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Chapter 16

Felix (nothing if not modern) had succumbed already to the feeling that youth ruled the roost. Whatever his misgivings, his and Flora's sense of loss, Nedda must be given a free hand! Derek gave no outward show of his condition, and but for his little daughter's happy serenity Felix would have thought as she had thought that first night. He had a feeling that his nephew rather despised one so soaked in mildness and reputation as Felix Freeland; and he got on better with Sheila, not because she was milder, but because she was devoid of that scornful tang which clung about her brother. No! Sheila was not mild. Rich-colored, downright of speech, with her mane of short hair, she was a no less startling companion. The smile of Felix had never been more whimsically employed than during that ten-day visit. The evening John Freeland came to dinner was the highwater mark of his alarmed amusement. Mr. Cuthcott, also bidden, at Nedda's instigation, seemed to take a mischievous delight in drawing out those two young people in face of their official uncle. The pleasure of the dinner to Felix--and it was not too great--was in watching Nedda's face. She hardly spoke, but how she listened! Nor did Derek say much, but what he did say had a queer, sarcastic twinge about it.

"An unpleasant young man," was John's comment afterward. "How the deuce did he ever come to be Tod's son? Sheila, of course, is one of these hot-headed young women that make themselves a nuisance nowadays, but she's intelligible. By the way, that fellow Cuthcott's a queer chap!"

One subject of conversation at dinner had been the morality of revolutionary violence. And the saying that had really upset John had been Derek's: "Conflagration first--morality afterward!" He had looked at his nephew from under brows which a constant need for rejecting petitions to the Home Office had drawn permanently down and in toward the nose, and made no answer.

To Felix these words had a more sinister significance. With his juster appreciation both of the fiery and the official points of view, his far greater insight into his nephew than ever John would have, he saw that they were more than a mere arrow of controversy. And he made up his mind that night that he would tackle his nephew and try to find out exactly what was smouldering within that crisp, black pate.

Following him into the garden next morning, he said to himself: 'No irony--that's fatal. Man to man--or boy to boy--whichever it is!' But, on the garden path, alongside that young spread-eagle, whose dark, glowering, self-contained face he secretly admired, he merely began:

"How do you like your Uncle John?"

"He doesn't like me, Uncle Felix."

Somewhat baffled, Felix proceeded:

"I say, Derek, fortunately or unfortunately, I've some claim now to a little knowledge of you. You've got to open out a bit to me. What are you going to do with yourself in life? You can't support Nedda on revolution."

Having drawn this bow at a venture, he paused, doubtful of his wisdom. A glance at Derek's face confirmed his doubt. It was closer than ever, more defiant.

"There's a lot of money in revolution, Uncle Felix--other people's."

Dash the young brute! There was something in him! He swerved off to a fresh line.

"How do you like London?"

"I don't like it. But, Uncle Felix, don't you wish YOU were seeing it for the first time? What books you'd write!"

Felix felt that unconscious thrust go 'home.' Revolt against staleness and clipped wings, against the terrible security of his too solid reputation, smote him.

"What strikes you most about it, then?" he asked.

"That it ought to be jolly well blown up. Everybody seems to know that, too--they look it, anyway, and yet they go on as if it oughtn't."

"Why ought it to be blown up?"

"Well, what's the good of anything while London and all these other big towns are sitting on the country's chest? England must have been a fine place once, though!"

"Some of us think it a fine place still."

"Of course it is, in a way. But anything new and keen gets sat on. England's like an old tom-cat by the fire: too jolly comfortable for anything!"

At this support to his own theory that the country was going to the dogs, owing to such as John and Stanley, Felix thought: 'Out of the mouths of babes!' But he merely said: "You're a cheerful young man!"

"It's got cramp," Derek muttered; "can't even give women votes. Fancy my mother without a vote! And going to wait till every laborer is off the land before it attends to them. It's like the port you gave us last night, Uncle Felix, wonderful crust!"

"And what is to be your contribution to its renovation?"

Derek's face instantly resumed its peculiar defiant smile, and Felix thought: 'Young beggar! He's as close as wax.' After their little talk, however, he had more understanding of his nephew. His defiant self-sufficiency seemed more genuine....

In spite of his sensations when dining with Felix, John Freeland (little if not punctilious) decided that it was incumbent on him to have the 'young Tods' to dinner, especially since Frances Freeland had come to stay with him the day after the arrival of those two young people at Hampstead. She had reached Porchester Gardens faintly flushed from the prospect of seeing darling John, with one large cane trunk, and a hand-bag of a pattern which the man in the shop had told her was the best thing out. It had a clasp which had worked beautifully in the shop, but which, for some reason, on the journey had caused her both pain and anxiety. Convinced, however, that she could cure it and open the bag the moment she could get to that splendid new pair of pincers in her trunk, which a man had only yesterday told her were the latest, she still felt that she had a soft thing, and dear John must have one like it if she could get him one at the Stores to-morrow.

John, who had come away early from the Home Office, met her in that dark hall, to which he had paid no attention since his young wife died, fifteen years ago. Embracing him, with a smile of love almost timorous from intensity, Frances Freeland looked him up and down, and, catching what light there was gleaming on his temples, determined that she had in her bag, as soon as she could get it open, the very thing for dear John's hair. He had such a nice moustache, and it was a pity he was getting bald. Brought to her room, she sat down rather suddenly, feeling, as a fact, very much like fainting--a condition of affairs to which she had never in the past and intended never in the future to come, making such a fuss! Owing to that nice new patent clasp, she had not been able to get at her smelling-salts, nor the little flask of brandy and the one hard-boiled egg without which she never travelled; and for want of a cup of tea her soul was nearly dying within her. Dear John would never think she had not had anything since breakfast (she travelled always by a slow train, disliking motion), and she would not for the world let him know--so near dinner-time, giving a lot of trouble! She therefore stayed quite quiet, smiling a little, for fear he might suspect her. Seeing John, however, put her bag down in the wrong place, she felt stronger.

"No, darling--not there--in the window."

And while he was changing the position of the bag, her heart swelled with joy because his back was so straight, and with the thought: 'What a pity the dear boy has never married again! It does so keep a man from getting moony!' With all that writing and thinking he had to do, such important work, too, it would have been so good for him, especially at night. She would not have expressed it thus in words--that would not have been quite nice--but in thought Frances Freeland was a realist.

When he was gone, and she could do as she liked, she sat stiller than ever, knowing by long experience that to indulge oneself in private only made it more difficult not to indulge oneself in public. It really was provoking that this nice new clasp should go wrong just this once, and that the first time it was used! And she took from her pocket a tiny prayer-book, and, holding it to the light, read the eighteenth psalm--it was a particularly good one, that never failed her when she felt low--she used no glasses, and up to the present had avoided any line between the brows, knowing it was her duty to remain as nice as she could to look at, so as not to spoil the pleasure of people round about her. Then saying to herself firmly, "I do not, I WILL not want any tea--but I shall be glad of dinner!" she rose and opened her cane trunk. Though she knew exactly where they were, she was some time finding the pincers, because there were so many interesting things above them, each raising a different train of thought. A pair of field-glasses, the very latest--the man had said--for darling Derek; they would be so useful to keep his mind from thinking about things that it was no good thinking about. And for dear Flora (how wonderful that she could write poetry--poetry!) a really splendid, and perfectly new, little pill. She herself had already taken two, and they had suited her to perfection. For darling Felix a new kind of eau de cologne, made in Worcester, because that was the only scent he would use. For her pet Nedda, a piece of 'point de Venise' that she really could not be selfish enough to keep any longer, especially as she was particularly fond of it. For Alan, a new kind of tin-opener that the dear boy would like enormously; he was so nice and practical. For Sheila, such a nice new novel by Mr. and Mrs. Whirlingham--a bright, wholesome tale, with such a good description of quite a new country in it--the dear child was so clever, it would be a change for her. Then, actually resting on the pincers, she came on her pass-book, recently made up, containing little or no balance, just enough to get darling John that bag like hers with the new clasp, which would be so handy for his papers when he went travelling. And having reached the pincers, she took them in her hand, and sat down again to be quite quiet a moment, with her still-dark eyelashes resting on her ivory cheeks and her lips pressed to a colorless line; for her head swam from stooping over. In repose, with three flies circling above her fine gray hair, she might have served a sculptor for a study of the stoic spirit. Then, going to the bag, her compressed lips twitching, her gray eyes piercing into its clasp with a kind of distrustful optimism, she lifted the pincers and tweaked it hard.

If the atmosphere of that dinner, to which all six from Hampstead came, was less disturbed than John anticipated, it was due to his sense of hospitality, and to every one's feeling that controversy would puzzle and distress Granny. That there were things about which people differed, Frances Freeland well knew, but that they should so differ as to make them forget to smile and have good manners would not have seemed right to her at all. And of this, in her presence, they were all conscious; so that when they had reached the asparagus there was hardly anything left that could by any possibility be talked about. And this--for fear of seeming awkward--they at once proceeded to discuss, Flora remarking that London was very full. John agreed.

Frances Freeland, smiling, said:

"It's so nice for Derek and Sheila to be seeing it like this for the first time."

Sheila said:

"Why? Isn't it always as full as this?"

John answered:

"In August practically empty. They say a hundred thousand people, at least, go away."

"Double!" remarked Felix.

"The figures are variously given. My estimate--"

"One in sixty. That shows you!"

At this interruption of Derek's John frowned slightly. "What does it show you?" he said.

Derek glanced at his grandmother.

"Oh, nothing!"

"Of course it shows you," exclaimed Sheila, "what a heartless great place it is. All 'the world' goes out of town, and 'London's empty!' But if you weren't told so you'd never know the difference."

Derek muttered: "I think it shows more than that."

Under the table Flora was touching John's foot warningly; Nedda attempting to touch Derek's; Felix endeavoring to catch John's eye; Alan trying to catch Sheila's; John biting his lip and looking carefully at nothing. Only Frances Freeland was smiling and gazing lovingly at dear Derek, thinking he would be so handsome when he had grown a nice black moustache. And she said:

"Yes, dear. What were you going to say?"

Derek looked up.

"Do you really want it, Granny?"

Nedda murmured across the table: "No, Derek."

Frances Freeland raised her brows quizzically. She almost looked arch.

"But of course I do, darling. I want to hear immensely. It's so interesting."

"Derek was going to say, Mother"--every one at once looked at Felix, who had thus broken in--"that all we West-End people--John and I and Flora and Stanley, and even you--all we people born in purple and fine linen, are so accustomed to think we're all that matters, that when we're out of London there's nobody in it. He meant to say that this is appalling enough, but that what is still more appalling is the fact that we really ARE all that matters, and that if people try to disturb us, we can, and jolly well will, take care they don't disturb us long. Is that what you meant, Derek?"

Derek turned a rather startled look on Felix.

"What he meant to say," went on Felix, "was, that age and habit, vested interests, culture and security sit so heavy on this country's chest, that aspiration may wriggle and squirm but will never get from under. That, for all we pretend to admire enthusiasm and youth, and the rest of it, we push it out of us just a little faster than it grows up. Is that what you meant, Derek?"

"You'll try to, but you won't succeed!"

"I'm afraid we shall, and with a smile, too, so that you won't see us doing it."

"I call that devilish."

"I call it natural. Look at a man who's growing old; notice how very gracefully and gradually he does it. Take my hair--your aunt says she can't tell the difference from month to month. And there it is, or rather isn't--little by little."

Frances Freeland, who during Felix's long speech had almost closed her eyes, opened them, and looked piercingly at the top of his head.

"Darling," she said, "I've got the very thing for it. You must take some with you when you go tonight. John is going to try it."

Checked in the flow of his philosophy, Felix blinked like an owl surprised.

"Mother," he said, "YOU only have the gift of keeping young."

"Oh! my dear, I'm getting dreadfully old. I have the greatest difficulty in keeping awake sometimes when people are talking. But I mean to fight against it. It's so dreadfully rude, and ugly, too; I catch myself sometimes with my mouth open."

Flora said quietly: "Granny, I have the very best thing for that--quite new!"

A sweet but rather rueful smile passed over Frances Freeland's face. "Now," she said, "you're chaffing me," and her eyes looked loving.

It is doubtful if John understood the drift of Felix's exordium, it is doubtful if he had quite listened--he having so much to not listen to at the Home Office that the practice was growing on him. A vested interest to John was a vested interest, culture was culture, and security was certainly security--none of them were symbols of age. Further, the social question--at least so far as it had to do with outbreaks of youth and enthusiasm--was too familiar to him to have any general significance whatever. What with women, labor people, and the rest of it, he had no time for philosophy--a dubious process at the best. A man who had to get through so many daily hours of real work did not dissipate his energy in speculation. But, though he had not listened to Felix's remarks, they had ruffled him. There is no philosophy quite so irritating as that of a brother! True, no doubt, that the country was in a bad way, but as to vested interests and security, that was all nonsense! The guilty causes were free thought and industrialism.

Having seen them all off to Hampstead, he gave his mother her good-night kiss. He was proud of her, a wonderful woman, who always put a good face on everything! Even her funny way of always having some new thing or other to do you good--even that was all part of her wanting to make the best of things. She never lost her 'form'!

John worshipped that kind of stoicism which would die with its head up rather than live with its tail down. Perhaps the moment of which he was most proud in all his life was that, when, at the finish of his school mile, he overheard a vulgar bandsman say: "I like that young ----'s running; he breathes through his ---- nose." At that moment, if he had stooped to breathe through his mouth, he must have won; as it was he had lost in great distress and perfect form.

When, then, he had kissed Frances Freeland, and watched her ascend the stairs, breathless because she WOULD breathe through her nose to the very last step, he turned into his study, lighted his pipe, and sat down to a couple of hours of a report upon the forces of constabulary available in the various counties, in the event of any further agricultural rioting, such as had recently taken place on a mild scale in one or two districts where there was still Danish blood. He worked at the numbers steadily, with just that engineer's touch of mechanical invention which had caused him to be so greatly valued in a department where the evolution of twelve policemen out of ten was constantly desired. His mastery of figures was highly prized, for, while it had not any of that flamboyance which has come from America and the game of poker, it possessed a kind of English optimism, only dangerous when, as rarely happened, it was put to the test. He worked two full pipes long, and looked at the clock. Twelve! No good knocking off just yet! He had no liking for bed this many a long year, having, from loyalty to memory and a drier sense of what became one in the Home Department, preserved his form against temptations of the flesh. Yet, somehow, to-night he felt no spring, no inspiration, in his handling of county constabulary. A kind of English stolidity about them baffled him--ten of them remained ten. And leaning that forehead, whose height so troubled Frances Freeland, on his neat hand, he fell to brooding. Those young people with everything before them! Did he envy them? Or was he glad of his own age? Fifty! Fifty already; a fogey! An official fogey! For all the world like an umbrella, that every day some one put into a stand and left there till it was time to take it out again. Neatly rolled, too, with an elastic and button! And this fancy, which had never come to him before, surprised him. One day he, too, would wear out, slit all up his seams, and they would leave him at home, or give him away to the butler.

He went to the window. A scent of--of May, or something! And nothing in sight save houses just like his own! He looked up at the strip of sky privileged to hang just there. He had got a bit rusty with his stars. There, however, certainly was Venus. And he thought of how he had stood by the ship's rail on that honeymoon trip of his twenty years ago, giving his young wife her first lesson in counting the stars. And something very deep down, very mossed and crusted over in John's heart, beat and stirred, and hurt him. Nedda--he had caught her looking at that young fellow just as Anne had once looked at him, John Freeland, now an official fogey, an umbrella in a stand. There was a policeman! How ridiculous the fellow looked, putting one foot before the other, flirting his lantern and trying the area gates! This confounded scent of hawthorn--could it be hawthorn?--got here into the heart of London! The look in that girl's eyes! What was he about, to let them make him feel as though he could give his soul for a face looking up into his own, for a breast touching his, and the scent of a woman's hair. Hang it! He would smoke a cigarette and go to bed! He turned out the light and began to mount the stairs; they creaked abominably--the felt must be wearing out. A woman about the place would have kept them quiet. Reaching the landing of the second floor, he paused a moment from habit, to look down into the dark hall. A voice, thin, sweet, almost young, said:

"Is that you, darling?" John's heart stood still. What--was that? Then he perceived that the door of the room that had been his wife's was open, and remembered that his mother was in there.

"What! Aren't you asleep, Mother?"

Frances Freeland's voice answered cheerfully: "Oh, no, dear; I'm never asleep before two. Come in."

John entered. Propped very high on her pillows, in perfect regularity, his mother lay. Her carved face was surmounted by a piece of fine lace, her thin, white fingers on the turnover of the sheet moved in continual interlocking, her lips smiled.

"There's something you must have," she said. "I left my door open on purpose. Give me that little bottle, darling."

John took from a small table by the bed a still smaller bottle. Frances Freeland opened it, and out came three tiny white globules.

"Now," she said, "pop them in! You've no idea how they'll send you to sleep! They're the most splendid things; perfectly harmless. Just let them rest on the tongue and swallow!"

John let them rest--they were sweetish--and swallowed.

"How is it, then," he said, "that you never go to sleep before two?"

Frances Freeland corked the little bottle, as if enclosing within it that awkward question.

"They don't happen to act with me, darling; but that's nothing. It's the very thing for any one who has to sit up so late," and her eyes searched his face. Yes--they seemed to say--I know you pretend to have work; but if you only had a dear little wife!

"I shall leave you this bottle when I go. Kiss me."

John bent down, and received one of those kisses of hers that had such sudden vitality in the middle of them, as if her lips were trying to get inside his cheek. From the door he looked back. She was smiling, composed again to her stoic wakefulness.

"Shall I shut the door, Mother?"

"Please, darling."

With a little lump in his throat John closed the door.

John Galsworthy