen to his playing, beating time to his
music, and most of all she loved the hour when the day was drawing
in, and the first shadow and flame of dusk and firelight; then,
with her hand in his, sitting in her room, where they would not be
interrupted, she would whisper fresh inquiries about Sylvia,
offering to go herself to the girl and tell her how lovable her
suitor was. She lived in a dim, subaqueous sort of consciousness,
physically quite well, and mentally serene in the knowledge that
Michael was in the house, and would presently come and talk to her.
For the others it was dismal enough; this shadow, that was to her a
watery sunlight, lay over them all--this, and the further quarrel,
unknown to her, between Michael and his father. When they all met,
as at meal times, there was the miserable pretence of friendliness
and comfortable ease kept up, for fear of distressing Lady
Ashbridge. It was dreary work for all concerned, but, luckily, not
difficult of accomplishment. A little chatter about the weather,
the merest small change of conversation, especially if that
conversation was held between Michael and his father, was
sufficient to wreathe her in smiles, and she would, according to
habit, break in with some wrecking remark, that entailed starting
this talk all afresh. But when she left the room a glowering
silence would fall; Lord Ashbridge would pick up a book or leave
the room with his high-stepping walk and erect head, the picture of
Of the three he was far most to be pitied, although the situation
was the direct result of his own arrogance and self-importance; but
arrogance and self-importance were as essential ingredients of his
character as was humour of Aunt Barbara's. They were very awkward
and tiresome qualities, but this particular Lord Ashbridge would
have no existence without them. He was deeply and mortally
offended with Michael; that alone was sufficient to make a sultry
and stifling atmosphere, and in addition to that he had the burden
of his anxiety about his wife. Here came an extra sting, for in
common humanity he had, by appearing to be friends with Michael, to
secure her serenity, and this could only be done by the continued
profanation of his own highly proper and necessary attitude towards
his son. He had to address friendly words to Michael that really
almost choked him; he had to practise cordiality with this wretch
who wanted to marry the sister of a music-master. Michael had
pulled up all the old traditions, that carefully-tended and pompous
flower-garden, as if they had been weeds, and thrown them in his
father's face. It was indeed no wonder that, in his wife's
absence, he almost burst with indignation over the desecrated beds.
More than that, his own self-esteem was hurt by his wife's fear of
him, just as if he had been a hard and unkind husband to her, which
he had not been, but merely a very self-absorbed and dominant one,
while the one person who could make her quite happy was his
despised son. Michael's person, Michael's tastes, Michael's whole
presence and character were repugnant to him, and yet Michael had
the power which, to do Lord Ashbridge justice, he would have given
much to be possessed of himself, of bringing comfort and serenity
to his wife.
On the afternoon of the day following Christmas the two cousins had
been across the estuary to Ashbridge together. Francis, who, in
spite of his habitual easiness of disposition and general good
temper, had found the conditions of anger and anxiety quite
intolerable, had settled to leave next day, instead of stopping
till the end of the week, and Michael acquiesced in this without
any sense of desertion; he had really only wondered why Francis had
stopped three nights, instead of finding urgent private business in
town after one. He realised also, somewhat with surprise, that
Francis was "no good" when there was trouble about; there was no
one so delightful when there was, so to speak, a contest of who
should enjoy himself the most, and Francis invariably won. But if
the subject of the contest was changed, and the prize given for the
individual who, under depressing circumstances, should contrive to
show the greatest serenity of aspect, Francis would have lost with
an even greater margin. Michael, in fact, was rather relieved than
otherwise at his cousin's immediate departure, for it helped nobody
to see the martyred St. Sebastian, and it was merely odious for St.
Sebastian himself. In fact, at this moment, when Michael was
rowing them back across the full-flooded estuary, Francis was
explaining this with his customary lucidity.
"I don't do any good here, Mike," he said. "Uncle Robert doesn't
speak to me any more than he does to you, except when Aunt Marion
is there. And there's nothing going on, is there? I practically
asked if I might go duck-shooting to-day, and Uncle Robert merely
looked out of the window. But if anybody, specially you, wanted me
to stop, why, of course I would."
"But I don't," said Michael.
"Thanks awfully. Gosh, look at those ducks! They're just wanting
to be shot. But there it is, then. Certainly Uncle Robert doesn't
want me, nor Aunt Marion. I say, what do they think is the matter
Michael looked round, then took, rather too late, another pull on
his oars, and the boat gently grated on the pebbly mud at the side
of the landing-place. Francis's question, the good-humoured
insouciance of it grated on his mind in rather similar fashion.
"We don't know yet," he said. "I expect we shall all go back to
town in a couple of days, so that she may see somebody."
Francis jumped out briskly and gracefully, and stood with his hands
in his pockets while Michael pushed off again, and brought the boat
into its shed.
"I do hope it's nothing serious," he said. "She looks quite well,
doesn't she? I daresay it's nothing; but she's been alone, hasn't
she, with Uncle Robert all these weeks. That would give her the
Michael felt a sudden spasm of impatience at these elegant and
consoling reflections. But now, in the light of his own increasing
maturity, he saw how hopeless it was to feel Francis's
deficiencies, his entire lack of deep feeling. He was made like
that; and if you were fond of anybody the only possible way of
living up to your affection was to attach yourself to their
They strolled a little way in silence.
"And why did you tell Uncle Robert about Sylvia Falbe?" asked
Francis. "I can't understand that. For the present, anyhow, she
had refused you. There was nothing to tell him about. If I was
fond of a girl like that I should say nothing about it, if I knew
my people would disapprove, until I had got her."
"Oh, yes you would," he said, "if you were to use your own words,
fond of her 'like that.' You couldn't help it. At least, I
couldn't. It's--it's such a glory to be fond like that."
"We won't talk about it," he said--"or, rather, I can't talk about
it, if you don't understand."
"But she had refused you," said the sensible Francis.
"That makes no difference. She shines through everything, through
the infernal awfulness of these days, through my father's anger,
and my mother's illness, whatever it proves to be--I think about
them really with all my might, and at the end I find I've been
thinking about Sylvia. Everything is she--the woods, the tide--oh,
I can't explain."
They had walked across the marshy land at the edge of the estuary,
and now in front of them was the steep and direct path up to the
house, and the longer way through the woods. At this point the
estuary made a sudden turn to the left, sweeping directly seawards,
and round the corner, immediately in front of them was the long
reach of deep water up which, even when the tide was at its lowest,
an ocean-going steamer could penetrate if it knew the windings of
the channel. To-day, in the windless, cold calm of mid-winter,
though the sun was brilliant in a blue sky overhead, an opaque
mist, thick as cotton-wool, lay over the surface of the water, and,
taking the winding road through the woods, which, following the
estuary, turned the point, they presently found themselves, as they
mounted, quite clear of the mist that lay below them on the river.
Their steps were noiseless on the mossy path, and almost
immediately after they had turned the corner, as Francis paused to
light a cigarette, they heard from just below them the creaking of
oars in their rowlocks. It caught the ears of them both, and
without conscious curiosity they listened. On the moment the sound
of rowing ceased, and from the dense mist just below them there
came a sound which was quite unmistakable, namely, the "plop" of
something heavy dropped into the water. That sound, by some remote
form of association, suddenly recalled to Michael's mind certain
questions Aunt Barbara had asked him about the Emperor's stay at
Ashbridge, and his own recollection of his having gone up and down
the river in a launch. There was something further, which he did
not immediately recollect. Yes, it was the request that if when he
was here at Christmas he found strangers hanging about the deep-
water reach, of which the chart was known only to the Admiralty, he
should let her know. Here at this moment they were overlooking the
mist-swathed water, and here at this moment, unseen, was a boat
rowing stealthily, stopping, and, perhaps, making soundings.
He laid his hand on Francis's arm with a gesture for silence, then,
invisible below, someone said, "Fifteen fathoms," and again the
oars creaked audibly in the rowlocks.
Michael took a step towards his cousin, so that he could whisper to
"Come back to the boat," he said. "I want to row round and see who
that is. Wait a moment, though."
The oars below made some half-dozen strokes, and then were still
again. Once more there came the sound of something heavy dropped
into the water.
"Someone is making soundings in the channel there," he said.
They went very quietly till they were round the point, then
quickened their steps, and Michael spoke.
"That's the uncharted channel," he said; "at least, only the
Admiralty have the soundings. The water's deep enough right across
for a ship of moderate draught to come up, but there is a channel
up which any man-of-war can pass. Of course, it may be an
Admiralty boat making fresh soundings, but not likely on Boxing
"What are you going to do?" asked Francis, striding easily along by
Michael's short steps.
"Just see if we can find out who it is. Aunt Barbara asked me
about it. I'll tell you afterwards. Now the tide's going out we
can drop down with it, and we shan't be heard. I'll row just
enough to keep her head straight. Sit in the bow, Francis, and
keep a sharp look-out."
Foot by foot they dropped down the river, and soon came into the
thick mist that lay beyond the point. It was impossible to see
more than a yard or two ahead, but the same dense obscurity would
prevent any further range of vision from the other boat, and, if it
was still at its work, the sound of its oars or of voices, Michael
reflected, might guide him to it. From the lisp of little wavelets
lapping on the shore below the woods, he knew he was quite close in
to the bank, and close also to the place where the invisible boat
had been ten minutes before. Then, in the bewildering, unlocalised
manner in which sound without the corrective guidance of sight
comes to the ears, he heard as before the creaking of invisible
oars, somewhere quite close at hand. Next moment the dark prow of
a rowing-boat suddenly loomed into sight on their starboard, and he
took a rapid stroke with his right-hand scull to bring them up to
it. But at the same moment, while yet the occupants of the other
boat were but shadows in the mist, they saw him, and a quick word
of command rang out.
"Row--row hard!" it cried, and with a frenzied churning of oars in
the water, the other boat shot by them, making down the estuary.
Next moment it had quite vanished in the mist, leaving behind it
knots of swirling water from its oar-blades.
Michael started in vain pursuit; his craft was heavy and clumsy,
and from the retreating and faint-growing sound of the other, it
was clear that he could get no pace to match, still less to
overtake them. Soon he pantingly desisted.
"But an Admiralty boat wouldn't have run away," he said. "They'd
have asked us who the devil we were."
"But who else was it?" asked Francis.
Michael mopped his forehead.
"Aunt Barbara would tell you," he said. "She would tell you that
they were German spies."
"Or Timbuctoo niggers," he remarked.
"And that would be an odd thing, too," said Michael.
But at that moment he felt the first chill of the shadow that
menaced, if by chance Aunt Barbara was right, and if already the
clear tranquillity of the sky was growing dim as with the mist that
lay that afternoon on the waters of the deep reach, and covered
mysterious movements which were going on below it. England and
Germany--there was so much of his life and his heart there. Music
and song, and Sylvia.
Michael had heard the verdict of the brain specialist, who
yesterday had seen his mother, and was sitting in his room beside
his unopened piano quietly assimilating it, and, without making
plans of his own initiative, contemplating the forms into which the
future was beginning to fall, mapping itself out below him,
outlining itself as when objects in a room, as the light of morning
steals in, take shape again. And even as they take the familiar
shapes, so already he felt that he had guessed all this in that
week down at Ashbridge, from which he had returned with his father
and mother a couple of days before.
She was suffering, without doubt, from some softening of the brain;
nothing of remedial nature could possibly be done to arrest or cure
the progress of the disease, and all that lay in human power was to
secure for her as much content and serenity as possible. In her
present condition there was no question of putting her under
restraint, nor, indeed, could she be certified by any doctor as
insane. She would have to have a trained attendant, she would live
a secluded life, from which must be kept as far as possible
anything that could agitate or distress her, and after that there
was nothing more that could be done except to wait for the
inevitable development of her malady. This might come quickly or
slowly; there was no means of forecasting that, though the rapid
deterioration of her brain, which had taken place during those last
two months, made it, on the whole, likely that the progress of the
disease would be swift. It was quite possible, on the other hand,
that it might remain stationary for months. . . . And in answer to
a question of Michael's, Sir James had looked at him a moment in
silence. Then he answered.
"Both for her sake and for the sake of all of you," he had said,
"one hopes that it will be swift."
Lord Ashbridge had just telephoned that he was coming round to see
Michael, a message that considerably astonished him, since it would
have been more in his manner, in the unlikely event of his wishing
to see his son, to have summoned him to the house in Curzon Street.
However, he had announced his advent, and thus, waiting for him,
and not much concerning himself about that, Michael let the future
map itself. Already it was sharply defined, its boundaries and
limits were clear, and though it was yet untravelled it presented
to him a familiar aspect, and he felt that he could find his
allotted road without fail, though he had never yet traversed it.
It was strongly marked; there could be no difficulty or question
about it. Indeed, a week ago, when first the recognition of his
mother's condition, with the symptoms attached to it, was known to
him, he had seen the signpost that directed him into the future.
Lord Ashbridge made his usual flamboyant entry, prancing and
swinging his elbows. Whatever happened he would still be Lord
Ashbridge, with his grey top-hat and his large carnation and his
"You will have heard what Sir James's opinion is about your poor
mother," he said. "It was in consequence of what he recommended
when he talked over the future with me that I came to see you."
Michael guessed very well what this recommendation was, but with a
certain stubbornness and sense of what was due to himself, he let
his father proceed with the not very welcome task of telling him.
"In fact, Michael," he said, "I have a favour to ask of you."
The fact of his being Lord Ashbridge, and the fact of Michael being
his unsatisfactory son, stiffened him, and he had to qualify the
"Perhaps I should not say I am about to ask you a favour," he
corrected himself, "but rather to point out to you what is your
Suddenly it struck Michael that his father was not thinking about
Lady Ashbridge at all, nor about him, but in the main about
himself. All had to be done from the dominant standpoint; he owed
it to himself to alleviate the conditions under which his wife must
live; he owed it to himself that his son should do his part as a
Comber. There was no longer any possible doubt as to what this
favour, or this direction of duty, must be, but still Michael chose
that his father should state it. He pushed a chair forward for
"Won't you sit down?" he said.
"Thank you, I would rather stand. Yes; it is not so much a favour
as the indication of your duty. I do not know if you will see it
in the same light as I; you have shown me before now that we do not
take the same view."
Michael felt himself bristling. His father certainly had the
effect of drawing out in him all the feelings that were better
"I think we need not talk of that now, sir," he remarked.
"Certainly it is not the subject of my interview with you now. The
fact is this. In some way your presence gives a certain serenity
and content to your mother. I noticed that at Ashbridge, and,
indeed, there has been some trouble with her this morning because I
could not take her to come to see you with me. I ask you,
therefore, for her sake, to be with us as much as you can, in
short, to come and live with us."
Michael nodded, saluting, so to speak, the signpost into the future
as he passed it.
"I had already determined to do that," he said. "I had determined,
at any rate, to ask your permission to do so. It is clear that my
mother wants me, and no other consideration can weigh with that."
Lord Ashbridge still remained completely self-sufficient.
"I am glad you take that view of it," he said. "I think that is all
I have to say."
Now Michael was an adept at giving; as indicated before, when he
gave, he gave nobly, and he could not only outwardly disregard, but
he inwardly cancelled the wonderful ungenerosity with which his
father received. That did not concern him.
"I will make arrangements to come at once," he said, "if you can
receive me to-day."
"That will hardly be worth while, will it? I am taking your mother
back to Ashbridge tomorrow."
Michael got up in silence. After all, this gift of himself, of his
time, of his liberty, of all that constituted life to him, was made
not to his father, but to his mother. It was made, as his heart
knew, not ungrudgingly only, but eagerly, and if it had been
recommended by the doctor that she should go to Ashbridge, he would
have entirely disregarded the large additional sacrifice on himself
which it entailed. Thus it was not owing to any retraction of his
gift, or reconsideration of it, that he demurred.
"I hope you will--will meet me half-way about this, sir," he said.
"You must remember that all my work lies in London. I want,
naturally, to continue that as far as I can. If you go to
Ashbridge it is completely interrupted. My friends are here too;
everything I have is here."
His father seemed to swell a little; he appeared to fill the room.
"And all my duties lie at Ashbridge," he said. "As you know, I am
not of the type of absentee landlords. It is quite impossible that
I should spend these months in idleness in town. I have never done
such a thing yet, nor, I may say, would our class hold the position
they do if we did. We shall come up to town after Easter, should
your mother's health permit it, but till then I could not dream of
neglecting my duties in the country."
Now Michael knew perfectly well what his father's duties on that
excellently managed estate were. They consisted of a bi-weekly
interview in the "business-room" (an abode of files and stags'
heads, in which Lord Ashbridge received various reports of building
schemes and repairs), of a round of golf every afternoon, and of
reading the lessons and handing the offertory-box on Sunday. That,
at least, was the sum-total as it presented itself to him, and on
which he framed his conclusions. But he left out altogether the
moral effect of the big landlord living on his own land, and being
surrounded by his own dependents, which his father, on the other
hand, so vastly over-estimated. It was clear that there was not
likely to be much accord between them on this subject.
"But could you not go down there perhaps once or twice a week, and
get Bailey to come and consult you here?" he asked.
Lord Ashbridge held his head very high.
"That would be completely out of the question," he said.
All this, Michael felt, had nothing to do with the problem of his
mother and himself. It was outside it altogether, and concerned
only his father's convenience. He was willing to press this point
as far as possible.
"I had imagined you would stop in London," he said. "Supposing
under these circumstances I refuse to live with you?"
"I should draw my own conclusion as to the sincerity of your
profession of duty towards your mother."
"And practically what would you do?" asked Michael.
"Your mother and I would go to Ashbridge tomorrow all the same."
Another alternative suddenly suggested itself to Michael which he
was almost ashamed of proposing, for it implied that his father put
his own convenience as outweighing any other consideration. But he
saw that if only Lord Ashbridge was selfish enough to consent to
it, it had manifest merits. His mother would be alone with him,
free of the presence that so disconcerted her.
"I propose, then," he said, "that she and I should remain in town,
as you want to be at Ashbridge."
He had been almost ashamed of suggesting it, but no such shame was
reflected in his father's mind. This would relieve him of the
perpetual embarrassment of his wife's presence, and the perpetual
irritation of Michael's. He had persuaded himself that he was
making a tremendous personal sacrifice in proposing that Michael
should live with them, and this relieved him of the necessity.
"Upon my word, Michael," he said, with the first hint of cordiality
that he had displayed, "that is very well thought of. Let us
consider; it is certainly the case that this derangement in your
poor mother's mind has caused her to take what I might almost call
a dislike to me. I mentioned that to Sir James, though it was very
painful for me to do so, and he said that it was a common and most
distressing symptom of brain disease, that the sufferer often
turned against those he loved best. Your plan would have the
effect of removing that."
He paused a moment, and became even more sublimely fatuous.
"You, too," he said, "it would obviate the interruption of your
work, about which you feel so keenly. You would be able to go on
with it. Of myself, I don't think at all. I shall be lonely, no
doubt, at Ashbridge, but my own personal feelings must not be taken
into account. Yes; it seems to me a very sensible notion. We
shall have to see what your mother says to it. She might not like
me to be away from her, in spite of her apparent--er--dislike of
me. It must all depend on her attitude. But for my part I think
very well of your scheme. Thank you, Michael, for suggesting it."
He left immediately after this to ascertain Lady Ashbridge's
feelings about it, and walked home with a complete resumption of
his usual exuberance. It indeed seemed an admirable plan. It
relieved him from the nightmare of his wife's continual presence,
and this he expressed to himself by thinking that it relieved her
from his. It was not that he was deficient in sympathy for her,
for in his self-centred way he was fond of her, but he could
sympathise with her just as well at Ashbridge. He could do no good
to her, and he had not for her that instinct of love which would
make it impossible for him to leave her. He would also be spared
the constant irritation of having Michael in the house, and this he
expressed to himself by saying that Michael disliked him, and would
be far more at his ease without him. Furthermore, Michael would be
able to continue his studies . . . of this too, in spite of the
fact that he had always done his best to discourage them, he made a
self-laudatory translation, by telling himself that he was very
glad not to have to cause Michael to discontinue them. In fine, he
persuaded himself, without any difficulty, that he was a very fine
fellow in consenting to a plan that suited him so admirably, and
only wondered that he had not thought of it himself. There was
nothing, after his wife had expressed her joyful acceptance of it,
to detain him in town, and he left for Ashbridge that afternoon,
while Michael moved into the house in Curzon Street.
Michael entered upon his new life without the smallest sense of
having done anything exceptional or even creditable. It was so
perfectly obvious to him that he had to be with his mother that he
had no inclination to regard himself at all in the matter; the
thing was as simple as it had been to him to help Francis out of
financial difficulties with a gift of money. There was no effort
of will, no sense of sacrifice about it, it was merely the
assertion of a paramount instinct. The life limited his freedom,
for, for a great part of the day he was with his mother, and
between his music and his attendance on her, he had but little
leisure. Occasionally he went out to see his friends, but any
prolonged absence on his part always made her uneasy, and he would
often find her, on his return, sitting in the hall, waiting for
him, so as to enjoy his presence from the first moment that he re-
entered the house. But though he found no food for reflection in
himself, Aunt Barbara, who came to see them some few days after
Michael had been installed here, found a good deal.
They had all had tea together, and afterwards Lady Ashbridge's
nurse had come down to fetch her upstairs to rest. And then Aunt
Barbara surprised Michael, for she came across the room to him,
with her kind eyes full of tears, and kissed him.
"My dear, I must say it once," she said, "and then you will know
that it is always in my mind. You have behaved nobly, Michael;
it's a big word, but I know no other. As for your father--"
Michael interrupted her.
"Oh, I don't understand him," he said. "At least, that's the best
way to look at it. Let's leave him out."
He paused a moment.
"After all, it is a much better plan than our living all three of
us at Ashbridge. It's better for my mother, and for me, and for
"I know, but how he could consent to the better plan," she said.
"Well, let us leave him out. Poor Robert! He and his golf. My
dear, your father is a very ludicrous person, you know. But about
you, Michael, do you think you can stand it?"
He smiled at her.
"Why, of course I can," he said. "Indeed, I don't think I'll
accept that statement of it. It's--it's such a score to be able to
be of use, you know. I can make my mother happy. Nobody else can.
I think I'm getting rather conceited about it."
"Yes, dear; I find you insufferable," remarked Aunt Barbara
"Then you must just bear it. The thing is"--Michael took a moment
to find the words he searched for--"the thing is I want to be
wanted. Well, it's no light thing to be wanted by your mother,
He sat down on the sofa by his aunt.
"Aunt Barbara, how ironically gifts come," he said. "This was
rather a sinister way of giving, that my mother should want me like
this just as her brain was failing. And yet that failure doesn't
affect the quality of her love. Is it something that shines
through the poor tattered fabric? Anyhow, it has nothing to do
with her brain. It is she herself, somehow, not anything of hers,
that wants me. And you ask if I can stand it?"
Michael with his ugly face and his kind eyes and his simple heart
seemed extraordinarily charming just then to Aunt Barbara. She
wished that Sylvia could have seen him then in all the
unconsciousness of what he was doing so unquestioningly, or that
she could have seen him as she had with his mother during the last
hour. Lady Ashbridge had insisted on sitting close to him, and
holding his hand whenever she could possess herself of it, of
plying him with a hundred repeated questions, and never once had
she made Michael either ridiculous or self-conscious. And this,
she reflected, went on most of the day, and for how many days it
would go on, none knew. Yet Michael could not consider even
whether he could stand it; he rejected the expression as
"And your friends?" she said. "Do you manage to see them?"
"Oh, yes, occasionally," said Michael. "They don't come here, for
the presence of strangers makes my mother agitated. She thinks
they have some design of taking her or me away. But she wants to
see Sylvia. She knows about--about her and me, and I can't make up
my mind what to do about it. She is always asking if I can't take
her to see Sylvia, or get her to come here."
"And why not? Sylvia knows about your mother, I suppose."
"I expect so. I told Hermann. But I am afraid my mother will--
well, you can't call it arguing--but will try to persuade her to
have me. I can't let Sylvia in for that. Nor, if it comes to
that, can I let myself in for that."
"Can't you impress on your mother that she mustn't?"
Michael leaned forward to the fire, pondering this, and stretching
out his big hands to the blaze.
"Yes, I might," he said. "I should love to see Sylvia again, just
see her, you know. We settled that the old terms we were on
couldn't continue. At least, I settled that, and she understood."
"Sylvia is a gaby," remarked Aunt Barbara.
"I'm rather glad you think so."
"Oh, get her to come," said she. "I'm sure your mother will do as
you tell her. I'll be here too, if you like, if that will do any
good. By the way, I see your Hermann's piano recital comes off to-
"I know. My mother wants to go to that, and I think I shall take
her. Will you come too, Aunt Barbara, and sit on the other side of
her? My 'Variations' are going to be played. If they are a
success, Hermann tells me I shall be dragged screaming on to the
platform, and have to bow. Lord! And if they're not, well, 'Lord'
"Yes, my dear, of course I'll come. Let me see, I shall have to
lie, as I have another engagement, but a little thing like that
doesn't bother me."
Suddenly she clapped her hands together.
"My dear, I quite forgot," she said. "Michael, such excitement.
You remember the boat you heard taking soundings on the deep-water
reach? Of course you do! Well, I sent that information to the
proper quarter, and since then watch has been kept in the woods
just above it. Last night only the coastguard police caught four
men at it--all Germans. They tried to escape as they did before,
by rowing down the river, but there was a steam launch below which
intercepted them. They had on them a chart of the reach, with
soundings, nearly complete; and when they searched their houses--
they are all tenants of your astute father, who merely laughed at
us--they found a very decent map of certain private areas at
Harwich. Oh, I'm not such a fool as I look. They thanked me, my
dear, for my information, and I very gracefully said that my
information was chiefly got by you."
"But did those men live in Ashbridge?" asked Michael.
"Yes; and your father will have four decorous houses on his hands.
I am glad: he should not have laughed at us. It will teach him, I
hope. And now, my dear, I must go."
She stood up, and put her hand on Michael's arm.
"And you know what I think of you," she said. "To-morrow evening,
then. I hate music usually; but then I adore Mr. Hermann. I only
wish he wasn't a German. Can't you get him to naturalise himself
and his sister?"
"You wouldn't ask that if you had seen him in Munich," said
"I suppose not. Patriotism is such a degrading emotion when it is
Michael's "Variations" came some half-way down the programme next
evening, and as the moment for them approached, Lady Ashbridge got
more and more excited.
"I hope he knows them by heart properly, dear," she whispered to
Michael. "I shall be so nervous for fear he'll forget them in the
middle, which is so liable to happen if you play without your
Michael laid his hand on his mother's.
"Hush, mother," he said, "you mustn't talk while he's playing."
"Well, I was only whispering. But if you tell me I mustn't--"
The hall was crammed from end to end, for not only was Hermann a
person of innumerable friends, but he had already a considerable
reputation, and, being a German, all musical England went to hear
him. And to-night he was playing superbly, after a couple of days
of miserable nervousness over his debut as a pianist; but his
temperament was one of those that are strung up to their highest
pitch by such nervous agonies; he required just that to make him do
full justice to his own personality, and long before he came to the
"Variations," Michael felt quite at ease about his success. There
was no question about it any more: the whole audience knew that
they were listening to a master. In the row immediately behind
Michael's party were sitting Sylvia and her mother, who had not
quite been torn away from her novels, since she had sought "The
Love of Hermione Hogarth" underneath her cloak, and read it
furtively in pauses. They had come in after Michael, and until the
interval between the classical and the modern section of the
concert he was unaware of their presence; then idly turning round
to look at the crowded hall, he found himself face to face with the
"I had no idea you were there," he said. "Hermann will do, won't
he? I think--"
And then suddenly the words of commonplace failed him, and he
looked at her in silence.
"I knew you were back," she said. "Hermann told me about--
Michael glanced sideways, indicating his mother, who sat next him,
and was talking to Barbara.
"I wondered whether perhaps you would come and see my mother and
me," he said. "May I write?"
She looked at him with the friendliness of her smiling eyes and her
"Is it necessary to ask?" she said.
Michael turned back to his seat, for his mother had had quite
enough of her sister-in-law, and wanted him again. She looked over
her shoulder for a moment to see whom Michael was talking to.
"I'm enjoying my concert, dear," she said. "And who is that nice
young lady? Is she a friend of yours?"
The interval was over, and Hermann returned to the platform, and
waiting for a moment for the buzz of conversation to die down, gave
out, without any preliminary excursion on the keys, the text of
Michael's "Variations." Then he began to tell them, with light and
flying fingers, what that simple tune had suggested to Michael, how
he imagined himself looking on at an old-fashioned dance, and while
the dancers moved to the graceful measure of a minuet, or daintily
in a gavotte, the tune of "Good King Wenceslas" still rang in his
head, or, how in the joy of the sunlight of a spring morning it
still haunted him. It lay behind a cascade of foaming waters that,
leaping, roared into a ravine; it marched with flying banners on
some day of victorious entry, it watched a funeral procession wind
by, with tapers and the smell of incense; it heard, as it got
nearer back to itself again, the peals of Christmas bells, and
stood forth again in its own person, decorated and emblazoned.
Hermann had already captured his audience; now he held them tame in
the hollow of his hand. Twice he bowed, and then, in answer to the
demand, just beckoned with his finger to Michael, who rose. For a
moment his mother wished to detain him.
"You're not going to leave me, my dear, are you?" she asked
He waited to explain to her quietly, left her, and, feeling rather
dazed, made his way round to the back and saw the open door on to
the platform confronting him. He felt that no power on earth could
make him step into the naked publicity there, but at the moment
Hermann appeared in the doorway.
"Come on, Mike," he said, laughing. "Thank the pretty ladies and
gentlemen! Lord, isn't it all a lark!"
Michael advanced with him, stared and hoped he smiled properly,
though he felt that he was nailing some hideous grimace to his
face; and then just below him he saw his mother eagerly pointing
him out to a total stranger, with gesticulation, and just behind
her Sylvia looking at her, and not at him, with such tenderness,
such kindly pity. There were the two most intimately bound into
his life, the mother who wanted him, the girl whom he wanted; and
by his side was Hermann, who, as Michael always knew, had thrown
open the gates of life to him. All the rest, even including Aunt
Barbara, seemed of no significance in that moment. Afterwards, no
doubt, he would be glad they were pleased, be proud of having
pleased them; but just now, even when, for the first time in his
life, that intoxicating wine of appreciation was given him, he
stood with it bubbling and yellow in his hand, not drinking of it.
Michael had prepared the way of Sylvia's coming by telling his
mother the identity of the "nice young lady" at the concert; he had
also impressed on her the paramount importance of not saying
anything with regard to him that could possibly embarrass the nice
young lady, and when Sylvia came to tea a few days later, he was
quite without any uneasiness, while for himself he was only
conscious of that thirst for her physical presence, the desire, as
he had said to Aunt Barbara, "just to see her." Nor was there the
slightest embarrassment in their meeting! it was clear that there
was not the least difficulty either for him or her in being
natural, which, as usually happens, was the complete solution.
"That is good of you to come," he said, meeting her almost at the
door. "My mother has been looking forward to your visit. Mother
dear, here is Miss Falbe."
Lady Ashbridge was pathetically eager to be what she called "good."
Michael had made it clear to her that it was his wish that Miss
Falbe should not be embarrassed, and any wish just now expressed by
Michael was of the nature of a divine command to her.
"Well, this is a pleasure," she said, looking across to Michael
with the eyes of a dog on a beloved master. "And we are not
strangers quite, are we, Miss Falbe? We sat so near each other to
listen to your brother, who I am sure plays beautifully, and the
music which Michael made. Haven't I got a clever son, and such a
Sylvia was unerring. Michael had known she would be.
"Indeed, you have," she said, sitting down by her. "And Michael
mustn't hear what we say about him, must he, or he'll be getting
Lady Ashbridge laughed.
"And that would never do, would it?" she said, still retaining
Sylvia's hand. Then a little dim ripple of compunction broke in
her mind. "Michael," she said, "we are only joking about your
getting conceited. Miss Falbe and I are only joking. And--and
won't you take off your hat, Miss Falbe, for you are not going to
hurry away, are you? You are going to pay us a long visit."
Michael had not time to remind his mother that ladies who come to
tea do not usually take their hats off, for on the word Sylvia's
hands were busy with her hatpins.
"I'm so glad you suggested that," she said. "I always want to take
my hat off. I don't know who invented hats, but I wish he hadn't."
Lady Ashbridge looked at her masses of bright hair, and could not
help telegraphing a note of admiration, as it were, to Michael.
"Now, that's more comfortable," she said. "You look as if you
weren't going away next minute. When I like to see people, I hate
their going away. I'm afraid sometimes that Michael will go away,
but he tells me he won't. And you liked Michael's music, Miss
Falbe? Was it not clever of him to think of all that out of one
simple little tune? And he tells me you sing so nicely. Perhaps
you would sing to us when we've had tea. Oh, and here is my
sister-in-law. Do you know her--Lady Barbara? My dear, what is
your husband's name?"
Seeing Sylvia uncovered, Lady Barbara, with a tact that was
creditable to her, but strangely unsuccessful, also began taking
off her hat. Her sister-in-law was too polite to interfere, but,
as a matter of fact, she did not take much pleasure in the notion
that Barbara was going to stay a very long time, too. She was fond
of her, but it was not Barbara whom Michael wanted. She turned her
attention to the girl again.
"My husband's away," she said, confidentially; "he is very busy
down at Ashbridge, and I daresay he won't find time to come up to
town for many weeks yet. But, you know, Michael and I do very well
without him, very well, indeed, and it would never do to take him
away from his duties--would it, Michael?"
Here was a shoal to be avoided.
"No, you mustn't think of tempting him to come up to town," said
Michael. "Give me some tea for Aunt Barbara."
This answer entranced Lady Ashbridge; she had to nudge Michael
several times to show that she understood the brilliance of it, and
put lump after lump of sugar into Barbara's cup in her rapt
appreciation of it. But very soon she turned to Sylvia again.
"And your brother is a friend of Michael's, too, isn't he?" she
said. "Some day perhaps he will come to see me. We don't see many
people, Michael and I, for we find ourselves very well content
alone. But perhaps some day he will come and play his concert over
again to us; and then, perhaps, if you ask me, I will sing to you.
I used to sing a great deal when I was younger. Michael--where has
Michael had just left the room to bring some cigarettes in from
next door, and Lady Ashbridge ran after him, calling him. She
found him in the hall, and brought him back triumphantly.
"Now we will all sit and talk for a long time," she said. "You one
side of me, Miss Falbe, and Michael the other. Or would you be so
kind as to sing for us? Michael will play for you, and would it
annoy you if I came and turned over the pages? It would give me a
great deal of pleasure to turn over for you, if you will just nod
each time when you are ready."
Sylvia got up.
"Why, of course," she said. "What have you got, Michael? I
haven't anything with me."
Michael found a volume of Schubert, and once again, as on the first
time he had seen her, she sang "Who is Sylvia?" while he played,
and Lady Ashbridge had her eyes fixed now on one and now on the
other of them, waiting for their nod to do her part; and then she
wanted to sing herself, and with some far-off remembrance of the
airs and graces of twenty-five years ago, she put her handkerchief
and her rings on the top of the piano, and, playing for herself,
emitted faint treble sounds which they knew to be "The Soldier's
Then presently her nurse came for her to lie down before dinner,
and she was inclined to be tearful and refuse to go till Michael
made it clear that it was his express and sovereign will that she
should do so. Then very audibly she whispered to him. "May I ask
her to give me a kiss?" she said. "She looks so kind, Michael, I
don't think she would mind."
Sylvia went back home with a little heartache for Michael,
wondering, if she was in his place, if her mother, instead of being
absorbed in her novels, demanded such incessant attentions, whether
she had sufficient love in her heart to render them with the
exquisite simplicity, the tender patience that Michael showed.
Well as she knew him, greatly as she liked him, she had not
imagined that he, or indeed any man could have behaved quite like
that. There seemed no effort at all about it; he was not trying to
be patient; he had the sense of "patience's perfect work" natural
to him; he did not seem to have to remind himself that his mother
was ill, and thus he must be gentle with her. He was gentle with
her because he was in himself gentle. And yet, though his
behaviour was no effort to him, she guessed how wearying must be
the continual strain of the situation itself. She felt that she
would get cross from mere fatigue, however excellent her intentions
might be, however willing the spirit. And no one, so she had
understood from Barbara, could take Michael's place. In his
occasional absences his mother was fretful and miserable, and day
by day Michael left her less. She would sit close to him when he
was practising--a thing that to her or to Hermann would have
rendered practice impossible--and if he wrestled with one hand over
a difficult bar, she would take the other into hers, would ask him
if he was not getting tired, would recommend him to rest for a
little; and yet Michael, who last summer had so stubbornly insisted
on leading his own life, and had put his determination into effect
in the teeth of all domestic opposition, now with more than
cheerfulness laid his own life aside in order to look after his
mother. Sylvia felt that the real heroisms of life were not so
much the fine heady deeds which are so obviously admirable, as such
serene steadfastness, such unvarying patience as that which she had
Her whole soul applauded Michael, and yet below her applause was
this heartache for him, the desire to be able to help him to bear
the burden which must be so heavy, though he bore it so blithely.
But in the very nature of things there was but one way in which she
could help him, and in that she was powerless. She could not give
him what he wanted. But she longed to be able to.
It was a morning of early March, and Michael, looking out from the
dining-room window at the house in Curzon Street, where he had just
breakfasted alone, was smitten with wonder and a secret ecstasy,
for he suddenly saw and felt that it was winter no longer, but that
spring had come. For the last week the skies had screamed with
outrageous winds and had been populous with flocks of sullen clouds
that discharged themselves in sleet and snowy rain, and half last
night, for he had slept very badly, he had heard the dashing of
showers, as of wind-driven spray, against the window-panes, and had
listened to the fierce rattling of the frames. Towards morning he
had slept, and during those hours it seemed that a new heaven and a
new earth had come into being; vitally and essentially the world
was a different affair altogether.
At the back of the house on to which these windows looked was a
garden of some half acre, a square of somewhat sooty grass, bounded
by high walls, with a few trees at the further end. Into it, too,
had the message that thrilled through his bones penetrated, and
this little oasis of doubtful grass and blackened shrubs had a
totally different aspect to-day from that which it had worn all
those weeks. The sparrows that had sat with fluffed-up feathers in
corners sheltered from the gales, were suddenly busy and shrilly
vocal, chirruping and dragging about straws, and flying from limb
to limb of the trees with twigs in their beaks. For the first time
he noticed that little verdant cabochons of folded leaf had globed
themselves on the lilac bushes below the window, crocuses had
budded, and in the garden beds had shot up the pushing spikes of
bulbs, while in the sooty grass he could see specks and patches of
vivid green, the first growth of the year.
He opened the window and strolled out. The whole taste and savour
of the air was changed, and borne on the primrose-coloured sunshine
came the smell of damp earth, no longer dead and reeking of the
decay of autumn, but redolent with some new element, something
fertile and fecund, something daintily, indefinably laden with the
secret of life and restoration. The grey, lumpy clouds were gone,
and instead chariots of dazzling white bowled along the infinite
blue expanse, harnessed to the southwest wind. But, above all, the
sparrows dragged straws to and fro, loudly chirruping. All spring
was indexed there.
For a moment Michael was entranced with the exquisite moment, and
stood sunning his soul in spring. But then he felt the fetters of
his own individual winter heavy on him again, and he could only see
what was happening without feeling it. For that moment he had felt
the leap in his blood, but the next he was conscious again of the
immense fatigue that for weeks had been growing on him. The task
which he had voluntarily taken on himself had become no lighter
with habit, the incessant attendance on his mother and the strain
of it got heavier day by day. For some time now her childlike
content in his presence had been clouded and, instead, she was
constantly depressed and constantly querulous with him, finding
fault with his words and his silences, and in her confused and
muffled manner blaming him and affixing sinister motives to his
most innocent actions. But she was still entirely dependent on
him, and if he left her for an hour or two, she would wait in an
agony of anxiety for his return, and when he came back overwhelmed
him with tearful caresses and the exaction of promises not to go
away again. Then, feeling certain of him once more, she would
start again on complaints and reproaches. Her doctor had warned
him that it looked as if some new phase of her illness was
approaching, which might necessitate the complete curtailment of
her liberty; but day had succeeded to day and she still remained in
the same condition, neither better nor worse, but making every
moment a burden to Michael.
It had been necessary that Sylvia should discontinue her visits,
for some weeks ago Lady Ashbridge had suddenly taken a dislike to
her, and, when she came, would sit in silent and lofty displeasure,
speaking to her as little as possible, and treating her with a
chilling and awful politeness. Michael had enough influence with
his mother to prevent her telling the girl what her crime had been,
which was her refusal to marry him; but, when he was alone with his
mother, he had to listen to torrents of these complaints. Lady
Ashbridge, with a wealth of language that had lain dormant in her
all her life, sarcastically supposed that Miss Falbe was a princess
in disguise ("very impenetrable disguise, for I'm sure she reminds
me of a barmaid more than a princess"), and thought that such a
marriage would be beneath her. Or, another time, she hinted that
Miss Falbe might be already married; indeed, this seemed a very
plausible explanation of her attitude. She desired, in fact, that
Sylvia should not come to see her any more, and now, when she did
not, there was scarcely a day in which Lady Ashbridge would not
talk in a pointed manner about pretended friends who leave you
alone, and won't even take the trouble to take a two-penny 'bus (if
they are so poor as all that) to come from Chelsea to Curzon
Michael knew that his mother's steps were getting nearer and nearer
to that border line which separates the sane from the insane, and
with all the wearing strain of the days as they passed, had but the
one desire in his heart, namely, to keep her on the right side for
as long as was humanly possible. But something might happen, some
new symptom develop which would make it impossible for her to go on
living with him as she did now, and the dread of that moment
haunted his waking hours and his dreams. Two months ago her doctor
had told him that, for the sake of everyone concerned, it was to be
hoped that the progress of her disease would be swift; but, for his
part, Michael passionately disclaimed such a wish. In spite of her
constant complaints and strictures, she was still possessed of her
love for him, and, wearing though every day was, he grudged the
passing of the hours that brought her nearer to the awful boundary
line. Had a deed been presented to him for his signature, which
bound him indefinitely to his mother's service, on the condition
that she got no worse, his pen would have spluttered with his
eagerness to sign.
In consequence of his mother's dislike to Sylvia, Michael had
hardly seen her during this last month. Once, when owing to some
small physical disturbance, Lady Ashbridge had gone to bed early on
a Sunday evening, he had gone to one of the Falbes' weekly parties,
and had tried to fling himself with enjoyment into the friendly
welcoming atmosphere. But for the present, he felt himself
detached from it all, for this life with his mother was close round
him with a sort of nightmare obsession, through which outside
influence and desire could only faintly trickle. He knew that the
other life was there, he knew that in his heart he longed for
Sylvia as much as ever; but, in his present detachment, his desire
for her was a drowsy ache, a remote emptiness, and the veil that
lay over his mother seemed to lie over him also. Once, indeed,
during the evening, when he had played for her, the veil had lifted
and for the drowsy ache he had the sunlit, stabbing pang; but, as
he left, the veil dropped again, and he let himself into the big,
mute house, sorry that he had left it. In the same way, too, his
music was in abeyance: he could not concentrate himself or find it
worth while to make the effort to absorb himself in it, and he knew
that short of that, there was neither profit nor pleasure for him
in his piano. Everything seemed remote compared with the immediate
foreground: there was a gap, a gulf between it and all the rest of
His father wrote to him from time to time, laying stress on the
extreme importance of all he was doing in the country, and giving
no hint of his coming up to town at present. But he faintly
adumbrated the time when in the natural course of events he would
have to attend to his national duties in the House of Lords, and
wondered whether it would not (about then) be good for his wife to
have a change, and enjoy the country when the weather became more
propitious. Michael, with an excusable unfilialness, did not
answer these amazing epistles; but, having basked in their
unconscious humour, sent them on to Aunt Barbara. Weekly reports
were sent by Lady Ashbridge's nurse to his father, and Michael had
nothing whatever to add to these. His fear of him had given place
to a quiet contempt, which he did not care to think about, and
certainly did not care to express.
Every now and then Lady Ashbridge had what Michael thought of as a
good hour or two, when she went back to her content and childlike
joy in his presence, and it was clear, when presently she came
downstairs as he still lingered in the garden, reading the daily
paper in the sun, that one of these better intervals had visited
her. She, too, it appeared, felt the waving of the magic wand of
spring, and she noted the signs of it with a joy that was
"My dear," she said, "what a beautiful morning! Is it wise to sit
out of doors without your hat, Michael? Shall not I go and fetch
it for you? No? Then let us sit here and talk. It is spring, is
it not? Look how the birds are collecting twigs for their nests! I
wonder how they know that the time has come round again. Sweet
little birds! How bold and merry they are."
She edged her way a little nearer him, so that her shoulder leaned
on his arm.
"My dear, I wish you were going to nest, too," she said. "I
wonder--do you think I have been ill-natured and unkind to your
Sylvia, and that makes her not come to see me now? I do remember
being vexed at her for not wanting to marry you, and perhaps I
talked unkindly about her. I am sorry, for my being cross to her
will do no good; it will only make her more unwilling than ever to
marry a man who has such an unpleasant mamma. Will she come to see
me again, do you think, if I ask her?"
These good hours were too rare in their appearances and swift in
their vanishings to warrant the certainty that she would feel the
same this afternoon, and Michael tried to turn the subject.
"Ah, we shall have to think about that, mother," he said. "Look,
there is a quarrel going on between those two sparrows. They both
want the same straw."
She followed his pointing finger, easily diverted.
"Oh, I wish they would not quarrel," she said. "It is so sad and
stupid to quarrel, instead of being agreeable and pleasant. I do
not like them to do that. There, one has flown away! And see, the
crocuses are coming up. Indeed it is spring. I should like to see
the country to-day. If you are not busy, Michael, would you take
me out into the country? We might go to Richmond Park perhaps, for
that is in the opposite direction from Ashbridge, and look at the
deer and the budding trees. Oh, Michael, might we take lunch with
us, and eat it out of doors? I want to enjoy as much as I can of
this spring day."
She clung closer to Michael.
"Everything seems so fragile, dear," she whispered. "Everything
may break. . . . Sometimes I am frightened."
The little expedition was soon moving, after a slight altercation
between Lady Ashbridge and her nurse, whom she wished to leave
behind in order to enjoy Michael's undiluted society. But Miss
Baker, who had already spoken to Michael, telling him she was not
quite happy in her mind about her patient, was firm about
accompanying them, though she obligingly effaced herself as far as
possible by taking the box-seat by the chauffeur as they drove
down, and when they arrived, and Michael and his mother strolled
about in the warm sunshine before lunch, keeping carefully in the
background, just ready to come if she was wanted. But indeed it
seemed as if no such precautions were necessary, for never had Lady
Ashbridge been more amenable, more blissfully content in her son's
companionship. The vernal hour, that first smell of the
rejuvenated earth, as it stirred and awoke from its winter sleep
had reached her no less than it had reached the springing grass and
the heart of buried bulbs, and never perhaps in all her life had
she been happier than on that balmy morning of early March. Here
the stir of spring that had crept across miles of smoky houses to
the gardens behind Curzon Street, was more actively effervescent,
and the "bare, leafless choirs" of the trees, which had been empty
of song all winter, were once more resonant with feathered
worshippers. Through the tussocks of the grey grass of last year
were pricking the vivid shoots of green, and over the grove of
young birches and hazel the dim, purple veil of spring hung
mistlike. Down by the water-edge of the Penn ponds they strayed,
where moor-hens scuttled out of rhododendron bushes that overhung
the lake, and hurried across the surface of the water, half
swimming, half flying, for the shelter of some securer retreat.
There, too, they found a plantation of willows, already in bud with
soft moleskin buttons, and a tortoiseshell butterfly, evoked by the
sun from its hibernation, settled on one of the twigs, opening and
shutting its diapered wings, and spreading them to the warmth to
thaw out the stiffness and inaction of winter. Blackbirds fluted
in the busy thickets, a lark shot up near them soaring and singing
till it became invisible in the luminous air, a suspended carol in
the blue, and bold male chaffinches, seeking their mates with
twittered songs, fluttered with burr of throbbing wings. All the
promise of spring was there--dim, fragile, but sure, on this day of
days, this pearl that emerged from the darkness and the stress of
winter, iridescent with the tender colours of the dawning year.
They lunched in the open motor, Miss Baker again obligingly
removing herself to the box seat, and spreading rugs on the grass
sat in the sunshine, while Lady Ashbridge talked or silently
watched Michael as he smoked, but always with a smile. The one
little note of sadness which she had sounded when she said she was
frightened lest everything should break, had not rung again, and
yet all day Michael heard it echoing somewhere dimly behind the
song of the wind and the birds, and the shoots of growing trees.
It lurked in the thickets, just eluding him, and not presenting
itself to his direct gaze; but he felt that he saw it out of the
corner of his eye, only to lose it when he looked at it. And yet
for weeks his mother had never seemed so well: the cloud had lifted
off her this morning, and, but for some vague presage of trouble
that somehow haunted his mind, refusing to be disentangled, he
could have believed that, after all, medical opinion might be at
fault, and that, instead of her passing more deeply into the
shadows as he had been warned was inevitable, she might at least
maintain the level to which she had returned to-day. All day she
had been as she was before the darkness and discontent of those
last weeks had come upon her: he who knew her now so well could
certainly have affirmed that she had recovered the serenity of a
month ago. It was so much, so tremendously much that she should do
this, and if only she could remain as she had been all day, she
would at any rate be happy, happier, perhaps, than she had
consciously been in all the stifled years which had preceded this.
Nothing else at the moment seemed to matter except the preservation
to her of such content, and how eagerly would he have given all the
service that his young manhood had to offer, if by that he could
keep her from going further into the bewildering darkness that he
had been told awaited her.
There was some little trouble, though no more than the shadow of a
passing cloud, when at last he said that they must be getting back
to town, for the afternoon was beginning to wane. She besought him
for five minutes more of sitting here in the sunshine that was
still warm, and when those minutes were over, she begged for yet
another postponement. But then the quiet imposition of his will
suddenly conquered her, and she got up.
"My dear, you shall do what you like with me," she said, "for you
have given me such a happy day. Will you remember that, Michael?
It has been a nice day. And might we, do you think, ask Miss Falbe
to come to tea with us when we get back? She can but say 'no,' and
if she comes, I will be very good and not vex her."
As she got back into the motor she stood up for a moment, her vague
blue eyes scanning the sky, the trees, the stretch of sunlit park.
"Good-bye, lake, happy lake and moor-hens," she said. "Good-bye,
trees and grass that are growing green again. Good-bye, all
pretty, peaceful things."
Michael had no hesitation in telephoning to Sylvia when they got
back to town, asking her if she could come and have tea with his
mother, for the gentle, affectionate mood of the morning still
lasted, and her eagerness to see Sylvia was only equalled by her
eagerness to be agreeable to her. He was greedy, whenever it could
be done, to secure a pleasure for his mother, and this one seemed
in her present mood a perfectly safe one. Added to that impulse,
in itself sufficient, there was his own longing to see her again,
that thirst that never left him, and soon after they had got back
to Curzon Street Sylvia was with them, and, as before, in
preparation for a long visit, she had taken off her hat. To-day
she divested herself of it without any suggestion on Lady
Ashbridge's part, and this immensely pleased her.
"Look, Michael," she said. "Miss Falbe means to stop a long time.
That is sweet of her, is it not? She is not in such a hurry to get
away today. Sugar, Miss Falbe? Yes, I remember you take sugar and
milk, but no cream. Well, I do think this is nice!"
Sylvia had seen neither mother nor son for a couple of weeks, and
her eyes coming fresh to them noticed much change in them both. In
Lady Ashbridge this change, though marked, was indefinable enough:
she seemed to the girl to have somehow gone much further off than
she had been before; she had faded, become indistinct. It was
evident that she found, except when she was talking to Michael, a
far greater difficulty in expressing herself, the channels of
communication, as it were, were getting choked. . . . With
Michael, the change was easily stated, he looked terribly tired,
and it was evident that the strain of these weeks was telling
heavily on him. And yet, as Sylvia noticed with a sudden sense of
personal pride in him, not one jot of his patient tenderness for
his mother was abated. Tired as he was, nervous, on edge, whenever
he dealt with her, either talking to her, or watching for any
little attention she might need, his face was alert with love. But
she noticed that when the footman brought in tea, and in arranging
the cups let a spoon slip jangling from its saucer, Michael jumped
as if a bomb had gone off, and under his breath said to the man,
"You clumsy fool!" Little as the incident was, she, knowing
Michael's courtesy and politeness, found it significant, as bearing
on the evidence of his tired face. Then, next moment his mother
said something to him, and instantly his love transformed and
To-day, more than ever before, Lady Ashbridge seemed to exist only
through him. As Sylvia knew, she had been for the last few weeks
constantly disagreeable to him; but she wondered whether this
exacting, meticulous affection was not harder to bear. Yet
Michael, in spite of the nervous strain which now showed itself so
clearly, seemed to find no difficulty at all in responding to it.
It might have worn his nerves to tatters, but the tenderness and
love of him passed unhampered through the frayed communications,
for it was he himself who was brought into play. It was of that
Michael, now more and more triumphantly revealed, that Sylvia felt
so proud, as if he had been a possession, an achievement wholly
personal to her. He was her Michael--it was just that which was
becoming evident, since nothing else would account for her claim of
him, unconsciously whispered by herself to herself.
It was not long before Lady Ashbridge's nurse appeared, to take her
upstairs to rest. At that her patient became suddenly and
unaccountably agitated: all the happy content of the day was wiped
off her mind. She clung to Michael.
"No, no, Michael," she said, "they mustn't take me away. I know
they are going to take me away from you altogether. You mustn't
Nurse Baker came towards her.
"Now, my lady, you mustn't behave like that," she said. "You know
you are only going upstairs to rest as usual before dinner. You
will see Lord Comber again then."
She shrank from her, shielding herself behind Michael's shoulder.
"No, Michael, no!" she repeated. "I'm going to be taken away from
you. And look, Miss--ah, my dear, I have forgotten your name--
look, she has got no hat on. She was going to stop with me a long
time. Michael, must I go?"
Michael saw the nurse looking at her, watching her with that quiet
eye of the trained attendant.
Then she spoke to Michael.
"Well, if Lord Comber will just step outside with me," she said,
"we'll see if we can arrange for you to stop a little longer."
"And you'll come back, Michael," said she.
Michael saw that the nurse wanted to say something to him, and with
infinite gentleness disentangled the clinging of Lady Ashbridge's
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