On Santa Caterina's day, the 30th of April, there is a great festa in the coast towns. They hold the saint in especial honour on this shore, for she did much kindness there in plague-time. Vagabonds with wares to sell have a good day. There was, on one Santa Caterina's day, a young man, with a small donkey-cart and a small child and a disreputable yellow dog, who was selling embroidery. He had worked it himself; he was working at it even now, in the piazza at Varenzano, when not otherwise engaged. But a fair is too pleasantly distracting a thing to allow of much needlework being done in the middle of it. There are so many interesting things. There are the roulette tables, round which interested but cautious groups stand, while the owners indefatigably and invitingly twirl. The gambling instinct is not excessively developed in Varenzano. There was, of course, the usual resolute and solitary player, who stood through the hours silently laying one halfpenny after another on clubs, untempted to any deviation or any alteration of stake, except that on the infrequent occasions when it really turned out clubs he stolidly laid and lost his gained halfpennies by the other. By nine o'clock in the morning he had become a character; spectators nudged new-comers and pointed him out, with "Sempre fiori, quello." The young man with the embroidery was sorry about him; he had an expression as if he were losing more halfpence than he could well afford. The young man himself lost all the stakes he made; but he didn't gamble much, knowing himself not lucky. Instead, he watched the fluctuating fortunes of a vivacious and beautiful youth near him, who flung on his stakes with a lavish gesture of dare-devil extravagance, that implied that he was putting his fortune to the touch to win or lose it all. It was a relief to notice that his stakes were seldom more than threepence. When he lost, he swore softly to himself: "Dio mio, mio Dio, Dio mio," and then turned courteously to the embroidery-seller, who was English, with a free interpretation—"In Engliss, bai George." This seemed to the embroidery-seller to be true politeness in misfortune. The beautiful youth seemed to be a person of many languages; his most frequent interjection was, "Dio mio—Holy Moses—oh hang!" After which he would add an apology, addressed to the embroidery-seller, who had a certain air of refined innocence, "Bestemmiar, no. Brutto bestemmiare. Non gli piace, no," and resume his game.
Peter, who was selling embroidery, liked him so much that he followed him when he went to try his luck at the cigar game. Here Peter, who never smoked, won two black and snake-like cigars, which he presented to the beautiful young man, who received them with immense cordiality. A little later the young man, whose name was Livio, involved himself in a violent quarrel with the cigar banker, watched by an amused, placid and impartial crowd of spectators. Peter knew Livio to have the right on his side, because the banker had an unpleasant face and Livio accused him of being not only a Venetian but a Freemason. The banker in response remarked that he was not going to stay to be insulted by a Ligurian thief, and with violent gestures unscrewed his tin lady and her bunch of real lemons and put away his board. Livio burst into a studied and insulting shout of laughter, stopped abruptly without remembering to bring it to a proper finish, and began to be pleasant to the embroidery-seller, speaking broken American English with a strong nasal twang.
"My name is Livio Ceresole. Bin in America; the States. All over the place. Chicago, 'Frisco, Pullman cars, dollars—you know. Learnt Engliss there. Very fine country; I should smile." He did so, and looked so amiable and so engaging that the embroidery-seller smiled back, thinking what a beautiful person he was. He had the petulant, half sensuous, spoilt-boy beauty of a young Antinuous, with a rakish touch added by the angle of his hat and his snappy American idioms.
So it came about that those two threw in their lots for a time. There was something about the embroidery-seller that drew these casual friendships readily to him; he was engaging, with a great innocence of aspect and gentleness of demeanour, and a friendly smile that sweetened the world, and a lovable gift of amusement.
He had been wandering on this shore for now six months, and had friends in most of the towns. One cannot help making them; the people there are, for the most part, so pleasant. A third-class railway carriage, vilely lighted and full of desperately uncomfortable wooden seats, and so full of warm air and bad tobacco smoke that Peter often felt sick before the train moved (he always did so, in any train, soon after) was yet full of agreeable people, merry and sociable and engagingly witty, and, whether achieving wit or not, with a warm welcome for anything that had that intention. There is a special brand of charm, of humour, of infectious and friendly mirth, and of exceeding personal beauty, that is only fully known by those who travel third in Italy.
From Varenzano on this festa day in the golden afternoon the embroidery-seller and his donkey-cart and his small son and his yellow dog and Livio Ceresole walked to Castoleto. Livio, who had a sweet voice, sang snatches of melody in many languages; doggerel songs, vulgarities from musical comedies, melodies of the street corner; and the singer's voice redeemed and made music of them all. He was practising his songs for use at the hotels, where he sang and played the banjo in the evenings, to add to his income. He told Peter that he was, at the moment, ruined.
"In Engliss," he translated, "stony-broke." A shop he had kept in Genoa had failed, so he was thrown upon the roads.
"You too are travelling, without a home, for gain?" he inferred. "You are one of us other unfortunates, you and the little child. Poor little one!"
"Oh, he likes it," said Peter. "So do I. We don't want a home. This is better."
"Not so bad," Livio admitted, "when one can live. But we should like to make our fortunes, isn't it so?"
Peter said he didn't know. There seemed so little prospect of it that the question was purely academical.
They were coming to Castoleto. Livio stopped, and proceeded to pay attention to his personal appearance, moistening a fragment of yesterday's "Corriere della Sera" in his mouth, and applying it with vigour to his dusty boots. When they shone to his satisfaction, he produced from his pocket a comb and a minute hand-mirror, and arranged his crisp waves of dark hair to a gentlemanly neatness. Then he replaced his pseudo-panama hat, with the slight inclination to the left side that seemed to him suitable, re-tied his pale blue tie, and passed the mirror to Peter, who went through similar operations.
"Castoleto will be gay for the festa," Livio said. "Things doing," he interpreted; adding, "Christopher Columbus born there; found America. Very big man; yes, sir."
Peter said he supposed so.
Livio added, resuming his own tongue, "Santa Caterina da Siena visited Castoleto. Are you a Christian?"
"Oh, well," said Peter, who found the subject difficult, and was not good at thinking out difficult things. Livio nodded. "One doesn't want much church, of course; that's best for the women. But so many English aren't Christians at all, but heretics."
They came into Castoleto, which is a small place where the sea washes a shingly shore just below the town, and the narrow streets smell of fish and other things. Livio waved his hand towards a large new hotel that stood imposingly on the hill just behind the town.
"There we will go this evening, I with my music, you with your embroideries." That seemed a good plan. Till then they separated, Livio going to try his fortune at the fair, and Peter and Thomas and Francesco and Suor Clara (the donkey) establishing themselves on the shore by the edge of the waveless sea. There Peter got out of the cart a tea-caddy and a spirit lamp and made tea (he was always rather unhappy if he missed his tea) and ate biscuits, and gave Thomas—now an interested and cheerful person of a year and a half old—milk and sopped biscuit, and produced a bone for Francesco and carrots for Clara, and so they all had tea.
It was the hour when the sun dips below the western arm of hills that shuts the little bay, leaving behind it two lakes of pure gold, above and below. The sea burned like a great golden sheet of liquid glass spreading, smooth and limpid, from east to west, and swaying with a gentle hushing sound to and fro which was all the motion it had for waves. From moment to moment it changed; the living gold melted into green and blue opal tints, tender like twilight.
"After tea we'll go paddling," Peter told Thomas. "And then perhaps we'll get a fisherman to take us out while he drops his net. Santa Caterina should give good fishing."
In the town they were having a procession. Peter heard the chanting as they passed, saw, through the archways into the streets, glimpses of it. He heard their plaintive hymn that entreated pity:
"Difendi, O Caterina Da peste, fame e guerra, Il popol di Cartoleto In mare e in terra..."
Above the hymn rose the howls of little St. John the Baptist, who had been, no doubt, suddenly mastered by his too high-spirited lamb and upset on to his face, so that his mother had to rush from out the crowd to comfort him and brush the dust from his curls that had been a-curling in papers these three weeks past.
It was no doubt a beautiful procession, and Peter and Thomas loved processions, but they had seen one that morning at Varenzano, so they were content to see and hear this from a distance.
Why, Peter speculated, do we not elsewhere thus beautify and sanctify our villages and cities and country places? Why do they not, in fishing hamlets of a colder clime, thus bring luck to their fishing, thus summon the dear saints to keep and guard their shores? Why, Peter for the hundredth time questioned, do we miss so much gaiety, so much loveliness, so much grace, that other and wiser people have?
Peter shook his head over it.
"A sad business, Thomas. But here we are, you and I, and let us be thankful. Thankful for this lovely country set with pleasant towns and religious manners and nice people, and for the colour and smoothness of the sea we're going paddling in, and for our nice tea. Are you thankful, Thomas? Yes, I'm sure you are."
Someone, passing behind them, said with surprise, "Is that you, Margerison?"
Peter, looking round, his tin mug in one hand and a biscuit in the other, recognised an old schoolfellow. He was standing on the beach staring at the tea-party—the four disreputable vagabonds and their cart.
Peter laughed. It rather amused him to come into sudden contact with the respectable; they were always so much surprised. He had rather liked this man. Some people had good-temperedly despised him for a molly-coddle; he had been a delicate boy, and had cherished himself rather. Peter, delicate himself, incapable of despising anyone, and with a heart that went out to all unfortunates, had been, in a mild and casual way, his friend. Looking into his face now, Peter was struck to sorrow and compassion, because it was the face of a man who had accepted death, and to whom life gave no more gifts, not even the peace of the lee shore. It was a restless face, with hollow cheeks unnaturally flushed, and bitter, querulous lips. His surprise at seeing Peter and his vagabond equipment made him cough.
When he had done coughing, he said, "What are you doing, Margerison?"
Peter said he was having tea. "Have you had yours? I've got another mug somewhere—a china one."
As he declined with thanks, Peter thought, "He's dying. Oh, poor chap, how ghastly for him," and his immense pity made him even gentler than usual. He couldn't say, "How are you?" because he knew; he couldn't say, "Isn't this a nice place?" because Ashe must leave it so soon; he couldn't say, "I am having a good time," because Ashe would have no more good times, and, Peter suspected, had had few.
What he did say was, "This is Thomas. And this is San Francesco, and this is Suor Clara. They're all mine. Do you like their faces?"
Ashe looked at Francesco, and said, "Rather a mongrel, isn't he?" and Peter took the comment as condemning the four of them, and divined in Ashe the respectability of the sheltered life, and was compassionate again. Ashe cared, during the brief space of time allotted to him, to be respectably dressed; he cared to lead what he would call a decent life. Peter, in his disreputability, felt like a man in the open air who looks into the prison of a sick-room.
Ashe said he was staying at Varenzano with his mother, and they were passing through Castoleto on the way back from their afternoon's drive.
"It's lungs, you know. They don't give me much chance—the doctors, I mean. It's warm and sheltered on this coast, so I have to be here. I'd rather be here, I suppose, than doing a beef-and-snow cure in one of those ghastly places. But it's a bore hanging round and doing nothing. I'd as soon it ended straight off."
Ashamed of having been so communicative (but Peter was used to people being unreserved with him, and never thought it odd), he changed the subject.
"Are you on the tramp, or what? Is it comfortable?"
"Very," said Peter, "and interesting."
"Is it interesting? How long are you going on with it? When are you going home?"
"Oh, this is as much home as anywhere else, you know. I don't see any reason for leaving it yet. We all like it. I've no money, you see, and life is cheap here, and warm and nice."
"Cheap and warm and nice...." Ashe repeated it, vaguely surprised. He hadn't realised that Peter was one of the permanently destitute, and tramping not from pleasure but from necessity.
"What do you do?" he asked curiously, seeing that Peter was not at all embarrassed.
"Oh, nothing very much. A little needlework, which I sell as I go along. And various sorts of peddling, sometimes. I'm going up to the hotel this evening, to try and make the people there buy things from me. And we just play about, you know, and enjoy the roads and the towns and the fairs and the seashore. It's all fun."
Ashe laughed and made himself cough.
"You awfully queer person! You really like it, living like that?... But even I don't like it, you know, living shut away from life in this corner, though I've money enough to be comfortable with. Should I like it, your life, I wonder? You're not bored, it seems. I always am. What is it you like so much?"
Peter said, lots of things. No, he wasn't bored; things were too amusing for that.
They couldn't get any further, because Ashe's mother called him from the carriage in the road. She too looked tired, and had sad eyes.
Peter looked after them with compassion. They were wasting their little time together terribly, being sad when they should have found, in these last few months or years of life, quiet fun on the warm shore where they had come to make loss less bitter.
Tea being over, he went paddling, with Thomas laughing on his shoulder, till it was Thomas's bedtime. Then he put Thomas away in his warm corner of the cart, and Livio joined him, and they had supper together at a trattoria, and then climbed the road between vineyards and lemon gardens up to the new white hotel.
Livio, as they walked, practised his repertory of songs, singing melodious snatches in the lemon-scented dusk. They came to the hotel, and found that the inhabitants were sitting round little tables in the dim garden, having their coffee by the light of hanging lanterns.
From out of the dusk Livio struck his mandolin and sweetly sang. Peter meanwhile wandered round from group to group displaying his wares by the pink light of the lanterns. He met with some success; he really embroidered rather nicely, and people were good-natured and kind to the pale-faced, delicate-looking young man who smiled with his very blue, friendly eyes. There was always an element in Peter that inspired pity; one divined in him a merry unfortunate.
The people in the hotel were of many races—French, Italian, German, and one English family. Castoleto is not an Anglo-Saxon resort; it is small and of no reputation, and not as yet Anglicised. Probably the one English family in the hotel was motoring down the coast, and only staying for one night.
Peter, in his course round the garden, came suddenly within earshot of cultured English voices, and heard some one laugh. Then a voice, soft in quality, with casual, pleasant, unemphasised cadence, said, "Considering these vile roads, she's running extraordinarily well. Really, something ought to be done about the roads, though; it's absolutely disgraceful. Blake says ..." one of the things that chauffeurs do say, and that Peter did not listen to.
Peter had stopped suddenly where he was when the speaker had laughed. Of the many personal attributes of man, some may become slurred out of all character, disguised and levelled down among the herd, blurred with time, robbed of individuality. Faces may be so lost and blurred, almost beyond the recognition of those who have loved them. But who ever forgot a friend's laugh, or lost the character of his own? If Ulysses had laughed when he came back to Ithaca, his dog would have missed his eternal distinction.
Soft, rather low, a thing not detached from the sentence it broke into, but rather breaking out of it, and merging then into words again—Peter had carried it in his ears for ten years. Was there ever any man but one who laughed quite so?
Looking down the garden, he saw them, sitting under a pergola, half-veiled by the purple drifts of the wistaria that hung in trails between them and him. Through its twilight screen he saw Denis in a dinner-jacket, leaning back in a cane chair, his elbow on its arm, a cigarette in his raised hand, speaking. The light from a big yellow lantern swinging above them lit his clear profile, gleamed on his fair hair. Opposite him was Lucy, in a white frock, her elbows on a little table, her chin in her two hands, her eyes wide and grey and full of the wonder of the twilight. And beyond her sat Lord Evelyn, leaning back with closed eyes, a cigar in his delicate white hand.
Peter stood and looked, and a little faint, doubtful smile twitched at his lips, as at a dear, familiar sight long unseen. Should he approach? Should he speak? For a moment he hung in doubt.
Then he turned away. He had no part with them, nor they with him. His part—Rodney had said it once—was to clear out.
Livio, close to him, was twanging his mandolin and singing some absurd melody:
"Ah, Signor!" "Scusi, Signora?" "E forae il mio marito, Da molti anni smarrito?..."
Peter broke in softly, "Livio, I go. I have had enough."
Livio's eyebrows rose; he shrugged his shoulders, but continued his singing. He, anyhow, had not yet had enough of such a good-natured audience.
Peter slipped out of the garden into the white road than ran down between the grey mystery of the olive groves to the little dirty fishing-town and the dark, quiet sea. In the eastern sky there was a faint shimmer, a disturbance of the deep, star-lit blue, a pallor that heralded the rising of the moon. But as yet the world lay in its mysterious dusk.
Peter, his feet stirring on the white dust of the road, drew in the breath of the lemon-grown, pine-grown, myrtle-sweet hills, and the keen saltness of the sea, and the fishiness of the little, lit, clamorous town on its edge. In the town there was singing, raucous and merry. Behind in the garden there was singing, melodious and absurd. It echoes fleeted down the road.
"Ah, Signor!" "Scusi, Signora?" "E forse il mio marrito..."
Peter sat on the low white wall to watch the moon rise. And for a moment the bitter smell of the soft dust on the road was in his nostrils, and he was taken back into a past bitterness, when the world had been dust to his feet, dust to his touch, dust in his throat, so that he had lain dust-buried, and choked for breath, and found none. This time a year ago he had lain so, and for many months after that. Those months had graved lines on his face—lines perhaps on his soul—that all the quiet, gay years could not smooth out. For the peace of the lee shore is not a thing easily won; to let go and drift before the storms wheresoever they drive needs a hard schooling; to lose comes first, and to laugh long after.
The dust Peter's feet had stirred settled down; and now, instead of its faint bitterness, the sweetness of the evening hills stole about. And over the still sea the white moon rose, glorious, triumphant, and straight from her to Peter, cleaving the dark waters, her bright road ran.
Peter went down into the little, merry town.
He and Thomas slept at an inn that night. Livio joined them there next morning at breakfast. He said, "You were foolish to leave the hotel so soon. I got a good sum of money. There was an English family, that gave me a good reward. My music pleased them. The English are always generous and extravagant. Oh, Dio, I forgot; one of them sent you this note by me. He explained nothing; he said, 'Is he that was with you your friend? Then give him this note.' Did he perhaps know you of old, or did he merely perceive that you were of his country? I know nothing. One does not read the letters entrusted to one for one's friends. Here it is."
He handed Peter a folded-up piece of notepaper. Opening it, Peter read, scrawled unsteadily in pencil, "Come and see me to-morrow morning. I shall be alone." E.P.U.
"He followed me to the garden door as I went away," continued Livio, "and gave it me secretly. I fancy he did not mean his companions to know. You will go?"
Peter smiled, and Livio looked momentarily embarrassed.
"Oh, you know, it came open in my hand; and understanding the language so well, it leaped to my eyes. I knew you would not mind. You will go and see this milord? He is a milord, for I heard the waiter address him."
"Yes," said Peter. "I will go and see him."
An hour later he was climbing the white road again in the morning sunshine.
Asking at the hotel for Lord Evelyn Urquhart, he was taken through the garden to a wistaria-hung summer-house. The porter indicated it to him and departed, and Peter, through the purple veils, saw Lord Evelyn reclining in a long cane chair, smoking the eternal cigarette and reading a French novel.
He looked up as Peter's shadow fell between him and the sun, and dropped the yellow book with a slight start. For a moment neither of them spoke; they looked at each other in silence, the pale, shabby, dusty youth with his vivid eyes; the frail, foppish, middle-aged, worn-out man, with his pale face twitching a little and his near-sighted eyes screwed up, as if he was startled, or dazzled, or trying hard to see something.
The next moment Lord Evelyn put out a slim, fine hand.
"How are you, Peter Margerison? Sit down and talk to me."
Peter sat down in the chair beside him.
Lord Evelyn said, "I'm quite alone this morning. Denis and Lucy have motored to Genoa. I join them there this afternoon.... You didn't know last night that I saw you."
"No," said Peter. "I believed that none of you had seen me. I didn't want you to; so I came away."
Lord Evelyn nodded. "Quite so; quite so. I understood that. And I didn't mention you to the others. Indeed, I didn't mean to take any notice of you at all; but at the end I changed my mind, and sent for you to come. I believe I'm right in thinking that your wish is to keep out of the way of our family."
"Yes," said Peter.
"You're right. You've been very right indeed. There's nothing else you could have done, all this time." Peter glanced at him quickly, to see what he knew, and saw.
Lord Evelyn saw the questioning glance.
"Oh, yes, yes, boy. Of course, I knew about you and Lucy. I'm not such a blind fool as I've sometimes been thought in the past—eh, Peter Margerison? I always knew you cared for Lucy; and I knew she cared for you. And I knew when she and you all but went off together. I asked Lucy; I can read the child's eyes better than books, you see. I read it, and I asked her, and she admitted it."
"It was you who stopped her," said Peter quietly.
Lord Evelyn tapped his fingers on his chair arm.
"I'm not a moralist; anything but a moralist, y'know. But as a man of the world, with some experience, I knew that couldn't be. So I told her the truth."
"The truth?" Peter wondered.
"Yes, boy, the truth. The only truth that mattered to Lucy. That you couldn't be happy that way. That you loved Denis too much to be happy that way. When I said it, she knew it. 'Deed, I believe she'd known it before, in her heart. So she wrote to you, and ended that foolish idea. You know now that she was right, I think?"
"I knew it then. I was just going to telegraph to her not to come when I got her letter. No, I didn't know she was right; but I knew we couldn't do it. I didn't know it for myself, either; I had to be told. When I was told, I knew it."
"Ah." Lord Evelyn looked at the pale face, that had suddenly taken a look of age, as of one who looks back into a past bitterness.
"Ah." He looked in silence for a moment, then said, "You've been through a bad time, Peter."
Peter's face twitched suddenly, and he answered nothing.
"All those months," said Lord Evelyn, and his high, unsteady voice shook with a curious tremor, "all that summer, you were in hell."
Peter gave no denial.
"I knew it," said Lord Evelyn. "And you never answered the letter I wrote you."
"No," said Peter slowly. "I answered no letters at all, I think. I don't remember exactly what I did, through that summer. I suppose I lived—because here I am. And I suppose I kept Thomas alive—because he's here too. But for the rest—I don't know. I hated everyone and everything. I believe Rodney used to come and see me sometimes; but I didn't care.... Oh, what's the good of talking about it? It's over now."
Lord Evelyn was shading his face with a shaking hand.
"Poor boy," he muttered to himself. "Poor boy. Poor boy."
Peter, recovering his normal self, said, "You've been awfully good to me, Lord Evelyn. I've behaved very badly to you, I believe. Thanks most awfully for everything. But don't pity me now, because I've all I want."
"Happy, are you?" Lord Evelyn looked up at him again, searchingly.
"Quite happy." Peter's smile was reassuring.
"The dooce you are!" Lord Evelyn murmured. "Well, I believe you.... Look here, young Peter, I've a proposal to make. In the first place, is it over, that silly business of yours and Lucy's? Can you meet without upsetting each other?"
Peter considered for a moment.
"Yes; I think we can. I suppose I shall always care—I always have—but now that we've made up our minds that it won't do ... accepted it, you know.... Oh, yes, I think we could meet, as far as that goes."
Lord Evelyn nodded approval.
"Very good, very good. Now listen to me. You're on the roads, aren't you, without a penny, you and your boy?"
"Yes. I make a little as I go along, you know. One doesn't need much here. We're quite comfortable."
"Are you, indeed?... Well now, I see no reason why you shouldn't be more comfortable still. I want you to come and live with me."
Peter startled, looked up, and coloured. Then he smiled.
"It's most frightfully good of you...."
"Rubbish, rubbish." Lord Evelyn testily waved his words aside. "'Tisn't for your sake. It's for mine. I want your company.... My good boy, haven't you ever guessed, all these years, that I rather like your company? That was why I was so angry when you and your precious brother made a fool of me long ago. It hurt, because I liked you, Peter Margerison. That was why I couldn't forgive you. Demme! I don't think I've forgiven you yet, nor ever shall. That is why I came and insulted you so badly one day as you remember. That's why I've such a soft place for Lucy, who's got your laugh and your voice and your tricks of talk, and looks at me with your white face. That's why I wasn't going to let her and you make young fools of yourselves together. That, I suppose, is why I know all the time what you're feeling; why I knew you were in hell all last summer; why I saw you, though I'm such a blinde bat now, last night, when neither Denis nor Lucy did. And that's why I want you and your boy to come and keep me company now, till the end."
Peter put out his hand and took Lord Evelyn's.
"I don't know what I can say to thank you. I do appreciate it, you know, more than anything that's ever happened to me before. I can't think how you can be so awfully nice to me...."
"Enough, enough," said Lord Evelyn. "Will you or won't you? Yes or no?"
Peter at that gave his answer quickly.
"No. I can't, you know."
Lord Evelyn turned on him sharply.
"You won't? The devil take it!"
"It's like this," said Peter, disturbed and apologetic, "we don't want to lead what's called respectable lives, Thomas and I. We don't want to be well-off—to live with well-off people. We—we can't, d'you see. It's not the way we're made. We don't belong. We're meant just to drift about the bottom, like this, and pick up a living anyhow."
"The boy's a fool," remarked Lord Evelyn, throwing back his head and staring at the roof.
Peter, who hated to wound, went on, "If we could share the life of any rich person, it would be you."
"Good Lord, I'm not rich. Wish I were. Rich!"
"Oh, but you are, you know. You're what we mean by rich.... And it's not only that. There's Denis and Lucy too. We've parted ways, and I do think it's best we shouldn't meet much. What's the good of beginning again to want things one can't have? I might, you know; and it would hurt. I don't now. I've given it all up. I don't want money; I don't want Denis's affection ... or Lucy ... or any of the things I have wanted, and that I've lost. I'm happy without them; without anything but what one finds to play with here as one goes along. One finds good things, you know—friends, and sunshine, and beauty, and enough minestra to go on with, and sheltered places on the shore to boil one's kettle in. I'm happy. Wouldn't it be madness to leave it and go out and begin having and wanting things again?"
Lord Evelyn had been listening with a curious expression of comprehension struggling with impatience.
"And the boy?" he said. "D'you suppose there'll never come a time when you want for the boy more than you can give him here, in these dirty little towns you like so much?"
"Oh," said Peter, "how can one look ahead? Depend on it, if Thomas is one of the people who are born to have things, he will have them. And if he's not, he won't, whatever I try to get for him. He's only one and a half now; so at least there's time before we need think of that. He's happy at present with what he's got."
"And is it your purpose, then, to spend all your life—anyhow, many years—in these parts, selling needlework?"
"I've no purpose," said Peter. "I must see what turns up. No, I daresay I shall try England again some time. But, wherever I am, I think I know now what is the happy way to live, for people like me. We're no use, you see, people like me; we make a poor job at the game, and we keep failing and coming bad croppers and getting hurt and in general making a mess of things. But at least we can be happy. We can't make our lives sublime, and departing leave behind us footprints on the sands of time—oh, I don't think I want to, in the least—but we can make a fairly good time for ourselves and a few other people out of the things we have. That's what we're doing, Thomas and I. And it's good enough."
Lord Evelyn looked at him long in silence, with his narrowed, searching eyes, that seemed always to be looking for something in his face and finding it there.
Then he sighed a little, and Peter, struck through by remorse, saw how old he looked in that moment.
"How it takes one back—takes one back," muttered Lord Evelyn.
Then he turned abruptly on Peter.
"Lest you get conceited, young Peter, with me begging for your company and being kindly refused, I'll tell you something. I loved your mother; my brother's wife. Did you ever guess that?—guess why I liked you a good deal?"
"Yes," said Peter, and Lord Evelyn started.
"You did? Demme! that's her again. She always guessed everything, and so did you. She guessed I cared.... You're her own child—only she was lovely, you know, and you're not, don't think it.... Well, she had her follies, like you—a romantic child, she always was.... You must go your own way, young Peter. I'll not hinder or help you till you want me.... And now I'm tired; I've talked too much. I'm not going to ask you to lunch with me, for I don't want you. Leave me now."
Peter paused for a moment still. He wanted to ask questions, and could not.
"Well, what now? Oh, I see; you want the latest news of your Denis and Lucy. Well, they're doing as well as can be expected. Denis—I need hardly say, need I?—flourishes like the green bay tree in all his works. He's happy, like you. No, not like you a bit; he's got things to be happy about; his happiness isn't a reasonless lunacy; it's got a sound bottom to it. The boy is a fine boy, probably going to be nearly as beautiful as Denis, but with Lucy's eyes. And Lucy's happy enough, I hope. Knows Denis inside and out, you know, and has accepted him, for better or worse. I don't believe she's pining for you, if that's what you want to know. You may be somewhere deep down at the bottom of her always—shouldn't wonder if you are—but she gives the top of her to Denis all right—and more than that to the boy—and all of her to life and living, as she always did and always must. You two children seem to be tied to life with stronger ropes than most people, an't you. Sylvia was, before you. Not to any one thing in life, or to many things, but just to life itself. So go and live it in your own way, and don't bother me any more. You've tired me out."
Peter said good-bye, and went. He loved Lord Evelyn, and his eyes were sad because he had thrown back his offer on his hands. He didn't think Lord Evelyn had many more years before him, though he was only fifty-five; and for a moment he wondered whether he couldn't, after all, accept that offer till the end came. He even, at the garden wall, hung for a moment in doubt, with the echo of that high, wistful voice in his ears.
But before him the white road ran down from the olive-grey hills to the little gay town by the blue sea's edge, and the sweetness of the scented hills in the May sunshine caught him by the throat, and, questioning no more, he took the road.
He loved Lord Evelyn; but the life he offered was not for Peter, not for Thomas as yet; though Thomas, in the years to come, should choose his own path. At present there was for both of them the merry, shifting life of the roads, the passing friendships, lightly made, lightly loosed, the olive hills, silver like ghostly armies in the pale moonlight, the sweetness of the starry flowers at their twisted stems, the sudden blue bays that laughed below bends of the road, the cities, like many-coloured nosegays on a pale chain, the intimate sweetness of lemon gardens by day and night, the happy morning on the hills and sea.
For these—Peter analysed the distinction—are, or may be, for all alike. There is no grabbing here; a man may share the overflowing sun not with one but with all. The down-at-heels, limping, broken, army of the Have-Nots are not denied such beauty and such peace as this, if they will but take it and be glad. The lust to possess here finds no fulfilment; having nothing, yet possessing all things, the empty-handed legion laughs along its way. The last, the gayest, the most hilarious laughter begins when, destitute utterly, the wrecked pick up coloured shells upon the lee shore. For there are shells enough and to spare for all; there is no grasping here.
Peter, with a mind at ease and Francesco grinning at his heels, sauntered down the warm, dusty road to find Thomas and have lunch.