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The Amateur Gentleman (Chapter72)

2006-08-28 16:22

  Chapter LXXII. How Ronald Barreymaine Squared His Account

  A distant clock was striking the hour as Barnabas rode in at the rusted gates of Ashleydown and up beneath an avenue of sombre trees beyond which rose the chimneys of a spacious house, clear and plain against the palpitating splendor of the stars. But the house, like its surroundings, wore a desolate, neglected look, moreover it was dark, not a light was to be seen anywhere from attic to cellar. Yet, as Barnabas followed the sweep of the avenue, he suddenly espied a soft glow that streamed from an uncurtained window giving upon the terrace; therefore he drew rein, and dismounting, led his horse in among the trees and, having tethered him there, advanced towards the gloomy house, his gaze upon the lighted window, and treading with an ever growing caution.

  Now, as he went, he took out one of the pistols, cocked it, and with it ready in his hand, came to the window and peered into the room.

  It was a long, low chamber with a fireplace at one end, and here, his frowning gaze bent upon the blazing logs, sat Mr. Chichester. Upon the small table at his elbow were decanter and glasses, with a hat and gloves and a long travelling cloak. As Barnabas stood there Mr. Chichester stirred impatiently, cast a frowning glance at the clock in the corner and reaching out to the bell-rope that hung beside the mantel, jerked it viciously, and so fell to scowling at the fire again until the door opened and a bullet-headed, square-shouldered fellow entered, a formidable ruffian with pugilist written in his every feature; to whom Mr. Chichester appeared to give certain commands; and so dismissed him with an impatient gesture of his slim, white hands. As the door closed, Mr. Chichester started up and fell to pacing the floor only to return, and, flinging himself back in his chair, sat scowling at the fire again.

  Then Barnabas raised the pistol-butt and, beating in the window, loosed the catch, and, as Mr. Chichester sprang to his feet, opened the casement and stepped into the room.

  For a long moment neither spoke, while eyes met and questioned eyes, those of Barnabas wide and bright, Mr. Chichester's narrowed to shining slits. And indeed, as they fronted each other thus, each was the opposite of the other, Barnabas leaning in the window, his pistol hand hidden behind him, a weary, bedraggled figure mired from heel to head; Mr. Chichester standing rigidly erect, immaculate of dress from polished boot to snowy cravat.

  "So," said he at last, breaking the ominous silence, "so it's——yes, it is Mr.——Barty, I think, unpleasantly damp and devilish muddy, and, consequently, rather more objectionable than usual."

  "I have ridden far, and the roads were bad," said Barnabas.

  "Ah! and pray why inflict yourself upon me?"

  "For a very good and sufficient reason, sir."

  "Ha, a reason?" said Mr. Chichester, lounging against the mantel. "Can it be you have discerned at last that the highly dramatic meeting between father and son at a certain banquet, not so long ago, was entirely contrived by myself——that it was my hand drove you from society and made you the derision of London, Mr. Barty?"

  "Why, yes," sighed Barnabas; "I guessed that much, sir."

  "Indeed, I admire your perspicacity, Mr. Barty. And now, I presume you have broken into my house with some brutal idea of pummelling me with your fists? But, sir, I am no prizefighter, like you and your estimable father, and I warn you that——"

  "Sir," said Barnabas softly, "do not trouble to ring the bell, my mission here is——not to thrash you."

  "No? Gad, sir, but you're very forbearing, on my soul you are!" and Mr. Chichester smiled; but his nostrils were twitching as his fingers closed upon the bell-rope. "Now understand me——having shown up your imposture, having driven you from London, I do not propose to trouble myself further with you. True, you have broken into my house, and should very properly be shot like any other rascally thief. I have weapons close by, and servants within call, but you have ceased to interest me——I have other and weightier affairs on hand, so you may go, sir. I give you one minute to take yourself back to your native mud." As he ended, Mr. Chichester motioned airily towards the open window. But Barnabas only sighed again and shook his head.

  "Sir," said he, more softly than before, "give me leave to tell you that the Lady Cleone will not keep her appointment here, to-night."

  "Ah-h!" said Mr. Chichester slowly, and staring at Barnabas under his drawn brows, "you——mean——?"

  "That she was safe home three-quarters of an hour ago."

  Mr. Chichester's long, white fingers writhed suddenly upon the bell-rope, released it, and, lifting his hand swiftly, he loosened his high cravat, and so stood, breathing heavily, his eyes once more narrowed to shining slits, and with the scar burning redly upon his cheek.

  "So you have dared," he began thickly, "you have dared to interfere again? You have dared to come here, to tell me so?"

  "No, sir," answered Barnabas, shaking his head, "I have come here to kill you!"

  Barnabas spoke very gently, but as Mr. Chichester beheld his calm eye, the prominence of his chin, and his grimly-smiling mouth, his eyes widened suddenly, his clenched fingers opened, and he reached out again towards the bell-rope. "Stop!" said Barnabas, and speaking, levelled his pistol.

  "Ah!" sighed Mr. Chichester, falling back a step, "you mean to murder me, do you?"

  "I said 'kill'——though yours is the better word, perhaps. Here are two pistols, you will observe; one is for you and one for me. And we are about to sit down——here, at the table, and do our very utmost to murder each other. But first, I must trouble you to lock the door yonder and bring me the key. Lock it, I say!"

  Very slowly, and with his eyes fixed in a wide stare upon the threatening muzzle of the weapon Barnabas held, Mr. Chichester, crossed to the door, hesitated, turned the key, and drawing it from the lock, stood with it balanced in his hand a moment, and then tossed it towards Barnabas.

  Now the key lay within a yard of Barnabas who, stepping forward, made as though to reach down for it; but in that instant he glanced up at Mr. Chichester under his brows, and in that instant also, Mr. Chichester took a swift, backward step towards the hearth; wherefore, because of this, and because of the look in Mr. Chichester's eyes, Barnabas smiled, and, so smiling, kicked the key into a far corner.

  "Come, sir," said he, drawing another chair up to the table, "be seated!" saying which, Barnabas sat down, and, keeping one pistol levelled, laid the other within Mr. Chichester's reach. "They are both loaded, sir," he continued; "but pray assure yourself."

  But Mr. Chichester stood where he was, his eyes roving swiftly from Barnabas to the unlatched window, from that to the door, and so back again to where Barnabas sat, pale, smiling, and with the heavy weapon levelled across the narrow table; and as he stood thus, Mr. Chichester lifted one white hand to his mouth and began to pull at his lips with twitching fingers.

  "Come," repeated Barnabas, "be seated, sir."

  But Mr. Chichester yet stood utterly still save for the petulant action of those nervous, twitching fingers.

  "Sir," Barnabas persisted, "sit down, I beg!"

  "I'll fight you——here——and now," said Mr. Chichester, speaking in a strange, muffled tone, "yes——I'll fight you wherever or whenever you wish, but not——not across a table!"

  "I think you will," nodded Barnabas grimly. "Pray sit down."

  "No!"

  "Why, then, we'll stand up for it," sighed Barnabas rising. "Now, sir, take up your pistol."

  "No!"

  "Then," said Barnabas, his teeth agleam, "as God's above, I'll shoot you where you stand——but first I'll count three!" And once more he levelled the pistol he held.

  Mr. Chichester sighed a fluttered sigh, the twitching fingers fell from his mouth and with his burning gaze upon Barnabas, he stepped forward and laid his hand upon the chair-back, but, in the act of sitting down, paused.

  "The candles——a little more light——the candles," he muttered, and turning, crossed to the hearth and raised his hand to a branched silver candlestick that stood upon the mantel. But in the moment that his left hand closed upon this, his right had darted upon another object that lay there, and, quick as a flash, he had spun round and fired point-blank.

  While the report yet rang on the air, Barnabas staggered, swayed, and, uttering a gasp, sank down weakly into his chair. But, as Mr. Chichester watched him, his eyes wide, his lips parted, and the pistol yet smoking in his hand, Barnabas leaned forward, and steadying his elbow on the table, slowly, very slowly raised and levelled his weapon.

  And now, as he fronted that deadly barrel, Mr. Chichester's face grew suddenly livid, and haggard, and old-looking, while upon his brow the sweat had started and rolled down, glistening upon his cheeks.

  The fire crackled upon the hearth, the clock ticked softly in the corner, the table creaked as Barnabas leaned his weight across it, nearer and nearer, but, save for this, the place was very quiet. Then, all at once, upon this silence broke another sound, a distant sound this, but one that grew ever nearer and louder——the grind of wheels and the hoof-strokes of madly galloping horses. Mr. Chichester uttered a gasping cry and pointed towards the window——

  "Cleone!" he whispered. "It's Cleone! She's coming, in God's name——wait!"

  The galloping hoofs drew rapidly nearer, stopped suddenly, and as Barnabas, hesitating, glanced towards the window, it was flung wide and somebody came leaping through——a wild, terrible figure; and as he turned in the light of the candles, Barnabas looked into the distorted face of Ronald Barrymaine.

  For a moment he stood, his arms dangling, his head bent, his glowing eyes staring at Mr. Chichester, and as he stood thus fixing Mr. Chichester with that awful, unwavering stare, a smile twisted his pallid lips, and he spoke very softly:

  "It's all r-right, Dig," said he, "the luck's with me at l-last—— we're in time——I've g-got him! Come in, D-Dig, and bring the tools——I——I've g-got him!"

  Hereupon Mr. Smivvle stepped into the room; haggard of eye he looked, and with cheeks that showed deadly pale by contrast with the blackness of his glossy whiskers, and beneath his arm he carried a familiar oblong box; at sight of Barnabas he started, sighed, and crossing hastily, set the box upon the table and caught him by the arm:

  "Stop him, Beverley——stop him!" he whispered hurriedly. "Barry's gone mad, I think, insisted on coming here. Devil of a time getting away, Bow Street Runners——hard behind us now. Means to fight! Stop him, Beverley, for the love of——Ah! by God, what's this? Barry, look——look here!" And he started back from Barnabas, staring at him with horrified eyes. "Barry, Barry——look here!"

  But Ronald Barrymaine never so much as turned his head; motionless he stood, his lips still contorted with their drawn smile, his burning gaze still fixed on Mr. Chichester——indeed he seemed oblivious to all else under heaven.

  "Come, Dig," said he in the same soft voice, "get out the barkers, and quick about it, d' you hear?"

  "But, Barry——oh, my dear fellow, here's poor Beverley, look——look at him!"

  "G-give us the barkers, will you——quick! Oh, damnation. Dig, y-you know G-Gaunt and his hangman are hard on my heels! Quick, then, and g-get it over and done with——d'you hear, D-Dig?" So saying, Barrymaine crossed to the hearth and stood there, warming his hands at the blaze, but, even so, he must needs turn his head so that he could keep his gloating eyes always directed to Chichester's pale face.

  "I'm w-warming my pistol-hand, Dig," he continued, "mustn't be cold or s-stiff tonight, you see. Oh, I tell you the luck's with me at last! He's b-been so vastly clever, Dig! He's dragged me down to hell, but——tonight I'm g-going to-take him with me."

  And ever as he spoke, warming himself at the fire, Ronald Barrymaine kept his burning gaze upon Mr. Chichester's pale face, while Barnabas leaned, twisted in his chair, and Mr. Smivvle busied himself with the oblong box. With shaking hands he took out the duelling-pistols, one by one, and laid them on the table.

  "We'll g-give him first choice, eh, Dig?" said Barrymaine. "Ah——he's chosen, I s-see. Now we'll t-take opposite corners of the room and f-fire when you give the word, eh, Dig?"

  As he spoke, Barrymaine advanced to the table, his gaze always upon Mr. Chichester, nor did he look away even for an instant, thus, his hand wandered, for a moment, along the table, ere he found and took up the remaining pistol. Then, with it cocked in his hand, he backed away to the corner beside the hearth, and being come there, nodded.

  "A good, comfortable distance, D-Dig," said he, "now tell him to take his g-ground."

  But even as he spoke, Mr. Chichester strode to the opposite corner of the long room, and turning, stood there with folded arms. Up till now, he had uttered no word, but as Mr. Smivvle leaned back against the wall, midway between them, and glanced from one to the other, Mr. Chichester spoke.

  "Sirs," said he, "I shall most certainly kill him, and I call upon you to witness that it was forced upon me."

  Now as his voice died away, through the open window came a faint sound that might have been wind in the trees, or the drumming of horse-hoofs, soft and faint with distance.

  "Oh, g-give us the word, D-Dig!" said Barrymaine.

  "Gentlemen," said Mr. Smivvle, steadying himself against the panelling with shaking hands, "the word will be——Ready? One! Two! Three——Fire! Do you understand?"

  An eager "Yes" from Barrymaine, a slight nod from Chichester, yet Mr. Smivvle still leaned there mutely against the wall, as though his tongue failed him, or as if hearkening to that small, soft sound, that might have been wind in the trees.

  "The word, Dig——will you give us the word?"

  "Yes, yes, Barry, yes, my dear boy——certainly!" But still Mr. Smivvle hesitated, and ever the small sound grew bigger and louder.

  "S-speak! Will you s-speak, Dig?"

  "Oh, Barry——my dear boy, yes! Ready?"

  At the word the two pistols were raised and levelled, almost on the instant, and with his haggard eyes turned towards Barrymaine's corner, Mr. Smivvle spoke again:

  "One!——Two!——Three——"

  A flash, a single deafening report, and Ronald Barrymaine lurched sideways, caught at the wall, swayed backwards into the corner and leaned there.

  "Coward,——you fired too soon!" cried Smivvle, turning upon Mr. Chichester in sudden frenzy, "Villain! Rouge! you fired too soon——!"

  "S-stand away, Dig!" said Barrymaine faintly.

  "Oh, Barry——you're bleeding! By God, he's hit you!"

  "Of c-course, Dig——he never m-misses——neither do I——w-watch now, ah! hold me up, Dig——so! Now, stand away!" But even as Barrymaine, livid of brow and with teeth hard clenched, steadied himself for the shot, loud and clear upon the night came the thudding of swift-galloping horse-hoofs.

  And now, for the first time, Barrymaine's gaze left Chichester's face, and fixed itself upon the open casement instead.

  "Ha!" he cried, "here comes G-Gaunt at last, D-Dig, and with his hangman at his elbow! But he's t-too late, Dig, he's too l-late——I'm going, but I mean to take our friend——our d-dear friend Chichester w-with me——look now!"

  As he spoke he raised his arm, there came the stunning report of the pistol, and a puff of blinding smoke; but when it cleared, Mr. Chichester still stood up rigid in his corner, only, as he stood he lifted his hand suddenly to his mouth, glanced at his fingers, stared at them with wide, horrified eyes. Then his pistol clattered to the floor and he coughed——a hideous, strangling sound, thin and high-pitched. Coughing still, he took a swift pace forward, striving to speak, but choked instead, and so choking, sank to his knees. Even then he strove desperately to utter something, but with it still unspoken, sank down upon his hands, and thence slowly upon his face and lay there very still and quiet.

  Then Barrymaine laughed, an awful, gasping laugh, and began to edge himself along the wall and, as he went, he left hideous smears and blotches upon the panelling behind him. Being come to that inanimate figure he stood awhile watching it with gloating eyes. Presently he spoke in a harsh whisper:

  "He's dead, D-Dig——quite dead, you see! And he was my f-friend, which was bad! And I trusted him——which was w-worse. A rogue always, Dig, and a l-liar!"

  Then Barrymaine groaned, and groaning, spurned that quiet form weakly with his foot and so, pitched down headlong across it.

  Now as they lay thus, they together made a great cross upon the floor.

  But presently shadows moved beyond the open window, a broad-brimmed, high-crowned hat projected itself into the candle light, and a voice spoke:

  "In the King's name! I arrest Ronald Barrymaine for the murder of Jasper Gaunt——in the King's name, genelmen!"

  But now, very slowly and painfully, Ronald Barrymaine raised himself upon his hands, lifted his heavy head and spoke in a feeble voice.

  "Oh, m-master Hangman," he whispered, "y-you're too l-late——j-just too late!" And so, like a weary child settling itself to rest, he pillowed his head upon his arm, and sighing——fell asleep.

  Then Mr. Shrig stepped forward very softly, and beholding that placid young face with its tender, smiling lips, and the lashes that drooped so dark against the dead pallor of the cheek, he took off his broad-brimmed hat and stood there with bent head.

  But another figure had followed him, and now sprang toward Barnabas with supporting arms outstretched, and in that moment Barnabas sighed, and falling forward, lay there sprawled across the table.

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