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A Liberal Education by A.E.W. Mason

 

"So you couldn't wait!"

Mrs. Branscome turned full on the speaker as she answered deliberately: "You have evidently not been long in London, Mr. Hilton, or you would not ask that question."

"I arrived yesterday evening."

"Quite so. Then will you forgive me one tiny word of advice? You will learn the truth of it soon by yourself; but I want to convince you at once of the uselessness — to use no harder word — of trying to revive a flirtation — let me see! yes, quite two years old. You might as well galvanise a mummy and expect it to walk about. Besides," she added inconsistently, "I had to marry and — and — you never came."

"Then you sent the locket!"

The word sent a shiver through Mrs. Branscome with a remembrance of the desecration of a gift which she had cherished as a holy thing. She clung to flippancy as her defence.

"Oh, no! I never sent it. I lost it somewhere, I think. Must you go?" she continued, as Hilton moved silently to the door. "I expect my husband in just now. Won't you wait and meet him?"

"How dare you?" Hilton burst out. "Is there nothing of your true self left?"

* * * * *

David Hilton's education was as yet in its infancy. This was not only his first visit to England, but, indeed, to any spot further afield than Interlaken. All of his six-and-twenty years that he could recollect had been passed in a châlet on the Scheidegg above Grindelwald, his only companion an elderly recluse who had deliberately cut himself off from communion with his fellows. The trouble which had driven Mr. Strange, an author at one time of some mark, into this seclusion, was now as completely forgotten as his name. Even David knew nothing of its cause. That Strange was his uncle and had adopted him when left an orphan at the age of six, was the sum of his information. For although the pair had lived together for twenty years, there had been little intercourse of thought between them, and none of sentiment. Strange had, indeed, throughout shut his nephew, not merely from his heart, but also from his confidence, at first out of sheer neglect, and afterwards, as the lad grew towards manhood, from deliberate intent. For, by continually brooding over his embittered life, he had at last impregnated his weak nature with the savage cynicism which embraced even his one comrade; and the child he had originally chosen as a solace for his loneliness, became in the end the victim of a heartless experiment. Strange's plan was based upon a method of training. In the first place, he thoroughly isolated David from any actual experience of persons beyond the simple shepherd folk who attended to their needs and a few Alpine guides who accompanied him on mountain expeditions. He kept incessant guard over his own past life, letting no incidents or deductions escape, and fed the youth's mind solely upon the ideal polities of the ancients, his object being to launch him suddenly upon the world with little knowledge of it beyond what had filtered through his books, and possessed of an intuitive hostility to existing modes. What kind of a career would ensue? Strange anticipated the solution of the problem with an approach to excitement. Two events, however, prevented the complete realisation of his scheme. One was a lingering illness which struck him down when David was twenty-four and about to enter on his ordeal. The second, occurring simultaneously, was the advent of Mrs. Branscome — then Kate Alden — to Grindelwald.

They met by chance on the snow slopes of the Wetterhorn early one August morning. Miss Alden was trying to disentangle some meaning from the pâtois of her guides, and gratefully accepted Hilton's assistance. Half-an-hour after she had continued the ascent, David noticed a small gold locket glistening in her steps. It recalled him to himself, and he picked it up and went home with a strange trouble clutching at his heart. The next morning he carried the locket down into the valley, found its owner and — forgot to restore it. It became an excuse for further descents. Meanwhile, the theories were wooed with a certain coldness. In front of them stood perpetually the one real thing which had surged up through the quiet of his life, and, lover-like, he justified its presence to himself, by seeing in Kate Alden's frank face the incarnation of the ideal patterns of his books. The visits to Grindelwald grew more frequent and more prolonged. The climax, however, came unexpectedly to both. David had commissioned a jeweller at Berne to fashion a fac-simile of the locket for his own wearing, and, meaning to restore the original, handed Kate Alden the copy the evening before she left. An explanation of the mistake led to mutual avowals and a betrothal. Hilton returned to nurse his adoptive father, and was to seek England as soon as he could obtain his release. Meanwhile, Kate pledged herself to wait for him. She kept the new locket, empty except for a sprig of edelweiss he had placed in it, and agreed that if she needed her lover's presence, she should despatch it as an imperative summons.

During the next two years Strange's life ebbed sullenly away. The approach of death brought no closer intimacy between uncle and nephew, since indeed the former held it almost as a grievance against David that he should die before he could witness the issue of his experiment. Consequently the younger man kept his secret to himself, and embraced it the more closely for his secrecy, fostering it through the dreary night watches, until the image of Kate Alden became a Star-in-the-East to him, beckoning towards London. When the end came, David found himself the possessor of a moderate fortune; and with the humiliating knowledge that this legacy awoke his first feeling of gratitude towards his uncle, he locked the door of the châlet, and so landed at Charing Cross one wet November evening. Meanwhile the locket had never come.

* * * * *

After Hilton had left, Mrs. Branscome's forced indifference gave way. As she crouched beside the fire, numbed by pain beyond the power of thought, she could conjure up but one memory — the morning of their first meeting. She recollected that the sun had just risen over the shoulder of the Shreckhorn, and how it had seemed to her young fancy that David had come to her straight from the heart of it. The sound of her husband's step in the hall brought her with a shock to facts. "He must go back," she muttered, "he must go back."

David, however, harboured no such design. One phrase of hers had struck root in his thoughts. "I had to marry," she had said, and certain failings in her voice warned him that this, whatever it meant, was in her eyes the truth. It had given the lie direct to the flippancy which she had assumed, and David determined to remain until he had fathomed its innermost meaning. A fear, indeed, lest the one single faith he felt as real should crumble to ashes made his resolve almost an instinct of self-preservation. The idea of accepting the situation never occurred to him, his training having effectually prevented any growth of respect for the status quo as such. Nor did he realise at this time that his determination might perhaps prove unfair to Mrs. Branscome. A certain habit of abstraction, nurtured in him by the spirit of inquiry which he had imbibed from his books, had become so intuitive as to penetrate even into his passion. From the first he had been accustomed to watch his increasing intimacy with Kate Alden from the standpoint of a third person, analysing her actions and feelings no less than his own. And now this tendency gave the crowning impetus to a resolve which sprang originally from his necessity to find sure foothold somewhere amid the wreckage of his hopes.

From this period might be dated the real commencement of Hilton's education. He returned to the Branscomes' house, sedulously schooled his looks and his words, save when betrayed into an occasional denunciation of the marriage laws, and succeeded at last in overcoming a distaste which Mr. Branscome unaccountably evinced for him. To a certain extent, also, he was taken up by social entertainers. There was an element of romance in the life he had led which appealed favourably to the seekers after novelty — "a second St. Simeon Skylights" he had been rashly termed by one good lady, whose wealth outweighed her learning. At first his gathering crowd of acquaintances only served to fence him more closely within himself; but as he began to realise that this was only the unit of another crowd, a crowd of designs and intentions working darkly, even he, sustained by the strength of a single aim, felt himself whirling at times. Thus he slowly grew to some knowledge of the difficulties and complications which must beset any young girl like Kate Alden, whose nearest relation and chaperon had been a feather-headed cousin not so many years her elder. At last, in a dim way, he began to see the possibility of replacing his bitterness with pity. For Mrs. Branscome did not love her husband; he plainly perceived that, if only from the formal precision with which she performed her duties. She appeared to him, indeed, to be paying off an obligation rather than working out the intention of her life.

The actual solution of his perplexities came by an accident. Amongst the visitors who fell under Hilton's observation at the Branscomes' was a certain Mr. Marston, a complacent widower of some five-and-thirty years, and Branscome's fellow servant at the Admiralty. Hilton's attention was attracted to this man by the air of embarrassment with which Mrs. Branscome received his approaches. Resolute to neglect no clue, however slight, David sought Marston's companionship, and, as a reward, discovered one afternoon in a Crown Derby teacup on the mantel-shelf of the latter's room his own present of two years back. The exclamation which this discovery extorted aroused Marston.

"What's up?"

"Where did you get this?"

"Why? Have you seen it before?"

The question pointed out to David the need of wariness.

"No!" he answered. "Its shape rather struck me, that's all. The emblem of a conquest, I suppose?"

The invitation stumbled awkwardly from unaccustomed lips, but Marston noticed no more than the words. He was chewing the cud of a disappointment and answered with a short laugh:

"No! Rather of a rebuff. The lady tore her hand away in a hurry — the link on the bracelet was thin, I suppose. Anyway, that was left in my hand."

"You were proposing to her?"

"Well, hardly. I was married at the time."

There was a silence for some moments, during which Hilton slowly gathered into his mind a consciousness of the humiliation which Kate must have endured, and read in that the explanation of her words "I had to marry." Marston took up the tale, babbling resentfully of a nursery prudishness, but his remarks fell on deaf ears until he mentioned a withered flower, which he had found inside the locket. Then David's self control partially gave way. In imagination he saw Marston carelessly tossing the sprig aside and the touch of his fingers seemed to sully the love of which it was the token. The locket burned into his hand. Without a word he dropped it on to the floor, and ground it to pieces with his heel. A new light broke in upon Marston.

"So this accounts for all your railing against the marriage laws," he laughed. "By Jove, you have kept things quiet. I wouldn't have given you credit for it."

His eyes travelled from the carpet to David's face, and he stopped abruptly.

"You had better hold your tongue," David said quietly. "Pick up the pieces."

"Do you think I would touch them now?"

Marston rose from his lounge; David stepped in front of the door. There was a litheness in his movements which denoted obedient muscles. Marston perceived this now with considerable discomfort, and thought it best to comply: he knelt down and picked up the fragments of the locket.

"Now throw them into the grate!"

That done, David took his leave. Once outside the house, however, his emotion fairly mastered him. The episode of which he had just heard was so mean and petty in itself, and yet so far-reaching in its consequences that it set his senses aflame in an increased revolt against the order of the world. Marriage was practically a necessity to a girl as unprotected as Kate Alden; he now acquiesced in that. But that it should have been forced upon her by the vanity of a trivial person like Marston, engaged in the pursuit of his desires, sent a fever of repulsion through his veins. He turned back to the door deluded by the notion that it was his duty to render the occurrence impossible of repetition. He was checked, however, by the thought of Mrs. Branscome. The shame he felt hinted the full force of degradation of which she must have been conscious, and begot in him a strange feeling of loyalty. Up till now the true meaning of chivalry had been unknown to him. In consequence of his bringing up he had been incapable of regarding faith in persons as a working motive in one's life. Even the first dawn of his passion had failed to teach him that; all the confidence and trust which he gained thereby being a mere reflection, from what he saw in Kate Alden, of truth to him. It was necessary that he should feel her trouble first and his poignant sense of that now revealed to him, not merely the wantonness of the perils women are compelled to run, but their consequent sufferings and their endurance in suppressing them.

A feverish impulse towards self-sacrifice sprang up within him. He would bury the incident of that afternoon as a dead thing — nay, more, for Mrs. Branscome's sake he would leave England and return to his retreat among the mountains. If she had suffered, why should he claim an exemption? The idea had just sufficient strength to impel him to catch the night-mail from Charing Cross. That it was already weakening was evidenced by a half-feeling of regret that he had not missed the train.

The regret swelled during his journey to the coast. The scene he had just come through became, from much pondering on it, almost unreal, and, with the blurring of the impression it had caused, there rose a doubt as to the accuracy of his vision of Mrs. Branscome's distress, which he had conjured out of it. His chivalry, in a word, had grown too quickly to take firm root. It was an exotic planted in soil not yet fully prepared. David began to think himself a fool, and at last, as the train neared Dover, a question which had been vaguely throbbing in his brain suddenly took shape. Why had she not sent for him? True, the locket was lost, but she might have written. The formulation of the question shattered almost all the work of the last few hours. He cursed his recent thoughts as a child's fairy dreams. Why should he leave England after all? If he was to sacrifice himself it should be for some one who cared sufficiently for him to justify the act.

There might, of course, have been some hidden obstacle in the way, which Mrs. Branscome could not surmount. The revelation of Marston's unimagined story warned him of the possibility of that. But the chances were against it. Anyway, he quibbled to himself, he had a clear right to pursue the matter until he unearthed the truth. Acting upon this decision, David returned to town, though not without a lurking sense of shame.

A few evenings after, he sought out Mrs. Branscome at a dance. The blood rushed to her face when she caught his figure, and as quickly ebbed away.

"So you have not gone, after all?" There was something pitiful in her tone of reproach.

"No. What made you think I had?"

"Mr. Marston told me!"

"Did he tell you why?"

"I guessed that, and I thanked you in my heart."

David was disconcerted; the woman he saw corresponded so ill with what he was schooling himself to believe her. He sought to conceal his confusion, as she had once done, and played a part. Like her, he overplayed it.

"Well! I came to see London life, you know. It makes a pretty comedy."

"Comedies end in tears at times."

"Even then common politeness makes us sit them out. Can you spare me a dance?"

Mrs. Branscome pleaded fatigue, and barely suppressed a sigh of relief as she noted her husband's approach. David followed her glance, and bent over her, speaking hurriedly: —

"You said you knew why I went away; I want to tell you why I came back."

"No! no!" she exclaimed. "It could be of no use — of no help to either of us."

"I came back," he went on, ignoring her interruption, "merely to ask you one question. Will you hear it and answer it? I can wait," he added, as she kept silence.

"Then, to-morrow, as soon as possible," Mrs. Branscome replied, beaten by his persistency. "Come at seven; we dine at eight, so I can give you half-an- hour. But you are ungenerous."

That night began what may be termed the crisis of Hilton's education. This was the second time he had caught Mrs. Branscome unawares. On the first occasion — that of his unexpected arrival in England — he did not possess the experience to measure accurately looks and movements, or to comprehend them as the connotation of words. It is doubtful, besides, whether, had he owned the skill, he would have had the power to exercise it, so engrossed was he in his own distress. By the process, however, of continually repressing the visible signs of his own emotions, he had now learnt to appreciate them in others. And in Mrs. Branscome's sudden change of colour, in little convulsive movements of her hands, and in a certain droop of eyelids veiling eyes which met the gaze frankly as a rule, he read this evening sure proofs of the constancy of her heart. This fresh knowledge affected him in two ways. On the one hand it gave breath to the selfish passion which now dominated his ideas. At the same time, however it assured him that when he asked his question: "Why did you not send for me?" an unassailable answer would be forthcoming; and, moreover, by convincing him of this, it destroyed the sole excuse he had pleaded to himself for claiming the right to ask it. In self- defence Hilton had recourse to his old outcry against the marriage laws and, finding this barren, came in the end to frankly devising schemes for their circumvention. Such inward personal conflicts were, of necessity, strange to a man dry-nursed on abstractions, and, after a night of tension, they tossed him up on the shores of the morning broken in mind and irresolute for good or ill.

* * * * *

Mrs. Branscome received him impassively at the appointed time. David saw that he was expected to speak to the point, and a growing scorn for his own insistence urged him to the same course. He plunged abruptly into his subject and his manner showed him in the rough, more particularly to himself.

"What I came back to ask you is just this. You know — you must know — that I would have come, whatever the consequence. Why did you not send for me after, after — ?"

"Why did I not send for you?" Mrs. Branscome took him up, repeating his words mechanically, as though their meaning had not reached her. "You don't mean that you never received my letter. Oh, don't say that! It can't have miscarried, I registered it."

"Then you did write?"

This confirmation of her fear drove a breach through her composure.

"Of course, of course, I wrote," she cried. "You doubt that? What can you think of me? Yes, I wrote, and when no answer came, I fancied you had forgotten me — that you had never really cared, and so I — I married."

Her voice dried in her throat. The thought of this ruin of two lives, made inevitable by a mistake in which neither shared, brought a sense of futility which paralysed her.

The same idea was working in Hilton's mind, but to a different end. It fixed the true nature of this woman for the first time clearly within his recognition, and the new light blinded him. Before, his imagined grievance had always coloured the picture; now, he began to realise not only that she was no more responsible for the catastrophe than himself, but that he must have stood in the same light to her as she had done to him. The events of the past few months passed before his mind as on a clear mirror. He compared the gentle distinction of her bearing with his own flaunting resentment.

"I am sorry," he said, "I have wronged you in thought and word and action. The fact is, I never saw you plainly before; myself stood in the way."

Mrs. Branscome barely heeded his words. The feelings her watchfulness had hitherto restrained having once broken their barriers swept her away on a full flow. She recalled the very terms of her letter. She had written it in the room in which they were standing. Mr. Branscome had called just as she addressed the envelope — she had questioned him about its registration to Switzerland, and, yes, he had promised to look after it and had taken it away. "Yes!" she repeated to herself aloud, directing her eyes instinctively towards her husband's study door. "He promised to post it."

The sound of the words and a sudden movement from Hilton woke her to alarm. David had turned to the window, and she felt that he had heard and understood. The silence pressed on her like a dead weight. For Hilton, this was the crucial moment of his ordeal. He had understood only too clearly, and this second proof of the harm a petty sin could radiate struck through him the same fiery repulsion which had stung him to revolt when he quitted Marston's rooms. He flung up the window and faced the sunset. Strips of black cloud barred it across, and he noticed, with a minute attention of which he was hardly conscious, that their lower edges took a colour like the afterglow on a Swiss rock mountain. The perception sent a riot of associations through his brain which strengthened his wavering purpose. Must he lose her after all, he thought; now that he had risen to a true estimation of her worth? His fancy throned Kate queen of his mountain home, and he turned towards her, but a light of fear in her eyes stopped the words on his lips.

"I trust you," she said, simply.

The storm of his passions quieted down. That one sentence just expressed to him the debt he owed to her. In return — well, he could do no less than leave her her illusion.

"Good-bye," he said. "All the good that comes to us, somehow, seems to spring from women like yourself, while we give you nothing but trouble in return. Even this last misery, which my selfishness has brought to you, lifts me to breathe a cleaner air."

"He must have forgotten to post it," Mrs. Branscome pleaded.

"Yes; we must believe that. Good-bye!"

For a moment he stayed to watch her white figure, outlined against the dusk of the room, and then gently closed the door on her. The next morning David left England, not, however, for Grindelwald. He dreaded the morbid selfishness which grows from isolation, and sought a finishing school in the companionship of practical men.

 
 
 

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