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´╗┐Title: The Dark House
Author: Wylie, I. A. R. (Ida Alexa Ross), 1885-1959
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Dark House" ***

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THE DARK HOUSE

by

I. A. R. WYLIE

Author of "The Daughter of Brahma," "The Shining Heights," etc.

1922



PART I

I

1

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."

"Thank you."

"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----"

"Robert, dear."

"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.



2

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.

"Hallo!"

Robert's voice, half choked with tears had croaked back "Hallo!" and
she had come a little nearer to him.

"What's your name?"

"Robert--Robert Stonehouse."

"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.

"Over there."

"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.



3

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.

"Poor Robert!"

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.

"Don't!"

"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.

"You shan't!"

"Shan't I?"

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.



4

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."



II

1

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.



2

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."

"Wh-a-a-t?"

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.



3

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.

"Robert Stonehouse."

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?"

"No."

"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?"

"No."

"Say 'sir.'"

"Sir."

"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?"

"Christine."

"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?"

"No."

"But the hymn--at least you could have sung the hymn, my poor boy.  You
can read, can't you?"

"No."

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.



4

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?"

"Robert Stonehouse."

"Don't be so abrupt, my boy,"--a delighted titter from the small
fry--"say 'sir' when you answer me."

"I shan't."

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.

"Rather."

There was a moment's silence,

"I say--if you like it--would you mind licking Dickson Minor for me?
He's always ragging me--you see, I've a rotten time--because of my
hair, and about playing the piano.  Dickson's the worst.  I'd be
awfully glad, if you wouldn't mind, of course."

Robert surreptitiously wiped the blood from his nose on to his sleeve.
As usual he had no handkerchief.  A warm, delicious solace flowed over
his battered spirit.  His heart swelled till it hurt him.  It opened
wide to the little red-haired boy.  If only Francey could see him
now--the defender of the oppressed.  But he did not dare to think of
that.  After all, he might cry.

He nodded negligently.

"All right.  I don't mind."

"P'r'aps, when he knows you're standing up for me, he'll leave me
alone."

"He'd better."

"My name's Rufus--Rufus Cosgrave.  You see, I was born like this, and
my father thought it would be a good joke.  I call it beastly."

"Mine's Robert."

The red-haired boy meditated a little longer.  He rubbed his arm
against Robert's softly like a young pony.

"I say, let's be friends--shall we?"

Robert gulped and turned his head away.

"All right.  I don't mind."

They parted shyly at the corner of Cosgrave's road--a neat double file
of vastly superior villas, as Robert realized with a faint sinking of
the heart; but Robert did not go home.  He made his way out to the
dingy fields behind the biscuit factory, and watched the local rag and
bobtail play football, lying hidden in the long grass under the wall so
that they should not see him and fall upon him.  Even when it grew dusk
and he knew that Christine must be almost home, he still wandered about
the streets.  He was hungry and footsore, his head and body ached, but
he put off the moment when he would have to face her to the very last.
He loved her, and he was not really afraid, though he knew that the
sight of his torn, blood-stained clothes would rouse her to a queer
unreasonable despair; but he had talked so much, so proudly and so
confidently of going to school.  And now, how should he tell the tale
of his disgrace, how make clear to her the misery which the
unfathomable gulf between himself and his companions caused in him, or
that because a red-haired, freckled small boy had asked him to fight
Dickson Minor he had lain in the grass with his face hidden in his arms
and wept tears of sacred happiness?  There were things you could never
tell, least of all to people whom you loved.  They were locked up in
you, and the key had been lost long since.

The street lamps came to life one by one.  He strolled down Acacia
Grove, whistling and swinging his legs with an exaggerated
carelessness.  He could see their light in the upper window of No. 14.
He was sure that Christine would watch for him, and when the hall door
opened suddenly, he stopped short, shrinking from their encounter.  But
it was a man who came out of the gate towards him.  For one moment an
awful, reasonless terror made him half turn to run, to run headlong,
never to come back; the next, he recognized the slight, jerky limp
which made his form master so comically bird-like, and stood still,
knowing that now Christine had heard everything, the very worst.
Probably Mr. Ricardo had come to tell her that she must take him away,
that he was too bad and too stupid to be with other boys, and a lump
gathered in his throat because he would never see Rufus Cosgrave again:
never fight for him.

Mr. Ricardo halted, peering through the dusk.

"That you, Stonehouse?"

"Yes"--he added painfully, because the little man had been kind to
him--"sir."

"Your--Miss Forsyth is getting anxious about you.  Why are you so late?"

Robert muttered "Football," knowing it was a lie, and that somehow or
other his companion knew it too.  He heard Mr. Ricardo sigh deeply and
wearily.

"Well, I'm very late myself.  I don't know this neighbourhood.  Is
there a station or a 'bus near here?"

"There's a 'bus." Robert pointed eagerly.  "I'll show you if you like."

"Thanks--if it doesn't take you too long."

They walked side by side in silence, Mr. Ricardo's stick tapping
smartly on the pavement, he himself apparently deep in thought.  It
seemed to Robert that he had escaped, until suddenly a thin hand took
him by the shoulder and shook him with a friendly impatience.

"Football.  Nonsense.  A boy like you doesn't play football.  He hasn't
had the chance.  Besides, it's not his line.  He plays a lone game.
No.  You've been moping round--crying possibly.  Well, I do that myself
sometimes.  It's a crying business, unless you've got nerves and guts.
But you've got that all right.  I saw you fight that stupid bully
Saunders from my window, and you beat him, too.  I was fighting with
you, though you didn't know it.  It was I who kicked him that time you
caught him on the shin."

Robert would have laughed had he been less miserable, and had he not
caught beneath Mr. Ricardo's brief amusement a real and angry
satisfaction.  In the dark, too, he had an uneasy feeling that after
all he was going to be found out.

"And then after you'd stood up to and beaten a fellow twice your size
you went away by yourself and howled.  Shall I tell you why?  You'll be
astonished.  Probably you won't understand in the least.  You cried
because you're a young idiot.  You find yourself in a herd of
half-baked living creatures, and you see that they are wearing chains
round their ankles and rings through their noses so that they can't
move or breathe properly, and you think to yourself that that's the
proper thing, and you come crying home for someone to tie you up like
the rest.  It's natural.  It's the race instinct and has had its uses.
But it's dangerous.  It kills most of us.  We start out with brains to
use and eyes to see with and hands to make with and we end up by
thinking nothing and seeing nothing and making nothing that hasn't been
thought and seen and made for the last two thousand years.  Most of us,
even when we know what is happening to us, are cowed and blackmailed
into surrender.  We have to compromise--there are circumstances--always
circumstances--unless we are very strong--we give in--beaten out of
shape----"

His sentences, that had become painful and disjointed, broke off, and
there was another silence.  Robert could say nothing.  He was dazed
with the many words, half of which, it was true, he had not understood
at all.  And yet they excited him.  They seemed to pierce through and
touch some sleeping thing in himself which stirred and answered: "Yes,
yes, that's true--that's true."

The pressure on his shoulders increased a little.

"But you're not afraid of anything, are you, Stonehouse?"

"No--no, sir.  I don't think so--not really----"

"I don't think you are, either.  I liked the way you stood up to that
poor faggot of hereditary superstitions and prejudices who was trying
to frighten you into being as big a humbug as himself.  He'll never get
over it.  I daresay he'll make things very unpleasant for you in his
charming Christian way.  How old are you, Stonehouse?"

"Ten--nearly, sir."

"You're big and precocious for your age.  You'll get the better of him.
But if you'd been brought up with other children you'd have whined and
cringed--'Yes, sir,' 'No, sir'--and been a beastly canting hypocrite
all your life.  You're wonderfully lucky if you only knew it,
Stonehouse.  You're nearly ten, and you can't read and you don't say
your prayers and your catechism and you know nothing about God
Almighty.  You've a sporting chance of becoming a man----"

Robert stumbled over his own feet.  A deeper, almost overpowering,
tiredness had come over him.  And yet he was fascinated.  He had to try
to understand.

"Isn't there--I mean--isn't there anyone like God?"

Mr. Ricardo stopped short.  He made a strange, wild gesture.  Standing
there in the half-darkness he was more than ever like some poor hobbled
bird trying desperately, furiously to beat its way back to freedom.

"Superstition--superstition, Stonehouse--the most crushing, damnable
chain of all, the symbol of cowardice, of greed and vanity, the enemy
of truth and knowledge, the hot-bed on which we breed the miserable
half-men who cumber this earth, a pitiable myth----"

He had almost shouted.  It was as though he had been addressing a vast
audience.  His voice dropped now, and he walked on, peering about him
anxiously.

"Well--well, you are too young.  There are things you can't understand.
But I shall teach you.  No, there is no God, Stonehouse."

Robert was vaguely sorry.  It was true that he had no clear idea of
God, and yet in some way He had been mixed up with the bands and music
and marching crowds that were always just round the corner.  In his
expansive, genial moments, so rare towards the end.  Dr. Stonehouse had
been known to say, "God bless you, Christine," and that had always
meant a few hours' peace.  It seemed very sad.

"What are you going to be, Stonehouse?"

"A doctor, sir."

"Why?"

It was impossible to tell the whole truth--namely, that because Francey
had said she was to be a doctor he had said he would be one too, and a
better one at that.  He gave half-measure.

"I want to be."

"Well, that's a good reason.  It might be a great profession, but it
has its liars and tricksters like the rest.  It is eaten up by little
men who wrap themselves in priestly garments and hide their ignorance
behind oracular silences.  They play up to the superstitious weakness
of the mob, and replace one religion by another.  They don't care what
beastly misery and evil they keep alive so long as they can pull off
their particular little stunts.  You mustn't be like that, Stonehouse.
To be free--to be free--and strong enough to go one's way and trample
down the people who try to turn you aside; that is the only thing worth
while.  Don't let them catch you, Stonehouse.  You don't know how
cunning they can be--cunning and cruel."

He sighed again, and Robert did not try to answer.  He had given up all
hope of understanding, and his tiredness was now such that he had to
set his teeth to keep the tears back.  At the corner they waited in
silence watching the jolly, yellow-eyed 'bus rumble towards them down
the High Street.

"Your guardian will tell you what we have arranged," Mr. Ricardo said
abruptly and with a complete change of tone.  "In a month you will read
better than any of them.  As to the rest, you will have to compromise.
So long as you know what you are doing and don't humbug yourself,
there's no harm done.  With the necessity you will shake yourself free.
You can say, 'I believe in God the Father Almighty' with your lips and
in your heart, as I do, damned rot--damned rot.'"

He laughed, and in the lamplight Robert saw his face, puckered with an
impish, malicious merriment.  Robert laughed too.  So he had guessed
right.  He felt proud and pleased.

"Good night, Stonehouse."

"Good night, sir."

Robert took off his battered cap politely as did other boys.  Mr.
Ricardo scrambled into the 'bus with an unexpected agility, and from
the bright interior in which he sat a huddled, faceless shadow, he
waved.  Robert waved back.  A fresh rush of elation had lifted him out
of his sorrowful weariness.  His disgrace had been miraculously turned
to a kind of secret triumph.  He was different; but then, how
different!  He didn't wear chains or a ring through his nose.  He was
going to know things that no one else knew.  And one day he would be
big and free.



5

It did not last.  By the time he had dragged himself up to the top of
their stairs there was nothing left but hunger, the consciousness of
tattered, blood-stained clothes, and a sore, tired body.  After all, he
was only a small boy who had wanted to play with other boys, and had
been cast out.  Even Mr. Ricardo could never make them play with him.

It was dark in the sitting-room.  Against the grey, ghostly light of
the window he could see Christine bowed over her typewriter.  She was
so still that she frightened him.  All the terrors of night which lay
in wait for him ever since his fathers dead hand had touched his door
and opened it, rushed down upon him with a sweep of black, smothering
wings.  He called out "Christine!  Christine!" in a choked voice, and
she moved at once, and he saw her profile, sharp-drawn and unfamiliar.

"Is that you, Robert?  What is it, dear?"

So she had not been worrying about him at all.  She did not know that
it was long past their usual supper-time.  She had been thinking of
something else.  It made her seem a terrifyingly long way off, and he
shuffled across the room to her, and touched her to make sure of her.
And it was strange that her hand glided over him anxiously,
questioningly, as though in the darkness she too had been afraid and
uncertain.

"Your form-master, Mr. Ricardo, has been here.  We've been talking
about you.  Is your coat very, very torn?"

"Not--not very."

"Never mind.  I'll mend it afterwards--when you've gone to bed."

Because he was so tired himself the unutterable weariness in her voice
smote him on the heart unbearably.  He had never heard it before.  It
made him think of her, for the first time, not just as Christine, who
looked after him and loved him, but as someone apart whom, perhaps, he
did not know at all.  Hadn't they asked him, "Who is Christine?"  And
he hadn't answered.  He hadn't known.

"Mr. Ricardo says you will need a lot of help to pick up with the other
boys.  Poor little Robert!  But he takes an interest in you, and you
are to go to his house in the afternoon to be coached, and in a few
weeks you will know as much as any of them."

He did not know what "coaching" meant, but all of a sudden he had
become afraid of Mr. Ricardo.  He did not want to go to him.  He knew
that Mr. Ricardo would not like him to play with other boys, even if he
got a chance.  He would want him to be alone and different always.

"He doesn't believe in God," Robert asserted accusingly.  "He said he
didn't."

"Perhaps not, dear."

"Doesn't that matter?"

"I don't suppose God minds--if He exists."

"Don't you believe in Him, Christine?"

"I don't know.  People say they believe too easily.  I expect I believe
as much as the others.  With most of us it's just--just a hope."

They had never talked together in that way before.  It made her more
than ever someone apart from him, who had her own thoughts, and perhaps
her own secret way of being unhappy.  He was frightened again, not of
the darkness now, but of something nearer--something so real and deadly
that the old spectres became almost comic, like ghosts made up of
dust-sheets and broom-handles.  Supposing Christine went still further
from him--supposing she left him altogether alone?  She wouldn't do it
of her free will, but there were things people couldn't help.  People
died.  The thought was a cruel hand twining itself into the strings of
his heart.  He tried to see her face.  Was she young?  He didn't know.
He had never thought about it.  She had been grown-up.  That covered
everything.  Now in the pale, unreal light her face and hair were a
strange dead gray, and she was old--old.

"Christine, how--how long do people live?"

"It depends.  Sometimes to a hundred--sometimes just a minute.

"But if one is careful, Christine--I mean, really careful?"

"It doesn't always help, Robert.  And even if it did, the people who
need to live most have to take risks----"  She broke off, following
her thought further till it was far beyond his reach.  "In fifteen
years you will be grown up.  You will be able to take care of yourself.
What will you be then?"

"A doctor," he said firmly; "and I'll look after you, Christine, and
you'll live for ever and ever."

"A doctor--a doctor!"  She seemed startled, almost frightened.  "Yes,
of course.  Your father would want it.  He was always proud of his
profession, though he made fun.  But it will mean more--waiting a
little longer."

She brooded, her hand covering her eyes, and he crept nearer to her,
pressing himself against her arm, trying to draw her back.

"Christine, who--who are you?"

"I don't know, Robert, I don't know----"

"I mean--why do you look after me? You're not my mother."

"Why, I love you."

"But you didn't at the beginning.  You couldn't have done."

"Your father and I were friends.  Yes, always--always--right through
everything--to the very end.  When your mother came into our lives, I
loved her almost more.  That will seem very strange to you one of these
days, but it was true.  When she was dying she asked me to take care of
you both."  She drew herself up, and pushed the untidy wisps of hair
out of her face, and with that gesture she seemed suddenly to grow
vigorous and young.  "Why, Robert, it's better than if you were my own
son; it's as though in you I had a little of those two always with me."

"Christine, you won't ever leave me, will you?"

For now his fear had him by the throat.  She didn't--she never had
belonged to him.  It was his father and his mother, who were dead.

"Of course not--not so long as you need me.  You mustn't worry.  It's
because we're both tired and hungry.  We'll get supper."

Her voice was its old self.  But whilst she laid the cloth he stood
pressed against the window and looked out with blind eyes into the
darkness, so that she should not see his slow, hot tears.  He was aware
of great and bitter loss.  But he loved Christine more than he had ever
done.  His love had ceased to be instinctive.  It had become conscious
of itself and of her separateness.  And it would never be quite free
again from pain.



III

1

Long before he could read words of three syllables, Robert had learnt the
Origin of Man, and had made a vivid, somewhat fanciful picture of that
personage's pathetic beginnings as a miasm floating on the earth's
surface, and of his accidental, no less pathetic progression as a Survival
of the Fittest.  He gathered that even more than old Jaegers, Mr. Ricardo
hated God Almighty and Jesus Christ, the latter of whom was intimately
connected with something called a Sun Myth--chiefly, Robert supposed,
because He was the Son of God.  Mr. Ricardo could not leave these two
alone.  He hunted them down, he badgered and worried them, he covered them
with gibes and insults.  It seemed to Robert sometimes that even the
multiplication table was really a disguised missile hurled in their
unsuspecting and non-existent faces.

Mr. Ricardo appeared to have no friends.  As far as Robert could make out,
when he was not at school he sat at his desk in the untidy, stuffy attic
in the still more untidy, stuffy boarding-house where he lived, and wrote
feverishly.  What he wrote Robert did not know.  There was an air of
mystery about the whole business, as though he were concocting a deadly
explosive which might go off at any moment.  Sometimes he seemed dated,
sometimes cast down by the results, but always doggedly resolved.

"It is a long, hard struggle, Stonehouse," he would say.  "There are more
fools in this world than you could conceive possible.  Thank your stars
your friend isn't one of them.  A fine, intelligent woman--a unique woman."

He talked a good deal about Christine and women in general.

"When once we can get them on our side," was one of his dark sayings, "the
last trench will be in our hands."

Then, one evening, to Robert's astonished displeasure, he walked home with
him, and somehow drifted up their dark stairs to the little sitting-room
where Christine was laying supper.  It appeared that he had come to give
an account of his pupil's progress, but he was oddly excited, and when
Christine invited him to share their meal--surely he could have seen there
wasn't enough to go round, Robert thought--he accepted with a transparent,
childlike eagerness that made Robert stare at him as at a stranger.  And
after supper, with the self-conscious air of a man who has waited for this
moment, be produced from his coat pocket a crumpled newspaper with the
title _Unshackled_ printed in aggressive letters on its pale-green cover.

"In my leisure time I write a good deal on a subject very dear to me, Miss
Forsyth," he said and screwed up his sharp nose in a kind of nervous
anguish.  "I have here an article published last week--you are a
broad-minded, intelligent woman--I thought perhaps it might interest
you--if you would care to glance over it."

Christine lay back in her chair, her face in shadow.  But the lamplight
fell on her two hands.  Red and misshapen as they were now, they were
still noble hands, and their repose had dignity and beauty.

"Won't you read it to us, Mr. Ricardo?  My eyes are tired at night."

He cleared his throat.

"It is an answer to Bishop Crawford's recent letter to _The Times_, which
you may have seen.  I have called it 'Unmasking the Oracle.'"

Robert leant out of the window and watched the sun sink into mist and
smoke.  He wished Mr. Ricardo hadn't come; and that he would go away soon.
In a few minutes the light would begin to die, and the sharp black lines
of the roofs and spires, which on the ruins of their dull selves seemed to
be built anew into a witchlike fantastic city, would be lost to him for
another night.  Robert did not want to hear about God and the origin of
man now.  He kicked impatiently.  Christine would sit up later than ever.
And, besides with Mr. Ricardo's voice rising and falling, growing shriller
and more passionate, one could not listen to that low, mysterious hum that
was so like a far-off music.

Mr. Ricardo made a sweeping, crushing gesture.  "That, surely, settles the
controversy.  He will hardly be able to answer that, I think."

Christine stirred, and opened her eyes, and smiled a little.

"I could not answer it, at any rate.  It sounds very clever."  She took
the paper from him and held it to the light, and Robert turned, hoping
that now he would really go.  "But--but I didn't quite understand--have I
lost the place?--this is by E. T. Richards."

Then Robert saw an astonishing thing.  Suddenly Mr. Ricardo seemed to
shrivel--to cower back into himself.  His fierce, triumphant energy had
gone as at a blasting touch of magic.  He looked ashamed and broken.

"A _nom de plume_--_a nom de guerre_, rather, Miss Forsyth--you
understand--in my opinion--the scholastic profession--the stronghold of
the worst bigotry and prejudice--for myself I should not care--I have
always wanted to come out into the open--but I have a sister--poor
girl!--a long, sad illness--for her sake--I can't afford----"

Christine folded the paper gently as though she were afraid of hurting it.

"Of course.  It would be unwise--unnecessary.  Why should one sacrifice
oneself to fight something that doesn't exist?"

He clenched his fists.

"One must fight error, Miss Forsyth."

"At any rate it's brave of you to try--to do what you think is right." And
now it seemed she was trying to find something that would comfort
him--just as she had once given Robert peppermint balls when he had hurt
himself.  "If ever you feel inclined, won't you come again--and read to
us?"

He looked at her with dark, tragic eyes.

"Thank you, thank you."

Robert went with him to the door, and for a moment he wavered on the
steps, blinking, and squeezing his soft hat between his bony hands.

"A great woman--a kind woman--you must be worth her while, Stonehouse."

And then, without so much as a "good night," he limped down the steps and
along the street, flitting in and out of the lamplight like a hunted bat.

It was the first of many tiresome evening visits.  But the next day he was
always himself again, and the class wilted under his merciless,
contemptuous sarcasms.  Only Robert was not afraid.  He knew that the lash
would never come his way, and he could feel the little man's unspoken
pride, when he showed himself quicker than his companions, like a secret
Masonic pressure of the hand.  And there was something else.  It was a
discovery that made him at first almost dizzy with astonishment.  He
wasn't stupid.  Just as he was stronger, so he was cleverer than boys
older than himself.  He could do things at once over which they botched
and bungled.  He outstripped them when he chose.  Even his ignorance did
not handicap him for long.  For Mr. Ricardo had kept his promise.  He
taught well, and in those long afternoons in the hot boarding-house attic
Robert had raced over the lost ground.  He did not always want to work.
He gazed out of the window, half his mind busy planning what he and Rufus
Cosgrave would do when they met at the corner of the street, but he could
not help understanding what was so obvious, and there were moments when
sheer interest swept him off his feet, and even Rufus was forgotten.  He
took an audacious pleasure, too, in leaping suddenly over the heads of the
whole class to the first place.  He did not always bother.  He liked to
wait for some really teasing question, and then, when silence had become
hopeless, hold up his hand.  Mr. Ricardo would look towards him,
apparently incredulous and satirical, but Robert could read the message
which the narrowed eyes twinkled at him.

"Of course you understand, Stonehouse."

And then he would answer and sweep the sullen class with a cool,
exasperating indifference as he sat down.  For he did not want them any
more.  He returned instinctive enmity with the scorn of a growing
confidence.  It was rather fine to stand by yourself, especially when you
had one friend who thought you splendid whatever you did, who clung to
you, and whom you had to protect.  When he walked arm in arm with Rufus
Cosgrave in the playground he trailed his coat insolently, and the
challenge was not once accepted.  From the biggest boys to Dickson Minor,
no one cared to risk the limitless possibilities of an encounter, and the
word "carrots" was not so much as whispered in his hearing.

Then in the late afternoon the real day seemed to begin.  Then the
hardness and distrust with which he had unconsciously armed himself fell
away, and he and Rufus Cosgrave sat side by side in the sooty grass behind
the biscuit factory, and with arms clasped about their scarred and grubby
knees planned out the vague but glorious time that waited for them.  Rufus
was to be a Civil Servant.  He did not seem to care much for the prospect
or even to be very clear as to what would be expected of him.  He felt,
with Robert, that a Civil Servant sounded servile and romanceless, but
unfortunately the profession, whatever it was, ran in the family.

"My father's one, you know.  So I've got to.  I'd rather play the piano.
But, of course, I wouldn't say so to anyone but you.  It sounds too
beastly silly----"

"I'd say whatever I wanted to," Robert retorted grandly, "I'll always say
what I want to and do what I jolly well like when I'm grown up anyhow.
You can if you're strong enough."

"But then people hate you," Rufus said sadly.

"That doesn't matter a bit."

"Don't you mind people not liking you?"

"Rather not."

Rufus fumbled anxiously.

"Wouldn't you be pleased if--if you were asked to play in the eleven--and
the chaps cheered you like they do Christopher when he kicks a goal?"

"I shouldn't care--not a button."  But he knew even then that it was not
true.  His heart had leapt at the very thought.  He drew his fair brows
together in the portentous Stonehouse scowl.  "It's silly to mind what
silly people think.  And kicking goals is no good.  I'm going to be a
doctor--not just the ordinary sort--a big doctor--and I'll discover
things--and people like Christopher'll come and beg me to keep them alive."

Rufus sighed deeply.

"I wish I was like that.  I mind awfully--being ragged, and all that.  I
was awfully miserable until you came.  If you went away--or didn't care
any more--I don't know what I'd do.  But if I went away you wouldn't
mind----"

"Yes, I would."

"But you're so much stronger."

"I like being strongest."

And then and there he expounded the doctrine of the Survival, and Rufus
began to shiver all over like a frightened pony.

"I think it's perfectly beastly.  What'll happen to me?  Anyone can lick
me.  I wouldn't have a chance."

The tears came into his round, blue eyes and trickled down his freckled
cheeks, and a sudden choking tenderness, a dim perception of all that this
one friend meant to him, made Robert fling his arms about him and hug him
close.

"Yes--you would.  Because I'll look after you--always--honest injun."



2

There was one secret that he never told to anyone--not even to Cosgrave.
He was ashamed of it.  He knew it was silly--sillier than in believing in
God--and he had almost succeeded in forgetting it when it came true.  It
happened.  Just when he was least expecting it it came round the corner.
First the music, a long way off, but growing louder and fiercer so that it
seemed as though his fancy had suddenly jumped out of his brain and was
running about by itself, doing just what it liked; then lights, torches
with streaming flags of fire that put out the street lamps altogether, and
the shadows of people marching--running--leaping--capering.

Robert ran too.  He did not stop to think what it was.  He was wild with
excitement, and as he ran he bounded into the air and waved his arms in a
pent-up joy of living and moving.  He never had much chance to run.  You
couldn't run by yourself for nothing.  People stared or were annoyed when
you bumped against them.  But now there was something to run for.  There
was no one to see or hear him in the deserted Grove, and with each bound
he let out an unearthly, exultant whoop.

At the corner where Acacia Grove met the High Street Rufus Cosgrave
squirmed out of the pushing, jostling crowd and caught hold of him.  He
was capless, panting.  His red hair stood on end.  In the flickering torch
light he looked like a small, delirious Loga.

"I say--Stonehouse--I was coming for you--it's a circus--they're going all
the way down to the Green--they've got their tent there--if we could only
climb up somewhere--I can't see a thing--not even the elephant's legs."

"If we cut round by Griffith's Road we'll get there first," Robert
shouted.  "Only we've got to run like mad."

He seized Rufus by the hand and they shot free of the procession, up and
down dim and decorous streets, swerving round corners and past astonished
policemen whose "Now then, you young devils" was lost in the clatter of
their feet.  Cosgrave gasped, but Robert's hold was relentless,
compelling.  He could have run faster by himself, but somehow he could not
let Cosgrave go.  "You've got to stick it," he hissed fiercely.  "It's
only a minute."

Cosgrave had no choice but to "stick it."  It did not even occur to him to
resist though his eyes seemed to be bulging out of his head and his lungs
on the point of bursting.  But the reward was near at hand.  There, at the
bottom of Griffith's Road, they could see it--the Green, unfamiliar with
its garish lights and the ghostly, gleaming tents.

"We've done it!" Robert shouted.  "Hurrah--hurrah!"

They had, in fact, time to spare.  The procession was still only half-way
down the High Street, a dull red glow, like the mouth of a fiery cave,
widening with every minute as though to swallow them.  There was, indeed,
a disconcerting crowd gathered round the chief entrance, but Robert was
like a general, cool and vigorous, strung up to the finest pitch of
cunning.  He wormed his way under the ropes, he edged and insinuated
himself between the idle and good-natured onlookers, with Cosgrave, tossed
and buffeted, but still in tow, struggling in the backwash.  At last they
were through, next to the entrance, and in the very front row of all.

"Now you'll see the elephant," Robert laughed triumphantly, "every bit of
him,"

"Oh, my word!" Cosgrave gasped.  "Oh, my word!"

It was coming.  It made itself felt even before it came into sight by the
sudden tensity of the crowd, the anxious pressure from behind, the
determined pushing back by the righteously indignant in front, the craning
of necks, and indistinguishable, thrilling murmur.  A small boy, whom
Robert recognized as the butcher's son, evidently torn between the dignity
and excitement of his new post, stalked ahead and thrust printed notices
into the outstretched hands.  Robert seized hold of one, but he was too
excited to read.  He felt Rufus poke him insistently.

"What's it say--what's it say?"

"Shut up--I don't know--look for yourself."

There they were.  The six torch-bearers were dressed like mediaeval pages,
or near enough.  Their tight-fitting cotton hose, sagging a little at the
knees, were sky-blue, and their tunics green and slashed with yellow.
They wore jaunty velvet caps and fascinating daggers, ready to hand.  As
they reached the entrance to the tent they halted, and with some uneasy
shuffling formed up on either side, making a splendid passage of fire for
the ten Moorish horsemen who rode next, fierce fellows these, armed to the
teeth, with black, shining faces and rolling eyes.  A band struck up
inside the tent to welcome them, and they rode through, scarcely bending
their proud heads--much to the relief of the more timorous members of the
crowd who had eyed the rear end of their noble steeds with a natural
anxiety.  Unfortunately the torches smoked a good deal, and there was some
grumbling.

"'Ere, take the stinking thing out of me eyes, can't yer?"

"Right down dangerous, I calls it.  If one of them there sparks gets into
me 'at I'll be all ablaze in half a jiffy.  And oo'll pay for the
feathers, I'd like to know?"

"Oh, shut up--shut up!" Robert whispered bitterly.  "Why can't everyone
shut up?"

"The Biggest and Best Show in Europe," Rufus was reading aloud in a
squeaky treble; "un-pre-ce-dented spectacles--performing sea-lions--great
chariot-race--the Legless Wonder from Iceland--Warogha, the Missing
Link--the greatest living Lady Equestrian, Madame Gloria Marotti,
Mad-rad--oh, I can't read that--Gyp Labelle, the darling of the Folies
Bergeres--what's Folies Bergeres, Robert----?  Oh, my word--my word!"

It was the Shetland ponies that had saved Robert the trouble of replying
that he didn't know.  After the ferocious magnificence of the Moorish
gentlemen, they came as a sort of comic relief.  Everyone laughed, and
even the lady with the feather hat recovered her good temper.

"Why, you could keep one of them in the back yard--not an inch bigger than
our collie, is he, 'Enry?  And Jim's not full grown--not by 'alf."

"As though anyone cared about her beastly collie!" Robert thought.

The elephants, a small one and a big one together to show their absurd
proportions, came next.  The earth shook under them.  They waved their
trunks hopefully from side to side, and their little brown eyes, which
seemed to have no relation to their bodies, peered out like prisoners out
of the peep-holes of a monstrous moving prison.  When the man next to
Robert offered the smallest of them an empty paper-bag it curled its trunk
over his head and opened its pointed mouth and let out a piercing squeal
of protest which alarmed its tormentor, and caused his neighbours to
regard him with nervous disapproval.  But the big elephant seemed to
exercise a soothing influence over its companion.  It waved its trunk
negligently as though in contemptuous dismissal of a commonplace incident.

"My dear," it said, "that's all you can expect of such people."

There were men seated on the big elephants' necks, their legs tucked
comfortably behind the enormous flapping ears.  They looked mysterious and
proud in their position.  They wore turbans and carried sticks with
pointed iron spikes at the head, and when they came to the low entrance of
the tent they prodded their huge beasts, which went down on their knees,
painfully yet with a kind of sorrowful pride, and blundered through amidst
the admiring murmur of the crowd.

"The way they manage them big brutes!" declared the lady with the
feathered hat disconsolately.  "And there's our George, a proper 'uman
being, and can't be got to do a thing--nohow."

The band inside had stopped, beaten in the hard-fought contest with its
rival at the far end of the procession, which thereupon broke out into
throaty triumphant trumpet blasts and exultant roll of drums.  Rufus
clutched wildly at Robert's sleeve.

"Oh, my word, just look at her!  Oh, my word!"

Robert craned forward, peering round the embonpoint of the man next him.
The procession now scarcely moved, and there was a space between the last
elephant and the great coal-black horse that followed--a wide, solemn
space, that invited you to realize that this was the finest sight you had
ever seen in your life.  He was indeed a splendid, terrifying creature.
As Rufus Cosgrave said loudly, he was not like a human horse at all.  One
could imagine him having just burst out of hell, still breathing fire and
smoke and rolling his eyes in the anguish of his bridled wickedness.  In
the glare from the tent-door he gleamed darkly, a wild thing of black
flames, and those in the front row of the crowd trod nervously on the toes
of those behind, edging out of reach of his restless, dancing hoofs.  For
it seemed impossible that the woman in the saddle should be really his
master.  And yet she sat upright and unconcerned.  In its black,
close-fitting habit, her supple body looked a living, vital part of the
splendid beast.  She was his brain, stronger than his savage instinct, and
every threatening move of his great limbs was dictated to him without a
sound, almost without a gesture.  A touch of a slender, patent-leather
boot set him prancing, an imperceptible twist of the wrist and he stood
stock still, foam-necked and helpless.  It was a proud--an awe-inspiring
spectacle.  And it was not only her fearless strength.  She was fair and
beautiful.  So Robert saw her.  He saw nothing else.  He gazed and gazed,
heart-stricken.  He did not hear Rufus speak to him, or the band which was
blaring out a Viennese waltz, an old thing, whistled and danced half to
death long since, but which, having perhaps a spark of immortal youth left
among the embers, had not lost its power to make the pulses quicken.
Indeed it even played a humble part in this great moment in Robert's life.
Though he did not hear it, it poured emotion into the heated, dusty air.
It painted the tawdry show with richer colours.  It was the rider's
invisible retinue.  At a touch from her heel the horse danced to it, in
perfect time, arching his great neck, and rolling his wild eyes.

She was proud, too.  Robert saw how she disdained the gaping multitude.
She rode with haughtily lifted head and only once her glance, under the
white, arrogant lids, dropped for an instant.  Was it chance, was it the
agonized intensity of his own gaze which drew it to the small boy almost
under her horse's hoofs?  (For he had held his ground.  He was not afraid.
Unlike the rest, his trust in her was limitless and unquestioning.  And if
she chose to ride him down, he would not care, no more than a fanatic
worshipper beneath the wheels of a Juggernaut.)  Now under her eyes his
heart stood still, his knees shook.  She did not smile; she did not
recognize his naked, shameless adoration.  And that too was well.  A smile
would have lowered her, brought her down from her superb distance.  His
happiness choked him.  She was the embodiment of everything that he had
heard pass in the distance from the silent dusks of Acacia
Grove--splendour and power, laughter and music, the beat of a secret pulse
answering the tread of invisible processions.  She came riding out of the
mists of his fancy into light, a living reality that he could take hold
of, and set up in his empty temple.  She was not his mother, nor Francey,
nor God, but she was everything that in their vague and different ways
these three had been to him before he lost them.  She was something to be
worshipped, to be died for, if necessary, with joy and pride.

But in a moment it was over.  She looked away from him and rode forward,
like a monarch into a grandly illuminated castle, amidst the whispered
plaudits of her people.

A little girl on a Shetland pony rode at her heels, Robert saw her without
wanting to see her.  She obtruded herself vulgarly.  She was dressed as a
page, her painfully thin legs looking like sticks of peppermint in their
parti-coloured tights, and either was, or pretended to be, terrified of
her minute and tubbily good-natured mount.  At its first move forward she
fell upon its neck with shrill screams and clung on grotesquely, righting
herself at last to make mock faces at the grinning crowd.

"Oh, la, la--la-la!"

She was a plain child with a large nose, slightly Jewish in line, a wide
mouth, and a mass of crinkly fair hair that stood out in a pert halo about
her head.  Robert hated her for the brief moment in which she invaded his
consciousness.  It was quite evident that she was trying to draw attention
from the splendid creature who had preceded her to her own puny and
outrageous self, and that by some means or other she succeeded.  She
gesticulated, she drew herself up in horrible imitation of a proud and
noble bearing, she pretended that the rotund pony was prancing to the
music, and, finally, burst into fits of laughter.  The crowd laughed with
her, helplessly as though at a huge joke which she shared with each one of
them in secret.

"Oh, la la, la la."

The man at Robert's side wiped his eyes.

"Well, did you see that?  Upon my word----"

"A baggage--that's what I call 'er," the feathered lady retorted severely.
"Mark my words--a baggage."

Rufus jogged Robert in the side.

"Wasn't she a joke?  Didn't she make you scream?"

Robert hated them all.  Beastly, despicable people who liked beastly,
despicable things.

More horsemen, camels, clowns on foot and clowns on donkeys.  Finally the
band, slightly winded by this time, and playing raggedly.  The
torch-bearers formed up, and a large gentleman in riding boots stood for a
moment in the light.

"To-morrow evening at eight o'clock--the first performance of the Greatest
Show in Europe--a unique opportunity--better book your seats early, ladies
and gentlemen----"

Then the flaps of the tent fell and all the lights and sounds seemed to go
out at once.  The crowd melted away, and only Robert and his companion
remained gazing spellbound at the closed and silent cave which had
swallowed all the enchantment.

Rufus put his hands into his hair and tugged it desperately.

"Oh, if only I could go--if only I could----  Don't you want to go,
Robert?"

Robert woke partially from his dream.

"I'm going."  He turned, and with his hands thrust into his pockets began
to walk homewards.  Rufus trotted feverishly at his side.

"I say, are you really?  But then you've got no people; jolly for you.  I
wish I hadn't.  My pater's so beastly strict; I'm scared of him.  I say,
when will you go?"

"To-morrow night, of course."

"Have you got the money?"

"No, but I'll get it."

"Oh, I say, I wish I could.  P'r'aps I could too.  I've got money--yes, I
have, even if it is in a beastly tin box.  What's the good of saving till
you're grown up?  I shan't want it then like I do now.  It's silly.  All
grown-up people are silly.  When I'm grown up I'll be different.  I say,
Robert, I can come with you, can't I?"

"Oh, yes--if you want to."  He was indifferent.  It puzzled him slightly
that Rufus should be so eager.  What did he know of the true inwardness of
what he had seen?  What had it got to do with him, anyway?

Rufus brooded, his freckled face puckered with anxious contriving.

"I say, I've got an idea!  I'll tell the pater you've asked me to come
over and spend the evening with you at your place.  It'll be sort of true,
won't it?  And then he'll never think about the money.  You won't mind,
will you?  It'll never come out--and if it does, I'll say I made it up."

"I don't care.  All right."

Rufus drew a great sigh of relief.

"Isn't it ripping?  Oh, I say, I wish it was to-morrow night.  I hope I
don't die first.  What did you like best, Robert?  Who are you keenest on?"

Robert did not answer.  It would have been sacrilege to talk her over--to
drag her down into a silly controversy.  He longed for the moment when
Rufus would have to leave him.  He wanted to be alone and silent.  Even
the thought of Christine and of her inevitable questions hurt him like the
touch of a rough, unfeeling hand.

"I liked that kid best--that girl on the funny pony.  She must have been
at the Folies Bergeres, don't you think?  Folies Bergeres sounds French,
and she was making sort of French noises.  She made me laugh."  Something
wistful and hungry came into his shrill voice.  He pressed close to
Robert's side.  "I like people who make me laugh.  I like them better than
anything in the world, don't you?  It's jolly to be able to laugh like
that--right from one's inside----"

But Robert only smiled scornfully, hugging his secret closer to himself.



3

She came on for the last time in the Final, when the whole circus,
including the Legless Wonder, paraded round the ring to the competitive
efforts of both bands.  Robert's eyes followed her with anguish.  It
wasn't happiness any more.  He might have been a condemned man counting
the last minutes of his life.  He was almost glad when it was over and her
upright figure had vanished under the arch.  People began to fidget and
reach for their hats and coats.  A grubby youth with a hot, red face and a
tray slung round his neck pushed his way between the benches shouting:
"Signed photographs of the c'lebrities, twopence each!" in a raucous
indifferent voice.  Robert waved to him, and he took no notice.

"Hi--hi!" Robert called faintly.

The youth stopped.  He was terribly bored at first, but his boredom became
a cynical amusement.  There were twenty different photographs of Madame
Gloria Moretti:

Madame Moretti full face, side face, three-quarter face, on her famous
horse Arabesque, with her beautiful foot on Arabesque's prostrate form, in
evening dress, stepping into her car--a car, at any rate--and so on, with
"Gloria Moretti" scrawled nobly across every one of them.  Robert bought
them all.  He stuffed them into his coat pockets, into his trouser
pockets.  He dropped them.  He dropped the pennies and sixpences which he
tried to count into the tray with shaking fingers.  He was drunk and
reckless with his despairing love.   The sales-boy winked at everyone in
general.

"Takin' it 'ard, ain't 'e, the young dawg?"

People smiled tolerantly.  Their smiles said as plainly as possible: "We
remember being just as silly as that," and Robert hated them.  It wasn't
true.  They didn't remember.  They had forgotten.  Or, if they remembered
at all, it was only the things they had done, not what they had felt--the
frightful pain that was an undreamed-of happiness, and the joy that tore
the heart out of you, and the wonder of a new discovery.  You lost
yourself, You gave everything that you were and had.  You asked nothing,
hoped for nothing.  And suddenly you became strong so that you were not
afraid any more of anything in the world--not of punishment nor disgrace,
nor even laughter.

But they pretended to understand.  Their pretence made you despise and
pity them.  It was a horrid thing, as though a skeleton came to life and
jiggled its bones and mouthed at you, "You see, I used to do that too."
That was why you told lies to them--even to Christine.

He had forgotten his cap.  The sales-boy ran after him with it and stuck
it on his thick fair hair back to front.

"There--you'll be losing your 'ead next!"

It was dusk outside.  The evening performance began at once, and already a
thick black stream of people was pouring up the roped gangways and
frothing and seething at the box offices.  As they came out of the
darkness they had a mystical air of suddenly returned life.  They were
pilgrims' souls surging at the entrance of Paradise.  In a little while
they would see her.  Not that they would know what they saw.  They would
not be able to understand how great, how brave and splendid she was.  In
their blindness of heart they would prefer the ugly little French girl
with her shrill voice and absurd caperings; their clapping would be
half-hearted, polite, and there would be no passionate, insistent pair of
hands to beat up their flagging enthusiasm and bring her back once more
into the arena, bowing in regal scorn of them.

For he, Robert, had brought her back twice, just because he wouldn't
stop--had beaten his hands till even now they were hot and swollen.  She
had not known, and he would not have had her know for the whole world.
That was part of the mystery.  You yourself were as nothing.

But it did hurt intolerably to think that perhaps because he was not there
she would not be called back so often.  It was as though he betrayed
her--broke his allegiance.  That afternoon, when it had seemed that the
evening could never really come, he had told himself that this was the
last time; but now, standing on the dim outskirts of the crowd, the
photographs that he hadn't been able to fit into his pockets held fast in
his burning hands, he saw how impossible, how even wrong and faithless
that decision had been.  So long as a shilling remained to him he had to
go, he had to take his place among her loyal people.  It meant being
"found out" hopelessly and violently.   They--the mysterious "they" of
authority--might destroy him utterly.  That would be the most splendid
thing of all.  He would have done all that he could do.  He would have
laid his last tribute at her unconscious feet and gone out in fire and
thunder.

He had actually joined the box-office queue when Rufus Cosgrave found him.
Rufus had been running hard and he was out of breath, and his blue eyes
had a queer, strained look, as though they had wanted to cry and had not
had the time.  And on his dead-white face the freckles stood out,
ludicrously vivid.

"Oh, I say, Robert, where have you been?  I waited and waited for you.
And then I went round to your place--and Miss Forsyth said she didn't know
and she seemed awfully worried--and--and--oh, I say--you're not going
again, are you?"

Robert nodded calmly.  But his heart had begun to beat thickly with the
premonition of disaster.

"Yes, I am."

"You might have told me--oh, I say, do listen--do come out a minute--I'm
in an awful hole--there's going to be an awful row--I'm--I'm so beastly
scared----"

He was shivering.  He did not seem to know that people were looking at
him.  His voice was squeaky and broken.  He tugged at Robert's sleeve.
"Oh, I say--do come----"

Robert looked ahead of him.  It meant losing his place.  Instead of being
so close to her that he could smell the warm, sweet scent of her as she
passed, he would have to peer between peopled heads, and she would be a
far-off vision to him.  And yet, oddly enough, it did not occur to him to
refuse.  He stood out, and they walked together towards the dark, huddled
army of caravans beyond the tents.

"What is it?  What's the row?"

"It's Father--he's got wind of something--Mother told me--he's going to
open my money-box when he comes home to-night.  I didn't know he'd kept
count--just the sort of beastly thing he would do--and oh, Robert, when he
finds out I've been cramming him he'll kill me--he will, really----"

At another time Robert might have consoled him with the assurance that
even the beastliest sort of father might hesitate to risk his neck on such
slight provocation, but he himself was overwrought with three days of
peril, of desperate subterfuge and feverish alternations between joy and
anguish.  Now, in the mysterious twilight, the most terrible, as the most
wonderful things seemed not merely possible but likely.  It made it all
the more terrible that Rufus should have to endure so much because he had
taken a fancy to a silly kid who laughed like a hyena till you laughed
yourself, however much you hated her.

He held Cosgrave's sticky hand tight, and at that loyal understanding
pressure Cosgrave began to cry, shaking from head to foot, jerking out his
words between his chattering teeth.

"It's s-stupid to cry--I do w-wish I w-wasn't always c-crying about
everything--after all--he c-can't kill me more than once, can he?  But
he's such a beast.  He h-hates anyone else to h-have a good time and tell
lies.  He's always so j-jolly glad to let into me or mother--and when he
finds out we've been stuffing him he--he goes mad--and preaches for days
and days.  Mother's a brick.  She gave me a shilling to put back--but
he--he keeps her short, and she has to tell about every penny.  She says
she'll have to pretend she lost it.  And it's not enough, anyway.
Oh--Robert, you don't know what a row there'll be."

But Robert knew.  He felt the cruel familiar ruffling of the nerves.  He
heard the thud of his father's step, the horrible boom of his father's
voice, "You're a born liar, Christine--you're making my son into a liar."
It was as though Dr. Stonehouse had pushed off the earth that covered him
and stood up.

It was awful that Rufus should be frightened too.  It wasn't fair.  He
wasn't strong enough.

"I say--we'll have to do something.  How much did you take out?"

"'Bout three shillings--there was an extra penny or two--p'r'aps he
wouldn't notice that, though--I thought p'r'aps--oh, I don't know what I
thought--but I had to come to tell you--I hadn't anyone else----"

Robert nodded.  He stopped and looked back towards the big central tent.
It had grown at once larger and vaguer.  The lighted entrance had a sort
of halo round it like the moon before it is going to rain.  There was an
empty, sinking feeling in his stomach, and he too had begun to tremble, in
little, uncontrollable gusts.  He let go his hold on Rufus's hand so that
he should not know.

"I've got two bob--somewhere," he heard himself saying casually and rather
grandly.

He knew now that he would never see her again.  There was no struggle in
his mind, because there did not seem to be any choice.  It wasn't that
little Cosgrave counted more--he hardly counted at all in that moment.
But she, if she knew he existed, would expect him to do the right, the
fine thing.  Francey would have expected it.  And she was only a mere
girl.  How much more this noble, wonderful woman?  It was better than
clapping.  Somewhere at the back of his mind was the idea that he offered
her a more gallant tribute, and that one day she would know that he had
stuck up for Cosgrave for her sake, and, remote and godlike though she
was, be just a little pleased.  The comfort of it was a faint warm light
showing through his darkness.  It was all he had.  As he dug those last,
most precious shillings out of the chaos of his pockets he felt himself go
sick and faint, just as he had done when, in a desperate fight, a boy
bigger than himself had kicked his shin.

"There--you can put them back, can't you?  He'll never know----"

Rufus stopped crying instantly, after the miraculous fashion of his years.
He cut an elfish caper.  He rubbed himself against his saviour like some
small grateful animal.

"I say, you are a brick.  I knew you'd help somehow.  Won't he be sold,
though?  I'll just love to see his beastly face!  What luck--not having a
father, like you.  I say, though, is that all you've got?  You won't be
able to go to the show now--and you're so keen, aren't you?"

"It doesn't matter," Robert answered carelessly.  "I don't mind much--not
really."

He began to walk on, Rufus tagging valiantly at his heels.

"And--and if anyone asks--you'll say I was at your place--doing
prep.--won't you?"

"Oh, rather----"

"It's awfully decent of you.  You don't mind telling fibs, do you, Robert?"

"One has to," Robert answered austerely.  "Everyone has to."

Now that it was all over and he turned his back on her for ever, the
splendid glow of renunciation began to fade.  Life stretched before him, a
black limitless emptiness.  He wished agonizedly that Arabesque had gone
mad and bolted and that he had stopped him and saved his rider's life,
dying gloriously and at once, instead of miserably and by inches, like
this.  He felt that in a moment the pain in his throat would get the
better of him and he would begin to cry.

They stopped at the far end of the Green where it was dark and they could
hardly see each other.  He heard Cosgrave breathing heavily through his
nose, almost snorting, and then a timid, shamefaced whisper:

"You are decent to me.  I say--I do love you so, Robert."

It was an awful thing to have said.  They both knew it.  If anyone had
overheard them the shame would have haunted them to their death.  And yet
it was wonderful too.  Never to be forgotten.

"You oughtn't to say rotten, stupid things like that--like silly girls."
And then, as though it had been torn from him.  "I love you too, Rufus."

After that he ran madly so that Rufus could not overtake him--above all so
that he could not hear the band which had begun to play the opening march.



4

But before he had stopped running he had begun to plot again.  Even though
he had made the great renunciation he could not help hoping.  It was the
kind of hope that, when one is very young, follows on the heels of
absolute despair, and is based on magical impossibilities.  It was like
his birthday hopes, which had been known to rise triumphant above the most
obvious and discouraging facts.  After all there was to-morrow.  He would
tell Christine everything--open his heart to her as to a good and
understanding friend--and she would give him six-pence so that he could
stand in the cheap places, or perhaps a shilling so that he could go
twice.  He would tell her how he had saved Cosgrave from a fearful row,
and she would approve of him and sympathize with Cosgrave, who had such
beastly, understanding people.

He would hug her and say;

"It's jolly to have someone like you, Christine!"

And she would be enormously pleased, and in the dusk they would sit close
together and he would tell her of his superb being who changed the course
of his life, who was like his mother and Francey and God rolled into one,
and for whose sake he had emptied the housekeeping purse.

Perhaps it would all have happened just as he planned it, could it have
happened then and there.  But the front door was closed and he had to wait
a long time for the landlady's heavy answering tread.  When she came at
last it was from upstairs--he could tell by her breathing and a familiar
creak--and a cold dead hand laid itself on his heart and squeezed the hope
out of it.  They had been talking about him--those two grown-up people.
He knew the kind of things they had said: "It's very tiresome of him to be
out so late, Mrs. Withers," and, "Boys is worritting, outrageous critters,
M'am," and the cruel impossibility of reaching their far-off impervious
understanding lamed him before the door had opened.

Mrs. Withers' lumpy figure loomed up grotesquely against the yellow murk.

"Is that you, Master Robert?  You'd better run up quick.  Your aunt is
going to give you a jacketing, I can tell you."

"Aunt" was the term with which Mrs. Withers covered up what she considered
privately to be an ambiguous relationship.

Robert slunk past her.  He crawled upstairs with an aggressive
deliberation.  He would show how much he cared.  He was not afraid of
Christine.  He had seen her unhappy too often.  In a way he knew that he
was stronger than she was.  For she was old and had no one to love but
himself.

All the same he was afraid.  With every step he took he seemed to climb
farther and farther into the midst of fear.  It was all around him--in the
close, airless dark and in the deathly quiet light that came from the open
doorway overhead.  What was waiting for him there?  His father, risen
unimaginably loathsome from the grave?  For he could never be in the dark
without thinking of his father.  Or something else?  At least he knew that
the never-really-believed-in time of peace was over and that the monster
which had lain hidden and quiescent so long was crouched somewhere close
to him, ready to leap out.

Christine sat by the table under the light.  There was a drawer beside her
which she had evidently torn out of its place in panic-stricken haste, for
the floor about her was littered with its contents--gloves and
handkerchiefs and ribbons.  She held a shabby, empty purse in her limp
hand, and it was as though she had sat down because she had no longer the
strength to stand.  He had not known before how grey her hair was.  Her
face was grey, too, and withered like a dead leaf.

He stood hesitating in the doorway and they looked at one another.  There
was no question of punishment or reproof between them.  It was the old
days over again when they had clung together in the face of a common
peril--helpless and horribly afraid.  She tried to smile and push the
empty purse out of sight as though it were of no account at all.  And all
at once he was ashamed and miserable with pity.

"I was beginning to get quite worried about you." He could hardly hear
her.  "Where have you been, Robert?"

He answered heavily, not moving from the doorway where he hung like a
sullen shadow.

"At the Circus."

"Is there a Circus?  Why didn't Mrs. Withers tell me?  If I had known that
I shouldn't have worried.  I expect you were there yesterday too--and the
day before, weren't you, dear?"

He nodded, and she began to bundle everything back into the drawer, as
though at last a tiresome question had been satisfactorily settled.

"I knew it was all right.  Mr. Ricardo was here this afternoon.  He
thought I was ill--he thought you had told him you couldn't come because I
was ill.  I said I had had to stay at home--it was easier--I knew there
had been a mistake."

The old life again.  They were confederates and she had lied to shield him
even from herself.  She was looking past him as though she saw someone
standing behind him in the dark passage.  He was so sure of it that he
wanted to turn round.  But he did not dare.

"I wish I'd known.  We--we might have gone together.  I used to be very
fond of a good circus.  Did they have elephants?  Robert--Robert, dear,
why didn't you tell me about it?"

He shook his head.  He knew now that he could never have told her or made
her understand.  She would have thought him silly--or disloyal.  She would
never see that this new love had nothing to do with the Robert who would
die if Christine left him.  It had to do with another boy who longed for
bands and processions and worshipped happy, splendid people who did not
have to tell lies and who were so strong and fearless that even fierce
animals had to obey them.  They were different.  They did not live in the
same life.  You could love them without pain or pity.

It was a secret thing, inside himself.  If he tried to drag it out and
show it her, no one could tell what would happen to it.

She sighed deeply.

"It's this being away all day.  If I had been at home you would have asked
me for the money, wouldn't you?  And then you forgot to tell me.  But I've
been a little worried.  You didn't take it all, did you, dear?"

"Yes, I did.  I spent it at the Circus.  And then I gave some to Cosgrave."

He saw the blood rush up wildly into her white face.  The next minute she
had laughed--a gay, unfamiliar laugh--and he winced and shivered as though
she had struck him.

"Why, that's so like your father--that's just what your father would have
done.  He loved doing kind, generous things--giving money away."

And now he knew for certain who it was who stood behind him in the dark
passage.  He could not bear it.  He slammed the door to, closing his eyes
tight so that he should not see.  He ran to her, pressing himself against
her, stammering passionately.

"I'm not like my father--I'm not--I'm not.  I won't be."

She petted him tenderly.  She was grave now and sure of herself.

"You mustn't say that, Robert.  Your father was a wonderful man, in many
ways.  People didn't understand him--only your mother and I.  If your
mother had lived it would all have been quite different.  He was
unfortunate and often very unhappy.  The world thinks so much of money.
But he despised it.  It was nothing to him.  You're like that too.  You
didn't realize, did you?  It didn't seem a great deal.  It was just a
beginning.  But I have had to do without food.  I've been hungry
sometimes--I think I ought to tell you this, so that you may
understand--I've looked into shop-windows at lunch-time.  You see, it was
to pay for the time when you are preparing to be a doctor.  It means
hundreds of pounds, Robert.  But I calculated that if I saved a little
every week--I'd manage it--if I didn't die or lose my work."

"Don't, Christine--please don't!  Oh, Christine!"

"If I lost my work--Mr. Percy is very kind.  He is an old friend and knows
the position.  But he has his business to consider.  I'm not quick--my
eyes aren't strong.  There are younger, cleverer people.  We've got to
look things in the face, Robert.  If I lost my work there would be nothing
between us and the workhouse--nothing--nothing--nothing."

He was shivering as if with bitter cold.  His teeth chattered in his head.
He caught a ghost-like glimpse of a boy in the glass opposite--a strange,
unfamiliar figure with a white, tear-stained face and haggard eyes and
fair hair all on end.

"Oh, Christine--I'm frightened!"

"You think money must come from somewhere.  Something will turn up.  That
was what your father used to say.  He was so hopeful.  It wasn't possible
that it shouldn't turn up.  But I was younger and stronger then--I can't
begin again.--I can't--I can't.  If you're not good, Robert, I can't go
on."

"I will be good.  I won't tell lies.  I won't spend money ever again.  I
won't love anyone but you.  I won't be a doctor; I'll be something
cheap--now."

He had forgotten the photographs.  He still held them in one
tight-clenched hand.  But she had seen them.  And all at once she braced
herself although to meet an implacable enemy.  She was not tender any
more.  She was the Christine who had faced bailiffs and his father's
strange, gay friends--ice-cold and bitter and relentless.  She took the
pictures from him.  With a terrible ironic calm she sorted them from his
pockets, and spread them out on the table like a pack of cards.  He dared
not look at her.  He was afraid to see what she was seeing.  She had torn
open the door of his secret chamber, and there in that blasting light was
his treasure, naked, defenceless.  He could have cried out in his dread,
"Only don't say anything--don't say anything!"

"So that's what you liked so much, Robert--that's what you spent the money
on.  It's the old story--beginning again--only worse."  She added, almost
to herself:

"A vulgar, common woman."

She put her face between her hands.  He could hear her quiet crying.  It
was awful.  His love for her was a torture.  Because she was not wonderful
at all but human and pitiful like himself, he felt her grief like a knife
turning and turning in his own heart.  But he could not comfort her.  He
could only stare aghast at that row of faces--grinning, smirking,
arrogant, insolent faces.

It was true.  The jolly lights had been turned out.  The band had stopped
playing.

A vulgar, common woman!

      *      *      *      *      *

He stood with his back to the Circus entrance where he could smell the
sawdust and hear the hum of the audience crowding into their seats.  The
invisible band gave funny noises like a man clearing his throat.  There
was still a number of people coming in--some strolling idly, others pulled
along by their excited charges.  It was queer, Robert thought, that they
should be excited.  The smell of the sawdust made him feel rather sick.

He gave out his last handbill.  Nobody noticed him.  They took the slip of
paper which he thrust into their hands without looking at him.  He went
and stood at the box-office where the big man in riding boots was counting
out his money.  It was a high box-office, so that Robert had to stand on
tip-toe to be seen.

"I've finished," he said.

The man glanced at him and then remembered.

"Oh, yes, you're the young feller.  Given 'em all out, eh?  Not thrown 'em
on the rubbish heap?  Well, what is it?"

"I want my sixpence."

"Oh, sixpence I promised you, did I?  Well, here's a shilling seat.
That'll do better, eh, what?  You can go in now."

"I want my sixpence."

"You don't want--don't want to go to the Circus?"

"I don't like Circuses."

The big man stared down at the white set face gazing stolidly back at him
over the wooded ledge.  He tossed the coin indignantly across.

"Well, of all the unnatural, ungrateful young jackanapes----"

But he was so astonished that he had to lean out of his box and watch the
blasphemer--a quaint figure, bowed as though under a heavy burden, its
hands thrust hard into its trousers pockets--stalk away from the great
tent and without so much as a backward glance lose itself among the crowd.



PART II

I

1

They came to an idle halt near Cleopatra's needle, and leaning against
the Embankment wall, looked across the river to the warehouses opposite,
which, in the evening mist, had the look of stark cliffs guarded by a
solitary watchful lion.  The smaller of the two young men took off his
soft hat and set it beside him so that he could let the wind brush
through his thick red hair.  He held himself very straight, his slender
body taut with solemn exultation.

"If only one could do something with it," he said; "eat it--hug it--get
inside of it somehow--belong to it.  It hurts--this gaping like an
outsider.  Look now--one shade of purple upon another.  Isn't it
unendurably beautiful? But if one could write a sonnet--or a sonata--or
paint a picture----  That's where the real artist has the pull over us
poor devils who can only feel things.  He wouldn't just stand here.  He'd
get out his fountain pen or his paint-box and make it all his for ever
and ever.  Think of Whistler now--what he would do with it."

"I can't," Stonehouse said.  "Who's Whistler?"

Cosgrave laughed in anticipation of his little joke.  "Nobody, old
fellow.  At least, he never discovered any bugs."

The wind snatched up his forgotten hat and it sailed off up river into
the darkness like a large unwieldy bird.  He looked after it ruefully.

"That was a new hat.  I'll have to go home without one, and the Pater
will think I've been in a drunken brawl, and there'll be a beastly row."

"That's the one thing he'll never believe.  Well, I don't care.  It'll be
over soon.  If I've passed that exam.  I'll get away and he won't be able
to nag me any more.  And you, do think I've passed, don't you,
Stonehouse?"

"If you didn't imagine your answers afterwards."

"Honour bright, I didn't.  I believe I did a lot better, really.  You
know, I'm so awfully happy to-night I'd believe anything.  It's queer how
this old river fits in with one's moods, isn't it?  Last time we were
here I wanted to drown myself, and there it was ready to hand, as it
were--offering eternal oblivion--and all that.  I thought of all the
other fellows who had drowned themselves, and felt no end cheered up.
And now it makes me think of escape--of getting away from
everything--sailing to strange, new countries----"

"The last time you were here," Stonehouse said, "you'd just come out of
the exam.  If you really answered as you say you did, there was no reason
for your wanting to drown yourself."

"But I did.  You're such a distrustful beggar.  You think I just imagine
things.  No, I'll tell you what it was--I didn't care.  There I was--I'd
swotted and swotted.  I'd thought that if only I could squeeze through
I'd be the happiest man on earth.  And then, when it was all over I began
to think: 'What's it all for, what's it all about?  What's the good?'
Suppose I have passed, I'll get some beastly little job in some stuffy
Government office, 200 pounds a year, if I'm lucky.  And then if I'm good
and not too bright they'll raise me to 250 pounds in a couple of years'
time, and so it'll go on--nothing but fug, and dinge, and skimping, and
planning--with a fortnight at the seaside once a year or a run over to
Paris.  I suppose it was good enough for our grandfathers,
Stonehouse--this just keeping alive?  But it didn't seem good enough to
me.  Don't you feel like that sometimes--when you think of the time when
you'll be able to stick M.D., or whatever it is, after your name--as
though, after all, it didn't matter a brace of shakes?"

Robert Stonehouse roused himself from his lounging attitude and thrust
his hands deep into his trousers pockets.  There was a nip in the wind,
and he had no overcoat.

"No.  When I've got through this next year I shall feel that I've climbed
out of a black pit and that the world's before me--to do what I like
with."

"Well--you're different."  Cosgrave sighed, but not unhappily.  "You're
going to do what you want to do, and I expect you'll be great guns at it.
I dare say if I were to play the piano all day long--decently, you know,
as I do sometimes, inside me at any rate--and get money for it, I'd think
it worth while----  But it takes a lot to make one feel that way about
a Government office."

His voice was quenched by a sudden rush of traffic--a tram that jangled
and swayed, a purring limousine full of vague, glittering figures, and a
great belated lorry lumbering in pursuit like an uncouth participant in
some fantastic race.  They roared past and vanished, and into the empty
space of quiet there flowed back the undertones of the river, solitary
footfalls, the voice of the drowsing city.  The loneliness became
something magical.  It changed the colour of Cosgrave's thoughts.  He
pressed closer to his companion, and, with his elbows on the balustrade
and his hands clenched in his hair, spoke in an awed whisper.

"It does seem worth while now.  That's what's so extraordinary.  I feel I
can stick anything--even being a Government clerk all my life.  I don't
even seem to mind home like I did.  I'm in love.  That's what it is.
You've never been in love, have you, Stonehouse?"

"No."

"You're such a cast-iron fellow.  I don't know how I have the nerve to
tell you things.  Sometimes I think you don't care a snap for anything in
the world, except just getting on."

Robert Stonehouse hunched his shoulders against the wind.  There was more
than physical discomfort in the movement--a kind of secret distress and
resentment.

"You do talk a lot of sentimental rubbish," he said.  "It seems to me
it's only a hindrance--this caring so much for people.  It gets in a
man's way.  Not that it matters to you just now.  You've got a slack
time.  You can afford to fool around."

"You think I'm a milksop," Cosgrave said patiently, "I don't mind.  I
dare say it's true.  There's not much fight in me.  I don't seem able to
do without people like you can.  I think, sometimes, if I hadn't had you
to back me up I'd never have been able to stick things.  Of course, I'm
not clever, either.  But you're wrong about being in love.  It doesn't
get in one's way.  It helps.  Everything seems different."

Stonehouse was silent, his fair, straight brows contracted.  When he
spoke at last it was dispassionately and impersonally, as one giving a
considered judgment.  But his voice was rather absurdly young.

"You may be right.  I hadn't thought about it before.  It didn't seem
important enough.  There was a woman I knew when I was a kid--a common
creature--who was fond of saying that 'it was love that made the world go
round.'  (My father married her for her money, which didn't go round at
all.)  Still, in her way, she was stating a kind of biological fact.  If
people without much hold on life didn't fall in love they'd become
extinct.  They wouldn't have the guts to push on or the cheek to
perpetuate themselves.  But they do fall in love, and I suppose, as you
say, things seem different.  _They_ seem different--worth while.  So they
marry and have children, which seems worth while too--different from
other people's children, at any rate, or they wouldn't be able to bear
the sight of them.  What you call love is just a sort of trick played on
you.  If crowds are of any use I suppose it's justified.  It's a big
'if,' though."

Cosgrave smiled into the dark.

"It sounds perfectly beastly.  Not a bit encouraging.  But I don't care,
somehow.  Do you mind if I tell you about her?  I've got to talk to
somebody."

"I don't mind.  But I don't want to stand here any longer.  It's cold,
and, besides, I've got to be up west by six."

They turned and strolled on toward Westminster.  Robert Stonehouse still
kept his hands thrust into his pockets, and the position, gave his
heavy-shouldered figure a hunched fighting look, as though he had set
himself to stride out against a tearing storm.  He took no notice of
Cosgrave, who talked on rapidly, stammering a little and scrambling for
his words.  The wind blew his hair on end, and he walked with his small
wistful nose lifted to the invisible stars.

"You see, I can't tell anyone at home about her.  It's not as though she
were even what people call a lady.  (Oh, I'm perfectly sane--I don't
humbug myself.)  Mother'd have a fit, and the Pater only looks at that
kind of thing in one way--his own particularly disgusting way.  She drops
her aitches sometimes.  But she's good, and she's pretty as a flower.  I
met her at a dance club.  I'd never been to such a place before.  And
then one evening it suddenly came over me that I wanted to be among a lot
of people who were having a good time.  So I plunged.  You pay sixpence,
you know, and everybody dances with everybody.  Of course I can't dance.
She saw me hanging round and looking glum, I suppose, and she was nice to
me.  She taught me a few steps, and I told her about the exam, and how
worried I was about it, and we became friends.  I've never had a
girl-friend before.  It's amazing.  And she's different, anyway----
She's on the stage--in the chorus to begin with--but you'd think they'd
given her a lead, she's so happy about it.  That's what I love about her.
Everything seems jolly to her.  She enjoys things like a kid--a 'bus
ride, a cinema, our little suppers together.  She loves just being alive,
you know.  It's extraordinary--I say, are you listening, Stonehouse?"

"I didn't know you wanted me to listen.  I thought you wanted to talk.  I
was thinking of an operation I saw once--you wouldn't understand--it was
a ticklish job, and the man lost his head.  He tried to hide it, but I
knew, and he saw I knew.  A man like that oughtn't to operate."

"And did the other fellow die?"

"Oh, yes.  But he would have died anyway, probably.  It wasn't that that
mattered.  It was losing his nerve like that."

"If I saw an operation," Cosgrave said humbly, "I should be sick."

Stonehouse had not heard.  They reached the bridge in silence, and under
a street lamp stopped to take leave of one another.  It was their
customary walk and the customary ending, and each wondered in his
different way how it was that they should always want to meet and to talk
to one another of things that only one of them could understand.

"Why does he bother with me?" Cosgrave thought.

But he was sorry for Robert, partly because he guessed that he was hungry
and partly because he knew that he was not in love.

"I wish you'd come along too," he said a little breathlessly; "I want you
to meet her, you know--for us all to be friends together--just a quiet
supper--and my treat, of course."

It was very transparent.  He tried to look up at his companion boldly and
innocently.  But the light from the street lamp fell into his strange
blue eyes, with their look of young and anxious hopefulness, and made
them blink.  Robert Stonehouse laughed.  He knew what was in Cosgrave's
mind, and it seemed to him half comic and half pathetic and rather
irritating.

"I don't suppose you have enough to pay for supper, anyway," he said
roughly, "or you'll go without your lunch to-morrow.  Don't be an idiot.
Look after yourself and I'll look after myself.  Besides, if you think
I'm not going to have a square meal to-night you're enormously mistaken.
I'm going to dine well--where you'll never Set your foot, not until
you're earning more than 250 pounds a year, at any rate."

"Word of honour?"

"Oh, word of honour, of course."

A shy relief came into the pinched and freckled face.

"Oh, well then--but I do want you to meet all the same; you see, she'd
like it--she knows all about you.  I'm always bragging about you.
Perhaps I could bring her round--if Miss Forsyth wouldn't mind--if she's
well enough."

Robert Stonehouse half turned away, as though shrinking from an
unwelcome, painful touch.

"She's all right."

"Then may we come?  I'm not afraid of Miss Forsyth.  She's an
understanding person.  She won't think people common because of their
aitches.  Give her my love, won't you, Robert.  And good night."

"Oh, good night!"  He added quickly, sullenly: "You look blue with cold.
Why don't you wear a decent coat?  It's idiotic!"

"Because my coat isn't decent.  I don't want her to see me shabby.  And I
like to pretend I'm rather a strong, dashing fellow who doesn't mind
things.  Besides, look at yourself!"

"I'm different."

"You needn't rub it in."  He was gay now with an expectation that bubbled
up in him like a fountain.  He made as though to salute Robert solemnly
and then remembered and clutched at his wind-blown hair instead.  "Oh, my
hat!  Well, it will make Connie laugh like anything!" he said.



2

To be a habitue of Brown's was to prove yourself a person of some means
and solid discrimination.  At Brown's you could get cuts from the joint,
a porter-house steak, apple tart, and a good boiled pudding as nowhere
else in the world.  You went in through the swinging doors an ordinary
and fallible human being, and you came out feeling you had been fed on
the very stuff which made the Empire.  You were slightly stupefied, but
you were also superbly, magnificently unbeatable.

Mr. Brown was an Englishman.  But he did not glory in the fact.  It was,
as he had explained to Robert one night, his kindly, serious face glowing
in the reflection from the grill, a tragedy.

"To be born an Englishman and a cook--it's like being born a bird without
wings.  You can't soar--not however hard you try--not above roasts and
boils.  Take vegetables.  An Englishman natur'lly boils.  And it's no
good going against nature.  You're a doctor--or going to be--and you know
that.  You've got to do the best you can, but you can't do more.  That's
my motto.  But if I'd been born a Frenchman----  Well it's no use
dreaming.  If them potatoes are ready, Jim, so'm I."

Mr. Brown had taken a fancy to Robert Stonehouse from the moment that the
latter had challenged him on the very threshold of his kitchen and
explained, coolly and simply, his needs and his intentions.  Mr. Brown
was frankly a Romantic, and Robert made up to him for the souffles and
other culinary adventures which Fate had denied him.  He liked to dream
himself into Robert's future.

"One of these days I'll be pointing you out to my special
customers--'Yes, sir, that's Sir Robert himself.  Comes here every
Saturday night for old times' sake.  Used to work here with me--waited
with his own hands, sir--for two square meals and ten per cent. of his
tips.  You don't get young men like that these days--no, sir."

Robert accepted his prophetic vision gravely.  It was what he meant to
happen, and it did not seem to him to be amusing.

Brown's was tucked away in a quiet West End side street, and there was
only one entrance.  At six o'clock the tables were still empty, and
Robert walked through into the employees' dressing-room.  He put on his
white jacket, slightly stained with iodoform, and a black apron which
concealed his unprofessional grey trousers, and went to work in the
pantry, laying out plates and dishes in proper order, after the manner of
a general marshalling his troops for action.  He was deft handed, and
responsible for fewer breakages than any of the old-timers--foreigners
for the most--who flitted up and down the passages with the look of bats
startled from their belfries and only half awake.  Through an open, glass
window he could see into the huge kitchen, where Mr. Brown brooded over
his oven, and catch rich, sensuous odours that went to his head like so
many etherealized cocktails.  He had not eaten since the morning, and
though he was too strong to faint, it grew increasingly difficult to fix
his mind on the examination question which he had set himself.  He found
himself wondering instead, what would happen if old Brown lost his
_flair_ for the psychological moment in roasts, and why it was that a man
who had performed an operation successfully a hundred times should
suddenly go to pieces over it?  What made him lose faith in himself?
Nerves?  A matter of the liver?  We were only at the beginning of our
investigations.  And then poor little Cosgrave, who as suddenly began to
believe in himself and in life generally because he had fallen in love
with a chorus girl!

The head waiter looked round the pantry door.  He was a passionate
Socialist who, in his spare time, preached the extermination of all such
as did not work for their daily bread.  But he disliked Robert bitterly,
as a species of bourgeois blackleg.

"You're wanted.  There's a party of ten just come in.  Hurry up, can't
yer?"

Robert put down his plates and went into the dining-room with the wine
list.  His table-napkin he carried neatly folded over one arm.

And there was Francey Wilmot.

She had other people with her, but he saw her first.  He could not have
mistaken her.  Of course, she had changed.  She was taller, for one
thing, and wore evening dress instead of the plain brown frock that he
remembered.  But her thick hair had always been short, and now it was
done up it did not seem much shorter.  And it still had that quaint air
of being brushed up from her head by a secret, rushing wind--of wanting
to fly away with her.  She was burnt, too, with an alien sun and wind.
Her face and neck were a golden brown, and in reckless contrast with her
white shoulders.  One saw how little she cared.  She sat with her elbows
on the table, and the sight of the supple hands and strong, slender
wrists stopped Robert Stonehouse short, as though a deep, old wound which
had not troubled him for years had suddenly begun to hurt again.  And yet
how happy he had been, as a little boy, when she had just touched him.

It was evidently a celebration in her honour.  A tall young man with side
whiskers who came in late presented her with a bunch of roses in the name
of the whole company and with a gay, exaggerated homage.  They were a
jolly crowd.  They had in common their youth and an appearance of
good-natured disregard for the things that ordinary people cared about.
Otherwise they were of all sorts and conditions, like their clothes.  Two
or three were in evening dress, and one girl who sat at the end of the
table and smoked incessantly wore a shabby coat and skirt and a raffish
billycock hat.  Chelsea or the University Schools was stamped on all of
them.  There wasn't much that they didn't know, and there was very little
that they believed in--not even themselves.  For they were of the very
newest type, and would have scorned to admit to a Purpose or a Faith.
But they could not help being young and rather liking one another, and
the good food and the promise of a riotous evening.

Robert knew their kind.  He even knew by sight the side-whiskered young
man who now clapped his hands like an Eastern potentate.  He had been of
Robert's year at the University, and had been ploughed twice.

"Wine-ho!  Fellow creatures, what is it to be?  In honour of the occasion
and to show our contempt of circumstances, shall we say a magnum of
Heidsieck?  All in favour wave their paws----"

The girl in the billycock hat blew a great puff of smoke towards him.

"Oh, death and damnation, Howard!  Haven't I been explaining to you all
the afternoon that I owe rent for a fortnight to a devil in female form,
and that unless someone buys 'A Sunset over the Surrey Cliffs seen Upside
Down,' Gerty will be on the streets?  Make it beer with a dash o'
bitters."

Finally it was Francey who decided.  She beckoned, not looking at him,
and Robert with a little obsequious bow, handed her the wine card and
waited at her elbow.  He was not afraid of Howard's recognition.  They
had never spoken to one another, and in any case Howard would not believe
his eyes.

It was strange to stand near to her again and to recognize the little
things about her that had fascinated small Robert Stonehouse--the line of
her neck, the brown mole at the corner of her eye which people were
always trying to rub off, the way her hair curled up from her temples in
two unmistakable horns.  He had teased her about them in his shy, clumsy
way.  A very subtle and sweet warmth emanated from her like a breath.  It
took him back to the day when he had huddled close to her, hiccoughing
with grief and anger, and yet deeply, deliriously happy because she was
sorry for him.  It made him giddy with a sense of unreality, as though
the present and the intervening years were only part of one of his night
stories, which, after their tiresome, undeviating custom, had got tangled
up in a monstrous, impossible dream.  And then a new fancy took
possession of him.  He wanted to bend closer to her and say, very
quietly, as though he were suggesting an order, "What about your
handkerchief?  Do you want it back, Francey?"

Amidst his austerely disciplined thoughts the impulse was like a mad,
freakish intruder, and it frightened him, so that he drew back sharply.

"Cider-cup," she said.  "It's my feast--and I like seeing the fruit and
pretending I can taste it.  And then Howard won't get drunk and recite
poetry.  Three orders, waiter."

He took the wine card, but she held it a moment longer, as though
something had suddenly attracted her attention.  Their hands had almost
touched.

"Yes--three orders will be enough."

The company groaned, but submitted.  In reality they were too stimulated
already by an invisible, exuberant spirit among them to care much.  From
where he waited for Francey's order on the threshold of the pantry Robert
could see and hear them.  It was really the old days over again.
Fundamentally things outside himself did not change much.  The Brothers
Banditti had grown up.  They were not nice children any more.  The
innocent building-ground and nefarious plottings against unpopular
authority had given place to restaurants and more subtle wickednesses.
But still Francey played her queer, elusive role among them.  She was of
them--and yet she stood a little apart, a little on one side.  Probably
Howard thought himself their real leader.  They did not talk to her
directly very much, nor she to them.  But all the time they were playing
up to her, trying to draw her attention to themselves and make her laugh
with them.  She did laugh.  It did not seem to matter to her at all that
they were often crude and blatant and sometimes common in their
self-expression.  She laughed from her heart.  But her laughter was a
little different.  It sat by itself, an elfish thing, with a touch of
seriousness about it, its arms hugging its knees, and looked beyond them
all and saw how much bigger and finer the joke was than they thought it.
She was the spirit of their good humour.  They could not have done
without her.

And he, Robert Stonehouse, stood outside the circle, as in reality he had
always done.  But now he did not want to belong.  He knew now how it
hindered men to run with the herd--even to have friends.  It wasted time
and strength.  And these people were no good anyhow.  Howard was one of
these dissipated duffers who later on would settle down as a miraculously
respectable and incapable G.P.  The rest were vague, rattle-brained
eccentrics who would fizzle out, no one would know how or care.

Only Francey----  But even in the old days it was only because of
Francey that the Banditti had meant anything to him.

The head waiter pushed across the counter a jug of yellowish liquid in
which floated orange peel and a few tinned, dubious-looking cherries.

"Take it, for God's sake!  People who want muck like that ought to keep
to Soho."

Robert poured out with an eye trained to accurate measurements in the
laboratory.  It was his practice to do well everything that he had to do.
Otherwise you lost tone--you weakened your own fibre so that when the big
thing came along you slumped.  But he could not forget Francey Wilmot's
nearness.  It did not surprise him any more.  But it charged him with
unrest, and he and his unrest frightened him.  He knew how to master
ordinary emotion.  Even when he carried off the Franklin Scholarship in
the teeth of a brilliant opposition he had not allowed himself a moment's
triumph.  It was all in the day's work--a single step on the road which
he had mapped out deliberately.  But this was outside his experience.  It
had pounced on him from nowhere, shaking him.

He had to look up at her again.  And then he saw that she was looking at
him too, steadily, with a deep, inquiring kindness.

It was as though she had said aloud:

"Are you really a good little boy, Robert?"

The cider poured over the edge of the glass and over the table-cloth and
in a dismal stream on to the lap of the girl with the raffish billycock
hat.

"Well, that settles that," she said good-humouredly.  "My only skirt,
friends.  She can't turn me out in my petticoat, can she?  Oh, leave it
alone, garcong; it doesn't matter a tinker's curse----"

He could not help it.  In the midst of his angry confusion he still had
to seek out her verdict on him--just as Robert Stonehouse had always done
when he had been peculiarly heroic or unfortunate.  And there it was,
dancing beneath her gravity, her unforgotten, magic laughter.

At half-past ten Brown's cleared its last table.  Robert Stonehouse
rolled down his sleeves, picked up the parcel which had been placed ready
for him on the pantry counter, said good-night to the head waiter, who
did not answer, and with his coat-collar turned up about his ears went
out in the street.  It was quiet as a country lane and empty except for
the girl who waited beyond the lamp light.  He knew her instantly, and in
turn two sensations that were equally foreign and unfamiliar seized him.
The first was sheer panic, and the second was a sense of inevitability.
The second was the oddest of the two, because he did not believe in Fate,
but he did believe in his own will.

It was his own will, therefore, that made him walk steadily and
indifferently towards her.  His head bent as though he did not see her.
It was really the wind in her hair now.  It caught the ends of her long,
loose coat and carried them out behind her.  Her slender feet moved
uncertainly in the circle of lamp-light.  Any moment they might break
into one of the quaint little dances.  Or the wind might carry her off
altogether in a mysterious gust down the street and out of sight.  It was
like his vision of her that evening in Acacia Grove.  It made him feel
more and more unreal and frightened of himself.

He was almost past her when he spoke.

"Robert Stonehouse," she said rather authoritatively, as though she
expected him to run away; "Robert Stonehouse----"

He stopped short with his heart beating in his throat.  But he did not
take the hand that she held out to him.  He could only stare at her,
frowning in his distress, and she asked: "You do know who I am, don't
you?"

"Yes.  Francey--Francey Wilmot--Miss Wilmot."  He forced himself to stop
stammering, and added stiffly: "I did not know you had recognized me."

"Didn't you?  I thought----  Well, I did recognize you anyhow.  I was
so astonished at first that I thought it was a sort of materialization.
But you were absurdly the same.  And then when you poured the cider out
on to poor Gerty's skirt----"

"Was that one of my childish customs?" he asked.  "I'd forgotten."

"I nearly stood up and shook hands."

"I'm glad you didn't."

"I thought you'd feel like that.  I remembered that you had been rather a
touchy little boy----"

"I was thinking of your friends.  Howard, for instance."

"Why, do you know Howard?"

"By sight."

"If you've never even spoken to him you can't, of course, tell what he
would have felt.  Do you mind walking home with me?  I don't live far
from here, and we can talk better."

He held his ground, obstinate and defiant.  It was unjust that anyone,
knowing himself to be brilliantly clever, should yet be made an oaf by an
incident so trivial.

"I'm sorry.  I don't see what we can have to talk about.  I'm not keen on
childish recollections.  I haven't time for them.  And it's fairly
obvious we don't move in the same set and are not likely to meet again."
He burst out rudely.  "I suppose you were just curious----"

"Of course.  You'd be curious if you found me selling flowers in
Piccadilly.  You'd come up and say: 'allo!  Francey, what have you been
doing with yourself?'  And you'd have tried to give me a leg up, if it
only ran to buying a gardenia for old times' sake."

He suspected her of poking fun at him.  And yet there was that subtle
underlying seriousness about her and a frank, disarming kindliness.

"You think I'm down on my luck," he retorted, "and so anybody has a right
to butt in."

"Not a right.  Of course, if I'd met you in Bond Street, all sleek and
polished, I shouldn't have dreamed of butting in.  I should have said to
myself, 'Well, that's the end of the little Robert Stonehouse saga as far
as I'm concerned,' and I don't suppose I should ever have thought of you
again.  But now I shall have to go on thinking--and wondering what
happened--and worrying."  She drew her cloak closer about her like a bird
folding its wings, and added prosaically: "I say, don't you find it
rather cold standing about here?"

He turned with her and walked on sullenly, his head down to the wind.  He
thought: "I shall tell her nothing at all."  But to his astonishment she
was silent, and finally he had to speak himself.

"I'm afraid this silly business has broken up your party.  Or was it
getting too lively for you?  Howard's beanos used to have a considerable
reputation."

"He often seems drunk when he isn't," she returned tranquilly.  "I think
it's because he enjoys things more than most people are able to.  It
wasn't that.  I wanted to see you so much, and I knew Brown's would be
closing about now.  So I sent them to a theatre.  It seemed the safest
place."

"And they went like lambs.  But, then, the Banditti always did."

"Oh, the Banditti!"  He guessed that she was smiling to herself.  "The
Banditti wouldn't have grown up like that.  They were much too
nice--never quite really wicked, were they?  Just carried off their feet.
Still, they were never quite the same after you left.  I think they
always hankered a little after the good old days when they rang
door-hells and chivied their governesses.  Probably they will never be so
happy again."

"They had you.  It was you they really cared about.  Everybody did what
you liked."

"You didn't."

"I did--in the end."

It was odd that they should be both thinking of that last encounter and
that they should speak of it so guardedly, as though it were still a
delicate matter.

"I didn't know you were never coming again.  I waited for you in the
afternoon--for weeks and weeks."

"Did you?"  He looked at her quickly, taken off his guard, and then away
again with a scornful laugh.  "Oh, I don't believe it.  You knew I wasn't
nice--not your sort.  You're just making it up."

"I wonder why you say that?" she asked dispassionately.  "It's cheap and
stupid.  You're not really stupid and you weren't cheap, even if you
weren't nice.  And you know that I don't tell lies."

For a moment he was too startled and too ashamed to answer.  Cheap.  That
was just the word for it.  The sort of thing that common young men said
to their common young women.  And, of course, he did know.  Her integrity
was a thing you felt.  But he could never bring himself to tell her that
he had been afraid to believe too easily, or that he did not want to have
to remember her afterwards, waiting there day by day, in their deserted
playground.  It troubled him already, like a vague, indefinite pain.

He did not even apologize.

"I suppose I should have come back sooner or later.  But I didn't have
the chance.  My father died that night--unexpectedly."  He brushed aside
her low interjection.

"Oh, I was jolly glad.  But after that we had to clear out.  There was no
money at all."

"But you lived in a big house.  Your father was a great doctor."

"I was a great liar," he retorted impatiently.  "I suppose I wanted to
impress you.  Perhaps he was a great doctor.  Anyhow, he never did any
work.  There was a bailiff in the house when he died and a pile of bills.
And not much else."

"What happened, then?  Did you go with your stepmother?  I remember how
you hated her!  You wouldn't admit that she was a mother of any sort."

"No.  I don't know what became of her.  I never saw her again after that
night.  I think she went to live with her own people.  Christine took
care of me."

"I don't remember Christine.  I don't think you ever told me about her."

"I wouldn't have known how to explain.  I don't know now.  She was a sort
of friend--my father's and mother's friend.  There was an understanding
between her and my mother--a promise--I don't know what.  So she took me
away with her.  Not that she had any money, either.  We went to live in
two rooms in the suburbs, and she worked for us both.  She had never
worked before--not for money--and she wasn't young.  But she did it."

"A great sort of friend.   And she came through too----?"

He did not answer at once, and he felt her look at him quickly,
anxiously, as though she had felt him shrink back into himself.  She
heard something in his silence that he did not want her to hear.  He put
his head down to the wind again, hiding a white, hard face.

"Oh, yes, and we still live in two rooms--over a garage in Drayton Mews.
My room 'folds up' in the day-time, and she sits there and knits woollen
things for the shops.  She has to take life easily now.  She had an
illness, and her eyes trouble her.  But she's better--much better.  And
next year everything will be different."

The street had run out into the still shadows of a great dim square.  For
a moment they hesitated like travellers on the verge of unknown country;
then Francey crossed over to the iron-palinged garden and they walked on
side by side under the trees that rattled their grimy, fleshless limbs in
an eerie dance.  There was no one else stirring.  The eyes of the stately
Georgian houses were already closed in the weariness of their sad old age.

But she asked no questions.  She seemed to have drifted away from him on
a secret journey of her own.  He had to draw her back--make her
realize----

"I shall be a doctor then," he said challengingly.

"You said you would be a doctor.  We quarrelled about it."

"How you remember things----"

"You were such a strange little boy.  Besides, you remember them too."

"That's different.  I've never had anyone else----"  He caught himself
up.  "I suppose you think I'm still bragging?"

"You never bragged.  You always did what you said you were going to
do--even stupid things, like climbing that old wall."

So she had seen him, after all.  She had watched--perhaps a little
frightened for him, a little impressed by his reckless daring.

"Oh, well, I admit it didn't seem likely.  People think you have to have
a lot of money.  We've often laughed about it.  For we hadn't anything
except what we saved from week to week.  And yet we've done it.  You can
do anything so long as you don't mind what you do.  It depends on the
stuff you're made of."

He threw his head up and walked freely, with open shoulders.  After all,
he was proud of those years, and had a right to be.  They had tested
every inch of him, and it would have been stupid to pretend that he did
not know his own mettle.  He heard his footsteps ring out through the
fitful whimpering of the wind and they seemed to mark the rhythm of his
life--a steady, resolute progression.  The lighter fall of Francey
Wilmot's feet beside him was like an echo.  But yet it had its own
quality.  Not less resolute.

He heard her say quickly, almost to herself:

"It must have been hard going--but awfully worth while.  An adventure.  I
can't be sorry for anyone who suffers on an adventure--any sort of
adventure--even if it's only in oneself."

She was more moved than he could understand.  But the wind, dashed with
ice-cold rain, blew them closer to one another.  He could feel the warmth
of her arm against his.  It was difficult to seem prosaic and casual.

"That's just it.  Worth while.  Why do people want 'chances' and
'equality' and things made smooth for them?  What's the use of anything
if there isn't a top and a bottom to it?  What's the use of having enough
to eat if you haven't been hungry?  I'm going to be a doctor, and I might
have slumped into the gutter.  I'm jolly glad there is a gutter to slump
into----"  He broke off, and then went on more deliberately.
"Christine and I mapped it out one night when I was ten years old.  After
school hours I used to run errands and sell newspapers.  On half-holidays
I went down into the West End and hunted taxis for people coming out of
theatres.  I took my exams and scholarship one after the other.  We
counted on that.  I kept on earning in one way or another all through my
first M.B. and during the two years I've walked the Wards.  Now I've had
to drop out for a bit to make enough to carry through my finals.
Christine's illness was the only thing we hadn't reckoned with."

Her voice had an odd, troubling huskiness.

"You must be frightfully strong.  But then you always were.  You used to
beat everyone----"

"I'm like that now.  I've got a dozen lives--like a cat.  And one life
doesn't know what the other one's doing."  He laughed.  "Before breakfast
I wash down the car of the man who owns our garage.  The rest of the
morning I coach fellows for the Matric.  In the afternoon I swot for
myself.  You see how I spend my evenings.  Brown's been very decent to
me.  I get part of my tips and two meals--one for myself and one to take
home."  He showed her the parcel that he carried.  "Cold chicken and rice
mould," he said carelessly.  "We couldn't afford that."

He did not tell her that there had been times when, to keep their
compact, they had gone without altogether, when Christine had fainted
over her typewriter and he had watched her from out of a horrible,
quivering mist--too sick with hunger to help, or even to care much.  He
did not want Francey to be sorry for him.

"And the tips?" she asked, with grave concern.  "I hope we played the
game.  But poor old Howard is always so hard up----"

"Oh, good enough.  Usually I get more than the others, and they hate me
for it.  I'm quicker and I've got clean hands.  People like that."

"I saw your hands first," Francey said, "and I knew at once that you were
something different."

It was too dark for her to see his face.  Yet he turned away hastily.  He
spoke as though he did not care at all.

"Brown's a smart fellow.  He knows what's coming, and what people are
worth to him.  We've got an agreement that when I'm Sir Robert I'm to
boost the old place and do his operations free.  I think he'll be rather
sick if he doesn't need any."

It was half a joke, but if she had laughed--laughed in the wrong way--the
chances were that he would have turned on his heel and left her without
so much as a good-night.  For he was strung up to an abnormal, cruel
sensitiveness.  Whatever else they did, people did not laugh at him.  He
had never given them the chance that he had given her.  He had learnt to
be silent, and now she had made him talk and the result had been an
uncouth failure.  He had thrown his hardships at her like a parvenu his
riches.  If she did not see through his crudeness to what was real in
him, she could only see that he was a rather funny young man who
swaggered outrageously.  And that was not to be endured.

But she did not laugh at all.

"You're sure of yourself, Robert."

"Yes--I am."

"I'm sure of myself, too.  Because I'm sure of things outside myself."

He did not try to understand her.  He was wrestling with the expression
of his own experiences.  He threw out his free hand and turned it and
closed the powerful, slender fingers, as though he were moulding some
invisible substance.

"Outside things are colourless and lifeless--sort of plastic stuff--until
we get hold of them.  We twist them to the best shapes we can.  Nothing
happens to us that isn't exactly like ourselves.  Even what people call
accidents.  Even a man's diseases.  I've seen that in the Wards.  People
die as they live, and they live as they are----"

And now she did laugh, throwing back her head, and he laughed with her,
shyly but not resentfully.  It was as though a crisis in their
relationship had been passed.  He could trust her to understand.  And he
knew that though what he had said was true, it had also sounded young and
sententious.

"You think I'm talking rot, don't you?"

"I only think you've changed," she answered, with a quick gravity.  "Not
outside.  Outside you're just a few feet bigger and the round lines have
become straight.  But when you were a little boy you used to cry a good
deal."

"I don't see--how did you know?"

"I did know.  There were certain smears--I don't think you liked having
your face washed--and a red, tired, look under the eyes.  The point is
that now I can't imagine your ever having cried at all."

"I haven't."  He calculated solemnly.  "Not for more than twelve years.
I remember, because it was after I had played truant at the circus."

But he did not want to tell her about the circus.  He stopped short and
looked at his watch in the lamplight.

"Nearly twelve.  We've been prowling round this place for an hour.  I've
got to get home and work.  I thought you said you lived near here."

"I do.  Over the way.  The big house.  I've two rooms on the top floor.
Rather jolly--and near St. Mary's----"

"What--what do you want with St. Mary's?"

But she had already begun to cross the road, and the wind, coming down a
side street with a shriek, sent her scudding before it like a leaf.  She
was half-way up the grey stone steps before he overtook her.  She turned
on him, the short ends of her hair flying wickedly.

"Of course, it's only right and natural that you should talk of nothing
but yourself."

He stammered breathlessly.

"I didn't think--I'm sorry----"

"Do you suppose you're the only person who does what they say they're
going to do?"

"What--not--not a doctor, Francey?"

"Not yet.  I'm two years behind you.  This will be my first year in the
Wards.  Next year you will be full-blown--perhaps on the staff--and I
shall have to trot behind you and believe everything you say."  She
smiled rather gravely.  "You will have got the big stick, after all."

He looked up at her, holding on to the spiked railing that guarded the
yawning area.  But he had a queer feeling that he had let go of
everything else that he had held fast to--that he was gliding down-bill
in a reckless abandonment to an unknown feeling.  He knew too little of
emotion to know that he was happy.

"Why--I shall be there too.  I'll be on a surgical post--dresser for old
Rogers.  And he's going to take me on his private rounds."

It was not what he had meant to say.  He had meant to say, "We shall see
each other."  Perhaps she guessed.  Her hand rested on his, warm and
strong and kind, as though nothing had changed at all.  Because they were
grown up she did not hold back in a conventional reserve.  If only he
could have cried she would have sat down on the steps beside him, and put
her arm about him, and comforted him.

"And I want to meet Christine," she said.

He nodded.

"Rather."

"And it's been fine--our meeting again.  But didn't you always know it
would happen?"

"I believe I did.  Yes, I did.  I used to imagine----"

And then he knew and saw that she knew too.  He saw it in the sudden
darkening of her steady eyes, in the perplexity of her drawn brows.  He
felt it in her hand that scarcely moved, as though even now it would not
shrink from whatever was the truth.  It came and went like a flare of
fire across the storm.  And when it had gone, they could not believe that
it had ever been.  They were both shaken with astonishment.  And yet,
hadn't they always known?

"Good-night, Robert Stonehouse."

"Good-night."

But he could not move.  He watched the blank door open, and her slender
shadow stand out for a moment against the yellow gas-light of the hall.
She did not look back.  Perhaps she too was spell-bound.  The door closed
with an odd sound as though the house had clicked its tongue in
good-natured amusement.

"Now you see how it happens, Robert Stonehouse!"

At any rate, the spell was broken.  Hugging his parcel dangerously close
he raced back to the shelter of the trees and waited.  High over head the
house opened a bright eye at him.  He waved back at it with an absurd,
incredible boyishness.

Then he walked on deliberately, firmly.

What was it he had to set his mind on?

Of course.  That question of therapeutics----



II

1

"I don't understand it," Christine said.  "It seems to me better than
anything you've ever read to me."

She counted her stitches for the second time, and looked up at the sun
that showed its face over the stable roof opposite, as though at a lamp
which did not burn as well as it used to do.  In the dusty golden light
she was like a figure in a tapestry.  Perhaps in its early days it had
been a trifle crude, a trifle harsh in colour, but now worn and
threadbare, trembling on decay, it had attained a rare and exquisite
beauty.

She smiled back blindly into the little room.

"Don't you think so, Robert?"

Mr. Ricardo also looked at Robert, eagerly, pathetically.

"It was to gain your opinion--reinforce my own judgment--solely for
that purpose--difficult to obtain, the impartial opinion of a trained
mind----"

He had grown into a habit of talking like that--in broken disjointed
sentences, which only Robert and Christine who knew his thoughts could
understand.  And now, in the midst of his scattered manuscript he
waited, rubbing his shiny knees with his thin, grey, not very clean
hands.

But Robert looked at Francey.  He had sat all the time with his arms
crossed on the oil-clothed table and looked at her, frankly and
unconsciously as a savage or a street boy might have done.  He was too
tired to care.  He had come straight from giving the limousine
underneath an extra washing down for the Whitsun holidays and oil still
lingered in his nails, and there was a faint forgotten smear of it on
his cheek, and another near the thick upstanding hair where he had
rubbed his hand across.  They came as almost humorous relief in a face
in which there were things ten years too old--the harsh and bony
structure showing where there should have been a round boyishness, and
the full mouth set in a fierce, relentless negation of itself.  But the
oil smears and the eyes that shone out from under the fair overhanging
brows were again almost too young.  They made the strength pathetic.

He, too, sat in the sunlight, which was not kind to his green,
threadbare clothes.  But the sun only came into the stable yard for an
hour or two, and as it withdrew itself slowly along the length of the
table he shifted his position to move with it, unconsciously, like a
tired animal.  Francey, cross-legged and smoking, on the couch which at
night unfolded itself into a bed, saw the movement and smiled at him.
Her eyes were as steady in their serenity as his were steady with
hunger.  She did not change colour, so that whatever she understood
from that long scrutiny did not trouble her.  He leant forward, as
though he were afraid of missing some subtle half-tone in her voice.

"Mr. Ricardo thinks I'm unprejudiced.  He's forgotten the times when he
pulled my ears and smacked my head.  But you are different, Francey.
You can say what you think."

"But it wouldn't be at all helpful," she answered very solemnly.  "To
begin with, I have the scientific mind, and I cannot accept as a basis
of argument an entirely untested hypothesis."

Connie Edwards thereupon gave vent to an artificial groan of anguish,
followed by an explosive giggle which would have lost her her half of
Rufus Cosgrave's chair had he not put his arm round her.  There were
only three chairs in the room, and as two of them had been already
occupied when she and her companion had, as she expressed it, "blown
in" half an hour previously, they had perched together, listening with
clasped hands and an air of insincere solemnity.  For Mr. Ricardo had
not stopped reading.  He had gone on as though he had not heard their
boisterous entry, and even now would have seemed unaware of their
existence but for something bitter and antagonistic in the hunch of his
thin shoulders.  His dark, biting eyes avoided them like those of a
sullen child who does not want to see.  But Miss Edwards appeared to be
not easily depressed.  She waved her hand in friendly thanks for the
cigarette case which Francey tossed across to her, and, having selected
her cigarette with blunt, viciously manicured fingers, poked Cosgrave
for a match.

"Gawd Almighty, and Little Connie K.O.'ed in the first round by an
untested hypo--hypo----  What was it, Ruffles dear?  (Oh, do stop
squeezing my hand!  This isn't the pictures, and it's a match I
want--not love.)  An untested hypothesis.  Thank you, dearie.  I wonder
if He's feeling as sore about it as I am?"

She gurgled over her cigarette, and Cosgrave smiled at everyone in
turn, as though he had said aloud, "Isn't she a splendid joke?"  He
looked almost mystically happy.

"Of such is the Kingdom of Heaven," Mr. Ricardo muttered.  "Mark it,
mark it, Robert--the shallow thinking, shallow jesting, shallow
living----"

Miss Edwards winked at Francey, and Francey looked back at her with her
understanding kindliness.  It seemed to Robert that ever since Connie
Edwards had burst into the room Francey had changed.  The change was
subtle and difficult to lay hold of, like Francey herself.  Mentally
she was always moving about, quietly, light-footedly, just as she had
done among the bricks and rubble of their old playground, peering
thoughtfully at things which nobody else saw or looking at them from
some new point of view.  You couldn't be sure what they were or why
they interested her.  And now--he had almost seen her do it--she had
shifted her position, come over to Connie Edward's side, and was gazing
over her shoulder, with her own brown head tilted a little on one ear,
and was saying in Connie's vernacular:

"Well, so that's how it looks to you?  And, I say, you're right.  It's
a scream----"

In her mysterious way she had found something she liked in Connie
Edwards, with her awful hat and her outrageous, three-inch heels and
her common prettiness.  Cosgrave obviously was crazy about her.  He
seemed to cling to her because she had an insatiable hunger for the
things he couldn't afford.  One could see that he had tried to model
himself to her taste.  He wore a gardenia and a spotted tie.  And,
bearing these insignia of vulgarity, he looked more than ever pathetic
and over-delicate.

Cosgrave was an idiot who had lost his balance.  But Francey was
another matter.  The Francey who had asked "And are you a good little
boy?" accepted Connie Edwards without question.  Because it was
ridiculous to be hurt about it Robert grew angry with her and frowned
away from her, and talked to Mr. Ricardo as though there were no one
else in the room.

"I can't think why they didn't take it, sir.  It's fine stuff.  A shade
too long for a magazine article.  It may have been that, of course."

But Mr. Ricardo bent down and began to gather up his manuscript.  The
paper was of all kinds and sizes, covered with crabbed writing and
fierce erasures.  It was oddly like himself--disordered, a little
desperate, not very clean.  When he had all the sheets together he sat
with them hugged against his breast and bent closer to Christine,
speaking in a mysterious whisper.

"It's not that.  Robert knows it isn't, but he doesn't care any more.
He'll say anything.  But I know.  I've guessed it a long time.  People
have found out.  They say to one another, when I send in my papers,
'This man is a liar.  Every morning of his life he gives his assent to
lies.  And now he is going to teach the very lies he pretends to
exterminate.  We can't have anything to do with a man like that.'  And
there's a conspiracy, Miss Christine, a conspiracy----"  His voice
began to rise and tremble.  "They've taken me off my old classes under
the pretext that they are too much for me.  They've set me on to
Scripture.  Then they told me I had to remember--remember
circumstances--to prevent myself from saying what I thought of such
devilish cruelty.  But I saw that they wanted me to break out so that
they could get rid of me altogether, and I held my tongue.  One of
these days, though, I shall stand up in the open places and tell the
truth.  I shall say what they have done to me----"

He had forgotten, if he had ever fully realized, that there were
strangers about him.  He shook his fist and shouted, whilst the slow,
hopeless tears rolled down the sunken yellow cheeks onto the dirty
manuscript.

They stared at him in consternation, all but Francey, who uncurled
herself negligently and slid from the sofa.

"It's past my tea-time," she announced, "and I want my tea."

It was as though she had neither seen nor cared.  Christine turned her
faded, groping eyes thankfully in her direction.

"Of course, my dear.  Robert--please----"

"No," he said; "we don't have tea, Francey."

"But, Robert, at least when we have guests----"

"Or guests," he added, with a set, white face.

Cosgrave laughed.  He made a comic grimace.  He seemed utterly
irrepressible and irresponsible, like a colt let out for the first time
in a wide field.

"You don't know this fellow like I do, Miss Wilmot.  A nasty Spartan.
But if you'll put a shilling in the gas meter we'll get cakes and a
quarter of tea.  He doesn't need to have any if he doesn't want it, but
he can't grudge us a corner of table and half a chair each.  Miss
Christine's on our side, aren't you, Miss Christine?  And oh, Connie,
there's a pastrycook's round the corner where they make jam-puffs like
they did when I was a kid----"

"I'll put the kettle on," Francey said, nodding to him.

She passed close to Robert.  She even gave him a quick, friendly touch.
He could almost hear her say, "Tag, Robert!" but he would not look at
her.  And yet the moment after he knew that it was all make-believe.
His anger was a sham, protecting something that was fragile and afraid
of pain.  Now that she had gone out of the barren little room she had
taken with her the sense of a secret, gracious intimacy which had been
its warmth and colour.  He saw that the sunlight had shrunk to a pale
gold finger whose tip rested lingeringly on the windowsill, and he felt
tired and cold and work-soiled.

He got up and followed her awkwardly, with a sullen face and a
childishly beating heart.  The kettle was already on the gas, and
Francey gazing into an open cupboard that was scarcely smaller than the
kitchen itself.

"It's like a boy's chemist shop," she said casually, as though she had
expected him, "with the doses done up in little white paper packets.
Is it a game, Robert?"

"A sort of game.  We used to use too much of everything, and at the end
of the week there'd be nothing left.  So we doled it out like that."

"Yes, I see.  A jolly good idea.  That way you couldn't over-eat
yourselves."

"I--I suppose you think I was an awful beast about the tea, don't you?"

"No, I didn't--I don't."

"I was--much firmer than I would have been, but I wanted you to stay.
So I couldn't give in."

"If it had been just Cosgrave and Miss Edwards?"

"It wouldn't have mattered--not so much."

"I wasn't hurt.  It was tactless of me.  But I wanted the tea.  I
forgot.  And I wanted to stay, too.  I haven't learnt to do without
things that I want."

"You think I don't want them?"

She closed the cupboard door abruptly.  The kitchen was so small that
when she turned they had to stand close to one another to avoid falling
back into the sink or burning themselves against the gas jet.  He saw
that the fine colour had gone out of her face.  She looked unfamiliarly
tired.

"I think you want them terribly.  I suppose I'm not heroic.  I don't
like your saying 'No' always--always."

"I shall get what I really want in the end."

She sighed, reflected, and then laughed rather ruefully.

"Oh, well, get the cups now, at any rate."

"There are only three, Francey."

"You and I will have to share, then."

So she made him happy--just as she had done when they had been
children--with a sudden comradely gesture.

But in the next room Mr. Ricardo had begun to talk again.  They had to
hear him.  He was not crying any more.  His voice sounded hard and
embittered.

"He's changed.  He doesn't care.  He pretended to listen.  He was
looking at that girl.  She's a strange girl.  I don't trust her.  She
believes in myths.  Oh, yes, I know.  She did not say so, but I can
smell out an enemy.  She will try to wreck everything.  So it is in
life.  We give everything--sacrifice everything--to pass on our
knowledge, our experience, and in the end they break away from us--they
go their own road."

Robert could not hear Christine's answer.  He felt that Ricardo had
thrown out his arms in one of his wild gestures.  "Not gratitude--not
gratitude.  He was to have carried on my fight.  To have been free as I
am not----"

Miss Edwards and Rufus Cosgrave came racketing back up the steep and
creaking stairs.  It was like the whirlwind entry of some boisterous
comet dragging at its rear a bewildered, happy tail.  They were as
exultant as though their paper bags contained priceless loot rescued
from overwhelming forces.

"Hurry up there, Mr. Stonehouse.  Don't keep the lady waiting.  Tea and
puff, as ordered, ma'am.  No, ma'am, no tipping allowed in this
establishment.  But anything left under the plate will be sent to the
Society for the Cure of the Grouch among Superior Waiters."

She jollied Christine, whose answering smile was like a little puzzled
ghost.  She nourished a heavily scented handkerchief in the
professional manner and grinned at Robert, whose open hostility did not
so much as ruffle the fringe of her good humour.  In her raffish,
rakish world poverty and wry, eccentric-tempered people abounded, and
were just part of an enormous joke.  And Rufus Cosgrave, who gaped at
her in wonder and admiration, saw that she was right.  Poor old Robert
and exams, and beastly, bullying fathers and hard-upness--the latter
more especially--were all supremely funny.

But Robert would not look at the jam-puff which she pushed across to
him.

"Thanks.  I hate the beastly stuff."

And yet it was a flaky thing, oozing, as Rufus had declared, with real
raspberry jam.  And he was very young.  But he would not give way.
Could not.  It seemed trivial, and yet it was vital, too.  There was
something in him which stood up straight and unbendable.  Once broken
it could never be set up again.  And gradually a sense of loneliness
crept over him.  He went and stood next Ricardo, who, like himself,
would have no share in the festivity.  And the old man blinked up at
him with a kind of triumph.

"And we're going to a hill that I know of," Francey was saying.  "No
one else knows of it.  In fact, it's only there when I am.  You go by
train, and after that you have to walk.  I don't know the way.  It
comes by inspiration.  When you get to the top you can see the whole of
England, and there are always flowers.   I'm taking Howard's gang, and
you people must come along too.  It's what you want.  A good time----"

"_All_ the time," said Miss Edwards, blowing away the crumbs.

"My people are going in a char-a-banc to Brighton," Rufus said.  "But
I'll give them the slip.  There's sure to be a beastly row anyhow."

"That's my brave boy!  Who cares for rows?  Take me.  Our Mr. Reilly's
had the nerve to fix up a rehearsal for the new French dame what's
coming to ginger up our show--and, oh, believe me, it needs it--but am
I down-hearted?  No!  Anyway, if she's half the stuff they say she is
they'll never notice poor little Connie's gone to bury her fifth
grandmother.  So I'll be with you, lady, and kind regards and many
thanks."

"And you, too.  Miss Forsyth?"

Christine shook her head.  She was frowning up out of the open window a
little anxiously.

"What would you do with a tired old woman?"

"Ruffles will carry you.  Throw out your chest, Ruffles, and look
fierce.  What's the use of a hefty brute like that if it isn't useful?"

"And when you're on my hill," Francey said with a mysterious nod,
"you'll understand it better than any of us."  She looked away from the
grey, upturned face.  She added almost to herself: "How dark it is
here!  The sun has gone down behind the roof."

"Has it?  Yes, it went so suddenly.  I wondered"--she picked up her
knitting, and began to roll it together--"if Robert could go?" she
murmured.

"Robert can go.  I knew before I asked."

But he flung round on her in a burst of extraordinary resentment.

"I can't.  You seem to think I can do anything and everything that
comes into your head.  People like you never really understand.  We're
poor.  We haven't the money or the time to--to fool round.  Nor has
Cosgrave, but he likes to pretend--humbug himself and anyone else silly
enough to believe in him."

It was as though something long smouldering amongst them had blazed up.
Cosgrave banged the table with his clenched fist.  His freckles were
like small suns shining out of his dead-white face.

"You--you leave me alone, Stonehouse.  I--I'm n-not a kid any more.
And I d-don't pretend.  Connie knows I haven't a c-cent in the world
except what poor mother sneaks out of the housekeeping.  But I'm s-sick
of living as I've done--always grinding, always afraid of everything.
If I c-can't have my fun out of life I d-don't want to live at all.
I'm not going to Heaven to make up for it--Mr. Ricardo has just told us
that--so what's the use?  You've g-got your work and that satisfies
you.  Mine doesn't satisfy me.  So when you t-talk about me--you're
just t-talking through your hat."

Miss Edwards threw up her hands in mock horror.

"Oh, my angel child, what a temper!  And to think I nearly married him!"

She choked with laughter.  And underneath the thin flooring, as though
roused by her irreverent merriment, the big car shook itself awake with
a roar and splutter of indignation.  But the sliding doors were thrown
open, and its rage died down at the prospect of release.  It began to
purr complacently, greedily.

It was strange how the sound quieted them.  They looked towards the
window as though for the first time they were aware of something
outside that came to them from beyond the low, confining roofs--a
spring wind blowing from far-off places.

"Six cylinder," Cosgrave muttered with feverish eyes.  "Do you know, if
I had that thing living under me I'd--I'd go off with it one night, and
I'd go on and on and never come back."

Connie Edwards patted his head.  She winked at Francey, but Francey was
looking at Robert's sullen back.

"No, you wouldn't.  Not for six months or so, anyhow."

He laughed shamefacedly.

"Oh, well, of course I'm rotting.  I can't drive a go-cart.  Never had
the chance.  Oh, I say, Robert, don't grouch.  I didn't mean to be
rude.  Of course, you're right in a way.  But I get that sort of stuff
at home, and if I get it here I don't know what I'll do."

"Oh, you're right, too," Robert muttered.  "It's not my business."

Cosgrave appealed sadly to Francey.

"He's wild with me.  But a picnic--you'd think any human being might go
on a picnic----"

"You're going," she answered quietly, "and Robert too."

He did not take up the challenge.  He was too miserable.  He had not
meant to break out like that.  As in the old days, he hungered for her
approval, her good smile of understanding.  But as in the old days,
too, beneath it all, was the dim consciousness of an antagonism, of
their two wills poised against one another.

The car purred louder with exultation.  It came sliding out into the
narrow, cobbled street.  It waited a moment, gathering itself together.

"I wonder where it's going," Cosgrave dreamed.  "I hope a jolly long
way--right to the other end of England.  I'd like to think of it going
on and on through the whole world."

Christine leaned forward, peering out dimly.

"Are the trees out yet, Robert?"

They looked at her in silence.  It was a strange thing to ask.  And yet
not strange at all.  All day long she sat there and saw nothing but the
squat, red-faced stable opposite.  Or if she went out it was to buy
cheaply from the barrows in a mean side street.  And now she was
remembering that there were trees somewhere, perhaps in bloom.

Even Miss Edwards looked queerly dashed and distressed.

"Now you're asking something, Miss Forsyth.  There are trees in this
little old village, but they aren't real somehow, and I never notice
'em.  Well, we'll know on Monday.  Please Heaven, it doesn't rain."

"I want to get out," Cosgrave muttered; "out of here--right away----"

"I've not had a picnic--not since I was a kid.  But I haven't forgotten
it, though.  Heaps to eat--and an appetite----  Oh, my!"

"And you can go on eating and eating," Francey added greedily, "and it
doesn't seem to matter."

"Egg and cress sandwiches----"

"Ham pie----"

"Sardines----"

"Russian salad--mayonnaise----"

"And something jolly in a bottle."

They laughed at one another.  But after that the quiet returned again.
Francey sat with her hands clasped behind her head and her chair
tip-tilted against the wall.  To Robert, who watched her from out of
the shadow, she seemed to be drifting farther and farther away on a
dark, quiet, flowing river.

It grew to dusk.  The car had long since set out on its unknown
journey.  The narrow street with its pungent stable odour had sunk into
one of those deep silences which lie scattered like secret pools along
the route of London's endless processions.  And presently Mr. Ricardo,
who had not moved or spoken, but had sat hunched together like a
captive bird, leant forward with his finger to his lips.

Christine had fallen asleep.  Her hands lay folded upon her work and
her face was still lifted to the black ridge of roof where the sun had
vanished.  There was enchantment about her sleep, as though in the very
midst of them she had begun to live a new, mysterious life of her own.
She had been the shadowy onlooker.  She became the central figure among
them.

Mr. Ricardo rose noiselessly.  He looked at no one.  He passed them
like a ghost.  They heard him creeping down the stairs and his
hurrying, unequal footsteps on the empty street.  Cosgrave and Connie
Edwards nodded to one another and took hands and were gone.  Francey,
too, slipped to her feet.  She gathered up her hat and coat, her
silence effortless.  She did not so much as glance at Robert, but at
the head of the steep, ladder-like stairs he overtook her.

"Francey--listen----"

With one foot on the lower step, her back against the wall, she waited
for him.  It was too dark for them to see each other clearly.  They
were shadows to one another.  They spoke in whispers, as though they
were afraid of waking something more than the sleeper in the room
behind them.  He could not have told how he knew that her face was wet.

"I wanted to say--I don't know why I behaved like that.  I'm not
usually--nervy--uncontrolled.  I don't think I've ever lost my temper
before.  I've had so little to do with people.  Perhaps that's it.
I've gone my own way alone----"

"And now that our ways have crossed," she began with a sad irony.

"No--not crossed--come together--run out together into the
high-road----"  He clenched his hands till they were bloodless in the
effort to speak.  "You see, a few weeks ago I wouldn't have lost my
temper--and I wouldn't have said queer, silly things like this----
I'm a sort of kaleidoscope that someone's shaken up.  I don't know
myself; things have been hard--but awfully simple.  I've only thought
of--wanted--the one thing.  It doesn't seem to me that I've had to
fight until now.  You don't understand--what it has been----"

"I do--I do!" she interrupted hurriedly.  "I've seen Christine--and the
way you live--and that dreadful cupboard.  Oh, I'm not sorry for
you--only afraid.  You're nothing but a boy----"

"You needn't be afraid.  I'll pull through.  It's only another year
now.  But I can't be like the other people you know--who can be jolly
and easy-going--because they're not going anywhere at all.  Can't you
be patient, Francey?"

"Was I impatient?"  He felt her humour flicker up like a flame in the
darkness.  "I suppose I was.  It was the jam-puff.  You hurt their
feelings.  And it was such a little thing."

"I hate jam-puffs," he said, but humbly, because it was not the truth,
and he could never explain.

"Come with us, Robert."

"I can't."

"But you want to come?"

"That's just it.  I don't know why.  It would be waste of
time--money--everything--all wrong.   What have I to do with Howard and
that lot--with girls like Connie Edwards?"

"--and me," she added, smiling to herself.

"Or you with them?"

"Oh, they're my friends.  As you say, they're not going anywhere--just
dawdling along and picking up things by the wayside--queer, interesting
things----"

"I've no use for them," he said doggedly.

"--And Christine wanted to go."  She added after a moment, gently, as
though she were feeling through the dark, "--is dying to go, Robert."

"You're just imagining it.  She's never cared for things like
that--only for my getting ahead with my work--my finals."

"Didn't you hear her ask about the trees?"

He looked back over his shoulder like a suddenly frightened child.

"Yes.  It--it didn't mean anything, though.  It was just for something
to say."

"She said a great deal more than she meant to."

"We've mapped out everything--every ha'penny--every minute."

"Let me help, Robert.  I've got such a lot.  I've no one else.  I could
make it easier for you both.  I should be happier, too.  And you could
pay me back afterwards with interest--a hundred per cent.--I don't care
what."

But now feeling through the dark she had reached the barrier.  He
answered stonily.

"Thanks.  We've never owed anything.  We shan't begin now."

She slipped into her coat.  She tugged her soft hat down over her hair.
There was more than anger in her quick, impatient movements.  She was
going because she couldn't bear it any more.  She had given in.  She
would never come back.  And at that fear he broke out with a desperate
cunning.

"It's too bad to be angry with me.  I--I want to go."

"And I've asked you----?

"Because you want me?"

"Of course.  It will be the first chance we've had to really talk----"

"It can't matter--just for once," he pleaded with himself.

"It might matter a great deal."

She went on down the stairs, very slowly, lingeringly.  He leant over
the creaking banisters, trying to see her.

"Francey--you duffer--you haven't even told me where to meet you."

"Paddington--the Booking Office--10.15."

He held his breath.  Her voice had sounded like that of a spirit
laughing out of the black veil beneath.  It did not come again.  He
could not even hear her footsteps.  She had vanished.  But he waited,
trembling before the wonder of his own impulse.

Supposing he had yielded--had taken her hands and kissed them--kissed
that pale, beloved face, he who had never kissed anyone but Christine
since his mother died?

He had not done it.  It had been too difficult to yield.  But he stood
there, dreaming, with his hot eyes pressed into his hands, whilst out
of the magic quiet rose wave after wave of enchantment, engulfing him.



2

They agreed that Francey had not boasted about her hill.  It stood up
boldly out of the rolling sea of field and common land and was
tree-crowned, with primroses shining amongst the young grass.  From its
summit they could see toy villages and church, spires and motors and
char-a-bancs running like alarmed insects along the white, winding
lanes.  But apparently no one saw the hill.  No one came to it.  Since
it was everything that picnic parties demanded in the way of a hill, it
was only reasonable to accept Francey's theory that it was not really
there at all--or at most only there for her particular convenience.

They spread their table-cloth on its slope and under the dappled
shadows of the half-fledged trees, with Christine presiding on the high
ground.  Her wispy grey hair fluttered out from under the wide black
hat, and she looked pretty and pathetic, with her shabby black bag and
her old umbrella, like a witch, as Howard said, who had been caught
whilst absent-mindedly gathering toad-stools and carried here in
triumph to bless their mortal festivity.

"The umbrella keeps off rain," he explained mysteriously, "and besides
that, it's a necromantic Handley-Page which might fly off with her at
any minute.  When you see it opening, stand clear and hold on to
yourselves."

He made a limerick on this particular fancy.  It was a very bad
limerick, as bad, probably, as his theories on pyridine and its
relation to the alkaloids which had floored him in his last exam.; but
the Gang applauded enthusiastically, and drank to Christine out of mugs
of beer.  Unlicked and cynical as they were, they seemed to have a
chivalrous tenderness for her.  And she was at home among them--silent,
smiling wistfully down upon their commonplace eccentricities, as though
through the mist of her coming blindness they were somehow lovable.

They ate outrageously of fearsome things.  Yet over her third meringue
Connie Edwards broke down with lamentations for the lost powers of
youth.

"I can remember eating five of 'em," she said, "and coming home to a
tea of winkles and bloater paste.  Oh Gawd!  I'll be in my grave before
I can turn round."

She had been from the start in an unusually pensive and philosophic
mood--a trifle wide-eyed and even awe-struck.  It seemed that the night
before the "French dame" had appeared unexpectedly during a
rehearsal--a peculiarly gingerless performance according to Connie's
account--and had watched from the wings awhile, and then, unasked and
apparently without premeditation, had broken in among them and at the
edge of the footlights, to a gaping, empty theatre, had danced and sung
a little song.

"A French song," Connie said solemnly.  "Not a word of the blessed
thing could we understand, and yet we were all hugging ourselves.  Not
pretty either--a mere bone and a yank of hair--and no more voice than a
sparrow.  But you just went along too.  Couldn't help it.  And
afterwards we played up as though we liked it, and hadn't been plugging
at the rottenest show in England for the last ten weeks.  And she
laughed and clapped her hands, and our tongues hung out we were that
pleased.  She's It, friends.  It.  Gyp Labelle from the Folies Bergeres
and absolutely It."

Rufus Cosgrave rolled over on his face and lay blinking out of the long
grass like a sleepy, red-headed satyr.

"Gyp Labelle," he said drowsily, "Gyp Labelle!"

Robert knew that he was thinking of the Circus.  And he did not want to
think about the Circus.  He pushed the memory from him.  He was glad
when Howard said gravely:

"That's genius.  That's what we poor devils pray to and pray for.  We
know we haven't got it, but we're always hoping that if we agonize and
sweat long enough, one day God will lean out of His cloud and touch us
with His finger."

"Michael Angelo," said Gertie Sumners, with a kind of sombre triumph.
"The Sistine Chapel.  I've got a print of it in my room.  That's where
you saw it."  She leaned back against a tree trunk with her knees drawn
up to her chin, and blew out clouds of smoke, and looked more than
usually grey and dishevelled and in need of a bath.  "In a way it's
like that with Jeffries.  He rubs his beastly old thumb over my
rottenest charcoal sketch, and it's a masterpiece."

Robert, lying outstretched at Francey's feet, wondered at them--at
their talk of genius in connection with a revue star and a smudgy,
underpaid studio hack, more still at their reverence for a God in Whom
they certainly did not believe.

Miss Edwards snatched off her cartwheel hat smothered with impossible
poppies, and sent it spinning down the hill.

"What's the good?" she demanded fiercely.  "We're just nothing at all.
We're young now.  But when we aren't young, what's going to happen to
the bunch of us?"

"This is a picnic," Howard reminded her.  "Not a funeral.  You haven't
eaten enough.  Have a pickle."

But the shadow lingered.  It was like the shadow thrown by the white
clouds riding the light spring wind.  It put out the naming colours of
the grass and flowers.  It was as though winter, slinking sullenly to
its lair, showed its teeth at them in sinister reminder.  Then it was
gone.  It was difficult to believe it could return.

Robert looked up shyly into Francey's face, and she smiled down at him
with her warm eyes.  They had scarcely spoken to one another, but
something delicate and exquisite had been born between them in their
silence.  He was afraid to touch it, and afraid almost to move.  He
felt very close to her, very sure that she was living with him,
withdrawn secretly from the rest into the strange world that he had
discovered.  He was happy.  And happiness like this was new to him and
terrifying.  He was like a waif from the streets, pale and gaunt and
young, with dazzled eyes gazing for the first time into great distances.

"Italy----" Gertie Sumners muttered.  She threw away her cigarette, and
sat with her sickly face between her hands.  "I've got to get there
before I die.  Think of all the swine that hoof about the Sistine
Chapel yawning their fat heads off, and me who'd give my immortal soul
for an hour----"

"You'll go," Howard said, blinking kindly at her.  "I'll take you.
We'll get out of this for good and all.  I'll bust a bank or forge a
cheque.  You've got the divine right to go, old dear!"

Robert stirred, drawing himself a little nearer to Francey, touching
her rough tweed skirt humbly, secretly, as a Catholic might touch a
sacred relic for comfort and protection.  They were talking a language
that he could not understand---they were occupied with things that he
despised, not knowing what they were; they made him ashamed of his
ignorance and angry with his shame.  He could not free himself of his
first conviction that they were really the Banditti--inferior children,
who yet had something that he had not.  He was cleverer than they were.
He would be a great man when they had wilted from their brief,
shallow-soiled youth to a handful of dry stubble.  (This Gertie Sumners
would not even live long.  He recognized already the thumb-marks of
disease in her sunken cheeks.)  And yet he was an outsider, blundering
in their wake.  Just because they accepted him, taking it for granted
he was one of them, they deepened his isolation.  He could not talk
their talk.  He could not play with them.  He had tried.  The old
hunger "to belong" had driven him.  But he was stiff with strength and
clumsy with purpose.  If he and Francey had not belonged to one
another, he would have been overwhelmed in loneliness.

He shut his ears against them.  But when she spoke he had to
listen--jealously, fearfully.

"It would be no use, Howard.  You'd come back.  You can't strip off
your nationality like an old-fashioned coat and throw it away.  All
this--isn't it English and different from any other country in the
world--deeply, deeply different, just as we are different?
England--she's a human, lovely woman, quiet and broad-bosomed, busy
about her home, and only sometimes, in the spring and autumn, she stops
a little to dream her mystic dreams.  In the summer and winter she
pretends to forget.  She's anxious about many things--how she shall
keep us warm and fed--a little stupid-seeming, with wells of all sorts
of kindly wisdom.

"And Italy--the saint, the austere spirit, close to God, preparing
herself for God, with unspeakable visions of Him.  Where I lived"--she
made a sudden passionate gesture of delight--"we looked over the
Campagna, and there were three hills close to one another with towns
perched on their crest, as far from the world and comfort as they could
get.  And at night they were like the three kings with their golden
crowns and dark flowing robes, waiting for God to show them the sign.

"But we build our towns in the valleys and sheltered places.  We like
our trains to be punctual, and to do things in decent order.  We
pretend to be a practical and reasonable people.  We're of our soil.
In Italy what do trains matter--or when they come and go--when, even to
those who don't believe in Him at all, it's only God who matters?"  She
laughed, shaking herself free.  "So you'll come back, Howard--because
you're part of all this.  You'll always hate waiting for your train,
and you'll always be a little ashamed of your dreams.  And you'll never
be real anywhere else."

Howard applauded solemnly.

"I'll make a poem of that--one day, when I'm awfully drunk, and don't
know what I'm doing."

But Robert sat up sharply, frowning at her, white, almost accusing.

"When did you live in Italy, Francey?"

"Last year--all last year."

"You mean--you chucked your work--everything--just to play round----?"

Howard yawned prodigiously.

"You don't get our Francey's point of view, Stonehouse.  You don't
understand."

"Just to play round," she echoed to herself.  Then she laughed and
unclasped her hands from about her knees and stood up effortlessly,
stretching out her arms like a sleepy child.  "And now I'm going to
gather sticks for a fire and primroses to take home.  Coming Robert?"

"No," he muttered.

Howard rolled over in the grass.

"Sulky young idiot--if I wasn't half asleep--or I'd been asked----"

His voice died into an unintelligible murmur.

So she went alone.  The rest, heavy with food and sunshine, nibbled
jadedly at the remnants of the feast, exchanging broken, drowsy
comments.  Perhaps Gertie Sumners was brooding over the three kings
with their golden crowns.  But Robert knelt and watched Francey run
down the hill-side, faster and faster, like a brown shadow.  There was
a thick belt of beech trees at the bottom, and she ran into them and
was lost.

He rose stiffly.  He did not want the others to see--he did not want to
know himself, that he was following her.  He strolled indolently about
the crest of the hill, whistling to the breeze, his eyes hunting the
wood beneath like the eyes of a young setter at heel.  But when at last
he was out of sight he slipped his leash and was off, running
recklessly, headlong.  The hill rose up behind him and sent him down
its hillocky slopes as though before the horns of an avalanche.  The
wind blew the scent of trees and flowers and young grass against his
burning face.  It was like draughts of a cold, clear wine.  It was like
running full-tilt down Acacia Grove leaping and whooping.

It was frightening, too--a hand fumbling at the heart--this fierce
coming to life of something dormant, this breaking free----

The wood had swallowed her.  He drew up panting in the cool twilight.
Beyond the faint breathing of the leaves overhead and the secret
movement of hidden things, there was no sound.  He walked on quickly.
At first it was only suspense, childish, thrilling.  Then it was more
than that.  His heart began to beat quickly.  He tried to call her, but
the quiet daunted him.  The wood was a still, green pool into which she
had dropped and vanished.  It was an enchanted wood.  There was
enchantment all about her.  They had seemed so near to one another--and
then in a moment she had slipped away from him into a life of her own
where he could not follow.

He had to find her and hold her fast.  Nothing else mattered--neither
his work, nor his career, nor Christine.  It was terrible how little
they seemed now--a handful of dust--beside this mounting, imperative
desire.  He had been so invulnerable.  In wanting nothing but what was
in himself he had been able to defy exterior events.  Now he was
stripped of his defence.  He could be hurt.  He could be made
desperately happy or unhappy by things which he had thought trivial and
purposeless--the playthings of inferior children.

He came upon her suddenly.  She knelt in the long grass, idle, with a
few scattered primroses in her lap as though in the midst of gathering
them she had been overtaken by a dream.  He called her by name,
angrily, because of what he suffered.  He stumbled to her and flung
himself down beside her and held her close to him, ruthless with desire
and his child's fear.

In that sheer physical explosion his whole personality blazed up and
seemed to melt away, flowing into new form.  He had dashed down the
hill, a crude, exultant boy, into the whole storm and mystery of
manhood.  And for all his fierceness his heart was small within him,
afraid of her, and of itself, and its own hunger.

At last he let her go.  He tore himself from her and dropped face down
in the grass, trembling with grief and shame.  He heard her say:
"Robert--dear Robert," very quietly, and her hand touched him, passing
like a breath of cool wind over his hair and neck.  He kissed it
humbly, pressing it to his wet, hot cheek.

"I was frightened, Francey--and jealous--of everything--of the things
you love that I don't even know of--of the places you've been to--of
your friends--your money--your work.  I thought you'd run away to
Italy--or somewhere else where I couldn't follow--that I'd lost
you----"

He saw her face and how deeply stirred she was.  She had blazed up in
answer to him, but that very fire lit up something in her which was not
new, but which now stood out full armed--a clear-eyed austerity.

"I felt, too, as though I were running away--to the ends of the
world--but not from you, Robert.  I wanted you to come too.  I asked
you.  You're not frightened now, are you?"

"Not so much."

"Let's be quiet--quite quiet, Robert.  We've got to talk this out,
haven't we?  I've got to understand.  Sit here and help me tie these
together.  They're for Christine.  It'll make it easier for us.  You
didn't mean this to happen.  It was the sun and wind--it goes to one's
head like being out of prison after years and years.  You mustn't make
a mistake.  You would never forgive yourself or me.  I'd understand if
you said: 'It was just to-day and being happy.'  But I won't play at
our being in love with one another, Robert."

"It isn't a mistake, I'm not playing.  I don't pretend I meant to let
you know.  I was frightened.  I wanted to hold fast to you.  But I've
been sure ever since that night at Brown's----"

"And yet you wanted to avoid me----"

He nodded.  Ho knelt beside her, very white and earnest, with his hands
clenched on his thighs.

"That was because I knew.  I didn't think about it.  But I knew all
right.  And I was afraid it would upset everything to care."

"Doesn't it?"

"Not caring for you.  Of course, I know all about life.  I'm young and
I've never looked at a girl.  I've always realized that it would be
natural to fall in love--perhaps worse than most men--and that if it
was with a girl like Cosgrave's it would be sheer damnation.  I'd have
to fight it down.  But loving you is different.  It'll make me
stronger.  I'll work harder and better because I love you.  I'll do
bigger things because of you."

Her head was bowed over her primroses.  The sunlight falling between
the trees on her wild brown hair kindled a smouldering colour in its
disorder.  He watched her, fascinated and abashed by the knowledge that
she was smiling to herself.  And suddenly, roughly like an ashamed boy,
he took a grey and blood-stained rag from his inner pocket and tossed
it into her lap.

"Do you remember that?"

She picked it up gingerly, amusedly.

"Is it a handkerchief, Robert?"

"Don't you remember it?" he repeated with triumph, as though in some
way he had beaten her.

For a moment she was silent.  And when she looked at him her eyes were
no longer smiling.

"You kept it like that----?"

"I wouldn't even wash it.  I hid it.  It's got dirtier and dirtier."

"It must be horribly germy, Robert.  We'll wash it together.   As
members of the medical profession we couldn't have it on our
conscience----"

They laughed then, freely, out of the depth of their happiness.  She
laid her hand in his and he bent his head to kiss it.

"You do trust me, Francey?"

"Trust you?"

"You don't think it's weak of me to love you?  You know I'll pass my
finals, don't you--that I'll be all right?  People might think I hadn't
the right to love you till I was sure.  But, then, I am sure--dead
sure."

"I'm sure, too."  Her voice sounded brooding, a little husky.  She took
his hand and laid it on her lap, spreading out the fingers as though to
examine each one in turn.  "It's a clever, beautiful hand, Robert--much
the most beautiful part of you.  It will do clever, wonderful things.
What will _you_ do?"

(As though, he thought, his hands were something apart and she was
inquiring deeper into what was vitally him.)

He told her.  It reassured him to go back to his foundations and to
find them still standing.  He lost his tongue-tied clumsiness and spoke
rapidly, clearly, with brief, strong gestures.  His haggard youth gave
place to a forcible, aggressive maturity.  He was like an architect who
had planned for every inch and stone of his masterpiece.  Next year he
would pass his finals.  He would take posts as locum tenens whenever he
could and keep his hospital connexions warm.  In five years he would
save enough to specialize--the throat gave wide opportunities for
research.  There were men already interested in him who would send him
work.  In ten years Harley Street--if not before.

In the midst of it all he faltered and broke off to ask:

"Why do you love me, Francey?"

And then, impulsively, she flung her arm about him and drew him close
to her.  His head was on her breast, and for one uncertain moment she
was not Francey Wilmot at all, but the warm living spirit of the
sunlight, of the quiet trees and the grass in which they lay--of all
the things of which he was afraid.

"Because you're such an odd, sad, little boy----"



3

After tea it began to rain, not dismally, but in a gentle way as people
cry who have been too happy.

"In this jolly old country fine weather means bad weather," Connie
Edwards commented cynically.  She had reason to be depressed.  The
impossible poppies dripped tears of blood over the brim of the
cartwheel hat.  But apart from that misfortune she had never got over
her original mood of puzzled dissatisfaction, and she and Cosgrave
walked droopingly down the narrow lane arm in arm and almost wordless.

So much of winter days was left that it was dark when they reached the
foot of the hill--the eerie luminous darkness of the country when there
is a moon riding somewhere behind the clouds.  Robert could see
Christine and Francey just ahead of him.  Christine had taken Francey's
arm, and they talked together in undertones like people who have secret
things to say to one another.  How small Christine was!  She seemed to
have shrunk into a handful of a woman as though the sun had withered
her.  She walked timidly, with bowed head, feeling her way.  Her voice
lifted for a moment into the old clearness.

"His father was a wonderful man--a wonderful, good man.  Unhappy.  Very
unfortunate.  Not meant for this world.  His mother was my dear friend.
If they had lived--those two----  I did what I could--I think they
will be satisfied--it makes me happy----"

She murmured wearily.  And Francey bent her head to listen.  Robert
loved her for the tenderness of that gesture.  Yet it was bitter, too,
that they should talk of his father.  He wanted to go up to them and
tell the truth brutally to Christine's face.  He would have liked to
have told them the one dream which he carried over from his sleep.  But
it would have been useless.  Christine would only smile with a cruel,
loving wisdom.

"You don't understand.  You were only a child.  Your father was so
unhappy----"

The myth had become an invulnerable reality and had grown golden in the
twilight of her coming blindness.  James Stonehouse had been a good
man, a faithful friend, and broken-hearted husband.  If those two had
lived everything would have been different.  She threw her hallowed
picture of them on the screen of the dripping dusk so that they seemed
to live.  Robert saw them too.  That was his mother walking at
Christine's side, and then his father----  In a sort of shattering
vision Robert saw him, a man of promise, black-browed with the riddle
of his failure, a man of many hungers, seduced by rootless passions,
lured to miserable shipwreck because he could not keep to any course,
because he could not give up worthlessness for worth.

Himself----

He staggered before the brief hallucination.  The moisture broke out on
his white face.  It wasn't enough to hate his father.  He had to be
fought down day by day.  He was always there, waiting to pounce out.
He lay on his face, pretending to be dead----

It was gone.  He shook himself free as from the touch of an evil,
insinuating hand out of the dark.  This love was his strength.  If
Francey were like his mother, then she was also good.  It was these rag
and bobtail friends that poisoned everything.  They would have to be
shaken off.  Francey was a child, fond of gaiety and pleasure, with no
one to guide her.  She didn't understand.

Howard and Gertie Sumners were walking behind him now with the
luncheon-basket between them, talking earnestly in muffled whispers
that were too intimate, and behind them again came the Gang itself,
laughing, jostling one another, exchanging facetiousness in their
medical-Chelsea jargon.

His father would have liked them.  Connie Edwards, no doubt, would have
been one of those dazzling, noisy phenomena that burst periodically on
the Stonehouse horizon.

Supposing he should come to like them too--to tolerate their ways,
their loose living, loose thinking----?

He remembered how that very afternoon he had tried to be one of them,
and sickened before himself.

Francey called to him through the darkness.

"Miss Forsyth's so tired, Robert.  Couldn't you carry her?"

And he took Christine in his arms, whilst she laughed and protested
feebly.  It was awful to feel how little she was.  Her head rested
against his shoulder.

"It's a longer road than I thought.  You're very strong, Robert.  Your
father was strong too."

It had been a successful day.  And yet, as they sat packed close
together in the dim, third-class carriage, they were like captives who
had escaped and were being taken back into captivity.  The sickly,
overhead light fell on their tired faces, out of which the blood,
called up by the sun and wind, had receded, leaving their city pallor.
Connie Edwards had indeed produced a lip-stick from her gaudy bead bag,
but after a fretful effort had flung it back.

"What's the good?  Who cares----?"

And Cosgrave huddled closer to her, wan-eyed, hunted-looking.  It was
the ghost of that exam that wouldn't be laid--the prophetic vision of
the row that waited for him, grinding its teeth.

Only Gertie Sumners and Howard had a queer, remote look, as though in
that recent muffled exchange they had reached some desperate resolve.

The wet, gleaming platform slid away from them.  There was a faint red
light in the west where the sunset had been drowned.  Christine turned
her face towards it.  She was like a little old child.  Her little feet
in the shabby, worn-out shoes scarcely touched the floor.  Her drooping
hat was askew--forgotten.

"It has been a wonderful day.  But I mustn't come again.  I'm too old.
It's silly to fall in love with life when one is old."

Robert leant across to her.  He ached with his love and pity.

"Tired, Christine?"

"A little.  But it has been worth while.  You carried me so nicely--so
big and strong."

She leant against Francey, nodding and smiling to reassure him.  And
presently she was asleep.  He saw how Francey shifted her arm so that
it encircled the bowed figure, and every ugly thing that had dogged him
in that lonely, haunted walk vanished before the kind steadfastness of
her eyes.

It was as though she had said aloud:

"We'll take care of her together.  We won't let her die before we've
made her very, very happy."

Then he took out a note-book and made a shaky sketch of a pompous,
drunken-looking house with a huge door, on which were two brass plates,
side by side, bearing the splendid inscriptions:

  Dr. Frances Stonehouse, Robert Stonehouse,
      M.D.,                     F.R.C.S.
                    Hours 10--1

He showed it to her and they smiled at one another, and there was no
one else in the carriage but themselves and their happiness.



III

1

It meant a tightening--a screwing up of his whole life.  Time had to be
found.  The hours had to be packed closer to make room for her.  He
grasped after fresh opportunities to make money with a white-hot
assiduity.  He worked harder.  For he was hag-ridden by his
unfaithfulness.  He drew up a remorseless programme of his days, and
after that Francey might only walk home with him from the hospital.
And there was an hour on Sunday evening when he was too tired for
anything else.

It meant a ceaseless, active negation: a "No" to the simple wish to buy
her a bunch of flowers, "No" to the longing to walk a little farther
with her in the quiet dusk, "No" to the very thought of her.



2

As usual, on the way home, they discussed their best "cases."  There
was No. 10 in A Ward, a raddled woman of the streets who had been
brought in the night before as the result of a _crime passionnel_, and
whose injuries had been the subject of long deliberations.  Even before
they had reached the hospital archway Robert and Francey agreed that
Rogers' air of mystery was simply a professional disguise for complete
bafflement.

"It's the sort of case I'd like to have," Robert said.  "Something you
can get your teeth into and worry.  I believe if I were on my
own--given a free hand--I'd work it out--pull her through.  Rogers may
too.  But just now he's marking time.  And there's nothing to hope from
time in a job like that.  No constitution.  Rotten all through.  Still,
it would be a feather in one's cap."

He brooded fiercely, intently, like a hound on a hot scent.  People
turned to look at the big, shabby young man with the sunken, burning
eyes that stared through them as though they had been so many shadows.
He did not, in fact, see them at all.  He made his way by sheer
instinct across the crowded street.

"She's terribly afraid of death," Francey said.  "It's awful to be so
afraid.  It must make life itself terrible."

"They'll operate soon as they dare--an exploratory operation.  If only
I could have a say--a real say!  It's maddening to know so much--to be
sure of oneself.  I don't believe Rogers would take me out on his
private work if he knew I knew all I do.  I'm glad we're on a surgical
post together, Francey.  I don't know what I'd do if I hadn't got you
to talk things over with."

"You daren't talk of anything else," she answered unexpectedly.
"You're frightened of our being happy together.  You're always trying
to justify yourself."

"I'm not--what rubbish!"

He tried to laugh at her.  It was so like Francey to dash off down a
side issue.  And yet it was true.  He did try to think as much as he
could of that side of their common life.  It did add an appearance of
stability and reason to the splendid unreason of his loving her.  It
made up to him for those dismaying breaks when her face and body stood
like a scorching pillar of fire between himself and his work, to find
that when they were together they could be sternly practical, discuss
their eases and criticize their superiors as though, beneath it all,
there were not this golden, insurgent sea whose high tides swirled over
his landmarks.  Not destroying them.

In those latter times he loved her humbly, with wonder and passionate
self-abasement.  But in their work they stood further away from one
another.  He could criticize her, and that gave him a heady sense of
power and freedom.  He never forgot the year that she had deliberately
thrown away.  And even now, when she stood at the beginning of the road
which he had already passed over, she seemed to him full of strange
curiosities and wayward, purposeless interests.  There were days when
an ugly Chinese print, picked up in some back-street pawnshop, or the
misfortunes of one of her raffish hangers-on, or some wild student rag,
appeared to wipe out the vital business of life.  She was known to be
brilliant, but he distrusted her power of leaping to conclusions over
the head of his own mathematical and exact reasoning.  He distrusted
still more her tendency to be right in the teeth of every sort of
evidence to the contrary.  It seemed that she took into her
calculations factors that no one else found, significant,
unprofessional straws in the wind, things she could not even explain.

And yet she understood when he talked about his work, and that alone
was like a gift to him.  No one else understood--for that matter, no
one else had had to listen.  He knew that Christine was too tired, and
poor overburdened Cosgrave would only have gazed helplessly at him,
wondering why this strong, self-sufficient friend should pour out such
unintelligible stuff over his own aching head.  So he had learnt to be
silent.  Even now it was difficult to begin.  He stammered and was shy
and distrustful and eager, sometimes crudely self-confident, like a
child who has played alone too long.

And Francey listened, for the most part critical and dispassionate, but
with sudden gestures of unmotivated tenderness: as when in the midst of
his dissertation on a theory of insanity and crime she had kissed him.

Sometimes for them both the prose and poetry of their relationship met
and clasped hands.  That was when they took their walk down Harley
Street to have another look at the house which was one day to be
adorned with the celebrated brass plates.  At present it was solidly
occupied by several eminent-sounding medical gentlemen who would have
to be ruthlessly dislodged when their time came.

For it was the best house in the street, and, of course, the Doctors
Robert and Francey Stonehouse would have to have the best.

And once they quarrelled about nothing at all, or about
everything--they hardly knew.  It was an absurd quarrel, which blazed
up and went out again like fire in stubble.  Perhaps they had waited
too long for their allotted hour together--dreamed too much about it,
so that when it came they could hardly bear it, and almost longed for
it to be over.  And in the midst of it Mr. Ricardo drifted in on one of
his strange, distressful visits to Christine, and drove them out of
doors to roam the drowsy Sunday streets, hand in hand, like any other
pair of vulgar, homeless lovers.  For Francey could not stay when Mr.
Ricardo came.  His hatred of her was a burning, poisonous sore that
gave no peace to any of them.

"It's a sort of jealousy," Robert reflected.  "We three have always
held together.  He's had no one else to care about.  And now you've
come, and he thinks you want to take me away from him."

"I do," Francey said unexpectedly.

"Not in the way he means."

"You don't know----"

"He's been good to me.  I'd never have got through without him.  I
can't have him hurt.  And you will fight him, Francey.  I know he's
crabbed and bitter, but so would you be if you'd been twisted out of
shape all your life.  And you only do it for the fun of the thing.
Fundamentally, you think alike."

"We don't, that's just it.  I'm sorry for him, and if it had been
anything less vital I'd compromise--he'd compromise, too, perhaps.
We'd both lie low and look pleasant about our differences.  But as it
is we can't help ourselves.  We've got to stand up and fight----"

"I say, that sounds jolly dramatic."

"It is rather."

"Next thing you'll be saying you believe in God."

"Well, I do----"

He stopped short and let go her hand.  He was physically ashamed and
uncomfortable.  He tried to laugh, but for the moment they were face to
face, and he could not mistake her seriousness.  They were like
strangers, peering at each other through the grey dusk.

"Look here, Francey, dearest, you don't expect me to believe that?
You're just joking, aren't you?  You're--you're a modern woman, with a
scientific training, too.  You can't believe in an old, worn-out myth."

"I didn't say that."

"'An untested hypothesis,'" he quoted teasingly, but with a stirring
anger.

"I don't know about that, either.  We're both bound by our profession
to admit an empirical test.  And if we human beings can't survive
without God----"

"But we can--we do."

"I can't."

He threw up his head.

"Why do women always become personal when they argue?"

"And why do rationalists always become irrational?"

They walked on slowly, apart, vaguely afraid.  He wanted to change the
subject, to take her by the arm and hold her fast.  For she was
drifting away from him.  Her voice sounded remote and troubling, like a
little old tune that he could not quite remember.  Its emotion fretted
his overstrained nerves.  He wanted to close his ears against it.  It
was a trivial tune which might become a torment.

"It's not only me.  It's everyone.  Most of us are frightfully unhappy.
Don't you realize that?  And the more we understand life the more
desperate we get.  Savages and children may do without a god, but we
can't.  We know too much.  Even the stupidest--the most careless of us.
Think of Howard and Gertie and all that lot.  Every second word is
'What's the good?  What's it all about?'  They make a great deal of
noise to cover up their unhappiness.  They're terrified of loneliness
and silence.  And one day it'll have to be faced."

"Oh, if you're going to take Howard as an example--" he interrupted.

"--and Rufus Cosgrave," she added.

He laughed with a boyish malice.

"Cosgrave doesn't need a god.  He's got me.  I'll look after him."

"You think you can?  And then we ourselves.  We're different, aren't
we?  We've got our work.  We're going to do big things.  For whom?--for
what?  For our fellow-creatures?  But if we don't care for our
fellow-creatures?  And we don't, do we?  Not naturally.  The
Brotherhood of Man is just dangerous nonsense.  Naturally men loathe
one another in the mass.  How can we pretend to love some of those
people we see every day in the wards with their terrible faces--their
terrible minds?  But the idea of God does somehow translate them--it
gets underneath the ugliness--they do become in some mystic way my
brothers and my sisters."

He found it strangely difficult to answer calmly.  It would have been
easier to have bludgeoned her into silence by a shouted "It's all
snivelling, wretched rot!" like an angry schoolboy.  He did not know
why he was so angry.  Perhaps Ricardo was right.  It was something
vital.  He could feel the old man's shadow at his side, his hand
plucking his sleeve, urging him on, claiming his loyalty.  They were
allies fighting together against a poisonous miasma that sapped men's
brains--their intellectual integrity.

"Piling one fallacy on another isn't argument, Francey.  We don't need
to like our fellow-creatures.  It's a mistake to care.  Emotion upsets
one's judgment.  Scientists--the best men in the profession--try to
eliminate personal feeling altogether.  They're out for knowledge for
its own sake.  That's good enough for them."

"And the end of that--organized, scientific beastliness, like modern
war.  Knowledge perverted to every sort of deviltry.  Huge swollen
heads and miserable withered hearts.  One of these days we'll blow
ourselves to pieces----"

They were both breathless and more than a little incoherent.  They had
entered into a playful tussle, and now they were fighting one another
with set teeth.

"I don't believe you believe a word you're saying," he stammered.  "You
know as well as I do that it's only since we began to throw off
superstition that we've begun to move.  Or perhaps you don't want to
move--don't believe in progress."

"Progress towards what?" she flung back impetuously.  "Perfection?
Some point where we'd have no poverty, no war, no ignorance, no death
even; where we'd all have every mortal thing we want?  The millennium?
That's only another word for Hell.  It's only by pretending that there
are things we want, and that we should be happy if we had them, that we
can believe in happiness at all.  All this unrest, this sick despair
every morning of our lives when we drag ourselves out of bed and wonder
why we bother--it's just because we've begun to suspect that the
millennium is of no use to us.  We've got to have more than that--some
sort of spiritual background--or cut our throats."

"Wild rhapsodizing, Francey.  You don't know a thing."

"I don't.  Nor do you.  When I said I believed, I meant I hoped--I
trusted.  And if there isn't a God at the end of it all, you people who
want to keep us alive for the sake of the knowledge you get out of us
will have to make one up."

Whereat, suddenly, in a cool, refreshing gust, their sense of humour
returned and blew them close to one another.  They laughed and took
hands again--a little shyly, like lovers who had been parted for a long
time.

"What rot--our quarrelling over nothing at all," Robert said, "when
we've only got this hour together.  I wanted to say 'I love you,
Francey--I love you, dear' over and over again.  Say 'I love you too,
Robert.'"

"I love you too," she answered soberly.

But the crack was there--a mere fissure in the ground between them--a
place to be avoided even in their thoughts.



3

At night when his work was over and the unrest grew too strong to be
fought, he crept down the black, creaking stairs, through the sleeping
backwater of Drayton Mews, and out into the streets.  He walked fast,
with his head down, guiltily, like a man flying from a crime.  But in
the grave square where Francey Wilmot lived he slackened speed, and,
under the thick mantle of the trees, stood so still that he was only a
deeper shadow.  Then release came.  It was like gentle summer rain
falling on his fever.  There was no one to see his weakness.  He could
think and feel simply and naturally as a lover, without remorse.
Sometimes a light burnt in her window, and then he knew that she was
working, making up for those queer, wild play-hours.  He could imagine
her under the shaded lamplight, the books heaped round her, and her
hands clenched hard in the thick brown hair.  He could feel the peace,
the rich, deep stillness round her.  And a loving tenderness, exquisite
and delicate as a dream, welled up in him.  He said things out of his
heart to her that he had never said: broken, stumbling things, melted
in the white-heat of their truth into a kind of poetry of which the
burden never changed.  "I can't live without you--I can't live without
you."  He could have knelt before her, burying his burning face in her
lap in strange humility--childlike surrender.

And when the window was dark he knew that she had gone out to dance, to
the theatre, with friends whom he did not know, belonging to that other
life in which he had no part.  And then his loneliness was like a black
sea.  He leant against the railings, weak with weariness and hunger,
fighting his boy's tears, until she came.  He did not speak to her.
She never knew that he was there.  He hid, his heart stifling him,
until the door closed on her.  Then, since she had come back to him,
belonged to him again, he could go in peace.

The others--Howard and Gertie and even Connie now--went in and out,
risking ruthless ejection if she were hard pressed, to sit in the best
chairs, with their feet in the fender and drink coffee and smoke
endlessly whilst they poured their good-natured cynicism over life.  If
they were hungry they rifled Francey's larder, and if they were hard up
they borrowed her money.  But after the one time Robert never went.  He
did not want to meet them.  And besides the big square room with its
mark of other stately days--its panelled walls, rich ceilings and noble
doors--was his enemy.  It was steeped in a mellow, unconscious luxury
that threatened him.  There were relics from Francey's old home,
trophies from her Italian wanderings, books that his hands itched just
to touch, and things of strange troubling beauty.  A bronze statue of a
naked faun stood in the corner where the light fell upon it, and seemed
to gather into itself everything that he feared--a joyous dancing to
some far-off music.

The room would not let him forget that Francey held money, which he had
had to squeeze his life dry to get, lightly and indifferently.  She
gave it with both hands.  She had always had enough, and it seemed to
her a little thing.  Between people who cared for one another it
counted less than a word, and his sullen refusal of every trivial
pleasure and relief that lay in her power to give them hurt and puzzled
her.  She saw in it only a bitter pride.

"You might at least let me make Christine's life easier in little
things," she said.

He could not tell her that Christine would have been afraid for him, as
he was afraid of the deep chairs that had seemed to clasp his tired
body in drowsy arms, of the rugs that drank up every harsh sound, of
the warm, fragrant atmosphere that was like a blow in the face of their
chill and barren poverty.

So after that one time he kept away.  But he could always see the room
and Francey working there, and the slender, joyful body of the faun
poised on the verge of its mystic dance.

Once, Francey was too strong for him, and they bought tickets for the
theatre, and he sat hunched beside her in the front row of the cheap
seats and stared down at the great square of light like an outcast
gazing at the golden gates of Paradise.  It was _The Tempest_, and he
hardly understood.  It broke over him in overpowering sound and colour.
He was dazed and blinded.  He forgot Francey.  He sat with his gaunt
white face between his bands and watched them pass: Prospero, Miranda,
Ferdinand, Ariel--figures of a noble, glittering company--and wretched,
uncouth Caliban crouched on the outskirts of their lives, pining for
his lost kingdom.  But in the interval he was silent, awkward and heavy
with an emotion that could not find an outlet.  He felt her hand close
over his--an, almost anxious hand.

"Robert, you like it, don't you?  You're not bored?" He turned to look
dazedly at her, stammering in his confusion.

"I've never been to a theatre before."

"Never?  Oh, my dear----"

"Only to a circus, long ago."  He drew back hastily into himself.  He
did not want her to be sorry like that.  He would not let her see how
shaken he was.  "I never wanted to go," he said.

After that they walked home together, and in the empty street that led
into her square a moonlight spirit of phantasy seemed to possess her,
and she sang under her breath and danced in front of him, rather
solemnly as she had done as a little girl:

  "Come unto these yellow sands
  And then take hands. . ."

He caught hold of her.  Everything was unreal--they themselves and the
unfamiliar street, painted with silver and black shadows.

"Don't--you're dancing away from me; there's nothing for you to dance
to."

She smiled back wistfully.

  "'The isle is full of noises,
  Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.
  Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
  Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices. . .'"

"I don't hear them," he muttered clumsily.

"Caliban heard them----"

"And you're Ariel," he said, with sudden, sorrowful understanding.
"Ariel!"

From the steps of the dark house she looked down at him, her eager face
smiling palely in the white, still light.

"Ariel wasn't a woman, dear duffer.  You'll have to read it.  I'll lend
it to you.  And then we'll go again."

He shook his head.

"No."

"Yes--often--often, Robert.  We've been nearer to one another than ever
before--just these last minutes--quite, quite close.  We've got to find
each other in pleasure too."

He rallied all his strength.  He said stiffly, pompously:

"It's been awfully nice, of course.  And thank you for taking me.  But
I don't really care for that sort of thing."

And for a moment they remained facing one another whilst the joy died
out of her eyes, leaving a queer distress.  Then they shook hands and
he left her, coldly, prosaically, as though nothing had happened.  But
he was like a drunken man who had fallen into a sea of glory.

  "The clouds, methought, would open, and show riches
  Ready to drop upon me. . ."

There was all that work that he had meant to do before morning.  It
seemed far off--more unreal and fantastic than a fairy tale.  His heart
and brain, ached with willingness and loathing.

  ". . . that, when I wak'd,
  I cried to dream again. . ."

He set his teeth.  He clenched his hands till they hurt him.

"I'll have to keep away from all that," he thought aloud,
"altogether--till I don't care any more."



IV

1

After all, Rufus Cosgrave had imagined his answers.  Connie Edwards met
Robert as he came out of the hospital gates and told him.  It was raining
dismally, with an ill-tempered wind blustering down the crowded street,
and she had not dressed for bad weather.  Perhaps she did not admit
unpleasant possibilities even into her wardrobe.  Perhaps she could not
afford to do so.  Her thin, paper-soled shoes, with the Louis XIV heels,
and the cheap silk stockings which showed up to her knees, made her look
like some bedraggled, long-legged bird-of-Paradise.  A gaudy parasol
could not protect her flopping hat, or her complexion, which had both
suffered.  Or she had been crying.  But she did not sound as though she
had been crying.  She sounded breathless and resentful.

"He heard this afternoon," she said.  "And what must he do but come
bursting round to my place--half an hour before I'm due to start for the
show--and carry on like a madman.  Scared stiff, I was.  Tried to make me
swear I'd marry him and start for Timbuctoo to-morrow, and when I
wouldn't, wanted to shoot himself and me too--as though I'd made a muck
of things.  Well, I'd done my best, and when it came to that sort of
sob-stuff I'd had enough.  What's he take me for?  Get me into trouble
with my landlady--making a row like that."

Robert heard her out in silence, and his intent, expressionless scrutiny
seemed to flick her on the raw.  She stamped her foot at him.  "Oh, for
the Lord's sake, get a move on---do something, can't you?  I didn't come
here to be stared at as though I were a disease!"

"Where is he?"

"If I knew----!  My place probably--with the gas full on--committing
suicide--making a rotten scandal.  You've got to come and dig him out."

"Where do you live?"

"Ten minutes from here.  10E Stanton Place.  I'll show you a short way.
I ran like a hare, hoping I'd catch you, and you'd put a bit of sense
into the poor looney's head.  Serves me right--taking on with his sort."

"Well--we'd better hurry," Robert said.

"Thanks.  I said I'd show you the way.  I'm not coming in.  Don't you
believe it.  I've had enough.  All I ask is--get him out and keep him
out."

"You're through with him?"

Her habitual good-natured gaiety was gone.  She looked disrupted and
savagely afraid, like an animal that has escaped capture by a frantic
effort.  And yet it was difficult to imagine Rufus Cosgrave capturing or
frightening anyone.

"You bet I'm through with him.  You tell him so--tell him I don't want to
see him again--I won't be bothered----"  She broke off, and added, with
a kind of rough relenting: "Put it any blessed way you like--say what's
true--we've had our good times together--and it seems they're over--we've
no use for one another."

"You mean--now he's failed."

"What do _you_ mean--'now he's failed'?  What's his rotten old exam got
to do with me?  I don't even know what it's about."

"You took the good time whilst you could get it, and now when you can't
hope for anything more----"

She stopped short, and they faced each other with an antagonism that
neither gave nor asked for quarter.  They had always been enemies, and
now that the gloves were off they were almost glad.

"So that's my line.  Cradle-snatching.  Vamping the helpless infant!" She
burst into a fit of angry, ugly laughter.  "A good time!  Running round
with a poor kid with ten shillings a week pocket-money--eating in beastly
cheap restaurants--riding on the tops of 'buses when some girls I know
are feeding at the Ritz and rolling round in limousines.  That's what I
get for being soft.  And now because I won't shoot myself, or go off to
nowhere steerage, I'm a bad, abandoned woman.  What d'you take me for?"

"What you are," he said.

She went dead white under her streaky paint.

"You--you've got no right to say that.  You're a devil--a stuck-up
devil--I hate you--I'd have always hated you if I'd bothered to mind.
I--I gave _him_ a good time.  That's the truth.  He was down and out when
I met him, and I set him on his feet.  I didn't mind what I missed--or
the other girls guying me--I made him laugh and believe he had as good a
chance in the world as anyone else.  I put a bit of fun into him.  I
liked the kid.  I--I like him now.  If he wanted a good time to-morrow
I'd run round with him again.  But I'm no movie heroine--I'm not out for
poison and funerals and slow music.  Life's too damn serious for my sort
to make a wail and a moan about it."

He stood close to her.  He almost menaced her.  He did in fact look
dangerous enough with his white, set face and unflinching eyes in which
stood two points of metallic light.  If he had seen himself then he might
have cowered away as from a ghost.

"I don't care a rap about you.  I do care about my friend.  You've got to
stand by Cosgrave till he's over the worst."

"I won't--I won't!"

"I'll make you.  You took him up.  You made him think you cared about
him.  You're responsible----"

"I'm not--I won't be responsible; it's not my line.  I've got myself to
look after."

She had the look of someone struggling against an invisible
entanglement--a pitiable, rather horrible look of naked purpose.  She
meant to cut free at whatever cost.

"You little beast!" he said.

He was sick with contempt.  He swung away from her, and she stood in the
middle of the pavement and called names after him like a drunken, furious
street-girl.  She did not seem to be even aware of the people who stared
at her.  When he was almost out of hearing, she added:

"Give him my love!" shrilly, vindictively, as though it had been a final
insult.  But he took no notice and now, at any rate, she was crying
bitterly enough.



2

"E" proved to be the top room of No. 10, a dingy lodging-house whose
front door, in accordance with the uncertain habits of its patrons, stood
open from year's end to year's end.  Robert went in unnoticed.  He ran up
the steep, narrow stairs, with their tattered carpeting, two steps at a
time.  A queer elation surged beneath his anger and distress.  Cosgrave's
failure was like a personal challenge--a defiance thrown in his teeth.
The old fight was on again.  It was against odds.  But then, he had
always fought against odds--won against them.

The room was Connie Edwards herself.  It seemed to rush out at him in a
tearing rage, flaunting its vulgar finery and its odour of bad scent and
cheap cigarette smoke.  It made him sick, and he brushed it out of his
consciousness.  He did not see the poor attempts to make it decent and
attractive--the bed disguised beneath a faded Liberty cretonne, a
sentimental Christ hanging between a galaxy of matinee heroes, nor a
full-length woman's portrait, across which was scrawled "Gyp Labelle" in
letters large enough to conceal half of her outrageous nakedness.  There
were even a few flowers, drooping forlornly out of a dusty vase, and a
collection of theatrical posters, to lend a touch, of serious
professionalism.

But the end of it all was a frowzy, hopeless disorder.

Cosgrave lay huddled over the littered table by the open window.  The red
untidy head made a patch of grotesque colour in the general murk.  He
looked like a poor rag doll that had been torn and battered in some wild
carnival scrimmage and flung aside.

There was not much in him--not much fight, as he himself said.  Not the
sort to survive.  Life was too strong--too difficult for him.  He bungled
everything--even an exam.  It would be wiser, more consistent to let him
drift.  And yet at sight of that futile breakdown, it was not impatience
or contempt that Robert felt, but a choking tenderness--a fierce pity.
He had to protect him--pull him through.  He had promised so much--he
forgot when: that afternoon lying in the long, sooty grass behind the
biscuit factory, or that night when he had dragged Cosgrave breathless
and staggering in pursuit of the Greatest Show in Europe.  It did not
matter.  It had become part of himself.  And Cosgrave had always trusted
him--believed in him.

"It's all right, old man; it's only me--Robert."  For Cosgrave had leapt
up with an eager cry, and now stood staring at him open-mouthed.  The
light was behind him, and the open mouth and blank, shadowy face made a
queer, ghastly effect, as though a drowned man had suddenly stood up.
Then he sagged pitifully, and Robert caught him by the shoulders and
shook him with a rough, boyish impatience.  "Don't be an idiot.  It
doesn't matter all that much.  Exams are not everything.  Everyone knows
that.  We'll find something else.  If your people are too beastly, you'll
come and share with us.  I'll see you through--it'll be all right."

But a baffling change came over Cosgrave.  He shook himself free.  He
stood upright, looking at Robert with a kind of stony dignity.

"Where is she?"

"Who?"

"Connie.  She sent you, didn't she?"

"Yes.  We met----"

"Where is she?"

"I don't know.  Gone to the theatre probably."

"Isn't she coming back?"

"Not now."

"Didn't she send a message?"

"She said--it was finish between you.  She's a little rotter, Cosgrave."

"She made me laugh," Cosgrave said simply.  "I don't mind about the
exam.--or about anything now.  I suppose I was bound to fail.  But I was
so jolly happy.  I'd never had a good time like that.  It's all over now.
She doesn't care.  She said she couldn't be tied up with a lot of
trouble.  That's what I am.  A lot of trouble.  It was all
bunkum--make-believe--to think I could be anything else."

So it wasn't his failure.  It wasn't even the loss of a good-for-nothing
chorus-girl.  It was a loss far more subtle.  The recognition of it lamed
Robert Stonehouse, knocked the power out of him, as though someone had
struck and paralysed a vital nerve centre.  He could only stammer
futilely:

"She's not worth bothering about."

Cosgrave slumped back into his chair.  His hands lay on the table, half
clenched as though they had let go and didn't care any more.  He looked
at Robert wide-eyed with a sudden absolute knowledge.

"That's it," he said.  "Not worth bothering about--nothing in this whole
beastly, rotten, world. . . . . ."



3

A convenient uncle found him a berth as clerk to a trading firm in West
Africa, and with a cheap Colonial outfit and 10 pounds in his pocket,
Cosgrave set out for the particular swamp which was to be the scene of
his future career.  He went docilely, with limp handshakes and dull,
pathetic eyes.  If he betrayed any feeling at all, it was a sort of
relief at getting away from everybody.  But emotionally he was dead--like
cheap champagne gone flat, as he expressed it in one twisted mood of
self-revelation.

Probably he was thinking of Connie Edwards and of their last spree
together.

But he never spoke of her.

And it was very unlikely that the swamp would give him a chance to see
any of them again.

After all, he had stood for something.   He was a rudderless little craft
that had come leaking and tumbling willy-nilly in the wake of the bigger
vessel.  But also he had been a sort of talisman.  He had protected
Robert as the weak, when they are humble and loving, can protect the
strong, giving them greater confidence, making their defeat impossible.
With his going went security.  Little old fears came crawling out of
their hiding-places.  At night when Robert climbed the dark stairs to
their stable-attic, they set upon him.  They clawed his heart.  He called
to Christine before he saw her, and the answering silence made him sick
with panic.  It was reasonless panic, for Christine often fell asleep at
dusk.  She was difficult to wake and when she woke it was strangely, with
a look of bewilderment, like a traveller who has come home after a long
absence.  Once she had spoken his father's name with a ringing joy, and
he had answered roughly and had seen her shrink back into herself.  Her
little hands trembled, fumbling apologetically with the shabby bag she
always carried.  She was like a girl who, in one withering tragic moment,
had become old.  But his aching love found no outlet, no word of regret
or tenderness.  It recoiled back on himself in a dead weight of pain.

He began to watch himself like a sick man.  There were hours when he knew
his brain to be losing edge--black periods of hideous impotency which,
when they passed, left him shaken and wet with terror.  Supposing, at the
end of everything, be failed?  He didn't care so much.  His very power of
caring had been dissipated.  His single purpose lost itself amidst
incompatible dreams.  He was being torn asunder--and there was a limit to
endurance.

Cosgrave had failed.  He couldn't concentrate.  He was always looking for
happiness.  He had fallen in love and wasted himself and made a mess of
his life.

It was mad to fall in love.

And yet the worst dread of all was the dread of losing Francey.  It
seemed even the most unreasonable, for they had their work in common and
they loved one another.  There was no doubting their love.  They were
very young and might have to wait, but he could trust her to wait all her
life.  He knew dimly that she had been fond of him as a little boy, and
had gone on being fond of him, simply and unconsciously, because it was
not possible for her to forget.  She would love him in the same way.
That steadfastness was like a light shining through the mists of her
character--through her sudden fancies, her shadowy withdrawals.

And still he was afraid, and sometimes he suspected that she was afraid
too.  It was as though inexorable forces were rising up in both of them,
essentially of them, and yet outside their control, two dark antagonisms
waiting sorrowfully to join issue.



4

It had happened suddenly--not without warning.  One little event trod on
the heels of another, rubble skirling down the mountain-side, growing to
an avalanche.

Or, again, Cosgrave might have been the odd, unlikely keystone of their
daily life.  He had not seemed to matter much, but now that he had been
torn out the bridge between them crumbled.

It had been a day full of bitterness--of set-backs, which to Robert
Stonehouse were like pointing fingers.  They were the outward expressions
of his disorder.  He did not believe in luck, but in a man's strength or
weakness, and he knew by the things that happened to him that he was
weakening.  A private operation had gone badly.  He had bungled with his
dressings, so that the surgeon had turned on him in a burst of irritation.

"Better go home and sleep it off, Stonehouse."

He had not gone.  He would not admit that he was ill--dared not.  All
illness now meant the end of everything.  It would wipe out all that they
had endured if he were to break down now.  It would kill Christine.  She
must not even guess.

He hung about the hospital common-room.  The summer heat surging up from
the burning pavements stagnated between the faded walls.  He could not
touch the food that he had brought with him.  He was faint and sick, and
the long table at which he sat, with its white blur of newspapers, rose
and fell as though it were floating on an oily sea.  But he held out.  At
five o'clock he was to meet Francey at the gates, and, as though she had
some magic gift of relief, he strained towards that time, his head
between his hands, his ears counting the seconds that dripped heavily,
drowsily from the moon-faced clock.

And then she did not come.  Outwardly it was only one more trifle,
capable of simple explanations.  But he saw it through a disfiguring haze
of fever, and it was deadly in its significance.  He hardly waited.  He
crossed the thoroughfare, and once in a side street stumbled into a
shambling run.  He did not stop until he reached her house.  His former
reluctance broke before the imperative need to see her and make sure of
her.  He stormed the broad, deep, carpeted stairs, pursued by a senseless
panic, But at the top his strength failed him.  He felt his brain
throbbing in torture against his skull.

The old maid-servant nodded gravely, sympathetically.

"Yes, she's in, sir, but very busy--going away--sir." Going away.  He
wavered in the dim hall, trying to control his flying thoughts.  Going
away.  And she had said nothing the night before--had not even warned
him.  Some unexpected, untoward event striking in the dark.  Illness.  A
long separation.  (And yet, he argued, he could not live without her.
She had no people who could claim her.  They were dead.  No one to come
between them.  And there was her work.  She would never leave that again.)

But there she stood in the midst of the disorder of a sudden going.  Open
suit-cases, clothes strewn about the floor, she herself in some loose,
bright-coloured wrap, her brown hair tousled and her brows knit in
perplexity.  She stopped short at sight of him, smiling ruefully, her
arms full.

"Oh, my dear--I'd forgotten."  (Then she must have seen his face with its
dead whiteness, for she added quickly, half laughing): "Not you.  Only
the time.  I've not been at the hospital, and I thought I had still half
an hour.  I've had to run round like mad, and even now I've got a hundred
things to do----"

He gulped.  He said: "Where are you going?" in a flat, emotionless voice,
as though he did not care.

For a moment she did not answer.  She let the clothes drop, forgotten, on
the sofa.  He could see her weighing--considering what she should say to
him.

"Italy--Rome--I expect----"

"Italy--when?"

"I've got to be at the hospital to-morrow.  Wednesday probably.  I don't
believe it'll be for long.  I hope not.  A week or two.  I've got leave
for a month."

"Why are you going?"

And now he could not keep the harsh break out of his voice.  He could not
hide the physical weakness which made it impossible for him to stand.
And yet, though she looked at him, she seemed unaware that he was
suffering.  She was absorbed in some difficulty of her own, set on her
own immediate purpose.  He knew that mood.  It was the other side of her
fitful, whimsical way of life that she could be as relentless, as deadly
resolute and patient in attainment as himself.

"It's about Howard," she said, abruptly coming to a decision.  "I wasn't
sure at first what to do about it.  I didn't want anyone to know.  But
you're different.  We have to share things.  Howard and Gertie--they've
both gone--gone off--no one knows where."

"Together?"

"I'm pretty certain of it.  At any rate, Gertie, who couldn't even pay
her rent, has vanished, and Howard--I heard about Howard this morning."

"What did you hear about him?"

"It was from Salter.  You probably don't know him.  He came to me because
he knew I was a friend of Howard's.  He was frightfully upset.  It seems
there was some sort of club which a crowd of students were collecting
for, and he and Howard held the funds.  It wasn't much--150 pounds--and
Howard drew it out two days ago."

"Does that astonish you?" Robert asked.

She seemed not to hear the scorn and irony of the question.   She went on
packing deliberately, and he watched her, not knowing what he would say
or do.  The tide was rising faster.  His dread would carry him off his
feet.

"No.  I was sure things were coming to a crisis."

"He was no good.  Anyone could see that."

"I didn't see it."

"Well, you see it now," he flung at her with a hard triumph.

"I don't."

"A mean thief----"

"Not mean, Robert."

"I don't know anything meaner than stealing money from a lot of hard-up
students."

"There was Gertie," she said as though that were some sort of extenuation.

"Gertie--they've gone off on some rotten spree--not even married."

(He hated himself--the beastly righteousness of his voice, his
contemptible exultation.  It was as though he were under some horrid
spell which twisted his love and anguish into the expressions of a
spiteful prig.  Why couldn't he tell her of those deadly, shapeless
fears, of his loneliness, his sorrowful jealousies?  He was shut up in
the iron fastness of his own will--gagged and helpless.)

He saw her start.  She stopped definitely in her work as though she were
at last aware of some struggle between them.  The room was growing dark,
and she came a little nearer, trying to see his face.

"I don't suppose so.  I don't think it would occur to them."

"No--that's what I should imagine."

"You're awfully hard on people, Robert."

"That sort of thing makes me sick.  It ought to make you sick.  I don't
know why it doesn't.  You don't seem to care--to have any standards.
You're unmoral in your outlook--perhaps you're too young--you don't
realize.  A rotter like Howard who takes other people's money just to
enjoy himself--a girl like Gertie Sumners who goes off with the first man
who asks her----"

"You don't understand, Robert."

"No," he said with a laugh, "I don't."

"Gertie Sumners hasn't long to live.  I sent her to the hospital last
week, and they told her honestly.  And she wanted so much to see Italy.
I don't think Howard cares for her or she for him, except in a comradely
sort of way.  They loved the same things--and he was sorry--he wanted to
give her her one good time."

"He told you all that, I suppose?"

"No," she answered soberly.  "But I know."

He waited a moment.  He was trying desperately to hold back--to stop
himself.  He was sorry about Gertie Sumners.  But everything was against
him.  The room was against him--the faun dancing noiselessly among the
shadows, the little things that Francey had gathered about her, the dear
personal things that can become terrible in their poignancy, Francey
herself, standing there slender and grave-eyed, judging him, weighing
him.  They were all leagued together.  They spoke with one voice.  "We
belong TO one another.  We understand.  But you don't belong.  You are
outside."

"I don't see, at any rate," he said, "what it has got to do with you--or
why you should be going away."

"I'm going after them.  There's no one else.  Howard will expect
prosecution.  He will think that he'll never be able to come home.  He's
pretty reckless, but they will be thinking of that all the time.  It will
spoil everything for them."

"And what can you do?"

"I can tell them it's all right."

"How can it be?"

"It is," she said curtly.  "The money has been paid back."

"Paid back!"  Understanding burst upon him.  "_You_ paid it?"

He stood up.  He knew that resentment flickered in her--a fine, dangerous
resentment against him because he had dragged so simple and obvious a
thing out of its insignificance.  But his own anger was like a mad,
runaway horse, rushing him to destruction.

"It was stupid of him not to have come to me in the first place," she
said, with an effort.  "He should have known----"

He broke in fiercely.

"You can't--can't go like that."

"I must.  If they had left an address--but, of course, they haven't.
I'll have to track them down.  It won't be so difficult."  A spark of
gaiety lit up her serious eyes.  "I'll find Gertie lying on her back in
the Sistine Chapel.  She'll scorn the mirrors."

"You can't leave your work like that."

"The hospital people have been awfully decent about it."

"You told them----?"

"I told them I had urgent, personal business."

"You told them a lie, then?"

(Steady.  Steady.  But it was too late.  His only hope lay in her
understanding--her pity.)

"It wasn't a lie.  My friends are my business."

"Your friends!" he echoed.

There was silence between them.  She was controlled enough not to answer.
It would have been better if she had returned taunt for taunt so that at
last in the white heat of conflict his prison might have melted and let
him free.  But there followed a cold, deadly interlude, in which their
antagonism hardened itself with reason and bitterness.  He went and stood
by the window looking out on to the dim square.  He said at last roughly,
authoritatively:

"Don't go.  I don't want you to go."

(If only he could have gone on--driven the words over his set
lips--"because I'm afraid--because I'm at breaking-point--because I can't
do without you.  I'm frightened of life.  I've been starved in body and
heart too long.  I'm frightened because Christine is hard to wake at
night--because I can't work any more.")

"I've got to," she said briefly, sternly.

He walked from the window to the door.

"You don't care.  You care more for these two than you do for me.  I've
lived hard and clean.  I don't lie or steal.  I've never thought of any
girl but you.  And you put me second to a feckless thief and a----"

She stopped him.  Not with a word or gesture, but with the sheer upward
blaze of a chivalrous anger.  And it was not only anger.  That would have
been bearable.  It was sorrow, reproach, a kind of grieving bewilderment,
as though he had changed before her eyes.

"You'd--you'd better go, Robert.  We're both of us out of hand.  We'll
see each other to-morrow.  It will be different then."

He went without a word.  But on the dark stairs he stood still, leaning
back against the wall, his wet face between his hands.  He said aloud:
"Oh, Francey.  Francey, I can't live without you!"  He would have gone
back to tell her, but he was physically at the end of everything, and at
the mercy of the power outside himself.  He thought:

"There's still to-morrow.  I'll tell her everything.  I'll help her to
get away.  I'll make her understand that it wasn't Howard.  To-morrow it
will be all right."

And so went on.  And the stolid Georgian door closed with a hard metallic
click, setting its teeth against him.

"Now you see how it happens, Robert Stonehouse!"



5

But he came out of a night of fever and hallucination with very little
left but the will to keep on.  Apathy, like a thin protecting skin, had
grown over him, shielding him from further hurt.  He did not want to feel
or care any more.  The very memory of that "scene" with Francey made him
shrink with a kind of physical disgust.  Only no more of that.  Back to
work--back to reason.  If she wished to go in pursuit of Howard and
Gertie she would have to go.  It seemed strange to him now that he should
have minded so desperately.

Christine called to him as he passed her door.

"Is that you, Robert?  Have you had your breakfast?  Wait, dear--I'll get
it for you."

But he crept down the stairs as though he had not heard.  Only not so
much caring--if only he could forget that he cared.

"Good-bye, dearest, good-bye!"

Her voice followed him, plaintive and clear.  It seemed to lodge itself
in his heart so that ever afterwards he had only to think of her to hear
it like the echo of a small, sad bell.  He went on stubbornly, in silence.

He did not try to see Francey.  They met inevitably in the wake of the
surgeon on whose post they worked, but they did not speak.  Their eyes
avoided one another.  Yet he could not forget her.  It was not the old
consciousness that had been full of mystery and delight.  It hurt.  He
felt her unsapped joyous living like a blow on his own aching weariness.
He thought bitterly of her.  How easy life had been for her!  She played
at living.  Her airy fancies, her belief in God, her vagrant tenderness
for the rag and bobtail of the earth were all part of that same thing.
She had never suffered.  Her people had died, but they had died in the
odour of sanctity and wealth.  She had never had to ask herself: "If I
fall out, what will become of us?"  She saw pain and poverty through the
softening veil of her own well-being.  Nothing could really hurt her.

(And yet how lovable she was!  He watched her covertly as she stood at
the surgeon's elbow--a little graver than usual--a little paler.  To-day
there was no warm glance with a flicker of a smile in its serene depths
to greet him.  Her hands were thrust boyishly into the pockets of her
white coat, and there was an air of austere earnestness about her that
sat quaintly, charmingly upon her youth.  He loved the businesslike
simplicity of her dress--the dark, tailored skirt and white silk
shirt--immaculate--expressive of her real ability, an accustomed wealth.
He flaired and hated its expensiveness.)

Money.  That lay at the root of everything.  If she were ill--what would
it matter?  A mere set-back.  Her work would wait for her.  Money would
wave anxiety from her door.  So she was never ill.  Even though she loved
him and they had quarrelled she had kept her fresh skin and clear eyes.
Even if she had worried a little, in the end she had slept peacefully.
(He felt his own shabbiness, his exhaustion, his burning hands and eyes,
his dry and bitter mouth like a sort of uncleanliness.)

And there in the midst of his jagged thoughts there flickered a red
anger--a desire to hurt too, to strike, to come to grips at last with her
laughing philosophy of life--to tear it down and batter it into the dust
and misery in which he stood.

They had come to No. 10's bedside.  Things had gone badly with No. 10.
She had stood a successful operation, but there had been severe
haemorrhage, and, as Robert had said, there was no constitution to fight
at the turning point.  Her face just showed above the creaseless sheet.
Death had already begun to clear away the mask of vice and cynicism and a
lost prettiness peered through.  But the eyes were terribly alive and
old.  So long as they kept open there could be no mistaking her.  They
travelled from face to face, and sought and questioned.  Her voice
sounded reedy and far-off.

"Not going this trip, am I, doctor?"

Rogers patted the bed.

"Certainly not.  Going along fine.  What do you expect to feel like--with
a hole like that in your inside?  Next time you have a young man, see he
doesn't carry firearms."

One of the eyes tried to wink--pitifully, obscenely.

"You bet your life.  Don't want to die just yet."

"Nobody does."

They drew a little apart.  Rogers consulted with his colleague.  The
serious loss of blood must be made good.  A transfusion.  There was a
young man who had offered himself.   A suitable subject.  This afternoon
at the latest.

They moved on.  Robert spoke to the man next him.  But he knew that
Francey heard him.  He meant her to hear.

"It's crazy.  They ought to be glad to let a woman like that slip out.
If she lives she'll only infect more people with her rottenness.  She's
better dead.  Instead of that they'll suck out somebody else's vitality
to save her.  The better the life the more pleased they'll be to risk it.
This sacrificing the strong to the weak--a snivelling sentimentality."

The man he spoke to glanced at him curiously--it was not usual for Robert
Stonehouse to speak to anyone--and said something about the medical
profession and the sanctity of life.  Robert laughed.  He argued it over
with himself.  It was true.  For that matter Howard and Gertie and Connie
would all be better dead.  There was no use or purpose in their living.
Only sentimentalists like Francey wanted to patch them up and keep them
on their feet.

People who cluttered up life ought to be cleared out of it.

He felt light-headed, yet extraordinarily sure of himself again.  He
answered Rogers' questions with the old lucidity.  And presently he found
himself in the corridor, still arguing his theme over.  He would prove to
Francey that she must let Howard and Gertie go to the devil and they
would never quarrel again.

He came to the head of the stairs where they met after the morning's work.

The steps were very broad and white and shallow, and gave the impression
of great distance.  Mr. Ricardo, at the bottom of them, was a black
speck--a bird that had blundered into the building by mistake and beaten
itself breathless against the walls.  As he saw Robert he began to drag
himself up, limping.  He seemed to shrivel then to a mere face, stricken
and yellow, that gaped and mouthed.

Robert did not move.  He stood leaning against the balustrade.  It was as
though an iron fist had smashed through the protecting wall about him,
letting in a rush of bitter wind.

"Robert--Robert!"

He nodded.

"I'm coming----"

For he had known instantly.



6

The tragic journey through the streets was over.  They stood beside her.
Robert knew too much to struggle, but Ricardo's voice went on, saying the
same things over and over again, pleading.

"Do something--do something.  Wake her, Robert, dear boy, for God's sake.
What is the use of all your studying if you can't even wake her?"

"It's no use," he said.

"She was sitting there--I was to have read her the last chapter--she was
so quiet--asleep she seemed---for an hour--I sat--not moving--then I was
afraid!"

Robert nodded.

She had laid his supper for him.  It was much too early for her to have
laid it.  She had spread muslin over the bread and cheese.  And then she
had sat down quietly in her chair by the window and waited.  (How long
had she waited there?  Many years perhaps.  It had been very lonely for
her.)  Her head was thrown back a little, and her closed eyes lifted to
the light that came over the stable roofs.  The grey hair hung in wisps
about the transparent face--very still, as though the air had died too.
She had changed profoundly, indefinably.   She looked younger, and there
was a new serenity about the faintly opened mouth.  Her hands lay
peacefully on the little shabby bag.  Her little feet in the ill-fitting
shoes just reached the ground.  In a way it was all so familiar.  And yet
he felt that if he touched her he would find out that this was not
Christine at all.  This was something that had belonged to her--as
poignant, as heart-rending as a dress that she had worn.

"Robert, isn't there anything--to do?"

"No."

They had nothing to say to one another.  They had made a strange
trio--lonely and outcast by necessity--but now a link had snapped and it
was all over.  They stood apart, each by himself.  Ricardo, crouching
against the window-sill, pressed his hand to his side as though he were
hurt and bleeding to death.  He said, almost inaudibly:

"I've no one.  Nobody will ever listen.  She believed in me.  She was
sure that one day--I would go out--and tell the truth.  She knew I
wasn't--a cowardly--beaten, old man."

Robert could not touch her whilst Ricardo stood there crying.  Her repose
was too dominating.  And if he touched her something terrible and
incalculable might happen.  He felt as though he were standing on the
edge of a precipice, and that suddenly he might let go and pitch over.

It had come true at last--his boy's nightmare that had grown up with
him--that only waited for darkness to show itself.  Christine had left
him.  She was dead, and it seemed that he had no one in the world.  For
Francey, loving him as she did, had failed him.  But Christine had never
failed him.  Never at any time had she asked, "Are you a good little boy,
Robert?"  It would never have occurred to her.  She was so sure.  She had
loved him and, believed in him unfalteringly, and, in her quiet way, died
for him.

Ricardo drew himself up.  He plucked at Robert's sleeve.  A change had
come over him in the last minutes.  His sunken brown eyes had dried and
become rather terribly alert.  Something too fine--too exquisitely
balanced in him had been disturbed and broken beyond hope.

"It proves what I have suspected for a long time, Robert.  You know it's
not a light thing to make an enemy like that.  He's taken his time, but
you see in the end he has taken everything I had.  First he made me a
liar and a hypocrite.  Then he took you.   He sent that girl specially to
come between us.  And now Miss Christine.  I suppose he thinks that's
done for me.  But it's a great mistake to make people desperate, Robert.
You should always leave them some little thing that they care for and
which makes them cowards.  Now, you see, I simply don't care any more.  I
don't care for myself or even my poor sister.  I'm going to fight him in
the open, gloves off.  I'll wrestle with him and prevail.  I'll give blow
for blow.  I'm going now to Hyde Park to tell people the truth about him.
They take him altogether too lightly, Robert.  They're inclined to laugh
at him as of no account.  That's a great mistake, too.  I shall warn
them."  He nodded mysteriously.  "God is a devil--a cruel, dangerous
devil."

Then he bent and kissed Christine's hand, very solemnly and tenderly, as
some battered, comical Don Quixote might have done before setting out on
a last fantastic quest.  And presently Robert heard him patter down the
narrow stairs and over the cobbles to the open street.

They were alone now.  He bent over her and said: "Christine--Christine,"
reassuringly, so that she should not be afraid, and gathered her in his
arms.  How little she was--no heavier than a child--and cold.  Her grey
head rested against his shoulder.  If she had only stirred and laughed,
and said: "Your father was strong too!" he would have answered gently.
He would have been glad that the memory of his father could make her
happy.  But it was all too late.

He carried her into her room.  It was like her to have left it so neat
and ordered--each thing in its place--her out-door shoes standing
decorously together under the window, and her best skirt peeping out from
behind the cretonne curtain.  Her hair-brush, with the comb planted in
its bristles, lay exactly in the middle of the pine-wood dressing-table.
When she had put it there, she had not known that it was for the last
time.

Or had she known?  She had called out to him so insistently.  She had
wanted to say good-bye.  And he had gone on, not answering.

They said that people, at the end, saw their whole life pass before them.
Perhaps she had seen hers.  Perhaps she had trodden the old road that he
was travelling over now.  Only her vision of it would be different.  It
was James Stonehouse and Robert's mother that she would see--radiant
figures of wonderful, unlucky people--and little Robert, who belonged to
both of them, tagging in the rear.

But he saw her--Christine lying white and still under the great mahogany
side-board, Christine coming back day after day in gallant patience to
scrub the floors and his ears, and pay the bills and chase away the duns,
and do whatever was necessary to keep the staggering Stonehouse menage on
its feet.

She had held him close to her and comforted him.

Her splendid faithfulness.

He laid her on the narrow bed against the wall, and smoothed her dress
and folded her hands over her breast.  Her bag, which he had gathered up
with her rolled on to the floor.  A book fell out.  He picked it up
mechanically.  It was a little Bible, and on the fly-leaf was written:

  "From JIM and CONSTANCE
    to their friend, CHRISTINE."

The writing was his father's.  It had faded, but one could still see how
regular and beautiful it was.  Then the date.  His own birthday--the
first of all the unfortunate birthdays.

He looked at it for a long time, stupidly, not realizing.  Then suddenly
he saw it--in a new light.  Ricardo.  How frightfully--excruciatingly
funny.  Ricardo.   He felt that he was going to laugh--shout with
laughter.  It was horrible.  Laughter rising and falling---like a sort of
awful sickness--choking him.

Instead his heart broke.  He flung himself down beside her and pressed
his face against her cold, thin cheek.  And, instead of laughter, sobs
that tore him to pieces--and at last, in mercy, tears.

"Oh, Christine, Christine--my own darling!  I did love you--I never told
you--you never, never knew how much!"

The earth-old cry of unavailing, inevitable remorse.



7

So there was no one but Francey now.

He did not know what he hoped, or indeed if he hoped for anything.  He
turned to her instinctively.  And when the door of the ward opened he
did, in fact, feel a faint lifting of the flat indifference which had
followed on that one difficult rending surrender.  He went to meet her.
If she had looked at him with her usual straightness, she might have
remembered the boy of whom she had been fond--a small, queer boy, who did
not like having his face washed, and who came to her truculent and
swaggering, with smears under his red eyes.

Even then it is doubtful whether she could have changed the course on
which both of them were set.

He did not want her to see.  And yet, unknown to himself, he did count on
her instant understanding, on some releasing, quickening word or look
that would give back life to the dead thing in him.  But her eyes,
preoccupied and unhappy, avoided him.  He could not have appealed to her.
He could not have said, as he had meant to do, "Christine is dead."  He
was silenced by the certain knowledge that all real communication between
them had been broken off.

"No. 10 is going to pull through," she said.

They walked slowly down the corridor.  He found it difficult to keep his
feet.  He wondered vaguely why she should talk of No. 10 when Christine
was dead.  He was puzzled---confused.

"It seemed likely," he muttered.  "Rogers had got his teeth into her."

"I suppose you think he was a fool to try?"

(What was she talking about?  He would have to arrange for the funeral.
And the money.  He did not know whether there would be money enough.  It
was hideous--to think of a thing like that--to have to go into a shop and
say to some bored shopkeeper: "I want a nice cheap coffin, please."  For
Christine--for whom he had never been able to buy so much as a bunch of
flowers.)

"I--I don't know."

"You see, I heard what you said."

(What had he said?  He tried to remember.  No. 10.  Better dead.  Yes, of
course that was it.  He couldn't go back on that.  His mind seemed to
strain and stagger under the challenge like a half-dead horse under the
whip.)

"She didn't hear me, anyway."

"I want to know--was it just--just a sort of pose--or did you mean it?"

"It was true."

"That doesn't seem to me to matter.  It was a beastly thing to have
thought--beastlier to have said----"

He stopped short, as though she had struck him across the face.  For an
instant he was blind with pain, but afterwards he steadied, grew deadly
cool and clear-headed.  There was a constant movement in the corridor and
he turned abruptly, almost with authority, into an empty operating
theatre.  Instinctively he had chosen his ground.  Here was symbolized
everything that he trusted and believed in--a cool, dispassionate
seeking, the ruthless cutting out of waste.  Yet in the half-light the
place surrounded them both with a ghostly, almost sinister unreality.
Its stark immaculateness lay like a chill, ironic hand on their distress.
It made mock of their unhappiness.  It divested them of their humanity.
The nauseating sweetness that still lingered in the sterilized air was
like incense offered up on the grotesque sacrificial altar that stood
bare and brutal beneath the glass-domed roof.

And now Robert saw Francey's face.  It was white and pinched and
unfamiliar, as though all her humour and whimsical laughter and
loving-kindness had been twisted awry in a bitter fight with pain.  But
he knew her eyes of old.  Long ago he had seen them with the same burning
deadly anger.  And he knew that it was all over.  Their patient
antagonism had come to grips at last over the bodies of their suffering
love for one another.

Even then she held back.

"You don't know how hard life can be.  It was hard for her----"  But at
that he burst out laughing, and she added quickly, reading his thought:
"Nothing that you've gone through is of any use if it hasn't taught you
pity."

"Your pity would take a half-dead rat from a terrier."

"You have no right to judge," she persisted.

He smiled with white lips.

"Oh, yes, I have!  We all have.  We condemn men to prison--to death."

"You do believe in God," she said bitterly.  "You believe in yourself."

"It comes to this, Francey, doesn't it?  You're through with me?  You
don't care any more?"

Her eyes narrowed with a kind of desperate humour.  It was as though for
a moment she had regained her old vision of him--a sad queer little boy.

"You say that because you want to shirk the truth.  You're almost
glad--presently you will be very glad.  You never did want to care--not
from the first.  Caring got in your way.  You will be free now."  She
waited, and then added very quietly, without anger: "I love you.  I dare
say I always shall--but I couldn't live with you--it would break my heart
if we should come to hate one another.  Don't think any more about it.
I'll have gone to-morrow, and I'll try to arrange not to come back till
you're through.  It will be all right."

"Francey, it's such a foolish thing to quarrel about."

"It's everything," she said simply.

She turned to go.  Even then he could have stopped her.  He could have
said: "Francey, Christine died this morning!" and their sad enmity might
have melted in grief and pity.  But what she had said was true.  It was
everything.  And his reason, his will, rising up out of the general ruin,
monstrous and powerful, stood like an admonishing shadow at his elbow.

"It's much better.  There's nothing to make a coward of you now.  You're
free."

He half held out his hand, but it was only a convulsive, dying movement.
He let her go.



PART III

I

1

As to Gyp Labelle, if she had known the part she played in their lives,
which in the nature of things was not possible, she would have broken
into that famous laugh of hers.

To her, at any rate, it would have seemed immensely, excruciatingly funny.

As the result of an exchange of two remarkably casual notes they met at
Brown's for dinner.  Brown's had occurred to both of them as a natural
meeting-place.  Cosgrave, it is true, had only dined there once and that
free (as a friend of Brown's friend), but the impression made upon a
stomach accustomed to Soho and tea-shop fare had been indelible.
Stonehouse himself dined there as a matter of custom.  Besides, there was
a touch of sentiment to their choice--a rather bitter sharp-tasting
sentiment like an aperitif.

Brown himself had aged considerably, and did not remember very well.

"Old friend of the doctor's, sir?  Well, so am I.  Getting on--getting
on.  But I'm waiting till I can squeeze my money's worth out of him.
When's that knighthood coming, doctor?  I want to be able to tell that
story--as good a story as you'd read anywhere.  He's got to keep me
alive, sir, till it comes true."

He went off to the kitchen tittering to himself over an ancient joke
which, together with his "feeling" for the psychological moment in the
matter of roasts, was about all that was left him.

Stonehouse, his chin resting in his hand, studied the menu from which
they had already chosen.

"When the last Honours List came out, he was quite serious and pathetic
about it," he said.  "Things move either too slowly or too quickly for
old people.  He does realize that I make quite a good story as I stand,
but he wants the finishing touches--the King clasping me by the hand, or
kissing me on both cheeks, or whatever he thinks happens on those
occasions--and wedding bells as a grand finale."

"The place seems to have grown shabby," Cosgrave said.  "Or perhaps it's
only me."

"Oh, no.  It is shabby.  And perhaps you've noticed, they don't wait here
as they used to."

Cosgrave looked directly at his companion, almost for the first time, and
caught a spark in the eyes that stared into his--a rather dangerous
spark, which cleverer people than himself had found difficult to make
sure of.  Then he laughed flatly.

"You can see how funny it is now----"

"I always did."

"--because you were so sure it would pan out--like this.  How long is it?"

"About eight years."

"My word!  Let's--let's look at one another and take stock."

Stonehouse sat back and bore the inspection with a faint smile.  He knew
himself, and how he impressed others.  The eight years had done a great
deal for him.  His strength had cast its crudeness and had attained a
certain grace--the ease of absolute control and tried confidence in
itself.  He still dressed badly--indifferently, rather--but his body had
toned down to the level of the fine hands, which he held loosely clasped
upon the table.

He looked at once very young and very fine drawn and, as Cosgrave
thought, a little cruel.

"You seem--awfully well and prosperous, Robert.  And a sight better
looking."

Stonehouse laughed.  All he said in reply was:

"And you look prosperous and ill.  What was it?  Enteric?"

Cosgrave shrugged his thin shoulders.  He was still flamboyantly
red-headed and generously freckled, but now that the first flush of
excitement had ebbed, his face showed a parchment yellow.  His eyes,
wistful in their setting, were faded, as though a relentless tropical sun
had drunk up their once vivid, boyish colouring.

"Oh yes, that and a few other trifles.  I think I've housed most West
African bugs in my time.  Everyone had them, but I was such poor pasture
that I got off better than most.  Three of my superiors died of 'em, and
I stepped right into their shoes.  It pays, you see, if you can hold out.
People like a fellow who isn't always clamouring to come home--and you
bet I never did.  But, finally, I took an overdue leave and a hunk of
savings and trekked back.  I'd always planned it--a good time, you
know--but somehow it hasn't come off.  I expect I left it too long.  In
the end I didn't really want to come at all--wanted to lie down and die,
but hadn't the strength of mind to insist.  I'd been in London a week
before I wrote you--just drifting round--too weak-kneed to take the first
step.  I tore up that idiotic note three times."

"Well, as long as you posted the fourth effort," Stonehouse said, "it's
all right."

They fell then unexpectedly into one of those difficult silences which
beset the road of friends who have been separated too long.  The past
stood at their elbow like an importunate and shabby ghost.  And yet it
was all they had to lead them back into the old intimacy.

"We've got too much to say," Cosgrave broke out at last, with a painful
effort, "too much ground to cover--and I dare say we don't want to cover
it.  If we'd written--but I never heard from you after that one
letter--after Miss Christine's death."

"I was ill," Stonehouse explained, eating tranquilly.  "I got through my
finals with a temperature which would have astonished my examiners, and
then I went to pieces altogether.  Had to go into hospital myself.  A
nervous breakdown.  Three months I had of it.  They were very decent to
me, and when I came out they got me a berth as ship's doctor on one of
the smaller transatlantic liners.  I got hold of things again and pulled
them my way.  But I didn't want to look back.  My illness had made a
definite break--I wanted to keep free."

Cosgrave nodded.  He had been playing with his food, and now a look of
disgust and weariness came into his thin face.

"I can understand that.  I suppose it would have been better if I'd left
well alone, and not written at all."

"It wouldn't have made much difference," Stonehouse said: "A week or two.
Sooner or later we'd have run into one another.  People who've been at
school together always seem to.  And you and I especially."

"I don't know.  I was always a poor specimen--I never meant much to you."

Stonehouse looked up at him and smiled.  This time it was an unmistakable
smile and rather charming, like a warm line of light falling across his
face.

"I was awfully glad to get your letter," he said.  "I'd begun to worry
rather."

Cosgrave flushed up.

"That's--that's about the nicest thing that's happened to me for a long
time.  I'd probably cry with pleasure--only I don't seem able to feel
much anyway.  It's those damn bugs, I suppose!"

"I'll pull you out of that."

"Got me diagnosed already?"

"It's not very difficult."

"I suppose--I suppose you're an awful swell, Stonehouse."

"Not yet.  I'm better at my job than a great many men who are swells.
But I'm young--that'll cure itself.  Oh, yes--I'm all right.  Things have
gone on coming my way.  I'll tell you about it sometime."

Cosgrave's eyes had rounded with their old solemn admiration.

"A fashionable West-End surgeon--oh, my word!  I say, have you got a
bed-side manner tucked away somewhere?"

"No.  That's not fashionable for one thing, and for another, it wouldn't
suit my style.  I'm not interested in people.  I'm interested in their
diseases.  They know it, and rather like it."  A touch of chill scorn
showed itself for a moment in his face.  "They're frightened of me.  I'm
as good as an electric shock to their lethargic, overfed carcasses.  They
can't get over a young man with his way to make who wipes his boots on
them.  They have to come back for more."

Cosgrave gave his little toneless laugh.

"I wish to God you'd frighten me.  You know, when I felt how rotten I was
I thought of you.  You always bucked me up--I believe I had a fool idea
that I'd find you in some scrubby suburban practice.  Shows the bugs must
have got into my brain too, doesn't it?  Now I suppose I'll have to ask
you to reduce your fees."

"I'll let you down easy.  Say, a guinea a consultation!"

"I could manage that--if you don't want to consult too often.  I've got
my bit saved.  Not much to squander on out there, except whisky, and I
never took to that.  Besides--my father's dead.  He didn't mean to leave
me his money--you know how he loathed me--but there was a mix-up over the
will that was to cut me out--not properly witnessed or something.
Anyhow, I came out into a few thousand.  Rather a joke on the old man,
wasn't it?"

"One might almost hope for another life if one were sure he were grinding
his teeth over it."

A faint perplexity flickered across the sallow face.

"Oh, I don't know.  I don't seem to bear him any particular grudge now.
Perhaps it would be better if I could.  When one's young one judges very
harshly.  Parents and kids don't understand each other--not really--and
don't always love each other either, if the truth were known.  Why should
they?  The old man and I were like strangers tied to one another by the
leg.  I used to think if I could pay him back for all the beastly times
he gave me I'd die happy.  But I don't feel like that now.  I expect he
was pretty miserable himself.  There's too much of that sort of thing for
us to wish it on to one another."

"You're very tolerant," Stonehouse said.  "I'm not.  But then I haven't
inherited anything."  He stopped abruptly and his manner hardened.  But
Cosgrave did not pursue the subject.  His interest had suddenly slumped
into what was evidently an habitual apathy, and only when they had paid
their bill and drifted out into the street did he revert for a moment to
the past.

"And the Gang--and Frances Wilmot?" he asked.  He looked shyly at his
companion's profile, which showed up for a moment in a bold, tranquil
outline against the lamplight.  It betrayed nothing.

"We might walk back to my rooms and talk in peace.  Oh--Francey Wilmot?
I don't know much.  She went abroad--finished her course very late--she
was always a bit of a dilettante.  People with money usually are."

Cosgrave said no more.  He knew all he wanted to know.  It saddened him.
Somehow he had counted on that half-divined romance, had played with it
in his fancy as with a kind of vicarious happiness.



3

On board the S.S. _Launceston_ there had arrived, an hour before sailing,
an American gentleman--a certain Mr. Horace Fletcher, who, having been
called home suddenly, had had to take what accommodation he could get on
the first available boat.  Two days later he had lain unconscious,
strapped to the captain's table, whilst the ship's doctor, a young man,
himself in the horrible throes of seasickness, had performed a radical
operation for acute mastoiditis.  There had been no facilities.  The
whole thing had been in the last degree makeshift.  The half-trained
stewardess had held his instruments ready for him, and the sea-sickness,
comic in retrospect, had weighed heavily against Mr. Fletcher's chance of
seeing land again.  Nevertheless, the eminent New York surgeon, consulted
at the first opportunity, had pronounced the operation a neat
performance--under the circumstances a masterpiece.

It was the nearest possible approach to a medical advertisement.  Mr.
Fletcher was a member of a well-known New York family, and the papers had
given the story, with fantastic details as to the ship's doctor's career,
a first-page prominence.  Mr. Fletcher himself had proved to be both
generous and grateful.  In assessing the value of his own life at 1,000
pounds, he had argued with good humour and good sense, he had erred on
the side of modesty, and Robert Stonehouse, having weighed the argument
gravely, had accepted its practical conclusion as just and reasonable.
He had taken rooms, thereupon, if not actually in Harley Street, at least
under the ramparts, fitted them out with the most modern surgical
appliances that his capital allowed, and had sat down to wait.
Fortunately he had learnt the art of starving before.  He slept in a
garret, and the bottom drawer of the handsome mahogany desk in his
consulting-room knew the grim secret of his mid-day meals.  But in six
months the tide had turned.  Doctors had remembered him from his hospital
days when, if they had not liked him, they had learnt to respect his
genius and his courage, and had sent him patients.  The patients
themselves, oddly enough, took a fancy to this gaunt, very serious young
man, who so obviously cared nothing at all about them, but whose interest
in their diseases was almost passionate.  And within two years the tide
had brought him in sight of land.

This was what he had meant by "getting hold of things again and pulling
them his way."  There was perhaps something rather simple in a theory of
life which had necessitated so much suffering on the part of Mr. Fletcher
in order that Dr. Stonehouse might take the first long stride in his
career.  But Cosgrave, listening to Stonehouse's own account of the
incident, saw in it only an example of a strange, inexorable truth.  What
men called "Fate" was the shadow of themselves.  They imposed their
characters upon events, significant or insignificant, willingly or
unwillingly.  Beyond that there was no such thing as Fate at all.

They stepped back from the crowd into the shelter of the Piccadilly Tube.
They had been walking the streets for an hour, and as much of their lives
as they were able to tell one another had been told.  Now they were both
baffled and tired out.  Of what had really happened to them they could
say nothing, and their memories, disinterred in a kind of desperate haste
("Do you remember that row with Dickson about my hair, Robert?") had
crumbled, after a moment's apparent vitality, into a heap of dust.  It
was all too utterly dead--too unreal to both of them.  The things that
had mattered so much, which had seemed so laughable or so tragic, were
like the repetition of a story in which they could only force a polite
interest.  Their laughter, their exclamations, sounded shallow and
insincere.

And yet it was borne in upon them that they did still care for one
another.  They had had no other friendship to compare with this.
Strictly speaking, there had been no other friends.  There had been
acquaintances--people whom you talked to because you worked with them.

Robert Stonehouse had always known his own loneliness.  His patients
believed in him; his colleagues respected him.  Their knowledge of him
went no further than the operating theatre where they knew him best.  He
had reckoned loneliness as an asset.  But to feel it, as he felt it now
beneath this stilted exchange, was to become aware of a dull, stupid
pain.  He found himself staring over the heads of the people, and wishing
that Cosgrave had never come back.  And Cosgrave said gently, as though
he had read his thought and had made up his mind to have done with
insincerities:

"You're not to bother about me, Robert.  It's been jolly, seeing you
again and all that, but we'd better let it end here.  It always puzzled
me--your caring, you know, about a hapless fellow like myself.  It's
against your real principles.  I'm a dead weight.  I couldn't give anyone
a solitary water-tight reason for my being alive.  I think you did it
because you'd got your teeth into me by accident and couldn't let go.  I
don't want you to get your teeth into me again."

"I don't believe," Stonehouse said, with an impatient laugh, "that I ever
let go at all."

His attention fixed itself on the illuminated sign that hung from the
portico of the Olympic Theatre opposite, and mechanically he began to
spell out the flaming letters:

"Gyp Labelle--Gyp Labelle!"  At first the name scarcely reached his
consciousness, but in some strange way it focused his disquiet.  It was
as though for a long time past he too had been indefinitely ill, and now
at an exasperating touch the poisoned blood rushed to a head of pain.  He
felt Cosgrave plucking at his sleeve, fretfully like a sick child, raised
to a sudden interest.

"I say, Stonehouse, don't you remember?"

"The Circus?  Yes, I was just thinking about it.  It's not likely to be
the same though."

"Why not? She was a nailer.  Oh--but you didn't think so, did you?  It
was the woman on the horse--the big barmaid person--I forget her
name--Madame--Madame----"

It was ridiculous--but even now it annoyed him to be reminded of her
essential vulgarity.  There was a glamour--almost a halo about her memory
because of all that he had felt for her.  A silly boy's passion.  But he
would never feel like that again.

"Well, she could ride, anyhow.  I don't know what your long-legged
favourite was good for."

"She made me laugh," Cosgrave said.  He asked after a moment: "Have you
ever wanted anything so much as you wanted to go to that Circus,
Stonehouse?"

"Oh, yes--crowds of things!"

"I don't believe it somehow.  I know I haven't.  Oh, I say, I wish I
could want again like that--anything--to get drunk--to go to the
dogs--anything in the world.  It's this damnable not wanting.  Do you
know I've been trying every night this week to drift into that show--just
to see if it were really that funny kid.  I felt I ought to want to.
Why, even the fellows down in Angola had heard of her."

"She's probably well known in hotter places than that," Stonehouse
remarked.

"Yes--so I gathered.  That's what made them so keen.  They used to talk
of her--telling the wildest yarns, as though it did them good just to
think there was someone left alive who had so much go in them.  Queer,
isn't it?  Do you remember what a susceptible chap I used to be--that
poor little Connie--what's-her-name, whom I nearly scared out of her five
senses?  Well, I've not cared a snap for any woman since then.  And I
want to--I want to.  I'd be so awfully happy if I could only care for
some nice girl and marry her.  There was someone on the boat--such a
jolly good sort--and I think if I only could have cared she'd have cared
too.  But I couldn't.  I tried to work myself up--but it was like
scratching on a dead nerve--as though something vital had gone clean out
of me."

His voice cracked.  Stonehouse, startled from his own reflections, became
aware that Cosgrave, whose apathy had hung about them like a fog, hiding
them from each other, was on the point of tears--of breaking down
helplessly in the crowded entrance.  And instantly their old relationship
was re-born.  He took him by the arm, sternly, authoritatively, as he had
always done when little Rufus Cosgrave had begun to flag or cry.

"You're coming home with me.  When you're fit enough we'll do the show
opposite and make a night of it.  We'll see what going to the devil can
do for you."

"Perhaps she'd make me laugh again," Cosgrave said, quavering
hysterically.



4

At any rate he had kept faith with himself.  That theatre-night with
Frances Wilmot had been the first and last until now, and now assuredly
he did not care any more.  But it made him remember.  How intoxicated he
had been!  He had walked home like a man translated into a strange
country--words had rushed past his ears in floods of music, and the
silver and black streets had been magic-built.  Was it his youth, or had
Francey, dancing before him, her head lifted to catch unearthly
harmonies, thrown a spell over his judgment?  She had gone, and he was
older--but he had a feeling that the disillusionment was not only in
himself.  It was in the atmosphere about him--in the stale air, stamped
on the stereotyped gilt and plush of the shabby theatre and on the faces
of the people.  He wondered whether they had all grown too old.  Perhaps
the spirit which had driven them into these dark boxes to gaze
open-mouthed, crying or laughing, through a peep-hole into a world of
ideal happiness, or even ideal sorrow, was dead and gone like their faith
in God and every other futile shadow which they had tried to interpose
between themselves and truth.  This that remained was perhaps no more
than a tradition--a convention.  When people were bored or unhappy they
said: "Let's go to a theatre!" and when they came out they wondered why
they had been, or what they had hoped for.

Reality was beginning to press hard on men.  It was driving them into an
iron cul-de-sac, from which there was no escape.  Suicide and madness,
obscure and hideous maladies of the brain herded in it.  Perhaps, after
all, there had been some value in those old fairy stories.  And he
remembered, with a faint movement of impatience, Francey Wilmot's final
shaft: "If there isn't a God you'll have to make one up."  But even if a
man were to juggle with his own integrity, turn charlatan, there was no
faith-serum which you could inject into a patient's veins.

Cosgrave sat limply in his stall, and by the reflected light from the
stage Stonehouse could see his look of wan indifference.  He was no
better.  All day long he lay on his bed in the small spare room Robert
had given him and stared up at the white ceiling.  There was a crack,
running zig-zag from the window to the door, which reminded him, so he
said, of a river in Angola, a beastly slimy thing trailing through
mosquito-infested swamps and villainous-tangled jungles.  When he dozed
it became real, and he felt the heat descend on him like a sticky hand,
and heard the menacing drone of the mosquitoes and the splash of oars as
unfriendly natives who had tracked him along the water's edge shot out
suddenly from under the shadow of the mango trees in their long
boats--deadly and swift as striking adders.

And then, near the door, the river broke off--poured into the open
sea--or fell over a cataract--he did not know what--and he woke up with a
sweating start and took his medicine.  He was so painstakingly docile
about his medicine that Robert Stonehouse guessed he had no faith in it.
Sometimes indeed he had an idea that Cosgrave was rather sorry for him,
very much as old people are sorry for the young, knowing the end to all
their enthusiasms.  It was as though he had travelled ahead, and had
found out how meaningless everything was, even his clever friend's
strength and cleverness.

So he did not get better.  And the forces that Robert Stonehouse had
counted on had failed.  He had been a successful physician outside his
specialty and his sheer indifference to his patients as human beings had
been one of his chief weapons.   He braced them, imposing his sense of
values so that their own sufferings became insignificant, and they ceased
to worry so much about themselves.  But with Cosgrave he was not
indifferent.  Some indefinable element of emotion had been thrown into
the scales, upsetting the delicate balance of his judgment.

And his old influence had gone too.  It had failed him from that moment
in Connie Edwards' room when suddenly Cosgrave had realized the general
futility of things.

"I'll see him through all the same," Stonehouse thought, with a kind of
violence, "I'll pull him through."

After the first few moments he had ignored the scene before him.  It was
boring--imbecile.  Even to him, with his contempt for the average of
human intelligence, it seemed incredible that the gyrating of a few
half-naked women and the silly obscenities of a comedian dressed in a
humourless caricature of a gentleman should hold the attention of sane
men for a minute.  Now abruptly the orchestra caught hold of him, shook
him and dragged him back.  It was playing something which he had heard
before--on a street barrel-organ, and which he disliked now with an
intensity for which he could give no reason.  It was perhaps because he
wanted to remain aloof and indifferent, and because it would not let him
be.  It destroyed his isolation.  His pulse caught up its beat like the
rest.  His personality lost outline--merging itself into the cumbrous
uncouth being of the audience.

Though it was a rhythm rather than a tune it was not rag-time.  Rag-time
Stonehouse appreciated.  He recognized it as a symptom of the _mal du
siecle_, a deliberate break with the natural rhythm of life, a desperate
ennui, the hysterical pressure upon an aching cancer.  Ragtime twitched
at the nerves.  This thing jostled you, bustled you.  It was a shout--a
caper--the ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay of its day, riotous and vulgar.  It was
the sort of thing coster-women danced to on the pavements of Epsom on
Derby night.

The stage, set with a stereotyped drawing-room, was empty as the curtain
rose.  Two hands, dead white under their load of emeralds, held the black
hangings over the centre doorway--then parted them brusquely.  Stonehouse
heard the audience stir in their seats, but there was only a faint
applause.  No one had come to the theatre for any other purpose than to
see her, but they knew her history.  And, after all, they were
respectable people.

Cosgrave caught him by the arm.

"Oh, my word--it's her right enough!"

She stood there, motionless, her fair head with its monstrous crest of
many-coloured ostrich feathers flaming against the dead background.  Her
dress was impudent.  It winked at its own transparent pretence at
covering a body which was, in fact, too slender, too nervously alive to
be quite beautiful (Stonehouse remembered her legs--the long, thin legs
in the parti-coloured tights, like sticks of peppermint, belabouring the
rotund sides of her imperturbable pony).  But her jewels clothed her.
Their authentic fire seemed to blaze out of herself--to be fed by her.
And each one of them, no doubt, had its romance--its scandal.  That rope
of pearls in itself was a king's ransom.  People nudged each other.  It
was part of the show that she should flaunt them.

She had been a plain child, and now, if she was really pretty at all, it
was after the fashion of most French women, without right or reason, by
force of some secret magnetism that was not even physical.  Her wide
mouth was open in a rather vacant, childish smile, and she was looking up
towards the gallery as though she were expecting something.  "Hallo,
everyone!" she said tentatively, gaily.  They stared back at her, stolid
and antagonistic, defying her.  She began to laugh then, as she laughed
every night at the same moment, spontaneously, shrilly, helplessly, until
suddenly she had them.  It was like a whirlwind.  It spared no one.  They
were like dead leaves dancing helplessly in its midst.  Even Stonehouse
felt it at his throat, a choking, senseless laughter.

He saw Cosgrave lean forward, and in the half light he had a queer,
startled look.  With his thick red hair and small white face he might
have been some sick thing of the woods scenting the air in answer to
far-off familiar piping's.  He made Robert Stonehouse see the faun in
Frances Wilmot's room, the room itself and Frances Wilmot, with her chin
resting in her hands, gazing into the fire.  The picture was gone almost
before he knew what he had seen.  But it was knife-sharp.  It was as
though a hand fumbling over a blank wall had touched by accident a secret
spring and a door had flown wide open, closing instantly.

  "I'm Gyp Labelle;
  If you dance with me
  You must dance to my tune
  Whatever it be."

She jumped into the incessant music as a child jumps into a whirling
skipping-rope.  She had a quaint French accent, but she couldn't sing.
She had no voice.  And after that one doggerel verse she made a gesture
of good-humoured contempt and danced.  But she couldn't dance either.  It
was a wild gymnastic--a display of incredible, riotous energy, the
delirious caperings of a gutter-urchin caught in the midst of some
gutter-urchin's windfall by a jolly tune.  A long-haired youth leapt on
to the stage from the stage-box, and caught her by the waist and swung
her about him and over his shoulder so that her plumes swept the ground
and the great chain of pearls made a circle of white light about them
both.

"Those pearls!" Stonehouse heard a man behind him say loudly.  "Prince
Frederick gave them to her.  And then he shot himself.  They belonged to
the family.  He had no right, of course, but she wanted them."

He could feel Cosgrave stir impatiently.

It went on, as it seemed to him, for an incredible length of time.  It
was like a prairie fire that spread and blazed up, higher and brighter.
And there was no escape.  He had a queer conviction that his was the only
static spirit in the whole theatre, that secretly, in their hearts, the
audience had flung themselves into the riot with her, the oldest and
staidest of them, as perhaps they had often wanted to do when they heard
a jolly tune like that.  It was artless, graceless.  One only needed to
let oneself go.

  "I'm Gyp Labelle,
  Come dance with me."

The jaded disgust and weariness were gone.  Something had come into the
theatre that had not been there before.  Nothing mattered either so much
or so little.  The main business was to have a good time somehow--not to
worry or care.

She had whirled catherine-wheel fashion, head over heels from end to end
of the stage.  The long-haired youth swept the hair from his hot,
blue-jowled face in time to catch her, and they stood side by side, she
with her thin arms stretched up straight in a gesture of triumph, her
lips still parted in that curiously empty, expectant smile.

Then it was over.  Once the curtain rose to perfunctory applause.  People
settled back in their seats, or prepared to go.  It was as though the
fire had been withdrawn from a molten metal which began instantly to
harden.  A woman next to Stonehouse tittered.

"So vulgar and silly--I don't know what people see in her."

"I want to get away," Cosgrave said sharply.  "It's this beastly
closeness."

He looked and walked as though he had been drinking.

Although the show was not over, the majority of the audience had begun to
stream out.  Two men who loitered in the gangway in front of Stonehouse
exchanged laconic comments.

"A live wire, eh, what?"

For some reason or other Stonehouse saw clearly and remembered afterwards
the face of the man who answered.  It was bloated and full of a weary,
humorous intelligence.

"Life itself, my dear fellow, life itself!"



5

Cosgrave scarcely answered his companion's comments.  He withdrew
suddenly into himself, and after that he shirked the subject,
understandably enough, for if he had had illusions on her account they
must have been effectively shattered.  But also he ceased to lie all day
on his bed and stare up at the mosquito-infested river of his nightmare.
He grew restless and shy, as though he were engaged with secret business
of his own of which Stonehouse knew nothing, and of which he could say
nothing.  Yet Stonehouse had caught his eyes fixed on him with the
doubtful, rather wistful earnestness of a child trying to make up its
mind to confide.  (There was still something pathetically young about
Rufus Cosgrave.  Now that his body was growing stronger, youth peered out
of his wan face like a famished prisoner demanding liberty.)

What he did with himself during the long hours when Stonehouse was in his
consulting-room or on his rounds Stonehouse never asked.  At night he sat
at the study window of his friend's flat (shabby and high up since all
spare money was diverted to other and better purposes), and looked over
the roofs of the houses opposite, smoking and watching the dull red glow
that rose up from the blazing theatres westwards.

"It is a fire," he said once, "and all the cold, tired people in London
come to warm their hands at it."

Robert Stonehouse went on with his writing under the lamplight.

"Are you cold?"

"Not now."  He added unexpectedly: "You think I'd be all right, don't
you, if only you could have a go at my tonsils or my adenoids? I believe
you're just waiting to have a go at them."

"Your tonsils are septic," Stonehouse agreed gravely.  "I told you so,
but I wouldn't advise anything drastic until you're stronger.  We'll
think about it in a month or two.  You're better already."

Cosgrave chuckled to himself.  In the shadow in which he sat the chuckle
sounded elfish and almost mocking.

"Oh, yes, I'm better!"


Stonehouse took his first holiday for three years, and carried Cosgrave
off with him to a rough shooting-box in the Highlands lent him by a
grateful and sporting patient, and for a week they tramped the moors
together and stalked deer and fished in the salmon river that ran in and
out among the desolate hills.  The place was little more than a
shepherd's cottage, growing grey and stubborn as a rock out of the
heather, and beyond that proffered them occasionally by a morose and
distrustful gillie they had no help or other companionship.  They won
their food for themselves, cooked it by the smoking fire, and washed
heroically in the icy river water.  A sting of winter was already in the
wind and a melancholy and bitter rain swept the hills, giving way at
evening to unearthly sunsets.  They saw themselves as pioneers at the
world's end.  And Stonehouse, who had calculated its effect on Cosgrave,
was himself caught up in the fierce, rough charm of that daily life.  He
who had never played since that circus night played now in passionate
earnest.  He proved a good shot, and, for all his inexperience, an
indomitable and clever hunter.  His close-confined physical energy could
not shake itself.  He liked the long and dogged pursuit, the cruel, often
fruitless struggle up the mountain-sides, the patient waiting, the
triumph of that final shot from a hand unshaken by excitement or fatigue.
A stag showing itself for an instant against the sky-line called up all
the stubborn purpose in him; then he would not turn back until either his
quarry had fallen to him, or night had swallowed them both.

And Cosgrave, half forgotten, tagged docilely at his heels, or lay in the
wet heather on the crest of a hill overlooking the world, and watched and
waited with strange, wide-open eyes.  But he never gave the signal.  He
shot nothing.  His failure seemed to amuse and even please him.  A faint,
excited colour came into his cheeks, lashed up by the wind and rain.  And
once, a hare running out from under his feet, he gave a wild "halloo!"
like a boy and set off in pursuit, headlong down the stony hillside, his
gun at full cock, threatening indiscriminate destruction.

"You might have killed yourself," Robert said angrily.  But Cosgrave
laughed, his eyes narrowed to blue-grey slits as though he did not want
Stonehouse to see all that was in them.

"I shouldn't have minded," he panted, "going off on the crest like
that--I wanted to run--I forgot."

"Well, for the Lord's sake, don't forget."

But for an instant at least he knew what Cosgrave meant.  It had been the
sight of that downward rushing hill and the sudden choking exultation.
He had felt it too--that night in Acacia Grove in pursuit of the Greatest
Show--and once again.  He could smell the scent of the trees and the
young grass blowing in his face.

And at the bottom there had been a mysterious wood like a deep, green
pool.


Then on the eighth day Cosgrave disappeared.  He had set out in the early
morning for the nearest station to fetch their letters and fresh
provisions, and at dusk a village youth reached Stonehouse with a note
which had been scrawled in such haste that it was almost illegible.  It
was as though Cosgrave had yielded suddenly and utterly to a prolonged
pressure.

He had to go back to town.  It was something urgent.  Stonehouse was not
to bother.  He would be all right now.

The next day Stonehouse stalked and brought down his first "Royal." This
time the chase had cost him every ounce of his endurance, and in the
chill dusk he stood watching the gillie at his work on the lovely body
(still so warm and lissom that one could almost see the last sorrowful
heaving of its golden flanks) with a kind of stolid triumph as though now
he had wiped out that other failure, for he realized that he had been
both too sanguine and too impatient.  When you were angling a man with a
sick brain back to health, you had to go slowly--delicately.

"It's because I care," he thought, half amused and half angry.  "And why
do I care?  It's as he said--a rotten habit."

But he returned to town.  He tracked Cosgrave to his former
lodging-house, where a stout, heavily-breathing landlady showed every
readiness to be communicative and helpful.

"Yes, sir--he's here again--I think he was expecting you--mentioned your
name--he's out now and won't be back till late--dinner at the Carlton, he
said.  If you'd like to leave a note, sir----"

She led him upstairs and watched him with a fat amusement as he stood
silent and frowning on the threshold.

"It _is_ a fair mess," she admitted blandly.  "I was just trying to get
things a bit together when you rang, sir.  I'm to throw away all that old
stuff, he said.  A reg'lar new start he's making--_and_ a lively one, I
don't think.  Theatres and supper parties ever since he's been back, sir,
and right glad I've been to see it, though I don't 'old with
carryings-on, in a general way.  But after them there tropiks he'd need a
change.  He was that down, sir, when he first came, I didn't know what to
think."

The room might have belonged to a young dandy returned to London from the
wilds of Central Africa.  It was littered with half-open boxes, new
suits, a disorderly regiment of shining, unworn boots and shoes, a pile
of ties that must have been chosen for sheer expensiveness.  (Stonehouse
remembered the spotted affair with which Cosgrave had wooed Connie
Edward's approval.)  The shabby suit in which Stonehouse had first met
him had been flung with the other cast-offs into a far corner.  It was
all very young and reckless and jolly.  One could see the owner, as he
rampaged about the room, whistling and cursing in a good-humoured haste.

"'Ere's 'is writing-table; I'll just make room for you, sir----"

He stopped her.

"It doesn't matter.  If he's to be at the Carlton I'll probably look him
up myself."

"Dining early, he said, sir--seven o'clock."

"Yes--thank you."

A folded, grey-tinted letter lay half hidden in the general melee.  It
had a bold, irrepressible look, as though it were aware of having blown
the room to smithereens and was rather amused.  Stonehouse could see the
large, sprawling hand that covered it.  He touched it, not knowing
why--nor yet that he was angry.  Something that had been asleep in him
for a long time stirred uneasily and stretched itself.

"Ladies"--his companion simpered---"always the ladies, sir."

Stonehouse laughed.

An hour later he was waiting for Cosgrave in the Carlton lounge.  He had
never been in the place before--or in any place like it--and it confused
and astonished him.  He was like a monk who had come unprepared into the
crude noise and glitter of a society desperately pleasure-seeking.  He
could regard the men and women round him with contempt, but not with
indifference, for they represented a force against which he had not yet
tried himself except in theory.  And they set a new standard.  Here his
life and his attainments were of no account.  What mattered was that he
wore his travelling clothes, and that he stood stockily in the gangway
like a man who does not know what is expected of him.  It was ridiculous,
but it was true that he became ashamed.

But he held his ground stubbornly.  He was not aware of any definite plan
or expectation.  If he had asked himself what he intended he would have
said he meant to look after Cosgrave, who was in a bad way.  As a friend
and as a doctor he had the right.  He would not have admitted that his
own personality had become involved, that he had felt himself obscurely
challenged.

Then he saw Cosgrave.  He saw him before his companion, though for
everyone else she obscured him utterly.  She walked a few steps ahead, a
bizarre, fantastic figure, her fair head with its deep band of diamonds
lifted audaciously, the same fixed smile of childish expectancy on her
oval, painted face.  Her dress had left vulgarity behind.  It was too
much a part of herself--in its way too genuine--to be merely laughable.
It was like her execrable dancing, the expression of an exuberant,
inexhaustible life.  As she walked, with short impatient steps, she
swayed the great ostrich-feather fan and twisted her rope of pearls
between her slender fingers.  The open stare that greeted her seemed to
amuse and please her.

And Cosgrave.  Saville Row, Stonehouse reflected rapidly and
contemptuously, must have been bribed to have turned out such perfection
at such short notice.  Too much perfection and too new.  An upstart young
rake.  No, not quite that, either.  Pain had lent an elusive beauty to
the plain and freckled face, and happiness had made it lovable.  It was
obvious that he was trying to suppress his pride and astonishment at
himself and not succeeding.  The corners of his mouth quivered shyly and
self-consciously, and the wide-open eyes were fixed with an engaging
steadfastness on the figure in front of him as though he knew that if he
looked to the right or left he would give himself away altogether.
Stonehouse could almost hear his voice, high-pitched and boyish.

"Oh, I say, Robert, isn't it wonderful--isn't she splendid?"

Stonehouse himself stood right across their path.  It was accidental, and
now he could not move.  He had grown to rely too much on his emotional
inaccessibility, and the violence and suddenness of his anger transfixed
him.  This woman had trapped Cosgrave.  She had caught him in the
dangerous moment of convalescence--in that rebound from inertia which
carries men to an excess incredible to their normal conscience.  And she
was infamous.  She had broken one man after another.

She could not have overlooked Stonehouse.  Apart from his conspicuous
clothes, his immobility and white-set face must have inevitably drawn her
attention to him.  Her eyes, very blue and shadowless, met his stare with
a kind of bonhomie--almost a Masonic understanding--and the
uncompromising antagonism that replied seemed to check her.  She
hesitated, then as he at last stood back, passed on still smiling, but
mechanically, as though something had surprised her into forgetting why
she smiled.

Cosgrave followed her.  He brushed against Stonehouse without recognition.


In that moment Stonehouse's anger ran away with him.  Thrusting aside the
protests of a puzzled and rather frightened waiter he chose a table that
faced them both.  Cosgrave, blindly absorbed, never looked towards him,
but twice she met his eyes, still with a faintly puzzled amusement, as
though every moment she expected to penetrate a mask of crude enmity to a
no less crude admiration and desire.  Then she spoke to Cosgrave
laughingly, as Stonehouse knew, with the light curiosity of a woman who
has met something tantalizingly novel, and Cosgrave turned, uttered an
exclamation, and a moment later came across.  He acted like a man
suffering from aphasia.  He seemed totally oblivious of the immediate
past.  They might have been casual friends who had met casually.  He was
radiant.

"What luck your being here.  I didn't know you went in for frivolity of
this sort--if you call it frivolous dining in solitary state.  Come over
and join us.  We're just having a bite before the show.  You remember
Mademoiselle Labelle, don't you?"

Stonehouse nodded assent.  He left his table at once.  He seemed frigidly
composed, but he was sure that she would not be deceived.  She knew too
much about men--that was her business--and she meant to pay him out, make
him seem crude and absurd in his own eyes.

"It's Stonehouse--my old friend--I was telling you about him--we don't
need to introduce you, Mademoiselle."

She gave him her hand, palm down, to kiss, and he turned it over
deliberately.  The fingers were loaded to the knuckles.  He reflected
that each of these stones had its history, tragic, comic or merely
sordid.  He let her hand drop.  He saw that the affront had not touched
her.  Perhaps others had begun like that.

"_Ce cher docteur_--'e don't like me," she complained pathetically to
Cosgrave.  "'E sit opposite to me and glare like a 'ungry tiger.  Believe
me, I grow quite cold with fear.  Tell me why you don't like me,
Monsieur?"

"He was only wanting to be asked," Cosgrave broke in with his high,
excited laugh.  "Why, he introduced us.  I was all down and out--couldn't
decide which bridge to chuck myself off from--and he lugged me into your
show.  He said----"

"Well, what 'e say?"

Cosgrave blushed.

"He said: 'Let's see what going to the devil can do for you.'"

She jerked a jewelled thumb at him, appealing to Stonehouse.

"'E 'as cheek, that young man.  'E send in 'is card to my dressing-room,
saying 'e got to meet me.  _Comme ca_!  As though anyone could just walk
in!  I was curious to see a young man with cheek like that.  So I let 'im
come.  _Et nous voila_!"  She leant across to Stonehouse, speaking
confidentially, earnestly.  "But you--_c'est autre chose_--_monsieur est
bien range_--an artist perhaps for all that--'e see me dance and think
perhaps, '_Voyons_--she cannot dance at all--nor sing--nor nozzings.
Just enjoy 'erself.'  You think I don't deserve all I get, _hein_?"

"I think," said Stonehouse smiling, "that there are others in your
profession less fortunate, Mademoiselle."

As, for instance, that woman in the hospital--Frances Wilmot's protegee.
Queer how the memory of that ruined, frightened face peering over the
bed-clothes and begging for life should come back to him after eight
years.  And yet the connexion was obvious enough.  He looked at
Mademoiselle Labelle with a new interest.  It was impossible that she
should have read his thoughts, but he knew by the little twist of her red
mouth that she had understood his insult.  She seemed to ponder over it
dispassionately.

"That's true--_c'est bien vrai, ca_.  I 'ave been lucky.  I shall always
be lucky.  Everybody knows that.  They say: 'Our Gyp, she will 'ave a
good time at 'er funeral.'  No, no.  Monsieur Rufus, I will not drink.
If I drink I might dance--'ere on this table--and ze company is so ver'
respectable.  Listen."  She laid her hand on Stonehouse's arm as
unconsciously as though he had been an old friend.  "Listen.  They play
ze 'Gyp Gal-lop.'  That is because I am 'ere.  Ze conductor, 'e know
me--he like 'is leetle joke.  _C'est drole_--every time I 'ear it played
I want to get up and dance and dance----"  She hummed under her breath,
beating time with her cigarette.

  "I'm Gyp Labelle;
  If you dance with me. . . ."

Obviously she knew that the severely elegant men and women on either hand
watched her with a covert, chilly hostility.  But there was something
oddly simple in her acceptance of their attitude.  Therein, no doubt, lay
some of her power.  She was herself.  She didn't care.  She was too
strong.  She had ruined people like that--people every whit as hostile,
and self-assured, and respectable--and had gone free without a scratch.
She could afford to laugh at them, to ignore them, as it pleased her.

(And what would Frances Wilmot with her wrong-headed toleration, have
urged in extenuation?  A hard life, perhaps?  Stonehouse smiled
ironically at himself.  The old quarrel was like an ineradicable drop of
poison in the blood.)

She smoked incessantly.  She ate very little.  And as time went on she
seemed to draw away from the two men into a kind of secret ecstasy of
enjoyment like some fierce animal scenting freedom.  The sentences she
dropped were shallow, impatient, even stupid.  And yet there was Rufus
Cosgrave with his hungry eyes fixed on her, trapped by the nameless force
that lay behind her triviality, her daring commonness.

She rose to go at last.

"And you take him with you, _Monsieur le docteur_.  If 'e sit many more
nights in ze front row 'e find out, too, I can't dance, and then I break
my 'eart.  Besides, I 'ave my reputation to think of in this ver'
propaire England, _hein_?"

"I'm coming with you," Cosgrave said quietly.

She shrugged her shoulder.

"_Eh bien_, what can I do?  They are all ze same.  Good-bye, _Monsieur le
docteur_.  You scare me stiff.  But I like you.  Nest time I 'ave ze
tummy-ache I ring you up.

"I shouldn't--if I were you."

"Why?  You give me poison, p'raps?"

"I might," he said.



II

1

So Rufus Cosgrave disappeared, like an insignificant chip of wood
sucked into a whirlpool, and this time Stonehouse made no attempt to
plunge in after him.  With other advanced and energetic men of his
profession he stood committed to a new enterprise--the creation of a
private hospital, which was to be a model to the hospitals of the
world--and he had no time to waste on a fool who wanted to ruin
himself.  But though he never thought of Cosgrave, he could not
altogether forget him.  At night he found himself turning instinctively
towards the window where the delicate, rather plaintive profile had
shown faintly against the glow of the streets, and the empty frame
caused him a sense of unrest, almost of insecurity, as though a ghost
had risen to convince him that the dead are never quite dead, and then
had vanished.

He took to returning to his consulting-rooms, where he regained his
balance and his normal outlook.  The sober reality of the place thrust
ghosts out-of-doors.  Here was no lingering shadow of poverty to recall
them.  The bright, cold instruments in their glass cases, the neatly
ordered japanned tables, the cunning array of lights were there to
remind him that he was a man who had made a record career for himself
and who was going farther.  In the day-time he took them as a matter of
course, but now he regarded them rather solemnly.  He went from one to
another, handling them, testing them, switching the lights of special
electrical devices on and off, like a boy with a new and serious
plaything.  There was no one to laugh at him, and he did not laugh at
himself.  He stood in the midst of his possessions, a little
insolently, with his head up, as though he were calling them up one by
one to bear him witness.  He was self-made.  He had torn his life out
of the teeth of circumstance.  There was not an instrument, not a chair
or table in the lofty, dignified room that he had not paid for with
sweat and sacrifice and deprivation.  No one had given him help that he
had not earned.  Even in himself he had been handicapped.  The boy he
had been had wanted things terribly--silly, useless, gaudy things that
would have ruined him as they had ruined his father.  He remembered how
in the twilight of Acacia Grove he had listened to the music of far-off
processions, and had longed to run to meet them and march with the
jolly, singing people, and how once it had all come true, and he had
lied and stolen.

Once only.  Then he had stamped temptation under foot.  He had become
master of himself.  And now he was not tempted any more by foolish
desires.  He meant to do work that would put him in the front rank of
big men.

And, thinking of the old struggle, he threw out his hand, as he had
done that night when he had met Francey Wilmot, and clenched the
slender, powerful fingers as though he had life by the throat, smiling
a little in the cold, rather cruel way that Cosgrave knew--a theatrical
gesture, had it been less passionately sincere.


It was in his consulting-room that Cosgrave found him after a
prolonged, muddle-headed search that had lasted till close on midnight.
Cosgrave himself was drunk--less with wine than with a kind of heady
exhilaration that made him in turn maudlingly sentimental or recklessly
hilarious.  And yet there was a definite and serious purpose in his
coming--a rather pathetic desire to "put himself right," to get
Stonehouse, who leant against the mantleshelf watching him with a frank
contempt, to understand and sympathise.

"Of course--you're mad with me--you've got every right to be--it was a
rotten thing to do--bolting like that--beastly ungrateful and
inconsiderate.  It was just because I couldn't explain.  I knew you
thought it was the fresh air and--and hunting down those poor jolly
little beggars--and all the time it was just a girl and a blessed tune
running through my head."

He began to hum, beating time with tipsy solemnity, and even then the
wretched song brought something riotous and headlong into the subdued
room.

The door seemed to have been flung violently open with an explosive
gesture, as though some invisible showman had called out: "Look who's
here!" and the woman herself had catherine-wheeled into their midst,
standing there in her exotic gorgeousness, with her arms spread out in
salutation and her mouth parted in that rather simple smile.  Robert
could almost smell the faint perfume that surrounded her like a cloud.
It was ridiculous--yet for the moment she was so real, that he could
have taken her by the shoulders and thrust her out.

"And you did want me to get better, didn't you?" Cosgrave pleaded
wistfully, "even if it wasn't with your medicine.  And in a sort of way
it was your medicine, wasn't it?  You made me go to see her."

Stonehouse had to sit down and pretend to rearrange his papers in order
to hide how impatient he felt.

"My professional vanity isn't wounded, if that's what you're getting
at.  If you were better I'd be very glad.  As far as I can see you're
only drunk."

"I know--a little--I'm not accustomed to it--but it's not that, Robert.
Really, it isn't.  I'm jolly all--the time--even in the early morning.
Seem to have come back to life from a beastly long way off--all at
once--by special aeroplane.  I don't think I've felt like this
since--since----"

"Since Connie Edwards' day," Robert suggested.  "But I expect you've
forgotten her."

Cosgrave stared, round-eyed and open-mouthed and foolish.

"Connie----?  No--I haven't.  You bet I haven't.  Often wonder what
became of her.  She was a jolly good sort."

"You didn't think so by the time she'd finished with you."

"I was an ass.  A giddy, hysterical ass.  I didn't understand.  Poor
old Connie!  She could just swim for herself--but not for both of us.
And I scared her stiff--tying myself round her neck like that."

Stonehouse cut him short.

"Nobody could accuse Mademoiselle Labelle of being a poor swimmer," he
said.  (He wondered at the same moment whether there was something
wrong with him.  He was so intently conscious of her.  He could see her
lounging idly in the big chair opposite, so damnably sure of herself
and amused.  He wanted to insult and, if possible, hurt her.)

"You're awfully down on people, Robert.  Hard on 'em.  Often wonder why
you haven't chucked me off long ago.  But that's an old story.  You
ought to like her for being able to swim well.  It's what you do
yourself."

"I don't mind her swimming well," Robert returned.  "But I understand
that she's been able to drown quite a number of people better able to
look after themselves than you are.  As far as you're concerned, it
seems--rather a pity."

Cosgrave shook his head.  A certain quiet obstinacy, not altogether
that of intoxication, came into his flushed face.  And yet he looked
sorry and almost ashamed.

"I'm not going to drown.  You know--I hate standing out against you,
Robert.  You've been so--so jolly decent to me--and I believe in
you--more than in anything in the world.  Always have done.  If you
said 'the earth's square,' I'd say, 'Why, yes, so it is--old chap!' But
this--this is different--it's like a dog eating grass--a sort of
instinct."

"Instinct!" Robert echoed ironically.  "If you know where most
instincts lead to----"  He stopped, and then went on in a cold,
matter-of-fact tone, as though he were diagnosing a disease.  "It's not
my business--but since you've come here I'd be interested to hear what
you think is going to be the end of it all.  I might persuade you to
look facts in the face.  By position you're a little suburban nobody,
who was pushed out to West Africa to become a third-rate little trader.
You've survived, and you've got a little money to burn.  To you it
seems a fortune.  But it won't pay this woman's cigarette bills.  She
makes you ridiculous."

"I am ridiculous," Cosgrave interrupted patiently.  "I always have
been, you know.  I expect I always shall be.  I'm the square peg in the
round hole--and that's always comic.  But she doesn't laugh at me.
She's just let me join in like a good sport.  I know I'm out of place,
too, among her smart pals--you needn't rub it in--but she doesn't seem
to make any difference, I might be the smartest of the lot.  I tell
you, when I think of the good times I've had, I feel--I feel"--absurd
and drunken tears came into his eyes--"as though I were in church--I'm
so awfully grateful."

"Her smart pals pay pretty dearly for their good times.  It will be
time to be grateful when she's had enough of you."  It escaped him
against his will.  He knew the futility of such taunts which seemed to
betray an anger too senseless to be admitted.  He did not care enough
to be angry.

"You--you don't understand, old chap.  Seems cheek--my saying that to
you.  But you're not like other people--you don't need the things they
have to have to keep going.  And, anyhow, she's not responsible for the
asses men make of themselves."  He was becoming more fuddled as the
warmth of the room closed over his wine-heated brain.  But his eyes had
changed.  They had narrowed to two twinkling slits of gay
secretiveness.  "More things in heaven and earth than you dream of, old
chap.  But you don't dream, do you?  Never did.  Got your teeth into
facts--diseases--and getting on--and all that.  What's a song and a
dance to you?  But I wish you liked her, all the same.  P'raps you do,
only you won't own up.  She liked you, you know.  Fact is, it was she
sent me along to dig you out."

At that Stonehouse was caught up sharply out of his indifference.  He
flushed and thrust his hands into his pockets to prevent them from
clenching themselves in absurd resentment.

"What do you mean?"

Cosgrave nodded.  But he looked suddenly confused and rather sulky,
like a play-tired child who has been shaken out of its sleep to be
cross-examined.

"Well--some people would be jolly flattered.  There's to be a big beano
on her birthday--a supper party behind the scenes--and she said: 'You
bring along your nice, sad, little friend--_ce pauvre jeune homme_.'
You know, Stonehouse, it made me laugh, her describing you like that.
I said: 'You don't need to be sorry for Robert Stonehouse.  He can keep
his own end up as well as anybody.'  But she said: '_Ce pauvre jeune
homme_.'  I couldn't get her to see you were a damned lucky fellow."
He dropped back into the corner of the chesterfield and yawned and
stretched himself.  "I want you to come too.  Do you good.  P'raps
she's right.  P'raps you've had a rotten time in your own way.  Though
I don't know--I'd be happy enough, if I were you--always seem to come
out on top--not to care for any damn thing on earth, except that--not
even Francey Wilmot--or even me--just a sort of pug-dog you trailed
behind on the end of a string--a sort of mascot."

He was going to sleep.  He waggled his arm feebly, groping for
Stonehouse.  "Say you'll come.  I'd be awfully proud--show you off, you
know.  Always was--awfully proud--have such a pal."

He was the very figure of stupid intoxication as he lay there with his
crumpled evening clothes and disordered hair--and yet not ugly either,
but in some way innocent and simple.  (Robert could see little Rufus
Cosgrave, excited and tired out after the chase to the Greatest Show in
Europe, peering through the disguise of rowdy manhood.)

Stonehouse threw a rug over him, resigning himself to the inevitable.
But when he had switched off the main lights he gave an involuntary
glance over the suddenly shadowed room as though to make sure that the
darkness had exorcised an alien and detestable presence.

So she was sorry for him.  That, at any rate, was amusing.  Or perhaps
she thought he was afraid of her in the obscure duel that was being
fought out between them.

Cosgrave caught hold of him as he passed.

"The end of it all will be that I'll go back to my old swamp and tell
the fellows that I've had a first-rate leave.  I'll tell 'em about her,
and they'll sit round open-mouthed--thinking I'm no end of a dog--and
that they'll do the same next time they get a chance.  They'll be
awfully bucked to hear there's a good time going after all."  He
pleaded drowsily: "Say you'll come though, Robert.  You're such a
brick.  I'm beastly fond of you, you know."

Robert Stonehouse withdrew his hand sharply from the hot, moist clasp.
(How he had run that night!  As though the devil had been after him
instead of poor breathless little Cosgrave with his innocent
confession.)

"Oh, I'll come," he said.



2

After all, nothing changed very much.  Grown-up people masqueraded.
They pretended to laugh at the young fools they had been and were still
behind the elaborate disguise of adult reasonableness and worldly
wisdom.  For Robert Stonehouse, at any rate, it was ridiculously the
old business over again--children whose games he despised and could not
play, despising him.

It seemed that she had invited everyone and anyone whose name had come
into her head, without regard for taste or sense, and the result, half
raffish and half brilliant, somehow justified her.  The notable and
notorious men there, the bar-loungers whose life gave them a look of
almost pathetic imbecility, the women of fashion and the too
fashionable ladies of the chorus had, at least temporarily, accepted
some common denominator.  They rubbed shoulders in the stuffy, dingy,
green-room with an air of complete good-fellowship.

Robert Stonehouse stood alone among them, for nothing in his life had
prepared him to meet them.  He had been accustomed to encounter and
master significant hardship, not an apparently meaningless luxury and
aimless pleasure.  He knew how to deal with men and women whose
sufferings put them in his power or with men of his own profession, but
these people with their enigmatic laughter, their Masonic greetings,
almost their own language (which was the more troubling since it seemed
his very own), threw him from his security.  They made him
self-conscious and self-distrustful.  They might be ten times more
worthless than he believed them to be, and he might be ten times a
bigger man than the Robert Stonehouse who had made such a good thing of
his life.  They had still the power to put him in the wrong and to make
him an oaf and an outsider.  And they knew it.  He felt their glances
slide over him furtively and a little mockingly.  Yet outwardly he
conformed to them.  He wore his clothes well enough, and his
self-control covered over his real distress with a rather repellent
arrogance.  He was even handsome, as a plain man can become handsome
whose mind has dominated from the start over a fine body.  And with
this air of power went his flagrant youthfulness.

But the girl standing next him dropped him a flippant question with
veiled irony and dislike in her stupid eyes, and turned away from him
before he answered.  She was a vulgar, garish little creature, and he
could afford to smile satirically (and perhaps too consciously) at the
powdered shoulder which she jerked up at him.  And yet he was deeply,
miserably shamed.

It was like a play in which he was the only one who did not know his
part.  Even Cosgrave played up--a little too triumphantly, showing
off--as a tried man-of-the-world.  And at her given moment the star
performer made a dramatic entry into the midst of them, a cloak of pale
blue brocade thrown over her scanty dress and her plumes still tossing
from the elaborately tousled head.

They greeted her with hand-clapping and laughter, and she held out her
thin arms, embracing them as old friends.  In her attitude and in her
eyes which passed rapidly from one to another, there was good-humoured
understanding.  She knew probably what the more immaculate among them
thought of her, and that they were there to boast about it as English
people boast of having visited Montmartre at midnight.  It was daring
and amusing to be at this woman's notorious dinners.  They thought they
patronized her, whatever else they knew.  But in reality the joke was
on her side.

"_Allons_--to ze feast, friends."

She had seen Robert Stonehouse, and she went straight to him, waving
the rest aside like a flock of importunate pigeons, and took his arm.
"You and I lead the way, _Monsieur le docteur_."

He did not answer.  He was glad that she had signalled him out.  It
smoothed his raw pride.  And yet he thought: "This is her way of making
fun of me."  And he hated her and the scented warmth of her slim body
as it brushed lightly against his.  He hated his own excited triumph.
For the first time he became aware of something definitely abnormal in
himself, as though a dead skin had been stripped off his senses and he
had begun to see and hear with a primitive and stupefying clearness.

The rest followed them noisily along grimy, winding passages and
between dusty wedges of improbable landscapes out on to the stage.  A
long table had been laid in the midst of the stereotyped drawing-room,
which formed the scene of her grotesque dancing, and absurdly elaborate
waiters in powdered hair and knee-breeches hovered in the wings.  They
were not real waiters, and from the moment they came out into the
footlights the guests themselves became the chorus of a musical comedy.
It was difficult to believe in the over-abundant flowers with which the
table was strewn or in the champagne lying ostentatiously in wait.

The curtain had been left up, and the dim and dingy auditorium gaped
dismally at them.  The empty seats were threatening as a silent,
starving mob pressed against the windows of a feasting-house.  But the
woman on Stonehouse's arm waved to them.

"I like it so.  I see all my friends there--my old friends who are
gone--God knows where.  They sit and laugh and clap and nod to one
another.  They say: '_Voyons_, our Gyp still 'aving a good time.'  And
I kiss my 'and to them all."

She kissed her hand and threw her head back in the familiar movement as
though she waited for their applause.  And when it was over she looked
up into Robert Stonehouse's face.

"_Monsieur le docteur_ is a leetle pale.  One is always nervous at
one's debut.  You never act before, _hein_?"

"Not in a theatre like this," he said.

And he felt a momentary satisfaction because she knew that his answer
had a meaning which she did not understand.

She persisted.

"Monsieur Cosgrave say you would not come.  To say you never do
nothing--only work and work.  Is that true?"

"Yes."

"Don't dance--don't go to the theatre--don't love no one--don't get a
leetle drunk sometimes?  Never, never?"

"No," he said scornfully.

"Don't want to, _hein_?"

"I hate that sort of thing."

(But she was making him into a ridiculous prig.  She turned the values
of life topsy-turvy with that one ironic, good-natured gesture.)

"_Eh, bien_, it's a good thing for my sort there are not too many of
your sort, my friend.  But per'aps it is not quite so bad as it seems,
for you 'are come after all."

"I had to," he thrust at her.

"'Ow you say--professionally?"

"Yes."

"But I 'ave not get ze tummy-ache--not yet."

"I don't care about you."

"You want to look after your leetle friend, _hein_?"

"Yes."

She was unruffled--even concerned to satisfy him.

"Well, then, you be policeman.  You sit 'ere.  It is always better to
watch ze thief than ze _coffre-fort_.  You keep an eye on me and see I
don't run away with 'im.  _Voyons, mesdames et messieurs_, our friend
'ere 'ave the place of honour.  'E sit next me and see I behave nice.
'E don't like me ver' much.  'E think me a bad woman."

They laughed with her and at him.  He felt himself colour up and try to
laugh back.  (And it was oddly like his attempt to propitiate Form I
when it had gibed him on that bitter pilgrimage from desk to desk.)  He
took his place at her right hand.  He could see Cosgrave half-way down
the table, and his thin, freckled face with its look of absurd
happiness.  He was unselfishly overjoyed that his friend should have
been thus signalled out for honour.  Perhaps he harboured some crazy
certainty that after this Stonehouse would understand and even share
his infatuation.  He caught Robert's eye and smiled and nodded
triumphantly.

"Now you see what she's really like, don't you?"

A string band, hidden in the orchestra under a roof of palms, played
the first bars of her dance, and then stopped short and waited
solemnly.  She still stood, glass in hand.

"It is my birthday.  God and I alone know which one.  I drink to
myself.  I wish myself good luck.  _Vive_ myself.  _Vive_ Gyp Labelle
and all who 'ave loved 'er and love 'er and shall love 'er!"

She drank her wine to the last drop, and the band began to play again,
knitting the broken, noisy congratulations into a kind of triumphal
chorus.  It was very crude and theatrical and effective.  It did not
matter, any more than it matters in a well-acted play, that the whole
incident had been rehearsed.  It was as calculated and as spontaneous
as that nightly, irresistible burst of laughter.

Rufus Cosgrave stood up shyly in his place.  Had he been dressed a
shade less perfectly and resisted the gardenia in his button-hole, he
would have been better disguised.  As it was, there could be no
mistaking a little fellow from the suburbs who had got into bad
company.  And in spite of the West Africa swamp and its peculiar forms
of despairing vice, he was so frightfully innocent that he did not know
it,

"And--and we're here to--to wish you luck too--that you go on--as you
are--dancing and laughing--making us all laugh and dance with
you--however down in the dumps we are--for ever and ever--and to bring
you offerings--for you to remember us by."

There must have been a great deal more to it than that.  Stonehouse
could see the notes clenched in one tense hand, but they had become
indecipherable and he let them drop.  He came from his place, stumbling
over the back of somebody's chair, to where she stood, and laid a small
square box done up in tissue paper at her side.  She laughed and caught
him by the ear, and kissed him on both flaming cheeks.

"A precedent--fair play for all!" the man opposite Stonehouse shouted.

They came then, one after another, treading on each other's heels, and
she waited for them, an audacious figure of Pleasure receiving custom,
and kissed them, shading her kiss subtly so that each one became a
secret little joke out of the past or lying in wait in the future, at
which the rest could guess as they chose.  Some of the women whom she
knew best joined in the stream.  They bore her, for the most part, an
odd affinity and no ill-will.  They had set out on the same road and
had failed, and their failure stared out of their crudely painted
faces.  But perhaps they were grateful to her for not having forgotten
them--or for other more obscure reasons.  They gave her what they
could--extemporary gifts some of them--a tawdry ring or a flower which
she stuck jauntily among the outrageous feathers.  The significantly
small parcels she did not open--either from idle good nature or from
sheer indifference.  Stonehouse wondered what Cosgrave's little box
contained.  Probably a year or two of the mosquito-infested swamp to
which he would soon return to boast of this night's extravaganza.

"And you, _Monsieur le docteur_?"

For he had gone on eating and drinking with apparent tranquillity.

"Oh, I have nothing--nothing but admiration," he said smiling.

She shook her head.

"_Ca ne va pas_.  The chief guest.  Ah, no! That is not kind.  A
birthday--_c'est une chose bien serieuse, voyons_.  Who knows?  Per'aps
you never 'ave another chance--and then you 'ave remorse--'orrible,
terrible remorse.  Or do you never 'ave remorse either, _Monsieur le
docteur_?"

"No--not yet."

"You must not run ze risk, then."

He thought savagely.

"If I had a diamond stud she would make me give it her."

He took a shilling from his pocket and laid it gravely in the midst of
her trophies.

"Is that enough?"

And then before he could draw back she had kissed him between the eyes.

"_Quite_, then.  I keep it for a mascot, and you will remember
to-morrow morning, when you are ver' grave and important with some poor
frightened patient, that Gyp Labelle kiss you last night, and that you
are not different from ze others, after all.  And I will take my
shilling from under my pillow, and say: 'Poor Gyp, that's what you're
worth, my friend!'"

"He doesn't know you yet."

Robert Stonehouse looked up sharply.  The interruption had started a
new train of thought.  Beyond the flushed face of the man opposite him,
he could see the empty stalls, row after row of gaunt-ribbed and
featureless spectators, watching him.  The play had become a nightmare
farce in which he had chosen a ludicrous, impossible part.  But he had
to go on now.

"Except for Cosgrave there, I've known Mademoiselle Labelle longer than
any of you.  I've known her ever since I was a boy."

He felt rather than saw their expressions change.  She too stared with
an arrested interest, but he looked away from her to Cosgrave, smiling
ironically.  If it humiliated her and made her ridiculous too--well,
that was what he wanted.  He wanted to pay her back--most of all for
the excitement boiling in him--the sense of having been toppled out of
his serenity into a torrent of noise and colour by that audacious touch
of her lips upon his face.  And there was Cosgrave--and then again some
older score to be paid off--something far off and indistinct that would
presently come clear.

"Don't you remember, Rufus?"

"Rather.  But I know you a minute longer, Mademoiselle.  I saw you
before he did."

"That was because Mademoiselle Moretti rode first."

"Ah--the Circus!"  She threw her head back, drawing a deep breath
through her nostrils as though she savoured some long-lost perfume
blown in upon her by a sudden wind.  "Now I remember too.  Ze good
Moretti.  She ride old Arabesque.  'E 'ave white spots all over 'im--on
'is chest and what you call 'is paws, and every evening she 'ave to
paint 'im like she paint 'er face.  Madame Moretti--that was a good
sort--_bonne enfant_--what you say?--domestic--not really of ze Circus
at all.  She like to wash up and cook leetle _bonnes-bouches_ for
supper.  She was a German--Fredechen we call 'er--and she could make
Sauerkraut--_eh bien_, I--_moi qui vous parle_--_une bonne
Francaise_--I make myself sick with 'er Sauerkraut.  Afterwards she
grow too stout and marry ze _proprietaire_ of what you call it?--a
public-'ouse--'Ze Crown and Garter' at some town where we stop a week.
By now, I think she 'ave many children and a chin for each."

Cosgrave laughed noisily.

"Didn't I tell you, Robert?  A barmaid!"

"Yes--you had better taste."  But he was hot with anger.  "And then you
came at her heels, Mademoiselle.  You rode--what was it--a donkey, a
fat pony?  I forget which.  Perhaps I was thinking too much of Madame
Moretti.  But I remember you were dressed as a page and wore coloured
tights that didn't fit very well, and that everybody laughed because of
your thin long legs.  And you threw kisses to us--even Cosgrave got
one, didn't you, Cosgrave?  And then I'm afraid I forgot you
altogether.  You see, there were camels and elephants and a legless
Wonder and I don't know what, and it was my first circus."

"It must 'ave been a donkey," she said, narrowing her eyes.  "I 'ave
ridden so many donkeys."

He saw then that she did not mind at all the fact that she had once
been a circus-clown.  Rather he had tossed her a memory on which she
feasted joyfully, almost greedily.  She pushed her plate and glass away
from her, and sat with her face between her hands.

"Well--I 'ave 'ad good times always--but per'aps they were ze best of
all.  Ah, ze good old Circus--ze jolly life--one big family--monkeys
and bears and camels and elephants and we poor 'umans, all shapes and
sizes, long legs and short legs and no legs--loving and
quarrelling--good friends always--Monsieur George with 'is big whip and
'is silly soft 'eart--ze gay dinners after we 'ave 'ad full 'ouse and
ze no dinners at all when things go bad--and then ze journeys from town
to town--sometimes it rain all day and sometimes it is so hot and the
dust rise up and smother us.  But always when we come near ze town we
brighten up, we pretend we are not tired at all.  We make jokes and
wonder what it will be like 'ere.  Always new faces--new streets--new
policemen--and always ze same too--ze long procession and ze
torchlights and ze music and ze people running like leetle streams down
ze side streets to join up and march along--ze leetle boys and girls
with bright eyes--shouting and waving, so glad to see us."

It was not much that she said, and she did not say it to them.  She
disregarded them all, and yet by some magic, through the medium of the
jerky, empty sentences she made them see the vulgar, gaudy thing as she
was seeing it.  The subdued music, the tinkling of plates and glasses,
they themselves made a background for her swift picture.  They watched
it--the old third-rate circus--trail its cheap glitter and flare and
bang out of darkness and across the stage and into darkness
again--tawdry and sordid, and yet kindly and gay and gallant-hearted
too.

Robert Stonehouse stared heavily in front of him.  He had drunk--not
much, but too much.  He was not accustomed to drinking.  The very
austerity of his life betrayed him.  These people too--these
women--half-naked with their feverish, restless eyes--these men with
their air of cynical and weary knowledge--were getting on his nerves.
He wished he had not come.  He wished he had not reminded her of that
accursed circus, for it had involved remembering.  He had called up a
little old tune that would not be easily forgotten, that would go on
grinding itself round and round inside his brain, and when he had
chased it out would come back, popping out at him, bringing other
small, pale ghosts to bear it company.  He could see Cosgrave and
himself--the little boys with bright eyes--and feel the reverberations
of their astonishment, their incredulous delight.  For a moment they
had held fast to the tail-end of the jolly marching procession, and
then it had been ripped out of their feeble hands.  But the procession
went on.  It was always there, round the corner, with its music and
fluttering lights, and if one was infirm of purpose like Cosgrave, or
like a certain James Stonehouse, one ran to meet it, flung oneself into
it, not counting the cost, lying and stealing.

He heard her voice again and pressed his hands to his hot eyes like a
man struggling back out of a deep sleep.

"Where are they all now?  _Dieu sait_.  Monsieur Georges 'e die.  As
for me I go 'ome to ze old Folies Bergeres, and for six months I
wait--a leetle ugly nobody with long thin legs dancing with ten other
ugly leetle nobodies with all sorts of legs be'ind La Jolleta.  You
don't remember 'er, '_hein_!  Ah, _c'est vieux jeu ca_ and you are all
too young, _Mesdames et Messieurs_.  She was ze passion of your
grandpapas.  God knows why.  Why do you all love me, _hein_?  _Une
Mystere_.  Well, she was ver' old then, but she 'ave ze good 'ealth and
ze thick skin of ze rhinoceros.  And some'ow no one 'ave ze 'eart to
tell 'er.  It become a sort of joke--'ow long she keep going--ze
Boulevards make bets about it.  But for me it is no joke.  I am in a
'urry, _moi_, and I know I can do better than she did ever--I 'ave
something--'ere--'ere--that she never 'ave.  And so one night I put a
leetle pinch of something that a good friend of mine give me in La
Jolleta's champagne what she drink before she dance, and when ze
call-boy come she lie there on ze sofa--'er mouth open--_comme
ca_--snoring--like a pink elephant asleep--'ow you say--squiffy--dead
to ze world.  Ze manager 'e tear 'is 'air out, and then I come and show
'im and 'e let me go on instead because there is no one else.  And the
people boo and shriek at me, they are so angry and I make ze long nose
at them all--and presently they laugh and laugh."

They could see her.  It wouldn't have seemed even impudent.  Even then
she had been too sure of herself.

"And when I come off ze manager kiss me on both cheeks.  _Et c'etait
fait_."

They applauded joyously.  Her brutal egotism was a good joke.  They
expected nothing else from her.  She was like an animal whose cruelty
and cunning one could observe without moral qualms.

"It was a mean thing to have done," Stonehouse said loudly and
truculently--"a treacherous thing."

A shadow was on Cosgrave's face.  He leant towards her, almost pleading.

"And La--La--what did you call her?  La Jolleta--what became of her?"

She made a graphic gesture.

"She went into the sack, little one---into the sack.  She was old.  One
should go gracefully."

"You too," Stonehouse said, in a savage undertone.

"I----  Oh, no, _jamais, jamais_."  She lifted the monstrous crest of
plumage from her head and set it in the midst of the flowers and
rumpled up her hair till she was like the child riding the fat pony.
"You see yourself--I never grow old, my friend."

"You are older already," he persisted.

But the man opposite broke in again.  He leant towards Stonehouse, his
inflamed eye through the staring monocle fixing him with an
extraordinary tipsy earnestness.

"No, doctor, you are mis-mistaken.  It would be intolerable--you
understand--quite intolerable.  There are things that--that must not be
true--as there are other things that must be true.  We've staked our
last penny on it, sir, and we've got to win.  Mademoiselle here knows
all about it, and she'll play the game.  A sport, doctor, a sport.
Won't let old friends go bankrupt--no--certainly not."

They laughed at him.  It seemed unlikely that he himself knew what he
was talking about.  But he shook his head and remained sunk in solemn
meditation, twirling the stem of his glass between thick, unsteady
fingers.  The girl next him nudged him disgustedly.

"Oh, wake up!  You'll be crying in a minute.  Talk of something else."

"Tell us the story of the Duke and the Black Opal, Gyp."

She waved them off.

"No--no--that is not discreet.  One must not tell tales.  That might
frighten someone 'ere who loves me."

And she looked at Stonehouse, a little malicious and insolently,
childishly sure.  He leant towards her, speaking in an undertone,
trying to stare her down.

"Do you mean me, Mademoiselle?"

"And why not, _Monsieur le docteur_?  Would it be so strange?  You say
you love nobody.  But it seems you love ze poor fat Moretti--terribly,
terribly, no doubt, so that you almost break your small 'eart for 'er.
And per'aps someone else too.  You say you don't drink--but you are
just a leetle drunk already.  You are not different from ze rest.  I
tell you that before--and I know.  I am a connoisseur.  It is
written--'ere in the eyes and in the mouth.  It is dangerous, the way
you live.  _Quant a moi_--I don't want you, my friend--we two--that
would be an eruption--a disaster--I should be afraid."

She pretended to shudder, and a moment later seemed to forget him
altogether.  She pressed her cigarette out on her plate and went over
to the piano, touching Cosgrave lightly on the shoulder as she passed
him.

"Come, my latest best-beloved, we 'ave to amuse ze company.  We sing
our leetle song together."

But first she made a deep low bow to the shadowy theatre.  She kissed
her fingers to the empty boxes that stared down at her with hollow,
mournful eyes.  (Were there ghosts there too, Stonehouse wondered
bitterly?  The unlucky Frederick, perhaps, with the fatal hole gaping
above the temple, applauding, leaning towards her!)

She sang worse than usual.  She was hoarse, and what voice she had gave
way altogether.  It did not seem to matter either to her or to anyone
else.  What she could not sing she danced.  There was a chorus and they
joined in filling the gloom behind them with sullen, ironic echoes.
She reduced them all, Stonehouse thought, to the cabaret from which she
sprang.

And it was comic to see Cosgrave with his head thrown back, playing the
common, noisy stuff as though inspired.

When it was over he swung round, gaping at them with drunken,
confidential earnestness.

"You know, when I was a kid I used to see myself--on a stage like
this--playing the Moonlight Sonata."

She rumpled up his thick hair so that it stood on end like Loga's names.

"You play my song ver' nice.  And that is much better than playing ze
Moonlight Sonata all wrong, my leetle friend."



3

It was a sort of invisible catastrophe.

No one else knew of it.  In the day-time he himself did not believe in
it--did not, at first, think of it at all.  It had all the astonishing
unreality of past pain.  He went his way as usual, was arbitrary and
cocksure with his patients, and looked forward to the evening when he
could put them out of his mind altogether and give himself to his vital
work.  For the hospital had become a fact.  It stood equipped and
occupied, an unrecognized but actual witness to his tenacity.  Other
men would get the credit.  The Committee who had appointed him
consulting surgeon, not without references to his unusual youth and
their own daring break with tradition--had no suspicion that even the
fund which, in a fit of inexplicable far-seeingness they had allotted
to research, had been created under his ceaseless pressure.  And not
even in his thoughts was he satirical at their expense.  They had
provided the money and done what he wanted and so served their purpose.
Among his old colleagues he bore himself confidently but unobtrusively.
He could afford to pay them an apparent deference.  He was going
farther than they were.  His eyes were fixed on a future far beyond the
centres of their jealousies and ambitions when he would be freed from
the wasteful struggle with petty ailments and petty people, and the
last pretence of being concerned with individual life.  It was a time
of respite and revision.  He was young--in his profession
extraordinarily young--and he was able to look back, as a mountaineer
looks back from his first peep over the weary foothills, knowing that
the bitter drudgery is past and that before him lies the true and
splendid adventure.

That was in the day-time.  But with the dusk, the discreet shutting of
doors and the retreating steps of the last patient, a change came.  It
was like the subtle resistless withdrawal of a tide--a draining away of
power.  He could do nothing against it.  He could only sit motionless,
bowed over his papers, striving to keep a hold over the personality
that was slipping from him.  And then into the emptiness there flowed
back slowly, painfully, a strange life--a stream choked and muddied at
its source--breaking through.

It was a physical thing.  Some sort of nervous reaction.  With the
dread of that former break-down overshadowing him he yielded
deliberately.  He would leave the house and walk--anywhere--but always
where there were people--down Regent Street, sweeping like a broad
river into a fiery, restless lake.  There he let go altogether, and the
crowds carried him.  He eddied with them in the glittering backwaters
of the theatres, and studied the pallid, jaded faces that drifted in
and out of the lamp-light with the exaggerated attention of a mind on
guard against itself.  He hated it all.  It emphasized and justified
his aloofness from the mass of men.  These people were sick and
ugly--sicklier and uglier in their pleasure-seeking than in their
stubborn struggle for survival, which had at least some elemental
dignity.  It was from their poisoned lives that women like Gyp Labelle
sucked their strength.  It was their childish perverted instincts that
made her possible.  They made the very thought of immorality a grisly
joke.  And yet their nearness, the touch of their ill-grown,
ill-cared-for, or grossly over-nurtured bodies against his, the sound
of their nasal strident voices brought him relief.  He could not shake
off their fascination for him.  He was like a man hanging round the
scene of some conquered, unforgotten vice.

It was one dismal November evening that, turning aimlessly into a Soho
side-street, he came upon an old man who stood on a soap-box under a
lamp and preached.  He held a Bible to the light and read from it, and
at intervals leant forward and beat the tattered book with his open
hand.

"You hear that, men and women.  This is the liar, the tyrant, the
self-confessed devil whom you have worshipped from the beginning of
your creation.  You see for yourselves the sort of beast he is.  There
isn't a brute amongst us who would do the things he's done.  He's made
you fight and kill and torture each other for his sake.  And all down
the ages he has laughed at you--he is laughing now because, after
all--he knows the truth--he knows what I tell you here night after
night"--and Mr. Ricardo leant forward and pointed a long, dirty finger
at the darkness--"that he doesn't exist--that he is a dream--a myth--a
hope----"

Someone cheered--perhaps because the last words had a sound of eloquent
conclusion--and Mr. Ricardo nodded and took breath.  He was like a
scarecrow image that had been stuck up by a freakish joker in a London
street.  The respectability that still clung to him made him the more
ludicrous.  His clothes were the ruined cast-offs of a middle-class
tradesman, and over them he wore his old masters gown.  It did not
flutter out behind now, but lay dank and heavy along his sides like the
wings of a shot bird.

Robert Stonehouse stood back against the shuttered windows of a shop
and stared at him.  The sea, rushing out in some monstrous tidal wave
had left its floor littered with old wreckage, with dead, forgotten
people who stirred and lifted themselves.  A grotesque, private
resurrection. . . .

The crowd around Mr. Ricardo listened in silence, not mocking him.
There were wide-eyed, haunted-looking children, and men and women not
quite sober who drifted out from the public-houses to gape heavily at
this cheaper form of entertainment.  Possibly they thought he was some
missionary trying to induce them to sign the pledge.  Some of them must
have known that he was mad.  But even they did not laugh at him.  Into
their own dark and formless thoughts there may have come the dim
realization that they, too, were misshapen and outcast.  The rain
falling in long, slanting lines through the dingy lamplight seemed to
merge them into a mournful kinship.

He spoke rapidly, and for the most part the long, involved sentences
rolled themselves without meaning.  But now and then something
struggled clear--a familiar phrase--an ironical echo.  Then Robert
Stonehouse saw through the disfigurement to the man that had been--the
poor maimed and shackled fighter gibing and leering at his
fellow-prisoners.

"And now, my delightful and learned young friends----"

And yet he had stood up for little Robert Stonehouse in those days--had
armed him, and opened doors, and made himself into a stepping-stone to
the freedom he had never known.  And had gone under. . . .

"That is all for tonight, men and women.  I thank you for your support.
You may rest assured that the fight will go on.  The end is in sight,
and if need be I shall lead the last attack in person."

Then he stepped down from his soap-box and swung it on to his shoulders
by means of a cord, and went limping off in a strange and anxious haste.

Stonehouse pushed roughly through the dispersing, purposeless crowd and
caught up with him as he was about to lose himself in a dark network of
little squalid streets.  He felt oddly young and diffident, for the
schoolmaster is always the schoolmaster though he be mad and broken.

"Mr. Ricardo--don't you remember me?"

The old man stopped and blinked up uncertainly from under the sodden
brim of his hat.  His dirty claw-like hands clutched his coat together
in an instinctive gesture of concealment.  He seemed disturbed and even
rather offended at the interruption.

"I--ah--I beg your pardon.  No, I'm afraid not.  It is--ah--not
unnatural.  You understand--I have too many supporters."

"Yes--yes--of course.  But you knew me years ago when I was a boy.
Don't you remember Robert Stonehouse?"

It was evident that the name fanned some faint memory which flickered
up for a moment and then went out.

"You will excuse me.  It is possible.  I have heard the name.  But I
have long since ceased to concern myself with persons.  In a great
struggle such as this individuals are submerged."

He walked on again, slip-slopping in his shapeless boots through the
slush, his head down to the rain.

"Christine," Robert said, "don't you remember Christine?"

(He himself had not thought of her for years, and now deliberately he
had conjured her up.)

Mr. Ricardo hunched his shoulders.  He peered round at Stonehouse,
frowning suspiciously.

"You are very persistent, sir.  Are you God?"

"No."

"It is better to be quite frank with one another.  Not an emissary of
God?"

"No."

He seemed only half satisfied.

"You will excuse my asking.  I have to be very careful.  There have
been certain signs of late that the enemy is anxious to
negotiate--to--ah--reach some compromise.  No direct offer, you
understand, but various feelers--hints--suggestions--terms of a most
unscrupulous and subtle nature--traps into which a man less--ah--wary
than myself might well fall.  This Christine--yes--yes--I have to be on
my guard."

"I have nothing to do with God," Robert said gently.  "I'm a friend--on
your side.  I'd like to help.  If I knew where you lived so that I
could learn more about your work----"

But Mr. Ricardo shrank away from him.

"I don't like the sound of that.  I dare say I do you an injustice,
young man, but I can't afford to take risks.  My headquarters are my
secret."

"Well"--he tried to speak in a matter-of-fact and reasonable way--"at
any rate, a general must have munition.  I'd like to help financially.
You can't refuse me that."

They were almost through the labyrinth of Soho and on the brink of
Oxford Street.  Mr. Ricardo stopped again with his hand spread out flat
upon his breast in a gesture not without power and dignity.

"You think I am a failure, sir, because I go poorly dressed.  You are
mistaken.  In the struggle that I am carrying on, outward and material
things are of no account.  I might have all the wealth and all the
armies of the world, sir, and be further from victory than I am now.
The fight is here, sir, in the spirit of man, and the weaker and poorer
I become the nearer I am to the final effort.  I am a fighter, sir,
stripping himself--presently I shall throw off the last hindrance, and
if the enemy will not show himself I shall seek him out--I shall force
him to stand answer----"  He broke off.  The chain of white-hot
coherency had snapped and left him peering about him vaguely, and a
little anxiously, as though he were afraid someone had overheard him.

"It has been very difficult--there were circumstances--so many
circumstances----"  He sighed and finished on the toneless
parrot-note of the street orator: "My next meeting will be at Marble
Arch, 3 p.m., on Tuesday.  Thank you for your attention, and
good-night."

He lifted his hat and bowed to left and right as though to an assembled
multitude.  The lamp-light threw his shadow on to the grey, wet
pavements, and with the soap-box perched on his shoulders it was the
shadow of a huge hunchback.  Then he shuffled off, and Stonehouse lost
sight of him almost at once in the dripping, uncertain darkness.

He walked on mechanically, aimlessly.  He was tired out and dejected
beyond measure by this tragic encounter.  It was not any immediate
affection for the old man, who had been no more to him than a strange
force driving him on for its own purposes; it was the others he had
evoked--and, above all, the sense of common misfortune which no man can
avert for ever.  For the moment he lost faith in his own power to
maintain himself against a patient and faceless Nemesis.

It was morbid--the old terrifying signs of breakdown--the pointing
finger.

"Thus far and no further with your brain, Robert Stonehouse."


And then, suddenly, he found that he was in a familiar street, and,
stopping short, as though from old custom, to look up.  There was the
finest house in Harley Street which they were to have decorated with
their brass plates.  If it had risen straight out of the ground at the
behest of his fancy he could not have been more painfully disconcerted.
He had never known before that he had avoided it.  He knew it now, and
the realization was like the opening of a door into a dark and
unexplored chamber of his mind.  He stood there shivering with cold,
and wet, and weariness.  Who lived there now, he wondered?  The old
back-numbers whom they were to have ousted so ruthlessly?  Well, he
could find out.  Someone lived there, at any rate.  He could see a
light in one of the upper rooms.  He crossed over and went up the steps
cautiously, like a thief.  All the brass plates but one had gone.  That
one shone brightly in the lamp-light, giving the door a one-eyed,
impish look.  He could read the letters distinctly, and yet he had to
spell them over twice.  It was as though she herself had suddenly
opened the door and spoken to him.

    "Frances Wilmot, M.D."

Then he turned and walked away.  But at the next corner he stopped and
looked up again at the lighted window.  What freakish fancy had
possessed her----?  Perhaps she was there now.  He could see her in
the room that had been his enemy.  And he had brief vision of himself
standing there in the empty street as he had done when he had loved her
so desperately, gazing up at that signal of warmth and comfort out of
the depths of his own desolateness.

He said "Francey!" under his breath, ironically, as though he had
uttered a child's "open-sesame!" to prove that there had never been any
magic in the word.  But the sound hurt him.

This time he did not look back.


Nor was there any reassurance to be found that night in the concrete
justification of his life.  He set himself down to work in vain.  One
ghost called up another.  The room with its solemn, bloodless
impedimenta became--not a monument to his success, but a Moloch, to
whom everything had been sacrificed--the joy of life, its laughter, its
colour--and Christine.  And not only Christine.  He had been sacrificed
too.

But he saw Christine most clearly.  She sat in the big arm-chair where
his patients waited for his verdict.  She wore the big, floppy, black
hat that she had liked best, and the grey hair hung in the old untidy
wisps about her face.  The chair was much too big for her.  Her little
feet hardly touched the ground.  Her hands in the darned gloves were
folded gravely over the shabby bag.  He could see her looking about
dimly and hear the clear, small voice.

"How wonderful of you, Robert!  How proud your dear father would have
been!"

He fidgeted with the papers on his table, rearranging, re-sorting,
desperately trying not to suffer.  But he would have torn the whole
place down in ruins to have remembered that he had given her one day of
happiness.

Well, there had been that one day on Francey's hill--the picnic.  She
had liked that.  The wood at the bottom, like a silent, deep, green
pool--and Francey's arms about his shoulders, Francey's mouth on his,
giving him kiss for kiss.

Ghosts everywhere--and no living soul who cared now whether he failed
or won through, whether he suffered or was satisfied.  Only Cosgrave
perhaps--poor, unlucky little Cosgrave--always hunting for
happiness--breaking himself against life--going to the dogs for the
sake of a rotten woman.

He fell forward with his face hidden in his arms and lay there shaken
by gusts of fever.  They weakened gradually, and he fell asleep.  And
in his sleep his father drew himself up suddenly, showing his terrible
white face, and clutched at little Robert Stonehouse, who skirted him
and ran screaming down the dark stairs.

"You can't--you can't--you're dead.  I'm grown up--I'm free--I'm not
like you--you can't--you can't----"

But the next morning he was himself again, sure and cool-headed and
cool-hearted.  He did not believe that he had suffered or in the
recurrence of that terror.



III

1

Probably she had expected him.  It must have seemed to her, so
Stonehouse reflected as he followed the shrivelled old woman down a
passage dim and gorgeous with an expensive and impossible Orientalism,
a natural sequel to his enmity.  Men did not hate her--or they did so
at their peril.  Then she would be most dangerous.  The luckless
Frederick, so the story ran, had snubbed her at a charity bazaar, and
had made fun of her dancing.  And he had stolen and finally shot
himself for her sake.  Perhaps she thought there was a sort of
inevitability in this programme.

He had to wonder at and even admire the mad splendour of the place.
Her taste was as crude and flamboyant as herself, but it too had
escaped vulgarity which at its worst is imitative of the best, a stupid
second-handness, an aggressive insolent self-distrust.  She was not
ashamed of what she was.  She was herself all through, and she trusted
herself absolutely.  She wanted colour and there was colour.  She
wanted Greek columns in a Chinese pagoda and they were there.  The
house was like a temple built by a crazy architect to a crazy god, and
every stick and stone in it was a fanatic's offering.

The old woman jerked her head and stood aside.  Her toil-worn face with
the melancholy monkey eyes was inscrutable, but Stonehouse guessed at
the swift analysis he was undergoing.  In his iron temper he could
afford to be amused.

"Mademoiselle is within."

The room was a huge square.  To make it, two floors at least of the
respectable Kensington house must have been sacrificed.  The walls were
decorated with Egyptian frescoes and Chinese embroideries, and silk
divans which might have figured in a cinema producer's idea of a
Turkish harem were set haphazard on the mosaic floor.  In the centre a
stone fountain of the modern-primitive school and banked with flowers
splashed noisily.  Somehow it offered Kensington the final insult.  But
she had wanted it, just as she had wanted the Greek columns.  There was
even a certain magnificence about the room's absurdity.  It was so
hopelessly wrong that it attained a kind of perfection.

She herself sat on the edge of the fountain and fed a gorgeous macaw
who, from his gilded perch, received her offerings with a lofty
friendliness.  But as Stonehouse entered she sprang up and ran to him,
feeling through his pockets like an excited child.

"The poison--the poison!" she demanded.

He had to laugh.

"I forgot it," he said.

"_C'est dommage_.  You 'ave not taken it yourself by any chance?"

"No--I wouldn't do that at any rate."

"_C'est vrai_.  I ask--you 'ave an air _un peu souffrant_.  Well, never
mind.  It's droll though--I think about you just when you ring up--I
'ave a damn pain--not ze tummy-ache this time--and I say: '_Le pauvre
jeune homme_, 'ere is a chance for 'im to pay me out for kissing 'im
when 'e don't want to be kissed.'  You remember--I say I send for you
one day.  But ze old pain--it 'as gone now.  You--'ow do you say?--you
conjure it away."

"Your pains don't interest me," he said.  "For one thing I don't
believe you ever had any.  I suppose you think a pain is the best
entertainment to offer a doctor.  It's thoughtful of you, but I didn't
come here to be amused."

"Then I wonder what you want of me," she remarked.  She went back to
her place on the fountain's edge, sitting amidst the flowers and
crushing them under her hands.  The pose appealed to him as
expressively callous, and yet it was innocent too, the pose of a child
or an animal who destroys without knowledge or ill-will.

"Do people usually want things from you?" he asked.

"Always--all ze time."

"And you give so much."

She eyed him seriously.

"I give what I 'ave to give."

"And take what you can get."

"Like you, _Monsieur le docteur_."

The absoluteness of his hatred made it possible for him to laugh with
her.

"My fees are fairly reasonable at any rate.  I've helped some people
for nothing."

"Because you love them?"

"No."

"_C'est dommage aussi_.  You should love someone.  It is much
'ealthier.  I love everyone.  Per'aps I love too much.  I make
experiments.  You make experiments--and sometimes leetle mistakes.
_Comme nous autres_.  'Ze operation was a _grand succes_--but ze
patient die.'  I know.  Some of mine die too."

"Prince Frederick, for instance?"

She lifted the long chain of pearls about her neck and considered them
dispassionately.

"That _canard_!  You think 'e give me these?  _Ce pauvre_ Fredi!  'E
couldn't 'ave given me a chain of pink coral.  I could 'ave bought 'im
and 'is funny little kingdom with my dress-money.  'E shoot 'imself.
Well, that was 'is _affaire_.  'E 'ave no doubt explain 'imself to ze
_bon Dieu_, who is particulaire about that sort of thing.  As to ze old
pearls--my agent 'e set that story going--_pour encourager les autres_."

"Cosgrave among them?" he suggested.

"Monsieur Cosgrave?  We won't talk about 'im just now, if you please.
'E make me ver' cross.  I 'ate to be cross.  It is ver' difficult to
'ave a good time with English people.  They are so damn thorough.  When
they want to go to ze devil they want to go ze whole way."

"Perhaps that's why I'm here," he said ironically.

"_Voyons--voyons, c'est ennuyeux_----"  She broke off and gave a little
husky, good-natured laugh.  "I remember.  You think me a bad woman.
But I am not a bad woman at all.  Ze leetle girls in ze chorus--they
are sometimes bad because they want things they 'ave no right to 'ave.
They are just leetle girls with nothing to give, and they want to live
ze big life and they tumble into ze gutter.  They are ze ginger-beer
who pretend to be ze champagne.  _Mais mot_--I am ze real champagne.  I
make things seem jolly that are not jolly at all--ze woman who sit next
you at dinner--ze food--ze bills who wait for you at 'ome--life.  If
you take too much of me you 'ave ze 'eadache.  _Enfin, ce n'est pas ma
faute_.  I 'ave so much to give.  I 'ave so much life.  One life--one
country--one 'usband is not enough.  But I am not bad.  If there was
any sense in things they would give me an order and a nice long
title--_Grande Maitresse de la Vie_--_Princesse de Joie_."  She lifted
her eyebrows at him to see whether he appreciated the joke.  "Ah
well--no.  I talk too much about myself.  Tell me instead what you
think of my leetle 'ome.  _C'est joli, n'cest-ce-pas_?"  She waved
towards the Chinese embroideries and added, with a child's absolute
content: "I like it."

"I suppose you do," he retorted.  "It reminds me of a quaint old custom
I read about somewhere.  When our early ancestors were building a
particularly important house they buried a few of the less important
citizens alive under the foundations.  It seemed to have a beneficial
influence on the building process."

She offered him her cigarette-case.  She seemed to be considering his
remark carefully.  Suddenly she laughed out with an unfeigned enjoyment.

"I see.  My victims, _hein_?  You can make leetle jokes too.  But why
so ver' serious?  I'm not burying you, am I?"

"No.  You couldn't.  And you're not going to bury Cosgrave.  Oh--I
don't want to waste my time and yours making accusations or appealing
to what doesn't exist.  I only want to point out to your--your business
instinct that Cosgrave isn't worth burying.  He's poor and he's
unlucky.  He won't bring you luck or anything else.  Much better to let
him go."

"Let 'im go?  But I want 'im to go!  Yesterday I would not see 'im.  I
didn't want to see 'im."

"That was a good reason.  It's all rather late in the day, though.  Two
months ago Cosgrave came to England with about 3000 pounds.  I know,
because he told me.  And now that's gone.  You know where."

"I make a guess, my friend."

"He bought you presents--outrageous for a man in his position."

"Someone 'ave to buy them," she explained good-humouredly.  "I don't
ask about positions.  It's not polite."

"Now he's at the end of his tether.  He's got to go back to his job.
Last night he came to my rooms for the first time for weeks.  He
was--was almost mad.  When he first came to England he was very ill.
That does not concern you.  But what may concern you is that he has
become dangerous.  He threatened to shoot you."

"Well, before 'e know me 'e threaten to shoot 'imself.  Decidedly, 'e
is getting better, that young man."

Her shameless, infectious laughter caught him by the throat.  He wanted
to laugh too, and then thrust her empty, laughing face down into the
water of her comic fountain till she died.  There were people who were
better dead.  He had said so and it was true, in spite of Francey
Wilmot and her childish sentimentality.  Suddenly the woman in the
hospital and this riotous houri were definitely merged into one
composite figure of a mindless greed and viciousness.  He clenched his
hands behind his back, hiding them.

"If you would only sit down we should talk so much 'appier," she said
regretfully.  "You seem so far off--so 'igh up.  Please sit down."

"I don't want to."

"Because you're afraid we might get jolly together, _hein_?  Well, you
stand up there then, and tell me something.  Tell me.  You don't love
nobody.  You are a very big, 'ard young man, who 'ave made 'is way in
ze world and know 'ow rotten everybody else is.  You 'ave 'ad 'ard
times and 'ard times is ver' bad for everyone, except per'aps Jesus
Christ, for either they go under and are broken, un'appy people, or
they come out on top, and then zey are 'arder than anyone else.  Well,
you are ze big, 'ard young man.  But you run after this leetle Monsieur
Rufus as though 'e was your baby brother.  Well--'e is a nice leetle
fellow--but 'e is just a leetle fellow--with a soft 'eart and a soft
'ead.  Not your sort.  And, you're not 'is sort.  'E's frightened of
you.  'E want someone who pat 'is 'ead and let 'im cry on 'is shoulder.
You can't 'elp 'im--and you fuss over 'im--you come 'ere and try to put
'is 'eart _affaires_ in order and it's no use at all.  _C'est ridicule,
enfin_."

He looked away from her, so that she should not see that this time she
had struck home.  She had knocked the weapon out of his hand, and for
the moment, in his astonishment and pain, he could not even hate her.
It was true.  He couldn't help Cosgrave any more.  His strength and
ability were, as she said, of no use.  That was what Cosgrave had meant
when he had laughed about the adenoids.  He had failed Cosgrave from
the moment that Cosgrave had demanded love for himself and human
tenderness.  He had no tenderness to give.  He was a hard young man.
He said slowly, and with a curious humility:

"I used to back him up when he was a kid.  He trusted me too--and it's
got to be a sort of habit.  I want him to be happy."

"Because you are so un'appy yourself?"

"I'm all right," he said stubbornly.  And then he added, still not
looking at her.  "Please give him up--so--so that he won't break his
heart over it.  I'm not a rich man either, but I'll make it worth your
while."

She sprang up with a gesture of amused exasperation.

"'Ow _stupide_ you are, my clever friend.  You are like ze old father
in ze _Dame aux Camellias_.  You make me quite cross.  This Rufus--I
can't give 'im up.  'E don't belong to me.  I never ask for 'im.  'E
come into my dressing-room and I like 'im for 'is cheek and I give 'im
a good time.  Now he is _ennuyeux_.  'E want to marry me and make an
honest woman of me."  She patted Stonehouse on the shoulder with so
droll a grimace that he bit his lip to avoid a gust of ribald,
incredible laughter.  It was as though by some trick she changed the
whole aspect of things so that they became simply comic--scenes in a
jolly, improper French farce.  "And now I 'ope you see 'ow funny that
is.  And please take Monsieur Cosgrave away and keep 'im away.  I don't
ask no better."

His anger revived against her.  And it was a thing apart from Cosgrave
altogether--a bitter personal anger.

"It can't be done like that.  You can't take drugs away from a
drug-fiend at one swoop.  Let him down gently--treat him as a friend
until he has to go--get him to see reason."

"No," she said.  "You don't understand.  You 'ave not 'ad my
experience.  If I let 'im 'ang on 'e get much worse.  If I push 'im
off--poof!--an explosion!  Then 'e find a nice leetle girl who is not
like me at all and marry--ver' respectable--and 'ave 'eaps of babies.
That is what 'e want.  But it is not my _affaire_--and I won't be
bothered.  I tell you 'e is too _ennuyeux_----"

He lashed out at her.

"--and too poor.  My God, you're no better than a woman of the streets."

She assented with a certain gravity.

"_C'est bien vrai, ca--bien vrai_.  I was born in ze gutter--I crawl
out of ze gutter by myself.  I keep out of ze gutter--always.  And I
don't cry and wring my 'ands when people try to kick me back again.  I
kick them.  I look after myself.  Monsieur Cosgrave--and all those
others--they must look after themselves too.  Do you think they bother
about me if I become _ennuyeuse_--like them--and cry because they don't
love me and like some leetle girl in ze chorus better?  Not they.  They
want fun and life from me--and I give them that.  When they want more
they can--'ow you say?--get out?"

He stared at her in white-hot detestation.

"I see.  I've just wasted my time.  You're--you're as infamous as they
say.  You're taking everything he has, and now he can go and hang
himself.  You're worse than a woman of the streets because you're more
clever."

She kissed her fingers at him in good-humoured farewell.  "I like you
ver' much--_quand meme_," she said.  "Next time I come and call on you,
per'aps!"



2

That same night Cosgrave, frustrated at the theatre, tried to force an
entrance to the Kensington house, and the old woman, seconded by a
Japanese man-servant, flung him out again and into the arms of a
policeman who promptly arrested him.  Stonehouse went bail for him, and
there was a strange, frantic scene in his own rooms.

For this was not the gentle young man who had met Connie Edwards'
infidelity with an apathetic resignation.  He was violent and
indignant.  His sense of outrage was a sort of intoxication which gave
an extraordinary forcefulness to his whole bearing.  He stormed and
threatened--the misery that stared out of his haggard blue eyes
shrivelling in the heat of an almost animal fury.  (And yet he
stammered too--which was comically what the other Rufus Cosgrave would
have done.)

"I--I love her.  I've never loved anyone else.  That Connie business--a
b-boy and girl affair--a silly flirtation--this--the real thing.
I--I'm a m-man now.  N-no one's going to play fast and loose with me.
No, by God!  I'll see her--she's got to have it out with me.  I've a
right to an explanation at least--and by God I'll have one!"

"For what?" Stonehouse asked.

"She loved me," Cosgrave retorted.

"I don't believe it."

"You d-don't believe it?  W-what do you know about it?  Didn't she
behave as though she did?  Didn't she go about with me?  Didn't she
take things from me--no decent woman would have taken unless she loved
me?"

"She doesn't happen to be a decent woman," Stonehouse observed.  "To do
her justice she doesn't pretend to be one."

Cosgrave advanced upon him as though he would have struck him across
the face.  But he stopped in time, not from remorse, but as though
pulled up by a revelation of maddening absurdity.

"Oh, you--you!  You don't understand.  You aren't capable of
understanding.  You're a block--a machine--you don't feel--you g-go
about--rolling over p-people and things like--like a damned
steam-roller.  You're not a man at all.  You don't love anyone--not
even yourself.  What do you know about anything?"

He was grotesque in his scorn, and yet Stonehouse, leaning with an
apparent negligence against the mantel-shelf, felt himself go dead
white under the attack.  He had lost Cosgrave.  And he knew now that he
needed him desperately--more now than even in his desolate
childhood--that unconsciously he had hugged the knowledge of that
boyish affection and dependence to him with a secret pride as a
talisman against he hardly knew what--utter isolation, a terrifying
hardness.  He made up his mind to have done now with reserve, to show
before it was too late at least some of that dwarfed and suffocated
feeling.  But he faltered over his first sentence.  He had trained
himself too long and too carefully to speak with that cold, ironic
inflexion.  He sounded in his own ears formal--unconvincing.

"You're wrong.  I do care.  I care for you.  You're my friend.  I do
understand, in part, at any rate.  I can prove it.  When I saw how
unhappy you were I went to her--I tried to reason with her."

He broke off altogether under the amazed stare that greeted this
statement.  The next instant Cosgrave had tossed his hands to heaven,
shouting with a ribald laughter:

"Oh, my Heaven--you poor fish!  You think you can cure everything.  I
can imagine what you said: 'I suggest, Mademoiselle, that you reduce
the doses gradually.'"

It was so nearly what he had said that Stonehouse flinched, and
suddenly Cosgrave seemed to feel an impatient compassion for him.  "Oh,
I'm a beast.  It was jolly decent of you.  You meant well.  But you
can't help."

And _that_ was what she had said.  Stonehouse made no answer.  He saw
himself as ridiculous and futile.  He was sick with disgust at his own
pain.  If he had lost Cosgrave he wanted to have done with the whole
business now--quickly and once and for all.

There was a sense of finality in the shabby room.  The invisible bond
that had held them through eight years of separation and silence had
given way.  It was almost a physical thing.  It checked and damped down
Cosgrave's excitement so that he said almost calmly:

"Well, I shan't attempt to see her again.  You'll have that
satisfaction.  I'll get out of here--back to my jolly old swamp, where
there aren't any beastly women--decent or indecent--only mosquitoes."

He waited a moment, as though trying hard to finish on a warmer, more
generous note.  Perhaps some faint flicker of recollection revived in
him.  But it could only illuminate a horrifying indifference.  He went
out without so much as a "good-night."

The morning papers gave the Kensington House incident due prominence.
It was one more feather in Mademoiselle Labelle's outrageous head-gear.
The Olympic had not so much as standing room for weeks after.

Cosgrave kept his word.  He did not see her again, and within a week he
had sailed for West Africa--to die.  But ten days later Stonehouse
received a wireless, and a month later a letter and a photograph of a
fair-haired, tender-eyed, slightly bovine-looking girl in evening
dress.  It appeared that she was a Good Woman and the daughter of
wealthy and doting parents, and that in all probability West Africa
would see Rufus Cosgrave no more.

So that was the end of their boyhood.  Cosgrave had saved himself--or
something outside Stonehouse's strength and wisdom had saved him.  They
would meet again and appear to be old friends.  But the chapter of
their real friendship, with all its inarticulate romance and
tenderness, was closed finally.

Stonehouse kept the photograph on the table of his consulting-room.  He
believed that it amused him.



3

Still he could not work at night.  He resumed his haunted prowlings
through the streets.  But he took care that he did not pass Francey
Wilmot's house again.  He knew now that he was afraid.  He was ill,
too, with a secret, causeless malady that baffled him.  There were
nights when he suffered the unspeakable torture of a man who feels that
the absolute control over all his faculties, which he has taken for
granted, is slipping from him, and that his whole personality stands on
the verge of disintegration as on the edge of a bottomless pit.

For some weeks he hunted for Mr. Ricardo in vain.  He tried all the
favoured spots which a considerate country sets aside for its
detractors and its lunatics so that they may express themselves freely,
without success.  Mr. Ricardo seemed to have taken fright and vanished.
But one afternoon, returning from the hospital, Stonehouse met him by
accident, and followed him.  He made no attempt to speak.  He meant,
this time, to find out where the old man lived, and, if possible, to
come to his assistance, and his experience taught him the danger and
futility of a direct approach.  He followed therefore at a cautious
distance that it was not always possible to maintain.   Although it was
early in the afternoon a dense but drifting fog wrapped the city in its
dank folds, and the figure in front of him sometimes loomed up like a
distorted shadow and then in a moment plunged into a yellow pocket of
obscurity, and was lost.  Then Stonehouse could only listen for his
footfalls, quick and irregular, echoing with an uncanny loudness in the
low vault of the fog.

Mr. Ricardo had evidently been speaking, for he carried the soap-box
slung over his shoulder, and he was in a great hurry.  It was
extraordinary how fast the lame, half-starved old man could walk.

They crossed the park and over to Grosvenor Place.  There was no doubt
that Mr. Ricardo knew where he was going, but it flashed upon
Stonehouse that he was not going home.  There was something pressed and
sternly in earnest about the way he hurried, as though he had some
important appointment to keep and knew that he was already late.  Once
Stonehouse had to run to keep him within hearing.

They went the whole length of Victoria Street.  Stonehouse had been
physically tired out when he had started.  Now he was not aware of
being tired at all.  A gradually rising excitement carried him on,
unconscious of himself.  He had no idea what he expected, but he knew
definitely that something deeply significant was about to happen to
them both, that they were running into some crisis.

Outside the Abbey the fog became impenetrable.  The traffic had
stopped, and the lights, patches of opaque rayless crimson, added to
the confusion.  There were people moving, however, faceless ghosts with
loud footfalls, feeling their way hesitatingly, and among them Mr.
Ricardo vanished.  Almost at once Stonehouse lost his own bearings.  In
the complete paralysis of all sense of direction which only fog can
produce, he crossed the wide street twice without knowing it.  Then he
came up suddenly under the spread statue of Boadicea and into little
knots of people.  A policeman was trying to move them on without
success.  They hung about hopefully like children who cannot be
convinced that a show is really over.

"It's no good messing round here.  You aren't helping anyone.  Better
be getting home."

Stonehouse knew what had happened.  It was extraordinary how sure he
was.  It was almost as though he had known all along.  But he said
mechanically to one slouching shadow:

"What is it?"

A face, dripping and livid in the fog, like the face of a dead man,
gaped at him.

"Some old fellow gone over--no, he didn't tumble, I tell yer.  You
cawn't tumble over a four-foot parapet.  Chucked 'isself, and I don't
blame 'im.  One of them police-launches 'as gone out to fish 'im out.
But they won't get 'im.  Not now, anyway.  Can't see two feet in front
of yer, and the tide running out fast."

Stonehouse felt his way to the parapet and peered over.  Above the
water the fog was pitch-black and moving.  It looked a solid mass.  He
could almost hear it slapping softly against the pillars of the bridge
as it flowed seawards.  By now Mr. Ricardo had travelled with it a long
way.  His death did not seem to Stonehouse tragic, but only inevitable
and ironical.  It was as though someone had played a grave and
significant, not unkindly, joke at Mr. Ricardo's expense.  Nor did
Stonehouse feel remorse, for he knew that he could have done nothing.
As Mr. Ricardo had said, it was not material things that had mattered.
He had not killed himself because he was starving, but because the long
struggle of his spirit with the enigma of life had reached its crisis.
He had gone out to meet it with a superb gesture of defiance, which had
also been the signal of surrender and acknowledgment.

The crowd had moved on at last.  In the muffled silence and darkness
Stonehouse's thoughts became shadowy and fantastic.  Though he did not
grieve he knew that a stone had shifted under the foundations of his
mental security.  Death took on a new aspect.  It seemed unlikely that
it was so simply the end.

He found himself wondering how far Mr. Ricardo had travelled on his
journey, and whether he had met his enemy, and, face to face with him,
had become reconciled.



IV

1

He did not know why he had consented to receive her, unless it was
because he knew that they would meet inevitably sooner or later.  He
felt very able to meet her--cool, and hard and clear-thinking.  It was
early yet.  A wintry sunlight rested on his neatly ordered table, and
he could smile at the idea that in a few hours he would begin to be
afraid again.

She had made no appointment.  Urged by some caprice or other she had
driven up to his door and sent up her card with the pencilled
inscription "_Me voici_!"  Standing at his window he could just see the
long graceful lines of her Rolls-Royce, painted an amazing blue--pale
blue was notoriously her colour--and the pale-blue clad figure of her
chauffeur.  It occurred to him that she had chosen the uniform simply
to make the man ridiculous--to show that there were no limits to her
audacity and power.  She was, he thought, stronger than the men who
thought they were ruling the destinies of nations.  For she could ride
rough-shod over convention and prejudice and human dignity.  She was
perhaps the last representative of an autocratic egotism in a world in
which the individual will had almost ceased to exist.  She seemed to
him the survival of an eternal evil.

And yet when he saw her he laughed.  She was so magnificently
impossible.  It seemed that she had put on every jewel that she could
carry.  She was painted more profusely than usual, and her dress was
one of those fantastic creations with which producers endeavour to
bluff through a peculiarly idiotic revue.  But she carried it all
without self-consciousness.  It was as natural to her as gay plumage to
a bird-of-paradise.

She gave him her hand to kiss, and then laughed and shook hands instead
with an exaggerated manliness.

"I forget," she said.  "It is a bad 'abit.  You see.  I keep my
promise.  I make ze return call.  And 'ow kind of you to see me."

"It didn't occur to you that I might refuse," he told her.

"No, that's true.  I never thought about it.  You 'ave a leetle time
for me, _hein_?"

"About ten minutes," he said.

He assumed a very professional attitude on the other side of his table.
He wanted to nonplus and disconcert her, if such a thing were possible.
Now that his first involuntary amusement was over he felt a return of
the old malignant dislike.  She had cost him Cosgrave's friendship, and
he wanted to hurt her--to get underneath that armour of soulless
good-humour.  "I knew that you'd turn up one day or other," he said.

She looked at him with a rather wistful surprise.

"'Ow clever of you!  You knew?  Don't I look well, _hein_?  I feel
well--quite all right.  But I say to myself: '_Voyons_--'alf an hour
with nothing to do.  I pay that cross doctor a visit.'  I would 'ave
come before, but I 'ave been so busy.  We re'earse 'Mademoiselle
Pantalonne,' ze first night to-morrow.  You come?  I send you a ticket."

"Thanks.  That form of entertainment wouldn't entertain me--except
pathologically.  And if I went to the theatre I'd rather leave my
profession outside."

"Path--pathologically," she echoed.  "That sounds 'orrid--rather rude.
You don't like me still, _hein_, doctor?"

"Does that surprise you?"

"It surprise me ver' much," she admitted frankly.  She picked up the
photograph on the table and examined it with an unconscious
impertinence.  "You like 'er?" she asked.  "That sort of woman?"

"I don't know," he said.  "I've never met her."

"She is not your wife?"

"She is Cosgrave's wife."

It was evident that although the episode had been concluded less than
three months before she had already almost forgotten it.

"Cosgrave?  _Ah oui, le cher petit Rufus_?  There now--did I not tell
you?  Didn't I 'ave reason?  Tell me--'ow many babies 'ave 'e got?"

"They were married last month," Stonehouse observed.

"_Ah--la la_!  But 'ow glad I am!  I can see she is the right sort for
'im.  A nice leetle girl.  But first 'e 'ave to 'ave a good time--just
to give 'im confidence.  Now 'e be a ver' good boy--a leetle dull
per'aps, but ver' good and 'appy.  I would write and tell 'im 'ow glad
I am--but per'aps better not, _hein_?"

She winked, and there was an irresistible drollery in the grimace that
made his lips twitch.  And yet she was shameless--abominable.

"The ten minutes are almost up," he said, "and I suppose you came here
to consult me."

He knew that she had not.  She had come because he was a tantalizing
object, because she could not credit his invincibility, which was a
challenge to her.  She laughed, shrugging her shoulders.

"You are an 'orrible fellow!  You think of nothing but diseases and
wickedness.  I wonder if you 'ave ever 'ad a good time yourself--ever
laughed, like I do, from ze 'eart?"

He looked away from her.  He felt for a moment oddly uneasy and
distressed.

"No, I don't suppose I have."

"Ah, _c'est dommage, mon pauvre jeune homme_.  But you don't like me.
What can I do?"

"I don't expect you to do anything."

"Not my business, _hein_?  No one 'ave any business 'ere who 'ave not
got an illness.  Ver' well.  I will 'ave an illness--a ver' leetle one.
No, not ze tummy-ache.  _C'est vieux jeu ca_.  But a leetle sore
throat.  You know about throats, _hein_?"

"My specialty," he said smiling back at her with hard eyes.

"Bien, I 'ave a leetle sore throat--_fatigue plutot_--'e come and 'e
go.  I smoke too much.  But I 'ave to smoke.  It's no good what you
say."

"I'm sure of that," he said.

He made her sit down in the white iron chair behind the screen and,
adjusting his speculum, switched on the light.  He was bitterly angry
because she had forced this farce upon him.  He felt that she was
laughing all over.  The pretty pinkness of her open mouth nauseated
him.  He thought of all the men who had kissed her, and had been ruined
by her as though by the touch of a deadly plague.  He pressed her
tongue down with a deliberate roughness.

"You 'urt," she muttered.  But her eyes were still amused.

"A great many people get hurt here," he said contemptuously, "and don't
whine about it."



2

Ten minutes later they sat opposite each other by his table.  She was
coughing and laughing and wiping her eyes.

"_C'est abominable_," she gasped, "_abominable_!"

He waited.  He could afford to wait.  He had the feeling of being
carried on the breast of a deep, quiet sea.  He could take his time.
Her laughter and damnable light-heartedness no longer fretted and
exasperated him.  Rather it was a kind of bitter spice--a tense
screwing up of his exquisite sense of calm power.  She was like a
tigress sprawling in the sunshine, not knowing that its heart is
already covered by a rifle.  He prolonged the moment deliberately,
savouring it.  In that deliberation the woman in the hospital, Francey
Wilmot, Cosgrave, and a host of faceless men who had gone under this
woman's chariot wheels played their devious, sinister parts.  They
goaded him on and justified him.  He became in his own eyes the figure
of the Law, pronouncing sentence, weightily, without heat or passion or
pity.

"You do it on purpose," she said, "you make me cough."

He arranged his papers with precise hands.

"I'm sorry--I know you came here as a joke.  It isn't--not for you.
It's serious."  He saw her smile, and though he went on speaking in the
same quiet, methodical tone, he felt that he had suddenly lost control
of himself.  "Medical science isn't an exact science.  Doctors are
never sure of anything until it has happened.  But speaking with that
reservation I have to tell you that your case is hopeless--that you
have three--at the most four months----"

She had interrupted with a laugh, but the laugh itself had broken in
half.  She had read his face.  After a long interval she asked a
question--one word--almost inaudibly--and he nodded.

"If you had come earlier one might have operated," he said.  "But even
so, it would have been doubtful."

Already many men and women had received their final sentence here in
this room, and each had met it in his own way.  The women were the
quietest.  Perhaps their lives had taught them to endure the hideous
indignity of a well-ordered death-bed without that galling sense of
physical humiliation which tormented men.  For the most part they
became immersed in practical issues--how the news was to be broken to
others, who would look after the house and the children, and how the
last scene might be acted with the least possible inconvenience and
distress for those who would have to witness it.  Some men had raved
and stormed and pleaded, as though he had been a judge whose judgment
might be revoked: "Not me--others--not me--not to-day--years hence."
They had paced his private room for hours, trying to get a hold over
themselves, devastated with shame and horror at the breakdown of their
confident personalities.  Some had risen to an impregnable dignity,
finer than their lives.  One or two had laughed.

And this woman?

He looked up at last.  He thought with a thrill that was not of pity,
of a bird hit in full flight and mortally hurt, panting out its life in
the heather, its gay plumage limp and dishevelled.  The jewels and
outrageous dress had become a jest that had turned against her.  A
shadow of the empty, good-humoured smile still lingered on a painted
mouth palsied with fear.  She was swaying slightly, rhythmically,
backwards and forwards, and rubbing the palms of her hands on the
carved arms of her chair, and he could hear her breath, short and
broken like the shallow breathing of a sick animal.  And yet he became
aware that she was thinking--thinking very rapidly--calling up
unexpected reserves.

"_Trois--mois--trois mois_.  Well, but I don't feel so ill--I don't
feel ill at all--per'aps for a leetle month--just a leetle month."

He had no clue to her thought.  She looked about her rather vaguely as
though everything had suddenly become unreal.  There were tears on her
cheeks, but they were the tears of her recent laughter.  She rubbed
them off on the back of her hand with the unconscious gesture of a
street child.

"I suffer much?"

"I'm afraid so.  Though, of course, anyone who attends on you will do
his best."

"Death so ugly--so sad."

"Not always," he said.

It was true.  She had been a beast of prey all her life.  Now it was
her turn to be overtaken and torn down.  Only sentimentalists like
Francey Wilmot could see in her a cause for pity or regret.

They sat opposite each other through a long silence.  He gave her time.
He showed her consideration.  He thought of the pale-blue chauffeur
waiting in the biting cold of a winter's afternoon.  Well, he would be
alive after she had become a loathsome fragment of corruption.  He was
revenged--they were all revenged on her now.

She fumbled with her gold and jewelled bag.

"What do I owe, _Monsieur le docteur_?"

"Three guineas."

She put the money on the table.

"That is ver' little for so much.  I think--when I can't go on any
more--I come to your 'ospital.  You take me in, _hein_?  I 'ave a
fancy."

He made an unwilling movement.  It revolted him--this obtuseness that
would not see that he hated her.

"I can't prevent your coming if you want to.  You would be more in your
element in your own home.  Even in their private rooms they don't allow
the kind of things you're accustomed to.  There are regulations.  Your
friends won't like them."

She looked up at him with a startled intentness.

"_Mes pauvres amis_--I 'ave so many.  They won't understand.  They say:
'That's one of Gyp's leetle jokes.' They won't believe it--they won't
dare."

She gave him her hand, and he touched it perfunctorily.

"It's as you like, of course.  You have only to let me know."

"You are ver' kind."

He showed her to the door, and rang the bell for the servant.  From his
vantage point he saw the pale-blue chauffeur hold open the door of the
pale-blue limousine.  A few loiterers gaped.  By an ironical chance a
barrel-organ in the next street began to grind out the riotous,
familiar gallop.  It sounded far-off like a jeering echo:

  "I'm Gyp Labelle;
  If you dance with me
  You dance to my tune. . ."

A danse macabre.  He wondered if she had brains or heart enough to
appreciate the full bitterness of that chance.  He could see her, in
his mind's eye, cowering back among the pale-blue cushions.

The next morning he received a note from her and a ticket for the first
night of "Mademoiselle Pantalonne"--"with her regards and thanks."



3

He went.  In the morning he had tossed the ticket aside, scornful and
outraged by such a poor gesture of bravado.  But the night brought the
old restlessness.  He was driven by curiosity that he believed was
professional and impersonal.  It was natural enough that he should want
to see how a woman of her stuff acted under sentence of death.  But
once in the theatre h e became aware of a black and solitary pride
because he alone of all these people could taste the full flavour of
her performance.  He had become omniscient.  He saw behind the scenes.
Whilst the orchestra played its jaunty overture he watched her.  He saw
her stare into her glass and dab on the paint, thicker and thicker,
knowing now why she needed so much more, shrinking from the skull that
was beginning to peer through the thin mask of flesh and blood.  He
foresaw the moment, probably before the footlights, when the naked
horror of it all would leap out on her and tear her down.  Even in that
she would no doubt seek the consolation of notoriety.  It would be in
all the papers.  If she had the nerve to carry on people would crowd to
see her, as in the Roman days they had crowded to the circus (gloating
and stroking themselves secretly, thinking: "It is not I who am
dying").  Or she would seek dramatic refuge in her absurd palace and
surround herself with tragic glamour, making use of her own death as
she had used the death of that infatuated and unhappy prince.

And yet he was sick at heart.  In flashes he saw his own attitude as
something hideous and abnormal.  Then again he justified it, as he had
always justified it.  He found himself arguing the whole matter out
with Francey Wilmot--a cool and reasoned exposition such as he had been
incapable of at the crisis of their relationship.  ("This woman is a
malignant growth.  Nature destroys her.  Do you pretend to feel regret
or pity?")  But though he imagined the whole scene--saw himself as
authoritative and convincing--he could not re-create Francey Wilmot.
She remained herself.  Her eyes, fixed on him with that remembered look
of candid and questioning tenderness, blazed up into an anger as
unexpectedly fierce and uncompromising.  And he was not so strong.  He
had overworked all his life.  Starved too often.  The ground slipped
from under his feet.


It was a poor, vulgar show--a pantomime jerry-built to accommodate her
particular talent.  She walked through it--the dumb but irresistible
model of a French atelier, who made fools of all her lovers, cheated
them, sucked them dry and tossed them off with a merry cynicism.  When
the mood took her she danced and her victims danced behind her, a
grotesque ballet, laughing and clapping their hands, as though their
cruel sufferings were, after all, a good joke.  Neither they nor the
audience seemed to be aware that she could not dance at all, and that
she was not even beautiful.

It was an old stunt, disguised with an insolent carelessness.  The
producers had surely grinned to themselves over it.  "We know what the
public likes.  Rubbish, and the older the better.  Give it 'em."  She
even made her familiar entry between the curtains at the back of the
stage, standing in the favourite attitude of simple, triumphant
expectation, and smiling with that rather foolish friendliness that
until now had never shaken her audiences from their frigidity.  To them
she had always been a spectacle, a strange vital thing with a lurid
past and a dubious future, shocking and stimulating.  They would never
have admitted that they liked her.  But tonight they gave her a sort of
ashamed welcome.  Perhaps it was the dress she wore--the exaggerated
peg-top trousers and bonnet of a conventional Quartier Latin which made
her look frank and boyish.  Perhaps it was something more subtle.
Stonehouse himself felt it.  But then, he knew.  He saw her as God saw
her.  If there was a God He certainly had His amusing moments.

But he found himself clapping her with the rest, and that made him
angry and afraid.  It seemed that he could not control his actions any
more than his thoughts.  The whole business had got an unnatural hold
over him.  He half got up to go, and then realized that he was trying
to escape.

It was jolly music too.  That at any rate her producers had toiled at
with some zeal.  Incredibly stupid and artless and jolly.  Anyone could
have danced to it.  And she was a gutter-urchin, flinging herself about
in the sheer joy of life (with death capering at her heels).  He
watched her, leaning forward, waiting for some sign, the faltering
gesture, a twitching grimace of realization.  Or was it possible that
she was too empty-hearted to feel even her own tragedy, too shallow to
suffer, too stupid to foresee?  At least he knew with certainty that in
that heated, exhausted atmosphere pain had set in.

He became aware that the sweat of it was on his own face--that he
himself was labouring under an intolerable physical burden.  He knew
too much.  (If God had His amusing moments he had also to suffer,
unless, as Mr. Ricardo had judged, he was a devil.)  She was facing
what every man and woman in that theatre would have to face sooner or
later.  How?  She at any rate danced as though there were nothing in
the world but life.  With each act her gestures, her very dress became
the clearer expression of an insatiable, uncurbed lust of living.  At
the end, the orchestra, as though it could not help itself, broke into
the old doggerel tune that had helped to make her famous:

"I'm Gyp Labelle."

She waltzed and somersaulted round the stage, and as the curtain fell
she stood before the footlights, panting, her thin arms raised
triumphantly.  He could see the tortured pulse leaping in her throat.
He thought he read her lips as they moved in a voiceless exclamation:

"_Quand meme--quand meme_."

The audience melted away indifferently.  They, at any rate, did not
know what they had seen.


And the next day he had another little note from her, written in a
great sprawling hand.  She had made all her arrangements, and she
thought she had better reserve rooms in his hospital in about six
weeks' time for about a month.  After that, no doubt, she would require
less accommodation.

A silly, fatuous effort, in execrable taste.



V

1

Robert Stonehouse took a second leave that he could not afford and went
back to the grey cottage on the moors, and tramped the hills in haunted
solitude.  The spring ran beside him, a crude, bitter, young spring,
gazing into the future with an earnest, passionate face, full of
arrogance and hope, and self-distrust.  His own frustrated youth rose
in him like a painful sap.  He was much younger than the Robert
Stonehouse who, proud in his mature strength, had dragged an exhausted,
secretively smiling Cosgrave on his relentless pursuit--young and
insecure, with odd nameless rushes of emotion and desire and grief that
had had no part in his ordered life.

The hills had changed too.  They had been the background to his
exploits.  They had become brooding, mysterious partners whose purpose
with him he had not fathomed.  The things that ran across his path, the
quaint furry hares and scurrying pheasants had ceased to be objects on
which he could vent his strength and cunning.  They were live things,
deeply, secretly related to him and to a dying, very infamous woman,
and his levelled gun sank time after time under the pressure of an
inexplicable pity.  He had stood resolutely aloof from life, and now it
was dragging him down into its warmth with invisible, resistless hands.
Its values, which he had learnt to judge coldly and dispassionately,
weighing one against another, were shifting like sand.  He seemed to
stand, naked and alone, in a changing, terrifying world.

In those days the papers in their frivolous columns, were full of Gyp
Labelle.  Her press-agent was working frenziedly.  It seemed that she
had quarrelled with her manager, torn her contract into shreds, and
slapped his face.  There were gay doings nightly at the Kensington
house--orgies.  One paper hinted at a certain South African millionaire.

A last fling--the reckless gesture of a worthless panic-stricken soul,
without dignity.

Or perhaps she had found that his diagnosis had been a mistake.  Or she
would not believe the truth.  Or she was drugging herself into
forgetfulness.  Perhaps she might even have the courage to make an end
before the time came when forgetfulness would be impossible.

He returned to town, drawn by an obsession of uncertainty.  He found
that she had arrived at her rooms in the hospital with the shrivelled
old woman and the macaw and a gramophone.

She had signed the register as Marie Dubois.

"It is my real name," she explained, "but you couldn't have a good time
with a name like that--_voyons_!  Only one 'usband and 'eaps of babies."

She was much nearer the end than he had supposed possible.  The last
month had to be paid for.  She lay very still under the gorgeous quilt
which she had brought with her, and her hand, which she had stretched
out to him in friendly welcome, was like the claw of a bird.  "Everyone
'ere promise not to tell," she said.  "I'm just Marie Dubois.  Even ze
undertaker--'e must not know.  You put on ze stone: 'Marie Dubois, ze
beloved daughter of Georges and Marianne Dubois, rag-pickers of Paris.'
That will be a last leetle joke, hein?"

"It's as you wish," he said coldly.

He forced back the natural questions that came to him.  He had a
disordered conviction that he was fighting her for his sanity, for the
very ground on which he had built his life, and that he dared not yield
by so much as a kindly word.  He did what lay in his power for her with
a heart shut and barred.

She brought a little of her world and her whole outlook with her.  On
the last day that she was able to be up she dressed herself in a gay
mandarin's coat with a Chinese woman's trousers, and tried to do her
dance for the benefit of a shocked and fascinated matron.  Every
morning she wore a new cap to set off the deepening shadow of
dissolution.

By the open fire the old woman embroidered ceaselessly.

"She is making--'ow you call it?--my shroud.  You see--with ze blue
ribbons.  Blue--that's my colour--my lucky colour.  As soon as I could
speak I ask for blue ribbons in my pinafore."

"I should have thought your mind might be better occupied now," he
retorted with brutal commonplaceness.

She winked at him.

"Oh, but I 'ave 'ad my leetle talk with _Monsieur le Cure_.  'E and I
are ze best of friends, though I never met 'im before.  'E understand
about ze blue ribbons.  But Monsieur Robert is too clever."

"It seems so," he said scornfully.

She questioned him from out of the thickening cloud of morphia.  "You
don't believe in God?"  And then as he shook his head she smiled
sleepily.  "Well, it is still possible 'e exist, _Monsieur_--_Monsieur
le docteur_."

She lay quiet so that he thought she had fallen asleep, but the next
moment her eyes had opened, widening on him with a startling
wakefulness.  It was as though her whole personality had leapt to arms,
and bursting through the narcotic, stood free with a gay and laughing
gesture.  "As to God--I don't know about 'im, but I exist--I go on.
You bet your 'at on that, my friend.  I don't know where I go--but I go
somewhere.  And I dance.  And if St. Peter sit at ze golden gates, like
they say in ze fairybook, I say to 'im: ''Ave you ever seen ze Gyp
Galop?' And then I dance for 'im and ze angels play for me"--she nodded
wickedly--"not 'ymn tunes."

She was serious.  She meant it.  If she survived she survived as what
she was or not at all.  And looking down on her wasted, tortured body,
Stonehouse had a momentary but extraordinarily vivid conviction that
what she had said was true.  She would persist.  Whatever else
happened, Gyp Labelle would go on having a good time.  She could not be
extinguished.  There was in her some virtue altogether apart from the
body--a blazing vitality, an unquenchable, burning spirit.

He felt his hatred of her wither before it.

"And 'e say: 'You dance ver' bad, Gyp, but you make me laugh.  You go
on and dance to ze others.'  For 'e know who I am.  My poor parents
they make ze mistake.  They think: ''Ere is such a ver' nice, good
little _bebe_, and so they call me after my _Maman_, who is ver' nice
and good too, and who love me ver' much--Marie--Marie Dubois."

She turned her head towards the old woman bending lower and lower over
her fine work, and, smiling at her, fell asleep.


He returned, one night, to the hospital in the hope of being able to
work in the laboratory, and instead, coming to her room, he went in.
The action was so unpremeditated and unmotivated that he had closed the
door before he knew what he had done.  But the excuse he framed in his
confusion was never uttered, for he had the right to appear
dumbfounded.  She sat, propped up like a painted wraith against a pile
of gorgeous cushions, and all about her was scattered a barbarous loot
of rings and bracelets, of strings of pearls, of unset stones, diamonds
and emeralds, heaped carelessly on the table at her side, and twinkling
like little malevolent eyes out of the creases of her coverlet.

The old woman wrote toilingly on a slip of paper.  "Sh!  This is ver'
solemn.  I could not sleep, and so I make my testament."  She put her
finger to her lips as though her whisper were only a part of a playful
mystery and beckoned him, and he went towards her, reluctant, yet
unresisting like a man hypnotized.  He had a childish longing to touch
all that colour, to take up great handfuls of it and feel its warmth
and let it drip through his fingers.  The death that stared out of her
painted face, the silence and grim austerity of her surroundings made
that display of magnificence a fantastic parable.  The stones were the
life that was going from her.  She picked up each one in turn and
caressed it, and held it to the light, remembering who knew what
escapade, what splendid, reckless days, what tragedy.  And yet there
was no regret and surely no remorse in her farewell of them.

"_Ma Vieille_--she make a list of all.  They will be sold--for ze
children of Paris--ze _gamins_--as I was--for a good time."  She held
out her hand: "_C'est joli, n'est ce pas_?"

He looked unwillingly.  It was a black opal, and as she moved it it
seemed to come to life, and a distant resentful fire gleamed out of its
sullen depths.

"Yes.  But you oughtn't to have all--all this stuff about.  No one
could be held responsible----"

"What does it matter?  If someone take it--someone 'ave it.  It won't
worry me.  'Ere, I tell you something--a story, _hein_, to amuse you?
You remember our leetle dinner and 'ow I would not tell about ze Grand
Duke and ze black opal?  Well, I tell you now.  It don't matter any
more."

"No.  You're doing yourself harm.  You ought to sleep."

"I don't want to--I can't.  It is 'orrible to lie awake in ze dark
and----  And you, too, Monsieur Robert, you don't feel you sleep much
to-night, _hein_?"

"No."

"_Alors_--'ere we are--two poor fellows shipwrecked--we make a leetle
feast together--a feast of good stories.  You say you don't like me
ver' much.  But that is _ridicule_ now.  One only 'ates when one is
afraid, and you aren't afraid any more of poor Gyp."

"Was I ever?" he demanded.

"A leetle--per'aps?  You think to yourself: 'If I love 'er----!'
Bah, that is all finished.  Come, I tell you my funny story."


He had laughed.  He was incredulous of himself.  He sat on the edge of
her bed listening to her whisper, a tortured whisper which she made
supremely funny--a mock-conspirator's whisper which drew them close to
one another in an outrageous intimacy.

"At any rate you had made a good enemy that time," he said.

She panted.

"Ah no--no.  'E 'ave a fine sense of humour, Monsieur ze Grand Duke.
'E laugh too.  'E say--'Gyp--you are ze ver' devil 'erself!'  'Ere, but
this ruby--I don't care much for rubies--but this one 'ave a real fine
story."

And so one by one the stones were taken up and held a moment, some to
be discarded with a name or a forgetful shrug, and some to linger a
while longer whilst she recalled their little ribald histories.  And it
seemed to Robert Stonehouse that gradually the room filled with
invisible personages who, as the jewels dropped from her waxen fingers
into the gaping box, bowed to her and took their leave.  And at last
they were all gone but one.  He seemed to hear them, their footsteps
receding faintly along the corridors.

She held an unset pearl in her hand.

"This one 'ave a ver' nice leetle story.  A brigand give it me when 'e
'old up ze train between Mexico City and ze coast.  A fine fellow--with
a sombrero and a manner!"  (She looked past Stonehouse, smiling, as
though she too saw the shadow twirling its black moustache and staring
back at her with gallant admiration.)  "And brave too, _nombre de
Dios_!  And 'e bow and say: 'One does not take ransom from Mademoiselle
Labelle.  One pays tribute.'  And 'e give me this to remember 'im
by--as I give it you, Monsieur Robert."

He stood up sharply.

"No--I--I don't care for that kind of thing."

"For your wife, then!"

"I am not married."

"But one day per'aps?  You love someone, _hein_?"  (Had she wilfully
forgotten?  She studied his face with a wicked curiosity.  He could not
answer her.)  "Give it 'er then--Monsieur Robert--_pour me faire
plaisir_."

"There is no one to give it to."

"But there was----"

He tried desperately to regain the old sarcastic inflection.

"No doubt it seems inevitable to you."

"Tell me about 'er.  _Voyons_, if you can't keep me alive, _Monsieur
mon docteur_, you might at least amuse me."

"There is nothing to tell.  I will give you something that will make
you sleep."

"I do not want to sleep.  That is bad, ugly sleep that you give me.  So
you quarrel.  What you quarrel about, Monsieur Robert?  Another woman?"

The sheer, grotesque truth of it drove him to an ironical assent.

"As you say, another woman----"

"_Oh, la la_!  So there was once upon a time a ver' serious young man
who forget to be quite serious.  _Voyons_--you 'ave to tell me all
now--just as I tell you."

He turned on her then.  In five brief, savage sentences he had told her
of Frances and the woman in the hospital.  And when he had done he read
her face with its tolerant good-humour, and the full enormity of it all
burst over him like a flood of crude light.  He turned away from her
stammering:

"I've no business here--I've no business to be your doctor--or anyone's
doctor.  I think I must be going mad."

She shook her head.

"No--no--only too serious, _mon pauvre jeune homme_.  But I like
your--your Francey.  I think she and I be good friends some'ow.  She
would see things 'ow I see them."

(He thought crazily:

"Yes, she would sit by you and look over your shoulder at your rotten
life, and say: 'So that's the way it seems to you?  And you're right.
It's been a splendid joke.'")

"One of these days you be friends again too.  And then you give 'er my
leetle pearl.  Say it's from Gyp, who is sorry she made so much
trouble.  Why not?  You think it make her sad?  It is not for that I
give it you.  It is to give you pleasure too."

He was labouring under an almost physical distress.  She was poking fun
at him, at herself, at death.  She was making him a partner of thieves
and loose women.  And yet:

"It must not make you sad at all.  When you see it you laugh--just as
you laugh when I dance because I dance so ver' bad.  Look 'ere, I 'ave
something that you give me too."  She dived back into the box and
brought out a shilling lying side by side with the pearl in the palm of
her open hand.  "You tell 'er--that was all poor Gyp was worth to you,
Monsieur Robert."

He had taken it.  She tried to laugh out loud, triumphantly, the famous
laugh.  And then grey agony had her by the throat.  She turned her face
from him to the wall.

He felt that the old woman had risen.  She was moving towards them.  He
said quietly:

"At least I can relieve you."

She made a passionate, absolute gesture of refusal.  An astonished
nurse had entered.  He gave brief instructions.  He said good-night,
not looking at the limp, quiet figure on the bed, and went out.

He knew that he had seemed competent, unhurried and unmoved as befitted
a man to whom death was the most salient feature of life.

But he knew also that he had fled from her.


In the crowd that went with him that night were Francey Wilmot and
Connie Edwards and Cosgrave and all the people who had made up his
youth.  There were little old women who were Christines, and even James
Stonehouse was there, tragically and hopefully in search of something
that he had never found.  Any moment he might turn his face towards his
son, and it would not be hideous, only perplexed and pitiful.

It was as though an ugly, monstrous mass had been smashed to fragments
whose facets shone with extraordinary, undreamed-of colours.

Not only the bodies of the people drifted with him, but their lives
touched his on every side.  It became a sort of secret pressure.  They
were neither great nor beautiful.  They were identical with the people
he had always seen on the streets and in the hospitals, sickly or
grossly commonplace, but he could no longer judge them as from a great
distance.  He was down in the thick of them.  They concerned him--or he
had no other concern.  He was part of their strangely wandering
procession.  He looked into their separate faces and thought: "This man
says 'I' to himself.  And one day he will say: 'I am dying' (as Marie
Dubois said it)."  And he recognized for the first time something
common to them all that was not commonplace--an heroic quality.  At
least that stark fact remained that at their birth sentence of death
had been passed upon them all.  Before each one of them lay a black
adventure, and they went towards it, questioning or inarticulate, not
knowing why they should endure so much, but facing the utter loneliness
of that final passage with patience and great courage.

It was not ridiculous that they should demand their immortality, the
least and worst of them.  Whether it was granted them or not, it was a
just demand, and the answer to it more vital than any other form of
knowledge.  For it was conceivable that one day they would be too
strong and too proud to play the part of tragic buffoons in a senseless
farce.

In the meantime men might well be pitiful with one another.

"What was it she had said?"

"Nothing that you've gone through is of any use if it hasn't taught you
pity."

("Oh, Francey, Francey, if I had told you that Christine was dead would
it have helped?  Would you have had more patience with me?")


The quiet and emptiness of his own street restored him in some measure
to his aloof scepticism.  But even then he knew there was a disruptive
force secretly at work in him, tearing down stone by stone his
confidence and courage.  He was afraid of shadows.  A bowed figure
crouched against the railings of his house checked him as though a
ghost had lain in wait for him.  He passed it hurriedly, running up the
stone steps.  The sound of a thin, clear voice calling him made him
turn again, his head thrown up in a sort of defiance.

"Monsieur--excuse--excuse--I wait 'ere so long.  They tell me you come
back 'ere perhaps.  But they don't know I 'ave come.  I creep out----
Monsieur she cannot sleep--she cannot sleep.  They don't do nothing.
It is not right.  I cannot 'ave it--that she suffer so."

He came back down the steps.  He was conscious of having sighed deeply.
He looked into the shrivelled, up-turned face, and saw the tears that
filled the furrows with a slow moving stream.  He had hardly noticed
her before.  Now she hurt him.  A very little old woman.  He said
briefly, hiding a shaken voice:

"They do all they can.  I can do no more."

She reiterated with a peasant's obstinacy.

"I will not 'ave it--I will not--not 'ave it--I cannot bear it."

"Dr. Rutherford is there.  I tell you he can do all that can be done.
I offered her an injection--she would not have it."

"She pretend--all ze time she pretend.  Even before me, 'er mother, she
pretend.  But I know."

"Her mother!"

He stepped back against the railings, freeing himself fretfully from
the hand that clutched his arm.

"If you are her mother she treats you strangely.  She treats you like a
servant."

"Before others, Monsieur.  She is different--of different stuff.  We
'ave always understood.  If I am to be with 'er it must be as 'er
servant.  That is our affair.  But you are not kind.  You let 'er
suffer too much.  I will not 'ave it."

She drew herself up.  She almost menaced him.  He saw that she knew.
As a physician he had done what lay in his power, but as a human being
he had failed utterly and deliberately.  Had always failed.  And he was
aware of an incredible fear of her.

"I will come now," he stammered.

He gave her such sleep that night that it seemed unlikely that she
would ever wake again.  He knew that he had exceeded the limits of
mercy set down by his profession and that the nurse had looked
strangely at him.  But he was indifferent.  It was as though he, too,
had been momentarily released.

Nor did he leave her again until the morning, but watched over her,
whilst on the other side of the bed the old woman knelt, her face
pressed against a still hand, a battered, sullen effigy of grief.



3

From the beginning she had defied the regulations of the hospital, as
she had defied the rules of life, with an absolute success.  The
inelastic, military system bent and stretched itself beneath her
good-humoured inability to believe that there could be any wilful
opposition, to her desires.  The macaw had been a case in point, the
gramophone another.  After tea the old woman set the instrument going
for her, and when the authorities protested, ostensibly on behalf of
neighbouring patients, it transpired that the patients rather liked it
than otherwise, and there were regular concerts, with the macaw
shrieking its occasional appreciation.

She inquired interestedly into her neighbours.  She seemed less
concerned with their complaints than with their ages, their appearance,
and the time when they would return to the outside world.  With a young
man on her right hand she became intimate.  It began with an exchange
of compliments and progressed through little folded notes which caused
her infinite amusement to a system of code-tapping on the intervening
wall, sufficiently scandalous in import, if her expression were
significant.

The nurses became her allies in this last grim flirtation, unaware
apparently of its grimness.

"Don't you let 'im know I am so bad," she adjured them.  "I tell 'im I
'ave a leetle nothing at all, and that I am going 'ome next week to my
dear 'usband.  I think that make 'im laugh ver' much.  'E is ver'
bored, that young man.  'E say if I 'ave supper with 'im, the first
night 'e come out 'e won't--'ow you say?--grouse so much.  I say my
'usband ver' jealous, but that I fix it some'ow.  'E like that.
Promise you won't tell?"

They promised.

She was almost voiceless now.  That she suffered hideously, Stonehouse
knew, but not from her.  He believed--in the turmoil of his mind he
almost hoped--that when she was alone she broke down, but before them
all she bore herself with an unflagging gallantry.  It was that
gallantry of hers that dogged him, that would not let him rest or
forget.  It demanded of him something that he could not, and dared not,
yield.

And she was pitifully alone.  The woman in the hospital had not been
more forsaken by her world.  As to Gyp Labelle she went her way, and
the gossip columns cautiously recorded the more startling items of that
progress.  It was as though some clever hand were building up a
fantastic figure that should pass at last into the mists of legend.

Men laughed together over her.

"What poor devil of a millionaire has the woman hobbled now?"

It was the matron who showed Stonehouse an illustrated paper which
produced her full-length portrait.  She sat on the edge of her absurd
fountain and her hand was raised in a laughing gesture of farewell.
Over the top was written: "Gyp off to Pastures new," and underneath a
message which all the daily papers were to reproduce.

"I want this way to thank all the friends who have been so very kind to
me.  We have had good times together.  I miss you very much.  I am
going to find new friends now, but one day, I think, I dance for you
again.  I love you all.  I kiss my hands to you.  _Au revoir_, Gyp."

It was her vanity, that insatiable desire to figure impudently and
triumphantly in the public eye.  He brought the paper to her.  But at
the moment she was busy tapping feebly on the wall.  She winked at him.

"Sh!  I tell 'im I go to-day.  I make an appointment--next week--ze
Carlton Grill--seven o'clock--'e 'ave to wait a long time, ze poor
young man.  There, it is finished."

He showed her the picture without comment.  He had to hold it for
her--hold it very close--for she had exhausted herself with that last
gesture of bravado.  And then, as she smiled, a protest born of
gathering distress and doubt burst from him.

"Why do you allow--this--hideous, impossible pretence?"

He could feel the old woman turn towards him like a wild beast
preparing to spring.  But she herself lay still, with closed eyes.  He
had to bend down to catch the remote suffering whisper.

"_C'est vrai_.  We 'ave--such good times.  And they come 'ere--all
those kind people--who 'ave laughed so much--and bring flowers--and
pretend it is not true.  And they won't believe--and when they see it
they won't believe--they won't dare----"  She tried to speak more
clearly, clinging to his hand for the first time, whilst a sweat of
agony broke out upon her face and made ghastly channels through its
paint and powder.  "_Vous voyez_--for them--I am--ze good times.  They
come to me--for good times.  When they are too sad--when things too
'ard for them and they cannot believe any more--that ze good times come
again--they think of me.  '_Voyons, la_ Gyp, she 'ave a good time
always--she dance at 'er own funeral!'  But if they see me 'ere--like
this--they go away--and think in their 'earts: '_Grand Dieu, c'est
comme ca avec nous tous_--_avec nous tous_,' and they not laugh with
me--any more."

Her hand let go its hold--suddenly.


They sent for him that night.  Haemorrhage had set in.  There was a
light burning by her bedside, for she had complained of the darkness.
She wore a lace cap trimmed with blue ribbons, but she had not had
strength to paint her lips and cheeks again, and the old woman's
efforts had ended pitifully.  She had grown very small in the last few
hours, and with her thin, daubed face and blood-stained lips, she
looked like a sorrowful travesty of the little circus clown who had
ridden the fat pony and shouted "_Oh la--la_!" and blown kisses to the
people.

She smiled vaguely in Stonehouse's direction, but she was only half
conscious.  Her hand strayed over the gorgeous quilt, stroking it with
a kind of simple pleasure.

(She was like that, too, he thought--a dash of gay, unashamed colour in
the sad scheme of things.)

Towards midnight she motioned to him and whispered something that he
could not understand.  But the old woman rose heavily from her knees
and went over to the gramophone, thrusting aside with savage resolution
the nurse who tried to intercept her.  Stonehouse himself made an
involuntary gesture.

"Why not?" he said.  "Let her alone."

He stood close to her and waited.  He felt that some part of him was
dying with her, that he stood with her before a black partition which
was thinning slowly, and that presently they would both know whatever
lay beyond.

The macaw fidgeted on its golden perch, craning towards the light and
blinking uneasily as though a strange thing had come into the room.
The needle scratched under a shaking hand.

  "I'm Gyp Labelle;
  Come dance with me. . ."

He bent over her so that his face almost touched hers.

"I'm sorry--I'm sorry, Gyp."

She turned her head a little, her lips moving.  It was evident that she
had not really heard.  But he knew that she had never borne him malice.

And then suddenly it was over.  He had broken through.  Beyond were
understanding and peace and strange and difficult tears.  He loved her,
as beneath the fret and heat of passion Cosgrave and all those others
had loved her, for what she sincerely was and for the brave, gay thing
she had to give.  He loved her more simply still as in rare moments of
their lives men love one another, saying: "This is my brother--this is
my sister."  From his lonely arrogance his spirit flung itself down,
grieving, beside her mysterious, incalculable good.

He could hear the jolly bang-bang of the drum and the whoop of a
trumpet.  He could see her catherine-wheeling round the stage, and the
man with the bloated face and tragic, intelligent eyes.

"Life itself, my dear fellow, life itself."

And she was dead.



EPILOGUE

For a moment they stared at one another.  He did not at once recognize
Connie Edwards, in the puritanical serge frock and with her air of
rather conscious sobriety, and he himself stood in the shadow.  He
thought:

"She's wondering if I'm a tramp."  He felt like one, broken and shabby.

"Dr. Wilmot?" he muttered.

She leant closer.

"Oh, hallo--Robert."  She corrected herself severely, and held the door
wide open.  "Dr. Stonehouse--to be sure.  Francey's upstairs."

She led the way.  It was almost as though she had been expecting him.
At any rate, she was not surprised at all.  But half-way up the stairs
she glanced back over her shoulder.

"I don't usually open the door.  I'm her secretary.  And a damn good
one too.  Rather a jest, eh, what?"

"Rather," he said.

And it was really the same room--a fire burning and the faun dancing in
the midst of its moving shadows.  There was a faint, warm scent of
cigarette smoke and a solemn pile of books beside her deep chair.  It
wouldn't be like Francey to rest under her laurels.

She held both his hands in hers.  She wore a loose, golden-brown
wrapper such as she had always worn when she had been working hard.
She had changed very little and a great deal.  If something of the
whimsical mysteriousness of her youth had faded she had broadened and
deepened into a woman warm and generous as the earth.  Her thick hair
swept back from her face with the old wind-blown look, and her eyes
were candid and steadfast as they had ever been.  But some sort of mist
had been brushed away from them so that they saw more clearly and
profoundly.  He thought: "She has seen a great many people suffer.  She
doesn't go away so often into herself."

He had tried hard, over and over again, to imagine their meeting, but
he had never imagined that it would be so simple or that she would say
to him, as though the eight years had not happened:

"Why didn't you tell me about Christine, Robert?"

He said:

"It wouldn't have made any difference."

"I've been waiting for you to tell me."

He tried to smile.

"You don't know how difficult it has been to come.  I've been prowling
past--night after night--trying to think what you'd say to me, if I
turned up."

"You might have known."

"I didn't--I don't know even now."

She had made him sit down by the fire and she sat opposite him, bending
towards him, with her slim, beautiful hands to the blaze.  He felt that
she knew, for all the outward signs of his prosperity, that he was
destitute.  He felt that his real self with which she had always been
so much concerned had been stripped naked, and that she was trying to
warm and console him.  She was wrapping him round with that unchanged
tenderness.

"It's--it's the old room!" he said.

But his enmity was dead.  He was at peace with it.  He had been
initiated.  He had heard, very faintly it is true, but loud enough to
understand, the music to which the faun danced.  He was not the
outsider any more.

"I wanted it to be the same."

"And the house----"

"I took it as soon as I could get it.  I made up my mind to live here,
whatever it cost.  You see, I was quite sure that you would go past one
of these days to have a look at it, and that you would say to yourself:
'Why, there's Francey, after all!  I'll go in----'"

But they both drew back instinctively.  He blundered into a hurried
question.  The Gang?  What had happened to them all?  It seemed that
Gertie still lived, defying medical opinion and apparently feeding her
starved spirit on the treasures of the Vatican.  Howard, who had become
a very bad artist and lived on selling copies of the masterpieces to
tourists, looked after her.

"But they're not married," Francey said.  "Just friends."

He said humbly:

"Well, he's been awfully decent to her."

As to the rest, no one knew what had become of them.

"And you've done splendidly, Robert, better than any of us."

"I've been a failure," he answered, "a rotten failure!"

She accepted the statement gravely, without protest, and that sincerity
was like a skilled hand on a wound.  It brought comfort where a
fumbling kindness would have been unendurable.  It made him strangely,
deeply happy to know that she would see too that he had failed.  "I've
never had pity on anyone--not even myself--I've learnt nothing that
matters."

For a while they sat silent, looking into the fire, like people who are
waiting and preparing themselves for some great event.  And presently,
without moving, in an undertone he began to tell her about the Marie
Dubois who had died, and how he had seen her long ago at the Circus,
his first and only circus.  He told her about the Circus itself.  He
did not choose his words, but stammered and fumbled and jumped from one
thing to another.  He opened his heart and took out whatever he found
there, and showed it to her very humbly, just as it was.  It seemed
certain and imperative that after a little while they should both see
the pattern of it all.  He told her about his love for his dead mother,
and how his father had died and had come back, haunting him in his
sleep.

Then he remembered something he had never thought of before--how he had
looked up at the window of the room where his father was lying dead,
and had wanted to run--run fast.

"But I think I've lived in that dark house all my life," he said, "and
I've gone about in it, blustering and swaggering and being hard and
strong because I was so desperately afraid--of life, of caring too
much, of failing.  And now--I've come out."

And then he began to tremble all over and suddenly he was crying
helplessly.

She knelt beside him.  She drew him into her arms.  It was their moment
in the green forest over again, but now there was no antagonism in
their love.  She was the warm, good spirit of the life to which he had
become reconciled.  They had belonged to one another from the
beginning.  His fear had stood between them.  But she had gone on
loving him, steadfastly, because nothing else was possible to her.

"Francey--do you remember--that time we fought one another--over an
idiotic stick?  I was such a young rotter--I wouldn't own up--that you
were stronger than I was."

She took his wet hands and kissed them.  It was as though she had said
aloud, smiling to herself:

"It's all right now, anyhow, you odd, sad little boy."





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