Flora took the news rather with the air of a mother-dog that says to her puppy: "Oh, very well, young thing! Go and stick your teeth in it and find out for yourself!" Sooner or later this always happened, and generally sooner nowadays. Besides, she could not help feeling that she would get more of Felix, to her a matter of greater importance than she gave sign of. But inwardly the news had given her a shock almost as sharp as that felt by him. Was she really the mother of one old enough to love? Was the child that used to cuddle up to her in the window-seat to be read to, gone from her; that used to rush in every morning at all inconvenient moments of her toilet; that used to be found sitting in the dark on the stairs, like a little sleepy owl, because, for-sooth, it was so 'cosey'?
Not having seen Derek, she did not as yet share her husband's anxiety on that score, though his description was dubious:
"Upstanding young cockerel, swinging his sporran and marching to pipes--a fine spurn about him! Born to trouble, if I know anything, trying to sweep the sky with his little broom!"
"Is he a prig?"
"No-o. There's simplicity about his scorn, and he seems to have been brought up on facts, not on literature, like most of these young monkeys. The cousinship I don't think matters; Kirsteen brings in too strong an out-strain. He's HER son, not Tod's. But perhaps," he added, sighing, "it won't last."
Flora shook her head. "It will last!" she said; "Nedda's deep."
And if Nedda held, so would Fate; no one would throw Nedda over! They naturally both felt that. 'Dionysus at the Well,' no less than 'The Last of the Laborers,' had a light week of it.
Though in a sense relieved at having parted with her secret, Nedda yet felt that she had committed desecration. Suppose Derek should mind her people knowing!
On the day that he and Sheila were to come, feeling she could not trust herself to seem even reasonably calm, she started out, meaning to go to the South Kensington Museum and wander the time away there; but once out-of-doors the sky seemed what she wanted, and, turning down the hill on the north side, she sat down under a gorse bush. Here tramps, coming in to London, passed the night under the stars; here was a vision, however dim, of nature. And nature alone could a little soothe her ecstatic nerves.
How would he greet her? Would he be exactly as he was when they stood at the edge of Tod's orchard, above the dreamy, darkening fields, joining hands and lips, moved as they had never been moved before?
May blossom was beginning to come out along the hedge of the private grounds that bordered that bit of Cockney Common, and from it, warmed by the sun, the scent stole up to her. Familiar, like so many children of the cultured classes, with the pagan and fairy-tales of nature, she forgot them all the moment she was really by herself with earth and sky. In their breadth, their soft and stirring continuity, they rejected bookish fancy, and woke in her rapture and yearning, a sort of long delight, a never-appeased hunger. Crouching, hands round knees, she turned her face to get the warmth of the sun, and see the white clouds go slowly by, and catch all the songs that the birds sang. And every now and then she drew a deep breath. It was true what Dad had said: There was no real heartlessness in nature. It was warm, beating, breathing. And if things ate each other, what did it matter? They had lived and died quickly, helping to make others live. The sacred swing and circle of it went on forever, full and harmonious under the lighted sky, under the friendly stars. It was wonderful to be alive! And all done by love. Love! More, more, more love! And then death, if it must come! For, after all, to Nedda death was so far away, so unimaginably dim and distant, that it did not really count.
While she sat, letting her fingers, that were growing slowly black, scrabble the grass and fern, a feeling came on her of a Presence, a creature with wings above and around, that seemed to have on its face a long, mysterious smile of which she, Nedda, was herself a tiny twinkle. She would bring Derek here. They two would sit together and let the clouds go over them, and she would learn all that he really thought, and tell him all her longings and fears; they would be silent, too, loving each other too much to talk. She made elaborate plans of what they were to do and see, beginning with the East End and the National Gallery, and ending with sunrise from Parliament Hill; but she somehow knew that nothing would happen as she had designed. If only the first moment were not different from what she hoped!
She sat there so long that she rose quite stiff, and so hungry that she could not help going home and stealing into the kitchen. It was three o'clock, and the old cook, as usual, asleep in an armchair, with her apron thrown up between her face and the fire. What would Cookie say if she knew? In that oven she had been allowed to bake in fancy perfect little doll loaves, while Cookie baked them in reality. Here she had watched the mysterious making of pink cream, had burned countless 'goes' of toffy, and cocoanut ice; and tasted all kinds of loveliness. Dear old Cookie! Stealing about on tiptoe, seeking what she might devour, she found four small jam tarts and ate them, while the cook snored softly. Then, by the table, that looked so like a great loaf-platter, she stood contemplating cook. Old darling, with her fat, pale, crumply face! Hung to the dresser, opposite, was a little mahogany looking-glass tilted forward. Nedda could see herself almost down to her toes. 'I mean to be prettier than I am!' she thought, putting her hands on her waist. 'I wonder if I can pull them in a bit!' Sliding her fingers under her blouse, she began to pull at certain strings. They would not budge. They were loose, yes, really too comfortable. She would have to get the next size smaller! And dropping her chin, she rubbed it on the lace edging of her chest, where it felt warm and smelled piny. Had Cookie ever been in love? Her gray hairs were coming, poor old duck! The windows, where a protection of wire gauze kept out the flies, were opened wide, and the sun shone in and dimmed the fire. The kitchen clock ticked like a conscience; a faint perfume of frying-pan and mint scented the air. And, for the first time since this new sensation of love had come to her, Nedda felt as if a favorite book, read through and done with, were dropping from her hands. The lovely times in that kitchen, in every nook of that old house and garden, would never come again! Gone! She felt suddenly cast down to sadness. They HAD been lovely times! To be deserting in spirit all that had been so good to her--it seemed like a crime! She slid down off the table and, passing behind the cook, put her arms round those substantial sides. Without meaning to, out of sheer emotion, she pressed them somewhat hard, and, as from a concertina emerges a jerked and drawn-out chord, so from the cook came a long, quaking sound; her apron fell, her body heaved, and her drowsy, flat, soft voice, greasy from pondering over dishes, murmured:
"Ah, Miss Nedda! it's you, my dear! Bless your pretty 'eart."
But down Nedda's cheeks, behind her, rolled two tears.
"Cookie, oh, Cookie!" And she ran out....
And the first moment? It was like nothing she had dreamed of. Strange, stiff! One darting look, and then eyes down; one convulsive squeeze, then such a formal shake of hot, dry hands, and off he had gone with Felix to his room, and she with Sheila to hers, bewildered, biting down consternation, trying desperately to behave 'like a little lady,' as her old nurse would have put it--before Sheila, especially, whose hostility she knew by instinct she had earned. All that evening, furtive watching, formal talk, and underneath a ferment of doubt and fear and longing. All a mistake! An awful mistake! Did he love her? Heaven! If he did not, she could never face any one again. He could not love her! His eyes were like those of a swan when its neck is drawn up and back in anger. Terrible--having to show nothing, having to smile at Sheila, at Dad, and Mother! And when at last she got to her room, she stood at the window and at first simply leaned her forehead against the glass and shivered. What had she done? Had she dreamed it all--dreamed that they had stood together under those boughs in the darkness, and through their lips exchanged their hearts? She must have dreamed it! Dreamed that most wonderful, false dream! And the walk home in the thunder-storm, and his arm round her, and her letters, and his letter--dreamed it all! And now she was awake! From her lips came a little moan, and she sank down huddled, and stayed there ever so long, numb and chilly. Undress--go to bed? Not for the world. By the time the morning came she had got to forget that she had dreamed. For very shame she had got to forget that; no one should see. Her cheeks and ears and lips were burning, but her body felt icy cold. Then--what time she did not know at all--she felt she must go out and sit on the stairs. They had always been her comforters, those wide, shallow, cosey stairs. Out and down the passage, past all their rooms--his the last--to the dark stairs, eerie at night, where the scent of age oozed out of the old house. All doors below, above, were closed; it was like looking down into a well, to sit with her head leaning against the banisters. And silent, so silent--just those faint creakings that come from nowhere, as it might be the breathing of the house. She put her arms round a cold banister and hugged it hard. It hurt her, and she embraced it the harder. The first tears of self-pity came welling up, and without warning a great sob burst out of her. Alarmed at the sound, she smothered her mouth with her arm. No good; they came breaking out! A door opened; all the blood rushed to her heart and away from it, and with a little dreadful gurgle she was silent. Some one was listening. How long that terrible listening lasted she had no idea; then footsteps, and she was conscious that it was standing in the dark behind her. A foot touched her back. She gave a little gasp. Derek's voice whispered hoarsely:
"What? Who are you?"
And, below her breath, she answered: "Nedda."
His arms wrenched her away from the banister, his voice in her ear said:
"Nedda, darling, Nedda!"
But despair had sunk too deep; she could only quiver and shake and try to drive sobbing out of her breath. Then, most queer, not his words, nor the feel of his arms, comforted her--any one could pity!--but the smell and the roughness of his Norfolk jacket. So he, too, had not been in bed; he, too, had been unhappy! And, burying her face in his sleeve, she murmured:
"Oh, Derek! Why?"
"I didn't want them all to see. I can't bear to give it away. Nedda, come down lower and let's love each other!"
Softly, stumbling, clinging together, they went down to the last turn of the wide stairs. How many times had she not sat there, in white frocks, her hair hanging down as now, twisting the tassels of little programmes covered with hieroglyphics only intelligible to herself, talking spasmodically to spasmodic boys with budding 'tails,' while Chinese lanterns let fall their rose and orange light on them and all the other little couples as exquisitely devoid of ease. Ah! it was worth those hours of torture to sit there together now, comforting each other with hands and lips and whisperings. It was more, as much more than that moment in the orchard, as sun shining after a Spring storm is more than sun in placid mid-July. To hear him say: "Nedda, I love you!" to feel it in his hand clasped on her heart was much more, now that she knew how difficult it was for him to say or show it, except in the dark with her alone. Many a long day they might have gone through together that would not have shown her so much of his real heart as that hour of whispering and kisses.
He had known she was unhappy, and yet he couldn't! It had only made him more dumb! It was awful to be like that! But now that she knew, she was glad to think that it was buried so deep in him and kept for her alone. And if he did it again she would just know that it was only shyness and pride. And he was not a brute and a beast, as he insisted. But suppose she had chanced not to come out! Would she ever have lived through the night? And she shivered.
"Are you cold, darling? Put on my coat."
It was put on her in spite of all effort to prevent him. Never was anything so warm, so delicious, wrapping her in something more than Harris tweed. And the hall clock struck--Two!
She could just see his face in the glimmer that filtered from the skylight at the top. And she felt that he was learning her, learning all that she had to give him, learning the trust that was shining through her eyes. There was just enough light for them to realize the old house watching from below and from above--a glint on the dark floor there, on the dark wall here; a blackness that seemed to be inhabited by some spirit, so that their hands clutched and twitched, when the tiny, tiny noises of Time, playing in wood and stone, clicked out.
That stare of the old house, with all its knowledge of lives past, of youth and kisses spent and gone, of hopes spun and faiths abashed, the old house cynical, stirred in them desire to clutch each other close and feel the thrill of peering out together into mystery that must hold for them so much of love and joy and trouble! And suddenly she put her fingers to his face, passed them softly, clingingly, over his hair, forehead, eyes, traced the sharp cheek-bones down to his jaw, round by the hard chin up to his lips, over the straight bone of his nose, lingering, back, to his eyes again.
"Now, if I go blind, I shall know you. Give me one kiss, Derek. You MUST be tired."
Buried in the old dark house that kiss lasted long; then, tiptoeing--she in front--pausing at every creak, holding breath, they stole up to their rooms. And the clock struck--Three!
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