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Chapter 17

The London which Derek had said should be blown up was at its maximum of life those May days. Even on this outer rampart of Hampstead, people, engines, horses, all had a touch of the spring fever; indeed, especially on this rampart of Hampstead was there increase of the effort to believe that nature was not dead and embalmed in books. The poets, painters, talkers who lived up there were at each other all the time in their great game of make-believe. How could it be otherwise, when there was veritably blossom on the trees and the chimneys were ceasing to smoke? How otherwise, when the sun actually shone on the ponds? But the four young people (for Alan joined in--hypnotized by Sheila) did not stay in Hampstead. Chiefly on top of tram and 'bus they roamed the wilderness. Bethnal Green and Leytonstone, Kensington and Lambeth, St. James's and Soho, Whitechapel, Shoreditch, West Ham, and Piccadilly, they traversed the whole ant-heap at its most ebullient moment. They knew their Whitman and their Dostoievsky sufficiently to be aware that they ought to love and delight in everything--in the gentleman walking down Piccadilly with a flower in his buttonhole, and in the lady sewing that buttonhole in Bethnal Green; in the orator bawling himself hoarse close to the Marble Arch, the coster loading his barrow in Covent Garden; and in Uncle John Freeland rejecting petitions in Whitehall. All these things, of course, together with the long lines of little gray houses in Camden Town, long lines of carts with bobtail horses rattling over Blackfriars' Bridge, long smells drifting behind taxicabs--all these things were as delightful and as stimulating to the soul as the clouds that trailed the heavens, the fronds of the lilac, and Leonardo's Cartoon in the Diploma Gallery. All were equal manifestations of that energy in flower known as 'Life.' They knew that everything they saw and felt and smelled OUGHT equally to make them long to catch creatures to their hearts and cry: Hosanna! And Nedda and Alan, bred in Hampstead, even knew that to admit that these things did not all move them in the same way would be regarded as a sign of anaemia. Nevertheless--most queerly--these four young people confessed to each other all sorts of sensations besides that 'Hosanna' one. They even confessed to rage and pity and disgust one moment, and to joy and dreams the next, and they differed greatly as to what excited which. It was truly odd! The only thing on which they did seem to agree was that they were having 'a thundering good time.' A sort of sense of "Blow everything!" was in their wings, and this was due not to the fact that they were thinking of and loving and admiring the little gray streets and the gentleman in Piccadilly--as, no doubt, in accordance with modern culture, they should have been--but to the fact that they were loving and admiring themselves, and that entirely without the trouble of thinking about it at all. The practice, too, of dividing into couples was distinctly precious to them, for, though they never failed to start out together, they never failed to come home two by two. In this way did they put to confusion Whitman and Dostoievsky, and all the other thinkers in Hampstead. In the daytime they all, save Alan, felt that London ought to be blown up; but at night it undermined their philosophies so that they sat silent on the tops of their respective 'buses, with arms twined in each other's. For then a something seemed to have floated up from that mass of houses and machines, of men and trees, and to be hovering above them, violet-colored, caught between the stars and the lights, a spirit of such overpowering beauty that it drenched even Alan in a kind of awe. After all, the huge creature that sat with such a giant's weight on the country's chest, the monster that had spoiled so many fields and robbed so many lives of peace and health, could fly at night upon blue and gold and purple wings, murmur a passionate lullaby, and fall into deep sleep!

One such night they went to the gallery at the opera, to supper at an oyster-shop, under Alan's pilotage, and then set out to walk back to Hampstead, timing themselves to catch the dawn. They had not gone twenty steps up Southampton Row before Alan and Sheila were forty steps in front. A fellow-feeling had made Derek and Nedda stand to watch an old man who walked, tortuous, extremely happy, bidding them all come. And when they moved on, it was very slowly, just keeping sight of the others across the lumbered dimness of Covent Garden, where tarpaulin-covered carts and barrows seemed to slumber under the blink of lamps and watchmen's lanterns. Across Long Acre they came into a street where there was not a soul save the two others, a long way ahead. Walking with his arm tightly laced with hers, touching her all down one side, Derek felt that it would be glorious to be attacked by night-birds in this dark, lonely street, to have a splendid fight and drive them off, showing himself to Nedda for a man, and her protector. But nothing save one black cat came near, and that ran for its life. He bent round and looked under the blue veil-thing that wrapped Nedda's head. Her face seemed mysteriously lovely, and her eyes, lifted so quickly, mysteriously true. She said:

"Derek, I feel like a hill with the sun on it!"

"I feel like that yellow cloud with the wind in it."

"I feel like an apple-tree coming into blossom."

"I feel like a giant."

"I feel like a song."

"I feel I could sing you."

"On a river, floating along."

"A wide one, with great plains on each side, and beasts coming down to drink, and either the sun or a yellow moon shining, and some one singing, too, far off."

"The Red Sarafan."

"Let's run!"

From that yellow cloud sailing in moonlight a spurt of rain had driven into their faces, and they ran as fast as their blood was flowing, and the raindrops coming down, jumping half the width of the little dark streets, clutching each other's arms. And peering round into her face, so sweet and breathless, into her eyes, so dark and dancing, he felt he could run all night if he had her there to run beside him through the dark. Into another street they dashed, and again another, till she stopped, panting.

"Where are we now?"

Neither knew. A policeman put them right for Portland Place. Half past one! And it would be dawn soon after three! They walked soberly again now into the outer circle of Regent's Park; talked soberly, too, discussing sublunary matters, and every now and then, their arms, round each other, gave little convulsive squeezes. The rain had stopped and the moon shone clear; by its light the trees and flowers were clothed in colors whose blood had spilled away; the town's murmur was dying, the house lights dead already. They came out of the park into a road where the latest taxis were rattling past; a face, a bare neck, silk hat, or shirt-front gleamed in the window-squares, and now and then a laugh came floating through. They stopped to watch them from under the low-hanging branches of an acacia-tree, and Derek, gazing at her face, still wet with rain, so young and round and soft, thought: 'And she loves me!' Suddenly she clutched him round the neck, and their lips met.

They talked not at all for a long time after that kiss, walking slowly up the long, empty road, while the whitish clouds sailed across the dark river of the sky and the moon slowly sank. This was the most delicious part of all that long walk home, for the kiss had made them feel as though they had no bodies, but were just two spirits walking side by side. This is its curious effect sometimes in first love between the very young....

Having sent Flora to bed, Felix was sitting up among his books. There was no need to do this, for the young folk had latch-keys, but, having begun the vigil, he went on with it, a volume about Eastern philosophies on his knee, a bowl of narcissus blooms, giving forth unexpected whiffs of odor, beside him. And he sank into a long reverie.

Could it be said--as was said in this Eastern book--that man's life was really but a dream; could that be said with any more truth than it had once been said, that he rose again in his body, to perpetual life? Could anything be said with truth, save that we knew nothing? And was that not really what had always been said by man--that we knew nothing, but were just blown over and about the world like soughs of wind, in obedience to some immortal, unknowable coherence! But had that want of knowledge ever retarded what was known as the upward growth of man? Had it ever stopped man from working, fighting, loving, dying like a hero if need were? Had faith ever been anything but embroidery to an instinctive heroism, so strong that it needed no such trappings? Had faith ever been anything but anodyne, or gratification of the aesthetic sense? Or had it really body and substance of its own? Was it something absolute and solid, that he--Felix Freeland--had missed? Or again, was it, perhaps, but the natural concomitant of youth, a naive effervescence with which thought and brooding had to part? And, turning the page of his book, he noticed that he could no longer see to read, the lamp had grown too dim, and showed but a decorative glow in the bright moonlight flooding through the study window. He got up and put another log on the fire, for these last nights of May were chilly.

Nearly three! Where were these young people? Had he been asleep, and they come in? Sure enough, in the hall Alan's hat and Sheila's cloak--the dark-red one he had admired when she went forth--were lying on a chair. But of the other two--nothing! He crept up-stairs. Their doors were open. They certainly took their time--these young lovers. And the same sore feeling which had attacked Felix when Nedda first told him of her love came on him badly in that small of the night when his vitality was lowest. All the hours she had spent clambering about him, or quietly resting on his knee with her head tucked in just where his arm and shoulder met, listening while he read or told her stories, and now and again turning those clear eyes of hers wide open to his face, to see if he meant it; the wilful little tugs of her hand when they two went exploring the customs of birds, or bees, or flowers; all her 'Daddy, I love yous!' and her rushes to the front door, and long hugs when he came back from a travel; all those later crookings of her little finger in his, and the times he had sat when she did not know it, watching her, and thinking: 'That little creature, with all that's before her, is my very own daughter to take care of, and share joy and sorrow with....' Each one of all these seemed to come now and tweak at him, as the songs of blackbirds tweak the heart of one who lies, unable to get out into the Spring. His lamp had burned itself quite out; the moon was fallen below the clump of pines, and away to the north-east something stirred in the stain and texture of the sky. Felix opened the window. What peace out there! The chill, scentless peace of night, waiting for dawn's renewal of warmth and youth. Through that bay window facing north he could see on one side the town, still wan with the light of its lamps, on the other the country, whose dark bloom was graying fast. Suddenly a tiny bird twittered, and Felix saw his two truants coming slowly from the gate across the grass, his arm round her shoulders, hers round his waist. With their backs turned to him, they passed the corner of the house, across where the garden sloped away. There they stood above the wide country, their bodies outlined against a sky fast growing light, evidently waiting for the sun to rise. Silent they stood, while the birds, one by one, twittered out their first calls. And suddenly Felix saw the boy fling his hand up into the air. The Sun! Far away on the gray horizon was a flare of red!


John Galsworthy