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Chapter 35

It was tea-time when they reached Worcester, and at once went up to the Royal Charles Hostel. A pretty young woman in the office there informed them that the young gentleman had paid his bill and gone out about ten o'clock; but had left his luggage. She had not seen him come in. His room was up that little staircase at the end of the passage. There was another entrance that he might have come in at. The 'Boots' would take them.

Past the hall stuffed with furniture and decorated with the stags' heads and battle-prints common to English county-town hotels, they followed the 'Boots' up five red-carpeted steps, down a dingy green corridor, to a door at the very end. There was no answer to their knock. The dark little room, with striped walls, and more battle-prints, looked out on a side street and smelled dusty. On a shiny leather sofa an old valise, strapped-up ready for departure, was reposing with Felix's telegram, unopened, deposited thereon. Writing on his card, "Have come down with Nedda. F. F.," and laying it on the telegram, in case Derek should come in by the side entrance, Felix and Nedda rejoined John in the hall.

To wait in anxiety is perhaps the hardest thing in life; tea, tobacco, and hot baths perhaps the only anodynes. These, except the baths, they took. Without knowing what had happened, neither John nor Felix liked to make inquiry at the police station, nor did they care to try and glean knowledge from the hotel people by questions that might lead to gossip. They could but kick their heels till it became reasonably certain that Derek was not coming back. The enforced waiting increased Felix's exasperation. Everything Derek did seemed designed to cause Nedda pain. To watch her sitting there, trying resolutely to mask her anxiety, became intolerable. At last he got up and said to John:

"I think we'd better go round there," and, John nodding, he added: "Wait here, my child. One of us'll come back at once and tell you anything we hear."

She gave them a grateful look and the two brothers went out. They had not gone twenty yards when they met Derek striding along, pale, wild, unhappy-looking. When Felix touched him on the arm, he started and stared blankly at his uncle.

"We've seen about Tryst," Felix said: "You've not done anything?"

Derek shook his head.

"Good! John, tell Nedda that, and stay with her a bit. I want to talk to Derek. We'll go in the other way." He put his hand under the boy's arm and turned him down into the side street. When they reached the gloomy little bedroom Felix pointed to the telegram.

"From me. I suppose the news of his death stopped you?"

"Yes." Derek opened the telegram, dropped it, and sat down beside his valise on the shiny sofa. He looked positively haggard.

Taking his stand against the chest of drawers, Felix said quietly:

"I'm going to have it out with you, Derek. Do you understand what all this means to Nedda? Do you realize how utterly unhappy you're making her? I don't suppose you're happy yourself--"

The boy's whole figure writhed.

"Happy! When you've killed some one you don't think much of happiness--your own or any one's!"

Startled in his turn, Felix said sharply:

"Don't talk like that. It's monomania."

Derek laughed. "Bob Tryst's dead--through me! I can't get out of that."

Gazing at the boy's tortured face, Felix grasped the gruesome fact that this idea amounted to obsession.

"Derek," he said, "you've dwelt on this till you see it out of all proportion. If we took to ourselves the remote consequences of all our words we should none of us survive a week. You're overdone. You'll see it differently to-morrow."

Derek got up to pace the room.

"I swear I would have saved him. I tried to do it when they committed him at Transham." He looked wildly at Felix. "Didn't I? You were there; you heard!"

"Yes, yes; I heard."

"They wouldn't let me then. I thought they mightn't find him guilty here--so I let it go on. And now he's dead. You don't know how I feel!"

His throat was working, and Felix said with real compassion:

"My dear boy! Your sense of honour is too extravagant altogether. A grown man like poor Tryst knew perfectly what he was doing."

"No. He was like a dog--he did what he thought was expected of him. I never meant him to burn those ricks."

"Exactly! No one can blame you for a few wild words. He might have been the boy and you the man by the way you take it! Come!"

Derek sat down again on the shiny sofa and buried his head in his hands.

"I can't get away from him. He's been with me all day. I see him all the time."

That the boy was really haunted was only too apparent. How to attack this mania? If one could make him feel something else! And Felix said:

"Look here, Derek! Before you've any right to Nedda you've got to find ballast. That's a matter of honour, if you like."

Derek flung up his head as if to escape a blow. Seeing that he had riveted him, Felix pressed on, with some sternness:

"A man can't serve two passions. You must give up this championing the weak and lighting flames you can't control. See what it leads to! You've got to grow and become a man. Until then I don't trust my daughter to you."

The boy's lips quivered; a flush darkened his face, ebbed, and left him paler than ever.

Felix felt as if he had hit that face. Still, anything was better than to leave him under this gruesome obsession! Then, to his consternation, Derek stood up and said:

"If I go and see his body at the prison, perhaps he'll leave me alone a little!"

Catching at that, as he would have caught at anything, Felix said:

"Good! Yes! Go and see the poor fellow; we'll come, too."

And he went out to find Nedda.

By the time they reached the street Derek had already started, and they could see him going along in front. Felix racked his brains to decide whether he ought to prepare her for the state the boy was in. Twice he screwed himself up to take the plunge, but her face--puzzled, as though wondering at her lover's neglect of her--stopped him. Better say nothing!

Just as they reached the prison she put her hand on his arm:

"Look, Dad!"

And Felix read on the corner of the prison lane those words: 'Love's Walk'!

Derek was waiting at the door. After some difficulty they were admitted and taken down the corridor where the prisoner on his knees had stared up at Nedda, past the courtyard where those others had been pacing out their living hieroglyphic, up steps to the hospital. Here, in a white-washed room on a narrow bed, the body of the big laborer lay, wrapped in a sheet.

"We bury him Friday, poor chap! Fine big man, too!" And at the warder's words a shudder passed through Felix. The frozen tranquillity of that body!

As the carved beauty of great buildings, so is the graven beauty of death, the unimaginable wonder of the abandoned thing lying so quiet, marvelling at its resemblance to what once lived! How strange this thing, still stamped by all that it had felt, wanted, loved, and hated, by all its dumb, hard, commonplace existence! This thing with the calm, pathetic look of one who asks of his own fled spirit: Why have you abandoned me?

Death! What more wonderful than a dead body--that still perfect work of life, for which life has no longer use! What more mysterious than this sight of what still is, yet is not!

Below the linen swathing the injured temples, those eyes were closed through which such yearning had looked forth. From that face, where the hair had grown faster than if it had been alive, death's majesty had planed away the aspect of brutality, removed the yearning, covering all with wistful acquiescence. Was his departed soul coherent? Where was it? Did it hover in this room, visible still to the boy? Did it stand there beside what was left of Tryst the laborer, that humblest of all creatures who dared to make revolt--serf, descendant of serfs, who, since the beginning, had hewn wood, drawn water, and done the will of others? Or was it winged, and calling in space to the souls of the oppressed?

This body would go back to the earth that it had tended, the wild grass would grow over it, the seasons spend wind and rain forever above it. But that which had held this together--the inarticulate, lowly spirit, hardly asking itself why things should be, faithful as a dog to those who were kind to it, obeying the dumb instinct of a violence that in his betters would be called 'high spirit,' where--Felix wondered--where was it?

And what were they thinking--Nedda and that haunted boy--so motionless? Nothing showed on their faces, nothing but a sort of living concentration, as if they were trying desperately to pierce through and see whatever it was that held this thing before them in such awful stillness. Their first glimpse of death; their first perception of that terrible remoteness of the dead! No wonder they seemed to be conjured out of the power of thought and feeling!

Nedda was first to turn away. Walking back by her side, Felix was surprised by her composure. The reality of death had not been to her half so harrowing as the news of it. She said softly:

"I'm glad to have seen him like that; now I shall think of him--at peace; not as he was that other time."

Derek rejoined them, and they went in silence back to the hotel. But at the door she said:

"Come with me to the cathedral, Derek; I can't go in yet!"

To Felix's dismay the boy nodded, and they turned to go. Should he stop them? Should he go with them? What should a father do? And, with a heavy sigh, he did nothing but retire into the hotel.

John Galsworthy