Still later, that same morning, Derek and Sheila moved slowly up the Mallorings' well-swept drive. Their lips were set, as though they had spoken the last word before battle, and an old cock pheasant, running into the bushes close by, rose with a whir and skimmed out toward his covert, scared, perhaps, by something uncompromising in the footsteps of those two.
Only when actually under the shelter of the porch, which some folk thought enhanced the old Greek-temple effect of the Mallorings' house, Derek broke through that taciturnity:
"What if they won't?"
"Wait and see; and don't lose your head, Derek." The man who stood there when the door opened was tall, grave, wore his hair in powder, and waited without speech.
"Will you ask Sir Gerald and Lady Malloring if Miss Freeland and Mr. Derek Freeland could see them, please; and will you say the matter is urgent?"
The man bowed, left them, and soon came back.
"My lady will see you, miss; Sir Gerald is not in. This way."
Past the statuary, flowers, and antlers of the hall, they traversed a long, cool corridor, and through a white door entered a white room, not very large, and very pretty. Two children got up as they came in and flapped out past them like young partridges, and Lady Malloring rose from her writing-table and came forward, holding out her hand. The two young Freelands took it gravely. For all their hostility they could not withstand the feeling that she would think them terrible young prigs if they simply bowed. And they looked steadily at one with whom they had never before been at quite such close quarters. Lady Malloring, who had originally been the Honorable Mildred Killory, a daughter of Viscount Silport, was tall, slender, and not very striking, with very fair hair going rather gray; her expression in repose was pleasant, a little anxious; only by her eyes was the suspicion awakened that she was a woman of some character. They had that peculiar look of belonging to two worlds, so often to be met with in English eyes, a look of self-denying aspiration, tinctured with the suggestion that denial might not be confined to self.
In a quite friendly voice she said:
"Can I do anything for you?" And while she waited for an answer her glance travelled from face to face of the two young people, with a certain curiosity. After a silence of several seconds, Sheila answered:
"Not for us, thank you; for others, you can."
Lady Malloring's eyebrows rose a little, as if there seemed to her something rather unjust in those words--'for others.'
"Yes?" she said.
Sheila, whose hands were clenched, and whose face had been fiery red, grew suddenly almost white.
"Lady Malloring, will you please let the Gaunts stay in their cottage and Tryst's wife's sister come to live with the children and him?"
Lady Malloring raised one hand; the motion, quite involuntary, ended at the tiny cross on her breast. She said quietly:
"I'm afraid you don't understand."
"Yes," said Sheila, still very pale, "we understand quite well. We understand that you are acting in what you believe to be the interests of morality. All the same, won't you? Do!"
"I'm very sorry, but I can't."
"May we ask why?"
Lady Malloring started, and transferred her glance to Derek.
"I don't know," she said with a smile, "that I am obliged to account for my actions to you two young people. Besides, you must know why, quite well."
Sheila put out her hand.
"Wilmet Gaunt will go to the bad if you turn them out."
"I am afraid I think she has gone to the bad already, and I do not mean her to take others there with her. I am sorry for poor Tryst, and I wish he could find some nice woman to marry; but what he proposes is impossible."
The blood had flared up again in Sheila's cheeks; she was as red as the comb of a turkey-cock.
"Why shouldn't he marry his wife's sister? It's legal, now, and you've no right to stop it."
Lady Malloring bit her lips; she looked straight and hard at Sheila.
"I do not stop it; I have no means of stopping it. Only, he cannot do it and live in one of our cottages. I don't think we need discuss this further."
"I beg your pardon--"
The words had come from Derek. Lady Malloring paused in her walk toward the bell. With his peculiar thin-lipped smile the boy went on:
"We imagined you would say no; we really came because we thought it fair to warn you that there may be trouble."
Lady Malloring smiled.
"This is a private matter between us and our tenants, and we should be so glad if you could manage not to interfere."
Derek bowed, and put his hand within his sister's arm. But Sheila did not move; she was trembling with anger.
"Who are you," she suddenly burst out, "to dispose of the poor, body and soul? Who are you, to dictate their private lives? If they pay their rent, that should be enough for you."
Lady Malloring moved swiftly again toward the bell. She paused with her hand on it, and said:
"I am sorry for you two; you have been miserably brought up!"
There was a silence; then Derek said quietly:
"Thank you; we shall remember that insult to our people. Don't ring, please; we're going."
In a silence if anything more profound than that of their approach, the two young people retired down the drive. They had not yet learned--most difficult of lessons--how to believe that people could in their bones differ from them. It had always seemed to them that if only they had a chance of putting directly what they thought, the other side must at heart agree, and only go on saying they didn't out of mere self-interest. They came away, therefore, from this encounter with the enemy a little dazed by the discovery that Lady Malloring in her bones believed that she was right. It confused them, and heated the fires of their anger.
They had shaken off all private dust before Sheila spoke.
"They're all like that--can't see or feel--simply certain they're superior! It makes--it makes me hate them! It's terrible, ghastly." And while she stammered out those little stabs of speech, tears of rage rolled down her cheeks.
Derek put his arm round her waist.
"All right! No good groaning; let's think seriously what to do."
There was comfort to the girl in that curiously sudden reversal of their usual attitudes.
"Whatever's done," he went on, "has got to be startling. It's no good pottering and protesting, any more." And between his teeth he muttered: "'Men of England, wherefore plough?'..."
In the room where the encounter had taken place Mildred Malloring was taking her time to recover. From very childhood she had felt that the essence of her own goodness, the essence of her duty in life, was the doing of 'good' to others; from very childhood she had never doubted that she was in a position to do this, and that those to whom she did good, although they might kick against it as inconvenient, must admit that it WAS their 'good.' The thought: 'They don't admit that I am superior!' had never even occurred to her, so completely was she unselfconscious, in her convinced superiority. It was hard, indeed, to be flung against such outspoken rudeness. It shook her more than she gave sign of, for she was not by any means an insensitive woman--shook her almost to the point of feeling that there was something in the remonstrance of those dreadful young people. Yet, how could there be, when no one knew better than she that the laborers on the Malloring estate were better off than those on nine out of ten estates; better paid and better housed, and--better looked after in their morals. Was she to give up that?--when she knew that she WAS better able to tell what was good for them than they were themselves. After all, without stripping herself naked of every thought, experience, and action since her birth, how could she admit that she was not better able? And slowly, in the white room with the moss-green carpet, she recovered, till there was only just a touch of soreness left, at the injustice implicit in their words. Those two had been 'miserably brought up,' had never had a chance of finding their proper place, of understanding that they were just two callow young things, for whom Life had some fearful knocks in store. She could even feel now that she had meant that saying: 'I am sorry for you two!' She WAS sorry for them, sorry for their want of manners and their point of view, neither of which they could help, of course, with a mother like that. For all her gentleness and sensibility, there was much practical directness about Mildred Malloring; for her, a page turned was a page turned, an idea absorbed was never disgorged; she was of religious temperament, ever trimming her course down the exact channel marked out with buoys by the Port Authorities, and really incapable of imagining spiritual wants in others that could not be satisfied by what satisfied herself. And this pathetic strength she had in common with many of her fellow creatures in every class. Sitting down at the writing-table from which she had been disturbed, she leaned her thin, rather long, gentle, but stubborn face on her hand, thinking. These Gaunts were a source of irritation in the parish, a kind of open sore. It would be better if they could be got rid of before quarter day, up to which she had weakly said they might remain. Far better for them to go at once, if it could be arranged. As for the poor fellow Tryst, thinking that by plunging into sin he could improve his lot and his poor children's, it was really criminal of those Freelands to encourage him. She had refrained hitherto from seriously worrying Gerald on such points of village policy--his hands were so full; but he must now take his part. And she rang the bell.
"Tell Sir Gerald I'd like to see him, please, as soon as he gets back."
"Sir Gerald has just come in, my lady."
Gerald Malloring--an excellent fellow, as could be seen from his face of strictly Norman architecture, with blue stained-glass windows rather deep set in--had only one defect: he was not a poet. Not that this would have seemed to him anything but an advantage, had he been aware of it. His was one of those high-principled natures who hold that breadth is synonymous with weakness. It may be said without exaggeration that the few meetings of his life with those who had a touch of the poet in them had been exquisitely uncomfortable. Silent, almost taciturn by nature, he was a great reader of poetry, and seldom went to sleep without having digested a page or two of Wordsworth, Milton, Tennyson, or Scott. Byron, save such poems as 'Don Juan' or 'The Waltz,' he could but did not read, for fear of setting a bad example. Burns, Shelley, and Keats he did not care for. Browning pained him, except by such things as: 'How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix' and the 'Cavalier Tunes'; while of 'Omar Khayyam' and 'The Hound of Heaven' he definitely disapproved. For Shakespeare he had no real liking, though he concealed this, from humility in the face of accepted opinion. His was a firm mind, sure of itself, but not self-assertive. His points were so good, and he had so many of them, that it was only when he met any one touched with poetry that his limitations became apparent; it was rare, however, and getting more so every year, for him to have this unpleasant experience.
When summoned by his wife, he came in with a wrinkle between his straight brows; he had just finished a morning's work on a drainage scheme, like the really good fellow that he was. She greeted him with a little special smile. Nothing could be friendlier than the relations between these two. Affection and trust, undeviating undemonstrativeness, identity of feeling as to religion, children, property; and, in regard to views on the question of sex, a really strange unanimity, considering that they were man and woman.
"It's about these Gaunts, Gerald. I feel they must go at once. They're only creating bad feeling by staying till quarter day. I have had the young Freelands here."
"Those young pups!"
"Can't it be managed?"
Malloring did not answer hastily. He had that best point of the good Englishman, a dislike to being moved out of a course of conduct by anything save the appeal of his own conscience.
"I don't know," he said, "why we should alter what we thought was just. Must give him time to look round and get a job elsewhere."
"I think the general state of feeling demands it. It's not fair to the villagers to let the Freelands have such a handle for agitating. Labor's badly wanted everywhere; he can't have any difficulty in getting a place, if he likes."
"No. Only, I rather admire the fellow for sticking by his girl, though he is such a 'land-lawyer.' I think it's a bit harsh to move him suddenly."
"So did I, till I saw from those young furies what harm it's doing. They really do infect the cottagers. You know how discontent spreads. And Tryst--they're egging him on, too."
Malloring very thoughtfully filled a pipe. He was not an alarmist; if anything, he erred on the side of not being alarmed until it was all over and there was no longer anything to be alarmed at! His imagination would then sometimes take fire, and he would say that such and such, or so and so, was dangerous.
"I'd rather go and have a talk with Freeland," he said. "He's queer, but he's not at all a bad chap."
Lady Malloring rose, and took one of his real-leather buttons in her hand.
"My dear Gerald, Mr. Freeland doesn't exist."
"Don't know about that; a man can always come to life, if he likes, in his own family."
Lady Malloring was silent. It was true. For all their unanimity of thought and feeling, for all the latitude she had in domestic and village affairs, Gerald had a habit of filling his pipe with her decisions. Quite honestly, she had no objection to their becoming smoke through HIS lips, though she might wriggle just a little. To her credit, she did entirely carry out in her life her professed belief that husbands should be the forefronts of their wives. For all that, there burst from her lips the words:
"That Freeland woman! When I think of the mischief she's always done here, by her example and her irreligion--I can't forgive her. I don't believe you'll make any impression on Mr. Freeland; he's entirely under her thumb."
Smoking slowly, and looking just over the top of his wife's head, Malioring answered:
"I'll have a try; and don't you worry!"
Lady Malloring turned away. Her soreness still wanted salve.
"Those two young people," she murmured, "said some very unpleasant things to me. The boy, I believe, might have some good in him, but the girl is simply terrible."
"H'm! I think just the reverse, you know."
"They'll come to awful grief if they're not brought up sharp. They ought to be sent to the colonies to learn reality."
"Come out, Mildred, and see how they're getting on with the new vinery." And they went out together through the French window.
The vinery was of their own designing, and of extraordinary interest. In contemplation of its lofty glass and aluminium-cased pipes the feeling of soreness left her. It was very pleasant, standing with Gerald, looking at what they had planned together; there was a soothing sense of reality about that visit, after the morning's happening, with its disappointment, its reminder of immorality and discontent, and of folk ungrateful for what was done for their good. And, squeezing her husband's arm, she murmured:
"It's really exactly what we thought it would be, Gerald!"
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