When Spring and first love meet in a girl's heart, then the birds sing.
The songs that blackbirds and dusty-coated thrushes flung through Nedda's window when she awoke in Hampstead those May mornings seemed to have been sung by herself all night. Whether the sun were flashing on the leaves, or rain-drops sieving through on a sou'west wind, the same warmth glowed up in her the moment her eyes opened. Whether the lawn below were a field of bright dew, or dry and darkish in a shiver of east wind, her eyes never grew dim all day; and her blood felt as light as ostrich feathers.
Stormed by an attack of his cacoethes scribendi, after those few blank days at Becket, Felix saw nothing amiss with his young daughter. The great observer was not observant of things that other people observed. Neither he nor Flora, occupied with matters of more spiritual importance, could tell, offhand, for example, on which hand a wedding-ring was worn. They had talked enough of Becket and the Tods to produce the impression on Flora's mind that one day or another two young people would arrive in her house on a visit; but she had begun a poem called 'Dionysus at the Well,' and Felix himself had plunged into a satiric allegory entitled 'The Last of the Laborers.' Nedda, therefore, walked alone; but at her side went always an invisible companion. In that long, imaginary walking-out she gave her thoughts and the whole of her heart, and to be doing this never surprised her, who, before, had not given them whole to anything. A bee knows the first summer day and clings intoxicated to its flowers; so did Nedda know and cling. She wrote him two letters and he wrote her one. It was not poetry; indeed, it was almost all concerned with Wilmet Gaunt, asking Nedda to find a place in London where the girl could go; but it ended with the words:
This letter troubled Nedda. She would have taken it at once to Felix or to Flora if it had not been for the first words, "Dearest Nedda," and those last three. Except her mother, she instinctively distrusted women in such a matter as that of Wilmet Gaunt, feeling they would want to know more than she could tell them, and not be too tolerant of what they heard. Casting about, at a loss, she thought suddenly of Mr. Cuthcott.
At dinner that day she fished round carefully. Felix spoke of him almost warmly. What Cuthcott could have been doing at Becket, of all places, he could not imagine--the last sort of man one expected to see there; a good fellow, rather desperate, perhaps, as men of his age were apt to get if they had too many women, or no woman, about them.
Which, said Nedda, had Mr. Cuthcott?
Oh! None. How had he struck Nedda? And Felix looked at his little daughter with a certain humble curiosity. He always felt that the young instinctively knew so much more than he did.
"I liked him awfully. He was like a dog."
"Ah!" said Felix, "he IS like a dog--very honest; he grins and runs about the city, and might be inclined to bay the moon."
'I don't mind that,' Nedda thought, 'so long as he's not "superior."'
"He's very human," Felix added.
And having found out that he lived in Gray's Inn, Nedda thought: 'I will; I'll ask him.'
To put her project into execution, she wrote this note:
"DEAR MR. CUTHCOTT:
"You were so kind as to tell me you wouldn't mind if I bothered you about things. I've got a very bothery thing to know what to do about, and I would be so glad of your advice. It so happens that I can't ask my father and mother. I hope you won't think me very horrible, wasting your time. And please say no, if you'd rather.
The answer came:
"DEAR MISS FREELAND:
"Delighted. But if very bothery, better save time and ink, and have a snack of lunch with me to-morrow at the Elgin restaurant, close to the British Museum. Quiet and respectable. No flowers by request. One o'clock.
"Very truly yours,
Putting on 'no flowers' and with a fast-beating heart, Nedda, went on her first lonely adventure. To say truth she did not know in the least how ever she was going to ask this almost strange man about a girl of doubtful character. But she kept saying to herself: 'I don't care--he has nice eyes.' And her spirit would rise as she got nearer, because, after all, she was going to find things out, and to find things out was jolly. The new warmth and singing in her heart had not destroyed, but rather heightened, her sense of the extraordinary interest of all things that be. And very mysterious to her that morning was the kaleidoscope of Oxford Street and its innumerable girls, and women, each going about her business, with a life of her own that was not Nedda's. For men she had little use just now, they had acquired a certain insignificance, not having gray-black eyes that smoked and flared, nor Harris tweed suits that smelled delicious. Only once on her journey from Oxford Circus she felt the sense of curiosity rise in her, in relation to a man, and this was when she asked a policeman at Tottenham Court Road, and he put his head down fully a foot to listen to her. So huge, so broad, so red in the face, so stolid, it seemed wonderful to her that he paid her any attention! If he were a human being, could she really be one, too? But that, after all, was no more odd than everything. Why, for instance, the spring flowers in that woman's basket had been born; why that high white cloud floated over; why and what was Nedda Freeland?
At the entrance of the little restaurant she saw Mr. Cuthcott waiting. In a brown suit, with his pale but freckled face, and his gnawed-at, sandy moustache, and his eyes that looked out and beyond, he was certainly no beauty. But Nedda thought: 'He's even nicer than I remembered, and I'm sure he knows a lot.'
At first, to be sitting opposite to him, in front of little plates containing red substances and small fishes, was so exciting that she simply listened to his rapid, rather stammering voice mentioning that the English had no idea of life or cookery, that God had so made this country by mistake that everything, even the sun, knew it. What, however, would she drink? Chardonnet? It wasn't bad here.
She assented, not liking to confess that she did not know what Chardonnet might be, and hoping it was some kind of sherbet. She had never yet drunk wine, and after a glass felt suddenly extremely strong.
"Well," said Mr. Cuthcott, and his eyes twinkled, "what's your botheration? I suppose you want to strike out for yourself. MY daughters did that without consulting me."
"Oh! Have you got daughters?"
"Yes--funny ones; older than you."
"That's why you understand, then."
Mr. Cuthcott smiled. "They WERE a liberal education!"
And Nedda thought: 'Poor Dad, I wonder if I am!'
"Yes," Mr. Cuthcott murmured, "who would think a gosling would ever become a goose?"
"Ah!" said Nedda eagerly, "isn't it wonderful how things grow?"
She felt his eyes suddenly catch hold of hers.
"You're in love!" he said.
It seemed to her a great piece of luck that he had found that out. It made everything easy at once, and her words came out pell-mell.
"Yes, and I haven't told my people yet. I don't seem able. He's given me something to do, and I haven't much experience."
A funny little wriggle passed over Mr. Cuthcott's face. "Yes, yes; go on! Tell us about it."
She took a sip from her glass, and the feeling that he had been going to laugh passed away.
"It's about the daughter of a laborer, down there in Worcestershire, where he lives, not very far from Becket. He's my cousin, Derek, the son of my other uncle at Joyfields. He and his sister feel most awfully strongly about the laborers."
"Ah!" said Mr. Cuthcott, "the laborers! Queer how they're in the air, all of a sudden."
"This girl hasn't been very good, and she has to go from the village, or else her family have. He wants me to find a place for her in London."
"I see; and she hasn't been very good?"
"Not very." She knew that her cheeks were flushing, but her eyes felt steady, and seeing that his eyes never moved, she did not mind. She went on:
"It's Sir Gerald Malloring's estate. Lady Malloring--won't--"
She heard a snap. Mr. Cuthcott's mouth had closed.
"Oh!" he said, "say no more!"
'He CAN bite nicely!' she thought.
Mr. Cuthcott, who had begun lightly thumping the little table with his open hand, broke out suddenly:
"That petty bullying in the country! I know it! My God! Those prudes, those prisms! They're the ruination of half the girls on the--" He looked at Nedda and stopped short. "If she can do any kind of work, I'll find her a place. In fact, she'd better come, for a start, under my old housekeeper. Let your cousin know; she can turn up any day. Name? Wilmet Gaunt? Right you are!" He wrote it on his cuff.
Nedda rose to her feet, having an inclination to seize his hand, or stroke his head, or something. She subsided again with a fervid sigh, and sat exchanging with him a happy smile. At last she said:
"Mr. Cuthcott, is there any chance of things like that changing?"
"Changing?" He certainly had grown paler, and was again lightly thumping the table. "Changing? By gum! It's got to change! This d--d pluto-aristocratic ideal! The weed's so grown up that it's choking us. Yes, Miss Freeland, whether from inside or out I don't know yet, but there's a blazing row coming. Things are going to be made new before long."
Under his thumps the little plates had begun to rattle and leap. And Nedda thought: 'I DO like him.'
But she said anxiously:
"You believe there's something to be done, then? Derek is simply full of it; I want to feel like that, too, and I mean to."
His face grew twinkly; he put out his hand. And wondering a little whether he meant her to, Nedda timidly stretched forth her own and grasped it.
"I like you," he said. "Love your cousin and don't worry."
Nedda's eyes slipped into the distance.
"But I'm afraid for him. If you saw him, you'd know."
"One's always afraid for the fellows that are worth anything. There was another young Freeland at your uncle's the other night--"
"My brother Alan!"
"Oh! your brother? Well, I wasn't afraid for him, and it seemed a pity. Have some of this; it's about the only thing they do well here."
"Oh, thank you, no. I've had a lovely lunch. Mother and I generally have about nothing." And clasping her hands she added:
"This is a secret, isn't it, Mr. Cuthcott?"
He laughed and his face melted into a mass of wrinkles. Nedda laughed also and drank up the rest of her wine. She felt blissful.
"Yes," said Mr. Cuthcott, "there's nothing like loving. How long have you been at it?"
"Only five days, but it's everything."
Mr. Cuthcott sighed. "That's right. When you can't love, the only thing is to hate."
"Oh!" said Nedda.
Mr. Cuthcott again began banging on the little table. "Look at them, look at them!" His eyes wandered angrily about the room, wherein sat some few who had passed though the mills of gentility. "What do they know of life? Where are their souls and sympathies? They haven't any. I'd like to see their blood flow, the silly brutes."
Nedda looked at them with alarm and curiosity. They seemed to her somewhat like everybody she knew. She said timidly: "Do you think OUR blood ought to flow, too?"
Mr. Cuthcott relapsed into twinkles. "Rather! Mine first!"
'He IS human!' thought Nedda. And she got up: "I'm afraid I ought to go now. It's been awfully nice. Thank you so very much. Good-by!"
He shook her firm little hand with his frail thin one, and stood smiling till the restaurant door cut him off from her view.
The streets seemed so gorgeously full of life now that Nedda's head swam. She looked at it all with such absorption that she could not tell one thing from another. It seemed rather long to the Tottenham Court Road, though she noted carefully the names of all the streets she passed, and was sure she had not missed it. She came at last to one called POULTRY. 'Poultry!' she thought; 'I should have remembered that--Poultry?' And she laughed. It was so sweet and feathery a laugh that the driver of an old four-wheeler stopped his horse. He was old and anxious-looking, with a gray beard and deep folds in his red cheeks.
"Poultry!" she said. "Please, am I right for the Tottenham Court Road?"
The old man answered: "Glory, no, miss; you're goin' East!"
'East!' thought Nedda; 'I'd better take him.' And she got in. She sat in the four-wheeler, smiling. And how far this was due to Chardonnet she did not consider. She was to love and not worry. It was wonderful! In this mood she was put down, still smiling, at the Tottenham Court Road Tube, and getting out her purse she prepared to pay the cabman. The fare would be a shilling, but she felt like giving him two. He looked so anxious and worn, in spite of his red face. He took them, looked at her, and said: "Thank you, miss; I wanted that."
"Oh!" murmured Nedda, "then please take this, too. It's all I happen to have, except my Tube fare."
The old man took it, and water actually ran along his nose.
"God bless yer!" he said. And taking up his whip, he drove off quickly.
Rather choky, but still glowing, Nedda descended to her train. It was not till she was walking to the Spaniard's Road that a cloud seemed to come over her sky, and she reached home dejected.
In the garden of the Freelands' old house was a nook shut away by berberis and rhododendrons, where some bees were supposed to make honey, but, knowing its destination, and belonging to a union, made no more than they were obliged. In this retreat, which contained a rustic bench, Nedda was accustomed to sit and read; she went there now. And her eyes began filling with tears. Why must the poor old fellow who had driven her look so anxious and call on God to bless her for giving him that little present? Why must people grow old and helpless, like that Grandfather Gaunt she had seen at Becket? Why was there all the tyranny that made Derek and Sheila so wild? And all the grinding poverty that she herself could see when she went with her mother to their Girls' Club, in Bethnal Green? What was the use of being young and strong if nothing happened, nothing was really changed, so that one got old and died seeing still the same things as before? What was the use even of loving, if love itself had to yield to death? The trees! How they grew from tiny seeds to great and beautiful things, and then slowly, slowly dried and decayed away to dust. What was the good of it all? What comfort was there in a God so great and universal that he did not care to keep her and Derek alive and loving forever, and was not interested enough to see that the poor old cab-driver should not be haunted day and night with fear of the workhouse for himself and an old wife, perhaps? Nedda's tears fell fast, and how far THIS was Chardonnet no one could tell.
Felix, seeking inspiration from the sky in regard to 'The Last of the Laborers,' heard a noise like sobbing, and, searching, found his little daughter sitting there and crying as if her heart would break. The sight was so unusual and so utterly disturbing that he stood rooted, quite unable to bring her help. Should he sneak away? Should he go for Flora? What should he do? Like many men whose work keeps them centred within themselves, he instinctively avoided everything likely to pain or trouble him; for this reason, when anything did penetrate those mechanical defences he became almost strangely tender. Loath, for example, to believe that any one was ill, if once convinced of it, he made so good a nurse that Flora, at any rate, was in the habit of getting well with suspicious alacrity. Thoroughly moved now, he sat down on the bench beside Nedda, and said:
She leaned her forehead against his arm and sobbed the more.
Felix waited, patting her far shoulder gently.
He had often dealt with such situations in his books, and now that one had come true was completely at a loss. He could not even begin to remember what was usually said or done, and he only made little soothing noises.
To Nedda this tenderness brought a sudden sharp sense of guilt and yearning. She began:
"It's not because of that I'm crying, Dad, but I want you to know that Derek and I are in love."
The words: 'You! What! In those few days!' rose, and got as far as Felix's teeth; he swallowed them and went on patting her shoulder. Nedda in love! He felt blank and ashy. That special feeling of owning her more than any one else, which was so warming and delightful, so really precious--it would be gone! What right had she to take it from him, thus, without warning! Then he remembered how odious he had always said the elderly were, to spoke the wheels of youth, and managed to murmur:
"Good luck to you, my pretty!"
He said it, conscious that a father ought to be saying:
'You're much too young, and he's your cousin!' But what a father ought to say appeared to him just then both sensible and ridiculous. Nedda rubbed her cheek against his hand.
"It won't make any difference, Dad, I promise you!"
And Felix thought: 'Not to you, only to me!' But he said:
"Not a scrap, my love! What WERE you crying about?"
"About the world; it seems so heartless."
And she told him about the water that had run along the nose of the old four-wheeler man.
But while he seemed to listen, Felix thought: 'I wish to God I were made of leather; then I shouldn't feel as if I'd lost the warmth inside me. I mustn't let her see. Fathers ARE queer--I always suspected that. There goes my work for a good week!' Then he answered:
"No, my dear, the world is not heartless; it's only arranged according to certain necessary contraries: No pain, no pleasure; no dark, no light, and the rest of it. If you think, it couldn't be arranged differently."
As he spoke a blackbird came running with a chuckle from underneath the berberis, looked at them with alarm, and ran back. Nedda raised her face.
"Dad, I mean to do something with my life!"
"Yes. That's right."
But long after Nedda had fallen into dreams that night, he lay awake, with his left foot enclosed between Floras', trying to regain that sense of warmth which he knew he must never confess to having lost.
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