Volume II
Chapter X. He Comes to "The Waking of the Fire"
 

A few days afterwards Gaston joined a small party at Peppingham. Without any accent life was made easy for him. He was alone much, and yet, to himself, he seemed to have enough of company.

The situation did not impose itself conspicuously. Delia gave him no especial reason to be vain. She had not an exceeding wit, but she had charm, and her talk was interesting to Gaston, who had come, for the first time, into somewhat intimate relations with an English girl. He was struck with her conventional delicacy and honour on one side, and the limitation of her ideas on the other. But with it all she had some slight touch of temperament which lifted her from the usual level. And just now her sprightliness was more marked than it had ever been.

Her great hour seemed come to her. She knew that there had been talk among the elders, and what was meant by Gaston's visit. Still, they were not much alone together. Gaston saw her mostly with others. Even a woman with a tender strain for a man knows what will serve for her ascendancy: the graciousness of her disposition, the occasional flash of her mother's temper, and her sense of being superior to a situation--the gift of every well-bred English girl.

Cluny Vosse was also at the house, and his devotion was divided between Delia and Gaston. Cluny was a great favourite, and Agatha Gasgoyne, who had a wild sense of humour, egged him on with her sister, which gave Delia enough to do. At last Cluny, in a burst of confidence, declared that he meant to propose to Delia. Agatha then became serious, and said that Delia was at least four years older than himself, that he was just her--Agatha's--age, and that the other match would be very unsuitable. This put Cluny on Delia's defence, and he praised her youth, and hinted at his own elderliness. He had lived, he had seen It (Cluny called the world and all therein "It"), he was aged; he was in the large eye of experience; he had outlived the vices and the virtues of his time, which, told in his own naive staccato phrases, made Agatha hug herself. She advised him to go and ask Mr. Belward's advice; begged him not to act until he had done so. And Cluny, who was blind as a bat when a woman mocked him, went to Gaston and said:

"See, old chap,--I know you don't mind my calling you that--I've come for advice. Agatha said I'd better. A fellow comes to a time when he says, 'Here, I want a shop of my own,' doesn't he? He's seen It, he's had It all colours, he's ready for family duties, and the rest. That's so, isn't it?"

Gaston choked back a laugh, and, purposely putting himself on the wrong scent, said:

"And does Agatha agree?"

"Agatha? Come, Belward, that youngster! Agatha's only in on a sisterly- brotherly basis. Now, see I've got a little load of L s. d., and I'm to get more, especially if Uncle Dick keeps on thinking I am artless. Well, why shouldn't I marry?"

"No reason against it, if husband and father in you yearn for bibs and petticoats."

"I say, Belward, don't laugh!"

"I never was more serious. Who is the girl?"

"She looks up to you as I do-of course that's natural; and if it comes off, no one'll have a jollier corner chez nous. It's Delia."

"Delia? Delia who?"

"Why, Delia Gasgoyne. I haven't done the thing quite regular, I know. I ought to have gone to her people first; but they know all about me, and so does Delia, and I'm on the spot, and it wouldn't look well to be taking advantage of that with her father and mother-they'd feel bound to be hospitable. So I've just gone on my own tack, and I've come to Agatha and you. Agatha said to ask you if I'd better speak to Delia now."

"My dear Cluny, are you very much in love?"

"That sounds religious, doesn't it--a kind of Nonconformist business? I think she's the very finest. A fellow'd hold himself up, 'd be a deuce of a swell--and, hang it all, I hate breakfasting alone!"

"Yes, yes, Cluny; but what about a pew in church, with regular attendance, and a justice of the peace, and little Cluny Vosses on the carpet?"

Cluny's face went crimson.

"I say, Belward, I've seen It all, of course; I know It backwards, and I'm not squeamish, but that sounds--flippant-that, with her."

Gaston reached out and caught the boy's shoulder. "Don't do it, Cluny. Spare yourself. It couldn't come off. Agatha knows that, I fancy. She is a little sportsman. I might let you go and speak; but I think my chances are better than yours, Cluny. Hadn't you better let me try first? Then, if I fail, your chances are still the same, eh?"

Cluny gasped. His warm face went pale, then shot to purple, and finally settled into a grey ruddiness. "Belward," he said at last, "I didn't know; upon my soul, I didn't know, or I'd have cut off my head first."

"My dear Cluny, you shall have your chance; but let me go first, I'm older."

"Belward, don't take me for a fool. Why, my trying what you go to do is like--is like--"

Cluny's similes failed to come.

"Like a fox and a deer on the same trail?"

"I don't understand that. Like a yeomanry steeplechase to Sandown--is that it? Belward, I'm sorry. Playing it so low on a chap you like!"

"Don't say a word, Cluny; and, believe me, you haven't yet seen all of It. There's plenty of time. When you really have had It, you will learn to say of a woman, not that she's the very finest, and that you hate breakfasting alone, but something that'll turn your hair white, or keep you looking forty when you're sixty."

That evening Gaston dressed with unusual care. When he entered the drawing-room, he looked as handsome as a man need in this world. His illness had refined his features and form, and touched off his cheerfulness with a fine melancholy. Delia glowed as she saw the admiring glances sent his way, but burned with anger when she also saw that he was to take in Lady Gravesend to dinner; for Lady Gravesend had spoken slightingly of Gaston--had, indeed, referred to his "nigger blood!" And now her mother had sent her in to dinner on his arm, she affable, too affable by a great deal. Had she heard the dry and subtle suggestion of Gaston's talk, she would, however, have justified her mother.

About half past nine Delia was in the doorway, talking to one of the guests, who, at the call of some one else, suddenly left her. She heard a voice behind her. "Will you not sing?"

She thrilled, and turned to say: "What shall I sing, Mr. Belward?"

"The song I taught you the other day--'The Waking of the Fire.'"

"But I've never sung it before anybody."

"Do I not count?--But, there, that's unfair! Believe me, you sing it very well."

She lifted her eyes to his:

"You do not pay compliments, and I believe you. Your 'very well' means much. If you say so, I will do my best."

"I say so. You are amenable. Is that your mood to-night?" He smiled brightly.

Her eyes flashed with a sweet malice.

"I am not at all sure. It depends on how your command to sing is justified."

"You cannot help but sing well."

"Why?"

"Because I will help you--make you."

This startled her ever so little. Was there some fibre of cruelty in him, some evil in this influence he had over her? She shrank, and yet again she said that she would rather have his cruelty than another man's tenderness, so long as she knew that she had his-- She paused, and did not say the word. She met his eyes steadily--their concentration dazed her--then she said almost coldly, her voice sounding far away:

"How, make me?"

"How fine, how proud!" he said to himself, then added:

"I meant 'make' in the helpful sense. I know the song: I've heard it sung, I've sung it; I've taught you; my mind will act on yours, and you will sing it well."

"Won't you sing it yourself? Do, please."

"No; to-night I wish to hear you."

"Why?"

"I will tell you later. Can you play the accompaniment? If not, I--"

"Oh, will you? I could sing it then, I think. You played it so beautifully the other day--with all those strange chords."

He smiled.

"It is one of the few things that I can play. I always had a taste for music; and up in one of the forts there was an old melodeon, so I hammered away for years. I had to learn difficult things at the start, or none at all, or else those I improvised; and that's how I can play one or two of Beethoven's symphonies pretty well, and this song, and a few others, and go a cropper with a waltz. Will you come?"

They moved to the piano. No one at first noticed them. When he sat down, he said:

"You remember the words?"

"Yes, I learned them by heart."

"Good!"

He gently struck the chords. His gentleness had, however, a firmness, a deep persuasiveness, which drew every face like a call. A few chords waving, as it were, over the piano, and then he whispered:

"Now."

"Please go on for a minute longer," she begged.

"My throat feels dry all at once."

"Face away from the rest, towards me," he said gently.

She did so. His voice took a note softly, and held it. Presently her voice as softly joined it, his stopped, and hers went on:

                   "In the lodge of the Mother of Men,
                    In the land of Desire,
                    Are the embers of fire,
                    Are the ashes of those who return,
                    Who return to the world:
                    Who flame at the breath
                    Of the Mockers of Death.
                    O Sweet, we will voyage again
                    To the camp of Love's fire,
                         Nevermore to return!"

"How am I doing?!" she said at the end of this verse. She really did not know--her voice seemed an endless distance away. But she felt the stillness in the drawing-room.

"Well," he said. "Now for the other. Don't be afraid; let your voice, let yourself, go."

"I can't let myself go."

"Yes, you can: just swim with the music."

She did swim with it. Never before had Peppingham drawing-room heard a song like this; never before, never after, did any of Delia Gasgoyne's friends hear her sing as she did that night. And Lady Gravesend whispered for a week afterwards that Delia Gasgoyne sang a wild love song in the most abandoned way with that colonial Belward. Really a song of the most violent sentiment!

There had been witchery in it all. For Gaston lifted the girl on the waves of his music, and did what he pleased with her, as she sang:

              "O love, by the light of thine eye
               We will fare oversea,
               We will be
               As the silver-winged herons that rest
               By the shallows,
               The shallows of sapphire stone;
               No more shall we wander alone.
               As the foam to the shore
               Is my spirit to thine;
               And God's serfs as they fly,--
               The Mockers of Death
               They will breathe on the embers of fire:
               We shall live by that breath,--
               Sweet, thy heart to my heart,
               As we journey afar,
               No more, nevermore, to return!"

When the song was ended there was silence, then an eager murmur, and requests for more; but Gaston, still lengthening the close of the accompaniment, said quietly:

"No more. I wanted to hear you sing that song only."

He rose.

"I am so very hot," she said.

"Come into the hall."

They passed into the long corridor, and walked up and down, for a time in silence.

"You felt that music?!" he asked at last.

"As I never felt music before," she replied.

"Do you know why I asked you to sing it?"

"How should I know?"

"To see how far you could go with it."

"How far did I go?"

"As far as I expected."

"It was satisfactory?"

"Perfectly."

"But why--experiment--on me?"

"That I might see if you were not, after all, as much a barbarian as I."

"Am I?"

"No. That was myself singing as well as you. You did not enjoy it altogether, did you?"

"In a way, yes. But--shall I be honest? I felt, too, as if, somehow, it wasn't quite right; so much--what shall I call it?"

"So much of old Adam and the Garden? Sit down here for a moment, will you?"

She trembled a little, and sat.

"I want to speak plainly and honestly to you," he said, looking earnestly at her. "You know my history--about my wife who died in Labrador, and all the rest?"

"Yes, they have told me."

"Well, I have nothing to hide, I think; nothing more that you ought to know: though I've been a scamp one way and another."

"'That I ought to know'?!" she repeated.

"Yes: for when a man asks a woman to be his wife, he should be prepared to open the cupboard of skeletons." She was silent; her heart was beating so hard that it hurt her.

"I am going to ask you to be my wife, Delia."

She was silent, and sat motionless, her hands clasped in her lap.

He went on

"I don't know that you will be wise to accept me, but if you will take the risk--"

"Oh, Gaston, Gaston!" she said, and her hands fluttered towards his.

An hour later, he said to her, as they parted for the night:

"I hope, with all my heart, that you will never repent of it, Delia."

"You can make me not repent of it. It rests with you, Gaston; indeed, indeed, all with you."

"Poor girl!" he said, unconsciously, as he entered his room. He could not have told why he said it. "Why will you always sit up for me, Brillon?!" he asked a moment afterwards.

Jacques saw that something had occurred. "I have nothing else to do, sir," he replied. "Brillon," Gaston added presently, "we're in a devil of a scrape now."

"What shall we do, monsieur?"

"Did we ever turn tail?"

"Yes, from a prairie fire."

"Not always. I've ridden through."

"Alors, it's one chance in ten thousand!"

"There's a woman to be thought of--Jacques."

"There was that other time."

"Well, then?"

Presently Jacques said: "Who is she, monsieur?"

Gaston did not answer. He was thinking hard. Jacques said no more. The next morning early the guests knew who the woman was, and by noon Jacques also.