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The Amateur Gentleman (Chapter35)

2006-08-28 16:12

  Chapter XXXV. How Barnabas Met Jasper Gaunt, and What Came of It

  Barnabas followed the Captain along a somewhat gloomy hall, up a narrow and winding staircase, and here, halfway up, was a small landing with an alcove where stood a tall, wizen-faced clock with skeleton hands and a loud, insistent, very deliberate tick; so, up more stairs to another hall, also somewhat gloomy, and a door which the pale-eyed, smiling person obligingly opened, and, having ushered them into a handsomely furnished chamber, disappeared. The Captain crossed to the hearth, and standing before the empty grate, put up his hand and loosened his high stock with suddenly petulant fingers, rather as though he found some difficulty in breathing; and, looking at him, Barnabas saw that the debonair Slingsby had vanished quite; in his place was another——a much older man, haggard of eye, with a face peaked, and gray, and careworn beneath the brim of the jaunty hat.

  "My dear Beverley," said he, staring down into the empty grate, "if you 're ever in need——if you're ever reduced to——destitution, then, in heaven's name, go quietly away and——starve! Deuced unpleasant, of course, but it's——sooner over, b'gad!"

  At this moment the smiling person reappeared at a different door, and uttered the words:

  "Captain Slingsby,——if you please." Hereupon the Captain visibly braced himself, squared his shoulders, took off his hat, crossed the room in a couple of strides, and Barnabas was alone.

  Now as he sat there waiting, he gradually became aware of a sound that stole upon the quiet, a soft, low sound, exactly what he could not define, nevertheless it greatly perturbed him. Therefore he rose, and approaching that part of the room whence it proceeded, he saw another door. And then, all at once, as he stood before this door, he knew what the sound was, and why it had so distressed him; and, even as the knowledge came, he opened the door and stepped into the room beyond.

  And this is what he saw:

  A bare little room, or office; the pale, smiling gentleman, who lounged in a cushioned chair, a comb in one hand, and in the other a small pocket mirror, by the aid of which he was attending to a diminutive tuft of flaxen whisker; and a woman, in threadbare garments, who crouched upon a bench beside the opposite wall, her face bowed upon her hands, her whole frame shaken by great, heart-broken, gasping sobs,——a sound full of misery, and of desolation unutterable.

  At the opening of the door, the pale gentleman started and turned, and the woman looked up with eyes swollen and inflamed by weeping.

  "Sir," said the pale gentleman, speaking softly, yet in the tone of one used to command, "may I ask what this intrusion means?" Now as he looked into the speaker's pallid eyes, Barnabas saw that he was much older than he had thought. He had laid aside the comb and mirror, and now rose in a leisurely manner, and his smile was more unpleasant than ever as he faced Barnabas.

  "This place is private, sir——you understand, private, sir. May I suggest that you——go, that you——leave us?" As he uttered the last two words, he thrust out his head and jaw in a very ugly manner, therefore Barnabas turned and addressed himself to the woman.

  "Pray, madam," said he, "tell me your trouble; what is the matter?" But the woman only wrung her hands together, and stared with great, frightened eyes at the colorless man, who now advanced, smiling still, and tapped Barnabas smartly on the shoulder.

  "The trouble is her own, sir, the matter is——entirely a private one," said he, fixing Barnabas with his pale stare, "I repeat, sir,——a private one. May I, therefore, suggest that you withdraw——at once?"

  "As often as you please, sir," retorted Barnabas, bowing.

  "Ah!" sighed the man, thrusting out his head again, "and what do you want——here?"

  "First, is your name Jasper Gaunt?"

  "No; but it is as well known as his——better to a great many."

  "And your name is——?"

  "Quigly."

  "Then, Mr. Quigly, pray be seated while I learn this poor creature's sorrow."

  "I think——yes, I think you'd better go," said Mr. Quigly,——"ah, yes——and at once, or——"

  "Or?" said Barnabas, smiling and clenching his fists.

  "Or it will be the worse——for you——"

  "Yes?"

  "And for your friend the Captain."

  "Yes?"

  "And you will give this woman more reason for her tears!"

  Then, looking from the pale, threatening eyes, and smiling lips of the man, to the trembling fear of the weeping woman, and remembering Slingsby's deathly cheek and shaking hand, a sudden, great anger came upon Barnabas; his long arm shot out and, pinning Mr. Quigly by the cravat, he shook him to and fro in a paroxysm of fury. Twice he raised his cane to strike, twice he lowered it, and finally loosing his grip, Mr. Quigly staggered back to the opposite wall, and leaned there, panting.

  Hereupon Barnabas, somewhat shocked at his own loss of self-restraint, re-settled his cuff, straightened his cravat, and, when he spoke, was more polite than ever.

  "Mr. Quigly, pray sit down," said he; "I have no wish to thrash you,——it would be a pity to spoil my cane, so——oblige me by sitting down."

  Mr. Quigly opened his mouth as if to speak, but, glancing at Barnabas, thought better of it; yet his eyes grew so pale that they seemed all whites as he sank into the chair.

  "And now," said Barnabas, turning to the crouching woman, "I don't think Mr. Quigly will interrupt us again, you may freely tell your trouble——if you will."

  "Oh, sir,——it's my husband! He's been in prison a whole year, and now——now he's dying——they've killed him. It was fifty pounds a year ago. I saved, and scraped, and worked day and night, and a month ago——I brought the fifty pounds. But then——Oh, my God!——then they told me I must find twenty more——interest, they called it. Twenty pounds! why, it would take me months and months to earn so much, ——and my husband was dying!——dying! But, sir, I went away despairing. Then I grew wild,——desperate——yes, desperate——oh, believe it, sir, and I,——I——Ah, sir——what won't a desperate woman do for one she loves? And so I——trod shameful ways! To-day I brought the twenty pounds, and now——dear God! now they say it must be twenty-three. Three pounds more, and I have no more——and I can't——Oh, I——can't go back to it again——the shame and horror——I——can't, sir!" So she covered her face again, and shook with the bitter passion of her woe.

  And, after a while, Barnabas found voice, though his voice was very hoarse and uneven.

  "I think," said he slowly, "yes, I think my cane could not have a worthier end than splintering on your villain's back, Mr. Quigly."

  But, even as Barnabas advanced with very evident purpose, a tall figure stood framed in the open doorway.

  "Ah, Quigly,——pray what is all this?" a chill, incisive voice demanded. Barnabas turned, and lowering the cane, stood looking curiously at the speaker. A tall, slender man he was, with a face that might have been any age,——a mask-like face, smooth and long, and devoid of hair as it was of wrinkles; an arresting face, with its curving nostrils, thin-lipped, close-shut mouth, high, prominent brow, and small, piercingly-bright eyes; quick eyes, that glinted between their red-rimmed, hairless lids, old in their experience of men and the ways of men. For the rest, he was clad in a rich yet sober habit, unrelieved by any color save for the gleaming seals at his fob, and the snowy lace at throat and wrist; his hair——evidently a wig——curled low on either cheek, and his hands were well cared for, with long, prehensile fingers.

  "You are Jasper Gaunt, I think?" said Barnabas at last.

  "At your service, sir, and you, I know, are Mr. Barnabas Beverley."

  So they stood, fronting each other, the Youth, unconquered as yet, and therefore indomitable, and the Man, with glittering eyes old in their experience of men and the ways of men.

  "You wished to see me on a matter of business, Mr. Beverley?"

  "Yes."

  "Then pray step this way."

  "No," said Barnabas, "first I require your signature to this lady's papers."

  Jasper Gaunt smiled, and shrugged his shoulders slightly.

  "Such clients as this, sir,——I leave entirely to Mr. Quigly."

  "Then, in this instance, sir, you will perhaps favor me by giving the matter your personal attention!"

  Jasper Gaunt hesitated, observed the glowing eye, flushed cheek, and firm-set lips of the speaker, and being wise in men and their ways,——bowed.

  "To oblige you, Mr. Beverley, with pleasure. Though I understand from Mr. Quigly that she is unable to meet——"

  "Seventy-eight pounds, sir! She can pay it all——every blood-stained, tear-soaked farthing. She should meet it were it double——treble the sum!" said Barnabas, opening his purse.

  "Ah, indeed, I see! I see!" nodded Jasper Gaunt. "Take the money, Quigly, I will make out the receipt. If you desire, you shall see me sign it, Mr. Beverley." So saying, he crossed to the desk, wrote the document, and handed it to Barnabas, with a bow that was almost ironical.

  Then Barnabas gave the precious paper into the woman's eager fingers, and looked down into the woman's shining eyes.

  "Sir," said she between trembling lips, "I cannot thank you,——I——I cannot. But God sees, and He will surely repay."

  "Indeed," stammered Barnabas, "I——it was only three pounds, after all, and——there,——go,——hurry away to your husband, and——ah! that reminds me,——he will want help, perhaps!" Here Barnabas took out his card, and thrust it into her hand. "Take that to my house, ask to see my Steward, Mr. Peterby,——stay, I'll write the name for you, he will look after you, and——good-by!"

  "It is a truly pleasant thing to meet with heartfelt gratitude, sir," said Jasper Gaunt, as the door closed behind the woman. "And now I am entirely at your service,——this way, sir."

  Forthwith Barnabas followed him into another room, where sat the Captain, his long legs stretched out before him, his chin on his breast, staring away at vacancy.

  "Sir," said Jasper Gaunt, glancing from Barnabas to the Captain and back again, "he will not trouble us, I think, but if you wish him to withdraw——?"

  "Thank you——no," answered Barnabas, "Captain Slingsby is my friend!" Jasper Gaunt bowed, and seated himself at his desk opposite Barnabas. His face was in shadow, for the blind had been half-drawn to exclude the glare of the afternoon sun, and he sat, or rather lolled, in a low, deeply cushioned chair, studying Barnabas with his eyes that were so bright and so very knowing in the ways of mankind; very still he sat, and very quiet, waiting for Barnabas to begin. Now on the wall, immediately behind him, was a long, keen-bladed dagger, that glittered evilly where the light caught it; and as he sat there so very quiet and still, with his face in the shadow, it seemed to Barnabas as though he lolled there dead, with the dagger smitten sideways through his throat, and in that moment Barnabas fancied he could hear the deliberate tick-tock of the wizen-faced clock upon the stairs.

  "I have come," began Barnabas at last, withdrawing his eyes from the glittering steel with an effort, "I am here on behalf of one——in whom I take an interest——a great interest."

  "Yes, Mr. Beverley?"

  "I have undertaken to——liquidate his debts."

  "Yes, Mr. Beverley."

  "To pay——whatever he may owe, both principal and interest."

  "Indeed, Mr. Beverley! And——his name?"

  "His name is Ronald Barrymaine."

  "Ronald——Barrymaine!" There was a pause between the words, and the smooth, soft voice had suddenly grown so harsh, so deep and vibrant, that it seemed incredible the words could have proceeded from the lips of the motionless figure lolling in the chair with his face in the shadow and the knife glittering behind him.

  "I have made out to you a draft for more than enough, as I judge, to cover Mr. Barrymaine's liabilities."

  "For how much, sir?"

  "Twenty-two thousand pounds."

  Then Jasper Gaunt stirred, sighed, and leaned forward in his chair.

  "A handsome sum, sir,——a very handsome sum, but——" and he smiled and shook his head.

  "Pray what do you mean by 'but'?" demanded Barnabas.

  "That the sum is——inadequate, sir."

  "Twenty-two thousand pounds is not enough then?"

  "It is——not enough, Mr. Beverley."

  "Then, if you will tell me the precise amount, I will make up the deficiency." But, here again, Jasper Gaunt smiled his slow smile and shook his head.

  "That, I grieve to say, is quite impossible, Mr. Beverley."

  "Why?"

  "Because I make it a rule never to divulge my clients' affairs to a third party; and, sir,——I never break my rules."

  "Then——you refuse to tell me?"

  "It is——quite impossible."

  So there fell a silence while the wide, fearless eyes of Youth looked into the narrow, watchful eyes of Experience. Then Barnabas rose, and began to pace to and fro across the luxurious carpet; he walked with his head bent, and the hands behind his back were tightly clenched. Suddenly he stopped, and throwing up his head faced Jasper Gaunt, who sat lolling back in his chair again.

  "I have heard," said he, "that this sum was twenty thousand pounds, but, as you say, it may be more,——a few pounds more, or a few hundreds more."

  "Precisely, Mr. Beverley."

  "I am, therefore, going to make you an offer——"

  "Which I must——refuse."

  "And my offer is this: instead of twenty thousand pounds I will double the sum."

  Jasper Gaunt's lolling figure grew slowly rigid, and leaning across the desk, he stared up at Barnabas under his hairless brows. Even Captain Slingsby stirred and lifted his heavy head.

  "Forty thousand pounds!" said Jasper Gaunt, speaking almost in a whisper.

  "Yes," said Barnabas, and sitting down, he folded his arms a little ostentatiously. Jasper Gaunt's head drooped, and he stared down at the papers on the desk before him, nor did he move, only his long, white fingers began to tap softly upon his chair-arms, one after the other.

  "I will pay you forty thousand pounds," said Barnabas. Then, all in one movement as it seemed, Gaunt had risen and turned to the window, and stood there awhile with his back to the room.

  "Well?" inquired Barnabas at last.

  "I——cannot, sir."

  "You mean——will not!" said Barnabas, clenching his fists.

  "Cannot, sir." As Gaunt turned, Barnabas rose and approached him until barely a yard separated them, until he could look into the eyes that glittered between their hairless lids, very like the cruel-looking dagger on the wall.

  "Very well," said Barnabas, "then I'll treble it. I'll pay you sixty thousand pounds! What do you say? Come——speak!" But now, the eyes so keen and sharp to read men and the ways of men wavered and fell before the indomitable steadfastness of unconquered Youth; the long, white hands beneath their ruffles seemed to writhe with griping, contorted fingers, while upon his temple was something that glittered a moment, rolled down his cheek, and so was gone.

  "Speak!" said Barnabas.

  Yet still no answer came, only Jasper Gaunt sank down in his chair with his elbows on the desk, his long, white face clasped between his long, white hands, staring into vacancy; but now his smooth brow was furrowed, his narrow eyes were narrower yet, and his thin lips moved as though he had whispered to himself "sixty thousand pounds!"

  "Sir,——for the last time——do you accept?" demanded Barnabas.

  Without glancing up, or even altering the direction of his vacant stare, and with his face still framed between his hands, Jasper Gaunt shook his head from side to side, once, twice, and thrice; a gesture there was no mistaking.

  Then Barnabas fell back a step, with clenched fist upraised, but in that moment the Captain was before him and had caught his arm.

  "By Gad, Beverley!" he exclaimed in a shaken voice, "are you mad?"

  "No," said Barnabas, "but I came here to buy those bills, and buy them I will! If trebling it isn't enough, then——"

  "Ah!" cried Slingsby, pointing to the usurer's distorted face, "can't you see? Don't you guess? He can't sell! No money-lender of 'em all could resist such an offer. I tell you he daren't sell, the bills aren't his! Come away——"

  "Not his!" cried Barnabas, "then whose?"

  "God knows! But it's true,——look at him!"

  "Tell me," cried Barnabas, striving to see Gaunt's averted eyes, "tell me who holds these bills,——if you have one spark of generosity——tell me!"

  But Jasper Gaunt gave no sign, only the writhing fingers crept across his face, over staring eyes and twitching lips.

  So, presently, Barnabas suffered Captain Slingsby to lead him from the room, and down the somewhat dark and winding stair, past the wizen-faced clock, out into the street already full of the glow of evening.

  "It's a wonder to me," said the Captain, "yes, it's a great wonder to me, that nobody has happened to kill Gaunt before now."

  So the Captain frowned, sighed, and climbed up to his seat. But, when Barnabas would have followed, Billy Button touched him on the arm.

  "Oh, Barnaby!" said he, "oh, Barnaby Bright, look——the day is dying, the shadows are coming,——in a little while it will be night. But, oh Youth, alas! alas! I can see the shadows have touched you already!" And so, with a quick upflung glance at the dismal house, he turned, waved his hand, and sped away on noiseless feet, and so was gone.

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