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The Broad Highway(Book1,Chapter21)

2006-08-28 22:44

  Book One Chapter XXI. "Journeys End in Lovers' Meetings"

  The moon was fast sinking below the treetops to our left, what time we reached a road, or rather cart-track that wound away up a hill. Faint and far a church clock slowly chimed the hour of three, the solemn notes coming sweet and silvery with distance.

  "What chimes are those?" I inquired.

  "Cranbrook Church."

  "Is it far to Cranbrook?"

  "One mile this way, but two by the road yonder."

  "You seem very well acquainted with these parts," said I.

  "I have lived here all my life; those are the Cambourne Woods over there——"

  "Cambourne Woods!" said I.

  "Part of the Sefton estates," she continued; "Cambourne village lies to the right, beyond."

  "The Lady Sophia Sefton of Cambourne!" said I thoughtfully.

  "My dearest friend," nodded my companion.

  "They say she is very handsome," said I.

  "Then they speak truth, sir."

  "She has been described to me," I went on, "as a Peach, a Goddess, and a Plum; which should you consider the most proper term? "My companion shot an arch glance at me from the corners of her eyes, and I saw a dimple come and go, beside the curve of her mouth.

  "Goddess, to be sure," said she; "peaches have such rough skins, and plums are apt to be sticky."

  "And goddesses," I added, "were all very well upon Olympus, but, in this matter-of-fact age, must be sadly out of place. Speaking for myself——"

  "Have you ever seen this particular Goddess?" inquired my companion.

  "Never."

  "Then wait until you have, sir."

  The moon was down now, yet the summer sky was wonderfully luminous and in the east I almost fancied I could detect the first faint gleam of day. And after we had traversed some distance in silence, my companion suddenly spoke, but without looking at me.

  "You have never once asked who I am," she said, almost reproachfully I thought, "nor how I came to be shut up in such a place——with such a man."

  "Why, as to that," I answered, "I make it a general rule to avoid awkward subjects when I can, and never to ask questions that it will be difficult to answer."

  "I should find not the least difficulty in answering either," said she.

  "Besides," I continued, "it is no affair of mine, after all."

  "Oh!" said she, turning away from me; and then, very slowly: "No, I suppose not."

  "Certainly not," I added; "how should it be?"

  "How indeed!" said she, over her shoulder. And then I saw that she was angry, and wondered.

  "And yet," I went on, after a lapse of silence, "I think I could have answered both questions the moment I saw you at your casement."

  "Oh!" said she——this time in a tone of surprise, and her anger all gone again, for I saw that she was smiling; and again I wondered.

  "Yes," I nodded.

  "Then," said she, seeing I was silent, "whom do you suppose me?"

  "You are, to the best of my belief, the Lady Helen Dunstan." My companion stood still, and regarded me for a moment in wide-eyed astonishment.

  "And how, air, pray, did you learn all this?" she demanded, with the dimple once more peeping at me slyly from the corner of her pretty mouth.

  "By the very simple method of adding two and two together," I answered; "moreover, no longer ago than yesterday I broke bread with a certain Mr. Beverley——"

  I heard her breath come in a sudden gasp, and next moment she was peering up into my face while her hands beat upon my breast with soft, quick little taps.

  "Beverley!" she whispered. "Beverley!——no, no——why, they told me——Sir Harry told me that Peregrine lay dying——at Tonbridge."

  "Then Sir Harry Mortimer lied to you," said I, "for no longer ago than yesterday afternoon I sat in a ditch eating bread and cheese with a Mr. Peregrine Beverley."

  "Oh!——are you sure——are you sure?"

  "Quite sure. And, as we ate, he told me many things, and among them of a life of wasted opportunities——of foolish riot, and prodigal extravagance, and of its logical consequence——want."

  "My poor Perry!" she murmured.

  "He spoke also of his love for a very beautiful and good woman, and its hopelessness."

  "My dear, dear Perry!" said she again.

  "And yet," said I, "all this is admittedly his own fault, and, as I think Heraclitus says: 'Suffering is the inevitable consequence of Sin, or Folly.'"

  "And he is well?" she asked; "quite——quite well?"

  "He is," said I.

  "Thank God!" she whispered. "Tell me," she went on, "is he so very, very poor——is he much altered? I have not seen him for a whole, long year."

  "Why, a year is apt to change a man," I answered. "Adversity is a hard school, but, sometimes, a very good one."

  "Were he changed, no matter how——were be a beggar upon the roads, I should love him——always!" said she, speaking in that soft, caressing voice which only the best of women possess.

  "Yes, I had guessed as much," said I, and found myself sighing.

  "A year is a long, long time, and we were to have been married this month, but my father quarrelled with him and forbade him the house, so poor Perry went back to London. Then we heard he was ruined, and I almost died with grief——you see, his very poverty only made me love him the more. Yesterday——that man——"

  "Sir Harry Mortimer?" said I.

  "Yes (he was a friend of whom I had often heard Perry speak); and he told me that my Perry lay at Tonbridge, dying, and begging to see me before the end. He offered to escort me to him, assuring me that I could reach home again long before dusk. My father, who I knew would never permit me to go, was absent, and so——I ran away. Sir Harry had a carriage waiting, but, almost as soon as the door was closed upon us, and we had started, I began to be afraid of him and——and——"

  "Sir Harry, as I said before, is an unpleasant animal," I nodded.

  "Thank Heaven," she pursued, "we had not gone very far before the chaise broke down! And——the rest you know."

  The footpath we had been following now led over a stile into a narrow lane or byway. Very soon we came to a high stone wall wherein was set a small wicket. Through this she led me, and we entered a broad park where was an avenue of fine old trees, beyond which I saw the gables of a house, for the stars had long since paled to the dawn, and there was a glory in the east.

  "Your father will be rejoiced to have you safe back again," said I.

  "Yes," she nodded, "but he will be very angry." And, hereupon, she stopped and began to pull, and twist, and pat her shining hair with dexterous white fingers, talking thus the while:

  "My mother died at my birth, and since then father has worshipped her memory, and his face always grows wonderfully gentle when he looks upon her portrait. They say I'm greatly like her——though she was a famous beauty in her day. And, indeed, I think there must be some truth in it, for, no matter how I may put him out, my father can never be very angry when my hair is dressed so."

  With the word, she turned, and truly, I thought the face peeping out from its clustered curls even more lovely and bewitching than before.

  "I very much doubt if any man could," said I.

  As we approached the house, I saw that the smooth gravel was much cut up as though by the coming and going of many wheels and horses, and also that one of the windows still shone with a bright light, and it was towards this window that my companion led me. In a while, having climbed the terrace steps, I noticed that this was one of those French windows opening to the ground. Now, looking through into the room beyond, I beheld an old man who sat bowed down at a table, with his white head pillowed upon his arms, sitting so very still that he might have been asleep but for the fierce grip of his twitching hands. Now, upon the table, at no great distance from him, between the guttering candles, lay a hat——a very ill-used, battered-looking object ——which I thought I recognized; wherefore, looking about, I presently espied its owner leaning against the mantel. He was powdered with dust from head to foot, and his worn garments looked more ragged than ever; and, as he stood there, in the droop of his head and the listless set of his shoulders, there was an air of the most utter dejection and hopelessness, while upon his thin cheek I saw the glisten of a great, solitary tear. But, as I looked, the window was burst suddenly open:

  "Perry!"

  Love, surprise, joy, pity——all were summed up in that one short word——yet deeper than all was love. And, at that cry, the white head was raised, raised in time to see a vision of loveliness caught up in two ragged arms.

  "Father!"

  And now the three heads——the white, the golden, and the black ——were drawn down together, drawn, and held close in an embrace that was indeed reunion.

  Then, seeing my presence was become wholly unnecessary, I turned away, and was soon once more deep among the trees. Yet, as I went, I suddenly heard voices that called upon my name, but I kept on, and, in due season, came out upon the broad highway.

  And, in a little, as I went, very full of thought, the sun rose up. So I walked along through a world all glorious with morning.

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