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The Broad Highway(Book2,Chapter13)

2006-08-28 22:53

  Book Two. The Woman Chapter XIII. A Pedler in Arcadia

  The cottage, as I have said, was entirely hidden from the chance observer by reason of the foliage: ash, alder, and bramble flourished luxuriantly, growing very thick and high, with here and there a great tree; but, upon one side, there was a little grassy glade, or clearing rather, some ten yards square, and it was towards this that my eyes were directed as I reseated myself upon the settle beside the door, and waited the coming of the unknown.

  Though the shadows were too deep for my eyes to serve me, yet I could follow the newcomer's approach quite easily by the sound he made; indeed, I was particularly struck by the prodigious rustling of leaves. Whoever it was must be big and bulky, I thought, and clad, probably, in a long, trailing garment.

  All at once I knew I was observed, for the sounds ceased, and I heard nothing save the distant bark of a dog and the ripple of the brook near by.

  I remained there for, maybe, a full minute, very still, only my fists clenched themselves as I sat listening and waiting——and that minute was an hour.

  "You won't be wantin' ever a broom, now?"

  The relief was so sudden and intense that I had much ado to keep from laughing outright.

  "You won't be wantin' ever a broom, now?" inquired the voice again.

  "No," I answered, "nor yet a fine leather belt with a steel buckle made in Brummagem as ever was."

  "Oh, it's you, is it?" said the Pedler, and forthwith Gabbing Dick stepped out of the shadows, brooms on shoulder and bulging pack upon his back, at sight of which the leafy tumult of his approach was immediately accounted for. "So it's you, is it?" he repeated, setting down his brooms and spitting lugubriously at the nearest patch of shadow.

  "Yes," I answered, "but what brings you here?"

  "I be goin' to sleep 'ere, my chap."

  "Oh!——you don't mind the ghost, then?"

  "Oh, Lord, no! Theer be only two things as I can't abide——trees as ain't trees is one on em, an' women's t' other."

  "Women?"

  "Come, didn't I 'once tell you I were married?"

  "You did."

  "Very well then! Trees as ain't trees is bad enough, Lord knows!——but women's worse——ah!" said the Pedler, shaking his head, "a sight worse! Ye see, trees ain't got tongues——leastways not as I ever heerd tell on, an' a tree never told a lie——or ate a apple, did it?"

  "What do you mean by 'ate an apple'?"

  "I means as a tree can't tell a lie, or eat a apple, but a woman can tell a lie——which she does——frequent, an' as for apples——"

  "But——" I began.

  "Eve ate a apple, didn't she?"

  "The Scriptures say so," I nodded.

  "An' told a lie arterwards, didn't she?"

  "So we are given to understand."

  "Very well then!" said the Pedler, "there y' are!" and he turned to spit into the shadow again. "Wot's more," he continued, "'twere a woman as done me out o' my birthright."

  "How so?"

  "Why, 'twere Eve as got us druv out o' the Gardin o' Eden, weren't it? If it 'adn't been for Eve I might ha' been livin' on milk an' 'oney, ah! an' playin' wi' butterflies, 'stead o' bein' married, an' peddlin' these 'ere brooms. Don't talk to me o' women, my chap; I can't abide 'em bah! if theer's any trouble afoot you may take your Bible oath as theer's a woman about some'eres——theer allus is!"

  "Do you think so?"

  "I knows so; ain't I a-'earin' an' a-seein' such all day, an' every day——theer's Black Jarge, for one."

  "What about him?"

  "What about 'im!" repeated the Pedler; "w'y, ain't 'is life been ruined, broke, wore away by one o' them Eves?——very well then!"

  "What do you mean——how has his life been ruined?"

  "Oh! the usual way of it; Jarge loves a gell——gell loves Jarge ——sugar ain't sweeter——very well then! Along comes another cove ——a strange cove——a cove wi' nice white 'ands an' soft, takin' ways——'e talks wi' 'er walks wi' 'er——smiles at 'er——an' pore Jarge ain't nowheeres——pore Jarge's cake is dough——ah! an' doughy dough at that!"

  "How do you come to know all this?"

  "'Ow should I come to know it but from the man 'isself? 'Dick,' says 'e" (baptismal name Richard, but Dick for short), "'Dick,' says 'e, 'd'ye see this 'ere stick?' an' 'e shows me a good, stout cudgel cut out o' th' 'edge, an' very neatly trimmed it were too. 'Ah! I sees it, Jarge,' says I. 'An' d'ye see this un?' says 'e, 'oldin' up another as like the first as one pea to its fellow. 'Ah! I sees that un too, Jarge,' says I. 'Well,' says Jarge, 'one's for 'im an' one's for me——'e can take 'is chice,' 'e says, 'an' when we do meet, it's a-goin' to be one or t' other of us,' 'e says, an' wot's more——'e looked it! 'If I 'ave to wait, an' wait, an' foller 'im, an' foller 'im,' says Jarge, 'I'll catch 'im alone, one o' these fine nights, an' it'll be man to man.'"

  "And when did he tell you all this?"

  "'S marnin' as ever was."

  "Where did you see him?"

  "Oh, no!" said the Pedler, shaking his head, "not by no manner o' means. I'm married, but I ain't that kind of a cove!"

  "What do you mean?"

  "The runners is arter 'im——lookin' for 'im 'igh an' low, an' ——though married, I ain't one to give a man away. I ain't a friendly cove myself, never was, an' never shall be——never 'ad a friend all my days, an' don't want one but I likes Black Jarge——I pities, an' I despises 'im."

  "Why do you despise him?"

  Because 'e carries on so, all about a Eve——w'y, theer ain't a woman breathin' as is worth a man's troublin' 'is lead over, no, nor never will be——yet 'ere's Black Jarge ready——ah! an' more than willin' to get 'isself 'ung, an' all for a wench——a Eve——"

  "Get, himself hanged?" I repeated.

  "Ah 'ung! w'y, ain't 'e a-waitin' an' a-waitin' to get at this cove——this cove wi' the nice white 'ands an' the takin' ways, ain't 'e awatchin' an' a-watchin' to meet 'im some lonely night ——and when 'e do meet 'im——" The Pedler sighed.

  "Well?"

  "W'y, there'll be blood shed——blood!——quarts on it——buckets on it! Black Jarge'll batter this 'ere cove's 'ead soft, so sure as I were baptized Richard 'e'll lift this cove up in 'is great, strong arms, an' 'e'll throw this cove down, an' 'e'll gore 'im, an' stamp 'im down under 'is feet, an' this cove's blood'll go soakin' an' a-soakin' into the grass, some'eres beneath some 'edge, or in some quiet corner o' the woods——and the birds'll perch on this cove's breast, an' flutter their wings in this cove's face, 'cause they'll know as this cove can never do nobody no 'urt no wore; ah! there'll be blood——gallons of it!"

  "I hope not!" said I. "Ye do, do ye?"

  "Most fervently!"

  "An' 'cause why?"

  "Because I happen to be that cove," I answered.

  "Oh!" said the Pedler, eyeing me more narrowly; "you are, are ye?"

  "I am!"

  "Yet you ain't got w'ite 'ands."

  "They were white once," said I.

  "An' I don't see as your ways is soft——nor yet takin'!"

  "None the less, I am that cove!"

  "Oh!" repeated the Pedler, and, having turned this intelligence over in his mind, spat thoughtfully into the shadow again. "You won't be wantin' ever a broom, I think you said?"

  "No," said I.

  "Very well then!" he nodded, and, lifting his brooms, made towards the cottage door!

  "Where are you going?"

  "To sleep in this 'ere empty 'ut."

  "But it isn't empty!"

  "So much the better," nodded the Pedler, "good night!" and, with the words, he laid his hand upon the door, but, as he did so, it opened, and Charmian appeared. The Pedler fell back three or four paces, staring with round eyes.

  "By Goles!" he exclaimed. "So you are married then?"

  Now, when he said this I felt suddenly hot all over, even to the very tips of my ears, and, for the life of me, I could not have looked at Charmian.

  "Why——why——" I began, but her smooth, soft voice came to my rescue.

  "No——he is not married," said she, "far from it."

  "Not?" said the Pedler, "so much the better; marriage ain't love, no, nor love ain't marriage——I'm a married cove myself, so I know what I'm a-sayin'; if folk do talk, an' shake their 'eads over ye——w'y, let 'em, only don't——don't go a-spilin' things by gettin' 'churched.' You're a woman, but you're a fine un——a dasher, by Goles, nice an' straight-backed, an' round, an' plump if I was this 'ere cove, now, I know what——"

  "Here," said I hastily, "here——sell me a broom!"

  The Pedler drew a broom from his bundle and passed it to me.

  "One shillin' and sixpence!" said he, which sum I duly paid over. "Don't," he continued, pocketing the money, and turning to Charmian, "don't go spilin' things by lettin' this young cove go a-marryin' an' a-churchin' ye——nobody never got married as didn't repent it some time or other, an' wot's more, when Marriage comes in at the door, Love flies out up the chimbley——an' there y'are! Now, if you loves this young cove, w'y, very good! if this 'ere young cove loves you——which ain't to be wondered at——so much the better, but don't——don't go a-marryin' each other, an'——as for the children——"

  "Come——I'll take a belt——give me a belt!" said I, more hastily than before.

  "A belt?" said the Pedler.

  "A belt, yes."

  "Wi' a fine steel buckle made in——"

  "Yes——yes!" said I.

  "Two shillin' an' sixpence!" said the Pedler.

  "When I saw you last time, you offered much the same belt for a shilling," I demurred.

  "Ah!" nodded the Pedler, "but belts is riz——'arf-a-crown's the price——take it or leave it."

  "It's getting late," said I, slipping the money into his hand, "and I'll wish you good night!"

  "You're in a 'urry about it, ain't you?"

  "Yes."

  "Ah——to be sure!" nodded the fellow, looking from me to Charmian with an evil leer, "early to bed an'——"

  "Come——get off!" said I angrily.

  "Wot——are ye goin' to turn me away——at this time o' night!"

  "It is not so far to Sissinghurst!" said I:

  "But, Lord! I wouldn't disturb ye——an' there's two rooms, ain't there?"

  "There are plenty of comfortable beds to be had at 'The Bull.'"

  "So you won't gi'e me a night's shelter, eh?"

  "No," I answered, greatly annoyed by the fellow's persistence.

  "An' you don't want to buy nothin' for the young woman——a necklace——or, say——a pair o' garters?" But here, meeting my eye, he shouldered his brooms hastily and moved off. And, after he had gone some dozen yards or so, he paused and turned.

  "Very well then!" he shouted, "I 'opes as you gets your 'ead knocked off——ah!——an' gets it knocked off soon!" Having said which, he spat up into the air towards me, and trudged off.

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