Both creeds, that of things visible and that of the idea, were good, and suited to the holders; but for those on whom fortune frequently frowns, for those whose destiny it is to lose and break and not to attain, Peter's has drawbacks. Things do break so; break and get lost and are no more seen; and that hurts horribly. Remains the idea, Rodney would have said; that, being your own, does not get lost unless you throw it away; and, unless you are a fool, you don't throw it away until you have something better to take its place.
Anyhow they walked all day and slept on the road. On the third night they slept in an olive garden; till the moon, striking in silver slants between silver trees, lit on Rodney's face, and he opened dreamy eyes on a pale, illumined world. At his side Peter, still in the shadows, slept rolled up in a bag. Rodney slept with a thin plaid shawl over his knees. He glanced for a moment at Peter's pale face, a little pathetic in sleep, a little amused too at the corners of the lightly-closed lips. Rodney's brief regard was rather friendly and affectionate; then he turned from the dreaming Peter to the dreaming world. They had gone to sleep in a dark blue night lit by golden stars, and the olive trees had stood dark and unwhispering about them, gnarled shapes, waiting their transformation. Now there had emerged a white world, a silver mystery, a pale dream; and for Rodney the reality that shone always behind the shadow-foreground dropped the shadows like a veil and emerged in clean and bare translucence of truth. The dome of many-coloured glass was here transcended, its stain absorbed in the white radiance of the elucidating moon. So elucidating was the moon's light that it left no room for confusion or doubt. So eternally silver were the still ranks of the olives that one could imagine no transformation there. That was the pale and immutable light that lit all the worlds. Getting through and behind the most visible and obvious of the worlds one was in the sphere of true values; they lay all about, shining in unveiled strangeness, eternally and unalterably lit. So Rodney, who had his own value-system, saw them.
Peter too was caught presently into the luminous circle, and stirred, and opened pleased and friendly eyes on the white night—Peter was nearly always polite, even to those who woke him—then, half apologetically, made as if to snuggle again into sleep, but Rodney put out a long thin arm and shoved him, and said, "It's time to get up, you slacker," and Peter murmured:
"Oh, bother, all right, have you made tea?"
"No," said Rodney. "You can do without tea this morning."
Peter sat up and began to fumble in his knapsack.
"I see no morning," he patiently remarked, as he struck a match and lit a tiny spirit-lamp. "I see no morning; and whether there is a morning or merely a moon I cannot do without tea. Or biscuits."
He found the biscuits, and apparently they had been underneath him all night.
"I thought the ground felt even pricklier than usual," he commented. "I do have such dreadfully bad luck, don't I. Crumbs, Rodney? They're quite good, for crumbs. Better than crusts, anyhow. I should think even you could eat crumbs without pampering yourself. And if crumbs then tea, or you'll choke. Here you are."
He poured tea into two collapsible cups and passed one to Rodney, who had been discoursing for some time on his special topic, the art of doing without.
Then Peter, drinking tea and munching crumbs, sat up in his bag and looked at what Rodney described as the morning. He saw how the long, pointed olive leaves stood with sharp edges against pale light; how the silver screen was, if one looked into it, a thing of magic details of delight, of manifold shapes and sharp little shadowings and delicate tracery; how gnarled stems were light-touched and shadow-touched and silver and black; how the night was delicate, marvellous, a radiant wonder of clear loveliness, illustrated by a large white moon. Peter saw it and smiled. He did not see Rodney's world, but his own.
But both saw how the large moon dipped and dipped. Soon it would dip below the dim land's rim, and the olive trees would be blurred and twisted shadows in a still shadow-world.
"Then," said Peter dreamily, "we shall be able to go to sleep again."
Rodney pulled him out of his bag and firmly rolled it up.
"Twelve kilometres from breakfast. Thirty from tea. No, we don't tea before Florence. Go and wash."
They washed in a copper bucket that hung beside a pulley well. It was rather fun washing, till Peter let the bucket slip off the hook and gurgle down to the bottom. Then it was rather fun fishing for it with the hook, but it was not caught, and they abandoned it in sudden alarm at a distant sound, and hastily scrambled out of the olive garden onto the white road.
Beneath their feet lay the thick soft dust, unstirred as yet by the day's journeyings. The wayfaring smell of it caught at their breath. Before them the pale road wound and wound, between the silver secrecy of the olive woods, towards the journeying moon that dipped above a far and hidden city in the west. Then a dim horizon took the dipping moon, and there remained a grey road that smelt of dust and ran between shadowed gardens that showed no more their eternal silver, but gnarled and twisted stems that mocked and leered.
One traveller stepped out of his clear circle of illumined values into the shrouded dusk of the old accustomed mystery, and the road ran faint to his eyes through a blurred land, and he had perforce to take up again the quest of the way step by step. Reality, for a lucid space of time emerging, had slipped again behind the shadow-veils. The ranks of the wan olives, waiting silently for dawn, held and hid their secret.
The other traveller murmured, "How many tones of grey do you suppose there are in an olive tree when the moon has set? But there'll be more presently. Listen...."
The little wind that comes before the dawn stirred and shivered, and disquieted the silence of the dim woods. Peter knew how the stirred leaves would be shivering white, only in the dark twilight one could not see.
The dusk paled and paled. Soon one would catch the silver of up-turned leaves.
On the soft deep dust the treading feet of the travellers moved quietly. One walked with a light unevenness, a slight limp.
THE SPLENDID MORNING
"Listen," said Peter again; and some far off thing was faintly jarring the soft silence, on a crescendo note.
Rodney listened, and murmured, "Brute." He hated them more than Peter did. He was less wide-minded and less sweet-tempered. Peter had a gentle and not intolerant aesthetic aversion, Rodney a fervid moral indignation.
It came storming over the rims of twilight out of an unborn dawn, and the soft dust surged behind. Its eyes flamed, and lit the pale world. It was running to the city in the dim west; it was in a hurry; it would be there for breakfast. As it ran it played the opening bars of something of Tchaichowsky's.
Rodney and Peter leant over the low white wall and gazed into grey shivering gardens. So could they show aloof contempt; so could they elude the rioting dust.
The storming took a diminuendo note; it slackened to a throbbing murmur. The brute had stopped, and close to them. The brute was investigating itself.
"Perhaps," Rodney hoped, but not sanguinely, "they'll have to push it all the way to Florence." Still contempt withheld a glance.
Then a pleasant, soft voice broke the hushed dusk with half a laugh, and Peter wheeled sharply about. The man who had laughed was climbing again into his seat, saying, "It's quite all right." That remark was extremely characteristic; it would have been a suitable motto for his whole career.
The next thing he said, in his gentle, unsurprised voice, was to the bare-headed figure that smiled up at him from the road.
"You, Margery?... What a game. But what have you done with the Hebrew? Oh, that's Stephen, isn't it. That accounts for it: but how did he get you? I say, you can't have slept anywhere; there's been nowhere, for miles. And have you left Leslie to roam alone among the Objects of Beauty with his own unsophisticated taste for guide? I suppose he's chucked you at last; very decent-spirited of him, I think, don't you, Stephen?"
"I chucked him," Peter explained, "because he bought a sham Carlo Dolci. I drew the line at that. Though if one must have a Carlo Dolci, I suppose it had better be a sham one, on the whole. Anyhow, I came away and took to the road. We sleep in ditches, and we like it very much, and I make tea every morning in my little kettle. I'm going to Florence to help Leslie to buy bronze things for his grates—dogs, you know, and shovels and things. Leslie will have been there for three days now; I do wonder what he's bought."
"You'd better come on in the car," Urquhart said. "Both of you. Why is Stephen looking so proud? I shall be at Florence for breakfast. You won't, though. Bad luck. Come along; there's loads of room."
Rodney stood by the wall. He was unlike Peter in this, that his resentment towards a person who motored across Tuscany between dusk and dawn was in no way lessened by the discovery of who it was.
Peter stood, his feet deep in dust, and smiled at Urquhart. Rodney watched the two a little cynically from the wall. Peter looked what he was—a limping vagabond tramp, dust-smeared, bare-headed, very much part of the twilight road. In spite of his knapsack, he had the air of possessing nothing and smiling over the thought.
Peter said, "How funny," meaning the combination of Urquhart and the motor-car and Tuscany and the grey dawn and Rodney and himself; Urquhart was smiling down at them, his face pale in the strange dawn-twilight. The scene was symbolical of their whole relations; it seemed as if Urquhart, lifted triumphantly above the road's dust, had always so smiled down on Peter, in his vagabond weakness.
"I don't think," Urquhart was saying, "that you ought to walk so far in the night. It's weakening." To Urquhart Peter had always been a brittle incompetent, who could not do things, who kept breaking into bits if roughly handled.
"Rodney and I don't think," Peter returned, in the hushed voice that belonged to the still hour, "that you ought to motor so loud in the night. It's common. Rodney specially thinks so. Rodney is sulking; he won't come and speak to you."
Urquhart called to his cousin: "Come with me to Florence, you and Margery. Or do you hate them too much?"
"Much too much," Rodney admitted, coming forwards perforce. "Thank you," he added, "but I'm on a walking tour, and it wouldn't do to spoil it. Margery isn't, though. You go, Margery, if you like."
Urquhart said, "Do, Margery," and Peter looked wistful, but declined. He wanted horribly badly to go with Urquhart; but loyalty hindered.
Urquhart said he was going to Venice afterwards, to stay with his uncle Evelyn.
"Good," said Peter. "Leslie and I are going to do Venice directly we've cleared Florence of its Objects of Beauty. You can imagine the way Leslie will go about Florence, his purse in his hand, asking the price of the Bargello. 'Worth having, isn't it? A good thing, I think?' If we decide that it is he'll have it, whatever the price; he always does. He's a sportsman; I can't tell you how attached I am to him." Peter had not told even Urquhart that one was ever glad of a rest from Leslie.
Urquhart said, "Well, if you won't come," and hummed into the paling twilight, and before him fled the circle of golden light and after him swept the dust. Peter's eyes followed the golden light and the surging whiteness till a bend in the road took them, and the world was again dim and grey and very still. Only the little cool wind that soughed among the olive leaves was like the hushed murmuring of quiet waves. Eastwards, among the still, mysterious hills and silver plains, a translucent dawn was coming.
Peter's sigh was very unobtrusive. "After all," he murmured, "motoring does make me feel sick."
Rodney gave half a cynical smile with the corner of his mouth not occupied with his short and ugly pipe. Peter was pipeless; smoking, perhaps, had the same disastrous effect.
"But all the same," said Peter, suddenly aggrieved, "you might be pleasant to your own cousin, even if he is in a motor. Why be proud?"
He was really a little vexed that Rodney should look with aloofness on Urquhart. For him Urquhart embodied the brilliance of life, its splendidness and beauty and joy. Rodney, with his fanatical tilting at prosperity, would, Peter half consciously knew, have to see Urquhart unhorsed and stripped bare before he would take much notice of him.
"Too many things," said Rodney, indistinctly over his thick pipe. "That's all."
Peter, irritated, said, "The old story. The more things the better; why not? You'd be happy on a desert island full of horrid naked savages. You think you're civilised, but you're really the most primitive person I know."
Rodney said he was glad; he liked to be primitive, and added, "But you're wrong, of course. The naked savages would like anything they could get—beads or feathers or top hats; they're not natural ascetics; the simple life is enforced.... St. Francis took off all his clothes in the Piazza and began his new career without any."
"Disgusting," murmured Peter.
"That," said Rodney, "is what people like Denis should do. They need to unload, strip bare, to find themselves, to find life."
"Denis," said Peter, "is the most alive person I know, as it happens. He's found life without needing to take his clothes off—so he scores over St. Francis."
Denis had rushed through the twilight vivid like a flame—he had lit it for a moment and left it grey. Peter knew that.
"But he hasn't," Rodney maintained, "got the key of the thing. If he did take his clothes off, it would be a toss-up whether he found more life or lost what he's got. That's all wrong, don't you see. That's what ails all these delightful, prosperous people. They're swimming with life-belts."
"You'll be saying next," said Peter, disgusted, "that you admire Savonarola and his bonfire."
"I do, of course. But he'd only got hold of half of it—half the gospel of the empty-handed. The point is to lose and laugh." For a moment Rodney had a vision of Peter standing bare-headed in the dust and smiling. "To drop all the trappings and still find life jolly—just because it is life, not because of what it brings. That's what St. Francis did. That's where Italy scores over England. I remember at Lerici the beggars laughing on the shore, with a little maccaroni to last them the day. There was a man all done up in bandages, hopping about on crutches and grinning. Smashed to bits, and his bones sticking out of his skin for hunger, but there was the sun and the sea and the game he was playing with dice, and he looked as if he was saying, 'Nihil habentes, omnia possidentes; isn't it a jolly day?' When Denis says that, I shall begin to have hopes for him. At present he thinks it's a jolly day because he's got money to throw about and a hundred and one games to play at and friends to play them with, and everything his own way, and a new motor.... Well, but look at that now. Isn't it bare and splendid—all clean lines—no messing and softness; it might be cut out of rock. Oh, I like Tuscany."
They had rounded a bend, and a spacious country lay there stretched to the morning, and over it the marvel of the dawn opened and blossomed like a flower. From the basin of the shining river the hills stood back, and up their steep sides the vine-hung mulberries and close-trimmed olives climbed (olives south of the Serchio are diligently pruned, and lack the generous luxuriance of the north), and against the silver background the sentinel cypresses stood black, like sharp music notes striking abruptly into a vague symphony; and among the mulberry gardens and the olives and the cypresses white roads climbed and spiralled up to little cresting cities that took the rosy dawn. Tuscany emerging out of the dim mystery of night had a splendid clarity, an unblurred cleanness of line, an austere fineness, as of a land hewn sharply out of rock.
Peter would not have that fine bareness used as illustration; it was too good a thing in itself. Rodney the symbolist saw the vision of life in it, Peter the joy of self-sufficient beauty.
The quiet road bore them through the hushed translucence of the dawn-clear land. Everything was silent in this limpid hour; the little wind that had whitened the olives and set the sea-waves whispering there had dropped now and lay very still.
The road ran level through the river basin. Far ahead they could see it now, a white ribbon laid beside a long golden gleam that wound and wound.
Peter sighed, seeing so much of it all at once, and stopped to rest on the low white wall, but instead of sitting on it he swayed suddenly forward, and the hill cities circled close about him, and darkened and shut out the dawn.
The smell of the dust, when one was close to it, was bitter and odd. Somewhere in the further darkness a voice was muttering mild and perplexed imprecations. Peter moved on the strong arm that was supporting him and opened his eyes and looked on the world again. Between him and the rosy morning, Rodney loomed large, pouring whisky into a flask.
It all seemed a very old and often-repeated tale. One could not do anything; one could not even go a walking-tour: one could not (of this one was quite sure) take whisky at this juncture without feeling horribly sick. The only thing that occurred to Peter, in the face of the dominant Rodney, was to say, "I'm a teetotaller." Rodney nodded and held the flask to his lips. Rodney was looking rather worried.
Peter said presently, still at length in the dust, "I'm frightfully sorry. I suppose I'm tired. Didn't we get up rather early and walk rather fast?"
"I suppose," said Rodney, "you oughtn't to have come. What's wrong, you rotter?"
Peter sat up, and there lay the road again, stretching and stretching into the pink morning.
"Thirty kilometres to breakfast," murmured Peter. "And I don't know that I want any, even then. Wrong?... Oh ... well, I suppose it's heart. I have one, you know, of a sort. A nuisance, it's always been. Not dangerous, but just in the way. I'm sorry, Rodney—I really am."
Rodney said again, "You absolute rotter. Why didn't you tell me? What in the name of anything induced you to walk at all? You needn't have."
Peter looked down the long road that wound and wound into the morning land. "I wanted to," he said. "I wanted to most awfully.... I wanted to try it.... I thought perhaps it was the one thing.... Football's off for me, you know—and most other things.... Only diabolo left ... and ping-pong ... and jig-saw. I'm quite good at those ... but oh, I did want to be able to walk. Horribly I wanted it."
"Well," said Rodney practically, "it's extremely obvious that you aren't. You ought to have got into that thing, of course. Only then, as you remarked, you would have felt sick. Really, Margery...."
"Oh, I know," Peter stopped him hastily. "Don't say the usual things; I really feel too unwell to bear them. I know I'm made in Germany and all that—I've been hearing so all my life. And now I should like you to go on to Florence, and I'll follow, very slow. It's all very well, Rodney, but you were going at about seven miles an hour. Talk of motors—I couldn't see the scenery as we rushed by. That's such a Vandal-like way of crossing Tuscany."
"Well, you can cross the rest of Tuscany by train. There's a station at Montelupo; we shall be there directly."
Peter, abruptly renouncing his intention of getting up, lay back giddily. The marvellous morning was splendid on the mountains.
"How extremely lucky," remarked Peter weakly, "that I wasn't in this position when Denis came by. Denis usually does come by at these crucial moments you know—always has. He probably thinks by now that I am an escaped inhabitant of the Permanent Casualty Ward. Bother. I wish he didn't."
"Since it's obvious," said Rodney, "that you can't stand, let alone walk, I had better go on to Montelupo and fetch a carriage of sorts. I wonder if you can lie there quietly till I come back, or if you'll be having seizures and things? Well, I can't help it. I must go, anyhow. There's the whisky on your left."
Peter watched him go; he went at seven miles an hour; the dust ruffled and leapt at his heels.
Peter sat very still leaning back against the rough white wall, and thought what a pity it all was. What a pity, and what a bore, that one could not do things like other people. Short of being an Urquhart, who could do everything and had everything, whose passing car flamed triumphant and lit the world into a splendid joy, and was approved under investigation with "quite all right"—short of that glorious competence and pride of life, one might surely be an average man, who could walk from San Pietro to Florence without tumbling on the road at dawn. Peter sighed over it, rather crossly. The marvellous morning was insulted by his collapse; it became a remote thing, in which he might have no share. As always, the inexorable "Not for you" rose like a barred gate between him and the lucid country the white road threaded.
Peter in the dust began to whistle softly, to cheer himself, and because he was really feeling better, and because anyhow, for him or not for him, the land at dawn was a golden and glorious thing, and he loved it. What did it matter whether he could walk through it or not? There it lay, magical, clear-hewn, bathed in golden sunrise.
Round the turn of the road a bent figure came, stepping slowly and with age, a woodstack on his back. Heavier even than a knapsack containing a spirit kettle and a Decameron and biscuit remainders in a paper bag, it must be. Peter watched the slow figure sympathetically. Would he sway and topple over; and if he did would the woodstack break his fall? The whisky flask stood ready on Peter's left.
Peter stopped whistling to watch; then he became aware that once more the hidden distances were jarring and humming. He sat upright, and waited; a little space of listening, then once again the sungod's chariot stormed into the morning.
Peter watched it grow in size. How extremely fortunate.... Even though one was again, as usual, found collapsed and absurd.
The woodstack pursued its slow advance. The music from Tchaichowsky admonished it, as a matter of form, from far off, then sharply, summarily, from a lessening distance. The woodstack was puzzled, vaguely worried. It stopped, dubiously moved to one side, and pursued its cautious way a little uncertainly.
Urquhart, without his chauffeur this time, was driving over the speed-limit, Peter perceived. He usually did. But he ought to slacken his pace now, or he would miss Peter by the wall. He was nearing the woodstack, just going to pass it, with a clear two yards between. It was not his doing: it was the woodstack that suddenly lessened the distance, lurching over it, taking the middle of the road.
Peter cried, "Oh, don't—oh, don't," idiotically, sprawling on hands and knees.
The car swung sharply about like a tugged horse; sprang to the other side of the road, hung poised on a wheel, as near as possible capsized. A less violent jerk and it would have gone clean over the woodstack that lay in the road on the top of its bearer.
By the time Peter got there, Urquhart had lifted the burden from the old bent figure that lay face downwards. Gently he turned it over, and they looked on a thin old face gone grey with more than age.
"He can't be," said Urquhart. "He can't be. I didn't touch him."
Peter said nothing. His eyes rested on the broken end of a chestnut-stick protruding from the faggot, dangling loose by its bark. Urquhart's glance followed his.
"I see," said Urquhart quietly. "That did it. The lamp or something must have struck it and knocked him over. Poor old chap." Urquhart's hand shook over the still heart. Peter gave him the whisky flask. Two minutes passed. It was no good.
"His heart must have been bad," said Urquhart, and the soft tones of his pleasant voice were harsh and unsteady. "Shock, I suppose. How—how absolutely awful."
How absolutely incongruous, Peter was dully thinking. Urquhart and tragedy; Urquhart and death. It was that which blackened the radiant morning, not the mercifully abrupt cessation of a worn-out life. For Peter death had two sharply differentiated aspects—one of release to the tired and old, for whom the grasshopper was a burden; the other of an unthinkable blackness of tragedy—sheer sharp loss that knew no compensation. It was not with this bitter face that death had stepped into their lives on this clear morning. One could imagine that weary figure glad to end his wayfaring so; one could even imagine those steps to death deliberately taken; and one did imagine those he left behind him accepting his peace as theirs.
Peter said, "It wasn't your fault. It was his doing—poor chap."
The uncertain quaver in his voice brought Urquhart's eyes for a moment upon his face, that was always pale and was now the colour of putty.
"You're ill, aren't you?... I met Stephen.... I was coming back anyhow; I knew you weren't fit to walk."
He muttered it absently, frowning down on the other greyer face in the grey dust. Again his hand unsteadily groped over the still heart, and lay there for a moment.
Abruptly then he looked up, and met Peter's shadow-circled eyes.
"I was over-driving," he said. "I ought to have slowed down to pass him." He stood up, frowning down on the two in the road.
"We've got to think now," he said, "what to do about it."
To that thinking Peter offered no help and no hindrance. He sat in the road by the dead man and the bundle of wood, and looked vaguely on the remote morning that death had dimmed. Denis and death: Peter would have done a great deal to sever that incredible connection.
But it was, after all, for Denis to effect that severing, to cut himself loose from that oppressing and impossible weight.
He did so.
"I don't see," said Denis, "that we need ... that we can ... do anything about it."
Above the clear mountains the sun swung up triumphant, and the wide river valley was bathed in radiant gold.
HILARY, PEGGY, AND HER BOARDERS
When Leslie and Peter went to Venice to pick up Berovieri goblets and other things, Leslie stayed at the Hotel Europa and Peter in the Palazzo Amadeo. The Palazzo Amadeo is a dilapidated palace looking onto the Rio delle Beccarie; it is let in flats to the poor; and in the sea-story suite of the great, bare, dingy, gilded rooms lived Hilary and Peggy Margerison, and three disreputable infants who insisted on bathing in the canals, and the boarders. The boarders were at the moment six in number; Peter made seven. The great difficulty with the boarders, Peggy told him, was to make them pay. They had so little money, and such a constitutional reluctance to spend that little on their board.
"The poor things," said Peggy, who had a sympathetic heart. "I'm sure I'm sorry for them, and I hate to ask them for it. But one's got to try and live."
She was drying Illuminato (baptized in that name by his father's desire, but by his mother called Micky) before the stove in the great dining-room. Illuminato had just tumbled off the bottom step into the water, and had been fished out by his uncle Peter; he was three, and had humorous, screwed-up eyes and a wide mouth like a frog's, so that Hilary, who detested ugliness, could really hardly be fond of him. Peggy was; but then Peggy always had more sense of humour than Hilary.
A boarder looked in to see if lunch was ready. It was not, but Peggy began preparations by screaming melodiously for Teresina. They heard the boarder sigh. He was a tall young man with inspired eyes and oily hair. Peter had observed him the night before, with some interest.
"That's Guy Vyvian," Peggy told him, looking for Illuminato's dryer suit in the china cupboard.
"Fancy," said Peter.
"Yes," said Peggy, pulling out a garment and dropping a plate out of its folds on the polished marble floor. "There now! Micky, you're a tiresome little ape and I don't love you. Guy Vyvian's an ape, too, entirely; his one merit is that he writes for 'The Gem,' so that Hilary can take the rent he won't pay out of the money he gives him for his articles. It works out pretty well, on the whole, I fancy; they're neither of them good at paying, so it saves them both bother. ("E pronto, Teresina?" "Subito, subito," cried Teresina from the kitchen.) "I can't abide Vyvian," Peggy resumed. "The babies hate him, and he makes himself horrid to everyone, and lets Rhoda Johnson grovel to him, and stares at the stains on the table-cloth, as if his own nails weren't worse, and turns up his nose at the food. Poor little Rhoda! You saw her? The little thin girl with a cough, who hangs on Vyvian's words and blushes when her mother speaks. She's English governess to the Marchesa Azzareto's children. Mrs. Johnson's a jolly old soul; I'm fond of her; she's the best of the boarders, by a lot. Now, precious, if you tumble in again this morning, you shall sit next to Mr. Vyvian at dinner. You go and tell the others that from me. It isn't respectable, the way you all go on. Here's the minestra at last."
Teresina, clattering about the marble floor with the minestra, screamed "Pronto," very loud, and the boarders trailed in one by one. First came Mr. Guy Vyvian, sauntering with resignedly lifted brows, and looking as if it ought to have been ready a long time ago; he was followed by Mrs. Johnson, a stout and pleasant lady, who looked as if she was only too delighted that it was ready now, and the more the better; her young daughter, Rhoda, wearing a floppy smocked frock and no collar but a bead necklace, coughed behind her; she looked pale and fatigued, and as if it didn't matter in the least if it was never ready at all. She was being talked to by a round-faced, fluffy-haired lady in a green dress and pince-nez, who took an interest in the development of her deplorably uncultured young mind—a Miss Barnett, who was painting pictures to illustrate a book to be called "Venice, Her Spirit." The great hope for young Rhoda, both Miss Barnett and Mr. Vyvian felt, was to widen the gulf between her and her unspeakable mother. They, who quarrelled about everything else, were united in this enterprise. The method adopted was to snub Mrs. Johnson whenever she spoke. That was no doubt why, as Peggy had told Peter, Rhoda blushed on those frequent occasions.
The party was completed by a very young curate, and an elderly spinster with mittens and many ailments, the symptoms of which she lucidly specified in a refined undertone to any lady who would listen; with gentlemen, however, she was most discreet, except with the curate, who complained that his cloth was no protection. Finally Hilary came in and took the head of the table, and Peggy and the children took the other end. Peter found himself between Mrs. Johnson and Miss Barnett, and opposite Mr. Vyvian and Rhoda.
Mrs. Johnson began to be nice to him at once, in her cheery way.
"Know Venice?" and when Peter said, "Not yet," she told him, "Ah, you'll like it, I know. So pleasant as it is. Particlerly for young people. It gives me rheumatics, so much damp about. But my gel Rhoder is that fond of it. Spends all her spare time—not as she's got much, poor gel—in the gall'ries and that. Art, you know. She goes in for it, Rhoder does. I don't, now. I'm a stupid old thing, as they'll all tell you." She nodded cheerfully and inclusively at Mr. Vyvian and Rhoda and Miss Barnett. They did not notice. Vyvian, toying disgustedly with his burnt minestra, was saying in his contemptuous voice, "Of course, if you like that, you may as well like the Frari monuments at once and have done."
Rhoda was crimson; she had made another mistake. Miss Barnett, who disputed the office of mentor with Vyvian, whom she jealously disliked, broke in, in her cheery chirp, "I don't agree with you, Mr. Vyvian. I consider it a very fine example of Carpaccio's later style; I think you will find that some good critics are with me." She addressed Peter, ignoring the intervening solidity of Mrs. Johnson. "Do you support me, Mr. Margerison?"
"I've not seen it yet," Peter said rather timidly. "It sounds very nice."
Miss Barnett gave him a rather contemptuous look through her pince-nez and turned to Hilary.
"Lor!" whispered Mrs. Johnson to Peter. "They do get so excited about pictures. Just like that they go on all day, squabblin' and peckin' each other. Always at Rhoder they are too, tellin' her she must think this and mustn't think that, till the poor gel don't know if she's on her head or her heels. She don't like me to interfere, or it's all I can do sometimes not to put in my word and say, 'You stick to it, Rhoder my dear; you stand up to 'em and your mother'll back you.' But Rhoder don't like that. 'Mother,' she says, quite sharp, 'Mother, you don't know a thing about Art, and they do. You let be, and don't put me to shame before my friends.' That's what she'd like to say, anyhow, if she's too good a gel to say it. Rhoder's ashamed of my ignorance, that's what it is." This was a furtive whisper, for Peter's ear alone. Having thus unburdened herself Mrs. Johnson cleared her throat noisily and said very loud, "An' what do you think of St. Mark's?" That was a sensible and intelligent question, and she hoped Rhoda heard.
Peter said he thought it was very nice. That Rhoda certainly heard, and she looked at him with a curious expression, in which hope predominated. Was this brother of the Margerisons another fool, worse than her? Would he perhaps make her folly shine almost like wisdom by comparison? She exchanged a glance with Vyvian; it was extraordinarily sweet to be able to do that; so many glances had been exchanged apropos of her remarks between Vyvian and Miss Barnett. But here was a young man who thought St. Mark's was very nice. "The dear Duomo!" Miss Barnett murmured, protecting it from Tourist Insolence.
Mrs. Johnson agreed enthusiastically with Peter.
"I call it just sweet. You should see it on a Sunday, Mr. Margerison—Mr. Peter, as I should say, shouldn't I?—all the flags flying, and the sun shining on the gilt front an' all, and the band playing in the square; an' inside half a dozen services all at once, and the incense floatin' everywhere. Not as I'm partial to incense; it makes me feel a bit squeamish—and Miss Gould there tells me it affects her similarly, don't it, Miss Gould? Incense, I say—don't it give you funny feelin's within? Seem to upset you, as it were?"
Miss Gould, disturbed in her intimate conversation with the curate, held up mittened hands in deprecating horror, either at the delicacy of the question called across the table with gentlemen present, or at the memory it called up in her of the funny feelings within.
Mrs. Johnson took it as that, and nodded. "Just like me, she is, in that way. But I like to see the worship goin' on, all the same. Popish, you know, of course," she added, and then, bethinking herself, "But perhaps you're a Roman, Mr. Peter, like your dear brother and sister? Well, Roman or no Roman, I always say as how Mrs. Margerison is one of the best. A dear, cheery soul, as has hardships to contend with; and if she finds the comforts of religion in graven images an' a bead necklace, who am I to say her no?"
"Peggy," said Hilary wearily across the table, "Illuminato is making a little beast of himself. Put him out."
Peggy scrubbed Illuminato's bullet head dry with her handkerchief (it had been lying in his minestra bowl), slapped him lightly on the hands, and said absently, "Don't worry poor Daddy, who's so tired." She was wishing that the risotto had been boiled a little; one gathered from the hardness of the rice that that process had been omitted. Vyvian, who was talking shop with Hilary, sighed deeply and laid down his fork. He wondered why he ever came in to lunch. One could get a much better one nearly as cheap at a restaurant.
Miss Barnett, with an air of wishing to find out how bad a fool Peter was, leaned across Mrs. Johnson and said, "What are you to Venice, Mr. Margerison, and Venice to you? What, I mean, are you going to get out of her? Which of her aspects do you especially approach? She has so infinitely many, you know. What, in fact, is your connecting link?" She waited with some interest for what Peter would say. She had not yet "placed" him.
Peter said, "Oh, well ... I look at things, you know ... much the same as anyone else, I expect. And I go in gondolas; and then there are the things one would like to buy."
Mrs. Johnson approved this. "Lovely, ain't they! Only one never has the money to spend."
"I watch other people spending theirs," said Peter, "which is the next best thing, I suppose ... I'm sorry I'm stupid, Miss Barnett—but it's all so jolly that I don't like to be invidious."
"Do you write?" she enquired.
"Sometimes," he admitted. "You're illustrating a book about Venice, aren't you? That must be awfully interesting."
"I am trying," she said, "to catch the most elusive thing in the world—the Spirit of Venice. It breaks my heart, the pursuit. Just round the corner, always; you know Browning's 'Love in a Life'?
Heart, fear nothing, for heart, thou shalt find her, Next time herself!—not the trouble behind her ... Still the same chance! she goes out as I enter. Spend my whole day in the quest;—who cares? ...
It's like that with me and my Venice. It hurts rather—but I have to go on."
"You shouldn't, my dear," Mrs. Johnson murmured soothingly. "I'm sure you should be careful. We mustn't play tricks with our constitutions."
Rhoda kicked Peter under the table in mistake for her mother, and never discovered the error.
"Can you tell me," Miss Barnett added abruptly, in her cheerful voice, "where it hides?"
Peter looked helpful and intelligent, and endeared himself to her thereby. She thought him a sympathetic young man, with possibilities, probably undeveloped.
Vyvian, who regarded Miss Barnett and "Venice, Her Spirit," with contemptuous jealousy, thought that Rhoda was paying them too much attention, and effectually called her away by saying, "If you care to come with me to the Schiavoni, I can better explain to you what I mean."
Rhoda kindled and flushed and looked suddenly pretty. Peter heard a smothered sigh on his left.
"I don't like it," Mrs. Johnson murmured to him. "No, I don't. If it was you, now, as offered to take her—But there, I daresay you wouldn't be clever enough to suit Rhoder; she's so partic'lar. You and me, now—we get on very well; seems as if we liked to talk on the same subjects, as it were; but Rhoder's different. When we go about together, it's always, 'Mother, not so loud! Oh, mother, you mustn't! Mother, that ain't really beautiful at all, and you're givin' of us away. Mother, folks are listening.' Let 'em listen is what I say. They won't hear anything that could hurt 'em from me. But Rhoder's so quiet; she hates a bit of notice. Not that she minds when she's with him; he talks away at the top of his voice, and folks do turn an' listen—I've seen 'em. But I suppose that's clever talk, so Rhoder don't mind."
She raised her voice from the thick and cautious whisper which she thought suitable for these remarks, and addressed Peggy.
"Well, we've had a good dinner, my dear—plenty of it, if the rice was a bit underdone."
"A grain," Miss Gould was murmuring to the curate, "a single grain would have had unspeakable effects...."
Peggy was endeavouring to comb Caterina's exceedingly tangled locks with the fingers of one hand, while with the other she slapped Silvio's (Larry's) bare and muddy feet to make him take them off the table-cloth. Not that they made much difference to the condition of the table-cloth; but still, there are conventions.
"It is a disgrace," Hilary remarked mechanically, "that my children can't behave like civilised beings at a meal ... Peter, what are you going to do this afternoon?"
The boarders rose. Mrs. Johnson patted Peter approvingly on the arm, and said, "I'm glad to of had the pleasure. One day we'll go out together, you and me. Seem as if we look at things from the same point of view, as it were. You mayn't be so clever as some, but you suit me. Now, my dear, I'm goin' to help you about the house a bit. The saloon wants dustin', I noticed."
Peggy sighed and said she was sure it did, and Teresina was hopeless, and Mrs. Johnson was really too kind, but it was a shame to bother her, and the saloon could go another while yet. She was struggling with the children's bibs and rather preoccupied.
The boarders went out to pursue their several avocations; Rhoda and Mr. Vyvian to the church of San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, that Mr. Vyvian might the better explain what he meant; Miss Barnett, round-about and cheerful, sketch-book in hand, to hunt for "Venice, Her Spirit," in the Pescaria; Miss Gould to lie down on her bed and recover from lunch; the curate to take the air and photographs for his magic lantern lectures to be delivered in the parish-room at home; and Mrs. Johnson to find a feather broom.
Hilary sat down and lit a cigar, and Illuminato crawled about his legs.
"I'm going out with Leslie," said Peter. "We're going to call on the prince and see the goblet and begin the haggling. We must haggle, though as a matter of fact Leslie means to have it at any price. It must be a perfectly ripping thing.... Now let me have a number of 'The Gem' to read. I've not seen it yet, you know."
"It's very dull, my dear," Peggy murmured, rinsing water over the place on the table-cloth where Silvio's feet had been.
Hilary was gazing into the frog-like countenance of his youngest son. It gave him a disappointment ever new, that Illuminato should be so plain. "But your mother's handsome, frog," he murmured, "and I'm not worse than my neighbours to look at." (But he knew he was better than most of them). "Let's hope you have intellect to make up. Now crawl to your uncle Peter, since you want to."
Illuminato did want to. He adored his uncle Peter.
"The Gem, Peter?" said Hilary. "Bother the Gem. As Peggy remarks, it's very dull, and you won't like it. I don't know that I want you to read it, to say the truth."
Peter was in the act of doing so. He had found three torn pages of it on the floor. He was reading an article called "Osele." Hilary glanced at it, with the slight nervous frown frequent with him.
"What have you got hold of?... Oh, that." His frown seemed to relax a little. "I really don't recommend the thing for your entertainment, Peter. It'll bore you. I have to provide two things—food for the interested visitor, and guidance for Lord Evelyn's mania for purchasing."
"So I am gathering," Peter said. "I'm reading about osele, marked with the Mocenigo rose. Signor Antonio Sardi seems to be a man worth a visit. I must take Leslie there. That's just the sort of thing he likes. And sixteenth-century visiting cards. Yes, he'd like those too. By all means we'll go to your friend Sardi. You wrote this, I suppose?"
Hilary nodded. His white nervous fingers played on the arm of his chair. It seemed to be something of an ordeal to him, this first introduction of Peter to the Gem.
Peggy, assisting Teresina to bundle the crockery off the table, shot a swift glance at the group—at Hilary lying back smoking, with slightly knitted forehead, one unsteady hand playing on his chair; at Peter sitting on the marble floor with the torn fragments of paper in his hands and Illuminato astride on his knee. Peggy's grey, Irish eyes were at the moment a little speculative, touched with a dispassionate curiosity and a good deal of sisterly and wifely and maternal and slightly compassionate affection. She was so fond of them all, the dear babes.
Peter had gone on from osele to ivory plaques. He was not quite so much interested in reading about them because he knew more about them for himself, but he took down the name of a dealer who had, according to the Gem, some good specimens, and said he should take Leslie there too.
Hilary got up rather suddenly, and jerked his cigar away into a corner (marble floors are useful in some ways) and said, "Is Leslie going to buy the whole place up? I'm sick of these wealthy Jews. They're ruining Venice. Buying all the palaces, you know. I suppose Leslie'll be wanting to do that next. There's altogether too much buying in this forsaken world. Why can't people admire without wanting to acquire? Lord Evelyn can't. The squandering old fool; he's ruining himself over things he's too blind even to look at properly. And this Leslie of yours, who can't even appreciate, still must get and have, of course; and the more he gets the more he wants. Can't you stop him, Peter? It's such a monstrous exhibition of the vice of the age."
"It's not my profession to stop him," Peter said. "And, after all, why shouldn't they? If it makes them happy—well—" His finality conveyed his creed; if it makes them happy, what else is there? To be happy is to have reached the goal. Peter was a little sad about Hilary, who seemed as far as ever from that goal. Why? Peter wondered. Couldn't one be happy in this lovable water-city, which had, after all, green ways of shadow and gloom between the peeling brick walls of ancient houses, and, beyond, the broad spaces of the sea? Couldn't one be happy here even if the babies did poise muddy feet on a table-cloth, not, after all, otherwise clean; and even if the poor boarders wouldn't pay their rent and the rich Jews would buy palaces and plaques? Bother the vice of the age, thought Peter, as he crossed the sun-bathed piazza and suddenly smelt the sea. There surely never was such a jolly world made as this, which had Venice in it for laughter and breathless wonder and delight, and her Duomo shining like a jewel.
"An' the sun shinin' on the gilt front an' all," murmured Peter. "I call it just sweet."
He went in (he was to meet Leslie there), and the soft dusk rippled about him, and beyond the great pillars stretched the limitless, hazy horizons of a dream.
Presently Leslie came. He had an open "Stones of Venice" in his hand, and said, "Now for those mosaics." Leslie was a business-like person, who wasted no time. So they started on the mosaics, and did them for an hour. Leslie said, "Good. Capital," with the sober, painstaking, conscientious appreciation he was wont to bestow on unpurchasable excellence; and Peter said, "How jolly," and felt glad that there were some excellences unpurchasable even by rich Jews.
They then went to the Accademia and looked at pictures. There Leslie had a clue to merit. "Anything on hinges, I presume," he remarked, "is worth inspection. Only why don't they hinge more of the good ones? They ought to give us a hint; they really ought. How's a man to be sure he's on the right tack?"
After an hour of that they went to see the prince who had the goblet. Half an hour's conversation with him, and the goblet belonged to Leslie. It was a glorious thing of deep blue glass and translucent enamel and silver, with the Berovieri signature cut on it. Peter looked at it much as he had seen a woman in the Duomo look up at her Lady's shrine, much as Rodney had looked on the illumined reality behind the dreaming silver world.
Peter said, "My word, suppose it broke!" It was natural that he should think of that; things so often broke. Only that morning his gold watch had broken, in Illuminato's active hands. Only that afternoon his bootlace had broken, and he had had none to replace it because Caterina had been sailing his other boots in the canal. Peter sighed over the lovely and brittle world.
Then he and Leslie visited Signor Sardi's shop and looked at osele and sixteenth-century visiting cards. Peter said he knew nothing about either personally, but quoted Hilary in the Gem, to Leslie's satisfaction.
"Your brother's a good man," said Leslie. "Knows what's what, doesn't he? If he says these are good osele, we may take it that they are good osele, though we don't know one osele from another. That's right, isn't it?"
Peter said he supposed it was, if one wanted osele at all, which personally he didn't care about; but one never knew, of course, what might come in useful. Anyhow Leslie bought some, and a visiting card belonging to the Count Amadeo Vasari, which gave him much satisfaction. Then they visited the person who, the Gem had said, had good plaques, and inspected them critically. Then they had tea at Sant' Ortes' tearoom, and then Peter went home.
Hilary, who was looking worried, said, "Lord Evelyn wants us to dine with him to-night," and passed Peter a note in delicate, shaky handwriting.
"Good," said Peter. Hilary wore a bored look and said, "I suppose we must go," and then proceeded to question Peter concerning Leslie's shopping adventures. He seemed on the whole more interested in the purchase of osele than of the Berovieri goblet.
"But," said Peter presently, "your plaque friend wasn't in form to-day. He had only shams. Rather bright shams, but still—So we didn't get any, which, I suppose, will please you to hear. Leslie was disappointed. I told your friend we would look in on a better day, when he had some of the real thing. He wasn't pleased. I expect he passes off numbers of those things on people as antiques. You ought to qualify your remarks in the Gem, Hilary—add that Signor Leroni has to be cautiously dealt with—or you'll be letting the uncritical plaque-buyer through rather badly."
"I daresay they can look after themselves," Hilary said, easily; and Peggy added:
"After all, so long as they are uncritical, it can't matter to them what sort of a plaque they get!" which of course, was one point of view.
DIANA, ACTAEON, AND LORD EVELYN
Hilary and Peter gondoled to Lord Evelyn Urquhart's residence, a rather exquisite little old palace called Ca' delle Gemme, and were received affectionately by the tall, slim, dandified-looking young-old man, with his white ringed hands and high sweet voice and courtly manner. He had aged since Peter remembered him; the slim hands were shakier and the near-sighted eyes weaker and the delicate face more deeply lined with the premature lines of dissipation and weak health. He put his monocle in his left eye and smiled at Peter, with the old charming smile that was like his nephew's, and tilted to and fro on his heels.
"Not changed at all, as far as I can see," he said to Peter, with the same mincing, finicking pronunciation that had pleased the boy Peter eight years ago. "Only my sight isn't what it was. Are you changed at all? Do you still like Bow rose-bowls better than anything except Denis? Denis is coming here soon, you know, so I shall be able to discover. Oh, I beg pardon—Mr. Peter Margerison, Mr. Cheriton."
Mr. Cheriton was a dark, sturdy young man with an aggressive jaw, who bowed without a smile and looked one rather hard in the face. Peter was a little frightened of him—these curt, brisk manners made him nervous always—and felt a desire to edge behind Hilary. He gathered that Hilary and Cheriton did not very much like one another. He knew what that slight nervous contraction of Hilary's forehead meant.
Dinner was interesting. Lord Evelyn told pleasant and funny stories in his high, tittering voice, addressing himself to all his guests, but looking at Peter when he came to his points. (People usually looked at Peter when they came to the points of their stories.) Hilary talked a good deal and drank a good deal and ate very little, and was obviously on very friendly terms with Lord Evelyn and on no terms at all with Mr. Cheriton. Cheriton looked a good deal at Peter, with very bright and direct eyes, and flung into the conversation rather curt and spasmodic utterances in a slightly American accent. He seemed a very decided and very much alive young man, a little rude, thought Peter, but possibly that was only his trans-Atlantic way, if, as his voice hinted, he came from America. Once or twice Peter met the direct and vivid regard fixed upon him, and nearly was startled into "I beg your pardon," for there seemed to him an odd element of accusation in the look.
"But it isn't my fault," he told himself reassuringly. "I've not done anything, I'm sure I haven't. It's just the way he's made, I expect. Or else people have done him badly once or twice, and he's always thinking it's going to happen again. Rough luck on him; poor chap."
After dinner they went into what Lord Evelyn called the saloon. "Where I keep my especial treasures," he remarked to Peter. "You'd like to walk round and look at some of them, I expect. These bronzes, now—," he indicated two statuettes on brackets by the door.
Peter looked at them, then swiftly up at Lord Evelyn, who swayed at his side, his glass screwed into one smiling eye.
Lord Evelyn touched the near statuette with his light, unsteady, beautifully-ringed hand.
"Rather lovely, isn't she," he said, caressing her. "We found her and the Actaeon in a dusty hole of a place in a miserable little calle off the Campo delle Beccarie, kept by a German Jew. Quite a find, the old sinner. What an extortioner, though! Eh, Margerison? How much has the old Schneller got out of my pocket? It was your brother who discovered him for me, young Peter. He took me there, and we found the Diana together. Like her? Giacomo Treviso, a pupil of Verrocchio's. Heard of him? The Actaeon's not so good now. Same man, but not so happy."
He turned the Diana about; he posed her for Peter's edification. Peter looked from her to the Actaeon, from the Actaeon to Lord Evelyn's face. He opened his lips to say something, and closed them on silence. He looked past Lord Evelyn to Hilary, who stood in the background, leaning a little against a chair. It seemed to Peter that there was a certain tensity, a strain, in his face.
Then Peter met full the bright, hard, vivid gaze of the alert Cheriton. It had an odd expression at this moment; unmistakably inimical, observantly curious, distinctly sardonic. A faint ironic smile just touched the corners of his determined mouth. Peter returned the look with his puzzled, enquiring eyes that sought to understand.
This much, anyhow, he seemed to understand: his role was silence. If Cheriton didn't speak (and Cheriton's expression showed that he knew) and if Hilary didn't speak ... well, he, Peter, couldn't speak either. He must acquiesce in what appeared to be a conspiracy to keep this pathetic, worn-out dilettante in a fool's paradise.
The pathos of it gripped Peter's heart. Lord Evelyn had once known so well. What havoc was this that one could apparently make of one's faculties? It wasn't only physical semi-blindness; it was a blindness of the mind, a paralysis of the powers of discrimination and appreciation, which, was pitiful. Peter was angry. He thought Hilary and Cheriton so abominably, unmitigatedly wrong. And yet he himself had said, "If it makes them happy"—and left that as the indubitable end. Ah, but one didn't lie to people, even for that.
Peter was brought up sharply, as he had often been before, against Hilary's strange Hilaryish, perverted views of the conduct of life's businesses. Then, as usual when he should have felt furthest from mirth, he abruptly collapsed into sudden helpless laughter.
Lord Evelyn turned the eye-glass on him.
"Eh?" he queried. "Why so? But never mind; you always suffered in that way, I remember. Get it from your mother, I think; she did, too. Never explain jokes; they lose so in the telling. Now I want to show you something over here."
Peter crossed the room, his laughter dead. After all, funny wasn't what it really was. Mainly, it was perplexing. Till he could have it out with Hilary, he couldn't understand it at all.
He saw more of Lord Evelyn's treasures, and perplexity grew. He did not laugh again; he was very solemn and very silent and very polite where he could not admire. Where he could he did; but even here his admiration was weighed down to soberness by the burden of the things beyond the pale.
Lord Evelyn found him lukewarm, changed and dulled from the vivid devotee of old, who had coloured up all over his pale face at the sight of a Bow rose-bowl. He coloured indeed now, when Lord Evelyn said "Like it?"—coloured and murmured indistinguishable comments into his collar. He coloured most when Lord Evelyn said, as he frequently did, "Your brother's find. A delicious little man in some sotto-portico or other—quite an admirable person. Eh, Margerison?"
Hilary in the background would vaguely assent. Peter, who looked at him no more, felt the indefinable challenge of his tone. It meant either, "I've as much right to my artistic taste as you have, Peter, and I'm not ashamed of it," or, "Speak out, if you want to shatter the illusions that make the happiness of his ridiculous life; if not, be silent."
And all the time the vivid stare of Jim Cheriton was turned like a search-light on Peter's face, and his odd smile grew and grew. Cheriton was watching, observing, taking in something new, trying to solve some problem.
At the end of half an hour Lord Evelyn said, "Peter Margerison, you've lost some of the religious fervour of your youth. The deceitfulness of riches and the cares of this world—is that it? What's come to you that you're so tepid about this Siena chalice? Don't be tepid, young Peter; it's the symptom of a ruined soul."
He polished his glass, screwed it into his left eye, and looked down on Peter with his whimsical, kindly scrutiny. Peter did not return the look; he stood with bent head, looking vaguely down at the Sienese chalice. That too was one of Hilary's finds. Hilary it seemed, had approved its seller in an article in the Gem.
"Damme," said Lord Evelyn suddenly, with unusual explosiveness, "if I didn't like you better when you were fifteen! Now, you blase and soulless generation, I suppose you want to play bridge. Do you play as badly as ever, Peter? A remarkable player you were, I remember—quite remarkable. Denis always told you so. Now Cheriton will tell you so, because he's rude."
Bridge was a relief to Peter, though he was still a rather remarkable player. He played with Cheriton, who was not rude, because he was absolutely silent. It was an absurd game. Cheriton was a brilliant player, even when he was only giving half his mind to it, as he seemingly was to-night. Lord Evelyn had been a brilliant player once, and was now brilliant with alternations of eccentricity; he talked most of the time, making the game the centre of his remarks, from which he struck out along innumerable paths of irrelevancy. The Margerisons too were irrelevant; Hilary thought bridge a bore, and Peter, who thought nothing a bore, was always a little alarmed by anything so grown-up. But to-night he didn't much mind what he did, so long as he stopped looking at Lord Evelyn's things. Peter only wanted to get away; he was ashamed and perplexed and sorry and angry, and stabbed through with pity. He wanted to get out of Lord Evelyn's house, out of the range of his kindly, whimsical smile and Cheriton's curious hostile stare; he wanted to be alone with Hilary, and to understand.
The irony of Cheriton's look increased during bridge; it was certainly justified by the abstraction of Peter's play.
Lord Evelyn laughed at him. "You need Denis to keep you in order, young Peter. Lord, how frightened you used to be when Denis was stern. Smiled and pretended you weren't, but I knew...." He chuckled at the painted ceiling. "Knew a man at Oxford, Peter ... well, never mind that story now, you're too young for it.... Anyhow I make it no trumps."
At eleven o'clock Hilary and Peter went home. Lord Evelyn shook hands with Peter rather affectionately, and said, "Come and see me again soon, dear boy. Lunch with me at Florian's to-morrow—you and your wealthy friend. Busy sight-seeing, are you? How banal of you. Morning in the Duomo, afternoon on the Lido, and the Accademia to fill the spare hours; I know the dear old round. Never could be worried with it myself; too much else to do. But one manages to enjoy life even without it, so don't overwork. And come and see my toys again by daylight, and try to enthuse a little more over them next time. You're too young to be blase. You'd better read the Gem, to encourage yourself in simple pleasures. Good-night. Good-night, Margerison."
He shook hands with them both again, possibly to make up for Cheriton, who did not shake hands at all, but stood with his own in his pockets, leaning against the wall, his eyes still on Peter's face.
"Queer manners you have, dear Jim," was what they heard Lord Evelyn say as they stepped into the Ca' delle Gemme gondola, that was taking them back to the Rio delle Beccarie.
They swung out into the faintly-shining darkness of the water-road, into which the climbing moon could not look—a darkness crossed and flecked by the red gleamings of the few gondola and sandolo lights abroad at this hour in the quiet street. They sent their own red path before them as they softly travelled; and round it the stars flickered and swam, deep down. Peter could have sworn he heard their thin, tinkling, submerged, funny song, somewhere above or beneath the soft and melodious "Cherie Birri-Bim," that someone (not Lord Evelyn's beautifully trained and taciturn poppe) was crooning near at hand.
The velvet darkness of a bridge drowned the stars for a moment; then, with a musical, abrupt cry of "Sta—i!" they swung round a corner into a narrow way that was silver and green in the face of the climbing moon.
The musically lovely night, the peace of the dim water-ways, the shadowing mystery of the steep, shuttered houses, with here and there a lit door or window ajar, sending a slant of yellow light across the deep green lane full of stars and the moon, the faint crooning of music far off, made a cool marvel of peace for strung nerves. Peter sat by Hilary in silence, and no longer wanted to ask questions. In the strange, enveloping wonder of the night, minor wonders died. What did it matter, anyhow? Hilary and Venice—Venice and Hilary—give them time, and one would explain the other.
It was Hilary who began to talk, and he talked about Cheriton, his nervous voice pitched on a high note of complaint.
"I do intensely dislike that man. The sort of person I've no use for, you know. So horribly on the spot; such sharp, unsoftened manners. All the terrible bright braininess of the Yankee combined with the obstreperous energy of the Philistine Briton. His mother is a young American, about to be married for the third time. The sort of exciting career one would expect from a parent of the delightful Jim. I cannot imagine why Lord Evelyn, who is a person of refinement, encourages him. Really, you know!"
He grew very plaintive over it. Peter really did not wonder.
Peter's subconscious mind registered a dim impression that this was defensive talk, to fill the silence. Hilary was a nervous person, easily agitated. Probably the evening had agitated him. But he was no good at defence. His complaint of Jim Cheriton broke weakly on an unsteady laugh. Peter nodded assent, and looked up the street of dim water, his chin propped in his hands, and thought how extraordinarily pleasant was the red light that slanted across the dark water from green doors ajar in steep house-walls.
Hilary tried to light a cigar, and flung broken matches into spluttering darkness. At last he succeeded; and then, when he had smoked in silence for two minutes, he turned abruptly on Peter and said, "Well?"
Peter, dreamily turning towards him, felt the nervous challenge of his tone, and read it in his pale, tired face.
Peter pulled himself together and collected his thoughts. After all, one might as well know.
"Oh, well ... what? Yes, what about those ghastly statuettes, and all the rest of them? Why, when, how ... and what on earth for?"
Hilary, after a moment of silence, said, with a rather elaborate carelessness, "I saw you didn't like them."
At that Peter started a little, and the dreaminess of the night fell away from him.
"You saw ... oh." For a moment he couldn't think of anything else to say. Then he laughed a little. "Why, yes, I imagine you did.... But what's the object of it all? Have you and Cheriton (by the way, why does he glare at us both so?) come to the conclusion that it's worth while playing that sort of game? If you have, I can't tell you how utterly wrong I think you are. Make him happy—oh, I know—but what extraordinary cheek on your part! I as near as possible gave you away—I did really. Besides, what did he mean by saying you'd advised him to buy the things—praised them in the Gem, and all that? You can't have gone so far as that—did you?"
After a moment of silence, Hilary turned abruptly and looked Peter in the face, taking the long cigar out of his mouth and holding it between two white, nervous fingers.
"Upon my word," said Hilary, speaking rather slowly, "Talk of cheek! Do you know what you're accusing me of? You and your precious taste! Leslie and your other fool patrons seem to have given you a fair opinion of yourself. Because you, in your omniscience, think a thing bad, which I ... which I obviously consider good, and have stated so in print ... you don't so much as deign to argue the question, but get upon your pedestal and ask me why I tell lies. You think one thing and I think another; of course, you must know best, but I presume I may be allowed to hold my misguided and ill-informed opinion without being accused blankly of fraud. Upon my word, Peter ... it's time you took to some other line of life, I think."
His high, unsteady voice trailed away into silence. Peter, out of all the dim beauty of the night, saw only the pale, disturbed, frowning face, the quivering hand that held the lean cigar. All the strangeness and the mystery of the mysterious world were here concentrated. Numbly and dully he heard the soft, rhythmic splashing of the dipping oar, the turning cry of "Premie!" Then, sharper, "Sciar, Signori, sciar!" as they nearly jostled another gondola, swinging round sharply into a moonless lane of ancient palaces.
Peter presently said, "But ..." and there stopped. What could he say, beyond "but?"
Hilary answered him sharply, "Well?" and then, after another pause, Peter pulled himself together, gave up trying to thread the maze of his perplexity, and said soberly, "I beg your pardon, Hilary. I'm an ass."
Hilary let out his breath sharply, and resumed his cigar.
"It's possible, of course," he said, more quietly, "that you may be right and I wrong about the things. That's another question altogether. I may be a fool: I only resent being called a knave. Really, you know!"
"I never meant that," Peter hopelessly began to explain. And, indeed, now that Hilary disclaimed it, it did seem a far too abominable thing that he had implied. He had hurt Hilary; he deserved to be kicked. His anger with himself rose. To hurt anyone was atrocious; to hurt Hilary unforgivable. He would have done a great deal now to make amends.
He stammered over it. "I did think, I'm afraid, that you and Cheriton were doing it to make him happy or something. I'm awfully sorry; I was an ass; I ought to have known. But it never occurred to me that you didn't kn—that you had a different opinion of the things. I say, Hilary—Cheriton knows! I saw him know. He knew, and he was wondering what I was going to say."
"Knew, knew, knew!" Hilary nervously exploded. "There you go again. You're intolerable, Peter, really. All the spoiling you've had has gone to your head."
"I beg your pardon," said Peter again. "I meant, Cheriton agreed with me, I'm sure.... But, Hilary—those statuettes—you can't really.... They're mid-Victorian, and positively offensive!" His voice rose shrilly. They had been so horrible, Diana and Actaeon. He couldn't forget them, in their podgy sentimentality. "And—and that chalice ..." he shuddered over it—"and—"
"That'll do, thanks," Hilary broke in. "You can say at once that you disagree with me about everything I admire, and leave it there. But, if I may ask you, don't say so to Lord Evelyn, if you can resist the temptation to show me up before him. It will only bother and disturb him, whichever of us he ends by agreeing with. He's shown that he trusts my taste more or less, by giving me his paper to edit, and I should think we might leave it at that."
"Yes, the paper"—Peter was reminded of it, and it became a distracting puzzle. Hilary thought Diana and Actaeon and the Siena chalice good things—and Hilary edited an art paper. What in the name of all that was horrible did he put in it? A light was shed on Signor Leroni, who was, said the Gem, a good dealer in plaques, and who was, Peter had thought, a bare-faced purveyor of shams. Peter began to question the quality of the osele, that Leslie had purchased from Signor Sardi.
How curious it was; and rather tragic, too. For Hilary, like Lord Evelyn, had known once. Had Hilary too, in ruining much else of himself, ruined his critical faculties? And could one really do that and remain ignorant of the fact? Or would one rather have a lurking suspicion, and therefore be all the more defiantly corroborative of one's own judgment? In either case one was horribly to be pitied; but—but one shouldn't try to edit art papers. And yet this couldn't be conveyed without a lacerating of feelings that was unthinkable. There was always this about Hilary—one simply couldn't bear to hurt him. He was so easily hurt and so often; life used him so hardly and he felt it so keenly, that it behoved Peter, at least, to insert as many cushions as possible between him and the sharp edges of circumstance. Peter was remorseful. He had taken what he should have seen before was an unforgivable line; he had failed abominably in comprehension and decent feeling. Poor Hilary. Peter was moved by the old impulse to be extraordinarily nice to him.
They turned out of the Rio della Madonnetta into the narrow rio that was the back approach to the Palazzo Amadeo. It is a dark little canal, a rio of the poor. The doors that stood open in the peeling brick walls above the water let out straggling shafts of lamplight and quarrelling voices and singing and the smell of wine. The steep house walls leant to meet one another from either side; from upper windows the people who hadn't gone to bed talked across a space of barely six feet.
The gondola crept cautiously under two low bridges, then stopped outside the water-washed back steps of the Palazzo Amadeo.
One pleasant thing about Lord Evelyn's exquisitely mannered poppe was that one didn't feel that he was thinking "I am not accustomed to taking my master's visitors to such low haunts." In the first place, he probably was. In the second, he was not an English flunkey, and not a snob. He was no more a snob than the Margerisons were, or Lord Evelyn himself. He deposited them at the Palace back door, politely saluted, and slipped away down the shadowy water-street.
Hilary and Peter stepped up two water-washed steps to the green door, and Peggy opened it from within. Peggy (Peter occasionally wondered when, if ever, she went to bed) was in the hall, nursing Illuminato, who couldn't sleep—a small bundle of scarlet night-shirt and round bullet head, burrowing under his mother's left arm and staring out from that place of comfort with very bright and wakeful eyes. When, indeed, it might have been asked, did any of the Margerison family take their rest? No one of them ever felt or expressed any surprise at finding any other awake and active at any hour of the night.
Peggy looked at her three male infants with her maternal serenity touched with mirth. There were nearly always those two elements in Peggy's look—a motherly sympathy and desire to cheer and soothe, and a glint from some rich and golden store of amusement.
She patted Peter on the arm, softly.
"Was it a nice evening, then? No, not very, I think. Dear, dear! You both look so unutterably tired. I wonder had you better go to bed, quite straight?"
It seemed to be suggested as a last resource of the desperate, though the hour was close on midnight.
"And the children have been pillow-fighting, till Mr. Vyvian—the creature—came down with nothing in particular on, to complain to me that he couldn't sleep. Sleep, you know! It wasn't after ten—but it seems he had a headache, as usual, because Mrs. Johnson had insisted on going to look at pictures with him and Rhoda, and her remarks were such—Nervous prostration, poor Mr. Vyvian. So I've had Illuminato down here with me since then. He wants to go to you, Peter, as usual."
Peter took the scarlet bundle, and it burrowed against his shirt-front with a contented sigh. Peggy watched the two for a moment, then said to the uncle, "You poor little boy, you're tireder than Hilary even. You must surely go to bed. But isn't Lord Evelyn rather a dear?"
"Quite a dear," Peter answered her, his face bent over the round cropped head. "Altogether charming and delightful. Do you know, though, I'm not really fond of bridge. Jig-saw is my game—and we didn't have it. That's why I'm tired I expect. And because there was a Mr. Cheriton, who stared, and seemed somehow to have taken against us—didn't he, Hilary? Or perhaps it was only his queer manners, dear Jim. Anyhow, he made me feel shy. It takes it out of one, not being liked. Nervous prostration, like poor Mr. Vyvian. So let's go to bed, Hilary, and leave these two to watch together."
"Give me the froglet." She took it from his arms, gently, and kissed first one then the other.
"Good night, little Peter. You are a darling entirely, and I love you. And don't worry, not over not being liked or anything else, because it surely isn't worth it."
She was always affectionate and maternal to Peter; but to-night she was more so than usual. Looking at her as she stood in her loose, slatternly neglige, beneath the extravagantly blazing chandelier, the red bundle cuddling a round black head into her neck, her grey eyes smiling at him, lit with love and laughter and a pity that lay deeper than both, Peter was caught into her atmosphere of debonair and tranquil restfulness, that said always, "Take life easy; nothing's worth worrying over, not problems or poverty or even one's sins." How entirely true. Nothing was worth worrying over; certainly other people's strange points of view weren't. It was a gospel of ease and laissez-faire well suited to Peter's temperament. He smiled at Peggy and Hilary and their son, and went up the marble stairs to bed. He was haunted till he slept by the memory of Hilary's nervous, tired face as he had seen it in the moonlight in the gondola, and again in the hall as he said good night. Hilary wasn't coming to bed yet. He stayed to talk to Peggy. If anything could be good for Hilary's moods of depression, thought Peter, Peggy would. How jolly for Hilary to be married to her! She was such a refreshment always. She was so understanding; and was there a lapse somewhere in that very understandingness of her that made it the more restful—that made her a relaxation to strained minds? To those who were breaking their moral sense over some problem, she would return simply, "There isn't any problem. Take things as they come and make the best of them, and don't, don't worry!" "I'm struggling with a temptation to steal a purse," Peter imagined himself saying to her, "What can I do about it?" And her swift answer came, with her indulgent, humorous smile, "Dear little boy, if it makes you any happier—do it!" And then she would so well understand the ensuing remorse; she would be so sympathetic, so wholly dear and comforting. She would say anything in the world to help, except "Put it back." Even that she would say if one's own inclinations were tending in that direction. But never if they weren't. She would never be so hard, so unkind. That sort of uncongenial admonition might be left to one's confessor; wasn't that what confessors were there for?
But why think of stealing purses so late at night? No doubt merely because it was late at night. Peter curled himself up and drew the sheet over his ears and sighed sleepily. He seemed to hear the rich, pleasant echoes of Peggy's best nursery voice far off, and Hilary's high, plaintive tones rising above it.
But above both, dominant and insistent, murmured the lapping voice of the wonderful city at night. A faint rhythm of snoring beyond a thin wall somehow suggested Mrs. Johnson, and Peter laughed into his pillow.
On the shores of the Lido, three days later, Peter and Leslie came upon Denis Urquhart. He was lying on the sand in the sun on the Adriatic side, and building St. Mark's, rather well. Peter stood and looked at it critically.
"Not bad. But you'd better let us help you. We've been studying the original exhaustively, Leslie and I."
"A very fine and remarkable building," said Leslie, ponderously, and Peter laughed for the sheer pleasure of seeing Urquhart's lazy length stretched on the warm sand.
"Cheriton's somewhere about," said Urquhart. "But he wouldn't help me with St. Mark's. He was all for walking round the island at a great pace and seeing how long it took him. So superfluously energetic, isn't he? Fancy being energetic in Venice."
Peter was thankful that he was. The thought of Cheriton's eyes upon him made him shudder.
"He has his good points," Urquhart added; "but he excites himself too much. Always taking up some violent crusade against something or other. Can't live and let live. Another dome here, I think."
Peter wondered if Cheriton's latest crusade was against Hilary's taste in art, and if so what Urquhart thought on that subject. It was an uncomfortable thought. He characteristically turned away from it.
"The intense blue of the sea, contrasted with the fainter blue of the Euganean Hills," said Leslie suddenly, "is most remarkable and beautiful. What?"
He was proud of having noticed that. He was always proud of noticing beauty unaided. He made his remark with the simple pleasure of a child in his own appreciation. His glance at Peter said, "I am getting on, I think?"
The others agreed that he was correct. He then bent his great mind to the completion of St. Mark's, and Urquhart discovered what Peter had long known, that he could really play in earnest. The reverse art—handling serious issues with a light touch—he was less good at. Grave subjects, like the blue of the sea or the shape of a goblet, he approached with the same solidity of earnestness which he brought to bear on sand cathedrals. It was just this that made him a little tiring.
But the three together on the sands made a happy and congruous party of absorbed children, till Cheriton the energetic came swinging back over the sand-hills. Peter saw him approaching, watched the resolute lunge of his stride. His mother was about to be married for the third time: one could well believe it.
"I hope he is going to be nicer to me to-day," Peter thought. Even as he hoped it, and before Cheriton saw the party on the sands, Peter saw the determined face stiffen, and into the vivid eyes came the blank look of one who is cutting somebody. Peter turned and looked behind him to see who it was, and saw Mr. Guy Vyvian approaching. It was obvious from his checked recognition that he thought he knew Cheriton, and that Cheriton did not share the opinion. Peter saw Vyvian's mortified colour rise; he was a vain and sensitive person.
Cheriton came and sat down among them. His words as he did so, audibly muttered, were, "The most unmitigated cad!" He looked angry. Then he saw Peter, and seemed a little surprised, but did not cut him; he hardly could. Peter supposed that he owed this only to the accident of Urquhart's presence, since this young man seemed to go about the world ignoring everyone who did not please his fastidious fancy, and Peter could not hope that he had done that.
Peter looked after Vyvian's retreating figure. He could detect injured pride in his back.
He got up and brushed the sand from him.
"I must go and talk to that man," he said. "He's lodging with my brother."
The situation for a moment was slightly difficult. Leslie and Urquhart had both heard Cheriton's description of Peter's brother's lodger. Besides, they had seen him, and that was enough.
It was unlike Peter to make awkward situations. He ended this one abruptly by leaving it to itself, and walking away after his brother's lodger.
Vyvian greeted him huffily. It needed all Peter's feeling for a hurt man to make him anything but distantly aloof. Cheriton's description was so manifestly correct. The man was a cad—an oily bounder with a poisonous mind. Peter wondered how Hilary could bear to have his help on the Gem.
Vyvian broke out about Cheriton.
"Did you see that grand fellow who was too proud to know me? Driven you away too, has he? We don't know people in boarding-houses—we're in our private flat ourselves! It makes me sick!"
But his vulgarity when he was angry was a shade less revolting, because more excusable, than when he wasn't. So Peter bore it, and even tried to be comforting, and to talk about pictures. Vyvian really knew something about art; Peter was a little surprised to find that he knew so much, remembering certain curious blunders of his in the Gem.
He did not talk about the Gem to Vyvian; instinctively he avoided it. Peter had a rather useful power of barring his mind against thoughts that he did not desire to have there; without reasoning about it, he had placed the Gem in this category.
He was absently watching the dim blue of the Euganean Hills against the clearer blue of the sky when he discovered that Vyvian was talking about Rhoda Johnson.
"A dear little gurl, with real possibilities, if one could develop them. I do my best. She's fond enough of me to let me mould her atrocious taste. But what can one do to fight the lifelong influence of a home like that—a mother like that? Oh, frightful! But she is fond of me, and there's her hope—"
"Good-bye," said Peter. "I must go." He could not for the life of him have said any of the other things he was thinking. He would have given a lot to have been Cheriton for the moment, so that he wouldn't mind being rude and violent. It was horribly feeble; all he could say was "Good-bye." Having said it, he went abruptly.
He sighed as he went back to Urquhart and Leslie. Things were so difficult to manage. One left one's friends to comfort a hurt bounder; that was all very well, but what if the bounder comforted was much more offensive than the bounder hurt? However, it was no good reasoning about these things. Peter knew that one had to try and cheer up the hurt, in the face of all reason, simply because one felt so uncomfortable oneself if one didn't.
But it was almost worth while to have a few rather revolting people about; they threw the others into such glorious relief. As long as there were the nice people, who laughed at life and themselves, playing about the world, nothing else in particular mattered. And it was really extraordinarily good luck that Urquhart should happen to be playing about Venice at the same time as Peter. In spite of Cheriton, they would have a good time together. And Cheriton would perhaps become friendly in time—dear Jim, with his queer manners. People mostly did become friendly, in quite a short time, according to Peter's experience.
That the time, as far as Cheriton was concerned, had not yet arrived, was rather obvious, however. His manners to Peter on the sands were still quite queer—so queer that Peter and Leslie only stayed a few minutes more. Peter refused Urquhart's suggestion that they should have tea together on the island, and they crossed over to the lagoon side and got into their waiting gondola.
The lagoon waters were smooth like glass, and pale, and unflushed as yet with the coming sunset. Dark lines of stakes marked the blue ship-ways that ran out to open sea, and down them plied the ships, spreading painted wings to the evening breeze.
Leslie said, "I see in the Gem that there is a good old well-head to be had from a man on the Riva Ca' di Dio. I want well-heads, as you know. We'll go and see, shall we?"
The crystal peace of the lagoon was shattered for Peter. He had been getting into a curious mood of late; he almost disliked well-heads, and other purchasable forms of beauty. After all, when one had this limpid loveliness of smooth water and men walking on its surface like St. Peter, why want anything more? Because, Leslie would say, one wants to possess, to call beauty one's own. Bother, said Peter, the vice of the age, which was certainly acquisitiveness. He was coming to the conclusion that he hated buying things. And it was so awkward to explain to Leslie about Hilary and the Gem. He had spent the last few days in trying, without too much giving Hilary away, to restrain Leslie from following his advice. He said now, "All right; we'll go and see. But, to say the truth, I'm not sure that Hilary is a very good authority on well-heads." He blushed a little as he said it; it seemed to him that he had been saying that sort of thing very often of late. Leslie was so persistent, so incorrigibly intent on his purpose.
Leslie looked at him now over his large cigar a little speculatively.
"According to you," he remarked placidly after a moment, "your brother is uncommonly little of an authority on anything he mentions. Fraternal scepticism developed to its highest point."
Peter nodded. "Our family way," he said; and added, "Besides, that Vyvian man does as much of the Gem as Hilary. There's a young man, Leslie! My word, what a dog! Talks about gurls. So I left him. I turned upon him and said, 'Sir, this is no talk for a gentleman to listen to.' I said it because I knew it was what he would expect. Then I turned on my heel and left him without a word. He ground his teeth and hissed, 'A time will come.' But Cheriton seems rather a rude man, all the same. He hurts my feelings too, whenever I meet him. I too hiss, 'A time will come.' But I don't believe it ever will. Do you suppose the water is shallow over there, or that the men walking on it are doing miracles? It must be fun, either way. Let's do it instead of buying well-heads, Leslie. The fact is, buying so many things is rather demoralising, I think. Let's decide to buy no more. I'm beginning to believe in the simple life, like Rodney. Rodney hates men like you and Urquhart—rolling plutocrats. He wanted me to leave you and the other plutocrats and be a travelling pedlar. I'm not sure that I shan't, before long."