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TELLS HOW I FOUND DIANA AND SOONER THAN I DESERVED
It was growing dark when I reached a part of the road that I seemed to recognise; therefore I checked my steed to look about me.
Surely it was here or hereabouts that, upon a never-to-be-forgotten day, I had acted the craven and, fleeing in panic, yet (heaven be praised!) had rushed back to be beaten into unconsciousness by Diana's brutal assailant. Surely it was beneath yonder tree that I had waked to find my head pillowed in her lap, her cool hand upon my brow, her lovely face stooped above me full of tender solicitude.
Remembering which, I was seized of a sudden passionate longing for the touch of her hand, to behold again this face radiant with love.
'My poor heart is breaking I think--so I have fled away to hide--'
As I sat my horse, seeing in fancy the blotted lines of this, her letter, to my yearning was added the triumphant assurance that in spite of everything she loved me still; but this thought in turn was 'whelmed in despair because of the well-nigh hopelessness of my search.
And in this moment my wandering gaze lighted upon the shadowy outline of a gate that opened in the hedge upon my right hand, upon a rolling meadow with a gloom of shadowy trees beyond.
Next moment I was afoot, leading my horse, for surely this was that gate through which she had led me, swooning with my hurts, across this meadow, amid trees and underbrush, to that ruined and desolate barn which, she had once told me, had ever been her haven of refuge.
After some little delay, I contrived to open this gate and, leading my horse, began to cross the meadow, glancing this way and that, often pausing unsure, fearful that my memory was at fault. In this hesitant manner I proceeded until I was dimly aware that the ground sloped down before me into a place of shadows thick with dense-growing trees and bushes.
All at once I halted, a prey to many swift emotions, but chief of these joy and a thrilling, hopeful expectancy, for amid the deep gloom before me I espied a faint beam of light, and I was praying within myself as, my gaze upon this blessed light, I descended into the deeper shadows. Of necessity I went very slowly and cautiously until, the trees thinning out somewhat, enabled me to make out a black looming shape that gradually resolved itself into a barn; and it was from the small opening or window beneath the gable that the beam of light shone forth.
A solitary place and dismal, far removed from the world, a very sinister place, such indeed as might well be the haunt of grisly spectres; yet, with my gaze upturned to that beckoning light, I would not have changed it, just then, for the most gorgeous palace in all the world. Suddenly I halted again, my breath in check, to stare at this dreadful place with eyes of horror, as from its impenetrable gloom came sounds that brought out the sweat upon my temples and set my hand quivering upon the bridle,--a succession of hollow knocks and rappings whose dull reverberations seemed to fill the night.
For a long moment I stood thus, grasping my horse's bridle, shivering from head to foot, and staring at the black and ominous shape before me in wide-eyed terror; then I heard that which brought me to myself--nay, transformed me into a cool, dispassionate, relentless creature, reckless of all harms and dangers, intent only upon the one desperate purpose.
Leading my horse in among the trees, I tethered him securely and began to approach the barn very cautiously and with every nerve and sinew strung to instant action, my heavy riding-whip grasped in ready hand.
The knocking had ceased and, creeping nearer, I found the doors open and, from the pitchy gloom of the interior, heard a hoarse gasping that spoke of vicious effort.
"Be damned t' ye, Dick!" panted a hoarse voice. "'Eave, man--'eave--her's a-laying across the trap--push, damn ye--"
"Aye, Tom--but her's got a knife!" panted a second voice. "Don't 'e forget 'er's got a knife!"
"An' what--good'll her knife be--once we get--our 'ands on 'er--'eave, I tell ye--both together--now!"
"Bide a bit, Tom--let's 'ave a light--"
"Light be damned--'eave, man!"
Fumbling my way to the wall, I began to creep towards the creaking ladder where these panting, wrestling, evil things strove so desperately. Once or twice came a swift beam of light, vivid in the pervading blackness, as the trap door was forced up an inch or so; brief, sudden gleams, that showed me the forms of two men crouched upon the ladder, their shoulders bowed in passionate effort; and I waited until, loud-panting with their desperate exertions, they began to force up the trap again.
"Now, Dick--now!" gasped a voice; and then as they strove again, I leapt and smote with all my strength. A squeal of pain and terror, the sudden slam of the trap closing out all light, the impact of a heavy body upon the rotting hay that littered the floor, and a feeble, whining voice.
"Tom--O Tom--there's summat in 'ere wi' us--hurted bad I be--there's summat in 'ere as 'ave cut my 'ead open, Tom. O Tom, come down an' 'elp a pal--"
"What are ye yelpin' over now--and be cursed!" panted the man Tom from the ladder. "Th' gal's got money, I tell ye, an' 'er's a 'andsome tit into the bargain, so it's up wi' this 'ere trap--"
"O Tom, summat 'it me--come on down! There's summat or some one 'ere wi' us--come down an' see--"
"'Ow can us see wi'out a light?"
"Well, I got my tinder box."
I heard the man Tom stumble down the ladder, heard the sound of flint and steel, saw their two evil heads outlined against the glow of the tinder as they blew and, leaping upon them, I smote with my heavy riding-whip again and yet again.
And now in the black horror of this ruined barn was pandemonium, a wild uproar of shouts and cries, the sound of vicious blows, the shock of groaning bodies.
If they were two, they fought a mad creature who, careless of defence, unconscious of his own hurts, sought only to maim and rend; whether reeling in desperate grapple or rolling half-smothered beneath my assailants, I fought as a wild beast might, utterly regardless of myself, with fingers that wrenched and tore, fists that smote untiring, feet that kicked and trampled, head that drove and butted--I was indeed a living weapon, as senseless to pain and as merciless--intent only on destruction.
All suddenly was silence, a blessed quiet, save for the hoarse pant of my own breathing. Stumbling to the doorway, I leaned there, vaguely glad the horrid business was over, since I found myself faint and sick. Afar off I heard lugubrious voices that called one to another, a snapping of twigs growing ever fainter, and a rustle of leaves that marked their flight.
Down my cheeks and into my eyes a sticky moisture was trickling that I knew was blood, but the sweet night air revived me greatly so that, my strength returning, I presently--stumbled back into the blackness of the barn, found my way to the ladder and leaned there a while. And after some time, I lifted heavy head and spoke:
"Diana--are you there--my Diana?"
Silence, and a sudden, sickening dread, a growing fear, insomuch that I made shift to climb the ladder and, lifting heavy hand, rapped upon the trap door:
"Diana--O Diana--are you there?"
An inarticulate cry, and next moment the trap door was lifted, revealing a square of vivid light, and in this radiant glory--Diana's face.
"Diana," said I, wiping the blood from my eyes the better to behold her loveliness, "Diana--when will you--marry me?"
"O Peregrine--oh, my beloved!"
And down to me she reached her strong and gentle arms to draw me up from the darkness into the glory of her presence.
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