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.