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Chapter 32

Felix went back to London the afternoon of Frances Freeland's installation, taking Sheila with him. She had been 'bound over to keep the peace'--a task which she would obviously be the better able to accomplish at a distance. And, though to take charge of her would be rather like holding a burning match till there was no match left, he felt bound to volunteer.

He left Nedda with many misgivings; but had not the heart to wrench her away.

The recovery of a young man who means to get up to-morrow is not so rapid when his head, rather than his body, is the seat of trouble. Derek's temperament was against him. He got up several times in spirit, to find that his body had remained in bed. And this did not accelerate his progress. It had been impossible to dispossess Frances Freeland from command of the sick-room; and, since she was admittedly from experience and power of paying no attention to her own wants, the fittest person for the position, there she remained, taking turn and turn about with Nedda, and growing a little whiter, a little thinner, more resolute in face, and more loving in her eyes, from day to day. That tragedy of the old--the being laid aside from life before the spirit is ready to resign, the feeling that no one wants you, that all those you have borne and brought up have long passed out on to roads where you cannot follow, that even the thought-life of the world streams by so fast that you lie up in a backwater, feebly, blindly groping for the full of the water, and always pushed gently, hopelessly back; that sense that you are still young and warm, and yet so furbelowed with old thoughts and fashions that none can see how young and warm you are, none see how you long to rub hearts with the active, how you yearn for something real to do that can help life on, and how no one will give it you! All this--this tragedy--was for the time defeated. She was, in triumph, doing something real for those she loved and longed to do things for. She had Sheila's room.

For a week at least Derek asked no questions, made no allusion to the mutiny, not even to the cause of his own disablement. It had been impossible to tell whether the concussion had driven coherent recollection from his mind, or whether he was refraining from an instinct of self-preservation, barring such thoughts as too exciting. Nedda dreaded every day lest he should begin. She knew that the questions would fall on her, since no answer could possibly be expected from Granny except: "It's all right, darling, everything's going on perfectly--only you mustn't talk!"

It began the last day of June, the very first day that he got up.

"They didn't save the hay, did they?"

Was he fit to hear the truth? Would he forgive her if she did not tell it? If she lied about this, could she go on lying to his other questions? When he discovered, later, would not the effect undo the good of lies now? She decided to lie; but, when she opened her lips, simply could not, with his eyes on her; and said faintly: "Yes, they did."

His face contracted. She slipped down at once and knelt beside his chair. He said between his teeth:

"Go on; tell me. Did it all collapse?"

She could only stroke his hands and bow her head.

"I see. What's happened to them?"

Without looking up, she murmured:

"Some have been dismissed; the others are working again all right."

"All right!"

She looked up then so pitifully that he did not ask her anything more. But the news put him back a week. And she was in despair. The day he got up again he began afresh:

"When are the assizes?"

"The 7th of August."

"Has anybody been to see Bob Tryst?"

"Yes; Aunt Kirsteen has been twice."

Having been thus answered, he was quiet for a long time. She had slipped again out of her chair to kneel beside him; it seemed the only place from which she could find courage for her answers. He put his hand, that had lost its brown, on her hair. At that she plucked up spirit to ask:

"Would you like me to go and see him?"

He nodded.

"Then, I will--to-morrow."

"Don't ever tell me what isn't true, Nedda! People do; that's why I didn't ask before."

She answered fervently:

"I won't! Oh, I won't!"

She dreaded this visit to the prison. Even to think of those places gave her nightmare. Sheila's description of her night in a cell had made her shiver with horror. But there was a spirit in Nedda that went through with things; and she started early the next day, refusing Kirsteen's proffered company.

The look of that battlemented building, whose walls were pierced with emblems of the Christian faith, turned her heartsick, and she stood for several minutes outside the dark-green door before she could summon courage to ring the bell.

A stout man in blue, with a fringe of gray hair under his peaked cap, and some keys dangling from a belt, opened, and said:

"Yes, miss?"

Being called 'miss' gave her a little spirit, and she produced the card she had been warming in her hand.

"I have come to see a man called Robert Tryst, waiting for trial at the assizes."

The stout man looked at the card back and front, as is the way of those in doubt, closed the door behind her, and said:

"Just a minute, miss."

The shutting of the door behind her sent a little shiver down Nedda's spine; but the temperature of her soul was rising, and she looked round. Beyond the heavy arch, beneath which she stood, was a courtyard where she could see two men, also in blue, with peaked caps. Then, to her left, she became conscious of a shaven-headed noiseless being in drab-gray clothes, on hands and knees, scrubbing the end of a corridor. Her tremor at the stealthy ugliness of this crouching figure yielded at once to a spasm of pity. The man gave her a look, furtive, yet so charged with intense penetrating curiosity that it seemed to let her suddenly into innumerable secrets. She felt as if the whole life of people shut away in silence and solitude were disclosed to her in the swift, unutterably alive look of this noiseless kneeling creature, riving out of her something to feed his soul and body on. That look seemed to lick its lips. It made her angry, made her miserable, with a feeling of pity she could hardly bear. Tears, too startled to flow, darkened her eyes. Poor man! How he must hate her, who was free, and all fresh from the open world and the sun, and people to love and talk to! The 'poor man' scrubbed on steadily, his ears standing out from his shaven head; then, dragging his knee-mat skew-ways, he took the chance to look at her again. Perhaps because his dress and cap and stubble of hair and even the color of his face were so drab-gray, those little dark eyes seemed to her the most terribly living things she had ever seen. She felt that they had taken her in from top to toe, clothed and unclothed, taken in the resentment she had felt and the pity she was feeling; they seemed at once to appeal, to attack, and to possess her ravenously, as though all the starved instincts in a whole prisoned world had rushed up and for a second stood outside their bars. Then came the clank of keys, the eyes left her as swiftly as they had seized her, and he became again just that stealthy, noiseless creature scrubbing a stone floor. And, shivering, Nedda thought:

'I can't bear myself here--me with everything in the world I want--and these with nothing!'

But the stout janitor was standing by her again, together with another man in blue, who said:

"Now, miss; this way, please!"

And down that corridor they went. Though she did not turn, she knew well that those eyes were following, still riving something from her; and she heaved a sigh of real relief when she was round a corner. Through barred windows that had no glass she could see another court, where men in the same drab-gray clothes printed with arrows were walking one behind the other, making a sort of moving human hieroglyphic in the centre of the concrete floor. Two warders with swords stood just outside its edge. Some of those walking had their heads up, their chests expanded, some slouched along with heads almost resting on their chests; but most had their eyes fixed on the back of the neck of the man in front; and there was no sound save the tramp of feet.

Nedda put her hand to her throat. The warder beside her said in a chatty voice:

"That's where the 'ards takes their exercise, miss. You want to see a man called Tryst, waitin' trial, I think. We've had a woman here to see him, and a lady in blue, once or twice."

"My aunt."

"Ah! just so. Laborer, I think--case of arson. Funny thing; never yet found a farm-laborer that took to prison well."

Nedda shivered. The words sounded ominous. Then a little flame lit itself within her.

"Does anybody ever 'take to' prison?"

The warder uttered a sound between a grunt and chuckle.

"There's some has a better time here than they have out, any day. No doubt about it--they're well fed here."

Her aunt's words came suddenly into Nedda's mind: 'Liberty's a glorious feast!' But she did not speak them.

"Yes," the warder proceeded, "some o' them we get look as if they didn't have a square meal outside from one year's end to the other. If you'll just wait a minute, miss, I'll fetch the man down to you."

In a bare room with distempered walls, and bars to a window out of which she could see nothing but a high brick wall, Nedda waited. So rapid is the adjustment of the human mind, so quick the blunting of human sensation, that she had already not quite the passion of pitiful feeling which had stormed her standing under that archway. A kind of numbness gripped her nerves. There were wooden forms in this room, and a blackboard, on which two rows of figures had been set one beneath the other, but not yet added up.

The silence at first was almost deathly. Then it was broken by a sound as of a heavy door banged, and the shuffling tramp of marching men--louder, louder, softer--a word of command--still softer, and it died away. Dead silence again! Nedda pressed her hands to her breast. Twice she added up those figures on the blackboard; each time the number was the same. Ah, there was a fly--two flies! How nice they looked, moving, moving, chasing each other in the air. Did flies get into the cells? Perhaps not even a fly came there--nothing more living than walls and wood! Nothing living except what was inside oneself! How dreadful! Not even a clock ticking, not even a bird's song! Silent, unliving, worse than in this room! Something pressed against her leg. She started violently and looked down. A little cat! Oh, what a blessed thing! A little sandy, ugly cat! It must have crept in through the door. She was not locked in, then, anyway! Thus far had nerves carried her already! Scrattling the little cat's furry pate, she pulled herself together. She would not tremble and be nervous. It was disloyal to Derek and to her purpose, which was to bring comfort to poor Tryst. Then the door was pushed open, and the warder said:

"A quarter of an hour, miss. I'll be just outside."

She saw a big man with unshaven cheeks come in, and stretched out her hand.

"I am Mr. Derek's cousin, going to be married to him. He's been ill, but he's getting well again now. We knew you'd like to hear." And she thought: 'Oh! What a tragic face! I can't bear to look at his eyes!'

He took her hand, said, "Thank you, miss," and stood as still as ever.

"Please come and sit down, and we can talk."

Tryst moved to a form and took his seat thereon, with his hands between his knees, as if playing with an imaginary cap. He was dressed in an ordinary suit of laborer's best clothes, and his stiff, dust-colored hair was not cut particularly short. The cheeks of his square-cut face had fallen in, the eyes had sunk back, and the prominence thus given to his cheek and jawbones and thick mouth gave his face a savage look--only his dog-like, terribly yearning eyes made Nedda feel so sorry that she simply could not feel afraid.

"The children are such dears, Mr. Tryst. Billy seems to grow every day. They're no trouble at all, and quite happy. Biddy's wonderful with them."

"She's a good maid." The thick lips shaped the words as though they had almost lost power of speech.

"Do they let you see the newspapers we send? Have you got everything you want?"

For a minute he did not seem to be going to answer; then, moving his head from side to side, he said:

"Nothin' I want, but just get out of here."

Nedda murmured helplessly:

"It's only a month now to the assizes. Does Mr. Pogram come to see you?"

"Yes, he comes. He can't do nothin'!"

"Oh, don't despair! Even if they don't acquit you, it'll soon be over. Don't despair!" And she stole her hand out and timidly touched his arm. She felt her heart turning over and over, he looked so sad.

He said in that stumbling, thick voice:

"Thank you kindly. I must get out. I won't stand long of it--not much longer. I'm not used to it--always been accustomed to the air, an' bein' about, that's where 'tis. But don't you tell him, miss. You say I'm goin' along all right. Don't you tell him what I said. 'Tis no use him frettin' over me. 'Twon' do me no good."

And Nedda murmured:

"No, no; I won't tell him."

Then suddenly came the words she had dreaded:

"D'you think they'll let me go, miss?"

"Oh, yes, I think so--I hope so!" But she could not meet his eyes, and hearing him grit his boot on the floor knew he had not believed her.

He said slowly:

"I never meant to do it when I went out that mornin'. It came on me sudden, lookin' at the straw."

Nedda gave a little gasp. Could that man outside hear?

Tryst went on: "If they don't let me go, I won' stand it. 'Tis too much for a man. I can't sleep, I can't eat, nor nothin'. I won' stand it. It don' take long to die, if you put your mind to it."

Feeling quite sick with pity, Nedda got up and stood beside him; and, moved by an uncontrollable impulse, she lifted one of his great hands and clasped it in both her own. "Oh, try and be brave and look forward! You're going to be ever so happy some day."

He gave her a strange long stare.

"Yes, I'll be happy some day. Don' you never fret about me."

And Nedda saw that the warder was standing in the doorway.

"Sorry, miss, time's up."

Without a word Tryst rose and went out.

Nedda was alone again with the little sandy cat. Standing under the high-barred window she wiped her cheeks, that were all wet. Why, why must people suffer so? Suffer so slowly, so horribly? What were men made of that they could go on day after day, year after year, watching others suffer?

When the warder came back to take her out, she did not trust herself to speak, or even to look at him. She walked with hands tight clenched, and eyes fixed on the ground. Outside the prison door she drew a long, long breath. And suddenly her eyes caught the inscription on the corner of a lane leading down alongside the prison wall--"Love's Walk"!

John Galsworthy