DILEMMA

Wilbraham walked up and down in a retired part of the garden where no
one was likely to disturb him. Sometimes, because he had walked rather
farther that afternoon already than was his custom, he sat down on a
garden seat at the end of the alley where he was. But only his body was
at rest; his mind was eagerly searching for the right course. If only
it were as straight and as easy to tread as this soft turfed walk
between the uncompromising green walls, with the evening sun flooding
the narrow space and warming even the sombre tones of the yew to some
leniency!

He did not know where Harry was. He had left him when they had reached
the house. For all he could tell, he might have gone straight back to
Viola; there was an hour yet before dinner. But he would hardly have
come right back to the Castle with him, to talk chiefly about the war,
if he had meant to do that, and he had let drop something which showed
that he had no intention of staying out during the dinner hour. Perhaps
he would go to her afterwards, as he must have done on occasions before.
It did not much matter. He had claimed the right to go to her when he
pleased, and Wilbraham had not controverted it. His authority seemed to
have come to a very sudden end, he thought with a wry smile.

There remained Lady Brent’s authority. Should he invoke it? That was
what he had to decide for himself before he left this garden alley, the
retired scene of his cogitations.

Harry had extracted no promise from him. That pleased him, as it had
pleased Grant when he had acted in the same way over his secret midnight
roaming. They had been justified in their treatment of him to that
extent. He would be ashamed of nothing that he had done, not even to
the extent of asking that it should be kept secret where he had shown
that secrecy was what he wanted—and expected.

That made it all the more difficult for Wilbraham. He would seem to be
breaking a promise if he told Lady Brent, though he had given no
promise. He would at least be setting himself against Harry in a matter
which Harry had claimed the right to decide for himself. He wanted to
be very sure that the boy was wrong in his decision before he did that.

He loved and admired Harry at that moment more than he had ever done.
He had a clearer vision than ever before of the boy’s clean
finely-tempered nature. He felt himself rebuked by it, and what thoughts
he spared for himself, as apart from his duty towards Harry and towards
Lady Brent, worked rather sadly upon the conviction of his own weakness.

He had kept silent about his previous visit to Bastian only partly
because of his wish to judge further for himself before he gave or
withheld the suggested invitation to the Castle. He remembered now the
pleasure with which he had set out that afternoon to go to the cottage,
and knew that its chief source was the anticipation of drinking with
Bastian—drinking just the amount and no more to give him the slight
exhilaration that he had gained the day before. Bastian had offered him
nothing to drink except tea. Viola’s presence in the little parlour had
made the scene of the previous afternoon look ugly in the memory of it.
He was very glad now that it had been so. It would have been too
painful to have the burden of that secret upon him while deciding what
he should do with Harry’s secret. Lady Brent would certainly have
looked upon it as a fall, whatever view he might encourage himself to
take of it.

But surely, weak as he was, he had had something to do with making
Harry, who was of so much finer clay, what he had grown into. He had
pointed him to noble things, fed his mind upon fine utterance of fine
thoughts, opened the door for him to all the rich stores of wisdom laid
up from the past. Yes, he had done that, though he had had small profit
of it for himself. He was consoled by the thought that Harry could not
be what he was if any breath of his own unworthiness had touched him.

He threw off the discomfort. He would act now for Harry’s good, as he
had always acted. There had been nothing wrong in him there.

He threw off, also, not without some impatience, the influence of
Harry’s assuredness. If it was to be accepted that the boy could do no
wrong according to his lights—which really seemed to be what it was
coming to—it was not the less necessary to judge the situation by lights
which did not shine upon him, the glimmer of which, indeed, had been
deliberately curtained from him.

The love of a boy and a girl! Oh, it was a touching thing, when they
were a boy and a girl like Harry and Viola. Wilbraham rejected then and
there any suggestion that might have come from his dinted experience
that Viola was not Harry’s mate in innocence and purity. He had seen
her for himself. All that he knew of her father, all that he did not
know of her origin and upbringing, could go by the board. His heart
spoke for her, his sentiment went out to her. He was a poor, weak,
self-indulgent creature, he told himself, but he did recognize goodness
and purity when he saw it. Besides, what else could have attracted
Harry? He was doubly armed there.

But Lady Brent wouldn’t see it like that. The outside resemblances
between what had happened to Harry’s father and what was now happening
to Harry would be too strong for her. She would think that all for
which she had worked and sacrificed herself through long years would be
destroyed if Harry was caught in the snares of love at this early age.
She would put her spoke in. She would use all the wisdom of which she
was capable—and she had shown great wisdom in the past—in putting a stop
to it; but at least she would try to put a stop to it.

And then what would happen? Wilbraham saw a sharp contest between her
and Harry, and, with the deeper vision that had come to him of the boy’s
character, he felt it to be extremely doubtful whether Lady Brent would
win. There would be a state of open conflict, and Harry would be more
firmly fixed in his courses than before.

Boy and girl attachments—they faded out. It was absurd to suppose that
at seventeen Harry could have any idea of marriage, however much he and
Viola might have played with the overwhelming bliss of some day being
always together. He was not as his father had been; he would marry,
when the time came for him to do so, with a full sense of his
responsibility. And Viola was not like Harry’s mother. No, the danger
of a hasty secret marriage could be ruled out; it was an affront to both
of them to think of it.

Harry would go his way, and Viola would go hers. Their ways lay
naturally very far apart. They might write to each other for a time,
and they might see one another occasionally; but what would it matter?
At the end of four years, when Harry would be twenty-one, it was most
probable that this almost childish love passage would be forgotten, or
exist only as a fragrant memory.

Wilbraham divined in himself at this point a faint regret at the thought
of this beautiful boy and girl ceasing to love one another. Viola had
made a deep impression upon him.

At any rate, there was no harm in it. Probably there was even good in
it. Harry would soon be leaving home, to plunge straight into a world
for which Wilbraham had sometimes thought that his training had been a
dangerous preparation. With this innocent early love of his to
accompany him, he would be armed against many of the temptations to
which sheltered youth does succumb when the shelter has at last been
withdrawn.

Wilbraham felt a sense of relief at having come to these conclusions.
He was sure they were right. Harry had conquered. He should be left
free to sun himself in the glamour of his boy’s courtship. How pretty
it was to think of them billing and cooing like two young turtle-doves
in their leafy fastnesses! Wilbraham’s lettered thoughts flew to
Theocritus, and he murmured soft Greek words to himself, but decided
that there would be a delicacy about the wooing of these children that
could not be matched in Sicilian idylls. He rose from his seat and made
his way towards the house. He had decided. He would leave them alone.

But as he dressed for dinner in a leisurely way, lingering often at his
window to enjoy the scents and sounds of the garden dusk, the thought of
Lady Brent once more occurred to him and his face grew thoughtful again.

Hadn’t he rather left her out of account? If the decision had been so
easy to come to, and seemed so right now it was made, wouldn’t she be
quite as capable of making it as he had been?

Well, perhaps! And whether she arrived at the same conclusion or not,
one thing was quite certain—that she would be vastly annoyed with
Wilbraham if she knew that he had taken it upon himself to decide
without consultation with her.

But his doubts were soon dissipated. He had decided for Harry, and was
with him now. It might be rather painful at some future time to face
her offended surprise, but, after all, he was a man and she was a woman.
And Harry had proved himself a man already. They would only be in the
same boat. Wilbraham smiled to himself, put on his coat and went down
to dinner.

He had had some idea of giving Harry a word to indicate that his secret
was safe, but there was no opportunity before they went in to dinner,
and afterwards he was glad that he had not done so. For Harry did not
even give him a look of inquiry. He chatted and laughed and seemed to
be in a mood of quite unburdened high spirits. So had Viola been, but
Viola had not known that Wilbraham had discovered their secret, and
Harry did. Wilbraham was pleased to think that Harry’s evident absence
of anxiety was the result of his trust in him. He had surprised his
secret and he would respect it. What could he do otherwise? Wilbraham
was confirmed in his decision to leave Lady Brent out of knowledge of
it, but could not forbear an exercise of imagination as he glanced at
her and wondered what she would do if the truth were suddenly blurted
out to her.

A remarkable woman, certainly! She provided another little surprise
that evening when for the first time she seemed to contemplate the
continuance of the war for such a time as would involve Harry in it. It
might be that it would take a year or even more to bring it to a
conclusion. Lord Kitchener was said to have prophesied three years,
which was impossible to believe; but the South African War had lasted
for two, when everybody thought it would be over in a few weeks. It
might be that officers would be wanted more quickly than they could be
turned out in normal times, and that Harry’s Sandhurst training would be
speeded up. They must bear that in mind.

The prospect did not seem to cause her any dismay, or if it did she
concealed it. But poor Mrs. Brent raised a wail of protest. Surely
they couldn’t take boys of eighteen, as Harry would only be in a year’s
time. It would be wicked—unheard of.

“Not unheard of,” said Lady Brent. “And not wicked either. For our own
sakes we should wish Harry kept out of it; but if he were of an age when
others went we should wish him to go. However, let us hope that there
will be no necessity.”




“I don’t think I hope that,” said Harry. “I don’t want the war to last,
because I think war is a horrible thing. All the same, I wish I were
fighting in this one.”

Wilbraham controverted the opinion that war was a horrible thing.
Nations were apt to get lazy and selfish over long periods of peace, and
wanted rousing out of themselves, just as sluggish human bodies did.
War was a tonic and a cleanser.

“Perhaps it is, for those who can fight, with a great idea behind them,”
said Harry. “For all the rest I think it’s beastly. At any rate, an
Englishman could fight in this war and know he was doing the right
thing. I wish I were a year older now.”

Mrs. Brent breathed a deep sigh and looked at him hungrily. It was of
no use her saying anything. If Harry’s fighting or not fighting should
come to be decided on, she would have no voice in the decision. She
looked anxiously at Lady Brent, who only said: “Fortunately, the matter
isn’t in our hands.”

“People of my age are enlisting,” said Harry, shortly.

Lady Brent took this up at once. Perhaps she had already thought of it.
“It is a fine thing for a young man to do,” she said. “But for those
who have shown their willingness to fight through generations there is
an even higher duty, which is to lead. And you cannot lead without the
proper training.”

Harry did not reply, and the subject was dropped. But to Wilbraham, with
his senses more acute from what he had learned of him, came a glimpse
into still other chambers of his mind. His silence was not that of one
who had received an answer which settled a doubtful point. In this, as
in other matters, he would take his own way, but the way was not yet
clear to him, and he would not talk about it beforehand.

It had come of late to be Harry’s habit to stay with Wilbraham after the
women had left the table, while he drank his coffee and smoked a
cigarette. He had done it at first on occasions, but now seldom went
away with his mother and grandmother. It was a habit that marked his
growing manhood, but he could still have left him without remark if he
had wished to do so. If he should leave him to-night, Wilbraham thought
it would be a sign that he did not wish to talk to him again on the
subject of which both their minds were full.

But he came back again after opening the door for his mother and
grandmother.

How young and fair and slender he was, thought Wilbraham, and he moved
lightly across the great hall and took his seat, as of right, in his
chair of dignity. Nothing but a beautiful boy, after all, too young as
yet by years to take upon himself any large responsibilities, and yet
the much older man waited instinctively on him for an indication of the
new relationship that was to exist between them.

The servants came in with the coffee, and until they had left the room
again nothing was said. Harry looked thoughtful, and graver than usual.

When they were once more alone he said: “I want you to do something for
me, and I don’t want Granny to know—nor, of course, mother. It’s for
you to say whether you’ll do it or not, but I want you to promise in any
case not to let them know that I’ve asked you.”

Wilbraham was slightly huffed. “I don’t know why you should want to
extract a promise of secrecy beforehand,” he said. “You didn’t this
evening, but I’ve thought it over and decided to keep to myself what I
found out.”

Harry looked puzzled for a moment, and then smiled. “I hoped you would,”
he said, “for now I shall be able to talk to you about her.”

“Thanks,” said Wilbraham, drily. “I’m glad I’m going to get some
reward.”

Harry laughed. “A young man in love is supposed to be rather a bore,
isn’t he?” he said. “I seem to remember having read so, but people in
love haven’t interested me much so far. Well, but of course that was
for you to decide—whether you’d keep it to yourself or not. You might
not have thought it right to do so; I couldn’t tell. But this is
something quite different—not about Viola, you know. I want you to find
out something for me, and I don’t want Granny to know yet that I’m
thinking about it. You may think she ought to know.”

“I suppose it’s something about the war,” said Wilbraham, with the
memory before him of Harry’s silence after that speech of Lady Brent’s
at dinner.

“I shan’t tell you what it is unless it’s only between you and me,” said
Harry. “I’ve a right to my own thoughts.”

“Very well, then, I promise.”

“I want you to find out for me exactly what chances there are of my
being able to get a commission without going through the regular
Sandhurst training. I don’t think I want to wait for that if there are
other ways.”

Wilbraham considered this. “You’re only seventeen,” he said.

“Nearly eighteen,” said Harry, “and a fine-grown boy for my age.”

“Why shouldn’t you want your grandmother to know? You heard what she
said just now. If things are going to be altered so that training is
cut short, she’s quite ready for you to take advantage of that.”

“Ah, yes. She couldn’t help it, you see. But I think she’d do what she
could to stop me doing anything that could be helped. I want to know if
there is any other way before I say anything to her at all. I know so
little about it. But supposing I could get my commission quicker by
enlisting, for instance.”

“Oh, my dear boy, you wouldn’t want to do that. You heard what she said.
She was quite right there. I believe the men of your family have been
soldiers for as long as the men of any family.”

“That’s just why I want to be one, now there’s some sense in soldiering,
and as quickly as possible.”

“Yes, but as an officer. We’re not so hard pressed yet that we want to
cut grindstones with razors. It would be waste of material for you to
enlist.”

“Not if it led more quickly to being an officer. That’s what I should
do it for. I know it has been done. People did it in the South African
War.”

“Well, yes. But that was in order to go and fight—at once. You’re not
ready for that yet. You won’t be eighteen till December. They wouldn’t
take you anyhow, unless you concealed your age, which, of course, you
wouldn’t do—couldn’t do, either, because you’re known. Besides, your
grandmother, who is your legal guardian, could stop you. Why hurry
things? You’ll be at Sandhurst in a few months’ time. Then if there’s
any way to hurry things up you can find it out for yourself. I don’t
want to act against your grandmother in this, Harry. I don’t think it’s
fair to her.”

“Well, perhaps it wouldn’t be quite fair to you to ask you to do it,”
said Harry, with his engaging smile; “at least, not if nothing could
come out of it. I suppose you’re quite sure that they wouldn’t take me
till I was eighteen.”

“Oh, yes. The proclamations say so. You can see it for yourself.”

“Oh, well, then,” said the boy, rising from his seat, “I suppose there’s
nothing to be done just yet. I only wanted to be quite sure that I
wasn’t leaving anything undone that I could do. I don’t think Granny
takes quite the same view, you know. Anyhow, there’s nothing to bother
her or mother for some months to come. I think mother will be waiting
for me.”

He passed Wilbraham, still sitting at the table, and put his hand on his
shoulder. “I shall see her to-morrow,” he said, in a low voice. He
laughed a boyish laugh of sheer happiness and ran out of the hall.