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The Amateur Gentleman (Chapter63)

2006-08-28 16:19

  Chapter LXIII. Which Tells How Barnabas Heard the Ticking of a Clock

  It was a dark night, the moon obscured as yet by a wrack of flying cloud, for a wind was abroad, a rising wind that blew in fitful gusts; a boisterous, blustering, bullying wind that met the traveller at sudden corners to choke and buffet him and so was gone, roaring away among roofs and chimneys, rattling windows and lattices, extinguishing flickering lamps, and filling the dark with stir and tumult.

  But Barnabas strode on heedless and deaf to it all. Headlong he went, his cloak fluttering, his head stooped low, hearing nothing, seeing nothing, taking no thought of time or direction, or of his ruined career, since none of these were in his mind, but only the words of Cleone's letter.

  And slowly a great anger came upon him with a cold and bitter scorn of her that cast out sorrow; thus, as he went, he laughed suddenly, ——a shrill laugh that rose above the howl of the wind, that grew even wilder and louder until he was forced to stop and lean against an iron railing close by.

  "An Amateur Gentleman!" he gasped, "An Amateur Gentleman! Oh, fool! fool!" And once again the fierce laughter shook him in its grip and, passing, left him weak and breathless.

  Through some rift in the clouds, the moon cast a fugitive beam and thus he found himself looking down into a deep and narrow area where a flight of damp, stone steps led down to a gloomy door; and beside the door was a window, and the window was open.

  Now as he gazed, the area, and the damp steps, and the gloomy door all seemed familiar; therefore he stepped back, and gazing up, saw a high, flat-fronted house, surely that same unlovely house at whose brass-knockered front door Captain Slingsby of the Guards had once stood and rapped with trembling hand.

  The place was very silent, and very dark, save for one window where burned a dim light, and, moved by sudden impulse, Barnabas strode forward and, mounting the two steps, seized the knocker; but, even as he did so the door moved. Slowly, slowly it opened, swinging back on noiseless hinges, wider and wider until Barnabas could look into the dimness of the unlighted hall beyond. Then, while he yet stood hesitating, he heard a sound, very faint and sweet, like the chime of fairy bells, and from the dark a face peered forth, a face drawn, and lined, and ghastly pale, whose staring eyes were wide with horror.

  "You!" said a voice, speaking in a harsh whisper, "is it you? Alas, Barnaby Bright! what would you——here? Go away! Go away! Here is an evil place, a place of sin, and horror, and blood——go away! go away!"

  "But," said Barnabas, "I wish to see——"

  "Oh, Barnaby Bright,——hear me! Did I not tell you he was marked for destruction, that evil begetteth evil, and the sword, the sword? I have watched, and watched, and to-night my watch is ended! Go away! Go away!"

  "What is it? what do you mean?" demanded Barnabas.

  With his eyes still fixed and staring, and without turning his head, Billy Button raised one hand to point with a rigid finger at the wall, just within the doorway.

  "Look!" he whispered.

  Then, glancing where he pointed, Barnabas saw a mark upon the panelling——a blur like the shadow of a hand; but even as he stared at it, Billy Button, shuddering, passed his sleeve across it and lo! it was gone!

  "Oh, Barnaby Bright!" he whispered, "there is a shadow upon this place, as black as death, even as I told you——flee from the shadow, ——come away! come away!"

  As he breathed the words, the madman sprang past him down the steps, tossed up his long arms towards the moon with a wild, imploring gesture, and turning, scudded away on his naked, silent feet.

  Now after a while Barnabas stepped into the gloomy hall and stood listening; the house was very silent, only upon the stillness he could hear the loud, deliberate tick of the wizen-faced clock upon the stairs, and, as he stood there, it seemed to him that to-night it was trying to tell him something. Barnabas shivered suddenly and drew his long cloak about him, then, closing the door, took a step along the dark hall, yet paused to listen again, for now it seemed to him that the tick of the clock was louder than ever.

  "Go——back! Go——back!"

  Could that be what it meant? Barnabas raised a hand to his brow and, though he still shivered, felt it suddenly moist and clammy. Then, clenching his teeth, he crept forward, guiding himself by the wall; yet as he went, above the shuffle of his feet, above the rustle of his cloak against the panelling, he could hear the tick of the clock——ever louder, ever more insistent:

  "Go——back! Go——back!"

  He reached the stairs at last and, groping for the banister, began to ascend slowly and cautiously, often pausing to listen, and to stare into the darkness before and behind. On he went and up, past the wizen-faced clock, and so reached the upper hall at the further end of which was the dim light that shone from behind a half-closed door.

  Being come to the door, Barnabas lifted his hand to knock, yet stood again hesitating, his chin on his shoulder, his eyes searching the darkness behind him, whence came the slow, solemn ticking of the clock:

  "Come——back! Come——back!"

  For a long moment he stood thus, then, quick and sudden, he threw wide the door and stepped into the room.

  A candle flared and guttered upon the mantel, and by this flickering light he saw an overturned chair, and, beyond that, a litter of scattered papers and documents and, beyond that again, Jasper Gaunt seated at his desk in the corner. He was lolling back in his chair like one asleep, and yet——was this sleep?

  Something in his attitude, something in the appalling stillness of that lolling figure, something in the utter quiet of the whole place, filled Barnabas with a nameless, growing horror. He took a step nearer, another, and another——then stopped and, uttering a choking gasp, fell back to the wall and leaned there suddenly faint and sick. For, indeed, this was more than sleep. Jasper Gaunt lolled there, a horrid, bedabbled thing, with his head at a hideous angle and the dagger, which had been wont to glitter so evilly from the wall, smitten sideways through his throat.

  Barnabas crouched against the wall, his gaze riveted by the dull gleam of the steel; and upon the silence, now, there crept another sound soft and regular, a small, dull, plashing sound; and, knowing what it was, he closed his eyes and the faintness grew upon him. At length he sighed and, shuddering, lifted his head and moved a backward step toward the door; thus it was he chanced to see Jasper Gaunt's right hand——that white, carefully-tended right hand, whose long, smooth fingers had clenched themselves even tighter in death than they had done in life. And, in their rigid grasp was something that struck Barnabas motionless; that brought him back slowly, slowly across that awful room to sink upon one knee above that pale, clenched hand, while, sweating, shuddering with loathing, he forced open those stiffening fingers and drew from their dead clutch something that he stared at with dilating eyes, and with white lips suddenly compressed, ere he hid it away in his pocket.

  Then, shivering, he arose and backed away, feeling behind him for the door, and so passed out into the passage and down the stairs, but always with his pale face turned toward the dim-lit room where Jasper Gaunt lolled in his chair, a bedabbled, wide-eyed thing of horror, staring up at the dingy ceiling.

  Thus, moving ever backwards, Barnabas came to the front door, felt for the catch, but, with his hand upon it, paused once more to listen; yet heard only the thick beating of his own heart, and the loud, deliberate ticking of the wizen-faced clock upon the stairs. And now, as he hearkened, it seemed to him that it spoke no more but had taken on a new and more awful sound; for now its slow, rhythmic beat was hatefully like another sound, a soft sound and regular, a small, dull, plashing sound,——the awful tap! tap! tap! of great, slow-falling drops of blood.

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