by Hugh Walpole
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

"Not that I care for the woman, mind ye, Mr. Tregothan, sir—with her haverings talking—all I'm saying is that if she's to come wastin' my time—

"Thiccy man sitting there stormin' like an old owl in a tree."

"Oh, get along with ye—No, I won't be sitting by ye—There's—"

Now the sea, like a young web stretched at the foot of the hill, stole out of the darkness. On the horizon a thin line of dull yellow—wouldn't it be a fine sunrise?—the figures on the hill were gathering shape and form, and many of them now were standing, their bodies sharp against the grey sky.

Peter had not turned; his eyes were staring out to sea, but his body was pressed closely against the girl at his side. He did not turn nor look at her—she was staring at him with wonder in her eyes and a smile on her lips. She was a very common girl with black hair and over-red cheeks, and she was one of the dairymaids from Tregothan Farm. She did not know whom this strange young man might be, and it was not yet light enough to see. She did not care—such things had happened often enough before, and she leant her fat body against his shoulder. She could feel his heart thumping and his hands were very hot, but she thought that it was strange that he did not turn and look at her....

There was a stir and murmur among the crowd on the hill for behold it would be a fine sunrise! The dull yellow had brightened to gold and was speeding like a herald across the grey. Black on the hill, gold on the sky, a trembling whispering blue across the sea—in a moment there would be the sun! What gods were there hiding, at that instant, on the hill, watching, with scornful eyes this crowd of moderns? Hidden there behind the stones, what mysteries? Screening with their delicate bodies the faint colours of the true dawn, playing on their pipes tunes that these citizens with their coarse voices and dull hearing could not understand, what ancient watchers of the hill pass and repass!

Behold the butchers and bakers! Behold Mr. Winneren, hosier and outfitter, young Robert Trefusis, farmer, Miss Bessie Waddell from the sweet-shop!... These others fade away as the sun rises—the grey mists pass with them.

The sun is about to leap above the rim of the sea. Peter turns and crushes the poor dairymaid in his arms and stifles the little scream with the first kiss of his life. His whole body burns in that kiss—and then, as the sun streams across the sea he has sprung to his feet and vanishes over the brow of the hill.

The dairymaid wipes her lips with the back of her hand. They have joined hands and are already dancing round the Giant's Finger. It is black now, but in a moment the flames of the sun will leap upon it, and good omens will send them all singing down the hill.


On Tuesday evening Peter slipped for a moment into Zachary Tan's shop and told Mr. Zanti that he would be on the station platform at half-past seven on the following morning. He could scarcely speak for excitement. He was also filled with a penetrating sadness. Above all, he wished only to exchange the briefest word with his future master. He did not understand altogether but it was perhaps because Mr. Zanti and all his world belonged to to-morrow.... Mr. Zanti's fat, jolly body, his laugh, his huge soft hands ... Peter could not do more to this gentleman than remember that he meant so much that he would be overwhelmed by him if he did not leave him alone. So he darted in and gave his message and darted out again. The little street was shining in the sun and the gentlest waves were lapping the wooden jetty—Oh, this dear town! These houses, these cobbles—all the smells and colours of the place—he was leaving it all so easily on so perilous an adventure. Poor Peter was moved by so many things that he could only gulp the tears back and hurry home. There was at any rate work to be done there about which there could be no uncertain intention.

His father had been drinking all the afternoon. Mrs. Pascoe with red arms akimbo, watched them as they ate their supper.

When the meal was finished Peter, standing by his father, his face very white, said:

"I am going to London to-morrow."

Mr. Westcott had aged a great deal during the last month. His hair was touched with grey, there were dark lines under his eyes, his cheeks were sunken, his lip trembled. He was looking moodily at the cloth, crumbling his bread. He did not hear Peter's remark, but continued his argument with Mrs. Pascoe:

"It wasn't cooked, I tell you—you're growing as slack as Hell."

"Your precious son 'as got something as 'e would like to say to yer," remarked that pleasant woman grimly.

Peter repeated his remark. His father grasped it but slowly—at last he said:

"Damn you, what are you talking about?"

"I'm leaving here and going to London to-morrow."

Mr. Westcott turned his bloodshot eyes in the direction of the fire-place—"Curse it, I can't see straight. You young devil—I'll do for you—" all this said rather sullenly and as though he were speaking to himself.

Peter, having delivered his news, passed Mrs. Pascoe's broad body, and moved to the doorway. He turned with his hand on the door.

"I'm glad I'm going," he said, "you've always bullied me, and I've always hated you. You killed my mother and she was a good woman. You can have this house to yourself—you and grandfather—and that woman—" he nodded contemptuously at Mrs. Pascoe, who was staring at him fiercely. His grandfather was fast asleep beneath the cushions.

"Damn you," said Mr. Westcott very quietly. "You've always been ungrateful—I didn't kill your mother, but she was always a tiresome, crying woman."

He stopped crumbling the bread and suddenly picked up a table knife and hurled it at Peter. His hand was trembling, and the knife quivering, was fastened to the door.

Mrs. Pascoe gasped, "Gawd 'elp us!"

Peter quietly closed the door behind him and went up to his room.

He was in no way disturbed by this interview. His relations with his father were not of the things that now mattered. They had mattered before his mother died. They had mattered whilst his father had been somebody strong and terrible. Even at the funeral how splendid he had seemed! But this trembling creature who drank whisky with the cook was some one who concerned Peter not at all—something like the house, to be left behind.

There was an old black bag that had held his things in the Dawson's days—it held his things now. Not a vast number—only the black suit beside the blue serge one that he was going to wear, some under-linen, a sponge, and a toothbrush, the books and an old faded photograph of his mother as a girl. Nothing like that white face that he had seen, this photograph, old, yellow, and faded, but a girl laughing and beautiful—after all, his most precious possession.

Then, when the bag was packed, he sat on the bed, swung his legs, and thought about everything. He was nearly eighteen, nearly a man, and as hard as rock. He could feel the muscles swelling, there was no fat about him, he was sound all over.

He looked back and saw the things that stood out like hills above the plain—that night, years ago, when he was whipped, the day that he first met Mr. Zanti, the first day at school, the day when he said good-bye to Cards, the hour, at the end of it all, when they hissed him, that last evening with Stephen, the day with his mother ... and then, quite lately, that afternoon when Mr. Zanti asked him to go to London, the little girl with the black frock on the hill ... last of all, that kiss (never mind with whom) on Easter morning—all these things had made him what he was—yes, and all the people—Frosted Moses, Stephen, his father, his mother, Bobby Galleon, Cards, Mr. Zanti, the little girl. As he swung his legs he knew that everything that he did afterwards would be, in some way, attached to these earlier things and these earlier people.

He had brave hopes and brave ambitions and a warm heart as he flung himself into bed; it speaks well for him that, on the night before he set out on his adventure, he slept like the child that he really was.

But he knew that he would wake at six o'clock. He had determined that it should be so, and the clocks were striking as he opened his eyes. It was very dark and the cocks crowed beyond his open window, and the misty morning swept in and blew his lighted candle up and down. He dressed in the blue serge suit with a blue tie fastened in a sailor's knot. He leaned out of his window and tried to imagine, out of the darkness, the beloved moor—then he took his black bag and crept downstairs; it was striking half-past six as he came softly into the hall.

There he saw that the gas was flaring and that his father was standing in his night-shirt.

"I think I'm in front of you," he said, smiling.

"Let me go, father," Peter said, very white, and putting down the bag.

"Be damned to you," said his father. "You don't get through this door."

It was all so ludicrous, so utterly absurd, that his father should be standing, in his night-shirt, on this very cold morning, under the flaring gas. It occurred to Peter that as he wanted to laugh at this Mr. Zanti could not have been right about his lack of humour. Peter walked up to his father, and his father caught him by the throat. Mr. Westcott was still, in spite of recent excesses, sufficiently strong.

"I very much want to choke you," he said.

Peter, however, was stronger.

His father dropped the hold of his throat, and had him, by the waist, but his hands slipped amongst his clothes. For a moment they swayed together, and Peter could feel the heat of his father's body beneath the night-shirt and the violent beating of his heart. It was immensely ludicrous; moreover there now appeared on the stairs Mrs. Pascoe, in a flannel jacket over a night-gown, and untidy hair about her ample shoulders.

"The Lord be kind!" she cried, and stood, staring. Mr. Westcott was breathing very heavily in Peter's face, and their eyes were so close together that Peter could notice how bloodshot his father's were.

"God damn you!" said his father and slipped, and they came down on to the wood floor together. Peter rose, but his father lay there, breathing heavily.

"God damn you," he said again, but he did not move.

"You'd better look after him," Peter said, turning to the astounded Mrs. Pascoe. As he moved he saw a surprising sight, his grandfather's door was opened and his grandfather (who had not been on his feet for a great many years) was standing in the middle of it, cackling with laughter, dressed in a very ugly yellow dressing-gown, his old knotted hands clutching the sides of the door, his shrivelled body shaking, and his feet in large red slippers.

"Dear me, that was a nasty knock," he chattered.

And so Peter left them.

The high road was cool and fresh and dark. The sea sung somewhere below amongst the rocks, and Peter immediately was aware that he was leaving Cornwall.

Now he had no other thought. The streets of the town were deserted, clean, smelling of the fields, hay-carts, and primroses, with the darkness broken by dim lamps, and a very slender moon. His heart was full, his throat burning. He crossed the market-place and suddenly bent down and kissed the worn stones of the Tower. There was no one to see.

He was in the station at twenty minutes past seven. The platform was long and cold and deserted, but in the waiting-room was Mr. Zanti enveloped in an enormous black coat.

"Ah, my dear boy, this is indeed splendid. And 'ave you said farewell to your father?"

"Yes, I've said good-bye to every one," he answered slowly. Suddenly he would have given all the wide world and his prospects in it not to be going. The terrors of Scaw House were as nothing beside that little grey town with the waves breaking on the jetty, the Grey Hill above it, the twisted cobbled streets.

The morning wind blew up the platform, the train rolled in; there were porters, but Mr. Zanti had only a big brown bag which he kept with him.

Soon they were in corners facing one another. As the train swept past the Tower the grey dawn was breaking into blue over the houses that rose, tier by tier, to the sky over the grey rolling breakers, over the hills beyond ... Cornwall!

Poor Peter stared with passionate eyes as the vision passed.

"London soon," said Mr. Zanti, gaily.




Towards the middle of the dim afternoon as the first straight pale houses began to close in upon the train, a lady and gentleman on the opposite side to Peter were discovered by him, as he awoke from a long sleep, to be talking:

"Well, my dear Lucy, how we are ever to get on if you want to do these absurd things I don't know. In London one must do as London does. In the country of course..."

He was short, breathless and a little bald. The lady was young and very upset.

"But, Henry, what does it matter?"

"What does it matter? My dear Lucy, in London everything matters—"

She was excited. "In Kensington perhaps, but in London—"

"Allow me, my dear Lucy, to decide for you. When you are my age—"

Peter went to sleep again.


The vast iron-girdled station was very dark and Mr. Zanti explained that this was because, outside, there was a Fog—

"The Fog," he added, as though it had been a huge and ferocious animal, "is very yellow and has eaten up London. It will take us a very long time to find our home."

To Peter, short and square, in his rough suit shouldering his bag, this was all as the infernal regions. The vast place towered high, into misty distances above him. Trains, like huge beasts, stretched their limbs into infinity; screams, piercing and angry, broke suddenly the voices and busy movement that flooded the place with sounds. He was jostled and pushed aside and people turned and swore at him and a heated porter ran a truck into his legs. And through it and above it all the yellow fog came twisting in coils from the dark street beyond and every one coughed and choked and cursed England.

Mr. Zanti, after five minutes' angry pursuit, caught a reluctant and very shabby four-wheeler, and they both climbed into its cavernous depths and Peter's nose was filled with something that had leather and oranges and paper bags and whisky in it; he felt exactly as though Mr. Zanti (looking very like an ogre in the mysterious yellow light with his bowler on the back of his head and mopping his face with a huge crimson handkerchief) were decoying him away to some terrible fastness where it was always dark and smelly.

And indeed that first vision of London, seen through the grimy windows of the cab, was terrible enough. The cab moved a little, stopped, moved again; it seemed that they would be there for ever and they exchanged no word. There were no buildings to be seen; a vast wall of darkness surrounded him and ever and again, out of the heart of it, a great cauldron of fire flamed and by the side of it there were wild, agitated faces—and again darkness. On every side of the stumbling cab there was noise—voices shouting, women screaming, the rumbling of wheels, the plunging of horses' hoofs; sometimes things brushed against their cab—once Peter thought that they were down because they were jerked right forward against the opposite seats. And then suddenly, in the most wonderful way, they would plunge into silence, a silence so deep and cavernous that it was more fearful than those other noises had been, and the yellow darkness seemed to crowd upon them with a closer eagerness and it was as though they were driving over the edge of the world. Then the noises returned, for a moment the fog lifted showing houses, rising like rocks from the sea sheer about them on every side, then darkness again and the cab stopped with a jerk.

"Ah, good," said Mr. Zanti, rolling his red handkerchief into a ball. "'Ere we are, my young friend—Mr. Peter, after you, please."

Before him a light faintly glimmered and towards this, after stumbling on the slippery pavement, he made his way. He found himself in a bookshop lighted with gas that hissed and spit like an angry cat; the shop was low and stuffy but its walls were covered with books that stretched into misty fog near the ceiling. Behind a dingy counter a man was sitting. This man struck Peter's attention at once because of the enormous size of his head and the amount of hair that covered it—starting out of the mist and obscurity of the shop, this head looked like some strange fungus, and from the heart of it there glittered two very bright eyes.

Peter, standing awkwardly in the middle of the shop, gazed at this head and was speechless.

Outside, Mr. Zanti could be heard disputing with the cabman.

"You can go and be damned—ze bags were not on ze outside—Zat is plenty for your pay and you be damned—"

The shop door closed with a bang shutting out the fog and Mr. Zanti filled the little bookshop. He seemed taller and larger than he had been in Cornwall and his voice was sharper. The head removed itself from the counter and Peter saw that it belonged to a small man with a hump who came forward to Mr. Zanti very humbly.

"Ah, Gottfried," said Zanti, "you well?"

"Very, sir," answered the little man, bowing a little and smiling; his voice was guttural with a very slight accent.

"This is Mr. Peter Westcott. 'E will work here and 'elp you with ze books. 'E is a friend of mine and you will be kind to him. Mr. Peter, zis is Herr Gottfried Hanz—I owe 'im much—ver' clever man."

They shook hands and Peter liked the pair of eyes that gazed into his.

Then Mr. Zanti said, "Come, I will show you ze rest of ze place. It is not a mansion, you will find."

Indeed it was not. Behind the shop there was a room, brown and green, with two windows that looked on to a yard, so Mr. Zanti said. There was no furniture in it save a table and some chairs; a woman was spreading a cloth on the table as they came in. This woman had grey hair that escaped its pins and fell untidily about her shoulders. She was very pale, tall and thin and her most striking features were her piercing black eyes and with these she stared at Peter.

"Zis is Mrs. Dantzig," said Mr. Zanti, "an old friend—Mr. Peter Westcott, Mrs. Dantzig. 'E will work wiz us."

The woman said nothing but nodded her head and continued her work. They passed out of the room. Stairs ran both up and down.

"What is down there?" asked Peter.

"Ah, zat is ze kitchen," said Mr. Zanti, laughing. Upstairs there was a clean and neat bedroom with a large bed in it, an old sofa and two chairs.

"Zis is where I sleep," said Mr. Zanti. "For a night or two until you 'ave discovered a lodging you shall sleep on zat sofa. Zay will make it whilst we 'ave supper."

It was now late and Peter was very very tired. Downstairs there was much bread and butter and bacon and eggs, and beer. The woman waited upon them but they were all very silent and Peter was too sleepy to be hungry.

The table was cleared and Mr. Zanti sat smoking his pipe and talking to the woman. Peter sat there, nodding, and he thought that their conversation was in a foreign tongue and he thought that they looked at him and that the woman was angry about something—but the sleep always gained upon him—he could not keep it away.

At last a hand was upon his shoulder and he was led up to bed.

He tumbled out of his clothes and his last impression was of Mr. Zanti standing in front of him, looking vast and very solemn in a blue cotton night-shirt.

"Peter," Mr. Zanti seemed to be saying, "you see in me, one, two, a hundred men.... All my life I seek adventure—fun—and I find it—but there 'as not been room for ze affections. Then I find you—I love you as my son and I say 'Come to my bookshop'—But only ze bookshop mind you—you are there for ze books and because I care for you—I care for you ver' much, Peter, and zere 'as not been room in my life for ze affections ... but I will be a ver' good friend to you—and you shall only be in ze shop—with ze books—I will be a good friend—"

Then it seemed that Mr. Zanti kissed Peter on both cheeks, blew out the candle, and climbed into his huge bed; soon he was snoring.

But Peter could not be sure of these things because he was so very tired that he did not know whether he were standing on his head or his heels and he was asleep on his sofa and dreaming about the strangest and most confused events in less than no time at all.


And then how wonderful to discover, on waking up the next morning, that it was a beautiful day, as beautiful a day as any that Cornwall could give him. It was indeed odd, after the great darkness of the afternoon before to find now a burning blue sky, bright shining pavements and the pieces of iron and metal on the cabs glittering as they rolled along. The streets were doubtless delightful but Peter was not, on this day at any rate, to see very much of them; he was handed over to the care of Herr Gottfried Hanz, who had obviously not brushed his hair when he got up in the morning; he also wore large blue slippers that were too big for his feet and clattered behind him as he walked. Whatever light there might be in the street outside only chinks of it found their way into the shop and the gas-jet hissed and flared as it had done on the day before. The books seemed mistier and dustier than ever and Peter wondered, in a kind of despair, how in the world if any one did come in and ask for anything he was going to tell them whether it were there or not.

But here Herr Gottfried came to the rescue. "See you," he said with an air of pride, "it is thus that they are arranged. Here you have the Novel—Bronte, Bulwer, Bunyan ("The Pilgrim's Progress," that is not a novel but it is near enough). Here you have History, and here the Poets, and here Philosophy and here Travel—it will all be simple in time—"

Peter's eyes spun dizzily to the heights.

"There is a little ladder," said Herr Gottfried.

"And," at last said Peter timidly, "May I—read—when there is no one here?"

Herr Gottfried looked at him with a new interest. "You like reading?"

"Like!" Peter's voice was an ecstasy.

"Why of course, often." Herr Gottfried smiled. "And then see! (he opened the shop door) there is a small boy, James, who is supposed to look after these (these were the 1d., 2d. and 3d. boxes outside the window, on the pavement) but he is an idle boy and often enough he is not there and then we must have the door open and you must watch them. Often enough (this seemed a favourite phrase of his) these gentlemen (this with great scorn) will turn the books over and over and they will look up the street once and they will look down the street once, and then into the pocket a book will go—often enough," he added, looking beyond the door savagely at a very tired and tattered lady who was turning the 1d. lot over and over.

Then, this introductory lesson concluded, Herr Gottfried suddenly withdrew into the tangles of his hair and retreated behind his counter. Through the open door there came the most entrancing sound and the bustle of the street was loud and startling—bells ringing, boys shouting, wheels rattling, and beyond these immediate notes a steady hum like the murmur of an orchestra heard through closed doors. All this was wonderful enough but it was nothing at all to the superlative fascination of that multitude of books. Peter found a hard little chair in a dark corner and sat down upon it. Here he was in the very heart of his kingdom! He could never read all the books in this place if he lived for two hundred years... and so he had better not try. He made a blind dash at the volumes nearest him (quietly lest he should disturb Herr Gottfried who seemed very busy at his counter) and secured something and read it as well as he could, for the light was very bad. It was called "The True and Faithful Experiences of the Reverend James Scott in the Other World Being a Veracious History of his Experiences of the Life after Death"—the dust rose from its pages in little clouds and tempted him to sneeze but he bit his lip and counted forty and saved the situation.

Herr Gottfried dealt with the customers that morning and Peter stood nervously watching him. The customers were not very many—an old lady who "wanted something to read" caused many volumes to be laid before her, and finally left the shop without buying anything—a young man with spectacles purchased some tattered science and a clergyman some Sermons. A thin and very hungry looking man entered, clutching a badly-tied paper parcel. These were books he wanted to sell. They were obviously treasured possessions because he touched them, when they were laid upon the counter, with a loving hand.

"They are very good books," he said plaintively.

"Three shillings," said Herr Gottfried.

The hungry man sighed.

"Five shillings," he said, "they are worth more."

"Three shillings for the lot," said Herr Gottfried.

"It is very little," said the hungry man, but he took the money and went out sadly.

Once their came a magnificent gentleman—that is, he looked magnificent in the distance away from the gas jet. He was tall with a high hat, a fine moustache and a tailcoat; he had melancholy eyes and a languid air. Peter was sorry to observe on a closer view that his tail-coat was frayed and his collar not very clean.

He gave Herr Gottfried a languid bow and passed through the shop into the room beyond.

"Guten Tag, Herr Signer," said Herr Gottfried with deference, but the gentleman had already disappeared.

Then, after a time, one o'clock struck and Peter understood that if he would place himself under Herr Gottfried's protection he should be led to an establishment where for a small sum meat-pies were to be had... all this very novel and delightful, and Peter laid down "The Experiences of the Reverend James Scott," which were not at present very thrilling and followed his guide into the street. Peter was still wondering where Herr Gottfried had put his blue slippers and whence had come the large flat boots and the brown and faded squash hat when he was suddenly in a little dark street with the houses hanging forward as though they were listening and any number of clothes dangling from the window sills and waving about as though their owners were still inside them and kicking vigorously. Although the street was dark it was full of noise, and a blaze of light at the other end of it proclaimed more civilised quarters (Trafalgar Square in fact) at no great distance.

"Gerade aus," said Herr Gottfried and pushed open a swinging door. Peter followed him into the most amazing babel of voices, a confusion and a roaring, an atmosphere thick with smoke and steam and a scent in the air as though ten thousand meat-pies were cooking there before his eyes. By the door a neat stout little woman, hung all over with lockets and medallions as though she were wearing all the prizes that the famous meat-pies had ever won, was sitting in a little box with a glass front to it.

"Bon jour, Monsieur Hanz."

"Tag, Meine Gnaedige Frau."

All down the room, by the wall, ran long tables black with age and grime. Men of every age and nationality were eating, drinking, smoking and talking. Some of them knew Herr Gottfried, some did not.

"Wie gehts, Gottfried?"

And Herr Gottfried, planting his flat feet like dead weights in front of him, taking off his hat and running his fingers through his hair, smiled at some, spoke to others, and at last found a little corner at the end of the room, a corner comparatively quiet but most astoundingly smelly.

Peter sat down and recovered his breath. How far away now was Treliss with its cobbled street, and the Grey Hill with the Giant's Finger pointing solemnly to the sky.

"I have no money," he said.

"The Master has given me this for you," Herr Gottfried said, handing him two sovereigns, "he says it is in advance for the week."

The meat-pies, beer and bread were ordered and then for a time they sat in silence. Peter was turning in his mind a thousand questions that he would like to ask but he was still afraid of his strange companion and he felt a little as though he were some human volcano that might at any moment burst forth and cover him with furious disaster.

Then Herr Gottfried said:

"And so you care for reading?"


"What do you read?"

What had Peter read? He mentioned timidly "David Copperfield," "Don Quixote," and "Henry Lessingham."

"Ah, that's the way—novels, novels, novels—always sugar ... Greek, Latin?"

"No, just a little at school."

"Ah, yes, your schools. I know them. Homer?"

"No, I'm afraid not."

"Ah, well you shall read Homer. He is the greatest, he is the Master. There is Pope for a beginning. I will teach you Greek.... Goethe?"

"I—beg your pardon."

"Goethe, Goethe, Goethe—he has never heard of him—never. Ah, these schools—I know them. Teach them nonsense—often enough—but any wisdom—never—"

"I'm very sorry—" said Peter humbly.

"And music?"

"I've had no opportunity—"

"But you would love it? Yes, I see that you would love it—it is in your eyes. Beethoven? No—later perhaps—then often enough—but Schubert! Ah, Schubert!" (Here the meat-pies arrived but Herr Gottfried did not see them). "Ah, the Unfinished! He shall hear that and he will have a new soul—And the songs! Gott in Himmel, the songs! There is a man I know, he will sing them to you. Die Mullerlieder. It is always water, the Flowers, the Sun and all the roses in the world ... ach! 'Dir Spinnerin' 'Meersstille' ... 'Meersstille'—yah, Homer, Schubert—meat and drink—Homer the meat-pie, Schubert the beer, but not this beer—no, Helles, beautiful Helles with the sun in it...."

He had forgotten Peter and Peter did not understand anything that he said, but he sat there with his eyes wide open and felt assured that it was all very useful to him and very important. The inferno continued around them, the air grew thicker with smoke, a barrel-organ began to play at the door, draughts and dominoes rattled against the long wooden tables....

Ah! this was, indeed, London.

Peter was so greatly moved that his hunger left him and it was with difficulty that the meat-pie was finished.


During the three days that followed Peter learnt a very great deal about the bookshop. At night he still slept in Mr. Zanti's bedroom, but it was only a temporary pitching of tents during these days whilst he was a stranger and baffled by the noise and confusion.

Already his immediate surroundings had ceased to be a mystery. He had as it were taken them to himself and seated himself in the midst of them with surprising ease. Treliss, Scaw House, his father, had slipped back into an unintelligible distance. He felt that they still mattered to him and that the time would most certainly come when they would matter to him even more, but they were not of immediate concern. The memory of his mother was closer to him....

But in this discovery of London he was amazingly happy—happier than he had ever been in all his life, and younger too. There were a great many things that he wished to know, a great many questions that he wished to ask—but for the moment he was content to rest and to grasp what he could see.

In a day he seemed to understand the way that the books went, and not only that but even the places where the individual books were lodged. He did not, of course, know anything about the contents of the books, but their titles gave them, in his mind, human existence so that he thought of them as actual persons living in different parts of the shop. There was, for instance, the triumph of "Lady Audley's Secret." An old lady with a trembling voice and a very sharp pair of eyes wished for a secondhand copy.

"I've very sorry, Madame," began Herr Gottfried, "but I'm afraid we haven't..."

"I think—" said Peter timidly, and he climbed the little ladder and brought the book down from a misty corner. Herr Gottfried was indeed amazed at him—he said very little but he was certainly amazed. Indeed, with the exception of the "meat-pie" interval he scarcely spoke throughout the day. Peter began to look forward to one o'clock for then the German, in the midst of the babel and the smoke, continued the educating progress, and even read Goethe's poetry aloud (translating it into the strangest English) and developed Peter's conception of Homer into an alluring and fascinating picture.

Of London itself during these days Peter saw nothing. At eight o'clock in the evening the shutters were put up by the disobedient James and the shop retired for the night. Herr Gottfried shuffled away to some hidden resting-place of his own and Peter found supper waiting for him in the room at the back. He ate this alone, for Mr. Zanti was not there and during these three days he was hardly visible at all. He was up in the morning before Peter was and he came to bed when Peter was already asleep. The boy was not, however, certain that his master was always away when he seemed to be. He appeared suddenly at the most surprising moments, smiling and cheerful as ever and with no sign of hurry about him. He always gave Peter a nod and a kind word and asked him how the books were going and patted him on the shoulder, but he was away almost as soon as he was there.

One strange thing was the number of people that came into the bookshop with no intention whatever of having anything to do with the books. Indeed they paid no heed to the bookshop, and after flinging a word at Herr Gottfried, they would pass straight into the room beyond and as far as Peter could see, never came out again.

The magnificently-dressed gentleman, called by Herr Gottfried "Herr Signor," was one of these persons.

However, Peter, happy enough in the excitement of the present, asking no questions and only at night, before he fell asleep, lying on his sofa, listening to the sounds in the street below him, watching the reflections of the gas light flung up by the street lamps on to the walls of his room, he would wonder ... and, so wondering, he was asleep.

And then, on the fourth day, something happened.

It was growing late, and Peter underneath the gas jet was buried in Mr. Pope's Homer. A knock on the door and the postman entered with the letters. As a rule Herr Gottfried took them, but on this afternoon he had left the shop in Peter's hands for half an hour whilst he went out to see a friend. Peter took the letters and immediately the letter on the top of the pile (Mr. Zanti's post was always a large one) set his heart thumping. The handwriting was the handwriting of Stephen. There could be no doubt about it, no possible doubt. Peter had seen that writing many times and he had always kept the letter that Stephen had written to him when he first went to Dawson's. To other eyes it might seem an ordinary enough hand—rough and uneducated and sprawling—anybody's hand, but Peter knew that there could be no mistake.

The sight of the letter as it lay there on the counter swept away the shop, the books, London—he sat looking at it with a longing, stronger than any longing that he had ever known, to see the writer again. He lived once more through that night on the farm—perhaps at that moment he felt suddenly his loneliness, here in this huge and tempestuous London, here in this dark bookshop with so many people going in or out. He rubbed the sleeves of his blue serge suit because they made him feel like Treliss, and he sat, with eyes staring into the dark, thinking of Stephen.

That evening, just as he was going up to bed, Mr. Zanti came in and greeted him with his accustomed cheerfulness.

"Going to bed, Peter? Ah, good boy."

Peter stopped, hesitating, by the door.

"Oh, I wonder—" he said and stopped.

"Yes?" said Mr. Zanti, looking at him.

"Oh—well—it's nothing—" Then he blurted out—"I saw a letter—I couldn't help it—a letter from Stephen this afternoon. They came when Herr Gottfried was out—and I wanted—I want dreadfully—to hear about him—if you could tell me—"

For an instant Mr. Zanti's large eyes closed until they seemed to be no larger than pin-points—then they opened again.

"Stephen—Stephen? Stephen what? What is it that the boy talks of?"

"You know—Stephen Brant—the man who first brought me to see you when I was quite a kid. I was—I always have been very fond of him. I should be so very glad—"

"Surely the boy is mad—what has come to you? Stephen Brant—yes I remember the man—but I have heard nothing for years and years—no, nothing. See, here are my afternoon's letters."

He took a bundle of letters out of his pocket and showed them to Peter. The boy found the one in Stephen's handwriting.

"You may read it," said Mr. Zanti smiling. Peter read it. He could not understand it and it was signed "John Simmons" ... but it was certainly in Stephen's handwriting.

"Thank you," said Peter in rather a quivering voice and he turned away, gulping down his disappointment.

Mr. Zanti patted him on the shoulder.

"That's right, my boy. Ah, I expect you miss your friend. You will be lonely here, yes? Well—see—now that you have been here a few days perhaps it is time for you to find a place to live—and I have talked wiz a friend of mine, a ver' good friend who 'as lived for many years in a 'ouse where 'e says there is a room that will just do for you—cheap, pleasant people ... yes? To-morrow 'e will show you the place. There you will 'ave friends—"

Peter smiled, thanked Mr. Zanti and went to bed. But his dreams were confused that night. It seemed to him that London was a huge room with closing walls, and that ever they came closer and closer and that he screamed for Stephen and they would not let Stephen come to him.

And bells were ringing, and Mr. Zanti, with a lighted candle in his hands, was creeping down those dark stairs that led to the kitchen, and he might have stopped those closing walls but he would not. Then suddenly Peter was running down the Sea Road above Treliss and the waves were sounding furiously below him—his father was there waiting for him sternly, at the road's end and Herr Gottfried with a Homer in one hand and his blue shoes in the other sat watching them out of his bright eyes. His father was waiting to kill him and Mrs. Pascoe was at his elbow. Peter screamed, the sweat was pouring off his forehead, his throat was tight with agony when suddenly by his side was old Frosted Moses, with his flowing beard. "It isn't life that matters," he was whispering in his old cracked voice, "but the courage that you bring to it."

The figures faded, the light grew broader and broader, and Peter woke to find Mr. Zanti, by the aid of a candle, climbing into bed.

But some time passed before he had courage to fall asleep again.




On the next afternoon about six o'clock, Mr. Zanti, accompanied by the languid and shabby gentleman whom Peter had noticed before, appeared in the shop.

"Signor Rastelli," said Mr. Zanti, and the languid gentleman shook hands with Peter as though he were conferring a great benefit upon him and he hoped Peter wouldn't forget it.

"Zis," said Mr. Zanti, "is my young friend, Peter Westcott, whom I love as if 'e were my own son—Signor Rastelli," he continued, turning to Peter, "I've known him for very many years and I can only say zat ze longer I 'ave known him ze more admirable I 'ave thought 'im."

The gentleman took off his tall hat, stroked it, put it on again and looked, with his languid eyes, at Peter.

"And," continued Mr. Zanti, cheerfully, conscious perhaps that he was carrying all the conversation on his own shoulders, "'e will take you to a 'ouse where 'e has been for—'ow many years, Signor?"

"Ten," said that gentleman.

"For ten years—every comfort. Zere's a little room 'e tells me where you will be 'appy—and all your food and friendship for one pound a week. There!" he ended triumphantly.

"Thank you very much," said Peter, but he did not altogether like the look of the seedily dressed gentleman, and would much rather have stayed with Mr. Zanti.

He had packed his black bag in readiness, and now he fetched it and, after promising to be in the shop at half-past eight the next morning, started off with his melancholy guide.

The lamps were coming out, and a silence that often falls upon London just before sunset had come down upon the traffic and the people. Windows caught the departing flame, held it for an instant, and sank into grey twilight.

"I know what you're thinking about me," Peter's companion suddenly said (he was walking very fast as though trying to catch something), "I know you don't like me. I could see it at once—I never make a mistake about those things. You were saying to yourself: 'What does that horrible, over-dressed stranger want to come interfering with me for?'"

"Indeed, I wasn't," said Peter, breathlessly, because the bag was so heavy and they were walking so fast.

"Oh, yes, you were. Never mind. I'm not a popular man, and when you know me better you'll like me still less. That's always the way I affect people. And always with the best intentions. And you were thinking, too, that you never saw anything less Italian than I am, and you're sure my name's Brown or Smith, and indeed it's true that I was born in Clapham, but my parents were Italians—refugees, you know, although I'm sure I don't know what from—and every one calls me the Signor, and so there you are—and I don't see how I'm to help it. But that's just me all over—always fighting against the tide but I don't complain, I'm sure." All this said very rapidly and in a melancholy way as though tears were not very far off. Then he suddenly added:

"Let me carry your bag for you."

"No, thank you," said Peter, laughing, "I can manage it."

"Ah, well, you look strong," said the Signor appreciatively. "I envy you, I'm sure—never had a day's health myself—but I don't complain."

By this time they had passed the British Museum and were entering into the shadows of Bloomsbury. At this hour, when the lamps and the stars are coming out, and the sun is going in, Bloomsbury has an air of melancholy that is peculiarly its own. The dark grey houses stand as a perpetual witness of those people that have found life too hard for them and have been compelled to give in. The streets of those melancholy squares seen beneath flickering lamp light and a wan moon protest against all gaiety of spirit and urge resignation and a mournful acquiescence. Bloomsbury is Life on Thirty Shillings a week without the drama of starvation or the tragedy of the Embankment, but with all the ignominy of making ends meet under the stern and relentless eye of a boarding-house keeper.

But of all the sad and unhappy squares in Bloomsbury the saddest is Bennett Square. It is shut in by all the other Bloomsbury Squares and is further than any of them from the lights and traffic of popular streets. There are only four lamp posts there—one at each corner—and between these patches of light everything is darkness and desolation.

Every house in Bennett Square is a boarding-house, and No. 72 is Brockett's.

"Mrs. Brockett is a very terrifying but lovable woman," said the Signor darkly, and Peter, whose spirits had sunk lower and ever lower as he stumbled through the dark streets, felt, at the sound of this threatening prophecy, entirely miserable.

No. 72 is certainly the grimiest of the houses in Bennett Square. It is tall and built of that grey stone that takes the mind of the observer back to those school precincts of his youth. It is a thin house, not broad and fat and comfortably bulging, but rather flinging a spiteful glance at the house that squeezed it in on either side. It is like a soured, elderly caustic old maid, unhappy in its own experiences and determined to make every one else unhappy in theirs. Peter, of course, did not see these things, because it was very dark, but he wished he had not come.

The Signor had a key of his own and Peter was soon inside a hall that smelt of oilcloth and the cooking of beef; the gas was burning, but the only things that really benefited from its light were a long row of mournful black coats that hung against the wall.

Peter sneezed, and was suddenly conscious of an enormous woman whom he knew by instinct to be Mrs. Brockett. She was truly enormous—she stood facing him like some avenging Fate. She had the body of a man—flat, straight, broad. Her black hair, carefully parted down the middle, was brushed back and bound into hard black coils low down over the neck. She stood there, looking down on them, her arms akimbo, her legs apart. Her eyes were black and deep set, her cheek bones very prominent, her nose thin and sharp; her black dress caught in a little at the waist, fell otherwise in straight folds to her feet. There was a faint moustache on her upper lip, her hands, with long white slender fingers, were beautiful, lying straight by her side, against the stuff of her dress.

"Well?" she said—and her voice was deep like a man's. "Good evening, Signor."

"Good evening, Madame." He took off his hat and gave her a deep bow. "This is the young gentleman, Mr. Westcott, of whom I spoke to you this morning."

"Well—how are you, Mr. Westcott?" Her words were sharply clipped and had the resonance of coins as they rang in the air.

"Quite well, thank you," said Peter, and he noticed, in spite of his dismay at her appearance, that the clasp of her hand was strong and friendly.

"Florence will show you your room, Mr. Westcott. It is a pound a week including your meals and attendance and the use of the general sitting-room. If you do not like it you must tell me and we will wish one another good evening. If you do like it I shall do my best to make you comfortable."

Peter found afterwards that this was her invariable manner of addressing a new-comer. It could scarcely be called a warm welcome. She turned and called, "Florence!" and a maid-servant, diminutive in size but spotless in appearance, suddenly appeared from nowhere at all, as it seemed to Peter.

He followed this girl up many flights of stairs. On every side of him were doors and, once and again, gas flared above him. It was all very cold, and gusts of wind passed up and down, whisking in and out of the oilcloth, and Peter thought that he had never seen so many closed doors in his life.

At last they came to an end of the stairs and there with a skylight covering the passage outside was his room. It was certainly small and the window looked out on a dismal little piece of garden far below and a great number of roofs and chimneys and at last a high dome rising like a black cloud in the farther distance. It was spotlessly clean.

"I think it will do very well, thank you," said Peter and he put down his black bag.

"Do you?" said the maid. "There's a bell," she said, pointing, "and the meal's at seving sharp." She disappeared.

He spent the time, very cheerfully, taking the things out of the black bag and arranging them. He had suddenly, as was natural in him, forgotten the dismal approach to the house, the overwhelming appearance of Mrs. Brockett, his recent loneliness. Here, at last, was a little spot that he could, for a time, at any rate, call his own. He could come, at any time of the evening and shut his door, and be alone here, master of everything that he surveyed. Perhaps—and the thought sent the blood to his cheeks—it was here that he would write! He looked about the room lovingly. It was quite bare except for the bed, the washing stand and a chair, and there was no fire-place. But he arranged the books, David Copperfield, Don Quixote, Henry Lessingham, The Roads, The Downs, on the window sill, and the little faded photograph of his mother on the ledge above the washing basin. He had scarcely finished doing these things when there was a tap on his door. He opened it, and found the Signor, no longer in a tail-coat, but in a short, faded blue jacket that made him look shabbier than ever.

"Excuse—not intruding, I hope?" He looked gloomily round the room. "Everything all right?"

"Very nice," said Peter.

"Ah, you'll like it at first—but never mind. Wonderful woman, Mrs. Brockett. I expect you were alarmed just now."

"I was, a little," admitted Peter.

"Ah, well, we all are at first. But you'll get over that, you'll love her—every one loves her. By the way," he pushed his hand through his hair, "what I came about was to tell you that we all foregather—as you might say—in the sitting-room before dinner—yes—and I'd like to introduce you to my wife, the Signora—not Italian, you know—but you'll like her better than me—every one's agreed that hers is a nicer character."

Peter, trembling a little at the thought of more strangers, followed the Signer downstairs and found, in the middle of one of the dark landings, looking as though she had been left there by some one and completely forgotten, a little wisp of a woman with bright yellow hair and a straw coloured dress, and this was the Signora. This lady shook hands with him in a frightened tearful way and made choking noises all the way downstairs, and this distressed Peter very much until he discovered that she had a passion for cough drops, which she kept in her pocket in a little tin box and sucked perpetually. The Signor drove his wife and Peter before him into the sitting-room. This was a very brightly-coloured room with any number of brilliant purple vases on the mantelpiece, a pink wall-paper, a great number of shining pictures in the most splendid gilt frames, and in the middle of the room a bright green settee with red cushions on it. On this settee, which was round, with a space in the middle of it, like a circus, several persons were seated, but there was apparently no conversation. They all looked up at the opening of the door, and Peter was so dazzled by the bright colour of the room that it was some time before he could collect his thoughts.

But the Signor beckoned to him, and he followed.

"Allow me, Mrs. Monogue," said the Signor, "to introduce to you Mr. Peter Westcott." The lady in question was stout, red-faced, and muffled in shawls. She extended him a haughty finger.

There followed then Miss Norah Monogue, a girl with a pleasant smile and untidy hair, Miss Dall, a lady with a very stiff back, a face like an interrogation mark, because her eyebrows went up in a point and a very tight black dress, Mr. Herbert Crumley, and Mr. Peter Crumley, two short, thin gentlemen with wizened and anxious faces (they were obviously brothers, because they were exactly alike), and Mrs. and Mr. Tressiter, two pleasant-faced, cheerful people, who sat very close together as though they were cold.

All these people shook hands agreeably with Peter, but made no remarks, and he stood awkwardly looking at the purple vases and wishing that something would happen.

Something did happen. The door was very softly and slowly opened, and a little woman came hurrying in. She had white hair, and glasses were dangling on the end of her nose, and she wore a very old and shabby black silk dress. She looked round with an agitated air.

"I don't know why it is," she said, with a little chirrup, like a bird's, "but I'm always late—always!"

Then she did an amazing thing. She walked to the green settee and sat down between Miss Dall, the lady with the tight dress, and Mrs. Monogue. She then took out of one pocket an orange and out of another a piece of newspaper.

"I must have my orange, you know," she said, looking gaily round on every one.

She spread the newspaper on her knee, and then peeled the orange very slowly and with great care. The silence was maintained—no one spoke. Then suddenly the Signor darted forward: "Oh, Mrs. Lazarus I must introduce you to Madame's new guest, Mr. Westcott."

"How do you do?" the old lady chirruped. "Oh! but my fingers are all over orange—never mind, we'll smile at one another. I hope you'll like the place, I'm sure. I always have an orange before dinner. They've got used to me, you know. We've all got our little habits."

Peter did not know what to say, and was wondering whether he ought to relieve the old lady of her orange peel (at which she was gazing rather helplessly), when a bell rang and Florence appeared at the door.

"Dinner!" she said, laconically.

A procession was formed, Mrs. Monogue, with her shawls sweeping behind her, sailed in front, and Peter brought up the rear. Mrs. Lazarus put the orange peel into the newspaper and placed it all carefully in her pocket.

Mrs. Brockett was sitting, more like a soldier than ever, at the head of the table. Mutton was in front of her, and there seemed to be nothing on the table cloth but cruets and three dusty and melancholic palms. Peter found that he was sitting between Mrs. Lazarus and Miss Dall, and that he was not expected to talk. It was apparent indeed that the regularity with which every one met every one at this hour of the day, during months and months of the year negatived any polite necessity of cordiality or genial spirits. When any one spoke it was crossly and in considerable irritation, and although the food was consumed with great eagerness on everybody's part, the faces of the company were obviously anxious to express the fact that the food was worse than ever, and they wouldn't stand it another minute. They all did stand it, however, and Peter thought that they were all, secretly, rather happy and contented. During most of the meal no one spoke to him, and as he was very hungry this did not matter. Opposite him, all down the side of the room, were dusty grey pillars, and between these pillars heavy dark green curtains were hanging. This had the effect of muffling and crushing the conversation and quite forbidding anybody to be cheerful in any circumstances. Mrs. Lazarus indeed chirruped along comfortably and happily for the most part to herself—as, for instance, "I am orangy, but then I was late and couldn't finish it. Dear me, it's mutton again. I really must tell Madame about it and there's nothing so nice as beef and Yorkshire pudding, is there? Dear me, would you mind, young man, just asking Dear Miss Dall to pass the salt spoon. She's left that behind. I have the salt-cellar, thank you."

She also hummed to herself at times and made her bread into little hard pellets, which she flicked across the table with her thumb at no one in particular and in sheer absence of mind. The two Mr. Crumleys were sitting opposite to her, and they accepted the little charge of shot with all the placid equanimity bred of ancient custom.

Peter noticed other things. He noticed that Mrs. Monogue was an exceedingly ill-tempered and selfish woman, and that she bullied the pleasant girl with the untidy hair throughout the meal, and that the girl took it all in the easiest possible way. He noticed that Mrs. Brockett dealt with each of her company in turn—one remark apiece, and always in that stern, deep voice with the strangely beautiful musical note in it. To himself she said: "Well, Mr. Westcott, I'm pleased, I'm sure, that everything is to your satisfaction," and listened gravely to his assurance. To Miss Dall: "Well, Miss Ball, I looked at the book you lent me and couldn't find any sense in it, I'm afraid." To Mrs. Tressiter: "I had little Minnie with me for half an hour this evening, and I'm sure a better behaved child never breathed" ... and so on.

Once Miss Dall turned upon him sharply with: "I suppose you never go and hear the Rev. Mr. M. J. Valdwell?" and Peter had to confess ignorance.

"Really! Well, it 'ud do you young men a world of good."

He assured her that he would go.

"I will lend you a volume of his sermons if you would care to read them."

Peter said that he would be delighted. The meal was soon over, and every one returned to the sitting-room. They sat about in a desolate way, and Peter discovered afterwards that Mrs. Brockett liked every one to be there together for half an hour to encourage friendly relations. That object could scarcely be said to be achieved, because there was very little conversation and many anxious glances were flung at the clocks. Mrs. Brockett, however, sat sternly in a chair and sewed, and no one ventured to leave the room.

One pleasant thing happened. Peter was standing by the window turning over some fashion papers of an ancient date, when he saw that Miss Monogue was at his elbow. Now that she was close to him he observed that she looked thin and delicate; her dress was worn and old-fashioned, she looked as though she ought to be wrapped up warmly and taken care of—but her eyes were large and soft and grey, and although her wrists looked strangely white and sharp through her black dress her hands were beautiful. Her voice was soft with an Irish brogue lingering pleasantly amongst her words:

"I hope that you will like being here."

"I'm sure I shall," he said, smiling. He felt grateful to her for talking to him.

"You're very fortunate to have come to Mrs. Brockett's straight away. You mayn't think so now, because Mrs. Brockett is alarming at first, and we none of us—" she looked round her with a little laugh—"can strike the on-looker as very cheerful company. But really Madame has a heart of gold—you'll find that out in time. She's had a terribly hard time of it herself, and I believe it's a great struggle to keep things going now. But she's helped all kinds of people in her time."

Peter looked, with new eyes, at the lady so sternly sewing.

"You don't know," Miss Monogue went on in her soft, pleasant voice, "how horrible these boarding-houses can be. Mother and I have tried a good many. But here people stay for ever—a pretty good testimony to it, I think ... and then, you know, she never lets any one stay here if she doesn't like them—so that prevents scoundrels. There've been one or two, but she's always found them out ... and I believe she keeps old Mrs. Lazarus quite free of charge."

She paused, and then she added:

"And there's no one here who hasn't found life pretty hard. That gives us a kind of freemasonry, you know. The Tressiters, for instance, they have three children, and he has been out of work for months—sometimes there's such a frightened look in her eyes ... but you mustn't think that we're melancholy here," she went on more happily. "We get a lot of happiness out of it all."

He looked at her, and remembering Mrs. Monogue at dinner and seeing now how delicate the girl looked, thought that she must have a very considerable amount of pluck on her own account.

"And you?" she said. "Have you only just come up to London?"

"Yes," he answered, "I'm in a bookseller's shop—a second-hand bookseller's. I've only been in London a few days—it's all very exciting for me—and a little confusing at present."

"I'm sure you'll get on," she said. "You look so strong and confident and happy. I envy you your strength—one can do so much if one's got that."

He felt almost ashamed of his rough suit, his ragged build. "Well, I've always been in the country," he said, a little apologetically. "I expect London will change that."

Then there came across the room Mrs. Monogue's sharp voice. "Norah! Norah! I want you."

She left him.

That night in his little room, he looked from his window at the sea of black roofs that stretched into the sky and found in their ultimate distance the wonderful sweep of stars that domed them; a great moon, full-rounded, dull gold, staring like a huge eye, above them. His heart was full. A God there must be somewhere to have given him all this splendour—a splendour surely for him to work upon. He felt as a craftsman feels, when some new and wonderful tools have been given to him; as a woman feels the child in her womb, stirring mysteriously, moving her to deep and glad thankfulness, so now, with the night wind blowing about him, and all London lying, dark and motionless, below him, he felt the first stirring of his power. This was his to work with, this was his to praise and glorify and make beautiful—now crude and formless—a seed dark and without form or colour—one day to make one more flower in that garden that God has given his servants to work in.

He did not, at this instant, doubt that some God was there, crying to him, and that he must answer. Of that moon, of those stars, of that mighty city, he would make one little stone that might be added to that Eternal Temple of Beauty....

He turned from his window and thought of other things. He thought of his father and Scaw House, of the windy day when his mother was buried, of Mr. Zanti and Stephen's letter, of Herr Gottfried and his blue slippers, of this house and its people, of the friendly girl and her grey eyes ... finally, for a little, of himself—of his temper and his ambitions and his selfishness. Here, indeed, suddenly jumping out at him, was the truth.

He felt, as he got into bed, that he would have to change a great deal if he were to write that great book that he thought of: "Little Peter Westcott," London seemed to say, "there's lots to be done to you first before you're worth anything ... I'll batter at you."

Well, let it, he thought, sleepily. There was nothing that he would like better. He tumbled into sleep, with London after him, and Fame in front of him, and a soft and resonant murmur, as of a slumbering giant, rising to his open window.






There is a story in an early volume of Henry Galleon's about a man who caught—as he may have caught other sicknesses in his time—the disease of the Terror of London. Eating his breakfast cheerfully in his luxurious chambers in Mayfair, in the act of pouring his coffee out of his handsome silver coffee-pot, he paused. It was the very slightest thing that held his attention—the noise of the rumbling of the traffic down Piccadilly—but he was startled and, on that morning, he left his breakfast unfinished. He had, of course, heard that rumbling traffic on many other occasions—it may be said to have been the musical accompaniment to his breakfast for many years past. But on this morning it was different; as one has a headache before scarlet fever so did this young man hear the rumble of the traffic down Piccadilly. He listened to it very attentively, and it was, he told himself, very like the noise of some huge animal breathing in its sleep. There was a regularity, a monotony about it ... and also perhaps a sense of great force, quiescent now and held in restraint. He was a very normal, well-balanced young man and thoughts of this kind were unlike him.

Then he heard other things—the trees rustling in the park, bells ringing on every side of him, builders knocking and hammering, windows rattling, doors opening and shutting. In the Club one evening he confided in a friend. "I say, it's damned funny—but what would you say to this old place being alive, taking on a regular existence of its own, don't you know? You might draw it—a great beast like some old alligator, all curled up, with its teeth and things—making a noise a bit as it moves about ... and then, one day when it's got us nicely all on top of it, down it will bring us all, houses and the rest. Damned funny idea, what? Do for a cartoon-fellow or some one—"

The disease developed; he had it very badly, but at first his friends did not know. He lay awake at night hearing things—one heard much more at night—sometimes he fancied that the ground shook under his feet—but most terrible of all was it when there was perfect silence. The traffic ceased, the trees and windows and doors were still ... the Creature was listening. Sometimes he read in papers that buildings had suddenly collapsed. He smiled to himself. "When we are all nicely gathered together," he said, "when there are enough people ... then—"

His friends said that he had a nervous breakdown; they sent him to a rest-cure. He came back. The Creature was fascinating—he was terrified, but he could not leave it.

He knew more and more about it; he knew now what it was like, and he saw its eyes and he sometimes could picture its grey scaly back with churches and theatres and government buildings and the little houses of Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones perched upon it—and the noises that it made now were so many and so threatening that he never slept at all. Then he began to run, shouting, down Piccadilly, so they put him—very reluctantly—into a nice Private Asylum, and there he died, screaming. This story is a prologue to Peter's life in London.... The story struck his fancy; he thought of it sometimes.


On a late stormy afternoon in November, 1895, Peter finished his book, "Reuben Hallard." It had been raining all day, and now the windows were blurred and the sea of shining roofs that stretched into the mist emphasised the dark and gloom of the heavy overhanging sky.

Peter's little room was very cold, but his body was burning—he was in a state of overpowering excitement; his hands trembled so that he could scarcely hold his pen ... "So died Reuben Hallard, a fool and a gentleman"—and then "Finis" with a hard straight line underneath it.... He had been working at it for three years, and he had been in London seven.

He walked up and down his little room, he was so hot that he flung up his window and leaned out and let the rain, that was coming down fiercely now, lash his face. Mud! London was full of mud. He could see it, he fancied, gathering in thick brown layers upon the pavement, shining and glistening as it mounted, slipping in streams into the gutter, sweeping about the foundations of the houses, climbing perhaps, one day, to the very windows. That was London. And yet he loved it, London and its dirt and darkness. Had he not written "Reuben Hallard" here! Had the place not taken him into its arms, given him books and leisure out of its hospitality, treated him kindly during these years so that they had fled like an instant of time, and here he was, Peter Westcott, aged twenty-five, with a book written, four friends made, and the best health possible to man. The book was "Reuben Hallard," the friends were Mrs. Brockett, Mr. Zanti, Herr Gottfried, and Norah Monogue, and for his health one had only to look at him!

"So died Reuben Hallard, a fool and a gentleman!" His excitement was tremendous; his cheeks were flaming, his eyes glittering, his heart beating. Here was a book written!—so many pages covered with so much writing, his claim to be somebody, to have done something, justified and, most wonderful of all, live, exciting people created by him, Peter Westcott. He did not think now of publication, of money, of fame—only, after sharing for three years in the trials and adventures of dear, beloved souls, now, suddenly, he emerged cold, breathless ... alone ... into the world again.

Exciting! Why, furiously, of course. He could have sung and shouted and walked, right over the tops of the roofs, with the rain beating and cooling his body, out into the mist of the horizon. His book, "Reuben Hallard!" London was swimming in thick brown mud, and the four lamps coming out in Bennett Square in a dim, sickly fashion and he, Peter Westcott, had written a book....

The Signor—the same Signor, some seven years older, a little shabbier, but nevertheless the same Signor—came to summon him to supper.

"I have finished it!"

"What! The book?"


Their voices were awed whispers. The whole house had during the last three years shared in the fortunes of the book. Peter had come to dinner with a cloud upon his brow—the book therefore has gone badly—even Mrs. Brockett is disturbed and Mrs. Lazarus is less chirpy than usual. Peter comes to dinner with a smile—the book therefore has gone well and even Mrs. Monogue is a little less selfish than ordinary. The Signor now gazed round the little room as though he might find there the secret of so great an achievement. On Peter's dressing-table the manuscript was piled—"You'll miss it," the Signor said, gloomily. "You'll miss it very much—you're bound to. You'll have to get it typewritten, and that'll cost money."

"Never mind, it's done," said Peter, shaking his head as a dog shakes himself when he leaves the water. "There they are, those people—and now I'm going to wash."

He stripped to the waist, and the Signor watched his broad back and strong arms with a sigh for his own feeble proportions. He wondered how it was that being in a stuffy bookshop for seven years had done Peter no harm, he wondered how he could keep the back of his neck so brown as that in London and his cheeks as healthy a colour and his eyes as clear.

"I'm amazingly unpleasant to look at," the Signor said at last. "I often wonder why my wife married me. I'm not surprised that every one finds me uninteresting. I am uninteresting."

"Well, you are not uninteresting to me, I can tell you," said Peter. He had put on a soft white shirt, a black tie, and a black coat and trousers, the last of these a little shiny perhaps in places, but neat and well brushed, and you would really not guess when you saw him, that he only possessed two suits in the wide world.

"I think you're absorbing," Peter said, a little patronisingly perhaps.

"Ah, that proves nothing," the Signer retorted. "You only care for fools and children—Mrs. Brockett always says so."

They went downstairs—Peter was, of course, not hungry at all, but the conventions had to be observed. In the sitting-room, round about the green settee, the company was waiting as it had waited seven years ago; there were one or two unimportant additions and Mrs. Monogue had died the year before and Mrs. Lazarus was now very old and trembling, but in effect there was very little change.

"He has finished it," the Signor announced in a wondering whisper. A little buzz rose, filled the air for a moment and then sank into silence again. Mrs. Lazarus was without her orange because she had to wear mittens now, and that made peeling the thing difficult. "I'm sure," she said, in a voice like that of a very excited cricket, "that Mr. Westcott will feel better after he's had something to eat. I always do."

This remark left conversation at a standstill. The rain drove against the panes, the mud rose ever higher against the walls, and dinner was announced. Mrs. Brockett made her remarks to each member of the company in turn as usual. To Peter she said:

"I hear that you have finished your book, Mr. Westcott. We shall all watch eagerly for its appearance, I'm sure."

He felt his excitement slipping away from him as the moments passed. Suddenly he was tired. Instead of elation there was wonder, doubt. What if, after all, the book should be very bad? During all these years in London he had thought of it, during all these years he had known that it was going to succeed. What, if now he should discover suddenly that it was bad?... Could he endure it? The people of his book seemed now to stand very far away from him—they were unreal—he could remember scenes, things that they had said and done, absurd, ignorant things.

He began to feel panic. Why should he imagine that he was able to write? Of course it was all crude, worthless stuff. He looked at the dingy white pillars and heavy green curtains with a kind of despair ... of course it was all bad. He had been hypnotised by the thing for the time being. Then he caught Norah Monogue's eyes and smiled. He would show it to her, and she would tell him what it was worth.

Poor Mrs. Tressiter's baby had died last week and now, suddenly, she burst out crying and had to leave the room. There was a little twitter of sympathy. How good they all were to one another, these people, stupid and odd perhaps in some ways, but so brave for themselves and so generous to one another. It was no mean gathering of souls that Mrs. Brockett's dingy gas illuminated.

Every now and again the heavy curtains blew forward in the wind and the gas flared. There was no conversation, and the wind could be heard driving the rain past the windows.


Peter, that evening, took the manuscript of "Reuben Hallard" into Miss Monogue's room. Since her mother died Norah Monogue had had a bed sitting-room to herself. The bed was hidden by a high screen, the wall paper was a dark green, and low bookshelves, painted white, ran round the room. There were no pictures (she always said that until she could have good ones she wouldn't have any at all). There were some brown pots and vases on the shelves and a writing-table with a typewriter by the window.

When Peter came in, Norah Monogue was sitting in a low chair over a rather miserable fire; a little pool of light above her head came from two candles on the mantelpiece—otherwise the room was in darkness.

"Shall I turn on the gas?" she said, when she saw who it was.

"No, leave it as it is, I like it." He sat down in a chair near her and put a pile of manuscript on the floor beside him. "I've brought it for you to read," he said, "I'm frightened about it. I suddenly think it is the most rotten thing that ever was written." He had become very intimate with her during these seven years. At first he had admired her because she behaved so splendidly to her abominable mother—then she had obviously been interested in him, had talked about the things that he was reading and his life at the bookshop. They had speedily become the very best of friends, and she understood friendship he thought in the right way—as though she had herself been a man. And yet she was with that completely feminine, a woman who had known struggle from the beginning and would know it to the end; but her personality—humorous, pathetic, understanding—was felt in her presence so strongly that no one ever forgot her after meeting her. Some one once said of her, "She's the nicest ugly woman to look at I've ever seen."

She cared immensely about her appearance. She saved, through blood and tears, to buy clothes and then always bought the wrong ones. She had perfect taste about everything except herself, and as soon as it touched her it was villainous. She was untidy; her hair—streaked already with grey—was never in its place; her dress was generally undone at the back, her gloves had holes.

Her mother's death had left her some fifty pounds a year and she earned another fifty pounds by typewriting. Untidy in everything else, in her work she was scrupulously neat. She had had a story taken by The Green Volume. Her friends belonged (as indeed just at this time so many people belonged) to the Cult of the Lily, repeated the witticisms of Oscar Wilde and treasured the art of Mr. Aubrey Beardsley. Miss Monogue believed in the movement and rejected the affectations. In 1895, when the reaction began, she defended her old giants, but looked forward eagerly to new ones. She worked too hard to have very many friends, and Peter saved her from hours of loneliness. To him she was the last word in Criticism, in Literature. He would have liked to have fashioned "Reuben Hallard" after the manner of The Green Volume, but now thought sadly that it was as unlike that manner as possible; that is why he was afraid to bring it to her.

"You won't like it," he said. "I thought for a moment I had done something fine when I finished it this afternoon, but now I know that it's bad. It's all rough and crude. It's terribly disappointing."

"That's all right," she answered quietly. "We won't say any more about it until I have read it—then we'll talk."

They were silent for a little. He was feeling unhappy and, curiously enough, frightened. He would have liked to jump up suddenly and shout, "Well, what's going to happen now?"—not only to Norah Monogue, but to London, to all the world. The work at the book had, during these years, upheld him with a sense of purpose and aim. Now, feeling that that work was bad, his aim seemed wasted, his purpose gone. Here were seven years gone and he had done nothing—seen nothing, become nothing. What was his future to be? Where was he to go? What to do? He had reasoned blindly to himself during these years, that "Reuben Hallard" would make his fortune—now that seemed the very last thing it would do.

"I knew what you're feeling," she said, "now that the book's done, you're wondering what's coming next."

"It's more than that. I've been in London seven years. Instead of writing a novel that no one will want to read I might have been getting my foot in. I might at any rate have been learning London, finding my way about. Why," he went on, excitedly, "do you know that, except for a walk or two and going into the gallery at Covent Garden once or twice and the Proms sometimes and meeting some people at Herr Gottfried's once or twice I've spent the whole of my seven years between here and the bookshop—"

"You mustn't worry about that. It was quite the right thing to do. You must remember that there are two ways of learning things. First through all that every one has written, then through all that every one is doing. Up to now you've been studying the first of those two. Now you're ready to take part in all the hurly-burly, and you will. London will fling you into it as soon as you're ready, you can be sure."

"I've been awfully happy all this time," he went on, reflectively. "Too happy I expect. I never thought about anything except reading and writing the book, and talking to you and Gottfried. Now things will begin I suppose."

"What kind of things?"

"Oh, well, it isn't likely that I'm going to be let alone for ever. I've never told you, have I, about my life before I came up to London?"

She hesitated a little before she answered. "No, you've never told me anything. I could see, of course, that it hadn't been easy."

"How could you see that?"

"Well, it hadn't been easy for either of us. That made us friends. And then you don't look like a person who would take things easily—ever. Tell me about your early life before you came here," Norah Monogue said.

She watched his face as he told her. She had found him exceedingly good company during the seven years that she had known him. They had slipped into their friendship so easily and so naturally that she had never taken herself to task about it in any way; it existed as a very delightful accompaniment to the day's worries and disappointments. She suddenly realised now with a little surprised shock how bitterly she would miss it all were it to cease. In the darkened room, with the storm blowing outside, she felt her loneliness with an acute wave of emotion and self-pity that was very unlike her. If Peter were to go, she felt, she could scarcely endure to live on in the dreary building.

Part of his charm from the beginning had been that he was so astoundingly young, part of his interest that he could be, at times, so amazingly old. She felt that she herself could be equal neither to his youth nor his age. She was herself so ordinary a person, but watching him made the most fascinating occupation, and speculating over his future made the most wonderful dreams. That he was a personality, that he might do anything, she had always believed, but there had, until now, been no proof of it in any work that he had done ... he had had nothing to show ... now at last there lay there, with her in the room, the evidence of her belief—his book.

But the book seemed now, at this moment, of small account and, as she watched him, with the candle-light and the last flicker of the fire-light upon his face, she saw that he had forgotten her and was back again, soul and spirit, amongst the things of which he was speaking.

His voice was low and monotonous, his eyes staring straight in front of him, his hands, spread on his knees, gripped the cloth of his trousers. She would not admit to herself that she was frightened, but her heart was beating very fast and it was as though some stranger were with her in the room. It may have been the effect of the candlelight, blowing now in the wind that came through the cracks in the window panes, but it seemed to her that Peter's face was changed. His face had lines that had not been there before, his mouth was thinner and harder and his eyes were old and tired ... she had never seen the man before, that was her impression.

But she had never known anything so vivid. Quietly, as though he were reciting the story to himself and were not sure whether he were telling it aloud or no, he began. As he continued she could see the place as though it was there with her in the room, the little Inn that ran out into the water, the high-cobbled street, the sea road, the grim stone house standing back amongst its belt of trees, the Grey Hill, the coast, the fields ... and then the story—the night of the fight, the beating, the school-days, that day with his mother (here he gave her actual dialogue as though there was no word of it that he had forgotten), the funeral—and then at last, gradually, climbing to its climax breathlessly, the relation of father and son, its hatred, then its degradation, and last of all that ludicrous scene in the early morning ... he told her everything.

When he had finished, there was a long silence between them: the fire was out and the room very cold. The storm had fallen now in a fury about the house, and the rain lashed the windows and then fell in gurgling stuttering torrents through the pipes and along the leads. Miss Monogue could not move; the scene, the place, the incidents were slowly fading away, and the room slowly coming back again. The face opposite her, also, gradually seemed to drop, as though it had been a mask, the expression that it had worn. Peter Westcott, the Peter that she knew, sat before her again; she could have believed as she looked at him, that the impressions of the last half-hour had been entirely false. And yet the things that he had told her were not altogether a surprise; she had not known him for seven years without seeing signs of some other temper and spirit—controlled indeed, but nevertheless there, and very different from the pleasant, happy Peter who played with the Tressiter children and dared to chaff Mrs. Brockett.

"You've paid me a great compliment, telling me this," she said at last. "Remember we're friends; you've proved that we are by coming like this to-night. I shan't forget it. At any rate," she added, softly, "it's all right now, Peter—it's all over now."

"Over! No, indeed," he answered her. "Do you suppose that one can grow up like that and then shake it off? Sometimes I think ... I'm afraid ..." he stopped, abruptly biting his lips. "Oh, well," he went on suddenly in a brighter tone, "there's no need to bother you with all that. It's nothing. I'm a bit done up over this book, I expect. But that's really why I told you that little piece of autobiography—because it will help you to understand the book. The book's come out of all that, and you mightn't have believed that it was me at all—unless I'd told you these things."

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11     Next Part
Home - Random Browse