The Lamp of Fate by Margaret Pedler
Chapter I. The Ninth Generation
The house was very silent. An odour of disinfectants pervaded the atmosphere. Upstairs hushed, swift steps moved to and fro.
Hugh Vallincourt stood at the window of his study, staring out with unseeing eyes at the smooth, shaven lawns and well-kept paths with their background of leafless trees. It seemed to him that he had been standing thus for hours, waiting--waiting for someone to come and tell him that a son and heir was born to him.
He never doubted that it would be a son. By some freak of chance the first-born of the Vallincourts of Coverdale had been, for eight successive generations, a boy. Indeed, by this time, the thing had become so much a habit that no doubts or apprehensions concerning the sex of the eldest child were ever entertained. It was accepted as a foregone conclusion, and in the eyes of the family there was a certain gratifying propriety about such regularity. It was like a hall-mark of heavenly approval.
Hugh Vallincourt, therefore, was conscious at this critical moment of no questionings on that particular score. He was merely a prey to the normal tremors and agitations of a husband and prospective father.
For an ageless period, it seemed to him, his thoughts had clung about that upstairs room where his wife lay battling for her own life and another's. Suddenly they swung back to the time, a year ago, when he had first met her--an elusive feminine thing still reckoning her age in teens--beneath the glorious blue and gold canopy of the skies of Italy.
Their meeting and brief courtship had been pure romance--romance such as is bred in that land of mellow warmth and colour, where the flower of passion sometimes buds and blooms within the span of a single day.
In like manner had sprung to life the love between Hugh Vallincourt and Diane Wielitzska, and rarely has the web of love enmeshed two more dissimilar and ill-matched people--Hugh, a man of seven-and-thirty, the strict and somewhat self-conscious head of a conspicuously devout old English family, and Diane, a beautiful dancer of mixed origin, the illegitimate offspring of a Russian grand-duke and of a French artist's model of the Latin Quarter.
The three dread Sisters who determine the fate of men must have laughed amongst themselves at such an obvious mismating, knowing well how inevitably it would tangle the threads of many other lives than the two immediately concerned.
Vallincourt had been brought up on severely conventional lines, reared in the narrow tenets of a family whose salient characteristics were an overweening pride of race and a religious zeal amounting almost to fanaticism, while Diane had had no up-bringing worth speaking of. As for religious views, she hadn't any.
Yet neither the one nor the other had counted in the scale when the crucial moment came.
Perhaps it was by way of an ironical set-off against his environment that Fate had dowered Hugh with his crop of ruddy hair--and with the ardent temperament which usually accompanies the type. Be that as it may, he was swept completely off his feet by the dancer's magic beauty. The habits and training of a lifetime went by the board, and nothing was allowed to impede the swift (not to say violent) course of his love-making. Within a month from the day of their first meeting, he and Diane were man and wife.
The consequences were almost inevitable, and Hugh found that his married life speedily resolved itself into an endless struggle between the dictates of inclination and conscience. Everything that was man in him responded passionately to the appeal and charm of Diane's personality, whilst everything that was narrow and censorious disapproved her total inability to conform to the ingrained prejudices of the Vallincourts.
Not that Diane was in any sense of the word a bad woman. She was merely beautiful and irresponsible--a typical cigale of the stage-- lovable and kind-hearted and pagan, and possessing but the haziest notions of self-control and self-discipline. Even so, left to themselves, husband and wife might ultimately have found the road to happiness across the bridge of their great love for one another.
But such freedom was denied them. Always at Hugh's elbow stood his sister, Catherine, a rigidly austere woman, in herself an epitome of all that Vallincourts had ever stood for.
Since the death of their parents, twenty years previously, Catherine had shared her brother's home, managing his house--and, on the strength of her four years' seniority in age, himself as well--with an iron hand. Nor had she seen fit to relinquish the reins of government when he married.
Privately, Hugh had hoped she might consider the propriety of withdrawing to the dower house attached to the Coverdale estates, but if the idea had occurred to her, she had never given it utterance, and Hugh himself had lacked the courage to propose such an innovation.
So it followed that Catherine was ever at hand to criticise and condemn. She disapproved of her brother's marriage wholly and consistently. In her eyes, he had committed an unpardonable sin in allying himself with Diane Wielitzska. It was his duty to have married a woman of the type conventionally termed "good," whose blood--and religious outlook--were alike unimpeachable; and since he had lamentably failed in this respect, she never ceased to reproach him. Diane she regarded with chronic disapprobation, exaggerating all her faults and opposing her joy-loving, butterfly nature with an aloofly puritanical disdain.
Amid the glacial atmosphere of disapproval into which marriage had thrust her, Diane found her only solace in Virginie, a devoted French servant who had formerly been her nurse, and who literally worshipped the ground she walked on. Conversely, Virginie's attitude towards Miss Vallincourt was one of frank hostility. And deep in the hearts of both Diane and Virginie lurked a confirmed belief that the birth of a child --a son--would serve to bring about a better understanding between husband and wife, and in the end assure Diane her rightful place as mistress of the house.
"Vois-tu, Virginie," the latter would say hopefully. "When I have a little baby, I shall have done my duty as the wife of a great English milord. Even Miss Catherine will no longer regard me as of no importance."
And Virginie would reply with infinite satisfaction:
"Of a certainty, when madame has a little son, Ma'moiselle Catherine will be returned to her place."
And now at last the great moment had arrived, and upstairs Catherine and Virginie were in attendance--both ousted from what each considered her own rightful place of authority by a slim, capable, and apparently quite unconcerned piece of femininity equipped against rebellion in all the starched panoply of a nurse's uniform, while downstairs Hugh stared dumbly out at the frosted lawns, with their background of bare, brown trees swaying to the wind from the north.
The door behind him opened suddenly. Hugh whirled round. He was a tall man with a certain rather formal air of stateliness about him, a suggestion of the grand seigneur, and the unwontedly impulsive movement was significant of the strain under which he was labouring.
Catherine was standing on the threshold of the room with something in her arms--something almost indistinguishable amid the downy, fleecy froth of whiteness amid which it lay.
Hugh was conscious of a new and strange sensation deep down inside himself. He felt rather as though all the blood in his body had rushed to one place--somewhere in the middle of it--and were pounding there against his ribs.
He tried to speak, failed, then instinctively stretched out his arms for the tiny, orris-scented bundle which Catherine carried.
The next thing of which he was conscious was Catherine's voice as she placed his child in his arms--very quiet, yet rasping across the tender silence of the room like a file.
"Here, Hugh, is the living seal which God Himself has set upon the sin of your marriage."
Hugh's eyes, bent upon the pink, crumpled features of the scrap of humanity nestled amid the bunchy whiteness in his arms, sought his sister's face. It was a thin, hard face, sharply cut like carved ivory; the eyes a light, cold blue, ablaze with hostility; the pale obstinate lips, usually folded so impassively one above the other, working spasmodically.
For a moment brother and sister stared at each other in silence. Then, all at once, Catherine's rigidly enforced composure snapped.
"A girl child, Hugh!" she jeered violently. "A girl--when you prayed for a boy!"
Hugh stared stupidly at the babe in his arms.
"Ay, a girl!" taunted Catherine, her voice cracking with rising hysteria. "A girl! . . . For eight generations the first-born has been a son. And the ninth is a girl! The daughter of a foreign dancing-woman! . . . God has indeed taken your punishment into His own Hands!"