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The Broad Highway(Book2,Chapter19)

2006-08-28 22:55

  Book Two. The Woman Chapter XIX. How I Met Black George Again, and Wherein the Patient Reader Shall Find a "Little Blood"

  It was evening——that time before the moon is up and when the earth is dark, as yet, and full of shadows. Now as I went, by some chance there recurred to me the words of an old song I had read somewhere, years ago, words written in the glorious, brutal, knightly days of Edward the First, of warlike memory; and the words ran thus:

  "For her love I carke, and care,For her love I droop, and dare,For her love my bliss is bare. And I wax wan!"

  "I wonder what poor, love-sick, long-dead-and-forgotten fool wrote that?" said I aloud.

  "For her love, in sleep I slake,For her love, all night I wake,For her love, I mourning make More than any man!"

  Some doughty squire-at-arms, or perhaps some wandering knight (probably of a dark, unlovely look), who rode the forest ways with his thoughts full of Her, and dreaming of Her loveliness. "Howbeit, he was, beyond all doubt, a fool and a great one!" said I, "for it is to be inferred, from these few words he has left us, that his love was hopeless. She was, perhaps, proud and of a high estate, one who was above him, and far beyond his reach——who was not likely even to look his way. Doubtless she was beautiful, and therefore haughty and disdainful, for disdainful pride is an attribute of beauty, and ever was and ever will be ——and hence it came that our misfortunate squire, or knight-errant, was scorned for his pains, poor fool! Which yet was his own fault, after all, and, indeed, his just reward, for what has any squire-at-arms or lusty knight, with the world before him, and glory yet unachieved——to do with love? Love is a bauble——a toy, a pretty pastime for idle folk who have no thought above such ——away with it!——Bah!" And, in my mind——that is to say, mentally ——I set my thumb to my nose, and spread my fingers, and wagged them——even as the Postilion had done. And yet, despite this, the words of the old song recurred again and again, pathetically insistent, voicing themselves in my footsteps so that, to banish them, I presently stood still.

  And in that very moment a gigantic figure came bursting through the hedge, clearing the ditch in a single bound——and Black George confronted me.

  Haggard of face, with hair and beard matted and unkempt, his clothes all dusty and torn, he presented a very wild and terrible appearance; and beneath one arm he carried two bludgeons. The Pedler had spoken truly, then, and, as I met the giant's smouldering eye, I felt my mouth become suddenly parched and dry, and the palms of my hands grew moist and clammy.

  For a moment neither of us spoke, only we looked at each other steadily in the eye; and I saw the hair of his beard bristle, and he raised one great hand to the collar of his shirt, and tore it open as if it were strangling him.

  "George!" said I at last, and held out my hand

  George never stirred.

  "Won't you shake hands, George?"

  His lips opened, but no words came.

  "Had I known where to look for you, I should have sought you out days ago," I went on; "as it is I have been wishing to meet you, hoping to set matters right."

  Once again his lips opened, but still no word came.

  "You see, Prudence is breaking her heart over you."

  A laugh burst from him, sudden, and harsh.

  "You 'm a liar!" said he, and his voice quavered strangely.

  "I speak gospel truth!" said I.

  "I be nowt to Prue since the day you beat me at th' 'ammer-throwin' ——an' ye know it."

  "Prudence loves you, and always has," said I. "Go back to her, George, go back to her, and to your work be the man I know you are; go back to her——she loves you. If you still doubt my word——here, read that!" and I held out his own letter, the letter on which Prudence had written those four words: "George, I love you."

  He took it from me——crumpled it slowly in his hand and tossed it into the ditch.

  "You 'm a liar!" said he again, "an' a——coward!"

  "And you," said I, "you are a fool, a blind, gross, selfish fool, who, in degrading yourself——in skulking about the woods and lanes——is bringing black shame and sorrow to as sweet a maid as ever——"

  "It don't need you to tell me what she be an' what she bean't," said Black George, in a low, repressed voice. "I knowed 'er long afore you ever set eyes on 'er——grew up wi' 'er, I did, an' I bean't deaf nor blind. Ye see, I loved 'er——all my life——that's why one o' us two's a-goin' to lie out 'ere all night——ah! an' all to-morrow, likewise, if summun don't chance to find us," saying which, he forced a cudgel into my hand.

  "What do you mean, George?"

  "I means as if you don't do for me, then I be a-goin' to do for 'ee."

  "But why?" I cried; "in God's name——why?"

  "I be slow, p'r'aps, an' thick p'raps, but I bean't a fule——come, man——if she be worth winnin' she be worth fightin' for."

  "But I tell you she loves Black George, and no other she never had any thought of me, or I of her——this is madness——and worse!" and I tossed the cudgel aside.

  "An' I tell 'ee," broke in the smith, his repression giving way before a fury as fierce as it was sudden, "I tell 'ee——you be a liar, an' a coward——I know, I know——I've heerd an' I've seen ——your lyin', coward's tongue sha'n't save 'ee——oh, ecod! wi' your white face an' tremblin' 'ands——you be a shame to the woman as loves ye, an' the woman as bore ye!——stand up, I say, or by God! I'll do for 'ee!" and he raised his weapon.

  Without another word I picked up the cudgel, and, pointing to a gate a little farther along the road, I led the way into the meadow beyond. On the other side of this meadow ran the lane I have mentioned before, and beyond the lane was the Hollow, and glancing thitherward, I bethought me that supper would be ready, and Charmian waiting for me, just about now, and I sighed, I remember, as I drew off my coat, and laid it, together with my hat, under the hedge.

  The moon was beginning to rise, casting the magic of her pale loveliness upon the world, and, as I rolled up my sleeves, I glanced round about me with an eye that strove to take in the beauty of all things——of hedge and tree and winding road, the gloom of wood, the sheen of water, and the far, soft sweep of hill and dale. Over all these my glance lingered yearningly, for it seemed to me that this look might be my last. And now, as I stooped and gripped my weapon, I remembered how I had, that morning, kissed her fingers, and I was strangely comforted and glad.

  The night air, which had been warm heretofore, struck chilly now, and, as I stood up fronting Black George, I shivered, seeing which he laughed, short and fierce, and, with the laugh, came at me, striking downwards at my head as he came, and tough wood met tough wood with a shock that jarred me from wrist to shoulder.

  To hit him upon the arm, and disable him, was my one thought and object. I therefore watched for an opening, parrying his swift strokes and avoiding his rushes as well as I might. Time and again our weapons crashed together, now above my head, now to right, or left, sometimes rattling in quick succession, sometimes with pauses between strokes, pauses filled in with the sound of heavy breathing and the ceaseless thud of feet upon the sward. I was already bruised in half-a-dozen places, my right hand and arm felt numb, and with a shooting pain in the shoulder, that grew more acute with every movement; my breath also was beginning to labor. Yet still Black George pressed on, untiring, relentless, showering blow on blow, while my arm grew ever weaker and weaker, and the pain in my shoulder throbbed more intensely.

  How long had we fought? five minutes——ten——half-an-hour——an hour? I could see the sweat gleaming upon his cheek, his eyes were wild, his mouth gaped open, and he drew his breath in great sobbing pants. But, as I looked, his cudgel broke through my tired guard, and, taking me full upon the brow, drove me reeling back; my weapon slipped from my grasp, and, blinded with blood, I staggered to and fro, like a drunken man, and presently slipped to the grass. And how sweet it was to lie thus, with my cheek upon kind mother earth, to stretch my aching body, and with my weary limbs at rest. But Black George stood above me, panting, and, as his eyes met mine, he laughed——a strange-sounding, broken laugh, and whirled up his cudgel——to beat out my brains——even as the Pedler had foretold——to-morrow the blackbird would sing upon my motionless breast, and, looking into Black George's eyes——I smiled.

  "Get up!" he panted, and lowered the cudgel. "Get up——or, by God——I'll do——for 'ee!"

  Sighing, I rose, and took the cudgel he held out to me, wiping the blood from my eyes as I did so.

  And now, as I faced him once more, all things vanished from my ken save the man before me——he filled the universe, and, even as he leaped upon me, I leaped upon him, and struck with all my strength; there was a jarring, splintering shock, and Black George was beaten down upon his knees, but as, dropping my weapon, I stepped forward, he rose, and stood panting, and staring at the broker cudgel in his hand.

  "George!" said I.

  "You 'm a-bleedin', Peter!"

  "For that matter, so are you."

  "Blood-lettin' be——good for a man——sometimes eases un."

  "It does," I panted; "perhaps you are——willing to hear reason——now?"

  "We be——even so fur——but fists be better nor——sticks any day——an' I——be goin'——to try ye——wi' fists!"

  "Have we not bled each other sufficiently?"

  "No," cried George, between set teeth, "theer be more nor blood-lettin' 'twixt you an' me——I said as 'ow one on us would lie out 'ere all night——an' so 'e shall——by God!——come on——fists be best arter all!"

  This was the heyday of boxing, and, while at Oxford I had earned some small fame at the sport. But it was one thing to spar with a man my own weight in a padded ring, with limited rounds governed by a code of rules, and quite another to fight a man like Black George, in a lonely meadow, by light of moon. Moreover, he was well acquainted with the science, as I could see from the way he "shaped," the only difference between us being that whereas he fought with feet planted square and wide apart, I balanced myself upon my toes, which is (I think) to be commended as being quicker, and more calculated to lessen the impact of a blow.

  Brief though the respite had been, it had served me to recover my breath, and, though my head yet rung from the cudgel-stroke, and the blood still flowed freely, getting, every now and then, into my eyes, my brain was clear as we fronted each other for what we both knew must be the decisive bout.

  The smith stood with his mighty shoulders stooped something forward, his left arm drawn back, his right flung across his chest, and, so long as we fought, I watched that great fist and knotted forearm, for, though he struck oftener with his left, it was in that passive right that I thought my danger really lay.

  It is not my intention to chronicle this fight blow by blow; enough, and more than enough, has already been said in that regard; suffice it then, that as the fight progressed I found that I was far the quicker, as I had hoped, and that the majority of his blows I either blocked or avoided easily enough.

  Time after time his fist shot over my shoulder, or over my head, and time after time I countered heavily——now on his body, now on his face; once he staggered, and once I caught a momentary glimpse of his features convulsed with pain; he was smeared with blood from the waist up, but still he came on.

  I fought desperately now, savagely, taking advantage of every opening, for though I struck him four times to his once, yet his blows had four times the weight of mine; my forearms were bruised to either elbow, and my breath came in gasps; and always I watched that deadly "right." And presently it came, with arm and shoulder and body behind it——quick as a flash, and resistless as a cannonball; but I was ready, and, as I leaped, I struck, and struck him clean and true upon the angle of the jaw; and, spinning round, Black George fell, and lay with his arms wide stretched, and face buried in the grass.

  Slowly, slowly he got upon his knees, and thence to his feet, and so stood panting, hideous with blood and sweat, bruised and cut and disfigured, staring at me, as one in amaze.

  Now, as I looked, my heart went out to him, and I reached forth my right hand.

  "George!" I panted. "Oh, George!"

  But Black George only looked at me, and shook his head, and groaned.

  "Oh, Peter!" said he, "you be a man, Peter! I've fou't——ah! many 's the time, an' no man ever knocked me down afore. Oh, Peter! I——I could love 'ee for it if I didn't hate the very sight of 'ee——come on, an' let's get it over an' done wi'."

  So once again fists were clenched and jaws set——once again came the trampling of feet, the hiss of breath, and the thudding shock of blows given and taken.

  A sudden, jarring impact——the taste of sulphur on my tongue——a gathering darkness before my eyes, and, knowing this was the end, I strove desperately to close with him; but I was dazed, blind ——my arms fell paralyzed, and, in that moment, the Smith's right fist drove forward. A jagged flame shot up to heaven——the earth seemed to rush up towards me——a roaring blackness engulfed me, and then——silence.

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