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   Chapter 23 A PLEASANT PENITENCE

Simon Dale By Anthony Hope Characters: 24379

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


There was this great comfort in the Vicar's society that, having once and for all stated the irrefutable proposition which I have recorded, he let the matter alone. Nothing was further from his thoughts than to argue on it, unless it might be to take any action in regard to it. To say the truth, and I mean no unkindness to him in saying it, the affair did not greatly engage his thoughts. Had Betty Nasroth dealt with it, the case would doubtless have been altered, and he would have followed its fortune with a zest as keen as that he had bestowed on my earlier unhappy passion. But the prophecy had stopped short, and all that was of moment for the Vicar in my career, whether in love, war, or State, was finished; I had done and undergone what fate declared and demanded, and must now live in gentle resignation. Indeed I think that in his inmost heart he wondered a little to find me living on at all. This attitude was very well for him, and I found some amusement in it even while I chafed at his composed acquiescence in my misfortunes. But at times I grew impatient, and would fling myself out of the house, crying "Plague on it, is this old crone not only to drive me into folly, but to forbid me a return to wisdom?"

In such a mood I had left him, to wander by myself about the lanes, while he sat under the porch of his house with a great volume open on his knees. The book treated of Vaticination in all its branches, and the Vicar read diligently, being so absorbed in his study that he did not heed the approach of feet, and looked up at last with a start. M. de Fontelles stood there, sent on from the inn to the parsonage in the progress of his search for me.

"I am called Georges de Fontelles, sir," he began.

"I am the Vicar of this parish, at your service, sir," returned the Vicar courteously.

"I serve the King of France, but have at this time the honour of being employed by his Majesty the King of England."

"I trust, sir," observed the Vicar mildly, "that the employment is an honour."

"Your loyalty should tell you so much."

"We are commanded to honour the King, but I read nowhere that we must honour all that the King does."

"Such distinctions, sir, lead to disaffection and even to rebellion," said Fontelles severely.

"I am very glad of it," remarked the Vicar complacently.

I had told my old friend nothing of what concerned Barbara; the secret was not mine; therefore he had nothing against M. de Fontelles; yet it seemed as though a good quarrel could be found on the score of general principles. It is strange how many men give their heads for them and how few can give a reason; but God provides every man with a head, and since the stock of brains will not supply all, we draw lots for a share in it. Yes, a pretty quarrel promised; but a moment later Fontelles, seeing no prospect of sport in falling out with an old man of sacred profession, and amused, in spite of his principles, by the Vicar's whimsical talk, chose to laugh rather than to storm, and said with a chuckle:

"Well, kings are like other men."

"Very like," agreed the Vicar. "In what can I serve you, sir?"

"I seek Mr Simon Dale," answered Fontelles.

"Ah, Simon! Poor Simon! What would you with the lad, sir?"

"I will tell that to him. Why do you call him poor?"

"He has been deluded by a high-sounding prophecy, and it has come to little." The Vicar shook his head in gentle regret.

"He is no worse off, sir, than a man who marries," said Fontelles with a smile.

"Nor, it may be, than one who is born," said the Vicar, sighing.

"Nor even than one who dies," hazarded the Frenchman.

"Sir, sir, let us not be irreligious," implored the Vicar, smiling.

The quarrel was most certainly over. Fontelles sat down by the Vicar's side.

"Yet, sir," said he, "God made the world."

"It is full as good a world as we deserve," said the Vicar.

"He might well have made us better, sir."

"There are very few of us who truly wish it," the Vicar replied. "A man hugs his sin."

"The embrace, sir, is often delightful."

"I must not understand you," said the Vicar.

Fontelles' business was proceeding but slowly. A man on an errand should not allow himself to talk about the universe. But he was recalled to his task a moment later by the sight of my figure a quarter of a mile away along the road. With an eager exclamation he pointed his finger at me, lifted his hat to the Vicar, and rushed off in pursuit. The Vicar, who had not taken his thumb from his page, opened his book again, observing to himself, "A gentleman of some parts, I think."

His quarrel with the Vicar had evaporated in the mists of speculation; Fontelles had no mind to lose his complaint against me in any such manner, but he was a man of ceremony and must needs begin again with me much as he had with the Vicar. Thus obtaining my opportunity, I cut across his preface, saying brusquely:

"Well, I am glad that it is the King's employment and not M. de Perrencourt's."

He flushed red.

"We know what we know, sir," said he. "If you have anything to say against M. de Perrencourt, consider me as his friend. Did you cry out to me as I rode last night?"

"Why, yes, and I was a fool there. As for M. de Perrencourt--"

"If you speak of him, speak with respect, sir. You know of whom you speak."

"Very well. Yet I have held a pistol to his head," said I, not, I confess, without natural pride.

Fontelles started, then laughed scornfully.

"When he and Mistress Quinton and I were in a boat together," I pursued. "The quarrel then was which of us should escort the lady, he or I, and whether to Calais or to England. And although I should have been her husband had we gone to Calais, yet I brought her here."

"You're pleased to talk in riddles."

"They're no harder to understand than your errand is to me, sir," I retorted.

He mastered his anger with a strong effort, and in a few words told me his errand, adding that by Carford's advice he came to me.

"For I am told, sir, that you have some power with the lady."

I looked full and intently in his face. He met my gaze unflinchingly. There was a green bank by the roadside; I seated myself; he would not sit, but stood opposite to me.

"I will tell you, sir, the nature of the errand on which you come," said I, and started on the task with all the plainness of language that the matter required and my temper enjoyed.

He heard me without a word, with hardly a movement of his body; his eyes never left mine all the while I was speaking. I think there was a sympathy between us, so that soon I knew that he was honest, while he did not doubt my truth. His face grew hard and stern as he listened; he perceived now the part he had been set to play. He asked me but one question when I had ended:

"My Lord Carford knew all this?"

"Yes, all of it," said I. "He was privy to all that passed."

Engaged in talk, we had not noticed the Vicar's approach. He was at my elbow before I saw him; the large book was under his arm. Fontelles turned to him with a bow.

"Sir," said he, "you were right just now."

"Concerning the prophecy, sir?"

"No, concerning the employment of kings," answered M. de Fontelles. Then he said to me, "We will meet again, before I take my leave of your village." With this he set off at a round pace down the road. I did not doubt that he went to seek Mistress Barbara and ask her pardon. I let him go; he would not hurt her now. I rose myself from the green bank, for I also had work to do.

"Will you walk with me, Simon?" asked the Vicar.

"Your pardon, sir, but I am occupied."

"Will it not wait?"

"I do not desire that it should."

For now that Fontelles was out of the way, Carford alone remained. Barbara had not sent for me, but still I served her, and to some profit.

It was now afternoon and I set out at once on my way to the Manor. I did not know what had passed between Barbara and Carford, nor how his passion had been stirred by her avowal of love for me, but I conjectured that on learning how his plan of embroiling me with Fontelles had failed, he would lose no time in making another effort.

Fontelles must have walked briskly, for I, although I did not loiter on the road, never came in sight of him, and the long avenue was empty when I passed the gates. It is strange that it did not occur to my mind that the clue to the Frenchman's haste was to be found in his last question; no doubt he would make his excuses to Mistress Quinton in good time, but it was not that intention which lent his feet wings. His errand was the same as my own; he sought Carford, not Barbara, even as I. He found what he sought, I what I did not seek, but what, once found, I could not pass by.

She was walking near the avenue, but on the grass behind the trees. I caught a glimpse of her gown through the leaves and my quick steps were stayed as though by one of the potent spells that the Vicar loved to read about. For a moment or two I stood there motionless; then I turned and walked slowly towards her. She saw me a few yards off, and it seemed as though she would fly. But in the end she faced me proudly; her eyes were very sad and I thought that she had been weeping; as I approached she thrust something-it looked like a letter-into the bosom of her gown, as if in terror lest I should see it. I made her a low bow.

"I trust, madame," said I, "that my lady mends?"

"I thank you, yes, although slowly."

"And that you have taken no harm from your journey?"

"I thank you, none."

It was strange, but there seemed no other topic in earth or heaven; for I looked first at earth and then at heaven, and in neither place found any.

"I am seeking my Lord Carford," I said at last.

I knew my error as soon as I had spoken. She would bid me seek Carford without delay and protest that the last thing in her mind was to detain me. I cursed myself for an awkward fool. But to my amazement she did nothing of what I looked for, but cried out in great agitation and, as it seemed, fear:

"You mustn't see Lord Carford."

"Why not?" I asked. "He won't hurt me." Or at least he should not, if my sword could stop his.

"It is not that. It is-it is not that," she murmured, and flushed red.

"Well, then, I will seek him."

"No, no, no," cried Barbara in a passion that fear-surely it was that and nothing else-made imperious. I could not understand her, for I knew nothing of the confession which she had made, but would not for the world should reach my ears. Yet it was not very likely that Carford would tell me, unless his rage carried him away.

"You are not so kind as to shield me from Lord Carford's wrath?" I asked rather scornfully.

"No," she said, persistently refusing to meet my eyes.

"What is he doing here?" I asked.

"He desires to conduct me to my father."

"My God, you won't go with him?"

For the fraction of a moment her dark eyes met mine, then turned away in confusion.

"I mean," said I, "is it wise to go with him?"

"Of course you meant that," murmured Barbara.

"M. de Fontelles will trouble you no more," I remarked, in a tone as calm as though I stated the price of wheat; indeed much calmer than such a vital matter was wont to command at our village inn.

"What?" she cried. "He will not--?"

"He didn't know the truth. I have told him. He is an honourable gentleman."

"You've done that also, Simon?" She came a step nearer me.

"It was nothing to do," said I. Barbara fell back again.

"Yet I am obliged to you," said she. I bowed with careful courtesy.

Why tell these silly things. Every man has such in his life. Yet each counts his own memory a rare treasure, and it will not be denied utterance.

"I had best seek my Lord Carford," said I, more for lack of another thing to say than because there was need to say that.

"I pray you--" cried Barbara, again in a marked agitation.

It was a fair soft evening; a breeze stirred the tree-tops, and I could scarce tell when the wind whispered and when Barbara spoke, so like were the caressing sounds. She was very different from the lady of our journey, ye

t like to her who had for a moment spoken to me from her chamber-door at Canterbury.

"You haven't sent for me," I said, in a low voice. "I suppose you have no need of me?"

She made me no answer.

"Why did you fling my guinea in the sea?" I said, and paused.

"Why did you use me so on the way?" I asked.

"Why haven't you sent for me?" I whispered.

She seemed to have no answer for any of these questions. There was nothing in her eyes now save the desire of escape. Yet she did not dismiss me, and without dismissal I would not go. I had forgotten Carford and the angry Frenchman, my quarrel and her peril; the questions I had put to her summed up all life now held.

Suddenly she put her hand to her bosom, and drew out that same piece of paper which I had seen her hide there. Before my eyes she read, or seemed to read, something that was in it; then she shut her hand on it. In a moment I was by her, very close. I looked full in her eyes, and they fled behind covering lids; the little hand, tightly clenched, hung by her side. What had I to lose? Was I not already banned for forwardness? I would be forward still, and justify the sentence by an after-crime. I took the hanging hand in both of mine. She started, and I loosed it; but no rebuke came, and she did not fly. The far-off stir of coming victory moved in my blood; not yet to win, but now to know that win you will sends through a man an exultation, more sweet because it is still timid. I watched her face-it was very pale-and again took her hand. The lids of her eyes rose now an instant, and disclosed entreaty. I was ruthless; our hearts are strange, and cruelty or the desire of mastery mingled with love in my tightened grasp. One by one I bent her fingers back; the crushed paper lay in a palm that was streaked to red and white. With one hand still I held hers, with the other I spread out the paper. "You mustn't read it," she murmured. "Oh, you mustn't read it." I paid no heed, but held it up. A low exclamation of wonder broke from me. The scrawl that I had seen at Canterbury now met me again, plain and unmistakable in its laborious awkwardness. "In pay for your dagger," it had said before. Were five words the bounds of Nell's accomplishment? She had written no more now. Yet before she had seemed to say much in that narrow limit; and much she said now.

There was long silence between us; my eyes were intent on her veiled eyes.

"You needed this to tell you?" I said at last.

"You loved her, Simon."

I would not allow the plea. Shall not a thing that has become out of all reason to a man's own self thereby blazon its absurdity to the whole world?

"So long ago!" I cried scornfully.

"Nay, not so long ago," she murmured, with a note of resentment in her voice.

Even then we might have fallen out; we were in an ace of it, for I most brutally put this question:

"You waited here for me to pass?"

I would have given my ears not to have said it; what availed that? A thing said is a thing done, and stands for ever amid the irrevocable. For an instant her eyes flashed in anger; then she flushed suddenly, her lips trembled, her eyes grew dim, yet through the dimness mirth peeped out.

"I dared not hope you'd pass," she whispered.

"I am the greatest villain in the world!" I cried. "Barbara, you had no thought that I should pass!"

Again came silence. Then I spoke, and softly:

"And you-is it long since you--?"

She held out her hands towards me, and in an instant was in my arms. First she hid her face, but then drew herself back as far as the circle of my arm allowed. Her dark eyes met mine full and direct in a confession that shamed me but shamed her no more; her shame was swallowed in the sweet pride of surrender.

"Always," said she, "always; from the first through all; always, always." It seemed that though she could not speak that word enough.

In truth I could scarcely believe it; save when I looked in her eyes, I could not believe it.

"But I wouldn't tell you," she said. "I swore you should never know. Simon, do you remember how you left me?"

It seemed that I must play penitent now.

"I was too young to know--" I began.

"I was younger and not too young," she cried. "And all through those days at Dover I didn't know. And when we were together I didn't know. Ah, Simon, when I flung your guinea in the sea, you must have known!"

"On my faith, no," I laughed. "I didn't see the love in that, sweetheart."

"I'm glad there was no woman there to tell you what it meant," said Barbara. "And even at Canterbury I didn't know. Simon, what brought you to my door that night?"

I answered her plainly, more plainly than I could at any other time, more plainly, it may be, than even then I should:

"She bade me follow her, and I followed her so far."

"You followed her?"

"Ay. But I heard your voice through the door, and stopped."

"You stopped for my voice; what did I say?"

"You sung how a lover had forsaken his love. And I heard and stayed."

"Ah, why didn't you tell me then?"

"I was afraid, sweetheart."

"Of what? Of what?"

"Why, of you. You had been so cruel."

Barbara's head, still strained far as could be from mine, now drew nearer by an ace, and then she launched at me the charge of most enormity, the indictment that justified all my punishment.

"You had kissed her before my eyes, here, sir, where we are now, in my own Manor Park," said Barbara.

I took my arms from about her, and fell humbly on my knee.

"May I kiss so much as your hand?" said I in utter abasement.

She put it suddenly, eagerly, hurriedly to my lips.

"Why did she write to me?" she whispered.

"Nay, love, I don't know."

"But I know. Simon, she loves you."

"It would afford no reason if she did. And I think--"

"It would and she does. Simon, of course she does."

"I think rather that she was sorry for--"

"Not for me!" cried Barbara with great vehemence. "I will not have her sorry for me!"

"For you!" I exclaimed in ridicule. (It does not matter what I had been about to say before.) "For you! How should she? She wouldn't dare!"

"No," said Barbara. One syllable can hold a world of meaning.

"A thousand times, no!" cried I.

The matter was thus decided. Yet now, in quiet blood and in the secrecy of my own soul, shall I ask wherefore the letter came from Mistress Gwyn, to whom the shortest letter was no light matter, and to let even a humble man go some small sacrifice? And why did it come to Barbara and not to me? And why did it not say "Simon, she loves you," rather than the words that I now read, Barbara permitting me: "Pretty fool, he loves you." Let me not ask; not even now would Barbara bear to think that it was written in pity for her.

"Yes, she pitied you and so she wrote; and she loves you," said Barbara.

I let it pass. Shall a man never learn wisdom?

"Tell me now," said I, "why I may not see Carford?"

Her lips curved in a smile; she held her head high, and her eyes were triumphant.

"You may see Lord Carford as soon as you will, Simon," said she.

"But a few minutes ago--" I began, much puzzled.

"A few minutes!" cried Barbara reproachfully.

"A whole lifetime ago, sweetheart!"

"And shall that make no changes?"

"A whole lifetime ago you were ready to die sooner than let me see him."

"Simon, you're very--He knew, I told him."

"You told him?" I cried. "Before you told me?"

"He asked me before," said Barbara.

I did not grudge her that retort; every jot of her joy was joy to me, and her triumph my delight.

"How did I dare to tell him?" she asked herself softly. "Ah, but how have I contrived not to tell all the world? How wasn't it plain in my face?"

"It was most profoundly hidden," I assured her. Indeed from me it had been; but Barbara's wit had yet another answer.

"You were looking in another face," said she. Then, as the movement of my hands protested, remorse seized on her, and catching my hand she cried impulsively, "I'll never speak of it again, Simon."

Now I was not so much ashamed of the affair as to demand that utter silence on it; in which point lies a difference between men and women. To have wandered troubles our consciences little, when we have come to the right path again; their pride stands so strong in constancy as sometimes (I speak in trembling) even to beget an oblivion of its falterings and make what could not have been as if it had not. But now was not the moment for excuse, and I took my pardon with all gratitude and with full allowance of my offence's enormity.

Then we determined that Carford must immediately be sought, and set out for the house with intent to find him. But our progress was very slow, and the moon rose in the skies before we stepped out on to the avenue and came in sight of the house and the terrace. There was so much to tell, so much that had to slough off its old seeming and take on new and radiant apparel-things that she had understood and not I, that I had caught and she missed, wherein both of us had gone astray most lamentably and now stood aghast at our own sightlessness. Therefore never were our feet fairly in movement towards the house but a sudden-"Do you remember?" gave them pause again: then came shame that I had forgotten, or indignation that Barbara should be thought to have forgotten, and in both of these cases the need for expiation, and so forth. The moon was high in heaven when we stepped into the avenue and came in sight of the terrace.

On the instant, with a low cry of surprise and alarm, Barbara caught me by the arm, while she pointed to the terrace. The sight might well turn us even from our engrossing interchange of memories. There were four men on the terrace, their figures standing out dense and black against the old grey walls, which seemed white in the moonlight. Two stood impassive and motionless, with hands at their sides; at their feet lay what seemed bundles of clothes. The other two were in their shirts; they were opposite one another, and their swords were in their hands. I could not doubt the meaning; while love held me idle, anger had lent Fontelles speed; while I sought to perfect my joy, he had been hot to avenge his wounded honour. I did not know who were the two that watched unless they were servants; Fontelles' fierce mood would not stand for the niceties of etiquette. Now I could recognise the Frenchman's bearing and even see Carford's face, although distance hid its expression. I was amazed and at a loss what to do. How could I stop them and by what right? But then Barbara gave a little sob and whispered:

"My mother lies sick in the house."

It was enough to loose my bound limbs. I sprang forward and set out at a run. I had not far to go and lost no time; but I would not cry out lest I might put one off his guard and yet not arrest the other's stroke. For the steel flashed, and they fought, under the eyes of the quiet servants. I was near to them now and already wondering how best to interpose, when, in an instant, the Frenchman lunged, Carford cried out, his sword dropped from his hand, and he fell heavily on the gravel of the terrace. The servants rushed forward and knelt down beside him. M. de Fontelles did not leave his place, but stood, with the point of his naked sword on the ground, looking at the man who had put an affront on him and whom he had now chastised. The sudden change that took me from love's pastimes to a scene so stern deprived me of speech for a moment. I ran to Fontelles and faced him, panting but saying nothing. He turned his eyes on me: they were calm, but shone still with the heat of contest and the sternness of resentment. He raised his sword and pointed with it towards where Carford lay.

"My lord there," said he, "knew a thing that hurt my honour, and did not warn me of it. He knew that I was made a tool and did not tell me. He knew that I was used for base purposes and sought to use me for his own also. He has his recompense."

Then he stepped across to where the green bank sloped down to the terrace and, falling on one knee, wiped his blade on the grass.

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