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The Amateur Gentleman (Chapter70)

2006-08-28 16:21

  Chapter LXX. Which Tells How Barnabas Rode Another Race

  Over Westminster Bridge and down the Borough galloped Barnabas, on through the roaring din of traffic, past rumbling coach and creaking wain, heedless of the shouts of wagoners and teamsters and the indignant cries of startled pedestrians, yet watchful of eye and ready of hand, despite his seeming recklessness.

  On sped the great, black horse, his pace increasing as the traffic lessened, on and on along the Old Kent Road, up the hill at New Cross and down again, and so through Lewisham to the open country beyond.

  And now the way was comparatively clear save for the swift-moving lights of some chaise or the looming bulk of crawling market-wagons: therefore Barnabas, bethinking him always of the long miles before him, and of the remorseless, creeping fingers of Natty Bell's great watch, slacked his rein, whereat "The Terror," snorting for joy, tossed his mighty crest on high and, bounding forward, fell into his long, racing stride, spurning London further and further into the dimness behind.

  Barnabas rode stooped low in the saddle, his watchful eyes scanning the road ahead, a glimmering track bordered by flying hedges, and trees that, looming ghost-like in the dusk, flitted past and, like ghosts, were gone again. Swift, swift sped the great, black horse, the glimmering road below, the luminous heaven above, a glorious canopy whence shone a myriad stars filling the still night with their soft, mysterious glow: a hot, midsummer night full of a great hush, a stillness wherein no wind stirred and upon whose deep silence distant sounds seemed magnified and rose, clear and plain, above the rhythmic drumming of "The Terror's" flying hoofs. Presently, out of the dimness ahead, lights twinkled, growing ever brighter and more numerous and Bromley was before him; came a long, paved street where people turned to stare, and point, and shout at him as he flashed by, and Bromley was behind him, and he was out upon the open road again where hedge, and barn, and tree seemed to leap at him from the dark only to vanish in the dimness behind.

  On swept the great, black horse, past fragrant rick and misty pool, past running rills that gurgled in the shadows, by wayside inns whence came the sound of voices and laughter with snatches of song, all quickly lost again in the rolling thunder of those tireless galloping hoofs; past lonely cottages where dim lights burned, over hill, over dale, by rolling meadow and sloping down, past darkling woods whence breathed an air cool and damp and sweet, on up the long ascent of Poll Hill and down into the valley again. Thus, in a while, Barnabas saw more lights before him that, clustering together, seemed to hang suspended in mid-air, and, with his frowning gaze upon these clustering lights, he rode up that long, trying hill that leads into the ancient township of Sevenoaks.

  At the further end of the town he turned aside and, riding into the yard of the Castle Inn, called for ale and, while he drank, stood by to watch the hissing ostlers as they rubbed down "The Terror" and gave him sparingly of water. So, into the saddle again and, bearing to the right, off and away for Tonbridge.

  But now, remembering the hill country before him, he checked his pace, and thus, as he went, became once more aware of the profound stillness of the night about him, and of a gathering darkness. Therefore lifting his gaze to the heavens, he saw a great, black cloud that grew and spread from east to west, putting out the stars.

  Now, with the gathering cloud, came sudden fear to clutch at his heart with icy fingers, a shivering dread lest, after all, he be too late; and, clenching sweating palms, Barnabas groaned, and in that moment "The Terror" leapt snorting beneath the rowelling spur.

  Suddenly, as they topped River Hill, out of the murk ahead there met him a puff of wind, a hot wind that came and so was gone again, but far away beyond the distant horizon to his left, the sombre heaven was split and rent asunder by a jagged lightning flash whose quivering light, for one brief instant, showed him a glimpse of the wide valley below, of the winding road, of field and hedgerow and motionless tree and, beyond, the square tower of a church, very small with distance yet, above whose battlements a tiny weather-vane flashed and glittered vividly ere all things vanished, swallowed up in the pitchy dark.

  And now came the wind again and in the wind was rain, a few great pattering drops, while the lightning flamed and quivered upon the horizon, and the thunder rolled ever louder and more near.

  Came a sudden, blinding flame, that seemed to crackle in the air near by, a stunning thunder-clap shaking the very firmament, and thereafter an aching blackness, upon whose startled silence burst the rain——a sudden, hissing downpour.

  Up——up reared "The Terror," whinnying with fear, then strove madly to turn and flee before the fury of wind, and flame, and lashing rain. Three times he swerved wildly, and three times he was checked, as with hand, and voice, and goading spur, Barnabas drove him on again——on down the steep descent, down, down into the yawning blackness of the valley below, on into the raging fury of the storm.

  So, buffeted by wind, lashed by stinging rain, blinded by vivid lightning-flash, Barnabas rode on down the hill.

  On and ever on, with teeth hard clenched, with eyes fierce and wide, heedless alike of wind and wet and flame, since he could think only of the man he rode to meet. And sometimes he uttered bitter curses, and sometimes he touched and fondled the weapons in his pocket, smiling evilly, for tonight, if he were not blasted by the lightning or crushed beneath his terrified horse, Barnabas meant this man should die.

  And now upon the rushing wind were voices, demon voices that shrieked and howled at him, filling the whirling blackness with their vicious clamor.

  "Kill him!" they shrieked. "Whether you are in time or no, kill him! kill him!"

  And Barnabas, heedless of the death that hissed and crackled in the air about him, fronting each lightning-flash with cruel-smiling mouth, nodded his head to the howling demons and answered:

  "Yes, yes, whether in time or no, tonight he dies!"

  And now, uplifted with a wild exhilaration, he laughed aloud, exulting in the storm; and now, crushed by fear and dread, and black despair, he raved out bitter curses and spurred on into the storm. Little by little the thought of this man he meant to slay possessed him utterly; it seemed to Barnabas that he could actually hear his soft, mocking laughter; it filled the night, rising high above the hiss of rain and rush of wind——the laugh of a satyr who waits, confident, assured, with arms out-stretched to clasp a shuddering goddess.

  On beneath trees, dim-seen, that rocked and swayed bending to the storm, splashing through puddles, floundering through mire, slack of rein and ready of spur, Barnabas galloped hard. And ever the mocking laughter rang in his ears, and ever the demons shrieked to him on the howling wind:

  "Kill him! kill him!"

  So, at last, amidst rain, and wind, and mud, Barnabas rode into Tonbridge Town, and staying at the nearest inn, dismounted stiffly in the yard and shouted hoarsely for ostlers to bring him to the stables. Being come there, it is Barnabas himself who holds the bucket while the foam-flecked "Terror" drinks, a modicum of water with a dash of brandy. Thereafter Barnabas stands by anxious-eyed what time two ostlers rub down the great, black horse; or, striding swiftly to and fro, the silver watch clutched in impatient hand, he questions the men in rapid tones, as:

  "Which is the nearest way to Headcorn?"

  "'Eadcorn, sir? Why surely you don't be thinking——"

  "Which is the nearest way to Headcorn?" repeats Barnabas, scowling blackly; whereat the fellow answers to the point and Barnabas falls to his feverish striding to and fro until, glancing from the watch in his hand to "The Terror's" lofty crest, observing that his heaving flanks labor no more and that he paws an impatient hoof, Barnabas thrusts watch in fob, tightens girth and surcingle and, having paid his score, swings himself stiffly into the saddle and is off and away, while the gaping ostlers stare after him through the falling rain till he has galloped out of sight.

  Away, away, down empty street, over rumbling bridge and so, bearing to the left, on and up the long hill of Pembury.

  Gradually the rain ceased, the wind died utterly away, the stars peeped out again. And now, upon the quiet, came the small, soft sound of trickling water, while the air was fragrant with a thousand sweet scents and warm, moist, earthy smells.

  But on galloped the great, black horse, by pointed oast-house, by gloomy church, on and ever on, his nostrils flaring, his eye wild, his laboring sides splashed with mire and streaked with foam and blood; on he galloped, faltering a little, stumbling a little, his breath coming in sobbing gasps, but maintaining still his long, racing stride; thundering through sleeping hamlets and waking echoes far and near, failing of strength, scant of breath, but indomitable still.

  Oh, mighty "Four-legs"! Oh, "Terror"! whose proud heart scorns defeat! to-night thou dost race as ne'er thou didst before, pitting thy strength and high courage against old Time himself! Therefore on, on, brave horse, enduring thy anguish as best thou may, nor look for mercy from the pitiless human who bestrides thee, who rides grim-lipped, to give death and, if need be, to taste of its bitterness himself, and who, unsparing of himself, shall neither spare thee.

  On, on, brave horse, endure as best thou may, since Death rides thee to-night.

  Now, in a while, Barnabas saw before him a wide street flanked on either hand by cottages, and with an ancient church beyond. And, as he looked at this church with its great, square tower outlined against the starry heaven, there came, borne to his ears, the fretful wailing of a sleepless child; therefore he checked his going and, glancing about, espied a solitary lighted window. Riding thither, he raised himself in his stirrups and, reaching up, tapped upon the panes; and, in a while, the casement was opened and a man peered forth, a drowsy being, touzled of head and round of eye.

  "Pray," said Barnabas, "what village is this?"

  "Why, sir," answered the man, "five an' forty year I've lived here, and always heard as it was called Headcorn."

  "Headcorn," said Barnabas, nodding, "then Ashleydown should be near here?"

  "Why, sir," said the man, nodding in turn, "I do believe you——leastways it were here about yesterday."

  "And where is it?"

  "Half a mile back down the road, you must ha' passed it, sir. A great house it be though inclined to ruination. And it lays back from the road wi' a pair o' gates——iron gates as is also ruinated, atween two stone pillars wi' a lion a-top of each, leastways if it ain't a lion it's a griffin, which is a fab'lous beast. And talking of beasts, sir, I do believe as that theer dratted child don't never mean to sleep no more. Good night to ye, sir——and may you sleep better a-nights than a married man wi' seven on 'em." Saying which, he nodded, sighed, and vanished.

  So back rode Barnabas the way he had come, and presently, sure enough, espied the dim outlines of the two stone columns each with "a lion a-top," and between these columns swung a pair of rusted iron gates; and the gates were open, seeing which Barnabas frowned and set his teeth, and so turned to ride between the gates, but, even as he did so, he caught the sound of wheels far down the road. Glancing thither he made out the twinkling lights of an approaching chaise, and sat awhile to watch its slow progress, then, acting upon sudden impulse, he spurred to meet it. Being come within hail he reined in across the road, and drawing a pistol levelled it at the startled post-boy.

  "Stop!" cried Barnabas.

  Uttering a frightened oath, the postilion pulled up with a jerk, but as the chaise came to a standstill a window rattled down. Then Barnabas lowered the pistol, and coming up beside the chaise looked down into the troubled face of my Lady Cleone. And her checks were very pale in the light of the lanterns, and upon her dark lashes was the glitter of tears.

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