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The Broad Highway(Book2,Chapter20)

2006-08-28 22:55

  Book Two. The Woman Chapter XX. How I Came Up Out of the Dark

  Some one was calling to me, a long way off.

  Some one was leaning down from a great height to call to me in the depths; and the voice was wonderfully sweet, but faint, faint, because the height was so very high, and the depths so very great.

  And still the voice called and called, and I felt sorry that I could not answer, because, as I say, the voice was troubled, and wonderfully sweet.

  And, little by little, it seemed that it grew nearer, this voice; was it descending to me in these depths of blackness, or was I being lifted up to the heights where, I knew, blackness could not be? Ay, indeed, I was being lifted, for I could feel a hand upon my brow——a smooth, cool hand that touched my cheek, and brushed the hair from my forehead; a strong, gentle hand it was, with soft fingers, and it was lifting me up and up from the loathly depths which seemed more black and more horrible the farther I drew from them.

  And so I heard the voice nearer, and ever nearer, until I could distinguish words, and the voice had tears in it, and the words were very tender.

  "Peter——speak!——speak to me, Peter!"

  "Charmian?" said I, within myself; "why, truly, whose hand but hers could have lifted me out of that gulf of death, back to light and life?" Yet I did not speak aloud, for I had no mind to, yet a while.

  "Ah! speak to me——speak to me, Peter! How can you lie there so still and pale?"

  And now her arms were about me, strong and protecting, and my head was drawn down upon her bosom.

  "Oh, Peter!——my Peter!"

  Nay, but was this Charmian, the cold, proud Charmian? Truly I had never heard that thrill in her voice before——could this indeed be Charmian? And lying thus, with my head on this sweet pillow, I could hear her heart whispering to me, and it seemed that it was striving to tell me something——striving, striving to tell me something, could I but understand——ah! could I but understand!

  "I waited for you so long——so long, Peter——and the supper is all spoiled——a rabbit, Peter——you liked rabbit, and——and oh, God! I want you——don't you hear me, Peter——I want you——want you!" and now her cheek was pressed to mine, and her lips were upon my hair, and upon my brow——her lips! Was this indeed Charmian, and was I Peter Vibart? Ah, if I could but know what it was her heart was trying to tell me, so quickly and passionately!

  And while I lay listening, listening, something hot splashed down upon my cheek, and then another, and another; her bosom heaved tumultuously, and instinctively, raising my arms, I clasped them about her.

  "Don't!" I said, and my voice was a whisper; "don't, Charmian!"

  For a moment her clasp tightened about me, she was all tenderness and clinging warmth; then I heard a sudden gasp, her arms loosened and fell away, and so I presently raised my head, and, supporting myself upon my hand, looked at her. And then I saw that her cheeks were burning.

  "Peter."

  "Yes, Charmian?"

  "Did you——" She paused, plucking nervously at the grass, and looking away from me.

  "Well, Charmian?"

  "Did you——hear——" Again she broke off, and still her head was averted.

  "I heard your voice calling to me from a great way off, and so——I came, Charmian."

  "Were you conscious when——when I——found you?"

  "No," I answered; "I was lying in a very deep, black, pit." Here she looked at me again.

  "I——I thought you——were——dead, Peter."

  "My soul was out of my body——until you recalled it."

  "You were lying upon your back, by the hedge here, and——oh, Peter! your face was white and shining in the moonlight——and there was——blood upon it, and you looked like one that is——dead!" and she shivered.

  "And you have brought me back to life," said I, rising; but, being upon my feet, I staggered giddily, to hide which, I laughed, and leaned against a tree. "Indeed," said I, "I am very much alive still, and monstrously hungry——you spoke of a rabbit, I think——"

  "A rabbit!" said Charmian in a whisper, and as I met her eye I would have given much to have recalled that thoughtless speech.

  "I——I think you did mention a rabbit," said I, floundering deeper.

  "So, then——you deceived me, you lay there and deceived me——with your eyes shut, and your ears open, taking advantage of my pity——"

  "No, no——indeed, no——I thought myself still dreaming; it——it all seemed so unreal, so——so beyond all belief and possibility and——" I stopped, aghast at my crass folly, for, with a cry, she sprang to her feet, and hid her face in her hands, while I stood dumbfounded, like the fool I was. When she looked up, her eyes seemed to, scorch me.

  "And I thought Mr. Vibart a man of honor——like a knight of his old-time romances, high and chivalrous——oh! I thought him a ——gentleman!"

  "Instead of which," said I, speaking (as it were), despite myself, "instead of which, you find me only a blacksmith——a low, despicable fellow eager to take advantage of your unprotected womanhood." She did not speak standing tall and straight, her head thrown back; wherefore, reading her scorn of me in her eyes, seeing the proud contempt of her mouth, a very demon seemed suddenly to possess me, for certainly the laugh that rang from my lip, proceeded from no volition of mine.

  "And yet, madam," my voice went on, "this despicable blacksmith fellow refused one hundred guineas for you to-day."

  "Peter!" she cried, and shrank away from me as if I had threatened to strike her.

  "Ah!——you start at that——your proud lip trembles——do not fear, madam——the sum did not tempt him——though a large one."

  "Peter!" she cried again, and now there was a note of appeal in her voice.

  "Indeed, madam, even so degraded a fellow as this blacksmith could not very well sell that which he does not possess——could he? And so the hundred guineas go a-begging, and you are still ——unsold!" Long before I had done she had covered her face again, and, coming near, I saw the tears running out between her fingers and sparkling as they fell. And once again the devil within me laughed loud and harsh. But, while it still echoed, I had flung myself down at her feet.

  "Charmian," I cried, "forgive me——you will, you must!" and, kneeling before her, I strove to catch her gown, and kiss its hem, but she drew it close about her, and, turning, fled from me through the shadows.

  Heedless of all else but that she was leaving me, I stumbled to my feet and followed. The trees seemed to beset me as I ran, and bushes to reach out arms to stay me, but I burst from them, running wildly, blunderingly, for she was going——Charmian was leaving me. And so, spent and panting, I reached the cottage, and met Charmian at the door. She was clad in the long cloak she had worn when she came, and the hood was drawn close about her face.

  I stood panting in the doorway, barring her exit.

  "Let me pass, Peter."

  "By God——no!" I cried, and, entering, closed the door, and leaned my back against it.

  And, after we had stood thus awhile, each looking upon the other, I reached out my hands to her, and my hands were torn and bloody.

  "Don't go, Charmian," I mumbled, "don't go! Oh, Charmian——I'm hurt——I didn't want you to know, but you mustn't leave me——I am not——well; it is my head, I think. I met Black George, and he was too strong for me. I'm deaf, Charmian, and half blinded——oh, don't leave me——I'm afraid, Charmian!" Her figure grew more blurred and indistinct, and I sank down upon my knees; but in the dimness I reached out and found her hands, and clasped them, and bowed my aching head upon them, and remained thus a great while, as it seemed to me.

  And presently, through the mist, her voice reached me.

  "Oh, Peter! I will not leave you——lean on me there——there!" And, little by little, those strong, gentle hands drew me up once more to light and life. And so she got me to a chair, and brought cool water, and washed the blood and sweat from me, as she had once before, only now my hurts were deeper, for my head grew beyond my strength to support, and hung upon my breast, and my brain throbbed with fire, and the mist was ever before my eyes.

  "Are you in much pain, Peter?"

  "My head——only my head, Charmian——there is a bell ringing there, no——it is a hammer, beating." And indeed I remembered little for a while, save the touch of her hands and the soothing murmur of her voice, until I found she was kneeling beside me, feeding me with broth from a spoon. Wherefore I presently took the basin from her and emptied it at a gulp, and, finding myself greatly revived thereby, made some shift to eat of the supper she set before me.

  So she presently came and sat beside me and ate also, watching me at each morsel.

  "Your poor hands!" said she, and, looking down at them, I saw that my knuckles were torn and broken, and the fingers much swelled. "And yet," said Charmian, "except for the cut in your head, you are quite unmarked, Peter."

  "He fought mostly for the body," I answered, "and I managed to keep my face out of the way; but he caught me twice——once upon the chin, lightly, and once up behind the ear, heavily; had his fist landed fairly I don't think even you could have brought me back from those loathly depths, Charmian."

  And in a while, supper being done, she brought my pipe, and filled it, and held the light for me. But my head throbbed woefully and for once the tobacco was flavorless; so I sighed, and laid the pipe by.

  "Why, Peter!" said Charmian, regarding me with an anxious frown, "can't you smoke?"

  "Not just now, Charmian," said I, and leaning my head in my hands, fell into a sort of coma, till, feeling her touch upon my shoulder, I started, and looked up.

  "You must go to bed, Peter."

  "No," said I.

  "Yes, Peter."

  "Very well, Charmian, yes——I will go to bed," and I rose.

  "Do you feel better now, Peter?"

  "Thank you, yes——much better."

  "Then why do you hold on to the chair?"

  "I am still a little giddy——but it will pass." And "Charmian ——you forgive——"

  "Yes——yes, don't——don't look at me like that, Peter——and——oh, good night!——foolish boy!"

  "I am——twenty-five, Charmian!" But as she turned away I saw that there were tears in her eyes.

  Dressed as I was, I lay down upon my bed, and, burying my head in the pillow, groaned, for my pain was very sore; indeed I was to feel the effects of George's fist for many a day to come, and it seems to me now that much of the morbid imaginings, the nightly horrors, and black despair, that I endured in the time which immediately followed, was chiefly owing to that terrible blow upon the head.

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