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The Amateur Gentleman (Chapter16)

2006-08-28 16:06

  Chapter XVI. In Which Barnabas Engages One Without a Character

  Barnabas walked on along the lane, head on breast, plunged in a profound reverie, and following a haphazard course, so much so that, chancing presently to look about him, he found that the lane had narrowed into a rough cart track that wound away between high banks gay with wild flowers, and crowned with hedges, a pleasant, shady spot, indeed, as any thoughtful man could wish for.

  Now as he walked, he noticed a dry ditch——a grassy, and most inviting ditch; therefore Barnabas sat him down therein, leaning his back against the bank.

  "Beatrix!" said he, again, and thrusting his hands into his pockets he became aware of the "priceless wollum." Taking it out, he began turning its pages, idly enough, and eventually paused at one headed thus:

  *       *       *       *       *

  THE CULT OF DRESS.

  *       *       *       *       *

  But he had not read a dozen words when he was aware of a rustling of leaves, near by, that was not of the wind, and then the panting of breath drawn in painful gasps; and, therefore, having duly marked his place with a finger, he raised his head and glanced about him. As he did so, the hedge, almost opposite, was burst asunder and a man came slipping down the bank, and, regaining his feet, stood staring at Barnabas and panting. A dusty, bedraggled wretch he looked, unshaven and unkempt, with quick, bright eyes that gleamed in the pale oval of his face.

  "What do you want?" Barnabas demanded.

  "Everything!" the man panted, with the ghost of a smile on his pallid lips; "but——the ditch would do."

  "And why the ditch?"

  "Because they're——after me."

  "Who are?"

  "Gamekeepers!"

  "Then, you're a poacher?"

  "And a very clumsy one——they had me once——close on me now."

  "How many?"

  "Two."

  "Then——hum!——get into the ditch," said Barnabas.

  Now the ditch, as has been said, was deep and dry, and next moment, the miserable fugitive was hidden from view by reason of this, and of the grasses and wild flowers that grew luxuriantly there; seeing which, Barnabas went back to his reading.

  "It is permitted," solemnly writes the Person of Quality, "that white waistcoats be worn,——though sparingly, for caution is always advisable, and a buff waistcoat therefore is recommended as safer. Coats, on the contrary, may occasionally vary both as to the height of the collar, which must, of course, roll, and the number of buttons——"

  Thus far the Person of Quality when:

  "Hallo, theer" roared a stentorian voice.

  "Breeches, on the other hand," continues the Person of Quality gravely, "are governed as inexorably as the Medes and Persians; thus, for mornings they must be either pantaloons and Hessians——"

  "Hallo theer! oho!——hi!——waken oop will 'ee!"

  "Or buckskins and top boots——"

  "Hi!" roared the voice, louder than ever, "you theer under th' 'edge,——oho!"

  Once more Barnabas marked the place with his finger, and glancing up, straightway espied Stentor, somewhat red-faced, as was but natural, clad in a velveteen jacket and with a long barrelled gun on his shoulder.

  "Might you be shouting at me?" inquired Barnabas.

  "Well," replied Stentor, looking up and down the lane, "I don't see nobody else to shout at, so let's s'pose as I be shouting at ye, bean't deaf, be ye?"

  "No, thank God."

  "'Cause if so be as y' are deaf, a can shout a tidy bit louder nor that a reckon."

  "I can hear you very well as it is."

  "Don't go for to be too sartin, now; ye see I've got a tidy voice, I have, which I aren't noways afeared o' usin'!"

  "So it would appear!" nodded Barnabas.

  "You're quite sure as ye can 'ear me, then?"

  "Quite."

  "Werry good then, if you are sure as you can 'ear me I'd like to ax 'ee a question, though, mark me, I'll shout it, ah! an' willin'; if so be you're minded, say the word!"

  But, before Barnabas could reply, another man appeared, being also clad in velveteens and carrying a long barrelled gun.

  "Wot be doin', Jarge?" he inquired of Stentor, in a surly tone, "wot be wastin' time for"

  "W'y, lookee, I be about to ax this 'ere deaf chap a question, though ready, ah! an' willin' to shout it, if so be 'e gives the word."

  "Stow yer gab, Jarge," retorted Surly, more surly than ever, "you be a sight too fond o' usin' that theer voice o' your'n!" saying which he turned to Barnabas:

  "Did ye see ever a desprit, poachin' wagabone run down this 'ere lane, sir?" he inquired.

  "No," answered Barnabas.

  "Well, did ye see ever a thievin' wastrel run oop this 'ere lane?" demanded Stentor.

  "No," answered Barnabas.

  "But we seen 'im run this way," demurred Surly.

  "Ah!——he must ha' run oop or down this 'ere lane," said Stentor.

  "He did neither," said Barnabas.

  "Why, then p'r'aps you be stone blind as well as stone deaf?" suggested Stentor.

  "Neither one nor the other," answered Barnabas, "and now, since I have answered all your questions, suppose you go and look somewhere else?"

  "Look, is it?——look wheer——d'ye mean——?"

  "I mean——go."

  "Go!" repeated Stentor, round of eye, "then s'pose you tell us——wheer!"

  "Anywhere you like, only——be off!"

  "Now you can claw me!" exclaimed Stentor with an injured air, nodding to his gun, seeing his companion had already hurried off, "you can grab and duck me if this don't beat all!——you can burn an' blister me if ever I met a deaf cove as was so ongrateful as this 'ere deaf cove,——me 'avin' used this yer v'ice o' mine for 'is be'oof an' likewise benefit; v'ices like mine is a gift as was bestowed for deaf 'uns like 'im;——I've met deaf 'uns afore, yes,——but such a ongrateful deaf 'un as 'im,——no. All I 'opes is as 'e gets deafer an' deafer, as deaf as a stock, as a stone, as a——dead sow,——that's all I 'opes!"

  Having said which, Stentor nodded to his gun again, glanced at Barnabas again, and strode off, muttering, after his companion.

  Hereupon Barnabas once more opened his book; yet he was quite aware that the fugitive had thrust his head out of the ditch, and having glanced swiftly about, was now regarding him out of the corners of his eyes.

  "Why do you stare at me?" he demanded suddenly.

  "I was wondering why you took the trouble and risk of shielding such a thing as I am," answered the fugitive.

  "Hum!" said Barnabas, "upon my soul,——I don't know."

  "No," said the man, with the ghostly smile upon his lips again, "I thought not."

  Now, as he looked at the man, Barnabas saw that his cheeks, beneath their stubble, were hollow and pinched, as though by the cruel hands of want and suffering. And yet in despite of all this and of the grizzled hair at his temples, the face was not old, moreover there was a merry twinkle in the eye, and a humorous curve to the wide-lipped mouth that appealed to Barnabas.

  "And you are a poacher, you say?"

  "Yes, sir, and that is bad, I confess, but, what is worse, I was, until I took to poaching, an honest man without a shred of character."

  "How so?"

  "I was discharged——under a cloud that was never dispelled."

  "To be sure, you don't look like an ordinary poacher."

  "That is because I am an extraordinary one."

  "You mean?"

  "That I poach that I may live to——poach again, sir. I am, at once, a necessitous poacher, and a poacher by necessity."

  "And what by choice?"

  "A gentleman, sir, with plenty of money and no ambitions."

  "Why deny ambition?"

  "Because I would live a quiet life, and who ever heard of an ambitious man ever being quiet, much less happy and contented?"

  "Hum!" said Barnabas, "and what were you by profession?"

  "My calling, sir, was to work for, think for, and shoulder the blame for others——generally fools, sir. I was a confidential servant, a valet, sir. And I have worked, thought, and taken the blame for others so very successfully, that I must needs take to poaching that I may live."

  "But——other men may require valets!"

  "True, sir, and there are plenty of valets to be had——of a sort; but the most accomplished one in the world, if without a character, had better go and hang himself out of the way, and have done with it. And indeed, I have seriously contemplated so doing."

  "You rate yourself very highly."

  "And I go in rags! Though a professed thief may do well in the world, though the blackest rascal, the slyest rogue, may thrive and prosper, the greatest of valets being without a character, may go in rags and starve——and very probably will."

  "Hum!" said Barnabas.

  "Now, to starve, sir, is unpleasant; thus I, having a foolish, though very natural, dread of it, poach rabbits that I may exist. I possess also an inborn horror of rags and dirt, therefore I——exchanged this coat and breeches from a farmhouse, the folk being all away in the fields, and though they are awkward, badly-made garments, still beggars——and——"

  "Thieves!" added Barnabas.

  "And thieves, sir, cannot always be choosers, can they?"

  "Then you admit you are a thief?"

  Here the fugitive glanced at Barnabas with a wry smile.

  "Sir, I fear I must. Exchange is no robbery they say; but my rags were so very ragged, and these garments are at least wearable."

  "You have also been a——great valet, I understand?"

  "And have served many gentlemen in my time."

  "Then you probably know London and the fashionable world?"

  "Yes, sir," said the man, with a sigh.

  "Now," pursued Barnabas, "I am given to understand, on the authority of a Person of Quality, that to dress properly is an art."

  The fugitive nodded. "Indeed, sir, though your Person of Quality should rather have called it the greatest of all the arts."

  "Why so?"

  "Because by dress it is possible to make——something out of nothing!"

  "Explain yourself."

  "Why, there was the case of young Lord Ambleside, a nobleman remarkable for a vague stare, and seldom saying anything but 'What!' or 'Dey-vil take me!' though I'll admit he could curse almost coherently——at times. I found him nothing but a lord, and very crude material at that, yet in less than six months he was made."

  "Made?"

  "Made, sir," nodded the fugitive. "I began him with a cravat, an entirely original creation, which drew the approval of Brummell himself, and, consequently, took London by storm, and I continued him with a waistcoat."

  "Not a——white one?" Barnabas inquired.

  "No, sir, it was a delicate pink, embroidered with gold, and of quite a new cut and design, which was the means of introducing him to the notice of Royalty itself. The Prince had one copied from it, and wore it at a state reception. And I finished him with a pair of pantaloons which swept the world of fashion clean off its legs, and brought him into lasting favor with the Regent. So my Lord was made, and eventually I married him to an heiress."

  "You married him?"

  "That is to say, I dictated all his letters, and composed all his verses, which speedily brought the affair to a happy culmination."

  "You seem to be a man of many and varied gifts?"

  "And one——without a character, sir."

  "Nevertheless," said Barnabas, "I think you are the very man I require."

  "Sir," exclaimed the fugitive, staring, "sir?"

  "And therefore," continued Barnabas, "you may consider yourself engaged."

  "Engaged, sir——engaged!" stammered the man——"me?"

  "As my valet," nodded Barnabas.

  "But, sir, I told you——I was——a thief!"

  "Yes," said Barnabas, "and therefore I have great hopes of your future honesty."

  Now hereupon the man, still staring, rose up to his knees, and with a swift, appealing gesture, stretched out his hands towards Barnabas, and his hands were trembling all at once.

  "Sir!" said he, "oh, sir——d'ye mean it? You don't know, you can't know what such an offer means to me. Sir, you're not jesting with me?"

  "No," answered Barnabas, calmly serious of eye, "no, I'm not jesting; and to prove it, here is an advance of wages." And he dropped two guineas into the man's open palm.

  The man stared down at the coins in his hand, then rose abruptly to his feet and turned away, and when he spoke again his voice was hoarse.

  "Sir," said he, jerkily, "for such trust I would thank you, only words are too poor. But if, as I think, it is your desire to enter the World of Fashion, it becomes my duty, as an honest man, to tell you that all your efforts, all your money, would be unavailing, even though you had been introduced by Barrymore, or Hanger, or Vibart, or Brummell himself."

  "Ah," said Barnabas, "and why?"

  "Because you have made a fatal beginning."

  "How?"

  "By knocking down the Prince's friend and favorite——Sir Mortimer Carnaby."

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