by E.F. Benson

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Chapter II

Peter descended from these heights into the hot dusty well of the streets, and soon was on his way home to dress and return to the Ritz, where an early dinner preceded the opera and any other diversions that might present themselves. On this sweltering June evening the top of a bus was a cooler progression than a taxi, besides advancing the sacred cause of economy, which he had just confessed was more real to him than that of filial piety, and at Hyde Park Corner he could catch a conveyance that would deposit him not fifty yards from his father’s house. Coolness and economy were sufficiently strong of themselves to make him board it with alacrity, and the detachment of a front seat just suited the meditative mood which his talk with Nellie had induced.

Peter knew himself and her pretty well, and with the admirable contributions she had made to their discussion there was little to puzzle out, but much to appraise and estimate. The notion that the news of her engagement had been a blow of any sharp or stunning quality could be at once dismissed, for never had he known so well, as when she, earlier in the day, had communicated the news of her engagement to him over the telephone (that was like her), how whole-heartedly he was not in love with her, and how unintelligibly alien to him, as she had pointed out, was that emotion. During the last year which had witnessed a very decent flowering of intimacy between him and her, there had never been, on either side,{22} the least attempt at love-making; their relations had been wholly free from sentiment, and not once had either of them tripped or stuttered over the foreign use of love-language. But in ways wholly unsentimental they had certainly arrived at some extremely close relation of intimacy; there had emphatically been a bond between them, which to his mind her engagement, if it did not actually loosen it, would shift, so to speak, on to a new place; the harness must be worn elsewhere. If it was to be maintained, he, at any rate, must accustom himself to its new adjustment. She had defined that comradeship this afternoon in a way that was rather surprising, for the ideal relation of him to her, apparently, was that of a brother, or, with greater precision, that of a sister. That had not struck him before, but even when first presented, it did not in the least puzzle him. Indeed, it satisfactorily accounted for that elimination of sex which had always marked their intimacy. She had not sought the male element in him, nor he in her the female. So far he was in complete agreement with the casual conclusion they had jointly arrived at, but at that point Peter detected the presence of something that seemed to show a lurking fallacy somewhere. For he had no doubt that if he had been rich, he would before now have proposed to her, and in spite of her provision that, since riches were an attribute of a man and not an external accident, they turned him into a different person, and that thus she could not tell whether she would have accepted him or not, he did not, for himself, believe that she would have hesitated in doing so. Finally, as material to meditate upon, came her firm statement that though Peter did not want or intend to marry her, he objected to anybody else doing so. With the extreme frank{23}ness with which he habitually judged any criticism on himself, he instantly admitted that there was a great deal to be said for Nellie’s assertion. When it was stated brutally like that, he recognized the justice of her outline. She might have made a caricature of him, but her sketch contained salient features, the identity of which, as he contemplated this scribble of her inspired pencil, he could not disclaim. Without doubt she had caught a likeness; more tersely she had “got him.” Even as he acknowledged that, he felt a resentment that she had so unerringly comprehended him, and shown him to himself. He enjoyed, rather than otherwise, his own dissection of himself, without bias or malice, but he felt less sure that when Nellie was the dissector he welcomed so deft an exposure.

The retrospect had been sufficiently absorbing to make him unaware that, somewhere in Knightsbridge, the top of the bus had become a strenuous goal for travellers. Every seat was occupied, and beside him a young man had planted himself in the vacant place and was talking to a girl who had plumped herself into a seat two tiers behind his. Peter instantly jumped up.

“Let me change places with your young lady,” he said, “and then you’ll be together and talk more conveniently.”

The change was made with a tribute of simpering gratitude on the part of the “young lady,” and Peter, with laurels of popularity round his straw hat, took the single place. He knew perfectly well that he had disturbed himself from no motive of kindliness; he did not in the least want to please either the man or the girl. His motive had been only to appear pleasant, to obtain cheaply and fraudulently the certi{24}ficate of being a “kind gentleman.” For himself, he did not care two straws if the pair of sundered lovers bawled at each other from sundered seats....

And then as he took his new place it struck him that the quality which had prompted the transference of himself from one seat on the top of a bus to another, was precisely the same as had led him to resent Nellie’s dissection of him. In the one case his vanity was gratified, in the other his vanity was hurt.

“That’s it,” he said to himself, and mentally he prinked, like a girl, in the glass that had so unerringly shown him to himself. Yet it did not show him an aspect of himself that was in any way surprising, either for pleasure or distaste, for he knew well how prolific a spring of native vanity was in him. He would always take an infinity of trouble in order to appear admirable, or, on the other hand, to conceal what was not so admirable. He would always inconvenience himself in order to appear kind, exert himself to appear amusing, bore himself, while preserving the brightness of an attentive and interested eye, in order to confirm his reputation for being sympathetic. But though vanity was the root of such efforts, there was, at any rate, no trace of it in his acknowledgment of it. He never deluded himself into thinking that he suffered fools gladly, because he liked them, or desired to secure for them a pleasant half-hour in which they could tediously inflict themselves on him; he suffered them with the show of gladness in order to be thought kind and agreeable in the abstract, and in the concrete to pick up the gleanings of welcome and entertainment which, for such as him, lie so thick on the fields of human intercourse, when the great machines have gone by. He had no reason to complain of these{25} gleanings; there was no one among the youth of London who was more consistently in request, or who more merited his mild harvestings. In a rather fatigued and casual generation, tired with the strain of the last five years, and now suddenly brought to book after the irresponsibility of wartime, when for all young men each leave snatched from the scythe of the French front might easily be their last, there was a certain license given, Peter had always been a shining exception to such slack social conduct of life. He did not, as he had told Nellie, expect much from it, but as long as you were “on tap,” it was undeniably foolish not to present yourself presentably. Your quality was certainly enhanced by a little foam, a little effervescence. “That nice Mr. Peter, always so polite and pleasant,” was his reward; and at this moment Nellie’s divination of his true attitude towards her engagement was his punishment.

The bus hummed and droned along the Brompton Road; there was still a solid stretch before it halted just opposite the side street which was his goal, and there was time to consider her further criticism that he went off, waving his tail, into the wet woods and saying nothing to anybody. What had she meant exactly by that? He had, at any rate, his own consciousness that she had hit on something extremely real and vitally characteristic of him. Surely she meant his aloofness from any intimate surrender of himself, the self-sufficiency that neither gave nor sought strong affection. He had acknowledged the vanity as of a be-ribanded cat, and now he added to that his desire for material comfort, a quiet, determined selfishness, and the reservation to himself of solitary expeditions in the wet woods with a waving tail. Probably she meant no more{26} than that, and though Peter quite acknowledged the justice of these definitions, he again felt a certain resentment against her clear-sightedness. She had a touch of these defects and qualities herself; it was that which made the bond between them.

Peter let himself into his father’s house in the grilling, dusty street nearly opposite the Oratory with the anticipation of finding a speedy opportunity for a domestic exhibition of vanity, for he felt sure that something ludicrous or tiresome and uncomfortable would await him; something he would certainly tolerate with bland serenity and agreeableness. The house, the front of which had been baking in the sun all the afternoon, was intolerably hot and stuffy; the door at the head of the kitchen stairs had, as generally happened, been left open, and the nature of the dinner which would presently ascend could be confidently predicted. Beyond, at the back of the hall, the door into his father’s studio was also open, and a languid, odorous tide of oil-paint and Virginian tobacco made a peculiarly deadly combination with kitchen-smells, and indicated that Mr. Mainwaring had been occupied with his audacious labours. Just now he was engaged on the perpetration of a series of cartoons (suitable or not for mural decoration). The practical difficulty, if these ever attained completion, would be the discovery of the wall that should be large enough to hold them; indeed, the great wall of China seemed the only destination which, though remote, was sufficiently spacious. The subject of them was the European war from a psychic no less than from a sanguinary point of view, for the series (of which the sketches were complete) started with a prodigious cartoon which depicted Satan whispering odious counsels into the ear of the{27} Emperor William II, who wore a smile of bland imperial ambition at the very attractive prospects presented by the Father of Lies. In the background an army corps of the hosts of Hell stretched from side to side of the picture like some leering, malevolent flower-bed. Thereafter the series was to traverse the annals of all kinds of frightfulness: Zeppelins dropped bombs on Sunday-schools, submarine crews, agape with laughter, shot down the survivors from torpedoed liners. All these existed only in sketches; the first, however, as Peter knew, was rapidly approaching completion on the monstrous scale, and took up the whole end of the studio. Neither Peter nor his mother had as yet been permitted a glimpse of it; the full blast of its withering force, so Mr. Mainwaring had planned, was, on completion, to smite and stun them.

He had heard Peter’s entrance into the house, for an outburst of jubilant yodelling came to the young man’s ears as he put down his hat.

“Tirra lirra, tirra lirra,” sang out the boisterous voice. “Is that my Peter? Ha-de-ah-de-ho!”

Peter’s eyebrows went up, his mouth slackened to a long sigh, and his slim shoulders shrugged. But his voice—all of him that at present could convey his mood to his father—was brisk and cordial.

“Hallo, father,” he said. “Do you want me?”

“Yes, my dear; come in a moment. I have something to show you.”

Peter closed the door of the kitchen stairs and went into the studio. His father was standing high on a stepladder in front of his canvas, dashing the last opulent brushful of sombre colour on to the thundercloud which, portending war, formed so effective a background of Prussian blue to the Empero{28}r’s head. He painted with swoops and dashes; such things as “finish” were out of place in designs for the wall of China.... Even as Peter entered he skipped down from the steps of the ladder and laid aside his palette and brushes.

“Finito, e ben finito!” he cried. “Congratulate me, my Peter! I made the last stroke as you entered, an added horror—is it not so?—in that cloud. Ha! You have not seen it yet; sit down and drink it in for five minutes. Does it make you hot and miserable to look at? Yes, you’ll see more of that cloud and of what it holds for distracted Europe before I come to the end of my cartoons. Bombs and torpedoes are in that cloud, my Peter; devastation and destruction and damnation!”

He struck a splendid attitude in front of the tremendous canvas, and with a sweep of his hand caused his thick crop of long, grey hair to stand out in billows round his head. Physically, as regards height and fineness of feature, Peter certainly owed a good deal to his father, for John Mainwaring’s head—with its waves of hair, its high colour, its rich exuberance—was like some fine manuscript now enriched with gilt and florid illuminations, of which Peter was, so to speak, the neat, delicate text unadorned by these flamboyant additions. Peter’s vanity, doubtless, came from the same paternal strain, for never was there anyone more superbly conscious of his own supreme merits than his father. Highly ornamental, he knew that his mission was not only to adorn the palace of art with his work, but to enlighten the dimness of the world with his blazing presence. Like most men who are possessed of extraordinary belief in themselves, of high colour and exuberant spirits, he was liable to accesses of profound gloom, when, with magnificent{29} gestures, he would strike his forehead and wail over his own wasted life and the futility of human endeavour. These attacks, which were very artistic and studied performances, chiefly assailed him when the Royal Academy had intimated that some stupendous canvas of his awaited removal before varnishing day. Then, with bewildering rapidity, his spirits would mount to unheard-of altitudes again, and, brush in hand, he would exclaim that he asked no more of the world than to allow him to pursue his art unrecognized and unhonoured, like Millet or Corot. His temperament, in fact, was that of some boisterous spring day which, opening with bright sunshine, turns to snow in the middle of the afternoon, and draws to a close in lambent serenity; and whether exalted, depressed, or normal, he was simply, though slangily, the prince of “bounders.”

He clapped his hand on Peter’s shoulder.

“I need not point out to you the merits, or, indeed, the defects of my composition,” he said, “for my Peter inherits something of his father’s perceptions. Look at it then once more and tell me if my picture recalls to you the method, even, perhaps, the inspiration of any master not, like me, unknown to fame. Who, my boy, if we allow ourselves for a moment to believe in psychic possession, who, I ask you—or, rather, to cast my sentence differently—to whom do I owe the realization of terror, of menace, of spiritual horror, which, ever so faintly, smoulders in my canvas?”

He folded his arms, awaiting a reply, and Peter cudgelled his brains in order to make his answer as agreeable as possible. The name of Blake occurred to him, but he remembered that of late his father had been apt to decry this artist for poverty of de{30}sign and failure to render emotional vastness. Then, with great good luck, his eye fell on some photographic reproductions from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel that decorated the wall of the studio, and he felt he had guessed right.

“No one but Michael Angelo,” he said. “That’s all the influence I can see, father.”

Mr. Mainwaring rested his chin on his hand and was gazing at his work with frowning, seer-like scrutiny. It was difficult to realize that it was he who had yodelled so jubilantly just now.

“Curious that you should have said that, Peter,” he said in a deep, dreamy voice. “For days past, as I worked, it has seemed to me that M.A.—Master of Art, as well as Michael Angelo, note you—that M.A. was standing by me. At times, indeed, it seemed that not I, but another, controlled my brush. I do not say he approved, no, no; that he was pleased with me; but he was there, my boy. So, if there is any merit in my work, I beseech you to attribute it not to me but to him. It was as if I was in a trance....”

He closed his eyes for a moment and bowed his head, and then, as if at the last “Amen” of some solemn service, he came out of the dim cathedral into sunlight.

“Your mother!” he said. “We must not forget her in this great moment. Is she in? Tirra lirra! Ha-de-ah-de-ho! My own!”

He pranced to the door, ringing the bell, as he passed, and repeated his yodelling cries. From upstairs a quiet, thin voice gave some flat echo of his salutation; from below a hot parlourmaid opened the door of the kitchen stairs and set free a fresh gale of roastings.{31}

“Three glasses,” he said to the latter. “Three glasses, please, and the decanter of port. Maria mia! Come down, my dear, and, if you love me, keep shut your lustrous eyes and take my hand, and I will guide you to the place I reserve for you. So! Eyes shut and no cheating!”

Mrs. Mainwaring, small in stature, with a porcelain neatness about her as of a Dresden shepherdess, suffered herself to be led into the studio, preserving the scrupulous honesty of closed eyelids. By her side her rococo husband looked more than ever like some preposterous dancing-master, and if it was correct to attribute to him Peter’s inherited vanity, it was equally right to derive from the young man’s mother that finish and precision which characterized his movements and his manners. Easily, too, though with a shade more subtlety, a psychologist might have conjectured where Peter’s habit of walking in the wet woods and telling nobody was derived from, for it was not hard to guess that Mrs. Mainwaring’s tranquil self-possession, her smiling, serene indulgence of her husband’s whim, was the result of a quality firm and deeply rooted. Self-repression had, perhaps, become a habit, for her conduct seemed quite effortless; but in that tight, thin-lipped mouth, gently smiling, there was something inscrutably independent. She was like that, secret and self-contained, because she chose to be like that; her serenity, her collectedness, were the mask she chose to wear. Thus, probably, Peter’s inheritance from her was of more durable stuff than the vanity he owed to his father, for how, if his mother had not been somehow adamantine, could she have lived for nearly a quarter of a century with this flamboyant partner, and yet have neither imbibed one bubble of his effer{32}vescence nor lost any grain of her own restraint? Indeed, she must have been like some piece of quartz for ever dashed along by the turbulence of his impetuous flood, and yet all the effect that this buffeting and bruising had produced on her had been but to polish and harden her. She went precisely where the current dashed her, but remained solid and small and impenetrable.

Such was her relation to the bounding extravagance of her husband; he swept her along, quite unresisting, but never parting from her self-contained integrity, and all his whirlings and waterfalls had never stripped one atom off her nor roughened her surface. To him she appeared transparently clear, though, as a matter of fact, not only had he never seen into her, but, actually, he had never seen her at all. He bounced her about, demanding now homage, when the exuberance of creation was his, now sympathy when the rejection of a picture by the Royal Academy made him a despairing pessimist; but she never varied with his feverish temperature, and on the surface, at any rate, remained of an unchangeable coolness. His trumpets never intoxicated her small, pink ear; his despair of himself and the world in general never came within measurable distance of sullying her serenity, any more than a thunderstorm disturbs the effulgence of a half-moon that neither waxes nor wanes. She still continued calmly shining behind his clouds, as was obvious when those clouds had discharged their violence. John Mainwaring never dreamed of considering what, possibly, might lie below that finished surface; it was enough for him that she should always be ready to pay a scentless homage to his achievements, or sit quietly like a fixed star above the clouds of despair{33} that occasionally darkened his day. She was “Maria mia, my beloved,” when he was pleased with himself, and, when otherwise, it was enough that she should repeat at intervals: “Fancy their rejecting your picture. I am sure there are hundreds in the exhibition not half so good.”

To Peter she was an enigma to which he never now attempted or desired to find the key. She seemed to him quite impervious to external influences behind that high wall of her reserve. Nothing, so far as he knew, roused emotion in her; nothing excited, nothing depressed her. Sometimes, when a boy, he had gone to her with a trouble to confide, and she would say: “How tiresome for you, dear,” and perhaps suggest some sensible course of action. But neither his troubles nor her own (if she had any) seemed to touch her emotions; while, on the other hand, if there was something agreeable to communicate, if his father sold a picture, or Peter had the announcement of promotion in the Foreign Office, her sympathy and pleasure (if she felt any) were just as iced as her condolence had been. The event—to Peter’s apprehension—that most had power to move her was the fact that somebody had left open the door at the top of the kitchen stairs. When that was “quite shut,” and when all household cares had their sunset after dinner, her habitual mode of self-employment was to read a page or two of a novel (returning it to the library next day) and then to take some sort of railway guide and scan the advertisements of hotels situated in agreeable places on the south coast or among the Derbyshire Highlands. Often and often had Peter returned from dinner to find his mother thus employed. His father, when in the throes of creation, went early to bed in order to{34} be fresh and spry for the light of the morning hours; but she slept badly, and slept best if she went late to bed. There she would be then when Peter latch-keyed himself into the house on his return from dining out, or even, occasionally, when he returned far later from a dance, with the Bradshaw in her hand open among the advertisements of hotels. She would put a paper-knife in the leaves to keep her place while she exchanged a few words with him; then, when he went to bed, she would resume her reading. Quite naturally and warrantably he had always considered this a “sad narcotic exercise” on her part, producing, it was to be hoped, the drowsiness which she was wooing. A more promising device for dulling the activity of the brain, than reading about unknown hotels at unvisited places, could hardly be desired, and so reasonable a process provoked no curiosity on his part.

But the door at the top of the kitchen stairs was the most active of her interests, and took precedence in her mind of any mood of her husband’s. So when to-day he led her with a prancing processional movement to a throne of Spanish brocade at a suitable focusing distance from the finished cartoon, she, with nostrils open though with shut eyes, gave the door to the kitchen stairs the first claim on her attention.

“That door has been left open again,” she said. “How careless Burrows is! Please shut it, my dear. I will keep my eyes tightly shut.”

It struck Peter at this moment that both he and his mother treated his father as if he had been a child. They both played his games, treating them with due seriousness, lest they should damp the excited pleasure of the young. She was playing now{35} without collusion, for, led in as she had been, with closed eyes, she had no idea that Peter was present. Then, faintly up the kitchen stairs came the jingle of the glasses, and Burrows entered with the tray that had been ordered, once more leaving that fatal door agape. By some exercise of domestic intuition Mrs. Mainwaring divined the sort of thing going on round her, and with eyes still honourably closed said:

“Be sure you close the door at the top of the stairs, Burrows, when you go down again.”

John Mainwaring, with a wealth of gesticulation in order to enjoin silence on Peter, and with much stealthiness of action, completed his festive preparations. Demanding from his wife steadiness of hand and no questions, he thrust between her fingers a brimming glass of port, took one himself, and filled a third for Peter. In obedience to his pantomime Peter stood on one side of his enthroned mother and elevated his glass.

“Open your dear blue eyes, Maria mia!” exclaimed John Mainwaring, “and before you say a single word drink to your husband’s offering to Art!”

Mrs. Mainwaring opened her eyes, and found as she had already guessed from previous experience, her brimming glass.

“I couldn’t possibly drink all that, my dear,” she said, “but I will sip it with pleasure before I say anything. There! Dear me, what a fine great picture! All success to it! So that’s what has kept you so busy all these days when I wasn’t allowed to come into your studio. Oh, there’s Peter! Are you going to dine at home, dear? I thought you said you were going out.{36}”

“I’ve only come home to dress,” said he.

“I see. Now let me look at your father’s picture. Why, there’s the German Emperor! And what a quantity of other people. Dear me! And who is that whispering to the Emperor? What a horrid expression he has!”

The artist drank his glass of port at a gulp, and at another the rest of hers.

“Horrid? I should think it was. If you had said devilish you would have been even more on the bullseye. Now you shall be our Molière’s housemaid. Speak, voice of the British public! Tell me and Peter what you see before you.”

Mrs. Mainwaring, with the aid of her glasses, and the slight hint already given, was perfectly certain that it must be Satan who was whispering to the Emperor, and that all those dreadful faces behind must have something to do with him. Then there was that huge dark cloud in the background.

“The Emperor and Satan,” she said with a sort of placid excitement, like an adult trying to guess a child’s riddle. “Now wait a minute, my dear. Yes, I’m sure that dreadful thundercloud behind is the war, and if the Emperor wouldn’t listen to Satan it would go away. But he’s looking pleased and proud; he is listening. I suspect that Satan is telling him that he will win the war and be Emperor of the earth, as you’ve always said he would have been if the Germans had won. Well, I do think it’s clever of you to have made me think of all that. Such a few weeks, too, to paint such a big picture! How well you kept your secret! You only told me that you were very busy, and that I mustn’t come into your studio. I never thought that when you allowed me in again I should see anything so{37} large and remarkable. Most striking! Isn’t it, Peter?”

“Splendid!” said Peter. Then he wondered if he had put enough conviction into his voice to satisfy the gourmandise of his father.

“Quite splendid!” he said, rather louder.

Then it was Mrs. Mainwaring’s turn in this game.

“And it’s only the first of a series,” said she. “You must send it to some exhibition at once, John, in order to make room for the rest. So large, is it not? It fills up all the end of the studio. Such an important picture. Dear me, how wicked the Emperor looks! And what will the next picture be?”

“War. Picture of war. Allegorical. Shells bursting into shapes of devilish malignity.”

He leaned on the back of the throne, regarding the picture intently.

“It will kill me, painting the rest of them,” he said with a fell intensity. “I’ve got to go through the hell of it all myself before I can paint them.”

The calm of Mrs. Mainwaring’s voice was untouched by this gloomy prospect.

“No, dear, it won’t kill you,” she said consolingly. “That’s your artistic temperament. You will have a good holiday afterwards. You must be sure to do that. I see; the other pictures will all come out of that dreadful thundercloud. Such a poetical idea! And I hope you’ll have a picture of Peace for the last one. Everything quite serene again, and the thundercloud vanished, and no Emperor at all, unless you paint a very little figure of him in the background to show how small he has become. Just him in the background, somewhere in Holland.”

John Mainwaring left his domestic position, lean{38}ing on the throne, and strode up and down the studio.

“Ah, that intolerable happy ending!” he said. “That’s the convention that spoils all art. Art’s a stern, bitter business; you mustn’t expect to find a bit of sugar at the bottom of your cup. Art, as the Greeks said, is meant to move pity and terror.”

Mrs. Mainwaring stepped from her throne.

“Well, I shall think of a peaceful picture for myself, then,” she said, “and when I have looked at all yours I shall imagine my own. After all, the war is over, and it’s had a happy ending for us, since the Germans have been beaten and Peter has come back from it all safe and sound. That’s my ending.”

He projected his fine grey hair again with a dexterous sweep of the hand.

“Well, well,” he said, as if he was an adult playing with a child, whereas certainly the relation was the other way about. “I will do my best for you, Maria. But I make no promise, mind. Remember that.”

As Peter started off again for the various entertainments of the evening he tried to imagine himself in serious sympathy with either of his parents, and ruinously failed. Beginning with his father, he surveyed with the critical clear-sightedness of his terribly sensible nature those hysterical daubings of paint, those mysteries as to what his father was engaged on, those prancing port wine ceremonies when his labour was finished, that crystal confidence, never clouded, in the worth of his fatuous achievements. Long ago it had soaked into his soul that his father was a magnificent buffoon, who, decking himself in the habiliments of Hamlet, had no idea that instead{39} of being engaged in heroic drama, he was a figure in a farce so outrageous that you could not really laugh at him; you could only marvel. Had his pictures, every one of them, been masterpieces, his own enthusiasm over them would have verged on the grotesque. As it was they were preposterous and childish performances, inspiring the observer with pity and terror for the perpetrator rather than, in the sense of Aristotle, whom his father so often quoted, for the works themselves. How was it possible to feel sympathy with one whose impenetrable egoism burned radiantly unconsumed like that? Yet, while he rejected that possibility, Peter found himself somehow envying the temperament that transmuted life for its owner into an endless orgy and carouse. Even the deepest despairs into which reaction plunged his father were psychical feasts to him, served up with the same sauce of transcendental egoism as were his raptures. That was like some pungent essential oil of so ammoniacal an aroma that it pervaded its whole accessible atmosphere. No neutral quality on the part of others, no individual indifference was permitted to exist, or, if it existed, it was either wholly unnoticed or, if noticed, sublimely pitied. Peter’s father, so it struck the young man, galloped through life “like a ramping and a roaring lion,” the king of the beasts.

It was no manner of good to attempt to sympathize with so predatory an animal, and from the thought of his father Peter switched off to the thought of his mother, who was the habitual prey. There he was confronted with the mild enigma, of which he had not the faintest comprehension, and for the hundredth time, guessing out of a dubious, incurious twilight, he wondered if there was, could be, any{40}thing to comprehend. He tried to sum up his knowledge of her. She ordered dinner, she wore day and night some family inheritance of her own of splendid pearls, she read advertisements in railway guides of hotels on Cornish Rivieras and Derbyshire Switzerlands. That she should order dinner and wear her own pearls was an accidental happening, because she was mistress of a house and had some pearls, but beyond that she receded, as far as Peter was concerned, into a dreamland without logic. Indeed, as he devoted his mind to her now, the most illogical thing about her was that for twenty-three years she had contrived to live with his father, and had preserved a certain personality of her own. It seemed frankly impossible that anyone who had lived so long with that maniacal egoist should not have been in any way affected by him. But there she was. His father had neither crushed her nor vitalized her, and whatever her real personality might be, Peter felt sure that the ramping and the roaring lion had not invaded an atom of it. If his father sustained himself on the flamboyance of his own existence, she, none the less, was self-sufficient, demanding neither sympathy nor comprehension from others. The chasm that yawned between himself and his father was a mere rabbit-scrape compared to the abyss on the other side of which there sat his mother, delicate and immovable, covered with hoar frost and decked with her pearls, and reading her railway guide.

Peter owed that deep-seated vanity of his to his father; to his mother he owed that aloofness which was no less characteristic of him. But to himself he seemed to have nothing to do with either of them; they both appeared to him to be distant and ancient{41} phenomena, and he waved a mild salutation to them as acknowledgment of the debt of his own existence. Between them they had projected him, but his own individuality swamped that as completely as his father’s egoism drowned all other flavours. Was it always like that nowadays? Were all the last generation so far sundered from the adolescent present as he from his father and mother?... Was there a new plan of life, a new outlook, a new everything?


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