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The Amateur Gentleman (Chapter58)

2006-08-28 16:18

  Chapter LVIII. How Viscount Devenham Found Him a Viscountess

  Night was falling as, turning out of St. James's Square, Barnabas took his way along Charles Street and so, by way of the Strand, towards Blackfriars. He wore a long, befrogged surtout buttoned up to the chin, though the weather was warm, and his hat was drawn low over his brows; also in place of his tasselled walking-cane he carried a heavy stick.

  For the first half mile or so he kept his eyes well about him, but, little by little, became plunged in frowning thought, and so walked on, lost in gloomy abstraction. Thus, as he crossed Blackfriars Bridge he was quite unaware of one who followed him step by step, though upon the other side of the way; a gliding, furtive figure, and one who also went with coat buttoned high and face hidden beneath shadowy hat-brim.

  On strode Barnabas, all unconscious, with his mind ever busied with thoughts of Cleone and the sudden, unaccustomed doubt in himself and his future that had come upon him.

  Presently he turned off to the right along a dirty street of squalid, tumble-down houses; a narrow, ill-lighted street which, though comparatively quiet by day, now hummed with a dense and seething life.

  Yes, a dark street this, with here and there a flickering lamp, that served but to make the darkness visible, and here and there the lighted window of some gin-shop, or drinking-cellar, whence proceeded a mingled clamor of voices roaring the stave of some song, or raised in fierce disputation.

  On he went, past shambling figures indistinct in the dusk; past figures that slunk furtively aside, or crouched to watch him from the gloom of some doorway; past ragged creatures that stared, haggard-eyed; past faces sad and faces evil that flitted by him in the dark, or turned to scowl over hunching shoulders. Therefore Barnabas gripped his stick the tighter as he strode along, suddenly conscious of the stir and unseen movement in the fetid air about him, of the murmur of voices, the desolate wailing of children, the noise of drunken altercation, and all the sordid sounds that were part and parcel of the place. Of all this Barnabas was heedful, but he was wholly unaware of the figure that dogged him from behind, following him step by step, patient and persistent. Thus, at last, Barnabas reached a certain narrow alley, beyond which was the River, dark, mysterious, and full of sighs and murmurs. And, being come to the door of Nick the Cobbler, he knocked upon it with his stick.

  It was opened, almost immediately, by Clemency herself.

  "I saw you coming," she said, giving him her hand, and so led him through the dark little shop, into the inner room.

  "I came as soon as I could. Clemency."

  "Yes, I knew you would come," she answered, with bowed head.

  "I am here to take you away to a cottage I have found for you——a place in the country, where you will be safe until I can find and bring your father to you."

  As he ended, she lifted her head and looked at him through gathering tears.

  "How good——how kind of you!" she said, very softly, "and oh, I thank you, indeed I do——but——"

  "But, Clemency?"

  "I must stay——here."

  "In this awful place! Why?"

  Clemency flushed, and looking down at the table, began to pleat a fold in the cloth with nervous fingers.

  "Poor little Nick hasn't been very well lately, and I——can't leave him alone——" she began.

  "Then bring him with you."

  "And," she continued slowly, "when I wrote you that letter I was——greatly afraid, but I'm——not afraid any longer. And oh, I couldn't leave London yet——I couldn't!"

  Now while she spoke, Barnabas saw her clasp and wring her hands together, that eloquent gesture he remembered so well. Therefore he leaned across the table and touched those slender fingers very gently.

  "Why not? Tell me your trouble, my sister."

  Now Clemency bowed her dark head, and when she spoke her voice was low and troubled: "Because——he is ill——dangerously ill, Milo tells me, and I——I am nearer to him here in London. I can go, sometimes, and look at the house where he lies. So you see, I cannot leave him, yet."

  "Then——you love him, Clemency?"

  "Yes," she whispered, "yes, oh yes, always——always! That was why I ran away from him. Oh, I love him so much that I grew afraid of my love, and of myself, and of him. Because he is a great gentleman, and I am only——what I am."

  "A very good and beautiful woman!" said Barnabas.

  "Beauty!" she sighed, "oh, it is only for that he——wanted me, and dear heaven! I love him so much that——if he asked me——I fear——" and she hid her burning face in hands that trembled.

  "Clemency!"

  The word was hoarse and low, scarcely more than a whisper, but, even so, Clemency started and lifted her head to stare wide-eyed at the figure leaning in the doorway, with one hand outstretched to her appealingly; a tall figure, cloaked from head to foot, with hat drawn low over his brows, his right arm carried in a sling. And as she gazed, Clemency uttered a low, soft cry, and rose to her feet.

  "My Lord!" she whispered, "oh, my Lord!"

  "Dearest!"

  The Viscount stepped into the room and, uncovering his head, sank upon his knees before her.

  "Oh, Clemency," said he, "the door was open and I heard it all——every word. But, dearest, you need never fear me any more——never any more, because I love you. Clemency, and here, upon my knees, beg you to honor me by——marrying me, if you will stoop to such a pitiful thing as I am. Clemency dear, I have been ill, and it has taught me many things, and I know now that I——cannot live without you. So, Clemency, if you will take pity on me——oh! Clemency——!"

  The Viscount stopped, still kneeling before her with bent head, nor did he look up or attempt to touch her as he waited her answer.

  Then, slowly, she reached out and stroked that bowed and humble head, and, setting her hands upon his drooping shoulders, she sank to her knees before him, so that now he could look into the glowing beauty of her face and behold the deep, yearning tenderness of her eyes.

  "Dear," said she very gently, "dear, if you——want me so much you have only to——take me!"

  "For my Viscountess, Clemency!"

  "For your——wife, dear!"

  And now, beholding their great happiness, Barnabas stole from the room, closing the door softly behind him.

  Then, being only human, he sighed deeply and pitied himself mightily by contrast.

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