by E.F. Benson

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Chapter X

Peter, as he strolled down the corridor, knew that he had been rather signorial—if that was the word—and designedly so, in this interview. In spite of Mr. Mainwaring’s magnificent occupation of the state-rooms, for which, after all, he had his son to thank, Peter was pleased to feel that he had been putting his father in his place. It had certainly been with this object in view that he had smoked his cigarette, and dropped the expired match on the carpet, not exactly calling attention to his position, but casually assuming it. Again, in the matter of the picture, he had, ever so quietly, ever so indulgently, just hinted at the right course, and like a lamb—a great vain rococo, farcical lamb—his father had bleated his way into the proper fold.

Peter confessed to himself—he seldom confessed to anybody else—that the motive which inspired these manœuvres was an unamiable one. He might easily have obtained the results that he now, together with his mother’s unopened letter, carried away from this interview, by tact, by pleasantness, by the general small change of sympathy. Hitherto he had been accustomed to use such lubrications to make the wheels of life run smoothly in domestic dealings; but now that no further domestic lubrication was necessary on his part (his father, it is true, might have to flourish the oil-can with desperate agility, if he was to ensure smooth working) Peter knew that he had just driven ahead and let the wheels, if so they felt disposed, squeak and squeal, and grind and grumble.{205} While that small, smelly house off the Brompton Road had been his home, it had paid to make the bearings run easily; but now, when he thought with incredulous wonder that he could have “stuck” all that small stuffiness so long, he detachedly admired his own past deftness and patience in dealing with the daily situation there. He saw in the mirror of his own vanity the incomparable crudeness of his father’s, and discovered, almost with a sense of shock, how cordially he disliked him.

For the present his sense of humour with regard to him was in total eclipse; the type of quality which Silvia hugged as being the lovable queerness which makes for individuality, he saw only as tiresome and contemptible eccentricity, a thing to be contemplated baldly without comment, whenever contemplation of it was necessary, and to be dealt with summarily. The vexing affair was that Peter caught some broken image of himself in all this. One glimpse of himself in especial was irritating; that, namely, in which he looked with great distaste on his father’s profiting by the wealth of the Wardours without giving a due return for his depredations on it.

It was natural that when, as now, he was so acutely aware of his father’s unique capability for rubbing him up the wrong way, he should wonder afresh at the placid, unruffled tolerance that had enabled his mother to spend a quarter of a century with him. Women, of course, so ran his reflections, have a greater gift of patience with men than a man can be expected to have. Sex, no doubt, had something to do with it, for on the other hand men were more tolerant of a tiresome woman than other women. Yet that could not wholly explain his mother; she was quite inexplicable, for Silvia even, gifted as Peter ever{206} so cordially recognized with the power of putting herself into the position and realizing the identity of other people, had fallen back like a spent wave from the hard, smooth impenetrability of his mother. She had confessed herself baffled, had no idea whether there was something, somebody, hermetically sealed up behind that neat porcelain face by the inexorable will of its occupant, or if there was nothing beyond that blank imperturbability that cared only whether the door at the head of the kitchen stairs was “quite shut” and had no desire except to be left alone and allowed to read advertisements of hotels in railway guides. Had his mother been driven into that small, but apparently impregnable fortress by his father’s colossal and ludicrous personality, or was there indeed no one there at all, no beleaguered garrison grimly holding out?

Peter wandered on to the terrace for a minute of composing dusk and quietness. He half expected to find Silvia there, and felt a little ill-used that she was not. She knew what was the nature of his interview with his father, and Peter would have welcomed the warmth of her applause at his masterly conduct of it. But in her absence he could read the certainly placid communication from his mother. She would hope he was well, she would hope Silvia was well, she would let it be assumed that she was well. She would certainly also say that she was so sorry she could not come to Howes with his father, but that she hoped to do so some time during the autumn. She would undoubtedly wind up by saying that it was nearly post time, and that she had other letters.... Peter drew the letter from his pocket, and prepared to let his eyes slide smoothly over the lines of it. She wrote a wonderfully clear hand: you could take a whole sentence in at a glance.{207}

“My dearest Peter,—I am sending this letter to you by your father, because I want it to reach you without fail. Letters by post go wrong sometimes, and I don’t want this to go wrong. When I have finished it, I shall put it into his despatch-box myself.

“When your father comes back from his visit to you and Silvia, he will not find me here. It is no use mincing words, so I will tell you straight out that I can’t stand him any longer. It would not have answered my purpose just to go away from him for a month, for I should have felt all the time that at the end of a month I should have to come back; I should have been on the end of the string still. As it is, I shall stop away just as long as I choose. I shall be free. I want a holiday without any tie whatever. When I mean to come back (if I do) I shall write to him and ask him if he will take me back. I don’t know how long it will be before I want to. It might be a fortnight, or it might be a year, or it might be never. I shall simply stay away from him, at some pleasant place which I have selected, until I feel better.

“While you were living with your father and me I could just get along; but since you have gone I can’t get along at all. We weren’t much to each other, for all my individuality—isn’t that what they call it?—had long ago been hammered back into me. I was like a small person in a large suit of armour. But somehow you were a part of me, and while you were there I couldn’t go away.

“I ask you, my dear, not to make any attempt to find me, and I want you to persuade your father not to. I shall be quite comfortable, and as I am never ill I don’t see why I should begin to be so now. I shall go to a nice hotel, where I shan’t have to order{208} lunch and dinner or add up bills. It is astonishing how many nice hotels there are, quite moderate in price, which will just suit me.

“Now this may seem unkind, but the fact is that I don’t want to hear a word from either you or your father. You and I have nothing in common; in fact, I have nothing in common with anybody, and I only want to be left alone in peace, and not to be reminded of the last twenty-five years of my life at all. I want not to be bothered with anybody. I want to get up and go to bed when I choose, and go for my walk, and read my book, and play patience. You and I have never loved each other at all, so there’s no use in pretending to be pathetic over that now. Before you were old enough to understand, I hadn’t got any feeling left in me, or, at least, it was hammered right inside me. If any time during these last ten years I had died, you wouldn’t have missed me, though if you had died I should have missed you to the extent, anyhow, of your absence making my life with your father quite intolerable. I don’t bear him the slightest ill will, and I hope he’ll bear me none. He has excellent servants, and they will make him quite comfortable, which is all he wants. But I’ve got too much sense to remain with him any longer.

“He has been saying great things lately about the immense sums of money he will get for his series of cartoons, so that I have no scruple in withdrawing from him the £600 a year which is my own income. I can’t be certain, of course, whether he has not been multiplying everything by ten, in order to glorify himself, but I suppose there is some truth in it all. Anyhow, he has got a cheque from Mrs. Wardour for a thousand guineas, because he showed me that. He was in great spirits that night, dancing round the{209} table and singing and drinking quantities of port. And that, it appears, is nothing to what he is about to get for the rest of his great series.”

Peter took his eyes off the neatly written sheets for a moment and gave a great gasp. The figure of his mother, as he was accustomed to behold it, veiled and still, and sitting in shadow and never giving a sign of individual life, had suddenly cast off its concealment and tranquillities, and stood out violently illuminated. That smooth, polished object which had lain inert so long in the midst of railway guides, had proved itself to be a live shell which, without any warning or preliminary sizzling, had exploded. He himself was unhurt, though immeasurably astonished and startled, and he exulted in the fact that the thing had been alive after all, carrying within it such store of devastating energy. His own marriage, his departure from home, had set off the fuse; he had been, all unconsciously, the controlling agent.

He dived again into this most lucid report of the explosion, observing with regret that there were but a couple of pages more. At the moment Silvia appeared at the door from the terrace into the drawing-room close behind where he sat.

“Peter, is that you?” she asked.

“Yes; one minute. Or come here, Silvia. Take these sheets and read them without saying anything till I’ve finished. It’s a letter from my mother.”

He buried himself in the remainder of the letter, hardly hearing Silvia’s gasp of surprise as she came to the second paragraph.

“Now I want you,” the narrative continued, “to consider this before you pass any judgment on what I{210} have done. I am injuring nothing and nobody, except your father’s vanity, and I have no doubt he will find some explanation of my leaving him which will quite satisfy him. He will not be the least less happy without me, nor will you. I have got no friends, for I am not the sort of person who can make friends or wants them; I have been hammered, as I have said, into myself, and I break no ties the severance of which is painful for others any more than for me. I see so few people, and those so very occasionally, that there need be no scandal of any kind; your father will only have to say, about once a month, that I am on a visit in the country, which is quite true.

“My solicitor knows where I am, and from time to time he will let you have a note from me, saying how I am. As for news, I shall have none; I shall take my walk, and read my book, and entertain myself very well, and I shall be very happy, because I shall be free. I rather believe that you are sufficiently like me to understand that, for you have always kept yourself independent of everybody.

“Finally, I leave it to you (no doubt you will consult Silvia) as to whether you let your father find out that I have gone when he returns home, or whether you tell him. I think personally that it would be wiser to tell him, because when he got home and found the few lines (not like this long letter) which I have left for him there, just to say I have gone, he might make some dreadful scene and upset everybody. But that I leave entirely to you.

“All the wages and books were paid up to the end of last week. The bills, with their receipts, are in their place in the third drawer of my knee-hole table.

“Your affectionate mother,
“Maria Mainwaring.”

Peter thrust the remaining pages into Silvia’s hand, and waited till she had come to the end. Then they looked at each other in silence.

“I’m going to laugh,” said Peter at length.

“No, please don’t,” said Silvia. “If you do I shall cry.”

Peter tapped the sheets that lay in her hand.

“But it’s gorgeous,” he said. “I should laugh, if I did, not from amusement—though there are amusing things—but from pleasure. Every word in that letter is true; that’s something to be pleased about, and, what’s more, every word in it is right. But the surprise, the wonder of it! There’s a splendour about it!”

Silvia shuffled the sheets together, and, giving them back to him, leaned her forehead on her hands.

“Ah, haven’t you got any tenderness?” she said. “Don’t you see the bitter pathos of it? Your mother, you know!”

“But she says there is nothing pathetic about it,” said he.

“And that’s just the most pathetic thing of all!” Silvia said.

Peter puzzled over this a moment. He understood Silvia’s feeling well enough, but he understood equally well, and with greater sympathy, the answer (the retort almost) to it.

“But if she sees nothing pathetic in the situation, and I quite agree with her, what’s the use of trying to introduce pathos?” he asked. “Pathos painted on—like a varnish—ceases to be pathos at all; it becomes simply sentimentality.”

Silvia turned to him like some patient affectionate teacher to a child who pretends only not to know his lessons.{212}

“If the absence of love in relationships like these isn’t pathetic,” she said, “love itself is only sentimentality.”

Peter again saw precisely what she meant; he knew, too, that what she said was true. But he knew that he, for himself, did not realize it with conviction, with a sense of illumination.... The statement of it was just an instance the more of Silvia’s shining there aloft of his confining cloudland. The thought of that dealt him a stab of envy, and under the hurt of it his spirit snapped and snarled, and retired, so to speak, into its kennel, leaving his mind outside to manage the situation.

“Well, then, it’s pathetic,” he said, “but it has been pathetic so long that one has got used to it. I know you’re right, but what you say hasn’t any practical bearing——”

“Ah, my dear, but it has,” said she. “It has all the practical bearing. It is up to you, practically, to handle it in hardness in—in a sort of ruthlessness, or you can, recognizing what I say, deal with it tenderly.”

“By all means; but the facts aren’t new. Leave me out: let’s consider my father and mother only. There’s the practical side of it. He’s got to be told—at least, I suppose so. There’s no new pathos there. They’ve both been aware of lovelessness for years. If my father takes the wounded, the pathetic pose, it will—it will just be a pose. Frankly, I’m all on my mother’s side. By one big gesture she has explained herself; she has made a living comprehensible reality of herself. The Bradshaws, the railway guide advertisements—good Lord, we know what it has all been about now! There’s flesh and blood in it! I always respect flesh and blood!{213}”

“But her way of doing it is an outrage,” said Silvia. “She’s your father’s wife, after all: she’s your mother. Take your mother’s side by all means—we’ve all got to take sides in everything: nobody can be neutral—but take his side in her manner of doing what she has done. Sympathize with him in that! That letter, too—will you show him the letter? The hostility of it, the resentment!”

Peter sat still a moment fingering the leaves of the letter.

“It’s not so much resentment,” he said, “as repression. She has been hammered back into herself all these years. Oh, I understand her better than you. It had to happen this way. What else was she to do? Could she go to my father and say, ‘If you can’t put some curb on your egoism and vanity, if you continue to be such a bounder (that’s what bounders are) I really shall have to leave you’?”

“You want to score off him, Peter,” said she. “That’s the hardness, the ruthlessness. And you aren’t hard, my darling. Who knows that better than I?”

“Are you sure I’m not?” he said.

She did not answer this directly.

“You’ve got to be gentle,” she said.

Peter’s fingers closed on the letter, hesitated, and then tore the sheets in half. He tore them across yet again. “Well, he shan’t see the letter,” he said. “It was written to me and I’ve destroyed it. But if, when I tell him, he becomes melodramatic how can I help being what you call ruthless? He’s so vain: you don’t know how vain he is. This will be a brutal outrage, an attempted assassination of his vanity. But it won’t injure it. The dastardly blow will glance aside, and he’ll put an extra bodyguard round his{214} vanity for the future. He’s a ridiculous person, Silvia,” said Peter in a loud, firm voice.

Silvia gave a sigh.

“Ah, that’s better,” she said, “for you’ve torn the letter up, anyhow, and when you said he was ridiculous, you said it, my dear, as if you were justifying yourself rather than accusing him. Oh, you said it firmly and loudly, but—will you mind if I say this too?—you didn’t say it so spitefully. Now, let’s be practical. You always used to be practical, Peter. When are you going to tell him?”

Peter looked at his watch.

“That means that if I say that I haven’t made up my mind,” he said, “you will certainly let me know that there is plenty of time to tell him before dinner. You want me to tell him now: that’s where we are. You call me practical: who was ever so practical as you, when it comes to the point?”

She did not challenge that, but rather proceeded to justify Peter’s opinion for him.

“My dear, you can put off pleasant things if you like,” she said, “because you enjoy the anticipation of them. But where—where is the use of putting off unpleasant things? That only lengthens a beastly anticipation.”

“He’ll make a scene,” said Peter. “I hate scenes.”

There was nothing to reply to this: it all came under the advisability, which she had already expressed, of not putting off unpleasantnesses. So she made no reply, and soon, for the face of her continued to push him, he got up, still wondering if she would prefer to tell his father herself. How strongly she wanted to do that, and how, more strongly, she refrained from doing it, he had no idea. Her inclination, that which she combated, was simply to go{215} straight to those voluptuous state-rooms; but her will, her convinced sense of what was right, of what was Peter’s own duty and development, kept her silent.

“Oh, I am sorry for you,” she said at length, as he turned to go into the house. “But don’t forget to be sorry for him, Peter.”

His only answer to that was a just perceptible shrug of his shoulders (comment on the futility of her sympathy), and he walked away across the crackling gravel.

Silvia knew how Peter’s mere presence stifled her power of judgment with regard to him. Often and often she had to cling, desperately, to a mental integrity of her own, in order not to be washed away by the mere tide of her devotion to him. Her desire, not only the flesh and the blood of her, but her very spirit, would always have surrendered to him, would have given up herself, whole and complete, to what pleased him, to what made him comfortable, content and happy. But somewhere between these two apexes of physical and spiritual longing there came another peak, a mental and judicial apex, so she framed it to herself, a thing solid and reliable, a kind of bleak umpire that gave inexorable decisions.

Already in their fortnight of married life it had several times asserted itself—it was her will, she supposed, clear-eyed and unbribable, which was as distinct from the blindness of love as it was from the abandonment of physical desire. Peter had suggested, for instance, that he should “chuck” his work in the Foreign Office (this was the most notable of these instances) and live, just live, now at Howes, now in London, always with her. They would travel, they would entertain, they would have plenty of interests to keep him busy enough. He had urged, he{216} had argued, he had appealed to her for her mere acquiescence, willing or not, and she had steadily and unshakably refused to give it. Here, to-night, was another test for this umpire of the mind. It would have been infinitely easier for her to tell Mr. Mainwaring herself, and she knew quite convincedly that she would have proved a far more sympathetic breaker of shocking tidings than Peter would be. Peter would now, on his way to the state-rooms, be framing adroit sentences, be schooling his anticipatory impatience at a melodramatic reception of that news by his father into tolerance and gentleness. But she had as little temptation to be intolerant or ungentle, as he had to be the reverse; she would naturally have stood in an attitude which Peter would find it gymnastically difficult to maintain. But he had got to do his best, not to let her do so infinitely better.

It took but a moment’s stiffening of herself to baffle any inclination to follow Peter and shoulder his mission for him, and her thoughts went back to Mrs. Mainwaring’s letter and its startling effect (or want of effect) on Peter. That had produced, so she found now when she was no longer under the spell of his presence, a certain incredulous dismay. “You aren’t like that,” she had assured him, but now she found herself saying, “He can’t be like that!” He appeared to have received this intelligence with a savage, or, if not a savage a wholly unpitiful comment. He had seemed, and indeed seemed now, to have applauded this tragic sequel to years of resentful companionship. He had confessed to a desire to laugh (this was the ruthlessness). It might be that the logical result of such years was that Mrs. Mainwaring, given that she retained any independent identity of her own, should have been goaded{217} into this assertion of it. It might, in the ultimate weighing of souls, be better that she should have cut the knot like this, rather than have been strangled by it. It was all very well for Peter to take her side, but to take her side competently included an appreciation of what she had suffered, and what she had failed in. Anyone could form a fair idea of what she, as exhibited now, had suffered by the smallest recognition of what it must have been to be tied to the present occupant of the state-rooms, and the same exhibition showed exactly her tragic failure in allowing herself to be driven into this hermetical compartment, where all that reached her was the contemplation of her escape, as shown by her study of hotels. But Peter turned over all this, which was the root of the matter, as he might turn over the leaves of a dull book, and only saw a dramatic comedy in it, deserving of applause for its fitness, of an exclamation, “Serve him right!” or a laughing, “Well done, mother!” ... You couldn’t deal with people like that; at that rate the whole world would become a relentless machine, always grinding, always seeing others ground, always being diverted at the pitiless revolution of the wheels. Compassion, tenderness, these were the qualities that just saved and redeemed the world from hell, or at least from being a wounding comedy, at which no human person could laugh for fear of crying instead.

Silvia got up from the seat where she and Peter had read his mother’s letter, definitely desiring to avoid the conclusion to which her thoughts were leading her. He had wanted to laugh—that was certain, but she must forget that. Probably he had not meant it; it was only incongruousness and surprise (like funny things in church, which would not be in the least funny elsewhere) which had made a spasm....{218} Peter assuredly was not like that really, and the loyalty of love derided her for supposing it. He was (her heart insisted on that) all that her love adored him for being.

The dressing bell had already sumptuously sounded from the central turret, and, still quite ignorant of what had been the result of the disclosure, but conscious of a yearning anxiety to know, she went up to her bedroom. She was not so much anxious to know how Mr. Mainwaring was “taking it” (how he “took it” seemed to matter very little), but how Peter had done his part. Between his dressing-room and her bedroom were a couple of bathrooms, and she heard, with a certain clinging to the usualness of life, splashings and hissings of water coming from one of these. Whatever had happened, there was Peter having his bath, and soon, most likely, he would tap at her door, barefooted (he never would wear slippers as he paddled about between his room and hers) with the blue silk dressing-gown tied with a tasselled cord about his waist. Peter had a wondrous ritual for his bath: he had to immerse himself first of all, and then stand on the mat while he soaped himself from head to foot. Then, still slippery and soapy, in order to get cold and heighten the enjoyment of the next immersion, he turned on more hot taps, and put spoonful after spoonful of verbena salts into the water. Then he got in again, and stewed himself in this fragrant soup. When he was too hot to bear it any longer, he retired into a small waterproof castle at the end of the bath, and turned on all the cold water douches and squirts and syringes. Then, without drying himself at all, he put on the famous blue silk dressing-gown, which had a hood to it, lit a cigarette, and tapped at her door,{219} to ascertain whether he could sit and finish his cigarette there. Silvia, by this time, knew precisely the interpretation of these splashings and hissings of water, and she would hurry up her own dressing, or slow it down, so that she could admit him. Fresh from his scrubbings and soapings, with the glow of the cold water on his skin, he was paganly sensuous in his enjoyment of the physical conditions of the moment, and, sitting by her dressing-table, talked the most amazing nonsense. He dried his feet on the tail of his dressing-gown, he rubbed his hair on the hood of it; there was the scent of soap and verbena and cigarette, and more piercing to her sense than these his firm, smooth skin, the cleansedness and the freshness of him.... At such chattering undress séances she was most of all conscious of him to the exclusion of herself; for whereas his kiss, his caress, united her with him, and she had part in it, when he came in thus, rough-haired, bare-legged, wet-footed, with a smooth shoulder emerging from his dressing-gown, while, enveloped in it, he rubbed himself dry, she felt herself merely a spectator of this beautiful animal.

But if he came in now—he might or might not—she knew that to-night she would be involved, so to speak, with him; his character, the essence of him, as exhibited in such account as he might give her of the interview with his father, would come like a cloud or a brightness that would obstruct this purely spectator-like view of him. He would not only be the clean, lithe animal, which, for these few minutes, she could look at without passion, without love, without friendship even, and be absorbed in the mere joy that there should be in this world so young and wild and perfect a creature....{220}

There came his knock, and the usual inquiry, and he entered while her maid, with chaste, averted face, rustled out, not waiting to be dismissed, through the other door. He sat down in the big low chair by her dressing-table.

“Oh, the simplest pleasures are so much the best,” he said. “Just washing, you know, just being hungry and sleepy. I never enjoy a play or a book or a joke nearly so much as a bath and food and getting my head well down into the pillow. But I hate sponges. Why should I scrub my nose with a piece of dead seaweed?”

Listen as she might, with all the delicacy of divination that love had given to her ear, she could find in his voice no inflection, no hesitation, nor, on the other hand, any glibness (as of a lesson learned and faultlessly repeated) that showed that he was speaking otherwise than completely naturally. The topics of bath and dinner and bed came to his lips with quite spontaneous fluency, as if he had not in this last hour been the bearer to his father of a tragic situation—one that, at least, must wound the vanity which was so predominant a passion in him. Or had Mr. Mainwaring taken it with the same ruthlessness, the same cynical amusement as Peter had appeared to? Silvia could not believe that: he must have been hurt, been astounded. But why, in pity’s name, did not Peter tell her about that interview? He must have known how she longed to be told, whether there was good or bad to tell....

“A revolving brush covered with wash-leather,” continued Peter, “like a small boxing-glove. You would cover it with soap and work it with your foot. But a sponge! Odious in texture, dull in colour, and full of horrible dark holes which probably contain the{221} pincers of defunct crabs and the fins of dead fish.... Oh, by the way, I quite forgot! I did really, darling; I was thinking so much about substitutes for sponges.”

Silvia could not doubt the sincerity of this: he had been thinking about sponges; there was the full statement of the case. And with his acknowledgment of that, his mere physical presence, the mere glamour of his radiant animalism, which, after all, was part of his essence and his charm, captured her again, whisking away for the moment all possibility of criticism, or of wishing that he could be other than he was. She knew that her misgivings—they amounted to that—would come flooding back, but just for the moment they were like some remote line of the low tide, lying miles away across shining levels.

“Oh, Peter,” she cried, “if you can design a small revolving wash-leather boxing-glove to use for a sponge, I’ll promise to have it made for you. But you must explain just how it’s to work....”

She broke off.

“And about your father?” she said.

“Yes, I was just going to tell you when you interrupted about the sponge-plan,” said he. “By the way, I’ll draw you the revolving boxing-glove. A foot-pedal below—below, mind—the water, so that your foot doesn’t get cold. And, of course, you hold the socket of the boxing-glove—the wrist, so to speak—in your hand, and it goes buzzing round as you work with your foot, and you apply it, well soaped, to your face. No more dead seaweed and lobster claws! My father now!”

Peter gathered up his knees in his arms, and sat there nursing them. His dressing-gown had fallen off his shoulder; he looked like some domesticated{222} Satyr, wild with the knowledge of the woodland, but tamed to this sojourn—enforced or voluntary—in human habitations.

“I went to him, as you told me to do,” he began.

Silvia interrupted him. She wanted him to do himself justice.

“No, my dear; you went quite of your own accord,” she said. “I never urged you.”

Peter’s eyelids hovered and fell and raised themselves again. Often and often had Silvia noticed that shade of gesture on Nellie’s face; but never, so it struck her, had she seen a man do just that. The gesture seemed to imply acquiescence without consent.

“Well, I went anyhow,” he said. “I tapped on his door, and as there was no answer I went in. He was standing in front of that big Italian mirror in—well, in an attitude. He is intending to paint his own portrait, when he has finished that daub of you.”

Silvia leaned forward towards him.

“Oh, don’t talk like that!” she said. “Don’t be ironical—not that quite: don’t feel ironical.”

Peter turned on her a face of mild, injured innocence. “I was telling you the bald facts,” he said.

“The balder the better,” said she.

“I told him I had read my mother’s letter,” he continued, “and that there was news in it which he had better know at once. I got him to sit down, and I got hold of his hand. And then I told him just the fact that she had gone away.”

Peter shifted himself a little further back in his chair and drew his legs more closely towards him, so that his chin rested on the plateau of his knees.

“I am not being ironical,” he said. “I am trying to tell you precisely what happened. He made a{223} noise—a gurgle, I think I should call it—and he asked who the damned villain was with whom she had gone. And, to be quite bald, that seemed to me to be unreal. I said that there wasn’t any damned villain, and that she had gone just because she felt she must be free. He wanted to see the letter, and I told him that I had torn it up. Then he began throwing his hair-brushes and dress-clothes into a bag, in order to start off and look for her, and asked me where she was. When I told him that I hadn’t the slightest idea, he accused me of collusion with her. I merely denied that, and said that her letter was as great a surprise to me as it was to him.”

Peter threw away the end of his cigarette.

“Then he began to guess why she had gone. Now the point of my tearing up my mother’s letter was that he shouldn’t know, wasn’t it, darling?”

Silvia heard herself assent. There was a sickness of the heart coming over her, something too subtle for her to diagnose as yet.

“So he began to guess,” continued Peter, “and as he tried to guess I was sorry for him—really sorry, you understand?”

Silvia’s heart began to thrive again.

“Yes, yes; I knew you would be!” she cried.

“He soon hit on the reason,” said Peter quietly. “There could only have been one reason, so he thought, and it filled him with the utmost remorse. He had been too big for her, that was what it came to—too great. He had not, in the exaltation of his art—this is quite what he said—remembered the limitations of—of the rest of us. She had fainted before the furnace of his genius. It was all his fault: he hadn’t made allowance for the prodigious strain on her—for the effects, cumulative no doubt, of the high{224} pressure. He strode about the room, he knocked over a chair——”

Some fierce antagonism to his narrative blazed up in Silvia. She had wanted the facts, and here they were, but she had not allowed for the baldness of their presentation, though she had asked for it.

“Ah, don’t talk like that, Peter,” she said. “You’re not a newspaper reporter.”

Peter gave no reply at all. There he sat with his chin on his knees, quite silent.... If Silvia chose to speak to him like that it was clear that she must either go on or draw back; anyhow, the next word was with her. But all the time that he thus tacitly insisted on his rights, resenting what she had said, there was within him some little focus of light breaking through from her sunlit altitudes that illumined and justified her protest. Good Lord, wasn’t she right? Wasn’t his sentiment towards his father immeasurably ignoble compared to the comprehension of her love? And that very fact—his own unavowable condemnation of himself, that is to say—irritated him. If she was like that there was no use in his continuing his story.

Silvia spoke first. Humanly, she could not bear this silence in which Peter seemed to mock her, but divinely she must be ever so humble.... Humble? How love sanctified humility and transformed it into an ineffable pride. She pushed back her chair and knelt by his. She longed to unclasp the brown lean hands that enclosed him in himself and make them embrace her also. But that might annoy Peter: there was a suggestion of “claiming” him about it. She did not want to claim him.

“I don’t know why I spoke like that,” she said. “I asked you what happened, and you are telling me. Will you forgive me and go on?{225}”

Peter had never seemed so remote from her as then. In the frantic telegraphy of her spirit, which seemed to be sending all the love that the waves of ether would bear, there came no response from him, in spite of his answer. “I never heard such nonsense,” he said. “We should be a pretty pair if we had to forgive. How silly—you know it—to ask me to forgive you.”

“Show you do, by going on,” she said.

It was clear to him that what she wanted was to know not his father’s part in this interview, but his own. Whether she liked it or not, he was going to be perfectly honest about it.

“When he knocked over a chair and strode about,” he repeated, “and found out the reason for my mother’s going away, I began to be less sorry for him. He enjoyed himself: it was all a tribute to his impossible greatness. From then onwards I acted, because he was acting. The alternative was to tell him that my mother simply found his egoism intolerable. That wouldn’t have done any good, so I agreed with him: that was the best thing to do. He is in despair, a rather luxurious despair. I had either to explode that or let him enjoy it. So it was no use being sorry for him any longer.”

Silvia broke out again; it was her love for Peter that spoke.

“My dear, you ought to have been a million times sorrier,” she cried. “If he had been just simply broken-hearted about it, it would have been so much better. Can’t you see that? Can you help feeling it?” She was shedding the gleam on him.

“I know what you mean,” he said. “But I’m telling you what happened. I was less sorry for him when he began to console himself. I suppose I’m made like that.”

Silvia bit her lip.

“Indeed you are not,” she said. “You’re making yourself out to be hard and unloving.”

At the moment the clang of the dinner-bell from the turret just above Silvia’s room broke in.... The whole neighbourhood must know when the family at Howes were warned that it was time to dress, and that three-quarters of an hour later it was time to dine. Peter, on the first evenings he had spent here with Silvia, had asked whether, like a Court Circular, such publicity need be given to their domestic affairs; but Silvia, confessing herself sentimental, had told him that her father had delighted in the installation of that sonorous announcement. The brazen proclamation “hurt” nobody, and “Daddy liked it.”... Certainly it served a purpose now, and Peter jumped up.

“Lord, there’s dinner!” he said. “And I haven’t begun to dress. My father, by the way, wants to dine upstairs. Will you tell them, as you are so much more advanced than I, to send up his dinner? I must fly.” Peter stood for a moment looking at her. If a situation between them had not actually laid hold of them, it had thrown a shadow over them, and he wanted to get out into sunlight again.

“Ah, you darling!” he said with a blend of envy and of admiration somewhere gushing up. Envy at her immense nobility—he could think of no other word for it—and admiration at that shrine of love which rose from the ground of her heart. It was so beautiful an edifice: he despaired of being worthy of it, and at times, so he confessed to himself, he wearied of its white stainless purity.... Somehow this evening there seemed to have opened a little crack on its soaring vault, which he must mend somehow.

“Give me a kiss, then,” he said.


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