Volume II
Chapter VIII. He Answers an Awkward Question
 

The next morning Brillon brought a note from Ian Belward, which said that he was starting, and asked Gaston to be sure and come to Paris. The note was carelessly friendly. After reading it, he lay thinking. Presently he chanced to see Jacques look intently at him.

"Well, Brillon, what is it?!" he asked genially. Jacques had come on better than Gaston had hoped for, but the light play of his nature was gone--he was grave, almost melancholy; and, in his way, as notable as his master. Their life in London had changed him much. A valet in St. James's Street was not a hunting comrade on the Coppermine River. Often when Jacques was left alone he stood at the window looking out on the gay traffic, scarcely stirring; his eyes slow, brooding. Occasionally, standing so, he would make the sacred gesture. One who heard him swear now and then, in a calm, deliberate way,--at the cook and the porter,-- would have thought the matters in strange contrast. But his religion was a central habit, followed as mechanically as his appetite or the folding of his master's clothes. Besides, like most woodsmen, he was superstitious. Gaston was kind with him, keeping, however, a firm hand till his manner had become informed by the new duties. Jacques's greatest pleasure was his early morning visits to the stables. Here were Saracen and Jim the broncho-sleek, savage, playful. But he touched the highest point of his London experience when they rode in the Park.

In this Gaston remained singular. He rode always with Jacques. Perhaps he wished to preserve one possible relic of the old life, perhaps he liked this touch of drama; or both. It created notice, criticism, but he was superior to that. Time and again people asked him to ride, but he always pleaded another engagement. He would then be seen with Jacques plus Jacques's earrings and the wonderful hair, riding grandly in the Row. Jacques's eyes sparkled and a snatch of song came to his lips at these times.

No figures in the Park were so striking. There was nothing bizarre, but Gaston had a distinguished look, and women who had felt his hand at their waists in the dance the night before, now knew him, somehow, at a grave distance. Though Gaston did not say it to himself, these were the hours when he really was with the old life--lived it again--prairie, savannah, ice-plain, alkali desert. When, dismounting, the horses were taken and they went up the stairs, Gaston would softly lay his whip across Jacques's shoulders without speaking. This was their only ritual of camaraderie, and neglect of it would have fretted the half-breed. Never had man such a servant. No matter at what hour Gaston returned, he found Jacques waiting; and when he woke he found him ready, as now, on this morning, after a strange night.

"What is it, Jacques?!" he repeated.

The old name! Jacques shivered a little with pleasure. Presently he broke out with:

"Monsieur, when do we go back?"

"Go back where?"

"To the North, monsieur."

"What's in your noddle now, Brillon?"

The impatient return to "Brillon" cut Jacques like a whip.

"Monsieur," he suddenly said, his face glowing, his hands opening nervously, "we have eat, we have drunk, we have had the dance and the great music here: is it enough? Sometimes as you sleep you call out, and you toss to the strokes of the tower-clock. When we lie on the Plains of Yath from sunset to sunrise, you never stir then. You remember when we sleep on the ledge of the Voshti mountain--so narrow that we were tied together? Well, we were as babes in blankets. In the Prairie of the Ten Stars your fingers were on the trigger firm as a bolt; here I have watch them shake with the coffee-cup. Monsieur, you have seen: is it enough? You have lived here: is it like the old lodge and the long trail?"

Gaston sat up in bed, looked in the mirror opposite, ran his fingers through his hair, regarded his hands, turning them over, and then, with sharp impatience, said:

"Go to hell!"

The little man's face flushed to his hair; he sucked in the air with a gasp. Without a word, he went to the dressing-table, poured out the shaving-water, threw a towel over his arm, and turned to come to the bed; but, all at once, he sidled back, put down the water, and furtively drew a sleeve across his eyes.

Gaston saw, and something suddenly burned in him. He dropped his eyes, slid out of bed, into his dressing-gown, and sat down.

Jacques made ready. He was not prepared to have Gaston catch him by the shoulders with a nervous grip, search his eyes, and say:

"You damned little fool, I'm not worth it!" Jacques's face shone.

"Every great man has his fool--alors!" was the happy reply.

"Jacques," Gaston presently said, "what's on your mind?"

"I saw--last night, monsieur," he said.

"You saw what?"

"I saw you in the court-yard with the lady." Gaston was now very grave.

"Did you recognise her?"

"No: she moved all as a spirit."

"Jacques, that matter is between you and me. I'm going to tell you, though, two things; and--where's your string of beads?"

Jacques drew out his rosary.

"That's all right. Mum as Manitou! She was asleep; she is my sister. And that is all, till there's need for you to know more."

In this new confidence Jacques was content. The life was a gilded mess, but he could endure it now. Three days passed. During that time Gaston was up to town twice; lunched at Lady Dargan's, and dined at Lord Dunfolly's. For his grandfather, who was indisposed, he was induced to preside at a political meeting in the interest of a wealthy local brewer, who confidently expected the seat, and, through gifts to the party, a knighthood. Before the meeting, in the gush of--as he put it "kindred aims," he laid a finger familiarly in Gaston's button-hole. Jacques, who was present, smiled, for he knew every change in his master's face, and he saw a glitter in his eye. He remembered when they two were in trouble with a gang of river-drivers, and one did this same thing rudely: how Gaston looked down, and said, with a devilish softness: "Take it away." And immediately after the man did so.

Mr. Sylvester Gregory Babbs, in a similar position, heard a voice say down at him, with a curious obliqueness:

"If you please!"

The keenest edge of it was lost on the flaring brewer, but his fingers dropped, and he twisted his heavy watchchain uneasily. The meeting began. Gaston in a few formal words, unconventional in idea, introduced Mr. Babbs as "a gentleman whose name was a household word in the county, who would carry into Parliament the civic responsibility shown in his private life, who would render his party a support likely to fulfil its purpose."

When he sat down, Captain Maudsley said: "That's a trifle vague, Belward."

"How can one treat him with importance?"

"He's the sort that makes a noise one way or another."

"Yes. Obituary: 'At his residence in Babbslow Square, yesterday, Sir S. G. Babbs, M. P., member of the London County Council. Sir S. G. Babbs, it will be remembered, gave L100,000 to build a home for the propagation of Vice, and--'"

"That's droll!"

"Why not Vice? 'Twould be just the same in his mind. He doesn't give from a sense of moral duty. Not he; he's a bungowawen!"

"What is that?"

"That's Indian. You buy a lot of Indian or halfbreed loafers with beaver-skins and rum, go to the Mount of the Burning Arrows, and these fellows dance round you and call you one of the lost race, the Mighty Men of the Kimash Hills. And they'll do that while the rum lasts. Meanwhile you get to think yourself a devil of a swell--you and the gods! . . . And now we had better listen to this bungowawen, hadn't we?"

The room was full, and on the platform were gentlemen come to support Sir William Belward. They were interested to see how Gaston would carry it off.

Mr. Babbs's speech was like a thousand others by the same kind of man. More speeches--some opposing--followed, and at last came the chairman to close the meeting. He addressed himself chiefly to a bunch of farmers, artisans, and labouring-men near. After some good-natured raillery at political meetings in general, the bigotry of party, the difficulty in getting the wheat from the chaff, and some incisive thrusts at those who promised the moon and gave a green cheese, who spent their time in berating their opponents, he said:

"There's a game that sailors play on board ship--men-o'-war and sailing- ships mostly. I never could quite understand it, nor could any officers ever tell me--the fo'castle for the men and the quarter-deck for the officers, and what's English to one is Greek to the other. Well, this was all I could see in the game. They sat about, sometimes talking, sometimes not. All at once a chap would rise and say, 'Allow me to speak, me noble lord,' and follow this by hitting some one of the party wherever the blow got in easiest--on the head, anywhere! [Laughter.] Then he would sit down seriously, and someone else spoke to his noble lordship. Nobody got angry at the knocks, and Heaven only knows what it was all about. That is much the way with politics, when it is played fair. But here is what I want particularly to say: We are not all born the same, nor can we live the same. One man is born a brute, and another a good sort; one a liar, and one an honest man; one has brains, and the other hasn't. Now, I've lived where, as they say, one man is as good as another. But he isn't, there or here. A weak man can't run with a strong. We have heard to-night a lot of talk for something and against something. It is over. Are you sure you have got what was meant clear in your mind? [Laughter, and 'Blowed if we'ave!'] Very well; do not worry about that. We have been playing a game of 'Allow me to speak, me noble lord!' And who is going to help you to get the most out of your country and your life isn't easy to know. But we can get hold of a few clear ideas, and measure things against them. I know and have talked with a good many of you here ['That's so! That's so!'], and you know my ideas pretty well--that they are honest at least, and that I have seen the countries where freedom is 'on the job,' as they say. Now, don't put your faith in men and in a party that cry, 'We will make all things new,' to the tune of, 'We are a band of brothers.' Trust in one that says, 'You cannot undo the centuries. Take off the roof, remove a wall, let in the air, throw out a wing, but leave the old foundations.' And that is the real difference between the other party and mine; and these political games of ours come to that chiefly."

Presently he called for the hands of the meeting. They were given for Mr. Babbs.

Suddenly a man's strong, arid voice came from the crowd:

"'Allow me to speak, me noble lord!' [Great laughter. Then a pause.] Where's my old chum, Jock Lawson?"

The audience stilled. Gaston's face went grave. He replied, in a firm, clear voice.

"In Heaven, my man. You'll never see him more." There was silence for a moment, a murmur, then a faint burst of applause. Presently John Cawley, the landlord of "The Whisk o' Barley," made towards Gaston. Gaston greeted him, and inquired after his wife. He was told that she was very ill, and had sent her husband to beg Gaston to come. Gaston had dreaded this hour, though he knew it would come one day. A woman on a death-bed has a right to ask for and get the truth. He had forborne telling her of her son; and she, whenever she had seen him, had contented herself with asking general questions, dreading in her heart that Jock had died a dreadful or shameful death, or else this gentleman would, voluntarily, say more. But, herself on her way out of the world, as she feared, wished the truth, whatever it might be.

Gaston told Cawley that he would drive over at once, and then asked who it was had called out at him. A drunken, poaching fellow, he was told, who in all the years since Jock had gone, had never passed the inn without stopping to say: "Where's my old chum, Jock Lawson?" In the past he and Jock had been in more than one scrape together. He had learned from Mrs. Cawley that Gaston had known Jock in Canada.

When Cawley had gone, Gaston turned to the other gentlemen present.

"An original speech, upon my word, Belward," said Captain Maudsley.

Mr. Warren Gasgoyne came.

"You are expected to lunch or something to-morrow, Belward, you remember? Devil of a speech that! But, if you will 'allow me to speak, me noble lord,' you are the rankest Conservative of us all."

"Don't you know that the easiest constitutional step is from a republic to an autocracy, and vice versa?"

"I don't know it, and I don't know how you do it."

"Do what?"

"Make them think as you do."

He waved his hand to the departing crowd.

"I don't. I try to think as they do. I am always in touch with the primitive mind."

"You ought to do great things here, Belward," said the other seriously. "You have the trick; and we need wisdom at Westminster."

"Don't be mistaken; I am only adaptable. There's frank confession."

At this point Mr. Babbs came up and said good-night in a large, self- conscious way. Gaston hoped that his campaign would not be wasted, and the fluffy gentleman retired. When he got out of earshot in the shadows, he turned and shook his fist towards Gaston, saying: "Half-breed upstart!" Then he refreshed his spirits by swearing at his coachman.

Gaston and Jacques drove quickly over to "The Whisk o' Barley." Gaston was now intent to tell the whole truth. He wished that he had done it before; but his motives had been good--it was not to save himself. Yet he shrank. Presently he thought:

"What is the matter with me? Before I came here, if I had an idea I stuck to it, and didn't have any nonsense when I knew I was right. I am getting sensitive--the thing I find everywhere in this country: fear of feeling or giving pain; as though the bad tooth out isn't better than the bad tooth in. When I really get sentimental I'll fold my Arab tent--so help me, ye seventy Gods of Yath!"

A little while after he was at Mrs. Cawley's bed, the landlord handing him a glass of hot grog, Jock's mother eyeing him feverishly from the quilt. Gaston quietly felt her wrist, counting the pulse-beats; then told Cawley to wet a cloth and hand it to him. He put it gently on the woman's head. The eyes of the woman followed him anxiously. He sat down again, and in response to her questioning gaze, began the story of Jock's life as he knew it.

Cawley stood leaning on the foot-board; the woman's face was cowled in the quilt with hungry eyes; and Gaston's voice went on in a low monotone, to the ticking of the great clock in the next room. Gaston watched her face, and there came to him like an inspiration little things Jock did, which would mean more to his mother than large adventures. Her lips moved now and again, even a smile flickered. At last Gaston came to his father's own death and the years that followed; then the events in Labrador.

He approached this with unusual delicacy: it needed bravery to look into the mother's eyes, and tell the story. He did not know how dramatically he told it--how he etched it without a waste word. When he came to that scene in the Fort, the three men sitting, targets for his bullets,--he softened the details greatly. He did not tell it as he told it at the Court, but the simpler, sparser language made it tragically clear. There was no sound from the bed, none from the foot-board, but he heard a door open and shut without, and footsteps somewhere near.

How he put the body in the tree, and prayed over it and left it there, was all told; and then he paused. He turned a little sick as he saw the white face before him. She drew herself up, her fingers caught away the night-dress at her throat; she stared hard at him for a moment, and then, with a wild, moaning voice, cried out:

"You killed my boy! You killed my boy! You killed my boy!"

Gaston was about to take her hand, when he heard a shuffle and a rush behind him. He rose, turned swiftly, saw a bottle swinging, threw up his hand . . . and fell backwards against the bed.

The woman caught his bleeding head to her breast and hugged it.

"My Jock, my poor boy!" she cried in delirium now. Cawley had thrown his arms about the struggling, drunken assailant--Jock's poaching friend.

The mother now called out to the pinioned man, as she had done to Gaston:

"You have killed my boy!" She kissed Gaston's bloody face.

A messenger was soon on the way to Ridley Court, and in a little upper room Jacques was caring for his master.