Volume II
Chapter XI. He Makes a Gallant Conquest
 

Gaston let himself drift. The game of love and marriage is exciting, the girl was affectionate and admiring, the world was genial, and all things came his way. Towards the end of the hunting season Captain Maudsley had an accident. It would prevent him riding to hounds again, and at his suggestion, backed by Lord Dunfolly and Lord Dargan, Gaston became Master of the Hounds. His grandfather and great-grandfather had been Master of the Hounds before him. Hunting was a keen enjoyment--one outlet for wild life in him--and at the last meet of the year he rode in Captain Maudsley's place. They had a good run, and the taste of it remained with Gaston for many a day; he thought of it sometimes as he rode in the Park now every morning--with Delia and her mother.

Jacques and his broncho came no more, or if they did it was at unseasonable hours, and then to be often reprimanded (and twice arrested) for furious riding. Gaston had a bad moment when he told Jacques that he need not come with him again. He did it casually, but, cool as he was, a cold sweat came on his cheek. He had to take a little brandy to steady himself--yet he had looked into menacing rifle-barrels more than once without a tremor. It was clear, on the face of it, that Delia and her mother should be his companions in the Park, and not this grave little half-breed; but, somehow, it got on his nerves. He hesitated for days before he could cast the die against Jacques. It had been the one open bond of the old life; yet the man was but a servant, and to be treated as such, and was, indeed, except on rarest occasions. If Delia had known that Gaston balanced the matter between her and Jacques, her indignation might perhaps have sent matters to a crisis. But Gaston did the only possible thing; and the weeks drifted on.

Happy? It was inexplicable even to himself that at times, when he left Delia, he said unconsciously: "Well, it's a pity!"

But she was happy in her way. His dark, mysterious face with its background of abstraction, his unusual life, distinguished presence, and the fact that people of great note sought his conversation, all strengthened the bonds, and deepened her imagination; and imagination is at the root of much that passes for love. Gaston was approached at Lord Dargan's house by the Premier himself. It was suggested that he should stand for a constituency in the Conservative interest. Lord Faramond, himself picturesque, acute, with a keen knowledge of character and a taste for originality, saw material for a useful supporter--fearless, independent, with a gift for saying ironical things, and some primitive and fundamental principles well digested.

Gaston, smiling, said that he would only be a buffalo fretting on a chain.

Lord Faramond replied:

"And why the chain?" He followed this up by saying: "It is but a case of playing lion-tamer down there. Have one little gift all your own, know when to impose it, and you have the pleasure of feeling that your fingers move a great machine, the greatest in the world--yes the very greatest. There is Little Grapnel just vacant: the faithful Glynn is gone. Come: if you will, I'll send my secretary to-morrow morning-eh?"

"You are not afraid of the buffalo, sir?"

Lord Faramond's fingers touched his arm, drummed it "My greatest need-- one to roar as gently as the sucking-dove."

"But what if I, not knowing the rules of the game, should think myself on the corner of the veldt or in an Indian's tepee, and hit out?"

"You do not carry derringers?"

He smiled. "No; but--"

He glanced down at his arms.

"Well, well; that will come one day, perhaps!" Lord Faramond paused, abstracted, then added: "But not through you. Good-bye, then, good-bye. Little Grapnel in ten days!"

And it was so. Little Grapnel was Conservative. It was mostly a matter of nomination, and in two weeks Gaston, in a kind of dream, went down to Westminster, lunched with Lord Faramond, and was introduced to the House. The Ladies Gallery was full, for the matter was in all the papers, and a pretty sensation had been worked up one way and another.

That night, after dinner, Gaston rose to make his maiden speech on a bill dealing with an imminent social question. He was not an amateur. Time upon time he had addressed gatherings in the North, and had once stood at the bar of the Canadian Commons to plead the cause of the half-breeds. He was pale, but firm, and looked striking. His eyes went slowly round the House, and he began in a low, clear, deliberate voice, which got attention at once. The first sentence was, however, a surprise to every one, and not the least to his own party, excepting Lord Faramond. He disclaimed detailed and accurate knowledge of the subject. He said this with an honesty which took away the breath of the House. In a quiet, easy tone he then referred to what had been previously said in the debate.

The first thing he did was to crumble away with a regretful kind of superiority the arguments of two Conservative speakers, to the sudden amusement of the Opposition, who presently cheered him. He looked up as though a little surprised, waited patiently, and went on. The iconoclasm proceeded. He had one or two fixed ideas in his mind, simple principles on social questions of which he had spoken to his leader, and he never wavered from the sight of them, though he had yet to state them. The Premier sat, head cocked, with an ironical smile at the cheering, but he was wondering whether, after all, his man was sure; whether he could stand this fire, and reverse his engine quite as he intended. One of the previous speakers was furious, came over and appealed to Lord Faramond, who merely said, "Wait."

Gaston kept on. The flippant amusement of the Opposition continued. Something, however, in his grim steadiness began to impress his own party as the other, while from more than one quarter of the House there came a murmur of sympathy. His courage, his stone-cold strength, the disdain which was coming into his voice, impressed them, apart from his argument or its bearing on the previous debate. Lord Faramond heard the occasional murmurs of approval and smiled. Then there came a striking silence, for Gaston paused. He looked towards the Ladies Gallery. As if in a dream--for his brain was working with clear, painful power--he saw, not Delia nor her mother, nor Lady Dargan, but Alice Wingfield! He had a sting, a rush in his blood. He felt that none had an interest in him such as she: shamed, sorrowful, denied the compensating comfort which his brother's love might give her. Her face, looking through the barriers, pale, glowing, anxious, almost weird, seemed set to the bars of a cage.

Gaston turned upon the House, and flashed a glance towards Lord Faramond, who, turned round on the Treasury Bench, was looking up at him. He began slowly to pit against his former startling admissions the testimony of his few principles, and to buttress them on every side with apposite observations, naive, pungent. Presently there came a poignant edge to his trailing tones. After giving the subject new points of view, showing him to have studied Whitechapel as well as Kicking Horse Pass, he contended that no social problem could be solved by a bill so crudely radical, so impractical.

He was saying: "In the history of the British Parliament--" when some angry member cried out, "Who coached you?"

Gaston's quick eye found the man.

"Once," he answered instantly, "one honourable gentleman asked that of another in King Charles's Parliament, and the reply then is mine now-- 'You, sir!'"

"How?!" returned the puzzled member.

Gaston smiled:

"The nakedness of the honourable gentleman's mind!"

The game was in his hands. Lord Faramond twisted a shoulder with satisfaction, tossed a whimsical look down the line of the Treasury Bench, and from that Bench came unusual applause.

"Where the devil did he get it?!" queried a Minister.

"Out on the buffalo-trail," replied Lord Faramond. "Good fellow!"

In the Ladies Gallery, Delia clasped her mother's hand with delight; in the Strangers Gallery, a man said softly, "Not so bad, Cadet."

Alice Wingfield's face had a light of aching pleasure. "Gaston, Gaston!" she said, in a whisper heard only by the woman sitting next to her, who though a stranger gave a murmur of sympathy.

Gaston made his last effort in a comparison of the state of the English people now and before she became Cromwell's Commonwealth, and then incisively traced the social development onwards. It was the work of a man with a dramatic nature and a mathematical turn. He put the time, the manners, the movements, the men, as in a picture.

Presently he grew scornful. His words came hotly, like whip-lashes. He rose to force and power, though his voice was never loud, rather concentrated, resonant. It dropped suddenly to a tone of persuasiveness and conciliation, and declaring that the bill would be merely vicious where it meant to be virtuous, ended with the question:

"Shall we burn the house to roast the pig?"

"That sounds American," said the member for Burton-Halsey, "but he hasn't an accent. Pig is vulgar though--vulgar."

"Make it Lamb--make it Lamb!" urged his neighbour.

Meanwhile both sides applauded. Maiden speeches like this were not common. Lord Faramond turned round to him. Another member made way and Gaston leaned towards the Premier, who nodded and smiled. "Most excellent buffalo!" he said.

"One day we will chain you--to the Treasury Bench."

Gaston smiled.

"You are thought prudent, sir!"

"Ah! an enemy hath said this."

Gaston looked towards the Ladies Gallery. Delia's eyes were on him; Alice was gone.

A half-hour later he stood in the lobby, waiting for Mrs. Gasgoyne, Lady Dargan, and Delia to come. He had had congratulations in the House; he was having them now. Presently some one touched him on the arm.

"Not so bad, Cadet."

Gaston turned and saw his uncle. They shook hands. "You've a gift that way," Ian Belward continued, "but to what good? Bless you, the pot on the crackling thorns! Don't you find it all pretty hollow?"

Gaston was feeling reaction from the nervous work. "It is exciting."

"Yes, but you'll never have it again as to-night. The place reeks with smugness, vanity, and drudgery. It's only the swells--Derby, Gladstone, and the few--who get any real sport out of it. I can show you much more amusing things."

"For instance?"

"'Hast thou forgotten me?' You hungered for Paris and Art and the joyous life. Well, I'm ready. I want you. Paris, too, is waiting, and a good cuisine in a cheery menage. Sup with me at the Garrick, and I'll tell you. Come along. Quis separabit?"

"I have to wait for Mrs. Gasgoyne--and Delia."

"Delia! Delia! Goddess of proprieties, has it come to that!"

He saw a sudden glitter in Gaston's eyes, and changed his tone.

"Well, an' a man will he will, and he must be wished good-luck. So, good-luck to you! I'm sorry, though, for that cuisine in Paris, and the grand picnic at Fontainebleau, and Moban and Cerise. But it can't be helped."

He eyed Gaston curiously. Gaston was not in the least deceived. His uncle added presently, "But you will have supper with me just the same?"

Gaston consented, and at this point the ladies appeared. He had a thrill of pleasure at hearing their praises, but, somehow, of all the fresh experiences he had had in England, this, the weightiest, left him least elated. He had now had it all: the reaction was begun, and he knew it.

"Well, Ian Belward, what mischief are you at now?!" said Mrs. Gasgoyne.

"A picture merely, and to offer homage. How have you tamed our lion, and how sweetly does he roar! I feed him at my Club to-night."

"Ian Belward, you are never so wicked as when you ought most to be decent.--I wish I knew your place in this picture," she added brusquely.

"Merely a little corner at their fireside." He nodded towards Delia and Gaston.

"The man has sense, and Delia is my daughter!"

"Precisely why I wish a place in their affections."

"Why don't you marry one of the women you have--spoiled, and spend the rest of your time in living yourself down? You are getting old."

"For their own sakes, I don't. Put that to my credit. I'll have but one mistress only as the sand gets low. I've been true to her."

"You, true to anything!"

"The world has said so."

"Nonsense! You couldn't be."

"Visit my new picture in three months--my biggest thing. You will say my mistress fares well at my hands."

"Mere talk. I have seen your mistress, and before every picture I have thought of those women! A thing cannot be good at your price: so don't talk that sentimental stuff to me."

"Be original; you said that to me thirty years ago."

"I remember perfectly: that did not require much sense."

"No; you tossed it off, as it were. Yet I'd have made you a good husband. You are the most interesting woman I've ever met."

"The compliment is not remarkable. Now, Ian Belward, don't try to say clever things. And remember that I will have no mischief-making."

"At thy command--"

"Oh, cease acting, and take Sophie to her carriage." Two hours later, Delia Gasgoyne sat in her bedroom wondering at Gaston's abstraction during the drive home. Yet she had a proud elation at his success, and a happy tear came to her eye.

Meanwhile Gaston was supping with his uncle. Ian was in excellent spirits: brilliant, caustic, genial, suggestive. After a little while Gaston rose to the temper of his host. Already the scene in the Commons was fading from him, and when Ian proposed Paris immediately, he did not demur. The season was nearly over,

Ian said; very well, why remain? His attendance at the House? Well, it would soon be up for the session. Besides, the most effective thing he could do was to disappear for the time. Be unexpected--that was the key to notoriety. Delia Gasgoyne? Well, as Gaston had said, they were to meet in the Mediterranean in September; meanwhile a brief separation would be good for both. Last of all--he did not wish to press it--but there was a promise!

Gaston answered quietly, at last: "I will redeem the promise."

"When?"

"Within thirty-six hours."

"That is, you will be at my studio in Paris within thirty-six hours from now?"

"That is it."

"Good! I shall start at eight to-morrow morning. You will bring your horse, Cadet?"

"Yes, and Brillon."

"He isn't necessary." Ian's brow clouded slightly.

"Absolutely necessary."

"A fantastic little beggar. You can get a better valet in France. Why have one at all?"

"I shall not decline from Brillon on a Parisian valet. Besides, he comes as my camarade."

"Goth! Goth! My friend the valet! Cadet, you're a wonderful fellow, but you'll never fit in quite."

"I don't wish to fit in; things must fit me." Ian smiled to himself.

"He has tasted it all--it's not quite satisfying--revolution next! What a smash-up there'll be! The romantic, the barbaric overlaps. Well, I shall get my picture out of it, and the estate too."

Gaston toyed with his wine-glass, and was deep in thought. Strange to say, he was seeing two pictures. The tomb of Sir Gaston in the little church at Ridley: A gipsy's van on the crest of a common, and a girl standing in the doorway.