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Fortitude
by Hugh Walpole
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"Norah, Norah, please, please. It's so awfully bad for you. I oughtn't to come if I—"

She pulled herself together. Her voice was quite calm and controlled.

"Sit over there, Peter. I've got to talk to you."

He went back to his chair.

"I've only got a few more weeks to live. I know it. Perhaps only a few more days. I must make the very utmost of my time. I've got to save you...."

He said nothing.

"Oh! I know that it must all have seemed to you abominable—as though I were making use of this illness of mine to extort a promise from you, as though just because I'm weak and feeble I can hold an advantage over you. Oh! I know it's all abominable!—but I'll use everything—yes, simply everything—if I can get you to leave this place and go back!"

He could feel that she was pulling herself together for some tremendous effort.

"Peter, I want you now just to think of me, to put yourself out of everything, absolutely, just for this half-hour. After all as I've only a few half-hours left I've got that right."

Her laugh as she said it was one of the saddest things he'd ever heard.

"Now I'm going to tell you something—something that I'd never thought I'd tell a soul.

"I've not had a very cheerful life. It hasn't had very much to make it bright and interesting. I'm not complaining but it's just been that way—" She broke off for a moment. "I don't want you to interrupt or say anything. It'll make it easier for me if I can just talk out into the night air, as it were—just as though no one were here."

She went on: "The one thing that's made it possible, made it bearable, made it alive, has been my love for you. Always from the first moment I saw you I have loved you. Oh! I haven't been foolish about it. I knew that you'd never care for me in that kind of way. I knew from the very first that we should be pals but that you'd never dream of anything more romantic. I've never had any one in love with me—I'm not the kind of woman who draws the romance out of men.

"No, I knew you'd never love me, but I just determined that I'd make you, your career, your success, the pivot, the centre of my life.

"I wasn't blind about you—not a bit. I knew that you were selfish, weak, incredibly young about the world. I knew that you were the last person in existence to marry Clare—all the more reason it seemed to me why I should be behind you. I was behind you so much more than you ever knew. I wonder if you've the least idea what most women's lives are like. They come into the world with the finest ideals, the most tremendous energies, with a desire for self-sacrifice that a man can't even begin to understand. Then they discover slowly that none of those things, those ideals, those energies, those sacrifices, are wanted. The world just doesn't need them—they might as well never have been born. Do you suppose I enjoyed slaving for my mother, day and night for years? Do you suppose that I gladly yielded up all my best blood, my vitality, to the pleasure of some one who never valued it, never even knew that such things were being given her? Before you came I was slowly falling into despair. Think of all the women who are haunted by the awful thought—'The time will come when death will be facing me and I shall be forced to own that for any place that I have ever filled in the world I might never have been born.' How many women are there who do not pray every day of their lives, 'God, give me something to do before I die—some place to fill, some work to carry out, something to save my self-respect.'

"I tell you that there is a time coming when women will force those things that are in them upon the world. God help all poor women who are not wanted!

"I wasn't wanted. There was nothing for me to do, no place for me to fill... then you came. At once I seized upon that-God seemed to have sent it to me. I believed that if I turned all those energies, those desires, those ambitions upon you that it would help you to do the things that you were meant to do. I was with you always—I slaved for you—you became the end in life to which I had been called.

"All the time you were only a boy—that was partly I think why I loved you. You were so gauche, so ignorant, so violent, so confident one moment, so plunged into despair the next. For a while everything seemed to go well. I had thought that Clare was going to be good for you, was going to make you unselfish. I thought that you'd got the better of all that part of you that was your inheritance. Even when I came down here I thought that all was well. I knew that I had come down to die and I had thanked God because He had, after all, allowed me to make something of my life, that I'd been able to see you lifted into success, that I'd seen you start a splendid career.... Then you came and I knew that your life was broken into pieces. I knew that what had happened to you might be the most splendid thing in the world for you and might be the most terrible. If you stay down here now with your father then you are done for—you are done for and my life has, after all, gone for nothing."

Her voice broke, then she leaned forward, catching his hands:

"Peter, I'm dying—I'm going. If you will only have it you can take me, and when I am gone I shall still live on in you. Let me give you everything that is best in me—let me feel that I have sent you back to London, sent you with my dying breath—and that you go back, not because of yourself but because of everything that you can do for every one else.

"Believe me, Peter dear, it all matters so little, this trouble and unhappiness that you've had, if you take it bravely. The courage that you've wanted before is nothing to the courage that you want now if you're going back. Let me die knowing that we're both going back.

"Think of what your life, if it's fine enough, can mean to other people. Go back to be battered—never mind what happens to your body—any one can stand that. There's London waiting for you, there's life and adventure and hardship. There are people to be helped. You'll go, with all that I can give you, behind you ... you'll go, Peter?"

He sat with his teeth set, staring out into the world. He had known from the first sentence of her appeal to him that she had named the one thing that could give him courage to fight his cowardice. Some one had once said: "If any one soul of us is all the world, this world and the next, to any other soul, then whoever it may be that thus loves us, the inadequacy of our return, the hopeless debt of us, must strike us to our knees with an utter humility."

So did he feel now. Out of the wreck there had survived this one thing. He remembered what Henry Galleon had once said about Fortitude, that the hardest trial of all to bear was the consciousness of having missed the Finest Thing. All these years she had been there by the side of him and he had scarcely thought of her—now, even as he watched her, she was slipping away from him, and soon he would be left alone with the consciousness of missing the greatest chance of his life.

The one thing that he could do in return was to give her what she asked. But it was hard—he was under no illusion as to the desperate determination that it would demand. The supreme moment of his life had come. For the first time he was going to fling away the old Peter Westcott altogether. He could feel it clinging to him. About him, in the air, spirits were fighting. He had never before needed Courage as he was needing it now. It seemed to him that he had to stand up to all the devils in the world—they were thick on every side of him.

Then, with a great uplifting of strength, with a courage that he had never known before, he picked up Peter Westcott in his hands, held him, that miserable figure, high in air, raised him, then flung him with all his strength out, away, far into space, never to return, never to encumber the earth again.

"I'll go back," Peter said—and as he said it, there was no elation in him, only a clear-sighted vision of a life of struggle, toil, torment, defeat, in front of him, something so hard and arduous that the new Peter Westcott that had now been born seemed small indeed to face it.

But nevertheless he knew that at the moment that he said those words he had broken into pieces the spell that had been over him for so many years. That Beast in him that had troubled him for so long, all the dark shadows of Scaw House ... these were at an end.

He felt tired, discouraged, no fine creature, as he turned to her, but he knew that, from that moment, a new life had begun for him.

He put his arms round Norah Monogue and kissed her.

V

He got up very early next morning and went down to the Harbour. The fishing-boats were coming in; great flocks of gulls, waiting for the spoil that was soon to be theirs, were wheeling in clouds about the brown sails.

The boats stole, one after another, around the pier. The air was filled with shrill cries—the only other sound was the lapping of the water as it curled up the little beach.

As Peter stood there there crept upon him a sensation of awe. He took off his hat. The gulls seemed to cease their cries.

As another brown sail stole round the white point, gleaming' now in the sun, he knew, with absolute certainty, that Norah Monogue was dead.



CHAPTER IV

THE GREY HILL

I

The day of Norah Monogue's funeral was fine and clear. Peter and little Mr. Bannister were the only mourners and it was Peter's wish that she should be buried in the little windy graveyard of the church where his mother had been buried.

There was always a wind on that little hill, but to-day it was gentler than he had ever known it before. His mind went back to that other funeral, now, as it seemed, such a lifetime ago. Out of all the world these two women only now seemed to abide with him. As he stood beside the grave he was conscious that there was about him a sense of peace and rest such as he had never known before. Could it be true that some of Norah Monogue's fine spirit had come to him? Were they, in sober fact to go on together during the remainder of his days?

He lingered for a little looking down upon the grave. He was glad to think that he had made her last hours happy.

Indeed she had not lived in vain.

II

Heavy black clouds were banking upon the horizon as he went down the hill and struck the Sea Road in the direction of Scaw House. Except in that far distance the sky was a relentless, changeless blue. Every detail in the scene was marked with a hard outline, every sound, the sea, the Bell Rock, the cries of sheep, the nestling trees, was doubly insistent.

He banged the knocker upon the Scaw House door and when the old woman came to open to him he saw that something had occurred. Her hair fell about her neck, her face was puckered with distress and her whole appearance was dismayed.

"Is my father in?" he asked.

"He is, but he's ill," she answered him, eyeing him doubtfully. "He won't know yer—I doubt he'll know any one. He's had a great set-back—"

Peter pushed past her into the hall—"Is he ill?"

"Indeed he is. He was suddenly took—the other evenin' I being in my kitchen heard a great cry. I came runnin' and there in the dining-room I found him, standing there in the midst, his hands up. His eyes, you must understand, sir, were wide and staring—'They've beaten me,' he cried, 'They've beaten me'—just like that, sir, and then down he tumbled in a living fit, foaming at the mouth and striking his poor head against the fender. Yer may come up, sir, but he won't know yer which he doesn't me either."

Peter followed her up to the dreary room that his father inhabited. Even here the paper was peeling off the walls, some of the window-glass was broken and the carpet was torn. His father lay on his back in an old high four-poster. His eyes stared before him, cheeks were ashen white—his hands too were white like ivory.

His lips moved but he made no sound. He did not see Peter, nor did his eyes turn from the blank stare that held them.

"Has he a doctor?" Peter asked the old woman.

"Ay—there's a young man been coming—" the old woman answered him. She was, he noticed, more subservient than she had been on the former occasion. She obviously turned to him now with her greedy old eyes as the one who was likely soon to be in authority.

Peter turned back to the door. "This room must be made warmer and more comfortable. I will send a doctor from the hotel this evening—I will come in again to-night."

As he looked about the poor room, as he saw the dust that the sunlight made so visible, he wondered that the house of cards could so recently have held him within its shadow. He felt as though he had passed through some terrible nightmare that the light of day rendered not only fantastic but incredible. That old Peter Westcott had indeed been flung out of the high window of Norah Monogue's room.

Leaving Scaw House on his right he struck through the dark belt of trees and came out at the foot of the Grey Hill. The dark belt of cloud was spreading now fast across the blue—soon it would catch the sun—the Tower itself was already swallowed by a cold grey shadow.

Peter began to climb the hill, and remembered that he had not been there since that Easter morning when he had kissed an unknown lady and so flung fine omens about his future.

Soon he had reached the little green mound that lay below the Giant's Finger. Although the Grey Hill would have been small and insignificant in hilly country here, by its isolation, it assumed importance. On every side of it ran the sand-dunes—in front of it, almost as it seemed up to its very feet, ran the sea. Treliss was completely hidden, not a house could be seen. The black clouds now had caught the sea and only far away to the right the waves still glittered, for the rest it was an inky grey with a touch of white here and there where submerged rocks found breakers. For one moment the sun had still evaded the cloud, then it was caught and the world was instantly cold.

Peter, as he sat there, felt that if he were only still enough the silence would soon be vocal. The Hill, the Sea, the Sky—these things seemed to have summoned him there that they might speak to him.

He was utterly detached from life. He looked down from a height in air and saw his little body sitting there as he had done on the day when he had proposed to Clare. He might think now of the long journey that it had come, he might watch the course of its little history, see the full circle that it had travelled, wonder for what new business it was now to prepare.

For full circle he had come. He, Peter Westcott, sat there, as naked, as alone, as barren of all rewards, of all success, of all achievements as he had been when, so many years ago he had watched that fight in the inn on Christmas Eve. The scene passed before him again—he saw himself, a tiny boy, swinging his legs from the high chair. He saw the room thick with smoke, the fishermen, Dicky the Fool, the mistletoe swinging, the snow blocking in from outside, the fight—it was all as though it passed once more before his eyes.

His whole life came to him—the scenes at Scaw House, Dawson's, the bookshop, Brockett's, Bucket Lane, Chelsea, that last awful scene there ... all the people that he had known passed before him—Stephen Brant, his grandfather, his father, his mother, Bobby Galleon, Mr. Zanti, Clare, Cards, Mrs. Brockett, Norah, Henry Galleon, Mrs. Rossiter, dear Mrs. Launce ... these and many more. He could see them all dispassionately now; how that other Peter Westcott had felt their contact; how he had longed for their friendship, dreaded their anger, missed them, wanted them, minded their desertion....

Now, behold, they were all gone. Alone on this Hill with the great sea at his feet, with the storm rolling up to him, Peter Westcott thought of his wife and his son, his friends and his career—thought of everything that had been life to him, yes, even his sins, his temptations, his desires for the beast in man, his surly temper, his furious anger, his selfishness, his lack of understanding—all these things had been taken away from him, every trail had been given to him—and now, naked, on a hill, he knew the first peace of his life.

And as he knew, sitting there, that thus Peace had come to him, how odd it seemed that only a few weeks ago he had been coming down to Cornwall with his soul, as he had then thought, killed for ever.

The world had seemed, utterly, absolutely, for ever at an end; and now here he was, sitting here, eager to go back into it all again, wanting—it almost seemed—to be bruised and battered all over again.

And perceiving this showed him what was indeed the truth that all his life had been only Boy's History. He had gone up—he had gone down—he had loved and hated, exulted and despaired, but it was all with a boy's intense realisation of the moment, with a boy's swift, easy transition from one crisis to another.

It had been his education—and now his education was over. As he had said those words to Norah Monogue, "I will go back," he had become a man. Never again would Life be so utterly over as it had been two months ago—never again would he be so single-hearted in his reserved adoption of it as he had been those days ago, at Norah Monogue's side.

He saw that always, through everything that boy, Peter Westcott had been in the way. It was not until he had taken, on that day in Norah Monogue's room, Peter Westcott in his hands and flung him to the four winds that he had seen how terribly in the way he had been. "Go back," Norah had said to him; "you have done all these things for yourself and you have been beaten to your knees—go back now and do something for others. You have been brave for yourself—be brave now for others."

And he was going back.

He was going back, as he had seen on that day, to no easy life. He was going to take up all those links that had been so difficult for him before—he was going to learn all over again that art that he had fancied that he had conquered at the very first attempt—he was going now with no expectations, no hopes, no ambitions. Life was still an adventure, but now an adventure of a hard, cruel sort, something that needed an answer grim and dark.

The storm was coming up apace. The wind had risen and was now rushing over the short stiff grass, bellowing out to meet the sea, blowing back to meet the clouds that raced behind the hill.

The sky was black with clouds. Peter could see the sand rising from the dunes in a thin mist.

Peter flung himself upon his back. The first drops of rain fell, cold, upon his face. Then he heard:

"Peter Westcott! Peter Westcott!"

"I'm here!"

"What have you brought to us here?"

"I have brought nothing."

"What have you to offer us?"

"I can offer nothing."

He got up from the ground and faced the wind. He put his back to the Giant's Finger because of the force of the gale. The rain was coming down now in torrents.

He felt a great exultation surge through his body.

Then the Voice—not in the rain, nor the wind, nor the sea, but yet all of these, and coming as it seemed from the very heart of the Hill, came swinging through the storm—

"Have you cast This away, Peter Westcott?"

"And this?"

"That also—"

"And this?"

"This also?"

"And this?"

"I have flung this, too, away."

"Have you anything now about you that you treasure?"

"I have nothing."

"Friends, ties, ambitions?"

"They are all gone."

Then out of the heart of the storm there came Voices:—

"Blessed be Pain and Torment and every torture of the Body ... Blessed be Plague and Pestilence and the Illness of Nations....

"Blessed be all Loss and the Failure of Friends and the Sacrifice of Love....

"Blessed be the Destruction of all Possessions, the Ruin of all Property, Fine Cities, and Great Palaces....

"Blessed be the Disappointment of all Ambitions....

"Blessed be all Failure and the ruin of every Earthly Hope....

"Blessed be all Sorrows, Torments, Hardships, Endurances that demand Courage....

"Blessed be these things—for of these things cometh the making of a Man...."

Peter, clinging to the Giant's Finger, staggered in the wind. The world was hidden now in a mist of rain. He was alone—and he was happy, happy, as he had never known happiness, in any time, before.

The rain lashed his face and his body. His clothes clung heavily about him.

He answered the storm:

"Make of me a man—to be afraid of nothing ... to be ready for everything—love, friendship, success ... to take if it comes ... to care nothing if these things are not for me—

"Make me brave! Make me brave!"

He fancied that once more against the wall of sea-mist he saw tremendous, victorious, the Rider on the Lion. But now, for the first time, the Rider's face was turned towards him—

THE END

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