"And this be the 'oss you wrote us about—hey, Barnabas lad?" inquired Natty Bell, stepping back and viewing 'The Terror' over with an eye that took in all his points. "Ha—a fine action, lad—"
'Pray haven't you heard of a jolly young coal-heaver Who down at Hungerford used for to ply—'
"A leetle—leggy? p'r'aps, Barnabas, and yet—ha!"
'His daddles he used with such skill and dexterity, Winning each mill, sir, and blacking each eye—'
"His cannons'll never trouble him, Barnabas, come rough or smooth, and you didn't say a word too much in your letter. Man Jack—you behold a 'oss as is a 'oss—though, mark you, John, a leetle bit roundish in the barrel and fullish in the shoulder—still, a animal, John, as I'm burning to cock a leg over."
"Why, then, Natty Bell, so you shall," said Barnabas, and forthwith down he swung himself and, being a little careless, wracked his injured shoulder and flinched a little, which the slow-spoken, quick-eyed John was swift to notice and, almost diffidently drew his son's arm through his own. But, Natty Bell, joyful of eye, was already in the saddle; whereat "The Terror," resenting the change, immediately began to dance and to sidle, with, much rearing up in front and lashing out behind, until, finding this all quite unavailing, he set off at a stretching gallop with Natty Bell sitting him like a centaur.
"And now, Barnabas," said John slowly, "'ow might your shoulder be, now?"
"Nearly well, father."
"Good," nodded John, "very good! I thought as you was going to—die, Barnabas, lad. They all did—even the Duchess and Lady—the—the doctors, Barnabas."
"Were you going to say—Lady Cleone, father?"
"Why," answered John, more ponderously than ever, "I won't go for to deny it, Barnabas, never 'aving been a liar—on principle as you know, and—and—there y'are, my lad."
"Have you ever—seen her, then?"
"Seen her," repeated John, beginning to rasp at his great square chin, "seen her, Barnabas, why, as to that—I say, as to that—ah!—here we be, Barnabas," and John Barty exhaled a deep breath, very like a sigh of relief, "you can see from here as the poor old 'Hound' will soon be only tail—not a leg to stand on. I'll have him painted back again next week—and the hare."
So, side by side, they mounted the worn steps of the inn, and side by side they presently entered that long, panelled room where, once on a time, they had fronted each other with clenched fists. Before the hearth stood John Barty's favorite arm-chair and into this, after some little demur, Barnabas sank, and stretched out his booted legs to the fire.
"Why, father," said he, lolling back luxuriously, "I thought you never liked cushions?"
"No more I do, Barnabas. She put them there for you."
"One o' the maids, lad, one o' the maids and—and there y'are!"
"And now, father, you were telling me of the Lady Cleone—"
"No, I weren't, Barnabas," answered his father hastily and turning to select a pipe from the sheaf on the mantel-shelf, "not me, lad, not me!"
"Why, yes, you spoke of her—in the road."
"In the road? Oh, ah—might ha' spoke of her—in the road, lad."
"Well—do you—know her, father?"
"Know her?" repeated John, as though asking himself the question, and staring very hard at the pipe in his hand, "do I know her—why, yes—oh, yes, I know her, Barnabas. Ye see—when you was so—so near death—" But at this moment the door opened and two neat, mob-capped maids entered and began to spread a cloth upon the table, and scarcely had they departed when in came Natty Bell, his bright eyes brighter than ever.
"Oh, Natty Bell!" exclaimed John, beckoning him near, "come to this lad of ours—do, he's axing me questions, one a-top of t' other till I don't know what! 'Do I know Lady Cleone?' says he; next it'll be 'how' and 'what' and 'where'—tell him all about it. Natty Bell—do."
"Why then—sit down and be sociable, John," answered Natty Bell, drawing another chair to the fire and beginning to fill his pipe.
"Right, Natty Bell," nodded John, seating himself on the other side of Barnabas, "fire away and tell our lad 'ow we came to know her, Natty Bell."
"Why, then, Barnabas," Natty Bell began, as soon as his pipe was in full blast, "when you was so ill, d' ye see, John and me used to drive over frequent to see how you was, d' ye see. But you, being so ill, we weren't allowed to go up and see you, so she used to come down to us and—talk of you. Ah! and very sweet and gentle she was—eh, man Jack?"
"Sweet!" echoed John, shaking his head, "a angel weren't sweeter! Gentle? Ah, Natty Bell, I should say so—and that thoughtful of us—well, there y' are!"
"But one day, Barnabas," Natty Bell continued, "arter we'd called a good many times, she did take us up to see you,—didn't she, John?"
"Ah, that she did, Natty Bell, God bless her!"
"And you was a-lying there with shut eyes—very pale and still, Barnabas. But all at once you opened your eyes and—being out o' your mind, and not seeing us—delirious, d' ye see, Barnabas, you began to speak. 'No,' says you very fierce, 'No! I love you so much that I can never ask you to be the wife of Barnabas Barty. Mine must be the harder way, always. The harder way! The harder way!' says you, over and over again. And so we left you, but your voice follered us down the stairs—ah, and out o' the house, 'the harder way!' says you, 'the harder way'—over and over again."
"Ah! that you did, lad!" nodded John solemnly.
"So now, Barnabas, we'd like the liberty to ax you, John and me, what you meant by it?"
"Ah—that's the question, Barnabas!" said John, fixing his gaze on the bell-mouthed blunderbuss that hung over the mantel, "what might it all mean—that's the question, lad."
"It means, father and Natty Bell, that I have been all the way to London to learn what you, being so much wiser than I, tried to teach me—that a sow's ear is not a silk purse, nor ever can be."
"But," said John, beginning to rasp at his chin again, "there's Adam—what of Adam? You'll remember as you said—and very sensible too. Natty Bell—you'll remember as you said—"
"Never mind what I said then, father, I was very young. To-day, since I never can be a gentleman, I have come home so that you may teach me to be a man. And believe me," he continued more lightly as he glanced from the thoughtful brow of Natty Bell to the gloom on his father's handsome face, "oh, believe me—I have no regrets, none—none at all."
"Natty Bell," said John ponderously, and with his gaze still fixed intently upon the blunderbuss, "what do you say to that?"
"Why I say, John, as I believe as our lad aren't speaking the truth for once."
"Indeed, I shall be very happy," said Barnabas, hastily, "for I've done with dreaming, you see. I mean to be very busy, to—to devote my money to making us all happy. I have several ideas already, my head is full of schemes."
"Man Jack," said Natty Bell, puffing thoughtfully at his pipe, "what do you say to that?"
"Why," answered John, "I say Natty Bell, as it be my belief as our dear lad's nob be full o' only one idee, and that idee is—a woman. Ah, and always will be and—there y'are, Natty Bell."
"For one thing," Barnabas went on more hastily than before, "I'm going to carry out the improvements you suggested years ago for the dear old 'Hound,' father—and you and I, Natty, might buy the farm next door, it's for sale I know, and go in for raising horses. You often talked of it in the old days. Come, what do you say?" he inquired, seeing that neither of his hearers spoke or moved, and wondering a little that his proposals should fall so flat. "What do you think, Natty Bell?"
"Well," answered Natty Bell, "I think, Barnabas, since you ax me so pointed-like, that you'd do much better in taking a wife and raising children."
"Ah—why not, lad?" nodded his father. "It be high time as you was thinking o' settling down, so—why not get married and ha' done with it?"
"Because," answered Barnabas, frowning at the fire, "I can love only one woman in this world, and she is altogether beyond my reach, and—never can be mine—never."
"Ha!" said Natty Bell getting up and staring down into the fire, "Hum!"
'Since boxing is a manly game And Britain's recreation, By boxing we will raise our fame 'Bove every other nation.'
"Remember this, Barnabas, when a woman sets her mind on anything, I've noticed as she generally manages to—get it, one way or t' other. So I wouldn't be too sure, if I was you." Saying which, he nodded to John, above his son's drooping head, winked, and went silently out of the room.
Left alone with his son, John Barty sat a while staring up at the bell-mouthed blunderbuss very much as though he expected it to go off at any moment; at last, however, he rose also, hesitated, laid down his pipe upon the mantel-shelf, glanced down at Barnabas, glanced up at the blunderbuss again and finally spoke:
"And remember this, Barnabas, your—your—mother, God bless her sweet soul, was a great lady, but I married her, and I don't think as she ever—regretted it, lad. Ye see, Barnabas, when a good woman really loves a man—that man is the only man in the world for her, and—nothing else matters to her, because her love, being a good love, d' ye see—makes him—almost worthy. The love of a good woman is a sweet thing, lad, a wondrous thing, and may lift a man above all cares and sorrows and may draw him up—ah! as high as heaven at last, and—well—there y' are, Barnabas, dear lad."
Having said this, the longest speech Barnabas ever heard his father utter, John Barty laid his great hand lightly upon his son's bent head and treading very softly, for a man of his inches, followed Natty Bell out of the room.
But now as Barnabas sat there staring into the fire and lost in thought, he became, all at once, a prey to Doubt and Fear once again, doubt of himself, and fear of the future; for, bethinking him of his father's last words, it seemed to him that he had indeed chosen the harder course, since his days, henceforth, must needs stretch away—a dismal prospect wherein no woman's form might go beside him, no soft voice cheer him, no tender hand be stretched out to soothe his griefs; truly he had chosen the harder way, a very desolate way where no light fall of a woman's foot might banish for him its loneliness.
And presently, being full of such despondent thoughts, Barnabas looked up and found himself alone amid the gathering shadows. And straightway he felt aggrieved, and wondered why his father and Natty Bell must needs go off and leave him in this dark hour just when he most needed them.
Therefore he would have risen to seek them out but, in the act of doing so, caught one of his spurs in the rug, and strove vainly to release himself, for try how he would he might not reach down so far because of the pain of his wounded shoulder.
And now, all at once, perhaps because he found himself so helpless, or because of his loneliness and bodily weakness, the sudden tears started to his eyes, hot and scalding, and covering his face, he groaned.
But lo! in that moment of his need there came one, borne on flying feet, to kneel beside him in the fire-glow, and with swift, dexterous fingers to do for him that which he could not do for himself. But when it was done and he was free, she still knelt there with head bent, and her face hidden beneath the frill of her mob-cap.
"Thank you!" he said, very humbly, "I fear I am very awkward, but my shoulder is a little stiff."
But this strange serving-maid never moved, or spoke. And now, looking down at her shapely, drooping figure, Barnabas began to tremble, all at once, and his fingers clenched themselves upon his chair-arms.
"Speak!" he whispered, hoarsely.
Then the great mob-cap was shaken off, yet the face of this maid was still hid from him by reason of her hair that, escaping its fastenings, fell down, over bowed neck and white shoulders, rippling to the floor—a golden glory. And now, beholding the shining splendor of this hair, his breath caught, and as one entranced, he gazed down at her, fearing to move.
"Cleone!" he breathed, at last.
So Cleone raised her head and looked at him, sighing a little, blushing a little, trembling a little, with eyes shy yet unashamed, the eyes of a maid.
"Oh, Barnabas," she murmured, "I am here—on my knees. You wanted me—on my knees, didn't you, Barnabas? So I am here to ask you—" But now her dark lashes fluttered and fell, hiding her eyes from him, "—to beg you to marry me. Because I love you, Barnabas, and because, whatever else you may be, I know you are a man. So—if you really—want me, dear Barnabas, why—take me because I am just—your woman."
"Want you!" he repeated, "want you—oh my Cleone!" and, with a broken, inarticulate cry, he leaned down and would have caught her fiercely against his heart; but she, ever mindful of his wound, stayed him with gentle hand.
"Oh, my dear—your shoulder!" she whispered; and so, clasping tender arms about him, she drew his weary head to her bosom and, holding him thus, covered him with the silken curtain of her hair, and in this sweet shade, stooped and kissed him—his brow, his tearful eyes, and, last of all, his mouth. "Oh, Barnabas," she murmured, "was there ever, I wonder, a man so foolish and so very dear as you, or a woman quite so proud and happy as I?"
"Proud?" he answered, "but you are a great lady, and I am only—"
"My dear, dear—man," sighed Cleone, clasping him a little more closely, "so—when will you marry me? For, oh, my Barnabas, if you must always choose to go the harder way—you must let me tread it with you, to the very end, my dear, brave, honorable man."
And thus did our Barnabas know, at last, that deep and utter content which can come only to those who, forgetful of soul-clogging Self and its petty vanities and shams, may rise above the cynical commonplace and walk with gods.
Now, in a while, as they sat together in the soft glow of the fire, talking very little since Happiness is beyond speech, the door opened and closed and, glancing up, Barnabas was aware of the Duchess standing in the shadows.
"No, no—sit still, dear children," she cried, with a hand out-stretched to each, "I only peeped in to tell you that dinner was almost ready—that is, no, I didn't. I came here to look for Happiness and, thank God, I've found it! You will be married from my house in Berkeley Square, of course. He is a great fool, Cleone, this Barnabas of ours—give him a horse and armor and he would have been a very—knightly fool. And then—he is such a doubting Jonah—no, I mean Thomas, of course,—still he's not quite a fool—I mean Barnabas, not Thomas, who was anything but a fool. Ah! not my hand, dear Barnabas, I still have lips, though I do wear a wig—there, sir. Now you, Cleone. Dear Heaven, how ridiculously bright your eyes are, child. But it's just as well, you must look your best to-night. Besides, the Marquis is coming to dinner, so is the Captain—so awkward with his one arm, dear soul! And the Bo'sun—bless his empty sleeve—no, no—not the Bo'sun's, he has an empty—oh, never mind, and—oh Lud, where am I? Ah, yes—quite a banquet it will be with 'Glorious John' and Mr. Natty. Dear Heaven, how ridiculously happy I am, and I know my wig is all crooked. But—oh, my dears! you have found the most wonderful thing in all this wonderful universe. Riches, rank, fame—they are all good things, but the best, the greatest, the most blessed of all is—Love. For by love the weak are made strong, and the strong gentle—and Age itself—even mine—may be rejuvenated. I'm glad you preferred your own father to an adopted mother, dear Barnabas, even though she is a duchess—for that I must kiss you again—there! And so shall Cleone when I'm gone, so—I'll go. And oh, may God bless you—always, my dears."
So, looking from one to the other, the Duchess turned away and left them together.
And, in a while, looking down at Cleone where she knelt in his embrace, beholding all the charm and witchery of her, the high, proud carriage of her head, the grace and beauty of her shapely body, soft and warm with life and youth, and love, Barnabas sighed for very happiness; whereupon she, glancing up and meeting this look, must needs droop her lashes at him, and blush, and tremble, all in a moment.
"But—you are mine," said Barnabas, answering the blush. "Mine, at last, for ever and always."
"For ever and always, dear Barnabas."
"And yet," said he, his clasp tightening, "I am so unworthy, it almost seems that it cannot possibly be true—almost as if it were a dream."
"Ah no, Barnabas, surely the dream is over and we are awake at last to joy and the fulness of life. And life has given me my heart's desire, and for you, my brave, strong, honorable man—the Future lies all before you."
"Yes," said Barnabas, looking deep into her radiant eyes, "for me there is the Future and—You."
And thus did happiness come to our Barnabas, when least expected, as may it come to each of us when we shall have proved ourselves, in some way, fit and worthy.