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Chapter 29

When Felix and Nedda reached Tod's cottage, the three little Trysts, whose activity could never be quite called play, were all the living creatures about the house.

"Where is Mrs. Freeland, Biddy?"

"We don't know; a man came, and she went."

"And Miss Sheila?"

"She went out in the mornin'. And Mr. Freeland's gone."

Susie added: "The dog's gone, too."

"Then help me to get some tea."

"Yes."

With the assistance of the mother-child, and the hindrance of Susie and Billy, Nedda made and laid tea, with an anxious heart. The absence of her aunt, who so seldom went outside the cottage, fields, and orchard, disturbed her; and, while Felix refreshed himself, she fluttered several times on varying pretexts to the wicket gate.

At her third visit, from the direction of the church, she saw figures coming on the road--dark figures carrying something, followed by others walking alongside. What sun there had been had quite given in to heavy clouds; the light was dull, the elm-trees dark; and not till they were within two hundred yards could Nedda make out that these were figures of policemen. Then, alongside that which they were carrying, she saw her aunt's blue dress. WHAT were they carrying like that? She dashed down the steps, and stopped. No! If it were HE they would bring him in! She rushed back again, distracted. She could see now a form stretched on a hurdle. It WAS he!

"Dad! Quick!"

Felix came, startled at that cry, to find his little daughter on the path wringing her hands and flying back to the wicket gate. They were close now. She saw them begin to mount the steps, those behind raising their arms so that the hurdle should be level. Derek lay on his back, with head and forehead swathed in wet blue linen, torn from his mother's skirt; and the rest of his face very white. He lay quite still, his clothes covered with mud. Terrified, Nedda plucked at Kirsteen's sleeve.

"What is it?"

"Concussion!" The stillness of that blue-clothed figure, so calm beside her, gave her strength to say quietly:

"Put him in my room, Aunt Kirsteen; there's more air there!" And she flew up-stairs, flinging wide her door, making the bed ready, snatching her night things from the pillow; pouring out cold water, sprinkling the air with eau de cologne. Then she stood still. Perhaps, they would not bring him there? Yes, they were coming up. They brought him in, and laid him on the bed. She heard one say: "Doctor'll be here directly, ma'am. Let him lie quiet." Then she and his mother were alone beside him.

"Undo his boots," said Kirsteen.

Nedda's fingers trembled, and she hated them for fumbling so, while she drew off those muddy boots. Then her aunt said softly: "Hold him up, dear, while I get his things off."

And, with a strange rapture that she was allowed to hold him thus, she supported him against her breast till he was freed and lying back inert. Then, and only then, she whispered:

"How long before he--?"

Kirsteen shook her head; and, slipping her arm round the girl, murmured: "Courage, Nedda!"

The girl felt fear and love rush up desperately to overwhelm her. She choked them back, and said quite quietly: "I will. I promise. Only let me help nurse him!"

Kirsteen nodded. And they sat down to wait.

That quarter of an hour was the longest of her life. To see him thus, living, yet not living, with the spirit driven from him by a cruel blow, perhaps never to come back! Curious, how things still got themselves noticed when all her faculties were centred in gazing at his face. She knew that it was raining again; heard the swish and drip, and smelled the cool wet perfume through the scent of the eau de cologne that she had spilled. She noted her aunt's arm, as it hovered, wetting the bandage; the veins and rounded whiteness from under the loose blue sleeve slipped up to the elbow. One of his feet lay close to her at the bed's edge; she stole her hand beneath the sheet. That foot felt very cold, and she grasped it tight. If only she could pass life into him through her hot hand. She heard the ticking of her little travelling-clock, and was conscious of flies wheeling close up beneath the white ceiling, of how one by one they darted at each other, making swift zigzags in the air. And something in her she had not yet known came welling up, softening her eyes, her face, even the very pose of her young body--the hidden passion of a motherliness, that yearned so to 'kiss the place,' to make him well, to nurse and tend, restore and comfort him. And with all her might she watched the movements of those rounded arms under the blue sleeves--how firm and exact they were, how soft and quiet and swift, bathing the dark head! Then from beneath the bandage she caught sight suddenly of his eyes. And her heart turned sick. Oh, they were not quite closed! As if he hadn't life enough to close them! She bit into her lip to stop a cry. It was so terrible to see them without light. Why did not that doctor come? Over and over and over again within her the prayer turned: Let him live! Oh, let him live!

The blackbirds out in the orchard were tuning up for evening. It seemed almost dreadful they should be able to sing like that. All the world was going on just the same! If he died, the world would have no more light for her than there was now in his poor eyes--and yet it would go on the same! How was that possible? It was not possible, because she would die too! She saw her aunt turn her head like a startled animal; some one was coming up the stairs! It was the doctor, wiping his wet face--a young man in gaiters. How young--dreadfully young! No; there was a little gray at the sides of his hair! What would he say? And Nedda sat with hands tight clenched in her lap, motionless as a young crouching sphinx. An interminable testing, and questioning, and answer! Never smoked--never drank--never been ill! The blow--ah, here! Just here! Concussion--yes! Then long staring into the eyes, the eyelids lifted between thumb and finger. And at last (how could he talk so loud! Yet it was a comfort too--he would not talk like that if Derek were going to die!)--Hair cut shorter--ice--watch him like a lynx! This and that, if he came to. Nothing else to be done. And then those blessed words:

"But don't worry too much. I think it'll be all right." She could not help a little sigh escaping her clenched teeth.

The doctor was looking at her. His eyes were nice.

"Sister?"

"Cousin."

"Ah! Well, I'll get back now, and send you out some ice, at once."

More talk outside the door. Nedda, alone with her lover, crouched forward on her knees, and put her lips to his. They were not so cold as his foot, and the first real hope and comfort came to her. Watch him like a lynx--wouldn't she? But how had it all happened? And where was Sheila? and Uncle Tod?

Her aunt had come back and was stroking her shoulder. There had been fighting in the barn at Marrow Farm. They had arrested Sheila. Derek had jumped down to rescue her and struck his head against a grindstone. Her uncle had gone with Sheila. They would watch, turn and turn about. Nedda must go now and eat something, and get ready to take the watch from eight to midnight.

Following her resolve to make no fuss, the girl went out. The police had gone. The mother-child was putting her little folk to bed; and in the kitchen Felix was arranging the wherewithal to eat. He made her sit down and kept handing things; watching like a cat to see that she put them in her mouth, in the way from which only Flora had suffered hitherto; he seemed so anxious and unhappy, and so awfully sweet, that Nedda forced herself to swallow what she thought would never go down a dry and choky throat. He kept coming up and touching her shoulder or forehead. Once he said:

"It's all right, you know, my pet; concussion often takes two days."

Two days with his eyes like that! The consolation was not so vivid as Felix might have wished; but she quite understood that he was doing his best to give it. She suddenly remembered that he had no room to sleep in. He must use Derek's. No! That, it appeared, was to be for her when she came off duty. Felix was going to have an all-night sitting in the kitchen. He had been looking forward to an all-night sitting for many years, and now he had got his chance. It was a magnificent opportunity--"without your mother, my dear, to insist on my sleeping." And staring at his smile, Nedda thought: 'He's like Granny--he comes out under difficulties. If only I did!'

The ice arrived by motor-cycle just before her watch began. It was some comfort to have that definite thing to see to. How timorous and humble are thoughts in a sick-room, above all when the sick are stretched behind the muffle of unconsciousness, withdrawn from the watcher by half-death! And yet, for him or her who loves, there is at least the sense of being alone with the loved one, of doing all that can be done; and in some strange way of twining hearts with the exiled spirit. To Nedda, sitting at his feet, and hardly ever turning eyes away from his still face, it sometimes seemed that the flown spirit was there beside her. And she saw into his soul in those hours of watching, as one looking into a stream sees the leopard-like dapple of its sand and dark-strewn floor, just reached by sunlight. She saw all his pride, courage, and impatience, his reserve, and strange unwilling tenderness, as she had never seen them. And a queer dreadful feeling moved her that in some previous existence she had looked at that face dead on a field of battle, frowning up at the stars. That was absurd--there were no previous existences! Or was it prevision of what would come some day?

When, at half past nine, the light began to fail, she lighted two candles in tall, thin, iron candlesticks beside her. They burned without flicker, those spires of yellow flame, slowly conquering the dying twilight, till in their soft radiance the room was full of warm dusky shadows, the night outside ever a deeper black. Two or three times his mother came, looked at him, asked her if she should stay, and, receiving a little silent shake of the head, went away again. At eleven o'clock, when once more she changed the ice-cap, his eyes had still no lustre, and for a moment her courage failed her utterly. It seemed to her that he could never win back, that death possessed the room already, possessed those candle-flames, the ticking of the clock, the dark, dripping night, possessed her heart. Could he be gone before she had been his! Gone! Where? She sank down on her knees, covering her eyes. What good to watch, if he were never coming back! A long time--it seemed hours--passed thus, with the feeling growing deeper in her that no good would come while she was watching. And behind the barrier of her hands she tried desperately to rally courage. If things were--they were! One must look them in the face! She took her hands away. His eyes! Was it light in them? Was it? They were seeing--surely they saw. And his lips made the tiniest movement. In that turmoil of exultation she never knew how she managed to continue kneeling there, with her hands on his. But all her soul shone down to him out of her eyes, and drew and drew at his spirit struggling back from the depths of him. For many minutes that struggle lasted; then he smiled. It was the feeblest smile that ever was on lips, but it made the tears pour down Nedda's cheeks and trickle off on to his hands. Then, with a stoicism that she could not believe in, so hopelessly unreal it seemed, so utterly the negation of the tumult within her, she settled back again at his feet to watch and not excite him. And still his lips smiled that faint smile, and his opened eyes grew dark and darker with meaning.

So at midnight Kirsteen found them.


John Galsworthy