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The Amateur Gentleman (Chapter39)

2006-08-28 16:13

  Chapter XXXIX. In Which the Patient Reader is Introduced to an Almost Human Duchess

  "Very dramatic, sir! Though, indeed, you missed an opportunity, and——gracious heaven, how he frowns!" A woman's voice, sharp, high-pitched, imperious.

  Barnabas started, and glancing up, beheld an ancient lady, very small and very upright; her cheeks were suspiciously pink, her curls suspiciously dark and luxuriant, but her eyes were wonderfully young and handsome; one slender mittened hand rested upon the ivory head of a stick, and in the other she carried a small fan.

  "Now, he stares!" she exclaimed, as she met his look. "Lud, how he stares! As if I were a ghost, or a goblin, instead of only an old woman with raddled cheeks and a wig. Oh, yes! I wear a wig, sir, and very hideous I look without it! But even I was young once upon a time——many, many years ago, and quite as beautiful as She, indeed, rather more so, I think,——and I should have treated you exactly as She did——only more so,——I mean Cleone. Your blonde women are either too cold or overpassionate,——I know, for my hair was as yellow as Cleone's, hundreds of years ago, and I think, more abundant. To-day, being only a dyed brunette, I am neither too cold nor over-passionate, and I tell you, sir, you deserved it, every word."

  Here Barnabas rose, and, finding nothing to say, bowed.

  "But," continued the ancient lady, sweeping him with a quick, approving gaze, "I like your face, and y-e-s, you have a very good leg. You also possess a tongue, perhaps, and can speak?"

  "Given the occasion, madam," said Barnabas, smiling.

  "Ha, sir! do I talk so much then? Well, perhaps I do, for when a woman ceases to talk she's dead, and I'm very much alive indeed. So you may give me your arm, sir, and listen to me, and drop an occasional remark while I take breath,——your arm, sir!" And here the small, ancient lady held out a small, imperious hand, while her handsome young eyes smiled up into his.

  "Madam, you honor me!"

  "But I am only an old woman,——with a wig!"

  "Age is always honorable, madam."

  "Now that is very prettily said, indeed you improve, sir. Do you know who I am?"

  "No, madam; but I can guess."

  "Ah, well,——you shall talk to me. Now, sir,——begin. Talk to me of Cleone."

  "Madam——I had rather not."

  "Eh, sir,——you won't?"

  "No, madam."

  "Why, then, I will!" Here the ancient lady glanced up at Barnabas with a malicious little smile. "Let me see, now——what were her words? 'Spy,' I think. Ah, yes——'a creeping spy,' 'a fool' and 'a coward.' Really, I don't think I could have bettered that——even in my best days,——especially the 'creeping spy.'"

  "Madam," said Barnabas in frowning surprise, "you were listening?"

  "At the back of the arbor," she nodded, "with my ear to the panelling, ——I am sometimes a little deaf, you see."

  "You mean that you were——actually prying——?"

  "And I enjoyed it all very much, especially your 'immaculate' speech, which was very heroic, but perfectly ridiculous, of course. Indeed, you are a dreadfully young, young sir, I fear. In future, I warn you not to tell a woman, too often, how much you respect her, or she'll begin to think you don't love her at all. To be over-respectful doesn't sit well on a lover, and 'tis most unfair and very trying to the lady, poor soul!"

  "To hearken to a private conversation doesn't sit well on a lady, madam, or an honorable woman."

  "No, indeed, young sir. But then, you see, I'm neither. I'm only a Duchess, and a very old one at that, and I think I told you I wore a wig? But 'all the world loves a lover,' and so do I. As soon as ever I saw you I knew you for a lover of the 'everything-or-nothing' type. Oh, yes, all lovers are of different types, sir, and I think I know 'em all. You see, when I was young and beautiful——ages ago——lovers were a hobby of mine,——I studied them, sir. And, of 'em all, I preferred the 'everything-or-nothing, fire-and-ice, kiss-me-or-kill-me' type. That was why I followed you, that was why I watched and listened, and, I grieve to say, I didn't find you as deliciously brutal as I had hoped."

  "Brutal, madam? Indeed, I——"

  "Of course! When you snatched her up in your arms,——and I'll admit you did it very well,——when you had her there, you should have covered her with burning kisses, and with an oath after each. Girls like Cleone need a little brutality and——Ah! there's the Countess! And smiling at me quite lovingly, I declare! Now I wonder what rod she has in pickle for me? Dear me, sir, how dusty your coat is! And spurred boots and buckskins are scarcely the mode for a garden fete. Still, they're distinctive, and show off your leg to advantage, better than those abominable Cossack things,——and I doat upon a good leg——" But here she broke off and turned to greet the Countess,——a large, imposing, bony lady in a turban, with the eye and the beak of a hawk.

  "My dearest Letitia!"

  "My dear Duchess,——my darling Fanny, you 're younger than ever, positively you are,——I'd never have believed it!" cried the Countess, more hawk-like than ever. "I heard you were failing fast, but now I look at you, dearest Fanny, I vow you don't look a day older than seventy."

  "And I'm seventy-one, alas!" sighed the Duchess, her eyes young with mischief. "And you, my sweetest creature,——how well you look! Who would ever imagine that we were at school together, Letitia!"

  "But indeed I was——quite an infant, Fanny."

  "Quite, my love, and used to do my sums for me. But let me present to you a young friend of mine, Mr.——Mr.——dear, dear! I quite forget——my memory is going, you see, Letitia! Mr.——"

  "Beverley, madam," said Barnabas.

  "Thank you,——Beverley, of course! Mr. Beverley——the Countess of Orme."

  Hereupon Barnabas bowed low before the haughty stare of the keen, hawk-like eyes.

  "And now, my sweet Letty," continued the Duchess, "you are always so delightfully gossipy——have you any news,——any stories to laugh over?"

  "No, dear Fanny, neither the one nor the other——only——"

  "'Only,' my love?"

  "Only——but you've heard it already, of course,——you would be the very first to know of it!"

  "Letitia, my dear——I always hated conundrums, you'll remember."

  "I mean, every one is talking of it, already."

  "Heigho! How warm the sun is!"

  "Of course it may be only gossip, but they do say Cleone Meredith has refused the hand of your grandnephew."

  "Jerningham, oh yes," added the Duchess, "on the whole, it's just as well."

  "But I thought——" the hawk-eyes were very piercing indeed. "I feared it would be quite a blow to you——"

  The Duchess shook her head, with a little ripple of laughter.

  "I had formed other plans for him weeks ago,——they were quite unsuited to each other, my love."

  "I'm delighted you take it so well, my own Fanny," said the Countess, looking the reverse. "We leave almost immediately,——but when you pass through Sevenoaks, you must positively stay with me for a day or two. Goodby, my sweet Fanny!" So the two ancient ladies gravely curtsied to each other, pecked each other on either cheek, and, with a bow to Barnabas, the Countess swept away with an imposing rustle of her voluminous skirts.

  "Cat!" exclaimed the Duchess, shaking her fan at the receding figure; "the creature hates me fervently, and consequently, kisses me——on both cheeks. Oh, yes, indeed, sir, she detests me——and quite naturally. You see, we were girls together,——she's six months my junior, and has never let me forget it,——and the Duke——God rest him——admired us both, and, well,——I married him. And so Cleone has actually refused poor Jerningham,——the yellow-maned minx!"

  "Why, then——you didn't know of it?" inquired Barnabas.

  "Oh, Innocent! of course I didn't. I'm not omniscient, and I only ordered him to propose an hour ago. The golden hussy! the proud jade! Refuse my grand-nephew indeed! Well, there's one of your rivals disposed of, it seems,——count that to your advantage, sir!"

  "But," said Barnabas, frowning and shaking his head, "Sir Mortimer Carnaby has her promise!"

  "Fiddlesticks!"

  "She gave him the rose!" said Barnabas, between set teeth. The Duchess tittered.

  "Dear heart! how tragic you are!" she sighed. "Suppose she did,——what then? And besides——hum! This time it is young D'Arcy, it seems,——callow, pink, and quite harmless."

  "Madam?" said Barnabas, wondering.

  "Over there——behind the marble faun,——quite harmless, and very pink, you'll notice. I mean young D'Arcy——not the faun. Clever minx! Now I mean Cleone, of course——there she is!" Following the direction of the Duchess's pointing fan, Barnabas saw Cleone, sure enough. Her eyes were drooped demurely before the ardent gaze of the handsome, pink-cheeked young soldier who stood before her, and in her white fingers she held——a single red rose. Now, all at once, (and as though utterly unconscious of the burning, watchful eyes of Barnabas) she lifted the rose to her lips, and, smiling, gave it into the young soldier's eager hand. Then they strolled away, his epaulette very near the gleaming curls at her temple.

  "Lud, young sir!" exclaimed the Duchess, catching Barnabas by the coat, "how dreadfully sudden you are in your movements——"

  "Madam, pray loose me!"

  "Why?"

  "I'm going——I cannot bear——any more!"

  "You mean——?"

  "I mean that——she has——"

  "A very remarkable head, she is as resourceful as I was——almost."

  "Resourceful!" exclaimed Barnabas, "she is——"

  "An extremely clever girl——"

  "Madam, pray let me go."

  "No, sir! my finger is twisted in your buttonhole,——if you pull yourself away I expect you'll break it, so pray don't pull; naturally, I detest pain. And I have much to talk about."

  "As you will, madam," said Barnabas, frowning.

  "First, tell me——you're quite handsome when you frown,——first, sir, why weren't you formally presented to me with the other guests?"

  "Because I'm not a guest, madam."

  "Sir——explain yourself."

  "I mean that I came——over the wall, madam."

  "The wall! Climbed over?"

  "Yes, madam!"

  "Dear heaven! The monstrous audacity of the man! You came to see Cleone, of course?"

  "Yes, madam."

  "Ah, very right,——very proper! I remember I had a lover——in the remote ages, of course,——who used to climb——ah, well,——no matter! Though his wall was much higher than yours yonder." Here the Duchess sighed tenderly. "Well, you came to see Cleone, you found her,——and nicely you behaved to each other when you met! Youth is always so dreadfully tragic! But then what would love be without a little tragedy? And oh——dear heaven!——how you must adore each other! Oh, Youth! Youth!——and there's Sir George Annersley——!"

  "Then, madam, you must excuse me!" said Barnabas, glancing furtively from the approaching figures to the adjacent wall.

  "Oh dear, no. Sir George is with Jerningharn and Major Piper, a heavy dragoon——the heaviest in all the world, I'm sure. You must meet them."

  "No, indeed——I——"

  "Sir," said the Duchess, buttonholing him again, "I insist! Oh, Sir George——gentlemen!" she called. Hereupon three lounging figures turned simultaneously, and came hurrying towards them.

  "Why, Duchess!" exclaimed Sir George, a large, mottled gentleman in an uncomfortable cravat, "we have all been wondering what had become of your Grace, and——" Here Sir George's sharp eye became fixed upon Barnabas, upon his spurred boots, his buckskins, his dusty coat; and Sir George's mouth opened, and he gave a tug at his cravat.

  "Deuce take me——it's Beverley!" exclaimed the Marquis, and held out his hand.

  "What——you know each other?" the Duchess inquired.

  "Mr. Beverley is riding in the steeplechase on the fifteenth," the Marquis answered. Hereupon Sir George stared harder than ever, and gave another tug at his high cravat, while Major Piper, who had been looking very hard at nothing in particular, glanced at Barnabas with a gleam of interest and said "Haw!"

  As for the Duchess, she clapped her hands.

  "And he never told me a word of it!" she exclaimed. "Of course all my money is on Jerningham,——though 'Moonraker' carries the odds, but I must have a hundred or two on Mr. Beverley for——friendship's sake."

  "Friendship!" exclaimed the Marquis, "oh, begad!" Here he took out his snuff-box, tapped it, and put it in his pocket again.

  "Yes, gentlemen," smiled the Duchess, "this is a friend of mine who——dropped in upon me, as it were, quite unexpectedly——over the wall, in fact."

  "Wall!" exclaimed Sir George.

  "The deuce you did, Beverley!" said the Marquis.

  As for Major Piper, he hitched his dolman round, and merely said:

  "Haw!"

  "Yes," said Barnabas, glancing from one to the other, "I am a trespasser here, and, Sir George, I fear I damaged some of your flowers!"

  "Flowers!" repeated Sir George, staring from Barnabas to the Duchess and back again, "Oh!"

  "And now——pray let me introduce you," said the Duchess. "My friend Mr. Beverley——Sir George Annersley. Mr. Beverley——Major Piper."

  "A friend of her Grace is always welcome here, sir," said Sir George, extending a mottled hand.

  "Delighted!" smiled the Major, saluting him in turn. "Haw!"

  "But what in the world brings you here, Beverley?" inquired the Marquis.

  "I do," returned his great-aunt. "Many a man has climbed a wall on my account before to-day, Marquis, and remember I'm only just——seventy-one, and growing younger every hour,——now am I not, Major?"

  "Haw!——Precisely! Not a doubt, y' Grace. Soul and honor! Haw!"

  "Marquis——your arm, Mr. Beverley——yours! Now, Sir George, show us the way to the marquee; I'm dying for a dish of tea, I vow I am!"

  Thus, beneath the protecting wing of a Duchess was Barnabas given his first taste of Quality and Blood. Which last, though blue beyond all shadow of doubt, yet manifested itself in divers quite ordinary ways as,——in complexions of cream and roses; in skins sallow and wrinkled; in noses haughtily Roman or patricianly Greek, in noses mottled and unclassically uplifted; in black hair, white hair, yellow, brown, and red hair;——such combinations as he had seen many and many a time on village greens, and at country wakes and fairs. Yes, all was the same, and yet——how vastly different! For here voices were softly modulated, arms and hands gracefully borne, heads carried high, movement itself an artful science. Here eyes were raised or lowered with studied effect; beautiful shoulders, gracefully shrugged, became dimpled and irresistible; faces with perfect profiles were always——in profile. Here, indeed, Age and Homeliness went clothed in magnificence, and Youth and Beauty walked hand in hand with Elegance; while everywhere was a graceful ease that had been learned and studied with the Catechism. Barnabas was in a world of silks and satins and glittering gems, of broadcloth and fine linen, where such things are paramount and must be lived up to; a world where the friendship of a Duchess may transform a nobody into a somebody, to be bowed to by the most elaborate shirtfronts, curtsied to by the haughtiest of turbans, and found worthy of the homage of bewitching eyes, seductive dimples, and entrancing profiles.

  In a word, Barnabas had attained——even unto the World of Fashion.

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