Volume II
Chapter IX. He Finds New Sponsors
 

Gaston lay for many days at "The Whisk o' Barley." During that time the inn was not open to customers. The woman also for two days hung at the point of death, and then rallied. She remembered the events of the painful night, and often asked after Gaston. Somehow, her horror of her son's death at his hands was met by the injury done him now. She vaguely felt that there had been justice and punishment. She knew that in the room at Labrador Gaston Belward had been scarcely less mad than her son.

Gaston, as soon as he became conscious, said that his assailant must be got out of the way of the police, and to that end bade Jacques send for Mr. Warren Gasgoyne. Mr. Gasgoyne and Sir William arrived at the same time, but Gaston was unconscious again. Jacques, however, told them what his master's wishes were, and they were carried out; Jock's friend secretly left England forever. Sir William and Mr. Gasgoyne got the whole tale from the landlord, whom they asked to say nothing publicly.

Lady Belward drove down each day, and sat beside him for a couple of hours-silent, solicitous, smoothing his pillow or his wasting hand. The brain had been injured, and recovery could not be immediate. Hovey the housekeeper had so begged to be installed as nurse, that her wish was granted, and she was with him night and day. Now she shook her head at him sadly, now talked in broken sentences to herself, now bustled about silently, a tyrant to the other servants sent down from the Court. Every day also the headgroom and the huntsman came, and in the village Gaston's humble friends discussed the mystery, stoutly defending him when some one said it was "more nor gabble, that theer saying o' the poacher at the meetin.'"

But the landlord and his wife kept silence, the officers of the law took no action, and the town and country newspapers could do no more than speak of "A vicious assault upon the heir of Ridley Court." It had become the custom now to leave Ian out of that question. But the wonder died as all wonders do, and Gaston made his fight for health.

The day before he was removed to the Court, Mrs. Cawley was helped up- stairs to see him. She was gaunt and hollow-eyed. Lady Belward and Mrs. Gasgoyne were present. The woman made her respects, and then stood at Gaston's bedside. He looked up with a painful smile.

"Do you forgive me?!" he asked. "I've almost paid!"

He touched his bandaged head.

"It ain't for mothers to forgi'e the thing," she replied, in a steady voice, "but I can forgi'e the man. 'Twere done i' madness--there beant the will workin' i' such. 'Twere a comfort that he'd a prayin' over un."

Gaston took the gnarled fingers in his. It had never struck him how dreadful a thing it was--so used had he been to death in many forms--till he had told the story to this mother.

"Mrs. Cawley," he said, "I can't make up to you what Jock would have been; but I can do for you in one way as much as Jock. This house is yours from to-day."

He drew a deed from the coverlet, and handed it to her. He had got it from Sir William that morning. The poor and the crude in mind can only understand an objective emotion, and the counters for these are this world's goods. Here was a balm in Gilead. The love of her child was real, but the consolation was so practical to Mrs. Cawley that the lips which might have cursed, said:

"Ah, sir, the wind do be fittin' the shore lamb! I' the last Judgen, I'll no speak agen 'ee. I be sore fretted harm come to 'ee."

At this Mrs. Gasgoyne rose, and in her bustling way dismissed the grateful peasant, who fondled the deed and called eagerly down the stairs to her husband as she went.

Mrs. Gasgoyne then came back, sat down, and said: "Now you needn't fret about that any longer--barbarian!" she added, shaking a finger. "Didn't I say that you would get into trouble? that you would set the country talking? Here you were, in the dead of night, telling ghost stories, and raking up your sins, with no cause whatever, instead of in your bed. You were to have lunched with us the next day--I had asked Lady Harriet to meet you, too!--and you didn't; and you have wretched patches where your hair ought to be. How can you promise that you'll not make a madder sensation some day?"

Gaston smiled up at her. Her fresh honesty, under the guise of banter, was always grateful to him. He shook his head, smiled, and said nothing.

She went on.

"I want a promise that you will do what your godfather and godmother will swear for you."

She acted on him like wine.

"Of course, anything. Who are my godfather and godmother?"

She looked him steadily, warmly in the eyes: "Warren and myself."

Now he understood: his promise to his grandmother and grandfather. So, they had spoken! He was sure that Mrs. Gasgoyne had objected. He knew that behind her playful treatment of the subject there was real scepticism of himself. It put him on his mettle, and yet he knew she read him deeper than any one else, and flattered him least.

He put out his hand, and took hers.

"You take large responsibilities," he said, "but I will try and justify you--honestly, yes."

In her hearty way, she kissed him on the cheek. "There," she responded, "if you and Delia do make up your minds, see that you treat her well. And you are to come, just as soon as you are able, to stay at Peppingham. Delia, silly child, is anxious, and can't see why she mustn't call with me now."

In his room at the Court that night, Gaston inquired of Jacques about Alice Wingfield, and was told that on the day of the accident she had left with her grandfather for the Continent. He was not sorry. For his own sake he could have wished an understanding between them. But now he was on the way to marriage, and it was as well that there should be no new situations. The girl could not wish the thing known. There would be left him, in this case, to befriend her should it ever be needed. He remembered the spring of pleasure he felt when he first saw other faces like his father's--his grandfather's, his grandmother's. But this girl's was so different to him; having the tragedy of the lawless, that unconscious suffering stamped by the mother upon the child. There was, however, nothing to be done. He must wait.

Two days later Lady Dargan called to inquire after him. He was lying in his study with a book, and Lady Belward sent to ask him if he would care to see her and Lord Dargan's nephew, Cluny Vosse. Lady Belward did not come; Sir William brought them. Lady Dargan came softly to him, smiled more with her eyes than her lips, and told him how sorry she had been to hear of his illness. Some months before Gaston had met Cluny Vosse, who at once was his admirer. Gaston liked the youth. He was fresh, high- minded, extravagant, idle; but he had no vices, and no particular vanity save for his personal appearance. His face was ever radiant with health, shining with satisfaction. People liked him, and did not discount it by saying that he had nothing in him. Gaston liked him most because he was so wholly himself, without guile, beautifully honest.

Now Cluny sat down, tapped the crown of his hat, looked at him cheerily, and said:

"Got in a cracker, didn't he?"

Gaston nodded, amused.

"The fellows at Brooke's had a talkee-talkee, and they'd twenty different stories. Of course it was rot. We were all cut up though and hoped you'd pull through. Of course there couldn't be any doubt of that-- you've been through too many, eh?"

Cluny always assumed that Gaston had had numberless tragical adventures which, if told, must make Dumas turn in his grave with envy.

Gaston smiled, and laid a hand upon the other's knee. "I'm not shell- proof, Vosse, and it was rather a narrow squeak, I'm told. But I'm kept, you see, for a worse fate and a sadder."

"I say, Belward, you don't mean that! Your eyes go so queer sometimes, that a chap doesn't know what to think. You ought to live to a hundred. You'll have to. You've got it all--"

"Oh no, my boy, I haven't got anything." He waved his hand pleasantly towards his grandfather. "I'm on the knees of the gods merely."

Cluny turned on Sir William.

"It isn't any secret, is it, sir? He gets the lot, doesn't he?"

Sir William's occasional smile came.

"I fancy there's some condition about the plate, the pictures, and the title; but I do not suppose that matters meanwhile."

He spoke half-musingly and with a little unconscious irony, and the boy, vaguely knowing that there was a cross-current somewhere, drifted.

"No, of course not; he can have fun enough without them, can't he?"

Lady Dargan here soothingly broke in, inquiring about Gaston's illness, and showing a tactful concern. But the nephew persisted:

"I say, Belward, Aunt Sophie was cut up no end when she heard of it. She wouldn't go out to dinner that night at Lord Dunfolly's, and, of course, I didn't go. And I wanted to; for Delia Gasgoyne was to be there, and she's ripping."

Lady Dargan, in spite of herself, blushed, but without confusion, and Gaston adroitly led the conversation otherwhere. Presently she said that they were to be at their villa in France during the late summer, and if he chanced to be abroad would he come? He said that he intended to visit his uncle in Paris, but that afterwards he would be glad to visit them for a short time.

She looked astonished. "With your uncle Ian!"

"Yes. He is to show me art-life, and all that."

She looked troubled. He saw that she wished to say something.

"Yes, Lady Dargan?!" he asked.

She spoke with fluttering seriousness.

"I asked you once to come to me if you ever needed a friend. I do not wait for that. I ask you not to go to your uncle."

"Why?"

He was thinking that, despite social artifice and worldliness, she was sentimental.

"Because there will be trouble. I can see it. You may trust a woman's instinct; and I know that man!" He did not reply at once, but presently said:

"I fancy I must keep my promise."

"What is the book you are reading?!" she said, changing the subject, for Sir William was listening.

He opened it, and smiled musingly.

"It is called Affairs of Some Consequence in the Reign of Charles I. In reading it I seemed to feel that it was incorrect, and my mind kept wandering away into patches of things--incidents, scenes, bits of talk --as I fancied they really were, not apocryphal or 'edited' as here."

"I say," said Cluny, "that's rum, isn't it?"

"For instance," Gaston continued, "this tale of King Charles and Buckingham." He read it. "Now here is the scene as I picture it." In quick elliptical phrases he gave the tale from a different stand-point.

Sir William stared curiously at Gaston, then felt for some keys in his pocket. He got up and rang the bell. Gaston was still talking. He gave the keys to Falby with a whispered word. In a few moments Falby placed a small leather box beside Sir William, and retired at a nod. Sir William presently said: "Where did you read those things?"

"I do not know that I ever read them."

"Did your father tell you them?"

"I do not remember so, though he may have."

"Did you ever see this box?"

"Never before."

"You do not know what is in it?"

"Not in the least."

"And you have never seen this key?"

"Not to my knowledge."

"It is very strange." He opened the box. "Now, here are private papers of Sir Gaston Belward, more than two hundred years old, found almost fifty years ago by myself in the office of our family solicitor. Listen."

He then began to read from the faded manuscript. A mysterious feeling pervaded the room. Once or twice Cluny gave a dry nervous kind of laugh. Much of what Gaston had said was here in stately old-fashioned language. At a certain point the MS. ran:

"I drew back and said, 'As your grace will have it, then--"'

Here Gaston came to a sitting posture, and interrupted.

"Wait, wait!"

He rose, caught one of two swords that were crossed on the wall, and stood out.

"This is how it was. 'As your grace will have it, then, to no waste of time!' We fell to. First he came carefully and made strange feints, learned at King Louis's Court, to try my temper. But I had had these tricks of my cousin Secord, and I returned his sport upon him. Then he came swiftly, and forced me back upon the garden wall. I gave to him foot by foot, for he was uncommon swift and dexterous. He pinched me sorely once under the knee, and I returned him one upon the wrist, which sent a devilish fire into his eyes. At that his play became so delicate and confusing that I felt I should go dizzy if it stayed; so I tried the one great trick cousin Secord taught me, making to run him through, as a last effort. The thing went wrong, but checking off my blunder he blundered too,--out of sheer wonder, perhaps, at my bungling,--and I disarmed him. So droll was it that I laughed outright, and he, as quick in humour as in temper, stood hand on hip, and presently came to a smile. With that my cousin Secord cried: 'The king! the king!' I got me up quickly--"

Here Gaston, who had in a kind of dream acted the whole scene, swayed with faintness, and Cluny caught him, saving him from a fall. Cluny's colour was all gone. Lady Dargan had sat dazed, and Sir William's face was anxious, puzzled.

A few hours later Sir William was alone with Gaston, who was recovered and cool.

"Gaston," he said, "I really do not understand this faculty of memory, or whatever it is. Have you any idea how you come by it?"

"Have we any idea how life comes and goes, sir?"

"I confess not. I confess not, really."

"Well, I'm in the dark about it too; but I sometimes fancy that I'm mixed up with that other Gaston."

"It sounds fantastic."

"It is fantastic. Now, here is this manuscript, and here is a letter I wrote this morning. Put them together."

Sir William did so.

"The handwriting is singularly like."

"Well," continued Gaston, smiling whimsically, "suppose that I am Sir Gaston Belward, Baronet, who is thought to lie in the church yonder, the title is mine, isn't it?"

Sir William smiled also.

"The evidence is scarce enough to establish succession."

"But there would be no succession. A previous holder of the title isn't dead: ergo, the present holder, has no right."

Gaston had shaded his eyes with his hand, and he was watching Sir William's face closely, out of curiosity chiefly. Sir William regarded the thing with hesitating humour.

"Well, well, suppose so. The property was in the hands of a younger branch of the family then. There was no entail, as now."

"Wasn't there?!" said Gaston enigmatically.

He was thinking of some phrases in a manuscript which he had found in this box.

"Perhaps where these papers came from there are others," he added.

Sir William lifted his eyebrows ironically. "I hardly think so."

Gaston laughed, not wishing him to take the thing at all seriously. He continued airily:

"It would be amusing if the property went with the title after all, wouldn't it, sir?"

Sir William got to his feet and said testily: "That should never be while I lived!"

"Of course not, sir."

Sir William saw the bull, and laughed, heartily for him.

They bade each other good-night.

"I'll have a look in the solicitor's office all the same," said Gaston to himself.