LADY BRENT SPEAKS

“Yes,” said Lady Brent, “I will certainly do something.”

Mrs. Brent had told her story. Lady Brent had come home from Poldaven
earlier than she had expected. She had gone up to the Castle and found
her, somewhat to her surprise, in her business room. Surrounded by that
ancient magnificence she had seemed even more aloof and forbidding than
on the last time Mrs. Brent had interviewed her there. But this time
she had felt herself supported by a sense of conciliation in herself.
The fact that after all her struggles and resentments against her
mother-in-law she was now, in the crisis of affairs, putting herself in
her hands, appealing to her for help, and a decision where she could do
nothing herself, would surely soften her. From this interview she at
least had nothing to fear for herself.

But the stiff face and the silence with which she listened to the story
brought a sense of discomfort. Mrs. Brent ended on a note more appealing
than she had intended to use. “He won’t listen to me,” she said, “but
I’m sure he would to you. Can’t you do something?”

lady Brent moved in her chair for the first time. “Yes,” she said, with
a frown, and in a voice that did nothing to remove the discomfort. “I
will certainly do something. I will go up to London this evening.”

“By the night train,” said Mrs. Brent. “Shall I come with you?”

“I think you had better stop here. You have done enough mischief
already.”

“Mischief! I? What do you mean?” She was surprised and greatly
offended, but also a little frightened.

Lady Brent leant towards her accusingly. “He won’t do anything for you,
you say. Why should he, when you treat him as you do? A vain selfish
fool, thinking of yourself all the time and your own mean little
pleasures and dignities! Serve you right if you’ve lost his love for
the rest of your life.”

All Mrs. Brent’s resentments flared up. Lady Brent had been
conciliatory towards her of late, with an evident desire to avoid
conflict, and she had taken advantage of it and lost some of her awe of
her; she had thought of herself almost as having the upper hand, and had
come to this interview prepared to treat with her amicably and be
generous in making some admissions. But she wanted a row, did she? Very
well then, she should have it. All her Cockney fighting spirit was
aroused. She had years of oppression to resent and to revenge. She was
not under her thumb now, to be browbeaten and kept in her place. She
leapt to the opportunity of striking and wounding.

“That’s what you’d like,” she said, “for me to lose his love. You’ve
tried to take him away from me all his life up till now, and you haven’t
been able to do it. Now you’ll make use of this, somehow, to get your
way. But you won’t do it. If he won’t listen to me, he won’t listen to
you. I’m a fool, you say. Yes, I was a fool to come to you and think
you could do anything. You’ve worked and worked to have your own way,
and now it’s ended like this. You’ll suffer for it. You’ll suffer for
it more than I shall.”

Lady Brent listened to this, leaning back in her chair again. When she
spoke her voice was even, but her face was white and her hands lying in
her lap trembled ever so little. If Mrs. Brent’s fury had not blinded
her, she might have noticed these signs and taken warning from them, for
they had never been shown before, even in the sharpest encounters
between them.

“Whatever suffering there is to be,” said the low decisive voice, “I
shall no doubt feel more than you. You’re a very poor creature, and as
long as you have something in life to amuse you you won’t suffer much
through others. I’ve tried to make the best of you, for Harry’s sake.
You’ve had your chance with him—a better chance than you could ever have
had but for me. Sometimes I’ve thought it had succeeded to have you
here, when I’ve wished with all my heart that you could be away. But
the test has come now, and you’ve failed. Yes, you’ve failed, much more
than you know. You’re upset in your foolish way now, but you think I
have only to step in and do something, and it will be put right for you
again. It will never be put right.”

Mrs. Brent had tried to break in once or twice in the course of this
speech, but the level voice had gone on till the end, and the eyes fixed
upon her had never wavered. She realized that nothing would be spared
her, that whatever dislike and hostility she might choose to express in
her anger would be met by a feeling at least as strong, which would find
expression now, after being kept under for years, with a force in
comparison with which her own powers of attack were as nothing. Already
she was affected by it. She glimpsed hatred of her behind the steady
utterance. She had talked freely of her own hatred, but it was a
terrifying thing to feel it returned.

“I don’t know what you’re thinking about,” she said, half sulkily. “I’d
nothing to do with his meeting this girl. I did know her mother, as it
happened, but hadn’t any idea that it was her mother. It isn’t through
me any more than through you that he’s got himself mixed up with people
like that.”

“That’s all that you can see in it, is it? People like that! You think
this girl is like you were, when my poor Harry came across you. I loved
my son, far more than you have it in you to love yours, but I know he
was weak and foolish; and he was fitly mated. This Harry isn’t weak and
foolish. Do you think he’d be likely to do what his father did? Is
that all you know of him after all these years?”

She tried to control herself. “You may say what you like about me,” she
said, in a voice that trembled a little. “I know you hate me and always
have, for marrying your son, and still more for being Harry’s mother.
But say what you like, Harry is doing exactly what his father did. Why
should you take it for granted that this girl is any different to what I
was? It’s just your spite against me. You haven’t seen her.”

“No, but you have.”

That hit her like a blow in the face. Always battering at the gates of
her mind, to which she had never given it entrance, was the thought that
Viola was surprisingly different from herself, surprisingly unlike what
she would have expected her mother’s daughter to be, though in feature
she resembled her.

Still it was true that Lady Brent had not seen her, and could not know.
“Her mother was an actress, no better than I was,” she said, “—not so
good in many ways. Her father is a scene-painter in a theatre, and
drinks too. My father was a good man, though he may not have been what
you’d call a gentleman. That’s what all your wonderful bringing up of
Harry has led to. If he’d been brought up more naturally, and not
everything and everybody sacrificed to keep him shut up down here, it’s
very unlikely that this would have happened.”

“You think that, do you, in your loving wisdom? You had the boy always
before you, and saw what he was growing into. So did I, and I trusted
him. You couldn’t.”

“I don’t mind your sneers. At any rate, on the first opportunity he
does what any other boy might do. He meets a girl and falls in love
with her, and keeps it from us all the time he’s meeting her, and
afterwards.”

“Keeps it from you, I suppose you mean.”

“Keeps it from all of us, I said. Did you know any more than I did that
he had met this girl down here?”

“Of course I knew.”

She could only sit and stare, with her mouth a little open. Whatever
she may have thought of, it had never been this.

Lady Brent did not treat her disclosure as a triumph to be dwelt upon.
“How could I help knowing?” she went on. “I loved Harry. Nothing could
have happened in his life to alter it that I shouldn’t have noticed.
When I saw that something had happened I waited until it came to me what
it was.”

“You knew, and you let it go on!” The revelation had taken all the
sting out of her. She was more interested than offended.

“Didn’t I tell you that I trusted Harry? I knew what he was, if you
didn’t. I should have known if he had taken a wrong turning in life,
and then I should have tried to influence him. When I did know what had
happened I knew well enough that he hadn’t taken a wrong turning, by the
way he bore himself. You couldn’t see that. You can’t even see it
now.”

Mrs. Brent’s surprise was still strong enough to swamp her resentment at
wounding speeches. “Why didn’t you do anything afterwards, when he went
away?” she asked. “You did do something. You got Sidney Pawle down
here. You hoped that she and Harry would fall in love with one another.
I know that. You thought they had. I know that too. I think you’re
making yourself out cleverer than you are, though I don’t deny you were
clever, if you found out what nobody else did.”

“It matters very little to me,” said Lady Brent, “what you deny or what
you accept. You’ve made yourself nothing and you are nothing. I
believe that this girl Harry loves is worthy of him, or he wouldn’t have
gone on loving her. But they were both very young. It might have died
out of itself. I didn’t know whether it had or not. I might have found
out, but I wouldn’t take any steps to do that. And even if the girl is
worthy of him, there are objections otherwise. You have named them
yourself. There are no such objections to Sidney Pawle. I should have
been glad if Harry’s first attachment had worn itself out and he could
have married her. Yes, I did hope that they might have fallen in love
with one another. You are right there. You are quite wrong in saying
that I thought they had. You may have thought so, who knew so little of
Harry. I knew very soon that there was something in the way.”

Mrs. Brent was beaten. Even resentment no longer moved her. She wanted
to ward off further blows, and to propitiate. “When you go up to
London, shall you tell Harry that we are ready to recognize his
engagement to this Viola Bastian?” she asked.

Lady Brent seemed to take breath. She had given her explanation as to
one with whom she might have been talking on equal terms. But there was
still punishment to be dealt out, the smouldering fire of years of
dislike and contempt, which had been banked up so as only now and then
to show a flicker, but now could be allowed to burst into scorching
flame.

“Why should I tell you what I mean to do?” she said, with fierce scorn.
“Stay where you are till I’ve put right what you hadn’t the sense or the
heart to do; and don’t meddle. Then you can go where you like and do
what you like; only not here. For years I’ve had to live with you, and
bear with your ignorance and vanity and folly, and keep you from going
back on what you’d set your hand to of your own free will. I’ve
defended you from your silly selfish self, so that your own son
shouldn’t see what a thing of naught you were. You’ve had your chance
up to the last moment. Directly it depends upon yourself you can only
strike the son you say you love in his tenderest place, and then come
snivelling to me to mend the damage you’ve done. You want me to put
myself on your side, and treat him as you did. Be very sure that I
shall treat him in no way as you have done. I’ve stood aside all these
years, so as not to take what was owing to you, as I might well have
done if I’d lifted a little finger. Now I’ll take whatever I’ve earned.
Mend your own broken pieces if you can. I’ll do nothing to help you.
Live your own useless selfish life. You shall have money for it. But
live it away from here. You told me once, in one of your foolish
discontented fits, that this house was like a prison to you. You’re
free of your prison. Go; and do what you like with your liberty.”

She rose suddenly, and went out. Mrs. Brent sat for a time where she
was, with a white frightened face. Then she went out of the room too,
and out of the house, weeping silently. She would not stay there
another minute. She would not run the risk of meeting that terrible
woman again, who had treated her so wickedly. She would never see her
again, and as for taking money from her—she would work her fingers to
the bone before she would touch a penny. She went down to the Vicarage,
where she poured out her outraged feelings to Mrs. Grant, and gained
some consolation from her. A strong cup of tea also did much to comfort
her, and after that she went to bed with a headache. Exhausted by the
emotions of the day she slept throughout the night, which Lady Brent
spent sitting upright in a railway carriage, her endless thoughts
running to the steady beat of the train.

Wilbraham met her in London very early in the morning and took her to
her hotel. “Harry went off yesterday,” he told her. “I sent your
telegram on to him, but there has been no answer yet. There may be one
to my rooms this morning. But it doesn’t very much matter, does it, as
long as he knows that you are going to see Viola?”

“If he should be killed!” she said. It was the thought that the iron
wheels had dinned into her brain all through the night. She could not
help giving it utterance; but she said immediately, “Oh, we mustn’t
think of that. You have arranged that I am to see the girl this
afternoon?”



http://www.b-idol.com/

“Yes, I will take you there. You’ll rest during the day, won’t you?
You must be very tired.”

He stole a look at her. She was looking as if the long journey had
tried her severely. He had never thought of her as getting old, but now
he did.

“Yes, I will rest,” she said. “There is nothing else to do. Do you
know I haven’t been in London for twenty years?”

She was looking out of the window of the taxi-cab, at the London streets
beginning to fill up with the day’s traffic. She wanted a respite. The
innumerable questions he had to ask of her must wait.

He breakfasted with her in her private sitting-room, where they could
talk afterwards, if she was so minded, before he went off to his work.
She came to it refreshed, and was ready for him when they were alone
together.

“Tell me about the girl,” she said. “I know she must be good and sweet,
and I know that she has helped Harry through his difficult time.”

“I can’t tell you more than that,” he said, “except that she’s
beautiful, and exactly what you’d want her to be, except perhaps in the
matter of her birth. I don’t say anything against her upbringing, as it
has left her what she is. But you seem to know everything about her
already. I’ve known you for a good many years, but you’re always full
of surprises. The greatest you’ve ever given me is when you wired that
you’d always known. You must have thought of me as a pretty large size
in fools during some of the conversations we used to have. How did you
find out, and when?”

She smiled at him. “I think you might have guessed that I knew,” she
said, “when I let you come to London to find out about Harry, and to get
a message to him. I didn’t particularly want you to know then, because,
to tell you the truth, I did rather hope that it wouldn’t continue. I
saw that it had done him no harm, but it still might have been nothing
more than a pretty boy and girl love-making. Then I shouldn’t have
wanted him to know that I had surprised his secret.”

“No,” he said. “You showed infinite wisdom, as you always do. But tell
me how you knew.”

“Something had happened to Harry. I think I must have guessed it the
very first time he met her, or at least when he found out he loved her,
and I think that must have been the first time he met her, or why
shouldn’t he have told us? I was always on the lookout for changes in
him, and you see I knew the signs of this change. Harry is much more
like my dear husband was, when he was young, than he is like his father.
It was only that kind of love that could have made him so happy and so
silent and so absorbed. Oh, I knew very soon, and of course I put two
and two together, and knew who it was. Afterwards, little pieces of
evidence came to me, but I didn’t try to seek them, and I didn’t need
them. Nobody guessed they had met. Nobody knew at Royd, except me—and
you.”

He laughed ruefully, and told her how and when he had found out.
“Perhaps you guessed even before I did,” he said. “Were you annoyed
with me for keeping it to myself?”

“I knew that you would have told me, if I had given you any
encouragement. I didn’t want you to tell me. I knew too that you had
seen her and must have thought of her as I think now. If you hadn’t I
think you would have told me anyhow.”

He breathed a sigh of relief. “That’s off my mind then,” he said. “I
didn’t like keeping anything from you. And I’ve told Harry more than
once that he had nothing to fear from you.”

“He couldn’t believe that, I suppose. He might have thought that I
would behave as Charlotte—that light fool—has behaved.”

“You had Harry’s letter before you saw her?”

“Yes, but the post is very late at Poldaven. I went home at once, and
saw her. On my way to Royd I thought how I could bring some of the
truth home to her. I think I made an impression.”

Her voice was as quiet as before, but something in its tone caused him
to look up. “You didn’t spare her, I suppose,” he said.

“No, I didn’t spare her. I think I was cruel. I know I meant to be.
But she’s not worth troubling oneself about. Anger is a debasing
passion, and I’m not sure that mine was altogether righteous anger. I
wanted to make an end of her. I hope for the future I shall need to see
very little of her.”

He looked grave. “Can’t you forgive her, if things go right now?” he
asked.

“Oh, forgive her! If I know anything of her—and I ought to by this
time—she’ll never forgive me. She’ll hate me to her dying day, and I
care no more than if she loved me. What is the love of a poor thing
like that worth? She loved Harry, and what does that amount to?”

“She did love him, though. She did give her life up to him, in the only
way she could have done. It wasn’t in her to make herself happy living
as she did—as we all did—at Royd. But she stuck to it for nearly twenty
years.”

“Oh, yes. I kept her to that. I was fair to her; I gave her her
chance. It would have been an immense relief if she had gone away. If
I hadn’t been fair to her I could have got rid of her easily enough.
She would have gone, and she would never have known that she hadn’t gone
of her own accord.”

He laughed at that. “I think there were times when you nearly allowed
yourself to drive her away,” he said. “Of course I don’t defend what she
did. She had a great chance with Harry, and she lost it. But it is
hard, I suppose, for mothers to lose their sons after they have been so
much to them. There is some excuse for her.”

“I don’t think there’s any,” she replied at once. “And as for its being
hard on mothers, it’s only that kind of mother—foolish and sentimental
and selfish—who puts herself into rivalry with the other kind of love,
when the time comes for it. The love of a child is very sweet, but it
can’t last like that much beyond childhood. She’d had it all. She’s had
it to the full. Nobody tried to deprive her of it, though of course she
accuses me of trying to do so. I might have done. I shouldn’t have
wearied Harry with my love as she has wearied him. I should have been
less exigent, less selfish, controlled myself more. She doesn’t know,
even now, and I shan’t take the trouble to tell her, that she doesn’t
love him nearly as much as she thinks she does. If it weren’t for her
jealousy she would be quite content to live her own life chiefly apart
from him, now he is grown up, and no longer a child to be petted, and to
return petting. She has lived her foolish shallow life apart for the
last two years, and she has let it be known that she thinks herself
raised in living it. Oh, you needn’t worry yourself about Charlotte.
She hasn’t got the depth to feel anything for long.”