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The Broad Highway(Book2,Chapter29)

2006-08-28 22:57

  Book Two. The Woman Chapter XXIX. In Which Charmian Answers My Question

  "Peter!"

  "Yes?"

  "I wish you wouldn't."

  "Wouldn't what, Charmian?"

  "Stir your tea round and round and round——it is really most ——exasperating!"

  "I beg your pardon!" said I humbly.

  "And you eat nothing; and that is also exasperating!"

  "I am not hungry."

  "And I was so careful with the bacon——see it is fried ——beautifully——yes, you are very exasperating, Peter!"

  Here, finding I was absent-mindedly stirring my tea round and round again, I gulped it down out of the way, whereupon Charmian took my cup and refilled it; having done which, she set her elbows upon the table, and, propping her chin in her hands, looked at me.

  "You climbed out through your window last night, Peter?"

  "Yes."

  "It must have been a——dreadfully tight squeeze!"

  "Yes."

  "And why did you go by the window?"

  "I did not wish to disturb you."

  "That was very thoughtful of you——only, you see, I was up and dressed; the roar of the thunder woke me. It was a dreadful storm, Peter!"

  "Yes."

  "The lightning was awful!"

  "Yes."

  "And you were out in it?"

  "Yes."

  "Oh, you poor, poor Peter! How cold you must have been!"

  "On the contrary," I began, "I——"

  "And wet, Peter——miserably wet and clammy!"

  "I did not notice it," I murmured.

  "Being a philosopher, Peter, and too much engrossed in your thoughts?"

  "I was certainly thinking."

  "Of yourself!"

  "Yes——"

  "You are a great egoist, aren't you, Peter?"

  "Am I, Charmian?"

  "Who but an egoist could stand with his mind so full of himself and his own concerns as to be oblivious to thunder and lightning, and not know that he is miserably clammy and wet?"

  "I thought of others besides myself."

  "But only in connection with yourself; everything you have ever read or seen you apply to yourself, to make that self more worthy in Mr. Vibart's eyes. Is this worthy of Peter Vibart? Can Peter Vibart do this, that, or the other, and still retain the respect of Peter Vibart? Then why, being in all things so very correct and precise, why is Peter Vibart given to prowling abroad at midnight, quite oblivious to thunder, lightning, wet and clamminess? I answer: Because Peter Vibart is too much engrossed by——Peter Vibart. There! that sounds rather cryptic and very full of Peter Vibart; but that is as it should be," and she laughed.

  "And what does it mean, Charmian?"

  "Good sir, the sibyl hath spoken! Find her meaning for yourself."

  "You have called me, on various occasions, a 'creature,' a 'pedant'——very frequently a 'pedant,' and now, it seems I am an 'egoist,' and all because——"

  "Because you think too much, Peter; you never open your lips without having first thought out just what you are going to say; you never do anything without having laboriously mapped it all out beforehand, that you may not outrage Peter Vibart's tranquillity by any impulsive act or speech. Oh! you are always thinking and thinking——and that is even worse than stirring, and stirring at your tea, as you are doing now." I took the spoon hastily from my cup, and laid it as far out of reach as possible. "If ever you should write the book you once spoke of, it would be just the very sort of book that I should——hate."

  "Why, Charmian?"

  "Because it would be a book of artfully turned phrases; a book in which all the characters, especially women, would think and speak and act by rote and rule——as according to Mr. Peter Vibart; it would be a scholarly book, of elaborate finish and care of detail, with no irregularities of style or anything else to break the monotonous harmony of the whole——indeed, sir, it would be a most unreadable book!"

  "Do you think so, Charmian?" said I, once more taking up the teaspoon.

  "Why, of course!" she answered, with raised brows; "it would probably be full of Greek and Latin quotations! And you would polish and rewrite it until you had polished every vestige of life and spontaneity out of it, as you do out of yourself, with your thinking and thinking."

  "But I never quote you Greek or Latin; that is surely something, and, as for thinking, would you have me a thoughtless fool or an impulsive ass?"

  "Anything rather than a calculating, introspective philosopher, seeing only the mote in the sunbeam, and nothing of the glory." Here she gently disengaged the teaspoon from my fingers and laid it in her own saucer, having done which she sighed, and looked at me with her head to one side. "Were they all like you, Peter, I wonder——those old philosophers, grim and stern, and terribly repressed, with burning eyes, Peter, and with very long chins? Epictetus was, of course!"

  "And you dislike Epictetus, Charmian?"

  "I detest him! He was just the kind of person, Peter, who, being unable to sleep, would have wandered out into a terrible thunderstorm, in the middle of the night, and, being cold and wet and clammy, Peter, would have drawn moral lessons, and made epigrams upon the thunder and lightning. Epictetus, I am quite sure, was a——person!"

  "He was one of the wisest, gentlest, and most lovable of all the Stoics!" said I.

  "Can a philosopher possibly be lovable, Peter?" Here I very absent-mindedly took up a fork, but, finding her eye upon me, laid it down again.

  "You are very nervous, Peter, and very pale and worn and haggard, and all because you habitually——overthink yourself; and indeed, there is something very far wrong with a man who perseveringly stirs an empty cup——with a fork!" And, with a laugh, she took my cup and, having once more refilled it, set it before me.

  "And yet, Peter——I don't think——no, I don't think I would have you very much changed, after all."

  "You mean that you would rather I remained the pedantic, egotistical creature——"

  "I mean, Peter, that, being a woman, I naturally love novelty, and you are very novel——and very interesting."

  "Thank you!" said I, frowning.

  "And more contradictory than any woman!"

  "Hum!" said I.

  "You are so strong and simple——so wise and brave——and so very weak and foolish and timid!"

  "Timid?" said I.

  "Timid!" nodded she.

  "I am a vast fool!" I acknowledged.

  "And I never knew a man anything like you before, Peter!"

  "And you have known many, I understand?"

  "Very many."

  "Yes——you told me so once before, I believe."

  "Twice, Peter; and each time you became very silent and gloomy! Now you, on the other hand," she continued, "have known very few women?"

  "And my life has been calm and unruffled in consequence!"

  "You had your books, Peter, and your horseshoes."

  "My books and horseshoes, yes."

  "And were content?"

  "Quite content."

  "Until, one day——a woman——came to you."

  "Until, one day——I met a woman."

  "And then——?"

  "And then——I asked her to marry me, Charmian." Here there ensued a pause, during which Charmian began to pleat a fold in the tablecloth.

  "That was rather——unwise of you, wasn't it?" said she at last.

  "How unwise?"

  "Because——she might——have taken you at your word, Peter."

  "Do you mean that——that you won't, Charmian?"

  "Oh dear, no! I have arrived at no decision yet how could I? You must give me time to consider." Here she paused in her pleating to regard it critically, with her head on one side. "To be sure," said she, with a little nod, "to be sure, you need some one to——to look after you——that is very evident!"

  "Yes."

  "To cook——and wash for you."

  "Yes."

  "To mend your clothes for you."

  "Yes."

  "And you think me——sufficiently competent?"

  "Oh, Charmian, I——yes."

  Thank you!" said she, very solemnly, and, though her lashes had drooped, I felt the mockery of her eyes; wherefore I took a sudden great gulp of tea, and came near choking, while Charmian began to pleat another fold in the tablecloth.

  "And so Mr. Vibart would stoop to wed so humble a person as Charmian Brown? Mr. Peter Vibart would, actually, marry a woman of whose past he knows nothing?"

  "Yes," said I.

  "That, again, would be rather——unwise, wouldn't it?"

  "Why?"

  "Considering Mr. Vibart's very lofty ideals in regard to women."

  "What do you mean?"

  "Didn't you once say that your wife's name must be above suspicion——like Caesar's——or something of the kind?"

  "Did I?——yes, perhaps I did——well?"

  "Well, this woman——this Humble Person has no name at all, and no shred of reputation left her. She has compromised herself beyond all redemption in the eyes of the world."

  "But then," said I, "this world and I have always mutually despised each other."

  "She ran away, this woman——eloped with the most notorious, the most accomplished rake in London."

  "Well?"

  "Oh!——is not that enough?"

  "Enough for what, Charmian?" I saw her busy fingers falter and tremble, but her voice was steady when she answered:

  "Enough to make any——wise man think twice before asking this Humble Person to——to marry him."

  "I might think twenty times, and it would be all one!"

  "You——mean——?"

  "That if Charmian Brown will stoop to marry a village blacksmith, Peter Vibart will find happiness again; a happiness that is not of the sunshine——nor the wind in the trees——Lord, what a fool I was!" Her fingers had stopped altogether now, but she neither spoke nor raised her head.

  "Charmian," said I, leaning nearer across the table, "speak."

  "Oh, Peter!" said she, with a sudden break in her voice, and stooped her head lower. Yet in a little she looked up at me, and her eyes were very sweet and shining.

  Now, as our glances met thus, up from throat to brow there crept that hot, slow wave of color, and in her face and in her eyes I seemed to read joy, and fear, and shame, and radiant joy again. But now she bent her head once more, and strove to pleat another fold, and could not; while I grew suddenly afraid of her and of myself, and longed to hurl aside the table that divided us; and thrust my hands deep into my pockets, and, finding there my tobacco-pipe, brought it out and fell to turning it aimlessly over and over. I would have spoken, only I knew that my voice would tremble, and so I sat mum-chance, staring at my pipe with unseeing eyes, and with my brain in a ferment. And presently came her voice, cool and sweet and sane:

  "Your tobacco, Peter," and she held the box towards me across the table.

  "Ah, thank you!" said I, and began to fill my pipe, while she watched me with her chin propped in her hands.

  "Peter!"

  "Yes, Charmian?"

  "I wonder why so grave a person as Mr. Peter Vibart should seek to marry so impossible a creature as——the Humble Person?"

  "I think," I answered, "I think, if there is any special reason, it is because of——your mouth."

  "My mouth?"

  "Or your eyes——or the way you have with your lashes."

  Charmian laughed, and forthwith drooped them at me, and laughed again, and shook her head.

  "But surely, Peter, surely there are thousands, millions of women with mouths and eyes like——the Humble Person's?"

  "It is possible," said I, "but none who have the same way with their lashes."

  "What do you mean?"

  "I can't tell; I don't know."

  "Don't you, Peter?"

  "No——it is just a way."

  "And so it is that you want to marry this very Humble Person?"

  "I think I have wanted to from the very first, but did not know it——being a blind fool!"

  "And——did it need a night walk in a thunderstorm to teach you?"

  "No——that is, yes——perhaps it did."

  "And——are you quite, quite sure?"

  "Quite——quite sure!" said I, and, as I spoke, I laid my pipe upon the table and rose; and, because my hands were trembling, I clenched my fists. But, as I approached her, she started up and put out a hand to hold me off, and then I saw that her hands were trembling also. And standing thus, she spoke, very softly:

  "Peter."

  "Yes, Charmian?"

  "Do you remember describing to me the——the perfect woman who should be your——wife?"

  "Yes."

  "How that you must be able to respect her for her intellect?"

  "Yes."

  "Honor her for her virtue?"

  "Yes, Charmian."

  "And worship her——for her——spotless purity?"

  "I dreamed a paragon——perfect and impossible; I was a fool!" said I.

  "Impossible! Oh, Peter! what——what do you mean?"

  "She was only an impalpable shade quite impossible of realization——a bloodless thing, as you said, and quite unnatural ——a sickly figment of the imagination. I was a fool!"

  "And you are——too wise now, to expect——such virtues——in any woman?"

  "Yes," said I; "no——oh, Charmian! I only know that you have taken this phantom's place——that you fill all my thoughts ——sleeping, and waking——"

  "No! No!" she cried, and struggled in my arms, so that I caught her hands, and held them close, and kissed them many times.

  "Oh, Charmian! Charmian!——don't you know——can't you see——it is you I want——you, and only you forever; whatever you were ——whatever you are——I love you——love you, and always must! Marry me, Charmian!——marry me! and you shall be dearer than my life——more to me than my soul——" But, as I spoke, her hands were snatched away, her eyes blazed into mine, and her lips were all bitter scorn, and at the sight, fear came upon me.

  "Marry you!" she panted; "marry you?——no and no and no!" And so she stamped her foot, and sobbed, and turning, fled from me, out of the cottage.

  And now to fear came wonder, and with wonder was despair.

  Truly, was ever man so great a fool!

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