by E.F. Benson

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter XI

Peter, though he often hung a veil over the real workings and processes of his mind for the benefit and admiration of others, before whom he was anxious to present a charming appearance, was honest with himself, and found, during the next fortnight, without any desire to dissimulate, that he was distinctly grateful to Silvia’s insistence that he should not resign his place in the Foreign Office, for, in the present conditions and environments at Howes, it was certainly preferable to spend the solidity of the day in London rather than enjoy uninterrupted leisure at home. Even then the evenings were full of crashes and crises and intolerable ludicrousness....

His father, who still majestically occupied the state-rooms (and showed no indications of vacating them), moved along peaks and summits of the ridiculous, which his son really believed had never before been trodden by foot of man. That he was enjoying himself immensely Peter made no doubt whatever, living as he did on the heights of egoism, and free to indulge in the most extravagant exhibition of it. His standard (victoriously raised), his principle, his determination (announced with magnificent gestures once if not more, during the evening) was that he would remain rock-like and immovable, fulfilling the destiny of his own supreme will, whatever bombs Fate might choose to drop on him. That his whole soul was bitter with remorse for his failings and failures he did not deny. He should not have isolated himself,{228} as he had done, in the supernal realms of Art; he should have remembered that he was a man as well as an artist, and had a wife as well as the celestial mistress of his soul. He ought to have been kinder, more tender, more indulgent to the frailty and the weakness of his Carissima. But remorse (so waved his standard), if it was the genuine article, must express itself not in idle repinings, but in a manful facing of the consequences of past error. His remorse (the right kind of remorse) did not weaken, but strengthened a man to go forward. He must not lose touch with the joy of life; he must not get from the severe spanking that remorse gave him only a smarting and a humiliation of the flesh. He must draw the lesson from his punishment, and proceed more tenderly but not less sublimely than before....

It must not be supposed that Mr. Mainwaring used such expressions as “spanking” in actual speech, or that the ironical account of his sublimity, as given above, was verbally his. But such, anyhow, was the manner in which these great tirades, delivered to Peter when he went up to see his father on his daily arrival at Howes an hour or so before dinner, impressed themselves on his mind. Usually there was a note for him on the table in the hall, which ran something like this:

“My Peter,—I am very low and despondent to-night, and I do not know if I can face a sociable evening. Come up to see me, my dear, for you are the only link which is left to me of those happy—far too happy—years, and see if your sweet spirit will not, like David playing before Saul, exorcise the demons of remorse and regret which shriek and gibber round{229} the head of your unhappy father. I have tried so hard—ah, so hard—all day not to make myself a burden and a shadow to your dear ones, but I fear I have acquitted myself very ill. Come and cheer me up, Peter.”

Peter, to do him justice, always went, and in the majesty of egoism, his father, without any encouragement at all, would talk himself into a splendid courage. At whatever cost to himself, at whatever effort from worn and debilitated nerve-strings, he would show that there was some music yet left in his. He would twang his mental guitar, and if the frayed string snapped—well, his lawyer would know that his affairs were in order.... Then, sooner or later, to Peter’s great relief, the sonorous dressing-bell would ring, and he could go and have his bath. As likely as not, before he definitely quitted the room, his father would allude to the magnificent 1896 port which formed so admirable a feature in the cellars of Howes.

Usually after the bath he went in to see Silvia, but, for some reason or other, the spontaneous nonsense of these interviews had wilted and withered. Silvia, so it seemed to him, held herself in reserve, waiting for something from him. Peter would give an account of his day, of his talk with his father, and still Silvia seemed to wait. She was overbrimming with all that she ever had for him, but, to his perception, what she waited for was for him to turn the winch of the sluice.

Once there had been a really outrageous scene with his father, in which, after tears, Mr. Mainwaring had slid from his chair with a groan, and lay, an ignoble heap, upon the floor. Peter on this occasion{230} had given Silvia a perfectly colourless précis of the degrading exhibition, and had endorsed it, brought collateral evidence to bear on its nature by the production of one of the notes which usually awaited him on his return from town. He had done that in some sort of self-justification: Silvia could not fail to realize how trying, from their very unreality, such scenes were for him, and he gave her also every evening a very respectable specimen of his patience with his father. And yet he felt that Silvia was not waiting for that; it was not how he behaved, how patient and cordial he schooled himself to be, that she waited for. He was patient, he was cordial, and though she often gave him a little sympathetic and appreciative word for his reward, it was no more than a sugar-plum to a child, something to keep it quiet. What she wanted, what she longed for the evidence of, was an internal loving driving force which turned the wheels of the machinery of his impeccable conduct, and that he had not got for her. He spun the wheels with a clever finger from outside.

But usually these wheels went round merrily enough. He reported his father’s despondence; he, ever so lightly, alluded to the fact that he had cheered him up, and his estimate was justified, for Mr. Mainwaring, on the crashing of the dinner-bell in the turret, would sometimes announce his progress from the state-rooms by a jubilant yodelling, and would remain for the greater part of dinner in a state of high elation. True, he would have a spasm now and then: if he happened to have his attention called to Mrs. Wardour’s pearls, he might for a brief dramatic moment cover his eyes and say in a choked voice: “My Carissima had some wonderful pearls”; but then, true to his manly determination, he would dismiss the{231} miserable association and become master of his soul again.

Peter usually had a second dose of his father’s Promethean attitude later in the evening, after Silvia and her mother had gone upstairs.

“Your treasure, your pearl of great price, your angel!” he would ejaculate. “Her sweet pity, her divine compassion! It is she—she and you—who reconcile me to life. But I must not bask too long in that healing effulgence. I must get back to London; I must reinstate myself in my desolate house, and face it all, face it all. I must stand on my own feet again, poor sordid cripple that I am.” Then perhaps, if quite overcome, he would bury his face in his hands, but much more usually he would stand up, throw out his chest, breathe deeply, and draw himself up to the last half-inch of his considerable stature.

“Work!” he said. “Work is the tonic that God puts in the reach of all of us. Remember that, my Peter, if grief and sorrow ever visit you. But then you have by your side the sweetest, the most sympathetic woman ever sent to enlighten the gloom of this transitory world. So had I, by God, so had I, and I did not recognize her preciousness and her fragility.... Enough! Silvia! Did you notice her exquisite love towards me at dinner to-day, when for a moment the sight of Mrs. Wardour’s pearls unmanned me?”

Peter on this occasion was lashed to the extremity of irritation.

“I don’t think I did,” he said. “I only remember that she instantly asked you if you would have some more pheasant.”

He tried to do better than that. Certainly there was no use in saying that sort of thing.{232}

“But she looked at you, father,” he added hastily. “You felt what she was feeling. Was that it?”

His father clasped his hands.

“A divine beam came to me,” he said. “A message of consolation. It made me live again. Surely you saw its effect on me?”

Peter, at such moments, longed for his wet woods. He wanted to be by himself, or, at any rate, with someone who could understand and enjoy this stupendous farce. If only Nellie, for instance, had been sitting there with him, how would their eyes have telegraphed their mental ecstasy. Silvia, at this same moment, would not have served the purpose; she might see how ridiculous his father was being, but below her perception of that, which might easily have made her telegraph and smile to him, there would have been that huge, unspeakable tenderness which, when you wanted an answering perception of farce, would have spoiled it all. That universal embracing compassion required salting. Before now she had seen, and communicated to him, her sense of his father’s absurdities, but now, when he turned trouble into an empty arena for his posturing, her sense of comedy completely failed her. Or, if she still possessed it, Peter could not get at it. With a flare of intuition he guessed that it might be unlocked to him, if only he could use the right key to it. But the key was compassion, and it was he for whom she waited to thrust it into the wards. If only he loved they could laugh at anything together; without that the gate was locked.

Well, if it was locked, he would enjoy his imperfect vision of what lay within.

“Yes, I saw its effect on you,” he said, trying to imagine that Nellie was here, enthralled and wide{233}-eyed, “You amused us all very much immediately afterwards by making that lovely sea-sick passenger out of an orange. Perfectly screaming!”

His father thrust his hands through his hair; it stood up like some glorious grey mane.

“Yes, yes,” he said, “I made an effort. I won’t, no, my Peter, I will not lose sight of the dear gaieties of life. God knows what it costs me! Even after a little thing like that I was more than ever plunged in the gulf of despondency. I know how wrong I am. I must never relax my efforts; I mustn’t give myself time to think. Work and laughter—those divine twins.”

He poured himself out a glass of whisky and soda, and chose a cigar with proper care.

“A word or two on practical affairs,” he said, “before I go to my lonely and wakeful bed. You will be here, I understand, till early in December. By then I trust (I insist, indeed, on thus trusting) that I shall have schooled myself to face the desolation of my home (what once was home) again. May I, do you think, ask to remain here till then? I look upon your beautiful Howes as my hospital. Soon, still maimed, still limping, still in the blue uniform of pain, I know that I must, indeed I insist on it, face the world again and make the best of my shattered existence. But till then? Silvia, whom I consulted with regard to this matter, told me that you were the master of Howes, and suggested my speaking to you about it.”

Peter saw an opportunity. His father, it is true, was an odious infliction of an evening, but there was something to be gained by his own eager tolerance of that, which quite outweighed the inconvenience. But he must do more than tolerate; he must welcome;{234} and Silvia—here was the point—must know how splendidly he had risen to it. Before he answered he made himself remember what the intonation of cordiality sounded like.

“But that is perfectly charming of you,” he said. “It’s lovely that the suggestion came from yourself. She and I may be away for a day or two in November——”

Peter did not quite know what arrangement he was to suggest about such days when he and Silvia would be away, for instance, on their visit to Nellie. He was spared the trouble of formulating one by his father, who gave a great gesticulation, admirably expressive of courage.

“I will go home—home for those days,” he said. “I will, with set teeth and firm mouth, begin to grow accustomed to my desolation and loneliness. I will learn to bear it, taking in long draughts the inestimable tonic of work. Peter, Peter”—and the voice shook—“when will my Carissima come back to me?”

He was unmanned only for a moment, and his mastery of himself returned to him.

“Was ever a stricken man so blessed by the love of his children?” he exclaimed. “God bless you, my Peter. You are going to bed?”

The abruptness of this benediction convinced Peter that his father had got what he wanted and had no more use for him that night, and he went along the corridor to his room and Silvia’s. His first impulse was to tell her how cordially, for his part, he had welcomed his father’s suggestion; the second and wiser one was to say nothing about it. Mr. Mainwaring was sure to make the most of it to her; he might even attribute to it that force from{235} inside which turned the wheels. Yes, Silvia should learn about it like that.

He let himself very quietly into his room, and undressed and went to bed without going in to say good night to her. If he went in to see her, it was more than likely that she would ask him whether his father had alluded to the question of his remaining with them, and he wanted the information concerning that to be conveyed to her by one who would give him, Peter felt sure, a florid testimonial for cordiality. He had passed, moreover, a monotonous and fatiguing evening, and wanted not to talk at all, but to sleep. His father had been slightly more dreadful than usual, Mrs. Wardour had more than ever been non-existent, and Silvia, so it struck him, had been waiting, had been watching him, not, it need hardly be said, with fixed eye or stealthy glances, but with some steady psychical alertness that was incessantly poised on him. Without looking at him, without any talking to him or talking at him, he had felt all evening—this, perhaps, had been the most fatiguing part of it—that she had scarcely been conscious of anyone else but him. Though her eyes were on the cards, and she ruefully bemoaned that the goddess of piquet, whom she jointly invoked with Peter’s father, had been so niggardly in her favours towards herself, it had been no more than an automaton that was thus victimized to the extent of three lost games, including a rubicon.

Peter, as he curled himself up in bed, let his mind stray drowsily over such details of the evening, coming back always to this impression of Silvia’s watching him. Whenever he spoke to her of his father she watched him—seldom with her eyes—in just that manner. By aid of his quick perception,{236} that felt rather than reasoned, Peter had, he was sure, arrived at what she watched for then. She watched for some token, she listened for some inflection that indicated tenderness, sympathy, affection towards his father. She could not have been watching for any such token as that for herself, for he gave her those; she knew they were hers. But he had never felt more certain about anything in these dim, vague regions of sentiment and desire than that she wanted something more than that which he gave her, and a certain impatience gained on him. What, after all, had been her own first words to him when he asked her to marry him? Had not her face flamed with the light of the beacon that welcomed him as she whispered that all she asked was to be allowed to love him? At the time that had seemed to him a divine intuition, one that, in a word, precisely defined her way of love and his.

There came at that door of his bedroom which led to her room the lightest, most barely audible of touches; he was scarcely sure whether he had heard it or not. But he did not reply, for either it was imaginary, and needed no answer, or it was Silvia come to see whether he was in his room yet. In that case, even more, an answer must be withheld, for after this evening of strain and high pressure all he wanted was to be let alone and to go to sleep. But underneath his eyelids, not quite closed, he watched the door which was opposite his bed and was dimly visible in the glimmer of starshine that came in through the open and uncurtained window.

Round the edge of the door, though he had heard no click of a turned handle, there came a thin “L” of light, which broadened until, in the shaft of it, appeared Silvia. She held a lighted candle, which{237} she screened from his bed with her hand, the fingers of which, close to the flame, were of a warm transparent crimson. Apparently his clothes, tumbled together on a chair, first caught her notice, and from them she looked straight towards the bed. Her face was vividly illuminated, and when she saw him lying there with shut eyes, some radiant, ineffable tenderness came like dawn over it. Never had he seen so selfless and wonderful a beam; she might have been some discarnate spirit permitted to look upon him who had been the love of her earthly heart. That, then, was how she regarded him when she thought she was unobserved by him; he meant that to her. Next moment, round the half-open door, the light narrowed and disappeared, and he was left again in the glimmering dusk. Never had he seen with half such certainty and directness what Silvia was. She had thought he was asleep, and so she could let free her very soul. Neither by day nor night had she come to him quite like that; all other emotions, amusement, interest, sympathy, desire, passion even, had concealed rather than revealed her. They had been webs and veils across the sanctuary, illumined, indeed, by the light that burned there, but still hiding it. Now for one moment Peter had seen her with those veils drawn aside, the holy place of her, and her love was the light of it.

He was sitting next afternoon in his room at the Foreign Office, rather harassed by the necessity of being polite to everybody. The clerk senior to him in his department was on leave, and it happened that an extra King’s messenger had to be sent off to Rome, carrying a new cipher. That was a perfectly usual incident in Peter’s routine, but this{238} messenger was fresh to his job, and had been in and out of the office all day, fussy and pompous, wishing to be assured that he had got reserved compartments and a private cabin. There was a strike on the French railways going on, and Peter had told him that it might be impossible to secure a compartment farther than Paris, but all that could be done had been done, and, anyhow, he would find a seat reserved for him. Usually Peter rather enjoyed applying soothing ointments to agitated people, and his skill as a manipulator of pompous and fussy persons was so effective that by common consent (he quite agreeing) tiresome officials were often turned on to him for emollient manipulation. But to-day the telephonings and the interruptions and the pomposity and the prime necessity of remaining dulcetly apologetic for inconveniences which were wholly out of his control had got on his nerves, and when finally, in answer to inquiries, it had been determined that the King’s messenger had better, in order to secure a journey probably unvexed by strikes, go round by Southampton and Havre, Peter had been treated to some very acid talk. Of course, the man was an ass, no one knew that better than he, and it was ludicrous to be infuriated by an ass.

About six then, that afternoon, Peter had done all that patience and polite inquiries from French station-masters could do for the ass, and with undiminished civility he had wished him a pleasant journey. In half an hour, or, if he chose, now, since there was nothing more that could detain him, he could telephone for his car and slide down to Howes. He did not in the least look forward to his evening there; it would assuredly be an evening of as high a pressure {239}as the day had been. His father would certainly be voluble with blessings and gratitude, and Peter hated the prospect of these benedictions. Installed as Mr. Mainwaring now was for a couple of months more, he would surely develop the idea which he had before now outlined, when he assured Peter that during his daily absences in London he himself would act as his vice-regent. He had already caused the luncheon hour to be changed in order that he might get an extra half-hour of work into the morning; already he had got the estate carpenter to “knock him up” an immense frame in which he could see his second cartoon, now dismally approaching completion, more satisfactorily displayed. And then Peter thought of that short candle-lit glimpse last night, when Silvia had looked into his room.

For one moment the remembrance of that magnetically beckoned him; the next, as by some inexplicable reversal, the needle of that true compass swung round and pointed in the opposite direction. It no longer gave him his course back to Howes; it steadily pointed away from Howes. But even as he told himself how inexplicable that was, his subconscious self gave a convincing explanation of it. To hurry back to Silvia and her watch of love, to feel that there were veils which only he could draw aside, but which, when drawn aside by God knew what aspirations towards a light he did not comprehend, would reveal to him again the glory of her sanctuary, was a task for saints and lovers. He would rise to it in time, he would learn to be worthy of an ideal that somehow, in spite of its white heat, had the chill of asceticism frosting it; but just now he longed for ordinary, unreflective, unstruggling human gaiety. She—Silvia—lived{240} naturally on those heights, just as his father lived in the cloud—or the shroud, maybe—of his own inimitable egoism.

He was tidying his table, intending to ring up very soon for his motor to take him back to Howes. If he started in half an hour he would have time to see his father before dressing, and to talk to Silvia between bath and dinner. Then he changed his mind and determined not to ring for his motor at all. Instead he would walk back across the park—no, not across the park, but up Whitehall, and so by streets all the way to Piccadilly. He would have time to get a cup of tea at home and start from there immediately afterwards. The rather longer route by the streets was infinitely preferable. There would be crowds of ordinary human beings all the way, people not monstrous on the one hand, so far as he knew, from swollen egoism, nor irradiated by idealisms which made you pant in a rarefied atmosphere. There would be just masses of people, people gay, people sulky, ugly people, pretty people, but above all ordinary people.

At the moment when his tidying was complete, and his table ready for his next day’s work, the telephone on his table tinkled. He resigned himself to more inquiries from the incomparable ass, but they could not last long, for his train left Waterloo within a manageable number of minutes. But in answer to his intimation that it was indeed he who waited at the end of the wire, there did not come the voice which he had listened to so often that day, but one quite other and equally recognizable.

“Nellie?” he said.

“Yes, my dear. How lucky I am to catch you. You’re in town, then?{241}”

“At the moment,” said he. “I’m going back to Howes in half an hour.”

“Oh, what a pity! You won’t be in town to-night, then?”

“Why?” asked Peter.

“Only that Philip and I were going to the play, and Philip’s got a cold and thinks it wiser not to go out. I thought perhaps—just a lovely off-chance—that you might come instead. Oh, do, Peter.”

“Hold on. Wait half a minute,” said he.

He put the receiver down on the table, seating himself on the edge of it. Here in excelsis was precisely what he longed for. Dinner, a theatre, a talk, all with Nellie, who represented to him (though in excelsis) the ideal epitome of the world of humanity. He had thought a moment before, with the sense of anticipating a “break,” the mere walk through crowded streets. She would in this programme give him all that intimately, she would give also the sense of intimate friendship without effort. They would jabber and enjoy——

He took up the receiver again.

“Yes, all quite easy,” he said. “It’s late already, and when it’s late and I can’t get down there, I can always sleep in town. Silvia and I settled that when I began work again in this doleful office.”

Nellie appeared to laugh at that.

“Silvia evidently spoils you,” she said. “But it’s too lovely to catch you like this. Will you dine with me at the Ritz? Seven? The play—can’t remember what it is—begins at eight. So we shan’t have to hurry, and can sit with our elbows on the table for a bit and talk.”

“Sit with what?” asked he.{242}

“Elbows on the table,” said Nellie with elaborate distinctness. “No hurry—talk.”

This time he laughed.

“Oh, don’t let’s go to the Ritz,” he said. “Come and have elbows at my great house. I’ll go back there now and order dinner. It’ll probably be beastly, but it’s more private. Shall we do that?”

“Much nicer,” said Nellie. “How are you, Peter? Oh, I can ask that afterwards. Seven, then. Wardour House.”

“Yes. Give condolences to Philip. Not congratulations, mind.”

Peter hung up the receiver, and then took it off again at once in order not to give himself time to think. There would be clamour and argument if he thought, and he wanted nothing of that sort. Ten minutes afterwards he left the office, having telephoned to the Jackdaw that he was detained here and would be obliged to sleep in London.

Two months had passed since Nellie and he had met, but whatever frontier-change of limitation or expansion had been decreed for each severally since then, their meeting to-night had the power to put such aside, and they hailed each other without the embarrassment of altered circumstances. Their compasses were rigidly in accord, and as the excellent impromptu meal proceeded the talk sailed towards northern lights, in the direction of their steadfast needles. Soon they were sitting (at the elbow stage) with their coffee and cigarettes, with a quiet quarter of an hour in front of them before they need start.

“Motor at ten minutes to eight,” said Peter to{243} the servant, glancing at the clock. “Tell me when it comes round.”

He shifted his chair a little sideways towards her.

“Oh, this is jolly,” he said, “for we’ve gone on just where we left off. You’re just the same. It’s two months, you know, since I set eyes on you. Do say you’ve missed me.”

“What else did you expect?” said she. “Marriage isn’t—— Oh, Peter, what’s the name of that river?”

“Thames?” asked Peter.

“No, the forgetting one—Lethe. Because I’m married to Philip I don’t forget—other people. But tell me, has Silvia been giving you Lethe to drink instead of early morning tea?”

“Not a drop. She’s given me everything else in the world.”

Nellie still had that habit of plaiting her fingers together.

“You ought to be very grateful to me,” she said. “It was I, after all, one night at my mother’s flat, do you remember?”

“I was Jacob that night,” remarked Peter.

Nellie frowned.

“Don’t tell me how,” she said. “I want to see if we think side by side still. Ah, I’ve got it! Philip was Esau—isn’t that clever?—and I told him I was tired, and so you supplanted him.”

“Right. Get on,” said Peter.

“Yes, about your gratitude. It was that night that I told you to ask Silvia to marry you. Didn’t I?”

“Yes. Thank you, dear Mrs. Beaumont,” said Peter effusively. “So good of you to tell me.”

“It was a good idea, wasn’t it?{244}”

Nellie’s mind stiffened itself to “attention” at that moment. Before, it had been standing very much at ease.

“The best idea in the world,” he said.

“I’m awfully glad,” said she. “What you say, too, makes it all the more delightful of you to stop up in town to-night, instead of going back to her.”

Though up till now they had fitted into each other with all the old familiar smoothness, it appeared now, when they got near, in their conversation, to what had happened to each of them (not, so he still felt, altering them, but putting them into new cases) that there was fresh ground to be broken; hitherto they had only picked their way over the old ground. Nellie felt this even more imperatively than he. They had got to run the plough (so why not at once on this admirable opportunity?) through the unturned land.... Peter’s servant had already appeared in the doorway, announcing the motor, and she had noticed that, but Peter had not. She concluded from that, that he, easy as their intercourse had up till now been, was feeling some pre-occupation. His hesitation in answering her last acknowledgment of his amiability in remaining in town instead of going back to Howes, confirmed that impression. Then, before the pause was unduly prolonged, so as to amount to embarrassment, she put her word in again.

“I appreciate that,” she said, “because it shows that the new ties haven’t demolished the old. And on my side I admit, far more definitely than you, that if my poor Philip must have a cold, I am glad—ever so glad—it visited him to-night, so as to give me an evening with you.”

She swept her plate and coffee-cup aside, to make room for an advance of the elbows.{245}

“Oh, my dear, I have missed you,” she said. “Naturally, however perfectly Philip is himself, he couldn’t be you. My mind—perhaps you haven’t noticed it—has wonderfully improved these last months—I am learning Italian, and we read Dante—but it needs just a little holiday. And I’ve found out such a lot of things about Philip, and all of them are good, worse luck.”

Peter looked up at her with that liquid seriousness of eye which to her meant that he was walking in the wet woods.

“Oh, poor thing,” he said.

For some reason which she did not choose to investigate, Nellie found that remark immensely encouraging. Certainly, a few minutes ago, she had tried to provoke him to talk—really talk, but the ironical perfection of his condolence, which, so she felt, saw all round what she was saying, made her more than acquiesce in his listening instead of talking. She felt sure that this beloved Peter understood——

“I knew you would sympathize,” she said; “but there’s my tragic prosperity. My Philip isn’t lazy or spiteful and inconsiderate or selfish, or bad-tempered or greedy or—or anything at all, except that he knows so much about birds. He has taught me a lot, and he’s quite absolutely devoted to me. He never liked anybody so much as me. But do you know, darling, to a woman, at any rate, having a good, nice man quite devoted to her, as far as his affections go, gives her, once in a way, a little sense of strain. She has to find her hymn-book and sing.”

“I’ll lend you mine,” said Peter, speaking without thought, but only by instinct.

“Thanks. When will you want it back? No; I won’t borrow it. But the fact is, that an undilutedly{246} good man wants something to make him fizz. You must have humour or a vile temper or cynicism or greediness, or something, to make you drinkable.... My dear, what am I saying?”

The clock on the mantelpiece struck the hour at which the curtain of their play rose; but the chimes, eight sonorous thumps, preceded by the quarters, penetrated Peter’s brain no more than the announcement of the motor ten minutes ago had done.

“You’re talking awfully good sense,” he said. “At any rate, you’re talking a language I can understand. You always did; we quarrelled and wrangled, but we were on the same plane.”

“So we are now, thank heaven,” said she. “It’s time you gave me some news, you know.”

Whatever pre-occupation it was that held Peter, he seemed to shake himself free of it.

“Yes, I’ve got news all right,” he said. “Domestic tragedy.”

“Oh, my dear, what?” asked she. “Nothing awful?”

He seemed to know for certain that she was figuring in her mind something about himself and Silvia. So, in the upshot, the sequel, the development, he was. But he tested her, so to speak, over the domestic tragedy itself.

“My mother has run away from home,” he began.

Nellie did not laugh. She only bit her tongue with firm purpose.

“Dear Peter!” she said, when she released it.

“She has simply gone,” he said. “Round about ten days ago, when father arrived to study his first cartoon, with a view to the rest of the series—Mrs. Wardour bought it, by the way—gracious me, what a lot we have got to talk about.{247}”

“Never mind the cartoon,” said Nellie with thrilled interest. “Get on with the tragedy.”

Quite uncontrollably Peter’s mouth began to lengthen itself. He did not quite smile, but the promise of a smile was there.

“Tragedy, then,” he said. “My mother sent me a long—oh, such a priceless letter, to say that when my father came home again—his home, I mean—he would find she had gone.”

The Dryad, the gay conscienceless Nellie, could not, in spite of her improved mind, quite contain herself.

“But your mother?” she asked. “At her age? How absolutely wonderful of her! Do you know who he is?”

Peter tried not to laugh, and completely failed in that dutiful endeavour. She could but follow his lead, and the two, drawing psychically nearer to each other every moment, abandoned themselves, just for natural relief, to this irrepressible mirth.

“You are such a damned fool, Nellie,” he said at length. “Do listen: don’t be funny. It’s quite different.”

“’Pologies,” said she, rather shakily.

“It wasn’t anything so romantic, but it was just as human,” said Peter. “You know how my mother was hammered into herself—that phrase came in her letter, by the way: it’s not original.”

“But I never guessed there was anything to hammer,” said Nellie.

“Nor did I; at least, I only half guessed. But there was. A breaking point came, and she couldn’t stick my father any longer. She has just gone away. Do you remember how she used always to be looking up hotels in railway guides?{248}”

“I remember that most of all,” said she. “Well?”

“She’s gone to one of them. She’s just gone away to be free, not to lead somebody else’s life any more. When she has got a good breath of air, she may, apparently, come back. But she doesn’t promise.”

Nellie had grown quite serious again.

“That’s even more wonderful of her,” she said. “She just went away because she wanted to be herself. My dear, what a mother! And waiting till you were married! And your father? Go on.”

This time Peter’s mouth strayed beyond the limits of mere reflective meditation, and smiled broadly.

“He has discovered, to his complete satisfaction, why she left him,” he said. “He knows—as if Gabriel had told him—that his tremendous personality, his devotion to Art, all that sort of thing, was too much for her. He reproaches himself bitterly—and oh, my dear, how he enjoys it—with having failed to realize the frailty—not moral—the weakness, the ordinariness of other people. She was scorched in his magnificent flames, and escaped from that furnace with her life.”

“But how lovely for him!” said Nellie. “Lovely for her, too. But why tragedy? You said it was a tragedy?”

His whole body gave a jubilant jerk. If he had been standing up he must have jumped.

“Ah, you do see that, don’t you?” he cried. “I just rejoice in her! At least, I would——”

Nellie divined perfectly well that “if Silvia understood” really completed the sentence. But if Peter wished, for the present anyhow, to leave that unspoken, loyalty to their comradeship prevented her from suggesting it. Another motive, not less potent than that, dictated her silence on the point, for she{249} infinitely preferred that he should volunteer some such information concerning himself and Silvia than that she should give away her knowledge of it. Certainly she longed to know in what real relation he and Silvia stood to each other, but it would be a tactical error (tactical was too businesslike) to let him know that his incomplete sentence gave her so certain a hint.

“I see,” she said quickly. “You would rejoice in her if it wasn’t for your father.”

Until the two ultimate words of that were spoken Peter’s eyes had been bright and expectant. He evidently waited for the termination which she had refused to utter. When her sentence was complete she saw, unmistakably again, that his eyes accepted and acquiesced in her conclusion.

“Quite,” he said in a level voice. “So for the present my father is consumed with remorse, and is occupying the state-rooms—you’ve never seen them; gorgeous tapestry and Lincrusta Walton ceilings—till we come up to town. He is painting away at the series of cartoons.”

Peter poured himself out a second cup of coffee from the tray that had been left between them half an hour or more before.

“Aunt Joanna!” he said. “You never heard such a plot or saw such a person. She’s my mother-in-law’s sister, you know. She’s ‘got at’ my father, there’s no doubt of it, and she’s secured all the cartoons by bribery and corruption, instead of their being painted for the gallery—the Art Gallery, I should say—at Howes. Aunt Eleanor—she’s my father-in-law’s brother’s wife—has secured the sketches for the cartoons. They’ve been to Howes once, but my father quite dominated them. That{250} was before the crash, so you may judge how much more, with that added string of tragedy to his bow, he would dominate them now. They are more priceless than words can say. There will be a family gathering at Christmas, I understand. Nellie, do come. We would have such a gorgeous time if you were there. We would sit quiet and notice and drink in, and then we would sit over the fire together when Uncle John and Uncle Abe——”

“Uncle Abe?” asked Nellie in an awed voice.

“Yes. Sir Abel Darley, K.B.E., husband to Aunt Joanna. Don’t interrupt. When Uncle John and Uncle Abe and Aunt Eleanor and Aunt Joanna have gone, not staggering at all, but ‘full up,’ to bed, we would have such holy convocations about them.”

Nellie had inferred a little more information about Silvia by this time, but what occupied her most was not what she was inferring about anybody. It was quite enough for her to realize that for the duration, anyhow, of the first act of the play which they had meant to see she was in the old full enjoyment of Peter again. They had stepped back into the candour and closeness of their friendship, and though he had not, as she had, confessed that he was having a holiday, it was transparently clear that this was the case. But just there the candour was clouded; she guessed that, even as she was having a holiday from Philip (God bless him), so Peter was having a holiday from Silvia. Only—here was the difference—he did not or would not own up to that. Even in the projected scheme of Christmas-hilariousness at the uncles and aunts, Silvia did not appear as ever so faintly ridiculous, or as ever so faintly partaking in the midnight merriment. Throughout their talk{251} Peter had kept her hermetically apart. Once or twice, Nellie conjectured, he had pointedly enough refrained from introducing her. She could visualize the rest of them down at Howes, but the part that to Peter Silvia played was mysteriously shrouded. When you were laughing at everybody all round, why should you except one person from the compliment of amused criticism? It was clear that Silvia had no applause for the comedy of Peter’s parents, for he had so cordially welcomed her—Nellie’s—appreciation of it. What, then, was Silvia’s line, what was her relation, above all, to Peter?

She decided not to burn all her boats, but to set fire to just a little one.

“Won’t Silvia enjoy them too?” she asked.

“Can’t tell,” said Peter.

If there was a lapse of loyalty there, if, in a minor degree, there was a sense conveyed of disappointment, though of accepting that disappointment without comment, Nellie decided that Peter was not intending to enlarge on it. She still (after that small burned boat) clung to the chance of Peter’s volunteering information, but clearly she would not get that just now; and another heavy booming of quarters from the clock gave her an excellent opportunity of abandoning that which, after all, had never been a discussion on her own initiative.

“Good gracious, it’s a quarter to nine,” she said. “You wretch, Peter! We’ve missed one act, if not two.”

“Let’s miss them all,” he said, “and have an evening.”

That made her pause, but only for a moment. Peter had consistently shied away from that one topic she wanted to hear about, and a break of some sort{252} was much more likely to produce in him the pressure that would eventually “go pop” than if they remained just sizzling here.

“But we absolutely must go,” she said. “Philip will ask me about the play, and I couldn’t tell him that you and I simply sat talking till it was over.”

“Why not?” said Peter.

“Because it isn’t done. My dear, you and I have signed on to the conventionalities of life. Come along. A bore, but there it is. Besides, how would you account for your evening to Silvia? Dining at seven, you know. That requires a theatrical explanation.”

“Oh, don’t be vulgar,” said Peter. “As if Silvia wouldn’t delight in my spending an evening with you.”

“I know that,” said she. “Don’t lose your sense of humour, Peter. It was a mild kind of joke.”

“Come on, then,” he said. “And as for its being my fault that we’re so late——”

The second act was drawing to an end when they stole into their box. On the stage there was proceeding the most elementary of muddles, to which it was not in the least worth while to devote any ingenuity. It was clear at the first glance that these people who pretended to be servants were really landed gentry, and that just before the end the Earl (who had taken the house) would propose to the cook and be violently accepted. Psychologically they presented no point of interest. Far more engrossing to Nellie was the fact that she had got Peter with her, and the pleasure of that and the general problem it propounded was far more absorbing. Marriage had certainly quickened her emotional perceptions, and{253} she inferred, from the extraordinary delight that it was to be with him again, how much in the interval she had missed him. She had no reason to complain, either, of the welcome he had given her, but it was manifest (how she could not definitely have said) that the quality of that was different from hers to him. To his sense, as he had openly stated, they had taken up the old attitude, the old intimacy, without break, but as she thought over that in the few minutes that elapsed before the act was finished, she found that, for her part, she did not altogether endorse his view. Certainly the old intimacy was there, firm and unshaken, but somehow, hovering over it, like a mist which to her eyes seemed to be luminous with tears, there was some new atmospheric condition, sunny and tremulous.

Peter turned to her as the house sprang into light again.

“Oh, what a waste of time,” he said. “We should have done much better to have left our elbows on the table. We’re always doing it too. Do you remember the last play at which we met? That time you were with Philip and I with Silvia and Mrs. Wardour. Then we had our talk afterwards; to-night we had it first. I like the other plan best.”

Though Peter had here stated several things with which she was in cordial agreement, his tone was not in tune with the old footing, the old intimacy. Not many minutes ago it had been she who, in opposition to his inclination, had insisted on breaking their tête-à-tête; now, with all possible lightness of touch, she suggested its resumption.

“I’ve seen enough,” she said. “I can tell Philip all about it. Let’s go back, my dear, and have half{254} an hour’s more talk. It was my fault that we broke up; but how could I have told that the play would have been as silly as this? We shall talk more sense in five minutes than they’ll put into the whole of the next act.”

Peter’s eyes were wandering round the house. At this moment they were attracted by a feather fan violently signalling from a box directly opposite, and the general buzz of the theatre was quite distinctly pierced with a shrill scream of laughter which came from precisely the same direction as the gesticulating fan. It was hardly necessary to put up his glasses to ascertain the authorship of these phenomena.

“Mrs. Trentham,” he said unerringly, “with the usual myrmidons. She has seen us, Nellie. Come round and be conventional.”

“Oh, why?” said she. “If she wants to see us she can come here, can’t she? But she doesn’t want to see us: she only wants to be seen.”

She felt that at that moment she was becoming, to Peter, part of the general foreground, a prominent object in it, but still only part of it. His next words confirmed the impression.

“Oh, come along,” he said. “Let’s embark on the ordinary ridiculous evening. Let’s all go back to supper with me. Or perhaps there’s a dance going on. Come round and forage, Nellie. I’ve been in the country for a month, you know. Besides——”

She knew perfectly well what he had left unsaid, and answered it.

“But what does it matter how much she talks?” she asked.

Peter gave her a glance of brilliant surprise.

“How did you know that that was what I didn’t say?” he demanded.{255}

“Because it’s you, of course. Or, if you like, because it’s me.”

The fan waved more vehemently than ever.

“We’d better go,” said he.

Nellie got up. In the old days she would almost certainly have been able to superimpose her wish over his. Now it was the other way about. She seemed to be in the grip of some internal necessity of doing what he wanted. He had to have his way, not because he had become stronger of will, but because she had lost her power of self-assertion with regard to him. It was not any general debility of will on her part; she had her way with Philip, for instance, with an effortless ease. But then she was not part only of the foreground to Philip, nor to her was Peter part only of the foreground....

Return to the Peter Summary Return to the E.F. Benson Library

Anton Chekhov
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Susan Glaspell
Mark Twain
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Herman Melville
Stephen Leacock
Kate Chopin
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson