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Chapter 34

The nest on the Spaniard's Road had not been able to contain Sheila long. There are certain natures, such as that of Felix, to whom the claims and exercise of authority are abhorrent, who refuse to exercise it themselves and rage when they see it exercised over others, but who somehow never come into actual conflict with it. There are other natures, such as Sheila's, who do not mind in the least exercising authority themselves, but who oppose it vigorously when they feel it coming near themselves or some others. Of such is the kingdom of militancy. Her experience with the police had sunk deep into her soul. They had not, as a fact, treated her at all badly, which did not prevent her feeling as if they had outraged in her the dignity of woman. She arrived, therefore, in Hampstead seeing red even where red was not. And since, undoubtedly, much real red was to be seen, there was little other color in the world or in her cheeks those days. Long disagreements with Alan, to whom she was still a magnet but whose Stanley-like nature stood firm against the blandishments of her revolting tongue, drove her more and more toward a decision the seeds of which had, perhaps, been planted during her former stay among the breezy airs of Hampstead.

Felix, coming one day into his wife's study--for the house knew not the word drawing-room--found Flora, with eyebrows lifted up and smiling lips, listening to Sheila proclaiming the doctrine that it was impossible not to live 'on one's own.' Nothing else--Felix learned--was compatible with dignity, or even with peace of mind. She had, therefore, taken a back room high up in a back street, in which she was going to live perfectly well on ten shillings a week; and, having thirty-two pounds saved up, she would be all right for a year, after which she would be able to earn her living. The principle she purposed to keep before her eyes was that of committing herself to nothing which would seriously interfere with her work in life. Somehow, it was impossible to look at this girl, with her glowing cheeks and her glowing eyes, and her hair frizzy from ardor, and to distrust her utterances. Yes! She would arrive, if not where she wanted, at all events somewhere; which, after all, was the great thing. And in fact she did arrive the very next day in the back room high up in the back street, and neither Tod's cottage nor the house on the Spaniard's Road saw more than flying gleams of her, thenceforth.

Another by-product, this, of that little starting episode, the notice given to Tryst! Strange how in life one little incident, one little piece of living stress, can attract and gather round it the feelings, thoughts, actions of people whose lives run far and wide away therefrom. But episodes are thus potent only when charged with a significance that comes from the clash of the deepest instincts.

During the six weeks which had elapsed between his return home from Joyfields and the assizes, Felix had much leisure to reflect that if Lady Malloring had not caused Tryst to be warned that he could not marry his deceased wife's sister and continue to stay on the estate--the lives of Felix himself, his daughter, mother, brother, brother's wife, their son and daughter, and in less degree of his other brothers, would have been free of a preoccupation little short of ludicrous in proportion to the face value of the cause. But he had leisure, too, to reflect that in reality the issue involved in that tiny episode concerned human existence to its depths--for, what was it but the simple, all-important question of human freedom? The simple, all-important issue of how far men and women should try to rule the lives of others instead of trying only to rule their own, and how far those others should allow their lives to be so ruled? This it was which gave that episode its power of attracting and affecting the thoughts, feelings, actions of so many people otherwise remote. And though Felix was paternal enough to say to himself nearly all the time, 'I can't let Nedda get further into this mess!' he was philosopher enough to tell himself, in the unfatherly balance of his hours, that the mess was caused by the fight best of all worth fighting--of democracy against autocracy, of a man's right to do as he likes with his life if he harms not others; of 'the Land' against the fetterers of 'the Land.' And he was artist enough to see how from that little starting episode the whole business had sprung--given, of course, the entrance of the wilful force called love. But a father, especially when he has been thoroughly alarmed, gives the artist and philosopher in him short shrift.

Nedda came home soon after Sheila went, and to the eyes of Felix she came back too old and thoughtful altogether. How different a girl from the Nedda who had so wanted 'to know everything' that first night of May! What was she brooding over, what planning, in that dark, round, pretty head? At what resolve were those clear eyes so swiftly raised to look? What was going on within, when her breast heaved so, without seeming cause, and the color rushed up in her cheeks at a word, as though she had been so far away that the effort of recall was alone enough to set all her veins throbbing. And yet Felix could devise no means of attack on her infatuation. For a man cannot cultivate the habit of never interfering and then suddenly throw it over; least of all when the person to be interfered with is his pet and only daughter.

Flora, not of course in the swim of those happenings at Joyflelds, could not be got to take the matter very seriously. In fact--beyond what concerned Felix himself and poetry--the matter that she did take seriously had yet to be discovered. Hers was one of those semi-detached natures particularly found in Hampstead. When exhorted to help tackle the question, she could only suggest that Felix should take them all abroad when he had finished 'The Last of the Laborers.' A tour, for instance, in Norway and Sweden, where none of them had ever been, and perhaps down through Finland into Russia.

Feeling like one who squirts on a burning haystack with a garden syringe, Felix propounded this scheme to his little daughter. She received it with a start, a silence, a sort of quivering all over, as of an animal who scents danger. She wanted to know when, and being told--'not before the middle of August', relapsed into her preoccupation as if nothing had been said. Felix noted on the hall table one afternoon a letter in her handwriting, addressed to a Worcester newspaper, and remarked thereafter that she began to receive this journal daily, obviously with a view to reports of the coming assizes. Once he tried to break through into her confidence. It was August Bank Holiday, and they had gone out on to the heath together to see the people wonderfully assembled. Coming back across the burnt-up grass, strewn with paper bags, banana peel, and the cores of apples, he hooked his hand into her arm.

"What is to be done with a child that goes about all day thinking and thinking and not telling anybody what she is thinking?"

She smiled round at him and answered:

"I know, Dad. She IS a pig, isn't she?"

This comparison with an animal of proverbial stubbornness was not encouraging. Then his hand was squeezed to her side and he heard her murmur:

"I wonder if all daughters are such beasts!"

He understood well that she had meant: 'There is only one thing I want--one thing I mean to have--one thing in the world for me now!'

And he said soberly:

"We can't expect anything else."

"Oh, Daddy!" she answered, but nothing more.

Only four days later she came to his study with a letter, and a face so flushed and troubled that he dropped his pen and got up in alarm.

"Read this, Dad! It's impossible! It's not true! It's terrible! Oh! What am I to do?"

The letter ran thus, in a straight, boyish handwriting:


"ROYAL CHARLES HOSTEL,

"WORCESTER, Aug. 7th.

"MY NEDDA,

"I have just seen Bob tried. They have given him three years' penal. It was awful to sit there and watch him. He can never stand it. It was awful to watch him looking at ME. It's no good. I'm going to give myself up. I must do it. I've got everything ready; they'll have to believe me and squash his sentence. You see, but for me it would never have been done. It's a matter of honour. I can't let him suffer any more. This isn't impulse. I've been meaning to do it for some time, if they found him guilty. So in a way, it's an immense relief. I'd like to have seen you first, but it would only distress you, and I might not have been able to go through with it after. Nedda, darling, if you still love me when I get out, we'll go to New Zealand, away from this country where they bully poor creatures like Bob. Be brave! I'll write to-morrow, if they let me.

"Your
"Derek."


The first sensation in Felix on reading this effusion was poignant recollection of the little lawyer's look after Derek had made the scene at Tryst's committal and of his words: 'Nothing in it, is there?' His second thought: 'Is this the cutting of the knot that I've been looking for?' His third, which swept all else away: 'My poor little darling! What business has that boy to hurt her again like this!'

He heard her say:

"Tryst told me himself he did it, Dad! He told me when I went to see him in the prison. Honour doesn't demand what isn't true! Oh, Dad, help me!"

Felix was slow in getting free from the cross currents of reflection. "He wrote this last night," he said dismally. "He may have done it already. We must go and see John."

Nedda clasped her hands. "Ah! Yes!"

And Felix had not the heart to add what he was thinking: 'Not that I see what good he can do!' But, though sober reason told him this, it was astonishingly comforting to be going to some one who could be relied on to see the facts of the situation without any of that 'flimflam' with which imagination is accustomed to surround them. "And we'll send Derek a wire for what it's worth."

They went at once to the post-office, Felix composing this message on the way: 'Utterly mistaken chivalry you have no right await our arrival Felix Freeland.' He handed it to her to read, and passed it under the brass railing to the clerk, not without the feeling of shame due from one who uses the word chivalry in a post-office.

On the way to the Tube station he held her arm tightly, but whether to impart courage or receive it he could not have said, so strung-up in spirit did he feel her. With few words exchanged they reached Whitehall. Marking their card 'Urgent,' they were received within ten minutes.

John was standing in a high, white room, smelling a little of papers and tobacco, and garnished solely by five green chairs, a table, and a bureau with an immense number of pigeonholes, whereat he had obviously been seated. Quick to observe what concerned his little daughter, Felix noted how her greeting trembled up at her uncle and how a sort of warmth thawed for the moment the regularity of his brother's face. When they had taken two of the five green chairs and John was back at his bureau, Felix handed over the letter. John read it and looked at Nedda. Then taking a pipe out of his pocket, which he had evidently filled before they came in, he lighted it and re-read the letter. Then, looking very straight at Nedda, he said:

"Nothing in it? Honour bright, my dear!"

"No, Uncle John, nothing. Only that he fancies his talk about injustice put it into Tryst's head."

John nodded; the girl's face was evidence enough for him.

"Any proof?"

"Tryst himself told me in the prison that he did it. He said it came on him suddenly, when he saw the straw."

A pause followed before John said:

"Good! You and I and your father will go down and see the police."

Nedda lifted her hands and said breathlessly:

"But, Uncle! Dad! Have I the right? He says--honour. Won't it be betraying him?"

Felix could not answer, but with relief he heard John say:

"It's not honorable to cheat the law."

"No; but he trusted me or he wouldn't have written."

John answered slowly:

"I think your duty's plain, my dear. The question for the police will be whether or not to take notice of this false confession. For us to keep the knowledge that it's false from them, under the circumstances, is clearly not right. Besides being, to my mind, foolish."

For Felix to watch this mortal conflict going on in the soul of his daughter--that soul which used to seem, perhaps even now seemed, part of himself; to know that she so desperately wanted help for her decision, and to be unable to give it, unable even to trust himself to be honest--this was hard for Felix. There she sat, staring before her; and only her tight-clasped hands, the little movements of her lips and throat, showed the struggle going on in her.

"I couldn't, without seeing him; I MUST see him first, Uncle!"

John got up and went over to the window; he, too, had been affected by her face.

"You realize," he said, "that you risk everything by that. If he's given himself up, and they've believed him, he's not the sort to let it fall through. You cut off your chance if he won't let you tell. Better for your father and me to see him first, anyway." And Felix heard a mutter that sounded like: 'Confound him!'

Nedda rose. "Can we go at once, then, Uncle?"

With a solemnity that touched Felix, John put a hand on each side of her face, raised it, and kissed her on the forehead.

"All right!" he said. "Let's be off!"

A silent trio sought Paddington in a taxi-cab, digesting this desperate climax of an affair that sprang from origins so small.

In Felix, contemplating his daughter's face, there was profound compassion, but also that family dismay, that perturbation of self-esteem, which public scandal forces on kinsmen, even the most philosophic. He felt exasperation against Derek, against Kirsteen, almost even against Tod, for having acquiesced passively in the revolutionary bringing-up which had brought on such a disaster. War against injustice; sympathy with suffering; chivalry! Yes! But not quite to the point whence they recoiled on his daughter, his family, himself! The situation was impossible! He was fast resolving that, whether or no they saved Derek from this quixotry, the boy should not have Nedda. And already his eyes found difficulty in meeting hers.

They secured a compartment to themselves and, having settled down in corners, began mechanically unfolding evening journals. For after all, whatever happens, one must read the papers! Without that, life would indeed be insupportable! Felix had bought Mr. Cuthcott's, but, though he turned and turned the sheets, they seemed to have no sense till these words caught his eyes: "Convict's tragic death! Yesterday afternoon at Worcester, while being conveyed from the assize court back to prison, a man named Tryst, sentenced to three years' penal servitude for arson, suddenly attacked the warders in charge of him and escaped. He ran down the street, hotly pursued, and, darting out into the traffic, threw himself under a motor-car going at some speed. The car struck him on the head, and the unfortunate man was killed on the spot. No reason whatever can be assigned for this desperate act. He is known, however, to have suffered from epilepsy, and it is thought an attack may have been coming on him at the time."

When Felix had read these words he remained absolutely still, holding that buff-colored paper before his face, trying to decide what he must do now. What was the significance--exactly the significance of this? Now that Tryst was dead, Derek's quixotic action had no meaning. But had he already 'confessed'? It seemed from this account that the suicide was directly after the trial; even before the boy's letter to Nedda had been written. He must surely have heard of it since and given up his mad idea! He leaned over, touched John on the knee, and handed him the paper. John read the paragraph, handed it back; and the two brothers stared fixedly at each other. Then Felix made the faintest movement of his head toward his daughter, and John nodded. Crossing to Nedda, Felix hooked his arm in hers and said:

"Just look at this, my child."

Nedda read, started to her feet, sank back, and cried out:

"Poor, poor man! Oh, Dad! Poor man!"

Felix felt ashamed. Though Tryst's death meant so much relief to her, she felt first this rush of compassion; he himself, to whom it meant so much less relief, had felt only that relief.

"He said he couldn't stand it; he told me that. But I never thought--Oh! Poor man!" And, burying her face against his arm, she gave way.

Petrified, and conscious that John at the far end of the carriage was breathing rather hard, Felix could only stroke her arm till at last she whispered:

"There's nobody now for Derek to save. Oh, if you'd seen that poor man in prison, Dad!"

And the only words of comfort Felix could find were:

"My child, there are thousands and thousands of poor prisoners and captives!"

In a truce to agitation they spent the rest of that three hours' journey, while the train rattled and rumbled through the quiet, happy-looking land.


John Galsworthy