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The Amateur Gentleman (Chapter52)

2006-08-28 16:16

  Chapter LII. Of a Breakfast, a Roman Parent, and a Kiss

  Bright rose the sun upon the "White Hart" tavern that stands within Eltham village, softening its rugged lines, gilding its lattices, lending its ancient timbers a mellower hue.

  This inn of the "White Hart" is an ancient structure and very unpretentious (as great age often is), and being so very old, it has known full many a golden dawn. But surely never, in all its length of days, had it experienced quite such a morning as this. All night long there had been a strange hum upon the air, and now, early though the hour, Eltham village was awake and full of an unusual bustle and excitement. And the air still hummed, but louder now, a confused sound made up of the tramp of horse-hoofs, the rumble of wheels, the tread of feet and the murmur of voices. From north and south, from east and west, a great company was gathering, a motley throng of rich and poor, old and young: they came by high road and by-road, by lane and footpath, from sleepy village and noisy town,——but, one and all, with their faces set towards the ancient village of Eltham. For to-day is the fateful fifteenth of July; to-day the great Steeplechase is to be run——seven good miles across country from point to point; to-day the very vexed and all-important question as to which horse out of twenty-three can jump and gallop the fastest over divers awkward obstacles is to be settled once and for all.

  Up rose the sun higher and higher, chasing the morning mists from dell and dingle, filling the earth with his glory and making glad the heart of man, and beast, and bird.

  And presently, from a certain casement in the gable of the "White Hart," his curls still wet with his ablutions, Barnabas thrust his touzled head to cast an anxious glance first up at the cloudless blue of the sky, then down at the tender green of the world about, and to breathe in the sweet, cool freshness of the morning. But longest and very wistfully he gazed to where, marked out by small flags, was a track that led over field, and meadow, and winding stream, over brown earth newly turned by the plough, over hedge, and ditch, and fence, away to the hazy distance. And, as he looked, his eye brightened, his fingers clenched themselves and he frowned, yet smiled thereafter, and unfolding a letter he held, read as follows:

  OUR DEAR LAD,——Yours received, and we are rejoyced to know you so successful so far. Yet be not over confident, says your father, and bids me remind you as a sow's ear ain't a silk purse, Barnabas, nor ever can be. Your description of horse reads well, though brief. But as to the Rayce, Barnabas, though you be a rider born, yet having ridden a many rayces in my day, I now offer you, my dear lad, a word of advice. In a rayce a man must think as quick as he sees, and act as quick as he thinks, and must have a nice judgment of payce. Now here comes my word of advice.

  1. Remember that many riders beat themselves by over-eagerness. Well——let 'em, Barnabas.

  2. Don't rush your fences, give your mount time, and steady him about twenty yards from the jump.

  3. Remember that a balking horse generally swerves to the left, Barnabas.

  4. Keep your eye open for the best take-offs and landings.

  5. Gauge your payce, save your horse for raycing at finish.

  6. Remember it's the last half-mile as counts, Barnabas.

  7. So keep your spurs till they 're needed, my lad.

  A rayce, Barnabas lad, is very like a fight, after all. Given a good horse it's the man with judgment and cool head as generally wins. So, Barnabas, keep your temper. This is all I have to say, or your father, only that no matter how near you come to turning yourself into a fine gentleman, we have faith as it won't spoil you, and that you may come a-walking into the old 'Hound' one of these days just the same dear Barnabas as we shall always love and remember.



  Now, as he conned over these words of Natty Bell, a hand was laid upon his shoulder, and, glancing round, he beheld the Viscount in all the bravery of scarlet hunting frock, of snowy buckskins and spurred boots, a little paler than usual, perhaps, but as gallant a figure as need be.

  "What, Bev!" he exclaimed, "not dressed yet?"

  "Why I've only just woke up, Dick!"

  "Woke up! D' you mean to say you've actually——been asleep?" demanded the Viscount reproachfully. "Gad! what a devilish cold-blooded fish you are, Bev! Haven't closed a peeper all night, myself. Couldn't, y' know, what with one deuced thing or another. So I got up, hours ago, went and looked at the horses. Found your man Martin on guard with a loaded pistol in each pocket, y' know,——deuced trustworthy fellow. The horses couldn't look better, Bev. Egad! I believe they know to-day is——the day! There's your 'Terror' pawing and fidgeting, and 'Moonraker' stamping and quivering——"

  "But how is your arm, Dick?"

  "Arm?" said the Viscount innocently. "Oh,——ah, to be sure,——thanks, couldn't be better, considering."

  "Are you——quite sure?" persisted Barnabas, aware of the Viscount's haggard cheek and feverish eye.

  "Quite, Bev, quite,——behold! feel!" and doubling his fist, he smote Barnabas a playful blow in the ribs. "Oh, my dear fellow, it's going to be a grand race though,——ding-dong to the finish! And it's dry, thank heaven, for 'Moonraker''s no mud-horse. But I shall be glad when we line up for the start, Bev."

  "In about——four hours, Dick."

  "Yes! Devilish long time till eleven o'clock!" sighed the Viscount, seating himself upon the bed and swinging his spurred heels petulantly to and fro. "And I hate to be kept waiting, Bev——egad, I do!"

  "Viscount, do you love the Lady Cleone?"

  "Eh? Who? Love? Now deuce take it, Beverley, how sudden you are!"

  "Do you love her, Dick?"

  "Love her——of course, yes——aren't we rivals? Love her, certainly, oh yes——ask my Roman parent!" And the Viscount frowned blackly, and ran his fingers through his hair.

  "Why then," said Barnabas, "since you——honor me with your friendship, I feel constrained to tell you that she has given me to——to understand she will——marry me——some day."

  "Eh? Oh! Marry you? The devil! Oh, has she though!" and hereupon the Viscount stared, whistled, and, in that moment, Barnabas saw that his frown had vanished.

  "Will you——congratulate me, Dick?"

  "My dear fellow," cried the Viscount, springing up, "with all my heart!"

  "Dick," said Barnabas, as their hands met, "would you give me your hand as readily had it been——Clemency?"

  Now here the Viscount's usually direct gaze wavered and fell, while his pallid cheek flushed a dull red. He did not answer at once, but his sudden frown was eloquent.

  "Egad, Bev, I——since you ask me——I don't think I should."


  "Oh well, I suppose——you see——oh, I'll be shot if I know!"

  "You——don't love her, do you, Dick?"

  "Clemency? Of course not——that is——suppose I do——what then?"

  "Why then she'd make a very handsome Viscountess, Dick."

  "Beverley," said the Viscount, staring wide-eyed, "are you mad?"

  "No," Barnabas retorted, "but I take you to be an honorable man, my Lord."

  The Viscount sprang to his feet, clenched his fists, then took two or three turns across the room.

  "Sir," said he, in his iciest tones, "you presume too much on my friendship."

  "My Lord," said Barnabas, "with your good leave I'll ring for my servant." Which he did, forthwith.

  "Sir," said the Viscount, pale and stern, and with folded arms, "your remark was, I consider, a direct reflection upon my honor."

  "My Lord," answered Barnabas, struggling with his breeches, "your honor is surely your friend's, also?"

  "Sir," said the Viscount, with arms still folded, and sitting very upright on the bed, "were I to——call you out for that remark I should be only within my rights."

  "My Lord," answered Barnabas, struggling with his shirt, "were you to call from now till doomsday——I shouldn't come."

  "Then, sir," said the Viscount, cold and sneering, "a whip, perhaps,——or a cane might——"

  But at this juncture, with a discreet knock, Peterby entered, and, having bowed to the scowling Viscount, proceeded to invest Barnabas with polished boots, waistcoat and scarlet coat, and to tie his voluminous cravat, all with that deftness, that swift and silent dexterity which helped to make him the marvel he was.

  "Sir," said he, when Barnabas stood equipped from head to foot, "Captain Slingsby's groom called to say that his master and the Marquis of Jerningham are expecting you and Viscount Devenham to breakfast at 'The Chequers'——a little higher up the street, sir. Breakfast is ordered for eight o'clock."

  "Thank you, Peterby," said Barnabas, and, bowing to the Viscount, followed him from the room and downstairs, out into the dewy freshness of the morning. To avoid the crowded street they went by a field-path behind the inn, a path which to-day was beset by, and wound between, booths and stalls and carts of all sorts. And here was gathered a motley crowd; bespangled tumblers and acrobats, dark-browed gipsy fortune-tellers and horse-coupers, thimble-riggers, showmen, itinerant musicians,——all those nomads who are to be found on every race-course, fair, and village green, when the world goes a-holiday making. Through all this bustling throng went our two young gentlemen, each remarkably stiff and upright as to back, and each excessively polite, yet walking, for the most part, in a dignified silence, until, having left the crowd behind, Barnabas paused suddenly in the shade of a deserted caravan, and turned to his companion.

  "Dick!" said he smiling, and with hand outstretched.

  "Sir?" said the Viscount, frowning and with eyes averted.

  "My Lord," said Barnabas, bowing profoundly, "if I have offended your Lordship——I am sorry, but——"

  "But, sir?"

  "But your continued resentment for a fancied wrong is so much stronger than your avowed friendship for me, it would seem——that henceforth I——"

  With a warning cry the Viscount sprang forward and, turning in a flash, Barnabas saw a heavy bludgeon in the air above him; saw the Viscount meet it with up-flung arm; heard the thud of the blow, a snarling curse; saw a figure dart away and vanish among the jungle of carts; saw the Viscount stagger against the caravan and lean there, his pale face convulsed with pain.

  "Oh, Bev," he groaned, "my game arm, ye know. Hold me up, I——"

  "Dick!" cried Barnabas, supporting the Viscount's writhing figure, "oh, Dick——it was meant for me! Are you much hurt?"

  "No——nothing to——mention, my dear fellow. Comes a bit——sharp at first, y' know,——better in a minute or two."

  "Dick——Dick, what can I do for you?"

  "Nothing,——don't worry, Bev,——right as ninepence in a minute, y' know!" stammered the Viscount, trying to steady his twitching mouth.

  "Come back," pleaded Barnabas, "come back and let me bathe it——have it attended to."

  "Bathe it? Pooh!" said the Viscount, contriving to smile, "pain's quite gone, I assure you, my dear fellow. I shall be all right now, if——if you don't mind giving me your arm. Egad, Bev, some one seems devilish determined you shan't ride to-day!"

  "But I shall——now, thanks to you, Dick!"

  So they presently walked on together, but no longer unnaturally stiff as to back, for arm was locked in arm, and they forgot to be polite to each other.

  Thus, in a while, they reached the "Chequers" inn, and were immediately shown into a comfortable sanded parlor where breakfast was preparing. And here behold Captain Slingsby lounging upon two chairs and very busily casting up his betting book, while the Marquis, by the aid of a small, cracked mirror, that chanced to hang against the wall, was frowning at his reflection and pulling at the folds of a most elaborate cravat with petulant fingers.

  "Ah, Beverley——here's the dooce of a go!" he exclaimed, "that fool of a fellow of mine has actually sent me out to ride in a 'Trone d'Amour' cravat, and I've only just discovered it! The rascal knows I always take the field in an 'Osbaldistone' or 'Waterfall.' Now how the dooce can I be expected to ride in a thing like this! Most distressing, by Jove it is!"

  "Eight thousand guineas!" said the Captain, yawning. "Steepish, b'gad, steepish! Eight thousand at ten to one——hum! Now, if Fortune should happen to smile on me to-day——by mistake, of course——still, if she does, I shall clear enough to win free of Gaunt's claws for good and all, b'gad!"

  "Then I shall be devilish sorry to have to beat you, Sling, my boy!" drawled the Marquis, "yes, doocid sorry,——still——"

  "Eh——what? Beat the 'Rascal,' Jerny? Not on your weedy 'Clinker,' b'gad——"

  "Oh, but dooce take me, Sling, you'd never say the 'Rascal' was the better horse? Why, in the first place, there's too much daylight under him for your weight——besides——"

  "But, my dear Jerny, you must admit that your 'Clinker' 's inclined to be just——a le-e-etle cow-hocked, come now, b'gad?"

  "And then——as I've often remarked, my dear Sling, the 'Rascal' is too long in the pasterns, not to mention——"

  "B'gad! give me a horse with good bellows,——round, d' ye see, well ribbed home——"

  "My dear Sling, if you could manage to get your 'Rascal' four new legs, deeper shoulders, and, say, fuller haunches, he might possibly stand a chance. As it is, Sling, my boy, I commiserate you——but hallo! Devenham, what's wrong? You look a little off color."

  "Well, for one thing, I want my breakfast," answered the Viscount.

  "So do I!" cried the Captain, springing to his feet, "but, b'gad, Dick, you do look a bit palish round the gills, y' know."

  "Effect of hunger and a bad night, perhaps."

  "Had a bad night, hey, Dick? Why, so did I," said the Captain, frowning. "Dreamed that the 'Rascal' fell and broke his neck, poor devil, and that I was running like the wind——jumping hedges and ditches with Jasper Gaunt close at my heels——oh, cursed unpleasant, y'know! What——is breakfast ready? Then let's sit down, b'gad, I'm famished!"

  So down they sat forthwith and, despite the Viscount's arm, and the Marquis of Jerningham's cravat, a very hearty and merry meal they made of it.

  But lo! as they prepared to rise from the table, voices were heard beyond the door, whereupon the Viscount sat up suddenly to listen.

  "Why——egad!" he exclaimed, "I do believe it's my Roman!"

  "No, by heaven!" said the Marquis, also listening, "dooce take me if it isn't my great-aunt——her Graceless Grace, by Jove it is!"

  Even as he spoke, the door opened and the Duchess swept in, all rustling silks and furbelows, very small, very dignified, and very imperious. Behind her, Barnabas saw a tall, graceful figure, strangely young-looking despite his white hair, which he wore tied behind in a queue, also his clothes, though elegant, were of a somewhat antiquated fashion; but indeed, this man with his kindly eyes and gentle, humorous mouth, was not at all like the Roman parent Barnabas had pictured.

  "Ah, gentlemen!" cried the Duchess, acknowledging their four bows with a profound curtsy, "I am here to wish you success——all four of you——which is quite an impossible wish of course——still, I wish it. Lud, Captain Slingsby, how well you look in scarlet! Marquis——my fan! Mr. Beverley——my cane! A chair? thank you, Viscount. Yes indeed, gentlemen, I've backed you all——I shall gain quite a fortune if you all happen to win——which you can't possibly, of course,——still, one of you will, I hope,——and——oh, dear me, Viscount, how pale you are! Look at him, Bamborough——it's his arm, I know it is!"

  "Arm, madam?" repeated the Viscount with an admirable look of surprise, "does your Grace suggest——"

  But here the Earl of Bamborough stepped into the room and, closing the door, bowed to the company.

  "Gentlemen," said he, "I have the honor to salute you! Viscount——your most dutiful, humble, obedient father to command."

  "My Lord," answered the Viscount, gravely returning his father's bow, "your Lordship's most obliged and grateful son!"

  "My dear Devenham," continued the Earl solemnly, "being, I fear, something of a fogy and fossil, I don't know if you Bucks allow the formality of shaking hands. Still, Viscount, as father and son——or rather son and father, it may perhaps be permitted us? How are you, Viscount?"

  Now as they clasped hands, Barnabas saw the Viscount set his jaw grimly, and something glistened upon his temple, yet his smile was quite engaging as he answered:

  "Thank you, my Lord,——never better!"

  "Yes," said his Lordship, as he slowly relinquished the Viscount's hand, "your Grace was right, as usual,——it is his arm!"

  "Then of course he cannot ride, Bamborough——you will forbid it?"

  "On the contrary, madam, he must ride. Being a favorite, much money has changed hands already on his account, and, arm or no arm, he must ride now——he owes it to his backers. You intend to, of course, Horatio?"

  "My Lord, I do."

  "It's your right arm, luckily, and a horseman needs only his left. You ride fairly well, I understand, Viscount?"

  "Oh, indifferent well, sir, I thank you. But allow me to present my friend to your Lordship,——Mr. Beverley——my father!"

  So Barnabas shook hands with the Viscount's Roman parent, and, meeting his kindly eyes, saw that, for all their kindliness, they were eyes that looked deep into the heart of things.

  "Come, gentlemen," cried the Duchess rising, "if you have quite finished breakfast, take me to the stables, for I'm dying to see the horses, I vow I am. Lead the way, Viscount. Mr. Beverley shall give me his arm."

  So towards the stables they set forth accordingly, the Duchess and Barnabas well to the rear, for, be it remarked, she walked very slowly.

  "Here it is, Barnabas," said she, as soon as the others were out of ear-shot.

  "What, madam?"

  "Oh, dear me, how frightfully dense you are, Barnabas!" she exclaimed, fumbling in her reticule. "What should it be but a letter, to be sure——Cleone's letter."

  "A letter from Cleone! Oh, Duchess——"

  "Here——take it. She wrote it last night——poor child didn't sleep a wink, I know, and——all on your account, sir. I promised I'd deliver it for her,——I mean the letter——that's why I made Bamborough bring me here. So you see I've kept my word as I always do——that is——sometimes. Oh, dear me, I'm so excited——about the race, I mean——and Cleone's so nervous——came and woke me long before dawn, and there were tears on her lashes——I know because I felt 'em when I kissed them——I mean her eyes. And Patten dressed me in such a hurry this morning——which was really my fault, and I know my wig's not straight——and there you stand staring at it as though you wanted to kiss it——I mean Cleone's letter, not my wig. That ridiculous Mr. Tressider told Cleone that it was the best course he ever hoped to ride over——meaning 'the worst' of course, so Cleone's quite wretched, dear lamb——but oh, Barnabas, it would be dreadful if—— if you were——killed——oh!" And the Duchess shivered and turned away.

  "Would you mind? So much, madam?"

  "Barnabas——I never had a son——or a daughter——but I think I know just how——your mother would be feeling——now!"

  "And I do not remember my mother!" said Barnabas.

  "Poor, poor Joan!" sighed the Duchess, very gently. "Were she here I think she would——but then she was much taller than I, and——oh, boy, stoop——stoop down, you great, tall Barnabas——how am I ever to reach you if you don't?"

  Then Barnabas stooped his head, and the Duchess kissed him——even as his own mother might have done, and so, smiling a little tremulously, turned away. "There! Barnabas," she sighed. "And now——oh, I know you are dying to read your letter——of course you are, so pray sir,——go back and fetch my fan,——here it is, it will serve as an excuse, while I go on to look at the horses." And with a quick, smiling nod, she hurried away across the paddock after the others. Then Barnabas broke the seal of Cleone's letter, and——though to be sure it might have been longer——he found it all sufficient. Here it is:

  The Palace Grange,Eltham,Midnight.

  Ever Dearest,——The race is to-morrow and, because I love you greatly, so am I greatly afraid for you. And dear, I love you because you are so strong, and gentle, and honorable. And therefore, here on my knees I have prayed God to keep you ever in his care, my Barnabas.


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