"O Peregrine, do you really mean to go?"
"Ah, will you run away again, from us—from your duties—will you leave Diana to break her heart?"
"Can hearts break, dear Aunt?"
"Oh, poor Diana, poor child—after all she has done for you—"
"Indeed, Aunt, she has done a great deal for me, I admit—but—"
"You know how she came in the dead of night to warn your uncles of your peril—your mad folly? You know this?"
"Yes, yes, dear Aunt," said I, a little impatiently. "I know, too, how my noble uncles very nearly quarrelled as to which of them should risk his life for unworthy, miserable me—"
"It was George rode away first that dreadful morning," said my aunt, clasping her shapely hands, "and I shall never forget the look on the face of Jervas when he found that George had stolen away before him—poor, brave Jervas!"
"Yes, Aunt! If the place of meeting had not been altered—it would have been—uncle George, perhaps."
"Ah, yes!" sighed my aunt, shuddering and bowing pale face above her clasped hands. "But Diana—saved you, Peregrine."
"At least, Aunt, she caused a better man to die in my stead. As he is to-day, I would be—at rest!"
"Hush, oh, hush, Peregrine, you talk wildly! Indeed, sometimes I think you have never been quite the same since your illness, you are so much colder—less kind and gentle. And now you mean to go away again! What of the estate—your tenants?"
"Surely I cannot leave them in better, more capable hands than these, dear Aunt Julia!" and stooping, I kissed her slim, white fingers. "But go I must—I cannot bear a house; I want space—the open road, woods, the sweet, clean wind!"
"Where shall you go, Peregrine?"
"Anywhere—though first to London."
"And what of your book?"
"I shall never finish it, now!"
"And what of me? Will you leave me lonely? O Peregrine, can you leave me thus in my sorrow?"
"Hush, dear Aunt—listen!"
Through the open casement stole a soft, small sound—a jingle of spurs, the monotonous tramp of one who paced solitary upon the terrace below.
"Your uncle George!" she breathed, her hands clasped themselves anew and into her pale cheeks crept a tinge of warm colour. "I did not expect—your uncle George today!"
"He is lonely too, Aunt Julia. He does nothing but grieve! Indeed I think he is breaking his great generous heart for the brother he loved and honoured so devotedly."
"Being a man of action, uncle George was never much of a talker, as you know—but he is more silent than ever these days. In London he would sit all day long in a dreadful apathy, and all night long I would hear him go tramping, tramping to and fro in his chamber—"
"O Perry dear—if he could only weep!"
"Aunt Julia, there is but one power on earth could bestow on him such blessed relief, and that is your love, the certain assurance that you do love him—the touch of your lips—"
"O Peregrine—oh, hush! Do you mean—" and my goddess-like aunt faltered and sat there, lovely eyes downcast, blushing like the merest girl.
"Yes, you beautiful Aunt," said I, "this is what I mean—this whose simple mention has turned you into a girl of sixteen, this wonderful truth that uncle Jervas had divined already." And I told her of his dying words: "'You will marry her after all, George—our Julia. I see now that she always loved you best!'"
"Oh, dear Jervas!" she murmured.
"He has left uncle George who loved him so greatly, very solitary—listen, dear Aunt!"
Up to us through the open lattice, borne upon the fragrant air, came that small, soft sound where my uncle George paced ceaselessly to and fro amid the gathering dusk.
"Poor George!" she whispered tenderly.
"He is so—utterly forlorn, Aunt."
"And so very much a man, Aunt!"
"And such a child!" she murmured. "So big and strong and such a helpless baby! Dear George!"
Here I turned to my writing again, heard the door close softly and, glancing up, found myself alone. Then, tossing down my pen, I arose and from a cupboard reached forth a hat and well-filled knapsack which last I proceeded to buckle to my shoulders; this done, I took a stout stick from a corner and stood ready for my wanderings. Thus equipped, I crossed to the window that I might see if the coast was clear, since I meant to steal away with no chance of tears or sorrowful farewells.
They were standing on the terrace in the gathering dusk; as I looked, Aunt Julia reached up and, taking his haggard face between her gentle hands, drew it down lower and lower; and when she spoke, no ear save his might catch her soft-breathed words.
And then his great arms were fast about her and there broke from him a sobbing cry of ecstasy.
"O Julia—at last. He was right then—our Jervas was right!"
And so my uncle George learned to weep at last and found within her loving arms the blessed relief of tears.
HOW I WENT UPON AN EXPEDITION WITH MR. SHRIG
I had been ringing ineffectually at the bell of my chambers for perhaps five minutes and was about to visit the adjacent mews in quest of my groom, when a voice spoke my name, and turning about, I beheld Mr. Shrig, the Bow Street officer.
"Mr. Werricker, sir," said he, touching his low-crowned, wide-brimmed hat with a thick forefinger, "it ain't no manner o' use you a-ringin' o' that theer bell, because there ain't nobody to answer same, your young man Clegg 'aving took a little 'oliday, d'ye see, sir."
"A holiday, Mr. Shrig! Pray how do you know?"
"By obserwation, sir. I've a powerful gift that way, sir—from a infant."
"This is very extraordinary behaviour in Clegg!"
"But then, sir, your young man is a rayther extraordinary young man. 'Owsoever he's gone, sir, and I appre'end as he ain't a-comin' back—judgin' by vat 'e says in 'is letter."
"The letter as 'e's left for you a-layin' on your desk this werry minute along o' my stick as I 'appened to forget—but you'll be vantin' to gain hadmittance, I expect, sir."
"Vy then, 't is rayther fortunate as I did forget my stick or I shouldn't ha' come back for it in time to be o' service to you, Mr. Werricker. By your leave, sir." Saying which, Mr. Shrig took a small, neat implement from one of his many capacious pockets, inserted it into the keyhole, gave it a twist, and the door swung open.
"Ah—a skeleton key, Mr. Shrig?"
"That werry i-dentical, sir."
"Is this how you gained admittance to my chambers?"
"And, being there, read my private letters?"
"Only the vun, sir—dooty is dooty—only the vun. And I've a varrant o' search—"
Entering my small library, I espied Mr. Shrig's knobbed staff lying upon my desk and beside it a letter laid carefully apart from a pile of unopened missives.
"Is this the letter?"
"The werry same, sir."
"But if you have read it, how comes the seal unbroken?"
"By means of a warm knife-blade, sir."
Wondering, I opened the letter and read as follows:
SIR: I regret that I am forced by circumstances to quit your service at a moment's notice, but trust you will find all in order as regards tradesmen's accounts, your clothes, linen, napery, etc. The key of the silver you will find under the hearthrug.
Hoping you will find one as zealous as the unfortunate writer,
I remain, sir, Yours respectfully, THOMAS CLEGG.
"Very strange!" said I.
"Ah!" sighed Mr. Shrig. "But then life generally is, Mr. Werricker, sir, if you'll take the trouble to ob-serve; so strange that I ain't never surprised at nothing—nowhere and nohow, sir. For instance, if you a-peepin' from the garret winder o' the 'ouse opposite—yonder across the street—'ad 'appened to ob-serve a young fe-male on her knees—here beside your werry own desk and veepin' fit to break 'er 'eart, pore soul—you'd ha' been surprised, I think—but I wasn't, no, not nohow—"
"Do you mean you actually saw a woman here—here in my chambers?"
"Aye, I did, sir!"
"Who—who was she?"
"A wictim o' wiciousness, sir."
"What in the world do you mean? Who was she?"
"Well, d'ye 'appen to know a young woman name of Nancy Price, sir?"
"And yet you've 'ad same in your arms, Mr. Werricker, sir."
"What the devil are you suggesting?" I demanded angrily.
"I suggest as you found same young woman in a vood at midnight and carried 'er to a inn called the 'Soaring Lark.'"
"Good heavens!" I exclaimed. "That unfortunate creature?"
"That werry same i-dentical, sir—a wictim o' wiciousness as your late lamented uncle, Sir Jervas, God bless 'im—amen!—saved from des'prit courses—"
"My uncle Jervas—" I exclaimed.
"Saved from des'prit courses!" repeated Mr. Shrig. "Himself, sir. Lord love him, 'e was always a-doin' of it; many a pore soul, male and female, 'e's saved from the river—ah, and worse as well, I know—ekally ready wi' fist or purse, ah, by Goles, an' vat vas better, with 'ope for the 'elpless an' 'elp for them as it seemed nothin' nor nobody could reach 'cept the law—a friend to them as thought they 'ad no friend but death. A fine gentleman, sir—yes, a tippy, a go, a bang-up blood, a reg'lar 'eavy-toddler, but most of all—a man! And I says again, God bless 'im an' 'is memory—amen!"
"Amen!" I repeated, while Mr. Shrig, tugging at something in the depths of a capacious side pocket, eventually drew thence a large, vivid-hued handkerchief and blew his nose resoundingly; which done, he blinked at me, surely the mildest-seeming man in all the world, despite the brass-mounted pistol which, disturbed in its lurking place by the sudden extrication of the handkerchief, peeped at me grimly from his pocket.
"Mr. Shrig, I should like to shake your hand," said I.
"'Eartily an' vith a vill, sir!" he answered.
"You see, I loved and honoured him also, Mr. Shrig."
"Verefore an' therefore, sir, I make bold to ask if you're partic'ler busy to-day?"
"I am here to meet a friend and then I am for the country."
"Tonbridge vay, sir?"
"Yes, why do you ask?"
"Because I've a call thereabouts myself to-day, an' if you vas minded to go along, I'd be honoured, sir, honoured."
"Thank you, Mr. Shrig, but—" I paused, for among the pile of unopened letters I espied one addressed in a familiar hand and, breaking the seal, read:
MY DEAR PERRY: Strong drink is raging, so am I, and London is the devil! Temptation dogs me, but a promise is a promise, so I have scuttled off ignominiously. You will find me at the Chequers Inn, Tonbridge, if I am not there to meet you, wait for me.
By the way, ale is exempt from your proscription, of course.
Yours to command now as ever,
"Mr. Shrig," said I, pocketing this letter, "when, pray, do you propose to start Tonbridge way?"
"This werry moment, sir."
"Why, then I shall be happy to accompany you."
"Are ye ready, sir?"
"Quite; let us go!"
So side by side we stepped out into the street; here Mr. Shrig, setting two fingers to his mouth, emitted a shrill whistle and round the corner came a tilbury behind a likely-looking horse driven by a red-faced man, who, at a sign from Mr. Shrig, descended from the lofty seat, into which we climbed forthwith.
"T'morrer mornin', Joel!" said Mr. Shrig, taking up the reins; and flicking the horse, away we went at a sharp trot.
"Do you propose to stay the night at Tonbridge, Mr. Shrig?"
"Vy—it's all accordin' to Number Vun, sir. Number Vun set out for Tonbridge but might be goin' further; v'ether 'e does or no, depends on Number Two."
"I fear I do not understand you, Mr. Shrig."
"Vich is 'ardly to be expected, sir. Y' see, perfeshionally speakin', I'm arter two birds as I 'opes to ketch alive an' dead."
"But how can you catch anything alive and dead?"
"Veil, then, let's say vun alive an' t' other 'un dead."
"Ah—what kind of birds?"
"Downy vuns, sir—'specially Number Vun!" and here my companion smiled and nodded benignantly.
Mr. Shrig drove rapidly, threading his way through the traffic with the ease of an experienced Jehu, and soon in place of dingy roofs and chimneys my eyes were blessed with the green of trees shading the familiar road which led, as I knew, to those leafy solitudes where one "might walk with God." And now there rushed upon me a memory of Diana—Diana as she once had been—my Goddess of the Silent Places; and I yearned passionately for the irrevocable past and despaired in bitter hopelessness of the present and the long and lonely future.
From these gloomy thoughts I was aroused by the sound of my companion's voice:
"I am a-goin' on this here hexpe-dition, sir, with the expectation—I may say with the 'ope sir, of finding a body—"
"A body of what?" I enquired absently.
"Lord, Mr. Werricker, sir, vat should it be but a hum-ing body—a corpse, sir."
"Horrible!" I exclaimed. "Who is it? Where did he die?"
"Vell, sir," said Mr. Shrig, consulting a ponderous watch, "to the best o' my judgment 'e ain't dead yet, no, not yet, I fancy, but two hours—say three—should do 'is business neat an' comfortable; yes—in three hours 'e should be as nice a corpse as ever you might vish to see—if the con-clusions as I've drawed is correct. An' talkin' o' murder, sir—"
"Ah!" I exclaimed. "Is it murder?"
"Sir," answered Mr. Shrig, "speakin' without prejudice, I answer you, it's a-goin' to be, or I'm a frog-eatin' Frenchman, vich God forbid, sir. An' speakin' o' murder, here's my attitood towards same—there's murder as is murder an' there's murder as is justifiable 'omicide. If you commits the fact for private wengeance, windictiveness or personal gain, then 't is murder damned an' vith a werry big he-M; but if so be you commits the fact to rid yourself or friends an' the world in general of evil, then I 'old 't is a murder justifiable. Consequently it will go to my 'eart to appre-'end this here murderer."
"Who is he?" I demanded.
"Ex-cuse me, sir—no! Seein' as 'ow this cove, though a murderer in intent, ain't a murderer in fact, yet—you must ex-cuse me if I with'old 'is name. And here's Eltham Village an' yonder's the 'Man o' Kent' a good 'ouse v'ere I'm known, so if you'll 'old the 'oss, sir, I'll get down and ax a question or so."
And I, sitting outside this sleepy hostelry in this quiet village street, thought no more of Mr. Shrig's gruesome errand, but rather of shady copse, of murmurous brooks and of one whose vivid presence had been an evergrowing joy and inspiration, waking me to nobler manhood, filling me with aspirations to heroic achievement; and to-day here sat I, lost in futile dreams—scorning myself for a miserable failure while the soul within me wept for that Diana of the vanished past—
"Right as ninepence, sir!" exclaimed Mr. Shrig, beaming cheerily as he clambered up beside me. "My birds 'as flew this vay, sure enough!"
Thus as we drove I sat alternately lost in these distressful imaginings or hearkening to my companion's animadversions upon rogues, criminals, and crime in general until, as the afternoon waned, we descended the steep hill into Wrotham village and pulled up at the "Bull" Inn, into whose hospitable portal Mr. Shrig vanished, to pursue those enquiries he had repeated at every posthouse along the road.
Presently as I sat, reins in hand, an ostler appeared who, grasping the horse's bridle and heeding me no whit, led us into the stable yard. And here I found Mr. Shrig leaning upon his knotted stick and lost in contemplation of a dusty chaise beneath which lay a perspiring and profane postboy busied with divers tools upon the front axle.
Now as I glanced at the vehicle, something about it struck me as familiar and then, despite the dust, I saw that it had red wheels and a black body picked out in yellow.
"Ah, Mr. Shrig," said I, "if this is the chaise you are so interested about, I think I can tell you who rode in it."
"And who would you name, sir?"
"Captain Danby," I answered.
"Aye, to be sure, sir. Then just step into the stable wi' me!"
Wondering, I obeyed and beheld a hissing ostler rubbing down a dusty horse.
"Why, this animal is mine!" I exclaimed. "This is Caesar, one of my saddle horses."
"Aye, to be sure, sir!" nodded Mr. Shrig. "Wiciousness has been a-ridin' in that theer chaise an' Windictiveness a-gallopin' arter on your 'oss. P'raps you can likewise tell me who't was as rode your 'oss?"
"No," I answered, "unless—good heaven, can it be Anthony—my friend Mr. Vere-Manville?"
"Name sounds familiar!" said Mr. Shrig, rubbing his nose thoughtfully, while his keen gaze roved here and there.
"Where is Captain Danby—I want a word with him," said I, stepping hastily out of the stable.
"The Cap'n, sir," answered Mr. Shrig close to my elbow, "havin' partook of a glass o' brandy an' vater, has took a little valk a-top of it, an' the evenin' bein' so fine or as you might say balmy, I think we'll go a-valking too—"
Reaching the narrow street I espied the tall, lounging form of Captain Danby some considerable distance ahead and instinctively hastened my steps.
"Verefore the hurry, sir?" enquired Mr. Shrig, laying a finger on my arm.
"I must speak with yonder scoundrel."
"Scoundrel is the werry i-dentical vord, sir—but bide a bit—easy it is."
As he spoke, the Captain turned out of the street into a field path shaded by a tall hedge; in due time we also came to this path and saw a shady lane ran parallel with it, down which a man was walking. We had gone but a little way along this path when Mr. Shrig halted and seating himself upon the grassy bank, took off his hat and mopped his brow.
"A be-eautiful sunset, sir."
"Yes!" I answered, turning to view the glowing splendour.
"So werry red, Mr. Werricker, sir, like fire—like blood."
But I noticed that his keen glance was fixed upon the little wood that gloomed some distance before us, also that he held his head aslant as one who listens intently, and had taken out his ponderous watch.
"Why do you sit there, Mr. Shrig?" I enquired, a little impatiently.
"I'm a-vaitin', sir."
"What for, man?"
"Hush, sir, and you'll soon—"
The word was lost in a strange, sudden, double concussion of sound.
"At ex-actly twenty-two minutes to eight, sir!" said Mr. Shrig, and rising to his feet, set off briskly along the path. We had almost reached the wood I have mentioned when Mr. Shrig raised his knobbed stick to point at something that sprawled grotesquely across the path. The hat had fallen and rolled away and staring down into the horror of this face fouled with blood and blackened with powder, I recognised the features of Captain Danby.
"So here's the end o' Wiciousness," said Mr. Shrig and as he leaned upon his stick I saw his bright glance roving here and there; it flashed along the path before us; it swept the thicker parts of the hedge behind us; it questioned the deepening shadow of the copse. "Aye, here's an end to Number Vun, and if we look in the vood yonder, I fancy we shall see summat o' Number Two. This vay, sir—you can see the leaves is bloody hereabouts if you look—this vay!" Like one in an evil dream I followed him in among the trees and was aware that he had halted again.
"What now—what is it?" I questioned.
"Number Two, sir, and—look yonder, and—by Goles, 'e's dodged me likewise—burn my neck if 'e ain't!"
As he spoke, Mr. Shrig parted the kindly leaves and I beheld the form of my servant Clegg, as neat and precise in death as he had ever been in life.
"Poor lad!" said Mr. Shrig, baring his head. "Ye see, 'e 'appened to love Nancy Price, sir—the wictim o' Wiciousness yonder, an' 'ere's the result. Even walets has feelin's—this 'un werry much so!"
"Dead?" I mumbled, feeling myself suddenly faint. "Dead—both?"
"Aye, sir—both! Vich is comin' it a bit too low down on a man an' no error! To ha' lost both on 'em—crool 'ard I calls it!"
Sick with horror, I was stumbling away from this dreadful place when Mr. Shrig's voice stayed me.
"'Old 'ard, sir—bide a bit! If the con-clusions as I've drawed is correct, here should be summat o' yourn."
Turning about, I espied him on his knees, examining the contents of the dead man's pockets with a methodical precision that revolted me.
"Of mine?" said I, shuddering.
"Your werry own, sir. 'T was one o' the reasons as I brought you along—I do 'ope Windictiveness here ain't destroyed it—ah, 'ere it is, Mr. Werricker, sir—though the seal's broke, you'll ob-serve."
Dazed and wondering, I took the letter he held out to me, but no sooner had I glanced at the superscription than I forgot all else for the moment.
"How—how should that man—come by this?" I stammered at last.
"Took or pur-loined it from the young 'ooman Nancy Price, sir, according to 'er own ewidence, as stated to me in my little office this mornin'—an' her a-veepin' all over my papers, pore lass! Aha!" exclaimed Mr. Shrig, still busied on his researches. "He's got summat in this 'ere 'ind pocket as I can't come at—p'raps you'll obleege me by heavin' Windictiveness over a bit, sir? Why, never mind, sir—done it myself—"
"How—did the young woman come by this letter?"
"'T is in ewidence as years ago she was maid to a lady—now Mrs. Vere-Manville, it was give her by that same. What, are ye goin', sir? Werry good, this ain't exactly a cheery spot at present. Will you be so obleegin' as to send a cart an', say, a 'urdle for these ere birds o' mine?"
And so I left him, sitting between his "birds" whose flying days were done, busily making notes in his little book, very like some industrious clerk posting his ledger for the day.
Reaching the "Bull" Inn, I despatched cart and hurdle as desired and, ordering rooms for the night, shut myself therein to escape the general hubbub and horrified questioning my news had called forth. And here, remote from all and sundry, I unfolded the letter a dead man's hand had opened and read these words:
Knowing you vile, I should have grieved for you, pitied you, but loved you still. Believing me vile, you are pitiless, cold, and with no mercy in you. Indeed and you would have shamed me! But true love, being of Heaven, knows no shame and can never die. Oh, you poor, blind Peregrine.
TO MY PATIENT AND KINDLY READER
Here do I make an end of this Second Book, wherein shall be found overmuch of blood, of gloom and shadow, of misunderstanding and heartbreak engendered of my own perfervid imagination; and glad am I and more than glad to have done with it.
And here, since the longest road must end, since after storm and tempest must come peace and heavenly calm, and because "though heaviness endure for a night yet joy cometh in the morning"—here do I begin this Third, last, and shortest Book which those enduring Readers who have borne with and followed me thus far may see is inscribed
CONCERNING ONE TOM MARTIN, AN OSTLER
I sat upon a hay pile in that same shady corner of the yard behind the "Chequers" inn where once had stood a weather-beaten cart drawn by a four-footed philosopher called Diogenes.
But to-day this corner was empty save for myself, and the yard also except for two or three wains or country waggons and a man in a sleeved waistcoat who chewed upon a straw and stared at the inn, the waggons and myself with a faded, lack-lustre eye and sniffed; so frequently indeed, and so loudly that at last it obtruded itself upon my notice.
"You have a very bad cold!" said I.
"I ain't!" he retorted gloomily.
"Yet you sniff very loud."
"Con-sti-tootional!" quoth he. "My feyther done it afore me, an' 'is feyther afore 'im, 'an 'is feyther afore 'im an'—but wot of it, my chap? Can't a cove sniff if so minded?"
"Certainly!" I answered.
"I ain't said nothink to you about wallerin' in that theer 'ay—'ave I? Very well! Why can't you let a man sniff in peace?"
"Very well," said I, "sniff!"
"I will!" said he and immediately did so, louder than ever.
"Astonishing!" said I.
"A cove can sniff without a cold if so be 't is 'is natur' so to do, can't 'e?"
"So I perceive."
"An' 't is a free country an' such so bein', a man's at liberty to sniff or no, an' no offence give or took, ain't 'e? Very well, then!"
"Very well indeed!" I nodded. "I have never heard a man sniff better or louder—"
"You leave my sniffin' alone an' I'll leave you alone—"
"I hope you will," said I.
"Well, I ain't so sure as I will; you wags your chin too much to please me—an' let me tell ye, bold an' p'inted, I don't like the cock o' your eye! So s'pose you stand on your pins—"
"Well," I answered, stretching myself more comfortably, "let us suppose so—what then?"
"Why, then, my covey, I'll knock ye off your pins again—prompt an' j'yful!"
"Under those circumstances I much prefer to remain as I am."
"Why, then you're a weevil—a worm, ah—an' what's more, a weevily worm at that, an' I spits on ye!"
Here, perceiving that he was about to put his heinous threat into execution, I arose.
"Enough!" quoth I, buttoning my coat. "Now let Olympus shake, the caverns of ocean roar, the round earth tremble! If you have fists, prepare to use them now—come on, pestiferous peasant, most contumacious clod, and 'damned be he that first cries Hold—enough'!"
"Well, drown'd me!" exclaimed the ostler, staring. "Drown'd me if I ever 'eard sich 'orrid talk in all my days, an' I've groomed for a earl—ah, an' a markis afore now!"
Having said which, he clenched his fists, squared his shoulders and launched himself at me like a charging bull. But profiting by Jessamy Todd's many lessons and painful instruction, I danced nimbly aside, tapped him with my left, spun round to meet his second rush, checked him with a flush hit, swung my right beneath his chin and next moment saw him sitting upon the cobblestones, legs wide-straddled, gaping about him with a vacant air.
"'Oly 'eavens!" he murmured, glancing from the cloudless sky to me and back again. "An' sich a whipper-snapper—'oly 'eavens!"
"A—weevily worm?" I enquired.
"Sir, I takes it back!" he answered, tenderly feeling his chin. "There ain't a weevil breathin', no, nor yet a worm as could ha' knocked me off my pins so neat an' true! I takes back weevil an' likewise worm, sir."
"Good!" said I, and tossed him a shilling.
"What's this 'ere for?" he enquired.
"The exercise you have afforded me; it has done me good, chased the dusty cobwebs from my brain, stimulated more healthy thought. Life perchance is not all dust and ashes nor the world a pit of noisome gloom; some day even I may learn perhaps to be—almost happy—"
"Lord, sir, you sound as if you'd been crossed an' double-crossed in love, you do—"
"Ah—what do you mean?"
"No offence, sir! But y' see, I were in love once—ah, an' with a sweet purty lass an' she wi' me, but afore I could marry 'er she bolted along of a circus cove in a scarlet, laced coat an' whip, d'ye see."
"Extremely feminine!" said I, nodding.
"May be, sir, but one day she come creepin' back to me, very 'eart-broke an' shameful, pore lass; seems the circus cove, growin' tired-like, 'ad took to usin' 'is whip on 'er—an' so she come a-creepin' back to me."
"And what then?"
"Why, then, o' course I married 'er."
"Married her! But after—the disgrace—"
"There weren't no disgrace; I married 'er! Y' see, I loved 'er purty looks an' gentle ways."
"And you—married her—notwithstanding! You forgave her!"
"Aye, I did—years an' years ago! Ah, an' a danged good little wife she's been too—ah, an' mother—none better."
"Have you many children?"
"And you feed them all?"
"Every one—an' very frequent, bless their little 'earts."
"And clothe them?"
"As well as I can, sir, though their clo'es gets uncommon wore an' 'oley, 'igh an' low—specially low, sir!"
"You provide a roof to shelter them?"
"Aye—such as it is—needs re-thatchin' bad."
"And are you happy?"
"Aye, I am—though times is 'ard."
"And pray what is your name?"
"Martin, sir—Thomas Martin."
"Then, Thomas Martin, you are a man—and a better, a far better man than I, for—hear me confess, Tom Martin, I have never performed any one of these man's virtues. You have done nobly!" And I thrust five guineas into his work-hardened palm.
"Well drown'd me!" he gasped, very much as if he were undergoing that watery ordeal. "Egad, sir! Lord love your eyes an' limbs—"
"For the children and their mother," said I.
"God bless ye, sir!"
"Indeed I hope He may. Heaven knows I have been a sufficing failure hitherto, a sorrow to myself and my friends. But you, Tom Martin, have inspired me to attempt a notable good action—perhaps the noblest of my life. So good-bye, Tom; let me hasten to perform the best act I ever did!"
Hurrying into the inn I called for pens, ink and paper, and sitting down forthwith, wrote this:
MY DEAR ANTHONY: The wind has whispered, a bird has sung to me, and an ostler, by name Tom Martin (long may he flourish) has shown me a man's work.
For who am I, poor finite wretch, to judge my fellows and condemn such as work me evil (and, inadvertently, themselves also, since Evil is double-edged and cuts both ways?) Who am I to despise or dislove them for the pain they cause me to endure (and, inadvertently, themselves also?) Should I not rather seek to forget past wrongs, to cherish and comfort such as despitefully use me? Is not this the secret of true and abiding happiness?
My two uncles (whom God eternally bless!) waked in me the desire to be a true man; and what is there more manly than to forget a wrong, to forgive past trespasses and cherish the hand that has hurt us?
So to-day, dear Anthony, instead of awaiting you here, I do a better thing; to-day at last, I go seeking my manhood in the achievement of a nobler act than I ever thought possible of my accomplishment; to-day I go to Diana.
Your devoted friend, PEREGRINE VEREKER.
This letter despatched, I ordered a horse to be saddled; very soon, thanks to Tom Martin's zeal, the animal was at the door and, though the day was far advanced, I mounted forthwith and galloped away for Wyvelstoke Towers.
I GO TO FIND DIANA
Birds were calling their melodious complaint on the passing of another day and the shadows were lengthening when I came to a cross-roads where stood a timeworn finger-post beneath which sat a solitary figure in weather-beaten hat and coat, head bowed over the book opened upon his knees.
Now at sight of this lonely figure I reined in so suddenly that this solitary person glanced up and I saw the white hair, keen eyes and pale, aquiline features of the Earl of Wyvelstoke. At sight of me he closed the book and rose, and in stern features, in every line of his slender, shabby figure was a stately aloofness that chilled me.
"My lord?" said I interrogatively, and taking off my hat, I bowed.
"Ah, Mr. Vereker," he answered, with a slight inclination of his head. "So you come at last. A charming evening. I wish you as well of it as you deserve!" And turning his back, he began to limp away; but in a moment I was off my horse and, hastening after, ventured to touch his arm, then fell back in sheer amazement before the ferocious glare of his eyes; yet his voice was as politely modulated as usual when he spoke:
"Sir, were you any other than Peregrine Vereker—old as I am, I would call you out—and shoot you with peculiar satisfaction—"
"My lord—sir—?" I stammered.
"Sir," he continued, "you will doubtless have very many excellent excuses to offer for your perfectly inexcusable conduct—but doubtless you will at least have the good taste to keep them to yourself. Whatever your reasons, you have been the cause of much pain and very many bitter tears to—to one I hold inexpressibly dear."
"My lord, I—I have been ill—"
"And it is, I believe, mainly owing to her devotion that you still—gladden the world, sir."
"My lord, I am here to—to—give Diana my hand in fulfilment of my promise."
"Are you indeed, Mr. Vereker—you surprise me!"
"To marry her whenever she will, sir."
"Permit me to remark that you are perhaps a little tardy."
"None the less I am here, sir!"
"Your condescension, Mr. Vereker, is somewhat overpowering, such magnanimity I find vastly touching. But Diana, I am assured, had no idea of permitting you thus to immolate yourself on the altar of duty."
"That, my lord, by your favour, I mean to learn from her own lips—at once."
"Impossible, sir!" he retorted, smiling bitterly. "Quite—quite impossible."
"Impossible, my lord—impossible? Pray what—sir, what do you mean?" I stammered.
"That if indeed you are minded—a little late in the day perhaps—but if—after very mature deliberation—you at last think fit to fulfil your pledge to Diana, it will of course be necessary that you first discover her present whereabouts."
"Is she not here at Wyvelstoke with you, my lord?"
"Emphatically not, sir!"
"Then she is with Mrs. Vere-Manville at Nettlestead or in London—at least I will go there—at once."
"Then you will waste your time, sir. Diana has disappeared."
"Disappeared? Ah, you mean she has gone—run away? Pray, my lord, pray when—when did she go?"
His lordship looked at me keenly a while and when he spoke his voice seemed less harsh:
"The news would seem to disturb you, sir?"
"Beyond words, sir. Henceforth I shall know little rest until I find her. Pray when did she leave you—and how?"
"She fled—yesterday morning—stole from Wyvelstoke before daybreak—she was seen by one of the keepers stealing away in the dawn. She fled away to—hide her grief—leaving behind all her jewels and—a very—solitary, very old—man. She was all I had—my comrade, my Penthesilea—my loved daughter—"
His lordship's voice broke upon the word, his usually upright figure seemed suddenly bowed and shrunken, he looked indeed a very grief-stricken, decrepit old man as he stood fumbling in the pockets of his shabby coat, whence he presently drew a letter that shook and rustled in his fingers as he unfolded it.
"She left this also, sir," he continued with an evident effort, "pray read it—you will find some mention of—breaking hearts the which should interest you a little—read it, sir!"
So I took the letter and saw it was this:
DEAREST PAL AND NOBLEST OF MEN: My poor heart is breaking, I think, and knowing how true I and deep is your love for me I would not have you see my pain. So I have run away from you awhile—fled away to the Silent Places like the poor, hurt creature I am. There I mean to hide until my wound is a little healed and then I shall come back to you, my dear, that I may surround you with my love and teach you how inexpressibly dear you are to Your would-be daughter and ever loving, grateful, DIANA.
"Has she money, sir?" I enquired, returning the letter.
"Very, very little, I fear."
"Then she cannot have gone very far."
"Ah, Peregrine—" the proud, old head drooped and the hand that crept upon my dusty coat sleeve was very thin and tremulous; "ah, Peregrine, if you love her, find her again—find her for Love's sake—and the sake of a desolate—heartsick—old man!"
"Sir," I answered, covering this twitching hand with my own, "I will—bring her back to you—if I have to travel the world over—I will find her if it takes me all my life and every penny I possess!"
Then, mounting my horse, I swung him round and galloped away without further word of farewell or so much as one backward glance.
TELLS HOW I FOUND DIANA AND SOONER THAN I DESERVED
It was growing dark when I reached a part of the road that I seemed to recognise; therefore I checked my steed to look about me.
Surely it was here or hereabouts that, upon a never-to-be-forgotten day, I had acted the craven and, fleeing in panic, yet (heaven be praised!) had rushed back to be beaten into unconsciousness by Diana's brutal assailant. Surely it was beneath yonder tree that I had waked to find my head pillowed in her lap, her cool hand upon my brow, her lovely face stooped above me full of tender solicitude.
Remembering which, I was seized of a sudden passionate longing for the touch of her hand, to behold again this face radiant with love.
'My poor heart is breaking I think—so I have fled away to hide—'
As I sat my horse, seeing in fancy the blotted lines of this, her letter, to my yearning was added the triumphant assurance that in spite of everything she loved me still; but this thought in turn was 'whelmed in despair because of the well-nigh hopelessness of my search.
And in this moment my wandering gaze lighted upon the shadowy outline of a gate that opened in the hedge upon my right hand, upon a rolling meadow with a gloom of shadowy trees beyond.
Next moment I was afoot, leading my horse, for surely this was that gate through which she had led me, swooning with my hurts, across this meadow, amid trees and underbrush, to that ruined and desolate barn which, she had once told me, had ever been her haven of refuge.
After some little delay, I contrived to open this gate and, leading my horse, began to cross the meadow, glancing this way and that, often pausing unsure, fearful that my memory was at fault. In this hesitant manner I proceeded until I was dimly aware that the ground sloped down before me into a place of shadows thick with dense-growing trees and bushes.
All at once I halted, a prey to many swift emotions, but chief of these joy and a thrilling, hopeful expectancy, for amid the deep gloom before me I espied a faint beam of light, and I was praying within myself as, my gaze upon this blessed light, I descended into the deeper shadows. Of necessity I went very slowly and cautiously until, the trees thinning out somewhat, enabled me to make out a black looming shape that gradually resolved itself into a barn; and it was from the small opening or window beneath the gable that the beam of light shone forth.
A solitary place and dismal, far removed from the world, a very sinister place, such indeed as might well be the haunt of grisly spectres; yet, with my gaze upturned to that beckoning light, I would not have changed it, just then, for the most gorgeous palace in all the world. Suddenly I halted again, my breath in check, to stare at this dreadful place with eyes of horror, as from its impenetrable gloom came sounds that brought out the sweat upon my temples and set my hand quivering upon the bridle,—a succession of hollow knocks and rappings whose dull reverberations seemed to fill the night.
For a long moment I stood thus, grasping my horse's bridle, shivering from head to foot, and staring at the black and ominous shape before me in wide-eyed terror; then I heard that which brought me to myself—nay, transformed me into a cool, dispassionate, relentless creature, reckless of all harms and dangers, intent only upon the one desperate purpose.
Leading my horse in among the trees, I tethered him securely and began to approach the barn very cautiously and with every nerve and sinew strung to instant action, my heavy riding-whip grasped in ready hand.
The knocking had ceased and, creeping nearer, I found the doors open and, from the pitchy gloom of the interior, heard a hoarse gasping that spoke of vicious effort.
"Be damned t' ye, Dick!" panted a hoarse voice. "'Eave, man—'eave—her's a-laying across the trap—push, damn ye—"
"Aye, Tom—but her's got a knife!" panted a second voice. "Don't 'e forget 'er's got a knife!"
"An' what—good'll her knife be—once we get—our 'ands on 'er—'eave, I tell ye—both together—now!"
"Bide a bit, Tom—let's 'ave a light—"
"Light be damned—'eave, man!"
Fumbling my way to the wall, I began to creep towards the creaking ladder where these panting, wrestling, evil things strove so desperately. Once or twice came a swift beam of light, vivid in the pervading blackness, as the trap door was forced up an inch or so; brief, sudden gleams, that showed me the forms of two men crouched upon the ladder, their shoulders bowed in passionate effort; and I waited until, loud-panting with their desperate exertions, they began to force up the trap again.
"Now, Dick—now!" gasped a voice; and then as they strove again, I leapt and smote with all my strength. A squeal of pain and terror, the sudden slam of the trap closing out all light, the impact of a heavy body upon the rotting hay that littered the floor, and a feeble, whining voice.
"Tom—O Tom—there's summat in 'ere wi' us—hurted bad I be—there's summat in 'ere as 'ave cut my 'ead open, Tom. O Tom, come down an' 'elp a pal—"
"What are ye yelpin' over now—and be cursed!" panted the man Tom from the ladder. "Th' gal's got money, I tell ye, an' 'er's a 'andsome tit into the bargain, so it's up wi' this 'ere trap—"
"O Tom, summat 'it me—come on down! There's summat or some one 'ere wi' us—come down an' see—"
"'Ow can us see wi'out a light?"
"Well, I got my tinder box."
I heard the man Tom stumble down the ladder, heard the sound of flint and steel, saw their two evil heads outlined against the glow of the tinder as they blew and, leaping upon them, I smote with my heavy riding-whip again and yet again.
And now in the black horror of this ruined barn was pandemonium, a wild uproar of shouts and cries, the sound of vicious blows, the shock of groaning bodies.
If they were two, they fought a mad creature who, careless of defence, unconscious of his own hurts, sought only to maim and rend; whether reeling in desperate grapple or rolling half-smothered beneath my assailants, I fought as a wild beast might, utterly regardless of myself, with fingers that wrenched and tore, fists that smote untiring, feet that kicked and trampled, head that drove and butted—I was indeed a living weapon, as senseless to pain and as merciless—intent only on destruction.
All suddenly was silence, a blessed quiet, save for the hoarse pant of my own breathing. Stumbling to the doorway, I leaned there, vaguely glad the horrid business was over, since I found myself faint and sick. Afar off I heard lugubrious voices that called one to another, a snapping of twigs growing ever fainter, and a rustle of leaves that marked their flight.
Down my cheeks and into my eyes a sticky moisture was trickling that I knew was blood, but the sweet night air revived me greatly so that, my strength returning, I presently—stumbled back into the blackness of the barn, found my way to the ladder and leaned there a while. And after some time, I lifted heavy head and spoke:
"Diana—are you there—my Diana?"
Silence, and a sudden, sickening dread, a growing fear, insomuch that I made shift to climb the ladder and, lifting heavy hand, rapped upon the trap door:
"Diana—O Diana—are you there?"
An inarticulate cry, and next moment the trap door was lifted, revealing a square of vivid light, and in this radiant glory—Diana's face.
"Diana," said I, wiping the blood from my eyes the better to behold her loveliness, "Diana—when will you—marry me?"
"O Peregrine—oh, my beloved!"
And down to me she reached her strong and gentle arms to draw me up from the darkness into the glory of her presence.
I WAIT FOR A CONFESSION
"O Peregrine! My dear—how they have hurt you!"
She was ministering to my scratches and abrasions, and I, sitting on the old hay-pile, watched her, joying in the gentle touch of her white, dexterous hands, her sweet motherliness and all the warm, vital beauty of her.
"Child," said I, "don't tremble so—the beasts are gone!"
"Yes, I know—I heard everything, Peregrine. And you down there—all alone—to fight them in the dreadful dark! And I once dared to call you coward!"
"So I was, Diana. So I am. It was you gave me courage, then and now—you and—my love for you."
"Your love?" she whispered, and now the tremor was in her voice also.
"It was Love guided me here to-night, Diana—brought me back to you—for ever and always if—if you will have it so."
"O Peregrine," she sighed, leaning towards me, "my Peregrine, then your love for me is not dead as I feared?"
"Nor ever can be," I answered, very conscious of her nearness, "surely true love is immortal, Diana."
"You speak rather like a book, Peregrine."
"I quote from your own letter, Diana."
"And this—strange love of yours, Peregrine, that I feared dead, has come to life again because you know at last how cruelly you misjudged me—you are here because you have found out?"
"I have found out nothing."
"Then—oh—why, then, you still think evil of me?"
"I love you!" said I, leaning towards her, for she had drawn from me a little. "I love you—more than ever, I think, yes, indeed it must be so—because I am here to shield you with my care—to make you my wife."
"Wife?" she whispered, shrinking yet farther from me. "Your wife? You would marry me in my—vileness—doubting my honour?"
"Your honour shall be mine, henceforth."
Now at this she sat back to regard me beneath wrinkled brows; once her scarlet mouth quivered, though whether she would weep or no I knew not, but before the sweet directness of her eyes I felt strangely abashed and knew again that old consciousness of futility.
"O Peregrine," she sighed at last, "how very—foolishly blind you are, how hopelessly masculine, and how nobly generous—my proud gorgio gentleman!" And stooping, she caught my hand ere I knew and kissed it passionately.
"O Diana!" I exclaimed, very ill at ease. "Why do—so?"
"Because—oh, my dear—because you would stoop to lift your poor, stained Diana from the depths and cover her shame with your love! Because, thinking me vile, you would still honour me with your name. Oh, my Peregrine, you love me more—much more than I ever dared hope—better than even you know!" And rising, she gave herself to my eager arms.
"O Diana," I murmured, "how wonderful you are!"
"Last time we met you called me—wanton!" she whispered.
"I was mad!" cried I remorsefully. "And yet—"
"And yet—you meant it, dear Peregrine! And tonight I am here upon your heart—oh, wonderful—kiss your wanton again—"
"Ah—hush!" I pleaded. "Don't—don't say it."
"Ah, Peregrine, beloved—don't think it!"
"But Diana," I groaned, "oh, my Diana, I saw you with—"
"Hush!" she whispered suddenly. "There is somebody moving down below—listen!"
From the pitchy gloom beneath came a heavy tread and a deep, long-drawn sigh; but even so I knew a happiness beyond all expression to feel how she nestled closer into my embrace as if seeking protection there.
"Are you afraid, my Diana?"
"Nothing could ever frighten me—here!" she whispered. And then the place suddenly reechoed with a loud whinnying.
"My horse—I had forgotten him!" said I. And then, as she stirred sighfully, I stooped and kissed her, ere, loosing her, I rose. "I'll go and make him comfortable for the night."
"And I will make you a bed, Peregrine."
"It will be like old times," said I.
"Yes—though we didn't—kiss each other—then, Peregrine," said she, looking at me with a glory in her eyes. "Ah, no—not again—look at the candle, it will be out in a minute or two and I haven't another—so hurry, dear."
Forthwith I descended into the dimness below and finding the horse, loosed off saddle and bridle; this done, I closed the doors and was making them as secure as might be when I heard her calling:
"Be quick, Perry, the candle is going out!"
So I climbed up the ladder and, drawing it after me, closed the trap—and as I did so, the light flickered and vanished; but, guided by her voice, I stumbled through the dark and, finding the hay-pile, lay down. And then, all at once, I began to tremble, for there rushed upon me the conviction that, lying thus beside me so near I might have touched her, yet hidden thus in the kindly dark, she was nerving herself to the confession of that which must be pain to speak and agony to hear; thus, tense and expectant, I stared upon the gloom, waiting—waiting for her voice and resolved that I would be merciful in my judgment of her.
Thus moment after moment dragged by and I in a very fever of anticipation, waiting—listening—At last she stirred, but instead of the broken, pleading murmur I expected, I heard a long, blissful sigh, a rustle of the hay as she settled herself more cosily, and when she spoke her voice sounded actually slumberous:
"Are you comfortable, Peregrine?"
"Yet you—sound very restless. What is it, dear?"
"O Diana—have you—nothing to—to tell me?"
"You mean—to confess? No, dear."
"Nothing?" I groaned.
"Only to bid you not worry your dear, foolish head over trifles—"
"Trifles?" I gasped, sitting up in my amazement. "Trifles?"
"Silly trifles!" said she with a strange, little, tremulous laugh. "You came seeking me. You wish to make me your wife because your love is nobler, greater than you or I ever dreamed. And I am yours, and we are together at last and this—this is all that can possibly matter to us—Fourteen guineas, a florin, one groat and three pennies—was that so very much to pay for me? Do you regret your purchase?"
"Then—have faith in your love for me, Peregrine. Give me your hand in mine—this dear hand that fought for me and would lift poor me out of the shameful mire. And now, good night, beloved—now, shut your eyes! Are they closed?"
"Then go to sleep."
And with this cool, soft hand clasping mine, I sank at last into a blessed slumber.
IN WHICH WE MEET OLD FRIENDS
Morning with a glory of sun flooding in at the small aperture beneath the gable and through every crack and cranny of timeworn roof and walls; a glory to dazzle my sleepy eyes and fill me with ineffable gladness, despite my cuts and bruises.
For a moment I lay blinking drowsily and then started to my elbow, my every nerve a-thrill to the sound of a soft and regular breathing.
She lay within a yard of me, half-buried in the hay that clung about her shapeliness; and beholding her thus in the sweet abandonment of slumber, so altogether unconscious of my nearness, it was with a half-guilty feeling that I leaned nearer to drink in her loveliness.
Her hair was disordered, and here and there a stalk of hay had ensconced itself in these silky ripples, and no wonder, for observing a glossy curl above her ear I had an urgent desire to feel it twined about my finger, and shifted my gaze to her face, viewing in turn her cheek rosy with sleep, her dark, curling lashes, her vivid lips, the creamy whiteness of her throat.
But—even now, even as I mutely worshipped her thus, something in the voluptuous beauty of her troubled me. Memory waked, Imagination burst its shackles and began its fell work:
Other eyes than mine had seen her thus ... other hands ... other lips.... Before me flashed a vision of Devereux's evil features hatefully triumphant. And yet ... Great God, was this indeed the face of a wanton? Could such horror possibly be?
In imagination the dead lived again, the past returned, and through my closed lids I saw Devereux—her "slave and master" lean to gloat upon her defenceless beauty, bold-eyed and on his cruel lips the smile of a satyr.... And bowing my sweating temples between quivering fists, I ground my teeth in agony.
Now as I crouched thus, plagued by the obscene demons of my imagination, I was aroused by a distant sound and opening my eyes saw how the sun touched Diana's sleeping form like the blessing of God. And yet ... what of that night at Raydon Manor? She had volunteered me no word of explanation—not one—and why?
Up to me, borne on the sunny air, came the sound of a whistle that brought me to my feet eager for action, for conflict or death itself—anything rather than the harrowing torment of my thoughts. Very cautiously I crossed the uneven floor and lifting the trap as silently as possible, I set the ladder in place and descended. The whistling had stopped, but in its stead I caught a sound of stealthy movement outside the barn, and glancing about, I presently espied my whip where I had dropped it last night, and with this in my hand I gently unbarred the doors and opening them a little way, stepped out into the radiant morning. And then, tossing aside my whip, I ran forward, both hands extended in eager greeting.
"Why, Jerry!" I exclaimed. "O Jerry Jarvis, you come like an angel of heaven!"
"Lord!" exclaimed the Tinker, grasping my hands very hard. "Lord love you, Mr. Vereker—"
"Call me Perry as you used."
"Why, then—here's j'y, Perry—but as to angels, who ever see an angel in cord breeches—an' patched at that! But God bless us all—what should bring you hereabouts—"
"Yes, we are to be married as soon as possible."
"What, you an' Anna?"
"Who else, my Jeremy?"
"But she's a-breaking her 'eart over summat or other—"
"No, she's lying fast asleep in the loft yonder and looking as sweet—as good and pure as—as—"
"As she is, Peregrine!"
"Yes, Jerry. But what are you doing here, God bless you!"
"Didn't you know as she wrote me two days since—app'inting me to meet her here—and here I am, a bit early p'raps, but then I thought she was lonely—in trouble, d'ye see—in trouble. And then, Lord, if you only knew how hungry—aye, ravenous I am for sight of her arter all this time—"
"Why, then, you shall see her—at once."
"Nay, let her have her sleep out; let's you an' me get a fire going. I've a frying pan in my cart over yonder—ham an' eggs, lad!"
"God bless you again, Jerry—breakfast! And here among the trees it will be like old times, though Jessamy ought to be with us, of course."
"Well he's over at my little camp not so far away. I'm pitched t' other side Amberley wood."
"How is he, Jerry?"
"Mighty well. He's rich again, y' see—aye, richer than ever an' pursooed by several widders in consequence. He's come into a mort o' money, has Jessamy. But you know all about it, o' course?"
"Not a word."
"Lord, an' 't was your uncle, Sir Jervas, as done it! Left Jess five—thousand—pound! Think o' that!"
Thus, talking like the old friends we were, we set about collecting sticks and soon had the fire burning merrily. All at once we stood silent and motionless, for Diana was singing.
It was an Italian love song full of sweet rippling notes and trills but, as she sang it, a very ecstasy of yearning tenderness that changed suddenly to joy and rapturous happiness, her glorious voice ringing out full-throated, rich and clear, inexpressibly sweet, swelling louder and louder until suddenly it was gone and we standing mute with awed delight.
"She's a-doin' her hair!" whispered Jerry. "She allus used to sing in the morning a-doin' her hair, I mind, but never—ah, never so—wonderfully!"
And then she began again, this time that Zingari air we both remembered so well. Singing thus, she stepped out into the sunlight but, seeing us, stopped in the middle of a note and ran forward (even as I had done) with both hands outstretched in greeting.
"Jerry!" she cried. "My dear, good Jerry!"
But the Tinker drew back, a little abashed by the wondrous change in her.
"Why, Ann—why, Anna!" he stammered. "Can this be you—so—so beautiful? Speaks different too!"
"O Jerry dear—won't you kiss me?"
"Glory be!" he exclaimed, taking her outstretched hands. "Though so very different 'tis the same sweet maid—'tis the very same Ann as learned to read an' write s' wonderful quick—Glory be!" And so they kissed each other.
Then walking between us, busy with question and answer, he brought us where stood his weather-beaten, four-wheeled chaise with Diogenes, that equine philosopher, cropping the grass as sedulously as though he had never left off and who, lifting shaggy head, snorted unimpassioned greeting and promptly began to nibble again.
Butter, a new loaf, ham and eggs and coffee! What hungry mortals could desire more? And now the Tinker and I, sitting side by side in the leafy shade, watched our Diana who, scornful of all assistance, prepared breakfast with her own quick, capable hands.
What words are there may adequately describe this meal? With what appetite we ate, all three; how we talked and laughed for small reason or no reason at all.
"Lord, Ann!" exclaimed the Tinker, glancing from the piece of ham on his knife point to Diana's stately beauty.
"'Tis wonderful what two years can do! You don't need any book of etiquette these days—you look so proud, so noble—aye, as any duchess in a nov-el or out! Lord love you, Ann, it don't seem right any more as you should be a-drinkin' coffee out of a tin mug along of a travellin' tinker in patched breeches, that it don't! I reckon you've seen a lot o' the grand world an' plenty o' fine folk, eh Ann?"
"Enough to know the simpler joys are always the best, dear Jerry, and to love the Silent Places more than ever. And as for you, Jerry, there never was such a tinker before—"
"And never will be again!" I added.
"And so we mean to stay with you awhile, don't we, Peregrine?"
"Excellent!" said I. "We will shift camp to the old place—"
"The little wood beside the stream beyond Wyvelstoke," said Diana softly, "that dear place where Love found us—in the dawn—and you clasped the little locket about my neck, Peregrine."
"Which you don't wear now, Diana!"
"Which you shall put back—one day—soon, Peregrine."
"Why did you take it off, Diana?"
"Because!" she answered.
"Because of—what?" I persisted.
"Just—because!" she answered in the old tantalising way. And so we sat a little while looking into each other's eyes.
"By Goles!" exclaimed the Tinker so suddenly that we both started, having clean forgotten him for a while. "'Tis good to be young, but 'tis better—aye, much better, to be in love, that it is! And—you may be mighty fine folk up to London, but you'll always be just children to me—my children o' the woods!"
"And so, Jerry, we'll stay with you until we are married if you'll have us?"
"Have you?" he repeated, a little huskily. "Have you? Why, Lord love ye—I feel that proud, an' s' happy as I don't know what—only—God bless ye both—Amen!" So saying, he arose rather abruptly and hastened off to harness Diogenes.
"Diana," said I, drawing her to me, "Diana, what do you mean by 'because'?" And standing submissive in the circle of my arms she answered:
"Because you love me so truly, Peregrine, doubt cannot make you love me less. But because of your doubt I have grieved, and because I grieved I ran away, and because I ran away you came to find me, and because of this I am happy. But because I am—a little proud also, I will not wear your love-token until you know how unjust are your doubts, and because I am a woman you shall not know this until I choose. But because I love you in spite of your doubts as you love me because you are so nobly generous, I am yours for ever and ever. So here's the answer—here's the meaning of 'because' and now—won't you kiss me, Peregrine?"
Thus stood we awhile amid the whispering leaves, and by the touch of her mouth doubt and heaviness were lifted from me. Then hand in hand she brought me where we might behold the barn, no longer a place of evil, gloomy and sinister, but transformed by the kindly sun into a place of beauty, dignified by age.
"Good-bye, old barn!" she whispered. "Look, Peregrine, it is so very, very old, and cannot last much longer—and I love it because it was there my man fought for me; it was there he showed me how truly generous, how wonderful is his love for me—O Peregrine, my gorgio gentleman, what a man you are! Good-bye, old barn!" she whispered. "Good-bye!"
And when I had led forth my post horse and tethered him behind the four-wheeled cart, we clambered in all three, Diana sitting close beside me so that the kindly wind ever and anon would blow a tress of her fragrant hair across my lips to be kissed.
And so the dead went back to his grave and my demons fled awhile.
"Perry," said the Tinker as, turning from the highway, Diogenes ambled down a narrow lane, "you've forgot to ask about this here watch o' mine."
"Well, how is it, Jerry?"
"Never was such a watch! Look at it! Reg'lar as the sun! Which riles Jessamy. Y' see, his ain't to be depended on nowadays, owing to a boot—"
"A boot, Jerry?" laughed Diana.
"At Maidstone Fair, Ann! Jessamy was preachin' Brotherly Love when a large cove in a white 'at up an' kicked him in the watch, which is apt to be a little unsettlin' to any timepiece. Anyhow, Jessamy's has never gone right since."
"His watch again!" cried I. "Last time the trouble was a brick, I remember."
"But Jerry, what happened to the 'cove' in the white hat?" enquired Diana.
"Well, arter it was all over, Jessamy took him aside into a quiet corner an' they prayed together."
"Jessamy was always a forceful evangelist!" she laughed.
"And there he is."
"Where?" questioned Diana.
"Listen and you'll hear him, Ann!" Sure enough from the boskages adjacent came the ring and tap of a hammer to the accompaniment of a rich, sweet voice unpraised in song.
Hereupon, setting two slim, white fingers to her mouth, Diana whistled loud and shrilly, to the Tinker's no small delight. Ensued a prodigious rustling and snapping of twigs and into the lane sprang the slender, shapely figure of Jessamy himself, as bright of eye, as light and quick of foot as ever.
I will not dilate upon this second meeting, but it was good to feel the hearty grip of his fingers, to hear the glad welcome in his voice, to see how gallantly he stooped to kiss Diana's hand, and how his sun-tanned cheek flushed beneath the touch of her lips.
"Why, Anna!" he exclaimed. "Well, well—you ha' become so—so—you look so uncommon—what I mean is—"
"Beautiful!" said the Tinker. "Be-autiful's the word, Jess!"
"Aye, aye, shipmate, so it is, comrade!"
"And the next word is strike camp, Jessamy, up stick an' away, Jess—"
"We're going to the old place, Jessamy!" nodded Diana.
"Where you instructed me in the 'noble art,' Jessamy!" said I.
"So it's all together and with a will, Jess!" added the Tinker.
"Aye, aye—and heartily!" laughed Jessamy.
I will pass over the labour of the ensuing hours wherein we all wrought cheerfully; but evening found us camped within that oft-remembered wood beside the stream whose murmurous waters seemed to find a voice to welcome us.
WHICH, AS THE PATIENT READER SEES, IS THE LAST
The Tinker stood resplendent in brass-buttoned coat of bottle green which, if a little threadbare at the seams, made up for this by the astonishing size and sheen of its buttons.
At this precise moment (I remember) he was engaged in brushing it vigorously, pausing between whiles to pick carefully at certain refractory blemishes, to give an extra polish to some particular button, or consult the never-failing watch, for to-day Diana and I were to be married.
"By Goles, Peregrine, it's past twelve o'clock already!" he ejaculated. "They ought to be here soon and—"
He checked suddenly and stood hushed and mute, for Jessamy had appeared,—a glorified Jessamy, resplendent from top to toe; his boots shone superbly, his coat sat on him with scarce a wrinkle, but his chief glory was his shirt, prodigiously beruffled at wrists and bosom.
The Tinker eyed these noble adornments in undisguised admiration.
"Lord, Jessamy!" he exclaimed. "Lord, Jess!"
At this, Jessamy's diffidence vanished and coming to the little mirror that hung against an adjacent tree, he scanned his reflection with an appreciative eye.
"Aye, aye, Jerry," quoth he, "when I wears a frilled shirt—which ain't often, as you know, Jeremy—I wears one with—frills!"
"Jerry, dear—O Jerry!" called Diana from the dingy tent.
"I want you to come and hook up my dress!"
"Lord, Anna! To do what?"
"Hook up my dress for me."
"I can't possibly do it myself, so come at once, there's a dear!"
"Won't Perry do, Ann?"
"But I never hooked up a lady in my life, Ann!"
"Then you're going to hook up this lady now. So come at once and don't be silly!"
"Why, very well, Ann! But if I do it up all wrong an' sp'ile ye—don't blame me, that's all!" Saying which, he disappeared into the dingy tent, leaving me to survey myself in the small mirror and find fault with my every feature and so much as I could see of my attire, while Jessamy hovered near, eyeing me a little anxiously.
"You don't feel anywise groggy or—shaky o' your pins, do ye, Perry?" he enquired solicitously.
"Not yet, Jessamy."
"Why, very good, brother! But if so be you should feel it comin' on, jest tip me the office—I've a lemon in my pocket. There's some, being groggy, as nat'rally turns to a sup o' rum or brandy, but the best thing as I knows on to pull a man together is a squeeze o' lemon and—here comes the rest o' your backers—hark!"
The crack of a whip, a jingle of bits and curb-chains coming rapidly nearer, and then the air rang with a cheery "view hallo!"
A rustle of petticoats and Diana was beside me, a radiant vision in the gown she could not hook up for herself, and side by side, we went to meet our guests, and thus beheld a coach-and-four galloping along the lane, the sedate Atkinson seated in the rumble and upon the box the tall, athletic form of Anthony, flourishing his whip in joyous salutation, a cheery, glad-eyed Anthony; and beholding her who sat so close beside him, I understood this so great change in him. Reining up in masterly fashion, he sprang lightly to earth and taking his wife in powerful arms, lifted her down, pausing to kiss her in midair, and then she had run forward to clasp Diana in eager embrace.
"Begad, Perry, old fellow, all's well at last, eh?" exclaimed Anthony, grasping my hand. "What I mean to say is—will ye look at 'em, begad! Did mortal eyes ever see so much dooced loveliness and beauty begad? What I say is no—damme if they did! And here's his lordship to say as much."
"Ah, Peregrine," said the Earl, limping forward, "if this is a happy day for you, to me it is no less so. How say you, friend Jarvis—and you, Jessamy Todd?"
"Peregrine," said Barbara, as we came within sight of the dingy tent, "has she told you—has Diana told you how nobly she stood my friend and at what cruel cost—has she?"
"Not a word!" said I, beginning to tremble.
"Ah—that was so like you, Di—so very like you, my brave, dear girl."
"There was no need, Barbara. Peregrine's love is such that—though he doubted, being human—he loved me still!"
"Then I'll tell him—here and now! No, over yonder by the brook. And you, Tony—Anthony dear, you must come and help me."
"Yes, tell him, Barbara," quoth his lordship; "tell him, as you told me, that Peregrine may know how brave and generous is she who honours him to-day."
And so, with Barbara's hand on one arm and Anthony's on the other, I came to that leafy bower beside the stream where I had known Diana's first kiss.
"You will remember," began Barbara, seated between us, "you will remember, Peregrine, how, when first we met, I was with Captain Danby? I fled with him to escape a worse man, I mean Sir Geoffrey Devereux or Haredale, as his power somehow, for even while I was at school he gave me to understand it was his wish I should marry his friend Haredale. I was very young, my mother long dead, and flattered by the attentions of a man so much older than myself, I wrote him letters—silly, girlish letters very full of romantic nonsense—Anthony has seen them. But the oftener I met Sir Geoffrey, the less I liked him, until my feeling changed to dread. Captain Danby, seeing this, offered his help, and deceiving his friend would have deceived me also, as you will remember—"
"Damned scoundrel!" snorted Anthony.
"It was while in Italy with Diana—Anthony had just left me—that I met Sir Geoffrey again. He dared to make love to me and when I repulsed him, threatened to show my silly letters to Anthony. Then, thank God, we came home! But he followed and upon the night of the reception sent Captain Danby to me at Lord Wyvelstoke's house with a letter—"
"Ah—it was your letter?" I exclaimed.
"Yes, Peregrine—a dreadful letter, repeating his threat that unless I went to his chambers that very hour he would send Anthony the letters—and I knew—I knew that if my Anthony ever saw them, he would fight Sir Geoffrey and be killed—"
"Not alone though, Loveliness!" said Anthony, between shut teeth.
"In my dread I confided in Diana—"
"And she—went with you," said I hoarsely, "in—Danby's chaise!"
"Yes. When Sir Geoffrey saw Diana she seemed to fascinate him—he refused to give up my letters—said he could not part with them. In this way he tortured me for weeks until at last he wrote from Raydon Manor, saying I should have the letters if I would call for them in person, but it must be at ten o'clock at night—and Diana must go with me. So we went—there were other men there—they had been drinking. When we entered the room, Captain Danby locked the door—I nearly swooned with horror—"
"Ah, my God!" exclaimed Anthony.
"But then—O Peregrine—before any one could move or prevent—Diana sprang upon Sir Geoffrey—I saw the flash of steel, and he lay back helpless in his chair, staring up at her—not daring to move, her dagger pricking his throat—yes—I saw the blood! 'Sir Geoffrey,' said she in an awful, whispering voice, 'give up the letters and order them to open the door, or I will surely kill you'—and I saw him flinch as the dagger bit deeper. But he laughed and obeyed her, and so with the letters in my hand, Diana led me out of the room and none offered to hinder us. We had been admitted at the door that gave into the wood and we had just opened it when some one among the trees groaned, and afraid of being seen, we locked the door and ran back to the house and asked Sir Geoffrey for a carriage. And then—Captain Danby hurried into the room, saying you and Anthony were outside—in the hall. Then we fled into Sir Geoffrey's study and—I think that is all?"
"Yes!" said I dully. "That is all!"
"And enough for one lifetime!" added Anthony. "No more secrets, Loveliness!"
"Never any more, dear Anthony, though it was all for you that I suffered, and Diana—my dear, dear Diana—kept silence and allowed you to think—to—"
"God forgive me!" I groaned.
"I wasn't worth it, Babs!" exclaimed Anthony, kissing her; and then his hand was upon my shoulder.
"What now, old fellow?"
"O Anthony, was there ever such a blind fool? Was ever angel of God so cruelly misjudged? My noble Diana!" Hardly knowing what I did, I turned and began to stumble along beside the brook, conscious only of my most bitter remorse. And then a hand clasped mine, and turning to the touch of these warm, vital fingers, "Diana," said I, "O Diana—"
"You know—at last, Peregrine?"
"I know that I dared to think you unworthy—doubted your sweet purity—called you—wanton. And I—miserable fool—in my prideful folly dreamed that in marrying you—mine was the sacrifice! Oh, I am not fit to live—Diana—O Diana, can you forgive me?—All my life I have been a failure!"
"Dear love, hush—oh, hush!" she sighed in weeping voice. But in the extremity of my self-abasement, I knelt to kiss her hands, the hem of her dress, her slender, pretty feet. "Peregrine dear, your—your mistake was very natural; you saw me—at Raydon Manor—"
"I should have disbelieved my eyes!"
"And I could not explain for Anthony and Barbara's sakes. And when I could have explained I would not, because I wished you to—yes, dear—to suffer—just a little—and because I wished to see if you were brave enough to forgive your Diana—lift her from shame and dishonour to—to the secure haven of—your love. And you were brave enough and—now, oh, now I'm crying—and I hate to cry, Perry—but it's only because I do love you so much more than I can ever say—so don't—don't kneel to me, beloved—come to my heart!"
So she stooped and raised me to the comfort of her gentle arms, to the haven of her fragrant mouth.
And thus the dead was buried at last, mountains deep, and my hateful demons vanished utterly away for ever and for ever.
"You would always have been mine, Diana!"
"And so it is I love you, Peregrine! And so it is I am yearning to be your wife—and yet here we stay and our guests all gone—"
"Gone?" I exclaimed.
"I told them we would follow—in Jerry's cart. Shall you mind riding to your wedding in a tinker's cart, dear?"
"My wise Diana, I love its every spoke and timber for your sake, so could there never be any other chariot of any age, on four wheels or two, so proper to bear us to our happiness, my clever Gipsy-Lady. Come, dear, hurry—for I am longing, aching to hear you call me 'husband.'"
"And are my eyes—very red, Perry?"
"Yes—no—what matter? They are lovelier than ever they were—my jewels—let me kiss them!"
"And now—this, dear heart!" said she a little tremulously, and laid the gold locket in my hand: and kneeling beside this chuckling stream as we had done once before, I clasped it about her white throat and kissed her until she bade me (a little breathlessly) to remember our waiting guests.
And thus at last, sitting with Diana's hand in mine, behind Diogenes, that four-footed philosopher, we rattled, creaked, and jolted away to our new life and all that the future held for us.