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The Broad Highway(Book2,Chapter41)

2006-08-28 23:00

  Book Two. The Woman Chapter XLI. Light and Shadow

  Now, as the little Preacher closed his book, the sun rose up, filling the world about us with his glory.

  And looking into the eyes of my wife, it seemed that a veil was lifted, for a moment, there, and I read that which her lips might never tell; and there, also, were joy and shame and a deep happiness.

  "See," said the little Preacher, smiling upon us, "it is day and a very glorious one; already a thousand little choristers of God's great cathedral have begun to chant your marriage hymn. Go forth together, Man and Wife, upon this great wide road that we call Life; go forth together, made strong in Faith, and brave with Hope, and the memory of Him who walked these ways before you; who joyed and sorrowed and suffered and endured all things ——even as we must. Go forth together, and may His blessing abide with you, and the 'peace that passeth understanding.'"

  And so we turned together, side by side, and left him standing amid his roses.

  Silently we went together, homewards, through the dewy morning, with a soft, green carpet underfoot, and leafy arches overhead, where trees bent to whisper benedictions, and shook down jewels from their dewy leaves upon us as we passed; by merry brooks that laughed and chattered, and gurgled of love and happiness, while over all rose the swelling chorus of the birds. Surely never had they piped so gladly in this glad world before——not even for the gentle Spenser, though he says:

  "There was none of them that feigned To sing, for each of them him pained;To find out merry, crafty notes They ne spared not their throats."

  And being come, at length, to the Hollow, Charmian must needs pause beside the pool among the willows, to view herself in the pellucid water. And in this mirror our eyes met, and lo! of a sudden, her lashes drooped, and she turned her head aside.

  "Don't, Peter!" she whispered; "don't look at me so."

  "How may I help it when you are so beautiful?"

  And, because of my eyes, she would have fled from me, but I caught her in my arms, and there, amid the leaves, despite the jealous babble of the brook, for the second time in my life, her lips met mine. And, gazing yet into her eyes, I told her how, in this shady bower, I had once watched her weaving leaves into her hair, and heard her talk to her reflection——and so——had stolen away, for fear of her beauty.

  "Fear, Peter?"

  "We were so far out of the world, and——I longed to kiss you."

  "And didn't, Peter."

  "And didn't, Charmian, because we were so very far from the world, and because you were so very much alone, and——"

  "And because, Peter, because you are a gentle man and strong, as the old locket says. And do you remember," she went on hurriedly, laying her cool, restraining fingers on my eager lips, "how I found you wearing that locket, and how you blundered and stammered over it, and pretended to read your Homer?"

  "And how you sang, to prevent me?"

  "And how gravely you reproved me?"

  "And how you called me a 'creature'?"

  "And how you deserved it, sir——and grew more helpless and ill at ease than ever, and how——just to flatter my vanity——you told me I had 'glorious hair'?"

  "And so you have," said I, kissing a curl at her temple; "when you unbind it, my Charmian, it will cover you like a mantle."

  Now when I said this, for some reason she glanced up at me, sudden and shy, and blushed and slipped from my arms, and fled up the path like a nymph.

  So we presently entered the cottage, flushed and panting, and laughing for sheer happiness. And now she rolled up her sleeves, and set about preparing breakfast, laughing my assistance to scorn, but growing mightily indignant when I would kiss her, yet blushing and yielding, nevertheless. And while she bustled to and fro (keeping well out of reach of my arm), she began to sing in her soft voice to herself:

  "'In Scarlet town, where I was born,There was a fair maid dwellin',Made every youth cry Well-a-way!

  Her name was Barbara Allen.'"

  "Oh, Charmian! how wonderful you are!"

  "'All in the merry month of May,When green buds they were swellin'——'"

  "Surely no woman ever had such beautiful arms! so round and soft and white, Charmian." She turned upon me with a fork held up admonishingly, but, meeting my look, her eyes wavered, and up from throat to brow rushed a wave of burning crimson.

  "Oh, Peter!——you make me——almost——afraid of you," she whispered, and hid her face against my shoulder.

  "Are you content to have married such a very poor man——to be the wife of a village blacksmith?"

  "Why, Peter——in all the world there never was such another blacksmith as mine, and——and——there!——the kettle is boiling over——"

  "Let it!" said I.

  "And the bacon——the bacon will burn——let me go, and——oh, Peter!"

  So, in due time, we sat down to our solitary wedding breakfast; and there were no eyes to speculate upon the bride's beauty, to note her changing color, or the glory of her eyes; and no healths were proposed or toasts drunk, nor any speeches spoken——except, perhaps by my good friend——the brook outside, who, of course, understood the situation, and babbled tolerantly of us to the listening trees, like the grim old philosopher he was.

  In this solitude we were surely closer together and belonged more fully to each other, for all her looks and thoughts were mine, as mine were hers.

  And, as we ate, sometimes talking and sometimes laughing (though rarely; one seldom laughs in the wilderness), our hands would stray to meet each other across the table, and eye would answer eye, while, in the silence, the brook would lift its voice to chuckle throaty chuckles and outlandish witticisms, such as could only be expected from an old reprobate who had grown so in years, and had seen so very much of life. At such times Charmian's cheeks would flush and her lashes droop——as though (indeed) she were versed in the language of brooks.

  So the golden hours slipped by, the sun crept westward, and evening stole upon us.

  "This is a very rough place for you," said I, and sighed.

  We were sitting on the bench before the door, and Charmian had laid her folded hands upon my shoulder, and her chin upon her hands. And now she echoed my sigh, but answered without stirring:

  "It is the dearest place in all the world."

  "And very lonely!" I pursued.

  "I shall be busy all day long, Peter, and you always reach home as evening falls, and then——then——oh! I sha'n't be lonely."

  "But I am such a gloomy fellow at the best of times, and very clumsy, Charmian, and something of a failure."

  "And——my husband."

  "Peter!——Peter!——oh, Peter!" I started, and rose to my feet.

  "Peter!——oh, Peter!" called the voice again, seemingly from the road, and now I thought it sounded familiar.

  Charmian stole her arms aboat my neck.

  "I think it is Simon," said I uneasily; "what can have brought him? And he will never venture down into the Hollow on account of the ghost; I must go and see what he wants."

  "Yes, Peter," she murmured, but the clasp of her arms tightened.

  "What is it?" said I, looking into her troubled eyes. "Charmian, you are trembling!——what is it?"

  "I don't know——but oh, Peter! I feel as if a shadow——a black and awful shadow were creeping upon us hiding us from each other. I am very foolish, aren't I? and this our wedding-day!"

  "Peter! Pe-ter!"

  "Come with me, Charmian; let us go together."

  "No, I must wait——it is woman's destiny——to wait——but I am brave again; go——see what is wanted."

  I found Simon, sure enough, in the lane, seated in his cart, and his face looked squarer and grimmer even than usual.

  "Oh, Peter!" said he, gripping my hand, "it be come at last ——Gaffer be goin'."

  "Going, Simon?"

  "Dyin', Peter. Fell downstairs 's marnin'. Doctor says 'e can't last the day out——sinkin' fast, 'e be, an' 'e be axin' for 'ee, Peter. 'Wheer be Peter?' says 'e over an' over again; 'wheer be the Peter as I found of a sunshiny arternoon, down in th' 'aunted 'Oller?' You weren't at work 's marnin', Peter, so I be come to fetch 'ee——you'll come back wi' me to bid 'good-by' to the old: man?"

  "Yes, I'll come, Simon," I answered; "wait here for me."

  Charmian was waiting for me in the cottage, and, as she looked up at me, I saw the trouble was back in her eyes again.

  "You must——go leave me?" she inquired.

  "For a little while."

  "Yes——I——I felt it," she said, with a pitiful little smile.

  "The Ancient is dying," said I. Now, as I spoke, my eyes encountered the staple above the door, wherefore, mounting upon a chair, I seized and shook it. And lo! the rusty iron snapped off in my fingers——like glass, and I slipped it into my pocket.

  "Oh, Peter!——don't go——don't leave me!" cried Charmian suddenly, and I saw that her face was very pale, and that she trembled.

  "Charmian!" said I, and sprang to her side. "Oh, my love!——what is it?"

  "It is——as though the shadow hung over us——darker and more threatening, Peter; as if our happiness were at an end; I seem to hear Maurice's threat——to come between us——living or——dead. I am afraid!" she whispered, clinging to me, "I am afraid!" But, all at once, she was calm again, and full of self-reproaches, calling herself "weak," and "foolish," and "hysterical"——"though, indeed, I was never hysterical before!"——and telling me that I must go——that it was my duty to go to the "gentle, dying old man"——urging me to the door, almost eagerly, till, being out of the cottage, she must needs fall a-trembling once more, and wind her arms about my neck, with a great sob.

  "But oh!——you will come back soon——very soon, Peter? And we know that nothing can ever come between us again——never again——my husband." And, with that blessed word, she drew me down to her lips, and, turning, fled into the cottage.

  I went on slowly up the path to meet Simon, and, as I went, my heart was heavy, and my mind full of a strange foreboding. But I never thought of the omen of the knife that had once fallen and quivered in the floor between us.

  "'Twere 'is snuff-box as done it!" said Simon, staring very hard at his horse's ears, as we jogged along the road. "'E were a-goin' upstairs for it, an' slipped, 'e did. 'Simon,' says he, as I lifted of 'im in my arms, 'Simon,' says 'e, quiet like, 'I be done for at last, lad——this poor old feyther o' yourn'll never go a-climbin' up these stairs no more,' says 'e——'never——no——more.'"

  After this Simon fell silent, and I likewise, until we reached the village. Before "The Bull" was a group who talked with hushed voices and grave faces; even Old Amos grinned no more.

  The old man lay in his great four-post bed, propped up with pillows, and with Prue beside him, to smooth his silver hair with tender fingers, and Black George towering in the shade of the bed-curtains, like a grieving giant.

  "'Ere I be, Peter," said the old man, beckoning me feebly with his hand, "'ere I be——at the partin' o' the ways, an' wi' summ'at gone wrong wi' my innards! When a man gets so old as I be, 'is innards be like glass, Peter, like glass——an' apt to fly all to pieces if 'e goes a-slippin' an' a-slidin' downstairs, like me."

  "Are you in pain?" I asked, clasping his shrivelled hand.

  "Jest a twinge, now an' then, Peter——but——Lord! that bean't nothin' to a man the likes o' me——Peter——"

  "You always were so hale and hearty," I nodded, giving him the usual opening he had waited for.

  "Ay, so strong as a bull, that I were! like a lion in my youth ——Black Jarge were nought to me——a cart 'orse I were."

  "Yes," said I, "yes," and stooped my head lower over the feeble old hand.

  "But arter all, Peter, bulls pass away, an' lions, an' cart 'orses lose their teeth, an' gets wore out, for 'all flesh is grass'——but iron's iron, bean't it, Peter——rusts it do, but 'tis iron all the same, an' lasts a man out——even such a 'earty chap as I were?"

  "Sometimes," said I, without looking up.

  "An' I be very old an' tired, Peter; my 'eart be all wore out wi' beatin' an' beatin' all these years——'tis a wonder as it didn't stop afore now——but a——a——stapil, Peter, don't 'ave no 'eart to go a-beatin' an' a-wearin' of itself away?"

  "No, Ancient."

  "So 'ere be I, a-standin' in the Valley o' the Shadow, an' waitin' for God's Angel to take my 'and for to show me the way. 'Tis a darksome road, Peter, but I bean't afeared, an' there be a light beyond Jordan-water. No, I aren't afeared to meet the God as made me, for 'the Lord is merciful——and very kind,' an' I don't s'pose as 'E'll be very 'ard on a old, old man as did 'is best, an' wi' a 'eart all tired an' wore away wi' beatin'——I be ready, Peter only——"

  "Yes, Ancient?"

  "Oh, Peter!——it be that theer old stapil——as'll go on rustin' away an' rustin' away arter the old man as watched it so is laid in the earth, an' forgot about——"

  "No," said I, without looking up, but slipping my hand into my pocket; "no, Ancient——"

  "Peter——Oh, Peter!——do 'ee mean——?"

  "I mean that, although it had no heart, the staple was tired and worn out——just as you are, and so I brought it to you," and I slipped the rusty bit of iron into the old man's trembling palm.

  "O Lord——!" he began in a fervent voice, "O dear Lord!——I got it, Lord——th' owd stapil——I be ready to come to Thee, an' j'yful ——j'yful! an' for this mercy, an' benefit received——blessed be Thy name. Amen!"

  He lay very quiet for a while, with the broken staple clasped to his breast, and his eyes closed.

  "Peter," said he suddenly, "you won't 'ave no one to bring you noos no more——why, Peter! be 'ee cryin'——for me? 'Tis true 't were me as found ye, but I didn't think as you'd go to cry tears for me——I be goin' to tak' t' owd stapil wi' me, Peter, all along the road——an', Peter——"

  "Yes, Ancient?"

  "Be you quite sure as you aren't a dook?"

  "Quite sure."

  "Nor a earl?"

  "No, Ancient."

  "Not even a——barrynet?"

  "No, Ancient."

  "Ah, well!——you be a man, Peter, an' 'tis summ'at to ha' found a man——that it be."

  And now he feebly beckoned us all nearer.

  "Children," said he, "I be a old an' ancient man I be goin' on ——across the river to wait for you——my blessin' on ye. It be a dark, dark road, but I've got t' owd stapil, an' there——be a light beyond——the river."

  So, the Ancient sighed, and crossed the dark River into the Land of Light Eternal.

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