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The Amateur Gentleman (Chapter20)

2006-08-28 16:08

  Chapter XX. Of the Prophecy of One Billy Button, a Madman

  Upon the quiet stole a rustle of leaves, a whisper that came and went, intermittently, that grew louder and louder, and so was gone again; but in place of this was another sound, a musical jingle like the chime of fairy bells, very far, and faint, and sweet. All at once Barnabas knew that his companion's fear of him was gone, swallowed up——forgotten in terror of the unknown. He heard a slow-drawn, quivering sigh, and then, pale in the dimness, her hand came out to him, crept down his arm, and finding his hand, hid itself in his warm clasp; and her hand was marvellous cold, and her fingers stirred and trembled in his.

  Came again a rustling in the leaves, but louder now, and drawing nearer and nearer, and ever the fairy chime swelled upon the air. And even as it came Barnabas felt her closer, until her shoulder touched his, until the fragrance of her breath fanned his cheek, until the warmth of her soft body thrilled through him, until, loud and sudden in the silence, a voice rose——a rich, deep voice:

  "'Now is the witching hour when graveyards yawn'——the witching hour——aha!——Oh! poor pale ghost, I know thee——by thy night-black hair and sad, sweet eyes——I know thee. Alas, so young and dead——while I, alas, so old and much alive! Yet I, too, must die some day——soon, soon, beloved shadow. Then shall my shade encompass thine and float up with thee into the infinite. But now, aha! now is the witching hour! Oh! shades and phantoms, I summon thee, fairies, pixies, ghosts and goblins, come forth, and I will sing you and dance you."

  "Tis a rare song, mine——and well liked by the quality,——you've heard it before, perchance——ay, ay for you, being dead, hear and see all things, oh, Wise Ones! Come, press round me, so. Now, hearkee, 'Oysters! oysters! and away we go."

  "'Many a knight and lady fair My oysters fine would try,They are the finest oysters, sir,That ever you did buy. Oysters! who'll buy my oysters, oh!'"

  The bushes rustled again, and into the dimness leapt a tall, dark figure that sang in a rich, sweet voice, and capered among the shadows with a fantastic dancing step, then grew suddenly silent and still. And in that moment the moon shone out again, shone down upon a strange, wild creature, bareheaded and bare of foot. A very tall man he was, with curling gray hair that hung low upon his shoulders, and upon his coat were countless buttons of all makes and kinds that winked and glittered in the moonlight, and jingled faintly as he moved. For a moment he stood motionless and staring, then, laying one hand to the gleaming buttons on his bosom, bowed with an easy, courtly grace.

  "Who are you?" demanded Barnabas.

  "Billy, sir, poor Billy——Sir William, perhaps——but, mum for that; the moon knows, but cannot tell, then why should I?"

  "And what do you want——here?"

  "To sing, sir, for you and the lady, if you will. I sing for high folk and low folk. I have many songs, old and new, grave and gay, but folk generally ask for my Oyster Song. I sing for rich and poor, for the sad and for the merry. I sing at country fairs sometimes, and sometimes to trees in lonely places——trees are excellent listeners always. But to-night I sing for——Them."

  "And who are they?"

  "The Wise Ones, who, being dead, know all things, and live on for ever. Ah, but they're kind to poor Billy, and though they have no buttons to give him, yet they tell him things sometimes. Aha! such things!——things to marvel at! So I sing for them always when the moon is full, but, most of all, I sing for Her."

  "Who is she?"

  "One who died, many years ago. Folk told her I was dead, killed at sea, and her heart broke——hearts will break——sometimes. So when she died, I put off the shoes from my feet, and shall go barefoot to my grave. Folk tell me that poor Billy's mad——well, perhaps he is——but he sees and hears more than folk think; the Wise Ones tell me things. You now; what do they tell me of you? Hush! You are on your way to London, they tell me——yes——yes, to London town; you are rich, and shall feast with princes, but youth is over-confident, and thus shall you sup with beggars. They tell me you came here to-night——oh, Youth!——oh, Impulse!——hasting——hasting to save a wanton from herself."

  "Fool!" exclaimed Barnabas, turning upon the speaker in swift anger; for my lady's hand had freed itself from his clasp, and she had drawn away from him.

  "Fool?" repeated the man, shaking his head, "nay, sir, I am only mad, folk tell me. Yet the Wise Ones make me their confidant, they tell me that she——this proud lady——is here to aid an unworthy brother, who sent a rogue instead."

  "Brother!" exclaimed Barnabas, with a sudden light in his eyes.

  "Who else, sir?" demands my lady, very cold and proud again all at once.

  "But," stammered Barnabas, "but——I thought——"

  "Evil of me!" says she.

  "No——that is——I——I——Forgive me!"

  "Sir, there are some things no woman can forgive; you dared to think——"

  "Of the rogue who came instead," said Barnabas.

  "Ah!——the rogue?"

  "His name is Chichester," said Barnabas.

  "Chichester!" she repeated, incredulously. "Chichester!"

  "A tall, slender, dark man, with a scar on his cheek," added Barnabas.

  "Do you mean he was here——here to meet me——alone?"

  Now, at this she seemed to shrink into herself; and, all at once, sank down, crouching upon her knees, and hid her face from the moon.

  "My lady!"

  "Oh!" she sighed, "oh, that he should have come to this!"

  "My Lady Cleone!" said Barnabas, and touched her very gently.

  "And you——you!" she cried, shuddering away from him, "you thought me what——he would have made me! You thought I——Oh, shame! Ah, don't touch me!"

  But Barnabas stooped and caught her hands, and sank upon his knees, and thus, as they knelt together in the moonlight, he drew her so that she must needs let him see her face.

  "My lady," said he, very reverently, "my thought of you is this, that, if such great honor may be mine, I will marry you——to-night."

  But hereupon, with her two hands still prisoned in his, and with the tears yet thick upon her lashes, she threw back her head, and laughed with her eyes staring into his. Thereat Barnabas frowned blackly, and dropped her hands, then caught her suddenly in his long arms, and held her close.

  "By God!" he exclaimed, "I'd kiss you, Cleone, on that scornful, laughing mouth, only——I love you——and this is a solitude. Come away!"

  "A solitude," she repeated; "yes, and he sent me here, to meet a beast——a satyr! And now——you! You drove away the other brute, oh! I can't struggle——you are too strong——and nothing matters now!" And so she sighed, and closed her eyes. Then gazing down upon her rich, warm beauty, Barnabas trembled, and loosed her, and sprang to his feet.

  "I think," said he, turning away to pick up his cudgel, "I think——we had——better——go."

  But my lady remained crouched upon her knees, gazing up at him under her wet lashes.

  "You didn't——kiss me!" she said, wonderingly.

  "You were so——helpless!" said Barnabas. "And I honor you because it was——your brother."

  "Ah! but you doubted me first, you thought I came here to meet that——beast!"

  "Forgive me," said Barnabas, humbly.

  "Why should I?"

  "Because I love you."

  "So many men have told me that," she sighed.

  "But I," said Barnabas, "I am the last, and it is written 'the last shall be first,' and I love you because you are passionate, and pure, and very brave."

  "Love!" she exclaimed, "so soon; you have seen me only once!"

  "Yes," he nodded, "it is, therefore, to be expected that I shall worship you also——in due season."

  Now Barnabas stood leaning upon his stick, a tall, impassive figure; his voice was low, yet it thrilled in her ears, and there was that in his steadfast eyes before which her own wavered and fell; yet, even so, from the shadow of her hood, she must needs question him further.

  "Worship me? When?"

  "When you are——my——wife."

  Again she was silent, while one slender hand plucked nervously at the grass.

  "Are you so sure of me?" she inquired at last.

  "No; only of myself."

  "Ah! you mean to——force a promise from me——here?"

  "No."

  "Why not?"

  "Because it is night, and you are solitary; I would not have you fear me again. But I shall come to you, one day, a day when the sun is in the sky, and friends are within call. I shall come and ask you then."

  "And if I refuse?"

  "Then I shall wait."

  "Until I wed another?"

  "Until you change your mind."

  "I think I shall——refuse you."

  "Indeed, I fear it is very likely."

  "Why?"

  "Because of my unworthiness; and, therefore, I would not have you kneel while I stand."

  "And the grass is very damp," she sighed.

  So Barnabas stepped forward with hand outstretched to aid her, but, as he did so, the wandering singer was between them, looking from one to the other with his keen, bright eyes.

  "Stay!" said he. "The Wise Ones have told me that she who kneels before you now, coveted for her beauty, besought for her money, shall kneel thus in the time to come; and one——even I, poor Billy——shall stand betwixt you and join your hands thus, and bid you go forth trusting in each other's love and strength, even as poor Billy does now. And, mayhap, in that hour you shall heed the voice, for time rings many changes; the proud are brought low, the humble exalted. Hush! the Wise Ones grow impatient for my song; I hear them calling from the trees, and must begone. But hearkee! they have told me your name, Barnabas? yes, yes; Barn——, Barnabas; for the other, no matter——mum for that! Barnabas, aha! that minds me——at Barnaby Bright we shall meet again, all three of us, under an orbed moon, at Barnaby Bright:——"

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

  "Ay, ay, 't is the night o' the fairies——when spirits pervade the air. Then will I tell you other truths; but now——They call me. She is fair, and passing fair, and by her beauty, suffering shall come upon thee; but 'tis by suffering that men are made, and because of pride, shame shall come on her; but by shame cometh humility. Farewell; I must begone——farewell till Barnaby Bright. We are to meet again in London town, I think——yes, yes——in London. Oho! oysters! oysters, sir?"

  "Many a knight and lady gay My oysters fine would try,They are the finest oysters That ever you could buy!

  Oysters! Oysters."

  And so he bowed, turned, and danced away into the shadows, and above the hush of the leaves rose the silvery jingle of his many buttons, that sank to a chime, to a murmur, and was gone. And now my lady sighed and rose to her feet, and looking at Barnabas, sighed again——though indeed a very soft, little sigh this time. As for Barnabas, he yet stood wondering, and looking after the strange creature, and pondering his wild words. Thus my lady, unobserved, viewed him at her leisure; noted the dark, close-curled hair, the full, well-opened, brilliant eye, the dominating jaw, the sensitive nostrils, the tender curve of the firm, strong mouth. And she had called him "a ploughman——a runaway footman," and had even——she could see the mark upon his cheek——how red it glowed! Did it hurt much, she wondered?

  "Mad of course——yes a madman, poor fellow!" said Barnabas, thoughtfully.

  "And he said your name is Barnabas."

  "Why, to be sure, so he did," said Barnabas, rubbing his chin as one at a loss, "which is very strange, for I never saw or heard of him before."

  "So then, your name is——Barnabas?"

  "Yes. Barnabas Bar——Beverley."

  "Beverley?"

  "Yes——Beverley. But we must go."

  "First, tell me how you learned my name?"

  "From the Viscount——Viscount Devenham?"

  "Then, you know the Viscount?"

  "I do; we also know each other as rivals."

  "Rivals? For what?"

  "Yourself."

  "For me? Sir——sir——what did you tell him?"

  "My name is Barnabas. And I told him that I should probably marry you, some day."

  "You told him——that?"

  "I did. I thought it but honorable, seeing he is my friend."

  "Your friend!——since when, sir?"

  "Since about ten o'clock this morning."

  "Sir——sir——are you not a very precipitate person?"

  "I begin to think I am. And my name is Barnabas."

  "Since ten o'clock this morning! Then you knew——me first?"

  "By about an hour."

  Swiftly she turned away, yet not before he had seen the betraying dimple in her cheek. And so, side by side, they came to the edge of the clearing.

  Now as he stooped to open a way for her among the brambles, she must needs behold again the glowing mark upon his cheek, and seeing it, her glance fell, and her lips grew very tender and pitiful, and, in that moment, she spoke.

  "Sir," she said, very softly, "sir?"

  "My name is Barnabas."

  "I fear——I——does your cheek pain you very much, Mr. Beverley?"

  "Thank you, no. And my name is Barnabas."

  "I did not mean to——to——"

  "No, no, the fault was mine——I——I frightened you, and indeed the pain is quite gone," he stammered, holding aside the brambles for her passage. Yet she stood where she was, and her face was hidden in her hood. At last she spoke and her voice was very low.

  "Quite gone, sir?"

  "Quite gone, and my name is——"

  "I'm very——glad——Barnabas."

  Four words only, be it noted; yet on the face of Barnabas was a light that was not of the moon, as they entered the dim woodland together.

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