by E.F. Benson

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Chapter IX

Peter was sitting (so superbly that it might have been called lying) on a long dream-provoking chair set outside the south façade at Howes. For the moment he was alone, and he surprised himself with the unbidden thought of how seldom he had been alone during the last fortnight—since the day of the wedding, which had taken place in the unfashionable early days of September. This constant companionship of Silvia, their motor drives, their golf, their fishing in the lake, their long sittings with books or newspapers of which but little was read, had seemed to him as he looked back on them (conglomerated and coagulated, like little drops of mercury running together to form a globular brightness) to have been wholly delightful and satisfying. These days had been for him, in fact, a soft luminous revelation of how completely pleasant days could be. Without a touch of complacency he could not help knowing how every word and every whim of his had seemed adorable to Silvia, and he knew that, search as he might (he did not propose to search at all), he would be able to find no movement or mood of hers that he could have corrected or rectified. She had taken possession of him tenderly, and, as if with held breath, watched, beautifully bright-eyed, to discover and anticipate the moods of his desires; and in answer he had given her not acquiescence alone, but the eager consent of every fibre of his being. It seemed perfect that she should be like that.{176}

Silvia had just left him to meet her mother, who, at the expiration of their uninterrupted fortnight, was coming down to Howes that day; and Peter, alone for an hour on this September afternoon, let the hot sunshine, fructifying and caressing, melt the marrow of his bones, the impressed records on his brain, into definite consciousness. The bees humming over the flower-beds, the red-admiral butterflies opening and shutting their vermilion streaked wings, the swallows not yet gathering for their autumn departure, all conduced to leisurely summer-like meditation, and he found himself in possession of propositions and conclusions which he had scarcely known were his. This supreme sense of content came first; that, like a wash of warm colour, underlay the details that now began with a finer brushwork to outline themselves, and each of them appeared equally admirable, equally germane to the values of the emerging picture.

Mrs. Wardour’s arrival was an important touch; it might almost be called a fresh wash of colour. Out of numerous reflections, considerations, weighings of this and that, each of them at the time too liquid and inconclusive to call a plan, a plan now had certainly crystallized. They, the three contributory contrivers of it, had, so to speak, pooled the London house and this, making two houses for the three of them. Peter would be returning to his work in Whitehall next day, and since no sane being would wish to remain in London in these mellow radiances of September and October for longer than was absolutely necessary, he would, as a rule, flow up in the swiftest of cars in the morning, and stream back again in the late afternoon. For one reason or another, again, he might find himself wanting or being obliged to spend a night in town; he would be away all day, anyhow, and what{177} could be more convenient than Mrs. Wardour’s perfect willingness to establish herself for the present at Howes, where she would supply companionship for Silvia, and find it herself? Silvia again might want to spend a day or two in town, and her mother could please herself as to whether she joined her or not. From such a germ the idea of keeping both houses pooled and permanently open for any or all of them had easily developed. Headquarters for the present would be in the country, and London, to Mrs. Wardour’s notion, would be something of a picnic, with the house half shut up. But with four or five servants there, there would, she hoped, be no angles of real discomfort.

Mrs. Wardour then, to all intents and purposes, was to live with them; but Peter, so ran the deed, was “master” at Howes; while in London he and Silvia would have the wide licence of guests peculiarly privileged, at liberty to ask friends there whenever they wished. The crystallization of it, the definite statement and treaty, after infinite probings and testings on her part into Peter’s most intimate feelings on the subject, had been entirely Silvia’s. It had been she who had finally suggested it, with the proviso that anybody—by which she undoubtedly meant her husband—was to tear up the treaty without any possibility of offence, if he found it unworkable or unsatisfactory; but, as he thought over it now, he was frankly surprised at himself to find how eminently satisfactory a fulfilment of it he augured. Silvia had suggested it (there was the great point), and though he felt that he could not himself have conceivably presented a treaty like that to her for her signature, he applauded her insight in so doing. A man could hardly have suggested that to{178} the girl he had but lately married; it would have savoured, would it not, of his considering that the ideal arrangement did not procure for them their own undiluted companionship? But she had known that he would not put such a construction on her proposition. She did not, in fact, let an attitude which would have been typically feminine deter her from adopting this more sensible and more manly pose. But that was Silvia all through: there was a robust quality about her, an impotence to harbour littlenesses....

They expected another visitor that day in the person of Peter’s father, who had, in a letter which was no less than a bouquet of flowering eloquence, indicated that for the due, the supreme, the sublime execution of the second cartoon, it was necessary for the artist to soak himself once more in the contemplation of the first, so as (this was rather involved) to catch to the fraction of a tone the key in which it was pitched. There had to be a gradual crescendo, a deliberate tuning up and up, a continual ascent throughout the series.... Shorn of the mixture of metaphor, he wanted to study the first cartoon before plunging, with the aid of his sketches, into the remainder. These sketches, he added, were, as soon as he had finished with their use, to pass out of his possession, for the charming Mrs. Henry Wardour had induced him to let her purchase them at a figure which convinced him that they would find an appreciative home.... Then the letter became slightly mysterious. The projected series of cartoons, he had reason to know, was exciting stupendous interest in artistic circles. Flattering—perhaps a man who was proud of his work ought not to say flattering—evidence of that was to hand, evidence substantial and{179} conclusive. He had not made—this was lucky, since he would not have dreamed of going back on his bargain—he had not made any contract with Mrs. Wardour—to whom all salutations—about the rest of the series, and thought himself fortunate in not parting with them for a comparative pittance. He did not (mark you, my Peter) complain of the price she had paid him for the first of them, and he was quite sure that, with Peter’s assistance, everything would be arranged quite satisfactorily.

Peter had read this letter, which he must talk over with Silvia on her return, with the detachment of which he was so terribly capable, and had come to the conclusion that his father had somehow induced a deluded Crœsus of some sort to offer a higher price per cartoon for his future perpetrations than that which his mother-in-law had, no doubt, already given him for the first. For this deduction he had the most cordial welcome. As long as his father was dumping his “beastly” goods—so Peter was now at liberty to think—on the picture-gallery at Howes for fancy, if not fantastic prices, he could not in mere pious decency put it to Mrs. Wardour that she was paying, as he supposed, heavily, for colossal rubbish. But his father’s letter, maturely considered, made it quite certain that somebody was willing to pay more for rubbish than Mrs. Wardour. Already the general question had received his attention: Mrs. Wardour was, so he supposed, under contract to buy those melodramatic daubs for the decoration of a house that belonged to Silvia, and of which he, by attested treaty, was master. So long as his father could profitably dispose of this rubbish here, Peter was filially prohibited from any protest, but when once his father announced that he was receiving a mere pittance,{180} though without complaint, for what he would in another market receive a less despicable dole, his son, surely, was free to welcome his taking his wares elsewhere. His son, in any case, was heart and soul allied to the new enterprise, for already Peter had experienced a vivid distaste of the fact that he countenanced, by mere acquiescence, this further decoration of Howes. He knew that if the artist had not been his father he must have already protested against the bargain which perhaps was not yet complete on either side. His acquiescence, in fact, had brought home to him that his father was profiting by his marriage....

Then, so swiftly and involuntarily that he had not time to stop the thought on the threshold, there burst into the door of his mind the inquiry as to whether he, too, as well as his father, was not unloading rubbish at a high price. And the price that he, Peter, was receiving for his rubbish was infinitely the higher. His father received, no doubt, a substantial cheque; he himself received, as far as the material consideration went, an immunity from the meaning of cheques, and, in a standard immeasurably higher, some sort of blank cheque which, as Silvia told him one night (or was in the middle of telling him when his father made that flamboyant interruption), would be honoured by her to any figure he chose to fill in, and yet leave her richer, in such standard, than ever. There, in that immortal bank, he divined then, and knew now her illimitable credit. Whatever she paid out, by that, in the royal mathematics of love, was she the richer.

The impression made by that unsolicited thought was to him like having seen some pass-book of the soul which was hers. It had blown open in front of his{181} eyes, and before he had, so to speak, time to close it, he had caught a glimpse of sums so vast that they exceeded his powers of realization. His eye, in that involuntary survey, had received no impression of his payments into her account; the credit side was but a catalogue of her own inconceivable affluence. Every moment, it seemed, she was giving, and every moment her bounty flowed back to her. It was with some kind of sceptical envy that, in that glimpse, he realized this omnipotent finance. It was not so marvellous that love should be stronger than death; the miracle was that it could be so much stronger than life.

It was at this moment in Peter’s reflections, a moment that, only half realized, he was glad to get away from, that an interruption, reasonably claiming his attention, occurred in the shape of a little old butler, who had been drafted down here from London in view of Mrs. Wardour’s advent. He was black-eyed and grey-headed, and “perky” in movement to an extent that fully justified Peter’s exclamation of “The Jackdaw,” when he had quitted the scene last night, and now the Jackdaw’s immediate mission was to hand Peter a couple of letters on an immense silver salver, and inquire where Mr. Mainwaring, who, so the Jackdaw understood, was to arrive that evening, should be “put.” He should be “put” clearly, in the place that would please him most, for this was Peter’s undeviating creed when self-sacrifice was not involved, and beyond doubt the state-rooms, so called, would please his father inordinately.

The state-rooms had been insisted on in the rebuilding of the house by his father-in-law, in a rich vision, so Silvia had half piously, half humorously intimated, of royal personages being sumptuously{182} housed there. There was a tremendous tapestried bedroom, en suite with a second bedroom, a breakfast-room, a sitting-room, all tapestry and oak mantelpieces and silver sconces. Yes, the state-rooms for Mr. Mainwaring. Silvia (they were on humorous terms now about Peter’s father) would enjoy that immensely.

Peter took his letters from the Jackdaw, as the latter gave a pleasant sort of croak in answer to this order, and remembered how Nellie had once said that wealth was not an accident, but an attribute, a quality. He had been disposed to dispute that at the time, but somehow his own allocation of the state-rooms to his father confirmed the suspicion that she was right. He himself, for instance, was clearly a different person in the eyes of his father now, when he could gloriously endow him with state-rooms, from what he had been when he, as on that same occasion he told Nellie, only lived in the beastly little house off the Brompton Road because free meals and free lodging were a consideration to his exiguous purse. You were different—Nellie was right—when you could dispense material magnificence instead of accepting a tolerable shelter, where, though the rain was kept out, the odour of dinner, with that careless Burrows, could not be kept in.

Still fingering his letters, and trying to insert a thumb into a too honestly adhesive envelope flap, Peter slightly amplified by corrobative illustration this thesis. How often had he, so to speak, “sung for his dinner,” accepting and welcoming such invitations as Mrs. Trentham extended to him, by which, for the pleasure of comfortable, decent food, he had gladly spent an insincere and boring evening! It had not quite been greed combined with moderate{183} penuriousness which had enjoined that: it was the natural thing to do, if you were young and poor; to dine, that is to say, comfortably, and by way of acknowledging your indebtedness, to be towed about for the rest of the evening by a foolish, married, middle-aged woman who, for some inscrutable reason of her own, wanted to present her unblemished reputation in some sort of compromising limelight. But now, on this opulent sunny afternoon, Peter tried in vain to recapture the mood, once habitual to him, of accepting any invitation merely because it implied a good dinner and perhaps a good supper, with a boring opera in between. Certainly it had been easy for him to fulfil his part of the bargain in these evenings: it was natural and also habitual for him to make himself pleasant, to look handsome, to tell Mrs. Trentham that she had never been so marvellous, so chic, so smart, so entrancing generally. But now the mere notion of such an evening seemed foreign. If he wanted to dine at the Ritz and go to the opera and have some supper, he could do it, and secure as guests just those with whom it was pleasant to spend an evening. Henceforth if he wanted to do that he could, vulgarly speaking, “pick and choose” the recipients of his bounty.... Stated like that the whole thing sounded rather sordid, but it seemed to him that, for himself, he had got rid of that sordidness, the “court-fool-touch” which compelled you to make jokes in payment for your dinner, or (which was worse) to talk to your hostess in the serious, wistful note of an adorer, or at any rate of a dazzled and delighted guest. To be host, to pay the bill, provided you had plenty of money, was far the easier part.

There it was then: he had no longer to be asked to dine at the Ritz, and to go to the theatre or what not{184} afterwards. He could bid to his feasts, and no more consider the expense than in the old days he would have considered whether he could afford a bus fare. Whatever enjoyments of that kind the world had to offer were his for the mere formation of his inclination to enjoy them.... And then, suddenly as a blink of distant lightning, and, so it seemed, wholly independent of his own brain, there came the question as to what he had paid for these privileges. And remote as drowsy thunder, the question supplied its own indubitable answer. He had somehow—the thing was done—convinced Silvia that he loved her. He had, at any rate, given her the signal of response that had ecstatically, rapturously contented her, when, below her breath, as she accepted him as her lover, she had whispered, “Ah, just let me love you, all I want is to love you, to be allowed to love you.”... He had known quite well what that “allow” really implied. He had to be on the same plane of emotion as she; else, to her understanding of it all, they could never have arrived at this.

All the time (he knew that then, and knew it infinitely better now) her level shone in sunlight like some peak far above the clouds, compared with his little wooded hill that drowsed in the grey day below them. Round him there was no gleam of that ethereal brightness in which she walked, or, at the most, through some rent in the clouds, he caught a glimpse of her. She, at present, so it appeared to him, was so encompassed with brightness that, dazzled, she took for granted that he was with her, and indeed, by some device of desire and of cleverness on his part, he could convince her that through the clasp of their hands there throbbed the sweet entanglement of the soul. She interpreted his lightest action, his words, his glances,{185} by some magic of her own; but already he knew that he, though with consummate care, was “keeping it up.” There was no element of difficulty about it, any more than there had been any difficulty about behaving to the complete satisfaction of Mrs. Trentham at her Ritz-Opera entertainments. But in both rôles, as guest at the Ritz and as “master” of Howes, there was an inherent falsity. In both he was dressed up for the part. The difference between the two situations was that in the one Mrs. Trentham was dressed up too, and in the other Silvia was not.

Peter was quite ruthless in tearing off the motley from himself, and contemplating with the candidness of a true egoist the revealed deformities. He never cultivated illusions about himself, nor strove to soften down his own uncomeliness. There he was; that was he, to make the best or the worst of. He did not on the other hand, try to depreciate his assets; he tried, in fact, to make the most of them and use them to the utmost possible advantage. He was, and knew it, a marvellous physical type, handsome as the young Hermes, and crowned with the glory and flower of adolescence. He surrendered to Silvia all that physical perfection; he gave her the wit and charm of his mind; and he was aware that with these he dazzled her much in the same way as Nellie had dazzled her. The use and the enjoyment of them, utterly at her service, was responsible for the splendid success of this solitary fortnight.

In spite of the divine conditions of these golden country days, he knew that he was not sorry to be enjoying the last of them. To-morrow he had to get back to his work, and this sword of his, body and mind, would be sheathed for intervals of absence. And then, with the sure certainty of apprehension{186} that had stamped out these conclusions, he knew that it was not for these alone, or even for these at all, that Silvia had loved him. At the most they were for her the bright-plumaged lure, to which her attention had been originally attracted. But even in the first moments of this attention she had divined something in him, below the feathers and the fur, which she sought. Her quest had gone deeper than skin and conversation, than glances and smiles and level shoulders and firm neck, and quick response, and humour and all the lures of the male for the female. She had claimed and clasped him for something other than what certainly appeared to her as mere appurtenances. And what on his side had he looked for in her? Nothing, so he branded it on himself, except her mere physical attraction, her mere mental charm and freshness and her wealth.

But the admission of this was a branding: the hot iron hurt him, and, not liking to be hurt, he recollected the letters which, a few minutes ago, the Jackdaw had presented to him, and which—the first of them, upside down in his hand—was so honestly gummed that he could make no insertion into its flap.

He turned it over and saw the handwriting of the address. He managed then to open it.

“Isn’t it delightful to be married?” wrote Nellie. “I didn’t write to you at first, Peter, because you wouldn’t have enjoyed anything that came from outside. But after a fortnight, you ought to be able to be congratulated. Before that it would have been merely impertinent (and probably is now); but your friends have to take up the threads again some time. All we blissful people, in fact, must remember that we{187} are human beings, after all, and break ourselves into ‘behavin’ according’ (Mrs. Gamp, isn’t it? No, I don’t think it is). Anyhow, we shall all meet again, shan’t we, and buzz about in London, and ask each other to our lovely country houses. We’ve got to go on, Peter; the world has got to go on. Hasn’t it?”

Peter turned a page, and began to be quite absorbed in this new but familiar atmosphere. He slipped out of his present environment under some spell which lurked in these trivialities.

“I’m getting on beautifully,” so began the second page, “for Philip and I understand each other so well, and it’s tremendously comfortable. We seem to want just the same sort of thing. He’s awfully keen about birds, for instance, and I am becoming so. We go out with field-glasses, and see willow-wrens, and yesterday we saw a marsh-warbler. Then I like golf—you always hated it, I remember—so Philip is learning to like it too. He nearly lost his temper yesterday when he missed a short putt, and that’s always a good sign. We don’t quite agree about motoring, because I always want to go as fast as the machine can manage, and he always wants to slow down when there’s a cross-road. He talks to the chauffeur through a beastly little tube, and it’s like a funeral.

“Peter darling, what rot I am writing. Fancy my writing such rot to you. It’s the wrong sort of rot, isn’t it? There are rots and rots. You and I always used to talk rot, but it wasn’t about birds and golf. (I’m having a new sort of mashie.) But, bar rot, when are we going to meet again? Isn’t the country a sleepy place? Do come up to town soon, and Philip and I will come up, too. (You and Silvia, I mean, of course.) I want to be in the silly old thick of it again. Because when you’re in the thick of it{188} you can make privacies, but when you’re in the privacy of the country you can’t make a thick, except when you have a great house-party, as we’re going to have next week, and that isn’t really a ‘thick’: it’s only partridges. The men go out in the morning, and the women join them for lunch, and then the men come home in the evening, and the morning and evening are the first day. But it’s all extremely comfortable—that’s the word I come back to. Mother has been here for the last three weeks, and she’s almost ceased saying that she must go away the day after to-morrow. I suppose that’s because she’s tired of hearing either Philip or me murmur something about its being such a short visit. P. and I really both like her being with us: it isn’t half a bad plan, and I expect she’ll stop till we go back to town again.

“I want you and Silvia to come over here on November 10th for the week-end. There will be hosts of rather nice people here: so many, in fact, that you and I can steal away without being noticed, and have a scamper through the wet woods (they are sure to be wet in November) and wave our tails and congratulate ourselves on being settled for life. We’ve both of us got somebody to take care of us (Yes, I mean that), and if you’re as pleased with the arrangement as I am, why, we’re very lucky people. You and I, you know, if things had been utterly and completely different, would have quarrelled so frightfully.... I saw two cats yesterday sitting with their faces within an inch of each other, scowling and screeching at each other in a perfect tempest of irritation.

“Here’s Philip come to take me out. He will sit in the chair there waiting quite placidly till I have finished this letter, not reading the paper or doing anything at all, but just waiting. He knows where{189} there are a pair of golden crested wrens. Isn’t that exciting?... Oh, I can’t go on with him sitting there. Good-bye, my dear. Mind you and Silvia come on the 10th.”

As Peter read, he heard, by some internal audition, Nellie’s voice enunciating the sentences with that familiar intonation of light staccato mockery. The written words were but like a prompter’s copy which he held and glanced at; it was Nellie who stood there and said the lines. He would have liked to argue a point or two with her, but he knew that there was between them that deep fundamental agreement and comprehension without which argument develops into mere contradiction....

Peter thrust the letter into his pocket as steps sounded on the gravel just behind him.

“Been sitting here ever since I left you?” asked Silvia. “Oh, Peter, without your hat in this hot sun!” She picked it up and perched it on his head.

“There! Oh, dear, what a nuisance it is that this is your last day here. But what a last day. Any letters?”

Peter’s hand fingered Nellie’s letter.

“Yes: one from Nellie,” he said. “She wants you and me to go there for the week-end on November 10th. Shall we?”

“Oh, how unkind of her! What are we to do? Shall we say that mother will be here for that Sunday? It will be quite true in its way, though it won’t mean precisely what she thinks it means.”

Peter looked at her below the rim of his straw hat. She had placed it rather forward over his forehead, and as she stood beside his chair he had to incline his head sharply back, so that the muscles at the side of{190} his neck stood out below the sun-browned skin. She came a step closer and held his throat between thumb and fingers.

“What shall we tell her?” she asked. “Speak, or I’ll strangle you.”

“Strangle away!” he said.

“I would sooner you spoke,” she said. “I don’t want to murder you just yet. So unpleasant for mother.”

“Whether it’s unpleasant for me or not doesn’t seem to matter,” said Peter throatily, for Silvia increased the pressure of her hand.

“Not a bit, darling,” said she. “I shall squeeze tighter and tighter until you tell me what we shall say to Nellie.”

“Brute!” said Peter. “Don’t do it, Silvia. You’re hurting me frightfully.”

He wrinkled up his forehead and drew in his breath quickly, as if in great pain. Instantly Silvia took her hand away.

“Oh, my dear, I haven’t really hurt you?” she asked with compunction.

“Once upon a time,” said Peter, “there was a woman who believed every word that her husband said.”

Silvia sat down on the edge of the long chair.

“Was? There is one,” she said. “If you told me you hated me, I should believe you.”

“I hate you,” said Peter promptly.

“You didn’t say that,” said she. “Your mouth said it. What are we to tell Nellie? Seriously, I mean. It will be nearly our last Sunday here, if we go to London in December.”

Peter made a short calculation.

“Dear Nellie,” he said, “we are so sorry we ca{191}n’t come, because November 10th will be our last evening but twenty-one alone here, as we go up to town the next month.’ Will that do?”

“It sounds perfectly sensible,” said Silvia. “She’ll understand: it wasn’t so long ago that she was married. Then you’ll write that, will you?” she added hopefully.

“I will if you really wish it,” said he; “but it’s not very sane. You see ... well, some time we’ve got to begin behaving like ordinary human beings again. And, after all, Nellie is a very old friend of mine, and a very intimate one of yours. She’ll think it rather odd.”

Silvia sighed.

“A whole Saturday to Monday,” she said. “How selfish Nellie is! I never knew that before. But perhaps we had better go. Shall I answer it for you?”

Peter got up.

“No; I must write to her in any case,” he said.

“What else does she say?” asked Silvia. “No message for me?”

Peter could not definitely remember any, but there was sure to have been such.

“Of course: all sorts of things. Come for a stroll, Silvia. I’m getting chilly in the shade of my straw hat. There’s another thing I want to talk over with you. Let’s go down by the lake!”

“Hurrah! I love being consulted. What is it?”

“It’s about my father. Oh, by the way, the Jackdaw asked me where he should be put, and I said the state-rooms. Is that all right?”

Silvia pinched his arm.

“When are you going to understand that you are master?” she said. “Oh, Peter, it will be lovely{192} for him having the state-rooms. He’ll like it tremendously. Won’t he? I wish I had thought of it. It wasn’t that, I hope, that you wanted to consult me about.”

“No. Now, before I consult you, I want to ask you a question or two, which you must promise to answer not tactfully, but truly.”

“Not even a little tact, if I find it necessary?” she asked.

“Not an atom. Do you like that cartoon of his?”

Silvia glanced sideways at him.

“Well—I don’t find I go and look at it for pleasure,” she said. “Not often at least, not every day. Do you like it?”

“I think it’s the largest piece of rubbish I ever saw. Now try again to express your opinion.”

Silvia gave a sigh of relief.

“Oh, I do agree!” she said. “It’s the most appalling. Now, isn’t it?”

“Question number two,” said Peter. “Do you think you will like the others any better? Do you, in fact, look forward to seeing the whole wall of the gallery covered with allegorical Mainwarings?”

“Not in the very smallest degree. But we’ve got to have them, haven’t we?”

“I don’t think so,” said he. “In fact, from a letter I have received from my father, I gather that he doesn’t consider he made a contract for them at all. It’s clear from what he says that somebody else wants to buy them at a higher rate, considerably higher, than your mother paid for the first. In fact, he alludes to the price she paid for it as a pittance. By the way, what did she pay for it?”

Silvia looked sideways at him again.

“Do you really want me to tell you?” she asked.{193}

“If you don’t mind.”

“Well, she gave him a thousand guineas for it, Peter. I rather wish he hadn’t called it a pittance; it makes mother seem mean. He was quite willing to accept it. And I don’t suppose—do you?—that he sells much at that sort of price?”

“And the rest of the unspeakable six at the same price?” asked Peter.

“I suppose so. Mother understood so,” said she.

“And does she want to have them?” asked Peter.

“No. I don’t think she does, very much,” said Silvia. “She spoke to-day of ‘my cartoons’—wasn’t that darling of her?—when I said your father was coming this evening. But I think I could explain to her that she needn’t have them; if I do it the right way, she won’t think she wants them. But what about the one we’ve got?”

“Sell it back to him at the price she gave for it,” said Peter.

Silvia seemed to consider this simple proposition rather intently.

“Yes, perhaps she would do that,” she said, without much conviction as to its probability. “Oh, Peter, haven’t we got rather odd parents?”

“I have; but why have you, except in so far that it was odd to give a thousand guineas for that monstrosity? I’m delighted at the prospect of getting rid of it, not only, and not chiefly, because it’s an atrocious object, but because I hate the idea of my father imposing upon your mother and then talking about a pittance. He would have jumped at selling it in an auction room for a quarter of what she paid. I wonder who can have offered him more for it. Oh, by the way, Aunt Eleanor has bought his sketches for the cartoons.{194}”

Silvia burst out laughing.

“Then Aunt Joanna has bought the cartoons themselves,” she said. “But don’t suggest that to mother. Or rather, if you want me to talk about it all to her, I won’t. Aunt Joanna, you see, wants to, what they call wipe mother’s eye. I’m quite certain of it. And if mother got wind of it, she wouldn’t part with that wretched picture for a million.”

“But how odd——”

“Yes; that’s her oddness. I said we had got odd parents. And I doubt—at least, there’s no doubt about it at all—whether she will let your father have back the one cartoon that she has got for what she paid for it. She doesn’t want any money, and she’s as generous as she can be, bless her, but she won’t be ‘done.’ The picture is hers, and she won’t let him have it back at a penny less than he is going to receive for it. Oh, let’s talk about something more interesting. Anyhow, you and I don’t want the cartoon we’ve got, or any more like it. But people are so queer, and I love their queernesses: they are part of them. After all, the queernesses in people are exactly what makes their individuality. You’re queer, I’m queer.”

“Why am I queer?” demanded Peter.

“I’ve told you so often,” said she.

Peter guessed at that what his imputed queerness was. It was true that she had told him often, but it was true also that there was a thing which a lover was never tired of repeating.

“Never: never once,” said he.

“As if I wasn’t doing it all day,” she said. “Taking advantage, I mean, of your queerness—not merely telling you about it directly, but being so much more direct than just telling you. What’s your queer{195}ness, indeed, if it isn’t that you allow me to be queer, just because you are?”

“You’ve changed the subject,” said he. “You’re talking about your queerness now.”

“It’s all the same queerness,” she said.

Peter could squint more atrociously than most people, and now, looking at Silvia, he allowed himself to contemplate the end of his nose. Silvia couldn’t stand this trick, and a nonsensical ritual had built itself up upon it.

“Oh, Peter, put your eyes back!” she cried.

“I can’t. They’ve stuck. Push them back for me.”

He shut his eyes, and Silvia stroked the lids from the nose outwards.

“They will stick some day,” she said,” and then I shall divorce you.”

Peter looked at her straight again.

“Go on about the queerness,” he said.

“Yours or mine?” she asked.

“You said they were the same.”

“They are in a way. But your queerness is much the queerest. For it was I whom you loved. What I did wasn’t queer; anything else would have been not queer, but imbecile.... Peter, don’t ever be tired of knowing how awfully I love you. If you’re not there, the thought of it frightens me; there’s something crushing about it. But when you are with me, the only thing that frightens me is the thought that it shouldn’t be so. But why on earth you’re like that—like me, I mean—that’s what is so incomprehensible. Me, you know: this bit of nothing at all.”

Peter became aware, more consciously than through the hints he had previously been cognizant of, how, though Silvia’s level was some sun-basked{196} plateau far above him, he welcomed and spread himself in the gleams that came to him. There was a splendour in being loved like that, and at this moment the inherent falsity of his position was just burned out by that consuming ray. Her love, not in the least masculine, was yet male in its adoring self-surrender; his, as regards her, though not in the least feminine, was female in its reception of it. There was an ecstasy in being adored by so magnificent a lover. Even as in material ways, she showered herself on the Danae for whom, in their drama, he was cast, so in the subtler and splendid beauty of the soul, she poured herself out in a love that passed the love of woman. And that very quality, here triumphantly shining, drew out the essential fragrance of his.

“More,” he said, “more nothing at all.”

She seemed to step from her height at that, diving down to him, entrancingly tender.

“That’s all there is, my darling,” she said. “If you want more than I’ve got, you must teach it me. Now I won’t be absurd any longer. Look, there’s a moorhen!”

This was quite in the habitual manner. Like a lark, she sang for so long as she was in the air, then folded her wings and dropped to her nest. The singing was over, and it left her panting with the ecstasy of it. But Peter, to continue that metaphor, received something of a shock; he had not known she would so swiftly come to ground. Yet that sudden dip was equally characteristic of him; he probably had shown her the trick of it, for often he had done just that. The sky, after all, extended to the actual ground: there was no intermediate element.

“It’s a coot,” he said.

“I don’t care. I only hope it’s happy,” said she.{197} “Oh, my dear, there’s the bell for lunch, and we’re half a mile from the house. The Jackdaw will peck us for being late.”

“Not our fault. The lake shouldn’t have been so long.”

“We might fill some of it up,” said she. “Let’s talk sensibly. What were we saying before you began to talk nonsense? Oh, yes, pictures, pittance——”

“Papa,” said he.

“Peter.... I can’t think of any more.”

“Peter’s papa purchases the picture he sold for a pittance,” said he. “American headlines. Make another.”

This sort of monkey-gymnastics of the mind, at which Peter and Nellie and all the rest of them so fluently excelled, was always productive in Silvia of an intense gravity; she made her contributions with effort, struggle and bewilderment, amazed at how quickly everybody else—everybody else was so clever—made words out of words, and reeled off the names of eminent men which began with an X....

“Something about mother,” said she with knitted brows. “I must manage—oh, Peter, isn’t that good?—I must manage to make mother——”

Peter giggled.

“That’s not the right form,” he said. “You must get the right form. Let’s see. ‘Millionaire mother manages to make—to make—oh, yes—money on Mr. Mainwaring’s monstrosity,’” he finished up in a great hurry.

“Oh, Peter, how lovely!” said she. “How do you do it? And why can’t I?”

Mr. Mainwaring rose magnificently to his tenancy of the state-rooms, feeling that it had been a very{198} proper arrangement to put him there. Here was the father of the master of Howes paying a visit to his son; here, too, in the same earthly vesture, was the creator of the great cartoons which, among all the futile crosses and cenotaphs and hysterical verse and prose, were not unworthy of the heroic history which they commemorated. With the same abandoned thoroughness with which he could be, when suitable, the rollicking, jovial boy, hungry for his tea, or the robust-throated Toreador, so now he saw in the assignation of the state-rooms to his occupancy a very proper and touching homage on the part of Peter or Silvia, or Mrs. Wardour (or more probably on their joint acclamation) to the sovereignty of his Art. These pleasant reflections that accompanied the appreciative exploration of his territory suggested that there was, so to speak, a little state business to be done, the nature of which he believed he had adequately indicated to Peter. Peter, good lad, would no doubt have attended to it, and it would be well for him to give his report.

Probably it was as much the desire of having this conversation with Peter secure from interruption as anything else that caused him to send a message to his son that Mr. Mainwaring would be much obliged if he would spare him a few minutes in the state-rooms before dressing time; but it certainly fitted in pleasantly with his sovereignty that Peter should be requested to present himself, and that Mr. Mainwaring should be set on a throne of Spanish brocade.

He waved Peter to a seat. Peter seemed to prefer to perch himself on the tall steel fireguard. He divined with sufficient accuracy his father’s pose, and was partly amused, partly irritated. Silvia would have been wholly amused.{199}

“Hope you’ll be comfortable here, father,” he said.

Mr. Mainwaring glanced round him.

“Yes, indeed,” he said. “I shall do very well. Ah, by the way, before we get to business, I have a letter from your mother which she asked me to give you. Perhaps you would hand me my despatch case.... Here it is.”

Peter was lighting a cigarette, and spoke between the puffs.

“Right. I’ll take it when I go,” he said. His father looked at the tapestried walls.

“My dear boy,” he said, “I don’t know if I am right to allow you to smoke here.”

Peter dropped his match on the carpet. He did that on purpose.

“Oh, don’t bother about that,” he said. “I allow myself. Now I suppose you want to talk to me about that cartoon?”

“You got my letter? You have arranged what I indicated?”

Peter felt his irritation gaining on him.

“Well, your letter was rather—rather involved, rather vague and magnificent,” he said. “What Silvia and I made out of it was that you had been offered a higher price for work that Mrs. Wardour had commissioned you to do for her, and wanted to call it off. That seemed to be the general drift of it.”

“No; there was no definite commission,” said he. “I mentioned that.”

“Mrs. Wardour was under the impression that there was. But that, I think, can be arranged, for the series was intended—commissioned or not doesn’t matter—to hang in the gallery here. This is Silvia’s house, you see, and in a way mine, so that if we con{200}sent there will be—under certain conditions—no difficulty with my mother-in-law. Silvia has talked to her about it. We cordially consent, father. We are both quite willing that you should paint the rest of the series for somebody else.”

Mr. Mainwaring could find no fault with the substance of the speech; indeed, it gave him precisely what he was wanting. But, in spite of Peter’s neutrality of statement, he found it dealing some dastardly wound to his vanity.

“Ha! You and Silvia, it appears, don’t want the great series,” he remarked.

“But apparently somebody else does,” said Peter. “And you said in your letter that they were exciting a stupendous interest in artistic circles. That’s all right, then; we are very glad.”

“Yes, glad to get rid of them,” said the insatiable one.

Peter practically never lost his temper. He used it as a stored-up force. But certainly the sight of his father on the Spanish throne, looking like Zeus, did not predispose him to exert his habitual pleasantness.

“You are, of course, at liberty to make any comments you choose,” he said. “You are vexed with me because I give you your way quite willingly instead of reluctantly. By the way, don’t tell me, and in particular don’t tell Mrs. Wardour, whether the ‘artistic circles’ is another expression for Lady Darley. If it is, I think it highly probable that she would refuse to let you have back the first cartoon, if that is part of your plan. You would, in that case, I suppose, have to copy it if she allowed you to.”

Mr. Mainwaring rose to a splendour of pomposity.

“Copy?” he said. “And could I copy the fiery execution of it? You speak of pictures, my Peter, as{201} if they could be produced like boots or hats. The intending purchaser—I do not say whether or no I refer to Lady Darley—wants no cold replica. She insists on the one that came hot and terrible from the furnace of my imagination.”

“Then on certain conditions,” said Peter, “Lady Darley—I mean the purchaser—may have it.”

“Name them,” said his father, looking like a captive king.

“The first is that you completely withdraw, and if possible regret, the use of the expression ‘pittance,’ in connection with the price you received for it. There’s an implication of meanness about it with regard to Mrs. Wardour.”

Mr. Mainwaring clicked his thumb and finger as if to say, “That for what I sold it for.”

“I make no such implication,” he said. “Mrs. Wardour or anybody else is well within her rights in acquiring fine work at such prices as the artist is obliged from straitened circumstances to accept.”

“The point is,” said Peter, “that you hadn’t often, if ever, been obliged to accept a thousand guineas before for any picture.”

“And may not an artist, after years of unremitting endeavour, be allowed to come into his own and enjoy the appreciation he has long merited?” asked Mr. Mainwaring.

“Certainly he may: we are all delighted. But when he does—when, that is to say, you at length receive a high price for a picture, you shouldn’t, because you are offered immediately afterwards a higher price, talk of a pittance as applied to the first. You thought yourself, father,” continued Peter pleasantly and inexorably, “remarkably fortunate to get a thousand guineas.{202}”

Mr. Mainwaring, at this, displayed the versatility of a quick-change artist. It was pretty well demonstrated that Peter was not impressed by the majestic attitude, and he yodelled and burst into a laugh.

“Well, well, my Peter,” he said, “you shall have it your own way. It was no pittance. I ought not to have called it a pittance—mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Pittance it is—let us distinguish, my dear—when I contrast it with the subsequent offer that has reached me, but at the time a thousand guineas seemed to me a very fair remuneration. I had been too modest about my value, it appears now. Ah, yes, but recognition is pleasant enough, and when the brush slips from my hand, and my spirit flies” (he made a circular motion of his arms as if swimming) “to join the mightier dead, the Mainwaring estate will be found not too inconsiderable to place beside the fortunes of the Wardours. But that will not, I hope, be for a long time yet,” he added, as the notion of picturing himself in front of some great canvas with the brush slipping from his nerveless hands, supported by Silvia and Peter, occurred to him with an almost ominous vividness.

“Quite,” said Peter in general acknowledgment of this magnificence. “There remains then one thing to settle, and that is the price at which you repurchase the cartoon of which Mrs. Wardour is the present possessor.”

Mr. Mainwaring did not for the moment see the bearing of this, and remained splendid.

“I should not dream of repaying her one penny less than what I received for it,” he said. “The full price, Peter: assure her of that.”

Peter thought it better to let another aspect of the{203} case strike his father, without suggesting it, and was silent till Mr. Mainwaring spoke again.

“H’m. I see what you mean,” he said.

“I hoped you would, because really there doesn’t seem to be any reason why she should let you have for a thousand guineas a thing which is now indubitably hers, and which you will immediately sell for a considerably higher sum.”

Mr. Mainwaring began to regret that he had said quite so much about the utter impossibility of recapturing the fire of the original in a copy.

“You would be offering her, you must remember,” Peter added, “a pittance for her picture.”

“You think I ought to give her what I shall receive for it?” asked Mr. Mainwaring.

Peter kept steadily before him his distaste of his father “scoring off” Mrs. Wardour. The whole thing, though humorous, was rather sordid; but he knew that he rather liked himself in the part he was playing in it.

“I think the justice of that view will appeal to you,” he said. “You couldn’t very well do otherwise.”

Mr. Mainwaring was silent a moment, and then decided to be completely superb.

“I have no experience in business or in bargaining,” he said. “If you tell me that is right and fair and proper, I yield.”

“I think it’s your only means of getting the picture,” said Peter. “So that’s settled, is it? Oh, the letter from my mother. Thanks. Dinner at half-past eight.”

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