by E.F. Benson

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Chapter XII

Peter managed to get away from the Foreign Office next day, in the absence of anything to detain him, an hour or so before his usual time, and arriving at the gilded gates of the battlemented lodge of Howes while the warm October twilight still lingered in the sky, he got out to walk across the mile of park that separated him from the house. His truant evening in town last night, the plunge into the froth and noise and chatter, had quieted some sort of restlessness, had assuaged some sort of hunger, and he was still licking the chops of memory, content in a few minutes now to “wipe his mouth and go his journey” again. He just had the sense of having enjoyed an evening out, of having lolled in the old familiar tap-room, with the usual habitués, over a pot of beer, while a friendly barmaid (this was Mrs. Trentham) made the usual jokes over the counter as she served him. Some of these seemed to have sounded better by electric light, so to speak, than did the timbre of their memory in the dusky crimson of the dying day, and he recalled the welcome of screams and shrieks she had given to Nellie and himself when, at his insistence, they had visited her in the box opposite. She threatened when she learned they had already dined alone (appearing so very late at the play) to send anonymous letters to Silvia and Philip. There was a judge in the divorce court, she added, who was much devoted to her, and would no doubt give her admission for the two cases when they came on. The robust wit of Lord Poole had ably seconded her.

Then, with the exception of Nellie, who had to go home to put an end to Philip’s solitary evening, they had all gone back to Wardour House, where Peter promised some sort of scratch supper, and Nellie, finding that her husband had already gone to bed, joined them again. It had been altogether a pleasant ridiculous evening which had made itself in this impromptu and accidental manner an ordinary human evening. Just twice there had for Peter been a slight check, a signal momentarily against him—once when he found that Nellie had left again, very soon after her reappearance at supper, without a word to him; once when, without warning, it had entered his mind that at just about this time, the night before, he had seen his bedroom door open, and Silvia’s face look in on him as he lay with closed eyelids, feigning sleep. That was rather a dreadful thing to have done....

He paused a moment on the bridge that crossed the lake, looking at the image of the house duskily reflected on its far margin. There was someone coming towards him along the path that led by the edge of the lake, and joined the road here, and before his eyes had time to tell him who it was, she waved a hand at him, without the screams, without the violent gesticulations by which Mrs. Trentham the night before had made herself known. She quickened her pace as he answered her signal, and in three minutes more he had joined her.

“The chauffeur told me you had walked from the lodge,” she said, “so I came to meet you. You’re early.”

Peter kissed her.

“I’ll go away again, shall I?” he said.

“No; as you’ve come, you can stop,” she said.{258}

“And what did you do with yourself last night? Not all alone, I hope: you found somebody?”

Peter smiled at her.

“Somebody?” he said. “Crowds! First of all, Nellie rang up at the F.O., saying that she had been going to the play with Philip, but that he had a cold. So would I? We dined at home, and talked so long with elbows on the table that we didn’t get to the play till towards the end of the second act.”

“Ah, that was luck to find Nellie,” said Silvia. “I was afraid you might have a horrid lonely evening. And then?”

“Then just one act of Downstairs. But one act was better than four. There had been railway whistles and flags waving from the box opposite.”

“That was Mrs. Trentham,” said Silvia.

“It was. So we swept in her lot—the usual one—with Lord Poole, who told me to kiss you for him, and they all came to supper at home. Really, that plan of keeping the house open was an admirable one. It’s awful fun; we talked and smoked and laughed until everyone melted away.”

She saw (and loved to see) the brightness and briskness of him; she heard (and loved to hear) his cheerfulness and alacrity.

“Oh, I am glad you had a nice evening,” she said. “I nearly telephoned to say I was coming up to keep you company. But then I thought I had better stop and—and try to make myself disagreeable at home.”

“Did you succeed, darling?” asked Peter.

Exactly then it struck Silvia that if Peter had dined, had sat “so long” with elbows on the table, and had got to the theatre in time for anything at all, he could not have been detained very late at the{259} Foreign Office. She instantly drew down, with a rush and a rattle, some mental blind in front of that. She shut it out: she did not choose to see it.

“Yes, pretty well,” she said. “Mother went to bed at ten, anyhow, which is early for her, so I must have been fairly successful.”

“Not proved,” said Peter. “She may have been sleepy. It’s a sleepy place, you know.”

“I know,” she said. “Two nights ago I came and looked into your room, as I had not heard you come to bed, and there you were, fast asleep.”

“Snoring, I suppose you’ll tell me?” said he.

This point about detention at the Foreign Office, with time yet to dine and confabulate and go to the theatre, had struck him too. He had meant it to be assumed that he had telephoned to signify the knowledge that he would be detained, and now by this stupid inadvertence in giving the account of his evening, he had shown, for all who cared to think, that he had not been detained. But Silvia apparently had quite missed that, or she would surely have said something to that effect; as it was, she had passed it by: it was out of sight by now, behind another—well, another misunderstanding.

She proceeded to put a further corner between her consciousness and it.

“No, I don’t say snoring,” she said. “Oh, Peter, your father has told me how delightful, how angelic you were to him, about his stopping on here till we go back to London. It touched him very much.”

She took his arm. “It touched me too, dear,” she said, “and I must tell you that it furnished a reason—one out of several—why I came to meet you. I’ve got a confession——”

Peter guessed what this reason was and what the{260} confession. When he made a plan he was quite accustomed to find it work itself out as he had meant. But now in the very apex of its success he felt ashamed of it. If it came to confessions he could make his contribution. He interrupted her.

“I don’t care about that reason,” he said. “Tell me the other ones instead.”

“The other ones will come afterwards,” she said, “if you want to hear them then. This has got to come first, so don’t interrupt, darling. I will tell you: it’s an affair of conscience.”

“And I’m a conscientious objector,” said he. As it became more and more certain in his mind what Silvia’s confession was, the less he wanted to hear it, though he himself, patting his own back for his cleverness, had contrived the plan of which this was the logical sequel. But when he did that he had not yet pretended to be asleep one night nor, on another, telephoned his detention in town.

Silvia went on with a gentle but perfectly determined firmness.

“I’ve misjudged you altogether, Peter,” she said, “and I’ve got to confess. For days now—more days than I like to number—I have been watching you, looking for something I missed in you. I thought you were unkind and sarcastic and cynical about your father, and what he told me of the manner in which you welcomed his proposal to stop on here convinced me how utterly I had been wronging you. It was owlishly stupid of me to suppose you could be like that, and, what was worse, it was brutally unloving.”

Peter laughed.

“Any more big words coming?” he asked. “Owlish, stupid, brutal, unloving? That’s you all over. Have you murdered anybody?{261}”

She shook her head.

“It’s no use making light of it,” she said, “It was stupid, it was unloving of me. I thought that because you saw certain absurdities and unrealities about your father, you saw nothing but them, and were impatient and untender with him. Do you forgive me for being such a fool?”

Peter tried to imagine himself telling her that she had been perfectly right throughout: that only a piece of trickery on his part, in getting his father to give an account of the welcome his proposition had met with, had deluded her into thinking she was wrong. But his vanity, the thought of the sorry figure he would present, made it quite impossible to contemplate so fundamental an honesty. Short of being honest, he had better be superb.

He stopped, facing her, knowing well the effect his physical presence had on her.

“You darling, there’s one thing I don’t forgive you for,” he said, “and that is for being such a fool as to think there was anything for me to forgive.”

Even as he made this neat phrase, the truth of it came home to him. There was indeed nothing for him to forgive. She gave a long sigh.

“Oh, you must teach me to be generous,” she said.

Peter felt himself unutterably mean at that moment. But the thing was done; he had been superb as well as dishonest, and if honesty had been too high for his vanity to attain to, it was just as incapable of demolishing the golden image of himself that he had set up for Silvia. Then there was the point concerning his apparent slumber two nights ago; there was the point concerning his telephone last night.... He wished intensely that she hadn’t asked him to teach her generosity.{262}

“Now for the other reasons why you came to meet me,” he said. There would be balsam and food for his vanity here. He had the grace to recognize that even while he asked it.

“Because I wanted to see you,” said she.

“I like that reason. Have you any more of that brand?”

He knew that the word which took lightly what was so immense would, after her confession, cause her to smile. It was of the species which she had thought cynical, and which she now knew was just the everyday garb in which affection and tenderness clothed themselves.

“Because it seemed so long since I saw you,” she said. “Oh, Peter, there’s only one reason really which matters. Because I love you.”

... And that brought home to him a meanness, a dishonesty against which all the rest was but feathers in a scale weighted on the other side with the world itself. Often before now he had known how unintelligibly great that was; now for the first time he was irritated at himself for his want of comprehension with regard to it. He was accustomed to understand things to which he gave his mind, but here his mind was brought to a dead stop by this great shining wall that was unscalable and impenetrable. But, to be honest, was his irritation quite confined to himself, or did that shining wall from its very incomprehensibility provoke a portion of it?

Silvia seemed to herself to miss something in his silence, but with Peter there, nothing could really be missing....

“How often I say that,” she whispered; “but how often I feel that there’s nothing else worth saying.”

“More of that brand,” said he.{263}

“Not a drop. We must go in. You haven’t seen your father yet, and after that you must have your bath.”

“And after that you must send your maid away, so that we can get a few minutes’ sensible conversation,” said Peter.

“I’ll begin it now,” said she. “Sometimes, you know, your bath goes to your head, and you’re not quite as serious as you might be.”

“Say I’m drunk and have done with it,” suggested he.

“Very well; sometimes your bath makes you tipsy. But while you’re sober, I want you to promise me something.”

“Shall I like it?” asked Peter prudently. “It isn’t to spend a week with Uncle Abe or anything of that kind?”

“Nothing of that kind. Poor Uncle Abe! You’ll like it. At least, you’ll find you’ll like it; you’ll know it does you good.”

“That’s not the same thing,” objected he. “It does me good to get up bright and early, so as to start for town without hurrying, but I hate it.”

Silvia laughed.

“It will relieve you of that to some extent,” she said. “Oh, do be quick and promise instead of making such a fuss!”

“Right. But if you’ve deceived me, I’ll never trust you again. I promise.”

“Well, for as long as we are here I want you to spend at least one night in the week in town.”

“I shall do nothing of the kind,” said he. “I don’t care an atom about my promise. Pish for my promise! And how will it relieve me? Oh, I see. But I shan’t—unless you come too, that’s to say.{264}”

Silvia stopped.

“Now listen to me,” she said. “You enjoyed last night immensely. It’s perfectly natural that you should have. I should think you were ill if you hadn’t.”

“How do you know I enjoyed it? I never said so,” said he.

“You did better than that. You beamed all over your atrocious countenance when you told me about it. You were obliged to stop in town, and being obliged you found, and you know it perfectly well, that it was a sort of night out. You saw your friends: you had a beano.”

Silvia kept her finger on the cord of the blind she had chosen to pull down in her mind. She refused with a sublime intellectual dishonesty to look at the fact that Peter certainly could have come down here by dinner time if he had time to dine early in town; she would not see it. Already, so she told herself, she had once fallen into an owlishly stupid error and worse, by doubting him, by watching him; now at least she could repair that to some extent by the supreme honesty of trusting him without question. Something had happened to keep him in town, and it was no business of hers to think of that at all. He had said he was detained at the Foreign Office, and, for her, he was detained there. She held her eyes open to the intensest light of all, which was that of her own love, and the more it blinded her to everything else the better. It was only creatures like bats (and owls), things of the night, that were blinded by the dayspring.

“You enjoyed it: you had a beano,” she repeated. “Why not say so?”

Peter hesitated, but for a reason that she had{265} refused to entertain the existence of. The fact, now shiningly clear, that Silvia had never so remotely seen that he could easily have got down here in time for dinner, made it unintelligibly and unreasonably needful for him to tell her so. There was something sordid in not doing so. Had she shown the smallest suspicion of it, he would probably have explained it away in some ingenious manner.

“Yes, I enjoyed it,” he said. “That was why I did it. I could easily have got down here in time for dinner.”

Up went the blind at that with a snap and a whirr, and Silvia’s face, beaming and delighted, smiled out at him.

“Oh, Peter, how lovely of you to tell me,” she cried. “Of course, I guessed, only I wouldn’t guess. There’s just the joy of it all.”

That came from her like the stroke of a bird’s wing, that bore it through the sunny air. With another stroke she returned to him.

“Now you’ve got no excuse for refusing my beautiful plan,” she said. “And it was nice of you not to tell me at once: you knew you had to some time, and it was all the better for keeping. My dear, there’s the dressing bell. Just go and see your father for a minute: you can talk to him in the smoking-room after mother and I have gone to bed.”

As Silvia heard through her bedroom door the splashings and the rinsings and the gurglings which regulated her own speed of dressing, she was absorbed in the perception of the one thing that was great, and its myriad manifestations. Up the trunk of the tree and through the branches and to the remotest ends of the twigs flowed the sap, and all—the firmness of the trunk, the vigour of the branches, the elasticity of the{266} twigs, the decoration of flower and leaf and fruit, which made the tree lovely—were manifestations and embodiments of the sap. If there was a wound in its bark, the sap healed it; if there was a nest among its boughs, an external loveliness of life which visited it, it was still the sap which had fashioned its anchorage. The remotest leaf of that tower of forest greenery was nurtured by it, and all the being and the beauty sprang from it.... There was nothing big or little, if you looked at it in that way, though just now she had decided that only one thing was big and all the rest was little....

Then came a rare, an unusual splash. Occasionally when Peter began to stand up in his bath after the hot soaking, he fell down; his foot slipped on the smooth surface, and this made the rare and enormous splash. This always caused her a certain anxiety: he might hit his head against the edge of the bath....

“Just tap at the bathroom door, Wilton,” she said, “and ask if Mr. Mainwaring is all right.”... But before the chaste Wilton could get as far as the door, a new splashing began. “It doesn’t matter, Wilton,” she said.

“Your pearls, ma’am?” asked Wilton.

Then came the tap at the door, and Wilton slid out of the picture.

“I fell down,” said Peter. “I might have hurt myself, but I didn’t. I wish you weren’t so wonderful.”

“I can’t help that,” said she. “You should have thought of it before.”

Peter began drying his toes.

“I’ve had quite a long talk with my father,” he said, “and all about you. He thinks you’re wonder{267}ful, too. He adores you: they all adore you, particularly Lord Poole.”

“Peter, don’t be tipsy,” said she.

“I shall be as tipsy as I like. I want to know one thing. Why weren’t you annoyed with me for saying that I couldn’t get back last night?”

Silvia held out the pearls for him to clasp round her neck.

“If you don’t understand that, you must be tipsy,” she said.

“And if I do?” he asked.

She leaned her head a little back.

“Why, then you understand it all,” she said. “You understand, for instance, why I insist on your having a night in town every week.”

“Yes, I see. Just that you shall get rid of me now and then,” he said.

“Quite right. You’re as sober as—as a commoner, I suppose.”

She moved in her chair, and one end of her necklace slipped from his fingers.

“Am I putting them on for dinner,” he asked, “or am I taking them off for bedtime?”

“Whatever you’re doing, you are being wonderfully clumsy,” said she, as his fingers, warm and soft from his bath, touched the back of her neck.

She was down before him next morning to give him his breakfast, and, waiting for him, strolled out on to the terrace. There had been one of those exquisite early October frosts, and in the air was that ineffable fragrance derived from absence of smell, the odourless odour of frosted dew. The sun was already warm with promise of a hot, cloudless day; but as the heat had not set in motion the weaving of the{268} scents of earth and grass and flowers which would soon decorate and veil the virginal beauty of the morning. Last night, when she and Peter had lingered here in the end of the twilight, the air was not less clear and windless, but it had been charged with all the myriad scents distilled by the hot hours of autumn sun. Now there was a precision, a crystalline quality.... Some such sort of clear sparkle bathed her spirit also: her love basked in some such virginal beauty of young day, flamelike and scentless.

All the evening before, from the time when she met Peter by the lake, she, body and soul and spirit, had been rising towards some new peak of passion, and the true topmost summit seemed to her now to be where she stood in this cool brightness, able to see that the upward path which led here was below her. They had dined after Peter had clasped her necklace for her; there had been the usual piquet for her and Mr. Mainwaring, and for the latter a triumphant pæan of achievement over some effect of lightning in the second cartoon, which positively, as he stood aside as artist and became spectator, appalled him, and before they settled down to their cards he must needs conduct them to the masterpiece in question, and let them also feel the cold clutch of fear.

But whatever Mr. Mainwaring did or said, whatever her mother, it was Peter whom, in this rising tide of flame and self-surrender, Silvia watched, no longer looking for those signs of tenderness and affection which (owlish) she had missed, but in the rapturous contemplation of them. Often she had seen him charming to her mother and to his own father; but always, so she had thought, she could detect in him politeness and amenity, the controlling hand of{269} breeding, the practice of pleasant behaviour. But this evening there had been no “behaviour” about him at all, he had been radiant with them both, divinely natural.... He had sat next Mrs. Wardour on the sofa, as the piquet was in progress, and entertained her with ludicrous but hopelessly recognizable caricatures of her and his father over their cards; he had held a skein of her wool, he had mixed her hot water and lemon juice for her. All these things he had often done before, and they were all trivial enough.... He was the same with his father, looking over his hand when so bidden, dutifully observing exactly how to play that puzzling game; eager to anticipate his wants, chaffing him sometimes, behaving to him—this again was the wrong word—being to him, rather, all that his own sonship implied, fulfilling in every word and gesture the welcome which he had given to the suggestion of his remaining with them till they went to London. And all that was “the world’s side” which anyone might see, and behind it in “lights and darks undreamed of” was that other aspect and reality of him, which was hers alone.... She was already in bed when she heard him, after his smoking-room chat with his father, come into his room, and presently, after tapping on her door, he looked in, coatless and shoeless. She pretended—in parody of what happened two nights before—to be asleep, and between her eyelids, nearly closed, she saw a broad smile overspread his face.

“I don’t believe a single word of it,” he remarked.

All this—all it was and all it meant—Silvia now, as she waited for him, looked at, looked down on even from this crowning pinnacle, as on upward, ultimate slopes. Even, as in the cool scentless air of the{270} morning, the miracle of the sunshine on the windless world was more itself than when its beams had drawn that response of fragrance from all living things, so shone for her, untroubled with passion and desire, the essence itself of love in its own crystal globe. Not less precious, now that it was conveyed to her in no material manifestation, would be the bodily presence of him through whom that essence was conveyed to her, who embodied love to her mortal sense, but for ever far more precious was it now that she, in this pause of content that crowned passion with a royal diadem, could for the moment see that in loving him she loved not him alone, but Love itself that “moved the sun and the other stars,” and being all, gave all....

The duration of the moment in which Silvia reached that point, not theoretically, but as a felt and experienced reality, was infinitesimal, just as in significance it was infinite.... At the sound of Peter’s step on the bare boards of the dining-room just within, the atmosphere of the summit where she stood grew laden and fragrant with the scents of the world. She did not come down from it: it did not rise up above her. She was there still, but she was there in body as well as in spirit, the fragrance of material sweetness was near her, even as when now she stepped back into the dining-room, a waft of rose-scent from the sun-warmed wall smothered her nostrils.

Peter was poking about among dishes on the side table, and gave her a grunt, neither more nor less, in answer to her salutation. He held that to be in good spirits at breakfast-time was a symptom that could not be taken too seriously. By that test there was nothing wrong with him this morning.{271}

He sat down with an ill-used sigh.

“I’ve got a headache,” he remarked.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” said she. “Where?”

“In my left ankle, of course,” said he.

Silvia, passing behind him, just tweaked the short hair at the back of his neck.

“Oh, don’t finger me,” said Peter angrily.

He gave her so quick a glance that she could scarcely tell whether he had actually looked at her or not, and went on without pause and without hurry, clinking out his words like newly-minted coins, separate and crisply cut and hot.

“Just let me alone sometimes,” he said. “You know how I hate dabbing and pressing and grasping. You’re the limit, you know.”

He had got her stiff and staring, and still without pause and in precisely the same voice he went on:

“Don’t let me have to speak to you like that again,” he said. “And don’t be so owlish, but confess that you’ve fallen into that trap.”

Still she stood staring, and he took one step towards her and flung his arms close round her neck, pressing her face to his, and then, more directly, finding and claiming her mouth.

“You utterly divine girl,” he said. “I never dreamed I should take you in. I did. Kiss me three times to signify ‘Yes,’ and three times more to signify that you are a darling, and once more to—well, once more.”

“Peter, I thought you were cross with me,” said she, when she could say anything.

“How perfectly splendid! That joke did come off, didn’t it?”

She could smile again.

“You brute!” she said. “But never take me{272} in over that again, darling. Anything else; not that.”

Once more before his motor came round they strolled on the terrace outside. It was thick now with the web of scents, for the sun’s weaving was busy. The late roses gave their fragrance, and the verbena and the mignonette, but these were but strung like beads on to the smell of the damp, fruitful earth. By now Silvia could laugh at herself about that fierce phantom moment, for never had Peter seemed more utterly hers. Usually in these early half-hours he was rather silent, rather morose; to-day, penitent perhaps, or consolatory for the fright—it was no less—that he had unwittingly given her, there was something of the bath-intoxication about him.

“If you were in any sense a devoted wife,” he said, “you would drive up with me, deposit me at the F.O., and then wait three hours for me in the motor till lunch time. I could give you an hour then, after which you would wait four hours more and drive back with me. Therefore shall a woman leave her father and her mother and cleave to her husband.”

“Yes, of course I’ll come,” said she, “if you want me to. You must just say you really want me.”

He took hold of her elbows from behind and ran her along the terrace.

“Motor-bike,” he observed. “I’m pushing you till you get your sense of humour working on its own account.”

“It’s working—I swear it’s working,” shrieked {273}Silvia. “Don’t be such a bully.”

A seat on the balustrade of the terrace seemed indicated after this violent exercise.

“There’s another thing,” said Peter. “My mental power of association of ideas is decaying, which is a sign of softening of the brain. Aren’t you sorry?”

“Is that the brain in your head?” asked she.

“No; in the same place that ached when I had a headache. Left ankle. Don’t interrupt. But there’s something in this house front, and I believe it’s the cornice, or whatever they call it, which runs all along there underneath the windows on the first floor, which—that’s the cornice—reminds me of some other house.”

Peter pointed to the broad frieze-like band which projected some foot or so from the wall of the house. It was of Portland stone, amazingly carved with masks at intervals, and ran, as he had said, just below the first floor windows from end to end of the façade. Then he gave a yodel which, consciously or not, was a hoarse and surprising parody of his father’s favourite method of indicating a general sumptuousness of sensation.

“That’s done it,” he said. “Just speaking of it has reminded me what it was. And there’s the motor, bother and blight it, confound and curse it.”

“And what is the house it reminds you of?” she asked.

“The flat belonging to Nellie’s mother. Just below the windows there ran a band like that. I noticed it one day last summer. She had said something about it, but at that point there’s softening of the brain again. All I said about the motor holds, though.{274}”

“Send it away. Walk up to town instead,” suggested Silvia.

“Likely, with that headache in my ankle. But I would so much sooner sit here with you than do either.”

Silvia waved to him as he drove off, and waiting, waved again as he crossed the bridge over the lake. The air was thick with earthy fragrances now, and her mind with fragrant memories, and among them there was some new scent, not quite strange to her, but one from which she had always, whenever it presented itself, turned her head. Now it insisted on being analysed, on being recognized.

When, half an hour ago, she had just tweaked his hair as she passed him, his remonstrance, to her ears, had been wholly instinctive and sincere; he objected to being “fingered.” He had piled that up, so she seemed to see, making of it a joke against her, until the joke grew preposterous. Then, ever so convincingly, he had smothered her with kisses. Yesterday evening, too, how convincing had been, on some other plane, his “dearness”—that word must serve—with her mother and Mr. Mainwaring. On one side were bright tokens of affection, and to her of so much more than affection; on the other that one little hot coin that clinked with a true ring before, with admirable mimicry of himself, he had showered out a whole flood of such.

Which was the more real? And where, in these mists, was that austere and shining summit?


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