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The Broad Highway(Book2,Chapter12)

2006-08-28 22:53

  Book Two. The Woman Chapter XII. Who Comes?

  "This table wobbles!" said Charmian.

  "It does," said I, "but then I notice that the block is misplaced again."

  "Then why use a block?"

  "A book is so clumsy——" I began.

  "Or a book? Why not cut down the long legs to match the short one?"

  "That is really an excellent idea."

  "Then why didn't you before?"

  "Because, to be frank with you, it never occurred to me."

  "I suppose you are better as a blacksmith than a carpenter, aren't you, Peter?" And, seeing I could find no answer worthy of retort, she laughed, and, sitting down, watched me while I took my saw, forthwith, and shortened the three long legs as she had suggested. Having done which, to our common satisfaction, seeing the moon was rising, we went and sat down on the bench beside the cottage door.

  "And——are you a very good blacksmith?" she pursued, turning to regard me, chin in hand.

  "I can swing a hammer or shoe a horse with any smith in Kent ——except Black George, and he is the best in all the South Country."

  "And is that a very great achievement, Peter?"

  "It is not a despicable one."

  "Are you quite satisfied to be able to shoe horses well, sir?"

  "It is far better to be a good blacksmith than a bad poet or an incompetent prime minister."

  "Meaning that you would rather succeed in the little thing than fail in the great?"

  "With your permission, I will smoke," said I.

  "Surely," she went on, nodding her permission, "surely it is nobler to be a great failure rather than a mean success?"

  "Success is very sweet, Charmian, even in the smallest thing; for instance," said I, pointing to the cottage door that stood open beside her, "when I built that door, and saw it swing on its hinges, I was as proud of it as though it had been——"

  "A really good door," interpolated Charmian, "instead of a bad one!"

  "A bad one, Charmian?"

  "It is a very clumsy door, and has neither bolt nor lock."

  "There are no thieves hereabouts, and, even if there were, they would not dare to set foot in the Hollow after dark."

  "And then, unless one close it with great care, it sticks——very tight!"

  "That, obviating the necessity of a latch, is rather to be commended," said I.

  "Besides, it is a very ill-fitting door, Peter."

  "I have seen worse."

  "And will be very draughty in cold weather."

  "A blanket hung across will remedy that."

  "Still, it can hardly be called a very good door, can it, Peter?" Here I lighted my pipe without answering. "I suppose you make horseshoes much better than you make doors?" I puffed at my pipe in silence. "You are not angry because I found fault with your door, are you, Peter?"

  "Angry?" said I; "not in the least."

  "I am sorry for that."

  "Why sorry?"

  "Are you never angry, Peter?"

  "Seldom, I hope."

  "I should like to see you so——just once. Finding nothing to say in answer to this, I smoked my negro-head pipe and stared at the moon, which was looking down at us through a maze of tree-trunks and branches.

  "Referring to horseshoes," said Charmian at last, "are you content to be a blacksmith all your days?"

  "Yes, I think I am."

  "Were you never ambitious, then?"

  "Ambition is like rain, breaking itself upon what it falls on——at least, so Bacon says, and——"

  "Oh, bother Bacon! Were you never ambitious, Peter?"

  "I was a great dreamer."

  "A dreamer!" she exclaimed with fine scorn; "are dreamers ever ambitious?"

  "Indeed, they are the most truly ambitious," I retorted; "their dreams are so vast, so infinite, so far beyond all puny human strength and capacity that they, perforce, must remain dreamers always. Epictetus himself——"

  "I wish," sighed Charmian, "I do wish——"

  "What do you wish?"

  "That you were not——"

  "That I was not?"

  "Such a——pedant!"

  "Pedant!" said I, somewhat disconcerted.

  "And you have a way of echoing my words that is very irritating."

  "I beg your pardon," said I, feeling much like a chidden schoolboy; "and I am sorry you should think me a pedant."

  "And you are so dreadfully precise and serious," she continued.

  "Am I, Charmian?"

  "And so very solemn and austere, and so ponderous, and egotistical, and calm——yes, you are hatefully calm and placid, aren't you, Peter?"

  And, after I had smoked thoughtfully awhile, I sighed.

  "Yes, I fear I may seem so."

  "Oh, I forgive you!"

  "Thank you."

  "Though you needn't be so annoyingly humble about it," said she, and frowned, and, even while she frowned, laughed and shook her head.

  "And pray, why do you laugh?"

  "Because——oh, Peter, you are such a——boy!"

  "So you told me once before," said I, biting my pipe-stem viciously.

  "Did I, Peter?"

  "You also called me a——lamb, I remember——at least, you suggested it."

  "Did I, Peter?" and she began to laugh again, but stopped all at once and rose to her feet.

  "Peter!" said she, with a startled note in her voice, "don't you hear something?"

  "Yes," said I.

  "Some one is coming!"

  "Yes."

  "And——they are coming this way!"

  "Yes."

  "Oh——how can you sit there so quietly? Do you think——"she began, and stopped, staring into the shadows with wide eyes.

  "I think," said I, knocking the ashes from my pipe, and laying it on the bench beside me, "that, all things considered, you were wiser to go into the cottage for a while."

  "No——oh, I couldn't do that!"

  "You would be safer, perhaps."

  "I am not a coward. I shall remain here, of course."

  "But I had rather you went inside."

  "And I much prefer staying where I am."

  "Then I must ask you to go inside, Charmian."

  "No, indeed, my mind is made up."

  "Then I insist, Charmian."

  "Mr. Vibart!" she exclaimed, throwing up her head, "you forget yourself, I think. I permit no one to order my going and coming, and I obey no man's command."

  "Then——I beg of you."

  "And I refuse, sir——my mind is made up."

  "And mine also!" said I, rising.

  "Why, what——what are you going to do?" she cried, retreating as I advanced towards her.

  "I am going to carry you into the cottage."

  "You would not dare!"

  "If you refuse to walk, how else can you get there?" said I.

  Anger, amazement, indignation, all these I saw in her eyes as she faced me, but anger most of all.

  "Oh——you would——not dare!" she said again, and with a stamp of her foot.

  "Indeed, yes," I nodded. And now her glance wavered beneath mine, her head drooped, and, with a strange little sound that was neither a laugh nor a sob, and yet something of each, she turned upon her heel, ran into the cottage, and slammed the door behind her.

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