About five o'clock of that same afternoon, Gerald Malloring went to see Tod. An open-air man himself, who often deplored the long hours he was compelled to spend in the special atmosphere of the House of Commons, he rather envied Tod his existence in this cottage, crazed from age, and clothed with wistaria, rambler roses, sweetbrier, honeysuckle, and Virginia creeper. Freeland had, in his opinion, quite a jolly life of it--the poor fellow not being able, of course, to help having a cranky wife and children like that. He pondered, as he went along, over a talk at Becket, when Stanley, still under the influence of Felix's outburst, had uttered some rather queer sayings. For instance, he had supposed that they (meaning, apparently, himself and Malloring) WERE rather unable to put themselves in the position of these Trysts and Gaunts. He seemed to speak of them as one might speak generically of Hodge, which had struck Malloring as singular, it not being his habit to see anything in common between an individual case, especially on his own estate, and the ethics of a general proposition. The place for general propositions was undoubtedly the House of Commons, where they could be supported one way or the other, out of blue books. He had little use for them in private life, where innumerable things such as human nature and all that came into play. He had stared rather hard at his host when Stanley had followed up that first remark with: "I'm bound to say, I shouldn't care to have to get up at half past five, and go out without a bath!" What that had to do with the land problem or the regulation of village morality Malloring had been unable to perceive. It all depended on what one was accustomed to; and in any case threw no light on the question, as to whether or not he was to tolerate on his estate conduct of which his wife and himself distinctly disapproved. At the back of national life there was always this problem of individual conduct, especially sexual conduct--without regularity in which, the family, as the unit of national life, was gravely threatened, to put it on the lowest ground. And he did not see how to bring it home to the villagers that they had got to be regular, without making examples now and then.
He had hoped very much to get through his call without coming across Freeland's wife and children, and was greatly relieved to find Tod, seated on a window-sill in front of his cottage, smoking, and gazing apparently at nothing. In taking the other corner of the window-sill, the thought passed through his mind that Freeland was really a very fine-looking fellow. Tod was, indeed, about Malloring's own height of six feet one, with the same fairness and straight build of figure and feature. But Tod's head was round and massive, his hair crisp and uncut; Malloring's head long and narrow, his hair smooth and close-cropped. Tod's eyes, blue and deep-set, seemed fixed on the horizon, Malloring's, blue and deep-set, on the nearest thing they could light on. Tod smiled, as it were, without knowing; Malloring seemed to know what he was smiling at almost too well. It was comforting, however, that Freeland was as shy and silent as himself, for this produced a feeling that there could not be any real difference between their points of view. Perceiving at last that if he did not speak they would continue sitting there dumb till it was time for him to go, Malloring said:
"Look here, Freeland; about my wife and yours and Tryst and the Gaunts, and all the rest of it! It's a pity, isn't it? This is a small place, you know. What's your own feeling?"
"A man has only one life."
Malloring was a little puzzled.
"In this world. I don't follow."
"Live and let live."
A part of Malloring undoubtedly responded to that curt saying, a part of him as strongly rebelled against it; and which impulse he was going to follow was not at first patent.
"You see, YOU keep apart," he said at last. "You couldn't say that so easily if you had, like us, to take up the position in which we find ourselves."
"Why take it up?"
Malloring frowned. "How would things go on?"
"All right," said Tod.
Malloring got up from the sill. This was 'laisser-faire' with a vengeance! Such philosophy had always seemed to him to savor dangerously of anarchism. And yet twenty years' experience as a neighbor had shown him that Tod was in himself perhaps the most harmless person in Worcestershire, and held in a curious esteem by most of the people about. He was puzzled, and sat down again.
"I've never had a chance to talk things over with you," he said. "There are a good few people, Freeland, who can't behave themselves; we're not bees, you know!"
He stopped, having an uncomfortable suspicion that his hearer was not listening.
"First I've heard this year," said Tod.
For all the rudeness of that interruption, Malloring felt a stir of interest. He himself liked birds. Unfortunately, he could hear nothing but the general chorus of their songs.
"Thought they'd gone," murmured Tod.
Malloring again got up. "Look here, Freeland," he said, "I wish you'd give your mind to this. You really ought not to let your wife and children make trouble in the village."
Confound the fellow! He was smiling; there was a sort of twinkle in his smile, too, that Malloring found infectious!
"No, seriously," he said, "you don't know what harm you mayn't do."
"Have you ever watched a dog looking at a fire?" asked Tod.
"Yes, often; why?"
"He knows better than to touch it."
"You mean you're helpless? But you oughtn't to be."
The fellow was smiling again!
"Then you don't mean to do anything?"
Tod shook his head.
Malloring flushed. "Now, look here, Freeland," he said, "forgive my saying so, but this strikes me as a bit cynical. D'you think I enjoy trying to keep things straight?"
Tod looked up.
"Birds," he said, "animals, insects, vegetable life--they all eat each other more or less, but they don't fuss about it."
Malloring turned abruptly and went down the path. Fuss! He never fussed. Fuss! The word was an insult, addressed to him! If there was one thing he detested more than another, whether in public or private life, it was 'fussing.' Did he not belong to the League for Suppression of Interference with the Liberty of the Subject? Was he not a member of the party notoriously opposed to fussy legislation? Had any one ever used the word in connection with conduct of his, before? If so, he had never heard them. Was it fussy to try and help the Church to improve the standard of morals in the village? Was it fussy to make a simple decision and stick to it? The injustice of the word really hurt him. And the more it hurt him, the slower and more dignified and upright became his march toward his drive gate.
'Wild geese' in the morning sky had been forerunners; very heavy clouds were sweeping up from the west, and rain beginning to fall. He passed an old man leaning on the gate of a cottage garden and said: "Good evening!"
The old man touched his hat but did not speak.
"How's your leg, Gaunt?"
"'Tis much the same, Sir Gerald."
"Rain coming makes it shoot, I expect."
Malloring stood still. The impulse was on him to see if, after all, the Gaunts' affair could not be disposed of without turning the old fellow and his son out.
"Look here!" he said; "about this unfortunate business. Why don't you and your son make up your minds without more ado to let your granddaughter go out to service? You've been here all your lives; I don't want to see you go."
The least touch of color invaded the old man's carved and grayish face.
"Askin' your pardon," he said, "my son sticks by his girl, and I sticks by my son!"
"Oh! very well; you know your own business, Gaunt. I spoke for your good."
A faint smile curled the corners of old Gaunt's mouth downward beneath his gray moustaches.
"Thank you kindly," he said.
Malloring raised a finger to his cap and passed on. Though he felt a longing to stride his feelings off, he did not increase his pace, knowing that the old man's eyes were following him. But how pig-headed they were, seeing nothing but their own point of view! Well, he could not alter his decision. They would go at the June quarter--not a day before, nor after.
Passing Tryst's cottage, he noticed a 'fly' drawn up outside, and its driver talking to a woman in hat and coat at the cottage doorway. She avoided his eye.
'The wife's sister again!' he thought. 'So that fellow's going to be an ass, too? Hopeless, stubborn lot!' And his mind passed on to his scheme for draining the bottom fields at Cantley Bromage. This village trouble was too small to occupy for long the mind of one who had so many duties....
Old Gaunt remained at the gate watching till the tall figure passed out of sight, then limped slowly down the path and entered his son's cottage. Tom Gaunt, not long in from work, was sitting in his shirtsleeves, reading the paper--a short, thick-set man with small eyes, round, ruddy cheeks, and humorous lips indifferently concealed by a ragged moustache. Even in repose there was about him something talkative and disputatious. He was clearly the kind of man whose eyes and wit would sparkle above a pewter pot. A good workman, he averaged out an income of perhaps eighteen shillings a week, counting the two shillings' worth of vegetables that he grew. His erring daughter washed for two old ladies in a bungalow, so that with old Gaunt's five shillings from the parish, the total resources of this family of five, including two small boys at school, was seven and twenty shillings a week. Quite a sum! His comparative wealth no doubt contributed to the reputation of Tom Gaunt, well known as local wag and disturber of political meetings. His method with these gatherings, whether Liberal or Tory, had a certain masterly simplicity. By interjecting questions that could not be understood, and commenting on the answers received, he insured perpetual laughter, with the most salutary effects on the over-consideration of any political question, together with a tendency to make his neighbors say: "Ah! Tom Gaunt, he's a proper caution, he is!" An encomium dear to his ears. What he seriously thought about anything in this world, no one knew; but some suspected him of voting Liberal, because he disturbed their meetings most. His loyalty to his daughter was not credited to affection. It was like Tom Gaunt to stick his toes in and kick--the Quality, for choice. To look at him and old Gaunt, one would not have thought they could be son and father, a relationship indeed ever dubious. As for his wife, she had been dead twelve years. Some said he had joked her out of life, others that she had gone into consumption. He was a reader--perhaps the only one in all the village, and could whistle like a blackbird. To work hard, but without too great method, to drink hard, but with perfect method, and to talk nineteen to the dozen anywhere except at home--was his mode of life. In a word, he was a 'character.'
Old Gaunt sat down in a wooden rocking-chair, and spoke.
"Sir Gerald 'e've a-just passed."
"Sir Gerald 'e can goo to hell. They'll know un there, by 'is little ears."
"'E've a-spoke about us stoppin'; so as Mettie goes out to sarvice."
"'E've a-spoke about what 'e don't know 'bout, then. Let un do what they like, they can't put Tom Gaunt about; he can get work anywhere--Tom Gaunt can, an' don't you forget that, old man."
The old man, placing his thin brown hands on his knees, was silent. And thoughts passed through and through him. 'If so be as Tom goes, there'll be no one as'll take me in for less than three bob a week. Two bob a week, that's what I'll 'ave to feed me--Two bob a week--two bob a week! But if so be's I go with Tom, I'll 'ave to reg'lar sit down under he for me bread and butter.' And he contemplated his son.
"Where are you goin', then?" he said.
Tom Gaunt rustled the greenish paper he was reading, and his little, hard gray eyes fixed his father.
"Who said I was going?"
Old Gaunt, smoothing and smoothing the lined, thin cheeks of the parchmenty, thin-nosed face that Frances Freeland had thought to be almost like a gentleman's, answered: "I thart you said you was goin'."
"You think too much, then--that's what 'tis. You think too much, old man."
With a slight deepening of the sardonic patience in his face, old Gaunt rose, took a bowl and spoon down from a shelf, and very slowly proceeded to make himself his evening meal. It consisted of crusts of bread soaked in hot water and tempered with salt, pepper, onion, and a touch of butter. And while he waited, crouched over the kettle, his son smoked his grayish clay and read his greenish journal; an old clock ticked and a little cat purred without provocation on the ledge of the tight-closed window. Then the door opened and the rogue-girl appeared. She shook her shoulders as though to dismiss the wetting she had got, took off her turn-down, speckly, straw hat, put on an apron, and rolled up her sleeves. Her arms were full and firm and red; the whole of her was full and firm. From her rosy cheeks to her stout ankles she was superabundant with vitality, the strangest contrast to her shadowy, thin old grandfather. About the preparation of her father's tea she moved with a sort of brooding stolidity, out of which would suddenly gleam a twinkle of rogue-sweetness, as when she stopped to stroke the little cat or to tickle the back of her grandfather's lean neck in passing. Having set the tea, she stood by the table and said slowly: "Tea's ready, father. I'm goin' to London."
Tom Gaunt put down his pipe and journal, took his seat at the table, filled his mouth with sausage, and said: "You're goin' where I tell you."
"I'm goin' to London."
Tom Gaunt stayed the morsel in one cheek and fixed her with his little, wild boar's eye.
"Ye're goin' to catch the stick," he said. "Look here, my girl, Tom Gaunt's been put about enough along of you already. Don't you make no mistake."
"I'm goin' to London," repeated the rogue-girl stolidly. "You can get Alice to come over."
"Oh! Can I? Ye're not goin' till I tell you. Don't you think it!"
"I'm goin'. I saw Mr. Derek this mornin'. They'll get me a place there."
Tom Gaunt remained with his fork as it were transfixed. The effort of devising contradiction to the chief supporters of his own rebellion was for the moment too much for him. He resumed mastication.
"You'll go where I want you to go; and don't you think you can tell me where that is."
In the silence that ensued the only sound was that of old Gaunt supping at his crusty-broth. Then the rogue-girl went to the window and, taking the little cat on her breast, sat looking out into the rain. Having finished his broth, old Gaunt got up, and, behind his son's back, he looked at his granddaughter and thought:
'Goin' to London! 'Twud be best for us all. WE shudn' need to be movin', then. Goin' to London!' But he felt desolate.
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