Chapter 38




Derek, who had slept the sleep of the dead, having had none for two nights, woke thinking of Nedda hovering above him in the dark; of her face laid down beside him on the pillow. And then, suddenly, up started that thing, and stood there, haunting him! Why did it come? What did it want of him? After writing the little note to Nedda, he hurried to the station and found a train about to start. To see and talk with the laborers; to do something, anything to prove that this tragic companion had no real existence! He went first to the Gaunts' cottage. The door, there, was opened by the rogue-girl, comely and robust as ever, in a linen frock, with her sleeves rolled up, and smiling broadly at his astonishment.

"Don't be afraid, Mr. Derek; I'm only here for the week-end, just to tiddy up a bit. 'Tis all right in London. I wouldn't come back here, I wouldn't--not if you was to give me--" and she pouted her red lips.

"Where's your father, Wilmet?"

"Over in Willey's Copse cuttin' stakes. I hear you've been ill, Mr. Derek. You do look pale. Were you very bad?" And her eyes opened as though the very thought of illness was difficult for her to grasp. "I saw your young lady up in London. She's very pretty. Wish you happiness, Mr. Derek. Grandfather, here's Mr. Derek!"

The face of old Gaunt, carved, cynical, yellow, appeared above her shoulder. There he stood, silent, giving Derek no greeting. And with a sudden miserable feeling the boy said:

"I'll go and find him. Good-by, Wilmet!"

"Good-by, Mr. Derek. 'Tis quiet enough here now; there's changes."

Her rogue face twinkled again, and, turning her chin, she rubbed it on her plump shoulder, as might a heifer, while from behind her Grandfather Gaunt's face looked out with a faint, sardonic grin.

Derek, hurrying on to Willey's Copse, caught sight, along a far hedge, of the big dark laborer, Tulley, who had been his chief lieutenant in the fighting; but, whether the man heard his hail or no, he continued along the hedgeside without response and vanished over a stile. The field dipped sharply to a stream, and at the crossing Derek came suddenly on the little 'dot-here dot-there' cowherd, who, at Derek's greeting, gave him an abrupt "Good day!" and went on with his occupation of mending a hurdle. Again that miserable feeling beset the boy, and he hastened on. A sound of chopping guided him. Near the edge of the coppice Tom Gaunt was lopping at some bushes. At sight of Derek he stopped and stood waiting, his loquacious face expressionless, his little, hard eye cocked.

"Good morning, Tom. It's ages since I saw you."

"Ah, 'tis a proper long time! You 'ad a knock."

Derek winced; it was said as if he had been disabled in an affair in which Gaunt had neither part nor parcel. Then, with a great effort, the boy brought out his question:

"You've heard about poor Bob?"

"Yaas; 'tis the end of HIM."

Some meaning behind those words, the unsmiling twist of that hard-bitten face, the absence of the 'sir' that even Tom Gaunt generally gave him, all seemed part of an attack. And, feeling as if his heart were being squeezed, Derek looked straight into his face.

"What's the matter, Tom?"

"Matter! I don' know as there's anything the matter, ezactly!"

"What have I done? Tell me!"

Tom Gaunt smiled; his little, gray eyes met Derek's full.

"'Tisn't for a gentleman to be held responsible."

"Come!" Derek cried passionately. "What is it? D'you think I deserted you, or what? Speak out, man!"

Abating nothing of his stare and drawl, Gaunt answered:

"Deserted? Oh, dear no! Us can't afford to do no more dyin' for you--that's all!"

"For me! Dying! My God! D'you think I wouldn't have--? Oh! Confound you!"

"Aye! Confounded us you 'ave! Hope you're satisfied!"

Pale as death and quivering all over, Derek answered:

"So you think I've just been frying fish of my own?"

Tom Gaunt, emitted a little laugh.

"I think you've fried no fish at all. That's what I think. And no one else does, neither, if you want to know--except poor Bob. You've fried his fish, sure enough!"

Stung to the heart, the boy stood motionless. A pigeon was cooing; the sappy scent from the lopped bushes filled all the sun-warmed air.

"I see!" he said. "Thanks, Tom; I'm glad to know."

Without moving a muscle, Tom Gaunt answered:

"Don't mention it!" and resumed his lopping.

Derek turned and walked out of the little wood. But when he had put a field between him and the sound of Gaunt's bill-hook, he lay down and buried his face in the grass, chewing at its green blades, scarce dry of dew, and with its juicy sweetness tasting the full of bitterness. And the gray shade stalked out again, and stood there in the warmth of the August day, with its scent and murmur of full summer, while the pigeons cooed and dandelion fluff drifted by....

When, two hours later, he entered the kitchen at home, of the company assembled Frances Freeland alone retained equanimity enough to put up her face to be kissed.

"I'm so thankful you've come back in time to see your uncles, darling. Your Uncle John thinks, and we all agree, that to encourage those poor laborers to do things which are not nice is--is--you know what I mean, darling!"

Derek gave a bitter little laugh.

"Criminal, Granny! Yes, and puppyish! I've learned all that."

The sound of his voice was utterly unlike his own, and Kirsteen, starting forward, put her arm round him.

"It's all right, Mother. They've chucked me."

At that moment, when all, save his mother, wanted so to express their satisfaction, Frances Freeland alone succeeded.

"I'm so glad, darling!"

Then John rose and, holding out his hand to his nephew, said:

"That's the end of the trouble, then, Derek?"

"Yes. And I beg your pardon, Uncle John; and all--Uncle Stanley, Uncle Felix; you, Dad; Granny."

They had all risen now. The boy's face gave them--even John, even Stanley--a choke in the throat. Frances Freeland suddenly took their arms and went to the door; her other two sons followed. And quietly they all went out.

Derek, who had stayed perfectly still, staring past Nedda into a corner of the room, said:

"Ask him what he wants, Mother."

Nedda smothered down a cry. But Kirsteen, tightening her clasp of him and looking steadily into that corner, answered:

"Nothing, my boy. He's quite friendly. He only wants to be with you for a little."

"But I can't do anything for him."

"He knows that."

"I wish he wouldn't, Mother. I can't be more sorry than I have been."

Kirsteen's face quivered.

"My dear, it will go quite soon. Love Nedda! See! She wants you!"

Derek answered in the same quiet voice:

"Yes, Nedda is the comfort. Mother, I want to go away--away out of England--right away."

Nedda rushed and flung her arms round him.

"I, too, Derek; I, too!"

That evening Felix came out to the old 'fly,' waiting to take him from Joyfields to Becket. What a sky! All over its pale blue a far-up wind had drifted long, rosy clouds, and through one of them the half-moon peered, of a cheese-green hue; and, framed and barred by the elm-trees, like some roseate, stained-glass window, the sunset blazed. In a corner of the orchard a little bonfire had been lighted, and round it he could see the three small Trysts dropping armfuls of leaves and pointing at the flames leaping out of the smoulder. There, too, was Tod's big figure, motionless, and his dog sitting on its haunches, with head poked forward, staring at those red tongues of flame. Kirsteen had come with him to the wicket gate. He held her hand long in his own and pressed it hard. And while that blue figure, turned to the sunset, was still visible, he screwed himself back to look.

They had been in painful conclave, as it seemed to Felix, all day, coming to the decision that those two young things should have their wish, marry, and go out to New Zealand. The ranch of Cousin Alick Morton (son of that brother of Frances Freeland, who, absorbed in horses, had wandered to Australia and died in falling from them) had extended a welcome to Derek. Those two would have a voyage of happiness--see together the red sunsets in the Mediterranean, Pompeii, and the dark ants of men swarming in endless band up and down with their coal-sacks at Port Said; smell the cinnamon gardens of Colombo; sit up on deck at night and watch the stars.... Who could grudge it them? Out there youth and energy would run unchecked. For here youth had been beaten!

On and on the old 'fly' rumbled between the shadowy fields. 'The world is changing, Felix--changing!' Was that defeat of youth, then, nothing? Under the crust of authority and wealth, culture and philosophy--was the world really changing; was liberty truly astir, under that sky in the west all blood; and man rising at long last from his knees before the God of force? The silent, empty fields darkened, the air gathered dewy thickness, and the old 'fly' rumbled and rolled as slow as fate. Cottage lamps were already lighted for the evening meal. No laborer abroad at this hour! And Felix thought of Tryst, the tragic fellow--the moving, lonely figure; emanation of these solitary fields, shade of the departing land! One might well see him as that boy saw him, silent, dogged, in a gray light such as this now clinging above the hedgerows and the grass!

The old 'fly' turned into the Becket drive. It had grown dark now, save for the half-moon; the last chafer was booming by, and a bat flitting, a little, blind, eager bat, through the quiet trees. He got out to walk the last few hundred yards. A lovely night, silent below her stars--cool and dark, spread above field after field, wood on wood, for hundreds of miles on every side. Night covering his native land. The same silence had reigned out there, the same perfume stolen up, the same star-shine fallen, for millions of years in the past, and would for millions of years to come. Close to where the half-moon floated, a slow, narrow, white cloud was passing--curiously shaped. At one end of it Felix could see distinctly the form of a gleaming skull, with dark sky showing through its eyeholes, cheeks, and mouth. A queer phenomenon; fascinating, rather ghastly! It grew sharper in outline, more distinct. One of those sudden shudders, that seize men from the crown of the head to the very heels, passed down his back. He shut his eyes. And, instead, there came up before him Kirsteen's blue-clothed figure turned to the sunset glow. Ah! Better to see that than this skull above the land! Better to believe her words: 'The world is changing, Felix--changing!'


THE END.

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