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The Amateur Gentleman (Chapter71)

2006-08-28 16:21

  Chapter LXXI. Which Tells How Barnabas, in His Folly, Chose the Harder Course

  "You! Is it you——Barnabas?" she whispered and thereafter sighed, a long, quivering sigh. "I——I've been hoping you would come!"

  And now, as he looked at her, he saw that her cheeks were suffused, all at once, with a warm and vivid color. "Hoped?" said Barnabas, wondering.

  "And——prayed!" she whispered.

  "Then, you expected me? You knew I should come?"

  "Yes, Barnabas. I——I hoped you would see my——letter to Ronald——that was why I wrote it! And I prayed that you might come——"

  "Why?"

  "Because I——oh, Barnabas, I'm afraid!"

  "You were going to——Chichester?"

  "Yes, Barnabas."

  "You don't——love him, do you?"

  "Love him!" she repeated, "Oh, God!"

  And Barnabas saw her shudder violently.

  "Yet you were going to him."

  "To save my brother. But now——God help me, I can't do it! Oh, it's too hateful and——and I am afraid, Barnabas. I ought to have been at Ashleydown an hour ago, but oh, I——I couldn't, it was too horrible——I couldn't! So I came the longest way; I made the post-boy drive very slowly, I——I was waiting——for you, Barnabas, praying God that you would come to me——"

  "Because you——were afraid, my lady."

  "Yes, Barnabas."

  "And behold, I am here!" said Barnabas. But now, seeing the quiver of her white hands, and the light in her eyes——a sudden glow that was not of the lanterns, he turned his head and looked resolutely away.

  "I am here, my lady, to take you back home again," said he.

  "Home?" she repeated. "Ah, no, no——I have no home, now! Oh, Barnabas," she whispered, "take me, take me away——to my brother. Let us go away from England to-night——anywhere, take me with you, Barnabas."

  Now, as she spoke, her hands came out to him with a swift gesture, full of passionate entreaty. And the lanterns made a shining glory of her hair, and showed him the deep wonder of her eyes, the quick surge of her round, young bosom, the tender quiver of the parted lips as she waited his answer; thus our Barnabas beholding the witchery of her shy-drooping lashes, the scarlet lure of her mouth, the yielding warmth and all the ripe beauty of her, fell suddenly a-trembling and sighed; then, checking the sigh, looked away again across the dim desolation of the country-side, and clenched his hands.

  "My lady," said he, his voice hoarse and uncertain, "why do you——tempt me? I am only——an amateur gentleman——why do you tempt me so?" As he spoke he wheeled his horse and motioned to the flinching postboy. "Turn!" he commanded.

  "No!" cried Cleone.

  "Turn!" said Barnabas, and, as the post-boy hesitated, levelled his pistol.

  But now, even as the postilion chirruped to his horses, the chaise door was flung open and Cleone sprang down into the road; but even so, Barnabas barred her way.

  "Let me pass!" she cried.

  "To Chichester?"

  "Yes——God help me. Since you force me to it! Let me go!"

  "Get back into the chaise, my lady."

  "No, no! Let me pass, I go to save my brother——"

  "Not this way!"

  "Oh!" she cried passionately, "you force it upon me, yes——you! you! If you won't help me, I must go to him! Dear heaven! there is no other way, let me go——you must——you shall!"

  "Go back into the chaise, my lady."

  Barnabas spoke very gently but, as she stared up at him, a movement of his horse brought him into the light of the lanterns and, in that moment, her breath caught, for now she beheld him as she had seen him once before, a wild, desperate figure, bare-headed, torn, and splashed with mud; grim of mouth, and in his eyes a look she had once dreamed of and never since forgotten. And, as she gazed, Barnabas spoke again and motioned with his pistol hand.

  "Get back into the chaise, my lady."

  "No!" she answered, and, though her face was hidden now, he knew that she was weeping. "I'm going on, now——to Ashleydown, to save Ronald, to redeem the promise I gave our mother; I must, I must, and oh——nothing matters to me——any more, so let me go!"

  "My lady," said Barnabas, in the same weary tone, "you must get back into the chaise."

  "And let Ronald die——and such a death! Never! oh never!"

  Barnabas sighed, slipped the pistol into his pocket and dismounted, but, being upon his feet, staggered; then, or ever she knew, he had caught her in his arms, being minded to bear her to the chaise. But in that moment, he looked down and so stood there, bound by the spell of her beauty, forgetful of all else in the world, for the light of the lanterns was all about them, and Cleone's eyes were looking up into his.

  "Barnabas," she whispered, "Barnabas, don't let me go!——save me from——that!"

  "Ah, Cleone," he murmured, "oh, my lady, do you doubt me still? Can you think that I should fail you?

  "Oh, my dear, my dear——I've found a way, and mine is a better way than yours. Be comforted then and trust me, Cleone."

  Then, she stirred in his embrace, and, sighing, hid her face close against him and, with her face thus hidden, spoke:

  "Yes, yes——I do trust you, Barnabas, utterly, utterly! Take me away with you——tonight, take me to Ronald and let us go away together, no matter where so long as——we go——together, Barnabas." Now when she said this, she could feel how his arms tightened about her, could hear how his breath caught sudden and sharp, and, though she kept her face hid from him, well she knew what look was in his eyes; therefore she lay trembling a little, sighing a little, and with fast-beating heart. And, in a while, Barnabas spoke:

  "My lady," said he heavily, "would you trust yourself to——a publican's son?"

  "If he would not be——too proud to——take me, Barnabas."

  "Oh, my lady——can't you see that if I——if I take you with me tonight, you must be with me——always?"

  Cleone sighed.

  "And I am a discredited impostor, the——the jest of every club in London!"

  Cleone's hand stole up, and she touched his grimly-set chin very gently with one white finger.

  "I am become a thing for the Fashionable World to sharpen its wits upon," he continued, keeping his stern gaze perseveringly averted. "And so, my lady——because I cannot any longer cheat folks into accepting me as a——gentleman, I shall in all probability become a farmer, some day."

  Cleone sighed.

  "But you," Barnabas continued, a little harshly, "you were born for higher and greater fortune than to become the wife of a humble farming fellow, and consequently——"

  "But I can make excellent butter, Barnabas," she sighed, stealing a glance up to him, "and I can cook——a little."

  Now when she said this, he must needs look down at her again and lo! there, at the corner of her mouth was the ghost of the dimple! And, beholding this, seeing the sudden witchery of her swift-drooping lashes, Barnabas forgot his stern resolutions and stooped his head, that he might kiss the glory of her hair. But, in that moment, she turned, swift and sudden, and yielded him her lips, soft, and warm, and passionate with youth and all the joy of life. And borne away upon that kiss, it seemed to Barnabas, for one brief, mad-sweet instant that all things might be possible; if they started now they might reach London in the dawn and, staying only for Barrymaine, be aboard ship by evening! And it was a wide world, a very fair world, and with this woman beside him——

  "It would be so——so very easy!" said he, slowly.

  "Yes, it will be very easy!" she whispered.

  "Too easy!" said he, beginning to frown, "you are so helpless and lonely, and I want you so bitterly, Cleone! Yes, it would be very easy. But you taught me once, that a man must ever choose the harder way, and this is the harder way, to love you, to long for you, and to bid you——good-by!"

  "Oh! Barnabas?"

  "Ah, Cleone, you could make the wretchedest hut a paradise for me, but for you, ah, for you it might some day become only a hut, and I, only a discredited Amateur Gentleman, after all."

  Then Barnabas sighed and thereafter frowned, and so bore her to the chaise and setting her within, closed the door.

  "Turn!" he cried to the postilion.

  "Barnabas!"

  But the word was lost in the creak of wheels and stamping of hoofs as the chaise swung round; then Barnabas remounted and, frowning still, trotted along beside it. Now in a while, lifting his sombre gaze towards a certain place beside the way, he beheld the dim outline of a finger-post, a very ancient finger-post which (though it was too dark to read its inscription) stood, he knew, with wide-stretched arms pointing the traveller:

  TO LONDON.    TO HAWKHURST.

  And being come opposite the finger-post, he ordered the post-boy to stop, for, small with distance, he caught the twinkling lights of lanterns that swung to and fro, and, a moment later, heard a hail, faint and far, yet a stentorian bellow there was no mistaking. Therefore coming close beside the chaise, he stooped down and looked within, and thus saw that Cleone leaned in the further corner with her face hidden in her hands.

  "You are safe, now, my lady," said he, "the Bo'sun is coming, the Captain will be here very soon."

  But my lady never stirred.

  "You are safe now," he repeated, "as for Ronald, if Chichester's silence can save him, you need grieve no more, and——"

  "Ah!" she cried, glancing up suddenly, "what do you mean?"

  "That I must go, my lady, and——and——oh, my dear love, this harder way——is very hard to tread. If——we should meet no more after tonight, remember that I loved you——as I always have done and always must, humble fellow though I am. Yes, I think I love you as well as any fine gentleman of them all, and——Cleone——Good-by!"

  "Barnabas," she cried, "tell me what you mean to do——oh, Barnabas, where are you going?" And now she reached out her hands as though to stay him. But, even so, he drew away, and, wheeling his horse, pointed towards the twinkling lights.

  "Drive on!" he cried to the post-boy.

  "Barnabas, wait!"

  "Drive on!" he cried, "whip——spur!"

  "Barnabas, stay! Oh, Barnabas, listen——"

  But as Cleone strove desperately to open the door, the chaise lurched forward, the horses broke into a gallop, and Barnabas, sitting there beneath the ancient finger-post, saw imploring hands stretched out towards him, heard a desolate cry, and——he was alone. So Barnabas sat there amid the gloom, and watched Happiness go from him. Very still he sat until the grind of wheels had died away in the distance; then he sighed, and spurring his jaded horse, rode back towards Headcorn.

  And thus did Barnabas, in his folly, forego great joy, and set aside the desire of his heart that he might tread that Harder Way, which yet can be trod only by the foot of——A Man.

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