Shropshire had not the reticence of Hertfordshire. Though robbed of half its magic by swift movement, it still conveyed the sense of hills. They were nearing the buttresses that force the Severn eastern and make it an English stream, and the sun, sinking over the Sentinels of Wales, was straight in their eyes. Having picked up another guest, they turned southward, avoiding the greater mountains, but conscious of an occasional summit, rounded and mild, whose colouring differed in quality from that of the lower earth, and whose contours altered more slowly. Quiet mysteries were in progress behind those tossing horizons: the West, as ever, was retreating with some secret which may not be worth the discovery, but which no practical man will ever discover.
They spoke of Tariff Reform.
Mrs. Warrington was just back from the Colonies. Like many other critics of Empire, her mouth had been stopped with food, and she could only exclaim at the hospitality with which she had been received, and warn the Mother Country against trifling with young Titans. « They threaten to cut the painter, » she cried, « and where shall we be then? Miss Schlegel, you’ll undertake to keep Henry sound about Tariff Reform? It is our last hope. »
Margaret playfully confessed herself on the other side, and they began to quote from their respective hand-books while the motor carried them deep into the hills. Curious these were, rather than impressive, for their outlines lacked beauty, and the pink fields—on their summits suggested the handkerchiefs of a giant spread out to dry. An occasional outcrop of rock, an occasional wood, an occasional « forest, » treeless and brown, all hinted at wildness to follow, but the main colour was an agricultural green. The air grew cooler; they had surmounted the last gradient, and Oniton lay below them with its church, its radiating houses, its castle, its river-girt peninsula. Close to the castle was a grey mansion, unintellectual but kindly, stretching with its grounds across the peninsula’s neck—the sort of mansion that was built all over England in the beginning of the last century, while architecture was still an expression of the national character. That was the Grange, remarked Albert, over his shoulder, and then he jammed the brake on, and the motor slowed down and stopped. « I’m sorry, » said he, turning round. « Do you mind getting out—by the door on the right? Steady on! »
« What’s happened? » asked Mrs. Warrington.
Then the car behind them drew up, and the voice of Charles was heard saying: « Get out the women at once. » There was a concourse of males, and Margaret and her companions were hustled out and received into the second car. What had happened? As it started off again, the door of a cottage opened, and a girl screamed wildly at them.
« What is it? » the ladies cried.
Charles drove them a hundred yards without speaking. Then he said: « It’s all right. Your car just touched a dog. »
« But stop! » cried Margaret, horrified.
« It didn’t hurt him. »
« Didn’t really hurt him? » asked Myra.
« No. »
« Do please stop! » said Margaret, leaning forward. She was standing up in the car, the other occupants holding her knees to steady her. « I want to go back, please. »
Charles took no notice.
« We’ve left Mr. Fussell behind, » said another; « and Angelo, and Crane. »
« Yes, but no woman. »
« I expect a little of »—Mrs. Warrington scratched her palm— »will be more to the point than one of us! »
« The insurance company sees to that, » remarked Charles, « and Albert will do the talking. »
« I want to go back, though, I say! » repeated Margaret, getting angry.
Charles took no notice. The motor, loaded with refugees, continued to travel very slowly down the hill. « The men are there, » chorused the others. « Men will see to it. »
« The men can’t see to it. Oh, this is ridiculous! Charles, I ask you to stop. »
« Stopping’s no good, » drawled Charles.
« Isn’t it? » said Margaret, and jumped straight out of the car.
She fell on her knees, cut her gloves, shook her hat over her ear. Cries of alarm followed her. « You’ve hurt yourself, » exclaimed Charles, jumping after her.
« Of course I’ve hurt myself! » she retorted.
« May I ask what— »
« There’s nothing to ask, » said Margaret.
« Your hand’s bleeding. »
« I know. »
« I’m in for a frightful row from the pater. »
« You should have thought of that sooner, Charles. »
Charles had never been in such a position before. It was a woman in revolt who was hobbling away from him, and the sight was too strange to leave any room for anger. He recovered himself when the others caught them up: their sort he understood. He commanded them to go back.
Albert Fussell was seen walking towards them.
« It’s all right! » he called. « It wasn’t a dog, it was a cat. »
« There! » exclaimed Charles triumphantly. « It’s only a rotten cat.
« Got room in your car for a little un? I cut as soon as I saw it wasn’t a dog; the chauffeurs are tackling the girl. » But Margaret walked forward steadily. Why should the chauffeurs tackle the girl? Ladies sheltering behind men, men sheltering behind servants—the whole system’s wrong, and she must challenge it.