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The Amateur Gentleman (Chapter56)

2006-08-28 16:17

  Chapter LVI. Of the Gathering of the Shadows

  Surprise and something very like disappointment were in Mr. Shrig's look as Barnabas stepped out from the yawning doorway of the barn.

  "V'y, sir," said he, consulting a large-faced watch. "V'y, Mr. Beverley, it's eggs-actly tventy minutes arter the time for it!"

  "Yes," said Barnabas.

  "And you——ain't shot, then?"

  "No, thank heaven."

  "Nor even——vinged?"

  "Nor even winged, Mr. Shrig."

  "Fate," said Mr. Shrig, shaking a dejected head at him, "Fate is a werry wexed problem, sir! 'Ere's you now, Number Three, as I might say, the unfort'nate wictim as was to be——'ere you are a-valking up to Fate axing to be made a corp', and vot do you get? not so much as a scrat——not a westige of a scrat, v'ile another unfort'nate wictim vill run avay from Fate, run? ah! 'eaven's 'ard! and werry nat'ral too! and vot does 'e get? 'e gets made a corp' afore 'e knows it. No, sir, Fate's a werry wexed problem, sir, and I don't understand it, no, nor ever shall."

  "But this was very simple," said Barnabas, slipping his hand in Mr. Shrig's arm, and leading him away from the barn, "very simple indeed, I got here before they came, and hid in the loft. Then, while they were waiting for me down below, you came and frightened them away."

  "Ah! So they meant business, did they?"

  "Yes," said Barnabas, nodding grimly, "they certainly meant business, ——especially Mr. Chich——"

  "Ssh!" said Mr. Shrig, glancing round, "call 'im Number Two. Sir, Number Two is a extra-special, super-fine, over-weight specimen, 'e is. I've knowed a many 'Capitals' in my time, but I never knowed such a Capital o' Capital Coves as 'im. Sir, Vistling Dick vas a innercent, smiling babe, and young B. is a snowy, pet lamb alongside o' Number Two. Capital Coves like 'im only 'appen, and they only 'appen every thousand year or so. Ecod! I 'm proud o' Number Two. And talking of 'im, I 'appened to call on Nick the Cobbler, last night."

  "Oh?"

  "Ah! and I found 'im vith 'is longest awl close 'andy——all on account o' Number Two."

  "How on his account?" demanded Barnabas, frowning suddenly.

  "Vell, last evening, Milo o' Crotona, a pal o' Nick's, and a werry promising bye 'e is too, 'appened to drop in sociable-like, and it seems as Number Two followed 'im. And werry much Number Two frightened that 'andsome gal, by all accounts. She wrote you a letter, vich she give me to deliver, and——'ere it is."

  So Barnabas took the letter and broke the seal. It was a very short letter, but as he read Barnabas frowned blacker than ever.

  "Mr. Shrig," said he very earnestly as he folded and pocketed the letter, "will you do something for me——will you take a note to my servant, John Peterby? You'll find him at the 'Oak and Ivy' in Hawkhurst village."

  "Vich, seeing as you're a pal, sir, I vill. But, sir," continued Mr. Shrig, as Barnabas scribbled certain instructions for Peterby on a page of his memorandum, "vot about yourself——you ain't a-going back there, are ye?" and he jerked his thumb over his shoulder towards the barn, now some distance behind them.

  "Of course," said Barnabas, "to keep my appointment."

  "D'ye think it's safe——now?"

  "Quite,——thanks to you," answered Barnabas. "Here is the note, and if you wish, John Peterby will drive you back to London with him."

  "V'y, thank'ee sir,——'e shall that,——but you, now?" Mr. Shrig paused, and, somewhat diffidently drew from his side pocket a very business-like, brass-bound pistol, which he proffered to Barnabas, "jest in case they should 'appen to come back, sir," said he.

  But Barnabas laughingly declined it, and shook his chubby hand instead.

  "Vell," said Mr. Shrig, pocketing note and weapon, "you're true game, sir, yes, game's your breed, and I only 'ope as you don't give me a case——though good murder cases is few and far between, as I've told you afore. Good-by, sir, and good luck."

  So saying, Mr. Shrig nodded, touched the broad rim of his castor, and strode away through the gathering shadows.

  And when he was gone, and the sound of his going had died away in the distance, Barnabas turned and swiftly retraced his steps; but now he went with fists clenched, and head forward, as one very much on the alert.

  Evening was falling and the shadows were deepening apace, and as he went, Barnabas kept ever in the shelter of the trees until he saw before him once more, the desolate and crumbling barn of Oakshott. For a moment he paused, eyeing its scarred and battered walls narrowly, then, stepping quickly forward, entered the gloomy doorway and, turning towards a certain spot, started back before the threatening figure that rose up from the shadows.

  "Ah! So you 've c-come at last, sir!" said Barrymaine, steadying himself against the wall with one hand while he held the pistol levelled in the other, "ins-stead of the weak s-sister you find the avenging brother! Been waiting for you hours. C-cursed dreary hole this, and I fell asleep, but——"

  "Because you were drugged!" said Barnabas.

  "D-drugged, sir! W-what d' you mean?"

  "Chichester drugged the brandy——"

  "Chichester?"

  "He meant to murder me while you slept and fix the crime on you——"

  "Liar!" cried Barrymaine, "you came here to meet my s-sister, but instead of a defenceless girl you meet me and I'm g-going to settle with you——once and for all——t-told you I would, last time we met. There's another pistol in the c-case yonder——pick it up and t-take your ground."

  "Listen to me," Barnabas began.

  "N-not a word——you're going to fight me——"

  "Never!"

  "Pick up that pistol——or I'll sh-shoot you where you stand!"

  "No!"

  "I'll c-count three!" said Barrymaine, his pale face livid against the darkness behind, "One! Two!——"

  But, on the instant, Barnabas sprang in and closed with him, and, grappled in a fierce embrace, they swayed a moment and staggered out through the gaping doorway.

  Barrymaine fought desperately. Barnabas felt his coat rip and tear, but he maintained his grip upon his opponent's pistol hand, yet twice the muzzle of the weapon covered him, and twice he eluded it before Barrymaine could fire. Therefore, seeing Barrymaine's intention, reading his deadly purpose in vicious mouth and dilated nostril, Barnabas loosed one hand, drew back his arm, and smote——swift and hard. Barrymaine uttered a cry that seemed to Barnabas to find an echo far off, flung out his arms and, staggering, fell.

  Then Barnabas picked up the pistol and, standing over Barrymaine, spoke.

  "I——had to——do it!" he panted. "Did I——hurt you much?"

  But Ronald Barrymaine lay very white and still, and, stooping, Barnabas saw that he had struck much harder than he had meant, and that Barrymaine's mouth was cut and bleeding.

  Now at this moment, even as he sank on his knees, Barnabas again heard a cry, but nearer now and with the rustle of flying draperies, and, glancing up, saw Cleone running towards them.

  "Cleone!" he cried, and sprang to his feet.

  "You——struck him!" she panted.

  "I——yes, I——had to! But indeed he isn't much hurt——" But Cleone was down upon her knees, had lifted Barrymaine's head to her bosom and was wiping the blood from his pale face with her handkerchief.

  "Cleone," said Barnabas, humbly, "I——indeed I——couldn't help it. Oh, Cleone——look up!" Yet, while he spoke, there came a rustling of leaves near by and glancing thither, he saw Mr. Chichester surveying them, smiling and debonair, and, striding forward, Barnabas confronted him with scowling brow and fierce, menacing eyes.

  "Rogue!" said he, his lips curling, "Rascal!"

  "Ah!" nodded Mr. Chichester gently, "you have a pistol there, I see!"

  "Your despicable villainy is known!" said Barnabas. "Ha!——smile if you will, but while you knelt, pistol in hand, in the barn there, had you troubled to look in the loft above your head you might have murdered me, and none the wiser. As it is, I am alive, to strip you of your heritage, and you still owe me twenty thousand guineas. Pah! keep them to help you from the country, for I swear you shall be hounded from every club in London; men shall know you for what you are. Now go, before you tempt me to strangle you for a nauseous beast. Go, I say!"

  Smiling still, but with a devil looking from his narrowed eyes, Mr. Chichester slowly viewed Barnabas from head to foot, and, turning, strolled away, swinging his tasselled walking cane as he went, with Barnabas close behind him, pistol in hand, even as they had once walked months before.

  Now at this moment it was that Cleone, yet kneeling beside Barrymaine, chanced to espy a crumpled piece of paper that lay within a yard of her, and thus, half unwitingly, she reached out and took it up, glanced at it with vague eyes, then started, and knitting her black brows, read these words:

  My Dear Barnabas,——The beast has discovered me. I thought I only scorned him, but now I know I fear him, too. So, in my dread, I turn to you. Yes, I will go now—— anywhere you wish. Fear has made me humble, and I accept your offer. Oh, take me away——hide me, anywhere, so shall I always be

  Your grateful,

  CLEMENCY.

  Thus, in a while, when Barrymaine opened his eyes it was to see Cleone kneeling beside him with bent head, and with both hands clasped down upon her bosom, fierce hands that clenched a crumpled paper between them. At first he thought she was weeping, but, when she turned towards him, he saw that her eyes were tearless and very bright, and that on either cheek burned a vivid patch of color.

  "Oh, Ronald!" she sighed, her lips quivering suddenly, "I——am glad you are better——but——oh, my dear, I wish I——were dead!"

  "There, there, Clo!" he muttered, patting her stooping shoulder, "I f-frightened you, I suppose. But I'm all right now, dear. W-where's Chichester?"

  "I——don't know, Ronald."

  "But you, Cleone? You came here to m-meet this——this Beverley?"

  "Yes, Ronald."

  "D'you know w-what he is? D'you know he's a publican's son?——a vile, low fellow masquerading as a g-gentleman? Yes, he's a p-publican's son, I tell you!" he repeated, seeing how she shrank at this. "And you s-stoop to such as he——s-stoop to meet him in s-such a place as this! So I came to save you f-from yourself!"

  "Did you, Ronald?"

  "Yes——but oh, Cleone, you don't love the fellow, do you?"

  "I think I——hate him, Ronald."

  "Then you won't m-meet him again?"

  "No, Ronald."

  "And you'll try to be a little kinder——to C-Chichester?" Cleone shivered and rose to her feet.

  "Come!" said she, her hands once more clasped upon her bosom, "it grows late, I must go."

  "Yes. D-devilish depressing place this! G-give me your arm, Clo." But as they turned to go, the bushes parted, and Barnabas appeared.

  "Cleone!" he exclaimed.

  "I——I'm going home!" she said, not looking at him.

  "Then I will come with you,——if I may?"

  "I had rather go——alone——with my brother."

  "So pray s-stand aside, sir!" said Barrymaine haughtily through his swollen lips, staggering a little despite Cleone's arm.

  "Sir," said Barnabas pleadingly, "I struck you a while ago, but it was the only way to save you from——a greater evil, as you know——"

  "He means I threatened to s-shoot him, Clo——so I did, but it was for your sake, to sh-shield you from——persecution as a brother should."

  "Cleone," said Barnabas, ignoring Barrymaine altogether, "if there is any one in this world who should know me, and what manner of man I am, surely it is you——"

  "Yes, she knows you——b-better than you think, she knows you for a publican's son, first of all——"

  "May I come with you, Cleone?"

  "No, sir, n-not while I'm here. Cleone, you go with him, or m-me, so——choose!"

  "Oh, Ronald, take me home!" she breathed.

  So Barrymaine drew her arm through his and, turning his back on Barnabas, led her away. But, when they had gone a little distance, he frowned suddenly and came striding after them.

  "Cleone," said he, "why are you so strange to me,——what is it, ——speak to me."

  But Cleone was dumb, and walked on beside Ronald Barrymaine with head averted, and so with never a backward glance, was presently lost to sight among the leaves.

  Long after they had gone, Barnabas stood there, his head bowed, while the shadows deepened about him, dark and darker. Then all at once he sighed again and, lifting his head, glanced about him; and because of the desolation of the place, he shivered; and because of the new, sharp pain that gripped him, he uttered a bitter curse, and so, becoming aware of the pistol he yet grasped, he flung it far from him and strode away through the deepening gloom.

  On he went, heeding only the tumult of sorrow and anger that surged within him. And so, betimes, reached the "Oak and Ivy" inn, where, finding Peterby and the phaeton already gone, according to his instructions, he hired post-horses and galloped away for London.

  Now, as he went, though the evening was fine, it seemed to him that high overhead was a shadow that followed and kept pace with him, growing dark and ever darker; and thus as he rode he kept his gaze upon this menacing shadow.

  As for my lady, she, securely locked within the sanctuary of her chamber, took pen and paper and wrote these words:

  "You have destroyed my faith, and with that all else. Farewell."

  Which done, she stamped a small, yet vicious foot upon a certain crumpled letter, and thereafter, lying face down upon her bed, wept hot, slow, bitter tears, stifling her sobs with the tumbled glory of her hair, and in her heart was an agony greater than any she had ever known.

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