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The Amateur Gentleman (Chapter55)

2006-08-28 16:17

  Chapter LV. Which Narrates Sundry Happenings at Oakshott's Barn

  Even on a summer's afternoon Oakshott's Barn is a desolate place, a place of shadows and solitude, whose slumberous silence is broken only by the rustle of leaves, the trill of a skylark high overhead, or the pipe of throstle and blackbird.

  It is a place apart, shut out from the world of life and motion, a place suggestive of decay and degeneration, and therefore a depressing place at all times.

  Yet, standing here, Barnabas smiled and uncovered his head, for here, once, she had stood, she who was for him the only woman in all the world. So having paused awhile to look about him, he presently went on into the gloom of the barn, a gloom damp and musty with years and decay.

  Now glancing sharply this way and that, Barnabas espied a ladder or rather the mouldering remains of one, that led up from the darkest corner to a loft; up this ladder, with all due care, he mounted, and thus found himself in what had once served as a hay-loft, for in one corner there yet remained a rotting pile. It was much lighter up here, for in many places the thatch was quite gone, while at one end of the loft was a square opening or window. He was in the act of looking from this window when, all at once he started and crouched down, for, upon the stillness broke a sudden sound,——the rustling of leaves, and a voice speaking in loud, querulous tones. And in a while as he watched, screening himself from all chance of observation, Barnabas saw two figures emerge into the clearing and advance towards the barn.

  "I tell you C-Chichester, it will be either him or m-me!"

  "If he——condescends to fight you, my dear Ronald."

  "C-condescend?" cried Barrymaine, and it needed but a glance at his flushed cheek and swaying figure to see that he had been drinking more heavily than usual. "C-condescend, damn his insolence! Condescend, will he? I'll give him no chance for his c-cursed condescension, I——I tell you, Chichester, I'll——"

  "But you can't make a man fight, Ronald."

  "Can't I? Why then if he won't fight I'll——"

  "Hush! don't speak so loud!"

  "Well, I will, Chichester,——s-so help me God, I will!"

  "Will——what, Ronald?"

  "W-wait and see!"

  "You don't mean——murder, Ronald?"

  "I didn't s-say so, d-did I?"

  "Of course not, my dear Barrymaine, but——shall I take the pistols?" And Mr. Chichester stretched out his hand towards a flat, oblong box that Barrymaine carried clutched beneath his arm. "Better give them to me, Ronald."

  "No,——w-why should I?"

  "Well,——in your present mood——"

  "I——I'm not——d-drunk,——damme, I'm not, I tell you! And I'll give the f-fellow every chance——honorable meeting."

  "Then, if he refuses to fight you, as of course he will, you'll let him go to——ah——make love to Cleone?"

  "No, by God!" cried Barrymaine in a sudden, wild fury, "I-I'll sh-shoot him first!"

  "Kill him?"

  "Yes, k-kill him!"

  "Oh no you won't, Ronald, for two reasons. First of all, it would be murder——!"

  "Murder!" Barrymaine repeated, "so it would——murder! Yes, by God!"

  "And secondly, you haven't the nerve. Though he has clandestine meetings with your sister, though he crush you into the mud, trample you under his feet, throw you into a debtor's prison to rot out your days——though he ruin you body and soul, and compromise your sister's honor——still you'd never——murder him, Ronald, you couldn't, you haven't the heart, because it would be——murder!"

  Mr. Chichester's voice was low, yet each incisive, quick-spoken word reached Barnabas, while upon Barrymaine their effect was demoniac. Dropping his pistol-case, he threw up wild arms and shook his clenched fists in the air.

  "Damn him!" he cried, "damn him! B-bury me in a debtor's prison, will he? Foul my sister's honor w-will he? Never! never! I tell you I'll kill him first!"

  "Murder him, Ronald?"

  "Murder? I t-tell you it's no murder to kill his sort. G-give me the pistols."

  "Hush! Come into the barn."

  "No. W-what for?"

  "Well, the time is getting on, Ronald,——nearly seven o'clock, and your ardent lovers are usually before their time. Come into the barn."

  "N-no,——devilish dark hole!"

  "But——he'll see you here!"

  "What if he does, can't g-get away from me,——better f-for it out here——lighter."

  "What do you mean? Better——for what?"

  "The m-meeting."

  "What——you mean to try and make him fight, do you?"

  "Of course——try that way first. Give him a ch-chance, you know, ——c-can't shoot him down on s-sight."

  "Ah-h!" said Mr. Chichester, very slowly, "you can't shoot him on sight——of course you can't. I see."

  "What? W-what d'ye see? Devilish dark hole in there!"

  "All the better, Ronald,——think of his surprise when instead of finding an armful of warm loveliness waiting for him in the shadows, he finds the avenging brother! Come into the shadows, Ronald."

  "All right,——yes, the shadow. Instead of the sister, the b-brother——yes, by God!"

  Now the flooring of the loft where Barnabas lay was full of wide cracks and fissures, for the boards had warped by reason of many years of rain and sun; thus, lying at full length, Barnabas saw them below, Barrymaine leaning against the crumbling wall, while Mr. Chichester stooped above the open duelling-case.

  "What——they're loaded are they?" said he.

  "Of c-course!"

  "They're handsome tools, Ronald, and with your monogram, I see!"

  "Yes. Is your f-flask empty, Chichester?"

  "No, I think not," answered Mr. Chichester, still stooping above the pistol in his hand.

  "Then give it me, will you——m-my throat's on fire."

  "Surely you 've had enough, Ronald? Did you know this flint was loose?"

  "I'm n-not drunk, I t-tell you. I know when I've had enough, g-give me some brandy, Chit, I know there's p-precious little left."

  "Why then, fix this flint first, Ronald, I see you have all the necessary tools here." So saying, Mr. Chichester rose and began feeling through his pockets, while Barrymaine, grumbling, stooped above the pistol-case. Then, even as he did so, Mr. Chichester drew out a silver flask, unscrewed it, and thereafter made a certain quick, stealthy gesture behind his companion's back, which done, he screwed up the flask again, shook it, and, as Barrymaine rose, held it out to him:

  "Yes, I'm afraid there's very little left, Ronald," said he. With a murmur of thanks Barrymaine took the flask and, setting it to his lips, drained it at a gulp, and handed it back.

  "Gad, Chichester!" he exclaimed, "it tastes damnably of the f-flask——faugh! What time is it?"

  "A quarter to seven!"

  "Th-three quarters of an hour to wait!"

  "It will soon pass, Ronald, besides, he's sure to be early."

  "Hope so! But I——I think I'll s-sit down."

  "Well, the floor's dry, though dirty."

  "D-dirty? So it is, but beggars can't be c-choosers and——dev'lish drowsy place, this!——I'm a b-beggar——you know t-that, and——pah! I think I'm l-losing my——taste for brandy——"

  "Really, Ronald? I've thought you seemed over fond of it——especially lately."

  "No——no!" answered Barrymaine, speaking in a thick, indistinct voice and rocking unsteadily upon his heels, "I'm not——n-not drunk, only——dev'lish sleepy!" and swaying to the wall he leaned there with head drooping.

  "Then you'd better——lie down, Ronald."

  "Yes, I'll——lie down, dev'lish——drowsy p-place——lie down," mumbled Barrymaine, suiting the action to the word; yet after lying down full length, he must needs struggle up to his elbow again to blink at Mr. Chichester, heavy eyed and with one hand to his wrinkling brow. "Wha-what w-was it we——came for? Oh y-yes——I know——Bev'ley, of course! You'll w-wake me——when he c-comes?"

  "I'll wake you, Ronald."

  "S-such a c-cursed——drowsy——" Barrymaine sank down upon his side, rolled over upon his back, threw wide his arms, and so lay, breathing stertorously.

  Then Mr. Chichester smiled, and coming beside him, looked down upon his helpless form and flushed face and, smiling still, spoke in his soft, gentle voice:

  "Are you asleep, Ronald?" he inquired, and stirred Barrymaine lightly with his foot, but, feeling him so helpless, the stirring foot grew slowly more vicious. "Oh Ronald," he murmured, "what a fool you are! what a drunken, sottish fool you are. So you'd give him a chance, would you? Ah, but you mustn't, Ronald, you shan't, for your sake and my sake. My hand is steadier than yours, so sleep, my dear Ronald, and wake to find that you have rid us of our good, young Samaritan——once and for all, and then——hey for Cleone, and no more dread of the Future. Sleep on, you swinish sot!"

  Mr. Chichester's voice was as soft as ever, but, as he turned away, the sleeping youth started and groaned beneath the sudden movement of that vicious foot.

  And now Mr. Chichester stooped, and taking the pistols, one by one, examined flint and priming with attentive eye, which done, he crossed to a darkened window and, bursting open the rotting shutter, knelt and levelled one of the weapons, steadying his wrist upon the sill; then, nodding as though satisfied, he laid the pistols upon the floor within easy reach, and drew out his watch.

  Slowly the sun declined, and slowly the shadows lengthened about Oakshott's Barn, as they had done many and many a time before; a rabbit darted across the clearing, a blackbird called to his mate in the thicket, but save for this, nothing stirred; a great quiet was upon the place, a stillness so profound that Barnabas could distinctly hear the scutter of a rat in the shadows behind him, and the slow, heavy breathing of the sleeper down below. And ever that crouching figure knelt beside the broken shutter, very silent, very still, and very patient.

  But all at once, as he watched, Barnabas saw the rigid figure grow suddenly alert, saw the right arm raised slowly, stealthily, saw the pistol gleam as it was levelled across the sill; for now, upon the quiet rose a sound faint and far, yet that grew and ever grew, the on-coming rustle of leaves.

  Then, even as Barnabas stared down wide-eyed, the rigid figure started, the deadly pistol-hand wavered, was snatched back, and Mr. Chichester leapt to his feet. He stood a moment hesitating as one at a sudden loss, then crossing to the unconscious form of Barrymaine, he set the pistol under his lax hand, turned, and vanished into the shadow.

  Thereafter, from the rear of the barn, came the sound of a blow and the creak of a rusty hinge, quickly followed by a rustle of leaves that grew fainter and fainter, and so was presently gone. Then Barnabas rose, and coming to the window, peered cautiously out, and there, standing before the barn surveying its dilapidation with round, approving eyes, his nobbly stick beneath his arm, his high-crowned, broad-brimmed hat upon his head, was Mr. Shrig.

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