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Not till three o'clock that Saturday did the Bigwigs begin to come. Lord and Lady Britto first from Erne by car; then Sir Gerald and Lady Malloring, also by car from Joyfields; an early afternoon train brought three members of the Lower House, who liked a round of golf--Colonel Martlett, Mr. Sleesor, and Sir John Fanfar--with their wives; also Miss Bawtrey, an American who went everywhere; and Moorsome, the landscape-painter, a short, very heavy man who went nowhere, and that in almost perfect silence, which he afterward avenged. By a train almost sure to bring no one else came Literature in Public Affairs, alone, Henry Wiltram, whom some believed to have been the very first to have ideas about the land. He was followed in the last possible train by Cuthcott, the advanced editor, in his habitual hurry, and Lady Maude Ughtred in her beauty. Clara was pleased, and said to Stanley, while dressing, that almost every shade of opinion about the land was represented this week-end. She was not, she said, afraid of anything, if she could keep Henry Wiltram and Cuthcott apart. The House of Commons men would, of course, be all right. Stanley assented: "They'll be 'fed up' with talk. But how about Britto--he can sometimes be very nasty, and Cuthcott's been pretty rough on him, in his rag."
Clara had remembered that, and she was putting Lady Maude on one side of Cuthcott, and Moorsome on the other, so that he would be quite safe at dinner, and afterward--Stanley must look out!
"What have you done with Nedda?" Stanley asked.
"Given her to Colonel Martlett, with Sir John Fanfar on the other side; they both like something fresh." She hoped, however, to foster a discussion, so that they might really get further this week-end; the opportunity was too good to throw away.
"H'm!" Stanley murmured. "Felix said some very queer things the other night. He, too, might make ructions."
Oh, no!--Clara persisted--Felix had too much good taste. She thought that something might be coming out of this occasion, something as it were national, that would bear fruit. And watching Stanley buttoning his braces, she grew enthusiastic. For, think how splendidly everything was represented! Britto, with his view that the thing had gone too far, and all the little efforts we might make now were no good, with Canada and those great spaces to outbid anything we could do; though she could not admit that he was right, there was a lot in what he said; he had great gifts--and some day might--who knew? Then there was Sir John--Clara pursued--who was almost the father of the new Tory policy: Assist the farmers to buy their own land. And Colonel Martlett, representing the older Tory policy of: What the devil would happen to the landowners if they did? Secretly (Clara felt sure) he would never go into a lobby to support that. He had said to her: 'Look at my brother James's property; if we bring this policy in, and the farmers take advantage, his house might stand there any day without an acre round it.' Quite true--it might. The same might even happen to Becket.
Exactly!--Clara went on: And that was the beauty of having got the Mallorings; theirs was such a steady point of view, and she was not sure that they weren't right, and the whole thing really a question of model proprietorship.
"H'm!" Stanley muttered. "Felix will have his knife into that."
Clara did not think that mattered. The thing was to get everybody's opinion. Even Mr. Moorsome's would be valuable--if he weren't so terrifically silent, for he must think a lot, sitting all day, as he did, painting the land.
"He's a heavy ass," said Stanley.
Yes; but Clara did not wish to be narrow. That was why it was so splendid to have got Mr. Sleesor. If anybody knew the Radical mind he did, and he could give full force to what one always felt was at the bottom of it--that the Radicals' real supporters were the urban classes; so that their policy must not go too far with 'the Land,' for fear of seeming to neglect the towns. For, after all, in the end it was out of the pockets of the towns that 'the Land' would have to be financed, and nobody really could expect the towns to get anything out of it. Stanley paused in the adjustment of his tie; his wife was a shrewd woman.
"You've hit it there," he said. "Wiltram will give it him hot on that, though."
Of course, Clara assented. And it was magnificent that they had got Henry Wiltram, with his idealism and his really heavy corn tax; not caring what happened to the stunted products of the towns--and they truly were stunted, for all that the Radicals and the half-penny press said--till at all costs we could grow our own food. There was a lot in that.
"Yes," Stanley muttered, "and if he gets on to it, shan't I have a jolly time of it in the smoking-room? I know what Cuthcott's like with his shirt out."
Clara's eyes brightened; she was very curious herself to see Mr. Cuthcott with his--that is, to hear him expound the doctrine he was always writing up, namely, that 'the Land' was gone and, short of revolution, there was nothing for it but garden cities. She had heard he was so cutting and ferocious that he really did seem as if he hated his opponents. She hoped he would get a chance--perhaps Felix could encourage him.
"What about the women?" Stanley asked suddenly. "Will they stand a political powwow? One must think of them a bit."
Clara had. She was taking a farewell look at herself in the far-away mirror through the door into her bedroom. It was a mistake--she added--to suppose that women were not interested in 'the Land.' Lady Britto was most intelligent, and Mildred Malloring knew every cottage on her estate.
"Pokes her nose into 'em often enough," Stanley muttered.
Lady Fanfar again, and Mrs. Sleesor, and even Hilda Martlett, were interested in their husbands, and Miss Bawtrey, of course, interested in everything. As for Maude Ughtred, all talk would be the same to her; she was always week-ending. Stanley need not worry--it would be all right; some real work would get done, some real advance be made. So saying, she turned her fine shoulders twice, once this way and once that, and went out. She had never told even Stanley her ambition that at Becket, under her aegis, should be laid the foundation-stone of the real scheme, whatever it might be, that should regenerate 'the Land.' Stanley would only have laughed; even though it would be bound to make him Lord Freeland when it came to be known some day....
To the eyes and ears of Nedda that evening at dinner, all was new indeed, and all wonderful. It was not that she was unaccustomed to society or to conversation, for to their house at Hampstead many people came, uttering many words, but both the people and the words were so very different. After the first blush, the first reconnaissance of the two Bigwigs between whom she sat, her eyes WOULD stray and her ears would only half listen to them. Indeed, half her ears, she soon found out, were quite enough to deal with Colonel Martlett and Sir John Fanfar. Across the azaleas she let her glance come now and again to anchor on her father's face, and exchanged with him a most enjoyable blink. She tried once or twice to get through to Alan, but he was always eating; he looked very like a young Uncle Stanley this evening.
What was she feeling? Short, quick stabs of self-consciousness as to how she was looking; a sort of stunned excitement due to sheer noise and the number of things offered to her to eat and drink; keen pleasure in the consciousness that Colonel Martlett and Sir John Fanfar and other men, especially that nice one with the straggly moustache who looked as if he were going to bite, glanced at her when they saw she wasn't looking. If only she had been quite certain that it was not because they thought her too young to be there! She felt a sort of continual exhilaration, that this was the great world--the world where important things were said and done, together with an intense listening expectancy, and a sense most unexpected and almost frightening, that nothing important was being said or would be done. But this she knew to be impudent. On Sunday evenings at home people talked about a future existence, about Nietzsche, Tolstoy, Chinese pictures, post-impressionism, and would suddenly grow hot and furious about peace, and Strauss, justice, marriage, and De Maupassant, and whether people were losing their souls through materialism, and sometimes one of them would get up and walk about the room. But to-night the only words she could catch were the names of two politicians whom nobody seemed to approve of, except that nice one who was going to bite. Once very timidly she asked Colonel Martlett whether he liked Strauss, and was puzzled by his answer: "Rather; those 'Tales of Hoffmann' are rippin', don't you think? You go to the opera much?" She could not, of course, know that the thought which instantly rose within her was doing the governing classes a grave injustice--almost all of whom save Colonel Martlett knew that the 'Tales of Hoffmann' were by one Offenbach. But beyond all things she felt she would never, never learn to talk as they were all talking--so quickly, so continuously, so without caring whether everybody or only the person they were talking to heard what they said. She had always felt that what you said was only meant for the person you said it to, but here in the great world she must evidently not say anything that was not meant for everybody, and she felt terribly that she could not think of anything of that sort to say. And suddenly she began to want to be alone. That, however, was surely wicked and wasteful, when she ought to be learning such a tremendous lot; and yet, what was there to learn? And listening just sufficiently to Colonel Martlett, who was telling her how great a man he thought a certain general, she looked almost despairingly at the one who was going to bite. He was quite silent at that moment, gazing at his plate, which was strangely empty. And Nedda thought: 'He has jolly wrinkles about his eyes, only they might be heart disease; and I like the color of his face, so nice and yellow, only that might be liver. But I DO like him--I wish I'd been sitting next to him; he looks real.' From that thought, of the reality of a man whose name she did not know, she passed suddenly into the feeling that nothing else of this about her was real at all, neither the talk nor the faces, not even the things she was eating. It was all a queer, buzzing dream. Nor did that sensation of unreality cease when her aunt began collecting her gloves, and they trooped forth to the drawing-room. There, seated between Mrs. Sleesor and Lady Britto, with Lady Malloring opposite, and Miss Bawtrey leaning over the piano toward them, she pinched herself to get rid of the feeling that, when all these were out of sight of each other, they would become silent and have on their lips a little, bitter smile. Would it be like that up in their bedrooms, or would it only be on her (Nedda's) own lips that this little smile would come? It was a question she could not answer; nor could she very well ask it of any of these ladies. She looked them over as they sat there talking and felt very lonely. And suddenly her eyes fell on her grandmother. Frances Freeland was seated halfway down the long room in a sandalwood chair, somewhat insulated by a surrounding sea of polished floor. She sat with a smile on her lips, quite still, save for the continual movement of her white hands on her black lap. To her gray hair some lace of Chantilly was pinned with a little diamond brooch, and hung behind her delicate but rather long ears. And from her shoulders was depended a silvery garment, of stuff that looked like the mail shirt of a fairy, reaching the ground on either side. A tacit agreement had evidently been come to, that she was incapable of discussing 'the Land' or those other subjects such as the French murder, the Russian opera, the Chinese pictures, and the doings of one, L---- , whose fate was just then in the air, so that she sat alone.
And Nedda thought: 'How much more of a lady she looks than anybody here! There's something deep in her to rest on that isn't in the Bigwigs; perhaps it's because she's of a different generation.' And, getting up, she went over and sat down beside her on a little chair.
Frances Freeland rose at once and said:
"Now, my darling, you can't be comfortable in that tiny chair. You must take mine."
"Oh, no, Granny; please!"
"Oh, yes; but you must! It's so comfortable, and I've simply been longing to sit in the chair you're in. Now, darling, to please me!"
Seeing that a prolonged struggle would follow if she did not get up, Nedda rose and changed chairs.
"Do you like these week-ends, Granny?"
Frances Freeland seemed to draw her smile more resolutely across her face. With her perfect articulation, in which there was, however, no trace of bigwiggery, she answered:
"I think they're most interesting, darling. It's so nice to see new people. Of course you don't get to know them, but it's very amusing to watch, especially the head-dresses!" And sinking her voice: "Just look at that one with the feather going straight up; did you ever see such a guy?" and she cackled with a very gentle archness. Gazing at that almost priceless feather, trying to reach God, Nedda felt suddenly how completely she was in her grandmother's little camp; how entirely she disliked bigwiggery.
Frances Freeland's voice brought her round.
"Do you know, darling, I've found the most splendid thing for eyebrows? You just put a little on every night and it keeps them in perfect order. I must give you my little pot."
"I don't like grease, Granny."
"Oh! but this isn't grease, darling. It's a special thing; and you only put on just the tiniest touch."
Diving suddenly into the recesses of something, she produced an exiguous round silver box. Prizing it open, she looked over her shoulder at the Bigwigs, then placed her little finger on the contents of the little box, and said very softly:
"You just take the merest touch, and you put it on like that, and it keeps them together beautifully. Let me! Nobody'll see!"
Quite well understanding that this was all part of her grandmother's passion for putting the best face upon things, and having no belief in her eyebrows, Nedda bent forward; but in a sudden flutter of fear lest the Bigwigs might observe the operation, she drew back, murmuring: "Oh, Granny, darling! Not just now!"
At that moment the men came in, and, under cover of the necessary confusion, she slipped away into the window.
It was pitch-black outside, with the moon not yet up. The bloomy, peaceful dark out there! Wistaria and early roses, clustering in, had but the ghost of color on their blossoms. Nedda took a rose in her fingers, feeling with delight its soft fragility, its coolness against her hot palm. Here in her hand was a living thing, here was a little soul! And out there in the darkness were millions upon millions of other little souls, of little flame-like or coiled-up shapes alive and true.
A voice behind her said:
"Nothing nicer than darkness, is there?"
She knew at once it was the one who was going to bite; the voice was proper for him, having a nice, smothery sound. And looking round gratefully, she said:
"Do you like dinner-parties?"
It was jolly to watch his eyes twinkle and his thin cheeks puff out. He shook his head and muttered through that straggly moustache:
"You're a niece, aren't you? I know your father. He's a big man."
Hearing those words spoken of her father, Nedda flushed.
"Yes, he is," she said fervently.
Her new acquaintance went on:
"He's got the gift of truth--can laugh at himself as well as others; that's what makes him precious. These humming-birds here to-night couldn't raise a smile at their own tomfoolery to save their silly souls."
He spoke still in that voice of smothery wrath, and Nedda thought: 'He IS nice!'
"They've been talking about 'the Land'"--he raised his hands and ran them through his palish hair--"'the Land!' Heavenly Father! 'The Land!' Why! Look at that fellow!"
Nedda looked and saw a man, like Richard Coeur de Lion in the history books, with a straw-colored moustache just going gray.
"Sir Gerald Malloring--hope he's not a friend of yours! Divine right of landowners to lead 'the Land' by the nose! And our friend Britto!"
Nedda, following his eyes, saw a robust, quick-eyed man with a suave insolence in his dark, clean-shaved face.
"Because at heart he's just a supercilious ruffian, too cold-blooded to feel, he'll demonstrate that it's no use to feel--waste of valuable time--ha! valuable!--to act in any direction. And that's a man they believe things of. And poor Henry Wiltram, with his pathetic: 'Grow our own food--maximum use of the land as food-producer, and let the rest take care of itself!' As if we weren't all long past that feeble individualism; as if in these days of world markets the land didn't stand or fall in this country as a breeding-ground of health and stamina and nothing else. Well, well!"
"Aren't they really in earnest, then?" asked Nedda timidly.
"Miss Freeland, this land question is a perfect tragedy. Bar one or two, they all want to make the omelette without breaking eggs; well, by the time they begin to think of breaking them, mark me--there'll be no eggs to break. We shall be all park and suburb. The real men on the land, what few are left, are dumb and helpless; and these fellows here for one reason or another don't mean business--they'll talk and tinker and top-dress--that's all. Does your father take any interest in this? He could write something very nice."
"He takes interest in everything," said Nedda. "Please go on, Mr.--Mr.--" She was terribly afraid he would suddenly remember that she was too young and stop his nice, angry talk.
"Cuthcott. I'm an editor, but I was brought up on a farm, and know something about it. You see, we English are grumblers, snobs to the backbone, want to be something better than we are; and education nowadays is all in the direction of despising what is quiet and humdrum. We never were a stay-at-home lot, like the French. That's at the back of this business--they may treat it as they like, Radicals or Tories, but if they can't get a fundamental change of opinion into the national mind as to what is a sane and profitable life; if they can't work a revolution in the spirit of our education, they'll do no good. There'll be lots of talk and tinkering, tariffs and tommy-rot, and, underneath, the land-bred men dying, dying all the time. No, madam, industrialism and vested interests have got us! Bar the most strenuous national heroism, there's nothing for it now but the garden city!"
"Then if we WERE all heroic, 'the Land' could still be saved?"
Mr. Cuthcott smiled.
"Of course we might have a European war or something that would shake everything up. But, short of that, when was a country ever consciously and homogeneously heroic--except China with its opium? When did it ever deliberately change the spirit of its education, the trend of its ideas; when did it ever, of its own free will, lay its vested interests on the altar; when did it ever say with a convinced and resolute heart: 'I will be healthy and simple before anything. I will not let the love of sanity and natural conditions die out of me!' When, Miss Freeland, when?"
And, looking so hard at Nedda that he almost winked, he added:
"You have the advantage of me by thirty years. You'll see what I shall not--the last of the English peasant. Did you ever read 'Erewhon,' where the people broke up their machines? It will take almost that sort of national heroism to save what's left of him, even."
For answer, Nedda wrinkled her brows horribly. Before her there had come a vision of the old, lame man, whose name she had found out was Gaunt, standing on the path under the apple-trees, looking at that little something he had taken from his pocket. Why she thought of him thus suddenly she had no idea, and she said quickly:
"It's awfully interesting. I do so want to hear about 'the Land.' I only know a little about sweated workers, because I see something of them."
"It's all of a piece," said Mr. Cuthcott; "not politics at all, but religion--touches the point of national self-knowledge and faith, the point of knowing what we want to become and of resolving to become it. Your father will tell you that we have no more idea of that at present than a cat of its own chemical composition. As for these good people here to-night--I don't want to be disrespectful, but if they think they're within a hundred miles of the land question, I'm a--I'm a Jingo--more I can't say."
And, as if to cool his head, he leaned out of the window.
"Nothing is nicer than darkness, as I said just now, because you can only see the way you MUST go instead of a hundred and fifty ways you MIGHT. In darkness your soul is something like your own; in daylight, lamplight, moonlight, never."
Nedda's spirit gave a jump; he seemed almost at last to be going to talk about the things she wanted, above all, to find out. Her cheeks went hot, she clenched her hands and said resolutely:
"Mr. Cuthcott, do you believe in God?"
Mr. Cuthcott made a queer, deep little noise; it was not a laugh, however, and it seemed as if he knew she could not bear him to look at her just then.
"H'm!" he said. "Every one does that--according to their natures. Some call God IT, some HIM, some HER, nowadays--that's all. You might as well ask--do I believe that I'm alive?"
"Yes," said Nedda, "but which do YOU call God?"
As she asked that, he gave a wriggle, and it flashed through her: 'He must think me an awful enfant terrible!' His face peered round at her, queer and pale and puffy, with nice, straight eyes; and she added hastily:
"It isn't a fair question, is it? Only you talked about darkness, and the only way--so I thought--"
"Quite a fair question. My answer is, of course: 'All three'; but the point is rather: Does one wish to make even an attempt to define God to oneself? Frankly, I don't! I'm content to feel that there is in one some kind of instinct toward perfection that one will still feel, I hope, when the lights are going out; some kind of honour forbidding one to let go and give up. That's all I've got; I really don't know that I want more."
Nedda clasped her hands.
"I like that," she said; "only--what is perfection, Mr. Cuthcott?"
Again he emitted that deep little sound.
"Ah!" he repeated, "what is perfection? Awkward, that--isn't it?"
"Is it"--Nedda rushed the words out--"is it always to be sacrificing yourself, or is it--is it always to be--to be expressing yourself?"
"To some--one; to some--the other; to some--half one, half the other."
"But which is it to me?"
"Ah! that you've got to find out for yourself. There's a sort of metronome inside us--wonderful, sell-adjusting little machine; most delicate bit of mechanism in the world--people call it conscience--that records the proper beat of our tempos. I guess that's all we have to go by."
Nedda said breathlessly:
"Yes; and it's frightfully hard, isn't it?"
"Exactly," Mr. Cuthcott answered. "That's why people devised religions and other ways of having the thing done second-hand. We all object to trouble and responsibility if we can possibly avoid it. Where do you live?"
"Your father must be a stand-by, isn't he?"
"Oh, yes; Dad's splendid; only, you see, I AM a good deal younger than he. There was just one thing I was going to ask you. Are these very Bigwigs?"
Mr. Cuthcott turned to the room and let his screwed-up glance wander. He looked just then particularly as if he were going to bite.
"If you take 'em at their own valuation: Yes. If at the country's: So-so. If at mine: Ha! I know what you'd like to ask: Should I be a Bigwig in THEIR estimation? Not I! As you knock about, Miss Freeland, you'll find out one thing--all bigwiggery is founded on: Scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours. Seriously, these are only tenpenny ones; but the mischief is, that in the matter of 'the Land,' the men who really are in earnest are precious scarce. Nothing short of a rising such as there was in 1832 would make the land question real, even for the moment. Not that I want to see one--God forbid! Those poor doomed devils were treated worse than dogs, and would be again."
Before Nedda could pour out questions about the rising in 1832, Stanley's voice said:
"Cuthcott, I want to introduce you!"
Her new friend screwed his eyes up tighter and, muttering something, put out his hand to her.
"Thank you for our talk. I hope we shall meet again. Any time you want to know anything--I'll be only too glad. Good night!"
She felt the squeeze of his hand, warm and dry, but rather soft, as of a man who uses a pen too much; saw him following her uncle across the room, with his shoulders a little hunched, as if preparing to inflict, and ward off, blows. And with the thought: 'He must be jolly when he gives them one!' she turned once more to the darkness, than which he had said there was nothing nicer. It smelled of new-mown grass, was full of little shiverings of leaves, and all colored like the bloom of a black grape. And her heart felt soothed.
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