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"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.