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The Broad Highway(Book2,Chapter22)

2006-08-28 22:55

  Book Two. The Woman Chapter XXII. In Which the Ancient Discourses on Love

  I am forging a bar for my cottage door: such a bar as might give check to an army, or resist a battering-ram; a bar that shall defy all the night-prowlers that ever prowled; a stout, solid bar, broad as my wrist, and thick as my two fingers; that, looking upon it as it lies in its sockets across the door, Charmian henceforth may sleep and have no fear.

  The Ancient sat perched on his stool in the corner, but for once we spoke little, for I was very busy; also my mind was plunged in a profound reverie.

  And of whom should I be thinking but of Charmian, and of the dimple in her shoulder?

  "'Tis bewitched you be, Peter!" said the old man suddenly, prodding me softly with his stick, "bewitched as ever was," and he chuckled.

  "Bewitched!" said I, starting.

  "Ah!——theer you stand wi' your 'ammer in your 'and——a-starin' an' a-starin' at nobody, nor nothin'——leastways not as 'uman eye can see, an' a-sighin', an' a-sighin'——"

  "Did I indeed sigh, Ancient?"

  "Ah——that ye did——like a cow, Peter, or a 'orse 'eavy an' tired like. An' slow you be, an' dreamy——you as was so bright an' spry; theer's some——fools, like Joel Amos, as might think as 'twere the work o' ghostes, or demons, a-castin' their spells on ye, or that some vampire 'ad bit ye in the night, an' sucked your blood as ye lay asleep, but I know different——you 'm just bewitched, Peter!" and he chuckled again.

  "Who knows?——perhaps I am, but it will pass, whatever it is, it will pass——"

  "Don't ye be too sure o' that——theer's bewitchments an' bewitchments, Peter."

  Hereupon the smithy became full of the merry din of my hammer, and while I worked the Ancient smoked his pipe and watched me, informing me, between whiles, that the Jersey cow was "in calf," that the hops seemed more than usually forward, and that he had waked that morning with a "touch o' the rheumatics," but, otherwise, he was unusually silent; moreover, each time that I happened to glance up, it was to find him regarding me with a certain fixity of eye, which at another time would have struck me as portentous.

  "Ye be palish this marnin', Peter!" said he, dabbing at me suddenly with his pipe-stem; "shouldn't wonder if you was to tell me as your appetite was bad; come now——ye didn't eat much of a breakfus' this marnin', did ye?"

  "I don't think I did, Ancient."

  "A course not!" said the——old man, with a nod of profound approval——" it aren't to be expected. Let's see, it be all o' four months since I found ye, bean't it?"

  "Four months and a few odd days," I nodded, and fell to work upon my glowing iron bar:

  "Ye'll make a tidy smith one o' these days, Peter," said the old man encouragingly, as I straightened my back and plunged the iron back into the fire.

  "Thank you, Ancient."

  "Ay——you've larned to use a 'ammer purty well, considerin', though you be wastin' your opportoonities shameful, Peter, shameful."

  "Am I, Ancient?"

  "Ay, that ye be——moon can't last much longer——she be on the wane a'ready!"

  "Moon?" said I, staring.

  "Ah, moon!" nodded the old man; "theer's nowt like a moon, Peter, an' if she be at the full so much the better."

  "But what have the moon and I to do with each other, Ancient?"

  "Old I be, Peter, a old, old man, but I were young once, an' I tell 'ee the moon 'as a lot more to do wi' it than some folks think——why, Lord love 'ee! theer wouldn't be near so many children a-playin' in the sun if it wasn't for the moon!"

  "Ancient," said I, "what might you be driving at?"

  "Love, Peter!"

  "Love!" said I, letting go the handle of the bellows.

  "An' marriage, Peter."

  "What in the world——put——such thoughts into your head?"

  "You did, Peter."

  "I?"

  "Ah!——some men is born lovers, Peter, an' you be one. I never see such eyes as yourn afore, so burnin' 'ot they be. Ah, Peter! some maid will see the lovelight aflame in 'em some day, an' droop 'er 'ead an' blush an' tremble——for she'll know, Peter, she'll know; maids was made to be loved, Peter——"

  "But, Ancient, I am not the kind of man women would be attracted by. I love books and solitude, and am called a——pedant! and, besides, I am not of a loving sort——"

  "Some men, Peter, falls in love as easy as they falls out; it comes to some soft an' quiet——like the dawn of a summer's day, Peter; but to others it comes like a gert an' tur'ble storm——oh, that it do! Theer's a fire ready to burn up inside o' ye at the touch o' some woman's 'and, or the peep o' 'er eye——ah! a fire as'll burn, an' burn, an' never go out again——not even if you should live to be as old as I be——an' you'll be strong an' wild an' fierce wi' it——an' some day you'll find 'er, Peter, an' she'll find you——"

  "And," said I, staring away into the distance, "do you think that, by any possible chance, she might love me, this woman?"

  "Ay, for sure," said the Ancient, "for sure she will; why don't 'ee up an ax 'er? Wi' a fine round moon over-'ead, an' a pretty maid at your elber, it's easy enough to tell 'er you love 'er, aren't it?"

  "Indeed, yes," said I, beginning to rub my chin, "very easy!" and I sighed.

  "An' when you looks into a pair o' sweet eyes, an' sees the shine o' the moon in 'em——why, it aren't so very fur to 'er lips, are it, Peter?

  "No," said I, rubbing my chin harder than ever; "no——and there's the danger of it."

  "Wheer's t' danger, Peter?"

  "Everywhere!" I answered; "in her eyes, in her thick, soft hair, the warmth of her breath, the touch of her hand, the least contact of her garments——her very step!"

  "I knowed it!" cried the Ancient joyfully, peering at me under his brows; "I knowed it!"

  "Knew what?"

  "You be in love——good lad! good lad!" and he flourished his pipe in the air.

  "In love!" I exclaimed; "in love——I?"

  "Sure as sure!"

  "But love, according to Aristotle, is——"

  "Love, Peter, is what makes a man forget 'is breakfus', an' 'is work, an' 'is——"

  "But I work very hard——besides——"

  "Love is what makes a man so brave as a lion, Peter, an' fall a-tremblin' like a coward when She stands a-lookin' up at 'im; love makes the green earth greener, an' the long road short——ah! almost too short, sometimes, the love of a woman comes betwixt a man an' all evils an' dangers——why don't 'ee up an' ax 'er, Peter?"

  "She'd laugh at me, Ancient."

  "Not she."

  "That soft, low laugh of hers."

  "Well, what o' that?"

  "Besides, she hardly knows me!"

  The Ancient took out his snuff-box and gave two loud double knocks upon the lid.

  "A woman knows a man sooner than a man knows a woman——ah, a sight sooner! Why, Lord bless ye, Peter, she 'as 'im all reckoned up long afore 'e knows for sure if 'er eyes be——black 'uns or brown 'uns——that she 'as." Here he extracted a pinch of snuff. "As for Prudence——she loves 'ee wi' all 'er 'eart an' soul!"

  "Prudence?" said I, staring.

  "Ah! Prudence——I be 'er grandfeyther, an' I know."

  "Prudence!" said I again.

  "She 'm a 'andsome lass, an' so pretty as a picter——you said so yourself, an' what's more, she 'm a sensible lass, an' 'll make ye as fine a wife as ever was if only——"

  "If only she loved me, Ancient."

  "To be sure, Peter."

  "But, you see, she doesn't."

  "Eh——what? What, Peter?"

  "Prudence doesn't love me!"

  "Doesn't——"

  "Not by any means."

  "Peter——ye're jokin'."

  "No, Ancient."

  "But I——I be all took aback——mazed I be——not love ye, an' me wi' my 'eart set on it——are ye sure?"

  "Certain."

  "'Ow d'ye know?"

  "She told me so."

  "But——why——why shouldn't she love ye?"

  "Why should she?"

  "But I——I'd set my 'eart on it, Peter."

  "It is very unfortunate!" said I, and began blowing up the fire.

  "Peter."

  "Yes, Ancient?"

  "Do 'ee love she?"

  "No, Ancient." The old man rose, and, hobbling forward, tapped me upon the breast with the handle of his stick. "Then who was you a-talkin' of, a while back——'bout 'er eyes, an' 'er 'air, an' 'er dress, an' bein' afraid o' them?"

  "To be exact, I don't know, Ancient."

  "Oh, Peter!" exclaimed the old man, shaking his head, "I wonders at ye; arter me a-thinkin' an' a-thinkin', an' a-plannin' an' a-plannin' all these months——arter me a-sendin' Black Jarge about 'is business——"

  "Ancient, what do you mean?"

  "Why, didn't I out an' tell un as you was sweet on Prue——"

  "Did you tell him that?" I cried.

  "Ay, to be sure I did; an' what's more, I says to un often an' often, when you wasn't by: 'Jarge,' I'd say, 'Prue's a lovely maid, an' Peter's a fine young chap, an' they 'm beginnin' to find each other out, they be all'us a-talkin' to each other an' a-lookin' at each other, mornin', noon an' night!' I says; 'like as not we'll 'ave 'em marryin' each other afore very long!' an' Jarge 'ud just wrinkle up 'is brows, an' walk away, an' never say a word. But now——it be tur'ble 'ard to be disapp'inted like this, Peter arter I'd set my 'eart on it——an' me such a old man such a very ancient man. Oh, Peter! you be full o' disapp'intments, an' all manner o' contrariness; sometimes I a'most wishes as I'd never took the trouble to find ye at all!"

  And, with this Parthian shot, the old man sighed, and turned his back upon me, and tottered out of the forge.

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