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Title: Major Wilbraham
Author: Hugh Walpole
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
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Language:  English
Date first posted: April 2007
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MAJOR WILBRAHAM

by

Hugh Walpole


I am quite aware that in giving you this story, just as I was told it, I shall incur the charge of downright and deliberate lying.

Especially I shall be told this by any one who knew Wilbraham personally. Wilbraham was not, of course, his real name, but I think that there are certain people who will recognize him from the description of him. I do not know that it matters very much if they do. Wilbraham himself would certainly not mind did he know. (Does he know?) It was the thing, above all, that he wanted those last hours before he died: that I should pass on my conviction of the truth of what he told me to others. What he did not know was that I was not convinced. How could I be? But when the whole comfort of his last hours hung on the simple fact that I was, of course I pretended to the best of my poor ability. I would have done more than that to make him happy.

Most men are conscious at some time in their lives of having felt for a member of their own sex an emotion that is something more than simple companionship. It is a queer feeling quite unlike any other in life, distinctly romantic, and the more so, perhaps, for having no sex feeling in it.

Wilbraham roused just that feeling in me I remember, with the utmost distinctness, at my first meeting with him. It was just after the Boer War, and old Johnny Beaminster gave a dinner-party to some men pals of his at the Phœnix.

There were about fifteen of us, and Wilbraham was the only man present I'd never seen before. He was only a captain then, and neither so red-faced nor so stout as he afterwards became. He was pretty bulky, though, even then, and, with his sandy hair cropped close, his staring blue eyes, his toothbrush moustache, and sharp, alert movements, looked the typical traditional British officer.

There was nothing at all to distinguish him from a thousand other officers of his kind, and yet, from the moment I saw him, I had some especial and personal feeling about him. He was not in type at all the man to whom at that time I should have felt drawn, but the fact remains that I wanted to know him more than any other man in the room, and, although I only exchanged a few words with him that night, I thought of him for quite a long time afterwards.

It did not follow from this, as it ought to have done, that we became great friends. That we never were, although it was myself whom he sent for, three days before his death, to tell me his queer little story. It was then, at the very last, that he confided to me that he, too, had felt something at our first meeting "different" from what one generally feels, that he had always wanted to turn our acquaintance into friendship and had been too shy. I also was shy—and so we missed one another, as I suppose, in this funny, constrained-traditional country of ours, thousands of people miss one another every day.

But although I did not see him very often, and was in no way intimate with him, I kept my ears open for any account of his doings. From one point of view—the club window outlook—he was a very usual figure, one of those stout, rubicund, jolly men, a good polo player, a good man in a house-party, genial-natured, and none-too-brilliantly brained, whom every one liked and no one thought about. All this he was on one side of the report, but, on the other, there were certain stories that were something more than ordinary.

Wilbraham was obviously a sentimentalist and an enthusiast; there was the extraordinary case shortly after I first met him of his championship of X., a man who had been caught card-sharping and received a year's imprisonment for it. On X. leaving prison, Wilbraham championed and defended him, put him up for months in his rooms in Duke Street, walked as often as possible in his company down Piccadilly, and took him over to Paris. It says a great deal for Wilbraham's accepted normality, and his general popularity, that this championship of X. did him no harm. Some men, it is true, did murmur something about "birds of a feather," and one or two kind friends warned Wilbraham in the way kind friends have, and to them he simply said:

"If a feller's a pal he's a pal."

There followed a year or two later the much more celebrated business of Lady C. I need not go into all that now, but here again Wilbraham constituted himself her defender, although she robbed, cheated, and maligned him as she robbed, cheated, and maligned every one who was good to her. It was quite obvious that he was not in love with her; the obviousness of it was one of the things in him that annoyed her. He simply felt, apparently, that she had been badly treated—the very last thing she had been—gave her any money he had, put his rooms at the disposal of herself and her friends, and, as I have said, championed her everywhere.

This affair did very nearly finish him socially and in his regiment. It was not so much that they minded his caring for Lady C.—after all, any man can be fooled by any woman—but it was Lady C.'s friends who made the whole thing so impossible. Well, that affair luckily came to an end just in time. Lady C. disappeared to Berlin, and was no more seen.

There were other cases, into which I need not go, when Wilbraham was seen in strange company, always championing somebody who was not worth the championing. He had no "social tact," and for them, at any rate, no moral sense. In himself he was the ordinary normal man about town; no prude, but straight as a man can be in his debts, his love affairs, his friendships, and his sport. Then came the War. He did brilliantly at Mons, was wounded twice, went out to Gallipoli, had a touch of Palestine, and returned to France again to share in Foch's final triumph.

No man can possibly have had more of the War than he had, and it is my own belief that he had just a little too much of it.

He had been always perhaps a little "queer," as we are most of us "queer" somewhere, and the horrors of that horrible war undoubtedly affected him. Finally he lost, just a week before the Armistice, one of his best friends, Ross McLean, a loss from which he certainly never recovered.

I have now, I think, brought together all the incidents that can throw any kind of light upon the final scene.

In the middle of 1919 he retired from the Army, and it was from this time to his death that I saw something of him. He went back to his old rooms at Horton's in Duke Street, and as I was living at that time in Marlborough Chambers in Jermyn Street, we were within easy reach of one another. The early part of 1920 was a "queer time." People had become, I imagine, pretty well accustomed to realizing that those two wonderful hours of Armistice Day had not ushered in the millennium, any more than those first marvellous moments of the Russian revolution produced it.

Every one has always hoped for the millennium, but the trouble since the days of Adam and Eve has always been that people have such different ideas as to what exactly that millennium shall be. The plain facts of the matter simply were that during 1919 and 1920 the world changed from a war of nations to a war of classes, that inevitable change that history has always shown follows on great wars.

As no one ever reads history, it was natural enough that there should be a great deal of disappointment, and a great deal of astonishment. Wilbraham, being a sentimentalist and an idealist, suffered more from this general disappointment than most people. He had had wonderful relations with the men under him throughout the war. He was never tired of recounting how marvellously they had behaved, what heroes they were, and that it was they who would pull the country together.

At the same time he had a naïve horror of Bolshevism and anything unconstitutional, and he watched the transformation of his "brave lads" into discontented and idle workmen with dismay and deep distress. He used sometimes to come round to my rooms and talk to me; he had the bewildered air of a man walking in his sleep.

During these months I came to love the man. The attraction that I had felt for him from the very first deeply underlay all my relations to him, but as I saw more of him, I found many very positive reasons for my liking. He was the simplest, bravest, purest, most loyal, and most unselfish soul alive. He seemed to me to have no faults at all, unless it were a certain softness towards the wishes of those whom he loved. He could not bear to hurt anybody, but he never hesitated if some principle in which he believed was called in question.

He was the best human being I have ever known, or am ever likely to know.

Well, the crisis arrived with astonishing suddenness. About August 2nd or 3rd I went down to stay with some friends at the little fishing village of Rafiel in Glebeshire.

I saw him just before I left London, and he told me that he was going to stay in town for the first half of August; that he liked London in August, even though his club would be closed and Horton's delivered over to the painters.

I heard nothing about him for a fortnight, and then I received a most extraordinary letter from Box Hamilton, a fellow-clubman of mine and of Wilbraham's. Had I heard, he said, that poor old Wilbraham had gone right off his "knocker "? Nobody knew exactly what had happened, but suddenly one day at lunch-time Wilbraham had turned up at Grey's—the club to which our own club was a visitor during its cleaning—had harangued every one about religion in the most extraordinary way, had burst out from there and started shouting in Piccadilly; had, after collecting a crowd, disappeared and not been seen until the next morning, when he had been found nearly killed after a hand-to-hand fight with the market men in Covent Garden.

It may be imagined how deeply this disturbed me, especially as I felt I was myself to blame. I had noticed that Wilbraham was ill when I had seen him in London, and I should either have persuaded him to come with me to Glebeshire, or stayed with him in London. I was just about to pack up and go to town when I received a letter from a doctor in a nursing-home in South Audley Street, saying that a certain Major Wilbraham was in the home, dying, and asking persistently for myself. I took a motor to Drymouth, and was in London by five o'clock.

I found the South Audley Street nursing-home, and was at once surrounded with the hush, the shaded rooms, the scents of medicine and flowers, and some undefinable cleanliness that belongs to those places.

I waited in a little room, the walls decorated with sporting prints, the green baize centre table laden with volumes of Punch and the Tatler. Wilbraham's doctor came in to see me, a dapper, smart little man, efficient and impersonal. He told me that Wilbraham had at most only twenty-four hours to live, that his brain was quite clear, and that he was suffering very little pain, that he had been brutally kicked in the stomach by some man in the Covent Garden crowd, and had there received the internal injuries from which he was now dying.

"His brain is quite clear," the doctor said. "Let him talk. It can do him no harm. Nothing can save him. His head is full of queer fancies; he wants every one to listen to him. He's worrying because there's some message he wants to send—he wants to give it to you."

When I saw Wilbraham he was so little changed that I felt no shock. Indeed, the most striking change in him was the almost exultant happiness in his voice and eyes.

It is true that after talking to him a little I knew that he was dying. He had that strange peace and tranquillity of mind that one saw so often with dying men in the War.

I will try to give an exact account of Wilbraham's narrative; nothing else is of importance in this little story but that narrative. I can make no comment. I have no wish to do so. I only want to pass it on as he begged me to do.

"If you don't believe me," he said, "give other people the chance of doing so. I know that I am dying. I want as many men and women to have a chance of judging this as is humanly possible. I swear to you that I am telling the truth, and the exact truth in every detail."

I began my account by saying that I was not convinced.

How could I be convinced?

At the same time I have none of those explanations with which people are so generously forthcoming on these occasions. I can only say that I do not think Wilbraham was insane, nor drunk, nor asleep. Nor do I believe that some one played a practical joke.

Whether Wilbraham was insane between the hours when his visitor left him and his entrance into the nursing-home I must leave to my readers. I myself think he was not.

After all, everything depends upon the relative importance that we place upon ambitions, possessions, emotions—ideas.

Something then suddenly became of so desperate an importance to Wilbraham that nothing else at all mattered. He wanted every one else to see the importance of it as he did. That is all.

It had been a hot and oppressive day; London had seemed torrid and uncomfortable. The mere fact that Oxford Street was "up" annoyed him. After a slight meal in his flat he went to the promenade concert at Queen's Hall. It was the second night of the season—Monday night—Wagner night.

He had heard no Wagner since August 1914, and was anxious to discover the effect that hearing it again would have upon him. The effect was disappointing.

The Meistersinger had always been a great opera for him. The third act music that the orchestra gave to him didn't touch him anywhere. He also discovered that six years' abstinence had not enraptured him any more deeply with the rushing fiddles in the Tannhäuser overture, nor with the spinning music in the Flying Dutchman. Then came suddenly the prelude to the third act of Tristan. That caught him, the peace and tranquillity that he needed lapped him round, he was fully satisfied and could have listened for another hour—a little strange, he told me, because the first half of the third act had always bored him with Tristan's eternal dying. He got up and went away, not caring to stay and listen to the efforts of an inadequate contralto to over-scream the orchestra in the last agonies of Götterdämmerung.

He walked home down Regent Street, the quiet melancholy of the pipe music accompanying him, pleasing him, and tranquillizing him. As he reached his flat ten o'clock struck from St. James's Church. He asked the porter whether anyone had wanted him during his absence—whether any one was waiting for him now. (Some friend had told him that he might come up and use his spare room one night that week.) No, no one had been. There was no one there waiting.

Great was his surprise, therefore, when opening the door of his flat he found some one standing there, one hand resting on the table. His face turned towards the open door. Stronger, however, than Wilbraham's surprise was his immediate conviction that he knew his visitor well, and this was curious, because the face was undoubtedly strange to him.

"I beg your pardon," Wilbraham said, hesitating.

"I wanted to see you," the stranger said, smiling.

When Wilbraham was telling me this part of his story he seemed to be enveloped—"enveloped" is the word that best conveys my own experience of him—by some quite radiant happiness; he smiled at me confidentially as though he were telling me something that I had experienced with him, and that must give me the same happiness that it gave him.

"Ought I to have expected—ought I to have known?" he stammered.

"No, you couldn't have known," the stranger answered. "You're not late. I knew when you would come."

Wilbraham told me that during these moments he was surrendering himself to an emotion of intimacy and companionship that was the most wonderful thing that he had ever known. It was that intimacy and companionship, he told me, for which all his days he had been searching. It was the one thing that life never seemed to give; even in the greatest love, the deepest friendship, there was that seed of loneliness hidden. He had never found it in man or woman.

Now it was so wonderful that the first thing that he said was:

"And now you're going to stay, aren't you? You won't go away at once?"

"Of course I'll stay," he answered, "if you want me."

His guest was dressed in some dark suit; there was nothing about him in any way odd or unusual. His face thin and pale. His smile kindly.

His English was without accent. His voice was soft and very melodious.

But Wilbraham could notice nothing but his eyes; they were the most beautiful, tender, gentle eyes that he had ever seen in any human being.

They sat down. Wilbraham's overwhelming fear was lest his guest should leave him. They began to talk, and Wilbraham took it at once as accepted that his friend knew all about him—everything.

He found himself eagerly plunging into details of scenes, episodes that he had long put behind him—put behind him for shame, perhaps, or for regret or for sorrow. He knew at once that there was nothing that he need veil nor hide—nothing. He had no sense that he must consider susceptibilities or avoid self-confession that was humiliating.

But he did find, as he talked on, a sense of shame from another side creep towards him and begin to enclose him. Shame at the smallness, meanness, emptiness of the things that he declared.

He had had always behind his mistakes and sins a sense that he was a rather unusual, interesting person; if only his friends knew everything about him they would be surprised at the remarkable man that he really was. Now it was exactly the opposite sense that came over him. In the gold-rimmed mirror that was over his mantelpiece he saw himself diminishing, diminishing, diminishing. First himself, large, red-faced, smiling, rotund, lying back in his chair: then the face shrivelling, the limbs shortening, then the face small and peaked, the hands and legs little and mean, then the chair enormous about and around the little trembling animal cowering against the cushion.

He sprang up.

"No, no! I can't tell you any more—and you've known it all so long. I am mean, small, nothing. I have not even great ambition—nothing."

His guest stood up and put his hand on his shoulder. They talked, standing side by side, and he said some things that belonged to Wilbraham alone, that he would not tell me.

Wilbraham asked him why he had come—and to him.

"I will come now to a few of my friends," he said. "First one and then another. Many people have forgotten me behind my words. They have built up such a mountain over me with the doctrines they have attributed to me, the things that they say that I did. I am not really," he said, laughing, his hand on Wilbraham's shoulder, "so dull and gloomy and melancholy as they have made me. I loved life; I loved men; I loved laughter and games and the open air. All things that they have forgotten. So from now I shall come back to one or two. I am lonely when they see me so solemnly."

Another thing he said: "They are making life complicated now. To lead a good life, to be happy, to manage the world, only the simplest things are needed—love, unselfishness, tolerance."

"Can I go with you and be with you always?" Wilbraham asked.

"Do you really want that?" he said.

"Yes," said Wilbraham, bowing his head.

"Then you shall come and never leave me again. In three days from now."

Then he kissed Wilbraham on the forehead and went away.

I think that Wilbraham himself became conscious as he told me this part of his story of the difference between the seen and remembered figure and the foolish, inadequate reported words. Even now, as I repeat a little of what Wilbraham said, I feel the virtue and power slipping away. But on that day when I sat beside Wilbraham's bed the conviction in his voice and eyes held me so that, although my reason kept me back, my heart told me that he had been in contact with some power that was a stronger force than anything that I myself had ever known.

But I have determined to make no personal comment on this story. I am here simply as a narrator of fact.

Wilbraham told me that after his guest left him he sat there for some time in a dream. Then he sat up, startled as though some voice, calling, had wakened him, with an impulse that was like a fire suddenly blazing up and lighting the dark places of his brain. I imagine that all Wilbraham's impulses in the past, chivalrous, idealistic, foolish, had been of that kind—sudden, of an almost ferocious energy and determination, blind to all consequences. He must go out at once and tell every one of what had happened to him.

I once read a story somewhere about some town that was expecting a great visitor. Everything was ready, the banners hanging, the music prepared, the crowds waiting in the street.

A man who had once been for some years at the court of the expected visitor, saw him enter the city, sombrely clad, on foot. Meanwhile, his chamberlain entered the town in full panoply with the trumpets blowing and many riders in attendance. The man who knew the real king ran to every one telling the truth, but they laughed at him and refused to listen. And the real king departed quietly as he had come.

It was, I suppose, an influence of this kind that drove Wilbraham now.

What followed might, I think, have been to some extent averted, had his appearance been different. London is a home of madmen, and casually permits any lunacy, so that public peace is not endangered. Had poor Wilbraham looked a fanatic, with pale face, long hair, ragged clothes, much would have been forgiven him, but for a staid, middle-aged gentleman, well-dressed, well-groomed, what could be supposed but insanity, and insanity of a very ludicrous kind?

He put on his coat and went out. From this moment his account was confused. His mind, as he spoke to me, kept returning to that visitor. What happened after his guest's departure was vague and uncertain to him, largely because it was unimportant. He does not know what time it was when he went out, but I gather it must have been about midnight. There were still people in Piccadilly.

Somewhere near the Berkeley Hotel he stopped a gentleman and a lady. He spoke, I am sure, so politely that the man he addressed must have supposed that he was asking for a match, or an address, or something of the kind. Wilbraham told me that very quietly he asked the gentleman whether he might speak to him for a moment, that he had something very important to say; that he would not, as a rule, dream of interfering in any man's private affairs, but that the importance of his communication outweighed all ordinary conventions; that he expected that the gentleman had hitherto, as had been his own case, felt much doubt about religious questions, but that now all doubt was once and for ever over, that——

I expect that at that fatal word "religious" the gentleman started as though he had been stung by a snake, felt that this mild-looking man was a dangerous lunatic and tried to move away. It was the lady with him, so far as I can discover, who cried out, "Oh, poor man, he's ill!" and wanted at once to do something for him.

By this time a crowd was beginning to collect, and as the crowd closed around the central figures more people gathered upon the outskirts and, peering through, wondered what had happened, whether there was an accident, whether it was a "drunk," whether there had been a quarrel, and so on.

Wilbraham, I fancy, began to address them all, telling them his great news, begging them with a desperate urgency to believe him. Some laughed, some stared in wide-eyed wonder, the crowd was increasing, and then, of course, the inevitable policeman, with his "Move on, please," appeared.

How deeply I regret that Wilbraham was not there and then arrested. He would be alive and with us now if that had been done. But the policeman hesitated, I suppose, to arrest any one as obviously a gentleman as Wilbraham, a man, too, as he soon perceived, who was perfectly sober, even though he was not in his right mind.

Wilbraham was surprised at the policeman's interference. He said that the last thing that he wished to do was to create any disturbance, but that he could not bear to let all these people go to their beds without giving them a chance of realizing first that everything was now altered, that he had had the most wonderful news.

The crowd was dispersed, and Wilbraham found himself walking alone with the policeman beside the Green Park.

He must have been a very nice policeman, because, before Wilbraham's death, he called at the nursing-home and was very anxious to know how the poor gentleman was getting on.

He allowed Wilbraham to talk to him, and then did all he could to persuade him to walk home and go to bed. He offered to get him a taxi. Wilbraham thanked him, said he would do so himself, and bade him good-night, and the policeman, seeing that Wilbraham was perfectly composed and sober, left him.

After that the narrative is more confused. Wilbraham apparently walked down Knightsbridge and arrived at last somewhere near the Albert Hall. He must have spoken to a number of different people. One man, a politician apparently, was with him for a considerable time, but only because he was so anxious to emphasize his own views about the Government. Another was a journalist, who continued with him for a while because he scented a story for his newspaper. Some people may remember that there was a garbled paragraph about a "Religious Army Officer" in the Daily Record.

He stayed at a cabman's shelter for a time and drank a cup of coffee and told the little gathering there his news. They took it very calmly. They had met so many queer things in their time that nothing seemed odd to them.

His account becomes clearer again when he found himself a little before dawn in the park and in the company of a woman of the town and a drunken, broken-down pugilist. I saw both these persons afterwards and had some talk with them. The pugilist had only the vaguest sense of what had happened. Wilbraham was a "proper old bird," and had given him half a crown to get his breakfast with. They had all slept together under a tree, and he had made some rather voluble protests because the other two would talk so continuously and prevented his sleeping. It was a warm night and the sun had come up behind the tree "surprisin' quick."

The woman was another story. She was quiet and reserved, dressed in black with a neat little black hat with a green feather in it. She had yellow, fluffy hair, and bright, childish, blue eyes, and a simple, innocent expression. She spoke very softly and almost in a whisper. She spoke of her life quite calmly as though she had been a governess or a waitress at a tea-shop. So far as I could discover, she could see nothing odd in Wilbraham, nor in anything that he had said. She was the one person in all the world who had understood him completely and found nothing out of the way in his talk. Strange when you come to think of it. The one person in the world.

She had liked him at once, she said. "I could see that he was kind," she added earnestly, as though to her that was the most important thing in all the world. No, his talk had not seemed odd to her. She had believed every word that he had said. Why not? You could not look at him and not believe what he said.

Of course, it was true. And why not? She had known lots of things funnier than that in her sordid life. What was there against it? She had always thought that there was something in what the parsons said, and now she knew it. It had been a great help to her, what the gentleman had told her. Yes, and he had gone to sleep with his head in her lap—and she had stayed awake all night thinking—and he had woken up just in time to see the sunrise. Some sunrise that was, too!

That was a curious little fact, that all three of them, even the battered pugilist, should have been so deeply struck by that sunrise. Wilbraham on the last day of his life, when he hovered between consciousness and unconsciousness, kept recalling it as though it had been a vision.

"The sun—and the trees suddenly green and bright like glittering swords—and the sky pale like ivory. See, now the sun is rushing up, faster than ever, to take us with him—up, up, leaving the trees like green clouds beneath us—far, far beneath us——"

The woman said it was the finest sunrise she had ever seen; and, at once, when she saw it, she began to think of a policeman. He'd be moving them on, naturally, and what would he say when he found her there with a gentleman of the highest class? Say that she had been robbing him, of course. She wanted to move away, but he insisted on going with her, and they woke up the pugilist, and the three of them moved down the park.

He talked to her all the time about his plans. He was looking dishevelled now, and unshaven and dirty. She suggested that he should go back to his flat. No, he wished to waste no time. Who knew how long he had got? It might be only a day or two. He would go to Covent Garden and talk to the men there.

She was confused as to what happened after that. When they got to the market, the carts were coming in and the men were very busy.

She saw the gentleman speak to one of them very earnestly, but he was very busy and pushed him aside. He spoke to another, who told him to clear out.

Then he jumped on to a box, and almost the last sight she had of him was his standing there in his soiled clothes, a streak of mud on his face, his arms outstretched and crying: "It's true! It's true! Stop just a moment! You must hear me!"

Some one pushed him off the box. The pugilist rushed in then, cursing them and saying that the man was a gentleman, and had given him half-a-crown, and then some hulking great fellow fought the pugilist and there was a regular mêlée. Wibraham was in the middle of them, was knocked down and trampled upon. No one meant to hurt him, I think. They all seemed very sorry afterwards.

He died two days after being brought into the nursing-home. He was very happy just before he died, pressed my hand, and asked me to look after the girl.

"Isn't it wonderful," were his last words to me, "that it should be true after all?"

As to Truth, who knows? Truth is a large order. This is true as far as Wilbraham goes, every word of it. Beyond that? Well, it must be jolly to be so happy as Wilbraham was.

The End

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