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The Broad Highway(Book2,Chapter42)

2006-08-28 23:00

  Book Two. The Woman Chapter XLII. How Sir Maurice Kept His Word

  Night, with a rising moon, and over all things a great quietude, a deep, deep silence. Air, close and heavy, without a breath to wake the slumbering trees; an oppressive stillness, in which small sounds magnified themselves, and seemed disproportionately loud.

  And presently, as I went upon my way, I forgot the old man sleeping so peacefully with the rusty staple clasped to his shrunken breast, and thought only of the proud woman who had given her life into my keeping, and who, henceforth, would walk with me, hand in hand, upon this Broad Highway, over rough places, and smooth——even unto the end. So I strode on, full of a deep and abiding joy, and with heart that throbbed and hands that trembled because I knew that she watched and waited for my coming.

  A sound broke upon the stillness——sudden and sharp——like the snapping of a stick. I stopped and glanced about me——but it had come and gone——lost in the all-pervading calm.

  And presently, reaching the leafy path that led steeply down into the Hollow, I paused a moment to look about me and to listen again; but the deep silence was all unbroken, save for the slumberous song of the brook, that stole up to me from the shadows, and I wondered idly what that sudden sound might have been. So I began to descend this leafy path, and went on to meet that which lay waiting for me in the shadows.

  It was dark here among the trees, for the moon was low as yet, but, every now and then, she sent a kindly ray through some opening amid the leaves, so that as I descended the path I seemed to be wading through small, limpid pools of radiance.

  But all at once I stopped——staring at something which lay at the edge of one of these pools——a white claw——a hand whose fingers, talon-like, had sunk deep and embedded themselves in the turf. And, beyond this gleaming hand, was an arm, and beyond that again, something that bulked across my path, darker than the shadows.

  Running forward, I stood looking down at that which lay at my feet——so very still; and stooped suddenly, and turned it over that I might see the face; and, seeing it, started back in shuddering horror. For, in those features——hideous with blood, stained and blackened with powder, I recognized my cousin——Sir Maurice Vibart. Then, remembering the stick that had snapped, I wondered no more, but a sudden deadly faintness came upon me so, that I leaned weakly against a tree near by.

  A rustling of leaves——a shuddering breath, and, though I did not raise my head, I knew that Charmian was there.

  "Oh, Peter!" she whispered, "oh, Peter!" and that was all, but, moved by something in her tone, I glanced up. Her eyes were wide and staring——not at me, but at that which lay between us——her face was pallid; even her lips had lost their color, and she clasped one hand upon her bosom——the other was hidden in the folds of her gown hidden as I remembered to have seen it once before, but now it struck me with a horrible significance. Wherefore I reached out and caught that hidden hand, and drew the weapon from her nerveless fingers, holding it where the light could play upon it. She started, shivered violently, and covered her eyes, while I, looking down at the pistol in my hand, saw that it had lately been discharged.

  "He has kept his word!" she whispered; "he has kept his word!"

  "Yes, Charmian——he has kept his word!"

  "Oh, Peter!" she moaned, and stretched out her hands towards me, yet she kept her face turned from that which lay across the path between us, and her hands were shaking pitifully. "Peter?" she cried with a sudden break in her voice; but I went on wiping the soot from the pistol-barrel with the end of my neckerchief. Then, all at once, she was beside me, clasping my arm, and she was pleading with me, her words coming in a flood.

  "No, Peter, no——oh, God!——you do not think it——you can't——you mustn't. I was alone——waiting for you, and the hours passed——and you didn't come——and I was nervous and frightened, and full of awful fancies. I thought I heard some one——creeping round the cottage. Once I thought some one peered in at the lattice, and once I thought some one tried the door. And so——because I was frightened, Peter, I took that——that, and held it in my hand, Peter. And while I sat there——it seemed more than ever——that somebody was breathing softly——outside the door. And so, Peter, I couldn't bear it any more——and opened the lattice——and fired ——in the air——I swear it was in the air. And I stood there——at the open casement——sick with fear, and trying to pray for you ——because I knew he had come back——to kill you, Peter, and, while I prayed, I heard another shot——not close, but faint——like the snapping of a twig, Peter——and I ran out——and——oh, Peter!——that is all——but you believe——oh!——you believe, don't you, Peter?"

  While she spoke, I had slipped the pistol into my pocket, and now I held out my hands to her, and drew her near, and gazed into the troubled depths of her eyes.

  "Charmian!" said I, "Charmian——I love you! and God forbid that I should ever doubt you any more."

  So, with a sigh, she sank in my embrace, her arms crept about my neck, and our lips met, and clung together. But even then——while I looked upon her beauty, while the contact of her lips thrilled through me——even then, in any mind, I saw the murderous pistol in her hand——as I had seen it months ago. Indeed, it almost seemed that she divined my thought, for she drew swiftly back, and looked up at me with haggard eyes.

  "Peter?" she whispered, "what is it——what is it?"

  "Oh, Charmian!" said I, over and over again, "I love you——I love you." And I kissed her appealing eyes, and stayed her questioning lips with my kisses. "I love you more than my life——more than honor——more than my soul; and, because I so love you——to-night you must leave me——"

  "Leave you?——ah no, Peter——no——no, I am your wife——I must stay with you——to suffer and share your troubles and dangers——it is my right——my privilege. Let us go away together, now——anywhere ——anywhere, only let us be together——my——husband."

  "Don't!" I cried, "don't! Do you think it is so easy to remain here without you——to lose you so soon——so very soon? If I only loved you a little less! Ah! don't you see——before the week is out, my description will be all over England; we should be caught, and you would have to stand beside me in a court of justice, and face the shame of it——"

  "Dear love!——it would be my pride——my pride, Peter, to face them all——to clasp this dear hand in mine——"

  "Never!" I cried, clenching my fists; "never! You must leave me; no one must know Charmian Brown ever existed——you must go!"

  "Hush!" she whispered, clasping me tighter, "listen——some one is coming!" Away to the right, we could hear the leaves rustling, as though a strong wind passed through them; a light flickered, went out, flickered again, and a voice hailed faintly:

  "Hallo!"

  "Come," said Charmian, clasping my hand, "let us go and meet him."

  "No, Charmian, no——I must see this man——alone. You must leave here, to-night-now. You can catch the London Mail at the cross roads. Go to Blackheath——to Sir Richard Anstruther——he is my friend——tell him everything——"

  She was down at my feet, and had caught my hand to her bosom.

  "I can't!" she cried, "I can't go——and leave you here alone. I have loved you so——from the very first, and it seems that each day my love has grown until it is part of me. Oh, Peter!——don't send me away from you——it will kill me, I think——"

  "Better that than the shame of a prison!" I exclaimed, and, while I spoke, I lifted her in my arms. "Oh!——I am proud——proud to have won such a love as yours——let me try to be worthy of it. Good-by, my beloved!" and so I kissed her, and would have turned away, but her arms clung about me.

  "Oh, Peter!" she sobbed, "if you must go——if you will go, call me——your wife——just once, Peter."

  The hovering light was much nearer now, and the rustle of leaves louder, as I stooped above her cold hands, and kissed their trembling fingers.

  "Some day," said I, "some day, if there is a just God in heaven, we shall meet again; perhaps soon, perhaps late. Until then, let us dream of that glorious, golden some day, but now——farewell, oh, beloved wife!"

  With a broken cry, she drew my head down upon her breast, and clasped it there, while her tears mingled with her kisses, and so——crying my name, she turned, and was lost among the leaves.

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