REVOLT

Lady Brent sat in her business room, engaged in affairs, or apparently
so. Business room it was called, but it was little like one except for
the large writing-table in the window at which she sat, and as a matter
of fact she transacted most of the actual business of house and estate
which fell to her share in a room downstairs called the Steward’s room,
which was far more severely furnished. This large upstairs room, with
its deep embrasured window looking on to the park, was her fastness, and
she did not often withdraw herself into its seclusion. It was next to
her bedroom, and might have been better called her boudoir, but that the
ancient and severe splendour of its furnishing would have seemed to
rebuke such a name. It was richly carved and panelled, the furniture
was heavy and sombre, and lightened by none of the modern touches which
made the long drawing-room downstairs, which was mostly used, bright and
even gay. This room was as characteristic of the old romantic Castle as
any in it. It spoke of a time long gone by, and of a life more austere
than modern life is apt to be. There were few comforts in it but a
great deal of rich massive dignity. When Lady Brent ensconced herself
in it she was the chatelaine of the Castle, seated in state, and as
formidable as it was in her power to make herself.

Mrs. Brent, coming in from the Vicarage, wrought up to her purpose,
looked for her in the long drawing-room, and not finding her there had
the intuition that she was in her business room. She hesitated a little
before going upstairs to verify it, making a further draught upon her
determination. Of course! She had known that it was coming to a row.
She was as sharp as a cartload of monkeys, and had seen that the row was
likely to occur just at this very time. That was why she had taken to
her business room, when by all usual habits she would have been sitting
downstairs or in the garden, during the hour before luncheon.

So thought Mrs. Brent, mounting the oak staircase, and summoning all her
resolution. She wouldn’t be awed by the stately lady in the stately
room. After all, it was only a piece of play-acting. She knew
something about play-acting herself. She would be cold and stately too,
announce her determination and then go away. She’d show that she wasn’t
to be put upon. Perhaps it would be easier like that. There would be
no leading up to the subject and no discussion after it, as there must
have been if she had joined her mother-in-law downstairs, and felt
compelled to sit on with her.

But she knew, as she opened the door, that it would not be easier.

“Oh, I wondered where you were. I just wanted to say something to you,
if you’re not too busy.”

The tone did not seem right, somehow, even to herself. Lady Brent
turned round from the table at which she was sitting, and took off the
tortoise-shell rimmed glasses which she wore for reading and writing.
She did not look in the least degree formidable—a well-preserved,
well-dressed, middle-aged lady, not really obliged to wear glasses, even
for reading and writing, and not wanting them at all for anything else.
“Yes, certainly, Charlotte,” she said, “I have nearly finished what I
came here to do, and you are not interrupting me at all.”

Mrs. Brent had an impulse to make up some trivial message and go away,
but conquered it. Her voice shook a little as she said, still standing:
“I wish to go up to London, for a few days—say a week—as soon as
possible.”

Again she had not satisfied herself. She had used the prim reserved
tone of a maid giving notice—”I wish to leave at the end of my month.”
It seemed to her that she had only just prevented herself adding, “my
lady.”

Lady Brent received it much as she might have received notice from a
servant, whose temporary dissatisfaction with her place must not be
taken too seriously. “Why do you want to do that?” she asked, in a
level, even a kindly voice.

It touched some chord in Mrs. Brent. She had, perhaps, prepared herself
for a peremptory refusal, and if it had come she would have been ready
to combat it, and obstinate to push her determination through. But
supposing her request should, after all, be granted! That would put
everything right and save a lot of trouble.

All the irritation she had been piling up against Lady Brent would be
dissolved. She did not want to quarrel with her, if it could be
avoided. She would have to go on living with her, whether she had a
short respite now or not. And it had not always been so very
disagreeable to live with her.

“Oh, I must, I really must,” she said. “I can’t stand it any longer.
Just a week! I’ll go and see my mother, and be as quiet as possible.
Harry needn’t know I’m going to her, if you don’t want him to, though I
don’t see what difference it would make.”

“I think I do,” said Lady Brent quietly. “But perhaps you’d better sit
down, and talk it over. What is it you can’t stand any longer? If
there’s anything wrong here we ought to be able to put it right. Only I
must first know what it is.”

Mrs. Brent sat down. She saw that her appeal had been a mistake. She
could not now coldly state her intention and support it against
opposition, behaving as one stately lady towards another, as she had
pictured it to herself, coming up the staircase. And of course Lady
Brent did not mean to let her go, if she could help it.

She sat down in a high-backed Carolean chair. “I don’t want to go into
all that,” she said stiffly. “I shall be able to stand it all right
when I come back. A little holiday is what I really want, and what I
mean to have. It’s not much to ask, after nearly eighteen years. Well,
I say ask—but I’m not asking. I’m just telling you that I’m going away
on Thursday, or perhaps Friday, and I shall come back in a week—or ten
days.”

It was not quite the address of one stately lady to another, but it
seemed to have served its turn. Lady Brent turned back to her
writing-table and took up her rimmed spectacles.

“Very well,” she said.

Mrs. Brent sat in her high-backed chair, looking at her. She placed her
spectacles upon her well-shaped nose, and took up her pen. Then she
said, as calmly as before: “If you tell me you are going there is no
more to be said. I’ll finish what I’m doing now, before luncheon.”

“Then you’re ready for me to go; you don’t mind,” said Mrs. Brent.

“It doesn’t much matter whether I mind or not, does it? You tell me you
are going. You refuse to discuss it with me?”

“Well, I don’t want to make trouble. It’s no good talking over things.
There’s nothing much wrong, really. If I go away now for a bit I shall
be all right when I come back. I expect, really, I shall be rather glad
to get back.”

Lady Brent put down her pen and took off her spectacles. “Oh, but if you
go away you won’t come back,” she said, turning towards her again.
“Surely you understand that!”

Mrs. Brent felt that she had been entrapped into an opening unfavourable
to herself. Now was the time, if she had it in her, to exercise the
restraint and reserve shown by Lady Brent. But it was not in her; she
became angry at once, and showed her anger.

“Of course I might have known that you were leading me on,” she said
bitterly. “I dare say it seems very clever to you, and it’s what you’re
always doing. But I’m not going to give in to it any more. I’m going
away—only just for a little holiday—and I’m coming back. You can’t
prevent me. This is my home. I’ve lived here getting on for eighteen
years—me and my child. I dare say you’d like to keep him and get rid of
me. But you can’t do it.”

“If I wanted to do that I could do it,” returned Lady Brent; and, as the
statement brought no immediate response, she repeated it, in the same
level tone but with slightly increased emphasis. “If I wanted to do
that I could do it.”

“Perhaps you could do it, by law,” said Mrs. Brent. “I don’t know
anything about the law, except what you’ve told me. Perhaps you could
and perhaps you couldn’t. But there’s one thing you can’t do, and
that’s take away my child’s love for me, though I dare say you’d like to
do that too. You don’t suppose that if I went away and came back here
and you had me turned away from the door, you wouldn’t hear something
about it from him. You don’t suppose that, do you? He’s pretty near a
man now. You’re his guardian till he comes of age; I know that you had
yourself made so by the law, and I didn’t make any objection; you told
me it was best for him, and I believed you. But you’d find it wasn’t
all a question of law if you tried any game of that sort. I don’t know
what Harry would do, but I do know that whatever he did it wouldn’t suit
your book.”

Lady Brent had listened to this speech without showing the smallest sign
of discomposure, but her light blue eyes were hard and cold as she said:
“There is a good deal of truth in what you say. Your going away would
completely upset everything that has been done during the last eighteen
years for Harry’s benefit. Both you and I have made sacrifices on his
behalf. We agreed to do so when you came here before he was born. I
have kept strictly to the bargain. I should not, for my own pleasure,
live the retired life that I do here, all the year round, with you as my
constant companion. For my own sake I should be immensely relieved to
say good-bye to you for a time, if it were possible.”

“Yes, that’s the sort of nasty thing you say.”

“Isn’t it exactly what you say to me? Why should you suppose your
society is any more gratification to me than mine is to you?”

“I wish to goodness you would say good-bye to me, then, for a time. Why
isn’t it possible? It is possible. I tell you I’m going, and I’m coming
back.”

“Do you remember anything at all about the bargain we struck when you
first came here, or have you forgotten it entirely, after nearly
eighteen years, as you say?”

“Of course I remember it. You didn’t mince your words then any more
than you do now. You made me feel that I was dirt beneath your feet,
but you’d put up with me for the sake of preventing my boy—if it was to
be a boy—doing what his father had done, and marrying somebody he loved,
if you didn’t think she was good enough for him.”

“You can put it like that if it pleases you. You consented to
everything. You yourself wanted the child brought up with nothing to
remind him that on one side his birth wasn’t suited to his long ancestry
on the other. I warned you what the sacrifice would be. It meant
giving up your own people, for one thing, and you gladly consented to do
that. It meant your doing your utmost to fill the position that I
freely offered you here.”

“So I have done my utmost.”

“And now, when what we agreed to do together has turned out better than
either of us could have hoped for, when we are very nearly at the end of
it, and can send Harry out into the world what we have made of him here,
you want to break the bargain. And why? Not for any good it can
possibly do him, but just because you want to go back to what you were
before you came here—for your own petty selfish pleasure.”

“It isn’t that,” she said vehemently. “I say it isn’t natural that
anybody should cut themselves off from their own flesh and blood. I
loved my father and he died without me setting eyes on him. You let me
write to mother then. I didn’t do it without asking you, and——”

“Didn’t we strike the bargain afresh then? Didn’t I say I was sorry
that it should have been required of you to cut yourself off from your
family, but that it had already then proved to be the right course? And
didn’t you agree with me, though it was harder for you to bear then than
at any time?”

The tears came. “Of course it was hard, then,” she said. “But you were
kind to me. So you were when I first came. If I was giving up
something, I was going to get something too. All that I’d been was to
be forgotten, though it isn’t true that I’d been anything that I ought
not to have been. Harry was to grow up knowing me as belonging here.
You were to be his legal guardian, but he was to be my child.”

“Yes, and I might have struck a much harder bargain with you than that.
You would have consented. I might have taken the child and paid you
off. That’s often done, you know, in cases like yours.”

She was sobbing now. “You’re cruel,” she said. “Yes, you are cruel,
even when you’re pretending to be nice. You like hurting me. Pay me
off! Anybody’d think, to hear you talk, I’d been a loose woman.”

“I’ve never said that, or implied it.”

“No, you’ve never said it. You wouldn’t dare. But you’ve made me feel
that’s how you look at me. Why didn’t you pay me off, then, and get rid
of me?”

“Exactly. Why didn’t I?”

“Well? I’m asking you.”

“I was willing to give you your chance. Whatever I may have thought of
you, I didn’t want to deprive you of your child, or him of his mother,
so long as you were ready to make yourself the kind of mother he ought
to have had. You said you’d do it. You were grateful to me. You
consented to every stipulation I laid down. The chief of them all was
that you should break absolutely with your past until he came of age.
Then you could do what you liked; it would be between you and him. Now
you want to break that stipulation. I say that if you break it on one
side you break it on the other; I also say that it would be a very
wicked thing to break it, now at this time.”

“It wouldn’t be if you’d just let me go away for a bit and come back.”




“That I won’t do. Why do you want to go away? It isn’t just to see your
mother. I know that well enough. You want the life of London, the life
you led there before Harry was born—theatres, and suppers and gaiety,
with the sort of people that you ought to be ashamed of mixing yourself
up with, when you think about Harry, and what he is. You’ve done
without it for nearly eighteen years. For goodness’ sake do without it
for a little time longer. Don’t knock down what we’ve been building up
for all these years, just for a selfish whim. Think of Harry, not of
yourself.”

“I do think of him. I love him better than anything in the world. I’d
go barefoot if it was to do something for him.”

“You’re not asked to go barefoot. All you’re asked to do is to go on
living the quiet but very comfortable life that you’ve lived here for
years past, and make the best of it. It’s what I’m doing myself.”

She dried her eyes and rose from her chair. “I see I’m not going to get
any kindness from you,” she said. “But I’ll think about it. Perhaps I
shan’t go. I’ve stood it so long that perhaps I can stand it a bit
longer. If I was _sure_ it was for Harry’s good I’d never move out of
the place till I was carried out. I’ll think about it and let you
know.”

“You needn’t let me know anything,” said Lady Brent. “If you go you go,
and if you stay you stay.”

With that Mrs. Brent left her. She did not immediately return to
whatever she had been doing, but sat looking out through the open
casement across the open spaces of the park to the woods beyond. Her
face was still hard and still watchful. By and by she looked at her
watch, and almost immediately a knock came at the door. She answered as
if she had been expecting it, and Wilbraham came into the room.

There was a sullen discontented expression on his face, which was
unusual with him. He had kind lazy eyes and a whimsical twist on his
mobile lips; but all that was obliterated.

He took his seat without invitation in the chair recently vacated by
Mrs. Brent. “I want to go away for two or three weeks’ holiday,” he
said, scowling slightly, and handling his bunched fingers. “Now you’re
going to have that man over from Burport for Harry’s mathematics he can
do without me—say for a month. He’s well up in my subjects. The more
he works at his mathematics the better it will be for him.”

“Why do you want to go away just now?” she asked, as she had asked of
Mrs. Brent.

“Why does anybody ever want to go away?” he said. “I want a holiday,
and if I’m to go on here I must have one.”

“If you want a holiday from work, there ought to be no difficulty about
that. You know what’s best for Harry. If you think that Mr. Fletcher
will be of more use to him now, by all means arrange it like that and
leave yourself altogether free for a time.”

“Thanks very much. Of course I shouldn’t want to do anything that would
keep Harry back. You know that.”

“Oh yes, I know that. He was to come first in everything. That was
agreed upon between us when you first came here. I saw very soon that I
could leave questions of education entirely to you, and I have always
done so.”

“Well, now I want to go away for a month or so. I’m getting stale. I’m
not doing him justice.”

“Perhaps not. I’ve been feeling that for some little time. But I don’t
think it would help you to do him justice if you went away so that you
could drink, and undo everything that——”

“Lady Brent!” He was startled and outraged, and glared at her
terrifically.

She was not moved. “That’s what’s the matter with you,” she said, in
the same even voice, “though you may not acknowledge it to yourself.
I’m very sorry that this has happened. I had thought that after all
these years the craving had left you. I don’t think it can be as strong
as it was. I ran the risk when I asked you to come here, and helped you
over the difficult time. It is years since you told me last that the
desire was strong in you, but it was easier to overcome it. What a pity
to give way now!”

His deep frown had not altered while she was speaking. “Give way!” he
echoed. “I’ve no intention of giving way. You’ve no right to speak of
that at all. It was all over long ago.”

“I helped you to get over it, didn’t I?”

“Yes, you did. I’m not denying it. You can be a good friend to a man
when it suits you; to a woman too, I dare say. But you’re difficult to
live with. I want to get away for a time. There’s nothing to fear, of
that old weakness. Perhaps I ought not to resent your bringing it up
against me, but——”

“You wouldn’t resent it if what I say wasn’t true. You may not know it
yourself, but you’re playing with the idea of giving way. If you did
give way you’d be very sorry for it afterwards, no doubt, but the
mischief would have been done. You’d no longer be a fit companion for
Harry. It’s him I’m thinking about. You can do what you like, but if
you go away you don’t come back. It’s what I’ve just said to Charlotte,
who wants the same as you do. I’m not going to have everything spoilt
when our task is coming near its end. If she’s a foolish woman, you’re
an intelligent man. You can see it all as well as I can if you clear
your mind of its vapours. You know it wouldn’t do. You must stay here
until you have finished with Harry. Then you can do what you like—stay
here or go away.”

“It won’t matter what becomes of me then, I suppose.”

“I said that you could stay here if you liked. This has been your home
for ten years. It can go on being your home as long as you value it; or
at least as long as I have anything to do with it.”

He sat looking down, still frowning; but his frown had more of thought,
and less of anger in it now.

He threw a glance at her sitting there self-possessed and at ease, and a
wry smile came to his lips. “Why can’t you always behave like that?” he
asked. “I suppose the fact is you’ve worked off all your temper on that
poor little creature who’s been telling you just the same as I have. I
met her crying on the stairs just now, and she wouldn’t tell me what it
was about. But I could guess.”

She showed some surprise, but no resentment. “My temper!” she
exclaimed. “Well, I suppose I must pass that over in the state to which
you’ve reduced yourself.”

His face became moody again. “I won’t ask you what you mean by that,”
he said. “But you’re quite wrong in what you said just now. Would you
consent to my going away with Grant, if I could get him to come with me?
He’s rather a fool, but I’d rather have his company than—than——”

“Than mine, I suppose. No, I wouldn’t consent to that. You came here
on certain conditions, and you must keep to them. It won’t be for very
much longer now. I’m not altogether without sympathy with you. I’ve
felt the strain myself.”

He broke into a loud laugh, and went on laughing, while she waited
patiently for him to finish, as if no vagary on his part could surprise
or upset her.

“Oh, that’s too rich,” he said, “in that tone! Yes, you’ve been feeling
the strain, and you’ve made us feel it. That’s all the trouble. Well
now, look here, Lady Brent, I accept what you say about its being too
late to alter things now—or too early—whichever you please. We’re all
three of us in the bargain, I take it. It was your idea to keep the boy
shut up here, and it has paid. I don’t believe it would have paid nine
times out of ten, and we’ve yet to see how it will turn out when the
test comes. But Harry being what he is, it has been a brilliant
success—so far. You’ve been justified in keeping me and his mother shut
up here too.”

“And myself, you must remember. I’ve shut myself up too, so as to make
it seem all the most natural thing in the world to him.”

“Quite so. And you’ve suffered for it, just as we have. Suffered in
your temper. If we stick to it, as we must, you ought to make it as
easy for us as possible. You haven’t lately.”

“So Charlotte seemed to imply. But I should like to know how.”

“Oh, you know how, well enough. You said I was a man of intelligence
just now. Well, you’re a woman of intelligence. Just think it over.”

He nodded his head, knowingly. He looked rather ridiculous, and Lady
Brent laughed.

“I wish you’d go away,” she said. “I want to finish what I’m doing
before luncheon. You may tell Charlotte, if you like, that I’m sorry if
I spoke harshly to her just now. She annoyed me and I did not pick my
words. When three people live together year in and year out they are
apt to get annoyed with one another occasionally, for no particular
reason.”