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Fortitude
by Hugh Walpole
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Peter's way with the children of the place was sharp and entirely lacking in sentiment—"Little idiot, to fall into the ditch like that—not much of the man about you, young Thomas."

"Isn't Thomas," said the small boy with a chuckle, "I be Jan Proteroe, and I beant afeart only gert beast come out of hedge down along with eyes and a tail—gum!"

He would have told Peter a great deal more but he was suddenly frightened again by the dark hedges and began to whimper, so Peter picked him up and carried him to his cottage at the end of the road and kissed him and pushed him in at the lighted door. He was cheered by the little incident and felt less lonely. At the thought of making Stephen once more his friend his heart warmed. Stephen had been wanting him, perhaps, all this time to come to him but had been afraid that he might be interfering if he asked him—and how glad they would be to see one another!

After all, they needed one another. They had both had hard times, they were both lonely and no distance nor circumstances could lessen that early bond that there had been between them. Happier than he had been for many weeks, he struck off the road and started across the fields, stumbling over the rough soil and plunging sometimes into ditches and pools of water. The rain had begun to fall and the whispering hiss that it made as it struck the earth drowned the more distant noise of the sea that solemnly broke beyond the bending fields. Stephen's farm stood away from all other houses, and Peter as he pressed forward seemed to be leaving all civilisation behind him. He was cold and his boots were heavy with thick wet mud and his hair was soaked.

Beyond the fields was a wood through which he must pass before he reached Stephen's farm, and as the trees closed about him and he heard the rain driving through the bare branches the world seemed to be full of chattering noises. The confidence that he had had in Stephen's reception of him suddenly deserted him and a cold miserable unhappiness crept about him in this wet, heaving world of wind and rain and bare naked trees. Like a great cry there seemed to come suddenly to him through the wood his mother's voice appealing for help, so that he nearly turned, running back. It was a hard, cruel place this world—and all the little ditches and hollows of the wood were running with brown, stealthy water.

He broke through it at last and saw at the bottom of the hill Stephen's house, and he saw that there were no lights in the windows. He stood on the breast of the little hill for a moment and thought that he would turn back, but it was raining now with great heaviness and the wind at his back seemed to beat him down the hill. Suddenly seized with terror at the wood behind him, he ran stumbling down the slope. He undid the gate and pitched into the yard, plunging into great pools of water and seeing on every side of him the uncertain shapes of the barns and sheds and opposite him the great dark front of the house, so black in its unfriendliness, sharing in the night's rough hostility.

He shouted "Stephen," but his voice was drowned by the storm and the gate behind him, creaking on its hinges, answered him with shrill cries. He found the little wicket that led into the garden, and, stepping over the heavy wet grass, he banged loudly with the knocker on the door and called again "Stephen." The noise echoed through the house and then the silence seemed to be redoubled. Then pushing the great knocker, he found to his surprise that the door was unfastened and swung back before him. He felt his way into the dark hall and struck a match. He shouted "Stephen" once more and his voice came echoing back to him. The place seemed to be entirely deserted—the walls were wet with damp, there were no carpets on the floor, a window at the end of the passage showed its uncurtained square.

He passed into the kitchen, and here he found two candles and lighted them. Here also he found signs of life. On the bare deal table was a half-finished meal—a loaf of bread, cheese, butter, an empty whisky bottle lying on its side. Near these things there was a table, and on the floor, beside an overturned chair, there was a gun. Peter picked it up and saw that it was unloaded. There was something terribly desolate about these things; the room was very bare, a grandfather clock ticked solemnly in the corner, there were a few plates and cups on the dresser, an old calendar hung from a dusty nail and, blown by the wind from the cracked window, tip-tapped like a stealthy footstep against the wall. But Peter felt curiously certain that Stephen was going to return; something held him in his chair and he sat there, with his hands on the deal table, facing the clock and listening. The wind howled beyond the house, the rain lashed the panes, and suddenly—so suddenly that his heart leapt to his mouth—there was a scratching on the door. He went to the door and opened it and found outside a wretched sheep-dog, so starved that the bones showed through the skin, and so weak that he could scarcely drag himself along. Peter let him in and the animal came up to him and looked up in his eyes and, very faintly, wagged his tail. Peter gave him the bread, which the dog devoured, and then they both remained silent, without moving, the dog's head between Peter's knees.

The boy must have slept, because he woke suddenly to all the clocks in the house striking midnight, and in the silence the house seemed to be full of clocks. They came running down the stairs and up and down the passages and then, with a whir and a clatter, ceased as instantly as they had begun.

The house was silent again—the storm had died down—and then the dog that had been sleeping suddenly raised its head and barked. Somewhere in the distance a door was banged to, and then Peter heard a voice, a tremendous voice, singing.

There were heavy steps along the passage, then the kitchen door was banged open and Stephen stood in the doorway. Stephen's shirt was open at the neck, his hair waved wildly over his forehead, he stood, enormous, with his legs apart, his eyes shining, blood coming from a cut in his cheek, and in one of his hands was a thick cudgel. Standing there in the doorway, he might have been some ancient Hercules, some mighty Achilles.

He saw Peter, recognised him, but continued a kind of triumphal hymn that he was singing.

"Ho, Master Peter, I've beat him! I've battered his bloody carcass! I came along and I looked in at the winder and I saw 'im a ill-treatin' of 'er.

"I left the winder, I broke the glass, I was down upon 'im, the dirty 'ound, and"—(chorus)—"I've battered 'is bloody carcass! Praise be the Lord, I got 'im one between the eyes—"

"Praise be, I 'it him square in the jaw and the blood came a-pourin' out of his mouth and down 'e went, and—

(Chorus) "I've battered 'is bloody carcass—

"There she was, cryin' in the corner of the room, my lovely girl, and there 'e was, blast 'is bones, with 'is 'and on her lovely 'air, and—

(Chorus) "I've battered 'is bloody carcass.

"I got 'im one on the neck and I got 'im one between 'is lovely eyes and I got 'im one on 'is lovely nose, and 'e went down straight afore me, and—

(Chorus) "I've battered 'is bloody carcass!"

Peter knew that it must be Mr. Samuel Burstead to whom Stephen was referring, and he too, as he listened, was suddenly filled with a sense of glory and exultation. Here after all was a way out of all trouble, all this half-seen, half-imagined terror of the past weeks. Here too was an end to all Stephen's morbid condition, sitting alone by himself, drinking, seeing no one—now that he'd got Burstead between the eyes life would be a vigorous, decent thing once more.

Stephen stopped his hymn and came and put his arm round Peter's neck. "Well, boy, to think of you coming round this evening. All these months I've been sittin' 'ere thinking of you—but I've been in a nasty, black state, Master Peter, doing nothing but just brood. And the devils got thicker and thicker about me and I was just going off my head thinking of my girl in the 'ands of that beast up along. At last to-night I suddenly says, 'Stephen, my fine feller, you've 'ad enough of this,' I says. 'You go up and 'ave a good knock at 'im,' I says, 'and to-morrer marnin' you just go off to another bit o' country and start doin' something different.' Up I got and I caught hold of this stick here and out up along I walked. Sure enough there 'e was, through the winder, bullyin' her and she crying. So I just jumped through the winder and was up on to 'im. Lord, you should 'ave seen 'im jump.

"'Fair fight, Sam Burstead,' I says.

"'Yer bloody pirate!' says 'e.

"'Pirate, is it?' says I, landing him one—and at that first feel of my 'and along o' 'is cheek all these devils that I've been sufferin' from just turned tail and fled.

"Lord, I give it 'im! Lord, I give it 'im!

"He's living, I reckon, but that's about all 'e is doing. And then, without a word to 'er, I come away, and here I am, a free man ... and to-morrer marning I go out to tramp the world a bit—and to come back one day when she wants me."

And then in Peter there suddenly leapt to life a sense of battle, of glorious combat and conflict.

As he stood there in the bare kitchen—he and Stephen there under the light of the jumping candle—with the rain beating on the panes, the trees of the wood bending to the wind, he was seized, exalted, transformed with a sense of the vigour, the adventure, the surprising energy of life.

"Stephen! Stephen!" he cried. "It's glorious! By God! I wish I'd been there!"

Stephen caught him by the arm and held him. The old dog came from under the table and wagged his tail.

"Bless my soul," said Stephen, looking at him, "all these weeks I've been forgetting him. I've been in a kind of dream, boy—a kind o' dream. Why didn't I 'it 'im before? Lord, why didn't I 'it 'im before!"

Peter at the word thought of his mother.

"Yes," he thought, with clenched teeth, "I'll go for them!"



CHAPTER VIII

PETER AND HIS MOTHER

I

He had returned over the heavy fields, singing to a round-faced moon. In the morning, when he woke after a night of glorious fantastic dreams, and saw the sun beating very brightly across his carpet and birds singing beyond his window, he felt still that same exultation.

It seemed to him, as he sat on his bed, with the sun striking his face, that last night he had been brought into touch with a vigour that challenged all the mists and vapours by which he had felt himself surrounded. That was the way that now he would face them.

Looking back afterwards, he was to see that that evening with Stephen flung him on to all the events that so rapidly followed.

Moreover, above all the sensation of the evening there was also a triumphant recognition of the fact that Stephen had now been restored to him. He might never see him again, but they were friends once more, he could not be lonely now as he had been....

And then, coming out of the town into the dark street and the starlight, he thought that he recognised a square form walking before him. He puzzled his brain to recall the connection and then, as he passed Zachary Tan's shop, the figure turned in and showed, for a moment, his face.

It was that strange man from London, Mr. Emilio Zanti....

II

It seemed to Peter that now at Scaw House the sense of expectation that had been with them all during the last weeks was charged with suspense—at supper that night his aunt burst suddenly into tears and left the room. Shortly afterwards his father also, without a word, got up from the table and went upstairs....

Peter was left alone with his grandfather. The old man, sunk beneath his pile of cushions, his brown skinny hand clenching and unclenching above the rugs, was muttering to himself. In Peter himself, as he stood there by the fire, looking down on the old man, there was tremendous pity. He had never felt so tenderly towards his grandfather before; it was, perhaps, because he had himself grown up all in a day. Last night had proved that one was grown up indeed, although one was but seventeen. But it proved to him still more that the time had come for him to deal with the situation all about him, to discover the thing that was occupying them all so deeply.

Peter bent down to the cushions.

"Grandfather, what's the matter with the house?"

He could hear, faintly, beneath the rugs something about "hell" and "fire" and "poor old man."

"Grandfather, what's the matter with the house?" but still only "Poor old man ... poor old man ... nobody loves him ... nobody loves him ... to hell with the lot of 'em ... let 'em grizzle in hell fire ... oh! such nasty pains for a poor old man."

"Grandfather, what's the matter with the house?"

The old brown hand suddenly stopped clenching and unclenching, and out from the cushions the old brown head with its few hairs and its parchment face poked like a withered jack-in-the-box.

"Hullo, boy, you here?"

"Grandfather, what's the matter with the house?"

The old man's fingers, sharp like pins, drew Peter close to him.

"Boy, I'm terribly frightened. I've been having such dreams. I thought I was dead—in a coffin...."

But Peter whispered in his ear:

"Grandfather—tell me—what's the matter with every one here?"

The old man's eyes were suddenly sharp, like needles.

"Ah, he wants to know that, does he? He's found out something at last, has he? I know what they were about. They've been at it in here, boy, too. Oh, yes! for weeks and weeks—killing your mother, that's what my son's been doing ... frightening her to death.... He's cruel, my son. I had the Devil once, and now he's got hold of me and that's why I'm here. Mind you, boy," and the old man's ringers clutched him very tightly—"if you don't get the better of the Devil you'll be just like me one of these days. So'll he be, my son, one day. Just like me—and then it'll be your turn, my boy. Oh, they Westcotts!... Oh! my pains! Oh! my pains!... Oh! I'm a poor old man!—poor old man!"

His head sunk beneath the cushions again and his muttering died away like a kettle when the lid has been put on to it.

Peter had been kneeling so as to catch his grandfather's words. Now he drew himself up and with frowning brows faced the room. Had he but known it he was at that moment exactly like his father.

He went slowly up to his attic.

His little book-case had gained in the last two years—there were now three of Henry Galleon's novels there. Bobby had given him one, "Henry Lessingham," shining bravely in its red and gold; he had bought another, "The Downs," second hand, and it was rather tattered and well thumbed. Another, "The Roads," was a shilling paper copy. He had read these three again and again until he knew them by heart, almost word by word. He took down "Henry Lessingham" now and opened it at a page that was turned down. It is Book III, chapter VI, and there is this passage:

But, concerning the Traveller who would enter the House of Courage there are many lands that must be passed on the road before he rest there. There is, first, the Land of Lacking All Things—that is hard to cross. There is, Secondly, the Land of Having All Things. There is the Traveller's Fortitude most hardly tested. There is, Thirdly, The Land of Losing All Those Things that One Hath Possessed. That is a hard country indeed for the memory of the pleasantness of those earlier joys redoubleth the agony of lacking them. But at the end there is a Land of ice and snow that few travellers have compassed, and that is the Land of Knowing What One Hath Missed.... The Bird was in the hand and one let it go ... that is the hardest agony of all the journey ... but if these lands be encountered and surpassed then doth the Traveller at length possess his soul and is master of it ... this is the Meaning and Purpose of Life.

Peter read on through those pages where Lessingham, having found these words in some old book, takes courage after his many misadventures and starts again life—an old man, seventy years of age, but full of hope ... and then there is his wonderful death in the Plague City, closing it all like a Triumph.

The night had come down upon the house. Over the moor some twinkling light broke the black darkness and his candle blew in the wind. Everything was very still and as he clutched his book in his hand he knew that he was frightened. His grandfather's words had filled him with terror. He felt not only that his father was cruel and had been torturing his mother for many years because he loved to hurt, but he felt also that it was something in the blood, and that it would come upon him also, in later years, and that he might not be able to beat it down. He could understand definite things when they were tangible before his eyes but here was something that one could not catch hold of, something....

After all, he was very young—But he remembered, with bated breath, times at school when he had suddenly wanted to twist arms, to break things, to hurt, when suddenly a fierce hot pleasure had come upon him, when a boy had had his leg broken at football.

Dropping the book, shuddering, he fell upon his knees and prayed to what God he knew not.... "Then doth the Traveller at length possess his soul and is master of it ... this is the meaning and purpose of life."

At last he rose from his knees, physically tired, as though it had been some physical struggle. But he was quiet again ... the terror had left him, but he knew now with what beasts he had got to wrestle....

At supper that night he watched his father. Curiously, after his struggle of the afternoon, all terror had left him and he felt as though he was of his father's age and strength.

In the middle of the meal he spoke:

"How is mother to-night, father?"

He had never asked about his mother before, but his voice was quite even and steady. His aunt dropped her knife clattering on to her plate.

His father answered him:

"Why do you wish to know?"

"It is natural, isn't it? I am afraid that she is not so well."

"She is as well as can be expected."

They said no more, but once his father suddenly looked at him, as though he had noticed some new note in his voice.

III

On the next afternoon his father went into Truro. A doctor came occasionally to the house—a little man like a beaver—but Peter felt that he was under his father's hand and he despised him.

It was a clear Autumn afternoon with a scent of burning leaves in the air and heavy massive white clouds were piled in ramparts beyond the brown hills. It was so still a day that the sea seemed to be murmuring just beyond the garden-wall. The house was very silent; Mrs. Trussit was in the housekeeper's room, his grandfather was sleeping in the dining-room. The voices of some children laughing in the road came to him so clearly that it seemed to Peter impossible that his father ... and, at that, he knew instantly that his chance had come. He must see his mother now—there might not be another opportunity for many weeks.

He left his room and stood at the head of the stairs listening. There was no sound.

He stole down very softly and then waited again at the end of the long passage. The ticking of the grandfather clock in the hall drove him down the passage. He listened again outside his mother's door—there was no sound from within and very slowly he turned the handle.

As the door opened his senses were invaded by that air of medicine and flowers that he had remembered as a very small boy—he seemed to be surrounded by it and great white vases on the mantelpiece filled his eyes, and the white curtains at the window blew in the breeze of the opening door.

His aunt was sitting, with her eternal sewing, by the fire and she rose as he entered. She gave a little startled cry, like a twittering bird, as she saw that it was he and she came towards him with her hand out. He did not look at the bed at all, but bent his eyes gravely upon his aunt.

"Please, aunt—you must leave us—I want to speak to my mother."

"No—Peter—how could you? I daren't—I mustn't—your father—your mother is asleep," and then, from behind them, there came a very soft voice—

"No—let us be alone—please, Jessie."

Peter did not, even then, turn round to the bed, but fixed his eyes on his aunt.

"The doctor—" she gasped, and then, with frightened eyes, she picked up her sewing and crept out.

Then he turned round and faced the bed, and was suddenly smitten with great shyness at the sight of that white, tired face, and the black hair about the pillow.

"Well, mother," he said, stupidly.

But she smiled back at him, and although her voice was very small and faint, she spoke cheerfully and as though this were an ordinary event.

"Well, you've come to see me at last, Peter," she said.

"I mustn't stay long," he answered, gruffly, as he moved awkwardly towards the bed.

"Bring your chair close up to the bed—so—like that. You have never come to sit in here before. Peter, do you know that?"

"Yes, mother." He turned his eyes away and looked on to the floor.

"You have come in before because you have been told to. To-day you were not told—why did you come?"

"I don't know.... Father's in Truro."

"Yes, I know." He thought he caught, for an instant, a strange note in her voice. "But he will not be back yet."

There was a pause—a vast golden cloud hung like some mountain boulder beyond the window and some of its golden light seemed to steal over the white room.

"Is it bad for you talking to me?" at last he said, gruffly, "ought I to go away?"

Suddenly she clutched his strong brown hand with her thin wasted fingers, with so convulsive a grasp that his heart began to beat furiously.

"No—don't go—not until it is time for your father to come back. Isn't it strange that after all these years this is the first time that we should have a talk. Oh! so many times I've wanted you to come—and when you did come—when you were very little—you were always so frightened that you would not let me touch you—"

"They frightened me...."

"Yes—I know—but now, at last, we've got a little time together—and we must talk—quickly. I want you to tell me everything—everything—everything.... First, let me look at you...."

She took his head between her pale, slender hands and looked at him. "Oh, you are like him!—your father—wonderfully like." She lay back on the pillows with a little sigh. "You are very strong."

"Yes, I am going to be strong for you now. I am going to look after you. They shan't keep us apart any more."

"Oh, Peter, dear," she shook her head almost gaily at him. "It's too late."

"Too late?"

"Yes, I'm dying—at last it's come, after all these years when I've wanted it so much. But now I'm not sorry—now that we've had this talk—at last. Oh! Peter dear, I've wanted you so dreadfully and I was never strong enough to say that you must come ... and they said that you were noisy and it would be bad for me. But I believe if you had come earlier I might have lived."

"But you mustn't die—you mustn't die—I'll see that they have another doctor from Truro. This silly old fool here doesn't know what he's about—I'll go myself."

"Oh! how strong your hands are, Peter! How splendidly strong! No, no one can do anything now. But oh! I am happy at last..." She stroked his cheek with her hand—the golden light from the great cloud filled the room and touched the white vases with its colour.

"But quick, quick—tell me. There are so many things and there is so little time. I want to know everything—your school? Here when you were little?—all of it—"

But he was gripping the bed with his hands, his chest was heaving. Suddenly he broke down and burying his head in the bed-clothes began to sob as though his heart would break. "Oh! now ... after all this time ... you've wanted me ... and I never came ... and now to find you like this!"

She stroked his hair very softly and waited until the sobs ceased. He sat up and fiercely brushed his eyes.

"I won't be a fool—any more. It shan't be too late. I'll make you live. We'll never leave one another again."

"Dear boy, it can't be like that. Think how splendid it is that we have had this time now. Think what it might have been if I had gone and we had never known one another. But tell me, Peter, what are you going to do with your life afterwards—what are you going to be?"

"I want to write books"—he stared at the golden cloud—"to be a novelist. I daresay I can't—I don't know—but I'd rather do that than anything.... Father wants me to be a solicitor. I'm with Aitchinson now—I shall never be a good one."

Then he turned almost fiercely away from the window.

"But never mind about me, mother. It's you I want to hear about. I'm going to take this on now. It's my responsibility. I want to know about you."

"There's nothing to know, dear. I've been ill for a great many years now. It's more nerves than anything, I suppose. I think I've never had the courage to stand up against it—a stronger woman would have got the better of it, I expect. But I wasn't always like this," she added laughing a little far away ghost of a laugh—"Go and look in that drawer—there, in that cupboard—amongst my handkerchiefs—there where those old fans are—you'll find some old programmes there—Those old yellow papers...."

He brought them to her, three old yellow programmes of a "Concert Given at the Town Hall, Truro." "There, do you see? Miss Minnie Trenowth, In the Gloaming—There, I sang in those days. Oh! Truro was fun when I was a girl! There was always something going on! You see I wasn't always on my back!"

He crushed the papers in his hand.

"But, mother! If you were like that then—what's made you like this now?"

"It's nerves, dear—I've been stupid about it."

"And father, how has he treated you these years?"

"Your father has always been very kind."

"Mother, tell me the truth! I must know. Has he been kind to you?"

"Yes, dear—always."

But her voice was very faint and that look that Peter had noticed before was again in her eyes.

"Mother—you must tell me. That's not true."

"Yes, Peter. He's done his best. I have been annoying, sometimes—foolish."

"Mother, I know. I know because I know father and I know myself. I'm like him—I've just found it out. I've got those same things in me, and they'll do for me if I don't get the better of them. Grandfather told me—he was the same. All the Westcotts—"

He bent over the bed and took her hand and kissed it.

"Mother, dear—I know—father has been frightening you all this time—terrifying you. And you were all alone. If only I had been there—if only there had been some one—"

Her voice was very faint. "Yes ... he has frightened me all these years. At first I used to think that he didn't mean it. I was a bright, merry sort of a girl then—careless and knowing nothing about the world. And then I began to see—that he liked it—that it gave him pleasure to have something there that he could hurt. And then I began to be frightened. It was very lonely here for a girl who had had a gay time, and he usen't to like my going to Truro—and at last he even stopped my seeing people in Treliss. And then I began to be really frightened—and used to wake in the night and see him standing by the door watching me. Then I thought that when you were born that would draw us together, but it didn't, and I was always ill after that. He would do things—Oh!" her hand pressed her mouth. "Peter, dear, you mustn't think about it, only when I am dead I don't want you to think that I was quite a fool—if they tell you so. I don't want you to think it was all his fault either because it wasn't—I was silly and didn't understand sometimes ... but it's killed me, that dreadful waiting for him to do something, I never knew what it would be, and sometimes it was nothing ... but I knew that he liked to hurt ... and it was the expectation."

In that white room, now flaming with the fires of the setting sun, Peter caught his mother to his breast and held her there and her white hands clutched his knees.

Then his eyes, softened and he turned to her and arranged her head on the pillow and drew the sheets closely about her.

"I must go now. It has been bad for you this talking, but it had to be. I'm never, never going to leave you again—you shall not be alone any more—"

"Oh, Peter! I'm so happy! I have never been so happy... but it all comes of being a coward. If I had only been brave—never be afraid of anybody or anything. Promise me, Peter—"

"Except of myself," he answered, kissing her.

"Kiss me again.... And again..."

"To-morrow..." he looked back at her, smiling. He saw her, for an instant, as he left the room, with her cheek against the pillow and her black hair like a cloud about her; the twilight was already in the room.

An hour later, as he stood in the dining-room, the door opened and his father came in.

"You have been with your mother?"

"Yes."

"You have done her much harm. She is dying."

"I know everything," Peter answered, looking him in the face.

IV

He would never, until his own end had come, forget that evening. The golden sunset gave place to a cold and windy night, and the dark clouds rolled up along the grey sky, hiding and then revealing the thin and pallid moon.

Peter stayed there in the dining-room, waiting. His grandfather slept in his chair. Once his aunt came crying into the room and wandered aimlessly about.

"Aunt, how is she?"

"Oh, dear! oh, dear! Whatever shall I do? She is going ... she is going.... I can do nothing!"

Her thin body in the dusk flitted like a ghost about the room and then she was gone. The doctor's pony cart came rattling up to the door. The fussy little man got out and stamped in the hall, and then disappeared upstairs. There was a long pause during which there was no sound.

Then the door was opened and his aunt was there.

"You must come at once ... she wants you."

The doctor, his father, and Mrs. Trussit were there in the room, but he was only conscious of the great white bed with the candles about it and the white vases, like eyes, watching him.

As he entered the room there was a faint cry, "Peter." He had crossed to her, and her arms were about his shoulders and her mouth was pressed against his; she fell back, with a little sigh, dead.

V

In the darkened dining-room, later, his father stood in the doorway with a candle in his hand, and above it his white face and short black hair shone as though carved from marble.

Peter came from the window towards him. His father said: "You killed her by going to her."

Peter answered: "All these years you have been killing her!"



CHAPTER IX

THE THREE WESTCOTTS

I

The day crept, strangely and mysteriously, to its close. Peter, dulled by misery, sat opposite his grandfather in the dining-room without moving, conscious of the heavy twilight that the dark blinds flung about the room, feeling the silence that was only accentuated by the old man's uneasy "clack-clack" in his sleep and the clock's regular ticking. The unhappiness that had been gradually growing about him since his last term at Dawson's, was now all about him with the strength and horrible appearance of some unholy giant. It was indeed with some consciousness of Things that were flinging their shadows on the horizon and were not as yet fully visible to him that he sat there. That evening at Stephen's farm, realised only faintly at the time, hung before him now as a vivid induction or prologue to the later terrors. He was doomed—so he felt in that darkened and mysterious room—to a terrible time and horrors were creeping upon him from every side. "Clack-clack" went his grandfather beneath the rugs, as the cactus plant rattled in the window and the silence through the stairs and passages of the house crept in folds about the room.

Peter shivered; the coals fell from a dull gold into grey and crumbling ashes. He shut everything in the surrounding world from his mind and thought of his dead mother. There indeed there was strangeness enough, for it seemed now that that wonderful afternoon had filled also all the earlier years of his life. It seemed to him now that there had never been a time when he had not known her and talked with her, and yet with this was also a consciousness of all the joys that he had missed because he had not known her before. As he thought of it the hard irretrievable fact of those earlier empty years struck him physically with a sharp agonising pain—toothache, and no possible way of healing it. The irony of her proximity, of her desire for him as he, all unwittingly, had in reality desired her, hit him like a blow. The picture of her waiting, told that he did not wish to come, looking so sadly and lonely in that white room, whilst he, on the other side of that door, had not the courage to burst through those others and go to her, broke suddenly the hard dry passivity that had held him during so many weeks.

He was very young, he was very tired, he was very lonely. He sobbed with his hands pressed against his eyes.

Then his tears were quickly dried. There was this other thing to be considered—his father. He hated his father. He was terrified, as he sat there, at the fury with which he hated him. The sudden assurance of his hatred reminded him of the thing that his grandfather had said about the Westcotts ... was that true? and was this intensity of emotion that filled all the veins in his body a sign that he too was a Westcott? and were his father and grandfather mirrors of his own future years?... He did not know. That was another question....

He wondered what they were about in the room where his mother lay and it was curious that the house could remain silent during so many long hours. It seemed held by the command of some strong power, and his mind, overstrained and abnormal, waited for some outbreak of noise—many noises, clattering, banging, whistling through the house. But his grandfather slept on, no step was on the stairs, the room was very dark and evening fell beyond the long windows and over the sea.

His youth made of a day eternity—there was no end nor term to his love, to his hatred, to his loneliness, to his utter misery ... and also he was afraid. He would have given his world for Stephen, but Stephen was already off on his travels.

Very softly and stealthily the door opened and, holding a quivering candle, with her finger to her mouth, there appeared his aunt. He looked at her coldly as she came across the room towards him. He had never felt any affection for her because she had always seemed to him weak and useless—a frightened, miserable, vacillating, negative person—even when he had been a very small boy he had despised her. Her eyes were red and swollen with crying, her grey and scanty hair had fallen about her collar, her old black blouse was unbuttoned at the top showing her bony neck and her thin crooked hands were trembling in the candle-light. Her eyes were large and frightened and her back was bent as though she was cowering from a blow. She had never taken very much notice of her nephew—of late she had been afraid of him; he was surprised now that she should come to speak to him.

"Peter," she said in a whisper, looking back over her shoulder at the door.

"Yes," he answered, staring at her.

"Oh, Peter!" she said again and began to cry—a whimpering noise and her hands shaking so that the candle rocked in its stick.

"Well," he said more softly, "you'd better put that candle down."

She put it on the table and then stood beside him, crying pitifully, jerking out little sentences—"I can't bear it.... I don't know what to do.... I can't bear it."

He got up from his chair and made her sit down on it and then he stood by her and waited until she should recover a little. He felt suddenly strangely tender towards her; she was his mother's sister, she had known his mother all her life and perhaps in her weak silly way she had loved her.

"No, aunt, don't cry.... It will be all right. I too am very unhappy. I have missed so much. If I had only known earlier—"

The poor woman flung little distracted glances at the old man asleep on the other side of the fire-place—

"Oh, dear, I had to come and talk to some one.... I was so frightened upstairs. Your father's there with your mother. He sits looking at her ... and she was always so quiet and good and never did him any harm or indeed any one ... and now he sits looking at her—but she's happy now—he will be coming downstairs at any moment and I am afraid of what he'll do if he sees me talking to you like this. But I feel as though I must talk a little ... it's so quiet."

"It's all right, aunt. There's no one to be frightened of. I am very unhappy too. I'd like to talk about her to you."

"No, no—your poor mother—I mustn't say anything. They'll be down upon me if I say anything. They're very sharp. He's sitting up with her now."

Peter drew another chair up close to her and took her thin hand in his. She allowed him to do what he would and seemed to have no active knowledge of her surroundings.

"We'll talk about her," he said, "often. You shall tell me all about her early life. I want to know everything."

"Oh, no. I'm going away. Directly after the funeral. Directly after the funeral I'm going away."

Suddenly this frightened him. Was he to be left here entirely alone with his father and grandfather?

"You're going away?" he said.

"Oh, yes—your Uncle Jeremy will come for the funeral. I shall go away with him afterwards. I don't like your Aunt Agatha, but they always said I could come to them when your mother died. I don't like your Aunt Agatha but she means to be kind. Oh! I couldn't stay here after all that has happened. I was only staying for your mother's sake and I'm sure I've never gone to bed without wondering what would happen before the morning—Oh, yes, your Uncle Jeremy's coming and I shall go away with him after the funeral. I don't like your Aunt Agatha but I couldn't stay after all that has happened."

All this was said in a hurried frightened whisper. The poor lady shook from head to foot and the little bracelets on her trembling wrists jangled together.

"Then I shall be all alone here," Peter said suddenly, staring at the candle that was guttering in the breeze that came from behind the heavy blinds.

"Oh, dear," said his aunt, "I'm sure Uncle Jeremy will be kind if you have to leave here, you know."

"Why should I have to leave here?" asked Peter.

His aunt sunk her voice very low indeed—so low that it seemed to come from the heart of the cactus plant by the window.

"He hasn't got your mother now, you know. He'll want to have somebody...."

But she said nothing more—only gazed at the old man opposite her with staring eyes, and cried in a little desolate whimper and jangled her bracelets until at last Peter crept softly, miserably to bed.

II

The day of the funeral was a day of high wind and a furious sea. The Westcotts lived in the parish of the strange wild clergyman whose church looked over the sea; strange and wild in the eyes of Treliss because he was a giant in size and had a long flowing beard, because he kept a perfect menagerie of animals in his little house by the church, and because he talked in such an odd wild way about God being in the sea and the earth rather than in the hearts of the Treliss citizens—all these things odd enough and sometimes, early in the morning, he might be seen, mother-naked, going down the path to the sea to bathe, which was hardly decent considering his great size and the immediate neighbourhood of the high road. To those who remonstrated he had said that he was not ashamed of his body and that God was worshipped the better for there being no clothing to keep the wind away ... all mad enough, and there were never many parishioners in the little hill church of a Sunday. However, it was in the little windy churchyard that Mrs. Westcott was buried and it was up the steep and stony road to the little church that the hearse and its nodding plumes, followed by the two old and decrepit hackney carriages, slowly climbed.

Peter's impressions of the day were vague and uncertain. There were things that always remained in his memory but strangely his general conviction was that his mother had had nothing to do with it. The black coffin conveyed nothing to him of her presence: he saw her as he had seen her on that day when he had talked to her, and now she was, as Stephen was, somewhere away. That was his impression, that she had escaped....

Putting on his black clothes in the morning brought Dawson's back to his mind, and especially Bobby Galleon and Cards. He had not thought of them since the day of his return—first Stephen and then his mother had driven them from his mind. But now, with the old school black clothing upon him, he stood for a long time by his window, wondering, sorrowfully enough, where they were and what they were doing, whether they had forgotten him, whether he would ever see them again. He seemed to be surrounded by a wall of loneliness—some one was cutting everything off from him ... from maliciousness! For pleasure!... Oh! if one only knew about that God!

Meanwhile Uncle Jeremy and Aunt Agatha had arrived the night before. Uncle Jeremy was big and stout and he wore clothes that were very black and extremely bright. His face was crimson in colour and his eyes, large and bulging, wore a look of perpetual surprise. He was bald and an enormous gold watch chain crossed his stomach like a bridge. He had obviously never cared for either of his sisters and he always shouted when he spoke. Aunt Agatha was round and fat and comfortable, wore gold-rimmed spectacles and a black silk dress, and obviously considered that Uncle Jeremy had made the world.

Peter watched his father's attitude to these visitors. He realised that he had never seen his father with any stranger or visitor—no one came to the house and he had never been into the town with his father. With this realisation came a knowledge of other things—of things half heard at the office, of half looks in the street, of a deliberate avoidance of his father's name—the Westcotts of Scaw House! There were clouds about the name.

But his father, in contact with Uncle Jeremy and Aunt Agatha, was strangely impressive. His square, thick-set body clothed in black—his dark eyes, his short stiff hair, his high white forehead, his long beautiful hands—this was no ordinary man, moving so silently with a reserve that seemed nobly fitting on this sad occasion. The dark figure filled the house, touching in its restrained grief, admirable in its dignity, a fine spirit against the common clay of Uncle Jeremy and Aunt Agatha.

Mr. Westcott was courteous but sparing of words—a strong man, you would say, bowed down with a grief that demanded, in its intensity, silence.

Uncle Jeremy hated and feared his brother-in-law. His hatred he concealed with difficulty but his fear was betrayed by his loud and nervous laugh. He was obviously interested in Peter and stared at him, throughout breakfast, with his large, surprised eyes. Peter felt that this interest was a speculation as to his future and it made him uncomfortable ... he hated his uncle but the black suit that the stout gentleman wore on the day of the funeral was so black, so tight and so shiny that he was an occasion for laughter rather than hatred.

The black coffin was brought down the long stairs, through the hall and into the desolate garden. The sight of it roused no emotion in Peter—that was not his mother. The two aunts, Uncle Jeremy and his father rode in the first carriage; Peter and Mrs. Trussit in the second. Mrs. Trussit's bonnet and black silk dress were very fine and she wept bitterly throughout the journey.

Peter only dismally wished that he could arrange his knees so that they would not rub against her black silk. He did not think of his mother at all but only of the great age of the cab, of the furious wind that whistled about the road, and the roar that the sea, grey and furious far below them, flung against their windows.

He would have liked to talk to her but her sobbing seemed to surround her with a barrier. It was all inexpressibly dreary with the driving wind, the rustling of the black silk dress, the jolting and clattering of the old carriage. But he had no desire to cry—he was too miserable for that.

On the hill in the little churchyard, a tempest of wind swept across the graves. From the bending ground the cliff fell sheer to the sea and behold! it was a tossing, furious carpet of white and grey. The wind blew the spray up to the graveyard and stung the faces of the mourners and in the roar of the waves it was hard to hear the voice of the preacher. It was a picture that they made out there in the graveyard. Poor Aunt Jessie, trembling and shaking, Mrs. Trussit, stout and stiff with her handkerchief to her eyes, Uncle Jeremy with his legs apart, his face redder than ever, obviously wishing the thing over, Aunt Agatha concerned for her clothes in the streaming wind, Mr. Westcott unmoved by the storm, cold, stern, of a piece with the grey stone at the gravehead—all these figures interesting enough. But towering above them and dominating the scene was the clergyman—his great beard streaming, his surplice blowing behind him in a cloud, his great voice dominating the tumult, to Peter he was a part of the day—the storm, the earth, the flying, scudding clouds. All big things there, and somewhere sailing with those clouds, on the storm, the spirit of his mother ... that little black coffin standing, surely, for nothing that mattered.

But, strangely enough, when the black box had been lowered, at the sharp rattling of the sods upon the lid, his sorrow leapt to his eyes. Suddenly the sense of his loss drove down upon him. The place, the people were swept away—he could hear her voice again, see her thin white hands ... he wanted her so badly ... if he could only have his chance again ... he could have flung himself there upon the coffin, not caring whether he lived or died... his whole being, soul and body, ached for her....

He knew that it was all over; he broke away from them all and he never, afterwards, could tell where it was that he wandered during the rest of that day. At last, when it was dark, he crept back to the house, utterly, absolutely exhausted in every part of his body ... worn out.

III

On the following day Uncle Jeremy and Aunt Agatha departed and took Aunt Jessie with them. She had the air of being led away into captivity and seemed to be fastened to the buttons of Uncle Jeremy's tight black suit. She said nothing further to Peter and showed no sense of having, at any time, been confidential—she avoided him, he thought.

He of course returned to his office and tried to bury himself in the work that he found there—but his attention wandered; he was overstrung, excited abnormally, so that the whole world stood to him as a strange, unnatural picture, something seen dimly and in exaggerated shapes through coloured glass. That evening with Stephen shone upon him now with all the vigour of colour of a real fact in a multitude of vague shadows. The reality of that night was now of the utmost value.

Meanwhile there were changes at Scaw House. Mrs. Trussit had vanished a few days after the funeral, no one said anything about her departure and Peter did not see her go. He was vaguely sorry because she represented in his memory all the earlier years, and because her absence left the house even darker and more gloomy than it had been before. The cook, a stout and slatternly person, given, Peter thought, to excessive drinking, shared, with a small and noisy maid, the duties of the house—they were most inefficiently performed.

But, with this clearing of the platform, the hatred between Peter and his father became a definite and terrible thing. It expressed itself silently. At present they very rarely spoke and except on Sundays met only at breakfast and in the evening. But the air was charged with the violence of their relationship; the boy, growing in body so strangely like the man, expressed a sullen and dogged defiance in his every movement ... the man watched him as a snake might watch the bird held by its power. They stood, as wrestlers stand before the moment for their meeting has arrived. The house, always too large for their needs, seemed now to stretch into an infinity of echoing passages and empty rooms; the many windows gathered the dust thick upon their sills. The old grandfather stayed in his chair by the fire—only at night he was wheeled out into his dreary bedroom by the cook who, now, washed and tidied him with a vigour that called forth shrill screams and oaths from her victim. He hated this woman with the most bitter loathing and sometimes frightened her with the violence of his curses.

Christmas came and went and there followed a number of those wonderful crisp and shining days that a Cornish winter gives to its worshippers. Treliss sparkled and glittered—the stones of the market-place held the heat of the sun as though it had been midsummer and the Grey Tower lifted its old head proudly to the blue sky—the sea was so warm that bathing was possible and in the heart of the brown fields there was a whisper of early spring.

But all of this touched Scaw House not at all. Grey and hard in its bundle of dark trees it stood apart and refused the sun. Peter, in spite of himself, rejoiced in this brave weather. As the days slipped past, curiously aloof and reserved though he was, making no friends and seeking for none, nevertheless he began to look about him and considered the future.

All this had in it the element of suspense, of preparation. During these weeks one day slipped into another. No incidents marked their preparation—but up at Scaw House they were marching to no mean climax—every hour hurried the issue—and Peter, meanwhile, as February came whistling and storming upon the world, grew, with every chiming of the town clock, more morose, more sullen, more silent ... there were times when he thought of ending it all. An instant and he would be free of all his troubles—but after all that was the weakling's way; he had not altogether forgotten those words spoken so long ago by old Moses.... So much for the pause. Suddenly, one dark February afternoon the curtain was rung up outside Zachary Tan's shop and Peter was whirled into the centre of the stage.

Peter had not seen Zachary Tan for a long time. He had grown into a morbid way of avoiding everybody and would slink up side streets or go round on leaving the office by the sea road. When he did meet people who had once been kind to him he said as little as possible to them and left them abruptly.

But on this afternoon Zachary was not to be denied. He was standing at the door of his shop and shouted to Peter:

"Come away in, Mr. Peter. I haven't see you this long time. There's an old acquaintance of yours inside and a cup of tea for you."

The wind was whistling up the street, the first drops of a rain storm starred the pavement, and there was a pleasant glow behind Mr. Tan's window-panes. But there was something stronger yet that drove Peter into the shop. He knew with some strange knowledge who that old acquaintance was ... he felt no surprise when he saw in the little back room, laughing with all his white teeth shining in a row, the stout and cheerful figure of Mr. Emilio Zanti. Peter was a very different person now from that little boy who had once followed Stephen's broad figure into that little green room and stared at Mr. Zanti's cheerful countenance, but it all seemed a very little time ago. Outside in the shop there was the same suit of armour—on the shelves, the silver candlesticks, the old coins, the little Indian images, the pieces of tapestry—within the little room the same sense of mystery, the same intimate seclusion from the outer world.... On the other occasion of seeing him Mr. Zanti had been dimmed by a small boy's wonder. Now Peter was old enough to see him very clearly indeed.

Mr. Zanti seemed fat only because his clothes were so tight. He was bigly made and his legs and arms were round, bolster fashion—huge thighs and small ankles, thick arms and slender wrists. His clothes were so tight that they seemed in a jolly kind of way to protest. "Oh! come now, must you really put us on to anything quite so big? We shall burst in a minute—we really shall."

The face was large and flat and shining like a sun, with a small nose like a door knocker and a large mouth, the very essence of good-humoured surprise. The cheeks and the chin were soft and rounded and looked as though they might be very fat one day—a double chin just peeped round the corner.

He was a little bald on the top of his head and round this bald patch his black hair clustered protectingly. He gave you the impression that every part of his body was anxious that every other part of his body should have a good time. His suit was a very bright blue and his waistcoat had little brass buttons that met a friend with all the twinkling geniality of good wishes and numberless little hospitalities.

He had in his blue silk tie a pearl so large and so white that sophisticated citizens might have doubted that it was a pearl at all—but Peter swallowed Mr. Zanti whole, pearl and suit and all.

"Oh! it is ze little friend—my friend—'ow are you, young gentleman? It is a real delight to be with you again."

Mr. Zanti swung Peter's hand up and down as he would a pump handle and laughed as though it were all the best joke in the world. Curiously enough Peter did not resent this rapturous greeting. It moved him strongly. It was such a long time now since any one had shown any interest in him or expressed any pleasure at the sight of him that he was foolishly moved by Mr. Zanti's warmth.

He blushed and stammered something but his eyes were shining and his lip trembling.

Mr. Zanti fixed his gaze on the boy. "Oh! but you have grown—yes, indeed. You were a little slip before—but now—not so 'igh no—not 'igh—but broad, strong. Oh! ze arms and legs—there's a back!"

Zachary interrupted his enthusiasm with some general remark, and they had a pleasant little tea-party. Every now and again the shop bell tinkled and Zachary went out to attend to it, and then Mr. Zanti drew near to Peter as though he were going to confide in him but he never said anything, only laughed.

Once he mentioned Stephen.

"You know where he is?" Peter broke in with an eager whisper.

"Ah, ha—that would be telling," and Mr. Zanti winked his eye.

Peter's heart warmed under the friendliness of it all. There was very much of the boy still in him and he began to look back upon the days that he had spent with no other company than his own thoughts as cold and friendless. Zachary Tan had been always ready to receive him warmly. Why had he passed him so churlishly by and refused his outstretched hand? But there was more in it than that. Mr. Zanti attracted him most compellingly. The gaily-dressed genial man spoke to him of all the glitter and adventure of the outside world. Back, crowding upon him, came all those adventurous thoughts and desires that he had known before in Mr. Zanti's company—but tinged now by that grey threatening background of Scaw House and its melancholy inhabitants! What would he not give to escape? Perhaps Mr. Zanti!... The little green room began to extend its narrow walls and to include in its boundaries flashing rivers, shining cities, wide and bounteous plains. Beyond the shop—dark now with its treasures mysteriously gleaming—the steep little street held up its lamps to be transformed into yellow flame, and at its foot by the wooden jetty, as the night fell, the sea crept ever more secretly with its white fingers gleaming below the shingles of the beach.

Here was wonder and glory enough with the wind tearing and beating outside the windows, blowing the young flowers of the lamps up and down inside their glass houses and screaming down the chimneys for sheer zest of life.... But here it all had its centre in this little room "with Mr. Emilio Zanti's chuckling for no reason at all and spreading his broad fat hand over Peter Westcott's knee.

"Well, Mr. Peter, and 'ave you been to London in all these years? Or perhaps you 'ave forgotten that you ever wanted to go there?"

No, Peter was still of the same mind but Treliss and a few miles up and down the road were as much of the world as he'd had the pleasure of seeing—except for school in Devonshire—

"And you'd still go, my leetle friend?"

"Yes—I want to go—I hate being in an office here."

"And what is it zat you will do when you are there?"

Suddenly, in a flash, illuminating the little room, shining over the whole world, Peter knew what it was that he would do.

"I will write."

"Write what?"

"Stories."

With that word muttered, his head hanging, his cheeks flushing, as though it were something of which he was most mightily ashamed, he knew what it was he had been wanting all these months. The desire had been there, the impulse had been there ... now with the spoken word the blind faltering impulse was changed into definite certainty.

Mr. Zanti thought it a tremendous joke. He roared, shouted with riotous laughter. "Oh, ze boy—he will be the death of me—'I will write stories'—Oh yes, so easy, so very simple. 'I will write stories'—Oh yes."

But Peter was very solemn. He did not like his great intention to be laughed at.

"I mean it," he said rather gruffly.

"Oh yes, that's of course—but that is enough. Oh dear, yes ... well, my friend, I like you. You are very strong, you are brave I can see—you have a fine spirit. One thing you lack—with all you English it is the same."

He paused interrogatively but Peter did not seem to wish to know what this quality was.

"Yes, it is ze Humour—you do not see how funny life is—always—always funny. Death, murder, robberies, violences—always funny—you are. Oh! so solemn and per'aps you will be annoyed, think it tiresome, because I laugh—"

"No," said Peter gravely, "I like your laughing."

"Ah! That is well." Suddenly he jerked his body forward and stared into Peter's face.

"Well!... Will you come?"

Peter hung back, his face white. He was only conscious that Zachary, quiet and smiling in the background, watched him intently.

"What!... with you ... to London!"

"Yes ... wiz me—what of your father? Will he be furious, hey?"

"He won't like it—" Peter continued slowly. "But I don't care. I'll leave him—But I should have no money—nothing!"

"An', no matter—I will take you to London for nothing and then—if you like it—you may work for me. Two pounds a week—you would be useful."

"What should I do?"

"I have a bookshop—you would look after ze books and also ze customers." This seemed to amuse Mr. Zanti very much. "Two pounds a week is a lot of money for ze work—and you will have time—ho yes—much time for your stories."

Peter's eyes burned. London—a bookshop—freedom. Oh! wonderful world! His heart was beating so that words would not come.

"Oh!" he murmured. "Oh!"

"Ah, that's well!" Mr. Zanti clapped him on the shoulder. "There is no need for you to say now. On ze Wednesday in Easter week I go—before then you will tell me. We shall get on together, I know it. If you will 'ave a leetle more of ze Humour you will be a very pleasant boy—and useful—Ho, yes!"

To Peter then the shop was not visible—a mist hung about his eyes. "Much time for your stories"... said Mr. Zanti, and he shouted with laughter as his big form hung before Peter. The large white hand with the flashing rings enclosed Peter's.

For a moment the hands were on his shoulders and in his nostrils was the pungent scent of the hair-oil that Mr. Zanti affected—afterwards silence.

Peter said farewell to Zachary and promised to come soon and see him again. The little bell tinkled behind him and he was in the street. The great wind caught him and blew him along the cobbles. The flying mountains of cloud swept like galleons across the moor, and in Peter's heart was overwhelming triumph ... the lights of London lit the black darkness of the high sea road.

IV

The doors of Scaw House clanged behind him and at once he was aware that his father had to be faced. Supper was eaten in silence. Peter watched his father and his grandfather. Here were the three of them alone. What his grandfather was his father would one day be, what his father was, he ... yes, he must escape. He stared at the room's dreary furniture, he listened to the driving rain and he was conscious that, from the other side of the table, his father's eyes were upon him.

"Father," he said, "I want to go away." His heart was thumping.

Mr. Westcott got up from his place at the table and stood, with his legs a little apart, looking down at his son.

"Why?"

"I'm doing no good here. That office is no use to me. I shall never be a solicitor. I'm nearly eighteen and I shall never get on here. I remember things... my mother..." his voice choked.

His father smiled. "And where do you want to go?"

"To London."

"Oh! and what will you do there?"

"I have a friend—he has a bookshop there. He will give me two pounds a week at first so that I should be quite independent—"

"All very nice," Mr. Westcott was grave again. "And so you are tired of Treliss?"

"Not only Treliss—this house—everything. I hate it."

"You have no regret at leaving me?"

"You know—father—that..."

"Yes?"

Peter rose suddenly from the table—they faced one another.

"I want you to let me go. You have never cared in the least for me and you do not want me here. I shall go mad if I stay in this place. I must go."

"Oh, you must go? Well, that's plain enough at any rate—and when do you propose leaving us?"

"After Easter—the Wednesday after Easter," he said. "Oh, father, please. Give me a chance. I can do things in London—I feel it. Here I shall never do anything."

Peter raised his eyes to his father's and then dropped them. Mr. Westcott senior was not pleasant to look at.

"Let us have no more of this—you will stay here because I wish it. I like to have you here—father and son—father and son."

He placed his hand on the boy's shoulder—"Never mention this again for your own sake—you will stay here until I wish you to go."

But Peter broke free.

"I will go," he shouted—"I will go—you shall not keep me here. I have a right to my freedom—what have you ever done for me that I should obey you? I want to leave you and never see you again. I ..." And then his eyes fell—his legs were shaking. His father was watching him, no movement in his short thick body—Peter's voice faltered—"I will go," he said sullenly, his eyes on the ground.

His grandfather stirred in his sleep. "Oh, what a noise," he muttered, "with the rain and all."

But Mr. Westcott removed with a careful hand the melodrama that his young son had flung about the room.

"That's enough noise," he said, "you will not go to London—nor indeed anywhere else—and for your own peace of mind I should advise you not to mention the subject again. The hour is a little early but I recommend your bedroom."

Peter went. He was trembling from head to foot. Why? He undressed and prepared himself for battle. Battle it was to be, for the Wednesday in Easter week would find him in the London train—of that there was to be no question.

Meanwhile, with the candle blown out, and no moon across the floor, it was quite certain that courage would be necessary. He was fighting more than his father.

V

He woke suddenly. A little wind, blowing through the open door flickered the light of a candle that flung a dim circle about the floor. Within the circle was his father—black clothes and white face, he was looking with the candle held high, across the room to the bed.

He drew back the candle and closed the door softly behind him. His feet made no sound as they passed away down the passage.

Peter lay quaking, wide eyed in his bed, until full morning and time for getting up.

The opening, certainly, of a campaign.



CHAPTER X

SUNLIGHT, LIMELIGHT, DAYLIGHT

I

Easter fell early that year; the last days of March held its festival and the winds and rains of that blustering month attended the birth of its primroses.

Young Peter spent his days in preparation for the swift coming of Easter Wednesday and in varying moods of exultation, terror, industry and idleness. He did not see Mr. Zanti during this period—that gentleman was, he was informed, away on business—and it was characteristic of him that he asked Zachary Tan no questions whether of the mysterious bookshop, of London generally, or of any possible news about Stephen, the latter a secret that he was convinced the dark little curiosity shop somewhere contained.

But he had an amazing number of things to think about and the solicitor's office was the barest background for his chasing thoughts. He spoke to no one of his approaching freedom—but the thought of it hung in rich and burning colour ever at the back of his thoughts.

Meanwhile the changing developments at Scaw House were of a nature to frighten any boy who was compelled to share in them. It could not be denied that Mr. Westcott had altered very strangely since his wife's death. The grim place with its deserted garden had never seen many callers nor friendly faces but the man with the milk, the boy with the butcher's meat, the old postman with the letters stayed now as brief a time over their business as might be and hurried down the grass-grown paths with eager haste. Since the departure of the invaluable Mrs. Trussit a new order reigned—red-faced Mrs. Pascoe, her dress unfastened, her hair astray, her shoes at heel, her speech thick and uncertain, was queen of the kitchen, and indeed of other things had they but known all. But to Peter there was more in this than the arrival of Mrs. Pascoe. With every day his father was changing—changing so swiftly that when Peter's mother had been buried only a month, that earlier Mr. Westcott, cold, stern, reserved, terrible, seemed incredible; he was terrible now but with how different a terror.

To Peter this new figure was a thing of the utmost horror. He had known how to brace himself for that other authority—there had, at any rate, been consistency and even a kind of chiselled magnificence in that stiff brutality—now there was degradation, crawling devilry, things unmentionable....

This new terror broke upon him at supper two nights after he had first spoken about London. The meal had not been passed, as usual, in silence. His father had talked strangely to himself—his voice was thick, and uncertain—his hand shook as he cut the bread. Mrs. Pascoe had come, in the middle of the meal, to give food to the old grandfather who displayed his usual trembling greed. She stood with arms akimbo, watching them as they sat at table and smiling, her coarse face flushed.

"Pudding," said Mr. Westcott.

"Ye'll be 'aving the pudding when it's ready," says she.

"Damn" from Mr. Westcott but he sits still looking at the table-cloth and his hand shaking.

To Peter this new thing was beyond all possibility horrible. This new shaking creature—

"I didn't kill her, you know, Peter," Mr. Westcott says quite smoothly, when the cloth had been cleared and they are alone. And then suddenly, "Stay where you are—I have stories to tell you."

Peter, white to the lips, was held in his place. He could not move or speak. Then during the following two hours, his father, without moving from his place, poured forth a stream of stories—foul, filthy, horrible beyond all telling. He related them with no joy or humour or bestial gloating over their obscenities—only with a staring eye and his fingers twisting and untwisting on the table-cloth. At last Peter, his head hanging, his cheeks flaming, crept to his attic.

At breakfast his father was again that other man—stern, immovable, a rock-where was that trembling shadow of the night before?

And Mrs. Pascoe—once more in her red-faced way, submissive—in her place.

The most abiding impression with Peter, thinking of it afterwards in the dark lanes that run towards the sea, when the evening was creeping along the hill, was of a fiery eye gleaming from old grandfather Westcott's pile of rugs. Was it imagined or was there indeed a triumph there—a triumph that no age nor weakness could obscure?

And from the induction of that first terrible evening Peter stepped into a blind terror that gave the promised deliverance of that approaching Easter Wednesday an air of blind necessity. Also about the house the dust and neglect crept and increased as though it had been, in its menace and evil omen, a veritable beast of prey. Doors were off their hinges, windows screamed to their clanging shutters, the grime lay, like sand, about the sills and corners of the rooms. At night the house was astir with sound but with no human voices.

II

But it was only at night that Terror crept from its cupboard and leapt on to Peter's shoulders. He defied it even then with set lips and the beginning of a conception of the duties that Courage demands of its worshippers. He would fight it, let it develop as it would—but, during these weeks, in the sunlight, he thought nothing of it at all, but only with eager eyes watched his father.

His reading had, in these latter years, been slender enough. It was seldom that he had any money, there was no circulating library in Treliss at that time and he knew no one who could lend him books. He fell back, perforce, on the few that he had and especially on the three "Henry Galleons." But he had in his head—and he had known it without putting it into words, for a very long time—"The Thousand and One Nights of Peter Westcott, Esq."—stories that would go on night after night before he went to sleep, stories that were concerned with enormous families whose genealogies had to be worked out on paper (here was incipient Realism)—or again, stories concerning Treasure and Masses of it—banks of diamonds, mountains of pearls, columns of rubies, white marble temples, processions of white elephants, cloth of gold (here was incipient Romance). Never, be it noticed, at this time, incipient Humour; life had been too heavy a thing for that.

But these stories, formerly racing through his brain because they must, because indeed they were there against his own will or any one else's, had now a most definite place and purpose in their existence. They were there now because they were to be trained, to be educated, to be developed, until they were fit to appear in public. He had, even in these early days, no false idea of the agonies and tortures of this gift of his. Was it not in "Henry Lessingham"?... "and so with this task before him he knew that words were of many orders and regiments and armies, and those that were hard of purchase and difficult of discipline were the possessions of value, for nothing that is light and easy in its production is of any duration or lasting merit."

And so, during these weeks, when he should have attended to the duties of a solicitor his mind was hunting far away in those forests where very many had hunted before him. And, behold, he was out for Fame....

Spring was blown across the country by the wildest storms that the sea-coast had known for very many years. For days the seas rose against the rocks in a cursing fury—the battle of rock and wave gave pretty spectacle to the surrounding country and suddenly the warriors, having proved the mettle of their hardihood, turned once again to good fellowship. But the wind and the rain had done their work. In the week before Easter, with the first broadening sweep of the sun across the rich brown earth and down into the depths of the twisting lanes the spring was there—there in the sweet smell of the roots as they stirred towards the light, there in the watery gleam of the grass as it caught diamonds from the sun, but there, above all, in the primrose clump hidden in the clefts of the little Cornish woods—so with a cry of delight Spring had leapt from the shoulders of that roaring wind and danced across the Cornish hills.

On Good Friday there was an incident. Peter was free of the office for the day and had walked towards Truro. There was a little hill that stood above the town. It was marked by a tree clump black against the blue sky—at its side was a chalk pit, naked white—beyond was Truro huddled, with the Fal a silver ribbon in the sun. Peter stood and watched and sat down because he liked the view. He had walked a very long way and was tired and it was an afternoon as hot as Summer.

Suddenly there was a cry: "Help, please—oh—help to get Crumpet."

He looked up and saw standing in front of him a little girl in a black hat and a short black frock—she had red hair that the sun was transforming into gold. Her face was white with terror, and tears were making muddy marks on it and her hands were black with dirt. She was a very little girl. She appealed to him between her sobs, and he understood that Crumpet was a dog, that it had fallen some way down the chalk-pit and that "Miss Jackson was reading her Bible under a tree."

He jumped up immediately and went to find Crumpet. A little way down the chalk-pit a fox-terrier puppy was balancing its fat body on a ledge of chalk and looking piteously up and down. Peter clambered down, caught the little struggling animal in his arms, and restored it to its mistress. And now followed an immense deal of kissing and embracing. The dog was buried in red hair and only once and again a wriggling paw might be observed—also these exclamations—"Oh, the umpty-rumpty—was it nearly falling down the great horrid pit, the darling—oh, the little darling, and was it scratched, the pet? But it was a wicked little dog—yes, it was, to go down that nasty place when it was told not to"—more murmurings, and then the back was straightened, the red, gold hair flung back, and a flushed face turned to the rather awkward Peter who stood at attention.

"Thank you—thanks, most awfully—oh, you darling" (this to the puppy). "You see, Miss Jackson was reading her Bible aloud to herself, and I can't stand that, neither can Crumpet, and she always forgets all about us, and so we go away by ourselves—and reading the Bible makes her sleep—she's asleep now—and then Crumpet wouldn't stay at heel although I was telling him ever so hard, and he would go over the cliff—and if you hadn't been there..." at the thought of the awful disaster the puppy was again embraced. Apparently Crumpet was no sentimentalist, and had had enough of feminine emotion—he wriggled out of his mistress' arms, flopped to the ground, shook himself, and, advancing to Peter, smelt his boots.

"He likes you. I'm so glad—he only does that to people he likes, and he's very particular." The small girl flung her hair back, smiled at Peter, and sat down on the grass.

"It may be rather damp," Peter said, feeling very old and cautious and thinking that she really was the oddest child he'd even seen in his life. "It's only March you know."

"It's nothing to do with months, it's whether it's rained or not—and it hasn't—sit down with me. Old Jackson won't be here for ages."

Peter sat down. The puppy was a charming specimen of its kind—it had enormous ears, huge flat feet, and a round fat body like a very small barrel. It was very fond of Peter, and licked his cheek and his hands, and finally dragged off his cap, imagined it a rabbit, and bit it with a great deal of savagery and good-humour.

There followed conversation.

"I like you most awfully. I like your neck and your eyes and your hair—it's stiff, like my father's. My name is Clare Elizabeth Rossiter. What's yours?"

"Peter Westcott."

"Do you live here?"

"No—a good long way away—by the sea."

"Oh, I'm staying at Kenwyn—my uncle lives at Kenwyn, but I live in London with father and mother and Aunt Grace—it's nice here. I think you're such a nice boy. Will you come and see father and mother in London?"

Peter smiled. It would not be the thing for some one in a bookshop to go and call on the parents of any one who could afford Crumpet and Miss Jackson, but the thought of London, the very name of it, sent his blood tingling to his face.

"Perhaps we shall meet," he said. "I'm going to London soon."

"Oh! are you? Oh! How nice! Then, of course, you will come to tea. Every one comes to tea."

Crumpet, tired of the rabbit, worn out with adventure and peril, struggled into Peter's lap and slumbered with one ear lying back across his eyes. The sun slipped down upon the town and touched the black cathedral with flame, and turned the silver of the river into burning gold. On the bend of the hill against the sky came a black gaunt figure.

"Miss Jackson!" Clare Elizabeth Rossiter leapt to her feet, clutched Crumpet, held him upside down, and turned to go.

But for an instant she stayed, and Peter was rewarded with a very wonderful smile.

"I am so glad you were here—she generally sleeps longer, but perhaps it was New Testament to-day, and that's more exciting. It is a pity, because there were such lots of things—I like you most awfully."

She gave him a very dirty hand, and then her black stockings vanished over the hill.

Peter turned, through a flaming sunset, towards his home ... the end of the incident.

III

But he came home, on that Good Friday evening with an idea that that afternoon on the hill had given him. It was an idea that came to him from the little piece of superstition that he carried about with him—every Cornishman carries it. Treliss was always a place of many customs, and, although now these ceremonies drag themselves along with all the mercenary self-consciousness that America and cheap trips from Manchester have given to the place, at this stage of Peter's history they were genuine and honest enough. To see from the top of the Grey Hill, the rising of the sun on Easter morning was one of them—a charm that brought the most infallible good luck until next Easter Day came round again, and, good for you, if you could watch that sunrise with the lad or lass of your choice, for to pass round the Giant's Finger as the beams caught the stone made the success of your union beyond all question. There was risk about it, for if mists veiled the light or if clouds dimmed the rising then were your prospects but gloomy—but a fine Easter morning had decided many a wedding in Treliss.

Peter had known of this for many years, but, in earlier times, he had not been at liberty, and of late there had been other things to think about. But here was a fine chance! Was he not flinging himself into the world under the very hazardous patronage of Mr. Zanti on Easter Wednesday, and would he not therefore need every blessing that he could get? And who knew, after all, whether these things were such nonsense? They were old enough, these customs, and many wise people believed in them. Moreover, one had not been brought up in the company of Frosted Moses and Dicky the Fool without catching some of their fever! "There was a little star rolling down hill like a button," says Dicky, with his eyes staring....' Well, and why not?

And indeed here was Peter at this stage of things, a mad I bundle of contradictions—old as a judge when up against the Realities, young as Crumpet the puppy when staring at Romance. Give him bread and you have him of cast-iron—stern, cold, hard of muscle, grim frown, stiff back, no smiles. Give him jam and you have credulity, simplicity, longing for friendship, tenderness, devotion to a small girl in a black frock, a heart big as the world. See him on Good Friday afternoon, laughing, eagerly questioning, a boy—see him on Good Friday night, grim, legs stiff, eyes cold as stones, a man—no easy thing for Mrs. Pascoe's blowzy thunderings to conquer, but something vastly amusing apparently to grandfather Westcott to watch.

He discovered that the sun rose about six o'clock, and therefore five o'clock on Easter morning found him shivering, in the desolate garden with his nose pressed to the little wooden gate. The High Road crossed the moor at no great distance from him, but the faint grey light that hung like gauze about him was not yet strong enough to reveal it. He would hear them as they passed and they must all go up that road on the way to the hill. In the garden there was darkness, and beyond it in the high shadow of the house and the surrounding trees, blackness. He could smell the soil, and his cheeks were wet with beads of moisture; very faintly the recurrent boom of the sea came through the mist, dimmed as though by thick folds of hanging carpet.

Suddenly the dark trees by the house, moved by a secret wind, would shudder. The little black gate slowly revealed its bars against the sky as the grey shadows lightened. Then there were voices, coming through the dark shut off, like the sea, by the mist—strange voices, not human, but sharing with the soil and the trees the mysterious quality of the night. The voices passed up the road—silence and then more voices.

Peter unlatched the gate and stole out to the road, stumbling over the rough moorland path and clambering across the ditch to safer ground. Figures were moving like shadows and voices fell echoing and re-echoing like notes of music—this was dissociated from all human feeling, and the mists curled up like smoke and faded into the air. Peter, in silence, followed these shadows and knew that there were other shadows behind him. It would not take long to climb the Grey Hill—they would be at the top by half-past five.

There was a voice in his ear:

"Hallo! You—Westcott! Why, who would have thought it?"

He turned round and found at his side the peaked face of Willie Daffoll, now a young man of eighteen, with an affection for bright ties and socks, once the small child who had fought with Peter at old Parlow's years ago. Peter had not seen very much of him during those years. They had met in the streets of Treliss, had spoken a word or two, but no friendship or intimacy. But this early hour, this mysterious dawn, bred confidence, and Peter having grown, under the approaching glitter of London, more human, during the last few weeks than he had been in all his life before, was glad to talk to him.

"Oh, I've often wanted to go," he said. "It brings good luck, you know."

"Well, fancy your believing that. I never thought you'd believe in rot like that."

"Why are you going, then?"

The young man of ties and waistcoats dropped his voice. "Oh—a girl. She's here somewhere—she said she'd come—thinks there's something in it. Anyhow she wants it—she's stunning...."

A girl! Peter's mind flew absurdly back to a small child in a short black frock. "Oh! Crumpet!" ... A girl! Young Daffoll had spoken as though it were indeed something to get up at four in the morning for! Peter wanted to hear more. Young Daffoll was quite ready to tell him. No names, of course, but they were going to be married one day. His governor would be furious, of course, and they might have to run away, but she was game for anything. No, he'd only known her a fortnight, but it had been a matter of love at first sight—extraordinary thing—he'd thought he'd been head over ears before, but never anything like this—yes, as a matter of fact she was in a flower-shop—Trunter's in the High Street—her people had come down in the world—and so the golden picture unfolded as the gauze curtains were drawn back from the world, and the shoulder of the Grey Hill rose, like a cloud, before them.

Peter's heart beat faster as he listened to this story. Here was one of his dreams translated into actual fact. Would he one day also have some one for whom he would be ready to run to the end of the world, if furious parents demanded it? She would have, he was sure, red-gold hair and a wonderful smile.

They climbed the Grey Hill. There was with them now quite a company of persons—still shadow-shapes, for the mists were thick about the road, but soon all the butchers and bakers of the world—and, let it be remembered, all the lovers, would be revealed. Now, as they climbed the hill, silence fell—even young Daffoll was quiet; that, too, it seemed, was part of the ceremony.

The hill top was swiftly gained. The Giant's Finger, black and straight, like a needle, stood through the shadows. Beyond there would be the sea, and that was where the sun would rise, at present darkness. They all sat down on the stones that covered the summit—on either side of Peter there were figures, but Daffoll had vanished—it seemed that he had discovered his lady.

Peter, sitting meditating on the story that he had heard and feeling, suddenly, lonely and deserted, was conscious of a small shoe that touched his boot. It was, beyond argument, a friendly shoe—he could feel that in the inviting tap that it gave to him. He was aware also that his shoulder was touching another shoulder, and that that shoulder was soft and warm. Finally his hand touched another hand—fingers were intertwined.

There was much conversation out of the mist:

"Law, chrisy! Well, it's the last Easter morning for me—thiccy sun hides himself right enough—it's poor trade sitting shivering your toes."

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