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The Broad Highway(Book2,Chapter38)

2006-08-28 22:59

  Book Two. The Woman Chapter XXXVIII. In Which I Meet My Cousin, Sir Maurice Vibart

  As I approached the smithy, late though the hour was (and George made it a rule to have the fire going by six every morning), no sound of hammer reached me, and coming into the place, I found it empty. Then I remembered that to-day George was to drive over to Tonbridge, with Prudence and the Ancient, to invest in certain household necessities, for in a month's time they were to be married.

  Hereupon I must needs contrast George's happy future with my dreary one, and fall bitterly to cursing myself; and, sitting on the Ancient's stool in the corner, I covered my face, and my thoughts were very black.

  Now presently, as I sat thus, I became conscious of a very delicate perfume in the air, and also, that some one had entered quietly. My breath caught in my throat, but I did not at once look up, fearing to dispel the hope that tingled within me. So I remained with my face still covered until something touched me, and I saw that it was the gold-mounted handle of a whip, wherefore I raised my head suddenly and glanced up.

  Then I beheld a radiant vision in polished riding-boots and speckless moleskins, in handsome flowered waistcoat and perfect-fitting coat, with snowy frills at throat and wrists; a tall, gallant figure, of a graceful, easy bearing, who stood, a picture of cool, gentlemanly insolence, tapping his boot lightly with his whip. But, as his eye met mine, the tapping whip grew suddenly still; his languid expression vanished, he came a quick step nearer and bent his face nearer my own——a dark face, handsome in its way, pale and aquiline, with a powerful jaw, and dominating eyes and mouth; a face (nay, a mask rather) that smiled and smiled, but never showed the man beneath.

  Now, glancing up at his brow, I saw there a small, newly healed scar.

  "Is it possible?" said he, speaking in that softly modulated voice I remembered to have heard once before. "Can it be possible that I address my worthy cousin? That shirt! that utterly impossible coat and belcher! And yet——the likeness is remarkable! Have I the——honor to address Mr. Peter Vibart——late of Oxford?"

  "The same, sir," I answered, rising.

  "Then, most worthy cousin, I salute you," and he removed his hat, bowing with an ironic grace. "Believe me, I have frequently desired to see that paragon of all the virtues whose dutiful respect our revered uncle rewarded with the proverbial shilling. Egad!" he went on, examining me through his glass with a great show of interest, "had you been any other than that same virtuous Cousin Peter whose graces and perfections were forever being thrown at my head, I could have sympathized with you, positively ——if only on account of that most obnoxious coat and belcher, and the grime and sootiness of things in general. Poof!" he exclaimed, pressing his perfumed handkerchief to his nostrils, "faugh! how damnably sulphur-and-brimstony you do keep yourself, cousin——oh, gad!"

  "You would certainly find it much clearer outside," said I, beginning to blow up the fire.

  "But then, Cousin Peter, outside one must become a target for the yokel eye, and I detest being stared at by the uneducated, who, naturally, lack appreciation. On the whole, I prefer the smoke, though it chokes one most infernally. Where may one venture to sit here?" I tendered him the stool, but he shook his head, and, crossing to the anvil, flicked it daintily with his handkerchief and sat down, dangling his leg.

  "'Pon my soul!" said he, eyeing me languidly through his glass again, "'pon my soul! you are damnably like me, you know, in features."

  "Damnably!" I nodded.

  He glanced at me sharply, and laughed.

  "My man, a creature of the name of Parks," said he, swinging his spurred boot to and fro, "led me to suppose that I should meet a person here——a blacksmith fellow——"

  "Your man Parks informed you correctly," I nodded; "what can I do for you?"

  "The devil!" exclaimed Sir Maurice, shaking his head; "but no ——you are, as I gather, somewhat eccentric, but even you would never take such a desperate step as to——to——"

  "——become a blacksmith fellow?" I put in.


  "Alas, Sir Maurice, I blush to say that rather than become an unprincipled adventurer living on my wits, or a mean-spirited hanger-on fawning upon acquaintances for a livelihood, or doing anything rather than soil my hands with honest toil, I became a blacksmith fellow some four or five months ago."

  "Really it is most distressing to observe to what depths Virtue may drag a man!——you are a very monster of probity and rectitude!" exclaimed Sir Maurice; "indeed I am astonished! you manifested not only shocking bad judgment, but a most deplorable lack of thought (Virtue is damnably selfish as a rule)——really, it is quite disconcerting to find one's self first cousin to a blacksmith——"

  "——fellow!" I added.

  "Fellow!" nodded Sir Maurice. "Oh, the devil! to think of my worthy cousin reduced to the necessity of laboring with hammer and saw——"

  "Not a saw," I put in.

  "We will say, chisel, then——a Vibart with hammer and chisel ——deuce take me! Most distressing! and, you will pardon my saying so, you do not seem to thrive on hammers and chisels; no one could say you looked blooming, or even flourishing like the young bay tree (which is, I fancy, an Eastern expression)."

  "Sir," said I, "may I remind you that I have work to do?"

  "A deuced interesting place though, this," he smiled, staring round imperturbably through his glass; "so——er——so devilish grimy and smutty and gritty——quite a number of horseshoes, too. D'ye know, cousin, I never before remarked what a number of holes there are in a horseshoe——but live and learn!" Here he paused to inhale a pinch of snuff, very daintily, from a jewelled box. "It is a strange thing," he pursued, as he dusted his fingers on his handkerchief, "a very strange thing that, being cousins, we have never met till now——especially as I have heard so very much about you."

  "Pray," said I, "pray how should you hear about one so very insignificant as myself?"

  "Oh, I have heard of good Cousin Peter since I was an imp of a boy!" he smiled. "Cousin Peter was my chart whereby to steer through the shoals of boyish mischief into the haven of our Uncle George's good graces. Oh, I have heard over much of you, cousin, from dear, kind, well-meaning relatives and friends——damn 'em! They rang your praises in my ears, morning, noon, and night. And why?——simply that I might come to surpass you in virtue, learning, wit, and appearance, and so win our Uncle George's regard, and, incidentally, his legacy. But I was a young demon, romping with the grooms in the stable, while you were a young angel in nankeens, passing studious hours with your books. When I was a scapegrace at Harrow, you were winning golden opinions at Eton; when you were an 'honors' man at Oxford, I was 'rusticated' at Cambridge. Naturally enough, perhaps, I grew sick of the name of Peter (and, indeed, it smacks damnably of fish, don't you think?)——you, or your name, crossed me at every turn. If it wasn't for Cousin Peter, I was heir to ten thousand a year; but good Cousin Peter was so fond of Uncle George, and Uncle George was so fond of good Cousin Peter, that Maurice might go hang for a graceless dog and be damned to him!"

  "You have my deepest sympathy and apologies!" said I.

  "Still, I have sometimes been curious to meet worthy Cousin Peter, and it is rather surprising that I have never done so."

  "On the contrary——" I began, but his laugh stopped me.

  "Ah, to be sure!" he nodded, "our ways have lain widely separate hitherto——you, a scholar, treading the difficult path of learning; I——oh, egad! a terrible fellow! a mauvais sujet! a sad, sad dog! But after all, cousin, when one comes to look at you to-day, you might stand for a terrible example of Virtue run riot——a distressing spectacle of dutiful respect and good precedent cut off with a shilling. Really, it is horrifying to observe to what depths Virtue may plunge an otherwise well-balanced individual. Little dreamed those dear, kind, well-meaning relatives and friends——damn 'em! that while the wilful Maurice lived on, continually getting into hot water and out again, up to his eyes in debt, and pretty well esteemed, the virtuous pattern Peter would descend to a hammer and saw——I should say, chisel——in a very grimy place where he is, it seems, the presiding genius. Indeed, this first meeting of ours, under these circumstances, is somewhat dramatic, as it should be."

  "And yet, we have met before," said I, "and the circumstances were then even more dramatic, perhaps,——we met in a tempest, sir."

  "Ha!" he exclaimed, dwelling on the word, and speaking very slowly, "a tempest, cousin?"

  "There was much wind and rain, and it was very dark."

  "Dark, cousin?"

  "But I saw your face very plainly as you lay on your back, sir, by the aid of a Postilion's lanthorn, and was greatly struck by our mutual resemblance." Sir Maurice raised his glass and looked at me, and, as he looked, smiled, but he could not hide the sudden, passionate quiver of his thin nostrils, or the gleam of the eyes beneath their languid lids. He rose slowly and paced to the door; when he came back again, he was laughing softly, but still he could not hide the quiver of his nostrils, or the gleam of the eyes beneath their languid lids.

  "So——it was——you?" he murmured, with a pause between the words. "Oh, was ever anything so damnably contrary! To think that I should hunt her into your very arms! To think that of all men in the world it should be you to play the squire of dames!" And he laughed again, but, as he did so, the stout riding-whip snapped in his hands like a straw. He glanced down at the broken pieces, and from them to me. "You see, I am rather strong in the hands, cousin," said he, shaking his head, "but I was not——quite strong enough, last time we met, though, to be sure, as you say, it was very dark. Had I known it was worthy Cousin Peter's throat I grasped, I think I might have squeezed it just——a little——tighter."

  "Sir," said I, shaking my head, "I really don't think you could have done it."

  "Yes," he sighed, tossing his broken whip into a corner. "Yes, I think so——you see, I mistook you for merely an interfering country bumpkin——"

  "Yes," I nodded, "while I, on the other hand, took you for a fine gentleman nobly intent on the ruin of an unfortunate, friendless girl, whose poverty would seem to make her an easy victim——"

  "In which it appears you were as much mistaken as I, Cousin Peter." Here he glanced at me with a sudden keenness.


  "Why, surely," said he, "surely you must know——" He paused to flick a speck of soot from his knee, and then continued: "Did she tell you nothing of——herself?"

  "Very little beside her name."

  "Ah! she told you her name, then?"

  "Yes, she told me her name."

  "Well, cousin?"

  "Well, sir?" We had both risen, and now fronted each other across the anvil, Sir Maurice debonair and smiling, while I stood frowning and gloomy.

  "Come," said I at last, "let us understand each other once for all. You tell me that you have always looked upon me as your rival for our uncle's good graces——I never was. You have deceived yourself into believing that because I was his ward that alone augmented my chances of becoming the heir; it never did. He saw me as seldom as possible, and, if he ever troubled his head about either of us, it would seem that he favored you. I tell you I never was your rival in the past, and never shall be in the future."

  "Meaning, cousin?"

  "Meaning, sir, in regard to either the legacy or the Lady Sophia Sefton. I was never fond enough of money, to marry for it. I have never seen this lady, nor do I propose to, thus, so far as I am concerned, you are free to win her and the fortune as soon as you will; I, as you see, prefer horseshoes."

  "And what," said Sir Maurice, flicking a speck of soot from his cuff, and immediately looking at me again, "what of Charmian?"

  "I don't know," I answered, "nor should I be likely to tell you, if I did; wherever she may be she is safe, I trust, and beyond your reach——"

  "No," he broke in, "she will never be beyond my reach until she is dead——or I am——perhaps not even then, and I shall find her again, sooner or later, depend upon it——yes, you may depend upon that!"

  "Cousin Maurice," said I, reaching out my hand to him, "wherever she may be, she is alone and unprotected——pursue her no farther. Go back to London, marry your Lady Sefton, inherit your fortune, but leave Charmian Brown in peace."

  "And pray," said he, frowning suddenly, "whence this solicitude de on her behalf? What is she to you——this Charmian Brown?"

  "Nothing," I answered hurriedly, "nothing at all, God knows——nor ever can be——" Sir Maurice leaned suddenly forward, and, catching me by the shoulder, peered into my face.

  "By Heaven!" he exclaimed, "the fellow——actually loves her!"

  "Well?" said I, meeting his look, "why not? Yes, I love her." A very fury of rage seemed suddenly to possess him, the languid, smiling gentleman became a devil with vicious eyes and evil, snarling mouth, whose fingers sank into my flesh as he swung me back and forth in a powerful grip.

  "You love her?——you?——you?" he panted.

  "Yes," I answered, flinging him off so that he staggered; "yes ——yes! I——who fought for her once, and am willing——most willing, to do so again, now or at any other time, for, though I hold no hope of winning her——ever——yet I can serve her still, and protect her from the pollution of your presence," and I clenched my fists.

  He stood poised as though about to spring at me, and I saw his knuckles gleam whiter than the laces above them, but, all at once, he laughed lightly, easily as ever.

  "A very perfect, gentle knight!" he murmured, "sans peur et sans reproche——though somewhat grimy and in a leather apron. Chivalry kneeling amid hammers and horseshoes, worshiping Her with a reverence distant and lowly! How like you, worthy cousin, how very like yon, and how affecting! But"——and here his nostrils quivered again——" but I tell you——she is mine——mine, and always has been, and no man living shall come between us——no, by God!"

  "That," said I, "that remains to be seen!"


  "Though, indeed, I think she is safe from you while I live."

  "But then, Cousin Peter, life is a very uncertain thing at best," he returned, glancing at me beneath his drooping lids.

  "Yes," I nodded, "it is sometimes a blessing to remember that."

  Sir Maurice strolled to the door, and, being there, paused, and looked back over his shoulder.

  "I go to find Charmian," said he, "and I shall find her——sooner or later, and, when I do, should you take it upon yourself to ——come between us again, or presume to interfere again, I shall ——kill you, worthy cousin, without the least compunction. If you think this sufficient warning——act upon it, if not——" He shrugged his shoulders significantly. "Farewell, good and worthy Cousin Peter, farewell!——or shall we say——'au revoir'?"

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