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The Broad Highway(Book2,Chapter39)

2006-08-28 23:00

  Book Two. The Woman Chapter XXXIX. How I Went Down into the Shadows

  "Peter," said George, one evening, turning to me with the troubled look I had seen so often on his face of late, "what be wrong wi' you, my chap? You be growing paler everyday. Oh, Peter! you be like a man as is dyin' by inches——if 'tis any o' my doin'——"

  "Nonsense, George!" I broke in with sudden asperity, "I am well enough!"

  "Yet I've seen your 'ands fall a-trembling sometimes, Peter——all at once. An' you missed your stroke yesterday——come square down on th' anvil——you can't ha' forgot?"

  "I remember," I muttered; "I remember."

  "An' twice again to-day. An' you be silent, Peter, an' don't seem to 'ear when spoke to, an' short in your temper——oh, you bean't the man you was. I've see it a-comin' on you more an' more. Oh, man, Peter!" he cried, turning his back upon me suddenly, "you as I'd let walk over me——you as I'd be cut in pieces for——if it be me as done it——"

  "No, no, George——it wasn't you——of course not. If I am a little strange it is probably due to lack of sleep, nothing more."

  "Ye see, Peter, I tried so 'ard to kill 'ee, an' you said yourself as I come nigh doin' it——"

  "But then, you didn't quite manage it," I cried harshly——"would to God you had; as it is, I am alive, and there's an end of it."

  "'Twere a woundy blow I give 'ee——that last one! I'll never forget the look o' your face as you went down. Oh, Peter! you've never been the same since——it be all my doin'——I know it, I know it," and, sinking upon the Ancient's stool in the corner, Black George covered his face.

  "Never think of it, George," I said, laying my arm across his heaving shoulders; "that is all over and done with, dear fellow, and I would not have it otherwise, since it gained me your friendship. I am all right, well and strong; it is only sleep that I need, George, only sleep."

  Upon the still evening air rose the sharp tap, tap of the Ancient's stick, whereat up started the smith, and, coming to the forge, began raking out the fire with great dust and clatter, as the old man hobbled up, saluting us cheerily as he came.

  "Lord!" he exclaimed, pausing in the doorway to lean upon his stick and glance from one to the other of us with his quick, bright eyes. "Lord! theer bean't two other such fine, up-standin', likely-lookin' chaps in all the South Country as you two chaps be——no, nor such smiths! it du warm my old 'eart to look at 'ee. Puts me in mind o' what I were myself——ages an' ages ago. I weren't quite so tall as Jarge, p'r'aps, by about——say 'alf-a-inch, but then, I were wider——wider, ah! a sight wider in the shoulder, an' so strong as——four bulls! an' wi' eyes big an' sharp an' piercin'——like Peter's, only Peter's bean't quite so sharp, no, nor yet so piercin'——an' that minds me as I've got noos for 'ee, Peter."

  "What news?" said I, turning.

  "S'prisin' noos it be——ah! an' 'stonishin' tu. But first of all, Peter, I wants to ax 'ee a question."

  "What is it, Ancient?"

  "Why, it be this, Peter," said the old man, hobbling nearer, and peering up into my face, "ever since the time as I went an' found ye, I've thought as theer was summ'at strange about 'ee, what wi' your soft voice an' gentle ways; an' it came on me all at once ——about three o' the clock's arternoon, as you might be a dook ——in disguise, Peter. Come now, be ye a dook or bean't ye——yes or ne, Peter?" and he fixed me with his eye.

  "No, Ancient," I answered, smiling; "I'm no duke."

  "Ah well!——a earl, then?"

  "Nor an earl."

  "A barrynet, p'r'aps?"

  "Not even a baronet."

  "Ah!" said the old man, eyeing me doubtfully, "I've often thought as you might be one or t' other of 'em 'specially since 'bout three o' the clock 's arternoon."

  "Why so?"

  "Why, that's the p'int——that's the very noos as I've got to tell 'ee," chuckled the Ancient, as he seated himself in the corner. "You must know, then," he began, with an impressive rap on the lid of his snuffbox, "'bout three o'clock 's arternoon I were sittin' on the stile by Simon's five-acre field when along the road comes a lady, 'an'some an' proud-looking, an' as fine as fine could be, a-ridin' of a 'orse, an' wi' a servant ridin' another 'orse be'ind 'er. As she comes up she gives me a look out o' 'er eyes, soft they was, an' dark, an' up I gets to touch my 'at. All at once she smiles at me, an' 'er smile were as sweet an' gentle as 'er eyes; an' she pulls up 'er 'orse. 'W'y, you must be the Ancient!' says she. 'W'y, so Peter calls me, my leddy,' says I. 'An' 'ow is Peter?' she says, quick-like; ''ow is Peter?' says she. 'Fine an' 'earty,' says I; 'eats well an' sleeps sound,' says I; ''is arms is strong an' 'is legs is strong, an' 'e aren't afeared o' nobody——like a young lion be Peter,' says I. Now, while I'm a-sayin' this, she looks at me, soft an' thoughtful-like, an' takes out a little book an' begins to write in it, a-wrinklin' 'er pretty black brows over it an' a-shakin' 'er 'ead to 'erself. An' presently she tears out what she's been a-writin' an' gives it to me. 'Will you give this to Peter for me?' says she. 'That I will, my leddy!' says I. 'Thank 'ee!' says she, smilin' again, an' 'oldin' out 'er w'ite 'an' to me, which I kisses. 'Indeed!' says she,' I understand now why Peter is so fond of you. I think I could be very fond of 'ee tu!' says she. An' so she turns 'er 'orse, an' the servant 'e turns 'is an' off they go; an' 'ere, Peter——'ere be the letter." Saying which, the Ancient took a slip of paper from the cavernous interior of his hat and tendered it to me.

  With my head in a whirl, I crossed to the door, and leaned there awhile, staring sightlessly out into the summer evening; for it seemed that in this little slip of paper lay that which meant life or death to me; so, for a long minute I leaned there, fearing to learn my fate. Then I opened the little folded square of paper, and, holding it before my eyes, read:

  "Charmian Brown presents" (This scratched out.) "While you busied yourself forging horseshoes your cousin, Sir Maurice, sought and found me. I do not love him, but—— CHARMIAN.

  "Farewell" (This also scored out.)

  Again I stared before me with unseeing eyes, but my hands no longer trembled, nor did I fear any more; the prisoner had received his sentence, and suspense was at an end.

  And, all at once, I laughed, and tore the paper across, and laughed and laughed, till George and the Ancient came to stare at me.

  "Don't 'ee!" cried the old man; "don't 'ee, Peter——you be like a corp' laughin'; don't 'ee!" But the laugh still shook me while I tore and tore at the paper, and so let the pieces drop and flutter from my fingers.

  "There!" said I, "there goes a fool's dream! See how it scatters——a little here, a little there; but, so long as this world lasts, these pieces shall never come together again." So saying, I set off along the road, looking neither to right nor left. But, when I had gone some distance, I found that George walked beside me, and he was very silent as he walked, and I saw the trouble was back in his eyes again.

  "George," said I, stopping, "why do you follow me?"

  "I don't follow 'ee, Peter," he answered; "I be only wishful to walk wi' you a ways."

  "I'm in no mood for company, George."

  "Well, I bean't company, Peter——your friend, I be," he said doggedly, and without looking at me.

  "Yes," said I; "yes, my good and trusty friend."

  "Peter," he cried suddenly, laying his hand upon my shoulder, "don't go back to that theer ghashly 'Oller to-night——"

  "It is the only place in the world for me——to-night, George." And so we went on again, side by side, through the evening, and spoke no more until we had come to the parting of the ways.

  Down in the Hollow the shadows lay black and heavy, and I saw George shiver as he looked.

  "Good-by!" said I, clasping his hand; "good-by, George!"

  "Why do 'ee say good-by?"

  "Because I am going away."

  "Goin' away, Peter——but wheer?"

  "God knows!" I answered, "but, wherever it be, I shall carry with me the memory of your kind, true heart——and you, I think, will remember me. It is a blessed thing, George, to know that, howso far we go, a friend's kind thoughts journey on with us, untiring to the end."

  "Oh, Peter, man! don't go for to leave me——"

  "To part is our human lot, George, and as well now as later ——good-by!"

  "No, no!" he cried, throwing his arm about me, "not down theer ——it be so deadly an' lonely down theer in the darkness. Come back wi' me——just for to-night." But I broke from his detaining hand, and plunged on down into the shadows. And, presently, turning my head, I saw him yet standing where I had left him, looming gigantic upon the sky behind, and with his head sunk upon his breast.

  Being come at last to the cottage, I paused, and from that place of shadows lifted my gaze to the luminous heaven, where were a myriad eyes that seemed to watch me with a new meaning, to-night; wherefore I entered the cottage hastily, and, closing the door, barred it behind me. Then I turned to peer up at that which showed above the door——the rusty staple upon which a man had choked his life out sixty and six years ago. And I began, very slowly, to loosen the belcher neckerchief about my throat.

  "Peter!" cried a voice——"Peter!" and a hand was beating upon the door.

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