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The Broad Highway(Book2,Chapter16)

2006-08-28 22:54

  Book Two. The Woman Chapter XVI. Concerning, Among Other Matters, the Price of Beef, and the Lady Sophia Sefton of Cambourne

  Charmian sighed, bit the end of her pen, and sighed again. She was deep in her housekeeping accounts, adding and subtracting and, between whiles, regarding the result with a rueful frown.

  Her sleeves were rolled up over her round, white arms, and I inwardly wondered if the much vaunted Phryne's were ever more perfect in their modelling, or of a fairer texture. Had I possessed the genius of a Praxiteles I might have given to the world a masterpiece of beauty to replace his vanished Venus of Cnidus; but, as it happened, I was only a humble blacksmith, and she a fair woman who sighed, and nibbled her pen, and sighed again.

  "What is it, Charmian?"

  "Compound addition, Peter, and I hate figures I detest, loathe, and abominate them——especially when they won't balance!"

  "Then never mind them," said I.

  "Never mind them, indeed——the idea, Sir! How can I help minding them when living costs so much and we so poor?"

  "Are we?" said I.

  "Why, of course we are."

  "Yes——to be sure——I suppose we are," said I dreamily.

  Lais was beautiful, Thais was alluring, and Berenice was famous for her beauty, but then, could either of them have shown such arms——so long, so graceful in their every movement, so subtly rounded in their lines, arms which, for all their seeming firmness, must (I thought) be wonderfully soft to the touch, and smooth as ivory, and which found a delicate sheen where the light kissed them?

  "We have spent four shillings for meat this week, Peter!" said Charmian, glancing up suddenly.

  "Good!" said I.

  "Nonsense, sir——four shillings is most extravagant!"

  "Oh!——is it, Charmian?"

  "Why, of course it is."

  "Oh!" said I; "yes——perhaps it is."

  "Perhaps!" said she, curling her lip at me, "perhaps, indeed!" Having said which, Charmian became absorbed in her accounts again, and I in Charmian.

  In Homer we may read that the loveliness of Briseis caused Achilles much sorrow; Ovid tells us that Chione was beautiful enough to inflame two gods, and that Antiope's beauty drew down from heaven the mighty Jove himself; and yet, was either of them formed and shaped more splendidly than she who sat so near me, frowning at what she had written, and petulantly biting her pen?

  "Impossible!" said I, so suddenly that Charmian started and dropped her pen, which I picked up, feeling very like a fool.

  "What did you mean by 'impossible,' Peter?"

  "I was——thinking merely."

  "Then I wish you wouldn't think so suddenly next time."

  "I beg your pardon."

  "Nor be so very emphatic about it."

  "No," said I, "er——no." Hereupon, deigning to receive her pen back again, she recommenced her figuring, while I began to fill my pipe.

  "Two shillings for tea!"

  "Excellent!" said I.

  "I do wish," she sighed, raising her head to shake it reproachfully at me, "that you would be a little more sensible."

  "I'll try."

  "Tea at twelve shillings a pound is a luxury!"

  "Undoubtedly!"

  "And to pay two shillings for a luxury when we are so poor——is sinful!"

  "Is it, Charmian?"

  "Of course it is."

  "Oh!" said I; "and yet, life without tea——more especially as you brew it——would be very stale, flat, and unprofitable, and——"

  "Bacon and eggs——one shilling and fourpence!" she went on, consulting her accounts.

  "Ah!" said I, not venturing on "good," this time.

  "Butter——one shilling!"

  "Hum!" said I cautiously, and with the air of turning this over in my mind.

  "Vegetables——tenpence!"

  "To be sure," said I, nodding my head, "tenpence, certainly."

  "And bread, Peter" (this in a voice of tragedy) "——eightpence."

  "Excellent!" said I recklessly, whereat Charmian immediately frowned at me.

  "Oh, Peter!" said she, with a sigh of resignation, "you possess absolutely no idea of proportion. Here we pay four shillings for meat, and only eightpence for bread; had we spent less on luxuries and more on necessaries we should have had money in hand instead of——let me see!" and she began adding up the various items before her with soft, quick little pats of her fingers on the table. Presently, having found the total, she leaned back in her chair and, summoning my attention with a tap of her pen, announced:

  "We have spent nine shillings and tenpence, Peter!"

  "Good, indeed!" said I.

  "Leaving exactly——twopence over."

  "A penny for you, and a penny for me."

  "I fear I am a very bad housekeeper, Peter."

  "On the contrary."

  "You earn ten shillings a week."

  "Well?"

  "And here is exactly——twopence left——oh, Peter!"

  "You are forgetting the tea and the beef, and——and the other luxuries," said I, struck by the droop of her mouth.

  "But you work so very, very hard, and earn so little and that little——"

  "I work that I may live, Charmian, and lo! I am alive."

  "And dreadfully poor!"

  "And ridiculously happy."

  "I wonder why?" said she, beginning to draw designs on the page before her.

  "Indeed, though I have asked myself that question frequently of late, I have as yet found no answer, unless it be my busy, care-free life, with the warm sun about me and the voice of the wind in the trees."

  "Yes, perhaps that is it."

  "And yet I don't know," I went on thoughtfully, "for now I come to think of it, my life has always been busy and care-free, and I have always loved the sun and the sound of wind in trees——yet, like Horace, have asked 'What is Happiness?' and looked for it in vain; and now, here——in this out-of-the-world spot, working as a village smith, it has come to me all unbidden and unsought——which is very strange!"

  "Yes, Peter," said Charmian, still busy with her pen.

  "Upon consideration I think my thanks are due to my uncle for dying and leaving me penniless."

  "Do you mean that he disinherited you?"

  "In a way, yes; he left me his whole fortune provided that I married a certain lady within the year."

  "A certain lady?"

  "The Lady Sophia Sefton, of Cambourne," said I.

  Charmian's pen stopped in the very middle of a letter, and she bent down to examine what she had been writing.

  "Oh!" said she very softly, "the Lady Sophia Sefton of Cambourne?"

  "Yes," said I.

  "And——your cousin——Sir Maurice——were the conditions the same in his case?"

  "Precisely!"

  "Oh!" said Charmian, just as softly as before, "and this lady ——she will not——marry you?"

  "No," I answered.

  "Are you quite——sure?"

  "Certain!——you see, I never intend to ask her."

  Charmian suddenly raised her head and looked at me,

  "Why not, Peter?"

  "Because, should I ever marry——a remote contingency, and most improbable——I am sufficiently self-willed to prefer to exert my own choice in the matter; moreover, this lady is a celebrated toast, and it would be most repugnant to me that my wife's name should ever have been bandied from mouth to mouth, and hiccoughed out over slopping wineglasses——"

  The pen slipped from Charmian's fingers to the floor, and before I could pick it up she had forestalled me, so that when she raised her head she was flushed with stooping.

  "Have you ever seen this lady, Peter?"

  "Never, but I have heard of her——who has not?"

  "What have you heard?"

  "That she galloped her horse up and down the steps of St. Paul's Cathedral, for one thing."

  "What more?"

  "That she is proud, and passionate, and sudden of temper——in a word, a virago!"

  "Virago!" said Charmian, flinging up her head.

  "Virago!" I nodded, "though she is handsome, I understand——in a strapping way——and I have it on very excellent authority that she is a black-browed goddess, a peach, and a veritable plum."

  "'Strapping' is a hateful word, Peter!"

  "But very descriptive."

  "And——doesn't she interest you——a little, Peter?".

  "Not in the least," said I.

  "And, pray, why not?"

  "Because I care very little for either peaches or plums."

  "Or black-browed goddesses, Peter?"

  "Not if she is big and strapping, and possesses a temper."

  "I suppose——to such a philosopher as you——a woman or a goddess, black-browed or not, can scarcely compare with, or hope to rival an old book, can she, sir?"

  "Why, that depends, Charmian."

  "On what?"

  "On the book!" said I.

  Charmian rested her round elbows upon the table, and, setting her chin in her hands, stared squarely at me.

  "Peter," said she.

  "Yes, Charmian?"

  "If ever you did meet this lady——I think——"

  "Well?"

  "I know——"

  "What?"

  "That you would fall a very easy victim!"

  "I think not," said I.

  "You would be her slave in——a month——three weeks——or much less——"

  "Preposterous!" I exclaimed.

  "If she set herself to make you!"

  "That would be very immodest!" said I; "besides, no woman can make a man love her."

  "Do your books teach you that, Peter?" Here, finding I did not answer, she laughed and nodded her head at me. "You would be head over ears in love before you knew it!"

  "I think not," said I, smiling.

  "You are the kind of man who would grow sick with love, and never know what ailed him."

  "Any man in such a condition would be a pitiful ass!" said I.

  Charmian only laughed at me again, and went back to her scribbling.

  "Then, if this lady married you," said she suddenly, "you would be a gentleman of good position and standing?"

  "Yes, I suppose so——and probably miserable."

  "And rich, Peter?"

  "I should have more than enough."

  "Instead of being a village blacksmith——"

  "With just enough, and absurdly happy and content," I added, "which is far more desirable——at least I think so."

  "Do you mean to say that you would rather——exist here, and make horseshoes all your life, than——live, respected, and rich."

  "And married to——"

  "And married to the Lady Sophia?"

  "Infinitely!" said I.

  "Then your cousin, so far as you are concerned, is free to woo and win her and your uncle's fortune?"

  "And I wish him well of his bargain!" I nodded. "As for me, I shall probably continue to live here, and make horseshoes ——wifeless and content."

  "Is marriage so hateful to you?"

  "In the abstract——no; for in my mind there exists a woman whom I think I could love——very greatly; but, in the actual——yes, because there is no woman in all the world that is like this woman of my mind."

  "Is she so flawlessly perfect——this imaginary woman?"

  "She is one whom I would respect for her intellect."

  "Yes."

  "Whom I would honor for her proud virtue."

  "Yes, Peter."

  "Whom I would worship for her broad charity, her gentleness, and spotless purity."

  "Yes, Peter."

  "And love with all my strength, for her warm, sweet womanhood——in a word, she is the epitome of all that is true and womanly!"

  "That is to say——as you understand such things, sir, and all your knowledge of woman, and her virtues and failings, you have learned from your books, therefore, misrepresented by history, and distorted by romance, it is utterly false and unreal. And, of course, this imaginary creature of yours is ethereal, bloodless, sexless, unnatural, and quite impossible!"

  Now, when she spoke thus, I laid down my pipe and stared, but, before I could get my breath, she began again, with curling lip and lashes that drooped disdainfully.

  "I quite understand that there can be no woman worthy of Mr. Peter Vibart——she whom he would honor with marriage must be specially created for him! Ah! but some day a woman——a real, live woman——will come into his life, and the touch of her hand, the glance of her eyes, the warmth of her breath, will dispel this poor, flaccid, misty creature of his imagination, who will fade and fade, and vanish into nothingness. And when the real woman has shown him how utterly false and impossible this dream woman was——then, Mr. Peter Vibart, I hope she will laugh at you ——as I do, and turn her back upon you——as I do, and leave you ——for the very superior, very pedantic pedant that you are——and scorn you——as I do, most of all because you are merely a ——creature!" With the word, she flung up her head and stamped her foot at me, and turning, swept out through the open door into the moonlight.

  "Creature?" said I, and so sat staring at the table, and the walls, and the floor, and the rafters in a blank amazement.

  But in a while, my amazement growing, I went and stood in the doorway, looking at Charmian, but saying nothing.

  And, as I watched, she began to sing softly to herself, and, putting up her hand, drew the comb from her hair so that it fell down, rippling about her neck and shoulders. And, singing softly thus, she shook her hair about her, so that I saw it curled far below her waist; stooped her head, and, parting it upon her neck, drew it over either shoulder, whence it flowed far down over her bosom in two glorious waves, for the moon, peeping through the rift in the leaves above, sent down her beams to wake small fires in it, that came and went, and winked with her breathing.

  "Charmian, you have glorious hair!" said I, speaking on the impulse——a thing I rarely do.

  But Charmian only combed her tresses, and went on singing to herself.

  "Charmian," said I again, "what did you mean when you called me a——creature?"

  Charmian went on singing.

  "You called me a 'pedant' once before; to be told that I am superior, also, is most disquieting. I fear my manner must be very unfortunate to afford you such an opinion of me."

  Charmian went on singing.

  "Naturally I am much perturbed, and doubly anxious to know what you wish me to understand by the epithet 'creature'?"

  Charmian went on singing. Wherefore, seeing she did not intend to answer me, I presently re-entered the cottage.

  Now it is ever my custom, when at all troubled or put out in any way, to seek consolation in my books, hence, I now took up my Homer, and, trimming the candles, sat down at the table.

  In a little while Charmian came in, still humming the air of her song, and not troubling even to glance in my direction.

  Some days before, at her request, I had brought her linen and lace and ribands from Cranbrook, and these she now took out, together with needle and cotton, and, sitting down at the opposite side of the table, began to sew.

  She was still humming, and this of itself distracted my mind from the lines before me; moreover, my eye was fascinated by the gleam of her flying needle, and I began to debate within myself what she was making. It (whatever it might be) was ruffled, and edged with lace, and caught here and there with little bows of blue riband, and, from these, and divers other evidences, I had concluded it to be a garment of some sort, and was casting about in my mind to account for these bows of riband, when, glancing up suddenly, she caught my eye; whereupon, for no reason in the world, I felt suddenly guilty, to hide which I began to search through my pockets for my pipe.

  "On the mantelshelf!" said she.

  "What is?"

  "Your pipe!"

  "Thank you!" said I, and reached it down.

  "What are you reading?" she inquired; "is it of Helen or Aspasia or Phryne?"

  "Neither——it is the parting of Hector and Andromache," I answered.

  "Is it very interesting?"

  "Yes."

  "Then why do your eyes wander so often from the page?"

  "I know many of the lines by heart," said I. And having lighted my pipe, I took up the book, and once more began to read. Yet I was conscious, all the time, of Charmian's flashing needle, also she had begun to hum again.

  And, after I had endeavored to read, and Charmian had hummed for perhaps five minutes, I lowered my book, and, sighing, glanced at her.

  "I am trying to read, Charmian."

  "So I see."

  "And your humming confuses me."

  "It is very quiet outside, Peter."

  "But I cannot read by moonlight, Charmian."

  "Then——don't read, Peter." Here she nibbled her thread with white teeth, and held up what she had been sewing to view the effect of a bow of riband, with her head very much on one side. And I inwardly wondered that she should spend so much care upon such frippery——all senseless bows and laces.

  "To hum is a very disturbing habit!" said I.

  "To smoke an evil-smelling pipe is worse——much worse, Peter!"

  "I beg your pardon!" said I, and laid the offending object back upon the mantel.

  "Are you angry, Peter?"

  "Not in the least; I am only sorry that my smoking annoyed you ——had I known before——"

  "It didn't annoy me in the least!"

  "But from what you said I understood——"

  "No, Peter, you did not understand; you never understand, and I don't think you ever will understand anything but your Helens and Phrynes——and your Latin and Greek philosophies, and that is what makes you so very annoying, and so——so quaintly original!"

  "But you certainly found fault with my pipe."

  "Naturally!——didn't you find fault with my humming?"

  "Really," said I, "really, I fail to see——"

  "Of course you do!" sighed Charmian. Whereupon there fell a silence between us, during which she sewed industriously, and I went forth with brave Hector to face the mighty Achilles. But my eye had traversed barely twenty lines when:

  "Peter?"

  "Yes?"

  "Do you remember my giving you a locket?"

  "Yes."

  "Where is it?"

  "Oh! I have it still——somewhere."

  "Somewhere, sir?" she repeated, glancing at me with raised brows.

  "Somewhere safe," said I, fixing my eyes upon my book.

  "It had a riband attached, hadn't it?"

  "Yes."

  "A pink riband, if I remember——yes, pink."

  "No——it was blue!" said I unguardedly.

  "Are you sure, Peter?" And here, glancing up, I save that she was watching me beneath her lashes.

  "Yes," I answered; "that is——I think so."

  "Then you are not sure?"

  "Yes, I am," said I; "it was a blue riband," and I turned over a page very ostentatiously.

  "Oh!" said Charmian, and there was another pause, during which I construed probably fifty lines or so.

  "Peter?"

  "Well?"

  "Where did you say it was now——my locket?"

  "I didn't say it was anywhere."

  "No, you said it was 'somewhere'——in a rather vague sort of way, Peter."

  "Well, perhaps I did," said I, frowning at my book.

  "It is not very valuable, but I prized it for association's sake, Peter."

  "Ah!——yes, to be sure," said I, feigning to be wholly absorbed.

  "I was wondering if you ever——wear it, Peter?"

  "Wear it!" I exclaimed, and glancing furtively down at myself, I was relieved to see that there were no signs of a betraying blue riband; "wear it!" said I again, "why should I wear it?"

  "Why, indeed, Peter, unless it was because it was there to wear." Suddenly she uttered an exclamation of annoyance, and, taking up a candle, began looking about the floor.

  "What have you lost?"

  "My needle! I think it must have fallen under the table. and needles are precious in this wilderness; won't you please help me to find it?"

  "With pleasure!" said I, getting down upon my hands and knees, and together we began to hunt for the lost needle.

  Now, in our search, it chanced that we drew near together, and once her hand touched mine, and once her soft hair brushed my cheek, and there stole over me a perfume like the breath of violets, the fragrance that I always associated with her, faint and sweet and alluring——so much so, that I drew back from further chance of contact, and kept my eyes directed to the floor.

  And, after I had sought vainly for some time, I raised my head and looked at Charmian, to find her regarding me with a very strange expression.

  "What is it?" I inquired. "Have you found the needle?" Charmian sat back on her heels, and laughed softly.

  "Oh, yes, I've found the needle, Peter, that is——I never lost it."

  "Why, then——what——what did you mean——?"

  For answer, she raised her hand and pointed to my breast. Then, glancing hurriedly down, I saw that the locket had slipped forward through the bosom of my shirt, and hung in plain view. I made an instinctive movement to hide it, but, hearing her laugh, looked at her instead.

  "So this was why you asked me to stoop to find your needle?"

  "Yes, Peter."

  "Then you——knew?"

  "Of course I knew."

  "Hum!" said I. A distant clock chimed eleven, and Charmian began to fold away her work, seeing which, I rose, and took up my candle. "And——pray——"

  "Well?"

  "And, pray," said I, staring hard at the flame of my candle, "how did you happen to——find out——?"

  "Very simply——I saw the riband round your neck days ago. Good night, Peter!"

  "Oh," said I. "Good night!"

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