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Chapter 37

It was long before she closed her eyes, spending the hours in fancy where still less she would have slept. But when she did drop off she dreamed that he and she were alone upon a star, where all the trees were white, the water, grass, birds, everything, white, and they were walking arm in arm, among white flowers. And just as she had stooped to pick one--it was no flower, but--Tryst's white-banded face! She woke with a little cry.

She was dressed by eight and went at once to Derek's room. There was no answer to her knock, and in a flutter of fear she opened the door. He had gone--packed, and gone. She ran back to the hall. There was a note for her in the office, and she took it out of sight to read. It said:

"He came back this morning. I'm going home by the first train. He seems to want me to do something.

"DEREK."

Came back! That thing--that gray thing that she, too, had seemed to see for a moment in the fields beside the river! And he was suffering again as he had suffered yesterday! It was awful. She waited miserably till her father came down. To find that he, too, knew of this trouble was some relief. He made no objection when she begged that they should follow on to Joyfields. Directly after breakfast they set out. Once on her way to Derek again, she did not feel so frightened. But in the train she sat very still, gazing at her lap, and only once glanced up from under those long lashes.

"Can you understand it, Dad?"

Felix, not much happier than she, answered:

"The man had something queer about him. Besides Derek's been ill, don't forget that. But it's too bad for you, Nedda. I don't like it; I don't like it."

"I can't be parted from him, Dad. That's impossible."

Felix was silenced by the vigor of those words.

"His mother can help, perhaps," he said.

Ah! If his mother would help--send him away from the laborers, and all this!

Up from the station they took the field paths, which cut off quite a mile. The grass and woods were shining brightly, peacefully in the sun; it seemed incredible that there should be heartburnings about a land so smiling, that wrongs and miseries should haunt those who lived and worked in these bright fields. Surely in this earthly paradise the dwellers were enviable, well-nourished souls, sleek and happy as the pied cattle that lifted their inquisitive muzzles! Nedda tried to stroke the nose of one--grayish, blunt, moist. But the creature backed away from her hand, snuffling, and its cynical, soft eyes with chestnut lashes seemed warning the girl that she belonged to the breed that might be trusted to annoy.

In the last fields before the Joyfields crossroads they came up with a little, square, tow-headed man, without coat or cap, who had just driven some cattle in and was returning with his dog, at a 'dot-here dot-there' walk, as though still driving them. He gave them a look rather like that of the bullock Nedda had tried to stroke. She knew he must be one of the Malloring men, and longed to ask him questions; but he, too, looked shy and distrustful, as if he suspected that they wanted something out of him. She summoned up courage, however, to say: "Did you see about poor Bob Tryst?"

"I 'eard tell. 'E didn' like prison. They say prison takes the 'eart out of you. 'E didn' think o' that." And the smile that twisted the little man's lips seemed to Nedda strange and cruel, as if he actually found pleasure in the fate of his fellow. All she could find to answer was:

"Is that a good dog?"

The little man looked down at the dog trotting alongside with drooped tail, and shook his head:

"'E's no good wi' beasts--won't touch 'em!" Then, looking up sidelong, he added surprisingly:

"Mast' Freeland 'e got a crack on the head, though!" Again there was that satisfied resentment in his voice and the little smile twisting his lips. Nedda felt more lost than ever.

They parted at the crossroads and saw him looking back at them as they went up the steps to the wicket gate. Amongst a patch of early sunflowers, Tod, in shirt and trousers, was surrounded by his dog and the three small Trysts, all apparently engaged in studying the biggest of the sunflowers, where a peacock-butterfly and a bee were feeding, one on a gold petal, the other on the black heart. Nedda went quickly up to them and asked:

"Has Derek come, Uncle Tod?"

Tod raised his eyes. He did not seem in the least surprised to see her, as if his sky were in the habit of dropping his relatives at ten in the morning.

"Gone out again," he said.

Nedda made a sign toward the children.

"Have you heard, Uncle Tod?"

Tod nodded and his blue eyes, staring above the children's heads, darkened.

"Is Granny still here?"

Again Tod nodded.

Leaving Felix in the garden, Nedda stole upstairs and tapped on Frances Freeland's door.

She, whose stoicism permitted her the one luxury of never coming down to breakfast, had just made it for herself over a little spirit-lamp. She greeted Nedda with lifted eyebrows.

"Oh, my darling! Where HAVE you come from? You must have my nice cocoa! Isn't this the most perfect lamp you ever saw? Did you ever see such a flame? Watch!"

She touched the spirit-lamp and what there was of flame died out.

"Now, isn't that provoking? It's really a splendid thing, quite a new kind. I mean to get you one. Now, drink your cocoa; it's beautifully hot."

"I've had breakfast, Granny."

Frances Freeland gazed at her doubtfully, then, as a last resource, began to sip the cocoa, of which, in truth, she was badly in want.

"Granny, will you help me?"

"Of course, darling. What is it?"

"I do so want Derek to forget all about this terrible business."

Frances Freeland, who had unscrewed the top of a little canister, answered:

"Yes, dear, I quite agree. I'm sure it's best for him. Open your mouth and let me pop in one of these delicious little plasmon biscuits. They're perfect after travelling. Only," she added wistfully, "I'm afraid he won't pay any attention to me."

"No, but you could speak to Aunt Kirsteen; it's for her to stop him."

One of her most pathetic smiles came over Frances Freeland's face.

"Yes, I could speak to her. But, you see, I don't count for anything. One doesn't when one gets old."

"Oh, Granny, you do! You count for a lot; every one admires you so. You always seem to have something that--that other people haven't got. And you're not a bit old in spirit."

Frances Freeland was fingering her rings; she slipped one off.

"Well," she said, "it's no good thinking about that, is it? I've wanted to give you this for ages, darling; it IS so uncomfortable on my finger. Now, just let me see if I can pop it on!"

Nedda recoiled.

"Oh, Granny!" she said. "You ARE--!" and vanished.

There was still no one in the kitchen, and she sat down to wait for her aunt to finish her up-stairs duties.

Kirsteen came down at last, in her inevitable blue dress, betraying her surprise at this sudden appearance of her niece only by a little quivering of her brows. And, trembling with nervousness, Nedda took her plunge, pouring out the whole story--of Derek's letter; their journey down; her father's talk with him; the visit to Tryst's body; their walk by the river; and of how haunted and miserable he was. Showing the little note he had left that morning, she clasped her hands and said:

"Oh, Aunt Kirsteen, make him happy again! Stop that awful haunting and keep him from all this!"

Kirsteen had listened, with one foot on the hearth in her favorite attitude. When the girl had finished she said quietly:

"I'm not a witch, Nedda!"

"But if it wasn't for you he would never have started. And now that poor Tryst's dead he would leave it alone. I'm sure only you can make him lose that haunted feeling."

Kirsteen shook her head.

"Listen, Nedda!" she said slowly, as though weighing each word. "I should like you to understand. There's a superstition in this country that people are free. Ever since I was a girl your age I've known that they are not; no one is free here who can't pay for freedom. It's one thing to see, another to feel this with your whole being. When, like me, you have an open wound, which something is always inflaming, you can't wonder, can you, that fever escapes into the air. Derek may have caught the infection of my fever--that's all! But I shall never lose that fever, Nedda--never!"

"But, Aunt Kirsteen, this haunting is dreadful. I can't bear to see it."

"My dear, Derek is very highly strung, and he's been ill. It's in my family to see things. That'll go away."

Nedda said passionately:

"I don't believe he'll ever lose it while he goes on here, tearing his heart out. And they're trying to get me away from him. I know they are!"

Kirsteen turned; her eyes seemed to blaze.

"They? Ah! Yes! You'll have to fight if you want to marry a rebel, Nedda!"

Nedda put her hands to her forehead, bewildered. "You see, Nedda, rebellion never ceases. It's not only against this or that injustice, it's against all force and wealth that takes advantage of its force and wealth. That rebellion goes on forever. Think well before you join in."

Nedda turned away. Of what use to tell her to think when 'I won't--I can't be parted from him!' kept every other thought paralyzed. And she pressed her forehead against the cross-bar of the window, trying to find better words to make her appeal again. Out there above the orchard the sky was blue, and everything light and gay, as the very butterflies that wavered past. A motor-car seemed to have stopped in the road close by; its whirring and whizzing was clearly audible, mingled with the cooings of pigeons and a robin's song. And suddenly she heard her aunt say:

"You have your chance, Nedda! Here they are!"

Nedda turned. There in the doorway were her Uncles John and Stanley coming in, followed by her father and Uncle Tod.

What did this mean? What had they come for? And, disturbed to the heart, she gazed from one to the other. They had that curious look of people not quite knowing what their reception will be like, yet with something resolute, almost portentous, in their mien. She saw John go up to her aunt and hold out his hand.

"I dare say Felix and Nedda have told you about yesterday," he said. "Stanley and I thought it best to come over." Kirsteen answered:

"Tod, will you tell Mother who's here?"

Then none of them seemed to know quite what to say, or where to look, till Frances Freeland, her face all pleased and anxious, came in. When she had kissed them they all sat down. And Nedda, at the window, squeezed her hands tight together in her lap.

"We've come about Derek," John said.

"Yes," broke in Stanley. "For goodness' sake, Kirsteen, don't let's have any more of this! Just think what would have happened yesterday if that poor fellow hadn't providentially gone off the hooks!"

"Providentially!"

"Well, it was. You see to what lengths Derek was prepared to go. Hang it all! We shouldn't have been exactly proud of a felon in the family."

Frances Freeland, who had been lacing and unlacing her fingers, suddenly fixed her eyes on Kirsteen.

"I don't understand very well, darling, but I am sure that whatever dear John says will be wise and right. You must remember that he is the eldest and has a great deal of experience."

Kirsteen bent her head. If there was irony in the gesture, it was not perceived by Frances Freeland.

"It can't be right for dear Derek, or any gentleman, to go against the law of the land or be mixed up with wrong-doing in any way. I haven't said anything, but I HAVE felt it very much. Because--it's all been not quite nice, has it?"

Nedda saw her father wince. Then Stanley broke in again:

"Now that the whole thing's done with, do, for Heaven's sake, let's have a little peace!"

At that moment her aunt's face seemed wonderful to Nedda; so quiet, yet so burningly alive.

"Peace! There is no peace in this world. There is death, but no peace!" And, moving nearer to Tod, she rested her hand on his shoulder, looking, as it seemed to Nedda, at something far away, till John said:

"That's hardly the point, is it? We should be awfully glad to know that there'll be no more trouble. All this has been very worrying. And now the cause seems to be--removed."

There was always a touch of finality in John's voice. Nedda saw that all had turned to Kirsteen for her answer.

"If those up and down the land who profess belief in liberty will cease to filch from the helpless the very crust of it, the cause will be removed."

"Which is to say--never!"

At those words from Felix, Frances Freeland, gazing first at him and then at Kirsteen, said in a pained voice:

"I don't think you ought to talk like that, Kirsteen, dear. Nobody who's at all nice means to be unkind. We're all forgetful sometimes. I know I often forget to be sympathetic. It vexes me dreadfully!"

"Mother, don't defend tyranny!"

"I'm sure it's often from the best motives, dear."

"So is rebellion."

"Well, I don't understand about that, darling. But I do think, with dear John, it's a great pity. It will be a dreadful drawback to Derek if he has to look back on something that he regrets when he's older. It's always best to smile and try to look on the bright side of things and not be grumbly-grumbly!"

After that little speech of Frances Freeland's there was a silence that Nedda thought would last forever, till her aunt, pressing close to Tod's shoulder, spoke.

"You want me to stop Derek. I tell you all what I've just told Nedda. I don't attempt to control Derek; I never have. For myself, when I see a thing I hate I can't help fighting against it. I shall never be able to help that. I understand how you must dislike all this; I know it must be painful to you, Mother. But while there is tyranny in this land, to laborers, women, animals, anything weak and helpless, so long will there be rebellion against it, and things will happen that will disturb you."

Again Nedda saw her father wince. But Frances Freeland, bending forward, fixed her eyes piercingly on Kirsteen's neck, as if she were noticing something there more important than that about tyranny!

Then John said very gravely:

"You seem to think that we approve of such things being done to the helpless!"

"I know that you disapprove."

"With the masterly inactivity," Felix said suddenly, in a voice more bitter than Nedda had ever heard from him, "of authority, money, culture, and philosophy. With the disapproval that lifts no finger--winking at tyrannies lest worse befall us. Yes, WE--brethren--we--and so we shall go on doing. Quite right, Kirsteen!"

"No. The world is changing, Felix, changing!"

But Nedda had started up. There at the door was Derek.


John Galsworthy