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He was duly at Transham station in time for the London train, and, after a minute consecrated to looking in the wrong direction, he saw his mother already on the platform with her bag, an air-cushion, and a beautifully neat roll.
'Travelling third!' he thought. 'Why will she do these things?'
Slightly flushed, she kissed Felix with an air of abstraction.
"How good of you to meet me, darling!"
Felix pointed in silence to the crowded carriage from which she had emerged. Frances Freeland looked a little rueful. "It would have been delightful," she said. "There was a dear baby there and, of course, I couldn't have the window down, so it WAS rather hot."
Felix, who could just see the dear baby, said dryly:
"So that's how you go about, is it? Have you had any lunch?"
Frances Freeland put her hand under his arm. "Now, don't fuss, darling! Here's sixpence for the porter. There's only one trunk--it's got a violet label. Do you know them? They're so useful. You see them at once. I must get you some."
"Let me take those things. You won't want this cushion. I'll let the air out."
"I'm afraid you won't be able, dear. It's quite the best screw I've ever come across--a splendid thing; I can't get it undone."
"Ah!" said Felix. "And now we may as well go out to the car!"
He was conscious of a slight stoppage in his mother's footsteps and rather a convulsive squeeze of her hand on his arm. Looking at her face, he discovered it occupied with a process whose secret he could not penetrate, a kind of disarray of her features, rapidly and severely checked, and capped with a resolute smile. They had already reached the station exit, where Stanley's car was snorting. Frances Freeland looked at it, then, mounting rather hastily, sat, compressing her lips.
When they were off, Felix said:
"Would you like to stop at the church and have a look at the brasses to your grandfather and the rest of them?"
His mother, who had slipped her hand under his arm again, answered:
"No, dear; I've seen them. The church is not at all beautiful. I like the old church at Becket so much better; it is such a pity your great-grandfather was not buried there."
She had never quite got over the lack of 'niceness' about those ploughs.
Going, as was the habit of Stanley's car, at considerable speed, Felix was not at first certain whether the peculiar little squeezes his arm was getting were due to the bounds of the creature under them or to some cause more closely connected with his mother, and it was not till they shaved a cart at the turning of the Becket drive that it suddenly dawned on him that she was in terror. He discovered it in looking round just as she drew her smile over a spasm of her face and throat. And, leaning out of the car, he said:
"Drive very slowly, Batter; I want to look at the trees."
A little sigh rewarded him. Since SHE had said nothing, He said nothing, and Clara's words in the hall seemed to him singularly tactless:
"Oh! I meant to have reminded you, Felix, to send the car back and take a fly. I thought you knew that Mother's terrified of motors." And at his mother's answer:
"Oh! no; I quite enjoyed it, dear," he thought: 'Bless her heart! She IS a stoic!'
Whether or no to tell her of the 'kick-up at Joyfields' exercised his mind. The question was intricate, for she had not yet been informed that Nedda and Derek were engaged, and Felix did not feel at liberty to forestall the young people. That was their business. On the other hand, she would certainly glean from Clara a garbled understanding of the recent events at Joyfields, if she were not first told of them by himself. And he decided to tell her, with the natural trepidation of one who, living among principles and theories, never quite knew what those, for whom each fact is unrelated to anything else under the moon, were going to think. Frances Freeland, he knew well, kept facts and theories especially unrelated, or, rather, modified her facts to suit her theories, instead of, like Felix, her theories to suit her facts. For example, her instinctive admiration for Church and State, her instinctive theory that they rested on gentility and people who were nice, was never for a moment shaken when she saw a half-starved baby of the slums. Her heart would impel her to pity and feed the poor little baby if she could, but to correlate the creature with millions of other such babies, and those millions with the Church and State, would not occur to her. And if Felix made an attempt to correlate them for her she would look at him and think: 'Dear boy! How good he is! I do wish he wouldn't let that line come in his forehead; it does so spoil it!' And she would say: "Yes, darling, I know, it's very sad; only I'm NOT clever." And, if a Liberal government chanced to be in power, would add: "Of course, I do think this Government is dreadful. I MUST show you a sermon of the dear Bishop of Walham. I cut it out of the 'Daily Mystery.' He puts things so well--he always has such nice ideas."
And Felix, getting up, would walk a little and sit down again too suddenly. Then, as if entreating him to look over her want of 'cleverness,' she would put out a hand that, for all its whiteness, had never been idle and smooth his forehead. It had sometimes touched him horribly to see with what despair she made attempts to follow him in his correlating efforts, and with what relief she heard him cease enough to let her say: "Yes, dear; only, I must show you this new kind of expanding cork. It's simply splendid. It bottles up everything!" And after staring at her just a moment he would acquit her of irony. Very often after these occasions he had thought, and sometimes said: "Mother, you're the best Conservative I ever met." She would glance at him then, with a special loving doubtfulness, at a loss as to whether or no he had designed to compliment her.
When he had given her half an hour to rest he made his way to the blue corridor, where a certain room was always kept for her, who never occupied it long enough at a time to get tired of it. She was lying on a sofa in a loose gray cashmere gown. The windows were open, and the light breeze just moved in the folds of the chintz curtains and stirred perfume from a bowl of pinks--her favorite flowers. There was no bed in this bedroom, which in all respects differed from any other in Clara's house, as though the spirit of another age and temper had marched in and dispossessed the owner. Felix had a sensation that one was by no means all body here. On the contrary. There was not a trace of the body anywhere; as if some one had decided that the body was not quite nice. No bed, no wash-stand, no chest of drawers, no wardrobe, no mirror, not even a jar of Clara's special pot-pourri. And Felix said:
"This can't be your bedroom, Mother?"
Frances Freeland answered, with a touch of deprecating quizzicality:
"Oh yes, darling. I must show you my arrangements." And she rose. "This," she said, "you see, goes under there, and that under here; and that again goes under this. Then they all go under that, and then I pull this. It's lovely."
"But why?" said Felix.
"Oh! but don't you see? It's so nice; nobody can tell. And it doesn't give any trouble."
"And when you go to bed?"
"Oh! I just pop my clothes into this and open that. And there I am. It's simply splendid."
"I see," said Felix. "Do you think I might sit down, or shall I go through?"
Frances Freeland loved him with her eyes, and said:
And Felix sat down on what appeared to be a window-seat.
"Well," he said, with slight uneasiness, for she was hovering, "I think you're wonderful."
Frances Freeland put away an impeachment that she evidently felt to be too soft.
"Oh! but it's all so simple, darling." And Felix saw that she had something in her hand, and mind.
"This is my little electric brush. It'll do wonders with your hair. While you sit there, I'll just try it."
A clicking and a whirring had begun to occur close to his ear, and something darted like a gadfly at his scalp.
"I came to tell you something serious, Mother."
"Yes, darling; it'll be simply lovely to hear it; and you mustn't mind this, because it really is a first-rate thing--quite new."
Now, how is it, thought Felix, that any one who loves the new as she does, when it's made of matter, will not even look at it when it's made of mind? And, while the little machine buzzed about his head, he proceeded to detail to her the facts of the state of things that existed at Joyfields.
When he had finished, she said:
"Now, darling, bend down a little."
Felix bent down. And the little machine began severely tweaking the hairs on the nape of his neck. He sat up again rather suddenly.
Frances Freeland was contemplating the little machine.
"How very provoking! It's never done that before!"
"Quite so!" Felix murmured. "But about Joyfields?"
"Oh, my dear, it IS such a pity they don't get on with those Mallorings! I do think it sad they weren't brought up to go to church."
Felix stared, not knowing whether to be glad or sorry that his recital had not roused within her the faintest suspicion of disaster. How he envied her that single-minded power of not seeing further than was absolutely needful! And suddenly he thought: 'She really is wonderful! With her love of church, how it must hurt her that we none of us go, not even John! And yet she never says a word. There really is width about her; a power of accepting the inevitable. Never was woman more determined to make the best of a bad job. It's a great quality!' And he heard her say:
"Now, darling, if I give you this, you must promise me to use it every morning. You'll find you'll soon have a splendid crop of little young hairs."
"I know," he said gloomily; "but they won't come to anything. Age has got my head, Mother, just as it's got 'the Land's.'"
"Oh, nonsense! You must go on with it, that's all!"
Felix turned so that he could look at her. She was moving round the room now, meticulously adjusting the framed photographs of her family that were the only decoration of the walls. How formal, chiselled, and delicate her face, yet how almost fanatically decisive! How frail and light her figure, yet how indomitably active! And the memory assailed him of how, four years ago, she had defeated double pneumonia without having a doctor, simply by lying on her back. 'She leaves trouble,' he thought, 'until it's under her nose, then simply tells it that it isn't there. There's something very English about that.'
She was chasing a bluebottle now with a little fan made of wire, and, coming close to Felix, said:
"Have you seen these, darling? You've only to hit the fly and it kills him at once."
"But do you ever hit the fly?"
"Oh, yes!" And she waved the fan at the bluebottle, which avoided it without seeming difficulty.
"I can't bear hurting them, but I DON'T like flies. There!"
The bluebottle flew out of the window behind Felix and in at the one that was not behind him. He rose.
"You ought to rest before tea, Mother."
He felt her searching him with her eyes, as if trying desperately to find something she might bestow upon or do for him.
"Would you like this wire--"
With a feeling that he was defrauding love, he turned and fled. She would never rest while he was there! And yet there was that in her face which made him feel a brute to go.
Passing out of the house, sunk in its Monday hush, no vestige of a Bigwig left, Felix came to that new-walled mound where the old house of the Moretons had been burned 'by soldiers from Tewkesbury and Gloucester,' as said the old chronicles dear to the heart of Clara. And on the wall he sat him down. Above, in the uncut grass, he could see the burning blue of a peacock's breast, where the heraldic bird stood digesting grain in the repose of perfect breeding, and below him gardeners were busy with the gooseberries. 'Gardeners and the gooseberries of the great!' he thought. 'Such is the future of our Land.' And he watched them. How methodically they went to work! How patient and well-done-for they looked! After all, was it not the ideal future? Gardeners, gooseberries, and the great! Each of the three content in that station of life into which--! What more could a country want? Gardeners, gooseberries, and the great! The phrase had a certain hypnotic value. Why trouble? Why fuss? Gardeners, gooseberries, and the great! A perfect land! A land dedicate to the week-end! Gardeners, goose--! And suddenly he saw that he was not alone. Half hidden by the angle of the wall, on a stone of the foundations, carefully preserved and nearly embedded in the nettles which Clara had allowed to grow because they added age to the appearance, was sitting a Bigwig. One of the Settleham faction, he had impressed Felix alike by his reticence, the steady sincerity of his gray eyes, a countenance that, beneath a simple and delicate urbanity, had still in it something of the best type of schoolboy. 'How comes he to have stayed?' he mused. 'I thought they always fed and scattered!' And having received an answer to his salutation, he moved across and said:
"I imagined you'd gone."
"I've been having a look round. It's very jolly here. My affections are in the North, but I suppose this is pretty well the heart of England."
"Near 'the big song,'" Felix answered. "There'll never be anything more English than Shakespeare, when all's said and done." And he took a steady, sidelong squint at his companion. 'This is another of the types I've been looking for,' he reflected. The peculiar 'don't-quite-touch-me' accent of the aristocrat--and of those who would be--had almost left this particular one, as though he secretly aspired to rise superior and only employed it in the nervousness of his first greetings. 'Yes,' thought Felix, 'he's just about the very best we can do among those who sit upon 'the Land.' I would wager there's not a better landlord nor a better fellow in all his class, than this one. He's chalks away superior to Malloring, if I know anything of faces--would never have turned poor Tryst out. If this exception were the rule! And yet--! Does he, can he, go quite far enough to meet the case? If not--what hope of regeneration from above? Would he give up his shooting? Could he give up feeling he's a leader? Would he give up his town house and collecting whatever it is he collects? Could he let himself sink down and merge till he was just unseen leaven of good-fellowship and good-will, working in the common bread?' And squinting at that sincere, clean, charming, almost fine face, he answered himself unwillingly: 'He could not!' And suddenly he knew that he was face to face with the tremendous question which soon or late confronts all thinkers. Sitting beside him--was the highest product of the present system! With its charm, humanity, courage, chivalry up to a point, its culture, and its cleanliness, this decidedly rare flower at the end of a tall stalk, with dark and tortuous roots and rank foliage, was in a sense the sole justification of power wielded from above. And was it good enough? Was it quite good enough? Like so many other thinkers, Felix hesitated to reply. If only merit and the goods of this world could be finally divorced! If the reward of virtue were just men's love and an unconscious self-respect! If only 'to have nothing' were the highest honour! And yet, to do away with this beside him and put in its place--What? No kiss-me-quick change had a chance of producing anything better. To scrap the long growth of man and start afresh was but to say: 'Since in the past the best that man has done has not been good enough, I have a perfect faith in him for the future!' No! That was a creed for archangels and other extremists. Safer to work on what we had! And he began:
"Next door to this estate I'm told there's ten thousand acres almost entirely grass and covert, owned by Lord Baltimore, who lives in Norfolk, London, Cannes, and anywhere else that the whim takes him. He comes down here twice a year to shoot. The case is extremely common. Surely it spells paralysis. If land is to be owned at all in such great lumps, owners ought at least to live on the lumps, and to pass very high examinations as practical farmers. They ought to be the life and soul, the radiating sun, of their little universes; or else they ought to be cleared out. How expect keen farming to start from such an example? It really looks to me as if the game laws would have to go." And he redoubled his scrutiny of the Bigwig's face. A little furrow in its brow had deepened visibly, but nodding, he said:
"The absentee landlord is a curse, of course. I'm afraid I'm a bit of a one myself. And I'm bound to say--though I'm keen on shooting--if the game laws were abolished, it might do a lot."
"YOU wouldn't move in that direction, I suppose?"
The Bigwig smiled--charming, rather whimsical, that smile.
"Honestly, I'm not up to it. The spirit, you know, but the flesh--! My line is housing and wages, of course."
'There it is,' thought Felix. 'Up to a point, they'll move--not up to THE point. It's all fiddling. One won't give up his shooting; another won't give up his power; a third won't give up her week-ends; a fourth won't give up his freedom. Our interest in the thing is all lackadaisical, a kind of bun-fight of pet notions. There's no real steam.' And abruptly changing the subject, he talked of pictures to the pleasant Bigwig in the sleepy afternoon. Of how this man could paint, and that man couldn't. And in the uncut grass the peacock slowly moved, displaying his breast of burning blue; and below, the gardeners worked among the gooseberries.
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