WILBRAHAM IN LONDON

In the region that lies to the north of Regent’s Park there are quiet
little streets, aside from the ugly crowded main thoroughfares, which
date back from the time, not so very long since, when there were
pleasant suburbs here, and the open country lay within a walk of the
centre of London. Wilbraham found himself unexpectedly in one of them
in his search for the address that Bastian had given him, and, as he
waited for admission at the door upon which he had knocked, looked about
him with a sense of relief. He had expected something almost
approaching squalor, and at least noise and unrest. But it was not
painful to think of the girl whom Harry loved living in one of these
quiet little houses.

They were all alike, built at a time when some of the quality of
eighteenth century architecture, which hung about the simplest building,
had disappeared, but had not yet given way to the deadness and ugliness
that followed it. Nothing could have been simpler than this regular
street of small houses, each with one window and a door on the ground
floor, two windows on the first, two windows on the second, and a
basement with a narrow area; but their very monotony was restful, and
they indicated a respectability that was almost aggressive. The paint
was nowhere shabby, the brass door handles shone, and here and there the
dirty brick of one of the houses had been cleaned and the mortar
pointed. They were not beneath the occupation of people who took a
pride in the appearance of their dwellings, and might even have money
enough to have the faces of them washed and their interiors modernized
before they made their homes in them.

As Wilbraham stood at the top of the few steps that led to the entrance,
a door to the area beneath him opened and a woman looked up at him, and
then immediately disappeared. Mrs. Ivimey’s sister, evidently, by the
likeness. Somehow the fact of this relationship had been forgotten.
Here was a link with Royd. If Harry had been to the house, or should
come there—! He had no time to formulate his thoughts before she opened
the door to him.

He introduced himself to her at once, before asking for Bastian. She
was a clean neat woman and gave him smiling respectful welcome when he
told her who he was. “It’s many years since I was down in those parts,
sir,” she said. “But I hear sometimes from my sister, and Mr. Bastian,
the gentleman who lodges with me, has been there lately and told me a
good deal about it.”

“It’s him I’ve come to see,” said Wilbraham. “Is he in?”

“Miss Viola is in, sir,” she said. “I dare say you saw her when she was
at Royd.”

“Yes,” said Wilbraham. “I should like to see her now, if you’ll tell
her who I am.”

Here was a lucky chance. It was Viola he wanted to see, and apart from
her father, if possible. Mrs. Clark led him at once upstairs, talking
volubly as she did so. But she did not mention Harry. Wilbraham thought
she would have done so if he had been to the house.

She showed him into a room on the first floor, after knocking at the
door and receiving no answer. “I expect Miss Viola is upstairs,” she
said, opening the door. “I don’t think she’s gone out again. If you’ll
kindly step in, sir, I’ll go and tell her you’re here.”

Wilbraham entered the room with some curiosity. It was larger than he
had anticipated, extending to the whole width of the house and lit by
the two windows. Its main furniture was good and solid, of about the
date of the house, when furniture had lost its simplicity of line and
ornament, but still showed some pride of craftsmanship. Except for an
upright piano with a front of faded fluted red silk, which might or
might not have belonged to the tenants, it was all probably the property
of the landlady, and the nondescript wall paper and dark green curtains
were also probably her taste and not theirs. But the books in shelves
on either side of the fireplace, the pictures on the walls and the
clutter of photographs and little objects for use or ornament on the
mantelpiece and elsewhere about the room struck a different note. No
attempt had been made to make it other than it was by nature, but it had
the air of a permanent home, occupied by people of some refinement.

Viola’s work-basket was on a small table by the wall, and there were
other signs of feminine occupancy in the room. It looked cozy enough,
with a bright fire burning, the curtains drawn and the gas lit; for it
was getting dark outside. Bastian evidently made use of the large
shabby easy chair by the fire, for there was a tobacco jar and an array
of pipes on the table by its side, and a book or two. With his daughter
sitting opposite to him, on a winter evening, it was possible to imagine
him taking pleasure in his home life. It would be quieter and less
marked by poverty than Wilbraham had pictured it. A faint odour of the
tobacco that Bastian used hung about, but there were flowers in a vase
on Viola’s table, and fruit in a plaited basket on the sideboard. The
sideboard, apt to be so much in evidence in furnished lodgings, had none
of the paraphernalia of meals on it in the way of cruets or bottles. In
fact, there were no bottles to be seen anywhere. Wilbraham noticed that
at once, for his own trouble had made him acutely sensitive; he had no
fears now of succumbing to a temptation to drink, but the signs of
drinking by Bastian would have affected him unhappily. He was inclined
to believe that he had to some extent misread Bastian, on his first
acquaintance with him. It could not be his habitual custom to drink as
much as he had done on that afternoon, or Viola would be more affected
by it than she was. She had none of the air of a girl whose life had
been saddened by a father’s gross intemperance; and if Bastian had been
kept down in the world by this failing of his, as he had said he had,
his poverty was shown by this room to be more relative than actual.

Wilbraham dismissed the unpleasant question of intemperance, in relief
at the signs of comfort and refinement that he saw about him. The table
in the middle of the room was laid for tea, as if that was the chief
evening meal here. Wilbraham hoped that Bastian would not come in for
it until he had talked to Viola.

He made his way to the mantelpiece, upon which were a good many
photographs. The photographs in a room tell you more than anything
about its occupants.

Something was told in this instance by the fact that they were all a
good many years old. It meant, for one thing, that Viola and her father
must have lived here for some time, and for another that they could have
made few friends of late years.

Wilbraham’s eye was caught by one of Bastian as a very young man in a
group with three others, taken by a Cambridge photographer. His first
thought as he looked at it, was to wonder whether he himself had changed
so much in twenty years. Bastian appeared as a young man fashionably
dressed and judging by his smile pleased with the world in general and
with his own lot in it in particular. He had been more than usually
good-looking in those days. There was another one of him on a horse,
taken at about the same time, but not at Cambridge. Wilbraham wished
afterwards that he had noticed the name and habitation of the
photographer. Bastian had never told him from what part of the country
he came, or anything about his early home and upbringing. But it was
evident that he came from what it is customary to call “good people.”
It was hardly fair to keep Viola in ignorance of her parentage, which
might possibly prove to be of some importance to her.

There was a photograph of Viola herself at the age of about ten—a pretty
child, but without the exceptional beauty into which she had grown. In
a large frame was one of her mother, and there were others of her at
different stages. Wilbraham examined them with some attention. She was
certainly beautiful, with the same sort of beauty as Viola’s, though
Wilbraham thought that if he had not known the facts about her he would
yet have detected an absence of race, which seemed to him to be apparent
in Viola, and perhaps also in her father. He tried to find in her
support for Bastian’s praise of her character and temperament, but all
he could have said was that there was nothing to show that she had not
deserved it. She smiled sweetly in these photographs, some of which
were in theatrical costume; she was young and beautiful and happy, and
her early death added pathos to these presentments of her.

There were other photographs of girls and young women carelessly propped
up on the mantelpiece, some of them hidden. They were probably mostly
theatrical friends of Mrs. Bastian’s, and it seemed likely that she had
lived in these rooms, or they would not have been left there.
Wilbraham’s eyes roamed over them without interest, but just as he was
about to turn away were caught by the signature of one of them. “With
love from Lottie” in a sprawling hand. It was of Mrs. Brent, taken in
that youth of which she was still proud but which she had left behind
her.

Wilbraham looked at it fascinated. For some reason or other Mrs. Brent
had never shown him a photograph of herself taken during her stage
career. For the moment he was more interested in seeing her as she had
been than in the fact of finding her photograph here—Harry’s mother, in
Viola’s room.

The photograph made her almost as pretty as Mrs. Bastian. She was a gay
light-hearted girl too. Harry’s father might be excused for having
fallen in love with her. And there was a look of Harry in her young
face, which Wilbraham had never noticed in the flesh. He wondered
whether Viola had noticed the likeness, which seemed to him quite plain.
But probably she did not look at these old photographs to notice
anything about them at all once in six months, though she saw them every
day.

Viola came in as he was standing looking at them. He thought she looked
more beautiful than ever, as she greeted him with a smile and a blush.
Her entrance into the room seemed to bring light with it, and softness
and charm. Its commonplace features sank into the background; the
flowers became of more importance than anything, and the books and the
music.

Wilbraham had seen Viola in a pretty simple frock suitable for the
country, but although her clothes now had the same air of simplicity to
his unsophisticated eyes, they were even to him something exceptional.
One would not have expected a girl who lived in that room to enter it
dressed as she was. The calling in which she earned her living stood
her in good stead. Wilbraham had not been told what it was, and had the
idea of her doing something or other with a typewriter. He thought that
the figure she presented was owing to her taste, and did not know that
it would also have meant a good deal of money if there had been nothing
more than her taste to account for it. What he did feel was that she
might have entered any rich room in London as she was and been taken for
granted as belonging to it. She was worthy of Harry even in this
respect, which would probably weigh more with the world even than it
weighed with him.

“Father will be in in about half an hour,” she said. “You will stay and
have some tea with us, won’t you? I’m sure he will be glad to see you.”

He had been looking at her searchingly. She gave him the impression of
being older than when he had seen her at Royd, a woman full grown and no
longer half a child, though the delicacy and freshness of youth still
marked her. She had, in fact, ceased to arrange her hair as still
growing girls wear it, and there was some to him indefinable difference
in her clothes.

He said he would stay until her father came in, and she motioned him to
her father’s chair, and sat down in her own on the other side of the
fire, facing him.

She seemed to wait for him to speak first. He could tell nothing by her
manner, which was smiling and self-possessed, though her self-possession
was not more than is becoming to a young girl, secure in her youth and
charm.

“I suppose you know that Harry has left home to enlist in the army,” he
said.

Her colour deepened a little upon the mention of her lover’s name, but
she did not shrink from his gaze, and the faint smile was still on her
lips as she said: “I thought that he might, although he didn’t say he
would.” So of course she knew, and had been prepared for the question.

“Probably he had not quite made up his mind by the time you left Royd,”
he said.

She did not reply to this, and he thought he could see that she had
decided not to admit anything, probably under Harry’s directions. Again
there came to him the sense of dislike at interfering with what Harry
had decided. He could not fence with her to make her say what Harry
didn’t want her to say, or force her to say that she could not answer
his questions. She was frank and innocent. It would seem an
impertinence to put her into the position of defending a reticence.

“We have been very anxious about him at home,” he said. “We are anxious
still—not to get him to come back, but that he should not cut himself
off from us. I’ve come up to London on purpose to get a message to him
if I can. I didn’t tell Lady Brent I should come here, or say anything
about you. She thinks I have only come to see Mr. Gulliver, the family
solicitor, and ask him to find out, if he can, where Harry is. His
mother can hardly bear the thought of not hearing from him for months,
and not knowing where he is. Lady Brent was not altogether unprepared
for his enlisting. She couldn’t have been a party to it, as he’s not
even of an age to enlist yet, and I suppose he’s had to represent
himself as older than he is in order to get taken. But she told me
herself that she was proud of him for doing it, and she certainly
wouldn’t do anything to interfere with him, now he’s taken the matter
into his own hands. If he knew that——”

He did not finish his sentence, which was on the note of appeal to her.
Nor did he look at her.

There was a pause. Then she said, “I haven’t seen Harry, you know, Mr.
Wilbraham.”

He looked at her then, and saw that there were tears in her eyes. So
his appeal had not been without its effect.

“I think his mother ought to know,” she said, “and that he ought to
write to her.”

In a flash of understanding, he saw that he had got all that he had come
for, and that he would get no more. Or at least that he must not
exercise pressure to get more, or put her in the position of refusing to
give it. She would tell Harry what he had told her, and she would tell
him that she thought he ought to write to his mother. Of Lady Brent she
had said nothing. It was probable that Lady Brent appeared in her eyes
in a different light from that in which Wilbraham saw her.

As for everything else—it was their secret, to be treated by him with
respect. He would probe into it no further; and indeed it was better
that he should not know more than he knew already of how it was between
them. There was quite enough on his mind that he had kept from Lady
Brent.

“Yes, I think he should write,” he said. “I shall see Mr. Gulliver
to-morrow.”

The two statements had no apparent bearing upon one another, but Viola
seemed to accept them with relief, and was beginning to talk to him
pleasantly, but with no reference to Harry, when Bastian came in.

He was nearly half an hour earlier than his usual time, it appeared, and
Wilbraham was inclined to be disappointed at having his talk with Viola
cut short. Whenever he was with her he felt himself almost violently in
sympathy with Harry in his love for her. He was observing her all the
time, and there was nothing that she said or did that did not deepen his
first impression of her. He wanted to feel like that about her, for
Harry’s sake; championship of her as one who was in all essentials fit
to mate with him, might stand Harry in good stead later on.

But she would show herself, perhaps with less need for carefulness in
what she said, with her father there as without him. Bastian gave him a
cordial welcome. He was again, in appearance, a gentleman, merely
indifferent to the shabbiness of his attire, but the younger healthier
look he had had during the latter part of his stay at Royd no longer
marked him. Wilbraham thought he had been drinking, but he was not
drunk, or anything near it, and it seemed probable that he kept his
habits in check in the home that he must have valued. He drank tea,
rather copiously, at the meal which soon followed his entrance, and
there was no preparation apparent for anything stronger to be drunk
later on.

It was not long before Wilbraham became as anxious to be alone with
Bastian as he had before wished to be alone with Viola. Bastian knew,
and Viola was distressed at the signs he showed of wishing to talk about
what he knew.




It became plain to Wilbraham now that the poor child was not unaffected
by her father’s intemperance. If the worst of it was kept from her, and
he had the self-command not to soil the home in which she lived with it,
still there were times when she saw him not quite himself.

This was one of them. Wilbraham saw the suspicion and then the
certainty dawn upon her, with a droop, and a shadow on her brightness,
and a stiffening of manner that was not quite displeasure, but yet
something near it. She had enough influence over him, apparently, to be
able to prevent his saying what she did not want said, but his hints and
smiles made Wilbraham as uncomfortable as they evidently made her.
Immediately the meal was over she said good-bye to Wilbraham and went
out of the room. Perhaps this was her usual way of dealing with these
lapses. Her father expostulated, but she took no notice, except by
saying as she went out: “I’ll tell Mrs. Clark not to clear away just
yet.”

“She’s a dear child, Viola—but she’s difficult sometimes,” said Bastian.
“I hope she hasn’t taken a dislike to you.”

“I don’t think so,” said Wilbraham, shortly. “What she obviously does
dislike is having her secrets talked about before a comparative
stranger. I should have thought you might have seen that.”

Bastian threw a look at him as he went to the side table to take up a
pipe. Wilbraham’s tone seemed to surprise him, but it did not subdue
the agreeable humour in which he found himself. “We don’t look on you
as a stranger,” he said, “and if there’s a secret, you’re in it. I
think you want mellowing, my dear Wilbraham. I don’t keep anything to
drink here, but if you’d like something I can send out for it.”

“You seem to forget what I told you about myself,” said Wilbraham. “I
can’t drink without losing control of myself. You seem to be in much
the same case. I think it’s a damned shame to show it before that
child.”

This brought Bastian up short. He frowned in offence, but apparently he
was one of those people whom a rebuke moves more to sorrow than to
anger, for he said: “That’s a hard thing to say to a man, Wilbraham. I
do drink more than’s good for me sometimes, I know; but if there’s one
thing I’ve always been careful about all my life it is not to let it
affect Viola.”

“Well, it does affect her,” said Wilbraham. “You’d have seen how it
affected her just now, if you hadn’t been drinking. It’s not for me to
preach, God knows. But if you’re able to control it at all, you’ve got
something to be very thankful for, and you ought to control it
absolutely as far as she’s concerned.”

“I’ve had very little to drink to-day, as a matter of fact,” said
Bastian, rather sulkily, “and I don’t want to be lectured about it,
Wilbraham. Sit down and have a talk. You won’t find my powers of
expression affected by the little I have had.”

He ended on a smile. He was an attractive creature, Wilbraham thought,
in spite of his culpable weakness. Most men would have quarrelled with
him for what he had said, if they had been in Bastian’s state. But the
extent to which he was affected by drink was a puzzle. As he talked
Wilbraham could mark no signs of it, though they had seemed so evident
up to this time. There was an absence of cautiousness in what he said,
but that was native to him. It may have been slightly enhanced now, but
Wilbraham would not have put it down to the loosening of tongue brought
about by liquor if they had started with this conversation. His own
irritation subsided. He had said his say. He sat down in Viola’s
chair, opposite to Bastian, and lit his cigarette, taking rather a long
time to do so, in order to leave the opening with Bastian, who was not
slow to take it.

“It wouldn’t do for my little failing to become known, would it?” he
said with a smile. “If I can’t do without alcohol altogether—and I
don’t see why I should—I shall have to keep in the background.”

Wilbraham was conscious of a return of irritation. He disliked this
half-jocular allusion to a subject of such serious importance. “Oh,
don’t talk of it like that,” he said, impatiently. “I suppose you know
that Harry Brent and Viola have met and have fallen in love with one
another. Nobody else knows it but me, and perhaps it’s important that
nobody else should. At any rate you can talk quite straight about it to
me.”

Bastian received this with a change of manner. “All right,” he said, “I
will talk straight. Viola’s a girl in a thousand—in a million. I’d
trust her anywhere. But for a young man to be meeting her again and
again, and keeping it secret—! Well, you see my point, I suppose.”

It was quite a new point to Wilbraham, as far as he did see it. But his
brain, edged by his long struggle with himself, and now again working
with its normal quickness, seized upon its essential insincerity at
once. There was a barely perceptible pause before he said: “If you mean
that Harry has done anything that you can take exception to why have you
been smiling and hinting about it up till now?”

Perhaps Bastian did not quite take this in. “Oh, I don’t mean to say
that there has been anything wrong,” he said. “As I say, I trust
Viola—absolutely. If _she’s_ satisfied with herself, as she is, that’s
enough for me.”

“Very well,” said Wilbraham, keeping command. “Then that applies to
Harry too. You don’t know him. I do. I found it out by chance, and he
made no attempt to persuade me to keep it secret. He left it to me, and
I decided to do so. If he wanted it kept secret, so did she; and they
both wanted it for the same reasons, whatever they were. If she was
right, he was right, and——”

“Yes, that’s all very well——,” said Bastian, but Wilbraham over-rode his
interruption. “I suppose you didn’t know of it till after you’d come to
London. How did you know of it?”

Bastian allowed himself to be diverted. “I found it out on the last
night,” he said. “I went out to look for her, and she came in crying,
poor child! Something suddenly struck me. She had been out such a lot
alone, and she hadn’t done that before when we’d been away together—at
least not so much. And she’d been different somehow. I hadn’t thought
about it before, but it came to me suddenly all together. And she
wouldn’t have been crying like that just because we were going home.
There was something—somebody. I dare say I should have got at it by
thinking it over; but she told me. I love her, and she loves me, and
knows that she can tell me anything. That’s how it was, Wilbraham.
You’re not a father, but you can imagine, perhaps, what a father feels
about these things, when his daughter is the chief thing in the world to
him.”

“I suppose I can,” said Wilbraham. “But all the same you’re not
treating her in the way you boast of if you’re not prepared to look upon
Harry in the same light. You’ll agree that on the outside of things
they’re not equal—those two.”

“I don’t agree to that,” said Bastian, dogmatically.

“I said on the outside of things,” Wilbraham persisted. “You’ve been
where he belongs, and you know what sort of position he’s in. You may
have belonged to the same sort of thing once. I don’t know. You’ve
never told me who your people were. But you say yourself that you’ve
come down in the world, and it’s pretty obvious that you’re not in
anything like the position the Brents are now. So you can see how it
would have been likely to strike me when I first found it out. But
Harry is what he is. I trusted him, just as you trusted Viola. And
afterwards I saw Viola. If I can think of her as I do, you ought to be
able to think of Harry in the same way, though you haven’t seen him.”

“Very well, then,” said Bastian. “Let’s take it that, leaving out
things that don’t matter, they’re to be looked at in the same way. Of
course I know, really, that he’s something quite out of the common.
I’ve heard the people there talk about him. If I hadn’t thought there
was no harm in it—for Viola—I shouldn’t have treated it as I have. But
you see, Wilbraham, as a father I’ve got to look a little farther ahead
than you do. I suppose to you it’s just a boy and girl falling in love
with one another in all their innocence, and if nothing comes of it no
harm will be done. Well, it wouldn’t to him. But it’s rather different
with her, isn’t it?”

Wilbraham was silent. That was exactly as he had looked at it, on
Harry’s behalf. And it would be different for Viola.

“If he’s what you say he is,” said Bastian, pursuing his advantage, “he
won’t want to throw her off when he gets older. But his people will
want him to, and when they know they’ll try to bring it about. Harry
and Viola! Yes. But it’s me and Lady Brent, you see, as well—as she
seems to be the one that counts most. I don’t know anything about the
boy’s mother; they don’t talk about her much down there. It’s his
grandmother who seems to count for everything. Who was his mother, by
the by?”

Wilbraham had forgotten until that moment the photograph on the
mantelpiece. He awoke to its realization with a mental start. If
Bastian had not shown himself ignorant of Mrs. Brent’s origin he might
have succumbed to the instinct for the dramatic and surprised him by
pointing her out in reply to his question. But when the question came
he had just received the impression of loyalty on the part of Mrs.
Ivimey, or anybody else to whom Bastian may have talked about “the
family.” They had not given Mrs. Brent away. He wouldn’t either, at
least at this stage.

“Nobody in particular,” he said with a half truth. “They were only
married for a few weeks. Lady Brent is Harry’s guardian, and of course
she’s had most to do with bringing him up more or less in seclusion at
Royd. I suppose you know that he has gone off to enlist.”

“Yes, and I suppose you’ve come here to find out from Viola where he is,
and haul him back again.”

Wilbraham told him why he had come up. “I shall go and see Gulliver
to-morrow,” he said, “and get him to make inquiries. Then I hope in a
few days Harry will write. She’ll be satisfied with that, and whether
Gulliver finds him or not she won’t make any attempt to get him back.”

“Well, you’re a funny crew altogether,” said Bastian, after they had
talked a little longer. “As far as I’m concerned, Wilbraham, I’m going
to keep my eyes open. You needn’t look to me to back up your ideas, if
it doesn’t suit me to do so. Better have all your cards on the table.
They’re both much too young yet to think about anything further, and I
suppose he’ll be too young for another few years. You can hug your
secret for the present.”

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