The Dark House
by I. A. R. Wylie
THE DARK HOUSE
I. A. R. WYLIE
Author of “The Daughter of Brahma,” “The Shining Heights,” etc.
The cigar was a large one and Robert Stonehouse was small. At the
precise moment, in fact, when he leant out of the upstairs bedroom
window, instinctively seeking fresh air, he became eight years old. He
did not know this, though he did know that it was his birthday and that
a birthday was a great and presumably auspicious occasion. His
conception of what a birthday ought to be was based primarily on one
particular event when he had danced on his mother's bed, shouting, “I'm
five—I'm five!” in unreasonable triumph. His mother had greeted him
gravely, one might say respectfully, and his father, who when he did
anything at all did it in style, had given him a toy fort fully
garrisoned with resplendent Highland soldiers. And there had been a
party of children whom, as a single child, he disliked and despised and
whom he had ordered about unreproved. From start to finish the day had
been his very own.
Soon afterwards his mother disappeared. They said she was dead. He
knew that people died, but death conveyed nothing to him, and when his
father and Christine went down to Kensal Green to choose the grave, he
picked flowers from the other graves and sent them to his mother with
Robert's love. Christine had turned away her face, crying, and James
Stonehouse, whose sense of drama never quite failed him, had smiled
tragically; but Robert never even missed her. His only manifestation of
feeling was a savage hatred of Christine, who tried to take her place.
For a time indeed his mother went completely out of his consciousness.
But after a little she came back to him by a secret path. In the
interval she had ceased to be connected with his evening prayer and his
morning bath and all the other tiresome realities and become a creature
of dreams. She grew tall and beautiful. He liked to be alone—best of
all at night when Christine had put the light out—so that he could
make up stories about her and himself and their new mystical intimacy.
He knew that she was dead but he did not believe it. It was just one of
those mysterious tricks which grown-up people played on children to
pretend that death was so enormously conclusive. Though he had buried
the black kitten with his own hands in the back garden, and had felt
the stiffness of its pitiful body and the dank chill of its once glossy
fur, he was calmly sure that somewhere or other, out of sight, it still
pursued its own tail with all the solemnity of kittenhood.
One of these nights the door would open and his mother would be
there. In this dream of her she appeared to him much as she had done
once in Kensington High Street when he had wilfully strayed from her
side and lost himself, and, being overwhelmed with the sense of his
smallness and forlornness, had burst into a howl of grief. Then
suddenly she had stood out from the midst of the sympathetic
crowd—remote, stern and wonderful—and he had flung himself on her,
knowing that whatever she might do to him, she loved him and that they
belonged to one another, inextricably and for all time.
So she stood on the threshold of his darkened room, and at that
vision his adoration became an agony and he lay with his face hidden in
his arms, waiting for the touch of her hand that never came, until he
Christine became his mother. Every morning at nine o'clock she
turned the key of the pretentious mansion where James Stonehouse had
set up practice for the twentieth time in his career, and called out,
“Hallo, Robert!” in her clear, cool voice, and Robert, standing at the
top of the stairs in his night-shirt, called back, “Hallo, Christine!”
very joyously because he knew it annoyed Edith, his father's new wife,
listening jealously from behind her bedroom door.
And then Christine scrubbed his ears, and sometimes, when there were
no servants, a circumstance which coincided exactly with a periodical
financial crisis, she scrubbed the floors. Robert's first hatred had
changed rapidly to the love he would have given his mother had she
lived. There was no romance about it. Christine was not omnipotent as
his mother had become. He knew that she, too, was often terribly
unhappy, and their helplessness in the face of a common danger gave
them a sort of equality. But she was good to him, and her faithfulness
was the one sure thing in his convulsed and rocking world. He clung to
her as a drowning man clings to a floating spar, and his father's, “I
wish to God, Christine, you'd get out and leave us alone,” or, “I won't
have you in my house. You're poisoning my son's mind against me,”
reiterated regularly at the climax of one of the hideous rows which
devastated the household, was like a blow in the pit of the stomach,
turning him sick and faint with fear.
But Christine never went. Or if she went she came back again. As
James Stonehouse said in a burst of savage humour, “Kick Christine out
of the front door and she'll come in at the back.” Every morning, no
matter what had happened the night before, there was the quiet,
resolute scratch of her latch-key in the lock, and when James
Stonehouse, sullen and menacing, brushed rudely against her in the
hall, she went on steadily up the stairs to where Robert waited for
her, and they fell into each other's arms like two sorrowful comrades.
Ever afterwards he could conjure her up at will as he saw her then. She
was like a porcelain marquise over whom an intangible permanent shadow
had been thrown.
He knew dimly that she had “people” who disapproved of her devotion,
and that over and over again, by some new mysterious sacrifice, she had
staved off disaster. He knew that she had been his father's friend all
her life and that his mother and she had loved one another. There was
some bond between these three that could not be broken, and he, too,
was involved—fastened on as an afterthought, as it were, but so firmly
that there could be no escape. Because of it Christine loved him. He
knew that he was not always a very lovable little boy. Even with her he
could be obstinate and cruel—cruel because she was so much less than
his mother had become—and there were times when, with a queer
unchildish power of self-visualization, he saw himself as a small
fair-haired monster growing black and blacker with the dark and evil
spirit that was in him. But Christine never seemed to see him like
that. There was some borrowed halo about his head that blinded her. It
did not matter how bad he was, she had always love and excuses ready
for him. And she was literally all he had in the world.
But even she had not been able to make his birthday a success.
Indeed, ever since that one outstanding day all the celebrations had
been failures, though he had never ceased to look forward to them. For
days before his last birthday he had suspected everyone of secret
delicious plottings on his behalf. He had come down to breakfast
shaking with anticipation. All through the morning he had waited for
the surprise that was to be sprung on him, hanging at everyone's heel
in turn, and it was only towards dusk that he knew with bitter
certainty that he had been forgotten. A crisis had wiped him and his
birthday out altogether. And then he had cried, and James Stonehouse,
moved to generous remorse, had rushed out and bought a ridiculously
expensive toy having first borrowed money from Christine and scolded
her at the top of his booming voice for her heartless neglect of his
Christine had argued with him in her quiet obstinate way.
“But, Jim dear, you can't afford it——”
There had been one of those awful rows.
And Robert had crept that night, unwashed, into bed, crying more
bitterly than ever.
But this time he had really had no hope at all. Yesterday had seen a
crisis and a super-crisis. In the afternoon the butcher had stood at
the back door and shouted and threatened, and he had been followed
almost immediately by a stout shabby man with a bald head and
good-natured face, who announced that he had come to put a distraint on
the furniture which, incidentally, had never been paid for. Edith
Stonehouse, with an air of outraged dignity, had lodged him in the
library and regaled him on a bottle of stout and the remnants of a cold
joint, and it was understood that there he would remain until such time
as Christine raised 40 pounds from somewhere.
These were mere incidents—entirely commonplace—but at six o'clock
James Stonehouse himself had driven up in a taxi, to the driver of
which he had appeared to hand the contents of all his pockets, and a
moment later stormed into the house in a mood which was, if anything,
more devastating than his ungovernable rages. He had been
exuberant—exultant—his good-humour white-hot and dangerous. Looking
into his brilliant blue eyes with their two sharp points of light, it
would have been hard to tell whether he was laughing or mad with anger.
His moods were like that—too close to be distinguished from one
another with any safety. Christine, who had just come from interviewing
the bailiff, had looked grave and disapproving. She knew probably, that
her disapproval was useless and even disastrous, but there was an
obstinate rectitude in her character that made it impossible for her to
humour him. But Edith Stonehouse and Robert had played up out of sheer
“You do seem jolly, Jim,” Edith had said in her hard, common voice.
“It's a nice change, you bad-tempered fellow——”
She had never really recovered from the illusion that she had
captured him by her charms rather than by her poor little fortune, and
when she dared she was arch with an undertone of grievance. Robert had
capered about him and held his hand and made faces at Christine so that
she should pretend too. Otherwise there would be another row. But
Christine held her ground.
“The butcher came this afternoon,” she said. “He says he is going to
get out a summons. And the bailiff is in again. It's about the
furniture. You said it was paid for. I can't think how you could be so
mad. I rang up Melton's about it, and they say the firm wants to
prosecute. If they do, it might mean two years'——”
Robert had stopped capering. His knees had shaken under him with a
new, inexplicable fear. But James Stonehouse had taken no notice. He
had gone on spreading and warming himself before the fire. He had
looked handsome and extraordinarily, almost aggressively, prosperous.
“I shall write a sharp note to Melton's. Damned impertinence. An old
customer like myself. Get the fellow down into the kitchen. The whole
thing will be settled tomorrow. I've had an amazing piece of luck.
Amazing. Met Griffiths—you remember my telling you about Alec
Griffiths, don't you, Christine? Student with me at the University. Got
sent down together. Wonderful fellow—wonderful. Now he's in business
in South Africa. Made his pile in diamonds. Simply rolling. He's going
to let me in. Remarkable chap. Asked him to dinner. Oh, I've arranged
all that on my way up. Gunther's are sending round a cook and a couple
of waiters and all that's necessary. For God's sake, Christine, try and
look as though you were pleased. Get into a pretty dress and join us.
Must do him well, you know. Never do for a man like that to get a wrong
impression. And I want him to see Robert. He knew Constance before we
were married. Put him into his best clothes——”
“He hasn't got any,” Christine had interrupted bitterly.
For a moment it had seemed as though the fatal boundary line would
be crossed. Stonehouse had stared at his son, his eyes brightening to
an electric glare as they picked out the patches of the shabby
sailor-suit and the frantic, mollifying smile on Robert's face had
grown stiff as he had turned himself obediently about.
“Disgraceful. I wonder you women are not ashamed, the way you
neglect the child—I shall take him to Shoolbred's first thing
to-morrow and have him fitted out from top to toe——” The gathering
storm receded miraculously. “However, he can't appear like that. For
God's sake, get the house tidy, at any rate——”
So Robert had been bustled up stairs and the bailiff lured into the
kitchen, where fortunately he had become so drunk that he had had no
opportunity to explain to the French chef and the two waiters the real
reason for his presence and his whole-hearted participation in the
From the top of the stairs Robert had watched Christine go into
dinner on his father's arm, and Edith Stonehouse follow with a
black-coated stranger who had known his mother. He had listened to the
talk and his father's laughter—jovial and threatening—and once he had
dived downstairs and, peering through the banisters like a small blond
monkey, had snatched a cream meringue from a passing tray. Then for a
moment he had almost believed that they were all going to be happy
That had been last night. Now there was nothing left but the
bailiff, still slightly befuddled, an incredible pile of unwashed
dishes and an atmosphere of stale tobacco. James Stonehouse had gone
off early in a black and awful temper. It seemed that at the last
moment the multi-millionaire had explained that owing to a hitch in his
affairs he was short of ready cash and would be glad of a small loan.
Only temporary, of course. Wouldn't have dreamed of asking, but meeting
such an old friend in such affluent circumstances——
So the eighth birthday had been forgotten. Robert himself could not
have explained why grief should have driven him to his father's
cigars-box. Perhaps it was just a beau geste of defiance, or a
reminder that one day he too would be grown up and free. At any rate,
it was still a very large cigar. Though he puffed at it painstakingly,
blowing the smoke far out of the window so as to escape detection, the
result was not encouraging. The exquisite mauve-grey ash was indeed
less than a quarter of an inch long when his sense of wrong and
injustice deepened to an overwhelming despair. It was not only that
even Christine had failed him—everything was failing him. The shabby
plot of rising ground opposite, which justified Dr. Stonehouse's
contention that he looked out over open country, had become immersed in
a loathsome mist, greenish in hue, in which it heaved and rolled and
undulated like an uneasy reptile. The house likewise heaved, and Robert
had to lean hard against the lintel of the window to prevent himself
from falling out. A strange sensation of uncertainty—of internal
disintegration—obsessed him, and there was a cold moisture gathering
on his face. He felt that at any moment anything might happen. He
didn't care. He wanted to die, anyhow. They had forgotten him, but when
he was dead they would be sorry. His father would give him a beautiful
funeral, and Christine would say, “We can't afford it, Jim,” and there
would be another awful scene.
In the next room Edith and Christine were talking as they rolled up
the Axminster carpet which, since the bailiff had no claim on it, was
to go to the pawnbroker's to appease the butcher. The door stood open,
and he could hear Edith's bitter, resentful voice raised in
“I don't know why I stand it. If my poor dear father, Sir Godfrey,
knew what I was enduring, he would rise from the grave. Never did I
think I should have to go through such humiliation. My sisters say I
ought to leave him—that I am wanting in right feeling, but I can't
help it. I am faithful by nature. I remember my promises at the
altar—even if Jim forgets his——”
“He didn't promise to keep his temper or out of debt,” Christine
Edith sniffed loudly.
“Or away from other women. Oh, it's no good, Christine, I know what
I know. There's always some other woman in the background. Only
yesterday I found a letter from Mrs. Saxburn—that red-haired vixen he
brought home to tea when there wasn't money in the house to buy bread.
I tell you he doesn't know what faithfulness means.”
Robert, rising for a moment above his own personal anguish, clenched
his fist. It was all very well—he might hate his father, Christine
might hate him, though he knew she didn't, but Edith had no right. She
was an outsider—a bounder——
“He is faithful to his ideal,” Christine answered. “He is always
looking for it and thinking he has found it. And except for Constance
he has always been mistaken.”
“I wasn't thinking of you,” Christine explained. “There have been so
many of them—and all so terribly expensive—never cheap or common——”
They were dragging the carpet out into the landing. Their voices
sounded louder and more distinct.
“I could bear almost everything but his temper,” Edith persisted
breathlessly. “He's like a madman——”
“He's ill—sometimes I think he's very ill——”
“Oh, you've always got an excuse for him, Christine. You never see
him as he really is. I can't think why you didn't marry him yourself.
I'm sure he asked you. Jim couldn't be alone with a woman ten minutes
without proposing. And everyone knows how fond you are of him and of
that tiresome child——”
Robert Stonehouse gasped. The earth reeled under his feet. The stump
of the cigar rolled off the windowsill, and he himself tumbled from his
chair and was sick—convulsively, hideously sick. For a moment he
remained huddled on the floor, half unconscious, and then very slowly
the green, soul-destroying mist receded and he found Christine bending
over him, wiping his face, with her pocket-Handkerchief.
“Robert, darling, why didn't you call out?”
“He's been smoking,” Edith's voice declared viciously from somewhere
in the background. “I can smell it. The horrid little boy——”
“I didn't—I didn't——” He kept his feet with an enormous effort,
scowling at her. He lied shamelessly, as a matter of course and without
the faintest sense of guilt. Everyone lied. They had to. Christine knew
that as well as anyone. Not that lying was of the slightest use. His
father's temper fed on itself and was independent alike of fact or
fiction. But you could no more help lying to him than you could help
flinching from a red-hot poker. “I didn't,” he repeated stubbornly, and
all the while repeating to himself, “It's my birthday—and they've
forgotten. They don't care.” But he would rather have died then and
there than have reminded them. He would not even let them see how
miserable he was, and to stop himself from crying he kept his eyes
fixed on Edith Stonehouse, who in turn measured him with that
exaggerated and artificial horror which she considered appropriate to
“Oh, how can you, Robert? Don't you know what happens to wicked
little boys who tell lies?”
He hated her. He hated the red, coarse-skinned face, the tight mouth
and opaque brown eyes and the low, stupid forehead with its
old-fashioned narrow fringe of dingy hair. He knew that in spite of Sir
Godfrey and the family estate of which she was always talking, she was
common to the heart—not a lady like Christine and his mother—and her
occasionally adopted pose of authority convulsed him with a blind,
ungovernable fury. He was too young to understand that she meant
well—was indeed good-natured and kindly enough in her natural
environment—and as she advanced upon him now, in reality to smooth his
disordered hair, he drew back, an absurd miniature replica of James
Stonehouse in his worst rages, his fists clenched, his teeth set on a
horrible recurring nausea.
“If you touch me, Edith—I'll—I'll bite you——”
“Hush, darling—you mustn't speak like that——”
“Oh, don't mind me, Christine. I'm not accustomed to respect in this
house. I don't expect it. 'Edith,' indeed! Did you ever hear such a
thing! I can't think what Jim was thinking about to allow it. He ought
to call me 'Mother'——”
Robert tore himself free from Christine's soothing embrace. He had a
moment's blinding, heart-breaking vision of his real mother. She stood
close to him, looking at him with her grave eyes, demanding of him that
he should avenge this insult. And in a moment he would be sick again.
“I wouldn't—wouldn't call you mother—not if you killed me. I
wouldn't if you put me in the fire——”
“You see, Christine—but of course you won't see. You're blind where
he's concerned. What a wicked temper. Deceitful, too. I'm sure I'm glad
he's not my child. He's going to be like his father.”
“I want to be like my father. I wouldn't be like you for anything.”
“Robert, be quiet at once or I shall punish you.”
She was angry now. She had been greatly tried during the last
twenty-four hours, and to her he was just an alien, hateful little boy
who made her feel like an interloper in her own house, bought with her
own money. She seized him by the arm, shaking him viciously, and he
flew at her, biting and kicking with all his strength.
It was an ugly, wretched scene. It ended abruptly on the landing,
where she let go her hold with a cry of pain and Robert Stonehouse
rolled down the stairs, bumping his head and catching his arm cruelly
in the banisters. He was on his feet instantly. He heard Christine
coming and he ran on, down into the hall, where he caught up his little
boots, which she had been cleaning for him, and after a desperate
struggle with the latch, out into the road—sobbing and blood-stained,
heart-broken with shame and loneliness and despair.
His relationship with the Brothers Banditti across the hill was
peculiar. It was one of Dr. Stonehouse's many theories of life that
children should be independent, untrammelled alike by parental
restrictions and education, and except on the very frequent occasions
when this particular theory collided with his comfort and his
conviction that his son was being disgracefully neglected, Robert lived
the life of a lonely and illiterate guttersnipe. He did not know he was
lonely. He did not want to play with the other children in the Terrace.
But he did know that for some mysterious reason or other they did not
want to play with him. The trim nursemaids drew their starched and
shining darlings to one side when he passed, and he in turn scowled at
them with a fierce contempt to which, all unknown, was added two drops
of shame and bitterness. But even among the real guttersnipes of the
neighbourhood he was an outcast. He did not know how to play with other
children. He was ignorant alike of their ways and their games, and,
stiff with an agonizing shyness, he bore himself before them
arrogantly. It was natural that they in turn hated him. Like young
wolves they flaired a member of a strange and alien pack—a creature
who broke their unwritten laws—and at first they had hunted him
pitilessly, throwing mud and stones at him, pushing him from the
pavement, jeering at him. But they had not reckoned with the Stonehouse
rages. He had flung himself on them. He had fought them singly, by twos
and threes—the whole pack. In single combat he had thrashed the
grocer's boy who was several inches taller and two years older than
himself. But even against a dozen his white-hot fury, which ignored
alike pain and discretion, made him dangerous and utterly unbeatable.
From all encounters he had come out battered, blood-stained, literally
in shreds, but clothed in lonely victory.
Now they only jeered at him from a safe distance. They made cruel
and biting references to the Stonehouse menage, flying with mock
shrieks of terror when he was unwise enough to attempt pursuit. Usually
he went his way, his head up, swallowing his tears.
But the Brothers Banditti belonged to him.
On the other side of the hill was a large waste plot of ground. A
builder with more enterprise than capital had begun the erection of
up-to-date villas but had gone bankrupt in the process, and now nothing
remained of his ambition but a heap of somewhat squalid ruins. Here,
after school hours, the Brothers met and played and plotted.
They had not always been Banditti. Before Robert's advent they had
been the nice children of the nicest people of the neighbourhood. Their
games had been harmless, if apathetic, and they had always gone home
punctually and clean. The parents considered the waste land as a great
blessing. Robert had come upon them in the course of his lonely
prowlings, and from a distance had watched them play hide and seek. He
had despised them and their silly game, but, on the other hand, they
did not know who he was and would not make fun of him and taunt him
with unpaid bills, and it had been rather nice to listen to their
cheerful voices. The ruins, too, had fired his imagination. He had
viewed them much as a general views the scene of a prospective battle.
And then—strangest attraction of all—there had been Frances Wilmot.
She was different from any other little girl he had ever seen. She was
clean and had worn a neat green serge dress with neat brown shoes and
stockings which toned with her short curly brown hair, but she did not
shine or look superior or disdainful. Nor had she been playing with her
companions, though they ran back to her from time to time as though in
some secret way she had led their game. When Robert had come upon her
she was sitting on the foundations of what was to have been a
magnificent portico, her arms clasped about her knees, and a curious
intent look on her pointed delicate face. That intent look, as he was
to discover, was very constant with her. It was as though she were
always watching something of absorbing interest which no one else could
see. Sometimes it amused her, and and then a flicker of laughter ran up
from her mouth to her grey eyes and danced there. At other times she
was sorry. Her face was like still water, ruffled by invisible winds
and mirroring distant clouds and sunshine.
Robert had watched her, motionless and unobserved, for several
minutes. It had been a very unhappy day. Christine had gone off in a
great hurry on some dark errand in the city connected with “raising
money” on a reversion and had forgotten to wash him, and though he did
not like being washed, the process did at least make him feel that
someone cared about him. Now at sight of this strange little girl an
almost overpowering desire to cry had come over him—to fling himself
into someone's arms and cry his heart out.
She had not sat there for long. She had got up and moved
about—flitted rather—so that Robert, who had never heard of a
metaphor, thought of a brown leaf dancing in little gusts of wind. And
then suddenly she had seen him and stood still. His heart had begun to
pound against his ribs. For it was just like that that in his dreams
his mother stood, looking at him. She, too, had grey eyes, serene and
grave, penetrating into one's very heart.
And after a moment she had smiled.
Robert's voice, half choked with tears had croaked back “Hallo!” and
she had come a little nearer to him.
“What's your name?”
“Where do you come from?”
He had jerked his head vaguely in the direction of the hill, for he
did not want her to know.
“Why are you crying?”
“I—I don't know.”
“Would you like to play with us?”
“Yes—I—I think I would.”
She had called the other children and they had come at once and
stood round her, gazing wide-eyed at him, not critically or unkindly,
but like puppies considering a new companion. The girl in the green
serge frock had taken him by the hand.
“This is a friend of mine, Robert Stonehouse. He's going to play
with us. Tag—Robert!”
And she had tapped him on the arm and was off like a young deer.
All his awkwardness and shyness had dropped from him like a
disguise. No one knew that he was a strange little boy or that his
father owed money to all the tradespeople. He was just like anyone
else. And he had run faster than the fastest of them. He had wanted to
show her that he was not just a cry baby. And whenever he had come near
her he had been all warm with happiness.
In three days the nice children had become the Brothers Banditti
with Robert Stonehouse as their chief. Having admitted the stranger
into their midst he had gone straight to their heads like wine. He was
a rebel and an outlaw who had suddenly come into power. At heart he was
older than any of them. He knew things about reversions and bailiffs
and life generally that none of them had ever heard of in their
well-ordered homes. He was strong and knew how to fight. The nice
children had never fought but they found they liked it. Once, like an
avenging Attila, he had led them across the hill and fallen upon his
ancient enemies with such awful effect that they never raised their
heads again. And the Banditti had returned home whooping and drunk with
victory and the newly discovered joy of battle. His hand was naturally
against all authority. He led them in dark plottings against their
governesses and nursemaids, and even against the Law itself as
personified by an elderly, somewhat pompous policeman whose beat
included their territory. On foggy afternoons they pealed the doorbells
of such as had complaint against them, and from concealment gloated
over the indignant maids who had been lured down several flights of
stairs to answer their summons. And no longer were they nice children
who returned home clean and punctual to the bosom of their families.
Very rarely had the Banditti showed signs of revolt against Robert's
despotism, and each time he had won them back with ease which sowed the
first seeds of cynicism in his mind. It happened to be another of the
elder Stonehouse's theories—which he had been known to expound
eloquently to his creditors—that children should be taught the use of
money, and at such times as the Stonehouse family prospered Robert's
pocket bulged with sums that staggered the very imagination of his
followers. He appeared among them like a prince—lavish, reckless,
distributing chocolates of superior lineage with a haughty magnificence
that brought the disaffected cringing to his feet.
But even with them he was not really happy. At heart he was still a
strange little boy, different from the rest. There was a shadow over
him. He knew that apart from him they were nice, ordinary children, and
that he was a man full of sorrows and mystery and bitter experience. He
despised them. They could be bought and bribed and bullied. But if he
could have been ordinary as they were, with quiet, ordinary homes and
people who loved one another and paid their bills, he would have cried
When he did anything particularly bold and reckless he looked out of
the corners of his eyes at Frances Wilmot to see if at last he had
impressed her. For she eluded him. She never defied his authority, and
very rarely took part in his escapades. But she was always there,
sometimes in the midst, sometimes just on the fringe, like a bird,
intent on business of its own, coming and going in the heart of human
affairs. Sometimes she seemed hardly to be aware of him, and sometimes
she treated him as though there were an unspoken intimacy between them
which made him glow with pride for days afterwards. She would put her
arm about him and walk with him in the long happy silence of
comradeship. And once, quite unexpectedly, she had seemed gravely
troubled. “Are you a good little boy, Robert?” she had asked, as though
she really expected him to know, and relieve her mind about it.
And afterwards he had cried to himself, for he was sure that he was
not a good little boy at all. He was sure that if she knew about his
father and the bailiffs she would turn away in sorrow and disgust.
He knew that she too was different from the others, but with a
greater difference than his own. He knew that the Banditti looked up to
her for the something in her that he lacked, that if she lifted a
finger against him, his authority would be gone. And the knowledge
darkened everything. It was not that he cried about his leadership. He
would have thrown it at her feet gladly. But he longed to prove to her
that if he was not a good little boy he was, at any rate, a terribly
fine fellow. He had to make her look up to him and admire him like the
rest of the Banditti, otherwise he would never hold her fast. And
everything served to that end. Before her he swaggered monstrously. He
did things which turned him sick with fear. Once he had climbed to the
top of a dizzy wall in the ruins, and had postured on the narrow edge,
the bricks crumbling under him, the dust rising in clouds, so that he
looked like a small devil dancing in mid-air. And when he had reached
ground again he had found her reading a book. Then, the plaudits of the
awestruck Banditti sounded like jeers. Nothing had ever hurt so much.
About the time that the Banditti first came into his life the vision
of his mother began to grow not less wonderful, but less distinct. She
seemed to stand a little farther off, as though very gradually she were
drawing away into the other world, where she belonged. And often it was
Frances who played with him in his secret stories.
He threw his indoor shoes into the area. In the next street, beyond
pursuit, he sat down on a doorstep and, put on his boots, lacing them
with difficulty, for he was half blind with tears and anger. He could
not make up his mind how to kill Edith. Nothing seemed quite bad
enough. He thought of boiling her in oil or rolling her down hill in a
cask full of spikes, after the manner of some fairy story that
Christine had told him. It was not the pain, though his arm felt as
though it had been wrenched out of its socket, and the blood trickled
in a steady stream from his bumped forehead. It was the indignity, the
outrage, the physical humiliation that had to be paid back. It made him
tremble with fury and a kind of helpless terror to realize that,
because he was little, any common woman could shake and beat him and
treat him as though he belonged to her. He would tell his father. Even
his father, who had so far forgotten himself as to marry such a
creature, would see that there were things one couldn't endure. Or he
would call up the Banditti and plot a devastating retaliation.
In the meantime he was glad he had bitten her.
He walked on unsteadily. The earth still undulated and threatened
every now and then to rise up like a wave in front of him and cast him
down. He was growing cold and stiff, too, in the reaction. He had
stopped crying, but his teeth chattered and his sobs had degenerated
into monotonous, soul-shattering hiccoughs. Passers-by looked at him
disapprovingly. Evidently that nasty little boy from No. 10 had been
He had counted on the Banditti, but the Banditti were not on their
usual hunting-ground. An ominous silence answered the accustomed
war-cry, uttered in an unsteady falsetto, and the ruins had a more than
usually dejected look, as though they had suddenly lost all hope of
themselves. He called again, and this time, like an earth-sprite,
Frances Wilmot rose up from a sheltered corner and waved to him. She
had a book in her hand, and she rubbed her eyes and rumpled up her
short hair as though rousing herself from a dream.
“I did hear you,” she said, “but I was working something out. I'll
tell you all about it in a minute. But what's happened? Why is your
face all bleeding?”
She seemed so concerned about him that he was glad of his wounds.
And yet she had the queer effect of making him want to cry again. That
wouldn't do. She wouldn't respect him if he cried. He thrust his hands
deep into his pockets and knitted his fair brows into a fearful
“Oh, it's nothing. I've had a row—at home. That's all. My father's
new wife h-hit me—and I b-bit her. Jolly hard. And then I fell
“Why did she hit you?”
“Oh, I don't know. She's just a beast——”
“Of course you know. Don't be silly.”
“Well, she said I'd been smoking, and I said I hadn't——”
“Had you? You look awfully green.”
“Yes, I had.”
“What's the good of telling lies?”
“It's no good telling the truth,” Robert answered stolidly. “They
only get crosser than ever. She hadn't any right to hit me. She's not
even a relation.”
“She's your step-mother.”
He began to tremble again uncontrollably.
“She's n-not. Not any sort of a mother. My mother's dead.”
It was the first time he had ever said it, even to himself. It threw
a chill over him, so that for a moment he stopped thinking of Edith and
his coming black revenge. He had done something that could never be
undone. He had closed and locked a great iron door in his mother's
face. “She's just a beast,” he repeated stubbornly. “I'd like to kill
Frances considered him with her head a little on one side. It was
like her not to enter into any argument. One couldn't tell what she was
thinking. And yet one knew that she was feeling things.
“I'd wipe that blood off,” she said. “It's trickling on to your
collar. No, not with your hand. Where's your hanky?”
He tried to look contemptuous. He did, in fact, despise
handkerchiefs. The nice little girls in the Terrace had handkerchiefs,
ostentatiously clean. He had seen them, and they filled his soul with
loathing. Now he was ashamed. It seemed that even Frances expected him
to have a handkerchief.
“I haven't got one,” he said.
“How do you blow your nose, then?”
“I don't,” he explained truculently.
She executed one of her queer little dances, very solemnly and
intently and disconcertingly. It seemed to be her way of withdrawing
into herself at critical moments. When she stopped he was sure she had
been laughing. Laughter still twinkled at the corners of her mouth and
in her eyes.
“Well, I'm going to tidy you up, anyhow. Come sit down here.”
He obeyed at once. It comforted him just to be near her. It was like
sitting by a fire on a cold day when you were half frozen. Something in
you melted and came to life and stretched itself, something that was
itself gentle and compassionate. It was difficult to remember that he
meant to kill Edith frightfully, though his mind was quite made up on
the subject. Meantime Frances had produced her own handkerchief—a
large clean one—and methodically rubbed away the blood and some of the
tear stains, and as much of the dirt as could be managed without soap
and water. This done, she refolded the handkerchief with its soiled
side innermost, and tied it neatly round the wounded head, leaving two
long ends which stood up like rabbit's ears. A gust of April wind
wagged them comically, and made mock of the sorrowful, grubby face
underneath. Even Frances, who was only nine herself, must have seen
that the sorrow was not the ordinary childish thing that came and went,
leaving no trace. In a way it was always there. When he was not
laughing and shouting you saw it—a careworn, anxious look, as though
he were always afraid something might pounce out on him. It ought to
have been pathetic, but somehow or other it was not. For one thing, he
was not an angel-child, bearing oppression meekly. He was much more
like a yellow-haired imp waiting sullenly for a chance to pounce back,
and the whole effect of him was at once furtive and obstinate. Indeed,
anyone who knew nothing of the Stonehouse temper and duns and forgotten
birthdays would have dismissed him as an ugly, disagreeable little boy.
But Frances Wilmot, who knew nothing of these things either,
crouched down beside him, her arm about his shoulder.
He began to hiccough again. He had to clench his teeth and his fists
not to betray the fact that the hiccoughs were really convulsively
swallowed sobs asserting themselves. He wanted to confide in her, but
if she knew the truth about his home and his people she wouldn't play
with him any more. She would know then that he wasn't nice. And
besides, he had some dim notion of protecting her from the things he
“You t-t-tied me up jolly well,” he said. “It's comfy now. It was
“I like tying up things,” she explained easily, “You see, I'm going
to be a doctor.”
The rabbit's ears stopped waving for a minute in sheer astonishment.
“Girls aren't doctors.”
“Yes, they are. Heaps of them. I'm reading up already, in that book.
It's all about first-aid. There's the bandage I did for you. You can
read how it's done.”
He couldn't. And he was ashamed again. In his shame he began to
“My father's a doctor—awfully clever——”
“Is he? How jolly! Why didn't you tell me? Has he lots of patients?”
“Lots. All over the world. But he doesn't think much of other
doctors. L-licensed h-humbugs, he calls them.”
She drew away a little, her face between her hands, and he felt that
somehow he had failed again—that she had slipped through his fingers.
If only for a moment she had looked up to him and believed in him the
evil spirit that was climbing up on to his shoulders would have fled
away. There was a stout piece of stick lying amidst the rubble at his
feet, and he took it up and felt it as a swordsman tests his blade.
“I'm going to be a doctor too,” he said truculently. “A big doctor.
I shall make piles of money, and have three ass-assistants. P'r'aps, if
you're any good you shall be one of them.”
She did not answer. The intent, observing look had come into her
eyes. The cool wind lifted the brown hair so that it was like a live
thing floating about her head. She seemed as lovely to him as his
mother. He wanted terribly to say to her, “It's my birthday, Francey,
and they haven't even wished me many happy returns;” but that would
have shown her how little he was, and how unhappy. Instead, he began to
lunge and parry with an invisible opponent, talking in a loud, fierce
“I wish the others would come. I've got a topping plan. Edith goes
shopping 'bout six o'clock when it's almost dark. We'll wait at the
corner of John Street and jump out at her and shriek like Red Indians.
And then she'll drop dead with fright. She's such a silly beast——”
Then to his amazement he saw that Francey had grown quite white. Her
mouth quivered. It was as though she were going to cry. And he had
never seen her cry.
“They—they aren't coming, Robert.”
“N-not coming? W-why not?”
“There's been a row. Someone complained. Their people won't let them
come any more. Not to play with you. They say—they say——”
He went on fighting, swinging his sword, over his head, faster and
faster. Someone was pressing his heart so that he could hardly breathe.
It was all over. They knew. Everything was going. Finished.
“What do they say?”
“They say you're not a nice little boy——”
There were some tall weeds growing out of the tumbled bricks. He
slashed at them through the mist that was blinding him. He would cut
their heads off, one after another—just to show her.
“I don't care—I don't care——”
“That's why I waited this afternoon. I wanted to tell you. And that
I'd come—if you liked—sometimes—as often as I could——”
“I don't care—I don't care,” he chanted.
One weed had fallen, cut in two as by a razor. Now another. You had
to be jolly strong to break them clean off like that. He wasn't missing
“I shall. Why shouldn't I? You couldn't do it like that.”
Another. No one to play with any more. Never to be able to pretend
again that one was just like everyone else. People drawing away and
saying to each other, “He's not a nice little boy!”
“Please—please, don't, Robert!”
“Why not? They're only weeds—beastly, ugly things.”
“They've not done you any harm. It's a shame to hurt them. I like
“They're no good. It's practice. I'm a soldier. I'm cutting the
enemy to pieces.”
A red rage was mounting in him. He hardly knew that she had stood up
until he saw her face gleaming at him through the mist. She was whiter
than ever, and her eyes had lost their distant look and blazed with an
anger profounder, more deadly, than his own.
She caught the descending stick. He tried to tear it from her, and
they fought each other almost in silence, except for the sound of their
quick, painful breath. He grew frantic, twisting and writhing. He began
to curse her as his father cursed Christine. But her slim brown wrists
were like steel. And suddenly, looking into her eyes he saw that she
wasn't angry now. She knew that she was stronger than he. She was just
sorry for him, for everything.
He dropped the stick. He turned on his heel, gulping hard.
“I don't fight with girls,” he said.
He walked away steadily with his head up. He did not once look back
at her. But as he climbed the hill he seemed to himself to grow smaller
and smaller, more and more tired and lonely. He had lost her. He would
never play with her again. The Brothers Banditti had gone each to his
home. They sat by the fireside with their people, and were nice
children. To-morrow they would play just as though nothing had
happened. And Francey would be there, dancing in and out——
He stumbled a little. The hiccoughs were definitely sobs,
hard-drawn, shaking him from head to foot. It was his birthday. And at
the bottom of the hill, hidden in evening mist, the big dark house
waited for him.
There was light showing in the dining-room window, so that he knew
his father had come home. At that all his sorrow and sense of a
grievous wrong done to him was swallowed up in abject physical terror.
Even later in life, when things had shrunk into reasonable proportions,
it was difficult for him to see his father as others had seen him, as
an unhappy not unlovable man, gifted with an erratic genius which had
been perverted into an amazing facility for living on other people's
money, and cursed with the temper of a maniac. To Robert Stonehouse his
father was from first to last the personification of nightmare.
He stood now in the deep shadow of the porch, trying to make up his
mind to ring the bell. His legs and arms had become ice-cold and
refused to move. There did not seem to be anything alive in him except
his heart, which was beating all over him, in his throat and head and
body, with a hundred terrible little hammers. He thought of the Prince
in the story which Christine had read aloud to him. The Prince, who was
a fine and dashing fellow, had gone straight to the black enchanted
cave where the dragon lived, and had thumped on the door with the hilt
of his gold sword and shouted: “Open, Sesame!” And when the door
opened, he had gone straight in, without turning a hair, and slain the
dragon and rescued the Princess.
Somehow the story did not make him braver. He had no sword, and his
clothes were not of the finest silk threaded with gold. He was a small
boy in a patched sailor-suit, with a bandage round his head and a dirty
face—cold, hungry and buffeted by a day of storms. He wished he could
stay there in the shadow until he died, and never have to fight anyone
again, or screw himself to face his father, or live through any more
rows. But it seemed you didn't die just because you wanted to. All that
happened was that you grew colder and more miserable, knowing that the
row would be a great deal worse when it came. Goaded by this reasoning,
he crept down the area steps to the back door which, by a merciful
chance, had been left unlocked, and made his way on tiptoe along the
dark stone passage to the kitchen.
It was a servantless period. But there was a light in the servants'
living-room, and the red comforting glow of a fire. The bailiff lived
there. Robert could hear him shuffling his feet in the fender, and
sniffing and clearing his throat as though the silence bothered him,
and he were trying to make himself at home. For a moment Robert longed
to go in and sit beside him, not saying anything, but just basking in
the quiet warmth, protected by the presence of the Law which seemed so
astonishingly tolerant in the matter of the Stonehouse shortcomings.
For the bailiff was a good-natured man. He had endeavoured to make it
clear to Robert from the beginning, by means of sundry winks and
smiles, that he understood the whole situation, which was one in which
any gentleman might find himself, and that he meant to act like a
friend. But Robert had only scowled at him. And even now, frightened as
he was, he disdained all parley. The bailiff was an enemy, and when it
came to a fight the Stonehouse family stood shoulder to shoulder. So he
crept past the cheerful light like a hunted mouse, and up the stairs to
the green-baize door, which shut off the kitchen from the library and
It was an important door. Dr. Stonehouse had had it made specially
to muffle sounds from the servants' quarters whilst he was working. He
had never worked, and there had been very rarely any servants to
disturb him, but the door remained invested with a kind of solemnity.
Among other virtues it opened at a touch, itself noiseless.
To Robert it was the veritable entrance to the dragon's cave. On one
side of it everything was dim and quiet. And then it swung back, and
you fell through into the dragon's clutches. You heard the awful roar,
and your heart fainted within you,
He fell over the top step. He felt he was going to be sick again. It
was the old, familiar sound. He had heard it so often, it was so much
part of his daily life that it ought not to have frightened him. But it
was always new, always more terrifying. Each time it had new notes of
incalculable menace. It was like a brutal hammer, crashing down on
bruised flesh and shrinking, quivering nerves, never quite killing you,
but with each blow leaving you less capable of endurance.
His father, Christine and Edith were in the dining-room. Robert knew
they were all there, though he could not see them. The dining-room door
at the end of the unlit passage stood half open, showing the handsome
mahogany sideboard and the two Chippendale chairs on either side
guarding it like lions. They had a curious tense, still look, as though
what they saw in the hidden side of the room struck them stiff with
astonishment and horror.
Dr. Stonehouse was speaking. His voice was so low-pitched that
Robert could not hear what he said. It was like the murderous,
meaningless growling of a mad dog; every now and then it seemed to
break free—to explode into a shattering roar—and then with a
frightful effort to be dragged back, held down, in order that it might
leap out again with a redoubled violence. It was punctuated by the
sharp, spiteful smack of a fist brought down into the open hand.
Edith whined and once Christine spoke, her clear still voice patient
Robert crouched where he had fallen. The baize door swung back, and
touched him very softly like a hand out of the dark. It comforted him.
It reminded him that he had only to choose, and it would stand between
him and this threatening terror—that it would give him time to rush
back down the stone stairs—out into the street—further and further
till they would never find him again. But he could not move. He
couldn't leave Christine like that. His heart was sick with pity for
her. Why did his father speak to her like that? Didn't he see how good
and faithful she was? Didn't he know that he, Robert, his son, had no
one else in the whole world?
His father was speaking more clearly—shouting each word by itself.
“You understand what I say, Christine. Either you do what I tell
you, or you get out of here; and, by God, this time you shan't come
back. You'll never set eyes on him again.”
“I shall always take care of Robert. I promised Constance when she
was dying. She begged of me——”
“It's a lie—a damned lie! You're not fit to have control over my
son. You can't be trusted. You're a bad friend——”
“I have done all I can. I have told you there is only one thing
left—to sell this house—-start afresh.”
“Very well, then. That's your last word—and mine.”
Suddenly it was still. The stillness was more terrible than anything
Robert had ever heard. He gulped and turned like a small,
panic-stricken animal. At the bottom of the stairs against the light
from the kitchen he could see the bailiff's bulky, honest shadow.
“Look 'ere, little mister, what's wrong up there? Anything I can
The silence was gone. It was broken by the overturning of a chair,
by a quiet, sinister scuffling—Edith's voice whining, terrified,
thrilled by a silly triumph.
“Don't—don't, Jim. Remember yourself——”
The door was dashed open, and something fell across the light, and
there was Christine huddled beneath the sideboard, her head resting
against its cruel corner. Her face was towards Robert. He was not to
forget it so long as he lived. It was so white and still, so angerless.
His paralysing terror was gone. He leapt to his feet. He raced down
the passage, flinging himself on his father, beating him with his
“You devil—you devil!”
After that ho did not know what happened. He seemed to be enveloped
in a cloud of struggling figures. He heard the bailiff's voice booming,
“Come now, sir, this won't do; I am surprised at a gentleman like you!”
and his father's answer, incoherent, shaken with rage and shame. Then
he must have found his way upstairs. He never remembered how he got
there, but he was lying in his bed, in all his clothes, his head hidden
beneath the blankets, twitching from head to foot as though his body
had gone mad.
Downstairs the lock of the front door clicked. There was something
steadfast and reassuring in the sound, as though it were trying to send
a message. “Don't worry, I shall come back.” But Robert could not feel
or care any more. He was struggling with his body as a helpless rider
struggles with a frantic runaway horse. He found out for the first time
that his body wasn't himself at all. It was something else. It did what
it wanted to. He could only cling on to it for dear life. But gradually
it seemed to weaken, to yield to his exhausted efforts at control, and
at last lay stretched out, relaxed, drenched with an icy sweat. The
real himself sank into seas of darkness from which convulsive, tearing
shudders, less and less frequent, dragged him, with throbbing heart and
starting eyes, back to the surface.
His bandage had slipped off. He held it tight between his hands. He
was too numb and stupefied even to think of Francey, but there was
magic in that dirty, blood-stained handkerchief. It might have been a
saint's relic, or a Red Indian's totem, preserving him from evil. He
knew nothing about saints or totems, but he knew that Francey was good
and stronger than any of them.
Downstairs the silence remained unbroken. It was an aghast silence,
heavy with remorse and shame and self-loathing. It was like the thick
dregs lying at the bottom of the cup. But to Robert it was just
silence. He sank into it, deeper and deeper, until he slept.
He began to dream. The dreams walked about inside his brain, and
were red-coloured as though they were lit up by the glow of a hidden
furnace. All the people who took part in them came and went in great
haste. Or they made up hurried tableaux—Francey holding the stick and
looking at him in white anger, Christine huddled on the floor, his
father black and monstrous towering over her. Finally, they all
disappeared together, and Robert knew that it was because the Dragon
had woken up and was coming to devour them. He was climbing up from the
dining-room. Robert heard his tread on the stairs—heavy, stumbling
footsteps such as one would expect from a dragon on a narrow, twisting
staircase. They came nearer and nearer, and with every thud Robert
seemed to be lifted with a jerk from the depths in which he was lying,
and to be aware of his body stiffening in terror.
Then at the last step the Dragon fell, and Robert was awake. He sat
bolt upright. There had been no mistaking that dull thump. It lingered
in his ears like the echo of a thunder-clap. The Dragon had fallen and
killed himself, for he did not move. It was pitch dark in the room, but
very slowly and quietly, under the pressure of an invisible hand, the
door opposite his bed began to open. The light outside made a widening
slit in the darkness. It was like sitting in a theatre watching the
curtain go up on a nightmare. He could see the banisters, the glow from
the hall beneath, and something black with a white smudge at the end of
it lying stretched out from the head of the stairs. His body crawled
out of bed. He himself wanted to hide under the clothes, but his body
would not let him. It carried him on against his will. When he was near
enough he saw that the long black thing was a man's arm and the white
smudge a hand, clenched and inert, on the red carpet. His body tottered
out on the landing. It was his father lying stretched on the stairs,
He tried to scream, but his throat and tongue were dry and swollen.
Nor could he touch that still thing, in its passivity more terrible
than in its violence. He was afraid that every moment it would lift its
face, and show him some new unthinkable horror. He skirted it as though
it might leap upon him and devour him, and rushed downstairs, faster
and faster, with a thousand devils hunting at his heels.
And then he seemed again to be dreaming. The bailiff ran up from the
kitchen in his shirt-sleeves, and he and Edith went up the stairs
together, leaving him alone in the library. The fire had gone out, but
he cowered up against the grate, hiding his face in his arms.
They were moving the Dragon. Bump—bump—bump—bump. He thought he
heard Edith cry out, “Oh, God!” and then silence again. Presently Edith
stood in the doorway, looking at him. Her eyes were red-rimmed, and yet
there was an air of importance, of solemn triumph about her.
“Your father is—is very ill. The man downstairs has gone for the
doctor, and I am going to ask Christine to come round. You must be a
good boy, Robert. You must do as I tell you and go to bed.”
So they meant to leave him alone in the house with that dreadful
still thing lying somewhere upstairs. Or perhaps it wasn't really
still. It might have strange powers now. You might come upon it
anywhere. You couldn't be sure. It might even be in your bed. He did
not want to disobey Edith. Just then he could have clung to her. But he
could not go up those stairs. He could not pass those open doors,
gaping with unspeakable things. He felt that if he kept very still,
hiding his face, They would not touch him. There seemed to be a
thin—frightfully thin—partition between him and the world in which
they lived, and that by a sudden movement he might break through. He
had to hold fast to his body. It was beginning to run away again, to
start into long agonized shudderings.
At last a key turned in the latch. Invisible people went up the
stairs in silence. But he knew that Christine was among them. He knew
because of the sense of sweet security and rest that came over him. He
tumbled on to the hearthrug and fell asleep.
He was cold and stiff when the opening of the library door wakened
him. He did not know who had opened the door. All he saw was Christine
coming down the stairs. Her face was old and almost silver grey. She
was not crying like Edith, whose sniffs came assertively and at regular
intervals from somewhere in the hall. There was a still, withdrawn look
about her, as though she were contemplating something unbreakable that
had at last been broken, as though a light had gone out in her for
ever. So that Robert could not run to her as he had meant to do.
It was Edith speaking.
“You won't leave me, will you, Christine? Poor Jim! And then that
man—I should die of fright. Besides, it wouldn't be right—not
proper—to-morrow one of my sisters——”
“Very well. I will spend the night here. But Robert must go to my
people. They won't mind now. I shall be back in half an hour.”
She helped him into his reefer coat, which she had brought down with
her. And still he could not speak to her. She was a long way off from
him. As they went into the hall he hid his face against her arm for
fear of the things that he might see. But once they were outside, and
the good night wind rushed against his face, a great intoxicating joy
came over him. He wanted to dance and shout. The Dragon was dead. No
one could frighten them again.
“Aren't we ever coming back, Christine?”
“No, dear, I don't think so.”
He looked back at the grim, high house. For a moment a sorrow as
deep as joy rushed over him. It was as though he knew that something
besides the Dragon had died up there in that dimly lit room—as though
he were saying good-bye to something he would never find, though he
hunted the world over.
He had been a little boy. He would never be quite a little boy
Or perhaps the Dragon wasn't dead at all—perhaps Dragons never
died, but lived on and on, hiding in secret places, waiting to pounce
out on you and drag you back.
He seized Christine's hand.
“Let's run,” he whispered. “Let's run fast.”
He discovered that there were people in the world who could make
scenes without noise. They were like the crocodiles he had met on his
visit to the Zoo, lying malignantly inert in their oily water. But one
twitch of the tail, one blink of a lightless eye, was more terrifying
than the roar of a lion.
No one made a noise in Christine's home. The two sisters looked at
Robert as though he were a small but disagreeable smell that they tried
politely to ignore. They asked him if he wanted a second helping in
voices of glacial courtesy. They said things to each other and at
Christine which were quiet and deadly as the rustle of a snake in the
grass. Robert had never fled from his father as he fled from their
restrained disgust. He had never been more aware of storm than in the
smother of the heavily carpeted, decorously silent rooms. It broke,
three days later, not with thunder and lightning, but with the brief
malicious rattle of a machine-gun.
“You ought not to have brought him here. You have no pride. But,
then, you never had. At least some consideration for our feelings might
have been expected. We have suffered enough. If you knew what people
said—— Mrs. Stonehouse has been talking. She offered to take the
child. As his natural guardian she had the right. An unpardonable,
Christine hardly answered. Her fragile face wore the look of quiet
obstinacy which had braved James Stonehouse and the worst disasters.
Robert had seen it too often not to understand. But now his father was
dead, and instead; inexplicably, he had become the source of trouble.
He disgraced Christine. Her people hated her because she was good to
him. He felt the shame of it all over him like a horrible kind of
uncleanliness, and beneath the shame a burning sense of wrong. He hid
in dark places. He refused to answer even when Christine called him. He
skulked miserably past Christine's sisters when he met them in the
passage. He scowled at them, his head down, like a hobbled, angry
little bull. And Christine's sisters drew in their nostrils in a last
genteel effort at self-control.
Christine packed his trunk with ragged odds and ends of clothing,
and they made a long journey to No. 14, Acacia Grove, where Christine
had taken two furnished rooms and a scullery, which served also as
kitchen and bath-room. Acacia Grove was the deformed extremity of a
misbegotten suburb. There were five acacia trees planted on either side
of the unfinished roadway, but they had been blighted in their youth,
and their branches were spinsterish and threadbare. Behind the houses
were a few dingy fields, and then a biscuit factory, an obscene,
congested-looking building with belching chimneys.
Every morning at nine o'clock Robert walked with Christine to the
corner of the road, and a jolly, red-faced 'bus, rollicking through the
neighbourhood like a slightly intoxicated reveller who has landed by
mistake in a gathering of Decayed Gentlefolk, carried her off
citywards, and at dusk returned her again, grey and worn, with wisps of
tired brown hair hanging about her face and bundles of solemn letters
and folded parchment documents bulging from her dispatch-case. Then she
and Robert shopped together at the Stores, and afterwards she cooked
over a gas-jet in the scullery, and they had supper together, almost in
the dark, but very peacefully.
It was too peaceful. One couldn't believe in it. When supper was
over Robert washed up and Christine uncovered the decrepit, second-hand
typewriter which she had bought, and began to copy from the letters,
bending lower and lower over the crabbed writing and sighing deeply and
impatiently as her fingers blundered at the keys. On odd nights, when
there was no copying to be done, she tried to teach Robert his letters
and words of one syllable, but they were both too tired, and he yawned
and kicked the table and was cross and stupid with sleepiness. At nine
o'clock he washed himself cautiously and crept into the little bed
beside her big one and lay curled up, listening to the reassuring
click-click of the typewriter, until suddenly it was broad daylight
again, and there was Christine getting breakfast.
In the day-time Robert played ball in the quiet street or sat with
his elbows on the window-sill and watched the people go in and out of
the houses opposite. The people were grey and furtive-looking, as
though they were afraid of attracting the notice of some dangerous
monster and had tried to take on the colour of their surroundings in
self-protection. They seemed to ask nothing more for themselves than
that they should be forgotten. Robert knew how they felt. He felt like
that himself. He was never sure that he was really safe. He dared not
ask questions lest he should find out that his father wasn't dead after
all, or that they were on the brink of some new convulsion. He did not
even ask where Christine went in the day-time, or what had become of
Edith, or where their money came from. He clung desperately to an
ignorance which allowed him to believe that he and Christine would
always live like this, quietly and happily. When the landlady's shadow
came heavy-footed up the stairs, he hid himself and stuffed his fingers
in his ears lest he should hear her threaten them with instant
expulsion. (It was incredible that she and Christine should be talking
amicably about the weather.) Or when they went to the butcher's, he
hung behind in dread anticipation of the red-faced man's insolent “And
what about that there little account of ours, Ma'am?” But the red-faced
man smiled ingratiatingly and patted him on the back and called him a
fine young fellow. Christine counted out her money at the desk. It made
Robert dizzy with joy and pride to see her pay her bill, and tears came
into his throat and nearly choked him. On the way home he behaved
abominably, chased cats or threw stones with a reckless disregard for
their neighbours' windows, and Christine, looking into his flushed,
excited face, had a movement that was like the shadow of his own secret
“Robert, Robert, don't be so wild. You might hurt yourself—or
someone else. It frightens me.”
And then at once he walked quietly beside her, chilled and
dispirited. At any moment the new-found commonplaces might drop from
him, and everyone would find out—the neighbours who nodded kindly and
the tradespeople who bowed them out of their shops—just as Francey and
the Banditti had found out—and turn away from him, ashamed and sorry.
He did not think of Francey very often. For when he did it was
almost always in those last moments together that he remembered
her—the Francey who was too strong for him, the Francey who knew that
he was a nasty little boy who couldn't even beat a girl—who told
lies—the Francey who despised him. And then it was as though his body
had been bruised afresh from head to foot. But he still had her
handkerchief. He even kept it hidden from Christine lest she should
insist on washing it. For by now it was incredibly dirty.
In the day-time he never thought of his father at all. But in his
sleep one nightmare returned repeatedly. It never varied; it was
definite and horrible. In it his father, grown to demonic proportions,
towered over Christine's huddled body, his eyes terrible, his fists
clenched and raised to strike. Then in that moment, at the very height
of his awful fear and helpless hatred, the wonderful truth burst upon
Robert, and he danced gleefully, full of cruel triumph, about the
black, suddenly impotent figure, shouting:
“You can't—you're dead—you're dead—you can't——”
And then he would wake up with a hideous start, sweating, his eyes
hot with unshed tears, and Christine's hand would come to him out of
the darkness and clasp his in reassuring firmness.
There was another dream. Or, rather, it was half a dream and half
one of these stories that he told himself just before he fell asleep.
It came to him at dusk when he stood at the gate and waited for
Christine to come home. In the long day of silent games he had lost
touch, little by little, with reality. Hunger had made him faint and
drowsy. Things changed, became unfamiliar, fantastic. Between the
stunted trees he could see the afterglow of the sunset like the
reflection of a blazing city. The road then was full of silence and
shadow. The drab outlines grew faint and the mean houses were merged
into the vaster shapes of night. Robert waited, motionless, breathless.
He was sure that something was coming to him down the path of fading
light. He did not know what it was. Once, indeed, it had been Francey,
with her queer dancing step, her hair flying about her head like a
flock of little red-brown birds. She had hovered before him, on tiptoe,
as though the next gust of wind would blow her on her way down the
street, and looked at him. They had not spoken, but he had seen in her
eyes how sorry she was that she had not understood. And a warm content
had flowed over him. All the sore, aching places were healed and
But that had been only once. And then he wasn't sure that he hadn't
made it up. At all other times the thing was outside himself too
strange to have been imagined. It shook him from head to foot with
dread and longing. He wanted to run to meet it, to plunge into it,
reckless and shouting, as into a warm, dancing, summer sea. And yet it
menaced him. It was of fire and colour, of the rumble and thud of
armies, of laughter and singing and distant broken music. It was all
just round the comer. If he hurried he would see it, lose himself in
it, march to the tune he could never quite catch. But he was afraid,
and whilst he tried to make up his mind the light faded. The sounds
died. After all, it was only Christine, trudging wearily through the
The six forms were marshalled in squares down the centre of the
drill-hall, Form I, with Robert Stonehouse at the bottom, holding the
place of dishonour under the shadow of the Headmaster's rostrum. Robert
did not know that he was at the bottom of Form I, or that such a thing
as Form I existed. He did not know that he was older than the eldest of
his class-mates, but he was aware of being unusually and uncomfortably
large. Under the curious stare that had greeted him on his first
appearance and which now pressed on him from the rear and sides, he
felt himself shoot up, inch by inch, into a horrible conspicuousness,
whilst his feet grew flat and leaden, and his hands were too swollen to
squeeze into his trousers pockets.
“. . . we have left undone those things which we ought to have done
and we have done those things which we ought not to have done . . .”
He wondered what they were saying. It sounded rather like one of
those tongue-twisters which his father had taught him in a playful
moment—“round the rugged rock the ragged robber ran”—but it was
evidently no joking matter. And it was something which everyone knew
except himself. The urchin on his left piped it out in an assured,
self-satisfied treble. The clergyman kneeling behind the raised desk
came in with a bang at the beginning of each sentence, and then
subsided into an indistinguishable murmur. Evidently he knew what he
was saying so well that he did not need even to think about it, for his
eyes wandered over his folded hands as though in methodical search for
somebody. They reached Form I, and Robert, who saw them coming, broke
instinctively into a panic-stricken gabble. Of all the poems which
Christine had read aloud to him, Casablanca was the only one he could
remember, and he had got as far as “whence all but he had fled” before
he saw that it was of no good. The subterfuge had been recognized. The
clergyman had stopped praying and was gazing at him earnestly. Robert
gazed back, fascinated and open-mouthed.
“. . . and there is no health in us . . .”
But the strain of that encounter was too much for him. He tried to
escape, first to the ceiling and finally to his boots. The stare
pursued him, pointed at him. In a moment the whole school would be on
his track. His eyes, rolling desperately to their corners, encountered
a little dark man who had led in Form I and now stood sideways on, so
as to keep his charge under constant survey. Even in that moment of
acute despair he arrested Robert's attention. There was something odd
about him—something distressful and indignant. Whilst he prayed he
made jerky, irritable movements which fluttered out the wings of his
gown, so that with his sleek black hair and pointed face he looked like
a large angry blackbird, trapped and tied by the foot.
“But Thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us . . .”
And then, suddenly, an amazing conviction broke upon Robert. The
little man wasn't praying at all. His lips moved, but the movement was
all wrong. He was repeating two words, over and over again, at great
speed and with a suppressed violence. They looked familiar—painfully,
elusively familiar. Robert felt that in another moment he would
“. . . spare Thou them that are penitent . . .”
Now Robert knew for certain. It was his father's favourite answer to
all expostulations. Of course that was it. “Damned rot—damned
rot—damned rot.” The little man was swearing passionately to himself.
It was incredible, but there was no mistake possible. And in the full
blast of the discovery his dark eyes, hunted and angry-looking behind
their round glasses, met Robert's, widened, passed on, and came back
again. It was an extraordinary moment. Robert could not have looked
away to save his life. He knew that he had betrayed himself. The little
man knew that he knew. He grew very red, coughed, and blew his nose
violently, his eyes meantime returning repeatedly to Robert's flushed
and frightened face with an expression utterly unfathomable. It was
almost as though he were trying to signal——
“Amen!” declared the whole school with infinite relief and
The clergyman sighed deeply and raised himself painfully from his
“Hymn number 503.”
A boy came out from the class next to Robert's and walked to the
piano, and Robert forgot everything else, even his own imminent
disgrace. He had never seen such red hair before—deep red with a touch
of purple, like the leaves of a beech tree in autumn—or such a
freckled face. The freckles lay thick on the small unimportant nose and
clashed painfully against the roots of the amazing hair. They crowded
out the flaxen eyebrows altogether. And yet he was pretty in a wistful,
whimsical sort of way. He made Robert want to laugh. Someone close to
Robert did titter, and muttered, “Go it, Carrots!” and Robert saw that
the boy had heard and was horribly frightened. He winced and faltered,
and Robert poked out viciously with his elbow.
“Shut up!” he whispered,
His victim was too astonished even to retaliate.
The red-haired boy had reached the piano. And at once a change came
over him. He wasn't frightened any more. He played the first verse over
without a stumble, calmly, confidently, as though he knew that now no
one had the right to laugh. The light from an upper window made a halo
of his blazing head and lit up his small round face, faintly and
absurdly grave, but with something elfish and eager lurking behind the
gravity. Robert stared at him as an Ancient Briton might have stared at
the first lordly Roman who crossed his ken. He felt uncouth and
cumbersome and stupid. And yet he could have knocked the red-headed boy
down easily with one hand.
The clergyman led the singing. The urchin on Robert's right had
produced a hymn-book from his pocket and opened it and found his place
with the same air of smug efficiency. Robert had no book. He longed for
one. He knew that the clergyman was watching him again. His companion
nudged him, and by a stab of a stumpy, inky forefinger indicated the
verse which he himself was singing in an aggressive treble. But Robert
only stared helplessly. At another time he might have recognized
“God—love—dove—” and other words of one syllable, and he liked the
tune. But now he could see nothing but the clergyman and think of
nothing but the little dark man. He wondered madly what the latter was
singing now and whether he had managed to fit in “damned rot—damned
rot” to the music. But he did not dare to look.
A second prod roused him with a ghastly self-betraying start.
“You gotter sing,” the small boy whispered fiercely; “gotter sing,
Robert made a loud, unexpected noise in his throat. His companion
choked, spluttered and buried his impertinent face in a grubby
handkerchief. The dark man left his post hastily and stationed himself
immediately at Robert's side in anticipation of a further outbreak.
Someone in the rear giggled hysterically. Robert dropped his head and
riveted his swimming eyes on the clergyman's boots. He made no further
attempt to save himself. He was caught by his mysterious, relentless
destiny. He had been found out.
Mr. Morton, the headmaster, believed in Hygiene and the Educational
Value of Beauty. The classroom smelt vividly of carbolic. There was a
large lithograph of “Love and Life” on the pure white wall and a pot of
flowers on the high window-sill. Maps, blackboards and all other
paraphernalia of learning were kept in merciful concealment.
Robert took possession of the desk nearest him and was at once
ejected. Its rightful owner scowled darkly at him. At the next desk he
tried to anchor himself, and there was a scuffle and a smothered
exchange of blows, from which he escaped with a scraped shin and a
strange, unfamiliar sense of being afraid. There was no fight in him.
He didn't want to fight. He wanted to belong—to be one of the
herd—and he knew dimly that he would first have to learn its laws and
submit to its tortures. He tried to grin back when the titter, which
seemed endemic, broke out afresh as he stumbled on his ignominious
pilgrimage, but the unasked-for partition in their amusement seemed to
exasperate them. They whispered things to one another. They commented
on his clothes. He realized suddenly how poorly dressed he was. There
was a patch on the knee of his trousers and a mended tear on his shiny
jacket. His finger-nails weren't very clean. Christine had gone off too
early to be sure that he had done them, and he had never thought much
of that sort of thing. Now he was paralysed with shame. He could feel
the tears strangling him.
Fortunately the desk in the far corner belonged to nobody. It was
old and battered and covered with the undecipherable carvings of his
predecessors, but at once he loved it. It was his. Its retired position
seemed to offer him protection. He hid behind it, drawing a long,
shuddering sigh of thankfulness.
The little dark man stood on the raised platform and surveyed them
all. His expression was nearly a grimace; as though he had just
swallowed a disagreeable medicine. He pursed his lips and held tight to
the lapels of his coat, his piercing yet distressful eyes blinking
rapidly behind their glasses with a kind of nervous malice.
“Well, my delightful and learned young friends——”
The class wilted in anticipation. But before he spoke again the door
opened and they rose thankfully with a shuffle of feet and
surreptitious clatter of desks. The clergyman waved to them. If the
little dark man was like a blackbird, captive and resentful, the
newcomer was like a meagre and somewhat fluttered hen. His hands and
wrists were long and yellow and sinewy. He wore no cuffs, but one could
see the beginnings of his Jaeger undervest under the black sleeve. He
rubbed his chin or smoothed the back of his small head almost
“You can sit down, boys. One moment, Mr. Ricardo, one moment
He spoke in an undertone. Robert knew it was about him. They both
looked in his direction. The little man jerked his head.
He sat motionless, trying to hide from them. But it was of no good.
The clergyman made an elevating gesture, and he rose automatically as
though he were tied to that gentleman's hand by an invisible string.
The desk was much too small for him and he had to wiggle to get free
from it. The lid banged. Instantly every boy had turned in his seat to
gaze at him, and he saw that this was the worst place that could have
fallen to his lot. In his corner he was trapped, a sea of mocking,
curious faces between him and his tormentors.
The clergyman smiled palely at him.
“I understand that you are a new boy, Stonehouse, and I don't wish
to be too severe with you. At the same time we must begin as we are to
go on. And you were not behaving very well at prayers this morning,
Robert moved his lips soundlessly. But no answer was expected of
him. The question was rhetorical. “You weren't,” the enemy said,
“attending. You were trying to make your companions laugh——” This, at
least, was unbearably unjust.
“I wasn't,” Robert interrupted loudly.
Someone moved to compassion hissed, “Say 'sir'—say sir,'“ but he
was beyond help. From that moment on he was beyond fear. He dug himself
in, dogged and defiant.
“Come now, Stonehouse, I saw you myself. You were only pretending to
join in, now weren't you? How was it? Didn't you know the prayer?”
“Don't be so abrupt, my boy. Say 'sir' when you answer me. How is it
that you don't know it? You go to church, don't you?”
“Well, chapel, then. You go to chapel, no doubt?”
Robert stared blankly.
“You don't? But surely your mother takes you——”
“I haven't got a mother.” His voice sounded in his own ears like a
shout. He scowled down at the faces nearest him. He was ready to fight
them now. If they were going to say anything about his mother, good or
bad, he would fly at them, just as he had flown at his old aggressors
in the Terrace, regardless of size and numbers.
“Your father, then?”
“I haven't got a father.”
His questioner smiled faintly, not without asperity.
“Come, come, you are not yet a gentleman in independent
circumstances. Who takes care of you?”
“And who, pray, is Christine?”
Who was Christine? It was as though suddenly the corner of a curtain
had been raised for a moment, letting him look through into a strange
“I don't know.”
The clergyman waved his hand, damping down the titters that
spluttered up nervously, threatening to explode outright. He himself
had an air of slight dishevelment, as though his ideas had been blown
about by a rude wind.
“I remember—Mr. Morton spoke to me—your guardian, of course. You
should answer properly. But still, surely you have been taught—some
religious instruction. You say your prayers, don't you?”
“No.” He added after a moment of sudden, vivid recollection: “Not
It was nothing short of a debacle. He had pulled out the keystone of
an invisible edifice which had come tumbling about their ears, leaving
him in safety. Without knowing how or why, he knew he had got the
better of them all. The grins died out of the upturned faces. They
looked at him with amazement, with horror, yes—with respect.
“But you have been taught your catechism—to—to believe in God?”
“But the hymn—at least you could have sung the hymn, my poor boy.
You can read, can't you?”
The awe passed before a storm of unchecked laughter. For one
spectacular moment he had held them all helpless, every one of them, by
the sheer audacity of his admissions. Now with one word he had
fallen—an ignominious, comic outcast. The clergyman turned away,
shaken but satisfied.
“You have a great deal to learn. I doubt if Mr. Morton quite
realized—— A heavy task in front of you, too, Mr. Ricardo. One word,
They spoke in undertones. Robert slid back into his seat. He could
feel exultant glances sting and pierce him on every side. And yet when
the door closed he had to look up. He was driven by a relentless
curiosity to meet the worst. Mr. Ricardo had resumed his place. He did
not so much as glance at Robert. He clung on to the lapels of his coat
and blinked up at the window as though nothing had happened. But there
was something impish twitching at the corners of his nervous mouth.
“My delightful young friends,” he said, “you will be kind enough to
leave Stonehouse in peace both now and hereafter. I know your amiable
propensities, and my own conviction is that he is probably worth the
pack of you. Get out your history books——”
So he was a friend. A powerful friend. But not powerful enough. No
one looked at Robert again. And yet he knew, with all the certainty of
inherited instinct, that they were waiting for him.
He went out into the school-yard like an early Christian into the
arena. He knew exactly what to expect. It was just the Terrace over
again. He would have to fight them all until they learnt to leave him
alone. Somehow he knew for certain that to be left alone was the best
he could expect. They would never really forgive him for being
different from themselves. It was very mysterious. It couldn't be his
father or the unpaid bills any more. It seemed that if you were born
different you remained different, however hard you tried. He had wanted
so much to go to school, to run with a band again, to play games with
them and have them call out, “Hallo, Stonehouse!” as he heard other
boys call to each other across the street. He had meant to be exactly
like them at all costs. It had seemed so easy, since his father was
dead and Christine paid the butcher. But at once he had been found out,
a marked man. He hadn't got a father and mother like ordinary people,
he didn't go to church, he didn't say his prayers, he couldn't read,
and he didn't know who God was—or even Christine——
There was a moment of suspense before the attack opened. Like an
old, experienced general he made his way with apparent indifference
towards the wall. But he was not quite quick enough. Someone prodded
him sharply in the back. Someone hissed in mocking imitation:
“I don't know—I don't know!”
He was too cunning to retaliate. He waited till he had reached his
chosen ground, then he turned with his fists clenched. The storm had
already gathered. It was only a little school, and the story of the new
boy's “break” with old Jaegers had reached even the big louts who
lingered on in Form VI. They made a rough half-circle round their
intended victim, only partially malevolent in their intentions. The
fact that he had bearded a contemptible old beast like Jaegers was
rather in his favour than otherwise, but his assertion that he did not
say his prayers and knew nothing about God smacked of superiority. He
had to be taken down. And, anyhow, a new boy was an object of curiosity
and his preliminary persecution a time-honoured custom. A fight was not
in their calculations—the very idea of a new boy venturing to fight
beyond their imaginations. And Robert did not want to fight. He felt
oddly weary and disinclined. But to him there was no other outcome
possible. It was his only tradition. It blinded him to what was kindly
or only mischievous in the faces round him. He had a momentary glimpse
of the red-headed boy who stood just outside the circle, munching an
apple and staring at him with astonished blue eyes, and then his
attention fixed itself on his enemy-in-chief. There was no mistaking
him. He was a big, lumpy fellow, fifteen years of age, with an untidy
mouth, the spots of a premature adolescence and an air of heavy
self-importance. When he spoke, the rest fell into awed attention.
“Hallo, new kid, what's your name?”
“Don't be so abrupt, my boy,”—a delighted titter from the small
fry—“say 'sir' when you answer me.”
The little colourless eyes widened in sheer incredulity. For a
moment the role of humorist was forgotten.
“Look here—no cheek, or I'll smack your head.”
“He hasn't been properly brought up,” one of the spotty youth's
companions remarked, not ill-naturedly. “Can't expect him to have
manners. He never had a father or a mother, poor darling——”
“Then where did he come from?”
“God made him.”
“He told old Jaegers he'd never even heard of God.”
“Dear, dear, what a naughty boy. He doesn't even say his prayers.”
“But he lives with a lady called Christine——”
“How nice for him. Is she a pretty lady, Stonehouse?” Up till now
nothing had stirred in him. He hadn't cared. He had indeed felt
something of the superiority which they suspected in him. If that was
all they could do—— Now, suddenly, the blood rushed to the roots of
his fair hair.
“Shut up. You leave Christine alone.”
The big boy was too delighted to be angry.
“Hoity-toity. She must be a high-stepper. No trespassers
allowed—eh, what? young cockalorum. Come on, what's she like? Who is
“He doesn't know.”
“She isn't his mother.”
“He says she isn't.”
“P'r'aps he doesn't know that either. P'r'aps that's what she
The full extent of the innuendo, like the majority of the audience,
he did not understand, but he saw the wink which passed between the two
elder boys. Ever since that day when he had gathered flowers for his
mother in Kensal Green Cemetery he had known of dark things, just
beyond his understanding. He had wandered in the midst of them too long
not to be aware of them on the instant. And it was against
Christine—who had suffered from them so terribly—they dared—— A
great sigh tore itself free from him. He put his head down. He flew at
the spotty youth like a stone from a catapult, and they went down
together in a cloud of dust.
After that, as in most of his uneven, desperate encounters, he
hardly knew what happened. He felt nothing. In reality it was an absurd
spectacle. The spotty youth, bounding up from his momentary
discomfiture, caught Robert by the collar and smacked him shamefully,
severely, as the outrage merited. And when justice had been satisfied,
he released the culprit, and Robert, without pause, returned, fighting
with fists and feet and teeth, as he had learnt to do from dire
necessity. It was unprecedented. The spotty youth gasped. His
companions offered intervention.
“I'll hold the beggar.”
But honour was at stake. The small fry, startled out of caution,
were tittering in hysterical excitement.
“Th-thanks—you keep out of it—I'll manage him.”'
The second beating was more drastic. The third was ineffectual. The
spotty youth, besides being exhausted, was demoralized with sheer
bewilderment. He was not clever, and when events ran out of their ruts
he lost his head. He had made the same discovery that the Terrace boys
had made long since, namely that short of killing Robert Stonehouse
there was no way of beating him, and he drew back, panting,
dishevelled, his manly collar limp and his eyes wild.
“There—that'll teach you——”
Robert laughed. He put his tongue out. He knew it was vulgar but it
was the only retaliation he had breath for. His clothes were dusty and
torn, his nose bloody. He was a frightful object. But he knew that he
The spotty youth wiped his hands on his handkerchief with
“Dirty little beast. I wouldn't touch him again—not with the end of
a barge pole.”
He never did. Nobody did. Though he did not know it, it was Robert's
last fight. But he had won immunity at a high cost. The small fry
skirted him as they went out through the school gates. It was more than
fear. They distrusted him. He was not one of them. He did not keep
their laws. His wickedness was not their wickedness, his courage not
their courage. He ought not to have fought a boy in the sixth form. He
ought to have taken his beating quietly. Even if he had “blubbed” they
might afterwards have taken him to their bosoms in understanding and
inarticulate sympathy. As it was, he was a devil—a foreign devil,
outside the caste for ever.
Only the small red-haired boy, waiting cautiously till everyone else
was out of sight, came after him as he trailed forlornly down the
street. He was still chewing meditatively at the core of his apple, and
his eyes, vividly blue amidst the freckles, considered Robert out of
their corners with solemn astonishment.
“I say, Stonehouse, you can fight.”
Robert nodded. He was still breathless.
“I—I'm used to it.”
“I'm glad you kicked that beast Saunders. You hurt him, too. I saw
him make a face. I wish I could fight like that. But I'm no good at it.
I'm not 'fraid—not really—but I just hate it. You like it, don't
Robert swaggered a little.
There was a moment's silence,
“I say—if you like it—would you mind licking Dickson Minor for me?
He's always ragging me—you see, I've a rotten time—because of my
hair, and about playing the piano. Dickson's the worst. I'd be awfully
glad, if you wouldn't mind, of course.”
Robert surreptitiously wiped the blood from his nose on to his
sleeve. As usual he had no handkerchief. A warm, delicious solace
flowed over his battered spirit. His heart swelled till it hurt him. It
opened wide to the little red-haired boy. If only Francey could see him
now—the defender of the oppressed. But he did not dare to think of
that. After all, he might cry.
He nodded negligently.
“All right. I don't mind.”
“P'r'aps, when he knows you're standing up for me, he'll leave me
“My name's Rufus—Rufus Cosgrave. You see, I was born like this, and
my father thought it would be a good joke. I call it beastly.”
The red-haired boy meditated a little longer. He rubbed his arm
against Robert's softly like a young pony.
“I say, let's be friends—shall we?”
Robert gulped and turned his head away.
“All right. I don't mind.”
They parted shyly at the corner of Cosgrave's road—a neat double
file of vastly superior villas, as Robert realized with a faint sinking
of the heart; but Robert did not go home. He made his way out to the
dingy fields behind the biscuit factory, and watched the local rag and
bobtail play football, lying hidden in the long grass under the wall so
that they should not see him and fall upon him. Even when it grew dusk
and he knew that Christine must be almost home, he still wandered about
the streets. He was hungry and footsore, his head and body ached, but
he put off the moment when he would have to face her to the very last.
He loved her, and he was not really afraid, though he knew that the
sight of his torn, blood-stained clothes would rouse her to a queer
unreasonable despair; but he had talked so much, so proudly and so
confidently of going to school. And now, how should he tell the tale of
his disgrace, how make clear to her the misery which the unfathomable
gulf between himself and his companions caused in him, or that because
a red-haired, freckled small boy had asked him to fight Dickson Minor
he had lain in the grass with his face hidden in his arms and wept
tears of sacred happiness? There were things you could never tell,
least of all to people whom you loved. They were locked up in you, and
the key had been lost long since.
The street lamps came to life one by one. He strolled down Acacia
Grove, whistling and swinging his legs with an exaggerated
carelessness. He could see their light in the upper window of No. 14.
He was sure that Christine would watch for him, and when the hall door
opened suddenly, he stopped short, shrinking from their encounter. But
it was a man who came out of the gate towards him. For one moment an
awful, reasonless terror made him half turn to run, to run headlong,
never to come back; the next, he recognized the slight, jerky limp
which made his form master so comically bird-like, and stood still,
knowing that now Christine had heard everything, the very worst.
Probably Mr. Ricardo had come to tell her that she must take him away,
that he was too bad and too stupid to be with other boys, and a lump
gathered in his throat because he would never see Rufus Cosgrave again:
never fight for him.
Mr. Ricardo halted, peering through the dusk.
“That you, Stonehouse?”
“Yes”—he added painfully, because the little man had been kind to
“Your—Miss Forsyth is getting anxious about you. Why are you so
Robert muttered “Football,” knowing it was a lie, and that somehow
or other his companion knew it too. He heard Mr. Ricardo sigh deeply
“Well, I'm very late myself. I don't know this neighbourhood. Is
there a station or a 'bus near here?”
“There's a 'bus.” Robert pointed eagerly. “I'll show you if you
“Thanks—if it doesn't take you too long.”
They walked side by side in silence, Mr. Ricardo's stick tapping
smartly on the pavement, he himself apparently deep in thought. It
seemed to Robert that he had escaped, until suddenly a thin hand took
him by the shoulder and shook him with a friendly impatience.
“Football. Nonsense. A boy like you doesn't play football. He hasn't
had the chance. Besides, it's not his line. He plays a lone game. No.
You've been moping round—crying possibly. Well, I do that myself
sometimes. It's a crying business, unless you've got nerves and guts.
But you've got that all right. I saw you fight that stupid bully
Saunders from my window, and you beat him, too. I was fighting with
you, though you didn't know it. It was I who kicked him that time you
caught him on the shin.”
Robert would have laughed had he been less miserable, and had he not
caught beneath Mr. Ricardo's brief amusement a real and angry
satisfaction. In the dark, too, he had an uneasy feeling that after all
he was going to be found out.
“And then after you'd stood up to and beaten a fellow twice your
size you went away by yourself and howled. Shall I tell you why? You'll
be astonished. Probably you won't understand in the least. You cried
because you're a young idiot. You find yourself in a herd of half-baked
living creatures, and you see that they are wearing chains round their
ankles and rings through their noses so that they can't move or breathe
properly, and you think to yourself that that's the proper thing, and
you come crying home for someone to tie you up like the rest. It's
natural. It's the race instinct and has had its uses. But it's
dangerous. It kills most of us. We start out with brains to use and
eyes to see with and hands to make with and we end up by thinking
nothing and seeing nothing and making nothing that hasn't been thought
and seen and made for the last two thousand years. Most of us, even
when we know what is happening to us, are cowed and blackmailed into
surrender. We have to compromise—there are circumstances—always
circumstances—unless we are very strong—we give in—beaten out of
His sentences, that had become painful and disjointed, broke off,
and there was another silence. Robert could say nothing. He was dazed
with the many words, half of which, it was true, he had not understood
at all. And yet they excited him. They seemed to pierce through and
touch some sleeping thing in himself which stirred and answered: “Yes,
yes, that's true—that's true.”
The pressure on his shoulders increased a little.
“But you're not afraid of anything, are you, Stonehouse?”
“No—no, sir. I don't think so—not really——”
“I don't think you are, either. I liked the way you stood up to that
poor faggot of hereditary superstitions and prejudices who was trying
to frighten you into being as big a humbug as himself. He'll never get
over it. I daresay he'll make things very unpleasant for you in his
charming Christian way. How old are you, Stonehouse?”
“You're big and precocious for your age. You'll get the better of
him. But if you'd been brought up with other children you'd have whined
and cringed—'Yes, sir,' 'No, sir'—and been a beastly canting
hypocrite all your life. You're wonderfully lucky if you only knew it,
Stonehouse. You're nearly ten, and you can't read and you don't say
your prayers and your catechism and you know nothing about God
Almighty. You've a sporting chance of becoming a man——”
Robert stumbled over his own feet. A deeper, almost overpowering,
tiredness had come over him. And yet he was fascinated. He had to try
“Isn't there—I mean—isn't there anyone like God?”
Mr. Ricardo stopped short. He made a strange, wild gesture. Standing
there in the half-darkness he was more than ever like some poor hobbled
bird trying desperately, furiously to beat its way back to freedom.
“Superstition—superstition, Stonehouse—the most crushing, damnable
chain of all, the symbol of cowardice, of greed and vanity, the enemy
of truth and knowledge, the hot-bed on which we breed the miserable
half-men who cumber this earth, a pitiable myth——”
He had almost shouted. It was as though he had been addressing a
vast audience. His voice dropped now, and he walked on, peering about
“Well—well, you are too young. There are things you can't
understand. But I shall teach you. No, there is no God, Stonehouse.”
Robert was vaguely sorry. It was true that he had no clear idea of
God, and yet in some way He had been mixed up with the bands and music
and marching crowds that were always just round the corner. In his
expansive, genial moments, so rare towards the end. Dr. Stonehouse had
been known to say, “God bless you, Christine,” and that had always
meant a few hours' peace. It seemed very sad.
“What are you going to be, Stonehouse?”
“A doctor, sir.”
It was impossible to tell the whole truth—namely, that because
Francey had said she was to be a doctor he had said he would be one
too, and a better one at that. He gave half-measure.
“I want to be.”
“Well, that's a good reason. It might be a great profession, but it
has its liars and tricksters like the rest. It is eaten up by little
men who wrap themselves in priestly garments and hide their ignorance
behind oracular silences. They play up to the superstitious weakness of
the mob, and replace one religion by another. They don't care what
beastly misery and evil they keep alive so long as they can pull off
their particular little stunts. You mustn't be like that, Stonehouse.
To be free—to be free—and strong enough to go one's way and trample
down the people who try to turn you aside; that is the only thing worth
while. Don't let them catch you, Stonehouse. You don't know how cunning
they can be—cunning and cruel.”
He sighed again, and Robert did not try to answer. He had given up
all hope of understanding, and his tiredness was now such that he had
to set his teeth to keep the tears back. At the corner they waited in
silence watching the jolly, yellow-eyed 'bus rumble towards them down
the High Street.
“Your guardian will tell you what we have arranged,” Mr. Ricardo
said abruptly and with a complete change of tone. “In a month you will
read better than any of them. As to the rest, you will have to
compromise. So long as you know what you are doing and don't humbug
yourself, there's no harm done. With the necessity you will shake
yourself free. You can say, 'I believe in God the Father Almighty' with
your lips and in your heart, as I do, damned rot—damned rot.'“
He laughed, and in the lamplight Robert saw his face, puckered with
an impish, malicious merriment. Robert laughed too. So he had guessed
right. He felt proud and pleased.
“Good night, Stonehouse.”
“Good night, sir.”
Robert took off his battered cap politely as did other boys. Mr.
Ricardo scrambled into the 'bus with an unexpected agility, and from
the bright interior in which he sat a huddled, faceless shadow, he
waved. Robert waved back. A fresh rush of elation had lifted him out of
his sorrowful weariness. His disgrace had been miraculously turned to a
kind of secret triumph. He was different; but then, how different! He
didn't wear chains or a ring through his nose. He was going to know
things that no one else knew. And one day he would be big and free.
It did not last. By the time he had dragged himself up to the top of
their stairs there was nothing left but hunger, the consciousness of
tattered, blood-stained clothes, and a sore, tired body. After all, he
was only a small boy who had wanted to play with other boys, and had
been cast out. Even Mr. Ricardo could never make them play with him.
It was dark in the sitting-room. Against the grey, ghostly light of
the window he could see Christine bowed over her typewriter. She was so
still that she frightened him. All the terrors of night which lay in
wait for him ever since his fathers dead hand had touched his door and
opened it, rushed down upon him with a sweep of black, smothering
wings. He called out “Christine! Christine!” in a choked voice, and she
moved at once, and he saw her profile, sharp-drawn and unfamiliar.
“Is that you, Robert? What is it, dear?”
So she had not been worrying about him at all. She did not know that
it was long past their usual supper-time. She had been thinking of
something else. It made her seem a terrifyingly long way off, and he
shuffled across the room to her, and touched her to make sure of her.
And it was strange that her hand glided over him anxiously,
questioningly, as though in the darkness she too had been afraid and
“Your form-master, Mr. Ricardo, has been here. We've been talking
about you. Is your coat very, very torn?”
“Never mind. I'll mend it afterwards—when you've gone to bed.”
Because he was so tired himself the unutterable weariness in her
voice smote him on the heart unbearably. He had never heard it before.
It made him think of her, for the first time, not just as Christine,
who looked after him and loved him, but as someone apart whom, perhaps,
he did not know at all. Hadn't they asked him, “Who is Christine?” And
he hadn't answered. He hadn't known.
“Mr. Ricardo says you will need a lot of help to pick up with the
other boys. Poor little Robert! But he takes an interest in you, and
you are to go to his house in the afternoon to be coached, and in a few
weeks you will know as much as any of them.”
He did not know what “coaching” meant, but all of a sudden he had
become afraid of Mr. Ricardo. He did not want to go to him. He knew
that Mr. Ricardo would not like him to play with other boys, even if he
got a chance. He would want him to be alone and different always.
“He doesn't believe in God,” Robert asserted accusingly. “He said he
“Perhaps not, dear.”
“Doesn't that matter?”
“I don't suppose God minds—if He exists.”
“Don't you believe in Him, Christine?”
“I don't know. People say they believe too easily. I expect I
believe as much as the others. With most of us it's just—just a hope.”
They had never talked together in that way before. It made her more
than ever someone apart from him, who had her own thoughts, and perhaps
her own secret way of being unhappy. He was frightened again, not of
the darkness now, but of something nearer—something so real and deadly
that the old spectres became almost comic, like ghosts made up of
dust-sheets and broom-handles. Supposing Christine went still further
from him—supposing she left him altogether alone? She wouldn't do it
of her free will, but there were things people couldn't help. People
died. The thought was a cruel hand twining itself into the strings of
his heart. He tried to see her face. Was she young? He didn't know. He
had never thought about it. She had been grown-up. That covered
everything. Now in the pale, unreal light her face and hair were a
strange dead gray, and she was old—old.
“Christine, how—how long do people live?”
“It depends. Sometimes to a hundred—sometimes just a minute.
“But if one is careful, Christine—I mean, really careful?”
“It doesn't always help, Robert. And even if it did, the people who
need to live most have to take risks——” She broke off, following her
thought further till it was far beyond his reach. “In fifteen years you
will be grown up. You will be able to take care of yourself. What will
you be then?”
“A doctor,” he said firmly; “and I'll look after you, Christine, and
you'll live for ever and ever.”
“A doctor—a doctor!” She seemed startled, almost frightened. “Yes,
of course. Your father would want it. He was always proud of his
profession, though he made fun. But it will mean more—waiting a little
She brooded, her hand covering her eyes, and he crept nearer to her,
pressing himself against her arm, trying to draw her back.
“Christine, who—who are you?”
“I don't know, Robert, I don't know——”
“I mean—why do you look after me? You're not my mother.”
“Why, I love you.”
“But you didn't at the beginning. You couldn't have done.”
“Your father and I were friends. Yes, always—always—right through
everything—to the very end. When your mother came into our lives, I
loved her almost more. That will seem very strange to you one of these
days, but it was true. When she was dying she asked me to take care of
you both.” She drew herself up, and pushed the untidy wisps of hair out
of her face, and with that gesture she seemed suddenly to grow vigorous
and young. “Why, Robert, it's better than if you were my own son; it's
as though in you I had a little of those two always with me.”
“Christine, you won't ever leave me, will you?”
For now his fear had him by the throat. She didn't—she never had
belonged to him. It was his father and his mother, who were dead.
“Of course not—not so long as you need me. You mustn't worry. It's
because we're both tired and hungry. We'll get supper.”
Her voice was its old self. But whilst she laid the cloth he stood
pressed against the window and looked out with blind eyes into the
darkness, so that she should not see his slow, hot tears. He was aware
of great and bitter loss. But he loved Christine more than he had ever
done. His love had ceased to be instinctive. It had become conscious of
itself and of her separateness. And it would never be quite free again
Long before he could read words of three syllables, Robert had
learnt the Origin of Man, and had made a vivid, somewhat fanciful
picture of that personage's pathetic beginnings as a miasm floating on
the earth's surface, and of his accidental, no less pathetic
progression as a Survival of the Fittest. He gathered that even more
than old Jaegers, Mr. Ricardo hated God Almighty and Jesus Christ, the
latter of whom was intimately connected with something called a Sun
Myth—chiefly, Robert supposed, because He was the Son of God. Mr.
Ricardo could not leave these two alone. He hunted them down, he
badgered and worried them, he covered them with gibes and insults. It
seemed to Robert sometimes that even the multiplication table was
really a disguised missile hurled in their unsuspecting and
Mr. Ricardo appeared to have no friends. As far as Robert could make
out, when he was not at school he sat at his desk in the untidy, stuffy
attic in the still more untidy, stuffy boarding-house where he lived,
and wrote feverishly. What he wrote Robert did not know. There was an
air of mystery about the whole business, as though he were concocting a
deadly explosive which might go off at any moment. Sometimes he seemed
dated, sometimes cast down by the results, but always doggedly
“It is a long, hard struggle, Stonehouse,” he would say. “There are
more fools in this world than you could conceive possible. Thank your
stars your friend isn't one of them. A fine, intelligent woman—a
He talked a good deal about Christine and women in general.
“When once we can get them on our side,” was one of his dark
sayings, “the last trench will be in our hands.”
Then, one evening, to Robert's astonished displeasure, he walked
home with him, and somehow drifted up their dark stairs to the little
sitting-room where Christine was laying supper. It appeared that he had
come to give an account of his pupil's progress, but he was oddly
excited, and when Christine invited him to share their meal—surely he
could have seen there wasn't enough to go round, Robert thought—he
accepted with a transparent, childlike eagerness that made Robert stare
at him as at a stranger. And after supper, with the self-conscious air
of a man who has waited for this moment, be produced from his coat
pocket a crumpled newspaper with the title Unshackled printed in
aggressive letters on its pale-green cover.
“In my leisure time I write a good deal on a subject very dear to
me, Miss Forsyth,” he said and screwed up his sharp nose in a kind of
nervous anguish. “I have here an article published last week—you are a
broad-minded, intelligent woman—I thought perhaps it might interest
you—if you would care to glance over it.”
Christine lay back in her chair, her face in shadow. But the
lamplight fell on her two hands. Red and misshapen as they were now,
they were still noble hands, and their repose had dignity and beauty.
“Won't you read it to us, Mr. Ricardo? My eyes are tired at night.”
He cleared his throat.
“It is an answer to Bishop Crawford's recent letter to The Times, which you may have seen. I have called it 'Unmasking the Oracle.'“
Robert leant out of the window and watched the sun sink into mist
and smoke. He wished Mr. Ricardo hadn't come; and that he would go away
soon. In a few minutes the light would begin to die, and the sharp
black lines of the roofs and spires, which on the ruins of their dull
selves seemed to be built anew into a witchlike fantastic city, would
be lost to him for another night. Robert did not want to hear about God
and the origin of man now. He kicked impatiently. Christine would sit
up later than ever. And, besides with Mr. Ricardo's voice rising and
falling, growing shriller and more passionate, one could not listen to
that low, mysterious hum that was so like a far-off music.
Mr. Ricardo made a sweeping, crushing gesture. “That, surely,
settles the controversy. He will hardly be able to answer that, I
Christine stirred, and opened her eyes, and smiled a little.
“I could not answer it, at any rate. It sounds very clever.” She
took the paper from him and held it to the light, and Robert turned,
hoping that now he would really go. “But—but I didn't quite
understand—have I lost the place?—this is by E. T. Richards.”
Then Robert saw an astonishing thing. Suddenly Mr. Ricardo seemed to
shrivel—to cower back into himself. His fierce, triumphant energy had
gone as at a blasting touch of magic. He looked ashamed and broken.
“A nom de plume—a nom de guerre, rather, Miss
Forsyth—you understand—in my opinion—the scholastic profession—the
stronghold of the worst bigotry and prejudice—for myself I should not
care—I have always wanted to come out into the open—but I have a
sister—poor girl!—a long, sad illness—for her sake—I can't
Christine folded the paper gently as though she were afraid of
“Of course. It would be unwise—unnecessary. Why should one
sacrifice oneself to fight something that doesn't exist?”
He clenched his fists.
“One must fight error, Miss Forsyth.”
“At any rate it's brave of you to try—to do what you think is
right.” And now it seemed she was trying to find something that would
comfort him—just as she had once given Robert peppermint balls when he
had hurt himself. “If ever you feel inclined, won't you come again—and
read to us?”
He looked at her with dark, tragic eyes.
“Thank you, thank you.”
Robert went with him to the door, and for a moment he wavered on the
steps, blinking, and squeezing his soft hat between his bony hands.
“A great woman—a kind woman—you must be worth her while,
And then, without so much as a “good night,” he limped down the
steps and along the street, flitting in and out of the lamplight like a
It was the first of many tiresome evening visits. But the next day
he was always himself again, and the class wilted under his merciless,
contemptuous sarcasms. Only Robert was not afraid. He knew that the
lash would never come his way, and he could feel the little man's
unspoken pride, when he showed himself quicker than his companions,
like a secret Masonic pressure of the hand. And there was something
else. It was a discovery that made him at first almost dizzy with
astonishment. He wasn't stupid. Just as he was stronger, so he was
cleverer than boys older than himself. He could do things at once over
which they botched and bungled. He outstripped them when he chose. Even
his ignorance did not handicap him for long. For Mr. Ricardo had kept
his promise. He taught well, and in those long afternoons in the hot
boarding-house attic Robert had raced over the lost ground. He did not
always want to work. He gazed out of the window, half his mind busy
planning what he and Rufus Cosgrave would do when they met at the
corner of the street, but he could not help understanding what was so
obvious, and there were moments when sheer interest swept him off his
feet, and even Rufus was forgotten. He took an audacious pleasure, too,
in leaping suddenly over the heads of the whole class to the first
place. He did not always bother. He liked to wait for some really
teasing question, and then, when silence had become hopeless, hold up
his hand. Mr. Ricardo would look towards him, apparently incredulous
and satirical, but Robert could read the message which the narrowed
eyes twinkled at him.
“Of course you understand, Stonehouse.”
And then he would answer and sweep the sullen class with a cool,
exasperating indifference as he sat down. For he did not want them any
more. He returned instinctive enmity with the scorn of a growing
confidence. It was rather fine to stand by yourself, especially when
you had one friend who thought you splendid whatever you did, who clung
to you, and whom you had to protect. When he walked arm in arm with
Rufus Cosgrave in the playground he trailed his coat insolently, and
the challenge was not once accepted. From the biggest boys to Dickson
Minor, no one cared to risk the limitless possibilities of an
encounter, and the word “carrots” was not so much as whispered in his
Then in the late afternoon the real day seemed to begin. Then the
hardness and distrust with which he had unconsciously armed himself
fell away, and he and Rufus Cosgrave sat side by side in the sooty
grass behind the biscuit factory, and with arms clasped about their
scarred and grubby knees planned out the vague but glorious time that
waited for them. Rufus was to be a Civil Servant. He did not seem to
care much for the prospect or even to be very clear as to what would be
expected of him. He felt, with Robert, that a Civil Servant sounded
servile and romanceless, but unfortunately the profession, whatever it
was, ran in the family.
“My father's one, you know. So I've got to. I'd rather play the
piano. But, of course, I wouldn't say so to anyone but you. It sounds
too beastly silly——”
“I'd say whatever I wanted to,” Robert retorted grandly, “I'll
always say what I want to and do what I jolly well like when I'm grown
up anyhow. You can if you're strong enough.”
“But then people hate you,” Rufus said sadly.
“That doesn't matter a bit.”
“Don't you mind people not liking you?”
Rufus fumbled anxiously.
“Wouldn't you be pleased if—if you were asked to play in the
eleven—and the chaps cheered you like they do Christopher when he
kicks a goal?”
“I shouldn't care—not a button.” But he knew even then that it was
not true. His heart had leapt at the very thought. He drew his fair
brows together in the portentous Stonehouse scowl. “It's silly to mind
what silly people think. And kicking goals is no good. I'm going to be
a doctor—not just the ordinary sort—a big doctor—and I'll discover
things—and people like Christopher'll come and beg me to keep them
Rufus sighed deeply.
“I wish I was like that. I mind awfully—being ragged, and all that.
I was awfully miserable until you came. If you went away—or didn't
care any more—I don't know what I'd do. But if I went away you
“Yes, I would.”
“But you're so much stronger.”
“I like being strongest.”
And then and there he expounded the doctrine of the Survival, and
Rufus began to shiver all over like a frightened pony.
“I think it's perfectly beastly. What'll happen to me? Anyone can
lick me. I wouldn't have a chance.”
The tears came into his round, blue eyes and trickled down his
freckled cheeks, and a sudden choking tenderness, a dim perception of
all that this one friend meant to him, made Robert fling his arms about
him and hug him close.
“Yes—you would. Because I'll look after you—always—honest injun.”
There was one secret that he never told to anyone—not even to
Cosgrave. He was ashamed of it. He knew it was silly—sillier than in
believing in God—and he had almost succeeded in forgetting it when it
came true. It happened. Just when he was least expecting it it came
round the corner. First the music, a long way off, but growing louder
and fiercer so that it seemed as though his fancy had suddenly jumped
out of his brain and was running about by itself, doing just what it
liked; then lights, torches with streaming flags of fire that put out
the street lamps altogether, and the shadows of people
Robert ran too. He did not stop to think what it was. He was wild
with excitement, and as he ran he bounded into the air and waved his
arms in a pent-up joy of living and moving. He never had much chance to
run. You couldn't run by yourself for nothing. People stared or were
annoyed when you bumped against them. But now there was something to
run for. There was no one to see or hear him in the deserted Grove, and
with each bound he let out an unearthly, exultant whoop.
At the corner where Acacia Grove met the High Street Rufus Cosgrave
squirmed out of the pushing, jostling crowd and caught hold of him. He
was capless, panting. His red hair stood on end. In the flickering
torch light he looked like a small, delirious Loga.
“I say—Stonehouse—I was coming for you—it's a circus—they're
going all the way down to the Green—they've got their tent there—if
we could only climb up somewhere—I can't see a thing—not even the
“If we cut round by Griffith's Road we'll get there first,” Robert
shouted. “Only we've got to run like mad.”
He seized Rufus by the hand and they shot free of the procession, up
and down dim and decorous streets, swerving round corners and past
astonished policemen whose “Now then, you young devils” was lost in the
clatter of their feet. Cosgrave gasped, but Robert's hold was
relentless, compelling. He could have run faster by himself, but
somehow he could not let Cosgrave go. “You've got to stick it,” he
hissed fiercely. “It's only a minute.”
Cosgrave had no choice but to “stick it.” It did not even occur to
him to resist though his eyes seemed to be bulging out of his head and
his lungs on the point of bursting. But the reward was near at hand.
There, at the bottom of Griffith's Road, they could see it—the Green,
unfamiliar with its garish lights and the ghostly, gleaming tents.
“We've done it!” Robert shouted. “Hurrah—hurrah!”
They had, in fact, time to spare. The procession was still only
half-way down the High Street, a dull red glow, like the mouth of a
fiery cave, widening with every minute as though to swallow them. There
was, indeed, a disconcerting crowd gathered round the chief entrance,
but Robert was like a general, cool and vigorous, strung up to the
finest pitch of cunning. He wormed his way under the ropes, he edged
and insinuated himself between the idle and good-natured onlookers,
with Cosgrave, tossed and buffeted, but still in tow, struggling in the
backwash. At last they were through, next to the entrance, and in the
very front row of all.
“Now you'll see the elephant,” Robert laughed triumphantly, “every
bit of him,”
“Oh, my word!” Cosgrave gasped. “Oh, my word!”
It was coming. It made itself felt even before it came into sight by
the sudden tensity of the crowd, the anxious pressure from behind, the
determined pushing back by the righteously indignant in front, the
craning of necks, and indistinguishable, thrilling murmur. A small boy,
whom Robert recognized as the butcher's son, evidently torn between the
dignity and excitement of his new post, stalked ahead and thrust
printed notices into the outstretched hands. Robert seized hold of one,
but he was too excited to read. He felt Rufus poke him insistently.
“What's it say—what's it say?”
“Shut up—I don't know—look for yourself.”
There they were. The six torch-bearers were dressed like mediaeval
pages, or near enough. Their tight-fitting cotton hose, sagging a
little at the knees, were sky-blue, and their tunics green and slashed
with yellow. They wore jaunty velvet caps and fascinating daggers,
ready to hand. As they reached the entrance to the tent they halted,
and with some uneasy shuffling formed up on either side, making a
splendid passage of fire for the ten Moorish horsemen who rode next,
fierce fellows these, armed to the teeth, with black, shining faces and
rolling eyes. A band struck up inside the tent to welcome them, and
they rode through, scarcely bending their proud heads—much to the
relief of the more timorous members of the crowd who had eyed the rear
end of their noble steeds with a natural anxiety. Unfortunately the
torches smoked a good deal, and there was some grumbling.
“'Ere, take the stinking thing out of me eyes, can't yer?”
“Right down dangerous, I calls it. If one of them there sparks gets
into me 'at I'll be all ablaze in half a jiffy. And oo'll pay for the
feathers, I'd like to know?”
“Oh, shut up—shut up!” Robert whispered bitterly. “Why can't
everyone shut up?”
“The Biggest and Best Show in Europe,” Rufus was reading aloud in a
squeaky treble; “un-pre-ce-dented spectacles—performing
sea-lions—great chariot-race—the Legless Wonder from
Iceland—Warogha, the Missing Link—the greatest living Lady
Equestrian, Madame Gloria Marotti, Mad-rad—oh, I can't read that—Gyp
Labelle, the darling of the Folies Bergeres—what's Folies Bergeres,
Robert——? Oh, my word—my word!”
It was the Shetland ponies that had saved Robert the trouble of
replying that he didn't know. After the ferocious magnificence of the
Moorish gentlemen, they came as a sort of comic relief. Everyone
laughed, and even the lady with the feather hat recovered her good
“Why, you could keep one of them in the back yard—not an inch
bigger than our collie, is he, 'Enry? And Jim's not full grown—not by
“As though anyone cared about her beastly collie!” Robert thought.
The elephants, a small one and a big one together to show their
absurd proportions, came next. The earth shook under them. They waved
their trunks hopefully from side to side, and their little brown eyes,
which seemed to have no relation to their bodies, peered out like
prisoners out of the peep-holes of a monstrous moving prison. When the
man next to Robert offered the smallest of them an empty paper-bag it
curled its trunk over his head and opened its pointed mouth and let out
a piercing squeal of protest which alarmed its tormentor, and caused
his neighbours to regard him with nervous disapproval. But the big
elephant seemed to exercise a soothing influence over its companion. It
waved its trunk negligently as though in contemptuous dismissal of a
“My dear,” it said, “that's all you can expect of such people.”
There were men seated on the big elephants' necks, their legs tucked
comfortably behind the enormous flapping ears. They looked mysterious
and proud in their position. They wore turbans and carried sticks with
pointed iron spikes at the head, and when they came to the low entrance
of the tent they prodded their huge beasts, which went down on their
knees, painfully yet with a kind of sorrowful pride, and blundered
through amidst the admiring murmur of the crowd.
“The way they manage them big brutes!” declared the lady with the
feathered hat disconsolately. “And there's our George, a proper 'uman
being, and can't be got to do a thing—nohow.”
The band inside had stopped, beaten in the hard-fought contest with
its rival at the far end of the procession, which thereupon broke out
into throaty triumphant trumpet blasts and exultant roll of drums.
Rufus clutched wildly at Robert's sleeve.
“Oh, my word, just look at her! Oh, my word!”
Robert craned forward, peering round the embonpoint of the man next
him. The procession now scarcely moved, and there was a space between
the last elephant and the great coal-black horse that followed—a wide,
solemn space, that invited you to realize that this was the finest
sight you had ever seen in your life. He was indeed a splendid,
terrifying creature. As Rufus Cosgrave said loudly, he was not like a
human horse at all. One could imagine him having just burst out of
hell, still breathing fire and smoke and rolling his eyes in the
anguish of his bridled wickedness. In the glare from the tent-door he
gleamed darkly, a wild thing of black flames, and those in the front
row of the crowd trod nervously on the toes of those behind, edging out
of reach of his restless, dancing hoofs. For it seemed impossible that
the woman in the saddle should be really his master. And yet she sat
upright and unconcerned. In its black, close-fitting habit, her supple
body looked a living, vital part of the splendid beast. She was his
brain, stronger than his savage instinct, and every threatening move of
his great limbs was dictated to him without a sound, almost without a
gesture. A touch of a slender, patent-leather boot set him prancing, an
imperceptible twist of the wrist and he stood stock still, foam-necked
and helpless. It was a proud—an awe-inspiring spectacle. And it was
not only her fearless strength. She was fair and beautiful. So Robert
saw her. He saw nothing else. He gazed and gazed, heart-stricken. He
did not hear Rufus speak to him, or the band which was blaring out a
Viennese waltz, an old thing, whistled and danced half to death long
since, but which, having perhaps a spark of immortal youth left among
the embers, had not lost its power to make the pulses quicken. Indeed
it even played a humble part in this great moment in Robert's life.
Though he did not hear it, it poured emotion into the heated, dusty
air. It painted the tawdry show with richer colours. It was the rider's
invisible retinue. At a touch from her heel the horse danced to it, in
perfect time, arching his great neck, and rolling his wild eyes.
She was proud, too. Robert saw how she disdained the gaping
multitude. She rode with haughtily lifted head and only once her
glance, under the white, arrogant lids, dropped for an instant. Was it
chance, was it the agonized intensity of his own gaze which drew it to
the small boy almost under her horse's hoofs? (For he had held his
ground. He was not afraid. Unlike the rest, his trust in her was
limitless and unquestioning. And if she chose to ride him down, he
would not care, no more than a fanatic worshipper beneath the wheels of
a Juggernaut.) Now under her eyes his heart stood still, his knees
shook. She did not smile; she did not recognize his naked, shameless
adoration. And that too was well. A smile would have lowered her,
brought her down from her superb distance. His happiness choked him.
She was the embodiment of everything that he had heard pass in the
distance from the silent dusks of Acacia Grove—splendour and power,
laughter and music, the beat of a secret pulse answering the tread of
invisible processions. She came riding out of the mists of his fancy
into light, a living reality that he could take hold of, and set up in
his empty temple. She was not his mother, nor Francey, nor God, but she
was everything that in their vague and different ways these three had
been to him before he lost them. She was something to be worshipped, to
be died for, if necessary, with joy and pride.
But in a moment it was over. She looked away from him and rode
forward, like a monarch into a grandly illuminated castle, amidst the
whispered plaudits of her people.
A little girl on a Shetland pony rode at her heels, Robert saw her
without wanting to see her. She obtruded herself vulgarly. She was
dressed as a page, her painfully thin legs looking like sticks of
peppermint in their parti-coloured tights, and either was, or pretended
to be, terrified of her minute and tubbily good-natured mount. At its
first move forward she fell upon its neck with shrill screams and clung
on grotesquely, righting herself at last to make mock faces at the
“Oh, la, la—la-la!”
She was a plain child with a large nose, slightly Jewish in line, a
wide mouth, and a mass of crinkly fair hair that stood out in a pert
halo about her head. Robert hated her for the brief moment in which she
invaded his consciousness. It was quite evident that she was trying to
draw attention from the splendid creature who had preceded her to her
own puny and outrageous self, and that by some means or other she
succeeded. She gesticulated, she drew herself up in horrible imitation
of a proud and noble bearing, she pretended that the rotund pony was
prancing to the music, and, finally, burst into fits of laughter. The
crowd laughed with her, helplessly as though at a huge joke which she
shared with each one of them in secret.
“Oh, la la, la la.”
The man at Robert's side wiped his eyes.
“Well, did you see that? Upon my word——”
“A baggage—that's what I call 'er,” the feathered lady retorted
severely. “Mark my words—a baggage.”
Rufus jogged Robert in the side.
“Wasn't she a joke? Didn't she make you scream?”
Robert hated them all. Beastly, despicable people who liked beastly,
More horsemen, camels, clowns on foot and clowns on donkeys. Finally
the band, slightly winded by this time, and playing raggedly. The
torch-bearers formed up, and a large gentleman in riding boots stood
for a moment in the light.
“To-morrow evening at eight o'clock—the first performance of the
Greatest Show in Europe—a unique opportunity—better book your seats
early, ladies and gentlemen——”
Then the flaps of the tent fell and all the lights and sounds seemed
to go out at once. The crowd melted away, and only Robert and his
companion remained gazing spellbound at the closed and silent cave
which had swallowed all the enchantment.
Rufus put his hands into his hair and tugged it desperately.
“Oh, if only I could go—if only I could—— Don't you want to go,
Robert woke partially from his dream.
“I'm going.” He turned, and with his hands thrust into his pockets
began to walk homewards. Rufus trotted feverishly at his side.
“I say, are you really? But then you've got no people; jolly for
you. I wish I hadn't. My pater's so beastly strict; I'm scared of him.
I say, when will you go?”
“To-morrow night, of course.”
“Have you got the money?”
“No, but I'll get it.”
“Oh, I say, I wish I could. P'r'aps I could too. I've got
money—yes, I have, even if it is in a beastly tin box. What's the good
of saving till you're grown up? I shan't want it then like I do now.
It's silly. All grown-up people are silly. When I'm grown up I'll be
different. I say, Robert, I can come with you, can't I?”
“Oh, yes—if you want to.” He was indifferent. It puzzled him
slightly that Rufus should be so eager. What did he know of the true
inwardness of what he had seen? What had it got to do with him, anyway?
Rufus brooded, his freckled face puckered with anxious contriving.
“I say, I've got an idea! I'll tell the pater you've asked me to
come over and spend the evening with you at your place. It'll be sort
of true, won't it? And then he'll never think about the money. You
won't mind, will you? It'll never come out—and if it does, I'll say I
made it up.”
“I don't care. All right.”
Rufus drew a great sigh of relief.
“Isn't it ripping? Oh, I say, I wish it was to-morrow night. I hope
I don't die first. What did you like best, Robert? Who are you keenest
Robert did not answer. It would have been sacrilege to talk her
over—to drag her down into a silly controversy. He longed for the
moment when Rufus would have to leave him. He wanted to be alone and
silent. Even the thought of Christine and of her inevitable questions
hurt him like the touch of a rough, unfeeling hand.
“I liked that kid best—that girl on the funny pony. She must have
been at the Folies Bergeres, don't you think? Folies Bergeres sounds
French, and she was making sort of French noises. She made me laugh.”
Something wistful and hungry came into his shrill voice. He pressed
close to Robert's side. “I like people who make me laugh. I like them
better than anything in the world, don't you? It's jolly to be able to
laugh like that—right from one's inside——”
But Robert only smiled scornfully, hugging his secret closer to
She came on for the last time in the Final, when the whole circus,
including the Legless Wonder, paraded round the ring to the competitive
efforts of both bands. Robert's eyes followed her with anguish. It
wasn't happiness any more. He might have been a condemned man counting
the last minutes of his life. He was almost glad when it was over and
her upright figure had vanished under the arch. People began to fidget
and reach for their hats and coats. A grubby youth with a hot, red face
and a tray slung round his neck pushed his way between the benches
shouting: “Signed photographs of the c'lebrities, twopence each!” in a
raucous indifferent voice. Robert waved to him, and he took no notice.
“Hi—hi!” Robert called faintly.
The youth stopped. He was terribly bored at first, but his boredom
became a cynical amusement. There were twenty different photographs of
Madame Gloria Moretti:
Madame Moretti full face, side face, three-quarter face, on her
famous horse Arabesque, with her beautiful foot on Arabesque's
prostrate form, in evening dress, stepping into her car—a car, at any
rate—and so on, with “Gloria Moretti” scrawled nobly across every one
of them. Robert bought them all. He stuffed them into his coat pockets,
into his trouser pockets. He dropped them. He dropped the pennies and
sixpences which he tried to count into the tray with shaking fingers.
He was drunk and reckless with his despairing love. The sales-boy
winked at everyone in general.
“Takin' it 'ard, ain't 'e, the young dawg?”
People smiled tolerantly. Their smiles said as plainly as possible:
“We remember being just as silly as that,” and Robert hated them. It
wasn't true. They didn't remember. They had forgotten. Or, if they
remembered at all, it was only the things they had done, not what they
had felt—the frightful pain that was an undreamed-of happiness, and
the joy that tore the heart out of you, and the wonder of a new
discovery. You lost yourself, You gave everything that you were and
had. You asked nothing, hoped for nothing. And suddenly you became
strong so that you were not afraid any more of anything in the
world—not of punishment nor disgrace, nor even laughter.
But they pretended to understand. Their pretence made you despise
and pity them. It was a horrid thing, as though a skeleton came to life
and jiggled its bones and mouthed at you, “You see, I used to do that
too.” That was why you told lies to them—even to Christine.
He had forgotten his cap. The sales-boy ran after him with it and
stuck it on his thick fair hair back to front.
“There—you'll be losing your 'ead next!”
It was dusk outside. The evening performance began at once, and
already a thick black stream of people was pouring up the roped
gangways and frothing and seething at the box offices. As they came out
of the darkness they had a mystical air of suddenly returned life. They
were pilgrims' souls surging at the entrance of Paradise. In a little
while they would see her. Not that they would know what they saw. They
would not be able to understand how great, how brave and splendid she
was. In their blindness of heart they would prefer the ugly little
French girl with her shrill voice and absurd caperings; their clapping
would be half-hearted, polite, and there would be no passionate,
insistent pair of hands to beat up their flagging enthusiasm and bring
her back once more into the arena, bowing in regal scorn of them.
For he, Robert, had brought her back twice, just because he wouldn't
stop—had beaten his hands till even now they were hot and swollen. She
had not known, and he would not have had her know for the whole world.
That was part of the mystery. You yourself were as nothing.
But it did hurt intolerably to think that perhaps because he was not
there she would not be called back so often. It was as though he
betrayed her—broke his allegiance. That afternoon, when it had seemed
that the evening could never really come, he had told himself that this
was the last time; but now, standing on the dim outskirts of the crowd,
the photographs that he hadn't been able to fit into his pockets held
fast in his burning hands, he saw how impossible, how even wrong and
faithless that decision had been. So long as a shilling remained to him
he had to go, he had to take his place among her loyal people. It meant
being “found out” hopelessly and violently. They—the mysterious “they"
of authority—might destroy him utterly. That would be the most
splendid thing of all. He would have done all that he could do. He
would have laid his last tribute at her unconscious feet and gone out
in fire and thunder.
He had actually joined the box-office queue when Rufus Cosgrave
found him. Rufus had been running hard and he was out of breath, and
his blue eyes had a queer, strained look, as though they had wanted to
cry and had not had the time. And on his dead-white face the freckles
stood out, ludicrously vivid.
“Oh, I say, Robert, where have you been? I waited and waited for
you. And then I went round to your place—and Miss Forsyth said she
didn't know and she seemed awfully worried—and—and—oh, I say—you're
not going again, are you?”
Robert nodded calmly. But his heart had begun to beat thickly with
the premonition of disaster.
“Yes, I am.”
“You might have told me—oh, I say, do listen—do come out a
minute—I'm in an awful hole—there's going to be an awful
row—I'm—I'm so beastly scared——”
He was shivering. He did not seem to know that people were looking
at him. His voice was squeaky and broken. He tugged at Robert's sleeve.
“Oh, I say—do come——”
Robert looked ahead of him. It meant losing his place. Instead of
being so close to her that he could smell the warm, sweet scent of her
as she passed, he would have to peer between peopled heads, and she
would be a far-off vision to him. And yet, oddly enough, it did not
occur to him to refuse. He stood out, and they walked together towards
the dark, huddled army of caravans beyond the tents.
“What is it? What's the row?”
“It's Father—he's got wind of something—Mother told me—he's going
to open my money-box when he comes home to-night. I didn't know he'd
kept count—just the sort of beastly thing he would do—and oh, Robert,
when he finds out I've been cramming him he'll kill me—he will,
At another time Robert might have consoled him with the assurance
that even the beastliest sort of father might hesitate to risk his neck
on such slight provocation, but he himself was overwrought with three
days of peril, of desperate subterfuge and feverish alternations
between joy and anguish. Now, in the mysterious twilight, the most
terrible, as the most wonderful things seemed not merely possible but
likely. It made it all the more terrible that Rufus should have to
endure so much because he had taken a fancy to a silly kid who laughed
like a hyena till you laughed yourself, however much you hated her.
He held Cosgrave's sticky hand tight, and at that loyal
understanding pressure Cosgrave began to cry, shaking from head to
foot, jerking out his words between his chattering teeth.
“It's s-stupid to cry—I do w-wish I w-wasn't always c-crying about
everything—after all—he c-can't kill me more than once, can he? But
he's such a beast. He h-hates anyone else to h-have a good time and
tell lies. He's always so j-jolly glad to let into me or mother—and
when he finds out we've been stuffing him he—he goes mad—and preaches
for days and days. Mother's a brick. She gave me a shilling to put
back—but he—he keeps her short, and she has to tell about every
penny. She says she'll have to pretend she lost it. And it's not
enough, anyway. Oh—Robert, you don't know what a row there'll be.”
But Robert knew. He felt the cruel familiar ruffling of the nerves.
He heard the thud of his father's step, the horrible boom of his
father's voice, “You're a born liar, Christine—you're making my son
into a liar.” It was as though Dr. Stonehouse had pushed off the earth
that covered him and stood up.
It was awful that Rufus should be frightened too. It wasn't fair. He
wasn't strong enough.
“I say—we'll have to do something. How much did you take out?”
“'Bout three shillings—there was an extra penny or two—p'r'aps he
wouldn't notice that, though—I thought p'r'aps—oh, I don't know what
I thought—but I had to come to tell you—I hadn't anyone else——”
Robert nodded. He stopped and looked back towards the big central
tent. It had grown at once larger and vaguer. The lighted entrance had
a sort of halo round it like the moon before it is going to rain. There
was an empty, sinking feeling in his stomach, and he too had begun to
tremble, in little, uncontrollable gusts. He let go his hold on Rufus's
hand so that he should not know.
“I've got two bob—somewhere,” he heard himself saying casually and
He knew now that he would never see her again. There was no struggle
in his mind, because there did not seem to be any choice. It wasn't
that little Cosgrave counted more—he hardly counted at all in that
moment. But she, if she knew he existed, would expect him to do the
right, the fine thing. Francey would have expected it. And she was only
a mere girl. How much more this noble, wonderful woman? It was better
than clapping. Somewhere at the back of his mind was the idea that he
offered her a more gallant tribute, and that one day she would know
that he had stuck up for Cosgrave for her sake, and, remote and godlike
though she was, be just a little pleased. The comfort of it was a faint
warm light showing through his darkness. It was all he had. As he dug
those last, most precious shillings out of the chaos of his pockets he
felt himself go sick and faint, just as he had done when, in a
desperate fight, a boy bigger than himself had kicked his shin.
“There—you can put them back, can't you? He'll never know——”
Rufus stopped crying instantly, after the miraculous fashion of his
years. He cut an elfish caper. He rubbed himself against his saviour
like some small grateful animal.
“I say, you are a brick. I knew you'd help somehow. Won't he be
sold, though? I'll just love to see his beastly face! What luck—not
having a father, like you. I say, though, is that all you've got? You
won't be able to go to the show now—and you're so keen, aren't you?”
“It doesn't matter,” Robert answered carelessly. “I don't mind
He began to walk on, Rufus tagging valiantly at his heels.
“And—and if anyone asks—you'll say I was at your place—doing
“It's awfully decent of you. You don't mind telling fibs, do you,
“One has to,” Robert answered austerely. “Everyone has to.”
Now that it was all over and he turned his back on her for ever, the
splendid glow of renunciation began to fade. Life stretched before him,
a black limitless emptiness. He wished agonizedly that Arabesque had
gone mad and bolted and that he had stopped him and saved his rider's
life, dying gloriously and at once, instead of miserably and by inches,
like this. He felt that in a moment the pain in his throat would get
the better of him and he would begin to cry.
They stopped at the far end of the Green where it was dark and they
could hardly see each other. He heard Cosgrave breathing heavily
through his nose, almost snorting, and then a timid, shamefaced
“You are decent to me. I say—I do love you so, Robert.”
It was an awful thing to have said. They both knew it. If anyone had
overheard them the shame would have haunted them to their death. And
yet it was wonderful too. Never to be forgotten.
“You oughtn't to say rotten, stupid things like that—like silly
girls.” And then, as though it had been torn from him. “I love you too,
After that he ran madly so that Rufus could not overtake him—above
all so that he could not hear the band which had begun to play the
But before he had stopped running he had begun to plot again. Even
though he had made the great renunciation he could not help hoping. It
was the kind of hope that, when one is very young, follows on the heels
of absolute despair, and is based on magical impossibilities. It was
like his birthday hopes, which had been known to rise triumphant above
the most obvious and discouraging facts. After all there was to-morrow.
He would tell Christine everything—open his heart to her as to a good
and understanding friend—and she would give him six-pence so that he
could stand in the cheap places, or perhaps a shilling so that he could
go twice. He would tell her how he had saved Cosgrave from a fearful
row, and she would approve of him and sympathize with Cosgrave, who had
such beastly, understanding people.
He would hug her and say;
“It's jolly to have someone like you, Christine!”
And she would be enormously pleased, and in the dusk they would sit
close together and he would tell her of his superb being who changed
the course of his life, who was like his mother and Francey and God
rolled into one, and for whose sake he had emptied the housekeeping
Perhaps it would all have happened just as he planned it, could it
have happened then and there. But the front door was closed and he had
to wait a long time for the landlady's heavy answering tread. When she
came at last it was from upstairs—he could tell by her breathing and a
familiar creak—and a cold dead hand laid itself on his heart and
squeezed the hope out of it. They had been talking about him—those two
grown-up people. He knew the kind of things they had said: “It's very
tiresome of him to be out so late, Mrs. Withers,” and, “Boys is
worritting, outrageous critters, M'am,” and the cruel impossibility of
reaching their far-off impervious understanding lamed him before the
door had opened.
Mrs. Withers' lumpy figure loomed up grotesquely against the yellow
“Is that you, Master Robert? You'd better run up quick. Your aunt is
going to give you a jacketing, I can tell you.”
“Aunt” was the term with which Mrs. Withers covered up what she
considered privately to be an ambiguous relationship.
Robert slunk past her. He crawled upstairs with an aggressive
deliberation. He would show how much he cared. He was not afraid of
Christine. He had seen her unhappy too often. In a way he knew that he
was stronger than she was. For she was old and had no one to love but
All the same he was afraid. With every step he took he seemed to
climb farther and farther into the midst of fear. It was all around
him—in the close, airless dark and in the deathly quiet light that
came from the open doorway overhead. What was waiting for him there?
His father, risen unimaginably loathsome from the grave? For he could
never be in the dark without thinking of his father. Or something else?
At least he knew that the never-really-believed-in time of peace was
over and that the monster which had lain hidden and quiescent so long
was crouched somewhere close to him, ready to leap out.
Christine sat by the table under the light. There was a drawer
beside her which she had evidently torn out of its place in
panic-stricken haste, for the floor about her was littered with its
contents—gloves and handkerchiefs and ribbons. She held a shabby,
empty purse in her limp hand, and it was as though she had sat down
because she had no longer the strength to stand. He had not known
before how grey her hair was. Her face was grey, too, and withered like
a dead leaf.
He stood hesitating in the doorway and they looked at one another.
There was no question of punishment or reproof between them. It was the
old days over again when they had clung together in the face of a
common peril—helpless and horribly afraid. She tried to smile and push
the empty purse out of sight as though it were of no account at all.
And all at once he was ashamed and miserable with pity.
“I was beginning to get quite worried about you.” He could hardly
hear her. “Where have you been, Robert?”
He answered heavily, not moving from the doorway where he hung like
a sullen shadow.
“At the Circus.”
“Is there a Circus? Why didn't Mrs. Withers tell me? If I had known
that I shouldn't have worried. I expect you were there yesterday
too—and the day before, weren't you, dear?”
He nodded, and she began to bundle everything back into the drawer,
as though at last a tiresome question had been satisfactorily settled.
“I knew it was all right. Mr. Ricardo was here this afternoon. He
thought I was ill—he thought you had told him you couldn't come
because I was ill. I said I had had to stay at home—it was easier—I
knew there had been a mistake.”
The old life again. They were confederates and she had lied to
shield him even from herself. She was looking past him as though she
saw someone standing behind him in the dark passage. He was so sure of
it that he wanted to turn round. But he did not dare.
“I wish I'd known. We—we might have gone together. I used to be
very fond of a good circus. Did they have elephants? Robert—Robert,
dear, why didn't you tell me about it?”
He shook his head. He knew now that he could never have told her or
made her understand. She would have thought him silly—or disloyal. She
would never see that this new love had nothing to do with the Robert
who would die if Christine left him. It had to do with another boy who
longed for bands and processions and worshipped happy, splendid people
who did not have to tell lies and who were so strong and fearless that
even fierce animals had to obey them. They were different. They did not
live in the same life. You could love them without pain or pity.
It was a secret thing, inside himself. If he tried to drag it out
and show it her, no one could tell what would happen to it.
She sighed deeply.
“It's this being away all day. If I had been at home you would have
asked me for the money, wouldn't you? And then you forgot to tell me.
But I've been a little worried. You didn't take it all, did you, dear?”
“Yes, I did. I spent it at the Circus. And then I gave some to
He saw the blood rush up wildly into her white face. The next minute
she had laughed—a gay, unfamiliar laugh—and he winced and shivered as
though she had struck him.
“Why, that's so like your father—that's just what your father would
have done. He loved doing kind, generous things—giving money away.”
And now he knew for certain who it was who stood behind him in the
dark passage. He could not bear it. He slammed the door to, closing his
eyes tight so that he should not see. He ran to her, pressing himself
against her, stammering passionately.
“I'm not like my father—I'm not—I'm not. I won't be.”
She petted him tenderly. She was grave now and sure of herself.
“You mustn't say that, Robert. Your father was a wonderful man, in
many ways. People didn't understand him—only your mother and I. If
your mother had lived it would all have been quite different. He was
unfortunate and often very unhappy. The world thinks so much of money.
But he despised it. It was nothing to him. You're like that too. You
didn't realize, did you? It didn't seem a great deal. It was just a
beginning. But I have had to do without food. I've been hungry
sometimes—I think I ought to tell you this, so that you may
understand—I've looked into shop-windows at lunch-time. You see, it
was to pay for the time when you are preparing to be a doctor. It means
hundreds of pounds, Robert. But I calculated that if I saved a little
every week—I'd manage it—if I didn't die or lose my work.”
“Don't, Christine—please don't! Oh, Christine!”
“If I lost my work—Mr. Percy is very kind. He is an old friend and
knows the position. But he has his business to consider. I'm not
quick—my eyes aren't strong. There are younger, cleverer people. We've
got to look things in the face, Robert. If I lost my work there would
be nothing between us and the workhouse—nothing—nothing—nothing.”
He was shivering as if with bitter cold. His teeth chattered in his
head. He caught a ghost-like glimpse of a boy in the glass opposite—a
strange, unfamiliar figure with a white, tear-stained face and haggard
eyes and fair hair all on end.
“Oh, Christine—I'm frightened!”
“You think money must come from somewhere. Something will turn up.
That was what your father used to say. He was so hopeful. It wasn't
possible that it shouldn't turn up. But I was younger and stronger
then—I can't begin again.—I can't—I can't. If you're not good,
Robert, I can't go on.”
“I will be good. I won't tell lies. I won't spend money ever again.
I won't love anyone but you. I won't be a doctor; I'll be something
He had forgotten the photographs. He still held them in one
tight-clenched hand. But she had seen them. And all at once she braced
herself although to meet an implacable enemy. She was not tender any
more. She was the Christine who had faced bailiffs and his father's
strange, gay friends—ice-cold and bitter and relentless. She took the
pictures from him. With a terrible ironic calm she sorted them from his
pockets, and spread them out on the table like a pack of cards. He
dared not look at her. He was afraid to see what she was seeing. She
had torn open the door of his secret chamber, and there in that
blasting light was his treasure, naked, defenceless. He could have
cried out in his dread, “Only don't say anything—don't say anything!”
“So that's what you liked so much, Robert—that's what you spent the
money on. It's the old story—beginning again—only worse.” She added,
almost to herself:
“A vulgar, common woman.”
She put her face between her hands. He could hear her quiet crying.
It was awful. His love for her was a torture. Because she was not
wonderful at all but human and pitiful like himself, he felt her grief
like a knife turning and turning in his own heart. But he could not
comfort her. He could only stare aghast at that row of faces—grinning,
smirking, arrogant, insolent faces.
It was true. The jolly lights had been turned out. The band had
A vulgar, common woman!
* * * * *
He stood with his back to the Circus entrance where he could smell
the sawdust and hear the hum of the audience crowding into their seats.
The invisible band gave funny noises like a man clearing his throat.
There was still a number of people coming in—some strolling idly,
others pulled along by their excited charges. It was queer, Robert
thought, that they should be excited. The smell of the sawdust made him
feel rather sick.
He gave out his last handbill. Nobody noticed him. They took the
slip of paper which he thrust into their hands without looking at him.
He went and stood at the box-office where the big man in riding boots
was counting out his money. It was a high box-office, so that Robert
had to stand on tip-toe to be seen.
“I've finished,” he said.
The man glanced at him and then remembered.
“Oh, yes, you're the young feller. Given 'em all out, eh? Not thrown
'em on the rubbish heap? Well, what is it?”
“I want my sixpence.”
“Oh, sixpence I promised you, did I? Well, here's a shilling seat.
That'll do better, eh, what? You can go in now.”
“I want my sixpence.”
“You don't want—don't want to go to the Circus?”
“I don't like Circuses.”
The big man stared down at the white set face gazing stolidly back
at him over the wooded ledge. He tossed the coin indignantly across.
“Well, of all the unnatural, ungrateful young jackanapes——”
But he was so astonished that he had to lean out of his box and
watch the blasphemer—a quaint figure, bowed as though under a heavy
burden, its hands thrust hard into its trousers pockets—stalk away
from the great tent and without so much as a backward glance lose
itself among the crowd.
They came to an idle halt near Cleopatra's needle, and leaning
against the Embankment wall, looked across the river to the warehouses
opposite, which, in the evening mist, had the look of stark cliffs
guarded by a solitary watchful lion. The smaller of the two young men
took off his soft hat and set it beside him so that he could let the
wind brush through his thick red hair. He held himself very straight,
his slender body taut with solemn exultation.
“If only one could do something with it,” he said; “eat it—hug
it—get inside of it somehow—belong to it. It hurts—this gaping like
an outsider. Look now—one shade of purple upon another. Isn't it
unendurably beautiful? But if one could write a sonnet—or a sonata—or
paint a picture—— That's where the real artist has the pull over us
poor devils who can only feel things. He wouldn't just stand here. He'd
get out his fountain pen or his paint-box and make it all his for ever
and ever. Think of Whistler now—what he would do with it.”
“I can't,” Stonehouse said. “Who's Whistler?”
Cosgrave laughed in anticipation of his little joke. “Nobody, old
fellow. At least, he never discovered any bugs.”
The wind snatched up his forgotten hat and it sailed off up river
into the darkness like a large unwieldy bird. He looked after it
“That was a new hat. I'll have to go home without one, and the Pater
will think I've been in a drunken brawl, and there'll be a beastly
“That's the one thing he'll never believe. Well, I don't care. It'll
be over soon. If I've passed that exam. I'll get away and he won't be
able to nag me any more. And you, do think I've passed, don't you,
“If you didn't imagine your answers afterwards.”
“Honour bright, I didn't. I believe I did a lot better, really. You
know, I'm so awfully happy to-night I'd believe anything. It's queer
how this old river fits in with one's moods, isn't it? Last time we
were here I wanted to drown myself, and there it was ready to hand, as
it were—offering eternal oblivion—and all that. I thought of all the
other fellows who had drowned themselves, and felt no end cheered up.
And now it makes me think of escape—of getting away from
everything—sailing to strange, new countries——”
“The last time you were here,” Stonehouse said, “you'd just come out
of the exam. If you really answered as you say you did, there was no
reason for your wanting to drown yourself.”
“But I did. You're such a distrustful beggar. You think I just
imagine things. No, I'll tell you what it was—I didn't care. There I
was—I'd swotted and swotted. I'd thought that if only I could squeeze
through I'd be the happiest man on earth. And then, when it was all
over I began to think: 'What's it all for, what's it all about? What's
the good?' Suppose I have passed, I'll get some beastly little job in
some stuffy Government office, 200 pounds a year, if I'm lucky. And
then if I'm good and not too bright they'll raise me to 250 pounds in a
couple of years' time, and so it'll go on—nothing but fug, and dinge,
and skimping, and planning—with a fortnight at the seaside once a year
or a run over to Paris. I suppose it was good enough for our
grandfathers, Stonehouse—this just keeping alive? But it didn't seem
good enough to me. Don't you feel like that sometimes—when you think
of the time when you'll be able to stick M.D., or whatever it is, after
your name—as though, after all, it didn't matter a brace of shakes?”
Robert Stonehouse roused himself from his lounging attitude and
thrust his hands deep into his trousers pockets. There was a nip in the
wind, and he had no overcoat.
“No. When I've got through this next year I shall feel that I've
climbed out of a black pit and that the world's before me—to do what I
“Well—you're different.” Cosgrave sighed, but not unhappily.
“You're going to do what you want to do, and I expect you'll be great
guns at it. I dare say if I were to play the piano all day
long—decently, you know, as I do sometimes, inside me at any rate—and
get money for it, I'd think it worth while—— But it takes a lot to
make one feel that way about a Government office.”
His voice was quenched by a sudden rush of traffic—a tram that
jangled and swayed, a purring limousine full of vague, glittering
figures, and a great belated lorry lumbering in pursuit like an uncouth
participant in some fantastic race. They roared past and vanished, and
into the empty space of quiet there flowed back the undertones of the
river, solitary footfalls, the voice of the drowsing city. The
loneliness became something magical. It changed the colour of
Cosgrave's thoughts. He pressed closer to his companion, and, with his
elbows on the balustrade and his hands clenched in his hair, spoke in
an awed whisper.
“It does seem worth while now. That's what's so extraordinary. I
feel I can stick anything—even being a Government clerk all my life. I
don't even seem to mind home like I did. I'm in love. That's what it
is. You've never been in love, have you, Stonehouse?”
“You're such a cast-iron fellow. I don't know how I have the nerve
to tell you things. Sometimes I think you don't care a snap for
anything in the world, except just getting on.”
Robert Stonehouse hunched his shoulders against the wind. There was
more than physical discomfort in the movement—a kind of secret
distress and resentment.
“You do talk a lot of sentimental rubbish,” he said. “It seems to me
it's only a hindrance—this caring so much for people. It gets in a
man's way. Not that it matters to you just now. You've got a slack
time. You can afford to fool around.”
“You think I'm a milksop,” Cosgrave said patiently, “I don't mind. I
dare say it's true. There's not much fight in me. I don't seem able to
do without people like you can. I think, sometimes, if I hadn't had you
to back me up I'd never have been able to stick things. Of course, I'm
not clever, either. But you're wrong about being in love. It doesn't
get in one's way. It helps. Everything seems different.”
Stonehouse was silent, his fair, straight brows contracted. When he
spoke at last it was dispassionately and impersonally, as one giving a
considered judgment. But his voice was rather absurdly young.
“You may be right. I hadn't thought about it before. It didn't seem
important enough. There was a woman I knew when I was a kid—a common
creature—who was fond of saying that 'it was love that made the world
go round.' (My father married her for her money, which didn't go round
at all.) Still, in her way, she was stating a kind of biological fact.
If people without much hold on life didn't fall in love they'd become
extinct. They wouldn't have the guts to push on or the cheek to
perpetuate themselves. But they do fall in love, and I suppose, as you
say, things seem different. They seem different—worth while. So
they marry and have children, which seems worth while too—different
from other people's children, at any rate, or they wouldn't be able to
bear the sight of them. What you call love is just a sort of trick
played on you. If crowds are of any use I suppose it's justified. It's
a big 'if,' though.”
Cosgrave smiled into the dark.
“It sounds perfectly beastly. Not a bit encouraging. But I don't
care, somehow. Do you mind if I tell you about her? I've got to talk to
“I don't mind. But I don't want to stand here any longer. It's cold,
and, besides, I've got to be up west by six.”
They turned and strolled on toward Westminster. Robert Stonehouse
still kept his hands thrust into his pockets, and the position, gave
his heavy-shouldered figure a hunched fighting look, as though he had
set himself to stride out against a tearing storm. He took no notice of
Cosgrave, who talked on rapidly, stammering a little and scrambling for
his words. The wind blew his hair on end, and he walked with his small
wistful nose lifted to the invisible stars.
“You see, I can't tell anyone at home about her. It's not as though
she were even what people call a lady. (Oh, I'm perfectly sane—I don't
humbug myself.) Mother'd have a fit, and the Pater only looks at that
kind of thing in one way—his own particularly disgusting way. She
drops her aitches sometimes. But she's good, and she's pretty as a
flower. I met her at a dance club. I'd never been to such a place
before. And then one evening it suddenly came over me that I wanted to
be among a lot of people who were having a good time. So I plunged. You
pay sixpence, you know, and everybody dances with everybody. Of course
I can't dance. She saw me hanging round and looking glum, I suppose,
and she was nice to me. She taught me a few steps, and I told her about
the exam, and how worried I was about it, and we became friends. I've
never had a girl-friend before. It's amazing. And she's different,
anyway—— She's on the stage—in the chorus to begin with—but you'd
think they'd given her a lead, she's so happy about it. That's what I
love about her. Everything seems jolly to her. She enjoys things like a
kid—a 'bus ride, a cinema, our little suppers together. She loves just
being alive, you know. It's extraordinary—I say, are you listening,
“I didn't know you wanted me to listen. I thought you wanted to
talk. I was thinking of an operation I saw once—you wouldn't
understand—it was a ticklish job, and the man lost his head. He tried
to hide it, but I knew, and he saw I knew. A man like that oughtn't to
“And did the other fellow die?”
“Oh, yes. But he would have died anyway, probably. It wasn't that
that mattered. It was losing his nerve like that.”
“If I saw an operation,” Cosgrave said humbly, “I should be sick.”
Stonehouse had not heard. They reached the bridge in silence, and
under a street lamp stopped to take leave of one another. It was their
customary walk and the customary ending, and each wondered in his
different way how it was that they should always want to meet and to
talk to one another of things that only one of them could understand.
“Why does he bother with me?” Cosgrave thought.
But he was sorry for Robert, partly because he guessed that he was
hungry and partly because he knew that he was not in love.
“I wish you'd come along too,” he said a little breathlessly; “I
want you to meet her, you know—for us all to be friends together—just
a quiet supper—and my treat, of course.”
It was very transparent. He tried to look up at his companion boldly
and innocently. But the light from the street lamp fell into his
strange blue eyes, with their look of young and anxious hopefulness,
and made them blink. Robert Stonehouse laughed. He knew what was in
Cosgrave's mind, and it seemed to him half comic and half pathetic and
“I don't suppose you have enough to pay for supper, anyway,” he said
roughly, “or you'll go without your lunch to-morrow. Don't be an idiot.
Look after yourself and I'll look after myself. Besides, if you think
I'm not going to have a square meal to-night you're enormously
mistaken. I'm going to dine well—where you'll never Set your foot, not
until you're earning more than 250 pounds a year, at any rate.”
“Word of honour?”
“Oh, word of honour, of course.”
A shy relief came into the pinched and freckled face.
“Oh, well then—but I do want you to meet all the same; you see,
she'd like it—she knows all about you. I'm always bragging about you.
Perhaps I could bring her round—if Miss Forsyth wouldn't mind—if
she's well enough.”
Robert Stonehouse half turned away, as though shrinking from an
unwelcome, painful touch.
“She's all right.”
“Then may we come? I'm not afraid of Miss Forsyth. She's an
understanding person. She won't think people common because of their
aitches. Give her my love, won't you, Robert. And good night.”
“Oh, good night!” He added quickly, sullenly: “You look blue with
cold. Why don't you wear a decent coat? It's idiotic!”
“Because my coat isn't decent. I don't want her to see me shabby.
And I like to pretend I'm rather a strong, dashing fellow who doesn't
mind things. Besides, look at yourself!”
“You needn't rub it in.” He was gay now with an expectation that
bubbled up in him like a fountain. He made as though to salute Robert
solemnly and then remembered and clutched at his wind-blown hair
instead. “Oh, my hat! Well, it will make Connie laugh like anything!”
To be a habitue of Brown's was to prove yourself a person of some
means and solid discrimination. At Brown's you could get cuts from the
joint, a porter-house steak, apple tart, and a good boiled pudding as
nowhere else in the world. You went in through the swinging doors an
ordinary and fallible human being, and you came out feeling you had
been fed on the very stuff which made the Empire. You were slightly
stupefied, but you were also superbly, magnificently unbeatable.
Mr. Brown was an Englishman. But he did not glory in the fact. It
was, as he had explained to Robert one night, his kindly, serious face
glowing in the reflection from the grill, a tragedy.
“To be born an Englishman and a cook—it's like being born a bird
without wings. You can't soar—not however hard you try—not above
roasts and boils. Take vegetables. An Englishman natur'lly boils. And
it's no good going against nature. You're a doctor—or going to be—and
you know that. You've got to do the best you can, but you can't do
more. That's my motto. But if I'd been born a Frenchman—— Well it's
no use dreaming. If them potatoes are ready, Jim, so'm I.”
Mr. Brown had taken a fancy to Robert Stonehouse from the moment
that the latter had challenged him on the very threshold of his kitchen
and explained, coolly and simply, his needs and his intentions. Mr.
Brown was frankly a Romantic, and Robert made up to him for the
souffles and other culinary adventures which Fate had denied him. He
liked to dream himself into Robert's future.
“One of these days I'll be pointing you out to my special
customers—'Yes, sir, that's Sir Robert himself. Comes here every
Saturday night for old times' sake. Used to work here with me—waited
with his own hands, sir—for two square meals and ten per cent. of his
tips. You don't get young men like that these days—no, sir.”
Robert accepted his prophetic vision gravely. It was what he meant
to happen, and it did not seem to him to be amusing.
Brown's was tucked away in a quiet West End side street, and there
was only one entrance. At six o'clock the tables were still empty, and
Robert walked through into the employees' dressing-room. He put on his
white jacket, slightly stained with iodoform, and a black apron which
concealed his unprofessional grey trousers, and went to work in the
pantry, laying out plates and dishes in proper order, after the manner
of a general marshalling his troops for action. He was deft handed, and
responsible for fewer breakages than any of the old-timers—foreigners
for the most—who flitted up and down the passages with the look of
bats startled from their belfries and only half awake. Through an open,
glass window he could see into the huge kitchen, where Mr. Brown
brooded over his oven, and catch rich, sensuous odours that went to his
head like so many etherealized cocktails. He had not eaten since the
morning, and though he was too strong to faint, it grew increasingly
difficult to fix his mind on the examination question which he had set
himself. He found himself wondering instead, what would happen if old
Brown lost his flair for the psychological moment in roasts, and
why it was that a man who had performed an operation successfully a
hundred times should suddenly go to pieces over it? What made him lose
faith in himself? Nerves? A matter of the liver? We were only at the
beginning of our investigations. And then poor little Cosgrave, who as
suddenly began to believe in himself and in life generally because he
had fallen in love with a chorus girl!
The head waiter looked round the pantry door. He was a passionate
Socialist who, in his spare time, preached the extermination of all
such as did not work for their daily bread. But he disliked Robert
bitterly, as a species of bourgeois blackleg.
“You're wanted. There's a party of ten just come in. Hurry up, can't
Robert put down his plates and went into the dining-room with the
wine list. His table-napkin he carried neatly folded over one arm.
And there was Francey Wilmot.
She had other people with her, but he saw her first. He could not
have mistaken her. Of course, she had changed. She was taller, for one
thing, and wore evening dress instead of the plain brown frock that he
remembered. But her thick hair had always been short, and now it was
done up it did not seem much shorter. And it still had that quaint air
of being brushed up from her head by a secret, rushing wind—of wanting
to fly away with her. She was burnt, too, with an alien sun and wind.
Her face and neck were a golden brown, and in reckless contrast with
her white shoulders. One saw how little she cared. She sat with her
elbows on the table, and the sight of the supple hands and strong,
slender wrists stopped Robert Stonehouse short, as though a deep, old
wound which had not troubled him for years had suddenly begun to hurt
again. And yet how happy he had been, as a little boy, when she had
just touched him.
It was evidently a celebration in her honour. A tall young man with
side whiskers who came in late presented her with a bunch of roses in
the name of the whole company and with a gay, exaggerated homage. They
were a jolly crowd. They had in common their youth and an appearance of
good-natured disregard for the things that ordinary people cared about.
Otherwise they were of all sorts and conditions, like their clothes.
Two or three were in evening dress, and one girl who sat at the end of
the table and smoked incessantly wore a shabby coat and skirt and a
raffish billycock hat. Chelsea or the University Schools was stamped on
all of them. There wasn't much that they didn't know, and there was
very little that they believed in—not even themselves. For they were
of the very newest type, and would have scorned to admit to a Purpose
or a Faith. But they could not help being young and rather liking one
another, and the good food and the promise of a riotous evening.
Robert knew their kind. He even knew by sight the side-whiskered
young man who now clapped his hands like an Eastern potentate. He had
been of Robert's year at the University, and had been ploughed twice.
“Wine-ho! Fellow creatures, what is it to be? In honour of the
occasion and to show our contempt of circumstances, shall we say a
magnum of Heidsieck? All in favour wave their paws——”
The girl in the billycock hat blew a great puff of smoke towards
“Oh, death and damnation, Howard! Haven't I been explaining to you
all the afternoon that I owe rent for a fortnight to a devil in female
form, and that unless someone buys 'A Sunset over the Surrey Cliffs
seen Upside Down,' Gerty will be on the streets? Make it beer with a
dash o' bitters.”
Finally it was Francey who decided. She beckoned, not looking at
him, and Robert with a little obsequious bow, handed her the wine card
and waited at her elbow. He was not afraid of Howard's recognition.
They had never spoken to one another, and in any case Howard would not
believe his eyes.
It was strange to stand near to her again and to recognize the
little things about her that had fascinated small Robert
Stonehouse—the line of her neck, the brown mole at the corner of her
eye which people were always trying to rub off, the way her hair curled
up from her temples in two unmistakable horns. He had teased her about
them in his shy, clumsy way. A very subtle and sweet warmth emanated
from her like a breath. It took him back to the day when he had huddled
close to her, hiccoughing with grief and anger, and yet deeply,
deliriously happy because she was sorry for him. It made him giddy with
a sense of unreality, as though the present and the intervening years
were only part of one of his night stories, which, after their
tiresome, undeviating custom, had got tangled up in a monstrous,
impossible dream. And then a new fancy took possession of him. He
wanted to bend closer to her and say, very quietly, as though he were
suggesting an order, “What about your handkerchief? Do you want it
Amidst his austerely disciplined thoughts the impulse was like a
mad, freakish intruder, and it frightened him, so that he drew back
“Cider-cup,” she said. “It's my feast—and I like seeing the fruit
and pretending I can taste it. And then Howard won't get drunk and
recite poetry. Three orders, waiter.”
He took the wine card, but she held it a moment longer, as though
something had suddenly attracted her attention. Their hands had almost
“Yes—three orders will be enough.”
The company groaned, but submitted. In reality they were too
stimulated already by an invisible, exuberant spirit among them to care
much. From where he waited for Francey's order on the threshold of the
pantry Robert could see and hear them. It was really the old days over
again. Fundamentally things outside himself did not change much. The
Brothers Banditti had grown up. They were not nice children any more.
The innocent building-ground and nefarious plottings against unpopular
authority had given place to restaurants and more subtle wickednesses.
But still Francey played her queer, elusive role among them. She was of
them—and yet she stood a little apart, a little on one side. Probably
Howard thought himself their real leader. They did not talk to her
directly very much, nor she to them. But all the time they were playing
up to her, trying to draw her attention to themselves and make her
laugh with them. She did laugh. It did not seem to matter to her at all
that they were often crude and blatant and sometimes common in their
self-expression. She laughed from her heart. But her laughter was a
little different. It sat by itself, an elfish thing, with a touch of
seriousness about it, its arms hugging its knees, and looked beyond
them all and saw how much bigger and finer the joke was than they
thought it. She was the spirit of their good humour. They could not
have done without her.
And he, Robert Stonehouse, stood outside the circle, as in reality
he had always done. But now he did not want to belong. He knew now how
it hindered men to run with the herd—even to have friends. It wasted
time and strength. And these people were no good anyhow. Howard was one
of these dissipated duffers who later on would settle down as a
miraculously respectable and incapable G.P. The rest were vague,
rattle-brained eccentrics who would fizzle out, no one would know how
Only Francey—— But even in the old days it was only because of
Francey that the Banditti had meant anything to him.
The head waiter pushed across the counter a jug of yellowish liquid
in which floated orange peel and a few tinned, dubious-looking
“Take it, for God's sake! People who want muck like that ought to
keep to Soho.”
Robert poured out with an eye trained to accurate measurements in
the laboratory. It was his practice to do well everything that he had
to do. Otherwise you lost tone—you weakened your own fibre so that
when the big thing came along you slumped. But he could not forget
Francey Wilmot's nearness. It did not surprise him any more. But it
charged him with unrest, and he and his unrest frightened him. He knew
how to master ordinary emotion. Even when he carried off the Franklin
Scholarship in the teeth of a brilliant opposition he had not allowed
himself a moment's triumph. It was all in the day's work—a single step
on the road which he had mapped out deliberately. But this was outside
his experience. It had pounced on him from nowhere, shaking him.
He had to look up at her again. And then he saw that she was looking
at him too, steadily, with a deep, inquiring kindness.
It was as though she had said aloud:
“Are you really a good little boy, Robert?”
The cider poured over the edge of the glass and over the table-cloth
and in a dismal stream on to the lap of the girl with the raffish
“Well, that settles that,” she said good-humouredly. “My only skirt,
friends. She can't turn me out in my petticoat, can she? Oh, leave it
alone, garcong; it doesn't matter a tinker's curse——”
He could not help it. In the midst of his angry confusion he still
had to seek out her verdict on him—just as Robert Stonehouse had
always done when he had been peculiarly heroic or unfortunate. And
there it was, dancing beneath her gravity, her unforgotten, magic
At half-past ten Brown's cleared its last table. Robert Stonehouse
rolled down his sleeves, picked up the parcel which had been placed
ready for him on the pantry counter, said good-night to the head
waiter, who did not answer, and with his coat-collar turned up about
his ears went out in the street. It was quiet as a country lane and
empty except for the girl who waited beyond the lamp light. He knew her
instantly, and in turn two sensations that were equally foreign and
unfamiliar seized him. The first was sheer panic, and the second was a
sense of inevitability. The second was the oddest of the two, because
he did not believe in Fate, but he did believe in his own will.
It was his own will, therefore, that made him walk steadily and
indifferently towards her. His head bent as though he did not see her.
It was really the wind in her hair now. It caught the ends of her long,
loose coat and carried them out behind her. Her slender feet moved
uncertainly in the circle of lamp-light. Any moment they might break
into one of the quaint little dances. Or the wind might carry her off
altogether in a mysterious gust down the street and out of sight. It
was like his vision of her that evening in Acacia Grove. It made him
feel more and more unreal and frightened of himself.
He was almost past her when he spoke.
“Robert Stonehouse,” she said rather authoritatively, as though she
expected him to run away; “Robert Stonehouse——”
He stopped short with his heart beating in his throat. But he did
not take the hand that she held out to him. He could only stare at her,
frowning in his distress, and she asked: “You do know who I am, don't
“Yes. Francey—Francey Wilmot—Miss Wilmot.” He forced himself to
stop stammering, and added stiffly: “I did not know you had recognized
“Didn't you? I thought—— Well, I did recognize you anyhow. I was
so astonished at first that I thought it was a sort of materialization.
But you were absurdly the same. And then when you poured the cider out
on to poor Gerty's skirt——”
“Was that one of my childish customs?” he asked. “I'd forgotten.”
“I nearly stood up and shook hands.”
“I'm glad you didn't.”
“I thought you'd feel like that. I remembered that you had been
rather a touchy little boy——”
“I was thinking of your friends. Howard, for instance.”
“Why, do you know Howard?”
“If you've never even spoken to him you can't, of course, tell what
he would have felt. Do you mind walking home with me? I don't live far
from here, and we can talk better.”
He held his ground, obstinate and defiant. It was unjust that
anyone, knowing himself to be brilliantly clever, should yet be made an
oaf by an incident so trivial.
“I'm sorry. I don't see what we can have to talk about. I'm not keen
on childish recollections. I haven't time for them. And it's fairly
obvious we don't move in the same set and are not likely to meet
again.” He burst out rudely. “I suppose you were just curious——”
“Of course. You'd be curious if you found me selling flowers in
Piccadilly. You'd come up and say: 'allo! Francey, what have you been
doing with yourself?' And you'd have tried to give me a leg up, if it
only ran to buying a gardenia for old times' sake.”
He suspected her of poking fun at him. And yet there was that subtle
underlying seriousness about her and a frank, disarming kindliness.
“You think I'm down on my luck,” he retorted, “and so anybody has a
right to butt in.”
“Not a right. Of course, if I'd met you in Bond Street, all sleek
and polished, I shouldn't have dreamed of butting in. I should have
said to myself, 'Well, that's the end of the little Robert Stonehouse
saga as far as I'm concerned,' and I don't suppose I should ever have
thought of you again. But now I shall have to go on thinking—and
wondering what happened—and worrying.” She drew her cloak closer about
her like a bird folding its wings, and added prosaically: “I say, don't
you find it rather cold standing about here?”
He turned with her and walked on sullenly, his head down to the
wind. He thought: “I shall tell her nothing at all.” But to his
astonishment she was silent, and finally he had to speak himself.
“I'm afraid this silly business has broken up your party. Or was it
getting too lively for you? Howard's beanos used to have a considerable
“He often seems drunk when he isn't,” she returned tranquilly. “I
think it's because he enjoys things more than most people are able to.
It wasn't that. I wanted to see you so much, and I knew Brown's would
be closing about now. So I sent them to a theatre. It seemed the safest
“And they went like lambs. But, then, the Banditti always did.”
“Oh, the Banditti!” He guessed that she was smiling to herself. “The
Banditti wouldn't have grown up like that. They were much too
nice—never quite really wicked, were they? Just carried off their
feet. Still, they were never quite the same after you left. I think
they always hankered a little after the good old days when they rang
door-hells and chivied their governesses. Probably they will never be
so happy again.”
“They had you. It was you they really cared about. Everybody did
what you liked.”
“I did—in the end.”
It was odd that they should be both thinking of that last encounter
and that they should speak of it so guardedly, as though it were still
a delicate matter.
“I didn't know you were never coming again. I waited for you in the
afternoon—for weeks and weeks.”
“Did you?” He looked at her quickly, taken off his guard, and then
away again with a scornful laugh. “Oh, I don't believe it. You knew I
wasn't nice—not your sort. You're just making it up.”
“I wonder why you say that?” she asked dispassionately. “It's cheap
and stupid. You're not really stupid and you weren't cheap, even if you
weren't nice. And you know that I don't tell lies.”
For a moment he was too startled and too ashamed to answer. Cheap.
That was just the word for it. The sort of thing that common young men
said to their common young women. And, of course, he did know. Her
integrity was a thing you felt. But he could never bring himself to
tell her that he had been afraid to believe too easily, or that he did
not want to have to remember her afterwards, waiting there day by day,
in their deserted playground. It troubled him already, like a vague,
He did not even apologize.
“I suppose I should have come back sooner or later. But I didn't
have the chance. My father died that night—unexpectedly.” He brushed
aside her low interjection.
“Oh, I was jolly glad. But after that we had to clear out. There was
no money at all.”
“But you lived in a big house. Your father was a great doctor.”
“I was a great liar,” he retorted impatiently. “I suppose I wanted
to impress you. Perhaps he was a great doctor. Anyhow, he never did any
work. There was a bailiff in the house when he died and a pile of
bills. And not much else.”
“What happened, then? Did you go with your stepmother? I remember
how you hated her! You wouldn't admit that she was a mother of any
“No. I don't know what became of her. I never saw her again after
that night. I think she went to live with her own people. Christine
took care of me.”
“I don't remember Christine. I don't think you ever told me about
“I wouldn't have known how to explain. I don't know now. She was a
sort of friend—my father's and mother's friend. There was an
understanding between her and my mother—a promise—I don't know what.
So she took me away with her. Not that she had any money, either. We
went to live in two rooms in the suburbs, and she worked for us both.
She had never worked before—not for money—and she wasn't young. But
she did it.”
“A great sort of friend. And she came through too——?”
He did not answer at once, and he felt her look at him quickly,
anxiously, as though she had felt him shrink back into himself. She
heard something in his silence that he did not want her to hear. He put
his head down to the wind again, hiding a white, hard face.
“Oh, yes, and we still live in two rooms—over a garage in Drayton
Mews. My room 'folds up' in the day-time, and she sits there and knits
woollen things for the shops. She has to take life easily now. She had
an illness, and her eyes trouble her. But she's better—much better.
And next year everything will be different.”
The street had run out into the still shadows of a great dim square.
For a moment they hesitated like travellers on the verge of unknown
country; then Francey crossed over to the iron-palinged garden and they
walked on side by side under the trees that rattled their grimy,
fleshless limbs in an eerie dance. There was no one else stirring. The
eyes of the stately Georgian houses were already closed in the
weariness of their sad old age.
But she asked no questions. She seemed to have drifted away from him
on a secret journey of her own. He had to draw her back—make her
“I shall be a doctor then,” he said challengingly.
“You said you would be a doctor. We quarrelled about it.”
“How you remember things——”
“You were such a strange little boy. Besides, you remember them
“That's different. I've never had anyone else——” He caught himself
up. “I suppose you think I'm still bragging?”
“You never bragged. You always did what you said you were going to
do—even stupid things, like climbing that old wall.”
So she had seen him, after all. She had watched—perhaps a little
frightened for him, a little impressed by his reckless daring.
“Oh, well, I admit it didn't seem likely. People think you have to
have a lot of money. We've often laughed about it. For we hadn't
anything except what we saved from week to week. And yet we've done it.
You can do anything so long as you don't mind what you do. It depends
on the stuff you're made of.”
He threw his head up and walked freely, with open shoulders. After
all, he was proud of those years, and had a right to be. They had
tested every inch of him, and it would have been stupid to pretend that
he did not know his own mettle. He heard his footsteps ring out through
the fitful whimpering of the wind and they seemed to mark the rhythm of
his life—a steady, resolute progression. The lighter fall of Francey
Wilmot's feet beside him was like an echo. But yet it had its own
quality. Not less resolute.
He heard her say quickly, almost to herself:
“It must have been hard going—but awfully worth while. An
adventure. I can't be sorry for anyone who suffers on an adventure—any
sort of adventure—even if it's only in oneself.”
She was more moved than he could understand. But the wind, dashed
with ice-cold rain, blew them closer to one another. He could feel the
warmth of her arm against his. It was difficult to seem prosaic and
“That's just it. Worth while. Why do people want 'chances' and
'equality' and things made smooth for them? What's the use of anything
if there isn't a top and a bottom to it? What's the use of having
enough to eat if you haven't been hungry? I'm going to be a doctor, and
I might have slumped into the gutter. I'm jolly glad there is a gutter
to slump into——” He broke off, and then went on more deliberately.
“Christine and I mapped it out one night when I was ten years old.
After school hours I used to run errands and sell newspapers. On
half-holidays I went down into the West End and hunted taxis for people
coming out of theatres. I took my exams and scholarship one after the
other. We counted on that. I kept on earning in one way or another all
through my first M.B. and during the two years I've walked the Wards.
Now I've had to drop out for a bit to make enough to carry through my
finals. Christine's illness was the only thing we hadn't reckoned
Her voice had an odd, troubling huskiness.
“You must be frightfully strong. But then you always were. You used
to beat everyone——”
“I'm like that now. I've got a dozen lives—like a cat. And one life
doesn't know what the other one's doing.” He laughed. “Before breakfast
I wash down the car of the man who owns our garage. The rest of the
morning I coach fellows for the Matric. In the afternoon I swot for
myself. You see how I spend my evenings. Brown's been very decent to
me. I get part of my tips and two meals—one for myself and one to take
home.” He showed her the parcel that he carried. “Cold chicken and rice
mould,” he said carelessly. “We couldn't afford that.”
He did not tell her that there had been times when, to keep their
compact, they had gone without altogether, when Christine had fainted
over her typewriter and he had watched her from out of a horrible,
quivering mist—too sick with hunger to help, or even to care much. He
did not want Francey to be sorry for him.
“And the tips?” she asked, with grave concern. “I hope we played the
game. But poor old Howard is always so hard up——”
“Oh, good enough. Usually I get more than the others, and they hate
me for it. I'm quicker and I've got clean hands. People like that.”
“I saw your hands first,” Francey said, “and I knew at once that you
were something different.”
It was too dark for her to see his face. Yet he turned away hastily.
He spoke as though he did not care at all.
“Brown's a smart fellow. He knows what's coming, and what people are
worth to him. We've got an agreement that when I'm Sir Robert I'm to
boost the old place and do his operations free. I think he'll be rather
sick if he doesn't need any.”
It was half a joke, but if she had laughed—laughed in the wrong
way—the chances were that he would have turned on his heel and left
her without so much as a good-night. For he was strung up to an
abnormal, cruel sensitiveness. Whatever else they did, people did not
laugh at him. He had never given them the chance that he had given her.
He had learnt to be silent, and now she had made him talk and the
result had been an uncouth failure. He had thrown his hardships at her
like a parvenu his riches. If she did not see through his crudeness to
what was real in him, she could only see that he was a rather funny
young man who swaggered outrageously. And that was not to be endured.
But she did not laugh at all.
“You're sure of yourself, Robert.”
“I'm sure of myself, too. Because I'm sure of things outside
He did not try to understand her. He was wrestling with the
expression of his own experiences. He threw out his free hand and
turned it and closed the powerful, slender fingers, as though he were
moulding some invisible substance.
“Outside things are colourless and lifeless—sort of plastic
stuff—until we get hold of them. We twist them to the best shapes we
can. Nothing happens to us that isn't exactly like ourselves. Even what
people call accidents. Even a man's diseases. I've seen that in the
Wards. People die as they live, and they live as they are——”
And now she did laugh, throwing back her head, and he laughed with
her, shyly but not resentfully. It was as though a crisis in their
relationship had been passed. He could trust her to understand. And he
knew that though what he had said was true, it had also sounded young
“You think I'm talking rot, don't you?”
“I only think you've changed,” she answered, with a quick gravity.
“Not outside. Outside you're just a few feet bigger and the round lines
have become straight. But when you were a little boy you used to cry a
“I don't see—how did you know?”
“I did know. There were certain smears—I don't think you liked
having your face washed—and a red, tired, look under the eyes. The
point is that now I can't imagine your ever having cried at all.”
“I haven't.” He calculated solemnly. “Not for more than twelve
years. I remember, because it was after I had played truant at the
But he did not want to tell her about the circus. He stopped short
and looked at his watch in the lamplight.
“Nearly twelve. We've been prowling round this place for an hour.
I've got to get home and work. I thought you said you lived near here.”
“I do. Over the way. The big house. I've two rooms on the top floor.
Rather jolly—and near St. Mary's——”
“What—what do you want with St. Mary's?”
But she had already begun to cross the road, and the wind, coming
down a side street with a shriek, sent her scudding before it like a
leaf. She was half-way up the grey stone steps before he overtook her.
She turned on him, the short ends of her hair flying wickedly.
“Of course, it's only right and natural that you should talk of
nothing but yourself.”
He stammered breathlessly.
“I didn't think—I'm sorry——”
“Do you suppose you're the only person who does what they say
they're going to do?”
“What—not—not a doctor, Francey?”
“Not yet. I'm two years behind you. This will be my first year in
the Wards. Next year you will be full-blown—perhaps on the staff—and
I shall have to trot behind you and believe everything you say.” She
smiled rather gravely. “You will have got the big stick, after all.”
He looked up at her, holding on to the spiked railing that guarded
the yawning area. But he had a queer feeling that he had let go of
everything else that he had held fast to—that he was gliding down-bill
in a reckless abandonment to an unknown feeling. He knew too little of
emotion to know that he was happy.
“Why—I shall be there too. I'll be on a surgical post—dresser for
old Rogers. And he's going to take me on his private rounds.”
It was not what he had meant to say. He had meant to say, “We shall
see each other.” Perhaps she guessed. Her hand rested on his, warm and
strong and kind, as though nothing had changed at all. Because they
were grown up she did not hold back in a conventional reserve. If only
he could have cried she would have sat down on the steps beside him,
and put her arm about him, and comforted him.
“And I want to meet Christine,” she said.
“And it's been fine—our meeting again. But didn't you always know
it would happen?”
“I believe I did. Yes, I did. I used to imagine——”
And then he knew and saw that she knew too. He saw it in the sudden
darkening of her steady eyes, in the perplexity of her drawn brows. He
felt it in her hand that scarcely moved, as though even now it would
not shrink from whatever was the truth. It came and went like a flare
of fire across the storm. And when it had gone, they could not believe
that it had ever been. They were both shaken with astonishment. And
yet, hadn't they always known?
“Good-night, Robert Stonehouse.”
But he could not move. He watched the blank door open, and her
slender shadow stand out for a moment against the yellow gas-light of
the hall. She did not look back. Perhaps she too was spell-bound. The
door closed with an odd sound as though the house had clicked its
tongue in good-natured amusement.
“Now you see how it happens, Robert Stonehouse!”
At any rate, the spell was broken. Hugging his parcel dangerously
close he raced back to the shelter of the trees and waited. High over
head the house opened a bright eye at him. He waved back at it with an
absurd, incredible boyishness.
Then he walked on deliberately, firmly.
What was it he had to set his mind on?
Of course. That question of therapeutics——
“I don't understand it,” Christine said. “It seems to me better than
anything you've ever read to me.”
She counted her stitches for the second time, and looked up at the
sun that showed its face over the stable roof opposite, as though at a
lamp which did not burn as well as it used to do. In the dusty golden
light she was like a figure in a tapestry. Perhaps in its early days it
had been a trifle crude, a trifle harsh in colour, but now worn and
threadbare, trembling on decay, it had attained a rare and exquisite
She smiled back blindly into the little room.
“Don't you think so, Robert?”
Mr. Ricardo also looked at Robert, eagerly, pathetically.
“It was to gain your opinion—reinforce my own judgment—solely for
that purpose—difficult to obtain, the impartial opinion of a trained
He had grown into a habit of talking like that—in broken disjointed
sentences, which only Robert and Christine who knew his thoughts could
understand. And now, in the midst of his scattered manuscript he
waited, rubbing his shiny knees with his thin, grey, not very clean
But Robert looked at Francey. He had sat all the time with his arms
crossed on the oil-clothed table and looked at her, frankly and
unconsciously as a savage or a street boy might have done. He was too
tired to care. He had come straight from giving the limousine
underneath an extra washing down for the Whitsun holidays and oil still
lingered in his nails, and there was a faint forgotten smear of it on
his cheek, and another near the thick upstanding hair where he had
rubbed his hand across. They came as almost humorous relief in a face
in which there were things ten years too old—the harsh and bony
structure showing where there should have been a round boyishness, and
the full mouth set in a fierce, relentless negation of itself. But the
oil smears and the eyes that shone out from under the fair overhanging
brows were again almost too young. They made the strength pathetic.
He, too, sat in the sunlight, which was not kind to his green,
threadbare clothes. But the sun only came into the stable yard for an
hour or two, and as it withdrew itself slowly along the length of the
table he shifted his position to move with it, unconsciously, like a
tired animal. Francey, cross-legged and smoking, on the couch which at
night unfolded itself into a bed, saw the movement and smiled at him.
Her eyes were as steady in their serenity as his were steady with
hunger. She did not change colour, so that whatever she understood from
that long scrutiny did not trouble her. He leant forward, as though he
were afraid of missing some subtle half-tone in her voice.
“Mr. Ricardo thinks I'm unprejudiced. He's forgotten the times when
he pulled my ears and smacked my head. But you are different, Francey.
You can say what you think.”
“But it wouldn't be at all helpful,” she answered very solemnly. “To
begin with, I have the scientific mind, and I cannot accept as a basis
of argument an entirely untested hypothesis.”
Connie Edwards thereupon gave vent to an artificial groan of
anguish, followed by an explosive giggle which would have lost her her
half of Rufus Cosgrave's chair had he not put his arm round her. There
were only three chairs in the room, and as two of them had been already
occupied when she and her companion had, as she expressed it, “blown
in” half an hour previously, they had perched together, listening with
clasped hands and an air of insincere solemnity. For Mr. Ricardo had
not stopped reading. He had gone on as though he had not heard their
boisterous entry, and even now would have seemed unaware of their
existence but for something bitter and antagonistic in the hunch of his
thin shoulders. His dark, biting eyes avoided them like those of a
sullen child who does not want to see. But Miss Edwards appeared to be
not easily depressed. She waved her hand in friendly thanks for the
cigarette case which Francey tossed across to her, and, having selected
her cigarette with blunt, viciously manicured fingers, poked Cosgrave
for a match.
“Gawd Almighty, and Little Connie K.O.'ed in the first round by an
untested hypo—hypo—— What was it, Ruffles dear? (Oh, do stop
squeezing my hand! This isn't the pictures, and it's a match I
want—not love.) An untested hypothesis. Thank you, dearie. I wonder if
He's feeling as sore about it as I am?”
She gurgled over her cigarette, and Cosgrave smiled at everyone in
turn, as though he had said aloud, “Isn't she a splendid joke?” He
looked almost mystically happy.
“Of such is the Kingdom of Heaven,” Mr. Ricardo muttered. “Mark it,
mark it, Robert—the shallow thinking, shallow jesting, shallow
Miss Edwards winked at Francey, and Francey looked back at her with
her understanding kindliness. It seemed to Robert that ever since
Connie Edwards had burst into the room Francey had changed. The change
was subtle and difficult to lay hold of, like Francey herself. Mentally
she was always moving about, quietly, light-footedly, just as she had
done among the bricks and rubble of their old playground, peering
thoughtfully at things which nobody else saw or looking at them from
some new point of view. You couldn't be sure what they were or why they
interested her. And now—he had almost seen her do it—she had shifted
her position, come over to Connie Edward's side, and was gazing over
her shoulder, with her own brown head tilted a little on one ear, and
was saying in Connie's vernacular:
“Well, so that's how it looks to you? And, I say, you're right. It's
In her mysterious way she had found something she liked in Connie
Edwards, with her awful hat and her outrageous, three-inch heels and
her common prettiness. Cosgrave obviously was crazy about her. He
seemed to cling to her because she had an insatiable hunger for the
things he couldn't afford. One could see that he had tried to model
himself to her taste. He wore a gardenia and a spotted tie. And,
bearing these insignia of vulgarity, he looked more than ever pathetic
Cosgrave was an idiot who had lost his balance. But Francey was
another matter. The Francey who had asked “And are you a good little
boy?” accepted Connie Edwards without question. Because it was
ridiculous to be hurt about it Robert grew angry with her and frowned
away from her, and talked to Mr. Ricardo as though there were no one
else in the room.
“I can't think why they didn't take it, sir. It's fine stuff. A
shade too long for a magazine article. It may have been that, of
But Mr. Ricardo bent down and began to gather up his manuscript. The
paper was of all kinds and sizes, covered with crabbed writing and
fierce erasures. It was oddly like himself—disordered, a little
desperate, not very clean. When he had all the sheets together he sat
with them hugged against his breast and bent closer to Christine,
speaking in a mysterious whisper.
“It's not that. Robert knows it isn't, but he doesn't care any more.
He'll say anything. But I know. I've guessed it a long time. People
have found out. They say to one another, when I send in my papers,
'This man is a liar. Every morning of his life he gives his assent to
lies. And now he is going to teach the very lies he pretends to
exterminate. We can't have anything to do with a man like that.' And
there's a conspiracy, Miss Christine, a conspiracy——” His voice began
to rise and tremble. “They've taken me off my old classes under the
pretext that they are too much for me. They've set me on to Scripture.
Then they told me I had to remember—remember circumstances—to prevent
myself from saying what I thought of such devilish cruelty. But I saw
that they wanted me to break out so that they could get rid of me
altogether, and I held my tongue. One of these days, though, I shall
stand up in the open places and tell the truth. I shall say what they
have done to me——”
He had forgotten, if he had ever fully realized, that there were
strangers about him. He shook his fist and shouted, whilst the slow,
hopeless tears rolled down the sunken yellow cheeks onto the dirty
They stared at him in consternation, all but Francey, who uncurled
herself negligently and slid from the sofa.
“It's past my tea-time,” she announced, “and I want my tea.”
It was as though she had neither seen nor cared. Christine turned
her faded, groping eyes thankfully in her direction.
“Of course, my dear. Robert—please——”
“No,” he said; “we don't have tea, Francey.”
“But, Robert, at least when we have guests——”
“Or guests,” he added, with a set, white face.
Cosgrave laughed. He made a comic grimace. He seemed utterly
irrepressible and irresponsible, like a colt let out for the first time
in a wide field.
“You don't know this fellow like I do, Miss Wilmot. A nasty Spartan.
But if you'll put a shilling in the gas meter we'll get cakes and a
quarter of tea. He doesn't need to have any if he doesn't want it, but
he can't grudge us a corner of table and half a chair each. Miss
Christine's on our side, aren't you, Miss Christine? And oh, Connie,
there's a pastrycook's round the corner where they make jam-puffs like
they did when I was a kid——”
“I'll put the kettle on,” Francey said, nodding to him.
She passed close to Robert. She even gave him a quick, friendly
touch. He could almost hear her say, “Tag, Robert!” but he would not
look at her. And yet the moment after he knew that it was all
make-believe. His anger was a sham, protecting something that was
fragile and afraid of pain. Now that she had gone out of the barren
little room she had taken with her the sense of a secret, gracious
intimacy which had been its warmth and colour. He saw that the sunlight
had shrunk to a pale gold finger whose tip rested lingeringly on the
windowsill, and he felt tired and cold and work-soiled.
He got up and followed her awkwardly, with a sullen face and a
childishly beating heart. The kettle was already on the gas, and
Francey gazing into an open cupboard that was scarcely smaller than the
“It's like a boy's chemist shop,” she said casually, as though she
had expected him, “with the doses done up in little white paper
packets. Is it a game, Robert?”
“A sort of game. We used to use too much of everything, and at the
end of the week there'd be nothing left. So we doled it out like that.”
“Yes, I see. A jolly good idea. That way you couldn't over-eat
“I—I suppose you think I was an awful beast about the tea, don't
“No, I didn't—I don't.”
“I was—much firmer than I would have been, but I wanted you to
stay. So I couldn't give in.”
“If it had been just Cosgrave and Miss Edwards?”
“It wouldn't have mattered—not so much.”
“I wasn't hurt. It was tactless of me. But I wanted the tea. I
forgot. And I wanted to stay, too. I haven't learnt to do without
things that I want.”
“You think I don't want them?”
She closed the cupboard door abruptly. The kitchen was so small that
when she turned they had to stand close to one another to avoid falling
back into the sink or burning themselves against the gas jet. He saw
that the fine colour had gone out of her face. She looked unfamiliarly
“I think you want them terribly. I suppose I'm not heroic. I don't
like your saying 'No' always—always.”
“I shall get what I really want in the end.”
She sighed, reflected, and then laughed rather ruefully.
“Oh, well, get the cups now, at any rate.”
“There are only three, Francey.”
“You and I will have to share, then.”
So she made him happy—just as she had done when they had been
children—with a sudden comradely gesture.
But in the next room Mr. Ricardo had begun to talk again. They had
to hear him. He was not crying any more. His voice sounded hard and
“He's changed. He doesn't care. He pretended to listen. He was
looking at that girl. She's a strange girl. I don't trust her. She
believes in myths. Oh, yes, I know. She did not say so, but I can smell
out an enemy. She will try to wreck everything. So it is in life. We
give everything—sacrifice everything—to pass on our knowledge, our
experience, and in the end they break away from us—they go their own
Robert could not hear Christine's answer. He felt that Ricardo had
thrown out his arms in one of his wild gestures. “Not gratitude—not
gratitude. He was to have carried on my fight. To have been free as I
Miss Edwards and Rufus Cosgrave came racketing back up the steep and
creaking stairs. It was like the whirlwind entry of some boisterous
comet dragging at its rear a bewildered, happy tail. They were as
exultant as though their paper bags contained priceless loot rescued
from overwhelming forces.
“Hurry up there, Mr. Stonehouse. Don't keep the lady waiting. Tea
and puff, as ordered, ma'am. No, ma'am, no tipping allowed in this
establishment. But anything left under the plate will be sent to the
Society for the Cure of the Grouch among Superior Waiters.”
She jollied Christine, whose answering smile was like a little
puzzled ghost. She nourished a heavily scented handkerchief in the
professional manner and grinned at Robert, whose open hostility did not
so much as ruffle the fringe of her good humour. In her raffish, rakish
world poverty and wry, eccentric-tempered people abounded, and were
just part of an enormous joke. And Rufus Cosgrave, who gaped at her in
wonder and admiration, saw that she was right. Poor old Robert and
exams, and beastly, bullying fathers and hard-upness—the latter more
especially—were all supremely funny.
But Robert would not look at the jam-puff which she pushed across to
“Thanks. I hate the beastly stuff.”
And yet it was a flaky thing, oozing, as Rufus had declared, with
real raspberry jam. And he was very young. But he would not give way.
Could not. It seemed trivial, and yet it was vital, too. There was
something in him which stood up straight and unbendable. Once broken it
could never be set up again. And gradually a sense of loneliness crept
over him. He went and stood next Ricardo, who, like himself, would have
no share in the festivity. And the old man blinked up at him with a
kind of triumph.
“And we're going to a hill that I know of,” Francey was saying. “No
one else knows of it. In fact, it's only there when I am. You go by
train, and after that you have to walk. I don't know the way. It comes
by inspiration. When you get to the top you can see the whole of
England, and there are always flowers. I'm taking Howard's gang, and
you people must come along too. It's what you want. A good time——”
“All the time,” said Miss Edwards, blowing away the crumbs.
“My people are going in a char-a-banc to Brighton,” Rufus said. “But
I'll give them the slip. There's sure to be a beastly row anyhow.”
“That's my brave boy! Who cares for rows? Take me. Our Mr. Reilly's
had the nerve to fix up a rehearsal for the new French dame what's
coming to ginger up our show—and, oh, believe me, it needs it—but am
I down-hearted? No! Anyway, if she's half the stuff they say she is
they'll never notice poor little Connie's gone to bury her fifth
grandmother. So I'll be with you, lady, and kind regards and many
“And you, too. Miss Forsyth?”
Christine shook her head. She was frowning up out of the open window
a little anxiously.
“What would you do with a tired old woman?”
“Ruffles will carry you. Throw out your chest, Ruffles, and look
fierce. What's the use of a hefty brute like that if it isn't useful?”
“And when you're on my hill,” Francey said with a mysterious nod,
“you'll understand it better than any of us.” She looked away from the
grey, upturned face. She added almost to herself: “How dark it is here!
The sun has gone down behind the roof.”
“Has it? Yes, it went so suddenly. I wondered”—she picked up her
knitting, and began to roll it together—“if Robert could go?” she
“Robert can go. I knew before I asked.”
But he flung round on her in a burst of extraordinary resentment.
“I can't. You seem to think I can do anything and everything that
comes into your head. People like you never really understand. We're
poor. We haven't the money or the time to—to fool round. Nor has
Cosgrave, but he likes to pretend—humbug himself and anyone else silly
enough to believe in him.”
It was as though something long smouldering amongst them had blazed
up. Cosgrave banged the table with his clenched fist. His freckles were
like small suns shining out of his dead-white face.
“You—you leave me alone, Stonehouse. I—I'm n-not a kid any more.
And I d-don't pretend. Connie knows I haven't a c-cent in the world
except what poor mother sneaks out of the housekeeping. But I'm s-sick
of living as I've done—always grinding, always afraid of everything.
If I c-can't have my fun out of life I d-don't want to live at all. I'm
not going to Heaven to make up for it—Mr. Ricardo has just told us
that—so what's the use? You've g-got your work and that satisfies you.
Mine doesn't satisfy me. So when you t-talk about me—you're just
t-talking through your hat.”
Miss Edwards threw up her hands in mock horror.
“Oh, my angel child, what a temper! And to think I nearly married
She choked with laughter. And underneath the thin flooring, as
though roused by her irreverent merriment, the big car shook itself
awake with a roar and splutter of indignation. But the sliding doors
were thrown open, and its rage died down at the prospect of release. It
began to purr complacently, greedily.
It was strange how the sound quieted them. They looked towards the
window as though for the first time they were aware of something
outside that came to them from beyond the low, confining roofs—a
spring wind blowing from far-off places.
“Six cylinder,” Cosgrave muttered with feverish eyes. “Do you know,
if I had that thing living under me I'd—I'd go off with it one night,
and I'd go on and on and never come back.”
Connie Edwards patted his head. She winked at Francey, but Francey
was looking at Robert's sullen back.
“No, you wouldn't. Not for six months or so, anyhow.”
He laughed shamefacedly.
“Oh, well, of course I'm rotting. I can't drive a go-cart. Never had
the chance. Oh, I say, Robert, don't grouch. I didn't mean to be rude.
Of course, you're right in a way. But I get that sort of stuff at home,
and if I get it here I don't know what I'll do.”
“Oh, you're right, too,” Robert muttered. “It's not my business.”
Cosgrave appealed sadly to Francey.
“He's wild with me. But a picnic—you'd think any human being might
go on a picnic——”
“You're going,” she answered quietly, “and Robert too.”
He did not take up the challenge. He was too miserable. He had not
meant to break out like that. As in the old days, he hungered for her
approval, her good smile of understanding. But as in the old days, too,
beneath it all, was the dim consciousness of an antagonism, of their
two wills poised against one another.
The car purred louder with exultation. It came sliding out into the
narrow, cobbled street. It waited a moment, gathering itself together.
“I wonder where it's going,” Cosgrave dreamed. “I hope a jolly long
way—right to the other end of England. I'd like to think of it going
on and on through the whole world.”
Christine leaned forward, peering out dimly.
“Are the trees out yet, Robert?”
They looked at her in silence. It was a strange thing to ask. And
yet not strange at all. All day long she sat there and saw nothing but
the squat, red-faced stable opposite. Or if she went out it was to buy
cheaply from the barrows in a mean side street. And now she was
remembering that there were trees somewhere, perhaps in bloom.
Even Miss Edwards looked queerly dashed and distressed.
“Now you're asking something, Miss Forsyth. There are trees in this
little old village, but they aren't real somehow, and I never notice
'em. Well, we'll know on Monday. Please Heaven, it doesn't rain.”
“I want to get out,” Cosgrave muttered; “out of here—right
“I've not had a picnic—not since I was a kid. But I haven't
forgotten it, though. Heaps to eat—and an appetite—— Oh, my!”
“And you can go on eating and eating,” Francey added greedily, “and
it doesn't seem to matter.”
“Egg and cress sandwiches——”
“And something jolly in a bottle.”
They laughed at one another. But after that the quiet returned
again. Francey sat with her hands clasped behind her head and her chair
tip-tilted against the wall. To Robert, who watched her from out of the
shadow, she seemed to be drifting farther and farther away on a dark,
quiet, flowing river.
It grew to dusk. The car had long since set out on its unknown
journey. The narrow street with its pungent stable odour had sunk into
one of those deep silences which lie scattered like secret pools along
the route of London's endless processions. And presently Mr. Ricardo,
who had not moved or spoken, but had sat hunched together like a
captive bird, leant forward with his finger to his lips.
Christine had fallen asleep. Her hands lay folded upon her work and
her face was still lifted to the black ridge of roof where the sun had
vanished. There was enchantment about her sleep, as though in the very
midst of them she had begun to live a new, mysterious life of her own.
She had been the shadowy onlooker. She became the central figure among
Mr. Ricardo rose noiselessly. He looked at no one. He passed them
like a ghost. They heard him creeping down the stairs and his hurrying,
unequal footsteps on the empty street. Cosgrave and Connie Edwards
nodded to one another and took hands and were gone. Francey, too,
slipped to her feet. She gathered up her hat and coat, her silence
effortless. She did not so much as glance at Robert, but at the head of
the steep, ladder-like stairs he overtook her.
With one foot on the lower step, her back against the wall, she
waited for him. It was too dark for them to see each other clearly.
They were shadows to one another. They spoke in whispers, as though
they were afraid of waking something more than the sleeper in the room
behind them. He could not have told how he knew that her face was wet.
“I wanted to say—I don't know why I behaved like that. I'm not
usually—nervy—uncontrolled. I don't think I've ever lost my temper
before. I've had so little to do with people. Perhaps that's it. I've
gone my own way alone——”
“And now that our ways have crossed,” she began with a sad irony.
“No—not crossed—come together—run out together into the
high-road——” He clenched his hands till they were bloodless in the
effort to speak. “You see, a few weeks ago I wouldn't have lost my
temper—and I wouldn't have said queer, silly things like this—— I'm
a sort of kaleidoscope that someone's shaken up. I don't know myself;
things have been hard—but awfully simple. I've only thought
of—wanted—the one thing. It doesn't seem to me that I've had to fight
until now. You don't understand—what it has been——”
“I do—I do!” she interrupted hurriedly. “I've seen Christine—and
the way you live—and that dreadful cupboard. Oh, I'm not sorry for
you—only afraid. You're nothing but a boy——”
“You needn't be afraid. I'll pull through. It's only another year
now. But I can't be like the other people you know—who can be jolly
and easy-going—because they're not going anywhere at all. Can't you be
“Was I impatient?” He felt her humour flicker up like a flame in the
darkness. “I suppose I was. It was the jam-puff. You hurt their
feelings. And it was such a little thing.”
“I hate jam-puffs,” he said, but humbly, because it was not the
truth, and he could never explain.
“Come with us, Robert.”
“But you want to come?”
“That's just it. I don't know why. It would be waste of
time—money—everything—all wrong. What have I to do with Howard and
that lot—with girls like Connie Edwards?”
“—and me,” she added, smiling to herself.
“Or you with them?”
“Oh, they're my friends. As you say, they're not going
anywhere—just dawdling along and picking up things by the
wayside—queer, interesting things——”
“I've no use for them,” he said doggedly.
“—And Christine wanted to go.” She added after a moment, gently, as
though she were feeling through the dark, “—is dying to go, Robert.”
“You're just imagining it. She's never cared for things like
that—only for my getting ahead with my work—my finals.”
“Didn't you hear her ask about the trees?”
He looked back over his shoulder like a suddenly frightened child.
“Yes. It—it didn't mean anything, though. It was just for something
“She said a great deal more than she meant to.”
“We've mapped out everything—every ha'penny—every minute.”
“Let me help, Robert. I've got such a lot. I've no one else. I could
make it easier for you both. I should be happier, too. And you could
pay me back afterwards with interest—a hundred per cent.—I don't care
But now feeling through the dark she had reached the barrier. He
“Thanks. We've never owed anything. We shan't begin now.”
She slipped into her coat. She tugged her soft hat down over her
hair. There was more than anger in her quick, impatient movements. She
was going because she couldn't bear it any more. She had given in. She
would never come back. And at that fear he broke out with a desperate
“It's too bad to be angry with me. I—I want to go.”
“And I've asked you——?
“Because you want me?”
“Of course. It will be the first chance we've had to really
“It can't matter—just for once,” he pleaded with himself.
“It might matter a great deal.”
She went on down the stairs, very slowly, lingeringly. He leant over
the creaking banisters, trying to see her.
“Francey—you duffer—you haven't even told me where to meet you.”
“Paddington—the Booking Office—10.15.”
He held his breath. Her voice had sounded like that of a spirit
laughing out of the black veil beneath. It did not come again. He could
not even hear her footsteps. She had vanished. But he waited, trembling
before the wonder of his own impulse.
Supposing he had yielded—had taken her hands and kissed
them—kissed that pale, beloved face, he who had never kissed anyone
but Christine since his mother died?
He had not done it. It had been too difficult to yield. But he stood
there, dreaming, with his hot eyes pressed into his hands, whilst out
of the magic quiet rose wave after wave of enchantment, engulfing him.
They agreed that Francey had not boasted about her hill. It stood up
boldly out of the rolling sea of field and common land and was
tree-crowned, with primroses shining amongst the young grass. From its
summit they could see toy villages and church, spires and motors and
char-a-bancs running like alarmed insects along the white, winding
lanes. But apparently no one saw the hill. No one came to it. Since it
was everything that picnic parties demanded in the way of a hill, it
was only reasonable to accept Francey's theory that it was not really
there at all—or at most only there for her particular convenience.
They spread their table-cloth on its slope and under the dappled
shadows of the half-fledged trees, with Christine presiding on the high
ground. Her wispy grey hair fluttered out from under the wide black
hat, and she looked pretty and pathetic, with her shabby black bag and
her old umbrella, like a witch, as Howard said, who had been caught
whilst absent-mindedly gathering toad-stools and carried here in
triumph to bless their mortal festivity.
“The umbrella keeps off rain,” he explained mysteriously, “and
besides that, it's a necromantic Handley-Page which might fly off with
her at any minute. When you see it opening, stand clear and hold on to
He made a limerick on this particular fancy. It was a very bad
limerick, as bad, probably, as his theories on pyridine and its
relation to the alkaloids which had floored him in his last exam.; but
the Gang applauded enthusiastically, and drank to Christine out of mugs
of beer. Unlicked and cynical as they were, they seemed to have a
chivalrous tenderness for her. And she was at home among them—silent,
smiling wistfully down upon their commonplace eccentricities, as though
through the mist of her coming blindness they were somehow lovable.
They ate outrageously of fearsome things. Yet over her third
meringue Connie Edwards broke down with lamentations for the lost
powers of youth.
“I can remember eating five of 'em,” she said, “and coming home to a
tea of winkles and bloater paste. Oh Gawd! I'll be in my grave before I
can turn round.”
She had been from the start in an unusually pensive and philosophic
mood—a trifle wide-eyed and even awe-struck. It seemed that the night
before the “French dame” had appeared unexpectedly during a
rehearsal—a peculiarly gingerless performance according to Connie's
account—and had watched from the wings awhile, and then, unasked and
apparently without premeditation, had broken in among them and at the
edge of the footlights, to a gaping, empty theatre, had danced and sung
a little song.
“A French song,” Connie said solemnly. “Not a word of the blessed
thing could we understand, and yet we were all hugging ourselves. Not
pretty either—a mere bone and a yank of hair—and no more voice than a
sparrow. But you just went along too. Couldn't help it. And afterwards
we played up as though we liked it, and hadn't been plugging at the
rottenest show in England for the last ten weeks. And she laughed and
clapped her hands, and our tongues hung out we were that pleased. She's
It, friends. It. Gyp Labelle from the Folies Bergeres and absolutely
Rufus Cosgrave rolled over on his face and lay blinking out of the
long grass like a sleepy, red-headed satyr.
“Gyp Labelle,” he said drowsily, “Gyp Labelle!”
Robert knew that he was thinking of the Circus. And he did not want
to think about the Circus. He pushed the memory from him. He was glad
when Howard said gravely:
“That's genius. That's what we poor devils pray to and pray for. We
know we haven't got it, but we're always hoping that if we agonize and
sweat long enough, one day God will lean out of His cloud and touch us
with His finger.”
“Michael Angelo,” said Gertie Sumners, with a kind of sombre
triumph. “The Sistine Chapel. I've got a print of it in my room. That's
where you saw it.” She leaned back against a tree trunk with her knees
drawn up to her chin, and blew out clouds of smoke, and looked more
than usually grey and dishevelled and in need of a bath. “In a way it's
like that with Jeffries. He rubs his beastly old thumb over my
rottenest charcoal sketch, and it's a masterpiece.”
Robert, lying outstretched at Francey's feet, wondered at them—at
their talk of genius in connection with a revue star and a smudgy,
underpaid studio hack, more still at their reverence for a God in Whom
they certainly did not believe.
Miss Edwards snatched off her cartwheel hat smothered with
impossible poppies, and sent it spinning down the hill.
“What's the good?” she demanded fiercely. “We're just nothing at
all. We're young now. But when we aren't young, what's going to happen
to the bunch of us?”
“This is a picnic,” Howard reminded her. “Not a funeral. You haven't
eaten enough. Have a pickle.”
But the shadow lingered. It was like the shadow thrown by the white
clouds riding the light spring wind. It put out the naming colours of
the grass and flowers. It was as though winter, slinking sullenly to
its lair, showed its teeth at them in sinister reminder. Then it was
gone. It was difficult to believe it could return.
Robert looked up shyly into Francey's face, and she smiled down at
him with her warm eyes. They had scarcely spoken to one another, but
something delicate and exquisite had been born between them in their
silence. He was afraid to touch it, and afraid almost to move. He felt
very close to her, very sure that she was living with him, withdrawn
secretly from the rest into the strange world that he had discovered.
He was happy. And happiness like this was new to him and terrifying. He
was like a waif from the streets, pale and gaunt and young, with
dazzled eyes gazing for the first time into great distances.
“Italy——” Gertie Sumners muttered. She threw away her cigarette,
and sat with her sickly face between her hands. “I've got to get there
before I die. Think of all the swine that hoof about the Sistine Chapel
yawning their fat heads off, and me who'd give my immortal soul for an
“You'll go,” Howard said, blinking kindly at her. “I'll take you.
We'll get out of this for good and all. I'll bust a bank or forge a
cheque. You've got the divine right to go, old dear!”
Robert stirred, drawing himself a little nearer to Francey, touching
her rough tweed skirt humbly, secretly, as a Catholic might touch a
sacred relic for comfort and protection. They were talking a language
that he could not understand—-they were occupied with things that he
despised, not knowing what they were; they made him ashamed of his
ignorance and angry with his shame. He could not free himself of his
first conviction that they were really the Banditti—inferior children,
who yet had something that he had not. He was cleverer than they were.
He would be a great man when they had wilted from their brief,
shallow-soiled youth to a handful of dry stubble. (This Gertie Sumners
would not even live long. He recognized already the thumb-marks of
disease in her sunken cheeks.) And yet he was an outsider, blundering
in their wake. Just because they accepted him, taking it for granted he
was one of them, they deepened his isolation. He could not talk their
talk. He could not play with them. He had tried. The old hunger “to
belong” had driven him. But he was stiff with strength and clumsy with
purpose. If he and Francey had not belonged to one another, he would
have been overwhelmed in loneliness.
He shut his ears against them. But when she spoke he had to
“It would be no use, Howard. You'd come back. You can't strip off
your nationality like an old-fashioned coat and throw it away. All
this—isn't it English and different from any other country in the
world—deeply, deeply different, just as we are different?
England—she's a human, lovely woman, quiet and broad-bosomed, busy
about her home, and only sometimes, in the spring and autumn, she stops
a little to dream her mystic dreams. In the summer and winter she
pretends to forget. She's anxious about many things—how she shall keep
us warm and fed—a little stupid-seeming, with wells of all sorts of
“And Italy—the saint, the austere spirit, close to God, preparing
herself for God, with unspeakable visions of Him. Where I lived”—she
made a sudden passionate gesture of delight—“we looked over the
Campagna, and there were three hills close to one another with towns
perched on their crest, as far from the world and comfort as they could
get. And at night they were like the three kings with their golden
crowns and dark flowing robes, waiting for God to show them the sign.
“But we build our towns in the valleys and sheltered places. We like
our trains to be punctual, and to do things in decent order. We pretend
to be a practical and reasonable people. We're of our soil. In Italy
what do trains matter—or when they come and go—when, even to those
who don't believe in Him at all, it's only God who matters?” She
laughed, shaking herself free. “So you'll come back, Howard—because
you're part of all this. You'll always hate waiting for your train, and
you'll always be a little ashamed of your dreams. And you'll never be
real anywhere else.”
Howard applauded solemnly.
“I'll make a poem of that—one day, when I'm awfully drunk, and
don't know what I'm doing.”
But Robert sat up sharply, frowning at her, white, almost accusing.
“When did you live in Italy, Francey?”
“Last year—all last year.”
“You mean—you chucked your work—everything—just to play
Howard yawned prodigiously.
“You don't get our Francey's point of view, Stonehouse. You don't
“Just to play round,” she echoed to herself. Then she laughed and
unclasped her hands from about her knees and stood up effortlessly,
stretching out her arms like a sleepy child. “And now I'm going to
gather sticks for a fire and primroses to take home. Coming Robert?”
“No,” he muttered.
Howard rolled over in the grass.
“Sulky young idiot—if I wasn't half asleep—or I'd been asked——”
His voice died into an unintelligible murmur.
So she went alone. The rest, heavy with food and sunshine, nibbled
jadedly at the remnants of the feast, exchanging broken, drowsy
comments. Perhaps Gertie Sumners was brooding over the three kings with
their golden crowns. But Robert knelt and watched Francey run down the
hill-side, faster and faster, like a brown shadow. There was a thick
belt of beech trees at the bottom, and she ran into them and was lost.
He rose stiffly. He did not want the others to see—he did not want
to know himself, that he was following her. He strolled indolently
about the crest of the hill, whistling to the breeze, his eyes hunting
the wood beneath like the eyes of a young setter at heel. But when at
last he was out of sight he slipped his leash and was off, running
recklessly, headlong. The hill rose up behind him and sent him down its
hillocky slopes as though before the horns of an avalanche. The wind
blew the scent of trees and flowers and young grass against his burning
face. It was like draughts of a cold, clear wine. It was like running
full-tilt down Acacia Grove leaping and whooping.
It was frightening, too—a hand fumbling at the heart—this fierce
coming to life of something dormant, this breaking free——
The wood had swallowed her. He drew up panting in the cool twilight.
Beyond the faint breathing of the leaves overhead and the secret
movement of hidden things, there was no sound. He walked on quickly. At
first it was only suspense, childish, thrilling. Then it was more than
that. His heart began to beat quickly. He tried to call her, but the
quiet daunted him. The wood was a still, green pool into which she had
dropped and vanished. It was an enchanted wood. There was enchantment
all about her. They had seemed so near to one another—and then in a
moment she had slipped away from him into a life of her own where he
could not follow.
He had to find her and hold her fast. Nothing else mattered—neither
his work, nor his career, nor Christine. It was terrible how little
they seemed now—a handful of dust—beside this mounting, imperative
desire. He had been so invulnerable. In wanting nothing but what was in
himself he had been able to defy exterior events. Now he was stripped
of his defence. He could be hurt. He could be made desperately happy or
unhappy by things which he had thought trivial and purposeless—the
playthings of inferior children.
He came upon her suddenly. She knelt in the long grass, idle, with a
few scattered primroses in her lap as though in the midst of gathering
them she had been overtaken by a dream. He called her by name, angrily,
because of what he suffered. He stumbled to her and flung himself down
beside her and held her close to him, ruthless with desire and his
In that sheer physical explosion his whole personality blazed up and
seemed to melt away, flowing into new form. He had dashed down the
hill, a crude, exultant boy, into the whole storm and mystery of
manhood. And for all his fierceness his heart was small within him,
afraid of her, and of itself, and its own hunger.
At last he let her go. He tore himself from her and dropped face
down in the grass, trembling with grief and shame. He heard her say:
“Robert—dear Robert,” very quietly, and her hand touched him, passing
like a breath of cool wind over his hair and neck. He kissed it humbly,
pressing it to his wet, hot cheek.
“I was frightened, Francey—and jealous—of everything—of the
things you love that I don't even know of—of the places you've been
to—of your friends—your money—your work. I thought you'd run away to
Italy—or somewhere else where I couldn't follow—that I'd lost
He saw her face and how deeply stirred she was. She had blazed up in
answer to him, but that very fire lit up something in her which was not
new, but which now stood out full armed—a clear-eyed austerity.
“I felt, too, as though I were running away—to the ends of the
world—but not from you, Robert. I wanted you to come too. I asked you.
You're not frightened now, are you?”
“Not so much.”
“Let's be quiet—quite quiet, Robert. We've got to talk this out,
haven't we? I've got to understand. Sit here and help me tie these
together. They're for Christine. It'll make it easier for us. You
didn't mean this to happen. It was the sun and wind—it goes to one's
head like being out of prison after years and years. You mustn't make a
mistake. You would never forgive yourself or me. I'd understand if you
said: 'It was just to-day and being happy.' But I won't play at our
being in love with one another, Robert.”
“It isn't a mistake, I'm not playing. I don't pretend I meant to let
you know. I was frightened. I wanted to hold fast to you. But I've been
sure ever since that night at Brown's——”
“And yet you wanted to avoid me——”
He nodded. Ho knelt beside her, very white and earnest, with his
hands clenched on his thighs.
“That was because I knew. I didn't think about it. But I knew all
right. And I was afraid it would upset everything to care.”
“Not caring for you. Of course, I know all about life. I'm young and
I've never looked at a girl. I've always realized that it would be
natural to fall in love—perhaps worse than most men—and that if it
was with a girl like Cosgrave's it would be sheer damnation. I'd have
to fight it down. But loving you is different. It'll make me stronger.
I'll work harder and better because I love you. I'll do bigger things
because of you.”
Her head was bowed over her primroses. The sunlight falling between
the trees on her wild brown hair kindled a smouldering colour in its
disorder. He watched her, fascinated and abashed by the knowledge that
she was smiling to herself. And suddenly, roughly like an ashamed boy,
he took a grey and blood-stained rag from his inner pocket and tossed
it into her lap.
“Do you remember that?”
She picked it up gingerly, amusedly.
“Is it a handkerchief, Robert?”
“Don't you remember it?” he repeated with triumph, as though in some
way he had beaten her.
For a moment she was silent. And when she looked at him her eyes
were no longer smiling.
“You kept it like that——?”
“I wouldn't even wash it. I hid it. It's got dirtier and dirtier.”
“It must be horribly germy, Robert. We'll wash it together. As
members of the medical profession we couldn't have it on our
They laughed then, freely, out of the depth of their happiness. She
laid her hand in his and he bent his head to kiss it.
“You do trust me, Francey?”
“You don't think it's weak of me to love you? You know I'll pass my
finals, don't you—that I'll be all right? People might think I hadn't
the right to love you till I was sure. But, then, I am sure—dead
“I'm sure, too.” Her voice sounded brooding, a little husky. She
took his hand and laid it on her lap, spreading out the fingers as
though to examine each one in turn. “It's a clever, beautiful hand,
Robert—much the most beautiful part of you. It will do clever,
wonderful things. What will you do?”
(As though, he thought, his hands were something apart and she was
inquiring deeper into what was vitally him.)
He told her. It reassured him to go back to his foundations and to
find them still standing. He lost his tongue-tied clumsiness and spoke
rapidly, clearly, with brief, strong gestures. His haggard youth gave
place to a forcible, aggressive maturity. He was like an architect who
had planned for every inch and stone of his masterpiece. Next year he
would pass his finals. He would take posts as locum tenens whenever he
could and keep his hospital connexions warm. In five years he would
save enough to specialize—the throat gave wide opportunities for
research. There were men already interested in him who would send him
work. In ten years Harley Street—if not before.
In the midst of it all he faltered and broke off to ask:
“Why do you love me, Francey?”
And then, impulsively, she flung her arm about him and drew him
close to her. His head was on her breast, and for one uncertain moment
she was not Francey Wilmot at all, but the warm living spirit of the
sunlight, of the quiet trees and the grass in which they lay—of all
the things of which he was afraid.
“Because you're such an odd, sad, little boy——”
After tea it began to rain, not dismally, but in a gentle way as
people cry who have been too happy.
“In this jolly old country fine weather means bad weather,” Connie
Edwards commented cynically. She had reason to be depressed. The
impossible poppies dripped tears of blood over the brim of the
cartwheel hat. But apart from that misfortune she had never got over
her original mood of puzzled dissatisfaction, and she and Cosgrave
walked droopingly down the narrow lane arm in arm and almost wordless.
So much of winter days was left that it was dark when they reached
the foot of the hill—the eerie luminous darkness of the country when
there is a moon riding somewhere behind the clouds. Robert could see
Christine and Francey just ahead of him. Christine had taken Francey's
arm, and they talked together in undertones like people who have secret
things to say to one another. How small Christine was! She seemed to
have shrunk into a handful of a woman as though the sun had withered
her. She walked timidly, with bowed head, feeling her way. Her voice
lifted for a moment into the old clearness.
“His father was a wonderful man—a wonderful, good man. Unhappy.
Very unfortunate. Not meant for this world. His mother was my dear
friend. If they had lived—those two—— I did what I could—I think
they will be satisfied—it makes me happy——”
She murmured wearily. And Francey bent her head to listen. Robert
loved her for the tenderness of that gesture. Yet it was bitter, too,
that they should talk of his father. He wanted to go up to them and
tell the truth brutally to Christine's face. He would have liked to
have told them the one dream which he carried over from his sleep. But
it would have been useless. Christine would only smile with a cruel,
“You don't understand. You were only a child. Your father was so
The myth had become an invulnerable reality and had grown golden in
the twilight of her coming blindness. James Stonehouse had been a good
man, a faithful friend, and broken-hearted husband. If those two had
lived everything would have been different. She threw her hallowed
picture of them on the screen of the dripping dusk so that they seemed
to live. Robert saw them too. That was his mother walking at
Christine's side, and then his father—— In a sort of shattering
vision Robert saw him, a man of promise, black-browed with the riddle
of his failure, a man of many hungers, seduced by rootless passions,
lured to miserable shipwreck because he could not keep to any course,
because he could not give up worthlessness for worth.
He staggered before the brief hallucination. The moisture broke out
on his white face. It wasn't enough to hate his father. He had to be
fought down day by day. He was always there, waiting to pounce out. He
lay on his face, pretending to be dead——
It was gone. He shook himself free as from the touch of an evil,
insinuating hand out of the dark. This love was his strength. If
Francey were like his mother, then she was also good. It was these rag
and bobtail friends that poisoned everything. They would have to be
shaken off. Francey was a child, fond of gaiety and pleasure, with no
one to guide her. She didn't understand.
Howard and Gertie Sumners were walking behind him now with the
luncheon-basket between them, talking earnestly in muffled whispers
that were too intimate, and behind them again came the Gang itself,
laughing, jostling one another, exchanging facetiousness in their
His father would have liked them. Connie Edwards, no doubt, would
have been one of those dazzling, noisy phenomena that burst
periodically on the Stonehouse horizon.
Supposing he should come to like them too—to tolerate their ways,
their loose living, loose thinking——?
He remembered how that very afternoon he had tried to be one of
them, and sickened before himself.
Francey called to him through the darkness.
“Miss Forsyth's so tired, Robert. Couldn't you carry her?”
And he took Christine in his arms, whilst she laughed and protested
feebly. It was awful to feel how little she was. Her head rested
against his shoulder.
“It's a longer road than I thought. You're very strong, Robert. Your
father was strong too.”
It had been a successful day. And yet, as they sat packed close
together in the dim, third-class carriage, they were like captives who
had escaped and were being taken back into captivity. The sickly,
overhead light fell on their tired faces, out of which the blood,
called up by the sun and wind, had receded, leaving their city pallor.
Connie Edwards had indeed produced a lip-stick from her gaudy bead bag,
but after a fretful effort had flung it back.
“What's the good? Who cares——?”
And Cosgrave huddled closer to her, wan-eyed, hunted-looking. It was
the ghost of that exam that wouldn't be laid—the prophetic vision of
the row that waited for him, grinding its teeth.
Only Gertie Sumners and Howard had a queer, remote look, as though
in that recent muffled exchange they had reached some desperate
The wet, gleaming platform slid away from them. There was a faint
red light in the west where the sunset had been drowned. Christine
turned her face towards it. She was like a little old child. Her little
feet in the shabby, worn-out shoes scarcely touched the floor. Her
drooping hat was askew—forgotten.
“It has been a wonderful day. But I mustn't come again. I'm too old.
It's silly to fall in love with life when one is old.”
Robert leant across to her. He ached with his love and pity.
“A little. But it has been worth while. You carried me so nicely—so
big and strong.”
She leant against Francey, nodding and smiling to reassure him. And
presently she was asleep. He saw how Francey shifted her arm so that it
encircled the bowed figure, and every ugly thing that had dogged him in
that lonely, haunted walk vanished before the kind steadfastness of her
It was as though she had said aloud:
“We'll take care of her together. We won't let her die before we've
made her very, very happy.”
Then he took out a note-book and made a shaky sketch of a pompous,
drunken-looking house with a huge door, on which were two brass plates,
side by side, bearing the splendid inscriptions:
Dr. Frances Stonehouse, Robert Stonehouse,
He showed it to her and they smiled at one another, and there was no
one else in the carriage but themselves and their happiness.
It meant a tightening—a screwing up of his whole life. Time had to
be found. The hours had to be packed closer to make room for her. He
grasped after fresh opportunities to make money with a white-hot
assiduity. He worked harder. For he was hag-ridden by his
unfaithfulness. He drew up a remorseless programme of his days, and
after that Francey might only walk home with him from the hospital. And
there was an hour on Sunday evening when he was too tired for anything
It meant a ceaseless, active negation: a “No” to the simple wish to
buy her a bunch of flowers, “No” to the longing to walk a little
farther with her in the quiet dusk, “No” to the very thought of her.
As usual, on the way home, they discussed their best “cases.” There
was No. 10 in A Ward, a raddled woman of the streets who had been
brought in the night before as the result of a crime passionnel,
and whose injuries had been the subject of long deliberations. Even
before they had reached the hospital archway Robert and Francey agreed
that Rogers' air of mystery was simply a professional disguise for
“It's the sort of case I'd like to have,” Robert said. “Something
you can get your teeth into and worry. I believe if I were on my
own—given a free hand—I'd work it out—pull her through. Rogers may
too. But just now he's marking time. And there's nothing to hope from
time in a job like that. No constitution. Rotten all through. Still, it
would be a feather in one's cap.”
He brooded fiercely, intently, like a hound on a hot scent. People
turned to look at the big, shabby young man with the sunken, burning
eyes that stared through them as though they had been so many shadows.
He did not, in fact, see them at all. He made his way by sheer instinct
across the crowded street.
“She's terribly afraid of death,” Francey said. “It's awful to be so
afraid. It must make life itself terrible.”
“They'll operate soon as they dare—an exploratory operation. If
only I could have a say—a real say! It's maddening to know so much—to
be sure of oneself. I don't believe Rogers would take me out on his
private work if he knew I knew all I do. I'm glad we're on a surgical
post together, Francey. I don't know what I'd do if I hadn't got you to
talk things over with.”
“You daren't talk of anything else,” she answered unexpectedly.
“You're frightened of our being happy together. You're always trying to
“I'm not—what rubbish!”
He tried to laugh at her. It was so like Francey to dash off down a
side issue. And yet it was true. He did try to think as much as he
could of that side of their common life. It did add an appearance of
stability and reason to the splendid unreason of his loving her. It
made up to him for those dismaying breaks when her face and body stood
like a scorching pillar of fire between himself and his work, to find
that when they were together they could be sternly practical, discuss
their eases and criticize their superiors as though, beneath it all,
there were not this golden, insurgent sea whose high tides swirled over
his landmarks. Not destroying them.
In those latter times he loved her humbly, with wonder and
passionate self-abasement. But in their work they stood further away
from one another. He could criticize her, and that gave him a heady
sense of power and freedom. He never forgot the year that she had
deliberately thrown away. And even now, when she stood at the beginning
of the road which he had already passed over, she seemed to him full of
strange curiosities and wayward, purposeless interests. There were days
when an ugly Chinese print, picked up in some back-street pawnshop, or
the misfortunes of one of her raffish hangers-on, or some wild student
rag, appeared to wipe out the vital business of life. She was known to
be brilliant, but he distrusted her power of leaping to conclusions
over the head of his own mathematical and exact reasoning. He
distrusted still more her tendency to be right in the teeth of every
sort of evidence to the contrary. It seemed that she took into her
calculations factors that no one else found, significant,
unprofessional straws in the wind, things she could not even explain.
And yet she understood when he talked about his work, and that alone
was like a gift to him. No one else understood—for that matter, no one
else had had to listen. He knew that Christine was too tired, and poor
overburdened Cosgrave would only have gazed helplessly at him,
wondering why this strong, self-sufficient friend should pour out such
unintelligible stuff over his own aching head. So he had learnt to be
silent. Even now it was difficult to begin. He stammered and was shy
and distrustful and eager, sometimes crudely self-confident, like a
child who has played alone too long.
And Francey listened, for the most part critical and dispassionate,
but with sudden gestures of unmotivated tenderness: as when in the
midst of his dissertation on a theory of insanity and crime she had
Sometimes for them both the prose and poetry of their relationship
met and clasped hands. That was when they took their walk down Harley
Street to have another look at the house which was one day to be
adorned with the celebrated brass plates. At present it was solidly
occupied by several eminent-sounding medical gentlemen who would have
to be ruthlessly dislodged when their time came.
For it was the best house in the street, and, of course, the Doctors
Robert and Francey Stonehouse would have to have the best.
And once they quarrelled about nothing at all, or about
everything—they hardly knew. It was an absurd quarrel, which blazed up
and went out again like fire in stubble. Perhaps they had waited too
long for their allotted hour together—dreamed too much about it, so
that when it came they could hardly bear it, and almost longed for it
to be over. And in the midst of it Mr. Ricardo drifted in on one of his
strange, distressful visits to Christine, and drove them out of doors
to roam the drowsy Sunday streets, hand in hand, like any other pair of
vulgar, homeless lovers. For Francey could not stay when Mr. Ricardo
came. His hatred of her was a burning, poisonous sore that gave no
peace to any of them.
“It's a sort of jealousy,” Robert reflected. “We three have always
held together. He's had no one else to care about. And now you've come,
and he thinks you want to take me away from him.”
“I do,” Francey said unexpectedly.
“Not in the way he means.”
“You don't know——”
“He's been good to me. I'd never have got through without him. I
can't have him hurt. And you will fight him, Francey. I know he's
crabbed and bitter, but so would you be if you'd been twisted out of
shape all your life. And you only do it for the fun of the thing.
Fundamentally, you think alike.”
“We don't, that's just it. I'm sorry for him, and if it had been
anything less vital I'd compromise—he'd compromise, too, perhaps. We'd
both lie low and look pleasant about our differences. But as it is we
can't help ourselves. We've got to stand up and fight——”
“I say, that sounds jolly dramatic.”
“It is rather.”
“Next thing you'll be saying you believe in God.”
“Well, I do——”
He stopped short and let go her hand. He was physically ashamed and
uncomfortable. He tried to laugh, but for the moment they were face to
face, and he could not mistake her seriousness. They were like
strangers, peering at each other through the grey dusk.
“Look here, Francey, dearest, you don't expect me to believe that?
You're just joking, aren't you? You're—you're a modern woman, with a
scientific training, too. You can't believe in an old, worn-out myth.”
“I didn't say that.”
“'An untested hypothesis,'“ he quoted teasingly, but with a stirring
“I don't know about that, either. We're both bound by our profession
to admit an empirical test. And if we human beings can't survive
“But we can—we do.”
He threw up his head.
“Why do women always become personal when they argue?”
“And why do rationalists always become irrational?”
They walked on slowly, apart, vaguely afraid. He wanted to change
the subject, to take her by the arm and hold her fast. For she was
drifting away from him. Her voice sounded remote and troubling, like a
little old tune that he could not quite remember. Its emotion fretted
his overstrained nerves. He wanted to close his ears against it. It was
a trivial tune which might become a torment.
“It's not only me. It's everyone. Most of us are frightfully
unhappy. Don't you realize that? And the more we understand life the
more desperate we get. Savages and children may do without a god, but
we can't. We know too much. Even the stupidest—the most careless of
us. Think of Howard and Gertie and all that lot. Every second word is
'What's the good? What's it all about?' They make a great deal of noise
to cover up their unhappiness. They're terrified of loneliness and
silence. And one day it'll have to be faced.”
“Oh, if you're going to take Howard as an example—” he interrupted.
“—and Rufus Cosgrave,” she added.
He laughed with a boyish malice.
“Cosgrave doesn't need a god. He's got me. I'll look after him.”
“You think you can? And then we ourselves. We're different, aren't
we? We've got our work. We're going to do big things. For whom?—for
what? For our fellow-creatures? But if we don't care for our
fellow-creatures? And we don't, do we? Not naturally. The Brotherhood
of Man is just dangerous nonsense. Naturally men loathe one another in
the mass. How can we pretend to love some of those people we see every
day in the wards with their terrible faces—their terrible minds? But
the idea of God does somehow translate them—it gets underneath the
ugliness—they do become in some mystic way my brothers and my
He found it strangely difficult to answer calmly. It would have been
easier to have bludgeoned her into silence by a shouted “It's all
snivelling, wretched rot!” like an angry schoolboy. He did not know why
he was so angry. Perhaps Ricardo was right. It was something vital. He
could feel the old man's shadow at his side, his hand plucking his
sleeve, urging him on, claiming his loyalty. They were allies fighting
together against a poisonous miasma that sapped men's brains—their
“Piling one fallacy on another isn't argument, Francey. We don't
need to like our fellow-creatures. It's a mistake to care. Emotion
upsets one's judgment. Scientists—the best men in the profession—try
to eliminate personal feeling altogether. They're out for knowledge for
its own sake. That's good enough for them.”
“And the end of that—organized, scientific beastliness, like modern
war. Knowledge perverted to every sort of deviltry. Huge swollen heads
and miserable withered hearts. One of these days we'll blow ourselves
They were both breathless and more than a little incoherent. They
had entered into a playful tussle, and now they were fighting one
another with set teeth.
“I don't believe you believe a word you're saying,” he stammered.
“You know as well as I do that it's only since we began to throw off
superstition that we've begun to move. Or perhaps you don't want to
move—don't believe in progress.”
“Progress towards what?” she flung back impetuously. “Perfection?
Some point where we'd have no poverty, no war, no ignorance, no death
even; where we'd all have every mortal thing we want? The millennium?
That's only another word for Hell. It's only by pretending that there
are things we want, and that we should be happy if we had them, that we
can believe in happiness at all. All this unrest, this sick despair
every morning of our lives when we drag ourselves out of bed and wonder
why we bother—it's just because we've begun to suspect that the
millennium is of no use to us. We've got to have more than that—some
sort of spiritual background—or cut our throats.”
“Wild rhapsodizing, Francey. You don't know a thing.”
“I don't. Nor do you. When I said I believed, I meant I hoped—I
trusted. And if there isn't a God at the end of it all, you people who
want to keep us alive for the sake of the knowledge you get out of us
will have to make one up.”
Whereat, suddenly, in a cool, refreshing gust, their sense of humour
returned and blew them close to one another. They laughed and took
hands again—a little shyly, like lovers who had been parted for a long
“What rot—our quarrelling over nothing at all,” Robert said, “when
we've only got this hour together. I wanted to say 'I love you,
Francey—I love you, dear' over and over again. Say 'I love you too,
“I love you too,” she answered soberly.
But the crack was there—a mere fissure in the ground between
them—a place to be avoided even in their thoughts.
At night when his work was over and the unrest grew too strong to be
fought, he crept down the black, creaking stairs, through the sleeping
backwater of Drayton Mews, and out into the streets. He walked fast,
with his head down, guiltily, like a man flying from a crime. But in
the grave square where Francey Wilmot lived he slackened speed, and,
under the thick mantle of the trees, stood so still that he was only a
deeper shadow. Then release came. It was like gentle summer rain
falling on his fever. There was no one to see his weakness. He could
think and feel simply and naturally as a lover, without remorse.
Sometimes a light burnt in her window, and then he knew that she was
working, making up for those queer, wild play-hours. He could imagine
her under the shaded lamplight, the books heaped round her, and her
hands clenched hard in the thick brown hair. He could feel the peace,
the rich, deep stillness round her. And a loving tenderness, exquisite
and delicate as a dream, welled up in him. He said things out of his
heart to her that he had never said: broken, stumbling things, melted
in the white-heat of their truth into a kind of poetry of which the
burden never changed. “I can't live without you—I can't live without
you.” He could have knelt before her, burying his burning face in her
lap in strange humility—childlike surrender.
And when the window was dark he knew that she had gone out to dance,
to the theatre, with friends whom he did not know, belonging to that
other life in which he had no part. And then his loneliness was like a
black sea. He leant against the railings, weak with weariness and
hunger, fighting his boy's tears, until she came. He did not speak to
her. She never knew that he was there. He hid, his heart stifling him,
until the door closed on her. Then, since she had come back to him,
belonged to him again, he could go in peace.
The others—Howard and Gertie and even Connie now—went in and out,
risking ruthless ejection if she were hard pressed, to sit in the best
chairs, with their feet in the fender and drink coffee and smoke
endlessly whilst they poured their good-natured cynicism over life. If
they were hungry they rifled Francey's larder, and if they were hard up
they borrowed her money. But after the one time Robert never went. He
did not want to meet them. And besides the big square room with its
mark of other stately days—its panelled walls, rich ceilings and noble
doors—was his enemy. It was steeped in a mellow, unconscious luxury
that threatened him. There were relics from Francey's old home,
trophies from her Italian wanderings, books that his hands itched just
to touch, and things of strange troubling beauty. A bronze statue of a
naked faun stood in the corner where the light fell upon it, and seemed
to gather into itself everything that he feared—a joyous dancing to
some far-off music.
The room would not let him forget that Francey held money, which he
had had to squeeze his life dry to get, lightly and indifferently. She
gave it with both hands. She had always had enough, and it seemed to
her a little thing. Between people who cared for one another it counted
less than a word, and his sullen refusal of every trivial pleasure and
relief that lay in her power to give them hurt and puzzled her. She saw
in it only a bitter pride.
“You might at least let me make Christine's life easier in little
things,” she said.
He could not tell her that Christine would have been afraid for him,
as he was afraid of the deep chairs that had seemed to clasp his tired
body in drowsy arms, of the rugs that drank up every harsh sound, of
the warm, fragrant atmosphere that was like a blow in the face of their
chill and barren poverty.
So after that one time he kept away. But he could always see the
room and Francey working there, and the slender, joyful body of the
faun poised on the verge of its mystic dance.
Once, Francey was too strong for him, and they bought tickets for
the theatre, and he sat hunched beside her in the front row of the
cheap seats and stared down at the great square of light like an
outcast gazing at the golden gates of Paradise. It was The Tempest, and he hardly understood. It broke over him in overpowering sound and
colour. He was dazed and blinded. He forgot Francey. He sat with his
gaunt white face between his bands and watched them pass: Prospero,
Miranda, Ferdinand, Ariel—figures of a noble, glittering company—and
wretched, uncouth Caliban crouched on the outskirts of their lives,
pining for his lost kingdom. But in the interval he was silent, awkward
and heavy with an emotion that could not find an outlet. He felt her
hand close over his—an, almost anxious hand.
“Robert, you like it, don't you? You're not bored?” He turned to
look dazedly at her, stammering in his confusion.
“I've never been to a theatre before.”
“Never? Oh, my dear——”
“Only to a circus, long ago.” He drew back hastily into himself. He
did not want her to be sorry like that. He would not let her see how
shaken he was. “I never wanted to go,” he said.
After that they walked home together, and in the empty street that
led into her square a moonlight spirit of phantasy seemed to possess
her, and she sang under her breath and danced in front of him, rather
solemnly as she had done as a little girl:
“Come unto these yellow sands
And then take hands. . .”
He caught hold of her. Everything was unreal—they themselves and
the unfamiliar street, painted with silver and black shadows.
“Don't—you're dancing away from me; there's nothing for you to
She smiled back wistfully.
“'The isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices. . .'“
“I don't hear them,” he muttered clumsily.
“Caliban heard them——”
“And you're Ariel,” he said, with sudden, sorrowful understanding.
From the steps of the dark house she looked down at him, her eager
face smiling palely in the white, still light.
“Ariel wasn't a woman, dear duffer. You'll have to read it. I'll
lend it to you. And then we'll go again.”
He shook his head.
“Yes—often—often, Robert. We've been nearer to one another than
ever before—just these last minutes—quite, quite close. We've got to
find each other in pleasure too.”
He rallied all his strength. He said stiffly, pompously:
“It's been awfully nice, of course. And thank you for taking me. But
I don't really care for that sort of thing.”
And for a moment they remained facing one another whilst the joy
died out of her eyes, leaving a queer distress. Then they shook hands
and he left her, coldly, prosaically, as though nothing had happened.
But he was like a drunken man who had fallen into a sea of glory.
“The clouds, methought, would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me. . .”
There was all that work that he had meant to do before morning. It
seemed far off—more unreal and fantastic than a fairy tale. His heart
and brain, ached with willingness and loathing.
”. . . that, when I wak'd,
I cried to dream again. . .”
He set his teeth. He clenched his hands till they hurt him.
“I'll have to keep away from all that,” he thought aloud,
“altogether—till I don't care any more.”
After all, Rufus Cosgrave had imagined his answers. Connie Edwards
met Robert as he came out of the hospital gates and told him. It was
raining dismally, with an ill-tempered wind blustering down the crowded
street, and she had not dressed for bad weather. Perhaps she did not
admit unpleasant possibilities even into her wardrobe. Perhaps she
could not afford to do so. Her thin, paper-soled shoes, with the Louis
XIV heels, and the cheap silk stockings which showed up to her knees,
made her look like some bedraggled, long-legged bird-of-Paradise. A
gaudy parasol could not protect her flopping hat, or her complexion,
which had both suffered. Or she had been crying. But she did not sound
as though she had been crying. She sounded breathless and resentful.
“He heard this afternoon,” she said. “And what must he do but come
bursting round to my place—half an hour before I'm due to start for
the show—and carry on like a madman. Scared stiff, I was. Tried to
make me swear I'd marry him and start for Timbuctoo to-morrow, and when
I wouldn't, wanted to shoot himself and me too—as though I'd made a
muck of things. Well, I'd done my best, and when it came to that sort
of sob-stuff I'd had enough. What's he take me for? Get me into trouble
with my landlady—making a row like that.”
Robert heard her out in silence, and his intent, expressionless
scrutiny seemed to flick her on the raw. She stamped her foot at him.
“Oh, for the Lord's sake, get a move on—-do something, can't you? I
didn't come here to be stared at as though I were a disease!”
“Where is he?”
“If I knew——! My place probably—with the gas full on—committing
suicide—making a rotten scandal. You've got to come and dig him out.”
“Where do you live?”
“Ten minutes from here. 10E Stanton Place. I'll show you a short
way. I ran like a hare, hoping I'd catch you, and you'd put a bit of
sense into the poor looney's head. Serves me right—taking on with his
“Well—we'd better hurry,” Robert said.
“Thanks. I said I'd show you the way. I'm not coming in. Don't you
believe it. I've had enough. All I ask is—get him out and keep him
“You're through with him?”
Her habitual good-natured gaiety was gone. She looked disrupted and
savagely afraid, like an animal that has escaped capture by a frantic
effort. And yet it was difficult to imagine Rufus Cosgrave capturing or
“You bet I'm through with him. You tell him so—tell him I don't
want to see him again—I won't be bothered——” She broke off, and
added, with a kind of rough relenting: “Put it any blessed way you
like—say what's true—we've had our good times together—and it seems
they're over—we've no use for one another.”
“You mean—now he's failed.”
“What do you mean—'now he's failed'? What's his rotten old
exam got to do with me? I don't even know what it's about.”
“You took the good time whilst you could get it, and now when you
can't hope for anything more——”
She stopped short, and they faced each other with an antagonism that
neither gave nor asked for quarter. They had always been enemies, and
now that the gloves were off they were almost glad.
“So that's my line. Cradle-snatching. Vamping the helpless infant!”
She burst into a fit of angry, ugly laughter. “A good time! Running
round with a poor kid with ten shillings a week pocket-money—eating in
beastly cheap restaurants—riding on the tops of 'buses when some girls
I know are feeding at the Ritz and rolling round in limousines. That's
what I get for being soft. And now because I won't shoot myself, or go
off to nowhere steerage, I'm a bad, abandoned woman. What d'you take me
“What you are,” he said.
She went dead white under her streaky paint.
“You—you've got no right to say that. You're a devil—a stuck-up
devil—I hate you—I'd have always hated you if I'd bothered to mind.
I—I gave him a good time. That's the truth. He was down and out
when I met him, and I set him on his feet. I didn't mind what I
missed—or the other girls guying me—I made him laugh and believe he
had as good a chance in the world as anyone else. I put a bit of fun
into him. I liked the kid. I—I like him now. If he wanted a good time
to-morrow I'd run round with him again. But I'm no movie heroine—I'm
not out for poison and funerals and slow music. Life's too damn serious
for my sort to make a wail and a moan about it.”
He stood close to her. He almost menaced her. He did in fact look
dangerous enough with his white, set face and unflinching eyes in which
stood two points of metallic light. If he had seen himself then he
might have cowered away as from a ghost.
“I don't care a rap about you. I do care about my friend. You've got
to stand by Cosgrave till he's over the worst.”
“I won't—I won't!”
“I'll make you. You took him up. You made him think you cared about
him. You're responsible——”
“I'm not—I won't be responsible; it's not my line. I've got myself
to look after.”
She had the look of someone struggling against an invisible
entanglement—a pitiable, rather horrible look of naked purpose. She
meant to cut free at whatever cost.
“You little beast!” he said.
He was sick with contempt. He swung away from her, and she stood in
the middle of the pavement and called names after him like a drunken,
furious street-girl. She did not seem to be even aware of the people
who stared at her. When he was almost out of hearing, she added:
“Give him my love!” shrilly, vindictively, as though it had been a
final insult. But he took no notice and now, at any rate, she was
crying bitterly enough.
“E” proved to be the top room of No. 10, a dingy lodging-house whose
front door, in accordance with the uncertain habits of its patrons,
stood open from year's end to year's end. Robert went in unnoticed. He
ran up the steep, narrow stairs, with their tattered carpeting, two
steps at a time. A queer elation surged beneath his anger and distress.
Cosgrave's failure was like a personal challenge—a defiance thrown in
his teeth. The old fight was on again. It was against odds. But then,
he had always fought against odds—won against them.
The room was Connie Edwards herself. It seemed to rush out at him in
a tearing rage, flaunting its vulgar finery and its odour of bad scent
and cheap cigarette smoke. It made him sick, and he brushed it out of
his consciousness. He did not see the poor attempts to make it decent
and attractive—the bed disguised beneath a faded Liberty cretonne, a
sentimental Christ hanging between a galaxy of matinee heroes, nor a
full-length woman's portrait, across which was scrawled “Gyp Labelle"
in letters large enough to conceal half of her outrageous nakedness.
There were even a few flowers, drooping forlornly out of a dusty vase,
and a collection of theatrical posters, to lend a touch, of serious
But the end of it all was a frowzy, hopeless disorder.
Cosgrave lay huddled over the littered table by the open window. The
red untidy head made a patch of grotesque colour in the general murk.
He looked like a poor rag doll that had been torn and battered in some
wild carnival scrimmage and flung aside.
There was not much in him—not much fight, as he himself said. Not
the sort to survive. Life was too strong—too difficult for him. He
bungled everything—even an exam. It would be wiser, more consistent to
let him drift. And yet at sight of that futile breakdown, it was not
impatience or contempt that Robert felt, but a choking tenderness—a
fierce pity. He had to protect him—pull him through. He had promised
so much—he forgot when: that afternoon lying in the long, sooty grass
behind the biscuit factory, or that night when he had dragged Cosgrave
breathless and staggering in pursuit of the Greatest Show in Europe. It
did not matter. It had become part of himself. And Cosgrave had always
trusted him—believed in him.
“It's all right, old man; it's only me—Robert.” For Cosgrave had
leapt up with an eager cry, and now stood staring at him open-mouthed.
The light was behind him, and the open mouth and blank, shadowy face
made a queer, ghastly effect, as though a drowned man had suddenly
stood up. Then he sagged pitifully, and Robert caught him by the
shoulders and shook him with a rough, boyish impatience. “Don't be an
idiot. It doesn't matter all that much. Exams are not everything.
Everyone knows that. We'll find something else. If your people are too
beastly, you'll come and share with us. I'll see you through—it'll be
But a baffling change came over Cosgrave. He shook himself free. He
stood upright, looking at Robert with a kind of stony dignity.
“Where is she?”
“Connie. She sent you, didn't she?”
“Yes. We met——”
“Where is she?”
“I don't know. Gone to the theatre probably.”
“Isn't she coming back?”
“Didn't she send a message?”
“She said—it was finish between you. She's a little rotter,
“She made me laugh,” Cosgrave said simply. “I don't mind about the
exam.—or about anything now. I suppose I was bound to fail. But I was
so jolly happy. I'd never had a good time like that. It's all over now.
She doesn't care. She said she couldn't be tied up with a lot of
trouble. That's what I am. A lot of trouble. It was all
bunkum—make-believe—to think I could be anything else.”
So it wasn't his failure. It wasn't even the loss of a
good-for-nothing chorus-girl. It was a loss far more subtle. The
recognition of it lamed Robert Stonehouse, knocked the power out of
him, as though someone had struck and paralysed a vital nerve centre.
He could only stammer futilely:
“She's not worth bothering about.”
Cosgrave slumped back into his chair. His hands lay on the table,
half clenched as though they had let go and didn't care any more. He
looked at Robert wide-eyed with a sudden absolute knowledge.
“That's it,” he said. “Not worth bothering about—nothing in this
whole beastly, rotten, world. . . . . .”
A convenient uncle found him a berth as clerk to a trading firm in
West Africa, and with a cheap Colonial outfit and 10 pounds in his
pocket, Cosgrave set out for the particular swamp which was to be the
scene of his future career. He went docilely, with limp handshakes and
dull, pathetic eyes. If he betrayed any feeling at all, it was a sort
of relief at getting away from everybody. But emotionally he was
dead—like cheap champagne gone flat, as he expressed it in one twisted
mood of self-revelation.
Probably he was thinking of Connie Edwards and of their last spree
But he never spoke of her.
And it was very unlikely that the swamp would give him a chance to
see any of them again.
After all, he had stood for something. He was a rudderless little
craft that had come leaking and tumbling willy-nilly in the wake of the
bigger vessel. But also he had been a sort of talisman. He had
protected Robert as the weak, when they are humble and loving, can
protect the strong, giving them greater confidence, making their defeat
impossible. With his going went security. Little old fears came
crawling out of their hiding-places. At night when Robert climbed the
dark stairs to their stable-attic, they set upon him. They clawed his
heart. He called to Christine before he saw her, and the answering
silence made him sick with panic. It was reasonless panic, for
Christine often fell asleep at dusk. She was difficult to wake and when
she woke it was strangely, with a look of bewilderment, like a
traveller who has come home after a long absence. Once she had spoken
his father's name with a ringing joy, and he had answered roughly and
had seen her shrink back into herself. Her little hands trembled,
fumbling apologetically with the shabby bag she always carried. She was
like a girl who, in one withering tragic moment, had become old. But
his aching love found no outlet, no word of regret or tenderness. It
recoiled back on himself in a dead weight of pain.
He began to watch himself like a sick man. There were hours when he
knew his brain to be losing edge—black periods of hideous impotency
which, when they passed, left him shaken and wet with terror.
Supposing, at the end of everything, be failed? He didn't care so much.
His very power of caring had been dissipated. His single purpose lost
itself amidst incompatible dreams. He was being torn asunder—and there
was a limit to endurance.
Cosgrave had failed. He couldn't concentrate. He was always looking
for happiness. He had fallen in love and wasted himself and made a mess
of his life.
It was mad to fall in love.
And yet the worst dread of all was the dread of losing Francey. It
seemed even the most unreasonable, for they had their work in common
and they loved one another. There was no doubting their love. They were
very young and might have to wait, but he could trust her to wait all
her life. He knew dimly that she had been fond of him as a little boy,
and had gone on being fond of him, simply and unconsciously, because it
was not possible for her to forget. She would love him in the same way.
That steadfastness was like a light shining through the mists of her
character—through her sudden fancies, her shadowy withdrawals.
And still he was afraid, and sometimes he suspected that she was
afraid too. It was as though inexorable forces were rising up in both
of them, essentially of them, and yet outside their control, two dark
antagonisms waiting sorrowfully to join issue.
It had happened suddenly—not without warning. One little event trod
on the heels of another, rubble skirling down the mountain-side,
growing to an avalanche.
Or, again, Cosgrave might have been the odd, unlikely keystone of
their daily life. He had not seemed to matter much, but now that he had
been torn out the bridge between them crumbled.
It had been a day full of bitterness—of set-backs, which to Robert
Stonehouse were like pointing fingers. They were the outward
expressions of his disorder. He did not believe in luck, but in a man's
strength or weakness, and he knew by the things that happened to him
that he was weakening. A private operation had gone badly. He had
bungled with his dressings, so that the surgeon had turned on him in a
burst of irritation.
“Better go home and sleep it off, Stonehouse.”
He had not gone. He would not admit that he was ill—dared not. All
illness now meant the end of everything. It would wipe out all that
they had endured if he were to break down now. It would kill Christine.
She must not even guess.
He hung about the hospital common-room. The summer heat surging up
from the burning pavements stagnated between the faded walls. He could
not touch the food that he had brought with him. He was faint and sick,
and the long table at which he sat, with its white blur of newspapers,
rose and fell as though it were floating on an oily sea. But he held
out. At five o'clock he was to meet Francey at the gates, and, as
though she had some magic gift of relief, he strained towards that
time, his head between his hands, his ears counting the seconds that
dripped heavily, drowsily from the moon-faced clock.
And then she did not come. Outwardly it was only one more trifle,
capable of simple explanations. But he saw it through a disfiguring
haze of fever, and it was deadly in its significance. He hardly waited.
He crossed the thoroughfare, and once in a side street stumbled into a
shambling run. He did not stop until he reached her house. His former
reluctance broke before the imperative need to see her and make sure of
her. He stormed the broad, deep, carpeted stairs, pursued by a
senseless panic, But at the top his strength failed him. He felt his
brain throbbing in torture against his skull.
The old maid-servant nodded gravely, sympathetically.
“Yes, she's in, sir, but very busy—going away—sir.” Going away. He
wavered in the dim hall, trying to control his flying thoughts. Going
away. And she had said nothing the night before—had not even warned
him. Some unexpected, untoward event striking in the dark. Illness. A
long separation. (And yet, he argued, he could not live without her.
She had no people who could claim her. They were dead. No one to come
between them. And there was her work. She would never leave that
But there she stood in the midst of the disorder of a sudden going.
Open suit-cases, clothes strewn about the floor, she herself in some
loose, bright-coloured wrap, her brown hair tousled and her brows knit
in perplexity. She stopped short at sight of him, smiling ruefully, her
“Oh, my dear—I'd forgotten.” (Then she must have seen his face with
its dead whiteness, for she added quickly, half laughing): “Not you.
Only the time. I've not been at the hospital, and I thought I had still
half an hour. I've had to run round like mad, and even now I've got a
hundred things to do——”
He gulped. He said: “Where are you going?” in a flat, emotionless
voice, as though he did not care.
For a moment she did not answer. She let the clothes drop,
forgotten, on the sofa. He could see her weighing—considering what she
should say to him.
“I've got to be at the hospital to-morrow. Wednesday probably. I
don't believe it'll be for long. I hope not. A week or two. I've got
leave for a month.”
“Why are you going?”
And now he could not keep the harsh break out of his voice. He could
not hide the physical weakness which made it impossible for him to
stand. And yet, though she looked at him, she seemed unaware that he
was suffering. She was absorbed in some difficulty of her own, set on
her own immediate purpose. He knew that mood. It was the other side of
her fitful, whimsical way of life that she could be as relentless, as
deadly resolute and patient in attainment as himself.
“It's about Howard,” she said, abruptly coming to a decision. “I
wasn't sure at first what to do about it. I didn't want anyone to know.
But you're different. We have to share things. Howard and
Gertie—they've both gone—gone off—no one knows where.”
“I'm pretty certain of it. At any rate, Gertie, who couldn't even
pay her rent, has vanished, and Howard—I heard about Howard this
“What did you hear about him?”
“It was from Salter. You probably don't know him. He came to me
because he knew I was a friend of Howard's. He was frightfully upset.
It seems there was some sort of club which a crowd of students were
collecting for, and he and Howard held the funds. It wasn't much—150
pounds—and Howard drew it out two days ago.”
“Does that astonish you?” Robert asked.
She seemed not to hear the scorn and irony of the question. She went
on packing deliberately, and he watched her, not knowing what he would
say or do. The tide was rising faster. His dread would carry him off
“No. I was sure things were coming to a crisis.”
“He was no good. Anyone could see that.”
“I didn't see it.”
“Well, you see it now,” he flung at her with a hard triumph.
“A mean thief——”
“Not mean, Robert.”
“I don't know anything meaner than stealing money from a lot of
“There was Gertie,” she said as though that were some sort of
“Gertie—they've gone off on some rotten spree—not even married.”
(He hated himself—the beastly righteousness of his voice, his
contemptible exultation. It was as though he were under some horrid
spell which twisted his love and anguish into the expressions of a
spiteful prig. Why couldn't he tell her of those deadly, shapeless
fears, of his loneliness, his sorrowful jealousies? He was shut up in
the iron fastness of his own will—gagged and helpless.)
He saw her start. She stopped definitely in her work as though she
were at last aware of some struggle between them. The room was growing
dark, and she came a little nearer, trying to see his face.
“I don't suppose so. I don't think it would occur to them.”
“No—that's what I should imagine.”
“You're awfully hard on people, Robert.”
“That sort of thing makes me sick. It ought to make you sick. I
don't know why it doesn't. You don't seem to care—to have any
standards. You're unmoral in your outlook—perhaps you're too
young—you don't realize. A rotter like Howard who takes other people's
money just to enjoy himself—a girl like Gertie Sumners who goes off
with the first man who asks her——”
“You don't understand, Robert.”
“No,” he said with a laugh, “I don't.”
“Gertie Sumners hasn't long to live. I sent her to the hospital last
week, and they told her honestly. And she wanted so much to see Italy.
I don't think Howard cares for her or she for him, except in a
comradely sort of way. They loved the same things—and he was sorry—he
wanted to give her her one good time.”
“He told you all that, I suppose?”
“No,” she answered soberly. “But I know.”
He waited a moment. He was trying desperately to hold back—to stop
himself. He was sorry about Gertie Sumners. But everything was against
him. The room was against him—the faun dancing noiselessly among the
shadows, the little things that Francey had gathered about her, the
dear personal things that can become terrible in their poignancy,
Francey herself, standing there slender and grave-eyed, judging him,
weighing him. They were all leagued together. They spoke with one
voice. “We belong TO one another. We understand. But you don't belong.
You are outside.”
“I don't see, at any rate,” he said, “what it has got to do with
you—or why you should be going away.”
“I'm going after them. There's no one else. Howard will expect
prosecution. He will think that he'll never be able to come home. He's
pretty reckless, but they will be thinking of that all the time. It
will spoil everything for them.”
“And what can you do?”
“I can tell them it's all right.”
“How can it be?”
“It is,” she said curtly. “The money has been paid back.”
“Paid back!” Understanding burst upon him. “You paid it?”
He stood up. He knew that resentment flickered in her—a fine,
dangerous resentment against him because he had dragged so simple and
obvious a thing out of its insignificance. But his own anger was like a
mad, runaway horse, rushing him to destruction.
“It was stupid of him not to have come to me in the first place,”
she said, with an effort. “He should have known——”
He broke in fiercely.
“You can't—can't go like that.”
“I must. If they had left an address—but, of course, they haven't.
I'll have to track them down. It won't be so difficult.” A spark of
gaiety lit up her serious eyes. “I'll find Gertie lying on her back in
the Sistine Chapel. She'll scorn the mirrors.”
“You can't leave your work like that.”
“The hospital people have been awfully decent about it.”
“You told them——?”
“I told them I had urgent, personal business.”
“You told them a lie, then?”
(Steady. Steady. But it was too late. His only hope lay in her
“It wasn't a lie. My friends are my business.”
“Your friends!” he echoed.
There was silence between them. She was controlled enough not to
answer. It would have been better if she had returned taunt for taunt
so that at last in the white heat of conflict his prison might have
melted and let him free. But there followed a cold, deadly interlude,
in which their antagonism hardened itself with reason and bitterness.
He went and stood by the window looking out on to the dim square. He
said at last roughly, authoritatively:
“Don't go. I don't want you to go.”
(If only he could have gone on—driven the words over his set
lips—“because I'm afraid—because I'm at breaking-point—because I
can't do without you. I'm frightened of life. I've been starved in body
and heart too long. I'm frightened because Christine is hard to wake at
night—because I can't work any more.”)
“I've got to,” she said briefly, sternly.
He walked from the window to the door.
“You don't care. You care more for these two than you do for me.
I've lived hard and clean. I don't lie or steal. I've never thought of
any girl but you. And you put me second to a feckless thief and a——”
She stopped him. Not with a word or gesture, but with the sheer
upward blaze of a chivalrous anger. And it was not only anger. That
would have been bearable. It was sorrow, reproach, a kind of grieving
bewilderment, as though he had changed before her eyes.
“You'd—you'd better go, Robert. We're both of us out of hand. We'll
see each other to-morrow. It will be different then.”
He went without a word. But on the dark stairs he stood still,
leaning back against the wall, his wet face between his hands. He said
aloud: “Oh, Francey. Francey, I can't live without you!” He would have
gone back to tell her, but he was physically at the end of everything,
and at the mercy of the power outside himself. He thought:
“There's still to-morrow. I'll tell her everything. I'll help her to
get away. I'll make her understand that it wasn't Howard. To-morrow it
will be all right.”
And so went on. And the stolid Georgian door closed with a hard
metallic click, setting its teeth against him.
“Now you see how it happens, Robert Stonehouse!”
But he came out of a night of fever and hallucination with very
little left but the will to keep on. Apathy, like a thin protecting
skin, had grown over him, shielding him from further hurt. He did not
want to feel or care any more. The very memory of that “scene” with
Francey made him shrink with a kind of physical disgust. Only no more
of that. Back to work—back to reason. If she wished to go in pursuit
of Howard and Gertie she would have to go. It seemed strange to him now
that he should have minded so desperately.
Christine called to him as he passed her door.
“Is that you, Robert? Have you had your breakfast? Wait, dear—I'll
get it for you.”
But he crept down the stairs as though he had not heard. Only not so
much caring—if only he could forget that he cared.
“Good-bye, dearest, good-bye!”
Her voice followed him, plaintive and clear. It seemed to lodge
itself in his heart so that ever afterwards he had only to think of her
to hear it like the echo of a small, sad bell. He went on stubbornly,
He did not try to see Francey. They met inevitably in the wake of
the surgeon on whose post they worked, but they did not speak. Their
eyes avoided one another. Yet he could not forget her. It was not the
old consciousness that had been full of mystery and delight. It hurt.
He felt her unsapped joyous living like a blow on his own aching
weariness. He thought bitterly of her. How easy life had been for her!
She played at living. Her airy fancies, her belief in God, her vagrant
tenderness for the rag and bobtail of the earth were all part of that
same thing. She had never suffered. Her people had died, but they had
died in the odour of sanctity and wealth. She had never had to ask
herself: “If I fall out, what will become of us?” She saw pain and
poverty through the softening veil of her own well-being. Nothing could
really hurt her.
(And yet how lovable she was! He watched her covertly as she stood
at the surgeon's elbow—a little graver than usual—a little paler.
To-day there was no warm glance with a flicker of a smile in its serene
depths to greet him. Her hands were thrust boyishly into the pockets of
her white coat, and there was an air of austere earnestness about her
that sat quaintly, charmingly upon her youth. He loved the businesslike
simplicity of her dress—the dark, tailored skirt and white silk
shirt—immaculate—expressive of her real ability, an accustomed
wealth. He flaired and hated its expensiveness.)
Money. That lay at the root of everything. If she were ill—what
would it matter? A mere set-back. Her work would wait for her. Money
would wave anxiety from her door. So she was never ill. Even though she
loved him and they had quarrelled she had kept her fresh skin and clear
eyes. Even if she had worried a little, in the end she had slept
peacefully. (He felt his own shabbiness, his exhaustion, his burning
hands and eyes, his dry and bitter mouth like a sort of uncleanliness.)
And there in the midst of his jagged thoughts there flickered a red
anger—a desire to hurt too, to strike, to come to grips at last with
her laughing philosophy of life—to tear it down and batter it into the
dust and misery in which he stood.
They had come to No. 10's bedside. Things had gone badly with No.
10. She had stood a successful operation, but there had been severe
haemorrhage, and, as Robert had said, there was no constitution to
fight at the turning point. Her face just showed above the creaseless
sheet. Death had already begun to clear away the mask of vice and
cynicism and a lost prettiness peered through. But the eyes were
terribly alive and old. So long as they kept open there could be no
mistaking her. They travelled from face to face, and sought and
questioned. Her voice sounded reedy and far-off.
“Not going this trip, am I, doctor?”
Rogers patted the bed.
“Certainly not. Going along fine. What do you expect to feel
like—with a hole like that in your inside? Next time you have a young
man, see he doesn't carry firearms.”
One of the eyes tried to wink—pitifully, obscenely.
“You bet your life. Don't want to die just yet.”
They drew a little apart. Rogers consulted with his colleague. The
serious loss of blood must be made good. A transfusion. There was a
young man who had offered himself. A suitable subject. This afternoon
at the latest.
They moved on. Robert spoke to the man next him. But he knew that
Francey heard him. He meant her to hear.
“It's crazy. They ought to be glad to let a woman like that slip
out. If she lives she'll only infect more people with her rottenness.
She's better dead. Instead of that they'll suck out somebody else's
vitality to save her. The better the life the more pleased they'll be
to risk it. This sacrificing the strong to the weak—a snivelling
The man he spoke to glanced at him curiously—it was not usual for
Robert Stonehouse to speak to anyone—and said something about the
medical profession and the sanctity of life. Robert laughed. He argued
it over with himself. It was true. For that matter Howard and Gertie
and Connie would all be better dead. There was no use or purpose in
their living. Only sentimentalists like Francey wanted to patch them up
and keep them on their feet.
People who cluttered up life ought to be cleared out of it.
He felt light-headed, yet extraordinarily sure of himself again. He
answered Rogers' questions with the old lucidity. And presently he
found himself in the corridor, still arguing his theme over. He would
prove to Francey that she must let Howard and Gertie go to the devil
and they would never quarrel again.
He came to the head of the stairs where they met after the morning's
The steps were very broad and white and shallow, and gave the
impression of great distance. Mr. Ricardo, at the bottom of them, was a
black speck—a bird that had blundered into the building by mistake and
beaten itself breathless against the walls. As he saw Robert he began
to drag himself up, limping. He seemed to shrivel then to a mere face,
stricken and yellow, that gaped and mouthed.
Robert did not move. He stood leaning against the balustrade. It was
as though an iron fist had smashed through the protecting wall about
him, letting in a rush of bitter wind.
For he had known instantly.
The tragic journey through the streets was over. They stood beside
her. Robert knew too much to struggle, but Ricardo's voice went on,
saying the same things over and over again, pleading.
“Do something—do something. Wake her, Robert, dear boy, for God's
sake. What is the use of all your studying if you can't even wake her?”
“It's no use,” he said.
“She was sitting there—I was to have read her the last chapter—she
was so quiet—asleep she seemed—-for an hour—I sat—not moving—then
I was afraid!”
She had laid his supper for him. It was much too early for her to
have laid it. She had spread muslin over the bread and cheese. And then
she had sat down quietly in her chair by the window and waited. (How
long had she waited there? Many years perhaps. It had been very lonely
for her.) Her head was thrown back a little, and her closed eyes lifted
to the light that came over the stable roofs. The grey hair hung in
wisps about the transparent face—very still, as though the air had
died too. She had changed profoundly, indefinably. She looked younger,
and there was a new serenity about the faintly opened mouth. Her hands
lay peacefully on the little shabby bag. Her little feet in the
ill-fitting shoes just reached the ground. In a way it was all so
familiar. And yet he felt that if he touched her he would find out that
this was not Christine at all. This was something that had belonged to
her—as poignant, as heart-rending as a dress that she had worn.
“Robert, isn't there anything—to do?”
They had nothing to say to one another. They had made a strange
trio—lonely and outcast by necessity—but now a link had snapped and
it was all over. They stood apart, each by himself. Ricardo, crouching
against the window-sill, pressed his hand to his side as though he were
hurt and bleeding to death. He said, almost inaudibly:
“I've no one. Nobody will ever listen. She believed in me. She was
sure that one day—I would go out—and tell the truth. She knew I
wasn't—a cowardly—beaten, old man.”
Robert could not touch her whilst Ricardo stood there crying. Her
repose was too dominating. And if he touched her something terrible and
incalculable might happen. He felt as though he were standing on the
edge of a precipice, and that suddenly he might let go and pitch over.
It had come true at last—his boy's nightmare that had grown up with
him—that only waited for darkness to show itself. Christine had left
him. She was dead, and it seemed that he had no one in the world. For
Francey, loving him as she did, had failed him. But Christine had never
failed him. Never at any time had she asked, “Are you a good little
boy, Robert?” It would never have occurred to her. She was so sure. She
had loved him and, believed in him unfalteringly, and, in her quiet
way, died for him.
Ricardo drew himself up. He plucked at Robert's sleeve. A change had
come over him in the last minutes. His sunken brown eyes had dried and
become rather terribly alert. Something too fine—too exquisitely
balanced in him had been disturbed and broken beyond hope.
“It proves what I have suspected for a long time, Robert. You know
it's not a light thing to make an enemy like that. He's taken his time,
but you see in the end he has taken everything I had. First he made me
a liar and a hypocrite. Then he took you. He sent that girl specially
to come between us. And now Miss Christine. I suppose he thinks that's
done for me. But it's a great mistake to make people desperate, Robert.
You should always leave them some little thing that they care for and
which makes them cowards. Now, you see, I simply don't care any more. I
don't care for myself or even my poor sister. I'm going to fight him in
the open, gloves off. I'll wrestle with him and prevail. I'll give blow
for blow. I'm going now to Hyde Park to tell people the truth about
him. They take him altogether too lightly, Robert. They're inclined to
laugh at him as of no account. That's a great mistake, too. I shall
warn them.” He nodded mysteriously. “God is a devil—a cruel, dangerous
Then he bent and kissed Christine's hand, very solemnly and
tenderly, as some battered, comical Don Quixote might have done before
setting out on a last fantastic quest. And presently Robert heard him
patter down the narrow stairs and over the cobbles to the open street.
They were alone now. He bent over her and said:
“Christine—Christine,” reassuringly, so that she should not be afraid,
and gathered her in his arms. How little she was—no heavier than a
child—and cold. Her grey head rested against his shoulder. If she had
only stirred and laughed, and said: “Your father was strong too!” he
would have answered gently. He would have been glad that the memory of
his father could make her happy. But it was all too late.
He carried her into her room. It was like her to have left it so
neat and ordered—each thing in its place—her out-door shoes standing
decorously together under the window, and her best skirt peeping out
from behind the cretonne curtain. Her hair-brush, with the comb planted
in its bristles, lay exactly in the middle of the pine-wood
dressing-table. When she had put it there, she had not known that it
was for the last time.
Or had she known? She had called out to him so insistently. She had
wanted to say good-bye. And he had gone on, not answering.
They said that people, at the end, saw their whole life pass before
them. Perhaps she had seen hers. Perhaps she had trodden the old road
that he was travelling over now. Only her vision of it would be
different. It was James Stonehouse and Robert's mother that she would
see—radiant figures of wonderful, unlucky people—and little Robert,
who belonged to both of them, tagging in the rear.
But he saw her—Christine lying white and still under the great
mahogany side-board, Christine coming back day after day in gallant
patience to scrub the floors and his ears, and pay the bills and chase
away the duns, and do whatever was necessary to keep the staggering
Stonehouse menage on its feet.
She had held him close to her and comforted him.
Her splendid faithfulness.
He laid her on the narrow bed against the wall, and smoothed her
dress and folded her hands over her breast. Her bag, which he had
gathered up with her rolled on to the floor. A book fell out. He picked
it up mechanically. It was a little Bible, and on the fly-leaf was
“From JIM and CONSTANCE
to their friend, CHRISTINE.”
The writing was his father's. It had faded, but one could still see
how regular and beautiful it was. Then the date. His own birthday—the
first of all the unfortunate birthdays.
He looked at it for a long time, stupidly, not realizing. Then
suddenly he saw it—in a new light. Ricardo. How
frightfully—excruciatingly funny. Ricardo. He felt that he was going
to laugh—shout with laughter. It was horrible. Laughter rising and
falling—-like a sort of awful sickness—choking him.
Instead his heart broke. He flung himself down beside her and
pressed his face against her cold, thin cheek. And, instead of
laughter, sobs that tore him to pieces—and at last, in mercy, tears.
“Oh, Christine, Christine—my own darling! I did love you—I never
told you—you never, never knew how much!”
The earth-old cry of unavailing, inevitable remorse.
So there was no one but Francey now.
He did not know what he hoped, or indeed if he hoped for anything.
He turned to her instinctively. And when the door of the ward opened he
did, in fact, feel a faint lifting of the flat indifference which had
followed on that one difficult rending surrender. He went to meet her.
If she had looked at him with her usual straightness, she might have
remembered the boy of whom she had been fond—a small, queer boy, who
did not like having his face washed, and who came to her truculent and
swaggering, with smears under his red eyes.
Even then it is doubtful whether she could have changed the course
on which both of them were set.
He did not want her to see. And yet, unknown to himself, he did
count on her instant understanding, on some releasing, quickening word
or look that would give back life to the dead thing in him. But her
eyes, preoccupied and unhappy, avoided him. He could not have appealed
to her. He could not have said, as he had meant to do, “Christine is
dead.” He was silenced by the certain knowledge that all real
communication between them had been broken off.
“No. 10 is going to pull through,” she said.
They walked slowly down the corridor. He found it difficult to keep
his feet. He wondered vaguely why she should talk of No. 10 when
Christine was dead. He was puzzled—-confused.
“It seemed likely,” he muttered. “Rogers had got his teeth into
“I suppose you think he was a fool to try?”
(What was she talking about? He would have to arrange for the
funeral. And the money. He did not know whether there would be money
enough. It was hideous—to think of a thing like that—to have to go
into a shop and say to some bored shopkeeper: “I want a nice cheap
coffin, please.” For Christine—for whom he had never been able to buy
so much as a bunch of flowers.)
“I—I don't know.”
“You see, I heard what you said.”
(What had he said? He tried to remember. No. 10. Better dead. Yes,
of course that was it. He couldn't go back on that. His mind seemed to
strain and stagger under the challenge like a half-dead horse under the
“She didn't hear me, anyway.”
“I want to know—was it just—just a sort of pose—or did you mean
“It was true.”
“That doesn't seem to me to matter. It was a beastly thing to have
thought—beastlier to have said——”
He stopped short, as though she had struck him across the face. For
an instant he was blind with pain, but afterwards he steadied, grew
deadly cool and clear-headed. There was a constant movement in the
corridor and he turned abruptly, almost with authority, into an empty
operating theatre. Instinctively he had chosen his ground. Here was
symbolized everything that he trusted and believed in—a cool,
dispassionate seeking, the ruthless cutting out of waste. Yet in the
half-light the place surrounded them both with a ghostly, almost
sinister unreality. Its stark immaculateness lay like a chill, ironic
hand on their distress. It made mock of their unhappiness. It divested
them of their humanity. The nauseating sweetness that still lingered in
the sterilized air was like incense offered up on the grotesque
sacrificial altar that stood bare and brutal beneath the glass-domed
And now Robert saw Francey's face. It was white and pinched and
unfamiliar, as though all her humour and whimsical laughter and
loving-kindness had been twisted awry in a bitter fight with pain. But
he knew her eyes of old. Long ago he had seen them with the same
burning deadly anger. And he knew that it was all over. Their patient
antagonism had come to grips at last over the bodies of their suffering
love for one another.
Even then she held back.
“You don't know how hard life can be. It was hard for her——” But
at that he burst out laughing, and she added quickly, reading his
thought: “Nothing that you've gone through is of any use if it hasn't
taught you pity.”
“Your pity would take a half-dead rat from a terrier.”
“You have no right to judge,” she persisted.
He smiled with white lips.
“Oh, yes, I have! We all have. We condemn men to prison—to death.”
“You do believe in God,” she said bitterly. “You believe in
“It comes to this, Francey, doesn't it? You're through with me? You
don't care any more?”
Her eyes narrowed with a kind of desperate humour. It was as though
for a moment she had regained her old vision of him—a sad queer little
“You say that because you want to shirk the truth. You're almost
glad—presently you will be very glad. You never did want to care—not
from the first. Caring got in your way. You will be free now.” She
waited, and then added very quietly, without anger: “I love you. I dare
say I always shall—but I couldn't live with you—it would break my
heart if we should come to hate one another. Don't think any more about
it. I'll have gone to-morrow, and I'll try to arrange not to come back
till you're through. It will be all right.”
“Francey, it's such a foolish thing to quarrel about.”
“It's everything,” she said simply.
She turned to go. Even then he could have stopped her. He could have
said: “Francey, Christine died this morning!” and their sad enmity
might have melted in grief and pity. But what she had said was true. It
was everything. And his reason, his will, rising up out of the general
ruin, monstrous and powerful, stood like an admonishing shadow at his
“It's much better. There's nothing to make a coward of you now.
He half held out his hand, but it was only a convulsive, dying
movement. He let her go.
As to Gyp Labelle, if she had known the part she played in their
lives, which in the nature of things was not possible, she would have
broken into that famous laugh of hers.
To her, at any rate, it would have seemed immensely, excruciatingly
As the result of an exchange of two remarkably casual notes they met
at Brown's for dinner. Brown's had occurred to both of them as a
natural meeting-place. Cosgrave, it is true, had only dined there once
and that free (as a friend of Brown's friend), but the impression made
upon a stomach accustomed to Soho and tea-shop fare had been indelible.
Stonehouse himself dined there as a matter of custom. Besides, there
was a touch of sentiment to their choice—a rather bitter sharp-tasting
sentiment like an aperitif.
Brown himself had aged considerably, and did not remember very well.
“Old friend of the doctor's, sir? Well, so am I. Getting on—getting
on. But I'm waiting till I can squeeze my money's worth out of him.
When's that knighthood coming, doctor? I want to be able to tell that
story—as good a story as you'd read anywhere. He's got to keep me
alive, sir, till it comes true.”
He went off to the kitchen tittering to himself over an ancient joke
which, together with his “feeling” for the psychological moment in the
matter of roasts, was about all that was left him.
Stonehouse, his chin resting in his hand, studied the menu from
which they had already chosen.
“When the last Honours List came out, he was quite serious and
pathetic about it,” he said. “Things move either too slowly or too
quickly for old people. He does realize that I make quite a good story
as I stand, but he wants the finishing touches—the King clasping me by
the hand, or kissing me on both cheeks, or whatever he thinks happens
on those occasions—and wedding bells as a grand finale.”
“The place seems to have grown shabby,” Cosgrave said. “Or perhaps
it's only me.”
“Oh, no. It is shabby. And perhaps you've noticed, they don't wait
here as they used to.”
Cosgrave looked directly at his companion, almost for the first
time, and caught a spark in the eyes that stared into his—a rather
dangerous spark, which cleverer people than himself had found difficult
to make sure of. Then he laughed flatly.
“You can see how funny it is now——”
“I always did.”
“—because you were so sure it would pan out—like this. How long is
“About eight years.”
“My word! Let's—let's look at one another and take stock.”
Stonehouse sat back and bore the inspection with a faint smile. He
knew himself, and how he impressed others. The eight years had done a
great deal for him. His strength had cast its crudeness and had
attained a certain grace—the ease of absolute control and tried
confidence in itself. He still dressed badly—indifferently,
rather—but his body had toned down to the level of the fine hands,
which he held loosely clasped upon the table.
He looked at once very young and very fine drawn and, as Cosgrave
thought, a little cruel.
“You seem—awfully well and prosperous, Robert. And a sight better
Stonehouse laughed. All he said in reply was:
“And you look prosperous and ill. What was it? Enteric?”
Cosgrave shrugged his thin shoulders. He was still flamboyantly
red-headed and generously freckled, but now that the first flush of
excitement had ebbed, his face showed a parchment yellow. His eyes,
wistful in their setting, were faded, as though a relentless tropical
sun had drunk up their once vivid, boyish colouring.
“Oh yes, that and a few other trifles. I think I've housed most West
African bugs in my time. Everyone had them, but I was such poor pasture
that I got off better than most. Three of my superiors died of 'em, and
I stepped right into their shoes. It pays, you see, if you can hold
out. People like a fellow who isn't always clamouring to come home—and
you bet I never did. But, finally, I took an overdue leave and a hunk
of savings and trekked back. I'd always planned it—a good time, you
know—but somehow it hasn't come off. I expect I left it too long. In
the end I didn't really want to come at all—wanted to lie down and
die, but hadn't the strength of mind to insist. I'd been in London a
week before I wrote you—just drifting round—too weak-kneed to take
the first step. I tore up that idiotic note three times.”
“Well, as long as you posted the fourth effort,” Stonehouse said,
“it's all right.”
They fell then unexpectedly into one of those difficult silences
which beset the road of friends who have been separated too long. The
past stood at their elbow like an importunate and shabby ghost. And yet
it was all they had to lead them back into the old intimacy.
“We've got too much to say,” Cosgrave broke out at last, with a
painful effort, “too much ground to cover—and I dare say we don't want
to cover it. If we'd written—but I never heard from you after that one
letter—after Miss Christine's death.”
“I was ill,” Stonehouse explained, eating tranquilly. “I got through
my finals with a temperature which would have astonished my examiners,
and then I went to pieces altogether. Had to go into hospital myself. A
nervous breakdown. Three months I had of it. They were very decent to
me, and when I came out they got me a berth as ship's doctor on one of
the smaller transatlantic liners. I got hold of things again and pulled
them my way. But I didn't want to look back. My illness had made a
definite break—I wanted to keep free.”
Cosgrave nodded. He had been playing with his food, and now a look
of disgust and weariness came into his thin face.
“I can understand that. I suppose it would have been better if I'd
left well alone, and not written at all.”
“It wouldn't have made much difference,” Stonehouse said: “A week or
two. Sooner or later we'd have run into one another. People who've been
at school together always seem to. And you and I especially.”
“I don't know. I was always a poor specimen—I never meant much to
Stonehouse looked up at him and smiled. This time it was an
unmistakable smile and rather charming, like a warm line of light
falling across his face.
“I was awfully glad to get your letter,” he said. “I'd begun to
Cosgrave flushed up.
“That's—that's about the nicest thing that's happened to me for a
long time. I'd probably cry with pleasure—only I don't seem able to
feel much anyway. It's those damn bugs, I suppose!”
“I'll pull you out of that.”
“Got me diagnosed already?”
“It's not very difficult.”
“I suppose—I suppose you're an awful swell, Stonehouse.”
“Not yet. I'm better at my job than a great many men who are swells.
But I'm young—that'll cure itself. Oh, yes—I'm all right. Things have
gone on coming my way. I'll tell you about it sometime.”
Cosgrave's eyes had rounded with their old solemn admiration.
“A fashionable West-End surgeon—oh, my word! I say, have you got a
bed-side manner tucked away somewhere?”
“No. That's not fashionable for one thing, and for another, it
wouldn't suit my style. I'm not interested in people. I'm interested in
their diseases. They know it, and rather like it.” A touch of chill
scorn showed itself for a moment in his face. “They're frightened of
me. I'm as good as an electric shock to their lethargic, overfed
carcasses. They can't get over a young man with his way to make who
wipes his boots on them. They have to come back for more.”
Cosgrave gave his little toneless laugh.
“I wish to God you'd frighten me. You know, when I felt how rotten I
was I thought of you. You always bucked me up—I believe I had a fool
idea that I'd find you in some scrubby suburban practice. Shows the
bugs must have got into my brain too, doesn't it? Now I suppose I'll
have to ask you to reduce your fees.”
“I'll let you down easy. Say, a guinea a consultation!”
“I could manage that—if you don't want to consult too often. I've
got my bit saved. Not much to squander on out there, except whisky, and
I never took to that. Besides—my father's dead. He didn't mean to
leave me his money—you know how he loathed me—but there was a mix-up
over the will that was to cut me out—not properly witnessed or
something. Anyhow, I came out into a few thousand. Rather a joke on the
old man, wasn't it?”
“One might almost hope for another life if one were sure he were
grinding his teeth over it.”
A faint perplexity flickered across the sallow face.
“Oh, I don't know. I don't seem to bear him any particular grudge
now. Perhaps it would be better if I could. When one's young one judges
very harshly. Parents and kids don't understand each other—not
really—and don't always love each other either, if the truth were
known. Why should they? The old man and I were like strangers tied to
one another by the leg. I used to think if I could pay him back for all
the beastly times he gave me I'd die happy. But I don't feel like that
now. I expect he was pretty miserable himself. There's too much of that
sort of thing for us to wish it on to one another.”
“You're very tolerant,” Stonehouse said. “I'm not. But then I
haven't inherited anything.” He stopped abruptly and his manner
hardened. But Cosgrave did not pursue the subject. His interest had
suddenly slumped into what was evidently an habitual apathy, and only
when they had paid their bill and drifted out into the street did he
revert for a moment to the past.
“And the Gang—and Frances Wilmot?” he asked. He looked shyly at his
companion's profile, which showed up for a moment in a bold, tranquil
outline against the lamplight. It betrayed nothing.
“We might walk back to my rooms and talk in peace. Oh—Francey
Wilmot? I don't know much. She went abroad—finished her course very
late—she was always a bit of a dilettante. People with money usually
Cosgrave said no more. He knew all he wanted to know. It saddened
him. Somehow he had counted on that half-divined romance, had played
with it in his fancy as with a kind of vicarious happiness.
On board the S.S. Launceston there had arrived, an hour
before sailing, an American gentleman—a certain Mr. Horace Fletcher,
who, having been called home suddenly, had had to take what
accommodation he could get on the first available boat. Two days later
he had lain unconscious, strapped to the captain's table, whilst the
ship's doctor, a young man, himself in the horrible throes of
seasickness, had performed a radical operation for acute mastoiditis.
There had been no facilities. The whole thing had been in the last
degree makeshift. The half-trained stewardess had held his instruments
ready for him, and the sea-sickness, comic in retrospect, had weighed
heavily against Mr. Fletcher's chance of seeing land again.
Nevertheless, the eminent New York surgeon, consulted at the first
opportunity, had pronounced the operation a neat performance—under the
circumstances a masterpiece.
It was the nearest possible approach to a medical advertisement. Mr.
Fletcher was a member of a well-known New York family, and the papers
had given the story, with fantastic details as to the ship's doctor's
career, a first-page prominence. Mr. Fletcher himself had proved to be
both generous and grateful. In assessing the value of his own life at
1,000 pounds, he had argued with good humour and good sense, he had
erred on the side of modesty, and Robert Stonehouse, having weighed the
argument gravely, had accepted its practical conclusion as just and
reasonable. He had taken rooms, thereupon, if not actually in Harley
Street, at least under the ramparts, fitted them out with the most
modern surgical appliances that his capital allowed, and had sat down
to wait. Fortunately he had learnt the art of starving before. He slept
in a garret, and the bottom drawer of the handsome mahogany desk in his
consulting-room knew the grim secret of his mid-day meals. But in six
months the tide had turned. Doctors had remembered him from his
hospital days when, if they had not liked him, they had learnt to
respect his genius and his courage, and had sent him patients. The
patients themselves, oddly enough, took a fancy to this gaunt, very
serious young man, who so obviously cared nothing at all about them,
but whose interest in their diseases was almost passionate. And within
two years the tide had brought him in sight of land.
This was what he had meant by “getting hold of things again and
pulling them his way.” There was perhaps something rather simple in a
theory of life which had necessitated so much suffering on the part of
Mr. Fletcher in order that Dr. Stonehouse might take the first long
stride in his career. But Cosgrave, listening to Stonehouse's own
account of the incident, saw in it only an example of a strange,
inexorable truth. What men called “Fate” was the shadow of themselves.
They imposed their characters upon events, significant or
insignificant, willingly or unwillingly. Beyond that there was no such
thing as Fate at all.
They stepped back from the crowd into the shelter of the Piccadilly
Tube. They had been walking the streets for an hour, and as much of
their lives as they were able to tell one another had been told. Now
they were both baffled and tired out. Of what had really happened to
them they could say nothing, and their memories, disinterred in a kind
of desperate haste (“Do you remember that row with Dickson about my
hair, Robert?”) had crumbled, after a moment's apparent vitality, into
a heap of dust. It was all too utterly dead—too unreal to both of
them. The things that had mattered so much, which had seemed so
laughable or so tragic, were like the repetition of a story in which
they could only force a polite interest. Their laughter, their
exclamations, sounded shallow and insincere.
And yet it was borne in upon them that they did still care for one
another. They had had no other friendship to compare with this.
Strictly speaking, there had been no other friends. There had been
acquaintances—people whom you talked to because you worked with them.
Robert Stonehouse had always known his own loneliness. His patients
believed in him; his colleagues respected him. Their knowledge of him
went no further than the operating theatre where they knew him best. He
had reckoned loneliness as an asset. But to feel it, as he felt it now
beneath this stilted exchange, was to become aware of a dull, stupid
pain. He found himself staring over the heads of the people, and
wishing that Cosgrave had never come back. And Cosgrave said gently, as
though he had read his thought and had made up his mind to have done
“You're not to bother about me, Robert. It's been jolly, seeing you
again and all that, but we'd better let it end here. It always puzzled
me—your caring, you know, about a hapless fellow like myself. It's
against your real principles. I'm a dead weight. I couldn't give anyone
a solitary water-tight reason for my being alive. I think you did it
because you'd got your teeth into me by accident and couldn't let go. I
don't want you to get your teeth into me again.”
“I don't believe,” Stonehouse said, with an impatient laugh, “that I
ever let go at all.”
His attention fixed itself on the illuminated sign that hung from
the portico of the Olympic Theatre opposite, and mechanically he began
to spell out the flaming letters:
“Gyp Labelle—Gyp Labelle!” At first the name scarcely reached his
consciousness, but in some strange way it focused his disquiet. It was
as though for a long time past he too had been indefinitely ill, and
now at an exasperating touch the poisoned blood rushed to a head of
pain. He felt Cosgrave plucking at his sleeve, fretfully like a sick
child, raised to a sudden interest.
“I say, Stonehouse, don't you remember?”
“The Circus? Yes, I was just thinking about it. It's not likely to
be the same though.”
“Why not? She was a nailer. Oh—but you didn't think so, did you? It
was the woman on the horse—the big barmaid person—I forget her
It was ridiculous—but even now it annoyed him to be reminded of her
essential vulgarity. There was a glamour—almost a halo about her
memory because of all that he had felt for her. A silly boy's passion.
But he would never feel like that again.
“Well, she could ride, anyhow. I don't know what your long-legged
favourite was good for.”
“She made me laugh,” Cosgrave said. He asked after a moment: “Have
you ever wanted anything so much as you wanted to go to that Circus,
“Oh, yes—crowds of things!”
“I don't believe it somehow. I know I haven't. Oh, I say, I wish I
could want again like that—anything—to get drunk—to go to the
dogs—anything in the world. It's this damnable not wanting. Do you
know I've been trying every night this week to drift into that
show—just to see if it were really that funny kid. I felt I ought to
want to. Why, even the fellows down in Angola had heard of her.”
“She's probably well known in hotter places than that,” Stonehouse
“Yes—so I gathered. That's what made them so keen. They used to
talk of her—telling the wildest yarns, as though it did them good just
to think there was someone left alive who had so much go in them.
Queer, isn't it? Do you remember what a susceptible chap I used to
be—that poor little Connie—what's-her-name, whom I nearly scared out
of her five senses? Well, I've not cared a snap for any woman since
then. And I want to—I want to. I'd be so awfully happy if I could only
care for some nice girl and marry her. There was someone on the
boat—such a jolly good sort—and I think if I only could have cared
she'd have cared too. But I couldn't. I tried to work myself up—but it
was like scratching on a dead nerve—as though something vital had gone
clean out of me.”
His voice cracked. Stonehouse, startled from his own reflections,
became aware that Cosgrave, whose apathy had hung about them like a
fog, hiding them from each other, was on the point of tears—of
breaking down helplessly in the crowded entrance. And instantly their
old relationship was re-born. He took him by the arm, sternly,
authoritatively, as he had always done when little Rufus Cosgrave had
begun to flag or cry.
“You're coming home with me. When you're fit enough we'll do the
show opposite and make a night of it. We'll see what going to the devil
can do for you.”
“Perhaps she'd make me laugh again,” Cosgrave said, quavering
At any rate he had kept faith with himself. That theatre-night with
Frances Wilmot had been the first and last until now, and now assuredly
he did not care any more. But it made him remember. How intoxicated he
had been! He had walked home like a man translated into a strange
country—words had rushed past his ears in floods of music, and the
silver and black streets had been magic-built. Was it his youth, or had
Francey, dancing before him, her head lifted to catch unearthly
harmonies, thrown a spell over his judgment? She had gone, and he was
older—but he had a feeling that the disillusionment was not only in
himself. It was in the atmosphere about him—in the stale air, stamped
on the stereotyped gilt and plush of the shabby theatre and on the
faces of the people. He wondered whether they had all grown too old.
Perhaps the spirit which had driven them into these dark boxes to gaze
open-mouthed, crying or laughing, through a peep-hole into a world of
ideal happiness, or even ideal sorrow, was dead and gone like their
faith in God and every other futile shadow which they had tried to
interpose between themselves and truth. This that remained was perhaps
no more than a tradition—a convention. When people were bored or
unhappy they said: “Let's go to a theatre!” and when they came out they
wondered why they had been, or what they had hoped for.
Reality was beginning to press hard on men. It was driving them into
an iron cul-de-sac, from which there was no escape. Suicide and
madness, obscure and hideous maladies of the brain herded in it.
Perhaps, after all, there had been some value in those old fairy
stories. And he remembered, with a faint movement of impatience,
Francey Wilmot's final shaft: “If there isn't a God you'll have to make
one up.” But even if a man were to juggle with his own integrity, turn
charlatan, there was no faith-serum which you could inject into a
Cosgrave sat limply in his stall, and by the reflected light from
the stage Stonehouse could see his look of wan indifference. He was no
better. All day long he lay on his bed in the small spare room Robert
had given him and stared up at the white ceiling. There was a crack,
running zig-zag from the window to the door, which reminded him, so he
said, of a river in Angola, a beastly slimy thing trailing through
mosquito-infested swamps and villainous-tangled jungles. When he dozed
it became real, and he felt the heat descend on him like a sticky hand,
and heard the menacing drone of the mosquitoes and the splash of oars
as unfriendly natives who had tracked him along the water's edge shot
out suddenly from under the shadow of the mango trees in their long
boats—deadly and swift as striking adders.
And then, near the door, the river broke off—poured into the open
sea—or fell over a cataract—he did not know what—and he woke up with
a sweating start and took his medicine. He was so painstakingly docile
about his medicine that Robert Stonehouse guessed he had no faith in
it. Sometimes indeed he had an idea that Cosgrave was rather sorry for
him, very much as old people are sorry for the young, knowing the end
to all their enthusiasms. It was as though he had travelled ahead, and
had found out how meaningless everything was, even his clever friend's
strength and cleverness.
So he did not get better. And the forces that Robert Stonehouse had
counted on had failed. He had been a successful physician outside his
specialty and his sheer indifference to his patients as human beings
had been one of his chief weapons. He braced them, imposing his sense
of values so that their own sufferings became insignificant, and they
ceased to worry so much about themselves. But with Cosgrave he was not
indifferent. Some indefinable element of emotion had been thrown into
the scales, upsetting the delicate balance of his judgment.
And his old influence had gone too. It had failed him from that
moment in Connie Edwards' room when suddenly Cosgrave had realized the
general futility of things.
“I'll see him through all the same,” Stonehouse thought, with a kind
of violence, “I'll pull him through.”
After the first few moments he had ignored the scene before him. It
was boring—imbecile. Even to him, with his contempt for the average of
human intelligence, it seemed incredible that the gyrating of a few
half-naked women and the silly obscenities of a comedian dressed in a
humourless caricature of a gentleman should hold the attention of sane
men for a minute. Now abruptly the orchestra caught hold of him, shook
him and dragged him back. It was playing something which he had heard
before—on a street barrel-organ, and which he disliked now with an
intensity for which he could give no reason. It was perhaps because he
wanted to remain aloof and indifferent, and because it would not let
him be. It destroyed his isolation. His pulse caught up its beat like
the rest. His personality lost outline—merging itself into the
cumbrous uncouth being of the audience.
Though it was a rhythm rather than a tune it was not rag-time.
Rag-time Stonehouse appreciated. He recognized it as a symptom of the
mal du siecle, a deliberate break with the natural rhythm of life,
a desperate ennui, the hysterical pressure upon an aching cancer.
Ragtime twitched at the nerves. This thing jostled you, bustled you. It
was a shout—a caper—the ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay of its day, riotous and
vulgar. It was the sort of thing coster-women danced to on the
pavements of Epsom on Derby night.
The stage, set with a stereotyped drawing-room, was empty as the
curtain rose. Two hands, dead white under their load of emeralds, held
the black hangings over the centre doorway—then parted them brusquely.
Stonehouse heard the audience stir in their seats, but there was only a
faint applause. No one had come to the theatre for any other purpose
than to see her, but they knew her history. And, after all, they were
Cosgrave caught him by the arm.
“Oh, my word—it's her right enough!”
She stood there, motionless, her fair head with its monstrous crest
of many-coloured ostrich feathers flaming against the dead background.
Her dress was impudent. It winked at its own transparent pretence at
covering a body which was, in fact, too slender, too nervously alive to
be quite beautiful (Stonehouse remembered her legs—the long, thin legs
in the parti-coloured tights, like sticks of peppermint, belabouring
the rotund sides of her imperturbable pony). But her jewels clothed
her. Their authentic fire seemed to blaze out of herself—to be fed by
her. And each one of them, no doubt, had its romance—its scandal. That
rope of pearls in itself was a king's ransom. People nudged each other.
It was part of the show that she should flaunt them.
She had been a plain child, and now, if she was really pretty at
all, it was after the fashion of most French women, without right or
reason, by force of some secret magnetism that was not even physical.
Her wide mouth was open in a rather vacant, childish smile, and she was
looking up towards the gallery as though she were expecting something.
“Hallo, everyone!” she said tentatively, gaily. They stared back at
her, stolid and antagonistic, defying her. She began to laugh then, as
she laughed every night at the same moment, spontaneously, shrilly,
helplessly, until suddenly she had them. It was like a whirlwind. It
spared no one. They were like dead leaves dancing helplessly in its
midst. Even Stonehouse felt it at his throat, a choking, senseless
He saw Cosgrave lean forward, and in the half light he had a queer,
startled look. With his thick red hair and small white face he might
have been some sick thing of the woods scenting the air in answer to
far-off familiar piping's. He made Robert Stonehouse see the faun in
Frances Wilmot's room, the room itself and Frances Wilmot, with her
chin resting in her hands, gazing into the fire. The picture was gone
almost before he knew what he had seen. But it was knife-sharp. It was
as though a hand fumbling over a blank wall had touched by accident a
secret spring and a door had flown wide open, closing instantly.
“I'm Gyp Labelle;
If you dance with me
You must dance to my tune
Whatever it be.”
She jumped into the incessant music as a child jumps into a whirling
skipping-rope. She had a quaint French accent, but she couldn't sing.
She had no voice. And after that one doggerel verse she made a gesture
of good-humoured contempt and danced. But she couldn't dance either. It
was a wild gymnastic—a display of incredible, riotous energy, the
delirious caperings of a gutter-urchin caught in the midst of some
gutter-urchin's windfall by a jolly tune. A long-haired youth leapt on
to the stage from the stage-box, and caught her by the waist and swung
her about him and over his shoulder so that her plumes swept the ground
and the great chain of pearls made a circle of white light about them
“Those pearls!” Stonehouse heard a man behind him say loudly.
“Prince Frederick gave them to her. And then he shot himself. They
belonged to the family. He had no right, of course, but she wanted
He could feel Cosgrave stir impatiently.
It went on, as it seemed to him, for an incredible length of time.
It was like a prairie fire that spread and blazed up, higher and
brighter. And there was no escape. He had a queer conviction that his
was the only static spirit in the whole theatre, that secretly, in
their hearts, the audience had flung themselves into the riot with her,
the oldest and staidest of them, as perhaps they had often wanted to do
when they heard a jolly tune like that. It was artless, graceless. One
only needed to let oneself go.
“I'm Gyp Labelle,
Come dance with me.”
The jaded disgust and weariness were gone. Something had come into
the theatre that had not been there before. Nothing mattered either so
much or so little. The main business was to have a good time
somehow—not to worry or care.
She had whirled catherine-wheel fashion, head over heels from end to
end of the stage. The long-haired youth swept the hair from his hot,
blue-jowled face in time to catch her, and they stood side by side, she
with her thin arms stretched up straight in a gesture of triumph, her
lips still parted in that curiously empty, expectant smile.
Then it was over. Once the curtain rose to perfunctory applause.
People settled back in their seats, or prepared to go. It was as though
the fire had been withdrawn from a molten metal which began instantly
to harden. A woman next to Stonehouse tittered.
“So vulgar and silly—I don't know what people see in her.”
“I want to get away,” Cosgrave said sharply. “It's this beastly
He looked and walked as though he had been drinking.
Although the show was not over, the majority of the audience had
begun to stream out. Two men who loitered in the gangway in front of
Stonehouse exchanged laconic comments.
“A live wire, eh, what?”
For some reason or other Stonehouse saw clearly and remembered
afterwards the face of the man who answered. It was bloated and full of
a weary, humorous intelligence.
“Life itself, my dear fellow, life itself!”
Cosgrave scarcely answered his companion's comments. He withdrew
suddenly into himself, and after that he shirked the subject,
understandably enough, for if he had had illusions on her account they
must have been effectively shattered. But also he ceased to lie all day
on his bed and stare up at the mosquito-infested river of his
nightmare. He grew restless and shy, as though he were engaged with
secret business of his own of which Stonehouse knew nothing, and of
which he could say nothing. Yet Stonehouse had caught his eyes fixed on
him with the doubtful, rather wistful earnestness of a child trying to
make up its mind to confide. (There was still something pathetically
young about Rufus Cosgrave. Now that his body was growing stronger,
youth peered out of his wan face like a famished prisoner demanding
What he did with himself during the long hours when Stonehouse was
in his consulting-room or on his rounds Stonehouse never asked. At
night he sat at the study window of his friend's flat (shabby and high
up since all spare money was diverted to other and better purposes),
and looked over the roofs of the houses opposite, smoking and watching
the dull red glow that rose up from the blazing theatres westwards.
“It is a fire,” he said once, “and all the cold, tired people in
London come to warm their hands at it.”
Robert Stonehouse went on with his writing under the lamplight.
“Are you cold?”
“Not now.” He added unexpectedly: “You think I'd be all right, don't
you, if only you could have a go at my tonsils or my adenoids? I
believe you're just waiting to have a go at them.”
“Your tonsils are septic,” Stonehouse agreed gravely. “I told you
so, but I wouldn't advise anything drastic until you're stronger. We'll
think about it in a month or two. You're better already.”
Cosgrave chuckled to himself. In the shadow in which he sat the
chuckle sounded elfish and almost mocking.
“Oh, yes, I'm better!”
Stonehouse took his first holiday for three years, and carried
Cosgrave off with him to a rough shooting-box in the Highlands lent him
by a grateful and sporting patient, and for a week they tramped the
moors together and stalked deer and fished in the salmon river that ran
in and out among the desolate hills. The place was little more than a
shepherd's cottage, growing grey and stubborn as a rock out of the
heather, and beyond that proffered them occasionally by a morose and
distrustful gillie they had no help or other companionship. They won
their food for themselves, cooked it by the smoking fire, and washed
heroically in the icy river water. A sting of winter was already in the
wind and a melancholy and bitter rain swept the hills, giving way at
evening to unearthly sunsets. They saw themselves as pioneers at the
world's end. And Stonehouse, who had calculated its effect on Cosgrave,
was himself caught up in the fierce, rough charm of that daily life. He
who had never played since that circus night played now in passionate
earnest. He proved a good shot, and, for all his inexperience, an
indomitable and clever hunter. His close-confined physical energy could
not shake itself. He liked the long and dogged pursuit, the cruel,
often fruitless struggle up the mountain-sides, the patient waiting,
the triumph of that final shot from a hand unshaken by excitement or
fatigue. A stag showing itself for an instant against the sky-line
called up all the stubborn purpose in him; then he would not turn back
until either his quarry had fallen to him, or night had swallowed them
And Cosgrave, half forgotten, tagged docilely at his heels, or lay
in the wet heather on the crest of a hill overlooking the world, and
watched and waited with strange, wide-open eyes. But he never gave the
signal. He shot nothing. His failure seemed to amuse and even please
him. A faint, excited colour came into his cheeks, lashed up by the
wind and rain. And once, a hare running out from under his feet, he
gave a wild “halloo!” like a boy and set off in pursuit, headlong down
the stony hillside, his gun at full cock, threatening indiscriminate
“You might have killed yourself,” Robert said angrily. But Cosgrave
laughed, his eyes narrowed to blue-grey slits as though he did not want
Stonehouse to see all that was in them.
“I shouldn't have minded,” he panted, “going off on the crest like
that—I wanted to run—I forgot.”
“Well, for the Lord's sake, don't forget.”
But for an instant at least he knew what Cosgrave meant. It had been
the sight of that downward rushing hill and the sudden choking
exultation. He had felt it too—that night in Acacia Grove in pursuit
of the Greatest Show—and once again. He could smell the scent of the
trees and the young grass blowing in his face.
And at the bottom there had been a mysterious wood like a deep,
Then on the eighth day Cosgrave disappeared. He had set out in the
early morning for the nearest station to fetch their letters and fresh
provisions, and at dusk a village youth reached Stonehouse with a note
which had been scrawled in such haste that it was almost illegible. It
was as though Cosgrave had yielded suddenly and utterly to a prolonged
He had to go back to town. It was something urgent. Stonehouse was
not to bother. He would be all right now.
The next day Stonehouse stalked and brought down his first “Royal.”
This time the chase had cost him every ounce of his endurance, and in
the chill dusk he stood watching the gillie at his work on the lovely
body (still so warm and lissom that one could almost see the last
sorrowful heaving of its golden flanks) with a kind of stolid triumph
as though now he had wiped out that other failure, for he realized that
he had been both too sanguine and too impatient. When you were angling
a man with a sick brain back to health, you had to go
“It's because I care,” he thought, half amused and half angry. “And
why do I care? It's as he said—a rotten habit.”
But he returned to town. He tracked Cosgrave to his former
lodging-house, where a stout, heavily-breathing landlady showed every
readiness to be communicative and helpful.
“Yes, sir—he's here again—I think he was expecting you—mentioned
your name—he's out now and won't be back till late—dinner at the
Carlton, he said. If you'd like to leave a note, sir——”
She led him upstairs and watched him with a fat amusement as he
stood silent and frowning on the threshold.
“It is a fair mess,” she admitted blandly. “I was just trying
to get things a bit together when you rang, sir. I'm to throw away all
that old stuff, he said. A reg'lar new start he's making—and a
lively one, I don't think. Theatres and supper parties ever since he's
been back, sir, and right glad I've been to see it, though I don't 'old
with carryings-on, in a general way. But after them there tropiks he'd
need a change. He was that down, sir, when he first came, I didn't know
what to think.”
The room might have belonged to a young dandy returned to London
from the wilds of Central Africa. It was littered with half-open boxes,
new suits, a disorderly regiment of shining, unworn boots and shoes, a
pile of ties that must have been chosen for sheer expensiveness.
(Stonehouse remembered the spotted affair with which Cosgrave had wooed
Connie Edward's approval.) The shabby suit in which Stonehouse had
first met him had been flung with the other cast-offs into a far
corner. It was all very young and reckless and jolly. One could see the
owner, as he rampaged about the room, whistling and cursing in a
“'Ere's 'is writing-table; I'll just make room for you, sir——”
He stopped her.
“It doesn't matter. If he's to be at the Carlton I'll probably look
him up myself.”
“Dining early, he said, sir—seven o'clock.”
A folded, grey-tinted letter lay half hidden in the general melee.
It had a bold, irrepressible look, as though it were aware of having
blown the room to smithereens and was rather amused. Stonehouse could
see the large, sprawling hand that covered it. He touched it, not
knowing why—nor yet that he was angry. Something that had been asleep
in him for a long time stirred uneasily and stretched itself.
“Ladies”—his companion simpered—-"always the ladies, sir.”
An hour later he was waiting for Cosgrave in the Carlton lounge. He
had never been in the place before—or in any place like it—and it
confused and astonished him. He was like a monk who had come unprepared
into the crude noise and glitter of a society desperately
pleasure-seeking. He could regard the men and women round him with
contempt, but not with indifference, for they represented a force
against which he had not yet tried himself except in theory. And they
set a new standard. Here his life and his attainments were of no
account. What mattered was that he wore his travelling clothes, and
that he stood stockily in the gangway like a man who does not know what
is expected of him. It was ridiculous, but it was true that he became
But he held his ground stubbornly. He was not aware of any definite
plan or expectation. If he had asked himself what he intended he would
have said he meant to look after Cosgrave, who was in a bad way. As a
friend and as a doctor he had the right. He would not have admitted
that his own personality had become involved, that he had felt himself
Then he saw Cosgrave. He saw him before his companion, though for
everyone else she obscured him utterly. She walked a few steps ahead, a
bizarre, fantastic figure, her fair head with its deep band of diamonds
lifted audaciously, the same fixed smile of childish expectancy on her
oval, painted face. Her dress had left vulgarity behind. It was too
much a part of herself—in its way too genuine—to be merely laughable.
It was like her execrable dancing, the expression of an exuberant,
inexhaustible life. As she walked, with short impatient steps, she
swayed the great ostrich-feather fan and twisted her rope of pearls
between her slender fingers. The open stare that greeted her seemed to
amuse and please her.
And Cosgrave. Saville Row, Stonehouse reflected rapidly and
contemptuously, must have been bribed to have turned out such
perfection at such short notice. Too much perfection and too new. An
upstart young rake. No, not quite that, either. Pain had lent an
elusive beauty to the plain and freckled face, and happiness had made
it lovable. It was obvious that he was trying to suppress his pride and
astonishment at himself and not succeeding. The corners of his mouth
quivered shyly and self-consciously, and the wide-open eyes were fixed
with an engaging steadfastness on the figure in front of him as though
he knew that if he looked to the right or left he would give himself
away altogether. Stonehouse could almost hear his voice, high-pitched
“Oh, I say, Robert, isn't it wonderful—isn't she splendid?”
Stonehouse himself stood right across their path. It was accidental,
and now he could not move. He had grown to rely too much on his
emotional inaccessibility, and the violence and suddenness of his anger
transfixed him. This woman had trapped Cosgrave. She had caught him in
the dangerous moment of convalescence—in that rebound from inertia
which carries men to an excess incredible to their normal conscience.
And she was infamous. She had broken one man after another.
She could not have overlooked Stonehouse. Apart from his conspicuous
clothes, his immobility and white-set face must have inevitably drawn
her attention to him. Her eyes, very blue and shadowless, met his stare
with a kind of bonhomie—almost a Masonic understanding—and the
uncompromising antagonism that replied seemed to check her. She
hesitated, then as he at last stood back, passed on still smiling, but
mechanically, as though something had surprised her into forgetting why
Cosgrave followed her. He brushed against Stonehouse without
In that moment Stonehouse's anger ran away with him. Thrusting aside
the protests of a puzzled and rather frightened waiter he chose a table
that faced them both. Cosgrave, blindly absorbed, never looked towards
him, but twice she met his eyes, still with a faintly puzzled
amusement, as though every moment she expected to penetrate a mask of
crude enmity to a no less crude admiration and desire. Then she spoke
to Cosgrave laughingly, as Stonehouse knew, with the light curiosity of
a woman who has met something tantalizingly novel, and Cosgrave turned,
uttered an exclamation, and a moment later came across. He acted like a
man suffering from aphasia. He seemed totally oblivious of the
immediate past. They might have been casual friends who had met
casually. He was radiant.
“What luck your being here. I didn't know you went in for frivolity
of this sort—if you call it frivolous dining in solitary state. Come
over and join us. We're just having a bite before the show. You
remember Mademoiselle Labelle, don't you?”
Stonehouse nodded assent. He left his table at once. He seemed
frigidly composed, but he was sure that she would not be deceived. She
knew too much about men—that was her business—and she meant to pay
him out, make him seem crude and absurd in his own eyes.
“It's Stonehouse—my old friend—I was telling you about him—we
don't need to introduce you, Mademoiselle.”
She gave him her hand, palm down, to kiss, and he turned it over
deliberately. The fingers were loaded to the knuckles. He reflected
that each of these stones had its history, tragic, comic or merely
sordid. He let her hand drop. He saw that the affront had not touched
her. Perhaps others had begun like that.
“Ce cher docteur—'e don't like me,” she complained
pathetically to Cosgrave. “'E sit opposite to me and glare like a
'ungry tiger. Believe me, I grow quite cold with fear. Tell me why you
don't like me, Monsieur?”
“He was only wanting to be asked,” Cosgrave broke in with his high,
excited laugh. “Why, he introduced us. I was all down and out—couldn't
decide which bridge to chuck myself off from—and he lugged me into
your show. He said——”
“Well, what 'e say?”
“He said: 'Let's see what going to the devil can do for you.'“
She jerked a jewelled thumb at him, appealing to Stonehouse.
“'E 'as cheek, that young man. 'E send in 'is card to my
dressing-room, saying 'e got to meet me. Comme ca! As though
anyone could just walk in! I was curious to see a young man with cheek
like that. So I let 'im come. Et nous voila!” She leant across
to Stonehouse, speaking confidentially, earnestly. “But you—c'est
autre chose—monsieur est bien range—an artist perhaps for
all that—'e see me dance and think perhaps, 'Voyons—she cannot
dance at all—nor sing—nor nozzings. Just enjoy 'erself.' You think I
don't deserve all I get, hein?”
“I think,” said Stonehouse smiling, “that there are others in your
profession less fortunate, Mademoiselle.”
As, for instance, that woman in the hospital—Frances Wilmot's
protegee. Queer how the memory of that ruined, frightened face peering
over the bed-clothes and begging for life should come back to him after
eight years. And yet the connexion was obvious enough. He looked at
Mademoiselle Labelle with a new interest. It was impossible that she
should have read his thoughts, but he knew by the little twist of her
red mouth that she had understood his insult. She seemed to ponder over
“That's true—c'est bien vrai, ca. I 'ave been lucky. I shall
always be lucky. Everybody knows that. They say: 'Our Gyp, she will
'ave a good time at 'er funeral.' No, no. Monsieur Rufus, I will not
drink. If I drink I might dance—'ere on this table—and ze company is
so ver' respectable. Listen.” She laid her hand on Stonehouse's arm as
unconsciously as though he had been an old friend. “Listen. They play
ze 'Gyp Gal-lop.' That is because I am 'ere. Ze conductor, 'e know
me—he like 'is leetle joke. C'est drole—every time I 'ear it
played I want to get up and dance and dance——” She hummed under her
breath, beating time with her cigarette.
“I'm Gyp Labelle;
If you dance with me. . . .”
Obviously she knew that the severely elegant men and women on either
hand watched her with a covert, chilly hostility. But there was
something oddly simple in her acceptance of their attitude. Therein, no
doubt, lay some of her power. She was herself. She didn't care. She was
too strong. She had ruined people like that—people every whit as
hostile, and self-assured, and respectable—and had gone free without a
scratch. She could afford to laugh at them, to ignore them, as it
(And what would Frances Wilmot with her wrong-headed toleration,
have urged in extenuation? A hard life, perhaps? Stonehouse smiled
ironically at himself. The old quarrel was like an ineradicable drop of
poison in the blood.)
She smoked incessantly. She ate very little. And as time went on she
seemed to draw away from the two men into a kind of secret ecstasy of
enjoyment like some fierce animal scenting freedom. The sentences she
dropped were shallow, impatient, even stupid. And yet there was Rufus
Cosgrave with his hungry eyes fixed on her, trapped by the nameless
force that lay behind her triviality, her daring commonness.
She rose to go at last.
“And you take him with you, Monsieur le docteur. If 'e sit
many more nights in ze front row 'e find out, too, I can't dance, and
then I break my 'eart. Besides, I 'ave my reputation to think of in
this ver' propaire England, hein?”
“I'm coming with you,” Cosgrave said quietly.
She shrugged her shoulder.
“Eh bien, what can I do? They are all ze same. Good-bye,
Monsieur le docteur. You scare me stiff. But I like you. Nest time
I 'ave ze tummy-ache I ring you up.
“I shouldn't—if I were you.”
“Why? You give me poison, p'raps?”
“I might,” he said.
So Rufus Cosgrave disappeared, like an insignificant chip of wood
sucked into a whirlpool, and this time Stonehouse made no attempt to
plunge in after him. With other advanced and energetic men of his
profession he stood committed to a new enterprise—the creation of a
private hospital, which was to be a model to the hospitals of the
world—and he had no time to waste on a fool who wanted to ruin
himself. But though he never thought of Cosgrave, he could not
altogether forget him. At night he found himself turning instinctively
towards the window where the delicate, rather plaintive profile had
shown faintly against the glow of the streets, and the empty frame
caused him a sense of unrest, almost of insecurity, as though a ghost
had risen to convince him that the dead are never quite dead, and then
He took to returning to his consulting-rooms, where he regained his
balance and his normal outlook. The sober reality of the place thrust
ghosts out-of-doors. Here was no lingering shadow of poverty to recall
them. The bright, cold instruments in their glass cases, the neatly
ordered japanned tables, the cunning array of lights were there to
remind him that he was a man who had made a record career for himself
and who was going farther. In the day-time he took them as a matter of
course, but now he regarded them rather solemnly. He went from one to
another, handling them, testing them, switching the lights of special
electrical devices on and off, like a boy with a new and serious
plaything. There was no one to laugh at him, and he did not laugh at
himself. He stood in the midst of his possessions, a little insolently,
with his head up, as though he were calling them up one by one to bear
him witness. He was self-made. He had torn his life out of the teeth of
circumstance. There was not an instrument, not a chair or table in the
lofty, dignified room that he had not paid for with sweat and sacrifice
and deprivation. No one had given him help that he had not earned. Even
in himself he had been handicapped. The boy he had been had wanted
things terribly—silly, useless, gaudy things that would have ruined
him as they had ruined his father. He remembered how in the twilight of
Acacia Grove he had listened to the music of far-off processions, and
had longed to run to meet them and march with the jolly, singing
people, and how once it had all come true, and he had lied and stolen.
Once only. Then he had stamped temptation under foot. He had become
master of himself. And now he was not tempted any more by foolish
desires. He meant to do work that would put him in the front rank of
And, thinking of the old struggle, he threw out his hand, as he had
done that night when he had met Francey Wilmot, and clenched the
slender, powerful fingers as though he had life by the throat, smiling
a little in the cold, rather cruel way that Cosgrave knew—a theatrical
gesture, had it been less passionately sincere.
It was in his consulting-room that Cosgrave found him after a
prolonged, muddle-headed search that had lasted till close on midnight.
Cosgrave himself was drunk—less with wine than with a kind of heady
exhilaration that made him in turn maudlingly sentimental or recklessly
hilarious. And yet there was a definite and serious purpose in his
coming—a rather pathetic desire to “put himself right,” to get
Stonehouse, who leant against the mantleshelf watching him with a frank
contempt, to understand and sympathise.
“Of course—you're mad with me—you've got every right to be—it was
a rotten thing to do—bolting like that—beastly ungrateful and
inconsiderate. It was just because I couldn't explain. I knew you
thought it was the fresh air and—and hunting down those poor jolly
little beggars—and all the time it was just a girl and a blessed tune
running through my head.”
He began to hum, beating time with tipsy solemnity, and even then
the wretched song brought something riotous and headlong into the
The door seemed to have been flung violently open with an explosive
gesture, as though some invisible showman had called out: “Look who's
here!” and the woman herself had catherine-wheeled into their midst,
standing there in her exotic gorgeousness, with her arms spread out in
salutation and her mouth parted in that rather simple smile. Robert
could almost smell the faint perfume that surrounded her like a cloud.
It was ridiculous—yet for the moment she was so real, that he could
have taken her by the shoulders and thrust her out.
“And you did want me to get better, didn't you?” Cosgrave pleaded
wistfully, “even if it wasn't with your medicine. And in a sort of way
it was your medicine, wasn't it? You made me go to see her.”
Stonehouse had to sit down and pretend to rearrange his papers in
order to hide how impatient he felt.
“My professional vanity isn't wounded, if that's what you're getting
at. If you were better I'd be very glad. As far as I can see you're
“I know—a little—I'm not accustomed to it—but it's not that,
Robert. Really, it isn't. I'm jolly all—the time—even in the early
morning. Seem to have come back to life from a beastly long way
off—all at once—by special aeroplane. I don't think I've felt like
“Since Connie Edwards' day,” Robert suggested. “But I expect you've
Cosgrave stared, round-eyed and open-mouthed and foolish.
“Connie——? No—I haven't. You bet I haven't. Often wonder what
became of her. She was a jolly good sort.”
“You didn't think so by the time she'd finished with you.”
“I was an ass. A giddy, hysterical ass. I didn't understand. Poor
old Connie! She could just swim for herself—but not for both of us.
And I scared her stiff—tying myself round her neck like that.”
Stonehouse cut him short.
“Nobody could accuse Mademoiselle Labelle of being a poor swimmer,”
he said. (He wondered at the same moment whether there was something
wrong with him. He was so intently conscious of her. He could see her
lounging idly in the big chair opposite, so damnably sure of herself
and amused. He wanted to insult and, if possible, hurt her.)
“You're awfully down on people, Robert. Hard on 'em. Often wonder
why you haven't chucked me off long ago. But that's an old story. You
ought to like her for being able to swim well. It's what you do
“I don't mind her swimming well,” Robert returned. “But I understand
that she's been able to drown quite a number of people better able to
look after themselves than you are. As far as you're concerned, it
seems—rather a pity.”
Cosgrave shook his head. A certain quiet obstinacy, not altogether
that of intoxication, came into his flushed face. And yet he looked
sorry and almost ashamed.
“I'm not going to drown. You know—I hate standing out against you,
Robert. You've been so—so jolly decent to me—and I believe in
you—more than in anything in the world. Always have done. If you said
'the earth's square,' I'd say, 'Why, yes, so it is—old chap!' But
this—this is different—it's like a dog eating grass—a sort of
“Instinct!” Robert echoed ironically. “If you know where most
instincts lead to——” He stopped, and then went on in a cold,
matter-of-fact tone, as though he were diagnosing a disease. “It's not
my business—but since you've come here I'd be interested to hear what
you think is going to be the end of it all. I might persuade you to
look facts in the face. By position you're a little suburban nobody,
who was pushed out to West Africa to become a third-rate little trader.
You've survived, and you've got a little money to burn. To you it seems
a fortune. But it won't pay this woman's cigarette bills. She makes you
“I am ridiculous,” Cosgrave interrupted patiently. “I always have
been, you know. I expect I always shall be. I'm the square peg in the
round hole—and that's always comic. But she doesn't laugh at me. She's
just let me join in like a good sport. I know I'm out of place, too,
among her smart pals—you needn't rub it in—but she doesn't seem to
make any difference, I might be the smartest of the lot. I tell you,
when I think of the good times I've had, I feel—I feel”—absurd and
drunken tears came into his eyes—“as though I were in church—I'm so
“Her smart pals pay pretty dearly for their good times. It will be
time to be grateful when she's had enough of you.” It escaped him
against his will. He knew the futility of such taunts which seemed to
betray an anger too senseless to be admitted. He did not care enough to
“You—you don't understand, old chap. Seems cheek—my saying that to
you. But you're not like other people—you don't need the things they
have to have to keep going. And, anyhow, she's not responsible for the
asses men make of themselves.” He was becoming more fuddled as the
warmth of the room closed over his wine-heated brain. But his eyes had
changed. They had narrowed to two twinkling slits of gay secretiveness.
“More things in heaven and earth than you dream of, old chap. But you
don't dream, do you? Never did. Got your teeth into
facts—diseases—and getting on—and all that. What's a song and a
dance to you? But I wish you liked her, all the same. P'raps you do,
only you won't own up. She liked you, you know. Fact is, it was she
sent me along to dig you out.”
At that Stonehouse was caught up sharply out of his indifference. He
flushed and thrust his hands into his pockets to prevent them from
clenching themselves in absurd resentment.
“What do you mean?”
Cosgrave nodded. But he looked suddenly confused and rather sulky,
like a play-tired child who has been shaken out of its sleep to be
“Well—some people would be jolly flattered. There's to be a big
beano on her birthday—a supper party behind the scenes—and she said:
'You bring along your nice, sad, little friend—ce pauvre jeune
homme.' You know, Stonehouse, it made me laugh, her describing you
like that. I said: 'You don't need to be sorry for Robert Stonehouse.
He can keep his own end up as well as anybody.' But she said: 'Ce
pauvre jeune homme.' I couldn't get her to see you were a damned
lucky fellow.” He dropped back into the corner of the chesterfield and
yawned and stretched himself. “I want you to come too. Do you good.
P'raps she's right. P'raps you've had a rotten time in your own way.
Though I don't know—I'd be happy enough, if I were you—always seem to
come out on top—not to care for any damn thing on earth, except
that—not even Francey Wilmot—or even me—just a sort of pug-dog you
trailed behind on the end of a string—a sort of mascot.”
He was going to sleep. He waggled his arm feebly, groping for
Stonehouse. “Say you'll come. I'd be awfully proud—show you off, you
know. Always was—awfully proud—have such a pal.”
He was the very figure of stupid intoxication as he lay there with
his crumpled evening clothes and disordered hair—and yet not ugly
either, but in some way innocent and simple. (Robert could see little
Rufus Cosgrave, excited and tired out after the chase to the Greatest
Show in Europe, peering through the disguise of rowdy manhood.)
Stonehouse threw a rug over him, resigning himself to the
inevitable. But when he had switched off the main lights he gave an
involuntary glance over the suddenly shadowed room as though to make
sure that the darkness had exorcised an alien and detestable presence.
So she was sorry for him. That, at any rate, was amusing. Or perhaps
she thought he was afraid of her in the obscure duel that was being
fought out between them.
Cosgrave caught hold of him as he passed.
“The end of it all will be that I'll go back to my old swamp and
tell the fellows that I've had a first-rate leave. I'll tell 'em about
her, and they'll sit round open-mouthed—thinking I'm no end of a
dog—and that they'll do the same next time they get a chance. They'll
be awfully bucked to hear there's a good time going after all.” He
pleaded drowsily: “Say you'll come though, Robert. You're such a brick.
I'm beastly fond of you, you know.”
Robert Stonehouse withdrew his hand sharply from the hot, moist
clasp. (How he had run that night! As though the devil had been after
him instead of poor breathless little Cosgrave with his innocent
“Oh, I'll come,” he said.
After all, nothing changed very much. Grown-up people masqueraded.
They pretended to laugh at the young fools they had been and were still
behind the elaborate disguise of adult reasonableness and worldly
wisdom. For Robert Stonehouse, at any rate, it was ridiculously the old
business over again—children whose games he despised and could not
play, despising him.
It seemed that she had invited everyone and anyone whose name had
come into her head, without regard for taste or sense, and the result,
half raffish and half brilliant, somehow justified her. The notable and
notorious men there, the bar-loungers whose life gave them a look of
almost pathetic imbecility, the women of fashion and the too
fashionable ladies of the chorus had, at least temporarily, accepted
some common denominator. They rubbed shoulders in the stuffy, dingy,
green-room with an air of complete good-fellowship.
Robert Stonehouse stood alone among them, for nothing in his life
had prepared him to meet them. He had been accustomed to encounter and
master significant hardship, not an apparently meaningless luxury and
aimless pleasure. He knew how to deal with men and women whose
sufferings put them in his power or with men of his own profession, but
these people with their enigmatic laughter, their Masonic greetings,
almost their own language (which was the more troubling since it seemed
his very own), threw him from his security. They made him
self-conscious and self-distrustful. They might be ten times more
worthless than he believed them to be, and he might be ten times a
bigger man than the Robert Stonehouse who had made such a good thing of
his life. They had still the power to put him in the wrong and to make
him an oaf and an outsider. And they knew it. He felt their glances
slide over him furtively and a little mockingly. Yet outwardly he
conformed to them. He wore his clothes well enough, and his
self-control covered over his real distress with a rather repellent
arrogance. He was even handsome, as a plain man can become handsome
whose mind has dominated from the start over a fine body. And with this
air of power went his flagrant youthfulness.
But the girl standing next him dropped him a flippant question with
veiled irony and dislike in her stupid eyes, and turned away from him
before he answered. She was a vulgar, garish little creature, and he
could afford to smile satirically (and perhaps too consciously) at the
powdered shoulder which she jerked up at him. And yet he was deeply,
It was like a play in which he was the only one who did not know his
part. Even Cosgrave played up—a little too triumphantly, showing
off—as a tried man-of-the-world. And at her given moment the star
performer made a dramatic entry into the midst of them, a cloak of pale
blue brocade thrown over her scanty dress and her plumes still tossing
from the elaborately tousled head.
They greeted her with hand-clapping and laughter, and she held out
her thin arms, embracing them as old friends. In her attitude and in
her eyes which passed rapidly from one to another, there was
good-humoured understanding. She knew probably what the more immaculate
among them thought of her, and that they were there to boast about it
as English people boast of having visited Montmartre at midnight. It
was daring and amusing to be at this woman's notorious dinners. They
thought they patronized her, whatever else they knew. But in reality
the joke was on her side.
“Allons—to ze feast, friends.”
She had seen Robert Stonehouse, and she went straight to him, waving
the rest aside like a flock of importunate pigeons, and took his arm.
“You and I lead the way, Monsieur le docteur.”
He did not answer. He was glad that she had signalled him out. It
smoothed his raw pride. And yet he thought: “This is her way of making
fun of me.” And he hated her and the scented warmth of her slim body as
it brushed lightly against his. He hated his own excited triumph. For
the first time he became aware of something definitely abnormal in
himself, as though a dead skin had been stripped off his senses and he
had begun to see and hear with a primitive and stupefying clearness.
The rest followed them noisily along grimy, winding passages and
between dusty wedges of improbable landscapes out on to the stage. A
long table had been laid in the midst of the stereotyped drawing-room,
which formed the scene of her grotesque dancing, and absurdly elaborate
waiters in powdered hair and knee-breeches hovered in the wings. They
were not real waiters, and from the moment they came out into the
footlights the guests themselves became the chorus of a musical comedy.
It was difficult to believe in the over-abundant flowers with which the
table was strewn or in the champagne lying ostentatiously in wait.
The curtain had been left up, and the dim and dingy auditorium gaped
dismally at them. The empty seats were threatening as a silent,
starving mob pressed against the windows of a feasting-house. But the
woman on Stonehouse's arm waved to them.
“I like it so. I see all my friends there—my old friends who are
gone—God knows where. They sit and laugh and clap and nod to one
another. They say: 'Voyons, our Gyp still 'aving a good time.'
And I kiss my 'and to them all.”
She kissed her hand and threw her head back in the familiar movement
as though she waited for their applause. And when it was over she
looked up into Robert Stonehouse's face.
“Monsieur le docteur is a leetle pale. One is always nervous
at one's debut. You never act before, hein?”
“Not in a theatre like this,” he said.
And he felt a momentary satisfaction because she knew that his
answer had a meaning which she did not understand.
“Monsieur Cosgrave say you would not come. To say you never do
nothing—only work and work. Is that true?”
“Don't dance—don't go to the theatre—don't love no one—don't get
a leetle drunk sometimes? Never, never?”
“No,” he said scornfully.
“Don't want to, hein?”
“I hate that sort of thing.”
(But she was making him into a ridiculous prig. She turned the
values of life topsy-turvy with that one ironic, good-natured gesture.)
“Eh, bien, it's a good thing for my sort there are not too
many of your sort, my friend. But per'aps it is not quite so bad as it
seems, for you 'are come after all.”
“I had to,” he thrust at her.
“'Ow you say—professionally?”
“But I 'ave not get ze tummy-ache—not yet.”
“I don't care about you.”
“You want to look after your leetle friend, hein?”
She was unruffled—even concerned to satisfy him.
“Well, then, you be policeman. You sit 'ere. It is always better to
watch ze thief than ze coffre-fort. You keep an eye on me and
see I don't run away with 'im. Voyons, mesdames et messieurs,
our friend 'ere 'ave the place of honour. 'E sit next me and see I
behave nice. 'E don't like me ver' much. 'E think me a bad woman.”
They laughed with her and at him. He felt himself colour up and try
to laugh back. (And it was oddly like his attempt to propitiate Form I
when it had gibed him on that bitter pilgrimage from desk to desk.) He
took his place at her right hand. He could see Cosgrave half-way down
the table, and his thin, freckled face with its look of absurd
happiness. He was unselfishly overjoyed that his friend should have
been thus signalled out for honour. Perhaps he harboured some crazy
certainty that after this Stonehouse would understand and even share
his infatuation. He caught Robert's eye and smiled and nodded
“Now you see what she's really like, don't you?”
A string band, hidden in the orchestra under a roof of palms, played
the first bars of her dance, and then stopped short and waited
solemnly. She still stood, glass in hand.
“It is my birthday. God and I alone know which one. I drink to
myself. I wish myself good luck. Vive myself. Vive Gyp
Labelle and all who 'ave loved 'er and love 'er and shall love 'er!”
She drank her wine to the last drop, and the band began to play
again, knitting the broken, noisy congratulations into a kind of
triumphal chorus. It was very crude and theatrical and effective. It
did not matter, any more than it matters in a well-acted play, that the
whole incident had been rehearsed. It was as calculated and as
spontaneous as that nightly, irresistible burst of laughter.
Rufus Cosgrave stood up shyly in his place. Had he been dressed a
shade less perfectly and resisted the gardenia in his button-hole, he
would have been better disguised. As it was, there could be no
mistaking a little fellow from the suburbs who had got into bad
company. And in spite of the West Africa swamp and its peculiar forms
of despairing vice, he was so frightfully innocent that he did not know
“And—and we're here to—to wish you luck too—that you go on—as
you are—dancing and laughing—making us all laugh and dance with
you—however down in the dumps we are—for ever and ever—and to bring
you offerings—for you to remember us by.”
There must have been a great deal more to it than that. Stonehouse
could see the notes clenched in one tense hand, but they had become
indecipherable and he let them drop. He came from his place, stumbling
over the back of somebody's chair, to where she stood, and laid a small
square box done up in tissue paper at her side. She laughed and caught
him by the ear, and kissed him on both flaming cheeks.
“A precedent—fair play for all!” the man opposite Stonehouse
They came then, one after another, treading on each other's heels,
and she waited for them, an audacious figure of Pleasure receiving
custom, and kissed them, shading her kiss subtly so that each one
became a secret little joke out of the past or lying in wait in the
future, at which the rest could guess as they chose. Some of the women
whom she knew best joined in the stream. They bore her, for the most
part, an odd affinity and no ill-will. They had set out on the same
road and had failed, and their failure stared out of their crudely
painted faces. But perhaps they were grateful to her for not having
forgotten them—or for other more obscure reasons. They gave her what
they could—extemporary gifts some of them—a tawdry ring or a flower
which she stuck jauntily among the outrageous feathers. The
significantly small parcels she did not open—either from idle good
nature or from sheer indifference. Stonehouse wondered what Cosgrave's
little box contained. Probably a year or two of the mosquito-infested
swamp to which he would soon return to boast of this night's
“And you, Monsieur le docteur?”
For he had gone on eating and drinking with apparent tranquillity.
“Oh, I have nothing—nothing but admiration,” he said smiling.
She shook her head.
“Ca ne va pas. The chief guest. Ah, no! That is not kind. A
birthday—c'est une chose bien serieuse, voyons. Who knows?
Per'aps you never 'ave another chance—and then you 'ave
remorse—'orrible, terrible remorse. Or do you never 'ave remorse
either, Monsieur le docteur?”
“You must not run ze risk, then.”
He thought savagely.
“If I had a diamond stud she would make me give it her.”
He took a shilling from his pocket and laid it gravely in the midst
of her trophies.
“Is that enough?”
And then before he could draw back she had kissed him between the
“Quite, then. I keep it for a mascot, and you will remember
to-morrow morning, when you are ver' grave and important with some poor
frightened patient, that Gyp Labelle kiss you last night, and that you
are not different from ze others, after all. And I will take my
shilling from under my pillow, and say: 'Poor Gyp, that's what you're
worth, my friend!'“
“He doesn't know you yet.”
Robert Stonehouse looked up sharply. The interruption had started a
new train of thought. Beyond the flushed face of the man opposite him,
he could see the empty stalls, row after row of gaunt-ribbed and
featureless spectators, watching him. The play had become a nightmare
farce in which he had chosen a ludicrous, impossible part. But he had
to go on now.
“Except for Cosgrave there, I've known Mademoiselle Labelle longer
than any of you. I've known her ever since I was a boy.”
He felt rather than saw their expressions change. She too stared
with an arrested interest, but he looked away from her to Cosgrave,
smiling ironically. If it humiliated her and made her ridiculous
too—well, that was what he wanted. He wanted to pay her back—most of
all for the excitement boiling in him—the sense of having been toppled
out of his serenity into a torrent of noise and colour by that
audacious touch of her lips upon his face. And there was Cosgrave—and
then again some older score to be paid off—something far off and
indistinct that would presently come clear.
“Don't you remember, Rufus?”
“Rather. But I know you a minute longer, Mademoiselle. I saw you
before he did.”
“That was because Mademoiselle Moretti rode first.”
“Ah—the Circus!” She threw her head back, drawing a deep breath
through her nostrils as though she savoured some long-lost perfume
blown in upon her by a sudden wind. “Now I remember too. Ze good
Moretti. She ride old Arabesque. 'E 'ave white spots all over 'im—on
'is chest and what you call 'is paws, and every evening she 'ave to
paint 'im like she paint 'er face. Madame Moretti—that was a good
sort—bonne enfant—what you say?—domestic—not really of ze
Circus at all. She like to wash up and cook leetle bonnes-bouches
for supper. She was a German—Fredechen we call 'er—and she could make
Sauerkraut—eh bien, I—moi qui vous parle—une bonne
Francaise—I make myself sick with 'er Sauerkraut. Afterwards she
grow too stout and marry ze proprietaire of what you call it?—a
public-'ouse—'Ze Crown and Garter' at some town where we stop a week.
By now, I think she 'ave many children and a chin for each.”
Cosgrave laughed noisily.
“Didn't I tell you, Robert? A barmaid!”
“Yes—you had better taste.” But he was hot with anger. “And then
you came at her heels, Mademoiselle. You rode—what was it—a donkey, a
fat pony? I forget which. Perhaps I was thinking too much of Madame
Moretti. But I remember you were dressed as a page and wore coloured
tights that didn't fit very well, and that everybody laughed because of
your thin long legs. And you threw kisses to us—even Cosgrave got one,
didn't you, Cosgrave? And then I'm afraid I forgot you altogether. You
see, there were camels and elephants and a legless Wonder and I don't
know what, and it was my first circus.”
“It must 'ave been a donkey,” she said, narrowing her eyes. “I 'ave
ridden so many donkeys.”
He saw then that she did not mind at all the fact that she had once
been a circus-clown. Rather he had tossed her a memory on which she
feasted joyfully, almost greedily. She pushed her plate and glass away
from her, and sat with her face between her hands.
“Well—I 'ave 'ad good times always—but per'aps they were ze best
of all. Ah, ze good old Circus—ze jolly life—one big family—monkeys
and bears and camels and elephants and we poor 'umans, all shapes and
sizes, long legs and short legs and no legs—loving and
quarrelling—good friends always—Monsieur George with 'is big whip and
'is silly soft 'eart—ze gay dinners after we 'ave 'ad full 'ouse and
ze no dinners at all when things go bad—and then ze journeys from town
to town—sometimes it rain all day and sometimes it is so hot and the
dust rise up and smother us. But always when we come near ze town we
brighten up, we pretend we are not tired at all. We make jokes and
wonder what it will be like 'ere. Always new faces—new streets—new
policemen—and always ze same too—ze long procession and ze
torchlights and ze music and ze people running like leetle streams down
ze side streets to join up and march along—ze leetle boys and girls
with bright eyes—shouting and waving, so glad to see us.”
It was not much that she said, and she did not say it to them. She
disregarded them all, and yet by some magic, through the medium of the
jerky, empty sentences she made them see the vulgar, gaudy thing as she
was seeing it. The subdued music, the tinkling of plates and glasses,
they themselves made a background for her swift picture. They watched
it—the old third-rate circus—trail its cheap glitter and flare and
bang out of darkness and across the stage and into darkness
again—tawdry and sordid, and yet kindly and gay and gallant-hearted
Robert Stonehouse stared heavily in front of him. He had drunk—not
much, but too much. He was not accustomed to drinking. The very
austerity of his life betrayed him. These people too—these
women—half-naked with their feverish, restless eyes—these men with
their air of cynical and weary knowledge—were getting on his nerves.
He wished he had not come. He wished he had not reminded her of that
accursed circus, for it had involved remembering. He had called up a
little old tune that would not be easily forgotten, that would go on
grinding itself round and round inside his brain, and when he had
chased it out would come back, popping out at him, bringing other
small, pale ghosts to bear it company. He could see Cosgrave and
himself—the little boys with bright eyes—and feel the reverberations
of their astonishment, their incredulous delight. For a moment they had
held fast to the tail-end of the jolly marching procession, and then it
had been ripped out of their feeble hands. But the procession went on.
It was always there, round the corner, with its music and fluttering
lights, and if one was infirm of purpose like Cosgrave, or like a
certain James Stonehouse, one ran to meet it, flung oneself into it,
not counting the cost, lying and stealing.
He heard her voice again and pressed his hands to his hot eyes like
a man struggling back out of a deep sleep.
“Where are they all now? Dieu sait. Monsieur Georges 'e die.
As for me I go 'ome to ze old Folies Bergeres, and for six months I
wait—a leetle ugly nobody with long thin legs dancing with ten other
ugly leetle nobodies with all sorts of legs be'ind La Jolleta. You
don't remember 'er, 'hein! Ah, c'est vieux jeu ca and you
are all too young, Mesdames et Messieurs. She was ze passion of
your grandpapas. God knows why. Why do you all love me, hein?
Une Mystere. Well, she was ver' old then, but she 'ave ze good
'ealth and ze thick skin of ze rhinoceros. And some'ow no one 'ave ze
'eart to tell 'er. It become a sort of joke—'ow long she keep
going—ze Boulevards make bets about it. But for me it is no joke. I am
in a 'urry, moi, and I know I can do better than she did ever—I
'ave something—'ere—'ere—that she never 'ave. And so one night I put
a leetle pinch of something that a good friend of mine give me in La
Jolleta's champagne what she drink before she dance, and when ze
call-boy come she lie there on ze sofa—'er mouth open—comme ca
—snoring—like a pink elephant asleep—'ow you say—squiffy—dead to ze
world. Ze manager 'e tear 'is 'air out, and then I come and show 'im
and 'e let me go on instead because there is no one else. And the
people boo and shriek at me, they are so angry and I make ze long nose
at them all—and presently they laugh and laugh.”
They could see her. It wouldn't have seemed even impudent. Even then
she had been too sure of herself.
“And when I come off ze manager kiss me on both cheeks. Et
They applauded joyously. Her brutal egotism was a good joke. They
expected nothing else from her. She was like an animal whose cruelty
and cunning one could observe without moral qualms.
“It was a mean thing to have done,” Stonehouse said loudly and
truculently—“a treacherous thing.”
A shadow was on Cosgrave's face. He leant towards her, almost
“And La—La—what did you call her? La Jolleta—what became of her?”
She made a graphic gesture.
“She went into the sack, little one—-into the sack. She was old.
One should go gracefully.”
“You too,” Stonehouse said, in a savage undertone.
“I—— Oh, no, jamais, jamais.” She lifted the monstrous
crest of plumage from her head and set it in the midst of the flowers
and rumpled up her hair till she was like the child riding the fat
pony. “You see yourself—I never grow old, my friend.”
“You are older already,” he persisted.
But the man opposite broke in again. He leant towards Stonehouse,
his inflamed eye through the staring monocle fixing him with an
extraordinary tipsy earnestness.
“No, doctor, you are mis-mistaken. It would be intolerable—you
understand—quite intolerable. There are things that—that must not be
true—as there are other things that must be true. We've staked our
last penny on it, sir, and we've got to win. Mademoiselle here knows
all about it, and she'll play the game. A sport, doctor, a sport. Won't
let old friends go bankrupt—no—certainly not.”
They laughed at him. It seemed unlikely that he himself knew what he
was talking about. But he shook his head and remained sunk in solemn
meditation, twirling the stem of his glass between thick, unsteady
fingers. The girl next him nudged him disgustedly.
“Oh, wake up! You'll be crying in a minute. Talk of something else.”
“Tell us the story of the Duke and the Black Opal, Gyp.”
She waved them off.
“No—no—that is not discreet. One must not tell tales. That might
frighten someone 'ere who loves me.”
And she looked at Stonehouse, a little malicious and insolently,
childishly sure. He leant towards her, speaking in an undertone, trying
to stare her down.
“Do you mean me, Mademoiselle?”
“And why not, Monsieur le docteur? Would it be so strange?
You say you love nobody. But it seems you love ze poor fat
Moretti—terribly, terribly, no doubt, so that you almost break your
small 'eart for 'er. And per'aps someone else too. You say you don't
drink—but you are just a leetle drunk already. You are not different
from ze rest. I tell you that before—and I know. I am a connoisseur.
It is written—'ere in the eyes and in the mouth. It is dangerous, the
way you live. Quant a moi—I don't want you, my friend—we
two—that would be an eruption—a disaster—I should be afraid.”
She pretended to shudder, and a moment later seemed to forget him
altogether. She pressed her cigarette out on her plate and went over to
the piano, touching Cosgrave lightly on the shoulder as she passed him.
“Come, my latest best-beloved, we 'ave to amuse ze company. We sing
our leetle song together.”
But first she made a deep low bow to the shadowy theatre. She kissed
her fingers to the empty boxes that stared down at her with hollow,
mournful eyes. (Were there ghosts there too, Stonehouse wondered
bitterly? The unlucky Frederick, perhaps, with the fatal hole gaping
above the temple, applauding, leaning towards her!)
She sang worse than usual. She was hoarse, and what voice she had
gave way altogether. It did not seem to matter either to her or to
anyone else. What she could not sing she danced. There was a chorus and
they joined in filling the gloom behind them with sullen, ironic
echoes. She reduced them all, Stonehouse thought, to the cabaret from
which she sprang.
And it was comic to see Cosgrave with his head thrown back, playing
the common, noisy stuff as though inspired.
When it was over he swung round, gaping at them with drunken,
“You know, when I was a kid I used to see myself—on a stage like
this—playing the Moonlight Sonata.”
She rumpled up his thick hair so that it stood on end like Loga's
“You play my song ver' nice. And that is much better than playing ze
Moonlight Sonata all wrong, my leetle friend.”
It was a sort of invisible catastrophe.
No one else knew of it. In the day-time he himself did not believe
in it—did not, at first, think of it at all. It had all the
astonishing unreality of past pain. He went his way as usual, was
arbitrary and cocksure with his patients, and looked forward to the
evening when he could put them out of his mind altogether and give
himself to his vital work. For the hospital had become a fact. It stood
equipped and occupied, an unrecognized but actual witness to his
tenacity. Other men would get the credit. The Committee who had
appointed him consulting surgeon, not without references to his unusual
youth and their own daring break with tradition—had no suspicion that
even the fund which, in a fit of inexplicable far-seeingness they had
allotted to research, had been created under his ceaseless pressure.
And not even in his thoughts was he satirical at their expense. They
had provided the money and done what he wanted and so served their
purpose. Among his old colleagues he bore himself confidently but
unobtrusively. He could afford to pay them an apparent deference. He
was going farther than they were. His eyes were fixed on a future far
beyond the centres of their jealousies and ambitions when he would be
freed from the wasteful struggle with petty ailments and petty people,
and the last pretence of being concerned with individual life. It was a
time of respite and revision. He was young—in his profession
extraordinarily young—and he was able to look back, as a mountaineer
looks back from his first peep over the weary foothills, knowing that
the bitter drudgery is past and that before him lies the true and
That was in the day-time. But with the dusk, the discreet shutting
of doors and the retreating steps of the last patient, a change came.
It was like the subtle resistless withdrawal of a tide—a draining away
of power. He could do nothing against it. He could only sit motionless,
bowed over his papers, striving to keep a hold over the personality
that was slipping from him. And then into the emptiness there flowed
back slowly, painfully, a strange life—a stream choked and muddied at
its source—breaking through.
It was a physical thing. Some sort of nervous reaction. With the
dread of that former break-down overshadowing him he yielded
deliberately. He would leave the house and walk—anywhere—but always
where there were people—down Regent Street, sweeping like a broad
river into a fiery, restless lake. There he let go altogether, and the
crowds carried him. He eddied with them in the glittering backwaters of
the theatres, and studied the pallid, jaded faces that drifted in and
out of the lamp-light with the exaggerated attention of a mind on guard
against itself. He hated it all. It emphasized and justified his
aloofness from the mass of men. These people were sick and
ugly—sicklier and uglier in their pleasure-seeking than in their
stubborn struggle for survival, which had at least some elemental
dignity. It was from their poisoned lives that women like Gyp Labelle
sucked their strength. It was their childish perverted instincts that
made her possible. They made the very thought of immorality a grisly
joke. And yet their nearness, the touch of their ill-grown,
ill-cared-for, or grossly over-nurtured bodies against his, the sound
of their nasal strident voices brought him relief. He could not shake
off their fascination for him. He was like a man hanging round the
scene of some conquered, unforgotten vice.
It was one dismal November evening that, turning aimlessly into a
Soho side-street, he came upon an old man who stood on a soap-box under
a lamp and preached. He held a Bible to the light and read from it, and
at intervals leant forward and beat the tattered book with his open
“You hear that, men and women. This is the liar, the tyrant, the
self-confessed devil whom you have worshipped from the beginning of
your creation. You see for yourselves the sort of beast he is. There
isn't a brute amongst us who would do the things he's done. He's made
you fight and kill and torture each other for his sake. And all down
the ages he has laughed at you—he is laughing now because, after
all—he knows the truth—he knows what I tell you here night after
night”—and Mr. Ricardo leant forward and pointed a long, dirty finger
at the darkness—“that he doesn't exist—that he is a dream—a myth—a
Someone cheered—perhaps because the last words had a sound of
eloquent conclusion—and Mr. Ricardo nodded and took breath. He was
like a scarecrow image that had been stuck up by a freakish joker in a
London street. The respectability that still clung to him made him the
more ludicrous. His clothes were the ruined cast-offs of a middle-class
tradesman, and over them he wore his old masters gown. It did not
flutter out behind now, but lay dank and heavy along his sides like the
wings of a shot bird.
Robert Stonehouse stood back against the shuttered windows of a shop
and stared at him. The sea, rushing out in some monstrous tidal wave
had left its floor littered with old wreckage, with dead, forgotten
people who stirred and lifted themselves. A grotesque, private
resurrection. . . .
The crowd around Mr. Ricardo listened in silence, not mocking him.
There were wide-eyed, haunted-looking children, and men and women not
quite sober who drifted out from the public-houses to gape heavily at
this cheaper form of entertainment. Possibly they thought he was some
missionary trying to induce them to sign the pledge. Some of them must
have known that he was mad. But even they did not laugh at him. Into
their own dark and formless thoughts there may have come the dim
realization that they, too, were misshapen and outcast. The rain
falling in long, slanting lines through the dingy lamplight seemed to
merge them into a mournful kinship.
He spoke rapidly, and for the most part the long, involved sentences
rolled themselves without meaning. But now and then something struggled
clear—a familiar phrase—an ironical echo. Then Robert Stonehouse saw
through the disfigurement to the man that had been—the poor maimed and
shackled fighter gibing and leering at his fellow-prisoners.
“And now, my delightful and learned young friends——”
And yet he had stood up for little Robert Stonehouse in those
days—had armed him, and opened doors, and made himself into a
stepping-stone to the freedom he had never known. And had gone under. .
“That is all for tonight, men and women. I thank you for your
support. You may rest assured that the fight will go on. The end is in
sight, and if need be I shall lead the last attack in person.”
Then he stepped down from his soap-box and swung it on to his
shoulders by means of a cord, and went limping off in a strange and
Stonehouse pushed roughly through the dispersing, purposeless crowd
and caught up with him as he was about to lose himself in a dark
network of little squalid streets. He felt oddly young and diffident,
for the schoolmaster is always the schoolmaster though he be mad and
“Mr. Ricardo—don't you remember me?”
The old man stopped and blinked up uncertainly from under the sodden
brim of his hat. His dirty claw-like hands clutched his coat together
in an instinctive gesture of concealment. He seemed disturbed and even
rather offended at the interruption.
“I—ah—I beg your pardon. No, I'm afraid not. It is—ah—not
unnatural. You understand—I have too many supporters.”
“Yes—yes—of course. But you knew me years ago when I was a boy.
Don't you remember Robert Stonehouse?”
It was evident that the name fanned some faint memory which
flickered up for a moment and then went out.
“You will excuse me. It is possible. I have heard the name. But I
have long since ceased to concern myself with persons. In a great
struggle such as this individuals are submerged.”
He walked on again, slip-slopping in his shapeless boots through the
slush, his head down to the rain.
“Christine,” Robert said, “don't you remember Christine?”
(He himself had not thought of her for years, and now deliberately
he had conjured her up.)
Mr. Ricardo hunched his shoulders. He peered round at Stonehouse,
“You are very persistent, sir. Are you God?”
“It is better to be quite frank with one another. Not an emissary of
He seemed only half satisfied.
“You will excuse my asking. I have to be very careful. There have
been certain signs of late that the enemy is anxious to
negotiate—to—ah—reach some compromise. No direct offer, you
understand, but various feelers—hints—suggestions—terms of a most
unscrupulous and subtle nature—traps into which a man less—ah—wary
than myself might well fall. This Christine—yes—yes—I have to be on
“I have nothing to do with God,” Robert said gently. “I'm a
friend—on your side. I'd like to help. If I knew where you lived so
that I could learn more about your work——”
But Mr. Ricardo shrank away from him.
“I don't like the sound of that. I dare say I do you an injustice,
young man, but I can't afford to take risks. My headquarters are my
“Well”—he tried to speak in a matter-of-fact and reasonable
way—“at any rate, a general must have munition. I'd like to help
financially. You can't refuse me that.”
They were almost through the labyrinth of Soho and on the brink of
Oxford Street. Mr. Ricardo stopped again with his hand spread out flat
upon his breast in a gesture not without power and dignity.
“You think I am a failure, sir, because I go poorly dressed. You are
mistaken. In the struggle that I am carrying on, outward and material
things are of no account. I might have all the wealth and all the
armies of the world, sir, and be further from victory than I am now.
The fight is here, sir, in the spirit of man, and the weaker and poorer
I become the nearer I am to the final effort. I am a fighter, sir,
stripping himself—presently I shall throw off the last hindrance, and
if the enemy will not show himself I shall seek him out—I shall force
him to stand answer——” He broke off. The chain of white-hot coherency
had snapped and left him peering about him vaguely, and a little
anxiously, as though he were afraid someone had overheard him.
“It has been very difficult—there were circumstances—so many
circumstances——” He sighed and finished on the toneless parrot-note
of the street orator: “My next meeting will be at Marble Arch, 3 p.m.,
on Tuesday. Thank you for your attention, and good-night.”
He lifted his hat and bowed to left and right as though to an
assembled multitude. The lamp-light threw his shadow on to the grey,
wet pavements, and with the soap-box perched on his shoulders it was
the shadow of a huge hunchback. Then he shuffled off, and Stonehouse
lost sight of him almost at once in the dripping, uncertain darkness.
He walked on mechanically, aimlessly. He was tired out and dejected
beyond measure by this tragic encounter. It was not any immediate
affection for the old man, who had been no more to him than a strange
force driving him on for its own purposes; it was the others he had
evoked—and, above all, the sense of common misfortune which no man can
avert for ever. For the moment he lost faith in his own power to
maintain himself against a patient and faceless Nemesis.
It was morbid—the old terrifying signs of breakdown—the pointing
“Thus far and no further with your brain, Robert Stonehouse.”
And then, suddenly, he found that he was in a familiar street, and,
stopping short, as though from old custom, to look up. There was the
finest house in Harley Street which they were to have decorated with
their brass plates. If it had risen straight out of the ground at the
behest of his fancy he could not have been more painfully disconcerted.
He had never known before that he had avoided it. He knew it now, and
the realization was like the opening of a door into a dark and
unexplored chamber of his mind. He stood there shivering with cold, and
wet, and weariness. Who lived there now, he wondered? The old
back-numbers whom they were to have ousted so ruthlessly? Well, he
could find out. Someone lived there, at any rate. He could see a light
in one of the upper rooms. He crossed over and went up the steps
cautiously, like a thief. All the brass plates but one had gone. That
one shone brightly in the lamp-light, giving the door a one-eyed,
impish look. He could read the letters distinctly, and yet he had to
spell them over twice. It was as though she herself had suddenly opened
the door and spoken to him.
“Frances Wilmot, M.D.”
Then he turned and walked away. But at the next corner he stopped
and looked up again at the lighted window. What freakish fancy had
possessed her——? Perhaps she was there now. He could see her in the
room that had been his enemy. And he had brief vision of himself
standing there in the empty street as he had done when he had loved her
so desperately, gazing up at that signal of warmth and comfort out of
the depths of his own desolateness.
He said “Francey!” under his breath, ironically, as though he had
uttered a child's “open-sesame!” to prove that there had never been any
magic in the word. But the sound hurt him.
This time he did not look back.
Nor was there any reassurance to be found that night in the concrete
justification of his life. He set himself down to work in vain. One
ghost called up another. The room with its solemn, bloodless
impedimenta became—not a monument to his success, but a Moloch, to
whom everything had been sacrificed—the joy of life, its laughter, its
colour—and Christine. And not only Christine. He had been sacrificed
But he saw Christine most clearly. She sat in the big arm-chair
where his patients waited for his verdict. She wore the big, floppy,
black hat that she had liked best, and the grey hair hung in the old
untidy wisps about her face. The chair was much too big for her. Her
little feet hardly touched the ground. Her hands in the darned gloves
were folded gravely over the shabby bag. He could see her looking about
dimly and hear the clear, small voice.
“How wonderful of you, Robert! How proud your dear father would have
He fidgeted with the papers on his table, rearranging, re-sorting,
desperately trying not to suffer. But he would have torn the whole
place down in ruins to have remembered that he had given her one day of
Well, there had been that one day on Francey's hill—the picnic. She
had liked that. The wood at the bottom, like a silent, deep, green
pool—and Francey's arms about his shoulders, Francey's mouth on his,
giving him kiss for kiss.
Ghosts everywhere—and no living soul who cared now whether he
failed or won through, whether he suffered or was satisfied. Only
Cosgrave perhaps—poor, unlucky little Cosgrave—always hunting for
happiness—breaking himself against life—going to the dogs for the
sake of a rotten woman.
He fell forward with his face hidden in his arms and lay there
shaken by gusts of fever. They weakened gradually, and he fell asleep.
And in his sleep his father drew himself up suddenly, showing his
terrible white face, and clutched at little Robert Stonehouse, who
skirted him and ran screaming down the dark stairs.
“You can't—you can't—you're dead. I'm grown up—I'm free—I'm not
like you—you can't—you can't——”
But the next morning he was himself again, sure and cool-headed and
cool-hearted. He did not believe that he had suffered or in the
recurrence of that terror.
Probably she had expected him. It must have seemed to her, so
Stonehouse reflected as he followed the shrivelled old woman down a
passage dim and gorgeous with an expensive and impossible Orientalism,
a natural sequel to his enmity. Men did not hate her—or they did so at
their peril. Then she would be most dangerous. The luckless Frederick,
so the story ran, had snubbed her at a charity bazaar, and had made fun
of her dancing. And he had stolen and finally shot himself for her
sake. Perhaps she thought there was a sort of inevitability in this
He had to wonder at and even admire the mad splendour of the place.
Her taste was as crude and flamboyant as herself, but it too had
escaped vulgarity which at its worst is imitative of the best, a stupid
second-handness, an aggressive insolent self-distrust. She was not
ashamed of what she was. She was herself all through, and she trusted
herself absolutely. She wanted colour and there was colour. She wanted
Greek columns in a Chinese pagoda and they were there. The house was
like a temple built by a crazy architect to a crazy god, and every
stick and stone in it was a fanatic's offering.
The old woman jerked her head and stood aside. Her toil-worn face
with the melancholy monkey eyes was inscrutable, but Stonehouse guessed
at the swift analysis he was undergoing. In his iron temper he could
afford to be amused.
“Mademoiselle is within.”
The room was a huge square. To make it, two floors at least of the
respectable Kensington house must have been sacrificed. The walls were
decorated with Egyptian frescoes and Chinese embroideries, and silk
divans which might have figured in a cinema producer's idea of a
Turkish harem were set haphazard on the mosaic floor. In the centre a
stone fountain of the modern-primitive school and banked with flowers
splashed noisily. Somehow it offered Kensington the final insult. But
she had wanted it, just as she had wanted the Greek columns. There was
even a certain magnificence about the room's absurdity. It was so
hopelessly wrong that it attained a kind of perfection.
She herself sat on the edge of the fountain and fed a gorgeous macaw
who, from his gilded perch, received her offerings with a lofty
friendliness. But as Stonehouse entered she sprang up and ran to him,
feeling through his pockets like an excited child.
“The poison—the poison!” she demanded.
He had to laugh.
“I forgot it,” he said.
“C'est dommage. You 'ave not taken it yourself by any
“No—I wouldn't do that at any rate.”
“C'est vrai. I ask—you 'ave an air un peu souffrant.
Well, never mind. It's droll though—I think about you just when you
ring up—I 'ave a damn pain—not ze tummy-ache this time—and I say: '
Le pauvre jeune homme, 'ere is a chance for 'im to pay me out for
kissing 'im when 'e don't want to be kissed.' You remember—I say I
send for you one day. But ze old pain—it 'as gone now. You—'ow do you
say?—you conjure it away.”
“Your pains don't interest me,” he said. “For one thing I don't
believe you ever had any. I suppose you think a pain is the best
entertainment to offer a doctor. It's thoughtful of you, but I didn't
come here to be amused.”
“Then I wonder what you want of me,” she remarked. She went back to
her place on the fountain's edge, sitting amidst the flowers and
crushing them under her hands. The pose appealed to him as expressively
callous, and yet it was innocent too, the pose of a child or an animal
who destroys without knowledge or ill-will.
“Do people usually want things from you?” he asked.
“Always—all ze time.”
“And you give so much.”
She eyed him seriously.
“I give what I 'ave to give.”
“And take what you can get.”
“Like you, Monsieur le docteur.”
The absoluteness of his hatred made it possible for him to laugh
“My fees are fairly reasonable at any rate. I've helped some people
“Because you love them?”
“C'est dommage aussi. You should love someone. It is much
'ealthier. I love everyone. Per'aps I love too much. I make
experiments. You make experiments—and sometimes leetle mistakes.
Comme nous autres. 'Ze operation was a grand succes—but ze
patient die.' I know. Some of mine die too.”
“Prince Frederick, for instance?”
She lifted the long chain of pearls about her neck and considered
“That canard! You think 'e give me these? Ce pauvre
Fredi! 'E couldn't 'ave given me a chain of pink coral. I could 'ave
bought 'im and 'is funny little kingdom with my dress-money. 'E shoot
'imself. Well, that was 'is affaire. 'E 'ave no doubt explain
'imself to ze bon Dieu, who is particulaire about that sort of
thing. As to ze old pearls—my agent 'e set that story going—pour
encourager les autres.”
“Cosgrave among them?” he suggested.
“Monsieur Cosgrave? We won't talk about 'im just now, if you please.
'E make me ver' cross. I 'ate to be cross. It is ver' difficult to 'ave
a good time with English people. They are so damn thorough. When they
want to go to ze devil they want to go ze whole way.”
“Perhaps that's why I'm here,” he said ironically.
“Voyons—voyons, c'est ennuyeux——” She broke off and gave a
little husky, good-natured laugh. “I remember. You think me a bad
woman. But I am not a bad woman at all. Ze leetle girls in ze
chorus—they are sometimes bad because they want things they 'ave no
right to 'ave. They are just leetle girls with nothing to give, and
they want to live ze big life and they tumble into ze gutter. They are
ze ginger-beer who pretend to be ze champagne. Mais mot—I am ze
real champagne. I make things seem jolly that are not jolly at all—ze
woman who sit next you at dinner—ze food—ze bills who wait for you at
'ome—life. If you take too much of me you 'ave ze 'eadache. Enfin,
ce n'est pas ma faute. I 'ave so much to give. I 'ave so much life.
One life—one country—one 'usband is not enough. But I am not bad. If
there was any sense in things they would give me an order and a nice
long title—Grande Maitresse de la Vie—Princesse de Joie.” She lifted her eyebrows at him to see whether he appreciated the
joke. “Ah well—no. I talk too much about myself. Tell me instead what
you think of my leetle 'ome. C'est joli, n'cest-ce-pas?” She
waved towards the Chinese embroideries and added, with a child's
absolute content: “I like it.”
“I suppose you do,” he retorted. “It reminds me of a quaint old
custom I read about somewhere. When our early ancestors were building a
particularly important house they buried a few of the less important
citizens alive under the foundations. It seemed to have a beneficial
influence on the building process.”
She offered him her cigarette-case. She seemed to be considering his
remark carefully. Suddenly she laughed out with an unfeigned enjoyment.
“I see. My victims, hein? You can make leetle jokes too. But
why so ver' serious? I'm not burying you, am I?”
“No. You couldn't. And you're not going to bury Cosgrave. Oh—I
don't want to waste my time and yours making accusations or appealing
to what doesn't exist. I only want to point out to your—your business
instinct that Cosgrave isn't worth burying. He's poor and he's unlucky.
He won't bring you luck or anything else. Much better to let him go.”
“Let 'im go? But I want 'im to go! Yesterday I would not see 'im. I
didn't want to see 'im.”
“That was a good reason. It's all rather late in the day, though.
Two months ago Cosgrave came to England with about 3000 pounds. I know,
because he told me. And now that's gone. You know where.”
“I make a guess, my friend.”
“He bought you presents—outrageous for a man in his position.”
“Someone 'ave to buy them,” she explained good-humouredly. “I don't
ask about positions. It's not polite.”
“Now he's at the end of his tether. He's got to go back to his job.
Last night he came to my rooms for the first time for weeks. He
was—was almost mad. When he first came to England he was very ill.
That does not concern you. But what may concern you is that he has
become dangerous. He threatened to shoot you.”
“Well, before 'e know me 'e threaten to shoot 'imself. Decidedly, 'e
is getting better, that young man.”
Her shameless, infectious laughter caught him by the throat. He
wanted to laugh too, and then thrust her empty, laughing face down into
the water of her comic fountain till she died. There were people who
were better dead. He had said so and it was true, in spite of Francey
Wilmot and her childish sentimentality. Suddenly the woman in the
hospital and this riotous houri were definitely merged into one
composite figure of a mindless greed and viciousness. He clenched his
hands behind his back, hiding them.
“If you would only sit down we should talk so much 'appier,” she
said regretfully. “You seem so far off—so 'igh up. Please sit down.”
“I don't want to.”
“Because you're afraid we might get jolly together, hein?
Well, you stand up there then, and tell me something. Tell me. You
don't love nobody. You are a very big, 'ard young man, who 'ave made
'is way in ze world and know 'ow rotten everybody else is. You 'ave 'ad
'ard times and 'ard times is ver' bad for everyone, except per'aps
Jesus Christ, for either they go under and are broken, un'appy people,
or they come out on top, and then zey are 'arder than anyone else.
Well, you are ze big, 'ard young man. But you run after this leetle
Monsieur Rufus as though 'e was your baby brother. Well—'e is a nice
leetle fellow—but 'e is just a leetle fellow—with a soft 'eart and a
soft 'ead. Not your sort. And, you're not 'is sort. 'E's frightened of
you. 'E want someone who pat 'is 'ead and let 'im cry on 'is shoulder.
You can't 'elp 'im—and you fuss over 'im—you come 'ere and try to put
'is 'eart affaires in order and it's no use at all. C'est
He looked away from her, so that she should not see that this time
she had struck home. She had knocked the weapon out of his hand, and
for the moment, in his astonishment and pain, he could not even hate
her. It was true. He couldn't help Cosgrave any more. His strength and
ability were, as she said, of no use. That was what Cosgrave had meant
when he had laughed about the adenoids. He had failed Cosgrave from the
moment that Cosgrave had demanded love for himself and human
tenderness. He had no tenderness to give. He was a hard young man. He
said slowly, and with a curious humility:
“I used to back him up when he was a kid. He trusted me too—and
it's got to be a sort of habit. I want him to be happy.”
“Because you are so un'appy yourself?”
“I'm all right,” he said stubbornly. And then he added, still not
looking at her. “Please give him up—so—so that he won't break his
heart over it. I'm not a rich man either, but I'll make it worth your
She sprang up with a gesture of amused exasperation.
“'Ow stupide you are, my clever friend. You are like ze old
father in ze Dame aux Camellias. You make me quite cross. This
Rufus—I can't give 'im up. 'E don't belong to me. I never ask for 'im.
'E come into my dressing-room and I like 'im for 'is cheek and I give
'im a good time. Now he is ennuyeux. 'E want to marry me and
make an honest woman of me.” She patted Stonehouse on the shoulder with
so droll a grimace that he bit his lip to avoid a gust of ribald,
incredible laughter. It was as though by some trick she changed the
whole aspect of things so that they became simply comic—scenes in a
jolly, improper French farce. “And now I 'ope you see 'ow funny that
is. And please take Monsieur Cosgrave away and keep 'im away. I don't
ask no better.”
His anger revived against her. And it was a thing apart from
Cosgrave altogether—a bitter personal anger.
“It can't be done like that. You can't take drugs away from a
drug-fiend at one swoop. Let him down gently—treat him as a friend
until he has to go—get him to see reason.”
“No,” she said. “You don't understand. You 'ave not 'ad my
experience. If I let 'im 'ang on 'e get much worse. If I push 'im
off—poof!—an explosion! Then 'e find a nice leetle girl who is not
like me at all and marry—ver' respectable—and 'ave 'eaps of babies.
That is what 'e want. But it is not my affaire—and I won't be
bothered. I tell you 'e is too ennuyeux——”
He lashed out at her.
“—and too poor. My God, you're no better than a woman of the
She assented with a certain gravity.
“C'est bien vrai, ca—bien vrai. I was born in ze gutter—I
crawl out of ze gutter by myself. I keep out of ze gutter—always. And
I don't cry and wring my 'ands when people try to kick me back again. I
kick them. I look after myself. Monsieur Cosgrave—and all those
others—they must look after themselves too. Do you think they bother
about me if I become ennuyeuse—like them—and cry because they
don't love me and like some leetle girl in ze chorus better? Not they.
They want fun and life from me—and I give them that. When they want
more they can—'ow you say?—get out?”
He stared at her in white-hot detestation.
“I see. I've just wasted my time. You're—you're as infamous as they
say. You're taking everything he has, and now he can go and hang
himself. You're worse than a woman of the streets because you're more
She kissed her fingers at him in good-humoured farewell. “I like you
ver' much—quand meme,” she said. “Next time I come and call on
That same night Cosgrave, frustrated at the theatre, tried to force
an entrance to the Kensington house, and the old woman, seconded by a
Japanese man-servant, flung him out again and into the arms of a
policeman who promptly arrested him. Stonehouse went bail for him, and
there was a strange, frantic scene in his own rooms.
For this was not the gentle young man who had met Connie Edwards'
infidelity with an apathetic resignation. He was violent and indignant.
His sense of outrage was a sort of intoxication which gave an
extraordinary forcefulness to his whole bearing. He stormed and
threatened—the misery that stared out of his haggard blue eyes
shrivelling in the heat of an almost animal fury. (And yet he stammered
too—which was comically what the other Rufus Cosgrave would have
“I—I love her. I've never loved anyone else. That Connie
business—a b-boy and girl affair—a silly flirtation—this—the real
thing. I—I'm a m-man now. N-no one's going to play fast and loose with
me. No, by God! I'll see her—she's got to have it out with me. I've a
right to an explanation at least—and by God I'll have one!”
“For what?” Stonehouse asked.
“She loved me,” Cosgrave retorted.
“I don't believe it.”
“You d-don't believe it? W-what do you know about it? Didn't she
behave as though she did? Didn't she go about with me? Didn't she take
things from me—no decent woman would have taken unless she loved me?”
“She doesn't happen to be a decent woman,” Stonehouse observed. “To
do her justice she doesn't pretend to be one.”
Cosgrave advanced upon him as though he would have struck him across
the face. But he stopped in time, not from remorse, but as though
pulled up by a revelation of maddening absurdity.
“Oh, you—you! You don't understand. You aren't capable of
understanding. You're a block—a machine—you don't feel—you g-go
about—rolling over p-people and things like—like a damned
steam-roller. You're not a man at all. You don't love anyone—not even
yourself. What do you know about anything?”
He was grotesque in his scorn, and yet Stonehouse, leaning with an
apparent negligence against the mantel-shelf, felt himself go dead
white under the attack. He had lost Cosgrave. And he knew now that he
needed him desperately—more now than even in his desolate
childhood—that unconsciously he had hugged the knowledge of that
boyish affection and dependence to him with a secret pride as a
talisman against he hardly knew what—utter isolation, a terrifying
hardness. He made up his mind to have done now with reserve, to show
before it was too late at least some of that dwarfed and suffocated
feeling. But he faltered over his first sentence. He had trained
himself too long and too carefully to speak with that cold, ironic
inflexion. He sounded in his own ears formal—unconvincing.
“You're wrong. I do care. I care for you. You're my friend. I do
understand, in part, at any rate. I can prove it. When I saw how
unhappy you were I went to her—I tried to reason with her.”
He broke off altogether under the amazed stare that greeted this
statement. The next instant Cosgrave had tossed his hands to heaven,
shouting with a ribald laughter:
“Oh, my Heaven—you poor fish! You think you can cure everything. I
can imagine what you said: 'I suggest, Mademoiselle, that you reduce
the doses gradually.'“
It was so nearly what he had said that Stonehouse flinched, and
suddenly Cosgrave seemed to feel an impatient compassion for him. “Oh,
I'm a beast. It was jolly decent of you. You meant well. But you can't
And that was what she had said. Stonehouse made no answer. He
saw himself as ridiculous and futile. He was sick with disgust at his
own pain. If he had lost Cosgrave he wanted to have done with the whole
business now—quickly and once and for all.
There was a sense of finality in the shabby room. The invisible bond
that had held them through eight years of separation and silence had
given way. It was almost a physical thing. It checked and damped down
Cosgrave's excitement so that he said almost calmly:
“Well, I shan't attempt to see her again. You'll have that
satisfaction. I'll get out of here—back to my jolly old swamp, where
there aren't any beastly women—decent or indecent—only mosquitoes.”
He waited a moment, as though trying hard to finish on a warmer,
more generous note. Perhaps some faint flicker of recollection revived
in him. But it could only illuminate a horrifying indifference. He went
out without so much as a “good-night.”
The morning papers gave the Kensington House incident due
prominence. It was one more feather in Mademoiselle Labelle's
outrageous head-gear. The Olympic had not so much as standing room for
Cosgrave kept his word. He did not see her again, and within a week
he had sailed for West Africa—to die. But ten days later Stonehouse
received a wireless, and a month later a letter and a photograph of a
fair-haired, tender-eyed, slightly bovine-looking girl in evening
dress. It appeared that she was a Good Woman and the daughter of
wealthy and doting parents, and that in all probability West Africa
would see Rufus Cosgrave no more.
So that was the end of their boyhood. Cosgrave had saved himself—or
something outside Stonehouse's strength and wisdom had saved him. They
would meet again and appear to be old friends. But the chapter of their
real friendship, with all its inarticulate romance and tenderness, was
Stonehouse kept the photograph on the table of his consulting-room.
He believed that it amused him.
Still he could not work at night. He resumed his haunted prowlings
through the streets. But he took care that he did not pass Francey
Wilmot's house again. He knew now that he was afraid. He was ill, too,
with a secret, causeless malady that baffled him. There were nights
when he suffered the unspeakable torture of a man who feels that the
absolute control over all his faculties, which he has taken for
granted, is slipping from him, and that his whole personality stands on
the verge of disintegration as on the edge of a bottomless pit.
For some weeks he hunted for Mr. Ricardo in vain. He tried all the
favoured spots which a considerate country sets aside for its
detractors and its lunatics so that they may express themselves freely,
without success. Mr. Ricardo seemed to have taken fright and vanished.
But one afternoon, returning from the hospital, Stonehouse met him by
accident, and followed him. He made no attempt to speak. He meant, this
time, to find out where the old man lived, and, if possible, to come to
his assistance, and his experience taught him the danger and futility
of a direct approach. He followed therefore at a cautious distance that
it was not always possible to maintain. Although it was early in the
afternoon a dense but drifting fog wrapped the city in its dank folds,
and the figure in front of him sometimes loomed up like a distorted
shadow and then in a moment plunged into a yellow pocket of obscurity,
and was lost. Then Stonehouse could only listen for his footfalls,
quick and irregular, echoing with an uncanny loudness in the low vault
of the fog.
Mr. Ricardo had evidently been speaking, for he carried the soap-box
slung over his shoulder, and he was in a great hurry. It was
extraordinary how fast the lame, half-starved old man could walk.
They crossed the park and over to Grosvenor Place. There was no
doubt that Mr. Ricardo knew where he was going, but it flashed upon
Stonehouse that he was not going home. There was something pressed and
sternly in earnest about the way he hurried, as though he had some
important appointment to keep and knew that he was already late. Once
Stonehouse had to run to keep him within hearing.
They went the whole length of Victoria Street. Stonehouse had been
physically tired out when he had started. Now he was not aware of being
tired at all. A gradually rising excitement carried him on, unconscious
of himself. He had no idea what he expected, but he knew definitely
that something deeply significant was about to happen to them both,
that they were running into some crisis.
Outside the Abbey the fog became impenetrable. The traffic had
stopped, and the lights, patches of opaque rayless crimson, added to
the confusion. There were people moving, however, faceless ghosts with
loud footfalls, feeling their way hesitatingly, and among them Mr.
Ricardo vanished. Almost at once Stonehouse lost his own bearings. In
the complete paralysis of all sense of direction which only fog can
produce, he crossed the wide street twice without knowing it. Then he
came up suddenly under the spread statue of Boadicea and into little
knots of people. A policeman was trying to move them on without
success. They hung about hopefully like children who cannot be
convinced that a show is really over.
“It's no good messing round here. You aren't helping anyone. Better
be getting home.”
Stonehouse knew what had happened. It was extraordinary how sure he
was. It was almost as though he had known all along. But he said
mechanically to one slouching shadow:
“What is it?”
A face, dripping and livid in the fog, like the face of a dead man,
gaped at him.
“Some old fellow gone over—no, he didn't tumble, I tell yer. You
cawn't tumble over a four-foot parapet. Chucked 'isself, and I don't
blame 'im. One of them police-launches 'as gone out to fish 'im out.
But they won't get 'im. Not now, anyway. Can't see two feet in front of
yer, and the tide running out fast.”
Stonehouse felt his way to the parapet and peered over. Above the
water the fog was pitch-black and moving. It looked a solid mass. He
could almost hear it slapping softly against the pillars of the bridge
as it flowed seawards. By now Mr. Ricardo had travelled with it a long
way. His death did not seem to Stonehouse tragic, but only inevitable
and ironical. It was as though someone had played a grave and
significant, not unkindly, joke at Mr. Ricardo's expense. Nor did
Stonehouse feel remorse, for he knew that he could have done nothing.
As Mr. Ricardo had said, it was not material things that had mattered.
He had not killed himself because he was starving, but because the long
struggle of his spirit with the enigma of life had reached its crisis.
He had gone out to meet it with a superb gesture of defiance, which had
also been the signal of surrender and acknowledgment.
The crowd had moved on at last. In the muffled silence and darkness
Stonehouse's thoughts became shadowy and fantastic. Though he did not
grieve he knew that a stone had shifted under the foundations of his
mental security. Death took on a new aspect. It seemed unlikely that it
was so simply the end.
He found himself wondering how far Mr. Ricardo had travelled on his
journey, and whether he had met his enemy, and, face to face with him,
had become reconciled.
He did not know why he had consented to receive her, unless it was
because he knew that they would meet inevitably sooner or later. He
felt very able to meet her—cool, and hard and clear-thinking. It was
early yet. A wintry sunlight rested on his neatly ordered table, and he
could smile at the idea that in a few hours he would begin to be afraid
She had made no appointment. Urged by some caprice or other she had
driven up to his door and sent up her card with the pencilled
inscription “Me voici!” Standing at his window he could just see
the long graceful lines of her Rolls-Royce, painted an amazing
blue—pale blue was notoriously her colour—and the pale-blue clad
figure of her chauffeur. It occurred to him that she had chosen the
uniform simply to make the man ridiculous—to show that there were no
limits to her audacity and power. She was, he thought, stronger than
the men who thought they were ruling the destinies of nations. For she
could ride rough-shod over convention and prejudice and human dignity.
She was perhaps the last representative of an autocratic egotism in a
world in which the individual will had almost ceased to exist. She
seemed to him the survival of an eternal evil.
And yet when he saw her he laughed. She was so magnificently
impossible. It seemed that she had put on every jewel that she could
carry. She was painted more profusely than usual, and her dress was one
of those fantastic creations with which producers endeavour to bluff
through a peculiarly idiotic revue. But she carried it all without
self-consciousness. It was as natural to her as gay plumage to a
She gave him her hand to kiss, and then laughed and shook hands
instead with an exaggerated manliness.
“I forget,” she said. “It is a bad 'abit. You see. I keep my
promise. I make ze return call. And 'ow kind of you to see me.”
“It didn't occur to you that I might refuse,” he told her.
“No, that's true. I never thought about it. You 'ave a leetle time
for me, hein?”
“About ten minutes,” he said.
He assumed a very professional attitude on the other side of his
table. He wanted to nonplus and disconcert her, if such a thing were
possible. Now that his first involuntary amusement was over he felt a
return of the old malignant dislike. She had cost him Cosgrave's
friendship, and he wanted to hurt her—to get underneath that armour of
soulless good-humour. “I knew that you'd turn up one day or other,” he
She looked at him with a rather wistful surprise.
“'Ow clever of you! You knew? Don't I look well, hein? I feel
well—quite all right. But I say to myself: 'Voyons—'alf an
hour with nothing to do. I pay that cross doctor a visit.' I would 'ave
come before, but I 'ave been so busy. We re'earse 'Mademoiselle
Pantalonne,' ze first night to-morrow. You come? I send you a ticket.”
“Thanks. That form of entertainment wouldn't entertain me—except
pathologically. And if I went to the theatre I'd rather leave my
“Path—pathologically,” she echoed. “That sounds 'orrid—rather
rude. You don't like me still, hein, doctor?”
“Does that surprise you?”
“It surprise me ver' much,” she admitted frankly. She picked up the
photograph on the table and examined it with an unconscious
impertinence. “You like 'er?” she asked. “That sort of woman?”
“I don't know,” he said. “I've never met her.”
“She is not your wife?”
“She is Cosgrave's wife.”
It was evident that although the episode had been concluded less
than three months before she had already almost forgotten it.
“Cosgrave? Ah oui, le cher petit Rufus? There now—did I not
tell you? Didn't I 'ave reason? Tell me—'ow many babies 'ave 'e got?”
“They were married last month,” Stonehouse observed.
“Ah—la la! But 'ow glad I am! I can see she is the right
sort for 'im. A nice leetle girl. But first 'e 'ave to 'ave a good
time—just to give 'im confidence. Now 'e be a ver' good boy—a leetle
dull per'aps, but ver' good and 'appy. I would write and tell 'im 'ow
glad I am—but per'aps better not, hein?”
She winked, and there was an irresistible drollery in the grimace
that made his lips twitch. And yet she was shameless—abominable.
“The ten minutes are almost up,” he said, “and I suppose you came
here to consult me.”
He knew that she had not. She had come because he was a tantalizing
object, because she could not credit his invincibility, which was a
challenge to her. She laughed, shrugging her shoulders.
“You are an 'orrible fellow! You think of nothing but diseases and
wickedness. I wonder if you 'ave ever 'ad a good time yourself—ever
laughed, like I do, from ze 'eart?”
He looked away from her. He felt for a moment oddly uneasy and
“No, I don't suppose I have.”
“Ah, c'est dommage, mon pauvre jeune homme. But you don't
like me. What can I do?”
“I don't expect you to do anything.”
“Not my business, hein? No one 'ave any business 'ere who
'ave not got an illness. Ver' well. I will 'ave an illness—a ver'
leetle one. No, not ze tummy-ache. C'est vieux jeu ca. But a
leetle sore throat. You know about throats, hein?”
“My specialty,” he said smiling back at her with hard eyes.
“Bien, I 'ave a leetle sore throat—fatigue plutot—'e come
and 'e go. I smoke too much. But I 'ave to smoke. It's no good what you
“I'm sure of that,” he said.
He made her sit down in the white iron chair behind the screen and,
adjusting his speculum, switched on the light. He was bitterly angry
because she had forced this farce upon him. He felt that she was
laughing all over. The pretty pinkness of her open mouth nauseated him.
He thought of all the men who had kissed her, and had been ruined by
her as though by the touch of a deadly plague. He pressed her tongue
down with a deliberate roughness.
“You 'urt,” she muttered. But her eyes were still amused.
“A great many people get hurt here,” he said contemptuously, “and
don't whine about it.”
Ten minutes later they sat opposite each other by his table. She was
coughing and laughing and wiping her eyes.
“C'est abominable,” she gasped, “abominable!”
He waited. He could afford to wait. He had the feeling of being
carried on the breast of a deep, quiet sea. He could take his time. Her
laughter and damnable light-heartedness no longer fretted and
exasperated him. Rather it was a kind of bitter spice—a tense screwing
up of his exquisite sense of calm power. She was like a tigress
sprawling in the sunshine, not knowing that its heart is already
covered by a rifle. He prolonged the moment deliberately, savouring it.
In that deliberation the woman in the hospital, Francey Wilmot,
Cosgrave, and a host of faceless men who had gone under this woman's
chariot wheels played their devious, sinister parts. They goaded him on
and justified him. He became in his own eyes the figure of the Law,
pronouncing sentence, weightily, without heat or passion or pity.
“You do it on purpose,” she said, “you make me cough.”
He arranged his papers with precise hands.
“I'm sorry—I know you came here as a joke. It isn't—not for you.
It's serious.” He saw her smile, and though he went on speaking in the
same quiet, methodical tone, he felt that he had suddenly lost control
of himself. “Medical science isn't an exact science. Doctors are never
sure of anything until it has happened. But speaking with that
reservation I have to tell you that your case is hopeless—that you
have three—at the most four months——”
She had interrupted with a laugh, but the laugh itself had broken in
half. She had read his face. After a long interval she asked a
question—one word—almost inaudibly—and he nodded.
“If you had come earlier one might have operated,” he said. “But
even so, it would have been doubtful.”
Already many men and women had received their final sentence here in
this room, and each had met it in his own way. The women were the
quietest. Perhaps their lives had taught them to endure the hideous
indignity of a well-ordered death-bed without that galling sense of
physical humiliation which tormented men. For the most part they became
immersed in practical issues—how the news was to be broken to others,
who would look after the house and the children, and how the last scene
might be acted with the least possible inconvenience and distress for
those who would have to witness it. Some men had raved and stormed and
pleaded, as though he had been a judge whose judgment might be revoked:
“Not me—others—not me—not to-day—years hence.” They had paced his
private room for hours, trying to get a hold over themselves,
devastated with shame and horror at the breakdown of their confident
personalities. Some had risen to an impregnable dignity, finer than
their lives. One or two had laughed.
And this woman?
He looked up at last. He thought with a thrill that was not of pity,
of a bird hit in full flight and mortally hurt, panting out its life in
the heather, its gay plumage limp and dishevelled. The jewels and
outrageous dress had become a jest that had turned against her. A
shadow of the empty, good-humoured smile still lingered on a painted
mouth palsied with fear. She was swaying slightly, rhythmically,
backwards and forwards, and rubbing the palms of her hands on the
carved arms of her chair, and he could hear her breath, short and
broken like the shallow breathing of a sick animal. And yet he became
aware that she was thinking—thinking very rapidly—calling up
“Trois—mois—trois mois. Well, but I don't feel so ill—I
don't feel ill at all—per'aps for a leetle month—just a leetle
He had no clue to her thought. She looked about her rather vaguely
as though everything had suddenly become unreal. There were tears on
her cheeks, but they were the tears of her recent laughter. She rubbed
them off on the back of her hand with the unconscious gesture of a
“I suffer much?”
“I'm afraid so. Though, of course, anyone who attends on you will do
“Death so ugly—so sad.”
“Not always,” he said.
It was true. She had been a beast of prey all her life. Now it was
her turn to be overtaken and torn down. Only sentimentalists like
Francey Wilmot could see in her a cause for pity or regret.
They sat opposite each other through a long silence. He gave her
time. He showed her consideration. He thought of the pale-blue
chauffeur waiting in the biting cold of a winter's afternoon. Well, he
would be alive after she had become a loathsome fragment of corruption.
He was revenged—they were all revenged on her now.
She fumbled with her gold and jewelled bag.
“What do I owe, Monsieur le docteur?”
She put the money on the table.
“That is ver' little for so much. I think—when I can't go on any
more—I come to your 'ospital. You take me in, hein? I 'ave a
He made an unwilling movement. It revolted him—this obtuseness that
would not see that he hated her.
“I can't prevent your coming if you want to. You would be more in
your element in your own home. Even in their private rooms they don't
allow the kind of things you're accustomed to. There are regulations.
Your friends won't like them.”
She looked up at him with a startled intentness.
“Mes pauvres amis—I 'ave so many. They won't understand.
They say: 'That's one of Gyp's leetle jokes.' They won't believe
it—they won't dare.”
She gave him her hand, and he touched it perfunctorily.
“It's as you like, of course. You have only to let me know.”
“You are ver' kind.”
He showed her to the door, and rang the bell for the servant. From
his vantage point he saw the pale-blue chauffeur hold open the door of
the pale-blue limousine. A few loiterers gaped. By an ironical chance a
barrel-organ in the next street began to grind out the riotous,
familiar gallop. It sounded far-off like a jeering echo:
“I'm Gyp Labelle;
If you dance with me
You dance to my tune. . .”
A danse macabre. He wondered if she had brains or heart enough to
appreciate the full bitterness of that chance. He could see her, in his
mind's eye, cowering back among the pale-blue cushions.
The next morning he received a note from her and a ticket for the
first night of “Mademoiselle Pantalonne”—“with her regards and
He went. In the morning he had tossed the ticket aside, scornful and
outraged by such a poor gesture of bravado. But the night brought the
old restlessness. He was driven by curiosity that he believed was
professional and impersonal. It was natural enough that he should want
to see how a woman of her stuff acted under sentence of death. But once
in the theatre h e became aware of a black and solitary pride because
he alone of all these people could taste the full flavour of her
performance. He had become omniscient. He saw behind the scenes. Whilst
the orchestra played its jaunty overture he watched her. He saw her
stare into her glass and dab on the paint, thicker and thicker, knowing
now why she needed so much more, shrinking from the skull that was
beginning to peer through the thin mask of flesh and blood. He foresaw
the moment, probably before the footlights, when the naked horror of it
all would leap out on her and tear her down. Even in that she would no
doubt seek the consolation of notoriety. It would be in all the papers.
If she had the nerve to carry on people would crowd to see her, as in
the Roman days they had crowded to the circus (gloating and stroking
themselves secretly, thinking: “It is not I who am dying"). Or she
would seek dramatic refuge in her absurd palace and surround herself
with tragic glamour, making use of her own death as she had used the
death of that infatuated and unhappy prince.
And yet he was sick at heart. In flashes he saw his own attitude as
something hideous and abnormal. Then again he justified it, as he had
always justified it. He found himself arguing the whole matter out with
Francey Wilmot—a cool and reasoned exposition such as he had been
incapable of at the crisis of their relationship. (“This woman is a
malignant growth. Nature destroys her. Do you pretend to feel regret or
pity?”) But though he imagined the whole scene—saw himself as
authoritative and convincing—he could not re-create Francey Wilmot.
She remained herself. Her eyes, fixed on him with that remembered look
of candid and questioning tenderness, blazed up into an anger as
unexpectedly fierce and uncompromising. And he was not so strong. He
had overworked all his life. Starved too often. The ground slipped from
under his feet.
It was a poor, vulgar show—a pantomime jerry-built to accommodate
her particular talent. She walked through it—the dumb but irresistible
model of a French atelier, who made fools of all her lovers, cheated
them, sucked them dry and tossed them off with a merry cynicism. When
the mood took her she danced and her victims danced behind her, a
grotesque ballet, laughing and clapping their hands, as though their
cruel sufferings were, after all, a good joke. Neither they nor the
audience seemed to be aware that she could not dance at all, and that
she was not even beautiful.
It was an old stunt, disguised with an insolent carelessness. The
producers had surely grinned to themselves over it. “We know what the
public likes. Rubbish, and the older the better. Give it 'em.” She even
made her familiar entry between the curtains at the back of the stage,
standing in the favourite attitude of simple, triumphant expectation,
and smiling with that rather foolish friendliness that until now had
never shaken her audiences from their frigidity. To them she had always
been a spectacle, a strange vital thing with a lurid past and a dubious
future, shocking and stimulating. They would never have admitted that
they liked her. But tonight they gave her a sort of ashamed welcome.
Perhaps it was the dress she wore—the exaggerated peg-top trousers and
bonnet of a conventional Quartier Latin which made her look frank and
boyish. Perhaps it was something more subtle. Stonehouse himself felt
it. But then, he knew. He saw her as God saw her. If there was a God He
certainly had His amusing moments.
But he found himself clapping her with the rest, and that made him
angry and afraid. It seemed that he could not control his actions any
more than his thoughts. The whole business had got an unnatural hold
over him. He half got up to go, and then realized that he was trying to
It was jolly music too. That at any rate her producers had toiled at
with some zeal. Incredibly stupid and artless and jolly. Anyone could
have danced to it. And she was a gutter-urchin, flinging herself about
in the sheer joy of life (with death capering at her heels). He watched
her, leaning forward, waiting for some sign, the faltering gesture, a
twitching grimace of realization. Or was it possible that she was too
empty-hearted to feel even her own tragedy, too shallow to suffer, too
stupid to foresee? At least he knew with certainty that in that heated,
exhausted atmosphere pain had set in.
He became aware that the sweat of it was on his own face—that he
himself was labouring under an intolerable physical burden. He knew too
much. (If God had His amusing moments he had also to suffer, unless, as
Mr. Ricardo had judged, he was a devil.) She was facing what every man
and woman in that theatre would have to face sooner or later. How? She
at any rate danced as though there were nothing in the world but life.
With each act her gestures, her very dress became the clearer
expression of an insatiable, uncurbed lust of living. At the end, the
orchestra, as though it could not help itself, broke into the old
doggerel tune that had helped to make her famous:
“I'm Gyp Labelle.”
She waltzed and somersaulted round the stage, and as the curtain
fell she stood before the footlights, panting, her thin arms raised
triumphantly. He could see the tortured pulse leaping in her throat. He
thought he read her lips as they moved in a voiceless exclamation:
“Quand meme—quand meme.”
The audience melted away indifferently. They, at any rate, did not
know what they had seen.
And the next day he had another little note from her, written in a
great sprawling hand. She had made all her arrangements, and she
thought she had better reserve rooms in his hospital in about six
weeks' time for about a month. After that, no doubt, she would require
A silly, fatuous effort, in execrable taste.
Robert Stonehouse took a second leave that he could not afford and
went back to the grey cottage on the moors, and tramped the hills in
haunted solitude. The spring ran beside him, a crude, bitter, young
spring, gazing into the future with an earnest, passionate face, full
of arrogance and hope, and self-distrust. His own frustrated youth rose
in him like a painful sap. He was much younger than the Robert
Stonehouse who, proud in his mature strength, had dragged an exhausted,
secretively smiling Cosgrave on his relentless pursuit—young and
insecure, with odd nameless rushes of emotion and desire and grief that
had had no part in his ordered life.
The hills had changed too. They had been the background to his
exploits. They had become brooding, mysterious partners whose purpose
with him he had not fathomed. The things that ran across his path, the
quaint furry hares and scurrying pheasants had ceased to be objects on
which he could vent his strength and cunning. They were live things,
deeply, secretly related to him and to a dying, very infamous woman,
and his levelled gun sank time after time under the pressure of an
inexplicable pity. He had stood resolutely aloof from life, and now it
was dragging him down into its warmth with invisible, resistless hands.
Its values, which he had learnt to judge coldly and dispassionately,
weighing one against another, were shifting like sand. He seemed to
stand, naked and alone, in a changing, terrifying world.
In those days the papers in their frivolous columns, were full of
Gyp Labelle. Her press-agent was working frenziedly. It seemed that she
had quarrelled with her manager, torn her contract into shreds, and
slapped his face. There were gay doings nightly at the Kensington
house—orgies. One paper hinted at a certain South African millionaire.
A last fling—the reckless gesture of a worthless panic-stricken
soul, without dignity.
Or perhaps she had found that his diagnosis had been a mistake. Or
she would not believe the truth. Or she was drugging herself into
forgetfulness. Perhaps she might even have the courage to make an end
before the time came when forgetfulness would be impossible.
He returned to town, drawn by an obsession of uncertainty. He found
that she had arrived at her rooms in the hospital with the shrivelled
old woman and the macaw and a gramophone.
She had signed the register as Marie Dubois.
“It is my real name,” she explained, “but you couldn't have a good
time with a name like that—voyons! Only one 'usband and 'eaps
She was much nearer the end than he had supposed possible. The last
month had to be paid for. She lay very still under the gorgeous quilt
which she had brought with her, and her hand, which she had stretched
out to him in friendly welcome, was like the claw of a bird. “Everyone
'ere promise not to tell,” she said. “I'm just Marie Dubois. Even ze
undertaker—'e must not know. You put on ze stone: 'Marie Dubois, ze
beloved daughter of Georges and Marianne Dubois, rag-pickers of Paris.'
That will be a last leetle joke, hein?”
“It's as you wish,” he said coldly.
He forced back the natural questions that came to him. He had a
disordered conviction that he was fighting her for his sanity, for the
very ground on which he had built his life, and that he dared not yield
by so much as a kindly word. He did what lay in his power for her with
a heart shut and barred.
She brought a little of her world and her whole outlook with her. On
the last day that she was able to be up she dressed herself in a gay
mandarin's coat with a Chinese woman's trousers, and tried to do her
dance for the benefit of a shocked and fascinated matron. Every morning
she wore a new cap to set off the deepening shadow of dissolution.
By the open fire the old woman embroidered ceaselessly.
“She is making—'ow you call it?—my shroud. You see—with ze blue
ribbons. Blue—that's my colour—my lucky colour. As soon as I could
speak I ask for blue ribbons in my pinafore.”
“I should have thought your mind might be better occupied now,” he
retorted with brutal commonplaceness.
She winked at him.
“Oh, but I 'ave 'ad my leetle talk with Monsieur le Cure. 'E
and I are ze best of friends, though I never met 'im before. 'E
understand about ze blue ribbons. But Monsieur Robert is too clever.”
“It seems so,” he said scornfully.
She questioned him from out of the thickening cloud of morphia. “You
don't believe in God?” And then as he shook his head she smiled
sleepily. “Well, it is still possible 'e exist, Monsieur—
Monsieur le docteur.”
She lay quiet so that he thought she had fallen asleep, but the next
moment her eyes had opened, widening on him with a startling
wakefulness. It was as though her whole personality had leapt to arms,
and bursting through the narcotic, stood free with a gay and laughing
gesture. “As to God—I don't know about 'im, but I exist—I go on. You
bet your 'at on that, my friend. I don't know where I go—but I go
somewhere. And I dance. And if St. Peter sit at ze golden gates, like
they say in ze fairybook, I say to 'im: ''Ave you ever seen ze Gyp
Galop?' And then I dance for 'im and ze angels play for me”—she nodded
wickedly—“not 'ymn tunes.”
She was serious. She meant it. If she survived she survived as what
she was or not at all. And looking down on her wasted, tortured body,
Stonehouse had a momentary but extraordinarily vivid conviction that
what she had said was true. She would persist. Whatever else happened,
Gyp Labelle would go on having a good time. She could not be
extinguished. There was in her some virtue altogether apart from the
body—a blazing vitality, an unquenchable, burning spirit.
He felt his hatred of her wither before it.
“And 'e say: 'You dance ver' bad, Gyp, but you make me laugh. You go
on and dance to ze others.' For 'e know who I am. My poor parents they
make ze mistake. They think: ''Ere is such a ver' nice, good little
bebe, and so they call me after my Maman, who is ver' nice
and good too, and who love me ver' much—Marie—Marie Dubois.”
She turned her head towards the old woman bending lower and lower
over her fine work, and, smiling at her, fell asleep.
He returned, one night, to the hospital in the hope of being able to
work in the laboratory, and instead, coming to her room, he went in.
The action was so unpremeditated and unmotivated that he had closed the
door before he knew what he had done. But the excuse he framed in his
confusion was never uttered, for he had the right to appear
dumbfounded. She sat, propped up like a painted wraith against a pile
of gorgeous cushions, and all about her was scattered a barbarous loot
of rings and bracelets, of strings of pearls, of unset stones, diamonds
and emeralds, heaped carelessly on the table at her side, and twinkling
like little malevolent eyes out of the creases of her coverlet.
The old woman wrote toilingly on a slip of paper. “Sh! This is ver'
solemn. I could not sleep, and so I make my testament.” She put her
finger to her lips as though her whisper were only a part of a playful
mystery and beckoned him, and he went towards her, reluctant, yet
unresisting like a man hypnotized. He had a childish longing to touch
all that colour, to take up great handfuls of it and feel its warmth
and let it drip through his fingers. The death that stared out of her
painted face, the silence and grim austerity of her surroundings made
that display of magnificence a fantastic parable. The stones were the
life that was going from her. She picked up each one in turn and
caressed it, and held it to the light, remembering who knew what
escapade, what splendid, reckless days, what tragedy. And yet there was
no regret and surely no remorse in her farewell of them.
“Ma Vieille—she make a list of all. They will be sold—for
ze children of Paris—ze gamins—as I was—for a good time.” She
held out her hand: “C'est joli, n'est ce pas?”
He looked unwillingly. It was a black opal, and as she moved it it
seemed to come to life, and a distant resentful fire gleamed out of its
“Yes. But you oughtn't to have all—all this stuff about. No one
could be held responsible——”
“What does it matter? If someone take it—someone 'ave it. It won't
worry me. 'Ere, I tell you something—a story, hein, to amuse
you? You remember our leetle dinner and 'ow I would not tell about ze
Grand Duke and ze black opal? Well, I tell you now. It don't matter any
“No. You're doing yourself harm. You ought to sleep.”
“I don't want to—I can't. It is 'orrible to lie awake in ze dark
and—— And you, too, Monsieur Robert, you don't feel you sleep much
“Alors—'ere we are—two poor fellows shipwrecked—we make a
leetle feast together—a feast of good stories. You say you don't like
me ver' much. But that is ridicule now. One only 'ates when one
is afraid, and you aren't afraid any more of poor Gyp.”
“Was I ever?” he demanded.
“A leetle—per'aps? You think to yourself: 'If I love 'er——!' Bah,
that is all finished. Come, I tell you my funny story.”
He had laughed. He was incredulous of himself. He sat on the edge of
her bed listening to her whisper, a tortured whisper which she made
supremely funny—a mock-conspirator's whisper which drew them close to
one another in an outrageous intimacy.
“At any rate you had made a good enemy that time,” he said.
“Ah no—no. 'E 'ave a fine sense of humour, Monsieur ze Grand Duke.
'E laugh too. 'E say—'Gyp—you are ze ver' devil 'erself!' 'Ere, but
this ruby—I don't care much for rubies—but this one 'ave a real fine
And so one by one the stones were taken up and held a moment, some
to be discarded with a name or a forgetful shrug, and some to linger a
while longer whilst she recalled their little ribald histories. And it
seemed to Robert Stonehouse that gradually the room filled with
invisible personages who, as the jewels dropped from her waxen fingers
into the gaping box, bowed to her and took their leave. And at last
they were all gone but one. He seemed to hear them, their footsteps
receding faintly along the corridors.
She held an unset pearl in her hand.
“This one 'ave a ver' nice leetle story. A brigand give it me when
'e 'old up ze train between Mexico City and ze coast. A fine
fellow—with a sombrero and a manner!” (She looked past Stonehouse,
smiling, as though she too saw the shadow twirling its black moustache
and staring back at her with gallant admiration.) “And brave too,
nombre de Dios! And 'e bow and say: 'One does not take ransom from
Mademoiselle Labelle. One pays tribute.' And 'e give me this to
remember 'im by—as I give it you, Monsieur Robert.”
He stood up sharply.
“No—I—I don't care for that kind of thing.”
“For your wife, then!”
“I am not married.”
“But one day per'aps? You love someone, hein?” (Had she
wilfully forgotten? She studied his face with a wicked curiosity. He
could not answer her.) “Give it 'er then—Monsieur Robert—pour me
“There is no one to give it to.”
“But there was——”
He tried desperately to regain the old sarcastic inflection.
“No doubt it seems inevitable to you.”
“Tell me about 'er. Voyons, if you can't keep me alive,
Monsieur mon docteur, you might at least amuse me.”
“There is nothing to tell. I will give you something that will make
“I do not want to sleep. That is bad, ugly sleep that you give me.
So you quarrel. What you quarrel about, Monsieur Robert? Another
The sheer, grotesque truth of it drove him to an ironical assent.
“As you say, another woman——”
“Oh, la la! So there was once upon a time a ver' serious
young man who forget to be quite serious. Voyons—you 'ave to
tell me all now—just as I tell you.”
He turned on her then. In five brief, savage sentences he had told
her of Frances and the woman in the hospital. And when he had done he
read her face with its tolerant good-humour, and the full enormity of
it all burst over him like a flood of crude light. He turned away from
“I've no business here—I've no business to be your doctor—or
anyone's doctor. I think I must be going mad.”
She shook her head.
“No—no—only too serious, mon pauvre jeune homme. But I like
your—your Francey. I think she and I be good friends some'ow. She
would see things 'ow I see them.”
(He thought crazily:
“Yes, she would sit by you and look over your shoulder at your
rotten life, and say: 'So that's the way it seems to you? And you're
right. It's been a splendid joke.'“)
“One of these days you be friends again too. And then you give 'er
my leetle pearl. Say it's from Gyp, who is sorry she made so much
trouble. Why not? You think it make her sad? It is not for that I give
it you. It is to give you pleasure too.”
He was labouring under an almost physical distress. She was poking
fun at him, at herself, at death. She was making him a partner of
thieves and loose women. And yet:
“It must not make you sad at all. When you see it you laugh—just as
you laugh when I dance because I dance so ver' bad. Look 'ere, I 'ave
something that you give me too.” She dived back into the box and
brought out a shilling lying side by side with the pearl in the palm of
her open hand. “You tell 'er—that was all poor Gyp was worth to you,
He had taken it. She tried to laugh out loud, triumphantly, the
famous laugh. And then grey agony had her by the throat. She turned her
face from him to the wall.
He felt that the old woman had risen. She was moving towards them.
He said quietly:
“At least I can relieve you.”
She made a passionate, absolute gesture of refusal. An astonished
nurse had entered. He gave brief instructions. He said good-night, not
looking at the limp, quiet figure on the bed, and went out.
He knew that he had seemed competent, unhurried and unmoved as
befitted a man to whom death was the most salient feature of life.
But he knew also that he had fled from her.
In the crowd that went with him that night were Francey Wilmot and
Connie Edwards and Cosgrave and all the people who had made up his
youth. There were little old women who were Christines, and even James
Stonehouse was there, tragically and hopefully in search of something
that he had never found. Any moment he might turn his face towards his
son, and it would not be hideous, only perplexed and pitiful.
It was as though an ugly, monstrous mass had been smashed to
fragments whose facets shone with extraordinary, undreamed-of colours.
Not only the bodies of the people drifted with him, but their lives
touched his on every side. It became a sort of secret pressure. They
were neither great nor beautiful. They were identical with the people
he had always seen on the streets and in the hospitals, sickly or
grossly commonplace, but he could no longer judge them as from a great
distance. He was down in the thick of them. They concerned him—or he
had no other concern. He was part of their strangely wandering
procession. He looked into their separate faces and thought: “This man
says 'I' to himself. And one day he will say: 'I am dying' (as Marie
Dubois said it).” And he recognized for the first time something common
to them all that was not commonplace—an heroic quality. At least that
stark fact remained that at their birth sentence of death had been
passed upon them all. Before each one of them lay a black adventure,
and they went towards it, questioning or inarticulate, not knowing why
they should endure so much, but facing the utter loneliness of that
final passage with patience and great courage.
It was not ridiculous that they should demand their immortality, the
least and worst of them. Whether it was granted them or not, it was a
just demand, and the answer to it more vital than any other form of
knowledge. For it was conceivable that one day they would be too strong
and too proud to play the part of tragic buffoons in a senseless farce.
In the meantime men might well be pitiful with one another.
“What was it she had said?”
“Nothing that you've gone through is of any use if it hasn't taught
(“Oh, Francey, Francey, if I had told you that Christine was dead
would it have helped? Would you have had more patience with me?”)
The quiet and emptiness of his own street restored him in some
measure to his aloof scepticism. But even then he knew there was a
disruptive force secretly at work in him, tearing down stone by stone
his confidence and courage. He was afraid of shadows. A bowed figure
crouched against the railings of his house checked him as though a
ghost had lain in wait for him. He passed it hurriedly, running up the
stone steps. The sound of a thin, clear voice calling him made him turn
again, his head thrown up in a sort of defiance.
“Monsieur—excuse—excuse—I wait 'ere so long. They tell me you
come back 'ere perhaps. But they don't know I 'ave come. I creep
out—— Monsieur she cannot sleep—she cannot sleep. They don't do
nothing. It is not right. I cannot 'ave it—that she suffer so.”
He came back down the steps. He was conscious of having sighed
deeply. He looked into the shrivelled, up-turned face, and saw the
tears that filled the furrows with a slow moving stream. He had hardly
noticed her before. Now she hurt him. A very little old woman. He said
briefly, hiding a shaken voice:
“They do all they can. I can do no more.”
She reiterated with a peasant's obstinacy.
“I will not 'ave it—I will not—not 'ave it—I cannot bear it.”
“Dr. Rutherford is there. I tell you he can do all that can be done.
I offered her an injection—she would not have it.”
“She pretend—all ze time she pretend. Even before me, 'er mother,
she pretend. But I know.”
He stepped back against the railings, freeing himself fretfully from
the hand that clutched his arm.
“If you are her mother she treats you strangely. She treats you like
“Before others, Monsieur. She is different—of different stuff. We
'ave always understood. If I am to be with 'er it must be as 'er
servant. That is our affair. But you are not kind. You let 'er suffer
too much. I will not 'ave it.”
She drew herself up. She almost menaced him. He saw that she knew.
As a physician he had done what lay in his power, but as a human being
he had failed utterly and deliberately. Had always failed. And he was
aware of an incredible fear of her.
“I will come now,” he stammered.
He gave her such sleep that night that it seemed unlikely that she
would ever wake again. He knew that he had exceeded the limits of mercy
set down by his profession and that the nurse had looked strangely at
him. But he was indifferent. It was as though he, too, had been
Nor did he leave her again until the morning, but watched over her,
whilst on the other side of the bed the old woman knelt, her face
pressed against a still hand, a battered, sullen effigy of grief.
From the beginning she had defied the regulations of the hospital,
as she had defied the rules of life, with an absolute success. The
inelastic, military system bent and stretched itself beneath her
good-humoured inability to believe that there could be any wilful
opposition, to her desires. The macaw had been a case in point, the
gramophone another. After tea the old woman set the instrument going
for her, and when the authorities protested, ostensibly on behalf of
neighbouring patients, it transpired that the patients rather liked it
than otherwise, and there were regular concerts, with the macaw
shrieking its occasional appreciation.
She inquired interestedly into her neighbours. She seemed less
concerned with their complaints than with their ages, their appearance,
and the time when they would return to the outside world. With a young
man on her right hand she became intimate. It began with an exchange of
compliments and progressed through little folded notes which caused her
infinite amusement to a system of code-tapping on the intervening wall,
sufficiently scandalous in import, if her expression were significant.
The nurses became her allies in this last grim flirtation, unaware
apparently of its grimness.
“Don't you let 'im know I am so bad,” she adjured them. “I tell 'im
I 'ave a leetle nothing at all, and that I am going 'ome next week to
my dear 'usband. I think that make 'im laugh ver' much. 'E is ver'
bored, that young man. 'E say if I 'ave supper with 'im, the first
night 'e come out 'e won't—'ow you say?—grouse so much. I say my
'usband ver' jealous, but that I fix it some'ow. 'E like that. Promise
you won't tell?”
She was almost voiceless now. That she suffered hideously,
Stonehouse knew, but not from her. He believed—in the turmoil of his
mind he almost hoped—that when she was alone she broke down, but
before them all she bore herself with an unflagging gallantry. It was
that gallantry of hers that dogged him, that would not let him rest or
forget. It demanded of him something that he could not, and dared not,
And she was pitifully alone. The woman in the hospital had not been
more forsaken by her world. As to Gyp Labelle she went her way, and the
gossip columns cautiously recorded the more startling items of that
progress. It was as though some clever hand were building up a
fantastic figure that should pass at last into the mists of legend.
Men laughed together over her.
“What poor devil of a millionaire has the woman hobbled now?”
It was the matron who showed Stonehouse an illustrated paper which
produced her full-length portrait. She sat on the edge of her absurd
fountain and her hand was raised in a laughing gesture of farewell.
Over the top was written: “Gyp off to Pastures new,” and underneath a
message which all the daily papers were to reproduce.
“I want this way to thank all the friends who have been so very kind
to me. We have had good times together. I miss you very much. I am
going to find new friends now, but one day, I think, I dance for you
again. I love you all. I kiss my hands to you. Au revoir, Gyp.”
It was her vanity, that insatiable desire to figure impudently and
triumphantly in the public eye. He brought the paper to her. But at the
moment she was busy tapping feebly on the wall. She winked at him.
“Sh! I tell 'im I go to-day. I make an appointment—next week—ze
Carlton Grill—seven o'clock—'e 'ave to wait a long time, ze poor
young man. There, it is finished.”
He showed her the picture without comment. He had to hold it for
her—hold it very close—for she had exhausted herself with that last
gesture of bravado. And then, as she smiled, a protest born of
gathering distress and doubt burst from him.
“Why do you allow—this—hideous, impossible pretence?”
He could feel the old woman turn towards him like a wild beast
preparing to spring. But she herself lay still, with closed eyes. He
had to bend down to catch the remote suffering whisper.
“C'est vrai. We 'ave—such good times. And they come
'ere—all those kind people—who 'ave laughed so much—and bring
flowers—and pretend it is not true. And they won't believe—and when
they see it they won't believe—they won't dare——” She tried to speak
more clearly, clinging to his hand for the first time, whilst a sweat
of agony broke out upon her face and made ghastly channels through its
paint and powder. “Vous voyez—for them—I am—ze good times.
They come to me—for good times. When they are too sad—when things too
'ard for them and they cannot believe any more—that ze good times come
again—they think of me. 'Voyons, la Gyp, she 'ave a good time
always—she dance at 'er own funeral!' But if they see me 'ere—like
this—they go away—and think in their 'earts: 'Grand Dieu, c'est
comme ca avec nous tous—avec nous tous,' and they not laugh
with me—any more.”
Her hand let go its hold—suddenly.
They sent for him that night. Haemorrhage had set in. There was a
light burning by her bedside, for she had complained of the darkness.
She wore a lace cap trimmed with blue ribbons, but she had not had
strength to paint her lips and cheeks again, and the old woman's
efforts had ended pitifully. She had grown very small in the last few
hours, and with her thin, daubed face and blood-stained lips, she
looked like a sorrowful travesty of the little circus clown who had
ridden the fat pony and shouted “Oh la—la!” and blown kisses to
She smiled vaguely in Stonehouse's direction, but she was only half
conscious. Her hand strayed over the gorgeous quilt, stroking it with a
kind of simple pleasure.
(She was like that, too, he thought—a dash of gay, unashamed colour
in the sad scheme of things.)
Towards midnight she motioned to him and whispered something that he
could not understand. But the old woman rose heavily from her knees and
went over to the gramophone, thrusting aside with savage resolution the
nurse who tried to intercept her. Stonehouse himself made an
“Why not?” he said. “Let her alone.”
He stood close to her and waited. He felt that some part of him was
dying with her, that he stood with her before a black partition which
was thinning slowly, and that presently they would both know whatever
The macaw fidgeted on its golden perch, craning towards the light
and blinking uneasily as though a strange thing had come into the room.
The needle scratched under a shaking hand.
“I'm Gyp Labelle;
Come dance with me. . .”
He bent over her so that his face almost touched hers.
“I'm sorry—I'm sorry, Gyp.”
She turned her head a little, her lips moving. It was evident that
she had not really heard. But he knew that she had never borne him
And then suddenly it was over. He had broken through. Beyond were
understanding and peace and strange and difficult tears. He loved her,
as beneath the fret and heat of passion Cosgrave and all those others
had loved her, for what she sincerely was and for the brave, gay thing
she had to give. He loved her more simply still as in rare moments of
their lives men love one another, saying: “This is my brother—this is
my sister.” From his lonely arrogance his spirit flung itself down,
grieving, beside her mysterious, incalculable good.
He could hear the jolly bang-bang of the drum and the whoop of a
trumpet. He could see her catherine-wheeling round the stage, and the
man with the bloated face and tragic, intelligent eyes.
“Life itself, my dear fellow, life itself.”
And she was dead.
For a moment they stared at one another. He did not at once
recognize Connie Edwards, in the puritanical serge frock and with her
air of rather conscious sobriety, and he himself stood in the shadow.
“She's wondering if I'm a tramp.” He felt like one, broken and
“Dr. Wilmot?” he muttered.
She leant closer.
“Oh, hallo—Robert.” She corrected herself severely, and held the
door wide open. “Dr. Stonehouse—to be sure. Francey's upstairs.”
She led the way. It was almost as though she had been expecting him.
At any rate, she was not surprised at all. But half-way up the stairs
she glanced back over her shoulder.
“I don't usually open the door. I'm her secretary. And a damn good
one too. Rather a jest, eh, what?”
“Rather,” he said.
And it was really the same room—a fire burning and the faun dancing
in the midst of its moving shadows. There was a faint, warm scent of
cigarette smoke and a solemn pile of books beside her deep chair. It
wouldn't be like Francey to rest under her laurels.
She held both his hands in hers. She wore a loose, golden-brown
wrapper such as she had always worn when she had been working hard. She
had changed very little and a great deal. If something of the whimsical
mysteriousness of her youth had faded she had broadened and deepened
into a woman warm and generous as the earth. Her thick hair swept back
from her face with the old wind-blown look, and her eyes were candid
and steadfast as they had ever been. But some sort of mist had been
brushed away from them so that they saw more clearly and profoundly. He
thought: “She has seen a great many people suffer. She doesn't go away
so often into herself.”
He had tried hard, over and over again, to imagine their meeting,
but he had never imagined that it would be so simple or that she would
say to him, as though the eight years had not happened:
“Why didn't you tell me about Christine, Robert?”
“It wouldn't have made any difference.”
“I've been waiting for you to tell me.”
He tried to smile.
“You don't know how difficult it has been to come. I've been
prowling past—night after night—trying to think what you'd say to me,
if I turned up.”
“You might have known.”
“I didn't—I don't know even now.”
She had made him sit down by the fire and she sat opposite him,
bending towards him, with her slim, beautiful hands to the blaze. He
felt that she knew, for all the outward signs of his prosperity, that
he was destitute. He felt that his real self with which she had always
been so much concerned had been stripped naked, and that she was trying
to warm and console him. She was wrapping him round with that unchanged
“It's—it's the old room!” he said.
But his enmity was dead. He was at peace with it. He had been
initiated. He had heard, very faintly it is true, but loud enough to
understand, the music to which the faun danced. He was not the outsider
“I wanted it to be the same.”
“And the house——”
“I took it as soon as I could get it. I made up my mind to live
here, whatever it cost. You see, I was quite sure that you would go
past one of these days to have a look at it, and that you would say to
yourself: 'Why, there's Francey, after all! I'll go in——'“
But they both drew back instinctively. He blundered into a hurried
question. The Gang? What had happened to them all? It seemed that
Gertie still lived, defying medical opinion and apparently feeding her
starved spirit on the treasures of the Vatican. Howard, who had become
a very bad artist and lived on selling copies of the masterpieces to
tourists, looked after her.
“But they're not married,” Francey said. “Just friends.”
He said humbly:
“Well, he's been awfully decent to her.”
As to the rest, no one knew what had become of them.
“And you've done splendidly, Robert, better than any of us.”
“I've been a failure,” he answered, “a rotten failure!”
She accepted the statement gravely, without protest, and that
sincerity was like a skilled hand on a wound. It brought comfort where
a fumbling kindness would have been unendurable. It made him strangely,
deeply happy to know that she would see too that he had failed. “I've
never had pity on anyone—not even myself—I've learnt nothing that
For a while they sat silent, looking into the fire, like people who
are waiting and preparing themselves for some great event. And
presently, without moving, in an undertone he began to tell her about
the Marie Dubois who had died, and how he had seen her long ago at the
Circus, his first and only circus. He told her about the Circus itself.
He did not choose his words, but stammered and fumbled and jumped from
one thing to another. He opened his heart and took out whatever he
found there, and showed it to her very humbly, just as it was. It
seemed certain and imperative that after a little while they should
both see the pattern of it all. He told her about his love for his dead
mother, and how his father had died and had come back, haunting him in
Then he remembered something he had never thought of before—how he
had looked up at the window of the room where his father was lying
dead, and had wanted to run—run fast.
“But I think I've lived in that dark house all my life,” he said,
“and I've gone about in it, blustering and swaggering and being hard
and strong because I was so desperately afraid—of life, of caring too
much, of failing. And now—I've come out.”
And then he began to tremble all over and suddenly he was crying
She knelt beside him. She drew him into her arms. It was their
moment in the green forest over again, but now there was no antagonism
in their love. She was the warm, good spirit of the life to which he
had become reconciled. They had belonged to one another from the
beginning. His fear had stood between them. But she had gone on loving
him, steadfastly, because nothing else was possible to her.
“Francey—do you remember—that time we fought one another—over an
idiotic stick? I was such a young rotter—I wouldn't own up—that you
were stronger than I was.”
She took his wet hands and kissed them. It was as though she had
said aloud, smiling to herself:
“It's all right now, anyhow, you odd, sad little boy.”