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The Broad Highway(Book2,Chapter5)

2006-08-28 22:51

  Book Two. The Woman Chapter V. In Which I Hear Ill News of George

  The sun was pouring in at my lattice when I awoke next morning to a general soreness of body that at first puzzled me to account for. But as I lay in that delicious state between sleeping and waking, I became aware of a faint, sweet perfume; and, turning my head, espied a handkerchief upon the pillow beside me. And immediately I came to my elbow, with my eyes directed to the door, for now indeed I remembered all, and beyond that door, sleeping or waking, lay a woman.

  In the early morning things are apt to lose something of the glamour that was theirs over night; thus I remained propped upon my elbow, gazing apprehensively at the door, and with my ears on the stretch, hearkening for any movement from the room beyond that should tell me she was up. But I heard only the early chorus of the birds and the gurgle of the brook, swollen with last night's rain. In a while I rose and began to dress somewhat awkwardly, on account of my thumb, yet with rather more than my usual care, stopping occasionally to hear if she was yet astir. Being at last fully dressed, I sat down to wait until I should hear her footstep. But I listened vainly, for minute after minute elapsed until, rising at length, I knocked softly. And having knocked thrice, each time louder than before, without effect, I lifted the latch and opened the door.

  My first glance showed me that the bed had never even been slept in, and that save for myself the place was empty. And yet the breakfast-table had been neatly set, though with but one cup and saucer.

  Now, beside this cup and saucer was one of my few books, and picking it up, I saw that it was my Virgil. Upon the fly-leaf, at which it was open, I had, years ago, scrawled my name thus:

  PETER VIBART

  But lo! close under this, written in a fine Italian hand, were the following words:

  "To Peter Smith, Esq.  [the "Smith" underlined] Blacksmith.  Charmian Brown ["Brown" likewise underlined] desires to thank Mr. Smith, yet because thanks are so poor and small, and his service so great, needs must she remember him as a gentleman, yet oftener as a blacksmith,and most of all, as a man.  Charmian Brown begs him to accept this little trinket in memory of her; it is all she has to offer him. He may also keep her handkerchief."

  Upon the table, on the very spot where the book had lain, was a gold heart-shaped locket, very quaint and old-fashioned, upon one side of which was engraved the following posy:

  "Hee who myne heart would keepe for long Shall be a gentil man and strong."

  Attached to the locket was a narrow blue riband, wherefore, passing this riband over my head, I hung the locket about my neck. And having read through the message once more, I closed the Virgil, and, replacing it on the shelf, set about brewing a cup of tea, and so presently sat down to breakfast.

  I had scarcely done so, however, when there came a timid knock at the door, whereat I rose expectantly, and immediately sat down again.

  "Come in!" said I. The latch was slowly raised, the door swung open, and the Ancient appeared. If I was surprised to see him at such an hour, he was even more so, for, at sight of me, his mouth opened, and he stood staring speechlessly, leaning upon his stick.

  "Why, Ancient," said I, "you are early abroad this morning!"

  "Lord!" he exclaimed, scarcely above a whisper.

  "Come in and sit down," said I.

  "Lord! Lord!" he murmured, "an' a-satin' 'is breakfus' tu. Lordy, Lord!"

  "Yes," I nodded, "and, such as it is, you are heartily welcome to share it——sit down," and I drew up my other chair.

  "A-eatin' 'is breakfus' as ever was!" repeated the old man, without moving.

  "And why not, Ancient?"

  "Why not?" he repeated disdainfully. "'Cause breakfus' can't be ate by a corp', can it?"

  "A corpse, Ancient; what do you mean?"

  "I means as a corp' aren't got no right to eat a breakfus'——no!"

  "Why, I——no, certainly not."

  "Consequently, you aren't a corp', you'll be tellin me."

  "I?——no, not yet, God be thanked!"

  "Peter," said the Ancient, shaking his head, and mopping his brow with a corner of his neckerchief, "you du be forever a-givin' of me turns, that ye du."

  "Do I, Ancient?"

  "Ay——that ye du, an' me such a aged man tu——such a very aged man. I wonders at ye, Peter, an' me wi' my white 'airs——oh, I wonders at ye!" said he, sinking into the chair I had placed for him and regarding me with a stern, reproving eye.

  "If you will tell me what I have been guilty of——" I began.

  "I come down 'ere, Peter——so early as it be, to——I come down 'ere to look for your corp', arter the storm an' what 'appened last night. I comes down 'ere, and what does I find?——I finds ye a-eatin' your breakfus'——just as if theer never 'adn't been no storm at all——no, nor nothin' else."

  "I'm sure," said I, pouring out a second cup of tea, "I'm sure I would sooner you should find my corpse than any one else, and am sorry to have disappointed you again, but really, Ancient——"

  "Oh, it aren't the disapp'intment, Peter——I found one corp', an' that's enough, I suppose, for an aged man like me——no, it aren't that——it's findin' ye eatin' your breakfus'——just as if theer 'ad 'adn't been no storm——no, nor yet no devil, wi' 'orns an' a tail, a-runnin' up an' down in the 'Oller 'ere, an' a-roarin' an' a-bellerin', as John Pringle said, last night."

  "Ah! and what else did John Pringle say?" I inquired, setting down my cup.

  "Why, 'e come into 'The Bull' all wet an' wild-like, an' wi' 'is two eyes a-stickin' out like gooseberries! 'E comes a-bustin' into the 'tap'——an' never says a word till 'e's emptied Old Amos's tankard——that bein' nighest. Then——'By Goles!' says 'e, lookin' round on us all, 'by Goles! I jest seen the ghost!' 'Ghost!' says all on us, sittin' up, ye may be sure, Peter. 'Ay,' says John, lookin' over 'is shoulder, scared-like, 'seed un wi' my two eyes, I did, an' what's more, I heerd un tu!' 'Wheer?' says all on us, beginnin' to look over our shoulders likewise. 'Wheer?' says John, 'wheer should I see un but in that theer ghashly 'Oller. I see a light, fust of all, a-leapin' an' a-dancin' about 'mong the trees——ah! an' I 'eerd shouts as was enough to curdle a man's good blood.' 'Pooh! what's lights?' says Joel Amos, cockin' 'is eye into 'is empty tankard; 'that bean't much to frighten a man, no, nor shouts neither.' 'Aren't it?' says John Pringle, fierce-like; 'what if I tell ye the place be full o' flamin' fire——what if I tell ye I see the devil 'isself, all smoke, an' sparks, an' brimston' a-floatin' an' a-flyin', an' draggin' a body through the tops o' the trees?' 'Lord!' says everybody, an' well they might, Peter, an' nobody says nothin' for a while. 'I wonder,' says Joel Amos at last, 'I wonder who 'e was a-draggin' through the tops o' the trees——an' why?' 'That'll be poor Peter bein' took away,' says I, 'I'll go an' find the poor lad's corp' in the mornin'——an' 'ere I be."

  "And you find me not dead, after all your trouble," said I.

  "If," said the Ancient, sighing, "if your arms was broke, or your legs was broke, now——or if your 'air was singed, or your face all burned an' blackened wi' sulphur, I could ha' took it kinder; but to find ye a-sittin' eatin' an' drinkin'——it aren't what I expected of ye, Peter, no." Shaking his head moodily, he took from his hat his neverfailing snuff-box, but, having extracted a pinch, paused suddenly in the act of inhaling it, to stare at me very hard. "But," said he, in a more hopeful tone, "but your face be all bruised an' swole up, to be sure, Peter."

  "Is it, Ancient?"

  "Ah! that it be——that it be," he cried, his eyes brightening, "an' your thumb all bandaged tu."

  "Why, so it is, Ancient."

  "An'——Peter——!" The pinch of snuff fell, and made a little brown cloud on the snow of his smock-frock as he rose, trembling, and leaned towards me, across the table.

  "Well, Ancient?"

  "Your throat——!"

  "Yes——what of it?"

  "It——be all marked——scratched it be——tore, as if——as if——claws 'ad been at it, Peter, long——sharp claws!"

  "Is it, Ancient?"

  "Peter——oh, Peter!" said he, with a sudden quaver in his voice, "who was it——what was it, Peter?" and he laid a beseeching hand upon mine. "Peter!" His voice had sunk almost to a whisper, and the hand plucked tremulously at my sleeve, while in the wrinkled old face was, a, look of pitiful entreaty. "Oh, Peter! oh, lad! 'twere Old Nick as done it——'twere the devil as done it, weren't it——? oh! say 'twere the devil, Peter." And, seeing that hoary head all a-twitch with eagerness as he waited my answer, how could I do other than nod?

  "Yes, it was the devil, Ancient." The old man subsided into his chair; embracing himself exultantly.

  "I knowed it! I knowed it!" he quavered. "'Twere the devil flyin' off wi' Peter,' says I, an' they fules laughed at me, Peter, ay, laughed at me they did, but they won't laugh at the old man no more——not they; old I be, but they won't laugh at me no more, not when they see your face an' I tell 'em." Here he paused to fumble for his snuff-box, and, opening it, held it towards me.

  "Tak' a pinch wi' me, Peter."

  "No, thank you, Ancient."

  "Come, 'twould be a wonnerful thing to tell as I'd took snuff out o' my very own box wi' a man as 'ad fou't wi' the devil ——come——tak' a pinch, Peter," he pleaded. Whereupon, to please him, I did so, and immediately fell most violently a-sneezing.

  "And," pursued the old man when the paroxysm was over, "did ye see 'is 'orns, Peter, an' 'is——"

  "Why, no, Ancient; you see, he happened to be wearing a bell-crowned hat and a long coat."

  "A 'at an' coat!" said the old man in a disappointed tone——"a 'at, Peter?"

  "Yes," I nodded.

  "To be sure, the Scripters say as 'e goeth up an' down like a ravening lion seekin' whom 'e may devour."

  "Yes," said I, "but more often, I think, like a fine gentleman!"

  "I never heerd tell o' the devil in a bell-crowned 'at afore, but p'r'aps you 'm right, Peter——tak' another pinch o' snuff."

  "No more," said I, shaking my head.

  "Why, it's apt to ketch you a bit at first, but, Lord! Peter, for a man as 'as fou't wi' the devil——"

  "One pinch is more than enough, Ancient."

  "Oh, Peter, 'tis a wonnerful thing as you should be alive this day!"

  "And yet, Ancient, many a man has fought the devil before now and lived——nay, has been the better for it."

  "Maybe, Peter, maybe, but not on sech a tur'ble wild night as last night was." Saying which, the old man nodded emphatically and, rising, hobbled to the door; yet there he turned and came back again. "I nigh forgot, Peter, I have noos for ye."

  "News?"

  "Noos as ever was——noos as'll surprise ye, Peter."

  "Well?" I inquired.

  "Well, Peter, Black Jarge be 'took' again."

  "What?" I exclaimed.

  "Oh! I knowed 'twould come——I knowed 'e couldn't last much longer. I says to Simon, day afore yesterday it were, 'Simon,' I says, 'mark my words, 'e'll never last the month out——no.'"

  "How did it happen, Ancient?"

  "Got tur'ble drunk, 'e did, over to Cranbrook——throwed Mr. Scrope, the Beadle, over the churchyard wall——knocked down Jeremy Tullinger, the Watchman, an' then——went to sleep. While 'e were asleep they managed, cautious-like, to tie 'is legs an' arms, an' locked 'im up, mighty secure, in the vestry. 'Ows'ever, when 'e woke up 'e broke the door open, an' walked out, an' nobody tried to stop 'im——not a soul, Peter."

  "And when was all this?"

  "Why, that's the very p'int," chuckled the Ancient, "that's the wonnerful part of it, Peter. It all 'appened on Sat'day night, day afore yesterday as ever was——the very same day as I says to Simon, 'mark my words, 'e won't last the month out.'"

  "And where is he now?"

  "Nobody knows, but theer's them as says they see 'im makin' for Sefton Woods." Hereupon, breakfast done, I rose, and took my hat.

  "Wheer away, Peter?"

  "To the forge; there is much work to be done, Ancient."

  "But Jarge bean't theer to 'elp ye."

  "Yet the work remains, Ancient."

  "Why then, if you 'm goin', I'll go wi' ye, Peter." So we presently set out together.

  All about us, as we walked, were mute evidences of the fury of last night's storm: trees had been uprooted, and great branches torn from others as if by the hands of angry giants; and the brook was a raging torrent. Down here, in the Hollow, the destruction had been less, but in the woods, above, the giants had worked their will, and many an empty gap showed where, erstwhile, had stood a tall and stately tree.

  "Trees be very like men," said the Ancient, nodding to one that lay prone beside the path, "'ere to-day an' gone to-morrer, Peter——gone to-morrer. The man in the Bible, 'im as was cured of 'is blindness by our blessed Lord, 'e said as men was like trees walkin', but, to my mind, Peter, trees is much more like men a-standin' still. Ye see, Peter, trees be such companionable things; it's very seldom as you see a tree growin' all by itself, an' when you do, if you look at it you can't 'elp but notice 'ow lonely it do look. Ay, its very leaves seem to 'ave a down-'earted sort o' drop. I knowed three on 'em once——elm-trees they was growin' all close together, so close that their branches used to touch each other when the wind blew, jest as if they was a-shakin' 'ands wi' one another, Peter. You could see as they was uncommon fond of each other, wi' half an eye. Well; one day, along comes a storm and blows one on 'em down——kills it dead, Peter; an' a little while later, they cuts down another——Lord knows why——an' theer was the last one, all alone an' solitary. Now, I used to watch that theer tree——an' here's the cur'us thing, Peter——day by day I see that tree a-droopin' an' droopin', a-witherin' an' a-pinin' for them other two——brothers you might say——till one day I come by, an' theer it were, Peter, a-standin' up so big an' tall as ever——but dead! Ay, Peter, dead it were, an' never put forth another leaf, an' never will, Peter——never. An', if you was to ax me, I should say as it died because its 'eart were broke, Peter. Yes, trees is very like men, an' the older you grow the more you'll see it."

  I listened, It was thus we talked, or rather, the Ancient talked and I listened, until we reached Sissinghurst. At the door of the smithy we stopped.

  "Peter," said the old man, staring very hard at a button on my coat.

  "Well, Ancient?"

  "What about that theer——poor, old, rusty——stapil?"

  "Why, it is still above the door, Ancient; you must have seen it this morning."

  "Oh, ah! I seed it, Peter, I seed it," answered the old man, shifting his gaze to a rolling white cloud above. "I give it a glimp' over, Peter, but what do 'ee think of it?"

  "Well," said I, aware of the fixity of his gaze and the wistful note in his voice, "it is certainly older and rustier than it was."

  "Rustier, Peter?"

  "Much rustier!" Very slowly a smile dawned on the wrinkled old face, and very slowly the eyes were lowered till they met mine.

  "Eh, lad! but I be glad o' that——we be all growin' older, Peter, an'——though I be a wonnerful man for my age, an' so strong as a cart-'orse, Peter, still, I du sometimes feel like I be growin' rustier wi' length o' days, an' 'tis a comfort to know as that theer stapil's a-growin' rustier along wi' me. Old I be, but t' stapil's old too, Peter, an' I be waitin' for the day when it shall rust itself away altogether; an' when that day comes, Peter, then I'll say, like the patriach in the Bible: 'Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace!' Amen, Peter!"

  "Amen!" said I. And so, having watched the old man totter across to "The Bull," I turned into the smithy and, set about lighting the fire.

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