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The Amateur Gentleman (Chapter22)

2006-08-28 16:08

  Chapter XXII. In Which the Reader is Introduced to an Ancient Finger-Post

  "Why, Cleone!" exclaimed the Captain, and folded his solitary arm about her; but not content with this, my lady must needs take his empty sleeve also, and, drawing it close about her neck, she held it there.

  "Oh, Cleone!" sighed the Captain, "my dear, dear lass!"

  "No," she cried, "I'm a heartless savage, an ungrateful wretch! I am, I am——and I hate myself!" and here, forthwith, she stamped her foot at herself.

  "No, no, you're not——I say no! You didn't mean to break my heart. You've come back to me, thank God, and——and——Oh, egad, Cleone, I swear——I say I swear——by Gog and Magog, I'm snuffling like a birched schoolboy; but then I——couldn't bear to——lose my dear maid."

  "Dear," she sighed, brushing away his tears with the cuff of his empty sleeve, "dear, if you'd only try to hate me a little——just a little, now and then, I don't think I should be quite such a wretch to you." Here she stood on tip-toe and kissed him on the chin, that being nearest. "I'm a cat——yes, a spiteful cat, and I must scratch sometimes; but ah! if you knew how I hated myself after! And I know you'll go and forgive me again, and that's what makes it so hard to bear."

  "Forgive you, Clo'——ay, to be sure! You've come back to me, you see, and you didn't mean to leave me solitary and——"

  "Ah, but I did——I did! And that's why I am a wretch, and a cat, and a savage! I meant to run away and leave you for ever and ever!"

  "The house would be very dark without you, Cleone."

  "Dear, hold me tighter——now listen! There are times when I hate the house, and the country, and——yes, even you. And at such times I grow afraid of myself——hold me tighter!——at such times I long for London——and——and——Ah, but you do love me, don't you?"

  "Love you——my own lass!" The Captain's voice was very low, yet eloquent with yearning tenderness; but even so, his quick ear had caught a rustle in the hedge, and his sharp eye had seen Barnabas standing in the shadow. "Who's that?" he demanded sharply.

  "Why, indeed," says my lady, "I had forgotten him. 'Tis a friend of yours, I think. Pray come out, Mr. Beverley."

  "Beverley!" exclaimed the Captain. "Now sink me! what's all this? Come out, sir,——I say come out and show yourself!"

  So Barnabas stepped out from the hedge, and uncovering his head, bowed low.

  "Your very humble, obedient servant, sir," said he.

  "Ha! by Thor and Odin, so it's you again, is it, sir? Pray, what brings you still so far from the fashionable world? What d'ye want, sir, eh, sir?"

  "Briefly, sir," answered Barnabas, "your ward."

  "Eh——what? what?" cried the Captain.

  "Sir," returned Barnabas, "since you are the Lady Cleone's lawful guardian, it is but right to tell you that I hope to marry her——some day."

  "Marry!" exclaimed the Captain. "Marry my——damme, sir, but you're cool——I say cool and devilish impudent, and——and——oh, Gad, Cleone!"

  "My dear," said she, smiling and stroking her tyrant's shaven cheek, "why distress ourselves, we can always refuse him, can't we?"

  "Ay, to be sure, so we can," nodded the Captain, "but oh! sink me,——I say sink and scuttle me, the audacity of it! I say he's a cool, impudent, audacious fellow!"

  "Yes, dear, indeed I think he's all that," said my lady, nodding her head at Barnabas very decidedly, "and I forgot to tell you that beside all this, he is the——gentleman who——saved me from my folly to-night, and brought me back to you."

  "Eh? eh?" cried the Captain, staring.

  "Yes, dear, and this is he who——" But here she drew down her tyrant's gray head, and whispered three words in his ear. Whatever she said it affected the Captain mightily, for his frown changed suddenly into his youthful smile, and reaching out impulsively, he grasped Barnabas by the hand.

  "Aha, sir!" said he, "you have a good, big fist here!"

  "Indeed," said Barnabas, glancing down at it somewhat ruefully, "it is——very large, I fear."

  "Over large, sir!" says my lady, also regarding it, and with her head at a critical angle, "it could never be called——an elegant hand, could it?"

  "Elegant!" snorted the Captain, "I say pooh! I say pish! Sir, you must come in and sup with us, my house is near by. Good English beef and ale, sir."

  Barnabas hesitated, and glanced toward Cleone, but her face was hidden in the shadow of her hood, wherefore his look presently wandered to the finger-post, near by, upon whose battered sign he read the words:——

  TO HAWKHURST.    TO LONDON.

  "Sir," said he, "I would, most gratefully, but that I start for London at once." Yet while he spoke, he frowned blackly at the finger-post, as though it had been his worst enemy.

  "London!" exclaimed the Captain, "so you are still bound for the fashionable world, are ye?"

  "Yes," sighed Barnabas, "but I——"

  "Pish, sir, I say fiddle-de-dee!"

  "I have lately undertaken a mission."

  "Ha! So you won't come in?"

  "Thank you, no; this mission is important, and I must be gone;" and here again Barnabas sighed.

  Then my lady turned and looked at Barnabas, and, though she uttered no word, her eyes were eloquent; so that the heart of him was uplifted, and he placed his hand upon the finger-post as though it had been his best friend.

  "Why then, so be it, young sir," said the Captain, "it remains only to thank you, which I do, I say which I do most heartily, and to bid you good-by."

  "Until we meet again, Captain."

  "Eh——what, sir? meet when?"

  "At 'Barnaby Bright,'" says my lady, staring up at the moon.

  "In a month's time," added Barnabas.

  "Eh?" exclaimed the Captain, "what's all this?"

  "In a month's time, sir, I shall return to ask Cleone to be my wife," Barnabas explained.

  "And," said my lady, smiling at the Captain's perplexity, "we shall be glad to see him, shan't we, dear? and shall, of course, refuse him, shan't we, dear?"

  "Refuse him? yes——no——egad! I don't know," said the Captain, running his fingers through his hair, "I say, deuce take me——I'm adrift; I say where's the Bo'sun?"

  "Good-by, sir!" says my lady, very seriously, and gave him her hand; "good-by."

  "Till 'Barnaby Bright,'" said Barnabas.

  At this she smiled, a little tremulously perhaps.

  "May heaven prosper you in your mission," said she, and turned away.

  "Young sir," said the Captain, "always remember my name is Chumly, John Chumly, plain and unvarnished, and, whether we refuse you or not, John Chumly will ever be ready to take you by the hand. Farewell, sir!"

  So tyrant and captive turned away and went down the by-road together, and his solitary arm was close about her. But Barnabas stood there under the finger-post until a bend in the road hid them; then he, too, sighed and turned away. Yet he had gone only a little distance when he heard a voice calling him, and, swinging round, he saw Cleone standing under the finger-post.

  "I wanted to give you——this," said she, as he came striding back, and held out a folded paper. "It is his——my brother's——letter. Take it with you, it will serve to show you what a boy he is, and will tell you where to find him."

  So Barnabas took the letter and thrust it into his pocket. But she yet stood before him, and now, once again, their glances avoided each other.

  "I also wanted to——ask you——about your cheek," said she at last.

  "Yes?" said Barnabas.

  "You are quite sure it doesn't——pain you, Mr. Bev——"

  "Must I remind you that my name——"

  "Are you quite sure——Barnabas?"

  "Quite sure——yes, oh yes!" he stammered.

  "Because it——glows very red!" she sighed, though indeed she still kept her gaze averted, "so will you please——stoop your head a little?"

  Wonderingly Barnabas obeyed, and then——even as he did so, she leaned swiftly towards him, and for an instant her soft, warm mouth rested upon his cheek. Then, before he could stay her, she was off and away; and her flying feet had borne her out of sight.

  Then Barnabas sighed, and would have followed, but the ancient finger-post barred his way with its two arms pointing:——

  TO HAWKHURST.     TO LONDON.

  So he stopped, glanced about him to fix the hallowed place in his memory, and, obeying the directing finger, set off London-wards.

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