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The Amateur Gentleman (Chapter6)

2006-08-28 16:03

  Chapter VI. Of the Bewitchment of Black Eyelashes; and of a Fateful Lace Handkerchief

  Let it be understood that Barnabas was not looking at her as she lay all warm and yielding in his embrace, on the contrary, he walked with his gaze fixed pertinaciously upon the leafy path he followed, nevertheless he was possessed, more than once, of a sudden feeling that her eyes had opened and were watching him, therefore, after a while be it noted, needs must he steal a downward glance at her beauty, only to behold the shadowy lashes curling upon her cheeks, as was but natural, of course. And now he began to discover that these were, indeed, no ordinary lashes (though to be sure his experience in such had been passing small), yet the longer he gazed upon them the more certain he became that these were, altogether and in all respects, the most demurely tantalizing lashes in the world. Then, again, there was her mouth——warmly red, full-lipped and sensitive like the delicate nostrils above; a mouth all sweet curves; a mouth, he thought, that might grow firm and proud, or wonderfully tender as the case might be, a mouth of scarlet bewitchment; a mouth that for some happy mortal might be——here our Barnabas came near blundering into a tree, and thenceforth he kept his gaze upon the path again. So, strong armed and sure of foot, he bore her through the magic twilight of the wood until he reached the brook. And coming to where the bending willows made a leafy bower he laid her there, then, turning, went down to the brook and drawing off his neckerchief began to moisten it in the clear, cool water.

  And lo! in the same minute, the curling lashes were lifted suddenly, and beneath their shadow two eyes looked out——deep and soft and darkly blue, the eyes of a maid——now frank and ingenuous, now shyly troubled, but brimful of witchery ever and always. And pray what could there be in all the fair world more proper for a maid's eyes to rest upon than young Alcides, bare of throat, and with the sun in his curls, as he knelt to moisten the neckerchief in the brook?

  Therefore, as she lay, she gazed upon him in her turn, even as he had first looked upon her, pleased to find his face so young and handsome, to note the breadth of his shoulders, the graceful carriage of his limbs, his air of virile strength and latent power, yet doubting too, because of her sex, because of the loneliness, and because he was a man; thus she lay blushing a little, sighing a little, fearing a little, waiting for him to turn. True, he had been almost reverent so far, but then the place was so very lonely. And yet——

  Barnabas turned and came striding up the bank. And how was he to know anything of all this, as he stood above her with his dripping neckerchief in his hand, looking down at her lying so very still, and pitying her mightily because her lashes showed so dark against the pallor of her cheek? How was he to know how her heart leapt in her white bosom as he sank upon his knees beside her? Therefore he leaned above her closer and raised the dripping neckerchief. But in that moment she (not minded to be wet) sighed, her white lids fluttered, and, sitting up, she stared at him for all the world as though she had never beheld him until that very moment.

  "What are you going to do?" she demanded, drawing away from the streaming neckerchief. "Who are you? Why am I here?——what has happened?"

  Barnabas hesitated, first because he was overwhelmed by this sudden torrent of questions, and secondly because he rarely spoke without thinking; therefore, finding him silent, she questioned him again——

  "Where am I?"

  "In Annersley Wood, madam."

  "Ah, yes, I remember, my horse ran away."

  "So I brought you here to the brook."

  "Why?"

  "You were hurt; I found you bleeding and senseless."

  "Bleeding!" And out came a dainty lace handkerchief on the instant.

  "There," said Barnabas, "above your eyebrow," and he indicated a very small trickle of blood upon the snow of her temple.

  "And you——found me, sir?"

  "Beneath the riven oak in the Broad Glade——over yonder."

  "That is a great way from here, sir!"

  "You are not——heavy!" Barnabas explained, a little clumsily perhaps, for she fell silent at this, and stooped her head the better to dab tenderly at the cut above her eyebrow; also the color deepened in her cheeks.

  "Madam," said Barnabas, "that is the wrong eyebrow."

  "Then why don't you tell me where I'm hurt?" she sighed. For answer, after a moment's hesitation, Barnabas reached out and taking her hand, handkerchief and all, laid it very gently upon the cut, though to be sure it was a very poor thing, as cuts go, after all.

  "There," said he again, "though indeed it is very trifling."

  "Indeed, sir, it pains atrociously!" she retorted, and to bear out her words showed him her handkerchief, upon whose snow was a tiny vivid stain.

  "Then perhaps," ventured Barnabas, "perhaps I'd better bathe it with this!" and he held up his dripping handkerchief.

  "Nay, sir, I thank you," she answered, "keep it for your own wounds——there is a cut upon your cheek."

  "A cut!" repeated Barnabas——bethinking him of the gentleman's signet ring.

  "Yes, a cut, sir," she repeated, and stole a glance at him under her long lashes; "pray did your horse run away also?"

  Barnabas was silent again, this time because he knew not how to answer——therefore he began rubbing at his injured cheek while she watched him——and after a while spoke.

  "Sir," said she, "that is the wrong cheek."

  "Then, indeed, this must be very trifling also," said Barnabas, smiling.

  "Does it pain you, sir?"

  "Thank you——no."

  "Yet it bleeds! You say it was not your horse, sir?" she inquired, wonderfully innocent of eye.

  "No, it was not my horse."

  "Why, then——pray, how did it happen?"

  "Happen, madam?——why, I fancy I must have——scratched myself," returned Barnabas, beginning to wring out his neckerchief.

  "Scratched yourself. Ah! of course!" said she, and was silent while Barnabas continued to wring the water from his neckerchief.

  "Pray," she inquired suddenly, "do you often scratch yourself——until you bleed?——'t is surely a most distressing habit." Now glancing up suddenly, Barnabas saw her eyes were wonderfully bright for all her solemn mouth, and suspicion grew upon him.——"Did she know? Had she seen?" he wondered.

  "Nevertheless, sir——my thanks are due to you——"

  "For what?" he inquired quickly.

  "Why——for——for——"

  "For bringing you here?" he suggested, beginning to wring out his neckerchief again.

  "Yes; believe me I am more than grateful for——for——"

  "For what, madam?" he inquired again, looking at her now.

  "For——your——kindness, sir."

  "Pray, how have I been kind?——you refused my neckerchief."

  Surely he was rather an unpleasant person after all, she thought, with his persistently direct eyes, and his absurdly blunt mode of questioning——and she detested answering questions.

  "Sir," said she, with her dimpled chin a little higher than usual, "it is a great pity you troubled yourself about me, or spoilt your neckerchief with water."

  "I thought you were hurt, you see——"

  "Oh, sir, I grieve to disappoint you," said she, and rose, and indeed she gained her feet with admirable grace and dignity notwithstanding her recent fall, and the hampering folds of her habit; and now Barnabas saw that she was taller than he had thought.

  "Disappoint me!" repeated Barnabas, rising also; "the words are unjust."

  For a moment she stood, her head thrown back, her eyes averted disdainfully, and it was now that Barnabas first noticed the dimple in her chin, and he was yet observing it very exactly when he became aware that her haughtiness was gone again and that her eyes were looking up at him, half laughing, half shy, and of course wholly bewitching.

  "Yes, I know it was," she admitted, "but oh! won't you please believe that a woman can't fall off her horse without being hurt, though it won't bleed much." Now as she spoke a distant clock began to strike and she to count the strokes, soft and mellow with distance.

  "Nine!" she exclaimed with an air of tragedy——"then I shall be late for breakfast, and I'm ravenous——and gracious heavens!"

  "What now, madam?"

  "My hair! It's all come down——look at it!"

  "I've been doing so ever since I——met you," Barnabas confessed.

  "Oh, have you! Then why didn't you tell me of it——and I've lost nearly all my hairpins——and——oh dear! what will they think?"

  "That it is the most beautiful hair in all the world, of course," said Barnabas. She was already busy twisting it into a shining rope, but here she paused to look up at him from under this bright nimbus, and with two hair-pins in her mouth.

  "Oh!" said she again very thoughtfully, and then "Do you think so?" she inquired, speaking over and round the hairpins as it were.

  "Yes," said Barnabas, steady-eyed; and immediately down came the curling lashes again, while with dexterous white fingers she began to transform the rope into a coronet.

  "I'm afraid it won't hold up," she said, giving her head a tentative shake, "though, fortunately, I haven't far to go."

  "How far?" asked Barnabas.

  "To Annersley House, sir."

  "Yes," said Barnabas, "that is very near——the glade yonder leads into the park."

  "Do you know Annersley, then, sir?"

  Barnabas hesitated and, having gone over the question in his mind, shook his head.

  "I know of it," he answered.

  "Do you know Sir George Annersley?"

  Again Barnabas hesitated. As a matter of fact he knew as much of Sir George as he knew of the "great house," as it was called thereabouts, that is to say he had seen him once or twice——in the distance. But it would never do to admit as much to her, who now looked up at him with eyes of witchery as she waited for him to speak. Therefore Barnabas shook his head, and answered airily enough:

  "We are not exactly acquainted, madam."

  Yesterday he would have scorned the subterfuge; but to-day there was money in his purse; London awaited him with expectant arms, the very air was fraught with a magic whereby the impossible might become concrete fact, wherein dreams might become realities; was not she herself, as she stood before him lithe and vigorous in all the perfection of her warm young womanhood——was she not the very embodiment of those dreams that had haunted him sleeping and waking? Verily. Therefore with this magic in the air might he not meet Sir George Annersley at the next cross-roads or by-lane, and strike up an enduring friendship on the spot——truly, for anything was possible to-day. Meanwhile my lady had gathered up the folds of her riding-habit, and yet in the act of turning into the leafy path, spoke:

  "Are you going far, sir?"

  "To London."

  "Have you many friends there?"

  "None,——as yet, madam."

  After this they walked on in silence, she with her eyes on the lookout for obstacles, he lost to all but the beauty of the young body before him——the proud carriage of the head, the sway of the hips, the firm poise of the small and slender foot——all this he saw and admired, yet (be it remarked) his face bore nothing of the look that had distorted the features of the gentleman in the bottle-green coat——though to be sure our Barnabas was but an amateur at best——even as Natty Bell had said. So at last she reached the fateful glade beyond which, though small with distance, was a noble house set upon a gentle hill that rose above the swaying green of trees. Here my lady paused; she looked up the glade and down the glade, and finally at him. And her eyes were the eyes of a maid, shy, mischievous, demure, challenging.

  "Sir," said she, shyly, demurely——but with eyes still challenging—— "sir, I have to thank you. I do thank you——more than these poor lips can tell. If there is anything I could——do——to——to prove my gratitude, you——have but to——name it."

  "Do," stammered Barnabas. "Do——indeed——I——no."

  The challenging eyes were hidden now, but the lips curved wonderfully tempting and full of allurement. Barnabas clenched his fists hard.

  "I see, sir, your cheek has stopped bleeding, 't is almost well. I think——there are others——whose hurts will not heal——quite so soon——and, between you and me, sir, I'm glad——glad! Good-by! and may you find as many friends in London as you deserve." So saying, she turned and went on down the glade.

  And in a little Barnabas sighed, and turning also, strode on London-wards.

  Now when she had gone but a very short way, my lady must needs glance back over her shoulder, then, screened to be sure by a convenient bramble-bush, she stood to watch him as he swung along, strong, graceful, but with never a look behind.

  "Who was he?" she wondered. "What was he? From his clothes he might be anything between a gamekeeper and a farmer."

  Alas! poor Barnabas! To be sure his voice was low and modulated, and his words well chosen——who was he, what was he? And he was going to London where he had no friends. And he had never told his name, nor, what was a great deal worse, asked for hers! Here my lady frowned, for such indifference was wholly new in her experience. But on went long-legged Barnabas, all unconscious, striding through sunlight and shadow, with step blithe and free——and still (Oh! Barnabas) with never a look behind. Therefore, my lady's frown grew more portentous, and she stamped her foot at his unconscious back; then all at once the frown vanished in a sudden smile, and she instinctively shrank closer into cover, for Barnabas had stopped.

  "Oh, indeed, sir!" she mocked, secure behind her leafy screen, nodding her head at his unconscious back; "so you've actually thought better of it, have you?"

  Here Barnabas turned.

  "Really, sir, you will even trouble to come all the way back, will you, just to learn her name——or, perhaps to——indeed, what condescension. But, dear sir, you're too late; oh, yes, indeed you are! 'for he who will not when he may, when he will he shall have nay.' I grieve to say you are too late——quite too late! Good morning, Master Shill-I-shall-I." And with the word she turned, then hastily drew a certain lace handkerchief from her bosom, and set it very cleverly among the thorns of a bramble, and so sped away among the leaves.

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