They were in by this time having been urged by their hostess into the very narrowest, darkest and smelliest passage that Peter had ever encountered. Somewhere behind the walls, the world was moving. On every side of him above and below, children were crying, voices swearing, murmuring, complaining, arguing; Peter could feel Mrs. Williams' breath hot against his cheek. Up the wheezy stairs she panted, they following her. Peter had never heard such loquacity. It poured from her as though she meant nothing whatever by it and was scarcely aware indeed of the things that she was saying. "And it's a long time, Mr. Brant, since we 'ad the pleasure of seeing you. My last 'usband's left me since yer was 'ere—indeed 'e 'av—all along of a fight 'e 'ad with old Colly Moles down Three Barrer walk—penal servitude, poor feller and all along of 'is nasty temper as I was always tellin' 'im. Why the very morning before it 'appened I remember sayin' to 'im when 'e up and threw a knife at me for contradictin' 'is words I remember sayin' to 'im that 'is temper would be the settlin' of me but 'e wouldn't listen, not 'e. Obstinate! Lord! that simply isn't the word for it ... but 'ere's the room and nobody been in it since Sairy Grace and she was always bringin' men along with 'er, dirty slut and that's a month since she's been and gone and I always like 'aving yer, Mr. Brant, for you're quiet enough and no trouble at all—and your friend looks pleasant I must say."
The room was, indeed, remarkably respectable—not blessed with much furniture in addition to two beds and two chairs but roomy and with a large and moderately clean window.
"Now what about terms for me and my friend?" said Stephen.
Now followed friendly argument in which the lady and Stephen seemed perfectly to understand one another. After asserting that under no circumstances whatever could she possibly take less than at least double the price that Stephen offered her she suddenly, at the sound of a child's shrill crying from below, shrugged her shoulders with: "There's young 'Lisbeth Anne again ... well, Mr. Brant, 'ave it your own way—I'm contented enough I'm sure," and vanished.
But the little discussion had brought Peter to a sharp realisation of the immediate business of ways and means. Sitting on one of the beds afterwards with Stephen beside him he inquired—
"How much have we got, Stephen? I've got thirty bob."
"Never you mind, Peter. We'll soon be gettin' work."
"Why, of course. I'll force 'em to take me. That's all you want in these things—to look fierce and say you won't go until they give you something—a trial anyhow."
And sitting there on the bed with Stephen beside him he felt immensely confident. There was nothing that he could not do. With one swift movement he seemed to have flung from him all the things that were beginning to crowd in between him and his work. He must never, never allow that to happen again—how could one ever be expected to work if one were always thinking of other people, interested in them and their doings, involved with anarchists and bombs and romantic adventures. Why here he was with nothing in the world to hold him or to interfere and no one except dear old Stephen with whom he must talk. Ambition crept very close to him that night—ambition with its glittering, shining rewards, its music and colours—close to him as he sat in that bare, naked room.
"I'd rather be with you than any one in the world—we'll have such times, you and I."
Perhaps Stephen knew more about the world; perhaps during the years that he had been tumbled and knocked about he had realised that the world was no easy nut to crack and that loaves and fishes don't come to the hungry for the asking. But Peter that night was to be appalled by nothing.
They sat up into the early morning, talking. The noises in the house and in the streets about them rose and fell. Some distant cry would climb into the silence and draw from it other cries set like notes of music to tumble back into a common scheme together.
"Steve, tell me about Zanti. Is he really a scoundrel?"
"A scoundrel? No, poor feller. Why, Mr. Peter, you ought to know better than that. 'E ain't got a spark of malice in him but 'e's always after adventure. 'E knows all the queer people in Europe—and more'n Europe too. There's nothin' 'e don't put 'is nose into in a clumsy, childish way but always, you understand, Mr. Peter, because 'e's after 'is romantic fancies. It was when 'e was after gold down in Cornwall—some old treasure story—that I came across 'im and 'e was kind to me.... 'E was a kind-'earted man, Mr. Zanti, and never meant 'arm to a soul. And 'e's very fond of you, Mr. Peter."
"Yes, I know." Peter was vaguely troubled. "I hope I haven't been unkind about him. I suppose it was the shock of the whole thing. But it was time I went anyway. But tell me, Stephen, what you've been doing all these years. And why you let me be all that time without seeing you—"
"Well, Mr. Peter, I didn't think it would be good for you—I was knowing lots o' strange people time and again and then you might have been mixed up with me. I'm safe enough now, I'm thinking, and I'd have been safe enough all the time the way Cornwall was then and every one sympathising with me—"
"But what have you been doing all the time?"
"I was in America a bit and there are few things I haven't worked at in my time—always waiting for 'er to come—and she will come some time—it's only patience that's wanted."
"Have you ever heard from her?"
"There was a line once—just a line—she's all right." His great body seemed to glow with confidence.
Peter would like then to have spoken about Clare Rossiter. But no—some shyness held him—one day he would tell Stephen.
He unpacked his few possessions carefully and then, on a very hard bed, dreaming of bombs, of Mrs. Brockett dressed as a ballet dancer, of Mr. Zanti digging for treasure beneath the grey flags of Bennett Square, of Clare Elizabeth Rossiter riding down Oxford Street amidst the shouts of the populace, of the world as a coloured globe on which he, Peter Westcott, the author of that masterpiece, "Reuben Hallard," had set his foot ... so, triumphant, he slept.
On the next morning the Attack on London began. The house in Bucket Lane was dark and grim when he left it—the street was hidden from the light and hung like a strip of black ribbon between the sunshine of the broader highways that lay at each end of it. It was a Jewish quarter-notices in Yiddish were in all the little grimy shop windows, in the bakers and the sweetshops and the laundries. But it was not, this Bucket Lane, a street without its dignity and its own personal little cleanliness. It had its attempts at such things. His own room and Mrs. Williams' tea and bread and butter had been clean.
But as he came down out of these strange murmuring places with their sense of hiding from the world at large the things that they were occupied in doing, Bucket Lane stuck in his head as a dark little quarry into which he must at the day's end, whatever gorgeous places he had meanwhile encountered, creep. "Creeping" was the only way to get into such a place.
Meanwhile he had put on his best, had blackened his shoes until they shone like little mirrors, had brushed his bowler hat again and again and looked finally like a sailor on shore for a holiday. Seven years in Charing Cross Road had not taken the brown from his cheeks, nor bent his broad shoulders.
At the Mansion House he climbed on to the top of a lumbering omnibus and sailed down through the City. It was now that he discovered how seldom during his seven years he had ventured beyond his little square of country. Below him, on either side of him, black swarms stirred and moved, now forming ahead of him patterns, squares, circles, then suddenly rising it appeared like insects and in a cloud surging against the high stone buildings. All men—men moving with eyes straight ahead of them, bent furiously upon some business, but assembling, retreating, advancing, it seemed, by the order of some giant hand that in the air above them played a game. Imagine that, in some moment of boredom, the Hand were to brush the little pieces aside, were to close the board and put it away, then, with what ignominy and feeble helplessness would these little black figures topple clumsily into heaps.
Down through the midst of them the omnibus, like a man with an impediment in his speech, surrounded by the chatter of cabs and carts and bicycles, stammered its way. The streets opened and shut, shouts came up to them and fell away. Peter's heart danced—London was here at last and the silence of Bennett Square, the dark omens of Bucket Lane and the clamour of the city had together been the key for the unlocking of its gates.
Ludgate Hill caught them into its heart, held them for an instant, and then flung them down in the confusion of Fleet Street.
Here it was at last then with its typewriters and its telephones and its printing machines hurling with a whir and clatter the news of the world into the air, and above it brooding, like an immense brain—the God of its restless activity—the Dome of St. Paul's.
Peter climbed down from his omnibus because he saw on his right a Public Reading Room. Here in tattered and anxious company, he studied the papers and took down addresses in a note book. He was frightened for an instant by the feet that shuffled up and down the floor from paper to paper. There was something most hopeless in the sound of that shuffle.
"'Ave yer a cigarette on yer, Mister, that yer wouldn't mind—"
He turned round and at once, like blows, two fierce gaunt eyes struck him in the face. Two eyes staring from some dirty brown pieces of cloth on end, it seemed, by reason of their own pathetic striving for notice, rather than because of any life inside them.
Peter murmured something and hurried away. Supposing that editors ... but no, this was not the proper beginning of a successful day. But the place, down steps under the earth, with its miserable shadows was not pleasant to remember.
His first visit was to the office of The Morning World. He remembered his remark to Stephen about self-assertion, but his heart sank as he entered the large high room with its railed counter running round the centre of it—a barrier cold, impassable. Already several people were sitting on chairs that were ranged along the wall.
Peter went up boldly to the counter and a very thin young man with a stone hatchet instead of a face and his hair very wonderfully parted in the middle—so accurately parted that Peter could think of nothing else—watched him coldly over the barrier.
"What can I do for you?" he said.
"I want to see the Editor."
"Have you an appointment?"
"Oh, I'm afraid that it would be impossible without an appointment."
"Is there any one whom I could see?"
"If you could tell me your business, perhaps—"
Peter began to be infuriated with this young man with the hatchet face.
"I want to know if there's any place for me on this paper. If I can—"
"Oh!" The voice was very cold indeed and the iron barrier seemed to multiply itself over and over again all round the room.
"I'm afraid in that case you had better write to the Editor and make an appointment. No, I'm afraid there is no one..."
Peter melted away. The faces on the chairs were all very glad. The stone building echoed with some voice that called some one a long way away. Peter was in the street. He stood outside the great offices of The Morning World and looked across the valley at the great dome that squatted above the moving threads of living figures. He was absurdly upset by this unfortunate interview. What could he have expected? Of what use was it that he should fling his insignificance against that kind of wall? Moreover he must try many times before his chance would be given him. It was absurd that he should mind that rebuff. But the hatchet-faced young man pursued him. He seemed to see now as he looked up and down the street, a hostility in the faces of those that passed him. Moreover he saw, here and there figures, wretched figures, moving in and out of the crowd, bending into the gutter for something that had been dropped—lean, haggard faces, burning eyes ... he began to see them as a chain that wound, up and down, amongst the people and the carriages along the street.
He pulled himself together—If he was feeling these things at the very beginning of his battle why then defeat was certain. He was ashamed and, looking at his paper, chose the offices of The Mascot, a very popular society journal that brightened the world with its cheerful good-tempered smile, every Friday morning. Here the room in which he found himself was small and cosy, it had a bright pink wall-paper, and behind a little shining table a shining young woman beamed upon him. The shining young woman was, however, very busy at her typewriter and Peter was examined by a tiny office boy who seemed to be made entirely of shining brass buttons and shining little boots and shining hair.
"And what can I do for you, sir?" he said.
"I should like to see the Editor," Peter explained.
"Your name?" said the Shining One.
Peter had no cards. He blamed himself for the omission and stammered in his reply.
The Boy gave the lady at the typewriter a very knowing look and disappeared. He swiftly returned and said that Mr. Boset could see Mr. Westcott for a few minutes, but for a few minutes only.
Mr. Boset sat resplendent in a room that was coloured a bright green. He was himself stout and red-faced and of a surpassing smartness, his light blue suit was very tight at the waist and very broad over the hips, his white spats gleamed, his pearl pin stared like an eye across the room, his neck bulged in red folds over his collar. Mr. Boset was eating chocolates out of a little cardboard box and his attention was continually held by the telephone that summoned him to its side at frequent intervals. He was however exceedingly pleasant. He begged Peter to take a chair.
"Just a minute, Mr. Westcott, will you? Yes—hullo—yes—This is 6140 Strand. Hullo! Hullo! Oh—is that you, Mrs. Wyman? Good morning—yes, splendid, thank you—never fitter—Very busy yes, of course—what—Lunch Thursday?... Oh, but delighted. Just let me look at my book a moment? Yes—quite free—Who? The Frasers and Pigots? Oh! delightful! 1.30, delightful!"
Mr. Boset, settled once more in his chair, was as charming as possible. You would suppose that the whole day was at Peter's service. He wanted to know a great many things. Peter's hopes ran high.
"Well—what have you got to show? What have you written?"
Peter had written a novel.
"Well ... got anything else?"
"No—not just at present."
"Oh well—must have something to show you know—"
"Yes." Peter's hopes were in his boots.
"Yes—must have something to show—" Mr. Boset's eyes were peering into the cardboard box on a voyage of selection.
"Yes—well—when you've written something send it along—"
"I suppose there isn't anything I can do—"
"Well, our staff, you know, is filled up to the eyes as it is—fellows waiting—lots of 'em—yes, you show us what you can do. Write an article or two. Buy The Mascot and see the kind of thing we like. Yes—Excuse me, the telephone—Yes—Yes 6140 Strand...."
Peter found himself once more in the outer room and then ushered forth by the Shining Boy he was in the street.
He was hungry now and sought an A.B.C. shop and there over the cold marble-topped tables consulted his list. The next attempt should be The Saturday Illustrated, one of the leading illustrated weeklies, and perhaps there he would be more successful. As he sat in the A.B.C. shop and watched the squares of street opposite the window he felt suddenly that no effort of his would enable him to struggle successfully against those indifferent crowds.
Above the houses in the patch of blue sky that filled the window-pane soft bundles of cloud streamed like flags before the wind. Into these soft grey meshes the sun was swept and with a cold shudder Fleet Street fell into shadow; beyond it and above it the great dome burned; a company of sandwich men, advertising on their stooping bodies the latest musical comedy, crept along the gutter.
At the offices of The Saturday Illustrated they told him that if he returned at four o'clock he would be able to see the Editor. He walked about and at last sat down on the Embankment and watched the barges slide down the river. The water was feathery and sometimes streamed into lines like spun silk reflecting many colours, and above the water the clouds turned and wheeled and changed against the limpid blue. The little slap that the motion of the river gave to the stone embankment reminded him of the wooden jetty at Treliss—the place was strangely sweet—the roar of the Strand was far away and muffled.
As he sat there listening there seemed to come up to him, straight out of the river, strange impersonal noises that had to do with no definite sounds. He was reminded of a story that he had once read, a story concerning a nice young man who caught the disease known as the Horror of London. Peter thought that in the air, coming from nowhere, intangible, floating between the river and the sky something stirred....
Big Ben struck quarter to four and he turned once more into the Strand.
The editor of The Saturday Illustrated was a very different person from Mr. Boset. At a desk piled with papers, stern, gaunt and sharp-chinned, his words rattled out of his mouth like peas onto a plate. But Peter saw that he had humorous twinkling eyes.
"Well, what can you do?"
"I've never tried anything—but I feel that I should learn—"
"Learn! Do you suppose this office is a nursery shop for teaching sucklings how to draw their milk? Are you ready for anything?"
"Yes—they all say that. Journalism isn't any fun, you know."
"I'm not looking for fun."
"Well, it's the damnedest trade out. Anything's better. But you want to write?"
"Yes—exactly. Well, I like the look of you. More blood and bones than most of the rotten puppies that come into this office. I've no job for you at the moment though. Go back to your digs and write something—anything you like—and send it along—leave me your address. Oh, ho! Bucket Lane—hard up?"
"I'm all right, thank you."
"All right, I wasn't offering you charity—no need to put your pride up. I shan't forget you ... but send me something."
The clouds had now enveloped the sun. As Peter, a little encouraged by this last experience but tired with a dull, listless fatigue, crept into the dark channels of Bucket Lane, the rain began to fall with heavy solemn drops.
There could be nothing odder than the picture that Brockett's and Bennett Square presented from the vantage ground of Bucket Lane. How peaceful and happy those evenings (once considered a little dreary perhaps and monotonous) now seemed! Those mornings in the dusty bookshop, Mr. Zanti, Herr Gottfried, Mrs. Brockett, then Brockett's with its strange kind-hearted company—the dining-room, the marble pillars, the green curtains—Norah Monogue!
Not only did it seem another lifetime when he had been there but also inevitably, one was threatened with never getting back. Bucket Lane was another world—from its grimy windows one looked upon every tragedy that life had to offer. Into its back courts were born muddled indecent little lives, there blindly to wallow until the earth called them back to itself again.
But it was in the attitude of Bucket Lane to the Great Inevitable that the essential difference was to be observed. In Bennett Square things had been expected and, for the most part, obtained. Catastrophes came lumbering into their midst at times but rising in the morning one might decently expect to go to rest at night in safety. In Bucket Lane there was no safety but defiance—fierce, bitterly humorous, truculent defiance. Bucket Lane was a beleaguered army that stood behind the grime and dirty walls on guard. From the earliest moment there the faces of all the babies born into Bucket Lane caught the strain of cautious resistance that was always to remain with them. Life in Bucket Lane, for every one from the youngest infant to the oldest idiot, was War. War against Order and Civilised Force. War also against that great unseen Hand that might at any moment swoop down upon any one of them and bestow fire, death and imprisonment upon its victims. To the ladies and gentlemen from the Mission the citizens of Bucket Lane presented an amused and cynical tolerance. If those poor, meek, frightened creatures chose some faint-hearted attempts at flattery and submission before this abominable Deity—well, they did no harm.
Mrs. Williams said to Miss Connacher, a bright-faced young woman from St. Matthew's Mission—"And I'm sure we're always delighted to see you, Miss. But you can't 'ave us goin' and being grateful on our bended knees to the sort of person as according to your account of it gave me my first 'usband 'oo was a blackguard if ever there was one, and my last child wot 'ad rickets and so 'andsomely arranged me to go breakin' my leg one night coming back from a party and sliding on the stairs, and in losin' my little bit o' charin' and as near the workus as ever yer see—no—it ain't common sense."
To which Miss Connacher vaguely looking around for a list of Mrs. Williams' blessings and finding none to speak of, had no reply.
But the astonishing thing was that Peter seemed at once to be seized with the Bucket Lane position. He was now, he understood, in a world of earthquake—wise citizens lived from minute to minute and counted on no longer safety. He began also to eliminate everything that was not absolutely essential. At Brockett's he had never consciously done without anything that he wanted—in Bucket Lane he discarded to the last possible shred of possession.
He had returned from his first day's hunting with the resolve that before he ventured out again he would have something to show. With a precious sixpence he bought a copy of The Mascot and studied it—there was a short story entitled "Mrs. Adair's Co."—and an article on "What Society Drinks"—the remaining pages of the number were filled with pictures and "Chatter from Day to Day." This gaily-coloured production lying on one of the beds in the dark room in Bucket Lane seemed singularly out of place. Its pages fluttered in the breeze that came through the window cracks—"Maison Tep" it cried feebly to the screaming children in the court below, "is a very favourite place for supper just now, with Maitre Savori as its popular chef and its admirably stocked cellars...."
Peter gave himself a fortnight in which to produce something that he could "show." Stephen meanwhile had found work as a waiter in one of the small Soho restaurants; it was only a temporary engagement but he hoped to get something better within a week or two.
For the moment all was well. At the end of his fortnight, with four things written Peter meant to advance once more to the attack. Meanwhile he sat with a pen, a penny bottle of ink and an exercise book and did what he could. At the end of the fortnight he had written "The Sea Road," an essay for which Robert Louis Stevenson was largely responsible, "The Redgate Mill," a story of the fantastic, terrible kind, "Stones for Bread," moralising on Bucket Lane, and the "Red-Haired Boy," a somewhat bitter reminiscence of Dawson's. Of this the best was undoubtedly "The Sea Road," but in his heart of hearts Peter knew that there was something the matter with all of them. "Reuben Hallard" he had written because he had to write it, these four things he had written because he ought to write them ... difference sufficient. Nevertheless, he put them into halfpenny wrappes and sent them away.
In the struggle to produce these things he had not found that fortnight wearisome. Before him, every day, there was the evening when Stephen would return, to which he might look forward. Stephen was always very late—often it was two o'clock before he came in, but they had a talk before going to sleep. And here in these evenings Stephen developed in the most wonderful way, developed because Peter had really never known him before.
Stephen had never appeared to Peter as a character at all. In the early days Peter had been too young. Stephen had, at that time, been simply something to be worshipped, without any question or statement. Now that worshipping had gone and the space that it left had to be filled by some new relationship, something that could only come slowly, out of the close juxtaposition that living together in Bucket Lane had provided.
And it was Stephen who found, unconsciously and quite simply, the shape and colour of Peter's idea of him. Peter had in reality, nothing at all to do with it, and had Stephen been a whit more self-conscious the effect would have been spoiled.
In the first place Peter came quite freshly to the way that Stephen looked. Stephen expressed nothing, consciously, with his body; it was wonderful indeed considering its size and strength, the little that he managed to do with it. His eyes were mild and amiable, his face largely covered with a deep brown beard, once wildly flowing, now sharply pointed. He was at least six foot four in height, the breadth of shoulder was tremendous, but although he knew admirably what to do with it as a means of conveyance, of sheer physical habit, he had no conception of the possibilities that it held as the expression of his soul. That soul was to be found, by those who cared to look for it, glancing from his eyes, struggling sometimes through the swift friendliness of his smile—but he gave it no invitation. It all came, perhaps, from the fact that he treated himself—if anything so unconscious may be called treatment—as the very simplest creature alive. The word introspection meant nothing to him whatever, there were in life certain direct sharp motives and on these he acted. He never thought of himself or of any one else in terms of complexity; the body acted simply through certain clear and direct physical laws ... so the spirit. He loved the woman who had dominated his whole life and one day he would find her and marry her. He loved Peter as he would love a son of his own if he possessed one, and he would be at Peter's side so long as Peter needed him, and would rather be there than anywhere else. For the rest life was a matter of birth and death, of loving one man and hating another, of food and drink, and—but this last uncertainly—of some strange thrill that was stirred in him, at times, by certain sights and sounds.
He was glad to have been born ... he would be quite ready to die. He did not question the reason of the one state or the other. For the very fact that life was so simple and unentangled he clung, with the tenacity and dumb force of an animal to the things that he had. Peter felt, vaguely, from time to time, the strength with which Stephen held to him. It was never expressed in word nor in action but it came leaping sometimes, like fire, into the midst of their conversation—it was never tangible—always illusive.
To Peter's progress this simplicity of Stephen was of vast importance. The boy had now reached an age and a period where emotions, judgments, partialities, conclusions and surmises were fighting furiously for dominion. His seven years at Brockett's had been, introspectively, of little moment. He had been too busy discovering the things that other people had discovered and written down to think very much about himself.
Now released from the domination of books, he plunged into a whirlpool of surmise about himself. During the fortnight that he sat writing his articles in Bucket Lane he flew, he sank, according to his moods. It seemed to him that as soon as he had decided on one path and set out eagerly to follow it others crossed it and bewildered him.
He was now on that unwholesome, absorbing, thrilling, dangerous path of self-discovery. Opposed to this was the inarticulate, friendly soul of Stephen. Stephen understood nothing and at the same time understood everything. Against the testing of his few simple laws Peter's complexities often vanished ... but vanished only to recur again, unsatisfied, demanding a subtler answer. It was during those days, through all the trouble and even horror that so shortly came upon them both, that Stephen realised with a dull, unreasoned pain, like lead at the heart, that Peter was passing inevitably from him into a country whither Stephen could not follow—to deal with issues that Stephen could not, in any kind of way, understand. Stephen realised this many days before Peter even dimly perceived it, and the older man by the love that he had for the boy whom he had known from the very first period of his growth was enabled, although dimly, to see beyond, above all these complexities, to a day when Peter would once more, having learnt and suffered much in the meanwhile, come back to that first simplicity.
But that day was far distant.
On the evening of the day on which Peter finished the last of his five attempts to take the London journals by storm Stephen returned from his restaurant earlier than usual—so early indeed, that Peter, had he not been so bent on his own immediate affairs, must have noticed and questioned it. He might, too, have observed that Stephen, now and again, shot an anxious, troubled glance at him as though he were uneasy about something.
But Peter, since six o'clock that evening, at which moment he had written the concluding sentence of "The Sea Road," had been in deep and troubled thought concerning himself, and broke from that introspection, on Stephen's arrival, in a state of unhappy morbidity and entire self-absorption.
Their supper was beer, sardines and cheese.
"It's been pretty awful here this evening," Peter said. "Old Trubbit on the floor below's been beating his wife and she's been screaming like anything. I couldn't stand it, after a bit, and went down to see what I could do. The family was mopping her head with water and he was sitting on a chair, crying. Drunk again, of course, but he was turned off his job apparently this afternoon. They're closing down."
"'Ard luck," said Stephen, looking at the floor.
"Yes—it hasn't been altogether cheerful—and his getting the chuck like that set me thinking. It's awfully lucky you've got your job all right and of course now I've written these things and have got 'something to show,' I'll be all right." Peter paused for a moment a little uncertainly. "But it does, you know, make one a bit frightened, this place, seeing the way people get suddenly bowled over. There were the Gambits—a fortnight ago he was in work and they were as fit as anything ... they haven't had any food now for three days."
"There ain't anything to be frightened about," Stephen said slowly.
"No, I know. But Stephen, suppose I don't get work, after all. I've been so confident all this time, but I mightn't be able to do the job a bit.... I suppose this place is getting on my nerves but—I could get awfully frightened if I let myself."
"Oh, you'll be all right. Of course you'll be getting something—"
"Yes, but I hate spending your money like this. Do you know, Stephen, I'd almost rather you were out of work too. That sounds a rotten thing to say but I hate being given it all like this, especially when you haven't got much of your own either—"
"Between friends," said Stephen slowly, swinging his leg backwards and forwards and making the bed creak under his weight, "there aren't any giving or taking—it's just common."
"Oh, yes, I know," said Peter hurriedly, frightened lest he should have hurt his feelings, "of course it's all right between you and me. But all the same I'm rather eager to be earning part of it."
They were silent for a time. Bucket Lane too seemed silent and through their little window, between the black roofs and chimneys, a cluster of stars twinkled as though they had found their way, by accident, into a very dirty neighbourhood and were trying to get out of it again.
Peter was busy fishing for his thoughts; at last he caught one and held it out to Stephen's innocent gaze.
"It isn't," he said, "like anything so much as catching a disease from an infectious neighbourhood. I think if I lived here with five thousand a year I should still be frightened. It's in the air."
"Being frightened," said Stephen rather hurriedly and speaking with a kind of shame, as though he had done something to which he would rather not own up, "is a kind of 'abit. Very soon, Peter, you'll know what it's like and take it as it comes."
"Oh," said Peter, "if it's that kind of being frightened—seeing I mean quite clearly the things you're frightened of—why, that's pretty easy. One of the first books I ever read—'Henry Lessingham,' by Galleon, you know, I've talked about him to you—had a long bit about it—courage I mean. He made it a kind of parable, countries you'd got to go through before you'd learnt to be really brave; and the first, and by far the easiest courage is the sort that you want when you haven't got things—the sort the Gambits want—when you're starving or out of a job. Well, that's I suppose the easiest kind and yet I'm funking it. So what on earth am I going to do when the harder business comes along? ... Stephen, I'm beginning to have a secret and uncomfortable suspicion that your friend, Peter Westcott, is a poor creature."
"Thank the Lord," said Stephen furiously and kicking out with his leg as though he had got some especial enemy's back directly in front of him, "that you've finished them damned articles. You've been sittin' here thinkin' and writin' till you've given yerself blue devils—down-along, too, with all them poor creatures hittin' each other and drinkin'—I oughtn't to have left yer up here so much alone—"
"No—you couldn't help it, Stephen—it's nothing to do with you. It's all more than you can manage and nobody in the world can help me. It's seven years and a bit now since I left Cornwall, isn't it?"
"Yes," said Stephen, looking across at him.
"All that time I've never had a word nor a sign from any one there. Well, you might have thought that that would be long enough to break right away from it.... Well, it isn't—"
"Don't you go thinking about all that time. You've cleared it right away—"
"No, I haven't cleared it—that's just the point. I don't suppose one ever clears anything. All the time I was with Zanti I was reading so hard and living so safely that it was only at moments, when I was alone, that I thought about Treliss at all. But these last weeks it's been coming on me full tide."
"What's been coming on you?"
"Well, Scaw House, I suppose ... and my father and grandfather. My grandfather told me once that I couldn't escape from the family and I can't—it's the most extraordinary thing—"
Stephen saw that Peter was growing agitated; his hands were clenched and his face was white.
"Mind you, I've seen my grandfather and father both go under it. My father went down all in a moment. It isn't any one thing—you can call it drink if you like—but it's simply three parts of us aching to go to the bad ... aching, that's the word. Anything rotten—women or drink or anything you like—as long as we lose control and let the devil get the upper hand. Let him get it once—really get it—and we're really done—"
Peter paused for a moment and then went on hurriedly as though he were telling a story and had only a little time in which to tell it.
"But that isn't all—it's worse than that. I've been feeling these last weeks as though my father were sitting there in that beastly house with that filthy woman—and willing me—absolutely with all his might—to go under—"
"But what is it," said Stephen, going, as always, to the simplest aspect of the case, "that you exactly want to do?"
"Oh, I don't know ... just to let loose the whole thing—I did break out once at Brockett's—I've never told anybody, but I got badly drunk one night and then went back with some woman.... Oh! it was all filthy—but I was mad, wild, for hours ... insane—and that night, in the middle of it all, sitting there as plainly as you please, there in Scaw House, I saw my father—as plainly as I see you—"
"All young men," said Stephen, "'ave got to go through a bit of filth. You aren't the sort of fellow, Peter, that stays there. Your wanting not to shows that you'll come out of it all right."
Here was a case where Stephen's simplicities were obviously of little avail.
"Ah, but don't you see," said Peter impatiently, "it's not the thing itself that I feel matters so much, although that's rotten enough, but it's the beastly devil—real, personal—I tell you I saw him catch my grandfather as tight as though he'd been there in the room ... and my father, too. I tell you, this last week or two I've been almost mad ... wanting to chuck it all, this fighting and the rest and just go down and grovel..."
"I expect it's regular work you're wanting," said Stephen, "keeping your mind busy. It's bad to 'ave your sort of brain wandering round with nothing to feed on. It'll be all right, boy, in a day or two when you've got some work."
Peter's head dropped forward on to his hands. "I don't know—it's like going round in a circle. You see, Stephen, what makes it all so difficult is—well, I don't know ... why I haven't told you before ... but the fact is—I'm in love—"
"I knew it a while back," said Stephen quietly, "watching your face when you didn't know I was lookin'—"
"Well, it's all hopeless, of course. I don't suppose I shall ever see her again ... but that's what's made this looking for work so difficult—I've been wanting to get on—and every day seems to place her further away. And then when I get hopeless these other devils come round and say 'Oh well, you can't get her, you know. That's as impossible as anything—so you'd better have your fling while you can....' My God! I'm a beast!"
The cry broke from him with a bitterness that filled the bare little room.
Stephen, after a little, got up and put his hand on the boy's shoulder.
"Nobody ain't going to touch you while I'm here," he said simply as though he were challenging devils and men alike.
Peter looked up and smiled. "What an old brick you are," he said. "Do you remember that fight Christmas time, years ago? ... You're always like that.... I've been an ass to bother you with it all and while we've got each other things can't be so bad." He got up and stretched his arms.
"Well, it's bedtime, especially as you've got to be off early to that old restaurant—"
Stephen stepped back from him.
"I've been meaning to tell you," he said, "that's off. The place ain't paying and the boss shut four of us down to-night ... I'm not to go back ... Peter, boy," he finished, almost triumphantly. "We're up against it ... I've got a quid in my pocket and that's all there is to it."
They faced one another whilst the candle behind them guttered and blew in the window cracks, and the cluster of stars, still caught in the dirty roofs and chimneys of Bucket Lane, twinkled, desperately—in vain.
No knight—the hero of any chronicle—ever went forward to his battle with a braver heart than did Peter now in his desperate adventure against the world. His morbidity, his introspection, his irritation with Stephen's simplicities fled from him... he was gay, filled with the glamour of showing what one could do... he did not doubt but that a fortnight would see him in a magnificent position. And then—the fortnight passed and he and Stephen had still their positions to discover—the money moreover was almost at an end... another fortnight would behold them penniless.
It was absurd—it was monstrous, incredible. Life was not like that—Peter bit his lip and set out again. Editors had not, on most occasions, vouchsafed him even an interview. Then had come no answer to the four halfpenny wrappers. The world, like a wall of shining steel, closed him in with impenetrable silence.
It was absurd—it was monstrous. Peter fought desperately, as a bird beats with its wings on the bars of its cage. They were having the worst of luck. On several occasions he had been just too late and some one had got the position before him. Stephen too found that the places where he had worked before had now no job for him. "It was the worst time in the world... a month ago now or possibly in a month's time...."
Stephen did not tell the boy that away from London there were many things that he could do—the boy was not up to tramping. Indeed, nothing was more remarkable than the way in which Peter's strength seemed to strain, like a flood, away. It was, perhaps, a matter of nerves as much as physical strength—the boy was burning with the anxiety of it, whereas to Stephen this was no new experience. Peter saw it in the light of some horrible disaster that belonged, in all the world's history, to him alone. He came back at the end of one of his days, white, his eyes almost closed, his fingers twitching, his head hanging a little ... very silent.
He seemed to feel bitterly the ignominy of it as though he were realising, for the first time, that nobody wanted him. He had come now to be ready to do anything, anything in the world, and he had the look of one who was ready to do anything. His blue coat was shiny, his boots had been patched by Stephen—there were deep black hollows under his eyes and his mouth had become thin and hard.
Stephen—having himself his own distresses to support—watched the boy with acute anxiety. He felt with increasing unhappiness, that here was an organism, a temperament, that was new to him, that was beyond his grasp. Peter saw things in it all—this position of a desperate cry for work—that he, Stephen, had never seen at all. Peter would sit in the evening, in his chair, staring in front of him, silent, and hearing nothing that Stephen said to him. With Stephen life was a case of having money or not having it—if one had not money one went without everything possible and waited until the money came again ... the tide was sure to turn. But, with Peter, this was all a fight against his father who sat, apparently, in the dark rooms at Scaw House, willing disaster. Now, as Stephen and all the sensible world knew, this was nonsense—
It was also, in some still stranger way, a fight against London itself—not London, a place of streets and houses, of Oxford Street and Piccadilly Circus but London, an animal—a kind of dragon as far as Stephen could make it out with scales and a tail—
Now what was one to make of this except that the boy's head was being turned and that he ought to see a doctor.
There was also the further question of an appeal to Brockett's or Mr. Zanti. Stephen knew that Herr Gottfried or Mr. Zanti would lend help eagerly did they but know, and he supposed, from the things that Peter had told him, that there were also warm friends at Brockett's; but the boy had made him swear, with the last order of solemnity, that he would send no word to either place. Peter had said that he would never speak to him again should he do such a thing. He had said that should he once obtain an independent position then he would go back ... but not before.
Stephen did not know what to do nor where to go. In another month's time the rent could not be paid and then they must go into the street and Peter was in no condition for that—he should rather be in bed. Mrs. Williams, it is true, would not be hard upon them, for she was a kind woman and had formed a great liking for Peter, but she had only enough herself to keep her family alive and she must, for her children's sake, let the room.
To Stephen, puzzling in vain and going round and round in a hopeless circle, it seemed as though Peter's brains were locked in an iron box and they could not find a key. For himself, well, it was natural enough! But Peter, with that genius, that no one should want him!
And yet through it all, at the back of the misery and distress of it, there was a wild pride, a fierce joy that he had the key with him, that he was all in the world to whom the boy might look, that to him and to him alone, in this wild, cold world Peter now belonged.
It was his moment....
At the end of a terrible day of disastrous rejections Peter, stumbling down the Strand, was conscious of a little public-house, with a neat bow-window, that stood back from the street. At the bottom of his trouser pocket a tiny threepenny piece that Stephen had, that morning, thrust upon him, turned round and round in his fingers. He had not spent it—he had intended to restore it to Stephen in the evening. He had meant, too, to walk back all the way to Bucket Lane but now he felt that he could not do that unless he were first to take something. This little inn with its bow-windows.... Down the Strand in the light of the setting sun, he saw again that which he had often seen during these last weeks—that chain of gaunt figures that moved with bending backs and twisted fingers, on and out of the crowds and the carriages—The beggars!... He felt, already, that they knew that he was soon to be one of their number, that every day, every hour brought him nearer to their ranks. An old man, dirty, in rags, stepped with an eager eye past him and stooped for a moment into the gutter. He rose again, slipping something into his pocket of his tattered coat. He gave Peter a glance—to the boy it seemed a glance of triumphant recognition and then he had slipped away.
Peter had had very little to eat during these last days and to-night, for the first time, things began to take an uncertain shape. As he stood on the kerb and looked, it seemed to him that the Strand was the sea-road at Treliss, that the roar of the traffic was the noise that the sea made, far below them. If one could see round the corner, there where the sun flung a patch of red light, one would come upon Scaw House in its dark clump of trees—and through the window of that front room, Peter could see his father and that old woman, one on each side of the fire-place, drinking.
But the sea-road was stormy to-night, its noise was loud in Peter's ears. And then the way that people brushed against him as they passed recalled him to himself and he slipped back almost into the bow-window of the little inn. He was feeling very unwell and there was a burning pain in his chest that hurt him when he drew a deep breath ... and then too he was very cold and his teeth chattered in fits as though he had suddenly lost control of them and they had become some other person's teeth.
Well, why not go into the little inn and have a drink? Then he would go back to Bucket Lane and lie down and never wake again. For he was so tired that he had never known before what it was to be tired at all—only Stephen would not let him sleep.... Stephen was cruel and would not let him alone. No one would let him alone—the world had treated him very evilly—what did he owe the world?
He would go now and surrender to these things, these things that were stronger than he ... he would drink and he would sleep and that should be the end of everything ... the blessed end.
He swayed a little on his feet and he put his hand to his forehead in order that he might think more clearly.
Some one had said once to him a great many years ago—"It is not life that matters but the Courage that you bring to it." Well, that was untrue. He would like to tell the man who had said that that he was a liar. No Courage could be enough if life chose to be hard. No Courage—
Nevertheless, the thought of somewhere a long time ago when some one had said that to him, slowly filled his tired brain with a distaste for the little inn with the bow-windows. He would not go there yet, just a little while and then he would go.
Almost dreaming—certainly seeing nothing about him that he recognised—he stumbled confusedly down to the Embankment. Here there was at any rate air, he drew his shabby blue coat more closely about him and sat down on a wooden bench, in company with a lady who wore a large damaged feather in her hat and a red stained blouse with torn lace upon it and a skirt of a bright and tarnished blue.
The lady gave him a nod.
"Cheer, chucky," she said.
Peter made no reply.
"Down on your uppers? My word, you look bad— Poor Kid! Well, never say die—strike me blimy but there's a good day coming—"
"I sat here once before," said Peter, leaning forward and addressing her very earnestly, "and it was the first time that I ever heard the noise that London makes. If you listen you can hear it now—London's a beast you know—"
But the lady had paid very little attention. "Men are beasts, beasts," she said, scowling at a gap in the side of her boots, "beasts, that's what they are. 'Aven't 'ad any luck the last few nights. Suppose I'm losin' my looks sittin' out 'ere in the mud and rain. There was a time, young feller, my lad, when I 'ad my carriage, not 'arf!" She spat in front of her—"'E was a good sort, 'e was—give me no end of a time ... but the lot of men I've been meetin' lately ain't fit to be called men—they ain't—mean devils—leavin' me like this, curse 'em!" She coughed. The sun had set now and the lights were coming out, like glass beads on a string on the other side of the river. "Stoppin' out all night, ducky? Stayin' 'ere? 'Cause I got a bit of a cough!—disturbs fellers a bit ... last feller said as 'ow 'e couldn't get a bit o' sleep because of it—damned rot I call it. 'Owever it isn't out of doors you ought to be sittin', chucky. Feelin' bad?"
Peter looked at her out of his half-closed eyes.
"I can't bother any more," he said to her sleepily. "They're so cruel—they won't let me go to sleep. I've got a pain here—in my chest you know. Have you got a pain in your chest?"
"My leg's sore," she answered, "where a chap kicked me last week—just because—oh well," she paused modestly and spat again—"It's comin' on cold."
A cold little wind was coining up the river, ruffling the tips of the trees and turning the leaves of the plane-trees back as though it wanted to clean the other sides of them.
Peter got up unsteadily. "I'm going home to sleep," he said, "I'm dreadfully tired. Good-night."
"So long, chucky," the lady with the damaged feather said to him. He left her eyeing discontentedly the hole in her boot and trying to fasten, with confused fingers, the buttons of the red blouse.
Peter mechanically, as one walking in a dream, crept into an omnibus. Mechanically he left it and mechanically climbed the stairs of the house in Bucket Lane. There were two fixed thoughts in his brain—one was that no one in the world had ever before been as thirsty as he was, and that he would willingly commit murder or any violence if thereby he might obtain drink, and the other thought was that Stephen was his enemy, that he hated Stephen because Stephen never left him alone and would not let him sleep—also in the back of his mind distantly, as though it concerned some one else, that he was very unhappy....
Stephen was sitting on one of the beds, looking in front of him. Peter moved forward heavily and sat on the other bed. They looked at one another.
"No luck," said Stephen, "Armstrong's hadn't room for a man. Ricroft wouldn't see me. Peter, I'm thinking we'll have to take to the roads—"
Peter made no answer.
"Yer not lookin' a bit well, lad. I doubt if yer can stand much more of it."
Peter looked across at him sullenly.
"Why can't you leave me alone?" he said. "You're always worrying—"
A slow flush mounted into Stephen's cheeks but he said nothing.
"Well, why don't you say something? Nothing to say—it isn't bad enough that you've brought me into this—"
"Come, Mr. Peter," Stephen answered slowly. "That ain't fair. I never brought you into this. I've done my best."
"Oh, blame me, of course. That's natural enough. If it hadn't been for you—"
Stephen came into the middle of the floor.
"Come, Peter boy, yer tired. Yer don't know what yer saying. Best go to bed. Don't be saying anything that yer'd be regretting afterwards—"
Peter's eyes that had been closed, suddenly opened, blazing. "Oh, damn you and your talk—I hate you. I wish I'd never seen you—a rotten kind of friendship—" his voice died off into muttering.
Stephen went back to his bed. "This ain't fair, Mr. Peter," he said in a low voice. "You'll be sorry afterwards. I ain't 'ad any very 'appy time myself these last weeks and now—"
Their nerves were like hot, jangling wires. Suddenly into the midst of that bare room there had sprung between them hatred. They faced each other ... they could have leapt at one another's throats and fought....
Suddenly Peter gave a little cry that seemed to fill the room. His head fell forward—
"Oh, Stephen, Stephen, I'm so damned ill, I'm so damnably ill."
He caught for a moment at his chest as though he would tear his shirt open. Then he stumbled from the bed and lay in a heap on the floor with his hands spread out—
Stephen picked him up in his arms and carried him on to his bed.
The little doctor who attended to the wants of Bucket Lane was discovered at his supper. He was a dirty little man, with large dusty spectacles, a red nose and a bald head. He wore an old, faded velveteen jacket out of the pockets of which stuck innumerable papers. He was very often drunk and had a shrew of a wife who made the sober parts of his life a misery, but he was kind-hearted and generous and had a very real knowledge of his business.
Mrs. Williams volubly could not conceal her concern at Peter's condition—"and 'im such a nice-spoken young genelman as I was saying only yesterday tea-time, there's nothin' I said, as I wouldn't be willin' to do for that there poor Mr. Westcott and that there poor Mr. Brant 'oo are as like two 'elpless children in their fightin' the world as ever I see and 'ow ever can I help 'em I said—"
"Well, my good woman," the little doctor finally interrupted, "you can help here and now by getting some hot water and the other things I've put down here."
When she was gone he turned slowly to Stephen who stood, the picture of despair, looking down upon Peter.
"'E's goin' to die?" he asked.
"That depends," the little doctor answered. "The boy's been starved—ought never to have been allowed to get into this condition. Both of you hard up, I suppose?"
"As 'ard up as we very well could be—" Stephen answered grimly.
"Well—has he no friends?"
There—the question at last. Stephen took it as he would have taken a blow between the eyes. He saw very clearly that the end of his reign had come. He had done what he could and he had failed. But in him was the fierce furious desire to fight for the boy. Why should he give him up, now, when they had spent all these weeks together, when they had struggled for their very existence side by side. What right had any of these others to Peter compared with his right? He knew very well that if he gave him up now the boy would never be his again. He might see him—yes—but that passing of Peter that he had already begun to realise would be accomplished. He might look at him but only as a wanderer may look from the valley up to the hill. The doctor broke in upon him as he stood hesitating there—
"Come," he said roughly, "we have not much time. The boy may die. Has he no friends?"
Stephen turned his back to Peter. "Yes," he said, "I know where they are. I will fetch them myself."
The doctor had not lived in Bucket Lane all these years for nothing. He put his hand on Stephen's arm and said: "You're a good fellow, by God. It'll be all right."
On his way to Bennett Square a thousand thoughts filled his mind. He knew, as though he had been told it by some higher power, that Peter was leaving him now never to return. He had done what he could for Peter—now the boy must pass on to others who might be able, more fittingly, to help him. He cursed the Gods that they had not allowed him to obtain work during these weeks, for then Peter and he might have gone on, working, prospering and the parting might have been far distant.
But he felt also that Peter's destiny was something higher and larger than anything that he could ever compass—it must be Peter's life that he should always be leaving people behind him—stages on his road—until he had attained his place. But for Stephen, a loneliness swept down upon him that seemed to turn the world to stone. Never, in all the years of his wandering, had he known anything like this. It is very hard that a man should care for only two creatures in the world and that he should be held, by God's hand, from reaching either of them.
The door of Brockett's was opened to him by a servant and he asked for Mrs. Brockett. In the cold and dark hall the lady sternly awaited him, but the sternness fell from her like a cloak when he told her the reason of his coming—
"Dear me, and the poor boy so ill," she said. "We have all been very anxious indeed about poor Mr. Peter. We had tried every clue but could hear nothing of him. We were especially eager to find him because Miss Monogue had some good news for him about his book. There is a gentleman—a friend of Mr. Peter's—who has been doing everything to find him—who is with Miss Monogue now. He will be delighted. Perhaps you will go up."
Stephen can have looked no agreeable object at this time, worn out by the struggle of the last weeks, haggard and gaunt, his beard unkempt—but Norah Monogue came forward to him with both her hands outstretched.
"Oh, you know something of Peter—tell us, please," she said.
A stout, pleasant-faced gentleman behind her was introduced as Mr. Galleon.
Stephen explained. "But why, why," said the gentleman, "didn't you let us know before, my good fellow?"
Stephen's brow darkened. "Peter didn't wish it," he said.
But Norah Monogue came forward and put her hand on his arm. "You must be the Mr. Brant about whom he has so often talked," she said. "I am so glad to meet you at last. Peter owes so much to you. We have been trying everywhere to get word of him because some publishers have taken his novel and think very well of it indeed. But come—do let us go at once. There is no time to lose—"
So they had taken his novel, had they? All these days—all these terrible hours—that starving, that ghastly anxiety, the boy's terror—all these things had been unnecessary. Had they only known, this separation now might have been avoided.
He could not trust himself to speak to Bobby Galleon and Norah Monogue. These were the people who were going to take Peter away.
He turned and went, in silence, down the stairs.
At Bucket Lane Bobby Galleon took affairs into his own hands. At once Peter should be removed to his house in Chelsea—it would not apparently harm him to be moved that night.
Peter was still unconscious. Stephen stood in the back of the room and watched them make their preparations. They had all forgotten him. For a moment as they passed down the stairs Stephen had his last glimpse of Peter. He saw the high white forehead, the long black eyelashes, the white drawn cheeks.... At this parting Peter had no eye for him.
Bobby Galleon and Miss Monogue both spoke to Stephen pleasantly before they went away. Stephen did not hear what they said. Bobby took Stephen's name down on a piece of paper.... Then they were gone. They were all gone.
Mrs. Williams looked through the door at him for a moment but something in the man's face drove her away. Very slowly he put his few clothes together. He must tramp the roads again—the hard roads, the glaring sun, cold moon—always going on, always alone—
He shouldered his bag and went out....
NO. 72, CHEYNE WALK
Burnished clouds—swollen with golden light and soft and changing in their outline—were sailing, against a pale green autumn evening sky, over Chelsea.
It was nearly six o'clock and at the Knightsbridge end of Sloane Street a cloud of black towers quivered against the pale green.
The yellow light that the golden clouds shed upon the earth bathed the neat and demure houses of Sloane Street in a brief bewildered unreality. Sloane Street, not accustomed to unreality, regretted amiably and with its gentle smile that Nature should insist, once every day, for some half-hour or so, on these mists and enchantments. The neat little houses called their masters and mistresses within doors and advised them to rest before dressing for dinner and so insured these many comfortable souls that they should not be disturbed by any unwelcome violence on their emotions. Soon, before looking-glasses and tables shining with silver hair-brushes bodies would be tied and twisted and faces would be powdered and painted—meanwhile, for that dying moment, Sloane Street was lifted into the hearts of those burnished clouds and held for an instant in glory. Then to the relief of the neat and shining houses the electric lights came out, one by one, and the world was itself again....
Beyond Sloane Square, however, the King's Road chattered and rattled and minded not at all whether the sky were yellow or blue. This was the hour when shopping must be done and barrows shone beneath their flaring gas, and many ladies, with the appearance of having left their homes for the merest minute, hurried from stall to stall. The King's Road stands like a noisy Cheap Jack outside the sanctities of Chelsea. Behind its chatter are the quietest streets in the world, streets that are silent because they prefer rest to noise and not at all because they have nothing to say. The King's Road has been hired by Chelsea to keep foreigners away, and the faint smile that the streets wear is a smile of relief because that noisy road so admirably achieves its purpose. In this mellow evening light the little houses glow, through the river mists, across the cobbles. The stranger, on leaving the King's Road behind him, is swept into a quiet intimacy that has nothing of any town about it; he is refreshed as he might be were he to leave the noisy train behind him and plunge into the dark, scented hedge-rows and see before him the twinkling lights of some friendly inn. As the burnished clouds fade from the sky on the dark surface of the river the black barges hang their lights and in Cheyne Row and Glebe Place, down Oakley Street, and along the wide spaces of Cheyne Walk, lamps burn mildly in a hundred windows. Guarded on one side by the sweeping murmur of the river, on the other by the loud grimaces of the King's Road Chelsea sinks, with a sound like a whisper of its own name, into evening....
As the last trailing fingers of the golden clouds die before the approaching army of the stars, as the yellow above the horizon gives way to a cold and iron blue, lights come out in that house with the green door and the white stone steps—No. 72, Cheyne Walk—that is now Peter Westcott's home.
Peter had, on the very afternoon of that beautiful evening, returned from the sea; there, during the last three weeks, he had passed his convalescence and now, once again, he faced the world. Mrs. Galleon and the Galleon baby had been with him and Bobby had come down to them for the week-ends. In this manner Peter had had an opportunity of getting to know Mrs. Galleon with a certainty and speed that nothing else could have given him. During the first weeks after his removal from Bucket Lane, he had been too ill to take any account of his neighbours or surroundings. He had been sent down to the sea as soon as it was possible and it was here, watching her quietly or listening to her as she read to him, walking a little with her, playing with her baby, that he grew to know her and to love her. She had been a Miss Alice du Cane, at first an intelligent, cynical and rather trivial person. Then suddenly, for no very sure reason that any one could discover, her character changed. She had known Bobby during many years and had always laughed at him for a solemn, rather-priggish young man—then she fell in love with him and, to his own wild and delirious surprise, married him. The companions of her earlier girlhood missed her cynicism and complained that brilliance had given way to commonplace but you could not find, in the whole of London, a happier marriage.
To Peter she was something entirely new. Norah Monogue was the only woman with whom, as yet, he had come into any close contact, and she, by her very humility, had allowed him to assume to her a superior, rather patronising attitude. The brief vision of Clare Rossiter had been altogether of the opposite kind, partaking too furiously of heaven to have any earthly quality. But here in Alice Galleon he discovered a woman who gave him something—companionship, a lively and critical intelligence, some indefinable quality of charm—that was entirely new to him.
She chaffed him, criticised him, admired him, absorbed him and nattered him in a breath. She told him that he had a "degree" of talent, that he was the youngest and most ignorant person for his age that she had ever met, that he was conceited, that he was rough and he had no manners, that he was too humble, that he was a "flopper" because he was so anxious to please, that he was a boy and an old man at the same time and finally that the Galleon baby—a solemn child—had taken to him as it had never taken to any one during the eventful three years of its life.
Behind these contradictory criticisms Peter knew that there was a friend, and he was sensible enough also to realise that many of the things that she said to him were perfectly true and that he would do well to take them to heart. At first she had made him angry and that had delighted her, so he had been angry no longer; it seemed to him, during these days of convalescence, that the solemn melodramatic young man of Bucket Lane was an incredibility.
And yet, although he felt that that episode had been definitely closed—shut off as it were by wide doors that held back at a distance, every sound, the noise, the confusion, the terror, was nevertheless there, but for the moment, the doors were closed. Only in his dreams they rolled back arid, night after night he awoke, screaming, bathed in sweat, trembling from head to foot. Sometimes he thought that he saw an army of rats advancing across the floor of their Bucket Lane room and Stephen and he beat them off, but ever they returned....
Once he thought that their room was invaded by a number of old toothless hags who came in at the door and the window, and these creatures, with taloned fingers fought, screeching and rolling their eyes....
Twice he dreamt that he saw on a hill, high uplifted against a stormy sky, the statue of the Man on the Lion, gigantic. He struggled to see the Rider's face and it seemed to him that multitudes of other persons—men and women—were pleading, with hands uplifted, that they too might see the face. But always it was denied them, and Peter woke with a strange oppression of crushing disappointment. Sometimes he dreamt of Scaw House and it was always the same dream. He saw the old room with the marble clock and the cactus plant, but about it all now there was dust and neglect. In the arm-chair, by the fire, facing the window, his father, old now and bent, was sitting, listening and waiting. The wind howled about the place, old boards creaked, casements rattled and his father never moved but leaning forward in his chair, watched, waited, eagerly, passionately, for some news....
They were having dinner now—Bobby, Mrs. Galleon and Peter—in the studio of the Cheyne Walk House. Outside, a sheet of stars, a dark river and the pale lamps of the street. The curtains of the studio were still undrawn and the glow from the night beyond fell softly along the gleaming black boards of the floor that stretched into shadow by the farther wall, over the round mahogany table—without a cloth and shining with its own colour—deep and liquid brown,—and out to the pictures that hung in their dull gold frames along the wall.
About Peter was a sense of ease and rest, of space that was as new to him as America was to Columbus. He was not even now completely recovered from his Bucket Lane experiences and there was still about him that uncertainty of life—when one sees it as though through gauze curtains—that gives reality to the quality of dreams. Life was behind him, Life was ahead of him, but meantime let him rest in this uncertain and beautiful country until it was time for him to go forward again. This intangibility—walking as it were in a fog round and round the Nelson monument, knowing it was there but never seeing it—remained with him even when practical matters were discussed. For instance, "Reuben Hallard" was to be published in a week's time and Peter was to receive fifty pounds in advance on the day of publication (unusually good terms for a first novel Bobby assured him); also Bobby, through his father, thought that he could secure Peter regular reviewing. The intention then was that Peter should remain with the Galleons as a kind of paying guest, and so his pride would not be hurt and they could have an eye upon him during this launching of him into London. It was fortunate, perhaps, that Alice Galleon had liked him down there at the sea, because she was a lady who had her own way at No. 72, and she by no means liked every one. But perhaps the Galleon baby had had more to do with everything than any one knew, and Mrs. Galleon assured her friends that the baby's heart would most certainly be broken if "the wild young guest" as she called Peter, were carried off.
And wild he was—of that seeing him now at dinner there in the studio there could be no doubt. He was wearing Bobby's clothes and there was still a look of suffering in his eyes and around his mouth, but the difference—his difference from the things about him—went deeper than that. The large high windows of the studio with the expanse of wild and burning stars between their black frames answered Peter's eyes as he faced them. Mrs. Galleon, as she watched him, was reminded of other things, of other persons, of other events, that had marked his earlier life. She glanced from Peter's eyes to Bobby's. She smiled, for on an earlier day, she had seen that same antithesis—the gulf that is fixed between Imagination and Reality—and had known its meaning.
But for Peter, all he asked now was that he might be allowed to rest in the midst of this glorious comfort. His evil dreams were very far away from him to-night. The food, the colour—the fruit piled high in the silver dishes, the glittering of the great silver candelabra that stood on the middle of the table, the deep red of the roses in the bowl at his side, the deeper red of the Port that shone in front of Bobby and then, beneath all this, as though the table were a coloured ship sailing on a solemn sea, the dark, deep shining floor that faded into shadow—all this excited him so that his hands trembled.
He spoke to Mrs. Galleon:
"I wonder if you will do me a favour," he said very earnestly.
"Anything in reason," she answered, laughing back at his gravity.
"Well, don't call me Mr. Westcott any more. Because I'm going to live here and because I'm too old a friend of Bobby's and because, finally, I hate being called Mr. Westcott by anybody, might it be Peter?"
"Joseph calls him Peter as it is," said Bobby quite earnestly looking at his wife.
They were both so grave about it that Alice Galleon couldn't be anything but grave too. She knew that it was really a definite appeal on behalf of both of them that she should here and now, solemnly put her sign of approval on Peter. It was almost in the way that they waited for her to answer, a ceremony. She was even, as she looked at them, surprised into a sudden burst of tenderness towards them both. Bobby so solemn, such a dear, really quite an age and yet as young as any infant in arms. Peter with forces and impulses that might lead to anything or wreck him altogether, and yet, through it all younger even than Bobby. Oh! what an age she, Alice Galleon, seemed to muster at the sight of their innocent trust! Did every woman feel as old, as protecting, as tenderly indulgent, towards every man?...
"Why, of course," she answered quietly, "Peter it shall be—"
Bobby raised his port. "Here's to Peter—to Peter and 'Reuben Hallard'—overwhelming success to both of them."
Emotion, for an instant, held them. Then quietly, they stepped back again. It was almost too good to be true that, after all the turnings and twistings, life should have brought Peter to this. He did not look very far ahead, he did not ask himself whether the book were likely to be a success, whether his career would justify this beginning. If only they would let him alone.... He did not, even to himself, name those powers. He was wrapped about with comfort, he had friends, above all (and this he had discovered at the sea) the Galleons knew Miss Rossiter ... this last thought seemed, by the glorious clamour of it, to draw that sheet of stars down through the window into the room, the air crackled with their splendour.
He was drawn back, down into the world again, by hearing Bobby's voice:
"The evening post and a letter for you. Peter."
He looked down and, with a sudden pang of accusing shame because he had forgotten so easily, with also a sure knowledge that that easy escape from his other life was already forbidden him, saw that the letter was from Stephen. He felt that their eyes were upon him as he took the letter up and he also felt that in Alice Galleon's gaze there was a wise and tender understanding of the things that he must be feeling. The roughness of the envelope, the rudeness of the hand-writing, a stain in one corner that might be beer, the stamp set crookedly—these things seemed to him like so many voices that called him back. Five minutes ago those days in Bucket Lane had belonged to another life, now he was still there and to-morrow he must tramp out again, to-morrow....
The letter said:
Writing here dear Peter at twelve o'clock noon, the Red Crown Inn, Druttledge, on the road to Exeter, a little house where thiccy bandy-legged man you've heard me tell about is Keeper and a good fellow and there's queer enough company in kitchen now to please you. A rough lot of fellows: and a storm coming up black over high woods that'll make walkin' no easy matter on a slimy road, and, dear boy, I've been thinkin' strange about you and 'ow you'll pull along with your kind friends. That nice gentleman sent a telegram as he promised to and says you pull finely along. Hopin' you really are better. But dear boy, if you find you can give me just a word on paper sayin' that hear there is no course for worryin' about your health, then I'm happy because, dear boy, you'm always in my thoughts and I love you fine and wish to God I could have made everything easier up along in thiccy Bucket Lane. I go from hear by road to Cornwall and Treliss. I'm expecting to find work there. Dear boy, don't forget me and see me again one day and write a letter. They are getting too much into their bellies and making the devil's own noise. There is Thunder coming the air is that still over the roof of the barn and the road's dead white. Dear Boy, I am your friend,
The candles blew a little in the breeze from the open window and the lighted shadows ran flickering in silver lines, along the dark floor. Peter stood holding the letter in his hand, looking out on to the black square of sky; the lights of the barges swung down the river and he could hear, very faintly, the straining of ropes and the turning of some mysterious wheel.
He saw Stephen—the great head, the flowing beard, the huge body—and then the inn with the thunder coming over the hill, and then, beyond that Treliss gleaming with its tiers of lights, above the breast of the sea. And from here, from this wide Embankment, down to that sea, there stretched, riding over hills, bending into valleys, always white and hard and stony, the road....
For an instant he felt as though the studio, the lights, the comforts were holding him like a prison—
"It's a letter from Stephen Brant," he said, turning back from the window. "He seems well and happy—"
"Where is he?"
"Eating bread and cheese at an inn somewhere—on the road down to Cornwall."
On the following Tuesday "Reuben Hallard" was published and on the Thursday afternoon Henry Galleon and Clare Rossiter were to come to tea. "Reuben Hallard" arrived in a dark red cover with a white paper label. The six copies lay on the table and looked at Peter as though he had had nothing whatever to do with their existence. He looked down upon them, opened one of them very tenderly, read half a page and felt that it was the best stuff he'd ever seen. He read the rest of the page and thought that the author, whoever the creature might be, deserved, imprisonment for writing such nonsense.
The feeling of strangeness towards it all was increased by the fact that Bobby had, with the exception of the final proofs—these Peter had read down by the sea—done most of the proof-correcting. It was a task for which his practical common sense and lack of all imagination admirably fitted him. There, at any rate, "Reuben Hallard" was, ready to face all the world, to go, perhaps, to the farthest Hebrides, to be lost in all probability, utterly lost, in the turgid flood of contemporary fiction.
There was a dedication "To Stephen"... How surprised Stephen would be! He looked at the chapter headings—An Old Man with a Lantern—the Road at Night.... Sun on the Western Moor—Stevenson—Tushery all of it! How they'd tear it to bits, those papers!
He laughed to himself to think that there had once been a day when he had thought that the thing would make his fortune! And yet—he turned the pages over tenderly—there might be something to be said for it, Miss Monogue had thought well of it. These publishers, blase, cynical fellows, surely believed in it.
It was fat and red and comfortable. It had a worldly, prosperous look. "Reuben Hallard and His Adventures" ... Good Lord! What cheek.
There were five copies to give away. One between Bobby and Mrs. Galleon, one for Stephen, one for Miss Monogue, one for Mrs. Brockett and one for Mr. Zanti. "Reuben Hallard and His Adventures," by Peter Westcott. They would be getting it now at the newspaper offices. The Mascot would have a copy and the fat little chocolate consumer. It would stand with a heap of others, and be ticked off with a heap of others, for some youth to exercise his wit upon. As to any one buying the book? Who ever saw any one buying a six-shilling novel? It was only within the last year or so that the old three volumes with their thirty-one-and-six had departed this life. The publishers had assured Peter that this new six-shilling form was the thing. "Please have you got 'Reuben Hallard' by Peter Westcott?... Thank you, I'll take it with me."
No, it was inconceivable.
There poor Reuben would lie—deserted, still-born, ever dustier and dustier whilst other stories came pouring, pouring from endless presses, covering, crowding it down, stamping upon it, burying it.... "Here lies 'Reuben Hallard.'..."
On Thursday, however, there was the tea-party—a Thursday never to be forgotten whilst Peter was alive. Bobby had told him the day before that his father might be coming. "The rest of the family will turn up for certain. They want to see you. They're always all agog for any new thing—one of them's always playing Cabot to somebody else's Columbus. But father's uncertain. He gets something into his head and then nothing whatever will draw him out—but I expect he'll turn up."
The other visitor was announced to Peter on the very day.
"By the way, Peter, somebody's coming to tea this afternoon who's met you before—met you at that odd boarding-house of yours—a Miss Rossiter. Clare's an old friend of ours. I told you down at the sea about her and you said you remembered meeting her."
"Remembered meeting her!" Did Dante remember meeting Beatrice—did Petrarch remember Laura? Did Keats forget his Fanny Brawne? Did Richard Feverel forget his Lucy?
On a level with these high-thinking gentlemen was Peter, disguising his emotions from Alice's sharp eyes but silent, breathless, wanting some other place than that high studio in which to breathe. "Yes—she came to tea once with a Miss Monogue there—I liked her...."
He was not there, but rather on some height alone with her and their hands touched over a photograph. "The Man on the Lion." There was something worthy of his feeling for her!
Meanwhile, for the first part of the afternoon one must put up with the Galleon family. Had Peter been sufficiently calm and sensible these appendages to a great author would have been worth his attention. Behold them in relation to "Henry Lessingham," soaked in the works, bearing on their backs the whole Edition de Luxe, decking themselves with the little odds and ends of literary finery that they had picked up, bursting with the good-nature of assured self-consequence—harmless, foolish, comfortable. Mrs. Galleon was massive with a large flat face that jumped suddenly into expression when one least expected it. There was a great deal of silk about her, much leisurely movement and her tactics were silence and a slow, significant smile—these she always contributed to any conversation that was really beyond her. Had she not, during many years of her life, been married to a genius she would have been an intensely slow-moving but adequate housekeeper—as it was, her size and her silence enabled her to keep her place at many literary dinners. Peter, watching her, was consumed with wonder that Henry Galleon could ever have married her and understood that Bobby was the child of both his parents. Bobby had a brother and sister—Percival and Millicent. Percival was twenty-five and had written two novels that were considered promising by those who did not know that he was the son of his father. He was slim and dark with a black thread of a moustache and rather fine white fingers. His clothes were very well cut but his appearance was a little too elaborately simple. His sister, a girl of about eighteen, was slim and dark also; she had the eager appearance of one who has heard just enough to make her very anxious to hear a great deal more.
One felt that she did not want to miss anything, but probably her determination to be her father's daughter would prevent her from becoming very valuable or intelligent.
Finally it was strange that Bobby had so completely escaped the shadow of his father's mantle. These people were intended, of course, to be the background of Peter's afternoon and it was therefore more than annoying that that was the very last thing that they were. Millicent and Percival made a ball and then flung it backwards and forwards throughout the affair. Their mother watched them with appreciation and Alice Galleon, who knew them, gave them tea and cake and let them have their way. Into the midst of this Henry Galleon came—a little, round, fat man with a face like a map, the body of Napoleon and a trot round the room like a very amiable pony, eyes that saw everything, understood everything, and forgave everything, a brown buff waistcoat with gilt buttons, white spats and a voice that rolled and roared ... he was the tenderest, most alarming person in any kind of a world. He was so gentle that any sparrow would trust him implicitly and so terrific that an army would most certainly fly from before him. He ate tea-cake, smiled and shook hands with Peter, listened for half an hour to the spirited conversation of his two children and trotted away again, leaving behind him an atmosphere of gentle politeness and an amazing savoir-faire that one saw his children struggling to catch. They finally gave it up about half-past five and retreated, pressing Peter to pay them a call at the earliest opportunity.
This was positively all that Peter saw, on this occasion, of Henry Galleon. It was quite enough to give him a great deal to think about, but it could scarcely be called a meeting.
At quarter to six when Peter was in despair and Alice Galleon had ordered the tea-things to be taken away Clare Rossiter rushed in. She stood a whirlwind of flying colours in the middle of the Studio now sinking into twilight. "Alice dear, I am most terribly sorry but mother would stay. I couldn't get her to leave and it was all so awkward. How do you do, Mr. Westcott? Do you remember—we met at Treliss—and now I must rush back this very minute. We are dining at seven before the Opera, and father wants that music you promised him—the Brahms thing. Oh! is it upstairs? Well, if you don't mind...."
Alice Galleon left them together. Peter could say nothing at all. He stood there, shifting from foot to foot, white, absolutely tongue-tied.
She felt his embarrassment and struggled.
"I hear that you've been very ill, Mr. Westcott. I'm so dreadfully sorry and I do hope that you're better?"
He muttered something.
"Your book is out, isn't it? 'Reuben Hallard' is the name. I must get father to put it down on his list. One's first books must be so dreadfully exciting—and so alarming ... the reviews and everything—what is it about?"
He murmured "Cornwall."
"Cornwall? How delightful! I was only there once. Mullion. Do you know Mullion?" She struggled along. The pain that had begun in his heart was now at his throat—his throat was full of spiders' webs. He could scarcely see her in the dark but her pale blue dress and her dark eyes and her beautiful white hands—her little figure danced against the dark, shining floor like a fairy's.
He heard her sigh of relief at Alice Galleon's return.
"Oh! thank you, dear, so much. Good-bye, Mr. Westcott—I shall read the book."
She was gone.
"Lights! Lights!" cried Alice Galleon. "How provoking of her not to come to tea properly. Well, Peter? How was it all?"
He was guilty of abominable rudeness.
He burst from the room without a word and banged, desperately, the door behind him.
A CHAPTER ABOUT SUCCESS I HOW TO WIN IT, HOW TO KEEP IT—WITH A NOTE AT THE END FROM HENRY GALLEON
The shout of applause with which "Reuben Hallard" was greeted still remains one of the interesting cases in modern literary history. At this time of day it all seems ancient and distant enough; the book has been praised, blamed, lifted up, hurled down a thousand times, and has finally been discovered to be a book of promise, of natural talent, with a great deal of crudity and melodrama and a little beauty. It does not stand of course in comparison with Peter Westcott's later period and yet it has a note that his hand never captured afterwards. How incredibly bad it is in places, the Datchett incidents, with their flames and screams and murder in the dark, sufficiently betray: how fine it can be such a delight as The Cherry Orchard chapter shows, and perhaps the very badness of the crudities helped in its popularity, for there was nothing more remarkable about it than the fashion in which it captured every class of reader. But its success, in reality, was a result of the exact moment of its appearance. Had Peter waited a thousand years he could not possibly have chosen a time more favourable. It was that moment in literary history, when the world had had enough of lilies and was turning, with relief, to artichokes. There was a periodical of this time entitled The Green Volume. This appeared somewhere about 1890 and it brought with it a band of young men and women who were exceedingly clever, saw the quaintness of life before its reality and stood on tiptoe in order to observe things that were really growing quite close to the ground. This quarterly produced some very admirable work; its contributors were all, for a year or two, as clever as they were—young and as cynical as either. The world was dressed in a powder puff and danced beneath Chinese lanterns and was as wicked as it could be in artificial rose-gardens. It was all great fun for a year or two....
Then The Green Volume died, people began to whisper about slums and drainage, and Swedish drill for ten minutes every morning was considered an admirable thing. On the edge of this new wave came "Reuben Hallard," combining as it did a certain amount of affectation with a good deal of naked truth, and having the rocks of Cornwall as well as its primroses for its background. It also told a story with a beginning to it and an end to it, and it contained the beautiful character of Mrs. Poveret, a character that was undoubtedly inspired by that afternoon that Peter had with his mother..
In addition to all this it must be remembered that the world was entirely unprepared for the book's arrival. It had been in no fashion heralded and until a long review appeared in The Daily Globe no one noticed it in any way. Then the thing really began. The reviewers were glad to find something in a dead season, about which a column or two might possibly be written; the general public was delighted to discover a novel that was considered by good judges to be literature and that, nevertheless, had as good a story as though it weren't—its faults were many and some of its virtues accidental, but it certainly deserved success as thoroughly as did most of its contemporaries. Edition followed edition and "Reuben Hallard" was the novel of the spring of 1896.
The effect of all this upon Peter may easily be imagined. It came to him first, with those early reviews and an encouraging letter from the publishers, as something that did not belong to him at all, then after a month or so it belonged to him so completely that he felt as though he had been used to it all his life. Then slowly, as the weeks passed and the success continued, he knew that the publication of this book had changed the course of his life. Letters from agents and publishers asking for his next novel, letters from America, letters from unknown readers, all these things showed him that he could look now towards countries that had not, hitherto, been enclosed by his horizon. He breathed another air.
And yet he was astonishingly simple about it all—very young and very naive. The two things that he felt about it were, first, that it would please very much his friends—Bobby and his wife, Mrs. Brockett, Norah Monogue, Mr. Zanti, Herr Gottfried and, above all, Stephen; and secondly, that all those early years in Cornwall—the beatings, his mother, Scaw House, even Dawson's—had been of use to him. One remembers those extraordinary chapters concerning Reuben and his father—here Peter had, for the first time, allowed some expression of his attitude to it all to escape him.
He felt indeed as though the success of the book placed for a moment all that other life in the background—really away from him. For the first time since he left Brockett's he was free from a strange feeling of apprehension.... Scaw House was hidden.
He gave himself up to glorious life. He plunged into it....
He stepped, at first timidly, into literary London. It was, at first sight, alarming enough because it seemed to consist, so largely and so stridently, of the opposite sex. Bobby would have had Peter avoid it altogether. "There are some young idiots," he said, "who go about to these literary tea-parties. They've just written a line or two somewhere or other, and they go curving and bending all over the place. Young Tony Gale and young Robin Trojan and my young ass of a brother ... don't want you to join that lot, Peter, my boy. The women like to have 'em of course, they're useful for handing the cake about but that's all there is to it ... keep out of it."
But Peter had not had so many friends during the early part of his life that he could afford to do without possible ones now. He wanted indeed just as many as he could grasp. The comfort and happiness of his life with Bobby, the success of the book, the opening of a career in front of him, these things had made of him another creature. He had grown ten years younger; his cheeks were bright, his eye clear, his step buoyant. He moved now as though he loved his fellow creatures. One felt, on his entrance into a room, that the air was clearer, and that one was in the company of a human being who found the world, quite honestly and naturally, a delightful place. This was the first effect that success had upon Peter.
And indeed they met him—all of them—with open arms. They saw in him that burning flame that those who have been for the first time admitted into the freemasonry of their Art must ever show. Afterwards he would be accustomed to that country, would know its roads and hills and cities and would be perhaps disappointed that they were neither as holy nor as eternal as he had once imagined them to be—now he stood on the hill's edge and looked down into a golden landscape whose bounds he could not discern. But they met him too on the personal side. The fact that he had been found starving in a London garret was of itself a wonderful thing—then he had in his manner a rough, awkward charm that flattered them with his youth and inexperience. He was impetuous and confidential and then suddenly reserved and constrained. But, above it all, it was evident that he wanted friendliness and good fellowship. He took every one at the value that they offered to him. He first encouraged them to be at their most human and then convinced them that that was their natural character. He lighted every one's lamp at the flame of his own implicit faith.
These ladies and gentlemen put very plainly before him the business side of his profession. Their conversation was all of agents, publishers, the sums that one of their number obtained and how lucky to get so much so soon, and the sums that another of their number did not obtain and what a shame it was that such good work was rewarded by so little. It was all—this conversation—in the most generous strain. Jealousy never raised its head. They read—these precious people—the works of one another with an eager praise and a tender condemnation delightful to see. It was a warm bustling society that received Peter.
These tea-parties and fireside discussions had not, perhaps, been always so friendly and large-hearted but in the time when Peter first encountered them they were influenced and moulded by a very remarkable woman—a woman who succeeded in combining humour, common sense and imagination in admirably adjusted qualities. Her humour made her tolerant, her common sense made her wise, and her imagination made her tender—her name was Mrs. Launce.
She was short and broad, with large blue eyes that always, if one watched them, showed her thoughts and dispositions. Some people make of their faces a disguise, others use them as a revelation—the result to the observer is very much the same in either case. But with Mrs. Launce there was no definite attempt at either one thing or the other—she was so busily engaged in the matter in hand, so absorbed and interested, that the things that her face might be doing never occurred to her. Her hair was drawn back and parted down the middle. She liked to wear little straw coal-scuttle bonnets; she was very fond of blue silk, and her frocks had an inclination to trail. On her mother's side she was French and on her father's English; from her mother she got the technique of her stories, the light-hearted boldness of her conversation and her extraordinary devotion to her family. She was always something of a puzzle to English women because she was a great deal more domestic than most of them and yet bristled with theories about morals and life in general that had nothing whatever in common with domesticity. Some one once said of her that "she was a hot water bottle playing at being a bomb...."
She belonged to all the London worlds, although she found perhaps especial pleasure in the society of her fellow writers. This was largely because she loved, beyond everything else, the business side of her profession. There was nothing at all that she did not know about the publishing and distribution of a novel. Her capacity for remembering other people's prices was prodigious and she managed her agent and her publisher with a deftness that left them gasping. There were very few persons in her world who had not, at one time or another, poured their troubles into her ear. She had that gift, valuable in life beyond all others, of giving herself up entirely to the person with whom she was talking. When the time came to give advice the combination of her common sense and her tenderness made her invaluable. There was no crime black enough, no desertion, no cruelty horrible enough to outspeed her pity. She hated and understood the sin and loved and comforted the sinner. With a wide and accurate knowledge of humanity she combined a deep spiritual belief in the goodness of God.
Everything, however horrible, interested her ... she adored life.
This little person in the straw bonnet and the blue dress gave Peter something that he had never known before—she mothered him. He sat next to her at some dinner-party and she asked him to come and have tea with her. She lived in a little street in Westminster in a tiny house that had her children on the top floor, a beautiful copy of the Mona Lisa and a very untidy writing-table on the second, and a little round hall and a tiny dining-room on the ground floor. Her husband and her family—including an adorable child of two—were all as amiable as possible.
Peter told her most things on the first day that he had tea with her and everything on the second. He told her about his boyhood—Treliss, Scaw House, his father, Stephen. He told her about Brockett's and Bucket Lane. He told her, finally, about Clare Rossiter.
He always remembered one thing that she said at this time. They were sitting at her open window looking down into the blue evening that is in Westminster quieter even than it is at Chelsea. Behind the faint green cloud of trees the Abbey's huge black pile soared into space.