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The Broad Highway(Book2,Chapter6)

2006-08-28 22:51

  Book Two. The Woman Chapter VI. In Which I Learn of an Impending Danger

  I am at the forge, watching the deepening glow of the coals as I ply the bellows; and, listening to their hoarse, not unmusical drone, it seems like a familiar voice (or the voice of a familiar), albeit a somewhat wheezy one, speaking to me in stertorous gasps, something in this wise:

  "Charmian Brown——desires to thank——Mr. Smith but because thanks ——are so poor and small——and his service so great——needs must she remember him——"

  "Remember me!" said I aloud, and, letting go the shaft of the bellows the better to think this over, it naturally followed that the bellows grew suddenly dumb, whereupon I seized the handle and recommenced blowing with a will.

  "——remember him as a gentleman," wheezed the familiar.

  "Psha!" I exclaimed.

  "——yet oftener as a smith——"

  "Hum!" said I.

  "——and most of all——as a man."

  "As a man!" said I, and, turning my back upon the bellows, I sat down upon the anvil and, taking my chin in my hand, stared away to where the red roof of old Amos's oast-house peeped through the swaying green of leaves.

  "As a man?" said I to myself again, and so fell a-dreaming of this Charmian. And, in my mind, I saw her, not as she had first appeared, tall and fierce and wild, but as she had been when she stooped to bind up the hurt in my brow——with her deep eyes brimful of tenderness, and her mouth sweet and compassionate. Beautiful eyes she had, though whether they were blue or brown or black, I could not for the life of me remember; only I knew I could never forget the look they had held when she gave that final pat to the bandage. And here I found that I was turning a little locket round and round in my fingers, a little, old-fashioned, heart-shaped locket with its quaint inscription:

  "Hee who myne heart would keepe for long Shall be a gentil man and strong."

  I was sitting thus, plunged in a reverie, when a shadow fell across the floor, and looking up I beheld Prudence, and straightway, slipping the locket back into the bosom of my shirt, I rose to my feet, somewhat shamefaced to be caught thus idle.

  Her face was troubled, and her eyes red, as from recent tears, while in her hand she held a crumpled paper.

  "Mr. Peter——" she began, and then stopped, staring at me.

  "Well, Prudence?"

  "You——you've seen him!"

  "Him——whom do you mean?"

  "Black Jarge!"

  "No; what should make you think so?"

  "Your face be all cut——you've been fightin'!"

  "And supposing I have——that is none of George's doing; he and I are very good friends——why should we quarrel?"

  "Then——then it weren't Jarge?"

  "No——I have not seen him since Saturday."

  "Thank God!" she exclaimed, pressing her hand to her bosom as if to stay its heaving. "But you must go," she went on breathlessly. "Oh, Mr. Peter! I've been so fearful for 'ee, and——and——you might meet each other any time, so——so you must go away."

  "Prudence," said I, "Prudence, what do you mean?"

  For answer, she held out the crumpled paper, and, scrawled in great, straggling characters, I read these words:

  "PRUDENCE,——I'm going away, I shall kill him else, but I shall come back. Tell him not to cross my path, or God help him, and you, and me. GEORGE."

  "What does it all mean, Prudence?" said I, like a fool.

  Now, as I spoke; glancing at her I saw her cheeks, that had seemed hitherto more pale than usual, grow suddenly scarlet, and, meeting my eyes, she hid her face in her two hands. Then, seeing her distress, in that same instant I found the answer to my question, and so stood, turning poor George's letter over and over, more like a fool than ever.

  "You must go away——you must go away!" she repeated.

  "Hum!" said I.

  "You must go soon; he means it, I——I've seen death in his face," she said, shuddering; "go to-day——the longer you stay here the worse for all of us——go now."

  "Prudence!" said I.

  "Yes, Mr. Peter!" from behind her hands.

  "You always loved Black George, didn't you?"

  "Yes, Mr. Peter."

  "And you love him still, don't you?" A moment's silence, then:

  "Yes, Mr. Peter."

  "Excellent!" said I. Her head was raised a trifle, and one tearful eye looked at me over her fingers. "I had always hoped you did," I continued, "for his sake, and for yours, and in my way, a very blundering way as it seems now, I have tried to bring you two together." Prudence only sobbed. "But things are not hopeless yet. I think I can see a means of straightening out this tangle."

  "Oh, if we only could!" sobbed Prudence. "Ye see, I were very cruel to him, Mr. Peter!"

  "Just a little, perhaps," said I, and, while she dabbed at her pretty eyes with her snowy apron, I took pen and ink from the shelf where I kept them, which, together with George's letter, I set upon the anvil. "Now," said I, in answer to her questioning look, "write down just here, below where George signed his name, what you told me a moment ago."

  "You mean, that I——"

  "That you love him, yes."

  "Oh, Mr. Peter!"

  "Prudence," said I, "it is the only way, so far as I can see, of saving George from himself; and no sweet, pure maid need be ashamed to tell her love, especially to such a man as this, who worships the very ground that little shoe of yours has once pressed."

  She glanced up at me, under her wet lashes, as I said this, and a soft light beamed in her eyes, and a smile hovered upon her red lips.

  "Do he——really, Mr. Peter?"

  "Indeed he does, Prudence, though I think you must know that without my telling you." So she stooped above the anvil, blushing a little, and sighing a little, and crying a little, and, with fingers that trembled somewhat, to be sure, wrote these four words:

  "George, I love you."

  "What now, Mr. Peter?" she inquired, seeing me begin to unbuckle my leather apron.

  "Now," I answered, "I am going to look for Black George."

  "No!——no!" she cried, laying her hands upon my arm, "no! no! if 'ee do meet him, he——he'll kill 'ee!"

  "I don't think he will," said I, shaking my head.

  "Oh, don't go!——don't go!" she pleaded, shaking my arm in her eagerness; "he be so strong and wild and quick——he'll give 'ee no chance to speak——'twill be murder!"

  "Prudence," said I, "my mind is set on it. I am going——for your sake, for his sake, and my own;" saying which, I loosed her hands gently and took down my coat from its peg.

  "Dear God!" she exclaimed, staring down at the floor with wide eyes, "if he were to kill 'ee——!"

  "Well," said I, "my search would be ended and I should be a deal wiser in all things than I am to-day."

  "And he——would be hanged!" said Prudence, shuddering.

  "Probably——poor fellow!" said I. At this she glanced quickly up, and once again the crimson dyed her cheeks.

  "Oh, Mr. Peter, forgive me! I——I were only thinkin' of Jarge, and——"

  "And quite right too, Prudence," I nodded; "he is indeed worth any good woman's thoughts; let it be your duty to think of him, and for him, henceforth."

  "Wait!" said she, "wait!" And turning, she fled through the doorway and across the road, swift and graceful as any bird, and presently was back again, with something hidden in her apron.

  "He be a strong man, and terrible in his wrath," said she, "and I——love him, but——take this wi' you, and if it——must be——use it, because I _do_ love him." Now, as she said this, she drew from her apron that same brass-bound pistol that had served me so well against the "ghost" and thrust it into my hand. "Take it, Mr. Peter——take it, but——oh!"——here a great sob choked her voice——" don't——don't use it——if——if you can help it, for my sake."

  "Why, Prue!" said I, touching her bowed head very tenderly, "how can you think I would go up against my friend with death in my hand——Heaven forbid!" So I laid aside the weapon and, clapping on my hat, strode out into the glory of the summer morning, but left her weeping in the shadows.

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