Hereupon the mottle-faced gentleman lets go of his shirt-frill, bows to Barnabas and, tossing off his wine, sits down amid loud acclamations and a roaring chorus of "Beverley! Beverley!" accompanied by much clinking of glasses.
And now, in their turn, divers other noble gentlemen rise in their places and deliver themselves of speeches, more or less eloquent, flowery, witty and laudatory, but, one and all, full of the name and excellences of Barnabas Beverley, Esquire; who duly learns that he is a Maecenas of Fashion, a sportsman through and through, a shining light, and one of the bulwarks of Old England, b'gad! etc., etc., etc.
To all of which he listens with varying emotions, and with one eye upon the door, fervently hoping for the letter so long expected. But the time is come for him to respond; all eyes are upon him, and all glasses are filled; even the waiters become deferentially interested as, amid welcoming shouts, the guest of the evening rises, a little flushed, a little nervous, yet steady of eye.
And as Barnabas stands there, an elegant figure, tall and graceful, all eyes may behold again the excellent fit of that wonderful coat, its dashing cut and flattened revers, while all ears await his words. But, or ever he can speak, upon this silence is heard the tread of heavy feet beyond the door and Barnabas glances there eagerly, ever mindful of the letter from Hawkhurst; but the feet have stopped and, stifling a sigh, he begins:
"My Lords and gentlemen! So much am I conscious of the profound honor you do me, that I find it difficult to express my—"
But here again a disturbance is heard at the door—a shuffle of feet and the mutter of voices, and he pauses expectant; whereat his auditors cry angrily for "silence!" which being duly accorded, he begins again:
"Indeed, gentlemen, I fear no words of mine, however eloquent, can sufficiently express to you all my—"
"Oh, Barnabas," cries a deep voice; "yes, it is Barnabas!" Even as the words are uttered, the group of protesting waiters in the doorway are swept aside by a mighty arm, and a figure strides into the banqueting-room, a handsome figure, despite its country habiliments, a commanding figure by reason of its stature and great spread of shoulder, and John Barty stands there, blinking in the light of the many candles.
Then Barnabas closed his eyes and, reaching out, set his hand upon the back of a chair near by, and so stood, with bent head and a strange roaring in his ears. Little by little this noise grew less until he could hear voices, about him, an angry clamor:
"Put him out!"
"Throw the rascal into the street!"
"Kick him downstairs, somebody!"
And, amid this ever-growing tumult, Barnabas could distinguish his father's voice, and in it was a note he had never heard before, something of pleading, something of fear.
"Barnabas? Barnabas? Oh, this be you, my lad—bean't it, Barnabas?"
Yet still he stood with bent head, his griping fingers clenched hard upon the chair-back, while the clamor about him grew ever louder and more threatening.
"Throw him out!"
"Pitch the fellow downstairs, somebody!"
"Jove!" exclaimed the Marquis, rising and buttoning his coat, "if nobody else will, I'll have a try at him myself. Looks a promising cove, as if he might fib well. Come now, my good fellow, you must either get out of here or—put 'em up, you know,—dooce take me, but you must!"
But as he advanced, Barnabas lifted his head and staying him with a gesture, turned and beheld his father standing alone, the centre of an angry circle. And John Barty's eyes were wide and troubled, and his usually ruddy cheek showed pale, though with something more than fear as, glancing slowly round the ring of threatening figures that hemmed him in, he beheld the white, stricken face of his son. And, seeing it, John Barty groaned, and so took a step towards the door; but no man moved to give him way.
"A—a mistake, gentlemen," he muttered, "I—I'll go!" Then, even as the stammering words were uttered, Barnabas strode forward into the circle and, slipping a hand within his father's nerveless arm, looked round upon the company, pale of cheek, but with head carried high.
"My Lords!" said he, "gentlemen! I have the honor—to introduce to you—John Barty, sometime known as 'Glorious John'—ex-champion of England and—landlord of the 'Coursing Hound' inn—my father!"
A moment of silence! A stillness so profound that it seemed no man drew breath; a long, long moment wherein Barnabas felt himself a target for all eyes—eyes wherein he thought to see amazement that changed into dismay which, in turn, gave place to an ever-growing scorn of him. Therefore he turned his back upon them all and, coming to the great window, stood there staring blindly into the dark street.
"Oh, Barnabas!" he heard his father saying, though as from a long way off, "Barnabas lad, I—I—Oh, Barnabas—they're going! They're leaving you, and—it's all my fault, lad! Oh, Barnabas,—what have I done! It's my fault, lad—all my fault. But I heard you was sick, Barnabas, and like to die,—ill, and calling for me,—for your father, Barnabas. And now—Oh, my lad! my lad!—what have I done?"
"Never blame yourself, father, it—wasn't your fault," said Barnabas with twitching lips, for from the great room behind him came the clatter of chairs, the tread of feet, with voices and stifled laughter that grew fainter and fainter, yet left a sting behind.
"Come away, John," said a voice, "we've done enough to-night—come away!"
"Yes, Natty Bell, yes, I be coming—coming. Oh, Barnabas, my lad, —my lad,—forgive me!"
Now in a while Barnabas turned; and behold! the candles glowed as brightly as ever, silver and glass shone and glittered as bravely as ever, but—the great room was empty, that is to say—very nearly. Of all that brilliant and fashionable company but two remained. Very lonely figures they looked, seated at the deserted table—the Viscount, crumbling up bread and staring at the table-cloth, and the Marquis, fidgeting with his snuff-box, and frowning at the ceiling.
To these solitary figures Barnabas spoke, albeit his voice was hoarse and by no means steady:
"My Lords," said he, "why haven't you—followed the others?"
"Why, you see," began the Marquis, frowning at the ceiling harder than ever, and flicking open his snuff-box, "you see—speaking for myself, of course, I say speaking for myself, I—hum!—the fact is—ha!—that is to say—oh, dooce take it!" And, in his distress, he actually inhaled a pinch of snuff and immediately fell a-sneezing, with a muffled curse after every sneeze.
"Sirs," said Barnabas, "I think you'd better go. You will be less—conspicuous. Indeed, you'd better go."
"Go?" repeated the Viscount, rising suddenly. "Go, is it? No, damme if we do! If you are John Barty's son, you are still my friend, and—there's my hand—Barnabas."
"Mine—too!" sneezed the Marquis, "'s soon as I've got over the—'ffects of this s-snuff—with a curse to it!"
"Oh Dick!" said Barnabas, his head drooping, "Marquis—"
"Name's Bob to—my friends!" gasped the Marquis from behind his handkerchief. "Oh, damn this snuff!"
"Why, Bev," said the Viscount, "don't take it so much to heart, man. Deuced unpleasant, of course, but it'll all blow over, y' know. A week from now and they'll all come crawling back, y' know, if you only have the courage to outface 'em. And we are with him—aren't we, Jerny?"
"Of course!" answered the Marquis, "dooce take me—yes! So would poor old Sling have been."
"Sirs," said Barnabas, reaching out and grasping a hand of each, "with your friendship to hearten me—all things are possible—even this!"
But here a waiter appeared bearing a tray, and on the tray a letter; he was a young waiter, a very knowing waiter, hence his demeanor towards Barnabas had already undergone a subtle change—he stared at Barnabas with inquisitive eyes and even forgot to bow until—observing the Viscount's eye and the Marquis's chin, his back became immediately subservient and he tendered Barnabas the letter with a profound obeisance.
With a murmured apology Barnabas took it and, breaking the seal, read these words in Cleone's writing:
"You have destroyed my faith, and with my faith all else. Farewell."
Then Barnabas laughed, sudden and sharp, and tore the paper across and across, and dropping the pieces to the floor, set his foot upon them.
"Friends," said he, "my future is decided for me. I thank you deeply, deeply for your brave friendship—your noble loyalty, but the fiat has gone forth. To-night I leave the World of Fashion for one better suited to my birth, for it seems I should be only an amateur gentleman, as it were, after all. My Lords, your most obedient, humble servant,—good-by!"
So Barnabas bowed to each in turn and went forth from the scene of his triumph, deliberate of step and with head carried high as became a conqueror.
And thus the star of Barnabas Beverley, Esquire, waxed and waned and vanished utterly from the Fashionable Firmament, and, in time, came to be regarded as only a comet, after all.
WHICH TELLS HOW BARNABAS HEARD THE TICKING OF A CLOCK
It was a dark night, the moon obscured as yet by a wrack of flying cloud, for a wind was abroad, a rising wind that blew in fitful gusts; a boisterous, blustering, bullying wind that met the traveller at sudden corners to choke and buffet him and so was gone, roaring away among roofs and chimneys, rattling windows and lattices, extinguishing flickering lamps, and filling the dark with stir and tumult.
But Barnabas strode on heedless and deaf to it all. Headlong he went, his cloak fluttering, his head stooped low, hearing nothing, seeing nothing, taking no thought of time or direction, or of his ruined career, since none of these were in his mind, but only the words of Cleone's letter.
And slowly a great anger came upon him with a cold and bitter scorn of her that cast out sorrow; thus, as he went, he laughed suddenly, —a shrill laugh that rose above the howl of the wind, that grew even wilder and louder until he was forced to stop and lean against an iron railing close by.
"An Amateur Gentleman!" he gasped, "An Amateur Gentleman! Oh, fool! fool!" And once again the fierce laughter shook him in its grip and, passing, left him weak and breathless.
Through some rift in the clouds, the moon cast a fugitive beam and thus he found himself looking down into a deep and narrow area where a flight of damp, stone steps led down to a gloomy door; and beside the door was a window, and the window was open.
Now as he gazed, the area, and the damp steps, and the gloomy door all seemed familiar; therefore he stepped back, and gazing up, saw a high, flat-fronted house, surely that same unlovely house at whose brass-knockered front door Captain Slingsby of the Guards had once stood and rapped with trembling hand.
The place was very silent, and very dark, save for one window where burned a dim light, and, moved by sudden impulse, Barnabas strode forward and, mounting the two steps, seized the knocker; but, even as he did so the door moved. Slowly, slowly it opened, swinging back on noiseless hinges, wider and wider until Barnabas could look into the dimness of the unlighted hall beyond. Then, while he yet stood hesitating, he heard a sound, very faint and sweet, like the chime of fairy bells, and from the dark a face peered forth, a face drawn, and lined, and ghastly pale, whose staring eyes were wide with horror.
"You!" said a voice, speaking in a harsh whisper, "is it you? Alas, Barnaby Bright! what would you—here? Go away! Go away! Here is an evil place, a place of sin, and horror, and blood—go away! go away!"
"But," said Barnabas, "I wish to see—"
"Oh, Barnaby Bright,—hear me! Did I not tell you he was marked for destruction, that evil begetteth evil, and the sword, the sword? I have watched, and watched, and to-night my watch is ended! Go away! Go away!"
"What is it? what do you mean?" demanded Barnabas.
With his eyes still fixed and staring, and without turning his head, Billy Button raised one hand to point with a rigid finger at the wall, just within the doorway.
"Look!" he whispered.
Then, glancing where he pointed, Barnabas saw a mark upon the panelling—a blur like the shadow of a hand; but even as he stared at it, Billy Button, shuddering, passed his sleeve across it and lo! it was gone!
"Oh, Barnaby Bright!" he whispered, "there is a shadow upon this place, as black as death, even as I told you—flee from the shadow, —come away! come away!"
As he breathed the words, the madman sprang past him down the steps, tossed up his long arms towards the moon with a wild, imploring gesture, and turning, scudded away on his naked, silent feet.
Now after a while Barnabas stepped into the gloomy hall and stood listening; the house was very silent, only upon the stillness he could hear the loud, deliberate tick of the wizen-faced clock upon the stairs, and, as he stood there, it seemed to him that to-night it was trying to tell him something. Barnabas shivered suddenly and drew his long cloak about him, then, closing the door, took a step along the dark hall, yet paused to listen again, for now it seemed to him that the tick of the clock was louder than ever.
Could that be what it meant? Barnabas raised a hand to his brow and, though he still shivered, felt it suddenly moist and clammy. Then, clenching his teeth, he crept forward, guiding himself by the wall; yet as he went, above the shuffle of his feet, above the rustle of his cloak against the panelling, he could hear the tick of the clock—ever louder, ever more insistent:
He reached the stairs at last and, groping for the banister, began to ascend slowly and cautiously, often pausing to listen, and to stare into the darkness before and behind. On he went and up, past the wizen-faced clock, and so reached the upper hall at the further end of which was the dim light that shone from behind a half-closed door.
Being come to the door, Barnabas lifted his hand to knock, yet stood again hesitating, his chin on his shoulder, his eyes searching the darkness behind him, whence came the slow, solemn ticking of the clock:
For a long moment he stood thus, then, quick and sudden, he threw wide the door and stepped into the room.
A candle flared and guttered upon the mantel, and by this flickering light he saw an overturned chair, and, beyond that, a litter of scattered papers and documents and, beyond that again, Jasper Gaunt seated at his desk in the corner. He was lolling back in his chair like one asleep, and yet—was this sleep?
Something in his attitude, something in the appalling stillness of that lolling figure, something in the utter quiet of the whole place, filled Barnabas with a nameless, growing horror. He took a step nearer, another, and another—then stopped and, uttering a choking gasp, fell back to the wall and leaned there suddenly faint and sick. For, indeed, this was more than sleep. Jasper Gaunt lolled there, a horrid, bedabbled thing, with his head at a hideous angle and the dagger, which had been wont to glitter so evilly from the wall, smitten sideways through his throat.
Barnabas crouched against the wall, his gaze riveted by the dull gleam of the steel; and upon the silence, now, there crept another sound soft and regular, a small, dull, plashing sound; and, knowing what it was, he closed his eyes and the faintness grew upon him. At length he sighed and, shuddering, lifted his head and moved a backward step toward the door; thus it was he chanced to see Jasper Gaunt's right hand—that white, carefully-tended right hand, whose long, smooth fingers had clenched themselves even tighter in death than they had done in life. And, in their rigid grasp was something that struck Barnabas motionless; that brought him back slowly, slowly across that awful room to sink upon one knee above that pale, clenched hand, while, sweating, shuddering with loathing, he forced open those stiffening fingers and drew from their dead clutch something that he stared at with dilating eyes, and with white lips suddenly compressed, ere he hid it away in his pocket.
Then, shivering, he arose and backed away, feeling behind him for the door, and so passed out into the passage and down the stairs, but always with his pale face turned toward the dim-lit room where Jasper Gaunt lolled in his chair, a bedabbled, wide-eyed thing of horror, staring up at the dingy ceiling.
Thus, moving ever backwards, Barnabas came to the front door, felt for the catch, but, with his hand upon it, paused once more to listen; yet heard only the thick beating of his own heart, and the loud, deliberate ticking of the wizen-faced clock upon the stairs. And now, as he hearkened, it seemed to him that it spoke no more but had taken on a new and more awful sound; for now its slow, rhythmic beat was hatefully like another sound, a soft sound and regular, a small, dull, plashing sound,—the awful tap! tap! tap! of great, slow-falling drops of blood.
WHICH SHOWS SOMETHING OF THE HORRORS OF REMORSE
With this dreadful sound in his ears, Barnabas hurried away from that place of horror; but ever the sound pursued him, it echoed in his step, it panted in his quickened breathing, it throbbed in the pulsing of his heart. Wherever he looked, there always was Jasper Gaunt lolling in his chair with his head dangling at its horrible angle,—the very night was full of him.
Hot-foot went Barnabas, by dingy streets and silent houses, and with his chin now on one shoulder, now on the other; and thus, he presently found himself before a certain door and, remembering its faulty catch, tried it but found it fast. Therefore he knocked, softly at first, but louder and louder until at length the door was plucked suddenly open and a woman appeared, a slatternly creature who bore a candle none too steadily.
"Now then, owdacious," she began, somewhat slurring of speech. "What d'ye want—this time o' night—knocking at 'spectable door of a person?"
"Is Mr. Barrymaine in?"
"Mist' Barrymaine?" repeated the woman, scattering grease-spots as she raised the candle in her unsteady hand, "what d'ye wan' this time o'—"
Here, becoming aware of the magnificence of the visitor's attire, she dropped Barnabas a floundering curtsy and showered the step with grease-spots.
"Can I see Mr. Barrymaine?"
"Yes, sir—this way, sir, an' min' the step, sir. See Mist' Barrymaine, yes, sir, firs' floor—an' would you be so good as to ax 'im to keep 'is feet still, or, as you might say, 'is trotters, sir—"
"Also 'is legs, sir, if you'd be so very obleeging, sir."
"What do you mean?"
"Come an' listen, sir!" So saying, the woman opened a door and stood with a finger pointing unsteadily upwards. "Been a-doing of it ever since 'e came in a hour ago. It ain't loud, p'r'aps, but it's worriting—very worriting. If 'e wants to dance 'e might move about a bit 'stead o' keeping in one place all the time—'ark!" And she pointed with her quavering finger to a certain part of the ceiling whence came the tramp! tramp! of restless feet; and yet the feet never moved away.
"I'll go up!" said Barnabas, and, nodding to the slatternly woman, he hurried along the passage and mounting the dark stair, paused before a dingy door. Now, setting his ear to the panel, he heard a sound—a muffled sound, hoarse but continuous, ever and anon rising to a wail only to sink again, yet never quite ceasing. Then, feeling the door yield to his hand, Barnabas opened it and, stepping softly into the room, closed it behind him.
The place was very dark, except where the moon sent a fugitive beam through the uncurtained window, and face downward across this pale light lay a huddled figure from whose unseen lips the sounds issued—long, awful, gasping sobs; a figure that stirred and writhed like one in torment, whose clenched hands beat themselves upon the frayed carpet, while, between the sobbing and the beat of those clenched hands, came broken prayers intermingled with oaths and moaning protestations.
Barnabas drew a step nearer, and, on the instant, the grovelling figure started up to an elbow; thus, stooping down, Barnabas looked into the haggard face of Ronald Barrymaine.
"Beverley!" he gasped, "w-what d'you want? Go away,—l-leave me!"
"No!" said Barnabas, "it is you who must go away—at once. You must leave London to-night!"
"W-what d' you mean?"
"You must be clear of England by to-morrow night at latest."
Barrymaine stared up at Barnabas wide-eyed and passed his tongue to and fro across his lips before he spoke again:
"Beverley, w-what d' you—mean?"
"I know why you keep your right hand hidden!" said Barnabas.
Barrymaine shivered suddenly, but his fixed stare never wavered, only, as he crouched there, striving to speak yet finding no voice, upon his furrowed brow and pallid cheek ran glittering lines of sweat. At last he contrived to speak again, but in a whisper now:
"W-what do you mean?"
"I mean that tonight I found this scrap of cloth, and I recognized it as part of the cuff of your sleeve, and I found it clenched in Jasper Gaunt's dead hand."
With a hoarse, gasping cry Barrymaine cast himself face down upon the floor again and writhed there like one in agony.
"I d-didn't mean to—oh, God! I never m-meant it!" he groaned and, starting to his knees, he caught at Barnabas with wild, imploring hands: "Oh, Beverley, I s-swear to you I n-never meant to do it. I went there tonight to l-learn the truth, and he th-threatened me—threatened me, I tell you, s-so we fought and he was s-strong and swung me against the w-wall. And then, Beverley—as we s-struggled—somehow I g-got hold of—of the dagger and struck at him—b-blindly. And—oh, my God, Beverley—I shall never forget how he—ch-choked! I can hear it now! But I didn't mean to—do it. Oh, I s-swear I never meant it, Beverley—s-so help me, God!"
"But he is dead," said Barnabas, "and now—"
"Y-you won't give me up, Beverley?" cried Barrymaine, clinging to his knees. "I wronged you, I know—n-now, but don't g-give me up. I'm not afraid to d-die like a g-gentleman should, but—the gallows—oh, my God!"
"No, you must be saved—from that!"
"Ah—w-will you help me?"
"That is why I came."
"W-what must I do?"
"Start for Dover—to-night."
"Yes—yes, Dover. B-but I have no money."
"Here are twenty guineas, they will help you well on your way. When they are gone you shall have more."
"Beverley, I—wronged you, but I know now who my c-creditor really is—I know who has been m-my enemy all along—oh, blind f-fool that I've been,—but I know—now. And I think it's t-turned my brain. Beverley,—my head's all confused—wish D-Dig were here. But I shall be better s-soon. It was D-Dover you said, I think?"
"Yes,—but now, take off that coat."
"B-but it's the only one I've got!"
"You shall have mine," said Barnabas and, throwing aside his cloak, he stripped off that marvellous garment (whose flattened revers were never to become the vogue, after all), and laid it upon the table beside Barrymaine who seemed as he leaned there to be shaken by strange twitchings and tremblings.
"Oh, Beverley," he muttered, "it would have been a good th-thing for me if somebody had s-strangled me at birth. No!—d-don't light the candle!" he cried suddenly, for Barnabas had sought and found the tinder-box, "don't! d-don't!"
But Barnabas struck and the tinder caught, then, as the light came, Barrymaine shrank away and away, and, crouching against the wall, stared down at himself, at his right sleeve ripped and torn, and at certain marks that spattered and stained him, here and there, awful marks much darker than the cloth. Now as he looked, a great horror seemed to come upon him, he trembled violently and, stumbling forward, sank upon his knees beside the table, hiding his sweating face between his arms. And, kneeling thus, he uttered soft, strange, unintelligible noises and the table shook and quivered under him.
"Come, you must take off that coat!"
Very slowly Barrymaine lifted his heavy head and looked at Barnabas with dilating eyes and with his mouth strangely drawn and twisted.
"Oh, Beverley!" he whispered, "I—I think I'm—"
"You must give me that coat!" persisted Barnabas.
Still upon his knees, Barrymaine began to fumble at the buttons of that stained, betraying garment but, all at once, his fingers seemed to grow uncertain, they groped aimlessly, fell away, and he spoke in a hoarse whisper, while upon his lip was something white, like foam.
"I—oh I—Beverley, I—c-can't!"
And now, all at once, as they stared into each other's eyes, Barnabas leaning forward, strong and compelling, Barrymaine upon his knees clinging weakly to the table, sudden and sharp upon the stillness broke a sound—an ominous sound, the stumble of a foot that mounted the stair.
Uttering a broken cry Barrymaine struggled up to his feet, strove desperately to speak, his distorted mouth flecked with foam, and beating the air with frantic hands pitched over and thudded to the floor.
Then the door opened and Mr. Smivvle appeared who, calling upon Barrymaine's name, ran forward and fell upon his knees beside that convulsed and twisted figure.
"My God, Beverley!" he cried, "how comes he like this—what has happened?"
"Are you his friend?"
"Yes, yes, his friend—certainly! Haven't I told you the hand of a Smivvle, sir—"
"Tonight he killed Jasper Gaunt."
"Eh? Killed? Killed him?"
"Murdered him—though I think more by accident than design."
"Killed him! Murdered him!"
"Yes. Pull yourself together and listen. Tomorrow the hue and cry will be all over London, we must get him away—out of the country if possible."
"Yes, yes—of course! But he's ill—a fit, I think."
"Have you ever seen him so before?"
"Never so bad as this. There, Barry, there, my poor fellow! Help me to get him on the couch, will you, Beverley?"
Between them they raised that twitching form; then, as Mr. Smivvle stooped to set a cushion beneath the restless head, he started suddenly back, staring wide-eyed and pointing with a shaking finger.
"My God!" he whispered, "what's that? Look—look at his coat."
"Yes," said Barnabas, "we must have it off."
"No, no—it's too awful!" whimpered Mr. Smivvle, shrinking away, "see—it's—it's all down the front!"
"If this coat is ever found, it will hang him!" said Barnabas. "Come, help me to get it off."
So between them it was done; thereafter, while Mr. Smivvle crouched beside that restless, muttering form, Barnabas put on his cloak and, rolling up the torn coat, hid it beneath its ample folds.
"What, are you going, Beverley?"
"Yes—for one thing to get rid of this coat. On the table are twenty guineas, take them, and just so soon as Barrymaine is fit to travel, get him away, but above all, don't—"
"Who is it?" cried Barrymaine suddenly, starting up and peering wildly over his shoulder, "w-who is it? Oh, I t-tell you there's s-somebody behind me—who is it?"
"Nobody, Barry—not a soul, my poor boy, compose yourself!" But, even as Mr. Smivvle spoke, Barrymaine fell back and lay moaning fitfully and with half-closed eyes. "Indeed I fear he is very ill, Beverley!"
"If he isn't better by morning, get a doctor," said Barnabas, "but, whatever you do—keep Chichester away from him. As regards money I'll see you shan't want for it. And now, for the present, good-by!"
So saying, Barnabas caught up his hat and, with a last glance at the moaning figure on the couch, went from the room and down the stairs, and let himself out into the dingy street.
WHICH TELLS HOW BARNABAS DISCHARGED HIS VALET
It was long past midnight when Barnabas reached his house in St. James's Square; and gazing up at its goodly exterior he sighed, and thereafter frowned, and so, frowning still, let himself in. Now, late though the hour, Peterby was up, and met him in the hall.
"Sir," said he, anxious of eye as he beheld his young master's disordered dress and the grim pallor of his face, "the Marquis of Jerningham and Viscount Devenham called. They waited for you,—they waited over an hour."
"But they are gone now, of course?" inquired Barnabas, pausing, with his foot on the stair.
"Good!" nodded Barnabas with a sigh of relief.
"But they left word they would call to-morrow morning, early; indeed they seemed most anxious to see you, sir."
"Ha!" said Barnabas, and, frowning still, went on up the stair.
"Sir," said Peterby, lighting the way into the dressing-room, "you received the—the letter safely?"
"Yes, I received it," said Barnabas, tossing aside his hat and cloak, "and that reminds me,—to-morrow morning you will discharge all the servants."
"Pay them a month's wages. Also you will get rid of this house and furniture, and all the carriages and horses—except 'The Terror,' —sell them for what they will fetch—no matter how little, only—get rid of them."
"As for yourself, Peterby, I shall require your services no longer. But you needn't lack for a position—every dandy of 'em all will be wild to get you. And, because you are the very best valet in the world, you can demand your own terms."
"And now, I think that is all, I shan't want you again tonight—stay though, before I go to bed bring me the things I wore when I first met you, the garments which as clothes, you told me, didn't exist."
"Sir, may I ask you a question?"
"Oh, yes—if you wish," sighed Barnabas, wearily.
"Are you leaving London, sir?"
"I'm leaving the World of Fashion—yes."
"And you—don't wish me to accompany you, sir."
"Have I—displeased you in any way?"
"No, it is only that the 'best valet in the world' would be wasted on me any longer, and I shall not need you where I am going."
"Not as a—servant, sir?"
"Then, sir, may I remind you that I am also a—man? A man who owes all that he is to your generosity and noble trust and faith. And, sir, it seems to me that a man may sometimes venture where a servant may not—if you are indeed done with the Fashionable World, I have done with it also, for I shall never serve any other than you."
Then Barnabas turned away and coming to the mantel leaned there, staring blankly down at the empty hearth; and in a while he spoke, though without looking up:
"The Fashionable World has turned its polite back upon me, Peterby, because I am only the son of a village inn-keeper. But—much more than this—my lady has—has lost her faith in me, my fool's dream is over—nothing matters any more. And so I am going away to a place I have heard described by a pedler of books as 'the worst place in the world'—and indeed I think it is."
"Sir," said Peterby, "when do we start?"
Then, very slowly, Barnabas lifted his heavy head and looked at John Peterby; and, in that dark hour, smiled, and reaching out, caught and grasped his hand; also, when he spoke again, his voice was less hard and not so steady as before:
"Oh, John!" said he, "John Peterby—my faithful John! Come with me if you will, but you come as my—friend."
"And—where are we going, sir?" inquired John, as they stood thus, hand in hand, looking into each other's eyes.
"To Giles's Rents, John,—down by the River."
And thus did Barnabas, in getting rid of the "best valet in the world," find for himself a faithful friend instead.
OF CERTAIN CON-CLUSIONS DRAWN BY MR. SHRIG
Number Five St. James's Square was to let; its many windows were blank and shuttered, its portal, which scarcely a week ago had been besieged by Fashion, was barred and bolted, the Gentleman-in-Powder had vanished quite, and with him the glory of Number Five St. James's Square had departed utterly.
Barnabas paused to let his gaze wander over it, from roof to pavement, then, smiling a little bitterly, buried his chin in the folds of his belcher neckerchief and thrusting his hands deep into his pockets, turned and went his way.
And as he went, smiling still, and still a little bitterly, he needs must remember and vaguely wonder what had become of all that Polite notepaper, and all those Fashionable cards, embossed, gilt-edged, and otherwise, that had been wont to pour upon him every morning, and which had so rejoiced the highly susceptible and eloquent legs of the Gentleman-in-Powder.
Evening was falling and the square seemed deserted save for a solitary man in a neckcloth of vivid hue, a dejected-looking man who lounged against the wall under the shade of the trees in the middle of the square, and seemed lost in contemplation of his boots. And yet when Barnabas, having traversed Charles Street and turned into the Haymarket, chanced to look back, he saw that the man was lounging dejectedly after him. Therefore Barnabas quickened his steps, and, reaching the crowded Strand, hurried on through the bustling throng; but just beyond Temple Bar, caught a glimpse of the vivid neckcloth on the opposite side of the road. Up Chancery Lane and across Holborn went Barnabas, yet, as he turned down Leather Lane, there, sure enough, was the man in the neckcloth as dejected as ever, but not twelve yards behind.
Half-way down crowded Leather Lane Barnabas turned off down a less frequented street and halting just beyond the corner, waited for his pursuer to come up. And presently round the corner he came and, in his hurry, very nearly stumbled over Barnabas, who promptly reached out a long arm and pinned him by the vivid neckcloth.
"Why do you follow me?" he demanded.
"Foller you?" repeated the man.
"You have been following me all the way."
"Have I?" said the man.
"You know you have. Come, what do you want?"
"Well, first," said the man, sighing dejectedly, "leggo my neck, will ye be so kind?"
"Not till you tell me why you follow me."
"Why, then," said the man, "listen and I'll tell ye."
"Well?" demanded Barnabas.
But, all at once, and quick as a flash, with a wrench and a cunning twist, the man had broken away and, taking to his heels, darted off down the street and was gone.
For a moment Barnabas stood hesitating, undecided whether to go on to Barrymaine's lodging or no, and finally struck off in the opposite direction, towards Gray's Inn Lane and so by devious ways eventually arrived at the back door of the "Gun," on which he forthwith knocked.
It was opened, almost immediately, by Corporal Richard Roe himself, who stared a moment, smiled, and thereupon extended a huge hand.
"What, is it you, sir?" he exclaimed, "for a moment I didn't know ye. Step in, sir, step in, we're proud to see ye."
So saying, he ushered Barnabas down two steps into the small but very snug chamber that he remembered, with its rows upon rows of shelves whereon a whole regiment of bottles and glasses were drawn up in neat array, "dressed" and marshalled as if on parade; it was indeed a place of superlative tidiness where everything seemed to be in a perpetual state of neatness and order.
In a great elbow chair beside the ingle, with a cushion at his back and another beneath one foot, sat Mr. Shrig puffing at a pipe and with his little reader open on the table at his elbow. He looked a little thinner and paler than usual, and Barnabas noticed that one leg was swathed in bandages, but his smile was as innocent and guileless and his clasp as warm as ever as they greeted each other.
"You must ax-cuse me rising, sir," said he, "the sperrit is villing but natur' forbids, it can't be done on account o' this here leg o' mine,—a slug through the stamper, d' ye see, vich is bad enough, though better than it might ha' been. But it vere a good night on the whole,—thanks to you and the Corp 'ere, I got the whole gang, —though, from conclusions as I'd drawed I'ad 'oped to get—vell, shall ve say Number Two? But Fate was ag'in me. Still, I don't complain, and the vay you fought 'em off till the Corp and my specials come up vas a vonder!"
"Ah! that it were!" nodded the Corporal.
"Though 'ow you wanished yourself avay, and v'ere you wanished to, is more vonderful still."
"Ah, that it is, sir!" nodded the Corporal again.
"Why," explained Barnabas, "I was stunned by a blow on the head, and when I came to, found myself lying out on the wharf behind a broken boat. I should have come round here days ago to inquire how you were, Mr. Shrig, only that my time has been—much occupied—of late."
"Veil, sir," said Mr. Shrig, puffing hard at his pipe, "from all accounts I should reckon as it 'ad. By Goles! but ve vas jest talking about you, sir, the werry i-dentical moment as you knocked at the door. I vas jest running over my little reader and telling the Corp the v'y and the v'erefore as you couldn't ha' done the deed."
"V'y—the deed. The deed as all London is a-talking of,—the murder o' Jasper Gaunt, the money-lender."
"Ah!" said Barnabas thoughtfully. "And so you are quite sure that I—didn't murder Jasper Gaunt, are you. Mr. Shrig?"
"Quite—oh, Lord love you, yes!"
"Because," said Mr. Shrig with his guileless smile, and puffing out a cloud of smoke and watching it vanish ceilingwards, "because I 'appen to know 'oo did."
"Oh!" said Barnabas more thoughtfully than ever. "And who do you think it is?"
"Vell, sir," answered Mr. Shrig ponderously, "from conclusions as I've drawed I don't feel at liberty to name no names nor yet cast no insinivations, but—v'en the other traps (sich werry smart coves too!) 'ave been and gone an' arrested all the innercent parties in London, v'y then I shall put my castor on my napper, and take my tickler in my fib and go and lay my 'ooks on the guilty party."
"And when will that be?"
"Jest so soon as my leg sarves me, sir,—say a veek,—say, two."
"You're in no hurry then?"
"Lord, no, sir, I'm never in an 'urry."
"And you say you think you know who the murderer is?"
"V-y no, sir,—from conclusions as I've drawed I'm sure and sartin 'oo did the deed. But come, sir, vot do you say to a glass o' the Vun and Only, to drink a quick despatch to the guilty party?"
But the clock striking eight, Barnabas shook his head and rose.
"Thank you, but I must be going," said he.
"V'y if you must, you must," sighed Mr. Shrig as they shook hands; "good evening, sir, an' if anything unpleasant should 'appen to you in the next day or two—jest tip me the vord."
"What do you mean by unpleasant, Mr. Shrig?"
"Vell, took up p'r'aps, or shall ve say—arrested,—by some o' the other traps—sich werry smart coves, too!"
"Do you think it likely, Mr. Shrig?"
"Vell, sir," said Mr. Shrig, with his placid smile, "there's some traps as is so uncommon smart that they've got an 'abit of arresting innercent parties verever found, d'ye see. But if they should 'appen to lay their 'ooks on ye, jest tip me the office, sir."
"Thank you," said Barnabas, "I shan't forget," and, with a final nod to Mr. Shrig, turned and followed the Corporal into Gray's Inn Lane.
Now when Barnabas would have gone his way the Corporal stayed him with a very large but very gentle hand, and thereafter stood, rubbing his shaven chin with his shining hook and seeming very much abashed.
"What is it, Corporal?" Barnabas inquired.
"Well, sir," said the soldier diffidently, "it's like this, sir, my pal Jarsper and me, 'aving heard of—of your—altered circumstances, sir, wishes it to be understood as once your pals, ever your pals, come shine, come rain. We likewise wish it to be understood as if at any time a—a guinea would come in 'andy-like, sir—or say two or three, my pal Jarsper and me will be proud to oblige, proud, sir. And lastly, sir, my pal Jarsper and me would 'ave you to know as if at any time you want a friend to your back, there's me and there's 'im—or a roof to your 'ead, why there's ever and always the 'Gun' open to you, sir. We wishes you to understand this and—good evening, sir!"
But, or ever the blushing Corporal could escape, Barnabas caught and wrung his hand:
"And I, Corporal," said he, "I wish you both to know that I am proud to have won two such staunch friends, and that I shall always esteem it an honor to ask your aid or take your hands,—good night, Corporal!"
So saying, Barnabas turned upon his heel, and as he went his step was free and his eye brighter than it had been.
He took an intricate course by winding alleys and narrow side-streets, keeping his glance well about him until at length he came to a certain door in a certain dingy street,—and, finding the faulty latch yield to his hand, entered a narrow, dingy hall and groped his way up the dingiest stairs in the world.
Now all at once he fancied he heard a stealthy footstep that climbed on in the darkness before him, and he paused suddenly, but, hearing nothing, strode on, then stopped again for, plain enough this time, some one stumbled on the stair above him. So he stood there in the gloom, very still and very silent, and thus he presently heard another sound, very soft and faint like the breathing of a sigh. And all at once Barnabas clenched his teeth and spoke.
"Who is it?" he demanded fiercely, "now, by God—if it's you, Chichester—" and with the word, he reached out before him in the dark with merciless, griping hands.
The contact of something warm and soft; a broken, pitiful cry of fear, and he had a woman in his arms. And, even as he clasped that yielding form, Barnabas knew instinctively who it was, and straightway thrilled with a wild joy.
"Madam!" he said hoarsely. "Madam!"
But she never stirred, nay it almost seemed she sank yet closer into his embrace, if that could well be.
"Cleone!" he whispered.
"Barnabas," sighed a voice; and surely no other voice in all the world could have uttered the word so tenderly.
"I—I fear I frightened you?"
"Yes, a little—Barnabas."
"You are—trembling very much."
"I am sorry that I—frightened you."
"I'm better now."
"But I—think I can walk if—"
"If you will help me, please—Barnabas."
Oh, surely never had those dark and dingy stairs, worn though they were by the tread of countless feet, heard till now a voice so soft, so low and sweet, so altogether irresistible! Such tender, thrilling tones might have tamed Hyrcanean tigers or charmed the ferocity of Cerberus himself. Then how might our Barnabas hope to resist, the more especially as one arm yet encircled the yielding softness of her slender waist and her fragrant breath was upon his cheek?
Help her? Of course he would.
"It's so very—dark," she sighed.
"Yes, it's very dark," said Barnabas, "but it isn't far to the landing—shall we go up?"
"Yes, but—" my lady hesitated a moment as one who takes breath for some great effort, and, in that moment, he felt her bosom heave beneath his hand. "Oh, Barnabas," she whispered, "won't you—kiss me—first?"
Then Barnabas trembled in his turn, the arm about her grew suddenly rigid and, when he spoke, his voice was harsh and strained.
"Madam," said he, "can the mere kiss of an—inn-keeper's son restore your dead faith?"
Now when he had said this, Cleone shrank in his embrace and uttered a loud cry as if he had offered her some great wrong, and, breaking from him, was gone before him up the stair, running in the dark.
Oh, Youth! Oh, Pride!
So Barnabas hurried after her and thus, as she threw open Barrymaine's door he entered with her and, in his sudden abasement, would have knelt to her, but Ronald Barrymaine had sprung up from the couch and now leaned there, staring with dazed eyes like one new wakened from sleep.
"Ronald," she cried, running to him, "I came as soon as I could, but I didn't understand your letter. You wrote of some great danger. Oh, Ronald dear, what is it—this time?"
"D-danger!" he repeated, and with the word, turned to stare over his shoulder into the dingiest corner: "d-danger, yes, so I am,—but t-tell me who it is—behind me, in the corner?"
"No one, Ronald."
"Yes—yes there is, I tell you," he whispered, "look again—now, d-don't you see him?"
"No, oh no!" answered Cleone, clasping her hands, and shrinking before Barrymaine's wild and haggard look. "Oh, Ronald, there's—no one there!"
"Yes there is, he's always there now—always just behind me. Last night he began to talk to me—ah, no, no—what am I saying? never heed me, Clo. I—I asked you to come because I'm g-going away, soon, very s-soon, Clo, and I know I shall n-never see you again. I suppose you thought it was m-money I wanted, but no—it's not that, I wanted to say good-by because you see I'm g-going away—to-night!"
"Going away, Ronald?" she repeated, sinking to her knees beside the rickety couch, for he had fallen back there as though overcome by sudden weakness. "Dear boy, where are you going—and why?"
"I'm g-going far away—because I must—the s-sooner the better!" he whispered, struggling to his elbow to peer into the corner again. "Yes, the s-sooner the better. But, before I go I want you to promise—to swear, Clo—to s-swear to me—" Barrymaine sat up suddenly and, laying his nervous hands upon her shoulders, leaned down to her in fierce eagerness, "You must s-swear to me n-never to see or have anything to do with that d-devil, Chichester, d' ye hear me, Clo, d' ye hear me?"
"But—oh, Ronald, I don't understand, you always told me he was your friend, I thought—"
"Friend!" cried Barrymaine passionately. "He's a devil, I tell you he's a d-devil, oh—" Barrymaine choked and fell back gasping; but, even as Cleone leaned above him all tender solicitude, he pushed her aside and, springing to his feet, reached out and caught Barnabas by the arm. "Beverley," he cried, "you'll shield her from him—w-when I'm gone, you'll l-look after her, won't you, Beverley? She's the only thing I ever loved—except my accursed self. You will shield her from—that d-devil!"
Then, still clutching Barnabas, he turned and seized Cleone's hands.
"Clo!" he cried, "dearest of sisters, if ever you need a f-friend when I'm gone, he's here. Turn to him, Clo—look up—give him your hand. Y-you loved him once, I think, and you were right—quite r-right. You can t-trust Beverley, Clo—g-give him your hand."
"No, no!" cried Cleone, and, snatching her fingers from Barrymaine's clasp, she turned away.
"Why not? Answer me! Speak, I tell you!"
But Cleone knelt there beside the couch, her head proudly averted, uttering no word.
"Why, you don't think, like so many of the fools, that he killed Jasper Gaunt, do you?" cried Barrymaine feverishly. "You don't think he d-did it, do you—do you? Ah, but he didn't—he didn't, I tell you, and I know—because—"
"Stop!" exclaimed Barnabas.
"Stop—no, why should I? She'll learn soon enough now and I'm m-man enough to tell her myself—I'm no c-coward, I tell you—"
Then Cleone raised her head and looked up at her half-brother, and in her eyes were a slow-dawning fear and horror.
"Oh, Ronald!" she whispered, "what do you mean?"
"Mean?" cried Barrymaine, "I mean that I did it—I did it. Yes, I k-killed Jasper Gaunt, but it was no m-murder, Clo—a—a fight, an accident—yes, I s-swear to God I never meant to do it."
"You!" she whispered, "you?"
"Yes, I—I did it, but I swear I never m-meant to—oh, Cleone—" and he reached down to her with hands outstretched appealingly. But Cleone shrank down and down—away from him, until she was crouching on the floor, yet staring up at him with wide and awful eyes.
"You!" she whispered.
"Don't!" he cried. "Ah, don't look at me like that and oh, my God! W-won't you l-let me t-touch you, Clo?"
"I—I'd rather you—wouldn't;" and Barnabas saw that she was shivering violently.
"But it was no m-murder," he pleaded, "and I'm g-going away, Clo—ah! won't you let me k-kiss you good-by—just once, Clo?"
"I'd rather—you wouldn't," she whispered.
"Y-your hand, then—only your hand, Clo."
"I'd rather—you didn't!"
Then Ronald Barrymaine groaned and fell on his knees beside her and sought to kiss her little foot, the hem of her dress, a strand of her long, yellow hair; but seeing how she shuddered away from him, a great sob broke from him and he rose to his feet.
"Beverley," he said, "oh, Beverley, s-she won't let me touch her." And so stood a while with his face hidden in his griping hands. After a moment he looked down at her again, but seeing how she yet gazed at him with that wide, awful, fixed stare, he strove as if to speak; then, finding no words, turned suddenly upon his heel and crossing the room, went into his bed-chamber and locked the door.
Then Barnabas knelt beside that shaken, desolate figure and fain would have comforted her, but now he could hear her speaking in a passionate whisper, and the words she uttered were these:
"Oh, God forgive him! Oh, God help him! Have mercy upon him, oh God of Pity!"
And these words she whispered over and over again until, at length, Barnabas reached out and touched her very gently.
"Cleone!" he said.
At the touch she rose and stood looking round the dingy room like one distraught, and, sighing, crossed unsteadily to the door.
And when they reached the stair, Barnabas would have taken her hand because of the dark, but she shrank away from him and shook her head.
"Sir," said she very softly, "a murderer's sister needs no help, I thank you."
And so they went down the dark stair with never a word between them and, reaching the door with the faulty latch, Barnabas held it open and they passed out into the dingy street, and as they walked side by side towards Hatton Garden, Barnabas saw that her eyes were still fixed and wide and that her lips still moved in silent prayer.
In a while, being come into Hatton Garden, Barnabas saw a hackney coach before them, and beside the coach a burly, blue-clad figure, a conspicuous figure by reason of his wooden leg and shiny, glazed hat.
"W'y, Lord, Mr. Beverley, sir!" exclaimed the Bo'sun, hurrying forward, with his hairy fist outstretched, "this is a surprise, sir, likewise a pleasure, and—" But here, observing my lady's face, he checked himself suddenly, and opening the carriage door aided her in very tenderly, beckoning Barnabas to follow. But Barnabas shook his head.
"Take care of her, Bo'sun," said he, clasping the sailor's hand, "take great care of her." So saying, he closed the door upon them, and stood to watch the rumbling coach down the bustling street until it had rumbled itself quite out of sight.
WHICH GIVES SOME ACCOUNT OF THE WORST PLACE IN THE WORLD
A bad place by day, an evil place by night, an unsavory place at all times is Giles's Rents, down by the River.
It is a place of noisome courts and alleys, of narrow, crooked streets, seething with a dense life from fetid cellar to crowded garret, amid whose grime and squalor the wail of the new-born infant is echoed by the groan of decrepit age and ravaging disease; where Vice is rampant and ghoulish Hunger stalks, pale and grim.
Truly an unholy place is Giles's Rents, down by the River.
Here, upon a certain evening, Barnabas, leaning out from his narrow casement, turned wistful-eyed, to stare away over broken roof and chimney, away beyond the maze of squalid courts and alleys that hemmed him in to where, across the River, the sun was setting in a blaze of glory, yet a glory that served only to make more apparent all the filth and decay, all the sordid ugliness of his surroundings.
Below him was a dirty court, where dirty children fought and played together, filling the reeking air with their shrill clamor, while slatternly women stood gossiping in ragged groups with grimy hands on hips, or with arms rolled up in dingy aprons. And Barnabas noticed that the dirty children and gossiping women turned very often to stare and point up at a certain window a little further along the court, and he idly wondered why.
It had been a day of stifling heat, and even now, though evening was at hand, he breathed an air close and heavy and foul with a thousand impurities.
Now as he leaned there, with his earnest gaze bent ever across the River, Barnabas sighed, bethinking him of clean, white, country roads, of murmuring brooks and rills, of the cool green shades of dewy woods full of the fragrance of hidden flower and herb and sweet, moist earth. But most of all he bethought him of a certain wayside inn, an ancient inn of many gables, above whose hospitable door swung a sign whereon a weather-beaten hound, dim-legged and faded of tail, pursued a misty blur that by common report was held to be hare; a comfortable, homely inn of no especial importance perhaps, yet the very best inn to be found in all broad England, none the less. And, as he thought, a sudden, great yearning came upon Barnabas and, leaning his face between his hands, he said within himself:
"'I will arise, and go to my father!'"
But little by little he became aware that the clamor below had ceased and, glancing down into the court, beheld two men in red waistcoats, large men, bewhiskered men and square of elbow. Important men were these, at sight of whom the ragged children stood awed and silent and round of eye, while the gossiping women drew back to give them way. Yes, men of consequence they were, beyond a doubt, and Barnabas noticed that they also stared very often at a certain window a little further up the court and from it to a third man who limped along close behind them by means of a very nobbly stick; a shortish, broadish, mild-looking man whose face was hidden beneath the shadow of the broad-brimmed hat. Nevertheless at sight of this man Barnabas uttered an exclamation, drew in his head very suddenly and thereafter stood, listening and expectant, his gaze on the door like one who waits to meet the inevitable.
And after a while, he saw the latch raised cautiously, and the door begin to open very slowly and noiselessly. It had opened thus perhaps some six inches when he spoke:
"Is that you, Mr. Shrig?"
Immediately the door became stationary and, after some brief pause a voice issued from behind it, a voice somewhat wheezing and hoarse.
"Which your parding I ax, sir," said the voice, "which your parding I 'umbly ax, but it ain't, me being a respectable female, sir, name o' Snummitt, sir—charing, sir, also washing and clear-starching, sir!"
Hereupon, the door having opened to its fullest, Barnabas saw a stout, middle-aged woman whose naturally unlovely look had been further marred by the loss of one eye, while the survivor, as though constantly striving to make amends, was continually rolling itself up and down and to and fro, in a manner quite astonishing to behold.
"Which my name is Snummitt," she repeated, bobbing a curtsy and momentarily eclipsing the rolling eye under the poke of a very large bonnet, "Mrs. Snummitt, sir, which though a widder I'm respectable and of 'igh character and connections. Which me 'aving only one heye ain't by no manner of means to be 'eld ag'in me, seeing as it were took away by a act o' Providence in the shape of another lady's boot-'eel sixteen summers ago come Michaelmas."
"Indeed," said Barnabas, seeing Mrs. Snummitt had paused for breath, "but what—"
"Which I were to give you Mr. Bimby's compliments, sir, and ax if you could oblige him with the loan of a wine-glass?"
"Over-'ead, sir—garret! You may 'ave 'eard 'im, now and then—flute, sir, 'armonious, though doleful."
"And he wants a wine-glass, does he?" said Barnabas, and forthwith produced that article from a rickety corner-cupboard and handed it to Mrs. Snummitt, who took it, glanced inside it, turned it upside-down, and rolled her eye at Barnabas eloquently.
"What more?" he inquired.
"Which I would mention, sir, or shall we say, 'int, as if you could put a little drop o' summat inside of it—brandy, say—'t would be doing a great favor."
"Ah, to be sure!" said Barnabas. And, having poured out a stiff quantum of the spirit, he gave it to Mrs. Snummit, who took it, curtsied, and rolling her solitary orb at the bottle on the table, smiled engagingly.
"Which I would thank you kindly on be'alf o' Mr. Bimby, sir, and, seeing it upon the tip o' your tongue to ax me to partake, I begs to say 'Amen,' with a slice o' lemming cut thin, and thank you from my 'eart."
"I fear I have no lemon," began Barnabas.
"Then we won't say no more about it, sir, not a word. 'Evings forbid as a lemming should come betwixt us seeing as I am that shook on account o' pore, little Miss Pell."
"Who is Miss Pell?"
"She's one as was, sir, but now—ain't," answered Mrs. Snummitt and, nodding gloomily, she took down the brandy in three separate and distinct gulps, closed her eyes, sighed, and nodded her poke bonnet more gloomily than before. "Little Miss Pell, sir, 'ad a attic three doors down, sir, and pore little Miss Pell 'as been and gone and—done it! Which do it I knowed she would."
"Done what?" inquired Barnabas.
"Five long year come shine, come rain, I've knowed pore Miss Pell, and though small, a real lady she were, but lonesome. Last night as ever was, she met me on the stairs, and by the same token I 'ad a scrubbing-brush in one 'and and a bucket in the other, me 'aving been charing for the first floor front, a 'andsome gent with whiskers like a lord, and 'oh, Mrs. Snummitt!' she sez and all of a twitter she was too, 'dear Mrs. Snummitt,' sez she, 'I'm a-going away on a journey,' she sez, 'but before I go,' she sez, 'I should like to kiss you good-by, me being so lonesome,' she sez. Which kiss me she did, sir, and likewise wep' a couple o' big tears over me, pore soul, and then, run away into 'er dark little attic and locked 'erself in, and—done it!"
"What—what did she do?"
"'Ung 'erself in the cupboard, sir. Kissed me only last night she did and wep' over me, and now—cold and stiff, pore soul?"
"But why did she do it?" cried Barnabas, aghast.
"Well, there was the lonesomeness and—well, she 'adn't eat anything for two days it seems, and—"
"You mean that she was hungry—starving?"
"Generally, sir. But things was worse lately on account of 'er heyes getting weak. 'Mrs. Snummitt,' she used to say, 'my heyes is getting worse and worse,' she'd say, 'but I shall work as long as I can see the stitches, and then, Mrs. Snummitt, I must try a change o' scene,' she used to say with a little shiver like. And I used to wonder where she'd go, but—I know now, and—well—the Bow Street Runners 'as just gone up to cut the pore soul down."
"And she killed herself—because she was hungry!" said Barnabas, staring wide-eyed.
"Oh, yes, lots on 'em do, I've knowed three or four as went and done it, and it's generally hunger as is to blame for it. There's Mr. Bimby, now, a nice little gent, but doleful like 'is flute, 'e's always 'ungry 'e is, I'll take my oath—shouldn't wonder if 'e don't come to it one o' these days. And talking of 'im I must be going, sir, and thank you kindly, I'm sure."
"Why, then," said Barnabas as she bobbed him another curtsy, "will you ask Mr. Bimby if he will do me the pleasure to step down and take supper with me?"
"Which, sir, I will, though Mr. Bimby I won't answer for, 'im being busy with the pore young man as 'e brought 'ome last night—it's 'im as the brandy's for. Ye see, sir, though doleful, Mr. Bimby's very kind 'earted, and 'e's always a-nussing somebody or something—last time it were a dog with a broke leg—ah, I've knowed 'im bring 'ome stray cats afore now, many's the time, and once a sparrer. But I'll tell 'im, sir, and thank you kindly."
And in a while, when Mrs. Snummitt had duly curtsied herself out of sight, Barnabas sighed, and turned once more to stare away, over broken roof and crumbling chimney, towards the glory of the sunset. But now, because he remembered poor little Miss Pell who had died because she was so friendless and hungry, and Mr. Bimby who was "always hungry" and played the flute, he stifled his fierce yearning for dewy wood and copse and the sweet, pure breath of the country, and thought no more of his father's inn that was so very far from the sordid grime and suffering of Giles's Rents, down by the River; and setting the kettle on the fire he sank into a chair and stretching out his long legs, fell into a profound meditation.
From this he was roused by the opening of the door, and, glancing up, beheld John Peterby. A very different person he looked from the neat, well-groomed Peterby of a week ago, what with the rough, ill-fitting clothes he wore and the fur cap pulled low over his brows; the gentleman's gentleman had vanished quite, and in his stead was a nondescript character such as might have been met with anywhere along the River, or lounging in shadowy corners. He carried a bundle beneath one arm, and cast a swift look round the room before turning to see the door behind him.
"Ah," said Barnabas nodding, "I'm glad you're back, John, and with plenty of provisions I hope, for I'm amazingly hungry, and besides, I've asked a gentleman to sup with us."
Peterby put down the bundle and, crossing to the hearth, took the kettle, which was boiling furiously, and set it upon the hob, then laying aside the fur cap spoke:
"A gentleman, sir?"
"A neighbor, John."
"Sir," said he, as he began to prepare the tea in that swift, silent manner peculiar to him in all things, "when do you propose we shall leave this place?"
"Why, to tell you the truth, John, I had almost determined to start for the country this very night, but, on second thoughts, I've decided to stay on a while. After all, we have only been here a week as yet."
"Yes, sir, it is just a week since—Jasper Gaunt was murdered," said Peterby gently as he stooped to unpack his bundle. Now when he said this, Barnabas turned to look at him again, and thus he noticed that Peterby's brow was anxious and careworn.
"I wish, John," said he, "that you would remember we are no longer master and man."
"Old habits stick, sir."
"And that I brought you to this dismal place as my friend."
"But surely, sir, a man's friend is worthy of his trust and confidence?"
"John Peterby, what do you mean?"
"Sir," said Peterby, setting down the teapot, "as I came along this evening, I met Mr. Shrig; he recognized me in spite of my disguise and he told me to—warn you—"
"That you may be arrested—"
"For—the murder of Jasper Gaunt. Oh, sir, why have you aroused suspicion against yourself by disappearing at such a time?"
"Suspicion?" said Barnabas, and with the word he rose and laying his hands upon John Peterby's shoulders, looked into his eyes. Then, seeing the look they held, he smiled and shook his head.
"Oh, friend," said he, "what matters it so long as you know my hands are clean?"
"But, sir, if you are arrested—"
"They must next prove me guilty, John," said Barnabas, sitting down at the table.
"Or an accessory—after the fact!"
"Hum!" said Barnabas thoughtfully, "I never thought of that."
"And, sir," continued Peterby anxiously, "there are two Bow Street Runners lounging outside in the court—"
"But they're not after me yet. So cheer up, John!" Yet in that moment, Peterby sprang to his feet with fists clenched, for some one was knocking softly at the door.
"Quick, sir—the other room—hide!" he whispered. But shaking his head, Barnabas rose and, putting him gently aside, opened the door and beheld a small gentleman who bowed.
A pale, fragile little gentleman this, with eyes and hair of an indeterminate color, while his clothes, scrupulously neat and brushed and precise to a button, showed pitifully shabby and threadbare in contrast with his elaborately frilled and starched cravat and gay, though faded, satin waistcoat; and, as he stood bowing nervously to them, there was an air about him that somehow gave the impression that he was smaller even than Nature had intended.
"Gentlemen," said he, coughing nervously behind his hand, "hem!—I trust I don't intrude. Feel it my obligation to pay my respects, to—hem! to welcome you as a neighbor—as a neighbor. Arthur Bimby, humbly at your service—Arthur Bimby, once a man of parts though now brought low by abstractions, gentlemen, forces not apparent to the human optic, sirs. Still, in my day, I have been known about town as a downy bird, a smooth file, and a knowing card—hem!"
Hereupon he bowed again, looking as unlike a "smooth file" or "knowing card" as any small, inoffensive gentleman possibly could.
"Happy to see you, sir," answered Barnabas, returning his bow with one as deep, "I am Barnabas Barty at your service, and this is my good friend John Peterby. We are about to have supper—nothing very much—tea, sir, eggs, and a cold fowl, but if you would honor us—"
"Sir," cried the little gentleman with a quaver of eagerness in his voice and a gleam in his eye, both quickly suppressed, "hem!—indeed I thank you, but—regret I have already supped—hem—duck and green peas, gentlemen, though I'll admit the duck was tough—deuced tough, hem! Still, if I might be permitted to toy with an egg and discuss a dish of tea, the honor would be mine, sirs—would be mine!"
Then, while Peterby hastened to set the edibles before him, Barnabas drew up a chair and, with many bows and flutterings of the thin, restless hands, the little gentleman sat down.
"Indeed, indeed," he stammered, blinking his pale eyes, "this is most kind, I protest, most kind and neighborly!" Which said, he stooped suddenly above his plate and began to eat, that is to say he swallowed one or two mouthfuls with a nervous haste that was very like voracity, checked himself, and glancing guiltily from unconscious Barnabas to equally unconscious Peterby, sighed and thereafter ate his food as deliberately as might be expected of one who had lately dined upon duck and green peas.
"Ah!" said he, when at length his hunger was somewhat assuaged, "you are noticing the patch in my left elbow, sir?"
"No indeed!" began Barnabas.
"I think you were, sir—every one does, every one—it can't be missed, sir, and I—hem! I'm extreme conscious of it myself, sirs. I really must discard this old coat, but—hem! I'm attached to it—foolish sentiment, sirs. I wear it for associations' sake, it awakens memory, and memory is a blessed thing, sirs, a very blessed thing!"
"Sometimes!" sighed Barnabas.
"In me, sirs, you behold a decayed gentleman, yet one who has lived in his time, but now, sirs, all that remains to me is—this coat. A prince once commended it, the Beau himself condescended to notice it! Yes, sirs, I was rich once and happily married, and my friends were many. But—my best friend deceived and ruined me, my wife fled away and left me, sirs, my friends all forsook me and, to-day, all that I have to remind me of what I was when I was young and lived, is this old coat. To-day I exist as a law-writer, to-day I am old, and with my vanished youth hope has vanished too. And I call myself a decayed gentleman because I'm—fading, sirs. But to fade is genteel; Brummell faded! Yes, one may fade and still be a gentleman, but who ever heard of a fading ploughman?"
"Who, indeed?" said Barnabas.
"But to fade, sir," continued the little gentleman, lifting a thin, bloodless hand, "though genteel, is a slow process and a very weary one. Without the companionship of Hope, life becomes a hard and extreme long road to the ultimate end, and therefore I am sometimes greatly tempted to take the—easier course, the—shorter way."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, sir, there are other names for it, but—hem!—I prefer to call it 'the shorter way.'"
"Do you mean—suicide?"
"Sir," cried Mr. Bimby, shivering and raising protesting hands, "I said 'the shorter way.' Poor little Miss Pell—a lady born, sir—she used to curtsy to me on the stairs, she chose 'the shorter way.' She also was old, you see, and weary. And to-night I met another who sought to take this 'shorter way'—but he was young, and for the young there is always hope. So I brought him home with me and tried to comfort him, but I fear—"
Peterby sprang suddenly to his feet and Mr. Bimby started and turned to glance fearfully towards the door which was quivering beneath the blows of a ponderous fist. Therefore Barnabas rose and crossing the room, drew the latch. Upon the threshold stood Corporal Richard Roe, looming gigantic in the narrow doorway, who, having saluted Barnabas with his shining hook, spoke in his slow, diffident manner.
"Sir," said he, "might I speak a word wi' you?"
"Why, Corporal, I'm glad to see you—come in!"
"Sir," said the big soldier with another motion of his glittering hook, "might I ax you to step outside wi' me jest a moment?"
"Certainly, Corporal," and with a murmured apology to Mr. Bimby, Barnabas followed the Corporal out upon the gloomy landing and closed the door. Now at the further end of the landing was a window, open to admit the air, and, coming to this window, the Corporal glanced down stealthily into the court below, beckoning Barnabas to do the like:
"Sir," said he in a muffled tone, "d' ye see them two coves in the red weskits?" and he pointed to the two Bow Street Runners who lounged in the shadow of an adjacent wall, talking together in rumbling tones and puffing at their pipes.
"Well, Corporal, what of them?"
"Sir, they're a-waiting for you!"
"Are you sure, Corporal? A poor creature committed suicide to-day; I thought they were here on that account."
"No, sir, that was only a blind, they're a-watching and a-waiting to take you for the Gaunt murder. My pal Jarsper knows, and my pal Jarsper sent me here to give you the office to lay low and not to venture out to-night."
"Ah!" said Barnabas, beginning to frown.
"My pal Jarsper bid me say as you was to keep yourself scarce till 'e's got 'is 'ooks on the guilty party, sir."
"Ah!" said Barnabas, again, "and when does he intend to make the arrest?"
"This here very night, sir."
"Hum!" said Barnabas thoughtfully.
"And," continued the Corporal, "I were likewise to remind you, sir, as once your pals, ever and allus your pals. And, sir—good-night, and good-luck to you!" So saying, the Corporal shook hands, flourished his hook and strode away down the narrow stairs, smiling up at Barnabas like a beneficent giant.
And, when he was gone, Barnabas hurried back into the room and, taking pen and paper, wrote this:
You are to be arrested to-night, so I send you my friend, John Peterby. Trust yourself to his guidance.
And having folded and sealed this letter, he beckoned to Peterby.
"John," said he, speaking in his ear, "take this letter to Mr. Barrymaine, give it into his hand, see that he leaves at once. And, John, take a coach and bring him back with you."
So Peterby the silent thrust the note into his bosom, took his fur cap, and sighing, went from the room; and a moment later, glancing cautiously through the window, Barnabas saw him hurry through the court and vanish round the corner.
Then Barnabas turned back to the table, and seeing how wistfully Mr. Bimby eyed the teapot, poured him out another cup; and while they drank together, Mr. Bimby chatted, in his pleasant way, of bitter wrong, of shattered faith and ideals, of the hopeless struggle against circumstance, and of the oncoming terror of old age, bringing with it failing strength and all the horrors of a debtor's prison. And now, mingled with his pity, Barnabas was conscious of a growing respect for this pleasant, small gentleman, and began to understand why a man might seek the "shorter way," yet be no great coward after all.
So Mr. Bimby chattered on and Barnabas listened until the day declined to evening; until Barnabas began to hearken for Peterby's returning footstep on the uncarpeted stair outside. Even in the act of lighting the candles his ears were acutely on the stretch, and thus he gradually became aware of another sound, soft and dull, yet continuous, a sound difficult to locate. But as he stood staring into the flame of the candle he had just lighted, striving meanwhile to account for and place this noise, Mr. Bimby rose and lifted a thin, arresting hand.
"Sir," said he, "do you hear anything?"
"Yes. I was wondering what it could be."
"I think I can tell you, sir," said Mr. Bimby, pointing to a certain part of the cracked and blackened ceiling; "it is up there, in my room—listen!"
And now, all at once Barnabas started and caught his breath, for from the floor above came a soft trampling as of unshod feet, yet the feet never moved from the one spot.
"Indeed," sighed Mr. Bimby, "I greatly fear my poor young friend is ill again. I must go up to him, but first—may I beg—"
"Sir," said Barnabas, his gaze still fixed upon a certain corner of the ceiling, "I should like to go with you, if I may."
"You are very good, sir, very kind, I protest you are," quavered Mr. Bimby, "and hem! if I might suggest—a little brandy—?" But even as Barnabas reached for the bottle, there came a hurry of footsteps on the stair, a hand fumbled at the door and Mr. Smivvle entered with Peterby at his heels.
"Oh, Beverley!" he exclaimed, tugging nervously at his whiskers, "Barry's gone—most distressing—utterly vanished! I just happened to—ah—pop round the corner, my dear fellow, and when I came back he'd disappeared, been looking for him everywhere. Poor Barry—poor fellow, they've got him safe enough by now! Oh Gad, Beverley! what can I do?"
"Sit down," said Barnabas, "I think he's found." So saying he turned and followed Mr. Bimby out of the room.
CONCERNING THE IDENTITY OF MR. BIMBY'S GUEST
It needed but a glance at the huddled figure in the comfortless little attic to assure Barnabas of the identity of Mr. Bimby's "poor young friend"; wherefore, setting down the candle on the broken table, he crossed the room and touched that desolate figure with a gentle hand.
Then Ronald Barrymaine looked up and, seeing Barnabas, struggled to his knees:
"Beverley!" he exclaimed, "oh, thank God! You'll save her from that d-devil—I tried to kill him, b-but he was too quick for me. But you—you'll save her!"
"What do you mean? Is it Cleone? What do you mean—speak!" said Barnabas, beginning to tremble.
"Yes, yes!" muttered Barrymaine, passing a hand across his brow. "Listen then! Chichester knows—he knows, I tell you! He came to me, three days ago I think—while D-Dig was out, and he talked and talked, and questioned me and questioned me, and s-so I—I told him everything—everything! But I had to, Beverley, I had to—he made me—yes he, Jasper Gaunt. So I told C-Chichester everything and then—he laughed, and I t-tried to k-kill him, but he got away and left me alone with—him. He's always near me now—always c-close behind me where I can't quite s-see him, only sometimes I hear him ch-choke, oh, my God, Beverley!—like he did—that night! I r-ran away to escape him but—oh Beverley!—he's followed me, he was here a moment ago—I heard him, I t-tell you! Oh, Beverley, don't l-look as if you thought me m-mad, I'm not! I'm not! I know it's all an illusion, of c-course, but—"
"Yes," said Barnabas gently, "but what of Cleone?"
"Cleone? Oh, God help me, Beverley, she's going to g-give herself to that devil—to buy his silence!"
"What—what," stammered Barnabas. "What do you mean?"
"I got this to-day—read it and see!" said Barrymaine and drew from his bosom a crumpled letter. Then Barnabas took it, and smoothing it out, read these words:
Ronald dear, I'm sorry I didn't let you kiss me good-by. So sorry that I am going to do all that a woman can to save you. Mr. Chichester has learned your awful secret, and I am the price of his silence. So, because of my promise to our dying mother, and because life can hold nothing for me now, because life and death are alike to me now, I am going to marry him to-night, at his house at Headcorn. Good-by, Ronald dear, and that God may forgive and save you in this life and hereafter, is the undying prayer of
Your Sister, CLEONE.
Barnabas refolded the letter and, giving it back to Barrymaine, took out Natty Bell's great silver watch.
"It is a long way to Headcorn," said he, "I must start at once!"
"Ah! You'll g-go then, Beverley?"
"Go? Of course!"
"Then, oh Beverley, whatever happens—whether you're in time or no, you'll—k-kill him?"
"I think," said Barnabas, putting away his watch, "yes, I think I shall."
"The house is called Ashleydown," continued Barrymaine feverishly, "a b-big house about a m-mile this side the village."
"Ashleydown? I think I've heard mention of it before. But now, you must come with me, Smivvle is downstairs, you shall have my rooms to-night."
"Thanks, Beverley, but do you m-mind—giving me your arm? I get f-faint sometimes—my head, I think, the faintness came on me in the s-street to-night, and I f-fell, I think."
"Indeed, yes, sir," added Mr. Bimby with a little bow, "it was so I found you, sir."
"Ah, yes, you were kind to me, I remember—you have my g-gratitude, sir. Now, Beverley, give me your arm, I—I—oh, God help me!" Barrymaine reached out with clutching fingers, swayed, twisted sideways and would have fallen, had not Barnabas caught him.
"Poor boy!" cried Mr. Bimby, "a fit, I think—so very young, poor boy! You'll need help, sir. Oh, poor boy, poor boy!" So saying, the little gentleman hurried away and presently returned with John and Mr. Smivvle. Thus, between them, they bore Ronald Barrymaine downstairs and, having made him as comfortable as might be in the inner room, left him to the care of the faithful Mr. Smivvle.
Then Barnabas crossed to the narrow window and stood there a while, looking down at the dim figures of the Bow Street Runners who still lounged against the wall in the gathering dusk and talked together in gruff murmurs.
"John," said he at last, "I must trouble you to change coats with me." Peterby slipped off the garment in question, and aided Barnabas to put it on.
"Now, your fur cap, John."
"Sir," said Peterby all anxiety in a moment, "you are never thinking of going out, tonight—it would be madness!"
"Then mad am I. Your cap, John."
"But—if you are arrested—"
"He will be a strong man who stays me tonight, John. Give me your cap."
So Peterby brought the fur cap and, putting it on, Barnabas pulled it low down over his brows and turned to the door. But there Peterby stayed him.
"Sir," he pleaded, "let me go for you."
"No," said Barnabas, shaking his head.
"Then let me go with you,"
"Because," answered Barnabas, grim-lipped, "tonight I go to ride another race, a very long, hard race, and oh, John Peterby—my faithful John, if you never prayed before—pray now, that I may win!"
"Sir," said Peterby, "I will!"
Then Barnabas caught his hand, wrung it, and striding from the room, hurried away down the dark and narrow stair.
HOW BARNABAS LED A HUE AND CRY
The shadows were creeping down on Giles's Rents, hiding its grime, its misery and squalor, what time Barnabas stepped out into the court, and, turning his back upon the shadowy River, strode along, watchful-eyed, toward that dark corner where the Bow Street Runners still lounged, smoking their pipes and talking together in their rumbling tones. As he drew nearer he became aware that they had ceased their talk and guessed rather than saw that he was the object of their scrutiny; nor was he mistaken, for as he came abreast of where they stood, one of them lurched towards him.
"Why, hullo, Joe," exclaimed the man, in a tone of rough familiarity, "strike me blue if this ain't fort'nate! 'Ow goes it, Joe?"
"My name isn't Joe," said Barnabas, pausing, for the man had lurched in front of him, barring his way.
"Not Joe, eh?" growled the man, thrusting his head unpleasantly close to Barnabas to peer into his face, "not Joe, eh? Why then p'r'aps it might be—Barnabas, eh? P'r'aps it might be—Beverley, eh? Barnabas Beverley like-wise, eh? All right, Ben!" he called to his mate, "it's our man right enough!"
"What do you mean?" inquired Barnabas, casting a swift glance about him; and thus, he saw a moving shadow some distance down the court, a furtive shape that flitted towards them where the gathering shadows lay thickest. And at the sight, Barnabas clenched his fists and poised himself for swift action.
"What do you want?" he demanded, his gaze still wandering, his ears hearkening desperately for the sound of creeping footsteps behind, "what do you want with me?"
"W'y, we wants you, to be sure," answered Runner No. 1. "We wants you, Barnabas Beverley, Esk-vire, for the murder of Jasper Gaunt. And, wot's more—we've got ye! And, wot's more—you'd better come along nice and quiet in the name o' the—"
But in that moment, even as he reached out to seize the prisoner, Runner No. 1 felt himself caught in a powerful wrestling grip, his legs were swept from under him, and he thudded down upon the cobbles. Then, as Barnahas turned to meet the rush of Runner No. 2, behold a dark figure, that leapt from the dimness behind, and bore No. 2, cursing savagely, staggering back and back to the wall, and pinned him there, while, above the scuffling, the thud of blows and the trample of feet, rose a familiar voice:
"Run, sir—run!" cried John Peterby, "I've got this one—run!"
Incontinent, Barnabas turned, and taking to his heels, set off along the court, but with No. 1 (who had scrambled to his feet again) thundering after him in hot pursuit, roaring for help as he came.
"Stop, thief!" bellowed No. 1, pounding along behind.
"Stop, thief!" roared Barnabas, pounding along in front.
Round the corner into the street of tumble-down houses sped yelling Barnabas, scattering people right and left; round the corner came No. 1 Hard in his rear.
"Stop, thief!" bellowed No. 1, louder than ever.
"Stop, thief!" roared Barnabas, louder still, and running like the wind. Thus, No. 1 continued to bellow along behind, and Barnabas ran on roaring before, by dint of which he had very soon drawn about him divers other eager pursuers who, in their turn, taking up the cry, filled the air with a raving clamor that grew and ever grew. On sped Barnabas, still yelling "thieves," and with a yelling rabblement all about him, on he went by crooked ways, plunging down gloomy courts, doubling sudden corners, leading the pursuit ever deeper into the maze of dark alleys and crooked back streets, until, spying a place suitable to his purpose, he turned aside, and darting down a dark and narrow entry-way, he paused there in the kindly shelter to regain his breath, and heard the hue and cry go raving past until it had roared itself into the distance. Then, very cautiously and with no little difficulty, he retraced his steps, and coming at length to the River, crossed Blackfriars Bridge and hurried west-wards; nor did he stop or slacken his swift pace until he found himself in that quiet, back-street at the end of which his stables were situated. Being come there, he hammered upon the door which was presently opened by old Gabriel Martin himself.
"Martin, I'm in a hurry," said Barnabas, "have 'The Terror' saddled at once, and bring me a pair of spurred boots—quick!"
Without wasting time in needless words, the old groom set the stable-boys running to and fro, and himself brought Barnabas a pair of riding-boots, and aided him to put them on. Which done, Barnabas threw aside the fur cap, stripped off Peterby's rough coat, and looked about for other garments to take their place.
"If it be a coat as you're wanting, sir, there be one as you wore at the race," said Martin, "I keep it upstairs in my room. It be a bit tore, sir, but—"
"It will do," said Barnabas, nodding, "only—hurry, Martin!" By the time the old groom had returned with the scarlet hunting-frock and helped Barnabas into it, "The Terror" was led out from his box, and immediately began to snort and rear and beat a ringing tattoo with his great, round hoofs to a chorus of chirruping and whoa-ing from the stable-boys.
"A bit fresh-ish, p'r'aps, sir!" said Martin, viewing the magnificent animal with glistening eyes, "exercised reg'lar, too! But wot 'e wants is a good, stretching, cross-country gallop."
"Well, he's going to have it, Martin."
"Ah, sir," nodded the old groom, as Barnabas tested girth and stirrup-leathers, "you done mighty well when you bought 'im—theer ain't another 'oss 'is ekal in London—no, nor nowheers else as I knows on. 'E's won one race for you, and done it noble, and wot's more sir—"
"Tonight he must win me another!" said Barnabas, and swung himself into the saddle. "And this will be a much harder and crueller race than he ran before or will ever run again, Martin, I hope. Pray what, time is it?"
"Nigh on to 'alf-past eight, sir."
"So late!" said Barnabas, grim-lipped and frowning as he settled his feet in the stirrups. "Now—give him his head there—stay! Martin, have you a brace of pistols?"
"Pistols! Why yes, sir, but—"
"Lend them to me."
Forthwith the pistols were brought, somewhat clumsy weapons, but serviceable none the less.
"They're loaded, sir!" said Martin as he handed them up.
"Good!" nodded Barnabas, and slipping one into either pocket, gathered up his reins.
"You'll not be back tonight, sir?"
"Not tonight, Martin."
"Good night, sir."
"Good night, Martin."
"Are you ready, sir?"
"Quite ready, Martin."
"Then—stand away there!"
Obediently the stable-boys leapt aside, freeing "The Terror's" proud head, who snorted, reared, and plunged out through the open doorway, swung off sharp to his right and thundered away down the echoing street.
And thus "The Terror" set out on his second race, which was to be a very hard, cruel race, since it was to be run against no four-legged opponent, no thing of flesh and blood and nerves, but against the sure-moving, relentless fingers of Natty Bell's great, silver watch.
WHICH TELLS HOW BARNABAS RODE ANOTHER RACE
Over Westminster Bridge and down the Borough galloped Barnabas, on through the roaring din of traffic, past rumbling coach and creaking wain, heedless of the shouts of wagoners and teamsters and the indignant cries of startled pedestrians, yet watchful of eye and ready of hand, despite his seeming recklessness.
On sped the great, black horse, his pace increasing as the traffic lessened, on and on along the Old Kent Road, up the hill at New Cross and down again, and so through Lewisham to the open country beyond.
And now the way was comparatively clear save for the swift-moving lights of some chaise or the looming bulk of crawling market-wagons: therefore Barnabas, bethinking him always of the long miles before him, and of the remorseless, creeping fingers of Natty Bell's great watch, slacked his rein, whereat "The Terror," snorting for joy, tossed his mighty crest on high and, bounding forward, fell into his long, racing stride, spurning London further and further into the dimness behind.
Barnabas rode stooped low in the saddle, his watchful eyes scanning the road ahead, a glimmering track bordered by flying hedges, and trees that, looming ghost-like in the dusk, flitted past and, like ghosts, were gone again. Swift, swift sped the great, black horse, the glimmering road below, the luminous heaven above, a glorious canopy whence shone a myriad stars filling the still night with their soft, mysterious glow: a hot, midsummer night full of a great hush, a stillness wherein no wind stirred and upon whose deep silence distant sounds seemed magnified and rose, clear and plain, above the rhythmic drumming of "The Terror's" flying hoofs. Presently, out of the dimness ahead, lights twinkled, growing ever brighter and more numerous and Bromley was before him; came a long, paved street where people turned to stare, and point, and shout at him as he flashed by, and Bromley was behind him, and he was out upon the open road again where hedge, and barn, and tree seemed to leap at him from the dark only to vanish in the dimness behind.
On swept the great, black horse, past fragrant rick and misty pool, past running rills that gurgled in the shadows, by wayside inns whence came the sound of voices and laughter with snatches of song, all quickly lost again in the rolling thunder of those tireless galloping hoofs; past lonely cottages where dim lights burned, over hill, over dale, by rolling meadow and sloping down, past darkling woods whence breathed an air cool and damp and sweet, on up the long ascent of Poll Hill and down into the valley again. Thus, in a while, Barnabas saw more lights before him that, clustering together, seemed to hang suspended in mid-air, and, with his frowning gaze upon these clustering lights, he rode up that long, trying hill that leads into the ancient township of Sevenoaks.
At the further end of the town he turned aside and, riding into the yard of the Castle Inn, called for ale and, while he drank, stood by to watch the hissing ostlers as they rubbed down "The Terror" and gave him sparingly of water. So, into the saddle again and, bearing to the right, off and away for Tonbridge.
But now, remembering the hill country before him, he checked his pace, and thus, as he went, became once more aware of the profound stillness of the night about him, and of a gathering darkness. Therefore lifting his gaze to the heavens, he saw a great, black cloud that grew and spread from east to west, putting out the stars.
Now, with the gathering cloud, came sudden fear to clutch at his heart with icy fingers, a shivering dread lest, after all, he be too late; and, clenching sweating palms, Barnabas groaned, and in that moment "The Terror" leapt snorting beneath the rowelling spur.
Suddenly, as they topped River Hill, out of the murk ahead there met him a puff of wind, a hot wind that came and so was gone again, but far away beyond the distant horizon to his left, the sombre heaven was split and rent asunder by a jagged lightning flash whose quivering light, for one brief instant, showed him a glimpse of the wide valley below, of the winding road, of field and hedgerow and motionless tree and, beyond, the square tower of a church, very small with distance yet, above whose battlements a tiny weather-vane flashed and glittered vividly ere all things vanished, swallowed up in the pitchy dark.
And now came the wind again and in the wind was rain, a few great pattering drops, while the lightning flamed and quivered upon the horizon, and the thunder rolled ever louder and more near.
Came a sudden, blinding flame, that seemed to crackle in the air near by, a stunning thunder-clap shaking the very firmament, and thereafter an aching blackness, upon whose startled silence burst the rain—a sudden, hissing downpour.
Up—up reared "The Terror," whinnying with fear, then strove madly to turn and flee before the fury of wind, and flame, and lashing rain. Three times he swerved wildly, and three times he was checked, as with hand, and voice, and goading spur, Barnabas drove him on again—on down the steep descent, down, down into the yawning blackness of the valley below, on into the raging fury of the storm.
So, buffeted by wind, lashed by stinging rain, blinded by vivid lightning-flash, Barnabas rode on down the hill.
On and ever on, with teeth hard clenched, with eyes fierce and wide, heedless alike of wind and wet and flame, since he could think only of the man he rode to meet. And sometimes he uttered bitter curses, and sometimes he touched and fondled the weapons in his pocket, smiling evilly, for tonight, if he were not blasted by the lightning or crushed beneath his terrified horse, Barnabas meant this man should die.
And now upon the rushing wind were voices, demon voices that shrieked and howled at him, filling the whirling blackness with their vicious clamor.
"Kill him!" they shrieked. "Whether you are in time or no, kill him! kill him!"
And Barnabas, heedless of the death that hissed and crackled in the air about him, fronting each lightning-flash with cruel-smiling mouth, nodded his head to the howling demons and answered:
"Yes, yes, whether in time or no, tonight he dies!"
And now, uplifted with a wild exhilaration, he laughed aloud, exulting in the storm; and now, crushed by fear and dread, and black despair, he raved out bitter curses and spurred on into the storm. Little by little the thought of this man he meant to slay possessed him utterly; it seemed to Barnabas that he could actually hear his soft, mocking laughter; it filled the night, rising high above the hiss of rain and rush of wind—the laugh of a satyr who waits, confident, assured, with arms out-stretched to clasp a shuddering goddess.
On beneath trees, dim-seen, that rocked and swayed bending to the storm, splashing through puddles, floundering through mire, slack of rein and ready of spur, Barnabas galloped hard. And ever the mocking laughter rang in his ears, and ever the demons shrieked to him on the howling wind:
"Kill him! kill him!"
So, at last, amidst rain, and wind, and mud, Barnabas rode into Tonbridge Town, and staying at the nearest inn, dismounted stiffly in the yard and shouted hoarsely for ostlers to bring him to the stables. Being come there, it is Barnabas himself who holds the bucket while the foam-flecked "Terror" drinks, a modicum of water with a dash of brandy. Thereafter Barnabas stands by anxious-eyed what time two ostlers rub down the great, black horse; or, striding swiftly to and fro, the silver watch clutched in impatient hand, he questions the men in rapid tones, as:
"Which is the nearest way to Headcorn?"
"'Eadcorn, sir? Why surely you don't be thinking—"
"Which is the nearest way to Headcorn?" repeats Barnabas, scowling blackly; whereat the fellow answers to the point and Barnabas falls to his feverish striding to and fro until, glancing from the watch in his hand to "The Terror's" lofty crest, observing that his heaving flanks labor no more and that he paws an impatient hoof, Barnabas thrusts watch in fob, tightens girth and surcingle and, having paid his score, swings himself stiffly into the saddle and is off and away, while the gaping ostlers stare after him through the falling rain till he has galloped out of sight.
Away, away, down empty street, over rumbling bridge and so, bearing to the left, on and up the long hill of Pembury.
Gradually the rain ceased, the wind died utterly away, the stars peeped out again. And now, upon the quiet, came the small, soft sound of trickling water, while the air was fragrant with a thousand sweet scents and warm, moist, earthy smells.
But on galloped the great, black horse, by pointed oast-house, by gloomy church, on and ever on, his nostrils flaring, his eye wild, his laboring sides splashed with mire and streaked with foam and blood; on he galloped, faltering a little, stumbling a little, his breath coming in sobbing gasps, but maintaining still his long, racing stride; thundering through sleeping hamlets and waking echoes far and near, failing of strength, scant of breath, but indomitable still.
Oh, mighty "Four-legs"! Oh, "Terror"! whose proud heart scorns defeat! to-night thou dost race as ne'er thou didst before, pitting thy strength and high courage against old Time himself! Therefore on, on, brave horse, enduring thy anguish as best thou may, nor look for mercy from the pitiless human who bestrides thee, who rides grim-lipped, to give death and, if need be, to taste of its bitterness himself, and who, unsparing of himself, shall neither spare thee.
On, on, brave horse, endure as best thou may, since Death rides thee to-night.
Now, in a while, Barnabas saw before him a wide street flanked on either hand by cottages, and with an ancient church beyond. And, as he looked at this church with its great, square tower outlined against the starry heaven, there came, borne to his ears, the fretful wailing of a sleepless child; therefore he checked his going and, glancing about, espied a solitary lighted window. Riding thither, he raised himself in his stirrups and, reaching up, tapped upon the panes; and, in a while, the casement was opened and a man peered forth, a drowsy being, touzled of head and round of eye.
"Pray," said Barnabas, "what village is this?"
"Why, sir," answered the man, "five an' forty year I've lived here, and always heard as it was called Headcorn."
"Headcorn," said Barnabas, nodding, "then Ashleydown should be near here?"
"Why, sir," said the man, nodding in turn, "I do believe you—leastways it were here about yesterday."
"And where is it?"
"Half a mile back down the road, you must ha' passed it, sir. A great house it be though inclined to ruination. And it lays back from the road wi' a pair o' gates—iron gates as is also ruinated, atween two stone pillars wi' a lion a-top of each, leastways if it ain't a lion it's a griffin, which is a fab'lous beast. And talking of beasts, sir, I do believe as that theer dratted child don't never mean to sleep no more. Good night to ye, sir—and may you sleep better a-nights than a married man wi' seven on 'em." Saying which, he nodded, sighed, and vanished.