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Chapter 33

Peremptorily ordered by the doctor to the sea, but with instructions to avoid for the present all excitement, sunlight, and color, Derek and his grandmother repaired to a spot well known to be gray, and Nedda went home to Hampstead. This was the last week in July. A fortnight spent in the perfect vacuity of an English watering-place restored the boy wonderfully. No one could be better trusted than Frances Freeland to preserve him from looking on the dark side of anything, more specially when that thing was already not quite nice. Their conversation was therefore free from allusion to the laborers, the strike, or Bob Tryst. And Derek thought the more. The approaching trial was hardly ever out of his mind. Bathing, he would think of it; sitting on the gray jetty looking over the gray sea, he would think of it. Up the gray cobbled streets and away on the headlands, he would think of it. And, so as not to have to think of it, he would try to walk himself to a standstill. Unfortunately the head will continue working when the legs are at rest. And when he sat opposite to her at meal-times, Frances Freeland would gaze piercingly at his forehead and muse: 'The dear boy looks much better, but he's getting a little line between his brows--it IS such a pity!' It worried her, too, that the face he was putting on their little holiday together was not quite as full as she could have wished--though the last thing in the world she could tolerate were really fat cheeks, those signs of all that her stoicism abhorred, those truly unforgivable marks of the loss of 'form.' He struck her as dreadfully silent, too, and she would rack her brains for subjects that would interest him, often saying to herself: 'If only I were clever!' It was natural he should think of dear Nedda, but surely it was not that which gave him the little line. He must be brooding about those other things. He ought not to be melancholy like this and let anything prevent the sea from doing him good. The habit--hard-learned by the old, and especially the old of her particular sex--of not wishing for the moon, or at all events of not letting others know that you are wishing for it, had long enabled Frances Freeland to talk cheerfully on the most indifferent subjects whether or no her heart were aching. One's heart often did ache, of course, but it simply didn't do to let it interfere, making things uncomfortable for others. And once she said to him: "You know, darling, I think it would be so nice for you to take a little interest in politics. They're very absorbing when you once get into them. I find my paper most enthralling. And it really has very good principles."

"If politics did anything for those who most need things done, Granny--but I can't see that they do."

She thought a little, then, making firm her lips, said:

"I don't think that's quite just, darling, there are a great many politicians who are very much looked up to--all the bishops, for instance, and others whom nobody could suspect of self-seeking."

"I didn't mean that politicians were self-seeking, Granny; I meant that they're comfortable people, and the things that interest them are those that interest comfortable people. What have they done for the laborers, for instance?"

"Oh, but, darling! they're going to do a great deal. In my paper they're continually saying that."

"Do you believe it?"

"I'm sure they wouldn't say so if they weren't. There's quite a new plan, and it sounds most sensible. And so I don't think, darling, that if I were you I should make myself unhappy about all that kind of thing. They must know best. They're all so much older than you. And you're getting quite a little line between your eyes."

Derek smiled.

"All right, Granny; I shall have a big one soon."

Frances Freeland smiled, too, but shook her head.

"Yes; and that's why I really think you ought to take interest in politics."

"I'd rather take interest in you, Granny. You're very jolly to look at."

Frances Freeland raised her brows.

"I? My dear, I'm a perfect fright nowadays."

Thus pushing away what her stoicism and perpetual aspiration to an impossibly good face would not suffer her to admit, she added:

"Where would you like to drive this afternoon?"

For they took drives in a small victoria, Frances Freeland holding her sunshade to protect him from the sun whenever it made the mistake of being out.

On August the fourth he insisted that he was well and must go back home. And, though to bring her attendance on him to an end was a grief, she humbly admitted that he must be wanting younger company, and, after one wistful attempt, made no further bones. The following day they travelled.

On getting home he found that the police had been to see little Biddy Tryst, who was to be called as a witness. Tod would take her over on the morning of the trial. Derek did not wait for this, but on the day before the assizes repacked his bag and went off to the Royal Charles Hostel at Worcester. He slept not at all that night, and next morning was early at the court, for Tryst's case would be the first. Anxiously he sat watching all the queer and formal happenings that mark the initiation of the higher justice--the assemblage of the gentlemen in wigs; the sifting, shifting, settling of clerks, and ushers, solicitors, and the public; the busy indifference, the cheerful professionalism of it all. He saw little Mr. Pogram come in, more square and rubbery than ever, and engage in conclave with one of the bewigged. The smiles, shrugs, even the sharp expressions on that barrister's face; the way he stood, twisting round, one hand wrapped in his gown, one foot on the bench behind; it was all as if he had done it hundreds of times before and cared not the snap of one of his thin, yellow fingers. Then there was a sudden hush; the judge came in, bowed, and took his seat. And that, too, seemed so professional. Haunted by the thought of him to whom this was almost life and death, the boy was incapable of seeing how natural it was that they should not all feel as he did.

The case was called and Tryst brought in. Derek had once more to undergo the torture of those tragic eyes fixed on him. Round that heavy figure, that mournful, half-brutal, and half-yearning face, the pleadings, the questions, the answers buzzed, bringing out facts with damning clearness, yet leaving the real story of that early morning as hidden as if the court and all were but gibbering figures of air. The real story of Tryst, heavy and distraught, rising and turning out from habit into the early haze on the fields, where his daily work had lain, of Tryst brooding, with the slow, the wrathful incoherence that centuries of silence in those lonely fields had passed into the blood of his forebears and himself. Brooding, in the dangerous disproportion that enforced continence brings to certain natures, loading the brain with violence till the storm bursts and there leap out the lurid, dark insanities of crime. Brooding, while in the air flies chased each other, insects crawled together in the grass, and the first principle of nature worked everywhere its sane fulfilment. They might talk and take evidence as they would, be shrewd and sharp with all the petty sharpness of the Law; but the secret springs would still lie undisclosed, too natural and true to bear the light of day. The probings and eloquence of justice would never paint the picture of that moment of maniacal relief, when, with jaw hanging loose, eyes bulging in exultation of revenge, he had struck those matches with his hairy hands and let them flare in the straw, till the little red flames ran and licked, rustled and licked, and there was nothing to do but watch them lick and burn. Nor of that sudden wildness of dumb fear that rushed into the heart of the crouching creature, changing the madness of his face to palsy. Nor of the recoil from the burning stack; those moments empty with terror. Nor of how terror, through habit of inarticulate, emotionless existence, gave place again to brute stolidity. And so, heavily back across the dewy fields, under the larks' songs, the cooings of pigeons, the hum of wings, and all the unconscious rhythm of ageless Nature. No! The probings of Justice could never reach the whole truth. And even Justice quailed at its own probings when the mother-child was passed up from Tod's side into the witness-box and the big laborer was seen to look at her and she at him. She seemed to have grown taller; her pensive little face and beautifully fluffed-out corn-brown hair had an eerie beauty, perched up there in the arid witness-box, as of some small figure from the brush of Botticelli.

"Your name, my dear?"

"Biddy Tryst."

"How old?"

"Ten next month, please."

"Do you remember going to live at Mr. Freeland's cottage?"

"Yes, sir."

"And do you remember the first night?"

"Yes, sir."

"Where did you sleep, Biddy?"

"Please, sir, we slept in a big room with a screen. Billy and Susie and me; and father behind the screen."

"And where was the room?"

"Down-stairs, sir."

"Now, Biddy, what time did you wake up the first morning?"

"When Father got up."

"Was that early or late?"

"Very early."

"Would you know the time?"

"No, sir."

"But it was very early; how did you know that?"

"It was a long time before we had any breakfast."

"And what time did you have breakfast?"

"Half past six by the kitchen clock."

"Was it light when you woke up?"

"Yes, sir."

"When Father got up, did he dress or did he go to bed again?"

"He hadn't never undressed, sir."

"Then did he stay with you or did he go out?"

"Out, sir."

"And how long was it before he came back?"

"When I was puttin' on Billy's boots."

"What had you done in between?"

"Helped Susie and dressed Billy."

"And how long does that take you generally?"

"Half an hour, sir."

"I see. What did Father look like when he came in, Biddy?"

The mother-child paused. For the first time it seemed to dawn on her that there was something dangerous in these questions. She twisted her small hands before her and gazed at her father.

The judge said gently:

"Well, my child?"

"Like he does now, sir."

"Thank you, Biddy."

That was all; the mother-child was suffered to step down and take her place again by Tod. And in the silence rose the short and rubbery report of little Mr. Pogram blowing his nose. No evidence given that morning was so conclusive, actual, terrible as that unconscious: "Like he does now, sir." That was why even Justice quailed a little at its own probings.

From this moment the boy knew that Tryst's fate was sealed. What did all those words matter, those professional patterings one way and the other; the professional jeers: 'My friend has told you this' and 'My friend will tell you that.' The professional steering of the impartial judge, seated there above them all; the cold, calculated rhapsodies about the heinousness of arson; the cold and calculated attack on the characters of the stone-breaker witness and the tramp witness; the cold and calculated patter of the appeal not to condemn a father on the evidence of his little child; the cold and calculated outburst on the right of every man to be assumed innocent except on overwhelming evidence such as did not here exist. The cold and calculated balancing of pro and con; and those minutes of cold calculation veiled from the eyes of the court. Even the verdict: 'Guilty'; even the judgment: 'Three years' penal servitude.' All nothing, all superfluity to the boy supporting the tragic gaze of Tryst's eyes and making up his mind to a desperate resort.

"Three years' penal servitude!" The big laborer paid no more attention to those words than to any others spoken during that hour's settlement of his fate. True, he received them standing, as is the custom, fronting the image of Justice, from whose lips they came. But by no single gesture did he let any one see the dumb depths of his soul. If life had taught him nothing else, it had taught him never to express himself. Mute as any bullock led into the slaughtering-house, with something of a bullock's dulled and helpless fear in his eyes, he passed down and away between his jailers. And at once the professional noises rose, and the professional rhapsodists, hunching their gowns, swept that little lot of papers into their pink tape, and, turning to their neighbors, smiled, and talked, and jerked their eyebrows.


John Galsworthy