MRS. BRENT

Mrs. Grant was sitting in her drawing-room at Royd Vicarage. It was a
lovely hot June morning, and she was at her needlework by the French
windows, which were pleasantly open to the garden. The rich sweet peace
of early summer brooded over shaven lawn and bright flower beds, and was
consummated by the drone of the bees, which were as busy as if they were
aware of their reputation and were anxious to live up to it. Under the
shade of a lime at the corner of the lawn slumbered the Vicarage baby in
her perambulator, so placidly that the very spirit of peace seemed to
have descended on her infant head. It was eleven o’clock in the
morning, and there was nothing to disturb the calm contentment with
which Mrs. Grant plied her needle, singing a little song to herself, and
occasionally casting an eye in the direction of the perambulator and its
precious contents. Jane and Pobbles were at their lessons with Miss
Minster, or the scene would not have been so peaceful. The Vicar was in
his study, happily at work on a moving chapter of his latest work; for
it was Monday, when clerical duties were in abeyance.

He had been at Royd for over a year, and found the place delightfully
suited to his taste. He felt his inventive powers blossoming as never
before. The first novel he had written at Royd had not long since been
published, and its modest popularity was now being reflected in the
literary and advertisement columns of the newspapers. It had already
brought him an offer for the serial rights of his next novel, from a
magazine of good standing, which did not pay high prices, but did demand
a high moral tone in the fiction it published, and made quite a good
thing out of it. It was all grist to the mill. Royd Vicarage was a
good-sized house and cost more to live in comfortably than he or his
wife had anticipated, and his income as an incumbent, with all the
deductions that had to be made from it, was hardly higher than his
stipend as a curate had been. But he had a little money of his own, and
his wife had a little money, and with the income that came from the
novels there was enough; and it was beginning to look as if there might
be a good deal more, perhaps a great deal more. Novelists with less in
them than he felt himself to possess were making their two or three
thousand a year. Anything in the way of large popularity might happen
within the next year. In the meantime life was exceedingly pleasant,
and even exciting, with all those possibilities to build upon. He would
leave his work sometimes and come into the room where his wife was,
rubbing his hands, to tell her how exceedingly jolly it all was. She
would look up at him with a smile, pleased to see him so happy, and
happy herself, with her nice house, and no anxiety about being able to
run it properly.

She was rather expecting a visit from him this morning, for he had told
her that he was going to set to work on a new chapter, and when he had
settled what it was going to be he would usually come and tell her about
it before he began to write. She thought it was he when the door
opened; but it was Mrs. Brent, who sometimes looked in and sat with her
for a time in the morning.

Mrs. Brent was well dressed, in the summer attire of a country-woman,
but with her fluffy hair, and face that had been pretty in her youth but
was pretty no longer, she looked somehow as if she had dressed for the
part; and the air of “commonness,” not always apparent in her, was there
this morning. The corners of her mouth drooped, and there was an
appearance of discontent, and even sullenness about her.

She brightened up a little as she greeted Mrs. Grant, and sat down
opposite to her on a low chair by the window. “Oh, I do like coming
here,” she said. “It’s so peaceful. And it’s such a quiet pretty
room.”

The room was rather barely furnished, but what there was in it was good,
and there were a great many flowers. To buy old things for this and
other rooms of the house was to be one of the first results of the
expected increase of income, but it was doubtful whether the charm of
this room would be much enhanced. For it was quiet, as Mrs. Brent said,
and quietness is a valuable quality in a room.

Mrs. Grant looked round her with satisfaction. “It _is_ nice,” she
said. “We are very happy here. I don’t think I’d change Royd for any
place in the world.”

“I would,” said Mrs. Brent. “I’m fed up with it.”

Mrs. Grant threw a glance at her. She was looking down, and the
sullenness had returned to her face.

“Fed up to the teeth,” she said.

She looked up in her turn. Behind the discontent was an appeal. Mrs.
Grant felt suddenly very sorry for her. If she was a little common, she
was also rather pathetic—a middle-aged child, out of place and out of
tune.

“I think it would do you good to have a change sometimes,” Mrs. Grant
said. “However beautiful a place is, one wants a change occasionally.”

“_She_ doesn’t,” said Mrs. Brent vindictively. “So she thinks nobody
else ought to either.”

It was coming at last, then. Mrs. Grant had formed her own opinion of
Lady Brent long since, and it did not entirely coincide with the opinion
that her husband had formed, though she had not told him so. Lady Brent
had been all that could have been expected towards themselves—kind and
hospitable, and within limits friendly. She had offered no real
intimacy, and after a year’s intercourse it was plain that she had none
to offer; but it was also plain that the intercourse need never be
otherwise than smooth and even pleasant, if the limitations were
observed. Mrs. Brent, on the other hand, had shown that she wanted
intimacy. Mrs. Grant could not give any deep measure of friendship to
one in whom there seemed to be no depths, but she could talk to Mrs.
Brent about many things, about Harry and about her own children in
particular, and find a response that made for friendship. She could
talk, too, about the events of her own life, but was chary of doing so,
because it would seem to be asking for confidences in return, and she
was not sure that she wanted them. There was always in the background
the feeling that Mrs. Brent and her mother-in-law were antagonistic, in
spite of the apparent harmony between them; and of late that feeling had
increased. Mrs. Brent was such that the gates of her lips once unlocked
she would express her antagonism, and it would no longer be possible to
treat it as if it did not exist. That time seemed to have come now.

“I hate that woman,” said Mrs. Brent, “and I won’t put up with it any
longer.”

There was the slightest little pause before Mrs. Grant replied. “Why do
you hate her? I can understand your wanting to get away sometimes; but
she always seems to me to treat you nicely; and of course she is
extremely nice to us. I should be sorry to quarrel with her in any
way.”

“No doubt you would,” said Mrs. Brent drily. “You’d get the rough side
of her tongue pretty quick, and you wouldn’t forget it in a hurry.”

Mrs. Grant was a little shocked. This new plain-spoken Mrs. Brent was
more of a personage than the carefully behaved lady always anxious to be
making a good impression that she had hitherto appeared; but she seemed
out of the Royd picture—and all the more so if Harry and not Lady Brent
were regarded as its central figure. The suggestion of Lady Brent as a
virago was also rather startling.

“Oh, I don’t mean to say that she’d use bad language,” said Mrs. Brent,
in reply to some demur. “That’s not her little way. I won’t tell you
what her little way is, but she’s always the _lady_. I’m not, you see.
That’s what’s the matter with me. I’m Lottie Lansdowne, who danced on
the stage, and never allowed to forget it, though you can tell of
yourself, since you’ve been here, that I’ve _tried_ hard enough to play
the game—for Harry’s sake, I have—and been at it for the last seventeen
years; and now I’m getting a bit sick of it.”

She was in tears, and Mrs. Grant felt a strong emotion of pity towards
her. She leant forward. “My dear,” she said, “I think it’s splendid
the way you sink yourself for Harry’s sake. You mustn’t give up doing
it, you know. It has paid—hasn’t it?—to have him brought up here, out
of the world, in the way that you and Lady Brent have done. He’s the
dearest boy. _I_ consider that you have had more to do with the success
of it than she has. He loves you more, for one thing; and if he sees
you living here as if you belonged to it all——”

“Oh, I know,” said Mrs. Brent, drying her eyes. “I made up my mind
about that years ago, and I’m not going back on it. I suppose when he
gets older and begins to see things for himself, he’ll see that I
_don’t_ really belong. I’ve got that before me, you know. _She_ knows
it too, and of course doesn’t care. It’ll suit her. _She’ll_ come out
all right, but I shan’t. The only thing is that he does love me, and he
can’t really love her. I don’t see how anybody could. I’m glad you
said that. I love you for saying it. I can talk to you, and I’m sure
it’s a relief to talk to somebody. There’s Wilbraham, but he’s as much
up against her now as I am; we only make each other worse. You do think
it’s all right so far, don’t you? With Harry, I mean. He couldn’t be
nicer than he is, if his mother had been born a lady. Of course I
wasn’t, whatever I may pretend. I haven’t got in the way, have I? She
can’t bring that up against me.”

“Oh, no! Oh, no! You mustn’t think that. You’re part of it all to
him. I said that and I meant it.”

She settled herself back more easily in her chair. “Well, I believe I
am,” she said. “I’ve tried to make myself. I love him dearly, and I’d
do anything for his sake. It’s been right to bring him up quietly here.
She’s been right there. I’ll say that for her, though I hate her.”

“You don’t really hate her,” said Mrs. Grant; “and I don’t think you’ve
any reason to. What she has done has been for Harry’s sake too.”

“It has been for the sake of the Brent family. Her son married beneath
him—so she says—though I’d have made him a good wife, and though I loved
him I knew he wasn’t all he might have been. She’s going to see that
Harry doesn’t run any risk of doing the same. Well, I’m with her there.
I don’t want Harry to be mixed up with what I come from. But there’s
nothing nasty about it. It’s only that we weren’t up in the world. Do
you know I haven’t so much as set eyes on my own people since Harry was
born? Why shouldn’t I? I’m flesh and blood. My father died since I
came here, and mother’s getting on. She was nearly fifty when I was
married.”

“Do you mean that Lady Brent——?”

“Oh, it was me too. I said that I’d give them up when I came here. The
fact is that I wasn’t best pleased with them at that time. I’d promised
Harry—my husband, I mean; they’re all called Harry—not to say I was
married till he came home. Poor boy, he never did come home, but before
that—well, they said things—at least, mother did—that made me furious.
I kept my promise to him till I heard he’d been killed, poor boy. Then I
let them have it. Perhaps I hadn’t learnt quite so many manners then as
I have since, though I was always considered refined by the other girls
in the company. Anyhow, it ended in my saying I never wanted to see
them again, and we never even wrote till poor father died. Still, I’ve
forgiven them now, it’s so long ago, and I cried when father died, and
wrote to mother. I was very fond of father. He used to take me on his
knee when I was little and read stories out of the Bible to me. He was
a religious man, and didn’t like my going on the stage. Sometimes I
wish I’d never gone. Emily, my next oldest sister, went into millinery
and did well. She married long ago and has a boy nearly as old as Harry,
though of course he’d be very different. Mother said she had a nice
house out Hendon way, when she wrote, and three little girls, as well as
a boy. I dare say I should have been much happier like that, though I
shouldn’t have had Harry. But it couldn’t do Harry any harm now if I
just went up and saw them sometimes. I needn’t even say I was going to
see them or anything about them. Why shouldn’t I go to London for a
week, as other ladies do, to see their dressmaker or something? I think
it’s more London I want than mother, if you ask me. Oh, just to see the
lights and the pavements, and the people jostling one another! I’m like
famished for it.”

She threw out her hands with a curious stagy gesture that was yet a
natural one, and her nostrils seemed to dilate, as if she were actually
sniffing the atmosphere she so much desired. “I’m going,” she said. “I
don’t care what she says.”

“I don’t see why you shouldn’t go,” said Mrs. Grant. “But why should
Lady Brent object? What can she say?”

Mrs. Brent leant forward. “Couldn’t you ask her for me?” she said
coaxingly. “Tell her you think I ought to have a change. I’m young,
you know. At least I’m not old yet. It can’t be right for me to be
buried down here year after year. I shan’t get into mischief. Just a
week!”




Mrs. Grant felt intensely uncomfortable. Get into mischief! What _did_
it all mean? Lady Brent must have some reason for keeping the frivolous
pathetic little thing shut up like this? And yet she had seemed to
disclose everything; she had dropped every trace of pretence, and had
made her appeal for sympathy on the grounds of her very unsuitability to
be where she was. If she no longer cared, before this friend, to keep up
the fiction of having sprung from a superior station in life, which from
such as she was a great concession to candour, how could she wish to
keep anything back?

“You know I’m your friend,” Mrs. Grant said. “I’d do anything I could
to help you, but you see how it is with us here. We shall never be
close friends with Lady Brent; I don’t think she wants it. But she’s
kind and well-disposed towards us. I couldn’t run the risk of setting
her against us, unless I were _quite_ certain that—I mean quite certain
of my ground. It wouldn’t be fair to my husband. It would make all the
difference to us here if we were not on good terms with her. Have you
told me everything? _Why_ should she think you might get into
mischief?”

She put this aside lightly. “Oh, there’s nothing in that. It’s only
what she’d say. She’d say anything. But I see I ought not to ask you.
No, it wouldn’t be fair to bring you into it. She’d have it up against
you; you’re quite right. I tell you this, Mrs. Grant; when Harry comes
of age—or before that, when he goes to Sandhurst—I’m off. No more of
this for me. I shall snap my fingers at her. But of course you’ve got
to stay here. No, I’ll tackle her myself, and see if I can’t get my own
way for once.”

She sprang up. “I’ll go and do it now,” she said. “No time like the
present.”

She laughed, and kissed Mrs. Grant. “Good-bye, dear,” she said. “It
does me good to talk to you; you’re so understanding. And it does me
good to have you here—you and your nice kind clever husband and your
_sweet_ children. Ah, if I’d had a bit of real family life with _my_
poor boy!—it might have been here or anywhere; I shouldn’t have cared
where it was—it would all have been very different. Now I’ll go and
tackle the old dragon while I’m fresh for it. Good-bye, dear; I’ll go
out through the garden.”

She went out by the window, and stopped to look at the sleeping baby as
she crossed the lawn, smiling and making a little motion of the hand
towards Mrs. Grant as she did so. Then she disappeared behind the
shrubbery.

Mrs. Grant laid down her work and went to refresh herself with a look at
the baby. As she turned back, her husband came out of his room, which
was next to the drawing-room and also opened on to the garden.

His face was serious. “I didn’t know you had Mrs. Brent with you,” he
said. “I’ve had Wilbraham. They’re all at loggerheads up at the Castle,
Ethel. I don’t quite know what to do about it. I don’t want to get up
against Lady Brent; but——”

She told him of Mrs. Brent’s prospective revolt. “She asked _me_ to talk
to her,” she said. “But I said the same as you do. We don’t want to
get up against her. What is the trouble with Mr. Wilbraham?”

“Much the same as with Mrs. Brent apparently. He’s fed up with it too.
He wants to get away.”

“What, for always?”

“Oh, no. He’s too fond of Harry for that. Besides, he’s very
comfortable here—has everything he wants. I told him that, and he
didn’t deny it. But he seems to have developed a furious hatred of Lady
Brent. I really can’t tell you why. He couldn’t tell me, when I
pressed him. He’s morose and gloomy. He says he must get away from her
for a time, or he’ll go off his head.”

“But surely he can take a holiday sometimes if he wants to!”

“It almost looks as if she wouldn’t let him go off by himself. He asked
me to go with him, for a month. He offered to pay all expenses and go
where I liked. In the old days I might have been tempted—if you’d
thought it would be a good thing to do. But I don’t want to go away
from here just now—at this lovely time of year, with the work and
everything going so well. Of course I could write, but—— Anyhow I don’t
know who I should get to do my duty. If I thought it would really put
things right! What do you think? Ought I to do it?”

“I don’t know, dear. I don’t understand what’s going on. It looks to
me as if there must be something behind it all that we don’t know of.”

He laughed at her and pinched her chin. “You take the novelist’s point
of view,” he said. “I don’t, which is perhaps rather odd. They’re all
on each other’s nerves. Why don’t he and Mrs. Brent go off together?”
He laughed again. “He didn’t really press it,” he said. “He wanted me
to go this week. I couldn’t do that, anyhow, and when I said so he
seemed to drop the idea. He had wanted me to suggest it to Lady Brent
just as Mrs. Brent wanted you. They’re a queer couple.”

“I suppose it’s only to be expected that it should be like that
sometimes,” she said thoughtfully. “I think I could talk to Lady Brent,
if she’d only give me the chance.”

“I don’t think she will, and it wouldn’t do to begin it.”

“Oh no, I shouldn’t do that. But there’s Harry. It all comes back to
him, you see. If she’s mistaken in what she’s doing, it’s for his sake
she’s doing it. She might give me an opening there.”

“I don’t think so. It all passes over Harry’s head. It’s rather
remarkable how normal he is. One might not have expected it under such
circumstances. Well, I must get back, dear. Wilbraham has taken a big
slice out of my morning. I’m sorry for him and wish I could help him.
But I don’t see how I can, except by continuing my friendship. I was
rather flattered that he should have come and talked to me. He
professes to think very little of my knowledge of human nature, you
know. But most of that’s a pose, and I like him. He went off to tackle
Lady Brent himself. Mrs. Brent too, you say. She’ll have a happy day
of it, I should think.”

At this moment the peaceful seclusion of the scene was destroyed by the
incursion of Jane and Pobbles, who, released from their studies, came
tumultuously round the corner of the house, Jane leading. They woke up
the baby, or, as her time for waking up was past, perhaps they only
completed the process, and they escaped rebuke for it. Their cry was
for Harry. Where was Harry? He had promised to come not a moment later
than twelve o’clock, and it was already two minutes past.

Jane was a straight, somewhat leggy child, with the promise of beauty
when the time should come for her to accept her dower of femininity. At
present she was more like a boy than a girl, except for her long thick
plait of fair hair, which she would have given almost anything to be
allowed to sacrifice in the interests of freedom. She was aboundingly
full of life and the most amazing physical energy. She affected an
extreme virility of speech, and exercised a severe discipline over
Pobbles, who occasionally raged against it as an offence to his manhood,
but as a rule accepted the yoke and prospered under it. He was a
handsome child, strong and vigorous too, but without his sister’s
determined initiative. They were a pair to be proud of, and their
parents were proud of them, but found them a handful. Miss Minster could
manage them by the exercise of a good-humoured authority which never
allowed itself to be rattled. But it was only Harry whose lightest word
they obeyed without question. He was their hero and their most adored
playmate. Perhaps Jane showed more femininity in submitting to his
direction than was apparent in her attitude towards him, in which there
was none to be seen.

Harry came into the garden as they were clamouring their questions, with
his retriever wagging its tail at his heels. He was seventeen now,
grown almost to his full height, but his face was still that of a boy.
There was a radiant look of health and happiness in it. He was
extraordinarily good to look at, not only because of his beauty, of form
and feature and colouring, which was undeniable, but because of this
sort of inward light, which suffused it with a sense of perfection that
went right through him. Mrs. Grant caught her breath as she looked at
him. She saw him as some wonderful work of God, without flaw,
untroubled in his happiness. Whatever disturbances there might be among
the figures of coarser clay by whom he was surrounded, there must be
some breath of finer spirit in each and all of them, since he stood on
the threshold of manhood as he was, here before her eyes.

The matter in hand was the building of a log cabin in a bit of forest
that reached down from the wooded hill behind the Vicarage garden.
Harry and the children had been working at it for a month or more, and
it was to be a very perfect specimen of a log cabin.

“Why haven’t you brought the saw?” said Jane, turning upon Pobbles. “Go
and fetch it.”

“It’s your turn,” said Pobbles. “Can’t always be fetching things for
you.”

“Be quick,” said Jane. “We’re wasting time. Come on, Harry, we’ll
start. He can run after us.”

“Don’t know where to find the saw,” said Pobbles, untruthfully.

“Jane will go and help you,” said Harry. “Hurry up, both of you.”

Jane put her long legs in rapid motion without a word, Pobbles pounding
along after her on his shorter ones. Harry laughed. “That’s the way to
talk to them,” he said.

Jane returned bearing the saw, Pobbles following. They set off
immediately for the wood, and the voices of all three of them were heard
for a long time in animated conversation through the hot drowsy air.

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