He stopped short as if someone had struck him. After all, he didn't go to the nursery; she heard him go down the passage to the smoking-room instead.
Sir Peter was having his annual attack of gout. Staines Court appeared at these times like a ship battened down and running before a storm.
Figures of pale and frightened maids flickered through the long passage-ways. The portly butler violently ejected from the dining-room had been seen passing swiftly through the hall, with the ungainly movement of a prehistoric animal startled from its lair.
The room in which Sir Peter sat burned with his language. Eddies of blasphemous sound rushed out and buffeted the landings like a rising gale.
Sir Peter sat in a big arm chair in the center of the room. His figure gave the impression of a fortressed island in the middle of an empty sea. His foot was rolled in bandages and placed on a low stool before him; within reach of his hand was a knobbed blackthorn stick, a bell and a copy of the "Times" newspaper.
Fortunately Lady Staines was impervious to sound and acclimatized to fury. When Sir Peter was well she frequently raised storms, but when he had gout she let him raise them for himself. He was raising one now on the subject of Winn's letter.
"What's that he says? What's that he says?" roared Sir Peter. "Something the matter with his lungs! That's the first time a Staines has ever spoken of his lungs. The boy's mad. I don't admit it! I don't believe it for a moment, all a damned piece of doctors' rubbish, the chap's a fool to listen to 'em! When has he ever seen me catering to hearse-conducting, pocket-filling asses!"
Charles was home on a twenty-four hours' leave—he stood by the mantelpiece and regarded his parent with undutiful and critical eyes. "I should say you send for 'em," he observed, "whenever you've got a pain; why they're always hangin' about. Look at that table chock full of medicines. 'Nuff to kill a horse—where do they come from?"
"Hold your infernal tongue, Sir!" shouted Sir Peter. "What do I have 'em for? I have 'em here to expose them! That's why—I just let them try it on, and then hold them up to ridicule! Do you find I ever pay the least attention to 'em, Sarah?" he demanded from his wife.
"Not as a rule," Lady Staines admitted, "unless you're very bad indeed, and then you do as you like directly the pain has stopped."
"Well, why shouldn't I!" said Sir Peter triumphantly. "Once I get rid of the pain I can do as I like. When I've got red hot needles eating into my toes, am I likely to like anything? Of course not, you may just as well take medicine then as anything else, but as to taking orders from a pack of ill-bred bumpkins, full of witch magic as a dog of fleas, I see myself! Don't stand grinning there, Charles, like a dirty, shock-headed barmaid's dropped hair pin! I won't stand it! I can't see why all my sons should have thin legs, neither you nor I, Sarah, ever went about like a couple of spilikin's. I call it indecent! Why don't you get something inside 'em, Charles, eh? No stamina, that's what it is! Everybody going to the dogs in motor cars with manicure girls out of their parents' pockets—! Why don't you answer me, Charles, when I speak to you?"
"Nobody can answer you when you keep roaring like a deuced megaphone," said Charles wearily. "Let's hear what the chap's got to say for himself, Mater."
Lady Staines read Winn's letter out loud in a dry voice without expression; it might have been an account of a new lawn mower which she held beneath it.
"I've managed to crock one of my lungs somehow, but they say I've got a chance if I go straight out to Davos for six months. Ask the guv'nor if he'll let me have some money. I shall want it badly. My wife and the kid will go to her people. You might run across and have a look at him sometimes. He's rather a jolly little chap. I shall come down for the week-end to-morrow unless I hear from you to the contrary.
"Your affectionate son, "WINN."
"I think that's all," said his mother.
"What!" shouted Sir Peter. He had never shouted quite like this before. Charles groaned and buried his head in his hands. Even Lady Staines looked up from the lawn mower's letter, which she had placed on the top of Winn's; the medicine bottles sprang from the table and fell back again sufficiently shaken for the next dose.
"Do you mean to tell me!" cried Sir Peter in a quieter voice, "that that little piece of dandelion fluff—that baggage—that city fellow's half baked, peeled onion of a minx is going to desert her husband? That's what I call it—desertion! What does she want to go back to her people for? She must go with him! She must go to Davos! She shall go to Davos! if I have to take her there by the hair! I never heard of anything so outrageous in my life! What becomes of domesticity? where's family life? That's what I want to know! and is Winn such a milk and water noodle that he's going to sit down under it and say 'Thank you!' Not that I think he needs to go to Davos for a moment, mind you. Let him come here and have a nice quiet time with me, that's what he wants."
"That's all very well, Father," said Charles. "But what you mean is you don't want to fork out! If the chap's told to go to Davos, he's got to go to Davos, and it's his own look-out whether he takes his wife with him or not. Consumption isn't a joke, and I tell you plainly that if you don't help him when he's got a chance, you needn't expect me to come to the funeral. No flowers and coffins and beloved sons on tombstones, are going to make me move an inch. It'll be just the same to me as if you'd shoved him under with your own hand, and that's all I've got to say, and it's no use blowing the roof off about it!"
"You'd better go now, Charles," said Lady Staines quietly.
When Sir Peter had finished saying what he thought of Charles and what he intended to do to the entail, Lady Staines gave him his medicine.
"Look here, Peter," she said, "this is a bad business about our boy."
Sir Peter met her eyes and nodded.
"Yes," he agreed, "a damned bad business!"
"We'd better get him off," she added after a moment's pause.
"It's all nonsense," grumbled Sir Peter, "and I told you from the first you ought never to have let him marry that girl. Her father's the poorest tenant I ever had, soft-headed, London vermin! He doesn't know anything about manure—and he'll never learn. I shall cut down all his trees as soon as I'm about again. As for the girl, keep her out of my sight or I'll wring her neck. I ought to have done it long ago. How much does he want?"
"Let's make it three hundred," Lady Staines said. "He may as well be comfortable."
"Pouring money into a sieve," grumbled Sir Peter. "Send for the doctor and bring me the medical dictionary. I may as well see what it says about consumption, and don't mention the word when Winn's about. I will have tact! If you'd used common or garden tact in this house before, that marriage would never have taken place. I sit here simmering with it day in and day out and everybody else goes about giving the whole show away! If it hadn't been for my tact Charles would have married that manicure girl years ago. Bring me my check-book. It's nothing but a school-boy's lark, this going to Davos. Why consumption's a pin-prick compared to gout! No pain—use of both legs—sanguine disposition. Where the hell's that medical dictionary? Ah, it's there, is it—then why the devil didn't you give it me before?"
Sir Peter read solemnly for a few minutes, and then flung the book on the floor.
"Bosh!" he cried angrily. "All old woman's nonsense. Can't tell what's going on inside a pair of bellows—can they? Then why make condemned asses of themselves, and say they can! Don't tell Charles I've written this check—he's the most uncivil rascal we've got."
It was odd how Winn looked forward to seeing Staines; he couldn't remember ever having paid much attention to the scenery before; he had always liked the bare backs of the downs behind the house where he used to exercise the horses, and the turf was short and smelt of thyme; and of course the shooting was good and the house stood well; but he hadn't thought about it till now, any more than he thought about his braces.
He decided to walk up from the station. There was a short cut through the fields and then you came on the Court suddenly, over-looking a sheet of water.
It was a still November day, colorless and sodden. The big elms were as dark as wet haystacks and the woods huddled dispiritedly in a vague mist.
The trees broke to the right of the Court and the house rose up like a gigantic silver ghost.
It was a battered old Tudor building with an air of not having been properly cleaned; blackened and weather-soaked, unconscionably averse from change, it had held its own for four hundred years.
The stones looked as if they were made out of old moonlight and thin December sunshine. A copse of small golden trees, aspen and silver birches made a pale screen of light beside the house and at its feet, the white water stretched like a gleaming eye.
There wasn't a tree Winn hadn't climbed or an inch he hadn't explored, fought over and played on. He wanted quite horribly to come back to it again, it was as if there were roots from the very soil in him tugging at his menaced life.
His mother advanced across the lawn to meet him. She wore a very old blue serge dress and a black and white check cap which looked as if it had been discarded by a jockey.
In one hand she held a trowel and in the other a parcel of spring bulbs. She gave Winn the side of her hard brown cheek to kiss and remarked, "You've just come in time to help me with these bulbs. Every one of them must be got in this afternoon. Philip has left us—your father threw a watering can at him. I can't think what's happened to the men nowadays, they don't seem to be able to stand anything, and I've sent Davis into the village to buy ducks. He ought to have been back long ago if it was only ducks, but probably it's a girl at the mill as well."
Winn looked at the bulbs with deep distaste. "Hang it all, Mother," he objected, "it's such a messy day for planting bulbs!" "Nonsense," said Lady Staines firmly, "I presume you wash your hands before dinner, don't you, you can get the dirt off then? It's a perfect day for bulbs as you'd know if you had the ghost of country sense in you. There's another trowel in the small greenhouse, get it and begin." Winn strode off to the greenhouse smiling; he had had an instinctive desire to get home, he wanted hard sharp talk that he could answer as if it were a Punch and Judy show.
In his married life he had had to put aside the free expression of his thoughts; you couldn't hit out all round if the other person wouldn't hit back and started whining. Every member of the Staines family had been brought up on the tradition of combative speech, the bleakest of personalities found its nest there. Sometimes, of course, you got too much of it. Sir Peter and Charles were noisy and James and Dolores were apt to be brutally rough. They were all vehement but there were different shades in their ability. Winn got through the joints in their armor as easily as milk slips into a glass. It was Lady Staines and Winn who were the deadly fighters.
They fought the others with careless ease, but they fought each other watchfully with fixed eyes and ready implacable brains.
It was difficult to say what they fought for but it was a magnificent spectacle to see them fight, and they had for each other a regard which, if it was never tender, had every element of respect.
They worked now for some time in silence. Suddenly Lady Staines cocked a wintry blue eye in her son's direction and remarked, "Why ain't your wife going with you to Davos?" Winn hurled a bulb into the small hole prepared for it before answering, then he said:
"She's too delicate to stand the cold."
"Is there anything the matter with her?" asked his mother.
Winn preferred to consider this question in the light of rhetoric and made no reply. He wasn't going to give Estelle away by saying there was nothing the matter with her, and on the other hand a lie would have been pounced upon and torn to pieces. "Marriage don't seem to have agreed with either of you particularly well," observed Lady Staines with a grim smile.
"We haven't got your constitution," replied her son. "If either you or Father had married any one else—they'd have been dead within six months."
"Humph!" said his mother. "That only shows our sound judgment; we took what we could stomach! It's her look-out of course, but I suppose she knows she's running you into the Divorce Court, letting you go out there by yourself? All those snow places bristle with grass widows and girls who have outstayed their market and have to get a hustle on! Sending a man out there alone is like driving a new-born lamb into a pack of wolves!" Lady Staines with her eye on the heavily built and rather leathery lamb beside her gave a sardonic chuckle. Winn ignored her illustration.
"You needn't be afraid," he replied. "I'm done with women; they tempt me about as much as stale sponge cakes."
"Ah!" said his mother, "I've heard that tale before. A man who says he's done with women simply means one of them's done with him. Besides, you're to be an invalid, I understand! An invalid man is as exposed to women as a young chicken to rats. You won't stand a ghost of a chance. Look at your father, if I left him alone when he was having an attack of gout with a gray-haired matron of a reformatory, he'd be on his knees to her before I could get back."
"You can take it from me," said Winn, "that even if I should need such a thing as a petticoat, I'd try a kind that won't affect marriage. I'll never look at another good woman again—the other sort will do for me if I can't stick it without."
"Don't racket too much," said Lady Staines, planting her last bulb with scientific skill. "They say keeping women's very expensive up there—on account of the Russian Princes."
"By the by," said Winn, "thanks for the money. Had any difficulty in extracting it?"
"Not much," said Lady Staines, withdrawing to the lawn. "Charles got rather in the way."
"Silly ass," observed Winn. "Didn't want me to have it, I suppose?"
"No, he did want you to have it," replied Lady Staines, "but he needn't have been such a fool as to have said so. It nearly upset everything. His idea was, you see, that if his father gave you something—he and James would have to be bought off. So they were in the end, but they'd have had more if he'd played his hand better."
Winn laughed. "Jolly to be home again," he remarked. "Dinner as usual?"
"Yes," said Lady Staines, "and don't forget one of the footmen's a Plymouth Brother and mustn't be shocked. It's so difficult to get any one nowadays, one mustn't be too particular. He said he could stand your father by constant prayer, but he gave notice over Charles. Charles ought to have waited till dessert to let himself go."
The dinner passed off well. Sir Peter and Winn had one never failing bone of contention, the rival merits of the sister services. Sir Peter expressed on every possible occasion in his son's presence, a bitter contempt for the army, and Winn never let an opportunity pass without pointing out the gorged and pampered state of the British Navy.
"If we'd had half the money spent on us, Sir, that you keep guzzling over," Winn cheerfully threw out, "we could knock spots out of Europe. The trouble with England is—she treats her sailors as if they were the proud sisters—and we are shoved out like Cinderella into the scullery to do all the dirty work."
"Pooh!" said Sir Peter, "work! Is that what you call it—takin' a horse out for an hour or two, and shoutin' at a few men on a parade ground. What's an army good for—even when it's big enough to be seen with the naked eye and capable of attacking a few black savages with their antiquated weapons. Why you're safe, that's what you are—dead safe! Land's beneath you—immovable—you can get anywhere you want to as easy as sliding down banisters! Targets keep still too! It's nothing to hit a thing you can stand to fire at while it stands still to be fired at! Child's play, that's what it is. Look at us, something up all the time, peace or war. We've got the sea to fight—wind too—and thick weather. We've got our pace to mind and if we ever did clinch up we'd have to do our fighting at a rate that'd make an express train giddy—and running after a target goin' as hard as we do! That's what I call something of a service. No! No! The Army's played out. You're for ornament now, meant to go round Buckingham Palace and talk to nurse-maids in the Park."
"Not many nurse-maids in the Kyber Pass," his son observed.
"Frontiers—yes, I dare say," snorted Sir Peter. "A few black rag dolls behind trees popping at you to keep your circulation going, and you with Maxims and all, going picnics in the hills and burning down villages as easy as pulling fire-crackers—and half the time you want help from us! Look at South Africa!"
They looked at South Africa for some time till the dessert came and the Plymouth Brother thankfully withdrew. After that Winn allowed himself some margin and Lady Staines leaned back in her chair, ate grapes and enjoyed her coffee.
The conversation became pungent, savage and enlivened on Sir Peter's part by strange oaths.
Winn kept to sudden thrusts of irony impossible to foresee and difficult to parry.
They drank velvety ripe old port. Sir Peter was for the moment out of pain and anxious to assert his freedom from doctors. The conversation shifted to submarines. Sir Peter thought them an underhand and decadent development suited to James, who was in command of one of them.
As to aeroplanes he said that as we'd now succeeded in imitating infernal birds and fishes—he supposed we'd soon bring off reptiles the kind of creature the modern young would be likely to represent best.
"We shall soon have the police crawling on their bellies up and down the Strand hiding behind lamp-posts," finished Sir Peter. "Call that kind of thing science! It's an inverted Noah's Ark! That's what it is! And when you get it all going to suit yourself, there'll be another flood, and serve you all damned well right. I shall enjoy seeing you drown!"
Winn replied that you had to fight with your head now and that people who fought with their fists were about as dangerous as stuffed rabbits.
Sir Peter replied that in the end everything came down to blood, how much you'd got yourself and how much you could get out of the enemy.
Lady Staines was slightly afraid of leaving them in this atmosphere, but at last she reluctantly withdrew to the hall, where she listened to the varying shades of Sir Peter's voice and decided they were on the whole loud enough to be normal.
At eleven o'clock she and Winn between them assisted Sir Peter to bed.
This was a sharp and fiery passage usually undertaken by the toughest of the gardeners.
Winn however managed extraordinarily well. He insisted on occasional pauses and by a home truth of an appallingly personal nature actually silenced his father for the last half flight.
Sir Peter breakfasted in his room.
He had had a bad night. He wouldn't, as he explained to his wife, have minded if Winn had been a puny chap; but there he was, sound and strong, with clear hard eyes, broad, straight shoulders and a grip of iron, and yet Taylor, that little village hound of an apothecary, said once you had microbes it didn't matter how strong you were—they were just as likely to be fatal as if you were a narrow-chested epileptic.
Microbes! The very thought of such small insignificant creatures getting in his way filled Sir Peter with fury. He had always hated insects. But the worst of it was in the morning he didn't feel angry, he simply felt chilled and helpless. His son was hit and he couldn't help him. It all came back to that. There was only one person who could help a sick man, and that person was his wife. Theoretically Sir Peter despised and hated women, but practically he leaned on his wife as only a strong man can lean on a woman; without her, he literally would not have known which way to turn. His trust in her was as solid as his love for a good stout ship. In every crisis of his life she had stood by his side, bitter tongued, hard-headed, undemonstrative and his as much as any ship that had sailed under his flag.
If she had failed him he would have gone down, and now here was his son's wife—another woman—presumably formed for the same purpose, leaking away from under him at the very first sign of weather.
He thought of Estelle with a staggered horror; she had looked soft and sweet—just the woman to minister to a knocked-out man. The trouble with her was she had no guts.
Sir Peter woke his wife up at four o'clock in the morning to shout this fact into her ear. Lady Staines said, "Well—whoever said she had?" and apparently went to sleep again. But Sir Peter didn't go to sleep: Estelle reminded him of how he had once been done over a mare, a beautiful, fine stepping lady-like creature who looked as if she were made of velvet and steel, no vice in her and every point correct; and then what had happened? He'd bought her and she'd developed a spirit like wet cotton wool, no pace, no staying power. She'd sweat and stumble after a few minutes run, no amount of dieting, humoring or whipping affected her. She'd set out to shirk, and shirk she did—till he worked her off on a damned fool Dolores had fortunately introduced him to—only wives can't be handed on like mares—"Devil's the pity"—Sir Peter said to himself, as he fell off to sleep. "Works perfectly with horses."
Winn came up-stairs soon after breakfast a little set and silent, to say good-by to his father. Sir Peter had thrown his breakfast out of the window and congealed the Plymouth Brother's morning prayers. He wanted to get hold of something tangible to move circumstances and cheat fate, but he couldn't think what you did do, when it wasn't a question of storms or guns—or a man you could knock down for insubordination, simply a physical fact.
He scowled gloomily at his son's approach. "I wish you weren't such a damned fool," he observed by way of greeting. "Why can't you shake a little sense into your wife? What's marriage for? I've been talking to your mother about it. I don't say she isn't a confoundedly aggravating woman, your mother! But she's always stuck to me, hasn't let me down, you know. A wife ain't meant to do that. It's unnatural! Why can't you say to her, 'You come with me or I'll damned well show you the reason why—' That's the line to take!"
"A woman you've got to say that to isn't going to make much of a companion," Winn said quietly. "I'd rather she stayed where she liked."
Sir Peter was silent for a moment, then he said, "Any more children coming?"
"No," said his son, "nor likely to be either, as far as I'm concerned."
"There you are!" said Sir Peter. "Finicky and immoral, that's what I call it! That's the way trouble begins, the more children the less nonsense. Why don't you have more children instead of sitting sneering at me like an Egyptian Pyramid?"
"That's my look-out," said Winn with aggravating composure. "When I want 'em, I'll have 'em. Don't you worry, Father."
"That's all devilish well!" said Sir Peter crossly. "But I shall worry! Do I know more about the world or do you? Not that I want to quarrel with you, my dear boy," he added hastily. "I admit things are awkward for you—damned awkward—still it's no use sitting down under them when you might have a row and clear the air, is it? What I want to say is—why not have a row?"
"You can't have a row with a piece of pink silk, can you?" his son demanded. "I don't want to blame her, but it's no use counting her in; besides, honestly, Father, I don't care a rap—why should I expect her to? My marriage was a misdeal."
Sir Peter shook his head. "Men ought to love their wives," he said solemnly; "in a sense, of course, no fuss about it, and never letting them know—and not putting oneself out about it! But still there ought to be something to hold on to, and anyhow the more you stick together, the more there is, and your going off like this won't improve matters. Love or no love, marriage is a life."
Winn laughed again. "Life—" he said, "yes—well—how do I know how much longer I shall have to bother about life?"
There was a silence. Sir Peter's gnarled old hands met above his blackthorn stick and trembled.
Winn wished he hadn't spoken. He did not know how to tell his father not to mind. He hadn't really thought his father would mind.
However, there they sat, minding it.
Then Sir Peter said, "I don't believe in consumption, I never have, and I never shall; besides Taylor says Davos is a very good place for it, and you're an early case, and it's all damned nonsense, and you've got to buck up and think no more about it. What I want to hear is that you're back in your Regiment again. I dare say there'll be trouble later on, and then where'll you be if you're an invalid—have you ever thought of that?"
"Yes—that'd be something to live for," Winn said gravely; "trouble."
"You shouldn't be so confoundedly particular," said his father. "Now look at me—if we did have trouble where'd I be? Nowhere at all—old! Just gout and newspapers and sons getting up ideas about their lungs, but when do I complain?
"If you want another L50 any time—I don't say that I can't give it to you—though the whole thing's damned unremunerative! There's the trap. Well—good-by."
Winn stood quite still for a moment looking at his father. It might have been thought by an observer that his eyes, which were remarkably bright, were offensively critical, but Sir Peter, though he wished the last moment to end, knew that his son was not being critical.
Then Winn said, "Well—good-by, Father. I'm sure I'm much obliged to you." And his father said, "Damn everything!" just after the door was shut.
It hadn't seemed dismal at first, it had only seemed quite unnatural. Everything had stopped being natural when the small creature in lawn, only the height of his knee, had been torn reluctantly away from its hold on his trousers. This parting had made Winn feel as if something inside him was being unfairly handled.
There was nothing he could get hold of in Peter to promise security, and the only thing that Peter could grasp was the trousers, which had had to be forcibly removed from him.
Later on Peter would be consoled by a Teddy Bear or the hearth brush, but Winn had had to go before Peter was consoled, and without the resources of the hearth brush.
Estelle wept bitterly in the hall, but Winn hadn't minded that; he had long ago come to the conclusion that Estelle had a taste for tears, just as some people liked boiled eggs for breakfast. He simply patted her on the shoulder and looked away from her while she kissed him.
He had enjoyed starting from Charing Cross, intimidating the porters and giving the man who registered his luggage dispassionate and unfavorable pieces of his mind. But when he was once fairly off he began to have a new feeling. It came over him when he was out of England and had crossed the small gray strip of formless familiar sea—the sea itself always seemed to Winn to belong much more to England than to France—so much so that it annoyed him at Boulogne to have to submit to being thought possibly unblasphemous by porters. He began to feel alone. Up till now he had always seen his way. There had been fellows to do things with and animals; even marriage, though disconcerting, had not set him adrift. He had been cramped by it, but not disintegrated. Now what seemed to have happened was that he had been cut loose. There wasn't the regiment or even a staff college to fall back upon. There wasn't a trail to follow or horses to gentle; his very dog had had to be left behind because of the ridiculous restrictions of canine quarantine.
It really was an extraordinarily uncomfortable feeling, as if he were a damned ghost poking about in a new world full of surprises. It was quite possible that he might find himself among bounders. He had always avoided bounders, but that had been comparatively easy in a world where everybody observed an unspoken, inviolable code. If people didn't know the ropes, they found it simpler to go, and Winn had sometimes assisted them to find it simpler; but he saw that now bounders could really turn up with impunity, for, as far as ropes went, it was he himself who would be in the minority. He might meet men who talked, long-haired, mysterious chaps too soft to kick or radicals, though if the worst came to the worst, he flattered himself that he had always the resource of being unpleasant.
He knew that when the hair rose up on his head like the back of a challenged bull-dog, and he stuck his hands in his pockets and looked at people rather straight between the eyes, they usually shut up.
He didn't mind doing this of course, if necessary; only if he had to do it to everybody in the hotel it might become monotonous, and he had a nervous fear that consumption was rather a cad's disease.
Fortunately he had got his skates, and he supposed there'd be toboggans and skis. He would see everybody in hell before he would share a table.
It was curious how one could get to thirty-six and then suddenly in the middle of nothing start up a whole new set of feelings—feelings about Peter, who had, after all, only just happened, and yet seemed to have belonged to him always; and his lungs going wrong, and loneliness, like a homesick school-girl! Winn had never felt lonely in Central Africa or Tibet, so that it seemed rather absurd to start such an emotion in a railway train surrounded by English people, particularly as it had nothing to do with what he looked upon as his home. His feeling about leaving the house at Aldershot had been, "Thank God there aren't going to be any more dinners!"
Still, there it was. He did feel lonely; probably it was one of the symptoms of bad lungs which Travers hadn't mentioned, the same kind of thing as the perfectly new desire to lean back in his corner and shut his eyes.
He felt all right in a way, his muscles acted, he could easily have thrown a stout young man with white eyelashes passing along the corridor through the nearest window; but there was a blurred sensation behind everything, a tiresome, unaccountable feeling as if he mightn't always be able to do things. He couldn't explain it exactly; but if it really turned up at all formidably later, he intended to shoot himself quickly before Peter got old enough to care.
One thing he had quite made up his mind about: he would get well if he could, but if he couldn't, he wasn't going to be looked after. The mere thought of it drove him into the corridor, where he spent the night alternately walking up and down and sitting on an extremely uncomfortable small seat by a draughty door to prove to himself that he wasn't in the least tired.
He began to feel rather better after the coffee at Basle, and though he was hardly the kind of person to take much interest in mere scenery, the small Swiss villages, with their high pink or blue clock-faced churches made him wish he could pack them into a box, with a slice of green mountain behind, and send them to Peter to play with.
After Landeck he smelt the snows, and challenged successfully the whole shivering carriage on the subject of an open window. The snows reminded Winn in a jolly way of Kashmir and nights spent alone on dizzy heights in a Dak bungalow.
The valleys ceased slowly to breathe, the dull autumn coloring sank into the whiteness of a dream. The mountains rose up on all sides, wave upon wave of frozen foam, aiming steadily at the high, clear skies. The half-light of the failing day covered the earth with a veil of silver and retreating gold.
The valleys passed into silence, freezing, whispering silence. The moon rose mysteriously behind a line of black fir-trees, sending shafts of blue light into the hollow cup of mountain gorges. It was a poet's world, Blake or Shelley could have made it, it was too cold for Keats. Winn had not read these poets. It reminded him of a particularly good chamois hunt, in which he had bagged a splendid fellow, after four hours' hard climbing and stalking. The mountains receded a little, and everything became part of a white hollow filled with black fir-trees, and beyond the fir-trees a blue lake as blue as an Indian moonstone, and then one by one, with the unexpectedness of a flight of glow-worms, sparkled the serried ranks of the hotels. Out they flashed, breaking up the mystery, defying the mountains, as insistent and strident as life.
The train stopped, and its contents spilled themselves out a little uncertainly and stiffly on the platform. Instantly the cold caught them, not the insidious, subtle cold of lower worlds, but the fresh, brusk buffet of the Alps. It caught them by the throat and chest, it tingled in ears and noses; there was no menace in it, and no weakness. It was as compulsory as a policeman in a street fight.
Winn had just stepped aside to allow a clamorous lady to take possession of his porter when he saw a man struggle into the light under a lamp-post; he was carrying something very carefully in his arms.
Winn could not immediately make out what it was, but he saw the man's face and read utmost mortal misery in his eyes; then he discovered that the burden was a woman. Her hands were so thin that they lay like broken flower petals on the man's shoulders; her face was nothing but a hollow shell; her eyes moved, so that Winn knew she was alive, and in the glassy stillness of the air he caught her dry whispering voice, "I am not really tired, dearest," she murmured. In a moment they had vanished. It struck Winn as very curious that people could love each other like that, or that a dying woman should fight her husband's fears with her last strength. He felt horribly sorry for them and impatient with himself for feeling sorry. After all, he had not come up to Davos to go about all over the place feeling sorry for strange people to whom he had never been introduced. The funny part of it was that he didn't only feel sorry for them, he felt a little sorry for himself. Was love really like that? And had he missed it? Well, of course he knew he had missed it, only he hadn't realized that it was quite like that.
Fortunately at this moment a German porter appeared to whom Winn felt an instant simple antagonism. He was a self-complacent man, and he brought Winn the wrong luggage.
"Look here, my man," Winn said smoothly, but with a rocky insistence behind his words, "if you don't look a little sharp and bring me the right boxes with green labels, I shall have to kick you into the middle of next week."
This restored Winn even more quickly than it restored his luggage. No one followed him into the small stuffy omnibus which glided off swiftly toward its destination. The hotel was an ugly wooden house in the shape of a hive built out with balconies; it reminded Winn of a gigantic bird-cage handsomely provided with perches. It was only ten o'clock, but the house was as silent as the mountains behind it.
The landlord appeared, and, leading Winn into a brilliantly lighted, empty room, offered him cold meat.
Winn said the kind of thing that any Staines would feel called upon to say on arriving at a cold place at a late hour and being confronted with cold meat.
The landlord apologized in a whisper, and returned after some delay with soup. Nothing, not even more language, could move him beyond soup. He kept saying that it was late and that they must be quiet, and he didn't seem to believe Winn when Winn remarked that he hadn't come up there to be quiet. Winn himself became quieter as he followed the landlord through interminable passages covered with linoleum where his boots made a noise like muffled thunder.
Everywhere there was a strange sense of absolute cleanliness and silence, the subduing smell of disinfectant and the sight of padded, green felt doors.
When Winn was left alone in a room like a vivid cell, all emptiness and electric light, and with another green door leading into a farther room, he became aware of a very faint sound that came from the other side of the door. It was like the bark of a dog shut up in a distant cellar; it explained the padding of the doors.
In all the months that followed, Winn never lost this sound, near or far; it was always with him, seldom shattering and harsh, but always sounding as if something were being broken gradually, little by little, shaken into pieces by some invisible disintegrating power.
Winn flung open the long window which faced the bed. It led out to a small private balcony—if he had to be out on a balcony, he had of course made a point of its being private—and looked over all Davos.
The lights were nearly gone now. Only two or three twinkled in a narrow circle on a sheet of snow; behind them the vague shapes of the mountains hung immeasurably alien and at peace.
A bell rang out through the still air with a deep, reverberating note. It was a reassuring and yet solemn sound, as if it alone were responsible for humanity, for all the souls crowded together in the tiny valley, striving for their separate, shaken, inconclusive lives.
"An odd place—Davos," Winn thought to himself. "No idea it was like this. Sort of mix up between a picnic and a cemetery!"
And then suddenly somebody laughed. The sound came from a slope of mountain behind the hotel, and through the dark Winn's quick ear caught the sound of a light rushing across the snow. Some one must be tobogganing out there, some one very young and gay and incorrigibly certain of joy. Winn hoped he should hear Peter laughing like that later on. It was such a jolly boy's laugh, low, with a mischievous chuckle in it, elated, and very disarming.
He hoped the child wouldn't get hauled up for being out so late and making a noise. He smiled as he thought that the owner of the voice, even if collared, would probably be up to getting out of his trouble; and when he turned in, he was still smiling.
Dr. Gurnet's house was like an eye, or a pair of super-vigilant eyes, stationed between Davos Dorf and Davos Platz.
It stood, a small brown chalet, perched high above the lake. There was nothing on either side of it but the snows, the sunshine, and the sense of its vigilance; inside, from floor to ceiling, there were neat little cases with the number of the year, and in each year there was a complete, exhaustive, and entertaining history of those who wintered, unaware of its completion and entertainment, in either of the villages. No eye but his own saw these documents, but no secret policeman ever so controlled the inner workings of a culprit's mind. There was nothing in Dr. Gurnet himself that led one to believe in his piercing quality. He was a stout little man, with a high-domed, bald head, long arms, short legs, and whitish blue eyes which had the quality of taking in everything they saw without giving anything out.
Sometimes they twinkled, but the twinkle was in most cases for his own consumption; he disinfected even his jokes so that they were never catching. The consulting-room contained no medical books. There were two book-shelves, on one side psychology from the physical point of view, and in the other bookcase, psychology as understood by the leading lights of the Catholic religion.
Dr. Gurnet was fond of explaining to his more intelligent patients that here you had the two points of view.
"Psychology is like alcohol," he observed; "you may have it with soda-water or without. Religion is the soda-water."
Two tiger skins lay on the floor. Dr. Gurnet was a most excellent shot. He was too curious for fear, though he always asserted that he disliked danger, and took every precaution to avoid it, excepting, of course, giving up the thing which he had set out to do. But it was a fact that his favorites among his patients were, as a rule, those who loved danger for its own sake without curiosity and without fear.
He saw at a glance that Winn belonged to this category. Names were like pocket electric lamps to Dr. Gurnet. He switched them on and off to illuminate the dark places of the earth. He held Winn's card in his hand and recalled that he had known a former colonel of his regiment.
"A very distinguished officer," he remarked, "of a very distinguished regiment. Probably perfectly unknown in England. England has a preference for worthless men while they live and a tenderness for them after they are dead unless corrected by other nations. It is an odd thing to me that men like Colonel Travers and yourself, for instance, care to give up your lives to an empire that is like a badly deranged stomach with a craving for unhealthy objects."
"We haven't got to think about it," said Winn. "We keep the corner we are in quiet."
"Yes," said Dr. Gurnet sympathetically, "I know; but I think it would be better if you had to think about it. Perhaps it wouldn't be necessary to keep things quiet if they were more thoroughly exposed to thought."
Winn's attention wandered to the tiger skins.
"Did you bag those fellows yourself?" he asked. Dr. Gurnet smilingly agreed. After this Winn didn't so much mind having his chest examined.
But the examination of his chest, though a long and singularly thorough operation, seemed to Dr. Gurnet a mere bead strung on an extended necklace. He hadn't any idea, as the London specialist had had, that Winn could only have one organ and one interest. He came upon him with the effect of bouncing out from behind a screen with a series of funny, flat little questions. Sometimes Winn thought he was going to be angry with him, but he never was. There was a blithe impersonal touch in Dr. Gurnet, a smiling willingness to look on private histories as of less importance than last year's newspapers. It was as if he airily explained to his patients that really they had better put any facts there were on the files, and let the housemaid use the rest for the kitchen fire; and he required very little on Winn's part. From a series of reluctant monosyllables he built up a picturesque and reliable structure of his new patient's life. They weren't by any means all physical questions. He wanted to know if Winn knew German. Winn said he didn't, and added that he didn't like Germans.
"Then you should take some pains to understand them," observed Dr. Gurnet. "Not to understand the language of an enemy is the first step toward defeat. Why, it is even necessary sometimes to understand one's friends."
Winn said that he had a friend he understood perfectly; his name was Lionel Drummond.
"I know him through and through," he explained; "that's why I trust him." Dr. Gurnet looked interested, but not convinced.
"Ah," he said, "personally I shouldn't trust any man till he was dead. You know where you are then, you know. Before that one prophesies. By the by, are you married?" Dr. Gurnet did not raise his eyes at this question, but before Winn's leaden "Yes" had answered him he had written on the case paper, "Unhappy domestic life."
"And—er—your wife's not here with you?" Dr. Gurnet suavely continued. Winn thought himself non-committal when he confined himself to saying:
"No; she's in England with my boy." He was as non-committal for Dr. Gurnet as if he had been a wild elephant. He admitted Peter with a change of voice, and asked eagerly if things with lungs were hereditary or catching?
"Not at present in your case," Dr. Gurnet informed him. "By the by, you'll get better, you know. You're a little too old to cure, but you'll patch up."
"What does that mean?" Winn demanded. "Shall I be a broken-winded, cats'-meat hack?"
Dr. Gurnet shook his head.
"You can go back to your regiment," he said, "and do anything you like bar pig-sticking and polo in a year's time. That is to say, if you do as you are told for that year and will have the kindness to remember that, if you do not, I am not responsible, nor shall I be in any great degree inconsolable. I am here like a sign-post; my part of the business is to point the road. I really don't care if you follow it or not; but I should be desolated, of course, if you followed it and didn't arrive. This, however, has not yet occurred to me.
"You will be out of doors nine hours a day, and kindly fill in this card for me. You may skate, but not ski or toboggan, nor take more than four hours' active exercise out of the twenty-four. In a month's time I shall be pleased to see you. Remember about the German and—er—do you ever flirt?"
Winn stared ominously.
"Flirt? No," he said. "Why the devil should I?"
Dr. Gurnet gave a peculiar little smile, half quizzical and half kindly.
"Well," he said, "I sometimes recommend it to my patients in order that they may avoid the intenser application known as falling in love. Or in cases like your own, for instance, when a considerable amount of beneficial cheerfulness may be arrived at by a careful juxtaposition of the sexes. You follow me?"
"No, hanged if I do," said Winn. "I've told you I'm married, haven't I? Besides, I dislike women."
"Ah, there perhaps we may be more in agreement than you imagine," said Dr. Gurnet, increasing his kindly smile. "But I must continue to assure you that this avoidance of what you dislike is a hazardous operation. The study of women at a distance is both amusing and instructive. I grant you that too close personal relations are less so. I have avoided family life most carefully from this consideration, but much may be obtained from women without going to extremes. In fact, if I may say so, women impart their most favorable attributes solely under these conditions. Good morning."
Winn left the small brown house with a heart that was strangely light. Of course he didn't believe in doctors any more than Sir Peter did, but he found himself believing that he was going to get well.
All the morning he had been moving his mind in slow waves that did not seem like thoughts against the rock of death; but he came away from the tiger-skins and the flickering laughter of Dr. Gurnet's eyes with a comfortable sense of having left all such questions on the doorstep. He thought instead of whether it was worth while to go down to the rink before lunch or not.
It was while he was still undecided as to this question that he heard a little shriek of laughter. It ran up a scale like three notes on a flute; he knew in a moment that it was the same laughter he had listened to the night before.
He turned aside and found himself at the bend of a long ice run leading down to the lake. A group of men were standing there, and with one foot on a toboggan, her head flung back, her eyes full of sparkling mischief, was the child. He forgot that he had ever thought her a boy, though she looked on the whole as if she would like to be thought one. Her curly auburn hair was short and very thick, and perched upon it was a round scarlet cap; her mouth was scarlet; her eyes were like Scotch braes, brown and laughing; the curves of her long, delicate lips ran upward; her curving thin, black eyebrows were like question-marks; her chin was tilted upward like the petal of a flower. She was very slim, and wore a very short brown skirt which revealed the slenderest of feet and ankles; a sweater clung to her unformed, lithe little figure. She had an air of pointed sharpness and firmness like a lifted sword. She might have been sixteen, though she was, as a matter of fact, three years older; but she was not so much an age as a sensation—the sensation of youth, incredibly arrogant and unharmed. The men were trying to dissuade her from the run. It had just been freshly iced; the long blue line of it curved as hard as iron in and out under banks of ice far down into the valley. A tall boy beside her, singularly like her in features and coloring, but weaker in fiber and expression, said querulously:
"Don't go and make a fool of yourself, Claire. It's a man's run, not a girl's. I won't have you do it." It was the fatal voice of authority without power.
Across the group her eyes met Winn's; wicked and gay they ran over him and into him. He stuck his hands into his pockets and stared back at her grimly, like a Staines. He wasn't going to say anything; only if she had belonged to him he would have stopped her. His eyes said he could have stopped her; but she didn't belong to him, so he set his square jaw, and gave her his unflinching, indifferent disapproval.
She appeared after this to be unaware of him, and turned to her brother.
"Won't have it?" she said, with a little gurgle of laughter. "Why, how do you suppose you can stop me? There's only one way of keeping a man's run for men, and that's for girls not to be able to use it—see!"
She slipped her teasing foot off the toboggan and with an agile twist of her small body sprang face downward on the board. In an instant she was off, lying along it light as a feather, but holding the runners in a grip of steel. In a moment more she was nothing but a traveling black dot far down the valley, lifting to the banks, swirling lightning swift back into the straight in a series of curves and flashes, till at the end the toboggan, girl and all, swung high into the air, and subsided safely into a snow-drift.
Winn turned and walked away; he wasn't going to applaud her. Something burned in his heart, grave and angry, stubborn and very strong. It was as if a strange substance had got into him, and he couldn't in the least have said what it was. It voiced itself for him in his saying to himself, "That girl wants looking after." The men on the bank admired her; there were too many of them, and no woman. He wondered if he should ever see her again. She was curiously vivid to him—brown shoes and stockings, tossed hair, clear eyes. He remembered once going to an opera and being awfully bored because there was such a lot of stiff music and people bawling about; only on the stage there had been a girl lying in the middle of a ring of flames. She'd showed up uncommonly well, rather like this one did in the hot sunshine.
Walking back to the hotel he met a string of bounders, people he had seen and loathed at breakfast. Some of them had tried to talk to him; one beggar had had the cheek to ask Winn what he was up there for, and when Winn had said, "Not to answer impertinent questions," things at the breakfast-table—there was one confounded long one for breakfast—had fallen rather flat.
He felt sure he wouldn't see the girl again; only he did almost at once. She came into the salle-a-manger with her brother, as if it belonged to them. After two stormy, obstinate scenes Winn had obtained the shelter of his separate and solitary table. The waiter approached the two young things as they entered late and a little flushed; apparently he explained to them with patient stubbornness that they, at any rate, must give up this privilege; they couldn't have a separate table. He also tried to persuade them which one to join. The boy made a blustering assertion of himself and then subsided. Claire Rivers did neither. Her eyes ran over the room, mutinous and a little disdainful; then she moved. It seemed to Winn he had never seen anybody move so lightly and so swiftly. There was no faltering in her. She took the room with her head up like a sail before a breeze. She came straight to Winn's table and looked down at him.
"This is ours," she said. "You've taken it, though we were here first. Do you think it's fair?"
Winn rose quietly and looked down at her. He was glad he was half a head taller; still he couldn't look very far down. She caught at the corner of her lip with a small white tooth. He tried to make a look of sternness come into his eyes, but he felt guiltily aware that he wanted to give in to her, just as he wanted to give in, to Peter.
"Of course," he said, gravely, "I had no idea it was your table when I got it from that tow-headed fool. You must take it at once, and I'll make him bring in another one."
"He won't," said Claire. "He says he can't; Herr Avalon, the proprietor, won't give him another; besides, there isn't room."
"Oh, I think he will," said Winn. "Shall I go over and bring your brother to you? Won't you sit down?"
She hesitated, then she said:
"You make me feel as if I were being very rude, and I don't want to drive you away. Only, you know, the other people here are rather awful, aren't they?"
Winn was aware that their entire awfulness was concentrated upon his companion.
"Please sit down," he said a little authoritatively. Her brother ought to have backed her up, but the young fool wouldn't; he stood shamefacedly over by the door. "I'll get hold of your brother," Winn added, turning away from her. The waiter hovered nervously in their direction.
"Am I to set for the three, sir?" he ventured. Claire turned quickly toward Winn.
"Yes," she said; "why not? If you don't mind, I mean. You aren't really a bit horrid."
"How can you possibly tell?" Winn asked, with a short laugh. "However, I'll get your brother, and if you really don't mind, I'll come back with him."
Claire was quite sure that she could tell and that she didn't mind.
The waiter came back in triumph, but Winn gave him a sharp look which extracted his triumph as neatly as experts extract a winkle with a pin. Maurice apologized with better manners than Winn had expected. He looked a terribly unlicked cub, and Winn found himself watching anxiously to see if Claire ate enough and the right things. He couldn't, of course, say anything if she didn't, but he found himself watching.
Winn was from the first sure that it was perfectly all right. She wouldn't notice him at all. She would merely look upon him as the man who was there when there were skates to clean, skis to oil, any handy little thing which the other fellows, being younger and not feeling so like an old nurse, might more easily overlook. Women liked fellows who cut a dash, and you couldn't cut a dash and be an old nurse simultaneously. Winn clung to the simile of the old nurse. That was, after all the real truth of his feelings, not more than that, certainly not love. Love would make more of a figure in the world, not that it mattered what you called things provided you behaved decently. Only he was glad he was not in love.
He bought her flowers and chocolates, though he had a pang about the chocolates, not feeling quite sure that they were good for her; but flowers were safe.
He didn't give her lilies—they seemed too self-consciously virginal, as if they wanted to rub it in—he gave her crimson roses, flowers that frankly enjoyed themselves and were as beautiful as they could be. They were like Claire herself. She never stopped to consider an attitude; she just went about flowering all over the place in a kind of perpetual fragrance.
She enjoyed herself so much that she simply hadn't time to notice any one in particular. There were a dozen men always about her. She was so young and happy and unintentional that every one wanted to be with her. It was like sitting in the sun.
She never muddled things up or gave needless pain or cheated. That was what Winn liked about her. She was as fair as a judge without being anything like so grave.
They were all playing a game, and she was the leader. They would have let her break the rules if she had wanted to break them! but she wouldn't have let herself.
Of course the hotel didn't approve of her; no hotel could be expected to approve of a situation which it so much enjoyed. Besides Claire was lawless; she kept her own rules, but she broke everybody else's. She never sought a chaperon or accepted some older woman's sheltering presence; she never sat in the ladies' salon or went to tea with the chaplain's wife. On one dreadful occasion she tobogganed wilfully on a Sunday, under the chaplain's nose, with a man who had arrived only the night before.
When old Mrs. Stewart, who knitted regularly by the winter and counted almost as many scandals as stitches, took her up on the subject out of kindness of heart, Claire had said without meaning to be rude:
"I really don't think the chaplain's nose ought to be there, to be under, do you?"
Of course, Mrs. Stewart did. She had the highest respect for the chaplain's nose; but it wasn't the kind of subject you could argue about.
For a long time Claire and Winn never really talked; she threw words at him over her shoulder or in the hall or when he put her skates on or took them off at the rink. He seemed to get there quicker than any one else, though the operation itself was sometimes a little prolonged. Of course there were meals, but meals belonged to Maurice, and Claire had a way of always slipping behind him, so that it was really over the skates that Winn discovered how awfully clever she was.
She read books, deep books; why, even Hall Caine and Marie Corelli didn't satisfy her, and Winn had always thought those famous authors the last words in modern literature. He now learned others. She gave him Conrad to read, and Meredith. He got stuck in Meredith, but he liked Conrad; it made him smell the mud and feel again the silence of the jungle.
"Funny," he explained to Claire, "because when you come to think of it, he doesn't actually write about the smell; only he's got it, and the jungle feeling, too. It's quiet, you know, in there, but not a bit like the snows out here; there's nothing doing up in this snow, but God alone knows what's happening in the jungle. Odd how there can be two sorts of quiet, ain't it?"
"There can be two sorts of anything," said Claire, exultantly. "Oh, not only two—dozens; that's why it's all such fun."
But Winn was inclined to think that there might be more fun where there were fewer candidates for it. There was, for instance, Mr. Roper. Maurice was trying to work up for his final examination at Sandhurst with Mr. Roper. He was a black-haired, polite man with a constant smile and a habit of agreeing with people much too promptly; also he read books and talked to Claire about them in the evening till every one started bridge. Fortunately, that shut him up.
Winn was considered in Anglo-Indian clubs, where the standard of bridge is high, to play considerably above it, and Claire played with a relish, that was more instinctive than reliable; nevertheless, Winn loved playing with her, and accepted Mr. Roper and Maurice as one accepts severity of climate on the way to a treat. He knew he must keep his temper with them both, so when he wanted to be nasty he looked at Claire, and when Claire looked at him he wanted to be nice. He couldn't, of course, stop Claire from ever in any circumstances glancing in the direction of Mr. Roper, and it would have startled him extremely if he had discovered that Claire, seeing how much he disliked it, had reduced this form of communion to the rarest civility; because Winn still took for granted the fact that Claire noticed nothing.
It was the solid earth on which he stood. For some months his consciousness of his wife had been an intermittent recognition of a disagreeable fact; but for the first few weeks at Davos he forgot Estelle entirely; she drifted out of his mind with the completeness of a collar stud under a wardrobe.
He never for a moment forgot Peter, but he didn't talk about him because it would have seemed like boasting. Even if he had said, "I have a boy called Peter," it would have sounded as if nobody else had ever had a boy like Peter. Besides, he didn't want to talk about himself; he wanted to talk about Claire.
She hadn't time to tell him much; she was preparing for a skating competition, which took several hours a day, and then in the afternoons she skied or tobogganed with Mr. Ponsonby, a tall, lean Eton master getting over an illness. Winn privately thought that if Mr. Ponsonby was well enough to toboggan, he was well enough to go back and teach boys; but this opinion was not shared by Mr. Ponsonby, who greatly preferred staying where he was and teaching Claire.
Claire tobogganed and skied with the same thrill as she played bridge and skated; they all seemed to her breathless and vital duties. She did not think of Mr. Ponsonby as much as she did of the toboggan, but he gave her points. In any case, Winn preferred him to Mr. Roper, who was obliged to teach Maurice in the afternoons.
If one wants very much to learn a particular subject, it is surprising how much of it one may pick up in the course of a day from chance moments.
In a week Winn had learned that Maurice and Claire were orphans, that they lived with an aunt who didn't get on with Claire and an uncle who didn't get on with Maurice, and that there were several cousins too stodgy for words. Claire was waiting for Maurice to get through Sandhurst—he'd been horribly interrupted by pleurisy—and then she could keep house for him somewhere—wherever he was sent—unless she took up a profession. She rather thought she was going to do that in any case, because they would have awfully little money; and besides, not doing things was a bore, and every girl ought to make her way in the world, didn't Major Staines think so?
Major Staines didn't, and emphatically said that he didn't.
"Good God, no! What on earth for?" was how he expressed it. Claire stopped short, outside the office door, just as she was going to pay her bill.
"We shall have to talk about this," she said gravely. "I'm awfully afraid you're a reactionary."
"I dare say I am," said Winn, who hadn't the faintest idea what a reactionary was, but rather liked the sound of it. "We'll talk about it as much as you like. How about lunch at the Schatz Alp?"
That was how they went to the Schatz Alp and had their first real talk.
Claire was not perfectly sure of life—it occurred to her at nineteen that it might have in store for her certain surprises—but she was perfectly sure of herself. She knew that she ought to have been a boy, and that if she had been a boy she would have tried to be like General Gordon. Balked of this ambition by the fact of her sex, she turned her attention to Maurice.
It seemed to her essential that he should be like General Gordon in her place, and by dint of persuasion, concentration of purpose, and sheer indomitable will power she infected Maurice with the same idea. He had made her no promises, but he had agreed to enter the army.
It is improbable that General Gordon's character was formed wholly by the exertions of his sister, but Claire in her eagerness rather overlooked the question of material. There was nothing in Maurice himself that was wrong, but he belonged to a class of young men who are always being picked up by "wrong 'uns."
He wanted a little too much to be liked. He was quite willing to be a hero to please Claire if it was not too much trouble. Meanwhile he expected it to be compatible with drinking rather more than was good for him, spending considerably too much money, and talking loudly and knowingly upon subjects considered doubtful.
If the world had been as innocent as Maurice, this program would in time have corrected itself. But besides holes and the unwary, there are from time to time diggers of holes, and it was to these unsound guides that Maurice found himself oftenest attracted.
What he asked of Claire was that she should continue to believe in him and make his way easy for him. She could fight for his freedom with a surly uncle, but having won it, she shouldn't afterward expect a fellow to do things with it which would end in his being less free.
Maurice really loved Claire, his idea of love being that he would undeviatingly choose her to bear all his burdens. She managed the externals of his life with the minimum of exertion to himself. She fought his guardians; she talked straight to his opposers; she took buffets that were meant for him to take; she made plans, efforts, and arrangements for his comfort. Lots of things he wanted he could simply not have had if she had failed to procure them.
Pushed beyond a certain point Maurice gave in, or appeared to give in, and lied. Claire never admitted even to herself that Maurice lied, but she took unusual pains to prevent his ever being pushed beyond a certain point.
It was Claire who had managed the journey to Davos in the teeth of opposition; but it was Maurice who would have no other guide than Mr. Roper, a splendid army coach picked up at a billiard room in a hotel. Now that they were at Davos, Claire became a little doubtful if, after all, her uncle hadn't been right when he had declared that Bournemouth would have done as well and been far less expensive. Then Winn came, and she began mysteriously to feel that the situation was saved.
It wasn't that Winn looked in the least like General Gordon, but Mr. Ponsonby had told her that he was a distinguished officer and shot tigers on foot.
Claire was quite surprised that Winn had been so nice to her, particularly as he hadn't appeared at all a friendly kind of person; but she became more and more convinced that Winn was a knight errant in disguise and had been sent by heaven to her direct assistance.
Claire believed very strongly in heaven. If you have no parents and very disagreeable relatives, heaven becomes extremely important. Claire didn't think it was at all the place her aunt and uncle vaguely held out to her as a kind of permanent and compulsory pew into which an angelic verger conducted the more respectable after death.
Everything Mr. and Mrs. Tighe considered the laws of God seemed to Claire unlikely to be the laws of anybody except people like Mr. and Mrs. Tighe; but she did believe that God looked after Maurice and herself, and she was anxious that He should look particularly after Maurice.
She determined that on the day she went to the Schatz Alp with Major Staines she would take him into her confidence. She could explain the position of women to him while they climbed the Rhueti-Weg; this would give them all of lunch for Maurice's future, and she hoped without direct calculations—because, although Claire generally had very strong purposes, she seldom had calculations—that perhaps if she was lucky he would tell her about tigers on the way down.
It was one of those mornings at Davos which seemed made out of fragrance and crystal. The sun soaked into the pines, the sky above the tree-tops burned like blue flame. It was the first time in Claire's life that she had gone out all by herself to lunch with a grown-up man. Winn was far more important than a mere boy, besides being a major.
She had been planning all the morning during her skating what arguments she should use to Winn on the subject of women, but when she saw him in the hall everything went out of her head. She only knew that it was a heavenly day and that it seemed extraordinarily difficult not to dance.
It was a long walk up to the Schatz Alp; there were paths where the pine-trees met overhead, garlanded with wreaths of snow, and the spaces between the wreaths were as blue as love-in-a-mist, an old-fashioned flower that grows in English gardens. Claire pointed it out to Winn.
"Only," she said, "up here there isn't any mist, is there?"
"No," said Winn, looking at her in a curious way; "as far as I can see, there is none whatever. By the by, that particular flower you mention isn't only called love-in-a-mist, it's also called devil-in-a-bush."
"But that's a pity," said Claire, decisively. "I like the other name better."
She moved beside him with a buoyant, untiring step, without haste and without effort. He told her that he would like to take her up into the Himalayas. She would make a good climber. In his heart he knew there was no place on earth to which he wouldn't like to take her. She was born to be a man's comrade, observant, unexacting, level-headed. She was the kind of girl you wouldn't mind seeing in a tight place if you were there, of course, to get her out of it. Then he pulled himself up and told himself not to be fanciful.
It was rather a fanciful morning: the day and the snowy hillside and the endless, pungent sweetness of the sunny air were like a spell. He found he was telling Claire about the things he used to do when he was a boy. He went on doing it because the adventures of the Staines family made her laugh.
He had not supposed that James, Charles, Isabella, Dolores, and he himself were particularly funny before, but he was delighted to discover their hidden gift. Claire wanted to hear everything about them, their ponies, their dogs, their sharp disgraces, and their more wonderful escapes and revenges; but she didn't want them to be punished, and Winn had to hasten over those frequent and usually protracted disasters.
They had the woods to themselves; there was no sound at all except the occasional soft drop of melting snow. Once they stood quite still holding their breath to watch the squirrels skim from tree to tree as if they were weaving the measures of a mystic dance. If it hadn't been for the squirrels they might have been the only creatures alive in all the silent, sparkling earth.
The mountains spread out around them with the reticent hush of interrupted consciousness. They seemed to be on the verge of further revelations, and were withheld from a last definite whisper only by the intrusion of humanity.
"I know they could speak if they liked," Claire murmured. "What do you suppose they'd say?"
"Let's have an avalanche and knock the silly blighters out of our valley for good and all," Winn suggested.
Claire disposed of Davos with a wave of her hand.
"But they don't mind us, do they?" she urged. "Because we're so happy and we like them so. Doesn't the air make you feel awfully funny and happy?"
"Yes," Winn admitted; "but it's not all the air, you know."
Claire wanted to know what else it was; but as Winn didn't offer to explain, she felt that perhaps she had better not ask.
They were near the top when Winn paused suddenly and said in a most peculiar reluctant voice; "Look here, I think I ought to tell you."
He stumbled over the words and then added, "No, by Jove, that won't do!"
"Oh, don't let's tell each other things we ought!" Claire entreated. "It's not the kind of morning for that. I meant to talk about lots of really important subjects, but I'm not going to now. I may later, of course; but just now I don't feel in the mood for being important."
Winn looked at her very hard, and then he said:
"But still you are rather important, you know."
"Then," she laughed, "I'm important enough to have my own way, aren't I?"
Winn said nothing. He seemed to acquiesce that she was important enough for that.
"Would you like to know," she asked, "what I'd really like for lunch?" Winn said he would awfully, and by the time she had told him they had reached the top, and the funicular appeared, disgorging people in front of a big glass-covered restaurant.
Winn found the best and quietest table with the finest view. From it they could see the valley down to Frauenkirch and up to Clavedel.
It was a splendid lunch, curiously good, with sparkling sweet wine, which Claire loved, and Winn, secretly loathing, serenely shared because of a silly feeling he had that he must take what she did.
After lunch they sat and smoked, leaning over the great clear view. They could hear the distant velvety boom of the village clock beneath them. Winn gripped his hand firmly on the table.
"I've got to damned well do it," he said to himself. He remembered that he had had once to shoot a spy in cold blood, and that he used those words to himself before he did it.
A couple passed close to their table. The woman was over-dressed, and hung with all kinds of jingling chains and bangles; she was pretty, and as she sat with her profile turned a little toward them she was curiously like Estelle. This was his opportunity. It must come now; all the morning it had lain in the back of his mind, behind delight, behind their laughter, like some lurking jungle creature waiting for the dark.
"Do you see that woman," he asked Claire, "the pretty one over there by the pillar? She's awfully like—"
Claire stopped him. "Pretty!" she cried. "Do you really think she's pretty? I think she's simply loathsome!"
Winn checked himself hurriedly; he obviously couldn't finish his sentence with "she's awfully like my wife."
"Well, she sets out to be pretty, doesn't she?" he altered it rather lamely. Claire continued extremely scornful.
"Yes, I dare say," she admitted. "She may set out to be smart too, hung round with things like a Christmas-tree, but she's as common as a sixpenny bazaar. I'll tell you why I don't like her, Major Staines, and who she reminds me of, but perhaps you think her pretty, too? I mean that horrid woman, Mrs. Bouncing in our hotel?"
"But can't horrid women be pretty, too?" Winn ventured with meekness.
"No, of course not," said Claire, with great decisiveness. "Why, you know horrid men can't be handsome. Look at Mr. Roper!" Winn was uncertain if this point of knowledge had ever reached him; but he wasn't at this time of day going to look at Mr. Roper, so he gave in.
"I dare say you're right," he said. "As a matter of fact, you know, I never do look at Roper."
"But that's not the reason," Claire went on, slightly softened by her victory, "that I dislike her. I really dislike her because I think she is bad for Maurice; but perhaps you haven't noticed the way he keeps hanging about her. It makes me sick."
Winn admitted that he had noticed it.
"Still," he said, "of course if you hadn't proved to me that by being horrid she couldn't be pretty, I should have supposed that he simply hung about Mrs. Bouncing because she was—well, not precisely plain."
Claire looked doubtfully at him, but he wasn't smiling; he was merely looking at her with sufficient attention.
"There are only two of us," she said in a low voice, "Maurice and me, and I do so awfully want him to be a success. I don't think anybody else does. I don't even know how much he wants it himself. You see, Maurice is so young in many ways, and our people having died—he hasn't had much of a chance, has he? Men ought to have fathers."
Winn listened intently; he always remembered anything she said, but this particular opinion sank deep into the bottom of his heart: "Men ought to have fathers."
"I've done the best I can," Claire went on, "but you see, I'm young, too; there are lots of things I don't really know about life. I think perhaps I sometimes believe too much that things are going to be jolly, and that makes me a bad adviser for Maurice. Do you know what I mean?"
Winn nodded, but he determined that whether she expected or not, she should have things jolly. He must be able to manage it. If one wanted a thing as much as he wanted this, surely one could bring it off.
Hadn't he pulled off races on the scratchiest of polo ponies, when he couldn't afford better, out of sheer intention? He had meant to win, moved the pony along, and won. Was life less controllable than a shoddy polo pony?
He set his mouth and stared grimly out over the sparkling snow. He did not ask himself how a man with a wife hung round his neck like a millstone was going to manage the perpetual happiness of a stray young woman. He never asked himself questions or saw how things were to be done, but when the crisis came his instinct taught him in a flash the short cut to victory.
"Now," said Claire, unexpectedly, "you are looking awfully dangerous—you do rather sometimes, you know—like a kind of volcano that might go off."
Winn turned his eyes slowly toward her.
"I shall never be dangerous for you, Miss Rivers," he said gently.
He did not know how much he promised her or that he was already incapable of keeping his promise. She looked away from him with smiling lips and happy, mysterious eyes. She had known long ago that all the force he had was as safe with her as if he had laid it in her hands; safer than that, because he held it in his own—for her.
It seemed to Claire that you were only perfectly secure when you were with a man who could be dangerous to everybody else, but always safe for you.
"You will help me with Maurice?" she said softly. "Then I sha'n't feel worried any more."
"I shouldn't let it worry me for a moment if I were you," Winn assured her. "He hasn't come to much harm so far. He's young, that's all. I'll keep my eye on him, of course."
Winn knew quite well what he would do with a subaltern of Maurice's type. He would take him out shooting and put the fear of God into him. If this were done often and systematically enough, the subaltern would improve or send in his papers. But Davos did not offer equal advantages. One could not get the fear of God everywhere on a tap; besides, there was Mrs. Bouncing.
Claire turned suddenly toward him.
"I want Maurice," she said rather breathlessly, with shining eyes, "to be a good soldier; I want him to be like you."
Winn felt a pang of fear; it was a pang that was half horrible pain, and half passionate and wild delight. Was Claire perfectly safe? Why did she want Maurice to be like him? It was Claire herself who banished his fear; she added hastily:
"He really must get through Sandhurst properly."
Of course she hadn't meant anything. In fact, if she really had liked him in any particular way she'd have been shot before she showed it. What she wanted was simply the advice of an older man in the service. It did not occur to Winn that Claire had been shot already without knowing it.
He went on being reassured all the way back because Claire talked persistently about tigers. Winn explained that once you thoroughly knew where you were, there was no real danger in a tiger.
Winn discovered almost immediately that what assistance he could give to Maurice would have to be indirect. He had not a light hand for weak, evasive, and excitable people, and Maurice did not like to be driven off the rink with "Better come along with me" or "I should think a good brisk walk to Clavedel would be about your mark." Winn's idea of a walk was silence and pace; he had a poor notion of small talk, and he became peculiarly dumb with a young man whose idea of conversation was high-pitched boasting.
When Maurice began telling stories about how he got the better of so-and-so or the length of his ski-jumps, Winn's eyes became unpleasantly like probes, and Maurice felt the elan of his effects painfully ebbing away. Still, there was a certain honor in being sought out by the most exclusive person in the hotel and Winn's requests, stated in flat terms and with the force of his determination behind them, were extraordinarily difficult to refuse.
It was Mr. Roper who gave Maurice the necessary stiffening. Mr. Roper didn't like Winn, and though their intercourse had been limited to a series of grunts on Winn's part, Mr. Roper felt something unerringly inimical behind each of these indeterminate sounds.
"That man's a spoil-sport," he informed his pupil. Maurice agreed.
"But he's beastly difficult to say no to," he added. "You mean to somehow, but you don't."
"I expect he's trying to manage you," Mr. Roper cleverly hinted.
This decided Maurice once and for all. He refused all further invitations. He had a terror of being managed, and though he always was managed, gusts of this fear would seize upon him at any effort to influence him in any direction favorable to himself. He was never in the least uneasy at being managed to his disadvantage.
Baffled in his main direction, Winn turned his mind upon the subject of Mr. Roper. Mr. Roper was slippery and intensely amiable; these were not the qualities with which Winn felt himself capable of direct dealing. He would have liked to destroy Mr. Roper, and he thought that the situation might eventually arrive at this point; but until it did, he saw that he had better leave Mr. Roper alone. "You can't do anything with a worm but tread on it," he said to himself, and in hotels people had to be careful how they trod on worms. There was still Mrs. Bouncing, but a slight study of that lady, which took place in the hall after dinner, put this possibility out of the question. She called Winn a "naughty man" and suggested his taking her tobogganing by moonlight.
Mr. Bouncing was a side issue, but Winn, despite his own marriage, held the theory that men ought to look after their wives. He felt that if there had been any question of other men he could have managed Estelle; or, even short of managing Estelle, he could have managed the other men. It occurred to him now that perhaps Mr. Bouncing could be led to act favorably upon the question of his wife's behavior.
Mr. Bouncing could not walk at all; he could get out to the public balcony in the sun, and when he was there, he lay with the "Pink 'Un" and "The Whipping Post" on his lap and his thermometer beside him. All he asked was that he should have his hot milk regularly four times a day. He hardly talked to anybody at all. This was not because it made him cough to talk—it didn't particularly; he coughed without being made to—but because he had exhausted his audience.
There was only one subject left to Mr. Bouncing, and that was his health; after he had told people all his symptoms, they didn't want to hear any more and there was nothing left to talk about. So he lay there in the sunshine thinking about his symptoms instead. There were a good many of them to think about, and all of them were bad.
Mr. Bouncing was surprised when Winn sat down to talk to him, and he explained to him at once exactly what the doctors thought of his case. Winn listened passively, and came back the next day at the same time.
This surprised Mr. Bouncing still more, and little by little the subjects between them widened. Mr. Bouncing still talked about himself, but he talked differently. He told Winn things he had never told any one else, and he was really pleased when Winn laughed at a joke he showed him in "The Pink 'Un."
"You can laugh," he said almost admiringly. "I daren't, you know; that's one of the things I'm told not to do, but I often wish some one would come here and laugh at the jokes for me. It's quite an effort for me sometimes not to burst out; and then, you see, hemorrhage! I knew a poor chap who literally died of it—died of laughing. They might put that in the 'Pink 'Un,' mightn't they?"
Winn said he thought one might die of worse things.
"Yes, I know," agreed Mr. Bouncing, "but I'm not going to be caught like that. I dare say you don't know, but I believe I'm the worst case in the hotel. I'm not quite sure; that's what worries me. There's a Mrs. Maguire who stays in bed. I've made all sorts of inquiries about her; but people are so stupid, they don't know the right symptoms to ask about, and I can't go in and look at her, can I? And my wife won't. She says one death's-head is enough for her and I quite see her point. Perhaps Mrs. Maguire's case is partly nerves. My wife thinks I'm very nervous. So I am, you know, in a way. I have to be careful; but, Lord! when I see the things people do up here! The risks they take! You, for instance. I've seen you do heaps of things that are perfectly deadly; and yet there you are getting better. Funny, isn't it?"
Winn said it was funny, but he supposed one must take his chance.
"Yes, I know; that is what people keep saying," Mr. Bouncing admitted. "You can take it if you've got it; but my point is, if you haven't got it, you can't take it, can you? Now, as far as I can see, looking back from the start, you know, I never had a dog's chance. It's years since I went out in a wind without an overcoat on, and once in the very beginning I got my feet wet; but for the last five years I've been as careful as a girl with a new hat. I think I shall live till the spring if I don't get influenza. I hope you'll remember not to come near me if you feel a cold coming on." Winn assured him that he would. "I asked Dr. Gurnet the other day," Mr. Bouncing went on musingly, "if he thought I should ever be able to walk to the post-office again—I used to get there and back last winter, you know—but he wouldn't give me a direct answer. He said he thought I could rely on the hotel porter. He's not quite definite enough—Dr. Gurnet. I told him the other day how difficult it was to get up in the morning, and he said, 'Well, then, why not stay in bed?' But I'm not going to do that. I believe you go quicker when you stay in bed. Besides, I should be dull lying there in bed. I like to sit here and watch people and see the silly things they do. That young boy you sit at table with—he won't come to any good. Silly! He thinks my wife likes him, but she doesn't; it's just that she must have her mind taken off, you know, at times, poor thing. I like to see her amused."
"And what about you?" asked Winn. "It seems to me she might better spend some of her time amusing you."
Mr. Bouncing pointed to the "Pink 'Un."
"I've got plenty to amuse me," he explained, "and you mustn't think she doesn't look after me. Why, the other day—when I had the high temperature, you know, and stayed in my room—she came to the door after she'd been skating, and said, 'Still coughing?' That shows she noticed I was worse, doesn't it?"
"I'm sure she must be awfully anxious about you," Winn assented with more kindliness than truth. "But do you care for her knocking about so with young Rivers and that chap Roper? It seems to me she's too young and too pretty. If I were you, I'd call her in a bit; I would really."
Mr. Bouncing leaned back in his chair and shut his eyes. This always made Winn a little uneasy, for when Mr. Bouncing's eyes were shut it was so difficult to tell whether he was alive or dead. However, after a few minutes he opened them.
"They are five minutes late with my hot milk," he said. "Do you mind just getting up and touching the bell? And you've got such a sharp way of speaking to waiters, perhaps you wouldn't mind hauling him over the coals for me when he comes?" Winn complied with this request rapidly and effectively, and the hot milk appeared as if by magic.