by E.F. Benson

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Chapter XIV

The grin soon cleared off. His father rose from the sofa on which he had been so elegantly resting, as Peter entered, and clasped his hand, though he had seen him at tea a couple of hours before.

“Have you heard from your mother?” he asked. “My loved and lost one?” He smoothed his velveteen coat as he spoke.

My loved and lost one! The velveteen coat!... The little demons swarmed into Peter’s soul—the demons of ridicule and cynicism and contempt and all the host of such. But rebel and ridicule as he might, he knew that he had been sham and charlatan on an immeasurably greater scale than his father.

“I had a report of her a couple of days ago,” he said. “Just a message through her solicitors.”

Mr. Mainwaring put the tips of his fingers in a neat row into his mouth, as if, in his suspense, to gnaw the nails of them. But he committed no such feat of violence. He merely sucked them, and took them out again.

“Tell me,” he said.

Peter tried to evoke any sort of kindliness or sympathy from his mind, and failed.

“She is quite well apparently,” he said, “and she——”

“She asked after me?” suggested his father.

“Yes, she asked after you. She hoped you were—comfortable, I think she said.”

“Comfortable! My God! Comfortable!{302}”

Peter waited till this paroxysm of irony was spent.

“I ought to have written to her to-day,” he said, “but I didn’t. I shall write to-morrow. What shall I tell her about you?”

“What your heart bids you,” said he. “Tell her about me, as I am. Miserable, homeless, except for the charity of my children. I count Silvia as a child,” he explained.

Peter felt absolutely relentless.

“So you long for her to come back to you,” he said. “I will tell her.”

He regarded Peter with his chin in the hollow of his hand.

“You don’t understand, my dear, the depth——” he began.

“Explain it to me, then, father,” said he.

“Take your own case, then. Supposing Silvia—I use your case for the absurdity of it—supposing Silvia left your house. What would you do? Would you not give her complete freedom to return or not to return? Would not your heart say, ‘My love for her wants only what she wants’?”

“Then I won’t say that you long for her to come back to you,” said Peter. “I only want to know your wishes. I will transmit them. But—but why not do it yourself? You know her solicitors. Anything you send them will be forwarded to her.”

“The scoundrels!” cried Mr. Mainwaring.

“Oh, I don’t see that,” said Peter. He stifled a yawn: it was all too stupid.

“Scoundrels!” cried Mr. Mainwaring. “Aren’t they——” He appeared unable to say exactly what they were, and Peter got up.

“I’ll convey any message you like, father,” he said. “I only suggest that you might just as well{303} send it yourself. There are two things you can do. You can summon my mother back, and, if you choose, divorce her if she doesn’t come, on the grounds of desertion. The other is to acquiesce in her stopping away as long as she chooses. I don’t see why you put a hypothetical case about Silvia and me. You want her to come back, or you don’t.”

This point of view necessitated some more stridings on the part of Mr. Mainwaring”.

“My angel, your angel, your Silvia,” he said, “has asked me if I would not like to spend the rest of the winter on the Riviera. A little sun for me, she said only to-night, a little change, a little chance of the healing of my wound. She offers me two months on the Riviera. Should not I be wrong if I did not accept her sweet charity?”

“Leave it over, you mean, about my mother,” asked Peter, “till you get back? Get a little sun first, and that sort of thing. I think that would be a very sensible arrangement. That was a charming idea of Silvia’s.”

He laid his hand on Peter’s shoulder, and his voice broke.

“Make Silvia happier than I have made my Maria,” he said. “The love of a good woman! My God! What brutes we men are! No, not brutes: heaven forbid that I should call you, or indeed myself, a brute. But more tenderness, my Peter, more making of allowances. Experto crede.”

He paused a moment in a fine attitude.

“Abe Darley!” he said. “Henry Wardour! They and their wives! Their pleasant chaff: their gentle fun! Yes, when you begin to step down from the tableland of life you want to find such hands as those in yours. A brilliant woman, too, is Joanna Darley.{304} How she appreciates the cartoons. And your Aunt Eleanor! Eleanor, as she suggested that I should call her. We are John and Eleanor. She has commissioned me to do her portrait before I attack the fourth, the tremendous cartoon. Submarines: you remember my sketch for it.”

Peter went down the corridor to his room and Silvia’s with the gravity that attaches to the conclusion of a comic interlude. The tragic burden, all the worse for its temporary suspension, must be taken up again, and the interlude had hardened rather than softened him. He despised his father for being a “fake,” and that contempt stung him also, as with the back-stroke of his own lash. Smarting from that his mind went back to what Silvia had withheld from him, and there was the shrewdest hurt of all....

His bath was ready for him, and as he soaked and sprayed himself some tautness of physical vigour pictured the usual sequence to his bath, the dressing-gowned and drying séance in the chair close to Silvia’s toilet table. He would sink his resentment; he would tap at her door and go in to her with a flood of normal nonsense. Then, if she told him now, as she must surely do, the news she had withheld, he would receive it as news hitherto unknown to him.

He arrived at this stage of resolution, finished his bath and came out. And at that moment, even as his knuckles were raised to inquire at her door, his resentment against her, seizing upon some new pretext of bitterness, poured over him again. His hand dropped as he turned and went into his own room. He was late also—that served for an excuse—for at the moment the sonorous bell in the turret above Silvia’s room made its proclamation to the listening earth that dinner was served at Howes.{305}

On the other side of the door Silvia, fully dressed and following the familiar sounds, was waiting for him to enter. How often had she waited like that, longing for him! She longed for him now, though dreading his coming, and so intertwined were these two that she could not disentangle the one from the other. She would tell him just what she had determined that he must know, she would ask his pardon for not having told him of the news before. She had used up, so it seemed to her, all the emotion of which she was mistress; what lay immediately in front of her covered like some hard integument the longing and dread with which she waited for him, though it left her superficial perceptions alert. The clink of the coals in the grate, the flapping of the flame there, were more vivid to her senses than anything else. There was the beating of rain on her windows, for the snow had ceased, and a wind from the south-west was beginning to bluster outside.... Then she heard Peter come out of his bathroom, and presently the door of his bedroom shut. Already the bell sounded sonorously above her: she must tell him then that night, when he came up to bed. There was relief in that. For an hour or two more the only barrier between him and her was in her own knowledge: it was not formally erected. She was conscious now that her heart had been beating fast in the anticipation of his coming, and she sat down for a few minutes (Peter would be late also) to recover her poise before she went downstairs. There was to be a jollification that night for tenants and servants: a dance for the elders, a Christmas tree for the children.

The wind which just now she had heard flinging the rain against her windows rose to a scream, and{306} Peter, hurrying on with his dressing next door, saw a cloud of smoke driven out from his grate, followed by another and yet another, till in a few minutes the room was thick with its pungency. He remembered then that the Jackdaw had told him that something had gone wrong with the cowl of the chimney, and no doubt this change of wind caused this regurgitation ... these things always happened just before Christmas or bank holidays, when the British work-man became even more deliberate than usual. Opening the window seemed only to make things worse, and, heavy with his cold, he had no intention on this chill and bitter night of sleeping fireless. As with choking throat and streaming eyes he redoubled the speed of his dressing, he rang his bell and told his servant to transfer the necessaries for sleep and toilet to some other room. The uncles and aunts occupied the next suites, but farther along, beyond the head of the main stairs, was an unoccupied bedroom and dressing room, and he ordered that a fire should be lit there, and the change made during dinner, so that he would find the room ready for his tenancy that night. As he came out from that mephitic fog on to the corridor Silvia also emerged from her room.

“My chimney’s smoking like the devil,” he said. “I remember now that the Jackdaw told me there was something wrong with it. It’s quite impossible to sleep there. I’m having my room changed.”

He finished buttoning a shirt-link as he spoke, not looking at her. Somehow this set a key of coolness, of casualness.

“How tiresome for you,” she said. “Where”—she stumbled over the question—“where have you gone?”

“Oh, somewhere down the passage,” said Peter.{307}

Just now, if he had come in to talk to her after his bath, she would have told him what he had to know. Now her resolution had a little cooled: it was not hot enough to enable her to ask him to come and talk to her when he came upstairs that night, nor yet to ask him more definitely where his room was. Besides, with the entertainment for the servants they would all be very late, and to-morrow would furnish a more convenient occasion. Or if not then, and not spontaneously on her part, he would come to her some night, seeking her, and then she would tell him.... In the interval there was the family farce of jollity to be kept up: it would only add to the difficulty of that if from her communication to him something unconjecturably critical arose. She had no idea how Peter would take it: there could be no mortal wound, for that implied that she was to him all that she missed being. But his pride, his vanity; how she longed to kill it, and how she hated to hurt it.

On his side, as they went down the broad stairs, resentment at what he knew she had withheld out-shouted all the counsel Nellie had given him, out-shouted, too, the authentic whisper of his own heart. He had but to listen to that, to act when action came, and always to think and to feel and to be without forethought, just blindly following its suggestions. But for that small voice to be heard he must unstopper his ears from that cotton-wool of vanity which shut out from his hearing all but the complaints and self-justifications which trickled through it. It had been and it was her business to tell him....

“My father says you have treated him to a month or two in the South,” he said. “That is very good of you: he will enjoy it.”

There was the ring as of a duty discharged in this{308} that robbed it of spontaneousness, and it gave to her its own woodenness. Peter had not meant it like that: he wanted to thank her for her kindness, to let her know that he appreciated it. But all that passed now had to travel through the falsity of that situation between them, as through some mould which made it take a shape not truly its own, and come out at the end grimed and distorted.

“January and February are delightful on the Riviera,” she said. “A change will do him good.”

To him that seemed to double-lock the wards of the gate that should have stood open. They looked at each other through its bars: the very attempt on both sides to meet the conventional needs of the moment—the friendly word or two on the stairs—had but served to sever them. The femininity of his nature, already resentful at what had been withheld from him, construed her reply into a further withdrawal of herself, overlooking the fact that it was his own resentment that had led him into conventionalities of speech. His pride choked him: was it nothing to her that she was ripening with his fatherhood? Had she no inkling that not his head only but his heart was, as in some belated dawn, beginning to glow with her splendour? The male element in him was awaking, like Adam from the sleep which the Lord God had laid on him, and was beginning to find, to realize that what he expunged and expelled from himself became the living glory and the complement of him. All such perception was still clouded with the blanketing vapours of his own resentment and egoism, but through the rifts, from high above Silvia shone....

His pride choked him. What choked her was her love, that could not breathe but in its own high air.{309}

Uncle Henry, on the occasion of his first visit to Howes, just before Silvia’s marriage, had found (and deplored) a certain “standoffishness,” so he expressed it, in his new nephew. His wife had not agreed with him; she found Peter to be “very refined.” But during the three days that now followed Uncle Henry quite scrapped his previous verdict. There could not have been a more seasonable host: Peter was full of fun, and indeed Aunt Eleanor was almost disposed to follow her husband’s example and reconsider her favourable opinion of Peter’s refinement. It was really naughty of him to put up that bit of mistletoe without warning her of it, and Mr. Mainwaring’s chaste salute had come as a great surprise to her, before she realized the public temptation she was making of herself by standing so squarely and indubitably just below it. But there was no harm in a good old-fashioned Christmas, and if Peter would insist on having a bowl of wassail to usher in the midnight, after all, he was the host, and it would have been mere churlishness to refuse to drink that second (or was it third?) glass that he filled up for her when she was not looking. There were foolish games on these evenings, and when the ladies went to bed roars of laughter ascended from the billiard-room, where the men “kept it up” till any hour. There was no harm in being young, so she and Aunt Joanna agreed, melted into unwilling cordiality over this riotous hospitality.

Indeed, if there was any “standoffishness” to be detected, it was Silvia who must be impeached. Yet “standoffishness,” even to Uncle Henry’s limited power of analysis, did not quite express Silvia’s quality. “Just a bit under the mark, not up to romps,” was the definition that he and Uncle Abe{310} arrived at, as, after waving their fat hands from the window of the motor that took them to the station at the conclusion of their visit, they lit the first cigars of Peter’s Christmas present to them. Naturally they had not begun on them when they were staying with him, for there was always a box open in the smoking-room.

“Come on wonderful, has Peter,” said Uncle Henry. “A jolly boy. Handsome, too. Not much wrong with that marriage.”

Uncle Abe had a short attack of what he called his “morning cough.” Joanna, who was in the other motor, called it “smoke and drink.”

“Shouldn’t wonder if you’re right, Henry,” he said when he recovered. “I had the same idea.”

“Well, I must say it occurred to me,” said Henry. “She seemed a bit thoughtful. And that would account for Peter’s high spirits. Amazing!”

Uncle Abe put up his window.

“I’ve a bit of a cough this morning,” he said. “And there’s a pretty fortune for any child to come into.”

Peter was sitting over the fire in his bedroom that night watching it, and trying to determine that when a certain coal ceased flaring with its spray of bubbling gas he would go to Silvia’s room, and, one way or another, make an end of an intolerable situation. He had no idea (so much depended on her) what his “line” would be. Certainly he would tell her that he knew what she, all these days, had kept from him; but, beyond that, he could not, in the vaguest manner even, forecast the development of the situation. During these four days she had shown him nothing that he could construe into a signal; not once had he{311} seen her privately, and, when in public, he had kept up his rôle of the rollicking host. He had no idea, for instance, whether she knew into what lodging his surly chimney, not yet coaxed into proper behaviour, had driven him. She had asked no further question since that general inquiry on the stairs, and he had volunteered no information. Equally had he avoided any private conference with Nellie; sometimes in a casual meeting of their eyes he had conjectured an unspoken communication; but he knew her views, as the situation concerned himself and Silvia, and there was no use in hammering at that any further. Nothing else, comparatively, concerned him.

There had been a general air of fatigued reaction abroad this evening. Mrs. Wardour, Silvia, and Nellie had gone to bed within a couple of hours of the termination of dinner, and he and his father had had but a short séance in the billiard-room before parting. Peter had an excuse for this early dispersal, for he must be at Whitehall by ten o’clock to-morrow morning, to deal with accumulations.

Yes; when that lump of coal collapsed he would go to Silvia. Sleepily he watched it, trying in some ill-defined manner to abstract himself from agitating thought, to give himself a rest before he plunged into some sort of breaking waves. He drowsed for a little, and, still looking at his fire between half-closed lids, he fell fast asleep.

The fire had gone out except for a glimmer of dying embers, and for the moment of bewildered awakening before he realized that he was still in his armchair in front of the grate he thought that he was back in his old room, and that the chimney was smoking. As he came to himself, he realized where he was, and even more keenly realized why his mind{312} had caught hold of that idea of the smoking chimney. There was a strong smell of smoke in the room, and, jumping up, he turned on the switch of the electric light, which was close to his hand. He heard it click, but there was no illumination in answer. He had matches in his pocket, and, lighting one, kindled one of the candles that stood on the mantelpiece. Wide awake now, he was more than ever conscious of that smell of burning, and going to the door he opened it. A great swirl of smoke came in, bellying up from the main staircase on the left. Through it there came the noise of crackling wood, and a shoot of veiled flame.

Peter gripped his own mind. On his right, close at hand, were the rooms where his father and Nellie slept. Farther along to the right was a second staircase, communicating with the ground floor, and communicating also with the servants’ wing. Half shutting his eyes against the sting of the smoke, he groped his way first to Nellie’s door.

“Nellie,” he cried, throwing it open, “get up at once: there’s a fire in the house.”

He never felt more completely himself; all his brain was tinglingly awake, and behind his brain something else....

“Don’t wait a moment,” he said. “Get along the passage and down the stairs. I’ll send my father to you.”

He saw her on her way and plunged into his father’s room.

“House on fire, father,” he said. “Go straight through to your right into the servants’ wing, and bang on every door. Wake Mrs. Wardour, two doors away. Then join Nellie downstairs. Don’t wait: I don’t know how serious it is.{313}”

Away to the left, beyond that column of smoke now pouring up the main staircase, was the baize door behind which were the rooms that he and Silvia had occupied, and where now she was alone. He tried to dash along the corridor to reach them, but the heat drove him back. Already tongues of flame licked through the banisters of the main staircase, past which he had to go in order to get to her. He was cut off from that access.

Suddenly and serenely he remembered another access. Along the front of the house below the windows of the room he at present occupied and those rooms behind the baize door beyond the flaming staircase, there ran externally the coping which had reminded him of that which ran along the flat belonging to Nellie’s mother in London. He remembered in the same flash the discussion that Nellie and he had held: how she had told him that, if he ever loved, he would be forced to make the passage of such a road at the bidding of that divine compulsion. It would not concern him, so she had said, that he incurred a mortal and a useless risk. He might not be able to rescue (here was the thesis) the beloved of his soul: any thought of rescue was outside the question. But, so she argued, he would not be able, if he loved, to resist the imperishable impulse.

Through the thick scorching air, with his candle guttering in the heat, he groped his way back to his room, and shutting the door against that burning blast, he went to the window. The gleam of the white stone coping was just visible, and taking off his coat and waistcoat, so as to be able to get closer to the wall, and kicking off his shoes, so as to secure a better grip, he let himself down on to it. There it was some ten or twelve inches in width; by standing very{314} straight up, with his arms flat out against the wall of the house, he had his balance well below him.

He moved his left foot first and brought the right foot up to it. He rocked at this first movement, and recovered himself.... And then when once he had started on his perilous way, the dawn and morning of it all broke on him. Cautiously and clingingly he advanced, but the caution—there was the sunlight of it—was no longer for himself, but for her whom he sought. For himself it seemed to matter not at all whether an unnerved step terminated his expedition: the object of it, the necessity, sheer as the drop below him, of reaching Silvia was utterly dominant. He could hear a dim roaring inside the house, but it neither delayed nor hastened him.

He had come to the window of her room, and now he could lean an elbow on the sill of it, while he rattled at the sash and tapped at the glass. Through her blind he saw her room spring into light, and found himself recording the fact that this electric circuit was still working. Immediately he heard her voice:

“Who is it?” she cried. “What is it?”

“Peter,” he said. “Open the window quickly.”

The sash flew up, and she was there, close to him.

“Give me a hand, darling,” he said. “Just pull me in. Don’t ask any questions.”

The window-sill was high above the coping, but with her hands, firm and strong as a boy’s, on his arm, he scrambled into the room.

“The house is on fire,” he said. “We’re cut off. The main staircase is blazing. But it will be all right: don’t be frightened. My father will have roused the servants by now.{315}”

He paused, panting from some retarded terror of his climb, unfelt while he made it.

“Silvia!” he said.

She stared at him a moment.

“But you were safe, Peter,” she said. “What good was it that you came? Along that coping, did you come, all the way from your room?”

“I’m here anyhow; good, broad coping,” he said. “Now, can we do anything more? Let’s be practical: let’s think.”

For an immortal second she held him close.

“The big bell in the turret!” she said. “The rope goes through the corner of the little lobby outside my bathroom.”

“Oh, good thought,” said he. “Come and help me to pull it. We’ll talk afterwards, when we’ve done all we can.”

The sound of that reached the little town a mile away; the glare on the sky endorsed the signal. Outside on the terrace, facing the lake, and now vividly illuminated, were the other occupants from the house, busy with rescuings, and presently, shouted up to the two through the open window by which Peter had climbed in, came the news, conveyed here by telephone, that the fire-engines were on their way. A ladder was being fetched from the stable.... Had they no rope?... Then, as the conflagration spread, the electric light snapped itself out.

They had gone back, when the bell had done its work, to Silvia’s room. The angry glare from outside shone in through the window, and smoke drifted in from below the baize door that shut them off from the burning corridor. Already the fog of it obscured the glare.

“That’s all we can do,” said Peter. “Come{316} close, my dear. You mustn’t be afraid. There’s no need.... We——”

She was clinging to him now.

“I have something to tell you,” she said.

“You needn’t,” said he quickly. “I know it.”

“You can’t,” said Silvia.

“But I do: your baby you mean, bless you.”

Suddenly her mouth began to quiver.

“Oh, my God! why did you come here?” she said. “You were safe.”

Outside beyond the baize door there was a crash of something falling, and she shrank into him.

“Why did you come?” she repeated.

“Because I couldn’t help myself. It wasn’t my fault. You don’t understand——”

“You had to, do you mean?” she asked.

He made no reply to this: his presence answered for him.

“Oh, go back,” she cried. “You can go back still. If you love me——”

He took her close into one great enfoldment.

The roaring of the burning house, the glare of its great beacon, grew momently more vivid. Then from outside came a yell of voices, and they went to the window.

“They’ve come,” said Peter quietly.

A grinding of the gravel below, shouted orders, a raising of a ladder....


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