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Of a Flight of Steps, a Stirrup, and a Stone
Autumn, with its dying flowers and falling leaves, is, to my thinking, a mournful season, and hath ever about it a haunting melancholy, a gentle sadness that sorts very ill with this confounded tune of "Lillibuleero," more especially when whistled in gusts and somewhat out of key.
Therefore, as we walked along towards the Manor on this November afternoon, I drew my arm from Bentley's and turned upon him with a frown:
"Why in heaven's name must you whistle?" I demanded.
"Did I so, Dick? I was thinking."
"Of what, pray?"
"Of many things, man Dick, but more particularly of my nephew."
"Ah!" says I scornfully, "our gallant young Viscount! our bridegroom elect who--ran away!"
"But none the less," added Bentley, stoutly, "a pretty fellow with a good leg, a quick hand and a true eye, Dick--one who can tell 'a hawk from a hern-shaw' as the saying is."
"Which I take leave to doubt," says I, sourly, "or he would have fallen in with our wishes and married Pen a year ago, instead of running away like a craven fool!"
"But bethink you, Dick," says Bentley flushing, "he had never so much as seen her and, when he heard we were all so set on having him married, he writ me saying he 'preferred a wife of his own choosing' and then--well, he bolted!"
"Like a fool!"
"'Twas very natural," snorted Bentley, redder in the face than ever. "And what's more, he's a fine lad, a lovable lad, and a very fine gentleman into the bargain, as you will be the first to admit when--" but here Bentley broke off to turn and look at me mighty solemn all at once: "Dick," says he, "do you think young Raikes is so great a swordsman as they say?"
"Yes," I answered bitterly, "and that's why I grieve for our poor Jack."
"Jack?" says Bentley, staring like a fool, "Jack--ah yes, to be sure--to be sure."
"I tell you, Bentley," I continued, impressively, "so sure as he crosses swords with the fellow, Jack is a dead man."
"Humph!" says Bentley, after we had gone some little way in silence. "Man Dick, I'm greatly minded to tell thee a matter."
"Well?" I enquired, listlessly.
"But on second thoughts, I won't, Dick," says he, "for 'silence is golden,' as the saying is!"
"Why then," says I, "go you on to the house; I'm minded to walk in the rose-garden awhile," for I had caught the flutter of Pen's cloak at the end of one of the walks.
"Walk?" repeated Bentley, staring. "Rose-garden? But Jack will be for a game of picquet--"
"I'll be with you anon," says I, turning away.
"Hum!" says Bentley, scratching his chin, and presently sets off towards the house, whistling lustily.
I found Penelope in the yew-walk, leaning against the statue of a satyr. And looking from the grotesque features above to the lovely face below, I suddenly found my old heart a-thumping strangely--for beside this very statue, in almost the same attitude, her mother had once stood long ago to listen to the tale of my hopeless love. For a moment it almost seemed that the years had rolled backward, it almost seemed that the thin grey hair beneath my wig might be black once more, my step light and elastic with youth. Instinctively, I reached out my hands and took a swift step across the grass, then, all at once she looked up, and seeing me, smiled.
My hands dropped.
"Penelope," I said.
"Uncle Dick," says she, her smile fading, "why, what is it?"
"Naught, my dear," says I, trying to smile, "old men have strange fancies at times--"
"Nay, but what was it?" she repeated, catching my hands in hers.
"Child," says I, "child, you are greatly like what your mother was before you."
"Am I?" says she very low, looking at me with a new light in her eyes. Then she leaned suddenly forward and kissed me.
"Why, Pen!" says I, all taken aback.
"I know," she nodded, "on Monday my hand, on Wednesday my cheek, and on Sunday my lips--"
"And to-day is Friday!"
"What if it is, sir," says she, tossing her head, "I made that rule simply for peace and quietness sake; you and Uncle Bentley were forever pestering me to death, you know you were."
"Were we?" says I, chuckling, "well, I'm one ahead of him to-day, anyhow, Pen."
Talking thus, we came to the rose-garden (Pen's special care) and here we must needs fall a-sorrowing over the dead flowers.
"And yet," says Pen, pausing beside a bush whereon hung a few faded blooms, "all will be as sweet, and fresh, and glorious again next year."
"Yes," I answered, heavily, "next year." And I sighed again, bethinking me of the changes this next year must bring to all of us.
"Tell me, Uncle Dick," says she, suddenly, laying a hand on either of my shoulders, "how did father hurt his foot?"
"Why, to be sure," says I, readily, "'twas an accident. You must know 'twas as we came down the steps at 'The Chequers', Pen; talking and laughing, d'ye see, he tripped and fell--caught his spur, I fancy."
"But he wore no spurs, Uncle Dick," says she, mighty demure.
"Oh--why--didn't he so, Pen?" says I, a little hipped. "Well, then he--er--just--tripped, you know--fell, you understand."
"On the steps, Uncle Dick?"
"Aye, on the steps," I nodded.
"Prithee did he fall up the steps or down the steps, Uncle Dick?"
"Down, Pen, down; he simply tripped down the steps and--and there you have it."
"But prithee Uncle Dick--"
"Nay, nay," says I, "the game waits for me, Pen--I must go."
But at this moment, as luck would have it, Bentley reappeared, nor was I ever more glad to see him.
"Aha, man Dick," cries he, wagging his finger at me. "Walk in the rose-garden, was it? Oh, for shame, to so abuse my confidence--Dick, I blush for thee; and Jack's a roaring for thee, and the game waits for thee; in a word--begone! And to-day, Pen," says he, as I turned away, "to-day is Friday!" and he stooped and kissed her pretty cheek.
I had reached the terrace when I stopped all at once and, moved by a sudden thought, I turned about and hurriedly retraced my steps. They were screened from sight by one of the great yew hedges, but as I approached I could hear Bentley's voice:
"His horse?" says Bentley.
"Yes," says Pen, "and Saladin's such a quiet old horse as a rule!"
"But what's his horse got to do with it?" says Bentley.
"Why, you were there, Uncle Bentley. Saladin jibbed, didn't he, just as father had one foot in the stirrup ready to mount?"
"Oh! Ha! Hum!" says Bentley. "Did Jack tell you all that, Pen?"
"Who else?" says she, "'twas you caught his bridle, wasn't it?"
"I? Hum! The bridle?" says Bentley, "why--egad, Pen--"
"And Uncle Dick caught father as he fell," she continued.
"Did Jack tell thee all that?" says Bentley.
"How should I know else?" says she.
"Lord!" says Bentley.
"And 'twas you caught the bridle, now, wasn't it?" says she, carelessly.
"Why--er--since you mention it,--yes--I suppose so," mumbled Bentley, "oh, yes, certainly I caught the bridle--surprisingly agile in one o' my size, Pen, eh? But egad, the game waits--I must be off, but a kiss first--for saving thy father for thee, Pen."
Waiting for no more, I turned and set off towards the house, but as I once more reached the terrace, up comes Bentley behind me, whistling lustily as usual.
"Why Dick," says he, "where have you sprung from?"
"Bentley," says I, shaking my head, "it's in my mind you've been a vasty fool!"
"For what, Dick?"
"For catching that bridle!" says I. "Why on earth couldn't you be content to let him trip down the steps as we agreed a week ago?"
"Why then, what of Jack's story of Saladin's jibbing--though strike me purple, Dick, if I thought he had enough imagination."
"Do you think he did tell her so?" says I.
"To be sure he did, Dick, unless--"
"Humph!" says I, "let's go and ask him."
Side by side we entered the great hall, and side by side we came to the door of the library; now the door was open, and from within came the sound of Jack's voice.
"I tell thee 'twas nought but a stone, Pen," he was saying, "I say, an ordinary, loose cobble-stone! Good Gad, madam, and why shouldn't it be a cobble-stone? Gentlemen are forever twisting their ankles on cobble-stones! I tell you--" Hereupon Bentley threw open the door, but I entered first.
"No, no, Jack!" I cried, "'twas down the steps--you tripped down the steps at 'The Chequers,' you know you did!"
"Nay, 'twas Saladin jibbed,--don't you remember?" says Bentley.
"Why, Dick and Bentley!" cries Jack, staring from one to the other of us, "what a plague's all this? Don't I know how I hurt my own foot? I say 'twas a cobble-stone, and a cobble-stone it shall be. Lord! how could ye try to fill our maid's pretty head with such folly? Shame on ye both! Why not stick to the truth--and my cobble-stone?"
"And now, dear Sir John," says Pen, very soft and demure, "pray tell me--how did you hurt your foot?"
"Hey--what?" spluttered Jack, "don't I tell you--"
"A flight of steps, a stirrup, and a stone!" sighed Pen, shaking her head at us each in turn.
"Now look'ee, Pen," says Jack, trying to bluster, "I say I'm not to be badgered and brow-beaten by a slip of a girl--I say I'm not, by heaven!"
"Oh, my dears, my dears!" sighed Pen, reprovingly, "Isn't it time you learned that you can keep few--very few secrets from me, who understand you all so well because I love you all so well? I have been your playfellow and companion so long that, methinks, I know you much better than you know yourselves; I, who have had my word in all your councils? How foolish then to think to put me off with such flimsy stories. Of course I shall find out all about it, sooner or later, I always do. Yes, I shall, even if I must needs hide in corners sirs, and hearken at keyholes, and peep and pry--so I warn you." And with this, she nodded and turned and left us to stare blankly at one another.
"That settles it!" said Bentley, gloomily, "she'll no more swallow thy cobble-stone than Dick's flight of steps, Jack. She'll know the truth before the week is out!"
"The minx!" cried Jack, "the jade!" And with the word he snatched off his wig and hurled it into a corner.
"Jack," says I, "what's to be done?"
"Done?" he roared, "I'll pack her off to her Aunt Sophia to-morrow!"
"Aye," says Bentley, "but--will she go?"
"Bentley," says Jack, "I'll thank you to reach me my wig!"
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