by E.F. Benson

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Chapter VII

John Mainwaring had prepared his studio for the visit of Mrs. Wardour and Silvia next day with the utmost dramatic completeness, employing for their reception the scenery and the setting which suggested itself as being most likely to impress and astound. With this end in view he had littered the room with all possible properties, bringing down from the attics stacks of his own pictures, which he disposed in careless profusion round the walls. Sketch books and paint boxes littered the tables, lay figures peeped from behind easels, robes trailed over sofa-backs, and he, when his visitors were announced, had designed that he himself should be found, in his oldest velveteen coat and morocco slippers, at the top of the step-ladder which he had put into position again in front of the great canvas representing Satan odiously whispering to the German Emperor. There, absorbed in his inspired labours, he was to be giving the last, the crowning, the positively final terrific touch to it as his visitors (and, as he hoped, his victims) entered.

Since the work had actually been finished at least a month ago, and on that occasion had been toasted in glasses of port wine by himself, his wife and Peter, he had thought it prudent to inform her that more last touches were to be applied to it again to-day. Visitors, he had added, were dropping in that afternoon, and she would, no doubt, be sitting upstairs in the drawing-room when they arrived, with tea prepared for their refreshment. When the time came{129} he would yodel for her, and she would come down, be presented to Mrs. Wardour and her daughter, and would scold him for keeping these ladies looking at his stupid pictures instead of bringing them up to tea....

Such was the general idea of the opening of a manœuvre from which he, with a quite incurable optimism, expected very gratifying results. Peter had already alluded to the surprising dawn of Mrs. Wardour on the town, and he himself, at the play the night before, had paved the way for a commission to execute a portrait of Silvia. He had no idea whether or not Mrs. Wardour inserted any of these golden tentacles with which, like an octopus, she appeared to be enveloping London, into the domain of art, but it was worth while hoping that her sense of completion would not be satisfied unless she had Silvia’s portrait painted. That, so he had ascertained, had not been done, and he had, so to speak, left a card “soliciting the favour of a call.” The call certainly was to be made that afternoon, and his imagination now, bit in teeth and wildly galloping, foresaw another possible commission in the portrait of Mrs. Wardour herself. Perhaps—here was the rosiest of the summits yet in view—he might profitably dispose of that great cartoon which Mrs. Wardour would so soon be privileged to see receiving its finishing touches. Farther than that his vision did not definitely project itself, but in sunlit and shining mists he could vaguely see himself working for all he was worth (and for much of what Mrs. Wardour was worth) at more of these stupendous canvases, and berthing each, as soon as possible, in the same remunerative harbourage.

The ring at the bell of the street door warned him{130} to scamper up his step-ladder, and absorb himself in finishing touches at the top of the thundercloud of war. In due time the studio door opened and Burrows, announcing his visitors, had to raise her voice to the pitch of a vendor of street-wares and recite the names again before she was so fortunate as to attract his attention. Then Mr. Mainwaring turned slowly round with a dazed expression and, shading his eyes, perceived the expected presences. Then with brush in one hand and palette in the other, he gave an ecstatic cry of welcome (not to be confused with the yodelling summons for his wife), and came bounding down the step-ladder. Divesting himself of his palette and brush, he held out both hands.

“Ah, my dear friends,” he said, “but this is charming. I am ashamed of myself to be found in such dishevelment, but—well, we artists are like that, silly donkeys as we are, and I had forgotten, for the moment I had forgotten the advent of my delightful visitors.”

He held a hand of each of them for a moment, with pressure and expression, and then withdrew his left hand, holding it to his forehead.

“A finishing touch,” he said. “I was at that very moment putting the last touch of paint on to my canvas. Let me forget that: give me a moment to forget it. You are here, that is the great point.”

He made a splendid obeisance, and as he recovered thrust back his hair, and embarked on a period.

“You find me, dear Mrs. Wardour,” he said, “in a moment of triumph, of jubilation even. Little as that can possibly mean to others, this is one of my red letter days. A moment ago my brush touched my canvas for the last time. My picture is done,{131} all but for the obscure initials, which, in vermilion, I shall humbly inscribe in the corner. Would it, by chance, be of the smallest interest to you to see that little rite performed? I take my brush then, I squeeze out a morsel of paint, I trace those obscure initials.”

No inspiration could have been happier. Mrs. Wardour’s eye was already travelling over the huge canvas with rapture and astonishment, and it was thrilling that she should have come just in time to see the artist testify in vermilion that this great thing was of his own creation. Naturally she could not be expected to know that if she had arrived half an hour ago, or had not arrived for half an hour to come, she would have been just in time for this ceremony. She turned to Silvia.

“Well, if that isn’t interesting, Silvia,” she said (as if Silvia had denied it). “Weren’t we saying to each other as we came along that perhaps we should find Mr. Mainwaring painting? And what a work of art too! My!”

John Mainwaring having recorded himself as creator, became showman and spectator in one, and moved the step-ladder aside so that he should both get and give an uninterrupted view. Then, losing himself once more as spectator, he propped his chin on his hand and gazed at the work.

“Finished! Finished!” he said with a magnificent detachment. “Now let us see what we think of it.”

Mrs. Wardour gazed too, and the more she gazed the more powerful—that was exactly the word she would have used—appeared the significance of this tremendous presentment. She had no great taste for pictures, but if you were in pursuit of pictures{132} (and pictures had certainly been the objective of this expedition), here was what she meant by a picture. Not long before his death her husband had bought what he called “a picture or two,” destined to adorn the walls of the gallery which was so great a feature in the castellated residence which he had built on the ridge of Ashdown Forest. It ran the whole length of the house, and when complete as to embellishment, was to be a lane of pictures from end to end hung on red Spanish brocade. To her mind, no less than his, real pictures, true pictures, pictures worth looking at, were brightly (or sombrely) coloured illustrations of famous personages, of well-known places, or told a story; best of all were those that told a story. A few such had already been plucked and gathered there; there was a very splendid record of the coronation of Queen Victoria, the rock of Gibraltar, with a P. and O. steamer to the left and a sunset to the right, an execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, and, in lighter mood, a delicious immensity called “Knights of the Bath,” in which a small boy and a large puppy shared a sponging-tin. Here then and now the image of the walls of the great picture-gallery, at present insufficiently clad, and crying out for covering, like a bather who has lost his clothes, flashed into her mind. The image was not sufficiently clearly realized to admit of a definite association of ideas between it and the allegory at which they were all gazing, but certainly as she looked at the size—particularly the size—of Mr. Mainwaring’s masterpiece, the gallery at Howes occurred to her. If there were to be pictures, here or elsewhere, she liked to know what such pictures were “about,” and she instantly perceived what this one was about. Now that the war was won, and the German Emperor, for{133} all practical purposes, annihilated (he had served his turn because the destruction of ships by his submarines had brought her so excessive a fortune), she could, perceiving the message of the picture, unreservedly gloat over the realism of it.

“If that isn’t the German Emperor,” she loudly enunciated, “and if that isn’t Satan whispering to him about the war. Satan’s saying that he would help, and, to be sure, he tried to. I do call that a picture. And there’s the war coming up behind, like a thunderstorm. There’s a subject for a picture, and how beautifully you’ve done it, Mr. Mainwaring.”

He leaned his chin still more heavily against his hand.

“Ah, you think so?” he asked. “I wish I thought so!”

“But what is there to want?” asked Mrs. Wardour. “It’s all as clear as day. We saw nothing so striking at the Royal Academy, did we, Silvia, even at the Private View.”

“The Academy? The Academy?” murmured Mr. Mainwaring, as if he wondered whether he had heard that name before. Then he shook his head gently, as if abandoning the attempt to remember what the Academy was.

“And I see lots of guns and bayonets underneath the thundercloud,” said Mrs. Wardour unerringly. “They’re coming up.”

The artist still gazed, and, smoothing his chin with his hand, he repeated:

“Yes; they’re coming up, coming up.”...

He gave a great start, and seemed to shake himself like a big retriever emerging from the water, where he had brought some thrown token to land.{134} He did not know of the great gallery at Howes, which starved for decoration; but even if he had, he would have bounded out of the water just like that.

“Basta! Basta!” he cried. “I am boring you, dear ladies, I am wearying you, I am making myself a most unutterable tedium for you. Where is my wife? Why is she not here to tap me on the shoulder and say ‘Tea’?”

He gave the preconcerted signal of a yodel, and opening the door of the studio, repeated it. A faint cry from upstairs answered him, and on the heels of that cry Mrs. Mainwaring came downstairs. The introductions were floridly effected, and she shook her finger at her husband, and explained her reproof to her visitors.

“I always tell him that when he is at his painting he never knows the time,” she said. “John, it is very wrong of you to have kept Mrs. Wardour and Miss Wardour down here.”

She turned to Mrs. Wardour, as her husband vented himself in contrition and apology to Silvia.

“Of course I’m no judge,” she said, “for I always think that everything my husband does is so striking. But is not that a wonderful thing? The Emperor, Satan. Yes. Such expressive faces! Now I must insist on your coming to have a cup of tea. I always have to drive my husband away from his easel. Look at him in his old coat, too. John, I’m ashamed of you! Go and put on something more tidy.”

Silvia felt somehow, as Mrs. Mainwaring gave this skilful rendering of the general hints that she had received, as if she was listening to some automaton wound up to emit through a mask-like face certain words, certain sentences that formed its accomplishment. That was the immediate effect, but{135} immediately afterwards followed the conjecture that it was not a mere automaton that spoke. It said, so she seemed to gather, what it had been told (or thereabouts) to say, but probably Mrs. Mainwaring was capable of saying and doing things for herself. Though she had been pulled through the funnel of Mr. Mainwaring’s personality, she had not lost her own individual self. But what that individual self was she could form no conjecture. It was as if a voice came from inside a window over which a blind had been completely drawn. She could arrive at no perception of who it was who talked behind the blind, nor was the room lit within so that, at the least, there came a shadow on the blind, suggesting features. All this was no more than the details of the first impression made by a new acquaintance, her instinctive valuation of her hostess, something to work upon provisionally. Mrs. Mainwaring was only repeating her lessons, which she seemed to know so excellently well; she gave at present no indication of what she was like when her lessons were over. But that she existed Silvia had no doubt whatever. There were people like that, people who had an aloof, sequestered life of their own. Then, without being conscious of the transition, she knew that she was thinking of Mrs. Mainwaring no longer, but of Peter.

More yodelling proclaimed that the artist had put on his tidy coat, and he pranced back, and led the way upstairs with Mrs. Wardour, saying that he was as hungry as a hunter, and hoping that his wife had provided them with a good tea. Mrs. Mainwaring, on the other hand, seemed a little to be detaining Silvia; she pointed out other of the works of art that so plentifully bestrewed the room, and this struck{136} the girl, somehow, as being part of a manœuvre in no way connected with the lesson she had so faultlessly repeated. The blind had been ever so slightly pushed aside; someone was looking out.

“Yes, there’s a picture my husband painted of my son last year,” she said. “I think you’ve met Peter, haven’t you, Miss Wardour? That was considered to be very like him. I hope he will be home for tea; he said he thought he could get away from the Foreign Office early to-day. Very interesting for him to be in the Foreign Office.”

Silvia said something amiable about the portrait, which was quite recognizable.

“So pleased you think it like,” continued Mrs. Mainwaring. “Yes, Peter is at the Foreign Office all day, and he is generally out in the evening. I do not go out very much. I sit at home mostly in the evening and read.”

Silvia welcomed a new topic. Though the blind had been distinctly twitched aside she could not see in; she was only conscious of being observed. But this seemed an encouraging opportunity of getting a glimpse.

“What do you read most?” she asked. “Novels? Memoirs?”

“No, what I like reading about is places I have never been to,” said Mrs. Mainwaring. “I wonder, when I read, what life is like in those places, and how I should enjoy it.”

If that was a glimpse for the girl it was a very momentary one, lit, so to speak, not by any clear illumination, but rather by some vague dim phosphorescence. Silvia, by some whimsical association of ideas, found herself thinking of a phosphorescent match-box; if you felt for it in the dark, you might{137} find matches there which would produce something more illuminating.

“Ah, I, too, love new places,” she said. “I love waking in a new place, where I have arrived after dark, and wondering what it is going to be like.”

The glimpse grew a little more definite.

“I should like that, too,” said Mrs. Mainwaring. “But my husband’s work keeps him in London, and I do not get away very often. Shall we go upstairs to tea?”

As they turned, Mrs. Mainwaring cast one glance at the great cartoon. For the moment, infinitesimal in duration, her neat smooth porcelain face grew hostile and malevolent.

No sooner did Silvia appear in the doorway of the little drawing-room facing the street, than Mr. Mainwaring, to her immense surprise, bounded from his seat, chasséed across the room to her, and fell on his knees before her.

“Behold me in an attitude of abject entreaty!” he said. “Your mother, subject to your acquiescence, dear Miss Silvia, has asked me to attempt to use my best endeavours, feeble as they may be, to render you the eager homage of an artist’s skill. She has asked me, subject to your consent, I repeat, to paint your portrait for her.”

Even as he spoke there came the quick light step on the stairs, the identity of which Silvia, seldom as she had heard it, knew with a certainty that surprised her, and Peter came in.

“Kneel, Peter, my dear,” said his father, enjoying himself tremendously and putting up hands of supplication. “Maria, my angel, I beseech you to kneel too. We are entreating Miss Silvia; we are urging the sacred claims of Art.{138}”

Silvia gave a laugh of sheer amusement at this ludicrous situation. Amusement was the only possible solvent for it.

“Oh please, let nobody kneel!” she said. “And you, Mr. Mainwaring, please get up. Yes, of course, if my mother wishes it, and if Mr. Mainwaring will be very patient and tell me what to do——”

He bounded up again, ecstatic at the granting of his petition.

“To do?” he asked. “Dear young lady, you have only got to be. Be! Be just as you are now.”

Again he supported his head on his hand, as when he gazed at the cartoon, and with the other shaded his eyes, staring at her in an embarrassing manner. He gave a gay yodelling cry.

“I see it—I see it!” he announced. “My superb picture is already flaming in my brain. Madam”—he turned to Mrs. Wardour—“you shall have a masterpiece, and I, John Mainwaring, will have created it.”

He took his hand from his forehead, and made a movement as if to cast something away.

“Enough!” he said. “Let us descend to earth again. My angel, give us our tea. We are exhausted by our adventures.”

Peter, so Silvia noticed, was looking at his father with eyebrows ever so little raised, as if in contemplation of some phenomenon that, however familiar, was still remarkable, and his lips were faintly smiling. When he turned to Silvia, as he now did, that expression still remained there, and she felt that, wordlessly, he had somehow taken her into his confidence. Certainly his father amused him; his raised eyebrows and half-smiling mouth told her that. And was there a touch of indulgent contempt in it?{139}

John Mainwaring continued to claim the attention of the little party in a boisterous rollicking fashion; it was like being out in a high wind, where shouting was the only means of communication. He assuaged the hunger which he confessed was prodigious, with incredible quantities of tea-cakes; he ate cherries backwards, beginning with the stem. He roared with laughter at his own jokes, he apologized for his boyishness, and whispered to Mrs. Wardour that he was “in for” a scolding afterwards from his wife for making such a noise.... And there, all the time, far more potently vital was Peter blowing off no steam like his father, but quietly, self-containedly reserving it. There was something inscrutable about that smooth handsome face, though now and then, as their eyes casually met, Silvia felt that she was looking into clear dark beckoning water, and if her eyes could not fathom it, that was no fault of his transparence, but only of her own purblind penetration....

Mr. Mainwaring was, just now, launched on a story, the very recollection of which made him laugh in anticipation of what was coming, and Silvia could let her eyes roam at will. She looked at her mother, at the narrator, at Mrs. Mainwaring, all in turn, in order, for the purposes of strict impartiality, to look at Peter as well. Mrs. Mainwaring with wifely and domestic devotion had managed to attach to her face some faint semblance of interest in the story, as if it were new to her. Then came Peter’s turn, and that handsome inscrutability suddenly seemed to Silvia to be like a reflecting surface, which, when you looked at it, showed you not itself, but presented your own image. She saw not at all how he stood to her, but how she stood to him. Her own subjective relation,{140} the image of herself regarding him was flashed back at her. Looking at him, in some mysterious way, she saw herself. His dark clear water gave back to her her own soul.... She whisked her eyes away, forgetting the impartiality of her rotation, and found herself met by Mrs. Mainwaring. And there, so it seemed, she found comprehension of this bewildering impression. As regards Mrs. Mainwaring herself, the blind was still drawn, but from behind the blind Silvia heard inwardly and unmistakably that quiet, precise voice saying, “The girl’s in love with my Peter.” Mrs. Mainwaring, by some divination as mysterious as herself, was in possession of that; she and Silvia shared the secret knowledge. And then, before the girl’s eyes could shift themselves to Mr. Mainwaring, who, it seemed clear, from his thumping with his fist on the tea-table, was now at the climax of his narrative, there peeped out from his wife’s face that same secret malevolence, with which, as they left the studio, she had looked at the great work of art that hung there, while she admitted that her husband’s work kept him and her in London.

The point of Mr. Mainwaring’s story entailed the use of the falsetto voice, and Peter at its conclusion got up on the pretext of handing cigarettes, and reseated himself next Silvia.

“It is good of you,” he said.

That was fragmentary enough, undetached from any context, but Silvia found herself understanding him perfectly.

“My mother and Mr. Mainwaring arranged it,” she said. “I couldn’t very well say no, could I? Not that I wanted to; I don’t mean that.”

“My father’s delighted,” said Peter.

He paused a moment.{141}

“He’s in great form,” he added. “You’ve delighted him. Aren’t we a weird family?”

There seemed no direct reply possible to this. Silvia could not imagine herself assenting, and it seemed banal as well as untrue to say, “No, you’re quite ordinary.” But she found herself not wanting and not even needing to reply at all. She wanted, and for that matter she needed no more than to have Peter there and be wonderfully happy. He shifted himself a little in his very low chair as he turned to get a match for his cigarette, and she again just found herself noticing little things about him. His fingers were very long and smooth, the nails very neatly sheathed in the skin that held them: they grew beautifully. Best of all was the short, closely-clipped hair which, when he bent his head forward towards the match, stopped just above his collar.

“You needn’t answer that,” he said. “Tell me, instead, what you thought of the play last night. Are people sentimental—girls particularly—like that when they are really moved? I should have thought that emotion killed sentimentality. But it may be different in Scotland.”

Peter, at the conclusion of this ridiculous speech, suddenly found himself in the dilemma of talking nonsense without the co-operation and backing of the person whom he was talking nonsense to. Silvia, at any rate, did not contribute any soap-bubbles of her own, and, quick to perceive that, he turned to his mother.

“What sort of hotels are there in Scotland, mother?” he asked. “Oh, I must explain to Miss Wardour. My mother loves reading the advertisements of hotels in Bradshaw. It gives her the sense of travel, doesn’t it, mother?{142}”

He paused no more than infinitesimally and went on again in the same breath.

“I love the sense of travel, too, and I got it by going to the Foreign Office. Guatemala has been my après-midi.”

Silvia triumphantly applauded his quickness. She had seen on Mrs. Mainwaring’s face a protest at the invasion of her privacy; but Peter had done more than merely see it, he had slammed the door again with allusions to himself and Guatemala. That, somehow, a perception as quick as intuition, seemed to her extraordinarily characteristic of him. There was no stumbling, no hesitation, where she would have drawn attention to a similar mistake by a bungling silence. His mind was like the hair on his neck—abrupt and crisp.

The ball was with Peter again.

“I nearly fell asleep over Guatemala,” he said. “Surely Guatemala is very remote; there are many things more immediately interesting. Nellie’s wedding, by the way. It’s less than a week ahead, and every young man I know is buying new pocket-handkerchiefs to weep into. I’ve bought an extremely large one. There’ll be room for you to cry into one half of it, Miss Silvia, while I cry into the other. They promised to send it round on a hand trolley, like a sack of coals.”

Silvia laughed.

“Ah, I shall want some of that handkerchief,” she said, “but not to cry into, only to wave. She is going to be tremendously happy, isn’t she? What’s he like? I hardly know him.”

Peter considered this.

“He’s like—he’s like a very tidy room,” he said. “Solid furniture and not a speck of dust.{143}”

“And the person who sits in it?” asked the girl.

“Nobody sits in it. At least I never found anyone there. Philip is the room. There’s The Times warmed and folded; there’s letter-paper, big and little, and envelopes, big and little. Perhaps Nellie has found someone there. Philip may get under the sofa when anybody else comes in.”

“And she’s very much in love with him?” asked Silvia.

“You ought to know. She takes you out to Richmond Park and sits on the grass with you all afternoon.”

Silvia wrinkled up her eyes as if she were focusing that afternoon.

“Nellie dazzles me,” she said. “She’s like the sun on water. I expect she’ll make his room, that tidy room, look lovely. But I shall never understand what Nellie does. I shall only understand the effect of what she has done. She has a spell. She makes you see what she has seen.”

She was conscious now of receiving from Peter a more direct answer of eyes than she had ever done before. She knew they were talking about the same things now. They might, each of them, though they were talking of Nellie (superficially the same thing), have been regarding her, have been framing their remarks about her from different angles. Given that, as Silvia had said, she was a dazzle of sunlight as well, one of them, owing to the prismatic process, might have been seeing blue, another seeing yellow. But Peter’s answer convinced her that they were both seeing Nellie from the same standpoint.

“That’s hit her,” he said. “Nellie says and does nothing trivial; one is continually discovering that. She waves her fingers, and she mutters, and then,{144} afterwards, you find she has been making a spell. Isn’t she uncanny? Or she tells you something about yourself that you didn’t know, or scarcely knew, and you find that it is quite solidly true. Is she a witch, do you think?”

Silvia leaned forward towards him. It was impossible not to “close up” with this.

“That’s just what I said to her once,” she said. “I said that she was a witch. She told me something about myself that I never had known. It was true; it had been true all the time. But, literally, I had never had the smallest notion of it till she told me.”

Indeed, as Silvia acknowledged to herself, the truth of what Nellie had said on that occasion was receiving a firm endorsement at this moment. Etched and bitten-in to her consciousness from the moment of that prophetic babbling had been the image of herself in love, singing, so Nellie had said, in a boy’s key; eager to be allowed to give homage rather than receive it; eager to be allowed to love rather than permitting love with whatever ardency of welcome. And here was Peter repeating on general grounds exactly what she had found, and in especial was finding now, to be magically true.

“Since we both agree she is a witch,” said he, “we ought surely to collect evidence against her. What was it she said to you, that something unknown to you, which you found to be true when she said it? I have evidence also; she said something to me last night which I didn’t know, but which——”

What went through his brain at that moment, with the sureness of a surgeon’s incision, was just that which Nellie had said when he told her that he was intending to ask Silvia to marry him. He had hedged that with the reservation that he would do so{145} when he thought that he had a chance of success, and witch-like, with swift incontinent prophecy, she had told him that it was rather late already as regards to-night. The prophecy had been encouraging at the time, but not convincing. Now he suddenly felt himself convinced. Why or how—their conversation had only been about Nellie—he did not know. But it seemed that Nellie had penetrated where he had not....

There was his father sitting on the sofa beside Mrs. Wardour; there was his mother veiled and shrouded from him as she had ever been, doing something with a teapot, doing something with crumbs left on plates, for which she made some concoction, placed in the balcony outside, for birds.... Had he been alone with Silvia, he would have proposed to her, fortified with Nellie’s encouragement, fortified even more by his present sense of its reliability, then and there. But unless he knelt on the floor to her, as he had found his father doing when he came in....

“Oh, what did Nellie say to you last night?” asked the girl. “Let’s collect evidence, as you say.”

“And have her burned outside St. Margaret’s, instead of letting her marry Philip inside?” suggested Peter.

Silvia gave a parenthetic gasp.

“I suggested that she ought to be burned, too,” she said. “More evidence, please.”

Peter found her entrancing at that moment. There was some keen boyish kind of frank enthusiasm about her that attacked and challenged instead of merely provoking. She asked for no effort: you only had to allow yourself to be caught up.{146}

“But it’s your turn,” he said. “You first suggested that Nellie told you things you didn’t know.”

“No; it was you who said that.”

“It may have been; but it was you who suggested the witch-like quality. You said that she makes you see what she has seen. You know you did.”

Silvia, ever so slightly, withdrew herself.

“Did I?” she asked.

“Of course you did. Now do be fair. You began, and therefore it’s your turn to bring out the first piece of evidence. It was in Richmond Park, you know, and she told you something about yourself which you didn’t know.”

Peter put his hand in some judicial manner through that short crisp hair above his neck.

“I am prepared to hear your evidence,” he said. “You’re on oath. Get on, Miss Silvia. Don’t keep the court waiting.”

Silvia shot a chance arrow.

“If I promise to tell you,” she said, “will you promise to tell me your evidence?”

Peter laughed.

“I think we’re both better at cross-examination than at confession,” he remarked.

“Oh, but that’s no answer,” she said.

“I know it isn’t. It wasn’t meant to be.”

“Then be serious. Will you tell me your evidence against Nellie in her character of a witch?”

Peter, quite clearly, let his eyes rest on the other occupants of the room. One by one he looked at them.

“No!” he said. “I suppose the trial is adjourned owing to the inexplicable coyness of the witnesses. So there we are. Nellie will marry her Philip without a stain on her blessed character.{147}”

In his glance round the room Peter had observed that Mrs. Wardour was trying to catch Silvia’s eyes. She would certainly succeed in doing so before long, and then, as her custom was, she would make some faint little clucking noises, like a hen that mildly wants to be let out. She was incapable of going away, however much she wanted to do so, unless Silvia took the initiative. She clucked, and then Silvia said that it was time to go....

But Peter did not want Silvia to go just yet; on the other hand, if they were all to sit here until the clucking became perceptible to Silvia, their visitors might just as well, for any practical purpose, go away at once. Besides, it was impossible to forget that Nellie last night had prophesied, and it had struck another as well as himself, that she was a reliable seer.

He got up rather slowly, rather tentatively, and fixed in his mind was the idea that Silvia would make some sort of initial step. It seemed to him that they were both hand in hand: it was just a question of who lifted a foot first....

Silvia did not turn her head to look at her mother. If she had, she would have been bound to attend to the cluckings; but what she wanted, more precisely what she needed, was to get away from a masked fire of elderly eyes and, with Peter of course, just to be natural. There was smouldering in this room some ember of supervision; she felt herself (and him) under a magnifying glass being looked at, being noted, being examined. It would answer her need perfectly well to go with him on to the balcony outside the room, to see if the evening was likely to be fine, to be sure that the motor was waiting.... Here, there was Mr. Mainwaring visualizing her portrait; worse{148} than that, here was the more gimlet-like attention of his wife, who, ostensibly, was making a sloppy saucer of food for the London sparrows. Certainly she would sooner go out on the balcony alone than remain here, but when she thought of that it did not in the least satisfy her. After all, she did not want to “sit out” alone. What girl would want that? But she wanted to sit out.... There was no sort of embarrassment in her voice when she spoke to Peter.

“May we go down to your father’s studio again?” she asked. “I haven’t seen all I wanted to.”

Surely his glance met hers with a comprehension that seemed immeasurably marvellous.

“Yes; do come down,” he said.

The clucking became inarticulate.

“We ought to be going, Silvia,” said her mother.

Peter took this up.

“Oh, you must give Miss Silvia five minutes, Mrs. Wardour,” he said. “It’s only fair that she should know the sort of thing that father’s going to make of her.”

Mr. Mainwaring gave a great shout of laughter.

“The impertinence of youth!” he cried. “Peter, I disown you. I would cut you off with a shilling if I had one!”

The two went down the stairs in silence. In silence also they came into the studio. The huge cartoon filled up one end of it; on the other three sides was the stacked débris from the attics; landscapes and portraits and sketches littered the tables.

“That’s rather jolly,” said Peter, pointing to one at random. “And, O Lord, my father has brought out a thing he did of me last year. Rather like a hair-dresser.”

“Not a bit,” said Silvia. “But it’s very like you.{149}”

Peter wheeled about and faced her.

“Evidence!” he said. “Do you know what Nellie said to me last night? Of course you don’t, but I’ll tell you now. We were talking about you. She said—she encouraged me to think I had a chance——”

Silvia stood stock still, every fibre of her stiff and arrested.

“About you. A chance,” said Peter again. “Is it true? Was she right? Was she being a witch?”

Silvia had been looking at him when this spell of stillness struck her. Now her eyelids fluttered and drooped, then once more she looked at him as steadily as before.

“All true,” she said. “And Nellie told me something. She said that when I loved anybody, I—I should love just as I love now. Just as I love now, Peter.”


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