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   Chapter 20 THE VICAR'S PROPOSITION

Simon Dale By Anthony Hope Characters: 20523

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


I do not know how long I stood outside the door there in the passage. After awhile I began to move softly to and fro, more than once reaching the room where I was to sleep, but returning again to my old post. I was loth to forsake it. A strange desire was on me. I wished that the door would open, nay, to open it myself, and by my presence declare what was now so plain to me. But to her it would not have been plain; for now I was alone in the passage, and there was nothing to show the thing which had come to me there, and there at last had left me. Yet it seemed monstrous that she should not know, possible to tell her to-night, certain that my shame-faced tongue would find no words to-morrow. It was a thing that must be said while the glow and the charm of it were still on me, or it would find no saying.

The light had burnt down very low, and gave forth a dim fitful glare, hardly conquering the darkness. Now, again, I was standing still, lost in my struggle. Presently, with glad amazement, as though there had come an unlooked-for answer to my prayer, I heard a light step within. The footfalls seemed to hesitate; then they came again, the bolt of the door shot back, and a crack of faint light shewed. "Who's there?" asked Barbara's voice, trembling with alarm or some other agitation which made her tones quick and timid. I made no answer. The door opened a little wider. I saw her face as she looked out, half-fearful, yet surely also half-expectant. Much as I had desired her coming, I would willingly have escaped now, for I did not know what to say to her. I had rehearsed my speech a hundred times; the moment for its utterance found me dumb. Yet the impulse I had felt was still on me, though it failed to give me words.

"I thought it was you," she whispered. "Why are you there? Do you want me?"

Lame and halting came my answer.

"I was only passing by on my way to bed," I stammered. "I'm sorry I roused you."

"I wasn't asleep," said she. Then after a pause she added, "I-I thought you had been there some time. Good-night."

She bade me good-night, but yet seemed to wait for me to speak; since I was still silent she added, "Is our companion gone to bed?"

"Some little while back," said I. Then raising my eyes to her face, I said, "I'm sorry that you don't sleep."

"Alas, we both have our sorrows," she returned with a doleful smile. Again there was a pause.

"Good-night," said Barbara.

"Good-night," said I.

She drew back, the door closed, I was alone again in the passage.

Now if any man-nay, if every man-who reads my history, at this place close the leaves on his thumb and call Simon Dale a fool, I will not complain of him; but if he be moved to fling the book away for good and all, not enduring more of such a fool as Simon Dale, why I will humbly ask him if he hath never rehearsed brave speeches for his mistress's ear and found himself tongue-tied in her presence? And if he hath, what did he then? I wager that, while calling himself a dolt with most hearty honesty, yet he set some of the blame on her shoulders, crying that he would have spoken had she opened the way, that it was her reticence, her distance, her coldness, which froze his eloquence; and that to any other lady in the whole world he could have poured forth words so full of fire that they must have inflamed her to a passion like to his own and burnt down every barrier which parted her heart from his. Therefore at that moment he searched for accusations against her, and found a bitter-tasting comfort in every offence that she had given him, and made treasure of any scornful speech, rescuing himself from the extreme of foolishness by such excuse as harshness might afford. Now Barbara Quinton had told Mistress Nell that I was forward for my station. What man could, what man would, lay bare his heart to a lady who held him to be forward for his station?

These meditations took me to my chamber, whither I might have gone an hour before, and lasted me fully two hours after I had stretched myself upon the bed. Then I slept heavily; when I woke it was high morning. I lay there a little while, thinking with no pleasure of the journey before me. Then having risen and dressed hastily, I made my way to the room where Nell and I had talked the night before. I did not know in what mood I should find her, but I desired to see her alone and beg her to come to some truce with Mistress Quinton, lest our day's travelling should be over thorns. She was not in the room when I came there. Looking out of window I perceived the coach at the door; the host was giving an eye to the horses, and I hailed him. He ran in and a moment later entered the room.

"At what hour are we to set out?" I asked.

"When you will," said he.

"Have you no orders then from Mistress Gwyn?"

"She left none with me, sir."

"Left none?" I cried, amazed.

A smile came on his lips and his eyes twinkled.

"Now I thought it!" said he with a chuckle. "You didn't know her purpose? She has hired a post-chaise and set out two hours ago, telling me that you and the other lady would travel as well without her, and that, for her part, she was weary of both of you. But she left a message for you. See, it lies there on the table."

A little packet was on the table; I took it up. The innkeeper's eyes were fixed on me in obvious curiosity and amusement. I was not minded to afford him more entertainment than I need, and bade him begone before I opened the packet. He withdrew reluctantly. Then I unfastened Nell's parcel. It contained ten guineas wrapped in white paper, and on the inside of the paper was written in a most laborious awkward scrawl (I fear the execution of it gave poor Nell much pains), "In pay for your dagger. E.G." It was all of her hand I had ever seen; the brief message seemed to speak a sadness in her. Perhaps I deluded myself; her skill with the pen would not serve her far. She had gone, that was the sum of it, and I was grieved that she had gone in this fashion.

With the piece of paper still in my hands, the guineas also still standing in a little pile on the table, I turned to find Barbara Quinton in the doorway of the room. Her air was timid, as though she were not sure of welcome, and something of the night's embarrassment still hung about her. She looked round as though in search for somebody.

"I am alone here," said I, answering her glance.

"But she? Mistress--?"

"She's gone," said I. "I haven't seen her. The innkeeper tells me that she has been gone these two hours. But she has left us the coach and--" I walked to the window and looked out. "Yes, and my horse is there, and her servant with his horse."

"But why is she gone? Hasn't she left--?"

"She has left ten guineas also," said I, pointing to the pile on the table.

"And no reason for her going?"

"Unless this be one," I answered, holding out the piece of paper.

"I won't read it," said Barbara.

"It says only, 'In pay for your dagger.'"

"Then it gives no reason."

"Why, no, it gives none," said I.

"It's very strange," murmured Barbara, looking not at me but past me.

Now to me, when I pondered over the matter, it did not seem altogether strange. Yet where lay the need to tell Mistress Barbara why it seemed not altogether strange? Indeed I could not have told it easily, seeing that, look at it how you will, the thing was not easy to set forth to Mistress Barbara. Doubtless it was but a stretch of fancy to see any meaning in Nell's mention of the dagger, save the plain one that lay on the surface; yet had she been given to conceits, she might have used the dagger as a figure for some wound that I had dealt her.

"No doubt some business called her," said I rather lamely. "She has shown much consideration in leaving her coach for us."

"And the money? Shall you use it?"

"What choice have I?"

Barbara's glance was on the pile of guineas. I put out my hand, took them up, and stowed them in my purse; as I did this, my eye wandered to the window. Barbara followed my look and my thought also. I had no mind that this new provision for our needs should share the fate of my last guinea.

"You needn't have said that!" cried Barbara, flushing; although, as may be seen, I had said nothing.

"I will repay the money in due course," said I, patting my purse.

We made a meal together in unbroken silence. No more was said of Mistress Nell; our encounter in the corridor last night seemed utterly forgotten. Relieved of a presence that was irksome to her and would have rendered her apprehensive of fresh shame at every place we passed through, Mistress Barbara should have shown an easier bearing and more gaiety; so I supposed and hoped. The fact refuted me; silent, cold, and distant, she seemed in even greater discomfort than when we had a companion. Her mood called up a like in me, and I began to ask myself whether for this I had done well to drive poor Nell away.

Thus in gloom we made ready to set forth. Myself prepared to mount my horse, I offered to hand Barbara into the coach. Then she looked at me; I noted it, for she had not done so much for an hour past; a slight colour came into her cheeks, she glanced round the interior of the coach; it was indeed wide and spacious for one traveller.

"You ride to-day also?" she asked.

The sting that had tormented me was still alive; I could not deny myself the pleasure of a retort so apt. I bowed low and deferentially, saying, "I have learnt my station. I would not be so forward as to sit in the coach with you." The flush on her cheeks deepened suddenly; she stretched out her hand a little way towards me, and her lips parted as though she were about to speak. But her hand fell again, and her lips shut on unuttered words.

"As you will," she said coldly. "Pray bid them set out."

Of our journey I will say no more. There is nothing in it that I take pleasure in telling, and to write its history would be to accuse either Barbara or myself. For two days we travelled together, she in her coach, I on horseback. Come to London, we were told that my lord was at Hatchstead; having despatched our borrowed equipage and servant to their mistress, and with them the amount of my debt

and a most grateful message, we proceeded on our road, Barbara in a chaise, I again riding. All the way Barbara shunned me as though I had the plague, and I on my side showed no desire to be with a companion so averse from my society. On my life I was driven half-mad, and had that night at Canterbury come again-well, Heaven be thanked that temptation comes sometimes at moments when virtue also has attractions, or which of us would stand? And the night we spent on the road, decorum forbade that we should so much as speak, much less sup, together; and the night we lay in London, I spent at one end of the town and she at the other. At least I showed no forwardness; to that I was sworn, and adhered most obstinately. Thus we came to Hatchstead, better strangers than ever we had left Dover, and, although safe and sound from bodily perils and those wiles of princes that had of late so threatened our tranquillity, yet both of us as ill in temper as could be conceived. Defend me from any such journey again! But there is no likelihood of such a trial now, alas! Yes, there was a pleasure in it; it was a battle, and, by my faith, it was close drawn between us.

The chaise stopped at the Manor gates, and I rode up to the door of it, cap in hand. Here was to be our parting.

"I thank you heartily, sir," said Barbara in a low voice, with a bow of her head and a quick glance that would not dwell on my sullen face.

"My happiness has been to serve you, madame," I returned. "I grieve only that my escort has been so irksome to you."

"No," said Barbara, and she said no more, but rolled up the avenue in her chaise, leaving me to find my way alone to my mother's house.

I sat a few moments on my horse, watching her go. Then with an oath I turned away. The sight of the gardener's cottage sent my thoughts back to the old days when Cydaria came and caught my heart in her butterfly net. It was just there, in the meadow by the avenue, that I had kissed her. A kiss is a thing lightly given and sometimes lightly taken. It was that kiss which Barbara had seen from the window, and great debate had arisen on it. Lightly given, yet leading on to much that I did not see, lightly taken, yet perhaps mother to some fancies that men would wonder to find in Mistress Gwyn.

"I'm heartily glad to be here!" I cried, loosing the Vicar's hand and flinging myself into the high arm-chair in the chimney corner.

My mother received this exclamation as a tribute of filial affection, the Vicar treated it as an evidence of friendship, my sister Mary saw in it a thanksgiving for deliverance from the perils and temptations of London and the Court. Let them take it how they would; in truth it was inspired in none of these ways, but was purely an expression of relief, first at having brought Mistress Barbara safe to the Manor, in the second place, at being quit of her society.

"I am very curious to learn, Simon," said the Vicar, drawing his chair near mine, and laying his hand upon my knee, "what passed at Dover. For it seems to me that there, if at any place in the world, the prophecy which Betty Nasroth spoke concerning you--"

"You shall know all in good time, sir," I cried impatiently.

"Should find its fulfilment," ended the Vicar placidly.

"Are we not finished with that folly yet?" asked my mother.

"Simon must tell us that," smiled the Vicar.

"In good time, in good time," I cried again. "But tell me first, when did my lord come here from London?"

"Why, a week ago. My lady was sick, and the physician prescribed the air of the country for her. But my lord stayed four days only and then was gone again."

I started and sat upright in my seat.

"What, isn't he here now?" I asked eagerly.

"Why, Simon," said my good mother with a laugh, "we looked to get news from you, and now we have news to give you! The King has sent for my lord; I saw his message. It was most flattering and spoke of some urgent and great business on which the King desired my lord's immediate presence and counsel. So he set out two days ago to join the King with a large train of servants, leaving behind my lady, who was too sick to travel."

I was surprised at these tidings and fell into deep consideration. What need had the King of my lord's counsel, and so suddenly? What had been done at Dover would not be opened to Lord Quinton's ear. Was he summoned as a Lord of Council or as his daughter's father? For by now the King must know certain matters respecting my lord's daughter and a humble gentleman who had striven to serve her so far as his station enabled him and without undue forwardness. We might well have passed my lord's coach on the road and not remarked it among the many that met us as we drew near to London in the evening. I had not observed his liveries, but that went for nothing. I took heed of little on that journey save the bearing of Mistress Barbara. Where lay the meaning of my lord's summons? It came into my mind that M. de Perrencourt had sent messengers from Calais, and that the King might be seeking to fulfil in another way the bargain whose accomplishment I had hindered. The thought was new life to me. If my work were not finished-. I broke off; the Vicar's hand was on my knee again.

"Touching the prophecy--" he began.

"Indeed, sir, in good time you shall know all. It is fulfilled."

"Fulfilled!" he cried rapturously. "Then, Simon, fortune smiles?"

"No," I retorted, "she frowns most damnably."

To swear is a sin, to swear before ladies is bad manners, to swear in talking to a clergyman is worst of all. But while my mother and my sister drew away in offence (and I hereby tender them an apology never yet made) the Vicar only smiled.

"A plague on such prophecies," said I sourly.

"Yet if it be fulfilled!" he murmured. For he held more by that than by any good fortune of mine; me he loved, but his magic was dearer to him. "You must indeed tell me," he urged.

My mother approached somewhat timidly.

"You are come to stay with us, Simon?" she asked.

"For the term of my life, so far as I know, madame," said I.

"Thanks to God," she murmured softly.

There is a sort of saying that a mother speaks and a son hears to his shame and wonder! Her heart was all in me, while mine was far away. Despondency had got hold of me. Fortune, in her merriest mood, seeming bent on fooling me fairly, had opened a door and shown me the prospect of fine doings and high ambitions realised. The glimpse had been but brief, and the tricky creature shut the door in my face with a laugh. Betty Nasroth's prophecy was fulfilled, but its accomplishment left me in no better state; nay, I should be compelled to count myself lucky if I came off unhurt and were not pursued by the anger of those great folk whose wills and whims I had crossed. I must lie quiet in Hatchstead, and to lie quiet in Hatchstead was hell to me-ay, hell, unless by some miracle (whereof there was but one way) it should turn to heaven. That was not for me; I was denied youth's sovereign balm for ill-starred hopes and ambitions gone awry.

The Vicar and I were alone now, and I could not but humour him by telling what had passed. He heard with rare enjoyment; and although his interest declined from its zenith so soon as I had told the last of the prophecy, he listened to the rest with twinkling eyes. No comment did he make, but took snuff frequently. I, my tale done, fell again into meditation. Yet I had been fired by the rehearsal of my own story, and my thoughts were less dark in hue. The news concerning Lord Quinton stirred me afresh. My aid might again be needed; my melancholy was tinted with pleasant pride as I declared to myself that it should not be lacking, for all that I had been used as one would not use a faithful dog, much less a gentleman who, doubtless by no merit of his own but yet most certainly, had been of no small service. To confess the truth, I was so persuaded of my value that I looked for every moment to bring me a summons, and practised under my breath the terms, respectful yet resentful, in which I would again place my arm and sword at Barbara's disposal.

"You loved this creature Nell?" asked the Vicar suddenly.

"Ay," said I, "I loved her."

"You love her no more?"

"Why, no," I answered, mustering a cool smile. "Folly such as that goes by with youth."

"Your age is twenty-four?"

"Yes, I am twenty-four."

"And you love her no longer?"

"I tell you, no longer, sir."

The Vicar opened his box and took a large pinch.

"Then," said he, the pinch being between his finger and thumb and just half-way on the road to his nose, "you love some other woman, Simon."

He spoke not as a man who asks a question nor even as one who hazards an opinion; he declared a fact and needed no answer to confirm him. "Yes, you love some other woman, Simon," said he, and there left the matter.

"I don't," I cried indignantly. Had I told myself a hundred times that I was not in love to be told by another that I was? True, I might have been in love, had not--

"Ah, who goes there?" exclaimed the Vicar, springing nimbly to the window and looking out with eagerness. "I seem to know the gentleman. Come, Simon, look."

I obeyed him. A gentleman, attended by two servants, rode past rapidly; twilight had begun to fall, but the light served well enough to show me who the stranger was. He rode hard and his horse's head was towards the Manor gates.

"I think it is my Lord Carford," said the Vicar. "He goes to the Manor, as I think."

"I think it is and I think he does," said I; and for a single moment I stood there in the middle of the room, hesitating, wavering, miserable.

"What ails you, Simon? Why shouldn't my Lord Carford go to the Manor?" cried the Vicar.

"Let him go to the devil!" I cried, and I seized my hat from the table where it lay.

The Vicar turned to me with a smile on his lips.

"Go, lad," said he, "and let me not hear you again deny my propositions. They are founded on an extensive observation of humanity and--"

Well, I know not to this day on what besides. For I was out of the house before the Vicar completed his statement of the authority that underlay his propositions.

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