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Peter

Peter
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Title: Peter
Release Date: 2018-07-22
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 27 March 2019
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PETER

By
E. F. BENSON
Author of “Mike,” “The Countess of Lowndes Square,” etc.



CASSELL AND COMPANY, LTD
London, New York, Toronto and Melbourne

{1}

First published 1922

PETER

CHAPTER I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV.

CHAPTER I

The two who mattered were lounging on the cushioned seat in the lowwindow, of which the lower panes had been pushed quite up in order toadmit the utmost possible influx of air. Little came in, for theafternoon was sultry and windless, but every now and then some currentmoved outside, some trickle of comparative coolness from the grass andtrees of the Green Park, sufficient to stir the girl’s hair. On thishigh floor of the house of flats London seemed far remote; the isolationas of an aeroplane, as of a ship at sea, protected them from externalintrusion.

Inside the room a party of four were assembled round the tea-table; thehostess, mother of the girl who sat in the window-seat, was wondering,without impatience, as was becoming to so chinned and contented a face,when Mrs. Alston would cease gesticulating with her sandwich and eat it,instead of using it as a conductor’s baton to emphasize her points inthe discourse to which nobody was listening. The sandwich had already alarge semicircular bite out of it, which penetrated well past itscentre, and one more application (if she would only make it) to thatcapacious mouth would render it reasonable to suppose that she hadfinished her tea. Mrs. Heaton herself{2} had done so; so also had thestout grey-haired man with the varnished face, and as for Mrs.Underwood, she had long ago drunk her cup of hot water and refused anyfurther nourishment. But while Mrs. Alston brandished her crescent of asandwich, and continued talking as if somebody had contradicted her, itwas impossible to suggest a move to the bridge-table that stood readywith new packs and sharpened pencils a couple of yards away. To the boyand girl in the window that quartette of persons seemed of supremeunimportance both by reason of their age and of the earnest futility oftheir conversation. They talked eagerly about dull things like politicsand prices instead of being flippant, in the modern style, aboutinteresting things. Between them and the younger generation there wasthe great gulf digged by the unrelenting years, and set on fire by thewar. It was not flaring and exploding any longer, but lay there insmouldering impassable clinkers.

“High prices and high wages!” asserted Mrs. Alston. “That’s what isgoing to be the ruin of the country. I’ve said over and over again, ‘Whynot have an Act of Parliament to halve the price of food and coal andthat sort of thing, and another Act, unless you could get it into thesame one, to reduce wages by a half also?’ High prices, so everybodyallows, are the cause of high wages, and if miners and that sort ofperson could buy their food and their clothes at half the price they payfor them now, there would not be the slightest difficulty in reducingwages by a half, instead of multiplying them by two every time that theythreaten to strike. Coal! The root of all the trouble is the price ofcoal. Reduce the price of coal by half, and instantly the price oftransport and gas and electricity will go down in a corre{3}spondingmanner. Steel, too, and linen; it all depends on coal. The Englishsovereign has to-day hardly more than half the buying power it used tohave. Hardly more than half! Restore it, then, by reducing the price ofeverything else, including wages. Including wages, mind! Otherwise youwill find yourselves in a fine mess!”

She put the rest of her sandwich into her mouth, precisely as Mrs.Heaton had hoped and even foreseen. That made her mouth quite full, andfor the moment she was as dumb as the adder. Her hostess, alert for thispsychological occasion, gave a short, judicial and fulsome summing-up,addressed to the court in general.

“Well, dearest Mary,” she said. “You have made me understand it all now,a thing which I never did before. So well put, was it not, Mr. Steel,and I’m sure quite unanswerable. We must none of us attempt to arguewith dearest Mary, because she would show us at once how stupid it wasof us, and I, for one, hate to be made a fool of. What a goodexplanation! Quite brilliant! So now shall we get to our bridge? Iexpect we’re all going to the opera to-night, and so we shall all wantto dress early. Dear me, it’s after half-past five already! Will nobodyhave any more tea? Quite sure? Shall we cut, then? Oh, there are Nellieand Peter in the window. Wouldn’t you like to cut in, too, dear?”

“No, mother, we shouldn’t!” said Nellie.

The four others swooped to the bridge-table, with the swift sure flightof homing pigeons, and hastily cut their cards in order to give no timefor repentance on the part of the two others.

“You and I, Mr. Steel,” said Mrs. Heaton hastily. “Quite sure youwouldn’t like to play, Peter?{4}

“Quite,” said Peter gently. “I should hate it; thanks awfully.”

“Well, if you’re quite sure you won’t—my deal I think, partner. Shallit be pennies?”

Mr. Steel had a whimsical idea.

“Oughtn’t we to halve our points, too, Mary?” he said. “Like wages andcoal?”

For a moment he was sorry he had been so rashly humorous, for Mrs.Alston opened her mouth and drew in her breath as if to speak on apublic platform to the largest imaginable audience. Then, luckily, shefound something so remarkable in her hand that her fury for politicalelucidation was quenched, and she devoted the muscles of her athleticmind to considering what she would do if the dealer was so rash as tocall no trumps. Thereafter the great deeps, dimly peopled with enemiesready to pounce out of the subaqueous shadows and double you, completelysubmerged the four of them. They lit cigarettes as in a dream, andsmoked them in alternate hells and heavens.

Nellie looked at them once or twice, as an anæsthetist might look at hispatient to see whether he was quite unconscious. The third glance wasconvincing.

“It must be rather sweet to be middle-aged, Peter,” she said. “For thenext two hours they’ll think about nothing but aces and trumps!”

“Sign of youth,” said Peter.

“Why?”

“Because they’re absorbed, like children. When you were little, youcould only think about one thing at a time. It might be dentist or itmight be hoops. But you and I can’t think about anything for more thanfive minutes together, or care about anything{5} for more than two. Isuppose that when you’re old you recapture that sort of youthfulness.”

He paused a moment.

“Go on: tell me about it all,” he said.

Nellie did not reply at once, but began plaiting her fingers togetherwith the little finger on the top. They were slender and small like herface, which narrowed very rapidly from the ears downwards to a pointedchin. Loose yellow hair, the colour of honey, grew low over herforehead, and just below it, her eyebrows, noticeably darker than herhair, made high arches, giving her face an expression of irony andsurprise. Her forehead ran straight into the line of her nose, and ashort upper lip held her mouth in imperfect control, for it hinted andwondered, and was amused and contemptuous as its mood took it. Now ithalf-smiled; now it was half serious, but always it only hinted.

Peter apparently grew impatient of her silence and her finger plaiting.

“You’re making them look like bananas on a street-barrow,” he observed.

Nellie smoothed them out and gave an appreciative sigh.

“Oh, I bought two to-day,” she said, “and ate them in the street. I hadto throw the skins away, and then I was afraid that somebody would slipon them and break his leg.”

“So you picked them up again,” suggested Peter.

“No, I didn’t. I was only sorry for anybody who might slip on them. Icouldn’t tell who it was going to be, and probably I shouldn’t knowhim——”

“Get on,” he said.

“Oh, about Philip. Well, there it was. He asked me, you see, and—ofcourse, he’s rather old,{6} but he’s tremendously attractive. And it’s sosafe and pleasant, and I like being adored. After all, you and I havetalked it over often enough, and you knew just as well as I did that Iwas going to accept him if he wanted me.”

Nellie suddenly felt that she was justifying what she had done, and shedid not mean to do that. What she had done justified itself by its owninherent good sense. She changed her tone, and began counting on thoseslim fingers which just now had introduced the extraneous subject ofbananas.

“Peter, darling,” she said. “If his grandfather and an uncle and twochildren of the uncle die, there is no doubt whatever that I shall be apeeress. Won’t that be fun? I feel that Uncle Robert and the twochildren may easily die; they’re the sort of people who do die, but Idoubt whether grandpapa ever will. He’s like the man with the whitebeard; do I mean the Ancient Mariner or the Ancient of Days, who comesin Ezekiel?”

Peter Mainwaring rocked backwards in the window-seat with a suddenlittle explosion of laughter that made all the bridge players look up asif their heads were tied to the same tweaked string. Then they submergedagain.

“Not Ezekiel, anyhow,” he said. “It’s either Daniel or Coleridge. Iexpect Coleridge.”

“Yes, I mean Coleridge,” she said. “The man who stops the wedding guest;wedding guest was what suggested it. Grandpapa always wanted Philip tomarry one of those cousins of his, who look like tables with drawers inthem. Long legs and bumps on their faces like the handles of thedrawers. But Philip wouldn’t.”

Peter ran his fingers along the line of his jaw as if{7} to be sure thathe had shaved that morning. His face for a man of twenty-two wasridiculously smooth and hairless; it did not much matter whether he hadshaved or not.

“Naturally Philip wouldn’t,” he said, “but that’s got nothing to do withit. I don’t want to know why Philip didn’t do something, but why youdid. I want to see your point, to do you justice. At present I feelupset about it. You know quite well that there’s only one person youought to marry.”

“You?” asked Nellie, feeling that the question was quite unnecessary.

“How clever of you to guess. You are clever sometimes. Oh, I know we’vetalked it over enough and seen how impossible it was, but when it comesto your marrying someone else——”

He lit a match and blew it out again.

“I know,” he said. “You’ve got threepence a year, and I’ve got twopence,so that in the good old times we should have been able to buy one poundof sugar every Christmas. Even then we should have had nothing to eatwith it. But what you haven’t sufficiently reckoned with is the factthat by the time I am a hundred and fifty years old, I shall get apension of a hundred and fifty pounds from the Foreign Office. But it’srather a long time to wait.”

Nellie’s eyes suddenly grew fixed and rapt.

“Oh, Peter, one moment!” she whispered. “Look quickly at mamma’s face.When that holy expression comes on it, it always means that she isintending to declare no trumps. So when I’m playing against her, if it’smy turn first I always declare one no trumps, and then she has todeclare two. Wait one second, Peter.{8}

“No trumps,” said Mrs. Heaton.

“There, I told you so!” said Nellie. “Yes; it is rather long to wait,though I don’t mean to say that a hundred and fifty isn’t a verypleasant age, dear. The people in Genesis usually lived five hundredyears before they married, and begat sons and daughters. Anyhow, I shallbe a widow before you’re a hundred and fifty, and then we shall beengaged for three hundred and fifty years more, and then we shall totterto

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