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The Broad Highway(Book2,Chapter21)

2006-08-28 22:55

  Book Two. The Woman Chapter XXI. Of the Opening of the Door, and How Charmian Blew Out the Light

  He bestrode a powerful black charger, and his armor glittered through the green. And, as he rode beneath the leafy arches of the wood, he lifted up his voice, and sang, and the song was mournful, and of a plaintive seeming, and rang loud behind his visor-bars; therefore, as I sat beside the freshet, I hearkened to his song:

  "For her love I carke, and care,For her love I droop, and dare,For her love my bliss is bare. And I wax wan!"

  Forth he rode from the shadowy woodland, pacing very solemn and slow; and thrice he struck his iron hand upon his iron breast.

  "For her love, in sleep I slake,For her love, all night I wake,For her love, I mourning make More than any man!"

  Now, being come to where I sat beside the brook, he checked his horse, and gazed full long upon me, and his eyes shone from the gloom of his helmet.

  "Messire," quoth be; "how like you my song?"

  "But little, sir——to be plain with you, not a whit," I answered.

  "And, beseech you——wherefore?"

  "Because it is folly——away with it, for, if your head be full of such, how shall you achieve any lasting good——Glory, Learning, Power?" But, sighing, he shook his head; quoth he:

  "O Blind One!——Glory is but a name, Learning but a yearning emptiness, and whither leadeth Ambition? Man is a mote dancing in a sun-ray——the world, a speck hanging in space. All things vanish and pass utterly away save only True-love, and that abideth everlastingly; 'tis sweeter than Life, and stronger than Death, and reacheth up beyond the stars; and thus it is I pray you tell me——where is she?"

  "She?"

  "She whom ye love?"

  "I love no woman," said I.

  "Liar!" cried he, in a terrible voice, and the voice was the voice of Black George.

  "And who are you that says so?" I demanded, and stood upon my feet.

  "Look——behold and know thyself, O Blind and more than blind!" And, leaning down, he raised his visor so that the moonlight fell upon his face, and the face I looked upon was my own; and, while I gazed, he lifted up his voice, and cried:

  "Ye Spirits of the Wood, I charge ye——who is he that rideth in the green, dreaming ever of her beauty, and sighing forth his love everlastingly, Spirits of the Wood, I charge ye?"

  And out of the gloom of the wood, from every rustling leaf and opening bud, came a little voice that rose and blended in a soft, hushed chorus, crying:

  "Peter Vibart——Peter Vibart!"

  "Spirits of the Wood, I charge ye——who is he that walketh to and fro in the world, and having eyes, seeth not, and ears, heareth not——a very Fool of Love?"

  Once again the voices cried in answer:

  "Peter Vibart!——Peter Vibart!"

  "Spirits of the Wood, I charge ye——who is he that shall love with a love mightier than most——who shall suffer greatly for love and because of it——who shall think of it by day, and dream of it o' nights——who is he that must die to find love and the fulness of life?——O Spirits of the Wood, I charge ye!"

  And again from out the green came the soft, hushed chorus:

  "Peter Vibart——Peter Vibart!"

  But, even as I laughed, came one from the wood, with a horse and armor. And the armor he girded on me, and the horse I mounted. And there, in the moonlit glade, we fought, and strove together, my Other Self and I. And, sudden and strong he smote me, so that I fell down from my horse, and lay there dead, with my blood soaking and soaking into the grass. And, as I watched, there came a blackbird that perched upon my breast, carolling gloriously. Yet, little by little, this bird changed, and lo! in its place was a new Peter Vibart standing upon the old; and the New trampled the Old down into the grass, and——it was gone. Then, with his eyes on the stars, the new Peter Vibart fell a-singing, and the words I sang were these:

  "For her love I carke, and care,For her love I droop, and dare,For her love my bliss is bare. And I wax wan!"

  And thus there came into my heart that which had been all unknown——undreamed of hitherto, yet which, once there, could never pass away.

  "O Spirits of the Wood, I charge ye——who is he that counteth True-love sweeter than Life——greater than Wisdom——stronger than Death? O Spirits of the Wood, I charge ye!"

  And the hushed voices chorused softly.

  "Peter Vibart——Peter Vibart!" And, while I listened, one by one the voices ceased, till there but one remained——calling, calling, but ever soft and far away, and when I would have gone toward this voice——lo! there stood a knife quivering in the ground before me, that grew and grew until its haft touched heaven, yet still the voice called upon my name very softly:

  "Peter!——Peter!——oh, Peter, I want you!——oh, Peter!——wake! wake!" I sat up in bed, and, as I listened, grew suddenly sick, and a fit of trembling shook me violently, for the whisper was still in my ears, and in the whisper was an agony of fear and dread indescribable.

  "Peter!——oh, Peter, I am afraid!——wake! wake!"

  A cold sweat broke out upon me and I glared helplessly, towards the door.

  "Quick, Peter!——come to me——oh, God!"

  I strove to move, but still I could not. And now, in the darkness, hands were shaking me wildly, and Charmian's voice was speaking in my ear.

  "The door!" it whispered, "the door!"

  Then I arose, and was in the outer room, with Charmian close beside me in the dark, and my eyes were upon the door. And then I beheld a strange thing, for a thin line of white light traversed the floor from end to end. Now, as I watched this narrow line, I saw that it was gradually widening and widening; very slowly, and with infinite caution, the door was being opened from without. In this remote place, in this still, dead hour of the night, full of the ghostly hush that ever precedes the dawn ——there was something devilish——something very like murder in its stealthy motion. I heard Charmian's breath catch, and, in the dark, her hand came and crept into mine and her fingers were cold as death.

  And now a great anger came upon me, and I took a quick step forward, but Charmian restrained me.

  "No, Peter!" she breathed; "not yet——wait!" and wound her arms round mine.

  In a corner near by stood that same trusty staff that had been the companion of my wanderings, and now I reached, and took it up, balancing it in my hand. And all the time I watched that line of light upon the floor widening and widening, growing ever broader and more broad. The minutes dragged slowly by, while the line grew into a streak, and the streak into a lane, and upon the lane came a blot that slowly resolved itself into the shadow of a hand upon the latch. Slowly, slowly, to the hand came a wrist, and to the wrist an arm——another minute, and this maddening suspense would be over. Despite Charmian's restraining clasp, I crept a long pace nearer the softly moving door.

  The sharp angle of the elbow was growing obtuse as the shadowy arm straightened itself. Thirty seconds more! I began to count, and, gripping my staff, braced myself for what might be, when ——with a sudden cry, Charmian sprang forward, and, hurling herself against the door, shut it with a crash.

  "Quick, Peter!" she panted. I was beside her almost as she spoke, and had my hand upon the latch.

  "I must see who this was," said I.

  "You are mad!" she cried.

  "Let me open the door, Charmian."

  "No, no——I say no!"

  "Whoever it was must not escape——open the door!"

  "Never! never——I tell you——death is outside——there's murder in the very air; I feel it——and——dear God——the door has no bolt."

  "They are gone now——whoever they were," said I reassuringly; "the danger is over——if danger it could be called."

  "Danger!" cried Charmian. "I tell you——it was death."

  "Yet, after all, it may have been only some homeless wanderer."

  "Then why that deadly, silent caution?"

  "True!" said I, becoming thoughtful.

  "Bring the table, Peter, and set it across the door."

  "Surely the table is too light to——"

  "But it will give sufficient warning——not that I shall sleep again to-night. Oh, Peter! had I not been dreaming, and happened to wake——had I not chanced to look towards the door, it would have opened——wide, and then——oh, horrible!"

  "You were dreaming?"

  "A hateful, hateful dream, and awoke in terror, and, being afraid, glanced towards the door, and saw it opening——and now ——bring the table, Peter."

  Now, groping about, my hand encountered one of the candles, and taking out my tinder-box, all unthinking, I lighted it. Charmian was leaning against the door, clad in a flowing white garment——a garment that was wonderfully stitched——all dainty frills and laces, with here and there a bow of blue riband, disposed, it would seem, by the hand of chance, and yet most wonderfully. And up from this foam of laces her shoulders rose, white, and soft, and dimpled, sweeping up in noble lines to the smooth round column of her throat. But as I stared at all this loveliness she gave a sudden gasp, and stooped her head, and crossed her hands upon her bosom, while up over the snow of shoulder, over neck and cheek and brow ebbed that warm, crimson tide; and I could only gaze and gaze——till, with a movement swift and light, she crossed to that betraying candle and, stooping, blew out the light.

  Then I set the table across the door, having done which I stood looking towards where she yet stood.

  "Charmian," said I.

  "Yes, Peter."

  "To-morrow——"

  "Yes, Peter?"

  "I will make a bar to hold the door."

  "Yes, Peter."

  "Two bars would be better, perhaps?"

  "Yes, Peter."

  "You would feel safe, then——safer than ever?"

  "Safer than ever, Peter."

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