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