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The Broad Highway(Book2,Chapter14)

2006-08-28 22:53

  Book Two. The Woman Chapter XIV. Concerning Black George's Letter

  It was with a feeling of great relief that I watched the fellow out of sight; nevertheless his very presence seemed to have left a blight upon all things, for he, viewing matters with the material eye of Common-sense, had, thereby, contaminated them——even the air seemed less pure and sweet than it had been heretofore, so that, glancing over my shoulder, I was glad to see that Charmian had re-entered the cottage.

  "Here," said I to myself, "here is Common-sense in the shape of a half-witted peddling fellow, blundering into Arcadia, in the shape of a haunted cottage, a woman, and a man. Straightway our Pedler, being Common-sense, misjudges us——as, indeed, would every other common-sense individual the world over; for Arcadia, being of itself abstract and immaterial, is opposed to, and incapable of being understood by concrete common-sense, and always will be ——and there's the rub! And yet," said I, "thanks to the Wanderer of the Roads, who built this cottage and hanged himself here, and thanks to a Highland Scot who performed wonderfully on the bagpipes, there is little chance of any common-sense vagrant venturing near Arcadia again——at least until the woman is gone, or the man is gone, or——"

  Here, going to rub my chin (being somewhat at a loss), I found that I had been standing, all this while, the broom in one hand and the belt in the other, and now, hearing a laugh behind me, I turned, and saw Charmian was leaning in the open doorway watching me.

  "And so you are the——the cove——with the white hands and the taking ways, are you, Peter?"

  "Why——you were actually——listening then?"

  "Why, of course I was."

  "That," said I, "that was very——undignified!"

  "But very——feminine, Peter!" Hereupon I threw the belt from me one way, and the broom the other, and sitting down upon the bench began to fill any pipe rather awkwardly, being conscious of Charmian's mocking scrutiny.

  "Poor——poor Black George!" she sighed.

  "What do you mean by that?" said I quickly.

  "Really I can almost understand his being angry with you."

  "Why?"

  "You walked with her, and talked with her, Peter——like Caesar, 'you came, you saw, you conquered'!"

  Here I dragged my tinder-box from my pocket so awkwardly as to bring the lining with it.

  "And——even smiled at her, Peter——and you so rarely smile!"

  Having struck flint and steel several times without success, I thrust the tinder-box back into my pocket and fixed my gaze upon the moon.

  "Is she so very pretty, Peter?"

  I stared up at the moon without answering.

  "I wonder if you bother her with your Epictetus and——and dry-as-dust quotations?"

  I bit my lips and stared up at the moon.

  "Or perhaps she likes your musty books and philosophy?"

  But presently, finding that I would not speak, Charmian began to sing, very sweet and low, as if to herself, yet, when I chanced to glance towards her, I found her mocking eyes still watching me. Now the words of her song were these:

  "O, my luve's like a red, red rose,That's newly sprung in June;O, my luve's like the melodie That's sweetly played in tune."

  And so, at last, unable to bear it any longer, I rose and, taking my candle, went into my room and closed the door. But I had been there scarcely five minutes when Charmian knocked.

  "Oh, Peter! I wish to speak to you——please." Obediently I opened the door.

  "What is it, Charmian?"

  "You dropped this from your pocket when you took out your tinder-box so clumsily!" said she, holding towards me a crumpled paper. And looking down at it, I saw that it was Black George's letter to Prudence.

  Now, as I took it from her, I noticed that her hand trembled, while in her eyes I read fear and trouble; and seeing this, I was, for a moment, unwontedly glad, and then wondered at myself.

  "You——did not read it——of course?" said I, well knowing that she had.

  "Yes, Peter——it lay open, and——"

  "Then," said I, speaking my thought aloud, "you know that she loves George."

  "He means you harm," said she, speaking with her head averted, "and, if he killed you——"

  "I should be spared a deal of sorrow, and——and mortification, and——other people would be no longer bothered by Epictetus and dry-as-dust quotations." She turned suddenly, and, crossing to the open doorway, stood leaning there. "But, indeed," I went on hurriedly, "there is no chance of such a thing happening——not the remotest. Black George's bark is a thousand times worse than his bite; this letter means nothing, and——er——nothing at all," I ended, somewhat lamely, for she had turned and was looking at me over her shoulder.

  "If he has to 'wait and wait, and follow you and follow you'?" said she, in the same low tone.

  "Those are merely the words of a half-mad pedler," said I.

  "'And your blood will go soaking, and soaking into the grass'!"

  "Our Pedler has a vivid imagination!" said I lightly. But she shook her head, and turned to look out upon the beauty of the night once more, while I watched her, chin in hand.

  "I was angry with you to-night, Peter," said she at length, "because you ordered me to do something against my will——and I ——did it; and so, I tried to torment you——you will forgive me for that, won't you?"

  "There is nothing to forgive, nothing, and——good night, Charmian." Here she turned, and, coming to me, gave me her hand.

  "Charmian Brown will always think of you as a——"

  "Blacksmith!" said I.

  "As a blacksmith!" she repeated, looking at me with a gleam in her eyes, "but oftener as a——"

  "Pedant!" said I.

  "As a pedant!" she repeated obediently, "but most of all as a——"

  "Well?" said I.

  "As a——man," she ended, speaking with bent head. And here again I was possessed of a sudden gladness that was out of all reason, as I immediately told myself.

  "Your hand is very small," said I, finding nothing better to say, "smaller even than I thought."

  "Is it?" and she smiled and glanced up at me beneath her lashes, for her head was still bent.

  "And wonderfully smooth and soft!"

  "Is it?" said she again, but this time she did not look up at me. Now another man might have stooped and kissed those slender, shapely fingers——but, as for me, I loosed them, rather suddenly, and, once more bidding her good night, re-entered my own chamber, and closed the door.

  But to-night, lying upon my bed, I could not sleep, and fell to watching the luminous patch of sky framed in my open casement. I thought of Charmian, of her beauty, of her strange whims and fancies, her swift-changing moods and her contrariness, comparing her, in turn, to all those fair women I had ever read of or dreamed over in my books. Little by little, however, my thoughts drifted to Gabbing Dick and Black George, and, with my mind's eye, I could see him as he was (perhaps at this very moment), fierce-eyed and grim of mouth, sitting beneath some hedgerow, while, knife in hand, he trimmed and trimmed his two bludgeons, one of which was to batter the life out of me. From such disquieting reflections I would turn my mind to sweet-eyed Prudence, to the Ancient, the forge, and the thousand and one duties of the morrow. I bethought me, once more, of the storm, of the coming of Charmian, of the fierce struggle in the dark, of the Postilion, and of Charmian again. And yet, in despite of me, my thoughts would revert to George, and I would see myself even as the Pedler pictured me, out in some secluded corner of the woods, lying stiffly upon my back with glassy eyes staring up sightlessly through the whispering leaves above, while my blood soaked and soaked into the green, and with a blackbird singing gloriously upon my motionless breast.

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