Volume II
Chapter VII. Wherein the Seal of His Heritage is Set
 

"Sophie, when you talk with the man, remember that you are near fifty, and faded. Don't be sentimental." So said Mrs. Gasgoyne to Lady Dargan, as they saw Gaston coming down the ballroom with Captain Maudsley.

"Reine, you try one's patience. People would say you were not quite disinterested."

"You mean Delia! Now, listen. I haven't any wish but that Gaston Belward shall see Delia very seldom indeed. He will inherit the property no doubt, and Sir William told me that he had settled a decent fortune on him; but for Delia--no--no--no. Strange, isn't it, when Lady Harriet over there aches for him, Indian blood and all? And why? Because this is a good property, and the fellow is distinguished and romantic-looking: but he is impossible--perfectly impossible. Every line of his face says shipwreck."

"You are not usually so prophetic."

"Of course. But I am prophetic now, for Delia is more than interested, silly chuck! Did you ever read the story of the other Gaston--Sir Gaston--whom this one resembles? No? Well, you will find it thinly disguised in The Knight of Five Joys. He was killed at Naseby, my dear; killed, not by the enemy, but by a page in Rupert's cavalry. The page was a woman! It's in this one too. Indian and French blood is a sad tincture. He is not wicked at heart, not at all; but he will do mad things yet, my dear. For he'll tire of all this, and then--half-mourning for some one!"

Gaston enjoyed talking with Mrs. Gasgoyne as to no one else. Other women often flattered him, she never did. Frankly, crisply, she told him strange truths, and, without mercy, crumbled his wrong opinions. He had a sense of humour, and he enjoyed her keen chastening raillery. Besides, her talk was always an education in the fine lights and shadows of this social life. He came to her now with a smile, greeted her heartily, and then turned to Lady Dargan. Captain Maudsley carried off Mrs. Gasgoyne, and the two were left together--the second time since the evening of Gaston's arrival, so many months before. Lady Dargan had been abroad, and was just returned.

They talked a little on unimportant things, and presently Lady Dargan said:

"Pardon my asking, but will you tell me why you wore a red ribbon in your button-hole the first night you came?"

He smiled, and then looked at her a little curiously. "My luggage had not come, and I wore an old suit of my father's."

Lady Dargan sighed deeply.

"The last night he was in England he wore that coat at dinner," she murmured.

"Pardon me, Lady Dargan--you put that ribbon there?"

"Yes."

Her eyes were on him with a candid interest and regard.

"I suppose," he went on, "that his going was abrupt to you?"

"Very--very!" she answered.

She longed to ask if his father ever mentioned her name, but she dared not. Besides, as she said to herself, to what good now? But she asked him to tell her something about his father. He did so quietly, picking out main incidents, and setting them forth, as he had the ability, with quiet dramatic strength. He had just finished when Delia Gasgoyne came up with Lord Dargan.

Presently Lord Dargan asked Gaston if he would bring Lady Dargan to the other end of the room, where Miss Gasgoyne was to join her mother. As they went, Lady Dargan said a little breathlessly:

"Will you do something for me?"

"I would do much for you," was his reply, for he understood!

"If ever you need a friend, if ever you are in trouble, will you let me know? I wish to take an interest in you. Promise me."

"I cannot promise, Lady Dargan," he answered, "for such trouble as I have had before I have had to bear alone, and the habit is fixed, I fear. Still, I am grateful to you just the same, and I shall never forget it. But will you tell me why people regard me from so tragical a stand- point?"

"Do they?"

"Well, there's yourself, and there's Mrs. Gasgoyne, and there's my uncle Ian."

"Perhaps we think you may have trouble because of your uncle Ian."

Gaston shook his head enigmatically, and then said ironically:

"As they would put it in the North, Lady Dargan, he'll cut no figure in that matter. I remember for two."

"That is right--that is right. Always think that Ian Belward is bad--bad at heart. He is as fascinating as--"

"As the Snake?"

"--as the Snake, and as cruel! It is the cruelty of wicked selfishness. Somehow, I forget that I am talking to his nephew. But we all know Ian Belward--at least, all women do."

"And at least one man does," he answered gravely. The next minute Gaston walked down the room with Delia Gasgoyne on his arm. The girl delicately showed her preference, and he was aware of it. It pleased him--pleased his unconscious egoism. The early part of his life had been spent among Indian women, half-breeds, and a few dull French or English folk, whose chief charm was their interest in that wild, free life, now so distant. He had met Delia many times since his coming; and there was that in her manner--a fine high-bred quality, a sweet speaking reserve--which interested him. He saw her as the best product of this convention.

She was no mere sentimental girl, for she had known at least six seasons, and had refused at least six lovers. She had a proud mind, not wide, suited to her position. Most men had flattered her, had yielded to her; this man, either with art or instinctively, mastered her, secured her interest by his personality. Every woman worth the having, down in her heart, loves to be mastered: it gives her a sense of security, and she likes to lean; for, strong as she may be at times, she is often singularly weak. She knew that her mother deprecated "that Belward enigma," but this only sent her on the dangerous way.

To-night she questioned him about his life, and how he should spend the summer. Idling in France, he said. And she? She was not sure; but she thought that she also would be idling about France in her father's yacht. So they might happen to meet. Meanwhile? Well, meanwhile, there were people coming to stay at Peppingham, their home. August would see that over. Then freedom.

Was it freedom, to get away from all this--from England and rule and measure? No, she did not mean quite that. She loved the life with all its rules; she could not live without it. She had been brought up to expect and to do certain things. She liked her comforts, her luxuries, many pretty things about her, and days without friction. To travel? Yes, with all modern comforts, no long stages, a really good maid, and some fresh interesting books.

What kind of books? Well, Walter Pater's essays; "The Light of Asia"; a novel of that wicked man Thomas Hardy; and something light--"The Innocents Abroad"--with, possibly, a struggle through De Musset, to keep up her French.

It did not seem exciting to Gaston, but it did sound honest, and it was in the picture. He much preferred Meredith, and Swinburne, and Dumas, and Hugo; but with her he did also like the whimsical Mark Twain.

He thought of suggestions that Lady Belward had often thrown out; of those many talks with Sir William, excellent friends as they were, in which the baronet hinted at the security he would feel if there was a second family of Belwards. What if he--? He smiled strangely, and shrank.

Marriage? There was the touchstone.

After the dance, when he was taking her to her mother, he saw a pale intense face looking out to him from a row of others. He smiled, and the smile that came in return was unlike any he had ever seen Alice Wingfield wear. He was puzzled. It flashed to him strange pathos, affection, and entreaty. He took Delia Gasgoyne to her mother, talked to Lady Belward a little, and then went quietly back to where he had seen Alice. She was gone. Just then some people from town came to speak to him, and he was detained. When he was free he searched, but she was nowhere to be found. He went to Lady Belward. Yes, Miss Wingfield had gone. Lady Belward looked at Gaston anxiously, and asked him why he was curious. "Because she's a lonely-looking little maid," he said, "and I wanted to be kind to her. She didn't seem happy a while ago."

Lady Belward was reassured.

"Yes, she is a sweet creature, Gaston," she said, and added: "You are a good boy to-night, a very good host indeed. It is worth the doing," she went on, looking out on the guests proudly. "I did not think I should ever come to it again with any heart, but I do it for you gladly. Now, away to your duty," she added, tapping his breast affectionately with her fan, "and when everything is done, come and take me to my room."

Ian Belward passed Gaston as he went. He had seen the affectionate passages.

"'For a good boy!' 'God bless our Home!"' he said, ironically.

Gaston saw the mark of his hand on his uncle's chin, and he forbore ironical reply.

"The home is worth the blessing," he rejoined quietly, and passed on.

Three hours later the guests had all gone, and Lady Belward, leaning on her grandson's arm, went to her boudoir, while Ian and his father sought the library. Ian was going next morning. The conference was not likely to be cheerful.

Inside her boudoir, Lady Belward sank into a large chair, and let her head fall back and her eyes close. She motioned Gaston to a seat. Taking one near, he waited. After a time she opened her eyes and drew herself up.

"My dear," she said, "I wish to talk with you."

"I shall be very glad; but isn't it late? and aren't you tired, grandmother?"

"I shall sleep better after," she responded, gently. She then began to review the past; her own long unhappiness, Robert's silence, her uncertainty as to his fate, and the after hopelessness, made greater by Ian's conduct. In low, kind words she spoke of his coming and the renewal of her hopes, coupled with fear also that he might not fit in with his new life, and--she could say it now--do something unbearable. Well, he had done nothing unworthy of their name; had acted, on the whole, sensibly; and she had not been greatly surprised at certain little oddnesses, such as the tent in the grounds, an impossible deer-hunt, and some unusual village charities and innovations on the estate. Nor did she object to Brillon, though he had sometimes thrown servants'-hall into disorder, and had caused the stablemen and the footmen to fight. His ear-rings and hair were startling, but they were not important. Gaston had been admired by the hunting-field--of which they were glad, for it was a test of popularity. She saw that most people liked him. Lord Dunfolly and Admiral Highburn were enthusiastic. For her own part, she was proud and grateful. She could enjoy every grain of comfort he gave them; and she was thankful to make up to Robert's son what Robert himself had lost--poor boy--poor boy!

Her feelings were deep, strong, and sincere. Her grandson had come, strong, individual, considerate, and had moved the tender courses of her nature. At this moment Gaston had his first deep feeling of responsibility.

"My dear," she said at last, "people in our position have important duties. Here is a large estate. Am I not clear? You will never be quite part of this life till you bring a wife here. That will give you a sense of responsibility. You will wake up to many things then. Will you not marry? There is Delia Gasgoyne. Your grandfather and I would be so glad. She is worthy in every way, and she likes you. She is a good girl. She has never frittered her heart away; and she would make you proud of her."

She reached out an anxious hand, and touched his shoulder. His eyes were playing with the pattern of the carpet; but he slowly raised them to hers, and looked for a moment without speaking. Suddenly, in spite of himself, he laughed--laughed outright, but not loudly.

Marriage? Yes, here was the touchstone. Marry a girl whose family had been notable for hundreds of years? For the moment he did not remember his own family. This was one of the times when he was only conscious that he had savage blood, together with a strain of New World French, and that his life had mostly been a range of adventure and common toil. This new position was his right, but there were times when it seemed to him that he was an impostor; others, when he felt himself master of it all, when he even had a sense of superiority--why he could not tell; but life in this old land of tradition and history had not its due picturesqueness. With his grandmother's proposal there shot up in him the thought that for him this was absurd. He to pace the world beside this fine queenly creature--Delia Gasgoyne--carrying on the traditions of the Belwards! Was it, was it possible?

"Pardon me," he said at last gently, as he saw Lady Belward shrink and then look curiously at him, "something struck me, and I couldn't help it."

"Was what I said at all ludicrous?"

"Of course not; you said what was natural for you to say, and I thought what was natural for me to think, at first blush."

"There is something wrong," she urged fearfully. "Is there any reason why you cannot marry? Gaston,"--she trembled towards him,--"you have not deceived us--you are not married?"

"My wife is dead, as I told you," he answered gravely, musingly.

"Tell me: there is no woman who has a claim on you?"

"None that I know of--not one. My follies have not run that way."

"Thank God! Then there is no reason why you should not marry. Oh, when I look at you I am proud, I am glad that I live! You bring my youth, my son back; and I long for a time when I may clasp your child in my arms, and know that Robert's heritage will go on and on, and that there will be made up to him, somehow, all that he lost. Listen: I am an old, crippled, suffering woman; I shall soon have done with all this coming and going, and I speak to you out of the wisdom of sorrow. Had Robert married, all would have gone well. He did not: he got into trouble, then came Ian's hand in it all; and you know the end. I fear for you, I do indeed. You will have sore temptations. Marry--marry soon, and make us happy."

He was quiet enough now. He had seen the grotesque image, now he was facing the thing behind it. "Would it please you so very much?!" he said, resting a hand gently on hers.

"I wish to see a child of yours in my arms, dear."

"And the woman you have chosen is Delia Gasgoyne?"

"The choice is for you; but you seem to like each other, and we care for her."

He sat thinking for a time, then he got up, and said slowly:

"It shall be so, if Miss Gasgoyne will have me. And I hope it may turn out as you wish."

Then he stooped and kissed her on the cheek. The proud woman, who had unbent little in her lifetime, whose eyes had looked out so coldly on the world, who felt for her son Ian an almost impossible aversion, drew down his head and kissed it.

"Indian and all?!" he asked, with a quaint bitterness.

"Everything, my dear," she answered. "God bless you! Good-night."

A few moments after, Gaston went to the library. He heard the voices of Sir William and his uncle. He knocked and entered. Ian, with exaggerated courtesy, rose. Gaston, with easy coolness, begged him to sit, lit a cigar, and himself sat.

"My father has been feeding me with raw truths, Cadet," said his uncle; "and I've been eating them unseasoned. We have not been, nor are likely to be, a happy family, unless in your saturnian reign we learn to say, pax vobiscum--do you know Latin? For I'm told the money-bags and the stately pile are for you. You are to beget children before the Lord, and sit in the seat of Justice: 'tis for me to confer honour on you all by my genius!"

Gaston sat very still, and, when the speech was ended, said tentatively:

"Why rob yourself?"

"In honouring you all?"

"No, sir; in not yourself having 'a saturnian reign'."

"You are generous."

"No: I came here to ask for a home, for what was mine through my father. I ask, and want, nothing more--not even to beget children before the Lord!"

"How mellow the tongue! Well, Cadet, I am not going to quarrel. Here we are with my father. See, I am willing to be friends. But you mustn't expect that I will not chasten your proud spirit now and then. That you need it, this morning bears witness."

Sir William glanced from one to the other curiously. He was cold and calm, and looked worn. He had had a trying half-hour with his son, and it had told on him.

Gaston at once said to his grandfather: "Of this morning, sir, I will tell you. I--"

Ian interrupted him.

"No, no; that is between us. Let us not worry my father."

Sir William smiled ironically.

"Your solicitude is refreshing, Ian."

"Late fruit is the sweetest, sir."

Presently Sir William asked Gaston the result of the talk with Lady Belward. Gaston frankly said that he was ready to do as they wished. Sir William then said they had chosen this time because Ian was there, and it was better to have all open and understood.

Ian laughed.

"Taming the barbarian! How seriously you all take it. I am the jester for the King. In the days of the flood I'll bring the olive leaf. You are all in the wash of sentiment: you'll come to the wicked uncle one day for common-sense. But, never mind, Cadet; we are to be friends. Yes, really. I do not fear for my heritage, and you'll need a helping hand one of these days. Besides, you are an interesting fellow. So, if you will put up with my acid tongue, there's no reason why we shouldn't hit it off."

To Sir William's great astonishment, Ian held out his hand with a genial smile, which was tolerably honest, for his indulgent nature was as capable of great geniality as incapable of high moral conceptions. Then, he had before his eye, "Monmouth" and "The King of Ys."

Gaston took his hand, and said: "I have no wish to be an enemy."

Sir William rose, looking at them both. He could not understand Ian's attitude, and he distrusted. Yet peace was better than war. Ian's truce was also based on a belief that Gaston would make skittles of things. A little while afterwards Gaston sat in his room, turning over events in his mind. Time and again his thoughts returned to the one thing-- marriage. That marriage with his Esquimaux wife had been in one sense none at all, for the end was sure from the beginning. It was in keeping with his youth, the circumstances, the life, it had no responsibilities. But this? To become an integral part of the life--the English country gentleman; to be reduced, diluted, to the needs of the convention, and no more? Let him think of the details:--a justice of the peace: to sit on a board of directors; to be, perhaps, Master of the Hounds; to unite with the Bishop in restoring the cathedral; to make an address at the annual flower show. His wife to open bazaars, give tennis-parties, and be patron to the clergy; himself at last, no doubt, to go into Parliament; to feel the petty, or serious, responsibilities of a husband and a landlord. Monotony, extreme decorum, civility to the world; endless politeness to his wife; with boys at Eton and girls somewhere else; and the kind of man he must be to do his duty in all and to all!

It seemed impossible. He rose and paced the floor. Never till this moment had the full picture of his new life come close. He felt stifled. He put on a cap, and, descending the stairs, went out into the court-yard and walked about, the cool air refreshing him. Gradually there settled upon him a stoic acceptance of the conditions. But would it last?

He stood still and looked at the pile of buildings before him; then he turned towards the little church close by, whose spire and roof could be seen above the wall. He waved his hand, as when within it on the day of his coming, and said with irony:

"Now for the marriage-linen, Sir Gaston!"

He heard a low knocking at the gate. He listened. Yes, there was no mistake. He went to it, and asked quietly:

"Who is there?"

There was no reply. Still the knocking went on. He quietly opened the gate, and threw it back. A figure in white stepped through and slowly passed him. It was Alice Wingfield. He spoke to her. She did not answer. He went close to her and saw that she was asleep!

She was making for the entrance door. He took her hand gently, and led her into a side door, and on into the ballroom. She moved towards a window through which the moonlight streamed, and sat on a cushioned bench beneath it. It was the spot where he had seen her at the dance. She leaned forward, looking into space, as she did at him then. He moved and got in her line of vision.

The picture was weird. She wore a soft white chamber-gown, her hair hung loose on her shoulders, her pale face cowled it in. The look was inexpressibly sad. Over her fell dim, coloured lights from the stained- glass windows; and shadowy ancestors looked silently down from the armour-hung walls.

To Gaston, collected as he was, it gave an ominous feeling. Why did she come here even in her sleep? What did that look mean? He gazed intently into her eyes.

All at once her voice came low and broken, and a sob followed the words:

"Gaston, my brother, my brother!"

He stood for a moment stunned, gazing helplessly at her passive figure.

"Gaston, my brother!" he repeated to himself. Then the painful matter dawned upon him. This girl, the granddaughter of the rector of the parish, was his father's daughter--his own sister. He had a sudden spring of new affection--unfelt for those other relations, his by the rights of the law and the gospel. The pathos of the thing caught him in the throat--for her how pitiful, how unhappy! He was sure that, somehow, she had only come to know of it since the afternoon. Then there had been so different a look in her face!

One thing was clear: he had no right to this secret, and it must be for now as if it had never been. He came to her, and took her hand. She rose. He led her from the room, out into the court-yard, and from there through the gate into the road.

All was still. They passed over to the rectory. Just inside the gate, Gaston saw a figure issue from the house, and come quickly towards them. It was the rector, excited, anxious.

Gaston motioned silence, and pointed to her. Then he briefly whispered how she had come. The clergyman said that he had felt uneasy about her, had gone to her room, and was just issuing in search of her. Gaston resigned her, softly advised not waking her, and bade the clergyman good- night.

But presently he turned, touched the arm of the old man, and said meaningly:

"I know."

The rector's voice shook as he replied: "You have not spoken to her?"

"No."

"You will not speak of it?"

"No."

"Unless I should die, and she should wish it?"

"Always as she wishes."

They parted, and Gaston returned to the Court.