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The Amateur Gentleman (Chapter23)

2006-08-28 16:08

  Chapter XXIII. How Barnabas Saved His Life——Because He was Afraid

  On went Barnabas swift of foot and light of heart, walking through a World of Romance, and with his eyes turned up to the luminous heaven. Yet it was neither of the moon, nor the stars, nor the wonder thereof that he was thinking, but only of the witchery of a woman's eyes, and the thrill of a woman's lips upon his cheek; and, indeed, what more natural, more right, and altogether proper? Little recked he of the future, of the perils and dangers to be encountered, of the sorrows and tribulations that lay in wait for him, or of the enemies that he had made that day, for youth is little given to brooding, and is loftily indifferent to consequences.

  So it was of Lady Cleone Meredith he thought as he strode along the moonlit highway, and it was of her that he was thinking as he turned into that narrow by-lane where stood "The Spotted Cow." As he advanced, he espied some one standing in the shadow of one of the great trees, who, as he came nearer, stepped out into the moonlight; and then Barnabas saw that it was none other than his newly engaged valet. The same, yet not the same, for the shabby clothes had given place to a sober, well-fitting habit, and as he took off his hat in salutation, Barnabas noticed that his hollow cheeks were clean and freshly shaved; he was, indeed, a new man.

  But now, as they faced each other, Barnabas observed something else; John Peterby's lips were compressed, and in his eye was anxiety, the which had, somehow, got into his voice when he spoke, though his tone was low and modulated: "Sir, if you are for London to-night, we had better start at once, the coach leaves Tenterden within the hour."

  "But," says Barnabas, setting his head aslant, and rubbing his chin with the argumentative air that was so very like his father, "I have ordered supper here, Peterby."

  "Which——under the circumstances——I have ventured to countermand, sir."

  "Oh?" said Barnabas, "pray, what circumstances?"

  "Sir, as I told you, the mail——"

  "John Peterby, speak out——what is troubling you?"

  But now, even while Peterby stood hesitating, from the open casement of the inn, near at hand, came the sound of a laugh: a soft, gentle, sibilant laugh which Barnabas immediately recognized.

  "Ah!" said he, clenching his fist. "I think I understand." As he turned towards the inn, Peterby interposed.

  "Sir," he whispered, "sir, if ever a man meant mischief——he does. He came back an hour ago, and they have been waiting for you ever since."

  "They?"

  "He and the other."

  "What other?"

  "Sir, I don't know."

  "Is he a very——young man, this other?"

  "Yes, sir, he seems so. And they have been drinking together and——I've heard enough to know that they mean you harm." But here Master Barnabas smiled with all the arrogance of youth and shook his head.

  "John Peterby," said he, "learn that the first thing I desire in my valet is obedience. Pray stand out of my way!" So, perforce Peterby stood aside, yet Barnabas had scarce taken a dozen strides ere Clemency stood before him.

  "Go back," she whispered, "go back!"

  "Impossible," said Barnabas, "I have a mission to fulfil."

  "Go back!" she repeated in the same tense whisper, "you must——oh, you must! I've heard he has killed a man before now——"

  "And yet I must see and speak with his companion."

  "No, no——ah! I pray you——"

  "Nay," said Barnabas, "if you will, and if need be, pray for me." So saying he put her gently aside, and entering the inn, came to the door of that room wherein he had written the letter to his father.

  "I tell you I'll kill him, Dalton," said a soft, deliberate voice.

  "Undoubtedly; the light's excellent; but, my dear fellow, why——?"

  "I object to him strongly, for one thing, and——"

  The voice was hushed suddenly, as Barnabas set wide the door and stepped into the room, with Peterby at his heels.

  Mr. Chichester was seated at the table with a glass beside him, but Barnabas looked past him to his companion who sprawled on the other side of the hearth——a sleepy, sighing gentleman, very high as to collar, very tight as to waist, and most ornate as to waistcoat; young he was certainly, yet with his first glance, Barnabas knew instinctively that this could not be the youth he sought. Nevertheless he took off his hat and saluted him with a bow that for stateliness left the "stiff-legged gentleman" nowhere.

  "Sir," said he, "pray what might your name be?"

  Instead of replying, the sleepy gentleman opened his eyes rather wider than was usual and stared at Barnabas with a growing surprise, stared at him from head to foot and up again, then, without changing his lounging attitude, spoke:

  "Oh, Gad, Chichester!——is this the——man?"

  "Yes."

  "But——my dear Chit! Surely you don't propose to——this fellow! Who is he? What is he? Look at his boots——oh, Gad!"

  Hereupon Barnabas resumed his hat, and advancing leaned his clenched fists on the table, and from that eminence smiled down at the speaker, that is to say his lips curled and his teeth gleamed in the candle-light.

  "Sir," said he gently, "you will perhaps have the extreme condescension to note that my boots are strong boots, and very serviceable either for walking, or for kicking an insolent puppy."

  "If I had a whip, now," sighed the gentleman, "if I only had a whip, I'd whip you out of the room. Chichester,——pray look at that coat, oh, Gad!"

  But Mr. Chichester had risen, and now crossing to the door, he locked it, and dropped the key into his pocket.

  "As you say, the light is excellent, my dear Dalton," said he, fixing Barnabas with his unwavering stare.

  "But my dear Chit, you never mean to fight the fellow——a——a being who wears such a coat! such boots! My dear fellow, be reasonable! Observe that hat! Good Gad! Take your cane and whip him out——positively you cannot fight this bumpkin."

  "None the less I mean to shoot him——like a cur, Dalton." And Mr. Chichester drew a pistol from his pocket, and fell to examining flint and priming with a practised eye. "I should have preferred my regular tools; but I dare say this will do the business well enough; pray, snuff the candles."

  Now, as Barnabas listened to the soft, deliberate words, as he noted Mr. Chichester's assured air, his firm hand, his glowing eye and quivering nostrils, a sudden deadly nausea came over him, and he leaned heavily upon the table.

  "Sirs," said he, uncertainly, and speaking with an effort, "I have never used a pistol in my life."

  "One could tell as much from his boots," murmured Mr. Dalton, snuffing the candles.

  "You have another pistol, I think, Dalton; pray lend it to him. We will take opposite corners of the room, and fire when you give the word."

  "All quite useless, Chit; this fellow won't fight."

  "No," said Barnabas, thrusting his trembling hands into his pockets, "not——in a corner."

  Mr. Chichester shrugged his shoulders, sat down, and leaning back in his chair stared up at pale-faced Barnabas, tapping the table-edge softly with the barrel of his weapon.

  "Not in a corner——I told you so, Chit. Oh, take your cane and whip him out!"

  "I mean," said Barnabas, very conscious of the betraying quaver in his voice, "I mean that, as I'm——unused to——shooting, the corner would be——too far."

  "Too far? Oh, Gad!" exclaimed Mr. Dalton. "What's this?"

  "As for pistols, I have one here," continued Barnabas, "and if we must shoot, we'll do it here——across the table."

  "Eh——what? Across the table! but, oh, Gad, Chichester! this is madness!" said Mr. Dalton.

  "Most duels are," said Barnabas, and as he spoke he drew from his pocket the pistol he had taken from Mr. Chichester earlier in the evening and, weapon in hand, sank into a chair, thus facing Mr. Chichester across the table.

  "But this is murder——positive murder!" cried Mr. Dalton.

  "Sir," said Barnabas, "I am no duellist, as I told you; and it seems to me that this equalizes our chances, for I can no more fail of hitting my man at this distance than he of shooting me dead across the width of the room. And, sir——if I am to——die to-night, I shall most earnestly endeavor to take Mr. Chichester with me."

  There was a tremor in his voice again as he spoke, but his eye was calm, his brow serene, and his hand steady as he cocked the pistol, and leaning his elbow upon the table, levelled it within six inches of Mr. Chichester's shirt frill. But hereupon Mr. Dalton sprang to his feet with a stifled oath:

  "I tell you it's murder——murder!" he exclaimed, and took a quick step towards them.

  "Peterby!" said Barnabas.

  "Sir?" said Peterby, who had been standing rigid beside the door.

  "Take my stick," said Barnabas, holding it out towards him, but keeping his gaze upon Mr. Chichester's narrowed eyes; "it's heavy you'll find, and should this person presume to interfere, knock him down with it."

  "Yes, sir," said Peterby, and took the stick accordingly.

  "But——oh, Gad!" exclaimed Dalton, "I tell you this can't go on!"

  "Indeed, I hope not," said Barnabas; "but it is for Mr. Chichester to decide. I am ready for the count when he is."

  But Mr. Chichester sat utterly still, his chin on his breast, staring at Barnabas under his brows, one hand tight clenched about the stock of his weapon on the table before him, the other hanging limply at his side. So for an interval they remained thus, staring into each other's eyes, in a stillness so profound that it seemed all four men had ceased breathing. Then Mr. Chichester sighed faintly, dropped his eyes to the muzzle of the weapon so perilously near, glanced back at the pale, set face and unwinking eyes of him who held it, and sighed again.

  "Dalton," said he, "pray open the door, and order the chaise," and he laid the key upon the table.

  "First," said Barnabas, "I will relieve you of that——encumbrance," and he pointed to the pistol yet gripped in Mr. Chichester's right hand. Without a word Mr. Chichester rose, and leaving the weapon upon the table, turned and walked to the window, while Mr. Dalton, having unlocked the door, hurried away to the stable-yard, and was now heard calling for the ostlers.

  "Peterby," said Barnabas, "take this thing and throw it into the horse-pond; yet, no, give it to the gentleman who just went out."

  "Yes, sir," said Peterby, and, taking up the pistol, he went out, closing the door behind him.

  Mr. Chichester still lounged in the window, and hummed softly to himself; but as for Barnabas, he sat rigid in his chair, staring blankly at the opposite wall, his eyes wide, his lips tense, and with a gleam of moisture amid the curls at his temples. So the one lounged and hummed, and the other glared stonily before him until came the grind of wheels and the stamping of hoofs. Then Mr. Chichester took up his hat and cane, and, humming still, crossed to the door, and lounged out into the yard.

  Came a jingle of harness, a sound of voices, the slam of a door, and the chaise rolled away down the lane, farther and farther, until the rumble of its wheels died away in the distance. Then Barnabas laughed——a sudden shrill laugh——and clenched his fists, and strove against the laughter, and choked, and so sank forward with his face upon his arms as one that is very weary. Now, presently, as he sat thus, it seemed to him that one spoke a long way off, whereupon, in a little, he raised his head, and beheld Clemency.

  "You——are not hurt?" she inquired anxiously.

  "Hurt?" said Barnabas, "no, not hurt, Mistress Clemency, not hurt, I thank you; but I think I have grown a——great deal——older."

  "I saw it all, through the window, and yet I——don't know why you are alive."

  "I think because I was so very much——afraid," said Barnabas.

  "Sir," said she, with her brown hands clasped together, "was it for——if it was for——my sake that you——quarrelled, and——"

  "No," said Barnabas, "it was because of——another."

  Now, when he said this, Clemency stared at him wide-eyed, and, all in a moment, flushed painfully and turned away, so that Barnabas wondered.

  "Good-by!" said she, suddenly, and crossed to the door, but upon the threshold paused; "I did pray for you," she said, over her shoulder.

  "Ah!" said Barnabas, rising, "you prayed for me, and behold, I am alive."

  "Good-by!" she repeated, her face still averted.

  "Good-by!" said Barnabas, "and will you remember me in your prayers——sometimes?"

  "My prayers! Why?"

  "Because the prayers of a sweet, pure woman may come between man and evil——like a shield."

  "I will," said she, very softly. "Oh, I will," and so, with a swift glance, was gone.

  Being come out of the inn, Barnabas met with his valet, John Peterby.

  "Sir," he inquired, "what now?"

  "Now," said Barnabas, "the Tenterden coach, and London."

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