Chapter 28




For the first two days of this new 'kick-up,' that 'fellow Freeland's' family undoubtedly tasted the sweets of successful mutiny. The fellow himself alone shook his head. He, like Nedda, had known nothing, and there was to him something unnatural and rather awful in this conduct toward dumb crops.

From the moment he heard of it he hardly spoke, and a perpetual little frown creased a brow usually so serene. In the early morning of the day after Malloring went back to town, he crossed the road to a field where the farmer, aided by his family and one of Malloring's gardeners, was already carrying the hay; and, taking up a pitchfork, without a word to anybody, he joined in the work. The action was deeper revelation of his feeling than any expostulation, and the young people watched it rather aghast.

"It's nothing," Derek said at last; "Father never has understood, and never will, that you can't get things without fighting. He cares more for trees and bees and birds than he does for human beings."

"That doesn't explain why he goes over to the enemy, when it's only a lot of grass."

Kirsteen answered:

"He hasn't gone over to the enemy, Sheila. You don't understand your father; to neglect the land is sacrilege to him. It feeds us--he would say--we live on it; we've no business to forget that but for the land we should all be dead."

"That's beautiful," said Nedda quickly; "and true."

Sheila answered angrily:

"It may be true in France with their bread and wine. People don't live off the land here; they hardly eat anything they grow themselves. How can we feel like that when we're all brought up on mongrel food? Besides, it's simply sentimental, when there are real wrongs to fight about."

"Your father is not sentimental, Sheila. It's too deep with him for that, and too unconscious. He simply feels so unhappy about the waste of that hay that he can't keep his hands off it."

Derek broke in: "Mother's right. And it doesn't matter, except that we've got to see that the men don't follow his example. They've a funny feeling about him."

Kirsteen shook her head.

"You needn't be afraid. He's always been too strange to them!"

"Well, I'm going to stiffen their backs. Coming Sheila?" And they went.

Left, as she seemed always to be in these days of open mutiny, Nedda said sadly:

"What is coming, Aunt Kirsteen?"

Her aunt was standing in the porch, looking straight before her; a trail of clematis had drooped over her fine black hair down on to the blue of her linen dress. She answered, without turning:

"Have you ever seen, on jubilee nights, bonfire to bonfire, from hill to hill, to the end of the land? This is the first lighted."

Nedda felt something clutch her heart. What was that figure in blue? Priestess? Prophetess? And for a moment the girl felt herself swept into the vision those dark glowing eyes were seeing; some violent, exalted, inexorable, flaming vision. Then something within her revolted, as though one had tried to hypnotize her into seeing what was not true; as though she had been forced for the moment to look, not at what was really there, but at what those eyes saw projected from the soul behind them. And she said quietly:

"I don't believe, Aunt Kirsteen. I don't really believe. I think it must go out."

Kirsteen turned.

"You are like your father," she said--"a doubter."

Nedda shook her head.

"I can't persuade myself to see what isn't there. I never can, Aunt Kirsteen."

Without reply, save a quiver of her brows, Kirsteen went back into the house. And Nedda stayed on the pebbled path before the cottage, unhappy, searching her own soul. Did she fail to see because she was afraid to see, because she was too dull to see; or because, as she had said, there was really nothing there--no flames to leap from hill to hill, no lift, no tearing in the sky that hung over the land? And she thought: 'London--all those big towns, their smoke, the things they make, the things we want them to make, that we shall always want them to make. Aren't they there? For every laborer who's a slave Dad says there are five town workers who are just as much slaves! And all those Bigwigs with their great houses, and their talk, and their interest in keeping things where they are! Aren't they there? I don't--I can't believe anything much can happen, or be changed. Oh! I shall never see visions, and dream dreams!' And from her heart she sighed.

In the meantime Derek and Sheila were going their round on bicycles, to stiffen the backs of the laborers. They had hunted lately, always in a couple, desiring no complications, having decided that it was less likely to provoke definite assault and opposition from the farmers. To their mother was assigned all correspondence; to themselves the verbal exhortations, the personal touch. It was past noon, and they were already returning, when they came on the char-a-bancs containing the head of the strike-breaking column. The two vehicles were drawn up opposite the gate leading to Marrow Farm, and the agent was detaching the four men destined to that locality, with their camping-gear. By the open gate the farmer stood eying his new material askance. Dejected enough creatures they looked--poor devils picked up at ten pound the dozen, who, by the mingled apathy and sheepish amusement on their faces, might never have seen a pitchfork, or smelled a field of clover, in their lives.

The two young Freelands rode slowly past; the boy's face scornfully drawn back into itself; the girl's flaming scarlet.

"Don't take notice," Derek said; "we'll soon stop that."

And they had gone another mile before he added:

"We've got to make our round again; that's all."

The words of Mr. Pogram, 'You have influence, young man,' were just. There was about Derek the sort of quality that belongs to the good regimental officer; men followed and asked themselves why the devil they had, afterward. And if it be said that no worse leader than a fiery young fool can be desired for any movement, it may also be said that without youth and fire and folly there is usually no movement at all.

Late in the afternoon they returned home, dead beat. That evening the farmers and their wives milked the cows, tended the horses, did everything that must be done, not without curses. And next morning the men, with Gaunt and a big, dark fellow, called Tulley, for spokesmen, again proffered their demand. The agent took counsel with Malloring by wire. His answer, "Concede nothing," was communicated to the men in the afternoon, and received by Gaunt with the remark: "I thart we should be hearin' that. Please to thank Sir Gerald. The men concedes their gratitood...."

That night it began to rain. Nedda, waking, could hear the heavy drops pattering on the sweetbrier and clematis thatching her open window. The scent of rain-cooled leaves came in drifts, and it seemed a shame to sleep. She got up; put on her dressing-gown, and went to thrust her nose into that bath of dripping sweetness. Dark as the clouds had made the night, there was still the faint light of a moon somewhere behind. The leaves of the fruit-trees joined in the long, gentle hissing, and now and again rustled and sighed sharply; a cock somewhere, as by accident, let off a single crow. There were no stars. All was dark and soft as velvet. And Nedda thought: 'The world is dressed in living creatures! Trees, flowers, grass, insects, ourselves--woven together--the world is dressed in life! I understand Uncle Tod's feeling! If only it would rain till they have to send these strike-breakers back because there's no hay worth fighting about!' Suddenly her heart beat fast. The wicket gate had clicked. There was something darker than the darkness coming along the path! Scared, but with all protective instinct roused, she leaned out, straining to see. A faint grating sound from underneath came up to her. A window being opened! And she flew to her door. She neither barred it, however, nor cried out, for in that second it had flashed across her: 'Suppose it's he! Gone out to do something desperate, as Tryst did!' If it were, he would come up-stairs and pass her door, going to his room. She opened it an inch, holding her breath. At first, nothing! Was it fancy? Or was some one noiselessly rifling the room down-stairs? But surely no one would steal of Uncle Tod, who, everybody knew, had nothing valuable. Then came a sound as of bootless feet pressing the stairs stealthily! And the thought darted through her, 'If it isn't he, what shall I do?' And then--'What shall I do--if it IS!'

Desperately she opened the door, clasping her hands on the place whence her heart had slipped down to her bare feet. But she knew it was he before she heard him whisper: "Nedda!" and, clutching him by the sleeve, she drew him in and closed the door. He was wet through, dripping; so wet that the mere brushing against him made her skin feel moist through its thin coverings.

"Where have you been? What have you been doing? Oh, Derek!"

There was just light enough to see his face, his teeth, the whites of his eyes.

"Cutting their tent-ropes in the rain. Hooroosh!"

It was such a relief that she just let out a little gasping "Oh!" and leaned her forehead against his coat. Then she felt his wet arms round her, his wet body pressed to hers, and in a second he was dancing with her a sort of silent, ecstatic war dance. Suddenly he stopped, went down on his knees, pressing his face to her waist, and whispering: "What a brute, what a brute! Making her wet! Poor little Nedda!"

Nedda bent over him; her hair covered his wet head, her hands trembled on his shoulders. Her heart felt as if it would melt right out of her; she longed so to warm and dry him with herself. And, in turn, his wet arms clutched her close, his wet hands could not keep still on her. Then he drew back, and whispering: "Oh, Nedda! Nedda!" fled out like a dark ghost. Oblivious that she was damp from head to foot, Nedda stood swaying, her eyes closed and her lips just open; then, putting out her arms, she drew them suddenly in and clasped herself....

When she came down to breakfast the next morning, he had gone out already, and Uncle Tod, too; her aunt was writing at the bureau. Sheila greeted her gruffly, and almost at once went out. Nedda swallowed coffee, ate her egg, and bread and honey, with a heavy heart. A newspaper lay open on the table; she read it idly till these words caught her eye:

"The revolt which has paralyzed the hay harvest on Sir Gerald Malloring's Worcestershire estate and led to the introduction of strike-breakers, shows no sign of abatement. A very wanton spirit of mischief seems to be abroad in this neighborhood. No reason can be ascertained for the arson committed a short time back, nor for this further outbreak of discontent. The economic condition of the laborers on this estate is admittedly rather above than below the average."

And at once she thought: '"Mischief!" What a shame!' Were people, then, to know nothing of the real cause of the revolt--nothing of the Tryst eviction, the threatened eviction of the Gaunts? Were they not to know that it was on principle, and to protest against that sort of petty tyranny to the laborers all over the country, that this rebellion had been started? For liberty! only simple liberty not to be treated as though they had no minds or souls of their own--weren't the public to know that? If they were allowed to think that it was all wanton mischief--that Derek was just a mischief-maker--it would be dreadful! Some one must write and make this known? Her father? But Dad might think it too personal--his own relations! Mr. Cuthcott! Into whose household Wilmet Gaunt had gone. Ah! Mr. Cuthcott who had told her that he was always at her service! Why not? And the thought that she might really do something at last to help made her tingle all over. If she borrowed Sheila's bicycle she could catch the nine-o'clock train to London, see him herself, make him do something, perhaps even bring him back with her! She examined her purse. Yes, she had money. She would say nothing, here, because, of course, he might refuse! At the back of her mind was the idea that, if a real newspaper took the part of the laborers, Derek's position would no longer be so dangerous; he would be, as it were, legally recognized, and that, in itself, would make him more careful and responsible. Whence she got this belief in the legalizing power of the press it is difficult to say, unless that, reading newspapers but seldom, she still took them at their own valuation, and thought that when they said: "We shall do this," or "We must do that," they really were speaking for the country, and that forty-five millions of people were deliberately going to do something, whereas, in truth, as was known to those older than Nedda, they were speaking, and not too conclusively at that, for single anonymous gentlemen in a hurry who were not going to do anything. She knew that the press had power, great power--for she was always hearing that--and it had not occurred to her as yet to examine the composition of that power so as to discover that, while the press certainly had a certain monopoly of expression, and that same 'spirit of body' which makes police constables swear by one another, it yet contained within its ring fence the sane and advisable futility of a perfectly balanced contradiction; so that its only functions, practically speaking, were the dissemination of news, seven-tenths of which would have been happier in obscurity; and--'irritation of the Dutch!' Not, of course, that the press realized this; nor was it probable that any one would tell it, for it had power--great power.

She caught her train--glowing outwardly from the speed of her ride, and inwardly from the heat of adventure and the thought that at last she was being of some use.

The only other occupants of her third-class compartment were a friendly looking man, who might have been a sailor or other wanderer on leave, and his thin, dried-up, black-clothed cottage woman of an old mother. They sat opposite each other. The son looked at his mother with beaming eyes, and she remarked: "An' I says to him, says I, I says, 'What?' I says; so 'e says to me, he says, 'Yes,' he says; 'that's what I say,' he says." And Nedda thought: 'What an old dear! And the son looks nice too; I do like simple people.'

They got out at the first stop and she journeyed on alone. Taking a taxicab from Paddington, she drove toward Gray's Inn. But now that she was getting close she felt very nervous. How expect a busy man like Mr. Cuthcott to spare time to come down all that way? It would be something, though, if she could get him even to understand what was really happening, and why; so that he could contradict that man in the other paper. It must be wonderful to be writing, daily, what thousands and thousands of people read! Yes! It must be a very sacred-feeling life! To be able to say things in that particularly authoritative way which must take such a lot of people in--that is, make such a lot of people think in the same way! It must give a man a terrible sense of responsibility, make him feel that he simply must be noble, even if he naturally wasn't. Yes! it must be a wonderful profession, and only fit for the highest! In addition to Mr. Cuthcott, she knew as yet but three young journalists, and those all weekly.

At her timid ring the door was opened by a broad-cheeked girl, enticingly compact in apron and black frock, whose bright color, thick lips, and rogue eyes came of anything but London. It flashed across Nedda that this must be the girl for whose sake she had faced Mr. Cuthcott at the luncheon-table! And she said: "Are you Wilmet Gaunt?"

The girl smiled till her eyes almost disappeared, and answered: "Yes, miss."

"I'm Nedda Freeland, Miss Sheila's cousin. I've just come from Joyfields. How are you getting on?"

"Fine, thank you, miss. Plenty of life here."

Nedda thought: 'That's what Derek said of her. Bursting with life! And so she is.' And she gazed doubtfully at the girl, whose prim black dress and apron seemed scarcely able to contain her.

"Is Mr. Cuthcott in?"

"No, miss; he'll be down at the paper. Two hundred and five Floodgate Street."

'Oh!' thought Nedda with dismay; 'I shall never venture there!' And glancing once more at the girl, whose rogue slits of eyes, deep sunk between check-bones and brow, seemed to be quizzing her and saying: 'You and Mr. Derek--oh! I know!' she went sadly away. And first she thought she would go home to Hampstead, then that she would go back to the station, then: 'After all, why shouldn't I go and try? They can't eat me. I will!'

She reached her destination at the luncheon-hour, so that the offices of the great evening journal were somewhat deserted. Producing her card, she was passed from hand to hand till she rested in a small bleak apartment where a young woman was typing fast. She longed to ask her how she liked it, but did not dare. The whole atmosphere seemed to her charged with a strenuous solemnity, as though everything said, 'We have power--great power.' And she waited, sitting by the window which faced the street. On the buildings opposite she could read the name of another great evening journal. Why, it was the one which had contained the paragraph she had read at breakfast! She had bought a copy of it at the station. Its temperament, she knew, was precisely opposed to that of Mr. Cuthcott's paper. Over in that building, no doubt there would be the same strenuously loaded atmosphere, so that if they opened the windows on both sides little puffs of power would meet in mid-air, above the heads of the passers-by, as might the broadsides of old three-deckers, above the green, green sea.

And for the first time an inkling of the great comic equipoise in Floodgate Street and human affairs stole on Nedda's consciousness. They puffed and puffed, and only made smoke in the middle! That must be why Dad always called them: 'Those fellows!' She had scarcely, however, finished beginning to think these thoughts when a handbell sounded sharply in some adjoining room, and the young woman nearly fell into her typewriter. Readjusting her balance, she rose, and, going to the door, passed out in haste. Through the open doorway Nedda could see a large and pleasant room, whose walls seemed covered with prints of men standing in attitudes such that she was almost sure they were statesmen; and, at a table in the centre, the back of Mr. Cuthcott in a twiddly chair, surrounded by sheets of paper reposing on the floor, shining like autumn leaves on a pool of water. She heard his voice, smothery, hurried, but still pleasant, say: "Take these, Miss Mayne, take these! Begin on them, begin! Confound it! What's the time?" And the young woman's voice: "Half past one, Mr. Cuthcott!" And a noise from Mr. Cuthcott's throat that sounded like an adjuration to the Deity not to pass over something. Then the young woman dipped and began gathering those leaves of paper, and over her comely back Nedda had a clear view of Mr. Cuthcott hunching one brown shoulder as though warding something off, and of one of his thin hands ploughing up and throwing back his brown hair on one side, and heard the sound of his furiously scratching pen. And her heart pattered; it was so clear that he was 'giving them one' and had no time for her. And involuntarily she looked at the windows beyond him to see if there were any puffs of power issuing therefrom. But they were closed. She saw the young woman rise and come back toward her, putting the sheets of paper in order; and, as the door was closing, from the twiddly chair a noise that seemed to couple God with the condemnation of silly souls. When the young woman was once more at the typewriter she rose and said: "Have you given him my card yet?"

The young woman looked at her surprised, as if she had broken some rule of etiquette, and answered: "No."

"Then don't, please. I can see that he's too busy. I won't wait."

The young woman abstractedly placed a sheet of paper in her typewriter.

"Very well," she said. "Good morning!"

And before Nedda reached the door she heard the click-click of the machine, reducing Mr. Cuthcott to legibility.

'I was stupid to come,' she thought. 'He must be terribly overworked. Poor man! He does say lovely things!' And, crestfallen, she went along the passages, and once more out into Floodgate Street. She walked along it frowning, till a man who was selling newspapers said as she passed: "Mind ye don't smile, lydy!"

Seeing that he was selling Mr. Cuthcott's paper, she felt for a coin to buy one, and, while searching, scrutinized the newsvender's figure, almost entirely hidden by the words:

GREAT HOUSING SCHEME

HOPE FOR THE MILLION!

on a buff-colored board; while above it, his face, that had not quite blood enough to be scorbutic, was wrapped in the expression of those philosophers to whom a hope would be fatal. He was, in fact, just what he looked--a street stoic. And a dim perception of the great social truth: "The smell of half a loaf is not better than no bread!" flickered in Nedda's brain as she passed on. Was that what Derek was doing with the laborers--giving them half the smell of a liberty that was not there? And a sudden craving for her father came over her. He--he only, was any good, because he, only, loved her enough to feel how distracted and unhappy she was feeling, how afraid of what was coming. So, making for a Tube station, she took train to Hampstead....

It was past two, and Felix, on the point of his constitutional. He had left Becket the day after Nedda's rather startling removal to Joyfields, and since then had done his level best to put the whole Tryst affair, with all its somewhat sinister relevance to her life and his own, out of his mind as something beyond control. He had but imperfectly succeeded.

Flora, herself not too present-minded, had in these days occasion to speak to him about the absent-minded way in which he fulfilled even the most domestic duties, and Alan was always saying to him, "Buck up, Dad!" With Nedda's absorption into the little Joyfields whirlpool, the sun shone but dimly for Felix. And a somewhat febrile attention to 'The Last of the Laborers' had not brought it up to his expectations. He fluttered under his buff waistcoat when he saw her coming in at the gate. She must want something of him! For to this pitch of resignation, as to his little daughter's love for him, had he come! And if she wanted something of him, things would be going wrong again down there! Nor did the warmth of her embrace, and her: "Oh! Dad, it IS nice to see you!" remove that instinctive conviction; though delicacy, born of love, forbade him to ask her what she wanted. Talking of the sky and other matters, thinking how pretty she was looking, he waited for the new, inevitable proof that youth was first, and a mere father only second fiddle now. A note from Stanley had already informed him of the strike. The news had been something of a relief. Strikes, at all events, were respectable and legitimate means of protest, and to hear that one was in progress had not forced him out of his laborious attempt to believe the whole affair only a mole-hill. He had not, however, heard of the strike-breakers, nor had he seen any newspaper mention of the matter; and when she had shown him the paragraph; recounted her visit to Mr. Cuthcott, and how she had wanted to take him back with her to see for himself--he waited a moment, then said almost timidly: "Should I be of any use, my dear?" She flushed and squeezed his hand in silence; and he knew he would.

When he had packed a handbag and left a note for Flora, he rejoined her in the hall.

It was past seven when they reached their destination, and, taking the station 'fly,' drove slowly up to Joyfields, under a showery sky.




Art of Worldly Wisdom Daily
In the 1600s, Balthasar Gracian, a jesuit priest wrote 300 aphorisms on living life called "The Art of Worldly Wisdom." Join our newsletter below and read them all, one at a time.
Email:
Sonnet-a-Day Newsletter
Shakespeare wrote over 150 sonnets! Join our Sonnet-A-Day Newsletter and read them all, one at a time.
Email: