The next day Stanley's car, fraught with Felix and a note from Clara, moved swiftly along the grass-bordered roads toward Joyfields. Lying back on the cushioned seat, the warm air flying at his face, Felix contemplated with delight his favorite countryside. Certainly this garden of England was very lovely, its greenness, trees, and large, pied, lazy cattle; its very emptiness of human beings even was pleasing.
Nearing Joyfields he noted the Mallorings' park and their long Georgian house, carefully fronting south. There, too, was the pond of what village there was, with the usual ducks on it; and three well-remembered cottages in a row, neat and trim, of the old, thatched sort, but evidently restored. Out of the door of one of them two young people had just emerged, going in the same direction as the car. Felix passed them and turned to look. Yes, it was they! He stopped the car. They were walking, with eyes straight before them, frowning. And Felix thought: 'Nothing of Tod in either of them; regular Celts!'
The girl's vivid, open face, crisp, brown, untidy hair, cheeks brimful of color, thick lips, eyes that looked up and out as a Skye terrier's eyes look out of its shagginess--indeed, her whole figure struck Felix as almost frighteningly vital; and she walked as if she despised the ground she covered. The boy was even more arresting. What a strange, pale-dark face, with its black, uncovered hair, its straight black brows; what a proud, swan's-eyed, thin-lipped, straight-nosed young devil, marching like a very Highlander; though still rather run-up, from sheer youthfulness! They had come abreast of the car by now, and, leaning out, he said:
"You don't remember me, I'm afraid!" The boy shook his head. Wonderful eyes he had! But the girl put out her hand.
"Of course, Derek; it's Uncle Felix."
They both smiled now, the girl friendly, the boy rather drawn back into himself. And feeling strangely small and ill at ease, Felix murmured:
"I'm going to see your father. Can I give you a lift home?"
The answer came as he expected:
"No, thanks." Then, as if to tone it down, the girl added:
"We've got something to do first. You'll find him in the orchard."
She had a ringing voice, full of warmth. Lifting his hat, Felix passed on. They WERE a couple! Strange, attractive, almost frightening. Kirsteen had brought his brother a formidable little brood.
Arriving at the cottage, he went up its mossy stones and through the wicket gate. There was little change, indeed, since the days of Clara's visit, save that the beehives had been moved farther out. Nor did any one answer his knock; and mindful of the girl's words, "You'll find him in the orchard," he made his way out among the trees. The grass was long and starred with petals. Felix wandered over it among bees busy with the apple-blossom. At the very end he came on his brother, cutting down a pear-tree. Tod was in shirt-sleeves, his brown arms bare almost to the shoulders. How tremendous the fellow was! What resounding and terrific blows he was dealing! Down came the tree, and Tod drew his arm across his brow. This great, burnt, curly-headed fellow was more splendid to look upon than even Felix had remembered, and so well built that not a movement of his limbs was heavy. His cheek-bones were very broad and high; his brows thick and rather darker than his bright hair, so that his deep-set, very blue eyes seemed to look out of a thicket; his level white teeth gleamed from under his tawny moustache, and his brown, unshaven cheeks and jaw seemed covered with gold powder. Catching sight of Felix, he came forward.
"Fancy," he said, "old Gladstone spending his leisure cutting down trees--of all melancholy jobs!"
Felix did not quite know what to answer, so he put his arm within his brother's. Tod drew him toward the tree.
"Sit down!" he said. Then, looking sorrowfully at the pear-tree, he murmured:
"Seventy years--and down in seven minutes. Now we shall burn it. Well, it had to go. This is the third year it's had no blossom."
His speech was slow, like that of a man accustomed to think aloud. Felix admired him askance. "I might live next door," he thought, "for all the notice he's taken of my turning up!"
"I came over in Stanley's car," he said. "Met your two coming along--fine couple they are!"
"Ah!" said Tod. And there was something in the way he said it that was more than a mere declaration of pride or of affection. Then he looked at Felix.
"What have you come for, old man?"
Felix smiled. Quaint way to put it!
"For a talk."
"Ah!" said Tod, and he whistled.
A largish, well-made dog with a sleek black coat, white underneath, and a black tail white-tipped, came running up, and stood before Tod, with its head rather to one side and its yellow-brown eyes saying: 'I simply must get at what you're thinking, you know.'
"Go and tell your mistress to come--Mistress!"
The dog moved his tail, lowered it, and went off.
"A gypsy gave him to me," said Tod; "best dog that ever lived."
"Every one thinks that of his own dog, old man."
"Yes," said Tod; "but this IS."
"He looks intelligent."
"He's got a soul," said Tod. "The gypsy said he didn't steal him, but he did."
"Do you always know when people aren't speaking the truth, then?"
At such a monstrous remark from any other man, Felix would have smiled; but seeing it was Tod, he only asked: "How?"
"People who aren't speaking the truth look you in the face and never move their eyes."
"Some people do that when they are speaking the truth."
"Yes; but when they aren't, you can see them struggling to keep their eyes straight. A dog avoids your eye when he's something to conceal; a man stares at you. Listen!"
Felix listened and heard nothing.
"A wren;" and, screwing up his lips, Tod emitted a sound: "Look!"
Felix saw on the branch of an apple-tree a tiny brown bird with a little beak sticking out and a little tail sticking up. And he thought: 'Tod's hopeless!'
"That fellow," said Tod softly, "has got his nest there just behind us." Again he emitted the sound. Felix saw the little bird move its head with a sort of infinite curiosity, and hop twice on the branch.
"I can't get the hen to do that," Tod murmured.
Felix put his hand on his brother's arm--what an arm!
"Yes," he said; "but look here, old man--I really want to talk to you."
Tod shook his head. "Wait for her," he said.
Felix waited. Tod was getting awfully eccentric, living this queer, out-of-the-way life with a cranky woman year after year; never reading anything, never seeing any one but tramps and animals and villagers. And yet, sitting there beside his eccentric brother on that fallen tree, he had an extraordinary sense of rest. It was, perhaps, but the beauty and sweetness of the day with its dappling sunlight brightening the apple-blossoms, the wind-flowers, the wood-sorrel, and in the blue sky above the fields those clouds so unimaginably white. All the tiny noises of the orchard, too, struck on his ear with a peculiar meaning, a strange fulness, as if he had never heard such sounds before. Tod, who was looking at the sky, said suddenly:
"Are you hungry?"
And Felix remembered that they never had any proper meals, but, when hungry, went to the kitchen, where a wood-fire was always burning, and either heated up coffee, and porridge that was already made, with boiled eggs and baked potatoes and apples, or devoured bread, cheese, jam, honey, cream, tomatoes, butter, nuts, and fruit, that were always set out there on a wooden table, under a muslin awning; he remembered, too, that they washed up their own bowls and spoons and plates, and, having finished, went outside and drew themselves a draught of water. Queer life, and deuced uncomfortable--almost Chinese in its reversal of everything that every one else was doing.
"No," he said, "I'm not."
"I am. Here she is."
Felix felt his heart beating--Clara was not alone in being frightened of this woman. She was coming through the orchard with the dog; a remarkable-looking woman--oh, certainly remarkable! She greeted him without surprise and, sitting down close to Tod, said: "I'm glad to see you."
Why did this family somehow make him feel inferior? The way she sat there and looked at him so calmly! Still more the way she narrowed her eyes and wrinkled her lips, as if rather malicious thoughts were rising in her soul! Her hair, as is the way of fine, soft, almost indigo-colored hair, was already showing threads of silver; her whole face and figure thinner than he had remembered. But a striking woman still--with wonderful eyes! Her dress--Felix had scanned many a crank in his day--was not so alarming as it had once seemed to Clara; its coarse-woven, deep-blue linen and needle-worked yoke were pleasing to him, and he could hardly take his gaze from the kingfisher-blue band or fillet that she wore round that silver-threaded black hair.
He began by giving her Clara's note, the wording of which he had himself dictated:
"Though we have not seen each other for so long, I am sure you will forgive my writing. It would give us so much pleasure if you and the two children would come over for a night or two while Felix and his young folk are staying with us. It is no use, I fear, to ask Tod; but of course if he would come, too, both Stanley and myself would be delighted.
She read it, handed it to Tod, who also read it and handed it to Felix. Nobody said anything. It was so altogether simple and friendly a note that Felix felt pleased with it, thinking: 'I expressed that well!'
Then Tod said: "Go ahead, old man! You've got something to say about the youngsters, haven't you?"
How on earth did he know that? But then Tod HAD a sort of queer prescience.
"Well," he brought out with an effort, "don't you think it's a pity to embroil your young people in village troubles? We've been hearing from Stanley--"
Kirsteen interrupted in her calm, staccato voice with just the faintest lisp:
"Stanley would not understand."
She had put her arm through Tod's, but never removed her eyes from her brother-in-law's face.
"Possibly," said Felix, "but you must remember that Stanley, John, and myself represent ordinary--what shall we say--level-headed opinion."
"With which we have nothing in common, I'm afraid."
Felix glanced from her to Tod. The fellow had his head on one side and seemed listening to something in the distance. And Felix felt a certain irritation.
"It's all very well," he said, "but I think you really have got to look at your children's future from a larger point of view. You don't surely want them to fly out against things before they've had a chance to see life for themselves."
"The children know more of life than most young people. They've seen it close to, they've seen its realities. They know what the tyranny of the countryside means."
"Yes, yes," said Felix, "but youth is youth."
"They are not too young to know and feel the truth."
Felix was impressed. How those narrowing eyes shone! What conviction in that faintly lisping voice!
'I am a fool for my pains,' he thought, and only said:
"Well, what about this invitation, anyway?"
"Yes; it will be just the thing for them at the moment."
The words had to Felix a somewhat sinister import. He knew well enough that she did not mean by them what others would have meant. But he said: "When shall we expect them? Tuesday, I suppose, would be best for Clara, after her weekend. Is there no chance of you and Tod?"
She quaintly wrinkled her lips into not quite a smile, and answered:
"Tod shall say. Do you hear, Tod?"
"In the meadow. It was there yesterday--first time this year."
Felix slipped his arm through his brother's.
"Quite so, old man."
"What?" said Tod. "Ah! let's go in. I'm awfully hungry...."
Sometimes out of a calm sky a few drops fall, the twigs rustle, and far away is heard the muttering of thunder; the traveller thinks: 'A storm somewhere about.' Then all once more is so quiet and peaceful that he forgets he ever had that thought, and goes on his way careless.
So with Felix returning to Becket in Stanley's car. That woman's face, those two young heathens--the unconscious Tod!
There was mischief in the air above that little household. But once more the smooth gliding of the cushioned car, the soft peace of the meadows so permanently at grass, the churches, mansions, cottages embowered among their elms, the slow-flapping flight of the rooks and crows lulled Felix to quietude, and the faint far muttering of that thunder died away.
Nedda was in the drive when he returned, gazing at a nymph set up there by Clara. It was a good thing, procured from Berlin, well known for sculpture, and beginning to green over already, as though it had been there a long time--a pretty creature with shoulders drooping, eyes modestly cast down, and a sparrow perching on her head.
"On Tuesday--the youngsters, only."
"You might tell me a little about them."
But Felix only smiled. His powers of description faltered before that task; and, proud of those powers, he did not choose to subject them to failure.
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