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The Amateur Gentleman (Chapter21)

2006-08-28 16:08

  Chapter XXI. In Which Barnabas Undertakes a Mission

  Their progress through the wood was slow, by reason of the undergrowth, yet Barnabas noticed that where the way permitted, she hurried on at speed, and moreover, that she was very silent and kept her face turned from him; therefore he questioned her.

  "Are you afraid of these woods?"

  "No."

  "Of me?"

  "No."

  "Then, I fear you are angry again."

  "I think Barnab——your name is——hateful!"

  "Strange!" said Barnabas, "I was just thinking how musical it was——as you say it."

  "I——oh! I thought your cheek was paining you," said she, petulantly.

  "My cheek?——what has that to do with it?"

  "Everything, sir!"

  "That," said Barnabas, "that I don't understand."

  "Of course you don't!" she retorted.

  "Hum!" said Barnabas.

  "And now!" she demanded, "pray how did you know I was to be at Oakshott's Barn to-night?"

  "From my valet."

  "Your valet?"

  "Yes; though to be sure, he was a poacher, then."

  "Sir, pray be serious!"

  "I generally am."

  "But why have a poacher for your valet?"

  "That he might poach no more; and because I understand that he is the best valet in the world."

  Here she glanced up at Barnabas and shook her head: "I fear I shall never understand you, Mr. Beverley."

  "That time will show; and my name is Barnabas."

  "But how did——this poacher——know?"

  "He was the man who brought you the letter from Mr. Chichester."

  "It was written by my——brother, sir."

  "He was the man who gave you your brother's letter in Annersley Wood."

  "Yes——I remember——in the wood."

  "Where I found you lying quite unconscious."

  "Where you found me——yes."

  "Lying——quite unconscious!"

  "Yes," she answered, beginning to hasten her steps again. "And where you left me without telling me your name——or——even asking mine."

  "For which I blamed myself——afterwards," said Barnabas.

  "Indeed, it was very remiss of you."

  "Yes," sighed Barnabas, "I came back to try and find you."

  "Really, sir?" said she, with black brows arched——"did you indeed, sir?"

  "But I was too late, and I feared I had lost you——"

  "Why, that reminds me, I lost my handkerchief."

  "Oh!" said Barnabas, staring up at the moon.

  "I think I must have dropped it——in the wood."

  "Then, of course, it is gone——you may depend upon that," said Barnabas, shaking his head at the moon.

  "It had my monogram embroidered in one corner."

  "Indeed!" said Barnabas.

  "Yes; I was——hoping——that you had seen it, perhaps?"

  "On a bramble-bush," said Barnabas, nodding at the moon.

  "Then——you did find it, sir?"

  "Yes; and I beg to remind you that my name——"

  "Where is it?"

  "In my pocket."

  "Then why couldn't you say so before?"

  "Because I wished to keep it there."

  "Please give it to me!"

  "Why?"

  "Because no man shall have my favors to wear until he has my promise, also."

  "Then, since I have the one——give me the other."

  "Mr. Beverley, you will please return my handkerchief," and stopping all at once, she held out her hand imperiously.

  "Of course," sighed Barnabas, "on a condition——"

  "On no condition, sir!"

  "That you remember my name is Barnabas."

  "But I detest your name."

  "I am hoping that by use it may become a little less objectionable," said he, rather ponderously.

  "It never can——never; and I want my handkerchief,——Barnabas."

  So Barnabas sighed again, and perforce gave the handkerchief into her keeping. And now it was she who smiled up at the moon; but as for Barnabas, his gaze was bent earthwards. After they had gone some way in silence, he spoke.

  "Have you met——Sir Mortimer Carnaby——often?" he inquired.

  "Yes," she answered, then seeing his scowling look, added, "very often, oh, very often indeed, sir!"

  "Ha!" said frowning Barnabas, "and is he one of the many who have——told you their love?"

  "Yes."

  "Hum," said Barnabas, and strode on in gloomy silence. Seeing which she smiled in the shadow of her hood, and thereafter grew angry all at once.

  "And pray, why not, sir?" she demanded, haughtily, "though, indeed, it does not at all concern you; and he is at least a gentleman, and a friend of the Prince——"

  "And has an excellent eye for horseflesh——and women," added Barnabas.

  Now when he said this, she merely looked at him once, and thereafter forgot all about him, whereby Barnabas gradually perceived that his offence was great, and would have made humble atonement, yet found her blind and deaf, which was but natural, seeing that, for her, he had ceased to exist.

  But they reached a stile. It was an uncommonly high stile, an awkward stile at any time, more especially at night. Nevertheless, she faced it resolutely, even though Barnabas had ceased to exist. When, therefore, having vaulted over, he would have helped her, she looked over him, and past him, and through him, and mounted unaided, confident of herself, proud and supremely disdainful both of the stile and Barnabas; and then——because of her pride, or her disdain, or her long cloak, or all three——she slipped, and to save herself must needs catch at Barnabas, and yield herself to his arm; so, for a moment, she lay in his embrace, felt his tight clasp about her, felt his quick breath upon her cheek. Then he had set her down, and was eyeing her anxiously.

  "Your foot, is it hurt?" he inquired.

  "Thank you, no," she answered, and turning with head carried high, hurried on faster than ever.

  "You should have taken my hand," said he; but he spoke to deaf ears.

  "You will find the next stile easier, I think," he ventured; but still she hurried on, unheeding.

  "You walk very fast!" said he again, but still she deigned him no reply; therefore he stooped till he might see beneath her hood.

  "Dear lady," said he very gently, "if I offended you a while ago——forgive me——Cleone."

  "Indeed," said she, looking away from him; "it would seem I must be always forgiving you, Mr. Beverley."

  "Why, surely it is a woman's privilege to forgive, Cleone——and my name——"

  "And a man's prerogative to be forgiven, I suppose, Mr. Beverley."

  "When he repents as I do, Cleone; and my——"

  "Oh! I forgive you," she sighed.

  "Yet you still walk very fast."

  "It must be nearly ten o'clock."

  "I suppose so," said Barnabas, "and you will, naturally, be anxious to reach home again."

  "Home," she said bitterly; "I have no home."

  "But——"

  "I live in a gaol——a prison. Yes, a hateful, hateful prison, watched by a one-legged gaoler, and guarded by a one-armed tyrant——yes, a tyrant!" Here, having stopped to stamp her foot, she walked on faster than ever.

  "Can you possibly mean old Jerry and the Captain?"

  Here my lady paused in her quick walk, and even condescended to look at Barnabas.

  "Do you happen to know them too, sir?"

  "Yes; and my name is——"

  "Perhaps you met them also this morning, sir?"

  "Yes; and my——"

  "Indeed," said she, with curling lip; "this has been quite an eventful day for you."

  "On the whole, I think it has; and may I remind you that my——"

  "Perhaps you don't believe me when I say he is a tyrant?"

  "Hum," said Barnabas.

  "You don't, do you?"

  "Why, I'm afraid not," he admitted.

  "I'm nineteen!" said she, standing very erect.

  "I should have judged you a little older," said Barnabas.

  "So I am——in mind, and——and experience. Yet here I live, prisoned in a dreary old house, and with nothing to see but trees, and toads, and cows and cabbages; and I'm watched over, and tended from morning till night, and am the subject of more councils of war than Buonaparte's army ever was."

  "What do you mean by councils of war?"

  "Oh! whenever I do anything my tyrant disapproves of, he retires to what he calls the 'round house,' summons the Bo'sun, and they argue and talk over me as though I were a hostile fleet, and march up and down forming plans of attack and defence, till I burst in on them, and then——and then——Oh! there are many kinds of tyrants, and he is one. And so to-night I left him; I ran away to meet——" She stopped suddenly, and her head drooped, and Barnabas saw her white hands clench themselves.

  "Your brother," said he.

  "Yes, my——brother," but her voice faltered at the word, and she went on through the wood, but slowly now, and with head still drooping. And so, at last, they came out of the shadows into the soft radiance of the moon, and thus Barnabas saw that she was weeping; and she, because she could no longer hide her grief, turned and laid a pleading hand upon his arm.

  "Pray, think of him as kindly as you can," she sighed, "you see——he is only a boy——my brother."

  "So young?" said Barnabas.

  "Just twenty, but younger than his age——much younger. You see," she went on hastily, "he went to London a boy——and——and he thought Mr. Chichester was his friend, and he lost much money at play, and, somehow, put himself in Mr. Chichester's power. He is my half-brother, really; but I——love him so, and I've tried to take care of him——I was always so much stronger than he——and——and so I would have you think of him as generously as you can."

  "Yes," said Barnabas, "yes." But now she stopped again so that he must needs stop too, and when she spoke her soft voice thrilled with a new intensity.

  "Will you do more? You are going to London——will you seek him out, will you try to——save him from himself? Will you promise me to do this——will you?"

  Now seeing the passionate entreaty in her eyes, feeling it in the twitching fingers upon his arm, Barnabas suddenly laid his own above that slender hand, and took it into his warm clasp.

  "My lady," said he, solemnly, "I will." As he spoke he stooped his head low and lower, until she felt his lips warm upon her palm, a long, silent pressure, and yet her hand was not withdrawn.

  Now although Barnabas had clean forgotten the rules and precepts set down in the "priceless wollum," he did it all with a graceful ease which could not have been bettered——no, not even by the Person of Quality itself.

  "But it will be difficult," she sighed, as they went on together. "Ronald is very headstrong and proud——it will be very difficult!"

  "No matter," said Barnabas.

  "And——dangerous, perhaps."

  "No matter for that either," said Barnabas.

  "Does it seem strange that I should ask so much of you?"

  "The most natural thing in the world," said Barnabas.

  "But you are a stranger——almost!"

  "But I——love you, Cleone."

  After this there fell a silence between them; and so having crossed the moonlit meadow, they came to a tall hedge beyond whose shadow the road led away, white under the moon; close by the ways divided, and here stood a weather-beaten finger-post. Now beneath this hedge they stopped, and it is to be noted that neither looked at the other.

  "Sir," said she, softly, "we part here, my home lies yonder," and she pointed to where above the motionless tree-tops rose the gables and chimneys of a goodly house.

  "It would seem to be fairly comfortable as prisons go," said Barnabas; but my lady only sighed.

  "Do you start for London——soon?"

  "To-night," nodded Barnabas.

  "Sir," said she, after a pause, "I would thank you, if I could, for——for all that you have done for me."

  "No, no," said Barnabas, hastily.

  "Words are poor things, I know, but how else may I show my gratitude?"

  And now it was Barnabas who was silent; but at last——

  "There is a way," said he, staring at the finger-post.

  "How——what way?"

  "You might——kiss me——once, Cleone."

  Now here she must needs steal a swift look at him, and thus she saw that he still stared at the ancient finger-post, but that his hands were tight clenched.

  "I only ask," he continued heavily, "for what I might have taken."

  "But didn't!" she added, with lips and eyes grown suddenly tender.

  "No," sighed Barnabas, "nor shall I ever,——until you will it so,——because, you see, I love you."

  Now as he gazed at the finger-post, even so she gazed at him; and thus she saw again the mark upon his cheek, and looking, sighed; indeed, it was the veriest ghost of a sigh, yet Barnabas heard it, and straightway forgot the finger-post, forgot the world and all things in it, save her warm beauty, the red allurement of her mouth, and the witchery of her drooping lashes; therefore he reached out his hands to her, and she saw that they were trembling.

  "Cleone," he murmured, "oh, Cleone——look up!"

  But even as he spoke she recoiled from his touch, for, plain and clear, came the sound of footsteps on the road near by. Sighing, Barnabas turned thitherwards and beheld advancing towards them one who paused, now and then, to look about him as though at a loss, and then hurried on again. A very desolate figure he was, and quaintly pathetic because of his gray hair, and the empty sleeve that flapped helplessly to and fro with the hurry of his going——a figure, indeed, that there was no mistaking. Being come to the finger-post, he paused to look wistfully on all sides, and Barnabas could see that his face was drawn and haggard. For a moment he gazed about him wild-eyed and eager, then with a sudden, hopeless gesture, he leaned his one arm against the battered sign-post and hid his face there.

  "Oh, my lass——my dear!" he cried in a strangled voice, "why did you leave me? Oh, my lass!"

  Then all at once came a rustle of parting leaves, the flutter of flying draperies, and Cleone had fled to that drooping, disconsolate figure, had wreathed her protecting arms about it, and so all moans, and sobs, and little tender cries, had drawn her tyrant's head down upon her gentle bosom and clasped it there.

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