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The Amateur Gentleman (Chapter5)

2006-08-28 16:03

  Chapter V. In Which the Historian Sees Fit to Introduce a Lady of Quality; and Further Narrates How Barnabas Tore a Wonderful Bottle-Green Coat

  Now in a while Barnabas came to where was a stile with a path beyond——a narrow path that led up over a hill until it lost itself in a wood that crowned the ascent; a wood where were shady dells full of a quivering green twilight; where broad glades led away beneath leafy arches, and where a stream ran gurgling in the shade of osiers and willows; a wood that Barnabas had known from boyhood. Therefore, setting his hand upon the stile, he vaulted lightly over, minded to go through the wood and join the high road further on. This he did by purest chance, and all unthinking followed the winding path.

  Now had Barnabas gone on by the road how different this history might have been, and how vastly different his career! But, as it happened, moved by Chance, or Fate, or Destiny, or what you will, Barnabas vaulted over the stile and strode on up the winding path, whistling as he went, and, whistling, plunged into the green twilight of the wood, and, whistling still, swung suddenly into a broad and grassy glade splashed green and gold with sunlight, and then stopped all at once and stood there silent, dumb, the very breath in check between his lips.

  She lay upon her side——full length upon the sward, and her tumbled hair made a glory in the grass, a golden mane. Beneath this silken curtain he saw dark brows that frowned a little——a vivid mouth, and lashes thick and dark like her eyebrows, that curled upon the pallor of her cheek.

  Motionless stood Barnabas, with eyes that wandered from the small polished riding-boot, with its delicately spurred heel, to follow the gracious line that swelled voluptuously from knee to rounded hip, that sank in sweetly to a slender waist, yet rose again to the rounded beauty of her bosom.

  So Barnabas stood and looked and looked, and looking sighed, and stole a step near and stopped again, for behold the leafy screen was parted suddenly, and Barnabas beheld two boots——large boots they were but of exquisite shape——boots that strode strongly and planted themselves masterfully; Hessian boots, elegant, glossy and betasselled. Glancing higher, he observed a coat of a bottle-green, high-collared, close-fitting and silver-buttoned; a coat that served but to make more apparent the broad chest, powerful shoulders, and lithe waist of its wearer. Indeed a truly marvellous coat (at least, so thought Barnabas), and in that moment, he, for the first time, became aware how clumsy and ill-contrived were his own garments; he understood now what Natty Bell had meant when he had said they were not polite enough; and as for his boots——blunt of toe, thick-soled and ponderous——he positively blushed for them. Here, it occurred to him that the wearer of the coat possessed a face, and he looked at it accordingly. It was a handsome face he saw, dark of eye, square-chinned and full-lipped. Just now the eyes were lowered, for their possessor stood apparently lost in leisurely contemplation of her who lay outstretched between them; and as his gaze wandered to and fro over her defenceless beauty, a glow dawned in the eyes, and the full lips parted in a slow smile, whereat Barnabas frowned darkly, and his cheeks grew hot because of her too betraying habit.

  "Sir!" said he between snapping teeth.

  Then, very slowly and unwillingly, the gentleman raised his eyes and stared across at him.

  "And pray," said he carelessly, "pray who might you be?"

  At his tone Barnabas grew more angry and therefore more polite.

  "Sir, that——permit me to say——does not concern you."

  "Not in the least," the other retorted, "and I bid you good day; you can go, my man, I am acquainted with this lady; she is quite safe in my care."

  "That, sir, I humbly beg leave to doubt," said Barnabas, his politeness growing.

  "Why——you impudent scoundrel!"

  Barnabas smiled.

  "Come, take yourself off!" said the gentleman, frowning, "I'll take care of this lady."

  "Pardon me! but I think not."

  The gentleman stared at Barnabas through suddenly narrow lids, and laughed softly, and Barnabas thought his laugh worse than his frown.

  "Ha! d' you mean to say you——won't go?"

  "With all the humility in the world, I do, sir."

  "Why, you cursed, interfering yokel! must I thrash you?"

  Now "yokel" stung, for Barnabas remembered his blunt-toed boots, therefore he smiled with lips suddenly grim, and his politeness grew almost aggressive.

  "Thrash me, sir!" he repeated, "indeed I almost venture to fear that you must." But the gentleman's gaze had wandered to the fallen girl once more, and the glow was back in his roving eyes.

  "Pah!" said he, still intent, "if it is her purse you are after——here, take mine and leave us in peace." As he spoke, he flung his purse towards Barnabas, and took a long step nearer the girl. But in that same instant Barnabas strode forward also and, being nearer, reached her first, and, stepping over her, it thus befell that they came face to face within a foot of one another. For a moment they stood thus, staring into each other's eyes, then without a word swift and sudden they closed and grappled.

  The gentleman was very quick, and more than ordinarily strong, so also was Barnabas, but the gentleman's handsome face was contorted with black rage, whereas Barnabas was smiling, and therein seemed the only difference between them as they strove together breast to breast, now in sunlight, now in shadow, but always grimly silent.

  So, within the glory of the morning, they reeled and staggered to and fro, back and forth, trampling down the young grass, straining, panting, swaying——the one frowning and determined, the other smiling and grim.

  Suddenly the bottle-green coat ripped and tore as its wearer broke free; there was the thud of a blow, and Barnabas staggered back with blood upon his face——staggered, I say, and in that moment, as his antagonist rushed, laughed fierce and short, and stepped lightly aside and smote him clean and true under the chin, a little to one side.

  The gentleman's fists flew wide, he twisted upon his heels, pitched over upon his face, and lay still.

  Smiling still, Barnabas looked down upon him, then grew grave.

  "Indeed," said he, "indeed it was a great pity to spoil such a wonderful coat."

  So he turned away, and coming to where she, who was the unwitting cause of all this, yet lay, stopped all at once, for it seemed to him that her posture was altered; her habit had become more decorous, and yet the lashes, so dark in contrast to her hair, those shadowy lashes yet curled upon her cheek. Therefore, very presently, Barnabas stooped, and raising her in his arms bore her away through the wood towards the dim recesses where, hidden in the green shadows, his friend the brook went singing upon its way.

  And in a while the gentleman stirred and sat up, and, beholding his torn coat, swore viciously, and, chancing upon his purse, pocketed it, and so went upon his way, and by contrast with the glory of the morning his frown seemed the blacker.

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