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The Broad Highway(Book2,Chapter23)

2006-08-28 22:56

  Book Two. The Woman Chapter XXIII. How Gabbing Dick, the Pedler, Set a Hammer Going in My Head

  Having finished my bars, with four strong brackets to hold them, I put away my tools, and donned hat and coat.

  It was yet early, and there was, besides, much work waiting to be done, but I felt unwontedly tired and out of sorts, wherefore, with my bars and brackets beneath my arm, I set out for the Hollow.

  From the hedges, on either side of me, came the sweet perfume of the honeysuckle, and beyond the hedges the fields stood high with ripening corn——a yellow, heavy-headed host, nodding and swaying lazily. I stood awhile to listen to its whisper as the gentle wind swept over it, and to look down the long green alleys of the hop-gardens beyond; and at the end of one of these straight arched vistas there shone a solitary, great star.

  And presently, lifting my eyes to the sky, already deepening to evening, and remembering how I had looked round me ere I faced Black George, I breathed a sigh of thankfulness that I was yet alive with strength to walk within a world so beautiful.

  Now, as I stood thus, I heard a voice hailing me, and, glancing about, espied one, some distance up the road, who sat beneath the hedge, whom, upon approaching, I recognized as Gabbing Dick, the Pedler.

  He nodded and grinned as I came up, but in both there was a vague unpleasantness, as also in the manner in which he eyed me slowly up and down.

  "You've stood a-lookin' up into the sky for a good ten minutes!" said he.

  "And what if I have?"

  "Nothin," said the Pedler, "nothin' at all——though if the moon 'ad been up, a cove might ha' thought as you was dreamin' of some Eve or other; love-sick folk always stares at the moon——leastways, so they tell me. Any one as stares at the moon when 'e might be doin' summ'at better is a fool, as great a fool as any man as stares at a Eve, for a Eve never brought any man nothin' but trouble and sorrer, and never will, no'ow? Don't frown, young cove, nor shake your 'ead, for it's true; wot's caused more sorrer an' blood than them Eves? Blood?——ah! rivers of it! Oceans of good blood's been spilt all along o' women, from the Eve as tricked old Adam to the Eve as tricks the like o' me, or say——yourself." Here he regarded me with so evil a leer that I turned my back in disgust.

  "Don't go, young cove; I ain't done yet, and I got summ'at to tell ye."

  "Then tell it!" said I, stopping again, struck by the fellow's manner, "and tell it quickly."

  "I'm a-comin' to it as fast as I can, ain't I? Very well then! You're a fine, up-standin' young cove, and may 'ave white 'ands (which I don't see myself, but no matter) and may likewise be chock-full o' taking ways (which, though not noticin', I won't go for to deny)——but a Eve's a Eve, and always will be——you'll mind as I warned you again' 'em last time I see ye?——very well then!"

  "Well?" said I impatiently.

  "Well," nodded the Pedler, and his eyes twinkled malevolently. "I says it again——I warns you again. You're a nice, civil-spoke young cove, and quiet (though I don't like the cock o' your eye), and, mind, I don't bear you no ill-will——though you did turn me from your door on a cold, dark night——"

  "It was neither a cold nor a dark night!" said I.

  "Well, it might ha' been, mightn't it?——very well then! Still, I don't," said the Pedler, spitting dejectedly into the ditch, "I don't bear you no 'ard feelin's for it, no'ow——me always makin' it a pint to forgive them as woefully oppresses me, likewise them as despitefully uses me——it might ha' been cold, and dark, wi' ice and snow, and I might ha' froze to death——but we won't say no more about it."

  "You've said pretty well, I think," said I; "supposing you tell me what you have to tell me——otherwise——good night!"

  "Very well then!" said the Pedler, "let's talk o' summ'at else; still livin' in the 'Oller, I suppose?"

  "Yes."

  "Ah, well! I come through there today," said he, grinning, and again his eyes grew malevolent.

  "Indeed?"

  "Ah!——indeed! I come through this 'ere very arternoon, and uncommon pretty everythin' was lookin', wi' the grass so green, and the trees so——so——"

  "Shady."

  "Shady's the word!" nodded the Pedler, glancing up at me through his narrowed eyelids, and chuckling. "A paradise you might call it——ah! a paradise or a——garden of Eden, wi' Eve and the serpent and all!" and he broke out into a cackling laugh. And, in the look and the laugh, indeed about his whole figure, there was something so repellent, so evil, that I was minded to kick and trample him down into the ditch, yet the leering triumph in his eyes held me.

  "Yes?" said I.

  "Ye see, bein' by, I 'appened to pass the cottage——and very pretty that looked too, and nice and neat inside!"

  "Yes?" said I.

  "And, bein' so near, I 'appened to glance in at the winder, and there, sure enough, I see——'er——as you might say, Eve in the gardin. And a fine figure of a Eve she be, and 'andsome wi' it ——'t ain't often as you see a maid the likes o' 'er, so proud and 'aughty like."

  "Well?"

  "Well, just as I 'appened to look in at the winder, she 'appened to be standin' wi' an open book in 'er 'and——a old, leather book wi' a broken cover."

  "Yes?" said I.

  "And she was a-laughin'——and a pretty, soft, Eve's laugh it were, too."

  "Yes?" said I.

  "And——_'e_ were a-lookin' at the book-over 'er shoulder!" The irons slipped from my grasp, and fell with a harsh clang.

  "Ketches ye, does it?" said the Pedler. I did not speak, but, meeting my eye, he scrambled hastily to his feet, and, catching up his pack, retreated some little way down the road.

  "Ketches ye, does it, my cove?" he repeated; "turn me away from your door on a cold, dark night, would ye (not as I bears you any ill-will for it, bein' of a forgivin' natur')? But I says to you, I says——look out!——a fine 'andsome lass she be, wi' 'er soft eyes and red lips, and long, white arms——the eyes and lips and arms of a Eve; and Eve tricked Adam, didn't she?——and you ain't a better man nor Adam, are ye?——very well then!" saying which, he spat once more into the ditch, and, shouldering his pack, strode away.

  And, after some while, I took up my iron bars, and trudged on towards the cottage. As I went, I repeated to myself, over and over again, the word "Liar." Yet my step was very slow and heavy, and my feet dragged in the dust; and, somewhere in my head, a small hammer had begun to beat, soft and slow and regular, but beating, beating upon my brain.

  Now the upper cover of my Virgil book was broken!

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