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The Broad Highway(Book2,Chapter1)

2006-08-28 22:49

  Book Two. The Woman Chapter I. Of Storm, and TEmpest, and of the Coming of Charmian

  I was at sea in an open boat. Out of the pitch-black heaven there rushed a mighty wind, and the pitch-black seas above me rose high, and ever higher, flecked with hissing white; wherefore I cast me face downwards in my little boat, that I might not behold the horror of the waters; and above their ceaseless, surging thunder there rose a long-drawn cry:

  "Charmian!"

  I stood upon a desolate moor, and the pitiless rain lashed me, and the fierce wind buffeted me; and, out of the gloom where frowning earth and heaven met——there rose a long-drawn cry:

  "Charmian."

  I started up in bed, broad awake, and listening; yet the tumult was all about me still——the hiss and beat of rain, and the sound of a rushing, mighty wind——a wind that seemed to fill the earth——a wind that screamed about me, that howled above me, and filled the woods, near and far, with a deep booming, pierced, now and then, by the splintering crash of snapping bough or falling tree. And yet, somewhere in this frightful pandemonium of sound, blended in with it, yet not of it, it seemed to me that the cry still faintly echoed:

  "Charmian."

  So appalling was all this to my newly-awakened senses, that I remained, for a time, staring into the darkness as one dazed. Presently, however, I rose, and, donning some clothes, mended the fire which still smouldered upon the hearth, and, having filled and lighted my pipe, sat down to listen to the awful voices of the storm.

  What brain could conceive——what pen describe that elemental chorus, like the mighty voice of persecuted Humanity, past and present, crying the woes and ills, the sorrows and torments, endured of all the ages? To-night, surely, the souls of the unnumbered dead rode within the storm, and this was the voice of their lamentation.

  From the red mire of battlefields are they come, from the flame and ravishment of fair cities, from dim and reeking dungeons, from the rack, the stake, and the gibbet, to pierce the heavens once more with the voice of their agony.

  Since the world was made, how many have lived and suffered, and died, unlettered and unsung——snatched by a tyrant's whim from life to death, in the glory of the sun, in the gloom of night, in blood and flame, and torment? Indeed, their name is "Legion."

  But there is a great and awful Book, whose leaves are countless, yet every leaf of which is smirched with blood and fouled with nameless sins, a record, howsoever brief and inadequate, of human suffering, wherein as "through a glass, darkly," we may behold horrors unimagined; where Murder stalks, and rampant Lust; where Treachery creeps with curving back, smiling mouth, and sudden, deadly hand; where Tyranny, fierce-eyed, and iron-lipped, grinds the nations beneath a bloody heel. Truly, man hath no enemy like man. And Christ is there, and Socrates, and Savonarola——and there, too, is a cross of agony, a bowl of hemlock, and a consuming fire.

  Oh, noble martyrs! by whose blood and agony the world is become a purer and better place for us, and those who shall come after us ——Oh glorious, innumerable host! thy poor, maimed bodies were dust ages since, but thy souls live on in paradise, and thy memory abides, and shall abide in the earth, forever.

  Ye purblind, ye pessimists, existing with no hope of a resurrection, bethink you of these matters; go, open the great and awful Book, and read and behold these things for yourselves ——for what student of history is there but must be persuaded of man's immortality——that, though this poor flesh be mangled, torn asunder, burned to ashes, yet the soul, rising beyond the tyrant's reach, soars triumphant above death and this sorry world, to the refuge of "the everlasting arms;" for God is a just God!

  Now, in a while, becoming conscious that my pipe was smoked out and cold, I reached up my hand to my tobacco-box upon the mantelshelf. Yet I did not reach it down, for, even as my fingers closed upon it, above the wailing of the storm, above the hiss and patter of driven rain, there rose a long-drawn cry:

  "Charmian!"

  So, remembering the voice I had seemed to hear calling in my dream, I sat there with my hand stretched up to my tobacco-box, and my face screwed round to the casement behind me, that, as I watched, shook and rattled beneath each wind-gust, as if some hand strove to pluck it open.

  How long I remained thus, with my hand stretched up to my tobacco-box, and my eyes upon this window, I am unable to say, but, all at once, the door of the cottage burst open with a crash, and immediately the quiet room was full of rioting wind and tempest; such a wind as stopped my breath, and sent up a swirl of smoke and sparks from the fire. And, borne upon this wind, like some spirit of the storm, was a woman with flying draperies and long, streaming hair, who turned, and, with knee and shoulder, forced to the door, and so leaned there, panting.

  Tall she was, and nobly shaped, for her wet gown clung, disclosing the sinuous lines of her waist and the bold, full curves of hip and thigh. Her dress, too, had been wrenched and torn at the neck, and, through the shadow of her fallen hair, I caught the ivory gleam of her shoulder, and the heave and tumult of her bosom.

  Here I reached down my tobacco-box and mechanically began to fill my pipe, watching her the while.

  Suddenly she started, and seemed to listen. Then, with a swift, stealthy movement, she slipped from before the door, and I noticed that she hid one hand behind her.

  "Charmian!"

  The woman crouched back against the wall, with her eyes towards the door, and always her right hand was hidden in the folds of her petticoat. So we remained, she watching the door, and I, her.

  "Charmian!"

  The voice was very near now, and, almost immediately after, there came a loud "view hallo," and a heavy fist pounded upon the door.

  "Oh, Charmian, you're there——yes, yes——inside——I know you are. I swore you should never escape me, and you sha'n't——by God!" A hand fumbled upon the latch, the door swung open, and a man entered. As he did so I leapt forward, and caught the woman's wrist. There was a blinding flash, a loud report, and a bullet buried itself somewhere in the rafters overhead. With a strange, repressed cry, she turned upon me so fiercely that I fell back before her.

  The newcomer, meantime, had closed the door, latching it very carefully, and now, standing before it, folded his arms, staring at her with bent head. He was a very tall man, with a rain-sodden, bell-crowned hat crushed low upon his brows, and wrapped in a long, many-caged overcoat, the skirts of which were woefully mired and torn. All at once he laughed, very softly and musically.

  "So, you would have killed me, would you, Charmian——shot me——like a dog?" His tone was soft as his laugh and equally musical, and yet neither was good to hear. "So you thought you had lost me, did you, when you gave me the slip, a while ago? Lose me? Escape me? Why, I tell you, I would search for you day and night——hunt the world over until I found you, Charmian——until I found you," said he, nodding his head and speaking almost in a whisper. "I would, by God!"

  The woman neither moved nor uttered a word, only her breath came thick and fast, and her eyes gleamed in the shadow of her hair.

  They stood facing each other, like two adversaries, each measuring the other's strength, without appearing to be conscious of my presence; indeed, the man had not so much as looked toward me even when I had struck up the pistol.

  Now, with every minute I was becoming more curious to see this man's face, hidden as it was in the shadow of his dripping hat brim. Yet the fire had burned low.

  "You always were a spitfire, weren't you, Charmian?" he went on in the same gentle voice; "hot, and fierce, and proud——the flame beneath the ice——I knew that, and loved you the better for it; and so I determined to win you, Charmian——to win you whether you would or no. And——you are so strong——so tall, and glorious, and strong, Charmian!"

  His voice had sunk to a murmur again, and he drew a slow step nearer to her.

  "How wonderful you are, Charmian! I always loved your shoulders and that round, white throat. Loved? Worshipped them, worshipped them! And to-night——" He paused, and I felt, rather than saw, that he was smiling. "And to-night you would have killed me, Charmian——shot me——like a dog! But I would not have it different. You have flouted, coquetted, scorned, and mocked me——for three years, Charmian, and to-night you would have killed me——and I——would not have it otherwise, for surely you can see that this of itself must make your final surrender——even sweeter."

  With a gesture utterly at variance with his voice, so sudden, fierce, and passionate was it, he sprang toward her with outstretched arms. But, quick as he, she eluded him, and, before he could reach her, I stepped between them.

  "Sir," said I, "a word with you."

  "Out of my way, bumpkin!" he retorted, and, brushing one aside, made after her. I caught him by the skirts of his long, loose coat, but, with a dexterous twist, he had left it in my grasp. Yet the check, momentary though it was, enabled her to slip through the door of that room which had once been Donald's, and, before he could reach it, I stood upon the threshold. He regarded me for a moment beneath his hat brim, and seemed undecided how to act.

  "My good fellow," said he at last, "I will buy your cottage of you——for to-night——name your price."

  I shook my head. Hereupon he drew a thick purse from his pocket, and tossed it, chinking, to my feet.

  "There are two hundred guineas, bumpkin, maybe more——pick them up, and——go," and turning, he flung open the door.

  Obediently I stooped, and, taking up the purse, rolled it in the coat which I still held, and tossed both out of the cottage.

  "Sir," said I, "be so very obliging as to follow your property."

  "Ah!" he murmured, "very pretty, on my soul!" And, in that same moment, his knuckles caught me fairly between the eyes, and he was upon me swift, and fierce, and lithe as a panther.

  I remember the glint of his eyes and the flash of his bared teeth, now to one side of me, now to the other, as we swayed to and fro, overturning the chairs, and crashing into unseen obstacles. In that dim and narrow place small chance was there for feint or parry; it was blind, brutal work, fierce, and grim, and silent. Once he staggered and fell heavily, carrying the table crashing with him, and I saw him wipe blood from his face as he rose; and once I was beaten to my knees, but was up before he could reach me again, though the fire upon the hearth spun giddily round and round, and the floor heaved oddly beneath my feet.

  Then, suddenly, hands were upon my throat, and I could feel the hot pant of his breath in my face, breath that hissed and whistled between clenched teeth. Desperately I strove to break his hold, to tear his hands asunder, and could not; only the fingers tightened and tightened.

  Up and down the room we staggered, grim and voiceless——out through the open door——out into the whirling blackness of the storm. And there, amid the tempest, lashed by driving rain and deafened by the roaring rush of wind, we fought——as our savage forefathers may have done, breast to breast, and knee to knee ——stubborn and wild, and merciless——the old, old struggle for supremacy and life.

  I beat him with my fists, but his head was down between his arms; I tore at his wrists, but he gripped my throat the tighter; and now we were down, rolling upon the sodden grass, and now we were up, stumbling and slipping, but ever the gripping fingers sank the deeper, choking the strength and life out of me. My eyes stared up into a heaven streaked with blood and fire, there was the taste of sulphur in my mouth, my arms grew weak and nerveless, and the roar of wind seemed a thousand times more loud. Then——something clutched and dragged us by the feet, we tottered, swayed helplessly, and plunged down together. But, as we fell, the deadly, gripping fingers slackened for a moment, and in that moment I had broken free, and, rolling clear, stumbled up to my feet. Yet even then I was sill encumbered, and, stooping down, found the skirts of the overcoat twisted tightly about my foot and ankle. Now, as I loosed it, I inwardly blessed that tattered garment, for it seemed that to it I owed my life.

  So I stood, panting, and waited for the end. I remember a blind groping in the dark, a wild hurly-burly of random blows, a sudden sharp pain in my right hand——a groan, and I was standing with the swish of the rain about me, and the moaning of the wind in the woods beyond.

  How long I remained thus I cannot tell, for I was as one in a dream, but the cool rain upon my face refreshed me, and the strong, clean wind in my nostrils was wonderfully grateful. Presently, raising my arm stiffly, I brushed the wet hair from my eyes, and stared round me into the pitchy darkness, in quest of my opponent.

  "Where are you?" said I at last, and this was the first word uttered during the struggle; "where are you?"

  Receiving no answer, I advanced cautiously (for it was, as I have said, black dark), and so, presently, touched something yielding with my foot.

  "Come——get up!" said I, stooping to lay a hand upon him, "get up, I say." But he never moved; he was lying upon his face, and, as I raised his head, my fingers encountered a smooth, round stone, buried in the grass, and the touch of that stone thrilled me from head to foot with sudden dread. Hastily I tore open waistcoat and shirt, and pressed nay hand above his heart. In that one moment I lived an age of harrowing suspense, then breathed a sigh of relief, and, rising, took him beneath the arms and began to half drag, half carry him towards the cottage.

  I had proceeded thus but some dozen yards or so when, during a momentary lull in the storm, I thought I heard a faint "Hallo," and looking about, saw a twinkling light that hovered to and fro, coming and going, yet growing brighter each moment. Setting down my burden, therefore, I hollowed my hands about my mouth, and shouted.

  "This way!" I called; "this way!"

  "Be that you, sir?" cried a man's voice at no great distance.

  "This way!" I called again, "this way!" The words seemed to reassure the fellow, for the light advanced once more, and as he came up, I made him out to be a postilion by his dress, and the light he carried was the lanthorn of a chaise.

  "Why——sir!" he began, looking me up and down, by the light of his lanthorn, "strike me lucky if I'd ha' knowed ye! you looks as if ——oh, Lord!"

  "What is it?" said I, wiping the rain from my eyes again. The Postilion's answer was to lower his lanthorn towards the face of him who lay on the ground between us, and point. Now, looking where he pointed, I started suddenly backwards, and shivered, with a strange stirring of the flesh.

  For I saw a pale face with a streak of blood upon the cheek ——there was blood upon my own; a face framed in lank hair, thick and black——as was my own; a pale, aquiline face, with a prominent nose, and long, cleft chin——even as my own. So, as I stood looking down upon this face, my breath caught, and my flesh crept, for indeed, I might have been looking into a mirror——the face was the face of myself.

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