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The Amateur Gentleman (Chapter75)

2006-08-28 16:22

  Chapter LXXV. Which Tells Why Barnabas Forgot His Breakfast

  It was a slender little shoe, and solitary, for fellow it had none, and it lay exactly in the middle of the window-seat; moreover, to the casual observer, it was quite an ordinary little shoe, ordinary, be it understood, in all but its size.

  Why, then, should Barnabas, chancing to catch sight of so ordinary an object, start up from his breakfast (ham and eggs, and fragrant coffee) and crossing the room with hasty step, pause to look down at this small and lonely object that lay so exactly in the middle of the long, deep window-seat? Why should his hand shake as he stooped and took it up? Why should the color deepen in his pale cheek?

  And all this because of a solitary little shoe! A quite ordinary little shoe——to the casual observer! Oh, thou Casual Observer who seeing so much, yet notices and takes heed to so little beyond thy puny self! To whom the fairest prospect is but so much earth and so much timber! To whom music is but an arrangement of harmonious sounds, and man himself but a being erect upon two legs! Oh, thou Casual Observer, what a dull, gross, self-contented clod art thou, who, having eyes and ears, art blind and deaf to aught but things as concrete as——thyself!

  But for this shoe, it, being something worn, yet preserved the mould of the little foot that had trodden it, a slender, coquettish little foot, a shapely, active little foot: a foot, perchance, to trip it gay and lightly to a melody, or hurry, swift, untiring, upon some errand of mercy.

  All this, and more, Barnabas noted (since he, for one, was no casual observer) as he stood there in the sunlight with the little shoe upon his palm, while the ham and eggs languished forgotten and the coffee grew cold, for how might they hope to vie with this that had lain so lonely, so neglected and——so exactly in the middle of the window-seat?

  Now presently, as Barnabas stood thus lost in contemplation of this shoe, he was aware of Peterby entering behind him, and instinctively made as if to hide the shoe in his bosom, but he checked the impulse, turned, and glancing at Peterby, saw that his usually grave lips were quivering oddly at the corners, and that he kept his gaze fixed pertinaciously upon the coffee-pot; whereat the pale cheek of Barnabas grew suffused again, and stepping forward, he laid the little shoe upon the table.

  "John," said he, pointing to it, "have you ever seen this before?"

  "Why, sir," replied Peterby, regarding the little shoe with brow of frowning portent, "I think I have."

  "And pray," continued Barnabas (asking a perfectly unnecessary question), "whose is it, do you suppose?"

  "Sir," answered John, still grave of mouth and solemn of eye, "to the best of my belief it belongs to the Lady Cleone Meredith."

  "So she——really was here, John?"

  "Sir, she came here the same night that you——were shot, and she brought Her Grace of Camberhurst with her."

  "Yes, John?"

  "And they remained here until today——to nurse you, sir."

  "Did they, John?"

  "They took turns to be with you——day and night, sir. But it was only my Lady Cleone who could soothe your delirious ravings,——she seemed to have a magic——"

  "And why," demanded Barnabas, frowning suddenly, "Why was I never told of her presence?"

  "Sir, it was her earnest wish that you were not to know unless——"

  "Well, John?"

  "Unless you expressly asked for her, by name. And, sir——you never did."

  "No," sighed Barnabas, "I never did. But perhaps, after all, it was just as well, John? Under the——circumstances, John?"

  But seeing Peterby only shook his head and sighed, Barnabas turned to stare out of the window.

  "And she——left this morning——with the Duchess, did she?" he inquired, without looking round.

  "Yes, sir."

  "Where for?"

  "For——London, as I understood, sir."

  Hereupon Barnabas was silent for a time, during which Peterby watched him solicitously.

  "Is 'The Terror' still here?" Barnabas inquired suddenly.

  "Yes, sir, and I took the liberty of sending for Gabriel Martin to look after him."

  "Quite right, John. Tell Martin to have him saddled at once."

  "You are——going out, sir?"

  "Yes, I am going——out."

  Peterby bowed and crossed to the door, but paused there, hesitated, and finally spoke:

  "Sir, may I ask if you intend to ride——Londonwards?"

  "No," answered Barnabas, stifling a sigh, "my way lies in the opposite direction; I am going——back, to the 'Coursing Hound.' And that reminds me——what of you, what are your plans for the future?"

  "Sir," stammered Peterby, "I——I had ventured to——to hope that you might——take me with you, unless you wished to——to be rid of me——"

  "Rid of you, John!" cried Barnabas, turning at last, "no——never. Why, man, I need you more than ever!"

  "Sir," exclaimed Peterby, flushing suddenly, "do you——really mean that?"

  "Yes, John——a thousand times, yes! For look you, as I have proved you the best valet in the world——so have I proved you a man, and it is the man I need now, because——I am a failure."

  "No, no!"

  "Yes, John. In London I attempted the impossible, and today I——return home, a failure. Consequently the future looms rather dark before me, John, and at such times a tried friend is a double blessing. So, come with me, John, and help me to face the future as a man should."

  "Ah, sir," answered Peterby, with his sudden radiant smile, "darkness cannot endure, and if the future brings its sorrows, so must it bring its joys. Surely the future stands for hope and——I think——happiness!"

  Now as he ended, Peterby raised one hand with forefinger outstretched; and, looking where he pointed, Barnabas beheld——the little shoe. But when he glanced up again, Peterby was gone.

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