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The Broad Highway(Book2,Chapter31)

2006-08-28 22:57

  Book Two. The Woman Chapter XXXI. In Which the Ancient is Surprised

  A cheery place, at all times, is the kitchen of an English inn, a comfortable place to eat in, to talk in, or to doze in; a place with which your parlors and withdrawing-rooms, your salons (a la the three Louis) with their irritating rococo, their gilt and satin, and spindle-legged discomforts, are not (to my mind) worthy to compare.

  And what inn kitchen, in all broad England, was ever brighter, neater, and more comfortable than this kitchen of "The Bull," where sweet Prue held supreme sway, with such grave dignity, and with her two white-capped maids to do her bidding and behests? ——surely none. And surely in no inn, tavern, or hostelry soever, great or small, was there ever seen a daintier, prettier, sweeter hostess than this same Prue of ours.

  And her presence was reflected everywhere, and, if ever the kitchen of an inn possessed a heart to lose, then, beyond all doubt, this kitchen had lost its heart to Prue long since; even the battered cutlasses crossed upon the wall, the ponderous jack above the hearth, with its legend: ANNO DOMINI 1643, took on a brighter sheen to greet her when she came, and as for the pots and pans, they fairly twinkled.

  But today Prue's eyes were red, and her lips were all a-droop, the which, though her smile was brave and ready, the Ancient was quick to notice.

  "Why, Prue, lass, you've been weepin'!"

  "Yes, grandfer."

  "Your pretty eyes be all swole——red they be; what's the trouble?"

  "Oh! 'tis nothing, dear, 'tis just a maid's fulishness——never mind me, dear."

  "Ah! but I love 'ee, Prue——come, kiss me——theer now, tell me all about it——all about it, Prue."

  "Oh, grandfer!" said she, from the hollow of his shoulder, "'tis just——Jarge!" The old man grew very still, his mouth opened slowly, and closed with a snap.

  "Did 'ee——did'ee say——Jarge, Prue? Is it——breekin' your 'eart ye be for that theer poachin' Black Jarge? To think——as my Prue should come down to a poacbin'——"

  Prudence slipped from his encircling arm and stood up very straight and proud——there were tears thick upon her lashes, but she did not attempt to wipe them away.

  "Grandfer," she said very gently, "you mustn't speak of Jarge to me like that——ye mustn't——ye mustn't because I——love him, and if ——he ever——comes back I'll marry him if——if he will only ax me; and if he——never comes back, then——I think——I shall——die!" The Ancient took out his snuff-box, knocked it, opened it, glanced inside, and——shut it up again.

  "Did 'ee tell me as you——love——Black Jarge, Prue?"

  "Yes, grandfer, I always have and always shall!"

  "Loves Black Jarge!" he repeated; "allus 'as——allus will! Oh, Lord! what 'ave I done?" Now, very slowly, a tear crept down his wrinkled cheek, at sight of which Prue gave a little cry, and, kneeling beside his chair, took him in her arms. "Oh, my lass! ——my little Prue——'tis all my doin'. I thought——Oh, Prue, 'twere me as parted you! I thought——" The quivering voice broke off.

  "'Tis all right, grandfer, never think of it——see there, I be smilin'!" and she kissed him many times.

  "A danged fule I be!" said the old man, shaking his head.

  "No, no, grandfer!"

  "That's what I be, Prue——a danged fule! If I do go afore that theer old, rusty stapil, 'twill serve me right——a danged fule I be! Allus loved 'im——allus will, an' wishful to wed wi' 'im! Why, then," said the Ancient, swallowing two or three times, "so 'ee shall, my sweet——so 'ee shall, sure as sure, so come an' kiss me, an' forgive the old man as loves 'ee so."

  "What do 'ee mean, grandfer?" said Prue between two kisses.

  "A fine, strappin' chap be Jarge; arter all, Peter, you bean't a patch on Jarge for looks, be you?"

  "No, indeed, Ancient!"

  "Wishful to wed 'im, she is, an' so she shall. Lordy Lord! Kiss me again, Prue, for I be goin' to see Squire——ay, I be goin' to up an' speak wi' Squire for Jarge an' Peter be comin' too."

  "Oh, Mr. Peter!" faltered Prudence, "be this true?" and in her eyes was the light of a sudden hope.

  "Yes," I nodded.

  "D'you think Squire'll see you——listen to you?" she cried breathlessly.

  "I think he will, Prudence," said I.

  "God bless you, Mr. Peter!" she murmured. "God bless you!"

  But now came the sound of wheels and the voice of Simon, calling, wherefore I took my hat and followed the Ancient to the door, but there Prudence stopped me.

  "Last time you met wi' Jarge he tried to kill you. Oh, I know, and now——you be goin' to——"

  "Nonsense, Prue!" said I. But, as I spoke, she stooped and would have kissed my hand, but I raised her and kissed her upon the cheek, instead. "For good luck, Prue," said I, and so turned and left her.

  In the porch sat Job, with Old Amos and the rest, still in solemn conclave over pipes and ale, who watched with gloomy brows as I swung myself up beside the Ancient in the cart.

  "A fule's journey!" remarked Old Amos sententiously, with a wave of his pipe; "a fule's journey!"

  The Ancient cast an observing eye up at the cloudless sky, and also nodded solemnly.

  "Theer be some fules in this world, Peter, as mixes up rabbits wi' pa'tridges, and honest men——like Jarge——wi' thieves, an' lazy waggabones——like Job——but we'll show 'em, Peter, we'll show 'em ——dang 'em! Drive on, Simon, my bye!"

  So, with this Parthian shot, feathered with the one strong word the Ancient kept for such occasions, we drove away from the silenced group, who stared mutely after us until we were lost to view. But the last thing I saw was the light in Prue's sweet eyes as she watched us from the open lattice.

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