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The Broad Highway(Book1,Chapter13)

2006-08-28 22:42

  Book One Chapter XIII. In Which I Find an Answer to My Riddle

  The sun was already westering when I came to a pump beside the way; and seizing the handle I worked it vigorously, then, placing my hollowed hands beneath the gushing spout, drank and pumped, alternately, until I had quenched my thirst. I now found myself prodigiously hungry, and remembering the bread and cheese in my knapsack, looked about for an inviting spot in which to eat.

  On one side of the road was a thick hedge, and, beneath this hedge, a deep, dry, grassy ditch; and here, after first slipping off my knapsack, I sat down, took out the loaf and the cheese, and opening my clasp-knife, prepared to fall to.

  At this moment I was interrupted in a rather singular fashion, for hearing a rustling close by, I looked up, and into a face that was protruded through a gap in the hedge above me.

  It needed but a glance at the battered hat with its jaunty brim, and great silver buckle, and the haggard, devil-may-care face below, to recognize the individual whom I had seen thrown out of the hedge tavern the morning before.

  It was a very thin face, as I have said, pale and hollow-eyed and framed in black curly hair, whose very blackness did but accentuate the extreme pallor of the skin, which was tight, and drawn above the cheek bones and angle of the jaw. Yet, as I looked at this face, worn and cadaverous though it was, in the glance of the hollow eyes, in the line of the clean-cut mouth I saw that mysterious something which marks a man, what we call for want of a better word, a gentleman.

  "Good evening!" said he, and lifted the battered hat.

  "Good evening!" I returned.

  "Pardon me," said he, "but I was saluting the bread and cheese."

  "Indeed!" said I.

  "Indeed!" he rejoined, "it is the first edible I have been on speaking terms with, so to speak, for rather more than three days, sir."

  "You are probably hungry?" said I.

  "It would be foolish to deny it, sir."

  "Then, if you care to eat with me in the ditch here, you are heartily welcome," said I.

  "With all the pleasure in life!" said he, vaulting very nimbly through the hedge; "you shall not ask me twice or the very deuce is in it! Believe me, I——" Here he stopped, very suddenly, and stood looking at me.

  "Ah!" said he gently, and with a rising inflection, letting the ejaculation escape in a long-drawn breath.

  "Well?" I inquired. Now as I looked up at him, the whole aspect of the man, from the toes of his broken boots to the crown of the battered hat, seemed to undergo a change, as though a sudden, fierce anger had leapt into life, and been controlled, but by a strong effort.

  "On my life and soul, now!" said he, falling back a step, and eyeing me with a vaguely unpleasant smile, "this is a most unexpected——a most unlooked for pleasure; it is I vow it is."

  "You flatter me," said I.

  "No, sir, no; to meet you again——some day——somewhere——alone——quite alone, sir, is a pleasure I have frequently dwelt upon, but never hoped to realize. As it is, sir, having, in my present condition, no chance of procuring better weapons than my fists, allow me to suggest that they are, none the less, entirely at your service; do me the infinite kindness to stand up."

  "Sir," I answered, cutting a slice from the loaf, "you are the third person within the last forty-eight hours who has mistaken me for another; it really gets quite wearisome."

  "Mistaken you," he broke in, and his smile grew suddenly bitter, "do you think it possible that I could ever mistake you?"

  "I am sure of it!" said I. "Furthermore, pray do not disparage your fists, sir. A bout at fisticuffs never did a man any harm that I ever heard; a man's fists are good, honest weapons supplied by a beneficent Providence——far better than your unnatural swords and murderous hair-triggers; at least, so I think, being, I trust, something of a philosopher. Still, in this instance, never having seen your face, or heard your voice until yesterday, I shall continue to sit here, and eat my bread and cheese, and if you are wise you will hasten to follow my so excellent example while there is any left, for, I warn you, I am mightily sharp set."

  "Come, come," said he, advancing upon me threateningly, "enough of this foolery!"

  "By all means," said I, "sit down, like a sensible fellow, and tell me for whom you mistake me."

  "Sir, with all the pleasure in life!" said he, clenching his fists, and I saw his nostrils dilate suddenly. "I take you for the greatest rogue, the most gentlemanly rascal but one, in all England!"

  "Yes," said I, "and my name?"

  "Sir Maurice Vibart!"

  "Sir Maurice Vibart?" I sprang to my feet, staring at him in amazement. "Sir Maurice Vibart is my cousin," said I.

  And so we stood, for a long minute, immobile and silent, eyeing each other above the bread and cheese.

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