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"The child must have a name, Jasper."
"All right, you give it one. That's nothun to me."
"But he must be christened properly."
"Why must he?"
"Oh, Jasper, if you don't fare to believe, his mother did, poor thing!"
"And a lot of good that did her . . . but do you have your way. Make a canting little Christian of him if you like. Do you think I care what you do with the brat? I know what I'd do with it, if that wasn't for the law!"
So, in the early days, while Robert Carlton was still learning to live alone, his son was trundled across the heath to Linkworth, and there christened George after no one in particular. Followed the remaining period of extreme infancy, during which Jasper Musk seldom set eyes upon the child, and was more or less oblivious to its concrete existence. Then one afternoon, the second summer, as Jasper sat smoking at a back window, in the big chair to which his sciatica would bind him from morning till night, there was a shuffling and a grunting in the passage, and in came the child on all fours, with the lamp of adventure alight and shining in grimy cheeks and great grey eyes.
Musk took the pipe from his mouth, and met the small intruder with an expressionless stare. Had his wife been by, no doubt he would have bidden her take the little devil out of his sight; he had done so before, using a harsher and more literal epithet for choice. But this afternoon he was alone, and very weary of his solitary confinement. So for the moment Musk sat stolidly intent; and the child, after a halt induced by the creaking of the open door and the austere apparition within, advanced once more, with the infantile equivalent for a cheer.
"Well, you've got a cheek!" said Jasper, grimly.
The boy had reached his legs, and was pulling himself up by the particularly lame one, chattering the while in the foreign tongue of one year old. Musk winced and muttered, then suddenly encircled the small body with his mighty hands, and set the child high and dry upon his knee.
"And now what?" said he. "And now what?"
For answer a chubby hand flew straight at his whiskers, grabbed them unerringly, and pulled without mercy, but with yells of delight that brought Musk's wife in hot haste from a far corner of the rambling house. In the doorway she threw up her arms.
"Oh, Georgie!" she cried aghast. "You naughty boy—you naughty boy!"
Jasper had already created a diversion in favour of his whiskers, and was in the act of blowing open an enormous watch when his wife appeared.
"Now you take and mind your own business," snapped he, "and we'll mind ours . . . Blow—can't you blow? Like this, then—p-f-f-f—and there you are! Now you try; blow, and that'll open again."
Georgie walked before the summer was over; and this was the year in which Jasper scarcely set foot to the ground, so he made use of the child from the first. Now it was his pipe, now his spectacles, now the newspaper; these were the first familiar objects which the child came to know by name before he could speak; and he never saw any one of the three without taking it as straight as he could toddle to the great grey man in the chair.
Mrs. Musk suddenly found half her work with Georgie taken entirely off her hands. She was even quicker over another discovery. Jasper would not own that he had taken to the child; in her presence, on the contrary, he ignored its very existence as utterly as heretofore. Yet now every day she could have found them together at most hours; only she knew better.
Cheerless environment for this new life—a gloomy old house—a grim old couple. Nevertheless, and in very spite of all the circumstances of his birth, Georgie from the first evinced that temperament which is a sun unto itself. An expansive gaiety was his normal mood, and for years the only variant was a terrible and overwhelming indignation with all his world. He was, in fact, an entirely healthy little savage, with all the wild spirits and facile affections of his age, and no exemption from its traditional ills. Once he had croup so severely that two doctors came in the middle of the night, and Georgie never forgot their grave faces and his grandfather's grim one at the foot of the bed. Indeed, the scene formed his first permanent impression, though the sequel was more memorable in itself. Georgie seemed to go to sleep for days and days, and to awake in another world, though the bed was the same, and the medicine-bottles, and the singing kettle; for it was day-time, and the room full of sun, and the doctors gone; but in the sunlight there stood instead the loveliest lady whom Georgie had beheld in his three or four years of earthly experience. Thereupon he lay with his firm little mouth pursed up, his grey eyes greater than even their wont, and his mind at work upon some surreptitious teaching of his grandmother. It was a very simple question that he asked in the end, but it made the lady kiss him and cry over him in a way he never could understand.
"Are you a angel?" Georgie had said.
Gwynneth happened to be somewhat morbidly aware of her own poverty in angelic qualities, though it was not this that made her cry. She was alone at the hall for the winter, which Sir Wilton and Lady Gleed were spending upon a well-beaten track abroad, while Sidney was still at Cambridge. Gwynneth also might have drifted from Cannes to Nice, and from Nice to Mentone, for she had been taken from school on Lydia's marriage, and assigned a permanent position at the side of Lady Gleed. In this capacity the girl had not shone, though her peculiar character had lost nothing by the duty and faithful practice of consistent self-suppression. On the other hand, there was the demoralising sense of personal superiority, which was thrust upon Gwynneth at every turn of this companionship, causing her to take an unhealthy interest in her own faults, in order to preserve any humility at all; for she was full of mental and of bodily vigour, and her aunt was signally devoid of both. Consequently when Lydia petitioned to go instead (having become a mother to her great disgust, and demanding an immediate separation from her infant), the proposal was adopted to the equal satisfaction of all concerned. Gwynneth, for her part, was very sorry not to travel and see the world; but she knew, from a tantalising experience, that hotel life was all that one could count upon seeing with Lady Gleed; and from every other point of view it was infinite relief to be alone. Literally alone she was not, since the little German housekeeper never left the hall. But Fraulein Hentig was a self-contained and entirely tactful companion, with whom it was possible to enjoy the delights of solitude while escaping the disadvantages. The two were very good friends.
Gwynneth was now in her twentieth year, a tall and graceful girl, albeit with the slight stoop of the natural student that she was. At her school she had won all available honours, but it was not a modern school, and in those days such as Gwynneth had no definite knowledge of any wider arena. So she left her school without great regret. She had learnt all that they could teach her there. And she taught herself twice as much in stolen hours spent in the hall library, which had been bought with the place, and hitherto only used by Sidney on wet days. But now there was no need to steal an hour; the girl's time was all her own, and she held high revel among the books. Moreover, it was the dawn of the University Extension system, and Gwynneth heard of a course of lectures upon English literature, only eight miles from Long Stow, just in time to attend. To do so she had to fight a weekly battle with the coachman, but Fraulein Hentig took her side, and the opposition did not endure. Gwynneth took voluminous notes and wrote elaborate essays, bringing to the whole interest that energy, thoroughness and enthusiasm, to which, though each was an essential characteristic, she was only now enabled to give free play. Yet the young girl was no mere bookworm, though at this stage of her career she seemed little else. It was a phase of intellectual absorption, but all the while it needed but a touch of human interest in her life to awake the deeper nature of the eternal woman. Such awakening had come with the most alarming period of Georgie's illness. Gwynneth was starting for her lecture, primed with sharp pencils and her new essay, when she heard in the village that two doctors had been at the Flint House in the night. She did not go to that lecture at all, but for two days and nights was scarcely an hour absent from the bedside of a little boy whom she had barely known by sight before. And his first comprehensible words formed the question which Gwynneth, worn out by watching, had answered in the fashion he could never understand.
Well, she was destined to be the boy's good angel, though he never mistook her for one again; and sometimes she looked the part. The dark eyes, so ardent in the pursuit of knowledge, or of any other of her heart's desires, could yet sparkle with childish glee, or soften with the tenderness of the ideal Madonna. The self-willed mouth and nose were only sweet as Georgie saw them; and none but he knew the warmth of the pale brown cheek or the crisp electric touch of the dark brown hair. Little knowing it before, and never dreaming of it now, Gwynneth had long been hankering for all that the little child gave her out of the fulness and purity of his tiny heart. She supposed that she was happy because at last she was being of some trifling use to somebody; it made her think more of herself. Looking deeper (as she thought), through the deceptive lenses of her inner consciousness, Gwynneth took a still less favourable view of her latest interest in life. It was that and not much more to the imperfect introspection of her morbid mood.
Nevertheless, this was the happiest time that she had ever known. Georgie and she became inseparable, even when the boy was well again; and on him Gwynneth was really lavishing all the love and tenderness which had been gathering in her heart since the hour when she had kissed a dead forehead for the last time. The fact was that the girl had an inborn capacity for passionate devotion, and was now once more enabled to indulge this sweet instinct to the full. She still went to her weekly lecture, read every book in the syllabus, and wrote her essay with as much care for detail as her innate energy would permit. Nor was her work the worse for the counter-attraction which now filled her young life to the brim. Georgie spoke of Gwynneth as his "lady," with a sufficient emphasis upon the possessive pronoun, and to her by a succession of pet names of their joint invention.
Croup is an enemy that lives to fight another day, as Dr. Marigold said when he paid his last visit; and that word was sufficient for the Musks. Thenceforward Georgie had only to sneeze to be put to bed, where he wasted many days before the winter was over. But Georgie was not to be depressed, and as Gwynneth would come and play with him for hours it was perhaps no wonder. They both had some imagination; one showed it by extemporary flights of downright romance, and the other by following these with immense eyes and not a syllable of his own from beginning to end. Then and there they would dramatise the story, for it was usually one of adventure, and Georgie had a clockwork paddle-steamer called the Dover, which sailed the bed manned by cardboard sailors of Gwynneth's making. In these seas the roughest weather was experienced in crossing Georgie's legs, but the best fun was in the polar regions, where the vessel lay wedged for months between two pillows, while the crew hunted bear and walrus over Georgie's person, and dug winter quarters under the clothes.
One day, when he really had a cold, and had fallen asleep upon the icebergs, Gwynneth took upon herself to search the cupboard for some picture-book which he might not have seen before; and in so doing she came across the photograph of a comely young woman, not much older than herself, which compelled her attention rather than her curiosity, for she guessed at once who it was. Moreover, the face was striking and interesting in itself. The eyes had a strange look, half reckless, half defiant, but, even in a faded and inartistic photograph, of a subtle fascination. There was some slight coarseness of eyelid and nostril; but for all that it was a fine expression, full of courage and full of will. The will was obvious in the mouth. It had the strength of Musk himself. Yet there was something about the mouth—so firm—so full—that Gwynneth did not like. She could not have said what it was, but she preferred looking into the eyes. They fascinated her, and she did not lift her own eyes from them till Mrs. Musk entered and caught her thus engaged.
"Oh, where did you find that? Give it to me—give it to me!" and the poor soul held out hands that trembled with her voice. "That's Georgie's poor mother," she sobbed, "and I didn't know there was another left. I thought he'd taken and burnt them every one!"
And she slipped the photograph inside her bodice, and pressed her lean hands upon it, as though it were the babe itself at her breast once more. Next instant Gwynneth's arms were about the old woman's neck, and her fresh lips had touched the wet and shrivelled cheek of Georgie's grandmother.
"Ah! but you are good to us," said Mrs. Musk. "I never would have believed a young lady could be so sweet and kind as you!"
Not that Gwynneth was in the habit of going among the people; that was a practice which Lady Gleed would not permit in a young lady over whom she exercised any sort of control. Consequently there was some talk in the village at this time, and a little scene at the hall soon after Sir Wilton and his wife arrived for the Easter recess. But Gwynneth argued that in no sense could the Musks be accounted ordinary villagers; and the squire himself took her side very firmly in the matter.
"I won't have you rate Musk among the yokels," said Sir Wilton afterwards. "He is the one substantial man in the place, and a very good friend of mine."
"Well, I don't consider it nice for Gwynneth to be always with that child."
"She doesn't know the child's history; you have only to hear her talk about him to see that."
"I don't think it nice, all the same," Lady Gleed repeated.
"Then take her back to town with you."
"No, she is out now, and I can't be bothered with her this season. She is not like other girls. I've a good mind to send her abroad for a year."
"You can do as you like about that. It might be a very good thing. Meanwhile I'm not going to have Musk's feelings hurt; only yesterday, when I went to see him, he was telling me all Gwynneth has done for them during the winter. I'm not going to break with a man like that by suddenly forbidding her to do any more."
So it was decided that Gwynneth should go for a year to a relation of Fraulein Hentig's at Leipzig, for the sake of her music, which the girl had neglected rather disgracefully since leaving school, but of which she was none the less fond, given the proper stimulus. Gwynneth herself acclaimed the plan, and indeed had a voice in it; there was only one reason why she was not entirely glad to go; and her devotion to Georgie was more constant than ever during the few weeks which were left to her.
Summer was beginning, and the boy was well and strong, with chubby cheeks and sturdy bare legs. Often Gwynneth had him to play in the hall garden—this on Sir Wilton's own suggestion—but more often she took him for a walk. There were beautiful walks all round Long Stow. There was the windy walk across the heather towards Linkworth; there were cool walks by the tiny river that ran parallel with the village street, bounding the hall meadow and both meadow and garden of the Flint House; there was a fascinating expedition, with spade and pail, to the sand-hills off the road to Lakenhall. Yet it was on none of these excursions that Gwynneth lost Georgie, but while leaving some papers at the saddler's workshop, in Long Stow itself.
Fuller would keep her to talk politics, or rather to listen to his own: it was the year of the first Home Rule Bill, and even Mr. Gladstone had never stirred the saddler's anger, hatred and contempt to such a pitch as they reached in this connection. Gwynneth, on her side, had an insufficient grasp of the measure, but an instinctive veneration for the man; and she was young enough to grow heated in argument, even with the saddler. When at length she turned away, more flushed than victorious, there was no vestige of the child.
Neither was there any answer. Gwynneth turned upon the politician.
"Didn't you see him, Mr. Fuller?"
"Gord love you, miss, I thought you come alone!"
And the saddler leant across his bench until his spectacles were flush with the open window at which Gwynneth stood.
"Alone? Georgie Musk was with me; and I've lost him through arguing with you."
She inquired at the next cottage. Yes, they had seen him pass "with you, miss," but that was all. There were no cottages further on; the saddler's was the last on that side and at that end of the village. Opposite was the rectory gate, with the low flint wall running far to the right, overhung at present by the great leaves and heavy blossoms of the chestnuts. And all at once Gwynneth noticed that the chestnut leaves were very dark, the sky overcast, and another shower even then beginning.
"He will get wet—it may kill him!"
And the girl ran wildly on along the road; but it was a straight road, and she could see further than Georgie could possibly have travelled. So now there was only the lane running up by the church.
Gwynneth took it at top speed; an instant brought her abreast of the east end, gaping wide and deep for the east window, yet built like a rock on either side to the height of the eaves. Another step, and Gwynneth was standing still.
Already her sub-consciousness had remarked the silence of hammer and chisel, which had tinkled in her ears as she brought Georgie up the village, ringing more distinctly at every step, and quite loud when first they had stopped at the saddler's window. Then it must have ceased altogether. But now Gwynneth heard another sound instead.
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