"Look here, Maradick, let's get somewhere out of this crush and have a cigarette."
People were all pouring into supper now and Peter saw his wife in the distance, on Bobby Galleon's arm. They found a little conservatory deserted now and strangely quiet after the din of the other rooms: here they sat down.
Maradick was capable of sitting, quite happily for hours, without saying anything at all. For some time they were both silent.
At last Peter said: "By jove, Maradick, yours is a fortunate sort of life—just going into the city every day, coming back to your wife in the evening—no stupid troubles that come from imagining things that aren't there—"
"How do you know I don't?" answered Maradick quietly. "Imagination hasn't anything to do with one's profession. I expect there's as much imagination amongst the Stock Exchange men as there is with you literary people—only it's expressed differently."
"What do you do," said Peter, "if it ever gets too much for you?"
"Do? How do you mean?"
"Well suppose you're feeling all the time that one little thing more, one little word or some one coming in or a window breaking—anything will upset the equilibrium of everything? Supposing you're out with all your might to keep things sane and to prevent your life from swinging back into all the storm and uncertainty that it was in once before, and supposing you feel that there are a whole lot of things trying to get you to swing back, what's the best thing to do?"
"Why, hold on, hold on—"
"How do you mean?"
"Fortitude—Courage. Clinging on with your nails, setting your teeth."
Peter was surprised at the man's earnestness. The two of them sitting there in that lonely deserted little conservatory were instantly aware of some common experience.
Maradick put his hand on Peter's knee.
"Westcott, you're young, but I know the kind of thing you mean. Believe me that it's no silly nonsense to talk of the Devil—the Devil is as real and personal as you and I, and he's got his agents in every sort and kind of place. If he once gets his net out for you then you'll want all your courage. I know," he went on sinking his voice, "there was a time I had once in Cornwall when I was brought pretty close to things of that sort—it doesn't leave you the same afterwards. There's a place down in Cornwall called Treliss...."
"Treliss!" Peter almost shouted. "Why that's where I come from. I was born there—that's my town—"
Before Maradick could reply Bobby Galleon burst into the conservatory. "Oh, there you are—I've been looking for you everywhere. How are you, Maradick? Look here, Peter, you've got to come down to supper with us. We've got a table—Alice, Clare, Millicent, Percival, Tony Gale and his wife and you and I—and—one other—an old friend of yours, Peter."
"An old friend?" said Peter, getting up from his chair and trying to look as though he were not furious with Bobby for the interruption.
"Yes—you'll never guess, if I give you a hundred guesses—it's most exciting—come along—"
Peter was led away. As he moved through the dazzling, noisy rooms he was conscious that there, in the quiet, dark little conservatory, Maradick was sitting, motionless, seeing Treliss.
On his way down to the supper room he was filled with annoyance at the thought of his interrupted conversation. He might never have his opportunity again. Maradick was so reserved a fellow and took so few into his confidence—also he would, in all probability, be ashamed to-morrow of having spoken at all.
But to Peter at that moment the world about him was fantastic and unreal. It seemed to him that at certain periods in his life he was suddenly confronted with a fellow creature who perceived life as he perceived it. There were certain persons who could not leave life alone—they must always be seeing it as a key to something wider, bigger altogether. This was nothing to do with Christianity or any creed whatever, because Creeds implied Certainty and Definition of Knowledge, whereas Peter and the others like him did not know for what they were searching. Again, they were not Mystics because Mysticism needed a definite removal from this world before any other world were possible. No, they were simply Explorers and one traced a member of the order on the instant. There had been already in Peter's life, Frosted Moses, Stephen, Mr. Zanti, Noah Monogue, and now suddenly there was Maradick. These were people who would not laugh at his terror of Scaw House, at his odd belief that his father was always trying to draw him back to Treliss....
As he entered the supper-room and saw Clare sitting at a distant table, he knew that his wife would never be an Explorer. For her Fires and Walls, for her no questions, no untidiness moral or physical—the Explorer travelled ever with his life in his hands—Clare believed in the Stay-at-homes.
The great dining-room was filled with Stay-at-homes. One saw it in their eyes, in the flutter of useless and tired words that rose and fell; all the souls in that room were cushioned and were happy that it was so. The Rider on the Lion was beyond the Electric Lights—on the dark hill, over the darker river, under the stars. Somebody pulled a cracker and put on a paper cap. He was a stout man with a bald head and the back of his neck rippled with fat. He had tiny eyes.
"Look at Mr. Horset," cried the woman next to him—"Isn't he absurd?"
Peter found at the table in the corner Alice, Clare, Millicent and Percival Galleon, Tony Gale and his wife, waiting. There was also a man standing by Alice's chair and he watched Peter with amused eyes.
He held out his hand and smiled. "How do you do, Westcott?" he said. Then, with the sound of his voice, the soft almost caressing tilt of it, Peter knew who it was. His mind flew back to a day, years ago, when he had flung himself on the ground and cried his soul out because some one had gone away....
"Cards!" he cried. "Of all wonderful things!"
Cards of Dawson's—Cards, the magnetic, the brilliant, Cards with his World and his Society and now slim and dark and romantic as ever, making every one else in the room shabby beside him, so that Bobby's white waistcoat was instantly seen to be hanging loosely above his shirt and Peter's trousers were short, and even the elegant Percival had scarcely covered with perfect equality the ends of his white tie.
Instantly as though the intervening years had never been, Bobby took his second place beside Cards' glory—even Percival's intention of securing the wonderful Mr. Rondel, author of "The Violet's Redemption," for their table, failed of its effect.
They were enough. They didn't want anybody else—Room for Mr. Cardillac!
And he seized it. Just as he would have seized it years ago at school so he seized it now. Their table was caught into the most dazzling series of adventures. Cards had been everywhere, seen everybody and everything—seen it all, moreover, with the right kind of gaiety, with an appreciation that was intelligent and also humorous. There was humour one moment and pathos the next—deep feeling and the wittiest cynicism.
They were all swung about Europe and with Cards at their head pranced through the cities of the world. Meanwhile Peter fancied that once or twice Clare flung him a little glance of appeal to ask for forgiveness—and once they looked up and smiled at one another. A tiny smile but it meant everything.
"Oh! won't we have a reconciliation afterwards? How could I have said those things? Don't we just love one another?"
When they went upstairs again Peter and Cards exchanged a word:
"You'll come and see us?"
"My dear old man, I should just think so. This is the first time I've been properly in London for years and now I'm going to stay. Fancy you married and successful and here am I still the rolling-stone!"
"You! Why you can do anything!"
"Can't write 'Reuben Hallard,' old boy...." and so, with a laugh, they parted.
In the cab, afterwards, Clare's head was buried in Peter's coat, and she sobbed her heart out. "How I could have been such a beast, Peter, Peter!"
"Darling, it was nothing."
"Oh, but it was! It shall never, never happen again...but I was frightened—"
"Yes, I always think some one's going to take you away. I don't understand all those other people. They frighten me—I want you to myself, just you and I—always."
"But nobody can take me away—nobody—"
The cab jolted along—her hand was on his knee—and every now and again a lamp lighted her face for him and then dropped it back into darkness.
By the sharp pressure of her hand he knew that she was moved by an intensity of feeling, swayed now by one of those moods that came to her so strangely that it seemed that they belonged to another personality.
"Look... Peter. I'm seeing clearly as I think I never have before. I'm afraid—not because of you—but because of myself. If you knew—" here his hand came down and found hers—"if you knew how I despise myself, my real self. I've been spoilt always, always, always. I've always known it. My real self is ashamed of it. But there's another side of me that comes down suddenly and hides all that—and then—when that happens—I just want to get what I want and not to be hurt and ..." she pressed closer against him and went on in a whisper.
"Peter, I shall always care for you more than any one—always whatever happens. But think, a time will come—I know it—when you'll have to watch me, to keep me by you, and even let your work go—everything, just for a time until I'm safe. I suppose that moment comes to most women in their married lives. But to me, when it happens, it will be worse than for most women because I've always had my way. You mustn't let me have my way then—simply clutch me, be cruel, brutal, anything only don't let me go. Then, if you keep me through that, you'll always keep me."
To Peter it was almost as though she were talking in her sleep, something, there in the old, lumbering cab that was given to her by some one else to say something to which she herself would not give credit.
"That's all right, you darling, you darling, you darling." He covered her face, her eyes with kisses. "I'll never let you go—never." He felt her quiver a little under his arms.
"Don't mind, Peter, my horrible, beastly character. Just keep me for a little, train me—and then later I'll be such a wife to you, such a wife!"
Then she drew his head down. His lips touched her body just above her dress, where her cloak parted.
"There's something else."
She raised her face from his coat and looked up at him. Her cheeks were stained with crying and her eyes, large and dark, held him furiously as though he were the one place of safety.
He caught her very close.
"What is it?..."
* * * * *
That night, long after he, triumphant with the glory of her secret, had fallen asleep, she lay, staring into the dark, with frightened eyes.
BIRTH OF THE HEIR
Peter's child was born on a night of frost when the stars were hard and fierce and a full moon, dull gold, flung high shadows upon the town.
During the afternoon the fear that had been in Clare's eyes for many weeks suddenly flamed into terror—the doctor was sent for and Peter was banished from the room.
Peter looked ludicrously, pitifully young as he sat, through the evening, in his room at the top of the house, staring in front of him, his face grey with anxiety, his broad shoulders set back as though ready for a blow; his strong fingers clutched the things on his writing-table, held them, dropped them, just like the hands of a blind man about the shining surface, tapping the wood.
He saw her always as he had seen her last night when she had caught his arm crying—"If I die, Peter.... Oh, Peter, if I die!"... and he had comforted and stroked her hair, warming her cold fingers.
How young she was, how tiny for this suffering—and it was he, he who had brought it upon her! Now, she was lying in her bed, as he had once seen his mother lie, with her hair spread about the pillow, her hands gripping the sheets, her eyes wide and black—the vast, hard bed-room closing her in, shutting her down—
She who loved comfort, who feared any pain, who would have Life safe and easy, that she should be forced—
The house was very still about him—no sound came up to him; it seemed to him that the hush was deliberate. The top branches of the trees in the little orchard touched his window and tapped ever and again; a fire burnt brightly, he had drawn his curtains and beyond the windows the great sheet of stars, the black houses, the white light of the moon.
And there, before him—what mockery! the neat pages of "The Stone House" now almost completed.
He stared into the wall and saw her face, her red-gold hair upon the pillow, her dark staring eyes—
Once the nurse came to him—Yes, she was suffering, but all went well ... it would be about midnight, perhaps. There was no cause for alarm ....
He thought that the nurse looked at him with compassion. He turned fiercely upon Life that it should have brought this to them when they were both so young.
At last, about ten o'clock, able no longer to endure the silence of the house—so ominous—and the gentle tap-tap of the branches upon the pane and the whispering crackle of the fire, he went out....
A cold hard unreal world received him. Down Sloane Street the lines of yellow lamps, bending at last until they met in sharp blue distance, were soft and misty against the outline of the street, the houses were unreal in the moonlight, a few people passed quickly, their footsteps sharp in the frosty air—all the little painted doors of Sloane Street were blind and secret.
He passed through Knightsbridge, into the Park. As the black trees closed him in the fear of London came, tumbling upon him. He remembered that day when he had sat, shivering, on a seat on the Embankment, and had heard that note, sinister, threatening, through the noise and clattering traffic. He heard it again now. It came from the heart of the black trees that lined the moonlit road, a whisper, a thread of sound that accompanied him, pervaded him, threatened him. The scaly beast knew that another victim was about to be born—another woman was to undergo torture, so that when the day came and the scaly beast rose from its sleep then there would be one more to be devoured.
He, Peter, was to have a child. He had longed for a child ever since he could remember. He had always loved children—other people's children—but to have one of his own!... To have something that was his and Clare's and theirs alone, to have its love, to feel that it depended Upon them both, to watch it, to tend it—Life could have no gift like that.
But now the child was hidden from him. He thought of nothing but Clare, of her suffering and terror, of her waiting there so helplessly for the dreadful moment of supreme pain. The love that he had now for Clare was something more tender, more devoted, than he had ever felt for any human being. His mind flew back fiercely to that night of his first quarrel when she had told him. Now he was to be punished for his heartlessness and cruelty ... by her loss.
His agony and terror grew as he paced beneath the dark and bending trees. He sat down on a seat, at the other end of which was a little man with a bowler hat, spectacles and his coat collar turned up. He was a shabby little man and his thin bony hands beat restlessly upon his knees.
The little man said, "Good evening, sir."
"Good evening," said Peter, staring desperately in front of him.
"It's all this blasted government—"
"I beg your pardon—"
"This blasted government—This income tax and all—"
"It's more than that," said Peter, wishing that the man would cease beating his knees with his hands—
"It's them blasted stars—it's Gawd. That's what it is. Curse Gawd—that's what I say—Curse Gawd!"
"What's He done?" said Peter.
"I've just broken in my wife's 'ead with a poker. Killed 'er I expect—I dunno—going back to see in a minute—"
"Why did you do it?"
"'Ad to—always nagging—that's what she was—always nagging. Wanted things—all sorts o' things—and there were always children coming—So we 'ad a blasted argyment this evening and I broke 'er 'ead open—Gawd did it—that's what I say—"
Peter said nothing.
"You can call a bloomin' copper if you want to," the little man said.
"It's no business of mine," said Peter and he got up and left him. All shadows—only the sinister noise that London makes is real, that and Clare's suffering.
He left the Park turned into Knightsbridge and came upon a toyshop. The shutters had not been put up and the lights of a lamp shone full upon its windows. Against the iron railings opposite and the high white road these toys stood with sharp, distinct outline behind the slanting light of the glass. There were dolls—a fine wedding doll, orange blossom, lace and white silk, and from behind it all, the sharp pinched features and black beady eyes stared out.... There was a Swiss doll with bright red cheeks, red and green clothing and shoes with shining buckles. Then there were the more ordinary dolls—and gradually down the length of the window, their clothing was taken from them until at last some wooden creatures with flaring cheeks and brazen eyes kicked their limbs and defied the proprieties.
He would be a Boy ... he would not care about dolls....
There were soldiers—rows and rows of gleaming soldiers. They came from a misty distance at the top of the shop window, came marching from the gates of some dark, mediaeval castle. Their swords caught the lamplight, shining in a line of silver and the precision with which they marched, the certainty with which they trod the little bridge ... ah, these were the fellows! He would be a Boy ... soldiers would enchant him! He should have boxes, boxes, boxes!
There were many other things in the window; teddy bears and animals with soft woolly stomachs and fat comfortable legs—and there were ugly, modern Horrors with fat bulging faces and black hair erect like wire; there were little devils with red tails, there were rabbits that rode bicycles and monkeys that climbed trees. There were drums—big drums and little drums—trumpets with crimson tassels, and in one corner a pyramid of balls, balls of every colour, and at the top of the pyramid a tiny ball of peacock blue, hanging, balancing, daintily, supremely right in pose and gesture.
It had gesture. It caught Peter's eye—Peter stood with his nose against the pane, his heart hammering—"Oh! she is suffering—My God, how she is suffering!"—and there the little blue ball caught him, held him, encouraged him.
"I will belong to your boy one day" it seemed to say.
"It shall be the first thing I will buy for him—" thought Peter.
He turned now amongst the light and crowds of Piccadilly. He walked on without seeing and hearing—always with that thought in his heart—"She is in terrible pain. How can God be so cruel? And she was so happy—before I came she was so happy—now—what have I done to her?"
Never, before to-night, had he felt so sharply, so irretrievably his sense of responsibility. Here now, before him, at this birth of his child, everything that he had done, thought, said—everything that he had been—confronted him. He was only twenty-seven but his shoulders were heavy with the confusion of his past. Looking back upon it, he saw a helpless medley of indecisions, of sudden impulses, sudden refusals; into the skeins of it, too, there seemed to be dragged the people that had made up his life—they faced him, surrounded him, bewildered him!
What right had he, thus encompassed, to hand these things on to another? His father, his grandfather ... he saw always that dark strain of hatred, of madness, of evil working in their blood. Suppose that as his boy grew he should see this in the young eyes? Suppose, most horrible of all, that he should feel this hatred for his son that his grandfather had felt for his father, that his father had felt for him.
What had he done?... He stopped, staring confusedly about him. The people jostled him on every side. The old devils were at him—"Eat and drink for to-morrow we die.... Give it up ... We're too strong for you and we'll be too strong for your son. Who are you to defy us? Come down—give it up—"
His white face caught attention. "Move along, guv'nor," some one shouted. A man took him by the arm and led up a dark side street. He turned his eyes and saw that the man was Maradick.
The elder man felt that the boy was trembling from head to foot.
"What's the matter, Westcott? Anything I can do for you?"
Peter seemed to take him in slowly, and then, with a great effort, to pull himself together.
"What, you—Maradick? Where was I? I'm afraid I've been making a fool of myself...." A church clock struck somewhere in the distance. "Hullo, I say, what's that? That's eleven. I must get back, I ought to be at home—"
"I'll come with you—"
Maradick hailed a hansom and helped Peter into it.
For a moment there was silence—then Maradick said—
"I hope everything's all right, Westcott? Your wife?"
Peter spoke as though he were in a dream. "I've been waiting there all the afternoon—she's been suffering—My God!... It got on my nerves.... She's so young—they oughtn't to hurt her like that." He covered his face with his hands.
"I know. I felt like that when my first child came. It's terrible, awful. And then it's over—all the pain—and it's magnificent, glorious—and then—later—it's so commonplace that you cannot believe that it was ever either awful or magnificent. Fix your mind on the glorious part of it, Westcott. Think of this time to-morrow when your wife will be so proud, so happy—you'll both be so proud, so happy, that you'll never know anything in life like it."
"Yes, yes, I know—of course it's sure to be all right—but I suppose this waiting's got on my nerves. There was a fellow in the Park just broken his wife's head in—and then everything was so quiet. I could almost hear her crying, right away in her room."
He stopped a moment and then went on. "It's what I've always wanted—always to have a boy. And, by Jove, he'll be wonderful! I tell you he shall be—We'll be such pals!" He broke off suddenly—"You haven't a boy?"
"No, mine are both girls. Getting on now—they'll soon be coming out. I should like to have had a boy—" Maradick sighed.
"Are they an awful lot to you?"
"No—I don't suppose they are. I should have understood a boy better,—but they're good girls. I'm proud of them in a way—but I'm out so much, you see."
Peter faced the contrast. Here this middle-aged man, with his two girls—and here too he, Peter, with his agonising, flaming trial—to slip, so soon, into dull commonplace?
"But didn't you—if you can look so far—didn't you, when the first child came, funk it? Your responsibility I mean. All the things one's—one's ancestors—it's frightening enough for oneself but to hand it on—"
"It's nothing to do with oneself—one's used, that's all. The child will be on its own legs, thrusting you away before you know where you are. It will want to claim its responsibilities—ancestors and all—"
Peter said nothing—Maradick went on:
"You know we were talking one night and were interrupted—you're in danger of letting the things you imagine beat the things you know. Stick to the thing you can grasp, touch—I know the dangers of the others—I told you that once in Cornwall, I—the most unlikely person in the world—was caught up by it. I've never laughed at morbidity, or nerves, or insanity since. There's such a jolly thin wall between the sanest, most level-headed beef-eating Squire in the country and the maddest poet in Bedlam. I know—I've been both in the same day. It's better to be both, I believe, if you can keep one under the other, but you must keep it under—"
Maradick talked on. He saw that the boy's nerves were jumping, that he was holding himself in with the greatest difficulty.
Peter said: "You don't know, Maradick. I've had to fight all my life—my father, grandfather, all of them have given in at last—and now this child ... perhaps I shall see it growing, see him gradually learning to hate me, see myself hating him ... at last, my God, see him go under—drink, deviltry—I've fought it—I'm always fighting it—but to-night—"
"Good heavens, man—you're not going to tell me that your father, your grandfather—the rest of them—are stronger than you. What about your soul, your own blessed soul that can't be touched by any living thing or dead thing either if you stick to it? Why, every man's got power enough in himself to ride heaven and earth and all eternity if he only believed he'd got it! Ride your scruples, man—ride 'em, drive 'em—send 'em scuttling. Believe in yourself and stick to it—Courage!..."
Maradick pulled himself in. They were driving now, down the King's Road. The people were pouring in a thick, buzzing crowd, out of the Chelsea Palace. Middle-aged stockbrokers in hansom cabs—talking like the third act of a problem play!—but Maradick had done his work. As they drove round the corner, past the mad lady's painted house, he saw that Peter was calmer. He had regained his self-control. The little house where Peter lived was very still—the trees in the orchard were stiff and dark beneath the stars.
Peter spoke in a whisper—"Good-night, Maradick, you've done me a lot of good—I shan't forget it."
"Good luck to you," Maradick whispered back. Peter stole into the house.
The little drawing-room looked very cosy; the fire was burning, the lamp lighted, the thick curtains drawn. Maria Theresa smiled, with all her finery, from the wall.
Peter sat down in front of the fire. Maradick was right. One must have one's hand on the bridle—the Rider on the Lion again. It's better that the beast under you should be a Lion rather than a Donkey, but let it once fling you off its back and you're done for. And Maradick had said these things! Maradick whom once Peter had considered the dullest of his acquaintances. Well, one never knew about people—most of the Stay-at-homes were Explorers and vice versa, if one only understood them.
How still the house was! What was happening upstairs? He could not go and see—he could not move. He was held by the stillness. The doctor would come and tell him....
He thought of the toyshop—that blue ball—it would be the first thing that he would buy for the boy—and then soldiers—soldiers that wouldn't hurt him, that he couldn't lick the paint from—
Now the little silver clock ticked! He was so terribly tired—he had never been tired like this before....
The stillness pressed upon the house. Every sound—the distant rattling of some cab, the faint murmur of trams—was stifled, extinguished. The orchard seemed to press in upon the house, darker and darker grew the forest about it—The stars were shut out, the moon... the world was dead.
Then into this sealed and hidden silence, a voice crying from an upper room, suddenly fell—a woman in the abandonment of utter pain, pain beyond all control, was screaming. Somewhere, above that dark forest that pressed in upon the house, a bird of prey hovered. It hung for a moment; it descended—its talons were fixed upon her flesh... then again it ascended. Shriek after shriek, bursting the silence, chasing the shadows, flooding the secrecy with horrible light, beat like blows upon the walls of the house—rose, fell, rose again. Peter was standing, his back against the wall, his hands spread out, his face grey.
"My God, my God... Oh! my God!"
The sweat poured from his forehead. Once more there was silence but now it was ominous, awful....
The little silver clock ticked—Peter's body stood stretched against the wall—he faced the door.
Hours, hours passed. He did not move. The screaming had, many years ago, ceased. The doctor—a cheerful man with blue eyes and a little bristling moustache—came in.
"A fine boy, Mr. Westcott—I congratulate you. You might see your wife for a moment if you cared—stood it remarkably well—"
Slowly the forest, dark and terrible, moved away from the house. Very faintly again could be heard the distant rattling of some cab, the murmur of trams.
DECLARATION OF HAPPINESS
Extracts from letters that Bobby Galleon wrote to Alice Galleon about this time:
"... But, of course, I am sorrier than I can say that it's so dull. That's due to charity, my dear, and if you will go and fling yourself into the depths of Yorkshire because a girl like Ola Hunting chooses to think she's unhappy and lonely you've only yourself to thank. Moreover there's your husband to be considered. I don't suppose, for a single instant, that he really prefers to be left alone, with his infant son, mind you, howling at the present moment because his nurse won't let him swallow the glass marbles, and you can picture to yourself—if you want to make yourself thoroughly unhappy—your Robert sitting, melancholy throughout the long evening, alone, desolate, creeping to bed somewhere about ten o'clock.
"So there we are—you're bored to death and I've no one to growl at when I come back from the City—all Ola Hunting's fault—wring the girl's neck. Meanwhile here I sit and every evening I'll write whatever comes into my head and never look back on it again but stick it into an envelope and send it to you. You know me too well by now to be disappointed at anything.
"I'm quite sure that, if you were here with me now, sitting in that chair opposite me and sewing for all you were worth, that the thing that we'd be talking about would be Peter. If, therefore, these scrawls are full of Peter you won't mind, I know. He's immensely occupying my attention just now and you love him as truly and deeply as I do, so that if I go on at length about him you'll excuse it on that score. You who know me better than any one else in the world know that, in my most secret heart, I flatter myself on my ability as a psychologist. I remember when I told you first how you laughed but I think since then you've come round not a little, and although we both keep it to ourselves, it's a little secret that you're a tiny bit proud of. I can see how brother Percival, or young Tony Gale, or even dear Peter himself would mock, if I told them of this ambition of mine. 'Good, dear, stupid, old Bobby' is the way they think of me, and I know it's mother's perpetual wonder (and also, I think, a little her comfort) that I should be so lacking in brilliance when Percival and Millie are so full of it.
"You know Peter's attitude to me in these things—you've seen it often enough. He's patronising—he can't help it. That isn't, he considers, my line in the least, and, let me once begin to talk to him of stocks and shares and he'll open all his ears. Well, I can't blame him—but I do think these writers and people are inclined to draw their line a little too sharply with their Philistines—great big gulf, please—and Artists. At any rate, here goes for my psychology and good luck to it. Peter, in fact, is so interesting a subject if one sees anything of him at all that I believe he'd draw speculation out of any one. There was old Maradick talking about him the other night—fascinated by him and understanding him most amazingly well—another instance of your Philistine and Artist mixed.
"But I knew him—and knew him jolly well too—when he was about twelve, so that I really get a pull over the rest of you there, for it adds of course immensely to the interest and if ever child was Father of the Man, Peter was. You know how we both funked that marriage of his for him—you because you knew Clare so well, I because I knew Peter. And then for a time it really seemed that we were both entirely wrong. Clare's is a far simpler personality than Peter's, and if you work along one or two recognised lines—let her have her way, don't frighten her, above all keep her conventional—it's all right. Clare was, and is, awfully in love with him, and he madly with her of course—and that helped everything along. You know how relieved we both were and indeed it seemed, for a time, that it was going to be the making of both of them—going to make Clare braver and Peter less morbid.
"Well, it's since you've been away that everything's happened. Although the baby was born some weeks before you went, it's only lately that Clare has been up and about. She's perfectly well and the baby's splendid—promises to be a tremendous fellow and as healthy as possible. You can imagine, a little, the effect of it all on Clare. I don't suppose there's any girl in London been so wrapped in cotton wool all her life, and that old ass of a father and still more irritating ass of a mother would go on wrapping her still if they had their way. The fuss they've both made about this whole business is simply incredible—especially when the man's a doctor and brings Lord knows how many children into the world every week of his life. But it's all been awfully bad for Clare. Of course, she was frightened—frightened out of her wits. It's the very first time life ever had its wrappings off for her, and that in itself of course is a tremendously good thing. But you can't, unfortunately, wrap any one up for all those years and then take the wrappings off and not deliver a shock to the system. Of course there's a shock, and it's just this shock that I'm so afraid of. I'm afraid of it for one thing because Peter's so entirely oblivious of it. He was in an agony of terror on the day that the baby was born, but once it was there—well and healthy and promising—fear vanished. He could only see room for glory—and glory he does. I cannot tell you what that boy is like about the baby; at present he thinks, day and night, of nothing else. It is the most terrific thing to watch his feeling about it—and meanwhile he takes it for granted that Clare feels the same.... Well, she doesn't. I have been in a good deal during these last few days and she's stranger than words can say—doesn't see the child if she can help it—loves it, worships it, when it is there, and—is terrified of it. I saw a look in her eyes when she was nursing it yesterday that was sheer undiluted terror. She's been frightened out of her life, and if I know her the least little bit she's absolutely made up her mind never to be frightened like that again. She is going to hurl herself into a perfect whirlpool of excitement and entertainment and drag Peter with her if she can. Meanwhile, behind that hard little head of hers, she's making plans just as fast as she can make them. I believe she looks on life now as though it had broken the compact that she made with it—a compact that things should always be easy, comfortable, above all, never threatening. The present must be calm but the Future's absolutely got to be—and I believe, although she loves him devotedly in the depths of her strange little soul, that she half blames Peter for all of this disturbance, and that there are a great many things about him—his earlier life, his earlier friends, even his work—that she would strip from him if she could.
"Well, enough for the present. I don't know what nonsense there isn't here. Into the envelope it all goes. I've been talking to you for an hour and a half and that's something...."
"... I've just come in from dinner with Peter and Clare and feel inclined to talk to you for hours ahead. However, that I can't do, so I shall write to you instead and you're to regard it all as a continuation of the things that I said in last night's letter. I am as interested as ever and indeed, after this evening's dinner more interested. The odd thing about it all is that Peter is so completely oblivious to any change that may be going on in Clare. His whole mind is centred now on the baby, he cannot have enough of it and it was he, and not Clare, who took me up after dinner to see it sleeping.
"You remember that they had some kind of a dispute about the name of the boy at the time of the christening. Peter insisted that it should be Stephen, after, I suppose, that odd Cornish friend of his, and Clare, weak and ill though she was, objected with all her might. I don't know why she took this so much to heart but it was all, I suppose, part of that odd hatred that she has of Peter's earlier life and earlier friends. She has never met the man Brant, but I think that she fancies that he is going to swoop down one of these days and carry Peter off on a broomstick or something. She gave in about the name—indeed I have never seen Peter more determined—but I think, nevertheless, that she broods over it and remembers it. My dear, I am as sorry for her as I can be. There she stands, loving Peter with all her heart and soul, terrified out of her wits at the possibilities that life is presenting to her, hating Peter's friends at one moment, his work the next, the baby the next—exactly like some one, walking on a window-ledge in his sleep and suddenly waking and discovering—
"Peter's a more difficult question. He's too riotously happy just at the moment to listen to a word from any one. His relation to the child is really the most touching thing you ever saw, and really the child, considering that it has scarcely begun to exist, has a feeling for him in the most wonderful way. It is as good as gold when he is there and follows him with its eyes—it doesn't pay much attention to Clare. I think it knows that she's frightened of it. Yes, Peter is quite riotously happy. You know that 'The Stone House' is coming out next week. There is to be a supper party at the Galleons'—myself, Mrs. Launce. Maradick, the Gales, some woman he knew at that boarding-house, Cardillac and Dr. and Mrs. Rossiter.
"By the way, Cardillac is there a great deal and I am both glad and sorry. He is very good for Clare and not at all good for Peter. He seems to understand Clare in the most wonderful way—far better than Peter does. He brings her out, helps her to be broader and really I think explains Peter to her and helps things along. His influence on Peter is all the other way. Peter, of course, worships him, just as he used to do in the old days at school, and Cards always liked being worshipped. He has an elegance, a savoir-faire that dear, square-shouldered rough-and-tumble Peter finds entrancing, but, of course, Peter's worth the dozen of him any day of the week. He drags out all Peter's worst side. I wonder whether you'll understand what I mean when I say that Peter isn't meant to be happy—at any rate not yet. He's got something too big, too tremendous in him to be carved easily into any one of our humdrum, conventional shapes. He takes things so hard that he isn't intended to take more than one thing at a time, and here he is with Clare and Cards both, as it seems to me, in a conspiracy to pull him into a thousand little bits and to fling each little bit to a different tea-party.
"He ought to be getting at his work and he isn't getting at it at all. 'The Stone House' is coming out next week and it may be all right, but I don't mind betting that the next one suffers. If he weren't in a kind of dream he'd see it all himself, and indeed I think that he'll wake one day soon and see that a thousand ridiculous things are getting in between him and his proper life.
"He was leading his proper life in those days at Dawson's when they were beating him at home and hating him at school, and it was that old bookshop and the queer people he met in it that produced 'Reuben Hallard.'
"He's so amazingly young in the ways of the world, so eager to make friends with everybody, so delighted with an entirely superficial butterfly like Cards, so devotedly attached to his wife, that I must confess that the outlook seems to me bad. There's going to be a tremendous tug-of-war in a minute and it's not going to be easy for the boy—nor, indeed for Clare.
"I hope that you don't feel so far removed from this in your Yorkshire desert that it has no interest for you, but I know how devoted you are to Peter and one doesn't want to see the boy turned into the society novelist creature—the kind of creature, God forgive me, that brother Percival is certain to become. You'll probably say when you read this that I am trying to drag out all the morbid side of Peter and make him the melancholy, introspective creature that he used to be, in fits and starts, when you first knew him. Of course that's the last thing I want to do, but work to a man of Peter's temperament is the one rock that can save him. He has, I do believe, a touch of genius in him somewhere, and I believe that if he's allowed to follow, devoutly and with pain and anguish, maybe, his Art, he'll be a great creature—a great man and a great writer. But he's in the making—too eager to please, too eager to care for every one, too desperately down if he thinks things are going badly with him. I notice that he hasn't been to see my father lately—I think too that all this reviewing is bad for him—other people's novels pouring upon him in an avalanche must take something from the freshness of his own.
"Anyhow I, Robert Galleon, your clever and penetrating husband, scent much danger and trouble ahead. Clare, simply out of love for him and anxiety for herself, will I know, do all she can to drag him from the thing that he should follow—and Cards will help her—out of sheer mischief, I verily believe.
"On their own heads be it. As to the carpets you asked me to go and look at...."
"... And now for the supper party. Although there's a whole day behind me I'm still quivering under the excitement of it. As I tell you about it it will in all probability, declare itself as a perfectly ordinary affair, and, indeed, I think that you should have been there yourself to have realised the emotion of it. But I'll try and give it you word for word. I was kept in the city and arrived late and they were all there. Mrs. Launce, twinkling all over with kindness, Maradick in his best Stock Exchange manner, the Gales (Janet Gale perfectly lovely), the old Rossiters, Cards, shining with a mixture of enterprise and knowledge of the world and last of all a very pale, rather nervous, untidy Irish woman, a Miss Monogue. Clare was so radiantly happy that I knew that she wasn't happy at all, had obviously taken a great deal of trouble about her hair and had it all piled up on the top of her head and looked wonderful. I can't describe these things, but you know that when she's bent on giving an impression she seems to stand on her toes all the time—well, she was standing on every kind of toe, moral, physical, emotional last night. Finally there was Peter, looking as though his evening dress had been made for something quite different from social dinner parties. It fitted all right, but it was too comfortable to be smart—he looked, beside Cards, like a good serviceable cob up against the smartest of hunters. Peter's rough, bullet head, the way that he stands with his legs wide apart and his thick body holding itself deliberately still with an effort as though he were on board ship—and then that smile that won all our hearts ages ago right out of the centre of his brown eyes first and then curving his mouth, at last seizing all his body—but always, in spite of it, a little appealing, a little sad somewhere—can't you see him? And Cards, slim, straight, dark, beautifully clothed, beautifully witty and I am convinced, beautifully insincere. Can't you see Cards say 'good evening' to me—with that same charm, that same ease, that same contempt that he had when we were at school together? Bobby Galleon—an honest good fellow—but dull—mon Dieu—dull (he rather likes French phrases)—can't you hear him saying it? Well from the very first, there was something in the air. We were all excited, even old Mrs. Rossiter and the pale Irish creature whom I remembered afterwards I had met that day when I went to that boarding—house after Peter. Clare was quite extraordinary—I have never seen her anything like it—she talked the whole time, laughed, almost shouted. The only person she treated stiffly was Cards—I don't think she likes him.
"He was at his most brilliant—really wonderful—and I liked him better than I've ever liked him before. He seemed to have a genuine pleasure in Peter's happiness, and I believe he's as fond of the boy as he's able to be of any one. A copy of 'The Stone House' was given to each of us (I haven't had time to look at mine yet) and I suppose the combination of the baby and the book moved us all. Besides, Clare and Peter both looked so absurdly young. Such children to have had so many adventures already. You can imagine how riotous we got when I tell you that dessert found Mrs. Rossiter with a paper cap on her head and Janet Gale was singing some Cornish song or other to the delight of the company. Miss Monogue and I were the quietest. I should think that she's one of the best, and I saw her look at Peter once or twice in a way that showed how strongly she felt about him.
"Well, old girl, I'm bothered if I can explain the kind of anxiety that came over me after a time. You'll think me a regular professional croaker but really I suppose, at bottom, it was some sort of feeling that the whole thing, this shouting and cheering and thumping the table—was premature. And then I suppose it was partly my knowledge of Peter. It wasn't like him to behave in this sort of way. He wasn't himself—excited, agitated by something altogether foreign to him. I could have thought that he was drunk, if I hadn't known that he hadn't touched any liquor whatever. But a man of Peter's temperament pays for this sort of thing—it isn't the sort of way he's meant to take life.
"Whatever the reason may have been I know that I felt suddenly outside the whole business and most awfully depressed. I think Miss Monogue felt exactly the same. By the time the wine was on the table all I wanted was to get right away. It was almost as though I had been looking on at something that I was ashamed to see. There was a kind of deliberate determination about their happiness and Clare's little body with her hair on the verge, as it seemed, of a positive downfall, had something quite pitiful in its deliberate rejoicing; such a child, my dear—I never realised how young until last night. Such a child and needing some one so much older and wiser than Peter to manage it all.
"Well, there I was hating it when the final moment came. Cards got up and in one of the wittiest little speeches you ever heard in your life, proposed Peter's health, alluded to 'Reuben Hallard,' then Clare, then the Son and Heir, a kind of back fling at old Dawson's, and then last of all, an apostrophe to 'The Stone House' all glory and honour, &c.:—well, it was most neatly done and we all sat back, silent, for Peter's reply.
"The dear boy stood there, all flushed and excited, with his hair pushed back off his forehead and began the most extraordinary speech I've ever heard. I can't possibly give you the effect of it at secondhand, in the mere repetition of it there was little more than that he was wildly, madly happy, that there was no one in the world as happy as he, that now at last the gods had given him all that he had ever wanted, let them now do their worst—and so crying, flung his glass over his shoulder, and smashed it on to the wall behind him.
"I cannot possibly tell you how sinister, how ominous the whole thing suddenly was. It swooped down upon all of us like a black cloud. Credit me, if you will, with a highly—strung bundle of nerves (not so solid matter-of-fact as I seem, you know well enough) but it seemed to me, at that moment, that Peter was defying, consciously, with his heart in his mouth, a world of devils and that he was cognisant of all of them. The thing was conscious—that was the awful thing about it, I could swear that he was seeing far beyond all of us, that he was hurling his happiness at something that he had there before him as clearly as I have you before me now. It was defiance and I believe the minute after uttering it he would have liked to have rushed upstairs to see that his baby was safe....
"Be that as it may, we all felt it—every one of us. The party was clouded. Cards and Clare did their best to brighten things up again, and Peter and Tony and Janet Gale played silly games and made a great deal of noise—but the spirit was gone.
"I left very early. Miss Monogue came away at the same time. She spoke to me before she said good-night: 'I know that you are an old friend of Peter's. I am so fond of him—we all are at Brockett's, it isn't often that we see him—I know that you will be his true friend in every sense of the word—and help him—as he ought to be helped. It is so little that I can do....'
"Her voice was sad. I am afraid she suffers a great deal. She is evidently greatly attached to Peter—I liked her.
"Well, you in your sober way will say that this is all a great deal of nonsense. Why shouldn't Peter, if he wishes, say that he is happy? All I can say is that if you yourself had been there...."
It was not until Stephen Westcott had rejoiced in the glories (so novel and so thrilling) of his first birthday and "The Stone House" had been six months before the public eye that the effect of this second book could be properly estimated. Second books are the most surely foredoomed creatures in all creation and there are many excellent reasons for this. They will assuredly disappoint the expectations of those who enjoyed the first work, and the author will, in all probability, have been tempted by his earlier success to try his wings further than they are, as yet, able to carry him.
Peter's failure was only partial. There was no question that "The Stone House" was a remarkable book. Had it been Peter's first novel it must have made an immense stir; it showed that he was, in no kind of way, a man of one book, and it gave, in its London scenes, proof that its author was not limited to one kind of life and one kind of background. There were chapters that were fuller, wiser, in every way more mature than anything in "Reuben Hallard."
But it was amazingly unequal. There were places in it that had no kind of life at all; at times Peter appeared to have beheld his scenes and characters through a mist, to have been dragged right away from any kind of vision of the book, to have written wildly, blindly.
The opinion of Mrs. Launce was perhaps the soundest that it was possible to have because that good lady, in spite of her affection for Peter, had a critical judgment that was partly literary, partly commercial, and partly human. She always judged a book first with her brain, then with her heart and lastly with her knowledge of her fellow creatures. "It may pay better than 'Reuben Hallard,'" she said, "there's more love interest and it ends happily. Some of it is beautifully written, some of it quite unspeakably. But really, Peter, it's the most uneven thing I've ever read. Again and again one is caught, held, stirred—then, suddenly, you slip away altogether—you aren't there at all, nothing's there, I could put my ringer on the places. Especially the first chapters and the last chapters—the middle's splendid—what happened to you?... But it will sell, I expect. Tell your banker to read it, go into lots of banks and tell them. Bank clerks have subscriptions at circulating libraries always given them ... but the wild bits are best, the wild bits are splendid—that bit about the rocks at night ... you don't know much about women yet—your girls are awfully bad. By the way, do you know that Mary Hollins is only getting L100 advance next time? All she can get, that last thing was so shocking. I hear that that book about an immoral violet, by that new young man—Rondel, isn't it?—is still having a most enormous success—I know that Barratt's got in a whole batch of new copies last night—I hear...."
Mrs. Launce was disappointed—Peter could tell well enough. He received some laudatory reviews, some letters from strangers, some adulation from people who knew nothing whatever. He did not know what it was exactly that he had expected—but whatever it was that he wanted, he did not get it—he was dissatisfied.
He began to blame his publishers—they had not advertised him enough; he even, secretly, cherished that most hopeless of all convictions—that his book was above the heads of the public. He noticed, also, that wherever he might be, this name of Rondel appeared before him, Mr. Rondel with his foolish face and thin mother in black, was obviously the young man of the moment—in the literary advertisements of any of the weekly papers you might see The Violet novel in its tenth edition and "The Stone House" by Peter Westcott, second edition selling rapidly.
He was again bewildered, as he had been after the publication of "Reuben Hallard" by the extraordinary variance of opinions amongst reviewers and amongst his own personal friends. One man told him that he had no style, that he must learn the meaning and feeling of words, another told him that his characters were weak but that his style was "splendid—a real knowledge of the value and meaning of words." Some one told him that he knew nothing at all about women and some one else that his women were by far the best part of his work. The variety was endless—amongst those who had appeared to him giants there was the same uncertainty. He seemed too to detect with the older men a desire to praise those parts of his work that resembled their own productions and to blame anything that gave promise of originality.
For himself it seemed to him that Mrs. Launce's opinion was nearest the truth. There were parts of it that were good, chapters that were better than anything in "Reuben Hallard" and then again there were many chapters where he saw it all in a fog, groped dimly for his characters, pushed, as it seemed to him, away from their lives and interests, by the actual lives and interests of the real people about him. This led him to think of Clare and here he was suddenly arrested by a perception, now only dimly grasped, of a change in her attitude to his writings. He dated it, thinking of it now for the first time, from the birth of young Stephen—or was it not earlier than that, on that evening when they had met Cards at that supper party, on that evening of their first quarrel?
In the early days how well he remembered Clare's enthusiasm—a little extravagant, it seemed now. Then during the first year of their married life she had wanted to know everything about the making of "The Stone House." It was almost as though it had been a cake or a pie, and he knew that he had found her questions difficult to answer and that he had had it driven in upon him that it was not really because she was interested in the subtleties of his art that she enquired but because of her own personal affection for him; if he had been making boots or a suit of clothes it would have been just the same. Then when "The Stone House" appeared her eagerness for its success had been tremendous—there was nothing she would not do to help it along—but that, he somewhat ironically discovered, was because she liked success and the things that success brought.
Then when the book had not succeeded—or only so very little—her interest had, of a sudden, subsided. "Oh! I suppose you've got to go and do your silly old writing ... I think you might come out with me just this afternoon. It isn't often that I ask anything of you...." He did not believe that she had ever really finished "The Stone House." She pretended that she had—"the end was simply perfect," but she was vague, nebulous. He found the marker in her copy, some fifty pages before the end.
She was so easily impressed by every one whom she met that perhaps the laughing attitude of Cards to Peter's books had something to do with it all. Cards affected to despise anything to do with work, here to-day, gone to-morrow—let us eat and drink ... dear old Peter, grubbing away upstairs—"I say, Mrs. Westcott, let's go and rag him...." And then they had come and invaded his room at the top of the house, and sometimes he had been glad and had flung his work down as though it were of no account ... and then afterwards, in the middle of some tea-party he had been suddenly ashamed, deeply, bitterly ashamed, as though he had actually wounded those white pages lying up there in his quiet room.
He was at this time, like a man jostled and pushed and turned about at some riotous fair; looking, now this way, now that, absorbed by a thousand sights, a thousand sounds—and always through it all feeling, bitterly in his heart, that something dear to him, somewhere in some place of silence, was dying—
Well, hang it all, at any rate there was the Child!
At any rate there was the Child!
And what a child! Did any one ever have a baby like it, so fat and round and white, with its head already covered with faint golden silk, its eyes grey and wondering—with its sudden gravities, its amazing joys and terrific humour, the beauty of its stepping away, as it did, suddenly without any warning, behind a myriad mists and curtains, into some other land that it knew of. How amazing to watch it as it slowly forgot all the things that it had come into the world remembering, as it slowly realised all the laws that this new order of things demanded of its obedience. Could any one who had been present ever forget its crow of ecstasy at the first shaft of sunlight that it ever beheld, at its first realisation of the blue, shining ball that Peter bought, at its first vision, through the window, of falling snow!
Peter was drunk with this amazing wonder. All the facts of life—even Clare and his work—faded before this new presence for whose existence he had been responsible. It had been one of the astonishing things about Clare that she had taken the child so quietly. He had seen her thrilled by musical comedy, by a dance at the Palace Music Hall, by the trumpery pathos of a tenth-rate novel—before this marvel she stood, it seemed to him, without any emotion.
Sometimes he thought that if it had not been for his reminder she would not have gone to kiss the child goodnight. There were many occasions when he knew—with wonder and almost dismay—that she was afraid of it; and once, when they had been in the nursery together and young Stephen had cried and kicked his heels in a tempest of rage, she had seemed almost to cling to Peter for protection.
There were occasions when Peter fancied that the baby seemed the elder of the two, it was at any rate certain that Stephen Westcott was not so afraid of his mother as his mother was of him. And yet, Peter fancied, that could Clare only get past this strange nervous fear she would love the baby passionately—would love him with that same fierceness of passion that she flung, curiously, now and again upon Peter himself. "Let me be promised," she seemed to say, "that I will never have any trouble or sorrow with my son and I will love him devotedly." Meanwhile she went into every excitement that life could provide for her....
It was on a March afternoon of early Spring after a lonely tea (Clare was out at one of her parties) that Peter went up to the nursery. He had just finished reading the second novel by that Mr. Rondel whose Violet sensation had occurred some two years before. This second book was good—there was no doubt about it—and Peter was ashamed of a kind of dim reluctance in his acknowledgment of its quality. The fellow had had such reviews; the book, although less sensational than its predecessor had hit the public straight in the middle of its susceptible heart. Had young Rondel done it all with bad work-well, that was common enough—but the book was good, uncommonly good.
He sent the nurse downstairs and began to build an elaborate fortress on the nursery floor. The baby lay on his back on a rug by the fire and contemplated his woollen shoe which he slowly dragged off and disdainfully flung away. Then, crowing to himself, he watched his father and the world in general.
He was amazingly like Peter—the grey eyes, the mouth a little stern, a little sulky, the snub nose, the arms a little short and thick, and that confident, happy smile.
He watched his father.
To him, lying on the rug, many, many miles away there was a coloured glory that ran round the upper part of the wall—as yet, he only knew that they gave him, those colours, something of the same pleasure that his milk gave him, that the warm, glowing, noisy shapes beyond the carpet gave him, that the happy, comfortable smell of the Thing playing near him on the floor gave him. About the Thing he was eternally perplexed. It was Something that made sounds that he liked, that pressed his body in a way that he loved, that took his fingers and his toes and made them warm and comfortable.
It was Something moreover from which delicious things hung—things that he could clutch and hold and pull. He was perplexed but he knew that when this Thing was near him he was warm and happy and contented and generally went to sleep. His eyes slowly travelled round the room and rested finally upon a round blue ball that hung turning a little from side to side, on a nail above, his bed. This was, to him, the final triumph of existence—to have it in his hand, to roll it round and round, to bang it down upon the floor and watch it jump, this was the reason why one was here, this the solution of all perplexities. He would have liked to have it in his hands now, so crowing, he smiled pleasantly at the Thing on the floor beside him and then looked at the ball.
Peter got up from his knees, fetched the ball down and rolled it along the floor. As it came dancing, curving, laughing along young Stephen shrieked with delight. Would he have it in his hands or would it escape him and disappear altogether? Would it come to him?... It came and was clutched and held and triumphed over.
Peter sat down by his son and began to tell him about Cornwall. He often did this, partly because the mere mentioning of names and places satisfied some longing in his heart, partly because he wanted Cornwall to be the first thing that young Stephen would realise as soon as he realised anything. "And you never can tell, you know, how soon a child can begin...."
Stephen, turning the blue ball round and round in his fingers, gravely listened. He was perfectly contented. He liked the sounds that circled about him—his father's voice, the rustle of the fire, the murmur of something beyond the walls that he could not understand.
"And then, you see, Stephen, if you go up the hill and round to the right you come to the market-place, all covered with shiny cobbles and once a week filled with stalls where people sell things. At the other end of it, facing you, there's an old Tower that's been there for ages and ages. It's got a fruit stall underneath it now, but once, years ago there was fighting there and men were killed. Then, if you go past it, and out to the right, you get into the road that leads out of the town. It goes right above the sea and on a fine-day—"
The voice broke like a stone shattering a sheet of glass. The ball dropped from young Stephen's hands. He felt suddenly cold and hungry and wanted his woollen shoe. He was not sure whether he would not cry. He would wait a moment and see how matters developed.
Peter jumped to his feet and faced Clare: Clare in a fur cap from beneath which her golden hair seemed to burn in anger, from beneath which her eyes, furiously attacked his. Of course she had heard him talking to the baby about Cornwall. They had quarrelled about it before ... he had thought that she was at her silly tea-party. His face that had been, a few moments before, gentle, humorous, happy, now suddenly wore the sullen defiance of a sulky boy.
Her breast was heaving, her little hands beat against her frock.
"He shan't," she broke out at last, "hear about it."
"Of all the nonsense," Peter answered her slowly. "Really, Clare, sometimes I think you're about two years old—"
"He shan't hear about it," she repeated again. "You don't care—you don't care what I think or what I say—I'm his mother—I have the right—"
The baby looked at them both with wondering eyes and to any outside observer would surely have seemed the eldest of the three. Clare's breath came in little pants of rage—"You know—that I hate—all mention of that place—those people. It doesn't matter to you—you never think of me—"
"At any rate," he retorted, "if you were up here in the nursery more often you would be able to take care that Stephen's innocent ears weren't insulted with my vulgar conversation—"
It was then that he saw, behind Clare, in the doorway, the dark smiling face of Cards.
Cards came forward. "Really, you two," he said, laughing. "Peter, old man, don't be absurd—you too, Clare" (he called her Clare now).
The anger died out of Clare's eyes: "Well, he knows I hate him talking about that nasty old town to the baby—" Then, in a moment, she was smiling again—"I'm sorry, Peter. Cards is quite right, and anyhow the baby doesn't understand—"
She stood smiling in front of him but the frown did not leave his face.
"Oh! it's all right," he said sullenly, and he brushed past them up the stairs, to his own room.
From the silence of his room he thought that he could hear them laughing about it downstairs. "Silly old Peter—always getting into tempers—" Well, was he? And after all hadn't it been, this time, her affair? Stephen and he had been happy enough before the others had come in. What was this senseless dislike of Clare's to Cornwall? What could it matter to her? It was always cropping up now. He could think of a thousand occasions, lately, when she had been roused by it.
But, as he paced, with frowning face, back and forwards across the room, there was something more puzzling still that had to be thought about. Why did they quarrel about such tiny things? In novels, in good, reliable novels, it was always the big things about which people fought. Whoever heard of two people quarrelling because one of them wanted to talk about Cornwall? and yet it was precisely concerning things just as trivial that they were always now disputing. Why need they quarrel at all? In the first year there had always been peace. Why shouldn't there be peace now? Where exactly lay Clare's altered attitude to himself, to his opinions, to the world in general. If he yielded to her demands—and he had yielded on many more occasions than was good either for her or himself—she had, he fancied, laughed at him for being so easily defeated. If he had not yielded then she had been, immediately, impossible....
And yet, after their quarrels, there had been the most wonderful, precious reconciliations, reconciliations that, even now at his thought of them, made his heart beat faster. Now, soon, when he went downstairs to dress for dinner, she would come to him, he knew, and beg most beautifully, his pardon. But to-night it seemed suddenly that this kind of thing had happened too often lately. He felt, poor Peter, bewildered. There seemed to be, on every side of him, so many things that he was called upon to manage and he was so unable to manage any of them. He stopped in his treading to and fro and stared at the long deal writing-table at which he always worked.
There, waiting for him, were the first chapters of his new novel, "Mortimer Stant." In the same way, two years ago, he had stared at the early chapters of "The Stone House," on that morning before he had gone to propose to Clare. Now there flashed through his mind the wonderful things that he intended "Mortimer Stant" to be. It was to concern a man of forty (in his confident selection of that age he displayed, most stridently, his own youth) and Mortimer was to be a stolid, reserved Philistine, who was, against his will, by outside forces, dragged into an emotional crisis.
At the back of his mind he had, perhaps, Maradick for his figure, but that was almost unconscious. "Mortimer Stant" was to represent a wonderful duel between the two camps—the Artists and the Philistines—with ultimate victory, of course, for the Artists. It was to be.... Well what was it to be? At present the stolid Mortimer was hidden behind a phalanx of people—Clare, young Stephen, Cards, Bobby, Mrs. Rossiter (tiresome woman), Alice Galleon—That was it. It was hidden, hidden just as parts of "The Stone House" had been hidden, but hidden more deeply—a regular jungle of interests and occupations was creeping, stealthily, stealthily upon him.
And then his eye fell upon an open letter that lay on his table, and, at the sight of it, he was seized with a burning sense of shame. How could he have forgotten?
The letter ran—
_My dear Mr. Westcott,
You have not been to see me for many months. Further opportunities may, by the hand of God, be denied you.
Come if you can spare the time.
The words were written, feebly almost illegibly, in pencil. Peter knew that Bobby had been, for many weeks, very anxious concerning his father's health, and during the last few days he had abandoned the City and spent all his time at home. That letter had come this very morning and Peter had intended to go at once and inquire. The fact that he had left all these months without going to see the old man rose before him now like an accusing hand. He deserved, indeed, whatever the Gods might choose to send him, if he could so wilfully neglect his duty. But he knew that there had been, in the back of his mind, shame. His work had not, so he might have put it to himself, been good enough to justify his presence. There would have been questions asked, questions that he might have found it difficult, indeed, to answer.
But now the sight of that letter immediately encouraged him. Henry Galleon, even though he was too ill to talk, would put him right with all his perplexities, would give him courage to cut through all these complications that had been gathering, lately, so thickly about him. "This," the room seemed to whisper to him, "is your chance. After all, you are given this opportunity. See him once before he dies and your fate will be shown you, clearly, honestly."
He stepped out of the house unperceived and was immediately conscious of the Spring night. Spring—with a precipitancy and extravagance that seems to be—to own peculiar quality in London—had leapt upon the streets.
The Embankment was bathed in the evening glow. Clouds, like bales of golden wool, sailed down a sky so faintly blue that the white light of a departed sun seemed to glow behind it. The lamps were crocus-coloured against black barges that might have been loaded with yellow primroses so did they hint, through their darkness, at the yellow haze around them.
The silence was melodious; the long line of dark houses watched like prisoners from behind their iron bars. They might expect, it seemed, the Spring to burst through the flagstones at their feet.
Peter's heart was lightened of all its burden. He shared the glory, the intoxication of the promise that was on every side of him. On such a night great ambitions, great ideals, great lovers were created.
He saw Henry Galleon, from behind his window, watching the pageant. He saw him gaining new life, getting up from his bed of sickness, writing anew his great masterpieces. And he saw himself, Peter Westcott, learning at last from the Master the rule and discipline of life. All the muddle, the confusion of this lazy year should be healed. He and Clare should see with the same eyes. She should understand his need for work, he should understand her need for help. All should be happiness and victory in this glorious world and he, by the Master's side, should...
He stopped suddenly. The house that had been Henry Galleon's was blank and dead.
At every window the blinds were down....
To Peter's immediate world it was a matter of surprise that he should take Henry Galleon's death so hardly. It is a penalty of greatness that you should, to the majority of your fellow men, be an Idea rather than a human being. To his own family Henry Galleon had, of course, been real enough but to the outside world he was the author of "Henry Lessingham" and "The Roads," whose face one saw in the papers as one saw the face of Royalty. Peter Westcott, moreover, had not appeared, at any time, to take more than a general interest in the great man, and it was even understood that old Mrs. Galleon and Millicent and Percival considered themselves somewhat affronted because the Master had "been exceedingly kind to the young man. Taken trouble about him, tried to know him, but young Westcott had allowed the thing to drop—had not been near him during the last year."
Even Bobby and Alice Galleon were astonished at Peter's grief. To Bobby his father's death came as a fine ending to a fine career. He had died, full of honour and of years. Even Bobby, who thought that he knew his Peter pretty well by now, was puzzled.
"He takes it," Bobby explained to Alice, "as though it were a kind of omen, sees ever so much more in it than any of us do. It seems that he was coming round the very evening that father died to talk to him, and that he suddenly saw the blinds down; it was a shock to him, of course. I think it's all been a kind of remorse working out, remorse not only for having neglected my father but for having left other things—his work, I suppose, rather to look after themselves. But he won't tell me," Bobby almost desperately concluded, "he won't tell me anything—he really is the most extraordinary chap."
And Peter found it difficult enough to tell himself, did not indeed try. He only knew that he felt an acute, passionate remorse and that it seemed to him that the denial of that last visit was an omen of the anger of all the Gods, and even—although to this last he gave no kind of expression—the malicious contrivance of an old man who waited for him down there in that house by the sea. It was as though gates had been clanged in his face, and that as he heard them close he heard also the jeering laughter behind them.... He had missed his chance.
He saw, instantly, that Clare understood none of this, and that, indeed, she took it all as rather an affectation on his part, something in him that belonged to that side of him that she tried to forget. She hated, quite frankly, that he should go about the house with a glum face because an old man, whom he had never taken the trouble to go and see when he was alive, was now dead. She showed him that she hated it.
He turned desperately to his work. There had been a hint, only the other day, from the newspaper for which he wrote, that his reviews had not, lately, been up to his usual standard. He knew that they seemed to him twice as difficult to do as they had seemed a year ago and that therefore he did them twice as badly.
He flung himself upon his book and swore that he would dissipate the shadows that hid it from him. One of the shadows he saw quite clearly was Cards' attitude to his work. It was strange, he thought almost pathetically, how closely his feeling for Cards now resembled the feeling that he had had, those years ago, at Dawson's. He still worshipped him—worship was the only possible word—worshipped him for all the things that he, Peter, was not. One could not be with him, Peter thought, one could not watch his movements, hear his voice without paying it all the most absolute reverence. The glamour about Cards was, to Peter, something almost from another world. Peter felt so clumsy, so rough and ugly and noisy and out-of-place when Cards was present that the fact that Cards was almost always present now made life a very difficult thing. How could Peter prevent himself from reverencing every word that Cards uttered when one reflected upon the number of things that Cards had done, the things that he had seen, the places to which he had been. And Cards' attitude to Peter's work was, if not actually contemptuous, at least something very like it. He did not, he professed, read novels. The novelists' trade at the best, he seemed to imply, was only a poor one, and that Peter's work was not altogether of the best he almost openly asserted. "What can old Peter know about life?" one could hear him saying—"Where's he been? Who's he known? Whatever in the world has he done?"
Against this, in spite of the glitter that shone about Cards' head, Peter might, perhaps, have stood. He reminded himself, a hundred times a day, that one must not care about the things that other people said, one must have one's eyes fixed upon the goal—one must be sure of oneself—what had Galleon said?...
But there was also the effect of it all upon Clare to be considered. Clare listened to Cards. She was, Peter gloomily considered, very largely of Cards' opinion. The two people for whom he cared most in the world after young Stephen who, as a critic, had not yet begun to count, thought that he was wasting his time.
Sometimes, as he sat at his deal table, fighting with a growing sense of disillusionment that was like nothing so much as a child's first discovery that its beautiful doll is stuffed with straw, he would wish passionately, vehemently for the return of those days when he had sat in his little bedroom writing "Reuben Hallard" with Norah Monogue, and dear Mr. Zanti and even taciturn little Gottfried, there to encourage him.
That had been Adventure—but this ...? And then he would remember young Stephen and Clare—moments even lately that she had shared with him—and he would be ashamed.
It was on an afternoon of furious wind and rain in early April that the inevitable occurred. All the afternoon the trees in the little orchard had been knocking their branches together as though they were in a furious temper with Somebody and were indignant at not being allowed to get at Him; they gave you the impression that it would be quite as much as your life would be worth to venture into their midst.
Peter had, during a number of hours, endeavoured to pierce the soul of Mortimer Stant—meanwhile as the wind howled, the rain lashed the windows of his room, and the personality of Mr. Stant faded farther and farther away into ultimate distance, Peter was increasingly conscious that he was listening for something.
He had felt himself surrounded by this strange sense of anticipation before. Sometimes it had stayed with him for a short period only, sometimes it had extended over days—always it brought with it an emotion of excitement and even, if he had analysed it sufficiently, fear.
He was suddenly conscious, in the naked spaces of his barely-furnished room, of the personality of his father. So conscious was he that he got up from his table and stood at the rain-swept window, looking out into the orchard, as though he expected to see a sinister figure creeping, stealthily, from behind the trees. In his thoughts of his father there was no compunction, no accusing scruples of neglect, only a perfectly concrete, active sense, in some vague way, of force pitted against force.
It might be summed up in the conviction that "the old man was not done with him yet"—and as Peter turned back from the window, almost relieved that he had, indeed, seen no creeping figure amongst the dark trees, he was aware that never since the days of his starvation in Bucket Lane, had he been so conscious of those threatening memories of Scaw House and its inhabitants.
At that, almost as he reached his table, there was a knock on his door.
"Come in," he cried and, scorning himself for his fears, faced the maid with staring eyes.
"Two gentlemen to see you, sir," she said. "I have shown them into the study."
"Is Mrs. Westcott in?"
"No, sir. She told me that she would not be back until six o'clock, sir."
"I will come down."
In the hall, hanging amongst the other things as a Pirate might hang beside a company of Evangelist ministers, was Stephen Brant's hat....
As Peter's hand turned on the handle of the study door he knew that his heart was beating with so furious a clamour that he could not hear the lock turn.
He entered the room and found Stephen Brant and Mr. Zanti facing him. The little window between the dim rows of books showed him the pale light that was soon to succeed the storm. The two men seemed to fill the little room; their bodies were shadowy and mysterious against the pale colour, and Peter had the impression that the things in the room—the chairs, the books, the table—huddled against the wall, so crowded did the place seem.
For himself, at his first sight of them, he was compelled, instantly, to check a feeling of joy so overwhelming that he was himself astonished at the force of it. To them, as they stood there, smiling, feeling that same emotion to which he, also, was now succumbing! He checked himself. It was as though he were forced suddenly, by a supreme effort of will, to drive from the room a tumultuous crowd of pictures, enthusiasms and memories, that, for the sake of the present and of the future, must be forbidden to stay with him. It was absurd—he was a husband, a father, a responsible householder, almost a personage... and yet, as he looked at Stephen's eyes and Mr. Zanti's smile, he was the little boy back again in Tan's shop with the old suit of armour, the beads and silver and Eastern cloths, and out beyond the window, the sea was breaking upon the wooden jetty....
He put the picture away from him and rushed to greet the two of them. "Zanti!... Stephen!... Oh! how splendid! How perfectly, perfectly splendid!"
Mr. Zanti's enormous body was enclosed in a suit of bright blue, his broad nose stood out like a bridge, his wide mouth gaped. He wore white spats, three massive rings of twisted gold and in his blue tie a glittering emerald. He was a magnificent, a costly figure and in nothing was the geniality of his nature more plainly seen than in his obvious readiness to abandon, at any moment, these splendid riches for the sake of a valued attachment. "I love wearing these things," you might hear him say, "but I love still better to do anything in the world that I can for you, my friend."
Stephen presented a more moderate appearance, but he was brown with health and shining with strength. He was like the old Stephen of years and years ago, so different from the—man who had shared with Peter that room in Bucket Lane.
He carried himself with that air of strong, cautious reserve that Cornishmen have when they are in some other country than their own; his eyes, mild, gentle, but on the alert, ready at an instant to be hostile. Then, when Peter came in, the reserve instantly fled. They had, all three of them, perhaps, expected embarrassment, but at that cry of Peter's they were suddenly together, Mr. Zanti, waving his hands, almost shouting, Stephen, his eyes resting with delight on Peter, Peter himself another creature from the man who had pursued Mortimer Stant in the room upstairs, half an hour before.
"We thought that ze time 'ad come, dear boy... we know zat you are busy." Mr. Zanti looked about him a little anxiously, as though he expected to find Mrs. Peter hiding under a chair or a sofa.
"Oh! Stephen, after all this long long while! Why didn't you come before when Mr. Zanti came?"
"Too many of us coming, Mr. Peter, and you so busy."
"Nonsense. I'm not in the least busy. I'm sorry to say my wife's out but the baby's in, upstairs, and there's the most terrific woman up there too, the nurse—I'm frightened out of my life of her—but we'll get rid of her and have the place to ourselves... you know the kid's called after you, Stephen?"
"No, is he really?" Stephen's face shone with pleasure. "I'm keen to see him."
"Oh, he's a trump! There never really was such a baby."
"And your books, Mr. Peter?"
"Oh! the books!" Peter's voice dropped, "never mind them now. But what have you been doing, you two? Made heaps of money? Discovered treasure?..." He pulled himself up shortly. He remembered the bookshop, the girl leaning against the door looking into the street, then the boys crying the news....
If Mr. Zanti had been mixing himself up with that sort of thing again! And then the bright blue suit, the white spats, were reassuring. As if one could ever take such a child seriously about anything!
Mr. Zanti shook his head, ruefully. "No, not ezackly a fortune! There was a place I 'eard of, right up in the Basque country—'twas an old deserted garden, where zey 'ad buried treasure, centuries ago—I 'ad it quite certainly from a friend. We came up there for a time but we found nothing." He sighed and then was instantly cheered again. "But it's all right. I've got a plan now—a wonderful plan." He became very mysterious. "It's a certain thing—we're off to Cornwall, Mr. Brant and myself—"
"Come too, Peter."
"Ah! don't I wish that I could!" He suddenly saw his life, his books—everything in London holding him, tying him—"But I can't go now, my father being there makes it impossible. But in any case, I'm a family man now—you know."
As he said the words he was conscious that, in Stephen's eyes at any rate, the family man was about the last thing that he looked. He was wondering, with intense curiosity, what were the things that Stephen was finding in him, for the things that Stephen found were most assuredly the things that he was. No one knew him as Stephen knew him. Against his will the thought of Clare came driving upon him. How little she knew him! or was it only that she knew another side of him?
But he pulled himself away from that. "Now for the nursery—Stephen Secundus. But you'll have to support me whilst I get rid of Mrs. Kant—perhaps three of us together—"
As he led the way upstairs he knew that Stephen was not entirely reassured about him.
Mrs. Kant was a large, busy woman, like a horse—a horse who dislikes other horses and sniffs an enemy in every wind. She very decidedly sniffed an enemy now, and Mr. Zanti's blue suit paled before her fierce eyes. He stepped back into the doorway again, treading upon Stephen. Peter, who was always conscious that Mrs. Kant looked upon himself and Clare as two entirely ridiculous and slightly impertinent children, stammered a little.
"You might go down and have your tea now, Mrs. Kant. I'll keep an eye upon Stephen."
"I've had my tea, thank you, sir."
"Well, I'll relieve you of the baby for a little." She was sewing. She snapped off a piece of thread with a sharp click of her teeth, sat silently for a moment staring in front of her, then quietly got up. "Thank you, sir," she said and left the room.
All three men breathed again as the door closed—then they were all conscious of young Stephen.
The thing was, of course, absurd, but to all three of them there came the conviction that the baby had been laughing at them for their terror of Mrs. Kant. He was curled up on a chair by the fire, looking at them with his wide eyes over his shoulder, and he seemed to say, "I don't care a snap for the woman—why should you?" The blue ball was on the floor at the foot of the chair, and the firelight leapt upon the frieze that Peter had so carefully chosen—giants and castles, dwarfs and princesses running round the room in red, and blue and gold.
Young Stephen looked at them, puzzled for an instant, then with a shout he would have acclaimed his father, but his gaze was suddenly arrested by the intense blueness of Mr. Zanti's clothes. He stared at it, fascinated. Into his life there had suddenly broken the revelation that you might have something far larger than the blue ball that moved and shone in so fascinating a manner. His eyes immediately glittered with the thought that he would presently have the joy of rolling something so big and shining along the floor. He could not bear to wait. His fat fingers curved in the air with the eager anticipation of it—words, actual words had not as yet come to him, but, crowing and gurgling, he informed the world that he wanted, he demanded, instantly, that he should roll Mr. Zanti.
"Well, old man, how are you?" said Peter. But he would not look at his father. His arms stretched toward Mr. Zanti.
"You've made a conquest right away, Zanti," Peter said laughing.
It was indeed instantly to be perceived that Mr. Zanti was in his right element. Any pretence of any kind of age fell away from him, his arms curved towards young Stephen as young Stephen's curved towards him. He was making noises in his throat that exactly resembled the noises that the baby made.
He looked down gravely upon the chair—"'Ow do you do?" he said and he took young Stephen's fat fingers in his hand.
"'E says," he remarked, looking at Peter and Stephen, "that 'e would like to roll me upon the floor—like that ball there—"
"Well, let him," said Peter laughing.
The baby then dug his fingers into Mr. Zanti's hair and pulled down his head towards the chair, intense satisfaction flooding his face as he did so.
The baby seemed, for a moment, to whisper into Mr. Zanti's ear, then, chuckling it climbed down from the chair, and, on all fours, crawled, its eyes and mouth suddenly serious as though it were conscious that it was engaged upon a very desperate adventure. The three men watched it. Across the absolute silence of the room there came the sound of the rain driving upon the pane, of the tumbling chatter of the fire, of the baby's hands falling upon the carpet.
Mr. Zanti was suddenly upon his knees. "Here," he cried, seizing the blue ball. He rolled it to young Stephen. It was caught, dropped and then the fat fingers had flung themselves upon Mr. Zanti's coat. He let himself go and was pulled back sprawling upon the floor, his huge body stretching from end to end of the rug.
Then, almost before they had realised it, the other two men were down upon their knees. The ball was picked up and tossed from hand to hand, the baby, sitting upon Mr. Zanti's stomach, watched with delight these extraordinary events.