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Therefore he would have risen to seek them out but, in the act of doing so, caught one of his spurs in the rug, and strove vainly to release himself, for try how he would he might not reach down so far because of the pain of his wounded shoulder.
And now, all at once, perhaps because he found himself so helpless, or because of his loneliness and bodily weakness, the sudden tears started to his eyes, hot and scalding, and covering his face, he groaned.
But lo! in that moment of his need there came one, borne on flying feet, to kneel beside him in the fire-glow, and with swift, dexterous fingers to do for him that which he could not do for himself. But when it was done and he was free, she still knelt there with head bent, and her face hidden beneath the frill of her mob-cap.
"Thank you!" he said, very humbly, "I fear I am very awkward, but my shoulder is a little stiff."
But this strange serving-maid never moved, or spoke. And now, looking down at her shapely, drooping figure, Barnabas began to tremble, all at once, and his fingers clenched themselves upon his chair-arms.
"Speak!" he whispered, hoa.r.s.ely.
Then the great mob-cap was shaken off, yet the face of this maid was still hid from him by reason of her hair that, escaping its fastenings, fell down, over bowed neck and white shoulders, rippling to the floor--a golden glory. And now, beholding the shining splendor of this hair, his breath caught, and as one entranced, he gazed down at her, fearing to move.
"Cleone!" he breathed, at last.
So Cleone raised her head and looked at him, sighing a little, blushing a little, trembling a little, with eyes shy yet unashamed, the eyes of a maid.
"Oh, Barnabas," she murmured, "I am here--on my knees. You wanted me--on my knees, didn't you, Barnabas? So I am here to ask you--"
But now her dark lashes fluttered and fell, hiding her eyes from him, "--to beg you to marry me. Because I love you, Barnabas, and because, whatever else you may be, I know you are a man. So--if you really--want me, dear Barnabas, why--take me because I am just--your woman."
"Want you!" he repeated, "want you--oh my Cleone!" and, with a broken, inarticulate cry, he leaned down and would have caught her fiercely against his heart; but she, ever mindful of his wound, stayed him with gentle hand.
"Oh, my dear--your shoulder!" she whispered; and so, clasping tender arms about him, she drew his weary head to her bosom and, holding him thus, covered him with the silken curtain of her hair, and in this sweet shade, stooped and kissed him--his brow, his tearful eyes, and, last of all, his mouth. "Oh, Barnabas," she murmured, "was there ever, I wonder, a man so foolish and so very dear as you, or a woman quite so proud and happy as I?"
"Proud?" he answered, "but you are a great lady, and I am only--"
"My dear, dear--man," sighed Cleone, clasping him a little more closely, "so--when will you marry me? For, oh, my Barnabas, if you must always choose to go the harder way--you must let me tread it with you, to the very end, my dear, brave, honorable man."
And thus did our Barnabas know, at last, that deep and utter content which can come only to those who, forgetful of soul-clogging Self and its petty vanities and shams, may rise above the cynical commonplace and walk with G.o.ds.
Now, in a while, as they sat together in the soft glow of the fire, talking very little since Happiness is beyond speech, the door opened and closed and, glancing up, Barnabas was aware of the d.u.c.h.ess standing in the shadows.
"No, no--sit still, dear children," she cried, with a hand out-stretched to each, "I only peeped in to tell you that dinner was almost ready--that is, no, I didn't. I came here to look for Happiness and, thank G.o.d, I've found it! You will be married from my house in Berkeley Square, of course. He is a great fool, Cleone, this Barnabas of ours--give him a horse and armor and he would have been a very--knightly fool. And then--he is such a doubting Jonah--no, I mean Thomas, of course,--still he's not quite a fool--I mean Barnabas, not Thomas, who was anything but a fool. Ah! not my hand, dear Barnabas, I still have lips, though I do wear a wig--there, sir. Now you, Cleone. Dear Heaven, how ridiculously bright your eyes are, child. But it's just as well, you must look your best to-night.
Besides, the Marquis is coming to dinner, so is the Captain--so awkward with his one arm, dear soul! And the Bo'sun--bless his empty sleeve--no, no--not the Bo'sun's, he has an empty--oh, never mind, and--oh Lud, where am I? Ah, yes--quite a banquet it will be with 'Glorious John' and Mr. Natty. Dear Heaven, how ridiculously happy I am, and I know my wig is all crooked. But--oh, my dears! you have found the most wonderful thing in all this wonderful universe. Riches, rank, fame--they are all good things, but the best, the greatest, the most blessed of all is--Love. For by love the weak are made strong, and the strong gentle--and Age itself--even mine--may be rejuvenated. I'm glad you preferred your own father to an adopted mother, dear Barnabas, even though she is a d.u.c.h.ess--for that I must kiss you again--there! And so shall Cleone when I'm gone, so--I'll go.
And oh, may G.o.d bless you--always, my dears."
So, looking from one to the other, the d.u.c.h.ess turned away and left them together.
And, in a while, looking down at Cleone where she knelt in his embrace, beholding all the charm and witchery of her, the high, proud carriage of her head, the grace and beauty of her shapely body, soft and warm with life and youth, and love, Barnabas sighed for very happiness; whereupon she, glancing up and meeting this look, must needs droop her lashes at him, and blush, and tremble, all in a moment.
"But--you are mine," said Barnabas, answering the blush. "Mine, at last, for ever and always."
"For ever and always, dear Barnabas."
"And yet," said he, his clasp tightening, "I am so unworthy, it almost seems that it cannot possibly be true--almost as if it were a dream."
"Ah no, Barnabas, surely the dream is over and we are awake at last to joy and the fulness of life. And life has given me my heart's desire, and for you, my brave, strong, honorable man--the Future lies all before you."
"Yes," said Barnabas, looking deep into her radiant eyes, "for me there is the Future and--You."
And thus did happiness come to our Barnabas, when least expected, as may it come to each of us when we shall have proved ourselves, in some way, fit and worthy.