SNOW had fallen deeply. The city street looked as pure as a street in Heaven. Marble whiteness everywhere, arched by a dark blue sky out of which hung a great golden moon.
After the heat of the restaurant the sweet coldness of the still air was like a joyful caress. Finch and his companions lifted their faces to it, opened their mouths and drank it in. They sought to absorb it into every region of their beings. The soft pure snow beneath their feet was beautiful. They ran in it, ruffling it up. Lilly took off his hat that his head might cool, but Burns snatched it and jammed it on his head again. ‘No, no, you’ll take cold, my little Lilly. My pretty little Lilly,’ he admonished, rather thickly.
Lilly, his hat into his eyes, trudged along silently, much annoyed.
‘I know,’ went on Burns, ‘of a place where we could get a good hot supper. I’m starving, and seeing as how we got extra pay to-night I ’m willing to stand treat for the crowd. How about it now, eh? ’
There was almost instant agreement, and Burns remarked, ‘My stomach begins to think my throat is cut.’
His companions grunted. They thought it was far from taste in him, a butcher, to talk of cut throats.
It was a little ill-lighted dingy restaurant to which Burns led them, but the bacon and eggs were good, and after a whispered consultation the waiter brought them a jug of beer. The five were ravenous. They scarcely noticed the other people in the room until their plates were swept clean and cigarettes were lighted. George then leaned toward his friends, whispering, ‘For heaven’s sake keep your instruments out of sight. They ’ll be after us to play if they spot them.’
There were about two dozen people seated at the tables. It was clear that they were regarding the youths with speculation in their eyes. It was too late to hide the mandolins and banjo.
One of the men came over to them. He said, with an ingratiating grin, ‘Say, could n’t you fellows give us a tune or two? Some of the girlies are feeling lively and they’d give a good deal to shake a leg.’
‘What do you take us for?’ growled Lilly. ‘We’ve been playdng all night. Besides, there’s no piano.’
‘Yes, there is. Over behind the screen there. Just give us one little tune. The girlies’ll be awfully disappointed if you don’t.’ He wheezed unpleasantly behind Finch’s ear.
The ‘girlies’ themselves came, and added their importunities. Something from a bottle was poured into the empty beer glasses. Finch heard a strange buzzing in his head. The air in the room moved as though it were no longer air, but whispering waves. The electric lights were blurred into a milky haze. He was being led to the piano. He felt intolerably sad.
About him the others were tuning up. He heard George swearing at a broken string. He put his hands on the keyboard and blinked at it. It was a white marble terrace with little black figures of nuns in procession across it. He sat staring at them, stupefied, they were so perfect, so black, so sad. Burns said, hoarsely, ‘My Heart Stood Still.’
‘Awright,’ agreed Finch.
It was not he who was playing. It was only his hands, mechanisms which depended on him not at all. Over and over they played what they were told to play, firm, strong, banging out the accented notes. He could see George’s face, set like a white mask, and his small white hands plucking vigorously at the strings. The flute soared and wailed in a kind of dying scream; the mandolins chirped away as though they knew no tiring. Burns’s red butcher’s fists had always made Finch rather sick as they hovered over fhe strings. The mandolin always had seemed like some puny little animal he was about to slaughter.
They were in the street again. They were all yelling together. Some primitive instinct told them it was the time for yelling.
They did not know where they were going. Up one street and down another, and, coming upon the first street again, they traversed it for the second time without recognizing it. Each variation and eccentric curve was marked on the purity of the snow. Sometimes they were separated into two parties, two going in one direction and three in another. Then the far-away shouting of one group would startle into a panic the other, and they would run, calling each other by name, until they met again on some corner.
Three figures were seen approaching, a man and two women. The women were frightened, and the man himself nervous about passing this band of ruffians on the street. He clasped the arms of the women closely, set his face, and marched into their midst.
But there was nothing to fear. The five youths gazed wonderingly into the faces of what appeared to them a portentous apparition. They crowded close, but they said nothing until the three had passed. Then George called, ‘Bye-bye, ladies!’
And Finch cooed, ‘ Ta-ta, gennelman.'
Then a storm of bye-byes and ta-tas followed the retreating figures.
A window was thrown up in the large house opposite, and a man in his night clothes appeared in the opening.
‘If yon hoodlums don’t get off this street in double-quick time, I’ll call the police. Now, get a move on!’
The members of the orchestra looked at each other. Then they burst into jeers, whistles, and catcalls. The householder retreated. He was going to telephone for the police.
Almost at the moment of his disappearance a thick, helmcted figure appeared at the corner of the street. With terrified looks they snatched up their mandolins, banjo, and flute, silent participators in all this rowdyism, and fled along the street and down a lane.
Finch and George Fennel found themselves separated from the rest. They ran on for several blocks, and at last made sure that they were not pursued. They halted and looked at each other curiously as people who meet under strange circumstances for the first time.
‘Where do you live?’ asked Finch.
‘With aunt in ole house hi College Street.’
After a moment’s reflection, Finch observed, ‘I live in ole house, too. Name of Jalna.’
‘In-deed. Are you going there now? ’
‘I dunno. Where’d you say you live?’
‘I said ole house in College Street.’
‘Wanna go there?’
‘Absolutely. All the time.’
‘Tha’s nice. College Street, you say?’
‘Say, have you got anything against that street?’
‘No. I live in ole house named Jalna.’
‘Oh. . . . Well, goo’-bye.’
‘Goo’-bye. See you later.’
They parted, and Finch on the next street took a taxi and drove to the station. During the ride he kept his face pressed to the window, observing with drunken interest the streets through which they passed.
There was only a short wait until the early morning train left. The conductor on this train did not know Finch, but he had a fatherly eye on him, and awoke him from his heavy sleep before they reached the station at Weddels’ and saw him safely to the platform.
Out here in the open, the sunshine poured down in an unobstructed flood. The sun was climbing the clear blue sky, his springtime ardor unabashed by the snowfall of the night before.
Finch splashed through the melting slush, his face heavy and flushed, his hair plastered over his forehead.
He met Rags as he was about to enter the house. The servant observed, with his air of impudent solicitude, ‘If I was you, Mister Finch, I should n ’t gaow into the ’ouse lookin’ like that. I’d gaow round to the washroom and wash my fice. There’s no hobject in advertising to the family, sir, wot kind of a night you’ve spent.
He went in at the side door, and descended, with rather jerky movements, the short flight of steps leading to the basement. He was too dazed by the buzzing in his head to notice the sound of voices in the washroom, and even when he had opened the door he did not at once perceive that it was occupied. However, as he stood blinking in the warm, steamy atmosphere, he gradually made out the figures of his brothers. Piers was kneeling beside a large tin bathtub in which a spaniel drooped, wet and shivering, its face looking pathetically wan and meek with all the fluffy hair lathered down. Standing braced against the hand basin stood Renny, pipe in mouth, directing the operations, and perched on a stepladder was little Wakefield, eating a chocolate bar.
Finch hesitated, but it was too late to retreat — all three had seen him. He entered slowly and closed the door behind him. For a space no one paid any attention to him. Renny laid his pipe on the window sill, snatched up a bucket of clear water, and poured it over the dog, Piers slithering his hands up and down its body to rinse away the lather.
Renny turned suddenly and looked at Finch.
‘Well, I’ll be shot!’ he exclaimed.
Wakefield peered through the steamy air at him, and then, with a perfect imitation of the eldest Whiteoak’s tone, cried in his clear treble, ' Well, I ’ll be shot, too! ’
Finch’s eyes were on Renny’s hand, that hard, strong hand that moved with such machinelike swiftness and surety. He sprawled on the bench, filled with misery, anger, and self-loathing.
Wakefield remarked from his perch, ‘Usually I’m not on hand when there’s a row.’ No one heard him.
‘Now,’ said Renny, taking up his pipe again, ‘I want you to tell me where you were last night.’
‘In town,’ mumbled Finch, brokenly.
‘Where? You certainly were n’t at Mrs. St. John’s.’
‘I had dinner there.’
He wished that Renny’s eyes were not so fiercely, so mercilessly, questioning. It made it hard for him to think clearly, to put himself in a decent light if possible. If only Piers were n’t there, it would be easier to make a clean breast of it!
Piers was again rubbing Merlin, but he never took his bright blue eyes from Finch’s face, and lie never took the small sneering grin from his lips.
‘Well,’ Finch’s voice was still more broken, ‘there’s this orchestra I belong to. I’ve never told you about that. But there is no harm in it really.’
‘A harmless bird, this!’ interjected Piers.
‘An orchestra! What sort of orchestra ?
‘Oh, just a little one a few of us got up, so we could make a little money. A banjo, two mandolins, a flute; I — played the piano.
‘Who are these fellows?’
‘Oh — some fellows I know. Not at school. I — just got in with them.’ He must not implicate George. ‘ We practised after school.’
‘Where did you play?’
‘In restaurants. For dances.’
‘They must be a pretty lot. Who are they?’
‘You would n’t know if I told you. One of them is named Lilly, and another Burns, and another Meech.’
‘What I want to know,’ insisted Renny, ‘is who these boys are. Are they students?
‘No. They work. Lilly’s grandfather has a greenhouse. Sinden Meech is in some sort of tailoring establishment. Burns is in some kind of — abattoir.’
‘H’m. . . . And so you ’re in the habit of knocking about town all night drinking, eh?’
‘No, no,’ he mumbled, wringing his fingers together. ' This is the very first time. . . . We’d been playing for a dance. We got awfully tired. And they gave os something to buck us up. I guess it was pretty rotten stuff, and when we came out in the street we — could n’t find our way at first — and we separated and got together again and then I took the train for home.'
Renny rapped his pipe on the window sill and put it in his pocket. ‘You’re in no condition,’he said, looking Finch over with distaste, ‘to listen to a lecture now. Go to your bed and sleep this off. Then I’ll have something to say to you.'
‘If you were mine,’ said Piers, ‘I’d hold your head under that tap for fifteen minutes and see if that would wake you up.'
‘But I’m not yours!' Finch cried, hoarsely. ‘I’m not anybody’s! You talk as though I were a dog.'
‘I would n’t insult any dog by comparing him to you!'
Finch’s misery became too much for him. He burst into tears. He took out a soiled handkerchief and violently blew his nose.
Wakefield began to scramble down from his stepladder. ‘Let me out of here,’he said. ‘I’m getting upset.'
He hastened toward the door, but as he reached Piers’s side he espied a half sheet of crumpled paper lying on the floor. He bent and examined it.
‘What’s this, I wonder’5 he said.
‘Give it here,’said Piers.
Wakefield handed it to him, and Piers, smoothing it out, cast his eyes over it. His expression changed.
‘This evidently belongs to Finch,’he said, slowly. ‘He must have pulled it out of his pocket with his handkerchief.’ He looked steadily at Finch. ‘Now that you ’re making a clean breast of it, Finch, will you give me leave to read this aloud?'
‘Do what you darned please,’sobbed Finch.
Piers read, with distinctness: —
‘DEAREST FINCH, —
‘After you were gone last night, I was very much disturbed. You were preoccupied — not like your old self with me. Cannot you tell me what is wrong? It would be a terrible thing to me if the clarity of our relationship were clouded. Write to me, darling Finch.
‘ ARTHUR ’
Piers folded the paper, and returned it to the child. ‘Give this back to Finch,’he said. ‘He’ll not want to be separated from it.’ He turned then to Renny. ‘Did you take it in, Renny? His friend Arthur calls him “dearest” and “darling.” Could you have believed it possible that one of us should ever have got into such a disgusting mix-up? Is it any wonder he looks a wreck — alternately boozing with butchers and tailors and spooning with a rotter like Leigh?'
‘I thought you were a little fool,’said the eldest Whiteoak, ‘but now I’m disgusted with you. You’ve been deceiving me, and wasting time when you should have been studying. As for this neurotic atfair with Leigh — I tell you, I’m sick at heart for you.'
Finch could not defend himself. He felt annihilated. He held Arthur’s note in one shaking hand and in the other he gripped his handkerchief, but he did not hold it to his face. He left the misery of his face exposed to the eyes of his brothers. Sobs shook his lips. Tears ran down his cheeks unheeded.
Wakefield could not bear it. Slipping past Piers and Renny, he threw his arms about Finch’s neck.
‘Oh, don’t cry,’he implored. ‘Poor old Finch, don’t cry!'
Renny said, ‘This is very bad for you,’and took him under the arms and put him into the passage outside.
The little boy stood there motionless, his heart pounding heavily. He was oppressed by the strife among his elders. He had a feeling that something frightening was going to happen.
The door of the washroom opened. Renny and Piers, followed by Finch and the spaniel, came out. Renny picked up Wake and threw him across his shoulder. Upstairs he set him down in the hall and rumpled his hair. ‘Feel better?' he asked. Wake nodded, but he kept his eyes turned away from Finch. He could not bear to look at him. . . .
Three weeks later, Alayne Whiteoak sat alone in the living room of the apartment which she shared with Rosamund Trent. She had just finished reading a new book, and was about to write a review of it for one of the magazines. She wrote a good many reviews and short articles now, in addition to her work as reader for the publishing house of Parsons and Cory.
When she had first come back to New York, her reaction from the troubled ingrown life at Jalna was a desire to submerge her personality in the routine of work, to drown in the roar of the city remembrance of that strange household — love of Renny Whiteoak. And for a while it seemed that she had succeeded. Rosamund Trent had been almost pathetically glad to welcome her back to the apartment on Seventy-first Street. ‘You know, Alayne dear, I never hoped much from that marriage of yours. Not that your young poet was not an adorable creature, but still, scarcely the type that husbands are made of. It has been an experience for you, — I shouldn’t have minded a year of it, myself, — but now the thing is to put it behind you and look steadily forward.’ Her voice had had an exultant little crow in it as once more she took Alayne under her wing.
Mr. Cory felt badly that the marriage had been so unsuccessful. He still had a fatherly interest in Alayne, and it had been through him that the two had met. Eden’s two slim books of poetry were still in print, but the sale of them had dropped to almost nothing. No new manuscript had been submitted to the publisher by Eden, but once, in a magazine, he had come upon a short poem by him which was either childishly naïve or horribly and deliberately cynical. He had been uncertain whether or not to show it to Alayne. He had cut it out and saved it for her, but when next she came into the office, and he looked into her eyes, he decided against it. No, she had had enough suffering. Better not remind her of the cause of it.
To-night Alayne felt stifled by the air of the city. She went to the window, opened it wide, and sat on the sill, looking down into the street. The smell of oil, of city dust, dulled the freshness of the spring night. The myriad separate sounds, resolved into one final roar, sucked down human personality as quicksand human flesh and blood. Looking down into the city, a spectator might fancy he saw wild arms thrown upward in gestures of despair.
Alayne thought of Jalna. Of the April wind as it came singing through the ravine, stirring the limbs of the birches, the oaks, the poplars, to response. She remembered the smell that rose from the earth in which their roots were twined, and lovingly intertwined, a smell of quickening and decay, of the beginning and the end. She saw, in imagination, the great balsams that guarded the driveway and stood in dark clumps at the lawn’s edge, shutting in the house, making a brooding barrier between Jalna and the world. She saw Renny riding along the drive on his bony gray mare, drooping in the saddle, and somehow, in that indolent accustomed droop, giving an impression of extraordinary vigor and vitality. . . . He was no longer on his horse. He stood beside her. His piercing red-brown eyes searched her face. He moved nearer, and she saw his nostrils quiver, his mouth set. . . . God, she was in his arms! His lips were draining the strength from her, and yet strength like fire had leaped from his body to hers. . . .
She remembered his last passionate kiss of good-bye, and how she had clung to him and breathed, ‘Again,’ and his putting her away from him with a sharp gesture of renunciation. ‘No,’ he had said, through his teeth. ‘Not again.’ And he had moved away and taken his place among his brothers. Her last sight of him had been as he stood among them, taller than they, his hair shining redly in the firelight.
To-night she felt invisible cords, charged with desire, drawing her toward Jalna. She experienced a mystic ecstasy in the secret pull of them. She gave herself up to it, all her senses absorbed. She became unconscious of the strangely compounded street roar. She did not even hear, until it was twice repeated, the buzz of the bell of her own door.
When at last she heard it, she was startled. She had a feeling approaching apprehension as she went to the door and opened it. In the bright light of the hallway stood young Finch Whiteoak. Like a ghost created by her thoughts he stood, tall, hollow-cheeked, with a tremulous smile on his lips.
‘Finch!’ she exclaimed.
‘Hullo, Alayne!’ He got out the words with an effort. His face broke up into a smile that was perilously near the contortion of crying,
‘Finch, my dear, is it possible? You in New York! I can scarcely believe it is you. But you must tell me all about it.’
She drew him in, and took his hat and coat. It seemed so strange to see him away from Jalna, and she felt she might be laying eyes on him for the first time.
‘I ran away. I just couldn’t stand it. . . . I’ve been here three weeks.’
Alayne led him to a sofa and sat down beside him. ‘Oh, Finch! Poor dear. Tell me all about it.’ She laid her hand on his. Isolated thus, they were intimate as they had never been at Jalna.
He looked at her hand lying on his. He had always been moved by the whiteness of her hands.
‘Well, things seemed absolutely set against me — or me against them. Darned if I know which. Anyhow, I failed in my matric. I suppose you heard that. Aunt Augusta and you write sometimes to each other, don’t you? Well, Renny stopped my music lessons. I was n’t even allowed to touch the piano. And I guess that was all right, too, for I’d sort of gone dotty about music. I could n’t forget it for a minute. But I’m like that, you know. Once I get a thing on the brain, I’m done for.’ He sighed deeply.
Her hand which was lying on his clenched itself. She withdrew it and repeated, ‘He stopped your music.’ Between her and Finch rose a vision of Renny’s carved profile, its inflexibility denying the warmth of the full face. ‘Yes? And then what?’
‘Well, it seemed as though I’d got to have something besides plain work. A kind of ballast. I felt that I could n’t stick it unless there was something. So I went to play-acting. The Little Theatre, you know. I’d made a friend of a splendid chap named Arthur Leigh. He’s perhaps a bit girlish—well, no, not girlish, but overrefined for the taste of my brothers. Anyhow he liked me, and encouraged me a lot about my acting. He even got after Renny and persuaded him to come and see the play 1 was in. Well, it all turned out badly. I was taking the part of a half-witted Irish boy, and Renny thought it came too darned easy to me. I did it too well. He was fed up with me and my talents, he said.’
‘Is it possible that Renny could not appreciate the fact that you were doing a piece of good acting?’ How she loved to drag in that name, to caress it with her tongue, even while her heart was angry against him!
‘The trouble was,’ answered Finch, ‘that he hated seeing me in that part. I was in my bare feet, and dirty. I had n’t much on but an idiotic expression. Renny’s awfully conventional.’
‘But think of some of the men — horse dealers, and such — that he goes about with, seems to make friends of. That’s not conventional.’
‘If you said that to Renny, he’d say, “Yes, but I don’t get up on a stage with them and charge people admission to watch my antics.” Most of all, it was the halfwittedness of the part. He thinks I’m a bit that way already. ’ He pulled his lips again, and then went on more quickly, so that the tale of his misdeeds might be done with. ‘So there was no more play-acting. The next thing was an orchestra. George Fennel — you remember the boys at the rectory, Alayne — and myself and three other chaps got it up — a banjo, two mandolins, a flute, and the piano. All the practising was done on the sly. We played for club dances. You know the sort of club it would be. Cheap restaurants. But we made quite a lot of money — five dollars apiece, each night.’
Alayne looked at him with a mingling of admiration and amusement. ‘What amazing boys! Had you planned to do anything special with all this money?’
‘We bought quite a good radio. We had that at the rectory, of course. Then some of the money went toward hearing some good music — Paderewski, Kreisler. But I saved most of it. That’s how I got here, to New York. And then too we’d blow in quite a bit on grub. I’m always hungry, you know.’
There was a peculiar expression on his face, as he said this, that startled Alayne. A sudden break in his voice. She thought, ‘Is it possible the boy is hungry now?’ She said, ‘You’re like I am. I’m always getting hungry at odd times. Here it is, only halfpast eight, and I’m starving. But of course I did n’t eat much dinner. Supposing, Finch, that you tell me quickly how things came to a head, and then we can have the details over some supper.’
He agreed, in his odd, hesitating way, and then, in a muffled voice, told of the last performance of the orchestra, of his return to Jalna, of the scene in the washroom. ‘It was n’t only that I’d been lit, and was feeling dazed, — oh, absolutely awful, — but there was something else. I’d pulled my handkerchief out of my pocket, and with it a note from Arthur Leigh. There was nothing to that, but he’d called me “darling Finch,” and Kenny and Piers went right up in the air over it.’ His face twitched as he remembered the scene.
‘But why should they have been angry? It was harmless enough, surely.’
He flushed a dark red. ‘They did n’t think so. They thought it was beastly. Neurotic, and all that. Oh, you can’t understand. It was just the last straw.’ He clasped his hands between his knees, and Alayne saw that he was shaking. She got up quickly. She was afraid he was going to cry, and she could not bear that. Something in her would give way if he cried. She must hang on to herself. She said, almost coldly, ‘So it was then you decided to run away?’
‘Yes. I stayed in my room all day. Lay on the bed trying to think. Then, when night came, I sneaked out with a suitcase of clothes and got a late bus into town on the highway. In the morning I took the train for New York.’
‘And you’ve been here three weeks?’
‘Yes. I’ve never written home, either.’
‘What have you been doing. Finch?’
‘Trying to get a job.’ He raised a miserable young face to hers. ‘I thought it’d be easy to get one here, but I simply can’t round up anything. There seemed to be dozens ahead of me whenever I answered an advertisement. Gosh, it’s been awful!’
She looked down at him with compassion. ‘But why in the world did n’t you come to me before? It hurts me to think that you ’ve been walking the streets here looking for work, and have never come to see me.’
‘I did n’t want to come until I had got something, but to-night — I just gave in. . . . I — I was so frightfully homesick.’ He reached out , took her hand, and pressed it to his forehead. ‘Oh, Alayne, you’ve always been so good to me!’
She bent and kissed him; then she said, assuming a businesslike tone, ‘ Now we must have something to eat. There are cigarettes. You smoke while I forage in the pantry.’
In the glittering little pantry, with its air of trig unhomeliness, she discovered some potato salad bought at a delicatessen shop, a tin of vermicelli with tomato sauce, a lettuce, and some dill pickles. She and Rosamund took only their breakfast and lunch in the apartment.
Strange fare, she thought, as she arranged the things on the tea wagon, for a Whiteoak! She had made coffee, and now she remembered some jars of preserves given to her by the aunts who lived up the Hudson. She chose one of black currants in a rich syrup. Last, she added some slices of rye bread and some little chocolate-covered cakes.
Finch’s back was toward her as she entered the living room. His head was enveloped in tobacco smoke. He was examining her books. She noticed how loosely his coat hung on him. The boy looked halfstarved, she thought.
‘Poetry.’ he commented, picking up a book. . . . He looked up as she came in. Their eyes met, and he took a quick step toward her. ‘Alayne — have you ever — seen him — heard of him?’ His face grew scarlet.
‘Eden?’ She said the name with composure. ‘I’ve never seen him or heard from him, but Miss Trent, who shares the apartment with me, insists that she saw him one night last fall outside a theatre. Just a glimpse. She thought he looked ill. Your aunt told me in a letter that you had heard nothing.’
‘Not a thing. I’ve been afraid ever since I came here that I’d run up against him. He and I had an awful scene.’ Oh, Lord, why had he recalled that time to her? ‘I guess he hates me, all right.’
She had begun to set the supper things on a small table. He came to her and touched her arm timidly. ‘Forgive me, Alayne. I should n’t have spoken of him.’
She looked up with continued composure. ‘It does n’t upset me to speak of Eden. He is nothing to me now. I don’t believe I should feel greatly disturbed if I met him face to face. Now do sit down, Finch, and try to imagine that this food is not so sketchy. If only I had known you were coming . .
How hungry the hoy was! She talked incessantly to cover the fact, to give him a chance to eat without interruption. He swept the plates clean, and drank cup after cup of coffee. Over coffee and cigarettes he gave her news of each separate member of the family. Finally he told her in detail of the last performance of the orchestra, of the wild night in the streets afterward. He began to laugh. Finch’s laughter was infectious. Alayne laughed too, and as he imitated the maudlin outpourings of the different players they could no longer restrain themselves, and laughed till they were exhausted. Alayne had not given way to such primitive emotions since leaving Jalna, had had no impulse to do so.
Rosamund Trent, returning, discovered them thus abandoned to hilarity. She was astonished to find this lank youth sprawling in the Chinese-red leather armchair, a fair lock dangling over his forehead, making himself tremendously at home. She was still more astonished to find Alayne deeply flushed, weak with laughter.
Finch got to his feet, embarrassed by the arrival of the sophisticated-looking middleaged woman whose small green hat looked as though it had been moulded to her head.
‘Rosamund,’ said Alayne, ‘my brotherin-law, Finch Whiteoak.’
Miss Trent looked at him keenly, smiled humorously, and shook his hand heartily.
‘I’m glad you came,’ she declared. ’I don’t often find Alayne in such spirits.’
She took to Finch at once. When she heard that he was looking for a position, she was instantly ready to take him under her wing, to place him where he would have an excellent chance of advancement. She was in the advertising business.
‘The very thing for him!’ she exclaimed to Alayne, energetically snapping her cigarette lighter. ‘I’ll see about it first thing in the morning.’
But Alayne could not picture Finch in an advertising office. She had already made up her mind to see Mr. Cory about him. It required courage to oppose Rosamund when she had set her mind on taking someone under her wing, but Finch helped her by boldly saying that he felt a greater urge in himself toward publishing than toward advertising.
Before he left. Finch helped to carry out the supper things, and in the kitchen Alayne gave him some money — it was to be only a loan — and learned from him that he had been forced to pawn his heavy coat and his watch.
In a few days Finch was installed in a minor clerk’s position in the publishing house, and Rosamund Trent had had to satisfy her instinct for managing by finding him a more comfortable lodging.
It was only a week later that Alayne had a letter from Lady Buckley, written in a long, graceful hand, with frequent underlinings.
18th April, 1927
MY DEAR ALAYNE, —
I was so pleased to receive your last, and to hear that you are in good health and as good spirits as possible, under the circumstances.
We are in fair health, excepting my brother Ernest, who has been suffering from a cold. My brother Nicholas is troubled by the gout, as usual with him in the spring. I reiterate the word diet to him, but it has little effect. My mother is excessively well, considering her great age. Has come through the winter with no more serious ailments than occasional attacks of wind on the stomach, Renny is in good health, as always, but is limping about on a stick as the result of a severe kick on the knee from a vicious horse. Luckily the veterinary was in the stable at the time and administered first aid.
It is really at Renny’s instigation that I am writing to you about our trouble. He is greatly upset in his mind, as indeed we all are, excepting perhaps Mamma, who seems singularly callous about it all. I am sure that by now you are quite wrought up by curiosity, so I shall relieve it by coming to the point at once. Finch has disappeared.
Knowing what a closely knit, affectionate family we are, you can imagine our state of mind.
He has been gone four weeks and we are now thoroughly alarmed. Wakefield quite threw us into a state at the dinner table yesterday by suggesting that perhaps Finch has been murdered. What a dreadful word that is! I doubt if I have ever written any so low word in my correspondence hitherto.
Renny has had a private detective on the search for Finch, and has traced him to New York. He now declares that, unless he is found inside of the week, he will publicly advertise for him. This would be very humiliating for us, as we have given out that he is away on a visit for his health. As a matter of fact, it was none too good. I think the poor boy worried a great deal over being denied access to a pianoforte, and I firmly believe this was at the root of the disaster.
You are so sympathetic, dear Alayne. You understand, as no outsider could, our extreme devotion as a family, in spite of little surface flurries. I trust you will be able to send us some word of Finch. Remembering how fond he was of you, we think it quite probable that he has sought you out. Pray heaven we shall not have to go through the agony of publicly advertising for him. Renny has already gone to the length of writing a complete description of him, and it sounded so unattractive when read aloud.
Hoping to hear good news from you,
In urgent haste,
P. S. Wakefield sends his love. His heart has been very troublesome. The Canadian winter inevitably pulls him down, as it does me. A. B.
Alayne wrote by return post: —
DEAR LADY BUCKLEY, —
It is as you have guessed. Finch has been to see me. He is quite well, and has a position in which he has a good chance of advancement. If I were you (and by you, I mean the entire family) I should not interfere with him, or try to get in touch with him. For the present, at any rate. Finch has been through an unhappy time, and I think he should be left quite to himself for the present.
I will see him regularly, and send you a report of him frequently, but you may tell Renny that I absolutely refuse to send his address.
I am glad you got through the winter as well as you did, and I am sorry to hear of the various disabilities, especially that Wake’s heart has been troubling him. Please tell him that I often, often think of him, and wish I could see him.
I really do not think you need to worry about Finch.
Rags carried in the mail and laid it before Renny, who was sitting on one side of the fireplace, his injured leg propped on an ottoman, the top of which was worked in a design in green and silver beads, portraying an angel carrying a sheaf of lilies. On the opposite side of the fireplace sat Nicholas, his gouty leg supported by an ottoman of exactly similar pattern, a glass of whiskey and soda at his elbow. He was chuckling deeply over a month-old copy of Punch. At a small table sat Ernest, stringing afresh a necklet of enormous amber beads for his mother. His long face drooped above the task in hand with an expression of serene absorption. Old Mrs. Whiteoak, leaning forward in her chair, watched every movement of his fingers, gratifying from the glow of the amber in the firelight her love of color, as a heavy old bee might extract sweetness from a flower. Her gusty breathing and the occasional chuckle from Nicholas were the only sounds as Renny read his letters, and they served but to emphasize the seclusion of the room, the sense of an excluding wall against the rest of the world that a group of Whiteoaks always achieved.
None of his elders inquired for letters of Renny. Not one of the three received more than one or two in the whole year, and then it was, as likely as not, an advertisement.
Wakefield came into the room. ‘Aunt Augusta wants to know,’ he said in his clear treble, ‘if there are any letters for her.’
‘Two from England.’ Renny gave them to him.
‘How nice for her!’ said Wakefield, looking over his shoulder. ‘Why, there’s another, Renny, with an American stamp. It’s addressed to Lady Buckley, isn’t it?’
‘Take her what I gave you,’ said his brother curtly, and Wakefield trotted off to tell Augusta that Renny was holding back some of her mail.
When time enough had passed for her to read the two letters from England, she appeared in the doorway.
‘Are you sure you have not overlooked one of my letters, Renny?’ she asked. ‘I was expecting another.’
He patted the seat of the sofa beside him. ‘Come and read it here,’ he said.
Lady Buckley looked annoyed, but she came and placed herself beside him, very upright, with eyebrows almost touching her Queen Alexandra fringe.
‘I’ll open it for you,’ he said, and carefully slit the envelope, taking time with the business, as though he liked to touch this particular letter. She divined whom the letter was from.
She perched her eyeglasses on her nose and took the letter with an impassive face, but she had barely read a line when she exclaimed on a deep note, ‘Thank heaven, he is safe!’
Renny hitched his body nearer to her and peered at the letter. ‘Well, I ’ll be shot! ’ he muttered.
‘Read,’ she commanded, in a whisper, and they perused the letter together.
When they reached the line, ‘You may tell Renny that I absolutely refuse to send his address,’ she pointed to it with a dramatic forefinger, and Renny’s teeth showed in a smile that was an odd mingling of chagrin and gratification.
Wakefield, behind the sofa, intruded his head between theirs and asked, ‘Is it about Finch? Has anything happened to Finch?’
Hearing the name, Ernest looked up quickly from his beads. ‘Is anything wrong? Any bad news of the boy?’
‘He is found,’ announced Augusta. ‘He is in New York. He is well.’
‘The young devil,’ observed Nicholas, laying down his Punch. ‘He ought to be brought home and given a sound hiding!’
For once the gentle Ernest agreed. ‘He ought indeed. I’ve worried myself ill over that boy.’
‘Who is the letter from?’ asked Nicholas.
‘Alayne. Keep still and I will read it to you.’ Impressively she read the letter aloud.
‘ I ’m the only one she sent a message to,’ cried Wakefield, ‘excepting Renny, and his is n’t a nice one. She says she won’t tell him where Finch is, does n’t she?’
‘Hush,’ said Augusta. ‘We don’t wish to hear any of your chatter at a moment like this.’
Renny said, ‘To think of his having the guts to go to New York alone! He must have saved all the money he made from that fool orchestra.’
‘The question is,’ said his aunt, ‘what is to be done? It is shocking to think of Finch exposed to the temptations of that terrible city.’
‘He must be brought back at once!’ exclaimed Ernest, dropping a bead in his agitation.
So long as he had been faithful to his task, handling the honey-colored spheres with delicacy and precision, old Mrs. Whiteoak had chosen to pay no heed to the conversation, but now she raised her massive head in its beribboned cap and threw a piercing glance into the faces about her.
‘What’s the to-do?’ she demanded.
They looked at each other. Had they better tell her?
The look did not escape her. She rapped with her stick on the floor. ’Ha! What’s this? What’s the to-do? I will not be kept out of things.’
‘Easy on, Mamma,’ said Nicholas, soothingly. ‘It’s nothing but young Finch. We’ve found out where he is.’
A feeling of breathlessness came over the room, as always happened when a piece of news had just been broken to her. How would she take it? Would there be a scene? Every eye was fixed on that hard-bitten, smouldering old face.
‘Finch, ch? You’ve found out where Finch is!’
‘He’s in New York,’ went on Nicholas. ‘We have had a letter from Alayne. She’s seen him,’
‘Ha! What’s he doing there?’
‘He seems to have some sort of job. I fancy Alayne got it for him.’
‘Oh, did she? I had always thought she was well connected.’ She dropped her chin to her breast. Was she thinking deeply, or had she fallen into one of her dozes?
Suddenly she raised her head and said, emphatically, ‘I want him. I want to see Finch.’
Renny observed, ‘I think it would he a damned good idea to leave him there for a while. He’ll soon get sick of it. Teach him a lesson.’
Grandmother arched her neck and turned her beaklike nose toward him. ‘You do, eh? You would, eh? And you his guardian! Always ready to cross my will! Unnatural grandson! Unnatural brother!’ Purplish red suffused her face.
‘Nonsense,’ said Renny. ‘I m nothing of the sort.’
‘You are! You are! You like nothing so well as to cross people. You’d like to be a tyrant like my father. Old Renny Court. Red Renny, they used to call him in Ireland. He cowed all his eleven children but me. Me he could n’t cow.’ She shook her head triumphantly, then was transported by rage. ‘To think that I should bring another like him into the world!’
‘Thanks for nothing!’ retorted the master of Jalna. ‘You didn’t bring me into the world.’
‘Did n’t bring you into the world! ’ she cried. ‘You dare contradict me? If I did n’t bring you into the world, I should like to know who did! ’
‘You forget,’ he returned, ‘that you are my father’s mother, not mine.’
‘Well, I should like to know who you’d have been without your father! An English gentleman, and your mother only a poor flibbertigibbet governess.’
His face was nearly as red as hers. ‘Now you ’re confusing me with his second family. My mother was Dr. Ramsay’s daughter. Surely you don’t forget how you hated her.’
Nicholas broke in, rumblingly, ‘Stop baiting her, Renny! I won’t have it. Look at the color of her face, and remember that she’s over a hundred.’
His mother turned on him. ‘Look at the color of your own face! You’re only envious that you have n’t our hot blood. What we want is to have our quarrel out in peace.’
‘I wonder,’ observed Wakefield, ‘if Finch will get into the crime wave they ’re having in that country. Rags was telling me about it.’
‘The child has touched the keynote of the matter,’ said Augusta. ‘Finch will be sure to come under some bad influence if he is left in New York. How could Alayne watch over him? What can she know of the temptations that befall a young man?’
‘He must be fetched,’ said Grandmother, ‘and that at once. Ernest shall go for him.’
If Ernest had been told that he was to join an Arctic exploring party, he could not have looked more surprised. ‘But, Mamma,’ he said, ‘why me?’
‘Because,’ she responded, vigorously, ‘Nick cannot travel on account of his leg. Renny cannot travel on account of his knee. Piers is too busy; besides, he’s never been there. Eden — what’s become of Eden?’
‘He’s away, Mamma.’
‘Hmph. I don’t like this going away. I want the young folk about me. You had better fetch him, too. You ’re the one to go.'
‘I quite agree with Mamma,’ said Augusta.
Mother and daughter looked at each other, amazed to find themselves in accord.
After the first consternation had worn off, Ernest was thrilled through all his being by the adventure of going to New York. He had always intended to visit it again. But he had procrastinated, because of lack of money and indolence, till the intention had become more and more shadowy, and would have melted into the shadow of other unfulfilled intentions had not the family forced him to action.
Two days later he was eating his dinner in the train. He felt extraordinarily pleased with himself as he bent his head above the menu under the deferential black gaze of the waiter, and felt beneath him the deep, purposeful throbbing of the wheels. He even enjoyed the unaccustomed ice water.
His heart was thudding uncomfortably as they neared the Grand Central Station. His knees trembled as he stood while the porter brushed his clothes. Now came terrible suspense as the man disappeared with his bag, a good English bag that he had bought himself at Drew’s in Regent Street. Then relief at the capture of the bag on the platform. And scarcely had relief raised its head, like a too early spring flower, before it was frozen into dismay by the sight of a ‘redcap’ darting into the throng, the bag clutched in his hand.
By the time the bag was recaptured, Ernest’s head was wet with sweat. He sank on to the seat of a taxi, and, taking off his hat, mopped his brow, gazing meanwhile anxiously through the window into the unbelievably crowded streetHe had directed the driver to take him to the Brevoort, because it was there that he had stayed during his last trip to New York twenty years ago.
Alayne’s amazement on seeing Finch at her door was a mild emotion compared with that which she experienced when it opened upon Ernest. She would scarcely have been more taken aback had one of the tall old trees of Jalna drawn up its roots and journeyed to visit her. She suffered him to shake her hand, to imprint a kiss on her cheek. She put him into the Chinese-red chair, and even then she could not believe in his reality,
‘But, my dear child,’ said Ernest, ‘how good it is to see you!’
‘Yes, indeed,’ said Alayne, sitting down near him and trying to make her voice natural, ‘it is delightful to see you, too,’
‘You’re looking pale, dear Alayne.’
‘Ah, well, you know what winter in the city is. I’ve been tired to death sometimes.’
She realized, now that the shock of surprise was passing, why he had come. He had come to take Finch home, and, if possible, she would prevent it.
She turned a look of defense on him. ‘I suppose you’ve come to see Finch,’ she said.
Ernest was embarrassed. He wished she had not come so directly to the point. He would have liked to have a little pleasant conversation, and then have led up delicately to the object of his visit.
‘Well, my dear Alayne, I suppose I shall see Finch, now that I’m here, but it really gives me a much deeper pleasure to see you.’
‘You’re not really going to insist on the poor boy going back with you, surely!’
‘No, no, no. But I want to talk to him, to find out how he is living — in short, to satisfy the family about him. It’s really dreadful, you know, for a mere boy of his inexperience to be turned loose in New York.’
‘He’s working! And he’s treated with more consideration than he was at home. I hope you don’t mind my saying that. You know yourself that Finch was not always treated fairly.’
Ernest remained invincibly placid. ‘My dear girl, I don’t believe you understand us. Our family circle is very closely knit.’
‘I do understand! It’s so closely knit that you won’t let one of your number escape. You want to reach out and drag him back again. I know I’m being awfully rude, but I cannot help it. It is the way I’ve always felt about your family.’
‘We did n’t reach out after Eden.’
‘You knew it was no use. You could n’t control Eden. And you had no inkling as to where he was.’
Ernest regarded her with curiosity. ‘Do you mind if I ask you something?’
‘What is it?’
‘Have you seen Eden since you came back?’
‘No, I have not. I suppose I shall never see him again. I don’t want to.’
‘I’m very sure you don’t. You suffered too much because of him.’ Ernest was relieved that he had successfully switched the conversation into a more sympathetic channel. He laid his long white hand on hers and gently pressed it. She experienced a sudden warmth and sense of security in being treated with affection by a much older person. It was nice, and he was nice —she had forgotten how nice, how kind. She had forgotten, too, how distinguished his appearance. Really, he was a dear, and she must not be too hard on him.
He exclaimed in admiration at the compactness, the charm of the apartment. She led him about, showing him all the trig electrical devices. They delighted him. He had never seen anything like them. He must press the electric buttons and observe all the resulting phenomena. Ernest said that he wondered how she had ever endured the discomforts of Jalna.
Returning, arm in arm, to the living room, the subject of Finch was reopened, with more restraint on the part of Alayne and even greater amiability on the part of Ernest. She gave him particulars about Finch’s work, his chances of advancement.
Ernest listened with sympathy.
‘But where,’ he asked, ‘does his chance of continuing the study of music come in?’
‘I ’m afraid it does n’t come in at all,’ she replied sadly, ‘but then, neither does it apparently at Jalna.’
‘Oh, I think Renny may relent on that score.’
‘Tell me, Uncle Ernest,’ she demanded, looking him in the eyes, ‘was it Renny who urged you to come to see I’ inch or was it to please your mother? I know she hates the thought of any of the boys leaving home.
He was pleased at being Uncled by Alayne.
‘My dear child,’ he said, ‘I did not need any urging. I wanted to see the boy, and I thought what an opportunity for seeing you. You know, I had grown very fond of you.’
‘And I of you! You see, I had no — no —’
‘No nice old uncles,’ he continued for her, ‘Of course not. Nice old aunts are one thing, but nice old uncles are quite another. Their position is unique. . . . Now, as to Lenny. If you had heard him talking to me just before I left, you would have realized how keen he is to have Finch back.’
‘When I lived at Jalna,’ she said, thoughtfully, ‘I used to think that very often in those family conclaves of yours Renny was urged’ — she longed to say ‘harried’ — ‘into taking a stand that — ’
‘No, no, no! Rennv is a man of quick decisions. He knows what he wants and goes for it.’
‘Yes, I know,’ she agreed, in a low tone.
‘When we hold those conclaves, as you call them, Renny usually has his own opinion from the beginning, but it is only after the matter has been thrashed out by the family that he gives voice to his decision, and because his decision often coincides with the conclusion the family has reached — ’
‘Does the family ever reach a unanimous decision?’
‘If you could have heard how fully agreed we were that Finch must come home —’
‘Oh, that I can understand! I wish I had not told you where he is working.’
‘My dear, I shall not try to force Finch in the very least. You shall be present, if you will, when we meet; then you’ll see that I only want an affectionate talk with him.’
‘But what are you going to do, then? Bribe him to go home with the promise of music lessons? Has Lenny descended to bribing the boys?’
Ernest answered impressively, ‘Lennv had no intention of stopping Finch from playing the piano except till his examinations should be over. Once he has written on them, Lenny intends, and has intended all along, that Finch shall begin taking lessons again. He may spend the whole summer making music if he likes.’
‘Hmph,’ muttered Alayne, grudgingly. She wished she could have felt more enthusiastic over the family’s plans for Finch.
Nevertheless, Ernest was a dear. She loved to see him sitting in her most comfortable chair making attractive but rather vague gestures with his graceful hands. She was proud of him when Losamund Trent came in and discovered them. She had the feeling that when she had talked of Eden s uncles Losamund had pictured two rather frowsty old men, quaint relics of a bygone day. Now she saw that Losamund found Ernest charming. She was impressed by the pleasant modulations in his voice. These he had acquired at Oxford, along with the notion that, while it might be well for some to slave, it was not well for Ernest White oak.
Ernest invited the two to luncheon with him. As he walked along Fifth Avenue with them beside him, there was spring in his step and in his blood. Alayne had a look of breeding; he admired that in a woman above all things. Rosamund looked essentially a woman of the world; and he hankered for the world. Again and again he washed old Nicholas could see him. As a gesture of complete abandon, he ordered lobster. His guests ordered it, too, but without any air of recklessness. With the three bright red mounds before them, he could not help but talk of meals in Victorian London. He told of sitting at a table near Oscar Wilde, and of having seen Lily Langtry in her prime. He recalled how Nicholas had rowed for Oxford.
After luncheon they returned to the apartment and arranged when he was to see Finch. Alayne suggested that they meet in the evening, go out to dinner together, and then to the theatre. Ernest desired that Finch should not be told of his arrival. It would be a pleasant surprise for the boy to find his uncle awaiting him. ' Because, you know, dear Alayne, I’m not going to scold or threaten him. Nothing at all of that sort.’
‘I should say not,’ said Alayne, truculently.
But she would not agree to Finch’s meeting Ernest without preparation. She telephoned him, asking him to come to see her that evening, and announced the arrival from Jalna. She delivered Ernest’s reassuring message.
Nevertheless Finch was shaking when he came into the room. He did not know just what he feared. His uncle could not force him to go home. At his back he had the strength of Alayne’s staunch loyalty. That day he had actually had a word of praise in the office.
‘Upon my honor,’ exclaimed Ernest, putting his hand on the boy’s shoulder, ‘you’re taller than ever, old fellow! And thin! He’s really thinner, Alayne, though I should n’t have thought it possible. And how are you getting on?’
Finch braced himself with as much manliness as he could muster, and replied, ‘Oh, fine, thanks. That is — all right, I think.’
‘I’m glad of that. They’ll be so glad to hear at home.’
Finch was embarrassed. ‘Were they worrying?’ he mumbled.
‘Indeed they were. We were all of us greatly worried. But no need to talk; I can tell them now that you are well and safe.’ No word of his going back. Finch breathed easier, and yet there was a queer ache at his heart. The truth was, in the past few days he had been suffering acutely from homesickness. Under the delicate May sky, the dusty never-resting traffic of the city had made him feel as he had never before felt in springtime — heavy, tired, stifled, trapped. His feet dragged, longing for the springing grass. Each night he dreamed of Jalna, and waked half expecting to find himself in his room under the eaves. More and more he remembered all that had been beautiful and kindly and pleasant in his home.
Alayne had intended that they should go to a play, but Ernest suggested grand opera because Finch was so fond of music. She had acquiesced, and Rosamund Trent had been able to arrange about the tickets. While they were at dinner, Alayne had suddenly seen Ernest’s sweet thoughtfulness in a new light. She remembered having heard him say that above all things he disliked grand opera. ‘He is a sly old man,’ she thought. ‘He intends to work on Finch’s feelings through his love of music.’
The opera was Aïda. Finch had never heard it before. Tears of happiness filled his eyes; his heart was heavy with the sweetness of music. Yet it was not the music of the orchestra or the singers that moved him. It was the music of the old square piano at home. It was Beethoven’s Opus X, which in imagination he was playing. The keys, alive, eager, rose to meet his fingers. With one part of his brain he heard the music of Aida. With another he followed himself through the intricacies of the movement.
Every now and again Ernest slid a speculative look toward him. He wondered whether the boy were happy or unhappy, whether he should have difficulty in persuading him to come home. The thought of leaving Finch in New York was intolerable to him. The thought of Jalna without Finch seemed insupportable. Not that he had ever found him but a commonplace, rather irritating boy. But he was a Whiteoak, one of themselves. Eden’s defection had been the first break. If Finch left home, it would seem that disintegration of the family had set in. Besides, there was Mamma. It was bad for her to be worried.
He felt suddenly rather tired. It had been an exciting day for him, full of unusual activities. He felt weighted by his responsibility. Would the opera never end? He stifled a yawn.
But as the crowd surged out, and he felt the cool night air on his face, he revived. It was like a return to his prime to find himself steering an evening-cloaked female through a crowd. Really, he must make a trip to New York every now and again after this.
They had a little supper in the apartment. Delicate food, Pall Mall cigarettes, bought specially for him; gay conversation, for Ernest found it easy to shine before this audience, so uncritical, so, if he could have known, tolerantly amused by him; with, added to the tolerance and amusement, a sentimental desire to look through his mind back into the strange glamour of another day. He sighed as he said good-night. He was not a bit tired now, and he hated to think how soon this charming interlude would be over.
It was not till he and Finch were back in his hotel bedroom that there returned to him with force the consciousness of his mission. He had arranged that the boy should spend the night with him, and had got a room for him next to his own. He shrank from the thought of a clash of wills at that late hour. He wished he could simply pack Finch into his portmanteau the next day, with his clothes, and carry him back to Jalna. It was such a nuisance having to be politic with him, tactful and understanding. It was really a pest the way boys grew up.
There was a distinct air of embarrassment between them when they found themselves alone in the hotel bedroom together. It was abominably stuffy, and Ernest went to the window and threw it up.
He went into the bathroom to wash his hands. Finch had dropped into a chair by the table, looking very young and wan under the hard electric light. He had picked up the shiny black Bible belonging to the hotel and was looking at it with a queer smile. An uncomfortable boy, Ernest thought. He lathered his hands, and examined his face in the mirror above the basin. He was looking very well.
On returning to the bedroom he said, ’I hate very much to go back to Jalna without you, Finch. Everyone at home will be disappointed.’
‘I can’t see them disappointed because I don’t go back.’
‘But they will be. You don’t understand. You’re one of us, are n’t you?’
‘The odd one.’
‘Nonsense. We’re all more or less oddities, I fancy. And we’re proud of you, though you may not think so.’
Finch grunted sarcastically. ‘You should have heard Renny and Piers telling me how proud they were of me!’
‘Come, come, don’t take things so hard. Piers has a rough tongue — he does n’t always mean it; and, if he docs, he’s not the important one. It’s Renny who matters.’
‘Renny thinks I’m an ass.’
Ernest sat down beside him. He put all the persuasiveness, all the eloquence of which he was capable, into his voice. ‘Renny loves you. He wants you to come home like a good boy, without any further trouble. He is willing, after you’ve tried your examinations, to let you take music lessons again — to play as much as you want to. All you have to do is to try your exams.’
‘What if I fail?’
‘You won’t fail. You’ll pass. You did not fail badly last time. You’re sure to pass.’
‘And if I do — what then?’
‘You have all your life before you. You’ll make something fine of it.’
‘I don’t see myself,’ said Finch wearily.
‘Finch, you had a very clever and very lovely mother. She would have wanted you to develop your talent — to be a credit to us.’
‘Good Lord!’ exclaimed the boy. ‘This sort of talk is new to me! My talents — my mother —’
‘But, my dear child,’ cried Ernest in exasperation, for his head was beginning to ache, ‘families will make remarks. You don’t expect —’
‘Gran often makes sneering remarks about her — my mother. I hear her, though I’ve pretended not.’
‘Your grandmother is a hundred and one. Your mother has been dead eleven years. What have their relations to do with the question in hand? . . . Really, you are wearing me out! The point is this.’ Ernest made a supreme effort. ‘What is there for you in New York? Crowds, crowds, crowds. Struggle, struggle. You, a Whiteoak, struggling in a foreign mob! Uncongenial work. Homesickness. You know you’re horribly homesick, Finch. I’ve been watching you. You ’re homesick.’
‘Don’t!’ cried the boy in anguish, putting his head on the table. ‘I can’t bear it! Oh, Uncle Ernest, do you really think I’d better go back?’
(To be continued)
- A brief synopsis of the preceding chapters of the novel will be found in the Contributors’ Column. — EDITOR↩