Story type: Literature
“You will ruin his life,” said one of the two women. As the phrase escaped her she remembered, or seemed to remember, having met with it in half a dozen novels. She had nerved herself for the interview which up to this moment had been desperately real; but now she felt herself losing grip. It had all happened before . . . somewhere; she was reacting an old scene, going through a part; the four or five second-hand words gave her this sensation. Then she reflected that the other woman, too, had perhaps met them before in some cheap novelette, and, being an uneducated person, would probably find them the more impressive for that.
The other woman had in fact met them before, in the pages of Bow Bells, and been impressed by them. But since then love had found her ignorant and left her wise; wiser than in her humiliation she dared to guess, and yet the wiser for being humiliated. She answered in a curiously dispassionate voice: “I think, miss, his life is ruined already; that is, if he sent you to say all this to me.”
“He did not.” Miss Bracy lifted the nose and chin which she inherited from several highly distinguished Crusaders, and gave the denial sharply and promptly, looking her ex-maid straight in the face. She had never– to use her own words–stood any nonsense from Bassett.
But Bassett, formerly so docile (though, as it now turned out, so deceitful); who had always known her place and never answered her mistress but with respect; was to-day an unrecognisable Bassett–not in the least impudent, but as certainly not to be awed or brow-beaten. Standing in the glare of discovered misconduct, under the scourge of her shame, the poor girl had grasped some secret strength which made her invincible.
“But I think, miss,” she answered, “Mr. Frank must have known you was coming.” And this Miss Bracy could not deny. She had never told a lie in her life.
“It is very likely–no, it is certain–that he guessed,” she admitted.
“And if so, it comes to the same thing,” Bassett persisted, with a shade of weariness in her voice.
“You ungrateful girl! You ungrateful and quite extraordinary girl! First you inveigle that poor boy at the very outset of his career, and then when upon a supposed point of honour he offers to marry you–“
“A ‘supposed’ point, miss? Do you say ‘supposed’?”
“Not one in a thousand would offer such a redemption. And even he cannot know what it will mean to his life–what it will cost him.”
“I shall tell him, miss,” said Bassett quietly.
“And his parents–what do you suppose they would say, were they alive? His poor mother, for instance?”
Bassett dismissed this point silently. To Miss Bracy the queerest thing about the girl was the quiet practical manner she had put on so suddenly.
“You said, miss, that Mr. Frank wants to make amends on a ‘supposed’ point of honour. Don’t you think it a real one?”
Miss Bracy’s somewhat high cheekbones showed two red spots. “Because he offers it, it doesn’t follow that you ought to accept. And that’s the whole point,” she wound up viciously.
Bassett sighed that she could not get her question answered. “You will excuse me, miss, but I never ‘inveigled’ him, as you say. That I deny; and if you ask Mr. Frank he will bear me out. Not that it’s any use trying to make you believe,” she added, with a drop back to her old level tone as she saw the other’s eyebrows go up. It was indeed hopeless, Miss Bracy being one of those women who take it for granted that a man has been inveigled as soon as his love-affairs run counter to their own wishes or taste; and who thereby reveal an estimate of man for which in the end they are pretty sure to pay heavily. All her answer now was a frankly incredulous stare.
“You won’t believe me, miss. It’s not your fault, I know; you can’t believe me. But I loved Mr. Frank.”
Miss Bracy made a funny little sound high up in her Crusader nose. That the passions of gentlemen were often ill-regulated she knew; it disgusted her, but she recognised it as a real danger to be watched by their anxious relatives. That love, however–what she understood by love–could be felt by the lower orders, the people who “walked together” and “kept company” before mating, was too incredible. Even if driven by evidence to admit the fact she would have set it down to the pernicious encroachment of Board School education, and remarked that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
“‘Love!’ My poor child, don’t profane a word you cannot possibly understand. A nice love, indeed, that shows itself by ruining his life!”
That second-hand phrase again! As it slipped out, the indomitable Bassett dealt it another blow.
“I am not sure, miss, that I love him any longer–in the same way, I mean. I should always have a regard for him–for many reasons–and because he behaved honourably in a way. But I couldn’t quite believe in him as I did before he showed himself weak.”
“Well, of all the–” Miss Bracy’s lips were open for a word to fit this offence, when Bassett followed it up with a worse one.
“I beg your pardon, miss, but you are so fond of Mr. Frank–Supposing I refused his offer, would you marry him yourself?”
The girl, too, meant it quite seriously. In her tone was no trace of impudence. She had divined her adversary’s secret, and thrust home the question with a kind of anxious honesty. Miss Bracy, red and gasping, tingling with shame, yet knew that she was not being exulted over. She dropped the unequal fight between conventional argument and naked insight, and stood up, woman to woman. She neither denied nor exclaimed. She too told the truth.
“Never!”–she paused. “After what has happened I would never marry my cousin.”
“I thought that, miss. You mean it, I am sure; and it eases my mind; because you have been a good mistress to me, and it would always have been a sorry thought that I’d stood in your way. Not that it would have prevented me.”
“Do you still stand there and tell me that you will hold this unhappy boy to his word?”
“He’s twenty-two, miss; my own age. Yes, I shall hold him to it.”
“To save yourself!”
“For his own sake, then?” Miss Bracy’s laugh was passing bitter.
“No, miss–though there might be something in that.”
“For whose then?”
The girl did not answer. But in the silence her mistress understood, and moved to the door. She was beaten, and she knew it; beaten and unforgiving, In the doorway she turned.
“It is not for your own sake that you persist? It was not to gratify yourself–to be made a lady–that you plotted this? Very well; you shall be taken at your word. I cannot counsel Frank against his honour; if he insists, and you still accept the sacrifice, he shall marry you. But from that hour–you understand?–you have seen the last of him. I know Frank well enough to promise it.”
She paused to let the words sink in and watch their effect. This was not only cruel, but a mistake; for it gave Bassett–who was past caring for it–the last word.
“If you do, miss,” she said drearily, yet with a mind made up, “I daresay that will be best.”
Long before I heard this story I knew three of the characters in it. Just within the harbour beside which I am writing this–on your left as you enter it from the sea–a little creek runs up past Battery Point to a stout sea-wall with a turfed garden behind it and a low cottage, and behind these a steep-sided valley, down which a stream tumbles to a granite conduit. It chokes and overflows the conduit, is caught again into a granite-covered gutter by the door of the cottage, and emerges beyond it in a small cascade upon the beach. At spring tides the sea climbs to the foot of this cascade, and great then is the splashing. The land-birds, tits and warblers, come down to the very edge to drink; but none of them–unless it be the wagtail–will trespass on the beach below. The rooks and gulls, on their side, never forage above the cascade, but when the ploughing calls them inland, mount and cross the frontier-line high overhead. All day long in summer the windows of the cottage stand open, and its rooms are filled with song; and night and day, summer and winter, the inmates move and talk, wake and sleep, to the contending music of the waters.
It had lain tenantless for two years, when one spring morning Miss Bracy and Mr. Frank Bracy arrived and took possession. They came (for aught we knew) out of nowhere; but they brought a good many boxes, six cats, and a complete set of new muslin blinds. On their way they purchased a quart of fresh milk, and Mr. Frank fed the cats while Miss Bracy put up the blinds. In the afternoon a long van arrived with a load of furniture; and we children who had gathered to watch were rewarded by a sensation when the van started by disgorging an artist’s lay-figure, followed by a suit of armour. From these to a mahogany chest of drawers with brass handles was a sad drop, and we never regained the high romance of those first few minutes; but the furniture was undeniably handsome, and when Miss Bracy stepped out and offered us sixpence apiece to go and annoy somebody else, we came away convinced that our visitors were persons of exceptionally high rank. It puzzled us afterwards that, though a bargain is a bargain, not one of us had stayed to claim his sixpence.
The newcomers brought no servants; but after a week there arrived (also out of nowhere) an elderly and taciturn cook. Also, Miss Bracy on the third morning walked up to the farm at the head of the valley and hired down the hind’s second daughter for a “help.” We knew this girl, Lizzie Truscott, and waylaid her on her homeward road that evening for information. She told us that Miss Bracy’s cats had a cradle apiece lined with muslin over pink calico; that the window curtains inside reached from the ceilings to the floors; that the number of knives and forks was something cruel–one kind for fish, another for meat, and a third for fruit; that in one of the looking-glasses a body could see herself at one time from head to feet, though why you should want a looking-glass to see your feet in when you could see them without was more than she knew; and, finally, that Miss Bracy had strictly forbidden her to carry tales–a behest which, convinced that Miss Bracy had dealings with the Evil One, she meant to observe. The elderly cook when she arrived warned us away from the door with a dialect we did not recognise. Her name (Lizzie reported) was Deborah, and in our haste we set her down for a Jewess; but I seem to have detected her accent since, and a few of her pet phrases, in the pages of Scottish fiction.
This is all I can tell–so fitful are childish memories–of the coming of Miss Bracy and Mr. Frank. I cannot say, for instance, what gossip it bred, or how soon they wore down the edge of it and became, with their eccentricities, an accepted feature of the spot they had made their home. They made no friends, no acquaintances: everyone knew of Miss Bracy’s cats, but few had seen them. Miss Bracy herself was on view in church every Sunday morning, when Mr. Frank walked with her as far as the porch. He never entered the building, but took a country walk during service, returning in time to meet her at the porch and escort her home. His other walks he took alone, and almost always at night. The policeman tramping towards Four Turnings after midnight to report to the country patrol would meet him and pause for a minute’s chat. Night-wandering beasts–foxes and owls and hedgehogs–knew his footstep and unlearned their first fear of it. Sometimes, but not often, you might surprise him of an afternoon seated before an easel in some out-of-the-way corner of the cliffs; but if you paused then to look, he too paused and seemed inclined to smudge out his work. The Vicar put it about that Mr. Frank had formerly been a painter of fame, and (being an astute man) one day decoyed him into his library, where hung an engraving of a picture “Amos Barton” by one F. Bracy. It had made a small sensation at Burlington House a dozen years before; and the Vicar liked it for the pathos of its subject–an elderly clergyman beside his wife’s deathbed. To him the picture itself could have told little more than this engraving, which utterly failed to suggest the wonderful colour and careful work the artist (a young man with a theory and enthusiasm to back it) had lavished on the worn carpet and valances of the bed, as well as on the chestnut hair of the dying woman glorified in the red light of sunset.
Mr. Frank glanced up at the engraving and turned his face away. It was the face of a man taken at unawares, embarrassed, almost afraid. The Vicar, who had been watching him, intending some pleasant remark about the picture, saw at once that something was wrong, and with great tact kept the talk upon some petty act of charity in which he sought to enlist his visitor’s help. Mr. Frank listened, gave his promise hurriedly and made his escape. He never entered the Vicarage again.
Eighteen years had passed since Miss Bracy’s interview with Bassett; and now, late on a summer afternoon, she and Mr. Frank were pacing the little waterside garden while they awaited their first visitor.
Mr. Frank betrayed the greater emotion, or at any rate the greater nervousness. Since breakfast he had been unable to sit still or to apply himself to any piece of work for ten minutes together, until Miss Bracy suggested the lawn-mower and brought purgatory upon herself. With that lawn-mower all the afternoon he had been “rattling her brain to fiddle-strings”–as she put it–and working himself into a heat which obliged a change of clothes before tea. The tea stood ready now on a table which Deborah had carried out into the garden–dainty linen and silverware, and flowered china dishes heaped with cakes of which only Scotswomen know the secrets. The sun, dropping behind Battery Point, slanted its rays down through the pine-trunks and over the fiery massed plumes of rhododendrons. Scents of jasmine and of shorn grass mingled with the clean breath of the sea borne to the garden wall on a high tide tranquil and clear–so clear that the eye following for a hundred yards the lines of the cove could see the feet of the cliffs where they rested, three fathoms down, on lily-white sand. Miss Bracy adored these clean depths. She had missed much that life could have given; but at least she had found a life comely and to her mind. She had sacrificed much; but at times she forgot how much in contemplating the modest elegance of the altar.
She wore, this evening, a gown of purplish silk, with a light cashmere scarf about her shoulders. Nothing could make her a tall woman; but her grey hair, dressed high a l’imperatrice, gave her dignity at least, and an air of old-fashioned distinction. And she was one of those few and fortunate ladies who never need to worry about the appearance of their cavaliers. Mr. Frank–six feet of him, without reckoning a slight stoop–always satisfied the eye; his grey flannel suit fitted loosely but fitted well; his wide-brimmed straw hat was as faultless as his linen; his necktie had a negligent neatness; you felt sure alike and at once of his bootmaker and his shirtmaker; and his fresh complexion, his prematurely white hair, his strong well-kept hands, completed the impression of cleanliness for its own sake, of a careful physical cult as far as possible removed from foppery.
This may have been in Miss Bracy’s mind when she began: “I daresay he will be fairly presentable, to look at. That unfortunate woman had at least an art of dressing–a quiet taste too, quite extraordinary in one of her station. I often wondered where she picked it up.”
Mr. Frank winced. Until the news of his wife’s death came, a fortnight ago, her name had not been spoken between them for years. That he and his cousin regarded her very differently he knew; but while silence was kept it had been possible to ignore the difference. Now it surprised him that speech should hurt so; and, at the same moment, that his cousin should not divine how sorely it hurt. After all he was the saddest evidence of poor Bassett’s “lady-like” tastes.
“I suppose you know nothing of the school she sent him to?” Miss Bracy went on–“King William’s, or whatever it is.”
“King Edward’s,” Mr. Frank corrected. “Yes, I made inquiries about it at the time–ten years ago. People speak well of it. Not a public school, of course–at least, not quite; the line isn’t so easy to draw nowadays–but it turns out gentlemen.”
In her heart Miss Bracy thought him too hopeful; but she said, “He wrote a becoming letter–his hand, by the way, curiously suggests yours; it was quite a nice letter, and agreeably surprised me. I shouldn’t wonder if his headmaster had helped him with it and cut out the boyish heroics; for of course she must have taught him to hate us.”
“My dear Laura, why in the world–” began Mr. Frank testily.
“Oh, she had spirit!”–the encounter of long ago rose up in Miss Bracy’s memory, and she nodded her head with conviction. “Like most of the quiet ones, she had spirit. You don’t suppose, I imagine, that she forgave?”
“No.” Mr. Frank came to a halt and dug with his heel at a daisy root in the turf. Then using his heel as a pivot he swung himself round in an awkward circle. The action was ludicrous almost, but he faced his cousin again with serious eyes. “But it is not her heart that I doubt,” he added gently.
Miss Bracy stared up at him, “My dear Frank, do you mean to tell me that you regret?“
Yes; as a fact he did regret, and knew that he would never cease to regret. He was not a man to nurse malice even for a wrong done to him, still less to live carelessly conscious of having wronged another. He was weak, but incurably just. And more; though self entered last into his regret, he knew perfectly well that the wrong had wrecked him too. His was a career manque: he had failed as a man, and it had broken his nerve as an artist. He was a dabbler now, with–as Heine said of de Musset–a fine future behind him, and none but an artist can tell the bitterness of that self-knowledge. Had he kept his faith with Bassett in spirit as in letter, he might have failed just as decidedly; her daily companionship might have coarsened his inspiration, soured him, driven him to work cheaply, recklessly; but at least he could have accused fate, circumstance, a boyish error, whereas now he and his own manhood shared the defeat and the responsibility. Yes, he regretted; but it would never do to let Laura know his regret. That would be to play the double traitor. She had saved him (she believed) from himself; with utterly wrong-headed loyalty she had devoted her life to this. The other debt was irredeemable, but this at any rate could be paid.
He evaded her question. “My dear,” he said, “what was done has been atoned for by her, and is being atoned for by–by us. Let us think of her without bitterness.”
Miss Bracy shook her head “I am a poor sort of Christian,” she confessed; “and if she has taught this boy to hate us–“
“Mr. Victor Bracy,” announced Deborah from the garden-porch behind them, and a tall youth in black stepped past her and came across the turf with a shy smile.
The pair turned with an odd sense of confusion, almost of dismay. They were prepared for the “Victor,” but somehow they had not thought of him as bearing their own surname. Mr. Frank had felt the shock once before, in addressing an envelope; but to Miss Bracy it was quite new.
Yet she was the first to recover herself, and, while holding out her hand, took quick note that the boy had Frank’s stature and eyes, carried his clothes well, and himself, if shyly, without clumsiness. She could find no fault with his manner of shaking hands; and when he turned to his father, the boy’s greeting was the less embarrassed of the two. Mr. Frank indeed had suddenly become conscious of his light suit and bird’s-eye neckcloth.
“But how did you come?” asked Miss Bracy. “We sent a cart to meet you– I heard no sound of wheels.”
“Yes, I saw it outside the station; but the man didn’t recognise me– quite a small crowd came by the train–and of course I didn’t recognise him. So I bribed a porter to put my luggage on a barrow and come along with me. Half-way up the hill the cart overtook us–the driver full of apologies. While they transhipped my things I walked on ahead–yes, listen, there it comes; and–Oh, I say, what a lovely spot!”
Miss Bracy was listening–not for the wheels and not to the story, but critically to every word as it came from his lips. “The woman has certainly done wonders,” was her unspoken comment. At Victor’s frank outburst, however, she flushed with something like real pleasure. She was proud of her cottage and garden, and had even a sort of proprietary feeling about the view.
They sat down around the little tea-table; the boy first apologising for his travel-stains (he was, in fact, as neat as a pin) and afterwards chatting gaily about his journey–not talking too much, but appealing from one to another with a quick deferent grace, and allowing them always the lead. “This is better and better,” thought Miss Bracy as she poured tea; and, after a while, “But this is amazing!” He was a thorough child, too, with all his unconscious tact. The scent of a lemon-verbena plant fetched him suddenly to his feet with his eyes bright. “Please let me–” he thrust his face into the bush; “I have never seen it growing like this.”
Miss Bracy looked at Mr. Frank. How utterly different it was from their old-maidish expectations! They had pictured the scene a hundred times, and always it included some awkwardly decorous reference to the dead woman. This had been their terror–to do justice to the occasion without hurting the poor boy’s feelings–to meet his sullen shyness, perhaps antipathy, with a welcome which somehow excused the past. Yes, the past (they had felt) required excuse to him. And he had made no allusion to his mother, and obviously wished for none. Miss Bracy could not help smiling at the picture of their fears.
The boy turned, caught her smiling, and broke into a jolly laugh at his own absurdity. It echoed in the garden, where no one had laughed aloud for years.
And with that laugh Bassett’s revenge began.
For with that laugh they began to love him. They did not–or at any rate Miss Bracy ‘did not–know it at the time. For some days they watched him; and he, the unsuspicious one, administered a score of shocks as again and again he took them neatly and decisively at unawares. He had accepted them at once and in entire good faith. They were (with just the right recognition of their seniority) good comrades in this jolliest of worlds. They were his holiday hosts, and it was not for the guest to hint (just yet) at the end of the holiday.
He surprised them at every turn. His father’s canvases filled him with admiring awe. “Oh, but I say–however is it done?” As he stood before them with legs a trifle wide, he smoothed the top of his head with a gesture of perplexity. And Mr. Frank, standing at his shoulder with legs similarly spread, used the same gesture–as Miss Bracy had seen him use it a thousand times. Yet the boy had no artistic talent–not so much as a germ. For beauty of line and beauty of colour he inherited an impeccable eye; indeed his young senses were alive to seize all innocent delight,–his quickness in scenting the lemon-verbena bush proved but the first of many instances. But he began and ended with enjoyment; of the artist’s impulse to reproduce and imitate beauty he felt nothing. Mr. Frank recognised with a pang that he had failed not only in keeping his torch bright but in passing it on; that the true self which he had missed expressing must die with him barren and untransmitted. The closer he drew in affection, the farther this son of his receded,– receded in the very act of acknowledging his sonship–with a gesture, smilingly imprehensible; with eyes which allured the yearning he baffled, and tied it to the hopeless chase.
Mr. Frank, who worshipped flowers, was perhaps the most ineffective gardener in England. With a trowel and the best intentions he would do more damage in twenty minutes than Miss Bracy could repair in a week. She had made a paradise in spite of him, and he contented himself with assuring her that the next tenant would dig it up and find it paved with good intentions. The seeds he sowed–and he must have sown many pounds’ worth before she stopped the wild expense–never sprouted by any chance. “Dormant, my dear Laura–dormant!” he would exclaim in springtime, rubbing his head perplexedly as he studied the empty borders. “When I die, and am buried here, they will all sprout together, and you will have to take a hook and cut your way daily through the vegetation which hides my grave.” But Victor, who approached them in the frankest ignorance, seemed to divine the ways of flowers at once. In the autumn he struck cuttings of Miss Bracy’s rarest roses; he removed a sickly passion-flower from one corner of the cottage to another and restored it to health within a fortnight. Within a week after his coming he and Miss Bracy were deep in cross-fertilizing a borderful of carnations she had raised from seed. He carried the same natural deftness into a score of small household repairs. He devised new cradles for Miss Bracy’s cats, and those conservative animals at once accepted the improvement; he invented a cupboard for his father’s canvases; he laid an electric bell from the kitchen beneath the floor of the dining-room, so that Miss Bracy could ring for Deborah by a mere pressure of the foot; and the well-rope which Deborah had been used to wind up painfully was soon fitted with a wheel and balance-weight which saved four-fifths of the labour.
“It beats me where you learned how to do these things,” his father protested.
“But it doesn’t want learning; it’s all so simple–not like painting, you know.”
Mr. Frank had been corresponding with the boy’s headmaster. “Yes, he is a good fellow,” said one of the letters; “just a gentle clear-minded boy, with courage at call when he wants it, and one really remarkable talent. You may not have discovered it, but he is a mathematician; and as different from the ordinary book-made mathematician–from the dozens of boys I send up regularly to Cambridge–as cheese is from chalk. He has a sort of passion for pure reasoning–for its processes. Of course he does not know it; but from the first it has been a pleasure to me (an old pupil of Routh’s) to watch his work. ‘Style’ is not a word one associates as a rule with mathematics, but I can use no other to express the quality which your boy brings to that study. . . .”
“Good Lord!” groaned Mr. Frank, who had never been able to add up his washing bills.
He read the letter to Miss Bracy, and the pair began to watch Victor with a new wonder. They were confident that no Bracy had ever been a mathematician; for an uncle of theirs, now a rector in Shropshire and once of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where for reasons best known to himself he had sought honours in the Mathematical Tripos and narrowly missed the Wooden Spoon, had clearly no claim to the title. Whence in the world did the boy derive this gift? “His mother–” Miss Bracy began, and broke off as a puff of smoke shot out from the fireplace. It was late September; Deborah had lit the fire that morning for the first time since May, and the chimney never drew well at starting. Miss Bracy took the tongs in hand, but she was not thinking of the smoke; neither was Mr. Frank, while he watched her. They were both thinking of the dead woman. The thought of her–the ghost of her–was always rising now between them and her boy; she was the impalpable screen they tried daily and in vain to pierce; to her they had come to refer unconsciously all that was inexplicable in him. And so much was inexplicable! They loved him now; they stretched out their hands to him: behind her he smiled at them, but through or across her their hands could never reach.
As at first they had avoided all allusion to her, and been thankful that the boy’s reticence made it easy, so now they grew almost feverishly anxious to discover how he felt towards his mother’s memory. They detected each other laying small traps for him, and were ashamed. They held their breath as with an air of cheerful unconsciousness he walked past the traps, escaping them one and all. At first in her irritation Miss Bracy accused him of what she (of all women!) called false pride. “He is ashamed of her. He wishes to forget, and is only too glad that we began by encouraging him.” On second thoughts she knew the charge to be undeserved and odious. His obvious simplicity gave it the lie. Moreover she knew that a small water-colour sketch of her in her youth–a drawing of Mr. Frank’s–stood on the table in the boy’s bedroom. Miss Bracy often dusted that room with her own hands.
“And, Frank,” she confessed one day, “he kisses it! I know by the dullness on the glass when I rub it.” She did not add that she rubbed it viciously. “I tell you,” she insisted, almost with a groan, “he lives with her. She is with him in this house in spite of us; she talks with him; his real existence is with her. He comes out of it to make himself pleasant to us, but he goes back and tells her his secrets.”
“Nonsense, Laura,” Mr. Frank interrupted testily. “For some reason or other the boy is getting on your nerves. It is natural, after all.”
“Natural? Yes, I see: you mean that I’m an old maid, and it’s a case of crabbed age and youth.”
“My dear Laura, I mean nothing so rude. But, after all, we have been living here a great many years and it is a change.”
“Frank, you can be singularly dense at times. Must I tell you in so many words that I am fond of the boy, and if he’d be only as fond of me he might racket the house down and I’d only like him the better for it?”
Mr. Frank rubbed his head, and then with sudden resolution marched out of the house in search of Victor. He found the boy on the roof removing a patent cowl which the local mason had set up a week before to cure the smoky chimney.
“My dear fellow,” the father cried up, “you’ll break your neck! Come down at once–I have something particular to say to you.”
Victor descended with the cowl under his arm. “Do be careful. . . . Doesn’t it make you giddy, clambering about in places like that?” Mr. Frank had no head at all for a height.
“Not a bit. . . . Just look at this silly contrivance–choked with soot in three days! The fellow who invented it ought to have his head examined.”
“It has made you in a horrible mess,” said his father, who took no interest in cowls, but lost his temper in a smoky house.
“I’ll run in and have a change and wash.”
“No; put the nasty thing down and come into the garden.” He opened the gate, and Victor followed, after dipping his hands in the waterfall.
“The fact is, my boy, I’ve come to a decision. This has been a pleasant time–a very pleasant time–for all of us. We have put off speaking to you about this, but I hope you understand that this is to be your home henceforward; that we wish it and shall be the happier for having you . . .”
Victor had been gazing out over the cove, but now turned and met his father’s eyes frankly. “I have a little money,” he said. “Mother managed to put by a small sum from time to time, enough to start me in life. She did not tell me until a few days before she died: she knew I wanted to be an engineer.”
He said this quite simply. It was the first time he had mentioned his mother. Mr. Frank felt his face flushing.
“But your headmaster tells me it will be a thousand pities if you don’t go to Cambridge. I am proposing that you should go there–should matriculate this term. My dear boy”–he laid a hand on Victor’s arm–” don’t refuse me this. I have no right–perhaps–to insist; but I daresay you can guess what your acceptance would mean to me. You can choose your own career when the time comes. For your sake your mother would have liked this: ask yourself if she would not.”
Mr. Frank had not looked forward to pleading like this; yet when it came to the point this seemed his only possible attitude. Victor had removed his gaze, and his eyes were resting now on the green sunny waves rolling in at the harbour’s mouth. For almost a minute he kept silence; then–
“Yes, she would advise it,” he said. It was as though he had laid the case before an unseen counsellor and waited submissively for the answer. Mr. Frank had gained his end and without trouble: yet he felt a disappointment he could not at once explain. He was the last man in the world to expect a gratitude which he did not deserve; but in the satisfaction of carrying his point he missed something, and surmised what he missed. The boy had not turned to him for the answer, but had turned away and brought it to him. Father and son would never have the deeper joy of taking counsel together heart to heart.
So Victor went up to Trinity, and returned for the Christmas vacation on the heels of an announcement that he had won a scholarship. He had grown more manly and serious, and he smoked a tobacco which sorely tried Miss Bracy’s distinguished nose; but he kept the boyish laugh–the laugh which always seemed to them to call invitingly from the door of his soul, “Why don’t you enter and read me? The house is clean and full of goodwill–Come!” But though they never ceased trying, they could never penetrate to those inner chambers. Sometimes–though they might be talking of most trivial matters–the appeal would suddenly grow pathetic, almost plangent, “What is this that shuts me off from you? We sit together and love one another: why am I set apart?” Time was when he had seemed to them consciously reticent, almost of set purpose; but now it was they who, looking within the doorway, saw the dead woman standing there with finger on lip.
He made no intimate friends at Cambridge; yet was popular and something of a figure in his College, which had marked him down for high–perhaps the highest–university honours, and was pleasantly astonished to find him also a good cricketer. His good looks attracted men; they asked his name, were told it, and exclaimed, “Bracy? Not the man Trinity is running for Senior Wrangler?” With this double reputation he might have won a host of friends, and his father and Miss Bracy would gladly have welcomed one, in hope that such companionship might exorcise the ghost: but he kept his way, liking and liked by men, yet aloof; with many acquaintances, censorious of none, influenced by none; avoiding when he disapproved, but not judging, and in no haste even to disapprove; easy to approach, and almost eager for goodwill, yet in the end inaccessible.
His first Easter vacation he spent with a reading-party in Cumberland. There he first tasted the “sacred fury” of the mountains and mountain-climbing, and in Switzerland the next August it grew to be a passion. He returned to it again and again, in Cumberland playing at the game with half a dozen fellow-undergraduates whom he had bitten with the mania; but in Switzerland during the Long vacations giving himself over to a glut of it, with only a guide and porter for company– sometimes alone, if he could ever be said to be alone. As in mathematics so in his sport, the cold heights were the mistresses he wooed; the peaks called to him, the rare atmosphere, the glittering wastes. He neither scorned danger nor was daunted by it. Below in the forests he would sing aloud, but the summits held him silent. As an old pastor at Zermatt told Mr. Frank, he would come down from a mountain “like Moses, with his face illumined.”
He started on his third visit to Switzerland early in July: in the second week in August Miss Bracy and Mr. Frank were to join him at Chamounix, and thence the three would make a tour together. He started in the highest spirits, and halted at the gate to wave his ice-axe defiantly. . . .
The clergyman who ministered to the little tin English Church boarded at the big hotel, which kept a bedroom and a sitting-room at his disposal. They faced north from the back of the building, which stood against the mountain-side; but the sitting-room had a second window at the corner of the block, and from this the eye went up over a plantation of dark firs to the white snowfields of the Col and the dark jagged wall of the Aiguille du Geant–distant, yet as clear as if stencilled against the blue heaven. It was a delectable vision; but the clergyman, being short-sighted as a mole, had never seen it. He wore spectacles with a line running horizontally across them, and through these he peered at Mr. Frank and Miss Bracy as if uncertain of their distance.
Mr. Frank, in a suit of black, sat at the little round table in the centre of the room, pressing his finger-tips into the soft nap of a gaudy French table-cloth. Miss Bracy stood by the window with her back to the room, but she was listening. She too wore black. The fourth person, at the little clergyman’s elbow, was Christian the guide. It was he who spoke, while Mr. Frank dug his fingers deeper, and the clergyman nodded at every pause sympathetically, and both kept their eyes on the table-cloth, the pink and crimson roses of which on their background of buff and maroon were to one a blur only, to the other a pattern bitten on his brain.
“It must have been between noon and one o’clock”–the guide was saying– “when we crossed the Col and began on the rocks. I was leading, of course; the Herr next, and Michel”–this was their porter–“behind. We had halted and lunched at the foot of the rocks. They were nasty, with a coating, for the most part, of thin ice which we must knock away; but not really dangerous. The Herr was silent; not singing–he had been singing and laughing all through the morning–but in high spirits. He kept his breath now for business. I never knew him fatigued; and that day I had to beg him once or twice not to press the pace. Michel was tired, I think, and the wine he had taken earlier had upset his stomach; also he had been earning wages all the winter in England as a gentleman’s valet and this was his first ascent for the year, so it may have been that his nerve was wrong.
“The first trouble we had with him was soon after starting on the rocks. We were roped; and at the first awkward place he said, ‘If one of us should slip now, we are all lost.’ The Herr was annoyed, as I have never seen him; and I too was angry, the more because what he said had some truth, but it was not, you understand, the moment to say it. After this we had no great trouble until we had passed the place where Herr Mummery turned back. About thirty metres from the summit we came to a bit requiring caution; a small couloir filled with good ice but at a slope–so!” Here Christian held his open hand aslant, but Mr. Frank did not lift his eyes. “They anchored themselves and held me while I cut steps–large steps–across it. On the other side there was no good foothold within length of the rope, so I cast off, and the Herr came across in my steps with Michel well anchored. It was now Michel’s turn, and having now the extra length of rope brought across by the Herr, I could go higher to a rock and moor myself firmly. The Herr was right enough where he stood, but not to bear any strain; so I told him to cast off that I might look to Michel alone. While he unknotted his rope I turned to examine the rock, and at that instant . . . Michel did not understand, or was impatient to get it over . . . at any rate he started to cross just as the Herr had both hands busy. He slipped at the third step . . . I heard, and turned again in time to see the jerk come. The Herr bent backward, but it was useless: he was torn from his foothold–“
The little clergyman nodded and broke in: “They were found, close together, on a ledge two thousand feet below. Your son, sir, was not much mutilated, though many limbs were broken–and his spine and neck. The bodies were found the next day and brought down. We did all that was possible. Shall I take you and madame to the grave?”
But the guide had not finished. “He fell almost on top of Michel, and the two went spinning down the couloir out of sight. I do not think that Michel uttered any cry: but the Herr, as the strain came and he bent backwards against it, seeking to get his axe free and plant it . . . though that would have been useless . . . the Herr cried once and very loud . . . such a strange cry!–“
“Madame will be glad,” interrupted the clergyman again, who had heard Christian’s story at the inquest,–“Madame will be glad”–he addressed Miss Bracy, who, as he was dimly aware, had been standing throughout with face averted, staring up at the far-away cliffs. “The young man’s last thoughts–“
But Christian was not to be denied. He had told the story a score of times during the last three days, and had assured himself by every evidence that he could tell it effectively. He was something of an egoist, too, and the climax he had in mind was that of his own emotions in recrossing the fatal couloir ropeless, with shaking knees, haunted by the Englishman’s last cry.
“Such a strange cry,” he persisted. “His eyes were on mine for a moment . . . then they turned from me to the couloir and the great space below, It was then he uttered it, stretching out his hands as the rope pulled him forward–yet not as one afraid. ‘Mother!’ he cried: just that, and only once–‘Mother!’”
Mr. Frank looked up sharply, and turned his head towards Miss Bracy. The clergyman and the guide also had their eyes on her, the latter waiting for the effect of his climax.
“It must be a consolation to you–” the clergyman began to mumble.
But Miss Bracy did not turn. Mr. Frank withdrew his eyes from her and fixed them again on the gaudy tablecloth. She continued to stare up at he clean ice-fields, the pencilled cliffs. She did not even move.
So Bassett was avenged.