"Can't spare you," Leslie grunted.
Peter flattered himself that he had successfully turned the conversation from well-heads.
When, after having tea with Leslie at Florian's, he returned to the Palazzo Amadeo, Teresina told him that someone had called to see the Signore, and the Signore, being out, was waiting in the saloon. Peter went to the saloon to see if he would do instead of the Signore, and found a stout gentleman with a black moustache and up-brushed hair, spitting on the saloon floor. A revolting habit, as Hilary was wont wearily to remark; but Peter always accepted it with anyhow outward equanimity.
"My brother is unfortunately away from the house," he explained, with his polite smile and atrocious Italian. "But perhaps I can give him a message?"
The visitor gave him a sharp look, bowed ceremoniously, and said, "Ah! The Signore is the brother of Signor Margerison? Truly the brother?"
Peter assured him, not even halving the relationship; and indeed, he seldom did that, even in his thoughts.
The visitor gave him a card, bearing the name of Signor Giacomo Stefani, sat down, at Peter's request, spat between his feet, and said, "I have had various affairs with your Signor brother before. I am come to solicit his patronage in the matter of a pair of vases. If he would recommend them for me in his paper, as before. They are good; they might easily be antiques."
"You wish my brother to mention them in his paper?" Peter gathered. He was correct.
"Exactly so," Signor Stefani told him. "Of course, on the same terms as before, if the Signor would be satisfied with them."
"Terms?" Peter repeated after him.
Signor Stefani became more explicit. He named the terms.
"That was what I paid Signor Margerison before, for an article on a pseudo-Sienese chalice. But the vases are better; they are good; they might deceive an expert. Truly, they might be antiques!"
He continued to talk, while Peter listened. He was taking it in rather slowly. But at last, not being stupid, he no longer thought Hilary so. He understood.
He stood up presently, looking a little dazed.
"It appears," he said slowly, in his broken Italian, to Signor Stefani, "that you are making a rather bad mistake, which is a pity. I think you had better go home."
Signor Stefani gave a startled upward twist to his moustache, and stood up too.
"Excuse me," he said rather angrily, "there is no mistake. Your brother and I have very frequently had affairs together."
Peter looked at him, frowning doubtfully as he collected his words.
"I am right, I think," he said slowly, "that you are offering my brother a bribe to publish a fraudulent article on fraudulent goods of yours? That is so? Then, as I said, you are making a very serious mistake, and ... and you had better go home. Will you come this way, please?"
Signor Stefani continued to talk, but so rapidly and loudly now that Peter couldn't follow him. He merely shook his head and opened the door, saying, "This way, please. I can't understand you when you talk so fast."
Signor Stefani, with a final angry shrug and expectoration, permitted himself to be ushered out of the room.
On the stairs outside they met Vyvian coming up, who nodded affably to both of them. Signor Stefani, as he passed, shrugged his shoulders up to his ears and spread his two hands wide, with a look of resigned despair over his shoulder at Peter, and Vyvian's brows went up at the gesture. Peter ushered his guest out at the street entrance. Signor Stefani's last words were, "I shall return shortly and see your brother in person. I have made a foolish mistake in thinking that you were in his confidence. Good evening."
So they parted, more in sorrow than in anger.
Peter met Vyvian again on the stairs. He was passing on, but Vyvian stopped and said, "What have you been doing to Stefani to put him out so?"
Peter stopped and looked at him for a moment. He felt rather dazed, as if someone had hit him a blow on the head. He had to remember what was this funny bounder's place in the newly-revealed scheme of things. Not merely a funny bounder after all, it seemed, but just what Cheriton had called him. But one couldn't let him know that one thought so; one was ostensibly on Hilary's side, against honesty, against decency, against all the world.
So Peter, having located Vyvian and himself in this matter, said nothing at all, but went on upstairs.
Vyvian, staring after him in astonishment (none of Hilary's boarders had seen Peter discourteous before), raised his eyebrows again, and whistled beneath his breath.
"So we're too fine for our brother's dirty jobs! I'm dashed if I don't believe it's that!"
Peter went upstairs rather too quickly for his heart. He returned to the saloon and collapsed suddenly into a chair, feeling giddy. Mrs. Johnson came in a moment later and found him leaning back with closed eyes. She was disturbed about his complexion.
"The colour of putty, poor Mr. Peter! You've bin excitin' yourself, tearin' about sight-seein', I know. Tell me now just how you feel. I'm blest if I don't believe you've a-bin in the Cathedral, smellin' at that there choky incense! It takes me like that, always; and Miss Gould says she's just the same. Funny feelin's within, haven't you now?"
"Yes," said Peter, "just exactly that"; and they so overcame him that he began to laugh helplessly.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Johnson," he said presently. "I'm an ass. But I'm all right now. I came upstairs in a hurry, that's all. And before that a man talked so loud and so fast that it took my breath away. It may be silly, but I am like that, as Miss Barnett says. My brother and sister-in-law are both out, aren't they?"
Mrs. Johnson, sitting down opposite him and studying the returning tints of his complexion, nodded.
"That's it," she said, more cheerfully. "You're gettin' a wholesome white again now. I didn't like that unhealthy greeny-grey. But you've none of you any colour, you gentlemen—not you nor your brother nor that pasty Vyvian. None of you but the little curate; he had a nice little pink face. I'm sure I wish some gals cared more for looks, and then they wouldn't go after some as are as well let alone." This cryptic remark was illuminated by a sigh. Mrs. Johnson, now that she saw Peter improving in complexion, reverted to her own troubles.
Peter replied vaguely, "No, I suppose they wouldn't. People ought to care for looks, of course. They matter so much more than anything else, really."
"Without goin' all that way with you, Mr. Peter," said Mrs. Johnson, "and with all due respect to Great Minds (which I haven't got and never shall have, and nor had my poor dear that's gone, so I'm sure I don't know where Rhoder got her leanin's from), I will say I do like to see a young man smart and well-kept. It means a respect for himself, not to mention for those he takes out, that is a stand-by, at least for a mother. And the young fellows affect the gals, too. Rhoder, now—she'd take some pains with herself if she went out with a smart fellow, that was nicely turned out himself and expected her to be the same. But as it is—hair dragged and parted like a queer picture, and a string of green beads for a collar, as if she was a Roman with prayers to say—and her waist, Mr. Peter! But there, I oughtn't to talk like this to a gentleman, as Miss Gould would say; (I do keep on shockin' Miss Gould, you know!) But I find it hard to rec'lect that about you, Mr. Peter; you're so sympathetic, you might be a young lady. An' I feel it's all safe with you, an' I do believe you'd help me if you could."
"I should be glad to," said Peter, wondering whether it was for the improvement of Rhoda's hair, waist, or collar that his assistance might be acceptable.
Mrs. Johnson was looking at him very earnestly; it was obvious that something was seriously amiss, and that she was wondering how much she could venture to say to this sympathetic young man who might be a young lady. She made a sudden gesture with her stout hands, as if flinging reticence to the winds, and leant forward towards him.
"Mr. Peter ... I don't hardly like to say it ... but could you take my gal out sometimes? It does sound a funny thing to ask—but I can't abide it that she should be for ever with that there Vyvian. I don't like him, and there it is. And Rhoder does ... And he's just amusin' himself, and I can't bear it for my little gal, that's where it is.... Mr. Peter, I hate the fellow, though you may say I'm no Christian for it, and of course one is bidden not to judge but to love all men. But he fair gives me the creeps, like a toad.... Do you know that feelin'?"
"Oh, yes," said Peter readily. "And of course, I should like immensely to go out with Miss Rhoda sometimes, if she'll let me. But do you think she will? I'm afraid she would be dreadfully bored with me. I haven't a Great Mind, you know."
"Rhoder likes you," said Mrs. Johnson, a smile of relief overspreading her jolly face. "She was sayin' so only the other day. She has a great respect for your knowledge of art, too. 'You wouldn't think it just to talk with him,' she said, 'but he knows the most surprisin' things. Knows them for himself'—that was how she put it—'without needin' to depend on any books, or what anyone else says. I wish I was like that, mother,' she says, and sighs. And of course, I knew why she wished that, and I said to her, 'Rhoder, my dear, never you mind about knowin' things; gals don't need to bother their heads about that. You look after the outside of your head,' I said, chaffing her about her hair, you know, 'and leave the inside to look after itself.' I made her cross, of course; I'm for ever makin' Rhoder cross without meanin' it. But that just shows what she feels towards you, you see. And you'd talk healthy-like to her, which is more than some does, if I know anythin'. One feels that of you, Mr. Peter, if you'll excuse my sayin' it, that your talk is as innocent as a baby's prattle, though it mayn't always mean much."
"Thank you very much," said Peter. "I will certainly prattle to Miss Rhoda whenever she will let me. I should enjoy it, of course."
"Then that's settled." Mrs. Johnson rose, and shook out her skirts with relief. "And a weight off my mind it will be.... You could make a third with Rhoder and that Vyvian to-morrow afternoon, if you were so good and not otherwise employed. They're off together somewhere, I know."
"Making a third" was a little beyond even Peter's readiness to be helpful, and he looked dubious.
"I wonder if Mr. Vyvian would let me do that. You see, he doesn't much like me. I expect I give him the creeps, like a toad...." Then, seeing Mrs. Johnson's relieved face cloud, he added, "Oh, well, I'll ask them to take me," and she smiled at him as at a good child. "I knew you would!"
Hilary didn't come in to dinner. That was as well; it gave Peter more time. Perhaps it would be easier late at night to speak of the hopeless, weary, impossible things that had suddenly risen in the way; easier to think of things to say about them that wouldn't too much hurt Hilary or himself.
At dinner Peter was very quiet and polite to everyone. Vyvian's demeanour towards him was touched with irony; his smile was a continual reference to the fellowship of secrecy that bound them. Rhoda was very silent; Peter supposed that Vyvian had been snubbing her.
Hilary came home late. Peter and Peggy and Vyvian were sitting in the dimly-lighted saloon, and the ubiquitous Illuminato was curled up, a sleepy ball, on the marble top of a book-case. Peggy had a habit of leaving him lying about in convenient corners, as a little girl her doll.
"You look tired to death, my dear," she commented, as Hilary came in. Her kindly grey eyes turned from him to Peter, who had looked up from the book he was reading with a nervous movement. Peter's sweet-tempered companionableness had been oddly obscured this evening. Perhaps he too was tired to death. And poor little Rhoda had been so unmercifully snubbed all the evening that at last she had crept up to bed all but in tears. Peggy felt very sorry for everyone to-night; they all seemed to need it so much.
Vyvian, as usual, had a headache. When Hilary came in, he rose and said he was going upstairs to try and get some sleep—an endeavour seldom successful in this noisy and jarring world, one gathered. Before he embarked on it he said to Peter, squirting soda into a large tumbler of whisky, "Stefani want anything particular to-day?"
He had waited to say it till Hilary came in. Peter supposed that he said it merely out of his general desire to be unpleasant, and perhaps to revenge himself for that unanswered enquiry on the stairs. Or possibly he merely wished to indicate to Peter how entirely he was privy to Stefani's business with Hilary, and that it might just as well be discussed in his presence. Or again, he might be desirous of finding out how far Peter himself was in the know.
Peter said, "Nothing very particular," and bent over Illuminato, that he might not meet Hilary's eyes or Peggy's. He knew that Hilary was violently startled, and he heard Peggy's softly let out breath, that might have been a sigh or a gentle whistle, and that conveyed in either case dismay touched with a laugh.
Vyvian, who had been watching the three with a covert smile, drained his glass and said, "Well, it's supposed to be partly my business, you know. But since you don't think so, I'll say good-night."
He included the three in a supercilious nod, and left the room.
He left a queer silence behind him. When it had lasted for a moment, Peter looked up from his inspection of Illuminato's screwed-up face, with an effort, and met Hilary's eyes searching his own. Peggy was in the background; later she would be a comforting, easing presence; but for the moment the situation held only these two, and Peter's eyes pleaded to Hilary's, "Forgive me; I am horribly sorry," and in Hilary's strained face shame intolerably grew, so that Peter looked away from it, bending over Illuminato in his arms.
It was Peggy who broke the silence with a tearful laugh.
"Oh, don't look like that, you poor darling boys! Peter, little dear Peter ... you must try and understand! You're good at understanding, you know. Oh, take it easy, my dear! Take it easy, and see how it's nothing to matter, how it's all one great joke after all!" Her arm was round his shoulders as he sat on the table's edge; she was comforting him like a child. To her he was always about Illuminato's age, a most beloved infant.
Peter smiled a little at her. "Why, yes, of course it's a joke. Everything is, isn't it. But ... but...."
He was more than ever a child, stammering unwordable protest, blindly reaching out for help.
Hilary stood before him now, with his hands in his pockets, nervous, irritable, weary, shame now masked by self-defence. That was better; but still Peter kept his eyes for the curled-up child.
"My dear boy," said Hilary, in his sweet, plaintive tones, edged with irritation, "if people like to be taken in, is it my business?"
And Peggy echoed, "Yes, Peter darling, is it Hilary's business?"
Then Peter laughed suddenly. After all, it was all too hopeless, and too absurd, for anything else.
"You can't go on, you know," he said then. "You've got to resign." And Peggy looked at him in surprise, for he spoke now like a man instead of a child, with a man's finality. He wasn't giving a command, but stating an obvious fact.
"Darling—we've got to live!" Peggy murmured.
"You mayn't see the necessity," Hilary ironically put the approved answer into Peter's mouth, "but we, unfortunately, do."
"Oh, don't be silly," said Peter unusually. "You are being silly, you know; merely absurd. Because, of course, it's simply a question between resigning and being chucked out before long. You can't go on with this sort of thing indefinitely. You see," he explained, apologetic now, "it isn't even as if you did it well. You really don't. And it's an awfully easy thing to see through, if once anyone gets on the track. All that rubbish you've saddled Lord Evelyn with—anyone who isn't as blind as a bat can spot it in a minute. I did; Cheriton has (that's why he's so queer-mannered, by the way, I suppose); probably Denis has. Well, with everyone knowing about it like that, someone is bound before long to ferret out the real facts. Cheriton won't be long, I fancy, before he gets hold of it all. And then—and then it will be so frightfully awkward. Oh, you can't go on, Hilary; you've got to drop it."
"You're talking very lightly," said Hilary, "of throwing up one's entire income."
Peter sighed. "Not lightly; I'm really not. I know what a bore it will be—but not such a bore as the other thing.... Well, then, don't throw it up: simply chuck Stefani and the rest, and run the thing on different lines. I'd help, if you'd let me. I'd chuck Leslie and stay on here and write for you. I would love to. I made a start to-day, you see; I told Stefani he was out of his reckonings, so he'll be prepared. We'll tell all the rest the same.... I suppose Vyvian's in it, too? Can't you get rid of the man? I do so dislike him, you know. Well, never mind; anyhow, we'll tell him he's got to run on new lines now. Oh, we'll make a decent thing of the Gem after all; Hilary, do let's. Peggy, don't you think that would be jolly?"
He looked up into his sister-in-law's face, and met smiling eyes suddenly tear-dimmed. She smiled down at him.
"Very jolly, you beloved child.... So you'll chuck your Mr. Leslie and your own profession and help to run the Gem? I don't think we can let him do that, Hilary, can we?"
Hilary's strained face had softened and relaxed.
"I confess," he said, "that it would be in many ways a great relief to me to drop that side of the business, if I could see my way to it. But it won't be easy now, Peter. It will mean a certain amount of going back on former statements, for one thing."
"Oh, that'll be all right. Papers are always doing that. We'll manage all right and put a good face on it. And we'll make the thing sell—make it funny and interesting and nice. Of course, if Leslie is willing for me to give part of my time to it, there's no reason why I should leave him, as long as he stays in Venice. It will be all in his interests really, because he can get tips from the Gem. I've warned him off it lately because I thought you were such an awful muddler, Hilary. By the way, it's rather a relief that you aren't quite so wanting as I was beginning to fear; seriously, I was wondering how on earth you were going to get through this difficult world. There's no remedy for a muddler; he can't mend."
But a swindler can; a swindler certainly must, that was conveyed by the appeal in Peter's tired face. So tired it was that Peggy gently took Illuminato from his uncle's arms and said, "And now we'll all go to bed. My beloved little brother—you're an angel in the house, and we'll all do just as you say, if it's only to make you smile again. Won't we, Hilary?"
She leant a soft cheek against Hilary's shoulder, smiling at Peter; but Peter waited for Hilary's reply before he smiled back.
Hilary's reply came after a moment.
"Of course, if Peter can contrive a way of keeping our heads above water without having recourse to these detestable methods, I shall be only too relieved. I loathe having to traffic with these dirty swindlers; it's too insufferably wearying and degrading.... By the way, Peter, what did Stefani want to-day?"
Peter said, "Oh, bother Stefani. I'm tired of him. Really, I can't remember—oh, yes, it was antique vases, that might deceive an expert. But let's stop thinking about Stefani and go to bed. I'm so awfully sleepy; do let's go upstairs and try to get a little rest, as Vyvian puts it."
Peggy patted him softly on the cheek as he passed her, and her smile for him was curiously pitiful.
"We'll do our best to mend, my dear; we'll do our best," was what she soothingly murmured; and then, to Illuminato, "There, my froglet; cuddle up and sleep," and to Hilary, "You poor old dear, will we let the little brother have his way, because he's a darling entirely, and quite altogether in the right?"
THE FAT IN THE FIRE
Peter, self-appointed sub-editor to the Gem, was revising a dissertation of Vyvian's on lace. It was a difficult business, this. Vyvian, in Peter's opinion, needed so much expurgation; and yet one couldn't be unkind. Peter wished very much that Hilary would get rid of Vyvian. Vyvian often wrote such tosh; though he was clever, too. Came of being a bounder, perhaps. Peter had often noticed that bounders were apt to write tosh, even clever bounders. Such a sensitive bounder, too; that made it extraordinarily difficult to edit him satisfactorily. Decidedly Hilary ought to get rid of him, gently but finally. That would have the added advantage of freeing Peter from the obligation of "making a third" with him and Rhoda Johnson. Also, one would feel safer; one didn't really trust Vyvian not to be doing little private deals of his own; so little, in fact, did one trust him that the names of dealers were rigorously taboo now on the Gem.
Peter sighed over this rather tiresome article on lace. He wanted to be finishing one of his own on well-heads; and then he wanted to go out with Leslie and look for stone lions for Leslie's gate-posts; and then he and Leslie were going to dine with Lord Evelyn Urquhart. There were a lot of jolly things to be done, when he had finished with Vyvian's lace.
Peter was quite enjoying life just now; it was interesting trying to set the Gem on its legs; there were immense potentialities in the Gem now that toshery with dealers had been put an end to. And to be allowed to write ad infinitum about well-heads or anything else was simply splendid.
Peter heard, with a small, abstracted part of his mind, someone talking to Hilary in the hall. The low-toned conversation vaguely worried his subconscious self; he wished people would converse more audibly. But probably it was private.... Peter suddenly frowned irritably and sat upright, biting at his pen. He was annoyed with himself. It was so impertinent, so much the sort of thing he most disliked, to be speculating, as he had suddenly found himself doing, on the nature of another person's private business. Had he come to that? It must be some emanation from that silly, syrupy article of Vyvian's; Vyvian, Peter felt sure, would have towards a private conversation just such an attitude that he had detected in himself. He settled himself to his job again, and made a rather savage excision of two long sentences.
The outer door shut. Peter heard Hilary's steps crossing the hall alone, rather slowly, till they stopped at the door of the saloon. Hilary came in; his head was thoughtfully bent, and he didn't at first see Peter at the table in a corner. When he did see him, he started violently. Hilary had such weak nerves; he was always starting for no reason.
Peter said, "Things going on all right?" and Hilary said, "Yes, quite," and stood silent for a moment, his mobile face flickering nervously, as it did when he was tired or embarrassed.
"I was looking for Peggy," he added, and went out. He had forgotten, apparently, that Peggy had told them an hour ago that she was going shopping and would be out all the afternoon.
Peter sat quite still in his chair and bit his pen. From his expression, Mrs. Johnson might have inferred that he had been in the Cathedral again, smelling at the choky incense, and had got "funny feelin's" within. They were like the nauseating reminiscence of an old sickness. He tried to ignore them. He said to himself, "I'm an ass. I'm a suspicious, low-minded ass."
But he was somehow revolted by the thought of going on with the work for "The Gem" just then. He was glad when Leslie called to fetch him out.
Leslie said, "What's the matter, my son?"
Leslie had, with all his inapprehensiveness of things, an extraordinary amount of discernment of people; he could discern feelings that had no existence. Or, if they had any existence in this case, they must have been called into it by Vyvian's sugary periods. Peter conceded that to that extent he ailed.
"A surfeit of Vyvian. Let's come out and take the air and look for little stone lions."
Leslie was restful and refreshing, with his direct purposes and solid immobility. You could be of use to Leslie, because he had a single eye; he knew what he wanted, and requested you to obtain it for him. That was simple; he didn't make your task impossible by suddenly deciding that after all he didn't really want what you were getting for him. He was a stable man, and perhaps it is only the stable who are really susceptible of help, thought Peter vaguely.
At seven o'clock Peter and Leslie went to the Ca' delle Gemme. They found Cheriton there. Cheriton was talking when they arrived, in his efficient, decisive, composed business tones. Lord Evelyn was pacing up and down the room, his fine, ringed hands clasped behind his back. He looked extraordinarily agitated; his delicate face was flushed crimson. Denis was lying back in a low chair, characteristically at ease.
When Leslie and Peter came in, Cheriton stopped speaking, and Lord Evelyn stopped pacing, and absolute silence momentarily fell.
Then Denis gave his pleasant, casual "Hullo."
Cheriton's silence continued. But Lord Evelyn's did not. Lord Evelyn, very tall and thin, and swaying to and fro on his heels, looked at Peter, turning redder than before; and Peter turned red too, and gave a little apprehensive, unhappy sigh, because he knew that the fat was at last in the fire.
There ensued an uncomfortable scene, such as may readily be imagined.
Lord Evelyn said, and his sweet voice quavered distressingly up and down, "I suppose it's been a good joke. But I wouldn't have thought it of you, Peter Margerison; I wouldn't have thought it of you. Of your brother I say nothing; it's a dishonest world, and he's like the rest, and I can't say he ever gave me any reason to trust him, so I've myself to blame. But you—I did trust you. I thought you were a nice boy, and cared too much for nice things to lie about them." He broke off, and looked round the room—at the Diana and Actaeon, at the Siena chalice, at all the monstrous collection. They weren't nearly all monstrous, either—not even most—but he didn't know that; they might be for all he could tell. He looked at them all with the same bewildered, hurt, inimical eyes, and it was that which gave Peter his deepest stab of pitiful pain.
"You've made a fool of me between you," said Lord Evelyn, and suddenly sat down, as if very tired. Leslie sat down too, ponderous and silent in the shadowed background. But Peter remained standing before them all, his head a little bent, his eyes on Denis Urquhart's profile. He was wondering vaguely if Denis would say anything, and if so what it would be.
Still looking at Denis, he made foolish apologies because he was always polite.
"I'm frightfully sorry.... I've been frightfully sorry all along...."
Lord Evelyn lifted a white hand, waving his absurdities contemptuously aside.
"All along! Oh, I see. At least you're honest now; you don't attempt to deny that you've known all about it, then." There was perhaps a fresh ring of bitterness in his voice, as if some last faint hope had been killed by Peter's words.
Cheriton, whose eyes were studying the floor, lifted them sharply for a moment, and glanced at Denis, who was lighting a cigarette and didn't look at him.
"You knew that first evening, when you looked at the things," said Lord Evelyn, half a question still in his querulous voice. "You saw through them at once, of course. Anyone but a blind fool would have, I've no manner of doubt. Cheriton here says he saw you see through them."
Peter stammered over it. "I—I—knew they weren't much."
Lord Evelyn turned to Cheriton whose face was still bent down as if he didn't much like the scene now he had brought it about.
"You were right, as usual, Jim. And Denis was wrong. Denis, you know," he added to Peter, "was inclined to put your morals above your intelligence. He said you couldn't have known. Cheriton told him he was sure you had. It seems Cheriton was right."
It seemed that he was. Peter imagined that Cheriton would always be right.
After a moment's silence Peter gathered that they were all waiting to hear if he had anything to say about it. He hadn't much, but he might as well say it, such as it was.
"It won't make much difference, of course," he began, and his voice sounded odd and small and tired in the great room, "but I think I should like you to know that all this stopped three weeks ago. Hilary—we—decided then to—to give it up, and run 'The Gem' on different lines in future. We couldn't easily undo the past—but—but there's been nothing of the sort since then, and we didn't mean there to be again. Oh, I know that doesn't make much difference, of course...."
The only difference that mattered was that Denis frowned. Incidentally—only that didn't matter—Cheriton laughed curtly, and Lord Evelyn wearily said, "Oh, stop lying, stop lying. I'm so unutterably tired of your lies.... You think we don't know that your brother accepted a bribe this very afternoon.... Tell him, Jim."
So Jim told him. He told him shortly, and in plain words, and not as if he was pleased with his triumph in skilful detection, which he no doubt was.
"I rather wanted to sift this business, Margerison, as I had suspected for a good while more than I could prove. So to-day I sent a man to your brother, commissioning him to pretend to be an art-dealer and offer a sum of money for the insertion in 'The Gem' of an appreciative notice of some spurious objects. As perhaps you are aware, the offer was accepted.... It may seem to you an underhand way of getting evidence—but the case was peculiar."
He didn't look at Peter; his manner, though distant, was not now unfriendly; perhaps, having gained his object and sifted the business, there was room for compassion. It was a pity that Peter had made things worse by that last lie, though.
"I see," said Peter. "It's all very complete."
And then he laughed, as he always did when disasters were so very complete as to leave no crevice of escape to creep through.
"You laugh," said Lord Evelyn, and rose from his chair, trembling a little. "You laugh. It's been an admirable joke, hasn't it? And you always had plenty of sense of humour."
Peter didn't hear him. He wasn't laughing any more; he was looking at Denis, who had never looked at him once, but sat smoking with averted face.
"Shall I go now?" said Peter. "There isn't much more to say, is there? And what there is, perhaps you will tell us to-morrow.... It seems so silly to say one is sorry about a thing like this—but I am, you know, horribly. I have been all along, ever since I found out. You think that must be a lie, because I didn't tell. But things are so mixed and difficult—and it's not a lie." He was looking at Lord Evelyn now, at the delicate, working face that stabbed at his pity and shame. After all, it was Lord Evelyn, not Denis, whom they had injured and swindled and fooled; one must remember that. To Lord Evelyn he made his further feeble self-exculpation. "And, you know, I did really think Hilary had dropped it weeks ago; he said he would. And that's not a lie, either." But he believed they all thought it was, and a silly one at that.
It was Lord Evelyn who laughed now, with his high, scornful titter.
"You and your sorrow! I've no doubt your brother will be sorry too, when he hears the news. I may tell you that he'll have very good reason to be.... Yes, by all means go now—unless you'd like to stay and dine, which I fancy would be carrying the joke too far even for you.... Will you stay one moment, though? There's a little ceremony to be performed."
He crossed the room, and took the Sienese chalice between his hands, holding it gingerly for a moment as if it had been some unclean thing; then he dashed it on to the marble floor and it lay in splinters about his feet. He took up the pair of vases next it, one in each hand (they happened to be of great value), and threw them too among the splinters; he had cleared the shelf of all its brittle objects before Leslie, who had sat motionless in the background until now, rose and laid a heavy hand on his arm.
"My dear sir," said Leslie tranquilly, "don't be melodramatic. And don't give the servants so much trouble and possible injury when they do the room to-morrow. If you want to part with your goods, may I ask to be allowed to inspect them with a view to purchase? Some of them, as you are no doubt aware, are of considerable intrinsic value, and I should be happy to be allowed to buy."
Lord Evelyn looked at the man of commerce with distant contempt.
"As you please, sir. I've no doubt that Mr. Peter Margerison will be equally happy to give you his valuable advice in the business. He is your counsellor in these matters, isn't he. An excellent adviser, of sound judgment and most disinterested honesty!"
He bowed to Peter, who took it as a dismissal, and said "Good night."
Denis, at the opposite side of the room, nodded in his casual way, neither hostile nor friendly, but gentle and indifferent. You couldn't make Denis seem angry, or hurt, or agitated in any way whatever. He had always the air of reserving his opinion; and he extremely disliked scenes. To be present at this one must have been painful to him. Peter, who knew him so well, knew that. He liked things to go easily and smoothly always. He had winced at the crash of glass on marble; it seemed to him in such bad taste. This, no doubt, was his attitude towards the whole business; towards the Magerisons' behaviour, Cheriton's exposure of it, and this final naked, shameful scene of accusation and confession.
Peter was realising this as he put on his coat in the hall, when the door he had shut behind him was opened, and steps followed him. He started and faced round, a hope leaping in his face. The swift dying of it left him rather pale.
Leslie said, "I'm coming too."
It was good of Leslie, thought Peter dully, and not caring in the least. He said, "No, stay and dine. Really, I'd like you to.... We'll talk to-morrow."
Leslie put on his overcoat and said to the footman, "Call a gondola," and the footman stood on the steps and cried "Poppe" till a poppe came; then they swung away down a rose-flushed water-street with the after-glow in their eyes.
Leslie was restful; he didn't bother one. He merely said, "We'll dine to-night at Luigi's."
It was not until they had done so, and were having coffee outside, that Peter said, "We'll have to leave Venice, of course, directly we can."
"You too?" said Leslie. "You go with them?"
"I go with them," said Peter. "Well, I can't well stay here, can I. And we may as well stick together—a family party..... You see, I haven't a notion what Hilary will do to live now. I can go into business of sorts. Hilary can't; he'd hate it so. Hilary's not business-like, you know. Nor is Peggy. I couldn't trust them by themselves; they'd tumble into something and get broken. They need my common sense to sustain them."
Leslie said, "What's the matter with your own line of life, that you want to chuck it?"
Peter looked at him in surprise.
"It's chucked me," he said. "Violently—with a smash. You don't suppose anyone will hire me again to buy their things for them? There'll be something of a crab on the Margerison family in future. It's going to be made very public, you know, this business; I gathered that. We shall be—rather notorious, in a very few days."
Leslie said, after a moment, "I've hired you to buy my things for me. Are you going to chuck me?"
And Peter, leaning his forehead on his hand as if tired, returned beneath his breath, "Don't be good to me, please, just now. And you must see I've got to chuck it all—all that side of things. We must do something quite new, Hilary and I. We—we've spoiled this."
After a pause, Leslie said gently, afraid of blundering, "You stick together, you and your brother? You go through it together—all the way?"
Peter answered hopelessly, "All the way. We're in it together, and we must get out together, as best we can," and Leslie accepted that, and asked no further question.
THE LOSS OF A PROFESSION
Peter went back to the Palazzo Amadeo and said to Hilary, who was writing an article for "The Gem" in the saloon, "I wouldn't go on with that, Hilary. It's no use."
The flatness of his voice, the pallor of his face, startled Hilary and Peggy.
Peggy said, "You're tired to death, child. Take the big chair."
Hilary said, "How do you mean, no use?"
And Peter told him. While he did so, he stood at the window, looking down at the canal between the green shutters that swung ajar, and did not look at Hilary's face.
It was an impossible position for Hilary, so utterly impossible that it was no use trying to make the best of it; one could only look away, and get through it quickly.
Peter didn't say much. He only said, "We've been found out. That man who came to you this afternoon was a spy sent by Cheriton. He reported the result of his interview with you, and Lord Evelyn knows all about everything. Cheriton suspected from the first, you see.... From what Lord Evelyn said, I gather he means to prosecute.... He is ... very angry indeed.... They all are...."
On the last statement Peter's voice sank a little in pitch, so that they hardly heard it. But the last statement mattered to no one but Peter.
Hilary had got up sharply at the first words, and stood very still to listen, letting out one long breath of weary despair. Peggy came and stood close to him, and took one slim white hand in her large kind ones, and gently held it. The fat was indeed in the fire. Poor old Hilary! How he would feel it! Peggy divined that what stung Hilary most deeply at the moment was Peter's discovery of his faithlessness.
It was of that that his first shamed, incoherent words were.
"What was I to do? How could I break abruptly with the old methods, as you suggested? It had to come gradually. You know nothing of business, Peter—nothing." His voice ran up the scale of protesting self-defence.
"Nothing," Peter admitted drearily. Hilary's shame before him could hardly now add to the badness of the situation, as it had once done; the badness of situations has a limit, and this one had reached its limit some three hours since, just before he had laughed in Lord Evelyn's drawing-room.
"Oh," said Peter, very tired suddenly, "never mind me; what does that matter? The point is ... well, you see the point, naturally."
Yes, Hilary saw the point. With a faint groan he ran his fingers through his hair and began to pace up and down the room in agitation.
He said, "That brute Cheriton.... An execrable bounder; I always knew it. What right had he?... It's too horrible, too abominable.... Just when we were doing our best to get the thing onto straight lines...." He wheeled about and paced back again, with quick, uneven steps. Between him and the motionless Peter, Peggy stood, looking from one to the other. Her merry eyes were quite grave now. The situation was certainly appalling.
"We must leave Venice," said Peggy, on a sigh. That seemed, certainly, the only thing to be done.
Hilary groaned again.
"Oh, Lord, what are we let in for? What will be the result, if he prosecutes? It may be utter ruin.... I know nothing of these things. Of course, in justice nothing could be done to us—for, after all, what harm have we done? Anyone may insert advertisements for pay, and it only amounted to that.... But justice isn't taken into much account in the law-courts.... It is a horrible, cast-iron system—the relic of a barbarous age.... I don't know what we mayn't be in for, or how we shall come out of it. You don't know either, Peter; you know nothing of law—nothing. It mustn't come into court; that is unthinkable. We will make full apologies—any restitution within our power that Lord Evelyn demands.... I shall go there; I shall see him about it, and appeal to his better feelings. He has been a friend of mine. He has always been good to you, Peter. The memory of your mother.... Appeal to that. You must go to him and see what can be done. Yes, it had better be you; he has a kinder feeling for you, I believe, than for me."
"He has no kind feeling for me," said Peter dully. "He is more annoyed with me than with you."
Hilary jerked his head impatiently.
"Nonsense. You want to shirk; you want to leave me to get out of the mess for myself. Oh, of course, you're not legally involved; I am aware of that; you can leave the sinking ship if you choose, and save yourself."
Peggy said, "Don't be ridiculous, darling. Peter's doing his best for us, as he always has," and came and stood at her brother-in-law's side, kind and big and comforting, with a hand on his arm.
Hilary went on querulously, "I'm asking Peter to do a simple thing—to use his friendship with the Urquharts to help me out of this mess. If you don't want to see Lord Evelyn, Peter, you can go to Denis. He's a friend of yours; he's—he's your kind of step-brother. You can easily persuade him to get the thing hushed up. You've always pretended that he was a friend of yours. Go and see him, then, for heaven's sake, and help us all out of this miserable predicament."
Peter was still silent, staring down at the dark ribbon of shining water that lapped against two old brick walls, a shut lane full of stars.
Peggy, her hand on his arm, said gently, "Oh, Peter'll do his best for us, of course he will, won't you, Peter."
Peter sighed very faintly into the dark night.
"I will do anything I can, naturally. It won't be much, you know."
"You will go to the Urquharts to-morrow morning, and appeal to them?" said Hilary.
"Yes," said Peter. "I will do that."
Hilary breathed a sigh of relief, and flung himself into a chair.
"Thanks, Peter. I believe that is the best we can do. You will persuade them at least to be just, not to push the matter to unfair extremes.... Oh, my God, what a life!" His beautiful, unhappy face was hidden in his hands; he shuddered from head to foot, feeling horribly sick. The Margerison organism was sensitive.
Peggy, bending over him, drew caressing fingers through his dark hair and said, "Go to bed, you poor old dear, and don't worry any more to-night. Worry won't help now, will it?"
"Bed?" said Hilary. "Bed? What's the use of that? I shouldn't sleep a wink. I have a frightful head, and I must go and find Vyvian and tell him."
Peggy sniffed. "Much Vyvian'll care! He's been in bad odour all his life, I should fancy. One more row won't bother him much. I wish it would; it would be almost worth while to be upset if Guy Vyvian was going to be upset too—the waster. Well, I wonder anyhow will this show that silly little Rhoda what sort of a creature she's been making a golden calf of.... Well, go and wake Vyvian, then, darling, and then come and tell me what he said to it. Peter, you're dropping to sleep as you stand."
Peter went to bed. There didn't seem to be anything to stay up for, and bed is a comforting friend on these occasions. Hilary had a perverse tendency to sit up all night when the worst had happened and he had a frightful head; Peter's way with life was more amenable; he always took what comfort was offered him. Bed is a good place; it folds protecting, consoling arms about you, and gives at best oblivion, at worst a blessed immunity from action.
In the morning, about eleven o'clock, Peter went to the Ca' delle Gemme. That had to be done, so it was no use delaying. He asked for Lord Evelyn Urquhart, and supposed that the servant who showed him in was astonished at his impudence. However, he was permitted to wait in the reception-room while the servant went to acquaint Lord Evelyn with his presence. He waited some time, standing in the middle of the big room, looking at some splinters of glass and china which had been left on the marble floor, forming on his tongue what he was going to say. He could form nothing that was easy to say; honestly he didn't know whether, when the door should open and that tall, elegant, fastidious figure should walk in, he would find himself able to say anything at all. He feared he might only grow hot, and stammer, and slink out. But he pulled himself together; he must do his best; it was quite necessary. He would try to say, "Lord Evelyn, I know it is abominably impertinent of me to come into your house like this. Will you forgive me this once? I have come to ask you, is there any consideration whatever, any sort of reparation my brother and I can make, which will be of any use as amends for what we did? If so, of course we should be grateful for the chance...."
That was what he would try to say. And what he would mean was: "Will you let Hilary off? Will you let him just go away into obscurity, without further disgrace? Isn't he disgraced enough already? Because you are kind, and because you have been fond of me, and because I ask you, will you do this much?"
And what the answer would be, Peter had not the faintest idea. To him personally the answer was indifferent. From his point of view, the worst had already happened, and no further disgrace could affect him much. But Hilary desperately cared, so he must do his best; he must walk into the fire and wrest out of it what he could.
And at last the door opened, and Denis Urquhart came in.
He was just as usual, leisurely and fair and tranquil, only usually he smiled at Peter, and to-day he did not smile. One might have fancied under his tranquillity a restrained nervousness. He did not shake hands; but then Peter and he never did shake hands when they met.
He said, "Sit down, won't you. My uncle isn't available just now, so I have come instead.... You have something to say to him, haven't you?"
He sat down himself, and waited, looking at the splinters of glass on the floor.
Peter stood, and his breath came shortly. Yes, he had something to say to Lord Evelyn, but nothing to Lord Evelyn's nephew. He grew hot and cold, and stammered something, he did not know what.
"Yes?" said Denis, in his soft, casual voice, politely expectant.
Peter, who did not, after all, lack a certain desperate courage, walked into the fire, with braced will. It was bad that Denis should be brought into the business; but it had to be gone through, all the same.
"I only wanted to know ... to know ... what Lord Evelyn is going to do about this matter." He jerked out the words like stones from a catapult.
Denis was silent for a moment. He disliked being dragged into this revolting affair; but he had had to come and see Peter, since his uncle refused and he could not let Peter go unseen away. He didn't want to see him ever again, since he had behaved as he had behaved, but neither did he want to violate the laws of courtesy and hospitality.
"I don't quite know," he said, after a moment.
"Is he ... does he intend to prosecute?" Peter asked, blushing.
Denis answered to that at once: "I shall certainly do my best to prevent anything of the sort. I don't think he will. At present he is still very angry; but I think when he cools down he will see reason. To prosecute would be to make himself absurd; he will see that, no doubt. He values his reputation as an art connoisseur, you see." At the faint, cool irony in the words, Peter winced.
"Of course," went on Denis, lighting a cigarette, "your brother will leave Venice at once, I suppose?" He passed Peter his cigarette box; Peter refused it.
"Naturally. We mean to leave as soon as we can.... Thank you, that is all I had to say.... Good-bye."
Denis got up, and Peter saw relief through the mask of politeness.
"Good-bye.... I needn't say how sorry I am about all this. It was hard lines on you being brought into it."
He was making a transparent effort after friendliness; Peter almost smiled at it. Poor Denis; what a relief it would be to him when the disreputable Margerisons were off the scenes.
Peter paused at the door and said, in a low, embarrassed voice, "Would you mind telling Lord Evelyn what I told him myself last night—that I'm horribly sorry about it—sorrier than I have ever been for anything.... It won't make any difference to him, I know—but if you will just tell him.... And I'm sorry it happened while you were here, too. You've been dragged in.... Good-bye."
"Good-bye, Margerison." Denis was grave, embarrassed, restrained, and not unkind. It was obvious that he had nothing to say about it all.
Peter left the Ca' delle Gemme.
That afternoon Hilary received a note from Lord Evelyn. It was to the effect that Lord Evelyn had decided not to bring an action, on the understanding that Hilary and his brother and Vyvian left Venice at once and discontinued for ever the profession of artistic advisers. If any of the three was discovered engaging again in that business, those who employed them should promptly be advised of their antecedents. They were, in fact, to consider themselves warned off the turf. There was also to be a paragraph about them in the English art papers.
"Well," was Peggy's comment, "it hasn't been such a grand trade that we need mind much. We'll all come back to England and keep a boarding-house there instead, and you shall paint the great pictures, darling, and have ever so much more fun. And we'll never need to see that Vyvian again; there's fine news for the babies, anyhow. And I will be relieved to get them away from the canals; one of them would have been surely drowned before long. In London they'll have only gutters."
Hilary, who was looking tired and limp after a distressing night and day, said, "What shall you do, Peter?"
"I don't know," said Peter. "I must find something, I suppose. Some sort of work, you know." He pronounced the word gingerly, distastefully, as if it were a curious, unwonted one. "Perhaps I shall be able to get a post as door-keeper somewhere; in some museum, you know, or perhaps a theatre, or the White City. I've always thought that might be amusing."
"You wouldn't earn much that way," Hilary said hopelessly.
"Need one earn much?" Peter wondered; then remembered how exceedingly little Hilary would be earning, and that perhaps one need, because of the babies.
"Or perhaps I can get taken on as a clerk in some business," he amended. "Or in a bank; only I don't believe my sums or manners are good enough for a bank, really.... Oh, well, I must see what I can squeeze into. Perhaps Leslie can think of something. And perhaps the Robinsons will interest themselves in me, though they'll be even more disgusted at our downfall than they were when I took up my profession, and they thought that perfectly idiotic. They always do think we're perfectly idiotic, and now they'll know we're something worse. But they may help me to a job, if I bother them enough.... Anyhow, I'll be one of your boarders, if I may."
"You darling," said Peggy, beaming at him. "It'll give the house quite a different feeling if you're in it. And how delighted the babies will be. I believe we're going to have the fine time, after all, in spite of this bothersome business. Hurrah for London and no mosquitoes! And we'll be quite near a Catholic church, the way the children'll be able to run in and out as they do here, and not pick up heathen customs. Why, Hilary, I'm really pleased!"
Peggy was splendid. She was nearly always really pleased.
They started for England a week later. In the course of that week two things happened. One was that Leslie gave Peter the Berovieri goblet for his own.
"You've got to take it," he said. "If you don't, I shall give it back to the prince. I've no right to it; I can't appreciate it properly. Since I first saw you look at the thing I knew it was really yours. Take it and keep it. You won't let me do anything else for you, but you shall let me do that."
Peter looked at it with wistful love. His fingers lingered about its exquisiteness.
"It will break," he said. "My things do break. Break and get lost, and go with the dust. Or thieves will break in and steal it. I shan't be able to keep it, I know; I'm such a bad hand at keeping things."
"Well, well, have a try," said Leslie. So Peter took it and was glad. It was his one link with the world of exquisiteness and new-burnished joys out of which he was being thrust; he would keep it if he could.
Leslie also said that he could get him a place in a business, if he really wanted one.
"I shall be extremely little use," said Peter.
"Extremely little," Leslie agreed. "You'd much better not try. But if you must you must."
"I'm afraid I must," said Peter.
So Leslie wrote letters about him, and secured him a humble post in a warehouse. Leslie was not going to return to England at present. He was going a tour round the world. Since Peter refused to accompany him, he went alone.
"There's no one else I can fancy hanging round me day and night," he said. "I wanted you, Margery"—the nickname fell from him with a clumsy pathos—"but if you won't you won't. I shall acquire an abominable collection of objects without you to guide me; but that can't be helped."
The other thing that happened was that Mrs. Johnson fell suddenly ill and died. Before she died, she talked to Peter about Rhoda.
"It's leaving of her as I can't bear," she whispered. "All alone and unprotected like. I can't leave her by herself in this heathen country. I want to get her back to England. But she's got no relatives there as'll do for her; none, you know, as I should care to trust her to, or as 'ud be really good to her. And I'm afraid of what'll come to the child without me; I'm afraid, Mr. Peter. That man—it gives me the creeps of nights to think of him comin' after Rhoder when I'm gone. I'm just frightened as he'll get her; you know what Rhoder is, like a soft wax candle that gets droopy and gives before his bold look; he can do anythin' with her. And if he gets her, he won't be good to her, I know that. He'll just break her and toss her away, my little gal. Oh, what can I do, Mr. Peter, to save that?"
She was in great pain; drops of sweat kept gathering on her forehead and rolling on to the pillow. Peter took her hand that picked at the blanket.
"May we try to take care of her?" he gently asked. "If she will come and stay with us, in London, it would be better than being alone among strangers, wouldn't it? She could get work near, and live with us. Peggy is fond of her, you know; we all are. We would try to make her as happy as we could."
She smiled at him, between laboured breaths.
"God bless you, dear Mr. Peter. I somehow thought as how you'd be good to my little gal.... You are so sympathetic to everyone always.... Yes, Rhoder shall do that; I'll have her promise. And that man—you'll keep him off of her?"
"I will try," said Peter. "I will do my very best."
"Oh, Lord, oh, dear Lord," said Mrs. Johnson, "the pain!"
But it didn't last long, for she died that night.
And four days later the boarding-house was broken up, and the Margerison family and Rhoda Johnson left Italy together.
Rhoda was very quiet and still and white. She was terribly alone, for her mother was gone, and the man she loved was gone, hurriedly, without a word to her. There remained the Margerisons; Peter, with his friendly smile and gentle companionableness; Hilary, worried and weary and hardly noticing her unobtrusive presence; Silvio, Caterina, and Illuminato sucking gingerbread and tumbling off the rack, and Peggy, on whose broad shoulder Rhoda suddenly laid her head and wept, all through the Mont Cenis tunnel.
THE LOSS OF AN IDEA
Peter's room was the smallest and highest in the boarding-house. It was extremely small and high, and just above the bed was a ceiling that got hot through and through like a warming-pan, so that the room in summer was like a little oven below. What air there was came in came through a small skylight above the wash-stand; through this also came the rain when it rained; the dirtiest rain Peter had ever seen.
It was not raining this morning, when Peter, after passing a very warm night, heard the bells beginning. A great many bells begin on Sunday mornings in this part of London, no doubt in any part of London, but here they seem particularly loud. The boarding-house was in a small street close to a large English church and a small Roman church; and the English church had its first Mass at seven, and the Roman church at six, and each had another an hour later, and bells rang for all. So Peter lay and listened.
Sometimes he went with Hilary and Peggy to the Roman Mass. That pleased Peggy, who had hopes of some day converting him. And occasionally he went alone to the English Mass, and he liked that better, on the whole, because the little Roman church was rather ugly. Peter didn't think he would ever join the Roman church, even to please Peggy. It certainly seemed to him in some ways the most finely expressive of the churches; but equally certainly it often expressed the wrong things, and (like all other churches) left whole worlds unexpressed. And so much of its expression had a crudity.... It kept saying too little and too much, and jarring.
Anyhow, this morning Peter, who had a headache after his warm night, lay and heard the bells and thought what a nice day Sunday was, with no office to go to. Instead, he would take Rhoda on the river in the morning, and go and see Lucy in the afternoon, and probably have tea there. When Peter went to see Lucy he always had a faint hope that Urquhart would perhaps walk in, and that they would all be friendly and happy together in the old way, for one afternoon. It hadn't happened yet. Peter hadn't seen Urquhart since they had left Venice, two months ago. Sunday was his day for going to see Lucy, and it wasn't Urquhart's day, perhaps because Urquhart was so often away for week-ends; though last Sunday, indeed, he had just left the Hopes' house when Peter arrived.
Lucy, when Peter had told her his tale of dishonour two months ago, had said, half laughing at him, "How stupid of all of you!" She hadn't realised quite how much it mattered. Lucy judged everything by a queer, withdrawn standard of her own.
Peter had agreed that it had been exceedingly stupid of all of them. Once, since then, when he heard that Urquhart had returned and had seen Lucy, he had asked her, "Does he dislike us all very much? Is he quite too disgusted to want to see me again?"
Lucy had wrinkled her forehead over it.
"He's not angry," she had said. "You can fancy, can't you? Merely—merely ..."
"Detached," said Peter, who had more words, and always expressed what Lucy meant; and she nodded. "Just that, you know." She had looked at him wistfully, hoping he wasn't minding too horribly much.
"It's stupid of him," she had said, using her favourite adjective, and had added, dubiously, "Come and meet him sometime. You can't go on like this; it's too silly."
Peter had shaken his head. "I won't till he wants to. I don't want to bother him, you see."
"He does want to," Lucy had told him. "Of course he does. Only he thinks you don't. That's what's so silly."
They had left it there for the present. Some day Peter meant to walk into Denis's rooms and say, "Don't be stupid. This can't go on." But the day hadn't come yet. If it had been Denis who had done the shady thing and was in penury and dishonour thereby, it would have been so simple. But that was inconceivable; such things didn't happen to Denis; and as it was it was not simple.
Peter got out of his hot bed on to his hot floor, and made for the bathroom. There was only one bathroom in the boarding-house, but there was no great competition for it, so Peter had his bath in peace, and sang a tune in it as was his custom, and came back to his hot room and put on his hot clothes (his less tidy clothes, because it was the day of joy), and came down to breakfast at 9:25.
Most of the other boarders had got there before him. It was a mixed boarding-house, and contained at the moment two gentlemen besides Hilary and Peter, and five ladies besides Peggy and Rhoda. They were on the whole a happy and even gay society, and particularly on Sundays.
Peggy, looking up from the tea-cups, gave Peter a broad smile, and Rhoda gave him a little subdued one, and Peter looked pleased to see everyone; he always did, even on Mondays.
"I'm sure your brother hasn't a care in the world," an envious lady boarder had once said to Peggy; "he's always so happy-looking."
This was the lady who was saying, as Peter entered, "And my mother's last words were, 'Find Elizabeth Dean's grave.' Elizabeth Dean was an author, you know—oh, very well known, I believe. She treated my mother and me none too well; didn't stand by us when she should have—but we won't say anything about that now. Anyhow, it was a costly funeral—forty pounds and eight horses—and my mother hadn't an idea where she was laid. So she said, 'Find Elizabeth Dean's grave,' just like that. And the strange thing was that in the first churchyard I walked into, in a little village down in Sussex, there was a tombstone, 'Elizabeth Dean, 65. The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away.' Wasn't that queer, now? So I went straight and...."
"The woman's a fool," muttered the gentleman next Peter, a cynical-faced commercial traveller. Peter had heard the remark from him frequently before, and did not feel called upon to reply to it.
But the tale of Elizabeth Dean was interrupted by a lady of a speculative habit of mind.
"Now I want to ask you all, should one put up a tombstone to the departed? I've been having quite a kick-up with my sisters about it lately. Hadn't one better spend the money on the living? What do you think, Miss Matthews?"
Miss Matthews said she liked to see a handsome headstone.
"After all, one honours them that way. It's all one can do for them, isn't it."
"Oh, Miss Matthews, all?" Several ladies were shocked. "What about one's prayers for the dead?"
"I don't pray for the dead," said Miss Matthews, who was a protestant, and did not attend the large church in the next street. "I do not belong to the Romish religion. I'm not saying anything against those who do, but I consider that those who do not should confine their prayers to those who may require them in this troubled world, and not waste them upon those whose fate we have every reason to believe is settled once and for all."
The lady who always quarrelled with her on this subject rose to the occasion. Peggy, soothing them down, said mechanically, "There now.... Three lumps, Peter?... Micky, one doesn't suck napkin rings; naughty."
Peter was appealed to by his neighbour, who knew that he occasionally attended St. Austin's church. People were always drawing him into theological discussions, which he knew nothing at all about.
"Mr. Peter, isn't that against all reason, to stop praying for our friends merely because they've passed through the veil?"
"Yes," Peter agreed. "I should have thought so." But all he really thought was that beyond the veil was such darkness that he never looked into it, and that it was a pity people should argue on a holiday.
"Now," said someone else, wishing to be a peace-maker, "I'm afraid you'll all say I'm very naughty, but I attend the early Mass at St. Austin's, high Mass at the Roman church"—she nodded at Peggy—"and the City Temple in the evening"—she smiled at the commercial traveller, who was believed to be a New Theologian. "Aren't I naughty, now?"
Mademoiselle, the French governess, came down at this point, saying she had had a dream about a hat with pink roses. The peace-making lady said, "Bad little thing, she's quite frisky this morning." Hilary, to whom Mademoiselle was the last straw, left the room.
Rhoda followed his example. She had sat very silent, as usual, over breakfast, eating little. Peter came out with her, and followed her into the sitting-room, where she stood listlessly playing with the tassel of the blind. Rhoda was thinner than ever, and floppier, and took even less pains to be neat. She had left off her beads, but had not replaced them by a collar.
Peter said, "Are you coming out with me this morning?"
She replied, listless and uncaring, "If you like."
"We might go," said Peter, "and see if the New English Art Club is open on Sunday mornings. And then we'll go on the river. Shall we?"
She assented again. "Very well."
A moment later she sighed, and said wearily, "How it does go on, day after day, doesn't it!"
Peter said it did.
"On and on," said Rhoda. "Same stupid people saying the same stupid old things. I do wonder they don't get tired. They don't know anything, do they?"
Rhoda's hankering was still after Great Minds.
"They're funny sometimes," suggested Peter tentatively; but she was blind to that.
"They don't know a thing. And they talk and talk, so stupidly. About religion—as if one religion was different from another. And about dead people, as if they knew all about them and what they were doing. They seem to make sure souls go on—Miss Matthews and Miss Baker were both sure of that. But how can they tell? Some people that know lots more than them don't think so, but say ... say it's nothingness."
Peter recognised Guy Vyvian's word. Rhoda would have said "nothing to follow."
"People say," he agreed, "quite different things, and none of them know anything about it, of course. One needn't worry, though."
"You never worry," she accused him, half fretfully. "But," she added, "you don't preach, either. You don't say things are so when you can't know.... Do you think anything about that, Peter—about going on? I don't believe you do."
Peter reflected. "No," he said. "I don't believe I do. I can't look beyond what I can see and touch; I don't try. I expect I'm a materialist. The colours and shapes of things matter so awfully much; I can't imagine anything of them going on when those are dead. I rather wish I could. Some people that know lots more than me do, and I think it's splendid of them and for them. They're very likely right, too, you know."
Rhoda shook her head. "I believe it's nothingness."
Peter felt it a dreary subject, and changed it.
"Well, let's come and look at pictures. And I can't imagine nothingness, can you? We might have lunch out somewhere, if you don't mind."
So they went out and looked at pictures, and went up the river in a steamer, and had lunch out somewhere, and Rhoda grew very gentle and more cheerful, and said, "I didn't mean to be cross to you, Peter. You're ever so good to me," and winked away tears, and the gentle Peter, who hated no one, wished that some catastrophe would wipe Guy Vyvian off the face of the earth and choke his memory with dust. Whenever one thought Rhoda was getting rather better, the image of Vyvian, who knew such a lot more than most people, came up between her and the world she ought to have been enjoying, and she had a relapse.
Peter and Rhoda came home together, and Rhoda said, "Thank you ever so much for taking me. I've liked it ever so," and went up to her room to read poetry. Rhoda read a good deal of the work of our lesser contemporary poets; Vyvian had instilled that taste into her.
Peter, about tea-time, went to see Lucy. He went by the Piccadilly tube, from Holborn to South Kensington—(he was being recklessly extravagant to-day, but it was a holiday after all, and very hot).
Peter climbed the stairs to the Hopes' drawing-room and opened the door, and what he had often dreamed of had come about, for Denis was there, only in a strange, undreamed-of way that made him giddy, so he stood quite still for a moment and looked.
He would have turned away and gone before they saw him; but they had seen him, and Lucy said, "Oh, Peter—come in," and Denis said, "Oh ... hullo," and held out his hand.
Peter, who was dizzily readjusting certain rather deeply-rooted ideas, said, "How do you do? I've come ... I've come to tea, you know."
"'Course you have," said Lucy. Then she looked up into Peter's face and smiled, and slipped her hand into his. "How nice; we're three again."
"Yes," said Peter.
"But I must go," said Urquhart. "I'm awfully sorry, but I've got to meet a man.... I shall see you some time, shan't I, Margery? Why don't you ever come and see me, you slacker? Well, good-bye. Good-bye, Lucy. Lunch to-morrow; don't forget."
He was gone.
Peter sat on the coal-scuttle, and Lucy gave him tea, with three lumps in it.
"Thank you," said Peter.
Lucy looked at him. "You did know, didn't you? All this time, I mean? I didn't tell you, because I never tell you things, of course. You always know them. And this particularly. You did know it, Peter? But when you came in you looked ... you looked as if you didn't."
"I was stupid," said Peter. "I ought to have known."
Looking back, he saw that he certainly ought. He certainly must have, only that his vision had been blocked by a certain deeply-rooted idea, that was as old as his growth. He had assumed, without words. He had thought that she too had assumed; neither had ever required words to elucidate their ideas one to the other; they had kept words for the other things, the jolly, delightful things of the foreground.
"How long?" asked Peter, drinking his tea to warm him, for, though it was so hot outside, he felt very cold in here.
She told him. "Oh, since the beginning, I think. I thought you knew, Peter.... We didn't say anything about it till quite lately. Only we both knew."
She came and sat on the rug by his side, and slipped her hand into his. "Are you glad, Peter? Please, Peter, be glad."
"I will presently," said Peter, with one of his fainter smiles. "Let me just get used to it, and I will."
She whispered, stroking his hand, "We've always had such fun, Peter, we three. Haven't we? Let's go on having it."
"Yes," said Peter. "Let's."
He was vague still, and a little dizzy, but he could smile at her now. After all, wasn't it splendid? Denis and Lucy—the two people he loved best in the world; so immeasurably best that beside them everyone else was no class at all.
He sat very still on the coal-scuttle, making a fresh discovery about himself. He had known before that he had a selfish disposition, though he had never thought about it particularly; but he hadn't known that it was in him to grudge Denis anything—Denis, who was consciously more to him than anyone else in the world. Lucy was different; she was rooted in the very fibre of his being; it wasn't so much that he consciously loved her as that she was his other self. Well, hadn't he long since given to Denis, to use as he would, all the self he had?
But the wrench made him wince, and left him chilly and grown old.
"It's perfectly splendid for both of you," said Peter, himself again at last. "And it was extraordinarily stupid of me not to see it before.... Do you think Denis really meant I could go and see him? I think I will."
"'Course he did. 'Course you will. Go to-morrow. But now it's going to be just you and me and tea. And honey sandwiches—oh, Peter!" Her eyes danced at him, because it was such a nice world. He came off the coal-scuttle and made himself comfortable in a low chair near the honey sandwiches.
"Will you and Denis try always to have them when I come to tea with you? I do love them so. Have you arranged when it is to be, by the way?"
"No. Father won't want it to be for ages—he won't like it to be at all, of course, because Denis isn't poor or miserable or revolutionary. But Felicity has done so nicely for him in that way (Lawrence is getting into horrid rows in Poland, you know) that I think I've a right to someone happy and clean, don't you?... And Denis wants it to be soon. So I suppose it will be soon."
"Sure to be," Peter agreed.
The room was full of roses; their sweetness was exuberant, intoxicating; not like Lucy, who usually had small, pale, faint flowers.
"Isn't it funny," she said, "how one thinks one can't be any happier, and then suddenly something happens inside one, and one sees everything new. I used to think things couldn't be brighter and shine more—but now they glitter like the sun, all new."
"I expect so," said Peter.
Then she had a little stab of remorse; for Peter had been turned out of the place of glittering things, and moved in a grey and dusty world among things no one could like.
"'Tis so stupid that your work is like that," she said, with puckered forehead. "I wish you could find something nice to do, Peter dear."
"Oh, I'm all right," said Peter. "And there are all the nice things which aren't work, just the same. Rhoda and I went a ride in a steamer this morning. And the sun was shining on the water—rather nice, it was. Even Rhoda grew a little brighter to see it. Poor Rhoda; the boarders do worry her so. I'm sorry about it; they don't worry me; I rather like them. Some day soon I want you to come and see Rhoda; it would cheer her up. I wish she liked things more. She's left off her bead necklace, you know. And she gets worried because people discuss the condition of 'the departed' (that's what we call them in the boarding-house). Rhoda is sure they are in nothingness. I told her it was impossible for me to speculate on such things. How can one, you know? People have so much imagination. Mine always sticks at a certain point and won't move on. Could you do it if someone asked you to imagine Denis, say, without his body?"
She wrinkled her forehead, trying to.
"Denis's body matters a lot," was her conclusion. "I suppose it's because it's such a nice one."
"Exactly," said Peter. "People's bodies are nice. And when they're not I don't believe their minds are very nice either, so I'd rather not think about them. Now I must go home."
It was very hot going home. London was a baked place, full of used air—Peter's bedroom on a large scale. Peter tried walking back, but found he was rather giddy, so got into a bus that took him the wrong way, a thing he often did. Riding across London on the top of a bus is, of course, the greatest fun, even if it is the wrong bus. It makes up for almost any misfortune.
A few days later, after office hours, Peter took Urquhart at his word and went to his rooms. Urquhart wasn't there, but would be in some time, he was told, so he sat and waited for him. It was a pleasant change after the boarding-house rooms. Urquhart's things were nice to look at, without being particularly artistic. There was nothing dingy, or messy, or second-rate, or cheap. A graceful, careless expensiveness was the dominant note. An aroma of good tobacco hung about. Peter liked to smell good tobacco, though he smoked none, good or bad.
Urquhart came in at seven o'clock. He was going to dine somewhere at eight, so he hadn't much time.
"Glad to see you, Margery. Quite time you came."
Peter thought it nice of him to speak so pleasantly, seeming to ignore the last time Peter had come to see him. He had been restrained and embarrassed then; now he was friendly, in the old casual, unemphasised way.
"How splendid about you and Lucy," said Peter. "A very suitable alliance, I call it."
"So do I," said Denis, lighting a cigarette. "She's so much the nicest person I know. I perceived that the day you introduced us."
"Of course," said Peter. "You would."
"Do you mind," said Denis, "if I dress? We can talk meanwhile. Rotten luck that I'm booked for dinner, or we could have had it together. You must come another day."
While he dressed he told Peter that he was going to stand at the next elections. Peter had known before that Denis was ultimately destined to assist in the government of his country, and now it appeared that the moment had arrived.
"Do you really take a side?" Peter enquired. "Or is it just a funny game?"
"Oh, of course it's a game too; most things are. But, of course, one's a Conservative and all that, if one's a person of sense. It's the only thing to be, you know."
"I rather like both sides," said Peter. "They're both so keen, and so sure they're right. But I expect Conservatives are the rightest, because they want to keep things. I hate people who want to make a mess and break things up and throw them away. Besides, I suppose one couldn't really be on the same side as what's his name—that man everyone dislikes so—could one? or any of those violent people."
Urquhart said one certainly couldn't. Besides, there were Free Trade and Home Rule, and dozens of other things to be considered. Obviously Conservatives were right.
"I ought to get in," he said, "unless anything upsets it. The Unionist majority last time was two hundred and fifty."
Peter laughed. It was rather nice to hear Denis talking like a real candidate.
When Denis was ready, he said, "I'm dining in Norfolk Street. Can you walk with me part of the way?"
Peter said it was on the way to Brook Street, where he lived. Denis displayed no interest in Brook Street. As far as he intended to cultivate Peter's acquaintance, it was to be as a unit, detached from his disgraceful relatives. Peter understood that. As he hadn't much expected to be cultivated again at all, he was in good spirits as he walked with Denis to Norfolk Street. No word passed between them as to Peter's past disgrace or present employment; Denis had an easy way of sliding lightly over embarrassing subjects.
They parted, and Denis dined in Norfolk Street with a parliamentary secretary, and Peter supped in Brook Street with the other boarders.
THE LOSS OF A GOBLET AND OTHER THINGS
Denis and Lucy were married at the end of September. They went motoring in Italy for a month, and by the beginning of November were settled at Astleys. Astleys was in Berkshire, and was Urquhart's home. It was rather beautiful, as homes go, with a careless, prosperous grace about it at which Lucy laughed because it was so Urquhartesque.
Almost at once they asked some people to stay there to help with the elections and the pheasant shooting. The elections were hoped for in December. Urquhart did not propose to bother much about them; he was a good deal more interested in the pheasants; but he had, of course, every intention of doing the usual and suitable things, and carrying the business through well. Lucy only laughed; to want to get into Parliament was so funny, looked at from the point of view she had always been used to. Denis, being used by inheritance and upbringing to another point of view, did not see that it was so funny; to him it was a very natural profession for a man to go into; his family had always provided a supply of members for both houses. Lucy and Peter, socially more obscure, laughed childishly together over it. "Fancy being a Liberal or a Conservative out of all the things there are in the world to be!" as Peter had once commented.
But it was delightfully Urquhart-like, this lordly assumption of a share in the government of a country. No doubt it was worth having, because all the things Urquhart wanted and obtained were that; he had an eye for good things, like Peter, only he gained possession of them, and Peter could only admire from afar.
They were talking about the election prospects at dinner on the evening of the fifteenth of November. They were a young and merry party. At one end of the table was Denis, looking rather pale after a hard day's hunting, and very much amused with life; at the other Lucy, in a white frock, small and open-eyed like a flower, and very much amused too; and between them were the people, young mostly, and gay, who were staying with them. Lucy, who had been brought up in a secluded Bohemianism, found it very funny and nice having a house-party, and so many servants to see after them all that one needn't bother to run round and make sure everyone had soap, and so on.
One person, not young, who was staying there, was Lord Evelyn Urquhart. Lucy loved him. He loved her, and told funny stories. Sometimes, between the stories, she would catch his near-sighted, screwed up eyes scanning her face with a queer expression that might have been wistfulness; he seemed at times to be looking for something in her face, and finding it. Particularly when she laughed, in her chuckling, gurgling way, he looked like this, and would grow grave suddenly. They had talked together about all manner of things, being excellent friends, but only once so far about Lucy's cousin Peter. Once had been too much, Lucy had found. The Margerisons were a tabooed subject with Lord Evelyn Urquhart.
Denis shrugged his shoulders over it. "They did him brown, you see," he explained, in his light, casual way. "Uncle Evelyn can't forgive that. And it's because he was so awfully fond of Peter that he's so bitter against him now. I never mention him; it's best not.... You know, you keep giving the poor dear shocks by looking like Peter, and laughing like him, and using his words. You are rather like, you know."
"I know," said Lucy. "It's not only looking and laughing and words; we think alike too. So perhaps if he gets fond of me he'll forgive Peter sometime."
"He's an implacable old beggar," Denis said. "It's stupid of him. It never seems to me worth while to get huffy; it's so uncomfortable. He expects too much of people, and when they disappoint him he—"
"Takes umbradge," Lucy filled in for him. That was another of Peter's expressions; they shared together a number of such stilted, high-sounding phrases, mostly culled either out of Adelphi melodrama or the fiction of a by-gone age.
To-night, when the cloth had been removed that they might eat fruit, Denis was informed that there was a gentleman waiting to see him. The gentleman had not vouchsafed either his name or business, so he could obviously wait a little longer, till Denis had finished his own business. In twenty minutes Denis went to the library, and there found Hilary Margerison, sitting by the fire in a great coat and muffler and looking cold. When he rose and faced him, Denis saw that he also looked paler than of old, and thinner, and less perfectly shaved, and his hair was longer. He might have been called seedy-looking; he might have been Sidney Carton in "The Only Way"; he had always that touch of the dramatic about him that suggested a stage character. He had a bad cough.
"Oh," said Urquhart, polite and feeling embarrassed; "how do you do? I'm sorry to have kept you waiting; they didn't tell me who it was. Sit down, won't you?"
Hilary said thanks, he thought not. He had a keen sense of the fit. So he refused the cigarette Urquhart offered him, and stood by the fire, looking at the floor. Urquhart stood opposite him, and thought how ill and how little reputable he looked.
Hilary said, in his high, sweet, husky voice, "It is no use beating about the bush. I want help. We are in need; we are horribly hard up, to put it baldly. That has passed between your family and mine which makes you the last person I should wish to appeal to as a beggar. I propose a business transaction." He paused to cough.
Urquhart, feeling impatient at the prospect of a provoking interview when he wanted to be playing bridge, said "Yes?" politely.
"You," said Hilary, "are intending to stand as a candidate for this constituency. You require for that, I fancy, a reputation wholly untarnished; the least breath dimming it would be for you a disastrous calamity. I have some information which, if sent to the local Liberal paper, would seriously tell against you in the public mind. It is here."
He took it out of his breast pocket and handed it to Urquhart—a type-written sheet of paper. He must certainly have been to a provincial theatre lately; he had hit its manners and methods to a nicety, the silly ass.
Urquhart took the paper gingerly and did not look at it.
"Thanks; but ... I don't know that I am interested, do you know. Isn't this all rather silly, Mr. Margerison?"
"If you will oblige me by reading it," said Mr. Margerison.
So Urquhart obliged him. It was all about him, as was to be expected; enough to make a column of the Berkshire Press.
"Well?" said Hilary, when he had done.
"Well," said Urquhart, folding up the paper and returning it, "thank you for showing it me. But again I must say that I am not particularly interested. Of course you will send anything you like to any paper you like; it is no business of mine. There's the libel law, as of course you know; newspapers are as a rule rather careful about that. No respectable paper, I needn't say, would care to use such copy as this of yours.... Well, good night.... Oh, by the way, I suppose your brother told you all that?"
Hilary said, "I had it from various reliable sources." He stood uncertain, with wavering eyes, despair killing hope. "You will do nothing at all to save your reputation, then?"
Urquhart laughed, unamused, with hard eyes. He was intensely irritated.
"Do you think it likely? I don't care what you get printed in any dirty rag about me, man. Why on earth should I?"
The gulf between them yawned; it was unbridgeable. From Hilary's world insults might be shrieked and howled, dirt thrown with all the strength of hate, and neither shrieks nor dirt would reach across the gulf to Urquhart's. They simply didn't matter. Hilary, realising this, grew slowly, dully red, with the bitterness of mortified expectation. Urquhart's look at him, supercilious, contemptuous, aloof, slightly disgusted, hurt his vanity. He caught at the only weapon he had which could hurt back.
"I must go and tell Peter, then, that his information has been of no use."
Urquhart said merely, "Peter won't be surprised. It's no good your trying to make me think that Peter is joining in this absurdity. He has too much sense of the ridiculous. He seems to have talked to you pretty freely of my concerns, which I certainly fancied he would keep to himself; I suppose he did that by way of providing entertaining conversation; Peter was always a chatterbox"—it was as well that Peter was not there to hear the edge in the soft, indifferent voice—"but he isn't quite such a fool as to have countenanced this rather stagey proceeding of yours. He knows me—used to know me—pretty well, you see.... Good night. You have plenty of time to catch your train, I think."
Hilary stopped to say, "Is that all you have to say? You won't let your connexion with our family—with Peter—induce you to help us in our need?... I've done an unpleasant thing to-night, you know; I've put my pride in my pocket and stooped to the methods of the cad, for the sake of my wife and little children. I admit I have made a mistake, both of taste and judgment; I have behaved unworthily; you may say like a fool. But are you prepared to see us go under—to drive by and leave us lying in the road, as you did to that old Tuscan peasant? Does it in no way affect your feelings towards us that you are now Peter's cousin by marriage—besides being practically, his half-brother?"
"I am not practically, or in any other way, Peter's half-brother," said Urquhart casually. "But that is neither here nor there. Peter and I are—have been—friends, as you know. I should naturally give him help if he asked me for it. He has not done so; all that has happened is that you have tried to blackmail me.... I really see no use in prolonging this interview, Mr. Margerison. Good night." Urquhart was bored and impatient with the absurd scene.
Into the middle of it walked Peter, pale and breathless. He stood by the door and looked at them, dazed and blinking at the light; looked at Urquhart, who stood leaning his shoulder against the chimney-piece, his hands in his pockets, the light full on his fair, tranquil, bored face, and at Hilary, pale and tragic, with wavering, unhappy eyes. So they stood for a type and a symbol and a sign that never, as long as the world endures, shall Margerisons get the better of Urquharts.
They both looked at Peter, and Urquhart's brows rose a little, as if to say, "More Margerisons yet?"
Hilary said, "What's the matter, Peter? Why have you come?"
Peter said, rather faintly, "I meant to stop you before you saw Denis. I suppose I'm too late.... I made Peggy tell me. I found a paper, you see; and I asked Peggy, and she said you'd come down here to use it. Have you?"
"He has already done his worst," Denis's ironic voice answered for him. "Sprung the awful threat upon me."
Peter leant back against the door, feeling rather sick. He had run all the way from the station; and, as always, he was too late.
Then he laughed a little. The contrast of Hilary's tragedian air and Urquhart's tranquil boredom was upsetting to him.
Urquhart didn't laugh, but looked at him enquiringly.
"It's certainly funny rather," he said quietly. "You must have got a good deal of quiet fun out of compiling that column."
"Oh," said Peter. "But I didn't, you know."
"I gather you helped—supplied much of the information. That story of the old man I brutally slew and then callously left uncared for on the road—you seem to have coloured that rather highly in passing it on.... I suppose it was stupid of me to fancy that you weren't intending to make that public property. Not that I particularly mind: there was nothing to be ashamed of in that business; but it somehow never happened to occur to me that you were relating it."
"I didn't," said Peter. "I have never told anyone."
Urquhart said nothing; his silence was expressive.
Peter stammered into speech incoherently.
"At least—at least—yes, I believe I did tell Peggy the story, months ago, in Venice—but I didn't say it was you. I merely said, if someone had done that ... what would she think? I wanted to know if she thought we ought to have found the old man's people and told them."
"I see," said Urquhart. "And did she?"
"No. She thought it was all right." Peter had known beforehand that Peggy would think it was all right; that was why he had asked her, to be reassured, to have the vague trouble in his mind quieted.
And she, apparently, had seen through his futile pretence, had known it was Urquhart he spoke of, needed reassuring about (Peter didn't realise that even less shrewd observers than Peggy might easily know when it was Urquhart he spoke of) and had gone and told Hilary. And Hilary, in his need, had twisted it into this disgusting story, and had typed it and brought it down to Astleys to-night, with other twisted stories.
"I suppose the rest too," said Urquhart, "you related to your sister-in-law to see what she would think."
Peter stammered, "I don't think so. No, I don't believe anything else came from me. Did it, Hilary?"
Hilary shrugged his shoulders, and made no other answer.
"It really doesn't particularly matter," said Urquhart, "whether the informant was you or some other of my acquaintances. I daresay my gyp is responsible for the story of the actresses I brought down to the St. Gabriel's dance; he knew about it at the time, I believe. I am not in the least ashamed of that either; the 'Berkshire Press' is extremely welcome to it, if it can find space for it.... Well, now, will you both stay the night with me, or must you get back? The last good train goes at 10.5, I think."
Peter said, "Come along, Hilary."
Urquhart stood and watched them go.
As they turned away, he said, in his gentle, inexpressive voice, that hadn't been raised in anger once, "Can I lend you any money, Peter?"
Peter shook his head, though he felt Hilary start.
"No, thank you. It is very good of you.... Good night."
Going out of the room, they came face to face with Lord Evelyn Urquhart coming in. He saw them; he stiffened a little, repressing a start; he stood elaborately aside to let them pass, bowing slightly.
Neither Margerison said anything. Hilary's bow was the stage copy of his own; Peter didn't look at him at all, but hurried by.
The servant let them out, and shut the hall door behind them.
Lord Evelyn said to his nephew in the library, swinging his eye-glass restlessly to and fro, "Why do you let those people into your house, Denis? I thought we had done with them."
"They came to call," said Denis, who did not seem disposed to be communicative. "I can't say why they chose this particular hour."
Lord Evelyn paced up the room, restless, nervous, petulant.
"It's monstrous," he said querulously. "Perfectly monstrous. Shameless. How dare they show their faces in this house?... I suppose they wanted something out of you, did they?"
Denis merely said, "After all, Peter is my cousin by marriage, you must remember. And I have never broken with him."
Lord Evelyn returned, "The more shame to you. He's as great a swindler as his precious brother; they're a pair, you can't deny that."
Denis didn't attempt to deny it; probably he was feeling a little tired of the Margerisons to-night.
"I'm not defending Peter, or his brother either. I only said that he's Lucy's cousin, and she's very fond of him, and I'm not keen on actually breaking with him. As to the brother, he's so much more of an ass than anything else that to call him a swindler is more than he deserves. He simply came here to-night to play the fool; he's no more sense than a silly ass out of a play."
That was what Peter was telling Hilary on the way to the station. Hilary defended himself rather feebly.
"My good Peter, we must have money. We are in positive want. Of course, I never meant to proceed to extremities; I thought the mere mention of such a threat would be enough to make him see that we really were desperately hard up, and that he might as well help us. But he doesn't care. Like all rich people, he is utterly callous and selfish.... Do you think Lucy would possibly give us any help, if you asked her?"
"I shan't ask her," said Peter. "Don't, please, Hilary," he added miserably. "Can't you see...."
"See what? I see that we get a little more destitute every day: that the boarders are melting away; that I am reduced to unthinkably sordid hackwork, and you to the grind of uncongenial toil; that Peggy can't afford to keep a cook who can boil a potato respectably (they were like walnuts to-day) that she and the children go about with their clothes dropping off them. I see that; and I see these Urquharts, closely connected with our family, rolling in unearned riches, spending and squandering and wasting and never giving away. I see the Robinsons, our own relations, fattening on the money that ought to have come to us, and now and then throwing us a loan as you throw a dog a bone. I see your friend Leslie taking himself off to the antipodes to spend his millions, that he may be out of the reach of disturbing appeals. I see a world constituted so that you would think the devils in hell must cry shame on it." His cough, made worse by the fog, choked his relation of his vision.
Peter had nothing to say to it: he could only sigh over it. The Haves and the Have-Nots—there they are, and there is no getting round the ugly fact.
"Denis," said Peter, "would lend me money if I asked him. You heard him offer. But I am not going to ask him. We are none of us going to ask him. If I find that you have, and that he has given it you, I shall pay it straight back.... You know, Hilary, we're really not so badly off as all that; we get along pretty well, I think; better than most other people." The other Have-Nots; they made no difference, in Hilary's eyes, to the fact that of course the Margerisons should have been among the Haves.
Hilary said, "You are absolutely impervious, Peter, to other people's troubles," and turned up his coat-collar and sank down on a seat in the waiting-room. (Of course, they had missed the 10.5, the last good train, and were now waiting for the 11.2, the slow one.)
Peter walked up and down the platform, feeling very cold. He had come away, in his excitement, without his overcoat. The chill of the foggy night seemed to sink deep into his innermost being.