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CHAPTER XXIV

"CLIMB down, ye thief," said the grim, slow voice again. I looked once more into the mouth of the blunderbuss. I decided to climb. If I had had my two feet square on the ground, I would have taken a turn with this man, artillery or no artillery, to see if I could get the upper hand of him. But neither I nor any of my ancestors could ever fight well in trees. Foliage incommodes us. We like a clear sweep for the arm, and everything on a level space, and neither man in a tree. However, a sensible man holds no long discussions with a blunderbuss. I slid to the ground, arriving in a somewhat lacerated state. I thereupon found that the man behind the gun was evidently some kind of keeper or gardener. He had a sour face deeply chiselled with mean lines, but his eyes were very bright, the lighter parts of them being steely blue, and he rolled the pair of them from behind his awful weapon.

"And for whom have you mistaken me, rascal?" I cried as soon as I had come ungracefully to the ground and found with whom I had to deal.

"Have mistaken ye for naught," replied the man proudly, "Ye be the thief of the French pears, ye be."

"French pears—French—French what?" I cried.

"Ay, ye know full well," said he, "and now ye 'll just march."

Seeing now plainly that I was in the hands of one of Lord Westport's gardeners, who had mistaken me for some garden-thief for whom he had been on the lookout, I began to expostulate very pointedly. But always this man stolidly faced me with the yawning mouth of the blunderbuss.

"And now ye 'll march," said he, and despite everything I marched. I marched myself through the little door in the wall, and into the gardens of the Earl of Westport. And the infernal weapon was clamped against the small of my back.

But still my luck came to me even then, like basket falling out of a blue sky. As, in obedience to my captor's orders, I rounded a bit of shrubbery, I came face to face with Lady Mary. I stopped so abruptly that the rim of the on-coming blunderbuss must have printed a fine pink ring on my back. I lost all intelligence. I could not speak. I only knew that I stood before the woman I loved, while a man firmly pressed the muzzle of a deadly firearm between my shoulder-blades. I flushed with shame, as if I really had been guilty of stealing the French pears.

Lady Mary's first look upon me was one of pure astonishment. Then she quickly recognized the quaint threat expressed in the attitude of the blunderbuss.

"Strammers," she cried, rushing forward, "what would you be doing to the gentleman?"

"'T is no gentleman, your la'ship," answered the man confidently. "He be a low-born thief o' pears, he be."

"Strammers!" she cried again, and wrested the blunderbuss from his hands. I will confess that my back immediately felt easier.

"And now, sir," she said, turning to me haughtily, "you will please grant me an explanation of to what my father is indebted for this visit to his private grounds?"

But she knew; no fool of a gardener and a floundering Irishman could keep pace with the nimble wits of a real woman. I saw the pink steal over her face, and she plainly appeared not to care for an answer to her peremptory question. However, I made a grave reply which did not involve the main situation.

"Madam may have noticed a certain deluded man with a bell-mouthed howitzer," said I. "His persuasions were so pointed and emphatic that I was induced to invade these gardens, wherein I have been so unfortunate as to disturb a lady's privacy,—a thing which only causes me the deepest regret."

"He be a pear-thief," grumbled Strammers from a distance. "Don't ye take no word o' his, your la'ship, after me bringing 'im down from out a tree."

"From out a tree?" said Lady Mary, and she looked at me, and I looked at her.

"The man is right. Lady Mary," said I significantly. "I was in a tree looking over the garden wall."

"Strammers," said she with decision, "wait for me in the rose-garden, and speak no single word to anybody until I see you again. You have made a great mistake."

The man obediently retired, after saluting me with an air of slightly dubious apology. He was not yet convinced that I had not been after his wretched French pears.

But with the withdrawal of this Strammers Lady Mary's manner changed. She became frightened and backed away from me, still holding the gardener's blunderbuss.

"O sir," she cried in a beautiful agitation, "I beg of you to leave at once. Oh, please!"

But here I saw it was necessary to treat the subject in a bold Irish way.

"I 'll not leave, Lady Mary," I answered. "I was brought here by force, and only force can make me withdraw."

A glimmer of a smile came to her face, and she raised the blunderbuss, pointing it full at my breast. The mouth was still the width of a water-jug, and in the fair inexperienced hands of Lady Mary it was like to go off at any moment and blow a hole in me as big as a platter.

"Charming mistress," said I, "shoot!"

For answer she suddenly flung the weapon to the grass, and, burying her face in her hands, began to weep. "I 'm afraid it 's l-l-loaded," she sobbed out.

In an instant I was upon my knees at her side and had taken her hand. Her fingers resisted little, but she turned away her head.

"Lady Mary," said I softly, "I 'm a poor devil of an Irish adventurer, but—I love you! I love you so that if I was dead you could bid me rise! I am a worthless fellow; I have no money, and my estate you can hardly see for the mortgages and trouble upon it; I am no fine suitor, but I love you more than them all; I do, upon my life!"

"Here approaches Strammers in quest of his blunderbuss," she answered calmly. "Perhaps we had better give it to him."

I sprang to my feet, and, sure enough, the thickheaded ninepin of a gardener was nearing us.

"Don't ye trust 'im, your la'ship!" he cried. "I caught 'im in a tree, I did, and he be a bad lot!"

Lady Mary quelled him, and he at once went away with his blunderbuss, still muttering his many doubts. But still one cannot drop a love declaration and pick it up again with the facility of a tailor resuming his work on a waistcoat. One can't say: "Where was I? How far had I gone before this miserable interruption came?" In a word I found mysef stammering and stuttering and wasting moments too precious for words.

"Lady Mary——" I began. "Lady Mary——I love you. Lady Mary! Lady Mary——"

It was impossible for me to depart from this rigmarole and express the many things with which my heart was full. It was a maddening tongue-tie. The moments seemed for me the crisis of my existence, and yet I could only say, "Lady Mary, I love you!" I know that in many cases this statement has seemed to be sufficient, but as a matter of fact I was full of things to say, and it was plain to me that I was losing everything through the fact that my silly tongue clung to the roof of my mouth.

I do not know how long the agony endured, but at any rate it was ended by a thunderous hammering upon the little door in the garden-wall. A high Irish voice could be heard:

"And if ye be not leaving him out immediately, we will be coming over the wall if it is ten thousand feet high, ye murdering rogues."

Lady Mary turned deadly pale. "Oh, we are lost," she cried.

I saw at once that the interview was ended. If I remained doughtily I remained stupidly. I could come back some other day. I clutched Lady Mary's hand and kissed it. Then I ran for the door in the garden wall. In a moment I was out, and I heard her frantically bolting the door behind me.

I confronted Paddy and Jem. Jem had in his hands a brace of pistols which he was waving determinedly. Paddy was wetting his palms and resolutely swinging a club. But when they saw me their ferocity gave way to an outburst of affectionate emotion. I had to assert all my mastership to keep Paddy from singing. He would sing. Sure, if they had never heard an Irish song it was time they did.

"Paddy," said I, "my troubles are on me. I wish to be thinking. Remain quiet."

Presently we reached the little inn, and from there the little Doctor Chord flew out like a hawk at a sparrow.

"I thought you were dead," he shouted wildly. "I thought you were dead."

"No," said I, "I am not dead, but I am very thirsty." And, although they were murmuring this thing and that thing, I would have no word with them until I was led to the parlour of the inn and given a glass.

"Now," said I, "I penetrated to the garden and afterwards I came away and I can say no more."

The little Doctor was very happy and proud.

"When I saw the man with the blunderbuss," he recounted, "I said boldly: 'Sirrah, remove that weapon! Exclude it from the scene! Eliminate it from the situation!' But his behaviour was extraordinary. He trained the weapon in such a manner that I myself was in danger of being eliminated from the situation. I instantly concluded that I would be of more benefit to the cause if I temporarily abandoned the vicinity and withdrew to a place where the climatic conditions were more favourable to prolonged terms of human existence."

"I saw you abandoning the vicinity," said I, "and I am free to declare that I never saw a vicinity abandoned with more spirit and finish."

"I thank you for your appreciation," said the Doctor simply. Then he leaned to my ear and whispered, barring his words from Jem and Paddy, who stood respectfully near our chairs. "And the main object of the expedition?" he asked. "Was there heavy firing and the beating down of doors? And I hope you took occasion to slay the hideous monster who flourished the blunderbuss? Imagine my excitement after I had successfully abandoned the vicinity! I was trembling with anxiety for you. Still, I could adopt no steps which would not involve such opportunities for instant destruction that the thought of them brought to mind the most horrible ideas. I pictured myself lying butchered, blown to atoms by a gardener's blunderbuss. Then the spirit of self-sacrifice arose in me, and, as you know, I sent your two servants to your rescue."

The little man was looking through the window at this moment. Suddenly he started back, flinging up his hands.

"My soul, he is again upon us," he cried.

I hastily followed his glance, and saw the man Strammers making peaceful way toward the inn. Apparently he was going to the taproom for an early pint. The Doctor flurried and dove until I checked him in fear that he would stand on his head in the fireplace.

"No," said I, "calm yourself. There will be no blunderbusses. On the other hand, I see here a great chance for a master-stroke. Be quiet now, and try to hold yourself in a chair and see me deal with the situation. When it comes to a thing like this, it is all child's play for me. Paddy," said I. "Jem," said I, "there is a gardener in the taproom. Go and become his warm friends. You know what I mean. A tuppence here and there won't matter. But, of course, always treat him with the profound consideration which is due to so distinguished a gardener."

They understood me at once and grinned. But even then I was struck with their peculiar reasons for understanding at once. Jem Bottles understood at once because he had been a highwayman; Paddy understood at once because he was an Irishman. One had been all his life a rogue; the other had been born on an intelligent island. And so they comprehended me with equal facility.

They departed on their errand, and when I turned I found myself in the clutches of a maddened Doctor Chord.

"Monster," he screamed, "you have ordered him to be killed!"

"Whist," said I, "it would never do to order him to be killed. He is too valuable."