Then they played Hunt the Slipper, sitting round in a ring upon the carpet, young Stephen trying to catch his own slipper, falling over upon his back, kicking his legs in the air, dashing now at Stephen the Elder's beard, now at his father's coat, now at Mr. Zanti's legs.
The noise of the laughter drowned the rain and the fire. Mr. Zanti had the slipper—he was sitting upon it. Peter made a dash for it, Mr. Zanti rolled over, they were all in a heap upon the floor.
"I've got it." Mr. Zanti was off on all fours round the room, the baby on his back clutching on to his hair. A chair was over, then a box of bricks, the table rocked and then was suddenly down with a crash!
What had come to them all? Stephen, so grave, so solemn, had caught the baby into the air, had flung him up and caught him again. Peter and Mr. Zanti looking up from the floor saw him standing, his legs wide, his beard flowing, his arms stretched with young Stephen shouting between them.
Behind him, around him was a wrecked nursery....
The baby, surveying the world from this sudden height, wondered at this amazing glory. He had never before beheld from such a position the things that bounded his life. How strange the window seemed! Through it now he could see the tops of the trees, the grey sky, the driving lines of rain! Only a little way above him now were pictures that had always glowed before from so great a distance. Around him, above him, below him space—a thing to be frightened of were one not held so tightly, so safely.
He approved, most assuredly, of the banishment of Mrs. Kant, and the invasion of these splendid Things! He would have life always like this, with that great blue ball to roll upon the floor, with that brown beard, near now to his hand, to clutch, with none of that hideous soap-in-the-eyes-early-to-bed Philosophy that he was becoming now conscious enough to rebel against.
He dug his hands into the beard that was close to him and, like the sons of the morning, shouted with joy.
Peter, looking up at the two Stephens, felt his burdens roll off his back. If only things could be like this always! And already he saw himself, through these two, making everything right once more with Clare. They should prove to her that, after all, his past life had not been so terrible, that Cornwall could produce heroes if it liked. Through these two he would get fresh inspiration for his work. He felt already, through them, a wind blowing that cleared all the dust from his brain.
And how splendid for the boy! To have two such men for his friends! Already he was planning to persuade them to stay in London. He had thought of the very place for them in Chelsea, near the Roundabout, the very house....
"Of course you'll stay for dinner, you two—"
"But—" said Mr. Zanti, mopping his brow from which perspiration was dripping.
"No, nonsense. Of course you'll stop. We've got such heaps to talk about—"
Stephen had got the baby now on his shoulder. "Off to Cornwall," he shouted and charged down the room.
It was at that instant that Peter was conscious that Clare had been standing, for some moments, in the room. She stood, quite silently, without moving, by the door, her eyes blazing at him....
His first thought was of that other time when she had found him in the nursery, of the quarrel that they had had. Then he noticed the state of the room, the overturned chairs and table. Then he saw Mr. Zanti still wiping his forehead, but confusedly, and staring at Clare in a shocked hushed way, as though he were a small boy who had been detected with his fingers in a jam-pot.
Stephen saw her at last. He put the baby down and came slowly across the floor. Peter spoke: "Why, Clare! You're back early. We've been having such a splendid time with Stephen—let me introduce my friends to you—Mr. Zanti and Mr. Brant... you've heard me speak of them—"
They came towards her. She shook hands with them, regarding them gravely.
"How do you do?"
There was silence. Then Mr. Zanti said—"We must be goin'—longer than we ought to stop—we 'ave business—"
Peter felt rising in him a cold and surging anger at her treatment of them. These two, the best friends that he had in the world—that she should dare!
"Oh! you'll stay to dinner, you two! You must—"
"I'm afraid, ver' afraid," Mr. Zanti said bowing very low and still looking at Clare with apologetic, troubled eyes, "we 'ave no time. Immediate business."
Still Clare said nothing.
There was another moment's silence, and then Peter said:
"I'll come down and see you off." Still without moving from her place she shook hands with them.
They all three went out.
Peter could say nothing. The words seemed to be choked in his throat by this tide of anger that was like nothing he had ever felt before.
He held their hands for a moment as they stood outside in the dusk.
"Where are you staying? I must see you again—"
"We go down to Cornwall to-morrow."
Stephen caught Peter's shoulder:
"Come down to us, Peter, if you get a chance." They all stared at one another; they were all, absolutely, entirely without words. Afterwards they would regret that they had said nothing, but now—!
They vanished into the dusk and Peter, stepping into the house again, closed very softly the hall door behind him.
ROCKING THE ROUNDABOUT
As he climbed, once more, the stairs to the nursery, he was conscious of the necessity for a great restraint. Did he but relax for an instant his control he was aware that forces—often dimly perceived and shuddered at—would now, as never in his life before, burst into freedom.
It was as though a whole life of joy and happiness had been suddenly snatched from him and it was Clare who had robbed him—Clare who had never cared what the things might be that she demanded from him—Clare who gave him nothing.
But his rage now, he also felt, was beyond all reason, something that belonged to that other part of him, the part that Scaw House and its dark room understood and so terribly fostered.
He was afraid of what he might do.
On opening the nursery door he saw the straight, thin, shining back of Mrs. Kant as she bent to put things straight. Young Stephen was quietly asleep. He closed the door, and, turning in the narrow passage, found Clare coming out of her room. In the dim light they faced one another, hostility flaming between them. She looked at him for a moment, her breast heaving, her mouth so tight and sharp, her eyes so fierce that her little stature seemed to be raised by her anger to a great height.
At that moment Peter felt that he hated her as he had never hated any one in his life before.
She went back, without a word, into her room.
She did not come down again that night and he had his evening meal, miserably, alone.
He slept in his dressing-room. Long before morning his rage had gone. He looked at her locked door and wished, miserably, that he might die for her....
Later, as he sat, hopelessly, over the dim and sterile pages of "Mortimer Slant," Mrs. Rossiter came, heavily, in to talk with him. Mrs. Rossiter always entered the room with an expression of stupid benignity that hid a good deal of rather sharp perception. The fact that she was not nearly so stupid as she looked enabled her to look all the stupider and she covered a multitude of brains with a quantity of hard black silk that she spread out around her with the air of one who is filling as much of the room as she can conveniently seize upon. Her plump arms, her broad and placid bosom, her flat smooth face, her hair, entirely negative in colour and arrangement, offered no clue whatever to her unsuspected sharpnesses. Smooth, broad, flat and motionless she carried, like the Wooden Horse of Troy, a thousand dangers in the depths of her placidity.
She had come now to assist her daughter, the only person for whom she may be said to have had the slightest genuine affection, for Dr. Rossiter she had long-despised and Mrs. Galleon was an ally and companion but never a friend. She had allowed Clare to marry Peter, chiefly because Clare would have married him in any case, but also, a little, because she thought that Peter had a great career in front of him. Now that Peter's career seemed already to be, for the most part, behind him, she disliked him and because he appeared to have made Clare unhappy suddenly hated him... but placidity was the shield that covered her attack and, for a symbol, one might take the large flat golden brooch that she wore on her bosom—flat, expressionless and shining, with the sharpest pin behind it that ever brooch possessed.
Peter, whose miseries had accumulated as the minutes passed, was ready to seize upon anything that promised a reconciliation. He did not like Mrs. Rossiter—he had never been able to get to close quarters with her, and he was conscious that his roughness and occasional outbursts displeased her. He felt, too, that the qualities that he had resented in Clare owed their origin to her mother. That brooch of hers was responsible for a great deal.
Fixing his eyes upon it he said, "You've come about Clare?"
"Yes, Peter." Mrs. Rossiter settled herself more comfortably, spread her skirts, folded her hands. "She's very unhappy."
The mild eyes baffled him.
"I'm terribly sorry. I will do anything I can, but I think—that I had a right"—he faltered a little; it was so like talking to an empty Dairy—"had a right to mind. Two old friends of mine—two of the best friends that I have in the world were here yesterday and Clare—"
"I don't think," the soft voice broke in upon him whilst the eyes searched his body up and down, "that, even now, Peter, you quite understand Clare—"
"No," he said eagerly, "I know. I'm blundering, stupid. Lots of times I've irritated her, and now again." He paused, but then added, with a touch of his old stubbornness—"But they were friends of mine—she should have treated them so."
Mrs. Rossiter felt that she did indeed hate the young man.
"Clare is very unhappy," she repeated. "She tells me that she has been crying all night. You must remember, Peter, that her life has been very different to yours—"
He wished that she would not repeat herself; he wished that she would not always use the same level voice; he wanted insanely to tell her that she ought to say "different from"—he could not take his eyes from the brooch. But the thought of Clare came to him and he bowed himself once more humbly.
"I will see that things are better," he said earnestly. "I don't know what has been the matter lately—my work and everything has been wrong, and I expect my temper has been horrible. You know," he said with a little crooked smile, "that I've got to work to keep it all going, and when I'm writing badly then my temper goes to pieces."
Mrs. Rossiter, with no appearance of having heard anything that he had said, continued—
"You know, Peter, that your temperament is very different to Clare's. You are, and I know you will forgive my putting it so plainly, a little wild still—doubtless owing to your earlier years. Clare is gentle, bright, happy. She has never given my husband or myself a moment's trouble, but that is because we understood her nature. We knew that she loved people about her to be happy—she flourished in the sun, she drooped under the clouds... under the clouds" Mrs. Rossiter repeated again softly, as she searched, with care, for her next words.
Irritation was rising within Peter. Why should it be concluded so inevitably that the fault was all on Peter's side and not at all on Clare's—after all, there were reasons... but he pulled himself up. He had behaved like a beast.
"I've tried very hard—" he began.
"Clouds—" said Mrs. Rossiter. "And you, Peter, are at times—I have seen it myself and I know that it is apparent to others—inclined to be morose—gloomy, a little gloomy—" Her fingers tapped the silk of her dress. "Dear Clare, considering what her own life has been, shrinks, I must confess it seems to me quite naturally, from any reminder of what your own earlier circumstances have been. Look at it, Peter, for an instant from the outside and you will see, at once, I am sure, what it must have been to her, yesterday, to come into her nursery, to find tables, chairs overturned, strange men shouting and flinging poor little Stephen towards the ceiling—some talk about Cornwall—really, Peter, I think you can understand..."
He abandoned all his defences. "I know—I ought to have realised... it was quite natural..."
In the back of his head he heard her words "You're morose—you're wild. Other people find you so—you're making a mess of everything and every one knows it—"
He was humbled to the dust. If only he might make it all right with Clare, then he would see to it—Oh! yes he would see to it—that nothing of this kind ever happened again. From Mrs. Rossiter's standpoint he looked back upon his life and found it all one ignoble, selfish muddle. Dear Clare!—so eager to be happy and he had made her miserable.
"Will she forgive me?"
"Dear Clare," said Mrs. Rossiter, rising brightly and with a general air of benevolence towards all the sinners in existence, "is the most forgiving creature in the world."
He went down to her bedroom and found her lying on a sofa and reading a novel.
He fell on his knees at her side—"Clare—darling—I'm a beast, a brute—"
She suddenly turned her face into the cushions and burst into passionate crying. "Oh! it's horrible—horrible—horrible—"
He kissed her hand and then getting on to his feet again, stood looking at her awkwardly, struggling for words with which to comfort her.
And then at luncheon, there was a little, pencilled feeble note for Peter from Norah Monogue. "Please, if you can spare half an hour come to me. In a day or two I am off to the country."
Things had just been restored to peace and happiness—Clare had just proposed that they should go, that afternoon, to a Private View together—they might go and have tea with—
For an instant he was tempted to abandon Norah. Then his courage came:—
"Here's a note from Miss Monogue," he said. "She's awfully ill I think, I ought—"
Clare's face hardened again. She got up from the table—
"Just as you please—" she said.
He climbed on to the omnibus that was to stumble with him down Piccadilly with a. hideous, numbing sense of being under the hand of Fate. Why, at this moment, in all time, should this letter of Norah Monogue's have made its unhappy appearance? With what difficulty and sorrow had he and Clare reached once more a reconciliation only, so wantonly, to be plucked away from it again! From the top of his omnibus he looked down upon a sinister London. It was a heavy, lowering day; thick clouds like damp cloths came down upon the towers and chimneys. The trees in the Green Park were black and chill and in and out of the Clubs figures slipped cautiously and it seemed furtively. Just beyond the Green Park they were building a vast hotel, climbing figures and twisting lines of scaffolding pierced the air, and behind the rolling and rattling of the traffic the sound of many hammers beat rhythmically, monotonously....
To Peter upon his omnibus, suddenly that sound that he had heard before—that sound of London stirring—came back to him, and now more clearly than he had ever known it. Tap-tap-tap-tap... Clamp-clamp-tap-tap-tap-tap—whir! whir!... Clamp-clamp....
It seemed to him that all the cabs and the buses and the little black figures were being hurried by some power straight, fast, along Piccadilly to be pitched, at the end of it, pell-mell, helter-skelter into some dark abysmal pit, there to perish miserably.
Yes, the beast was stirring! Ever so little the pavements, the houses were heaving. Perhaps if one could see already the soil was cracking beneath one's feet. "Look out! London will have you in a minute." Tap-tap-tap-tap—clamp-clamp—tap-tap-tap-tap—whir-whir—clamp-clamp....
Anyhow it was a heavy, clammy day. The houses were ghosts and the people were ghosts, and grey shadows, soon perhaps to be a yellow fog, floated about the windows and the doors and muffled all human sounds.
He passed the great pile of scaffolding, saw iron girders shining, saw huge cranes swinging in mid-air, saw tiny, tiny black atoms perched above the noise and swallowed by the smoke... tap-tap-clamp-clamp....
Yes, the beast was moving... and, out and in, lost and then found again, crept that twisting chain of beggars to whose pallid army Peter himself had once so nearly belonged.
"I suppose I've got a headache after all that row with Clare," Peter thought as he climbed off the omnibus.
He realised, as he came into the Bloomsbury square, and saw Mrs. Brockett gloomily waiting for him, that the adventures of his life were most strangely bound together. Not for an instant did he seem to be able to escape from any one of them. Now it would be Cornwall, now the Bookshop, now Stephen, now Mr. Zanti, now Bucket Lane, now Treliss—all of them interweaving, arresting his action at every moment. Because he had done that once now this must not be permitted him; he felt, as he rang the old heavy bell of Brockett's that his head would never think clearly again. As the door opened and he stepped into the hall he heard, faintly, across the flat spaces of the Square "Tap-tap-tap-tap-clamp-clamp...."
Even Mrs. Brockett, who might be considered if any one in the world, immune from morbid imaginations, felt the heaviness of the day, suggested a prevalence of thunder, and shook her head when Peter asked about Miss Monogue.
"She's bad, Mr. Peter, very bad, poor dear. There's no doubt about that. It's hard to see what can be done for her—but plucky! That's a small word for it!"
"I'm sure she is," said Peter, feeling ashamed of having made so much of his own little troubles.
"She must get out of London if she's to improve at all. In a week or two I hope she'll be able to move."
"How's every one else?"
"Oh, well enough." Mrs. Brockett straightened her dress with her beautiful hands in the old familiar way— "But you're not looking very hearty yourself, Mr. Peter."
"Oh! I'm all right," he answered smiling; but she shook her head after him as she watched him go up the stairs.
And then he was surprised. He came into Norah Monogue's room and found her sitting up by her window, looking better than he had ever seen her. Her face was full of colour and her eyes bright and smiling. Only on her hands the blue veins stood out, and their touch, when she shook hands with him, was hot and burning.
But he was reassured; Mrs. Brockett had exaggerated and made the worst of it all.
"You're looking splendid—I'm so glad. I was afraid from your letter-"
"Oh! I really am getting on," she broke in gaily, "and it's the nicest boy in the world that you are to come in and see me so quickly. Only on a day like this London does just lie heavily upon one doesn't it? and one just longs for the country—"
A little breath of a sigh escaped from her and she looked through her window at the dim chimneys, the clouds hanging like consolidated smoke, the fine, thin dust that filtered the air.
"You're looking tired yourself, Peter. Working too hard?"
"No," he shook his head. "The work hasn't been coming easily at all. I suppose I've been too conscious, lately, of the criticisms every one made about 'The Stone House.' I don't believe one ought really to listen to anybody and yet it's so hard not to, and so difficult to know whose opinion one ought to take if one's going to take anybody's. I wish," he suddenly brought out, "Henry Galleon were still alive. I could have followed him."
"But why follow anybody?"
"Ah! that's just it. I'm beginning to doubt myself and that's why it's getting so difficult."
Her eyes searched his face and she saw, at once, that he was in very real trouble. He looked younger, just then, she thought, than she had ever seen him, and she felt herself so immensely old that she could have taken him into her arms and mothered him as though he'd been her own son.
"There are a lot of things the matter," she said. "Tell me what they all are."
"Well," he said slowly, "I suppose it's all been mostly my own fault—but the real difficulty is that I don't seem to be able to run the business of being married and the business of writing together. I don't think Clare in the least cares now about my writing—she almost resents it; she cared at first when she thought that I was going to make a huge success of it, but now—"
"But, of course," said Miss Monogue, "that success comes slowly—it must if it's going to be any use at all—"
"Well, she doesn't see that. And she wants me to go out to parties and play about all the time—and then she doesn't want me to be any of the things that I was before I met her. All my earlier life frightens her—I suppose," he suddenly ended, "I want her to be different and she wants me to be different and we can't make a compromise."
Then Miss Monogue said: "Have any outside people interfered at all?"
Peter coloured. "Well, of course, Mrs. Rossiter stands up for Clare. She came and talked to me this morning and I think the things that she said were quite true. I suppose I am morose and morbid sometimes—more than I realise—and then," he added slowly, "there's Cards—"
"Cardillac—a man I was at school with. I'm very fond of him. He's the best friend I've got, and he's been all over the place and done everything and, of course, knows ever so much more about the world than I do. The fact is he thinks really that my novels are dreadful nonsense, only he's much too kind to say so—and, of course, Clare looks up to him a lot. Although he's only my own age he seems so much older than both Clare and myself. I don't believe she'd have lost interest in my work so quickly if he hadn't influenced her—and he's influenced me too—" Peter added sighing.
"Well—and is there anything else?"
"Yes. There's Stephen. I can't begin to tell you how I love that kid. There haven't been many people in my life that I've cared about and I've never realised anything so intensely before. Besides," he went on laughing proudly, "he's such a splendid kid! I wish you could see him, Norah. He'll do something one day—"
"Well, what's the trouble about Stephen?"
"Clare's so odd about him. There are times when I don't believe she cares for him the least little bit. Then there are other times when she resents fiercely my interfering about him. Sometimes she seems to love him more than anything in the world, but it's always in an odd defiant way—just as though she were afraid that something would hurt her if she showed that she cared too much."
There was silence between them for a minute and then Peter summed it all up with:—"The fact is, Norah, that every sort of thing's getting in between me and my work and worries me. It's as though I were tossing more balls in the air than I could possibly manage. At one moment I think it's Clare that I've got especially to hang on to—another time it's the book—and then it's Stephen. The moment I've settled down something turns up to remind me of Cornwall or the Bookshop. Fact is I'm getting battered at by something or other and I never can get my breath. I oughtn't ever to have married—I'm not up to it."
Norah Monogue took his hand.
"You are up to it, Peter, but I expect you've got a lot to go through before you're clear of things. Now I'm going to be brutal. The fact is that you're too self-centred. People never do anything in the world so long as they are wondering whether the world's going to hurt them or no. Those early years of yours made you morbid. You've got a temper and one or two other things that want a lot of holding down and that takes up your attention—And then Clare isn't the woman to help you—"
Peter was about to break in but she went on:—'"Oh! I know my Clare through and through. She's just as anxious as you are not to be hurt by anything and so she's being hurt all the time. She's out for happiness at any cost and you're out for freedom—freedom from every kind of thing—and because both of you are denied it you are restive. But you and Clare are both people whose only salvation is in being hurt and knocked about and bruised to such an extent that they simply don't know where they are. Oh! I know—I'm exactly the same sort of person myself. We can thank the Gods if we are knocked about—"
Suddenly she paused and, falling back in her chair, put her hand to her breast, coughing. Something seized her, held her in its grip, tossed her from side to side, at last left her white, speechless, utterly exhausted. It had come so suddenly that it had taken Peter entirely by surprise. She lay back now, her eyes closed, her face a grey white.
He ran to the door and called Mrs. Brockett. She came and with an exclamation hurried away for remedies.
Peter suddenly felt his hand seized—a hoarse whisper was in his ear—"Peter—dear—go—at—once—I can't bear—you—to see me—like this. Come back—another day."
He knelt, moved by an affection and tenderness that seemed stronger than any emotion he had ever known, and kissed her. She whispered:
On his way back to Chelsea, the orange lamps, the white streets powdered with the evening glow, the rustling plane trees whispered to him, "You've got to be knocked about—you've got to be knocked about—you've got to be knocked about—" but the murmur was no longer sinister.
Still thinking of Norah, he went up to the nursery to see the boy in bed. He remembered that Clare was going out alone to a party and that he would have the evening to himself.
On entering the room, dark except for a nightlight by the boy's bed, some unknown fear assailed him. He was instantly, at the threshold, conscious of it. He stood for a moment in silence. Then realised what it was. The boy was moaning in his sleep.
He went quickly over to the cot and bent down. Stephen's cheeks were flaming, his hands very hot.
Peter rang the bell. Mrs. Kant appeared.
"Is there anything the matter with Stephen?"
Mrs. Kant looked at him, surprised, a little offended. "He's had a little cold all day, sir. I've kept him indoors."
"Have you taken his temperature?"
"Yes, sir, nothing at all unusual. He often goes up and down."
"Have you spoken to your mistress?"
"Yes, sir. She agrees with me that there is nothing unusual—"
He brushed past the woman and went to his wife's bedroom.
She was dressed and was putting on a string of pearls, a wedding present from her father. She smiled up at him—
"Clare, do you know Stephen's ill?"
"No, it's only a cold. I've been up to see him—"
He took her hand—she smiled up at him—"Did you enjoy your visit?" She fastened the necklace.
"Clare, stay in to-night. It may be nothing but if the boy got worse—"
"Do you want me to stay?"
"I wanted you to go with me this afternoon—"
"That was different. The boy may be really ill—"
"You didn't do what I wanted this afternoon. Why should I do what you want now?"
"Clare, stay. Please, please—"
She took her hand gently out of his, and, as she went out of the door switched off the electric light.
He heard the opening of the hall door and, standing where she had left him in the dark bedroom, saw, shining, laughing at him, her eyes.
There are occasions in our life when the great Wave so abruptly overwhelms us that before we have recovered our dazed senses it has passed and the water on every side of us is calm again.
There are other occasions when we stand, it may seem through a lifetime of anticipation bracing our backs for the inevitable moment. Every hour before it comes is darkened, every light is dimmed by its implacable shadow. Then when at last it is upon us we meet it with an indifference, almost with a relief, because it has come at last.
So was it now with Peter. During many weeks he had been miserable, apprehensive, seeing an enemy in every wind. Now, behold, his adversary in the open.
"This," he might cry to that old man, down in Scaw House, "this is what you have been preparing for me, is it? At last you've shown me—well, I'll fight you."
Young Stephen was very ill. Peter was strangely assured that it was to be a bad business. Well, it rested with him, Peter, to pull the boy through. If he chose to put his back into it and give the kid some of his own vigour and strength then it was bound to be all right.
Standing there in the dark, he stripped his mind naked; he flung from it every other thought, every other interest—his work, Clare, everything must go. Only Stephen mattered and Stephen should be pulled through.
For an instant, a little cold trembling fear struck his heart. Supposing ...? Then fiercely, flinging the thought from him he trampled it down.
He went to the telephone and called up a doctor who lived in Cheyne Walk. The man could be with him in a quarter of an hour.
Then he went back into the nursery. Mrs. Kant was there.
"I've sent for Dr. Mitchell."
"Very well, sir."
"He'll be here in quarter of an hour."
"Very well, sir."
He hated the woman. He would like to take her thin, bony neck and wring it.
He went over to the cot and looked down. The little body outlined under the clothes was so helpless, the little hands, clenched now, were so tiny; he was breathing very fast and little sounds came from between his teeth, little struggling cries.
Peter saw that moment when Stephen the Elder had held Stephen the younger aloft in his arms. The Gods appear to us only when we claim to challenge their exultation. They had been challenged at that moment.... Young Stephen against the Gods! Surely an unequal contest!
Dr. Mitchell came and instantly the struggle was at its height. Appendicitis. As they stood over the cot the boy awoke and began to cry a little, turned his head from side to side as though to avoid the light, beating with his hands on the counterpane.
"I must send for a nurse at once," Dr. Mitchell said.
"Everything is in your hands," Peter answered.
"You'd better go down and have something to eat."
The little cry came trembling and pitiful, driving straight into Peter's heart.
"Temperature 105—pretty bad." Mitchell, who was a stout, short man with red cheeks, grey eyes and the air of an amiable Robin, was transformed now into something sharp, alert, official.
Peter caught his arm—
"It's all right?... you don't think—?"
The man turned and looked at him with eyes so kind that Peter trembled.
"Look here, we've got to fight it, Westcott. I ought to have been called hours ago. But keep your head and we'll pull the child through.... Better go down and have something to eat. You'll need it."
Outside the door Peter faced a trembling Mrs. Kant.
"Look here, you lied just now. You never took the boy's temperature."
"Did you or not?"
"Well, sir, Mrs. Westcott said there was no need. I'm sure I thought—"
"You leave the house now—at once. Go up and pack your things and clear out. If I see you here in an hour's time the police shall turn you out."
The woman began to cry. Peter went downstairs. To his own surprise he found that he could eat and drink. Of so fundamental an importance was young Stephen in his life that the idea that he could ever lose him was of an absurd and monstrous incredibility. No, of that there was no question—but he was conscious nevertheless of the supreme urgency of the occasion. That young Stephen had ever been delicate or in any way a weakling was a monstrous suggestion. Always when one thought of him it was a baby laughing, tumbling—or thoughtfully, with his hand rolled tightly inside his father's, taking in the world.
Just think of all the tottering creatures who go on and on and snap their fingers at death. The grotesque old men and women! Or think of the feeble miserables who never know what a day's health means—crowding into Davos or shuddering on the Riviera!
And young Stephen, the strongest, most vital thing in the world! Nevertheless, suddenly, Peter found that he could eat and drink no more. He put the food aside and went upstairs again.
In the darkened nursery he sat in a chair by the fire and waited for the hours to pass. The new nurse had arrived and moved quietly about the room. There was no sound at all save the monotonous whispering beseeching little cries that came from the bed. One had heard that concentration of will might do so much in the directing of such a battle, and surely great love must help. Peter, as he sat in the half-darkness thought that he had never before realised his love for the boy—how immense it was—how all-pervading, so that if it were taken from him life would be instantly broken, without colour, without any rhythm or force.
As he sat there he thought confusedly of a great number of things of his own childhood—of his mother—of a boy at Dawson's who had asked him once as they gazed up at a great mass of apple blossoms in bloom, "Do you think there is anything in all that stuff about God anyway, Westcott?"—of a night when he had gone with some loose woman of the town and of the wet miry street that they had left behind them as she had closed the door—of that night at the party when he had seen Cardillac again—of the things that Maradick had said to him that night when young Stephen was born—and so from that to his own life, his own birth, his father, Scaw House, the struggle that it had all been.
He remembered a sentence out of a strange novel of Dostoieffsky's that he had once read, "The Brothers Karamazoff": "It's a feature of the Karamazoffs ... that thirst for life regardless of everything—" and the Karamazoffs were of a sensual, debased stock—rotten at the base of them with an old drunken buffoon of a father—yes, that was like the Westcotts. All his life, struggle ... and young Stephen—all his life, struggle... and yet, even in the depths of degradation, if the fight were to go that way there would still be that lust for life.
So many times he had been almost under. First Stephen Brant had saved him, then at Brockett's Norah Monogue, then in Bucket Lane his illness, then in Chelsea his marriage, lately young Stephen... always, always something had been there to keep him on his feet. But if everything were taken from him, if he were absolutely, nakedly alone—what then? Ah, what then!
He buried his head in his hands. "God, you don't know what young Stephen is to me—or, yes, of course you do know, God—and because you do know, you will not take him from me."
The little tearing pain at his heart held him—every now and again it turned like some grinding key.
Mitchell entered with another doctor. Peter went over to the window, and whilst they made their examination, stared through the glass at the fretwork of trees, the golden haze of London beyond, two stars that now, when the storm had spent itself, showed in a dark dim sky. Very faintly the clanging note of trams, the clatter of a hansom cab, the imperative call of some bell came to him.
The world could thus go on! Mitchell crossed to him and put his hand on his shoulder—
"He's pretty bad, Westcott. An operation's out of the question I'm afraid. But if you'd like another opinion—"
"No thanks. I trust you and Hunt." The doctor could feel the boy's body trembling beneath his touch.
"It's all right, Westcott. Don't be frightened. We'll do all mortals can. We'll know in the early morning how things are going to be. The child's got a splendid constitution."
He was interrupted by the opening of the nursery door and, turning, the men saw Clare with the light of the passage at her back, standing in the doorway. Her cloak was trailing on the floor—around her her pink filmy dress hung like shadows from the light behind her. Her face was white, her eyes wide.
"What—?" she whispered in the voice of a frightened child.
Peter crossed the room, and took her with him into the passage, closing the door behind him.
She clung to him, looking up into his face.
"Stephen's very bad, dear. No, it's something internal—"
"And I went out to a party?" her voice was trembling, she was very near to tears. "But I was miserable, wretched all the time. I wanted to come back, I knew I oughtn't to have gone.... Oh Peter, will he die? Oh! poor little thing! Poor little thing!"
Even at that moment, Peter noticed, she spoke as though it were somebody else's baby.
"No, no, dear. It'll be all right. Of course it will. Mitchell's here, he'll pull him through. But you'd better go and lie down, dear. I promise to come and tell you if anything's the matter. You can't do any good—there's an excellent nurse!"
"Where's Mrs. Kant?"
"I dismissed her this evening for lying to me. Go to bed. Clare—really it's the best thing."
She began to cry with her hands up to her face, but she went, slowly, with her cloak still trailing after her, to her room.
She had not, he noticed, entered the nursery.
He went back and sat down again in the arm-chair by the fire. Poor Clare! he felt only a great protecting pity for her—a strange feeling, compounded of emotions that were unexpectedly confused. A feeling that was akin to what he would have felt had she been his sister and been insulted by some drunken blackguard in the street. Poor Clare! She was so young—simply not up to these big grown-up troubles.
Those little cries had ceased—only every now and again an echo of a moan—so slight was the sound that broke the silence. The hours advanced and there settled about the house that chilly ominous sense of anticipation that the early morning brings in its grey melancholy hands. It was a little house but it was full, now, of expectancy. Up the stairs, through the passages, pressing against the windows there were many presences waiting for the moment when the issue of this struggle would be decided. The air was filled with their chill breath. The struggle round the bed was at its height. On one side doctors, nurses, the father, the mother—on the other that still, ironic Figure, in His very aloofness so strong, in His indifference so terrible.
With Peter, as the grey dawn grew nearer, confidence fled. He was suddenly conscious of the strength and invisibility of the thing that he was fighting. He must do something. If he were compelled to sit, silently, quietly, with his hands folded, much longer, he would go mad. But it was absurd—Stephen, about whom he had made so many plans, Stephen, concerning whom there had been that struggle to bring about his very existence ... surely all that was not now to go for nothing at all.
If he could do something—if he could do something!
There were drops of sweat on his forehead—inside his clothes his body was hot and dry and had shrunk, it seemed, into some tiny shape, like a nut, so that his things hung loosely all about him.
He could not bear that dark cavernous nursery, with the faint lights and the stairs and passages beyond it so crowded with urgent silence!
He caught Mitchell on the shoulder.
"How is it?"
"Oh! we're fighting it. It's the most rapid thing I've ever known. If we only could have operated! Look here, go and lie down for a bit—I'll let you know if there's any change!"
He went to his dressing-room, all ghostly now with the first struggling light of dawn. He closed the door behind him and then fell down on his knees by the bed, pressing his face into his hands.
He prayed: "Oh! God, God, God. I have never wanted anything like this before but Stephen is more to me, much, much more to me than anything that I have ever had—more, far more than my own life. I haven't much to offer but if you will let me keep Stephen you can have all the rest. You can send me back to Bucket Lane, take my work, anything ... I want Stephen ... I want Stephen. God, he is such a good boy. He has always been good and he will make such a fine man. There won't be many men so fine as he. He's good as gold. God I will die myself if he may live, I'm no use. I've made a mess of things—but let him live and take me. Oh! God I want him, I want him!"
He broke into sobs and was bowed down there on the floor, his body quivering, his face pressed against the bed.
He was conscious that Clare had joined him. She must have heard him from her room. He tried as he felt her body pressed against his, to pull himself together, but the crying now had mastered him and he could only feel her pushing with her hand to find his—and at last he let her take his hand and hold it.
He heard her whisper in his ear.
"Peter dear, don't—don't cry like that. I can't bear to hear you like that. I'm so miserable, Peter. I've been so wicked—so cross and selfish. I've hurt you so often—I'm going to be better, Peter. I am really."
At that moment they might have come together with a reality, an honesty that no after-events could have shaken. But to Peter Clare was very far away. He was not so conscious of her as he was of those presences that thronged the house. What could she do for him now? Afterwards perhaps. But now it was Stephen—Stephen—Stephen—
But he let her hold his hand and he felt her hair against his cheek, and at last he put his arm around her and held her close to him, and she, with her face against his, went fast asleep. He looked down at her. She looked so young and helpless that the sight of her leaning, tired and beaten, against him, touched him and he picked her up, carried her into her room and laid her on her bed.
How light and tiny she was!
He was conscious of his own immense fatigue. Mitchell had told him that he would wake him; good fellow, Mitchell! He lay down on the bed in his dressing-room and was instantly asleep.
He was outside Scaw House. He was mother-naked and the howling wind and rain buffeted his body and the stones cut his feet. The windows of the house were dark and barred. He could just reach the lower windows with his hands if he stood on tiptoe.
He tapped again and again.
He was tired, exhausted. He had come a long, long way and the rain hurt his bare flesh. At last a candle shone dimly behind the dark window. Some one was there, and instantly at the moment of his realising that aid had come he was conscious also that he must, on all accounts, refuse it. He knew that if he entered the house Stephen would die. It depended on him to save Stephen. He turned to flee but his father had unbarred the door and was drawing him in. He struggled, he cried out, he fought, but his father was stronger than he. He was on the threshold—he could see through the dark ill-smelling hall to the door beyond. His father's hand fastened on his arm like a vice. His body was bathed in sweat, he screamed ... and woke to find the room dim in the morning light and Mitchell shaking him by the arm.
He was still dreaming. Now he was in the nursery. Clare was kneeling by Stephen's bed. One doctor was bending down—the nurse was crying very softly.
He looked down on his son. As he looked the little face was, for an instant, puckered with pain. The mouth, the eyes, the throat struggled.
The tiny hands lifted for a moment, hung, and then like fluttering leaves, fell down on to the counterpane. Then the body was suddenly quiet, the face was peaceful and the head had fallen gently, sideways against the pillow.
At that moment of time, throughout the house, the Presences departed. The passages, the rooms were freed, the air was no longer cold.
At that moment also Peter awoke. Mitchell said: "The boy's gone, Westcott."
Peter, turning his back upon them all, drove from him, so softly that they could scarcely hear, but in a voice of agony that Mitchell never afterwards forgot:—
"I wanted him so—I wanted him so."
A WOMAN CALLED ROSE BENNETT
The days that followed were dead—dead in more than any ordinary sense of the word. But perhaps it was Peter who was dead. He moved, ate, drank, even wrote his reviews, slept—he thanked gravely all those who offered him condolences—wrote letters in answer to kind friends.... "Dear S—— It was just like you to write so kindly and sympathetically...." And all this time he was without any kind of emotion. He was aware that there was something in the back of his brain that, were it once called upon to awake, might stir him into life again. What it would tell him he did not know, something about love, something intensely sorrowful, something that had occurred very probably to himself. He did not want to live—to think, to feel. Thinking meant pain, meant a sudden penetrating into that room shrouded now by heavy, black curtains but containing, were those curtains drawn, some great, phantasmal horror.
He was dimly aware that the people about him were frightened. Clare, Bobby Galleon, Cardillac. He knew that they would be glad for him to draw those curtains aside and penetrate into that farther room. That was unkind of them. He had no other emotion but that it was unkind of them. Beyond that unkindness, they did not exist.
He was thinner. His shoulders seemed to pierce sharply his clothes; his cheeks were white and hollow, there were dark lines beneath his eyes, dark, grey patches. His legs were not so straight, nor so strong. Moreover his eyes were as though they were covered with a film. Seeing everything they yet saw nothing at all. They passed through the world and were confronted by the heavy, veiling curtains....
This condition lasted for many days. Of all about him none understood him so well as Bobby Galleon. Bobby had always understood him, and now he felt for him with a tenderness that had both the past and the future to heighten its poignancy. It seemed to Bobby that nothing more tragic than the death of this child could possibly have occurred. It filled him with anxiety for the future, it intensified to a depth that only so simple and affectionate a character as his could feel, the love that he had always had for Peter.
He was with him during these days continually, waiting for the relief to come.
"It's got to come soon," he said, "or the boy'll go mad."
At last it came.
One day about tea-time they were sitting in Peter's upstairs study. It had been a day of showers and now the curtains were not drawn and a green-grey dusk glimmered beyond the windows.
Peter was writing letters, and as Bobby watched him he seemed to him like some automaton, something wound into life by some clever inventor. The hand moved across the paper—the dead eyes encountered nothing in their gaze, the shoulders were the loosely drooping shoulders of an old man.
"Can you see, Peter?"
"Yes, thanks. Switch on the light if you like."
Bobby got up and moved to the door. The dusk behind Peter's face flung it into sharp white outline.
Another shower! The rain at first in single drops, then more swiftly, fell with gentle, pattering fingers up and down the window. It was the only sound, except the scraping of Peter's pen. The pen stopped. Peter raised his head, listening.
Bobby switched on the light and as he did so Peter in a strangled breathless mutter whispered—
"The rain! The rain! It was like that that night. Stephen! Stephen!"
His head fell on to his hands and he burst into a storm of tears.
And now Peter was out to be hurt, hurt more horribly than he could have ever believed possible. It was like walking—as they did in the days of the Ordeal—on red-hot iron, every step an agony. Always there was something to remind him! He could go nowhere, see nobody, summon no kind of recollection out of the past without this coming to him. There were a thousand things that Stephen had done, that he, Peter, had never noticed at the time. He was haunted now with regrets, he had not made enough of him whilst he was there! Ah! had he only known that the time was to be so short! How he would have spent those precious, precious moments! It was as though he had flung away, wilfully, possessions of the utmost price—cast them off as though it had been his very intention to feel, afterwards, this burning regret. The things in the nursery were packed away, but there remained the room, the frieze with the dragons and princesses, the fire-place, the high broad window. Again and again he saw babies in the streets, in the parks and fancied that Stephen had come back again.
The thing had happened to him so swiftly that, behind reason, there lurked the thought that perhaps, with equal suddenness, Stephen would be restored. To come back one afternoon and to find him there! To find him lying there on his back in his cot looking up at the ceiling, to find him labouring unsteadily on his feet, clinging to the sides of his bed and shouting—to find him laughing at the jumping waves in the fire—to find him!... No, never to be found again—gone, hopelessly, cruelly, for no reason, for no one's good or benefit—simply for some one's sport.
But, strangely, more than the actual Stephen did he miss the imaginary future Stephen at school, hero of a thousand games, winner of a thousand prizes, the Stephen grown up, famous already at so young an age, loved by men and women, handsome, good.... Oh! the folly of it! No human being could carry all the glories that Peter had designed for his son—no human being, then how much less a Westcott. It might be best after all, young Stephen had been spared. Until every stone of Scaw House was level with the ground no Westcott could be termed safe—perhaps not then.
Now he realised how huge a place in his heart the boy had filled dimly, because as yet he refused to bring it to the open light he was conscious that, during these past two years he had been save for Stephen, a very lonely man. It was odd that Stephen the elder and Stephen the younger should have been the only two persons in his life to find the real inside of him—they, too, and perhaps Norah Monogue. But, otherwise, not Bobby, nor Cards, nor Alice Galleon, nor Mr. Zanti—nor Clare.
Not Clare. He faced the fact with a sudden shudder. Now that Stephen was gone he and Clare were face to face—face to face as they had never been since that first happy year of their marriage. That first year of their marriage—and now!
With an instant clenching of his teeth he pulled down the blinds upon that desolating view.
With teeth still clenched he set himself to build up his house again. Clare was very quiet and submissive during those first weeks. Her little figure looked helpless and appealing in its deep black; she was prettier than she had ever been in her life before. People said, "Poor Mrs. Westcott, she feels the loss of her baby so dreadfully"—and they didn't think about Peter. Indeed some people thought him callous. "Mr. Westcott seemed to be so fond of the child. Now I really believe he's forgotten all about him." Bobby was the only person in the world who knew how Peter suffered.
Clare was, indeed, after a time, reassured. Peter, after all, seemed not to mind. Did he mind anything? He was so often glum and silent that really you couldn't tell. Clare herself had been frightened on that night when the baby had died. She had probably never in all her life felt a more genuine emotion than she had known when she knelt by Peter's side and went to sleep in his arms. She was quite ready to feel that emotion again would Peter but allow her. But no. He showed no emotion himself and expected no one else to show any, for he was ready to share it but in her heart of hearts she longed to fling away from her this emotional atmosphere. She had loved the baby—of course she had loved it. But she had always known that something would happen to it—always. If Peter would insist on having those horrid Cornishmen.... At heart she connected that dreadful day when those horrible men had played about in the nursery with baby's death. Of course it was enough to kill any baby.
So, ultimately, it all came back to Peter's fault. Clare found real satisfaction in the thought. Meanwhile she emphatically stated her desire to be happy again.
She stated it always in Peter's absence, feeling that he would, in no way, understand her. "It can't help poor dear little Stephen that we should go on being melancholy and doing nothing. That's only morbid, isn't it, mother?"
Mrs. Rossiter entirely agreed, as indeed she always agreed with anything that Clare suggested.
"The dear thing does look lovely in black, though," she confided to Mrs. Galleon. "Mr. Cardillac couldn't take his eyes off her yesterday at luncheon."
Mrs. Rossiter and Jerry Cardillac had, during the last year, become the very best of friends. Peter was glad to see that it was so. Peter couldn't pretend to care very deeply about his mother-in-law, but he felt that it would do her all the good in the world to see something of old Cards. It would broaden her understanding, give her perhaps some of that charity towards the whole world that was one of Cards' most charming features. Cards, in fact, had been so much in the house lately that he might be considered one of the family. No one could have been more tender, more sympathetic, more exactly right about young Stephen's death. He had become, during those weeks almost a necessity. He seemed to have no particular interest of his own in life. He dressed very perfectly, he went to a number of parties, he had delightful little gatherings in his own flat, but, with it all, he was something more—a great deal more—than the mere society idler. There was a hint at possible wildness, an almost sinister suggestion of possible lawlessness that made him infinitely attractive. He was such good company and yet one felt that one didn't know nearly the whole of him.
To Peter he was the most wonderful thing in the world, to Clare he was rapidly becoming so—no wonder then that the Roundabout saw him so often.
It would need a very acute perception indeed to pursue precisely the train of cause and effect in Mrs. Rossiter's mind after young Stephen's death. Her black garments added, in the most astonishing fashion, to her placid flatness. If she had gloried before in an armour that was so negative that it became instantly exceedingly dangerous, her appearance now was terrifying beyond all words. Her black silk had apparently no creases, no folds—it almost eliminated terms and boundaries. Mrs. Rossiter could not now be said to come into a room—she was simply there. One was sitting, gazing it might be at the fire, a looking-glass, a picture or two, when suddenly there came a black shadow, something that changed the colour of things a little, something that obscured certain objects, but scarcely anything more definite. The yellow brooch was definite, cold, stony eyes hung a little above it, over those a high white forehead—otherwise merely a black shadow putting out the fire.
She was in the Roundabout now all the time. How poor Dr. Rossiter fared it was difficult to imagine, but he cared for Clare as deeply as his wife did and was quite ready for everything to be sacrificed to her at this crisis of her history.
Mrs. Rossiter, meanwhile, was entirely convinced that Peter was responsible for his son's death. Had you suddenly challenged her and demanded her reasoned argument with regard to this matter she would probably have failed you—she did not like reasoned arguments—but she would also have been most sincerely indignant had you called her a liar and would have sworn to her convictions before a court of law.
"Those Cornishmen" had frightened the poor little thing into fits and it was only to be expected. Moreover it followed from this that a man who murdered his only child would most assuredly take to beating his wife before very long. After that, anything might happen. Peter was on a swift road to being a "Perfect Devil."
Indeed, allow Mrs. Rossiter two consecutive hours of peace and quiet, she, sitting like the personification of the English climate, alone before her fire, and she could make any one into anything—once made so they remained.
It mattered nothing to her that poor Peter was, during these weeks, the most subdued and gently courteous of husbands—that was as it might be (a favourite phrase of hers). She knew him ... and, so knowing, waited for the inevitable end.
But the more certain she was of his villainous possibilities the more placid she became. She spread her placidity over everything. It lay, like an invisible glue, upon everything in the Roundabout—you could feel it on the door-handles, as you feel the jammy reminiscences of incautious servant-maids. Peter felt it but did not know what it was that he had to deal with.
He had determined, when the sharpest shock of Stephen's death had passed, and he was able to think of other things, that the supremely important thing for him now to do was to get back to his old relations with Clare. There was, he grimly reflected, "Mortimer Stant" to be finished within a month or two and he knew, perfectly well, with the assurance of past experience that whilst Clare held the stage, Mortimer had the poorest of chances—nevertheless Clare was, at this moment, the thing to struggle for.
He must get her back—he must get her back.
Behind his brain, all this time, was the horror of being left alone in the world and of what he might do—then.
To get Clare back he must have the assistance of two people—Mrs. Rossiter and Cards.
It was at this point that he perceived Mrs. Rossiter's placidity.
He could not get at her at all—he could not get near her. He tried in every way, during these weeks, to please her. She apparently noticed nothing. He could force no direct opinion about anything from her and yet he was conscious of opposition. He was conscious of opposition, increasingly, every day.
"I believe she wants Clare to hate me," he suddenly revealed to himself, and, with that, all hope of her as an ally vanished.
Then he hated her—he hated her more bitterly every day.
He wanted to tell her not to call him "Peter dear"—she loved to put him in positions that showed him in the worst light to Clare.
At luncheon for instance: "Peter dear, it would be a nice thing for you and Clare to go to that Private View at the Carfax this afternoon. You've nothing to do, Clare, have you?"
Peter knew that Mrs. Rossiter had already ascertained that he was engaged. He knew also that Clare had had no thought of Peter's company before but that now she would very speedily feel herself injured.
"I'm afraid—" Peter would begin.
"Peter's too engaged to take you, Clare dear."
"I dare say Jerry will come—" this from Clare.
"Ah! yes, Mr. Cardillac is always ready to take any trouble, Peter."
"If you'd let me know earlier, Clare, that you wanted me."
Mrs. Rossiter. "Oh! don't put yourself out, Peter. It would never do to break an engagement. Only it seems such a long time since you and Clare—"
Peter. "We'll go to-morrow afternoon, Clare."
Clare. "You're so gloomy when you do come, Peter. It's like going out with a ghost."
Mrs. Rossiter. "Ah! Peter has his work, dear—so much hangs on the next book, doesn't it, Peter? Naturally the last one didn't quite—"
Peter. "Look here, Clare, I'll chuck this engagement."
Clare. "No, thank you, Peter—Jerry and I will be all right. You can join us if you like—"
The fact was that Peter wasn't tactful. He showed Mrs. Rossiter much too plainly that he disliked her intensely. He had no idea that he showed it her. He thought, indeed, that he was very skilful in his disguise of his feelings but Mrs. Rossiter knew and soon Clare knew also.
Peter had no conception of subtlety in the matter. It was clear to him that he had once been devoted to Clare and she to him, it was clear also that that relationship had recently been dimmed. Now that Stephen was gone that early intimacy must be restored and the fact that he was willing on his side to do anything to bring it back seemed to him reason enough for its restoration. That the whole matter was composed of the most delicate and intricate threads never occurred to him for an instant. Clare had loved him once. Clare would love him again—and the sooner it happened the better for him.
Meanwhile Mrs. Rossiter being enemy rather than ally there remained Cards.
But Cards was strange. Peter could never claim to have been intimate with him—their relationship had been founded on an inequality, on a recognition from Peter of Cards' superiority. Cards had always laughed at Peter, always patronised him. But now, although Cards had been in the place so much of late, the distance seemed farther than ever before.
Cards was as kind as he could be—always in good spirits, always ready to do anything, but Peter noticed that it was only when Clare was present that Cards changed from jest to earnest. "He thinks Clare worth talking to seriously.... I suppose it's because he was at Dawson's ... but after all I'm not an imbecile."
This attitude of Cards was in fact as vague and nebulous as all the other things that seemed now to stand between Peter and Clare.
Peter tried to talk to Cards—he was always prevented—held off with a laughing hand.
"What's the matter with me?" thought Peter. "What have I done? It's like being out in a fog."
At last one evening, after dinner, when Clare and Mrs. Rossiter had gone upstairs he demanded an answer.
"Look here, Cards, what have I done? You profess to be a friend of mine. Tell me what crime I've committed?"
Cards' eyes had been laughing. Suddenly he was serious. His dark, clean-cut face was stern, almost accusing.
"Profess, Peter? I hope you don't doubt it?"
"No, of course not. You know you're the best friend I've got. Tell me—what have I done?"
"Yes—you and Clare and her mother—all of you keep me at arms' length—why?"
"Do you really want a straight talking?"
"Well, I can only speak for myself—but—to tell the truth, old boy—I think you've been rather hard on poor little Clare."
For the first time since his marriage Peter resented Cards' words. "Poor little Clare"—wasn't that a little too intimate?
"What do you mean?" he asked, his voice a little harder.
"Well—I don't think you understand her, Peter."
"She's a happy, merry person if ever there was one in this world. She wants all the happiness you can give her—"
"Well, you don't seem to see that. Of course young Stephen's death—"
"Let's leave that—" Peter's voice was harder again.
"Oh, all right—just as you please. But most men would have seen what a shock it must be to a girl, so young, who knew so little about the cruelty of life. You didn't—you don't mind, Peter, do you?—you didn't seem to think of that. Never tried to cheer her up, take her about, take her out of herself. You just wrapped yourself up—"
"You don't understand," muttered Peter, his eyes lowered. "If I'd thought that she'd really minded Stephen's death—"
"Oh! come Peter—that's grossly unfair. Why, she felt it all most horribly. That shows how little you've understood her, how little you've appreciated her. You've always been a gloomy, morbid devil and—"
"All right, Cards—that'll do."
Cards stood back from the table, his mouth smiling, his eyes hard and cold.
"Oh! no, it won't. You asked for it and now you're going to get it. You've not only been gloomy and morbid all your life, you've been selfish as well—always thinking of yourself and the books you were going to write, and then when they did come they weren't such great shakes. You oughtn't to have married at all—you've never considered Clare at all—your treatment of her—"
Peter stood up, his face white, so that his eyes and the lines of his mouth showed black in the shadow.
"Clear out—I've heard enough."
"Oh! that's just like you—ask me for my opinion and then lose your temper over it. Really, Peter, you're like a boy of ten—you don't deserve to be treated as a grown-up person."
Peter's voice shook. "Clear out—clear out or I'll do for you—get out of my house—"
Cards opened the door and was gone. Peter heard him hesitate for a moment in the hall, get his hat and coat and then close the hall-door after him.
The house was suddenly silent. Peter stood, his hands clenched. Then he went out into the hall.
He heard Mrs. Rossiter's voice from above—"Aren't you two men ever coming up?"
"Yes—we've had a row."
Mrs. Rossiter made no reply. He heard the drawing-room door close. Then he, too, took his coat and hat and went out.
The night was cool and sweet with a great silver haze of stars above the sharply outlined roofs and chimneys. The golden mist from the streets met the night air and mingled with it.
Peter walked furiously, without thinking of direction. Some clock struck half-past nine. His temper faded swiftly, leaving him cold, miserable, regretful. There went his damnable temper again, surging up suddenly so hot and fierce that it had control of him almost before he knew that it was there. How like him, too! Now when things were bad enough, when he must bend all his energies to bringing peace back into the house again, he must needs go and quarrel with the best friend he had in the world. He had never quarrelled with Cards before, never had there been the slightest word between them, and now he had insulted him so that, probably, he would never come into their house again.
And behind his immediate repentance at the quarrel there also bit into his heart the knowledge that there was truth in the accusation that Cardillac had flung at him. He had been morbid, he had been selfish. Absorbed by his own grief at Stephen's loss he had given no thought to any one else. He had expected Clare to be like himself, had made no allowance for differences of temperament, had.... Poor Peter had never before known an hour of such miserable self-condemnation. Had he known where to find him he would have gone that very instant to beg Cards' pardon.
Now, in comparison with his own black deeds, Mrs. Rossiter seemed an angel. He should show her in the future that he could mend his ways. Clare should make no further complaint of him. He found himself in Leicester Square and still wrapt in his own miserable thoughts went into the Empire. He walked up and down the Promenade wondering that so many people could take the world so lightly. Very far away a gentleman in evening dress was singing a song—his mouth could be seen to open and shut, sometimes his arms moved—no sound could be heard.
The Promenade was packed. Up and down ladies in enormous hats walked languidly. They all wore clothes that were gorgeous and a little soiled. They walked for the most part in couples and appeared to be absorbed in conversation, but every now and again they smiled mechanically, recognised a friend or saw somebody who was likely very shortly to become one.
There was a great deal of noise. There were numbers of men—old gentlemen who were there because they had always been there, young gentlemen who were there because they had never been there before and a few gentlemen who had come to see the Ballet.
The lights blazed, the heat and noise steadily accumulated, corks were popped in the bar behind, promises were broken in the Promenade in front, and soon after eleven, when everything had become so uncomfortable that the very lights in the building protested, the doors were opened and the whole Bubble and Squeak was flung out into the cool and starlit improprieties of Leicester Square.
Peter could not have told you if he had been asked, that he had been there, felt a devouring thirst and entered a building close at hand where there were rows of little round tables and numbers of little round waiters.
Peter sat down at the first table that occurred to him and it was not until he looked round about him that he discovered that a lady in a huge black hat was sitting smiling opposite him. Her cheeks were rouged, her gloves were soiled and her hair looked as though it might fall into a thousand pieces at the slightest provocation, but her eyes were pathetic and tired. They didn't belong to her face.
"Hullo, dear, let's have a drink. Haven't had a drink to-night."
He asked her what she would like and she told him. She studied him carefully for quite a long time.
"Down on your luck, old chum?" she said at last."
"Yes, I am," Peter said, "a bit depressed."
"I know. I'm often that way myself. We all catch it. Come home and have a bit of supper. That'll cheer you up."
"No, thanks," said Peter politely. "I must get back to my own place in a minute."
"Well," said the lady. "Please yourself, and I'll have another drink if you don't very much mind."
It was whilst he was ordering another drink that he came out of his own thoughts and considered her.
"That's right," she said smiling, "have a good look. My name's Rose Bennett. Here's my card. Perhaps you'd like to come and have tea with me one day."
She gave him a very dirty card on which was written "Miss Rose Bennett, 4 Annton Street, Portland Place."
"You're Cornish," he suddenly said, looking at her.
She moved her soiled gloves up and down the little table—"Well, what if I am?" she said defiantly, not looking at him.
"I knew it," said Peter triumphantly, "the way you rolled your r's—"
"Well, chuck it, dear," said Miss Bennett, "and let's talk sense. What's Cornwall got to do with us anyhow?"
"I'm Cornish too," said Peter, "it's got a good deal to do with us. You needn't tell me of course—but what part do you come from?"
Still sullenly she said: "Almost forgotten the name of it, so long ago. You wouldn't know it anyway, it's such a little place. They called it Portergwarra—"
"I know," cried Peter, "near the Land's End. Of course I know it. There are holes in the rocks that they lift the boats through. There's a post-box on the wall. I've walked there many a time—"
"Well, stow it, old man," Miss Bennett answered decisively. "I'm not thinking of that place any more and I don't suppose they've thought of me since. Why, it's years—"
She broke off and began hurriedly to drink. Peter's eyes sought her eyes—his eyes were miserable and so were hers—but her mouth was hard and laughing.
"It's funny talking of Cornwall," she said at last. "No one's spoken of the place since I came up here. But it's all right, I tell you—quite all right. You take it from me, chucky. I enjoy my life—have a jolly time. There's disadvantages in every profession, and when you've got a bit of a cold as I have now why—"
She stopped. Her eyes sought Peter's. He saw that she was nearly crying.
"Talking of Cornwall and all that," she muttered, "silly rot! I'm tired—I'm going home."
He paid for the drinks and got a hansom.
At that moment as he stood looking over the horse into the dimly-lit obscurities of the Square he thought with a sudden beating of the heart that he recognised Cardillac looking at him from the doorway of a neighbouring restaurant. Then the figure was gone. He had got Cardillac on the brain! Nevertheless the suggestion made him suddenly conscious of poor Miss Bennett's enormous hat, her rouge, her soiled finery that allowed no question as to her position in the world.
Rather hurriedly he asked her to get into the cab.
"Come that far—" she said.
He got in with her and she took off one glove and he held her hand and they didn't speak all the way.
When the hansom stopped at last he got down, helped her out and for a moment longer held her hand.
"We're both pretty unhappy," he said. "Things have been going wrong with me too. But think of Cornwall sometimes and remember there's some one else thinking of it."
"You're a funny kid," she said, looking at him, "sentimental, I don't think!"
But it was her eyes—tired and regretful that said goodbye.
She let herself in and the door closed behind her.
He turned and walked the streets; it was three o'clock before he reached his home.
Next morning Peter went round to Cardillac's flat and made his apologies. Cardillac accepted them at once with the frankest expressions of friendship.
"My dear old Peter, of course," he said, taking both Peter's hands in his, "I was horribly blunt and unpleasant about the whole thing. I didn't mean half what I said, but the fact is that you got angry and then I suppose I got angry—and then we both said more than we meant."
"No," said Peter slowly, "for you were quite right. I have been selfish and morbid. I see it all quite clearly. I'm going to be very different now, Cards, old man."
Cards' flat was splendid—everything in it from its grey Ascot trouserings kind of wall paper to its beautiful old chairs and its beautiful old china was of the very best—and Cards himself, in a dark blue suit with a black tie and a while pearl and white spats on his shining gleaming shoes, just ready to go out and startle Piccadilly was of the very best. He had never, Peter thought, looked so handsome.
At the door Cards put a hand on Peter's shoulder.
"Get in late this morning, Peter?"
"Why?" said Peter, turning round.
"Oh, nothing," Cards regarded him, smiling. "I'll see you to-night at the Lesters. Until then, old man—"
Neither Mrs. Rossiter nor Clare made any allusion to the quarrel but it had nevertheless, Peter felt, made reconciliation all the more difficult. Mrs. Rossiter now seemed to imply in her additional kindnesses to Cardillac that she felt for him deeply and was sorry that he, too, should have been made to suffer under Peter's bear-like nature.
There was even an implied atmosphere of alliance in the attitude of the three to Peter, an alliance fostered and cemented by Mrs. Rossiter and spread by her, up and down, in and out about the house.
It was obvious indeed now that Mrs. Rossiter was, never again, under any terms, to be won over. She had decided in her own slow mind that Peter was an objectionable person, that he neglected his wife, quarrelled with his best friends and refused to fulfil the career that he had promised to fulfil. She saw herself now in the role of protectress of her daughter, and that role she would play to the very end. Clare must, at all costs, be happy and, in spite of her odious husband, happy she should be.
Peter discerned Mrs. Rossiter's state of mind on the whole clearly enough, but with regard to Clare he was entirely in the dark. He devoted his days now to her service. He studied her every want, was ready to abandon his work at any moment to be with her, and was careful also to avoid too great a pestering of her with attentions.
"I know women hate that," he said to himself, "if you go down on your knees to them and hang around them they simply can't stand it. I won't show her that I care."
And he cared, poor fellow, as he had never cared for her before during their married life. The love that he had had for Stephen he would now give to Stephen's mother would she but let him.
But it was a difficult business. When Mrs. Rossiter was present he could do nothing right. If he were silent she would talk to Clare about people being morose; and what a pity it was that some people didn't think of other people a little instead of being miserable about things for which they had nobody to thank but themselves, and if he tried to be light-hearted and amusing Mrs. Rossiter bore with his humour in so patient and self-denying a spirit that his efforts failed lamentably and only made the situation worse than it had been before.
Clare seemed to be now entirely in her mother's hands; she put her mother's large flat body between herself and Peter and, through that, they were compelled to talk.
Peter also knew now that Clare was exceedingly uncomfortable in his presence—it was almost as though she had something to conceal. On several occasions he had noticed that his sudden entrance into a room had confused her; once he had caught her hurriedly pushing a letter out of sight. She was now strangely timid when he was there; sometimes with a sudden furious beating of the heart he fancied that she was coming back to him again because she would make little half movements towards him and then draw back. Once he found her crying.
The impulse to beg her to confide in him was almost stronger than he could resist, and yet he was terrified lest by some sudden move he should frighten her and drive her back and so lose the little ground that he had gained. The strangest thing of all was that Mrs. Rossiter herself did not know what Clare's trouble was. She, of course, put it all down to Peter, but she could accuse him of nothing specific. Clare had not confided in her.
Did Cards know? Peter suddenly asked himself with a strange pang of jealousy. That he should be jealous of Cards, the most splendid, most honourable fellow in the world! That, of course, was absurd. And yet they were together so often, and it was with Jerry Cardillac alone that Clare seemed now at ease.
But Peter put all such thoughts at once away from him. Had it been any other man but Cards he might have wondered... but he would trust Cards alone with his wife in the wilderness and know that no ill could come of it. With—other women Cards might have few scruples—Peter had heard such stories—but with Peter's wife, no.
Peter wondered whether perhaps Clare did not miss young Stephen more than they knew! Oh, if that were the reason how he could take her into his arms and comfort her and love her! Poor little Clare... the time would come when she would show him that she wanted him.
Meanwhile the months passed, the proofs of "Mortimer Stant" had been corrected and the book was about to appear. To Peter now everything seemed to hang upon this event. It became with him, during the weeks before its appearance, a monomania. If this book were a success why then dare and Mrs. Rossiter and all of them would come round to him. It was the third book which was always so decisive, and there was ground to recover after the comparative failure of the second novel. As he corrected the proofs he persuaded himself that "Mortimer Stant" wasn't, after all, so bad. It had been ambitious of him, of course, to write about the emotions and experiences of a man of forty and there was perhaps rather an overloaded and crude attempt at atmosphere, but there was life in the book. It had, he thought, more swing in the telling of it than the other two.
It is possible, when one is correcting proofs to persuade oneself of anything. The book appeared and was, from the first moment, loaded with mishap. On the day of publication there was that terrible fire at the Casino theatre—people talked of nothing else for a fortnight. Moreover by an unlucky chance young Rondel's novel, "The Precipice," was published on the very same day, and as the precipice was a novel one and there were no less than three young ladies prepared to fall over it at the same moment, it of course commanded instant attention. It was incidentally written with an admirable sense of style and a keen sense of character.
But Peter was now in a fever that saw an enemy round every corner. The English News Supplement only gave him a line:—"'Mortimer Stant.' A new novel by the author of 'Reuben Hallard,' depicting agreeably enough the amorous adventures of a stockbroker of middle-age." To this had all his fine dreams, his moments of exultation, his fevered inspiration come! He searched the London booksellers but could find no traces of "Mortimer Stant" at any of them. His publishers told him that it was only the libraries that bought any fiction, with the exception of volumes by certain popular authors—and yet he saw at these booksellers novels by numbers of people who could not lay claim to the success that "Reuben Hallard" had secured for its writer.
The reviews came in slowly, and, excepting for the smaller provincial papers, treated him with an indifference that was worse than neglect. "This interesting novel by Mr. Westcott"—"A pleasant tale of country life by the author of 'Reuben Hallard.' Will please those who like a quiet agreeable book without too much incident."
One London weekly review—a paper of considerable importance—took him severely to task, pointed out a number of incoherences of fact, commented on carelessness of style and finally advised Mr. Westcott, "if he is ever to write a book of real importance to work with greater care and to be less easily contented with a superficial facility."
But worse than these were the opinions of his friends. Henry Galleon was indeed gone, but there were a few—Mrs. Launce, Alfred Lester, William Trent, Alfred Hext—who had taken a real and encouraging interest in him from the beginning. They took him seriously enough to tell him the truth, and tell him the truth they did. Dear Mrs. Launce, who couldn't bear to hurt anybody and saw perhaps that he was taking the book a great deal more hardly than he had taken the others, veiled it as well as she could:—"I do think it's got splendid things in it, Peter dear—splendid things. That bit about the swimming and the character of Mrs. Mumps. But it doesn't hang together. There's a great deal of repetition. It's as though you'd written it with your mind on something else all the time."
And so he had—oh! so he had! What cruel irony that because his mind was set to winning Clare back to him the chief means for gaining her should be ruined by his very care for her.
What to do when all the things of life—the bustle and hurry, the marriages and births and deaths—came in between him and his work so that he could scarcely see it, so many things obscured the way. Poor Mortimer! Lost indeed behind a shifting, whirring cloud of real life—never to emerge, poor man, into anything better than a middle-aged clothes' prop.
For six weeks the book lingered in the advertisements. A second edition, composed for the most part of an edition for America, was announced, there were a belated review or two ... and then the end. The end of two years' hopes, ambitions, struggles, sweat and tears—and the end, too, of how much else?
From the beginning, so far back as he could remember, he had believed that he would one day write great books; had believed it from no conceit in him but simply because he clung so tenaciously to ambition that it had become, again and again, almost realised in the intensity of his dreams of it. He had known that this achievement of his would take a long time, that he must meet with many rebuffs, that he must starve and despair and be born again, but, never at any moment, until now, had he, in his heart of hearts, doubted that that great book was in front of him.
He had seen his work, in his dreams, derided, flouted, misunderstood. That was the way with most good work, but what he had never seen was its acceptance amongst the ranks of the "Pretty Good," its place given it beside that rising and falling tide of fiction that covered every year the greedy rocks of the circulating libraries and ebbed out again leaving no trace behind it.
Now, after the failure of "Mortimer Stant" for the first time, this awful question—"What if, after all, you should be an Ordinary Creature? What if you are no better than that army who fights happily, contentedly, with mediocrity for its daily bread and butter? That army, upon whose serried ranks you have perhaps, unconsciously, but nevertheless with pity, looked down?... What if you are never to write a word that will be remembered, never even to cause a decent attention, amongst your own generation?"
What if after all this stir and fluster, this pain and agony and striving, there should be nothing exceptional about Peter? What rock to stand on then?
He had never, perhaps, analysed his feelings about it all. He had certainly never thought himself an exceptional person ... but always in his heart there had been that belief that, one day, he would write an exceptional book.
He was very young, not yet thirty, but he had had his chance. It seemed to him, in these weeks following the death of "Mortimer Stant," that his career was already over. There was also the question of ways and means. Just enough to live on with the reviewing and a column for an American paper and Clare's income, but if the books were all of them to fail as this one had failed—why then it was a dreary future for them both.
In fact there were now, at his feet, pits of so dismal and impenetrable a blackness that he refused to look down, but clung rather to his determination to make all things right with Clare again, and then things would come round.
If that failed him—why then, old black-faced father in Scaw House with your drunken cook and your company of ghosts, you shall have your merry way!
Henry Galleon was dead. Mrs. Launce was, unfortunately, during the whole of this period of Peter's career, away in the country, being burdened with work, children and ill-health. He turned then once again to Bobby.
He had seen very little of Bobby and Alice Galleon lately; he was as fond of Bobby as he had ever been, but Bobby had always been a background, some one who was there, one liked to think, if one wanted him—but if there was any one more exciting, then Bobby vanished. Lately—for quite a long time now—there had been Cardillac—and somehow Cards and Bobby did not get on together and it was impossible to have them both at the same time. But now Peter turned to Bobby with the eagerness of a return to some comfortable old arm-chair after the brilliant new furniture of a friend's palace. Bobby was there waiting for him. It is not to be denied that the occasional nature of Peter's appearances had hurt them both—wounded Bobby and made Alice angry.
"He's given us up, Bobby, now that he's found so many new friends. I shouldn't have expected him to do that. I'm disappointed."
But Bobby nodded his head. "The boy's all right," he said, "he's just trying to forget young Stephen and he forgets things better in Cardillac's company than he does in mine—I'm not lively enough for that kind of thing. He'll come back—"
But, at the same time, Bobby was anxious. Things were wrong up there at The Roundabout, very wrong. He knew Clare and Cards and Peter and Mrs. Rossiter, in all probability better than any one alive knew them—and he was no fool.
Then Peter came back to him and was received as though he had never left him; and Alice, who had intended to tell Mr. Peter what she thought of his disloyalty, had no word to say when she saw his white drawn face and his tired eyes.
"There's something awfully wrong up there," said Alice to Bobby that night. "Bobby, look after him."
But Bobby who had heard by that time what Peter had to say shut his mouth tight. Then at last:
"Our friend Cardillac has a good deal to answer for," and left Alice to make what she could out of it.
Meanwhile up in Bobby's dusty old room, called by courtesy "The Study" but having little evidence of literature about it save an edition of Whyte-Melville and a miscellaneous collection of Yellow-backs, Peter had poured out his soul:
"Bobby, I feel as though I'd just been set up with my back against the wall for every one to make shies at. Everything's going wrong—everything. The ground's crumbling from under my feet. First it's young Stephen, then it's Clare, then my book fails (don't let's humbug—you know it's an utter failure) then I quarrel with Cards, then that damned woman—" he stopped at the thought of Mrs. Rossiter and drove his hands together. Then he went on more quietly. "It's like fighting in a fog, Bobby. There's the thing I want somewhere, just beside me—I want Clare, Clare as she used to be when we were first married—but I can't get at her and yet, through it all, I don't know what it is that stops me.