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The Broad Highway(Book2,Chapter4)

2006-08-28 22:50

  Book Two. The Woman Chapter IV. Which, Among Other Matters, Has to Do with Bruises and Bandages

  She was on her knees beside me, bathing my battered face, talking all the while in a soft voice that I thought wonderfully sweet to hear.

  "Poor boy!" she was saying, over and over again, "poor boy!" And after she had said it, perhaps a dozen times, I opened my eyes and looked at her.

  "Madam, I am twenty-five!" said I. Hereupon, sponge in hand, she drew back and looked at me.

  A wonderful face——low-browed, deep-eyed, full-lipped. The eyes were dark and swiftly changeful, and there was a subtle witchery in the slanting shadow of their lashes.

  "Twenty-five!" she repeated, "can it really be?"

  "Why not, madam?"

  "So very young?"

  "Why——" I began, greatly taken aback. "Indeed, I——that is——"

  But here she laughed and then she sighed, and sighing, shook her head.

  "Poor boy!" said she, "poor boy!" And, when I would have retorted, she stopped me with the sponge.

  "Your mouth is cut," said she, after a while, "and there is a great gash in your brow."

  "But the water feels delicious!" said I.

  "And your throat is all scratched and swollen!"

  "But your hands are very gentle and soothing!"

  "I don't hurt you, then?"

  "On the contrary, the——the pain is very trifling, thank you."

  "Yet you fainted a little while ago."

  "Then it was very foolish of me."

  "Poor——" she hesitated, and looking up at her through the trickling water, I saw that she was smiling.

  "——fellow!" said she. And her lips were very sweet, and her eyes very soft and tender——for an Amazon.

  And, when she had washed the blood from my face, she went to fetch clean water from where I kept it in a bucket in the corner.

  Now, at my elbow, upon the table, lay the knife, a heavy, clumsy contrivance I had bought to use in my carpentry, and I now, mechanically, picked it up. As I did so the light gleamed evilly upon its long blade.

  "Put it down!" she commanded; "put it away——it is a hateful thing!"

  "For a woman's hand," I added, "so hideously unfeminine!"

  "Some men are so hatefully——hideously——masculine!" she retorted, her lip curling. "I expected——him——and you are terribly like him."

  "As to that," said I, "I may have the same colored eyes and hair, and be something of the same build——"

  "Yes," she nodded, "it was your build, and the color of your eyes and hair that——startled me."

  "But, after all," said I, "the similarity is only skin-deep, and goes no farther."

  "No," she answered, kneeling beside me again; "no, you are——only twenty-five!" And, as she said this, her eyes were hidden by her lashes.

  "Twenty-five is——twenty-five!" said I, more sharply than before.

  "Why do you smile?"

  "The water is all dripping from your nose and chin!——stoop lower over the basin."

  "And yet," said I, as well as I could on account of the trickling water, for she was bathing my face again, "and yet, you must be years younger than I."

  "But then, some women always feel older than a man——more especially if he is hurt."

  "Thank you," said I, "thank you; with the exception of a scratch, or so, I am very well!" But, as I moved, I caught my thumb clumsily against the table-edge, and winced with the sudden pain of it.

  "What is it——your hand?"

  "My thumb."

  "Let me see?" Obediently I stretched out my hand to her.

  "Is it broken?"

  "Dislocated, I think."

  "It is greatly swollen!"

  "Yes," said I, and taking firm hold of it with my left hand, I gave it a sudden pull which started the sweat upon my temples, but sent it back into joint.

  "Poor——"

  "Well?" said I, as she hesitated.

  "——man!" said she, and touched the swollen hand very tenderly with her fingers.

  "You do not fear me any longer?"

  "No."

  "In spite of my eyes and hair?"

  "In spite of your eyes and hair——you see, a woman knows instinctively whom she must fear and whom not to fear."

  "Well?"

  "And you are one I do not fear, and, I think, never should."

  "Hum!" said I, rubbing my chin, "I am only twenty-five!"

  "Twenty-five is——twenty-five!" said she demurely.

  "And yet, I am very like——him——you said so yourself!"

  "Him!" she exclaimed, starting. "I had forgotten all about him. Where is he——what has become of him?" and she glanced apprehensively towards the door.

  "Half way to Tonbridge——or should be by now."

  "Tonbridge!" said she, in a tone of amazement, and turned to look at me again.

  "Tonbridge!" I repeated.

  "But he is not the man to——to run away," said she doubtfully ——"even from you."

  "No, indeed!" said I, shaking my head, "he certainly did not run away, but circumstances——and a stone, were too much——even for him."

  "A stone?"

  "Upon which he——happened to fall, and strike his head——very fortunately for me."

  "Was he——much hurt?"

  "Stunned only," I answered.

  She was still kneeling beside my chair, but now she sat back, and turned to stare into the fire. And, as she sat, I noticed how full and round and white her arms were, for her sleeves were rolled high, and that the hand, which yet held the sponge, was likewise very white, neither big nor little, a trifle wide, perhaps, but with long, slender fingers. Presently, with a sudden gesture, she raised her head and looked at me again——a long, searching look.

  "Who are you?" she asked suddenly.

  "My name," said I, "is Peter."

  "Yes," she nodded, with her eyes still on mine.

  "Peter——Smith," I went on, "and, by that same token, I am a blacksmith——very humbly at your service."

  "Peter——Smith!" she repeated, as though trying the sound of it, hesitating at the surname exactly as I had done. "Peter——Smith! ——and mine is Charmian, Charmian——Brown." And here again was a pause between the two names.

  "Yours is a very beautiful name," said I, "especially the Charmian!"

  "And yours," she retorted, "is a beautifully——ugly one!"

  "Yes?"

  "Especially the——Peter!"

  "Indeed, I quite agree with you," said I, rising, "and now, if I may trouble you for the towel——thank you!" Forthwith I began to dry my face as well as I might on account of my injured thumb, while she watched me with a certain elusive merriment peeping from her eyes, and quivering at me round her lips, an expression half mocking, half amused, that I had seen there more than once already. Wherefore, to hide from her my consciousness of this, I fell to towelling myself vigorously, so much so, that, forgetting the cut in my brow, I set it bleeding faster than ever.

  "Oh, you are very clumsy!" she cried, springing up, and, snatching the towel from me, she began to stanch the blood with it. "If you will sit down, I will bind it up for you."

  "Really, it is quite unnecessary," I demurred.

  "Quite!" said she; "is there anything will serve as a bandage?"

  "There is the towel!" I suggested.

  "Not to be thought of!"

  "Then you might tear a strip off the sheet," said I, nodding towards the bed.

  "Ridiculous!" said she, and proceeded to draw a handkerchief from the bosom of her dress, and having folded it with great nicety and moistened it in the bowl, she tied it about my temples.

  Now, to do this, she had, perforce, to pass her, arms about my neck, and this brought her so near that I could feel her breath upon my lips, and there stole to me, out of her hair, or out of her bosom, a perfume very sweet, that was like the fragrance of violets at evening. But her hands were all too dexterous, and, quicker than it takes to write, the bandage was tied, and she was standing before me, straight and tall.

  "There——that is more comfortable, isn't it?" she inquired, and with the words she bestowed a final little pat to the bandage, a touch so light——so ineffably gentle that it might almost have been the hand of that long-dead mother whom I had never known. "That is better, isn't it?" she demanded.

  "Thank you——yes, very comfortable!" said I. But, as the word left me, my glance, by accident, encountered the pistol near by, and at sight of it a sudden anger came upon me, for I remembered that, but for my intervention, this girl was a murderess; wherefore, I would fain have destroyed the vile thing, and reached for it impulsively, but she was before me, and snatching up the weapon, hid it behind her as she had done once before.

  "Give it to me," said I, frowning, "it is an accursed thing!"

  "Yet it has been my friend to-night," she answered.

  "Give it to me!" I repeated. She threw up her head, and regarded me with a disdainful air, for my tone had been imperative.

  "Come," said I, and held out my hand. So, for a while, we looked into each other's eyes, then, all at once, she dropped the weapon on the table, before me and turned her back to me.

  "I think——" she began, speaking with her back still turned to me.

  "Well?" said I.

  "——that you have——"

  "Yes?" said I.

  "——very unpleasant——eyes!"

  "I am very sorry for that," said I, dropping the weapon out of sight behind my row of books, having done which, I drew both chairs nearer the fire, and invited her to sit down.

  "Thank you, I prefer to stand," said she loftily.

  "As you will," I answered, but, even while I spoke, she seemed to change her mind, for she sank into the nearest chair, and, chin in hand, stared into the fire.

  "And so," said she, as I sat down opposite her, "and so your name is Peter Smith, and you are a blacksmith?"

  "Yes, a blacksmith."

  "And make horseshoes?"

  "Naturally, yes."

  "And do you live here?"

  "Yes."

  "Alone?"

  "Quite alone!"

  "And how long have you lived here alone?"

  "Not so long that I am tired of it."

  "And is this cottage yours?"

  "Yes——that is, it stands on the Sefton estates, I believe, but nobody hereabouts would seem anxious to dispute my right of occupying the place.

  "Why not?"

  "Because it is generally supposed to be haunted."

  "Oh!"

  "It was built by some wanderer of the roads," I explained, "a stranger to these parts, who lived alone here, and eventually died alone here."

  "Died here?"

  "Hanged himself on the staple above the door, yonder."

  "Oh!" said she again, and cast a fearful glance towards the deep-driven, rusty staple.

  "The country folk believe his spirit still haunts the place," I went on, "and seldom, or never, venture foot within the Hollow."

  "And are you not afraid of this ghost?"

  "No," said I.

  "It must be very lonely here."

  "Delightfully so."

  "Are you so fond of solitude?"

  "Yes, for solitude is thought, and to think is to live."

  "And what did you do with the——pistol?"

  "I dropped it out of sight behind my books yonder."

  "I wonder why I gave it to you."

  "Because, if you remember, I asked you for it."

  "But I usually dislike doing what I am asked, and your manner was——scarcely courteous."

  "You also objected to my eyes, I think?"

  "Yes," she nodded.

  "Hum!" said I.

  The dark night, outside, was filled with malignant demons now, who tore at the rattling casements, who roared and bellowed down the chimney, or screamed furiously round the cottage; but here, in the warm firelight, I heeded them not at all, watching, rather, this woman, where she sat, leaned forward, gazing deep into the glow. And where the light touched her hair it woke strange fires, red and bronze. And it was very rebellious hair, with little tendrils that gleamed, here and there, against her temples, and small, defiant curls that seemed to strive to hide behind her ear, or, bold and wanton, to kiss her snowy neck——out of sheer bravado.

  As to her dress, I, little by little, became aware of two facts, for whereas her gown was of a rough, coarse material such as domestic servants wear, the stockinged foot that peeped at me beneath its hem (her shoes were drying on the hearth) was clad in a silk so fine that I could catch, through it, the gleam of the white flesh beneath. From this apparent inconsistency I deduced that she was of educated tastes, but poor——probably a governess, or, more likely still, taking her hands into consideration, with their long, prehensile fingers, a teacher of music, and was going on to explain to myself her present situation as the outcome of Beauty, Poverty, and the Devil, when she sighed, glanced toward the door, shivered slightly, and reaching her shoes from the hearth prepared to slip them on.

  "They are still very wet!" said I deprecatingly.

  "Yes," she answered.

  "Listen to the wind!" said I.

  "It is terribly high."

  "And it rains very hard!" said I.

  "Yes," and she shivered again.

  "It will be bad travelling for any one to-night," said I.

  Charmian stared into the fire.

  "Indeed, it would be madness for the strongest to stir abroad on such a night."

  Charmian stared into the fire.

  "What with the wind and the rain the roads would be utterly impassable, not to mention the risks of falling trees or shattered boughs."

  Charmian shivered again.

  "And the inns are all shut, long ago; to stir out, therefore, would be the purest folly."

  Charmian stared into the fire.

  "On the other hand, here are a warm room, a good fire, and a very excellent bed."

  She neither spoke nor moved, only her eyes were raised suddenly and swiftly to mine.

  "Also," I continued, returning her look, "here, most convenient to your hand, is a fine sharp knife, in case you are afraid of the ghost or any other midnight visitant and so——good night, madam!" Saying which, I took up one of the candles and crossed to the door of that room——which had once been Donald's, but here I paused to glance back at her. "Furthermore," said I, snuffing my candle with great nicety, "madam need have no further qualms regarding the color of my hair and eyes——none whatever."

  Whereupon I bowed somewhat stiffly on account of my bruises, and, going into my chamber, closed the door behind me.

  Having made the bed (for since Donald's departure I had occupied my two beds alternately) I undressed slowly, for my thumb was very painful; also I paused frequently to catch the sound of the light, quick footstep beyond the door, and the whisper of her garments as she walked.

  "Charmian!" said I to myself when at length all was still, "Charmian!" And I blew out my candle.

  Outside, the souls of the unnumbered dead still rode the storm, and the world was filled with their woeful lamentation. But, as I lay in the dark, there came to me a faint perfume as of violets at evening-time, elusive and very sweet, breathing of Charmian herself; and putting up my hand, I touched the handkerchief that bound my brow.

  "Charmian!" said I to myself again, and so, fell asleep.

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