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Chapter VI

Winton was staggered. With a glance at Gyp's vanishing figure, he said curtly to Markey, "Where have you put this gentleman?" But the use of the word "this" was the only trace he showed of his emotions. In that little journey across the hall he entertained many extravagant thoughts. Arrived at the study, he inclined his head courteously enough, waiting for Fiorsen to speak. The "fiddler," still in his fur-lined coat, was twisting a squash hat in his hands. In his own peculiar style he was impressive. But why couldn't he look you in the face; or, if he did, why did he seem about to eat you?

"You knew I was returned to London, Major Winton?"

Then Gyp had been seeing the fellow without letting him know! The thought was chill and bitter to Winton. He must not give her away, however, and he simply bowed. He felt that his visitor was afraid of his frigid courtesy; and he did not mean to help him over that fear. He could not, of course, realize that this ascendancy would not prevent Fiorsen from laughing at him behind his back and acting as if he did not exist. No real contest, in fact, was possible between men moving on such different planes, neither having the slightest respect for the other's standards or beliefs.

Fiorsen, who had begun to pace the room, stopped, and said with agitation:

"Major Winton, your daughter is the most beautiful thing on earth. I love her desperately. I am a man with a future, though you may not think it. I have what future I like in my art if only I can marry her. I have a little money, too--not much; but in my violin there is all the fortune she can want."

Winton's face expressed nothing but cold contempt. That this fellow should take him for one who would consider money in connection with his daughter simply affronted him.

Fiorsen went on:

"You do not like me--that is clear. I saw it the first moment. You are an English gentleman"--he pronounced the words with a sort of irony--"I am nothing to you. Yet, in my world, I am something. I am not an adventurer. Will you permit me to beg your daughter to be my wife?" He raised his hands that still held the hat; involuntarily they had assumed the attitude of prayer.

For a second, Winton realized that he was suffering. That weakness went in a flash, and he said frigidly:

"I am obliged to you, sir, for coming to me first. You are in my house, and I don't want to be discourteous, but I should be glad if you would be good enough to withdraw and take it that I shall certainly oppose your wish as best I can."

The almost childish disappointment and trouble in Fiorsen's face changed quickly to an expression fierce, furtive, mocking; and then shifted to despair.

"Major Winton, you have loved; you must have loved her mother. I suffer!"

Winton, who had turned abruptly to the fire, faced round again.

"I don't control my daughter's affections, sir; she will do as she wishes. I merely say it will be against my hopes and judgment if she marries you. I imagine you've not altogether waited for my leave. I was not blind to the way you hung about her at Wiesbaden, Mr. Fiorsen."

Fiorsen answered with a twisted, miserable smile:

"Poor wretches do what they can. May I see her? Let me just see her."

Was it any good to refuse? She had been seeing the fellow already without his knowledge, keeping from him--him--all her feelings, whatever they were. And he said:

"I'll send for her. In the meantime, perhaps you'll have some refreshment?"

Fiorsen shook his head, and there followed half an hour of acute discomfort. Winton, in his mud-stained clothes before the fire, supported it better than his visitor. That child of nature, after endeavouring to emulate his host's quietude, renounced all such efforts with an expressive gesture, fidgeted here, fidgeted there, tramped the room, went to the window, drew aside the curtains and stared out into the dark; came back as if resolved again to confront Winton; then, baffled by that figure so motionless before the fire, flung himself down in an armchair, and turned his face to the wall. Winton was not cruel by nature, but he enjoyed the writhings of this fellow who was endangering Gyp's happiness. Endangering? Surely not possible that she would accept him! Yet, if not, why had she not told him? And he, too, suffered.

Then she came. He had expected her to be pale and nervous; but Gyp never admitted being naughty till she had been forgiven. Her smiling face had in it a kind of warning closeness. She went up to Fiorsen, and holding out her hand, said calmly:

"How nice of you to come!"

Winton had the bitter feeling that he--he--was the outsider. Well, he would speak plainly; there had been too much underhand doing.

"Mr. Fiorsen has done us the honour to wish to marry you. I've told him that you decide such things for yourself. If you accept him, it will be against my wish, naturally."

While he was speaking, the glow in her cheeks deepened; she looked neither at him nor at Fiorsen. Winton noted the rise and fall of the lace on her breast. She was smiling, and gave the tiniest shrug of her shoulders. And, suddenly smitten to the heart, he walked stiffly to the door. It was evident that she had no use for his guidance. If her love for him was not worth to her more than this fellow! But there his resentment stopped. He knew that he could not afford wounded feelings; could not get on without her. Married to the greatest rascal on earth, he would still be standing by her, wanting her companionship and love. She represented too much in the present and--the past. With sore heart, indeed, he went down to dinner.

Fiorsen was gone when he came down again. What the fellow had said, or she had answered, he would not for the world have asked. Gulfs between the proud are not lightly bridged. And when she came up to say good-night, both their faces were as though coated with wax.

In the days that followed, she gave no sign, uttered no word in any way suggesting that she meant to go against his wishes. Fiorsen might not have existed, for any mention made of him. But Winton knew well that she was moping, and cherishing some feeling against himself. And this he could not bear. So, one evening, after dinner, he said quietly:

"Tell me frankly, Gyp; do you care for that chap?"

She answered as quietly:

"In a way--yes."

"Is that enough?"

"I don't know, Dad."

Her lips had quivered; and Winton's heart softened, as it always did when he saw her moved. He put his hand out, covered one of hers, and said:

"I shall never stand in the way of your happiness, Gyp. But it must be happiness. Can it possibly be that? I don't think so. You know what they said of him out there?"

"Yes."

He had not thought she knew. And his heart sank.

"That's pretty bad, you know. And is he of our world at all?"

Gyp looked up.

"Do you think I belong to 'our world,' Dad?"

Winton turned away. She followed, slipping her hand under his arm.

"I didn't mean to hurt. But it's true, isn't it? I don't belong among society people. They wouldn't have me, you know--if they knew about what you told me. Ever since that I've felt I don't belong to them. I'm nearer him. Music means more to me than anything!"

Winton gave her hand a convulsive grip. A sense of coming defeat and bereavement was on him.

"If your happiness went wrong, Gyp, I should be most awfully cut up."

"But why shouldn't I be happy, Dad?"

"If you were, I could put up with anyone. But, I tell you, I can't believe you would be. I beg you, my dear--for God's sake, make sure. I'll put a bullet into the man who treats you badly."

Gyp laughed, then kissed him. But they were silent. At bedtime he said:

"We'll go up to town to-morrow."

Whether from a feeling of the inevitable, or from the forlorn hope that seeing more of the fellow might be the only chance of curing her--he put no more obstacles in the way.

And the queer courtship began again. By Christmas she had consented, still under the impression that she was the mistress, not the slave--the cat, not the bird. Once or twice, when Fiorsen let passion out of hand and his overbold caresses affronted her, she recoiled almost with dread from what she was going toward. But, in general, she lived elated, intoxicated by music and his adoration, withal remorseful that she was making her father sad. She was but little at Mildenham, and he, in his unhappiness, was there nearly all the time, riding extra hard, and leaving Gyp with his sister. Aunt Rosamund, though under the spell of Fiorsen's music, had agreed with her brother that Fiorsen was "impossible." But nothing she said made any effect on Gyp. It was new and startling to discover in this soft, sensitive girl such a vein of stubbornness. Opposition seemed to harden her resolution. And the good lady's natural optimism began to persuade her that Gyp would make a silk purse out of that sow's ear yet. After all, the man was a celebrity in his way!

It was settled for February. A house with a garden was taken in St. John's Wood. The last month went, as all such last months go, in those intoxicating pastimes, the buying of furniture and clothes. If it were not for that, who knows how many engagement knots would slip!

And to-day they had been married. To the last, Winton had hardly believed it would come to that. He had shaken the hand of her husband and kept pain and disappointment out of his face, knowing well that he deceived no one. Thank heaven, there had been no church, no wedding-cake, invitations, congratulations, fal-lals of any kind--he could never have stood them. Not even Rosamund--who had influenza--to put up with!

Lying back in the recesses of that old chair, he stared into the fire.

They would be just about at Torquay by now--just about. Music! Who would have thought noises made out of string and wood could have stolen her away from him? Yes, they would be at Torquay by now, at their hotel. And the first prayer Winton had uttered for years escaped his lips:

"Let her be happy! Let her be happy!"

Then, hearing Markey open the door, he closed his eyes and feigned sleep.

John Galsworthy