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While Nedda sat, long past midnight, writing her heart out in her little, white, lilac-curtained room of the old house above the Spaniard's Road, Derek, of whom she wrote, was walking along the Malvern hills, hurrying upward in the darkness. The stars were his companions; though he was no poet, having rather the fervid temper of the born swordsman, that expresses itself in physical ecstasies. He had come straight out from a stormy midnight talk with Sheila. What was he doing--had been the burden of her cry--falling in love just at this moment when they wanted all their wits and all their time and strength for this struggle with the Mallorings? It was foolish, it was weak; and with a sweet, soft sort of girl who could be no use. Hotly he had answered: What business was it of hers? As if one fell in love when one wished! She didn't know--her blood didn't run fast enough! Sheila had retorted, "I've more blood in my big toe than Nedda in all her body! A lot of use you'll be, with your heart mooning up in London!" And crouched together on the end of her bed, gazing fixedly up at him through her hair, she had chanted mockingly: "Here we go gathering wool and stars--wool and stars--wool and stars!"
He had not deigned to answer, but had gone out, furious with her, striding over the dark fields, scrambling his way through the hedges toward the high loom of the hills. Up on the short grass in the cooler air, with nothing between him and those swarming stars, he lost his rage. It never lasted long--hers was more enduring. With the innate lordliness of a brother he already put it down to jealousy. Sheila was hurt that he should want any one but her; as if his love for Nedda would make any difference to their resolution to get justice for Tryst and the Gaunts, and show those landed tyrants once for all that they could not ride roughshod.
Nedda! with her dark eyes, so quick and clear, so loving when they looked at him! Nedda, soft and innocent, the touch of whose lips had turned his heart to something strange within him, and wakened such feelings of chivalry! Nedda! To see whom for half a minute he felt he would walk a hundred miles.
This boy's education had been administered solely by his mother till he was fourteen, and she had brought him up on mathematics, French, and heroism. His extensive reading of history had been focussed on the personality of heroes, chiefly knights errant, and revolutionaries. He had carried the worship of them to the Agricultural College, where he had spent four years; and a rather rough time there had not succeeded in knocking romance out of him. He had found that you could not have such beliefs comfortably without fighting for them, and though he ended his career with the reputation of a rebel and a champion of the weak, he had had to earn it. To this day he still fed himself on stories of rebellions and fine deeds. The figures of Spartacus, Montrose, Hofer, Garibaldi, Hampden, and John Nicholson, were more real to him than the people among whom he lived, though he had learned never to mention--especially not to the matter-of-fact Sheila--his encompassing cloud of heroes; but, when he was alone, he pranced a bit with them, and promised himself that he too would reach the stars. So you may sometimes see a little, grave boy walking through a field, unwatched as he believes, suddenly fling his feet and his head every which way. An active nature, romantic, without being dreamy and book-loving, is not too prone to the attacks of love; such a one is likely to survive unscathed to a maturer age. But Nedda had seduced him, partly by the appeal of her touchingly manifest love and admiration, and chiefly by her eyes, through which he seemed to see such a loyal, and loving little soul looking. She had that indefinable something which lovers know that they can never throw away. And he had at once made of her, secretly, the crown of his active romanticism--the lady waiting for the spoils of his lance. Queer is the heart of a boy--strange its blending of reality and idealism!
Climbing at a great pace, he reached Malvern Beacon just as it came dawn, and stood there on the top, watching. He had not much aesthetic sense; but he had enough to be impressed by the slow paling of the stars over space that seemed infinite, so little were its dreamy confines visible in the May morning haze, where the quivering crimson flags and spears of sunrise were forging up in a march upon the sky. That vision of the English land at dawn, wide and mysterious, hardly tallied with Mr. Cuthcott's view of a future dedicate to Park and Garden City. While Derek stood there gazing, the first lark soared up and began its ecstatic praise. Save for that song, silence possessed all the driven dark, right out to the Severn and the sea, and the fastnesses of the Welsh hills, and the Wrekin, away in the north, a black point in the gray. For a moment dark and light hovered and clung together. Would victory wing back into night or on into day? Then, as a town is taken, all was over in one overmastering rush, and light proclaimed. Derek tightened his belt and took a bee-line down over the slippery grass. He meant to reach the cottage of the laborer Tryst before that early bird was away to the fields. He meditated as he went. Bob Tryst was all right! If they only had a dozen or two like him! A dozen or two whom they could trust, and who would trust each other and stand firm to form the nucleus of a strike, which could be timed for hay harvest. What slaves these laborers still were! If only they could be relied on, if only they would stand together! Slavery! It WAS slavery; so long as they could be turned out of their homes at will in this fashion. His rebellion against the conditions of their lives, above all against the manifold petty tyrannies that he knew they underwent, came from use of his eyes and ears in daily contact with a class among whom he had been more or less brought up. In sympathy with, and yet not of them, he had the queer privilege of feeling their slights as if they were his own, together with feelings of protection, and even of contempt that they should let themselves be slighted. He was near enough to understand how they must feel; not near enough to understand why, feeling as they did, they did not act as he would have acted. In truth, he knew them no better than he should.
He found Tryst washing at his pump. In the early morning light the big laborer's square, stubborn face, with its strange, dog-like eyes, had a sodden, hungry, lost look. Cutting short ablutions that certainly were never protracted, he welcomed Derek, and motioned him to pass into the kitchen. The young man went in, and perched himself on the window-sill beside a pot of Bridal Wreath. The cottage was one of the Mallorings', and recently repaired. A little fire was burning, and a teapot of stewed tea sat there beside it. Four cups and spoons and some sugar were put out on a deal table, for Tryst was, in fact, brewing the morning draught of himself and children, who still lay abed up-stairs. The sight made Derek shiver and his eyes darken. He knew the full significance of what he saw.
"Did you ask him again, Bob?"
"Yes, I asked 'im."
"What did he say?"
"Said as orders was plain. 'So long as you lives there,' he says, 'along of yourself alone, you can't have her come back.'"
"Did you say the children wanted looking after badly? Did you make it clear? Did you say Mrs. Tryst wished it, before she--"
"I said that."
"What did he say then?"
"'Sorry for you, m'lad, but them's m'lady's orders, an' I can't go contrary. I don't wish to go into things,' he says; 'you know better'n I how far 'tis gone when she was 'ere before; but seein' as m'lady don't never give in to deceased wife's sister marryin', if she come back 'tis certain to be the other thing. So, as that won't do neither, you go elsewhere,' he says."
Having spoken thus at length, Tryst lifted the teapot and poured out the dark tea into the three cups.
"Will 'ee have some, sir?"
Derek shook his head.
Taking the cups, Tryst departed up the narrow stairway. And Derek remained motionless, staring at the Bridal Wreath, till the big man came down again and, retiring into a far corner, sat sipping at his own cup.
"Bob," said the boy suddenly, "do you LIKE being a dog; put to what company your master wishes?"
Tryst set his cup down, stood up, and crossed his thick arms--the swift movement from that stolid creature had in it something sinister; but he did not speak.
"Do you like it, Bob?"
"I'll not say what I feels, Mr. Derek; that's for me. What I does'll be for others, p'raps."
And he lifted his strange, lowering eyes to Derek's. For a full minute the two stared, then Derek said:
"Look out, then; be ready!" and, getting off the sill, he went out.
On the bright, slimy surface of the pond three ducks were quietly revelling in that hour before man and his damned soul, the dog, rose to put the fear of God into them. In the sunlight, against the green duckweed, their whiteness was truly marvellous; difficult to believe that they were not white all through. Passing the three cottages, in the last of which the Gaunts lived, he came next to his own home, but did not turn in, and made on toward the church. It was a very little one, very old, and had for him a curious fascination, never confessed to man or beast. To his mother, and Sheila, more intolerant, as became women, that little, lichened, gray stone building was the very emblem of hypocrisy, of a creed preached, not practised; to his father it was nothing, for it was not alive, and any tramp, dog, bird, or fruit-tree meant far more. But in Derek it roused a peculiar feeling, such as a man might have gazing at the shores of a native country, out of which he had been thrown for no fault of his own--a yearning deeply muffled up in pride and resentment. Not infrequently he would come and sit brooding on the grassy hillock just above the churchyard. Church-going, with its pageantry, its tradition, dogma, and demand for blind devotion, would have suited him very well, if only blind devotion to his mother had not stood across that threshold; he could not bring himself to bow to that which viewed his rebellious mother as lost. And yet the deep fibres of heredity from her papistic Highland ancestors, and from old pious Moretons, drew him constantly to this spot at times when no one would be about. It was his enemy, this little church, the fold of all the instincts and all the qualities against which he had been brought up to rebel; the very home of patronage and property and superiority; the school where his friends the laborers were taught their place! And yet it had that queer, ironical attraction for him. In some such sort had his pet hero Montrose rebelled, and then been drawn despite himself once more to the side of that against which he had taken arms.
While he leaned against the rail, gazing at that ancient edifice, he saw a girl walk into the churchyard at the far end, sit down on a gravestone, and begin digging a little hole in the grass with the toe of her boot. She did not seem to see him, and at his ease he studied her face, one of those broad, bright English country faces with deep-set rogue eyes and red, thick, soft lips, smiling on little provocation. In spite of her disgrace, in spite of the fact that she was sitting on her mother's grave, she did not look depressed. And Derek thought: 'Wilmet Gaunt is the jolliest of them all! She isn't a bit a bad girl, as they say; it's only that she must have fun. If they drive her out of here, she'll still want fun wherever she is; she'll go to a town and end up like those girls I saw in Bristol.' And the memory of those night girls, with their rouged faces and cringing boldness, came back to him with horror.
He went across the grass toward her.
She looked round as he came, and her face livened.
"You're an early bird, Mr. Derek."
"Haven't been to bed."
"Been up Malvern Beacon to see the sun rise."
"You're tired, I expect!"
"Must be fine up there. You'd see a long ways from there; near to London I should think. Do you know London, Mr. Derek?"
"They say 'tis a funny place, too." Her rogue eyes gleamed from under a heavy frown. "It'd not be all 'Do this' an' 'Do that'; an' 'You bad girl' an' 'You little hussy!' in London. They say there's room for more'n one sort of girl there."
"All towns are beastly places, Wilmet."
Again her rogue's eyes gleamed. "I don' know so much about that, Mr. Derek. I'm going where I won't be chivied about and pointed at, like what I am here."
"Your dad's stuck to you; you ought to stick to him."
"Ah, Dad! He's losin' his place for me, but that don't stop his tongue at home. 'Tis no use to nag me--nag me. Suppose one of m'lady's daughters had a bit of fun--they say there's lots as do--I've heard tales--there'd be none comin' to chase her out of her home. 'No, my girl, you can't live here no more, endangerin' the young men. You go away. Best for you's where they'll teach you to be'ave. Go on! Out with you! I don't care where you go; but you just go!' 'Tis as if girls were all pats o' butter--same square, same pattern on it, same weight, an' all."
Derek had come closer; he put his hand down and gripped her arm. Her eloquence dried up before the intentness of his face, and she just stared up at him.
"Now, look here, Wilmet; you promise me not to scoot without letting us know. We'll get you a place to go to. Promise."
A little sheepishly the rogue-girl answered:
"I promise; only, I'm goin'."
Suddenly she dimpled and broke into her broad smile.
"Mr. Derek, d'you know what they say--they say you're in love. You was seen in th' orchard. Ah! 'tis all right for you and her! But if any one kiss and hug ME, I got to go!"
Derek drew back among the graves, as if he had been struck with a whip.
She looked up at him with coaxing sweetness.
"Don't you mind me, Mr. Derek, and don't you stay here neither. If they saw you here with me, they'd say: 'Aw--look! Endangerin' another young man--poor young man!' Good mornin', Mr. Derek!"
The rogue eyes followed him gravely, then once more began examining the grass, and the toe of her boot again began kicking a little hole. But Derek did not look back.
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