"I know I hadn't thought of her enough—with the book and Stephen and everything. Cards told me that pretty straight—but now I've seen all that and I'm ready to do anything—anything if she'll only love me again."
"Go directly to her and tell her," said Bobby; "have it all out in the open with her,"
"That's just it," Peter answered, "I never seem to get her alone. There's always either her mother or Cards there. Cards sees her alone much more than I do, but, of course, she likes his company better than mine just now. I'm such a gloomy beggar—"
"Nonsense," said Bobby roughly. "You believe anything that any one tells you. They tell you that you're gloomy and depressing and so you think you are. They didn't find you gloomy at Brockett's did they? And Alice and I have never found you depressing. Don't listen to that woman. Clare's always been under her influence and it's for you to take her out of it—not to lie down quietly and say she's too much for you—but there's another thing," he added slowly and awkwardly, after a moment's pause.
"What's that?" asked Peter.
"Well—Cards," said Bobby at last. "Oh! I know you'll say I hate him. But I don't. I don't hate him. I've always known him for what he was—in those days at Dawson's when if you flattered him he was kind, and if you didn't he was contemptuous. At Cambridge it was the same. There was only one fellow there I ever saw him knock under to—a man called Dune—and he was out and away exceptional anyhow, at games and work and everything. Now he made Cards into a decent fellow for the time being, and if he'd had the running of him he might have turned all that brilliance into something worth having.
"But he vanished and Cards has never owned his master since. Everything was there, ready in him, to be turned one way or the other, and after he left Cambridge there was his silly mother and a sillier London waiting to finish him—now he's nothing but Vanity and Fascination—and soon there'll be nothing but Vanity."
"You're unjust to him, Bobby, you always have been.
"Well, perhaps I am. He's always treated me with such undisguised contempt that it's only human that I should be a little prejudiced. But that's neither here nor there—what is the point, Peter, is that he's too much up at your place. Too much for his own good, too much for yours, and—too much for—Clare's."
"Oh yes—I know I'm saying a serious thing—but you asked me for my advice and I give it. I don't say that Cards means any harm but people will talk and it wouldn't do you any damage in Clare's eyes either, Peter, if you were to stand up to him a little."
Peter smiled. "Dear old Bobby! If any one else in the world had said such a thing of course I should have been most awfully angry, but I've always known how unfair you were about Cards. You never liked him, even in the Dawson days. You just don't suit one another. But I tell you, Bobby, that I'd trust Cards more than I'd trust any one in the world. Of course Clare likes to be with him and of course he likes to be with her. They suit one another exactly. Why, he's splendid! The other day when I'd been a perfect beast—losing my temper like a boy of ten—you should have heard the way he took it. One day, Bobby, you'll see how splendid he is."
Bobby said no more.
Peter went on again: "No, it's my mother-in-law's done the damage. You're right, the thing to do is to get Clare alone and have it right out with her. We'll clear the mists away."
Bobby said: "You know Peter, both Alice and I would do anything in the world to make you happy—anything."
Peter gripped his hand.
"I know you would. If I could forget young Stephen," he caught his breath—"Bobby, I see him everywhere, all the time. I lie awake hours at night thinking about him. I see him in my sleep, see him sometimes grown-up—splendid, famous.... Sometimes I think he comes back. I can see him, lying on his back and looking up at the ceiling, and I say to myself, 'Now if you don't move he'll stay there' ... and then I move and he's gone. And I haven't any one to talk about him to. I never know whether Clare thinks of him or not. He was so splendid, Bobby, so strong. And he loved me in the most extraordinary way. We'd have been tremendous pals if he'd lived.
"I could have stood anything if I'd been able to see him growing up, had him to care about.... I'm so lonely, Bobby—and if I don't make Clare come back to me, now that the book's failed, I—I—I'll go back to Scaw House and just drink myself to the devil there with my old father; he'll be glad enough."
"You once told me," Bobby said, "about an old man in your place when you were a kid, who said once, 'It isn't life that matters but the courage you bring to it—' Well, that's what you're proving now, Peter."
"Yes, but why me? I've had a bad time all my life—always been knocked about and cursed and kicked. Why should it go on all the time—all the time?"
"Because They think you're worth it, I suppose," said Bobby.
And the result of that conversation was that, on that very night Peter made his appeal. They had had a silent evening (Mrs. Rossiter was staying in the house at this time), and at last they all had gone up to bed. Peter stayed for a moment in his dressing-room, seeing his white face in the looking-glass, hearing the beating of his heart and then with a hand that strangely trembled, knocked on Clare's door.
Her voice sounded frightened, he thought, as she called to him to come in. Indeed, as he entered she folded a letter that she had been reading, and put it in a drawer in the dressing-table at which she was sitting.
It was only seldom now that he disturbed her in that room. She had turned on the electric light over her dressing-table; the rest of the room was in darkness. She seemed to Peter very fragile and tiny as she sat there in her black evening frock, her breast rising and falling as though something had suddenly frightened her, her eyes wide and startled. He felt a gross, coarse brute as he stumbled, coming across the dark floor to her.
"My God," he cried in his heart, "put everything right now—let this make everything right."
His big square body flung huge fantastic shadows upon the wall, but he looked, as he faced her, like a boy who had come to his master to confess some crime.
Apparently she was reassured now, for she took off her necklace and moved about the things on her table as though to show him that she was on the point of undressing.
"Well, Peter, what is it?" she said.
"I've come—Clare—just a moment—I want a talk."
"But it's late, I'm tired—won't some other time do?"
"No, I want it now."
"What is it?"
She was looking into the glass as she spoke to him.
He pulled a little chair over to her and sat forward so that his knees nearly touched her thin black dress. He put out his big hand and caught one of her little ones; he thought for a moment that she was going to resist—then it lay there cold as ice.
"Clare—darling—look here, everything's been wrong with both of us—for ages. And I've come—I've come—because I know it's been very largely my fault. And I've come to say that everything will be different now and I want you to let things—be—as they were before—"
For a moment he fancied that he saw a light leap into her eyes; he felt her hand tremble for a moment in his. Then the expression was gone.
"How do you mean?" she said, still looking into the glass. "What do you mean, Peter? I haven't noticed anything different."
"Oh yes, you have. You know that—ever since Stephen died and before that really—you've avoided me. You'd rather be without me than with me. You've all thought me selfish and glum and so I suppose I was. But I missed—the kid—a lot." Again Peter felt her hand tremble. He pressed it. Then he went on, leaning more toward her now and putting an arm out to touch her dress.
"Clare—it's been like a fog all these weeks—we've never had it out, we've never talked about it, but you've been disappointed in me. You thought I was going to write great books and I haven't—and then your mother—and I—don't get on. And then I suppose I'm stupid in society—I can't talk a lot to any one who comes along as all you people can. I've been brought up differently and—and—I know you don't like to think about that either, and so I'll never bring my old friends into the house and I'll see that I'm not such a gawk at your parties—"
He paused for a moment; she was looking down now and he couldn't see her eyes. He bent forward more closely—his arm caught her waist—his hand crushed hers—
She tried desperately to pull herself together to say something—
"No—there's nothing. Well, if there is—Of course I suppose it happens to all married people—"
"Why, they find one another out a little. Things aren't quite as they thought they'd be. That must happen always."
"But tell me—tell me the things in me that have disappointed you and then I can alter—"
"Well—it's a little as you say. You have been rather rude to Mother. And then—your quarrel—"
"What! You mean with Cards!"
"With—Jerry—yes. And then," her voice was high and sharp now—her eyes avoided his—"I've always—been happy, until I married. Things frighten me. You don't understand me, Peter, how easily I'm frightened—you never seemed to see that. Other people—know."
"I've been selfish—I—"
"Yes," she went on still in that high voice, "and you never consider me in little things. And you laugh at me as though I were stupid. I don't suppose it's all your fault. You were brought up—roughly. But you are rough. You hurt me often. I can't bear," her lip was trembling and she was nearly crying—"I can't bear being unhappy—"
"My God!" cried Peter, "what a beast I am! What a brute I've been!"
"Yes—and you never seemed to think that I minded poor little Stephen's death—the dear little thing—of course it hurt me dreadfully—and you never thought of me—"
"It's all going to be different now. Love me, Clare—love me and it will all come back. And then if you'll only love me I'll be able to write the most wonderful books. I'll be famous all the world over—if you'll only love me, Clare darling—"
He dropt on to his knees before her and looking up at her whispered—"Clare—darling, darling—you're all that I've got now—everything in the world. And in return I'll try to be everything to you. I'll spend my life in making you happy. I'll care for only one thing and that is to be your servant. Clare—Clare—"
She gave a little protesting cry—"Peter, Peter—don't—I—I—can't—" and then in a shuddering whisper—"Peter—I'm not good enough—I don't love you now—I—can't—"
But he had caught her, was holding her to him now, with both his arms round her, pressing her against his shirt, hurting her—at last covering her mouth, her eyes, her cheeks with kisses.
He had not heard those words now, in the triumph of having her back again, his as she had been on the first day of their marriage, did not feel her body unresponsive, her hands cold, nor did he see the appeal, wild and desperate, in her eyes....
At last he left her, closing, softly her door between them.
PETER BUYS A PRESENT
Peter did not hesitate now. He should win Clare back with his strong right hand and he would rule The Roundabout with a rod of iron. Ruling The Roundabout meant ruling Mrs. Rossiter and he was surprised at the ease with which he won his victory over that lady. Had he considered it more deeply that easy victory might have seemed to him ominous.
At luncheon on the day after his talk with Clare they three sat together—Mrs. Rossiter silent, Clare silent, Peter silent.
Suddenly Peter said: "Oh by the way, Clare, I telephoned for seats this morning for the new thing at the Criterion. I got two stalls."
They had not been to the theatre together since Stephen's death.
Clare lifted a white face—"I don't think I—"
"Oh yes," said Peter, smiling across at her—"you'll enjoy it."
Mrs. Rossiter stroking her large bosom with a flat white hand said, "I don't think Clare—"
"Oh yes," said Peter again, "it will do her good."
Mrs. Rossiter smiled. "Get another stall, Peter, and I will come too."
"I'm afraid," said Peter very politely, "that it's too late. The piece is a thumping success. I was very lucky to get any seats at all."
And then Mrs. Rossiter subsided, absolutely subsided ... very strange.
That was not a very happy evening. Clare scarcely spoke, she answered him with "Yes" and "No," she sat in the stalls looking like a little unhappy ghost. She did not in any way repulse him—she let him take her hand coming home in the cab. She shivered and he asked whether she were cold and she said, Yes, she thought that she was. That night he came in, took her for a moment in his hands, kissed her very gently on the lips, and said—
"Clare, you're not angry with me for last night?"
"No" she answered him. Then she added slowly, as though she were repeating a part that she'd learnt, "Thank you for taking me to the play, Peter. I was rather tired. But thank you for taking me."
He went to bed thanking God for this change in her. "I'll make her love me just as she used to, those days on our honeymoon. God bless her."
Yes, Mrs. Rossiter was strangely altered. It all shows what one can do with a woman when one tries. Her hostile placidity had given place to something almost pathetic. One would have thought, had one not known that lady's invariable assurance of movement, that she was perplexed, almost distressed.
Peter was conscious that Clare was now as silent with her mother as she was with him. He perceived that Mrs. Rossiter was disturbed at Clare's reticence. He fancied that he sometimes interrupted little conversations between the mother and the daughter the intention of which was, on Mrs. Rossiter's part at any rate, that "Clare should tell her something." There was no doubt at all, that Mrs. Rossiter was anxious. Even—although this seemed impossible—she appeared to be ready to accept Peter as a friend and ally now—now after these many weeks of hostility. Surely women are strange creatures. In any case, one may observe the yellow brooch agitated now and ill at ease.
Very soon, too, Cards came to make his farewells—he was going to Paris for the whole of May.
"What! Won't you be back for the beginning of the Season?" cried Peter astonished.
"No," Cards answered, laughing. "For once the Season can commence without me."
He was especially affectionate but seemed anxious to be gone. His dark eyes avoided Peter's gaze. He didn't look well—a little anxious: and Cards was generally the soul of light-hearted carelessness.
What a splendid fellow he was! Peter looked him up and down taking that same delight that he had always taken in his distinction, his good looks, his ease. "He ought to have been born king of somewhere," Peter used to think, "he ought really—no wonder people spoil him."
"There's another thing," Peter said, "you're forgetting Clare's birthday next week. She'll be dreadfully disappointed at your not being here for it."
"I'll have to remember it from Paris," Cards said.
"Well—it's an awful pity that you're going for a whole month. I don't know what we shall do without you. And you cheer Clare up—she's rather depressed just now. Thinks of the kid a bit, I expect."
"Well, I'll write," said Cards, and was gone.
Peter received at this time a letter that showed him that he had, at any rate, one friend, in the world who believed in him. It was from James Maradick and it was strangely encouraging—now at this period of yawning pits from whose blackness he so resolutely turned away.
It asked him to go with Maradick as his guest to some Club dinner. Then it went on.... "You know, Westcott, we don't meet as often as we should. Like ships in the night, we signal every now and again and then pass. But I am quite sure that we have plenty to say to one another. Once or twice—you remember that party when I gassed about Cornwall?—we have nearly said it, but something has always prevented. I remember that you divided the world once in a fit of youthful confidence, into Explorers and Stay-at-homes. Well, those words will do as well as any others to describe the great dividing line. At any rate, you're an Explorer and you're trying to get on terms with the Stay-at-homes, and I'm a Stay-at-home and I'm trying to get on terms with the Explorers and that's why we're both so uncomfortable. The only happy people, take my word for it, are those who know the kind of thing they are—Explorers or Stay-at-homes, and just stick at that and shut their eyes tight to the other kind of people—il n'existe pas, that other world. Those are the happy people, and, after all most people are like that. But we, you and I, are uncomfortably conscious of the other Party—want to know them, in fact, want them to receive us.
"Well, I'm getting on and it's late days for me, but you've got all your life before you and will do great things, take my word for it. Only don't be discouraged because the Stay-at-homes don't come to you all at once. Give 'em time—they'll come...."
This seemed to Peter, at this moment of a whole welter of doubt and confusion and misunderstanding of people's motives and positions, to explain a great deal. Was that the reason why he'd been so happy in old Zachary Tan's shop years ago? Why he'd been happy through all that existence at the bookshop, those absurd unreal conspirators—happy, yes, even when starving with Stephen in Bucket Lane.
He was then in his right company—explorers one and all. Whereas here?—Now? Had he ever been happy at The Roundabout except during the first year, and afterwards when Stephen came? And was not that, too, the explanation of young Stephen's happiness upon the arrival of Mr. Zanti and Brant? Did he not recognise them for what they were, explorers? He being a young explorer himself.
On the other side Mrs. Rossiter, Clare, Cards, old Bobby who in spite of his affection never understood half the things that Peter did or said, the Galleons, old Mrs. Galleon and Percival and his sister?... Had Henry Galleon known that dividing-line and suffered under it all his life, and borne it and perhaps conquered it?
And Peter suddenly, standing at his window watching London caught by the evening light, saw for an instant his work in front of him again. London with her towers, her roofs and chimneys—smoke and mist and haze weaving a web—and then beneath it, humming, buzzing, turning, all the lives, all the comedies, all the tragedies—Kings and princes, guttersnipes and duchesses, politicians and newsboys, criminals and saints—
Waiting, that golden top, for some hand to set it humming.
In that moment Peter Westcott, aged twenty-nine, with a book just behind him that had been counted on every side the most dismal of failures, saw himself the English Balzac, saw London open like a book at his feet, saw heaven and all its glories... himself the one and only begetter of a thousand masterpieces!
But the sun set—the towers and roofs and chimneys were coldly grey, a ragged wind rose through the branches of the orchard, dark clouds hid the risen moon, newsboys were crying a murder in Whitechapel.
"I hate this house," Peter said, turning away from the window, into a room crowded now with dusk.
It was the first of May, and the day before Clare's birthday. It was one of the most beautiful days of the year, with a hint of summer in its light and shadow, a shimmer of golden sun shaking through the trees in the orchard, flung from there on to the windows of The Roundabout, to dance in twisting lines along the floors and across the walls.
All doors and windows seemed to be open; the scent of flowers—a prophecy of pinks and roses where as yet there were none—flooded the little Chelsea streets.
The Velasquez on the walls of The Roundabout danced in her stiff skirts, looking down upon a room bathed in green and gold shadow.
It was three o'clock in the afternoon and Peter was going out to buy Clare a present. He had seen a ruby pendant many months ago in a window in Bond Street. He had thought of it for Clare but he had known that, with young Stephen's education and the rest of the kid's expenses, he could not dare to afford it. Now... things were different.
It should sign and seal this new order....
He came downstairs. He looked into the little sitting-room. Clare was standing there by the window looking at the gay trees in the orchard. On the opposite wall the Velasquez danced....
She had not heard him come in and she was standing by the window with her hands clasped tightly behind her, her body strung up, so it seemed, by some height of determination. She wore a black dress with a little white round her neck and at the sleeves. Her hair was rolled into a pile on the top of her head and the sunlight from the orchard was shining upon it.
When Peter called her name she turned round with a startled cry and put her hand to her throat. Then she moved back against the window as though she were afraid that he was going to touch her.
He noticed her movement and the words that he had intended to say were checked on his lips. He stammered, instead, something about going out. She nodded her head; she had pulled herself together and walked towards him from the window.
"Won't you come, too? It is such a lovely day," he asked her.
"I've got a headache."
"It'll do your headache good."
But she shook her head—"No, I'm going upstairs to lie down."
She moved past him to the door. Then with her hand on it she turned back to him:—
"Peter, I—" she said.
She seemed to appeal to him with her eyes beseeching, trying to say something, but the rest of her face was dumb.
The appeal, the things that she would have said suddenly died, leaving her face utterly without expression.
"Bobby and mother are coming to dinner to-night, aren't they?"
She passed through the door across the sunlit hall, up the dark stairs. She walked with that hesitating halting step that he knew so well: her small, white hand lay, for a moment on the banisters—then she had disappeared.
Coming through the hall Peter noticed that there was a letter in the box. He took it out and found, with delight, that it was from Stephen Brant. He had had no word from him since the day when he and Mr. Zanti had paid their fateful visit.
The letter said:—
_Dear Mr. Peter,
This is a hurried line to tell you that He is dead at last, died in drink cursing and swearing and now her mother and she, poor dear, are going to America and I'm going to look after her hoping that we'll be marrying in a few months' time and so realise my heart's wish.
Dear Peter I sail on Thursday from Southampton and would be coming to see you but would not like to inconvenience you as you now are, but my heart is ever the same to you, Dear Boy, and the day will come when we can talk over old times once again.
Your affectionate friend, sir,
Now about to be made the happiest man in all the world,
N.B. I hope the little kid is strong and happy.
N.B. Zanti goes with us to America having heard of gold in California and is to be my best man when the day comes._
So Stephen's long wait was ended at last. Peter's eyes were dimmed as he put the letter away in his pocket. What a selfish beast, to be sure, must this same Peter Westcott, be, for here he was wishing—yes, almost wishing—that Stephen's happiness had not come to him. Always at the back of everything there had been the thought of Stephen Brant. Let all the pits in the world gape and yawn, there was one person in the world to whom Peter was precious. Now—in America—with a wife... some of the sunlight had gone out of the air and Peter's heart was suddenly cold with that old dread.
Another friend taken from him! Another link gone! Then he pulled himself together, tried to rejoice with Stephen at his happiness, failed dismally, walked down Piccadilly defiantly, with swinging shoulders and a frowning face, like a sailor in a hostile country, and went into the Bond Street jeweller's.
He had been there on several former occasions and a large stout man who looked as though he must have been Lord Mayor several years running came forward and gave Peter an audience. Precious stones were of no account in such a place as this, and the ruby pendant looked quite small and humble when it was brought to Peter—nevertheless it was beautiful and would suit Clare exactly. It seemed to appeal personally to Peter, as though it knew that he wanted it for a very especial occasion. This wasn't one of those persons who would come in and buy you as though you were dirt. It meant something to Peter. It meant something indeed—it meant exactly sixty pounds—
"Isn't that rather a lot?" said Peter.
"It's as fine a ruby—" said the dignitary, looking over Peter's head out of the window, as though he were tired of the affair and wanted to see whether his car were there.
"I'll take it," said Peter desperately.
Sixty Pounds! Did one ever hear of such a thing? Sixty pounds ... Never mind, it marked an occasion. The ruby smiled at Peter as it was slipped into its case; it was glad that it was going to somebody who hadn't very many things.
He had several other matters to settle and it was nearly five o'clock when he turned out of Knightsbridge down Sloane Street. The sun was slipping behind the Hyde Park Hotel so that already the shadows were lying along the lower parts of the houses although the roofs were bright with sunshine.
It was the hour when all the dogs were taken for the last exercise of the day. Every kind, of dog was there, but especially the fat and pampered variety—Poms, King Charles, Pekinese, Dachshunds—a few bigger dogs, and even one mournful-eyed Dane who walked with melancholy superiority, as a king amongst his vassals.
The street stirred with the patterings of dogs. The light slid down the sky—voices rang in the clear air softly as though the dying day had besought them to be tender. The colours of the shops, of the green trees, of slim and beautifully-dressed houses were powdered with gold-dust; the church in Sloane Square began to ring its bells.
Peter, as he turned down the street, was cold—perhaps because Knightsbridge had been blazing with sunshine and the light here was hidden.... No, it was more than that....
"They say," he thought, "that Cornishmen always know when a disaster's coming. If that's true, something ought to be going to happen to me."
And then, in a flash, that sound that he had been half-subconsciously expecting, came—the sound of the sea. He could hear it quite distinctly, a distant, half-determined movement that seemed so vast in its roll and plunge, so sharp in the shock with which it met the shore, and yet so subdued that it might be many thousands of miles away. It was as though a vast tide were dragging back a million shells from an endless shore—the dragging hiss, the hesitating suspense in mid-air, and then the rattle of the returning wave.
As though hypnotised he closed his eyes. Yes, he was walking along the Sea Road. There was that range of rock that lay out at sea like a crouching dog. There was that white twisting circle of foam that lay about the Ragged Stone—out there by itself, the rock with the melancholy bell. Then through the plunging sea he could hear its note—the moan of some one in pain. And ever that rattle, that hiss, that suspense, that crash.
"I beg your pardon—" he had run into a lady's maid who was leading a pompous King Charles. The spaniel eyed him with hatred, the maid with distrust. He passed on—but the Sea had departed.
To chase away his gathering depression he thought that he would go in and have tea with Bobby and Alice. It was quite late when he got there, and stars were in a sky that was so delicate in colour that it seemed as though it were exhausted by the glorious day that it had had; a little sickle moon was poised above the Chelsea trees.
To his disgust he found that Percival and Millicent Galleon were having tea with their brother. Their reception of him very quickly showed him that "Mortimer Stant" had put a final end to any hopes that they might have had of his career as an artist.
"How's the book doing, Westcott?" said Percival, looking upon Peter's loose-fitting clothes, broad shoulders and square-toed shoes with evident contempt.
"Not very well thank you, Galleon."
"Ah, well, it didn't quite come off, did it, Westcott?—not quite. Can't hit the nail every time. Now young Rondel in this Precipice of his has done some splendid work. We had him to tea the other day and really he seemed quite a nice unassuming fellow—"
"Oh! shut up," Bobby growled. "You talk too much, Percival."
Peter was growing. Quite a short time ago he would have been furious, would have gone into his shell, refused to speak to anybody, been depressed and glowering.
Now, smiling, he said:
"Alice, won't you consider it and come up and dine with us after all to-night? It's only my mother-in-law beside ourselves—"
"No, thanks, Peter. I mustn't. The boy's not quite the thing."
"Well, all right—if you must."
Nevertheless, it hurt, although it was only that young ass of a Galleon. That, though, was one of the pits into which one must not look.
He felt the little square box that contained the ruby, lying there so snugly in his pocket. That cheered him.
"I must be getting back. Good-night, everybody. See you at dinner, Bobby."
After Percival and his sister had also gone Alice said:—
"Dear Peter's growing up."
"Yes," said Bobby. "My sweet young brother wants the most beautiful kicking and he'll get it very soon." Then he looked at the clock. "I must go up and dress."
"I'm rather glad," said Alice, "I'm not coming. Clare gets considerably on my nerves just at present."
"Yes," said Bobby, "but thank God Mr. Cardillac's in Paris—for the time being." Then he added, reflectively—
"Dear old Peter—bless him!"
MR. WESTCOTT SENIOR CALLS CHECKMATE
Peter felt as he closed the hall door behind him that The Roundabout was both cold and dark. The little hall drew dusk into its corners very swiftly and now, as he switched on the electric light, he was conscious almost of protest on the part of the place, as though it wished that it might have been left to its empty dusk.
A maid passed him.
"Has your mistress gone upstairs?" he asked her.
"I don't think she has come in, sir."
"Not come in?"
"No, sir, she went out about three o'clock. I don't think she's come back, sir."
She's running it pretty close, he thought as he looked at his watch—then he went slowly up to dress.
He had been more irritated by the superiorities of young Percival Galleon than he had cared to confess. Peter had, at the bottom of his soul, a most real and even touching humility. He had no kind of opinion of his abilities, of his work in comparison with the other workers that counted. Moreover he would not, were his ultimate critical sense aroused, fail to admit to himself some certain standard of achievement. Nothing that young Galleon could say mattered from the critical standpoint—nevertheless he seemed to represent, in this case, a universal opinion; even in his rejection of Peter one could see, behind him, a world of readers withdrawing their approval.
"Peter Westcott's no good.... Peter Westcott's no good.... Peter Westcott's no good...."
In any case that was quite enough to account for the oppression that he was feeling—feeling with increasing force as the minutes passed. He undressed and dressed again slowly, wondering vaguely, loosely, in the back of his mind, why it was that Clare had not come in. Perhaps she had come in and the maid had not heard her. He took the ruby out of his pocket, opened the little case, looked at the jewel shining there under the electric light, thought of Clare with a sudden rush of passionate affection. "Dear thing, won't she look lovely in it? Her neck's so white and she's never worn much jewellery—she'll be pleased. She'll know why I'm giving it to her now—a kind of seal on what we agreed to the other night. A new life ... new altogether...."
He was conscious as he took his shirt off that his windows were open and a strange scent of burning leaves was with him in the room. It was quite strong, pungent—very pleasant, that sense of burning. Burning leaves in the orchard.... But it was rather cold. Then he came back to his looking-glass and, standing there, naked save for his dress trousers, he saw that he was looking in much better health than he had looked for weeks. The colour had returned to his face, his eyes were brighter and more alert—the lines had gone. He was strong and vigorous as he stood there, his body shining under the glow. He opened and shut his hands feeling the strength, force, in his fingers. Thick-set, sturdy, with his shoulders back again now, straight, not bent as they had been.
"Oh, I'm all right—I'm all right you know. I'll write some stuff one day..." and even behind that his thought was—"that young Galleon, by jove, I could jolly well break him if I wanted to—just snap him up."
And then the odour of the burnt leaves filled his nostrils again; when he had dressed he turned out the light, opened the windows more widely, and stood for a moment there smelling the smoke, feeling the air on his forehead, seeing the dark fluttering shadows of the trees, the silver moon, the dim red haze of the London sky....
He went down to his study. Clare must be in now. Bobby would be here in a few minutes. He took up the Times but his mind wandered. "Mr. Penning Bruce was at his best last night in the new musical Comedy produced at the Apollo Theatre—the humour of his performance as Lieutenant Pottle, a humour never exaggerated nor strained...."
But he couldn't attend. He looked up at the little clock and saw that it was nearly dinner-time. Bobby ought to be here.
He stood up and listened. The house was profoundly silent. It was often silent—but to-night it was as though everything in the house—the furniture, the pictures—were listening—as though The Roundabout itself listened.
He went into the hall—stood for a moment under the stairs—and then called "Clare—Clare." He waited and then again "Clare, Clare—I say, it's late. Come along—"
There was no answer.
Then, crossing the hall, he opened the door of the little drawing-room and looked in. It was black and empty—here, too, he could smell the burning leaves.
He switched on the light and instantly, perched against the Velasquez Infanta, saw the letter, white and still before the pink and grey of the picture. At the sight of the letter the room that had been empty and cold was suddenly burning hot and filled with a thousand voices. "Take it—take it—why don't you take it? It's been waiting there for you a long time and we've all been wondering when you were coming in for it. It's waiting there for you. Take it—take it—take it!"
At the sight of it too, the floor of the room seemed instantly to pitch, slanting downwards, like the deck of a sinking ship. He caught on to the back of a chair in order that he might not slip with it. His hands shook and there was a great pain at his heart, as though some one were pulling it tight, then squeezing it in their fingers and letting it go again.
Then, as suddenly, all his agitation fled. The room was cold and empty again, and his hands were steady. He took the letter and read it.
It was written in great agitation and almost illegible, and at the bottom of the paper there was a dirty smudge that might have been a tear stain or a finger mark. It ran:
_I must go. I have been so unhappy for so long and we don't get on together, Peter, now. You don't understand me and I must be happy. I had always been happy until I married you—perhaps it's partly my fault but I only hinder your work and there is some one else who loves me. He has always said so.
I would not have gone perhaps if it had not been for what you did on April 12. I know because some one saw you getting into a cab at midnight with that horrible woman. That shows that you don't care about me, Peter. But perhaps I would have gone anyhow. Once, the night I told you about baby coming, I told you there'd be a time when you'd have to hold me. It came—and you didn't see it. You didn't care—you can't have loved me or you would have seen.... But anything is better than staying here like this. I am very unhappy now but you will not care. You are cruel and hard, Peter. You have never understood what a woman wants.
I am going to Jerry in Paris. You can divorce me. I don't care about anything now. I won't come back—I won't, I won't—Clare._
He read this all through, very carefully with a serious brow. He finished it and then knew that he had not read a word of it. He went, slowly, to the window and opened it because the room was of a stifling heat. Then he took the letter again and read it. As he finished it again he was conscious that the door-bell was ringing. He wondered why it was ringing.
He was standing in the middle of the room and speaking to himself: "The humour of his performance as Lieutenant Pottle, a humour never exaggerated nor strained ..."
"The humour of his Lieutenant Pottle as a performer—never strained... never exaggerated... never strained..."
Bobby came in and found him there. Peter's face was so white that his collar and shirt seemed to be a continuation of his body—a sudden gruesome nakedness. Both his hands were shaking and his eyes were puzzled as though he were asking himself some question that he could not solve.
Bobby started forward—
"God, Peter, what—"
"She's gone away, Bobby," Peter said, in a voice that shook a little but was otherwise grave and almost a whisper, so low was it. "She's gone away—to Cardillac." Then he added to himself—"Cardillac is my best friend."
Then he said "Listen," and he read the letter straight through. He repeated some of the phrases—"What you did on April 12." "That shows that you don't care.... You are cruel and hard, Peter.... I am going to Jerry in Paris...."
"Jerry—that's Cardillac, you know, Bobby. He's in Paris and she's going over to him because she can't stand me any more. She says I don't care about her. Isn't that funny, when I love her so much?"
Bobby went to him, put his arm round his neck—
"Peter—dear—Peter—wait," and then "Oh my God! we must stop her—"
He drew himself away from Bobby's arm and, very unsteadily, went across the room and then stood against the farther wall, his head bent, motionless.
"Stop her? Oh! no, Bobby. Stop her when she wants to go! I—" His voice wasn't Peter's voice, it was a thin monotonous voice like some one speaking at a great distance.
Then it seemed that intelligence was flashed upon him. He lurched forward and with a great voice—as though he had been struck by some sudden agonising, immortal pain—
And at that instant Mrs. Rossiter was shown into the room.
The maid who opened the door had apparently some suspicion that "things were odd," because she waited for a moment before she closed the door again, staring with wide eyes into the room, catching, perhaps, some hint from her master's white face that something terrible had occurred.
It was obvious enough that Mrs. Rossiter had herself, during the last week, been in no easy mind. From the first glances at Peter and Bobby she seemed to understand everything, for, instantly, at that glimpse of their faces she became, for the first time in her life, perhaps, a personality, a figure, something defined and outlined.
Her face was suddenly grey. She hesitated back against the door and, with her face on Peter, said in a whisper, to Bobby:
"What—what has happened?"
Bobby was not inclined to spare her. As an onlooker during these last months he felt that she, perhaps, was more guiltily responsible for the catastrophe than any other human being.
"Clare," he said, trying to fix her eyes. "She's gone off to Cardillac—to Paris."
Then he was himself held by the tragedy of those two faces. They faced each other across the room. Peter, with eyes and a mouth that were not his, eyes not sane, the eyes of no human being, mouth smiling, drawn tight like a razor's edge, with his hands spread out against the wall, watched Mrs. Rossiter.
Mrs. Rossiter, at Bobby's words, had huddled up, suddenly broken, only her eyes, in her great foolish expressionless face, stung to an agony to which the rest of her body could not move.
Her little soul—a tiny scrap of a thing in that vague prison of dull flesh—was suddenly wounded, desperately hurt by the only weapon that could ever have found it.
"Clare!" that soul whispered, "not gone! It's not possible—it can't be—it can't be!"
Peter, without moving, spoke to her.
"It's you that have sent her away. It's all your doing—all your doing—"
She scarcely seemed to realise him, although her eyes never left his face—she came up to Bobby, her hands out:
"Bobby—please, please—tell me. This is absurd—there's a mistake. Clare, Clare would never do a thing like that—never leave me like that—why—" and her voice rose—"I've loved her—I've loved her as no mother ever loved her girl—she's been everything to me. She knows it—why she often says that I'm the only one who loves her. She'd never go—"
Then Peter came forward from the wall, muttering, waving his hands at her—"It's you! You! You! You've driven her to this—you and your cursed interference. You took her from me—you told her to deceive me in everything. You taught her to lie and trick. She loved me before you came into it. Now be proud, if you like—now be proud. God damn you, for making your daughter into a whore—That's what you've done, you with your flat face, your filthy flat face—you've made your daughter a whore, I tell you—and it's nothing but you—you—you—!"
He lifted his hand as though he would strike her across the face. She said nothing but started back with her hands up as though to protect herself. He did not strike her. His hand fell. But she, as though she had felt a blow had her hand held to her face.
He stood over her for a moment laughing, his head flung back. Then still laughing he went away from them out into the hall.
Then, through the open door they heard him. He passed through the upper rooms crying out as he went—"Clare! Clare! Where are you? Come down! They're here for dinner! You're wanted! It's time, Clare!—where are you? Clare! Clare!"
They heard him, knocking furniture over as he went. Then there was silence. Mrs. Rossiter seemed, at that, to come to herself. She stood up, feeling her cheek.
"It's sent him off his head, Bobby. Go after him. He'll hurt himself." Then as though to herself, she went on—"I must find Clare—she'll be in Paris, I suppose. I must go and find her, Bobby. She'll want me badly."
She went quietly from the room, still with her hand to her cheek. She listened for a moment in the hall.
She turned round to Bobby:
"It doesn't say—the letter—where Clare's gone?"
He helped her on with her cloak and opened the front door for her. She slipped away down the street.
Bobby turned back and saw that Peter was coming down the stairs. But now the fury had all died from his face, only that look, as of some animal wounded to death, a look that was so deep and terrible as almost to give his white face no expression at all, was with him.
It had been with him at Stephen's death, it was with him far more intensely now. He looked at Bobby.
"She's gone," in a tired, dull voice as of some one nearly asleep, "gone to Cardillac. I loved Cards—and all the time he loved Clare. I loved Clare and all the time she loved Cards. It's damned funny isn't it, Bobby, old man?"
He stood facing him in the hall, no part of him moving except his mouth. "She says I treated her like a brute. I don't think I did. She says there was something I did one night—I don't know. I've never done anything—I've never been with another woman—something about a cab—Perhaps it was poor Rose Bennett. Poor Rose Bennett—damned unhappy—so am I—so am I. I'm a lonely fellow—I always have been!"
He went past Bobby, back into the little drawing-room. Bobby followed him.
He turned round.
"You can go now, Bobby. I shan't want you any more."
"No, I'm going to stay."
"I don't want you—I don't want any one."
"I'm going to stay."
"I'd rather you went, please."
"I'm going to stay."
Peter paid no more attention. He went and sat down on a chair by the window. Bobby sat down on a chair near him.
Once Peter said: "They took my baby. They took my work. They've taken my wife. They're too much for me. I'm beaten."
Then there was absolute silence in the house. The servants, who had heard the tumbling of the furniture, crept, frightened to bed.
Thus The Roundabout, dark, utterly without sound, stayed through the night. Once, from the chair by the window in the little drawing-room a voice said, "I'm going back to Scaw House—to my father. I'm going back—to all of them."
During many hours the little silver clock ticked cheerfully, seeing perhaps with its little bright eyes, the two dark figures and wondering what they did there.
Peter Westcott was dead.
They put his body into the 11.50 from Paddington.
It was a day of high, swinging winds, of dappled skies, of shining gleaming water. Bunches now and again of heavy black clouds clustered on the horizon, the cows and horses in the fields were sharply defined, standing out rigidly against a distant background. The sun came and was gone, laughed and was instantly hidden, turned the world from light to shadow and from shadow back to light again.
Peter's body was alone in the compartment. It was propped up against red velvet that yielded with a hard, clenched resistance, something uncomfortable, had the body minded. The eyes of the body were the high blank windows of a deserted house. Behind them were rooms and passages, but lately so gaily crowded, so eager, with their lights and fires, for hustling life—now suddenly empty—swept of all its recent company, waiting for new, for very different inhabitants.
The white hands motionless upon the knees, the eyes facing the light but blind, the body still against the velvet, throughout the long, long day....
There were occasions when some one came and asked for his ticket. Some one came once and asked him whether "He would take lunch." Once a woman, flushed and excited, laden with parcels, tumbled into his carriage and then, after a glance at the white face, tumbled out again.
Then, from very, very far away, came the first whispered breath of returning consciousness. The afternoon sun now had banished the black clouds—the wind had fallen—the sky was a quiet blue and birds rose and fell, rivers shone and had passed, roads were white like ribbons, broad and brown like crinkled paper, then ribbons again as the train flung Devonshire, scornfully, behind its back. Peter was conscious that his body was once more to be tenanted. But by whom?
Here was some one coming to him now, some one who, as the evening light fell about the land, dark with his cloak to his face, came softly upon the house and knocked at the door. Peter could hear his knock—it echoed through the empty passages, the deserted rooms, it was a knock that demanded, imperatively, admittance. The door swung back, the black passages gaped upon the evening light and were closed again. The house was once more silent—but no longer untenanted.
Peter was now conscious of the world. That was Exeter that they had left behind them and soon there would be Plymouth and then the crossing of the bridge and then—Cornwall!
Cornwall! His lips were dry—he touched them with his tongue, and knew, suddenly, that he was thirsty, more thirsty than he had ever been. He would never be hungry again, but he would always be thirsty. An attendant passed. What should he drink? The attendant suggested a whisky and soda. Yes ... a large whisky....
It was very long indeed since he had been in Cornwall—he had not been there since his boyhood. What had he been doing all the time in between? He did not know—he had no idea. This new tenant of the house was not aware of those intervening years, was only conscious that he was returning after long exile, to his home—Scaw House, yes, that was the name ... the house with the trees and the grey stone walls—yes, he would be glad to be at home again with his father. His father would welcome him after so long an absence.
The whisky and soda was brought to him and as he drank it they crossed the border and were in Cornwall.
They were at Trewth, that little station where you must change for Treliss. It stood open to all the winds of heaven, two lines of paling, a little strip of platform, standing desolately, at wistful attention in the heart of gently breathing fields, mild skies, dark trees bending together as though whispering secrets ... all mysterious, and from the earth there rose that breath—sea-wind, gorse, soil, saffron, grey stone—that breath that is only Cornwall.
Peter—somewhere in some strange dim recesses of his soul—felt it about his body. The wind, bringing all these scents, touched his cheek and his hair and he was conscious that that dark traveller who now tenanted his house closed the doors and windows upon that breath. It might waken consciousness, and consciousness memory, and memory pain ... ah! pain!—down with the shutters, bolt the doors—no vision of the outer world must enter here.
The little station received gratefully the evening light that had descended upon it. A few men and women, dim bundles of figures against the pale blue, waited for the train, a crescent moon was stealing above the hedges, from the chimneys of two little cottages grey smoke trembled in the air.
Suddenly there came to Peter, waiting there, the determination to drive. He could not stand there, surrounded by this happy silence any longer. All those shadows that were creeping about the dark spaces beyond his house were only waiting for their moment when they might leap. This silence, this peace, would give them that moment. He must drive—he must drive.
In the road outside the station a decrepit cab with a thin rake of a man for driver was waiting for a possible customer. The cab was faded, the wheels encrusted with ancient mud, the horse old and wheezy, but the cabman, standing now thinner than ever against the sky, was, in spite of a tattered top hat, filled with that cheerful optimism that belongs to the Cornishman who sees an opportunity of "doing" a foreigner.
"I want to drive to Treliss," said Peter.
They bargained. The battered optimist obtained the price that he demanded and cocked his eye, derisively, at the rising moon.
Peter surveyed the cab.
"I'll sit with you on the box," he said.
The thin driver made way for him. It was a high jolting cab of the old-fashioned kind, a cab you might have sworn was Cornish had you seen it anywhere, a cab that smelt of beer and ancient leather and salt water, a cab that had once driven the fashion of Treliss to elegant dances and now must rattle the roads with very little to see, for all your trouble, at the end of it.
The sleeping fields, like grey cloths, stretched on every side of them and the white road cut into the heart of the distance. It was a quarter to eight and a blue dusk. The driver tilted the top hat over one ear and they were off.
"I know this road as yer might say back'ards. Ask any one down along Treliss way. Zachy Jackson they'll say—which is my name, sir, if yer requirin' a good 'orse any time o' day. Zachy Jackson! which there ain't no man,—tarkin' of 'orses, fit to touch 'im, they'll tell yer and not far wrong either."
But now with every stumbling step of that bony horse Peter was being shaken into a more active consciousness, consciousness not of the past, very slightly of the present, but rather of an eager, excited anticipation of events shortly to befall him, of the acute sense—the first that had, as yet, come to him—that, very shortly, he was to plunge himself into an absolute abandonment of all the restraints and discipline that had hitherto held him. He did not know, he could not analyse to himself—for what purpose those restraints had been formerly enforced upon his life. Only now—at this moment, his body was being flooded with a warm, riotous satisfaction at the thought of the indulgences that were to be his.
Still this fortress of his house was bare and desolated, but now in some of the rooms there were lights, fire, whispers, half-hidden faces, eyes behind curtains.
The wind struck him in the face. "Enough of this—you're done for—you're beaten—you're broken... you're going back to your hovel. You're creeping home—don't make a fine thing of it—" the wind said.
The top of the hill rolled up to them and suddenly with the gust that came from every quarter there was borne some sound. It was very delicate, very mysterious—the sound, one might fancy, that the earth would make if all spring flowers were to pierce the soil at one common instant—so fugitive a whisper.
"That's the sea," said Mr. Jackson, waving his whip in the air, "down to Dunotter Cove. There's a wind to-night. It'll blow rough presently."
Now from their hilltop in the light of a baby moon puddles of water shone like silk, hedges were bending lines of listeners, far on the horizon a black wood, there in one of those precipitous valleys cottages cowering, overhead the blue night sky suddenly chequered with solemn pompous slowly moving clouds. But here on the hilltop at any rate, a bustle of wind—such a noise amongst the hedges and the pools instantly ruffled and then quiet again; and so precipitous a darkness when a cloud swallowed the moon. In the daylight that landscape, to any who loved not Cornwall, would seem ugly indeed, with a grey cottage stuck here and there naked upon the moor, with a bare deserted engine house upon the horizon, with trees, deep in the little valley, but scant and staggering upon the hill—ugly by day but now packed with a mystery that contains everything that human language has no name for, there is nothing to do, on beholding it, but to kneel down and worship God. Mr. Jackson had seen it often before and he went twice to chapel every Sunday, so he just whipped up his horse and they stumbled down the road.
"Dirty weather coming," he said.
Peter was disturbed. That whispering noise that had crept across the country frightened him. If it went on much longer it would make him remember—he must not remember.
They turned down into a deep, mysterious lane and the whisper was hidden. Now there was about them only the urgent crowding of the hedges, the wild-flowers flinging their scent on to the night air, and above and below and on every side of the old cab there streamed into the air the sweet smell of crushed grass, as though many fields had been pressed between giant's fingers and so had been left.
Peter sat there and about him, like flames licking woodwork, evil thoughts devoured his body. He was going now at last to do all those things that, these many years, he had prevented himself from doing. That at any rate he knew.... He would drink and drink and drink, until he would never remember anything again ... never again.... Meanwhile as the cab slowly began to climb the hill again Mr. Jackson was telling a story.
He rolled his r's as though life were indeed a valuable and happy thing, and now and again, waving his thin whip in the air, he would seem to appeal to the moon.
"'Twas down to Dunotter Cove and I, a lad, my father bein' a fisherman, and one night, I mind it as though it were yesterday, there was a mighty wreck. Storm and wind and rain there was that night and there we were, out in it, suddenly, all the village of us. I but a slip of a boy, you must know, which it was thirty year back now and the rain sizzling on the cobbles and the wind blawin' the chimneys crooked. Well—she were a mighty wreck blawn right up against the Dunotter rocks, you understand, and sendin' up rockets and we seein' her clear enough, black out to sea which she seemed enormous in the night time and all. My father and the rest of 'em went out in the boat—we waited and we waited and they didn't come back.... They never come back—none of them only a crazed luny, Bill Tregothny—'e was washed up against the rocks down to Bosillian and 'e were just livin' ... And when it come daylight,"—Mr. Jackson cleared his throat and paused—"when it come daylight there wasn't no wreck—nothing—nor no bodies neither—nothing—only Bill Tregothny the fool...."
Peter had heard no single word of this. His ears were straining for the return of that whisper. They were nearly once again at the hilltop. Then in front of them there would be the sea—at the top of the hill there would be the sea.... He was seized with a great terror—frightened like a child in the dark.... "Bill Tregothny, you must understand sir, 'ad always been a idiot—always, born so. When 'e was all well again 'e told strange tales about the lot of them havin' boarded the vessel and there bein' gold all over the decks—bars of it with the rain fallin' all about it—piled in 'eaps and 'e said the sailors weren't like common sailors yer knew, but all in silks with cocked hats and the gold lyin' all about—
"O course Bill was the idiot you must understand, but it's true enough that there were no vessel in the marnin'—no vessel at all—and my father and the rest were never seen again—nor no bodies neither.... And they do say—"
Here Mr. Jackson dropped his voice—
They were just at the top of the hill now. Peter was sitting with his hands clenched, his body trembling.
"... They do say that up in the potato field over Dunotter they've seen a man all in a cocked hat and red silk and gold lace—a ghost you must understand, sir—which Bill Tregothny says ..."
The sea broke upon them with an instant, menacing roar. Between them and this violence there was now only moorland, rough with gorse bushes, uneven with little pits of sand, scented with sea pinks, with stony tracks here and there where the moonlight touched it.
But across it, like a mob's menace, fell the thunder, flung up to them from below, swelling from a menace to a sudden crash, then from crash to echo, dying to murmur again. It had in it anger and power, also pity and tenderness, also scorn and defiance. It cared for no one—it loved every one. It was more intimate than any confidence ever made, and then it shouted that intimacy to the whole world. It flung itself into Peter's face, beat his body, lashed his soul—"Oh! you young fool—you've come slinking back, have you? After all these years you've come slinking back. Where are all your fine hopes now, where all those early defiances, those vast ambitions?—Worthless, broken, defeated—worthless, broken, defeated."
And then it seemed to change:
"Peter—Peter—Hold out a little longer—the battle isn't over yet—struggle on for a little, Peter—I'll help you—I'll bring your courage back to you—Trust me, Peter—trust me...."
Through the rattle of the surf there came the sick melancholy lowing of the Bell Rock; swinging over a space of waters it fell across fields, unutterably, abominably sad.
And in the boy there instantly leapt to life his soul. Maimed and bruised and stunned it had been—now alive, tearing him, bringing on to his bending shoulders an awful tide of knowledge: "Everything is gone—your wife, your boy, your friend, your work.... We have won, Peter, we have won. The House is waiting for you...."
And above those dreadful voices the thundering echo, indifferent to his agonies, despising his frailties, flinging him, sea-wreck of the most miserable, to any insignificant end....
Peter suddenly stood up, rocking on his box. He seized the whip from the driver's hands. He lashed the miserable horse.
"Get on, you devil, get on—leave this noise behind you—get out of it, get out of it—"
The cab rocked and tossed, Mr. Jackson caught the boy about the shoulders, held him down. The horse, tired and weary, paid no heed to anything that might be happening but stumbled on.
"Good Lord, sir," Mr. Jackson cried, "you might have had us over—What's it all about, sir?"
But Peter now was huddled down with his coat about his ears and did not move again.
"Catchin' the whip like that—might 'ave 'ad us right into the 'edge," muttered Mr. Jackson, wishing his journey well over.
As they turned the corner the lights of Treliss burst into view.
Mr. Jackson inquired as to the hotel that Peter preferred and was told to drive anywhere, so he chose The Man at Arms.
The Man at Arms had been turned, by young Mr. Bannister, from a small insignificant hostelry into the most important hotel in the West of England. It stood above the town, looking over the bay, the roofs of the new town, the cottages of the old one, the curving island to the right, the lighthouse to the left—all Cornwall in those grey stones, that blue sea, the grave fishing boats, the flocks of gulls, far, far below.
Mr. Bannister had spared no trouble over The Man at Arms, and now it was luxuriously modern Elizabethan, with an old Minstrels' Gallery kept studiously dusty, and the most splendid old oak and deep fire-places with electric light cunningly arranged, and baths in every passage. Of course you paid for this skilful and comfortable romance, but Mr. Bannister always managed his bills so delicately that you expected to find a poem by Suckling or Lovelace on the back of them. When Peter had been last in Treliss The Man at Arms had scarcely existed, but he was now utterly unconscious of it, and stood in the dim square hall talking to Mr. Bannister like a man in a dream.
He was aware now that he was exhausted with a fatigue that was beyond anything that he had ever experienced. It was a weariness that was not, under any conditions, to be resisted. He must lie down—here, anywhere—now, at once and sleep ... sleep ... sleep.
Mr. Bannister caught him by the arm as he swayed.
"You looked played out, sir."
"Done up... done up!"
His eyes were closed. Then suddenly he had touched Mr. Bannister's shoulder. He was looking at a wire letter rack, hanging by the superintendent's little office. There were some telegrams and many letters stretched behind the wire netting. One envelope was addressed—
Miss Norah Monogue, The Man at Arms Hotel. Treliss, Cornwall.
"Miss Monogue ... Miss Monogue ... have you any one here called Miss Monogue?"
"Yes, sir—been here some weeks. Poor lady, she's very ill I'm afraid. Something to do with her heart—strained it in some way. Seemed much better ... but the last few days...."
Peter stumbled upstairs to his room.
Some clock was striking five when he awoke and looking vaguely about his room saw, by the light, that it must be late afternoon. He must have slept for a day and a night. As he lay back on his bed his first moments of consciousness were filled with a pleasant sense of rest and ease. He remembered nothing ... he only knew that in the air there was the breath of flowers and that through the open window there floated up to him a song, a murmur of the sea, a rattle of little carts.
He looked about his room. On a distant wall there was a photograph—"Dunotter Rocks, from the East." Then he remembered.
He flung the bed-clothes off him and hurried to dress. He must go up to Scaw House at once, at once, at once. Not another moment must be wasted. His hands trembled as he put on his clothes and when he came downstairs he was dishevelled and untidy. He had eaten nothing for many hours but food now would have choked him. He hurried out of the hotel.
The town must have had many recollections to offer him had he observed it but he passed through it, looking neither to the right nor the left, brushing people aside, striding with great steps up the steep cobbled street that leads out of the town, on to the Sea Road.
Here on the Sea Road he paused. The wind, tearing, as it had always done, round the corner met him and for a moment he had to pull himself together and face it. He remembered, too, at that instant, Norah Monogue. Where had he seen her? What had brought her to his mind quite lately? What did she mean by interfering?—interfering? Then he remembered. It was her name in the letter rack. She was at The Man at Arms ill. Impatiently, he would have driven her from him, but all the way down the Sea Road she kept pace with him.
"I'm done with her.... I'm done with everybody. Damn it all, one keeps thinking...."
In the evening light the sea below the road was a pale blue and near the shore a calm green. It was all very peaceful. The water lapped the shore, the Bell Rock sighed its melancholy note across space; out a little way, when some jagged stones sprang like shoulders from the blue, gentle waves ringed them in foam like lace and broke with a whisper against their sides.
Except for the sea there was absolute silence. Peter alone seemed to walk the world. As he strode along his excitement increased and his knees trembled and his eyes were burning. He did not think of the earlier days when he had walked that same road. That was another existence that had nothing to do with him as he was now. The anticipation that possessed him was parallel with the eager demand of the opium-smoker. "Soon I shall be drugged. I'm going to forget, to forget, to forget. Just to let myself go—to sink, to drown."
He had still with him the consciousness of keeping at bay an army of thoughts that would leap upon him if he gave them an opportunity. But soon that would be all over—no more battle, no more struggle. He turned the corner and saw Scaw House standing amongst its dark trees, with its black palings in front of its garden and the deserted barren patch of field in front of that again. The sun was getting low and the sky above the house was flaming but the trees were sombre and the house was cold.
It did not seem to him to have changed in any way since he had left it. The windows had always been of a grim hideous glass, the stone shape of the place always squat and ugly, and the short flight of steps that led up to the heavy beetling door had always hinted, with their old hard surface, at a surly welcome and a reluctant courtesy. It was all as it had been.
The sky, now a burning red, looked down upon an utterly deserted garden, and the silence that was over all the place seemed to rise, like streaming mist, from the heart of the nettles that grew thick along the crumbling wall.
The paint had faded from the door and the knocker was rusty; as Peter hammered his arrival on to the flat silence a bird flew from the black bunch of trees, whirred into the air and was gone....
For a long time after the echo of his knock had faded away there was silence, and it seemed to him that this could be only another of those dreams—those dreams when he had stood on the stone steps in the heart of the deserted garden and woken the echoes through the empty house. At last there were steps; some one came along the passage and halted on the other side of the door and listened. They both waited on either side, and Peter could hear heavy thick breathing. He caught the knocker again and let it go with a clang that seemed to startle the house to its foundations. Then he heard bolts, very slowly drawn back, again a pause and then, stealthily the door swung open.
A scent of rotten apples met him as the door opened, a scent so strong that it was confused at once with his vision of the woman who stood there, she, with her gnarled and puckered face, her brown skin and crooked nose standing, as it were, for an actual and visible personification of all the rotten apples that had ever been in the world.
He recognised also a sound, the drunken hesitating hiccough of the old clock that had been there when he had come in that evening long ago ready to receive his beating, that had kept pace with his grandfather's snorings and mutterings and had seemed indeed, the only understanding companion that the old man had ever had. The woman was, he saw, the arms-akimbo ferocious cook of the old days, but now how wrinkled and infirm!—separated by so many more years than the lapse of time allowed her from the woman of his past appearance there. There was more in her than the mere crumbling of her body, there was also the crumbling of her spirit, and he saw in her old bleared eyes the sign of some fierce battle fought by her, and fought to her own utter defeat.
In her eyes he saw the thing that his father had become....
What did he want, she asked him, coming disturbing them at that hour, but in her face there was, he fancied, something more than the surly question justified, some curiosity, some eagerness that seemed to show that she did not have many visitors here and that their company might be an eager relief.
"I'm Peter Westcott and I've come to see my father."
She did not answer this, but only, with her hand to her breast stood back a little and watched him with frightened eyes. She was wearing an old, faded, green blouse, open at her scraggy neck and her skirt was a kind of bed-quilt, odd bits of stuffs of many colours stuck together. Her scanty hair was pulled into a bunch on the top of her head, her face where it was not brown was purple, and her hands were always shaking so that her fingers rattled together like twigs. But her alarmed and startled eyes had some appeal that made one pity her poor battered old body.
"You don't remember me," he said, looking into her frightened eyes. But she shook her head slowly.
"You'd much better have kept away," she said.
"Where is he?" he asked her.
She shuffled in front of him down the dark hall. Except for this strange smell of rotting apples it was all very much as it had been. The lamp hanging at the foot of the stairs made the same spluttering noise and there was the door of the room that had once been his grandfather's, and Peter fancied that he could still see the old man swaying there in the doorway, laughing at his son and his grandson as they struggled there on the floor.
The woman pushed open the dining-room door and Peter went in.
Peter's first thought was that his father was not there. He saw standing in front of the well-remembered fireplace a genial-looking gentleman clothed in a crimson dressing-gown—a bald gentleman, rather fat, with a piece of toast in one hand and a glass of something in the other. Peter had expected he knew not what—something stern and terrible, something that would have answered in one way or another to those early recollections of terror and punishment that still dwelt with him. He had remembered his father as short, spare, black-haired, grim, pale—this gentleman, who was now watching him, bulged in the cheeks and the stomach, was highly coloured with purple veins down the sides of his nose and his rather podgy hands trembled. Nevertheless, it was his father. When the red dressing-gown spoke it was in a kind of travesty of that old sharp voice, those cutting icy words—a thickened and degenerate relation:
"My boy! At last!" the gentleman said.
The room presented disorder. On the table were scattered playing cards, a chair was overturned, under the cactus plant lay what looked like a fiddle, and the only two pictures on the wall were very indecent old drawings taken apparently from some Hogarthian prints.
Peter stared at all this in amazement. It was, after the grim approach and the deserted garden, like finding an Easter egg in a strong box. Peter saw that his father was wearing under the dressing-gown a white waistcoat and blue trousers, both of them stained with dark stains and smelling very strongly of whisky. He noticed also that his father seemed to find it difficult to balance himself on both his legs at the same time, and that he was continually shifting his feet in an indeterminate kind of way, as though he would like to dance but felt that it might not be quite the thing.
Mr. Westcott closed up both his eyes, opened his mouth and shut it again and shook Peter excitedly by the hand. At the same time Peter felt that his father was shaking his hand as much because he wanted to hold on to something as for reasons of courtesy.
"Well, I am glad. I wondered when you would come to see your poor old father again—after all these years. I've often thought of you and said to myself, 'Well, he'll come back one day. You only be patient,' I've said to myself, 'and your son will come back to you—your only son, and it isn't likely that he's going to desert you altogether.'"
"Yes, father, I've come back," said Peter, releasing his hand. "I've come back to stay."
He thought of the many times in London when he'd pictured his father, stern and dark, pulling the wires, dragging his wicked son back to him—he thought of that ... and now this. And yet....
"Well now, isn't that pleasant—you've come to stay! Could I have wanted anything better? Come and sit down—yes, that chair—and have something to drink. What, you won't? Well, perhaps later. So you've come to keep your old father company, have you? I'm sure that's delightful. Just what a son ought to do. We shall get along very well, I'm sure."
All the while that his father talked, still holding the toast and the glass of something, Peter was intensely conscious of the silent listening house. After all that grimness, that desertion, the old woman's warning had gone for something. And yet, in spite of a kind of dread that hung about him, in spite of a kind of perception that there was a great deal more in his father than he at present perceived, he could not resist a kind of warm pleasure that here at any rate was some sort of a haven, that no one else in the world might want him, but here was some one who was glad to see him.
"Well, my boy, tell me all you've been doing these years."
"I've been in London, writing—"
"Dear, dear—have you really now? And how's it all turned out?"
"Dear me, I'm sorry for that. But there are better things in the world than writing, believe me. I dare say, my boy, you thought me unkind in those old days but it was all for your best—oh dear me, yes, entirely for your best."
Here, for an instant, his father's voice sounded so like his old grandfather's that Peter jumped.
"Married?" said his father.
"My wife has left me—"
"Dear me, I am sorry to hear that." Mr. Westcott finished the toast and wiped his fingers on a very old and dirty red handkerchief. "Women—bless them—angels for a time, but never to be depended on. Poor boy, I'm sorry. Children?"
"I had a son. He died."
"Well now, I am indeed sorry, I'd have liked a grandson too. Don't want the old Westcott stock to die out. Dear me, that is a pity."
It was at this point that Peter was aware, although he could not have given any reasonable explanation of his certainty, that his father had been perfectly assured beforehand of all the answers to these questions. Peter looked at the man, but the eyes were almost closed, and the smile that played about the weak lips—once so stern and strong—told one nothing.
It was dark now. Mr. Westcott got, somewhat unsteadily, to his feet.
"Come," he said, "I'll show you the house, my boy. Not changed much since you were here, I'm sure. Wanted a woman's care since your dear mother died of course—and your poor old grandfather—"
He whispered over again to himself as he shuffled across the room—"your poor old grandfather—"
It had seemed to grow very suddenly dark. Outside in the hall, under the spluttering lamp, Mr. Westcott found a candle. The house was intensely silent.
As they climbed the stairs, lighted only by the flickering candle-light, Peter's feelings were a curious mixture of uneasiness and a strange unthinking somnolence. Some part of him, somewhere, was urging him to an active unrest—"Norah ... what does she want interfering? I'll just go and see her and come back.... No, I won't, I'll just stay here ... never to bother again ... never to bother again...."
He was also, in some undefined way, expecting that at any moment his father would change. The crimson dressing-gown swayed under the flickering candle-light. Let it turn round and what would one see inside it? His father never stopped talking for an instant—his thick wandering voice was the only sound in the deserted house.
The rooms were all empty. They smelt as though the windows had not been opened for years. It was in the little room that had once been his bedroom that the apples were stored—piles upon piles of them and most of them rotten. The smell was all over the house.
Mr. Westcott, standing with the apples on every side of him, flung monstrous shadows upon the wall—"This used to be your room. I remember I used to whip you here when you were disobedient. The only way to bring up your child. The Westcotts have always believed in it. Dear me, how long ago it all seems ... you can have this room again if you like. Any room in the house you please. We'll be very good company for one another...."
All about Peter there was an atmosphere of extraordinary languor—just to sit here and let the days slip by, the years pass. Just to stay here with no one to hurt one, no need for courage....
They were out in the long passage. Mr. Westcott came and placed his hand upon Peter's arm. The whole house was a great cool place where one slept. Mr. Westcott smiled into Peter's face ... the house was silent and dark and oh! so restful. The candle swelled to an enormous size—the red dressing-gown seemed to enfold Peter.
In another moment he would have fallen asleep there where he stood. With the last struggle of a drowning man he pulled back his fading senses.
"I must go back to the hotel and fetch my things." He could see his father's eyes that had been wide open disappear.
"We can send for them."
"No, I must go for them myself—"
For a moment they faced one another. He wondered what his father intended to do. Then—with a genial laugh, Mr. Westcott said: "Well, my boy, just as you please—just as you please. I know you'll come back to your old father—I know you'll come back—"
He blew the candle out and put his arm through his son's and they went downstairs together.
Peter found, next morning, Miss Monogue sitting by her window. She gave him at once the impression of something kept alive by a will-power so determined that Death himself could only stand aside and wait until it might waver.
She was so thin that sitting there in the clear white colours of the sky beyond her window she seemed like fine silk, something that, at an instant's breath, would be swept like a shadow, into the air. She wore something loose and white and over her shoulders there was a grey shawl. Her grey hair was as untidy as of old, escaping from the order that it had been intended to keep and falling over her beautiful eyes, so that continually she moved her hand—so thin and white with its deep purple veins—to push it back. In this still white figure the eyes burnt with an amazing fire. What eyes they were!
One seemed, in the old days, to have denied them their proper splendour, but now in this swiftly fading body they had gathered more life and vigour, showing the soul that triumphed over so slender a mortality.
She seemed to Peter, as he came into the room, to stand for so much more than he had ever hitherto allowed her. Here, in her last furious struggle to keep a life that had given to her nothing worth having, he saw suddenly emblazoned about him, the part that she had played in his life, always from the first moment that he had known her—a part that had been, by him, so frequently neglected, so frequently denied.
As she turned and saw him he was ashamed at the joy that his coming so obviously brought her. He felt her purity, her unselfishness, her single-heartedness, her courage, her nobility in that triumphant welcome that she gave him. That she should care so much for any one so worthless, so fruitless as he had proved himself to be!
He had come to her with some dim sense that it was kind of him to visit her; he advanced to her now across the room with a consciousness that she was honouring him by receiving him at all.
That joy, with which she had at first greeted him, had in it also something of surprise. He had forgotten how greatly these last terrible days must have altered his appearance—he told much more than he knew, and the little sad attempt that he made, as he came to her, to present as careless and happy an appearance as he had presented in the old Brockett days was more pathetic and betraying than anything he could have done.
But she just closed both her burning hands about his cold one, made him sit down in a chair by her side and, trembling with the excited joy of having him with her, forced him to determine that, whatever came of it, he would keep his troubles from her, would let her know nothing of his old chuckling father and the shadowy welcome that Scaw House had flung over him, would be still the Peter that he had been when he had seen her last in London.
"Peter! How splendid to have you here! When Mr. Bannister told me last night I could have cried for happiness, and he, dear little man, was surely as pleased to see me happy as though I'd been his own sister."
"I'd just come down—" Peter began, trying to smile and conscious with an alarm that surprised him, of her fragility and the way that her hand went now and again to her breast, as though to relieve some pain there. "Are you sure—" he broke off, "that I'm not doing you harm coming like this—not agitating you too much, not exciting you?"
"Harm! Why, Peter," she was smiling but he noticed too that her eyes were searching his face, as though to find some clue to the change that they saw there—"Why it's all the good in the world. It's what I've been wanting all this time. Some change, a little excitement, for I've been here, you know, quite a number of weeks alone—and that it should be you—you! of all people in this lovely exciting surprising world."
"How did it happen?" he asked, "your coming down?"
"After I saw you last—I was very bad. My stupid old heart.... And the doctor said that I must get away, to the sea or somewhere. Then—what do you think?—the dears, all of them in Brockett's put their heads together and got me quite a lot of money.... Oh! the darlings, and they just as poor as church mice themselves. Of course I couldn't insult them by not taking it. They'd have been hurt for ever—so I just pocketed my pride and came down here."
"Why Treliss?" asked Peter.
"Well, hadn't you so often talked about it? Always, I'd connected you with it in my mind and thought that one day I'd come down and see it. I suggested it to the doctor—he said it was the very place. I used to hope that one day you'd be with me here to explain it, but I never expected it... not so soon... not like this."
Her voice faltered a little and her hand held his more tightly.
They were silent. The sounds of the world came, muffled, up to their window, but they were only conscious of one another.
Peter knew that, in another instant, he would tell her everything. He had always told her everything—that is what she had been there for, some one, like an elder sister, to whom he might go and confess.
At last it came. Very softly she asked him:
"Peter, what's the matter? Why are you here? What's happened?"
Staring before him out of the window, seeing nothing but the high white light of the upper sky, his heart, as it seemed to him, lying in his hands like a stone to be tossed lightly out there into space, he told her:
"Everything's happened. Clare has run off with my best friend.... It has just happened like that. I don't blame her, she liked him better—but I—didn't know—it was going... to happen."
He didn't look at her, but he heard her catch her breath sharply and he felt her hand tighten on his. They were silent for a long time and he was dimly aware in some unanalysed way that this was what she had expected ever since he had come into the room.
"Oh!" she said at last, holding his hand very tightly, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry—"
He had seen, of course, from the beginning that this business must be told her, but his one desire was to hurry through it, to get it done and banished, once and for all, from their conversation.
"It happened," he went on gruffly, "quite suddenly. I wasn't in any way prepared for it. She just went off to Paris, after leaving a letter. With the death of the boy and the failure of my book—it just seemed the last blow—the end."
"The end—at thirty?" she said softly, almost to herself, "surely, no—with the pluck that you've got—and the health. What are you going to do—about it all?"
"To do?" he smiled bitterly. "Do you suppose that I will ask her to come back to me? Do you suppose that I want her back? No, that's all done with. All that life's finished." Then he added slowly, not looking at her as he spoke—"I'm going to live with my father."
He remembered, clearly enough, that he had told her many things about his early life at Scaw House. He knew that she must now, as he flung that piece of information at her, have recalled to herself all those things that he had told her. He felt rather than perceived, the agitation that seized her at those last words of his. Her hand slowly withdrew from his, it fell back on to her lap and he felt her whole body draw, as it were, into itself, as though it had come into contact with some terror, some unexplained alarm.
But she only said:
"And what will you do at home, Peter?"
He answered her with a kind of bravado—"Oh, write, I suppose. I went up to see the old man yesterday. Changed enormously since the old days. I found him quite genial, seemed very anxious that I should come. I expect he's a bit lonely."
She did not answer this and there was a long awkward pause. He knew, as they sat there, in troubled silence that his conscience was awake. It had seemed to be so quiescent through his visit yesterday; it had been drugged and dimmed all these last restless days. But now it was up again. He was conscious that it was not, after all, going to be so easy a thing to abandon all his energies, his militancies, the dominant vigorous panoply of his soul. He knew as he sat there, that this sick shadow of a woman would not let him go like that.
He said good-bye to her for the moment, but, as he left the room he knew that Scaw House would not see him again until he had done everything for her that there was to be done.
That evening he saw the doctor who attended on her. He was a nice young fellow, intelligent, eager, with a very real individual liking for his patient. "Ah! she's splendid—brave and plucky beyond anything I've ever seen; so full of fun that you'd think that she'd an idea that another three weeks would see her as well as ever again—whereas she knows as well as I do that another three weeks may easily see her out of the world altogether!"
"There's no hope then?" asked Peter.
"None whatever. There's every kind of complication. She must have always had something the matter with her, and if she'd been cared for and nursed when she was younger she might have pulled out of it. Instead of that she's always worn herself to a thread—you can see that. She isn't one of those who take life easily. She ought to have gone before this, but she holds on with her pluck and her love of it all.... Lord! when one thinks of the millions of people who just 'slug' through life—not valuing it, doing nothing with it—one grudges the waste of their hours when a woman like Miss Monogue could have done so much with them."
"Am I doing her any harm, going in to see her?"
"No—doing her good. Don't excite her too much—otherwise the company's the best thing in the world for her."
The days then, were to be dedicated to her service. He knew, of course, that at the end of it—and the end could not be far distant—he would go to Scaw House and remain there; meanwhile the thing was postponed. He would not think about it.
But on his second meeting with Norah Monogue he saw that he was not to be allowed to dismiss it. He found her sitting still by her window; she was flushed now with a little colour, her eyes burning with a more determined fire than ever, her whole body expressing a dauntless energy.
The sight of her showed him that there was to be battle and, strangely enough, he found that there was something in himself that almost welcomed it. Before he knew where he was he found that he was "out" to defend his whole life.
The first thing that she did was to draw from him a minute, particular account of all that had happened during these last months. It developed into a defence of his whole married life, as though he had been pleading before a jury of Clare's friends and must fight to prove himself no blackguard.
"Ah! don't I know that I've made a mess of it all? Do you think that I'm proud of myself?" he pleaded with her. "Honestly I cannot see where, as far as Clare is concerned, I'm to blame. She didn't understand—how could she ever have understood?—the way that my work mattered to me. I wanted to keep it and I wanted to keep her too, and every time I tried to keep her it got in the way and every time I tried to keep it she got in the way. I wasn't clever enough to run both together."
Norah nodded her head.
"But there was more than that. Life has always been rough for me. Rough from the beginning when my father used to whip me, rough at school, rough when I starved in London, roughest of all when young Stephen died. I'd wanted to make something out of it and I suppose the easiest way seemed to me to make it romantic. This place, you know, was always in my bones. That Tower down in the Market Place, old Tan's curiosity shop, the sea—these were the things that kept me going. Afterwards in London it was the same. Things were hard so I made them into a story—I coloured them up. Nothing hurt when everything was romance. I made Clare romance too—that was the way, you see, that all my life was bound up so closely together. She was an adventure just as everything else had been. And she didn't like it. She couldn't understand the Adventure point of view. It was, to her, immoral, indecent. I went easily along and then, one day, all the romance went out of it—clean—like a pricked bubble. When young Stephen died I suddenly saw that life was real—naked—ugly, not romantic a bit. Then it all fell to pieces like a house of cards. It's easy enough to be brave when you're attacking a cardboard castle—it's when you're up against iron that your courage is wanted. It failed me. I've funked it. I'm going to run away."
He could see that Norah Monogue's whole life was in the vigour with which she opposed him—
"No, no, no. To give it up now. Why, you're only thirty—everything's in front of you. Listen. I know you took Clare crookedly, I saw it in the beginning. In the first place you loved her, but you loved her wrong. You've been a boy, Peter, all the time, and you've always loved like a boy. Don't you know that there's nothing drives a woman who loves a man more to desperation than that that man should give her a boy's love? She'd rather he hated her. Clare could have been dealt with. To begin with she loved you—all the time. Oh! yes, I'm as certain of it as I can be of anything. I know her so well. But the unhappiness, the discomfort—all the things, the ugly things, that her mother was emphasising to her all the time—frightened her. Knowing nothing about life she just felt that things as they were were as bad as things could be. It seems extraordinary that any one so timid as she should dare to take so dangerous a plunge as running off to another man.
"But it was just because she knew so little about Life that she could do it. This other man persuaded her that he could give her the peace and comfort that you couldn't. She doesn't know—poor thing, poor thing—what it will mean, that plunge. So, out of very terror, she took it. And now—Oh! Peter, I'm as certain as though I could see her, she's already longing for you—would give anything to get back to you. This has taught her more than all the rest of her life put together. She was difficult—selfish, frightened at any trouble, supersensitive—but a man would have understood her. You wanted affection, Peter—from her, from me, from a lot of people—but it was always because of the things that it was going to bring to you, never because of the things that you were going to give out. You'd never grown up—never. And now, when suddenly the real world has come to you, you're going to give it up."
"I don't give it up," he said to her—"I shall write—I shall do things—"
She shook her head. "You've told me. I know what that means." Then almost below her breath—"It's horrible—It's horrible. You mustn't do it—you must go back to London—you must go back—"
But at that he rose and faced her.
"No," he said, "I will not. I've given the other things a chance—all these years I've given them a chance. I've stood everything and at the end everything's taken away from me. What shall I go back to? Who wants me? Who cares? God!" he cried, standing there, white-faced, dry-eyed, almost defying her—"Why should I go? Just to fail again—to suffer all that again—to have them take everything I love from me again—to be broken again! No, let them break the others—I'm done with it...."
"And the others?" she answered him. "Is it to be always yourself? You've fought for your own hand and they've beaten you to your knees—fight now for something finer—"
She seemed as she appealed to him to be shining with some great conquering purpose. Here, with her poor body broken and torn, her spirit, the purer for her physical pain, confronted him, shamed him, stretched like a flaming sword before the mean paths that his own soul would follow.
But he beat her down. "I will not go back—you don't know—you don't understand—I will not go."
The little dusty Minstrels' Gallery saw a good deal of him during these days. It was a lonely place at the top of the hotel, once intended to be picturesque and romantic for London visitors, but ultimately left to its own company with its magnificent view appreciated by no one.
Here Peter came. Every part of him now seemed to be at war with every other part. Had he gone straight to Scaw House with bag and baggage and never left it again, then the Westcott tradition might have caught him when he was in that numbed condition—caught him and held him.
Now he had stayed away just long enough for all the old Peter to have become alive and active again.
He looked back upon London with a great shuddering. The torment that he had suffered there he must never undergo again. Norah was now the one friend left to him in the world. He would cut himself into pieces to make these last days of hers happy, and yet the one thing that could give her happiness was that he should promise to go back.
She did not understand—no one could understand—the way that this place, this life that he contemplated, pulled him. The slackness of it, the lack of discipline in it, the absence of struggle in it. All the strength, the fighting that had been in him during these past years, was driven out of him now. He just wanted to let things drift—to wander about the fields and roads, to find his clothes growing shabby upon him, to grow old without knowing even that he was alive—all this had come to him.
She, on the other side, would drive him back into the battle of it all once more. To go back a failure—to be pointed out as the man whose wife left him because she found him so dull—to hear men like young Percival Galleon laughing at his book—to sell his soul for journalism in order to make a living—to see, perhaps, Clare come back into the London world—to break out, ultimately, when he was sick and tired of it all, into every kind of debauch ... how much better to slip into nothing down here where nobody knew nor cared!
And yet, on the other hand, he had never known until now the importance that Norah Monogue had held in his life.
Always, in everything he had done, in his ambitions and despairs, his triumphs and defeats, she had been behind him. He'd just do anything in the world for her!—anything except this one thing. Up and down, up and down he paced the little Minstrels' room, with its dusty green chair and its shining floor—"I just can't stand it all over again!"
But every time that he went in to see her—and he was with her continually—made his resistance harder. She didn't speak about it again but he knew that she was always thinking about it.
"She's worrying over something, Westcott—do you happen to know what it is?" the doctor asked him. "It's bad for her. If you can help her about it in any way—"
The strain between them was becoming unbearable. Every day, when he went in to sit with her, they would talk about other things—about everything—but he knew that before her eyes there was that picture of himself up at Scaw House, and of the years passing—and his soul and everything that was fine in him, dying.
He saw her growing daily weaker. Sometimes he felt that he must run away altogether, go up to Scaw House and leave her to die alone; then he knew that that cruelty at any rate was not in him. One day he thought her brutal and interfering, another day it seemed that it was he who was the tyrant. He reminded himself of all the things that she had done for him—all the things, and he could not grant her this one request.
Then he would ask himself what the devil her right was that she should order his life in this way?... everyday the struggle grew harder.
The tension could not hold any longer—at last it broke.
One evening they were sitting in silence beside her window. The room was in dusk and he could just see her white shadow against the dim blue light beyond the window.
Suddenly she broke down. He could hear her crying, behind her hands. The sound in that grey, silent room was more than he could bear. He went over to her and put his arms round her.