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The Broad Highway(Book2,Chapter9)

2006-08-28 22:52

  Book Two. The Woman Chapter IX. Which Relates Somewhat of Charmian Brown

  We were sitting in the moonlight.

  "Now," said Charmian, staring up at the luminous heaven, "let us talk."

  "Willingly," I answered; "let us talk of stars."

  "No——let us talk of ourselves."

  "As you please."

  "Very well, you begin."

  "Well——I am a blacksmith."

  "Yes, you told me so before."

  "And I make horseshoes——"

  "He is a blacksmith, and makes horseshoes!" said Charmian, nodding at the moon.

  "And I live here, in this solitude, very contentedly; so that it is only reasonable to suppose that I shall continue to live here, and make horseshoes——though, really," I broke off, letting my eyes wander from my companion's upturned face back to the glowing sky, once more, "there is little I could tell you about so commonplace a person as myself that is likely to interest you."

  "No," said Charmian, "evidently not!" Here my gaze came down to her face again so quickly that I fancied I detected the ghost of a smile upon her lips.

  "Then," said I, "by all means let us talk of something else."

  "Yes," she agreed; "let us talk of the woman Charmian——Charmian ——Brown." A tress of hair had come loose, and hung low above her brow, and in its shadow her, eyes seemed more elusive, more mocking than ever, and, while our glances met, she put up a hand and began to, wind this glossy tress round and round her finger.

  "Well?" said she.

  "Well," said I, "supposing you begin."

  "But is she likely to interest you?"

  "I think so——yes."

  "Aren't you sure, then?"

  "Quite sure——certainly."

  "Then why don't you say so?"

  "I thought you would take that for granted."

  "A woman should take nothing for granted, sir."

  "Then," said I, "supposing you begin."

  "I've half a mind not to," she retorted, curling the tress of hair again, and then, suddenly: "What do you think of Charmian Brown?"

  "I think of her as little as I can."

  "Indeed, sir!"

  "Indeed," said I.

  "And why, pray?"

  "Because," said I, knocking the ashes from my pipe, "because the more I think about her the more incomprehensible she becomes."

  "Have you known many women?"

  "Very few," I confessed, "but——"

  "But?"

  "I am not altogether unfamiliar with the sex——for I have known a great number——in books."

  "Our blacksmith," said Charmian, addressing the moon again, "has known many women——in books! His knowledge is, therefore, profound!" and she laughed.

  "May I ask why you laugh at me?"

  "Oh!" said she, "don't you know that women in books and women out of books are no more the same than day and night, or summer and winter?"

  "And yet there are thousands of women who exist for us in books only, Laura, Beatrice, Trojan Helen, Aspasia, the glorious Phryne, and hosts of others," I demurred.

  "Yes; but they exist for us only as their historians permit them, as their biographers saw, or imagined them. Would Petrarch ever have permitted Laura to do an ungracious act, or anything which, to his masculine understanding, seemed unfeminine; and would Dante have mentioned it had Beatrice been guilty of one? A man can no more understand a woman from the reading of books than he can learn Latin or Greek from staring at the sky."

  "Of that," said I, shaking my head, "of that I am not so sure."

  "Then——personally——you know very little concerning women?" she inquired.

  "I have always been too busy," said I. Here Charmian turned to look at me again.

  "Too busy?" she repeated, as though she had not heard aright; "too busy?"

  "Much too busy!" Now, when I said this, she laughed, and then she frowned, and then she laughed again.

  "You would much rather make a——horseshoe than talk with a woman, perhaps?"

  "Yes, I think I would."

  "Oh!" said Charmian, frowning again, but this time she did not look at me.

  "You see," I explained, turning my empty pipe over and over, rather aimlessly, "when I make a horseshoe I take a piece of iron and, having heated it, I bend and shape it, and with every hammer-stroke I see it growing into what I would have it——I am sure of it, from start to finish; now, with a woman it is——different."

  "You mean that you cannot bend, and shape her, like your horseshoe?" still without looking towards me.

  "I mean that——that I fear I should never be quite sure of a ——woman, as I am of my horseshoe."

  "Why, you see," said Charmian, beginning to braid the tress of hair, "a woman cannot, at any time, be said to resemble a horseshoe——very much, can she?"

  "Surely," said I, "surely you know what I mean——?"

  "There are Laura and Beatrice and Helen and Aspasia and Phryne, and hosts of others," said Charmian, nodding to the moon again. "Oh, yes——our blacksmith has read of so many women in books that he has no more idea of women out of books than I of Sanscrit."

  And, in a little while, seeing I was silent, she condescended to glance towards me:

  "Then I suppose, under the circumstances, you have never been——in love?"

  "In love?" I repeated, and dropped my pipe.

  "In love."

  "The Lord forbid!"

  "Why, pray?"

  "Because Love is a disease——a madness, coming between a man and his life's work. Love!" said I, "it is a calamity!"

  "Never having been in love himself, our blacksmith, very naturally, knows all about it!" said Charmian to the moon.

  "I speak only of such things as I have read——" I began.

  "More books!" she sighed.

  "——words of men, much wiser than I——poets and philosophers, written——"

  "When they were old and gray-headed," Charmian broke in; "when they were quite incapable of judging the matter——though many a grave philosopher loved; now didn't he?"

  "To be sure," said I, rather hipped, "Dionysius Lambienus, I think, says somewhere that a woman with a big mouth is infinitely sweeter in the kissing——and——"

  "Do you suppose he read that in a book?" she inquired, glancing at me sideways.

  "Why, as to that," I answered, "a philosopher may love, but not for the mere sake of loving."

  "For whose sake then, I wonder?"

  "A man who esteems trifles for their own sake is a trifler, but one who values them, rather, for the deductions that may be drawn from them——he is a philosopher."

  Charmian rose, and stood looking down at me very strangely.

  "So!" said she, throwing back her head, "so, throned in lofty might, superior Mr. Smith thinks Love a trifle, does he?"

  "My name is Vibart, as I think you know," said I, stung by her look or her tone, or both.

  "Yes," she answered, seeming to look down at me from an immeasurable attitude, "but I prefer to know him, just now, as Superior Mr. Smith."

  "As you will," said I, and rose also; but, even then, though she had to look up to me, I had the same inward conviction that her eyes were regarding me from a great height; wherefore I, attempted——quite unsuccessfully to light my pipe.

  And after I had struck flint and steel vainly, perhaps a dozen times, Charmian took the box from me, and, igniting the tinder, held it for me while I lighted my tobacco.

  "Thank you!" said I, as she returned the box, and then I saw that she was smiling. "Talking of Charmian Brown——" I began.

  "But we are not."

  "Then suppose you begin?"

  "Do you really wish to hear about that——humble person?"

  "Very much!"

  "Then you must know, in the first place, that she is old, sir, dreadfully old!"

  "But," said I, "she really cannot be more than twenty-three——or four at the most."

  "She is just twenty-one!" returned Charmian, rather hastily, I thought.

  "Quite a child!"

  "No, indeed——it is experience that ages one——and by experience she is quite——two hundred!"

  "The wonder is that she still lives."

  "Indeed it is!" "And, being of such a ripe age, it is probable that she, at any rate, has——been in love."

  "Scores of times!"

  "Oh!" said I, puffing very hard at my pipe

  "Or fancied so," said Charmian. "That," I replied, "that is a very different thing!"

  "Do you think so?"

  "Well——isn't it?"

  "Perhaps."

  "Very well, then, continue, I beg."

  "Now, this woman," Charmian went on, beginning to curl the tress of hair again, "hating the world about her with its shams, its hypocrisy, and cruelty, ran away from it all, one day, with a villain."

  "And why with a villain?"

  "Because he was a villain!"

  "That," said I, turning to look at her, "that I do not understand!"

  "No, I didn't suppose you would," she answered.

  "Hum!" said I, rubbing my chin. "And why did you run away from him?"

  "Because he was a villain."

  "That was very illogical!" said I.

  "But very sensible, sir."

  Here there fell a silence between us, and, as we walked, now and then her gown would brush my knee, or her shoulder touch mine, for the path was very narrow.

  "And——did you——" I began suddenly, and stopped.

  "Did I——what, sir?"

  "Did you love him?" said I, staring straight in front of me.

  "I——ran away from him."

  "And——do you——love him?"

  "I suppose," said Charmian, speaking very slowly, "I suppose you cannot understand a woman hating and loving a man, admiring and despising him, both at the same time?"

  "No, I can't."

  "Can you understand one glorying in the tempest that may destroy her, riding a fierce horse that may crush her, or being attracted by a will strong and masterful, before which all must yield or break?"

  "I think I can."

  "Then," said Charmian, "this man is strong and wild and very masterful, and so——I ran away with him."

  "And do you——love him?"

  We walked on some distance ere she answered:

  "I——don't know."

  "Not sure, then?"

  "No."

  After this we fell silent altogether, yet once, when I happened to glance at her, I saw that her eyes were very bright beneath the shadow of her drooping lashes, and that her lips were smiling; and I pondered very deeply as to why this should be.

  Re-entering the cottage, I closed the door, and waited the while she lighted my candle.

  And, having taken the candle from her hand, I bade her "Good night," but paused at the door of my chamber.

  "You feel——quite safe here?"

  "Quite safe!"

  "Despite the color of my hair and eyes——you have no fear of ——Peter Smith?"

  "None!"

  "Because——he is neither fierce nor wild nor masterful!"

  "Because he is neither fierce nor wild," she echoed.

  "Nor masterful!" said I.

  "Nor masterful!" said Charmian, with averted head. So I opened the door, but, even then, must needs turn back again.

  "Do you think I am so very——different——from him?"

  "As different as day from night, as the lamb from the wolf," said she, without looking at me. "Good night, Peter!"

  "Good night!" said I, and so, going into my room, I closed the door behind me.

  "A lamb!" said I, tearing off my neckcloth, and sat, for some time listening to her footstep and the soft rustle of her petticoats going to and fro.

  "A lamb!" said I again, and slowly drew off my coat. As I did so, a little cambric handkerchief fell to the floor, and I kicked it, forthwith, into a corner.

  "A lamb!" said I, for the third time, but, at this moment, came a light tap upon the door.

  "Yes?" said I, without moving.

  "Oh, how is your injured thumb?"

  "Thank you, it is as well as can be expected."

  "Does it pain you very much?"

  "It is not unbearable!" said I.

  "Good night, Peter!" and I heard her move away. But presently she was back again.

  "Oh, Peter?"

  "Well?"

  "Are you frowning?"

  "I——I think I was——why?"

  "When you frown, you are very like——him, and have the same square set of the mouth and chin, when you are angry——so don't, please don't frown, Peter——Good night!"

  "Good night, Charmian!" said I, and stooping, I picked up the little handkerchief and thrust it under my pillow.

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