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Chapter 23

On their way back to Becket, after the visit to Tryst, Felix and Nedda dropped Derek half-way on the road to Joyfields. They found that the Becket household already knew of the arrest. Woven into a dirge on the subject of 'the Land,' the last town doings, and adventures on golf courses, it formed the genial topic of the dinner-table; for the Bulgarian with his carbohydrates was already a wonder of the past. The Bigwigs of this week-end were quite a different lot from those of three weeks ago, and comparatively homogeneous, having only three different plans for settling the land question, none of which, fortunately, involved any more real disturbance of the existing state of things than the potato, brown-bread plan, for all were based on the belief held by the respectable press, and constructive portions of the community, that omelette can be made without breaking eggs. On one thing alone, the whole house party was agreed--the importance of the question. Indeed, a sincere conviction on this point was like the card one produces before one is admitted to certain functions. No one came to Becket without it; or, if he did, he begged, borrowed, or stole it the moment he smelled Clara's special pot-pourri in the hall; and, though he sometimes threw it out of the railway-carriage window in returning to town, there was nothing remarkable about that. The conversational debauch of the first night's dinner--and, alas! there were only two even at Becket during a week-end--had undoubtedly revealed the feeling, which had set in of late, that there was nothing really wrong with the condition of the agricultural laborer, the only trouble being that the unreasonable fellow did not stay on the land. It was believed that Henry Wiltram, in conjunction with Colonel Martlett, was on the point of promoting a policy for imposing penalties on those who attempted to leave it without good reason, such reason to be left to the discretion of impartial district boards, composed each of one laborer, one farmer, and one landowner, decision going by favor of majority. And though opinion was rather freely expressed that, since the voting would always be two to one against, this might trench on the liberty of the subject, many thought that the interests of the country were so much above this consideration that something of the sort would be found, after all, to be the best arrangement. The cruder early notions of resettling the land by fostering peasant proprietorship, with habitable houses and security of tenure, were already under a cloud, since it was more than suspected that they would interfere unduly with the game laws and other soundly vested interests. Mere penalization of those who (or whose fathers before them) had at great pains planted so much covert, enclosed so much common, and laid so much country down in grass was hardly a policy for statesmen. A section of the guests, and that perhaps strongest because most silent, distinctly favored this new departure of Henry Wiltram's. Coupled with his swinging corn tax, it was indubitably a stout platform.

A second section of the guests spoke openly in favor of Lord Settleham's policy of good-will. The whole thing, they thought, must be voluntary, and they did not see any reason why, if it were left to the kindness and good intentions of the landowner, there should be any land question at all. Boards would be formed in every county on which such model landowners as Sir Gerald Malloring, or Lord Settleham himself, would sit, to apply the principles of goodwill. Against this policy the only criticism was levelled by Felix. He could have agreed, he said, if he had not noticed that Lord Settleham, and nearly all landowners, were thoroughly satisfied with their existing good-will and averse to any changes in their education that might foster an increase of it. If--he asked--landowners were so full of good-will, and so satisfied that they could not be improved in that matter, why had they not already done what was now proposed, and settled the land question? He himself believed that the land question, like any other, was only capable of settlement through improvement in the spirit of all concerned, but he found it a little difficult to credit Lord Settleham and the rest of the landowners with sincerity in the matter so long as they were unconscious of any need for their own improvement. According to him, they wanted it both ways, and, so far as he could see, they meant to have it!

His use of the word sincere, in connection with Lord Settleham, was at once pounced on. He could not know Lord Settleham--one of the most sincere of men. Felix freely admitted that he did not, and hastened to explain that he did not question the--er--parliamentary sincerity of Lord Settleham and his followers. He only ventured to doubt whether they realized the hold that human nature had on them. His experience, he said, of the houses where they had been bred, and the seminaries where they had been trained, had convinced him that there was still a conspiracy on foot to blind Lord Settleham and those others concerning all this; and, since they were themselves part of the conspiracy, there was very little danger of their unmasking it. At this juncture Felix was felt to have exceeded the limit of fair criticism, and only that toleration toward literary men of a certain reputation, in country houses, as persons brought there to say clever and irresponsible things, prevented people from taking him seriously.

The third section of the guests, unquestionably more static than the others, confined themselves to pointing out that, though the land question was undoubtedly serious, nothing whatever would result from placing any further impositions upon landowners. For, after all, what was land? Simply capital invested in a certain way, and very poorly at that. And what was capital? Simply a means of causing wages to be paid. And whether they were paid to men who looked after birds and dogs, loaded your guns, beat your coverts, or drove you to the shoot, or paid to men who ploughed and fertilized the land, what did it matter? To dictate to a man to whom he was to pay wages was, in the last degree, un-English. Everybody knew the fate which had come, or was coming, upon capital. It was being driven out of the country by leaps and bounds--though, to be sure, it still perversely persisted in yielding every year a larger revenue by way of income tax. And it would be dastardly to take advantage of land just because it was the only sort of capital which could not fly the country in times of need. Stanley himself, though--as became a host--he spoke little and argued not at all, was distinctly of this faction; and Clara sometimes felt uneasy lest her efforts to focus at Becket all interest in the land question should not quite succeed in outweighing the passivity of her husband's attitude. But, knowing that it is bad policy to raise the whip too soon, she trusted to her genius to bring him 'with one run at the finish,' as they say, and was content to wait.

There was universal sympathy with the Mallorings. If a model landlord like Malloring had trouble with his people, who--who should be immune? Arson! It was the last word! Felix, who secretly shared Nedda's horror of the insensate cruelty of flames, listened, nevertheless, to the jubilation that they had caught the fellow, with profound disturbance. For the memory of the big laborer seated against the wall, his eyes haunting round his cell, quarrelled fiercely with his natural abhorrence of any kind of violence, and his equally natural dislike of what brought anxiety into his own life--and the life, almost as precious, of his little daughter. Scarcely a word of the evening's conversation but gave him in high degree the feeling: How glib all this is, how far from reality! How fatted up with shell after shell of comfort and security! What do these people know, what do they realize, of the pressure and beat of raw life that lies behind--what do even I, who have seen this prisoner, know? For us it's as simple as killing a rat that eats our corn, or a flea that sucks our blood. Arson! Destructive brute--lock him up! And something in Felix said: For order, for security, this may be necessary. But something also said: Our smug attitude is odious!

He watched his little daughter closely, and several times marked the color rush up in her face, and once could have sworn he saw tears in her eyes. If the temper of this talk were trying to him, hardened at a hundred dinner-tables, what must it be to a young and ardent creature! And he was relieved to find, on getting to the drawing-room, that she had slipped behind the piano and was chatting quietly with her Uncle John....

As to whether this or that man liked her, Nedda perhaps was not more ignorant than other women; and she had noted a certain warmth and twinkle in Uncle John's eyes the other evening, a certain rather jolly tendency to look at her when he should have been looking at the person to whom he was talking; so that she felt toward him a trustful kindliness not altogether unmingled with a sense that he was in that Office which controls the destinies of those who 'get into trouble.' The motives even of statesmen, they say, are mixed; how much more so, then, of girls in love! Tucked away behind a Steinway, which instinct told her was not for use, she looked up under her lashes at her uncle's still military figure and said softly:

"It was awfully good of you to come, too, Uncle John."

And John, gazing down at that round, dark head, and those slim, pretty, white shoulders, answered:

"Not at all--very glad to get a breath of fresh air."

And he stealthily tightened his white waistcoat--a rite neglected of late; the garment seemed to him at the moment unnecessarily loose.

"You have so much experience, Uncle. Do you think violent rebellion is ever justifiable?"

"I do not."

Nedda sighed. "I'm glad you think that," she murmured, "because I don't think it is, either. I do so want you to like Derek, Uncle John, because--it's a secret from nearly every one--he and I are engaged."

John jerked his head up a little, as though he had received a slight blow. The news was not palatable. He kept his form, however, and answered:

"Oh! Really! Ah!"

Nedda said still more softly: "Please don't judge him by the other night; he wasn't very nice then, I know."

John cleared his throat.

Instinct warned her that he agreed, and she said rather sadly:

"You see, we're both awfully young. It must be splendid to have experience."

Over John's face, with its double line between the brows, its double line in the thin cheeks, its single firm line of mouth beneath a gray moustache, there passed a little grimace.

"As to being young," he said, "that'll change for the--er--better only too fast."

What was it in this girl that reminded him of that one with whom he had lived but two years, and mourned fifteen? Was it her youth? Was it that quick way of lifting her eyes, and looking at him with such clear directness? Or the way her hair grew? Or what?

"Do you like the people here, Uncle John?"

The question caught John, as it were, between wind and water. Indeed, all her queries seemed to be trying to incite him to those wide efforts of mind which bring into use the philosophic nerve; and it was long since he had generalized afresh about either things or people, having fallen for many years past into the habit of reaching his opinions down out of some pigeonhole or other. To generalize was a youthful practice that one took off as one takes certain garments off babies when they come to years of discretion. But since he seemed to be in for it, he answered rather shortly: "Not at all."

Nedda sighed again.

"Nor do I. They make me ashamed of myself."

John, whose dislike of the Bigwigs was that of the dogged worker of this life for the dogged talkers, wrinkled his brows:

"How's that?"

"They make me feel as if I were part of something heavy sitting on something else, and all the time talking about how to make things lighter for the thing it's sitting on."

A vague recollection of somebody--some writer, a dangerous one--having said something of this sort flitted through John.

"Do YOU think England is done for, Uncle--I mean about 'the Land'?"

In spite of his conviction that 'the country was in a bad way,' John was deeply, intimately shocked by that simple little question. Done for! Never! Whatever might be happening underneath, there must be no confession of that. No! the country would keep its form. The country would breathe through its nose, even if it did lose the race. It must never know, or let others know, even if it were beaten. And he said:

"What on earth put that into your head?"

"Only that it seems funny, if we're getting richer and richer, and yet all the time farther and farther away from the life that every one agrees is the best for health and happiness. Father put it into my head, making me look at the little, towny people in Transham this afternoon. I know I mean to begin at once to learn about farm work."

"You?" This pretty young thing with the dark head and the pale, slim shoulders! Farm work! Women were certainly getting queer. In his department he had almost daily evidence of that!

"I should have thought art was more in your line!"

Nedda looked up at him; and he was touched by that look, so straight and young.

"It's this. I don't believe Derek will be able to stay in England. When you feel very strongly about things it must be awfully difficult to."

In bewilderment John answered:

"Why! I should have said this was the country of all others for movements, and social work, and--and--cranks--" he paused.

"Yes; but those are all for curing the skin, and I suppose we're really dying of heart disease, aren't we? Derek feels that, anyway, and, you see, he's not a bit wise, not even patient--so I expect he'll have to go. I mean to be ready, anyway."

And Nedda got up. "Only, if he does something rash, don't let them hurt him, Uncle John, if you can help it."

John felt her soft fingers squeezing his almost desperately, as if her emotions had for the moment got out of hand. And he was moved, though he knew that the squeeze expressed feeling for his nephew, not for himself. When she slid away out of the big room all friendliness seemed to go out with her, and very soon after he himself slipped away to the smoking-room. There he was alone, and, lighting a cigar, because he still had on his long-tailed coat which did not go with that pipe he would so much have preferred, he stepped out of the French window into the warm, dark night. He walked slowly in his evening pumps up a thin path between columbines and peonies, late tulips, forget-me-nots, and pansies peering up in the dark with queer, monkey faces. He had a love for flowers, rather starved for a long time past, and, strangely, liked to see them, not in the set and orderly masses that should seemingly have gone with his character, but in wilder beds, where one never knew what flower was coming next. Once or twice he stopped and bent down, ascertaining which kind it was, living its little life down there, then passed on in that mood of stammering thought which besets men of middle age who walk at night--a mood caught between memory of aspirations spun and over, and vision of aspirations that refuse to take shape. Why should they, any more--what was the use? And turning down another path he came on something rather taller than himself, that glowed in the darkness as though a great moon, or some white round body, had floated to within a few feet of the earth. Approaching, he saw it for what it was--a little magnolia-tree in the full of its white blossoms. Those clustering flower-stars, printed before him on the dark coat of the night, produced in John more feeling than should have been caused by a mere magnolia-tree; and he smoked somewhat furiously. Beauty, seeking whom it should upset, seemed, like a girl, to stretch out arms and say: "I am here!" And with a pang at heart, and a long ash on his cigar, between lips that quivered oddly, John turned on his heel and retraced his footsteps to the smoking-room. It was still deserted. Taking up a Review, he opened it at an article on 'the Land,' and, fixing his eyes on the first page, did not read it, but thought: 'That child! What folly! Engaged! H'm! To that young--! Why, they're babes! And what is it about her that reminds me--reminds me--What is it? Lucky devil, Felix--to have her for daughter! Engaged! The little thing's got her troubles before her. Wish I had! By George, yes--wish I had!' And with careful fingers he brushed off the ash that had fallen on his lapel....

The little thing who had her troubles before her, sitting in her bedroom window, had watched his white front and the glowing point of his cigar passing down there in the dark, and, though she did not know that they belonged to him, had thought: 'There's some one nice, anyway, who likes being out instead of in that stuffy drawing-room, playing bridge, and talking, talking.' Then she felt ashamed of her uncharitableness. After all, it was wrong to think of them like that. They did it for rest after all their hard work; and she--she did not work at all! If only Aunt Kirsteen would let her stay at Joyfields, and teach her all that Sheila knew! And lighting her candles, she opened her diary to write.

"Life," she wrote, "is like looking at the night. One never knows what's coming, only suspects, as in the darkness you suspect which trees are what, and try to see whether you are coming to the edge of anything.... A moth has just flown into my candle before I could stop it! Has it gone quite out of the world? If so, why should it be different for us? The same great Something makes all life and death, all light and dark, all love and hate--then why one fate for one living thing, and the opposite for another? But suppose there IS nothing after death--would it make me say: 'I'd rather not live'? It would only make me delight more in life of every kind. Only human beings brood and are discontented, and trouble about future life. While Derek and I were sitting in that field this morning, a bumblebee flew to the bank and tucked its head into the grass and went to sleep, just tired out with flying and working at its flowers; it simply snoozed its head down and went off. We ought to live every minute to the utmost, and when we're tired out, tuck in our heads and sleep.... If only Derek is not brooding over that poor man! Poor man--all alone in the dark, with months of misery before him! Poor soul! Oh! I am sorry for all the unhappiness of people! I can't bear to think of it. I simply can't." And dropping her pen, Nedda went again to her window and leaned out. So sweet the air smelled that it made her ache with delight to breathe it in. Each leaf that lived out there, each flower, each blade of grass, were sworn to conspiracy of perfume. And she thought: 'They MUST all love each other; it all goes together so beautifully!' Then, mingled with the incense of the night, she caught the savor of woodsmoke. It seemed to make the whole scent even more delicious, but she thought, bewildered: 'Smoke! Cruel fire--burning the wood that once grew leaves like those. Oh! it IS so mixed!' It was a thought others have had before her.

John Galsworthy