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Chapter 31

Duly shaved with one of Stanley's razors, bathed, and breakfasted, Felix was on the point of getting into the car to return to Joyfields when he received a message from his mother: Would he please go up and see her before he went?

He found her looking anxious and endeavoring to conceal it.

Having kissed him, she drew him to her sofa and said: "Now, darling, come and sit down here, and tell me all about this DREADFUL business." And taking up an odorator she blew over him a little cloud of scent. "It's quite a new perfume; isn't it delicious?"

Felix, who dreaded scent, concealed his feelings, sat down, and told her. And while he told her he was conscious of how pathetically her fastidiousness was quivering under those gruesome details--fighting with policemen, fighting with common men, prison--FOR A LADY; conscious too of her still more pathetic effort to put a good face on it. When he had finished she remained so perfectly still, with lips so hard compressed, that he said:

"It's no good worrying, Mother."

Frances Freeland rose, pulled something hard, and a cupboard appeared. She opened it, and took out a travelling-bag.

"I must go back with you at once," she said.

"I don't think it's in the least necessary, and you'll only knock yourself up."

"Oh, nonsense, darling! I must."

Knowing that further dissuasion would harden her determination, Felix said: "I'm going in the car."

"That doesn't matter. I shall be ready in ten minutes. Oh! and do you know this? It's splendid for taking lines out under the eyes!" She was holding out a little round box with the lid off. "Just wet your finger with it, and dab it gently on."

Touched by this evidence of her deep desire that he should put as good a face on it as herself, Felix dabbed himself under the eyes.

"That's right. Now, wait for me, dear; I shan't be a minute. I've only to get my things. They'll all go splendidly in this little bag."

In a quarter of an hour they had started. During that journey Frances Freeland betrayed no sign of tremor. She was going into action, and, therefore, had no patience with her nerves.

"Are you proposing to stay, Mother?" Felix hazarded; "because I don't think there's a room for you."

"Oh! that's nothing, darling. I sleep beautifully in a chair. It suits me better than lying down." Felix cast up his eyes, and made no answer.

On arriving, they found that the doctor had been there, expressed his satisfaction, and enjoined perfect quiet. Tod was on the point of starting back to Transham, where Sheila and the two laborers would be brought up before the magistrates. Felix and Kirsteen took hurried counsel. Now that Mother, whose nursing was beyond reproach, had come, it would be better if they went with Tod. All three started forthwith in the car.

Left alone, Frances Freeland took her bag--a noticeably old one, without any patent clasp whatever, so that she could open it--went noiselessly upstairs, tapped on Derek's door, and went in. A faint but cheerful voice remarked: "Halloo, Granny!"

Frances Freeland went up to the bed, smiled down on him ineffably, laid a finger on his lips, and said, in the stillest voice: "You mustn't talk, darling!" Then she sat down in the window with her bag beside her. Half a tear had run down her nose, and she had no intention that it should be seen. She therefore opened her bag, and, having taken out a little bottle, beckoned Nedda.

"Now, darling," she whispered, "you must just take one of these. It's nothing new; they're what my mother used to give me at your age. And for one hour you must go out and get some fresh air, and then you can come back."

"Must I, Granny?"

"Yes; you must keep up your strength. Kiss me."

Nedda kissed a cheek that seemed extraordinarily smooth and soft, received a kiss in the middle of her own, and, having stayed a second by the bed, looking down with all her might, went out.

Frances Freeland, in the window, wasted no thoughts, but began to run over in her mind the exact operations necessary to defeat this illness of darling Derek's. Her fingers continually locked and interlocked themselves with fresh determinations; her eyes, fixed on imaginary foods, methods of washing, and ways of keeping him quiet, had an almost fanatical intensity. Like a good general she marshalled her means of attack and fixed them in perfect order. Now and then she gazed into her bag, making quite sure that she had everything, and nothing that was new-fangled or liable to go wrong. For into action she never brought any of those patent novelties that delighted her soul in times of peace. For example, when she herself had pneumonia and no doctor, for two months, it was well known that she had lain on her back, free from every kind of remedy, employing only courage, nature, and beef tea, or some such simple sustenance.

Having now made her mental dispositions, she got up without sound and slipped off a petticoat that she suspected of having rustled a little when she came in; folding and popping it where it could not be suspected any more, she removed her shoes and put on very old velvet slippers. She walked in these toward the bed, listening to find out whether she could hear herself, without success. Then, standing where she could see when his eyes opened, she began to take stock. That pillow wasn't very comfortable! A little table was wanted on both sides, instead of on one. There was no odorator, and she did not see one of those arrangements! All these things would have to be remedied.

Absorbed in this reconnoitring, she failed to observe that darling Derek was looking at her through eyelashes that were always so nice and black. He said suddenly, in that faint and cheerful voice:

"All right, Granny; I'm going to get up to-morrow."

Frances Freeland, whose principle it was that people should always be encouraged to believe themselves better than they were, answered. "Yes, darling, of course; you'll be up in no time. It'll be delightful to see you in a chair to-morrow. But you mustn't talk."

Derek sighed, closed his eyes, and went off into a faint.

It was in moments such as these that Frances Freeland was herself. Her face flushed a little and grew terribly determined. Conscious that she was absolutely alone in the house, she ran to her bag, took out her sal volatile, applied it vigorously to his nose, and poured a little between his lips. She did other things to him, and not until she had brought him round, and the best of it was already made, did she even say to herself: 'It's no use fussing; I must make the best of it.'

Then, having discovered that he felt quite comfortable--as he said--she sat down in a chair to fan him and tremble vigorously. She would not have allowed that movement of her limbs if it had in any way interfered with the fanning. But since, on the contrary, it seemed to be of assistance, she certainly felt it a relief; for, whatever age her spirit might be, her body was seventy-three.

And while she fanned she thought of Derek as a little, black-haired, blazing-gray-eyed slip of a sallow boy, all little thin legs and arms moving funnily like a foal's. He had been such a dear, gentlemanlike little chap. It was dreadful he should be forgetting himself so, and getting into such trouble. And her thoughts passed back beyond him to her own four little sons, among whom she had been so careful not to have a favorite, but to love them all equally. And she thought of how their holland suits wore out, especially in the elastic, and got green behind, almost before they were put on; and of how she used to cut their hairs, spending at least three-quarters of an hour on each, because she had never been quick at it, while they sat so good--except Stanley, and darling Tod, who WOULD move just as she had got into the comb particularly nice bits of his hair, always so crisp and difficult! And of how she had cut off Felix's long golden curls when he was four, and would have cried over it, if crying hadn't always been silly! And of how beautifully they had all had their measles together, so that she had been up with them day and night for about a fortnight. And of how it was a terrible risk with Derek and darling Nedda, not at all a wise match, she was afraid. And yet, if they really were attached, of course one must put the best face on it! And how lovely it would be to see another little baby some day; and what a charming little mother Nedda would make--if only the dear child would do her hair just a little differently! And she perceived that Derek was asleep--and one of her own legs, from the knee down. She would certainly have bad pins and needles if she did not get up; but, since she would not wake him for the world, she must do something else to cure it. And she hit upon this plan. She had only to say, 'Nonsense, you haven't anything of the sort!' and it was sure to go away. She said this to her leg, but, being a realist, she only made it feel like a pin-cushion. She knew, however, that she had only to persevere, because it would never do to give in. She persevered, and her leg felt as if red-hot needles were being stuck in it. Then, for the life of her, she could not help saying a little psalm. The sensation went away and left her leg quite dead. She would have no strength in it at all when she got up. But that would be easily cured, when she could get to her bag, with three globules of nux vomica--and darling Derek must not be waked up for anything! She waited thus till Nedda came back, and then said, "Sssh!"

He woke at once, so that providentially she was able to get up, and, having stood with her weight on one leg for five minutes, so as to be quite sure she did not fall, she crossed back to the window, took her nux vomica, and sat down with her tablets to note down the little affairs she would require, while Nedda took her place beside the bed, to fan him. Having made her list, she went to Nedda and whispered that she was going down to see about one or two little things, and while she whispered she arranged the dear child's hair. If only she would keep it just like that, it would be so much more becoming! And she went down-stairs.

Accustomed to the resources of Stanley's establishment, or at least to those of John's and Felix's, and of the hotels she stayed at, she felt for a moment just a little nonplussed at discovering at her disposal nothing but three dear little children playing with a dog, and one bicycle. For a few seconds she looked at the latter hard. If only it had been a tricycle! Then, feeling certain that she could not make it into one, she knew that she must make the best of it, especially as, in any case, she could not have used it, for it would never do to leave darling Nedda alone in the house. She decided therefore to look in every room to see if she could find the things she wanted. The dog, who had been attracted by her, left the children and came too, and the children, attracted by the dog, followed; so they all five went into a room on the ground floor. It was partitioned into two by a screen; in one portion was a rough camp bedstead, and in the other two dear little child's beds, that must once have been Derek's and Sheila's, and one still smaller, made out of a large packing-case. The eldest of the little children said:

"That's where Billy sleeps, Susie sleeps here, and I sleeps there; and our father sleeped in here before he went to prison." Frances Freeland experienced a shock. To prison! The idea of letting these little things know such a thing as that! The best face had so clearly not been put on it that she decided to put it herself.

"Oh, not to prison, dear! Only into a house in the town for a little while."

It seemed to her quite dreadful that they should know the truth--it was simply necessary to put it out of their heads. That dear little girl looked so old already, such a little mother! And, as they stood about her, she gazed piercingly at their heads. They were quite clean.

The second dear little thing said:

"We like bein' here; we hope Father won't be comin' back from prison for a long time, so as we can go on stayin' here. Mr. Freeland gives us apples."

The failure of her attempt to put a nicer idea into their heads disconcerted Frances Freeland for a moment only. She said:

"Who told you he was in prison?"

Biddy answered slowly: "Nobody didn't tell us; we picked it up."

"Oh, but you should never pick things up! That's not at all nice. You don't know what harm they may do you."

Billy replied: "We picked up a dead cat yesterday. It didn't scratch a bit, it didn't."

And Biddy added: "Please, what is prison like?"

Pity seized on Frances Freeland for these little derelicts, whose heads and pinafores and faces were so clean. She pursed her lips very tight and said:

"Hold out your hands, all of you."

Three small hands were held out, and three small pairs of gray-blue eyes looked up at her. From the recesses of her pocket she drew forth her purse, took from it three shillings, and placed one in the very centre of each palm. The three small hands closed; two small grave bodies dipped in little courtesies; the third remained stock-still, but a grin spread gradually on its face from ear to ear.

"What do you say?" said Frances Freeland.

"Thank you."

"Thank you--what?"

"Thank you, ma'am."

"That's right. Now run away and play a nice game in the orchard."

The three turned immediately and went. A sound of whispering rose busily outside. Frances Freeland, glancing through the window, saw them unlatching the wicket gate. Sudden alarm seized her. She put out her head and called. Biddy came back.

"You mustn't spend them all at once."

Biddy shook her head.

"No. Once we had a shillin', and we were sick. We're goin' to spend three pennies out of one shillin' every day, till they're gone."

"And aren't you going to put any by for a rainy day?"

"No."

Frances Freeland did not know what to answer. Dear little things!

The dear little things vanished.

In Tod's and Kirsteen's room she found a little table and a pillow, and something that might do, and having devised a contrivance by which this went into that and that into this and nothing whatever showed, she conveyed the whole very quietly up near dear Derek's room, and told darling Nedda to go down-stairs and look for something that she knew she would not find, for she could not think at the moment of any better excuse. When the child had gone, she popped this here, and popped that there. And there she was! And she felt better. It was no use whatever to make a fuss about that aspect of nursing which was not quite nice. One just put the best face upon it, quietly did what was necessary, and pretended that it was not there. Kirsteen had not seen to things quite as she should have. But then dear Kirsteen was so clever.

Her attitude, indeed, to that blue bird, who had alighted now twenty-one years ago in the Freeland nest, had always, after the first few shocks, been duly stoical. For, however her fastidiousness might jib at neglect of the forms of things, she was the last woman not to appreciate really sterling qualities. Though it was a pity dear Kirsteen did expose her neck and arms so that they had got quite brown, a pity that she never went to church and had brought up the dear children not to go, and to have ideas that were not quite right about 'the Land,' still she was emphatically a lady, and devoted to dear Tod, and very good. And her features were so regular, and she had such a good color, and was so slim and straight in the back, that she was always a pleasure to look at. And if she was not quite so practical as she might have been, that was not everything; and she would never get stout, as there was every danger of Clara doing. So that from the first she had always put a good face on her. Derek's voice interrupted her thoughts:

"I'm awfully thirsty, Granny."

"Yes, darling. Don't move your head; and just let me pop in some of this delicious lemonade with a spoon."

Nedda, returning, found her supporting his head with one hand, while with the other she kept popping in the spoon, her soul smiling at him lovingly through her lips and eyes.


John Galsworthy