To see for himself how it fared with the big laborer at the hands of Preliminary Justice, Felix went into Transham with Stanley the following morning. John having departed early for town, the brothers had not further exchanged sentiments on the subject of what Stanley called 'the kick-up at Joyfields.' And just as night will sometimes disperse the brooding moods of nature, so it had brought to all three the feeling: 'Haven't we made too much of this? Haven't we been a little extravagant, and aren't we rather bored with the whole subject?' Arson was arson; a man in prison more or less was a man in prison more or less! This was especially Stanley's view, and he took the opportunity to say to Felix: "Look here, old man, the thing is, of course, to see it in proportion."
It was with this intention, therefore, that Felix entered the building where the justice of that neighborhood was customarily dispensed. It was a species of small hall, somewhat resembling a chapel, with distempered walls, a platform, and benches for the public, rather well filled that morning--testimony to the stir the little affair had made. Felix, familiar with the appearance of London police courts, noted the efforts that had been made to create resemblance to those models of administration. The justices of the peace, hastily convoked and four in number, sat on the platform, with a semicircular backing of high gray screens and a green baize barrier in front of them, so that their legs and feet were quite invisible. In this way had been preserved the really essential feature of all human justice--at whose feet it is well known one must not look! Their faces, on the contrary, were entirely exposed to view, and presented that pleasing variety of type and unanimity of expression peculiar to men keeping an open mind. Below them, with his face toward the public, was placed a gray-bearded man at a table also covered with green baize, that emblem of authority. And to the side, at right angles, raised into the air, sat a little terrier of a man, with gingery, wired hair, obviously the more articulate soul of these proceedings. As Felix sat down to worship, he noticed Mr. Pogram at the green baize table, and received from the little man a nod and the faintest whiff of lavender and gutta-percha. The next moment he caught sight of Derek and Sheila, screwed sideways against one of the distempered walls, looking, with their frowning faces, for all the world like two young devils just turned out of hell. They did not greet him, and Felix set to work to study the visages of Justice. They impressed him, on the whole, more favorably than he had expected. The one to his extreme left, with a gray-whiskered face, was like a large and sleepy cat of mature age, who moved not, except to write a word now and then on the paper before him, or to hand back a document. Next to him, a man of middle age with bald forehead and dark, intelligent eyes seemed conscious now and again of the body of the court, and Felix thought: 'You have not been a magistrate long.' The chairman, who sat next, with the moustache of a heavy dragoon and gray hair parted in the middle, seemed, on the other hand, oblivious of the public, never once looking at them, and speaking so that they could not hear him, and Felix thought: 'You have been a magistrate too long.' Between him and the terrier man, the last of the four wrote diligently, below a clean, red face with clipped white moustache and little peaked beard. And Felix thought: 'Retired naval!' Then he saw that they were bringing in Tryst. The big laborer advanced between two constables, his broad, unshaven face held high, and his lowering eyes, through which his strange and tragical soul seemed looking, turned this way and that. Felix, who, no more than any one else, could keep his gaze off the trapped creature, felt again all the sensations of the previous afternoon.
"Guilty? or, Not guilty?" As if repeating something learned by heart, Tryst answered: "Not guilty, sir." And his big hands, at his sides, kept clenching and unclenching. The witnesses, four in number, began now to give their testimony. A sergeant of police recounted how he had been first summoned to the scene of burning, and afterward arrested Tryst; Sir Gerald's agent described the eviction and threats uttered by the evicted man; two persons, a stone-breaker and a tramp, narrated that they had seen him going in the direction of the rick and barn at five o'clock, and coming away therefrom at five-fifteen. Punctuated by the barking of the terrier clerk, all this took time, during which there passed through Felix many thoughts. Here was a man who had done a wicked, because an antisocial, act; the sort of act no sane person could defend; an act so barbarous, stupid, and unnatural that the very beasts of the field would turn noses away from it! How was it, then, that he himself could not feel incensed? Was it that in habitually delving into the motives of men's actions he had lost the power of dissociating what a man did from what he was; had come to see him, with his thoughts, deeds, and omissions, as a coherent growth? And he looked at Tryst. The big laborer was staring with all his soul at Derek. And, suddenly, he saw his nephew stand up--tilt his dark head back against the wall--and open his mouth to speak. In sheer alarm Felix touched Mr. Pogram on the arm. The little square man had already turned; he looked at that moment extremely like a frog.
"Gentlemen, I wish to say--"
"Who are you? Sit down!" It was the chairman, speaking for the first time in a voice that could be heard.
"I wish to say that he is not responsible. I--"
"Silence! Silence, sir! Sit down!"
Felix saw his nephew waver, and Sheila pulling at his sleeve; then, to his infinite relief, the boy sat down. His sallow face was red; his thin lips compressed to a white line. And slowly under the eyes of the whole court he grew deadly pale.
Distracted by fear that the boy might make another scene, Felix followed the proceedings vaguely. They were over soon enough: Tryst committed, defence reserved, bail refused--all as Mr. Pogram had predicted.
Derek and Sheila had vanished, and in the street outside, idle at this hour of a working-day, were only the cars of the four magistrates; two or three little knots of those who had been in court, talking of the case; and in the very centre of the street, an old, dark-whiskered man, lame, and leaning on a stick.
"Very nearly being awkward," said the voice of Mr. Pogram in his ear. "I say, do you think--no hand himself, surely no real hand himself?"
Felix shook his head violently. If the thought had once or twice occurred to him, he repudiated it with all his force when shaped by another's mouth--and such a mouth, so wide and rubbery!
"No, no! Strange boy! Extravagant sense of honour--too sensitive, that's all!"
"Quite so," murmured Mr. Pogram soothingly. "These young people! We live in a queer age, Mr. Freeland. All sorts of ideas about, nowadays. Young men like that--better in the army--safe in the army. No ideas there!"
"What happens now?" said Felix.
"Wait!" said Mr. Pogram. "Nothing else for it--wait. Three months--twiddle his thumbs. Bad system! Rotten!"
"And suppose in the end he's proved innocent?"
Mr. Pogram shook his little round head, whose ears were very red.
"Ah!" he said: "Often say to my wife: 'Wish I weren't a humanitarian!' Heart of india-rubber--excellent thing--the greatest blessing. Well, good-morning! Anything you want to say at any time, let me know!" And exhaling an overpowering whiff of gutta-percha, he grasped Felix's hand and passed into a house on the door of which was printed in brazen letters: "Edward Pogram, James Collet. Solicitors. Agents."
On leaving the little humanitarian, Felix drifted back toward the court. The cars were gone, the groups dispersed; alone, leaning on his stick, the old, dark-whiskered man stood like a jackdaw with a broken wing. Yearning, at that moment, for human intercourse, Felix went up to him.
"Fine day," he said.
"Yes, sir, 'tis fine enough." And they stood silent, side by side. The gulf fixed by class and habit between soul and human soul yawned before Felix as it had never before. Stirred and troubled, he longed to open his heart to this old, ragged, dark-eyed, whiskered creature with the game leg, who looked as if he had passed through all the thorns and thickets of hard and primitive existence; he longed that the old fellow should lay bare to him his heart. And for the life of him he could not think of any mortal words which might bridge the unreal gulf between them. At last he said:
"You a native here?"
"No, sir. From over Malvern way. Livin' here with my darter, owin' to my leg. Her 'usband works in this here factory."
"And I'm from London," Felix said.
"Thart you were. Fine place, London, they say!"
Felix shook his head. "Not so fine as this Worcestershire of yours."
The old man turned his quick, dark gaze. "Aye!" he said, "people'll be a bit nervy-like in towns, nowadays. The country be a good place for a healthy man, too; I don't want no better place than the country--never could abide bein' shut in."
"There aren't so very many like you, judging by the towns."
The old man smiled--that smile was the reverse of a bitter tonic coated with sweet stuff to make it palatable.
"'Tes the want of a life takes 'em," he said. "There's not a many like me. There's not so many as can't do without the smell of the earth. With these 'ere newspapers--'tesn't taught nowadays. The boys and gells they goes to school, and 'tes all in favor of the towns there. I can't work no more; I'm 's good as gone meself; but I feel sometimes I'll 'ave to go back. I don't like the streets, an' I guess 'tes worse in London."
"Ah! Perhaps," Felix said, "there are more of us like you than you think."
Again the old man turned his dark, quick glance.
"Well, an' I widden say no to that, neither. I've seen 'em terrible homesick. 'Tes certain sure there's lots would never go, ef 'twasn't so mortial hard on the land. 'Tisn't a bare livin', after that. An' they're put upon, right and left they're put upon. 'Tes only a man here and there that 'as something in 'im too strong. I widden never 'ave stayed in the country ef 'twasn't that I couldn't stand the town life. 'Tes like some breeds o' cattle--you take an' put 'em out o' their own country, an' you 'ave to take an' put 'em back again. Only some breeds, though. Others they don' mind where they go. Well, I've seen the country pass in my time, as you might say; where you used to see three men you only see one now."
"Are they ever going back onto the land?"
"They tark about it. I read my newspaper reg'lar. In some places I see they're makin' unions. That an't no good."
The old man smiled again.
"Why! Think of it! The land's different to anythin' else--that's why! Different work, different hours, four men's work to-day and one's to-morrow. Work land wi' unions, same as they've got in this 'ere factory, wi' their eight hours an' their do this an' don' do that? No! You've got no weather in factories, an' such-like. On the land 'tes a matter o' weather. On the land a man must be ready for anythin' at any time; you can't work it no other way. 'Tes along o' God's comin' into it; an' no use pullin' this way an' that. Union says to me: You mustn't work after hours. Hoh! I've 'ad to set up all night wi' ship an' cattle hundreds o' times, an' no extra for it. 'Tes not that way they'll do any good to keep people on the land. Oh, no!"
"Well, you'll want new laws, o' course, to prevent farmers an' landowners takin' their advantage; you want laws to build new cottages; but mainly 'tes a case of hands together; can't be no other--the land's so ticklish. If 'tesn't hands together, 'tes nothing. I 'ad a master once that was never content so long's we wasn't content. That farm was better worked than any in the parish."
"Yes, but the difficulty is to get masters that can see the other side; a man doesn't care much to look at home."
The old man's dark eyes twinkled.
"No; an' when 'e does, 'tes generally to say: 'Lord, an't I right, an' an't they wrong, just?' That's powerful customary!"
"It is," said Felix; "God bless us all!"
"Ah! You may well say that, sir; an' we want it, too. A bit more wages wouldn't come amiss, neither. An' a bit more freedom; 'tes a man's liberty 'e prizes as well as money."
"Did you hear about this arson case?"
The old man cast a glance this way and that before he answered in a lower voice:
"They say 'e was put out of his cottage. I've seen men put out for votin' Liberal; I've seen 'em put out for free-thinkin'; all sorts o' things I seen em put out for. 'Tes that makes the bad blood. A man wants to call 'is soul 'is own, when all's said an' done. An' 'e can't, not in th' old country, unless 'e's got the dibs."
"And yet you never thought of emigrating?"
"Thart of it--ah! thart of it hundreds o' times; but some'ow cudden never bring mysel' to the scratch o' not seein' th' Beacon any more. I can just see it from 'ere, you know. But there's not so many like me, an' gettin' fewer every day."
"Yes," murmured Felix, "that I believe."
"'Tes a 'and-made piece o' goods--the land! You has to be fond of it, same as of your missis and yer chillen. These poor pitiful fellows that's workin' in this factory, makin' these here Colonial ploughs--union's all right for them--'tes all mechanical; but a man on the land, 'e's got to put the land first, whether 'tes his own or some one else's, or he'll never do no good; might as well go for a postman, any day. I'm keepin' of you, though, with my tattle!"
In truth, Felix had looked at the old man, for the accursed question had begun to worry him: Ought he or not to give the lame old fellow something? Would it hurt his feelings? Why could he not say simply: 'Friend, I'm better off than you; help me not to feel so unfairly favored'? Perhaps he might risk it. And, diving into his trousers pockets, he watched the old man's eyes. If they followed his hand, he would risk it. But they did not. Withdrawing his hand, he said:
"Have a cigar?"
The old fellow's dark face twinkled.
"I don' know," he said, "as I ever smoked one; but I can have a darned old try!"
"Take the lot," said Felix, and shuffled into the other's pocket the contents of his cigar-case. "If you get through one, you'll want the rest. They're pretty good."
"Ah!" said the old man. "Shuldn' wonder, neither."
"Good-by. I hope your leg will soon be better."
"Thank 'ee, sir. Good-by, thank 'ee!"
Looking back from the turning, Felix saw him still standing there in the middle of the empty street.
Having undertaken to meet his mother, who was returning this afternoon to Becket, he had still two hours to put away, and passing Mr. Pogram's house, he turned into a path across a clover-field and sat down on a stile. He had many thoughts, sitting at the foot of this little town--which his great-grandfather had brought about. And chiefly he thought of the old man he had been talking to, sent there, as it seemed to him, by Providence, to afford a prototype for his 'The Last of the Laborers.' Wonderful that the old fellow should talk of loving 'the Land,' whereon he must have toiled for sixty years or so, at a number of shillings per week, that would certainly not buy the cigars he had shovelled into that ragged pocket. Wonderful! And yet, a marvellous sweet thing, when all was said--this land! Changing its sheen and texture, the feel of its air, its very scent, from day to day. This land with myriad offspring of flowers and flying folk; the majestic and untiring march of seasons: Spring and its wistful ecstasy of saplings, and its yearning, wild, wind-loosened heart; gleam and song, blossom and cloud, and the swift white rain; each upturned leaf so little and so glad to flutter; each wood and field so full of peeping things! Summer! Ah! Summer, when on the solemn old trees the long days shone and lingered, and the glory of the meadows and the murmur of life and the scent of flowers bewildered tranquillity, till surcharge of warmth and beauty brooded into dark passion, and broke! And Autumn, in mellow haze down on the fields and woods; smears of gold already on the beeches, smears of crimson on the rowans, the apple-trees still burdened, and a flax-blue sky well-nigh merging with the misty air; the cattle browsing in the lingering golden stillness; not a breath to fan the blue smoke of the weed-fires--and in the fields no one moving--who would disturb such mellow peace? And Winter! The long spaces, the long dark; and yet--and yet, what delicate loveliness of twig tracery; what blur of rose and brown and purple caught in the bare boughs and in the early sunset sky! What sharp dark flights of birds in the gray-white firmament! Who cared what season held in its arms this land that had bred them all!
Not wonderful that into the veins of those who nursed it, tending, watching its perpetual fertility, should be distilled a love so deep and subtle that they could not bear to leave it, to abandon its hills, and greenness, and bird-songs, and all the impress of their forefathers throughout the ages.
Like so many of his fellows--cultured moderns, alien to the larger forms of patriotism, that rich liquor brewed of maps and figures, commercial profit, and high-cockalorum, which served so perfectly to swell smaller heads--Felix had a love of his native land resembling love for a woman, a kind of sensuous chivalry, a passion based on her charm, on her tranquillity, on the power she had to draw him into her embrace, to make him feel that he had come from her, from her alone, and into her alone was going back. And this green parcel of his native land, from which the half of his blood came, and that the dearest half, had a potency over his spirit that he might well be ashamed of in days when the true Briton was a town-bred creature with a foot of fancy in all four corners of the globe. There was ever to him a special flavor about the elm-girt fields, the flowery coppices, of this country of the old Moretons, a special fascination in its full, white-clouded skies, its grass-edged roads, its pied and creamy cattle, and the blue-green loom of the Malvern hills. If God walked anywhere for him, it was surely here. Sentiment! Without sentiment, without that love, each for his own corner, 'the Land' was lost indeed! Not if all Becket blew trumpets till kingdom came, would 'the Land' be reformed, if they lost sight of that! To fortify men in love for their motherland, to see that insecurity, grinding poverty, interference, petty tyranny, could no longer undermine that love--this was to be, surely must be, done! Monotony? Was that cry true? What work now performed by humble men was less monotonous than work on the land? What work was even a tenth part so varied? Never quite the same from day to day: Now weeding, now hay, now roots, now hedging; now corn, with sowing, reaping, threshing, stacking, thatching; the care of beasts, and their companionship; sheep-dipping, shearing, wood-gathering, apple-picking, cider-making; fashioning and tarring gates; whitewashing walls; carting; trenching--never, never two days quite the same! Monotony! The poor devils in factories, in shops, in mines; poor devils driving 'busses, punching tickets, cleaning roads; baking; cooking; sewing; typing! Stokers; machine-tenders; brick-layers; dockers; clerks! Ah! that great company from towns might well cry out: Monotony! True, they got their holidays; true, they had more social life--a point that might well be raised at Becket: Holidays and social life for men on the soil! But--and suddenly Felix thought of the long, long holiday that was before the laborer Tryst. 'Twiddle his thumbs'--in the words of the little humanitarian--twiddle his thumbs in a space twelve feet by seven! No sky to see, no grass to smell, no beast to bear him company; no anything--for, what resources in himself had this poor creature? No anything, but to sit with tragic eyes fixed on the wall before him for eighty days and eighty nights, before they tried him. And then--not till then--would his punishment for that moment's blind revenge for grievous wrong begin! What on this earth of God's was more disproportioned, and wickedly extravagant, more crassly stupid, than the arrangements of his most perfect creature, man? What a devil was man, who could yet rise to such sublime heights of love and heroism! What a ferocious brute, the most ferocious and cold-blooded brute that lived! Of all creatures most to be stampeded by fear into a callous torturer! 'Fear'--thought Felix--'fear! Not momentary panic, such as makes our brother animals do foolish things; conscious, calculating fear, paralyzing the reason of our minds and the generosity of our hearts. A detestable thing Tryst has done, a hateful act; but his punishment will be twentyfold as hateful!'
And, unable to sit and think of it, Felix rose and walked on through the fields....
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