"You haven't lost much time, Anthony."
"Nor have you for that matter, Perry. And I've ten thousand things to tell you, and questions to ask you and—Ha, thank God, she's on her feet! Look at 'em—did ever mortal eyes behold two lovelier creatures?" And away he strode impetuous towards where they stood, the dark and the fair, with arms entwined, viewing each other's beauteousness glad-eyed.
"My brave girl! How are you now?"
"Better—oh, much better, dear Anthony, though I fear I cannot ride—"
"Not to be thought of, my sweet—Gad, no—not for a moment!"
"Diana has offered to drive me in the cart, Anthony."
"Excellent! We can hire a chaise at Hadlow!"
So very soon, behold us jolting along in the Tinker's cart very merrily, Anthony and I perched upon the tailboard, the two horses trotting behind a little disdainfully, as it seemed to me, judging by the flirting of their tails, head-shakings and repeated snorts.
"And what might you be doing now, Perry?" enquired my companion, swinging his long, booted legs and stealing a backward glance at his fair, young wife seated on the driving seat beside Diana. "Isn't she perfectly wonderful?" he murmured.
"She is!" I answered.
"Her hair," he sighed; "her hair, you'll notice, is—"
"The most glorious in all the world!" quoth I.
"Absolutely, Perry! Beyond all doubt—"
"Though it is not really black, Anthony—"
"Black!" he exclaimed, turning on me with a sort of leap.
"No, not black, Anthony, sometimes it seems full of small fires—"
Now at this he laughed and I laughed, all unheeded by the two upon the driving seat who talked softly and questioned each other with their lovely faces very close together, while Diogenes the knowing slowed to his meditative amble.
"You must forgive me, Perry, I—I've only been a Benedict since two o'clock. But tell me of yourself; what you are doing, how you live and where?"
"I am learning the art of working in iron, Anthony, and of making and mending kettles—"
"Gad—a tinker, Perry?"
"Yes. And I am living in a wood with one Jerry Jarvis, Jessamy Todd, and Diana—"
"The famous Jessamy?"
"Yes. He is instructing me in the noble art."
"Good heavens! And your—your people?"
"They perforce acquiesce."
"In—in everything, Perry—your marriage?"
"What else can they do?"
"And when you are married, how shall you live?"
"Travel the country tinkering with Jerry—or buy a cottage until I come into my property."
"And then, Perry?"
"I—don't know. You see, Anthony, if—if the people in our world should make any difficulty about the pure angel who will be my wife, well, I'll see the people of our world damned and go back to my cottage."
"No, you shall come to us, Perry, to Barbara and me, we shall always be proud and happy to welcome you both—in country or town and as for—your Diana, such beauty may surely go anywhere, and my Barbara is in love with her already, 'egad. Look at 'em, Perry, look at 'em! Did ever eyes behold two such gloriously handsome creatures?"
Thus we talked of things that had been and of things that were to be, making many plans for the future, a future which, by reason of youth and love, stretched before each one of us in radiant perspective. So we talked and laughed, finding joy in all things, more especially in each other and were all a little sorry, I think, when the ambling Diogenes brought us to Hadlow at last. And here, at the "Bear" we sat down to a merry meal that ended all too soon.
"Good-bye—oh, good-bye, dearest Diana!" sighed Barbara a little tearfully, as she leaned from the chaise for a last caress. "If I have learned to love you so quickly don't let it seem strange—it is just because you are Diana—and I have so few friends, and none like you. So be my friend, Diana, will you, dear—and when you are married bring your husband to see us in London—or wherever we happen to be, only—oh, be my friend, because—I love you."
"I will," said Diana, "your friend always, because—I love you too."
So the chaise rolled away. And presently Diana and I jogged camp-wards behind Diogenes, through an evening fragrant with new-mown hay; from tree and hedgerow birds were singing their vesper hymn and we drove awhile in wistful silence. But suddenly Diana turned and caught my hand so that I wondered at the eager clasp of these fingers and the tremulous yearning in her voice when she spoke.
"O Peregrine—oh, my dear—if only God would make me—like her—a lady—like Barbara. Do you think He would if—I pray—very hard?"
"Of course!" said I, kissing her hand. "Though, indeed—"
"Then I will, dear Peregrine—this very night—and every night."
A DISQUISITION ON TRUE LOVE
"Love," said his lordship, laying down his fishing rod, "love, from the philosophically materialistic standpoint, is an unease, a disquiet of the mind, fostered in the male by hallucination, and in the female by determined self-delusion."
"Sir," said I, "your meaning is somewhat involved, I would beg you to be a little more explicit."
"Then pray observe me, Peregrine! An ordinary young man falls in love with an ordinary young woman because, for some inexplicable reason, she appears to him a mystery, bewitchingly incomprehensible. Suffering under this strange hallucination, he wooes, whereupon our ordinary young woman, shutting her eyes to the ordinariness of our very ordinary young man, now deliberately deludes herself into the firm belief that he is the virile presentment of her own impossible, oft-dreamed ideal. So they are wed (to the infinite wonder of their relations) and hence the perpetuation of the species."
"My lord, you grow a little cynical, I think," said I, "surely Love has dowered these apparently so ordinary people with a vision to behold in each other virtues and beauties undreamed of by the world in general. Surely Love possesses the only seeing eye?"
"The Greeks thought differently, Peregrine, or wherefore their blindfolded Eros?"
"Sir, the mind of man has soared since those far times, I venture to think?"
"Perhaps!" said his lordship, shaking his head. "But love between man and woman is much the same, a power to ennoble or debase, angel of light or demon of hell, a thing befouled and shamed by brutish selfishness or glorified by sacrifice. Yes, love is to-day as it was when mighty Babylon worshipped Bel. Yesterday, to-day and for ever, love was, is, and will be the same—the call of nature coming to each of us through the senses to the soul for evil or for good."
"But, my lord," said I, stirred beyond myself, "ah, sir, be love what it may—no two ever loved as Diana and I, so truly, so deeply—"
"O my lovely, loving lover—O sublime egoist!" exclaimed my companion. "How many other lovers through the ages have thought and said and written the very same?
'Others may have loved mayhap, But never, oh, never as thou and I.'
"This is the song of all the amorists of all the ages. Man has been saying this since ever he was man. Here is love's universal, deathless song, written or sung to-day and by lovers long, long forgotten,
'Whoever loved like thou and I, No lovers ever loved as we!'"
"Nor did they, sir!" I maintained doggedly. "My love for Diana is a thing wholly apart, an inspiration to all things good and great."
"Then prove this, my egoist, prove it!"
"But sir—sir," I stammered, nonplussed by his words and the piercing look that accompanied them, "how—in what manner would you have me do this?"
"By forgetting yourself in your love for her! By foregoing awhile your present joys for her future good. Give her into my care for two years."
"My lord!" I exclaimed aghast. "I—indeed I do not understand."
"Peregrine, God has bestowed on her a mind capable of great things—a wonderful voice. Place her in my charge for two years—I am solitary and very rich—she shall see the world and its wonders; I will have her educated, bestow on her all the refinements that great wealth can command. Nature has given her a glorious voice, Art shall make her a great singer. Forego your present happiness for her future good and your gipsy maid shall become a great lady and a peerless woman. Do this, Peregrine, and here, truly, shall be love indeed."
Now at this I was silent a long while, staring down blindly at the hurrying waters of the brook; glancing up at last, I found him regarding me with his keen, bright eyes and was struck anew by the strength of his personality, his resolute face with its indomitable mouth and chin, his serene air of dignity and assured power.
"She would be safe with me, Peregrine," said he gently, "secure from every evil—and from every chance of molestation."
"I know that, sir."
"She would be cherished and loved as sacredly as—my own daughter—might have been."
"I am sure of it, sir—and yet—"
"Two years, sir," I faltered. "It—it is an age—"
"You are both children, Peregrine, but in two years, as I understand, you will be of age, a man, master of your fortune—and she a woman, clever, accomplished and perhaps famous."
"And may have forgotten me!"
"Do you think so, Peregrine?"
"No!" said I. "No!"
"Nor do I, boy. Such as she, being deep and reverent of soul, do not love lightly, and never forget. On the contrary, with her growing knowledge and experience, surely her love for you will grow also; it must do. If she loves you to-day, child of nature as she is, how much greater will be her capacity for love as an educated woman, knowing that it is to your unselfishness, first and foremost, that she owes so very much?"
After this was silence again wherein I watched my companion disjoint his fishing rod.
"Sir," said I at last, "yours is a very noble and generous offer—"
"Tush!" he exclaimed a little sharply. "I am a solitary old man who yearns for a daughter."
"Sir, in less than a fortnight is—the day—our wedding day—"
"Then," said his lordship, rising, "God's blessing on that day, Peregrine, and on each of you."
"You ask of me a very great thing, sir!" I groaned.
"Indeed, yes, Peregrine, so very great that only the greatest love could possibly grant it."
Long after the Earl had limped away, I sat crouched beside the stream, my head bowed between clasping hands, blind and deaf and unconscious of all else but the tempest that raged within me, a wild confusion of doubt and fearful speculation with a passionate rebellion against circumstance, and a growing despair. Gradually these chaotic thoughts took form, marshalling themselves against each other, so that it seemed as two voices argued bitterly within me, thus:
THE FIRST VOICE. To give up Diana for two long, weary years—
THE SECOND VOICE. But for Diana's sake!
THE FIRST VOICE. To forego the joys of Diana's companionship for two, empty, desolate years.
THE SECOND VOICE. But for Diana's own future good!
THE FIRST VOICE. Why should Love demand such thing of any lover?
THE SECOND VOICE. Because he boasted his love beyond all other. Was it but an idle boast?
THE FIRST VOICE. No lover would ever do such thing!
THE SECOND VOICE. Except he be indeed greatly true and most unselfish.
THE FIRST VOICE. Diana would never leave me.
THE SECOND VOICE. Never, even though it were the passion of her life! For truly a woman's love is ever more unselfish than a man's.
THE FIRST VOICE. She loves me too much to endure such parting.
THE SECOND VOICE. She loves you so much she would endure even this to become your comrade as well as wife, to fit herself that she may take her place beside you in your world, serene and assured, to become the woman you can revere for her intellect and refinement.
THE FIRST VOICE. All this I can teach her, all this she shall acquire after marriage.
THE SECOND VOICE. Never! She will devote herself to you rather than to herself.
THE FIRST VOICE. Howbeit, I love her well enough as she is—
THE SECOND VOICE. O selfish lover! And what of the future? You cannot live out your life in her world of the Silent Places, and in your world your gipsy maid will find small welcome or none.
THE FIRST VOICE. Then her world shall be mine also—
THE SECOND VOICE. O foolish lover! Think you she shall not grieve that by her love you should lose caste—
THE FIRST VOICE. She need never know—
THE SECOND VOICE. The eyes of a loving woman are marvellous quick to see.
THE FIRST VOICE. Then Love shall comfort her.
THE SECOND VOICE. Yet still must be her dark hours. Is two years so long a time?
THE FIRST VOICE. Too long! In two years she may find a thousand new interests to come between us. In two years she may meet with dashing gallants richer, higher placed, more versed in knowledge of women and far more intellectual than myself, who am but what I am. So, having won her to my love, what folly to let her go—to be wooed perchance by others.
THE SECOND VOICE. O most despicable lover! Will you be content to win a maid through and because of her ignorance of all other wooers better placed than your poor self?
THE FIRST VOICE. Yes.
THE SECOND VOICE. Then is yours a pitiful love, base and most unworthy.
THE FIRST VOICE. No matter—she shall not go!
THE SECOND VOICE. In such a love can be no true happiness.
THE FIRST VOICE. However, she shall not leave me!
THE SECOND VOICE. How if at some future day, her eyes be opened to see your love for the petty, selfish thing it is?
THE FIRST VOICE. She will be my wife!
THE SECOND VOICE. So God pity her.
THE FIRST VOICE. Come what will, she shall not leave me! I cannot, will not part with her!
"Why, Peregrine!" exclaimed a sweet voice. "My dear—my dear, what is it? Why do you sit here sighing with your dear head between your hands—this head that I love so! Peregrine dear, what is it?"
She was beside me on her knees, had drawn my face upon her bosom, and I thrilled to the soft caress of her mouth and the touch of her gentle fingers in my hair. "Why are you so troubled, my Peregrine?"
"O Diana! Beloved, I imagined a foolish thing—that being far from me you forgot our love—these dear Silent Places, and learned—to love—some one more worthy—more generous—altogether better than I. For Diana—I am—"
"My Peregrine!" she whispered passionately. "My brave lover that is so fine a gentleman he don't know anything of evil and has treated me always as if I was a proud lady—as if I was a very holy thing instead of only a gipsy girl to be kissed and—and—oh, you are so different—and so it is I love you—love you, worship you, and—all'us shall, my Peregrine, and long and yearn to be a lady for your sake and worthy of you—"
"O child," I whispered, "my Diana—hush! You don't know how vilely, basely selfish I am really—"
"Never—ah, never say so, Peregrine, it hurts me. There now, smile! I wouldn't ha' left you all the afternoon—not even wi' our pal—no, not even to try on my wedding gown if I'd thought you'd ha' grieved. Come, dear, Jessamy's back an' ready for you with the muffles—there, he be calling!"
So I arose, but stood a while to look into her eyes that met mine with such sweet frankness.
"And you still wish to learn all those graces and refinements that make what is called a lady, my Diana?"
"Yes," she answered, a little breathlessly. "Yes—oh, more than ever—more than anything else in life—except you—"
"Then—God helping, you shall!" said I, between shut teeth. And so we went on together.
"But, Peregrine," she questioned a little wistfully, "dear Peregrine, why is your face so stern and why must you sigh still?"
"Because to be unselfish is sometimes—an agony, Diana."
"Dear heart—what do you mean?"
"Only I know now that I do most truly love you."
"Where are you taking me, Peregrine?"
Birds were singing joyously, the brook chuckled and laughed merrily amid the shallows, the morning sun shone in glory, and all nature seemed to rejoice, as if care and sadness were things unknown.
"Where are we going, dear Peregrine?"
"To seek your heart's desire."
"That sounds very lovely!" said Diana, laughing gaily and giving my arm a little hug. "But everything seems so—wonderful lately!"
After this we walked in silence awhile, for when I would have told her whither we were going and why, I could not, try how I would.
"Barbara was telling me how she first met you and Anthony; she is very beautiful, don't ye think, Peregrine?"
"So beautiful that I wonder you didn't fall in love wi' her."
"I waited to fall in love with Diana, who is much more beautiful, I think—"
"Do you, Peregrine, do you think so—really?"
Here, of course, I stopped to kiss her.
"The wonder is," said she, "the great wonder is that she didn't fall in love wi' you, Peregrine."
"I'm very glad she didn't! Besides, there's Anthony, so strong and tall and handsome, so altogether different to myself and much more likely to capture a woman's fancy."
"Not all women, Peregrine."
Here she stopped to kiss me.
"Barbara is a much—gentler sort of fine lady than—your aunt, I think—"
"Aunt Julia can be gentle also—sometimes, dear—"
"When she gets her own way, Peregrine!"
"You will learn to love her very much some day, I hope, Diana."
"I hope so—but it'll take her a mighty long time learning to love me, I think," sighed Diana. "Lord, what furious fuss she'll make when she finds out we'm married. Not as I shall care—if you don't, dear. Why, Peregrine—yonder's Wyvelstoke Towers!"
"Yes," said I, "it is there we are going."
"But why—what for?"
"Dear, have patience—just a little longer," I pleaded.
At this she was silent, but her hand tightened on my arm, and I was aware of the sudden trouble in her eyes. So, having crossed the park, we came into the pleasaunce, a place of clipped yew hedges and trim walks. And here who should meet us but the sedate Atkinson, who, having saluted us gravely, led the way to a rustic arbour where sat his lordship engaged upon the perusal of a book. At sight of us, he rose to welcome us with his wistful, kindly smile.
"Ah, Peregrine," said he, viewing us with his keen gaze as we sat beside him, "I perceive you have not told her."
"Not a word, sir," said I, a little hoarsely.
"Old pal," she questioned, glancing from me to his lordship and back again, "what d'ye mean? Peregrine, what is it?"
"Diana," said I, finding my tongue very unready, "dear—what is your greatest wish—what is your most passionate desire?"
"You!" she answered in her sweet, direct fashion.
"To be a lady! Oh, you know that and you know why—to be done wi' this fear that sometimes I may shame you by my talk or by acting wrong; you know, don't you?"
"This is why I brought you here, Diana. My lord has offered to—have you taught all this and—much beside."
"Oh!" she sighed rapturously. "You mean to teach me to be a lady? Oh, dear, dear old pal—can you, will you?"
"Child, it would be my most joyful privilege."
"But, Diana," I continued haltingly, yet speaking as lightly as I could and keeping my gaze averted, "to learn so much you must—stay with his lordship—travel abroad—meet great people—be instructed by many skilled teachers and—there will be your music—singing—"
"Will they teach me everything a lady should learn, grammar an' deportment an' dancing—?"
"But, Peregrine, while I'm away learning all this, where will you be?"
"I shall remain—here!"
"Oh, well, that's done it! I shall stay with you, of course!"
"That would be impossible," said I, as lightly as I could, "quite impossible; such love as ours, that demands so much, would be a great hindrance to your progress, don't you see? All the time you were studying, I should hover around you most distractingly. No, we must part—for a little while—"
"For how long, Peregrine?"
"Only two years, dear!"
"So long—so very long! Two years! Ah, no, no, I couldn't bear it!"
"Two years will—soon pass!" said I, between clenched teeth. "And of course you will be—too busy to—miss me—very much—"
"Ah, how can you think so?"
"And you will be working for me as much as for your dear self, Diana, and—our love—our future happiness. So you will go, dear heart—?"
"For two years? No—it's too long—you might die—O Peregrine!"
"The contingency is remote—I—I mean—"
"But I can't leave you! I mustn't—I won't! I shall be your wife!"
"No, Diana, that—that must wait until you—come back."
"Wait?" she gasped. "Peregrine—O Peregrine—"
"I want you to be free, Diana—"
"Well, I won't be! I'm not free and never shall be because I belong to you and we belong to each other for ever and ever."
"Oh, my dear—my dear, God knows it!" cried I and clasped her to me in yearning arms. "But I want you to go into this new life quite free and unfettered, because it is a great and ever-growing wonder that you should love me who am neither very handsome nor strong nor brave—so I want you to meet men who are—fine gentlemen, and compare them with poor me. And O Diana, if you can return so much cleverer and wiser for all you have seen and learned and can still love me—why, then, Diana, oh, then—" my voice broke but in this moment her arms were about me and stooping her lovely head she mingled her tears with mine.
"Dear foolish boy," she murmured passionately, "how can you think there could ever be any other but just you. Ah, Perry dear, don't send me away; I should hate to be a lady now. Oh, be content with me as I am—don't send me away—"
"I must—for your sake," I groaned, "for your future, to help you to the better thing. Though God knows I love you well enough as you are, and want you, Diana, want you with every nerve and fibre of me, with every breath. Oh, sir, sir," I cried, "help me to be strong for—her sake!"
"You are, boy!" answered his lordship, and I saw he had crossed to the doorway and stood with his back to us. "Diana," he continued after a moment, "in this world of change, of doubt and uncertainty, one thing is very sure and beyond all cavil and dispute: Peregrine loves you far better than he loves himself, since he is strong enough to forego so much of present happiness for your future welfare. He honours me by placing you in my charge, I who love you as a daughter and will treat you as such. So, Diana, will you give yourself to my care awhile, will you become my companion and loved child?"
"Must I, Peregrine?" she sobbed. "Oh, must I?"
"Yes!" said I, looking at her through blinding tears. "Yes!"
Obediently she arose and, crossing to his lordship, placed her hand in his.
"I'll go wi' you, old pal," said she.
Now as our Ancient Person turned to smile at her, I saw his furrowed cheek was wet with tears also.
"Sir, when—when do you start?" I enquired.
"At once, Peregrine. We shall be in London to-night."
"Then this is—good-bye, sir?"
"Yes, my children!"
"My lord," said I, rising wearily, "I am leaving with you all I possess, my present joy, my—hope for the future, my loved Diana."
"God make me worthy of the charge, Peregrine."
All in a moment she was at my feet, upon her knees, her arms fast about me, her face hidden against me, her body shaken with convulsive sobs.
"O Perry, I can't—I can't do it—no, no—don't let me go—"
At this I knelt also and thus we faced each other on our knees, as when Love first had found us. And so I clasped and kissed and strove to comfort her, until the passion of her grief was abated. "Must I go, dear Peregrine—must I go?" she whispered, beneath my kisses.
"Yes, for the sake of the future—yours and mine. God keep you and—good-bye, my own Diana!"
Then I arose and left her there upon her knees, looking after me through fast-falling tears and her loved arms stretched out to me in piteous supplication.
"Peregrine," she pleaded, "oh, my Peregrine!"
But I turned away and rushed from the spot, never daring to look back; but ever as I went, that desolate cry rang and echoed in my ears.
HOW I CAME HOME AGAIN
"Two years! Emptiness! Loneliness! Two years!" It was in the hurry of my footsteps, birds sang it, leaves whispered it, my heart throbbed to it.
"Two years! Emptiness! Loneliness! Two years!" Sometimes tears blinded me, sometimes anger shook me, but always was the pain of loss, the yearning for that loved and vanished presence.—"Two years!"
More than once I turned to hasten back—to end this misery—back to my Diana, this maid who was more precious, more necessary to my life than I had ever dreamed. I should have but to lift my finger, nay ... one look and she would be in my arms ... so very easy, and therefore ... so utterly impossible.
Sometimes I hurried on at breathless speed, sometimes crept on slow, unwilling feet, sometimes stood motionless to stare blindly about me, raged at and torn by conflicting thoughts ... agonising ... irresolute.
How long I wandered thus I cannot say, but the sun was low when, amid the leafy whispering of familiar tree, I heard the cheery ring of the Tinker's anvil.
At sight of me he dropped his hammer and fell back a step.
"Why Peregrine," said he. "Why, Perry lad—don't look so! Is aught wrong?"
"Only my heart is breaking, I think!" said I, and casting myself down at the foot of a tree, I covered my face.
"God love me!" exclaimed the Tinker; and then he was kneeling beside me. "What is it, lad, what is it?"
"I've sent my Diana from me!"
"Sent her from ye, lad?"
"For two years, Jerry. Two weary years ... emptiness ... loneliness. I have placed her in the Earl of Wyvelstoke's charge ... they start for London at once ... leave England as soon as possible ... she is gone ... two years, Jerry ... two weary years ... desolation!"
"Peregrine," said he in hushed voice, "this was her great wish—to be a lady for your sake. She's told me so many's the time ... an' I caught her in tears over it once."
"I have sent her away, Jerry, for two years!"
"Peregrine," said he, "'t is a fine thing to be a gentleman, but 't is a grand thing to be a man big enough an' brave enough to do such act as this here. God bless ye, lad!"
"O Jerry—O Jerry, I love her so ... ! Yearn and hunger for her so much ... it is a pain!"
"Aye, but 't is such pain as makes the strong stronger! 'Tis such love as do be everlasting and reaches high as heaven—"
"Two years, Jerry! Two long, weary years to wait ... to yearn ... to live through without her ... emptiness!"
"Ah, but you've done right, lad, you've done right. And then—what's two years? Lord, they'll soon go! And her love for you'll be a-growin' with every month—every day an' hour, lad, an' she'll come back t' ye at last, only more beautiful, more wonderful an' more loving than ever she was—"
"O Jerry," said I, grasping at him with sudden hands. "You don't think ... death ... you don't think she may die?"
"Die? What, Ann—s' strong an' full o' vig'rous life? Lord, not she, lad, not she—never think it!"
"Or ... forget me, Jerry?"
"What—Ann? Lord love ye—no! She ain't one to forget or change—never was, an' I've knowed her since a little child. An' she's never loved afore—hated men! An' why? Because 't was always her beauty as they wanted—her body—an' never a thought of her mind, d'ye see! An' now—she's to travel to see the world, is she! An' with the Earl—an' him such a great gentleman! 'T is wonderful good fortun' for her, Peregrine, wonderful!"
"Yes, he is a very great gentleman and a truly noble man, Jerry."
"An' now, what o' yourself, lad?"
"I shall continue to live with you, Jerry; I shall go on smithing and tinkering—yes, harder than ever—"
"No!" said the Tinker, sitting back on his heels and shaking his head at me with the utmost vehemence. "Tinkering ain't for you, Peregrine, an' you can do better things than swingin' a sledge—ah, a sight better!"
"What do you suppose I can do?" sighed I miserably.
"Impossible! I shall never be a real painter, Jerry."
"Impossible! I shall never be a poet, Jerry."
"Well, have you ever thought o' writin' a nov-el?"
"Well, what about it?"
"Impossible! Of what should I write?"
"Why, about HER—Anna, for sure, your Diana as would ha' made a better goddess than the real one, I reckon."
"Why, yes," said I, lifting my head, "I might do that, no matter how badly. To write of her would be better than to talk of her. To try to tell all her loveliness, her sweet, strong, virginal soul, her wisdom, her purity, her brave independence, to picture all this in words, no matter how inadequate, I shall see her with the eyes of Memory; she will be back with me in spirit.... A book! Jerry, O Jeremy, this is an excellent thought.... to see her again ... to talk with her by means of pen and ink!"
In my eagerness I started up to my feet; then, the hot fit, passing, gave place to the cold, and Doubt leapt to seize me. "But I've never tried to write a book! Who am I to write a book?"
"Lord, don't be down-hearted afore you try, lad!" admonished the Tinker, for I had spoken this doubt aloud. "There's times in all writers' lives when they haven't writ a line, yet books are written all the same. Books ain't made, lad; they happen and they happen because a cove has an eye to see a little way beneath the surface o' things and an ear as can hear voices in the wind, an' a mind as discovers sum'mat in everything to wonder at. So he goes on lookin' an' listenin' an' wonderin' till one day out it has to come—an' there's your book. Now you're full up o' love, ain't you?"
"Good! Well, write it down. There's nothing goes better in a nov-el than love, except blood—a splash or so here an' there, battle, murder an' sudden death—just a tang or so t' season it. I know, for I used t' sell nov-els once, ah, an' read 'em too! But love's the thing, lad! Everybody loves to read o' love—'specially old codgers, d'ye see—gouty old coves as curse their servants, swear at their families and, hid in corners, shed tears over the woes o' the hero an' heroine o' some nov-el an' stub their gouty toe a-kickin' of the villain. An' then there's the ladies—'specially the very young 'uns, God bless their bibs an' tuckers! Lord, how they sigh an' tremble an' toss their pretty curls an' weep an' languish. I heard o' one as always read wi' her smellin'-salts handy, but then, to be sure, she was a maiden lady of uncertain age as wished she wasn't an' was smitten wi' love for Tom Jones, besides, poor soul!"
"But my book—if I ever do write one, will not be read by any one."
"O? Mr. Perry—an' why not?"
"Being all about Diana, it will be too sacred for the perusal of all and sundry."
"There you're wrong, lad; no book can be too sacred for all folks to read, if it's writ honestly and sincerely. An' what a book you ought to write. First there's Anna an' yourself—folks would like to read about the two o' ye—you're such strange children. Then there's Jessamy—a wonderful character for any book. Next comes your uncles an' aunt—Lord, Peregrine, an' there's for ye—'specially your aunt! And last—" said he, a little wistfully, "if you want some one to fill in, kind of—to keep th' pot a-b'iling as it were, why—there's me. Not as your readers will be downright eager to read about a tinker—no, but you might work me in as a literary cove, d'ye see. How about it? What d'ye think, Perry lad?"
"Excellent well!" I exclaimed. "You inspire me with such strange confidence, Jerry, I almost feel I might manage a book—of sorts."
"Then go and try, lad."
"This minute! At home! By hard work!"
"You mean leave—go back to Merivale—to-night?"
"Aye, I do. You can catch the mail at Tonbridge and you'll be home afore the moon's up."
"Do you know Merivale then, Jerry?"
"O' course. I'll harness Diogenes an' drive you in."
And so, within the hour, behold me upon the stage-coach that would carry me within a mile of home; behold Jerry standing below, gazing up at me with his wistful smile, a Jeremy whose form and features were blurred suddenly by hot tears as the whip cracked, hoofs stamped, and the London Mail lurched forward with a shrill and jubilant fanfare on the horn that drowned my cry of farewell, as Jeremy's blurred image waved blurred arm and, what with my tears and the dust, was blotted from me altogether.
With the small incidents of this short journey I will not worry the reader. Suffice it that the moon was high-risen when at last I reached Merivale. The lodge gates were shut for the night, and being in no mood to disturb any one, I clambered over the wall at an easily-accessible, well-remembered spot, and going by familiar paths, presently beheld the house, its many latticed casements winking ghostly to the moon, and a beam of soft light striking athwart the terrace from that chamber wherein my aunt Julia was wont to write her letters and transact all business of the estate. So thither came I to find the window wide open, for the night was hot, and to behold my aunt, as handsome and statuesque as ever, bent gracefully above her escritoire, pen in white fist, like an industrious goddess.
"Aunt Julia," said I, "pray don't be startled—I have come home—"
At this, though I had spoken softly, she dropped the pen, rose and, clasping hands to bosom, uttered a scream, though sweetly modulated and extremely ladylike. Then we were in each other's arms and she was weeping and laughing over me in a very ecstasy of welcome.
"Dear Peregrine—loved boy, at last! How brown you are! You're taller, bigger—handsomer, I vow—and you have come back to me. O Peregrine! You have come back to my loving care, dearest. Your wanderings are over?"
"Yes, dear aunt," I answered, stifling a sigh, "my wanderings are over."
"Oh, heaven bless you, dear boy! God be thanked—"
"And what of my good, generous uncles, dear Aunt?"
"I have banished the wretches—forbade them my presence—"
"Dear Aunt, pray why?"
"Because they are wretches."
"Then to-morrow we will write and bid them welcome."
"To-morrow, dear Aunt."
"Peregrine!" she exclaimed, starting and frowning a little, "I said, 'Never'!"
"And I said 'to-morrow', dear Aunt!"
"Boy!" she cried, lovely head proudly aloft.
"Aunt!" said I. "How very beautiful you are!" and drawing down that lovely head, I kissed her; at this, she flushed, and drew away, drooping her lashes like a girl.
"Why, Peregrine!" she murmured.
"They both love you so truly and faithfully, dear Aunt, and no wonder! And they are such—men! So to-morrow we will write to them?"
"Very well, dear Peregrine!" said my proud aunt, softly and not in the least proudly. "But you are hungry, thirsty—you must eat—"
"Thank you, no—only weary—"
So hand in hand she led me to my chamber.
"See, dear boy, I have kept everything as you left it; your bed is quite ready, the sheets aired, all waiting for you when you should choose to come."
She led me about the great chamber, showing me all things as they had been on the night of my departure, even to the pen where I had tossed it upon an unfinished manuscript. And no mention, never one word of Diana; for the which I loved her and was grateful.
"Dear Aunt," said I, and kissed her. "O dear Aunt Julia!"
But when at last she was gone and I alone in the soft luxury of this chamber, desolation filled me and I yearned bitterly for the discomforts of the little camp within the copse; the rustle of leaves, the soft, murmurous gurgle of the brook, the winking stars overhead; for Jeremy, and Jessamy Todd and my loved Diana. And coming to the open lattice, I leaned there to look upon the moon, this other Diana so placid and serene. And thinking that perhaps my Diana looked upon her even now, a Diana not at all placid and serene but with sweet, grey eyes a-brim with tears and heart full of yearning tenderness—even as mine, I fell upon my knees and stretching out my arms, whispered words of love with passionate prayers:
"O Diana, beloved ... O God of Heaven—God of Mercy, bring her back to me at last with heart as sweet and pure—teach me to be worthy, fit me for such happiness.... O loved Diana of the Silent Places, my love goes with you always, and for ever, strong, sweet goddess of my life.
... Two years!"
TO THE READER
Here then, do I end this book, because this is the Book of Diana and she is gone out of my life.
So do I lay down my pen for a while, uneasily conscious of my narrative's many imperfections and greatly fearing that I have fallen very far short in my description of Diana.
But what work of man may hope to be utterly perfect? And who shall recapture the vanished glory of the dream?
Here, then, do I let fall the curtain; when it rises, the world and I shall be two years older, two years wiser, two years better, or the worse.
THE INCIDENTS OF AN EARLY MORNING WALK
I remember waking to find myself very miserable in a ghastly dawn, where guttering candles flickered in their sockets, casting an unearthly light upon bottles, silverware, and more bottles that stood or lay amidst overturned and broken glasses; an unseemly jumble that littered a long table whose rumpled cloth was plentifully besplashed with spilled wine and flanked by empty chairs.
Into my drugged consciousness stole a sound that might have been wind in trees, or a mill race, or some industrious artisan busied with a saw, yet which I knew could be none of these, and my drowsy puzzlement grew. Therefore I roused myself with some vague notion of solving this mystery and turned to behold in this ghastly light a ghostly face; a handsome face, but very stern, square-chinned, black-browed, aquiline, scowling upon the dawn.
"Uncle Jervas!" said I, a little thickly. "You look like a ghost, sir!"
At this he started, but when he turned, his face was impassive as ever.
"Shall I wish you many happy returns of last night, Nephew?"
"God forbid, sir!" said I, bowing aching head upon my hands.
"It is perhaps a blessing to remember, Peregrine, that one comes of age but once in one's lifetime."
"It is, sir!" I groaned. "Pray what—what is that sound, sir—so monotonous and—damnable?"
"It is rather an aggregation of sounds, emanating in unison from your good friends the Marquis of Jerningham, Viscount Devenham and Mr. Vere-Manville—they sleep remarkably soundly!"
"And—the others, sir?"
"Departed in the small hours, with your uncle George—and four of 'em in tears!"
"It was a dreadful night, sir."
"It was a night of nights, Peregrine. I remember only one to equal it."
"And that, sir?"
"Your father's coming of age. But talking of ghosts, Perry, I almost fancied I saw one—no longer ago than last night—on my way here. But then I don't believe in ghosts—and this one was seated in a closed carriage and accompanied by a rather handsome young woman—and she was weeping, I fancy. Your head aches, Nephew?"
"Damnably, Uncle Jervas. I hate wine!"
"Yet one must drink occasionally, boy."
"You can, sir," I groaned, "last night you honoured every toast—yet here you sit—"
"Looking like a ghost, Nephew."
"And utterly unaffected, Uncle."
"On the contrary, inordinate drinking afflicts me horribly, Nephew, stimulates me to thought, harrows me with memory, resurrects things best forgotten! Ah, there's the sun at last. I'll leave you, Peregrine—I'll out to greet the day."
"I should like to walk with you if I may, sir."
"By all means, Nephew, 't will ease your head, perhaps."
And so, moving softly lest we disturb the three sonorous sleepers, a wholly unnecessary precaution, we took our hats and surtouts and stepped out into an empty street swept by a clean, soft wind that cooled my throbbing temples, and my sick heaviness was lifted somewhat in the sweet, pure breath of dawn.
"You have been about town for nearly a year, haven't you, Peregrine?"
"Yes, sir, long enough to teach me I love the country better than I thought."
"You are sufficiently dissipated, I trust?"
"I endeavour to be, sir. Her Grace of Camberhurst shakes her head over me, though I do my best—"
"Does it require so great an effort?"
"Somewhat, sir. You see, I find dissipation a particularly wearisome business."
"Wearisome, Nephew? You surprise me!"
"And depressingly dreary, Uncle."
"You astonish me!"
"Indeed, dissipation thoroughly distresses me."
"You amaze me! But you gamble, I presume?"
"When nothing better offers, sir."
"Well upon me everlasting soul—!"
"I hope I do not shock you, Uncle Jervas?"
"Worry would be the more apt word, perhaps; you worry me, Nephew. Such impeccable virtue naturally suggests an early death—a harp—a halo! And yet you appear to enjoy robust health. Pray to what do you attribute your so great immunity from those pleasant weaknesses that are so frequently a concomitant of strength and youthful vigour—those charming follies, bewitching foibles that a somewhat rigorous convention stigmatises as vices—abhorrent word!"
"You mean, sir, what excuse do I offer for not being politely vicious as seems so much the fashion?"
"I confess you puzzle me, boy, for you are anything but an angel in pantaloons. I have occasionally thought to remark in you a hint of unplumbed deeps—of passions as hot and fierce as—"
"Your own, Uncle Jervas?" At this he turned to glare at me rather haughtily, then his eyes softened, his lips twitched.
"So women do not appeal to you, Peregrine. Pray why?"
"Because woman appeals to me so much—one, sir!"
"Ah, your roving gipsy?"
"Where is she, at present?"
"I believe in Italy, sir."
"Hum! Your friend Vere-Manville ran across her in Rome, I believe. When did you hear from her last?"
"One year and ten months ago, sir."
"Painfully exact! And how many letters has she written you, may I ask?"
"Hum! You know that the Earl of Wyvelstoke has made her his ward and heiress, Peregrine?"
"His lordship informed me of the fact, Uncle."
"He corresponds with you, then?"
"Every month without fail."
"Then of course you know he is returning to England shortly and holds a great reception at his place in town, a fortnight from to-day, I think?"
"And in the space of two years you have received one letter from your beautiful gipsy?"
"Only one, sir! Though his lordship has kept me informed as to her welfare and progress."
"Such sublime patience argues either indifference or stupendous faith, boy!"
"Sir—sir," cried I, stirred at last. "Oh, sir, how may love be—how endure without faith?"
"Yours is a strange love, Peregrine, exceeding patient and long-suffering! You practically compelled her to—accept his lordship's offer, I believe?"
"Uncle—Uncle Jervas," I stammered, "how should you know this?"
"I have the honour to number the Earl of Wyvelstoke among my few friends, he writes to me also—occasionally. You are an immensely confiding lover, and your patience is almost—superhuman."
"However, my waiting is nearly over, I shall see her soon—soon!"
"In company with every buck, Corinthian and Macaroni in London, Peregrine."
"Still—I shall see her, sir!"
"If the reports of her singing, her wit and beauty are but half true, Peregrine, she will be the rage, the universal toast."
"Still—she will be—Diana, sir!"
"But two years, Nephew—wealth, rank, adulation—can these have wrought no change, think you?"
"Only for the better, sir!"
"Oh, the sublime assurance of Youth!" murmured my uncle. "Have you no doubt of yourself, now that you are no longer the—the—ah—'only Richmond in the field'?"
Here, though I strove to speak, I could not, but walked with head bowed, but very conscious of his keen scrutiny.
"You are so intense, Perry," he continued after a moment, "so very, damnably intense that I confess I grow a little fearful lest you be disappointed, and therefore take the liberty to annoy you with my dismal croakings, if I may—shall I proceed?"
"Pray do, sir!"
"Then, Peregrine, I would warn you that, considering her new attitude towards life, her very altered views upon the world in general, it is only to be expected your gipsy may find you very different from her first estimation of you—"
"Ah, there it is, sir—there it is!" I groaned. "The haunting fear that to-day—measured by the larger standard of her new experiences, she may find me fall very far short of what she imagines me—"
"And if this be so,—how then?"
"Do not ask me, sir,—don't!"
"The ordinary, impassioned youth, under such unpleasantly frequent circumstances, Peregrine, would seek oblivion in bottles or fly instantly to all manner of riot and dissipation and be cured sooner or later—but you? Knowing what I do of your devilishly intense nature, I must admit I am a little disquieted. You see, Peregrine, I have learned, though I grant you a little painfully, still I have learned at last to—ah—to care for you so much that your unhappiness would affect me—rather cursedly, boy—yes, rather cursedly."
"Uncle Jervas," said I, "indeed—indeed I am proud to have won your esteem; I shall endeavour to be worthy of it."
"Why then, Nephew," said he, slipping his arm into mine, "whatever damnable buffets Fate sees fit to deal you, whatever disappointments are in store, you will of course meet them with a serene fortitude—eh, boy?"
"You may trust me, sir. Not," I continued hastily "not that I anticipate any change of heart in Diana. Could you but have known her, sir—!"
"Pray tell me of her, Peregrine, if you will."
Our walk had brought us to Vauxhall, and skirting the gardens with their groves and walks, their fountains, temples and grottoes, we went on beside the river, I talking of Diana, my uncle listening, and both watching the sun rise over the great city, to gild vane and weathercock of countless spires and steeples and make a broad-bosomed glory of the noble river. Suddenly my uncle halted to point before him with tasselled cane where two rough-looking men, unconscious of our approach, were crouched among the sedge beside the water.
"Let us see what these fellows are doing!" said he. So we advanced until, being very near, we halted, for now indeed we saw only too well.
She lay where they had dragged her, just above the hungry tide, a slender, pitiful thing, young and beautiful, yet now dreadfully pale and still, shrouded in her long, wet tresses; a mute and beautiful thing, all heedless now of the rough hands that touched her, or the kindly sun's tender beam that showed the pitiful droop of pallid lips and motionless lashes, and the slender fingers of the small, right hand clenched in death. Even now, as I stood bareheaded, my breath in check, one of the fellows grasped this hand, wrenched open these delicate fingers with brutal strength, and finding within them only a wisp of crumpled paper, swore a hoarse oath of baffled cupidity that changed to a howl as my uncle's cane rapped him smartly across bull-neck.
"Detestable savage!" exclaimed my uncle, scowling down into the man's startled face. "Learn reverence for the dead! Now pass me that paper!"
The man snarled a threat, whereupon my uncle rapped him again.
"The paper—do you hear—animal?"
The man rubbed his neck, muttered an oath, and gave the wisp of paper to my uncle, who, without glancing at it, took off his hat and bowed his head.
"Poor soul!" he sighed gently, his impassive face transfigured by an extraordinary tenderness. "Poor frightened, weary soul—so young, so very young, and now fled—whither? Poor—poor child—Stop! Keep your beastly hands off her!" This to the bull-necked fellow, who flinched and drew away, snarling.
"Lumme, me lord!" whined the second man, a small, mean person. "What's ye game? She's ourn—we found 'er, Job an' me—seen 'er out in th' race, us did, floatin' s' pretty, an' folleyed 'er, us did, 'til she came ashore. She b'longs t' us, me lord, as Job'll swear—to diskiver a corp' means money, an' corpses, 'specially sich pretty 'uns, don't come often enough—"
"Pah!" cried my uncle. "There is a hurdle over yonder, fetch it—you!" The bull-necked fellow rose, but, instead of complying, turned short and sprang, an open knife in his hand; my uncle Jervas stepped lightly aside, his long arm shot out, and the bull-necked man went down heavily; he was in the act of rising when my uncle set his foot upon the man's knife-hand, placidly crushed and crushed it until he roared, until the gripping fingers relaxed their hold, whereupon my uncle kicked the knife into the river.
"And now—beast—fetch the hurdle yonder!" said he.
So the men brought the hurdle and my uncle, stripping off his fine surtout, made therewith a pillow for the beautiful, piteous head.
"And now, where shall we take her?" he demanded.
"There's an ale-'us down yonder, me lord, nice an' 'andy," answered the little man. "Us gen'ally takes 'em theer."
"Ah, do you mean you find many such?"
"A tidy few, me lord, but not s' many as us could wish, d'ye see—"
"Pah! Let us take her there. And be gentle with her."
"Gentle!" growled the bull-necked man. "'Er's dead, ain't 'er—gentle!"
So we moved off in mournful procession until we came to a small waterside tavern, whose inmates my uncle peremptorily awakened, and soon had forth a gruff, sleepy fellow to show the way and unlock a tumble-down outhouse, into which they bore their silent burden, followed by my uncle, bareheaded.
As for me, I walked to and fro in the sunshine, feeling myself cold and shivering. At last I heard the doors close and turning, beheld my uncle's tall, immaculate figure striding towards me.
"A sad sight, Perry, a dismal, woeful sight—and on such a glorious morning. Come, let us go." So saying, he put on his hat, sternly refusing the offer of my outer coat, and taking my arm, we began to retrace our steps. Suddenly he checked, and feeling in his pocket, brought forth that crumpled wisp of paper and, smoothing it out, glanced at it and I saw his eyes grow suddenly fierce.
"Haredale!" said he thoughtfully. "Haredale?" and passed the paper to me whereon I read these words, blotched with water, yet still legible:
You are unreasonable, but this is feminine. You anger me, but this is natural. You weary me—and this is fatal. Adieu, HAREDALE.
"Haredale!" said I.
"Haredale?" sighed my uncle. "The name is unfamiliar, I know none of the name in London. Do you, Peregrine?"
"No, sir!" I answered. "No—and yet—it seems as if—yes, I have heard it, Uncle, but not in London. I heard it mentioned two years ago—in a wood. It was spoken by a scoundrel who named himself Haredale though Lord Wyvelstoke addressed him as—Devereux!"
"Devereux!" said my uncle in so strange a tone that I lifted my gaze from the scrawled name and saw that he had removed his hat again and was staring at me with an expression as strange as his voice, his eyes fixed and intent as though they stared at things I could not see, brow wrinkled, nostrils expanded, chin more aggressive than usual. "Devereux! Nephew, you—are sure it was—Devereux?"
"Hum!" said my uncle, putting on his hat. "I'll trouble you for that scrap of paper, Nephew. Thanks! Now let us go on. Your headache is better, I hope?"
"Much better, sir. But pray take my coat, you are shivering."
"Thank you, no—there is nothing like the early morning, it fills one with a zest of life, the joie de vivre—though I will admit I am seldom abroad at this hour."
Now despite his light tone, I noticed two things, his eyes were still fixed and intent and a thin trickle of moisture gleamed beneath his hat brim.
"Poor child!" sighed my uncle. "Let us hope her bruised spirit has found rest, a surcease from all troubles. Let us hope she has found the Infinite Happiness if there be such in the Great Beyond. Haredale—hum! Have you any recollection of this man, Perry; his looks, air, voice—could you describe him?"
"He was tall, sir, as yourself, or very nearly—looked younger than his years—a cold, imperturbable man, dark, but of pale complexion, with deep-set eyes that seemed to glow strangely. A man of iron will who fronted Lord Wyvelstoke unflinchingly even after his arm was shot and broken!" And here I described the incident as fully as possible.
"And what was the name Lord Wyvelstoke used?"
"Hum!" said my uncle. And thereafter we walked in silence through streets beginning to stir with the busy life of a new day.
Reaching my uncle's chambers in St. James's Street, he paused in the doorway to glance up and down the street with that same expression of fixed intensity, that faraway look of absorption.
"This," said he, speaking almost as with an effort, "this has been a—somewhat eventful walk of ours, Peregrine. I will not invite you to breakfast, remembering you have guests of your own. Au revoir."
"Uncle Jervas," said I, as we clasped hands, "this has indeed been an eventful walk, for to-day I have learned to know you better than I ever expected, or dared to hope—sir, are you ill?" I questioned anxiously, for despite that trickle of moisture at his temple, the hand I held felt deadly cold and nerveless. "Are you ill, sir?"
"Never better, Perry!" he laughed, clapping me lightly on the shoulder. "Get you to your guests. And by the by—talking of ghosts and grimly spectres—egad, Perry, I almost believe they do haunt this sorry world, sometimes!" So saying, he laughed, turned, and was gone, leaving me to stare after him in anxious wonderment.
INTRODUCING JASPER SHRIG, A BOW STREET RUNNER
"Thank you, no, Anthony!" said I, shuddering slightly. "But where are the others? Asleep still?"
"Gone, Perry. At sight of this ham Jerny shied like a wild colt, Devenham moaned, and together they tottered forth into the bleak world. Did you say ham, Perry?"
"Beef then—beef looks excellent! Beef?"
"Horrible!" I exclaimed, turning my back on the breakfast table. "Eat if you can, Tony, but talk you must and shall."
"Of last night, Peregrine?"
"Of Diana. I've scarcely had a word with you since your arrival."
"Which was last night."
"How is she, Anthony? Is she indeed handsomer—lovelier? Did she seem happy? Did she talk about—did she—happen to mention—"
"She did, Perry, talked of you frequently, very much so! Won't you try a cup of coffee and a crust—"
"Tell me how—where you first met her."
"It was at the ambassador's ball and mark you, Perry, there were some uncommonly fine women there, though none of 'em, no, damme, not one to compare with my Loveliness, of course—"
"You mean Barbara?"
"Of course. Well, my boy, we'd made our bow and here was Loveliness worrying in her pretty fashion because my cravat had shifted or some such, and here was I pulling at the thing and saying, 'Yes, dear,' and making it worse when, as the poet says, 'amid this glittering throng of lovely women and gallant men' my charmed eye alighted upon a haughty beauty, a ravishing creature condescending to be worshipped by a crowd of fawning slaves, civilian, soldier and sailor of all stations and ranks, from purple-faced admirals and general officers to pink, downy-whiskered subalterns. 'Egad, Loveliness,' says I, jerking at my cravat, 'what asinine fools brave men and gallant gentlemen can make of themselves for lovely woman—look yonder!' 'Where?' says she. 'There!' says I, 'the dark, dazzling beauty yonder!' So Loveliness looks, and at that very moment Beauty breaks from the abject circle of her fawning slaves and comes running. 'Diana!' cries Loveliness. 'Barbara!' cries Beauty, and they are in each other's arms—and there you are, Perry. Astonishing how they love each other. So when I left to attend this birthday of yours, Loveliness must stay with her Diana—I miss her most damnably!"
"Has she so many admirers?" I sighed.
"Hordes of 'em, Perry! Troops, squadrons, regiments, begad! So has my Loveliness, for that matter."
"And are you never jealous?"
"Devil a bit, dear fellow. Though," said he, slowly clenching his right hand into a powerful fist and scowling down at it, "given the occasion—I could be, Perry, y-e-s, madly, brutally—I could kill—do murder, I believe. Oh, pshaw! My Barbara is so sweet, so purely a thing of heaven that sometimes I—I hate myself for not having been better—more worthy. Women are so infinitely better than ourselves, or so infinitely—worse. And she sent you a letter—here it is!"
"A letter? Diana? Where?"
"A snack of ham or beef first, Perry, love letters don't go over-well on empty stomachs—" But here I caught the letter from him and sat with it in fingers that shook a little, staring at the superscription.
"Her writing has improved amazingly!" said I.
"Dear fellow," he answered, sharpening the carving knife quite unnecessarily, "go away and read it, seek some quiet spot and leave me to eat in peace."
"Thanks, Tony," said I gratefully, and hastened into the next room forthwith, there to read and re-read the superscription, to commit all those tender follies natural to lovers and finally to break the seal.
DEAR, DEAR MY PEREGRINE: Very soon we shall see each other, and this thought makes me tremble with alternate happiness and dread. Yes, dread, my Peregrine, because these years have changed me in many ways—oh, shall I please you as I am now? Will you love me as you did when I was only your humble Diana of the Silent Places? For Peregrine, you loved me then so very much, so truly and with such wonderful unselfishness that I am afraid you may not love the Diana of to-day quite so well as the Diana of two years ago. But dear Peregrine, know that my heart is quite—quite unchanged; you will always be the one man of all others, the Peregrine whose generous love lifted me high above my girlish dreams but never oh, never any higher than his own heart. So Peregrine, love me when I come back to you or these long two years will have been lived in vain and I shall run away back to the Silent Places and die an old maid. Perhaps I shall seem strange when we meet, but this will only be because I fear you a little and doubt a little how you may feel towards this new Diana—so love me, let me see it in your eyes, hear it in your voice. It is so much easier to write than to say, so I will write it again—Love me, Peregrine, love me because I am yours—now and always.
Having read this letter I laid it down and took from an inner pocket another letter, somewhat worn and frayed by over-much handling, which bore these words, smudged and blotted a little, though written with painful care.
DEAR PERRYGREEN: Your letter has made me cry dredfully. I cannot bear to think of you so lonly because I am lonly to. I cannot bear to think of you on your nees I would rather think of you as I saw you last so brave and determined. Pray for me as I pray for you only don't rite to me or I shall run back to you because I am not very brave and want you so. O dear Perrygreen always love
"You're looking confoundedly glum, Perry; I hope the billet is quite sufficiently doux?"
"Quite—indeed, quite!" said I, starting out of my reverie. "It is a letter such as only Diana could have written—"
"Then your woe undoubtedly proceeds from stomach; for the emptiness of same I prescribe ham, shall we say mingled—judiciously blended—with beef—"
"Abhorrent thought!" I exclaimed. At this moment, after a discreet knock on the door, my valet Clegg entered.
"Sir," said he in his soft and toneless voice, "the groom is below; shall you ride or drive this morning?"
"Neither!" I answered, whereupon Clegg bowed and withdrew.
"Excellent!" nodded Anthony. "Nothing like walking to make an empty stomach aware of its vacuity. By the way, queer article that Clegg fellow of yours—face like a mask! Where did you pick him up?"
"I don't remember. He had excellent references, I believe. Why do you ask?"
"Fancy I've seen him before. Come, let us adventure forth in search of your appetite."
To us in the hall came Clegg to bring our hats and canes.
"Were you ever in the service of a Captain Danby?" enquired Anthony, his keen gaze on Clegg's impassive face.
"Yes, sir, I was valet to Captain Marmaduke Danby—two years ago."
"I saw you with him once at a small inn called 'The Jolly Waggoner.'"
Clegg bowed deferentially, but when he looked up his pale eyes seemed to glow strangely and his pallid cheek was slightly flushed.
"Yes, sir, Captain Danby sent for me to attend him there—I found him in bed exceedingly—unwell. He was—suffering, sir. He suffered quite a—good deal of—pain, sir—of pain."
Saying which, Clegg bowed us out into the street with a deeper obeisance than usual.
"Strange!" said Anthony, taking my arm. "You have probably forgotten this Danby, the fellow I had the pleasure of thrashing, Perry?"
"I shall never forget how you stood on him and wiped your boots, Anthony."
"I did chastise him somewhat severely, I remember. But I learned something more of his villainy from Barbara, as we drove away, and I returned next day to give him another dose but found him in bed bandaged like a mummy and this Clegg fellow of yours beside him. I learned afterwards that he was friend to that same scoundrel Barbara's father was forcing the sweet soul to marry, damn him!"
"The world seems full of unhanged villains!" said I, through shut teeth.
"Oh, is it, begad?"
"You're devilish gloomy, Perry."
"I fear I am."
"All stomach, ye know, dear fellow. I've noticed this poor old world is generally blamed most damnably, purely because of the night of the morning after—more especially upon an empty—"
"Don't say it again, Anthony, for heaven's sake!"
"But you're curst gloomy and devilish doleful—"
"Anthony, dear man, while you were snoring blissfully this morning I watched a poor, beautiful young creature dragged out of the river."
"Yes. She was probably drowning herself last night while we drank and rioted—poor despairing child!" and here I described the dreadful incident very fully. "You have never met or heard of any one named Haredale, have you, Anthony?" I ended.
"No," he answered, "no! Gad, Perry," he burst out with a vicious twirl of his cane, "there are times when killing is a laudable act!" After this we walked in silence for some time.
"Where are we going?" he questioned suddenly.
Hereupon I glanced up, for I had walked with my gaze bent earthward, and saw that we were close upon the river.
"Since we are here," I answered, "I will show you where it—she lies. It was yonder they found her, and over there, beyond those trees, is a wretched tavern—"
"And on the other side of the hedge, Perry, is a small, unpleasant person who peeps and peers and follows. Let us investigate!"
So saying, Anthony turned suddenly and confronted a small, mean-looking fellow who starting back out of reach, touched a shaggy eyebrow, cringed, and spoke:
"No offence, my lords an' gents—none in th' world, s' help me true!" Having said which, he clapped fingers to mouth and whistled very shrilly. "Not by no means nowise meanin' no offence, my lords," quoth he apologetically, "but dooty is dooty—an' 'ere 'e be!" Glancing whither he pointed, I saw a man approaching, a shortish, broad-shouldered, square-faced, leisurely person in a broad-brimmed, low-crowned hat and full-skirted frieze greatcoat; a man of slow gait and deliberate movement but with a quick and roving eye.
"Th' little 'un's th' gent, guv'nor—'e's th' cove! whispered the mean-looking fellow hoarsely, and now I recognised him as one of the two waterside characters I had met that morning with my uncle Jervas. The man in the frieze coat removed his hat, bobbed round head at Anthony, at me, and spoke, addressing himself to me:
"'T is in ewidence, sir, as you an' another gent 'appened to be a-passin' by when a lately de-funct o' the fe-male persuasion vas took out o' th' river at the hour o' four-two-two pre-cisely, this 'ere werry mornin'. Am I right?"
"That is so," I answered.
"'T is also in ewidence, sir, as you an' your friend 'appening to pass—by chance or de-sign, so werry remarkable early in the mornin', stopped to ob-serve same de-funct party o' the fe-male persuasion. Am I right again?"
"'T is furthermore in ewidence, sir, that upon ob-serving corpse, you an' your friend seemed werry much took aback, not to say overcome. Am I—"
"They was, Jarsper, they was—oncommon!" quoth the smaller man hoarsely.
"'Enery, 'old your tongue! Now, sir, am I right or am I not?"
"We were both very naturally shocked," said I.
"Vich feelin's, sir, does you both credit—oceans. But 't is further in ewidence as your friend did commit a assault upon the body o' one Thomas Vokins by means of a cane an' there an' then took, removed, appre'ended or ab-stracted ewidence in the shape o' a piece o' paper as 'ad fell from right 'and o' said corpse. Am I right once more?"
"Not altogether!" said I. "The man wrenched open the dead girl's fingers so brutally that my—companion very properly rapped him with his cane and noticing the piece of paper, ordered the man to give it to him."
"Good—werry good! Now I puts it to you, sir—vere is that piece o' paper?"
"Probably in my companion's possession."
"Good again! An' vere might 'e be?"
"That I decline to tell you!"
"Vy then, sir, dooty bein' dooty, I'll take a valk."
"As you will!" said I. "Come, Anthony!" and turning, we began to retrace our steps. But we had gone but a little way when I faced suddenly about, for the man was plodding at our heels.
"Why the devil do you follow us?" I demanded, greatly exasperated.
"Becos' dooty is dooty, sir, an' dooty demands same," he answered imperturbably.
"Who are you, fellow?"
"Jarsper Shrig, Bow Street officer—werry much at your service, sir!"
"And what do you want of me?"
"A piece o' paper, sir, as ewidence to establish i-dentifi-cation of de-funct young party o' the fe-male persuasion in a case o' murder or feller-de-see—"
Here I turned and walked on again in no little perplexity.
"What am I to do, Anthony?" I muttered.
"Bring the fellow to your chambers, despatch a note to Sir Jervas and leave it to his decision."
So we walked on, perfectly ignoring this very pertinacious Bow Street officer; but I, for one, was not sorry when at last we reached the door of my chambers, and halting, turned to behold the Bow Street officer, who had stopped also and appeared to be lost in contemplation of the adjacent chimney pots. And as he stood thus, I was struck by his air of irreproachable respectability and pervading mildness; despite the formidable knotted stick beneath his arm, he seemed indeed to radiate benevolence from the soles of his stout boots to the crown of his respectable, broad-brimmed hat.
"A re-markable vide-avake young man, yours, sir," said he gently, still apparently lost in contemplation of the chimney pots, "a re-markable vatchful young man an' werry attentive!"
"What do you mean, officer?"
"I mean, sir, as he's opened your door afore you knocked."
Glancing at the door, I saw indeed, to my surprise, that it stood slightly ajar; hereupon I reached out to open it when it swung wide and my man Clegg stood before us.
"I saw you approaching, sir," he exclaimed, bowing us in.
Reaching my small library, the officer seated himself at my invitation and depositing hat and stick very precisely beneath his chair, sat looking more unctuously mild than ever, there was about him a vague suggestion of conventicles, and a holy Sabbatarian calm.
"You said your name was Shrig, I think?" said I.
"Jarsper Shrig, sir, at your sarvice."
"Then perhaps, while I write my letter, you will take a glass of wine, Mr. Shrig?"
"Sir," he answered, "not beating about no bushes, I vill—Mr. Werricker, sir."
"You know my name?" I exclaimed a little sharply.
"I dedooce same, sir, from them three letters on your secretary as is a-staring me straight in the face, Mr. Werricker."
"Pray, Anthony, oblige me by ringing the bell!" said I, taking up my pen.
Soft-treading, the discreet Clegg duly brought in decanter and glasses, and Mr. Shrig, watching him pour out the wine, drew from his capacious pocket a little book and opened it, much as though he would have read forth a text of Scripture, but all he said was:
"Thank 'ee, my man!" and then, as the door closed upon the discreetly silent Clegg, "Your 'ealth, gen'elmen!"
The letter to my uncle Jervas being written and despatched, I turned to find Mr. Shrig busied with his little book and a stumpy pencil, much as if he had been composing a sermon or address, while Anthony, lounging upon the settee, watched him with lazy interest.
"A on-commonly taking cove, sir, that young man o' yourn!" said Mr. Shrig, pocketing book and pencil.
"Not more so than other servants, I believe," I answered.
"And all valets," murmured Anthony, "all valets are predatory by nature, of course—"
"I mean as he's a likely cove. Now, talkin' o' corpses—" began Mr. Shrig.
"But we are not!" said I.
"Axing your parding, sir, but I am and, perfessionally speakin', never 'ave I seen a prettier corp', than this 'ere young fe-male in question—"
"And your experience in such is vast, I take it?" murmured Anthony.
"None waster, sir! Wast is the werry vord for it."
"Do you think this is a case of suicide or murder?" enquired Anthony.
"Can't say, sir. But somevun's allvays bein' murdered, murderin' or goin' for to murder somevun, somevere or t'other."
"Sounds cheery!" murmured Anthony. "Do you catch many murderers?"
"Pretty fair, sir, pretty fair. I got a special aptitood for it; I can smell murder in the werry air, feel it, taste it—"
"Must be devilish unpleasant!" said Anthony.
"'Tis a nat'ral gift wi' me, sir. Lord love ye, gen'elmen, I can p'int you out a murderer afore the fact's committed—I've got the names o' four on 'em—no, five—wrote down in my little reader, five werry promisin' coves as is doo for the deed at any moment; I'm a vaitin' for 'em to bring it off, sirs. Lord, I'm a vatchin' over 'em like a feyther an' mother rolled into vun, an' v'en they do commit the deed, I shall appre'end 'em red-'anded an' up they'll go."
"Your methods are highly original, Mr. Shrig," said I, "but do they always work correctly?"
"Ever an' always, sir—barrin' accidents. O' course, there's many a promisin' murderer died afore 'e could do the deed, death 'as no more respect for vould-be murderers than for their wictims. But whenever I sees a cove or covess with the true murderer's face, down goes that cove or covess' name in my little reader, an' I vatches an' vaits for 'em to bring it off, werry patient."
"Have you written down the name of Haredale in your little book?" I enquired.
"Haredale, Mr. Werricker, sir? V'y no, I ain't. V'y should I, sir? Vot ha' you to tell me about any party, name o' Haredale?"
"Only that you will find such a name on the piece of paper you are after."
Mr. Shrig's roving eye fixed me for a moment.
"Haredale?" he muttered, shaking his head, "Haredale?"
At this juncture, with a soft knock on the door, Clegg presented himself, bearing the following letter from my uncle.
MY DEAR PEREGRINE: I am grateful for your forethought, but you may suffer the man to visit me, for the law is the law—besides, the man Shrig is an old acquaintance. Moreover I have learned all I desired from the scrap of paper and it is therefore entirely at Mr. Shrig's service. Should you still be suffering from spleen, liver or the blue devils, go for a gallop on your "Wildfire."
With which salutary advice to yourself and good wishes to your friend Mr. Vere-Manville,
I REST, YOUR AFFECTIONATE UNCLE, JERVAS.
"Mr. Shrig," said I, "you have my uncle's permission to wait upon him at once. Sir Jervas is acquainted with you, it seems?"
"Sir Jervas?" repeated Mr. Shrig, reaching down for hat and knobby stick. "Ackvainted? I should say so, sir! A reg'lar bang-up blood, a downright 'eavy toddler—oh, I know Sir Jervas, ackvainted is the werry i-denti-cal name for it! So, with your permission, sir, I'll be padding on my vay."
"You will find him at his chambers in—"
"St. James's Street, nigh opposite to Vite's, Mr. Werricker, sir. Ah many's the drop o' French brandy, glass o' port or sherry as I've drank to the 'ealth o' your uncle in them werry i-dentical chambers, sir. A gent wi' a werry elegant taste in crime is Sir Jervas. No, don't trouble to come down, sir, your young man shall let me out. A reg'lar treasure that 'ere young man o' yours, Mr. Werricker! Good morning, gen'elmen both, my best respex!"
So saying, Mr. Shrig bobbed his head to us in turn, beamed as it might have been in benediction, and took himself away.
CONCERNING A BLACK POSTCHAISE
"Begad, Perry, but that's a vicious brute of yours!" cried Anthony. This as Wildfire curvetted, snorting, sidled and performed an impassioned dance upon the footpath.
"Not exactly vicious, Tony," I demurred when I had quelled this exuberance, "merely animal spirits. Wildfire is a high-strung creature requiring constant thought and attention and is consequently interesting, besides which—"
Here a shriek and hoarse shouts as, by means of whip and curb and spur, I swung the animal in question from the dangerous proximity of a shop window and checked his impulse to walk on his hind legs.
"Scarcely a lady's pad, Peregrine!" grinned Anthony, as I came perilously near upsetting a coster's barrow, to its owner's vociferous indignation. "Egad, a four-footed devil warranted to banish every other worry but himself!"
"Precisely," said I, when my steed, moderating his ardour, permitted me coherent speech. "And this is the reason I ride him. No one mounted on Wildfire can think of anything but Wildfire and this is sometimes a blessing."
"How so, Perry?"
"Well, I am harassed of late by two obsessions—the memory of that poor—drowned child—I cannot forget her face!"
"But, deuce take it, man—this was days and days ago."
"And the other is, strangely enough—Diana. The thought that I shall meet her so soon—a nameless doubt—an indefinable dread—"
"Dread, Perry? Doubt? What the dooce d'ye mean?"
"That's the devil of it, Anthony—I—don't know. But I have a vague fear—a presentiment, if you like. I feel as if there was a dreadful something impending—a shadow—"
"Oh, pshaw, man! Shadow? Tush an' be damned to it! You're in a devilish low state—indubitably stomach—"
Here further converse was ended for the time being by Wildfire taking it into his head to snort and start, to prance and shiver at a large man in velveteens and a leather hat, whereupon Velveteens backed hastily and swore; Wildfire reared and plunged at him, whereupon Velveteens dodged into a doorway, cursing vehemently; people, at a safe distance, shouted; boys hooted; and then, having thus drawn attention to himself, Wildfire trotted daintily on again, leaving Velveteens spent and breathless with indignant cursings.
So with such minor unpleasantnesses as roaring oaths, curses and personal vilification, we won free of the denser traffic and had at last left the great city behind us and Wildfire's scornful hoofs were spurning the dust of Kent Street.
We rode by New Cross and Lewisham, through Lee Village with its two "Tiger" Inns and the stocks upon the green, through Eltham with the timeworn gables of its ancient palace rising on our right, dreaming of past glories.
"To-morrow night, Perry—to-morrow night we shall see 'em! My Loveliness! Egad, I'm only just beginning to realise how damnably I miss her! Wonderful institution, marriage. To-morrow, Perry! And the day after—home at Nettlestead Abbey—she and I. She loves the old place—and the roses will be in bloom—she adores roses. This is why I'm dragging you down to Nettlestead—must see everything shipshape—the old place ready—with its arms out to welcome her home, d'ye see—as it were."
"It is a glorious old place, Anthony."
"A curst dreary hole without her, Perry! Nothing like marriage, Perry! You'll give up your chambers when you're married, of course?"
"I suppose so, Tony—when I'm married."
"Aha!" he exclaimed, evidently struck by my gloomy tone. "Is it your damned shadow again—the blue devils? Oh, curse and confound 'em, I'll race you t' the next milestone for ten guineas. Come on! Yoicks, boy—hark forward! A touch o' the persuaders—and away!"
With a clatter of eager hoofs Anthony's raking sorrel sprang ahead; but away in pursuit leapt my beautiful roan, shapely head out-thrust, snorting, quivering, passionate for the fray.
Off and away, with the rhythmic swing and beat of swift-galloping hoofs below and the rush of wind above—a clean, sweet wind, full of health and sanity, to banish haunting dread and gloomy doubts of the future together with the devils that begot them, be they blue devils, black, or any other colour.
Faster and faster sped the road beneath me, hedges spun by, tree and gate flitted past as, untouched by whip or spur, Wildfire fell to his long, racing stride, an easy, stretching gallop. And ever he gained upon the sorrel, creeping up inch by inch, crupper and withers and nose; and thus we raced awhile, neck and neck. And now above quick-thudding hoofs and creaking leather I heard Anthony's voice urging his animal to fiercer effort, for slowly but surely, we were drawing away; slowly the sorrel's great crest and flaring nostrils fell to the rear, back and back, level with my gloved hands, my knee, my elbow, out of my view, and presently, glancing behind, I saw Anthony riding like a centaur—a wildly-galloping figure blurred in a storm of dust.
But on I rode, heedless of all but the exhilaration of rushing wind, of back-whirling hedgerows and trees, on and on until before us was a hill up which a chaise was crawling.
Now as I watched this vehicle carelessly enough, out from the window came a hatless head—an arm that waved imperiously, and the postboy, glancing back, began to flog his animals to swifter gait. But Wildfire, snorting scorn on all hills and this in particular, never so much as checked or faltered in his long stride and thus we approached the lumbering chaise rapidly.
We were close upon it when once again the head projected itself from the window, but now the face was turned towards me, and in these features I seemed to read a very lively apprehension, nay, as I drew nearer, I saw above the bushy, scowling brows the gleam of sweat; but on I came with loosened rein, heedless of the gentleman's threatening look and wondering at his very evident perturbation; and now I saw that he grasped something half-hidden in the fold of his coat that bulked remarkably like a pistol. But all at once, as he peered at me through the rolling smother of dust, his apprehensive expression vanished and, next moment, his head also, and as I drew level with the chaise, I saw him leaning back in one corner, the pistol upon his knees, and in the other corner the form of a woman wrapped in a pelisse and heavily veiled and who, judging by her posture, seemed asleep.
It was but a glimpse I caught of the interior and then I was by, had reached the summit of the hill and was galloping down the descent, but even so it seemed to me that the gentleman's face was vaguely familiar.
Mile upon mile I held on at this wild speed until Anthony and his sorrel had diminished to a faint, oncoming dust-cloud and Wildfire began to abate his ardour somewhat; as he breasted a long and steep ascent crowned by a hostelry, I, blinking at it through dust-whitened lashes, saw it bore a sign with the words: The Porto Bello Inn. Here I dismounted from my chastened steed, who, if a little blown, was no whit distressed, and forthwith led him to the stables myself, to see him rubbed down and cared for, the while a hissing ostler knocked, shook and brushed from my garments clouds of Kentish dust. In the midst of which performance up rode Anthony.
"Well—damme!" he exclaimed, as he swung to earth, "I said a milestone—"
"True, Anthony, but I felt inclined for a gallop—"
"I believe you!" he laughed. "And now I'm more than inclined for a pot, a tankard, a flagon, Perry—or say a dozen. Damme, I've been breathing nothing but circumambient Kent for the last half-hour—Ale, Perry, ale's the word! This way! And by that same token, here's your money. 'T is a glorious beast, your Wildfire, and curst well ridden, begad!"
"And I ride stones lighter than you do, Goliath!" said I, following him into the sanded parlour.
"I never drink a tankard of ale," gasped Anthony, setting down his vessel with a bang, "no, never, Perry, without remembering the first drink we had together—the ale you paid for! And the ham and eggs—oh, curse and confound it, I shall never taste anything so delicious again, of course. Everything is vastly changed since then, Peregrine—everything except yourself."
"I am two inches taller!" said I.
"Ah, to be sure! And, thanks to Jessamy Todd, a man of your hands. What's become of Jessamy these days—and your friend the Tinker?"
"I shame to say I don't know. I used to see them frequently up to a year ago, but since then, London and its follies have engulfed me."
"We'll devote ourselves to looking 'em up one o' these days!" said Anthony. "Meantime I'm devilish hungry and I always dine at 'The Bull' at Wrotham, so if you're quite ready, let's push on. By the way," he continued, as I followed him into the yard, "did you notice that chaise we passed just beyond Farningham—a black-bodied chaise, picked out in yellow, with red wheels?"
"I did, Anthony—why?"
"Fool of a fellow seemed infernally agitated, actually had a pistol ready for me, or so it seemed."
"I noticed his desperate attitude also,—and thought it very singular."
"Demmit, yes, and what's more singular, I recognised the fool fellow for the fellow I thrashed two years ago at the 'Jolly Waggoner'—Danby his name is."
"Ah, to be sure!" I exclaimed. "I knew his face was familiar. Did you see he had a lady with him?"
"No, what was she like?"
"I only caught the briefest glimpse—besides, she was heavily veiled and seemed to be asleep—"
"Asleep!" exclaimed Anthony fiercely. "Asleep! By God, Perry, I'm half-minded to wait until that damned chaise comes up and see for myself."
"I beg you will do no such thing!" said I, abhorring the idea of violence and possible bloodshed. "If you are hungry—so am I. Let us get on to Wrotham and dinner." So we mounted and in due time descended the steep hill into the pleasant village of Wrotham.
The "Bull" welcomed us, or more particularly Anthony, with cheeriness tempered with respect; such a bustling of ostlers, running to and fro of serving men; such a dimpling and curtseying of buxom, neat-capped maids; such beaming obeisances from mine host, all to welcome "Mr. Anthony": indeed such a reception as might have warmed the heart of any man save your embittered, cold-hearted cynic or one who rode with demons on his shoulders.
Though the fare was excellent my appetite was poor and I ate and drank but little, to Anthony's evident concern; and when at last we took the road again, I rode with a jibbering devil on either shoulder, filling me again with nameless fears and vague, unreasoning doubts of I knew not what. Above and around me seemed an ever-growing shadow, a foreboding expectancy of an oncoming evil I could neither define nor shake off, try how I would.
Anthony seemed to sense something of this and (like the good fellow he was) strove valiantly to banish my uncanny gloom, though my attention often wandered and I answered at random or not at all.
"Clothes go a damned long way with a woman, Perry!" he was saying. "I'm married and I know! That evening suit o' yours with the lavender-flowered waistcoat is bound to rivet her eye—nail her regard, d'ye see! Then there's your new riding suit, I mean the bottle-green frock with the gold-crested buttons. She must see you in that and there's few look better astride a horse than yourself—" here I became lost again in the vile gibbering of my demons until these words of Anthony's brought me back again:
"—dev'lish solitary place with an unsavoury reputation. The country folk say it's haunted."
"I beg your pardon, Tony, but what were you telling me?"
"My poor ass," said Anthony, edging nearer the better to peer into my face, "I have been endeavouring to give you a brief description of Raydon Manor—the house peeping amid the trees yonder."
We were climbing a hill and from this eminence could behold a fair sweep of landscape, a rolling, richly wooded countryside very pleasant to behold, and, following the direction pointed by Anthony's whip, I descried the gables of a great, grey house bowered in dense-growing trees that seemed to shut the building in on every side, the whole further enclosed by a lofty wall.
"Ah, a haunted house, Anthony," said I, glancing at the place with perfunctory interest.
"So the yokels say hereabouts, Perry, but if half what I hear is true, it is haunted by things far worse—more evil than ghosts."
"Meaning what?" I questioned.
"Well, it is owned by a person of the name of Trenchard who seems to be a rich mixture of gentlemanly ruffian, Turkish bashaw and the devil. Anyhow, the place has a demned unsavoury reputation and abuts on my land."
"Indeed!" said I, stifling a yawn. "And what manner of neighbour is he—to look at?"
"Don't know—never clapped eyes on the fellow—nobody ever sees him. Fellow rarely stirs abroad and when he does, always in closed carriage—muffled to the eyes—queer fish and demned unpleasant, by all accounts."
"Evidently!" said I, then uttered an exclamation as Wildfire tripped and off spun his near foreshoe.
"Curse and confound it!" exclaimed Anthony ruefully. "And no smith nearer than five miles!"
"That being so," quoth I, dismounting, "confound and curse it with all my heart."
"There's the 'Soaring Lark' not half a mile away—a small inn, kept by a friend of mine."
"And a ridiculous name for any inn!" said I.
"Wait till you see it, Perry."
So saying, Anthony turned aside down an unexpected and rutted by-lane, I leading my horse; and, rounding a sharp bend in this narrow track, we came upon a small inn. It stood well back amid the green and was further shaded by three great trees; and surely the prettiest, brightest, cosiest little inn that the eye of wearied traveller might behold. Its twinkling lattices open to the sunny air showed a vision of homely comfort within; its hospitable door gaped wide upon an inviting chamber floored with red tile, and before it stood a tall, youngish man in shirtsleeves with the brightest eyes, the cheeriest smile and the blackest whiskers I had ever seen.
"O Mary, lass!" he cried, "Mr. Anthony!" And then, as he hurried forward to take our horses: "Why, Lord, Mr. Anthony, sir, we du be tur'ble glad to see 'ee—eh, old lady?" This last to her who had hurried to his call—a youngish woman, as bright, as cosy, as cheery, but far prettier than the inn itself.
"Oh, but indeed we be j'yful to see 'ee, Mr. Anthony; us was talkin' o' you an' your bonny lady this very day. She do be well, sir, I 'ope, an' comin' home to the great house soon, Mr. Anthony?"
"Thank you, yes, Mary," answered Anthony, baring his head and giving her his hand, "we shall be coming home next week. And here, George and Mary, is my friend Mr. Vereker. His horse has cast a shoe, send it to Joe at Hadlow to be shod. Meanwhile we will drink a flagon of your October."
So while George led away my horse, his pretty wife brought us into the sanded parlour, where, having despatched a shock-headed boy with my horse, George presently joined us.
The ale duly drunk, Anthony proposed he should ride on to Nettlestead while Wildfire was being shod and return for me in an hour or so, to which I perforce agreeing, he rode away, leaving me to await him, nothing loath. For what with the spirit of Happiness that seemed to pervade this little inn of the "Soaring Lark" and the cheery good humour of its buxom host and hostess, my haunting demons fled awhile and in their place was restored peace. Sitting with George in this low-raftered kitchen while his pretty wife bustled comfortably to and fro, we talked and grew acquainted.
"By the way, George," said I, "Mr. Vere-Manville showed me a haunted house called, I think, Raydon Manor, do you know anything of it?"
Now at this innocent question, to my surprise George's good humour vanished, his comely features were suddenly overcast, and he exchanged meaning glances with his wife.
"Why, sir," he answered at last, speaking in a lowered voice as if fearful of being overheard, "there's some as do say 't is haunted sure-ly."
"How?" I demanded.
"Well—things 'as been seed, ah, an' heerd in that theer ghastly wood."
"Well—things as flits an' things as wails—ah, fit to break your 'eart an' chill a man's good flesh. Ghost-lights has been seed at dead o' night, an' folks has 'eer'd music at dead o' night an' screams o' devil-laughter, ah, an' screams as wasn't laughter. Old Gaffer Dick 'e du ha' seed things an' there's me, I've 'eer'd an' seed things—an' lots o' folk beside."
"What did you see, George?"
"I dunno rightly, sir, an' never shall this side o' glory, but 'twere a shape, a thing—I might call it a ghost an' I might call it a phanitum; hows'ever 't were a shape, sir, as I seed a-floatin' an' a-wailin'—Lord, I'll never forget 'ow it wailed!"
Here he mopped his brow at the mere recollection.
"But do you never see any one about by day?"
"Aye, sir, there be a great, sooty black man for one, a hugeous niggermoor with devil's eyes as roll an' teeth like a dog—there's 'im! An' there's three or four desp'rit-seemin' coves as looks like prize fighters—though they ain't often seed abroad an' then mostly drivin' be'ind fast 'orses, sir—coach, sir."
"And what of the owner of the place, Mr. Trenchard, I think his name is?"
"Very seldom stirs abroad, sir, an' then allus in a fast-travellin' closed carriage; though there's a-plenty o' company now an' then, 'ard-ridin' gentlemen—specially one as usually travels down from Lunnon in a chaise wi' red wheels—"
"What—a black-bodied chaise picked out in yellow?" I enquired sharply.
"Aye, sir, the same."
"And are there lady visitors as well as gentlemen?"
"Aye, there are so, sir—coveys of 'em, very fine feathers an' pretty as pictoors t' look at but—"
"Ah!" said I, as he paused, "that kind?"
"Aye, sir, if ye know what I mean."
"I do! Raydon Manor seems haunted in many ways."
"Aye, sir, an' this is very sure—if Innocence ever goes in, it never comes out!"
Thus we talked, George the landlord and I, while his pretty, buxom wife bustled quietly to and fro or vanished into the mysteries of her dairy, whence came the creak of churn, the chink of pot or pan and suchlike homely sounds where her two trim maids laughed and chattered over their labours.
It was a glorious afternoon and, at my suggestion, George brought me into a garden behind the inn where flowers rioted, filling the air with their mingled perfumes, and so to a well-stocked orchard beyond, whence came the warm odour of ripening fruit.
"You have a very beautiful home, George."
"An' all thanks to my little old woman, sir. I were a soldier once an' a tur'ble drinker, but Mary—Lord, sir, 'tis wonnerful how good a good woman can be an' how bad a bad 'un can be—though she's generally made bad, I've noticed! Damme, sir, axin' your parding but damme notwithstanding, there's some men as I'd like to 'ave wrigglin' on the end of a bagnet!" And he turned to scowl fiercely towards a stretch of dark woodland that gloomed beyond a rolling stretch of sunny meadow land.
"The sentiment is a little bloody, George," said I, glancing at this stretch of dark wood, "but under the circumstances, I think it does you credit. And now, seeing I have a full hour to wait for Mr. Vere-Manville, I will take a little stroll and waste no more of your time;" and smiling down his protestations to the contrary, I sauntered off through the golden afternoon.
To-morrow the term of my patient waiting was to be accomplished; Diana was coming back to me! At this thought there rushed over me such an eager, passionate joy that my breath caught and I paused to lean across a gate, endeavouring to picture her to myself as she now was, 'a changed Diana and yet the same', even as she had written. And as I stood thus, down to me through the sunny air came the song of a mounting lark who, as if knowing my thought, seemed striving to sing forth something of the ineffable happiness that thrilled me. The song ended, I went on again, walking slowly, my head bowed, lost in a happy dream. And presently I found myself walking amid trees, through an ever-deepening shadow, and, looking up, saw I had entered the pine wood. For a moment I hesitated, minded to turn back into the sunshine, then I went on, picking my way among these gloomy trees, the pine needles soft beneath my tread; thus, since there was no wind, I walked in silence broken only by the faint jingle of my spurs and the rustle of my advance, a silence that affected me with a vague unease. There seemed something stealthy in this uncanny stillness so that I grew stealthy also and set myself to keep my spurs from jingling, for unseen eyes seemed to be watching me. The deeper I penetrated this dismal wood, the darker it grew, and I advanced, cautious and silent, and with a vague sense of expectancy though of what I could not determine. With the glad sunshine my joyousness had vanished, in its stead came again doubt and foreboding with my devil that gibbered upon my heels; demons and evil things seemed all about me.
But suddenly I came out upon a narrow track or rather footpath and though the kindly sun contrived to send down a fugitive shaft ever and anon, yet my depression was in no wise abated and I began to hurry my steps, anxious to be out of these dismal shadows. All at once I halted, for before me was a lofty wall and I saw that the path led to a low-arched doorway or postern, a small door but of great apparent strength, that seemed to scowl upon me between its deep buttresses. And now as I gazed there grew within me an indefinable feeling, a growing certainty of something very threatening and sinister about this door, and turning, I hasted back along the path, turning neither to right nor left, hurrying as from something beyond expression evil. Nor did I stop or glance back until I was out in the pure sunshine and the cosy inn of the "Soaring Lark" seemed to smile at me beyond broad meadows, blinking its bright casements like so many bright eyes in cheery welcome. But even so I shivered, for the gloomy shadow of the wood seemed all about me still and therewith a growing depression that would not be banished but held me in thrall despite sunshine and cheery inn. What was it that I feared? I asked myself, and why—why—why?
I found Anthony awaiting me, but even his cheer presence failed to dispel my gloom. And so in a while, my horse being ready, we set out for London with hearty "God-speeds" from George and his wife Mary. But all the way back, my mind still laboured with these same perplexing questions:
What was it that I feared? And why—why—why?
And thereto I found no answer.
OF A SCARABAEUS RING AND A GOSSAMER VEIL
"Ye're a little pale—yes, a trifle haggard, Perry, but there's nothing like a romantic pallor to attract the feminine regard and captivate the female heart, my boy—I'm married and I know! But your dress is a thought too sombre, I think, considering your youth, though I'll admit it suits you and there's a devilish tragic melancholy Danish-air about ye as should nail the female orb—"
"Don't be an ass, Anthony. How is my cravat?"
"Work of art, begad! How are my pantaloons, Perry? My tailor's made 'em too loose, the damned scoundrel. I'm wrinkled like a rhinoceros, by heaven! Keep your eye on 'em when I bend—"
"My dear Anthony," said I, "if they were any tighter you couldn't bend—"
"Well, my coat, Perry—how is it behind?"
"Feels like a sack, demmit! My Loveliness has the eye of a hawk, you'll understand—hasn't seen me for a whole month—nothing like first impressions, begad. Feels like an accursed sack, I tell you—"
"Gentlemen, the carriage awaits!" murmured Clegg from the doorway.
"What—already?" cried Anthony, clapping on his hat and reaching for his surtout.
"You forget we're Lord Wyvelstoke's privileged guests.—Come, Anthony!" and I led the way down to the carriage.
"Ain't you nervous, Perry?" enquired my friend, as we rolled smoothly away.
"Queer fish—I am!" said he, fidgeting with his cravat.
"You're deuced cool, devilish serene and enigmatical at times, like your uncle Jervas."
"You flatter me, Tony."
"Devil a bit—and this coat of mine feels like a—what the devil are we stopping for?"
We had reached the top of St. James's Street and glancing through the window, I saw our progress blocked momentarily by converging traffic; I was about to lean back in my seat again when my careless glance was arrested by an elegant closed chaise going in the opposite direction; the light was still good, and thus I saw this for a black-bodied chaise picked out in yellow with red wheels. The window was down and thence fluttered a lady's scarf or veil, a delicate gossamer thing spangled with gold stars; as I watched, from the dim interior of the chaise came a woman's white hand to gather up this glittering scarf, a shapely hand sparkling with gems, amongst which I saw one shaped like a scarabaeus; then the chaise rolled away and was gone.