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The Amateur Gentleman (Chapter42)

2006-08-28 16:14

  Chapter XLII. In Which Shall Be Found Further Mention of a Finger-Post

  The hands of Natty Bell's great watch were pointing to the hour of nine, what time Barnabas dismounted at the cross-roads, and tethering Four-legs securely, leaned his back against the ancient finger-post to wait the coming of Cleone.

  Now being old, and having looked upon many and divers men (and women) in its day, it is to be supposed that the ancient finger-post took more or less interest in such things as chanced in its immediate vicinity. Thus, it is probable that it rightly defined why this particular long-legged human sighed so often, now with his gaze upon the broad disc of the moon, now upon a certain point of the road ahead, and was not in the least surprised to see Barnabas start forward, bareheaded, to meet her who came swift and light of foot; to see her pause before him, quick-breathing, blushing, sighing, trembling; to see how glance met glance; to see him stoop to kiss the hand she gave him, and all——without a word. Surprised? not a bit of it, for to a really observant finger-post all humans (both he and she) are much alike at such times.

  "I began to fear you wouldn't come," said Barnabas, finding voice at last.

  "But to-night is——Barnaby Bright, and the prophecy must be fulfilled, sir. And——oh, how wonderful the moon is!" Now, lifting her head to look at it, her hood must needs take occasion to slip back upon her shoulders, as if eager to reveal her loveliness,——the high beauty of her face, the smooth round column of her throat, and the shining wonder of her hair.

  "Cleone——how beautiful you are!"

  And here ensued another silence while Cleone gazed up at the moon, and Barnabas at Cleone.

  But the ancient finger-post (being indeed wonderfully knowing——for a finger-post) well understood the meaning of such silences, and was quite aware of the tremble of the strong fingers that still held hers, and why, in the shadow of her cloak, her bosom hurried so. Oh! be sure the finger-post knew the meaning of it all, since humans, of every degree, are only men and women after all.

  "Cleone, when will you——marry me?"

  Now here my lady stole a quick glance at him, and immediately looked up at the moon again, because the eyes that could burn so fiercely could hold such ineffable tenderness also.

  "You are very——impetuous, I think," she sighed.

  "But I——love you," said Barnabas, "not only for your beauty, but because you are Cleone, and there is no one else in the world like you. But, because I love you so much, it——it is very hard to tell you of it. If I could only put it into fine-sounding phrases——"

  "Don't!" said my lady quickly, and laid a slender (though very imperious) finger upon his lips.

  "Why?" Barnabas inquired, very properly kissing the finger and holding it there.

  "Because I grow tired of fine phrases and empty compliments, and because, sir——"

  "Have you forgotten that my name is Barnabas?" he demanded, kissing the captive finger again, whereupon it struggled——though very feebly, to be sure.

  "And because, Barnabas, you would be breaking your word."

  "How?"

  "You must only tell me——that, when 'the sun is shining, and friends are within call,'——have you forgotten your own words so soon?"

  Now, as she spoke Barnabas beheld the dimple——that most elusive dimple, that came and went and came again, beside the scarlet lure of her mouth; therefore he drew her nearer until he could look, for a moment, into the depths of her eyes. But here, seeing the glowing intensity of his gaze, becoming aware of the strong, compelling arm about her, feeling the quiver of the hand that held her own, lo! in that instant my lady, with her sly bewitchments, her coquettish airs and graces, was gone, and in her place was the maid——quick-breathing, blushing, trembling, all in a moment.

  "Ah, no!" she pleaded, "Barnabas, no!" Then Barnabas sighed, and loosed his clasp——but behold! the dimple was peeping at him again. And in that moment he caught her close, and thus, for the first time, their lips met.

  Oh, privileged finger-post to have witnessed that first kiss! To have seen her start away and turn; to have felt her glowing cheek pressed to thy hoary timbers; to have felt the sweet, quick tumult of her bosom! Oh, thrice happy finger-post! To have seen young Barnabas, radiant-faced, and with all heaven in his eyes! Oh, most fortunate of finger-posts to have seen and felt all this, and to have heard the rapture thrilling in his voice:

  "Cleone!"

  "Oh!" she whispered, "why——why did you?"

  "Because I love you!"

  "No other man ever dared to——"

  "Heaven be praised!"

  "Upon——the mouth!" she added, her face still hidden.

  "Then I have set my seal upon it."

  "And now,——am I——immaculate?"

  "Oh——forgive me!"

  "No!"

  "Look at me."

  "No!"

  "Are you angry?"

  "Yes, I——think I am, Barnabas,——oh, very!"

  "Forgive me!" said Barnabas again.

  "First," said my lady, throwing up her head, "am I——heartless and a——coquette?"

  "No, indeed, no! Oh, Cleone, is it possible you could learn to——love me, in time?"

  "I——I don't know."

  "Some day, Cleone?"

  "I——I didn't come to answer——idle questions, sir," says my lady, suddenly demure. "It must be nearly half-past nine——I must go. I forgot to tell you——Mr. Chichester is coming to meet me to-night——"

  "To meet you? Where?" demanded Barnabas, fierce-eyed all at once.

  "Here, Barnabas. But don't look so——so murderous!"

  "Chichester——here!"

  "At a quarter to ten, Barnabas. That is why I must go at——half-past nine——Barnabas, stop! Oh, Barnabas, you're crushing me! Not again, sir,——I forbid you——please, Barnabas!"

  So Barnabas loosed her, albeit regretfully, and stood watching while she dexterously twisted, and smoothed, and patted her shining hair into some semblance of order; and while so doing, she berated him, on this wise:

  "Indeed, sir, but you're horribly strong. And very hasty. And your hands are very large. And I fear you have a dreadful temper. And I know my hair is all anyhow,——isn't it?"

  "It is beautiful!" sighed Barnabas.

  "Mm! You told me that in Annersley Wood, sir."

  "You haven't forgotten, then?"

  "Oh, no," answered Cleone, shaking her head, "but I would have you more original, you see,——so many men have told me that. Ah! now you're frowning again, and it's nearly time for me to go, and I haven't had a chance to mention what I came for, which, of course, is all your fault, Barnabas. To-day, I received a letter from Ronald. He writes that he has been ill, but is better. And yet, I fear, he must be very weak still, for oh! it's such poor, shaky writing. Was he very ill when you saw him?"

  "No," answered Barnabas.

  "Here is the letter,——will you read it? You see, I have no one who will talk to me about poor Ronald, no one seems to have any pity for him,——not even my dear Tyrant."

  "But you will always have me, Cleone!"

  "Always, Barnabas?"

  "Always."

  So Barnabas took Ronald Barrymaine's letter, and opening it, saw that it was indeed scrawled in characters so shaky as to be sometimes almost illegible; but, holding it in the full light of the moon, he read as follows:

  DEAREST OF SISTERS,——I was unable to keep the appointment I begged for in my last, owing to a sudden indisposition, and, though better now, I am still ailing. I fear my many misfortunes are rapidly undermining my health, and sometimes I sigh for Death and Oblivion. But, dearest Cleone, I forbid you to grieve for me, I am man enough, I hope, to endure my miseries uncomplainingly, as a man and a gentleman should. Chichester, with his unfailing kindness, has offered me an asylum at his country place near Headcorn, where I hope to regain something of my wonted health. But for Chichester I tremble to think what would have been my fate long before this. At Headcorn I shall at least be nearer you, my best of sisters, and it is my hope that you may be persuaded to steal away now and then, to spend an hour with two lonely bachelors, and cheer a brother's solitude. Ah, Cleone! Chichester's devotion to you is touching, such patient adoration must in time meet with its reward. By your own confession you have nothing against him but the fact that he worships you too ardently, and this, most women would think a virtue. And remember, he is your luckless brother's only friend. This is the only man who has stood by me in adversity, the only man who can help me to retrieve the past, the only man a truly loving sister should honor with her regard. All women are more or less selfish. Oh, Cleone, be the exception and give my friend the answer he seeks, the answer he has sought of you already, the answer which to your despairing brother means more than you can ever guess, the answer whereby you can fulfil the promise you gave our dying mother to help

  Your unfortunate brother,

  RONALD BARRYMAINE.

  Now, as he finished reading, Barnabas frowned, tore the letter across in sudden fury, and looked up to find Cleone frowning also:

  "You have torn my letter!"

  "Abominable!" said Barnabas fiercely.

  "How dared you?"

  "It is the letter of a coward and weakling!"

  "My brother, sir!"

  "Half-brother."

  "And you insult him!"

  "He would sell you to a——" Barnabas choked.

  "Mr. Chichester is my brother's friend."

  "His enemy!"

  "And poor Ronald is sick——"

  "With brandy!"

  "Oh——not that!" she cried sharply, "not that!"

  "Didn't you know?"

  "I only——dreaded it. His father——died of it. Oh, sir——oh, Barnabas! there is no one else who will help him——save him from——that! You will try, won't you?"

  "Yes," said Barnabas, setting his jaw, "no one can help a man against his will, but I'll try. And I ask you to remember that if I succeed or not, I shall never expect any recompense from you, never!"

  "Unless, Barnabas——" said Cleone, softly.

  "Unless——oh, Cleone, unless you should——some day learn to——love me——just a little, Cleone?"

  "Would——just a little, satisfy you?"

  "No," said Barnabas, "no, I want you all——all——all. Oh, Cleone, will you marry me?"

  "You are very persistent, sir, and I must go."

  "Not yet,——pray not yet."

  "Please, Barnabas. I would not care to see Mr. Chichester——to-night."

  "No," sighed Barnabas, "you must go. But first,——will you——?"

  "Not again, Barnabas!" And she gave him her two hands. So he stopped and kissed them instead. Then she turned and left him standing bareheaded under the finger-post. But when she had gone but a little way she paused and spoke to him over her shoulder:

  "Will you——write to me——sometimes?"

  "Oh——may I?"

  "Please, Barnabas,——to tell me of——my brother."

  "And when can I see you again?"

  "Ah! who can tell?" she answered. And so, smiling a little, blushing a little, she hastened away.

  Now, when she was gone, Barnabas stooped, very reverently, and pressed his lips to the ancient finger-post, on that spot where her head had rested, and sighed, and turned towards his great, black horse.

  But, even as he did so, he heard again that soft sound that was like the faint jingle of spurs, the leaves of the hedge rustled, and out into the moonlight stepped a tall figure, wild of aspect, bareheaded and bare of foot; one who wore his coat wrong side out, and who, laying his hand upon his bosom, bowed in stately fashion, once to the moon and once to him.

  "Oh, Barnaby Bright, Barnaby Bright,The moon's awake, and shines all night!"

  "Do you remember, Barnaby Bright, how I foretold we should meet again——under an orbed moon? Was I not right? She's fair, Barnaby, and passing fair, and very proud,——but all good, beautiful women are proud, and hard in the winning,——oh, I know! Billy Button knows! My buttons jingled, so I turned my coat, though I'm no turn-coat; once a friend, always a friend. So I followed you, Barnaby Bright, I came to warn you of the shadow,——it grows blacker every day,——back there in the great city, waiting for you, Barnaby Bright, to smother you——to quench hope, and light, and life itself. But I shall be there, ——and She. Aha! She shall forget all things then——even her pride. Shadows have their uses, Barnaby, even the blackest. I came a long way——oh, I followed you. But poor Billy is never weary, the Wise Ones bear him up in their arms sometimes. So I followed you——and another, also, though he didn't know it. Oho! would you see me conjure you a spirit from the leaves yonder,——ah! but an evil spirit, this! Shall I? Watch now! See, thus I set my feet! Thus I lift my arms to the moon!"

  So saying, the speaker flung up his long arms, and with his gaze fixed upon a certain part of the hedge, lifted his voice and spoke:

  "Oho, lurking spirit among the shadows! Ho! come forth, I summon ye. The dew is thick amid the leaves, and dew is an evil thing for purple and fine linen. Oho, stand forth, I bid ye."

  There followed a moment's utter silence, then——another rustle amid the leaves, and Mr. Chichester stepped out from the shadows.

  "Ah, sir," said Barnabas, consulting his watch, "you are just twenty-three minutes before your time. Nevertheless you are, I think, too late."

  Mr. Chichester glanced at Barnabas from head to foot, and, observing his smile, Barnabas clenched his fists.

  "Too late, sir?" repeated Mr. Chichester softly, shaking his head, "no,——indeed I think not. Howbeit there are times and occasions when solitude appeals to me; this is one. Pray, therefore, be good enough to——go, and——ah——take your barefooted friend with you."

  "First, sir," said Barnabas, bowing with aggressive politeness, "first, I humbly beg leave to speak with you, to——"

  "Sir," said Mr. Chichester, gently tapping a nettle out of existence with his cane, "sir, I have no desire for your speeches, they, like yourself, I find a little trying, and vastly uninteresting. I prefer to stay here and meditate a while. I bid you good night, sir, a pleasant ride."

  "None the less, sir," said Barnabas, beginning to smile, "I fear I must inflict myself upon you a moment longer, to warn you that I——"

  "To warn me? Again? Oh, sir, I grow weary of your warnings, I do indeed! Pray go away and warn somebody else. Pray go, and let me stare upon the moon and twiddle my thumbs until——"

  "If it is the Lady Cleone you wait for, she is gone!" said Youth, quick and impetuous.

  "Ah!" sighed Mr. Chichester, viewing Barnabas through narrowed eyes, "gone, you say? But then, young sir," here he gently poked a dock-leaf into ruin, "but then, Cleone is one of your tempting, warm, delicious creatures! Cleone is a skilled coquette to whom all men are——men. To-night it is——you, to-morrow——" Mr. Chichester's right hand vanished into his bosom as Barnabas strode forward, but, on the instant, Billy Button was between them.

  "Stay, my Lord!" he cried, "look upon this face,——'t is the face of my friend Barnaby Bright, but, my Lord, it is also the face of Joan's son. You've heard tell of Joan, poor Joan who was unhappy, and ran away, and got lost,——you'll mind Joan Beverley?" Now, in the pause that followed, as Mr. Chichester gazed at Barnabas, his narrowed eyes opened, little by little, his compressed lips grew slowly loose, and the tasselled cane slipped from his fingers, and lay all neglected.

  "Sir," said Barnabas at last, "this is what I would have told you. I am the lawful son of Joan Beverley, whose maiden name I took for——a purpose. I have but to prove my claim and I can dispossess you of the inheritance you hold, which is mine by right. But, sir, I have enough for my needs, and I am, therefore, prepared to forego my just claim——on a condition."

  Mr. Chichester neither moved nor spoke.

  "My condition," Barnabas continued, "is this. That, from this hour, you loose whatever hold you have upon Ronald Barrymaine,——that you have no further communication with him, either by word or letter. Failing this, I institute proceedings at once, and will dispossess you as soon as may be. Sir, you have heard my condition, it is for you to answer."

  But, as he ended, Billy Button pointed a shaking finger downwards at the grass midway between them, and spoke:

  "Look!" he whispered, "look! Do you not see it——bubbling so dark, ——down there among the grass? Ah! it reaches your feet, Barnaby Bright. But——look yonder! it rises to his heart,——look!" and with a sudden, wild gesture, he pointed to Chichester's rigid figure. "Blood!" he cried, "blood!——cover it up! Oh, hide it——hide it!" Then, turning about, he sped away, his muffled buttons jingling faintly as he went, and so was presently gone.

  Then Barnabas loosed his horse and mounted, and, with never a glance nor word to the silent figure beneath the finger-post, galloped away London-wards.

  Now, had it been possible for a worn and decrepit finger-post to be endued with the faculty of motion (which, in itself, is a ridiculous thought, of course), it is probable that this particular one would have torn itself up bodily, and hastened desperately after Barnabas to point him away——away, east or west, or north or south,——anywhere, so long as it was far enough from him who stood so very still, and who stared with such eyes so long upon the moon, with his right hand still hidden in his breast, while the vivid mark glowed, and glowed upon the pallor of his cheek.

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