Volume I
Chapter IV. An Hour With His Father's Past
 

In his bedroom Gaston made a discovery. He chanced to place his hand in the tail-pocket of the coat he had worn. He drew forth a letter. The ink was faded, and the lines were scrawled. It ran:

     It's no good.  Mr. Ian's been!  It's face the musik now.  If you
     want me, say so.  I'm for kicks or ha'pence--no diffrense.
                                                       Yours, J.

He knew the writing very well--Jock Lawson's. There had been some trouble, and Mr. Ian had "been," bringing peril. What was it? His father and Jock had kept the secret from him.

He put his hand in the pocket again. There was another note--this time in a woman's handwriting:

     Oh, come to me, if you would save us both!  Do not fail.  God help
     us!  Oh, Robert!

It was signed "Agnes."

Well, here was something of mystery; but he did not trouble himself about that. He was not at Ridley Court to solve mysteries, to probe into the past, to set his father's wrongs right; but to serve himself, to reap for all those years wherein his father had not reaped. He enjoyed life, and he would search this one to the full of his desires. Before he retired he studied the room, handling things that lay where his father placed them so many years before. He was not without emotions in this, but he held himself firm.

As he stood ready to get into bed, his eyes chanced upon a portrait of his uncle Ian.

"There's where the tug comes!" he said, nodding at it. "Shake hands, and ten paces, Uncle Ian?"

Then he blew out the candle, and in five minutes was sound asleep.

He was out at six o'clock. He made for the stables, and found Jacques pacing the yard. He smiled at Jacques's dazed look.

"What about the horse, Brillon?!" he said, nodding as he came up.

"Saracen's had a slice of the stable-boy's shoulder--sir."

Amusement loitered in Gaston's eyes. The "sir" had stuck in Jacques's throat.

"Saracen has established himself, then? Good! And the broncho?"

"Bien, a trifle only. They laugh much in the kitchen--"

"The hall, Brillon."

"--in the hall last night. That hired man over there--"

"That groom, Brillon."

"--that groom, he was a fool, and fat. He was the worst. This morning he laugh at my broncho. He say a horse like that is nothing: no pace, no travel. I say the broncho was not so ver' bad, and I tell him try the paces. I whisper soft, and the broncho stand like a lamb. He mount, and sneer, and grin at the high pommel, and start. For a minute it was pretty; and then I give a little soft call, and in a minute there was the broncho bucking--doubling like a hoop, and dropping same as lead. Once that--groom--come down on the pommel, then over on the ground like a ball, all muck and blood."

The half-breed paused, looking innocently before him. Gaston's mouth quirked.

"A solid success, Brillon. Teach them all the tricks you can. At ten o'clock come to my room. The campaign begins then."

Jacques ran a hand through his long black hair, and fingered his sash. Gaston understood.

"The hair and ear-rings may remain, Brillon; but the beard and clothes must go--except for occasions. Come along."

For the next two hours Gaston explored the stables and the grounds. Nothing escaped him. He gathered every incident of the surroundings, and talked to the servants freely, softly, and easily, yet with a superiority, which suddenly was imposed in the case of the huntsman at the kennels--for the Whipshire hounds were here. Gaston had never ridden to hounds. It was not, however, his cue to pretend knowledge. He was strong enough to admit ignorance. He stood leaning against the door of the kennels, arms folded, eyes half-closed, with the sense of a painter, before the turning bunch of brown and white, getting the charm of distance and soft tones. His blood beat hard, for suddenly he felt as if he had been behind just such a pack one day, one clear desirable day of spring. He saw people gathering at the kennels; saw men drink beer and eat sandwiches at the door of the huntsman's house,--a long, low dwelling, with crumbling arched doorways like those of a monastery, watched them get away from the top of the moor, he among them; heard the horn, the whips; and saw the fox break cover.

Then came a rare run for five sweet miles--down a long valley--over quick-set hedges, with stiffish streams--another hill--a great combe-- a lovely valley stretching out--a swerve to the right--over a gate-- and the brush got at a farmhouse door.

Surely, he had seen it all; but what kink of the brain was it that the men wore flowing wigs and immense boot-legs, and sported lace in the hunting-field? And why did he see within that picture another of two ladies and a gentleman hawking?

He was roused from his dream by hearing the huntsman say in a quizzical voice:

"How do you like the dogs, sir?"

To his last day Lugley, the huntsman, remembered the slow look of cold surprise, of masterful malice, scathing him from head to foot. The words that followed the look, simple as they were, drove home the naked reproof:

"What is your name, my man?"

"Lugley, sir."

"Lugley! Lugley! H'm! Well, Lugley, I like the hounds better than I like you. Who is Master of the Hounds, Lugley?"

"Captain Maudsley, sir."

"Just so. You are satisfied with your place, Lugley?"

"Yes, sir," said the man in a humble voice, now cowed.

The news of the arrival of the strangers had come to him late at night, and, with Whipshire stupidity, he had thought that any one coming from the wilds of British America must be but a savage after all.

"Very well; I wouldn't throw myself out of a place, if I were you."

"Oh, no, sir! Beg pardon, sir, I--"

"Attend to your hounds there, Lugley."

So saying, Gaston nodded Jacques away with him, leaving the huntsman sick with apprehension.

"You see how it is to be done, Brillon?!" said Gaston. Jacques's brown eyes twinkled.

"You have the grand trick, sir."

"I enjoy the game; and so shall you, if you will. You've begun well. I don't know much of this life yet; but it seems to me that they are all part of a machine, not the idea behind the machine. They have no invention. Their machine is easy to learn. Do not pretend; but for every bit you learn show something better, something to make them dizzy now and then."

He paused on a knoll and looked down. The castle, the stables, the cottages of labourers and villagers lay before them. In a certain highly-cultivated field, men were working. It was cut off in squares and patches. It had an air which struck Gaston as unusual; why, he could not tell. But he had a strange divining instinct, or whatever it may be called. He made for the field and questioned the workmen.

The field was cut up into allotment gardens. Here, at a nominal rent, the cottager could grow his vegetables; a little spot of the great acre of England, which gave the labourer a tiny sense of ownership, of manhood. Gaston was interested. More, he was determined to carry that experiment further, if he ever got the chance. There was no socialism in him. The true barbarian is like the true aristocrat: more a giver of gifts than a lover of co-operation; conserving ownership by right of power and superior independence, hereditary or otherwise. Gaston was both barbarian and aristocrat.

"Brillon," he said, as they walked on, "do you think they would be happier on the prairies with a hundred acres of land, horses, cows, and a pen of pigs?"

"Can I be happy here all at once, sir?"

"That's just it. It's too late for them. They couldn't grasp it unless they went when they were youngsters. They'd long for 'Home and Old England' and this grub-and-grind life. Gracious heaven, look at them-- crumpled-up creatures! And I'll stake my life, they were as pretty children as you'd care to see. They are out of place in the landscape, Brillon; for it is all luxury and lush, and they are crumples--crumples! But yet there isn't any use being sorry for them, for they don't grasp anything outside the life they are living. Can't you guess how they live? Look at the doors of the houses shut, and the windows sealed; yet they've been up these three hours! And they'll suck in bad air, and bad food; and they'll get cancer, and all that; and they'll die and be trotted away to the graveyard for 'passun' to hurry them into their little dark cots, in the blessed hope of everlasting life! I'm going to know this thing, Brillon, from tooth to ham-string; and, however it goes, we'll have lived up and down the whole scale; and that's something."

He suddenly stopped, and then added:

"I'm likely to go pretty far in this. I can't tell how or why, but it's so. Now, once more, as yesterday afternoon, for good or for bad, for long or for short, for the gods or for the devil, are you with me? There's time to turn back even yet, and I'll say no word to your going."

"But no, no! a vow is a vow. When I cannot run I will walk, when I cannot walk I will crawl after you--comme ca!"

Lady Belward did not appear at breakfast. Sir William and Gaston breakfasted alone at half past nine o'clock. The talk was of the stables and the estate generally.

The breakfast-room looked out on a soft lawn, stretching away into a broad park, through which a stream ran; and beyond was a green hillside. The quiet, the perfect order and discipline, gave a pleasant tingle to Gaston's veins. It was all so easy, and yet so admirable--elegance without weight. He felt at home. He was not certain of some trifles of etiquette; but he and Sir William were alone, and he followed his instincts. Once he frankly asked his grandfather of a matter of form, of which he was uncertain the evening before. The thing was done so naturally that the conventional mind of the baronet was not disturbed. The Belwards were notable for their brains, and Sir William saw that the young man had an unusual share. He also felt that this startling individuality might make a hazardous future; but he liked the fellow, and he had a debt to pay to the son of his own dead son. Of course, if their wills came into conflict, there could be but one thing--the young man must yield; or, if he played the fool, there must be an end. Still, he hoped the best. When breakfast was finished, he proposed going to the library.

There Sir William talked of the future, asked what Gaston's ideas were, and questioned him as to his present affairs. Gaston frankly said that he wanted to live as his father would have done, and that he had no property, and no money beyond a hundred pounds, which would last him a couple of years on the prairies, but would be fleeting here.

Sir William at once said that he would give him a liberal allowance, with, of course, the run of his own stables and their house in town: and when he married acceptably, his allowance would be doubled.

"And I wish to say, Gaston," he added, "that your uncle Ian, though heir to the title, does not necessarily get the property, which is not entailed. Upon that point I need hardly say more. He has disappointed us.

"Through him Robert left us. Of his character I need not speak. Of his ability the world speaks variably: he is an artist. Of his morals I need only say that they are scarcely those of an English gentleman, though whether that is because he is an artist, I cannot say--I really cannot say. I remember meeting a painter at Lord Dunfolly's,--Dunfolly is a singular fellow--and he struck me chiefly as harmless, distinctly harmless. I could not understand why he was at Dunfolly's, he seemed of so little use, though Lady Malfire, who writes or something, mooned with him a good deal. I believe there was some scandal or something afterwards. I really do not know. But you are not a painter, and I believe you have character--I fancy so."

"If you mean that I don't play fast and loose, sir, you are right. What I do, I do as straight as a needle." The old man sighed carefully.

"You are very like Robert, and yet there is something else. I don't know, I really don't know what!"

"I ought to have more in me than the rest of the family, sir."

This was somewhat startling. Sir William's fingers stroked his beardless cheek uncertainly. "Possibly--possibly."

"I've lived a broader life, I've got wider standards, and there are three races at work in me."

"Quite so, quite so;" and Sir William fumbled among his papers nervously.

"Sir," said Gaston suddenly, "I told you last night the honest story of my life. I want to start fair and square. I want the honest story of my father's life here; how and why he left, and what these letters mean."

He took from his pocket the notes he had found the night before, and handed them. Sir William read them with a disturbed look, and turned them over and over. Gaston told where he had found them.

Sir William spoke at last.

"The main story is simple enough. Robert was extravagant, and Ian was vicious and extravagant also. Both got into trouble. I was younger then, and severe. Robert hid nothing, Ian all he could. One day things came to a climax. In his wild way, Robert--with Jock Lawson--determined to rescue a young man from the officers of justice, and to get him out of the country. There were reasons. He was the son of a gentleman; and, as we discovered afterwards, Robert had been too intimate with the wife--his one sin of the kind, I believe. Ian came to know, and prevented the rescue. Meanwhile, Robert was liable to the law for the attempt. There was a bitter scene here, and I fear that my wife and I said hard things to Robert."

Gaston's eyes were on Lady Belward's portrait. "What did my grandmother say?"

There was a pause, then:

"That she would never call him son again, I believe; that the shadow of his life would be hateful to her always. I tell you this because I see you look at that portrait. What I said, I think, was no less. So, Robert, after a wild burst of anger, flung away from us out of the house. His mother, suddenly repenting, ran to follow him, but fell on the stone steps at the door, and became a cripple for life. At first she remained bitter against Robert, and at that time Ian painted that portrait. It is clever, as you may see, and weird. But there came a time when she kept it as a reproach to herself, not Robert. She is a good woman--a very good woman. I know none better, really no one."

"What became of the arrested man?!" Gaston asked quietly, with the oblique suggestiveness of a counsel.

"He died of a broken blood-vessel on the night of the intended rescue, and the matter was hushed up."

"What became of the wife?"

"She died also within a year."

"Were there any children?"

"One--a girl."

"Whose was the child?"

"You mean--?"

"The husband's or the lover's?" There was a pause.

"I cannot tell you."

"Where is the girl?"

"My son, do not ask that. It can do no good--really no good."

"Is it not my due?"

"Do not impose your due. Believe me, I know best. If ever there is need to tell you, you shall be told. Trust me. Has not the girl her due also?"

Gaston's eyes held Sir William's a moment. "You are right, sir," he said, "quite right. I shall not try to know. But if--" He paused.

Sir William spoke:

"There is but one person in the world who knows the child's father; and I could not ask him, though I have known him long and well--indeed, no."

"I do not ask to understand more," Gaston replied. "I almost wish I had known nothing. And yet I will ask one thing: is the girl in comfort and good surroundings?"

"The best--ah, yes, the very best."

There was a pause, in which both sat thinking; then Sir William wrote out a cheque and offered it, with a hint of emotion. He was recalling how he had done the same with this boy's father.

Gaston understood. He got up, and said: "Honestly, sir, I don't know how I shall turn out here; for, if I didn't like it, it couldn't hold me, or, if it did, I should probably make things uncomfortable. But I think I shall like it, and I will do my best to make things go well. Good- morning, sir."

With courteous attention Sir William let his grandson out of the room.

And thus did a young man begin his career as Gaston Belward, gentleman.