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Brent's Folly by Marjorie Bowen

Published in Crimes of Old London, Odhams Ltd., London, 1919

They said each Brent had his folly, a horse, a woman, a building, an idea, but the present Brent outshone his ancestors by the blatant coarseness of his particular caprice.

When his father had seriously encumbered the estates to build on another wing with a massive ballroom that accorded ill with the Tudor Manor house, the county had remarked that the historic folly of the Brents had passed the limits of the picturesque and romantic and become very like stupidity.

The next Brent, however, excelled the foolish action of his father, for his folly took the form of flesh and blood; to make a mistake about a woman, said the county, was worse than to make a mistake about a building, though there were some cynics who declared that the latter error was worse because the woman passed with her generation and was easily forgotten, whereas the stone and brick remained a lasting annoyance till someone had the courage, time, and money to remove it.

But while she was there, certainly the woman was the greater cause for marvel, the greater shame to the good taste and intelligence of the Brents.

If she had been outrageous, impossible, an actress, a foreigner, a milkmaid, it might have been a folly forgiven and even admired.

If she had been ugly and very rich, or beautiful and very poor, it would have been a thing condoned--an action with at least a motive, some reason to explain the extravagance, the departure from the usual which was more or less expected of the Brents.

But here there was nothing of wonderful, nothing of romantic--nothing to make people startle and stare.

She was the younger daughter of a dull, middle-class family of correct education and morals, neither plain nor pretty, with bad health and a lethargic temperament, and most dismal dull in company.

She excelled in nothing, her taste was of the worst, she could not manage her servants nor her acquaintances, she was jealous and sullen and entirely indifferent to all that makes the fire and colour of life.

And she was five years older than her husband, and after many years of marriage was still childless.

And this was the folly of the last Brent, Sir Roger, handsome, accomplished, brilliant, wealthy.

People asked each other what hidden motive had induced him to offer all to this woman who could not even appreciate what he gave.

Of all the follies of the Brents this was the most inexplicable.

If she had been only wicked, the thing might have been understood, if she had shown the least sign of any of the arts and graces of an enchantress he would have stood excused.

But she was neutral, she was nothing, she had not a single charm that would have induced an ordinary man to choose her for the love of a season, and instead Roger Brent had chosen her for his wife--this was what was neither understood nor forgiven.

The county disapproved and showed its disapproval; Sir Roger lost many friends; he became a gloomy self-absorbed man, withdrawn slightly from his fellows.

He rarely left Brent Manor; he was a good landlord, a good neighbour, a fine figure among the country gentry--if it had not been for his marriage.

But that had ruined all; Sir Roger at forty was considered as a man with no longer any possibilities before him; he would live and die the squire of Brent Manor, nothing more.

For, like damp ashes on fire, his wife seemed to have choked and stifled all that was eager, ambitious and ardent in Sir Roger; he had sacrificed to this nullity all that a man could sacrifice to beauty and worth.

When Charles Denton, who had known and envied Sir Roger in the days of their common youth, returned to England from Spain, where he had been fulfilling honourable and profitable duties for His Majesty's Government, he heard from several the story of the folly of the last of the Brents.

The last of the Brents and the last of the follies it appeared, since there was no one of the name to carry on the family and the family traditions.

Denton was sorry; he had almost loved Sir Roger, they had been constantly together until Denton's foreign appointment had separated them.

He wrote to Sir Roger and asked if he might spend some of his leave at Brent Manor; Sir Roger responded cordially, and Denton went down to Brent with a little ache of regret at his heart for the fate of his friend.

He found him as much changed as the reports in London had led him to believe he would be, and despite his preparation he was shocked, almost startled.

Sir Roger, for whom 'brilliant' had always seemed the most fitting epithet, had become almost dull; he was silent, almost shy, even with the old friend whom he had seemed so glad to welcome.

His clothes were of an ancient pattern, he was listless in his manner, the unpowdered hair was plentifully sprinkled with grey, the handsome face hard and lined.

The Manor house, too, seemed ill-kept and gloomy.

Denton had an impression of gloom from all his surroundings.

At supper he saw the lady of the house. She was neatly dressed in a gay sacque; her manner was dull and civil.

Denton eyed her in vain for a single merit; her figure was ill-shaped and slightly stooping, her hands and feet were large, her complexion was of an ugly pallor, her features soft and heavy, eyes and hair of a colourless brown, her movements without meaning, her words without grace.

Denton inwardly sighed and the supper hour passed heavily.

She left them early and Denton, spurred by a deep impulse, turned swiftly to his host and asked:

'Why did you marry her?'

Sir Roger was sitting in a dejected attitude with his head a little lowered.

As his friend spoke he looked up, and a smile touched his sombre features.

'You are the first who has had the courage to demand that question,' he responded.

'Or the bad taste,' apologized Denton.

Sir Roger shrugged his shoulders.

'The others were silent and stayed away, you speak and come,' he said.

Denton was indignant for his friend.

'Why should they stay away? The lady is well enough.'

'She blights,' said Sir Roger decisively.

Denton wondered that such a mediocrity should have that power--but it was what he had heard in London.

'A woman,' he replied, 'can keep in a woman's place--why should she interfere with your friends?'

Sir Roger smiled again.

'She is so dull, she deadens, so stupid she frightens, so unlovely she depresses.'

'And yet you married her!'

'Yes, I married her.'

'Why, Roger, why?'

'You wonder?'

'Who would not wonder, you who had everything, might have married a Princess, you might have had the best of life--instead--'

'This!' finished Sir Roger.

'There must be a reason.'

'You think so?'

'Assuredly.'

'Would you like to hear it?'

'Certainly--I came here to hear it,' smiled Denton.

Sir Roger for a while was silent; he was turning over the incidents of his past as one turns the leaves of a long closed book, with wonder and a little sadness at ancient things that once meant so much and now mean so little.

'Is it worth while?' he asked at length.

He rested his elbows on the table and looked rather drearily at his friend.

'What?'

'To tell you--to tell anyone how it happened,' replied Sir Roger.

Denton looked with profound compassion at his lined face, his bowed figure, his gray sprinkled hair, his careless dress.

And Brent looked with a dull envy at the neat elegance of his friend, who, powdered, fashionable, alert, seemed indeed to come from another world than that duty circle which comprised the life of Brent Manor.

'Tell me,' said Denton quietly.

Sir Roger laughed.

'Tell you why I married Lily Walters?' he asked.

'Yes.'

Sir Roger shrugged his shoulders.

'Why not?' he answered.

He turned his eyes, still handsome but lustreless, towards the log fire which flickered in the sculptured chimney place, and his fine hands dropped and clasped slackly on the dark surface of the sombre oak table, where stood the glasses and the fruit and the bottles of old wine.

Then, like one who reads aloud slowly, and with a certain difficulty, he began his strange relation.

'I greatly loved my life. I had everything to make existence pleasant. Health, name, money--wits--you know what I had, my friend.'

'Everything.'

'Everything. But I wished for more. I had a lust for knowledge, for power, for experience--I wished to reach the limits of every sensation.

'For me there was no wine powerful enough, no woman beautiful enough, no gold bright enough--

'I wished to prove everything--to see everything--to know everything.

'For five years I travelled from one country to another; I had enough money to obtain all my desires.

'I had friends, lovers, horses, houses, ships, I travelled sometimes in a coach and six, sometimes on foot, sometimes I lodged in palaces, sometimes I slept in a ditch. I kissed princesses by the light of a hundred candles, and peasant girls by the dewy light of dawn, I stayed at the most dissolute courts in Italy, and I shut myself for months in the austerity of a Spanish convent.

'I experienced poverty, luxury, every day I gained knowledge.

'I practised in music, poetry, botany, medicine, painting, sculpture, astronomy--I sat at the feet of wise men and drew crude knowledge from the unlettered of all countries.

'Still I was not satisfied.

'My health remained vigorous and my mind restless.

'So far I had not found one woman whom I could not replace, one friend whose company was a necessity, one art or science to which I wished to devote my life.

'Then at The Hague I met a certain Doctor Strass, and under his guidance I began to seriously study alchemy and occultism.

'In this I found at last something that absorbed my whole being.

'Here was the love, the passion that should absorb my life.

'For three years I lived for nothing else. I resolved to find the elixir of life.'

Denton moved back out of the candlelight, so that he might more clearly see his friend's face, but Sir Roger was absolutely grave.

He spoke as a man who, with quiet deliberation, relates sober sense.

'The elixir of life,' he repeated. 'The magic powder that should confer on me eternal youth and eternal enjoyment.'

'A strange whim,' said Denton quietly. 'You who had everything.'

'I wished to keep everything,' responded Sir Roger, 'but more than that even, I wished for power.'

'The last temptation of the Devil!' smiled his friend.

'I wished for power,' repeated Brent, 'but I cannot explain. Enough that the thing took hold of me.

'I lived for that alone. Occult studies absorbed my time and largely my fortune and my health.

'I seemed ever on the verge of a discovery; but I attained nothing.'

He paused, and a bitter sadness darkened his sensitive face.

'Nothing,' he repeated. 'I but underlined the failures of others, but repeated once more the tale of delusion and disappointment.

'But in this I had more strength than some, in that I resolved to cease the fruitless and perilous study that had fascinated my entire soul.

'I determined to free myself from what was becoming an incubus.

'I was frightened by the fate of others whom I saw as half mad, half idiotic old men fumbling with their philtres and muttering over their furnaces; in short, I vowed to free myself from what I at last saw as but a net or device of the devil to draw me away from a useful and enjoyable life.

'With this resolve strong within me I returned to England, and my desire for the normal desires of my former life was increased by the sight of familiar faces and sights.

'I made up my mind to enter politics, and was on the point of taking steps in this direction, when an event occurred which again altered everything.'

He paused and pressed the palms of his hands to his brows. Denton was regarding him curiously.

'One day a sober-looking person came to see me. He seemed a doctor or a lawyer of the better sort.

'He was not English; I took him to be a Dutchman or of the Low German nationality--he was habited very neatly and very precise in his speech.

'"I hear," said he without preamble, "that you have studied alchemy."

'"For a while," said I, "but I have left that business."

'Whereat he smiled quietly and drew from his pocket a little box of tortoiseshell like a gentleman's box for snuff, and opening it, he drew out, wrapped in two foldings of scarlet silk, a piece of stone the size of a walnut and the colour of amber. "This is what you have been looking for," he said calmly; "this is what the vulgar called the Philosopher's Stone."

'At these words all the blood went back on my heart, and I begged for a portion with tears in my eyes.

'Whereupon he very comfortably took off a paring with his nail, for the stone was soft like soap, and laid it in the palm of my hand.

'And while I was yet too amazed to speak he left me.

'I had yet with me my retorts and crucibles, and that night I very eagerly tested the portion of the stone on a piece of lead, and when in the morning I poured it forth it was pure rich gold. When this was set I took it round to the jeweller who worked for the court, and asked him what it was, and he told me that it was indeed gold of a finer quality than he had ever handled before.

'I was like a madman, for I had no means of finding my stranger, but that day he came again, and without preamble asked me if I was satisfied, and what I would do to possess the secret which, he declared, had become indifferent to him, as he had passed on to higher studies.

'And he told me about the wonders of this stone, how a few drops of it dissolved in water, if allowed to stand, would leave great rubies and pearls at the bottom, and if taken would confer youth and beauty on him who drank.

'And presently he showed me this experiment, and we sat up all night talking, and in the morning there were the jewels hard and glistening in our hands.

'And then he propounded to me what he would have me do--take some poor mean creature to wife, and with the elixir make her into a goddess.'

Brent paused thoughtfully; Denton was still looking at him with intent eyes.

Sir Roger continued:

'I was to marry her first, to show my trust. I was to present her to the town, and afterwards transform her. The idea pleased me beyond words; it was what no man had ever done before.

'I agreed.

'My stranger presented me to Lily Walters. I easily obtained the consent of her family--in brief, I made a match that confounded all my friends.

'My Dutchman was at the church, and afterwards presented me with a packet, which he said contained the recipe for the famous stone.

'Such was my impatience that I opened it in the coach ere we had reached home.

'It was blank paper.

'I left my bride to run to the stranger's lodging, but he had left.

'I never saw him again.'

Sir Roger ended abruptly and turned his straight gaze on his friend's serious face.

'And that is why I married Lily Walters,' he concluded.

'And the rubies?' asked Denton, quietly.

'She wears them now and then, set in the gold I made with the paring of stone.'

Denton was silent.

'I have searched Europe for that man,' continued Sir Roger sullenly. 'I hope yet to kill him before I die.'

'You would be justified,' said Denton, easily. He rose and crossed to the fire, still looking covertly and intently at his friend.

Sir Roger muttered to himself a little, and presently fell asleep with his head bowed on his heart.

Denton softly left the room.

He was startled to see Lady Brent waiting in the shadows of the great hall.

'I don't think Sir Roger is very well,' said Denton, quietly.

Her plain face quivered and her short-sighted eyes narrowed.

'I always wait up when there is anyone here,' she said simply. 'I never know what he will do.'

They looked at each other.

'He had a strange life before I married him,' continued Lady Brent. 'He brought me a ruby necklace, and told me it had been made by the Philosopher's Stone.'

'Those studies turn a man's brain,' said Denton.

'Oh!' answered Lady Brent in her thin ugly voice. 'Roger has been mad a long time; no one knows the life I lead with him.'

 
 
 

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