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The Amateur Gentleman (Chapter74)

2006-08-28 16:22

  Chapter LXXIV. How The Duchess Made Up Her Mind, and Barnabas Did the Like

  "Gracious heavens——he's actually up——and dressed! Oh Lud, Barnabas, what does this mean?"

  Barnabas started and turned to find the Duchess regarding him from the doorway and, though her voice was sharp, her eyes were wonderfully gentle, and she had stretched out her hands to him. Therefore he crossed the room a little unsteadily, and taking those small hands in his, bent his head and kissed them reverently.

  "It means that, thanks to you, Duchess, I am well again and——"

  "And as pale as a goblin——no, I mean a ghost——trying to catch his death of cold at an open window too——I mean you, not the ghost! And as weak as——as a rabbit, and——oh, dear me, I can't shut it——the casement——drat it! Thank you, Barnabas. Dear heaven, I am so flurried——and even your boots on too! Let me sit down. Lud, Barnabas——how thin you are!"

  "But strong enough to go on my way——"

  "Way? What way? Which way?"

  "Home, Duchess."

  "Home, home indeed? You are home——this is your home. Ashleydown is yours now."

  "Yes," nodded Barnabas, "I suppose it is, but I shall never live here, I leave today. I am going home, but before I——"

  "Home? What home——which home?"

  "But before I do, I would thank you if I could, but how may I thank you for all your motherly care of me? Indeed, dear Duchess, I cannot, and yet——if words can——"

  "Pho!" exclaimed the Duchess, knitting her brows at him, but with eyes still ineffably soft and tender, "what do you mean by 'home,' pray?"

  "I am going back to my father and Natty Bell."

  "And to——that inn?"

  "Yes, Duchess. You see, there is not, there never was, there never shall be quite such another inn as the old 'Hound.'"

  "And you——actually mean to——live there?"

  "Yes, for a time, but——"

  "Ha——a publican!" exclaimed the Duchess and positively sniffed, though only as a really great lady may.

  "——there is a farm near by, I shall probably——"

  "Ha——a farmer!" snorted the Duchess.

  "——raise horses, madam, and with Natty Bell's assistance I hope——"

  "Horses!" cried the Duchess, and sniffed again. "Horses, indeed! Absurd! Preposterous! Quite ridiculous——hush, sir! I have some questions to ask you."

  "Well, Duchess?"

  "Firstly, sir, what of your dreams? What of London? What of Society?"

  "They were——only dreams," answered Barnabas; "in place of them I shall have——my father and Natty Bell."

  "Secondly, sir,——what of your fine ambitions?"

  "It will be my ambition, henceforth, to breed good horses, madam."

  "Thirdly, sir,——what of your money?"

  "I shall hope to spend it to much better purpose in the country than in the World of Fashion, Duchess."

  "Oh Lud, Barnabas,——what a selfish creature you are!"

  "Selfish, madam?"

  "A perfect——wretch!"

  "Wretch?" said Barnabas, staring.

  "Wretch!" nodded the Duchess, frowning, "and pray don't echo my words, sir. I say you are a preposterously selfish wretch, and——so you are!"

  "But, madam, why? What do you mean?"

  "I mean that you should try to forget yourself occasionally and think of others——me, for instance; look at me——a solitary old woman——in a wig!"

  "You, Duchess?"

  "Me, Barnabas. And this brings me to fourthly——what of me, sir? ——what of me?"

  "But, madam, I——"

  "And this brings me to fifthly and sixthly and seventhly——my hopes, and dreams, and plans, sir——are they all to be broken, spoiled, ruined by your hatefully selfish whims, sir——hush, not a word!"

  "But, Duchess, indeed I don't——"

  "Hush, sir, and listen to me. There are days when my wig rebukes me, sir, and my rouge-pot stares me out of countenance; yes, indeed, I sometimes begin to feel almost——middle-aged and, at such times, I grow a little lonely. Heaven, sir, doubtless to some wise end, has always denied me that which is a woman's abiding joy or shame——I mean a child, sir, and as the years creep on, one is apt to be a little solitary, now and then, and at such times I feel the need of a son——so I have determined to adopt you, Barnabas——today! Now! This minute! Not a word, sir, my mind is made up!"

  "But," stammered Barnabas, "but, madam, I——I beg you to consider——my father——"

  "Is a publican and probably a sinner, Barnabas. I may be a sinner too, perhaps——y-e-s, I fear I am, occasionally. But then I am also a Duchess, and it is far wiser in a man to be the adopted son of a sinful Duchess than the selfish son of a sinful publican, yes indeed."

  "But I, madam, what can I say? Dear Duchess, I——the honor you would do me——" floundered poor Barnabas, "believe me if——if——"

  "Not another word!" the Duchess interposed, "it is quite settled. As my adopted son Society shall receive you on bended knees, with open arms——I'll see to that! All London shall welcome you, for though I'm old and wear a wig, I'm very much alive, and Society knows it. So no more talk of horses, or farms, or inns, Barnabas; my mind, as I say, is quite made up and——"

  "But, madam," said Barnabas gently, "so is mine."

  "Ha——indeed, sir——well?"

  "Well, madam, today I go to my father."

  "Ah!" sighed the Duchess.

  "Though indeed I thank you humbly for——your condescension."

  "Hum!" said the Duchess.

  "And honor you most sincerely for——for——"

  "Oh?" said the Duchess, softly.

  "And most truly love and reverence you for your womanliness."

  "Oh!" said the Duchess again, this time very softly indeed, and with her bright eyes more youthful than ever.

  "Nevertheless," pursued Barnabas a little ponderously, "my father is my father, and I count it more honorable to be his son than to live an amateur gentleman and the friend of princes."

  "Quite so," nodded the Duchess, "highly filial and very pious, oh, indeed, most righteous and laudable, but——there remains an eighthly, Barnabas."

  "And pray, madam, what may that be?"

  "What of Cleone?"

  Now when the Duchess said this, Barnabas turned away to the window and leaning his head in his hands, was silent awhile.

  "Cleone!" he sighed at last, "ah, yes——Cleone!"

  "You love her, I suppose?"

  "So much——so very much that she shall never marry an innkeeper's son, or a discredited——"

  "Bah!" exclaimed the Duchess.

  "Madam?"

  "Don't be so hatefully proud, Barnabas."

  "Proud, madam——I?"

  "Cruelly, wickedly, hatefully proud! Oh, dear me! what a superbly virtuous, heroic fool you are, Barnabas. When you met her at the crossroads, for instance——oh, I know all about it——when you had her there——in your arms, why didn't you——run off with her and marry her, as any ordinary human man would have done? Dear heaven, it would have been so deliciously romantic! And——such an easy way out of it!"

  "Yes," said Barnabas, beginning to frown, "so easy that it was——wrong!"

  "Quite so and fiddlesticks!" sniffed the Duchess.

  "Madam?"

  "Oh, sir, pray remember that one wrong may sometimes make two right! As it is, you will let your abominable pride——yes, pride! wreck and ruin two lives. Bah!" cried the Duchess very fiercely as she rose and turned to the door, "I've no patience with you!"

  "Ah, Duchess," said Barnabas, staying her with pleading hands, "can't you see——don't you understand? Were she, this proud lady, my wife, I must needs be haunted, day and night, by the fear that some day, soon or late, she would find me to be——not of her world——not the man she would have me, but only——the publican's son, after all. Now——don't you see why I dare not?"

  "Oh, Pride! Pride!" exclaimed the Duchess. "Do you expect her to come to you, then——would you have her go down on her knees to you, and——beg you to marry her?"

  Barnabas turned to the window again and stood there awhile staring blindly out beyond the swaying green of trees; when at last he spoke his voice was hoarse and there was a bitter smile upon his lips.

  "Yes, Duchess," said he slowly, "before such great happiness could be mine she must come to me, she must go down upon her knees——proud lady that she is——and beg this innkeeper's son to marry her. So you see, Duchess, I——shall never marry!"

  Now when at last Barnabas looked round, the Duchess had her back to him, nor did she turn even when she spoke.

  "Then you are going back——to your father?"

  "Yes, madam."

  "To-day?"

  "Yes, madam."

  "Then——good-by, Barnabas! And remember that even roses, like all things else, have a habit of fading, sooner or later." And thus, without even glancing at him, the Duchess went out of the room and closed the door softly behind her.

  Then Barnabas sank into a chair, like one that is very tired, and sat there lost in frowning thought, and with one hand clasped down upon his breast where hidden away in a clumsily contrived hiding-place a certain rose, even at that moment, was fading away. And in a while being summoned by Peterby, he sighed and, rising, went down to his solitary breakfast.

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