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The Broad Highway(Book2,Chapter17)

2006-08-28 22:54

  Book Two. The Woman Chapter XVII. The Omen

  "My lady sweet, arise!

  My lady sweet, arise With everything that pretty is,My lady sweet, arise;Arise, arise."

  It was morning, and Charmian was singing. The pure, rich notes floated in at my open lattice, and I heard the clatter of her pail as she went to fetch water from the brook. Wherefore I presently stepped out into the sunshine, my coat and neckcloth across my arm, to plunge my head and face into the brook, and carry back the heavy bucket for her, as was my custom.

  Being come to the brook I found the brimming bucket, sure enough, but no Charmian. I was looking about wonderingly, when she began to sing again, and, guided by this, I espied her kneeling beside the stream.

  The water ran deep and very still, just here, overhung by ash and alder and willow, whose slender, curving branches formed a leafy bower wherein she half knelt, half sat, bending over to regard herself in the placid water. For a long moment she remained thus, studying her reflection intently in this crystal mirror, and little by little her song died away. Then she put up her hands and began to rearrange her hair with swift, dexterous fingers, apostrophizing her watery image the while, in this wise:

  "My dear, you are growing positively apple-cheeked——I vow you are! your enemies might almost call you strapping——alack! And then your complexion, my dear, your adorable complexion!" she went on, with a rueful shake of her head, "you are as brown as a gipsy——not that you need go breaking your heart over it——for, between you and me, my dear, I think it rather improves you; the pity of it is that you have no one to appreciate you properly——to render to your charms the homage they deserve, no one——not a soul, my dear; your hermit, bless you! can see, or think, of nothing that exists out of a book——which, between you and me and the bucket yonder, is perhaps just as well——and yet——heigho! To be so lovely and so forlorn! indeed, I could shed tears for you if it would not make your eyelids swell and your classic nose turn red."

  Here she sighed again, and, taking a tendril of hair between her fingers, transformed it, very cleverly, into a small curl.

  "Yes, your tan certainly becomes you, my dear," she went on, nodding to her reflection; "not that he will ever notice——dear heart, no! were you suddenly to turn as black as a Hottentot ——before his very eyes——he would go on serenely smoking his pipe, and talk to you of Epictetus——heighho!" Sighing thus, she broke off a spray of leaves and proceeded to twine them in among the lustrous coils of her hair, bending over her reflection meanwhile, and turning her head this way and that, to note the effect.

  "Yes," said she at last, nodding at her image with a satisfied air, "that touch of green sets off your gipsy complexion admirably, my dear——I could positively kiss you——I vow I could, and I am hard to please. St. Anthony himself, meeting you alone in the desert, would, at least, have run away from you, and that would have been some tribute to your charms, but our philosopher will just glance at you with his slow, grave smile, and tell you, in his solemn, affable way——that it is a very fine morning ——heigho!"

  Here (somewhat late in the day, perhaps) perceiving that I was playing eavesdropper, I moved cautiously away, and taking up the pail, returned to the cottage. I now filled the kettle and set it upon the fire, and proceeded to spread the cloth (a luxurious institution of Charmian's, on which she insisted) and to lay out the breakfast things. In the midst of which, however, chancing to fall into a reverie, I became oblivious of all things till roused by a step behind me, and, turning, beheld Charmian standing with the glory of the sun about her——like the Spirit of Summer herself, broad of hip and shoulder, yet slender, and long of limb, all warmth and life, and long, soft curves from throat to ankle——perfect with vigorous youth from the leaves that crowned her beauty to the foot that showed beneath her gown.

  And, as I gazed upon her, silent and wondering, lo! though her mouth was solemn yet there was laughter in her eyes as she spoke.

  "Well, sir——have you no greeting for me?"

  "It——is a——very fine morning!" said I. And now the merriment overflowed her eyes, and she laughed, yet blushed a little, too, and lowered her eyes from mine, and said, still laughing:

  "Oh, Peter——the teapot——do mind the teapot!"

  "Teapot?" I repeated, and then I saw that I still held it in my hand.

  "Pray, sir——what might you be going to do with the teapot in one hand, and that fork in the other?"

  "I was going to make the tea, I remember," said I.

  "Is that why you were standing there staring at the kettle while it boiled over?"

  "I——forgot all about the kettle," said I. So Charmian took the teapot from me, and set about brewing the tea, singing merrily the while. Anon she began to fry the bacon, giving each individual slice its due amount of care and attention; but, her eyes chancing to meet mine, the song died upon her lip, her lashes flickered and fell, while up from throat to brow there crept a slow, hot wave of crimson. And in that moment I turned away and strode down to the brook.

  Now it happened that I came to that same spot where she had leaned and, flinging myself down, I fell to studying my reflection in the water, even as she had done.

  Heretofore, though I had paid scant heed to my appearance, I had been content (in a certain impersonal sort of way), had dressed in the fashion, and taken advantage of such adornments as were in favor, as much from habit as from any set design; but now, lying beside the brook with my chin propped in my hands, I began to study myself critically, feature by feature, as I had never dreamed of doing before.

  Mirrored in the clear waters I beheld a face lean and brown, and with lank, black hair; eyes, dark and of a strange brilliance, looked at me from beneath a steep prominence of brow; I saw a somewhat high-bridged nose with thin, nervous nostrils, a long, cleft chin, and a disdainful mouth.

  Truly, a saturnine face, cold and dark and unlovely, and thus ——even as I gazed——the mouth grew still more disdainful, and the heavy brow lowered blacker and more forbidding. And yet, in that same moment, I found myself sighing, while I strove to lend some order to the wildness of my hair.

  "Fool!" said I, and plunged my head beneath the water, and held it there so long that I came up puffing and blowing; whereupon I caught up the towel and fell to rubbing myself vigorously, so that presently, looking down into the water again, I saw that my hair was wilder than ever——all rubbed into long elf-locks. Straightway I lifted my hands, and would have smoothed it somewhat, but checked the impulse.

  "Let be," said I to myself, turning away, "let be. I am as I am, and shall be henceforth in very truth a village blacksmith——and content so to be——absolutely content."

  At sight of me Charmian burst out laughing, the which, though I had expected it, angered me nevertheless.

  "Why, Peter!" she exclaimed, "you look like——"

  "A very low fellow!" said I, "say a village blacksmith who has been at his ablutions."

  "If you only had rings in your ears, and a scarf round your head, you would be the image of a Spanish brigand——or like the man Mina whose exploits The Gazette is full of——a Spanish general, I think."

  "A guerrilla leader," said I, taking my place at the table, "and a singularly cold-blooded villain——indeed I think it probable that we much resemble one another; is it any wonder that I am shunned by my kind——avoided by the ignorant and regarded askance by the rest?"

  "Why, Peter!" said Charmian, regarding me with grave eyes, "what do you mean?"

  "I mean that the country folk hereabout go out of their way to avoid crossing my path——not that, I suppose, they ever heard of Mina, but because of my looks."

  "Your looks?"

  "They think me possessed of the 'Evil Eye' or some such folly ——may I cut you a piece of bread?"

  "Oh, Peter!"

  "Already, by divers honest-hearted rustics, I am credited with having cast a deadly spell upon certain unfortunate pigs, with having fought hand to hand with the hosts of the nethermost pit, and with having sold my soul to the devil——may I trouble you to pass the butter?"

  "Oh, Peter, how foolish of them!"

  "And how excusable! considering their ignorance and superstition," said I. "Mine, I am well aware, is not a face to win me the heart of man, woman, or child; they (especially women and children) share, in common with dogs and horses, that divine attribute which, for want of a better name, we call 'instinct,' whereby they love or hate for the mere tone of a voice, the glance of an eye, the motion of a hand, and, the love or hate once given, the prejudice for, or against, is seldom wholly overcome."

  "Indeed," said Charmian, "I believe in first impressions."

  "Being a woman," said I.

  "Being a woman!" she nodded; "and the instinct of dog and child and woman has often proved true in the end."

  "Surely instinct is always true?" said I——"I'd thank you for another cup of tea——yet, strangely enough, dogs generally make friends with me very readily, and the few children to whom I've spoken have neither screamed nor run away from me. Still, as I said before, I am aware that my looks are scarcely calculated to gain the love of man, woman, or child; not that it matters greatly, seeing that I am likely to hold very little converse with either."

  "There is one woman, Peter, to whom you have talked by the hour together——"

  "And who is doubtless weary enough of it all——more especially of Epictetus and Trojan Helen."

  "Two lumps of sugar, Peter?"

  "Thank you! Women are very like flowers——" I began.

  "That is a very profound remark, sir!——more especially coming from one who has studied and knows womankind so deeply."

  "——and it is a pity that they should be allowed to 'waste their sweetness on the desert air.'"

  "And philosophical blacksmiths, Peter?"

  "More so if they be poor blacksmiths."

  "I said 'philosophical,' Peter."

  "You probably find your situation horribly lonely here?" I went on after a pause.

  "Yes; it's nice and lonely, Peter."

  "And, undoubtedly, this cottage is very poor and mean, and——er ——humble?" Charmian smiled and shook her head.

  "But then, Charmian Brown is a very humble person, sir."

  "And you haven't even the luxury of a mirror to dress your hair by!"

  "Is it so very clumsily dressed, sir?"

  "No, no," said I hastily, "indeed I was thinking——"

  "Well, Peter?"

  "That it was very——beautiful!"

  "Why, you told me that last night——come, what do you think of it this morning?"

  "With those leaves in it——it is——even more so!"

  Charmian laughed, and, rising, swept me a stately curtesy.

  "After all, sir, we find there be exceptions to every rule!"

  "You mean?"

  "Even blacksmiths!"

  And in a while, having finished my breakfast, I rose, and, taking my hat, bade Charmian "Good morning," and so came to the door. But on the threshold I turned and looked back at her. She had risen, and stood leaning with one hand on the table; now in the other she held the breadknife, and her eyes were upon mine.

  And lo! wonder of wonders! once again, but this time sudden and swift——up from the round, full column of her throat, up over cheek and brow there rushed that vivid tide of color; her eyes grew suddenly deep and soft, and then were hidden 'neath her lashes——and, in that same moment, the knife slipped from her grasp, and falling, point downwards, stood quivering in the floor between us——an ugly thing that gleamed evilly.

  Was this an omen——a sign vouchsafed of that which, dark and terrible, was, even then, marching to meet us upon this Broad Highway? O Blind, and more than blind!

  Almost before it had ceased to quiver I stooped, and, plucking it from the floor, gave it into her hand. Now, as I did so, her fingers touched mine, and, moved by a sudden mad impulse, I stooped and pressed my lips upon them——kissed them quick and fierce, and so turned, and hurried upon my way.

  Yet, as I went, I found that the knife had cut my chin, and that I was bleeding.

  O Blind, and more than blind! Surely this was a warning, an omen to heed——to shiver over, despite the warm sun!

  But, seeing the blood, I laughed, and strode villagewards, blithe of heart and light of foot.

  O Blind, and more than blind!

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