On the afternoon of the day upon which this occurred, Coombe was standing i_eather's drawing-room with a cup of tea in his hand and wearing the look of _an who is given up to reflection.
"I saw Mrs. Muir today for the first time for several years," he said after _ilence. "She is in London with the boy."
"Is she as handsome as ever?"
"Quite. Hers is not the beauty that disappears. It is line and bearing and _ort of splendid grace and harmony."
"What is the boy like?"
Coombe reflected again before he answered.
"He is—amazing. One so seldom sees anything approaching physical perfectio_hat it strikes one a sort of blow when one comes upon it suddenly face t_ace."
"Is he as beautiful as all that?"
"The Greeks used to make statues of bodies like his. They often called the_ods—but not always. The Creative Intention plainly was that all human being_hould be beautiful and he is the expression of it."
Feather was pretending to embroider a pink flower on a bit of gauze and sh_miled vaguely.
"I don't know what you mean," she admitted with no abasement of spirit, "bu_f ever there was any Intention of that kind it has not been carried out." He_mile broke into a little laugh as she stuck her needle into her work. "I'_hinking of Henry," she let drop in addition.
"So was I, it happened," answered Coombe after a second or so of pause.
Henry was the next of kin who was—to Coombe's great objection—his hei_resumptive, and was universally admitted to be a repulsive sort of perso_oth physically and morally. He had brought into the world a weakly an_ickety framework and had from mere boyhood devoted himself to a life whic_ould have undermined a Hercules. A relative may so easily present the aspec_f an unfortunate incident over which one has no control. This was the cas_ith Henry. His character and appearance were such that even his connectio_ith an important heritage was not enough to induce respectable persons t_ccept him in any form. But if Coombe remained without issue Henry would b_he Head of the House.
"How is his cough?" inquired Feather.
"Frightful. He is an emaciated wreck and he has no physical cause fo_emaining alive."
Feather made three or four stitches.
"Does Mrs. Muir know?" she said.
"If Mrs. Muir is conscious of his miserable existence, that is all," h_nswered. "She is not the woman to inquire. Of course she cannot help knowin_hat—when he is done with—her boy takes his place in the line of succession."
"Oh, yes, she'd know that," put in Feather.
It was Coombe who smiled now—very faintly.
"You have a mistaken view of her," he said.
"You admire her very much," Feather bridled. The figure of this big Scotc_reature with her "line" and her "splendid grace and harmony" was enough t_ake one bridle.
"She doesn't admire me," said Coombe. "She is not proud of me as a connection.
She doesn't really want the position for the boy, in her heart of hearts."
"Doesn't want it!" Feather's exclamation was a little jeer only because sh_ould not have dared a big one.
"She is Scotch Early Victorian in some things and extremely advanced i_thers," he went on. "She has strong ideas of her own as to how he shall b_rought up. She's rather Greek in her feeling for his being as perfec_hysically and mentally as she can help him to be. She believes things. It wa_he who said what you did not understand—about the Creative Intention."
"I suppose she is religious," Feather said. "Scotch people often are but thei_eligion isn't usually like that. Creative Intention's a new name for God, _uppose. I ought to know all about God. I've heard enough about Him. My fathe_as not a clergyman but he was very miserable, and it made him so religiou_hat he was ALMOST one. We were every one of us christened and catechized an_onfirmed and all that. So God's rather an old story."
"Queer how old—from Greenland's icy mountains to India's coral strand," sai_oombe. "It's an ancient search—that for the Idea—whether it takes form i_etal or wood or stone."
"Well," said Feather, holding her bit of gauze away from her the better t_riticize the pink flower. "As ALMOST a clergyman's daughter I must say tha_f there is one tiling God didn't do, it was to fill the world with beautifu_eople and things as if it was only to be happy in. It was made to-to try u_y suffering and-that sort of thing. It's a-a-what d'ye call it? Somethin_eginning with P."
"Probation," suggested Coombe regarding her with an expression of speculativ_nterest. Her airy bringing forth of her glib time-worn little scraps o_rthodoxy—as one who fished them out of a bag of long-discarded remnants o_ubbish—was so true to type that it almost fascinated him for a moment.
"Yes. That's it—probation," she answered. "I knew it began with a P. It means
'thorny paths' and 'seas of blood' and, if you are religious, you 'tread the_ith bleeding feet—' or swim them as the people do in hymns. And you prais_nd glorify all the time you're doing it. Of course, I'm not religious mysel_nd I can't say I think it's pleasant—but I do KNOW! Every body beautiful an_erfect indeed! That's not religion—it's being irreligious. Good gracious, think of the cripples and lepers and hunchbacks!"
"And the idea is that God made them all—by way of entertaining himself?" h_ut it to her quietly.
"Well, who else did?" said Feather cheerfully.
"I don't know," he said. "Certain things I heard Mrs. Muir say suggested t_ne that it might be interesting to think it out."
"Did she talk to you about God at afternoon tea?" said Feather.
"It's the kind of thing a religious Scotch woman might do."
"No, she did not talk to me. Perhaps that was her mistake. She might hav_eformed me. She never says more to me than civility demands. And it was no_t tea. I accidentally dropped in on the Bethunes and found an Oriental ha_een lecturing there. Mrs. Muir was talking to him and I heard her. The ma_eemed to be a scholar and a deep thinker and as they talked a group of u_tood and listened or asked questions."
"How funny!" said Feather.
"It was not funny at all. It was astonishingly calm and serious—and logical.
The logic was the new note. I had never thought of reason in that connection."
"Reason has nothing to do with it. You must have faith. You must just believ_hat you're told not think at all. Thinking is wickedness—unless you thin_hat you hear preached." Feather was even a trifle delicately smug as sh_attled off her orthodoxy—but she laughed after she had done with it. "But i_UST have been funny—a Turk or a Hindoo in a turban and a thing like a te_own and Mrs. Muir in her Edinburgh looking clothes talking about God."
"You are quite out of it," Coombe did not smile at all as he said it. "Th_riental was as physically beautiful as Donal Muir is. And Mrs. Muir—no othe_oman in the room compared with her. Perhaps people who think grow beautiful."
Feather was not often alluring or coquettish in her manner to Coombe but sh_ilted her head prettily and looked down at her flower through lovely lashes.
" _I_ don't think," she said. "And I am not so bad looking."
"No," he answered coldly. "You are not. At times you look like a young angel."
"If Mrs. Muir is like that," she said after a brief pause, "I should like t_now what she thinks of me?"
"No, you would not—neither should I—if she thinks at all," was his answer.
"But you remember you said you did not mind that sort of thing."
"I don't. Why should I? It can't harm me." Her hint of a pout made her mout_ntrancing. "But, if she thinks good looks are the result of religiousness _hould like to let her see Robin—and compare her with her boy. I saw Robin i_he park last week and she's a perfect beauty."
"Last week?" said Coombe.
"She doesn't need anyone but Andrews. I should bore her to death if I went an_at in the Nursery and stared at her. No one does that sort of thing in thes_ays. But I should like to see Mrs. Muir to see the two children together!"
"That could not easily be arranged, I am afraid," he said.
His answer was politely deliberate.
"She greatly disapproves of me, I have told you. She is not proud of th_elationship."
"She does not like ME you mean?"
"Excuse me. I mean exactly what I said in telling you that she has her ow_ery strong views of the boy's training and surroundings. They may b_idiculous but that sort of thing need not trouble you."
Feather held up her hand and actually laughed.
"If Robin meets him in ten years from now-THAT for her very strong views o_is training and surroundings!"
And she snapped her fingers.
Mrs. Muir's distaste for her son's unavoidable connection the man he migh_ucceed had a firm foundation. She had been brought up in a Scottish Mans_here her father dominated as an omnipotent and almost divine authority. As _hild of imagination she had not been happy but she had been obedient. In he_irlhood she had varied from type through her marriage with a young man wh_as a dreamer, an advanced thinker, an impassioned Greek scholar and a love_f beauty. After he had from her terrors of damnation, they had bee_rofoundly happy. They were young and at ease and they read and though_ogether ardently. They explored new creeds and cults and sometimes foun_hemselves talking nonsense and sometimes discovering untrodden paths o_isdom. They were youthful enough to be solemn about things at times, an_lever enough to laugh at their solemnity when they awakened to it. Helen Mui_eft the reverent gloom of the life at the Manse far behind despite he_espect for certain meanings they beclouded.
"I live in a new structure," she said to her husband, "but it is built on _oundation which is like a solid subterranean chamber. I don't use th_ubterranean chamber or go into it. I don't want to. But now and the_choes—almost noises—make themselves heard in it. Sometimes I find I hav_istened in spite of myself."
She had always been rather grave about her little son and when her husband'_arly death left him and his dignified but not large estate in her care sh_ealized that there lay in her hands the power to direct a life as she chose, in as far as was humanly possible. The pure blood and healthy tendencies of _ong and fine ancestry expressing themselves in the boy's splendid body an_nusual beauty had set the minds of two imaginative people working from th_irst. One of Muir's deepest interests was the study of development of th_ace. It was he who had planted in her mind that daringly fearless thought o_ human perfection as to the Intention of the Creative Cause. They used t_ook at the child as he lay asleep and note the beauty of him—his hands, hi_eet, his torso, the tint and texture and line of him.
"This is what was MEANT—in the plan for every human being—How could there b_camping and inefficiency in Creation. It is we ourselves who have scamped an_een incomplete in our thought and life. Here he is. Look at him. But he wil_nly develop as he is—if living does not warp him." This was what his fathe_aid. His mother was at her gravest as she looked down at the little god i_he crib.
"It's as if some power had thrust a casket of loose jewels into our hands an_aid, 'It is for you to see that not one is lost'," she murmured. Then th_ooked up and smiled.
"Are we being solemn—over a baby?" she said.
"Perhaps," he was always even readier to smile than she was. "I've an idea, however, that there's enough to be solemn about—not too solemn, but jus_olemn enough. You are a beautiful thing, Fair Helen! Why shouldn't he be lik_ou? Neither of us will forget what we have just said."
Through her darkest hours of young bereavement she remembered the words man_imes and felt as if they were a sort of light she might hold in her hand a_he trod the paths of the "Afterwards" which were in the days before her. Sh_ived with Donal at Braemarnie and lived FOR him without neglecting her dut_f being the head of a household and an estate and also a good and graciou_eighbour to things and people. She kept watch over every jewel in his casket, great and small. He was so much a part of her religion that sometimes sh_ealized that the echoes from the subterranean chamber were perhaps making he_ little strict but she tried to keep guard over herself.
He was handsome and radiant with glowing health and vitality. He was _riendly, rejoicing creature and as full of the joy of life as a scamperin_oor pony. He was clever enough but not too clever and he was friends with th_orld. Braemarnie was picturesquely ancient and beautiful. It would be a hom_f sufficient ease and luxury to be a pleasure but no burden. Life in it coul_e perfect and also supply freedom. Coombe Court and Coombe Keep were huge an_astellated and demanded great things. Even if the Head of the House had bee_ man to like and be proud of—the accession of a beautiful young Marquis woul_ouse the hounds of war, so to speak, and set them racing upon his track. Eve_he totally unalluring "Henry" had been beset with temptations from hi_arliest years. That he promptly succumbed to the first only brought fort_thers. It did not seem fair that a creature so different, a splendid fearles_hing, should be dragged from his hills and moors and fair heather and made t_reathe the foul scent of things, of whose poison he could know nothing. Sh_as not an ignorant childish woman. In her fine aloof way she had learned muc_n her stays in London with her husband and in their explorings of foreig_ities.
This was the reason for her views of her boy's training and surroundings. Sh_ad not asked questions about Coombe himself, but it had not been necessary.
Once or twice she had seen Feather by chance. In spite of herself she ha_eard about Henry. Now and then he was furbished up and appeared briefly a_oombe Court or at The Keep. It was always briefly because he inevitably bega_o verge on misbehaving himself after twenty-four hours had passed. On hi_ast visit to Coombe House in town, where he had turned up without invitation, he had become so frightfully drunk that he had been barely rescued from th_rifling faux pas of attempting to kiss a very young royal princess. Ther_ere quite definite objections to Henry.
Helen Muir was NOT proud of the Coombe relationship and with unvaried an_esourceful good breeding kept herself and her boy from all chance of bein_rawn into anything approaching an intimacy. Donal knew nothing of hi_rospects. There would be time enough for that when he was older, but, in th_eantime, there should be no intercourse if it could be avoided.
She had smiled at herself when the "echo" had prompted her to the hint of _uaint caution in connection with his little boy flame of delight in th_trange child he had made friends with. But it HAD been a flame and, thoug_he, had smiled, she sat very still by the window later that night and she ha_elt a touch of weight on her heart as she thought it over. There wer_onderful years when one could give one's children all the things they wanted, she was saying to herself—the desires of their child hearts, the joy of thei_hild bodies, their little raptures of delight. Those were divine years. The_ere so safe then. Donal was living through those years now. He did not kno_hat any happiness could be taken from him. He was hers and she was his. I_ould be horrible if there were anything one could not let him keep—in thi_arly unshadowed time!
She was looking out at the Spring night with all its stars lit and gleamin_ver the Park which she could see from her window. Suddenly she left her chai_nd rang for Nanny.
"Nanny," she said when the old nurse came, "tell me something about the littl_irl Donal plays with in the Square gardens."
"She's a bonny thing and finely dressed, ma'am," was the woman's carefu_nswer, "but I don't make friends with strange nurses and I don't think muc_f hers. She's a young dawdler who sits novel reading and if Master Donal wer_ young pickpocket with the measles, the child would be playing with him jus_he same as far as I can see. The young woman sits under a tree and reads an_he pretty little thing may do what she likes. I keep my eye on them, however, and they're in no mischief. Master Donal reads out of his picture books an_hows himself off before her grandly and she laughs and looks up to him as i_e were a king. Every lad child likes a woman child to look up to him. It'_retty to see the pair of them. They're daft about each other. Just wee thing_n love at first sight."
"Donal has known very few girls. Those plain little things at the Manse are too dull for him," his mother said slowly.
"This one's not plain and she's not dull," Nanny answered. "My word! but she'_ike a bit of witch fire dancing—with her colour and her big silk curls in _eap. Donal stares at her like a young man at a beauty. I wish, ma'am, we kne_ore of her forbears."
"I must see her," Mrs. Muir said. "Tomorrow I'll go with you both to th_ardens."
Therefore the following day Donal pranced proudly up the path to his trystin_lace and with him walked a tall lady at whom people looked as she passed. Sh_as fair like Donal and had a small head softly swathed with lovely folds o_air. Also her eyes were very clear and calm. Donal was plainly proud an_appy to be with her and was indeed prancing though his prance was broken b_alking steps at intervals.
Robin was waiting behind the lilac bushes and her nurse was already deep i_he mystery of Lady Audley.
"There she is!" cried Donal, and he ran to her. "My mother has come with me.
She wants to see you, too," and he pulled her forward by her hand. "This i_obin, Mother! This is Robin." He panted with elation and stood holding hi_rize as if she might get away before he had displayed her; his eyes lifted t_is tall mother's were those of an exultant owner.
Robin had no desire to run away. To adore anything which belonged to Donal wa_nly nature. And this tall, fair, wonderful person was a Mother. No wonde_onal talked of her so much. The child could only look up at her as Donal did.
So they stood hand in hand like little worshippers before a deity.
Andrews' sister in her pride had attired the small creature like a flower o_pring. Her exquisiteness and her physical brilliancy gave Mrs. Muir somethin_ot unlike a slight shock. Oh! no wonder—since she was like that. She stoope_nd kissed the round cheek delicately.
"Donal wanted me to see his little friend," she said. "I always want to se_is playmates. Shall we walk round the Garden together and you shall show m_here you play and tell me all about it."
She took the small hand and they walked slowly. Robin was at first too muc_wed to talk but as Donal was not awed at all and continued his prancing an_he Mother lady said pretty things about the flowers and the grass and th_irds and even about the pony at Braemarnie, she began now and then to brea_nto a little hop herself and presently into sudden ripples of laughter like _ird's brief bubble of song. The tall lady's hand was not like Andrews, or th_and of Andrews' sister. It did not pull or jerk and it had a lovely feeling.
The sensation she did not know was happiness again welled up within her. Jus_ne walk round the Garden and then the tall lady sat down on a seat to watc_hem play. It was wonderful. She did not read or work. She sat and watche_hem as if she wanted to do that more than anything else. Donal kept callin_ut to her and making her smile: he ran backwards and forwards to her to as_uestions and tell her what they were "making up" to play. When they gathere_eaves to prick stars and circles on, they did them on the seat on which sh_at and she helped them with new designs. Several times, in the midst of he_lay, Robin stopped and stood still a moment with a sort of puzzle_xpression. It was because she did not feel like Robin. Two people—a big bo_nd a lady—letting her play and talk to them as if they liked her and ha_ime!
The truth was that Mrs. Muir's eyes followed Robin more than they followe_onal. Their clear deeps yearned over her. Such a glowing vital little thing!
No wonder! No wonder! And as she grew older she would be more vivid an_ompelling with every year. And Donal was of her kind. His strength, hi_eauty, his fearless happiness-claiming temperament. How could one—wit_ignity and delicacy—find out why she had this obvious air of belonging t_obody? Donal was an exact little lad. He had had foundation for his curiou_craps of her story. No mother—no playthings or books—no one had ever kisse_er! And she dressed and soignee like this! Who was the Lady Downstairs?
A victoria was driving past the Gardens. It was going slowly because the tw_eople in it wished to look at the spring budding out of hyacinths and tulips.
Suddenly one of the pair—a sweetly-hued figure whose early season attire wa_yacinth-like itself—spoke to the coachman.
"Stop here!" she said. "I want to get out."
As the victoria drew up near a gate she made a light gesture.
"What do you think, Starling," she laughed. "The very woman we are talkin_bout is sitting in the Gardens there. I know her perfectly though I only sa_er portrait at the Academy years ago. Yes, there she is. Mrs. Muir, yo_now." She clapped her hands and her laugh became a delighted giggle. "And m_obin is playing on the grass near her—with a boy! What a joke! It must be TH_oy! And I wanted to see the pair together. Coombe said couldn't be done. An_ore than anything I want to speak to HER. Let's get out."
They got out and this was why Helen Muir, turning her eyes a moment from Robi_hose hand she was holding, saw two women coming towards her with eviden_ntention. At least one of them had evident intention. She was the one whos_ight attire produced the effect of being made of hyacinth petals.
Because Mrs. Muir's glance turned towards her, Robin's turned also. Sh_tarted a little and leaned against Mrs. Muir's knee, her eyes growing ver_arge and round indeed and filling with a sudden worshipping light.
"It is—" she ecstatically sighed or rather gasped, "the Lady Downstairs!"
Feather floated near to the seat and paused smiling.
"Where is your nurse, Robin?" she said.
Robin being always dazzled by the sight of her did not of course shine.
"She is reading under the tree," she answered tremulously.
"She is only a few yards away," said Mrs. Muir. "She knows Robin is playin_ith my boy and that I am watching them. Robin is your little girl?" amiably.
"Yes. So kind of you to let her play with your boy. Don't let her bore you. _m Mrs. Gareth-Lawless."
There was a little silence—a delicate little silence.
"I recognized you as Mrs. Muir at once," said Feather, unperturbed and smilin_rilliantly, "I saw your portrait at the Grosvenor."
"Yes," said Mrs. Muir gently. She had risen and was beautifully tall,—"th_ine" was perfect, and she looked with a gracious calm into Feather's eyes.
Donal, allured by the hyacinth petal colours, drew near. Robin made a_nconscious little catch at his plaid and whispered something.
"Is this Donal?" Feather said.
"ARE you the Lady Downstairs, please?" Donal put in politely, because h_anted so to know.
Feather's pretty smile ended in the prettiest of outright laughs.
Her maid had told her Andrews' story of the name.
"Yes, I believe that's what she calls me. It's a nice name for a mother, isn'_t?"
Donal took a quick step forward.
"ARE you her mother?" he asked eagerly.
"Of course I am."
Donal quite flushed with excitement.
"She doesn't KNOW," he said.
He turned on Robin.
"She's your Mother! You thought you hadn't one! She's your Mother!"
"But I am the Lady Downstairs, too." Feather was immensely amused. She was no_ubtle enough to know why she felt a perverse kind of pleasure in seeing th_cotch woman standing so still, and that it led her into a touch of vulgarity.
"I wanted very much to see your boy," she said.
"Yes," still gently from Mrs. Muir.
"Because of Coombe, you know. We are such old friends. How queer that the tw_ittle things have made friends, too. I didn't know. I am so glad I caught _limpse of you and that I had seen the portrait. GOOD morning. Goodbye, children."
While she strayed airily away they all watched her. She picked up her friend, the Starling, who, not feeling concerned or needed, had paused to look a_affodils. The children watched her until her victoria drove away, the chiffo_uffles of her flowerlike parasol fluttering in the air.
Mrs. Muir had sat down again and Donal and Robin leaned against her. They sa_he was not laughing any more but they did not know that her eyes ha_omething like grief in them.
"She's her Mother!" Donal cried. "She's lovely, too. But she's—her MOTHER!" and his voice and face were equally puzzled.
Robin's little hand delicately touched Mrs. Muir.
"IS—she?" she faltered.
Helen Muir took her in her arms and held her quite close. She kissed her.
"Yes, she is, my lamb," she said. "She's your mother."
She was clear as to what she must do for Donal's sake. It was the only saf_nd sane course. But—at this age—the child WAS a lamb and she could not hel_olding her close for a moment. Her little body was deliciously soft and war_nd the big silk curls all in a heap were a fragrance against her breast.