Volume 3
Chapter XI. Upon the Highway
 

Frank visited the child in the morning, and was received with a casual interest. Richard Joseph Armour was fastidious, was not to be won at the grand gallop. Besides, he had just had a visit from his uncle, and the good taste of that gay time was yet in his mouth. He did not resent the embraces, but he did not respond to them, and he straightened himself with relief when the assault was over. Some one was paying homage to him, that was all he knew; but for his own satisfaction and pleasure he preferred as yet his old comrades, Edward Lambert, Captain Vidall, General Armour, and, above all, Richard. He only showed real interest at the last, when he asked, as it were in compromise, if his father would give him a sword. No one had ever talked to him of his father, and he had no instinct for him so far as could be seen. The sword was, therefore, after the manner of a concession. Frank rashly promised it, and was promptly told by Marion that it couldn't be; and she was backed by Captain Vidall, who said it had already been tabooed, and Frank wasn't to come in and ask for favours or expect them.

The husband and wife met at breakfast. He was down first. When his wife entered, he came to her, they touched hands, and she presently took a seat beside him. More than once he paused suddenly in his eating, when he thought of his inexplicable case. He was now face to face with a reversed situation. He had once picked up a pebble from the brown dirt of a prairie, that he might toss it into the pool of this home life; and he had tossed it, and from the sweet bath there had come out a precious stone, which he longed to wear, and knew that he could not--not yet. He could have coerced a lower being, but for his manhood's sake--he had risen to that now, it is curious how the dignity of fatherhood helps to make a man--he could not coerce here, and if he did, he knew that the product would be disaster.

He listened to her talk with Marion and Captain Vidall. Her voice was musical, balanced, her language breathed; it had manner, and an indescribable cadence of intelligence, joined to a deliberation, which touched her off with distinction. When she spoke to him--and she seemed to do that as by studied intention and with tact at certain intervals-- her manner was composed and kind. She had resolved on her part. She asked him about his journey over, about his plans for the day, and if he had decided to ride with her in the Park,--he could have the general's mount, she was sure, for the general was not going that day,--and would he mind doing a little errand for her afterwards in Regent Street, for the child--she feared she herself would not have time?

Just then General Armour entered, and, passing behind her, kissed her on the cheek, dropping his hand on Frank's shoulder at the same time with a hearty greeting. Of course, Frank could have his mount, he said. Mrs. Armour did not come down, but she sent word by Richard, who entered last, that she would be glad to see Frank for a moment before he left for the Park. As of old, Richard took both Lali's hands in his, patted them, and cheerily said:

"Well, well, Lali, we've got the wild man home again safe and sound, haven't we--the same old vagabond? We'll have to turn him into a Christian again--'For while the lamp holds out to burn'--"

He did not give her time to reply, but their eyes met honestly, kindly, and from the look they both passed into life and time again with a fresh courage. She did not know, nor did he, how near they had been to an abyss; and neither ever knew. One furtive glance at the moment, one hesitating pressure of the hand, one movement of the head from each other's gaze, and there had been unhappiness for them all. But they were safe.

In the Park, Frank and his wife talked little. They met many who greeted them cordially, and numbers of Frank's old club friends summoned him to the sacred fires at his earliest opportunity. The two talked chiefly of the people they met, and Frank thrilled with admiration at his wife's gentle judgment of everybody.

"The true thing, absolutely the true thing," he said; and he was conscious, too, that her instincts were right and searching, for once or twice he saw her face chill a little when they met one or two men whose reputations as chevaliers des dames were pronounced. These men had had one or two confusing minutes with Lali in their time.

"How splendidly you ride!" he said, as he came up swiftly to her, after having chatted for a moment with Edward Lambert. "You sit like wax, and so entirely easy."

"Thank you," she said. "I suppose I really like it too well to ride badly, and then I began young on horses not so good as Musket here-- bareback, too!" she added, with a little soft irony.

He thought--she did not, however--that she was referring to that first letter he sent home to his people, when he consigned her, like any other awkward freight, to their care. He flushed to his eyes. It cut him deep, but her eyes only had a distant, dreamy look which conveyed nothing of the sting in her words. Like most men, he had a touch of vanity too, and he might have resented the words vaguely, had he not remembered his talk with his mother an hour before.

She had begged him to have patience, she had made him promise that he would not in any circumstance say an ungentle or bitter thing, that he would bide the effort of constant devotion, and his love of the child. Especially must he try to reach her through love of the child.

By which it will be seen that Mrs. Armour had come to some wisdom by reason of her love for Frank's wife and child.

"My son," she had said, "through the child is the surest way, believe me; for only a mother can understand what that means, how much and how far it goes. You are a father, but until last night you never had the flush of that love in your veins. You stand yet only at the door of that life which has done more to guide, save, instruct, and deepen your wife's life than anything else, though your brother Richard--to whom you owe a debt that you can never repay--has done much in deed. Be wise, my dear, as I have learned a little to be since first your wife came. All might easily have gone wrong. It has all gone well; and we, my son, have tried to do our duty lovingly, consistently, to dear Lali and the child."

She made him promise that he would wait, that he would not try to hurry his wife's affection for him by any spoken or insistent claim. "For, Frank dear," she said, "you are only legally married, not morally, not as God can bless--not yet. But I pray that what will sanctify all may come soon, very soon, to the joy of us all. But again--and I cannot say it too prayerfully--do not force one little claim that your marriage gave you, but prove yourself to her, who has cause to distrust you so much. Will you forgive your mother, my dear, for speaking to you?"

He had told her then that what she had asked he had intended as his own course, yet what she had said would keep it in his mind always, for he was sure it was right. Mrs. Armour had then embraced him, and they parted. Dealing with Lali had taught them all much of the human heart that they had never known before, and the result thereof was wisdom.

They talked casually enough for the rest of the ride, and before they parted at the door Frank received his commission for Regent Street, and accepted it with delight, as a schoolboy might a gift. He was absurdly grateful for any favours from her, any sign of her companionship. They met at luncheon; then, because Lali had to keep an engagement in Eaton Square, they parted again, and Frank and Richard took a walk, after a long hour with the child, who still so hungered for his sword that Frank disobeyed orders, and dragged Richard off to Oxford Street to get one. He was reduced to a beatific attitude of submission, for he knew that he had few odds with him now, and that he must live by virtue of new virtues. He was no longer proud of himself in any way, and he knew that no one else was, or rather he felt so, and that was just the same.

He talked of the boy, he talked of his wife, he laid plans, he tore them down, he built them up again, he asked advice, he did not wait to hear it, but rambled on, excited, eager. Truth is, there had suddenly been lifted from his mind the dread and shadow of four years. Wherever he had gone, whatever he had been or done, that dread shadow had followed him, and now to know that instead of having to endure a hell he had to win a heaven, and to feel as if his brain had been opened and a mass of vapours and naughty little mannikins of remorse had been let out, was a trifle intoxicating even to a man of his usual vigour and early acquaintance with exciting things.

"Dick, Dick!" he said enthusiastically, "you've been royal. You always were better than any chap I ever knew. You're always doing for others. Hang it, Dick, where does your fun come in? Nobody seems ever to do anything for you."

Richard gave his arm a squeeze. "Never mind about me, boy. I've had all the fun I want, and all I'm likely to get, and so long as you're all willing to have me around, I'm satisfied. There's always a lot to do among the people in the village, one way and another, and I've a heap of reading on, and what more does a fellow want?"

"You didn't always feel that way, Dick?"

"No. You see, at different times in life you want different kinds of pleasures. I've had a good many kinds, and the present kind is about as satisfactory as any."

"But, Dick, you ought to get married. You've got coin, you've got sense, you're a bit distinguished-looking, and I'll back your heart against a thousand bishops. You've never been in danger of making a fool of yourself as I have. Why didn't you--why don't you--get married?"

Richard patted his brother's shoulder.

"Married, boy? Married? I've got too much on my hands. I've got to bring you up yet. And when that's done I shall have to write a book called 'How to bring up a Parent.' Then I've got to help bring your boy up, as I've done these last three years and more. I've got to think of that boy for a long while yet, for I know him better than you do, and I shall need some of my coin to carry out my plans."

"God bless you, Dick! Bring me up as you will, only bring her along too; and as for the boy, you're far more his father than I am. And mother says that it's you that's given me the wife I've got now--so what can I say?--what can I say?"

It was the middle of the Green Park, and Richard turned and clasped Frank by both shoulders.

"Say? Say that you'll stand by the thing you swore to one mad day in the West as well as any man that ever lived--'to have and to hold, to love and to cherish from this day forth till death us do part, Amen.'"

Richard's voice was low and full of a strange, searching something.

Frank, wondering at this great affection and fondness of his brother, looked him in the eyes warmly, solemnly, and replied: "For richer or for poorer, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health--so help me God, and her kindness and forgiveness!"