BASTIAN

Wilbraham picked his way along the woodland path, humming a tune. His
only preoccupation for the moment was to preserve his shoes from getting
wet, for much rain had fallen, and there were spongy patches to be
avoided.

Wilbraham disliked exercise of almost every sort. His bad times, in the
winter, were when he felt impelled to go for a walk, which was for at
least an hour every afternoon unless the weather absolutely forbade. In
the summer he did not mind it so much, except when the heat tried him;
but he would always have preferred to spend his leisure with a book in
the library, or in the garden.

He had long ceased to accompany Harry in any out of door expedition.
They saw quite enough of one another indoors, and their respective
preferences in the matter of pace were so in opposition that it was a
pleasure to neither of them to take the air together. Mrs. Brent
sometimes accompanied him in his constitutionals, but he seldom invited
her to do so. They also saw enough of one another indoors, or at least
he saw enough of her. He liked her, but she did not interest him in
conversation, while she did expect him to interest her. He was quite
capable of doing so, but the effort spoilt the mild refreshment that
came from leaving his brain to wander where it would while his body was
being gently exercised. He found abundant interest in the thoughts of
his well-stored mind, and sometimes stayed out for longer than he had
intended because he had fallen into such an absorbing train of
speculation.

Yet this man, who lived his monotonous life with books as his chief
recreation and his intercourse with his fellows narrowed to the few with
whom he lived, was very fond of company. His walk this afternoon,
longer than he usually imposed upon himself in the heat of summer, was
cheered by having an object other than that of keeping his liver from
troubling him. He was going to make a new acquaintance. This artist,
with the rather absurd name, who was lodging with Mrs. Ivimey, might
possibly be a man of intelligence, with views upon the art he practised;
or he might be a mere commercial dauber. If he proved to be a man of
intelligence, it would be agreeable to exchange views with him, for
after books Wilbraham liked pictures, better even than he liked music.
Or rather, his taste for music had become a little atrophied, since he
was cut off from enjoyment of it, while art could always be read about,
and there were always pictures or reproductions of pictures to be seen.

He reached the cottage on the outskirts of the wood, and looked about
him with pleasure before he entered it. The great open space upon which
it faced was a refreshment after the wooded environment of the Castle,
and the few buildings that enlivened this point relieved it of the
impression of loneliness which was unpleasing to a man of Wilbraham’s
fibre. It was half a mile further by the path he had taken than by the
one he usually took if his humour led him towards the common, but he
thought as he stood there with his hat off, so that the breeze could
cool his brow, that he would come there more often, even if Mr. Bastian
should not turn out to be the sort of person that he might want to come
for.

A well-satisfied gentleman he looked as he stood there leaning on his
stick, his brow rather bald, his presence on the verge of portliness,
though he was not otherwise of the habit of body that runs to flesh.
The look of discontent that Grant had remarked about him on a first
acquaintance was absent now. In his suit of dark grey flannel, with his
black-ribboned straw hat, he had something of a clerical air, and as he
turned towards the cottage his unusually sharp ears heard the sound of
hurried movement through the open window of a downstairs room, and a
voice uttering the words: “The parson come to call! Good Lord, I’m
lost; I can’t get out.”

He stood chuckling to himself as he waited for an answer to his knock.
The door stood open. The artist could not have escaped him if his fears
had been justified. This pleased his humour, especially as he
anticipated the pleasure of bringing relief to him.

Mrs. Ivimey did not respond to his summons, and as he was preparing to
knock again, a door on the left of the little passage opened and the
artist came out to him.

“I’m afraid Mrs. Ivimey is out at the back somewhere,” he said. “Shall
I go and call her for you?”

“Thanks, it’s you I’ve come to see, if you’re Mr. Bastian,” said Mr.
Wilbraham. “I’m tutor to young Sir Harry Brent at the Castle. We heard
you were here, and as we don’t get many visitors at Royd I came to look
you up.”

Bastian’s face changed. “That’s very kind of you,” he said. “Do come
in.”

He led the way into the little sitting-room, and Wilbraham followed him
with the feeling that his visit had justified itself.

Bastian was a tall thin man with a shock of untidy grey hair, but a
curiously young face. His eyes were very light blue. He had a
half-whimsical, half-appealing look, as if he was in a constant state of
amusement at himself and was begging not to be taken too seriously. The
upper part of his face was firmly and delicately modelled, but his mouth
was indeterminate and his chin weak. He was atrociously dressed, in an
old discoloured suit of light grey flannel, and a pair of stained canvas
shoes, and he wore no collar; but he did not apologize for his
appearance. Wilbraham judged him to be about forty-five, but discovered
later that he was three or four years younger.

Mrs. Ivimey’s parlour was furnished with the customary mixture of old
good things and bad new ones. A few canvases stood with their faces
against the wall, and a half-finished picture of a flaming sunset over
the moor and the sea was propped on the mantelpiece. Wilbraham threw a
glance at it as he entered, but could not make up his mind whether it
was going to be a good picture or an exceptionally bad one. There were
some books on the round table in the middle of the room, as well as some
of the untidy paraphernalia of an artist. On a smaller table in the
window was a bottle of whisky, a glass and a jug of water, and by the
side of the table was a shabby but comfortable looking easy chair, upon
which was a book face downwards. The room was full of the odour of
strong tobacco.

“I’m afraid it’s rather like a bar-parlour,” said Bastian. “I have a
horrible habit of smoking shag, which some people object to strongly.
Will you have some whisky?”

He looked sideways at Wilbraham as he spoke, with an engaging smile.
There was something attractive and appealing about him; he was rather
like a naughty child, caught in the act—indoors on a summer afternoon
with his shag tobacco and his whisky and his advanced dishabille.
Wilbraham was one of those who hated the reek of shag, but he forgave
him for it readily and took out his own cigarette case. He did not
reply to the offer of whisky.

“I’ll go and get you a glass,” said Bastian. “I’m afraid there’s no
soda-water, but it’s good whisky and better with water.”

He went out of the room, and Wilbraham stood with his eyes fixed upon
the whisky bottle, and a queer look in them, half of eagerness, half of
repulsion.

Bastian was away longer than it would have taken him to get a glass, and
when he returned he had on a collar and a flowing brightly coloured tie.
He now looked like an artist, and not so much like a broken-down
gentleman-loafer.

“Say when!” he said, pouring out the whisky, and Wilbraham said when,
but not immediately.

“I get tired of painting,” said Bastian. “It’s very hot out there on
the moor, and I didn’t bring a sketching umbrella with me. I thought
I’d have a lazy time with a book. ’David Copperfield.’ One of the best
books, I consider.” He held his head aside as he looked at Wilbraham.

Wilbraham had taken his first sip of whisky. It was only a sip, but his
face seemed to expand under it. His heart also expanded towards a
Dickens enthusiast, and for a time they talked about Dickens, and found
themselves always in encouraging agreement.

“It’s a pleasure to have somebody to talk to,” said Bastian. “I love
being in the country and I hate being in London. I came down here to be
as far away from London as possible, but there’s no doubt one does want
human intercourse. I’m devoted to my little girl, who’s here with me;
but one wants men to talk to.”

“Oh, you’ve got a daughter with you,” said Wilbraham. He had been
considering all the time, underneath the conversation, whether or not
Bastian could be introduced to Royd. He was a gentleman: that was
obvious. But it was equally obvious that he had shed some of the
customs usually followed by gentlemen. Would his innate breeding carry
him through, with women—with Lady Brent? With a man, or at least with
one who prided himself on being able to see beneath the surface, the
shocking old clothes and the shag tobacco would make no difference.
Then there was the whisky. Wilbraham had rather more than a suspicion
that Bastian’s case was not so very different from his own: that whisky
meant a good deal to Bastian. There were signs of it on his smooth
child-like face—a lack of clearness in a skin that was meant to be
unusually clear, a slackness of muscle, a look in the eye and in the
droop of the mouth; and the second—or possibly the third—allowance that
Bastian had poured into his glass had exceeded by a good half inch the
not meagre allowance that Wilbraham had accepted in his own. Perhaps it
might lead to complications to invite him to Royd. If Wilbraham should
decide not to, the daughter might be made an excuse.

“She’s a dear child,” said Bastian. “Her mother’s dead. She was one in
a thousand.” He sighed. “Viola and I are everything to one another.
We’re scarcely ever parted, except when we’re at work. She has to earn
money, poor child, and neither of us manages to earn very much. Still,
we’re happy together, and happiest of all when we leave the streets
behind us and get out into the country.”

He was revealing himself as one of those people who like to pour
themselves out about their own affairs, not so much out of egotism as
from an impulse to show confidence towards their hearers, to establish
relations which shall rest upon no misunderstanding, in which nothing
shall be kept back.

Wilbraham was without that impulse, but he was also without any large
share of egotism. He was interested in other people, and usually
preferred that they should talk about themselves, since few people are
interesting upon any other subject. He had some curiosity about
Bastian’s history, which seemed to have had contradictions in it, when
his refinement of speech and manner was compared with his confessed and
apparent indigence, which was rather below that to which men of birth
and breeding sink, even if they are without the earning capacity.

“How old is your daughter?” he asked, a little confused between the
mention of her as a child and that of her work.

“Sixteen or seventeen,” said Bastian. “I can’t quite remember which,
and I don’t particularly want to. I don’t suppose I shall keep her with
me for many years. She’s a very beautiful girl. So was her mother. And
gentle and sweet and good too—both of them. Ah, whatever I’ve missed in
life—whatever mistakes I’ve made—I’ve had that. There’s nothing in this
world like a good and beautiful woman,—’A lovely apparition, sent to be
a moment’s ornament’—how does it go on? I can’t keep these things in my
head.”

Wilbraham threw a look at Bastian’s glass, of which the contents were
now reduced by half. His speech showed no sign of deterioration—he was
evidently one of those people who could “carry their liquor”—but
Wilbraham recognized his state as one in which the ordinary dictates of
reticence would be considerably relaxed.

His own glass was nearly as full as before. He could quite easily have
gone away and left it there. He felt that the small amount he had
already drunk had done him a vast amount of good, enlightened his brain
and stimulated his body. He had an impulse of pity towards Bastian, who
was under the influence of the desire from which he had emancipated
himself, and of self-congratulation at his own freedom. Thank God that
he could drink what was good for him, and stop there. He was inclined
to like Bastian exceedingly. It might be possible, if he got to know
him better, to help him out of the morass into which he had fallen. It
seemed probable that the state of poverty to which he had come was owing
to habits of intemperance. A man who had had the same inclinations and
might have been brought under by them, but had overcome them instead,
would be the right man to help another, if he could gain his confidence.
And Bastian seemed to be in the mood to give confidence.

“I’m afraid I don’t know your name as an artist,” said Wilbraham with a
glance at the picture on the mantelpiece. “But it’s years since I went
to an exhibition. I’m interested in art, though, and have read a good
deal about the modern movements.”

“Art!” echoed Bastian. “There’s nothing like it, is there? The older I
get the more I love it. Poetry, music, painting—everything. To tell
you the truth, art has been my downfall.”

Wilbraham felt some surprise. He had thought that if Bastian had been
through any experience that might be described as a downfall, it had
been from other causes. “Well, if you’ve followed it when you might
have been doing something else that would have brought you more money,”
he said, “I don’t know that you’re so much to be pitied. If I had the
gift for painting, which I haven’t at all, I’d rather do what you’re
doing now, than get rich.”

Bastian laughed. “I’m afraid I haven’t much gift either,” he said.
“I’m a rotten artist, and I’m a rotten musician, and I’m a rotten poet.
I’ve tried to make my living out of all three; but perhaps you might say
that I haven’t tried very hard. I love ’em all too much. It’s rotten to
have to make your living out of what you love. You want to enjoy it,
not to practise it, unless you’ve got a turn that way. You don’t have
to be a singer yourself to enjoy other people’s singing; it doesn’t
follow that you can paint good pictures because you know a bad one when
you see it. There ought to be scholarships at the Universities for
people with a genius for contemplation, and life fellowships to follow
them up.”

“The holders of life fellowships have sometimes been known to practise
contemplation to an excessive extent,” said Wilbraham.




Bastian laughed heartily. “That’s rather good,” he said. “But what a
pleasant life, eh? These jolly places—and plenty of good company, and
good wine! Why should that happy lot be reserved for people who happened
to interest themselves in one or two subjects, out of all that there are
to interest one, in their extreme youth? I suppose you were at Oxford
or Cambridge in those happy days of long ago?”

“Cambridge,” said Wilbraham. “I was at Christ’s.”

“We must have been there about the same time. I was at Magdalene—a nice
snug little college, and becoming quite an intelligent one, from what
I’ve heard. But I haven’t been there since I came down. They wouldn’t
be very proud of me now, I’m afraid. One or two touts or stablemen
might recognize me perhaps. They had plenty of money out of me when I
had it. I don’t belong to that life any more.”

He had a sudden mournful droop, and drank what was left in his glass.
Wilbraham had lost the impression that he was much affected by what he
had drunk, but it returned now. That drop into self-pitying depression
immediately after smiling excitement told its tale. His own sobriety
was indicated by his glass, still two-thirds full. He had half a mind
to remark upon Bastian’s helping himself to another stiff peg, which he
did with a perfectly steady hand. But he did not know him well enough
yet; the time for that sort of sympathy had not yet come.

But he was more than ever interested in him. His fall must have been
from a higher social plane than he had suspected. Undergraduates whose
money had been spent in connection with horse-flesh usually had more
than the average to begin with, and Magdalene had been a super-sporting
college in his day and Bastian’s day.

“I was the son of a poor parson,” he said. “I got my scholarship, and
if I had worked I should probably have got my fellowship too. I did
work at what interested me, but the devil of it was that it didn’t
interest the dons. Those prizes are reserved for the people who have
the sense to stick at one thing till they’ve got them. Then they can do
what they like. They’re not necessarily the people who are best at
their subjects. I’ve got a real love for the classics, and I probably
know a good deal more about them than a lot of the people who got Firsts
when I only got a Second. It’s the concentration of those few years
that counts.”

Bastian laughed again. “Firsts and Seconds!” he said. “I didn’t take a
degree at all. The smash had come before then, and I was tied up for
life.”

Wilbraham was rather taken aback. It looked as if confidences were
coming, and he had the gentleman’s dislike to receiving them unless they
are given with full intention. “Don’t tell me anything you’ll be sorry
for afterwards,” he said, with another look at Bastian’s glass.

“Oh, my dear fellow, I’m not drunk,” said Bastian. “I drink a lot, and
no doubt it has had a good deal to do with keeping me where I am; but I
don’t get drunk. I don’t often meet anybody like you, who belongs to the
world I used to inhabit. It’s a relief sometimes to unburden oneself.
Besides, there’s Viola. Viola doesn’t often get the chance of talking
to a gentleman. I think you’ll open your eyes when you see Viola. I
haven’t been able to raise myself out of the muck, but it hasn’t touched
her. She’s the flower that has grown out of it.”

Wilbraham still felt some discomfort. If it were true that Bastian
never got drunk, he was none the less under the influence of drink now,
or he wouldn’t have talked about himself with quite that absence of
control. He must have been referring to his wife when he had said that
he had been tied up for life, and men don’t talk to one another in that
way about their wives on a first acquaintance when they are in full
possession of themselves.

“I shouldn’t let anything you told me go any further,” Wilbraham said.

Bastian did not seem to have heard this. He was looking down with a
frown of concentrated purpose. To unburden himself was evidently
imperative on him for the moment, and he was collecting his faculties to
that end.

“I don’t want to give you a false impression,” he said. “My wife was a
woman in a thousand. Never did I have one moment’s regret that I had
married her. I think, if she’d lived, she might have made a man of me
still. Perhaps it was a fluke—I don’t want to make myself out better
than I was, and I was a rotten young fool in those days—perhaps it was a
fluke that she was what she was, because it was only her beauty that I
fell in love with, and I hadn’t the sense then to see what there was
behind it. But what I do say is that my people ought to have seen.
I’ll never forgive them for that, and I’ll never let Viola have anything
to do with them. She doesn’t even know their name, and——”

“I don’t quite understand,” said Wilbraham, as he seemed to be off on
another gallop. “Why did your people object to your marrying?”

“Oh, well of course it was a fool’s trick. I wasn’t even of age, and
she was a girl off the stage, but one of the sweetest, kindest girls
that ever stepped. I only had her for a few years, but I tell you I’m
in love with her memory still. She’s been dead seventeen years and I
miss her as much as ever. Life’s nothing to me, though I’m not old yet;
I buried it all in her grave.”

It was curious, thought Wilbraham, that there should be a story here not
dissimilar from the one that he had lived with for about the same length
of time. But the girl whose father had made the same mistake as Harry’s
had not been shielded from its consequences as he had. She was hardly
likely to have escaped the contamination of the rougher, harder world to
which her father had descended. Wilbraham attributed Bastian’s praise
of his wife largely to the diffuse sentiment of the moment. He had not
otherwise created the impression of a man living upon a life-long
regret. His daughter, if she was the close companion of his poverty and
the witness of his habits, could hardly be the rare and delicate flower
that he painted her, though she was probably beautiful. At any rate it
would be just as well to preserve Harry from contact with her. It would
be an ironic stroke of fate if in this remote corner in which he had
been brought up the glamour of the stage should obtrude itself once
more.

“Is your daughter on the stage?” he asked outright, at this point in his
reflections.

Bastian roused himself, and seemed to shake off completely his mood of
hopeless regret. “God forbid!” he said. “I wouldn’t have risked that,
though if I had I believe she’d have come through it. You must see
Viola. I don’t know where she is now. She’s like a sweet young creature
of the woods—roams about in them all day. That’ll tell you what she is—a
London girl, who can throw London off her altogether when she gets away
from it. She’s less bound to it even than I am. Come up to-morrow,
will you? I’ll tell her to be in to tea. She sometimes takes it out
with her. Can you come about half-past four?”

Wilbraham had been thinking rapidly. If this girl was in the habit of
roaming the woods all day she might come across Harry, who was also in
the habit of roaming the woods. All the ideas with which Wilbraham had
lived for years past gathered themselves into the instinct to watch and
guard. He must see this girl of Bastian’s, and he must be prepared for
what should come, so that he could deal with it without surprise and
without hurry. Fortunately, he had not announced his intention of
calling upon the artist that afternoon. He would say nothing about his
visit at the Castle, but would announce one for the next day.

“Yes, I should like to come,” he said, as he rose from his seat. “I
must be getting back now.”

About a third of the whisky remained in his glass. He stood looking at
it, as Bastian expressed his pleasure in having seen him, and then
drained it off before he left the room.