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The Broad Highway(Book2,Chapter35)

2006-08-28 22:58

  Book Two. The Woman Chapter XXXV. How Black George Found Prudence in the Dawn

  The chill of dawn was in the air when I awoke, and it was some few moments before, with a rush, I remembered why I was kneeling there beside Charmian's bed. Shivering, I rose and walked up and down to reduce the stiffness in my limbs.

  The fire was out and I had no mind to light it, for I was in no mood to break my fast, though the necessary things stood ready, as her orderly hands had set them, and the plates and cups and saucers twinkled at me from the little cupboard I had made to hold them; a cupboard whose construction she had overlooked with a critical eye. And I must needs remember how she had insisted on being permitted to drive in three nails with her own hand——I could put my finger on those very nails; how she had tapped at those nails for fear of missing them; how beautiful she had looked in her coarse apron, and with her sleeves rolled up over her round white arms——how womanly and sweet; yet I had dared to think——had dared to call her——a Messalina! Oh, that my tongue had withered or ever I had coupled one so pure and noble with a creature so base and common!

  So thinking, I sighed and went out into the dawn; as I closed the door behind me its hollow slam struck me sharply, and I called to mind how she had called it a bad and ill-fitting door. And indeed so it was.

  With dejected step and hanging head I made my way towards Sissinghurst (for, since I was up, I might as well work, and there was much to be done), and, as I went, I heard a distant clock chime four.

  Now, when I reached the village the sun was beginning to rise, and thus, lifting up my eyes, I beheld one standing before "The Bull," a very tall man, much bigger and greater than most; a wild figure in the dawn, with matted hair and beard, and clad in tattered clothes; yet hair and beard gleamed a red gold where the light touched them, and there was but one man I knew so tall and so mighty as this. Wherefore I hurried towards him, all unnoticed, for his eyes were raised to a certain latticed casement of the inn.

  And, being come up, I reached out and touched this man upon the arm.

  "George!" said I, and held out my hand. He turned swiftly, but, seeing me, started back a pace, staring.

  "George!" said I again. "Oh, George!" But George only backed still farther, passing his hand once or twice across his eyes.

  "Peter?" said he at last, speaking hardly above a whisper; "but you 'm dead, Peter, dead——I killed——'ee."

  "No," I answered, "you didn't kill me, George indeed, I wish you had——you came pretty near it, but you didn't quite manage it. And, George——I'm very desolate——won't you shake hands with a very desolate man?——if you can, believing that I have always been your friend, and a true and loyal one, then, give me your hand; if not——if you think me still the despicable traitor you once did, then, let us go into the field yonder, and if you can manage to knock me on the head for good and all this time——why, so much the better. Come, what do you say?"

  Without a word Black George turned and led the way to a narrow lane a little distance beyond "The Bull," and from the lane into a meadow. Being come thither, I took off my coat and neckerchief, but this time I cast no look upon the world about me, though indeed it was fair enough. But Black George stood half turned from me, with his fists clenched and his broad shoulders heaving oddly.

  "Peter," said he, in his slow, heavy way, "never clench ye fists to me——don't——I can't abide it. But oh, man, Peter! 'ow may I clasp 'ands wi' a chap as I've tried to kill——I can't do it, Peter——but don't——don't clench ye fists again me no more. I were jealous of 'ee from the first——ye see, you beat me at th' 'ammer-throwin'——an' she took your part again me; an' then, you be so takin' in your ways, an' I be so big an' clumsy——so very slow an' 'eavy. Theer bean't no choice betwixt us for a maid like Prue she allus was different from the likes o' me, an' any lass wi' half an eye could see as you be a gentleman, ah! an' a good un. An' so Peter, an' so——I be goin' away——a sojer—— p'r'aps I shan't love the dear lass quite so much arter a bit ——p'r'aps it won't be quite so sharp-like, arter a bit, but what's to be——is to be. I've larned wisdom, an' you an' she was made for each other an' meant for each other from the first; so——don't go to clench ye fists again me no more, Peter."

  "Never again, George!" said I.

  "Unless," he continued, as though struck by a bright idea, "unless you 'm minded to 'ave a whack at me; if so be——why, tak' it, Peter, an' welcome. Ye see, I tried so 'ard to kill 'ee——so cruel 'ard, Peter, an' I thought I 'ad. I thought 'twere for that as they took me, an' so I broke my way out o' the lock-up, to come an' say 'good-by' to Prue's winder, an' then I were goin' back to give myself up an' let 'em hang me if they wanted to."

  "Were you, George?"

  "Yes." Here George turned to look at me, and, looking, dropped his eyes and fumbled with his hands, while up under his tanned skin there crept a painful, burning crimson. "Peter!" said he.

  "Yes, George?"

  "I got summ'at more to tell 'ee——summ'at as I never meant to tell to a soul; when you was down——lyin' at my feet——"

  "Yes, George?"

  "I——I kicked 'ee——once!"

  "Did you, George?"

  "Ay——I——I were mad——mad wi' rage an' blood lust, an'——oh, man, Peter!——I kicked 'ee. Theer," said he, straightening his shoulders, "leastways I can look 'ee in the eye now that be off my mind. An' now, if so be you 'm wishful to tak' ye whack at me——why, let it be a good un, Peter."

  "No, I shall never raise my hand to you again, George."

  "'Tis likely you be thinkin' me a poor sort o' man, arter what ——what I just told 'ee——a coward?"

  "I think you more of a man than ever," said I.

  "Why, then, Peter——if ye do think that, here's my hand——if ye'll tak' it, an' I——bid ye——good-by!"

  "I'll take your hand——and gladly, George, but not to wish you goodby——it shall be, rather, to bid you welcome home again."

  "No," he cried. "No——I couldn't——I couldn't abide to see you an'——Prue——married, Peter——no, I couldn't abide it."

  "And you never will, George. Prue loves a stronger, a better man than I. And she has wept over him, George, and prayed over him, such tears and prayers as surely might win the blackest soul to heaven, and has said that she would marry that man——ah! even if he came back with fetter-marks upon him——even then she would marry him——if he would only ask her."

  "Oh, Peter!" cried George, seizing my shoulders in a mighty grip and looking into my eyes with tears in his own, "oh, man, Peter ——you as knocked me down an' as I love for it——be this true?"

  "It is God's truth!" said I, "and look!——there is a sign to prove I am no liar——look!" and I pointed towards "The Bull."

  George turned, and I felt his fingers tighten suddenly, for there, at the open doorway of the inn, with the early glory of the morning all about her, stood Prue. As we watched, she began to cross the road towards the smithy, with laggard step and drooping head.

  "Do you know where she is going, George? I can tell you——she is going to your smithy——to pray for you——do you hear, to pray for you? Come!" and I seized his arm.

  "No, Peter, no——I durstn't——I couldn't." But he suffered me to lead him forward, nevertheless. Once he stopped and glanced round, but the village was asleep about us. And so we presently came to the open doorway of the forge.

  And behold! Prue was kneeling before the anvil with her face hidden in her arms, and her slender body swaying slightly. But all at once, as if she felt him near her, she raised her head and saw him, and sprang to her feet with a glad cry. And, as she stood, George went to her, and knelt at her feet, and raising the hem of her gown, stooped and kissed it.

  "Oh, my sweet maid!" said he. "Oh, my sweet Prue!——I bean't worthy——I bean't——" But she caught the great shaggy head to her bosom and stifled it there.

  And in her face was a radiance——a happiness beyond words, and the man's strong arms clung close about her.

  So I turned, and left them in paradise together.

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