"What the dooce are you staring at, Perry?"
"Nothing!" I answered, frowning. "Nothing!"
His lordship's house was ablaze with lights and, though we were so early, in the street immediately before it was a crowd that pushed and jostled as we mounted the carpeted steps and were ushered into the lofty hall. Here, the footmen having relieved us of our hats and coats, we found the sedate Atkinson as gravely imperturbable as I remembered him two years ago, who acknowledged my greeting with sedate smile and grave obeisance and brought us forthwith to a chamber where I found Lord Wyvelstoke in confabulation with my two uncles.
At our entrance they rose, and his lordship limped forward to welcome us; and looking upon his slender, elegant figure, beholding his impassive face with its air of serene and conscious power, I warmed to the kindness of his smile, even as I had done two years ago.
Our greetings over, his lordship slipped his arm in mine and led me apart.
"Well, Peregrine," said he, with his old, keen look, "I perceive your two years of self-sacrifice have not been in vain; you are grown in every sense. And to-night unselfishness shall have its full reward. To-night, Peregrine, I render back to you your Diana, but a Diana glorified—a woman, and one who has endeared herself to me by her great-hearted and noble qualities. In her is nothing paltry, education has not stunted or narrowed the soul of her. She has been faithful to her task for your sake and faithful to you for Love's sake. By your unselfishness she has indeed become all that we hoped—and more, one to be proud of. But I grow garrulous in her praise—go to her and see for yourself. She is awaiting you in her boudoir with Mrs. Vere-Manville."
So saying, his lordship rang and the silent Atkinson appeared, who led us up a wide stairway and so to a dainty chamber where, bowing, he left us.
A faint perfume was in the air, elusive but sweetly intimate. Upon an ottoman lay a fan and a pair of lace mittens.
"Begad," murmured Anthony, sniffing, "there's nothing like perfume to give a fellow palpitations, and palpitations always make my cravat too tight—devilish thing's choking me! A good woman, Perry, can be the most doocedly alluring, devilish engaging, utterly provoking creature in creation—far more so than—t' other sort. I'm married and I know!"
"Yes," said I, looking down at the discarded fan and deeply stirred by the elusive fragrance.
"Devil take this cravat!" exclaimed Anthony, wrestling with it before a mirror. "If they don't come soon, 't will be wreck, demmit! I wish to heaven they'd come."
"So do I, Anthony!"
"Finishing touches, I expect, Perry—they will do it! And mean to surprise us, of course." But as moment after moment elapsed, his impatience grew. "I wonder what's keeping 'em!" he exclaimed.
"I wonder!" said I.
At the end of ten minutes he was striding up and down the room in a very ferment.
"Damned strange!" he muttered. "Devilish incomprehensible! They must know we're here. Been waiting fifteen minutes now, begad! Getting beyond a joke—deuced exasperating, Perry, y' know. Dammit, man, why can't you say something, do something, instead of sitting there so devilish calm and serene, staring before you like an infernal sphinx?"
At the end of twenty minutes Anthony could wait no more and bidding me follow, jerked open the door and strode out. But I sat there staring before me at an empty fireplace and still all my thought was of the chaise with the red wheels.
But presently my gaze came by chance upon something that lay in a corner of the hearth, a piece of paper crumpled and rent as in passionate haste. For a while I viewed it idly, heedlessly, then all at once I saw a name, a scrawling signature plain to read; next moment the fragment of paper was in my grasp and I read this:
... confess to find you more bewitchingly beautiful than ever. And therefore, having regard to what transpired between us in Italy, you will come this evening without fail to Your ever adoring slave and master, HAREDALE.
How long I remained staring at this fragment of paper I do not know, but I started suddenly to see Atkinson bowing in the doorway and followed him from the room and downstairs and suddenly found myself in a polite tumult; silks rustled, feathers nodded, turbans bowed and jewels glittered.
But almost at once, amid all this throng, my eyes saw but one. Tall she was, with jewels that sparkled in her dark and lustrous hair; how she was gowned I cannot remember, but her white throat was unadorned save for a small gold chain whence hung a plain gold locket, at sight of which my heart seemed to swell within me.
Flushed and bright-eyed, she stood beside Lord Wyvelstoke to receive the many guests. And viewing her as I stood thus, myself unseen amid the crowd, beholding her serene and noble carriage, her vivid colouring, the classic mould of form and features, the grace and ease of her every movement, I saw she was indeed more beautiful than I dreamed and caught my breath in a very ecstasy. Here was Diana herself, yet a Diana glorified even as Lord Wyvelstoke had said, and with a thousand elusive graces beyond my poor description.
And now I was bowing before her, heard her tremulous murmur of "Peregrine!" and answered back as tremulously, "Diana!" and so, yielding place to others, I passed on, to bow and smile and chatter inanities with such of the guests as were of my acquaintance, but yearning for chance of speech with her alone.
Then, somehow, she was beside me, her hand upon my arm, and we were walking, though whither I cared not, my every sense thrilled by her gracious ease, her stately beauty and all the wonder of her.
I remember we sat and talked of the past two years, of much that she had seen and done; and she questioned me a little breathlessly and always of myself, and I, conscious of the many bewildering changes in her and of those deep, grey eyes looking at me beneath their level brows, or hidden by their down-sweeping black lashes, answered briefly or very much at random, so that she questioned me at last:
"Peregrine, are you listening?"
"Yes—no!" I answered. "How can I? You are so—wonderful!"
At this the rich colour deepened in her cheek and her eyes grew ineffably tender.
"And you," she murmured, "you are still my Peregrine of the Silent Places, the gentleman who stooped to teach me that love could be—a holy thing—"
From the distance stole the sound of music and suddenly, as if conjured up of these sweet strains, were eager gentlemen all about us, vying with each other for the honour of escorting her down to the ballroom.
"Miss Lovel," simpered a gallant young exquisite, his fashionably pallid features peeping out between the silkiest of glossy whiskers, "we are to be favahed, I think, to be charmed and delighted by your incomparable singing—aw, how do, Vereker! Miss Lovel, you behold me a humble ambassador, to beg, to entreat you to keep us waiting no longer—"
"The evening is young, my lord," she answered lightly, "though your impatience is flattering, I vow—"
"Impatience, Miss Lovel?" sighed a gorgeous being in scarlet and epaulettes. "Impatience—haw—is quite inadequate to express our—hum—I should say, my own sentiments; 'impatience' is a word too—ha—altogether too feeble! For my own part I should—haw—I should rather say we—"
"Passion, ma'm, passion!" exclaimed a square-faced gentleman in naval blue. "Speaking as a blunt sailor, passion's the word, Miss Lovel—passion. Passion's the only word, I think, gentlemen?"
Hereupon the Army retired a little discomfited but rallied sufficiently to suggest the word "languish."
"Behold us then, Miss Lovel, passioning—" said the Navy.
"And—haw—languishing, Miss Lovel—" sighed the Army.
"Behold us then unanimously beseeching you—aha, here comes Pevensey to add his supplication to ours."
The Duke shot his ruffle, fixed his eyeglass and bowed.
"Permit me, Miss Lovel, to add my petition! Vereker will spare you to us awhile, I am sure!" said he. "To behold a goddess is to be blessed; to hear her sing will be—"
"Joy!" suggested the Navy.
"Divine!" sighed the Army.
"Transcendent rapture!" quoth the Duke.
Diana laughed and rose, looking from one to other with that serene and level gaze I knew so well, and saluted them with a slow and graceful curtsey.
"Indeed you overwhelm me, sirs," said she, smiling. "Your impatience shall be satisfied, you shall passion and languish no longer!" And now as I bowed above her hand came her whisper, "I go to sing for you—to you, Peregrine!"
Then, giving her fan to Navy and her gloves to Army, she took the Duke's arm, and moved away.
And in a while, sitting in a corner of the great ballroom between my two uncles, I saw her stand before this august assemblage serene in her proud, young beauty; saw her calm gaze seek until it met mine and drew my breath a little quicker because of her very loveliness.
Then I felt the smart of sudden tears as from the orchestra whispered a loved and familiar melody that rose, little by little, into that wild and plaintive Zingari air she had sung so often in the Silent Places years ago.
And now from her white throat stole a murmur of sweet sound, swelling gradually to a full, round sweetness, rising to a passion of sorrow and heartbreak, and dying to a sigh, was gone.
For a long moment after the final liquid note had died away was utter stillness, an awed silence; then some one ventured to clap, others joined in, and upon this sound came shouts, cries, cheer on cheer—a frantic ovation.
"By Gad, Perry," exclaimed my uncle George, blinking moist lashes. "She—she can sing, ye know! What I mean is she can—sing, b'gad! What d' you say, Jervas?"
"That you are exactly right, George, she can sing!" answered my uncle Jervas softly. "She and her voice are one in beauty. And she signals you, Perry, I think!"
"Be off, Peregrine!" said my uncle George. "Be off, lucky dog—London will run mad—she'll be the reigning toast to-morrow."
The Army and the Navy yielded her to me with a somewhat bad grace, and her slim fingers on my arm guided me through the throng to a deep curtained window recess, and in this comparative seclusion she turned and faced me, and I saw that she was trembling a little.
"Peregrine," she murmured, wistful and eager, "am I changed very much—too much? I have worked—so hard and all—all for you—O Peregrine—dear—do I truly please you?"
"Please me!" I mumbled. "Oh, my Diana—!" Her lashes drooped and then, as she swayed to me, I clasped her in my arms and, tremulous, fragrant, vital with love and youth, she gave her lips to mine.
"Is it worth the years of waiting?" she whispered beneath my kisses.
"God knows it!" I answered and lifted her hand to my lips and then stood utterly still, cold with a sudden, horrible sickness—staring at this white hand, where, amid sparkling gems, I saw the dull oval of a scarabaeus ring.
"What is it, Peregrine?" she questioned, a little breathlessly. "This scarab? It is one my dear pal bought me in Egypt. Come away, dear, let us run from the crowd—let us steal away together, somewhere—anywhere —you and I." And speaking, she drew about her shoulders a scarf, a filmy thing of gossamer, spangled with gold stars. "Quick, Peregrine!" she breathed. "There is the duke—coming this way, quick—before he spies us!"
"Impossible!" I answered, wondering to hear myself speaking so lightly. "His Grace has seen us already—besides, your duty lies here to-night."
"Very well, dear Peregrine," she sighed, "but I had hoped you—you would have bade me forget duty—a little while."
So she turned away and indistinctly I heard the duke begging her to sing again; then I watched her go, smiling and bowing to her, but with a buzzing in my brain and all hell raging in my breast.
A black-bodied chaise—picked out in yellow—red wheels—Captain Danby!
For a long time I stood in the shadow of the window curtains staring out upon a moon hidden ever and anon in flying cloud-wrack; but at last I turned and wandered away with some vague idea of finding Anthony, and as I went, the lights and glitter, the sounds of voices and laughter grew ever more distasteful, and turning my back on it all, I found my way into a wide corridor. And here, in a shady alcove screened by curtains, I espied Anthony kissing his wife; her round, white arms were about his neck, crushing his cravat woefully, but seeing the rapture in their faces I stole away and left them.
Reaching the hall I bade a footman summon my carriage, but on second thoughts countermanded the order and, donning hat and cloak, set out to walk home to my chambers. A wind was abroad and I walked bareheaded to cool the fevered throbbing of my temples, but this wind found voices to mock me and at my heels ran demons, gibbering obscenities.
Reaching my door at last, I thundered on the knocker until it opened, and brushing past the pallid Clegg, bade him order my horse.
"Horse, sir?" he repeated, a note of interest in his usually toneless voice. "Do you propose to go riding, sir?"
"Yes, sir—which horse do you—?"
"Wildfire. Have him brought round at once!"
"Very good, sir!"
Not waiting for Clegg's assistance, I slipped off my evening garments and was pulling on my riding boots when I heard the tattoo of Wildfire's impatient hoofs upon the roadway.
"What time may I expect you back, sir?" enquired Clegg, as I jingled downstairs.
"I cannot say. I may be late or very early so—get to bed."
"If you are travelling far, sir, might I suggest that your pistols are ready in their holsters upstairs—"
"I shall not need them!" said I, and stepped out into the street where Wildfire danced and capered in the grasp of Tom, my groom.
"He do be werry fresh, sir," warned Tom.
"So much the better!" said I. "Hold him until I give the word."
So saying, I swung to saddle, settled feet in stirrups and gripped the reins short in gloved hand.
"An evil night, sir!" said Clegg. "And you won't take your pistols?"
"No! Let go, Tom!"
Back sprang the groom and, snorting joyfully, Wildfire sprang away.
STORM AND TEMPEST
A blusterous wind that fluttered the skirts of my long, caped coat, that filled the night with stir and tumult and flaws of sudden rain; a wind that whirled black masses of ragged cloud across a lowering heaven lit by a pallid moon that peeped stealthily and vanished, to peep again.
And glancing from desolate, wind-swept streets to flying cloud-wrack, I judged there was worse to come and knew a strange, unnatural joy therefore, as I bent my head to buffeting wind and reined the fiery animal I bestrode to less furious pace.
We crossed the river at London Bridge, a dark horror of moving waters swirling here and there in the ineffectual beam of lamp or lanthorn; on past gloomy streets and narrow courts where dim forms jostled, and ever and always the blusterous wind rioting 'twixt heaven and earth, booming in chimneys, moaning in dark corners, rattling windows, clapping-to crazy shutters and setting signboards a-swing on scolding hinges.
On and on through this ever-growing turbulence, while Wildfire tossed proud head, snorted defiance upon the elements, and bored eagerly upon the bit. But once the great city was behind us, I gave him his will and away we went headlong into the wind, the clatter of his galloping hoofs drowned in the universal uproar. But fast as he sped, the demon of doubt and suspicion and growing dread kept pace, and for once, riding Wildfire, I forgot Wildfire and all else save the hell within me.
A black-bodied chaise picked out in yellow!
And now came the rain to lash me and I bared my head the better to feel it. Before me in the swirling dark were twinkling lights lurching rapidly nearer, and down upon me loomed a stagecoach, a mountainous shape that flitted by me like a phantom. A phantom? The very night seemed peopled by phantoms; I sped past phantom wains and waggons, piled high with phantom loads, that moved with no sound of hoofs or wheels; spectral horsemen flitted by, soundless; in the shadow of hissing hedgerow and raving, wind-tossed trees crawled miserable, nebulous shapes, seen but to be lost again, swallowed in the howling murk.
Rushing wind and lashing rain; pale gleams of a fitful moon to show swaying trees that tossed wild arms to heaven, and a splashing quag below, mud and wind-swept pools, all lost again in the swirling dark. And buffeted thus, beaten by rain, smitten by unseen things, gasping in the wind's fierce gusts, my one thought was:
A black-bodied chaise with red wheels—Captain Danby!
How long I galloped at this wild and reckless pace I do not know, but little by little I became aware that the rain had ceased, the clouds were rent asunder and the moon looked down, pale and remote, upon a desolate countryside very ghostly and unreal and wholly unfamiliar. Before me was a winding road fringed with dripping, sombre trees and reining Wildfire to a standstill, I found that the wind had greatly abated its fury. But though the storm was over, the storm within me raged fierce as ever; therefore, heedless of where the morning found me, I spurred Wildfire forward and rode with slackened rein, leaving him to take me where he would.
A black-bodied chaise—What should bring Diana in company with such brutal satyr as Captain Danby?
Lost thus in agonising thought, I was riding with loosened rein and lax grip when Wildfire shied, swerved violently, throwing me from the saddle, and lying half-stunned, I heard him gallop away down the road.
For a while I lay there with no desire to move, but at last, summoning all my resolution, I scrambled weakly to my feet and endeavoured to follow, but after some while, wondered to see it so dark and found I was among trees that closed about me ever denser. Yet I struggled on, pushing my way haphazard through the undergrowth, being yet much shaken by my fall, until I came out into a narrow way lit by the moon; but scarcely was I here than I paused to lean against a tree, overcome by a sick faintness. And thus leaned I some while to recover my strength, and in my ears the dismal drip, drip of sodden trees and the mournful sighing of the wind in their branches, a sigh that rose every now and then to a low wailing, very dreadful to hear.
Now, all at once, I lifted my aching head, for, as my brain cleared, I knew that this wailing was not of the wind; thus I stood with breath in check waiting for it to come again. And suddenly I heard it, a low, murmurous cry, unutterably doleful.
"O God—O God—I want to be dead—I want to be dead!"
So I turned aside and, following the path, saw it ended at a frowning doorway set within a high and sinister wall; and recognising this door, this high wall and gloomy wood, I felt myself cold with that indefinable sense of impending evil which this desolate place had awoke in me before—
"O kind God—if I could only die!"
Going in among the trees I saw a shape of misery outstretched face-down upon the sodden earth, a shape that wrung pale hands and writhed in awful manner. Trembling, I sank on one knee beside her.
"Woman!" said I, laying hand lightly on her shoulder.
She raised a haggard face, its youthful beauty distorted by horror, its pallid cheeks stained with mire, and I blenched before the look in these wide eyes.
"Don't touch me!" she whispered hoarsely. "Don't look at me—I can't abide it—go away—let me die—"
"Child, where is your home?"
"None!" she whispered. "None! I durs'n't go back ... now. Oh, never no more ... they made me drunk ... when I woke ... ah, don't look at me ... I wish the sun 'ud go out for ever ... If I could only die!... I fought them as long as I could.... Oh, kill me, God.... I want to be dead ... but I want Tom first ... my Tom ... I want him to know 't weren't ... my fault. O Tom dear, Tom as I loved ... how can I tell 'ee. O God, I want to be dead!"
"Come, child," said I gently. "Come with me, you shall be safe, sheltered for to-night, and in the morning Tom shall be found for you—"
"Ah, no, no!" she panted, shrinking from my touch. "You're a man too—let me die!"
"Poor girl, poor child," said I, "there is an inn near by and a good woman to comfort you, come, you shall be safe, I swear, and find your Tom—"
Despite her feeble struggles, I got her afoot and half-led, half-carried her along that tortuous path and so at last out of that evil wood. Afar, across the meadows, I spied the chimneys of the "Soaring Lark" and, though dawn was not broken, to my joyful wonder saw its hospitable windows aglow and the beam of a moving light in the yard.
How we accomplished the distance I do not know, but we reached the inn at last and beheld a lanthorn borne by a stalwart form.
"Who's yon?" demanded a gruff voice.
"George," I panted, "if that's you—bear a hand with this poor girl—quick, she's swooning—"
"Why, Mr. Vereker!" exclaimed George's astonished voice, and next moment the fainting girl was caught up in powerful arms and borne into the inn kitchen, I staggering after.
"Mary—Moll—O Mary, old woman!"
A patter of quick feet upon the stair and George's Mary came running, seeming as bonny and buxom as ever, despite her scant deshabille, as she bent above the swooning girl.
"Poor maid—out i' the storm an' clemmed wi' cold an' 'unger, poor lass! Bring her upstairs—our warm bed, Jarge—an' then brandy, lad, an' the kettle on th' fire—up wi' you!"
Left alone, I filled the kettle from a bucket in a corner, and setting it upon the fire, drew up a chair and sat to dry my clothes and warm my shivering limbs, and presently, what with my weariness and the fire's comfort, began to nod. Opening unwilling eyes, I found George beside me, holding a steaming glass to my lips, and now felt myself deathly cold and shivering in every limb.
"Drink it, sir—hot rum an' a slice o' lemon—nought like it—drink it. Lord, Mr. Vereker, sir—'ere be a go sure-ly!" he exclaimed, smiling and nodding, as I sipped the fragrant beverage. "Awhile agone comes an 'orse into the yard, a-stampin' and a-neighin', so up I jumps and looks out o' winder. 'Lord, old woman,' I sez, 'yonder's Mr. Vereker's Wildfire,' I sez, 'I'd know 'im anywheers,' I sez; 'but what beats me,' I sez, 'there ain't Mr. Vereker.' So down I comes, rubs down the 'oss, takes the lanthorn an' is about to start lookin' for you when in you comes an' wi' you this poor lass—so wot I says now is, Lord, Mr. Vereker, sir, 'ere 's a go, sure-ly!"
"It is!" said I. "What of the girl, poor soul?"
"All right, Mr. Vereker, sir—she'm wi' my old woman, y' see, consequently she'll be right as ninepence in the morning, bless your 'eart, sir."
"I doubt it, George. You see, I found her—in the pine wood yonder, close beside that damnable gate in the wall."
"Did ye so, sir, did ye so?" said he in altered voice. Then, clenching his brawny fists, he raised frowning eyes to a bayonet above the mantel, a long, deadly-looking thing that glittered with constant cleaning. "Ah, by God!" he growled fiercely, "by God, Mr. Vereker, sir—there's them as I'd like t' have wrigglin' their beastly lives out on the end o' my old bagnet—"
"Hot water, Jarge!" commanded the buxom Mary from the stairs.
"Comin', old woman—comin'! Get a nap, Mr. Vereker, sir; your wet clo'es won't hurt 'ee now—I've slep' in wetter many a time in the Peninsula—nothin' like rum took 'ot an' plenty on 't sir. Comin,' old woman—comin'!" and whisking the heavy kettle from the fire, he nodded and hurried up the stair.
I AM HAUNTED OF EVIL DREAMS
Either George was of different fibre to me, or the rum had been neither hot enough nor sufficiently strong, for on awaking I found myself full of pain, the least movement an agony, my head throbbing woefully and I burning with fever.
George looked at me and, shaking his head, hurried for his wife, who, having taken my pulse and felt my brow, clucked over me like a distressed and motherly hen and ordered me immediately to bed, whither, after some argument and faint reluctance on my part, I was promptly conducted by the indefatigable George, and where, having been duly physicked by his Mary, I sank to a restless slumber. And now ensued a dim period of troubled dreams and horrible nightmares.
I awoke to find my chamber full of the glow of evening; through the open lattice breathed an air sweet with a perfume of flowers; borne to my drowsy hearing stole a mingling of soothing, homely sounds, the snort of a horse from the stable, the clucking of hens, the faint rattle of a pail, to all of which peaceful sounds I hearkened in lazy content and with no desire to move. Vaguely, at the back of my mind, was a memory of some trouble now forgotten, nor did I seek to remember, content to stare out upon this summer evening; nor did I trouble to move even at the opening of the door and thus presently was aware of Anthony bending over me.
"Why, Perry, are you awake at last? How are you, old fellow?"
"Very well, Anthony," I answered, vaguely surprised to hear my voice so far off, as it were. "Very comfortable, Tony, only—a little weary—"
"And no wonder, Perry, here you've lain raving all last night and most of to-day."
"Aye—all about some damned postchaise or other with red wheels."
"Postchaise?" said I, wondering. "Postchaise? How long have I lain here?"
"This will be the fourth day, Peregrine."
"Four days!" said I. "Impossible!"
"I rode down yesterday on the off-chance of finding you here—and here you were, begad, raging in fever and cursing and swearing very creditably, 'pon my soul! And all George could do to hold you down—"
"I'm better now, Anthony—get up to-morrow—"
"For which God be thanked!" said he fervently, and seating himself upon the bed, he grasped my hand. "Peregrine," said he solemnly, "you have honoured me with your friendship and as your friend I make bold to offer you a friend's advice,—in heaven's name, old fellow, be more discreet!"
"In what particular, Anthony?"
"There is but one, Perry—only one, dear fellow, and spelt with five letters—woman."
"You grow cryptic, Anthony."
"My dear Perry," said he, beginning to fidget with his stock, "my very dear fellow, as may be supposed, your extraordinary sudden and perfectly inexplicable flight from Wyvelstoke's reception and disappearance has caused no small consternation, and, to one person in particular, very much grief and anxiety. Under these distressing circumstances, I, as your friend, sought an answer to the riddle, the—the reason for your—very mysterious disappearance, and naturally arrive at the conclusion that it is a case of—er—cherchez la femme, Perry—"
"The devil you did!" exclaimed I.
"I haunted all the clubs, Perry, and with your uncles made discreet enquiry for you in every likely and unlikely quarter—yesterday, as a last possibility, I rode down here and learned from George how you came staggering in at dawn, plastered with mud, wet to the skin and accompanied by the lady who, I may inform you, had the good judgment to disappear as soon as possible—"
"The lady," said I, trembling and indignant, "was a poor distracted creature I found on my way—"
"Precisely, dear fellow! So here am I to lend you such assistance in the matter as a friend may. No reason to worry yourself, only in heaven's name be a little discreet, Perry—discretion's the word,"
"Discretion be damned!"
"Precisely, old fellow! And now only mention how I may assist you in this unfortunate situation?"
"By listening to me!"
"Ears wide open, Perry."
So I told him briefly of the storm, how, dazed and shaken after being thrown by Wildfire, I wandered into the wood and came upon the poor, distracted girl and brought her back with me to the "Soaring Lark." To all of which he listened, tap-tapping softly with his foot.
"Ha—outside that accursed house!" he exclaimed, when I had done. "The place should be burned down!" And then in a different tone, glancing at me somewhat askance, "But then, Perry—egad—don't ye see this does not explain your abrupt departure from the reception and flight from London—now does it?"
"Not in the least, Anthony. Nor can I offer any explanation."
Here Anthony pursed his lips to a soundless whistle and began his soft tap-tapping again.
"Diana was—deeply hurt," said he at last. "Every hour she is grieving for you—breaking her heart, Perry—as we sit here."
"For God's sake, Anthony," I cried passionately, "keep your feet still!"
"Eh? Oh, begad, forgive me, Perry! Consequently, she will be overjoyed to learn you are here safe. She will post down to you as fast as horses can bring her—"
"Need she know, Anthony?" At this he turned with a kind of leap and glanced at me with a startled expression.
"Lord, man—you are really ill!" he exclaimed.
"Ill or no, Anthony, if you are truly my friend and value my friendship, promise me—swear to me she shall not come near me!"
"Egad, Peregrine, you are damned ill!"
"Promise—promise! Swear me this, Anthony!" cried I, starting up in bed to grasp at him with eager hands. And then came Mary, running, to clasp me in eager arms and lay me back among the pillows.
"Mr. Anthony!" she cried. "Oh, Mr. Anthony, didn't I warn 'ee not to excite 'im then—oh, Mr. Anthony!"
Lying thus helpless, I felt myself shaken as by an ague fit, saw Anthony staring down at me fearful-eyed ere he crept from the room, felt an arm beneath my head, a cup at my lips and, drinking thirstily, lay awhile staring up at the ceiling, where red wheels seemed to spin through the mist of a gossamer veil spangled with gold stars.
It lay curling across my pillow close to my eyes, stirring gently as if endowed with life, a delicate, shimmering filament, never quite at rest, that glowed where the light caught it, and I watched it drowsily until, hearing a stealthy sound, I glanced up to behold my uncle George standing beside the bed.
"Why, Peregrine," said he softly, his handsome face unwontedly grave, "how are you, dear lad?"
"Thank you—I am greatly better and here is a hair on the pillow, Uncle George! This is neither your hair nor mine, and Mrs. Mary's is brown, as I remember. So whose hair is this, Uncle George?"
"Hair?" he repeated, fumbling with his whisker. "I don't see any hair, Perry."
"Here on my pillow, Uncle."
"Well, what of it, lad. Your Aunt Julia's, perhaps—"
"Hers is black. And this is—not black, you'll notice, sir, and—very long."
"Why, so 't is! But if it distresses you—there, away with it!"
"But whose is it?" I persisted.
"Lord, Perry, how should I know—why worry about such a trifle. Compose yourself, dear lad. I'll have 'em wake Julia, she was up with you all night—egad, she'll be overjoyed to see you so much better—"
"Pray no—don't disturb her. Have I been here long?"
"Nine days, Peregrine—touch and go—knocking at death's door, boy—and raving like any madman."
"What—what about, sir?" I questioned, beginning to tremble.
"A lot o' wild nonsense, Perry—"
"What, sir—what?" I demanded.
"There, there, lad—don't distress yourself. 'T was nothing to signify—mere sick fancies."
"Fancies concerning what, Uncle George?"
"Well, something about red wheels and a drowned woman in a wood, a wall, and a door, and suchlike idle stuff. Y' see, Perry, not content with getting yourself wet through, you must let that brute of a horse o' yours throw you on to your head; doctors say 't is a marvel you're alive, and begad, Perry lad, 'tis our firm belief, Jervas and mine, that you'd ha' died if it hadn't been for your wonderful aunt and Diana—watched over you like the angels they are—saved your life betwixt 'em—"
The room seemed to go suddenly black and from the awful darkness my uncle babbled cheerily, while I, smitten by a nauseous faintness, strove to speak yet could not.
"Uncle George," said I at last, "is—is she here—now?"
"Who, Diana? No, lad. But be patient, she's only out riding with Barbara—was with you here all day, she'll be back soon—be patient, she's never long away from you these days, b'gad—"
"No!" cried I, shuddering, "no! Don't let her come near me—don't let her touch me—send her away or I shall die!"
"Good God!" ejaculated my uncle George, glancing about helplessly. "He's off again—this cursed fever—must call Julia."
"Don't!" said I, reaching out a feeble hand in supplication. "This is—not fever, sir. This is my conscious self imploring you to keep her away from me, or I shall truly die—or run mad—"
"O Peregrine—O Peregrine," he stammered, in choking voice, "this can't be you—to say such things—so cruel—this is your old delirium—you are raving again—you must be—"
"Before God, sir, speaking in all sanity, I beg and implore that you will—keep her from me."
"Oh, damnation—this is awful!" exclaimed my uncle, his handsome face looking strangely haggard. "Day and night in your delirium you have lain cursing Diana and with Diana's hand upon your brow and Diana's tears wetting your pillow—and now—O Peregrine, lad, tell me you don't mean it—that you are a little fevered, yes—yes, people at such times often turn against those they most love—will kill Diana else—"
"Or she me, sir—so keep her away—don't let her touch me—I'll not see her, I say—I'll not, by God—I'll not—"
"Hush—hush! Don't scream, lad, don't scream!"
He was on his knees, had clasped my trembling weakness in his great arms and was soothing me, and I weeping for my very impotence, when the door opened and Aunt Julia appeared.
"Dear Heaven!" she cried, bending above me. "What have you done, George? What have you done to him?"
"O Aunt!" I cried. "Dear Aunt Julia, don't let her touch me again—don't let her come near me or I shall go mad—"
"No, no, my loved Perry, no one shall tend you but myself—there, dear boy, be comforted! O George, don't stand gaping—give me the draught yonder—quick!"
"Promise me, Aunt—swear she shall not approach me again!
"I swear it, dear Peregrine. Come, drink—"
CONCERNING THE SONG OF A BLACKBIRD AT EVENING
My uncle Jervas helped me carefully to the armchair by the open lattice and thereafter stood looking down at me with a certain bleak austerity of gaze.
"And you still refuse to hold any communication with her, Peregrine?"
"I do, sir."
"Or to afford her the least explanation, notwithstanding her devouring grief and distress?"
"Sir—I cannot," I answered, and shivered slightly.
"Do you feel the air too much, Peregrine?"
"Thank you, no, sir. But the topic naturally distresses me!"
"Strange," said my uncle Jervas musingly, "very strange that I should be pleading your gipsy's suit and find you so coldly, mercilessly determined to make that pleading vain! You are as stubborn as a Vereker and I think a trifle more merciless. Doubtless the reasons for your so sudden change are sufficient unto yourself, but to your friends they are profoundly incomprehensible, nor would I seek to probe the mystery; you are your own master and judge, and Diana is rich, has London at her feet, and may wed whomsoever she will, and small wonder! Indeed, with one exception, she is the most bewilderingly attractive and altogether beautiful woman I have ever had the happiness to know. So here's an end of the matter, once and for all. It is a painful topic, as you say; let us talk of other things—yourself, for instance. You will be up and about again soon, what do you propose to do with yourself, Peregrine? Now there is your friend Vere-Manville playing the devil about town—has not been entirely sober for a fortnight, I hear—I saw him myself, twice, very blatantly drunk—"
"Indeed, sir, uncle George mentioned something of this yesterday, though such conduct in Anthony is quite incomprehensible."
"Not content with this, the young fool is gambling desperately, haunts all the noted hells—I heard he dropped over a thousand recently in a few hours; his recklessness is becoming a byword."
"Good heavens, Uncle! Is he mad?"
"That you may ask him personally. I understand he intends honouring you with a visit this afternoon. He should be here shortly, unless he happens to be drunk. You are his friend, Peregrine; talk to him as such, endeavour to stem the tide of his folly, if only for his young wife's sake. Curb his madness if you can, it should be an occupation for your leisure not without interest."
Thus we conversed at large and upon many topics but spoke no further regarding her of whom we both were thinking; and thus, I believe, we were both of us a little relieved to hear a distant "view hallo."
"There rides your friend Vere-Manville, I think, Peregrine, and evidently a trifle hilarious!"
A trampling of hoofs in the paved yard below, and glancing from the window I espied Anthony sure enough, who, leaping from the saddle, reeled violently and clutched at the stalwart George to save himself.
"Aha!" he exclaimed, "seems something's matter wi' old mother earth, George—heaving damnably—up and down, George—unless it's my legs. Where's door, George? Aye, there 'tis. Seems dooced small—unless it's my eyes, George—ha ha!" So he blundered in and heavily up the stair, and after knocking thunderously, entered. At sight of my uncle Jervas, he halted, drew himself very erect and bowed profoundly and with a flourish, and when he spoke his speech was so thick that I dreaded lest he hiccough:
"Your servant, S' Jervas! Hope I see y' well, sir?"
My uncle's bow was extremely stately and distant.
"Peregrine," said he, "seeing you have—enlivening company, I will take occasion to go and meet your aunt Julia. Mr. Vere-Manville, I would venture to impress upon you that my nephew is still very much of an invalid." So saying, my uncle saluted us in turn with his grandest air and went out, closing the door behind him.
"Thinks I'm drunk, does he!" exclaimed Anthony, scowling after him. "Well, what the devil—so I am, damned d-drunk and so much the better—"
"So much the worse, Anthony!"
"Tush, you talk like a fool, Perry; better be drunk and forget than be sober and a s-suicide—felo—felo-de-se, buried at cross road—stake through your inside—devilish unpleasant business—"
"You talk like a madman, Anthony."
"And you like a f-fool, Perry! Here's you come back t' life like a fool, instead o' dying comfortably and respectably like—wise man. Here's you hoping and yearning to marry and that's the damndest folly of all. Much better be comfortably dead—"
"For shame, Anthony—for shame!" cried I angrily. "If you have so lost respect for yourself—at least think of and respect your wife—"
"Wife!" he exclaimed. "My wife!" and springing up out of the chair I saw him tower above me, clenched hands upflung, his comely features distorted and horribly suffused; then he lurched to the window and leaned, choking, from the lattice. Suddenly his bowed shoulders began to heave, and I heard him laugh in dreadful manner and when he turned his look was demoniac.
"Egad, but you will have your joke, eh, Perry, and devilish funny—aye, devilish! My wife, says you—ha! ha! says I. You're drunk, says you—I am, says I—so I can laugh, d'ye see—"
"Anthony!" I cried, rising from my chair. "O Anthony, here's more than drink—dear fellow, in God's name, what is it?" And I grasped at him with weak but insistent hands.
For a moment he made as if to throw me off, then his long arm was about me, his head bowed upon my shoulder, and when he spoke his voice had lost its wild, mad ring.
"D'ye think I like getting drunk, Perry? But there are worse things—madness and murder. A bullet would be quick, but I still have hope—sometimes—and death by drink is a slow business, so I've chosen death by drink—"
"Why, Tony? What is the trouble? Is it—Barbara—your Loveliness?"
"She has never been the same since she came back from abroad, Perry. Some secret trouble—all these weeks it has been getting worse—she has sometimes seemed afraid of me—of me, Perry! At last I taxed her with it—begged she'd confide in me. She told me there was nothing, laughed it off and I believed it, like a fool—but that night, Perry—that night, as she slept—and looking pure and holy as one of God's angels, she—cried on a name—a man's name. I woke her—questioned her, begged, implored, commanded—and still she laughed, but always with the fear in her eyes. And I know she lied! Then I took to watching her and she me—and so it went on until—there were times when I could have struck her—choked the truth out of her—O Perry! So I left her—went to London. Oh damnation, d'ye wonder I drink? Better drink myself to the devil than harm her—though drink will take a long time to kill me, I'm afraid—"
"Drink never shall, Tony! There, sit down, old fellow, calm yourself, for by heaven I think you are making much out of little—"
"Why did she lie to me?"
"Are you sure she did?"
"What do you propose to do?"
"Go back to London."
"Then I will accompany you."
"Impossible; you're weak as a confounded rabbit!"
"I'm stronger than I look; I've walked regularly in the garden these last three days. However, if you go to London, I go too."
"Well, and if so—what could you do?"
"Remind you that a gentleman must endure unflinchingly and suffer with unshaken fortitude."
"Ha, would you preach at me?"
"Day and night, if necessary."
"Would you, begad!"
"I would! Indeed I would make myself a pestilential nuisance to help my friend."
"Friend!" he repeated. "Oh, curse and confound it, Perry, if I wasn't such a miserable, hopeless dog, I should be proud of such friendship—I am proud of it and always shall be—but here our companionship ends. There's but one course for me, and I intend to ride to the devil—alone!"
It was at this moment that the door opened and I rose to my feet, trembling, as Diana stepped into the room. She was clad for riding and her close-fitting habit served only to accentuate the voluptuous beauty of her form, yet her eyes seemed maidenly and untroubled, wide-opened and serenely steadfast as of old, and this of itself stirred within me a sullen resentment as she stood looking at me, a little pale, very wistful, yet radiant in her beauty; and when she spoke her voice was untroubled as her look.
"Mr. Vere-Manville, I beg you will leave us awhile!"
Even as she spoke, Anthony bowed, strode to the door and was gone before I could stay him.
One word, softly uttered, yet in it a world of pleading—reproach and troubled wonderment, insomuch that, remembering that accursed black-bodied chaise, the ring and gossamer veil, my sullen resentment waxed to bitter anger, the whole thing seemed so utterly nauseous.
Evening was falling and from one of the trees in the orchard a blackbird was calling to his mate, soft and sweetly plaintive, and never, to the end of my days, may I hear such without recalling all the agony of this hour.
We stood very silent, looking upon each other, while the blackbird piped in the orchard below; and now I trembled no more, for my anger was passed and in its stead was a cold and purposeful determination.
"Are you better, Peregrine?" she questioned at last. "More yourself?"
"Thank you, yes."
When next she spoke her voice faltered a little, though her glance never wavered.
"Peregrine, why—why did you—drive me away? Why refuse to see me?"
"To avoid a painful scene."
"But what should cause a painful scene—between us, Peregrine? Oh, my dear, what is it—what has changed you? Is it your illness?"
"Let us suppose so."
"Have you no—no other explanation to offer me?" she questioned wistfully and stood waiting my answer, drawing her riding gauntlet a little nervously through her ungloved hand, on the slender finger of which I saw the scarabaeus ring. "Is there, O Peregrine, is there no other explanation?"
"None!" said I savagely, my eyes on that accursed ring. "None!"
"Peregrine—dear," she questioned humbly, "have you learned to—to love one more—more worthy than I in my absence?"
"God forbid!" I answered. "Love has become for me a thing abhorred and utterly detestable."
"Then God help me," said she in strange, passionless voice, "for without your love I shall be desolate!"
"But you are so beautiful—so very beautiful you will never lack for comfort, you could find scores of noble suitors to-morrow eager and willing. So why talk of desolation?"
Now at this she shrank a little, staring at me with a dawning horror in her eyes.
"Peregrine," she whispered, "O Peregrine, can this indeed be you? My loved Peregrine, my gentleman that was so chivalrous and gentle once, and now to hurt me so wilfully—so bitterly!"
"I am two years older, and—a little wiser, perhaps."
"Two years!" she repeated dully. "Two years I should never have left you—it was wrong! And yet—can two years work so great a change in any one? Ah, no, no—this cannot be you—so cold—so hard and cruel! Oh, if we might but have those two years back again when you were your own dear self and I your loving gipsy girl with no ambition but to be worthy of—just you! O Peregrine, is your love for me truly dead—so soon?"
As thus she spoke, all pleading, passionate entreaty, she came towards me with both arms outstretched, her eyes abrim with tears; but, frowning at her ungloved hand, I started back so hurriedly that she stopped and looked at me as if I had struck her; then she shrank away, her proud head drooped, her arms fell and she covered her face. "Then it is true!" she gasped, "all—dreadfully true." And upon the silence stole the sweetly plaintive notes of the blackbird calling, calling from the orchard below.
And as she stood thus, bowed and shaken with her grief, I kept my gaze ever upon that betraying scarabaeus ring. Suddenly she raised her head and I saw her tearless but very pale.
"Yes, you are changed," said she, in that strange, passionless tone, "quite changed; your eyes are cold, your face cruel and hard and yet—O dear God!" she cried, "O dear God, I cannot believe your love is truly dead—how can I? O dear, dear Peregrine, tell me you do love me still—if only just a little—oh, be merciful, dear—!"
And now indeed she was weeping but, blinded by her tears, choked by her sobs, she yet reached out her arms to me in mute appeal; and it seemed that somehow her tears were blinding me also, her passionate sobs shaking me, for I stood in a mist, groping for the support of my chair-back; indistinctly I heard a voice speak that I knew was mine.
"So you still wear the scarab ring—I've seen it before. But where is your veil with the gold stars? I did love you once—worshipped—reverenced your maidenly purity—your brave truthfulness but—that love is dead —crushed—crushed beneath red wheels, and I would to God I were dead with it. No—if you please, don't touch me—by your leave I will sit—and beg you to excuse me. I—would be alone."
"Ah, Peregrine—beloved, you are crying too!"
"Indeed yes. I grieve that I am not dead."
"But why—why would you be dead, my own?"
"Because—O Diana—I cannot help but—love you after all. And now, pray go—I beseech you, leave me ere the devil break loose and I speak the unforgivable thing ... Go, I entreat!"
With some such hysterical words as these and blinded by a gush of weak, unmanly tears, I sent her from me, unheeding alike her piteous entreaties and the clasp of her imploring hands. When she was gone I sank into my chair and suffered my tears to flow unchecked, while the blackbird voiced the agony of loss and disillusionment.
THE DEEPS OF HELL
Your Heroes of Romance from time immemorial have generally been large men, more or less handsome, superlatively strong, void of all fear, stalwart of body and steadfast of mind; moreover, being singled out by a hard fate to endure much and often, they suffer, unflinchingly and uncomplainingly, to extremity, like the heroes they are. To be sure, under great stress of mental or even bodily anguish, they are sometimes allowed to sigh, to tremble, or even emit an occasional groan, but tears, it seems, are a weakness forbidden them.
All of which foregoing is to lend additional point to the fact that in my last chapter I leave myself huddled miserably in my chair and dissolved in bitter tears; which of itself should sufficiently preclude the remotest possibility of my reader ever mistaking me for a hero, even if Nature had not done this already.
Behold me then, a high-strung, delicate, hysterical youth, weeping in an agony of shameful horror evoked of a perfervid imagination.
O Imagination! Whoso is possessed of thee is cursed or blessed by a fearful magic whereby the misty vision becomes real, unworthy suspicion changed to hateful certainty, the vague idea into a living horror to haunt us day and night until sweet Reason shrinks appalled; by imagination we may scale the heights of heaven or plumb the foulest deeps of hell.
So I, being not in the least like a Hero of Romance, wept miserably, staring through tears upon a countryside bathed in the glory of sunset; but to my jaundiced vision this radiance but made my circumambient shadow the blacker by contrast, a mephitic gloom wherein a chaise with red wheels bore Diana to her "slave and master"—a master whose power was such that he could force her, willing or unwilling, to obey his summons—his every behest ... horror on horror ... shame on shame, until my mind reeled sick with loathing.
And she who had driven with the profligate Danby to God alone knew what infamy—even she would return to act for me her part of sorrowing wonder—to weep and sigh. Oh, shameful hypocrisy! And with her would be my aunt and uncles to wonder also and shake grave heads over me, torturing me with their love while in my consciousness gnawed this undying horror that, like a demon raged within me, passioning for utterance, insomuch that day or night I had dreaded lest I babble the obscenities that haunted me. Better to die than speak! A bullet would be quick, as Anthony had said—and I had no fire arms! But I remembered that in the kitchen downstairs I had seen a pistol hung up in a dark corner and above the mantel hung George's bayonet, at whose keen point lay silence and oblivion; and this thought had in it a degree of comfort as I sat crouched in my chair, half-blinded by my unheroic tears.
The sun had set, the blackbird had ended his song, for evening was falling apace; against the glimmering dusk bats wheeled and hovered, and as the shadows deepened I watched the stars shine forth, while low down in the darkening sky was an effulgence that marked the rising moon.
Suddenly I arose, moved by a dominating purpose, kicked off my slippers, struggled into my boots and, taking surtout and hat, strode resolutely downstairs; by good hap there chanced to be nobody in the kitchen and, crossing to a certain corner, I took from the wall a small but serviceable-looking pistol, and having assured myself that it was primed and loaded, I slipped it into my pocket and stepped out into the fragrant dusk.
But as I crossed the yard, George suddenly emerged from the stables.
"Lord, Mr. Vereker, sir!" he exclaimed, touching an eyebrow.
"Any one about, George?"
"Nary a soul, sir—'cept me an' my little old woman. But 'bout a hour ago Mr. Anthony's lady rides up, all a-tremblin' an' pale—an' no wonder, poor soul, seein' Mr. Anthony galloped off lookin' like a devil an' a bottle o' my brandy in 'is pocket!"
"Had Mrs. Vere-Manville come to find him, George?"
"No, sir! He'd been gone a good 'arf-hour afore she came. 'O George,' says she, all a-gaspin' like, 'is Miss Lovel 'ere?' 'Upstairs along o' Mr. Vereker, ma'm,' I says. 'Oh, I must see her—I must see her!' cries she, a-shakin' wuss'n ever, so that I was afeard she'd fall off 'er 'oss an' 'im that gentle! 'Can I 'elp you ma'm?' says I. 'No!' says she, moanin' an' breathless-like. 'Oh, no, George—nobody can, O God, 'elp me, God 'elp me!' An' then, sir, down comes Miss Lovel an' runs to 'er. 'Why, Babs!' says she, anxious-like. 'Oh, what is it, dearest?' At this, Mr. Anthony's lady begins to sob—'eart-breakin', sir! 'O Di,' says she, all wildlike, 'O Di dear, 'e wants me! 'E says I must go—to-night—an' I'm afraid.' So Miss Lovel, she kisses 'er an' they whisper together. Then Miss Lovel calls for 'er 'oss, an' away they ride very close together, an' Miss L.'s arm about 'er. Lord, sir, who'd a thought it o' Mr. Anthony? So wild an' fierce-like 'e were—enough to fright any woman, 'specially such a beautiful, gentle creetur' as 'is wife! Drink 's a fearsome thing!"
"True, George. But Mr. Anthony would die rather than harm her, I am sure."
"Maybe, sir—but 'e looked 'orrible wild an' fierce when 'e rode off—an' drink du be a tur'ble thing."
"Now—touching a chaise, George—"
"A black chaise picked out in yellow, with red wheels. You have seen such drive up to Raydon Manor, yonder, you told me once, I think?"
"I did, sir, an' I 'ave—frequent! It do have drove up theer this very evening. But Lord, Mr. Vereker, be you a thinkin' o' walkin' out—an' night comin' on?"
"I am, George."
"'T will be dark soon, sir. And you 'ardly yourself, yet!"
"No, George, there will be a moon."
"But, sir, wot am I to tell your lady aunt?"
"That I have taken a walk in quest of my health—and sanity, George."
"Be you a-goin' fur, sir?"
"No further than I need."
"Then I think I'll go along wi' you, sir."
"No, George, I may be back before the moon is up. At least—no, it will be high-risen when I return, most likely. Only pray assure my aunt that I am doing the very best for myself." So saying, I left the faithful George staring after me and shaking dubious head.
I walked at a leisurely pace, deliberating how best to contrive the desperate task I had set myself to accomplish, how best to bring it to a final and certain issue.
And presently up came the moon in glory and I stared up at her as one does who may behold her perhaps for the last time. Calm and serene she arose, and as I walked amid this tender light, I seemed to breathe in something of her passionless serenity and knew a strange exaltation of mind, placid and untroubled. Gone were my fever dreams, the foul horrors that had haunted me, and my obscene demons were vanished utterly away and with them, as it seemed, the inertia of my late sickness.
To die, and in so doing take evil with me, leaving the world so much the better? To die, and perhaps find for myself that oblivion, that untroubled rest that I so earnestly desired? Surely Death, after all, was the Great Good Thing? So I walked on at leisurely pace, serene, assured and utterly content.
Reaching the high road, I followed it until I espied a rutted byway bounded on the one hand by lofty trees and on the other by a high and sinister wall. At the same leisurely pace I strolled down this dark lane and thus arrived at a pair of tall and very massive iron gates.
Here I paused, and though the adjacent trees cast much shadow, presently discovered a bell handle to which I applied myself forthwith.
After some delay the door of the lodge opened and a figure appeared, though strangely vague and indistinct and then, peering at me through the bars of the gate, I saw a gigantic negro, his skin as black as his livery.
"Is your master in?" I demanded.
"Who yo' mean—mah master?" he replied in surly tone.
"I wish to see Mr. Haredale or Captain Danby."
"No sich names hyah!"
"Well then, I want Mr. Trenchard."
"Who's yo' se'f to see Mas'r Trenchard?"
"I am an—acquaintance of his."
"Well, ah don' know yo' face, so ah guess dey's bof' out fo' you an' so's yo'se'f—an' can stay out, fo' shure." Having said which, the negro laughed shrilly, and I saw the flash of his teeth ere he departed.
Balked thus but determined as ever, I turned away and began to follow the wall, looking for a place where I might climb it by means of some tree or rise in the ground. And with every step the sudden conviction I had formed that Trenchard was Haredale grew stronger; and Haredale, as I knew, was but another name for that evil rogue whose name had once been Devereux.
I went slowly, scanning every yard of the wall for a likely place, now in brilliant moonlight, now in shadow, while stronger and stronger waxed my determination that, supposing Trenchard were Devereux indeed, I would this night rid the world of him once and for all.
Presently, as I went, resolutely seeking a way to come at my desire, I found myself stumbling amid the dense gloom of tall trees; but I pushed on until before me, the moon being now high-risen, I saw the blackness cleft by a shaft of radiance and, coming nearer, stopped all at once to scowl at a small door in the wall that seemed to scowl back at me between deep buttresses.
Now suddenly, as I stood thus, I heard a sound of steps and voices on the other side of the wall, a key was thrust into the lock of this door, and instinctively I shrank back and back into the gloom of the trees; I heard the key turn, the drawing of heavy bolts, and then, as I crouched, hand upon the weapon in my pocket, the door opened.
And now at last I knew why this door had haunted my dreams, a thing of unutterable evil for, from beneath its frowning shadow, out into the moonlight, stepped Diana.
She was shrouded in a long, hooded cloak, but my sickened senses knew her even before she put back the hood to glance stealthily about her, like the shameful, guilty thing she was. Suddenly she shrank, cowering, as upon the air broke a strange, inarticulate cry that I knew for my own; an unseen hand plucked her back, the door closed, was locked and swiftly bolted, and I heard the sound of running feet.
And now, all too late, I sprang to smite this accursed door with maddened fists, to beat it with pistol butt and utter incoherent shouts and ravings. All at once my arm was in a powerful grip, the pistol twisted out of my hold and I glared up into the face of Anthony. His hat was gone, he swayed gently on his feet, and when he spoke his voice was hoarse and indistinct.
"What's t' do, old fellow—dev'lish din you're making—most infernal. Won't they open th' curst door t' ye then, Perry? Well—never mind—take a pull at this—nothing like brandy—"
From capacious pocket he drew forth a bottle and held it towards me, which I forthwith dashed against the wall.
"And now," said I, "give me the pistol!"
"What for?" he demanded, sobered a little.
"Because I purpose to shoot him."
"Trenchard or Haredale or Devereux or whatever he calls himself. Come, give me the pistol. To-night I make an end of him and his deviltries once and for all."
For a moment Anthony blinked at me in foolish amaze.
"Why, Perry—why, Perry!" he exclaimed. "B'gad, can this be you indeed?" And then, as if quite sobered by what he read in my face, he fell back a step, brushed hand across his eyes, peered at me again, and his slouching figure grew erect and purposeful.
"Give me that pistol!" I repeated.
"No, Peregrine!" said he, his voice sharp and incisive. "Killing is murder, and I am your friend. But if you wish to fight a fellow, or say twenty fellows, b'gad, I'm with you! The more the merrier—so speak the word!"
"Yes!" said I. "Yes, I'll fight, but kill him I will—it almost seems preordained that I should kill him from the beginning—"
"And whom did you say he was, Perry?"
"Trenchard he calls himself hereabouts—the damnable villain who lives here at Raydon Manor."
"A duel!" quoth Anthony, smiling grimly. "If you fight, Perry, I fight; b' God, I'll find somebody to accommodate me one way or another—a duel, oh, most excellent! Ha, dooce take me, but you're right, Perry, I never thought o' this. Oh, damme, the very thing—I'm with you heart and soul, dear fellow, so come on."
So saying, he ran at the wall and, leaping with long arms at full stretch, gripped the coping with iron fingers, drew himself up and reaching long arm down, had swung me up beside him, all in a moment.
"Ha, Perry!" he exclaimed, as we prepared to drop into the garden below, "I'm a curst, dull-witted ass—here have I been sedulously guzzling ale, rum, brandy and dooce knows how many kinds of wine, and what I really needed was blood, d'ye see? Blood, old fellow, no matter whose. And, begad, blood we'll have to-night, Perry, or know the reason why. Come on, old fellow, both together—now!"
Down he leapt and down I scrambled, and side by side we advanced towards the house that held for me all the nauseous evil and unspeakable shame of all the world.
CONCERNING THE OPENING OF A DOOR
"Anthony, give me the pistol!"
"Damme, no—ha' patience! Meantime take this—more useful if it comes t' scrimmage!" And he twisted a stake from the flower bed we were trampling and thrust it into my hand. "Enemy's country, Perry,—qui vive! Hist! Attention and all the rest of it! Forward an' curse the consequences!"
So we stole forward like the madmen we were, but very silent and very determined.
The house stood upon a noble terrace, a large house of many gables and windows, most of these last being unlighted. Fortune seemed to favour us, for we met with none to oppose us, and mounting a broad flight of stone steps, reached the terrace unmolested. But as I stood glancing about for some door or likely window whereby we might force entrance, Anthony dragged me down suddenly into the shadow of the balustrade, as round a corner of the house two men appeared.
"Wot," growled one, pausing, the better to spit in passionate disgust, "put the 'orses to the phaeton, must I? And at this time o' night—an' all for a couple o' light country Molls as is afeard to foot it 'ome in the dark, curse 'em!"
"She ain't no country Moll, Ben, leastways not 'er as I see—a reg'lar 'igh-stepper—all the lady, Ben—such eyes, ecod—such a shape to 'er, Ben—"
"Well, dang 'er shape, I says! Why can't she go as she come?"
"Summat in the wood give 'er a turn, scared 'er like, an' back she run to the Guv'nor an' orders 'im to 'ave the phaeton round, which the Guv'nor does; an' there's 'im an' t' others a-toastin' of 'er this 'ere werry minute. Oh, she's a lady, Ben, an' mighty 'igh an' 'aughty, by 'er looks."
"'Aughty!" sneered Ben, spitting again. "Lady! We know th' kind o' ladies as comes a visitin' th' Guv'nor or the Captain 'ere a-nights—"
"Shut your trap, Ben, an' get to your 'osses, lady or no."
"Lady—ha, fine doin's—fine doin's! Shameless 'ussies—"
"Close up, Ben, close up—mum's the word hereabouts! The Guv'nor's got a quick eye for a fine young woman—ah, an' so's you an' me, for that matter! An' I tell ye, this 'un's a fine lady, even if a bit frolicsome. So git to your 'osses, Ben—an' sharp's the word."
The man Ben sniffed and, muttering evilly, slouched away, leaving his fellow to sigh gustily and stare up at the moon; a square-shouldered, bullet-headed man who, leering up at Diana's chaste loveliness, began to scrape and pick at his teeth with a thumb nail. And then Anthony sneezed violently. The man stood rigid, thumb at mouth, peering.
"'Oo's there?" he demanded gruffly, and began to advance, head bowed and arms squared in a posture of offence.
In one moment, as it seemed, Anthony was upon him; ensued a scrape of feet, a thudding of blows, a strangled cry, and they were down, rolling upon the gravel and with never a chance for me to get in a stroke with my unwieldy hedge stake. At last Anthony arose, panting a little and smiling grimly, looking from the man's inert form to his own bleeding knuckles.
"This," he whispered breathlessly, "this is doing me—power o' good! Toughish customer—forced to give him—tap with pistol butt. How about the fellow Ben?"
"No, no, Anthony! The door yonder—quick—this way!"
I remember a long, dim-lit passage, a narrow stair, and we found ourselves in a broad and spacious hall where shaded lamps burned and nude statues gleamed against rich hangings.
Borne to our ears came a jingle of glasses, the line of a song and boisterous laughter. A door opened suddenly and a man stepped into the hall, his bulky figure outlined against the lights of the room behind him, but he paused upon the threshold to glance back and flourish something triumphantly.
"Treasure trove!" he laughed. "The memento of a delightful hour!"
With the words upon his lips he turned, and I recognised Captain Danby. He was halfway across the hall when he espied us and stopped to glare in wide-eyed amazement; something fluttered to the floor and he began to retreat softly and slowly before us, but Anthony was pointing down at a small bundle of lace with hand that shook and wavered strangely.
"Look at it, Perry—look!" he muttered. "Look, man! Why—God's death, Perry—it's her lace scarf—belongs to my Loveliness, Perry—should know it anywhere—it's—hers, man—and here! Oh, damnation!"
In a flash he had picked it up and, roaring like a madman, hurled himself against the closing door. For moment was a desperate scuffling and frenzied straining and gasping, a creaking of stout panels, then the door swung violently open and we burst into the room.
A disordered supper table littered with bottles, three or four breathless gentlemen who panted and glared, and a curtained doorway in one corner; all this I was aware of, though my gaze never left the face of him who stood before this curtained door, a tall, slender man very elegantly calm and wholly unperturbed, except for the slight frown that puckered his thick brows,—a handsome face the paler by contrast with its dark and glossy hair.
For a tense moment there was silence but for Anthony's loud and irregular breathing; when at last he spoke his voice sounded wholly unfamiliar:
"Damned scoundrels—look at this! My wife's scarf—is she here? By God, if she is, I'll find her if I have to kill you one by one and wreck this hellish place—"
"Fellow's drunk!" suggested some one, whereupon Anthony cursed them one and all, and I heard the sharp click of the pistol as he cocked it, but I restrained him with a gesture:
"Mr. Trenchard," said I, "Mr. Haredale—Devereux or whatever name you happen to be using, I have forced myself upon you to-night to inform you that, knowing you at last for the foul and loathsome thing you are, I am very earnest that you should pollute the world no longer. Two years ago you struck me in the yard behind the Chequers Inn, at Tonbridge; I call upon you to account for that blow to-night—here and now!"
"Let any man stir and I shoot to kill!" said Anthony between shut teeth; his heavy tread shook the floor behind me, then he had swung me aside and fronted Devereux the pistol in his hand, face convulsed and murder glaring in his eyes.
"Trenchard," said he in strange, hissing whisper, "there is a curtained door behind you—whom are you hiding in there? Trenchard, I am yearning to kill you and kill you I will, so help me God, unless you draw that curtain and open that door—d'ye hear me?"
Trenchard's tall form seemed to stiffen, his mocking smile vanished, but his eyes never wavered.
Anthony levelled the pistol.
"Trenchard," said he softly, "I'll count three!"
Then Trenchard laughed lightly.
"Egad, sir," said he with a flourish, "drunk or no, you have a devilish persuading air about you. Behold then, and judge of my felicity!"
Thus speaking, he drew aside the curtain and reached white hand towards the door behind, but at this moment and before he could touch it, the door swung open and Diana stepped forth.
"Mr. Vere-Manville," said she, her soft voice calm and even, "pray give me my scarf, your wife made me a present of it days ago!" And she reached out her hand with the old, imperious gesture that I remembered so well. So Anthony gave her the handful of lace and turned his back upon us.
"O Perry!" he exclaimed with a groan, "O Perry, dear friend—what have I done! God forgive me—"
"Heavens, Anthony!" quoth I. "Pray why distress yourself upon a matter so trivial—besides, I knew already. And now, Mr. Trenchard or Haredale or Devereux, if this lady will be so obliging as to retire, we can settle our small concern very comfortably here across the table."
"No, Peregrine!" said Diana in the same even tone.
"Mr. Trenchard—" I began.
"I say you shall not, Peregrine!" said she softly.
"Mr. Haredale—" quoth I.
"O Peregrine," she sighed, "suspicion has poisoned your mind against me or you would never stoop to doubt me—even here—"
"Mr. Devereux," said I, "will you pray have the courtesy to desire your charming friend to leave us awhile—"
"O Peregrine!" she gasped, and though I never so much as glanced in her direction, I knew she had shrunk farther from me. "Some day, oh, some day, Peregrine, you will regret this bitterly—bitterly—" Her voice broke, and in its place came Devereux's hateful tones:
"'My charming friend' is well aware that her society is my joy and delight, nor shall I cheat myself of one moment on your account, sir, whoever you chance to be."
"Why, then," said I, laying my card on the table, "the lady's presence need not deter us, I think. Let us be done with the affair at once."
"Absolutely and utterly impossible, sir!" he answered, taking up my card. "Since you desire me to kill you, I will do so with a perfect pleasure, but at my own time and place and—" Here he paused as he read my name, and stood a moment staring down at the pasteboard with that same faint pucker of the brow; then he laughed suddenly and tossed my card to Captain Danby. "Odd, Tom!" said he; then turning to me, "Mr. Vereker, I will meet you at the very earliest moment—shall we say five o'clock to-morrow morning? There is a small tavern called 'The Anchor' a few miles along the Maidstone road, a remote spot very suitable for a little shooting. And now, sir, pray begone. I am occupied, as you see—while my friends pour libations to Bacchus, I worship at the shrine of Venus."
Here, turning very ostentatiously, he bowed to Diana, viewing her with look so evil that I clenched my fists and made to spring at him, but Anthony's powerful hand arrested me:
"Come away, Perry," he whispered, "you can do no more to-night. Don't show 'em your pain—pride, man, pride! Come away, old fellow."
So I suffered him to lead me whither he would, following the impulse of his guiding arm like a blind man, for the shadow had closed in blacker than ever, to engulf me at last, and it seemed that my only escape from this horror was to grasp the kindly hand of Death.
Once clear of this accursed house I was seized of a great disgust, a nausea that was both mental and physical, and I groaned aloud in my extremity.
"O God, Anthony! Oh, my God!"
At this he clasped me in his arms and I stood awhile, shivering, my face hidden in his bosom.
"Dear fellow!" he muttered. "Women are the devil. I know—I'm married, d'ye see!"
Faint and far away a church clock struck the hour.
"What time was that?" I enquired.
"Eleven o'clock, Perry."
"Six weary hours to wait!" I groaned.
"B'gad, yes—only six hours!"
"Thank God!" quoth I fervently, and so we went on again, arm in arm.
"You mean to kill that damned fellow, Peregrine?"
"If they place us near enough."
"You are good for twelve paces, I suppose?"
"I don't know."
"But you—you shoot reasonably well, of course?"
"Very badly! This was why I was so anxious to do my shooting across a table—"
"But you—you—O Lord, Perry—you are familiar with the weapon—practised at the galleries occasionally?"
"I have shot once or twice at a target to please my uncle Jervas, but never succeeded in hitting it that I remember."
"That is what my uncle Jervas said, I remember."
"But then—why how—oh, man!" stammered Anthony, viewing me in wide-eyed dismay, "how in the fiend's name d' you expect to hit your man?"
"I don't know, Anthony—except, as I say, across a table or a handkerchief. But what matter? After all, perhaps it is—yes—just as well—"
"Why, then 't will be rank murder! Ha, by heaven, Perry, you—you mean to let the fellow murder you—is this it?"
"I mean to shoot as straight as I can."
"It will be murder!" he cried wildly, and then tossing up his long arms in a helpless, distracted manner, he cried, "By God, Perry, you are as good as dead already!"
"Why, then," said I, grasping him by the arm, "listen to the voice of a dying man and one who has never accomplished anything as yet—indeed, I have been a failure all my life—"
"You, Perry? A failure—how, man, how?"
"Well, I yearned to be a poet—and failed. I tried to be a painter—and failed again. I endeavoured to become a man and have achieved nothing. I am a sentient futility! But to-night—ah, to-night kind fortune sent me—you. And you were drunk again!"
"I'm sober enough now, b'gad!"
"Drunkenness, Anthony, as you know, is the refuge for cowards and weaklings, and all unworthy such a man as Anthony Vere-Manville—"
"Egad, will you preach at me, Perry?"
"Call it so if you will, but to-night is something of an occasion and here is a setting excellently adapted to the sermon of a dying man."
And indeed it was a night to wonder at, very still and silent and filled with the splendour of a great moon whose peaceful radiance fell upon the sleeping countryside like a benediction.
"Look," said I, "look round you, Anthony, upon this wonder of earth and heaven! Does it not wake in you some consciousness of divinity, some assured hope that we in our nobler selves are one with the Infinite Good?"
"Why, to be sure, now you mention it," he answered easily, glancing from me to the radiant heaven and back again, "it is a very glorious night!"
"Yes!" said I. "'In such a night stood Dido with a willow in her hand upon the wide sea banks and wafted her love to come again to Carthage!'"
"Eh?" exclaimed Anthony, peering at me anxiously.
"'In such a night Medea gathered the enchanted herbs,'—and in such a night your friend, who may never see another—takes occasion to ask a promise of you."
"What is it, Perry?"
"That henceforth you will be drunk no more. Give me your word for this, Anthony, and come what will, I shall not have lived in vain."
"Why, Peregrine," he mumbled, "dear fellow—not quite yourself—very natural—quite understand—"
"On the contrary, I have never been so truly myself as now, Anthony. Grant me this and—if death find me to-morrow morning, I shall indeed have accomplished something worthy at last. So, Anthony—promise me!"
For a moment he stood very still, gazing up at the moon, then, all in a moment, had caught my hand to wring it hard; but the pain of his grip was a joy and the look on his face a comfort beyond words.
"I—I Swear it!" said he between quivering lips. "God's love, man, I'd promise you anything to-night! And now—laugh, man, laugh—oh, dammit!" Here he choked and was silent awhile.
"Where are you taking me, Anthony? I cannot return to the 'Soaring Lark.'"
"Of course not. You're coming with me to 'The Bear' at Hadlow. I have a room there. And you'll promise to be guided by me until this—this cursed affair is over—place yourself and the affair in my hands, Perry?"
"Then I stipulate for supper and bed as soon as possible."
"Very well, Anthony—though I ought to draw up some sort of a will first, oughtn't I?"
"Yes, it is customary, dear fellow."
"There's my Wildfire, I'll leave him to you—if you'll have him."
"Of course—and thank you, Perry."
"You'll soon grow to love the rascal in spite of his mischievous tricks—"
"I hope to heaven I never have the chance—oh, curse and confound it—don't be so devilish calm and assured. You—you talk as if you were going out to your execution!"
"No, no, Anthony," I answered, slipping my hand within his arm, "let us rather say—to my triumph."
TELLS HOW A MYSTERY WAS RESOLVED
I opened my eyes on a bleak dawn full of a pallid, stealthy mist, to find myself cramped in my chair before the open lattice and with Anthony bending over me, his comely features haggard in the sickly light.
"Ha, you didn't go to bed then?"
"Evidently not!" I answered, shivering. "But I slept—"
"Well, I did—and never a wink, confound it! And here's you basking before an open window—and on such a perfectly damned morning—have you ill again!" and, shivering in his turn, he proceeded to close the lattice and light the candles.
"Pray what o'clock is it, Anthony?"
"A quarter to four. I have ordered a chaise to be ready in half an hour; seems this 'Anchor' Inn is some eight miles away—and better be a little early than late."
After a somewhat hasty toilet, during which Anthony contrived to cut himself, we descended to find a goodly breakfast and a cheerful fire; but scarcely were we at table than Anthony tugged at the bell rope.
"Good morrow to thee, Thomas!" quoth he to the portly and somnolent landlord who responded to the summons. "Chaise will be round soon, I hope?"
"Whenever ye do so wish, Mr. Anthony, sir."
"Excellent! Then pray, Tom, take hence this stuff!" And he pointed to a bottle at his elbow.
"Stuff, sir! Oh, Mr. Anthony—stuff?" exclaimed the landlord in sorrowful reproach, his somnolence forgotten in surprise. "It be brandy, sir—best French—your very own particular—"
"Aye, Tom, I know it is, and begad, I'm lusting for a mouthful—that's why I bid you take it away—drink coffee instead, confound it! So hence with it, Thomas—away!"
Very round of eye, the landlord took up the bottle and wandered off with it like one in a dream.
Anthony gulped his coffee, but, though the fare was excellent, ate little, fidgeted with his stock, shuffled in his chair, glanced frequently and stealthily at his watch and, in fine, discovered all those symptoms that indicated an extreme perturbation of mind.
"Devil take it, Perry—how you eat!" he exclaimed at last.
"The ham is delicious, Anthony—".
"Dooced stuff would choke me! Oh, by heaven, I'd give anything—everything, to take your place for the next hour!"
"But then, Anthony, it would probably be I who could not eat!"
"Tush, man, I'll hit you the ace of spades six times out of seven at twelve paces! Four o'clock, by heaven! I wonder if that confounded chaise will be ready yet!" And up he sprang and hasted away into the yard and almost immediately came hurrying back to tell me the vehicle was at the door.
Outside the mist seemed thick as ever, though the east was brightening to day; so I entered the chaise, followed by Anthony growling disgust, the door slammed, and through the open window came the round head of Tom the landlord to bob at us in turn.
"'T will grow finer mayhap by an' by, sirs," quoth he, "hows'ever, good luck an' good fortun' to ye, gentlemen—all right, Peter!" he called to the postillion. Whereupon a whip cracked, the chaise lurched forward and landlord and inn vanished in the swirling mist.
For a while we rode without talking, Anthony scowling out of his window, I staring out of mine at an eddying haze which, thinning out ever and anon, showed vague shapes that peeped forth only to be lost again, spectral trees, barns and ricks, looming unearthly in the half-light.
"Perry, you—you are confoundedly silent!"
"You are not particularly loquacious either," I retorted, slipping my hand within his arm.
"Why, no—no, b'gad—I'm not, Perry. But then, it's such a peculiarly damnable morning, d'ye see."
"Well, it will mayhap grow finer later on, remember."
"Hope to heaven it does!"
"It would make things—a little pleasanter, Anthony."
"Peregrine, if—should anything—anything—er—dooced happen to you, I'll—aye, by God, I'll fight the fellow myself."
"I beg you will do no such thing—I implore you Anthony."
"Oh? Damme and why not?"
"For the sake of Barbara—your Loveliness—your future happiness—"
"Tush, man!" he exclaimed bitterly. "That dream is over!"
"And I tell you Happiness is awaiting you—will come seeking you very soon, I feel sure."
"How should you know this?"
"You may have heard, Anthony, that people in such a position as mine—people who are facing the possibility of speedy dissolution, are sometimes gifted with a clearer vision—an intuition—call it what you will. However, I repeat my assurance that Happiness is awaiting you, coming to you with arms outstretched, if you will but have faith and patience—a happiness greater, fuller, richer than you have ever known."
At this, he turned to scowl out of the window again and I out of mine, and thus we came to an end of the rutted by-lanes we had been traversing and turned into the smoother going of the main road.
We had gone but a mile, as I judge, when, borne to our ears came the faint, rhythmic beat of fast-galloping hoofs growing momentarily louder.
"Someone in the devil's own hurry!" exclaimed Anthony, letting down his window. "No man would gallop his horse so without reason! Hark—hark, he must be riding like a madman—and in this fog! What the devil? Nobody to lay us by the heels—eh, Perry?"
"God forbid!" I exclaimed fervently, as Anthony leaned from the window.
"Nothing to see—mist too thick!" said he. "But road's dooced narrow hereabouts, yet hark—hark how the fellow rides!" And indeed it seemed to me that there was something terrible in the relentless beat of these wildly galloping hoofs that were coming up with us so rapidly. Anthony was peering from the window again; I heard him shout, felt the chaise swing jolting towards the hedge and the horseman was by—a blurred vision that flashed upon my sight and was gone.
"Missed by inches—dooced reckless, by Gad!" exclaimed Anthony, and I saw that his frown had vanished.
"What kind of a person was he?" I demanded.
"Muffled up to the ears, Perry, hat over his eyes—big horse—powerful beast. Going to clear up and be a fine day after all, I fancy."
"And it is nearly five o'clock!" said I, glancing at my watch.
"Hum!" sighed Anthony. "And here you sit as serenely untroubled, as placidly assured, as if you were the best shot in the world instead of the worst."
"Listen, Anthony!" I cried suddenly. "Do you hear anything—listen, man!" A faint throbbing upon the air, a pulsing beat growing louder and louder. "Do you hear it, Anthony, do you hear it?"
"No—yes—begad, Perry, it sounds like—"
"Another horse at full gallop, Anthony—and coming up behind us. Another horseman—from the same direction!"
"Dev'lish strange, Perry. How many more of 'em?"
"There will be no more!" I exclaimed bitterly, and then, the chaise beginning to slow up, I thrust my head from the window to demand why we were stopping.
"Turnpike, sir!" answered the postboy. And peering through the haze before us I saw the tollgate, sure enough, and I turned to stare back down the road towards the second hard-riding horseman, and presently beheld a vague blur that resolved itself into a rapidly oncoming shape that swept down upon us through the swirling mist; the flutter of a long cloak, a spurred boot, a shadowy form bowed low in the saddle—all this I saw in one brief moment; then rose a hoarse shout from the eddying mist ahead; the jingle of flung coins and, lifting his animal at the tollgate, the horseman cleared it at a bound and, plunging into the haze beyond, had vanished like a phantom.
And now I was seized with a passion of haste and began to shout fevered orders at our postboy.
"Hurry—hurry! A guinea—ten guineas for your best speed! Drive, man, drive like the devil. Whip—spur!"
I remember tossing money to a hoarse-voiced toll-keeper in a fur cap, and we were off in full career, the light chaise rocking and swaying. I remember Anthony's look of surprise and my answering his half-hearted questions at random or not at all, for now I rode, my head out-thrust from the window, hearkening for the sound of galloping hoofs ahead of us.
And so at last, after an eternity as it seemed, the chaise slowed again and came to an abrupt standstill before a dimly-seen building and, peering out, I made out the sign:
THE ANCHOR INN.
Next moment I had sprung out into the road and, not waiting for Anthony, hastened into the place, opened a door at random, and found myself in a small room where smoked a miserable fire over which lounged two languid gentlemen well coated and muffled against the chill of dawn.
"Sirs," said I, acknowledging their bows, "pray have you seen two horsemen pass lately?"
"Horsemen, sir?" repeated a dashing gentleman who seemed all whiskers, teeth and greatcoat. "'Pon my honour, no—stop a bit—yes, I did! They rode towards Maidstone, I fancy, sir."
"Did they stop to make any enquiries—either of them?"
"Stop, sir? No, sir—devil a bit!" answered the gentleman, flashing his teeth and shaking his whiskers to such a degree that I doubted him on the spot. At this moment Anthony appeared, whereupon ensued more polite bows and flourishes; and now the other gentleman addressed us, a plethoric, red-faced man in a furred, blue frock.
"Our friend Trenchard desired us to await you, gentlemen, to inform you that he has changed the ground. The—the—ah—affair will not take place behind the inn here as first intended, but in a place somewhat more secluded. If you will pray have the goodness to accompany us, we will—ah—show you the way."
So we set out accordingly, I, for one, little heeding or caring whither we went.
Now it chanced we came to a narrow way where but two might go abreast and I found myself walking beside the whiskered gentleman who prattled to me very pleasantly, I believe, though of what I cannot recall. After a while the path brought us to a rough track hard beside a little wood and here stood a roomy travelling-chaise and beside this the man Trenchard or Devereux, talking and laughing with Captain Danby and another.
I remember returning their salutes with a perfunctory bow, but recollect little else, for now that my time was so near, a numbness seemed to cloud my brain and I could think only that this little copse, full of the grey mist of dawn, was perhaps the last object my eyes should ever see.
"I told one of 'em," said Anthony in my ear, "fellow in blue frock yonder, that you were the dooce an' all with a hair trigger—almost as dead a shot as your uncle Jervas or Gronow of the Guards, and begad, it's set 'em all by the ears, Perry, especially that scoundrel Danby."
At this I laughed, I think, wondering the while if Anthony would ever know how much I loved and admired him.
I remember a stretch of green turf screened by trees; a solemn pacing to and fro by various grave-faced persons; a careful measuring of distances and selection of ground.
I remember some objection that Anthony made as to the light, whereupon the solemn measuring and pacing was gravely done all over again. I also recall that Anthony, while discussing or overseeing these grave proceedings, would often lift his head and glance hastily round about with a swift, keen-eyed expectancy.
I remember the sun peeping forth at last to make the world glorious and warm the chill in my bones.
And then Anthony came towards me, carrying a pistol, and I noticed that his hand shook as he offered it to me.
"God love you, Perry," he said, a little huskily. "You look as unconcerned, as cool as—as a confounded cucumber! And now, Perry, remember to aim low, all pistols are apt to throw high—so, for heaven's sake aim low, old fellow."
"Do I stand here, Anthony?"
"Yes—damned fellow insists on twelve paces!" said he, his voice sounding hoarser than ever, and I saw his glance wandering again, here and there, to and fro, in almost desperate fashion.
"Mr. Vere-Manville," called Devereux's second, "may I trouble you a moment, pray?"
Left alone, I stood watching the play of sunshine amid the leaves, when I was roused by a touch and found Captain Danby beside me.
"Your flint looks a trifle loose, sir," said he softly, "Suffer me!"
I relinquished the weapon with a murmur of thanks and stood again absorbed until I felt the pistol thrust into my grasp and heard a loud voice speaking.
"Pray attention, gentlemen! Take notice, the word will be 'one—two—'"
The loud voice faltered suddenly, was lost in the trampling of horse's hoofs and into the grassy level between Devereux and myself rode my uncle Jervas with my uncle George close behind.
My uncle Jervas reined in his horse and sat glancing serenely round about him, his lips curling in his bleak, sardonic smile, his prominent chin something more aggressive than usual.
"Ah, gentlemen," said he gently. "Your humble servant, I bid you good morning. Sir Geoffrey Devereux, we are very well met—at last. This is a pleasure I much desired when—we were younger, as you will doubtless remember, but I imagined, until very recently, that you were dead, sir, and damned, and necessarily out of my reach. You have hidden yourself surpassingly well, sir."
Very deliberately my uncle Jervas dismounted and proceeded to tether his horse to an adjacent tree, while Devereux watched him, head bowed and black brows puckered slightly above his smouldering eyes, his snowy cravat stained with a small mark of blood from an ugly scratch beneath his chin and which, despite his icy assurance seemed to worry him, for he dabbed at it now and then with his handkerchief. And now my uncle Jervas approached me, his hand outstretched imperiously, but when he spoke his voice was strangely gentle:
"Peregrine, dear boy, oblige me with that pistol."
"God bless you, Uncle Jervas!" said I fervently grasping that hand. "I thought I recognised you when your horse leapt that tollgate, but fate elected I should arrive here first, as I prayed."
"We were wilfully misdirected and went astray. And now, Peregrine, give me the pistol!"
"No, sir! Indeed you cannot, shall not take my place. This quarrel is wholly mine—a quarrel, sir, of two years' standing—"
"But mine, Peregrine, is of twenty-one years'."
"None the less, sir, you shall not shield me thus—none other shall take my place, I am here to meet that scoundrel yonder—"
"Ah, Peregrine," said my uncle, speaking very slowly and distinctly, "the scoundrel yonder, Sir Geoffrey Devereux, is the man who foully murdered your father and my brother! Give me the pistol, boy!"
As he spoke he grasped my wrist and had possessed himself of the weapon or ever I could prevent. Then he turned and faced Devereux, his eyes very keen and bright.
"George," said he in his quiet, authoritative voice, "pray give us the word."
My uncle George, still sitting his horse, lifted his right hand and I saw that he also held a pistol.
"Devereux," said he, his handsome face very fierce and grim, "if—this time—you fire before the word, even by one fraction of a second, I shoot you where you stand for the vile murderer you are—by God, I will! Now mark me! The word will be 'One—two—three—fire!' Is this understood?"
"Yes, George!" said my uncle; Devereux nodded.
"Ready!" said uncle George distinctly. "One—two—three—fire!"
A single sharp report and my uncle Jervas, lurching slightly, stared down at his weapon that had merely sparked and, letting it fall, staggered aside to a tree and leaned there.
In an instant uncle George was off his horse and together we ran to him.
"Aha, George—" he gasped in a horrible, wheezing voice, "it—it was unprimed—lend me—yours!"
"O God!" groaned my uncle George. "You're hit, Jervas—are you hurt?"
"A little, George—your pistol—quick!"
But even as he spoke and despite all his resolution and indomitable will, he seemed about to swoon; I saw his knees slowly bending under him, his stately head sank, and crying out in horror, I reached out to clasp him in my arms.
"No, no, Perry!" he gasped. "Don't touch me—yet—I have sufficient strength—dear boy." For a moment he closed his eyes and when next he spoke his voice was strangely loud and clear.
"Devereux, if ever you prayed—pray now!" Yet as he uttered these words, he sank to his knees and leaned feebly against the tree, his pallid face suddenly contorted by a dreadful spasm, so that I could scarcely bear to look. Then, sweating with the agonising effort, slowly—slowly—he raised his arm, dwelt a moment on his aim, and fired; the smoking weapon dropped from his lax fingers and, swaying sideways, he sank down, his face among the grass.
I remember my uncle George running to aid me lift this heavy head; and glancing from these dreadfully pallid features, the pitiful helplessness of this once strong form, I saw a group of pale-faced men who knelt and crouched above a twisted thing that had once answered to the name of Devereux.
"Dead, George?" questioned my uncle Jervas faintly.
"The right eye, George—I think?"
"Yes, Jervas. How is it with you, dear old fellow?"
"Very well—I'm going on—ahead of you, George. Don't—don't grieve, George—'t is none so terrible. And the great conundrum is answered, the mystery is solved, George—I mean—our Julia—she will—marry you, George, after all—I think she always loved you—best. God bless you—both! And Peregrine—my dear lad—your gipsy—a strong—angel of God—Diana—" and with this word his noble spirit passed.
And thus even death was denied me and I, it seemed, was doomed to be no more than an idle spectator.
I remember helping to bear him back to the "Anchor" Inn—laying him reverently upon a settle. And then, because I could not bear to see him so pale and still and silent, I covered him with my cloak.
I remember the tears wet upon Anthony's haggard face and my uncle George crouched in a chair, clenched fists beneath square chin, staring wide-eyed on vacancy.
"Dead!" he exclaimed in an agonised half-whisper. "I mean to say he's dead, d'ye see. Jervas—dead—seems so impossible! If it could only have been me—it wouldn't ha' mattered so much, d'ye see. There never was any one like old Jervas. And now he's—dead, my God!" The agonised whispering ceased and silence fell that was almost as terrible. But suddenly upon this awful hush broke a sound of wheels—quick footsteps; then the door swung open and Diana stood upon the threshold.
"Peregrine!" she cried. "Oh, praise God you are alive—Peregrine—speak to me! Ah—dear God in heaven! What is it?" And hasting to me, she caught my hand, clasping it to her bosom. "Oh, what is it, Peregrine?" she whispered.
So I brought her to the settle, and reverently turning back my cloak, showed her what it had hidden.
"This!" said I. "Look upon your handiwork and go—wanton!"
Uttering a soft, inarticulate cry, she cowered away, shrank back and back across the room and out into the road beyond.
Then, treading as softly as I might, I crossed the room also and, closing the door very silently, locked and barred it securely.
WHICH SHOWS THAT MY UNCLE JERVAS WAS RIGHT, AFTER ALL
A fortnight has elapsed and I sit here in my study at Merivale, idly adding these words to this book of mine which it seems is never destined to be finished. As my pen traces these words, I am conscious of the door opening softly, but, pretending absorption in my task, I never so much as lift my head but glance up surreptitiously to behold my aunt Julia, a little pale, her proud, full-lipped mouth not quite so firm as of old, but handsomer, lovelier than ever in her black gown, it seems to me.