Volume II
Chapter VI. Which Tells of Strange Encounters
 

A few hours afterwards Gaston sat on his horse, in a quiet corner of the grounds, while his uncle sketched him. After a time he said that Saracen would remain quiet no longer. His uncle held up the sketch. Gaston could scarcely believe that so strong and life-like a thing were possible in the time. It had force and imagination. He left his uncle with a nod, rode quietly through the park, into the village, and on to the moor. At the top he turned and looked down. The perfectness of the landscape struck him; it was as if the picture had all grown there--not a suburban villa, not a modern cottage, not one tall chimney of a manufactory, but just the sweet common life. The noises of the village were soothing, the soft smell of the woodland came over. He watched a cart go by idly, heavily clacking.

As he looked, it came to him: was his uncle right after all? Was he out of place here? He was not a part of this, though he had adapted himself and had learned many fine social ways. He knew that he lived not exactly as though born here and grown up with it all. But it was also true that he had a native sense of courtesy which people called distinguished. There was ever a kind of mannered deliberation in his bearing--a part of his dramatic temper, and because his father had taught him dignity where there were no social functions for its use. His manner had, therefore, a carefulness which in him was elegant artifice.

It could not be complained that he did not act after the fashion of gentle people when with them. But it was equally true that he did many things which the friends of his family could not and would not have done. For instance, none would have pitched a tent in the grounds, slept in it, read in it, and lived in it--when it did not rain. Probably no one of them would have, at individual expense, sent the wife of the village policeman to a hospital in London, to be cured--or to die--of cancer. None would have troubled to insist that a certain stagnant pool in the village be filled up. Nor would one have suddenly risen in court and have acted as counsel for a gipsy! At the same time, all were too well- bred to think that Gaston did this because the gipsy had a daughter with him, a girl of strong, wild beauty, with a look of superiority over her position.

He thought of all the circumstances now.

It was very many months ago. The man had been accused of stealing and assault, but the evidence was unconvincing to Gaston. The feeling in court was against the gipsy. Fearing a verdict against him, Gaston rose and cross-examined the witnesses, and so adroitly bewildered both them and the justices who sat with his grandfather on the case, that, at last, he secured the man's freedom. The girl was French, and knew English imperfectly. Gaston had her sworn, and made the most of her evidence. Then, learning that an assault had been made on the gipsy's van by some lads who worked at mills in a neighbouring town, he pushed for their arrest, and himself made up the loss to the gipsy.

It is possible that there was in the mind of the girl what some common people thought: that the thing was done for her favour; for she viewed it half-gratefully, half-frowningly, till, on the village green, Gaston asked her father what he wished to do--push on or remain to act against the lads.

The gipsy, angry as he was, wished to move on. Gaston lifted his hat to the girl and bade her good-bye. Then she saw that his motives had been wholly unselfish--even quixotic, as it appeared to her--silly, she would have called it, if silliness had not seemed unlikely in him. She had never met a man like him before. She ran her fingers through her golden- brown hair nervously, caught at a flying bit of old ribbon at her waist, and said in French:

"He is honest altogether, sir. He did not steal, and he was not there when it happened."

"I know that, my girl. That is why I did it."

She looked at him keenly. Her eyes ran up and down his figure, then met his curiously. Their looks swam for a moment. Something thrilled in them both. The girl took a step nearer.

"You are as much a Romany here as I am," she said, touching her bosom with a quick gesture. "You do not belong; you are too good for it. How do I know? I do not know; I feel. I will tell your fortune," she suddenly added, reaching for his hand. "I have only known three that I could do it with honestly and truly, and you are one. It is no lie. There is something in it. My mother had it; but it's all sham mostly." Then, under a tree on the green, he indifferent to village gossip, she took his hand and told him--not of his fortune alone. In half-coherent fashion she told him of the past--of his life in the North. She then spoke of his future. She told him of a woman, of another, and another still; of an accident at sea, and of a quarrel; then, with a low, wild laugh, she stopped, let go his hand, and would say no more. But her face was all flushed, and her eyes like burning beads. Her father stood near, listening. Now he took her by the arm.

"Here, Andree, that's enough," he said, with rough kindness; "it's no good for you or him."

He turned to Gaston, and said in English:

"She's sing'lar, like her mother afore her. But she's straight."

Gaston lit a cigar.

"Of course." He looked kindly at the girl. "You are a weird sort, Andree, and perhaps you are right that I'm a Romany too; but I don't know where it begins and where it ends. You are not English gipsies?!" he added, to the father.

"I lived in England when I was young. Her mother was a Breton--not a Romany. We're on the way to France now. She wants to see where her mother was born. She's got the Breton lingo, and she knows some English; but she speaks French mostly."

"Well, well," rejoined Gaston, "take care of yourself, and good luck to you. Good-bye--good-bye, Andree." He put his hand in his pocket to give her some money, but changed his mind. Her eye stopped him. He shook hands with the man, then turned to her again. Her eyes were on him--hot, shining. He felt his blood throb, but he returned the look with good- natured nonchalance, shook her hand, raised his hat, and walked away, thinking what a fine, handsome creature she was. Presently he said: "Poor girl, she'll look at some fellow like that one day, with tragedy the end thereof!"

He then fell to wondering about her almost uncanny divination. He knew that all his life he himself had had strange memories, as well as certain peculiar powers which had put the honest phenomena and the trickery of the Medicine Men in the shade. He had influenced people by the sheer force of presence. As he walked on, he came to a group of trees in the middle of the common. He paused for a moment, and looked back. The gipsy's van was moving away, and in the doorway stood the girl, her hand over her eyes, looking towards him. He could see the raw colour of her scarf. "She'll make wild trouble," he said to himself.

As Gaston thought of this event, he moved his horse slowly towards a combe, and looked out over a noble expanse--valley, field, stream, and church-spire. As he gazed, he saw seated at some distance a girl reading. Not far from her were two boys climbing up and down the combe. He watched them. Presently he saw one boy creep along a shelf of rock where the combe broke into a quarry, let himself drop upon another shelf below, and then perch upon an overhanging ledge. He presently saw that the lad was now afraid to return. He heard the other lad cry out, saw the girl start up, and run forward, look over the edge of the combe, and then make as if to go down. He set his horse to the gallop, and called out. The girl saw him, and paused. In two minutes he was off his horse and beside her.

It was Alice Wingfield. She had brought out three boys, who had come with her from London, where she had spent most of the year nursing their sick mother, her relative.

"I'll have him up in a minute," he said, as he led Saracen to a sapling near. "Don't go near the horse."

He swung himself down from ledge to ledge, and soon was beside the boy. In another moment he had the youngster on his back, came slowly up, and the adventurer was safe.

"Silly Walter," the girl said, "to frighten yourself and give Mr. Belward trouble."

"I didn't think I'd be afraid," protested the lad; "but when I looked over the ledge my head went round, and I felt sick--like with the channel."

Gaston had seen Alice Wingfield several times at church and in the village, and once when, with Lady Belward, he had returned the archdeacon's call; but she had been away most of the time since his arrival. She had impressed him as a gentle, wise, elderly little creature, who appeared to live for others, and chiefly for her grandfather. She was not unusually pretty, nor yet young,--quite as old as himself,--and yet he wondered what it was that made her so interesting. He decided that it was the honesty of her nature, her beautiful thoroughness; and then he thought little more about her. But now he dropped into quiet, natural talk with her, as if they had known each other for years. But most women found that they dropped quickly into easy talk with him. That was because he had not learned the small gossip which varies little with a thousand people in the same circumstances. But he had a naive fresh sense, everything interested him, and he said what he thought with taste and tact, sometimes with wit, and always in that cheerful contemplative mood which influences women. Some of his sayings were so startling and heretical that they had gone the rounds, and certain crisp words out of the argot of the North were used by women who wished to be chic and amusing.

Not quite certain why he stayed, but talking on reflectively, Gaston at last said:

"You will be coming to us to-night, of course? We are having a barbecue of some kind."

"Yes, I hope so; though my grandfather does not much care to have me go."

"I suppose it is dull for him."

"I am not sure it is that."

"No? What then?"

She shook her head.

"The affair is in your honour, Mr. Belward, isn't it?

"Does that answer my question?!" he asked genially.

She blushed.

"No, no, no! That is not what I meant."

"I was unfair. Yes, I believe the matter does take that colour; though why, I don't know."

She looked at him with simple earnestness.

"You ought to be proud of it; and you ought to be glad of such a high position where you can do so much good, if you will."

He smiled, and ran his hand down his horse's leg musingly before he replied:

"I've not thought much of doing good, I tell you frankly. I wasn't brought up to think about it; I don't know that I ever did any good in my life. I supposed it was only missionaries and women who did that sort of thing."

"But you wrong yourself. You have done good in this village. Why, we all have talked of it; and though it wasn't done in the usual way--rather irregularly--still it was doing good."

He looked down at her astonished.

"Well, here's a pretty libel! Doing good 'irregularly'? Why, where have I done good at all?"

She ran over the names of several sick people in the village whose bills he had paid, the personal help and interest he had given to many, and, last of all, she mentioned the case of the village postmaster.

Since Gaston had come, postmasters had been changed. The little pale- faced man who had first held the position disappeared one night, and in another twenty-four hours a new one was in his place. Many stories had gone about. It was rumoured that the little man was short in his accounts, and had been got out of the way by Gaston Belward. Archdeacon Varcoe knew the truth, and had said that Gaston's sin was not unpardonable, in spite of a few squires and their dames who declared it was shocking that a man should have such loose ideas, that no good could come to the county from it, and that he would put nonsense into the heads of the common people. Alice Wingfield was now to hear Gaston's view of the matter.

"So that's it, eh? Live and let live is doing good? In that case it is easy to be a saint. What else could a man do? You say that I am generous--How? What have I spent out of my income on these little things? My income--how did I get it? I didn't earn it; neither did my father. Not a stroke have I done for it. I sit high and dry there in the Court, they sit low there in the village; and you know how they live. Well, I give away a little money which these people and their fathers earned for my father and me; and for that you say I am doing good, and some other people say I am doing harm--'dangerous charity,' and all that! I say that the little I have done is what is always done where man is most primitive, by people who never heard 'doing good' preached."

"We must have names for things, you know," she said.

"I suppose so, where morality and humanity have to be taught as Christian duty, and not as common manhood."

"Tell me," she presently said, "about Sproule, the postmaster."

"Oh, that? Well, I will. The first time I entered the post-office I saw there was something on the man's mind. A youth of twenty-three oughtn't to look as he did--married only a year or two also, with a pretty wife and child. I used to talk to them a good deal, and one day I said to him: 'You look seedy; what's the matter?' He flushed, and got nervous. I made up my mind it was money. If I had been here longer, I should have taken him aside and talked to him like a father. As it was, things slid along. I was up in town, and here and there. One evening as I came back from town I saw a nasty-looking Jew arrive. The little postmaster met him, and they went away together. He was in the scoundrel's hands; had been betting, and had borrowed first from the Jew, then from the Government. The next evening I was just starting down to have a talk with him, when an official came to my grandfather to swear out a warrant. I lost no time; got my horse and trap, went down to the office, gave the boy three minutes to tell me the truth, and then I sent him away. I fixed it up with the authorities, and the wife and child follow the youth to America next week. That's all."

"He deserved to get free, then?"

"He deserved to be punished, but not as he would have been. There wasn't really a vicious spot in the man. And the wife and child--what was a little justice to the possible happiness of those three? Discretion is a part of justice, and I used it, as it is used every day in business and judicial life, only we don't see it. When it gets public, why, some one gets blamed. In this case I was the target; but I don't mind in the least--not in the least. . . . Do you think me very startling or lawless?"

"Never lawless; but one could not be quite sure what you would do in any particular case." She looked up at him admiringly.

They had not noticed the approach of Archdeacon Varcoe till he was very near them. His face was troubled. He had seen how earnest was their conversation, and for some reason it made him uneasy. The girl saw him first, and ran to meet him. He saw her bright delighted look, and he sighed involuntarily. "Something has worried you," she said caressingly. Then she told him of the accident, and they all turned and went back towards the Court, Gaston walking his horse. Near the church they met Sir William and Lady Belward. There were salutations, and presently Gaston slowly followed his grandfather and grandmother into the courtyard.

Sir William, looking back, said to his wife: "Do you think that Gaston should be told?"

"No, no, there is no danger. Gaston, my dear, shall marry Delia Gasgoyne."

"Shall marry? wherefore 'shall'? Really, I do not see."

"She likes him, she is quite what we would have her, and he is interested in her. My dear, I have seen--I have watched for a year."

He put his hand on hers.

"My wife, you are a goodly prophet."

When Archdeacon Varcoe entered his study on returning, he sat down in a chair, and brooded long. "She must be told," he said at last, aloud. "Yes, yes, at once. God help us both!"