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The Broad Highway(Book1,Chapter2)

2006-08-28 22:39

  Book One Chapter II. I Set Out

  The clock of the square-towered Norman church, a mile away, was striking the hour of four as I let myself out into the morning. It was dark as yet, and chilly, but in the east was already a faint glimmer of dawn. Reaching the stables, I paused with my hand on the door-hasp, listening to the hiss, hissing that told me Adam, the groom, was already at work within. As I entered he looked up from the saddle he was polishing and touched his forehead with a grimy forefinger.

  "You be early abroad, Mr. Peter."

  "Yes," said I. "I wish to be on Shooter's Hill at sunrise; but first I came to say 'good-by' to 'Wings.'"

  "To be sure, sir," nodded Adam, picking up his lanthorn.

  Upon the ensuing interview I will not dwell; it was affecting both to her and to myself, for we were mutually attached.

  "Sir," said Adam, when at last the stable door had closed behind us, "that there mare knows as you're a-leaving her."

  "I think she does, Adam."

  "'Osses be wonderful wise, sir!"

  "Yes, Adam."

  "This is a bad day for Wings, sir——and all of us, for that matter."

  "I hope not, Adam."

  "You be a-going away, they tell me, sir?"

  "Yes, going away," I nodded.

  "Wonder what'll become o' the mare, sir?"

  "Ah, yes, I wonder," said I.

  "Everything to be sold under the will, I think, sir?"

  "Everything, Adam."

  "Excuse me, sir," said he, knuckling his forehead, "you won't be wanting ever a groom, will you?"

  "No, Adam," I answered, shaking my head, "I sha'n't be wanting a groom."

  "Nor yet a body servant, sir?"

  "No, Adam, nor yet a body servant."

  Here there ensued a silence during which Adam knuckled his right temple again and I tightened the buckle of my knapsack.

  "I think, Adam," said I, "I think it is going to be a fine day."

  "Yes, sir."

  "Good-by, Adam!" said I, and held out my hand.

  "Good-by, sir." And, having shaken my hand, he turned and went back into the stable.

  So I set off, walking beneath an avenue of trees looming up gigantic on either hand. At the end was the lodge and, ere I opened the gates——for John, the lodgekeeper, was not yet astir——ere I opened the gates, I say, I paused for one last look at the house that had been all the home I had ever known since I could remember. As I stood thus, with my eyes upon the indistinct mass, I presently distinguished a figure running towards me and, as he came up, recognized Adam.

  "It ain't much, sir, but it's all I 'ave," said he, and thrust a short, thick, well-smoked clay pipe into my hand——a pipe that was fashioned to the shape of a negro's head. "It's a good pipe, sir," he went on, "a mortal good pipe, and as sweet as a nut!" saying which, he turned about and ran off, leaving me standing there with his parting gift in my hand.

  And having put the pipe into an inner pocket, I opened the gate and started off at a good pace along the broad highway.

  It was a bleak, desolate world that lay about me, a world of shadows and a white, low-lying mist that filled every hollow and swathed hedge and tree; a lowering earth and a frowning heaven infinitely depressing. But the eastern sky was clear with an ever-growing brightness; hope lay there, so, as I walked, I kept my eyes towards the east.

  Being come at last to that eminence which is called Shooter's Hill, I sat down upon a bank beside the way and turned to look back upon the wonderful city. And as I watched, the pearly east changed little by little, to a varying pink, which in turn slowly gave place to reds and yellows, until up came the sun in all his majesty, gilding vane and weathercock upon a hundred spires and steeples, and making a glory of the river. Far away upon the white riband of road that led across Blackheath, a chaise was crawling, but save for that the world seemed deserted.

  I sat thus a great while gazing upon the city and marvelling at the greatness of it.

  "Truly," said I to myself, "nowhere in the whole world is there such another city as London!" And presently I sighed and, rising, set my back to the city and went on down the hill.

  Yes——the sun was up at last, and at his advent the mists rolled up and vanished, the birds awoke in brake and thicket and, lifting their voices, sang together, a song of universal praise. Bushes rustled, trees whispered, while from every leaf and twig, from every blade of grass, there hung a flashing jewel.

  With the mists my doubts of the future vanished too, and I strode upon my way, a very god, king of my destiny, walking through a tribute world where feathered songsters carolled for me and blossoming flowers wafted sweet perfume upon my path. So I went on gayly down the hill, rejoicing that I was alive.

  In the knapsack at my back I had stowed a few clothes, the strongest and plainest I possessed, together with a shirt, some half-dozen favorite books, and my translation of Brantome; Quintilian and Petronius I had left with Mr. Grainger, who had promised to send them to a publisher, a friend of his, and in my pocket was my uncle George's legacy,——namely, ten guineas in gold. And, as I walked, I began to compute how long such a sum might be made to last a man. By practising the strictest economy, I thought I might manage well enough on two shillings a day, and this left me some hundred odd days in which to find some means of livelihood, and if a man could not suit himself in such time, then (thought I) he must be a fool indeed.

  Thus, my thoughts caught something of the glory of the bright sky above and the smiling earth about me, as I strode along that "Broad Highway" which was to lead me I knew not whither, yet where disaster was already lying in wait for me——as you shall hear.

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