"You think you've made a tremendous break?" she said.
"Yes—this is an entirely new life—new in every way. I seem too to be set amongst an entirely new crowd of people. The division seems to me sharper every day. I believe I've left it all behind."
She looked at him sharply. "You're afraid of all that earlier time," she said.
"Yes, I am."
"It made you write 'Reuben Hallard.' Perhaps this life here in London..."
"It's safer," he caught her up.
"Don't," she answered him very gravely, "play for safety. It's the most dangerous thing in the world." She paused for a moment and then added: "But probably they won't let you alone."
"I hope to God they will," he cried.
He saw Clare Rossiter twice during this time and, on each occasion, it seemed to him that she was trying to make up to him for his awkwardness at their first meeting. On the first of these two occasions she had only a few words with him, but there was a note in her voice that he fancied, wildly, unreasonably, was different from the tone that she used to other people. She looked so beautiful with her golden hair coiled above her head. It was the most wonderful gold that he had ever seen. He could only, in his excitement, think of marmalade and that was a sticky comparison. "The Lady with the Marmalade Hair"—how monstrous! but that did convey the colour. Her eyes seemed darker now than they had been before and her cheeks whiter. The curve of her neck was so wonderful that it hurt him physically. He wanted so terribly to kiss her just beneath her ear. He saw how he would do it, and that he would have to move away some of the shiny hair that strayed like sunlight across the white skin.
She did not seem to him quite so tiny when she smiled; it was exactly as water ripples when the sun suddenly bursts dark clouds. He had a thousand comparisons for her, and then sometimes she would be, as it were, caught up into a cloud and he would only see a general radiance and be blinded by the light.
He wished very much that he could think of something else—something other than marmalade—that had that quality of gold. He often imagined what it would be like when she let it all down—like a forest of autumn trees—no, that spoke of decay—like the sunlight on sand towards evening—like the fires of Walhalla in the last act of Gotterdaemmerung—like the lights of some harbour seen from the farther shore—like clouds that are ready to burst with evening sunlight. Perhaps, after all, amber was the nearest....
"Peter, ask Miss Rossiter if she will have some more tea...." Oh! What a fool he is! What an absolute ass!
On the second of these two meetings she had read "Reuben Hallard." She loved it! She thought it astounding! The most wonderful first novel she had ever read. How had he been able to make one feel Cornwall so? She had been once to Cornwall, to Mullion and it had been just like that! Those rocks! it was like a poem! And then so exciting!
She had not been able to put it down for a single minute. "Mother was furious with me because there I sat until I don't know how early in the morning reading it! Oh! Mr. Westcott, how wonderful to write like that !"
Her praise inflamed him like wine. He looked at her with exultation.
"Oh! you feel like that!" he said, drawing a great breath, "I did want you to like it so!" He was enraptured—the world was heaven! He did not realise that some young woman at a tea-party the day before had said precisely these same things and he had said: "Of all the affected idiots!"...
This might all be termed a period of preparation—that period was fixed for Peter with its sign and seal on a certain evening of spring when an enormous orange moon was in the sky, scents were in all the Chelsea gardens, and the Chelsea streets were like glass in the silver luminous light.
Peter was walking home after a party at the Rossiters'. It was the first time that he had been invited to their house and it had been a great success. Dr. Rossiter was a little round fat man with snow-white hair, red cheeks and twinkling eyes. He cured his patients and irritated his relations by his good temper. Mrs. Rossiter, Peter thought, had a great resemblance to Bobby's mother, Mrs. Galleon, senior. They were, both of them, massive and phlegmatic. They had both acquired that solemn dignity that comes of living up to one's husband's reputation. They both looked on their families—Mrs. Rossiter on Clare and Mrs. Galleon on Millicent, Percival and Bobby—with curiosity, tolerance and a mild soft of wonder. They were both massively happy and completely unimaginative. They were, indeed, old friends, having been at school together, they were Emma and Jane to one another and Mrs. Rossiter could never forget that Mrs. Galleon came to school two years after herself and was therefore junior still; whilst Mrs. Galleon had stayed two years longer than Mrs. Rossiter, and was a power there when Mrs. Rossiter was completely forgotten; they were fond of each other as long as they were allowed to patronise one another.
Peter had spent a delicious evening. He had had half an hour in the garden with Clare. They had spoken in an undertone. He had told her his ambitions, she had told him her aspirations. Some one had sung in the garden and there had been one wonderful moment when Peter had touched her hand and she had not taken it away. At last they were both silent and the garden flowed about them, on every side of them, with the notes and threads that can only be heard at night.
Mrs. Rossiter, heavily and solemnly, brought her daughter a shawl. There was some one to whom she would like to introduce Mr. Westcott. Would he mind? Eden was robbed of its glories....
But he had had enough. He thought at one moment that already she was beginning to care for him, and at another, that a lover's fancy made signs out of the wind and portents out of the running water.
But he was happy with a mighty exultation, and then, as he turned down on to the Embankment and felt the breeze from the river as it came towards him, he met Henry Galleon.
The old man, in an enormous hat that was like a top hat only round at the brim and brown in colour, was trotting home. He saw Peter and stopped. He spoke to him in his slow tremendous voice and the words seemed to go on after they had left him, rolling along the Embankment.
"I am glad to see you, Mr. Westcott. I have thought that I would like to have a chat with you. I have just finished your book."
This was indeed tremendous—that Henry Galleon should have read "Reuben Hallard." Peter trembled all over.
"I wonder whether you would care to come and have a chat with me. I have some things you might care to see. What time like the present? It is early hours yet and you will be doing an old man who sleeps only poorly a kindness."
What a night of nights! Peter, trembling with excitement, felt Henry Galleon put his arm in his, felt the weight of the great man's body. They walked slowly along and the moon and the stars and the lights on the river and the early little leaves in the trees and the stones of the houses and the little "tish-tish" of the water against the Embankment seemed to say—"Oh! Peter Westcott's going to have a chat with Henry Galleon! Did you ever hear such a thing!"
Peter was sorry that his Embankment was deserted and that there was no one to see them go into the house together. He drew a great breath as the door closed behind them. The house was large and dark and mysterious. The rest of the family were still out at some party. Henry Galleon drew Peter into his own especial quarters and soon they were sitting in a lofty library, its walls covered with books that stretched to the ceiling. Peter meanwhile buried in a huge arm-chair and feeling that Henry Galleon's eyes were piercing him through and through.
The old man talked for some time about other things—talked wonderfully about the great ones of the earth whom he had known, the great things that he had seen. It was amazing to Peter to hear the gods of his world alluded to as "poor old S—— poor fellow!... Yes, indeed. I remember his coming into breakfast one day..." or "You were asking about T—— Old Wallie, as we used to call him—poor fellow, poor fellow—we lived together in rooms for some time. That was before I married—and perilously, dangerously—I might almost say magnificently near starvation we were too...."
Peter already inflamed with that earlier half-hour in the garden now breathed a portentous air. He was with the Gods ... there on the Olympian heights he drank with them, he sang songs with them, with mighty voices they applauded "Reuben Hallard." He drank in his excitement many whiskies and sodas and soon the white room with its books was like the inside of a golden shell. The old man opposite him grew in size—his face was ever larger and larger, his shirt front bulged and bulged—his hand raised to emphasise some point was tremendous as the hand of a God. Peter felt that he himself was growing smaller and smaller, would soon, in the depths of that mighty arm-chair disappear altogether but that opposite him two mighty burning eyes held him. And always like thunder the voice rolled on.... "My son tells me that this book of yours is a success ... that they are emptying their purses to fill yours. That may be a dangerous thing for you. I have read your book, it has many faults; it is not written at all—it is loose and lacking in all construction. You know nothing, as yet, about life—you do not know what to use or what to reject. But the Spirit is there, the right Spirit. It is a little flame—it will be very easily quenched and nothing can kill it so easily as success—guard it, my son, guard it."
Peter felt as Siegfried must have felt when confronted by Wotan.
His poor little book was dwindling now before his eyes. He was conscious of a great despair. How useless of him to attempt so impossible a task....
The voice rolled on:
"I am an old man now and only twice before in my time nave I seen that spirit in a young man's eyes. You may remember now an old man's words—for I would urge you, I would implore you to keep nothing before you but the one thing that can bring Life into Art. I will not speak to you of the sacredness of your calling. Many will laugh at you and tell you that it is pretentious to name it so. Others will come to you and will advise how this is to be done and that is to be done. Others will talk to you of schools, they will tell you that once it was in that manner and that now it is in this manner. Some will tell you that you have no style—others will tell you that you have too much. Some again will tempt you with money and money is not to be despised. Again you will be tested with photographs and paragraphs, with lectures and public dinners.... Worst of all there will come to you terrible hours when you yourself know of a sure certainty that your work is worthless. In your middle age a great barrenness will come upon you. You have been a little teller of little tales, and on every side of you there will be others who have striven for other prizes and have won them. Sitting alone in your room with your poor strands of coloured silk that had once been intended to make so beautiful a pattern, poor boy, you will know that you have failed. That will be a very dreadful hour—the only power that can meet it is a blind and deaf courage. Courage is the only thing that we are here to show ... the hour will pass."
The old man paused. There was a silence. Then he said very slowly as though he were drawing in front of him the earliest histories of his own past life....
"Against all these temptations, against these voices of the World and the Flesh, against the glory of power and the swinging hammer of success, you, sitting quietly in your room, must remember that a great charge has been given you, that you are here for one thing and one thing only ... to listen. The whole duty of Art is listening for the voice of God.
"I am not speaking in phrases. I am not pressing upon you any sensational discoveries, but here at the end of my long life, I, with all the things that I meant to do and have failed to do heavy upon me, can give you only this one word. I have hurried, I have scrambled, I have fought and cursed and striven, but as an Artist only those hours that I have spent listening, waiting, have been my real life.
"So it must be with you. You are here to listen. Never mind if they tell you that story-telling is a cheap thing, a popular thing, a mean thing. It is the instrument that is given to you and if, when you come to die you know that, for brief moments, you have heard, and that what you have heard you have written, Life has been justified.
"Nothing else can console you, nothing else can comfort you. There must be restraint, austerity, discipline—words must come to you easily but only because life has come to you with so great a pain ... the Artist's life is the harshest that God can give to a man. Make no mistake about that. Fortitude is the artist's only weapon of defence...."
Henry Galleon came over to Peter's chair and put his hand upon the boy's arm.
"I am at the end of my work. I have done what I can. You are at the beginning of yours. You will do what you can. I wish you good fortune."
A vision came to Peter. Through the open window, against the sheet of stars, gigantic, was the Rider on the Lion.
He could not see the Rider's face.
A great exultation inflamed him.
At that instant he was stripped bare. His history, the people whom he knew, the things that he had done, they were all as though they had never been.
His soul was, for that great moment, naked and alone before God.
"The whole duty of Art is listening for the voice of God...."
A sound, as though it came to him from another world, broke into the room.
There were voices and steps on the stairs.
"Ah, they are back from their party," Henry Galleon said, trotting happily to the door. "Come up and have a chat with my wife, Westcott, before going to bed."
Peter was now the young man of the moment. He took this elevation with frank delight, was encouraged by it, gave it all rather more, perhaps, than its actual value, began a new novel, "The Stone House," started weekly reviewing on The Interpreter and yielded himself up entirely to Clare Rossiter.
He had been in love with her ever since that first day at Norah Monogue's, but the way that she gradually now absorbed him was like nothing so much as the slow covering of the rocks and the sand by the incoming tide. At first, in those days at Brockett's, she had seemed to him something mysterious, intangible, holy. But after that meeting in Cheyne Walk he knew her for a prize that some fortunate man might, one day, win. He did not, for an instant, suppose that he could ever be that one, but the mere imagined picture of what some other would one day have, sent the blood rushing through him. Her holiness for him was still intact but for another there would be human, earthly wonders.
Then, curiously, as he met her more often and knew her better there came a certain easy, almost casual, intercourse. One Clare Rossiter still reigned amongst the clouds, but there was now too another easy, fascinating, humorous creature who treated him almost like Alice Galleon herself—laughed at him, teased him, provoked him ... suddenly, like a shadow across a screen, would slip away; and he be on his knees again before something that was only to be worshipped.
These two shapes of her crossed and were confused and again were parted. His thoughts were first worshipping in heaven, then dwelling with delight on witty, charming things that she had said.
For that man, when he came, there would be a most wonderful treasure.
Peter now lost his appetite. He could not sleep at night. He would slip out of his room, cross the silent Chelsea streets and watch her dark window. He cultivated Mrs. Rossiter and that massive and complacent lady took it entirely to herself. Indeed, nothing, at this time was more remarkable than the little stir that Peter's devotion caused. It was perhaps that Clare had always had a cloud of young men about her, perhaps that Peter was thought to be having too wonderful a time, just now, to be falling in love as well—that would be piling Life on to Life! ... no one could live under it.
Besides Mrs. Rossiter liked him ... he was amazing, you see ... people said....
And the next stage arrived.
One May evening, at the Galleons' house, when some one was playing the piano and all the world seemed to be sitting in corners Clare's hand lay suddenly against his. The smooth outer curve of his hand lay against her palm. Their little fingers touched. Sheets of fire rose, inflamed him and fell ... rose again and fell. His hand began to shake, her hand began to shake. He heard, a thousand miles away, some one singing about "the morn."
Their hands parted. She rose and slowly, her white dress and red-gold hair flung against a background that seemed to him black and infinite, crossed the room.
That trembling of her hand had maddened him. It suddenly showed him that he—as well as another—might run the race for her. Everything that he had ever done or been—his sentiments, his grossnesses, his restraints and his rebellions—were now concerned in this pursuit. No other human being—Stephen, Norah Monogue, Bobby, Alice—now had any interest for him. His reviews were written he knew not how, the editions of "Reuben Hallard" might run into the gross for all he cared, "The Stone House" lay neglected.
And he avoided seeing her. He was afraid to spoil that moment when her hand had shaken at the touch of his, and yet he was tormented by the longing for a new meeting that might provide some new amazement. Perhaps he would hold her hand and feel the shadow of her body bending towards his own! And his heart stopped beating; and he was suddenly cold with a splendid terror.
Then he did meet her again and had nothing to say. It seemed to him that she was frightened. He came home that day in a cold fog of miserable despair. A letter from his publishers informing him of a tenth edition was of ironical unimportance. He lay awake all night restlessly unhappy.
For the first time for many months the old shadows stole out into the room—the black bulk of Scaw House—the trees, the windows, his father....
And to him, tossing on his bed there came thoughts of a certain house in the town. He could get up and dress now—a cab would soon take him there ... in the early morning he could slink back.
Clare did not want him! A fool to fancy that she had ever cared.
He, Peter Westcott, nobody! Why then should he not have his adventures, he still so young and vigorous? He would go to that house....
And then, almost reluctantly, as he sat up in bed and watched the grey, shadowy walls, Stephen seemed to be visible to him—Stephen, walking the road, starting early in the fresh air when the light was breaking and the scent of the grass was cool and filled with dew.
He would write to Stephen in the morning—he lay down and went to sleep.
By this time, meanwhile, Alice and Bobby had noticed. Alice, indeed, had a number of young men over whose emotions she kept guard and Peter had become, during these weeks, very valuable to her....
She did not want him to marry anybody—especially she did not want him to marry Clare. At breakfast, past Peter's ears, as though he were not concerned at all, she talked to Bobby—
"Really, Dr. Rossiter spoils Clare beyond all bounds—"
"He's taking her with him up to Glasgow to that Congress thing. He knows perfectly well that she ought to stay with Mrs. Rossiter—and so does she."
"Well, it's no business of ours—" Bobby's usual tolerant complacency.
"It is. Clare might be a fine creature if she didn't let herself be spoiled in this way. She's perpetually selfish and she ought to be told so."
"We're all perpetually selfish," said Bobby who began to be sorry for Peter.
"Oh! no, we're not. I'm very fond of Clare but I don't envy the man who marries her. There's no one in the world more delightful when she has her own way and things go smoothly, but they've wrapped her up in cotton wool to such an extent that she simply doesn't know how to live out of it. She's positively terrified of Life."
This, as Alice had intended, was too much for Peter. He burst out—
"I think Miss Rossiter's the pluckiest girl I've ever met. She's afraid of nothing."
"Except of being uncomfortable," Alice retorted. "That frightens her into fits. Make her uncomfortable, Peter, and you'll see—"
And, red in the face, Peter answered—"I don't think you ought to talk of any one who's so fond of you behind her back in that way—"
"Oh! I say just the same to her face. I'm always telling her these things and she always agrees and then's just as selfish as ever. That absurd little father of hers has spoilt her!"
Spoilt! Clare spoilt! Peter smiled darkly. Alice Galleon—delightful woman though she was, of course couldn't endure that another woman should receive such praise—Jealousy! Ah!...
And the aged and weighty author of "Reuben Hallard," to whom the world was naturally an open book, and life known to its foundations, nodded to himself. How people, intelligent enough in other ways, could be so short-sighted!
Afterwards, when they were alone, Bobby took him in hand—
"You're in love with Clare Rossiter, Peter," he said.
"Yes, I am," Peter answered defiantly.
"But you've known her so short a time!"
"What's that to do with it?"
"Oh, nothing, of course. But do you think you're the sort of people likely to get on?"
"Really, Bobby, I don't—"
"I know—none of my business—quite true. But you see I've known Clare pretty well all my life and you're the best friend I've got, so you might allow me to take an interest."
"Well, say what you like."
"Nothing to say except that Clare isn't altogether an easy problem. You're like all the other fellows I know—think because Clare's got red hair and laughs easily she's a goddess—she isn't, not a bit! She's got magnificent qualities and one day perhaps, when she's had a thoroughly bad time, she'll show one the kind of things she's made of. But she's an only child, she's been spoilt all her life and the moment she begins to be unhappy she's impossible."
"She shan't ever be unhappy if I can help it!" muttered Peter fiercely.
Bobby laughed. "You'll do your best of course, but are you the sort of man for her? She wants some one who'll give her every kind of comfort, moral, physical and intellectual. She wants somebody who'll accept her enthusiasms as genuine intelligence. You'll find her out intellectually in a week. Then she wants some one who'll give her his whole attention. You think now that you will but you won't—you can't—you're not made that way. By temperament and trade you're an artist. She thinks, at the moment, that an artist would suit her very well; but, in reality, my boy, he's the very last sort of person she ought to marry."
Peter caught at Bobby's words. "Do you really think she cares about me?"
"She's interested. Clare spends her days in successive enthusiasms. She's always being enthusiastic—dreadful disillusions in between the heights. Mind you, there's another side of Clare—a splendid side, but it wants very careful management and I don't know, Peter, that you're exactly the sort of person—"
"Thanks very much," said Peter grimly.
"No, but you're not—you don't, in the least, see her as she is, and she doesn't see you as you are—hence these misguided attempts on my part to show you one another."
But Peter had not been listening.
"Do you really think," he muttered, "that she cares about me?"
Bobby looked at him, laughed and shrugged his shoulders in despair.
"Ah! I see—it's no use," he said, "poor dear Peter—well, I wish you luck!"
And that was the end as far as Alice and Bobby were concerned. They never alluded to it again and indeed now seemed to favour meetings between Clare and Peter.
And now, through these wonderful Spring weeks, these two were continually together. The Galleons had, at first, been inclined to consider Clare's obvious preference for Peter as the simplest desire to be part of a general rather heady enthusiasm. "Clare loves little movements...." And Peter, throughout this Spring was a little movement. The weeks went on, and Clare was not herself—silent, absorbed, almost morose. One day she asked Alice Galleon a number of questions about Peter, and, after that, resolutely avoided speaking of him. "Of course," Alice said to Bobby—"Dr. Rossiter will let her marry any one she likes. She'll have plenty of money and Peter's going to have a great career. After all it may be the best thing."
Bobby shook his head. "They're both egoists," he said. "Peter because he's never had anything he wanted and Clare because she's always had everything ... it won't do."
But, after all, when May gave place to burning June, Bobby and Alice were inevitably drawn into that romance. They yielded to an atmosphere that both, by temperament, were too sentimental to resist.
Nearer and nearer was coming that intoxicating moment of Peter's final plunge, and Clare—beautiful, these weeks, with all the excitement of the wonderful episode—saw him as a young god who had leapt upon a submissive London and conquered it.
Mrs. Rossiter and Mrs. Galleon played waiting chorus. Mrs. Launce from her little house in Westminster, was, as usual, glowing with a piece of other people's happiness. Bobby and Alice had surrendered to the atmosphere. All were, of course, silent—until the word is spoken no movement must be made—the little god is so easily alarmed.
At last towards the close of this hot June, Mrs. Launce proposed to Clare a week-end at her Sussex cottage by the sea. She also told Peter that she could put him up if he chose to come down at the same time. What could be more delightful in this weather?
"Dear Clare, only the tiniest cottage as you know—no one else unless Peter Westcott happens to come down—I suggested it, and you can see the sea from your window and there's a common and a donkey, and you can roll in the sand—" Mrs. Launce, when she was very happy betrayed her French descent by the delightful way that she rolled her r's.
"Not a soul anywhere near—we can bathe all day."
Clare would love to come so strangely enough would Peter—"The 5.30 train then—Saturday...." Dear Mrs. Launce in her bonnet and blue silk! Clare had never thought her so entirely delightful!
Peter, of course, plainly understood the things that dear Mrs. Launce intended. His confidence in her had been, in no way, misplaced—she loved a wedding and was the only person in the world who could bring to its making so fine a compound of sentiment and common sense. She frankly loved it all and though, at the moment, occupied with the work of at least a dozen women, and with a family that needed her most earnest care, she hastened to assist the Idyll.
Peter's own feelings were curiously confused. He was going to propose to Clare; and now he seemed to face, suddenly, the change that this must mean to him. Those earlier months, when it had been pursuit with no certainty of capture had only shown him one thing desirable—Clare. But now that he was face to face with it he was frightened—what did he know of women?...
On the morning they were to go down, he sat in his room, this terrible question confronting him. No, he knew nothing about women! He had left his heroine very much alone in "Reuben Hallard" and those occasions when he had been obliged to bring her on the stage had not been too successful. He knew nothing about women!
There would be things—a great many—as a married man, he would have to change. Sometimes he was moody for days together and wanted to see no one. Sometimes he was so completely absorbed by his work that the real people around him were shadows and wraiths. These moods must vanish. Clare must always find him ready and cheerful and happy.
A dreadful sense of inadequacy weighed upon Peter. And then at the concrete fact of her actual presence, at the thought of her standing there, waiting for him, wanting him, his doubts left him and he was wildly, madly happy.
And yet, before he left the room, his glance fell on his writing-table. White against its shining surface lay a paper and on the top sheet, written: "The Stone House"; a Novel; Chapter II. Months ago—he had not touched it all these last weeks, and, at this moment he felt he would never write anything again. He turned away with a little movement of irritation....
That morning he went formally to Dr. Rossiter. The little man received him, smiling.
"I want to marry your daughter, sir," said Peter.
"You're very young," said the Doctor.
"Twenty-six," said Peter.
"Well, if she'll have you I won't stand in your way—"
Peter took the 5.30 train....
Mrs. Launce, on Sunday afternoon, from the door of her cottage, watched them both strike across the common towards the sea—Peter, "stocky," walking as though no force on earth could upset his self-possession and sturdy balance, Clare with her little body and easy movement meant for this air and sea and springing turf. Mrs. Launce having three magnificent children of her own believed in the science of Eugenics heart and soul. Here, before her eyes, was the right and proper Union—talk about souls and spirit and temperament—important enough for the immediate Two—but give Nature flesh and bones, with cleanliness and a good straight stock to work on, and see what She will do!
Mrs. Launce went into the cottage again and prepared herself for an announcement at tea-time. She wiped her eyes before she settled down to her work. Loving both of them the thought of their happiness hung about her all the afternoon and made her very tender and forgiving when the little parlourmaid arrived with a piece of the blue and white china smashed to atoms. "I can't think 'ow it 'appened, Mum. I was just standing...."
Peter and Clare, crossing the common, beheld the sea at their feet. It was a hot misty afternoon and only the thin white line of tiny curling waves crept out of the haze on to the gleaming yellow sand. Behind them, on every side was common and the only habitation, a small cottage nearly hidden by a black belt of trees, on their right. These black, painted trees lay like a blot of ink against the blue sky.
Sitting down on the edge of the common they looked on to the yellow sand. The air was remorselessly still as though the world were cased in iron; somewhere deep within its silence, its heart might yet be beating, but the depths hid its reverberation.
Peter lay flat on his back and instantly his world was full of clamour. All about him insects were stirring, the thin stiff blades of grass were very faintly rustling, a tiny blue butterfly flew up from the soil into the bright air—some creature sang a little song that sounded like the faint melody of a spinet.
"All praising the Lord, I suppose—" Peter listened. "Hymn and glory songs and all the rest—" Then, clashing, out of the heart of the sky, the thought followed. "There must be a God"—the tinkling insect told him so.
He gazed into the great sheet of blue above him, so remote, so cruel ... and yet the tiny blue butterfly flew, without fear, into its very heart.
Peter's soul was drawn up. He swung, he flew, he fled.... Down below, there on the hard, brown soil his body lay—dust to the dust—there, dead amongst the singing insects.... He looked down, from his great heights and saw his body, with its red face and its suit of blue and its up-turned boots, and here, in freedom his Soul exulted!
"Of course there is a God!"
They are praising him down there—the ground is covered with creatures that are praising Him. Peter buried his eyes and instantly his soul came swinging down to him, found his body again, filled once more his veins with life and sound. After a vast silence he could hear, once more, the life amongst the grass, the faint rustle of the thin line of foam beneath him, and could smell the earth and the scent of the seaweed borne up to them from the sand.
"It's so still," he said suddenly, "that it's almost like thunder. There'll be a storm later. On a day like this in Cornwall you would hear the sound of the Mining Stamps for miles—"
"Well," she answered, "I am glad we're not in Cornwall—I hate it."
"Yes. That sounds horrible to you, I suppose, and I'm quite ready to admit that it's my cowardice. Cornwall frightens me. When I was there as a tiny girl it was just the same. I always hated it."
"I don't believe you're ever frightened at anything."
"I am. I'm under such a disadvantage, you see. If I'd been white-faced and haggard every one would have thought it quite natural that I should scream if I were left in the dark or hate being left alone with those horrible black rocks that Cornwall's so full of, but just because I'm healthy and was taught to hold my back up at school I have to pretend to a bravery that simply doesn't exist—" He rejected, for the moment the last part of her sentence. "Oh, but I understand perfectly what you mean by your fear of Cornwall. Of course I understand it although I love the place with all my soul and body. But it is terrifying—almost the only terrifying place that civilisation has left to us—Central Africa is nothing to it—"
"Are you afraid of it?" she said, looking at him intently.
"Tremendously—because I suppose it won't let me alone. It's difficult to put into words, but I think what I mean is that I want to go on now in London, writing and seeing people and being happy and it's pulling at me all the time."
"What way pulling at you?"
"I can't get out of my head all the things I did when I was a boy there. I wasn't very happy, you know. I've told you something about it.... I want to go back.... I want to go back. I mustn't, but I want to go back—and it hurts—"
He seemed to have forgotten her—he stared out to sea, his hands holding the grass on either side of him.
She moved and the sound suddenly brought him back. He turned to her laughing.
"Sorry. I was thinking about things. That cottage over there with the black trees reminded me of Scaw House a little.... But it's all right really. I suppose every fellow has the wild side and the sober side, and I've had such a rum life and been civilised so short a time...."
She said slowly: "I think I know what you mean, though. I know enough of it to be frightened of it—I don't want life to be like that. I don't suppose I've got imagination. I want it to be orderly and easy and no one to be hurt or damaged. Oh!"—her voice was suddenly like a cry—"Why can't we just go through life without any one being frightened or made miserable? I believe in cities and walls and fires and regulated emotions—all those other things can only hurt."
"They teach courage," Peter answered gravely. "And that's about the only thing we're here to learn, I expect. My mother died because she wasn't brave enough and I want ... I want...."
He broke off—"There's only one thing I want and that's you, Clare. You must have known all these weeks that I love you. I've loved you ever since I met you that Good Friday afternoon years ago. Let me take care of you, see that no one hurts you—love you ... love you—"
"Do you really want me, Peter?"
He didn't speak but his whole body turned towards her, answered her question.
"Because I am yours entirely. I became yours that day when your hand touched mine. I wasn't sure before—I knew then—"
He looked at her. He saw her, he thought for the first time. She sat with her hands pressing on the grass, her body bent back a little.
The curve from her neck to her feet was like the shadow of some colour against the brown earth because he saw her only dimly. Her hair burnt against the blue sky but her eyes—her eyes! His gaze caught hers and he surrendered himself to that tenderness, that mystery, that passion that she flung about him. In her eyes he saw what only a lover can see—the terror and the splendour of a soul surprised for the first time into love. She was caught, she was trapped, she was gorgeously delivered. In her eyes he saw that he had her in the hollow of his hand and that she was glad to be there.
But even now they had not touched—they had not moved from their places. They were urged towards one another by some fierce power but also some great suspense still restrained them.
Then Clare spoke, hurriedly, almost pleadingly.
"But Peter, listen—before I say any more—you must know me better. I think that it is just because I love you so much that I see myself clearly to-day as I have never seen myself before—although I have, I suppose really known ... things ... but I have denied them to myself. But now I know that all that I say is true—"
"I am ready," he said, smiling. But she did not smile back at him, she was intensely serious, she spoke without moving her eyes from his face.
"It is not altogether my fault. I have been an only child and everything that I have wanted I have always had. I have despised my mother and even my father because they have given in to me—that is not a pleasant thing to know. And now comfort, happiness, an absence of all misery, these things are essential—"
"I will look after you," said Peter. It was almost with irritation that she brushed aside his assurance.
"Yes, yes, I know, but you must understand that it's more than that. If I am unhappy I am another creature you haven't seen ... you don't know.... If I am frightened—"
"But Clare, dear, we're all like that—"
"No, it's sheer wickedness with me. Oh! Peter I love you so much that you must listen. You mustn't think afterwards, ah, if I'd only known—"
"Aren't you making too much of it all? We've all got these things and it's just because we can help each other that we marry. We give each the courage—"
"I've always been frightened," she said slowly, "always when anything big comes along—always. And this is the biggest thing I've ever met. If only it had been some ordinary man ... but you, Peter, that I should hurt you."
"You won't hurt me," he answered her, "and I'd rather be hurt by you than helped by some one else—let's leave all this. If you love me, there's nothing else to say.... Do you love me, Clare?"
Then suddenly before he could move towards her a storm that had been creeping upon them, burst over their heads. Five minutes ago there had been no sign of anything but the finest weather, but, in a moment the black clouds had rolled up and the thunder broke, clashing upon the world. The sea had vanished.
"We must run for it," cried Peter, raising his voice against the storm. "That cottage over there—it's the only place."
They ran. The common was black now—the rain drove hissing, against the soil, the air was hot with the faint sulphur smell.
Peter flung himself upon the cottage door and Clare followed him in. For a moment they stood, breathless. Then Peter, conscious only that Clare was beside him, wild with the excitement of the storm, caught her, held her for a moment away from him, breathed the thunder that was about them all, and then kissed her mouth, wet with the rain.
She clung to him, white, breathless, her head on his shoulder.
"Why, you're not frightened?" The sense of her helplessness filled him with a delicious vigour. The way that her hand pressed in upon his shoulder exalted him. Her wet golden hair brushed his cheek. Then he remembered that they had invaded the cottage. For the first time it occurred to him that their first embrace might have been observed; he turned around.
The room was filthy, a huge black fire-place occupied most of it, the floor was littered with pieces of paper, of vegetables and a disagreeable smell protested against the closed and dirty windows. At first it seemed that this place was empty and then, with a start, he was aware that two eyes were watching them. The thunder pealed above them, the rain lashed the roof and ran streaming from the eaves; the cottage was dark; but he saw in a chair, a bundle of rags from which those eyes were staring.
Clare gave a little cry; an old woman with a fallen chin and a face like yellow parchment sat huddled in the chair.
Peter spoke to her. "I hope you don't mind our taking shelter here, whilst the storm passes." She had seen them embrace; it made him uncomfortable, but the storm was passing away, already the thunder was more distant.
The old woman made no reply, only her eyes glared at them. Peter put his hand in Clare's—"It's all right; I think the old thing's deaf and dumb and blind—look, the storm's passing—there's a bit of blue sky. Isn't it odd an old thing like that..."
Clare, shuddered a little. "I don't like it—she's horrid—this place is so dirty. I believe the rain's stopped."
They opened the door and the earth met them, good and sweet, after the shower. The sky was breaking, the mists were leaving the sea and as the storm vanished, the sun, dipping towards the horizon flung upon the blue a fleet of tiny golden clouds.
Peter bent down to the old woman.
"Thank you," he said, "for giving us shelter." He placed a shilling on her lap.
"She's quite deaf and blind," he said. "Poor old thing!"
They closed the door behind them and passed down a little path to the seashore. Here wonders met them. The sand, wet with the recent storm catching all the colours of the sky shone with mother of pearl—here a pool of blue, there the fleet of golden clouds.
It stretched on every side of them, blazing with colour. Behind them the common, sinking now into the dull light of evening.
They stood, little pigmies, on that vast painted floor. Before them the breeze, blowing back the waves into the sun again turned the spray to gold.
Tiny figures, in all this glory, they embraced. In all the world they seemed the only living thing....
They had their witness. The old woman who lived in the heart of those black trees, was deaf and dumb indeed, but her eyes were alive in her fading and wrinkled body.
When the door had closed she rose slowly from her chair, and her face was wrinkled with the passion of the hatred that her old soul was feeling.
What did they mean, those two, coming there and haunting her with their youth and strength and love. Kissing there before her as though she were already dead—she to whom kisses were only bitter memories.
Her face worked with fury—she hobbled, painfully, to the door and opened it.
Below her, on a floor of gold, two black figures stood together.
Gazing at them she raised her thin and trembling hand; she flung with a passionate, furious gesture, something from her.
A small silver coin glittered in the air, whistled for a moment and fell.
Mrs. Rossiter and Mrs. Galleon sat solemnly, with the majesty of spreading skirts and Sunday Best hats, in the little drawing-room of The Roundabout, awaiting the return from the honeymoon.
The Roundabout is the name that Peter has given to the little house in Dorset Street, Chelsea, that he has chosen to live in with his bride. High spirits lead to nicknames and Peter was in the very highest of spirits when he took the house. The name alluded both to the shape—round bow-windowed like—fat bulging little walls, lemon-coloured, and to the kind of life that Peter intended to lead. All was to be Happiness. Life is challenged with all the high spirits of a truly happy ceremony.
It is indeed a tiny house—tiny hall, tiny stairs, tiny rooms but quaint with a little tumble-down orchard behind it and that strange painted house that old mad Miss Anderson lives in on the other side of the orchard. Such a quiet little street too ... a line of the gravest trees, cobbles with only the most occasional cart and a little church with a sleepy bell at the farthest end ... all was to be Happiness.
Wedding presents—there had been six hundred or so—filled the rooms. People had, on the whole, been sensible, had given the right thing. The little drawing-room with its grey wall-paper, roses in blue jars, its two pictures—Velasquez' Maria Theresa in an old silver frame and Rembrandt's Night Watch—was pleasant, but overwhelmed now by the presence of these two enormous ladies. The evening sun, flooding it all with yellow light, was impertinent enough to blind the eyes of Mrs. Rossiter. She rose and moved slowly to draw down the blinds. A little silver clock struck half-past four.
"They must soon be here," said Mrs. Galleon gloomily. Her gloom was happy and comfortable. She was making the very most of a pleasant business with the greatest satisfaction in the world. She had done exactly the same at Bobby's wedding, and, in her heavy, determined way she would do the same again before she died. Alice Galleon would be there in a moment, meantime the two ladies, without moving in their chairs, flung sentences across at one another and smoothed their silk skirts with their white plump hands.
"It's not really a healthy house—"
"No—with the orchard—and it's much too small—"
"Poor dears, hope they'll be happy. But one can't help feeling, Jane dear, that it was a little rash of you ... your only girl ... and one knows so little about Mr. Westcott, really—"
"Well, your own Bobby vouched for him. He'd known him at school after all, and we all know how cautious Bobby is about people—besides, Emma, no one could have received him more warmly—"
"Yes—Oh! of course ... but still, having no family—coming out of nowhere, so to speak—"
"Well, it's to be hoped they'll get on. I must say that Clare will miss her home terribly. It takes a lot to make up for that—And her father so devoted too...."
"Yes, we must make the best of it."
The sun's light faded from the room—the clock and the pictures stood out sharply against the gathering dusk. Two ladies filled the room with their shadows and the little fire clicked and rattled behind the murmuring voices.
Alice Galleon burst in upon them. "What! Not arrived yet! the train must be dreadfully late. Lights! Lights! No, don't you move, mother!"
She returned with lamps and flooded the room with light. The ladies displayed a feeble protest against her exultant happiness.
"I'm sure, my dear, I hope that nothing has happened."
"My dear mother, what could happen?"
"Well, you never know with these trains—and a honeymoon, too, is always rather a dangerous time. I remember—"
"I hear them!" Alice cried and there indeed they were to be heard bumping and banging in the little hall. The door opened and Peter and Clare, radiant with happiness, appeared.
They stood in the doorway, side by side, Clare in a little white hat and grey travelling dress and Peter browner and stronger and squarer than ever.
All these people filled the little room. There was a crackling fire of conversation.
"Oh! but we've had a splendid time—"
"No, I don't think Clare's in the least tired—"
"Yes, isn't the house a duck?"
"Don't we just love being back!"
"... hoping you hadn't caught colds—"
"... besides we had the easiest crossing—"
"... How's Bobby?"
"... were so afraid that something must have happened—"
Mrs. Rossiter took Clare upstairs to help her to take her hat off.
Mother and daughter faced one another—Clare flung herself into her mother's arms.
"Oh! Mother dear, he's wonderful, wonderful!"
Downstairs Alice watched Peter critically. She had not realised until this marriage, how fond she had grown of Peter. She had, for him, very much the feeling that Bobby had—a sense of tolerance and even indulgence for all tempers and morosities and morbidities. She had seen him, on a day, like a boy of eighteen, loving the world and everything in it, having, too, a curious inexperience of the things that life might mean to people, unable, apparently, to see the sterner side of life at all—and then suddenly that had gone and given place to a mood in which no one could help him, nothing could cheer him... like Saul, he was possessed with Spirits.
Now, as he stood there, he looked not a day more than eighteen. Happiness filled him with colour—his eyes were shining—his mouth smiling.
"Alice, old girl—she's splendid. I couldn't have believed that life could be so good—"
A curious weight was lifted from her at his words. She did not know what it was that she had dreaded. Perhaps it had been merely a sense that Clare was too young and inexperienced to manage so difficult a temperament as Peter's—and now, after all, it seemed that she had managed it. But in realising the relief that she felt she realised too the love that she had for Peter. When he was young and happy the risks that he ran seemed just as heavy as when he was old and miserable.
"Oh, Peter! I'm so glad—I know she's splendid—Oh! I believe you are going to be happy—"
"Yes!" he answered her confidently, "I believe we are—"
The ladies—Mrs. Galleon, Mrs. Rossiter and Alice—retired. Later on Clare and Peter were coming into Bobby's for a short time.
Left alone in their little house, he drew her to the window that overlooked the orchard and silently they gazed out at the old, friendly, gnarled and knotted tree, and the old thick garden-wall that stretched sharply against the night-sky.
Behind them the fire crackled and the lamps shed their pleasant glow and that dear child with the great stiff dress that Velasquez painted smiled at them from the wall.
Peter gave a deep sigh of happiness.
"Our House..." he said and drew her very close to him. The two of them, as they stood there outlined against the window were so young and so pleasant that surely the Gods would have pity!
In the days that followed he watched it all with incredulity. So swiftly had he been tossed, it seemed, from fate to fate, and so easily, also, did he leave behind him the things that had weighed him down. No sign now of that Peter—evident enough in the Brockett days—morose, silent, sometimes oppressed by a sense of unreasoned catastrophe, stepping into his bookshop and out again as though all the world were his enemy.
Peter knew now that he was loved. He had felt that precious quality on the day that his mother died, he had felt it sometimes when he had been in Stephen's company, but against these isolated emotions what a world of hate and bitterness.
Now he felt Clare's affection on every side of him. They had already in so short a time a store of precious memories, intimacies, that they shared. They had been through wild, passionate wonders together and standing now, two human beings with casual words and laughing eyes, yet they knew that perfect holy secrets bound them together.
He stood sometimes in the little house and wondered for an instant whether it was all true. Where were all those half cloudy dreams, those impulses, those dread inheritances that once he had known so well? Where that other Peter Westcott? Not here in this dear delicious little house, with Love and Home and great raging happiness in his heart.
He wrote to Stephen, to Mr. Zanti, to Norah Monogue and told them. He received no answers—no word from the outer world had come to him. That other life seemed cut off, separated—closed. Perhaps it had left him for ever! Perhaps, as Clare said, walls and fires were better than wind and loneliness—comfort more than danger.... Meanwhile, in his study at the top of the house, "The Stone House" was still lying, waiting, at Chapter II—
But it was Clare who was the eternal wonder. He could not think of her, create her, pile up the offerings before her altar, sufficiently. That he should have had the good fortune... It never ceased to amaze him.
As the weeks and months passed his life centred more and more round Clare and the house that they shared together. He knew now many people in London; they were invited continually to dinners, parties, theatres, dances. Clare's set in London had been very different from Peter's literary world, and they were therefore acclaimed citizens of two very different circles. Peter, too, had his reviewing articles in many papers—the whole whirligig of Fleet Street. (How little a time, by the way, since that dreadful day when he had sat on that seat on the Embankment and talked to the lady with the Hat!)
His days during this first year of married life were full, varied, exciting as they could be—and yet, through it all, his eye was always upon that little house, upon the moment when the door might be closed, the fire blazing and they two were alone, alone—
He was, indeed, during this year, a charming Peter. He loved her with the hero worship of a boy, but also with a humour, a consciousness of success, a happy freedom that denied all mawkish sham sentiment. He studied only to please her. He found that, after all, she did not care very greatly for literature or music or pictures. Her enthusiasm for these things was the enthusiasm of a child who is bathed in an atmosphere of appreciation and would return it on to any object that she could find.
He discovered that she loved compliments, that she cared about dress, that she loved to have crowds of friends about her, and that parties excited her as though these were the first that she had ever known. But he found, too, that in those half-hours when she was alone with him she showed her love for him with a passion and emphasis that was almost terrifying. Sometimes when she clung to him it was as though she was afraid that it was not going to last. He discovered in the very beginning that below all her happy easy life, an undercurrent of apprehension, sometimes only vaguely felt, sometimes springing into sight like the eyes of some beast in the dark, kept company with her.
It was always the future—a perfectly vague, indefinite future that terrified her. Every moment of her life had been sheltered and happy and, by reason of that very shelter, her fears had grown upon her. He remembered one evening when they had been present at some party and she had been radiant, beautiful, in his eyes divine. Her little body had been strung to its utmost energy, she had whirled through the evening and at last as they returned in the cab, she had laid her head on his shoulder and suddenly flung her arms about him and kissed him—his eyes, his cheeks, his mouth—again and again. "Oh! I'm so safe with you, Peter dear," she had cried to him.
He loved those evenings when they were alone and she would sit on the floor with her head on his knee and her hand against his. Then suddenly she would lean back and pull his head down and kiss his eyes, and then very slowly let him go. And the fierceness, the passion of her love for him roused in him a strength of devotion that all the years of unhappiness had been storing. He was still only a boy—the first married year brought his twenty-seventh birthday—but his love for Clare had the depth and reserve that belongs to a man.
Mrs. Launce, watching them both, was sometimes frightened. "God help them both if anything interferes," she said once to her husband. "I've seen that boy look at Clare with a devotion that hurts. Peter's no ordinary mortal—I wonder, now and again, whether Clare's worth it all."
But this year seemed to silence all her fears. The happiness of that little house shone through Chelsea. "Oh, we're dining with the Westcotts to-night—they'll cheer us up—they're always so happy"—"Oh! did you see Clare Westcott? I never saw any one so radiant."
And once Bobby said to Alice: "We made a mistake, old girl, about that marriage. It's made another man of Peter. He's joy personified."
"If only," Alice had answered, "destiny or whatever it is will let them alone. I feel as though they were two precious pieces of china that a housemaid might sweep off the chimney piece at any moment. If only nobody will touch them—"
Meanwhile Peter had forgotten, utterly forgotten, the rest of the world. Walls and fires—for a year they had held him. The Roundabout versus the World.... What of old Frosted Moses, of the Sea Road, of Stephen, of Mr. Zanti? What of those desperate days in Bucket Lane? All gone for nothing?
Clare, perhaps, with this year behind her, hardly realised the forces against which she was arrayed. Beware of the Gods after silence....
And, after all, it was Clare herself who flung down the glove.
On a winter's evening she was engaged to some woman's party. Peter had planned an evening, snug and industrious, alone with a book. "The Stone House" awaited his attention—he had not worked at it for months. Also he knew that he owed Henry Galleon a visit. Why he had not been to see the old man lately he scarcely knew.
Clare, standing in the little hall, waiting for a cab, suggested an alternative.
"Peter dear, why don't you go round to Brockett's if you've nothing to do?"
"Yes. You've never been since we married, and I had a letter from Norah this morning—not at all cheerful—I'm afraid she's been ill for months. They'd love to see you."
"Brockett's!" He stood astounded. Well, why not? A strange emotion—uncomfortable, alien, stirred him. He kissed her and saw her go with a half-distracted gaze. What a world away Brockett's seemed! Old Mrs. Lazarus, Norah (poor Norah!) Mrs. Brockett, young Robin Tressiter. They would be glad to see him—it was a natural thing enough that he should go—what was it that held him back? For the first time since his marriage, as he slowly and thoughtfully put on his greatcoat, he was distressed. He reproached himself—Norah, Stephen, Mr. Zanti!... he had not given them a thought.
He felt, as he went out, as though he were going, with key and candle, to unlock some old rusty door that led into secret rooms. It was a wet, windy night. The branches of the little orchard rattled and groaned, and doors and windows were creaking.
As he passed into the shadows and silence of Bloomsbury the impression weighed with increasing heaviness upon him that the old Peter had come back and that his married life with Clare had been a dream. He was still at Brockett's, still silent, shy, awkward, still poring over pages of "Reuben Hallard" and wondering whether any one would ever publish it—still spending so many hours in the old musty bookshop with Herr Gottfried's wild mop of hair coming so madly above the little counter.
The wind tugged at his umbrella, the rain lashed his face and at last, breathless, with the sharp corner of his upturned collar digging into his chin, he pulled the bell of the old grey remorseless door that he knew so well. There was no one in Bennett Square, only the two lamps dimly marked its desolation.
The door was opened by Mrs. Brockett herself and she stood there, stern and black peering into his face.
"What is it? What do you want?" she asked grimly.
He brushed past her laughing and stood back under the gas in the hall looking at her.
She gave a little cry. "No! It can't be! Why, Mr. Westcott!"
He had never, in all the seven years that he had been with her, seen her so strongly moved.
"But Mr. Westcott! To think of it! And the times we've talked of you! And you never coming near us all this while. You might have been dead for all we knew, and indeed if it hadn't been for Miss Monogue the other day we'd have heard no news since the day that wild man with the beard came walking in," she broke off suddenly—"and there you are, holding your umbrella with the point down and making a great pool on the carpet as though—" She took the umbrella from him but her hand rested for an instant on his arm and she said gruffly—
"But all the same, Mr. Peter, I'm more glad to see you than I can say—" She took him into her little room and looked at him. "But you've not changed in the least," she said, "not in the very least. And where, pray, Mr. Peter, have you been all this time and come nowhere near us?"
He tried to explain; he was confused, he said something about marriage and stopped. The room was filled with that subtle odour that brought his other life back to him in a torrent. He was bathed in it, overwhelmed by it—roast-beef, mutton, blacking, oil-cloth, decayed flowers, geraniums, damp stone, bread being toasted—all these things were in it.
He filled his nostrils with the delicious pathos and intimacy of it.
She regarded him sternly. "Now, Mr. Peter, it's of no use. Oh, yes, we've heard about your wedding. You wrote to Miss Monogue. But there were days before that, many of them, and never so much as a postcard. With some of, my boarders it would be natural enough, because what could you expect? We didn't want them, they didn't want us—only habit as you might say. But you, Mr. Peter—why just think of the way we were fond of you—Mrs. Lazarus and little Robin and Miss Monogue—as well as myself."
She stopped and pulled out her handkerchief and blew her nose.
"I dare say you're a famous man," she went on, "with your books and your marriage and the rest of it, but that doesn't alter your old friends being your old friends and it never will. There, I'm getting cross when all I mean to say is that I'm more delighted to see you than words."
He was humble before her. He felt, indeed, that he had been the most unutterable brute. How could he have stayed away all this time with these dear people waiting for him? He simply hadn't realised—
"And Miss Monogue?" he asked at last, "I'm afraid she's not been very well?"
"She's been very ill indeed—for months. At one time we were afraid that she would go. It's her heart. Poor dear, and she's been worrying so about her work—but she's better now and she'll be truly glad to see you, Mr. Peter—but you mustn't stay more than a few minutes. She's up on the sofa but it's the excitement that's bad for her."
But first Peter went to pay a visit to the Tressiter establishment. He knew, from old custom, that this would be the hour when the family would be getting itself, by slow and noisy degrees, to bed. So tremendous, indeed, was the tumult that he was able to open the door and stand, within the room, watching and un-noticed. Mrs. Tressiter was attempting to bathe a fat and very strident baby. Two small boys were standing on a bed and hitting one another with pillows; a little girl lay on her face on the floor and howled for no apparent reason; Robin, but little older than Peter's last impression of him had painted, was standing, naked save for his shirt and looking down, gravely, at his screaming sister.
Every now and again, Mrs. Tressiter, without ceasing from her work on the baby who slipped about in her hands like a stout eel, cried in a shrill voice: "Children, if you don't be quiet," or "Nicholas, in a moment I'll give you such a beating,"—or "Agatha, for goodness' sake!"...
Then suddenly Robin, looking up, caught sight of Peter, he gave a shout and was across the room in an instant. There was never a moment's doubt in his eyes. He flung himself upon Peter's body, he wound his arms round Peter's leg, he beat upon his chest with his bullet head, he cried: "Oh! Mr. Peter has come! Mr. Peter has come!"
Mrs. Tressiter let the baby fall into the bath with a splash and there it lay howling. The other members of the family gathered round.
But Peter thought that he had known no joy so acute for years as the welcome that the small boy gave him. He hoisted Robin on to his shoulder, and there Robin sat with his naked little legs dangling over, his hands in the big man's neck.
"Oh! Mr. Westcott, I'm sure..." said Mrs. Tressiter, smiling from ear to ear and wiping her wet hands on her apron—Robin bent his head and bit Peter's ear.
"Get on, horse," he cried and for a quarter of an hour there was wild riot in the Tressiter family. Then they were all put to bed, as good as gold,—"you might have heard a pin drop," said Mrs. Tressiter, "when Agatha said her prayers"—and at last the lights were put out.
Peter bent down over Robin's bed and the boy flung his arms round his neck.
"I dreamed of you—I knew you'd come," he whispered.
"What shall I send you as a present to-morrow?" asked Peter.
"Soldiers—soldiers on horses. Those with cannons and shiny things on their backs...." Robin was very explicit—"You'll be here to-morrow?" he asked.
"No—not to-morrow," Peter answered.
"I love you, more than Agatha, more than Dick, more than any one 'cept Daddy and Mummy."
"You'll be a good boy until I come back?"
"Promise ... but come back soon."
Peter gave him a long kiss and left him. Supposing, one day, he had a boy like that? A little boy in a shirt like that? Wouldn't it be simply too wonderful? A boy to give soldiers to....
He went across to Miss Monogue's door. A faint voice answered his knock and, entering the room, the scent of medicine and flowers that he always connected with his mother, met him. Norah Monogue, very white, with dark shadows beneath her eyes, was lying on the sofa by the fire.
Mrs. Brockett had prepared her for Peter's coming and she smiled up at him with her old smile and gave him her hand. How thin and white it was with its long slender fingers! He sat down by her sofa and he knew by the way that she looked at him that she was reproaching him—
"Naughty Peter," she said, "all these months and you have been nowhere near us."
"I, too, have a bone—you never sent me a word about my wedding."
She turned her head away. "I was frightfully ill just then. They didn't think I'd pull through. I did write afterwards to Clare, I told her how ill I'd been—"
"She never told me."
Peter bent over the sofa. "But I am ashamed, Norah, more ashamed than I can say. After I got well and went to live with the Galleons a new life seemed to begin for me and I was so eager and excited about it all. And then—" he hesitated for a moment—"there was Clare."
"Yes, I know there was Clare and I am so delighted about it—I know that you will both be so happy.... But, when one is lying here week after week and is worried and tired things take such a different outline. I thought that you and Clare—that you ... had given me up altogether and—"
Suddenly hiding her face in her hands she began to cry. It was inexpressibly desolate there in the dim bare little room, and the sharp sense of his neglect and the remembrance of the good friend that she had been to him for so many years overwhelmed Peter.
He knelt down and put his arms round her. "Norah—don't, please, I can't bear it. It's all right. I've been a beast, a selfish cad. But it shan't happen again. I'll come often—I'm ashamed."
She cried for a little and then she smiled at him. "I'm a fool to cry like that but you see I'm weak and ill—and seeing you again after all this time and your being so successful and happy upset me I suppose. Forgive it, Peter, and come again one day when I'm better and stronger—and bring Clare too."
She held tightly to his hand and her grasp was hot and feverish. He reassured her, told her that he would come soon again, that he would bring Clare and so left her.
He took a cab and drove back to Chelsea in a storm of agitation. Suddenly, out of nothing as it were, all these people, this old life had been thrust up in front of him—had demanded, made claims. About him once again was the old atmosphere: figures were filling his brain, the world was a wild tossing place ... one of those Roundabouts with the hissing lights, the screaming music, the horses going up and down. Plain enough now that the old life was not done with. Every moment of his past life seemed to spring before him claiming recognition. He was drunk with the desire for work. He flung the cabman something, dashed into the little house, was in his room. The lamp was lighted, the door was shut, there was silence, and in his brain figures, scenes, sentences were racing—"The Stone House," neglected for so long, had begun once more, to climb.
The hours passed, the white sheets were covered and flung aside. Dimly through a haze, he saw Clare standing in the doorway.
"Bad old boy!"
He scarcely glanced up. "I'm not coming yet—caught by work."
"Don't be at it too late."
He made no reply.
She closed the door softly behind her.
Then, out of the wind and rain, came Mr. Zanti.
Three days after Peter's visit to Brockett's he was finishing a letter before dressing for dinner. He and Clare were going on to a party later in the evening but were dining quietly alone together first. The storms that had fallen upon London three days before were still pommelling and buffeting the city, the trees outside the window groaned and creaked with a mysterious importance as though they were trying to tell one another secrets, and little branches tapped at the dripping panes. He was writing in the little drawing-room—warm and comfortable—and the Maria Theresa, so small a person in so much glory, looked down on him from her silver frame and gave him company.
Then Sarah—a minute servant, who always entered a room as though swept into it by a cyclone—breathlessly announced that there was a gentleman to see Mr. Westcott.
"'E's drippin' in the 'all," she gasped and handed Peter a very dirty bit of paper.
Peter read:—"Dear Boy, Being about to leave this country on an expedition of the utmost importance I feel that I must shake you by the hand before I go. Emilio Zanti."
Mr. Zanti, enormous, smiling from ear to ear, engulfed in a great coat from which his huge head, buffeted by wind and rain—his red cheeks, his rosy nose, his sparkling eyes—stood out like some strange and cheerful flower—filled the doorway.
He enfolded Peter in his arms, pressed him against very wet garments, kissed him on both cheeks and burst into a torrent of explanation. He was only in London for a very few days—he must see his dearest Peter—so often before he had wanted to see his Peter but he had thought that it would be better to leave him—and then he had heard that his Peter was married—well, he must see his lady—it was entirely necessary that he should kiss her hand and wish her well and congratulate her on having secured his "own, own Peter," for a life partner. Yes, he had found his address from that Pension where Peter used to live; they had told him and he had come at once because at once, this very night, he was away to Spain where there was a secret expedition—ah, very secret—and soon—in a month, two months—he would return, a rich, rich man. This was the adventure of Mr. Zanti's life and when he was in England again he, Mr. Zanti, would see much of Peter and of his beautiful wife—of course she was beautiful—and of the dear children that were to come—
Here Peter interrupted him. He had listened to the torrent of words in an odd confusion. The last time that he had seen Mr. Zanti he had left him, sitting with his head in his hands sobbing in the little bookshop. Since then everything had happened. He, Peter, had had success, love, position, comfort—the Gods had poured everything into his hands—and now, to his amazement as he sat there, in the little room opposite his huge fantastic friend he was almost regretting all those glorious things that had come to him and was wishing himself back in the dark little bookshop—dark, but lighted with the fire of Mr. Zanti's amazing adventures.
But there was more than this in his thoughts. As he looked at Mr. Zanti, at his wild black locks, his flaming cheeks, his rolling eyes, his large red hands, he was aware suddenly that Clare would not appreciate him. It was the first time since his marriage that there had been any question of Clare's criticism, but now he knew, with absolute certainty, that Mr. Zanti was entirely outside Clare's range of possible persons. For the first time, almost with a secret start of apprehension, he knew that there were things that she did not understand.
"I'm afraid," he said, "that my wife is dressing. But when you come back you shall meet of course—that will be delightful." And then he went on—"But I simply can't tell you how splendid it is to look at you again. Lots of things have happened to me since I saw you, of course, but I'm just the same—"
Whilst he was speaking his voice had become eager, his eyes bright—he began to pace the room excitedly—
"Oh, Zanti! ... the days we used to have. I suppose the times I've been having lately had put it all out of my head, but now, with you here, it's all as though it happened yesterday. The day we left Cornwall, you and I—the fog when we got to London ... everything." He drew a great breath and stood in the middle of the room listening to the rain racing down the pipes beyond the dark windows.
Mr. Zanti, getting up ponderously, placed his hands on Peter's shoulders.
"Still the same Peter," he said. "Now I know zat I go 'appy. Zat is all I came for—I said I must zee my Peter because Stephen—"
"Stephen—" broke in Peter sharply.
"Yes, our Stephen. He goes with me now to Spain. He is now, until to-night, in London but he will not come to you because 'e's afraid—"
"Yes 'e says you are married now and 'ave a lovely 'ouse and 'e says you 'ave not written for a ver' long time, and 'e just asked me to give you 'is love and say that when 'e comes back from Spain, per'aps—"
"Stephen!" Peter's voice was sharp with distress. "Zanti, where is he now? I must go and see him at once."
"No, 'e 'as gone already to the boat. I follow 'im." Then Mr. Zanti added in a softer voice—"So when he tell me that you 'ave not written I say 'Ah! Mr. Peter forgets his old friends,' and I was zorry but I say that I will go and make sure. And now I am glad, ver' glad, and Stephen will be glad too. All is well—"
"Oh! I am ashamed. I don't know what has come over me all this time. But wait—I will write a note that you shall take to him and then—when he comes back from Spain—"
He went to his table and began to write eagerly. Mr. Zanti, meanwhile, went round the room on tip-toe, examining everything, sometimes shaking his huge head in disapproval, sometimes nodding his appreciation.
Dear, Dear Stephen,—I am furious, I hate myself. What can I have been doing all this time? I have thought of you often, but my marriage and all the new life have made me selfish, and always I put off writing to you because I thought the quiet hour would come to me—and it has never come. But I have no excuse—except that in the real part of myself I love you, just the same as ever—and it will be always the same. I have been bewildered, I think, by all the things that have happened to me during this last year—but I will never be bewildered again. Write to me from Spain and then as soon as you come back I will make amends for my wickedness. I am now and always, Your loving Peter.
Mr. Zanti took the letter.
"How is he?" asked Peter.
"I found 'im—down in Treliss. He wasn't 'appy. 'E was thinking of that woman. And then 'e was all alone. 'E got some work at a farm out at Pendragon and 'e was just goin' there when I came along and made 'im come to Spain. 'E was thinkin' of you a lot, Peter."
Mr. Zanti cast one more look round the room. "Pretty," he said. "Pretty. But not my sort of place. Too many walls—all too close in."
In the hall he said once more—a little plaintively:—
"I should like to see your lady, Peter," and then he went on hurriedly, "But don't you go and disturb her—not for anything—I understand...."
And, with his finger on his lip, wrapt in the deepest mystery, he departed into the rain.
As the door closed behind him, Peter felt a wave of chill, unhappy loneliness. He turned back into the cheerful little hall and heard Clare singing upstairs. He knew that they were going to have a delightful little dinner, that, afterwards, they would be at a party where every one would be pleased to see them—he knew that the evening in front of him should be wholly charming ... and yet he was uneasy. He felt now as though he ought to resign his evening, climb to his little room and work at "The Stone House." And yet what connection could that possibly have with Mr. Zanti?
His uneasiness had begun, he thought, after his visit to Brockett's. It seemed to him as he went upstairs to dress that the world was too full of too many things and that his outlook on it all was confused.
Throughout dinner this uneasiness remained with him. Had he been less occupied with his own thoughts he would have noticed that Clare was not herself; at first she talked excitedly without waiting for his answers—there were her usual enthusiasms and excitements. Everything in the day's history had been "enchanting" or "horrible," as a rule she waited for him to act up to her ecstasies and abhorrencies; to-night she talked as though she had no audience but were determined to fill up time. Then suddenly she was silent; her eyes looked tired and into them there crept a strange secret little shudder as though she were afraid of some thought or mysterious knowledge. She looked now like a little girl who knew, that to-morrow—the inevitable to-morrow—she must go to the dentist's to be tortured.
The last part of the meal was passed in silence. Afterwards she came into his study and sat curled upon the floor at his feet watching him smoke.
She thought as she looked up at him, that something had happened to make him younger. She had never seen him as young as he was to-night—and then because his thoughts were far away and because her own troubled her she made a diversion. She said:—
"Who was that extraordinary man you were talking to this evening?"
He came back, with a jerk, from Stephen.
"Why the man with all the black hair and a funny squash hat. I saw Sarah let him in."
"Ah, that," said Peter, looking down at her tenderly, "that was a great friend of mine."
She moved her head away.
"Don't touch my hair, Peter—it's all been arranged for the party. A friend of yours? What! That horrible looking man? Oh! I suppose he was one of those dreadful people you knew in the slums or in Cornwall."
Peter saw Mr. Zanti's dear friendly face, like a moon, staring at him, and heard his warm husky voice: "Peter, my boy...."
He moved a little impatiently.
"Look here, old girl, you mustn't call him that. He's one of the very best friends I've ever had—and I've been rather pulled up lately—ever since that night you sent me to Brockett's. I've felt ashamed of myself. All my happiness and—you—and everything have made me forget my old friends and that won't do."
She laughed. "And now I suppose you're going to neglect me for them—for horrid people like that man who came to-night."
Her voice was shaking a little—he saw that her hands were clenched on her lap. He looked down at her in astonishment.
"My dear Clare, what do you mean? How could you say a thing like that even in jest? You know—"
She broke in upon him almost fiercely—"It wasn't jest. I meant what I said. I hate all these earlier people you used to know—and now, after our being so happy all this time, you're going to take them up again and make the place impossible—"
"Look here, Clare, you mustn't speak of them like that—they're my friends and they've got to be treated as such." His voice was suddenly stern. "And by the way as we are talking about it I don't think it was very kind of you to tell me nothing at all about poor Norah's being so ill. She asked you to tell me and you never said a word. That wasn't very kind of you."
"I did speak to you about it but you forgot—"
"I don't think you did—I am quite sure that I should not have forgotten—"
"Oh, of course you contradict me. Anyhow there's no reason to drag Norah Monogue into this. The matter is perfectly clear. I will not have dirty old men like that coming into the house."
"Clare, you shall not speak of my friends—"
"Oh, shan't I? When I married you I didn't marry all your old horrid friends—"
"Drop it, Clare—or I shall be angry—"
She sprang to her feet, faced him. He had never in his life seen such fury. She stood with her little body drawn to its full height, her hands clenched, her breast heaving under her white evening dress, her eyes glaring—
"You shan't! You shan't! I won't have any of them here. I hate Cornwall and all its nasty people and I hate Brockett's and all those people you knew there. When you married me you gave them all up—all of them. And if you have them here I won't stay in the house—I'll leave you. All that part of your life is nothing to do with me. Nothing—and I simply won't have it. You can do what you like but you choose between them and me—you can go back to your old life if you like but you go without me!"
She burst from the room, banging the door behind her. She had behaved exactly like a small child in the nursery. As he looked at the door he was bewildered—whence suddenly had this figure sprung? It was some one whom he did not know. He could not reconcile it with the dignified Clare, proud as a queen, crossing a ball-room or the dear beloved Clare nestling into a corner of his arm-chair, her face against his, or the gentle friendly Clare listening to some story of distress.
The fury, the tempest of it! It was as though everything in the room had been broken. And he, with his glorious, tragical youth felt that the end of the world had come. This was the conclusion of life—no more cause for living, no more friendship or comfort or help anywhere. Clare had said those things to him. He stood, for ten minutes there, in the middle of the room, without moving—his face white, his eyes full of pain.
Sarah came to tell him that the hansom was there. He moved into the hall with the intention of sending it away; no party for him to-night—when, to his amazement he saw Clare coming slowly down the stairs, her cloak on, buttoning her gloves.
She passed him without a word and got into the hansom. He took his hat and coat, gave the driver the address, and climbed in beside her.
Once as they drove he put out his hand, touched her dress and said—"Clare dear—"
She made no reply, but sat looking, with her eyes large and black in her little white face, steadfastly in front of her.
Lady Luncon was a rich, good-natured woman who had recently published a novel and was anxious to hear it praised, therefore she gave a party. Originally a manufacturer's daughter, she had conquered a penniless baronet—spent twenty years in the besieging of certain drawing-rooms and now, tired of more mundane worlds, fixed her attention upon the Arts. She was a completely stupid woman, her novel had been exceedingly vulgar, but her good heart and a habit of speaking vaguely in capital letters secured her attention.
When Clare and Peter arrived people were filling her drawing-rooms, overflowing on to the stairs and pouring into the supper room. Some one, very far away, was singing "Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix," a babel of voices rose about Clare and Peter on every side, every one was flung against every one; heat and scent, the crackle and rustle of clothes, the soft voices of the men and sharp strident voices of the women gave one the sensation of imminent suffocation; people with hot red faces, unable to move at all, flung agonised glances at the door as though the entrance of one more person must mean death and disaster.
There were, Peter soon discovered, three topics of conversation: one was their hostess' novel and this was only discussed when Lady Luncon was herself somewhere at hand—the second topic concerned the books of somebody who had, most unjustly it appeared, been banned by the libraries for impropriety, and here opinions were divided as to whether the author would gain by the advertisement or lose by loss of library circulation. Thirdly, there was a new young man who had written a novel about the love affairs of a crocus and a violet—it was amazingly improper, full of poetry—"right back," as somebody said "to Nature." Moreover there was much talk about Form. "Here is the new thing in fiction that we are looking for ..." also "Quite a young man—oh yes, only about eighteen and so modest. You would never think...."
His name was Rondel and Peter saw him, for a moment, as the crowds parted, standing, with a tall, grim, elderly woman, apparently his mother, beside him. He was looking frightened and embarrassed and stood up straight against the wall as though afraid lest some one should come and snatch him away.
But Peter saw the world in a dream. He walked about, with Clare beside him, and talked to many people; then she was stopped by some one whom she knew and he went on alone. Now there had come back to him the old terror. If he went back, after this was over, and Clare was still angry with him, he did not know what he would do. He was afraid....
He smiled, talked, laughed and, in his chest, there was a sharp acute pain like a knife. He had still with him that feeling that nothing in life now was worth while and there followed on that a wild impulse to let go, to fling off the restraints that he had retained now for so long and with such bitter determination.
He wanted to cast aside this absurd party, to hurry home alone with Clare, to sit alone with her in the little house and to reach the divine moment when reconciliation came and they were closer to one another than ever before—and then there was the horrible suggestion that there would be no reconciliation, that Clare would make of this absurd quarrel an eternal breach, that things would never be right again.
He looked back and saw Clare smiling gaily, happily, at some friend. He saw her as she had faced him, furiously, an hour earlier ... oh God! If she should never care for him again!
He recognised many friends. There were the two young Galleons, Millicent and Percival, looking as important and mysterious as possible, taxing their brains for something clever to say....
"Ah, that's Life!" Peter heard Percival say to some one. Young fools, he thought to himself, let them have my trouble and then they may talk. But they were nice to him when he came up to them. The author of "Reuben Hallard," even though he did look like a sailor on leave, was worth respecting—moreover, father liked him and believed in him—nevertheless he was just a tiny bit "last year's sensation." "Have you read," said Percival eagerly, "'The Violet's Redemption'? It really is the most tremendous thing—all about a violet. There's the fellow who wrote it over there—young chap standing with his back to the wall...."
There was also with them young Tony Gale who was a friend of Alice Galleon. He was nice-looking, eager and enthusiastic. Rather too enthusiastic, Peter, who did not like him, considered. Full of the joy of life; everything was "topping" and "ripping." "I can't understand," he would say, "why people find life dull. I never find it dull. It's the most wonderful glorious thing—"
"Ah, but then you're so young," he always expected his companions to say; and the thing that pleased him most of all was to hear some one declare—"Tony Gale's such a puzzle—sometimes he seems only eighteen and then suddenly he's fifty."
It was rumoured that he had once been in love with Alice Galleon when she had been Alice du Cane—and that they had nearly made a match of it; but he was certainly now married to a charming girl whom he had seen in Cornwall and the two young things were considered delightful by the whole of Chelsea.
Tony Gale had with him a man called James Maradick whom Peter had met before and liked. Maradick was forty-two or three, large, rather heavy in build and expression and very taciturn. He was in business in the city, but had been drawn, Peter knew not how, into the literary world of London. He was often to be found at dinner parties and evening "squashes" silent, observant and generally alone. Many people thought him dull, but Peter liked him partly because of his reserve and partly because of his enthusiasm for Cornwall. Cornwall seemed to be the only subject that could stir Maradick into excitement, and when Cornwall was under discussion the whole man woke into sudden stir and emotion.
To-night, with his almost cynical observance of the emotions and excitement that surged about him, he seemed to Peter the one man possible in the whole gathering.