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The Amateur Gentleman (Chapter30)

2006-08-28 16:11

  Chapter XXX. In Which Ronald Barrymaine Makes His Choice

  There was a moment of strained silence, then, as Barnabas sank back on the rickety chair, Mr. Chichester laughed softly, and stepped into the room.

  "Salvation, was it, and a new life?" he inquired, "are you the one to be saved, Ronald, or Smivvle here, or both?"

  Ronald Barrymaine was dumb, his eyes sought the floor, and his pale cheek became, all at once, suffused with a burning, vivid scarlet.

  "I couldn't help but overhear as I came upstairs," pursued Mr. Chichester pleasantly, "and devilish dark stairs they are——"

  "Though excellent for eavesdropping, it appears!" added Barnabas.

  "What?" cried Barrymaine, starting up, "listening, were you——s-spying on me——is that your game, Chichester?" But hereupon Mr. Smivvle started forward.

  "Now, my dear Barry," he remonstrated, "be calm——"

  "Calm? I tell you nobody's going to spy on me,——no, by heaven! neither you, nor Chichester, nor the d-devil himself——"

  "Certainly not, my dear fellow," answered Mr. Smivvle, drawing Barrymaine's clenched fist through his arm and holding it there, "nobody wants to. And, as for you, Chichester——couldn't come at a better time——let me introduce our friend Mr. Beverley——"

  "Thank you, Smivvle, but we've met before," said Mr. Chichester dryly, "last time he posed as Rustic Virtue in homespun, to-day it seems he is the Good Samaritan in a flowered waistcoat, very anxiously bent on saving some one or other——conditionally, of course!"

  "And what the devil has it to do with you?" cried Barrymaine passionately.

  "Nothing, my dear boy, nothing in the world,——except that until to-day you have been my friend, and have honored me with your confidence."

  "Yes, by heavens! So I have——utterly——utterly,——and what I haven't told you——y-you've found out for yourself——though God knows how. N-not that I've anything to f-fear,——not I!"

  "Of course not," smiled Mr. Chichester, "I am——your friend, Ronald, ——and I think you will always remember that." Mr. Chichester's tone was soothing, and the pat he bestowed upon Barrymaine's drooping shoulder was gentle as a caress, yet Barrymaine flinched and drew away, and the hand he stretched out towards the bottle was trembling all at once.

  "Yes," Mr. Chichester repeated more softly than before, "yes, I am your friend, Ronald, you must always remember that, and indeed I——fancy——you always will." So saying, Mr. Chichester patted the drooping shoulder again, and turned to lay aside his hat and cane. Barrymaine was silent, but into his eyes had crept a look——such a look as Barnabas had never seen——such a look as Barnabas could never afterwards forget; then Barrymaine stooped to reach for the bottle.

  "Well," said he, without looking up again, "s-suppose you are my friend,——what then?"

  "Why, then, my dear fellow, hearing you are to be saved——on a condition——I am, naturally enough, anxious to know what that condition may be?"

  "Sir," said Barnabas, "let me hasten to set your anxiety at rest. My condition is merely that Mr. Barrymaine gives up two evil things——namely, brandy and yourself."

  And now there fell a silence so utter that Barnabas could distinctly hear the tick of Natty Bell's great watch in his fob; a silence in which Mr. Smivvle stared with wide-eyed dismay, while Barrymaine sat motionless with his glass half-way to his lips. Then Mr. Chichester laughed again, but the scar glowed upon his pallid cheek, and the lurking demon peeped out of his narrowed eyes.

  "And for this," said he, shaking his head in gentle disbelief, "for this our young Good Samaritan is positively eager to pay twenty thousand odd pounds——"

  "As a loan," muttered Barrymaine, "it would be only a loan, and I——I should be free of Jasper Gaunt f-for good and all, damn him!"

  "Let us rather say you would try a change of masters——"

  "Now——by God——Chichester——!"

  "Ah!——ah, to be sure, Ronald, our young Good Samaritan having purchased the brother, would naturally expect the sister——"

  "Have a c-care, Chichester, I say!"

  "The sister to be grateful, my dear boy. Pah! don't you see it, Ronald? a sprat to catch a whale! The brother saved, the sister's gratitude gained——Oh, most disinterested, young Good Samaritan!"

  "Ha! by heaven, I never thought of that!" cried Barrymaine, turning upon Barnabas, "is it Cleone——is it? is it?"

  "No," said Barnabas, folding his arms——a little ostentatiously, "I seek only to be your friend in this."

  "Friend!" exclaimed Mr. Chichester, laughing again, "friend, Ronald? Nay, let us rather say your guardian angel in cords and Hessians."

  "Since you condescend to mention my boots, sir," said Barnabas growing polite, "may I humbly beg you to notice that, in spite of their polish and tassels, they are as strong, as serviceable for kicking purposes as those I wore when we last——sat at table together."

  Mr. Chichester's iron self-control wavered for a moment, his brows twitched together, and he turned upon Barnabas with threatening gesture but, reading the purpose in the calm eye and smiling lip of Barnabas, he restrained himself; yet seeming aware of the glowing mark upon his cheek, he turned suddenly and, coming to the dingy casement, stood with his back to the room, staring down into the dingy street. Then Barnabas leaned forward and laid his hand upon Barrymaine's, and it so happened it was the hand that yet held the slopping wineglass.

  "Think——think!" said Barnabas earnestly, "once you are free of Gaunt, life will begin afresh for you, you can hold up your head again——"

  "Though never in London, Ronald, I fear," added Mr. Chichester over his shoulder.

  "Once free of Gaunt, you may attain to higher things than you ever did," said Barnabas.

  "Unless the dead past should happen to come to life again, and find a voice some day," added Mr. Chichester over his shoulder.

  "No, no!" said Barnabas, feeling the quiver of the fingers within his own, "I tell you it would mean a new beginning——a new life——a new ending for you——"

  "And for Cleone!" added Mr. Chichester over his shoulder, "our young, disinterested Good Samaritan knows she is too proud to permit a stranger to shoulder her brother's responsibilities——"

  "Proud, eh?" cried Barrymaine, leaping up in sudden boyish passion, "well, am I not proud? Did you ever know me anything else——did you?"

  "Never, my dear Ronald," cried Mr. Chichester, turning at last. "You are unfortunate, but you have always met disaster——so far, with the fortitude of a gentleman, scorning your detractors and——abominating charity."

  "C-charity! damn you, Chichester, d' ye think I-I'd accept any man's c-charity? D' you think I'd ever drag Cleone to that depth——do you?"

  "Never, Barrymaine, never, I swear."

  "Why then——leave me alone, I can m-manage my own affairs——" "Perfectly, my dear fellow, I am sure of it."

  "Then sir," said Barnabas, rising, "seeing it really is no concern of yours, after all, suppose you cease to trouble yourself any further in the matter, and allow Mr. Barrymaine to choose for himself——"

  "I——I have decided!" cried Barrymaine, "and I tell you——"

  "Wait!" said Barnabas.

  "Speak!" said Mr. Chichester.

  "Wait!" repeated Barnabas, "Mr. Chichester is——going, I think. Let us wait until we are alone." Then, bowing to Mr. Chichester, Barnabas opened the door wide. "Sir," said he, "may I venture to suggest that your presence is——not at all necessary?"

  "Ah!" said Mr. Chichester, "you will certainly compel me to kill you, some day."

  "'Sufficient unto the day,' sir!" Barnabas retorted; "in the meantime I shall most certainly give myself the pleasure of kicking you downstairs unless you choose to walk——at once."

  As he spoke, Barnabas took a stride towards Mr. Chichester's rigid figure, but, in that moment, Barrymaine snatched up the bottle and sprang between them.

  "Ah!——would you?" he cried, "who are you to order my f-friends about——and in m-my own place too! Ha! did you think you could buy me, d-did you? Did you think I——I'd sacrifice my sister——did you? Ha! drunk, am I? Well, I'm sober enough to——to 'venge my honor and hers; by God I'll kill you! Ah——let go, Dig! Let go, I say! Didn't you hear? Tempt me with his cursed money, will he! Oh, let go my arm! Damn him, I say——I'll kill him!"

  But, as he struck, Mr. Smivvle caught his wrist, the bottle crashed splintering to the floor, and they were locked in a fierce grapple.

  "Beverley——my dear fellow——go!" panted Mr. Smivvle, "must forgive——poor Barry——not himself. Go——go,——I can——manage him. Now Barry, do be calm! Go, my dear fellow——leave him to me——go!" So, perforce, Barnabas turned away and went down the dingy stairs, and in his ears was the echo of the boy's drunken ravings and Mr. Chichester's soft laughter.

  And presently, being come into the dingy street, Barnabas paused to look up at the dingy house, and looking, sighed.

  "She said it would be 'difficult, and dangerous, perhaps,'" said he to himself, "and indeed I think she was right."

  Then he turned and went upon his way, heavy-footed and chin on breast. On he went, plunged in gloomy abstraction, turning corners at random, lost to all but the problem he had set himself, which was this:

  How he might save Ronald Barrymaine in spite of Ronald Barrymaine.

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