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Chapter 26

Nedda, borrowing the bicycle of Clara's maid, Sirrett, had been over to Joyfields, and only learned on her return of her grandmother's arrival. In her bath before dinner there came to her one of those strategic thoughts that even such as are no longer quite children will sometimes conceive. She hurried desperately into her clothes, and, ready full twenty minutes before the gong was due to sound, made her way to her grandmother's room. Frances Freeland had just pulled THIS, and, to her astonishment, THAT had not gone in properly. She was looking at it somewhat severely, when she heard Nedda's knock. Drawing a screen temporarily over the imperfection, she said: "Come in!"

The dear child looked charming in her white evening dress with one red flower in her hair; and while she kissed her, she noted that the neck of her dress was just a little too open to be quite nice, and at once thought: 'I've got the very thing for that.'

Going to a drawer that no one could have suspected of being there, she took from it a little diamond star. Getting delicate but firm hold of the Mechlin at the top of the frock, she popped it in, so that the neck was covered at least an inch higher, and said:

"Now, ducky, you're to keep that as a little present. You've no idea how perfectly it suits you just like this." And having satisfied for the moment her sense of niceness and that continual itch to part with everything she had, she surveyed her granddaughter, lighted up by that red flower, and said:

"How sweet you look!"

Nedda, looking down past cheeks colored by pleasure at the new little star on a neck rather browned by her day in the sun, murmured:

"Oh, Granny! it's much too lovely! You mustn't give it to me!"

These were moments that Frances Freeland loved best in life; and, with the untruthfulness in which she only indulged when she gave things away, or otherwise benefited her neighbors with or without their will, she added: "It's quite wasted; I never wear it myself." And, seeing Nedda's smile, for the girl recollected perfectly having admired it during dinner at Uncle John's, and at Becket itself, she said decisively, "So that's that!" and settled her down on the sofa. But just as she was thinking, 'I have the very thing for the dear child's sunburn,' Nedda said: "Granny, dear, I've been meaning to tell you--Derek and I are engaged."

For the moment Frances Freeland could do nothing but tremulously interlace her fingers.

"Oh, but, darling," she said very gravely, "have you thought?"

"I think of nothing else, Granny."

"But has he thought?"

Nedda nodded.

Frances Freeland sat staring straight before her. Nedda and Derek, Derek and Nedda! The news was almost unintelligible; those two were still for her barely more than little creatures to be tucked up at night. Engaged! Marriage! Between those who were both as near to her, almost, as her own children had been! The effort was for the moment quite too much for her, and a sort of pain disturbed her heart. Then the crowning principle of her existence came a little to her aid. No use in making a fuss; must put the best face on it, whether it were going to come to anything or not! And she said:

"Well, darling, I don't know, I'm sure. I dare say it's very lovely for you. But do you think you've seen enough of him?"

Nedda gave her a swift look, then dropped her lashes, so that her eyes seemed closed. Snuggling up, she said:

"No, Granny, I do wish I could see more; if only I could go and stay with them a little!"

And as she planted that dart of suggestion, the gong sounded.

In Frances Freeland, lying awake till two, as was her habit, the suggestion grew. To this growth not only her custom of putting the best face on things, but her incurable desire to make others happy, and an instinctive sympathy with love-affairs, all contributed; moreover, Felix had said something about Derek's having been concerned in something rash. If darling Nedda were there it would occupy his mind and help to make him careful. Never dilatory in forming resolutions, she decided to take the girl over with her on the morrow. Kirsteen had a dear little spare room, and Nedda should take her bag. It would be a nice surprise for them all. Accordingly, next morning, not wanting to give any trouble, she sent Thomas down to the Red Lion, where they had a comfortable fly, with a very steady, respectable driver, and ordered it to come at half past two. Then, without saying anything to Clara, she told Nedda to be ready to pop in her bag, trusting to her powers of explaining everything to everybody without letting anybody know anything. Little difficulties of this sort never bunkered her; she was essentially a woman of action. And on the drive to Joyfields she stilled the girl's quavering with:

"It's all right, darling; it'll be very nice for them."

She was perhaps the only person in the world who was not just a little bit afraid of Kirsteen. Indeed, she was constitutionally unable to be afraid of anything, except motor-cars, and, of course, earwigs, and even them one must put up with. Her critical sense told her that this woman in blue was just like anybody else, besides her father had been the colonel of a Highland regiment, which was quite nice, and one must put the best face on her.

In this way, pointing out the beauty of each feature of the scenery, and not permitting herself or Nedda to think about the bag, they drove until they came to Joyfields.

Kirsteen alone was in, and, having sent Nedda into the orchard to look for her uncle, Frances Freeland came at once to the point. It was so important, she thought, that darling Nedda should see more of dear Derek. They were very young, and if she could stay for a few weeks, they would both know their minds so much better. She had made her bring her bag, because she knew dear Kirsteen would agree with her; and it would be so nice for them all. Felix had told her about that poor man who had done this dreadful thing, and she thought that if Nedda were here it would be a distraction. She was a very good child, and quite useful in the house. And while she was speaking she watched Kirsteen, and thought: 'She is very handsome, and altogether ladylike; only it is such a pity she wears that blue thing in her hair--it makes her so conspicuous.' And rather unexpectedly she said:

"Do you know, dear, I believe I know the very thing to keep your hair from getting loose. It's such lovely hair. And this is quite a new thing, and doesn't show at all; invented by a very nice hairdresser in Worcester. It's simplicity itself. Do let me show you!" Quickly going over, she removed the kingfisher-blue fillet, and making certain passes with her fingers through the hair, murmured:

"It's so beautifully fine; it seems such a pity not to show it all, dear. Now look at yourself!" And from the recesses of her pocket she produced a little mirror. "I'm sure Tod will simply love it like that. It'll be such a nice change for him."

Kirsteen, with just a faint wrinkling of her lips and eyebrows, waited till she had finished. Then she said:

"Yes, Mother, dear, I'm sure he will," and replaced the fillet. A patient, half-sad, half-quizzical smile visited Frances Freeland's lips, as who should say: 'Yes, I know you think that I'm a fuss-box, but it really is a pity that you wear it so, darling!'

At sight of that smile, Kirsteen got up and kissed her gravely on the forehead.

When Nedda came back from a fruitless search for Tod, her bag was already in the little spare bedroom and Frances Freeland gone. The girl had never yet been alone with her aunt, for whom she had a fervent admiration not unmixed with awe. She idealized her, of course, thinking of her as one might think of a picture or statue, a symbolic figure, standing for liberty and justice and the redress of wrong. Her never-varying garb of blue assisted the girl's fancy, for blue was always the color of ideals and aspiration--was not blue sky the nearest one could get to heaven--were not blue violets the flowers of spring? Then, too, Kirsteen was a woman with whom it would be quite impossible to gossip or small-talk; with her one could but simply and directly say what one felt, and only that over things which really mattered. And this seemed to Nedda so splendid that it sufficed in itself to prevent the girl from saying anything whatever. She longed to, all the same, feeling that to be closer to her aunt meant to be closer to Derek. Yet, with all, she knew that her own nature was very different; this, perhaps, egged her on, and made her aunt seem all the more exciting. She waited breathless till Kirsteen said:

"Yes, you and Derek must know each other better. The worst kind of prison in the world is a mistaken marriage."

Nedda nodded fervently. "It must be. But I think one knows, Aunt Kirsteen!"

She felt as if she were being searched right down to the soul before the answer came:

"Perhaps. I knew myself. I have seen others who did--a few. I think you might."

Nedda flushed from sheer joy. "I could never go on if I didn't love. I feel I couldn't, even if I'd started."

With another long look through narrowing eyes, Kirsteen answered:

"Yes. You would want truth. But after marriage truth is an unhappy thing, Nedda, if you have made a mistake."

"It must be dreadful. Awful."

"So don't make a mistake, my dear--and don't let him."

Nedda answered solemnly:

"I won't--oh, I won't!"

Kirsteen had turned away to the window, and Nedda heard her say quietly to herself:

"'Liberty's a glorious feast!'"

Trembling all over with the desire to express what was in her, Nedda stammered:

"I would never keep anything that wanted to be free--never, never! I would never try to make any one do what they didn't want to!"

She saw her aunt smile, and wondered whether she had said anything exceptionally foolish. But it was not foolish--surely not--to say what one really felt.

"Some day, Nedda, all the world will say that with you. Until then we'll fight those who won't say it. Have you got everything in your room you want? Let's come and see."

To pass from Becket to Joyfields was really a singular experience. At Becket you were certainly supposed to do exactly what you liked, but the tyranny of meals, baths, scents, and other accompaniments of the 'all-body' regime soon annihilated every impulse to do anything but just obey it. At Joyfields, bodily existence was a kind of perpetual skirmish, a sort of grudged accompaniment to a state of soul. You might be alone in the house at any meal-time. You might or might not have water in your jug. And as to baths, you had to go out to a little white-washed shed at the back, with a brick floor, where you pumped on yourself, prepared to shout out, "Halloo! I'm here!" in case any one else came wanting to do the same. The conditions were in fact almost perfect for seeing more of one another. Nobody asked where you were going, with whom going, or how going. You might be away by day or night without exciting curiosity or comment. And yet you were conscious of a certain something always there, holding the house together; some principle of life, or perhaps--just a woman in blue. There, too, was that strangest of all phenomena in an English home--no game ever played, outdoors or in.

The next fortnight, while the grass was ripening, was a wonderful time for Nedda, given up to her single passion--of seeing more of him who so completely occupied her heart. She was at peace now with Sheila, whose virility forbade that she should dispute pride of place with this soft and truthful guest, so evidently immersed in rapture. Besides, Nedda had that quality of getting on well with her own sex, found in those women who, though tenacious, are not possessive; who, though humble, are secretly very self-respecting; who, though they do not say much about it, put all their eggs in one basket; above all, who disengage, no matter what their age, a candid but subtle charm.

But that fortnight was even more wonderful for Derek, caught between two passions--both so fervid. For though the passion of his revolt against the Mallorings did not pull against his passion for Nedda, they both tugged at him. And this had one curious psychological effect. It made his love for Nedda more actual, less of an idealization. Now that she was close to him, under the same roof, he felt the full allurement of her innocent warmth; he would have been cold-blooded indeed if he had not taken fire, and, his pride always checking the expression of his feelings, they glowed ever hotter underneath.

Yet, over those sunshiny days there hung a shadow, as of something kept back, not shared between them; a kind of waiting menace. Nedda learned of Kirsteen and Sheila all the useful things she could; the evenings she passed with Derek, those long evenings of late May and early June, this year so warm and golden. They walked generally in the direction of the hills. A favorite spot was a wood of larches whose green shoots had not yet quite ceased to smell of lemons. Tall, slender things those trees, whose stems and dried lower branch-growth were gray, almost sooty, up to the feathery green of the tops, that swayed and creaked faintly in a wind, with a soughing of their branches like the sound of the sea. From the shelter of those Highland trees, rather strange in such a countryside, they two could peer forth at the last sunlight gold-powdering the fringed branches, at the sunset flush dyeing the sky above the Beacon; watch light slowly folding gray wings above the hay-fields and the elms; mark the squirrels scurry along, and the pigeons' evening flight. A stream ran there at the edge, and beech-trees grew beside it. In the tawny-dappled sand bed of that clear water, and the gray-green dappled trunks of those beeches with their great, sinuous, long-muscled roots, was that something which man can never tame or garden out of the land: the strength of unconquerable fertility--the remote deep life in Nature's heart. Men and women had their spans of existence; those trees seemed as if there forever! From generation to generation lovers might come and, looking on this strength and beauty, feel in their veins the sap of the world. Here the laborer and his master, hearing the wind in the branches and the water murmuring down, might for a brief minute grasp the land's unchangeable wild majesty. And on the far side of that little stream was a field of moon-colored flowers that had for Nedda a strange fascination. Once the boy jumped across and brought her back a handkerchief full. They were of two kinds: close to the water's edge the marsh orchis, and farther back, a small marguerite. Out of this they made a crown of the alternate flowers, and a girdle for her waist. That was an evening of rare beauty, and warm enough already for an early chafer to go blooming in the dusk. An evening when they wandered with their arms round each other a long time, silent, stopping to listen to an owl; stopping to point out each star coming so shyly up in the gray-violet of the sky. And that was the evening when they had a strange little quarrel, sudden as a white squall on a blue sea, or the tiff of two birds shooting up in a swift spiral of attack and then--all over. Would he come to-morrow to see her milking? He could not. Why? He could not; he would be out. Ah! he never told her where he went; he never let her come with him among the laborers like Sheila.

"I can't; I'm pledged not."

"Then you don't trust me!"

"Of course I trust you; but a promise is a promise. You oughtn't to ask me, Nedda."

"No; but I would never have promised to keep anything from you."

"You don't understand."

"Oh! yes, I do. Love doesn't mean the same to you that it does to me."

"How do you know what it means to me?"

"I couldn't have a secret from you."

"Then you don't count honour."

"Honour only binds oneself!"

"What d'you mean by that?"

"I include you--you don't include me in yourself, that's all."

"I think you're very unjust. I was obliged to promise; it doesn't only concern myself."

Then silent, motionless, a yard apart, they looked fiercely at each other, their hearts stiff and sore, and in their brains no glimmer of perception of anything but tragedy. What more tragic than to have come out of an elysium of warm arms round each other, to this sudden hostility! And the owl went on hooting, and the larches smelled sweet! And all around was the same soft dusk wherein the flowers in her hair and round her waist gleamed white! But for Nedda the world had suddenly collapsed. Tears rushed into her eyes; she shook her head and turned away, hiding them passionately.... A full minute passed, each straining to make no sound and catch the faintest sound from the other, till in her breathing there was a little clutch. His fingers came stealing round, touched her cheeks, and were wetted. His arms suddenly squeezed all breath out of her; his lips fastened on hers. She answered those lips with her own desperately, bending her head back, shutting her wet eyes. And the owl hooted, and the white flowers fell into the dusk off her hair and waist.

After that, they walked once more enlaced, avoiding with what perfect care any allusion to the sudden tragedy, giving themselves up to the bewildering ecstasy that had started throbbing in their blood with that kiss, longing only not to spoil it. And through the sheltering larch wood their figures moved from edge to edge, like two little souls in paradise, unwilling to come forth.

After that evening love had a poignancy it had not quite had before; at once deeper, sweeter, tinged for both of them with the rich darkness of passion, and with discovery that love does not mean a perfect merger of one within another. For both felt themselves in the right over that little quarrel. The boy that he could not, must not, resign what was not his to resign; feeling dimly, without being quite able to shape the thought even to himself, that a man has a life of action into which a woman cannot always enter, with which she cannot always be identified. The girl feeling that she did not want any life into which he did not enter, so that it was hard that he should want to exclude her from anything. For all that, she did not try again to move him to let her into the secret of his plans of revolt and revenge, and disdained completely to find them out from Sheila or her aunt.

And the grass went on ripening. Many and various as the breeds of men, or the trees of a forest, were the stalks that made up that greenish jungle with the waving, fawn-colored surface; of rye-grass and brome-grass, of timothy, plantain, and yarrow; of bent-grass and quake-grass, foxtail, and the green-hearted trefoil; of dandelion, dock, musk-thistle, and sweet-scented vernal.

On the 10th of June Tod began cutting his three fields; the whole family, with Nedda and the three Tryst children, working like slaves. Old Gaunt, who looked to the harvests to clothe him for the year, came to do his share of raking, and any other who could find some evening hours to spare. The whole was cut and carried in three days of glorious weather.

The lovers were too tired the last evening of hay harvest to go rambling, and sat in the orchard watching the moon slide up through the coppice behind the church. They sat on Tod's log, deliciously weary, in the scent of the new-mown hay, while moths flitted gray among the blue darkness of the leaves, and the whitened trunks of the apple-trees gleamed ghostly. It was very warm; a night of whispering air, opening all hearts. And Derek said:

"You'll know to-morrow, Nedda."

A flutter of fear overtook her. What would she know?

John Galsworthy