E-text prepared by Al Haines
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 slept.
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 son's happiness.
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 terror.
"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 feast.
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 together.
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 denunciation.
"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 said.
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 naughty children.
"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 with joy.
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 fighting again.
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 Stonehouse scowl.
"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 downstairs."
"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 her."
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 knew.
"You t-t-tied me up jolly well," he said. "It's comfy now. It was aching hard."
"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 swagger.
"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 voice.
"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 once.
"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 them."
"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 dining-room.
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 and resolute.
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 do——"
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 fists, shrieking:
"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, face downwards.
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 again.
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, undignified interference——"
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 fear.
"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 comforted.
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 dusk.
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 recognize them:
". . . 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 satisfaction.
The clergyman sighed deeply and raised himself painfully from his knees.
"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, idjit."
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 ceaselessly.
"You can sit down, boys. One moment, Mr. Ricardo, one moment only——"
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, were you?"
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 new country.
"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 now."
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, please——"
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 she?
"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 says——"
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 had won.
The spotty youth wiped his hands on his handkerchief with exaggerated disgust.
"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 you?"
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."