With Ishmael, as the Parson was beginning to see, places had so far stood for more than people. St. Renny, the manner and atmosphere of it, had meant more than Killigrew, the Vicarage than the Parson, Cloom than his brothers and sister and the friends he made there. It was towards this very detachment that the Parson's upbringing of Ishmael had tended, and yet he now felt the need of more. For some appetite for more life was bound to stir and break into being one day, and Boase was passionately desirous that it should make for happiness and good. Thus Boase thought of it all, but, after the fashion of the race of which Ishmael also was one, he showed no sign of his meditations.
With the approach of the boy's twenty-first birthday the Parson saw light. Though Ishmael had come of age, as far as the property went, three years earlier, still the occasion was not without import, and could fittingly mark some change. A word to Annie produced no result, a hint to Vassie and the thing was in full swing. Ishmael always thought it was his own idea that Killigrew, back in London from his Paris studies, should be asked down to Cloom. It was not everyone that could have been called in to help at celebrating a twenty-first birthday under such circumstances as Ishmael's; it could hardly be made an occasion for feasting tenantry and neighbouring gentry, but it might be used for what Boase, through Killigrew, hoped—the disruption of an atmosphere. That done, a new one could be created.
Killigrew arrived. He startled the natives considerably by his loose jacket and flowing tie, but his red hair was cut fairly short, though his chin was decked by a soft young pointed beard that gave him a Mephistophelian aspect ludicrously set at naught by his white eyelashes, which, round his more short-sighted eye, were set off by a single glass.
As Ishmael drove him from Penzance through the warm, clear May afternoon Killigrew waxed enthusiastic with appreciation of what he saw.
"Anyone living here should be perfectly happy," he declared. "I don't wonder you've never wanted to leave. It has more to it, so to speak, than our old country round St. Renny."
For a moment Ishmael made no reply; it was the first time it had occurred to him it would be possible to leave Cloom, and though he knew that up to now he had not wanted to, yet he was not quite pleased that Killigrew should take it so for granted. He sent his mind back over the years since he had seen his friend, comparing what had happened to himself with all that happened to Killigrew as far as he could imagine it—which was not very far. Killigrew was the more changed; his beard and the lines of humour—and other things—round his eyes, made him seem older than his twenty-two years, but it was more the growth in him mentally that had been so marked as to suggest that he had changed. This was not so, as the alterations had all marched in inevitable directions—it could not have been otherwise in one who lived so by his instincts as Killigrew, and held them so sacred. He had not changed, but he had developed so far that to Ishmael he seemed disconcertingly altered.
"It's all right for me," said Ishmael at last, "but I expect you'll find it dull after Paris. It must all be so different over there."
"Oh, Paris is Paris, of course, and unlike anything else on earth. It is not a place as much as a state, which is one of its resemblances to heaven. You see I haven't forgotten all my theology."
"I sometimes think," announced Ishmael, firmly believing what he was saying, "that it's time I went about a bit. To London and Paris ... the place can get on quite well without me for a bit."
"My son, be advised by me," said Killigrew gaily; "for good little boys like you this is a better place than gay, wicked cities. Of course, I'm not good—or bad either; it's a distinction that doesn't mean anything to me—but I have to be in Paris for my painting. Can you imagine it, I've been with Diaz and Rousseau? And there's a young fellow who's coming on now that I've seen a lot of called Lepage—Bastien Lepage, who's going to be a wonder. I can tell you, sometimes when I think of the dear old Guv'nor's business, and how he had set his heart on my going into it, I can hardly believe it's true that I've been there, free to do my own work, with those men...."
Killigrew's voice sounded younger in its enthusiasm, more as it had in the old days when he used to speak of Turner.
"I'll bet you're going to be as great as any," cried Ishmael, the old sense of potencies that Killigrew's bounding vitality had always stirred in him awaking again. "How we all used to talk at St. Renny about what we'd do ... d'you remember?"
"Rather. And it's most of it coming true. I was to be a painter and old Carminow a surgeon. I've just heard he's at the Charing Cross hospital."
"And Polkinghorne major? D'you know anything about him? Did he get into his Highland regiment?"
"I heard about him at St. Renny from the old bird. I stopped there last night, you know, to break this devil of a journey. I tell you, Ishmael, it's less of a business getting over to Paris than down here."
"What did Old Tring say about everyone? How was he?"
"Just the same, only thinner on top and fatter below. He told me about Polkinghorne. He went to Italy the year you left, you know. Well, Old Tring told me while he was still there the war broke out, and he enlisted under Garibaldi and was killed in a skirmish just when peace was settled."
There was a second of silence—not because Ishmael had any feeling for Polkinghorne beyond a pleasant liking, but because it was the first time the thought of death as an actuality instead of a dreamlike hypothesis had ever struck home to him. Then he said: "Poor old Polkinghorne ... but he was hardly older than us. It doesn't seem possible anyone like us can be dead...."
He pushed the thought away from him and soon was listening to Killigrew's tales of Paris, some of which were so obviously meant to startle him that he kept to himself the fact that they succeeded. Awkwardness died between them, and when he turned in up the new drive—still only half-made, but the whole scheme of it clear—Ishmael could glow at the other's admiration of his home.
If he could show off Cloom without a qualm, however, it was not the same when it came to displaying his family, and never had he been so thankful for Vassie's beauty as when he saw Killigrew's notice of it. And how that beauty glowed for Killigrew! Even a brother's eyes could not but admire. Phoebe sat unnoticed, her charm swamped in that effulgence. Annie's querulous remarks faded through sheer pride into silence. The Parson, a welcome addition, arrived for supper; greasy Tonkin, inevitable though not so greatly a source of pleasure, drove over from Penzance and sat absorbing Vassie, so to speak, at every pore.
Supper was going off well, thought Ishmael, as he watched Killigrew eat and laugh, and listened to his talk that could not have been more animated—so reflected Ishmael in his relief—if Vassie had been a duchess. Under the brightness the tension, so common to that room that it had become part of it, evaporated, and yet what, after all, was it that achieved this miracle? Nothing in the world but ordinary social intercourse between young and gay people who met as equals, intercourse such as poor Ishmael had never known under his own roof before.... And they all made a fuss of him: John-James actually said something approving, if difficult to follow, about his farming; Vassie beamed on him not only for his friend's sake; the Parson drew him out—he felt himself a host, and responded to the sensation.
Killigrew was just drawing upon the tablecloth, unreproved of Annie, a sketch of a fashionable Parisian lady for Vassie's instruction when the door opened to admit of Tom, a very rare visitor at Cloom nowadays. He was in sleek black broadcloth and looked almost as ecclesiastical as Tonkin, and much more so than Boase. Tom wore a handsome white cravat beneath his narrow, clean-shaved chin, which was decorated on either side with whiskers whose fiery hue made Killigrew's seem but tawny. Tom wore also a curious smile on his thin lips, but Ishmael was forced to admit, as he watched him shake hands quietly with Killigrew, that this dreaded and disliked brother had given the most unexceptional greeting of any of his family.
Tom sat down, but refused food. He had only come out to see his mother, and because it was Ishmael's birthday, or so he said.
"Is anything the matter, Tom?" asked Annie artlessly.
"No, what should there be?" demanded Tom in a slightly contemptuous fashion. "Can't I want to see you without that? Don't give me away before the visitor, especially as Ishmael's such an attentive son."
Annie began to sniff, and Vassie bade him, in an angry undertone, be quiet. Tom obeyed, but it was an odd quietness as of something waiting its time. Conversation drooped as though a blight had fallen upon it, and once or twice Tom might have been observed to glance towards the window.
"I'll have a drink if I won't eat," he declared at last. "I must drink the young un's health on an occasion like this, after all. Here, mother, fill up."
Killigrew leapt to intercept Annie and fetch her the big cider jug from the dinner-waggon, and giggling like a girl she took it from him and filled the glasses. Some faint return of gaiety, the sense of it being Ishmael's evening, returned, and he sat as they raised glasses to him, in a sudden brightening. As she was tilting hers to her lips, Annie gave a sudden cry, so sharp everyone stopped, glass in hand. A shadow had fallen across the window, barring the flow of the westering light, and towards it Annie was staring. The others followed her gaze.
Bearded, brown, roughly clad in a big coat hunched about his ears, Archelaus stood looking in. He continued to stand, motionless, after he had been seen. Annie cried out again and, almost dropping her tumbler on to the table, rushed from the room, knocking against the door-frame in her blundering way as she went. The others stood bewildered a moment, not taking it in, not recognising the bearded figure that stayed motionless, itself giving no sign of recognition. It was Ishmael, who had not seen his brother since he himself was very little, who yet knew him the first, warned by some instinct. He got up and went out, followed by the others, who all talked at once though he stayed silent.
In the yard Annie was clinging around Archelaus, and the big man suffered it with a better grace than in the old days, though with a careless good-nature. Tom, smiling, stood a little behind the two of them. Not to Archelaus's primitive if cunning mind belonged that scheme for returning the evening of Ishmael's party; it was Tom who for two days had held him in reluctant seclusion at Penzance so as to spring the surprise at the least convenient moment. It was characteristic of Tom to scheme, even when there was nothing to gain by it but a little malicious gratification, as in this case.
Not for nothing, however, had Ishmael been trained as he had, and his voice, so unmistakably that of a gentleman as to strike them with a sense of something alien, came quietly if a little tremulously for the first few words.
"Hullo, Archelaus!" he said, shaking hands before the other's slower wits had decided whether to proffer the salute or no. "Come along in! You're just in time for my supper-party...." No speech could have robbed the conspirators of their little triumph more completely—it offered a welcome as from one who had the best of rights to invite a guest in, and at the same time accepted the place as the home of both. Archelaus stood glowering, thought of nothing to say in reply, and found himself following his young brother into the house.
After that the evening ceased to be Ishmael's and became a background for Archelaus. He had dug for gold in Australia, and if he had not had the luck of many others who had struck richer claims, he yet brought home money to fling round upon his fancies. For years he had wandered over the far places of the earth, so that his skin was tanned darker than his bleached hair, and his limited vocabulary had enriched itself with strange and coloured words. He was indeed a man. Even Ishmael felt that, as he sat in the dim kitchen where they had all gone to see Archelaus eat a vast meal and listen to his talk. Annie was entranced; the rare colour burnt on her cheekbones, her fingers rolled and unrolled her apron ceaselessly; she had relapsed into kitchen ways in a flash and, swathed in sacking, waited on her big son herself. Vassie tilted a superior nose and in the intervals tried to impress Archelaus by the remarkable progress of his family during his absence; but Phoebe, who had planned for Ishmael, fluttered all spontaneously for Archelaus. It seemed to her that he was like a demi-god as he sat there, thrusting the food into his mouth, golden beard dripping with golden cider, careless limbs outflung. Vassie only saw the inelegance, for he was her brother, but to Phoebe his very scorn of dainty ways made him more god-like because more man-like.
When darkness crept over the kitchen so that the hero could no longer be seen properly, Annie went into the parlour and returned carrying the elegant lamp, with its globe of frosted glass, that Vassie, when it was lit, proceeded to cover with a sort of little cape of quilled pink paper edged with flowers made of the same material. The room being thus too dimmed for Annie's fancy, she tilted the shade to one side so that a white fan of light threw itself upon Archelaus, making his tangled beard and crisp hair gleam and showing the warm colour brimming in his face up to the line of white across his untanned brow. So Ishmael saw him as he rose and went out to cool his own heated cheeks upon the cliff, and so he saw him as he lay in bed that night, flaring out in a swimming round of light against the darkness.
LULL BEFORE STORM
There was a place upon the cliff which Ishmael had made peculiarly his, where he went whenever he wished to be alone, which was not seldom. No other place since that hollow where the favoured boys had been wont to meet Hilaria had meant so much to him, and this one had the supreme advantage that it belonged to him only. The rest of his family did not indulge in cliff-climbing. Generally he was accompanied there by Wanda, his big farm-dog, a jolly, rollicking, idiotically adoring creature who spent her days wriggling and curvetting at his feet, her silly pink tongue dabbing at him, her moist eyes beaming through her tangled fringe. She was not very clever, being one of those amiable fool dogs whose quality of heart is their chief recommendation, but she had a certain wisdom of her own nevertheless.
Nowhere on all the coast was it possible to see a wider stretch of sky than from this plateau half-way down the sloping turf-clad cliff. On either side was ranked headland after headland, growing dimmer with the soft bruised hue of distance, while the plateau itself was set in an inward-curving stretch of cliff from which the whole line of the horizon made a vast convexity. Sometimes Ishmael would lie upon his back and, blotting the green protruding edge of the plateau from his mind, watch only the sky and sea, where, such was their expanse, it was often possible to glimpse three different weathers in one sweeping glance. Away to the left, where, far out to sea, the Longships stuck a white finger out of the foam, a sudden squall might come up, obliterating lighthouse, headlands, all the sea to the cliff's foot, with its purple smother. Directly in front of him, below a piled mass of cumuli that hung darkly from zenith to horizon, a line of livid whiteness would show the sea's rim, while nearer him, half-way across the watery floor, great shafts of light, flanked by others of varying brightness, poured down from a gap in the cloud-roof and split themselves in patches of molten silver upon the leaden greyness. And at his furthest right a sky of pure pale blue might arch to where layers of filmy cirrus were blurred by a faint burnished hue that was neither brown nor rose but a mingling of the delicate exhaust of both.
Killigrew was not long in discovering this place, which he declared presented an unrivalled stage for the setting of vast dream-dramas he watched trailing their cloudy way across it, and Ishmael was not loth to share his plateau with him. The incursion of Vassie was another matter, but by this time—nearly a month after that momentous birthday—Ishmael felt helplessly drifting. He was enjoying himself, while Killigrew showed no signs of wishing to return to Paris and Vassie was blooming as never before. She sat to him for sketches that never were finished, and that to her eyes, though she did not say so, looked just the same even when Killigrew declared a stroke more would wreck their perfection. Ishmael was neglecting his personal supervision of the farm these days—he had developed a new theory that it was time he tested how far things could go well without him. He had heard a hint or two dropped to the effect that the friend from foreign parts was only amusing himself with proud Vassie, but he paid no heed. What could be more absurd, he reflected, than the idea that she could want a boy a couple of years her junior and a mere student to fall in love with her? Thus Ishmael, while Killigrew laughed at him and with Vassie all day long, and she glowed and answered him and seemed as light-hearted, as either of them.
On a sunlit day, one of those March days which, in Cornwall, can hold a sudden warmth borrowed from the months to come, they all three sat upon the grass of the plateau, accompanied by Boase, who had taken them on an expedition to an ancient British village, where, with many little screams, Vassie's wide skirts had had to be squeezed and pulled through the dark underground "rooms" of a dead people. Now, as the day drew to a burnished close, they all sat upon the soft turf, and Killigrew and Ishmael watched with half-closed eyes the play of the sea-birds below them. The wheatears flirted their black and white persons over the rocks, the gulls dipped and wheeled, planed past them on level wings, uttering their harsh cries, or for a flashing moment rested so close that the blot of blood-red above their curved yellow beaks showed vividly; out to sea a gannet hung a sheer two hundred feet in air, then dropped, beak downwards.... He hit the sea like a stone with his plumage-padded breast, a column of water shot up from his meteoric fall, and he reappeared almost before it subsided with his prey already down his shaken throat. Killigrew clapped his hands in approbation and Vassie feigned interest.
"What a life!" exclaimed Killigrew; "if we do have to live again in the form of animals, I hope I shall be a bird, a sea-bird for choice. Just imagine being a gull or a gannet.... I wish one could paint the pattern they make in the air as they fly—a vast invisible web of curves, all of them pure beauty."
"Don't wish to be a bird in this part of the world, then," advised the Parson drily.
"Why not? Don't they have a good time?"
"If you had watched as long as I have ... seen all the mutilated birds with trailing legs and broken wings that pick up a miserable living as long as the warm weather lasts.... There's not a boy in the countryside, save a few in whom I've managed to instil the fear of the Lord, that doesn't think he's a perfect right to throw stones at them, and, worse, to catch them on devilish little hooks and as likely as not throw them aside to die when caught. Grown men do it—it's quite a trade. I know one who, if he catches on his hooks a bird he does not want, wrenches its beak open and, tearing the hook out, flings the bird away to die. This just mutilates the bird sufficiently to prevent it getting caught and giving him all the trouble over again. And the Almighty does not strike this man with his lightning from heaven.... I sometimes marvel at the patience of God, and in my short-sighted ignorance even deplore it...."
"Don't tell me," said Killigrew swiftly. "I don't want to know. I'd rather think they were all safe and happy. It isn't as though one could do anything."
"One can do very little. Lack of imagination, which is doubtless the sin against the Holy Ghost, is at the root of it, and to that the tongues of men and of angels plead in vain. But something can be done with the children, if one gets them young enough, or so one hopes. Sometimes I reproach myself because when one of the people who practise these abominations is in pain and grief, I look on and feel very little pity when I remember all. 'It is not here the pain of the world is swelled,' I say to myself; 'it is out on the rocks, in the fields, where the little maimed things are creeping and wondering why, and the rabbits are crying all night in the traps....' It could all be so easily avoided; that's what makes it worse. Deliberately to augment the sum of suffering in the world, where there must be so much—it's inconceivable."
"Like adding to the sum of ugliness. These people do that too," said Killigrew, thinking of the hideous houses and chapels run up day by day; "and it's all so beautiful and looks so happy if one only lets it alone...."
"There's a queer vein of cruelty in the Celt—at least in the Cornish Celt—that is worse than the Latin," went on Boase. "When they are angered they wreak vengeance on anything. And sometimes when there are a lot of them together under circumstances which you would think would have roused their pity, the devil of wanton cruelty enters into them. I shall never forget when a school of whales came ashore in the Bay ... they lay there stranded, poor creatures! And from the oldest man to the little boys out of school a blood-lust came on everyone. They tore and hacked at the poor creatures with penknives and any weapon they could get, they carved their names on them and stopped up their blow-holes with stones, till the place was a perfect shambles and the blood soaked into the sand as into an arena in ancient Rome.... Nobody could stop them. It was a sight to make one weep for shame that one was a man."
Ishmael lay in silence. He knew—no one with eyes to see could live there and not know—but, like Killigrew, he had always tried not to think too much about it. He was so unable to take things superficially that he feared thought, and hence often did less than men who did not care as much. He gave a slight movement now that was not so much impatience as a thrusting away of a thing that sickened him and which he felt he could not stem. It seemed to him that the glory of the day had departed. He, too, remembered that shambles of which the Parson spoke; it had been the first time the pain in the world he so loved had come home to him. He remembered now how, as he and the Parson had come back, in melancholy silence, from that scene of blood, his own declarations about its being such a good world, made to the Parson on his first night home and repeated so often since to his own high-beating heart, had mocked at him. What did it avail being happy when there was such pain in the world? Himself or another, or, worse still, these innocents that could not philosophise about it—that any should suffer made all happiness futile. The same deadly consciousness came upon him now on the sunny cliff, and he resented that the topic should have been started, himself keeping a sullen silence. But the Parson turned and spoke directly to him.
"By the way," he said, "I hate to have to tell you, but I hear, and I'm afraid it's true, that Archelaus is starting bush-beating on the estate again. I met John-Willy Jacka coming back from the direction of the wood late one night with a suspicious-looking sack and a bludgeon, and next day I asked John-James if he knew anything. He didn't give anyone away, but I gathered—"
"If it's true—" Ishmael paused for sheer rage, then went on: "I'll tackle John-Willy, and if it's true he can go. But of course it's Archelaus really, just because he knows how I feel about it. It isn't even as though it were the season for it, if you can talk of a season for such a thing, but no one can be very hard up for food as late as this. Oh, if I can't be free of him even now he's working at Botallack—"
"I had such a quarrel with Mamma about that this morning," struck in Vassie, who disliked the conversation and thought she had been out of it long enough. "She was boasting at breakfast—after you'd gone out, Ishmael—that Archelaus was a captain now, and I laughed, and said it was more than he'd ever been in the army, but that of course a mine captain wasn't a real one ... and she was furious. She said it was quite real enough for her and Archelaus anyway, though perhaps not for the likes of me. I met Archelaus at the mill the other day when I was over seeing Phoebe, and he certainly did seem smart, ever so different from when he came back. You wouldn't have known him."
She ended on her high laugh and rolled over a little woolly puppy that lay in her lap, burying her long fingers in its coat. She was perched upon a grassy slope like some vast moth that had alighted there, her pale skirts spread, a white cashmere shawl swathed about her shoulders, her golden head tipped back on her full throat. Over her, like a swaying flower, a tiny parasol reared on a long tasselled stalk, held in Killigrew's hand as he lounged beside her. He let his eyes run over her now, tipping the parasol to one side so that at his pleasure the late sunlight should touch her hair and her still flawless skin. She knew she could stand the test, and stayed a moment before motioning him to tip the parasol back again.
"It seems to me Archelaus is going a lot to the mill," observed Killigrew idly, and more for the purpose of saying something than because he really thought so. "I ran into him there the other day when I was doing my sketch of it."
A short hush, pregnant with thought, followed on his words. To Boase and Vassie—those two so different beings—came the swift reflection "That would not be at all a bad thing. It would remove a danger."
Killigrew was interested, as an onlooker, in the idea of the alliance his own words had suggested. Ishmael felt an irrational little pang. Phoebe's smiles, her little friendliness, had always belonged to him—Archelaus would crush them as big fingers rub the powder off a butterfly's wings.... If he and Archelaus had been more truly brothers it would have been a very nice arrangement ... little Phoebe would make a sweeter sister in some ways than the imperious Vassie....
"This puppy is for Phoebe," cried Vassie, breaking into a hurried speech; "it's been promised her a long time. She's so fond of pets."
This was true. Phoebe's maternal instincts made her love to have a soft, helpless little lamb or calf dependent on her; but it seemed her instinct was oddly animal in quality, for when the creature on which she had lavished so much care grew to sturdiness she saw it go to the butcher's knife with unimpaired cheerfulness and turned her attentions to the next weakling. It was a standing joke against Phoebe that she called all her hens by name and nursed them from the egg up, only to inform you brightly at some meal that it was Henrietta, or Garibaldi, or whatever luckless bird it might be, that you were devouring.
"If you like I'll take that puppy over to the mill now, if you'll see Wanda doesn't follow to bring it back," observed Ishmael, getting to his feet, "and then perhaps I can find out something about this bush-beating scare. If Archelaus is there—"
"Be careful, Ishmael," said the Parson quietly.
"Oh, I'll keep my temper, or try to. Coming with me, Joe?"
Vassie sat nonchalantly picking blades of grass. She would sooner never have seen Killigrew again than have asked him to stay with her, even than have suggested, with apparent carelessness, some plan that should keep him. But she waited with throbbing heart for his answer.
"I'd like to," said Killigrew briskly; "I've been abominably lazy till to-day, and that means I shall get fat. And when a person with light eyelashes and sandy whiskers gets fat all is over. I should have to go into my Guv'nor's business and become an alderman."
He reared his singularly graceful self up from the grass as he spoke and helped Vassie to her feet.
"Good-bye, both of you, then," said Vassie, withdrawing her hand when she was on her feet. "If you're going to the mill, I'll expect you when I see you."
This would have been arch had Vassie been a little less clever; as it was it sounded so natural that even that man-of-the-world, Killigrew, was taken in. As he set off with Ishmael he felt a moment's regret that he had not stayed with Vassie—a moment inspired by her lack of pique at his not having stayed.
The sun that had gilded Vassie's head had sunk swiftly by the time they reached the mill; and when the miller opened to their knock a flood of lamplight came out to mingle with the soft dusk. Phoebe's mother had died some two or three years earlier, and since then the miller had lived with only an old aunt of his own to help him look after his daughter. He peered out at them almost anxiously, Ishmael thought, and seemed rather upset at sight of him.
"Who's that there?" he asked sharply; then, as Killigrew stepped forward round the porch: "I thought maybe Phoebe was weth 'ee."
"Phoebe? Oh, no!" said Ishmael; "why, is she out?"
"'Tes of no account," replied the miller. "I reckon she'm just gone down-along to see to the fowls or semthen. Will 'ee come in, you and your Lunnon friend?"
Ishmael hesitated, then, remembering on what errand he had come, he stepped in, and, despite Killigrew's obvious unwillingness, they found themselves pledged to stay to supper.
"We really only just came to bring Phoebe this puppy my sister promised her," Ishmael explained. "It's the pick of our Wanda's litter and Phoebe had set her heart on it." Ishmael held up the squirming little thing as he spoke, and it licked its black nose nervously with a pink tongue that came out curled up like a leaf.
"Ah! she'm rare and fond o' dumb animals, is our Phoebe," said the miller, who seemed gratified at this mark of attention. "So long as she can have some lil' weak thing to make a fool on she'm happy, I b'lieve. 'Tes a woman's way."
"It's a very nice way for us poor devils of men," said Killigrew, laughing.
Supper was a short and oddly nervous meal, and still Phoebe did not come in. Ishmael at last felt there was no use staying longer and rose.
"Good-night to you, Mr. Lenine," he said. "I expect I'll find Phoebe over at Cloom. If I do, I'll see her home."
"Good-night to you both," said the miller cordially enough; but when they turned the corner by the wheel he was still peering after them as though beset by some uneasiness.
"Rum old bird," opined Killigrew, as they swung along in the darkness. As they reached the cliff again something brushed through the bushes away to their right, but as they called and no one answered they concluded it was a fox or some other wanderer of the night and went on. Further along still they came on a man leaning against a stone step that crested a wall they had to pass.
He did not move at their approach, and Ishmael touched him on the sleeve.
"Here, we want to pass, please," he said.
"So you want to pass, do you?" said the man, with a slow laugh. "You want to pass ...? Well, pass.... I'll not hinder 'ee passing here nor yet to a place that's a sight further on...."
"Archelaus!" exclaimed Ishmael, peering into the darkness. But the man had already moved off and was lumbering down the field, and the sound of his quiet mirth was all that came back to them.
"I really think sometimes that Archelaus must have had a touch of the sun out in Australia," declared Ishmael as they mounted the stile after a brief awkward silence.
"If it's only that ..." was all that Killigrew would vouchsafe.
"What do you mean?"
"Nothing. Only you're sure he wouldn't do anything to hurt you ...? He doesn't seem to love you by all I've heard and seen since I've been here."
"Of course not. What an idea! He does hate me pretty badly, I'm afraid, but I'm out of his reach. Archelaus knows what side his bread is buttered; he has a well-paid job and wouldn't do anything to upset it."
"There doesn't seem much love lost between you."
"There isn't. I'm incapable of being fair to Archelaus, as he to me, the difference being that I admit it and he doesn't."
"I wonder what he's up to now," exclaimed Killigrew, looking back from the height of the stile; "there's a light gleaming out. Looks as though he were lighting a lantern or signalling with it—"
"A lantern...." Ishmael scrambled up beside the other and his voice was alert. "Then perhaps there is something in this idea of the Parson's. I say, let's follow him. If he goes towards the wood it's fairly certain he's up to something, if it's only wiring rabbits."
"Isn't it rather looking for trouble, old chap?" demurred Killigrew, who did not know the name of fear for himself but was conscious of some undefined dread that had stirred in him at the greeting of Archelaus.
"Better go back, perhaps," he added; "they'll be expecting us. What d'you say?"
"That I'm going to follow Archelaus.... I'm about sick of him and his underhand ways. You don't know how he's made me suffer in all sorts of little things this past month. Talking to my own men at the inn and the farms, laughing at me. Even John-Willy Jacka goes after him now, that used to be a youngster with me.... You can go home if you like."
"Don't be a greater ass than you can help," advised Killigrew genially, and the two set off together for the point where the light had just flickered and gone out, as though the slide had been drawn over the lantern, if lantern it were. On a dim stretch of road they made out a form that bulked like that of Archelaus; it was joined by another and then by two more, and all four set off towards the wood, Killigrew and Ishmael behind them.
In all the bleak country "the wood" represented mystery, glamour. It made a dark wedge between two folds of moorland, its tree-tops level with the piled boulders on the northern side, like a deeply green tarn lapping the edge of some rocky shore. Oak, beech and ash, hawthorn, sycamore and elder, went to make the solid bosses of verdure that filled the valley, while at one end a grove of furs stood up blackly, winter and summer. Giant laurels, twisted and writhing creations of a nightmare, spread their snake-like branches beneath the rocky wall at one side of the wood, and in spring they shook their pale, sickly tassels in a gloom that was as green, as freckled with shallows of light, as underseas. A stream gurgled through its depths, increasing the illusion of a watery element. All over the sloping floor of the wood, where the red leaves drifted high in due season, huge boulders were piled, moss-grown, lividly decked with orange fungi, and surrounded by a thick undergrowth of holly and elder bushes. This place had no name beyond "the wood"—enough distinction in that county where a copse of ash or fir was all that scarred moor and pasture with shadow. It was just within Ishmael's property, marking his most inland boundary, and he cherished it as something dearer than all his money-yielding acres. It had been his ambition to make it the home of every bird that built its nest there, of every badger or rabbit or toad or slow-worm that sheltered in its fastnesses. No life should cry there for the teeth of the trap, no feathers scatter for the brutal violating of the sheltering bushes. Thus Ishmael, but otherwise Archelaus.... There was little doubt what he and his fellows had come for: there were a half-dozen of them when all were met, and all carried cudgels or flails made of knotted cloth, and walked cautiously, whispering to each other lest the birds should take premature flight. Ishmael and Killigrew lagged behind them, waiting for certainty before discovering themselves.
It was deadlily dark in the wood, with a darkness more unbroken than the stillness which yet seemed part of it. A thousand little scraping noises broke the quiet air, chill and dank. Leaves pattered against each other, twigs rubbed faintly, brittle things broke under the lightest foot. Still hardly a wing unfolded ever so little, not a distressful chirp heralded the slaughter that threatened. Gradually, to eyes growing used to the gloom, differing shades of darkness became apparent; it was faintly marked by them as the silence by the sounds....
Still the feathers were unstirred on the breasts where tiny beaks were thrust in sleep; round, bright eyes were filmed by the delicate lids; the bushes held undisturbed the little lives confided to them.
Suddenly a funnel of light flared into the darkness, intensifying it, waking into vivid green a full-foliaged holly; a rain of blows echoed back and forth through the night, a whirr of bewildered wings mingled with it, a frantic piping that was drowned in the clamour even as it burst forth. High overhead the startled wood-pigeons flew out into the free air above the tree-tops, their clamour filling the whole place with the beating of wings that in the dark seemed mighty as the wings of avenging angels, but availed their tiny brethren nothing. In that one minute there fell, beaten into the undergrowth to die miserably or flailed into the greedy hands and caps of the murderers, some half a hundred innocent and lovely lives, all of them torn out in an agony of fear without knowing why. Ishmael ran forward, not even hearing his own voice as it shouted oaths he never knew he had used.
The men stopped at their work, caps and sticks in hand, staring stupidly; only Archelaus, after a first moment's pause, showed no astonishment. It was not till long afterwards that it occurred to Ishmael to wonder whether his brother had all along known he followed, and it was a question that was to remain for ever unanswered. Archelaus lifted his lantern, which first gleamed on the red surprise of John-Willy Jacka's face, then on the foolish mask of Silly Peter, the local idiot, who stood slackly agape between a couple of miners. Then Archelaus brought the light round, to fall on Ishmael's pale face ere swinging it on to Killigrew.
"Lads, here's the young gentlemen from the Manor!" he cried—"come to see a bit o' bush-beaten; let's show 'en, shall us?" And, still holding his lantern so that its light fell on them, he deliberately let drive with his great stick at a branch where a wounded bird was crushed upon a sharp twig.
Ishmael sprang forward and laid hands on the stick, twisting at it with all his strength. Archelaus gave for a flash under the sudden onslaught, but, recovering himself at once, held the stick steady with one hand against all the twisting of Ishmael's two. He laughed a little as he did so. Silly Peter, under the impression that it was all part of the fun, laughed too.
"You beast!... you beast!..." Ishmael was saying as he tussled. Killigrew caught at his arm.
"Say something to them, Ishmael; say something to them. Don't go on like that ..." he muttered urgently.
Ishmael turned on him a face distorted with passion. "Say something—what is there to say to brutes like that? Ah!..."
Archelaus had thrown the lantern underfoot and trampled it out; a darkness impenetrable to dazzled eyes enwrapped them. Killigrew, keeping his head amidst the scuffing he heard, dived for where he had seen young Jacka standing in guilty stillness, his dark lantern dangling from his hand. Almost at once Killigrew felt his own fingers meet its smooth, slightly hot surface; he wrenched it away and fumbled desperately at the slide. A beam, pale but wavering, shot out into the darkness as he succeeded in his effort, and by its light, as men in moments of emotion may see some one thing or action painted on their retina by a lightning flash, he saw Archelaus bringing his stick, muffled in a coat, down on Ishmael's head. The next second the blow fell—there had not been time for Archelaus to check the impetus of the blow when the discovering light flared onto him. There came the heavy sound of a body falling on the thick-piled leaves. Archelaus stumbled up against Killigrew, knocking the lantern from his hand; it hit against a boulder and went out.
It was the voice of Archelaus that broke the stricken stillness.
"Don't 'ee move, you chaps ..." it said, in tones that made a ghastly essay at confidence and trembled despite his efforts. "I fear Silly Peter's done someone a hurt.... I saw en striking out.... Why ded'n 'ee all keep still same as I ded ... someone light a lantern...." Followed a sound of fumbling, and then a light wavered in Killigrew's fingers; he picked up and lit a lantern. By its light could be seen Archelaus holding a bewildered Silly Peter, whose mouth and eyes hung open with fear, while from his hand depended a stick wrapped in a coat. Even in that dim light wet marks could be seen on it. The brain of Archelaus, perhaps stirred to activity by his first inspiration of attack as much as by the hatred that had suddenly welled up uncontrollably, had for once worked with a desperate quickness. Everyone stared at one another over the body of Ishmael that lay huddled on its face in the leaves.
"Help me pick him up, you two," ordered Killigrew to Jacka; "and you there, go ahead with the light. Who is the fastest runner?"
"I'll go for doctor," said Archelaus. "'Tes my right. He'n my brother." He boggled a little at the word.
"You!" began Killigrew, then stopped. His quick intuition had told him how important it was to Archelaus also to be the first to get the doctor. Killigrew was not a cynic, even at that age; he was merely supremely utilitarian.
"Off you go," he said, "and remember I shall be timing you. The doctor must be at Cloom as soon as we are."
"He shall be," declared Archelaus, and meant it. He kept his word. By the time that Ishmael had been laid beneath the drooping Christ who had seen so much of passion and misery, of birth and death, in that same bed spread before Him, the doctor was there too. And round the bed clustered as many distraught women, and men hovering at their skirts, as gathered at the foot of the plaster Calvary above. Even the intent dog was not wanting, as poor Wanda, conscious of disaster to the being she worshipped, whimpered and shivered, her back curved in an arch of distress, by the head of the bed.
THE HEART OF THE CYCLONE
There are times in life when our affairs are at some high crest, when all emotion and the processes of thought become intensified and crystallised: the slightest incident makes a deep-bitten impression; the most momentary effect of colour or lighting, or the tones of a voice, remain in the memory indissolubly connected with the phase the mind is passing through. Every sense is hung upon a hair-trigger, and even irrelevant things touch more sharply than usual, in the same way that a magnifying glass reveals the minutest pores and hairs on the hand holding whatever the primary object to be looked at may be. They are mercifully few, those periods of intense clarity, for they leave a mind and heart deadened and surfeited, that slowly awake to the dull consciousness of pain, even as the body, numbed by a severe accident, only after a while awakes to sentient aching. Ishmael passed into this phase in the first days after the scene in the wood, before physically he was conscious of much beyond a dull throbbing in his head.
He lay and stared from out his bandages, feigning more stupor than he felt in his passionate craving to keep off all discussion and inquiry. He lay and watched the spring sunlight creep over the whitewashed wall opposite, and every slow black fly that crawled across the patch of warmth might have been crawling over his raw nerves. He almost expected the surface of the wall to contract like a skin and twitch them off, as he felt his own skin doing out of sympathy.
In the night, when the wall was filmed with shadow save for the faint flickering of a rushlight that made great rounds of light upon the dimness, then he saw all his life at Cloom passing in a shadow show across the wall, crawling like the flies.... He was never delirious; physically his fine and sane constitution was recovering well from a nasty blow—it was merely as though all his mind had been set a little faster, like a newly-regulated clock, a clock set to work backwards; and he could hear its ticking through all the sounds of everyday life that, hushed as much as might be, came into his room.
He felt sick of it all, sick of the striving at Cloom, of the quarrels with Archelaus, of Tom's cat-like attacks, of his mother's plaints, of the cruelties he felt spoiling the whole countryside like a leprosy. He cared for no one near him except Killigrew, because he alone stood for the things of an alien world. He hated the sound of John-James' boots that never failed to go a tip-toe over the cobbles below his window. He wanted nothing, not even to get away from it all. He was too absorbed watching it upon the wall, hearing his own mind ticking out its comments like that horrible instrument Vassie had upon the piano to time her exercises.
It was the first time since the fit in his childhood, which he did not remember, that he had ever lain helpless or suffered in his body, and he was aware of humiliation. All he could remember of the scene in the wood showed him his own futility. Everything was wasted—nothing he had done was any good nor the doing of it, then or ever again, at all worth while. Nothing seemed to matter.
So passed the first two days of his consciousness, and the speed at which the clock of his mind was regulated made the world's time seem interminable. When the two days had gone they seemed to him to be lengthy, not as two weeks or years or anything in a known measure of counting, but as some period of time spaced quite differently. This is the time that only sick people know, that fills their eyes with knowledge not understood of the healthy sympathisers beside their beds, who, though they may have sat the nights and days out with them, yet have not the same measure to count the passing of their hours.
With the third day came pain, bodily pain, and that saved Ishmael. It seemed to him then that physical hurts were so far worse than mental that his dread depression vanished before it. He would have welcomed that back to save his body a pang; it seemed to him his head must burst with the pain raging in it, and he cared about nothing else in the world. When that too passed he was as one who has floated out of stormy seas into smooth waters—too weak to navigate them, but blissfully aware that it does not matter, they are safe and he can drift with the current. It was only then he began to talk, and he never once referred to what had happened. He asked where Archelaus was, and when he heard he had gone back to his work in the mine that day he said no more. And it was characteristic of Ishmael that no one ever knew whether he were aware of that impulse of his brother's, and what it had nearly led to, or not. With cessation of physical pain and the exhaustion of the high-keyed string of his mind, came blessed reaction. Even the fact that nothing mattered ceased to matter. The suggestion, emanating simultaneously from the Parson and Killigrew that he should accompany the latter back to London stirred him to only a faint thrill—indeed, a certain disinclination to accept the offer was almost as strong as the urgings of the common sense which told him that soon he would be won to pleasure and interest, once the initial effort was over. Still, as the days slipped past, he found himself looking forward more and more keenly.
On the afternoon before he was to go to town he was resting on a couch in his room when the sounds of Vassie's arrogant but not unpleasing voice came floating up to him from the parlour as she sang her latest song, the fashionable "Maiden's Prayer." He smiled a little to himself; he could picture Killigrew, leaning attentive, turning the pages, smiling between narrowed lids at the lovely thing she looked—chin raised and full throat vibrant—yet giving so little away beyond his admiration. The song faded, silence fell, then a door opened and closed. Vassie's voice was raised, this time in welcome. He guessed the visitor to be Phoebe from the fluttered feminine quality of the sounds below—staccato sentences whose words he could not catch, but whose very rhythm, broken and eager, betrayed them. A moment later, and a knock came at his door.
It was Vassie who entered, somewhat sulkily, her beauty clouded by a shade of reluctance—Phoebe, shrinking, palpitant, staying in the shadowy passage.
"Phoebe has come to know if she may say good-bye to you, Ishmael?" said Vassie. "She's heard you're going to London, and can't believe you'll ever come back safely...."
"Why, Phoebe, that's kind of you," he called; "but won't you come in for a moment?" He was pleased after a mild fashion to see her—she at least stood for something not too intimately connected with his own household, he told himself. The next moment he remembered that there had been some suggestion—what his blurred recollection of it could not tell him—that she might be being courted by Archelaus; but the slight recoil of distaste stirred within him fell away before her frank eagerness, her kindly warmth, as she pattered into the room, her skirts swaying around her. She sat primly down beside the couch while Vassie stayed by its foot, determined not to sit down also and so give an air of settled ease to the interview.
"I—I hope you are better, Ishmael?" faltered Phoebe. She had never before been in a young man's bedroom, even bereft of its tenant, and she felt shy and fluttered.
"Oh, I'm all right!" answered Ishmael. "I don't think poor Silly Peter has enough muscle to hit very hard, you know."
A look of intense relief floated across the strained demureness of Phoebe's countenance: raised eyelids and a heightened colour testified to what passed through her mind.
"Oh, then it was Silly Peter—" she began ingenuously; then broke off.
"Yes, didn't you know? He was dazed with the lights, and then the sudden darkness and all of us being so angry, I suppose.... Hullo, what's that?"
It was Killigrew's voice calling softly up the stairs to Vassie. She hesitated, made a feint of going to the door only to hear what he wanted, and then went rustling down to him. Phoebe snuggled a little more comfortably on her chair with an unconscious movement of pleasure.
"He said downstairs he wanted to finish taking her picture to-day while the light lasted," she said; then ran on: "Ishmael, I've been so unhappy...."
"Have you, Phoebe? Why, what about?" Then, as he saw her flush and bite her pouting lower lip, he added: "Not because of me? I say, how jolly of you! But there wasn't any necessity—"
"How silly you are! As if one did things—worried and that sort of thing—because it was necessary! It's because one can't help it."
"Then it was all the nicer of you. But I meant that really it wasn't anything to worry about. I'm as right as rain, and it's given me a jolly good excuse to go up to London and see the world."
Panic peeped in Phoebe's brown eyes, giving her a flashing look of something woodland, despite her would-be smart attire. She dropped her lids to hide it.
"London...." she murmured. Then, sitting upright, and staring at her twisting fingers:
A pause which Ishmael broke by asking, "Well?"
"Nothing. Only—I was wondering. Whether you ... how you'd like London, and whether you wouldn't find down here, and all of us, very dull when you come back?"
"What rot! Of course not! Why should I?" asked Ishmael, already so in London in anticipation that he could not even take an interest in his return to this older world.
"Oh, I don't know. I only wondered. You never wonder about things, do you, Ishmael?"
"I don't think I ever do anything else."
"Not in the way I mean. You wonder about life and all sorts of things like that that I don't bother about, but not about people, about what you feel for them. That's what I mean by wondering."
"Oh, feeling!..." said Ishmael in a gruff embarrassment; "I dunno. Yes I do, though. I don't think what one feels is so very important—not the personal part of it, anyway. There's such a lot of things in the world, and somehow it seems waste of energy to be always tearing oneself to tatters over one's personal relationship towards any one other person."
Phoebe tried to snatch at the words that blew past over her head as far as her comprehension of them was concerned.
"But how can you say it's not important?" she exclaimed reproachfully. "Even being married wouldn't seem important if you looked at it that way."
"Even being married...." repeated Ishmael. Inwardly came the swift thought: "Well, why is there all this fuss about it, anyway?" All he said was:
"Why, have you been thinking of getting married, Phoebe?"
"A lady can't be the first to think of it...." said Phoebe.
"I suppose not," he agreed, true to his own age and that in which he lived. Conversation lay quiescent between them; he was aware of a sensation of weariness and wished she would go, pretty as she looked sitting there in her circle of swelling skirt and trim little jacket that fitted over her round breast and left bare her soft throat.
"Have you ever ...?" asked Phoebe suddenly.
"Have I ever what?"
"Thought of it ... of getting married?"
"Good Lord! not yet. There's been such a lot of other things...."
"Well, when you do I'll hope you'll be very happy," said Phoebe.
"Thanks! I hope so too."
"I don't suppose you'll know me then."
"Why ever not?"
"Oh, well, of course you'll marry a real lady, and she wouldn't want to know me. She'd think me common."
"What utter nonsense, Phoebe! Do all girls talk such silly nonsense? Why, of course I'll always be far too fond of you to lose sight of you, and I expect you and my wife—how idiotic that sounds—will be no end of friends." He did not think so; but there struck him that there was something rather plaintive and wistful about Phoebe that afternoon. Suddenly she rose and settled the basque of her jacket with quick, nervous fingers.
"I must go," she said hurriedly. "I don't know what Vassie'll say at me staying up here like this."
"It was awfully nice of you to come," said Ishmael, taking the little hand that lay idle against a flounce. She made no motion to withdraw it or to move away, and glancing up at her he saw there were tears in her eyes. As he looked they slipped over her lashes and rolled down her cheeks. She made no effort to stay them, nor did she sob—she cried with the effortless sorrow of a tired child.
"Phoebe! why, what's the matter? Are you unhappy about anything? Phoebe, do tell me what it is?"
She shook her head but stammered out:
"It's nothing, but I'm sort of frightened.... I can't tell you about what. And I thought you might be able to help me and put it all right, but you can't."
"How do you know I can't? You haven't tried me."
"Yes, I have," she said, half-laughing now through her tears that were already dry upon her cheeks. Whatever thought, whatever fear, whatever glimpsing of dread possibilities in herself or in some other person had brought her to his side that afternoon was already weighing less unbearably upon her, though she had failed in her attempt to find an easing. Her mind simply could not sustain for long one idea, and in the passing moment she was always able to find distraction. She found it now in Vassie, who came sweeping in, slightly flushed and with a lighter manner than that with which she had ushered in Phoebe. She bore her off with promise of tea and a look at new gowns with none the less determination, but the sight of tearstains on Phoebe's cheek at once softened and relieved her.
Ishmael was left with a vague feeling that he had failed Phoebe in something she had expected of him. Yet for himself he was cheered by her visit, for it had served to bring him out of that dead, still peace where he had been for so many days, that had not lightened even with returning strength, but that had been swept away by the breath of the commonplace Phoebe brought with her.
As to Vassie, she was occupied with wondering whether the passionate yet careless caresses that Killigrew had lavished on her that afternoon "meant anything" or not. He had told her that in France they always said that "love was an affair of the skin...." And she knew she had a perfect skin. Killigrew had told her it was perfect to stroke as well as gaze upon; none of her English swains had ever told her that. She always looked on Killigrew as a foreigner because he was so alien to herself.
Yet that evening he spent with Ishmael and the Parson, and the next day a grey uncertain morning of blown clouds found Ishmael and Killigrew both seated in the train while she waved her handkerchief at them from a receding platform. And if that handkerchief were to be wet with tears that were not for her brother nor yet for Killigrew except in so far as he had, with his gay tongue and sudden secret kisses, awakened hopes in her that she was beginning to see, by his very nature, could have no foundation, at least she let no one even guess at it. They were tears of rage, almost as much with herself as him, and if Killigrew were never to have had more upon his conscience than a light flirtation with this ambitious and far from ignorant girl, there would have been little to disturb his healthy slumbers. Vassie was not one to waste time over the regrets that eat at the heart, and, though she could not altogether stifle pain at the outset, her strong-set will made the inevitable period of recurrent pangs shorter for her than for most. Killigrew had played the game quite fairly according to his code; it was Vassie's ignorance of any form of philandering beyond the crude interchange of repartee and kisses of the young clerks she had hitherto met that had made the playing of it unequal. She and Phoebe were both enacting the oldest woman's part in the world—that of being left behind to wait; and it was two very unwitting youths who left them. As the train gathered speed on its long journey both Ishmael and Killigrew had their minds on what lay before them, not on anything left behind.
When Ishmael laid his aching head upon the pillow one night a week later in the Tavistock Square house of Mr. Alderman Killigrew it carried within a whirl of impressions so confused that days would have been needed in which to sort them out. London—the London of the 'sixties—noisy with hoofs and iron-bound wheels upon its cobbles and macadam, dark with slums that encroached upon its gayest ways, glittering with night-houses and pleasure gardens that focussed light till dawn, brightened as with clustered bubbles by the swelling skirts of ladies of the whole world and the half, was, though smaller, ignorant of electric light, and without half the broad spaces and great buildings of the London of to-day, still more sparkling and gayer in its effect because life was less hidden. The 'sixties were not squeamish, though they were prudish; a man's own womenfolk were less noticeable than to-day, not only in such minor detail as the exclusion of them from the tops of omnibuses; but they, after all, were but a fraction of what went to make up spectacular life. Those were the days of bloods—when an officer and a gentleman went as a matter of course to all the cockpits and gaming houses, the night clubs and rings sacred to the "fancy"; when it was still the thing for a gentleman to spend his nights in drinking champagne and playing practical jokes that were forgiven him as a high-spirited young man who must sow his wild oats and garnish each word of conversation with an oath. From the comparative respectability of Cremorne and Motts, and the frankly shady precincts of the "Pie" and the "Blue Posts" down to places considerably worse, London was an enormous gamut of opportunities for "seeing life."
Killigrew, as a merchant's son, however well off, could not penetrate to the most sacred precincts—Motts was more or less barred to him; but on the other hand he was in the midst of what was always called the "Bohemian" set—in which were many artists, both the big and the little fry. One could "see life" there too, though, as usual, most of the artists were very respectable people. It was a respectable art then in vogue in England. Frith was the giant of the day, and from the wax figures at Madame Tussaud's to pictures such as the "Rake's Progress" the plastic arts had a moral tendency. Even the animals of Sir Edwin Landseer were the most decorous of all four-footed creatures; Killigrew blasphemed by calling the admired paintings still-life studies of animals. But then Killigrew was from Paris and chanted the newer creed; he was always comparing London unfavourably with Paris even when he was showing it off most.
The house in Tavistock Square was grand beyond anything Ishmael had ever imagined, if a little dismal too. It was furnished with a plethora of red plush, polished mahogany, and alabaster vases; while terrible though genuine curios from Mr. Killigrew's foreign agents decorated the least likely places. You were quite likely to be greeted, on opening your wardrobe, by a bland ostrich egg, which Mrs. Killigrew, the vaguest of dear women, would have thrust there and forgotten. She had a deeply-rooted conviction that there was something indecent about an ostrich egg—probably its size, emphasising that nakedness which nothing exhibits so triumphantly as an egg, had something to do with it.
Mrs. Killigrew was nothing if not "nice," but she was something much better than that too. Ishmael, though he could no more help laughing at her than could anyone else, soon felt a genuine affection for her that he never lost. She was a little wide-eyed, wistful-looking woman, really supremely contented with life, and, though kindness itself, quite incapable of realising that anyone could ever really be unhappy or wicked. "I'm sure the dear Lord knows what's best for us all," was her comfortable creed, that in one less sweet-natured would have made for selfishness.
"I'm sure that'll be very nice, my dears," was her invariable comment on any programme suggested by the young men; and there was a legend in the family that Killigrew—or Joseph, as his mother always called him in full—had once said to her: "How would it be, mother, if I were to murder the Guv'nor and then take you round the world with me on the money? We could settle in the South Sea Islands, and I'd marry a darky and you could look after the picaninny grandchildren?" To which Mrs. Killigrew had responded: "Yes, dear, that will be very nice; and on your way, if you're passing the fishmongers', will you tell him to alter the salmon for this evening to cod, as your father won't be in to dinner?"
Mr. Killigrew was a thin, pale man, not at all the typical prosperous merchant, with a skin like the shiny outside of a cold suet pudding, a high wall of forehead, and the thin-lipped mouth of a lawyer. Perhaps it was because of that mouth he was such a successful trader, while the brow provided him with enough philosophy to bear gladly with a child so different from himself—always a hard blow to egoism.
Mr. Killigrew approved of Ishmael; he liked his keenness on whatever appertained to his trade as an agriculturist, and he himself being concerned in the import of several tropical fruits and products, went with the young man to the great Horticultural Show at South Kensington, while the scornful Joe betook himself to the races; and Mrs. Killigrew, though she declined both outings, was sure that they would be very nice.
They were—though Killigrew lost so much money that he was afraid to come home and spent the night imbibing champagne and repentance at the Hummums, and Ishmael bought Indian corn and a kind of yam which he thought could be induced to flourish in West Penwith, which incidentally it did so far as foliage went, though it always obstinately refused to bear fruit. The following mid-day Joe sent for Ishmael to the Hummums, and from that comfortable if somewhat dingy hostelry set out, in the gayest spirits, to track down a money-lender who would oblige on no better security than his assurance that the Guv'nor would pay up when he had got over the shock.
Success in this put Killigrew into the wildest spirits, and he forthwith took unto himself a young man whom he ran into as he and Ishmael were going into the Blue Posts for a before-dinner drink. The young man was none other than Carminow, grown very tall and melancholy-looking, with an extravagantly high collar, much swathed with a voluminous black silk cravat and a fancy waistcoat. Carminow, who under a manner of deepest gloom concealed a nature as kind and as disconcertingly morbid as of yore, was unaffectedly charmed to see his old schoolfellows, and said so. He had better control over the letter "r" than in his boyhood, but his employment of it was still uncertain and quite irrational. He linked an arm in each and said gravely: "Will you come with me to see the execution at Newgate to-mowwow morning? They are twying new experiments with the dwop, and it should be intewesting."
"No—are you serious?" demanded Killigrew. "I say, I've half a mind to.... It might make a jolly fine sketch, mightn't it? Kept quite rough and suggestive, you know."
"It'd be suggestive all right," remarked Ishmael. Within him a wish to accept warred with horror, besides which he could not quite make up his mind whether Carminow were joking or no.
"Splendid," said Carminow; "there's just one moment, when the hangman pulls on the legs, to make sure, you understand—and the face swells till it looks as though it would burst the white cap pulled over it, for all the world like a boiling pudding.... And you see the cawotid artewy become suffused with a blue bwuise—"
"Cobalt and a touch of garance," threw in Killigrew.
"Shut up, Carminow," said Ishmael; "we've not had our drinks yet if you have." He was rather proud of this, which sounded to him to have quite a man-about-town twang, and he knew it must have been successful when he saw his companions pass it without ribald comment.
"Let's all have dinner," said Killigrew exuberantly, "and then go on to see the new ballet. What d'you say, Carminow?"
Carminow was quite willing, his appointment not being till early next morning, and the three went off to the "Cheshire Cheese," where Killigrew drew portraits of Dr. Johnson on the tablecloth and placated the head-waiter by telling him how famous he, Killigrew, was going to be and how valuable the tablecloth would consequently be in fifty years' time. Ishmael enjoyed that dinner. He was unused to stimulants, but having a naturally good head was delightfully sharpened in sense and appreciation by them, while his stronger stomach did not pay him back next day as Killigrew's invariably did. Carminow was full of stories, all, needless to say, of a sanguinary nature; Killigrew capped them, or tried to, by would-be immoral tales of Paris; and Ishmael said very little, but, with his deadly clarity of vision for once working beneficently, sat there aware how young and somehow rather lovable they were through it all, while he himself, whom they were obviously treating as so so much younger in the ways of the world, felt old compared with them. The only thing he did not fully realise was just how young that feeling itself was.
After dinner they went, as Killigrew had suggested, to the theatre—a shabby little place to look at, though the resort of all the bloods, who crowded stalls and stage door. Killigrew laughingly informed Carminow that Ishmael had never met an actress in his life, and in reply to Carminow's half-mocking commiseration, Ishmael answered gaily that he had never even been to the theatre, except to a penny gaff that once visited Penzance. It was indeed with a secret tingling that he now found himself seated in a box. He brought to the theatre the freshness of the child who goes to his first pantomime, and was unashamedly aware of the fact. The smell of the place, the heat—for the gas made the air vibrant—the very tawdriness of the hangings and gilding, all thrilled him, because they were, as Killigrew would have said, so "in the picture." When the curtain went up he settled himself to enjoyment.
Killigrew, more interested by the performers than what they represented, leant back in the box and kept up a running commentary in a low voice. "There never was a more Oriental thing invented than the crinoline," he observed, nodding towards a group of dancers blowing as lightly as balls of thistledown over the stage, slim ankles twinkling below their inflated skirts of misty whiteness; "I'm not trying to be epigrammatic, I mean it. Watch those girls there ... did you ever see such sway, such slope—I can't find the exact word for it? Each little movement—a raised eyebrow seems almost enough—and the crinoline sways this way and that, divinely true at the waist alone.... But it's not just their grace; it's what they suggest. That feeling of a cage, of something protective, which is what I mean by Oriental. So defined down to the waist, and then this thing that makes a parade of not following nature.... D'you know, I never watch a pretty woman in a crinoline but the thought doesn't strike me?"
"It's the sort of thought that would, my son," opined Carminow.
"But you can't deny I'm right. No clinging drapery has ever been so suggestive, so much the refinement of sensuality, as the crinoline."
Ishmael said nothing; but inwardly he too felt what Killigrew meant, which he would not have done a week earlier. As he sat there, warm and pleasantly stung by the wine he had drunk, the brightness of the scene and the colour of the music and the thoughts they conjured up, as well as the gowns and head-dresses of the pretty women, all awaked in him the glow a child feels at its first pantomime. The dancers were to him not flesh-and-blood women, but magical creatures, and yet he was stirred to a new excitement too. As he sat there all the sense of poise with which he usually so confidently faced the affairs of life, and which, far from failing him, generally served him only too well, began to sway and grow many-coloured.
When they went out into the street again he agreed with Carminow that the night was yet too young to abandon it in mid-air. He did not, however, feel like more drinks; the exhilaration of the play, of his own youth, now for the first time tingling unrestrainedly in his veins, the glamour of the gaily-lit night—they had wandered as far as the Haymarket, which was ablaze till dawn—were all enough for him, and he felt that anything more would have blurred their keenness. Suddenly Carminow had an inspiration.
"Come back with me, you two," he suggested. "I've got quite decent digs in Cecil Stweet, off the Stwand. And I've a little collection that might intewest you...."
"I know, monstrosities in bottles and side elevations of premature babies," surmised Killigrew; "you're a foul old thing! But we'll come and have a yarn over 'em anyway. I'm not in a hurry to face my revered parents and I daren't take this good little boy to some places you and I know of. I'm responsible for him."
Carminow turned a pessimistic eye on Ishmael. "Are you still pure?" he shot at him in his deepest bass. "I see you are; your look answers for you." And he strode on again. He turned to add over his shoulder: "I cannot in the intewests of my pwofession emulate you; it is incumbent on me to know first hand all that is possible, but I consider it an excellent thing for the layman. Keep it up. Don't let Killigrew, who is a commonplace sinner, laugh you out of it."
Ishmael forced himself to reply that he did not intend to forego his own ideas on the subject for Killigrew or anyone else; and, indeed, he was not so outraged by anything Carminow had said as by Killigrew's whispered communication that for his part he believed Carminow was boasting.... "Don't believe he knows the way," added Killigrew, "or only theoretically. He's like a lot of doctors—all theories and no practice." He was so pleased with this joke he had to repeat it aloud to Carminow, who bore it quite unruffled.
They had now reached the house, one of the many little lodging-houses that stood where the Hotel Cecil is to-day, and Carminow let himself in with a large key and, turning up the gas, revealed the usual lodging-house hall that is and was and always shall be eternally the same as long as lodgings and landladies exist. It had a yellowish paper blotted with large blurred flowers of a reddish hue, a steel engraving of the "Derby Day" hung by the hat-stand, and the woodwork was of bright yellow graining.
Carminow's rooms were on the second floor; after the first landing had been passed the stairs suddenly altered in character, and from being carpeted and fairly wide took onto themselves linoleum and a steep straightness that said plainly: "Up to here two guineas a week; above here only thirty shillings, with half-a-crown for extras." Higher still bare boards advertised the fact that only "bed-sitters" or even plain bedrooms were to be found.
Carminow's rooms ran the depth of the house, the front one, his sitting-room, being separated from the bedroom by folding doors of the same bright yellow as the doors in the hall. Into the sitting-room he ushered his guests, and they knocked helplessly up against sharp angles while Carminow pawed and patted round the room for matches, obstinately refusing the offers of their boxes because he said he was trying to train his landlady to keep his in the same place. Killigrew, uninterested in the education of landladies, finally insisted on striking one of his own, and uttered a shriek of joy when the faint gleam revealed a glass jar in which a greenish-white fragment of a body floated forlornly. Finally the gas was lit, the table cleared of papers and books, and bottles of beer placed upon it instead. They had just settled down to villainously strong cigars and the beer when a sound very unexpected to two of them floated out upon the air—the sound of a girl singing. The voice was a rather deep mezzo; it was singing very softly an old ballad, to the accompaniment of a few notes very gently struck now and again on a piano.
Carminow said nothing, but lay back in his chair and puffed out clouds of smoke over his face. Killigrew looked at him and whistled.
"I say ..." he said.... "Own up, Carminow! Who is it?"
"If you mean who is the lady singing," said Carminow with sudden stiffness, "she is Miss Grey, who has the room above this. She is a young lady about whom I think even you would not make your obscene jokes if you knew her."
"Sits the wind in that quarter?..." thought Killigrew, highly amused. "I'll roast him...." Aloud he said: "And may I not know her, then, Carminow? If Miss Grey is a friend of yours, perhaps—"
"I am vewy particular about whom I intwoduce to Miss Grey," said Carminow unflatteringly; "that is to say, I should first have to find out whether she wished it. She is quite alone, poor girl."
"Dear me! How is that? Is she some romantic governess out of a place or a lady who through no fault of her own has come down in the world?"
"Miss Grey is on the stage."
Killigrew roared with laughter. "You hear, Ishmael; here's your chance. You were saying you didn't know any actresses, and now here's Carminow with one up his sleeve all ready for you. Tell us all about it, old chap!"
"I will, if only to stop your stupid little mind from wunning along its accustomed dirty gwoove," answered Carminow sententiously. "Miss Grey is the daughter of a clergyman—"
"They all are."
"She is an orphan, that is to say, as good as one, for her mother is dead and her father too poor to support her. She works very hard when she can get any work, which I am sowwy to say is not often, and she is as good as she is clever. I should be vewy glad if I could put her in the way of more work when the play she is in is taken off, and I thought you, Killigrew, who know so many people—"
"Artful old bird! So that's what you'd got in your mind, is it? Well I can't do anything till I've seen the lady, can I? Even an angel in a poke—"
The singing had ceased, and in the little silence there came a knock at the sitting-room door. Carminow had called out "Come in" automatically before a sudden idea sent him to his feet. He was too late; the door had opened and a young lady in grey stood hesitating on the threshold.
She stood still, dismayed, her hand still on the doorknob, obviously distressed at the unexpected company in which she found herself.
"Miss Grey ... do please come in ... is there anything I can do ...?" mumbled Carminow in great agitation, pushing a chair forward and then pulling it back again indeterminedly.
"I'm so sorry—" began the low full voice, richer in speech than in song. "I'd no idea—I only wondered whether you could—but it's nothing."
"Anything," Carminow assured her distractedly; "but please permit me to introduce my friends ... Mr. Killigrew, Mr. Ruan—Miss Grey."
Everyone bowed, and then Miss Grey said simply: "It was only that my lamp has gone out; you know there isn't any gas on my floor, and I remembered you had paraffin for your reading lamp.... I'm so afraid of the dark. I know it's very silly...."
"Not at all, very natural, I'm sure. You can have the whole lamp, Miss Grey, but you must let me clean it. It might smell. Yes, please, I insist. You must sit down here in the light while I do it. I'm afraid it's dweadfully smoky. Killigrew, do open the window—"
So he fussed, while Miss Grey, with a murmured thanks, sank into the chair Ishmael shyly offered her and waited very simply, her hands folded on her lap. There was a simplicity, a lack of any self-consciousness, in her whole manner, so Ishmael, used to Phoebe and Vassie—neither of whom was the same in men's company that she was out of it—told himself. This girl seemed divinely unaware even of any strangeness in the position in which she now found herself—the unawareness of an angel.... When Killigrew talked to her she answered frankly and freely, almost with the confidence of a child. She could not be more than twenty, Ishmael decided, and with all her maturity of build had a childish air. The fashions of the day were not conducive to youthfulness of appearance; but not even the long full skirts trimmed with bands of black velvet or the close-fitting bodice could make her seem other than a schoolgirl, while the hair worn brushed loosely back from the forehead instead of brought down in sleek waves gave her a look that reminded him of someone, though he could not remember whom. Then with a sudden flash he remembered it was Hilaria, little Hilaria Eliot—she too had that look which, being in the middle of the period himself, he did not recognise as alien to its stamp, but which was so conspicuously so that women might have called it dowdy and men individual. But this girl was feminine, that was obvious in the timid shyness even of her trusting attitude.
Oddly enough—or oddly as if seemed to Ishmael, who was wont to be in the background when out with Killigrew—it was to him that she chiefly addressed herself. Killigrew sat watching as from general remarks of great propriety about the weather and Ishmael's opinions of London as a place to visit they passed to her views on it as a place in which to live. These were, apparently, not over favourable.
"One always feels a stranger, in a way, if one was born and brought up in the country, doesn't one? I feel that every day. I've never got over expecting to see the big elm outside my window when I wake, and instead I see the chimney-pots. And then I may just be getting used to it when there arrives a letter from Papa telling me how it all looks at home—all the silly little things about the flowers and the chickens and the old people in the parish, and then I have to start all over again."
There was a strain of wistfulness in her full voice, but her eyes were limpidly unconscious of it, with their candid glance that suggested courage and even a certain gaiety. If it had not been for that look in her eyes she would have seemed doll-like; even as it was in the purely physical aspect of her there was a waxen dollishness which was at once disconcerting and attractive. It was obvious that Carminow, who presumably knew her, was passionately convinced that she was what he would have called "all right"; that he was considerably more fond of her than he would have admitted was equally obvious. To him that odd dollishness of aspect was just the sweet pink and white of a naive young girl, but to Killigrew it gave, by its very completeness, a hint as of something oddly inhuman, or at least unawakened, as though she had been a puppet, a pretty puppet that walked and spoke and said the right things. It was not so much any lack of intelligence in what she said as in her slow speech and her whole look. Her skin was so white—and Killigrew thought he knew if Ishmael did not how that whiteness was attained—except for a slight pink flush below extravagantly calm eyes of a clear pale grey; the modelling of the face was wide across brow and cheekbones and across the jaw on the level of the too-small mouth; then came a dimpled chin, short and childish, as was the tip-tilted nose. It was the type of face which, in its broad modelling of planes and petal-fineness of edges, suggests a pansy. The blondness of her—ashen-dead fairness of hair and pale skin with those pellucid eyes beneath dust-brown brows—all united in an effort of innocence that surpassed itself and became the blandness of a doll. She was curiously immobile, sat very quietly, and moved slowly, graceful in the way that a heavily-built puma is graceful, because of the thoroughly sound construction of her bones and muscles. Killigrew, as he watched her, was vastly intrigued by what he phrased to himself as the "innocent sweet corruption of her look." For with all that dollish look, perhaps because of it, it was possible, so Killigrew thought, to imagine her being very bad with the help of that protective mask. It was also compatible with an Undine-like soullessness, a cold clearness of outlook, or a slightly heavy if sweet stupidity. He thought it quite likely she might have all the virtues except a naturally good complexion, but he wondered about her, seeing her charm without feeling it.
The lamp was ready all too soon, and the lucky Carminow had the best right to carry it upstairs for her. She shook hands with both his friends as she said good-night, and Ishmael noticed how straightly she looked from her equal height into his eyes as her hand lay in his. Then the door swung to, but without closing, and in a moment there came the low sound of her voice from the landing above.
"Mr. Carminow...." she was saying—and the words, excepting just now and again, were audible to the two in the sitting-room—"I hope—I don't know what your friends must think. Do tell them, will you, that I'm not in the habit of running down to your room like that? Mr. Ruan looks so good. I wouldn't like him to think—"
"No one thinks anything like that; they couldn't, I assure you. Do believe me, Miss Grey. You won't sleep if you worry, you know. Promise me to believe me. I'll say something to them if it'll make you any happier."
"Will you? Then I'll promise too. I can take the lamp now. And—thank you, Mr. Carminow."
Down in the sitting-room when Carminow entered it again there was a moment or two of silence.
"Look here, you two fellows!" said Carminow; then, "You see for yourselves that Miss Grey is a perfect lady...."