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The Broad Highway(Book2,Chapter11)

2006-08-28 22:52

  Book Two. The Woman Chapter XI. A Shadow in the Hedge

  Over the uplands, to my left, the moon was peeping at me, very broad and yellow, as yet, casting long shadows athwart my way. The air was heavy with the perfume of honeysuckle abloom in the hedges——a warm, still air wherein a deep silence brooded, and in which leaf fluttered not and twig stirred not; but it was none of this I held in my thoughts as I strode along, whistling softly as I went. Yet, in a while, chancing to lift my eyes, I beheld the object of my reverie coming towards me through the shadows.

  "Why——Charmian!" said I, uncovering my head.

  "Why——Peter!"

  "Did you come to meet me?"

  "It must be nearly nine o'clock, sir."

  "Yes, I had to finish some work."

  "Did any one pass you on the road?"

  "Not a soul."

  "Peter, have you an enemy?"

  "Not that I know of, unless it be myself. Epictetus says somewhere that——"

  "Oh, Peter, how dreadfully quiet everything is!" said she, and shivered.

  "Are you cold?"

  "No——but it is so dreadfully——still."

  Now in one place the lane, narrowing suddenly, led between high banks crowned with bushes, so that it was very dark there. As we entered this gloom Charmian suddenly drew closer to my side and slipped her hand beneath my arm and into my clasp, and the touch of her fingers was like ice.

  "Your hand is very cold!" said I. But she only laughed, yet I felt her shiver as she pressed herself close against me.

  And now it was she who talked and I who walked in silence, or answered at random, for I was conscious only of the clasp of her fingers and the soft pressure of hip and shoulder.

  So we passed through this place of shadows, walking neither fast nor slow, and ever her cold fingers clasped my fingers, and her shoulder pressed my arm while she talked, and laughed, but of what, I know not, until we had left the dark place behind. Then she sighed deeply and turned, and drew her arm from mine, almost sharply, and stood looking back, with her two hands pressed upon her bosom.

  "What is it?"

  "Look!" she whispered, pointing, "there——where it is darkest ——look!" Now, following the direction of her finger, I saw something that skulked amid the shadows something that slunk away, and vanished as I watched.

  "A man!" I exclaimed, and would have started in pursuit, but Charmian's hands were upon my arm, strong and compelling.

  "Are you mad?" cried she angrily; "would you give him the opportunity I prevented? He was waiting there to——to shoot you, I think!"

  And, after we had gone on some little way, I spoke.

  "Was that why you——came to meet me?"

  "Yes."

  "And——kept so close beside me."

  "Yes."

  "Ah, yes, to be sure!" said I, and walked on in silence; and now I noticed that she kept as far from me as the path would allow.

  "Are you thinking me very——unmaidenly again, sir?"

  "No," I answered; "no."

  "You see, I had no other way. Had I told you that there was a man hidden in the hedge you would have gone to look, and then ——something dreadful would have happened."

  "How came you to know he was there?"

  "Why, after I had prepared supper I climbed that steep path which leads to the road and sat down upon the fallen tree that lies there, to watch for you, and, as I sat there, I saw a man come hurrying down the road."

  "A very big man?"

  "Yes, very tall he seemed, and, as I watched, he crept in behind the hedge. While I was wondering at this, I heard your step on the road, and you were whistling."

  "And yet I seldom whistle."

  "It was you——I knew your step."

  "Did you, Charmian?"

  "I do wish you would not interrupt, sir."

  "I beg your pardon," said I humbly.

  "And then I saw you coming, and the man saw you too, for he crouched suddenly; I could only see him dimly in the shadow of the hedge, but he looked murderous, and it seemed to me that if you reached his hiding-place before I did——something terrible would happen, and so——"

  "You came to meet me."

  "Yes."

  "And walked close beside me, so that you were between me and the shadow in the hedge?"

  "Yes."

  "And I thought——" I began, and stopped.

  "Well, Peter?" Here she turned, and gave me a swift glance beneath her lashes.

  "——that it was because——you were——perhaps——rather glad to see me." Charmian did not speak; indeed she was so very silent that I would have given much to have seen her face just then, but the light was very dim, as I have said, moreover she had turned her shoulder towards me. "But I am grateful to you," I went on, "very grateful, and——it was very brave of you!"

  "Thank you, sir," she answered in a very small voice, and I more than suspected that she was laughing at me.

  "Not," I therefore continued, "that there was any real danger."

  "What do you mean?" she asked quickly.

  "I mean that, in all probability, the man you saw was Black George, a very good friend of mine, who, though he may imagine he has a grudge against me, is too much of a man to lie in wait to do me hurt."

  "Then why should he hide in the hedge?"

  "Because he committed the mistake of throwing the town Beadle over the churchyard wall, and is, consequently, in hiding, for the present."

  "He has an ill-sounding name."

  "And is the manliest, gentlest, truest, and worthiest fellow that ever wore the leather apron."

  Seeing how perseveringly she kept the whole breadth of the path between us, I presently fell back and walked behind her; now her head was bent, and thus I could not but remark the little curls and tendrils of hair upon her neck, whose sole object seemed to be to make the white skin more white by contrast.

  "Peter," said she suddenly, speaking over her shoulder, "of what are you thinking?"

  "Of a certain steak pasty that was promised for my supper," I answered immediately, mendacious.

  "Oh!"

  "And what," I inquired, "what were you thinking?"

  "I was thinking, Peter, that the——shadow in the hedge may not have been Black George, after all."

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