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The day after the little conference at John's, Felix had indeed received the following note:
"When you go down to see old Tod, why not put up with us at Becket? Any time will suit, and the car can take you over to Joyfields when you like. Give the pen a rest. Clara joins in hoping you'll come, and Mother is still here. No use, I suppose, to ask Flora.
During the twenty years of his brother's sojourn there Felix had been down to Becket perhaps once a year, and latterly alone; for Flora, having accompanied him the first few times, had taken a firm stand.
"My dear," she said, "I feel all body there."
Felix had rejoined:
"No bad thing, once in a way."
But Flora had remained firm. Life was too short! She did not get on well with Clara. Neither did Felix feel too happy in his sister-in-law's presence; but the gray top-hat instinct had kept him going there, for one ought to keep in touch with one's brothers.
He replied to Stanley:
"Delighted; if I may bring my two youngsters. We'll arrive to-morrow at four-fifty.
Travelling with Nedda was always jolly; one could watch her eyes noting, inquiring, and when occasion served, have one's little finger hooked in and squeezed. Travelling with Alan was convenient, the young man having a way with railways which Felix himself had long despaired of acquiring. Neither of the children had ever been at Becket, and though Alan was seldom curious, and Nedda too curious about everything to be specially so about this, yet Felix experienced in their company the sensations of a new adventure.
Arrived at Transham, that little town upon a hill which the Morton Plough Works had created, they were soon in Stanley's car, whirling into the sleepy peace of a Worcestershire afternoon. Would this young bird nestling up against him echo Flora's verdict: 'I feel all body there!' or would she take to its fatted luxury as a duck to water? And he said: "By the way, your aunt's 'Bigwigs' set in on a Saturday. Are you for staying and seeing the lions feed, or do we cut back?"
From Alan he got the answer he expected:
"If there's golf or something, I suppose we can make out all right." From Nedda: "What sort of Bigwigs are they, Dad?"
"A sort you've never seen, my dear."
"Then I should like to stay. Only, about dresses?"
"What war paint have you?"
"Only two white evenings. And Mums gave me her Mechlin."
To Felix, Nedda in white 'evenings' was starry and all that man could desire.
"Only, Dad, do tell me about them, beforehand."
"My dear, I will. And God be with you. This is where Becket begins."
The car had swerved into a long drive between trees not yet full-grown, but decorously trying to look more than their twenty years. To the right, about a group of older elms, rooks were in commotion, for Stanley's three keepers' wives had just baked their annual rook pies, and the birds were not yet happy again. Those elms had stood there when the old Moretons walked past them through corn-fields to church of a Sunday. Away on the left above the lake, the little walled mound had come in view. Something in Felix always stirred at sight of it, and, squeezing Nedda's arm, he said:
"See that silly wall? Behind there Granny's ancients lived. Gone now--new house--new lake--new trees--new everything."
But he saw from his little daughter's calm eyes that the sentiment in him was not in her.
"I like the lake," she said. "There's Granny--oh, and a peacock!"
His mother's embrace, with its frail energy, and the pressure of her soft, dry lips, filled Felix always with remorse. Why could he not give the simple and direct expression to his feeling that she gave to hers? He watched those lips transferred to Nedda, heard her say: "Oh, my darling, how lovely to see you! Do you know this for midge-bites?" A hand, diving deep into a pocket, returned with a little silver-coated stick having a bluish end. Felix saw it rise and hover about Nedda's forehead, and descend with two little swift dabs. "It takes them away at once."
"Oh, but Granny, they're not midge-bites; they're only from my hat!"
"It doesn't matter, darling; it takes away anything like that."
And he thought: 'Mother is really wonderful!'
At the house the car had already disgorged their luggage. Only one man, but he absolutely the butler, awaited them, and they entered, at once conscious of Clara's special pot-pourri. Its fragrance steamed from blue china, in every nook and crevice, a sort of baptism into luxury. Clara herself, in the outer morning-room, smelled a little of it. Quick and dark of eye, capable, comely, perfectly buttoned, one of those women who know exactly how not to be superior to the general taste of the period. In addition to that great quality she was endowed with a fine nose, an instinct for co-ordination not to be excelled, and a genuine love of making people comfortable; so that it was no wonder that she had risen in the ranks of hostesses, till her house was celebrated for its ease, even among those who at their week-ends liked to feel 'all body.' In regard to that characteristic of Becket, not even Felix in his ironies had ever stood up to Clara; the matter was too delicate. Frances Freeland, indeed--not because she had any philosophic preconceptions on the matter, but because it was 'not nice, dear, to be wasteful' even if it were only of rose-leaves, or to 'have too much decoration,' such as Japanese prints in places where they hum--sometimes told her daughter-in-law frankly what was wrong, without, however, making the faintest impression upon Clara, for she was not sensitive, and, as she said to Stanley, it was 'only Mother.'
When they had drunk that special Chinese tea, all the rage, but which no one really liked, in the inner morning, or afternoon room--for the drawing-rooms were too large to be comfortable except at week-ends--they went to see the children, a special blend of Stanley and Clara, save the little Francis, who did not seem to be entirely body. Then Clara took them to their rooms. She lingered kindly in Nedda's, feeling that the girl could not yet feel quite at home, and looking in the soap-dish lest she might not have the right verbena, and about the dressing-table to see that she had pins and scent, and plenty of 'pot-pourri,' and thinking: 'The child is pretty--a nice girl, not like her mother.' Explaining carefully how, because of the approaching week-end, she had been obliged to put her in 'a very simple room' where she would be compelled to cross the corridor to her bath, she asked her if she had a quilted dressing-gown, and finding that she had not, left her saying she would send one--and could she do her frocks up, or should Sirrett come?
Abandoned, the girl stood in the middle of the room, so far more 'simple' than she had ever slept in, with its warm fragrance of rose-leaves and verbena, its Aubusson carpet, white silk-quilted bed, sofa, cushioned window-seat, dainty curtains, and little nickel box of biscuits on little spindly table. There she stood and sniffed, stretched herself, and thought: 'It's jolly--only, it smells too much!' and she went up to the pictures, one by one. They seemed to go splendidly with the room, and suddenly she felt homesick. Ridiculous, of course! Yet, if she had known where her father's room was, she would have run out to it; but her memory was too tangled up with stairs and corridors--to find her way down to the hall again was all she could have done.
A maid came in now with a blue silk gown very thick and soft. Could she do anything for Miss Freeland? No, thanks, she could not; only, did she know where Mr. Freeland's room was?
"Which Mr. Freeland, miss, the young or the old?"
"Oh, the old!" Having said which, Nedda felt unhappy; her Dad was not old! "No, miss; but I'll find out. It'll be in the walnut wing!" But with a little flutter at the thought of thus setting people to run about wings, Nedda murmured: "Oh! thanks, no; it doesn't matter."
She settled down now on the cushion of the window-seat, to look out and take it all in, right away to that line of hills gone blue in the haze of the warm evening. That would be Malvern; and there, farther to the south, the 'Tods' lived. 'Joyfields!' A pretty name! And it was lovely country all round; green and peaceful, with its white, timbered houses and cottages. People must be very happy, living here--happy and quiet like the stars and the birds; not like the crowds in London thronging streets and shops and Hampstead Heath; not like the people in all those disgruntled suburbs that led out for miles where London ought to have stopped but had not; not like the thousands and thousands of those poor creatures in Bethnal Green, where her slum work lay. The natives here must surely be happy. Only, were there any natives? She had not seen any. Away to the right below her window were the first trees of the fruit garden; for many of them Spring was over, but the apple-trees had just come into blossom, and the low sun shining through a gap in some far elms was slanting on their creamy pink, christening them--Nedda thought--with drops of light; and lovely the blackbirds' singing sounded in the perfect hush! How wonderful to be a bird, going where you would, and from high up in the air seeing everything; flying down a sunbeam, drinking a raindrop, sitting on the very top of a tall tree, running in grass so high that you were hidden, laying little perfect blue-green eggs, or pure-gray speckly ones; never changing your dress, yet always beautiful. Surely the spirit of the world was in the birds and the clouds, roaming, floating, and in the flowers and trees that never smelled anything but sweet, never looked anything but lovely, and were never restless. Why was one restless, wanting things that did not come--wanting to feel and know, wanting to love, and be loved? And at that thought which had come to her so unexpectedly--a thought never before shaped so definitely--Nedda planted her arms on the window-sill, with sleeves fallen down, and let her hands meet cup-shaped beneath her chin. Love! To have somebody with whom she could share everything--some one to whom and for whom she could give up--some one she could protect and comfort--some one who would bring her peace. Peace, rest--from what? Ah! that she could not make clear, even to herself. Love! What would love be like? Her father loved her, and she loved him. She loved her mother; and Alan on the whole was jolly to her--it was not that. What was it--where was it--when would it come and wake her, and kiss her to sleep, all in one? Come and fill her as with the warmth and color, the freshness, light, and shadow of this beautiful May evening, flood her as with the singing of those birds, and the warm light sunning the apple blossoms. And she sighed. Then--as with all young things whose attention after all is but as the hovering of a butterfly--her speculation was attracted to a thin, high-shouldered figure limping on a stick, away from the house, down one of the paths among the apple-trees. He wavered, not knowing, it seemed, his way. And Nedda thought: 'Poor old man, how lame he is!' She saw him stoop, screened, as he evidently thought, from sight, and take something very small from his pocket. He gazed, rubbed it, put it back; what it was she could not see. Then pressing his hand down, he smoothed and stretched his leg. His eyes seemed closed. So a stone man might have stood! Till very slowly he limped on, passing out of sight. And turning from the window, Nedda began hurrying into her evening things.
When she was ready she took a long time to decide whether to wear her mother's lace or keep it for the Bigwigs. But it was so nice and creamy that she simply could not take it off, and stood turning and turning before the glass. To stand before a glass was silly and old-fashioned; but Nedda could never help it, wanting so badly to be nicer to look at than she was, because of that something that some day was coming!
She was, in fact, pretty, but not merely pretty--there was in her face something alive and sweet, something clear and swift. She had still that way of a child raising its eyes very quickly and looking straight at you with an eager innocence that hides everything by its very wonder; and when those eyes looked down they seemed closed--their dark lashes were so long. Her eyebrows were wide apart, arching with a slight angle, and slanting a little down toward her nose. Her forehead under its burnt-brown hair was candid; her firm little chin just dimpled. Altogether, a face difficult to take one's eyes off. But Nedda was far from vain, and her face seemed to her too short and broad, her eyes too dark and indeterminate, neither gray nor brown. The straightness of her nose was certainly comforting, but it, too, was short. Being creamy in the throat and browning easily, she would have liked to be marble-white, with blue dreamy eyes and fair hair, or else like a Madonna. And was she tall enough? Only five foot five. And her arms were too thin. The only things that gave her perfect satisfaction were her legs, which, of course, she could not at the moment see; they really WERE rather jolly! Then, in a panic, fearing to be late, she turned and ran out, fluttering into the maze of stairs and corridors.
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