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The Broad Highway(Book2,Chapter45)

2006-08-28 23:01

  Book Two. The Woman Chapter XLV. Which Concerns Itself, Among Other Matters, with the Boots of the Saturnine Jeremy

  "A bottle o' rum!" said the man Bob, and taking it up, very abstracted of eye, he removed the cork, sniffed at it, tasted it, took a gulp, and handed it over to his companion, who also looked at, sniffed at, and tasted it. "And what d'ye make o' that, Jeremy?"

  "Tasted better afore now!" growled Jeremy, and immediately took another pull.

  "Sang-widges, too!" pursued the man Bob, in a ruminating tone, "an' I always was partial to chicken!" and, forthwith, opening the dainty parcel, he helped himself, and his companion also.

  "What d'ye make o' them, Jeremy?" he inquired, munching.

  "I've eat wuss!" rumbled Jeremy, also munching.

  "Young cove, they does you credit," said the man Bob, nodding to me with great urbanity, "great credit——there ain't many misfort'nates as can per-jooce such sang-widges as them, though, to be sure, they eats uncommon quick 'old 'ard there, Jeremy——" But, indeed, the sandwiches were already only a memory, wherefore his brow grew black, and he glared at the still munching Jeremy, who met his looks with his usual impenetrable gloom.

  "A pipe and 'bacca!" mused the man Bob, after we had ridden some while in silence, and, with the same serene unconsciousness of manner, he took the pipe, filled it, lighted it, and puffed with an air of dreamy content.

  "Jeremy is a good-ish sort," he began, with a complacent flourish of the pipe, "a good-ish sort, but cross-grained——Lord! young cove, 'is cross-grainedness is ekalled only by 'is per-werseness, and 'cause why?——'cause 'e don't smoke——(go easy wi' the rum, Jeremy!) there's nothin' like a pipe o' 'bacca to soothe such things away (I got my eye on ye, Jeremy!)——no, there's nothin' like a pipe o' 'bacca. Look at me——I were the per-wersest infant that ever was, till I took to smokin', and to-day, whatever I am, I ain't per-werse, nor yet cross-grained, and many a misfort'nate cove, as is now no more——'as wept over me at partin'——"

  "They generally always do!" growled Jeremy, uncorking the rum-bottle with his teeth.

  "No, Jerry, no," returned the other, blowing out a cloud of smoke; "misfort'nates ain't all the same——(arter you wi' that bottle!)——you 'ave Cryers, and Laughers, and Pray-ers, and Silent Ones, and the silent coves is the dangerousest——(arter you wi' the bottle, Jeremy!)——now you, my covey," he went on, tapping my hand gently with his pipe-stem, "you ain't exactly talkative, in fact——not wishin' no offense, I might say as you was inclined to be one o' the Silent Ones. Not as I 'olds that again' you——far from it, only you reminds me of a young cove as 'ad the misfort'n to get 'isself took for forgery, and who——arter me a-talkin' and a-chattin' to 'im in my pleasant way went and managed to commit sooicide——under my very nose——which were 'ardly nice, or even respectable, considerin'——(arter you wi' the bottle, Jeremy!)"

  Jeremy growled, held up the bottle to the failing light of evening, measured its contents with his thumb, and extended it unwillingly towards his comrade's ready hand; but it never got there, for, at that instant, the chaise lurched violently——there was a cry, a splintering of glass, a crash, and I was lying, half stunned, in a ditch, listening to the chorus of oaths and cries that rose from the cloud of dust where the frightened horses reared and plunged.

  How long I remained thus I cannot say, but, all at once, I found myself upon my feet, running down the road, for, hazy though my mind yet was, I could think only of escape, of liberty, and freedom——at any price——at any cost. So I ran on down the road, somewhat unsteadily as yet, because my fall had been a heavy one, and my brain still reeled. I heard a shout behind me——the sharp crack of a pistol, and a bullet sang over my head; and then I knew they were after me, for I could hear the patter of their feet upon the hard road.

  Now, as I ran, my brain cleared, but this only served me to appreciate the difficulty of eluding men so seasoned and hardy as my pursuers; moreover, the handcuffs galled my wrists, and the short connecting chain hampered my movements considerably, and I saw that, upon this straight level, I must soon be run down, or shot from behind.

  Glancing back, I beheld them some hundred yards, or so, away, elbows in, heads up, running with that long, free stride that speaks of endurance. I increased the pace, the ground flew beneath me, but, when I glanced again, though the man Bob had dropped back, the saturnine Jeremy ran on, no nearer, but no farther than before.

  Now, as I went, I presently espied that for which I had looked ——a gate set in the midst of the hedge, but it was closed, and never did a gate, before or since, appear quite so high and insurmountable; but, with the desperation of despair, I turned, ran at it, and sprang, swinging my arms above my head as I did so. My foot grazed the top bar——down I came, slipped, stumbled, regained my balance, and ran on over the springy turf. I heard a crash behind me, an oath, a second pistol barked, and immediately it seemed that a hot iron seared my forearm, and glancing down, I saw the skin cut and bleeding, but, finding it no worse, breathed a sigh of thankfulness, and ran on.

  By that leap I had probably gained some twenty yards; I would nurse my strength, therefore. If I could once gain the woods! How far off were they?——half-a-mile, a mile?——well, I could run that easily, thanks to my hardy life. Stay! what was that sound behind me——the fall of flying feet, or the throbbing of my own heart? I turned my head; the man Jeremy was within twelve yards of me——lean and spare, his head thrust forward, he ran with the long, easy stride of a greyhound.

  So it was to be a question of endurance? Well, I had caught my second wind by now. I set my teeth, and, clenching my fists, lengthened my stride.

  And now, indeed, the real struggle began. My pursuer had long ago abandoned his coat, but his boots were heavier and clumsier than those I wore; but then, again, my confining shackles seemed to contract my chest; and the handcuffs galled my wrists cruelly.

  On I went, scattering flocks of scampering sheep, past meditative cows who started up, puffing out snorts of perfume; scrambling through hedges, over gate and stile and ditch, with eyes upon the distant woods full of the purple gloom of evening, and, in my ears, the muffled thud! thud! thud! thud! of the pursuit, sometimes seeming much nearer, and sometimes much farther off, but always the same rhythmic, remorseless thud! thud! thud! thud!

  On, and ever on, climbing steep uplands, plunging down precipitous slopes, past brawling brooks and silent pools all red and gold with sunset, past oak and ash and thorn on and on, with ever those thudding footfalls close behind. And, as we ran, it seemed to me that our feet beat out a kind of cadence——his heavy shoes, and my lighter ones.

  Thud! thud!——pad! pad!——thud! thud!——pad! pad! until they would suddenly become confused, and mingle with each other.

  One moment it seemed that I almost loved the fellow, and the next that I bitterly hated him. Whether I had gained or not, I could not tell; to look back was to lose ground.

  The woods were close now, so close that I fancied I heard the voice of their myriad leaves calling to me——encouraging me. But my breath was panting thick and short, my stride was less sure, my wrists were raw and bleeding, and the ceaseless jingle of my chain maddened me.

  Thud!——thud!——untiring, persistent——thud!——thud!——the pulse at my temples throbbed in time with it, my breath panted to it. And surely it was nearer, more distinct——yes, he had gained on me in the last half-mile——but how much? I cast a look over my shoulder; it was but a glance, yet I saw that he had lessened the distance between us by half. His face shone with sweat——his mouth was a line——his nostrils broad and expanded——his eyes staring and shot with blood, but he ran on with the same long easy stride that was slowly but surely wearing me down.

  We were descending a long, grassy slope, and I stumbled, more than once, and rolled in my course, but on came those remorseless footfalls——thud!——thud!——thud!——thud!——strong and sure as ever. He was nearing me fast——he was close upon me——closer——within reach of me. I could hear his whistling breaths, and then, all at once, I was down on hands and knees; he tried to avoid me ——failed, and, shooting high over me, thudded down upon the grass.

  For a moment he lay still, then, with a groan, he rolled over, and propping himself on his arm, thrust a hand into his bosom; but I hurled myself upon him, and, after a brief struggle, twisted the pistol from his grasp, whereupon he groaned again.

  "Hurt?" I panted.

  "Arm broke, I think," he growled, and forthwith burst out into a torrent of curses.

  "Does it——hurt——so much?" I panted.

  "Ah! but it——ain't that," he panted back; "it's me——a-lettin' of you——work off——a mouldy——old trick on me——like——that there——"

  "It was my only chance," said I, sitting down beside him to regain my wind.

  "To think," he growled, "o' me bein' took in by a——"

  "But you are a great runner!" said I.

  "A great fool, you mean, to be took in by a——"

  "You have a long walk back, and your arm will be painful——"

  "And serve me right for bein' took in by——"

  "If you will lend me your neckerchief, I think I can make your arm more comfortable," said I. He ceased cursing to stare at me, slowly and awkwardly unwound the article in question, and passed it to me. Thereupon, having located the fracture, I contrived a rough splint with a piece of wood lying near; which done, he thanked me, in a burst of profanity, and rose.

  "I've see worse coves nor you!" said he, "and one good turn desarvin' another——lie snug all day, and travel by night, and keep to the byroads——this ain't no common case, there'll be a thousand pound on your 'ead afore the week's out——so look spry, my cove!" saying which, he nodded, turned upon his heel, and strode away, cursing to himself.

  Now, presently, as I went, I heard the merry ring and clink of hammer and anvil, and, guided by the sound, came to a tumbledown smithy where was a man busily at work, with a shock-headed boy at the bellows. At sight of me, the smith set down his hammer and stared openmouthed, as did also the shock-headed boy.

  "How long would it take you to file off these shackles?" I inquired, holding out my hands.

  "To——to file 'em off?"

  "Yes."

  "Why, that——that depends——"

  "Then do it——as soon as you can." Upon this, the man turned his back to me and began rummaging among his tools, with his head very near that of the shock-headed boy, until, having found a file suitable to the purpose, he set to work upon my handcuffs. But he progressed so slowly, for one reason and another, that I began to grow impatient; moreover, noticing that the shock-headed boy had disappeared, I bade him desist.

  "A cold chisel and hammer will be quickest," said I; "come, cut me off this chain——here, close up to the rivets." And, when he had done this, I took his file, and thrusting it beneath my coat, set off, running my hardest, leaving him to stare after me, with his eyes and mouth wider than ever.

  The sun was down when I reached the woods, and here, in the kind shadows, I stayed awhile to rest, and rid myself of my handcuffs; but, when I felt for the file to do so——it was gone.

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