Chapter 20




But next morning, turning on his back as it came dawn, Stanley thought, with the curious intensity which in those small hours so soon becomes fear: 'By Jove! I don't trust that woman a yard! I shall wire for Felix!' And the longer he lay on his back, the more the conviction bored a hole in him. There was a kind of fever in the air nowadays, that women seemed to catch, as children caught the measles. What did it all mean? England used to be a place to live in. One would have thought an old country like this would have got through its infantile diseases! Hysteria! No one gave in to that. Still, one must look out! Arson was about the limit! And Stanley had a vision, suddenly, of his plough-works in flames. Why not? The ploughs were not for the English market. Who knew whether these laboring fellows mightn't take that as a grievance, if trouble began to spread? This somewhat far-fetched notion, having started to burrow, threw up a really horrid mole-hill on Stanley. And it was only the habit, in the human mind, of saying suddenly to fears: Stop! I'm tired of you! that sent him to sleep about half past four.

He did not, however, neglect to wire to Felix:

"If at all possible, come down again at once; awkward business at Joyfields."

Nor, on the charitable pretext of employing two old fellows past ordinary work, did he omit to treble his night-watchman....

On Wednesday, the day of which he had seen the dawn rise, Felix had already been startled, on returning from his constitutional, to discover his niece and nephew in the act of departure. All the explanation vouchsafed had been: "Awfully sorry, Uncle Felix; Mother's wired for us." Save for the general uneasiness which attended on all actions of that woman, Felix would have felt relieved at their going. They had disturbed his life, slipped between him and Nedda! So much so that he did not even expect her to come and tell him why they had gone, nor feel inclined to ask her. So little breaks the fine coherence of really tender ties! The deeper the quality of affection, the more it 'starts and puffs,' and from sheer sensitive feeling, each for the other, spares attempt to get back into touch!

His paper--though he did not apply to it the word 'favorite,' having that proper literary feeling toward all newspapers, that they took him in rather than he them--gave him on Friday morning precisely the same news, of the rick-burning, as it gave to Stanley at breakfast and to John on his way to the Home Office. To John, less in the know, it merely brought a knitting of the brow and a vague attempt to recollect the numbers of the Worcestershire constabulary. To Felix it brought a feeling of sickness. Men whose work in life demands that they shall daily whip their nerves, run, as a rule, a little in advance of everything. And goodness knows what he did not see at that moment. He said no word to Nedda, but debated with himself and Flora what, if anything, was to be done. Flora, whose sense of humor seldom deserted her, held the more comfortable theory that there was nothing to be done as yet. Soon enough to cry when milk was spilled! He did not agree, but, unable to suggest a better course, followed her advice. On Saturday, however, receiving Stanley's wire, he had much difficulty in not saying to her, "I told you so!" The question that agitated him now was whether or not to take Nedda with him. Flora said: "Yes. The child will be the best restraining influence, if there is really trouble brewing!" Some feeling fought against this in Felix, but, suspecting it to be mere jealousy, he decided to take her. And, to the girl's rather puzzled delight, they arrived at Becket that day in time for dinner. It was not too reassuring to find John there, too. Stanley had also wired to him. The matter must indeed be serious!

The usual week-end was in progress. Clara had made one of her greatest efforts. A Bulgarian had providentially written a book in which he showed, beyond doubt, that persons fed on brown bread, potatoes, and margarine, gave the most satisfactory results of all. It was a discovery of the first value as a topic for her dinner-table--seeming to solve the whole vexed problem of the laborers almost at one stroke. If they could only be got to feed themselves on this perfect programme, what a saving of the situation! On those three edibles, the Bulgarian said--and he had been well translated--a family of five could be maintained at full efficiency for a shilling per day. Why! that would leave nearly eight shillings a week, in many cases more, for rent, firing, insurance, the man's tobacco, and the children's boots. There would be no more of that terrible pinching by the mothers, to feed the husband and children properly, of which one heard so much; no more lamentable deterioration in our stock! Brown bread, potatoes, margarine--quite a great deal could be provided for seven shillings! And what was more delicious than a well-baked potato with margarine of good quality? The carbohydrates--or was it hybocardrates--ah, yes! the kybohardrates--would be present in really sufficient quantity! Little else was talked of all through dinner at her end of the table. Above the flowers which Frances Freeland always insisted on arranging--and very charmingly--when she was there--over bare shoulders and white shirt-fronts, those words bombed and rebombed. Brown bread, potatoes, margarine, carbohydrates, calorific! They mingled with the creaming sizzle of champagne, with the soft murmur of well-bred deglutition. White bosoms heaved and eyebrows rose at them. And now and again some Bigwig versed in science murmured the word 'Fats.' An agricultural population fed to the point of efficiency without disturbance of the existing state of things! Eureka! If only into the bargain they could be induced to bake their own brown bread and cook their potatoes well! Faces flushed, eyes brightened, and teeth shone. It was the best, the most stimulating, dinner ever swallowed in that room. Nor was it until each male guest had eaten, drunk, and talked himself into torpor suitable to the company of his wife, that the three brothers could sit in the smoking-room together, undisturbed.

When Stanley had described his interview with 'that woman,' his glimpse of the red blouse, and the laborers' meeting, there was a silence before John said:

"It might be as well if Tod would send his two youngsters abroad for a bit."

Felix shook his head.

"I don't think he would, and I don't think they'd go. But we might try to get those two to see that anything the poor devils of laborers do is bound to recoil on themselves, fourfold. I suppose," he added, with sudden malice, "a laborers' rising would have no chance?"

Neither John nor Stanley winced.

"Rising? Why should they rise?"

"They did in '32."

"In '32!" repeated John. "Agriculture had its importance then. Now it has none. Besides, they've no cohesion, no power, like the miners or railway men. Rising? No chance, no earthly! Weight of metal's dead against it."

Felix smiled.

"Money and guns! Guns and money! Confess with me, brethren, that we're glad of metal."

John stared and Stanley drank off his whiskey and potash. Felix really was a bit 'too thick' sometimes. Then Stanley said:

"Wonder what Tod thinks of it all. Will you go over, Felix, and advise that our young friends be more considerate to these poor beggars?"

Felix nodded. And with 'Good night, old man' all round, and no shaking of the hands, the three brothers dispersed.

But behind Felix, as he opened his bedroom door, a voice whispered:

"Dad!" And there, in the doorway of the adjoining room, was Nedda in her dressing-gown.

"Do come in for a minute. I've been waiting up. You ARE late."

Felix followed her into her room. The pleasure he would once have had in this midnight conspiracy was superseded now, and he stood blinking at her gravely. In that blue gown, with her dark hair falling on its lace collar and her face so round and childish, she seemed more than ever to have defrauded him. Hooking her arm in his, she drew him to the window; and Felix thought: 'She just wants to talk to me about Derek. Dog in the manger that I am! Here goes to be decent!' So he said:

"Well, my dear?"

Nedda pressed his hand with a little coaxing squeeze.

"Daddy, darling, I do love you!"

And, though Felix knew that she had grasped what he was feeling, a sort of warmth spread in him. She had begun counting his fingers with one of her own, sitting close beside him. The warmth in Felix deepened, but he thought: 'She must want a good deal out of me!' Then she began:

"Why did we come down again? I know there's something wrong! It's hard not to know, when you're anxious." And she sighed. That little sigh affected Felix.

"I'd always rather know the truth, Dad. Aunt Clara said something about a fire at the Mallorings'."

Felix stole a look at her. Yes! There was a lot in this child of his! Depth, warmth, and strength to hold to things. No use to treat her as a child! And he answered:

"My dear, there's really nothing beyond what you know--our young man and Sheila are hotheads, and things over there are working up a bit. We must try and smooth them down."

"Dad, ought I to back him whatever he does?"

What a question! The more so that one cannot answer superficially the questions of those whom one loves.

"Ah!" he said at last. "I don't know yet. Some things it's not your duty to do; that's certain. It can't be right to do things simply because he does them--THAT'S not real--however fond one is."

"No; I feel that. Only, it's so hard to know what I do really think--there's always such a lot trying to make one feel that only what's nice and cosey is right!"

And Felix thought: 'I've been brought up to believe that only Russian girls care for truth. It seems I was wrong. The saints forbid I should be a stumbling-block to my own daughter searching for it! And yet--where's it all leading? Is this the same child that told me only the other night she wanted to know everything? She's a woman now! So much for love!' And he said:

"Let's go forward quietly, without expecting too much of ourselves."

"Yes, Dad; only I distrust myself so."

"No one ever got near the truth who didn't."

"Can we go over to Joyfields to-morrow? I don't think I could bear a whole day of Bigwigs and eating, with this hanging--"

"Poor Bigwigs! All right! We'll go. And now, bed; and think of nothing!"

Her whisper tickled his ear:

"You are a darling to me, Dad!"

He went out comforted.

And for some time after she had forgotten everything he leaned out of his window, smoking cigarettes, and trying to see the body and soul of night. How quiet she was--night, with her mystery, bereft of moon, in whose darkness seemed to vibrate still the song of the cuckoos that had been calling so all day! And whisperings of leaves communed with Felix.




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