The best of friends and the most honest of critics
BOOK I: SCAW HOUSE
I INTRODUCTION TO COURAGE
II HOW THE WESTCOTT FAMILY SAT UP FOR PETER
III OF THE DARK SHOP OF ZACHARY TAN, AND OF THE DECISIONS THAT THE PEOPLE IN SCAW HOUSE CAME TO CONCERNING PETER
IV IN WHICH "DAWSON'S," AS THE GATE OF LIFE, IS PROVED A DISAPPOINTMENT
V DAWSON'S, THE GATE INTO HELL
VI A LOOKING-GLASS, A SILVER MATCH-BOX, A GLASS OF WHISKY, AND VOX POPULI
VII PRIDE OF LIFE
VIII PETER AND HIS MOTHER
IX THE THREE WESTCOTTS
X SUNLIGHT, LIMELIGHT, DAYLIGHT
XI ALL KINDS OF FOG IN THE CHARING CROSS ROAD
XII BROCKETT'S: ITS CHARACTERS AND ESPECIALLY MRS. BROCKETT
BOOK II: THE BOOKSHOP
I "REUBEN HALLARD"
II THE MAN ON THE LION
III ROYAL PERSONAGES ARE COMING
IV A LITTLE DUST
V A NARROW STREET
VI THE WORLD AND BUCKET LANE
VII DEVIL'S MARCH
VIII STEPHEN'S CHAPTER
BOOK III: THE ROUNDABOUT
I NO. 72, CHEYNE WALK
II A CHAPTER ABOUT SUCCESS: HOW TO WIN IT, HOW TO KEEP IT—WITH A NOTE AT THE END FROM HENRY GALLEON
III THE ENCOUNTER
IV THE ROUNDABOUT
V THE IN-BETWEENS
VI BIRTH OF THE HEIR
VII DECLARATION OF HAPPINESS
VIII BLINDS DOWN
IX WILD MEN
X ROCKING THE ROUNDABOUT
XII A WOMAN CALLED ROSE BENNETT
XIII "MORTIMER STANT"
XIV PETER BUYS A PRESENT
XV MR. WESTCOTT SENIOR CALLS CHECKMATE
BOOK IV: SCAW HOUSE
I THE SEA
II SCAW HOUSE
III NORAH MONOGUE
IV THE GREY HILL
INTRODUCTION TO COURAGE
"'Tisn't life that matters! 'Tis the courage you bring to it" ... this from old Frosted Moses in the warm corner by the door. There might have been an answer, but Dicky Tasset, the Town Idiot, filled in the pause with the tale that he was telling Mother Figgis. "And I ran—a mile or more with the stars dotted all over the ground for yer pickin', as yer might say...."
A little boy, Peter Westcott, heard what old Frosted Moses had said, and turned it over in his mind. He was twelve years old, was short and thick-necked, and just now looked very small because he was perched on so high a chair. It was one of the four ancient chairs that Sam Figgis always kept in the great kitchen behind the taproom. He kept them there partly because they were so very old and partly because they fell in so pleasantly with the ancient colour and strength of the black smoky rafters. The four ancient chairs were carved up the legs with faces and arms and strange crawling animals and their backs were twisted into the oddest shapes and were uncomfortable to lean against, but Peter Westcott sat up very straight with his little legs dangling in front of him and his grey eyes all over the room at once. He could not see all of the room because there were depths that the darkness seized and filled, and the great fiery place, with its black-stained settle, was full of mysterious shadows. A huge fire was burning and leaping in the fastnesses of that stone cavity, and it was by the light of this alone that the room was illumined—and this had the effect as Peter noticed, of making certain people, like Mother Figgis and Jane Clewer, quite monstrous, and fantastic with their skirts and hair and their shadows on the wall. Before Frosted Moses had said that sentence about Courage, Peter had been taking the room in. Because he had been there very often before he knew every flagstone in the floor and every rafter in the roof and all the sporting pictures on the walls, and the long shining row of mugs and coloured plates by the fire-place and the cured hams hanging from the ceiling ... but to-night was Christmas Eve and a very especial occasion, and he was sure to be beaten when he got home, and so must make the very most of his time. He watched the door also for Stephen Brant, who was late, but might arrive at any moment. Had it not been for Stephen Brant Peter knew that he would not have been allowed there at all. The Order of the Kitchen was jealously guarded and Sam Figgis, the Inn-keeper, would have considered so small a child a nuisance, but Stephen was the most popular man in the county, and he had promised that Peter would be quiet—and he was quiet, even at that age; no one could be so quiet as Peter when he chose. And then they liked the boy after a time. He was never in the way, and he was wonderfully wise for his years: he was a strong kid, too, and had muscles....
So Peter crept there when he could, although it very often meant a beating afterwards, but the Kitchen was worth a good many beatings, and he would have gone through Hell—and did indeed go through his own special Hell on many occasions—to be in Stephen's company. They were all nice to him even when Stephen wasn't there, but there were other reasons, besides the people, that drew Peter to the place.
It was partly perhaps because The Bending Mule was built right out into the sea, being surrounded on three sides by water. This was all twenty years ago, and I believe that now the Inn has been turned into an Arts Club, and there are tea-parties and weekly fashion papers where there had once been those bloody fights and Mother Figgis sitting like some witch over the fire; but it is no matter. Treliss is changed, of course, and so is the world, and there are politeness and sentiment where once there were oaths and ferocity, and there is much soap instead of grimy hands and unwashen faces ... and the fishing is sadly on the decline, but there are good drapers' shops in the town.
For Peter the charm of the place was that "he was out at sea." One could hear quite distinctly the lap of the waves against the walls and on stormy nights the water screamed and fought and raged outside and rolled in thundering echoes along the shore. To-night everything was still, and the snow was falling heavily, solemnly over the town.
The snow, and the black sea, and the lights that rose tier on tier like crowds at a circus, could be seen through the uncurtained windows.
The snow and quiet of the world "out-along" made the lights and warmth of the room the more comforting and exciting, and Sam Figgis had hung holly about the walls and dangled a huge bunch of mistletoe from the middle beam and poor Jane Clewer was always walking under it accidentally and waiting a little, but nobody kissed her. These things Peter noticed; he also noticed that Dicky the Idiot was allowed to be present as a very great favour because it was Christmas Eve and snowing so hard, that the room was more crowded than he had ever seen it, and that Mother Figgis, with her round face and her gnarled and knotted hands, was at her very merriest and in the best of tempers. All these things Peter had noticed before Frosted Moses (so called because of his long white beard and wonderful age) made his remark about Courage, but as soon as that remark was made Peter's thoughts were on to it as the hounds are on to a fox.
"'Tisn't life that matters, but the Courage yer bring to it...."
That, of course, at once explained everything. It explained his own father and his home, it explained poor Mrs. Prothero and her two sons who were drowned, it explained Stephen's cousin who was never free from the most painful rheumatics, and it explained Stephen himself who was never afraid of any one or anything. Peter stared at Frosted Moses, whose white beard was shining in the fire-place and his boots were like large black boats; but the old man was drawing at his pipe, and had made his remark apparently in connection with nothing at all. Peter was also disappointed to see that the room at large had paid no attention to the declaration.
Courage. That was what they were all there for, and soon, later in the evening, he would take his beating like a man, and would not cry out as he had done the last time. And then, at the thought of the beating, he shivered a little on his tall chair and his two short legs in their black stockings beat against the wooden bars, and wished that he might have stayed in some dark corner of The Bending Mule during the rest of the night and not go home until the morning—or, indeed, a very much better and happier thing, never go home again at all. He would get a worse beating for staying out so late, but it was something of a comfort to reflect that he would have been beaten in any case; old Simon Parlow, who taught him mathematics and Latin, with a little geography and history during six days of the week, had given him that morning a letter to his father directed in the old man's most beautiful handwriting to the effect that Master Westcott had made no progress at all in his sums during the last fortnight, had indeed made no attempt at progress, and had given William Daffoll, the rector's son, a bleeding nose last Wednesday when he ought to have been adding, dividing, and subtracting. Old Parlow had shown him the letter so that Peter knew that there was no escape, unless indeed Peter destroyed the paper, and that only meant that punishment was deferred.
Yes, it meant a beating, and Peter had hung about the town and the shore all the afternoon and evening because he was afraid. This fact of his fear puzzled him and he had often considered the matter. He was not, in any other way, a coward, and he had done, on many occasions, things that other friends of his own age had hung back from, but the thought of his father made him quite sick with fear somewhere in the middle of his stomach. He considered the matter very carefully and he decided at last (and he was very young for so terrible a discovery) that it was because his father liked beating him that he was afraid. He knew that his father liked it because he had watched his mouth and had heard the noise that came through his lips. And this, again, was rather strange because his father did not look as though he would like it; he had a cold face like a stone and was always in black clothes, but he did not, as a rule, show that he was pleased or angry or sorry—he never showed things.
Now these words of Frosted Moses explained everything. It was because his father knew that it was Courage that mattered that he liked to beat Peter ... it was good for Peter to learn Courage.
"'Tisn't life that matters" ... it isn't a beating that matters....
Frosted Moses was a great deal wiser than old Simon Parlow, who, in spite of his knowing so much about sums, knew nothing whatever about life. He knew nothing whatever about Courage either and shook like a leaf when his sister, Miss Jessel Parlow, was angry with him, as she very often had reason to be. Peter despised the old man with his long yellow tooth that hung over his lower lip, and his dirty grey hair that strayed from under his greasy black velvet cap (like wisps of hay). Peter never cared anything for the words or the deeds of old Parlow.... But Frosted Moses! ... he had lived for ever, and people said that he could never die. Peter had heard that he had been in the Ark with Noah, and he had often wished to ask him questions about that interesting period, about Ham, Shem and Japheth, and about the animals. Of course, therefore, he knew everything about Life, and this remark of his about Courage was worth considering. Peter watched him very solemnly and noticed how his white beard shone in the fire-light, how there was a red handkerchief falling out of one enormous pocket, and how there was a big silver ring on one brown and bony finger ... and then the crowd of sailors at the door parted, and Stephen Brant came in.
Stephen Brant, the most wonderful person in the world! Always, through life, Peter must have his most wonderful person, and sometimes those Heroes knew of it and lived up to his worshipping and sometimes they knew of it and could not live up to it, but most frequently they never knew because Peter did not let them see. This Hero worship is at the back of a great deal that happened to Peter, of a great deal of his sorrow, and of all of his joy, and he would not have been Peter without it; very often these Heroes, poor things, came tumbling from their pedestals, often they came, in very shame, down of their own accord, and perhaps of them all Stephen only was worthy of his elevation, and he never knew that he was elevated.
He knew now, of course, that Peter loved him; but Peter was a little boy, and was taken by persons who were strong and liked a laugh and were kind in little ways. Stephen knew that when Peter grew older he must love other and wiser people. He was a very large man, six foot three and broad, with a brown beard, and grey eyes like Peter's. He had been a fisherman, but now he was a farmer, because it paid better—he had an old mother, one enemy, and very many friends; he had loved a girl, and she had been engaged to him for two years, but another man had taken her away and married her—and that is why he had an enemy. He greeted his friends and kissed poor Jane Clewer under the mistletoe, and then kissed old Mother Figgis, who pushed him away with a laugh and "Coom up there—where are yer at?"—and Peter watched him until his turn also should come. His legs were beating the wooden bars again with excitement, but he would not say anything. He saw Stephen as something very much larger and more stupendous than any one else in the room. There were men there bigger of body perhaps, and men who were richer—Stephen had only four cows on his farm and he never did much with his hay—but there was no one who could change a room simply by entering it as Stephen could.
At last the moment came—Stephen turned round—"Why, boy!"
Peter was glad that the rest of the room was busied once more with its talking, laughing, and drinking, and some old man (sitting on a table and his nose coming through the tobacco-smoke like a rat through a hole in the wall) had struck up a tune on a fiddle. Peter was glad, because no one watched them together. He liked to meet Stephen in private. He buried his small hand in the brown depths of Stephen's large one, and then as Stephen looked uncertainly round the room, he whispered: "Steve—my chair, and me sitting on you—please."
It was a piece of impertinence to call him "Steve," of course, and when other people were there it was "Mr. Brant," but in their own privacy it was their own affair. Peter slipped down from his chair, and Stephen sat down on it, and then Peter was lifted up and leant his head back somewhere against the middle button of Stephen's waistcoat, just where his heart was noisiest, and he could feel the hard outline of Stephen's enormous silver watch that his family had had, so Stephen said, for a hundred years. Now was the blissful time, the perfect moment. The rest of the world was busied with life—the window showed the dull and then suddenly shining flakes of snow, the lights and the limitless sea—the room showed the sanded floor, the crowd of fishermen drinking, their feet moving already to the tune of the fiddle, the fisher girls with their coloured shawls, the great, swinging smoky lamp, the huge fire, Dicky the fool, Mother Figgis, fat Sam the host, old Frosted Moses ... the gay romantic world—and these two in their corner, and Peter so happy that no beatings in the world could terrify.
"But, boy," says Stephen, bending down so that the end of his beard tickles Peter's neck, "what are yer doing here so late? Your father ...?"
"I'm going back to be beaten, of course."
"If yer go now perhaps yer won't be beaten so bad?"
"Oh, Steve! ... I'm staying ... like this ... always."
But Peter knew, in spite of the way that the big brown hand pressed his white one in sympathy, that Stephen was worried and that he was thinking of something. He knew, although he could not see, that Stephen's eyes were staring right across the room and that they were looking, in the way that they had, past walls and windows and streets—somewhere for something....
Peter knew a little about Stephen's trouble. He did not understand it altogether, but he had seen the change in Stephen, and he knew that he was often very sad, and that moods came upon him when he could do nothing but think and watch and wait—and then his face grew very grey and his eyes very hard, and his hands were clenched. Peter knew that Stephen had an enemy, and that one day he would meet him.
Some of the men and girls were dancing now in the middle of the room. The floor and the walls shook a little with the noise that the heavy boots of the fishermen made and the smoky lamp swung from side to side. The heat was great and some one opened the window and the snow came swirling, in little waves and eddies, in and out, blown by the breeze—dark and heavy outside against the clouded sky, white and delicate and swiftly vanishing in the room. Dicky the Fool came across the floor and talked to Stephen in his smiling, rambling way. People pitied Dicky and shook their heads when his name was mentioned, but Peter never could understand this because the Fool seemed always to be happy and cheerful, and he saw so many things that other people never saw at all. It was only when he was drunk that he was unhappy, and he was pleased with such very little things, and he told such wonderful stories.
Stephen was always kind to the Fool, and the Fool worshipped him, but to-night Peter saw that he was paying no heed to the Fool's talk. The Fool had a story about three stars that he had seen rolling down the Grey Hill, and behold, when they got to the bottom—"little bright nickety things, like new saxpennies—it was suddenly so dark that Dicky had to light his lantern and grope his way home with that, and all the frogs began croaking down in the marsh 'something terrible'—now what was the meaning of that?"
But Stephen was paying no attention. His eyes were set on the open window and the drifting snow. Men came in stamping their great boots on the floor and rubbing their hands together—the fiddle was playing more madly than ever—and at every moment some couple would stop under the mistletoe and the girl would scream and laugh, and the man's kiss could be heard all over the room; through the open window came the sound of church bells.
Stephen bent down and whispered in the boy's ear: "Yer'd best be going now, Peter, lad. 'Tis half-past nine and, chance, if yer go back now yer lickin' 'ull not be so bad."
But Peter whispered back: "Not yet, Stephen—a little while longer."
Peter was tremendously excited. He could never remember being quite so excited before. It was all very thrilling, of course, with the dancing and the music and the lights, but there was more than that in it. Stephen was so unlike himself, but then possibly Christmas made him sad, because he would be thinking of last Christmas and the happy time that he had had because his girl had been with him—but there was more than that in it. Then, suddenly, a curious thing happened to Peter. He was not asleep, he was not even drowsy—he was sitting with his eyes wide open, staring at the window. He saw the window with its dark frame, and he saw the snow .. and then, in an instant, the room, the people, the music, the tramping of feet, the roar of voices, these things were all swept away, and instead there was absolute stillness, only the noise that a little wind makes when it rustles through the blades of grass, and above him rose the Grey Hill with its funny sugar-loaf top and against it heavy black clouds were driving—outlined sharply against the sky was the straight stone pillar that stood in the summit of the Grey Hill and was called by the people the Giant's Finger. He could hear some sheep crying in the distance and the tinkling of their bells. Then suddenly the picture was swept away, and the room and the people and the dancing were before him and around him once more. He was not surprised by this—it had happened to him before at the most curious times, he had seen, in the same way, the Grey Hill and the Giant's Finger and he had felt the cold wind about his neck, and always something had happened.
"Stephen," he whispered, "Stephen—"
But Stephen's hand was crushing his hand like an iron glove, and Stephen's eyes were staring, like the eyes of a wild animal, at the door. A man, a short, square man with a muffler round his throat, and a little mouth and little ears, had come in and was standing by the door, looking round the room.
Stephen whispered gently in Peter's ear: "Run home, Peter boy," and he kissed him very softly on the cheek—then he put him down on the floor.
Stephen rose from his chair and stood for an instant staring at the door. Then he walked across the room, brushing the people aside, and tapped the little man with the muffler on the shoulder:
"Samuel Burstead," he said, "good evenin' to yer."
All the room seemed to cease moving and talking at the moment when Stephen Brant said that. They stood where they were like the people in the Sleeping Beauty, and Peter climbed up on to his chair again to see what was going to happen. He pulled up his stockings, and then sat forward in his chair with his eyes gazing at Stephen and his hands very tightly clenched. When, afterwards, he grew up and thought at all about his childhood, this scene always remained, over and beyond all the others. He wondered sometimes why it was that he remembered it all so clearly, that he had it so dramatically and forcibly before him, when many more recent happenings were clouded and dull, but when he was older he knew that it was because it stood for so much of his life, it was because that Christmas Eve in those dim days was really the beginning of everything, and in the later interpretation of it so much might be understood.
But, to a boy of that age, the things that stood out were not, of necessity, the right things and any unreality that it might have had was due perhaps to his fastening on the incidental, fantastic things that a small child notices, always more vividly than a grown person. In the very first instant of Stephen's speaking to the man with the muffler it was Dicky the Fool's open mouth and staring eyes that showed Peter how important it was. The Fool had risen from his chair and was standing leaning forward, his back black against the blazing fire, his silly mouth agape and great terror in his eyes. Being odd in his mind, he felt perhaps something in the air that the others did not feel, and Peter seemed to catch fright from his staring eyes.
The man at the door had turned round when Stephen Brant spoke to him, and had pushed his way out of the crowd of men and stood alone fingering his neck.
"I'm here, Stephen Brant, if yer want me."
Sam Figgis came forward then and said something to Stephen, and then shrugged his shoulders and went back to his wife. He seemed to feel that no one could interfere between the two men—it was too late for interference. Then things happened very quickly. Peter saw that they had all—men and women—crowded back against the benches and the wall and were watching, very silently and with great excitement. He found it very difficult to see, but he bent his head and peered through the legs of a big fisherman in front of him. He was shaking all over his body. Stephen had never before appeared so terrible to him; he had seen him when he was very angry and when he was cross and ill-tempered, but now he was very ominous in his quiet way, and his eyes seemed to have changed colour. The small boy could only see the middle of the floor and pieces of legs and skirts and trousers, but he knew by the feeling in the room that Stephen and the little man were going to fight. Then he moved his head round and saw between two shoulders, and he saw that the two men were stripping to the waist. The centre of the room was cleared, and Sam Figgis came forward to speak to Stephen again, and this time there was more noise, and the people began to shout out loud and the men grew more and more excited. There had often been fights in that room before, and Peter had witnessed one or two, but there had never been this solemnity and ceremony—every one was very grave. It did not occur to Peter that it was odd that it should be allowed; no one thought of policemen twenty years ago in Treliss and Sam Figgis was more of a monarch in The Bending Mule than Queen Victoria. And now two of the famous old chairs were placed at opposite corners, and quite silently two men, with serious faces, as though this were the most important hour of their life, stood behind them. Stephen and the other man, stripped to their short woollen drawers, came into the middle of the room. Stephen had hair all over his chest, and his arms and his neck were tremendous; and Peter as he looked at him thought that he must be the strongest man in the world. His enemy was smooth and shiny, but he seemed very strong, and you could see the muscles of his arms and legs move under his skin. Some one had marked a circle with chalk, and all the men and women, quite silent now, made a dark line along the wall. The lamp in the middle of the room was still swinging a little, and they had forgotten to close the window, so that the snow, which was falling more lightly now, came in little clouds with breaths of wind, into the room—and the bells were yet pealing and could be heard very plainly against the silence.
Then Sam Figgis, who was standing with his legs wide apart, said something that Peter could not catch, and a little sigh of excitement went up all round the room. Peter, who was clutching his chair with both hands, and choking, very painfully, in his throat, knew, although he had no reason for his knowledge, that the little man with the shining chest meant to kill Stephen if he could.
The two men moved round the circle very slowly with their fists clenched and their eyes watching every movement—then, suddenly, they closed. At once Peter saw that the little man was very clever, cleverer than Stephen. He moved with amazing quickness. Stephen's blows came like sledge-hammers, and sometimes they fell with a dull heavy sound on the other man's face and on his chest, but more often they missed altogether. The man seemed to be everywhere at once, and although the blows that he gave Stephen seemed to have little effect yet he got past the other's defence again and again.
Then, again, the figures in front of Peter closed in and he saw nothing. He stood on his chair—no one noticed him now—but he could not see. His face was very white, and his stockings had fallen down over his boots, but with every movement he was growing more afraid. He caught an instant's vision of Stephen's face, and he saw that it was white and that he was breathing hard. The room seemed to be ominously silent, and then men would break out into strange threatening sounds, and Peter could see one woman—a young girl—with a red shawl about her shoulders, her back against the wall, staring with a white face.
He could not see—he could not see....
He murmured once very politely—he thought he said it aloud but it was really under his breath: "Please, please—would you mind—if you stood aside—just a little...." but the man in front of him was absorbed and heard nothing. Then he knew that there was a pause, he caught a glimpse of the brick floor and he saw that Stephen was sitting back in his chair—his face was white, and blood was trickling out from the corner of his mouth on to his beard. Then Peter remembered old Frosted Moses' words: "The courage you bring to it...." and he sat back in his chair again and, with hands clenched, waited. He would be brave, braver than he had ever been before, and perhaps in some strange way his bravery would help Stephen. He determined with all the power that he had to be brave. They had begun again, he heard the sound of the blows, the movement of the men's feet on the rough brick of the floor; people cried out, the man in front of him pressed forward and he had a sudden view. Stephen was on one knee and his head was down and the other man was standing over him. It was all over—Stephen was beaten—Stephen would be killed, and in another minute Peter would have pushed past the people and run into the middle of the room, but Sam Figgis had again come forward, and the two men were in their chairs again. There followed another terrible time when Peter could see nothing. He waited—he could hear them moving again, the noise of their breathing and of their feet, the men in the crowd were pressing nearer, but there was no word spoken.
He must see—at all costs he must see. And he climbed down from his chair, and crept unnoticed towards the front. Nobody saw him or realised him.... Stephen was bending back, he seemed to be slowly sinking down. The other man, from whose face blood was now streaming, was pressing on to him. Peter knew that it was all over and that there was no hope; there was a dreadful cold, hard pain in his throat, and he could scarcely see. Courage! he must have it for Stephen. With every bit of his soul and his mind and his body he was brave. He stood taut—his little legs stiff beneath him and flung defiance at the world. He and Stephen were fighting that shiny man together—both of them—now. Courage! Stephen's head lifted a little, and then slowly Peter saw him pulling his body together—he grew rigid, he raised his head, and, as a tree falls, his fist crashed into his enemy's face. The man dropped without a word and lay motionless. It was over. Stephen gravely watched for a moment the senseless body and then sat back in his chair, his head bowed on his chest.
The fight had not, perhaps, been like that—there must have been many other things that happened, but that was always how Peter remembered it. And now there was confusion—a great deal of noise and people talking very loudly, but Stephen said nothing at all. He did not look at the body again, but when he had recovered a little, still without a word to any one and with his eyes grave and without expression, he moved to the corner where his clothes lay.
"'E's not dead."
"No—give 'im room there, he's moving," and from the back of the crowd the Fool's silly face, peering over...
Peter crept unnoticed to the door. The clocks were striking ten, and some one in the street was singing. He pulled up his stockings and fastened his garters, then he slipped out into the snow and saw that the sky was full of stars and that the storm had passed.
HOW THE WESTCOTT FAMILY SAT UP FOR PETER
The boy always reckoned that, walking one's quickest, it took half an hour from the door of The Bending Mule to Scaw House, where his father lived. If a person ran all the way twenty minutes would perhaps cover it, but, most of the time, the road went up hill and that made running difficult; he had certainly no intention of running to-night, there were too many things to think about. That meant, then, that he would arrive home about half-past ten, and there would be his aunt and his grandfather and his father sitting up waiting for him.
The world was very silent, and the snow lay on the round cobbles of the steep street with a bright shining whiteness against the black houses and the dark night sky. Treliss' principal street was deserted; all down the hill red lights showed in the windows and voices could be heard, singing and laughing, because on Christmas Eve there would be parties and merrymakings. Peter looked a tiny and rather desolate figure against the snow as he climbed the hill. There was a long way to go. There would be Green Street at the top, past the post office, then down again into the Square where the Tower was, then through winding turnings up the hill past the gates and dark trees of The Man at Arms, then past the old wall of the town and along the wide high road that runs above the sea until at last one struck the common, and, hidden in a black clump of trees (so black on a night like this), the grim grey stones of Scaw House.
Peter was not afraid of being alone, although when snow had fallen everything seemed strange and monstrous, the trees were like animals, and the paths of all the world were swept away. But he was not afraid of ghosts; he was too accustomed to their perpetual company; old Frosted Moses and Dicky, and even men like Stephen, had seen ghosts so often, and Peter himself could tell odd stories about the Grey Hill—no, ghosts held no terror. But, very slowly, the shadow of all that he must very soon go through was creeping about him. When he first came out of The Bending Mule he still was as though he were in a dream. Everything that had happened there that evening had been so strange, so amazing, that it belonged to the world of dreams—it was of the very stuff of them, and that vision of Stephen, naked, bleeding, so huge and so terrible, was not to be easily forgotten.
But, as he climbed the steep street, Peter knew that however great a dream that might be, there was to be no dreaming at all about his meeting with his father, and old Frosted Moses' philosophy would be very sadly needed. As he climbed the hill the reaction from the excitement of his late adventure suddenly made him very miserable indeed, so that he had an immediate impulse to cry, but he stood still in the middle of the street and made fists with his hands and called himself "a damned gawky idiot," words that he had admired in the mouth of Sam Figgis some days before. "Gawky" was certainly the last thing that he was, but it was a nice queer word, and it helped him a great deal.
The worst of everything was that he had had a number of beatings lately and the world could not possibly go on, as far as he was concerned, if he had many more. Every beating made matters worse and his own desperate attempts to be good and to merit rewards rather than chastisement met with no success. The hopeless fact of it all was that it had very little to do with his own actions; his father behaved in the same way to every one, and Mrs. Trussit, the housekeeper, old Curtis the gardener, Aunt Jessie, and all the servants, shook under his tongue and the cold glitter of his eyes, and certainly the maids would long ago have given notice and departed were it not that they were all afraid to face him. Peter knew that that was true, because Mrs. Trussit had told him so. It was this hopeless feeling of indiscriminate punishment that made everything so bad. Until he was eight years old Peter had not been beaten at all, but when he was very young indeed he had learnt to crawl away when he heard his father's step, and he had never cried as a baby because his nurse's white scared face had frightened him so. And then, of course, there was his mother, his poor mother—that was another reason for silence. He never saw his mother for more than a minute at a time because she was ill, had been ill for as long as he could remember. When he was younger he had been taken into his mother's room once or twice a week by Mrs. Trussit, and he had bent down and kissed that white tired face, and he had smelt the curious smell in the room of flowers and medicine, and he had heard his mother's voice, very far away and very soft, and he had crept out again. When he was older his aunt told him sometimes to go and see his mother, and he would creep in alone, but he never could say anything because of the whiteness of the room and the sense of something sacred like church froze his speech. He had never seen his father and mother together.
His mornings were always spent with old Parlow, and in the afternoon he was allowed to ramble about by himself, so that it was only at mealtimes and during the horrible half-hour after supper before he went up to bed that he saw his father.
He really saw more of old Curtis the gardener, but half an hour with his father could seem a very long time. Throughout the rest of his life that half-hour after supper remained at the back of his mind—and he never forgot its slightest detail. The hideous dining-room with the large photographs of old grandfather and grandmother Westcott in ill-fitting clothes and heavy gilt frames, the white marble clock on the mantelpiece, a clock that would tick solemnly for twenty minutes and then give a little run and a jump for no reason at all, the straight horsehair sofa so black and uncomfortable with its hard wooden back, the big dining-room table with its green cloth (faded a little in the middle where a pot with a fern in it always stood) and his aunt with her frizzy yellow hair, her black mittens and her long bony fingers playing her interminable Patience, and then two arm-chairs by the fire, in one of them old grandfather Westcott, almost invisible beneath a load of rugs and cushions and only the white hairs on the top of his head sticking out like some strange plant, and in the other chair his father, motionless, reading the Cornish Times—last of all, sitting up straight with his work in front of him, afraid to move, afraid to cough, sometimes with pins and needles, sometimes with a maddening impulse to sneeze, always with fascinated glances out of the corner of his eye at his father—Peter himself. How happy he was when the marble clock struck nine, and he was released! How snug and friendly his little attic bedroom was with its funny diamond-paned window under the shelving roof with all the view of the common and the distant hills that covered Truro! There, at any rate, he was free!
He was passing now through the Square, and he stopped for an instant and looked up at the old weather-beaten Tower that guarded one side of it, and looked so fine and stately now with the white snow at its foot and the gleaming sheet of stars at its back. That old Tower had stood a good number of beatings in its day—it knew well enough what courage was—and so Peter, as he turned up the hill, squared his shoulders and set his teeth. But in some way that he was too young to understand he felt that it was not the beating itself that frightened him most, but rather all the circumstances that attended it—it was even the dark house, the band of trees about it, that first dreadful moment when he would hear his knock echo through the passages, and then the patter of Mrs. Trussit's slippers as she came to open the door for him—then Mrs. Trussit's fat arm and the candle raised above her head, and "Oh, it's you, Mr. Peter," and then the opening of the dining-room door and "It's Master Peter, sir," and then that vision of the marble clock and his father's face behind the paper. These things were unfair and more than any one deserved. He had had beatings on several occasions when he had merited no punishment at all, but it did not make things any better that on this occasion he did deserve it; it only made that feeling inside his chest that everything was so hopeless that nothing whatever mattered, and that it was always more fun to be beaten for a sheep than a lamb, stronger than ever.
But the world—or at any rate the Scaw House portion of it—could not move in this same round eternally. Something would happen, and the vague, half-confessed intention that had been in his mind for some time now was a little more defined. One day, like his three companions, Tom Jones, Peregrine Pickle and David Copperfield, he would run into the world and seek his fortune, and then, afterwards, he would write his book of adventures as they had done. His heart beat at the thought, and he passed the high gates and dark trees of The Man at Arms with quick step and head high. He was growing old—twelve was an age—and there would soon be a time when beatings must no longer be endured. He shivered when he thought of what would happen then—the mere idea of defying his father sent shudders down his back, but he was twelve, he would soon be thirteen....
But this Scaw House, with its strange silence and distresses, was only half his life. There was the other existence that he had down in the town, out at Stephen's farm, wandering alone on the Grey Hill, roaming about along the beach and in amongst the caves, tramping out to The Hearty Cow, a little inn amongst the gorse, ten miles away, or looking for the lost church among the sand-dunes at Porthperran. All these things had nothing whatever to do with his father and old Parlow and his lessons—and it was undoubtedly this other sort of life that he would lead, with the gipsies and the tramps, when the time came for him to run away. He knew no other children of his own age, but he did not want them; he liked best to talk to old Curtis the gardener, to Dicky the Idiot, to Sam Figgis when that splendid person would permit it—and, of course, to Stephen.
He passed the old town wall and stepped out into the high road. Far below him was the sea, above him a sky scattered with shining stars and around him a white dim world. Turning a corner the road lay straight before him and to the right along the common was the black clump of trees that hid his home. He discovered that he was very tired, it had been a most exhausting day with old Parlow so cross in the morning and the scene in the inn at night—and now—!
His steps fell slower and slower as he passed along the road. One hot hand was clutching Parlow's note and in his throat there was a sharp pain that made it difficult to swallow, and his eyes were burning. Suppose he never went home at all! Supposing he went off to Stephen's farm!—it was a long way and he might lose his way in the snow, but his heart beat like a hammer when he thought of Stephen coming to the door and of the little spare room where Stephen put his guests to sleep. But no—Stephen would not want him to-night; he would be very tired and would rather be alone; and then there would be the morning, when it would be every bit as bad, and perhaps worse. But if he ran away altogether? ... He stopped in the middle of the road and thought about it—the noise of the sea came up to him like the march of men and with it the sick melancholy moan of the Bell Rock, but the rest of the world was holding its breath, so still it seemed. But whither should he run? He could not run so far away that his father could not find him—his father's arm stretched to everywhere in the world. And then it was cowardly to run away. Where was that courage of which he had been thinking so much? So he shook his little shoulders and pulled up those stockings again and turned up the little side road, usually so full of ruts and stones and now so level and white with the hard snow. Now that his mind was made up, he marched forward with unfaltering step and clanged the iron gates behind him so that they made a horrible noise, and stepped through the desolate garden up the gravel path.
The house looked black and grim, but there were lights behind the dining-room windows—it was there that they were sitting, of course.
As he stood on his toes to reach the knocker a shooting star flashed past above his head, and he could hear the bare branches of the trees knocking against one another in the wind that always seemed to be whistling round the house. The noise echoed terribly through the building, and then there was a silence that was even more terrible. He could fancy how his aunt would start and put down her Patience cards for a moment and look, in her scared way, at the window—he knew that his father would not move from behind his paper, and that there would be no other sound unless his grandfather awoke. He heard Mrs. Trussit's steps down the passage, then locks were turned, the great door swung slowly open, and he saw her, as he had pictured it, with a candle in her hand raised above her head, peering into the dark.
"Oh! it's you, Master Peter," and she stood aside, without another word, to let him in. He slipped past her, silently, into the hall and, after a second's pause, she followed him in, banging the hall door behind her. Then she opened the dining-room door announcing, grimly, "It's Master Peter come in, sir." The marble clock struck half-past ten as she spoke.
He stood just inside the door blinking a little at the sudden light and twisting his cloth cap round and round in his hands. He couldn't see anything at first, and he could not collect his thoughts. At last he said, in a very little voice:
"I've come back, father."
The lights settled before his eyes, and he saw them all exactly as he had thought they would be. His father had not looked up from his paper, and Peter could see the round bald patch on the top of his head. Aunt Jessie was talking to herself about her cards in a very agitated whisper—"Now it's the King I want—how provoking! Ah, there's the seven of spades, and the six and the five—oh dear! it's a club," and not looking up at all.
No one answered his remark, and the silence was broken by his grandfather waking up; a shrill piping voice came from out of the rugs. "Oh! dear, what a doze I've had! It must be eight o'clock! What a doze for an old man to have! on such a cold night too," and then fell asleep again immediately.
At last Peter spoke again in a voice that seemed to come from quite another person.
"Father—I've come back!"
His father very slowly put down his newspaper and looked at him as though he were conscious of him for the first time. When he spoke it was as though his voice came out of the ceiling or the floor because his face did not seem to move at all.
"Where have you been?"
"In the town, father."
He crossed the room and stood in front of the fire between his father and grandfather. He was tremendously conscious of the grim and dusty cactus plant that stood on a little table by the window.
"What have you been doing in the town?"
"I have been in The Bending Mule, father."
"Why did you not come home before?"
There was no answer.
"You knew that you ought to come home?"
"Yes, father. I have a letter for you from Mr. Parlow. He said that I was to tell you that I have done my sums very badly this week and that I gave Willie Daffoll a bleeding nose on Wednesday—"
"Yes—have you any excuse for these things?"
"Very well. You may go up to your room. I will come up to you there."
He crossed the room very slowly, closed the door softly behind him, and then climbed the dark stairs to his attic.
He went trembling up to his room, and the match-box shook in his hand as he lit his candle. It was only the very worst beatings that happened in his bedroom, his father's gloomy and solemn study serving as a background on more unimportant occasions. He could only remember two other beatings in the attics, and they had both been very bad ones. He closed his door and then stood in the middle of the room; the little diamond-paned window was open and the glittering of the myriad stars flung a light over his room and shone on the little bracket of books above his bed (a Bible, an "Arabian Nights," and tattered copies of "David Copperfield," "Vanity Fair," "Peregrine Pickle," "Tom Jones," and "Harry Lorrequer"), on the little washing stand, a chest of drawers, a cane-bottomed chair, and the little bed. There were no pictures on the walls because of the sloping roof, but there were two china vases on the mantelpiece, and they were painted a very bright blue with yellow flowers on them.
They had been given to Peter by Mrs. Flanders, the Rector's wife, who had rather a kind feeling for Peter, and would have been friendly to him had he allowed her. He took off his jacket and put it on again, he stood uncertainly in the middle of the floor, and wondered whether he ought to undress or no. There was no question about it now, he was horribly, dreadfully afraid. That wisdom of old Frosted Moses seemed a very long ago, and it was of very little use. If it had all happened at once after he had come in then he might have endured it, but this waiting and listening with the candle guttering was too much for him. His father was so very strong—he had Peter's figure and was not very tall and was very broad in the back; Peter had seen him once when he was stripped, and the thought of it always frightened him.
His face was white and his teeth would chatter although he bit his lips and his fingers shook as he undressed, and his stud slipped and he could not undo his braces—and always his ears were open for the sound of the step on the stairs.
At last he was in his night-shirt, and a very melancholy figure he looked as he stood shivering in the middle of the floor. It was not only that he was going to be beaten, it was also that he was so lonely. Stephen seemed so dreadfully far away and he had other things to think about; he wondered whether his mother in that strange white room ever thought of him, his teeth were chattering, so that his whole head shook, but he was afraid to get into bed because then he might go to sleep and it would be so frightening to be woken by his father.
The clock downstairs struck eleven, and he heard his father's footstep. The door opened, and his father came in holding in his hand the cane that Peter knew so well.
"Are you there?" the voice was very cold.
"Do you know that you ought to be home before six?"
"And that I dislike your going to The Bending Mule?"
"And that I insist on your doing your work for Mr. Parlow?"
"And that you are not to fight the other boys in the town?"
"Why do you disobey me like this?"
"I don't know. I try to be good."
"You are growing into an idle, wicked boy. You are a great trouble to your mother and myself."
"Yes, father. I want to be better."
Even now he could admire his father's strength, the bull-neck, the dark close-cropped hair, but he was cold, and the blood had come where he bit his lip—because he must not cry.
"You must learn obedience. Take off your nightshirt."
He took it off, and was a very small naked figure in the starlight, but his head was up now and he faced his father.
"Bend over the bed."
He bent over the bed, and the air from the window cut his naked back. He buried his head in the counterpane and fastened his teeth in it so that he should not cry out....
During the first three cuts he did not stir, then an intolerable pain seemed to move through his body—it was as though a knife were cutting his body in half. But it was more than that—there was terror with him now in the room; he heard that little singing noise that came through his father's lips—he knew that his father was smiling.
At the succeeding strokes his flesh quivered and shrank together and then opened again—the pain was intolerable; his teeth met through the coverlet and grated on one another; but before his eyes was the picture of Stephen slowly straightening himself before his enemy and then that swinging blow—he would not cry. He seemed to be sharing his punishment with Stephen, and they were marching, hand in hand, down a road lined with red-hot pokers.
His back was on fire, and his head was bursting and the soles of his feet were very, very cold.
Then he heard, from a long way away, his father's voice:
"Now you will not disobey me again."
The door closed. Very slowly he raised himself, but moving was torture; he put on his night-shirt and then quickly caught back a scream as it touched his back. He moved to the window and closed it, then he climbed very slowly on to his bed, and the tears that he had held back came, slowly at first, and then more rapidly, at last in torrents. It was not the pain, although that was bad, but it was the misery and the desolation and the great heaviness of a world that held out no hope, no comfort, but only a great cloud of unrelieved unhappiness.
At last, sick with crying, he fell asleep.
The first shadow of light was stealing across the white undulating common and creeping through the bare trees of the desolate garden when four dark figures, one tall, two fat, and one small, stole softly up the garden path. They halted beneath the windows of the house; the snow had ceased falling, and their breath rose in clouds above their heads. They danced a little in the snow and drove their hands together, and then the tall figure said:
"Now, Tom Prother, out with thy musick." One of the fat figures felt in his coat and produced four papers, and these were handed round.
"Bill, my son, it's for thee to lead off at thy brightest, mind ye. Let 'em have it praper."
The small figure came forward and began; at first his voice was thin and quavering, but in the second line it gathered courage and rang out full and bold:
As oi sat under a sicymore tree A sicymore tree, a sicymore tree, Oi looked me out upon the sea On Christ's Sunday at morn.
"Well for thee, lad," said the tall figure approvingly, "but the cold is creepin' from the tips o' my fingers till my singin' voice is most frozen. Now, altogether."
And the birds in the silent garden woke amongst the ivy on the distant wall and listened:
Oi saw three ships a-sailin' there— A sailin' there, a-sailin' there, Jesu, Mary, and Joseph they bare On Christ's Sunday at morn.
A small boy curled up, like the birds, under the roof stirred uneasily in his sleep and then slowly woke. He moved, and gave a little cry because his back hurt him, then he remembered everything. The voices came up to him from the garden:
Joseph did whistle and Mary did sing, Mary did sing, Mary did sing, And all the bells on earth did ring For joy our Lord was born.
O they sail'd in to Bethlehem, To Bethlehem, to Bethlehem; Saint Michael was the steersman, Saint John sate in the horn.
And all the bells on earth did ring, On earth did ring, on earth did ring; "Welcome be thou Heaven's King, On Christ's Sunday at morn."
He got slowly out of bed and went to the window. The light was coming in broad bands from the East and he could hear the birds in the ivy. The four black figures stood out against the white shadowy garden and their heads were bent together. He opened his window, and the fresh morning air swept about his face.
He could hear the whispers of the singers as they chose another carol and suddenly above the dark iron gates of the garden appeared the broad red face of the sun.
OF THE DARK SHOP OF ZACHARY TAN, AND OF THE DECISIONS THAT THE PEOPLE IN SCAW HOUSE CAME TO CONCERNING PETER
But it was of the nature of the whole of life that these things should pass. "Look back on this bitterness a year hence and see how trivial it seems" was one of the little wisdoms that helped Peter's courage in after years. And to a boy of twelve years a beating is forgotten with amazing quickness, especially if it is a week of holiday and there have been other beatings not so very long before.
It left things behind it, of course. It was the worst beating that Peter had ever had, and that was something, but its occurrence marked more than a mere crescendo of pain, and that evening stood for some new resolution that he did not rightly understand yet—something that was in its beginning the mere planting of a seed. But he had certainly met the affair in a new way and, although in the week that followed he saw his father very seldom and spoke to him not at all beyond "Good morning" and "Good night," he fancied that he was in greater favour with him than he had ever been before.
There were always days of silence after a beating, and that was more markedly the case now when it was a week of holidays and no Parlow to go to. Peter did not mind the silence—it was perhaps safer—and so long as he was home by six o'clock he could spend the day where he pleased. He asked Mrs. Trussit about the carol-singers. There was a little room, the housekeeper's room, to which he crept when he thought that it was safe to do so. She was a different Mrs. Trussit within the boundary of her kingdom—a very cosy kingdom with pink wall-paper, a dark red sofa, a canary in a cage, and a fire very lively in the grate. From the depths of a big arm-chair, her black silk dress rustling a little every now and then, her knitting needles clinking in the firelight, Mrs. Trussit held many conversations in a subdued voice with Peter, who sat on the table and swung his legs. She was valuable from two points of view—as an Historian and an Encyclopaedia. She had been, in the first place, in the most wonderful houses—The Earl of Twinkerton's, Bambary House, Wiltshire, was the greatest of these, and she had been there for ten years; there were also Lady Mettlesham, the Duchess of Cranburn, and, to Peter, the most interesting of all, Mr. Henry Galleon, the famous novelist who was so famous that American ladies used to creep into his garden and pick leaves off his laurels.
Peter had from her a dazzling picture of wonderful houses—of staircases and garden walks, of thousands and thousands of shining rooms, of family portraits, and footmen with beautiful legs. Above it all was "my lady" who was always beautiful and stately and, of course, devoted to Mrs. Trussit. Why that good woman left these noble mansions for so dreary a place as Scaw House Peter never could understand, and for many years that remained a mystery to him—but in awed whispers he asked her questions about the lords and ladies of the land and especially about the famous novelist and, from the answers given to him, constructed a complete and most romantic picture of the Peerage.
But, as an Encyclopaedia, Mrs. Trussit was even more interesting. She had apparently discovered at an early age that the golden rule of life was never to confess yourself defeated by any question whatever, and there was therefore nothing that he could ask her for which she had not an immediate answer ready. Her brow was always unruffled, her black shining hair brushed neatly back and parted down the middle, her large flat face always composed and placid, and her voice never raised above a whisper. The only sign that she ever gave of disturbance was a little clucking noise that she made in her mouth like an aroused hen. Peter's time in the little pink sitting-room was sometimes exceedingly short and he used to make the most of it by shooting questions at the good lady at an astonishing rate, and he was sometimes irritated by her slow and placid replies:
"What kind of stockings did Mr. Galleon wear?"
"He didn't wear stockings unless, as you might say, in country attire, and then, if I remember correctly, they were grey."
"Had he any children?"
"There was one little dear when I had the honour of being in the house—and since then I have heard that there are two more."
"Mrs. Trussit, where do children come from?"
"They are brought by God's good angels when we are all asleep in the night time."
"Oh!" (this rather doubtfully). A pause—then "Did the Earl of Twinkerton have hot or cold baths?"
"Cold in the morning, I believe, with the chill off and hot at night before dressing for dinner. He was a very cleanly gentleman."
"Mrs. Trussit, where is Patagonia? It came in the history this morning."
"North of the Caribbean Sea, I believe, my dear."
And so on, and Peter never forgot any of her answers. About the carol-singers she was a little irritable. They had woken her it seemed from a very delightful sleep, and she considered the whole affair "savoured of Paganism." And then Peter found suddenly that he didn't wish to talk about the carol-singers at all because the things that he felt about them were, in some curious way, not the things that he could say to Mrs. Trussit.
She was very kind to him during that Christmas week and gave him mixed biscuits out of a brightly shining tin that she kept in a cupboard in her room. But outside the gates of her citadel she was a very different person, spoke to Peter but rarely, and then always with majesty and from a long way away. Her attitude to the little maid-of-all-work was something very wonderful indeed, and even to Aunt Jessie her tone might be considered patronising.
But indeed to Aunt Jessie it was very difficult to be anything else. Aunt Jessie was a poor creature, as Peter discovered very early in life. He found that she never had any answers ready to the questions that he asked her and that she hesitated when he wished to know whether he might do a thing or no. She was always trembling and shaking, and no strong-minded person ever wore mittens. He had a great contempt for his aunt....
On New Year's Eve, the last day but one of release from old Parlow, Mr. Westcott spent the day doing business in Truro, and at once the atmosphere over Scaw House seemed to lighten. The snow had melted away, and there was a ridiculous feeling of spring in the air; ridiculous because it was still December, but Cornwall is often surprisingly warm in the heart of winter, and the sun was shining as ardently as though it were the middle of June. The sunlight flooded the dining-room and roused old grandfather Westcott to unwonted life, so that he stirred in his chair and was quite unusually talkative.
He stopped Peter after breakfast, as he was going out of the room and called him to his side:
"Is that the sun, boy?"
"Deary me, to think of that and me a poor, broken, old man not able to move an arm or foot."
He raised himself amongst his cushions, and Peter saw an old yellow wrinkled face with the skin drawn tight over the cheekbones and little black shining eyes like drops of ink. A wrinkled claw shot out and clutched Peter's hand.
"Do you love your grandfather, boy?"
"Of course, grandfather."
"That's right, that's right—on a nice sunny morning, too. Do you love your father, boy?"
"Of course, grandfather."
"He, he—oh, yes—all the Westcotts love their fathers. He loved his father when he was young, didn't he? Oh, yes, I should rather think so."
And his voice rose into a shrill scream so that Peter jumped. Then he began to look Peter up and down.
"You'll be strong, boy, when you're a man—oh, yes, I should rather think so—I was strong once.... Do you hear that?... I was strong once, he, he!"
And here grandfather Westcott, overcome by his chuckling, began to cough so badly that Peter was afraid that he was going to be ill, and considered running for Aunt Jessie.
"Hit my back, boy—huh, huh! Ugh, ugh! That's right, hit it hard—that's better—ugh, ugh! Oh! deary me! that's better—what a nasty cough, oh, deary me, what a nasty cough! I was strong once, boy, hegh, hegh! Indeed I was, just like your father—and he'll be just like me, one day! Oh! yes, he will—blast his bones! He, he! We all come to it—all of us strong men, and we're cruel and hard, and won't give a poor old man enough for his breakfast—and then suddenly we're old ourselves, and what fun that is! Oh! Yes, your father will be old one day!" and suddenly, delighted with the thought, the old man slipped down beneath his cushions and was fast asleep.
And Peter went out into the sunlight.
Peter looked very different at different times. When he was happy his cheeks were flooded with colour, his eyes shone, and his mouth smiled. He was happy now, and he forgot as he came out into the garden that he had promised his aunt that he would go in and see his mother for a few minutes. Old Curtis, wearing the enormous sun-hat that he always had flapping about his head and his trousers tied below his knees with string in the most ridiculous way, was sweeping the garden path. He never did very much work, and the garden was in a shocking state of neglect, but he told delightful stories. To-day, however, he was in a bad temper and would pay no attention to Peter at all, and so Peter left him and went out into the high road.
It was two miles across the common to Stephen's farm and it took the boy nearly an hour, because the ground was uneven and there were walls to climb, and also because he was thinking of what his grandfather had said. Would his father one day be old and silly like his grandfather? Did every one get old and silly like that? and, if so, what was the use of being born at all? But what happened to all his father's strength? Where did it all go to? In some curious undefined way he resented his grandfather's remarks. He could have loved and admired his father immensely had he been allowed to, but even if that were not permitted he could stand up for him when he was attacked. What right had his silly old grandfather to talk like that?... His father would one day be old? And Stephen, would he be old, too? Did all strength go?
Peter was crossing a ploughed field, and the rich brown earth heaved in a great circle against the sky and in the depth of its furrows there were mysterious velvet shadows—the brown hedges stood back against the sky line. The world was so fresh and clean and strong this morning that the figure and voice of his grandfather hung unpleasantly about him and depressed him. There were so many things that he wanted to know and so few people to tell him, and he turned through the white gates of Stephen's farm with a consciousness that since Christmas Eve the world had begun to be a new place.
Stephen was sitting in the upstairs room scratching his head over his accounts, whilst his old mother sat dozing, with her knitting fallen on to her lap by the fire. The window was open, and all the sound and smells of the farm came into the room. The room was an old one with brown oaken rafters and whitewashed walls, a long oaken table down the middle of it, and a view over the farmyard and the sweeping fields beyond it, lost at last, in the distant purple hills. Peter was given a chair opposite the old lady, who was nearly eighty, and wore a beautiful white cap, and she woke up and talked incessantly, because she was very garrulous by nature and didn't care in the least to whom she talked. Peter politely listened to what she had to say, although he understood little of it, and his eyes were watching for the moment when the accounts should be finished and Stephen free.
"Ay," said the old lady, "and it were good Mr. Tenement were the rector in those days, I remember, and he gave us a roaring discourse many's the Sunday. Church is not what it was, with all this singing and what not and the clothes the young women wear—I remember..."
But Stephen had closed his books with a bang and given his figures up in despair. "I don't know how it is, boy," he said, "but they're at something different every time yer look at 'em—they're one too many for me, that's certain."
One of Stephen's eyes was still nearly closed, and both eyes were black and blue, and his right cheek had a bad bruise on it, but Peter thought it was wiser not to allude to the encounter. The farm was exceedingly interesting, and then there was dinner, and it was not until the meal had been cleared away that Peter remembered that he wanted to ask some questions, and then Stephen interrupted him with:
"Like to go to Zachary Tan's with me this afternoon, boy? I've got to be lookin' in."
Peter jumped to his feet with excitement.
"Oh! Steve! This afternoon—this very afternoon?"
It was the most exciting thing possible. Zachary Tan's was the curiosity shop of Treliss and famous even twenty years ago throughout the south country. It is still there, I believe, although Zachary himself is dead and with him has departed most of the atmosphere of the place, and it is now smart and prosperous, although in those days it was dark and dingy enough. No one knew whence Zachary had come, and he was one of the mysteries of a place that deals, even now, in mysteries. He had arrived as a young man with a basket over his back thirty years before Peter saw the light, when Treliss was a little fishing village and Mr. Bannister, Junior, had not cast his enterprising eye over The Man at Arms. Zachary had beads and silks, and little silver images in his basket, and he had stayed there in a little room over the shop, and things had prospered with him. The inhabitants of the place had never trusted him, but they were always interested. "Thiccy Zachary be a poor trade," they had said at first, "poor trade" signifying anything or anybody not entirely approved of—but they had hung about his shop, had bought his silks and little ornaments, and had talked to him sometimes with eyes open and mouth agape at the things that he could tell them. And then people had come from Truro and Pendragon and even Bodmin and, finally, Exeter, because they had heard of the things that he had for sale. No one knew where he found his treasures, for he was always in his shop, smiling and amiable, but sometimes gentlemen would come from London, and he had strange friends like Mr. Andreas Morelli, concerning whose life a book has already been written. Zachary Tan's shop became at last the word in Treliss for all that was strange and unusual—the strongest link with London and other curious places. He had a little back room behind his shop, where he would welcome his friends, give them something to drink and talk about the world. He was always so friendly that people thought that he must wish for things in return, but he never asked for anything, nor did he speak about himself at all. As for his portrait, he had a pale face, a big beak nose, very black hair that hung over his forehead and was always untidy, a blue velvet jacket, black trousers, green slippers, and small feet.
He also wore two rings and blew his long nose in silk handkerchiefs of the most wonderful colours. All these things may seem of the slenderest importance, but they are not insignificant if one considers their effect upon Peter. Zachary was the most romantic figure that he had yet encountered; to walk through the shop with its gold and its silver, its dust and its jewels, into the dark little room beyond; to hear this wonderful person talk, to meet men who lived in London, to listen by the light of flickering candles and with one's eyes fixed upon portraits of ladies dancing in the slenderest attire, this was indeed Life, and Life such as The Bending Mule, Scaw House, and even Stephen's farm itself could not offer.
Peter often wondered why Stephen and Zachary were friends, because they seemed to have little enough in common, but Stephen was a silent man, who liked all kinds of company, and Peter noticed that Zachary was always very polite and obliging to Stephen.
Stephen was very silent going across the Common and down the high road into the town, but Peter knew him too well by this time to interrupt his thoughts. He was thinking perhaps about his accounts that would not come right or about the fight and Burstead his enemy.
Everybody had their troubles that they thought about and every one had their secrets, the things that they kept to themselves—even Aunt Jessie and old Curtis the gardener—one must either be as clever as Zachary Tan or as foolish as Dicky the Idiot to know very much about people. Zachary, Peter had noticed, was one of the persons who always listened to everything that Dicky had to say, and treated him with the greatest seriousness, even when he seemed to be talking about the wildest things—and it was a great many years after this that Peter discovered that it was only the wisest people who knew how very important fools were. Zachary's shop was at the very bottom of Poppero Street, the steep and cobbled street that goes straight down to the little wooden jetty where the fishing boats lie, and you could see the sea like a square handkerchief between the houses on either side. Many of the houses in Poppero Street are built a little below the level of the pathway, and you must go down steps to reach the door. Zachary's shop was like this, and it had a green door with a bright brass knocker. There were always many things jumbled together in the window—candlesticks, china shepherds and shepherdesses, rings and necklaces, cups and saucers, little brass figures, coins, snuff-boxes, match-boxes, charms, and old blue china plates, and at the back a complete suit of armour that had been there ever since Zachary had first opened his shop.
Of course, inside there were a thousand and one things of the most exciting kind, but Stephen, an enormous figure in the low-roofed shop, brushed past the pale-faced youth whom Zachary now hired to assist with the customers and passed into the dark room beyond, Peter close at his heels.
There were two silver candlesticks lighted on the mantelpiece, and there were two more in the centre of the green baize table and round the fire were seated four men. One of them Zachary himself, another was pleasant little Mr. Bannister, host of The Man at Arms, another was old Frosted Moses, sucking as usual at his great pipe, and the fourth was a stranger.
Zachary rose and came forward smiling. "Ah, Mr. Brant, delighted to see you, I'm sure. Brought the boy with you? Excellent, excellent. Mr. Bannister and Mr. Tathero (old Moses' society name) you know, of course; this is Mr. Emilio Zanti, a friend of mine from London."
The stranger, who was an enormous fat man with a bald head and an eager smile rose and shook hands with Stephen, he also shook hands with Peter as though it had been the ambition of his life to meet that small and rather defiant person.
He also embarrassed Peter very much by addressing him as though he were grown up, and listening courteously to everything that he had to say. Peter decided that he did not like him—but "a gentleman from London" was always an exciting introduction. The boy was able very quickly to obliterate himself by sitting down somewhere in a corner and remaining absolutely silent and perhaps that was the reason that he was admitted to so many elderly gatherings—he was never in the way. He slipped quickly into a chair, hidden in the shadow of the wall, but close to the elbow of "the gentleman from London," whose face he watched with the greatest curiosity. Stephen was silent, and Frosted Moses very rarely said anything at all, so that the conversation speedily became a dialogue between Zachary and the foreign gentleman, with occasional appeals to Mr. Brant for his unbiassed opinion. Peter's whole memory of the incident was vague and uncertain, although in after years he often tried very hard to recall it all to mind. He was excited by the mere atmosphere of the place, by the silver candlesticks, the dancing ladies on the walls, Zachary's blue coat, and the sense of all the wonderful things in the shop beyond. He had no instinct that it was all important beyond the knowledge that it roused a great many things in him that the rest of his life left untouched and anything to do with "London," a city, as he knew from Tom Jones and David Copperfield, of extraordinary excitement and adventure, was an event. He watched Mr. Emilio Zanti closely, and he decided that his smile was not real, and that it must be very unpleasant to have a bald head. He also noticed that he said things in a funny way: like "ze beautiful country zat you 'ave 'ere with its sea and its woods" and "I 'ave the greatest re-spect for ze Englishman"—also his hands were very fat and he wore rings like Zachary.
Sometimes Peter fancied that his words meant a great deal more than they seemed to mean. He laughed when there was really nothing to laugh at and he tried to make Stephen talk, but Stephen was very silent. On the whole the conversation was dull, Peter thought, and once he nodded and was very nearly asleep, and fancied that the gentleman from London was spreading like a balloon and filling all the room. There was no mention of London at all.
Peter wondered for what purpose Stephen had come there, because he sat looking at the fire with his brown hands spread out over his great knees, thinking apparently all his own thoughts.
Then suddenly there came a moment. The London gentleman, Mr. Emilio Zanti, turned round quite quickly and said, like a shot out of a gun: "And what does our little friend think of it?"
Peter did not know to what he was referring, and looked embarrassed. He was also conscious that Zachary was watching him keenly.
"Ah, 'e does not understand, our little friend. But with life, what is it that you will do when you are grown up, my boy?" and he put his fat hand on Peter's knee. Peter disliked him more than ever, but he answered:
"I don't know—I haven't settled yet."
"Ah, it is early days," said Mr. Zanti, nodding his head, "there is much time, of course. But what is the thing that our little friend would care, most of all, to do?"
"To go to school," said Peter, without any hesitation, and both Zachary and Mr. Zanti laughed a great deal more than was in the least necessary.
"And then—afterwards?" said Mr. Zanti.
"To go to London," said Peter, stiffly, feeling in some undefined way that they were laughing at him and that something was going on that he did not understand.
"Ho! that is good," said Mr. Emilio, slapping his knees and rocking in his chair with merriment. "Ho! that is very good. He knows a thing or two, our young friend here. Ho, yes! don't you mistake!" For a little while he could not speak for laughing, and the tears rolled down his fat cheeks. "And what is it that you will do when you are there, my friend?" he said at last.
"I will have adventures," said Peter, growing a little bolder at the thought of London and its golden streets. And then, suddenly, when he heard this, curious Mr. Zanti grew very grave indeed, and his eyes were very large, and he put a finger mysteriously to his nose. Then he leant right over Peter and almost whispered in his ear.
"And you shall—of course you shall. You shall come to London and 'ave adventures—'eaps and 'eaps and 'eaps. Oh, yes, bless my soul, shan't he, Mr. Tan? Dear me, yes—London, my young friend, is the most wonderful place. In one week, if you are clever, you 'ave made thousands of pounds—thousands and thousands. Is it not so, Mr. Tan? When you are just a little bit older, a few years—then you shall come. And you ask for your friend, Mr. Emilio Zanti—because I like you. We will be friends, is not that so?"
And he held out his large fat hand and grasped Peter's small and rather damp one. Then he bent even closer, still holding Peter's hand: "Do you know one thing?" he whispered.
"No," replied Peter, husky with awe.
"It is this, that when you think of Mr. Zanti and of London and of adventures, you will look in a looking-glass—any looking-glass, and you will see—what you will see," and he nodded all over his fat face.
Peter was entirely overcome by this last astonishing statement, and was very relieved to hear numbers of clocks in the curiosity shop strike five o'clock. He got off his chair, said good-bye very politely indeed, and hurried up the dark street.
For the moment even his beloved Stephen was forgotten, and looking-glasses, the face of Mr. Emilio Zanti, London streets, and Zachary's silver candlesticks were mingled confusedly in his brain.
And indeed throughout the dreary supper Peter's brain was in a whirl. It often happened that supper passed without a word of conversation from first to last. His father very rarely said anything, Peter never said anything at all, and if Aunt Jessie did venture on a little conversation she received so slender an encouragement that she always forsook the attempt after a very short time. It was a miserable meal.
It was cold beef and beetroot and blanc-mange with a very, very little strawberry jam round the edges of the glass dish, and there was a hard red cheese and little stiff woolly biscuits.
But old grandfather Westcott was always hungry, and his querulous complaints were as regular an accompaniment to the evening meal as the ticking of the marble clock. But his beef had to be cut up for him into very tiny pieces and that gave Aunt Jessie a great deal of work, so that his appeals for a second helping were considered abominable selfishness.
"Oh, my dear, just a leetle piece of beef" (this from the very heart of the cushions). "Just the leetlest piece of beef for a poor old man—such a leetle piece he had, and he's had such a hunger." No answer to this and at last a strange noise from the cushions like the sound of dogs quarrelling. At last again, "Oh, just the leetlest piece of beef for a poor old man—" and then whimpering and "poor old man" repeated at intervals that lengthened gradually into sleep.
At last the meal was over, the things had been cleared away, and Peter was bending over a sum in preparation for lessons on Monday. Such a sum—add this and this and this and this and then divide it by that and multiply the result by this!... and the figures (bad ill-written figures) crept over the page and there were smudgy finger marks, and always between every other line "London, looking-glasses, and fat Mr. Zanti laughing until the tears ran down his face." Such a strange world where all these things could be so curiously confused, all of them, one supposed, having their purpose and meaning—even grandfather—and even 2469 X 2312 X 6201, and ever so many more until they ran races round the page and up and down and in and out.
And then suddenly into the middle of the silence his father's voice:
"What are you doing there?"
"Sums, father—for Monday."
"You won't go back on Monday" (and this without the Cornish Times moving an inch).
"Not go back?"
"No. You are going away to school—to Devonshire—on Tuesday week."
And Peter's pencil fell clattering on to the paper, and the answer to that sum is still an open question.
IN WHICH "DAWSON'S," AS THE GATE OF LIFE, IS PROVED A DISAPPOINTMENT
It was, of course, very strange that this should come so swiftly after the meeting with the London gentleman—it was almost as though he had known about it, because it was a first step towards that London that he had so confidently promised. To Peter school meant the immediate supply of the two things that he wanted more than anything in the world—Friendship and Knowledge; not knowledge of the tiresome kind, Knowledge that had to do with the Kings of Israel and the capital of Italy, but rather the experience that other gentlemen of his own age had already gathered during their journey through the world. Stephen, Zachary, Moses, Dicky, Mrs. Trussit, old Curtis, even Aunt Jessie—all these people had knowledge, of course, but they would not give it you—they would not talk to you as though they were at your stage of the journey, they could not exchange opinions with you, they could not share in your wild surmises, they could not sympathise with your hatred of addition, multiplication, and subtraction. The fellow victims at old Parlow's might have been expected to do these things, but they were too young, too uninterested, too unenterprising. One wanted real boys—boys with excitement and sympathy... real boys.
He had wanted it, far, far more terribly than any one had known. He had sat, sometimes, in the dark, in his bedroom, and thought about it until he had very nearly cried, because he wanted it so badly, and now it had suddenly come out of the clouds... bang!
That last week went with a rattling speed and provided a number of most interesting situations. In the first place there was the joy—a simple but delightful one—on Monday morning, of thinking of those "others" who were entering, with laggard foot, into old Parlow's study—that study with the shining map of Europe on the wall, a bust of Julius Caesar (conquered Britain? B.C.), and the worn red carpet. They would all be there. They would wonder where he was, and on discovering that he would never come again, Willie Daffoll, of recent tragic memory, would be pleased because now he would be chief and leader. Well, let him!... Yes, that was all very pleasant to think of.
There was further the thought that school might not, after all, be exactly what Peter imagined it. The pictures in his mind were evolved from his reading of "David Copperfield." There would be people like Steerforth and dear Traddles, there would be a master who played the flute, there would be rebellions and riots—would there?
Mrs. Trussit was of little value on this occasion:
"Mrs. Trussit, were you ever at school?"
"No, Master Peter, I was never at school. My good mother, who died at the ripe old age of ninety-two with all her faculties, gave me a liberal and handsome education with her own hands."
"Do you think it will be like 'David Copperfield'?"
Mrs. Trussit was ignorant of the work in question. "Of course, Master Peter. How can you ask such a thing? They are all like that, I believe. But, there, run away now. It's time for me to be looking after your mother's supper," &c. &c.
Mrs. Trussit obviously knew nothing whatever about it, although Peter heard her once murmuring "Poor lamb" as she gave him mixed biscuits out of her tin.
Stephen also was of little use, and he didn't seem especially glad when he heard about it.
"And it's a good school, do you think?" he said.
"Of course," said Peter valiantly, "one of the very best. It's in Devonshire, and I leave by the eight o'clock train" (this very importantly).
The fact of the matter was that Peter was so greatly excited by it all that abandoning even Stephen was a minor sorrow. It was a dreadful pity of course, but Peter intended to write most wonderful letters, and there would be the joyful meeting when the holidays came round, and he would be a more sensible person for Stephen to have for a friend after he'd seen the world.
"Dear Stephen—I shall write every week—every Friday I expect. That will be a good day to choose."
"Yes—that'll be a good day. Well, 'ere's the end of yer as yer are. It'll be another Peter coming back, maybe. Up along they'll change yer."
"But never me and you, Steve. I shall love you always."
The man seized him almost fiercely by the shoulders and looked him in the face. "Promise me that, boy," he said, "promise me that. Yer most all I've got now. But I'm a fool to ask yer—of course yer'll change. I'm an ignorant fool."
They were standing in the middle of one of Stephen's brown ploughed fields, and the cold, sharp day was drawing to a close as the mist stole up from the ground and the dim sun sank behind the hedgerows.
Peter in the school years that followed always had this picture of Stephen standing in the middle of his field—Stephen's rough, red brown clothes, his beard that curled a little, his brown corduroys that smelt of sheep and hay, the shining brass buttons of his coat, his broad back and large brown hands, his mild blue eyes and nose suddenly square at the end where it ought to have been round—this Stephen Brant raised from the very heart of the land, something as strong and primitive as the oaks and corn and running stream that made his background.
Stephen suddenly caught up Peter and kissed him so that the boy cried out. Then he turned abruptly and left him, and Peter did not see him again.
He said his farewells to the town, tenderly and gravely—the cobbled streets, the dear market-place, and the Tower, The Bending Mule (here there were farewells to be said to Mr. and Mrs. Figgis and old Moses); the wooden jetty, and the fishing-boats—then the beach and the caves and the sea....
Last of all, the Grey Hill. Peter climbed it on the last afternoon of all. He was quite alone, and the world was very still; he could not hear the sea at all. At last he was at the top and leant his back against the Giant's Finger. Looking round there are the hills that guard Truro, there are the woods where the rabbits are, there is the sea, and a wonderful view of Treliss rising into a peak which is The Man at Arms—and the smoke of the town mingled with the grey uncertain clouds, and the clouds mingled with the sea, and the only certain and assured thing was the strength of the Giant's Finger. That at least he could feel cold and hard against his hands. He felt curiously solemn and grave, and even a little tearful—and he stole down, through the dusk, softly as though his finger were on his lips.
And then after this a multitude of hurrying sensations with their climax in a very, very early morning, when one dressed with a candle, when one's box was corded and one's attic looked strangely bare, when there was a surprising amount to eat at breakfast, when one stole downstairs softly. He had said good-bye to his mother on the previous evening, and she had kissed him, and he had felt uncomfortable and shy.
Then there were Mrs. Trussit and his aunt to see him off, there was a cab and, most wonderful of all, there was his father coming in the cab. That was a dreadful thing and the journey to the station seemed endless because of it. His father was perfectly silent, and any thrill that Peter might have snatched from the engines, the porters, the whistles, and his own especial carriage were negatived by this paralysing occurrence. He would have liked to have said something himself, but he could only think of things that were quite impossible like "How funny Mrs. Trussit's nose is early in the morning," "I wonder what old Parlow's doing."
It was terrible.
He was in his carriage—they were hurrying, every one was hurrying.
His father suddenly spoke.
"The guard will see to you. You change at Exeter. Your aunt has given you sandwiches." A little pause, and then: "You've got pluck. You stood that beating well." Then the stern face passed, and the grave awful figure faded slowly down the platform.
Peter felt suddenly, utterly, completely miserable, and alone. Two tears rolled slowly down his cheeks. He blew his nose, and the train started.
And so this first run into liberty begins with tears and a choke in the throat and a sudden panting desire to be back in the dark passages of Scaw House. Nor did the fleeting swiftness of the new country please him. Suddenly one was leaving behind all those known paths and views, so dimly commonplace in the having of them, so rosily romantic in the tragic wanting of them!
How curious that Mrs. Trussit, his aunt, and his father should appear now pathetically affectionate in their farewells of him! They were not—to that he could swear—and yet back he would run did Honour and Destiny allow him. Above all, how he would have run now to Stephen.
He felt like a sharp wound the horrible selfishness and indifference of his parting when Stephen's beard had been pressed so roughly against his face that it had hurt him—and he had had nothing to say. He would write that very night if They—the unknown Gods to whose kingdom he journeyed—would allow him. This comforted him a little and the spirit of adventure stirred in him anew. He wiped his eyes for the last time with the crumpled ball of his handkerchief, sniffed three times defiantly, and settled to a summary of the passing country, cows, and hills and hedges, presently the pleasing bustle of Truro station, and then again the cows and hills and hedges. On parting from Cornwall he discovered a new sensation, and was surprised that he should feel it. He did not know, as a definite fact, the exact moment when that merging of Cornwall into Devon came, and yet, strangely in his spirit, he was conscious of it. Now he was in a foreign country, and it was almost as though his own land had cast him out so that the sharp appealing farewell to the Grey Hill, Treliss, and the sea was even more poignant than his farewell to his friends had been. Once more, at the thought of all the ways that he loved Cornwall, the choking sob was in his throat and the hot tears were in his eyes, and his hands were clenched. And then he remembered that London was not in Cornwall, and if he were ever going to get there at all he must not mind this parting.
"What the devil are you crying about?" came suddenly from the other side of the carriage. He looked up, and saw that there was an old gentleman sitting in the opposite corner. He had a red fat face and beautiful white hair.
"I'm not crying," said Peter, rather defiantly.
"Oh! yes, you are—or you were. Supposing you share my lunch and see whether that will make things any better."
"Thank you very much, but I have some sandwiches," said Peter, feeling for the paper packet and finding it.
"Well, supposing you come over here and eat yours with me. And if you could manage to help me with any of mine I should be greatly indebted. I can't bear having my meals alone, you know."
How can one possibly resist it when the Olympians come down so amiably from their heights and offer us their hospitality? Moreover the Old Gentleman had, from his bag, produced the most wonderfully shaped parcels. There was certainly a meal, and Aunt Jessie's sandwiches would assuredly be thick and probably no mustard!
So Peter slipped across and sat next to the Old Gentleman, and even shared a rug. He ultimately shared a great many other things, like chicken and tongue, apples and pears and plum cake.