Volume I
Chapter II. In Which He Claims His Own
 

Meanwhile, without a word, Gaston had mounted, ridden to the castle, and passed through the open gates into the court-yard. Inside he paused. In the main building many lights were burning. There came a rattle of wheels behind him, and he shifted to let a carriage pass. Through the window of the brougham he could see the shimmer of satin, lace, and soft white fur, and he had an instant's glance of a pretty face.

The carriage drew up to the steps, and presently three ladies and a brusque gentleman passed into the hall-way, admitted by powdered footmen. The incident had a manner, an air, which struck Gaston, he knew not why. Perhaps it was the easy finesse of ceremonial. He looked at Brillon. He had seen him sit arms folded like that, looking from the top of a bluff down on an Indian village or a herd of buffaloes. There was wonder, but no shyness or agitation, on his face; rather the naive, naked look of a child. Belward laughed.

"Come, Brillon; we are at home."

He rode up to the steps, Jacques following. A foot man appeared and stared. Gaston looked down on him neutrally, and dismounted. Jacques did the same. The footman still stared. Another appeared behind. Gaston eyed the puzzled servant calmly.

"Why don't you call a groom?!" he presently said. There was a cold gleam in his eye.

The footman shrank.

"Yessir, yessir," he said confusedly, and signalled. The other footman came down, and made as if to take the bridle. Gaston waved him back. None too soon, for the horse lunged at him.

"A rub down, a pint of beer, and water and feed in an hour, and I'll come to see him myself late to-night." Jacques had loosened the saddle-bags and taken them off. Gaston spoke to the horse, patted his neck, and gave him to the groom. Then he went up the steps, followed by Jacques. He turned at the door to see the groom leading both horses off, and eyeing Saracen suspiciously. He laughed noiselessly.

"Saracen 'll teach him things," he said. "I might warn him, but it's best for the horses to make their own impressions."

"What name, sir?!" asked a footman.

"You are--?"

"Falby, Sir."

"Falby, look after my man Brillon here, and take me to Sir William."

"What name, sir?"

Gaston, as if with sudden thought, stepped into the light of the candles, and said in a low voice: "Falby, don't you know me?"

The footman turned a little pale, as his eyes, in spite of themselves, clung to Gaston's. A kind of fright came, and then they steadied.

"Oh yes, sir," he said mechanically.

"Where have you seen me?"

"In the picture on the wall, sir."

"Whose picture, Falby?"

"Sir Gaston Belward, Sir."

A smile lurked at the corners of Gaston's mouth.

"Gaston Belward. Very well, then you know what to say to Sir William. Show me into the library."

"Or the justices' room, sir?"

"The justices' room will do."

Gaston wondered what the justices' room was. A moment after he stood in it, and the dazed Falby had gone, trying vainly to reconcile the picture on the wall, which, now that he could think, he knew was very old, with this strange man who had sent a curious cold shiver through him. But, anyhow, he was a Belward, that was certain: voice, face, manner showed it. But with something like no Belward he had ever seen. Left to himself, Gaston looked round on a large, severe room. Its use dawned on him. This was part of the life: Sir William was a Justice of the Peace. But why had he been brought here? Why not to the library as himself had suggested? There would be some awkward hours for Falby in the future. Gaston had as winning a smile, as sweet a manner, as any one in the world, so long as a straight game was on; but to cross his will with the other--he had been too long a power in that wild country where his father had also been a power! He did not quite know how long he waited, for he was busy with plans as to his career at Ridley Court. He was roused at last by Falby's entrance. A keen, cold look shot from under his straight brows.

"Well?!" he asked.

"Will you step into the library, sir? Sir William will see you there."

Falby tried to avoid his look, but his eyes were compelled, and Gaston said:

"Falby, you will always hate to enter this room." Falby was agitated.

"I hope not, sir."

"But you will, Falby, unless--"

"Yessir?"

"Unless you are both the serpent and the dove, Falby."

"Yessir."

As they entered the hall, Brillon with the saddle-bags was being taken in charge, and Gaston saw what a strange figure he looked beside the other servants and in these fine surroundings. He could not think that himself was so bizarre. Nor was he. But he looked unusual; as one of high civilisation might, through long absence in primitive countries, return in uncommon clothing, and with a manner of distinguished strangeness: the barbaric to protect the refined, as one has seen a bush of firs set to shelter a wheat-field from a seawind, or a wind-mill water cunningly- begotten flowers.

As he went through the hall other visitors were entering. They passed him, making for the staircase. Ladies with the grand air looked at him curiously, and two girls glanced shyly from the jingling spurs and tasselled boots to his rare face.

One of the ladies suddenly gave a little gasping cry, and catching the arm of her companion, said:

"Reine, how like Robert Belward! Who--who is he?"

The other coolly put up her pince-nez. She caught Gaston's profile and the turn of his shoulder.

"Yes, like, Sophie; but Robert never had such a back, nor anything like the face."

She spoke with no attempt to modulate her voice, and it carried distinctly to Gaston. He turned and glanced at them.

"He's a Belward, certainly, but like what one I don't know; and he's terribly eccentric, my dear! Did you see the boots and the sash? Why, bless me, if you are not shaking! Don't be silly--shivering at the thought of Robert Belward after all these years."

So saying, Mrs. Warren Gasgoyne tapped Lady Dargan on the arm, and then turned sharply to see if her daughters had been listening. She saw that they had; and though herself and not her sister was to blame, she said:

"Sophie, you are very indiscreet! If you had daughters of your own, you would probably be more careful--though Heaven only knows, for you were always difficult!"

With this they vanished up the staircase, Mrs. Gasgoyne's daughters, Delia and Agatha, smiling at each other and whispering about Gaston.

Meanwhile the seeker after a kingdom was shown into Sir William Belward's study. No one was there. He walked to the mantelpiece, and, leaning his arm on it, looked round. Directly in front of him on the wall was the picture of a lady in middle-life, sitting in an arbour. A crutch lay against one arm of her chair, and her left hand leaned on an ebony silver-topped cane. There was something painful, haunting, in the face --a weirdness in the whole picture. The face was looking into the sunlight, but the effect was rather of moonlight--distant, mournful. He was fascinated; why, he could not tell. Art to him was an unknown book, but he had the instinct, and he was quick to feel. This picture struck him as being out of harmony with everything else in the room. Yet it had, a strange compelling charm.

Presently he started forward with an exclamation. Now he understood the vague, eerie influence. Looking out from behind the foliage was a face, so dim that one moment it seemed not to be there, and then suddenly to flash in--as a picture from beyond sails, lightning-like, across the filmy eyes of the dying. It was the face of a youth, elf-like, unreal, yet he saw his father's features in it.

He rubbed his eyes and looked again. It seemed very dim. Indeed, so delicately, vaguely, had the work been done that only eyes like Gaston's, trained to observe, with the sight of a hawk and a sense of the mysterious, could have seen so quickly or so distinctly. He drew slowly back to the mantel again, and mused. What did it mean? He was sure that the woman was his grandmother.

At that moment the door opened, and an alert, white-haired man stepped in quickly, and stopped in the centre of the room, looking at his visitor. His deep, keen eyes gazed out with an intensity that might almost be fierceness, and the fingers of his fine hands opened and shut nervously. Though of no great stature, he had singular dignity. He was in evening- dress, and as he raised a hand to his chin quickly, as if in surprise or perplexity, Gaston noticed that he wore a large seal-ring. It is singular that while he was engaged with his great event, he was also thinking what an air of authority the ring gave.

For a moment the two men stood at gaze without speaking, though Gaston stepped forward respectfully. A bewildered, almost shrinking look came into Sir William's eyes, as the other stood full in the light of the candles.

Presently the old man spoke. In spite of conventional smoothness, his voice had the ring of distance, which comes from having lived through and above painful things.

"My servant announced you as Sir Gaston Belward. There is some mistake?"

"There is a mistake," was the slow reply. "I did not give my name as Sir Gaston Belward. That was Falby's conclusion, sir. But I am Gaston Robert Belward, just the same."

Sir William was dazed, puzzled. He presently made a quick gesture, as if driving away some foolish thought, and, motioning to a chair, said:

"Will you be seated?"

They both sat, Sir William by his writing-table. His look was now steady and penetrating, but he met one just as firm.

"You are--Gaston Robert Belward? May I ask for further information?"

There was furtive humour playing at Gaston's mouth. The old man's manner had been so unlike anything he had ever met, save, to an extent, in his father, that it interested him. He replied, with keen distinctness: "You mean, why I have come--home?"

Sir William's fingers trembled on a paper-knife. "Are you-at home?"

"I have come home to ask for my heritage--with interest compounded, sir."

Sir William was now very pale. He got to his feet, came to the young man, peered into his face, then drew back to the table and steadied himself against it. Gaston rose also: his instinct of courtesy was acute--absurdly civilised--that is, primitive. He waited. "You are Robert's son?"

"Robert Belward was my father."

"Your father is dead?"

"Twelve years ago."

Sir William sank back in his chair. His thin fingers ran back and forth along his lips. Presently he took out his handkerchief and coughed into it nervously. His lips trembled. With a preoccupied air he arranged a handful of papers on the table.

"Why did you not come before?!" he asked at last, in a low, mechanical voice.

"It was better for a man than a boy to come."

"May I ask why?"

"A boy doesn't always see a situation--gives up too soon--throws away his rights. My father was a boy."

"He was twenty-five when he went away."

"I am fifty!"

Sir William looked up sharply, perplexed. "Fifty?"

"He only knew this life: I know the world."

"What world?"

"The great North, the South, the seas at four corners of the earth."

Sir William glanced at the top-boots, the peeping sash, the strong, bronzed face.

"Who was your mother?!" he asked abruptly.

"A woman of France."

The baronet made a gesture of impatience, and looked searchingly at the young man.

All at once Gaston shot his bolt, to have it over. "She had Indian blood also."

He stretched himself to his full height, easily, broadly, with a touch of defiance, and leaned an arm against the mantel, awaiting Sir William's reply.

The old man shrank, then said coldly: "Have you the marriage- certificate?"

Gaston drew some papers from his pockets.

"Here, sir, with a letter from my father, and one from the Hudson's Bay Company."

His grandfather took them. With an effort he steadied himself, then opened and read them one by one, his son's brief letter last--it was merely a calm farewell, with a request that justice should be done his son.

At that moment Falby entered and said:

"Her ladyship's compliments, and all the guests have arrived, sir."

"My compliments to her ladyship, and ask her to give me five minutes yet, Falby."

Turning to his grandson, there seemed to be a moment's hesitation, then he reached out his hand.

"You have brought your luggage? Will you care to dine with us?"

Gaston took the cold outstretched fingers.

"Only my saddle-bag, and I have no evening-dress with me, else I should be glad."

There was another glance up and down the athletic figure, a half- apprehensive smile as the baronet thought of his wife, and then he said:

"We must see if anything can be done."

He pulled a bell-cord. A servant appeared.

"Ask the housekeeper to come for a moment, please." Neither spoke till the housekeeper appeared. "Hovey," he said to the grim woman, "give Mr. Gaston the room in the north tower. Then, from the press in the same room lay out the evening-dress which you will find there.... They were your father's," he added, turning to the young man. "It was my wife's wish to keep them. Have they been aired lately, Hovey?"

"Some days ago, sir."

"That will do." The housekeeper left, agitated. You will probably be in time for the fish," he added, as he bowed to Robert.

"If the clothes do not fit, sir?"

"Your father was about your height and nearly as large, and fashions have not changed much."

A few moments afterwards Gaston was in the room which his father had occupied twenty-seven years before. The taciturn housekeeper, eyeing him excitedly the while, put out the clothes. He did not say anything till she was about to go. Then:

"Hovey, were you here in my father's time?"

"I was under-parlourmaid, sir," she said.

"And you are housekeeper now--good!"

The face of the woman crimsoned, hiding her dour wrinkles. She turned away her head.

"I'd have given my right hand if he hadn't gone, sir."

Gaston whistled softly, then:

"So would he, I fancy, before he died. But I shall not go, so you will not need to risk a finger for me. I am going to stay, Hovey. Good- night. Look after Brillon, please."

He held out his hand. Her fingers twitched in his, then grasped them nervously.

"Yes, sir. Good-night, Sir. It's--it's like him comin' back, sir."

Then she suddenly turned and hurried from the room, a blunt figure to whom emotion was not graceful. "H'm!" said Gaston, as he shut the door. "Parlourmaid then, eh? History at every turn! 'Voici le sabre de mon pere!'"