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The Amateur Gentleman (Chapter11)

2006-08-28 16:04

  Chapter XI. In Which Fists are Clenched; and of a Selfish Man, Who was an Apostle of Peace

  Conversation, though in itself a blessed and delightful thing, yet may be sometimes out of place, and wholly impertinent. If wine is a loosener of tongues, surely food is the greatest, pleasantest, and most complete silencer; for what man when hunger gnaws and food is before him——what man, at such a time, will stay to discuss the wonders of the world, of science——or even himself?

  Thus our two young travellers, with a very proper respect for the noble fare before them, paid their homage to it in silence——but a silence that was eloquent none the less. At length, however, each spoke, and each with a sigh.

  The Viscount. "The ham, my dear fellow——!"

  Barnabas. "The beef, my dear Dick——!"

  The Viscount and Barnabus. "Is beyond words."

  Having said which, they relapsed again into a silence, broken only by the occasional rattle of knife and fork.

  The Viscount (hacking at the loaf)。 "It's a grand thing to be hungry, my dear fellow."

  Barnabas (glancing over the rim of his tankard)。 "When you have the means of satisfying it——yes."

  The Viscount (becoming suddenly abstracted, and turning his piece of bread over and over in his fingers)。 "Now regarding——Mistress Clemency, my dear Bev; what do you think of her?"

  Barnabas (helping himself to more beef)。 "That she is a remarkably handsome girl!"

  The Viscount (frowning at his piece of bread)。 "Hum! d'you think so?"

  Barnabas. "Any man would. I'll trouble you for the mustard, Dick."

  The Viscount. "Yes; I suppose they would."

  Barnabas. "Some probably do——especially men with an eye for fine women."

  The Viscount (frowning blacker than ever)。 "Pray, what mean you by that?"

  Barnabas. "Your friend Carnaby undoubtedly does."

  The Viscount (starting)。 "Carnaby! Why what the devil put him into your head? Carnaby's never seen her."

  Barnabas. "Indeed, I think it rather more than likely."

  The Viscount (crushing the bit of bread suddenly in his fist)。 "Carnaby! But I tell you he hasn't——he's never been near this place."

  Barnabas. "There you are quite wrong."

  The Viscount (flinging himself back in his chair)。 "Beverley, what the devil are you driving at?"

  Barnabas. "I mean that he was here this morning."

  The Viscount. "Carnaby? Here? Impossible! What under heaven should make you think so?"

  "This," said Barnabas, and held out a small, crumpled piece of paper. The Viscount took it, glanced at it, and his knife clattered to the floor.

  "Sixty thousand pounds!" he exclaimed, and sat staring down at the crumpled paper, wide-eyed. "Sixty thousand!" he repeated. "Is it sixty or six, Bev? Read it out," and he thrust the torn paper across to Barnabas, who, taking it up, read as follows:——

  ——felicitate you upon your marriage with the lovely heiress, Lady M., failing which I beg most humbly to remind you, my dear Sir Mortimer Carnaby, that the sixty thousand pounds must be paid back on the day agreed upon, namely July 16,

  Your humble, obedient Servant,

  JASPER GAUNT.

  "Jasper Gaunt!" exclaimed the Viscount. "Sixty thousand pounds! Poor Carnaby! Sixty thousand pounds payable on July sixteenth! Now the fifteenth, my dear Bev, is the day of the race, and if he should lose, it looks very much as though Carnaby would be ruined, Bev."

  "Unless he marries 'the lovely heiress'!" added Barnabas.

  "Hum!" said the Viscount, frowning. "I wish I'd never seen this cursed paper, Bev!" and as he spoke he crumpled it up and threw it into the great fireplace. "Where in the name of mischief did you get it?"

  "It was in the corner yonder," answered Barnabas. "I also found this." And he laid a handsomely embossed coat button on the table. "It has been wrenched off you will notice."

  "Yes," nodded the Viscount, "torn off! Do you think——"

  "I think," said Barnabas, putting the button back into his pocket, "that Mistress Clemency's tears are accounted for——"

  "By God, Beverley," said the Viscount, an ugly light in his eyes, "if I thought that——!" and the hand upon the table became a fist.

  "I think that Mistress Clemency is a match for any man——or brute," said Barnabas, and drew his hand from his pocket.

  Now the Viscount's fist was opening and shutting convulsively, the breath whistled between his teeth, he glanced towards the door, and made as though he would spring to his feet; but in that moment came a diversion, for Barnabas drew his hand from his pocket, and as he did so, something white fluttered to the floor, close beside the Viscount's chair. Both men saw it and both stooped to recover it, but the Viscount, being nearer, picked it up, glanced at it, looked at Barnabas with a knowing smile, glanced at it again, was arrested by certain initials embroidered in one corner, stooped his head suddenly, inhaling its subtle perfume, and so handed it back to Barnabas, who took it with a word of thanks and thrust it into an inner pocket, while the Viscount stared at him under his drawn brows. But Barnabas, all unconscious, proceeded to cut himself another slice of beef, offering to do the same for the Viscount.

  "Thank you——no," said he.

  "What——have you done, so soon?"

  "Yes," said he, and thereafter sat watching Barnabas ply knife and fork, who, presently catching his eye, smiled.

  "Pray," said the Viscount after a while, "pray are you acquainted with the Lady Cleone Meredith?"

  "No," answered Barnabas. "I'll trouble you for the mustard, Dick."

  "Have you ever met the Lady Cleone Meredith?"

  "Never", answered Barnabas, innocent of eye.

  Hereupon the Viscount rose up out of the chair and leaned across the table.

  "Sir," said he, "you are a most consummate liar!"

  Hereupon Barnabas helped himself to the mustard with grave deliberation, then, leaning back in his chair, he smiled up into the Viscount's glowing eyes as politely and with as engaging an air as might be.

  "My Lord," said he gently, "give me leave to remark that he who says so, lies himself most foully." Having said which Barnabas set down the mustard, and bowed.

  "Mr. Beverley," said the Viscount, regarding him calm-eyed across the table, "there is a place I know of near by, a very excellent place, being hidden by trees, a smooth, grassy place——shall we go?"

  "Whenever you will, my Lord," said Barnabas, rising.

  Forthwith having bowed to each other and put on their hats, they stepped out into the yard, and so walked on side by side, a trifle stiffer and more upright than usual maybe, until they came to a stile. Here they must needs pause to bow once more, each wishful to give way to the other, and, having duly crossed the stile, they presently came to a place, even as the Viscount had said, being shady with trees, and where a brook ran between steep banks. Here, too, was a small foot-bridge, with hand-rails supported at either end by posts. Now upon the right-hand post the Viscount set his hat and coat, and upon the left, Barnabas hung his. Then, having rolled up their shirt-sleeves, they bowed once more, and coming to where the grass was very smooth and level they faced each other with clenched fists.

  "Mr. Beverley," said the Viscount, "you will remember I sighed for muffles, but, sir, I count this more fortunate, for to my mind there is nothing like bare fists, after all, to try a man's capabilities."

  "My Lord," said Barnabas, "you will also remember that when I told you I had boxed daily both with 'Glorious John' and Nathaniel Bell, you doubted my word? I therefore intend to try and convince you as speedily as may be."

  "Egad!" exclaimed the Viscount, his blue eyes a-dance, "this is positively more than I had ventured to hope, my dear fell——Ah! Mr. Beverley, at your service, sir?"

  And, after a season, Barnabas spoke, albeit pantingly, and dabbing at his bloody mouth the while.

  "Sir," said he, "I trust——you are not——incommoded at all?" whereupon the Viscount, coming slowly to his elbow and gazing round about him with an expression of some wonder, made answer, albeit also pantingly and short of breath:

  "On the contrary, sir, am vastly——enjoying myself——shall give myself the pleasure——of continuing——just as soon as the ground subsides a little."

  Therefore Barnabas, still dabbing at his mouth, stepped forward being minded to aid him to his feet, but ere he could do so, a voice arrested him.

  "Stop!" said the voice.

  Now glancing round, Barnabas beheld a man, a small man and slender, whose clothes, old and worn, seemed only to accentuate the dignity and high nobility of his face.

  Bareheaded he advanced towards them and his hair glistened silver white in the sunshine, though his brows were dark, like the glowing eyes below. Upon his cheek was the dark stain of blood, and on his lips was a smile ineffably sweet and gentle as he came forward, looking from one to the other.

  "And pray, sir," inquired the Viscount, sitting cross-legged upon the green, "pray, who might you be?"

  "I am an apostle of peace, young sir," answered the stranger, "a teacher of forgiveness, though, doubtless, an unworthy one."

  "Peace, sir!" cried the Viscount, "deuce take me!——but you are the most warlike Apostle of Peace that eyes ever beheld; by your looks you might have been fighting the Seven Champions of Christendom, one down, t' other come on——"

  "You mean that I am bleeding, sir; indeed, I frequently do, and therein is my joy, for this is the blood of atonement."

  "The blood of atonement?" said Barnabas.

  "Last night," pursued the stranger in his gentle voice, "I sought to teach the Gospel of Mercy and Universal Forgiveness at a country fair not so very far from here, and they drove me away with sticks and stones; indeed, I fear our rustics are sometimes woefully ignorant, and Ignorance is always cruel. So, to-day, as soon as the stiffness is gone from me, I shall go back to them, sirs, for even Ignorance has ears."

  Now whereupon, the Viscount got upon his legs, rather unsteadily, and bowed.

  "Sir," said he, "I humbly ask your pardon; surely so brave an apostle should do great works."

  "Then," said the stranger, drawing nearer, "if such is your thought, let me see you two clasp hands."

  "But, sir," said the Viscount, somewhat taken aback, "indeed we have——scarcely begun——"

  "So much the better," returned the teacher of forgiveness with his gentle smile, and laying a hand upon the arm of each.

  "But, sir, I went so far as to give this gentleman the lie!" resumed the Viscount.

  "Which I went so far as to——return," said Barnabas.

  "But surely the matter can be explained?" inquired the stranger.

  "Possibly!" nodded the Viscount, "though I generally leave explanations until afterwards."

  "Then," said the stranger, glancing from one proud young face to the other, "in this instance, shake hands first. Hate and anger are human attributes, but to forgive is Godlike. Therefore now, forget yourselves and in this thing be gods. For, young sirs, as it seems to me, it was ordained that you two should be friends. And you are young and full of great possibilities and friendship is a mighty factor in this hard world, since by friendship comes self-forgctfulness, and no man can do great works unless he forgets Self. So, young sirs, shake hands!"

  Now, as they looked upon each other, of a sudden, despite his split lip, Barnabas smiled and, in that same moment, the Viscount held out his hand.

  "Beverley," said he, as their fingers gripped, "after your most convincing——shall we say, argument?——if you tell me you have boxed with all and every champion back to Mendoza, Jack Slack, and Broughton, egad! I'll believe you, for you have a devilish striking and forcible way with you at times!" Here the Viscount cherished his bruised ribs with touches of tender inquiry. "Yes," he nodded, "there is a highly commendable thoroughness in your methods, my dear Bev, and I'm free to confess I like you better and better——but——!"

  "But?" inquired Barnabas.

  "As regards the handkerchief now——?"

  "I found it——on a bramble-bush——in a wood," said Barnabas.

  "In a wood!"

  "In Annersley Wood; I found a lady there also."

  "A lady——oh, egad!"

  "A very beautiful woman," said Barnabas thoughtfully, "with wonderful yellow hair!"

  "The Lady Cleone Meredith!" exclaimed the Viscount, "but in a——wood!"

  "She had fallen from her horse."

  "How? When? Was she hurt?"

  "How, I cannot tell you, but it happened about two hours ago, and her hurt was trifling."

  "And you——found her?"

  "I also saw her safely out of the wood."

  "And you did not know her name?"

  "I quite——forgot to ask it," Barnabas admitted, "and I never saw her until this morning."

  "Why, then, my dear Bev," said the Viscount, his brow clearing, "let us go back to breakfast, all three of us."

  But, now turning about, they perceived that the stranger was gone, yet, coming to the bridge, they presently espied him sitting beside the stream laving his hurts in the cool water.

  "Sir," said Barnabas, "our thanks are due to you——"

  "And you must come back to the inn with us," added the Viscount; "the ham surpasses description."

  "And I would know what you meant by the 'blood of atonement,'" said Barnabas, the persistent.

  "As to breakfast, young sirs," said the stranger, shaking his head, "I thank you, but I have already assuaged my hunger; as to my story, well, 'tis not over long, and indeed it is a story to think upon——a warning to heed, for it is a story of Self, and Self is the most insidious enemy that man possesses. So, if you would listen to the tale of a selfish man, sit down here beside me, and I'll tell you."

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