by E.F. Benson

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter XIII

Just before Christmas, after three weeks in London, Silvia was driving down alone to Howes, in preparation for the party which was to arrive next day. Peter would come then: he had got a devastating cold, and it was far wiser, in this grim inclemency of weather, that he should not come down with her to-day, only to come up again for his work next morning. It was much more sensible—Silvia had suggested it—that he should nurse his cold that evening, and, well wrapped up, make a single instead of a double journey to-morrow. But that piece of good sense was subsidiary to the fact that she did not want, just for this evening, to be alone with him; even if his cold had not supplied an excellent argument in favour of this plan, she would have suggested her own solitary departure.

Wilton, the correct virginal Wilton, sat opposite her on the front seat. Wilton had, at the start, deposited herself next the chauffeur, but Silvia had made her come inside. But there was little use, so thought Wilton, in coming inside, if her mistress still kept both windows open.

The sleet had turned to uncompromising snow, and Silvia seemed to notice it no more than if she were a Polar bear. Eventually, as the car flowed up the long hill through Putney, Wilton had been able to stand the draught no longer.

“You’ll be catching a worse cold than Mr. Mainwaring’s, ma’am,” she {276}said, “if you sit in that draught.”... That made it more comfortable. Silvia roused herself for a moment.

“His man doesn’t take such care of him as you do of me, Wilton,” she said.

“And so much pneumonia about, ma’am,” observed Wilton encouragingly.

Silvia began to think consecutively, starting not from far back, but from the immediate past. Nellie had lunched with her alone, just before she started, for Mrs. Wardour had been out, and Nellie had hailed this tête-à-tête as the most delightful thing that could have happened. Nellie had been at Wardour House, too, the night before for a concert; during this month of December, hardly yet three weeks old, she had been there half a dozen times, for Mrs. Wardour, resuming her social activities with extraordinary vigour after four months in the country, had, without the aid of any godmother, turned December into June.

“You know the real name of this delicious house, darling,” Nellie had said. “Everyone calls it the New Jerusalem, because its gates are never shut day or night. Your mother brings light into the darkest homes of the upper classes. There’s such dreadful discontent among them: if it wasn’t for people—angels—like your mother, they would all go and live in converted garages or in country cottages, and pretend to be the proletariat. It’s being amused and entertained that keeps the upper class together; otherwise they would be the leaders of Bolshevism. The Order of the British Empire now! Why isn’t she the only Dame in it? The stability of the upper class depends on her, and the King depends on the upper class, and the Empire, in fact, if you see what I mean. I’m not quite sure that I do, but I do mean something.{277} We should all have groaned and grumbled if your mother hadn’t set such a brilliant example.”

With Nellie’s brilliant presence and charm to help out this engaging nonsense, it was a cheerful scintillation. Last June, so Silvia told herself, she would vastly have enjoyed such a month as she had just spent, and Nellie’s résumé of it made her wonder whether she—only she—had been dull and unappreciative....

The snow was driven against the glass which Wilton had put up: she could hear it softly tap at the window....

“And Peter!” Nellie had said. “What have you done to him, darling, or rather what haven’t you done to him? Everybody—I think I told you so once—used to be devoted to Peter: we used all to be in love with him, for he was so priceless, so marvellous, in not caring one atom for anybody. How long did it take you, do tell me, to discover his heart? Did you mine for it, and dredge for it, and blow up all the rocks round it? Or did you get an aeroplane and fly up to it. Perhaps, after all, it was in the sky—so tremendously remote that nobody ever thought of looking for it there. You and Peter, up in the blue like the queen bee and her lover! How wildly romantic! Or were you there, and did he fly up to you? You met in the blue, anyhow, and left us all staring up after you till our eyes watered with the glare.”

Silvia, as the car hooted its way through Kingston, did not concern herself to recall with what small accompaniment she had sustained those arpeggios. She must have said something, for Nellie had gone on talking, talking.... Silvia had blinked before that brilliant vitality, which so decorated all that lay under its beams; but for the first time, when she{278} spoke like that about herself and Peter, the light hurt her. It dazzled rather than illuminated, and when it fell on certain dark places it did not illuminate them, it only showed up their blackness. She, with Nellie’s light, Nellie’s impressions, to help her, peered into them. Such glimpses as she caught between the dazzle and the darkness made her turn away with protest against this bull’s-eye that now seemed to intrude on privacy. What, after all, had her relations with Peter to do with Nellie?

The streets were slippery with the newly-fallen snow, and at some corner, while they were still passing through houses, there was a furious hooting of the horn outside, which to Silvia at that moment was not so much a warning of danger ahead on the road, as of danger lying somewhere deep within herself. They came to a dead stop, which made Wilton scream faintly and clutch the jewel-case, and for a yard or two they slid backwards. All that, too, seemed instantly translated in her mind into interior action, and, keeping pace with it, she slid a little farther back in her journey of thought.

She brought out from the locked cupboard of her very soul, where she had turned the key on it, one particular moment. It was yesterday that she had put it there. She was in a room of a house in Welbeck Street, and at the end of the consultation the great man, jovial and kindly, had got up from his chair, and smoothed the pillow of a sofa on which she had lain just before.

“Be quite active,” Dr. Symes summed up, “without overtiring yourself. Appetite good? That’s all right. Just go on with your ordinary life. What? No: no doubt of any kind. Your husband well? A cold? Everyone’s got a cold.{279}”

Silvia paused over that while a wheel of her car slipped and skidded. Soon it hit the ground again. But in that pause she faced the fact that she had not told Peter. She meant to last night, but—but.... He had bewailed his cold; he had accepted her proposal that he should stop in London to-night. He had waved his hand at her and left her, not kissing her for fear of giving her his cold. But that was not the reason—it was only the excuse—for not telling him. She had welcomed it, at the time, as an adequate excuse; but if she had not found any such, she would have done without it.

For a second or two her thought paused, merely contemplating this fact as if looking at some picture. It seemed quite incredible that she had not gone straight to him with her news, blurted it, whispered it, kissed him with it. Yet if he had been sitting here now instead of Wilton, in this privacy of snow and twilight-travel, she knew that she would again be struggling, and in vain, to tell him.

From that point she swept back to one morning in October. It was then that some seed of knowledge which had previously lain dormant in her soul began to sprout. For two months now she had been conscious of its growth, and for two months she had steadily refused to acknowledge it. Her relations with him had been of the most normal and friendly, but the fact, as she saw now, of his content and tranquillity was sunshine and rain to the growth of it. Then, at the news Dr. Symes had given her, it burst into bitter blossom, and she could ignore it no longer.

Peter had never loved her: he had never, in finding her, lost himself. Mentally and sympathetically she knew that he liked her—liked her, she was prepared to say, immensely; physically she attracted{280} and satisfied him. To think that he had married her “for” her money would be an exaggerated and hysterical estimate; her wealth had not been a counterweight that overcame some opposing disadvantage, but it was, so she now believed, a determining factor. Without it he would not have sought her.

It seemed odd to herself how little that mattered. Her wealth was an advantage—so, too, was her beauty; and even if he had married her “for” her wealth, that would have seemed to her no worse than if he had married her “for” her beauty, or “for” (had she been witty) her wit, or “for” any quality whatsoever of mind or body. All these were advantages, pleasant circumstances; but all of them, singly or together, compared with love, were no more than the bright shells on the seashore compared with the sea.

It was just here that she blamed him with a bitterness that appalled her; it was this that had made it possible for her to accept any excuse (or if necessary to have done without one) for not telling him what she had learned yesterday. He had bidden her shut her eyes, and picking up a shell had held it to her ear, and had told her that what she heard there was the sea.... He had looked, he had spoken, he had acted as if he brought close to her that splendid shining vastness. She had trusted him, and had listened with all the rapture of love to that murmuring. Therein he had cheated her, passed off on her a “fake” which, had she not been blinded by his hand over her eyes, he knew she must have recognized as such.

There was just one excuse for him; she hesitated to adopt it, because while it excused him, it far more terribly accused him. It was that he did not know{281} what love meant. From the very first, from the day when he had asked her to marry him, he had not known. She had told him that all she wanted in the world was to be allowed to love him, and he had never seen that her surrender presupposed his own. He could not burn in her love without being alight himself. There was the root of it all, his ignorance.

At that, compassion deep as love itself inundated her bitterness, not diluting it, but from its very nature neutralizing it. Sorrow was there, but “without sorrow” (who had said that?) “none liveth in love.” Not as by one drop out of the whole ocean was her love for him diminished; but, while he did not understand, he ploughed his way in drought and desert: he could not reach her.

It was through his constant affection for her and his gentleness, rather than through any failure in these, that the realization of this had come to her. She did not believe that she wearied him; she knew that she attracted him physically, that he was faithful to her not on principle, but by inclination, and yet all this was nothing. He had not begun (say for a minute or two) by loving her, and then dropped into mere affection, mere desire: simply he had never loved her at all as she understood loving. He did not love anybody else, and Silvia, so far from being consoled by that thought, found herself passionately wishing that he did. He might love Nellie, or that fool of a woman who screamed; for then, at any rate, he would know what love meant, and they would have common ground to meet on, though that very ground parted them. That might ruin her own life, which already she had given into his cool, careful hands; and if only, by smashing it to atoms, he could find his soul’s salvation!{282}

There were problems ahead, and how they should be solved she did not know: she only knew what the upshot must be. Inconceivably dear as the mere touch of his hand was to her, she knew that never again, unless he learned what love was, or she forgot it, could hand clasp hand and mouth meet mouth. Not again could she give him those symbols of the infinite as the playthings for enjoyment. All that she had or was, was his, except just that; unless he loved her, the banners of her love must stay unfurled. Somehow she must let him know that, just as, somehow and soon, she must let him know about what she learned yesterday.

As the car turned in through the park gates the snow beat in from the other window. It fell unheeded on her face and hands, till Wilton, encouraged to take care of her, drew up the sash.

Peter’s head on her shoulder, his breath coming soft and slow through his mouth.... Peter’s eyes close to hers, so that if he winked his eyelashes brushed her cheek.... Peter’s arm lying languid and relaxed across her bosom.... She would give her body to be burned for him, but not with such burning as this. Anyone, not she alone, could supply such need as his; none could supply hers but he, and he only if he loved her. Loving him as she did, she could not (so the leaping firelight in her bedroom that night illuminated it for her), she could not shut out her ideal in some burning chamber of its own, and take the rest of her, in ordinary human manner, to him, nor could she take from him, even though it was the highest he could give, anything that made its approach on some other plane. He must want her as she wanted him, surrendered and lost, and found{283} again in a new completeness, before they could come together as lovers. She conjectured that she was singular, exceptional in this: most men, most women gave what they could and got what they could. But there was no compromise possible for her that could produce this easily negotiable felicity. She could not, and if she could she would not, have accepted that in exchange for this drawn sword that lay between Peter and her. She had to tell him that.... She had to tell him also that the fruit of love on the one side, of affection on the other, was ripening. She must wait her occasion for that; some moment must be seized upon when he was most himself, most nearly, that is to say, what she had once thought him.

She had nothing of her own; all was his. That was her one inestimable possession, that she had given him all. Whatever happened, her utter penury was the one thing she must cling to.

Peter had rung up Dr. Symes before he left the Foreign Office that evening, asking for five minutes of his time at any hour of morning or afternoon next day. Perhaps it was rather fussy to consult a physician over a cold, but really there never had been such a cold. Dr. Symes gave you a cabalistic slip of paper which, being duly interpreted, proved to be some marvellous tonic stuff, or, when he had felt a pulse, and looked at a tongue, and tapped you on a stomach or made your knee jump in a curious manner, he even more probably told you that you had the constitution of an armadillo, and roared you out of his room for wasting his time. With a week of uncles and aunts ahead, even though Nellie was to partake in the secret joys of them, Peter felt he would like some robust reassurance of that{284} sort. Or, on the other hand, since there never was such a cold——

These speculations, as he drove to Welbeck Street next morning, were cut short by his arrival and his internment in a waiting-room. There were several persons there, reading illustrated papers with sad faces, who looked up when he entered, and thereafter regarded him with evident suspicion, fearing, so Peter figured it, that he might, though the latest arrival, be summoned before those who had waited longer. This, in fact, happened, and to the accompaniment of sour looks he was conducted down a long passage into the consulting room. As he went he considered whether he slept well, and whether he had a feeling of oppression on his chest, or a pain in his right side.

“How-de-do?” said Dr. Symes. “I’ve managed to squeeze you in between two of my patients, and I can give you just a couple of minutes, which will be quite enough. Naturally you wanted to see me. Well, there’s nothing that should give you a moment’s anxiety at present. Don’t think about it at all, and don’t let your wife think you’re thinking about it.”

He turned backwards over the leaves of his engagement book.

“Yes, as you know, I saw her the day before yesterday,” he said. “All healthy and normal. But don’t be fussed yourself, and certainly spare her all fuss. Of course, as I told her, there’s no doubt at all. Let her—if she doesn’t want to, make her—lead an ordinary active, normal life.”

Peter had arrived by this time.

“My wife?” he asked.

Dr. Symes gave his great rollicking laugh.{285}

“Yes, and your grandmother, too, for that matter,” he said. “Don’t let her confuse child-bearing with invalidism. They’re radically opposed. Mind you, the way she spends these months is important. Make her go out, make her busy and employed. Don’t let her get fancies into her head that she must coddle herself; there’s no greater mistake.”

“I see,” said Peter.

“Just use your common sense,” said the doctor. “She’s got to bear a healthy child, and so she’s got to be just as fit as we can make her. But take care of her too. What’s her age now? Twenty-two, I suppose. Well, regard her as a woman of forty in robust health. Make her behave like an older woman than she is.”

He rang a bell that stood on his table.

“I’ve told you everything,” he said. “You look fit enough, anyway, though you’ve got a bit of a cold, haven’t you? Getting down into the country for Christmas, eh? Change of air. I wish I was going to get some.”

He looked at his table of appointments.

“Ask Mrs. Lucas to step this way,” he said to the maid. “Good-bye. Good luck.”

As Peter drove down to Whitehall he kept detached, as by some dexterous jerk, such part of his mind as dealed in emotion, and contemplated with the same isolation, as through his closed car-window he looked out on the snow-slushy street, what he had just learned. He wanted to assimilate it before in any sense he studied it, and to do that he had first to wipe off his sheer surprise, which stood like condensed vapour on the glass of this astounding picture which had just been presented to him. Again and again he had to wipe that away before he could{286} get any clear vision of the fact itself, that Silvia knew that she was with child and had not told him. When he had assimilated that he could perhaps arrive at what it meant.

The glass was clear now; he had got it, and the enigma of it all stared him in the face; and the more he contemplated it the greater grew his bewilderment as to the meaning of it. How often, with the hesitation of an intensity that choked utterance, had she said a word or two, given him a glance, a smile that conveyed better than any stamped symbol of speech, what the incarnation of their union, his and hers, would be to her. She had wondered how, just how, she would tell him; no one knew into what shapes such joy would crystallize. And now it had come and she had not told him at all. Except for a trivial visit of his own, a superficial, unnecessary visit, he would still be ignorant. She had chosen to leave him in ignorance of what he had learned by accident.

Nellie had often told him that he went walking in the wet woods and telling nobody, and Silvia, in some frank chaffing discussion, had affirmed that she knew precisely what Nellie meant. Certainly, thought Peter now, it was likely enough she did know. Had anyone ever gone solitary so far into the wet woods as Silvia? Had anyone ever so immeasurably told nobody?

He searched back through his impressions and memories of these last two months to see if he could discover any clue that should lead him to an interpretation. As far as he knew, their relations had been uniformly harmonious, without hitch or check; there had been no sign, no warning of any sort on her part of an emotional change. As for himself—{287}—

Yes, there had been a change. A change was here, and as it was not in her it must be in him. Some psychical pigment, grain after grain, had been dropping, continually dropping”, into his clean cup of life, each sinking down into it quietly, lying there at the bottom. Now it seemed that the astonishment of this morning’s discovery had violently stirred up the whole, and the whole, so he saw, was tinged with the colour of that which had been dissolving in the cool depths. For often and often, increasingly and ever more vividly—here was the dropping of those grains of colour—he had had the image of Silvia moving splendidly on sunny heights, the rays from which shone down on him through rent clouds and patches of blue. There those grains had settled, dissolving perhaps, but only locally tinging minute remote areas of his consciousness: they had not affected the full contents of the cup, that clear, cool, untroubled self of his. Now with this rough shaking and stirring, he was suffused with the colour of them. There, high above, was Silvia and her splendour, felt now, not only recognized. He had scrambled to his feet (was that it?), stung into standing, finger on mouth, instead of remotely contemplating. The ray that had merely shone on him now shone in him, and its light pierced the fogs of his egoism. It was the news itself, beyond doubt, not Silvia’s withholding of it, which gave him that enlightenment, for to his feminine nature the fact of his impending fatherhood struck more intimately than it would have done on one more virile. It evoked, too, a dormant virility; his fatherhood was the sequel of another relationship. Clearer shone the ray; he must climb, he must go to her, he must give....

Close on the heels of that, and swiftly as reflection{288} answers light, came the remembrance, lost for that moment, that Silvia had withheld the knowledge from him. He could guess now with a conjecture that verged on certainty what the reason for that was, and his egoism, his deep-rooted vanity, returned and reinforced, cried out against the outrage of it. She from those heights, shining no longer, but merely superior, looked down on him, and judged him unworthy to share that white joy which crowned and enveloped her love. All his pride stiffened at the thought. He knew how to walk in the wet woods, sufficient unto himself.

Of intention Peter had started from London rather late, so that he should find the little party already assembled. His father, he rested assured, would have taken on himself the mantle of host, and would be wearing it far more superbly than he. That he found to be the case: John Mainwaring had complete possession of the place and all the members of what was, with the exception of Nellie and her husband, the same unique little family gathering which had preceded Peter’s marriage. There was Aunt Eleanor, stout and seal-like, there was a column of locomotive floral decoration around Aunt Joanna, there was Uncle Abe, now possessor of three monstrous cartoons, and Uncle Henry, the possessor of a nice stiff brandy and soda, for tea still continued to burn his heart. The cartoons, in fact, and the original sketches were the subject, as Peter entered, of debate between the aunts, to the glory and honour of their creator, who sat in clouds of incense. Mrs. Wardour had already got reconciled to the fact that her sister had been the purchaser, and bore it well.

“Lovely they look,” said Aunt Joanna; “all three{289} in a row, with the rest to come opposite. Many a half-hour do I spend at my buhl writing-table there, not getting along at all with my correspondence by reason of looking at them. I’m sure I don’t know which I like best.”

“Tea, Peter?” asked Silvia. She had looked up at his entry; now she kept her eyes on her tray.

“Yes, indeed,” said Aunt Eleanor, “I’m sure they look very fine, Joanna. Three already finished! That’s wonderful. I suppose, Mr. Mainwaring, you’ll be soon wanting to borrow the fourth of my sketches?”

“Dear lady, I hesitate. I positively hesitate to ask you,” said he, “for I know how you will hate parting with it even for a week or two. But without it I can never paint the larger version. The inspiration, the first rapture, is there; I must study it again.”

Aunt Eleanor turned triumphantly to Nellie.

“You must positively come to see those sketches, Mrs. Beaumont,” she said. “I have all the original sketches of Mr. Mainwaring’s great cartoons. Such a treat!”

“I’m sure they’re charming,” said Nellie.

“Charming indeed! Masterpieces! Such fire! Such inspiration as never could be realized again.”

“The three great cartoons,” said Aunt Joanna firmly, while the floral decorations trembled, “fill up the whole side of Sir Abe’s last addition to our house. A new wing, I may call it, with bedrooms above.”

“My sweet little sitting-room,” said Aunt Eleanor absently. “All the sketches: the fire....”

“Yes, dear, and as I was telling you, the great cartoons,” said Aunt Joanna. “That was what I was telling you.”

Uncle Henry made a diversion. He liked peace{290} and plenty. “Capital good brandy this,” he said. “You should try my plan, Abe. Have a drop of brandy and leave the tea alone. A’most a pity to put soda into it.”

(He had not put much.)

“Well, I don’t say you’re not right, Henry,” said Uncle Abe. “But to my mind what’s given me at my dinner, if it’s a drop of something good, tastes all the better if I haven’t had—— There’s some old dry Pétiot now. There’s a wine! You must get on the right side of Peter for that.”

Silvia handed Peter his cup.

“And your cold’s better?” she asked.

“’Bout the same, thanks.”

Nellie more than once had tried to catch Peter’s eye in order to telegraph to him her rapt appreciation of the family. But though Peter had met her glance, he had nothing to send in reply.

“I see the whole history of the war in my sketches,” proclaimed Aunt Eleanor. “News from headquarters, I call them. Such insight! And the fourth, dear Joanna, the submarine, you know. Ah, no, you haven’t seen that yet, but if Mr. Mainwaring’s cartoon from it comes up to the sketch, there’ll be something for you to look at.”

“Capital good brandy,” said Uncle Henry. Something had to be said.

Peter drifted away from the tea-table and established himself next Nellie.

“So you got down all right,” he said.

She let a circular sweeping glance pause infinitesimally four times, once for each of the aunts and uncles.

“Yes, and what a delicious room,” she said. “You hadn’t told me half.{291}”

Peter was surely rather distrait, she thought. Even now he didn’t catch the point of her appreciation.

“It’s good panelling,” he said. “There’s more of it in my sitting-room next door. We’ll go there after tea.”

She held out her cup. “Silvia, darling, one inch more tea, please,” she said. “An inch. Pure greed.”

Silvia had an absent smile for her but no speech, and took the cup from Peter’s hand without looking at him till he had turned again towards Nellie with the desired inch. She then followed him, quick as a lizard, with one glance of mute raised eyebrows. Nellie got that, too; plucked it off, put it in her book. She felt that she was surrounded by interests: there were the priceless uncles and aunts; there was also something else going on, not so farcical, not farcical at all, perhaps, but quite as interesting.

“My dear, you have got a cold,” she said to Peter.

“I thought I had,” said he wheezily.

“I rather like having a cold,” she went on. “It’s an excuse for going to a doctor and being told that one has a brilliant constitution. That’s Dr. Symes’s cure. You’re a Symite, aren’t you?”

Peter looked right and left, then for a single second straight in front of him, where Silvia sat.

“Rather,” he said. “We’re all Symites.”

He paused a moment.

“What a pity I didn’t go to see him this morning,” he said very deliberately, “before I left London. I might have been well by this time.”

Silvia did not look up: she turned away to Mr. Mainwaring, who was on her right. Some jerked movement of her hand caused a teaspoon to clatter from its saucer and fall on the floor.{292}

His father gave a little yodel, adapted to the drawing-room.

“Let me have a word with you sometime, my Peter,” he said.

“Yes. I’ll come to see you before I dress. Just now Nellie and I are going to have a talk. Will that do? Come, Nellie.”

Peter drew two chairs up to the fire.

“That’s nice,” he said. “Priceless, aren’t they? Aunt Eleanor is really the most wonderful. Can you bear it for three days, do you think? They go day after Christmas.”

He lit a cigarette and threw it away again.

“Muck!” he said. “By the way, Nellie, do stop till we go up to town.”

“Oh, my dear, I wish I could,” said she. “But I know Philip’s got some county business on the twenty-eighth that obliges him to go home. Something ridiculous about forbidding people to shoot golden orioles, of which there aren’t any.”

“Can’t you let him go alone?” asked Peter.

“Well; yes, I think I might. I’ll get my mother to go down. Mother will always go anywhere for board and lodging.”

“Don’t I remember that feeling!” said Peter. “So do stop. I heard Silvia ask my father.”

Nellie produced an admirable mimicry of Aunt Eleanor’s views on art, which, however, elicited from Peter only:

“Very funny: yes, very like her,” and he subsided into silence and fire-gazing again.

“Silvia seemed rather silent,” said Nellie at length.

Peter roused himself.

“Did she?” he said. “The aunts were talking so{293} much that I didn’t notice it. This is the panelling I spoke to you of, by the way.”

“Charming. Just the same as in the drawing-room, isn’t it?”

“The green drawing-room, please,” said Peter.

“I beg its pardon,” she said.

“Granted, I’m sure,” said he without a smile.

Nellie tried a handful of other topics, and her curiosity to know what was the matter vastly increased. She had narrowed down the field of her conjectures to a certainty that, whatever it was, it concerned her host and hostess. Yesterday at lunch, when she had been alone with Silvia, she had the first impression of it, yet she had seen Peter that same evening in town (by way of nursing his cold he had come to the theatre with her), and he, in spite of that affliction, had been immensely cheerful, chuckling with prophetic delight at the feast that the uncles and aunts would spread for them. And he had not seen Silvia since (for she had already left London) until his entry into the green drawing-room half an hour ago.

She would much have preferred, as on that evening a month ago, when they dined alone together in London and he had been so pointedly reticent on the subject of Silvia, that he should volunteer a statement, but his reticence then seemed of totally different quality from what it was now.... She tried one more topic.

“Peter, dear, isn’t it lovely?” she said. “I’m going to have a baby.”

Peter jerked himself upright in his chair. “Really?” he said. “And here are you telling me that!”

He broke off.{294}

“What’s the matter, my dear?” she said. “There’s something wrong.”

He got up and drove with his foot into the log fire.

“It’s really screamingly funny that you should tell me that,” he said.

Nellie felt that they were getting near it now.

“Funny?” she asked.

“Oh, Lord, I said funny, didn’t I?” said he.

She got up too, laying a hand on his shoulder.

“My dear, we’re very old friends,” she said.

He turned round to her with some unspoken bitterness souring in his eyes.

“Then I’ll let you have the joke,” he said. “You tell me that, and yet my wife, who knows the same thing about herself, has not told me.”

He paused a moment.

“I found it out by accident this morning,” he said. “I went to see Dr. Symes about my cold—odd that you should have spoken of him—and before I told him anything he began telling me, and that was what he told me. Of course, he assumed I knew; thought that I had come to him for some general directions, which he gave me. Silvia had been to him two days before. She hasn’t said a word to me. Not a word.”

Nellie heard herself give some ejaculation.

“Now you’re fond of psychological problems,” he said. “Also you’re a woman, and know how women feel. Under what circumstances, feeling how, in fact, would a woman do that? Interesting point, isn’t it? It’s beyond me.”

“No quarrel? No misunderstanding? Nothing of that sort?”

“None. I’ve felt she was watching me sometimes. I’ve{295}——”

“Well? Can you describe that? “ she asked.

“I’ve only thought of that this minute,” he said, “and now I don’t really see any connexion. But when my father knew my mother had gone, and was posing and posturing as a lost and stricken man, Silvia was watching me to see, I think, if I had real sympathy, real pity for him. I did feel then as if I was being tested. But I made that all right. I did it cleverly. I gave the most cordial welcome to his stopping on here—Lord, what evenings they were!—for endless weeks, and left him to tell her about it.”

“Are you quite sure you made it all right?” she asked.

“She told me she had been wrong; she told me she had misjudged me, when she thought me feelingless,” he said. “But even if she made a reservation, or reconsidered it, what then?”

Nellie’s hand still rested, now with pressure, on his shoulder.

“And what if Silvia put herself, so to speak, in your father’s place?” she said. “What if it occurred to her that you had been charming with her, and clever with her? Mind, that’s only a guess.”

Again Peter thrust the logs together.

“She trusts me too much,” he said at length, “She loves me too much.”

This time Nellie was silent.

“Well?” said he at length.

“She thinks you’ve been clever with her and charming with her,” she said. “That’s it. I think that she was quite wrong in keeping this news from you, but that’s why. Silvia isn’t like us, you must remember. We may be complicated and clever in our way, but she’s not like that. There’s some{296}thing tremendous about Silvia. A simplicity, a splendour.”

“And just when I was beginning to realize that, to adore it, she does this. I can’t forgive it,” said he.

She felt then, as perhaps never before, the charm of his egoism: it really was such a charming fellow he was egoistic about.

“My dear, it’s just because you, as you say, are beginning to realize that and to adore it, that you feel you can’t forgive it. You would forgive it easily enough if you didn’t care. But put yourself in her place. Assume, as I feel sure we’re right in assuming, that we have got at the reason for her not telling you; it is exactly what a woman of that simplicity and splendour would do. With all there is of her, she loves you.”

“A charming way of showing it,” said Peter.

“You’re hurt; you’re smarting,” she said. “Otherwise you wouldn’t say that.”

“She has spoiled everything,” exclaimed Peter. “Just when——”

All through their talk Nellie had been conscious of a dual stirring, not only in him—that was clear enough—but in herself. Not many weeks ago she would certainly have had her whole sympathies enlisted on his side. She would have fanned, secretly and stealthily no doubt, the flame of his resentment against Silvia, and with the same hidden action have insinuated into his mind that there was somebody who was eager to console, to help him to forget—one who gave him a welcome.... Even now some breath of woodland irresponsibility, the morality of Dryads and Satyrs, swept over her, with the whispering of wild things and the stirrings in the bushes. Like sought{297} like there, deriding the consequences to others. Should she twang that string, let the wind blow on that harp in the trees, she knew well that something would answer it. He was hurt and sore; there were woodland balms....

Something within her again jerked back the finger that hovered over the string, ready to pluck it, and turned her hand into a shield instead, that prevented the wind from making the harp vibrate. Silvia had her harp, too, and he had begun, ever so faintly, to vibrate in answer to Silvia’s harp, and not to hers.... In this second impulse there was compassion for Silvia, there was motherhood. She made her choice.

“You can’t say that she spoiled it, my dear,” she said. “You know how she loved you when you asked her to marry you.”

Peter had a frown for this.

“I thought——” he began.

“I know what you thought. Silvia very likely told you that she wanted just to be allowed——”

“I never told you that,” said he quickly.

“Of course you didn’t. But wasn’t it clear that before you married, she loved you as a boy loves, with some tempestuous desire of possession?”

“But she’s got me,” said he. “It isn’t as if there were anyone else.”

“I know that, and she knows that for certain. It’s nothing, of that kind that revolts her.”

“Revolts?” asked he.

“Oh, my dear, short of that, wouldn’t she have told you what she has known for two days, and suspected long before? But you would be quite wrong to think that she loves you any less. What you don’t see, especially, beyond that, is that Silvia has become a perfectly changed person. She keeps her splendour.{298} Keeps it? Good heavens! I should think she did. But what she learned the other day quite changes her. She has become a woman, and she must have not just a man to love, but a man to love her. You’ve hinted that she’s on the way to get one. That’s the sum of the consolation I’ve got for you.”

Nellie, having determined, having chosen, was being magnificent just then, and all the time the Dryad within her scolded and derided her.

“You fool, you conventionalist,” the Dryad shrieked. “He might be yours; he’s as weak as water, and vain, vain! You want him: wait a few months and see how you want him! Idiot!”

Nellie heard all that as plainly as she heard the whistle of the wind in the chimney.

“It won’t be easy,” she said. “You’ve got to get out of yourself, Peter, a thing, by the way, that I’ve never succeeded in doing. And when you’ve got out of yourself you’ve got to convince her that you’ve got into herself. I wouldn’t bet on your chance.”

“Have I been a brute?” asked he.

Nellie hesitated: she had never yet realized how close to love had been her intimacy with Peter, or how far from love her own marriage-bond. And now, when, bitterly resenting what Silvia had done, he turned to her....

Peter, in her silence, repeated his question.

“A brute?” he asked, and now his voice shook.

She took her hand briskly off his shoulder. They had stood there like that, comrades and friends, for ten minutes now, and her fingers had dwelt on his shoulder, the bone and the muscle of it.

“Not a brute at all,” she said. “You couldn’t be a brute, you darling. But a liar and a cheat.”

“Ha!” said Peter.{299}

He walked round the room after this, with a whistle for her and him, and a kick for a footstool that got in his way.

“You don’t help me,” he said. “What’s to be done?”

Somehow, at his absence of resentment at what she had said, and at his appeal to her for help, the old delightful level of comradeship smoothed itself out.

“Tell her that you know,” suggested Nellie. “Do it nicely.”

“I couldn’t possibly do it nicely. Confound it all——”

She considered this.

“If you can’t do it nicely, it will only make it worse,” she conceded.

“What then?”


“For her to tell me?” demanded Peter.

“Yes, or for you just to know. It won’t come to that. Oh, you absurd people! Shall I tell her that you know?”

Peter thought over this.

“It’s becoming comic,” he said presently. “That’s the silliest thing you’ve said yet.”

“Perhaps. But it isn’t comic, my dear.”

“I know it isn’t. That’s my ferocious flippancy. Gravediggers.”

“And it isn’t comic for Silvia,” she added.

The spasm of the woodland died away again.

“She hasn’t told me,” said Peter hopelessly. “I can’t get over that.”

“You’ve got to get over that. Otherwise there’s nothing ahead. She’s got to get over more than that.{300}”

All the worst of him returned.

“You speak as if I hadn’t given her all I had got,” he said.

“You’re getting more, my dear. Keep on getting it, and keep on giving it.”

Peter looked at the clock.

“Here endeth the first lesson,” he said. “Not even out of the prophets. I must go and see my father. More acting. Necessary, you know.”

He flung his arms out.

“I daren’t be real,” he said. “No one knows what an abomination I am.”

Quite unexpectedly Nellie felt weary and done for. She pulled herself together for a final encouragement.

“Ah, what a hopeful sign!” she said.

He lingered a moment.

“Quarter to eight,” he said. “We dine at half-past. Think of the old quarter-to-eights! Ritz, opera, Mrs. Trentham! Charlie and Bobby and Tommy and me and you, and Sophy and Ella and any fool you like to mention. Lord Poole, now——”

“No, that won’t do,” said she. “He was real. I grant you the rest weren’t. But he was real: he completely enjoyed himself—does still, bless him!”

“Wish I did,” said Peter. “I used to. And I don’t.”

“You won’t as long as you think about it.”

There was the woodland touch to finish with.

“You’re only ninety, are you?” she said. “Or is it ninety-one?”

“Ninety,” said Peter, grinning.


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

© 2022