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The Broad Highway(Book2,Chapter8)

2006-08-28 22:52

  Book Two. The Woman Chapter VIII. In Which I See a Vision in the Glory of the Moon, and Eat of a Poached Rabbit

  The moon was rising as, hungry and weary, I came to that steep descent I have mentioned more than once, which leads down into the Hollow, and her pale radiance was already, upon the world——a sleeping world wherein I seemed alone. And as I stood to gaze upon the wonder of the heavens, and the serene beauty of the earth, the clock in Cranbrook Church chimed nine.

  All about me was a soft stirring of leaves, and the rustle of things unseen, which was as the breathing of a sleeping host. Borne to my nostrils came the scent of wood and herb and dewy earth, while upstealing from the shadow of the trees below, the voice of the brook reached me, singing its never-ending song——now loud and clear, now sinking to a rippling murmur——a melody of joy and sorrow, of laughter and tears, like the greater melody of Life.

  And, presently, I descended into the shadows, and, walking on beside the brook, sat me down upon a great boulder; and, straightway, my weariness and hunger were forgotten, and I fell a-dreaming.

  Truly it was a night to dream in——a white night, full of the moon and the magic of the moon. Slowly she mounted upwards, peeping down at me through whispering leaves, checkering the shadows with silver, and turning the brook into a path of silver for the feet of fairies. Yes, indeed, the very air seemed fraught with a magic whereby the unreal became the real and things impossible the manifestly possible.

  And so, staring up at the moon's pale loveliness, I dreamed the deathless dreams of long-dead poets and romancers, wherein were the notes of dreamy lutes, the soft whisper of trailing garments, and sighing voices that called beneath the breath. Between Petrarch's Laura and Dante's Beatrice came one as proud and gracious and beautiful as they, deep-bosomed, broad-hipped, with a red, red mouth, and a subtle witchery of the eyes. I dreamed of nymphs and satyrs, of fauns and dryads, and of the young Endymion who, on just such another night, in just such another leafy bower, waited the coming of his goddess.

  Now as I sat thus, chin in hand, I heard a little sound behind me, the rustling of leaves, and, turning my head, beheld one who stood half in shadow, half in moonlight, looking down at me beneath a shy languor of drooping lids, with eyes hidden by their lashes——a woman tall and fair, and strong as Dian's self.

  Very still she stood, and half wistful, as if waiting for me to speak, and very silent I sat, staring up at her as she had been the embodiment of my dreams conjured tip by the magic of the night, while, from the mysteries of the woods, stole the soft, sweet song of a nightingale.

  "Charmian?" said I at last, speaking almost in a whisper. Surely this was the sweet goddess herself, and I the wondering shepherd on Mount Ida's solitude.

  "Charmian!" said I again, "you——have come then?" With the words I rose. "You have come, then?" I repeated.

  But now she sighed a little, and, turning her head away, laughed very sweet and low——and sighed again.

  "Were you expecting me?"

  "I——I think I was——that is——I——I don't know!" I stammered.

  "Then you were not——very surprised to see me?"

  "No."

  "And you are not——very sorry to see me?"

  "No."

  "And——are you not very——glad to see me?

  "Yes."

  Here there fell a silence between us, yet a silence that was full of leafy stirrings, soft night noises, and the languorous murmur of the brook. Presently Charmian reached out a hand, broke off a twig of willow and began to turn it round and round in her white fingers, while I sought vainly for something to say.

  "When I went away this morning," she began at last, looking down at the twig, "I didn't think I should ever come back again."

  "No, I——I supposed not," said I awkwardly.

  "But, you see, I had no money."

  "No money?"

  "Not a penny. It was not until I had walked a long, long way, and was very tired, and terribly hungry, that I found I hadn't enough to buy even a crust of bread."

  "And there was three pounds, fifteen shillings, and sixpence in Donald's old shoe," said I.

  "Sevenpence!" she corrected.

  "Sevenpence?" said I, in some surprise.

  "Three pounds, fifteen shillings, and sevenpence. I counted it."

  "Oh!" said I.

  She nodded. "And in the other I found a small, very curiously shaped piece of wood."

  "Ah——yes, I've been looking for that all the week. You see, when I made my table, by some miscalculation, one leg persisted in coming out shorter than the others, which necessitated its being shored up by a book until I made that block."

  "Mr. Peter Vibart's Virgil book!" she said, nodding to the twig.

  "Y-e-s!" said I, somewhat disconcerted.

  "It was a pity to use a book," she went on, still very, intent upon the twig, "even if that book does belong to a man with such a name as Peter Vibart."

  Now presently, seeing I was silent, she stole a glance at me, and looking, laughed.

  "But," she continued more seriously, "this has nothing to do with you, of course, nor me, for that matter, and I was trying to tell you how hungry——how hatefully hungry I was, and I couldn't beg, could I, and so——and so I——I——"

  "You came back," said I.

  "I came back."

  "Being hungry."

  "Famishing!"

  "Three pounds, fifteen shillings, and——sevenpence is not a great sum," said I, "but perhaps it will enable you to reach your family."

  "I'm afraid not; you see I have no family."

  "Your friends, then."

  "I have no friends; I am alone in the world."

  "Oh!" said I, and turned to stare down into the brook, for I could think only that she was alone and solitary, even as I, which seemed like an invisible bond between us, drawing us each nearer the other, whereat I felt ridiculously pleased that this should be so.

  "No," said Charmian, still intent upon the twig, "I have neither friends nor family nor money, and so being hungry——I came back here, and ate up all the bacon."

  "Why, I hadn't left much, if I remember."

  "Six slices!"

  Now, as she stood, half in shadow, half in moonlight, I could not help but be conscious of her loveliness. She was no pretty woman; beneath the high beauty of her face lay a dormant power that is ever at odds with prettiness, and before which I felt vaguely at a loss. And yet, because of her warm beauty, because of the elusive witchery of her eyes, the soft, sweet column of the neck and the sway of the figure in the moonlight——because she was no goddess, and I no shepherd in Arcadia, I clasped my hands behind me, and turned to look down into the stream.

  "Indeed," said I, speaking my thought aloud, "this is no place for a woman, after all."

  "No," said she very softly.

  "No——although, to be sure, there are worse places."

  "Yes," said she, "I suppose so."

  "Then again, it is very far removed from the world, so that a woman must needs be cut off from all those little delicacies and refinements that are supposed to be essential to her existence."

  "Yes," she sighed.

  "Though what," I continued, "what on earth would be the use of a——harp, let us say, or a pair of curling-irons in this wilderness, I don't know."

  "One could play upon the one and curl one's hair with the other, and there is a deal of pleasure to be had from both," said she.

  "Then also," I pursued, "this place, as I told you, is said to be haunted——not," I went on, seeing that she was silent, "not that you believe in such things, of course? But the cottage is very rough, and ill and clumsily furnished——though, to be sure, it might be made comfortable enough, and——"

  "Well?" she inquired, as I paused.

  "Then——" said I, and was silent for a long time, watching the play of the moonbeams on the rippling water.

  "Well?" said she again at last.

  "Then," said I, "if you are friendless, God forbid that I should refuse you the shelter of even such a place as this——so——if you are homeless, and without money——stay here——if you will——so long as it pleases you."

  I kept my eyes directed to the running water at my feet as I waited her answer, and it seemed a very long time before she spoke.

  "Are you fond of stewed rabbit?"

  "Rabbit!" said I, staring. "With onions!"

  "Onions?"

  "Oh, I can cook a little, and supper is waiting."

  "Supper?"

  "So if you are hungry——"

  "I am ravenous!"

  "Then why not come home and eat it?"

  "Home?"

  "Instead of echoing my words and staring the poor moon out of countenance? Come," and, with the word, she turned and led the way to the cottage. And behold, the candles were lighted, the table was spread with a snowy cloth, and a pot simmered upon the hob: a pot that gave forth an odor delectable, and over which Charmian bent forthwith, and into which she gazed with an anxious brow and thrust an inquiring fork.

  "I think it's all right!"

  "I'm sure of it," said I, inhaling the appetizing aroma——"but, pray, where did you get it?"

  "A man sold it to me——he had a lot of them."

  "Hum!" said I, "probably poached."

  "I bought this for sixpence——out of the old shoe."

  "Sixpence?——then they certainly were poached. These are the Cambourne Woods, and everything upon them fish, flesh, or fowl, living or dead——belongs to the Lady Sophia Sefton of Cambourne."

  "Then——perhaps we had better not eat it," said she, glancing at me over her shoulder——but, meeting my eye, she laughed. And so we presently sat down to supper and, poached though it may have been, that rabbit made a truly noble end, notwithstanding.

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