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IN WHICH WE MEET OLD FRIENDS
Morning with a glory of sun flooding in at the small aperture beneath the gable and through every crack and cranny of timeworn roof and walls; a glory to dazzle my sleepy eyes and fill me with ineffable gladness, despite my cuts and bruises.
For a moment I lay blinking drowsily and then started to my elbow, my every nerve a-thrill to the sound of a soft and regular breathing.
She lay within a yard of me, half-buried in the hay that clung about her shapeliness; and beholding her thus in the sweet abandonment of slumber, so altogether unconscious of my nearness, it was with a half-guilty feeling that I leaned nearer to drink in her loveliness.
Her hair was disordered, and here and there a stalk of hay had ensconced itself in these silky ripples, and no wonder, for observing a glossy curl above her ear I had an urgent desire to feel it twined about my finger, and shifted my gaze to her face, viewing in turn her cheek rosy with sleep, her dark, curling lashes, her vivid lips, the creamy whiteness of her throat.
But--even now, even as I mutely worshipped her thus, something in the voluptuous beauty of her troubled me. Memory waked, Imagination burst its shackles and began its fell work:
Other eyes than mine had seen her thus ... other hands ... other lips.... Before me flashed a vision of Devereux's evil features hatefully triumphant. And yet ... Great God, was this indeed the face of a wanton? Could such horror possibly be?
In imagination the dead lived again, the past returned, and through my closed lids I saw Devereux--her "slave and master" lean to gloat upon her defenceless beauty, bold-eyed and on his cruel lips the smile of a satyr.... And bowing my sweating temples between quivering fists, I ground my teeth in agony.
Now as I crouched thus, plagued by the obscene demons of my imagination, I was aroused by a distant sound and opening my eyes saw how the sun touched Diana's sleeping form like the blessing of God. And yet ... what of that night at Raydon Manor? She had volunteered me no word of explanation--not one--and why?
Up to me, borne on the sunny air, came the sound of a whistle that brought me to my feet eager for action, for conflict or death itself--anything rather than the harrowing torment of my thoughts. Very cautiously I crossed the uneven floor and lifting the trap as silently as possible, I set the ladder in place and descended. The whistling had stopped, but in its stead I caught a sound of stealthy movement outside the barn, and glancing about, I presently espied my whip where I had dropped it last night, and with this in my hand I gently unbarred the doors and opening them a little way, stepped out into the radiant morning. And then, tossing aside my whip, I ran forward, both hands extended in eager greeting.
"Why, Jerry!" I exclaimed. "O Jerry Jarvis, you come like an angel of heaven!"
"Lord!" exclaimed the Tinker, grasping my hands very hard. "Lord love you, Mr. Vereker--"
"Call me Perry as you used."
"Why, then--here's j'y, Perry--but as to angels, who ever see an angel in cord breeches--an' patched at that! But God bless us all--what should bring you hereabouts--"
"Yes, we are to be married as soon as possible."
"What, you an' Anna?"
"Who else, my Jeremy?"
"But she's a-breaking her 'eart over summat or other--"
"No, she's lying fast asleep in the loft yonder and looking as sweet--as good and pure as--as--"
"As she is, Peregrine!"
"Yes, Jerry. But what are you doing here, God bless you!"
"Didn't you know as she wrote me two days since--app'inting me to meet her here--and here I am, a bit early p'raps, but then I thought she was lonely--in trouble, d'ye see--in trouble. And then, Lord, if you only knew how hungry--aye, ravenous I am for sight of her arter all this time--"
"Why, then, you shall see her--at once."
"Nay, let her have her sleep out; let's you an' me get a fire going. I've a frying pan in my cart over yonder--ham an' eggs, lad!"
"God bless you again, Jerry--breakfast! And here among the trees it will be like old times, though Jessamy ought to be with us, of course."
"Well he's over at my little camp not so far away. I'm pitched t' other side Amberley wood."
"How is he, Jerry?"
"Mighty well. He's rich again, y' see--aye, richer than ever an' pursooed by several widders in consequence. He's come into a mort o' money, has Jessamy. But you know all about it, o' course?"
"Not a word."
"Lord, an' 't was your uncle, Sir Jervas, as done it! Left Jess five--thousand--pound! Think o' that!"
Thus, talking like the old friends we were, we set about collecting sticks and soon had the fire burning merrily. All at once we stood silent and motionless, for Diana was singing.
It was an Italian love song full of sweet rippling notes and trills but, as she sang it, a very ecstasy of yearning tenderness that changed suddenly to joy and rapturous happiness, her glorious voice ringing out full-throated, rich and clear, inexpressibly sweet, swelling louder and louder until suddenly it was gone and we standing mute with awed delight.
"She's a-doin' her hair!" whispered Jerry. "She allus used to sing in the morning a-doin' her hair, I mind, but never--ah, never so--wonderfully!"
And then she began again, this time that Zingari air we both remembered so well. Singing thus, she stepped out into the sunlight but, seeing us, stopped in the middle of a note and ran forward (even as I had done) with both hands outstretched in greeting.
"Jerry!" she cried. "My dear, good Jerry!"
But the Tinker drew back, a little abashed by the wondrous change in her.
"Why, Ann--why, Anna!" he stammered. "Can this be you--so--so beautiful? Speaks different too!"
"O Jerry dear--won't you kiss me?"
"Glory be!" he exclaimed, taking her outstretched hands. "Though so very different 'tis the same sweet maid--'tis the very same Ann as learned to read an' write s' wonderful quick--Glory be!" And so they kissed each other.
Then walking between us, busy with question and answer, he brought us where stood his weather-beaten, four-wheeled chaise with Diogenes, that equine philosopher, cropping the grass as sedulously as though he had never left off and who, lifting shaggy head, snorted unimpassioned greeting and promptly began to nibble again.
Butter, a new loaf, ham and eggs and coffee! What hungry mortals could desire more? And now the Tinker and I, sitting side by side in the leafy shade, watched our Diana who, scornful of all assistance, prepared breakfast with her own quick, capable hands.
What words are there may adequately describe this meal? With what appetite we ate, all three; how we talked and laughed for small reason or no reason at all.
"Lord, Ann!" exclaimed the Tinker, glancing from the piece of ham on his knife point to Diana's stately beauty.
"'Tis wonderful what two years can do! You don't need any book of etiquette these days--you look so proud, so noble--aye, as any duchess in a nov-el or out! Lord love you, Ann, it don't seem right any more as you should be a-drinkin' coffee out of a tin mug along of a travellin' tinker in patched breeches, that it don't! I reckon you've seen a lot o' the grand world an' plenty o' fine folk, eh Ann?"
"Enough to know the simpler joys are always the best, dear Jerry, and to love the Silent Places more than ever. And as for you, Jerry, there never was such a tinker before--"
"And never will be again!" I added.
"And so we mean to stay with you awhile, don't we, Peregrine?"
"Excellent!" said I. "We will shift camp to the old place--"
"The little wood beside the stream beyond Wyvelstoke," said Diana softly, "that dear place where Love found us--in the dawn--and you clasped the little locket about my neck, Peregrine."
"Which you don't wear now, Diana!"
"Which you shall put back--one day--soon, Peregrine."
"Why did you take it off, Diana?"
"Because!" she answered.
"Because of--what?" I persisted.
"Just--because!" she answered in the old tantalising way. And so we sat a little while looking into each other's eyes.
"By Goles!" exclaimed the Tinker so suddenly that we both started, having clean forgotten him for a while. "'Tis good to be young, but 'tis better--aye, much better, to be in love, that it is! And--you may be mighty fine folk up to London, but you'll always be just children to me--my children o' the woods!"
"And so, Jerry, we'll stay with you until we are married if you'll have us?"
"Have you?" he repeated, a little huskily. "Have you? Why, Lord love ye--I feel that proud, an' s' happy as I don't know what--only--God bless ye both--Amen!" So saying, he arose rather abruptly and hastened off to harness Diogenes.
"Diana," said I, drawing her to me, "Diana, what do you mean by 'because'?" And standing submissive in the circle of my arms she answered:
"Because you love me so truly, Peregrine, doubt cannot make you love me less. But because of your doubt I have grieved, and because I grieved I ran away, and because I ran away you came to find me, and because of this I am happy. But because I am--a little proud also, I will not wear your love-token until you know how unjust are your doubts, and because I am a woman you shall not know this until I choose. But because I love you in spite of your doubts as you love me because you are so nobly generous, I am yours for ever and ever. So here's the answer--here's the meaning of 'because' and now--won't you kiss me, Peregrine?"
Thus stood we awhile amid the whispering leaves, and by the touch of her mouth doubt and heaviness were lifted from me. Then hand in hand she brought me where we might behold the barn, no longer a place of evil, gloomy and sinister, but transformed by the kindly sun into a place of beauty, dignified by age.
"Good-bye, old barn!" she whispered. "Look, Peregrine, it is so very, very old, and cannot last much longer--and I love it because it was there my man fought for me; it was there he showed me how truly generous, how wonderful is his love for me--O Peregrine, my gorgio gentleman, what a man you are! Good-bye, old barn!" she whispered. "Good-bye!"
And when I had led forth my post horse and tethered him behind the four-wheeled cart, we clambered in all three, Diana sitting close beside me so that the kindly wind ever and anon would blow a tress of her fragrant hair across my lips to be kissed.
And so the dead went back to his grave and my demons fled awhile.
"Perry," said the Tinker as, turning from the highway, Diogenes ambled down a narrow lane, "you've forgot to ask about this here watch o' mine."
"Well, how is it, Jerry?"
"Never was such a watch! Look at it! Reg'lar as the sun! Which riles Jessamy. Y' see, his ain't to be depended on nowadays, owing to a boot--"
"A boot, Jerry?" laughed Diana.
"At Maidstone Fair, Ann! Jessamy was preachin' Brotherly Love when a large cove in a white 'at up an' kicked him in the watch, which is apt to be a little unsettlin' to any timepiece. Anyhow, Jessamy's has never gone right since."
"His watch again!" cried I. "Last time the trouble was a brick, I remember."
"But Jerry, what happened to the 'cove' in the white hat?" enquired Diana.
"Well, arter it was all over, Jessamy took him aside into a quiet corner an' they prayed together."
"Jessamy was always a forceful evangelist!" she laughed.
"And there he is."
"Where?" questioned Diana.
"Listen and you'll hear him, Ann!" Sure enough from the boskages adjacent came the ring and tap of a hammer to the accompaniment of a rich, sweet voice unpraised in song.
Hereupon, setting two slim, white fingers to her mouth, Diana whistled loud and shrilly, to the Tinker's no small delight. Ensued a prodigious rustling and snapping of twigs and into the lane sprang the slender, shapely figure of Jessamy himself, as bright of eye, as light and quick of foot as ever.
I will not dilate upon this second meeting, but it was good to feel the hearty grip of his fingers, to hear the glad welcome in his voice, to see how gallantly he stooped to kiss Diana's hand, and how his sun-tanned cheek flushed beneath the touch of her lips.
"Why, Anna!" he exclaimed. "Well, well--you ha' become so--so--you look so uncommon--what I mean is--"
"Beautiful!" said the Tinker. "Be-autiful's the word, Jess!"
"Aye, aye, shipmate, so it is, comrade!"
"And the next word is strike camp, Jessamy, up stick an' away, Jess--"
"We're going to the old place, Jessamy!" nodded Diana.
"Where you instructed me in the 'noble art,' Jessamy!" said I.
"So it's all together and with a will, Jess!" added the Tinker.
"Aye, aye--and heartily!" laughed Jessamy.
I will pass over the labour of the ensuing hours wherein we all wrought cheerfully; but evening found us camped within that oft-remembered wood beside the stream whose murmurous waters seemed to find a voice to welcome us.
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