LADY BRENT

The explanation came after a description of luncheon in the great hall,
which had greatly impressed the writer, with its high timbered roof,
oriel window, and carved gallery. Mr. Wilbraham, the tutor, had been
added to the company, and was presented as a middle-aged figure, with a
somewhat discontented expression of face, but a gift of ready speech
which made the meal lively and interesting. He and the two ladies
seemed to be on the most excellent terms, and the way in which Lady
Brent deferred to the tutor, not treating him in the least as a
dependent, but as a valued member of the family circle, had struck the
Vicar-elect of Royd most agreeably. “This is a woman,” he wrote, “with
brains above the ordinary, who takes pleasure in exercising them. Though
living a retired life, far from the centres of human intercourse, she
takes a lively interest in what is going on in the world. Politics were
discussed over the luncheon-table, and I found her views coincided
remarkably with my own, and together we gave, I think, a very good
account of ourselves in argument with Wilbraham, who professes to be
something of a Radical, though I noticed that he ate a very good lunch,
and is evidently not averse to sharing in the good things of the class
he affects to deride. It was all, however, very good-humoured, and when
the talk veered round to books, I found that these good people knew
really more about the latest publications than I did myself. Wilbraham
is a great reader. He acts as librarian, as well as tutor to Harry, and
seems to have _carte blanche_ to order anything down from London that he
likes. I imagine that he recommends books to Lady Brent, and she reads
a great deal too—not only fiction, but biographies, books of travel, and
even stiff works on such subjects as Philosophy.

“Of course I kept very quiet about my own humble productions, as I have
never professed to be a scholar, and aim rather at touching the
universal human mind, with stories that shall entertain but never
degrade, and should not expect to be considered very highly, or perhaps
even have been heard of by people of this calibre, though there are many
of equal intelligence among my readers. I must confess, however, that I
was gratified when Mrs. Brent, who had not taken much part in the
conversation, said: ’I have read all your books, Mr. Grant, and think
they are lovely. So touching!’

“This is the sort of compliment that I value. It is to the _simple_
mind that I make my appeal, and Mrs. Brent is quite evidently of a lower
class of intelligence than those about her. I think I detected some
deprecation in the glance that she threw at her mother-in-law
immediately after she had expressed herself with this simple, and
evidently _felt_ enthusiasm. Perhaps her opinions on literary subjects
are not considered very highly, but Lady Brent would be far too
well-bred and courteous to snub her. She said at once, very kindly:
’The Bishop told us that you were a novelist, Mr. Grant. Mr. Wilbraham
was about to send for your books, but we found that my daughter-in-law
had them already. I have not had time more than to dip into one of them,
but I promise myself much pleasure from them when I have a little more
time.’ Wilbraham saved me from the necessity of finding an answer by
breaking in at once: ’I don’t intend to read a single one of them,
either now or hereafter. Let that be plainly understood.’ Everybody
laughed at this, and it was said in such a way that I felt no offence.
This man is evidently something of a character, and I should say had
made himself felt in this household of women. The boy likes him too. I
could see that by the way they addressed one another. They are more like
friends than master and pupil.

“Well, I felt that I had sized up Lady Brent, Wilbraham and young Harry
pretty well by the end of the meal, and the conversation that went with
it. I have a knack of doing so with people I meet, and find that upon
closer acquaintance I have seldom been wrong in my first impressions.
Mrs. Brent puzzled me a little more. Was she entirely happy? I thought
not, though there was nothing very definite to go upon. If not, it
could not be the fault of any of the three other members of the
household. She evidently adores her boy, for her face lights up
whenever she looks at him, and he treats her with an affection and
consideration that are very pleasant to see. Lady Brent treats her in
much the same way, and is evidently a woman of much kindness of heart,
for Mrs. Brent, as I have already said, is not up to her level, and
living in constant companionship with her might be expected to grate a
little on the nerves of a lady of her sort. Wilbraham would not be
likely to hide any contempt that he might feel for some one of less
intelligence than himself. He might not show it openly to the mother of
his pupil, but I should certainly have noticed it if it had been there.
But he behaved beautifully to her, and smiled when he spoke to her as if
he really liked her, and found pleasure in anything that she said. And
she seemed grateful, and smiled at him in return. They are in fact a
very happy little party, these curiously assorted people who live so
much to themselves. And yet, as I said above, the one member of it did
not strike me as being entirely happy, and I could not help wondering
why.

“Wilbraham enlightened me, as we smoked together after lunch, walking up
and down a broad garden path under the April sunshine. ’What do you
think of Mrs. Brent?’ he asked me, with a side-long whimsical glance
that is very characteristic of the man.

“I was a little put out by the suddenness of the question, but took
advantage of it to be equally direct and to ask my question. ’Is there
anything to make her unhappy?’

“He laughed at that. ’I see you have your eyes open,’ he said. ’I
suppose it’s the novelist’s trick. Any questions to ask about the rest
of us?’

“’You haven’t answered my first one yet,’ I replied, and he laughed
again, and said: ’Did you ever hear of Lottie Lansdowne?’

“The name seemed vaguely familiar to me, but he said, without waiting
for my reply: ’I don’t suppose you ever did, but if I were you I should
tell Mrs. Brent on the first opportunity that when you were young and
going the round of the theatres that was the one name in the bill you
never could resist.’

“’I suppose you mean that Mrs. Brent was once on the stage and that was
her name,’ I said. ’But I don’t remember her all the same.’

“’No, I don’t suppose you would,’ he said again. ’As a matter of fact
the poor little thing never got beyond the smallest parts, and I doubt
if she ever would have done. But Brent fell in love with her, and
married her, and since then she has never had a chance of trying. That’s
what’s the matter with her, and I’m afraid it can’t be helped. She’s
pretty, isn’t she?’

“’Yes,’ I said, as he seemed to expect it of me, but she hadn’t struck
me as being particularly pretty, though she might have been as a young
girl. ’You mean that she doesn’t like the quiet life down here?’

“’Yes, that’s what I mean,’ he said. ’I’m sorry for the poor little
soul. She’s like a child. Vain, I dare say, but not an ounce of harm
in her. I’m telling you this because you’d be bound to find it out for
yourself in any case. She’ll probably tell you about her early triumphs
herself when you know her better. The thing to do is to keep her
pleased with herself as much as possible. There’s not much to amuse her
here. We never see anybody. It suits me all right, and her ladyship;
and Harry is happy enough at present, with what he finds to do outside,
and what he has to do in. But she’s different. There’s nothing much
for her. She reads a lot of trashy novels——’ Here he broke off
suddenly and roared with laughter, twisting his body about, and behaving
in a curious uncontrolled manner till he’d had his laugh out. Then he
said: ’I’m not going to hide from you that I _have_ tried to read one of
yours, and my opinion is that it’s slush, but quite harmless slush,
which perhaps makes it worse. However, _she_ likes them; so I dare say
you’ll find something in common with her, and it will be all to the good
your coming here. That’s why I’ve told you about her. You’ll be able
to help.’

“I must confess to some slight annoyance at having my work belittled in
this way. However, I suppose to a man of this sort all clean healthy
sentiment is ’slush,’ and the absence of unwholesome interest in my
works would not commend them to him, though I am thankful to say that it
is no drawback to the pleasure that the people I aim at take in them.
If Mrs. Brent is one of these, I shall hope indeed to be of use to her,
and I think it speaks well for her, when her early life is taken into
consideration, that she should find my simple tales of quiet natural
life ’lovely,’ as she said that she did. It has occurred to me that when
I get to know her better I may possibly gain from her some information
upon life behind the scenes, that I could make use of in my work. I
should like to draw the picture of a pure unsullied girl, going through
the life of the theatre, unspotted by it, and raising all those about
her, while she herself rises to the top of her profession, and marries a
good man, perhaps in the higher ranks of society, thus showing that
virtue is virtue everywhere and has its reward, and doing some good in
circles that I have not yet touched. However, all that is for the
future. Our immediate duty—yours and mine, dearest,—is to make friends
with this rather pathetic little lady, and to reconcile her to her lot,
which in this beautiful place, with all the love and kindness she
receives from those about her, is hardly really to be pitied.

“I told Wilbraham that I had been much struck with Lady Brent’s attitude
towards her, and he became serious at once and said: ’Lady Brent is a
fine character. There’s no getting over that. No, there’s no getting
over that; she’s a fine character.’

“I was a little surprised at the way he said it, but he’s a queer sort
of fellow, though I think likable. He went on at once, as if he wanted
to remove some doubt in my mind as to Lady Brent; but, as a matter of
fact, I had none, and am as capable of judging her as he is, though of
course he has known her longer. ’_She_ sees,’ he said, ’that poor
little Lottie—I generally call her that to myself—can’t be quite happy
shut up down here. But she’s right in keeping her here. You see, Brent
was rather a wild sort of fellow. He got into mischief once or twice,
and from what I’ve heard she and his father weren’t sorry when his
regiment was ordered off to South Africa. Well, he went, and was killed
the first time he went into action, within a month. By the time the
news came over his father himself was dying, and did die, as a matter of
fact, without knowing of it. A pretty good shock for the poor lady, eh?
Well, she had another when poor little Lottie wrote to her and said that
she had been married to Brent the week before he sailed, and there was a
baby coming. She went straight up to London and brought her down here,
and Harry was born here. Harry is rather an important person, you know.
He’s the last of his line, which is an old one. This place belongs to
him, and he’ll have a great deal of money from his grandmother. He’s
Sir Harry Brent of Royd Castle. What he is on his mother’s side must be
made as little of as possible. She’s a Brent by marriage and she has to
learn to be a Brent by manners and customs, if you understand me!’

“I said that I thought I did, and that Lady Brent was quite right in
wishing to keep her in this atmosphere. But I said that I quite saw
that the more friends she had the better. I should do my best to make
friends with her, and I was sure that my wife would, who was extremely
kind-hearted.

“’Ah, that’s right,’ he said, with a great air of satisfaction, and just
then Harry came out and we went off together to the village and the
vicarage.”

Here followed the account of the Vicarage, and of the church, but Mrs.
Grant knew there was more to come later about Mrs. Brent, and hurried on
till she got to it.

Dinner in the great hall was described, with allusions to the perfection
of the service and the livery of the servants. The conversation was
much the same as over the luncheon table, and Mrs. Brent took more part
in it. There was something different about her air. She was beautifully
dressed and her “commonness” seemed to have dropped from her. She was,
indeed, rather stately, in the manner of her mother-in-law, whom it
struck Grant that she was anxious to copy. After dinner they sat in the
long drawing-room, and Wilbraham played the piano, which he did rather
well. Soon after Harry had gone to bed, Lady Brent went out of the room
to get some silks for her embroidery. Mrs. Brent had offered to get
these for her, but she wouldn’t let her. Grant was sitting near to Mrs.
Brent, and while Wilbraham played softly at the other end of the room he
talked to her.





“I said with a smile: ’I think your name used to be very well known in
other scenes than this when I was a young man, Mrs. Brent.’

“My dear, I was never more surprised than by the way she took it. She
flushed and drew up her head and looked at me straight, and said: ’Pray
what do you mean by that, Mr. Grant?’

“I felt like a fool. Of course if Wilbraham hadn’t said what he had I
should never have thought of addressing her upon the subject. Being
what she is now I should have expected that she would not have wanted
her origin alluded to. But I have told you exactly what he did say, and
certainly I never meant anything but kindness to her. Still, I saw that
she might think I was simply taking a liberty, and made what recovery I
could. ’I know that you were a great ornament of the stage before you
were married,’ I said. ’Please forgive me if I ought not to have
alluded to it, but you said that you had read my books, and you will
know that I take all life for my province; and when one practises one
art with all earnestness and sincerity, it is interesting to talk to
some one who has made a great success with another.’

“I think this was well said, wasn’t it, dear? I’m afraid it was going
rather beyond the truth, as, from what Wilbraham had told me, I doubt if
she was much more than a chorus girl, and that only for a very short
time. But my conscience doesn’t prick me for having drawn the long bow
a little. I had to disabuse her mind of the idea that I was taking a
liberty with her, and I wanted to please her in the way that Wilbraham
had indicated.

“She ceased, I think, to take offence, but she said, rather primly, with
her eyes on her needlework, which she had taken up again: ’I prefer to
forget that I was ever on the stage, Mr. Grant. It was for a very short
time, and I simply went to and from my home to the theatre, always
attended by a maid—or nearly always, and sometimes by my mother. When I
married I left the stage altogether, and have never been in a theatre
since. I don’t know how you knew that I had ever belonged to it.’

“She gave me a quick little glance, and I divined somehow that it would
give her pleasure to believe that she was remembered. I won’t tell you
what I said, but while I steered clear of an actual untruth, I did
manage to convey the impression that I had recognized her, and I hope I
may be forgiven for it. She said hurriedly: ’Well, we won’t talk about
it any more, for I have nearly forgotten it all, and wish to forget it
altogether. And please don’t tell Lady Brent that you know who I was.
We don’t want Harry to know it at all—ever. She’s quite right there.
Here she comes. You do like Harry, don’t you, Mr. Grant? He’s such a
dear boy. and all the people about here love him.’

“’What, talking about Harry?’ said Lady Brent, as she joined us. ’We
all talk a great deal about Harry, Mr. Grant. I don’t think there is a
boy in the world on whom greater hopes are set. We have made him happy
between us so far, but I am glad you are coming here with your young
people, to bring a little more life into this quiet place. Young people
want young life about them. It is the only thing that has been lacking
for him. And it is all too short a time before he will have to go out
into the world.’

“This all gave me a great deal to think about. I hope I have given you
such an account of everything that passed, and the important parts of
what was said to make you see it as I do. Consider this kind good lady,
gifted more than most, rich, titled, intellectual, calculated to shine
in society, yet content to live a quiet life out of the world for the
sake of the bright boy upon whom so many hopes depend. She has gone
through much trouble, with her only son and her husband reft from her
within a few weeks of one another. She cannot have welcomed the wife
whom her son had chosen, but she lives in constant companionship with
her, and treats her with every consideration. My heart warms towards
her. We are indeed fortunate in having such a chatelaine as Lady Brent
in the place in which we are to spend our lives and do our work. Of her
kindness and thoughtfulness towards myself I have not time to write, as
it is getting very late, and I must to bed. But when you come here you
will find her everything that you can wish, and I shall be surprised if
you do not make a real friend of her, a friend who will last, and on
whom you can in all things depend.”

When Mrs. Grant had at last finished this voluminous letter, she
summoned Miss Minster to her, and read her many passages from it. Miss
Minster was the lady who looked after the education of Jane and Pobbles,
and had somewhat of a hard task in doing so, though she fulfilled it
without showing outward signs of stress. She was of about the same age
as Mrs. Grant—that is in the early thirties, and they had been friends
together at school. They were friends now, and Mrs. Grant trusted Miss
Minster’s judgment in some things more even than she trusted her
husband’s.

“Somehow, I don’t see Lady Brent,” said Mrs. Grant, when she had read
out all that had been written about her. “She seems to have made a
great impression upon David, but it looks to me as if it was the
impression she wanted to make.”

“If any other man but David had written all that,” said Miss Minster, “I
should have said that there was something behind it all. I should have
said that Lady Brent had some dark reason for keeping herself and the
rest of them shut up there, and that this Mr. Wilbraham, who doesn’t
seem to behave like a tutor at all, was in the conspiracy. As it is, I
think his pen has run away with him, and they are all very ordinary
people, and there’s nothing behind it at all.”

“Well, my idea is just the opposite,” said Mrs. Grant. “If David had
sniffed a story he would have put it in. He doesn’t think there is
anything behind it. I do. Perhaps Mrs. Brent wasn’t married, and this
young Sir Harry isn’t the rightful heir. That would be a good reason
for Lady Brent to lie low. Perhaps Mr. Wilbraham knows about it, which
would be the reason for his not behaving like an ordinary tutor; though,
as for that, I don’t think there’s much in it, and he behaves like an
ordinary tutor according to David’s account just as much as you behave
like an ordinary governess.”

“A good point as far as it goes,” said Miss Minster, “and a joyous life
it would be for you if I did behave like an ordinary governess. But
you’re worse than David in making up twopence coloured stories. I don’t
think we need worry ourselves about the Brents till we get down there.
Then we shall be able to judge for ourselves. No man ever knows what a
woman is really like the first time he sees her. Whatever Lady Brent
and Mrs. Brent are like, you may depend upon it that we shan’t find them
in the least as David has described them. Now read what he says about
the Vicarage again, and see if we can make anything of that, beyond that
it is embowered in massy trees.”

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