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WHICH, AS THE PATIENT READER SEES, IS THE LAST
The Tinker stood resplendent in brass-buttoned coat of bottle green which, if a little threadbare at the seams, made up for this by the astonishing size and sheen of its buttons.
At this precise moment (I remember) he was engaged in brushing it vigorously, pausing between whiles to pick carefully at certain refractory blemishes, to give an extra polish to some particular button, or consult the never-failing watch, for to-day Diana and I were to be married.
"By Goles, Peregrine, it's past twelve o'clock already!" he ejaculated. "They ought to be here soon and--"
He checked suddenly and stood hushed and mute, for Jessamy had appeared,--a glorified Jessamy, resplendent from top to toe; his boots shone superbly, his coat sat on him with scarce a wrinkle, but his chief glory was his shirt, prodigiously beruffled at wrists and bosom.
The Tinker eyed these noble adornments in undisguised admiration.
"Lord, Jessamy!" he exclaimed. "Lord, Jess!"
At this, Jessamy's diffidence vanished and coming to the little mirror that hung against an adjacent tree, he scanned his reflection with an appreciative eye.
"Aye, aye, Jerry," quoth he, "when I wears a frilled shirt--which ain't often, as you know, Jeremy--I wears one with--frills!"
"Jerry, dear--O Jerry!" called Diana from the dingy tent.
"I want you to come and hook up my dress!"
"Lord, Anna! To do what?"
"Hook up my dress for me."
"I can't possibly do it myself, so come at once, there's a dear!"
"Won't Perry do, Ann?"
"But I never hooked up a lady in my life, Ann!"
"Then you're going to hook up this lady now. So come at once and don't be silly!"
"Why, very well, Ann! But if I do it up all wrong an' sp'ile ye--don't blame me, that's all!" Saying which, he disappeared into the dingy tent, leaving me to survey myself in the small mirror and find fault with my every feature and so much as I could see of my attire, while Jessamy hovered near, eyeing me a little anxiously.
"You don't feel anywise groggy or--shaky o' your pins, do ye, Perry?" he enquired solicitously.
"Not yet, Jessamy."
"Why, very good, brother! But if so be you should feel it comin' on, jest tip me the office--I've a lemon in my pocket. There's some, being groggy, as nat'rally turns to a sup o' rum or brandy, but the best thing as I knows on to pull a man together is a squeeze o' lemon and--here comes the rest o' your backers--hark!"
The crack of a whip, a jingle of bits and curb-chains coming rapidly nearer, and then the air rang with a cheery "view hallo!"
A rustle of petticoats and Diana was beside me, a radiant vision in the gown she could not hook up for herself, and side by side, we went to meet our guests, and thus beheld a coach-and-four galloping along the lane, the sedate Atkinson seated in the rumble and upon the box the tall, athletic form of Anthony, flourishing his whip in joyous salutation, a cheery, glad-eyed Anthony; and beholding her who sat so close beside him, I understood this so great change in him. Reining up in masterly fashion, he sprang lightly to earth and taking his wife in powerful arms, lifted her down, pausing to kiss her in midair, and then she had run forward to clasp Diana in eager embrace.
"Begad, Perry, old fellow, all's well at last, eh?" exclaimed Anthony, grasping my hand. "What I mean to say is--will ye look at 'em, begad! Did mortal eyes ever see so much dooced loveliness and beauty begad? What I say is no--damme if they did! And here's his lordship to say as much."
"Ah, Peregrine," said the Earl, limping forward, "if this is a happy day for you, to me it is no less so. How say you, friend Jarvis--and you, Jessamy Todd?"
"Peregrine," said Barbara, as we came within sight of the dingy tent, "has she told you--has Diana told you how nobly she stood my friend and at what cruel cost--has she?"
"Not a word!" said I, beginning to tremble.
"Ah--that was so like you, Di--so very like you, my brave, dear girl."
"There was no need, Barbara. Peregrine's love is such that--though he doubted, being human--he loved me still!"
"Then I'll tell him--here and now! No, over yonder by the brook. And you, Tony--Anthony dear, you must come and help me."
"Yes, tell him, Barbara," quoth his lordship; "tell him, as you told me, that Peregrine may know how brave and generous is she who honours him to-day."
And so, with Barbara's hand on one arm and Anthony's on the other, I came to that leafy bower beside the stream where I had known Diana's first kiss.
"You will remember," began Barbara, seated between us, "you will remember, Peregrine, how, when first we met, I was with Captain Danby? I fled with him to escape a worse man, I mean Sir Geoffrey Devereux or Haredale, as his power somehow, for even while I was at school he gave me to understand it was his wish I should marry his friend Haredale. I was very young, my mother long dead, and flattered by the attentions of a man so much older than myself, I wrote him letters--silly, girlish letters very full of romantic nonsense--Anthony has seen them. But the oftener I met Sir Geoffrey, the less I liked him, until my feeling changed to dread. Captain Danby, seeing this, offered his help, and deceiving his friend would have deceived me also, as you will remember--"
"Damned scoundrel!" snorted Anthony.
"It was while in Italy with Diana--Anthony had just left me--that I met Sir Geoffrey again. He dared to make love to me and when I repulsed him, threatened to show my silly letters to Anthony. Then, thank God, we came home! But he followed and upon the night of the reception sent Captain Danby to me at Lord Wyvelstoke's house with a letter--"
"Ah--it was your letter?" I exclaimed.
"Yes, Peregrine--a dreadful letter, repeating his threat that unless I went to his chambers that very hour he would send Anthony the letters--and I knew--I knew that if my Anthony ever saw them, he would fight Sir Geoffrey and be killed--"
"Not alone though, Loveliness!" said Anthony, between shut teeth.
"In my dread I confided in Diana--"
"And she--went with you," said I hoarsely, "in--Danby's chaise!"
"Yes. When Sir Geoffrey saw Diana she seemed to fascinate him--he refused to give up my letters--said he could not part with them. In this way he tortured me for weeks until at last he wrote from Raydon Manor, saying I should have the letters if I would call for them in person, but it must be at ten o'clock at night--and Diana must go with me. So we went--there were other men there--they had been drinking. When we entered the room, Captain Danby locked the door--I nearly swooned with horror--"
"Ah, my God!" exclaimed Anthony.
"But then--O Peregrine--before any one could move or prevent--Diana sprang upon Sir Geoffrey--I saw the flash of steel, and he lay back helpless in his chair, staring up at her--not daring to move, her dagger pricking his throat--yes--I saw the blood! 'Sir Geoffrey,' said she in an awful, whispering voice, 'give up the letters and order them to open the door, or I will surely kill you'--and I saw him flinch as the dagger bit deeper. But he laughed and obeyed her, and so with the letters in my hand, Diana led me out of the room and none offered to hinder us. We had been admitted at the door that gave into the wood and we had just opened it when some one among the trees groaned, and afraid of being seen, we locked the door and ran back to the house and asked Sir Geoffrey for a carriage. And then--Captain Danby hurried into the room, saying you and Anthony were outside--in the hall. Then we fled into Sir Geoffrey's study and--I think that is all?"
"Yes!" said I dully. "That is all!"
"And enough for one lifetime!" added Anthony. "No more secrets, Loveliness!"
"Never any more, dear Anthony, though it was all for you that I suffered, and Diana--my dear, dear Diana--kept silence and allowed you to think--to--"
"God forgive me!" I groaned.
"I wasn't worth it, Babs!" exclaimed Anthony, kissing her; and then his hand was upon my shoulder.
"What now, old fellow?"
"O Anthony, was there ever such a blind fool? Was ever angel of God so cruelly misjudged? My noble Diana!" Hardly knowing what I did, I turned and began to stumble along beside the brook, conscious only of my most bitter remorse. And then a hand clasped mine, and turning to the touch of these warm, vital fingers, "Diana," said I, "O Diana--"
"You know--at last, Peregrine?"
"I know that I dared to think you unworthy--doubted your sweet purity--called you--wanton. And I--miserable fool--in my prideful folly dreamed that in marrying you--mine was the sacrifice! Oh, I am not fit to live--Diana--O Diana, can you forgive me?--All my life I have been a failure!"
"Dear love, hush--oh, hush!" she sighed in weeping voice. But in the extremity of my self-abasement, I knelt to kiss her hands, the hem of her dress, her slender, pretty feet. "Peregrine dear, your--your mistake was very natural; you saw me--at Raydon Manor--"
"I should have disbelieved my eyes!"
"And I could not explain for Anthony and Barbara's sakes. And when I could have explained I would not, because I wished you to--yes, dear--to suffer--just a little--and because I wished to see if you were brave enough to forgive your Diana--lift her from shame and dishonour to--to the secure haven of--your love. And you were brave enough and--now, oh, now I'm crying--and I hate to cry, Perry--but it's only because I do love you so much more than I can ever say--so don't--don't kneel to me, beloved--come to my heart!"
So she stooped and raised me to the comfort of her gentle arms, to the haven of her fragrant mouth.
And thus the dead was buried at last, mountains deep, and my hateful demons vanished utterly away for ever and for ever.
"You would always have been mine, Diana!"
"And so it is I love you, Peregrine! And so it is I am yearning to be your wife--and yet here we stay and our guests all gone--"
"Gone?" I exclaimed.
"I told them we would follow--in Jerry's cart. Shall you mind riding to your wedding in a tinker's cart, dear?"
"My wise Diana, I love its every spoke and timber for your sake, so could there never be any other chariot of any age, on four wheels or two, so proper to bear us to our happiness, my clever Gipsy-Lady. Come, dear, hurry--for I am longing, aching to hear you call me 'husband.'"
"And are my eyes--very red, Perry?"
"Yes--no--what matter? They are lovelier than ever they were--my jewels--let me kiss them!"
"And now--this, dear heart!" said she a little tremulously, and laid the gold locket in my hand: and kneeling beside this chuckling stream as we had done once before, I clasped it about her white throat and kissed her until she bade me (a little breathlessly) to remember our waiting guests.
And thus at last, sitting with Diana's hand in mine, behind Diogenes, that four-footed philosopher, we rattled, creaked, and jolted away to our new life and all that the future held for us.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
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