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Wherein the Truth of the old Adage is made manifest--to wit: All's well that ends well
So swift and altogether unexpected had been the end, that for a long minute there was a strange, tense stillness, a silence wherein all eyes were turned from the motionless form on the floor, with the ever-widening stain upon the snow of his shirt, to where Mr. Tawnish stood, leaning upon his small-sword. Then all at once pandemonium seemed to break loose--some running to lift the wounded man, some wandering round aimlessly, but all talking excitedly, and at the same time.
"Dick and Bentley," says Jack, mopping at his face with his handkerchief, "it's in my mind that we have made a cursed mistake for once--the fellow is a man."
"I've known that this month and more," says I.
"I say a man," repeated Jack, "and devil anoint me, I mean a man!"
"Who writes verses!" added Bentley.
"And what of that, sir?" cries Jack, indignantly. "I did the same myself once--we all did."
"A patched and powdered puppy-dog!" sneers Bentley; "look at him."
Now at this, glancing across at Mr. Tawnish, I saw that he still stood as before, only that the point of his sword was buried deep in the floor beneath his weight, while his pale face seemed paler even than its wont. As we watched, his hand slipped suddenly from the hilt, and he tottered slightly; then I noticed for the first time that blood was running down his right arm, and trickling from his finger-tips.
With an exclamation, I started forward, but Bentley's grasp was on my shoulder, and his voice whispered in my ear: "Leave him to Jack--'tis better so." And indeed Jack was already beside him, had flung one arm about the swaying figure, and half led, half carried him to a chair.
"Ah!" says Purdy, laying bare a great gash in the upper arm--"a little blood, but simple--simple!" and he fell to work a-sponging and bandaging, with a running exordium upon the humanity of the sword as opposed to the more deadly bullet--until at length, the dressing in place, Mr. Tawnish sighed and opened his eyes.
"Sir John," says he, sitting up, "give me leave to tell you that my third and last task was accomplished this morning."
"Eh?" cries Jack, "but first, let me get you out of this."
"What of Sir Harry Raikes?" says Tawnish, rising.
"Serious," says Purdy, shaking his head, "serious, but not altogether dangerous."
"Good!" says Jack, giving his arm to Mr. Tawnish, "I'm glad of that."
"Though," pursued Purdy, "he will be an invalid for months to come, the right lung--as I pointed out to my colleague, Prothero--a man of very excellent sense, by the way--"
At this juncture, at a sign from Prothero, Purdy left us with a bow. Hereupon we saluted the others, and turning into an adjacent room, called for wine and filled our glasses to Mr. Tawnish, with all the honours.
As he rose to make his acknowledgment, for the first time in my recollection he seemed ill at ease.
"Sir John, and gentlemen," says he, slowly, "I had scarce looked for this kindness at your hands--it makes what I have to say harder than I had thought. Gentlemen," he continued, after a brief pause, "you each in turn set me an undertaking, little thinking at the time that there was any likelihood of my fulfilling them. As you know, however, the first two I accomplished some time since, and this morning I succeeded in the last, namely, in taking all three of you, together and at the same time, at a disadvantage. Sir John, gentlemen--scarce an hour ago the Lady Penelope Chester became my wife."
Jack started up from the table with an oath, and fell back, staring at the speaker with knitted brows--while Bentley gazed open-mouthed--as for me, I could do nothing but think that our Pen was gone from our keeping at last.
"By Gad, Jack, he's done us," cried Bentley, fetching the table a great blow with his fist.
Now, as I stood with my back to them, staring out into the yard below, my eyes encountered a great, four-horsed travelling chariot, and as I watched it, gloomily enough, the door was flung suddenly open, and ere the waiting footman could let down the steps a lady leapt lightly out and stood looking up at the windows. All at once she turned and gazed straight up at me--then I saw that it was Pen. With a wave of her hand she darted up the steps, and a moment later was in the room.
"Oh, I could wait no longer!" she cried, looking round with the tears in her lovely eyes, "we have been wed but an hour, and I have sat there praying 'twixt hope and fear, until methought I should go mad."
Here, catching sight of Tawnish with his wounded arm, she uttered a low cry, and in a moment was kneeling beside him, kissing his uninjured hand, and fondling it with a thousand endearing terms. And seeing the infinite tenderness in his eyes and the love-light in her own, I was possessed of a sudden, great content. In a while, remembering us, she looked up, and, though her cheeks were red, her glance met ours freely and unashamed.
"Father," says she, "this is my husband--and I am proud to tell you so."
There was a moment's silence, and Jack's frown grew the blacker.
"Father," says she again, "I am not so simple but that I found out your quarrel with Sir Harry, and knew that you came hither to-day to meet your death--so--so I sought aid of this noble gentleman. Yet first I begged of him to marry me, that if--if he had died to-day in your place, I could have mourned him as a beloved husband. Can you forgive me, father?"
As Pen ended, she rose and approached Jack with outstretched hands; for a moment longer he hesitated--then he had her in his embrace.
"And you, Uncle Bentley," says she, looking at us from Jack's arms, "and, Uncle Dick, dear, tender Uncle Dick, can you forgive your wilful maid?"
"God knows, my dear, there's naught to forgive," says I, "save that you are leaving us--"
"Nay, Sir Richard," cries Mr. Tawnish, "Uncle Bentley has seen to that--"
"Uncle!" says Jack.
"Uncle!" says I.
"Can it be possible," says Mr. Tawnish, rising, "that you are still unaware of the relationship?"
"Bentley," cries Jack, "explain."
"To be sure," says Bentley, in his heavy way, pointing to Mr. Tawnish, "this is my sister's only child, Viscount Hazelmere!"
"What!" cries Jack, while I stood dumb with astonishment.
"As you remember, Jack and Dick," says Bentley, getting ponderously to his feet, "it was ever our wish that these two should marry, but, being young and hot-headed, the very expression of that wish was but the signal for them to set themselves to thwart it, even before they had ever seen each other. Therefore acting upon that very contrariness, I wrote to my graceless nephew there, telling him that he need have no fear for his freedom--that we had changed our plans with regard to him--that our Pen was a thousand times too good and sweet for such as he--which she is, mark you!--that she was a beauty, and reigning toast of all the South Country--which she likewise is, mark you--and, in a word, forbidding him to think any more about her. Whereupon, my young gentleman comes hot-foot back to England, to learn the why and wherefore--did the mightily indignant, an' it please you--and ended by vowing he'd marry her despite all three of us. As for Pen--oh, egad! I spun her a fine tale, I promise you--spoke of him as a poor young gentleman, penniless but proud, a man 'twould be folly for any maid to wed--and oh, Jack and Dick, it worked like a charm--she saw him and promptly fell in love with him, and he with her. Yet at this juncture, Jack, you must needs go nigh ruining all by your quarrel with Raikes; however, knowing my young rascal there plumed himself monstrously upon his swordsmanship, I offered to put it to the test, and found him mighty eager. But oh, curse me! as I watched them preparing to murder you, Jack, a little while since, and this nephew of mine failed to come, methought I should go mad! And to think that they were marrying each other all the time! Rat me, Dick and Jack! to-day will be the merriest Christmas of all--how say you?"
So, laughing and rejoicing together, they presently went out, and I heard their happy voices below, ringing clear and crisp in the frosty air of the yard. But I remained, staring into the fire, bethinking me of my treatment of Bentley. The mystery of his seeming indifference was cleared up now; where I had failed in my design of averting Jack's duel, he had succeeded, nay, had even brought together these two, as had been the wish of our hearts for years past. And now I had insulted him, wantonly, beyond forgiveness. Yet we had been friends so long--perhaps, if I told him humbly--
"Dick!" said a voice behind me, and a great hand was laid upon my shoulder, "Dick!"
"Bentley," says I, hurriedly, "I was wrong--will you--can you forgive--"
"Man, Dick," says he, grasping my hand. "A Merry Christmas to thee! Come, the others are waiting you, and Pen's a-dying to kiss you, I swear."
So he took me by the arm, and we went down-stairs together. And when I paused, and would have spoken further of my fool's mistake, he clapped me upon the shoulder again, and fell a-whistling of "Lillibuleero."
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