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The Amateur Gentleman (Chapter14)

2006-08-28 16:05

  Chapter XIV. Concerning the Buttons of One Milo of Crotona

  Never did a pair of top boots, big or little, shine with a lustre more resplendent; never was postilion's jacket more excellent of fit, nattier, or more carefully brushed; and nowhere could there be found two rows of crested silver buttons with such an air of waggish roguery, so sly, so knowing, and so pertinaciously on the everlasting wink, as these same eight buttons that adorned the very small person of his groomship, Milo of Crotona. He had slipped out suddenly from the hedge, and now stood cap in hand, staring from the Viscount to Barnabas, and back again, with his innocent blue eyes, and with every blinking, twinkling button on his jacket. And his eyes were wide and guileless——the eyes of a cherub; but his buttons!

  Yea, forsooth, it was all in his buttons as they winked slyly one to another as much as to say:

  "Aha! we don't know why his Lordship's nankeens are greened at the knees, not we! nor why the gent's lower lip is unduly swelled. Lord love your eyes and limbs, oh no!"

  "What, my imp of innocence!" exclaimed the Viscount. "Where have you sprung from?"

  "'Edge, m'lud."

  "Ah! and what might you have been doing in the hedge now?"

  "Think'n', m'lud."

  "And what were you thinking?"

  "I were think'n', m'lud, as the tall genelman here is a top-sawyer wi' 'is daddies, m'lud. I was."

  "Aha! so you've been watching, eh?"

  "Not watchin'——oh no, m'lud; I just 'appened ter notice——that's all, m'lud."

  "Ha!" exclaimed the Viscount; "then I suppose you happened to notice me being——knocked down?"

  "No, m'lud; ye see, I shut my eyes——every time."

  "Every time, eh!" said his Lordship, with his whimsical smile. "Oh Loyalty, thy name is Milo! But hallo!" he broke off, "I believe you've been fighting again——come here!"

  "Fightin', m'lud! What, me?"

  "What's the matter with your face——it's all swollen; there, your cheek?"

  "Swellin', m'lud; I don't feel no swellin'."

  "No, no; the other cheek."

  "Oh, this, m'lud. Oh, 'e done it, 'e did; but I weren't fightin'."

  "Who did it?"

  "S' Mortimer's friend, 'e done it, 'e did."

  "Sir Mortimer's friend?"

  "Ah, 'im, m'lud."

  "But, how in the world——"

  "Wi' his fist, m'lud."

  "What for?"

  "'Cos I kicked 'im, I did."

  "You——kicked Sir Mortimer Carnaby's friend!" exclaimed the Viscount. "What in heaven's name did you do that for?"

  "'Cos you told me to, m'lud, you did."

  "I told you to kick——"

  "Yes, m'lud, you did. You sez to me, last week——arter I done up that butcher's boy——you sez to me, 'don't fight 'cept you can't 'elp it,' you sez; 'but allus pertect the ladies,' you sez, 'an if so be as 'e's too big to reach wi' your fists——why, use your boots,' you sez, an' so I did, m'lud."

  "So you were protecting a lady, were you, Imp?"

  "Miss Clemency, mam; yes, m'lud. She's been good ter me, Miss Clemency, mam 'as——an' so when I seen 'im strugglin' an' a-tryin' to kiss 'er——when I 'eered 'er cry out——I came in froo de winder, an' I kicked 'im, I did, an' then——"

  "Imp," said the Viscount gravely, "you are forgetting your aitches! And so Sir Mortimer's friend kissed her, did he? Mind your aitches now!"

  "Yes, m' lud; an' when Hi seen the tears hin her eyes——"

  "Now you are mixing them, Imp!——tears in her eyes. Well?"

  "Why then I kicked him, m' lud, an' he turned round an' give me this 'ere."

  "And what was Sir Mortimer's friend like?"

  "A tall——werry sleepy gentleman, wot smiled, m' lud."

  "Ha!" exclaimed the Viscount, starting; "and with a scar upon one cheek?"

  "Yes, m'lud."

  His Lordship frowned. "That would be Chichester," said he thoughtfully. "Now I wonder what the devil should bring that fellow so far from London?"

  "Well, m' lud," suggested Milo, shaking his golden curls, "I kind of 'specks there's a woman at the bottom of it. There mostly generally is."

  "Hum!" said the Viscount.

  "'Sides, m' lud, I 'eard 'im talkin' 'bout a lady to S' Mortimer!"

  "Did they mention her name?"

  "The sleepy one 'e did, m' lud. Jist as S' Mortimer climbed into the chaise——'Here's wishing you luck wi' the lovely Meredyth,' 'e sez."

  "Meredith!" exclaimed the Viscount.

  "Meredith, m' lud; 'the lovely Meredith,' 'e sez, an' then, as he stood watchin' the chaise drive away, 'may the best man win,' sez 'e to himself, 'an' that's me,' sez'e."

  "Boy," said the Viscount, "have the horses put to——at once."

  "Werry good, m' lud," and, touching his small hat, Milo of Crotona turned and set off as fast as his small legs would carry him.

  "Gad!" exclaimed his Lordship, "this is more than I bargained for. I must be off."

  "Indeed!" said Barnabas, who for the last minute or so had been watching a man who was strolling idly up the lane, a tall, languid gentleman in a jaunty hat. "You seem all at once in a mighty hurry to get to London."

  "London!" repeated the Viscount, staring blankly. "London? Oh, why yes, to be sure, I was going to London; but——hum——fact of the matter is, I've changed my mind about it, my dear Bev; I'm going——back. I'm following Carnaby."

  "Ah!" said Barnabas, still intent upon the man in the lane, "Carnaby again."

  "Oh, damn the fellow!" exclaimed the Viscount.

  "But——he is your friend."

  "Hum!" said the Viscount; "but Carnaby is always——Carnaby, and she——"

  "Meaning the Lady Cleone," said Barnabas.

  "Is a woman——"

  "'The lovely Meredith'!" nodded Barnabas.

  "Exactly!" said the Viscount, frowning; "and Carnaby is the devil with women."

  "But not this woman," answered Barnabas, frowning a little also.

  "My dear fellow, men like Carnaby attract all women——"

  "That," said Barnabas, shaking his head, "that I cannot believe."

  "Have you known many women, Bev?"

  "No," answered Barnabas; "but I have met the Lady Cleone——"

  "Once!" added the Viscount significantly.

  "Once!" nodded Barnabas.

  "Hum," said the Viscount. "And, therefore," added Barnabas, "I don't think that we need fear Sir Mortimer as a rival."

  "That," retorted the Viscount, shaking his head, "is because you don't know him——either."

  Hereupon, having come to the inn and having settled their score, the Viscount stepped out to the stables accompanied by the round-faced landlord, while Barnabas, leaning out from the open casement, stared idly into the lane. And thus he once more beheld the gentleman in the jaunty hat, who stood lounging in the shade of one of the great trees that grew before the inn, glancing up and down the lane in the attitude of one who waits. He was tall and slender, and clad in a tight-fitting blue coat cut in the extreme of the prevailing fashion, and beneath his curly-brimmed hat, Barnabas saw a sallow face with lips a little too heavy, nostrils a little too thin, and eyes a little too close together, at least, so Barnabas thought, but what he noticed more particularly was the fact that one of the buttons of the blue coat had been wrenched away.

  Now, as the gentleman lounged there against the tree, he switched languidly at a bluebell that happened to grow within his reach, cut it down, and with gentle, lazy taps beat it slowly into nothingness, which done, he drew out his watch, glanced at it, frowned, and was in the act of thrusting it back into his fob when the hedge opposite was parted suddenly and a man came through. A wretched being he looked, dusty, unkempt, unshorn, whose quick, bright eyes gleamed in the thin oval of his pallid face. At sight of this man the gentleman's lassitude vanished, and he stepped quickly forward.

  "Well," he demanded, "did you find her?"

  "Yes, sir."

  "And a cursed time you've been about it."

  "Annersley is further than I thought, sir, and——"

  "Pah! no matter, give me her answer," and the gentleman held out a slim white hand.

  "She had no time to write, sir," said the man, "but she bid me tell you——"

  "Damnation!" exclaimed the gentleman, glancing towards the inn, "not here, come further down the lane," and with the word he turned and strode away, with the man at his heels.

  "Annersley," said Barnabas, as he watched them go; "Annersley."

  But now, with a prodigious clatter of hoofs and grinding of wheels, the Viscount drove round in his curricle, and drew up before the door in masterly fashion; whereupon the two high-mettled bloods immediately began to rear and plunge (as is the way of their kind), to snort, to toss their sleek heads, and to dance, drumming their hoofs with a sound like a brigade of cavalry at the charge, whereupon the Viscount immediately fell to swearing at them, and his diminutive groom to roaring at them in his "stable voice," and the two ostlers to cursing them, and one another; in the midst of which hubbub out came Barnabas to stare at them with the quick, appraising eye of one who knows and loves horses.

  To whom, thusly, the Viscount, speaking both to him and the horses:

  "Oh, there you are, Bev——stand still, damn you! There's blood for you, eh, my dear fellow——devil burn your hide! Jump up, my dear fellow——Gad, they're pulling my arms off."

  "Then you want me to come with you, Dick?"

  "My dear Bev, of course I do——stand still, damn you——though we are rivals, we're friends first——curse your livers and bones——so jump up, Bev, and——oh dammem, there's no holding 'em——quick, up with you."

  Now, as Barnabas stepped forward, afar off up the lane he chanced to espy a certain jaunty hat, and immediately, acting for once upon impulse, he shook his head.

  "No, thanks," said he.

  "Eh——no?" repeated the Viscount, "but you shall see her, I'll introduce you myself."

  "Thanks, Dick, but I've decided not to go back."

  "What, you won't come then?"

  "No."

  "Ah, well, we shall meet in London. Inquire for me at White's or Brooke's, any one will tell you where to find me. Good-by!"

  Then, settling his feet more firmly, he took a fresh grip upon the reins, and glanced over his shoulder to where Milo of Crotona sat with folded arms in the rumble.

  "All right behind?"

  "Right, m'lud."

  "Then give 'em their heads, let 'em go!"

  The grooms sprang away, the powerful bays reared, once, twice, and then, with a thunder of hoofs, started away at a gallop that set the light vehicle rocking and swaying, yet which in no whit seemed to trouble Milo of Crotona, who sat upon his perch behind with folded arms as stiff and steady as a small graven image, until he and the Viscount and the curricle had been whirled into the distance and vanished in a cloud of dust.

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