"And I love ye, friends and brothers," continued Jessamy, "because you be all tabernacles o' the Lord, 'spite o' your beastly ways, and formed in His image, for all your ugly mugs. Why therefore will ye desecrate the tabernacle and debase His image—"
The cheery, musical voice was drowned by shouts and obscene objurgations, while the big fellow, seeing the Tinker had laid by his pistol, clenched brawny fists, shot out brutal jaw and glared at Jessamy in murderous fashion, whereupon the excited crowd, swollen now considerably, hooted and clamoured, pushed and jostled all about us in a very threatening manner, so that my hand instinctively clenched itself on the saucepan again and I crept nearer to Diana.
"Set about 'im, Tom! Ah, break 'is nob, lad!" bellowed the swaying crowd. "Show 'im 'ow you laid out the 'North-country Collier,' Tom. Knock out 'is ivories—choke 'im wi' your famble!"
"Hark 'ee, friend Tom," said Jessamy, apparently quite unmoved by the growing hostility of the rabble, "I love ye, Tom! And I love ye, first because you're a child o' God, though to be sure ye don't look it, Tom!" Here Tom unbuttoned and tossed aside his tight-fitting coat. "And secondly," pursued Jessamy, "I love ye because somewhere inside o' ye you've got an immortal soul—of a kind, Tom, that the Lord holdeth precious and beyond rubies—though only the Lord knoweth why, Tom." Here the big man tightened his belt and proceeded to roll up his sleeves. "Therefore, Tom," continued Jessamy, watching these preparations with kindly interest, "therefore, 't is your soul as I'm after and the souls of all these pals o' yours—these poor lost lambs as look so uncommonly like wolves, Tom. Howbeit—"
Uttering a scornful oath, Tom snatched an ale mug from one near by and dashed its contents into Jessamy's face, whereupon rose a yell of fierce laughter and acclaim.
"And now, Tom lad," sighed Jessamy, his blue eyes mild as ever, while the liquid dripped from the great jut of his chin, "now, dear friend, let's you an' me pray together!" Then, lifting his face to the cloudless sky, Jessamy began thus, while Tom and his fellows stared mute with amazement or perhaps awed by something in that shapely, patient, yet grimly alert figure:
"O Lord who looketh into all hearts and in every heart can find something good among the evil—aye, Lord, even in this Tom's heart, since he is child o' Thine—grant that I, Thy humble instrument, may rouse the good within Thy Tom's heart one way or t' other, either by reason and gentleness or force and—"
I uttered a gasping, inarticulate cry of warning but in that instant Jessamy moved his head an inch or so and the heavy pewter tankard that should have brained him flew harmlessly by and rolled clattering a good twenty paces behind him.
"Ah, Peregrine," said Diana in sighing whisper, "O Peregrine—watch Jessamy—watch!" And as she spoke the big fellow rushed. On he came, head lowered, mighty fists whirling, to butt and smite, but Jessamy moved also, slightly, but enough, and as his terrible assailant blundered past, smote him lightly on the crown with open palm.
"Lord, Tom lad," he admonished in his clear, ringing tones, "that's a fool's way to set about harming your brother. Give over, Tom, give over and let's pray instead." Uttering a furious oath, Tom swung about and smote fiercely with right and left. But ducking the blows, Jessamy slipped nimbly aside, shaking his head in mild reproof.
"Come, come, Tom," said he; "can't ye see you're as harmless as a bleatin' lamb or cooin' dove? I've no wish to hurt ye, so let's ha' done and get on with our prayers—"
"Fight!" roared Tom, beside himself with fury. "Stand up an' fight, you—" and here followed a torrent of foulest invective and abuse.
"So be it!" said Jessamy. "Though I warned ye, and Lord knows I've been patient. But if ye will, ye will, so, being a man o' peace, I'll finish ye comfortable and quick—come on, my poor lad!"
Tom came; with a rush that it seemed nothing might withstand, he hurled himself upon that quiet figure, mighty shoulders hunched, huge body quivering, eager for the fray; ensued a quick, brief trample of feet, the swift play of merciless arms, of mighty fists that smote the air, and then I saw the upward flash of Jessamy's left, heard the impact of a dreadful blow, and as Tom's head and shoulders jerked violently up, I saw the flash of Jessamy's right and the great body of his assailant, rocked and shaken by these two unerring, terrible blows, shrank horribly upon itself, rolled a limp and twisted heap in the dust, and lay still, with Jessamy poised above him, his kindly features transfigured with a wild and terrible joy. For a long, breathless moment Jessamy stood thus above the great, huddled form of his insensible antagonist, and for that moment no one moved, it seemed, and never a word spoken; then Jessamy sighed, shook his head, clasped his hands and looking up to heaven, prayed thus, none daring to interrupt:
"Lord, seeing force and conflict was needful, let it not be in vain but forgive, I beseech Thee, my unholy joy therein. As Thy servant's fist smote this Thy son's flesh, so may Thy Truth smite his heart and he come to Thy grace thereby!"
This supplication ended, he turned to a pale-faced, gaping individual who stood near by, a slopping tankard grasped in nerveless hand.
"Friend," says Jessamy, "I'll trouble you for your ale." The man gave it eagerly:
"Lord, sir," said he, grinning ingratiatingly, "you did Tom up in proper style and no mistake." Stern-faced, Jessamy turned, and, stooping above his prostrate and still unconscious antagonist, dashed the ale into his bloody face, whereupon Tom groaned and stirred feebly.
"Ale be good stuff—sometimes, took externally, which is a Latin word meaning not in the stomach!" said Jessamy, and setting an arm beneath Tom's battered head, lifted him to a sitting posture. "How are ye now, Tom?" he enquired.
"Bad, damned bad!" groaned Tom. "To hit a man—wi' a brick—ain't the Christian way to fight; it ain't Johnny Bull."
"Here's your brick, friend Tom," said Jessamy, showing his brawny fist.
"Why, then—who—who are ye?" stammered Tom.
"I'm Jessamy Todd, preacher, man o' peace—and your friend, if you'll ha' me, Tom."
"Jessamy—Jessamy Todd? You? O Lord, I'm bit! Jessamy Todd—why, then, no wonder."
And now the crowd caught up the name, speeding it from lip to lip.
"Jessamy Todd! It be Jessamy Todd!"
"Can ye walk, friend Tom?"
"I think so."
"Then up wi' you and along o' me into the 'Ring o' Bells'; I'll soon make ye comfortable, an' then you an' me will pray together, shall us, friend?"
"As ye will!" mumbled Tom. So, having aided his late antagonist to rise, Jessamy turned to nod and smile at us.
"Drive on, brothers," said he, "I must bide here awhile on the Lord's business, so drive on. I'll look for ye at the fair."
My stiffened fingers loosed the saucepan handle, for now all about us were faces that smiled and nodded cheerily, and as we jingled on our way again, the fickle crowd, their animosity quite forgotten, saluted us with ringing cheer.
TELLS OF MY ADVENTURES AT THE FAIR
A hoarse clamour upon the air, shouts, laughter, the bray of horns, throbbing of drums, clashing of cymbals and tinkling of bells: a pandemonium that deafened me, a blatant uproar that shocked and distressed me as I stood, amid the hurly-burly of the fair—in it, not of it—staring about me for some glimpse of Diana or the Tinker who had vanished amid the surging crowd hours ago, it seemed, and whom I had sought vainly ever since.
Thus I wandered, lost and none too happy, amid a jumble of carts and waggons, carriages and country wains, of booths and stalls and tents; amid a restless, seething crowd of people who pushed and strove more or less good-naturedly. Among all these unfamiliar sights and sounds I ranged disconsolate, awed by the vast concourse, deafened by the universal uproar, and not a little disgusted by the coarse humour and rough horse-play of this truly motley throng.
On I went, a lost soul, pushed and jostled; past rows of gaudy tents and shows, each with its platform before it, where men and women, in outlandish livery and spangled tights, danced and sang, cracked broad jokes, beat drums, blew horns, or strove to out-roar each other in crying up their respective wares and wonders. One in especial drew my notice,—a stout, bull-necked Stentor in mighty cocked hat, whose brassy voice boomed and bellowed high above the din, so that I paused to observe him in wondering disgust.
"In meat alone—in meat alone!" he roared. "Will eat 'is weight in meat alone! The famous and fab'lous Franko o' Florence, the fire-eatin', flame-swallerin', fat feller as weighs thirty-two stone if a hounce—seein's believin'—and all for a tanner—a tanner! Sixpence an' no more! Come and see Franko the fattest feller o' Florence as will eat fire, devour glass and swaller swords, and all for sixpence—for sixpence! See Franko as will dance ye a hornpipe, breakdown or double-shuffle wi' helegance and hease, bein' nippy, neat and nimble though weighin' thirty-two stone, seein's believin'—and all for a tanner—a tanner! Walk up, ladies and gents, an' don't be shy; walk up an' shake 'ands wi' Franko the fab'lous fat feller as can sing ye, dance ye, tell fortun's, forecast the future, cast 'orrer-scopes, strike na-tivities or stand on 'is 'ead—and all for sixpence—for sixpence!"
In this fashion, or much like it, he held forth tirelessly until, chancing to meet my wide-eyed gaze, he immediately singled me out for his remarks thus:
"Wot O, my Lord, wot O! You in the nobby 'at an' patched unmentionables—wot O! Walk up, Tom-noddy, my lord, walk up and spend a tanner; never mind your breeches, walk up an' see the stoopendious fat feller as could swaller ye, breeches, patches, 'at an' all, an' never blink a heyelid—a man as can swaller 'is wight in meat alone—in meat alone!
Walk up, my lord, an' see Franko Breeches or no, my lord, breeches or no!"
This sorry and meaningless jingle set the immediate crowd in a roar. I became an object for ribald laughter and cheers; I was pushed and hustled, albeit good-naturedly enough, but none the less to my great annoyance, so that I made all haste to wriggle away and, espying a narrow lane between these canvas booths and tents, I slipped into it, took to my heels and turning a sharp corner in full career, came thus upon an ancient man who sat upon a box, puffing serenely at a long pipe and who, despite my so sudden appearance, merely glanced at me with a pair of keen, bright eyes and wished me "Good-day." Hereupon I stopped and, because I had very nearly upset him, took off my hat, bowed, and humbly craved his pardon; at this he gave me a second and keener glance and uncovering his white head, returned my salute with grave punctilio.
He was a slight, spare old man habited in shabby garments of a quaint, old-world fashion, but in his upright carriage was an impressive dignity, in his vigorous gestures, quick eyes and strongly marked, resolute features an air of command, a latent power very arresting.
"I fear I startled you, sir!" said I.
"I am not readily startled," he answered, "though indeed this very afternoon I was beset by gipsy rogues hereabouts and rescued from their clutches by a young Amazon of a remarkable beauty and a rare intelligence. Youth is ever impetuous, though I trust your so passionate speed does not argue depredations upon your neighbour's goods; you are not a runaway pickpocket, I hope?"
"Indeed, no, sir!" I answered, and briefly narrated the reason of my flight.
"Hum!" ejaculated the aged person and sat puffing his pipe and regarding me with such close scrutiny that I grew a little uneasy.
"I trust that you believe me, sir?" said I.
"Entirely, sir!" he answered with a quick, decisive nod. "For I perceive that you are a gentleman. Therefore, if you have the time and inclination, pray sit down and let us talk awhile."
"Willingly, sir," said I, seating myself upon the grass, "for it is at least quieter here, and I will confess the crowd with its tumultuous turmoil and sordid vulgarity offends me greatly."
"Indeed, sir!" said my companion. "And yet it is simply to listen to what you term offensive and vulgar turmoil that I am here. For, sir, yonder clamour, being inarticulate, may speak infinitely to such as hearken understandingly, being one of Nature's awful voices, a very symphony of Life. Heard separately, each sound is an offence, I admit, but blent thus together they become akin to the incessant surge of ocean, the roar of foaming cataracts, the voice of some rushing, mighty wind, and these are the elemental music of God."
"Indeed, sir," said I, "sitting here with you sufficiently remote from the crowd's too-familiar contact, I can begin to appreciate the wisdom of your remarks."
"Yet you speak a little disdainfully, I think, sir! But what is there more proper to the contemplation of a philosopher than a concourse of human beings? How compelling its interest, how infinite its variety! The good rub shoulders with the evil, the merry with the sad, the murderer with his victim, each formed alike yet each different—"
All at once as I listened, my attention was distracted by a face that projected itself suddenly through the canvas of an adjacent tent, an evil, stealthy face with narrowed eyes that watched us furtively a while and was suddenly gone; my companion espied it also, it seemed, for he sighed a little impatiently. "Tush, young sir!" said he. "Will you allow the face of a peeping rogue to alienate your mind from a conversation that promises to become interesting?"
"But sir," said I, rising somewhat hurriedly, "this place is suggestively lonely; I think we were wiser to retire—"
"Go if you will, young sir," broke in my strange companion a little grimly, "hasten away by all means, but I remain here."
"As you will, sir," I answered and sat down again, though careful to keep my eyes in the one direction.
"Sir," continued the aged person, "I have seen much of men and cities, I have journeyed in the desolate places of the world, but—"
Uttering a warning cry, I sprang to my feet as three men appeared, desperate-seeming fellows who approached us with a very evident intention: but suddenly, as I watched them in sweating panic, I heard a sharp click behind me, and immediately they halted all three, their ferocious looks smitten to surprised dismay—and glancing over my shoulder I beheld the aged person still puffing serenely at his pipe but with his slender right hand grasping a small, silver-mounted pistol levelled at our would-be aggressors across his knee. And there was something very terrible, I thought, in his imperturbable serenity.
"Rogues! Rascals!" sighed he. "To rob is sinful, to disturb the excogitations of philosophers is blasphemous. I found it necessary to shoot one of your sort recently—and why not again?"
At this the three began to whine while the ancient person hearkened and puffed his pipe, viewing them with eyes of scorn.
"Oh, begone!" said he. "See you do not trouble me again, lest I prove better citizen next time and rid the country of you once and for all." Scarcely had the words left his lips than the cowed ruffians made off so hastily that they might have vanished into thin air.
"And now, sir," said my companion, carefully uncocking the pistol ere he pocketed it, "let us continue our so agreeable conversation. A crowd of humans, sir, to my mind is a mystery deep as ocean, sublime as the starry firmament, for who shall divine the thoughts, hopes, passions and desires animating its many various and component entities? Moreover, though composed of many different souls, it may yet possess but one in common, to be swayed to mirth and anger, lifted to a reverent ecstasy or fired to bloody vengeance and merciless destruction. What is there can give any just conception of a mystery so complex?"
"Surely nothing, sir," said I.
"Nay, young sir, therein I venture to think you are wrong, for we possess a divine joy, a soul medium, a very gift of God and we call it,—music, sir. To such as have ears, music is the speech of Gods, of the Infinite, soaring far above mere words, revealing the unconceived, speaking forth the unthinkable."
"And what, sir, is the unthinkable?" I questioned.
"That which flashes upon a man's consciousness without the labour of thought, an intimate cognizance of—What the devil is it now, Atkinson?" he broke off so suddenly that I started and, glancing up, beheld an extremely neat, grave, sedate personage who removed his hat to bow, and advancing deferentially, stooped sleek head to murmur discreetly in my aged companion's ear.
"Tell 'em I'm engaged; bid 'em be hanged—no, say I'll come!" The grave personage bowed again and moved sedately off.
"Young sir," sighed my companion, rising, "I have found you particularly interesting, your arguments well-founded, your views on music particularly arresting. It grieves me, therefore, to depart, but duty calls. Pray oblige me with your arm, for I am a little lame. A bullet, sir!" he volunteered as he limped beside me. "A shattered knee-cap to remind me of my vivid youth, an awkward limp to keep in my mind the lovely cause—aha, she was all clinging tenderness and plump as a partridge then. I was her Eugenio and she my Sacharissa—a withered crone to-day, sir, and, alas, most inelegantly slim, I hear—bones, a temper, an eagle's beak and nut-cracker chin! Aye, me—what changes time doth ring—eheu! fugaces!"
"And what of—him, sir, your opponent?" I ventured to ask.
"Was necessitated to buy himself a new hat, seeing I'd peppered the one he wore, young sir."
Now at this moment, my gaze chancing to be turned earthwards, I espied a pair of elegant though very dirty boots that strode us-wards, jingling their spurs in oddly familiar manner; therefore I glanced up, beholding in turn white buckskin breeches, flowered waistcoat, bottle-green coat with twinkling silver buttons, the frill of an ample shirt-front and above, the square, dimpled chin, shapely nose and resolute blue eyes of my uncle George who, flourishing off his hat, advanced towards us, his handsome face beaming in cheery welcome.
"Well met, my Lord!" he exclaimed, grasping the ancient person's hand. "You've heard the fight's off?"
"Is it, George? I grieve!"
"Yes, it seems Jerningham's man Croxton—The 'Thunderbolt'—fell foul of a harmless-looking customer on his way here, and who should it be but Jessamy himself. So they fought there instead of here, and The 'Thunderbolt's' bolt is shot, sir—and that's the dooce of it—the whole thing's a bite!"
"Bite indeed, George!" agreed his lordship, shaking white head until his shabby hat toppled. "Though, to be sure, my money is on Jessamy. But indeed the affair slipped my memory—old age, George! However, Fortune was so kind as to send me this young gentleman, a youth of remarkably sound ideas, Sir George; his conception of the ethics of music, for instance—"
My uncle George glanced at me, stared, uttered an unintelligible sound and fell back, gaping.
"How are you, Uncle George!" said I, and removing my shapeless hat, I bowed.
"Ha?" exclaimed his lordship. "You would seem to be acquainted with each other! Pray, George, have the goodness to introduce us."
"My lord, this—this is my nephew, Peregrine—young dog—"
"What, poor Jack's boy?"
"The same, sir. Peregrine, his lordship, the Earl of Wyvelstoke. Nephew Peregrine took it into his head to see the world, sir—and this is how he does it!"
"Admirable!" exclaimed his lordship. "Indeed, Mr. Vereker, should you protract your stay in these parts, I shall hope to repeat the pleasure of this afternoon and hear more of your musical concepts. Good-bye t' ye, George!"
And limping to a light carriage that stood adjacent, the slender, shabby figure climbed in with the aid of the assiduous Atkinson, and drove away.
"Well, upon my soul, Peregrine," exclaimed my uncle, removing his hat to ruffle his brown curls, "a precious pickle you look, b'gad! Where in the world—what under heaven—your breeches, Perry—that unspeakable—if only Julia could see you now. Oh, the dooce!"
Such were his more or less coherent expressions as his astonished gaze took in the various items of my appearance. Then all at once he laughed and down came his great hands upon my shoulders. "B'gad, Perry, I love ye for 'em, lad; dooce take me if I don't!" he exclaimed. "Those breeches now—where did you find 'em?"
"Sir, they were bestowed by one Galloping Jerry, a highwayman."
My words produced all the effect I had anticipated; the hat fell from his lax grasp and lay unheeded, while my uncle stared at me in speechless surprise. "These garments, sir," I continued, lowering my voice mysteriously, "are merely a disguise, for it seems there was a possibility of my being apprehended as Galloping Jerry's accomplice. Allow me to return your hat, sir."
My uncle George clutched it and made a kind of gurgling sound in his throat.
"However," I continued, "I am anxious to exchange these things for others less conspicuously hideous and should esteem it a kindness if you would advance the necessary money for it, for sir, I am penniless."
"Ha—your highwayman cove robbed you, of course!"
"He did, Uncle, but had the extraordinary magnanimity to restore all he'd taken. My money, sir, went in the—the purchase of a gipsy maiden—"
"Hey—gipsy—a woman—d'ye mean—you—"
"A young gipsy girl, Uncle."
"Good God!" he ejaculated faintly and, sinking upon the shaft of the empty cart behind him, he fanned himself feebly with his hat. "Peregrine," said he, shaking grave head at me, "your aunt Julia is right—a wonderful woman! Poetry is your line, after all—books—romances, lad—imagination—"
"You think I am romancing, sir?"
"Aye, though I call it 'gammoning.'"
"Sir, you affront me!"
"No offence, Perry," said he kindly. "You just can't help it—comes natural to you—like a gamecock fights. What other marvels have you seen?"
"A tinker, Uncle."
"Hum! Anything else?"
"I saw Jessamy Todd fight the big fellow at the 'Ring o' Bells' this morning and—"
"What?" cried my uncle, on his feet in a moment. "You saw Jessamy fight? Oh, begad, Perry—why couldn't you say so before?"
"You believe this, then, sir?"
"I do. Tell me all about it. I've heard rumours—they say it was a clean knockout—"
"The big man was indeed rendered quite unconscious, Uncle—"
"And you saw? Out with it, Perry lad!"
"But sir," I enquired, a little disdainfully, "why all this stir about a vulgar brawl?"
"Vulgar brawl, begad—"
"Well, a brutal bout at fisticuffs with a ruffian—"
"Heavens and earth, boy," exclaimed my uncle, in growing indignation, "don't ye know you were privileged to see one of the very greatest fighters of any time, school or—oh, b'gad—"
"You mean Jessamy Todd, sir?"
"Of course I do. And what's more—Tom Croxton, The 'Thunderbolt'—the man who forced Jessamy to fight—was a plant—"
"Now pray, Uncle George, how may a great, hulking ruffian even faintly resemble any such thing?"
At this my uncle gasped, stared, shook his head, jingled his spurs and finally spoke:
"In Heaven's name, don't pretend you're so infernal green, Perry! The 'Thunderbolt' is a fighting man from Lambeth, a tough customer who's won a fight or so lately and thought he could beat anything on two pins. So we were bringing him down here, hoping to match him with Jessamy, or, failing him, some other good man. But the fool, not knowing Jessamy, get's himself thrashed, and the whole thing's a flam."
"Jessamy has given up the game, Uncle."
"I know, but he loves it still. And you saw the fight! Tell me of it—no, wait—the others must hear." So saying, my uncle George hooked his powerful arm in mine and led me whither he would. By devious ways we went, to avoid the crowd; dodging behind empty caravans and waggons, skirting booths and tents until we came on one greater than all the rest, a huge canvas structure into which he brought me forthwith. The place was empty except for some scant few persons grouped about a stage whereon two fellows, naked to the waist, their fists swathed in what I believe are termed 'muffles', dodged and ducked, feinted or smote each other with great spirit and gusto until one of them, reeling from a flush hit, sat down with sudden violence and remained in this posture to blink and get his breath.
"Dooce—take me—Tom!" exclaimed this individual, in breathless reproach. "Your—infernal mug's—hard as—iron!"
"Craggy, my lord!" answered the other hoarsely. "Cragg by name an' Craggy by natur', my lord!"
Thither my uncle George led me, his spurs jingling, whereupon the spectators turned to salute him and stare at me, among whom I recognised my uncle Jervas.
"What, George," enquired one, "ha' you found Jessamy?"
"No!" answered my uncle, slapping me on the shoulder. "But the next best thing, Devenham—"
"And a demned queer-looking thing it is, George!" added the recumbent gentleman, viewing me with a pair of blue eyes, one of which exhibited signs of recent punishment.
"None the less, Jerny," answered uncle George, "it is my nephew. Gentlemen, I have the honour to present Mr. Peregrine Vereker! Nephew, in the floored Corinthian with the damaged ogle, you will remark Richard, Marquis of Jerningham; on my right, Viscount Devenham; on my left, Sir Peregrine Beverley; before you Major Dashwood, Mr. Wemyss and your affectionate uncle Jervas. And now, gentlemen all, my nephew will tell you that he comes fresh from witnessing the defeat of Jerningham's unfortunate champion The 'Thunderbolt' at the hands of the unconquerable Jessamy Todd!"
"Aha!" cried the Marquis, springing lightly to his feet and muffling naked torso in gaudy dressing-gown; and next moment he and the others were thronged about me vociferous for knowledge.
For a moment I stood looking round upon the ring of clean-cut, eager faces, tongue-tied and somewhat non-plussed; but seeing with what unaffected and hearty good will they greeted me, nor heeded my disfiguring attire, I made my bow and plunged into a full and particular relation of Jessamy Todd's encounter with the man Tom. As my narrative progressed, the interest of my audience waxed, and I was gratified and stimulated by a ripple of excitement and hushed exclamations which, as I ended, swelled to a ringing cheer for Jessamy Todd. Thereafter my hand was shaken heartily by one and all, with many laudations on my descriptive powers, in the midst of which my uncle Jervas touched me on the shoulder and, bowing my adieux, I took my departure and thus presently found myself in the open air walking, rather sheepishly, between my two relatives.
Once beyond eyeshot of the curious, my uncle Jervas paused and fell back a step, the better to behold me, peering through his glass at each individual article of my attire and murmuring such ejaculations as:
"Astounding! Astonishing! Amazing!"
"Tells me he had 'em of a highwayman, Jervas!" volunteered uncle George.
"A most distressing vision!" sighed my uncle Jervas. "A positive walking disgust! And yet—hum!"
"And a very creditable pair o' black eyes, Jervas."
"True, George! Our youth has been observing life at close quarters, it seems."
"B'gad—he has so, brother!" chuckled uncle George.
"Tells me he's spent all his money on women!"
My uncle Jervas very nearly dropped his eyeglass.
"Now—'pon my everlasting—" his voice failed and he gazed at me quite dumbfounded for once.
"Think o' Julia!" said uncle George, with a kind of groan. "Think of—'Ode to a Throstle'—poor Julia—sweet soul!" My two uncles turned from my indignant form to regard each other; then, all at once, the grim lips of my uncle Jervas twitched, quivered to a flash of white teeth, but his laughter was drowned by uncle George's cachinnations where he stood on one leg, slapping at the other brawny thigh until the dust flew.
"Sirs," said I, folding my arms and glancing from one to other disdainfully, "your mirth is as unwarranted as unseemly! The money in question was expended in the service of—of one who—whose need was instant and great. I have the honour to bid you good-bye!"
But, as I turned, my uncle Jervas laid his hand on my arm, a white, elegant hand strangely out of place on my rough and weather-beaten coat-sleeve.
"Pray accept our sincerest apologies, Peregrine," said he. Now at this I glanced up in wondering surprise, for in the touch of this slim hand, in voice and look, I had an indefinable sense of comradeship that thrilled me with sudden pride.
"My dear Uncle," I exclaimed, grasping his hand, "pray trust me always to remember that I am a Vereker also."
"B'gad, and there ye have it, Jervas; couldn't ha' put it better yourself!"
"And pray, sirs, how is my dear and best of aunts?"
At this question my uncle Jervas pursed his lips in a soundless whistle and smoothed snowy shirt-frill with caressing fingers.
"Perry," said uncle George, removing his hat to ruffle his curls, "you've heard of bears robbed of cubs, of the Hyr—what's-a-name tiger—"
"Hyrcanian, George!" murmured uncle Jervas.
"Well, they're playful pets in comparison. How is your aunt? B'gad, Perry, my lad, that's precisely the dooce of it, d'ye see!"
"She—she is very well, I hope?" faltered I.
"Assuredly!" answered my uncle Jervas. "But being the—ah—truly feminine creature she is, your remarkable aunt, with more or less reason, has leapt to the conclusion that we are the cause of what she terms your 'desertion', and is a little incensed against us—"
"Incensed, d'ye call it, Jervas?" exclaimed uncle George. "A little incensed is it—oh, b'gad!"
"And declines to see or hold communications with us—"
"And when she does, she—she don't!" added uncle George. "Last time I ventured to call, she looked over me, and under me, and round me, and through me but never—at me. Dooced trying y' know, Perry!"
"And most disappointing!" said I. "My dream that you—one of you might comfort her—"
"Was a damned piece of impertinence!" murmured my uncle Jervas, his aesthetically pallid cheek tinged with unusual colour. "Your aunt knows her own mind and has grieved, raged, wept, languished and advertised for you in her thorough fashion—"
"Offers five hundred pounds for your recovery, lad!" added uncle George.
"Which," continued uncle Jervas, "is a fair sum of money, the natural consequence being that the poor, sweet soul has been plagued by all manner of people, day and night, eagerly endeavouring to restore waifs and strays of both sexes and all ages, so much so that your uncle and I were compelled to call in and suppress such notices as had appeared—here is one!" From his pocket uncle Jervas took a handbill which he unfolded and passed to me; whereon I read this:
L500. LOST. REWARD. MR. PEREGRINE VEREKER AGED 19.
Here followed a most minute and painfully accurate description of my garments and person; and below, these words:
WHEREAS: my loved nephew, PEREGRINE VEREKER, acting upon the PERNICIOUS & EVIL COUNSEL of certain CRUEL and HEARTLESS advisers, fled from home and his only TRUE FRIEND on the night of the 10th. inst: the above L500 will be paid to such person or persons who shall return him safe and unharmed or give such information as shall lead to his happy recovery and restoration to the loving care of JULIA CONROY.
"Great heaven!" I exclaimed, crumpling the document angrily. "It reads as if I were some pet animal!"
"Precisely!" murmured my uncle Jervas. "As you seemed likely to become, nephew. None the less, the document evinces something of your aunt's desire for your return, and it is easy to imagine her gratitude when I shall restore you to her arms—"
"Hold hard, Jervas!" exclaimed my uncle George, clutching my left arm. "'Twas I found him!"
"But consider, my dear George," sighed my uncle Jervas, laying elegant hand upon my right shoulder, "I bear the brunt of her blame, as usual—"
"But damme, Jervas—"
"But pray reflect further, dear George; I am, alas, slightly your senior and, as such, claim the right—"
"But my dear uncles," I interrupted at this juncture, "pray remark that I have no intention of returning home for some time."
"Oh, indeed, nephew?" sighed my uncle Jervas, his slim hand tightening a little. "May one venture to ask why?"
"I know!" sighed uncle George. "Women, Jervas—feminine spells, poor lad!"
"For one thing," I answered patiently, "because I have decided to become a tinker for a while."
"Hum!" murmured my uncle Jervas. "A useful trade, but scarcely one I should have chosen for you—still—"
"And there he is, at last!" exclaimed uncle George suddenly, and beckoned with imperious hand; thus, glancing whither he looked, I espied Jessamy Todd and, with a sudden twist, I broke away and ran to meet her who walked at Jessamy's side.
"O Diana!" I exclaimed, "I have been looking for you all afternoon. Come!" And taking her hand, I led her up to my astonished uncles.
"Sirs," said I, "it is my privilege to introduce my friend Diana, whom I hope to marry as soon as possible."
For a long moment after I had spoken, Diana stood, shapely head aloft, fronting their amazed scrutiny in proud and sullen defiance; when at last she spoke, her voice sounded all untroubled and serene.
"I know," said she, nodding, "I know what's in your minds—you'm thinking as I ain't fit for him! Well, my fine gentlemen, he shouldn't marry me, even if he loved me—which he don't, or I loved him—which I don't and never shall!" Then without so much as a glance in my direction, she turned and sped away.
But I was not to be left thus, for, escaping uncle George's restraining clutch, I followed her; glancing back, I saw my uncle Jervas, white, impressive hand on Jessamy's shoulder, speaking very earnestly to him and with his keen gaze fixed on myself.
It was amid the jostling traffic of the booths that I found her; she was standing before a stall devoted to the sale of gauds and finery, but espying me she made off and I, intent on pursuit, was wriggling my way through the crowd when rose a sudden cry of "Thieves! Robbery! Stop thief!" Rough hands seized me and, checked thus rudely in full career, I was swung around to confront a small, fierce-eyed fellow who cursed and swore, hopped and flourished his fists under my nose in very threatening and unpleasant manner.
"V'ere is it, ye young wagabone?" he demanded in shrill accents. "V'ere is it? As fine a lady's lookin'-glass as ever vas, a genuine hantique framed in solid silver an' worth its weight in gold. V'at ha' ye done wi' it, you desp'rit, thievin' young willin', you?"
Now it was upon my lips to indignantly deny so vile an accusation, but the words were arrested by a sudden, horrid thought, a dreadful suspicion, for in this moment I remembered Diana had passed this way very recently and, calling to mind the unfortunate predilection for appropriating the goods of others which she had termed "prigging," I knew a sudden shame on her account and therewith a sick fear lest she be caught with the damning evidence of guilt upon her.
Thus, despite the fierce hands that grasped me and the bony knuckles that obtruded themselves painfully into the nape of my neck, I stood mute, profoundly unheedful of the little man's excited capering, whirling fists and threats of condign punishment.
By reason of the little man's excited antics and high-pitched threats and wailings, we were very soon the centre of a pushing, inquisitive throng; faces peered at me, fists were shaken and voices reviled me, in especial one, that of an evil-faced man whose narrow eyes seemed vaguely familiar. Every moment the hostile demonstrations of the crowd grew more threatening until suddenly, and to my inexpressible comfort, above the angry clamour arose a voice peculiarly rich and musical.
"Give way, friends, give way—yon lad's a friend o' mine—give way!" The ring about me was split apart by the forward thrust of a sinewy shoulder, and Jessamy appeared with Diana close beside him. "Why, what's the trouble, brother?" he enquired.
"Thievin'—robbery, that's what!" cried the little man, capering higher than ever. "Stole me silver-framed mirror, 'e 'as, the young wagabone—a genuine hantique worth its weight in hemeralds—stole me mirror and don't deny it, neither—!"
"Who says he stole it?" demanded Jessamy. "Did any o' ye see him commit the fact?" At this the small man blinked, and the two that held me stared upon each other a little at a loss.
"Who says my friend stole your vallybles—come!" demanded Jessamy.
"Why, we all says so!" cried the little man. "An' he can't deny it—and no more 'e don't, neither!"
"However," said Jessamy, "my friend ain't stole your mirror, friend."
"Then 'oo 'as?" demanded the little man, capering again.
"Why—him, for sure!" said Diana suddenly, pointing at the narrow-eyed fellow who, blenching before her fierce look, turned to flee. "It's Hooky Sam!" she cried, and in that moment leapt upon him. Ensued a moment's scuffling and Diana sprang away, the stolen mirror in her hand. "Here's your trinket!" she cried, tossing it to its gaping owner. "Next time it's stole, don't go blaming the wrong one."
Hereupon my captors loosed me and turned to seize the real culprit but, profiting by the momentary confusion, he ducked and squirmed, wriggled and dived under and between such arms and hands as made to stay him and, breaking free, took to his heels, and the crowd, losing all interest in us, betook itself to the chase, shouting and hallooing in joyous pursuit.
"And now, friend," said Jessamy, addressing the small man, who danced and capered no more but stood somewhat crestfallen, "'twould be well done, I think, to ask my young friend's pardon." The which he did and I little heeding, all my looks being for Diana, who stared back at me; and meeting her clear-eyed scrutiny, I felt my cheeks flushing guiltily and turned to grip Jessamy's hand and to thank him for his trust and friendship.
"But why," demanded Diana, "why did you let 'em think it was you?"
Now here, having no answer ready, I adopted her own method.
"Just because!" said I.
THE ETHICS OF PRIGGING
Evening was at hand, lights began to wink and flare among booths and shows, and the crowd seemed to be growing even more riotous; thus I, for one, was profoundly thankful to leave behind its roaring clamour and seek those quiet, leafy shades where the Tinker had appointed us to meet with him.
"And to think," said Jessamy, as we walked on side by side, "to think as 'Firebrand Vereker' is your uncle—not to mention Sir George, as once fou't ten rounds wi' 'Buck Vibart'! To think—"
"Mighty fine gentlemen, ain't they, Jess?" enquired Diana, with a toss of her shapely head.
"Of the finest, Ann! Honoured by all, from the Prince down. And to think as Mr. Vereker here—"
"My name is Peregrine;" said I, "indeed, I would rather you called me Perry, it is shorter."
"As Mr. Perry, here—"
"Perry!" I admonished.
"As—Perry is their own nevvy—"
"Though he don't look like it!" added Diana.
"Why, that's true, Ann, that's true; but his clothes can be changed—"
"But his face can't, Jess!"
"Lord bless me, Ann, what's wrong wi' his face?"
"Only everything!" she answered, with another disdainful gesture of her head.
"I am extremely sorry that my face displeases you, Diana," said I.
"So'm I!" she nodded. "Though it ain't your fault, I s'pose."
"If you allude to my bruises and black eyes—"
"They're nearly well," said Jessamy.
"I don't!" said Diana.
"Then pray what particularly displeases you in my face this evening?" I enquired.
"All of it! You! Your ways! Makin' a fool o' me afore your fine uncles and them staring their proud eyes out! As if I'd ever marry—you!" At this Jessamy opened his eyes rather wide and I fancy his lips quivered slightly.
"Ah, but you will, Diana!" said I. "My mind is made up."
"What's that matter?"
"A great deal! The whole affair is settled definitely." Here she turned on me in such flaming anger that I fell back a step in utter amazement, and Jessamy, murmuring something about "seeing if supper was ready" quickened his stride and left us together.
"Why did ye do it?" she panted. "Why did ye let 'em think 't was you stole that looking-glass?"
"Because it was my whim!"
"Oh, I know—I know!" she cried, positively gnashing her teeth at me.
"Then why trouble to ask?"
"You thought 'twas me!" she cried. "You dared to think I'd stolen it. You did—you did! Ah, you're afraid to own it!"
"And if I did," cried I, angered at last, "hadn't I reason enough, remembering your—your propensities—"
"What d'ye mean? What's propensities?"
"Well, your predilections—"
"Ah, talk plain!"
"Well, then, remembering those three guineas and the duck you filched, I naturally supposed—"
Uttering a sobbing cry she leapt, striking at me wildly, but ducking in under the blow, I caught her in my arms. For a moment she struggled fiercely, then her writhing body grew soft and yielding in my clasp, and she burst into a passion of tears.
Now as she drooped thus in my embrace, her slender form shaken by sobs, I leant nearer and, moved by a sudden impulse, kissed her hair, her eyes, her parted lips, lips that quivered under mine for a breathless moment; then, loosing her, I stepped back to see her staring at me through her tears with a look of speechless amaze. Suddenly her glance fell and she covered her burning cheeks; and, glancing up from earth to sky, I felt a vague wonder to see them all unchanged.
"O Diana," said I, a little breathlessly. "O Diana, don't cry! And forgive me for misjudging you, I—I was ashamed, but I would have gone to prison for you gladly just the same. I'm—humbly sorry; you see, it was—that duck and the man's three guineas. Only don't—don't sob so bitterly, Diana, or I shall have to—kiss you again."
At this, she walked on once more, though she kept her gaze averted.
Far before us strode Jessamy who, reaching a five-barred gate, took a run and cleared it with a graceful ease that filled me with envious admiration. Reaching this same gate in due course, I clambered over and, from the other side, proffered Diana my assistance, but she merely scowled and setting hand to the top bar, over she came with a vision of shapely limbs and flutter of petticoats.
"You have very pretty ankles!" said I impulsively.
"Don't be foolish!" she retorted, with a petulant fling of her shoulder; and after a moment, "what are my ankles to you?" she demanded sullenly.
"A great deal, seeing they will belong to me some day."
"Never—oh, never!" she cried, between clenched teeth. "I'm done wi' you, young man."
"Folly!" I retorted. "Don't be silly, young woman."
"I'll—I'll run away—"
"Very well," said I, nodding, "then I'll find you again if it costs me every penny of my heritage!" At this she turned with clenched fists, but seeing me stand prepared, walked on again.
"I hate you!" she exclaimed vehemently.
"No matter!" said I.
"You're a—a coward!"
"I know it!" I sighed.
"A fool wi' no manliness in you!"
"Agreed!" quoth I. "You shall teach me better—"
"I'm done wi' you—finished, d'ye hear?"
"Also, I begin to suspect that you are really a little annoyed with me, Diana; pray, why?"
"Ah! You know why!"
"Then be generous and try to forgive me!"
By this time we had reached a little wood where flowed a stream, its murmurous waters brimful of sunset glory; and here, as by common consent, we paused a while to look down at this reflected splendour, and when at last she spoke, her voice was gentle, almost pleading.
"The duck was—only a duck, Peregrine."
"Yes!" said I.
"And we were hungry—you know you were?"
"Very hungry, Diana."
"And the—the three guineas as I—finds in—that beast's pocket did us more good than it could ha' done him?"
"And I only took it because it—it was there to take—and might be useful. But now we—we don't need it any more—I don't, so—there it goes!" And with a sudden gesture she cast into the brook a handful of coins, among which I caught the sheen of gold and silver. "But I—I ain't a thief—I'm not!" she cried passionately. "I never stole anything all my days; I—I only—prig—" Here, acting on sudden impulse, I caught her hand to my lips.
"O Diana," said I, "dear child, it is in my mind you will never prig again, either—"
"But I shall—I know I shall!" she cried, a little wildly, but yielding her hand to my lips. "Yes, I know—I'm sure I shall, Peregrine, and what should you do then?"
"Look!" she whispered suddenly, bending to stare down into the glory of the brook, "O Peregrine—do you see it?" From the stream she pointed upward to the radiant heaven where, immediately above us, sailed a small, curiously-shaped cloud. "Do you see it, Peregrine?"
"Only a little, golden cloud, Diana."
"It is—the 'Hand of Glory,'" she whispered.
"What is it—what does it mean?"
"It means, Peregrine, it means that you—that I—oh, you must find out!" And snatching her hand from mine, she fled from me into the wood.
JUNO VERSUS DIANA
I was busily engaged blowing the bellows of the Tinker's small, portable forge; besides the making and mending of kettles, pots, pans and the like, it seems he was a skilful smith also, able to turn his hand from shoeing a horse to fashioning such diverse implements as the rustic community had need of, for beside the forge lay a pile of billhooks, axe-heads, sickle-blades and the like, finished or in the making.
So I blew the fire, wielded the heavy sledge-hammer or stood absorbed to watch the deft strokes of his hammer draw out, bend and shape the glowing steel, though turning very often to behold Diana sitting near by, her quick hands busied upon the construction of her baskets of rush or peeled willow: thus despite the heat of the fire, the sulphurous flames and the smoke-grime that besmirched me, I laboured joyously and swung the ponderous sledge more vigorously for the knowledge that her bright eyes were often raised to watch me at my work.
Thus bellows roared and hammers rang until the sun was high and the Tinker, returning the half-forged billhook to the fire, straightened his back and wiped the sweat from sooty brow with sooty hand.
"We shall make a tidy smith of him yet, eh Anna?"
"In time—with patience!" she nodded.
"The question is—wages. What ought us to pay him, Ann?"
"Nothing!" said I.
"Five shillings," said Diana.
"Good, we'll make it seven shillings a week to begin wi'," quoth the Tinker, and whipping the glowing bill from the fire, he clapped it on the anvil and at sign from him I whirled up the sledge and brought it down with resounding clank, which he followed with two blows from his lighter hammer, and we fell to it merrily, thus: Clang—chink, chink! Clang—chink, chink! While with every stroke the bill took on form and semblance, growing more and more into what a billhook should be.
"A good thick steak, I think you said, Anna?" enquired the Tinker, while I blew the fire for the next heat.
"And fried onions, Jerry."
"Steak an' onions!" he exclaimed, rolling his eyes ecstatically. "Did ye hear that, Perry? And to make good vittles better, there's nowt like smithing! The only thing agin' steak an' onions is that there's never enough onions!"
"There will be this time!" said Diana, with another nod.
"D'ye hear that, Perry? Lord, I am that ravenous!"
"But 'tis scarce twelve o'clock yet, Jerry."
"Are you hungry, friend Peregrine?"
"I always am, lately."
"Poor Perry's hungry likewise, Ann! Come, what of it?"
"You must wait till dinner time."
"Which is when a man's hungry—or should be. Come, lass, famishin' an' faintin' away we be!"
Laughing, Diana rose and crossed the glade to where, screened among leafy thickets, stood cart and tent.
"Now as regards paying me wages, Jerry," I began, then stopped and caught my breath suddenly, for Diana was singing.
Yet could this indeed be Diana's voice—these soft, sweet, rippling notes mounting in silvery trills so purely sweet, swelling gloriously until the whole wood seemed full of the wonder of it, and I spellbound by this simple, oft-heard air, but which, sung thus and thus glorified, touched me to awed delight.
"Aha!" exclaimed the Tinker, as the liquid notes died away. "She can sing when she's happy. Jessamy says there's a fortun' in her voice—" But I was off and across the glade and next moment standing before her.
"Why—Diana!" I exclaimed. "O Diana!"
"What is it?" she demanded, glancing up from the onion she was peeling.
"Why have I never heard you sing before? Why do you sing so seldom?"
"Because I only sing when—when I feel like it and to please myself."
"Your voice is wonderful!" I exclaimed. "We will have it cultivated; you shall be one of the world's great singers, you shall—"
"Don't be silly!" she exclaimed, flushing.
"But I tell you your voice is one in ten thousand!"
"And this onion is one of six, so take a knife and help me with 'em, 'stead of talking foolish—only go wash first; you're black as a sweep."
"Gladly," said I, "if you will sing again."
"Nobody can sing and peel onions—they make your eyes run."
"Why, then, let me—"
"Hush!" she exclaimed suddenly.
"What is it?"
"Strangers coming—listen!" And presently I heard it too, a rustle of leaves, crackling of twigs, voices and jingling spurs, coming nearer. Then as I rose with a premonition of approaching fate, forth into the clearing stepped my uncle George, my uncle Jervas and my aunt Julia. She was dressed for riding and carried the skirt of her close-fitting habit across her arm, and never had she looked handsomer nor more magnificently statuesque as she stood, her noble figure proudly erect, all potent femininity from feathered hat to dainty, firm-planted riding boots.
My lips were opening in glad welcome, I had taken a quick step forward, when her words arrested me.
"George Vereker!" she exclaimed, with a waft of her jewelled riding switch towards Diana and myself, "O Sir Jervas, is it with such dreadful creatures as these that you have doomed my poor, delicately nurtured Peregrine to consort? Aye, well may you grow purple, George, and you turn your back in shame, Jervas, to behold thus the degrading company—"
But here, waiting for no more, I started forward, and halting within a yard of my aunt, I laid grimy hand upon grimy shirt-bosom and bowed.
"Dear Aunt Julia, I rejoice to see you!" said I.
For a long moment my aunt gazed on me with eyes of horrified bewilderment then, all at once, she dropped her riding-switch and, gasping my name, sank into the ready arms of my uncle George, who promptly began to fan her vigorously with his hat, while my uncle Jervas, lounging gracefully against a tree, surveyed me through his single glass and I saw his grim lips twitch.
"Tell me I dream, George!" wailed aunt Julia. "Say it is a horrid vision and make me happy."
"It is, Julia, it is!" said my uncle Jervas. "And yet, upon me soul, 'tis a vision that grows upon me; observe the set of the shoulders, the haughty cock o' the head, the determined jut of the chin; yes, Julia, despite rags and dirt, I recognise Peregrine as a true Vereker for the first time." Saying which, my uncle Jervas very deliberately drew on his riding glove and stepping up to me, caught and shook my hand or ever I guessed his intention.
"Uncle—O Uncle Jervas!" I exclaimed and stooped my head lest he should see the tears in my eyes.
"By Gad, Julia—sweet soul," exclaimed my uncle George. "Jervas is exactly right, d'ye see? Perry may look a—a what's-a-name vision, but he's a Vereker for all that—lad o' spirit—beautiful pair o' black eyes, though you can't see 'em for dirt—"
My aunt moaned feebly.
"But dirt, my dear soul, dirt won't harm him, nor black eyes—do him good, d'ye see, do him a world o' good, doing him good every minute—"
"Enough, George Vereker!" exclaimed my aunt in her terrible voice, and freed herself from his hold like an offended goddess. "O heaven, I might have known that you, George, would have abetted my poor, wilful boy in his dirt and bodily viciousness, and that you, Jervas, would have condoned his turpitude and moral degradation. None the less, though you both desert me in this dreadful hour, shirking your duty thus shamelessly, this woman's hand shall pluck my dear, loved nephew from the abyss, this hand—" Here, turning to behold me, my poor aunt shivered, gasped and setting dainty handkerchief to her eyes, bowed noble head and wept grandly as a grieving goddess might have done.
"O Peregrine," she moaned from this dainty mystery, "O rash boy—to have sunk to this—sordid misery—rags—dirt! You that were wont to shudder at a splash of mud and now—O kind heaven—grimed like a dreadful collier and I think—yes, O shameless youth, actually smiling through it—"
"And why not, m'dear creature?" sighed uncle Jervas. "Dirt is of many kinds and Peregrine's is at least honest and healthy—"
"Cease, Sir Jervas, I pray!" cried my aunt with a flash of her fine black eyes. "Nevermore will I heed your perfidious counsels, nor the fatuous maunderings of graceless George. There stands my poor, misguided Peregrine—an object for angels to weep over, an innocent but a little while since—but now—now, alas—and you—both of you his undoing!"
"Pardon me, dear Aunt," said I hastily, "but there you are in error and do a monstrous injustice to my two generous uncles. Allow me to reiterate the statement I set down in my letter, that I left Merivale and you of my own accord; indeed my uncles would have stayed me, but I was determined to be gone for your sake, their sake and my own. Indeed, Aunt, so deep is my affection that I would see you truly happy, and knowing the deep and—and honourable sentiments my uncles have for you, I—I dreamed that they—that you—that one of them might have won your hand and—and you find that happiness which you have denied yourself on my account."
"Misguided boy!" murmured my aunt, lovely eyes abased, "Come, dear Peregrine, doubtless one of your uncles can find you a cloak to—to veil you from the curious vulgar—only let us be going, pray."
"Back to Merivale, to your books, your paintings and my loving care."
"Not yet, Aunt. Ah, pray do not misunderstand me, but when I set out, it was with the purpose of doing better things than penning indifferent verse, or painting futile pictures—"
"Peregrine—nephew—do I hear aright?"
"You do, Aunt. I came out into the world to open the greatest book of all—the book of Life—to try to meet and know men and learn some day, perhaps, to be a man also and one you can honour. Instead of reading the actions of others, I intend to act a little myself—"
"And so, dear Aunt, here I stay until I can return to you feeling that I have achieved something worthy my sex and name."
"Peregrine, come with me—I command you!"
"Then, dearest Aunt, with all the humility possible, I fear I must disobey you."
My aunt Julia drew herself to her stately height, setting her indomitable chin at me, and into her eyes came that coercive expression which resurrected the memory of childish sins of omission and commission, an expression before which my new-found hardihood wilted and drooped; but in this desperate moment I glanced at Diana, and, meeting the calm serenity of her untroubled gaze, I folded my arms and, bowing my head, awaited the deluge with what fortitude I might and, in the awful stillness, heard uncle George's spurs jingle distressfully.
"You mean that—you—will—not—come?" she demanded.
"I do, dear Aunt."
"That you actually—disobey me?"
"Dear Aunt—I do!"
"Pray, who is the young person I notice behind you?"
"The young woman—the wild, gipsy-looking creature."
"Ah, pray forgive me—I should have introduced you before. Diana, this is my aunt, Lady Julia Conroy—Aunt, this is my friend Diana."
"And pray what is she doing here?"
"She is about to cook a steak and onions—"
"Do you mean—O pitiful heaven—that she is—living here with—"
"With Jeremy Jarvis, a tinker, Jessamy Todd, a champion pugilist, and myself."
"Shocking!" exclaimed my aunt, sweeping Diana with the fire of her disparaging regard.
"Moreover, dear Aunt," I continued, stung by something in her attitude, "it is my hope to make myself sufficiently worthy to win Diana in—in marriage!"
"Marriage?" repeated my aunt in a hoarse whisper. "I dream! Marriage? With a wild woman! George! Jervas!" she gasped in strange, breathless fashion. "Our poor boy is either mad—or worse, and whichever it prove, it is all your doing! I hope, I sincerely hope, you are satisfied with your handiwork! As for you, you poor young woman," she continued, turning on Diana in passionate appeal, "if my nephew is mad, be you sane enough to know that such a marriage would drag him to perdition and bring you only misery and shame in the long run. Give up my poor, distracted nephew and I will be your friend. If it is money you require—"
"My lady, an' if you please, ma'm," said she, curtseying, finger beneath dimpled chin, "I ain't your young woman an' by your leave, ma'm, never could be, because, though I don't love Mr. Peregrine, I can't abide you, ma'm. When I wants money, being only a gipsy mort, I works for it or prigs it. So I don't want your money, thanking you kindly, ma'm, and I don't want your nephew, so you may take him and willing. An' I don't want your friendship or help, because I likes loneliness and the Silent Places better. So take your precious nephew, ma'm, and when you get him safe home, wash him an' keep him in a glass case; 'tis what he's best fitted for. But watch him, lady, lock him up secure, because I think—I know—I could whistle him away from you whenever I would—back, ma'm, back to me and the Silent Places. And so good-day, ma'm, my best respects!" Saying which, Diana curtseyed again and turned away.
"The creature!" exclaimed my aunt. "The minx! The insolent baggage!" And she stepped proudly forward, an angry goddess, the jewelled switch quivering.
"Stop, lady!" said Diana, throwing out a shapely arm with gesture so imperious that my aunt stood staring and amazed. "Stop, ma'm—don't forget as you're a great lady and I'm only a gipsy mort as could tear you in pieces for all your size! To spoil them fine eyes would be pity, to pull that long hair out would be shame, so don't use your whip, lady—don't!" Having said which, she turned and walked serenely away.
"A most dreadful young person!" exclaimed my aunt. "See from what calamitous evils I have snatched you, dear Peregrine. Come, let us be going. I have William with your mare, but seeing you cannot ride as you are, we will take a chaise."
But folding my arms, I shook my head.
"What—O boy, what does this mean?"
"It means, dear Aunt, that I love the Silent Places too!"
"But Peregrine, you will not desert me now—now that I have found you—you will not—cannot! Ah, come back, Peregrine!" she cried, deep bosom resurgent, arms outstretched and eyes dim with unshed tears.
"Dear Aunt, it is impossible!" I mumbled. "Loving you as I do, yet must I leave you a while, foregoing the tender shelter of your love for—for—"
"Dirt and misery!" she broke in. "The shameful allurement of a sly minx, an unspeakable—"
"Madam!" I cried, "have done! You shame yourself and me! It has been my good fortune to have fallen in with honest people with whom I shall remain awhile, enduring their lot, living their life and by their brave patience learn fortitude, and their proud humility shall in time, I hope, teach me the duties of a gentleman—"
"My poor, distraught Peregrine!" she sighed. "My poor, poor boy. So thus I leave you because I must. But some day, when your stubborn will is broken, when your proud head is bowed with grief and shame, come back, dear prodigal, come back, and you shall find these arms outstretched in eager welcome, this solitary heart still open to shelter and protect. Farewell, my Peregrine—I go to weep and pray for you in the night silences. George—Jervas, lead me hence!"
Now as I stood, my eyes smarting with tears evoked by her last words, my uncles tendered their arms with grave and ready courtesy, but in that moment as I watched in a silent grief conjured up by my aunt's last words, the keen glance of uncle Jervas met mine for one brief moment and, in that space, his right eyelid flickered unmistakably; then uncle George coughed explosively and at the same instant tossed something to the foot of a tree; coming thither, I took up a well-filled leathern wallet and a heavy purse; with these, my uncles' parting benefactions in my hands, what wonder that I saw their retreating forms through a mist of tears.
EXEMPLIFYING THAT CLOTHES DO MAKE THE MAN
"The Rubicon," said the Tinker, "the Rubicon is a river as no Roman ever crossed without doo thought. 'The die,' as Julius Caesar remarked when he crossed it, 'the die is cast!' Friend Peregrine, you ha' sent away your lady aunt a-grieving, poor ma'm, and your fine gentlemen uncles likewise, and consequently what I asks is—what now?"
"Clothes!" said I. "This afternoon let us drive into Tonbridge, find a tailor, get rid of these atrocities and afterwards sup at some cosy inn."
"Your gentlefolk brought you money then?"
"They did," said I, and laying by my platter, I drew from my breeches pockets the wallet of my uncle Jervas and uncle George's purse.
"Ha!" exclaimed the Tinker, rubbing his long chin with the haft of his knife. "How much?"
"We will investigate," said I, and opening the wallet, I discovered the sum of thirty pounds in gold and notes and a carefully folded missive with these words:
'If you wish to tinker, Peregrine, tinker like a gentleman. If you must make love, do it like a Vereker, that is to say, a man of honour.'
"My soul!" exclaimed the Tinker, round of eye.
In uncle George's purse were twenty guineas with a crumpled paper bearing this scrawl,
'More when you want it, Perry lad.'
"Lord love me!" exclaimed the Tinker, staring at the money I had placed on the grass between us. "It's a fine thing to have uncles—rich 'uns. What d' you think, Ann?"
"That you'd better eat your dinner while it's hot."
"But—fifty pound, Ann! Never saw so much money all at once in my life—an' all gold an' bank notes, nothing s' common as silver or copper—Lord! Fifty pound!"
"Divided by four is exactly twelve pounds ten shillings," said I, and counting out this sum, I thrust it into the Tinker's hand.
"Eh—what—why, why, what's this?" he demanded.
"Your share," I answered.
"But why—what for?"
"Because we are friends and comrades, I hope, and according to the rules of the Brotherhood of the Roadside as expounded by you, 'those that have, give to those that haven't—it would be a poor world else.'"
"No, no!" he exclaimed, "no, no, can't be done—I think ye mean kindly, but it won't do."
"But why not?" I demanded.
"Because no man as is a man takes money unless he's earned it or lent it, or happens to be starving—"
"Nor woman either!" said Diana.
"Very well!" quoth I, a little ruefully, cramming the money back into my pockets. "Then perhaps you will come to Tonbridge and help me to spend it?"
"I would wi' j'y, but there's my work—ask Ann, she'll go wi' you."
"I'm busy, too!" said she, whereupon I turned and strode off in high dudgeon. But presently she overtook me, "Don't you think you'd better wash first?" she enquired. At this I stopped, for I had clean forgotten my grime.
"Why should I trouble to wash? How can it matter to you?"
"Not much, Peregrine, but you look a little better with a clean face and we shall likely meet plenty o' folk—"
"Do you mean you will come with me?"
"Then I'll wash."
"Yes, I brought you the soap and towel." So we came to the brook where she sat to watch while I performed my so necessary ablutions.
"I have no wish to hinder your work," said I, towelling vigorously.
"And I am quite able to find my way to Tonbridge alone."
"And it is a goodish distance, so if you would rather not come, pray do not trouble."
"Heavens, girl!" I cried. "Cannot you say more than 'yes and no, Peregrine'?"
"Aye, I could!" she nodded. "I could say you are a fool and a sight too cocksure—and, oh, a lot more—but I won't!" with which she rose and left me. My toilet achieved, I returned to find Jerry busy harnessing Diogenes, the pony.
"For if you'm a-going, Peregrine, you may as well do the marketing, and there's a mort o' stores to bring back. Besides, Anna can take her baskets t' sell, d'ye see."
So in a while, behold Diana throned on the driving seat, reins in hand, while I led Diogenes up the winding, grassy slope to the high road; this done, I climbed aboard and off we swung for Tonbridge town.
Diogenes pounded along merrily, the wheels creaked and rattled cheerily, a soaring lark carolled joyously somewhere in the sunny air above us; but Diana drove in sullen silence, her face averted pertinaciously, wherefore I scowled before me and kept silence also; thus Diogenes, wheels and lark had it all to themselves. And when we had driven thus some distance I spoke:
"You are a very bright and cheery companion this afternoon!"
At this she jerked her shoulder at me with a petulant gesture.
"Indeed," said I, "it is a great wonder that you troubled to come with me—"
"I've my baskets to sell!" she retorted in her most ungracious manner.
"Why are you so changed to me?" I questioned. "Are you still angry about that unfortunate business of the mirror, or is it because I kissed you, or—"
"Ah—don't talk of it!" she cried fiercely. "No man's ever kissed me so before—on the mouth—"
"Thank heaven!" said I.
"I hate ye for it and her most of all!"
"'Her', Diana? Whom do you mean?"
"Your fine lady aunt!"
"But, good heaven! What had my aunt Julia to do with it?"
"I don't care! I hate her—with her great, proud eyes and haughty ways—and offering me money an' all—"
"Yes," said I, "it was wrong of her to attempt to bribe you—"
"You did as much once—only it was your watch, so don't you talk! I suppose my lady thinks I'm after you for your money. Oh, I wish t' God I'd never seen you! And I shan't much longer—"
"Ah, do you mean that you will attempt to run away?" I demanded. But Diana merely stared sullenly at the road before us. "This would be very, very wrong, Diana, very cruel and very wicked because, according to the laws of the Folk, you are already my wife."
"But not according to the Church. You said so—an' you ain't of the Folk!"
"But I might turn gipsy—others have done so."
"Aye, but not your kind; you're best wi' your fine aunt to coddle you—go back to your grand house an' servants, young man, and stay there!"
"Some day, but not yet," I answered. "And when I go—you will go with me."
"Oh, shall I!" she exclaimed scornfully. "You're precious sure of yourself, ain't you?"
"I am!" I nodded, folding my arms. "And of one other thing!"
"That you will make a very ill-tempered wife!"
"Oh, shall I!"
"Not your'n, anyway. You ain't man enough."
"We shall see!" said I between shut teeth.
"Aha, now you're angry!" she laughed gleefully, and with some little malice.
"You are enough to enrage a saint!" I retorted, and turning my back, I bore with her gibes and fleerings as patiently as I might nor deigned her further notice, so that in a little she became mute also; and thus at last we reached Tonbridge. Scarcely were we in the High Street than, not waiting for Diana to draw rein, I leapt from the cart with such precipitation that I tripped awkwardly and rolled, grovelling, in the dust. Scrambling hastily to my feet, I saw she had pulled up and was eyeing me a little anxiously, but her voice was sullen as ever when she spoke.
"Are ye hurt?" she questioned ungraciously.
"Thank you—no!" I answered, brushing the dust from my bruised knees.
"All right!" she nodded, "I'll meet ye in the yard at 'The Chequers'—half-past four!" and away she drove without so much as one backward glance.
The place was busy by reason of the fair, the wide roadway thronged with vehicles, and as I edged my way along the narrow, crowded pavements gay with chintz and muslin gowns, polished boots, flowered waistcoats and the rest of it, I felt myself a blot and blemish, a thing to be viewed askance by this cheery crowd in its holiday attire. A short-legged man in a white hat roared at me to hold his horse; a plump and benevolent old lady earnestly sought to bestow upon me twopence in charity, but I paid no heed and began to seek eagerly for a tailor where I might exchange my sorry garments for things less poverty-stricken.
And presently, to my great relief, I beheld a shop above whose crystal window panes was a sign with this inscription:
VAUGHAN TAILOR & SARTORIAL ARTIST To The NOBILITY & GENTRY
In this window was displayed cloth of every kind and colour, together with framed pictures of stiff-limbed young gentlemen in most trying and uncomfortable postures and clad in garments innocent of crease or wrinkle.
Incontinent I lifted the latch and entered the shop to behold a stout young gentleman contorting himself horribly in a vain endeavour to regard the small of his back.
"There!" he gasped. "The breeches! Told you they were too tight—I heard 'em crack—they're too infernal tight, I tell ye!"
"Oh, dear me, impossible, sir!" sighed a pale, long-visaged person, flourishing a tape-measure. "A gent's breeches can't be too tight; the tighter they are the more ton! Indeed, tight breeches, sir, are—What's for you, my lad?" he enquired, catching sight of me.
"I desire to purchase a suit of clothes."
"Oh, dear me—no, no!" sighed the long-visaged person. "Not here, lad, not here! We build garments for gentlemen only, no ready-made goods here; we deal strictly with the nobility and gentry of the county—go away, lad, go away!" Here he flapped his tape-measure at me, the stout gentleman stared at me, and I crept forth into the street again among the dainty, sprigged gowns and high-collared coats amid which I wandered somewhat disconsolate until by chance my wandering gaze lighted upon a small, dingy shop in whose narrow window squatted a small, humpbacked, bespectacled man plying needle and thread with remarkable speed and dexterity. It was a small shop but so stuffed and crammed with garments of all kinds that they had overflowed into the street, for the narrow doorway was draped, choked and festooned with coats, breeches, pantaloons, shirts, waistcoats, stockings, boots, shoes, a riotous and apparently inextricable tangle.
Into this small and stuffy shop I forced myself a passage, whereupon its small, busy proprietor glanced up at me over the rim of his large spectacles.
"Well, son, what d'ye lack?" he demanded.
"Clothes, if you please," said I humbly.
"And that's no lie, neether—so ye do, by James!" he nodded.
"Can I purchase some?"
"If you've enough o' the rhino, son."
For answer I drew a bank note from my pocket at random and laid it upon the small counter.
"You have, b' James!" quoth the little man, "a fi'-pun note!" And thrusting needle into the garment he was making he rose with brisk alacrity. "What d'ye want in my way, son?"
"Everything!" said I.
"And here's the place t' get it, b' James! I've everything in clothes from the cradle to the grave—infant, child, youth and man, births, marriages or deaths, 'igh-days or 'olydays—I can fit ye with any style, any size and for any age, occasion or re-quirement."
So saying, he ushered me into a small room behind the shop where he proceeded to whisk forth a bewildering array of garments for my inspection, until table and chairs were piled high and myself dazed with their infinite variety.
"B' James!" cried the little man, blinking, "I'll turn ye out as nobby a little spark as ever cocked a neye at a sighin' young fe-male. Look at this coat, the roll o' this collar up to your ears, and as for buttons—well, look at 'em—see 'em flash! As for weskits, see 'ere, son, climbin' roses worked into true-lover's knots and all pure silk! Then 'ere's a pair o' pantaloons as no blushin' nymp' could resist—an' you shall 'ave the lot—ah, an' I'll throw in a ruffled shirt—for four-pun' ten—take 'em or leave 'em!"
"Thank you, I think I'll leave them," said I. "My desire is for things a little less ostentatious—"
"Os-ten—ha, certainly! Say no more, son, look around an' take y'r choice—"
At last, and almost in spite of the small tailor, I selected a suit a little less offensive than most, the which I donned forthwith and found it fit me none so ill; shirt, shoes, stockings and a hat completed my equipment, and though the garments were anything but elegant, yet my appearance, so much as I could see of it in the small, cracked mirror, was, on the whole, not displeasing, I thought. At the tailor's suggestion I purchased three extra shirts, as many cravats, stockings and a neckcloth.
"And now," said I, as he tied up the somewhat unwieldy parcel, "what do I owe you?"
"Well, son—I mean, sir," he answered, peering at me over his spectacles, "them beautiful clothes has turned you from nobody as matters into somebody as do; your credit is rose five hundred, ah, a thousand per cent and I ought to charge ye a couple o' hundred guineas, say—but seein' as you're you an' I'm me—let's call it fi'-pun!"
So having paid the tailor, I bade him good afternoon and strode forth into the street and, though a little conscious of my new clothes and somewhat hampered by the bulbous parcel beneath my arm, felt myself no longer in danger of being roared at to hold horses or proffered alms by kindly old ladies. I strolled along at leisurely pace, casting oblique and surreptitious glances at my reflection in shop windows, whereby I observed that my new garments fitted me better than I had supposed, though it seemed the hair curled beneath my hat brim in too generous luxuriance; so perceiving a barber's adjacent, I entered and gave my head to the ministrations of a chatty soul whose tongue wagged faster than his snipping scissors. Shorn of my superabundant locks, I sallied forth, and chancing upon a jeweller's shop, I entered and purchased a silver watch for the Tinker, another for Jessamy Todd, and lastly a gold locket and chain for Diana.
TELLS OF AN OMINOUS MEETING
Precisely upon the stroke of half-past four I turned under the arch of the "Chequers" inn and, coming into the yard, looked about for Diana. The place was fairly a-throng with vehicles, farmers' gigs, carts, curricles and the like; in one corner of the long penthouse I espied the Tinker's cart with Diogenes champing philosophically at a truss of hay, but Diana herself was nowhere to be seen. Therefore, having deposited my parcel in the cart among divers other packages (which I took to be the stores Jeremy had mentioned), I seated myself in a remote and shady corner and glanced around. Horses munched and snorted all about me, unseen hostlers hissed and whistled, and a man in a smart livery hung upon the bridles of two horses harnessed to a handsome closed travelling carriage, blood-horses that tossed proud heads and stamped impatient hoofs, insomuch that the groom alternately cursed and coaxed them, turning his head ever and anon to glance towards a certain back door of the inn with impatient expectancy. And thus it befell that I began to watch this door also and as the moments elapsed there waked within me a strange and bodeful trembling eagerness, a growing anxiety to behold what manner of person that door would soon open for. So altogether unaccountable and disquieting was this feeling that I rose to my feet and in this moment the door swung wide and a man appeared.
He was tall and slim and superlatively well clad, his garments of that quiet elegance which is the mark of exceeding good taste; but it was his face that drew and held my gaze, a handsome face, paler by contrast with the raven blackness of flowing, curled hair, a delicate-nostrilled, aquiline nose, a thin-lipped mouth and smooth jut of pointed chin. All this I saw as he stood as if awaiting some one, half-turned upon the steps, a magnificent and shapely figure, tapping impatiently at glittering, be-tasselled boot with slender, gold-mounted cane. And then—Diana appeared and paused in the doorway to stare up at him while he smiled down on her, and I saw his smiling lips move in soft speech as, with a hateful and assured deliberation, his white fingers closed upon her round, sunburned arm and he gestured gracefully towards the carriage with his cane.
"Ah, damn you—stand off!" I cried, and clenching my fists I sprang forward, raging. As I came he swung about to meet me, the slender cane quivering in his grip, and thus for a moment we faced each other. And now I saw he was older than I had thought and, meeting the intensity of these smouldering eyes, beholding quivering nostrils and relentless mouth and chin, my flesh crept with a fierce and unaccountable loathing of the man and, unheeding the threat of the cane, I leapt on him like a mad creature. I felt the sharp pain of a blow as the cane snapped asunder on my body and I was upon him, pounding and smiting with murder in my heart. Then the long white hand seized my collar and whirled me aside with such incredible strength that I fell and lay for a moment half-stunned as, without a glance towards me, he opened the carriage door and imperiously motioned Diana to enter.
"Come, my goddess, let us fly!" said he, soft-voiced and smiling. But as he approached her, she tossed aside her basket, stooped, and I saw the evil glitter of her little knife; the gentleman merely laughed softly and made deliberately towards her; then, as she crouched to spring, I scrambled to my feet.
"Don't!" I cried. "Don't! Not you, Diana! Throw me your knife—leave him to me—"
At this the gentleman paused to glance from Diana to me and back again.
"Aha, Diana, is it?" said he. "You'll be worth the taming—another time, chaste goddess! Venus give you to my arms some day! Here's for your torn coat, my sorry Endymion!" Saying which, he tossed a guinea to me and, stepping into the carriage, closed the door. The staring groom mounted, the horses pranced, but, as the carriage moved off, I snatched up the coin and, leaping forward, hurled it through the open window into the gentleman's pale, smiling face.
"Damn you!" I panted. "God's curse on you—I'll see you dead—some day!" And then the carriage was gone and I, gasping and trembling, stood appalled at the wild passion of murderous hate that surged within me. And in this awful moment, sick with horrified amaze since I knew myself a murderer in my soul, I was aware that Diana had picked up my new hat whence it had fallen and was tenderly wiping the dust from it.
"Why, Peregrine," sighed she reproachfully, "you've had all your curls cut off!"
"To the devil with my curls! Come, let us go!" And snatching my hat I clapped it on and led the way across the yard and, heedless of the spectators who gaped and nudged each other, we got into the cart, paid our dues, and drove out into the High Street, nor did we exchange a word until we had left the town behind us; then:
"Why are you so frightful angry, Peregrine?"
"Ah, why?" I groaned. "What madness was it that would have driven me to murder? Had you but thrown me your knife I should have stabbed him—killed him where he stood—and loved the doing of it. Oh, horrible!"
"No, wonderful!" sighed she, laying her hand on my drooping shoulder. "I—I liked you for it! You weren't afraid this time. Did he hurt you?"
"And he tore your fine new coat—the beast! Never mind, I'll mend it for you to-night, if you like."
"I can buy another," said I gloomily.
"No, that would be wicked, wasteful extravagance, Peregrine, and I can mend it beautifully."
"Very well!" I sighed.
"That's three times you fights for me, Peregrine."
"And been worsted on each occasion!" said I.
"No, you beats Gabbing Dick, remember," said she consolingly, her hand on my shoulder again. "And I—I likes you in your new clothes, though I wish you had your curls back again because—"
"How came you at the inn with that man?" I demanded suddenly.
"I had been selling my last few baskets."
"And he saw you?"
"And spoke to you?"
"And he—tried to—kiss you, I suppose?"
"Yes—but what's it matter; don't let's talk of it any more, Peregrine."
"And did he kiss you—did he?" At this she began to frown. "Did he kiss you, Diana—answer me?"
"I'll not!" said she, setting her chin.
"Ah, but you shall!"
"Oh, but I won't! Who are you to question me so?"
"Tell me, or by God I'll make you!"
"Ah, don't talk, you couldn't—no, not if—" I seized her, wrenched and swung her down across my knees (careless alike in my sudden frenzy of fallen reins, of danger or death itself) and having her thus helpless, set my hand about her soft, round throat.
"By God!" I gasped, "but you shall tell me, Diana; you shall tell me if he dared sully you with his vile touch—speak—speak!"
And now as I glared down at her I saw her eyes grow wide and suddenly fearful.
"Oh, Peregrine," she whispered. "Don't—don't look at me so—as if you hated me—don't, ah, don't!" And then, oh, wonder of wonders! Her arms were about my neck, drawing me lower and lower until her soft cheek met mine and, clasping me thus, she spoke under her breath:
"He didn't. Peregrine—he didn't! No man shall ever kiss me in line except—just—one!"
"Who?" I questioned, grasping her to me. "Who is that one?"
"Loose me, now," she pleaded. "You'll make me cry in a minute, and I hates to cry." So I obeyed her and sitting up, saw that Diogenes, like the four-footed philosopher he was, had come to a halt and was serenely cropping the grass by the roadside. And so we presently drove on again, but though Diana frowned no more, she persistently avoided my glance.
"Diana," said I at last, vainly endeavouring to meet her gaze, "who is the—one man?"
"Him as I shall marry, of course—if I ever do!" she answered.
"Then that man is myself, of course!"
"You are a sight too cocksure!"
"Yes, and—very rough, I think."
"Oh, forgive me—did I hurt you—just now, when I—"
"Here, on the throat, Peregrine."
"Let me look," said I, peering. Then, "The wound is not apparent, Diana, unless it is—here!" and leaning closer, I touched her soft neck with my lips. "Did I hurt you anywhere else?"
"No!" said she hastily and with sudden shy look.
"I could almost regret my gentleness!" I sighed. After this we drove in silence awhile; that is to say Diogenes ambled along at his own leisurely gait, as if he very well knew that 'time was made for slaves'.
So I looked at Diana, drinking in this new, shy beauty of her, and she looked at earth and sky, at hedgerow and rolling meadow but with never a glance at me.
"It was wrong of you to think the gentleman kissed me!" said she suddenly, beginning to frown.
"It was!" I admitted. "Very wrong indeed!"
"Then why did you?"
"Because I was a fool!"
"Well, I don't like fools!"
"Then I will endeavour to be wiser."
"'T will need a lot o' trying, I think," said she, scowling.
"Good heavens!" said I. "Are you angry now?"
"Yes, I can be angry as well as you, I s'pose?"
"Of course!" said I. "You have contrived to be very ill-tempered lately."
"Oh, have I?"
"You have! And very slipshod in your speech—indeed, your diction is worse than ever—"
"Oh, stow your gab!"
"Now you are coarse and vulgar in the extreme!"
"Well, that's better than pretending to be what I ain't. And if you don't like my talk—hold your tongue and I'll hold mine!"
"I will!" said I.
"Do!" she snapped. And so was silence again, wherein the birds seemed to sing quite out of tune and Diogenes a lazy quadruped very much needing the whip.
"Cannot you drive a little faster?" I suggested.
For answer she lashed Diogenes to a gallop so that the cart lurched and swayed in highly unpleasant fashion; but presently, this speed abating somewhat, I ventured to loose my grip of the seat and thrusting hands into pockets, felt the case containing the locket and chain.
"Are you any better tempered yet?" I enquired.
"No—nor like to be—"
"That's a pity!"
"Because you look prettier when you don't frown—"
"Though you're handsome always. And besides I—I brought you a small present—"
"Well, you can keep it—"
"You haven't looked at it yet!"
"Don't want to!"
"Here it is," said I, opening the case. "Do you like it?"
"Won't you accept it?"
"No, I won't!"
"Why, very well!" said I, and shutting the case I threw it into the road.
"Ah, don't! How could you!" she cried and reined Diogenes to abrupt standstill. "Go and pick it up—this instant!"
"If you don't want it—I won't!" said I, folding my arms.
"I didn't say I didn't want it—"
"But you wouldn't accept it—"
"No more I will—yet—"
"Now of all the ridiculous, unreasonable creatures—"
"So please go an' pick it up, Peregrine."
"If I do, will you let me put it round your neck?"
"Wait till—till I feels a little kinder to you!"
"That will be a unique occasion and one to remember!" said I bitterly, and springing from the cart, I went and took up my despised gift, though with very ill grace. "And pray, madam," I enquired, thrusting the case into my pocket and frowning up at her where she leaned, chin on fist, viewing me with her sombre gaze, "when are you likely to feel any kinder?"
"How should I know—and you look s' strange and different in your new clo'es—"
"It is to be hoped so!" said I.
"And your curls all cut off!"
"I never thought you'd notice—"
"And you seem more cocksure than ever—"
"Cocksure is an ugly word, Diana."
"So I think I liked you better as you were."
"Good!" said I, climbing back into the cart. "It remains for me to make you like me best—as I am."
"By marrying you."
"But you don't—we ain't in love with each other or any such silliness," said she, flicking idly at the hedge with the whip.
"I'm not so sure, Diana. Indeed, I begin to think I do—love you in a way—or may do soon."
"Oh, do you?"
"Have you ever been in love?"
"Then you don't know nothin' about it."
"Do you?" I questioned.
"More than you!" she nodded.
"Ah, do you mean that you have loved—some man—"
"Of course not, silly!"
"Good!" said I. "And you have promised faithfully never to kiss any other man but me—"
"I said the man I married—"
"Well, that is me."
"Oh, is it?"
OF A TRULY MEMORABLE OCCASION
The silence was broken only by the plodding hoofs of Diogenes, the creak of harness and rattle of wheels, while Diana grew lost in thought and I in contemplation of Diana; the stately grace of her slender, shapely form, the curve of her vivid lips, the droop of her long, down-swept lashes, her resolute chin and her indefinable air of native pride and power. All at once her sombre look gave place to a smile, her slender hand tightened upon the reins, and glancing up I saw that we had reached a place where four roads met, and here, seated beneath the finger-post was a solitary, shabbily dressed old man absorbed in a book; roused by the sound of our approach, he glanced up and I recognised the ancient person, Lord Wyvelstoke.
"It's my old man!" said Diana, and waved her hand in joyous greeting, whereupon he arose and doffing his weather-beaten hat, bowed white head in stately greeting.
"Surely it is my pleasure to behold my courageous young Amazon," said he, limping forward. "Greetings, fair Penthesilea!" and taking the hand she reached out to him, he kissed it gallantly.
"And you are still alone!" said she, smiling down at him as she had never smiled at me. "Are you always alone?"