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The Broad Highway(Book2,Chapter3)

2006-08-28 22:49

  Book Two. The Woman Chapter III. Which Bears Ample Testimony to the Strength of the Gentleman's Fists

  Considering all that had befallen during the last half-hour or so, it was not very surprising, I think, that I should have forgotten the very existence of this woman Charmian, even though she had been chiefly instrumental in bringing it all about, and to have her recalled to my recollection thus suddenly (and, moreover, the possibility that I must meet with and talk to her) perturbed me greatly, and I remained, for some time, quite oblivious to wind and rain, all engrossed by the thought of this woman.

  "A dark, fierce, Amazonian creature!" I told myself, who had (abhorrent thought) already attempted one man's life to-night; furthermore, a tall woman, and strong (therefore unmaidenly), with eyes that gleamed wild in the shadow of her hair. And yet my dismay arose not so much from any of these as from the fact that she was a woman, and, consequently, beyond my ken.

  Hitherto I had regarded the sex very much from a distance, and a little askance, as creatures naturally illogical, and given to unreasoning impulse; delicate, ethereal beings whose lives were made up of petty trifles and vanities, who were sent into this gross world to be admired, petted, occasionally worshipped, and frequently married.

  Indeed, my education, in this direction, had been shockingly neglected thus far, not so much from lack of inclination (for who can deny the fascination of the Sex?) as for lack of time and opportunity; for when, as a young gentleman of means and great expectations, I should have been writing sonnets to the eyebrow of some "ladye fayre," or surreptitiously wooing some farmer's daughter, in common with my kind, I was hearkening to the plaint of some Greek or Roman lover, or chuckling over old Brantome.

  Thus, women were to me practically an unknown quantity, as yet, and hence it was with no little trepidation that I now started out for the cottage, and this truly Amazonian Charmian, unless she had disappeared as suddenly as she had come (which I found myself devoutly hoping).

  As I went, I became conscious that I was bleeding copiously above the brow, that my throat was much swollen, and that the thumb of my right hand pained exceedingly at the least touch; added to which was a dizziness of the head, and a general soreness of body, that testified to the strength of my opponent's fists.

  On I stumbled, my head bent low against the stinging rain, and with uncertain, clumsy feet, for reaction had come, and with it a deadly faintness. Twigs swung out of the darkness to lash at and catch me as I passed, invisible trees creaked and groaned above and around me, and once, as I paused to make more certain of my direction, a dim, vague mass plunged down athwart my path with a rending crash.

  On I went (wearily enough, and with the faintness growing upon me, a sickness that would not be fought down), guiding my course by touch rather than sight, until, finding myself at fault, I stopped again, staring about me beneath my hand. Yet, feeling the faintness increase with inaction, I started forward, groping before me as I went; I had gone but a few paces, however, when I tripped over some obstacle, and fell heavily. It wanted but this to complete my misery, and I lay where I was, overcome by a deadly nausea.

  Now presently, as I lay thus, spent and sick, I became aware of a soft glow, a brightness that seemingly played all around me, wherefore, lifting my heavy head, I beheld a ray of light that pierced the gloom, a long, gleaming vista jewelled by falling raindrops, whose brilliance was blurred, now and then, by the flitting shapes of wind-tossed branches. At sight of this my strength revived, and rising, I staggered on towards this welcome light, and thus I saw that it streamed from the window of my cottage. Even then, it seemed, I journeyed miles before I felt the latch beneath my fingers, and fumbling, opened the door, stumbled in, and closed it after me.

  For a space I stood dazed by the sudden light, and then, little by little, noticed that the table and chairs had been righted, that the fire had been mended, and that candles burned brightly upon the mantel. All this I saw but dimly, for there was a mist before my eyes; yet I was conscious that the girl had leapt up on my entrance, and now stood fronting me across the table.

  "You!" said she, in a low, repressed voice——"you?"

  Now, as she spoke, I saw the glitter of steel in her hand.

  "Keep back!" she said, in the same subdued tone, "keep back——I warn you!" But I only leaned there against the door, even as she had done; indeed, I doubt if I could have moved just then, had I tried. And, as I stood thus, hanging my head, and not answering her, she stamped her foot suddenly, and laughed a short, fierce laugh.

  "So——he has hurt you?" she cried; "you are all blood——it is running down your face——the Country Bumpkin has hurt you! Oh, I am glad! glad! glad!" and she laughed again. "I might have run away," she went on mockingly, "but you see——I was prepared for you," and she held up the knife, "prepared for you——and now——you are pale, and hurt, and faint——yes, you are faint——the Country Bumpkin has done his work well. I shall not need this, after all——see!" And she flung the knife upon the table.

  "Yes——it is better——there," said I, "and I think——madam——is ——mistaken."

  "Mistaken?" she cried, with a sudden catch in her voice, "what ——what do you mean?"

  "That I——am——the Bumpkin!" said I.

  Now, as I spoke, a black mist enveloped all things, my knees loosened suddenly, and stumbling forward, I sank into a chair. "I am——very——tired!" I sighed, and so, as it seemed, fell asleep.

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