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The Broad Highway(Book2,Chapter24)

2006-08-28 22:56

  Book Two. The Woman Chapter XXIV. The Virgil Book

  A man was leaning in the shadow of a tree, looking down into the Hollow.

  I could not see him very distinctly because, though evening had scarcely fallen, the shadows, where he stood, were very dense, but he was gazing down into the Hollow in the attitude of one who waits. For what?——for whom?

  A sudden fit of shivering shook me from head to foot, and, while I yet shivered, I grew burning hot; the blood throbbed at my temples, the small hammer was drumming much faster now, and the cool night air seemed to be stifling me.

  Very cautiously I began creeping nearer the passive figure, while the hammer beat so loud that it seemed he must hear it where he stood: a shortish, broad-shouldered figure, clad in a blue coat. He held his hat in his hand, and he leaned carelessly against the tree, and his easy assurance of air maddened me the more.

  As he stood thus, looking always down into the Hollow, his neck gleamed at me above the collar of his coat, wherefore I stooped and, laying my irons in the grass, crept on, once more, and, as I went, I kept my eyes upon his neck.

  A stick snapped sharp and loud beneath my tread, the lounging back stiffened and grew rigid, the face showed for an instant over the shoulder, and, with a spring, he had vanished into the bushes.

  It was a vain hope to find a man in such a dense tangle of boughs and underbrush, yet I ran forward, nevertheless; but, though I sought eagerly upon all sides, he had made good his escape. So, after a while, I retraced my steps to where I had left my irons and brackets, and taking them up, turned aside to that precipitous path which, as I have already said, leads down into the Hollow.

  Now, as I went, listening to the throb of the hammer in my head, whom should I meet but Charmian, coming gayly through the green, and singing as she came. At sight of me she stopped, and the song died upon her lip.

  "Why——why, Peter——you look pale——dreadfully pale——"

  "Thank you, I am very well!" said I.

  "You have not been——fighting again?"

  "Why should I have been fighting, Charmian?"

  "Your eyes are wild——and fierce, Peter."

  "Were you coming to——to——meet me, Charmian?"

  "Yes, Peter." Now, watching beneath my brows, it almost seemed that her color had changed, and that her eyes, of set purpose, avoided mine. Could it be that she was equivocating?

  "But I——am much before my usual time, to-night, Charmian."

  "Then there will be no waiting for supper, and I am ravenous, Peter!"

  And as she led the way along the path she began to sing again.

  Being come to the cottage, I set down my bars and brackets, with a clang.

  "These," said I, in answer to her look, "are the bars I promised to make for the door."

  "Do you always keep your promises, Peter?"

  "I hope so."

  "Then," said she, coming to look at the great bars, with a fork in her hand, for she was in the middle of dishing up, "then, if you promise me always to come home by the road, and never through the coppice——you will do so, won't you?"

  "Why should I?" I inquired, turning sharply to look at her.

  "Because the coppice is so dark and lonely, and if——I say, if I should take it into my head to come and meet you sometimes, there would be no chance of my missing you." And so she looked at me and smiled, and, going back to her cooking, fell once more a-singing, the while I sat and watched her beneath my brows.

  Surely, surely no woman whose heart was full of deceit could sing so blithely and happily, or look at one with such sweet candor in her eyes?

  And yet the supper was a very ghost of a meal, for when I remembered the man who had watched and waited, the very food grew nauseous and seemed to choke me. "She's a Eve——a Eve!" rang a voice in my ear; "Eve tricked Adam, didn't she, and you ain't a better man nor Adam; she's a Eve——a Eve!"

  "Peter, you eat nothing."

  "Yes, indeed!" said I, staring unseeingly down at my plate, and striving to close my ears against the fiendish voice.

  "And you are very pale!"

  I shrugged my shoulders.

  "Peter——look at me."

  I looked up obediently.

  "Yes, you are frightfully pale——are you ill again——is it your head; Peter——what is it?" and, with a sudden, half-shy gesture, she stretched her hand to me across the table. And as I looked from the mute pity of her eyes to the mute pity of that would-be comforting hand, I had a great impulse to clasp it close in mine, to speak, and tell her all my base and unworthy suspicions, and, once more, to entreat her pardon and forgiveness. The words were upon my lips, but I checked them, madman that I was, and shook my head.

  "It is nothing," I answered, "unless it be that I have not yet recovered from Black George's fist; it is nothing!" And so the meal drew to an end, and though, feeling my thoughts base, I sat with my head on my hand and my eyes upon the cloth, yet I knew she watched me, and more than once I heard her sigh. A man who acts on impulse may sometimes be laughed at for his mistakes, but he will frequently attain to higher things, and be much better loved by his fellows than the colder, more calculating logician who rarely makes a blunder; and Simon Peter was a man of impulse.

  Supper being over and done, Charmian must needs take my coat, despite my protests, and fall to work upon its threadbare shabbiness, mending a great rent in the sleeve. And, watching her through the smoke of my pipe, noting the high mould of her features, the proud poise of her head, the slender elegance of her hands, I was struck sharply by her contrast to the rough, bare walls that were my home, and the toil-worn, unlovely garment beneath her fingers. As I looked, she seemed to be suddenly removed from me——far above and beyond my reach.

  "That is the fourth time, Peter."

  "What, Charmian?"

  "That is the fourth time you have sighed since you lighted your pipe, and it is out, and you never noticed it!"

  "Yes" said I, and laid the pipe upon the table and sighed again, before I could stop myself. Charmian raised her head, and looked at me with a laugh in her eyes.

  "Oh, most philosophical, dreamy blacksmith! where be your thoughts?"

  "I was thinking how old and worn and disreputable my coat looked."

  "Indeed, sir," said Charmian, holding it up and regarding it with a little frown, "forsooth it is ancient, and hath seen better days."

  "Like its wearer!" said I, and sighed again.

  "Hark to this ancient man!" she laughed, "this hoary-headed blacksmith of ours, who sighs, and forever sighs; if it could possibly be that he had met any one sufficiently worthy——I should think that he had fallen——philosophically——in love; how think you, Sir Knight of the Rueful Countenance?"

  "I remember," said I, "that, among other things, you once called me 'Superior Mr. Smith.'" Charmian laughed and nodded her head at me.

  "You had been describing to me some quite impossible, idealistic creature, alone worthy of your regard, sir."

  "Do you still think me 'superior,' Charmian?"

  "Do you still dream of your impalpable, bloodlessly-perfect ideals, sir?"

  "No," I answered; "no, I think I have done with dreaming."

  "And I have done with this, thy coat, for behold! it is finished," and rising, she folded it over the back of my chair.

  Now, as she stood thus behind me, her hand fell and, for a moment, rested lightly upon my shoulder.

  "Peter."

  "Yes, Charmian."

  "I wish, yes, I do wish that you were either much younger or very much older."

  "Why?"

  "Because you wouldn't be quite so——so cryptic——such a very abstruse problem. Sometimes I think I understand you better than you do yourself, and sometimes I am utterly lost; now, if you were younger I could read you easily for myself, and, if you were older, you would read yourself for me."

  "I was never very young!" said I.

  "No, you were always too repressed, Peter."

  "Yes, perhaps I was."

  "Repression is good up to a certain point, but beyond that it is dangerous," said she, with a portentous shake of the head. "Heigho! was it a week or a year ago that you avowed yourself happy, and couldn't tell why?"

  "I was the greater fool!" said I.

  "For not knowing why, Peter?"

  "For thinking myself happy!"

  "Peter, what is happiness?"

  "An idea," said I, "possessed generally of fools!"

  "And what is misery?"

  "Misery is also an idea."

  "Possessed only by the wise, Peter; surely he is wiser who chooses happiness?"

  "Neither happiness nor misery comes from choice."

  "But——if one seeks happiness, Peter?"

  "One will assuredly find misery!" said I, and, sighing, rose, and taking my hammer from its place above my bookshelf, set to work upon my brackets, driving them deep into the heavy framework of the door. All at once I stopped, with my hammer poised, and, for no reason in the world, looked back at Charmian, over my shoulder; looked to find her watching me with eyes that were (if it could well be) puzzled, wistful, shy, and glad at one and the same time; eyes that veiled themselves swiftly before my look, yet that shot one last glance, between their lashes, in which were only joy and laughter.

  "Yes?" said I, answering the look. But she only stooped her head and went on sewing; yet the color was bright in her cheeks.

  And, having driven in the four brackets, or staples, and closed the door, I took up the bars and showed her how they were to lie crosswise across the door, resting in the brackets.

  "We shall be safe now, Peter," said she; "those bars would resist——an elephant."

  "I think they would," I nodded; "but there is yet something more." Going to my shelf of books I took thence the silver-mounted pistol she had brought with her, and balanced it in my hand. "To-morrow I will take this to Cranbrook, and buy bullets to fit it."

  "Why, there are bullets there——in one of the old shoes, Peter."

  "They are too large; this is an unusually small calibre, and yet it would be deadly enough at close range. I will load it for you, Charmian, and give it into your keeping, in case you should ever——grow afraid again, when I am not by; this is a lonely place——for a woman——at all times."

  "Yes, Peter." She was busily employed upon a piece of embroidery, and began to sing softly to herself again as she worked,——that old song which worthy Mr. Pepys mentions having heard from the lips of mischievous-eyed Nell Gwynn:

  "In Scarlet town, where I was born,There was a fair maid dwellin',Made every youth cry Well-a-way!

  Her name was Barbara Allen."

  "Are you so happy, Charmian?"

  "Oh, sir, indifferent well, I thank you.

  "'All in the merry month of May When green buds they were swellin',Young Jemmy Grove on his death-bed lay,For love of Barbara Allen.'

  "Are you so——miserable, Peter?"

  "Why do you ask?"

  "Because you sigh, and sigh, like——poor Jemmy Grove in the song."

  "He was a fool!" said I.

  "For sighing, Peter?"

  "For dying."

  "I suppose no philosopher could ever be so——foolish, Peter?"

  "No," said I; "certainly not!"

  "It is well to be a philosopher, isn't it, Peter?"

  "Hum!" said I, and once more set about lighting my pipe. Anon I rose and, crossing to the open door, looked out upon the summer night, and sighed, and coming back, sat watching Charmian's busy fingers.

  "Charmian," said I at last.

  "Yes, Peter?"

  "Do you——ever see any——any——men lurking about the Hollow——when I am away?" Her needle stopped suddenly, and she did not look up as she answered:

  "No, Peter!"

  "Never?——are you——sure, Charmian?" The needle began to fly to and fro again, but still she did not look up.

  "No——of course not——how should I see any one? I scarcely go beyond the Hollow, and——I'm busy all day."

  "A Eve——a Eve!" said a voice in my ear. "Eve tricked Adam, didn't she?——a Eve!"

  After this I sat for a long time without, moving, my mind harassed with doubts and a hideous, morbid dread. Why had she avoided my eye? Her own were pure and truthful, and could not lie! Why, why had they avoided mine? If only she had looked at me!

  Presently I rose and began to pace up and down the room.

  "You are very restless, Peter!"

  "Yes," said I; "yes, I fear I am——you must pardon me——"

  "Why not read?"

  "Indeed I had not thought of my books."

  "Then read me something aloud, Peter."

  "I will read you the sorrow of Achilles for the loss of Briseis," said I, and, going into the corner, I raised my hand to my shelf of books——and stood there with hand upraised yet touching no book, for a sudden spasm seemed to have me in its clutches, and once again the trembling seized me, and the hammer had recommenced its beat, beating upon my brain.

  And, in a while, I turned from my books, and, crossing to the door, leaned there with my back to her lest she should see my face just then.

  "I——I don't think I——will read——to-night!" said I at last.

  "Very well, Peter, let us talk."

  "Or talk," said I; "I——I think I'll go to bed. Pray," I went on hurriedly, for I was conscious that she had raised her head and was looking at me in some surprise, "pray excuse me——I'm very tired." So, while she yet stared at me, I turned away, and, mumbling a good night, went into my chamber, and closing the door, leaned against it, for my mind was sick with dread, and sorrow, and a great anguish; for now I knew that Charmian had lied to me——my Virgil book had been moved from its usual place.

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