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The Broad Highway(Book2,Chapter7)

2006-08-28 22:51

  Book Two. The Woman Chapter VII. Which Narrates a Somewhat Remarkable Conversation

  To find a man in Cambourne Woods, even so big a man as Black George, would seem as hard a matter as to find the needle in the proverbial "bottle of hay;" the sun crept westward, the day declined into evening, yet, hungry though I was, I persevered in my search, not so much in the hope of finding him (in the which I knew I must be guided altogether by chance), as from a disinclination to return, just yet, to the cottage. "It would be miserable there at this hour," I told myself, "miserable and lonely."

  Yet why should I be lonely; I, who had gloried in my solitude hitherto? Whence then had come this change?

  While I stood thus, seeking an answer to this self-imposed question and finding none, I heard some one approach, whistling, and, looking about, beheld a fellow with an axe upon his shoulder, who strode along at a good pace, keeping time to his whistle. He gave me a cheery greeting as he came up, but without stopping.

  "You seem in a hurry," said I.

  "Ah!" grinned the man, over his shoulder, "'cause why?——'cause I be goin' 'ome."

  "Home!" said I.

  "To supper," he nodded, and, forthwith, began to whistle again, while I stood listening till the clear notes had died away.

  "Home!" said I for the second time, and there came upon me a feeling of desolation such as I had never known even in my neglected boyhood's days.

  Home! truly a sweet word, a comfortable word, the memory of which has been as oil and wine to many a sick and weary traveler upon this Broad Highway of life; a little word, and yet one which may come betwixt a man and temptation, covering him like a shield. "Roof and walls, be they cottage or mansion, do not make home," thought I, "rather is it the atmosphere of mutual love, the intimacies of thought, the joys and sorrows endured together, and the never-failing sympathy——that bond invisible yet stronger than death."

  And, because I had, hitherto, known nothing of this, I was possessed of a great envy for this axe-fellow as I walked on through the wood.

  Now as I went, it was as if there were two voices arguing together within me, whereof ensued the following triangular conversation:

  MYSELF. Yet I have my books——I will go to my lonely cottage and bury myself among my books.

  FIRST VOICE. Assuredly! Is it for a philosopher to envy a whistling axe-fellow——go to!

  SECOND VOICE. Far better a home and loving companionship than all the philosophy of all the schools; surely Happiness is greater than Learning, and more to be desired than Wisdom!

  FIRST VOICE. Better rather that Destiny had never sent her to you.

  MYSELF (rubbing my chin very hard, and staring at nothing in particular). Her?

  SECOND VOICE. Her!——to be sure, she who has been in your thoughts all day long.

  FIRST VOICE (with lofty disdain). Crass folly!——a woman utterly unknown, who came heralded by the roar of wind and the rush of rain——a creature born of the tempest, with flame in her eyes and hair, and fire in the scarlet of her mouth; a fierce, passionate being, given to hot impulse——even to the taking of a man's life!

  ("But," said I, somewhat diffidently, "the fellow was a proved scoundrel!")

  FIRST VOICE (bellowing). Sophistry! sophistry! even supposing he was the greatest of villains, does that make her less a murderess in intent?

  MYSELF. Hum!

  FIRST VOICE (roaring). Of course not! Again, can this woman even faintly compare with your ideal of what a woman should be ——this shrew!——this termagant! Can a woman whose hand has the strength to level a pistol, and whose mind the will to use it, be of a nature gentle, clinging, sweet——

  SECOND VOICE (sotto). And sticky!

  FIRST VOICE (howling). Of course not!——preposterous!

  (Hereupon, finding no answer, I strode on through the alleys of the wood; but, when I had gone some distance, I stopped again, for there rushed over me the recollection of the tender pity of her eyes and the gentle touch of her hand, as when she had bound up my hurts.

  "Nevertheless," said I doggedly, "her face can grow more beautiful with pity, and surely no woman's hand could be lighter or more gentle.")

  FIRST VOICE (with withering contempt). Our Peter fellow is like to become a preposterous ass.

  (But, unheeding, I thrust my hand into my breast, and drew out a small handful of cambric, whence came a faint perfume of violets. And, closing my eyes, it seemed that she was kneeling before me, her arms about my neck, as when she had bound this handkerchief about my bleeding temples.

  "Truly," said I, "for that one sweet act alone, a woman might be worth dying for!")

  SECOND VOICE. Or better still——living for!

  FIRST VOICE (in high indignation). Balderdash, Sir!——sentimental balderdash!

  SECOND VOICE. A truth incontrovertible!

  ("Folly!" said I, and threw the handkerchief from me. But next moment, moved by a sudden impulse, I stooped and picked it up again.)

  FIRST VOICE. Our Peter fellow is becoming the fool of fools!

  MYSELF. No, of that there is not the slightest fear, because ——she is——gone.

  And thus I remained staring at the handkerchief for a great while.

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